For those who are familiar with his writing from the Internet, a touching parenting memoir may not be what some expected from Drew Magary. But Magary's newest book, Someone Could Get Hurt, is a collection of essays about raising his children that manages to be profane, touching, and hilarious all at the same time. Hurt shows growth for Magary as a writer, pushing him beyond the dick-joke-laden tirades he still occasionally posts on Deadspin (his weekly Jamboroo posts during the NFL season are must-reads). He's taken the boundaries he's stretched through some Deadspin writing as well as pieces for outlets (his fantastic Justin Bieber profile from last year that now seems downright prophetic) and pushed them to include a far more personal zone that now encapsulates his entire famiuly, something that Magary adapts to deftly even if his kids will be upset with him a few years down the line.
From the essay that frames the book about being with his third child in NICU to throwing glass bottles into a creek with his daughter to the anxiety-riddled experience of guiding his sobbing toddler son through a playground obstacle course, Magary dips into the experience of parenting and, ultimately, comes away far more humanizing than in any of his other writings. In an era of Mommy Blogs and competing views on parenting that seem to turn in upon themselves in a weird pretzel logic, Magary's take is straight-forward and, most refreshingly, brutally honest.
Before he hits Chicago for a reading and signing at the Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln, on Thursday, May 23 (7 p.m.), I called Drew to talk about the book, how his family feels about him sharing these stories, and whether or not it's okay to (sometimes) hate your kids.
Sun-Times: Why a parenting book?
Drew Magary: The first blog I had was about raising kids so I've been writing about dad stuff for a while now. It mostly gets pretty well-received. Obviously, there are going to people who say, "I don't give a shit about your kids." Which is true! I can't argue with them about not giving a crap about my kids [laughs]. But a lot of people seemed to like it and I thought there has to be a way to write a book about parenting that's at least a little different than the usual, whack-a-doodle, "Hey! Being a dad is crrrraaaazy!" stuff you see in the store.
So I had this thing happened with my kid when he got pretty sick after he was born and it made a good framing device for my adolescent development as a parent, from the birth of being a parent to, in parenting terms, I'm now seven years old.
ST: What was harder for you: this or your last book [sci-fi-tinged novel The Post Mortal]?
DM: I think The Post-Mortal was harder. The thing about the novel was that was 2009, I'd just been laid off, from my job and I wasn't sure if I was going to get any other steady writing work. I was hoping I would but I wasn't quite sure. So I wrote that furiously almost like an investment in myself and there was no guarantee that anyone would buy it. There was no guarantee that anyone would like it or read it. That was also a novel so you had to string a narrative thread together and everything had to make sense. That can be very difficult.
The circumstances on this book were a lot easier for me personally. I had two steady jobs and they gave me an okay advance so there were these personal circumstances that made it a lot easier to write this book. I could just write, I didn't have to worry about, "Well, then I need to write this and sell a million copies so that we can eat."
ST: There's so much more creative juice for writing a novel than writing from first-person experience.
DM: Yeah, you're creating something out of nothing whereas with real life, the story's already there for you. All you have to do is mine it and and arrange it in a way that makes sense for people when they read it; there has to be a reason for a story to be told. But you're not conjuring anything. At least I don't. [laughs] Some people conjure that shit but I don't.
ST: There's also this clear arch throughout, this chronological order after the opening chapter which helps frame the collection and it concludes with the resolution to that opener. Had you started writing any of these stories as they happened or did it all come together after you decided to write the book?
DM: No, the only one I had written in my head was, "DUI." I knew at some point I would write about that. It was really a matter of getting a distance away from it where it was legitimate that I had moved past that phase of my existence. There's enough distance now where I can write about that and be credible as someone who has reformed his once terrible ways. Obviously, I don't do that.
That was the one where I knew I was going to write about it in some format or another and this book served as a nice opportunity to put it in. I think it's one sort-of big pivot point in how I approached being a husband and a dad. I think I was a lot more selfish before that.
ST: That's interesting because one of the things I enjoyed most about the book was your refreshing honesty, especially that chapter. How did you decided to just own it, to be so transparent?
DM: I think the reason that I decided about it is, well, that's just how I write anyway. I think people tend to respond to that if it's clear you're not trying to bullshit the reader and bullshit yourself as you're writing it. I think a lot of people write stuff as a way of justifying their own crap and defending themselves and I have no defense for what I did. I think people are more responsive when - I don't want to say when you hold yourself accountable because that sounds like I'm being too noble about it - but when you're self-awareness is very clear. I think that's probably the thing I've been okay at over the last several years, being self-aware, and knowing exactly why I'm doing what I'm doing even when I'm doing the wrong thing. I think that helps, I think people respond to that when they know, "Okay, this guy, he's clearly trying to do the right thing and he's failing but at least he can see where he's failing." And I think that makes people empathize with you a bit more.
ST: There are a lot of things you go over in the book that I've heard whispered by friends of mine with kids, that there are days you just want to scream at them-
DM: Yeah, you want to kill them. But then you're like, "If I kill them... I can't kill them." [laughs]
ST: The fine line between being a frustrated parent and being a monster.
DM: Yeah, there's a lot of restraint involved. The unfortunate thing is that there are a lot of parents out there who don't have that restraint. It gets the best of them and lives are ruined in the process. But it's amazing how stresses of the process can bring out all these terrible emotions in you that were never there before you had kids. Before I had kids, I didn't scream at people.
ST: Have you heard from anyone identifying with this or even any kind of horrific, "What kind of horrible parent are you?" from this or from your DadSpin posts?
DM: Usually, I get people saying, "I can relate to that." Sometimes you get people who are, "Well, my dad liked hanging out with me." Or, "I like hanging out with my kids." Real high-horse shit. You know, good for you. You have a good relationship with your kids, I'm happy for you. I'm sure you never get frustrated with your kids at all. No one's going to give you a prize for you accounting your own relationships with your family on the comment section of Reddit.
I understand there are people that are better at this, I know that there are. And if they want to chime in and say, "Hey, don't think that you're doing too great," then that's fine. I readily admit that.
ST: Was there anything you went back and cut out, that went too far?
DM: There was only one thing, when we were trying to conceive a second child. You have to hold out when you're conceiving, you have to save it up and so when I'd go to the bathroom to take care of myself, I felt like I was committing murder and disappointing so many people. And my wife asked, "Can you just cut that out?"
ST: You reference your wife a lot. What did she think about the book?
DM: She loved the book, she thought it was great. She said, "Well, you're naked. You're really naked but that's good." But she was very happy with it. At the end of it, you get the sense that I'm writing it not because I hate my family and wish bad things upon them, you get the sense that I'm trying, that I love my family, and that I'm glad I have them. And in my daily comings and goings as a dad, I'm not nearly as ranty and ravey as I am online. I'm usually pretty - I'm a decent husband and father. They know who I am in reality so that lets me get away with a lot of penis jokes.
ST: Was it in your mind that in 15 years, your kids are going to read this?
DM: [laughs] Yeah, they'll hate me. "Daaaad, you embarrassed me!" But all parents embarras their kids! I might as well profit from it. I think it's like anything else, when you embarrass the kids: if they see on a daily basis and know that you love them and that you work every day at being a good parent to them, I think they end up being on your side. I think that if my kids read it when they're 18 or so, they'll be embarrassed but then five years later, if anyone badmouths the book, they'll turn around and say, "Fuck you, that's my dad!" They'll complain and then they'll be on my side.
ST: I've notice through the years of your writings, that there's definitely an evolution of your writing. It's a more nuanced approach for these essay. Was that dictated by the subject matter? The same with your recent Scrabble championship piece.
DM: Yeah, I've evolved a bit. I've, frankly, evolved with the culture. If you go back and you read my KSK stuff [NFL blog Kissing Suzy Kolber], there's the word "gay" used as a pejorative in there. I used to do that all the time and I was like, "I just think it's funny." But it's not funny anymore. I don't do that anymore. First, because it hurts people, but the culture has changed has changed to the point where that crudity is funny anymore.
But I've also gotten better because I've been doing this for a while. I've become a bit more refined. I work at GQ now and you learn as you go how to sculpt these stories into something that's more fluid.
The thing with the book - and I learned this from my first book, Men With Balls, which was a slapped together bloggy book - it has to be elegant, it has to have a narrative flow to it. We were careful to make sure this wasn't just a collection of ranty rants. No one's going to read a book like that. They'll read a blog post like that because a blog post is 600 words. But they won't read 300 pages of that. There has to be something more involving that brings poeple through from page 90 to 206, there has to be something that keeps them going because that stuff can get very repetitive if it's bound together. If you get a little dose a day, that's okay.
I do still like being crude in certain ways - the FunBag and Jamboroo are very crude - but I like following other ideas, too. It depends on what the subject matter is. If if demands humor, that's fine; if it demands something else, I'm okay with that, too. I'm okay with a range of tones. You have to be now, to exist as a writer, to be able to do pretty much everything because there are less writers getting paid and those writers are getting paid less than they used to. You have to do a lot of different kinds of writing very well.
ST: Some of these essays are incredibly touching. Is this a move towards a broader audience?
DM: That's another thing you keep in mind with these books. Most books are read by women. I'm not stupid, I'm not going to try to write a book that would only be read by 18-year-old frat guys because they don't read. So you have to write something that's a bit more palatable to people and if there's a "c-bomb" every other word, then they're less likely to read it. There's still profanity in the book but it's more measured and it's evenly spaced out. There are certain things I do stylistically that I like to keep but I don't mind doing things that assists the flow for a wider audience. It's never going to be broadened to point of, hey, here's Jay Leno's joke of wacky shit but I do recognize, in terms of popular entertainment, there is a certain level of bad taste that you probably shouldn't go past if you want to be inclusive for people.
ST: There are still plenty of hooks for people who are used to your more profane writing, plenty of poop references.
DM: Yeah! I think anyone who likes the old stuff will like the book. That was the point: we wanted to get all the people who've been asking me to do a DadSpin book for years and get anyone else in. Every time I've written a book, especially the last two books, I wanted to make sure that people who have never read Deadspin will still read the book and enjoy it. You don't have to be a member of "the club."
ST: What's next?
DM: It all depends on how this one does. If this one does well, there may be another book like it. I'm not quite sure yet.
ST: Is there a preference between writing books or writing for these more regular publications?
DM: Not really. The nice thing about writing these field pieces for GQ and others, doing something and then coming back to report on it, is pretty fun because you're doing something new, you're not just sitting at home, trying to will out 1,000 words out of nothing. It's always nice, to spend the day at the Scrabble Nationals.
ST: Your love of football is evident from your other columns. With two sons, in this new hyper-aware state of concussions, would you ever allow them to play football?
DM: Not early. Kids are stupid. Even if you teach your kids not to ram their heads into something, they'll still go do it. Maybe in high school, if they demanded to play. I don't know, I don't expect them. My daughter loves watching it but my oldest son doesn't care. Which I don't mind. I want them to make an informed decision before they go out and get their head exploded.