Somehow everyone feels like they know a Simon Rich, a self-proclaimed nerd who embraced his geek-cool and blossomed into his brand as if overnight. Sometimes it seems like everyone I know knows Rich himself. To them, Rich is a kind of legend—a Saturday Night Live writer and former Harvard Lampoon president who signed a two-book deal (Ant Farm and Other Desperate Situations, and Free-Range Chickens) with Random House before graduation. Rich spoke with me about his new novel, Elliot Allagash, over email while writing the season finale of Saturday Night Live.
The Rumpus: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” F. Scott Fitzgerald implored as much his 1926 story “The Rich Boy.” Tell us about Simon Rich. How is he different from you and me?
Simon Rich: Worse posture?
Rumpus: Tell us about your book.
Rich: Elliot Allagash is a coming-of-age comedy about the world’s richest teenager and his evil, maniac adventures.
Rumpus: Elliot Allagash is an endearing choice for a name.
Rich: Elliot Allagash is named after the Allagash River in Maine. I went on a nine-day canoe trip down the Allagash when I was fifteen and it was terrifying. The Allagash still scares me—so when I was trying to think of a name for my novel’s villain, the word just popped into my head. It’s not as intimidating a name as “Carnegie” or “Vanderbilt,” but hopefully it’s close enough?
Rumpus: In fact, many of your characters have winsome names. Where do they come from?
Rich: Terry is named after Terry Southern. I ripped off The Magic Christian so much it was the least I could do.
Rumpus: You said in an October 2008 interview with the blog IvyGate that The Simpsons “taught me not only most of what I know about jokes but also about the world in general.” You often write about children attempting (and failing) to subvert institutional authority, though Elliot Allagash seems to be more explicitly political than your earlier collections. What worldview do you take from The Simpsons? Do you consider yourself an iconoclast?
Rich: Wow, tough question! A lot of people are calling this novel political, but that honestly wasn’t my intent. My only agenda was to write a funny book that someone would hopefully finish voluntarily.
Rumpus: David Brooks wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times “What It Takes” about the Elena Kagan [Supreme Court] nomination in which he complained that a certain personality type—usually represented by kids our age, or what he calls “Organization Kids”—”had great grades, perfect teacher recommendations, broad extracurricular interests, admirable self-confidence and winning. If they had any flaw, it was that they often had a professional and strategic attitude toward life. They were not intellectual risk-takers. They regarded professors as bosses to be pleased rather than authorities to be challenged. As one admissions director told me at the time, they were prudential rather than poetic.” Your writing has, in a way, come to epitomize a certain Organization Kid sensibility, in the sense that your characters seem to resist these sorts of labels by retreating into chaotic episodes of their own imagination. In fact, I would say this strain is in your two earlier collections, as well as in the new book. To what extent do you agree/disagree with Brooks’ description of your peers? Has it influenced your writing, given that “The Organization Kid” article in the Atlantic came out in 2001, when you would have been writing in high school?
Rich: I’m too young and ridiculous a person to speak for my generation, but I’d be happy to talk about my own experiences as a generation Y writer.
I was raised by a generation of hippies. Throughout my childhood, teachers urged me to fight the establishment. My English teacher assigned Ginsberg and Kerouac and declared Bob Dylan “a genius.” My science teacher told me that television was “the new opiate of the masses” and bragged about never having owned one. My drama teacher made us perform Beckett.
I admired the earnestness of these people, many of whom had joined Greenpeace and marched for noble things in their youth. But I didn’t share their hatred of the establishment. After all, the establishment had given me so many of my favorite things: Nick at Nite, the New York Knicks, Stephen King, Taco Bell, Green Day. The list went on and on.
Also, I never really liked “cool” books. I plowed through as much Borges and Joyce as possible, read the first half of V. and spent whole Bar Mitzvah checks on Beat poetry. I wanted to be an artist after all, and my teachers told me these were the best authors the 20th century had to offer. But these books sucked. They were so boring and sloppy and plotless. And Bob Dylan’s lyrics seemed nonsensical to me—almost like he had just gotten high and written down whatever random thoughts occurred to him.
By the time I got to college I had stopped reading books because I wanted to “be cool” and started reading books simply because I wanted to read them. I discovered heroes like Roth, King, Dahl, Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith, TC Boyle, Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman, David Sedaris. These people weren’t trying to “rebel against the literary establishment.” They were trying to write great, high-quality books that were as entertaining and moving as possible. They weren’t getting high and writing down random stuff. They were drinking coffee and revising, perfecting their plots and their prose.
I was never a cool person; in fact, cool people have always made fun of me. That’s why I loved [the Robert Cormier YA novel] The Chocolate War—because the cool kids (not the establishment) were the villains. I totally identified with that.
Rumpus: Both you and The Simpsons writers are, of course, enamored and repelled by titans of American industry. Do any of them jump out at you as inherently funny? How do you succeed at making fun of business culture without really trying?
Rich: I’ve always liked to read about extremely wealthy people, especially when they are crazy (like Howard Hughes or Caligula.) While writing this book I did a lot of fun research on robber barons like Rockefeller and Morgan. But the most helpful stuff came from studying royal families and mad emperors. The best book I read was probably A King’s Own Story, which is the memoir of Edward VIII. Also, anything about Ivan the Terrible or Ted Turner.
Rumpus: That said, what philanthropic contribution(s) of the American industrialist elite could you not live without?
Rich: Jay Z’s Nets, if he gets them to move to Brooklyn.
Rumpus: If you become a billionaire from your work—God willing—what would be your Gospel of Wealth?
Rich: “Spend as much as you can and be buried with what you can’t.”
Rumpus: When I see the cover for Ant Farm, I always think of that scene in 1984 in which O’Brien tells Winston Smith, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face—forever.” Who came up with the design? How might it inform or mislead us about your worldview?
Rich: Ant Farm is a pretty bleak book. The original title was Horrible Situations, but my editor at Random House thought it was “too blunt.”
Rumpus: Both you and the [recently disbanded] Brooklyn-based band Harlem Shakes have looked to Fishkill Farms (a diversified fruit and vegetable farm in New York’s Hudson Valley) for writing inspiration, you in Free-Range Chickens, and the Shakes in “Strictly Game.” Is Fishkill anything like the artist colony Yaddo?
Rich: If people at Yaddo spend eight hours a day drinking beers and watching “Mythbusters.”
Rumpus: The political blogger Matt Yglesias was a few years ahead of you at both Dalton and Harvard. Has he ever asked you to guest-blog? How did you choose to pursue print and broadcast career over blogging?
Rich: I guess I always just liked books and TV shows more. Blogs are great though. If it weren’t for a blog, I would never have found this article about a monkey beating up his trainer.
Rumpus: In earlier interviews you have cited Philip Roth as a major influence on your work. I recently learned from US Weekly’s “25 Things You Didn’t Know About Me” feature that Roth has also had an indelible influence on the writing of Molly Ringwald (Getting The Pretty Back), as Roth is the one person in the world with whom she would most like to have dinner. What do you think they would talk about over that dinner? In what Roth adaptation should she star?
Rich: Does Philip Roth know that Molly Ringwald wants to have dinner with him?? Someone should tell him that she has said this.
Rumpus: Who would you invite to your Algonquin Round Table?
Rich: Anyone, as long as it’s not one of those people who orders a bunch of appetizers and then at the end is like, “let’s all split it.”