Interview by John Wisniewski
Mike Albo is an American writer, comedian, actor and humorist. He is known for his writing and performances that criticize and satirize contemporary celebrity and consumer culture. As a freelance writer, Albo has contributed to magazines, newspapers and websites including the New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, GQ, Elle Décor, Country Living, The Daily Beast, The Village Voice, Details, and many others. He was a Senior Editor and Fashion Writer for Cargo Magazine from 2004-2006. From 2007-2009 he was The Critical Shopper columnist for the New York Times and wrote more than sixty-five articles for the NYT Style section. He also had columns in BlackBook and Surface magazines. He wrote “Torascopes” for Heeb Magazine from 2005-2007. His love advice column in Out Magazine, “What’s Your Problem?” appeared from 1998-2000. He also wrote horoscopes for Word.com (Horoscopes by Randy Lavender), from 1998-2000.
When did you begin writing, Mike? What were your first published articles?
I have always been writing in some way…I have kept a diary since 5th grade (it had a squishy cover and said “PRIVATE!” in big 70s puffy letters)…I have written poetry since I was in 7th grade I think….thanks to the incredible mentoring of my english teacher Ms Hilliard, I entered an essay contest at the Washington Post my junior year of high school (I think?) and won…that was the nudge of encouragement I needed (and every writer needs)…the first thing I ever got published on my own was a response to River Phoenix’s death that was published in The Village Voice way back in 1993! I stayed up all night writing it and then the next day at work I secretly faxed it (remember faxing??) to as many magazines as I could. Lisa Kennedy, an editor at the VV at the time, found it in the so-called ‘slush pile’ and published it.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Favorite authors include: Edith Wharton, George Gissing, Virginia Woolf, Paul Bowles, Guy de Maupassant. I’m reading Bolano’s The Savage Detectives right now and I am enthralled. I loved Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder.” I always return to Charles Stross’s “Accelerando,” which is so weird and like a hallucination and teaches me something every time i open it up.
What may have inspired you to write your novel “The Underminer”?
I had been performing the character for a few years before I wrote the book. But the concept of the Underminer is even older…My friend Virginia Heffernan and I used to live together wayyyy back in the 90’s. We used to come home and stay up and talk about each other’s nights — hers straight girl dating and sex, mine gay guy sex and dating. And in each of our spheres, we came across the type of person who you are friends with but sort of makes you feel suicidal in slight, slightly detectable ways…So we developed the character together 🙂 I wrote the book around 2003, so in a way its also about heartbreak — because I watched our country (and NYC) become insane and hyper materialistic after 9/11. We had such a tiny window of time after That Day to really make the world a more peaceful place. And instead we were given a war and told to go shopping. So that is all in the book…
What inspired you to write your first novel “Hornito”? What were the reviews like for your first novel?
“Hornito,” probably like many first novels, is a collection of essays and lines and stories and language that I had from 27 years of living life. The core material was non fiction essays that I wrote in grad school (I went to Columbia School of the Arts for poetry, but while there, I began to write in other genres, including nonfiction and essays etc…) along with diary entries from my first few years living in the East Village in the mid 90s.
I was VERY lucky to have that book published. Really the only reason it was published was because David Sedaris had paved the way for humor writing by a gay man, and so I got a small window of opportunity. Sort of like when every record label wanted to find their Whitney Houston. I am Des’ree, basically (remember her song??). I was so naive about the publishing industry. I didn’t realize big publishers had such a bottom line like every other industry.
The reviews for “Hornito” were mostly positive…especially from the LGTB press. It introduced me to people I greatly admire, like Edmund White and Mark Doty. I am very grateful to and proudly a part of the gay literary community. I got a mean review in the New York Times from someone who clearly had a chip on her shoulder. At the time us Gen Xers were loathed and lambasted as much as hipsters and millennials are now. So the reviewer took that as the angle — that I was just another young person who came to the city and raised the rents. But after I got that review (New Years Day, even!) my wonderful friend Virginia said something that has always stuck with me: “a mean review! Now you have a career.” Since then, weathering other positive and negative reviews for my work and solo shows, I remember that….As a writer, you have to keep your eye on the longer arc.
The best thing about “Hornito” is how it comes back to me from readers. Even now, someone says they read it, that it resonated with them, and I feel a connection to that is hard to describe but feels joyous and meaningful.
Is writing for the news a different experience than writing your novels or short stories?
I wouldn’t exactly say I write “news”…I mean, I am not embedded in Nigeria or investigating Argentinian President Kirschner’s secret dealing with Iran. Much of my writing for magazines and websites are opinion pieces, essays, profiles or features….though I do try my best to maintain journalistic ethics of course — in terms of backing sources, fact checking, etc….but if there is a difference between writing fiction/poetry/performance and the writing I did as The Critical Shopper for the New York Times, or the recent travel writing or assignments I have had for places like Refinery29, I would say it is work: an assignment, something I focus on for a short time. I love writing for other people, don’t get me wrong. It’s my one skill that makes money! I have no other skills that make money!
Could you provide us with an example of thought provoking journalism and name some journalists who may inspire you, Mike?
I cited the reporters who wrote the recent “Towers of Secrecy” article in the previous question, but others…well i always like everything my friend Virginia Heffernan writes, and now she is back writing a column in the NY Times Magazine, which i am thrilled about. As for non fiction writers in general — I always love of course Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm and Edmund Wilson. I always read everything Elizabeth Kolbert writes as well as Judith Thurman. Hilton Als’ writing is magic disguised as nonfiction. Guy Trebay’s fashion and style coverage is brilliant. I wrote a profile of Daniel Mendelsohn a couple years ago and had the fortune to read everything I could of his, and think he is the bee’s knees. What a mind. And he says he writes from beginning to end! On this bed!
Are there any fiction authors that you read?
Actually I read more fiction than non fiction. I do love to read both classics and contemporary novels…but I rarely read a book right when it comes out. I usually seem to wait a year or so, until I get a sense from people that it’s right for me…because I love asking people what they are reading, what blew them away…I think that’s how I ended up reading “Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter, which was totally fantastic. The language was gorgeous, the story was addictive, and the pace was brisk. So impressive, that book. And an added bonus is there is a GREAT Q&A with Walter in the end which is so honest about his process. He is funny about how writers who say it took them 7 years to write their book actually mean they were doing 100 other things and obsessing about it and making false starts but that the time they actually worked on it is less than a year…
Other not-so-recent books I loved: “State of Wonder” by Anne Patchett, “The Vanishers” by Heidi Julavitz, “The Great Night” by Chris Adrian…Marlon James’ “A Brief History of Seven Killings” is on deck…after I finish “The Savage Detectives” by Bolano which is as major as they all tell you it is…
What are the most important qualities for a good writer to have?
A sense of drive and commitment to writing that outweighs self doubt and self sabotage. It can even be a milligram more, but it still has to outweigh the soul sucking emotions ..
Could you tell us about your latest writings?
Last month I released another Kindle Single, “Spermhood: Diary of a Donor,” which is an account of my year-long adventure donating sperm for my two friends, a lesbian couple. When I began donating, I though it would be an easy procedure (I mean, how hard is it to jerk off in a cup?)…but the process was longer and more emotionally difficult than I expected. A lot of fear and trauma from living under the specter of AIDS as a gay man surfaced — stuff that I thought i had dealt with. Donating ended up becoming a spiritual journey. The ebook is also a look at the strangely efficient, huge, and slightly homophobic reproduction industry, the insanity of dating in the city, and learning how to get over yourself!