In 2008 I began writing letters to famous people because I didn’t have many other things to do at the time.

Some of these letter appeared on my now defunct MySpace blog, and several were used in my final stand-up attempt in early 2009.

Not one of my letters garnered a response.

An Unanswered Letter to Nigel Waterson (MP for Eastbourne)

Dear Nigel (forgive me for dispensing with the formality of including your surname, but I’m sure you must know it by now and I wish this correspondence to be brief),

This letter regards the floral decorations of our great and glorious Eastbourne. I visited the town itself today (for I reside a short train ride away myself) and it really doesn’t look like a town gearing up for victory in the upcoming Sussex in Bloom contest.

In fact things are looking pretty grim— almost as though the town isn’t even aware that such a contest is moving towards us at quite intense speed.

I would like to know exactly what our tactics are for this proud and prestigious botanical bout— even Bexhill-on-Sea has a few cheery hanging baskets adorning it’s otherwise pitiful high street!

If we act fast it will not be too late! With our buds barely blooming, let alone arranged in aesthetically pleasing formations, we have little time, but surely we can throw something together?! I have no ideas myself— I am far from an expert in the field, merely an enthusiastic fan of foliage.

We could of course cheat and use plastic plants; but we must ask ourselves if we really want to be the Michael Jackson of the contemporary flower exhibiting world… I don’t think you need me to tell you that we most certainly do not want that foul infamy!

I wish to see victory (and restoration of local pride) before the imminent death of my poor, world-weary goldfish Colonel Kurtz (named, of course, after Marlon Brando’s character in The Godfather).

Whilst we’re on the subject of my goldfish, I wonder if you can assist me in matters of goldfish behaviour. I do not know whether you are anything of an ichthyologist, but I feel it’s worth a shot.

Kurtz is a very mischievous fish. I often tell him that if he doesn’t behave he shall end up sleeping with the fishes, but this only serves to make him more frisky and excitable than before. Have you any idea how I can restore discipline and order to my fishbowl?

Thank you for your time,

James D. Irwin

An Unanswered Letter to Bruce Willis (Voice of Mikey in ‘Look Who’s Talking’)

Dear Mr Willis,

I am not altogether convinced this address is genuine, but if it is, I have a number of questions.

Firstly, I dined at Planet Hollywood last year. Whilst it was great to see the motorcycle/chopper from Pulp Fiction (I do a great impersonation of that entire scene, playing both your role and the part of Fabienne) and although I was also thrilled to find that our hands are exactly the same size, one question could not escape my mind:

Planet Hollywood was set up after the immense (and richly deserved) success of the seminal action film Die Hard, in which you played the main character. Why then, did you not name the restaurant Dine Hard? And since the world has become full of left-wing lunatic hippies who think that meat is murder, the avenue for a vegan outlet named Dine Hard: With a Vegetable was wide open! Just a thought…

Also: I have a suggestion for a new condiment, also along the Die Hard theme. Salt and Pepper are as old hat as Salt-N-Pepa, why not spice things up with a little Yipee-Cayenne-Pepper? The place is film themed, right?!

Also, is The Sixth Sense a sequel to The Fifth Element? Because they are quite similar (i.e. you are in them) but they are also different (i.e. they are clearly two very different films).

Finally, why is the food at Planet Hollywood so expensive? Please don’t tell me it’s because the film roles are drying up, because I do enjoy your films.


James D. Irwin

P.S. Who would win in a fight between John McClane and Harry Callahan? I mean ’70s era Callahan, because he looks a bit frailer in that last film with Jim Carrey and the exploding remote control car (something sadly lacking in the Die Hard films).


Would you join forces and take on Chuck Norris in a No Rules Cage Fight? I would be willing to pay anything between $6-12 to see it happen.

An Unanswered Letter to Brad Pitt (Star of Seven and Years in Tibet)

Dear Mr Pitt,

I haven’t seen many of your films, but having seen both Seven and Fight Club, as well as the trailers for Ocean’s 11-13, I’m confident you have the talent, gravitas and cache for my latest foray into the world of cinematic excellence.

Admittedly my plans rely heavily on you either knowing somebody with the surname Pendulum, or adopting a Rwandan child and calling it Pendulum.

The film itself would be a screen adaptation of an Edgar Allen Poe classic.

Imagine the bill Brad… PITT and PENDULUM in… THE RAVEN! Catchy, don’t you think?!

The tickets practically sell themselves!

Question: Poe lived in Baltimore. Baltimore’s NFL team is called The Ravens. Is this a coincidence?

I would like to see more of your films before I write the script, what would you recommend? Also, you might want some say in your supporting cast, but I’d very much like to cast Morgan Freeman as the narrator. Isn’t his voice wonderful? It’s the audio equivalent of taking a bath in hot chocolate whilst Kiera Knightley massages your thorax with warm, fresh honey…


James D. Irwin

P.S. I want you to reply as hard as you can.

P.P.S. That was a Fight Club reference.

An Unanswered Letter to George Clooney (Nepresso Coffee Spokesperson)

Dear Mr Clooney,

Is there going to be another Ocean’s film?

I can’t help but think the number of Ocean’s films is rising rapidly— perhaps too rapidly. I wonder then, if this is a subtle message regarding global warming?

Perhaps your next Ocean’s film could directly address this phenomena… Ocean’s Rising.

The plot would see another casino being built— a gaudy super-casino, which tips the world’s C02 omissions over the edge, triggering a huge climate change and the oceans literally rising and drowning the Netherlands and Norfolk, England.

Then you, Matt Damon and the other ones (except Brad Pitt, who’ll be busy working on an adaptation of ‘The Raven’, which is being narrated by Morgan Freeman) have to save all the Dutch people. You could save all the people in Norfolk, but Dutch girls are very pretty and the good people of Norfolk have something of a reputation for webbed feet and inbreeding…

Please don’t hesitate to tell me what you think. I don’t have anything locked down as yet, and am very open to suggestions and script alterations.

James D. Irwin

An Unanswered Letter to Matt Damon (Popular Youtube sensation)

Dear Mr Damon,

I recently treated myself to a viewing of Team America: World Police. I was saddened to see you, Matt Damon, offer the most wooden performance I have ever seen. You seemed to be little more than the director’s puppet. It was a particular shame given how great you generally are in films and stuff.

I have enjoyed The Talented Mr Ripley countless times, because one can never tire of watching Jude Law being murdered.

Anyway, I digress. This letter regards your future, and presents to you a prospect I think you’ll find hard to turn down (I would say “an offer you can’t refuse”, but quoting Apocalypse Now is becoming rather cliché).

I may not be a big name in Hollywoodland (although I possess far more talent than the cast of Hollywoodland) but I have some big ideas!

As Brad Pitt and I have already begun to collaborate on a new version of Poe’s “The Raven” (to be narrated by Morgan Freeman) you’ll find your role in the new Ocean’s film much expanded. George and I haven’t come to any firm agreements yet, but as it stands the plot revolves around you and The Cloonmeister saving the Dutch from the catastrophic effects of global warming. The final scene will probably involve pretty Dutch girls with unlikely surnames “thanking” you for your heroics (this scene won’t be too graphic however, as we really need a PG-13 certificate to maximise our demographics).

Now we’ve got that out of the way we can turn our attention to the Bourne films. They’ve done remarkably well, considering you look like my friend Dan who has a dodgy heart.

You may be aware that Mr Robert Ludlum has been very inconsiderate in dying, leaving not so much as a partially finished manuscript on which to base another exhilarating caper for everyone’s favourite amnesiac action hero.

However, I have a sure-fire, whizz-bang of a hit under my belt (just ask the ladies!)

Seriously though… After all that killing he’s done and loved ones he’s lost, Jason Bourne is probably at something of a low ebb. He goes to church, confesses all of his sins and becomes a do-goody Christian— a Born Again Christian.

The film would be called ‘Bourne: Again’ and focus largely on character arc and setting up a high-octane sequel. We’d have to be very careful in making sure that the film was not mistaken for popular ABBA tribute act Bjorn Again— but perhaps they could do the soundtrack?

Towards the end of the film Jason Bourne, now the pillar of a small Mid-Western community, is attacked by a group of no-good punk kids. Attempting to open the can of kick-ass moves demonstrated in the first three films he finds he simply cannot: Jason Bourne is unable to defend himself, and as he lies beaten, bruised and bleeding in the street, he finds that God can’t always defend him.

Bourne is then forced to choose between his faith in God and his faith in beating people shitless.

This sets up the sequel we see that you, Jason Bourne, have opted to put your faith in beating people shitless and have begun to train yourself up to battle man’s greatest foe: God (played by Chuck Norris).

In a thrilling climax Bourne confronts God in an epic battle royale in which both men attempt to out-smite each other (working title: Matt Damon Versus God: The Smitening).

I can’t see any flaws, except the (slim chance) that Mr Norris is eviscerated in the upcoming Cage Fight against Bruce Willis and ’70s era Harry Callahan (tickets $6-12).

I would be delighted to hear your thoughts— and I am, of course, open to any of your suggestions. After all, you have written a multiple-MTV Movie Award winning film!


James D. Irwin

2009 is almost gone.  I feel like I made it through this year the same way I got through high school, which is to say I skipped most of it and barely squeaked by the rest.   One of the greatest perks to writing as frequently as I do is that there is always a record of where I’ve been and what I’ve done.
I rolled into this year as unobtrusively as I possibly could, falling asleep on my brother’s couch an hour or so before midnight.  “If I’m quiet maybe ’09 won’t notice me”, I told myself, and for the most part it didn’t.  I spent January in the coldest weather I’ve ever experienced, -21 in Indianapolis.  Negative.  Twenty-one.  At that temperature even your soul freezes.
That probably explains why I was so sick a week or so later in New Orleans.  Instead of wrought iron and beignets and the banks of the Mississippi, I spent my time there huddled in the Ambassador Hotel hiding from fever induced nightmares.  That didn’t stop Wild Bill Dykes and Sam Demaris from dragging me to Vic’s for a glass or two of James.  I went straight from there to the Oklahoma foothills for a few nights of nothing but wilderness and fire.
There was a very blurry weekend in Shreveport somewhere around that part of the year, too.  I remember Justin Foster not wearing pants for most of it.  Sam and I stole a tree.  We also almost fought Elmo and Cookie Monster.  Wait, maybe that was last year.  This year we beat up a midget.  In our defense, he said he was in the UFC, which prompted the response, “Not unless Arianna Celeste writes a number on your chest and holds you over her head between rounds.”
I spent most of my May hopping around the Middle East with Don Barnhart and Bryan Bruner, which is not the place to visit during the summer.  I got to bake in the Qatari sun and walk the streets of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.  It was nice to find out that Saudi was so much different than I had thought it would be.  I got to soak for a few unplanned off days in a lagoon attached to a luxury hotel in Bahrain.  It was an oasis by every definition of the word and a very welcome respite from the hot desert sun.
While on that side of the world I got demolished in a game of soccer by Djiboutian children, met too many amazing people to name, played with wild cheetahs, and watched Christian Slater rescue a Marine girl from being attacked by one.  A cheetah, not a Djiboutian kid.
Somewhere in that same time period a German woman decided to go skinny dipping with polar bears at the Berlin Zoo.  I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.  We were soon inundated with more attacks from the animal world, this time in the form of the Pig AIDS.  Swine flu.  H1N1.  People wore masks and we all watched as the death toll rose on national television.  It didn’t take long for us to realize that it was a pointless thing to be afraid of.  “Save your fear,” we told ourselves, “there are underwear bombers coming in December.”
The King of Pop died right in front of all of us this year, too.  Sam was in Seattle when it happened, and managed to sleep through the news.  As long as I can remember, he has had one line in his show that takes a crack at Michael.  He called me that night to tell me he did the line on stage and was booed by the entire crowd.  “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“He’s dead!” yelled someone in the crowd, to which Sam replied, “No he’s not.  He just looks like that.”
Here’s hoping nobody dies while you’re hungover in 2010, Sam.
I was almost arrested in Dallas on my birthday until the cop admitted that some friends of mine had set me up.  He laughed as he took the handcuffs off, and I resisted the urge to kick my friends in the head.  It wasn’t the only time I would find myself in a cop car this year.  Back in Indianapolis, Billy D. Washington and I recruited a ride to our hotel from Indy’s most eccentric police officer.  After tazing himself a few times in the leg, he invited us into the cruiser.   What should have been a ten minute drive took forty minutes, reaching a conclusion only after I managed to pinpoint our location on my phone’s GPS.  To this day I’m not certain we didn’t get a ride from a guy that had just recently stolen a cop car.  Billy and I laughed until we cried, making that one of the most memorable weeks of the year.
I got to climb a bit in the Rockies this year as well.  There was a lot on my mind this summer and nothing clears it like thin mountain air and thousand foot falls.  Charlie Moreno and I watched a Gay Pride parade, a Mexicans for Jesus rally, and a Free Iran protest all take place in downtown Denver within a block of each other.  We watched street musicians and crazy people for a few hours before heading back to the Springs.  I was introduced to K’naan on the drive back, which only made the trip that much more worth it.
In July I got to briefly see my friends Kevin and Pete, who I see far too rarely.  I also got share some of the finest Irish whiskeys in the world this year with BC and Mike Flores.
Fall was spent in Canada, riding trains across Ontario, and drinking Alexander Keith’s with a slew of new Canadian friends.  For a comedian, the stage at Absolute Comedy in Ottawa is as close to heaven on Earth as one can possibly get.  It is to comedy what Nirvana is to both Buddhists and grunge fans.  I was also given the grand tour of Toronto by Jeff Schouela.  If you have to spend a few weeks in Canada with anyone, you could do far worse than Jeff.
On top of all of that, I lost my two best friends.  Tiger Woods fell from his perch at the top of the sports worlds.  I saw snow in Houston.  A family pimped their kid out with a childish balloon hoax.  I fell out of touch with my favorite person on this planet.  Billy Mays and Farrah Fawcett and Patrick Swayze and David Carradine and Jim Carroll died.  I made a stupid bet with my friend Titus.  I saw my friend Rachel turn orange.  I met new people and reconnected with some old friends.
And with all of that said, I managed to accomplish absolutely nothing.  I somehow managed to end the year precisely where I began it: in front of this desk, staring at this screen, drinking coffee.
Here’s to 2010.  I don’t know anything about it yet, but like most wild animals, it probably won’t bite you if you don’t look it in the eye.  I was a little passive this past year however, so I may very well pick a fight with this one on purpose.  It might kick my ass the way ’07 and ’08 did, but I also might find a way to tame it.
Good or bad, it’s pretty much upon us.

I’ve discovered, by traveling at the holidays, that people in general are not a particularly nice bunch of bipeds. Especially at Christmas. They’re greedy, self-centered, bitter, and not above running you over for a better parking space. By the time I leave Maryland for the Great White North of New Hampshire and my family’s Christmas traditions, I’m so sick of humanity that I want to bitch slap it into the New Year.

Angelina Jolie has everything—a successful career, a romance with Brad Pitt, a crew of cute kids and millions in the bank—except for the one thing she really needs: friends. “Angelia is hungry for normal moms to be around,” a source close to the star, 34, tells Hot Stuff. “She feels like she lives in a bubble.” She’s also having trouble managing stress, says a second insider, who notes that Jolie “has been overwhelmed lately with the children. She has nannies, but she likes to do it all herself. She’s very hands-on—but she’s exhausted!”

Us Weekly, January 4, 2010


Dear Angelina,

I’m writing today in response to the above-referenced piece in Us Weekly’s “Hot Stuff” section, which I read as a cry for help.

Let me begin by saying that, as a “co-parent” to two lovely children, Dominick, 5, and Prudence, 3, I totally understand what you’re going through. It’s hard enough making friends with other mommies and daddies, but for someone as in the public eye as you are? Wowsers.

Put it this way: if my only option for parental peerage consisted of Katie Holmes and Victoria Beckham, I’d live in semi-isolation, too. Who wants to go to all those soccer games?

The truth is, other than your choice of profession—and the movie-star good looks—you have little in common with most Hollywood moms (Kendra and Kourtney? Kome on). Your slender physique and great beauty belie the fact that you are quite the heavy. You’ve got gravitas, girl. And that must take its toll. Between the visits to Third World countries, the U.N. Goodwill Ambassadorship, Beyond Borders, and Notes From My Travels—not to mention a slate of roles in particularly downer films (A Mighty Heart, Changeling)—you, my dear, are desperately in need of a little sunshine.

And I know just the person to provide that sunshine, not to mention the sororial bonding you need from another in-the-trenches mommy: my wife, Stephanie.

I think you and Steph would, like, totally hit it off. I mean, you have a lot in common: You both had reluctant C-sections. You both lost your mother to cancer. You’re both of French-Canadian/Native American stock. You both like Atlas Shrugged. You’re married to two of the sexiest bohunks alive, both of whom are repped by the same film agency. You’re the same age (OK, Steph is a tiny bit older than you, but she’s still way younger than Brad). And you know how you’re a political lefty but your dad voted for McCain? Same with Stephanie!

Because she lived in the East Village for fifteen years, my wife won’t be wowed by your enormous celebrity. She went to school with Taye Diggs, she has friends who write for SNL, her best friend played Marius in Les Mis on Broadway. (Plus, not to toot my own horn here, but she shares a bed with the author of Totally Killer and the senior editor of the hottest literary site on the Web). In fact, other than the time she accosted Matthew Broderick in the health food store and told him she thought he was “the best comedic actor ever” before turning tail and fleeing in shame, Steph is totally chill when it comes to hobnobbing with the rich and famous. She knows that what Us Weekly says about stars is bang-on true—they’re just like us!

What else you might like to know is that Steph is both a talented musician and a graduate student pursuing a masters in mental health counseling. So not only can she serve as a sounding board/therapist and help you manage the stress we read about in said magazine—and frankly, it’s refreshing to hear that movie stars feel stress about their children that doesn’t involve finding discreet babysitters so they can stay out all night with other movie stars—she can also belt out a killer rendition of “Wheels on the Bus.” Plus, she’s really funny, and she does a top notch Scarlett Johansson impression.

Me, you’ve obviously heard of, because of my affiliation with this fine online magazine and because I drew a standing-room-only crowd at my reading with Duke Haney at Book Soup in West Hollywood a few weeks back. What you may not know is, I’ve spent the last five years as a sort-of stay-at-home dad, eking out a living doing freelance work. Sort of like you with Kung Fu Panda, but with a much smaller paycheck. Also, I’m an astrologer, so I can do your chart (assuming the birth time on IMDB is accurate, I already know that you’re a Cancer Rising and that Venus conjuncts your Ascendant, which means, if you will forgive a technical horoscopy term, that you’re hot).

Brangelina, meet Grephanie

Brangelina, meet Grephanie

We live in New Paltz, a charming and crunchy college town in New York’s Hudson Valley. I know you spent time in Albany while filming your upcoming blockbuster Salt. Let me assure you: this ain’t Albany. Unlike the state capital, New Paltz is a place that tourists actually want to visit. Mohonk Mountain House is here—many movies have been shot there, as you are no doubt aware—plus we have Huguenot Street, the oldest residential street in North America. Brad will like that, because he’s an architecture buff.

You know who else is an architecture buff? Our son, Dominick. He just turned five, and he spent all afternoon reading A Field Guide to American Houses, which American Libraries cleverly calls “the definitive field guide to American homes.” He knows the subtle differences between the Beaux Arts and Second Empire styles, and he really wants to visit Cleveland because of all the lovely historic homes there. More to the point, there’s a girl in his dance class who sort of looks like Zahara, and he really likes her. This bodes well for playdates.

As for our daughter, Prudence and Shiloh are the same age, and they both have awesome names. (Let me take a moment to compliment you on your good taste in that department. Maddox, Zahara, Pax, Shiloh, Knox, Vivienne…not a clunker in the bunch. No Apples, no Moseses, and no Olives, because Olive Pitt doesn’t quite work.) If Shiloh enjoys riding tricycles, belting out tunes at the top of her lungs, and playing non-competitive games of hide-and-seek, she’ll get along with Prue just fine.

While it’s true that New Paltz is quite a distance from Los Angeles, New Orleans, Paris, Berlin, Phnom Penh, Namibia, and other places where we think you might maintain residences—and, while we’re on the topic, might I suggest that, exhilarating as globe-trotting must be, especially under the imprimatur of the United Nations, it might be easier for both you and your children to make friends if you commit to a single locale—we are right down the road from Woodstock, so it’s not like we’ve never seen celebrities before (although so many of our citizens support a mandatory death sentence for television that it’s entirely possible that you could accompany Stephanie to Bacchus for a few Fin du Mondes and TMZ would never be the wiser).

Another thing: Stephanie already has a really great circle of mommy friends. These are ladies you would really dig. Liz, who has four kids—including twins, like you—is really funny and down to earth and has great taste in music. S.L., like you, has lots of tattoos and tastes that run Goth; I don’t think she’d wear her husband’s blood in a vial around her neck, but the idea wouldn’t repulse her. And check this: Elizabeth and her husband Tim have two adoptive children from Guatemala, and next month, they’re getting two more, this time from Rwanda. That’s right—Rwanda. Plus, Tim’s car runs on vegetable oil. I bet even Leo’s car doesn’t do that.

Oh, and there’s this. I’ve heard the rumors that you and Brad occasionally run into conflict because from time to time you like to—how shall I put this?—put the “XX” in sex. (I’m guessing that’s what you meant when you told Das Neue last week that you “doubt that fidelity is absolutely essential for a relationship.”) Assuming these rumors are legit, and not a feeble attempt by your Foxfire co-star Jenny Shimizu to resuscitate her career, let’s just say that in these parts, we tend to be quite liberal when it comes to that sort of thing. We’re down with bisexual OPP.

True, Stephanie and I have never broached the subject. But say you guys were hanging out, availing yourselves of the drink specials while grooving to the Big Shoe show at Oasis, and one thing led to another…who am I to deny the happiness of the Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Refugee Agency?

The point is, you’ll find my wife and I very supportive of your lifestyle choices. Like, we think it’s really cool that you guys won’t get married until marriage is a universal right. In fact, one of the reasons we moved to New Paltz is because our then-mayor, Jason West, performed gay marriages at Village Hall. Like I said, this ain’t Albany.

If you’d rather not relocate from sunny Los Angeles to a place where the winters are cold and slush-filled and the Subarus outnumber the Porsches just to cultivate a friendship with a woman you met by reading a letter her husband wrote on a Web site whose influence, while mighty, was insufficient to convince Janeane Garofalo to boink a handsome and debonair Aussie fifteen years her junior…hey, I understand. I won’t take it personally. But if you’re willing to give it a shot, have “your people” call “our people,” and let’s set up a playdate. You won’t be disappointed.

Hope to hear from you soon.

Best regards,

Greg Olear


We have a jumpy castle.

You live in Saratoga Springs, New York, home to Yaddo, one of the most famous artist colonies in the United States. Truman Capote, Patricia Highsmith, John Cheever, Amy Bloom, and Andrea Barrett, among many others, have been awarded fellowships over the years.

Frankly, I didn’t even know what a huge deal Yaddo was when I first moved to Saratoga and it is literally around the corner from where I live, just past the famous Saratoga Flat Track.  I had a two year old and a five year old when I moved here so… I was a little preoccupied by Barney and packing a PC lunchbox (something I never mastered).  Saratoga Springs is a jumble of contradictions. A quaint Victorian village in the shadow of the Adirondacks, it is most well known for the flat track which has drawn the rich and famous and their thoroughbred horses since the late 1800’s and the Sulphur Springs for the purported healing properties and for one of the most expensive private liberal arts colleges in the country: Skidmore.  The gardens at Yaddo are open to the public and I’ve spent a lot of time on the grounds… soaking up the ghosts of writers past, I guess you could say, but I’ve never applied for a residency.

What’s the best advice your mentors gave you in Only as Good as Your Word:  Writing Lessons from My Favorite Literary Gurus?

Write about your obsessions. And “Plumber’s don’t get plumber’s block. A page a day is a book a year.”

What wisdom do you pass on to all of your students at the New School, NYU and private workshops where you teach the “instant gratification takes too long” school of journalism?

The first piece you write that your family hates means that you’ve found your voice.

What helped you make it as a writer?

Finding another way to pay the bills (teaching).

What are the best things about being a writer?

There are no limits, each genre takes you into a different world and you get better as you get older, wiser and have more experiences.

How do you ensure you keep getting better?

I keep asking for writing criticism from the best critics I can find and ask for emotional criticism from the best shrinks I can find. As I say in Only as Good as Your Word, hanging out with sycophants will turn you into Michael Jackson. That line is even sadder and more prophetic now. Hanging out with sycophants can kill you.

What’s the biggest misconception about writing you’ve had to overcome?

I did my masters degree at NYU with such luminaries as Joseph Brodsky, E.L. Doctorow, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds and then I spent four years working at the New Yorker. So I had to get out of the habit of categorizing work as “literary,” “highbrow,”  “chicklit” or “lowbrow” before I even finished, and stop making judgments about entire genres.

What’s the biggest misconception ambitious writers make?

They think writing commercially, with a big specific audience in mind, will ruin your work. Some of the poets I admire most told me my best work was my memoir Five Men Who Broke My Heart, which was the most commercial. (It was published by Random House, optioned for a film and we sold six foreign rights.)

As a former book critic, what’s the deal with ornery book critics?

The best critics are authors themselves, like John Updike. The worst would all rather be writing books than reviewing books but they’re blocked.

Why did you stop reviewing books?

At a certain point, there seemed to be little point in criticizing books after they were published. Instead I started teaching writing, where I could put my critical sensibility to good use helping people improve their work, which lead to good karma.

What’s the biggest business mistake writers make?

They hoard their contacts with editors and agents, as if helping a colleague or student means your own career has to suffer when it’s really the opposite. The biggest thrill in my life has been watching 36 students publish books over the last three years.

What’s your secret for selling 7 books in the last 7 years?

I’m not afraid to suck—for my first drafts. Then I do writing groups and sometimes pay ghost editors. The secret to writing well is rewriting.

After five nonfiction books you just sold your first novel, Speed Shrinking.  What’s next?

Along with writing the screenplay to Speed Shrinking, my new novel, Overexposed, comes out in August 2010. I started it in 1996 so instead of getting a book launch it gets a bar mitzvah. My husband is calling it a book mitzvah.

You quit a bunch of your addictions in your memoir “Lighting Up.” What are you addicted to now?

Email.  Aspiring writers can find me at susanshapiro.net but make sure to start your letter “I loved your last book…”

Muss es seinEs muss sein.

-Ludwig Van Beethoven


What is immortal?
Beloved they’d say?
The “they” that know?

Perhaps it’s bone
And bone the voice
Of a skeleton,

The ghost of Then
In Now’s machine?
And bone’s the heart

That beats on clean
And strong.  It stores
A cameo

Of what it gave
Us in each pore.
His keys have links

To bone; my keys
Are plastic.  Tiny
Characters drum

Out voiceless mounds
Of letters, under-
Score.  With little reach,

The cursor’s up
Erasing more
With every bounce.


His ear is a portal,
A passageway
For notes to flow

Out and in.  The lone
Middle C’s voice
Moons slow at one.

It weeps again.
It slips between
E and A as art

Mimics his spleen
(Read: excess, bleak
Dearth) and he pours

A lively doe-
Re-me, a wave
Of portal gore

As each key sinks.
He plays at night.
His hands go numb.

He empties sounds
Like coming thunder-
Storms that won’t reach

Him.  He looks up.
The roof begs, More.
Ludwig. Pronounce.


Nothing amounts
To opus or
Song here.  My cup

Holds Bic pens, each
Chewed up.  A wonder:
The clock’s colon hounds

Like eyes, a dumb
“O” mouth, round, tiny,
Below.  As is,

It cannot wheeze.
It never thinks,
I make it more,

Make life, hit SAVE,
Freeze my tableau
Of metaphors,

Pro’s meta-speak.
But the room is clean
Of noise, and when

I leave, get done,
Tattooed, the voice:
His note on bone.

At home I throw
I round: Die. Dei.
I play immortal.


Beethoven counts
The beans before
He brews a cup

Of joe—in each,
Sixty.  And under
His crescent moon-

Shaped nails, the grounds
Mock dirt and some
Disperse as tiny

E flats on bright,
Clean ivory keys.
The blue cup clinks,

Rattling the floor.
He composes grave,

Rondo.  He scores.
He names it Pathétique
And counts nineteen

Minutes from start
To cheer, pristine
Tin ringing, ten

Encores, hears Son
In Vater’s voice
And hoards his own:

The Rondo is slow.
Milk tastes of whey.
The finches chortle.

Please explain what just happened.

I was born. I am living. What else could have happened that mattered?

How to Clean House


What my mother does admit to me when she calls is that Finn is on another bender and she can’t possibly rely on him to help her clear out the house before Monday.  She sounds so small and sad on the phone and I am in such a weird state of mind that I overlook the fact that I am being manipulated.  She needs me.  I can tell by the tone of her voice that she would also like me to offer to find him, just like the other times.  This time, however, I am going to let him sit and pickle before I drag him back home.   Besides, divesting the house of our childhood is enough pain for one weekend.

Erica Dawson walks into her living room in cut-off sweatpants and a tee shirt advertising a triathlon, her hair a mess, and no shoes or socks, though it’s a good 26°F outside and not much over 65°F in her apartment.  We make our introductions, she pours cups of half-caff coffee (she doesn’t “need” the caffeine), and we start to talk.

I see you got dressed for the interview?

Today is definitely one of those days where I’ll be lucky to leave the house to go to Walgreens on a useless trip for another bottle of nail polish.

Going through a productive phase, are you?

When the time changes in the Fall, all bets are off.  The dark days are like my bat cave, except there’s no signal calling me out to save the world.  My friends have to drag me by my heels sometimes for a trip to the movie theater five minutes away.

These things typically start with literary questions about influences, education…let’s do something different and stay with movies: what’s your favorite one?

All time?  Probably Jaws.


Robert Shaw’s a genius in it.  I’d like to think I’d be that cool if a bloodthirsty shark were after me: beating up the radio, drinking to “bowlegged women.”

Favorite TV show?

I’m a little embarrassed to admit I still watch Grey’s Anatomy, which isn’t so great right now, but my TV heart really belongs to a show on FX called Sons of Anarchy.  My brother Frank got me hooked on it.

What do you like about it?

The violence.  The motorcycles.  The fact that it’s a world I know nothing about.

Does it, or other TV or media, influence you as a writer?

Absolutely: TV, music—anything from Lil Wayne to Beethoven, whose opening measures of Moonlight Sonata are tattooed on my hip—and movies—comedy, drama, whatever.  Duke Energy likes me because there’s always TV going or music playing.  I’m a watcher, and a listener.  And I don’t mean that to sound as creepy as it does.  I mean, watching TV and films, and listening to all sorts of music influence me as a person, and I can’t separate that person from the writer; so, yes.  With TV, I think I like doctor shows for the same reason I like Sons.  It’s like taking a trip to somewhere I haven’t been.

For someone so interested in taking a trip, your poems often seem to be autobiographical, or at least partly so.

Dealing with my own head is taking a trip.  My brain moves so fast, even with prescription help, I never know where it’s going.  I won’t even get into the kinds of dreams I have when I actually sleep.  My Post-it note writing system is proof enough.  Someday, when I’m gone, someone’s going to find all of these random Post-its around my desk with random things written on them, things like lyrics from a Carole Alston song or a sentence reading, “The light on Vine Street stayed yellow for a ridiculous amount of time today” and they’ll know something was wrong with me.

What exactly are the Post-it notes for?

I use them instead of a traditional notebook, and I don’t journal.  Post-its are easy to carry, and there’s none of that I-haven’t-written-in-my-journal-forever pressure.  Whenever something interests me for whatever reason, I write it on a Post-it.  Then, when I’m working on a poem, I look at the Post-its and see what I’ve got.  A lot of Post-it material has made its way into poems.

An example?

In Big-Eyed Afraid, the poem “Brown Recluse from the basement” started from a Post-it with “stucco ceilings look like sea anemones I saw at aquarium.”

Still have the note?

I don’t throw much away.

This is turning into a Post-it note commercial.  Let’s get more literary.  Who are some of the poets who’ve inspired you?

That’s always a tough question because there are so many answers.  I tell people I go to the church of William Shakespeare.  Hamlet?  Henry and Hotspur?  Poor, sad Juliet?  The wonderful filthiness of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? My god.  Perfection. Back when I was starting out in college, James Merrill had a huge impact, too.  I couldn’t understand how someone could make the line, “I did things on a mat to make me flexible,” so poignant.  I wanted to be able to do that like he did, like Bishop too.  I think that’s why, to this day, so much of my regular everyday life gets into my poems.  I think the everyday is poignant, especially when you’ve considered getting out of it, permanently, at different times in your life.  And because so many of my poems act as accounts of me in crisis (which poets like Sexton gave me the courage to do), and I make no secret of my OCD and depression, it’s important for me to balance that energy with the quiet, the normal, or at least as quiet and normal as it gets in here.

You look pretty normal in those sweatpants!

Ha! Thanks.  I’m sorry I didn’t dress up for you.  I do have real clothes back there.

You’re just keepin’ it real, right?

Yes and no.  I like honesty in poetry, or honesty in the sense that there’s something human to relate to in a poem.  It’s a kind of realness.  Does it have to be the god’s honest truth? Or what actually happened to the writer? No.

Poetic license?

“…was a good friend of mine.”

Now that you’ve published a book with, as you say, accounts of you in crisis, do you feel pressure to continue to write about the same kinds of things?

No.  Not from me.  But there are always outside pressures, just like in any profession.  People, including me, feel comfortable with categories, labels.  Some people feel comfortable saying, “Erica keeps it real.”  Sometimes they want to put me, and others, in a box based on our gender or race.  I was talking to a girlfriend the other day who said, “Some people want all women poets to fit into three categories: HD, Emily Dickinson, or Sylvia Plath.  Those are our choices.”  I think she’s right; it happens sometimes. My second manuscript just got rejected because it was too “difficult” and “street-talky.”  I really don’t know what that means, but I have no problem with rejection.  You can’t in this business.  I will say I have a feeling it means I didn’t fit so nicely anymore into the box those particular readers wanted me to fit into.

So you have a don’t-fence-me-in mentality?

I’m not Madonna or anything; I’m not a rebel.  I was a very well-behaved teenager.  And now, you’ll never see me pop up with some new image, or a completely different sound.  I don’t have access to Auto-tune or studio equipment or stylists when I work.  I have words.  That’s all we poets have. The dictionary people add new words every now and then, but we’re dealing with a fairly finite set of sounds to work with.  Our toolbox is small.  Our hands and minds have to be busy.  My poems, probably, always will have some common “Erica thread” running throughout them.  I’m not going to up and become a new person, have a different past, or personality, or sense of humor.  I’m still going to be me.  Robert Frost will never appear facing me in my mirror, though his poems have real estate on my shelves.  That said, it’s super important to me to grow as a poet and person.  I want to experiment with writing in the voice of another person or a birch tree.  I want to try new things, new subjects, no forms, anything I fancy right then.

Like using the word “fancy?”

I didn’t pull that off?

Does it mean trying triathlons, too?

Nope. Frank’s to blame, again.  He worked as a doctor at the race, so he didn’t do it either, just for the record.  The last time I ran was probably to get the phone.

Reading’s your exercise?

And writing, for now at least, while I’m deep in the dissertation dungeon.

Is it a happy bat-cave?

It’s not a bad one.  Working makes me happy, and it busies my mind, which is good for the people who have to deal with me on a frequent basis.  And I get to tackle a creative and critical project, which has a nice balance: a collection of poems and an essay on Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella which I’ve read countless times. I mean, if I don’t work, I end up just sitting here talking to myself, you know?

I think I do.