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Literary Death Match's Todd Zuniga on L.A.'s Lit Scene and Writing Against Everything

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Photo courtesy of Todd Zuniga.
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Todd Zuniga is a bit of a literary fetishist. Not only because he wears three-piece-suits, tosses out literary titles like people reference street names, and is as frequent a face at literary events as black-rimmed reading glasses and cheap red wine, but because Zuniga’s life literally resembles that of a 20th century nouveau roman protagonist: always en route, with a book—or five—in hand, and an effortless circle of literary accomplices in bookish outposts across the globe.

Of course, you could say that this is part of his shtick—after all, he is the creator of the Literary Death Match, a revolutionary, genre-defying literary reading that has flung itself far from the stodgy Camembert and port of yesteryear’s readings into far edgier and much more ridiculous waters. Stand up comediennes, a Vegas-lounge-act air, and a dash of literary Dada absurdism are all par for the course at LDMs, where Zuniga stands at the helm, likely in a vintage suit and a deadpan aside.

But while Zuniga has made quite a successful venture out of a unique outfit—Literary Death Matches have now descended on approximately 40 cities worldwide and there’s even a Kickstarter campaign to get the show on television—Zuniga is first and foremost a writer. Short stories, novels, screenplays, and an eleven-year stint as editor of Opium magazine—it’s clear that literature is the defining virtue at the core of Zuniga’s colorful and varied pursuits.

LDM’s emcee met with LAist at Silverlake’s Casbah Cafe to discuss Literary Death Matches, revamping the book industry, and breaking into LA’s lit scene one really-nice-e-mail at a time.

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LAist: How did you dream the idea of a Literary Death Match into being?

Todd Zuniga: Seven years ago in Manhattan, I had a sushi dinner with a pair of writer friends. We all went to a lot of readings and collectively thought: readings aren’t good enough. So we sat and talked about how to make them fun.

Our experience was, there was somebody that read really really long, somebody who read what felt like a blog entry they wrote earlier that day, and somebody who read something that was completely amazing. But if you go to a reading, you want everybody to blow you away, which doesn’t usually happen. And at the time, there was a trend in New York where event producers were bringing in comedians to do stand-up as part of readings. So a comedian would have everyone laughing, followed by a reader who would come on and read about his dead sister. It didn’t work at all.

But, I love comedy and I love readings, so we had to figure out how to integrate them.

So the first problem we had to solve was: how do we make sure all of the readers are great? So, we started soliciting literary magazines and organizations to send someone to represent them. In the program now, I’ll introduce so-and-so from The Paris Review or Los Angeles Review of Books. We wanted to promote literature first and foremost, but we also wanted to mix it up. It ended up being great because it introduced us and the audience to writers we didn’t even know.

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The judging of LDM was a way to bring comedy organically into the show. The judges are reacting to the work humorously—we didn’t want anybody to be a jerk, because that’s just not fun. I was also insistent that we have a ridiculous finale. I love putting people in compromising, but not humiliating situations. When people do karaoke, they love having done it, but getting them to do it is kind of weird. The finale was sort of my ‘karaoke.’ Because after you throw a flaming piece of paper through a basketball hoop, you’re like OK, that was kind of strangely fun. There’s a kind of seam that breaks open in you: like oh, this is what it’s like to be a kid again, to have stupid, ridiculous fun.

In constructing the international reach of Literary Death Match, you’ve surveyed some of the most dynamic literary cities on earth. What are some of your favorite international lit outposts?

London is our international home base, because it’s a kind of New York, San Francisco, LA combined. Helsinki was amazing and so was Oslo—we just did our debuts in both of those cities. Jeffrey Eugenides happened to be in town, and judged the LDM in Finland, which was great because the whole show was in Finnish and neither of us knew what was going on. Edinburgh, Dublin, and Montreal are great. The cool thing is that I feel confident enough in the show to have them happen in other languages. It’s surreal. But I know when the event is going well because I can feel it from the audience. It’s just a feeling, and a whole lot of trust. As for our international future, I would love to go back to China and do a Literary Death Match entirely in Chinese.

Literary Death Matches always boast an impressive roster of judges and readers; how do you source them?

I don’t get intimidated. If I admire someone and want to meet them, I just reach out. Plus, there’s dumb luck—we met Moby a few weeks before the first ever LDM, and when we asked him to judge, he said yes. In terms of readers, I read and I pay attention; I source people through literary communities, like publishers, publications, and local writers. In LA, the talent level is so high, that I can really curate an interesting show because there are so many great artists here who are willing to participate—and that’s really made the LA LDMs unique. In every show, there’s always one person who I’m like ‘how the fuck did I get this guy?’ Sometimes I think it all comes down to writing really nice emails.

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What’s the best e-mail you’ve ever received?

The most important email I had ever received was from Tobias Wolf—I had written him about fiction. And he wrote, “I write one story until it’s finished. It’s my way, it’s not the only way.” You give certain truck to your heroes. I’ve never once written more than one story at a time.

You just recently relocated from Paris to Los Angeles. What do you think of the city, in comparison to the other places you’ve lived?

The literary scene here is amazing—I think it’s one of the strongest in the world, which is interesting because everyone thinks of LA as a screenwriter or Hollywood-first kind of place. But the sheer quality of writers living in Los Angeles is unbelievable. TC Boyle is here. You’ve got Aimee Bender, Karl Taro Greenfield, Amelia Gray. And that’s not even mentioning the TV-first talent (like Andres Du Bouchet or Steve Hely or DC Pierson). There’s just an incredible mix of people, and it’s a really strong community.

Plus, I’ve also found that people in LA always say yes. And that’s my favorite word. I e-mailed Henry Rollins when we were on a wild hunt for a literary merit judge, and I thought, you know, how could I ever get to Henry Rollins? But I ended up e-mailing him and he responded 20 minutes later and said, “sure, I’ll do it.”

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I read recently that Roman Polanski said LA is beautiful at night, and from a distance. I have to disagree. I think if you dig into this city and get under the veneer of what everybody says LA is, it’s an incredible place and hugely rich, culturally. There’s just so much creativity, and the people are completely cool and interesting. [laughs] Yes, I’m pretty ecstatic about living here.

Did you find it easy to break into LA’s literary scene?

For me, it’s been really easy. In New York, people have a lot of the attitude—you know, like: “I’m really literary.” There’s a stigma there. When I moved here, I just felt immediately at home—which is something I’ve been searching for 36 years. Everybody is so excited that there are literary people and a thriving literary scene. A week after I moved here, Carolyn Kellogg called from the LA Times and made me an LA Times Face to Watch. And Amelia Gray and I have been organizing a once-a-month drinking get together with writers and screenwriters. That sort of acceptance has been so cool and unique. There’s a kind of unparalleled open-mindedness here.

What are some of your favorite literary hotspots in Los Angeles?

Literary events in LA are awesome. There are so many great reading series here. Vermin on the Mount, Tongue and Groove, The Aloud series. I remember, when I was living in New York, right when I was breaking into the literary scene, I would go to McSweeney’s parties, but I never felt, for whatever reason, welcome or comfortable, which I think is probably my own stupidity. If you go to any literary things, I would recommend you to be as nice as possible. Go up and say hello to complete strangers. That’s pretty much how to break into everything; just be as fucking nice as possible and say hi.

There’s a considerable amount of performance involved in putting on Literary Death Matches—has acting ever been an interest of yours? You know, because you’re in the right place for it.

Really, I just wanted to be a fiction writer, and edit Opium magazine—which we’ve done 9 issues of. But I’m a bit of a contrarian and I love acting ridiculous. So being on stage in front of people, screaming about literature just makes sense to me. It’s a kind of performance art in a way. My mom always wanted everyone to feel good and I think I got that from her; when I’m on stage, I love making everyone feel better about the show and about themselves. Even though it’s called ‘Literary Death Match,’ it’s such a ruse—it’s such a sweet, kind show at its core.

Your on-stage persona resembles a mix between a modern day Gatsby and a retro lounge singer. Is there a performer who influences your act?

P.T. Barnum is probably the biggest influence. He just got up there and gave it everything he had. I think I tend towards seriousness, but when I’m on stage, I’m creating a ridiculous spectacle. That’s why I wear a suit. It’s a show, not a reading. Which is ridiculous, of course—it’s just a reading. But if you peel back the curtain in Vegas, it’s just a bunch of people who lost their last three paychecks, and yet there’s this pizzazz and glitz that distracts from that. What I do is incredibly weird, I’m realizing, but I love it.

So you’ve successfully revamped readings—what should we take the book industry to task for next?

The reason I moved here was to get Literary Death Match on television. Books need a TV show. And my god, it can’t just be Book TV. I mean literally everything else has a show—cooking, hiking, hoarding. But no one’s figure out how to make a colossal change in perception about books. We need to figure out a formula to bring books into the 21st century. I would like to see authors go on a book tour and for there to be a documentary around that. Like Dave Chappelle’s ‘Block Party’ or Conan’s ‘Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop’ —why couldn’t we do that for say, a Dave Eggers’ book tour?

I largely believe that over time, The Story is going to be the most important thing and the medium is going to become somewhat irrelevant. When I write a short story now, I think: can I make it into a short film, can I read on a podcast? I try to think of it as the centerpiece of whatever else I can do with it. When there’s a great film made from a book, everyone goes and reads that book, which is great. We need more literary crossover.

What are you working on now?

I just finished the 9th draft of my novel last night. I’m also adapting it into a screenplay, and I’m in the process of writing a TV show about my mom’s death. I have a 10-episode season figured out and two seasons worth of ideas—it’s sort of my Six Feet Under.

You’re constantly emerged in literature—whether you’re putting on LDMs, editing, or writing fiction. With this in mind, what advice do you have for aspiring writers living in Los Angeles and beyond?

Be patient, work hard, and listen to “Bookworm” with Michael Silverblatt and the “Other People” podcast by Brad Listi. It’s really just about getting into the muck and the ugliness of yourself and finally getting exhausted enough to get honest. So get honest early on. But be compassionate with yourself—don’t be in a rush. Read everything you can and then write against it.

One of the great things about editing Opium magazine is I would read 400 stories in a month and I would notice trends that were coming from pop culture. When Six Feet Under was a big show, so many people were writing about funeral homes. And I’m sure now, there would be a bunch of stories about meth. Whatever you think is easy or obvious—don’t write about that. And of course, be nice to your mom. No, be nice to every single person ever.

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Catch the next Literary Death Match at Busby’s East on August 9, 2012 at 8:15 pm featuring Sarah Tyre, Jonathan Gold, and Michelle Buteau. Tickets are $10.