Choire Sicha is the coproprietor of the culture and current events website The Awl, which was founded in 2009. Sicha describes The Awl as "that friend of yours who’s really funny until he has one too many drinks and then he gets kind of creepy." Before The Awl, he was an editor at Gawker (twice), as well at The New York Observer. He is also the author of Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City, available today and published by Harper. I conducted an interview with Choire on Google Docs. We never once "took it to phone."
So, you have written a book. Is it fiction or nonfiction? (I read it and I’m not sure!) Does it matter if it’s fiction or non-fiction?
This has been a really wacko-cool experience that people are like, "Hey what the hell is this book?" Usually that’s expressed as some complicated emoji-sentence, often combining the triangular poop icon with that weird one of someone in the bathtub and sometimes the gun.
So, I think that it matters very much to me, and it matters to librarians, and it might matter to the people in the book, who are all very real and delightful … but it won’t matter at all to most readers. That’s totally cool. I mean, hey, "You do you." (LOL, gross, sorry.)
For the certain kind of reader who does care, I am here to verify that the book is 100 percent true. Every person, every fact, every piece of dialogue: all of it. (Any errors of fact are mine, obviously.) And carefully true: for instance, right away, I declare that "for a while" the richest person in the city is the mayor. This is true, but it really was for a brief time, and it was only as near as anyone could calculate. It’s hard to figure out who’s richer than whom. But definitely everyone agrees that, a while back now, Ol’ Mayor Mike got outgunned as richest bro in town.
Did you enjoy writing it? Was it the worst? How did you do it — did you set aside specific chunks of time, or just fit it in when the mood struck?
Well, publishing a book, the part when it goes out in the world, is even worse! It’s kind of like when you think you’re having a deep "private session" on Spotify and then you realize, NOPE, everyone can see you listening to Mariah Carey remixes.
Actually it’s like being one of those people who put a photo up on eBay of some stupid furniture and then everyone figures out they can see you in some reflection and you’re REALLY NAKED AND NOT PRETTY.
"You just gotta write all the time. That’s the secret."
But yeah. Writing a book basically eats a bag of dog balls. You just gotta write all the time. That’s the secret. Great fucking secret, right? STUPID SECRET. But: I firmly believe that anyone who wants to can and should do it. You could be done with a book before Christmas! It’s actually not brain surgery, because no one really agrees what a good book is, so maybe, even though you have no idea what you’re doing, it’s possible everyone will be like, "Hey, this is awesome."
I mean, I didn’t go to college, I barely graduated high school, and no one taught me how to write properly, and then a Rupert Murdoch company gave me a decent pile of money to write a book and actually published it, even though it was clearly a piece of craziness. So it could happen to anyone. Go for it. (You’re probably better off learning how to trade securities though, so, consider that!)
The book seems very personal, in that I get the sense there are a lot of people who will read it and recognize themselves or others in it. So, are you now panicking, asking yourself "What have I done?" Or are you at peace with it?
You mean like "emotionally" recognize? No that’s good! That’s supposed to happen. Or if you mean like, "IRL recognize" — well, the number of people who’d be like, "Oh is this person that friend of that guy?" is pretty vanishingly small in the world. The reason the book’s characters are anonymous is because we didn’t think it was fair to their Google record, honestly. Books are short, because they’re between two covers — but Google is forever.
"There's a weird long monologue by this guy who's convinced that growing up with Gchat kind of ruined him."
One thing that’s cool (to me!) about the book is people talking about technology actually. There’s a weird long monologue by this guy who’s convinced that growing up with Gchat kind of ruined him: that he’s so much better in chat than he is IRL. (I might be better in chat than I am in real life too.) And there’s whole comedies of errors about how to communicate with people when you’re simultaneously using text message, Facebook, and hookup sites. There’s Grindr, there’s Missed Connections. Also the semi-modern agony of being nonconsensually blogged about! That’s the worst thing.
Especially since… you also run The Awl. After editing and writing at / for other places, what made you want to run your OWN website? Do you find it easier to work for yourself? It seems like in a lot of ways it would be far, far more stressful.
Well, I could never do it without a business partner. I still need someone to be accountable to. Fortunately, we both have the same high level of "Oh all these plans went to shit? FUCK IT, LET’S GO TO LUNCH."
The thing that 2008 and 2009 convinced me of, and really that’s what the book is about, is that no employer will ever give a fuck about me. Or really about most anyone! Like, it’s all good until the funding dries up, or the grants dry up, or until a recession comes, or until some stupid asshole rich person has a whim and decides to close up shop. Then you’re out on your ass and what about your commitments, to your friends, spouses, children, parents, cats, rents and stomachs? But the money people don’t care. They don’t have to care! That’s not in the agreements of how we work. So, fine. That’s not an agreement I want to have either then. I think I’m ruined with working for other people now.
Uh, we’ll see how that works out. The fun thing about being an independently owned, non-investment-backed company is that you have to stay profitable or it’s CURTAINS for you. Really more people should operate like that. It’s good for the soul.
In running an independent website, what is the best part? The writing, editing, the designing, selling ads? It seems like you’re probably involved in all aspects of it so… What is the best part, and what is the worst?
"I do hate that because we're so lean, it can take a really long time to get things done that we really care about."
I think we kind of love almost all of it, really. (The good joke answer is "I love delegating." Which I do, honestly!) But I particularly love editing most of the time. I do hate that because we’re so lean, it can take a really long time to get things done that we really care about. Making new sites takes forever. I get jealous sometimes of people with all that borrowed cash. But I don’t get jealous for long.
Pretty much all of my least favorite things involve "let’s take it to phone." Fuck phones. People who take it to the phone:
- Managed server product guys
- Other startups who have a product they want to explain to you, but like, if their website can’t explain, why would taking it to the phone make it better?
- People who want to buy your company for too little money
- Lawyers (they’re okay, really, at least)
- Needy writers (sorry! I love you, needy writers)
Back to books for a second: What is your favorite? Do you have one? (I hate this question but it’s so fun to ask!)
My three favorite books are probably… The Dispossessed, Reckless Disregard: Westmoreland v. CBS et al., Sharon v. Time and, hmm, right now, Iphigenia in Forest Hills. That one’s still sitting with me pretty hard. Although… I could probably also say "My 10 favorite books are these 10 Ursula Le Guin books in this particular order."
What level are you on in Candy Crush? (Will have follow-up based on your answer.)
Oh shit. Low blow. Okay, I am on level 272. The sad thing about this is not that I am on level 272, though that is sad, but that it has disrupted my love affair with Robot Wants Kitty. Do you play Robot Wants Kitty? The genius of the app is that they rolled out a "Kitty Connect" level builder a while back, and there are tons of people building games in this world. And many of them are geniuses! There was this guy named "Fomb" who built the best game levels of any game I’ve ever seen. And then a couple months ago now, he retired. I wonder what he’s putting all his energy into now. He’s a really remarkable thinker. (I realize that’s a big thing to say about someone who builds platform game levels.)
If Candy Crush had existed when you were writing the book, would you have finished it yet?
"'Candy Crush' is magical brain shut-down time."
I think procrastination is good for us! My writing process is: Turn on loud music, type for a while, take a smoke break, write a little while, watch 30 minutes of TV, write for two minutes, take a shower, jump out of the shower and write down some notes, watch some more TV, write for awhile. The point being: the back of our animal brain does things while we are doing other stupider things. It’s important. Candy Crush is magical brain shut-down time.
What kind of phone do you have? Also, what are the apps on your homescreen and why?
Like every loser I have an iPhone. You know… I could make the switch for the right non-Apple product. I go out and touch one every now and again. I guess I’m just scared! Fine, here is my homescreen. This is a weird self-doxx. Um, I never update my apps, answer my phone, open my Snapchats or check GroupMe or Vine so why do I have a phone anyway? Actually I use it for notes, for writing, and for recording interviews, so that’s useful. And cat pictures.
When you wake up (I assume it’s very early) what are the first three things you read?
This terrible new thing happens where, because I sleep with my phone under my pillow, I just wake up at dawn and then turn on my phone and start wherever I stopped. So, this means that I often fall asleep and I reawake with half-written emails, or like unsent tweets that are like "asdfhhjjjjjjjjjjj" because I fell asleep writing them? This is no way to live. The upside is that the first thing I read is some random links that some English person tweeted, because they’re the only ones awake.
I saw a tweet of yours the other day of your two cats in the backseat of your car. It appeared that the cats were in charge. How many cats do you have? Do you ever let them drive? Which of your cats would theoretically make the best driver? Where do you think they would go?
I only have two cats. ("Only.") They are Miami street rescues. One of them is a fucking ENORMOUS cool black-and-white frat boy. The other is this tiny neurotic gray lady. THEY ARE IN LOVE.
The car thing comes from our last cat, Cat The Cat, RIP. When he was about 18 years old we moved down to Miami for a little while and he spent his last year there. I was back in New York a lot for work, and when I was away, my husband used to drive him around at night. He was this scrawny old beast, but he’d stand up on his hind legs with his front feet on the dashboard and stare out the window, or stand on my husband’s lap while he drove. Cats love cars!
So… yeah. We drive cats around a lot. Looks around awkwardly
The Awl endorsed Eliot Spitzer for governor of NY in a recent editorial written by you. But the biggest story of a politician with shady woman problems in NYC is the famous sexter (okay it was Formspring) Anthony Weiner. Since everyone is talking about it, what do you think about the whole situation? Should he resign? Is he going to win?
I still don’t know what Formspring is! Formcock. Cockspring. Whatever. I really do wish he’d just leave us alone. I don’t really care who he dongs with and when. I mean, dongs away, fuck it, right? But we’re not cut out for it as a culture. It’s incredibly disruptive to a race that is actually about deciding on the leadership of a city that is going to be headed for some serious, serious adjustment shocks in the next four years. This mayoral choice is some serious business. Looking at that dude’s cock all the time is distracting everyone.
Everyone also seems to have an opinion on his wife [Huma Abedin]. Do you have one to share, as well?
I’ve actually been in the same room with her at least a few times, and also (barely) talked to her. Once about five years ago we were at a diner at a campaign event and she’d never heard of cheese fries, I think it was, and her co-workers were teasing her about this and she thought cheese fries were the most delightful idea. Isn’t that sweet? It’s possible that the article in question was a milkshake, and she’d never had a milkshake. Isn’t memory funny? Somewhere I have this written down in a notebook. But definitely: she was an adult who’d never had either cheese fries or a milkshake. And then she did.
She was an adult who’d never had either cheese fries or a milkshake
If you could have one wish — literally anything — what would it be?
I’d already have written my next book and that whole nightmare would be over. I want it to be a really happy nonfiction book about a bunch of old people in an apartment building somewhere. Doesn’t that sound relaxing? Just old people playing Canasta and talking trash.
Do you have any final questions you’d like me to ask?
Wouldn’t that be presumptuous of me??? That’s a dick move. "Yes, ask me about how amaaaazing I am." LOL. People. "Oh yes, let’s talk about White Twitter." #smh