LAist Interview: Ed Park, founding editor of The Believer and author of Personal Days
Ed Park is in town this week to read from and sign Personal Days, his funny, frightening & frighteningly spot-on novel about modern-day office life in this time of mergers, acquisitions, and business books full of empty platitudes that encourage workers to "do whatever it takes" and "put the customer first." Employees go missing without reason and a rogue element shakes things up, all while they troubleshoot Excel and navigate tedious office parties. Think Office Space + shades of The Good Shepherd with a dash of Invasion of the Body Snatchers tossed in. Ed will be reading from Personal Days tonight at Book Soup @ 7pm.
You are a founding editor of The Believer magazine – how has the incredible growth and popularity of the magazine changed your writing routine and how do you manage to do both? What is your favorite part of editing the magazine? What are you most looking forward to when you think of the future of The Believer? The balance between being a writer and an editor can sometimes seem hard to maintain, but that's mostly a workflow issue. Editing is, I realize, part of what I do — at The Believer, at the Poetry Foundation website, and formerly at the Village Voice. (Not long after I lost my job at the Voice, I started a newsletter called The New-York Ghost, almost as if I didn't know what to do with myself!) Knowing what I like to read as an editor helps, somehow, when it comes to my own writing. But I also like to keep the writing flourishing in the dark, or under its own eerie fluorescent lighting, a bit wild, untrammeled. Writing is the unconscious, editing is the conscious imposition of structure.
As an editor, I like working with new writers and seasoned ones; seeing an idea through, from pitch to final piece; finding the right angle on a topic, or helping a writer hone the voice. Fifty-plus issues in, I still get excited by the arrival of a new Believer, seeing how the articles and interviews and artwork interact, seeing how the cover has turned out. It's the greatest thing.
You run or contribute in some way to roughly ten blogs or web-only endeavors – including a blog about the Beatles, several about bookish endeavors and daily life, and Astral Weeks, the science fiction column for the LA Times. You are a multi-faceted man! How has blogging altered the way you tap into and share these many interests? Has all this sharing and community engendered still more things you want to blog about that you haven't yet? I'm fascinated by blogging—I enjoy (mostly) the process, the way unexpected connections are forged. I wonder what the point of it all is; I think it's still too soon to know. Blogging isn't writing the way book writing or even article writing is writing; blogs exist to be read on the screen, as the posts go up, nearly in real time—they aren't for the ages, and they can be thrilling precisely for this reason. And the communities we form online can certainly be meaningful and intellectually enriching. I don't know how this will impact my own non-blog writing—part of me is curious to have some sort of seepage (Blog Ed infecting Book Ed), another part wants to shut these two sides off from each other.
Your debut novel, Personal Days, is a darkly comic peek into the ominous world of office life – a life of employees not knowing what they're supposed to do, of wondering when/if they might be fired by unnamed and unknown superiors. You capture this particular brand of cubicle terror so well, it seems highly likely you experienced a bit of this yourself in real life. What cubicle drudgery did you endure?
I worked for probably too long as a copy editor at the Village Voice, before becoming a senior editor and reviewer. Copy editing wasn't always a bad thing, because a lot of the articles back then were very interesting and vigorously written—in a way they were helping me get acquainted with the city that would become my home, and if I got paid for reading them, all the better. But then you'd have to re-read the pieces a couple more times when they reached the proof stage—not a bad skill to develop, but not terribly thrilling.
Personal Days isn't really about media-world drudgery—I was careful to keep the line of work anonymous, never naming the company, or even giving the characters last names. I wanted people to be able to read themselves into the book. So in a general sense, the drudgery I experienced, and that I've transmuted into fiction, is something anyone who's worked in an office environment can relate to: computer woes and malfunctioning equipment, sterile workscapes, endless memos and updates, meetings so protracted they start to turn absurd.
A recently read book you secretly wish you'd written? I just read Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances, appropriately enough on my airplane ride west. It's a strange, sustained performance. I'm haunted by it, both for its own qualities and as an interlocutor to Personal Days—it's about the same length, it's steeped in the uncanny, it has a chapter entitled "The Misrecognitions." This interpretation is, of course, completely solipsistic, but maybe that's fitting, given Galchen's narrator's private realities.
I've also dipped a toe into Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise, from the '30s, in which he evaluates the contemporary literature of his time and wonders what will last—I would love to write a nonfiction, book-centered book someday, but I think I need to clone myself first. Or else stop blogging. And move to the Himalayas. And become independently wealthy. I'm also loving George Gissing's New Grub Street, from the 1890s—literature about the making of literature, which has dated not at all.
Oh and biographies of Charles Fort and Charles Schulz, true American originals.
Favorite thing to do in Los Angeles? Look at the ocean, and go to the Museum of Jurassic Technology.
Favorite LA restaurant? ZenZoo, which is a tea place that my wife's cousin runs, or this Korean place my cousin took me to that gave you these interesting rice wrappers, fairly glutinous, in which to embed the beef. Did you know that there's a cut of kalbi that's known, back east, as "L.A. kalbi"?
Quintessential LA reading – what writers or books capture LA for you? Rachel Ingalls's droll and terrifying Mrs. Caliban (1982), in which a housewife takes up with an escaped aquatic humanoid. (You must read it, if you haven't!)
Quintessential LA playlist – what non-Beatles songs remind you of Los Angeles?
"A Long December," Counting Crows & "Palmcorder Yajna," Mountain Goats — I need to put these on a mix!
What's next for you? What new blog, new book, new magazine will we see you in next? I am going to endeavor not to start any new blogs for a while. This vow will last about a week. My next book might be one of two things I've been working on, which predate Personal Days, or else a third thing that will blow your mind and that I of course have not written a word of.
Ed Park was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1970. He is a founding editor of The Believer, the former editor of the Voice Literary Supplement, and currently an editor for the Poetry Foundation. He has written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Salon, Modern Painters, and other publications. For several years he wrote film criticism for The Village Voice, famously ending his review of Clifford the Big Red Dog with the questions: “Why big? Why red? Why dog?” He blogs most of the time at The Dizzies, but you can also learn more about his blogging tendencies at Triple Canopy and more about his novel and the unique benefits of being named Ed at The Bat Segundo Show.