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Reynald’s Rap: Lance chats with Michael Stusser

by Susan Henderson on October 17, 2007

I’m not much of a name dropper, sadly I can never seem to remember the names. So, I bungle it at dinner parties.

I tend to get anxiety in social situations. Always feeling like I won’t have anything interesting to say. Trivia helps. My mind seems to retain loads of the trivial. If I’ve dead-ended subjects like the weather or minor current events trivia always helps the cause.

Always best to avoid the quirks that weird people out. I’ve found that we writers have quirks. My big one is Day of the Dead. Can’t get enough of it. Love the idea.

Once I run through the weather, some light trivia and the Dia de los Muertos collection I really start to get myself in trouble. This happened a few months ago at a casual gathering. Attempting small talk I found myself across the table from someone new. As usual I steered the conversation towards my comfort zone.

Literature.

Now, to be fair. My taste get obscure from time to time. In some circles I get accused of being a literary elitist. I don’t really agree with that term. I tend to think the books out there are out there for everyone, thus there is no elitist realm; but anywhoo… back to the story.

So, here I am at dinner. The subject turns to books, authors and such. Random stranger at the table was aware of what I do here in the park for fun; the chatting with whatever writers I want and having almost no ground rules (cause the boss is just that cool!).

There was great flow to the conversation so we must have been in my comfort zone, talking about some writer I love.

Usually that kind of excitement is one of three; Camus, Proust or Burroughs (William, not Augusten, and no I’m not really an elitist).

You guys know where this must be going, right?

The inevitable question asked.

“Why don’t you get an interview with him?”

Get a few glasses of wine in me and my humour gets wicked… I paused, but had a response. And not that vicious.

“I’m just not that good. Too much effort to get THAT interview.”

and Yes, that was the moment that my companion kicked me under the table and conversation went to trivia.

but, the notion of the impossible interview stuck with me.

Sure, Susan gives me lots of room to explore my subjects here in my corner of the park. The thought of bringing you Camus, Burroughs, Hemingway or Proust always gets a smile on my face.

But, I’m just not that good.

Michael Stusser; journalist, Game maker, interviewer and a guy with a sense of humour just wicked enough for me, on the other hand is.

Good enough to interview 45 dead celebrities. Getting their feelings on their own lives and pop culture.

The Dead Guy Interviews.

His book and our chat got me to smile a bit, remembering a most awkward dinner conversation and the thoughts on the interviews I would have loved to get.

*

Welcome to LitPark, Michael!

LR: I’m just going to jump right in with the big question;

Oujia, seance or a lot of research?

MS: All of the above! You’d be amazed how many of these guys have profiles on MySpace. To be honest, getting a hold of the deceased was the easy part. The hard part was getting clearance from their damn agents. Mozart would need to plug his new album, Napoleon wouldn’t appear without his high chair, and Genghis Khan was pushing a helmet law, of all things.

The genesis of the book came after running into Beethoven at a RiteAid. I was trying to use one of those damn photo machines and Piano Boy was refilling the batteries in his hearing aid. Well, it looked like Beethoven, anyway. Point is, it got me to thinking: what if I could track down the most famous folks from the past and talk them about their lives. It’s like that question, “If you could have dinner with one person in all of history, who would it be?” I decided to meet ‘em all.

LR: How did you come to pick the subjects?

MS: What I tried to do was talk to people who’d been dead for a long, long time – Montezuma, Confucius, Emily Dickinson. The more recently dead – folks like Miles Davis and Marilyn Monroe – have already been interviewed on radio and TV, and are on the record quite a bit. In the ancient days, there was less paparazzi– though there’s an early YouTube video of Caligula that’s hilarious. After compiling a list of about 500 names, my researcher (Anne

Kaiser, who has directed the Center for Policy Research at Harvard University for 25 years) and I narrowed it down to the ones we thought had the most to say – and perhaps wanted to clear up some misconceptions of themselves – Sun Tzu, for example, is actually an incredibly peaceful warrior – he’d love Bono or Angelina Jolie. Even though he wrote The Art of War, he’s all about conflict as a last resort. His new book is The Art of Golf, so you know he’s mellowed over the years. And the process just went from there.

LR: Any favorites among them?

MS: Cliché as it sounds, I’d have to say honest Abe; he’s an incredibly bright fellow and a great President during the roughest of times. He’s also got a helluva sense of humor. When we were talking about an opponent who called him two-faced, he said, “If I had two faces, do you think I’d be using this one?”

I also loved Salvador Dali – he had an amazing point of view. What’s strange about him is that he’s so flabbergasted how normal everyone else is. “Nothing of what might happen ever happens!” he kept saying. “Why are bath tubs always the same shape? Why, when I ask for grilled lobster, am I never served a cooked telephone?” And odd bird, to be sure.

LR: Any surprises of an interviewee once you started working with them?

MS: You know, at the beginning of the process we had 45 interviews lined up, but there were some cancellations. Apparently, Jesus is miffed about being constantly misquoted, not to mention my request to turn my water filter into a wine dispenser. We had Gandhi all set to chat when my idiot intern offered him a foot-long sub during one of his frickin’ fasts. And Helen Keller – don’t get me started…Oh, and the reason Elvis refused to be interviewed? He’s not dead yet. I’ll give you a hint: The Golden Nugget, Reno…

LR: Any follow-up in the works? Plenty of Dead Guys banging on your door to chat?

MS: I’m sitting with Jack the Ripper right now, though he’s got an odd habit of dashing out mid-sentence. I’d also love to interview Amelia Earhart, but her radio keeps cutting out on me. You know, all sorts of dead folks want to be interviewed – but there’s plenty of time. It’s not like they’re going anywhere.

Also, I write a monthly “Interview with a Dead Guy” for Mental Floss Magazine, so I’d encourage your readers to pick those up. It’s a great magazine – they nail the whole “edu-tainment” thing.

Thanks for stopping by the Park, Michael! And best of luck with your book!

*

You can “friend” both Michael and Lance on MySpace. Also, Michael blogs over at Penguin, and Lance blogs at his place. Hope you have time to check them out.

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Daryl October 17, 2007 at 2:07 am

WOW! this guy’s imagination is RICH!! beautiful website and the articles/interviews are pretty funny. i’ve wondered how to speak through someone else’s head/knowledge/experience and these interviews offer some good examples. i like your discussion about comfort zones, Lance, and your reticence to breach them. anyway, i’ve learned some things from this interview and will spend more time exploring Michael’s works.

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Nathalie October 17, 2007 at 3:19 am

GREAT!
Thank you both for that.
Do get him to interview Marcel if you can, for I quite like him too …
*buggers off to see if he is on MySpace*

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Susan Henderson October 17, 2007 at 8:28 am

I love geek humor. Michael, I need to check your book out. By the way, in yesterday’s comments section, there was some talk about board games that might float over here today. I think someone wanted to pitch you an idea.

Lance, I always love to read your interviews and your intros.

Daryl – Ah! I hadn’t made the connection between his book and yours until now, but of course!

Nathalie – That’s funny you’re making requests already for Dead Guys, the Sequel.

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Kimberly October 17, 2007 at 9:22 am

HIGH-larious!!! Thanks for bringing Michael to us in your own special way, Lance!

Michael, just drop me into the ranks of the newest bunch of Mental Floss fans! Thanks for joining us! What a treat!

I guess it’s time to start a new LitPark reading list – Hooray! The only two left in my stack are Attention. Deficit. Disorder. and Pretty Little Mistakes (I know… I’m behind the rest of you all. Sheesh! I’ve only just started Harry Potter 7.)

P.S. Happy Birthday Lance!

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Robin Slick October 17, 2007 at 10:08 am

Ooh..I loved this. Right up my alley and yeah, let’s pitch that game (Shelley and I will do a 50-50 split on the profits har har)

Any plans to interview John Lennon?

Lance, great job…I love your writing and I love that you are socially inept at parties even more…you are yet another LitPark soulmate and I cannot wait to read your surely-will-be-published novel.

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Aurelio O'Brien October 17, 2007 at 10:55 am

So Michael, you might know: is there really a Dead Poets Society, and do they sit around and write competitive verse? See how many words they can come up with that rhyme with orb? Argue over free-verse? I’ll bet Poe is a real downer.

Your whole concept is a hoot, and very smart. I wish they had your work around when I was studying history in high school – classes need something like this as an alternative text and to keep people like me from falling asleep.

Lance, thanks for sharing Michael with us – excellent interview.

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Aurelio O'Brien October 17, 2007 at 11:04 am

And speaking of games… were planning to play Drag Poker on Halloween: winning hand gets to take something from the closet – first in full drag wins. Best dressed wins. Worst dressed wins. Loads of prizes.

Fasten your seatbelts, its gonna be an ugly night.

Also, if you have a winning hand, you can either choose something from the closet, or steal something from someone else. :)

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Juliet deWal October 17, 2007 at 11:57 am

Lance, you weave an introduction that captures me within three words. Bravo. You stitch words so wonderfully, I’d read what you’d written even if it were printed on used toilet paper.
(Yes, I did take an overdose of cold medicine this morning, but it’s true nonethelss.)

Michael, how brilliant! I will add the floss to my list of must-haves, and shall send for the Dead Guy interviews shortly.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, views and quick wit with us.

J

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Kimberly October 17, 2007 at 12:03 pm

OMG!!! Aurelio… can I play? What a brill idea!

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Carolyn Burns Bass October 17, 2007 at 12:15 pm

What I love about LitPark, let me count the things.

1. Great interviews with authors by witty and perceptive writers. (Wink to Lance and Michael.)

2. Superb exchange of smart comments and more witty perception from erudite readers.

3. Cool pictures of neat people talking to dead guys and foxy authors with great hair.

4. Awesome videos of adorable talented kids doing all kinds of creative activities.

5. Suggestions for books to read, music to download, films to watch, prints to buy, and people to friend on MySpace.

So anyway. Michael, I’m off to buy your book. Lance, don’t ever change. Susan, you’re an architect of community.

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Aurelio O'Brien October 17, 2007 at 1:53 pm

Sure Kimberly, but we’re on different coasts. If you organize a game of your own though, let me know how it goes.

(The hardest part is getting people to bring enough drag stuff to the party to make it work. Well… that, and trying not to end up looking too much like Gene Hackman at the end of The Birdcage.)

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Susan Henderson October 17, 2007 at 2:10 pm

Kimberly – I am so happy to hear you’ve been reading the books!

Robin – You know any book featuring an interview with JL will piss off Y – and that means …. SALES! Hope Shelley gets here soon so you two can pitch your marvelous idea.

Aurelio – That is most awesome party idea I’ve ever heard. I think you should bring a horse saddle. And then, tell us how it goes, with photos.

Juliet – I want to try that cold medicine you’re on!

Carolyn – You forgot #6: Sue’s magnificent drawing abilities. Oh wait, you haven’t seen this week’s wrap yet…

I had a lot of writing I needed to do today, but instead there was drama on our street concerning a tree. Think THE LORAX, and imagine a thneed manufacturer had just moved in ….

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Sarah Bain October 17, 2007 at 2:16 pm

This was great. Thanks, Lance and Michael. I love dead people and get along with them better than live folks. In fact, I find them more interesting and fun to be with so this is just the perfect, perfect place for me to be. Links in well too with that question the other day about games: Ouija and Bloody Mary in the bathroom with the lights out 50 times was a highlight of my youth. Oh and pressing on each other’s chests while deep breathing until we passed out hoping to hook up with our deceased anscestors.

Cool beans!

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Michael Stusser October 17, 2007 at 4:10 pm

Well I’m lovin’ the commentary, and really do appreciate all the positive feedback. And I agree, there should be a Dead Guys (and Gals) II – so many dead people, so little time….

A couple direct replies to queries: First, I’d love to interview John Lennon – but for the book, I concentrated on the “long dead” – folks like Caesar and Cleopatra – who didn’t exactly have press agents in their day. John, and I do love him – has actually been interviewed on the record many-a-time, and I wanted to give voice to those whose stone tablets got broken along the way. (Though there is a hilarious YouTube video with Caligula…).

As for the board game business, a warning: it makes the publishing biz look like a walk in the park. That’s not to say you shouldn’t pursue your ideas, but realize there are crooks out there (yes, that’s you Milton Bradley) – and will steal, rip-off and borrow. We used to play a game called Dictionary as kids, then a guy did “Win, Lose or Draw,” which was stolen and made into “Pictionary”…so ya get the picture! In fact, the best idea I ever had for a game: “The Make Your Own Game Game” – with all the parts – and you fill in the categories!

Thanks again for all the notes and praise. And thanks to Lance for bringing authors to the web in a fun format.
Peace,
Michael

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Heather McElhatton October 17, 2007 at 4:35 pm

Great interview Lance!

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Debbie Ann October 17, 2007 at 4:53 pm

really, really good stuff! Love his originality. Every time I sat to read this, I got interrupted, then came back, then got interrupted, but finally read it all. Interesting guy!

Thanks for this!

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Tom Jackson October 17, 2007 at 5:17 pm

Love the Dead Guy interviews, their annual 10 issue, basically everything about mental_floss, even the “mental flaws” (correction) section on the masthead page. I even love their books-a-million ads that show some totally hot mom reading with her kid — selling good parenting with sex, ingenious, something only mental_floss could think of, I tell ya. One of the million crazy-ass ideas I have in development is an article to pitch to them… I’d tell you what it is here, but then somebody’d just steal it. Yes, it’s that good. ; )

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Michael Stusser October 17, 2007 at 5:23 pm

Tom,
Definitely shoot the editors at mental_floss your query – they’re always open to new ideas. And I agree, these are twisted (and ingenious) folks- what grabbed my attention was an article entitled “A Farewell to Arms” – not about Hemmingway, but famous people who’d somehow lost limbs!
Keep writing.
Michael

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lance reynald October 17, 2007 at 5:31 pm

Michael- thanks for coming to play in t he park… and yeah, the Burroughs collaboration sounds fun, but there is tons of tape on him…it’s like listening to Dali… but Proust- that’s a fun chat, such detail…though hard to get a word in.

Everyone- Great to see you all in the park… It was a long summer without all of you.
Happy school is back in session and we get to smoke under the bleachers again.

and Sarah- I loved that chest pounding game!!! anything that makes you pass out tends to be fun in Lanceland!

xo.

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Betsy October 17, 2007 at 5:56 pm

Super fun, guys. Hey, in my family we still play Dictionary! And sometimes Liebrary.
Any chance of booking Fred Astaire anytime soon?

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Shelley Marlow October 17, 2007 at 6:30 pm

Lance, I love your taste in literature. Cool interview, guys. My friends Chris and Anne in SF have psychics channel artists in their project: Art After Death: Conversations With the Countess of Castiglione, Joseph Cornell, etc.
Robin, let’s hang out and brainstorm sometime.

Susan, Nice when you can define a stressful situation with a Dr. Suess reference.

I want to come to your drag game, Aurelio, wishing you still lived upstate NY.

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Tom Jackson October 17, 2007 at 6:34 pm

Michael,

Thank you for the encouragement. I’ll send something their way in the next few days. Hey, great point at the end of the Billie Holliday interview: “Lady Sings the Blues” as a love story? Pfft.

You da man. Especially when channeling a woman.

Yours,
tom j.

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Robin Slick October 17, 2007 at 6:52 pm

Wait – where’s the Billie Holliday interview? I could have helped with that! My father and Billie were lovers.

Okay, so they had a brief, smack-infested affair but I gots stories…oh, I gots stories…

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Susan Henderson October 17, 2007 at 7:50 pm

First, off-topic – I still read to my kids every night, and the other day, we finished a quickie 2-day read we all loved called DIARY OF A WIMPY KID (Jeff Kinney). And now we’ve started a very different book I’m already in love with, called THE GIVER (Lois Lowry). If anyone knows these authors, I would love to have them on LitPark or at least send fan mail.

Sarah – I was never inside the crowds that played Bloody Mary (I only overheard little bits) and always pretended I knew what they were talking about. Please please tell the secret rules of the game!

Michael – I think you found yourself some new readers today. I’m really glad to see you here. P.S. This is probably not the Caligula video you meant.

Heather – Hey! Long time no see!

Debbie – I had all-day interruptions, too. That’s why I’m working as soon as the boys are in bed.

Tom – You would be a great fit at mental_floss. Here’s the link for submissions: http://www.mentalfloss.com/magazine/submissions.php

Michael – You sold me with “A Farewell to Arms”!

Lance – You are such a hot shot. Have I mentioned lately how much I loved your manuscript?

Betsy – If dictionary is the game where you write real or fake definitions to words, then I love that game. But I thought WE made it up!

Shelley – You and Robin are sitting on pure gold. I won’t mention your idea anymore so it doesn’t get stolen.

Robin – My college roommate used to pretend he was Billie Holliday and sing into the mirror when he thought I wasn’t home. That’s as close as I ever got to her. I’ll be reading YOUR book to find out the rest of the cool smack-infested story. Oh, and I thought of you today. Did you hear this on All Things Considered? Clapton

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lance reynald October 17, 2007 at 8:07 pm

thanks wondertwin!!

you and the park have given me a lot of room to grow that manuscript with all those private meetings under the slide. xo.

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Tom Jackson October 17, 2007 at 8:59 pm

Billie Holliday interview: March/April ’06 issue of m_f with Ben Franklin on the cover, Robin.

Thanks for the link, Sue. : )

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Juliet deWal October 17, 2007 at 10:15 pm

xoxj

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Kimberly October 18, 2007 at 9:31 am

Aurelio – Game on!

Costumes I’ve got! Although given my penchant for vintage beaded cardigans, there will be definitely be a strong Rockabilly/Donna Reed theme happening. But if we got Josh Kilmer-Purcell to play (along with Mr & Mrs Henderson)… now wouldn’t THAT be fun???

And oh my… the pictures!!!

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Aurelio O'Brien October 18, 2007 at 10:32 am

Ha! I love Donna Reed. Man, if you get Josh and the Hendersons, maybe I should bail on mine and fly out for your party. Sounds very fun.

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Susan Henderson October 18, 2007 at 9:19 pm

Hendersons are booked up all through Halloween. But this sounds like the kind of party you can have any time!

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lance reynald October 18, 2007 at 10:02 pm

I’m pretty sure I could dig up a bit of glitter and whatnot to send ya for that party.

xo.

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Erika Rae October 31, 2007 at 1:26 am

Great interview! Lance, I totally relate with your default to trivia. I once thought of writing a book called, “My Trivial Life.”

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