mental floss

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.


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.


Question of the Week: Kiddo

by Susan Henderson on October 15, 2007

Think back to elementary school. What games did you play? What toys did you play with? What kind of candy did you eat? What was your first record (okay, CD for the true kiddos)? Paint me (a quick) picture of you!


Wednesday, (birthday boy) Lance Reynald talks to journalist, game creator, and Mental Floss contributor, Michael Stusser about his strange interview subjects. Talk about going back in time!

By the way, if you are not familiar with Mental Floss, here’s Mo Rocca to help you discover what it’s all about.