Every so often I receive an email from the New York Times reminding me of the Times’ Policy on Ethical Journalism, and my obligation as a (very) occasional freelancer to avoid conflicts of interest. I’m lucky if they take a pitch from me a couple of times a year, but still I can’t accept free trips or any kind of swag from companies, even if I’m not specifically writing about them.
“I bet it’s because of what happened with me,” suggested former Times Critical Shopper columnist Mike Albo, who very publicly lost that plum gig in the fall of 2009 after word that he’d taken a free trip to Jamaica as part of a press junket made its way around the snarkosphere.
He’s probably right. There is language in that Times email that just had to have arisen from the paper’s clumsy 2009 firing of Albo (who is probably best known as the co-author of the brilliant satirical novel The Underminer: Or, The Best Friend Who Casually Destroys Your Life, and as a performance artist who stars in Underminer-themed videos, among other things).
It didn’t matter that Albo was a starving freelancer and not on the New York Times staff. It didn’t matter that the trip was completely unrelated to his column – for which he received a measly $900 every other week. The incident raised thorny questions about the relationships between journalists and the people they write about – particularly in the more merch-y arenas, like fashion. And it raised other questions about the kinds of restrictions a publication can place on writers to whom it doesn’t offer a salary and benefits.
Albo addresses those questions and chronicles the whole ordeal in The Junket, a bitingly funny, thinly-veiled “novella-festo” he’s just released as a Kindle Single for $1.99.
In it, he achieves the perfect balance between veracity and satire, twisting certain details in the most deliciously wicked ways, but never making you doubt for a second that the story is so real it still haunts Albo at night. The fictional “Mike Albo” in The Junket explains it this way:
“This story needs to be told without much fictionalization or allegory, from my point of view. It’s not like I want to do it this way. I wish I could transmute my middle-aged gay pain into some teen vampire drama. But I do need to bend the truth a bit or I will get into even more trouble. Think of this as a memoir with a fictional $3,000 sheer Thai silk veil lightly draped over it.”
Albo chatted with me by phone about how he became “the Silkwood of swag,” the reasons he chose to fictionalize, and the virtues of publishing an e-book (ironically partially about the death of print) through Kindle Singles.
The Rumpus: I know you’re calling The Junket fiction, but I have to tell you that it is very real to me. I lived in that world, when I worked for women’s magazines. It’s unbelievable how much stuff gets sent to you. At a certain point you don’t even realize you’re accepting gifts. It’s just stuff on your desk that would take too much effort to mail back. You’ve got this little passage that really says it all: “I was perilously close to exposing a secret underground economy of promotion – gift bags and plus ones and banquets and galas – that keeps the city in motion, and keeps underpaid writers at work. Basically, I became the Silkwood of Swag.”
Mike Albo: Yeah, I’m not saying that what I did was right – I’m just saying everyone does it. It’s part of the interesting wheel that no one is admitting. Our consumerism involves a lot of hype. I just think we’re all part of it. The line is more blurry than people admit.
And the only people who can afford to abide by the publications’ policies against accepting freebies are people with a lot of money or rich parents – people who are like, “The $150 I’m going to get for this article will pay for fresh cut flowers for my Tribeca loft!”
Rumpus: It’s crazy, what is happening with rates for freelance articles. Just about every day, I get a “job alert” from MediaBistro offering me an opportunity to write for content farms like Suite 101 and Demand Studios, for like $35 an article, and I want to shoot myself. This used to be a way to make a living. I don’t know how anyone does it now, especially living in the city.
Albo: It’s the same story about New York. I try not to be curmudgeonly about it, but it’s so hard to scrape by in these creative professions.
Rumpus: I really can’t see how going on that trip to Jamaica would compromise your reporting for the Times, for the Critical Shopper column. I mean, if anything, I could see you writing about what went on there, sort of sending it up.
Albo: The reason I wanted to go was it was such a bizarre trip. The people who were going were really interesting. And Thrillist – the hosts of the trip I went on, not the trip “Mike Albo” in the story went on – was pretty interesting. I was really interested in how all these brands were circling around this trip. I’m so obsessed with how consumerism consumes us. This was like a wet dream/nightmare come true. The whole experience was so bizarre by so clarifying. It really sharpened my eyes and my head.
Rumpus: You were basically doing research about what it’s like to be conflicted about swag.
Albo: And also about relationships with people you write about. When I was writing for the Times, there were plenty of times when they asked me to write about someone I knew and I said, “You know, I’m kind of friends with them,” and I didn’t write it.
But at the same time, some of the people I wrote about became my friends. There are some designers who are just lovely people, and sometimes just by going to the stores to meet with them, I became friends with them, and just love them.
We’re pushing product. We’re all always pushing product. It’s our whole culture. Everyone is doing it all the time. I’m starting to feel like I want to go to law school or something. The whole journalism ethics thing is such a blurry world, and I can’t see out of it. I wish I were all Arianna Huffington-ish about it and could argue my point, but I don’t have much of a point besides, this happened to me, and it was hard.
Rumpus: Part of what keeps me from writing is that I’m afraid to burn bridges and upset people. You’ve fictionalized, but it’s still pretty clear who’s who. Are you concerned or worried about burning bridges?
Albo: Funny, I said to a friend today, “I hope my bridge-burning novella-festo does well because I’ve completely destroyed all my professional contacts, yay!” There are a few reasons why I wanted to fictionalize. The first is that I thought that if I did it as a memoir, it would be polemical and dry. And I’d have to be more argumentative. Also, I wouldn’t be able to make up fake newspaper headlines, which was the most fun to do! Secondly, I feel that when you write a memoir, unless you’ve had an incredibly interesting life like Jon-Jon Goulian or Ingrid Betancourt, it would be really boring. Like, if I were going to write this as a memoir, I’d have to explain to readers, “Now this Paul is a different Paul than the other Paul that I know…”
Rumpus: So you feel as if it would require too much boring exposition?
Albo: Clearly. And to tell the story well as a memoir, you have to streamline it, and as far as I’m concerned, that makes it fiction. I did the same thing – my first book, Hornito: My Lie Life, is also a thinly-veiled autobiographical novel and I used my real name. Some of the stories in it aren’t true, but mostly it’s true. But I had to streamline. I almost feel like it’s reality-show literature.
Rumpus: Oh, wow – you’ve just invented a whole new category.
Albo: Thirdly, the little people, I really didn’t want to go after them. Including my ex-boyfriend, who is different than in the story. The woman who is Laynee, in the book, there’s some talk on the internet about who she is. But the truth is, I sat next to a guy on the plane, and there was a woman on the trip I fell in love with, who was just as funny as that character, but it was not her.
Rumpus: So that was a composite character.
Albo: Yes. Totally. It would be a bummer if I hurt anyone’s feelings.
Rumpus: And the boyfriend, too, was highly fictionalized?
Albo: He did not look that way. He was different. But I don’t even know if that kind of fictionalizing works that way. Call me in four months and I’ll tell you if anyone called me and said their feelings were hurt. I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. This was a watershed realization for me: One of the first things I got published was back in the 90s – the golden age of the 90s – and it was for this website being put together by Prodigy. Some of my friends, who I still love, were editors there and they would ask me to write funny essays. One thing I wrote was a piece about all the people who died in my high school. My high school was like the movie “Final Destination.” There were all these weird accidents and stories. So I did a version with people’s real names. This was back when you thought the internet was like paper – I didn’t think it would be in there in perpetuity. Years later I went to my high school reunion, and this guy there was like, “You know, you wrote this thing…” And I felt so terrible. I begged my friend to take it off the site. That to me was a moment when I realized I had to step on the other side of the line, of satire. You can do it, and it’s a very thin veil. Keep it real, but keep it satirical, and heighten things.
Rumpus: You’re saying you can fictionalize as a way to not hurt people?
Albo: Oh–“hurt” – that’s such a harsh word. What I’m saying is that you can avoid revealing people.
Rumpus: One of the things that has stymied me is that I am afraid of hurting people in my life. I have all this rich material, but I’m afraid to use it. I could fictionalize, and that could be good for many reasons, but I don’t know that people wouldn’t see themselves in my extrapolated versions of them and still be hurt.
Albo: Let’s just pretend we have no souls for a second and not address the hurting people issue. I’ll tell you that when I started writing this piece, I thought about making it really absurd. Like all these people go to this island, and half of them die, and the rest have to swim back. Like I was going to totally go over the top. And I had a bunch of scenes – like one in SoHo House, making fun of it, and it just seemed a little too farcical. There are some memoirists who are so lying. I just want to look around and ask, “Does anyone believe this shit?” And then there are these novels that are total reality-show literature, where I’m like, “Oh my god, I can feel their pain in these pages.” I feel like Hemmingway is like that in a way. There’s this book I’m reading now called I Love Dick.
Rumpus: I’ve read it.
Albo: That’s total reality-show literature.
Rumpus: She refers to it as fiction, but apparently it almost perfectly mirrors her life.
Albo: It might be fiction. Maybe she embellished the letters. It’s totally reality-show literature.
Rumpus: I feel like it would be fun to write fiction about a character like me, who does all the shit I’m afraid to do – including writing a memoir. Anyway, I loved the way you used fiction to heighten things. Having lived in that world, I feel like I knew which parts were real, and which you made bigger.
Albo: The magazines I worked for, they’re pretty fictionalized.
Rumpus: I’m really glad you wrote this as fiction. It gave you a lot of latitude. And it allowed you to be really funny. It is so funny! How many words is it?
Albo: I want to say it’s about 16,000 words – like 41 pages. The Kindle Single program editor said, “We’re finding these work when they’re between 8,000 and 30,000 words.” People feel like they’ve learned something or taken something away with those lengths. When I was trying to bloat this out into a book form, I had all these chapters that were more memoir-y than fiction, and who knows, one slight dream is that someone at some stodgy publishing house will ask for a full-length book version. But I was really getting bogged down with telling the story, and then Virginia Heffernan, who is like this weird angel in my life who just comes along and gives me an idea and saves my ass, was like, “You should get in touch with this guy at Kindle Singles.” So I called the guy and we talked. I was really tentative at first. But he was like, “I really think it will be great for this.”
Rumpus: So, is publishing a Kindle Single a good thing? Is it a viable way for a writer to publish?
Albo: It’s too early to say, and maybe in October I’ll say, oh, I should have done it another way. But right now, I like it. Part of the relief of this is the format. It’s sort of this slightly independent way of publishing your work, and also I’m not embarrassed asking my friends to spend two bucks. I feel bad making friends spend twelve bucks, but not two bucks.
Rumpus: And you don’t have to ask them to go to your Kickstarter and give you ten or fifteen or twenty-five bucks, and offer them a present in return, and not get the money if you don’t make your goal.
Albo: My book kind of feels like the right length for it, too. Once again, who knows? We’ve been in this sort of bi-polar time in publishing where something has had to be either a magazine article or a book, with nothing in between, unlike the old days when there were pamphlets and little weird books all the time. Like, Blake was doing his stuff like that. A friend actually said to me the other day, “I’m so glad you did a short version, because I feel like there are so many things out there trying to be books that aren’t.”
Rumpus: Do you also realize the irony that you’ve written a piece partly about the death of print as a Kindle-only piece. Did that occur to you?
Albo: It did, yes. But right now I am feeling more optimistic about the continuation of print than I ever have. Even just from people asking me this week, “Can I get The Junket in print?” What I’m hoping is that there can be print-on-demand on it. I don’t think print is going away. McNally Jackson book store has a this Fotomat-type print-on-demand booth.
Rumpus: How does it work? Do you get an advance like you would from a book publisher?
Albo: No, there’s no advance. The cut is 70/30 – 70 for me, 30 for Amazon. Which is pretty good. So I make about $1.40 per book. It’s pure sales. I could end up getting the amount of an advance anyway, without having to pay it back. Who knows? This is the splashiest, gossipiest piece I’ll write for a while. It seems right for this.
Rumpus: Does your agent get a cut?
Albo: Yes, my agent is taking a cut. I did broker the deal, but being a new form of content, there are all sorts of weird little details and twists to the content and distribution and I am grateful to have her working with me on it. To me this is an interesting time for both this new form and for the relationship of an agent and writer. For instance, I am hoping this to evolves into an actual solid book in the near future, and I still don’t know if that would happen through Amazon, or with a publisher, or, maybe, I will do it on my own and put it in bookstores myself – and I sort of still see the value in having an agent help you figure these things out. So far this has been a positive experience. But hey, I’ve been living in NYC for years so I am cautiously optimistic about everything. Catch me in a month or so and I will let you know how it all panned out. I will either be totally psyched or totally bitter and living in a shed with the phrase “fuck the world” tattooed to my forehead.
Rumpus: How have you been surviving, financially, since you got fired from your column?
Albo: Well, The Underminer was optioned for a film in I think 2007. And I got a chunk of money for that. I have been trickling off of that for years. There are some months when I can’t pay the rent and I’ve been really broke. I’ve been writing for GQ and W, and thank god for those assignments. I just wrote something for Men’s Journal. Then there are those places that forget to pay me, and I have to waste all this time following and tracking people down. My self-esteem has been run over by a tank several times, but think I still have a good gauge of when it’s just too humiliating.
Rumpus: This is a really hard time to be a freelancer. It’s amazing that you’re still doing it, especially after what happened to you at the Times.
Albo: Of course it had to happen to me when I was turning 40. I mean, could this have been any more of a Jennifer Aniston movie for a gay guy? The fact that it coincides with a mid-life crisis I didn’t even know I was having. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Am I supposed to completely change careers? Or what?
Rumpus: I think you should get money for just having coined the term “underminer.” Like the world at large should give you an ongoing, tax-free stipend for that. You hit on something so accurate – I make references to that all the time. Just the other day I tweeted, “First, we kill all the Underminers,” after someone said something allegedly supportive to me that was actually completely unsupportive and back-handedly hurtful.
Albo: Thank you. I like that–when the riots hit New York, we have to kill all the Underminers first.