Andy Selsberg thinks you are good at things, for example, “forcing people to acknowledge how adorable your baby’s foot is,” or maybe “Telling professional coaches what to do.” In fact, the former Onion staff writer is so convinced of your myriad abilities that he’s written a book enumerating these positive traits. Our Town spoke with Selsberg about the book's bathtub genesis, lists as literature and perhaps most significant, the contents of celebrity purses.
Our Town Here’s what I’m good at, accurately predicting the color of people's nipples. What about you?
Andy Selsberg Nipple prediction? That's a rare one, like yelling original prompts at improv shows. Does anyone really possess that skill? If so, it would have to be a Chicagoan. I'm really good at not being able to read my own handwriting. And I'm a ringer when it comes to noting when it's good sleeping weather. I learned it from my parents, who are masters. I'm also good at passionately favoring one drugstore chain over the others. Growing up in Kenosha, I was obsessed with Walgreens. When I tried to write short stories in college, half of them took place in a Walgreens. In New York, Duane Reade is everywhere. It doesn't get a lot of true love, but it's earned a kind of affection via grudging acceptance. Walgreens acquired them in 2010, but Duane Reade stores kept their name. This is how Macy's should have dealt with Marshall Field's. Regional chains are important! Apparently, I am also good at retail tangents.
OT What inspired your book?
AS I was in the bathtub, thinking about what I could do next. I thought, "What am I good at? Everybody's good at something... Yes--everybody is good at something! I'll do a list of everything people are good at!" That was the first working title: Everybody's Good at Something. It just felt right, like it could be funny and telling and expansive. Familiar and new.
OT Was it a struggle to make it book length?
AS It just took time and focus. At least a year. I would go out almost every day with a notebook (Field Notes brand--another Chicago connection) and commit to coming up with a few dozen possible lines. It's a matter of training yourself to think in a particular way. I'd do it while riding the subway, on a park bench after work. Being in places with lots of people inspired lines (You are good at sharing headphones, conveying cultural standing through tote bags...).
OT Are you a fan of lists in literature?
AS Yes--or maybe a fan of lists as literature. I like David Markson's novels--they're like scrolls of literary snippets. I Remember by Joe Brainard is genius. Though I might wish I didn't, I love magazine features where someone of note lists everything in their bag, or lists all their favorite products. It seems to add up to a perspective. Twitter is a slice of the world in list form, constantly updated. I loved Letterman's Top Ten collections. And I'm sad that one of my favorite list books, What's Right with America, is out of print. "Army surplus as a college wardrobe staple," "Bumper stickers that make fun of other bumper stickers." It's sincere and sarcastic at once--a tone close to my heart. You can make fun of something and still love it dearly. (If not, most contemporary parents are in trouble.)
OT You quote Grace Paley’s “Wants” on your Dear Old Love Tumblr. First of all, love that story, second, did the line actually inspire DOL?
AS That is a cool story--more a presiding presence than an inspiration for DOL. I taught "Wants" for years before I actually read Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, which has a supporting role in it. Such a good novel! I have the Paley quote ("I attribute the dissolution of our marriage to the fact that you never invited the Bertrams to dinner") on the site to set some aspirational guidelines: the specificity, the humor and sadness of it all. And I hope it reminds people that the site aims to artfully condense experience, to tell stories in miniature, more than get actual notes to actual old loves.
OT In common between your book and DOL seems a fascination with the details of people’s lives. What’s the allure of minutiae?
AS Hmm--I guess it goes back to reading about what's in someone's bag. It's a window--the right minutiae can be shorthand for how people live a life, what they think is important.
OT In writing, being specific tends to make something universally relatable, but can you be too specific?
AS I suppose if a work is too specific an audience might feel locked out because they don't have any relationship with those specific specifics. (I sometimes wonder, when I'm reading a story about youngish publishing/writer-types in the city, if anyone even an inch outside that culture would care at all.) I try in You Are Good at Things and Dear Old Love to provide a range and a mix. The details come from different areas, and there are specific things, like maintaining control at self-serve ice cream stations or finding and removing printer misfeeds, but also tons of broader ones: basking, battling inner demons, making inner demons feel at home...
OT How does creating work for your own projects differ from creating for the Onion?
AS Let me stress--I worked for the Onion years ago! Talking first Clinton term. Should I still be milking that credit? (Yes, apparently.) The Onion is collaborative. A group decides what works. It's less about any single writer's vision, and more about contributing to one great institutional voice. You don't get individual credit for ideas or stories, except inside the circle. Working your own, you're the quality control. More freedom, with the highs and risks that come with that.
OT What are you working on now?
AS I'm not sure. Do you have any suggestions? I've started a few things, but aren't sure what they should end up as, if anything. I even started working on a sequel to You Are Good at Things. Not under contract or anything. I think I just wanted to see if I could still come up with them. And indeed, there more things people are good at. Amassing soy sauce packets, for example. How did I miss that the first time?
"You Are Good at Things" will be released April 3rd. Preorder it here or, you know, somewhere local if what you're good at is supporting indie bookstores.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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