This Week’s Column:


... a MobyLives interview
by Dennis Loy Johnson

2 June 2003 — To MobyLives readers, he's the guy who was writing diatribes about Dave Eggers to the letters–to–the–editor section long before James Frey, not to mention letters equally passionate about writers he loves — such as, say, Knut Hamsun. To the rest of the world, he's a gossip columnist for the New York Post's Page Six. Now, Ian Spiegelman has written his first novel, "Everyone's Burning," and in an exclusive MobyLives interview, he talks about his book, New Yorker fiction, Monica Lewinsky, J.T. LeRoy, how Hemingway turned gossip into fiction, what should happen to Morgan Entreken ... and more.

DENNIS JOHNSON: You started as a poet in college, now you've written a novel, and in between you've had a pretty big career as a gossip columnist. My question is: What the hell happened?

IAN SPIEGELMAN: Um, I needed to make a living. My biggest fear ever, my entire life, was that I would be homeless and not know how to make a living. I mean, I ran away from home a lot. I got in trouble a lot, and I definitely always thought something terrible would happen and I would be either on the street or living with fifteen people in a flat. The problem was I wasn't good at really anything, so I got fired all the time. From everything — I got fired from bussing tables, which is pretty sad. But I was good at writing, because I cared about it, and so I took a lot of internships. I interned at Bomb Magazine, I interned at Our Town, I worked three days a week at the Queens Courier when I was 20, 21, and that was the only time anyone ever said, "You can do this." And so from that to gossip was ... I had published a lot of little tiny things in New York Magazine in my last three years of college and getting to know some editors there, especially Maer Roshan. When I graduated he was like, "Oh, well, we need an editorial assistant at Intelligencer. Do you want to do it?" And I'd never ever read Intelligencer before. I didn't know what it was, and all of the sudden, I'm there. My first week I was writing about Monica Lewinsky refusing a deal to work for some company called Head. This is in the height of her scandal, and, um, it was fun. I used to call up Monica Lewinsky's people and be like, "Answer this question, dick," you know?

D.J.: While we're on the topic of Monica, I heard someplace that you might have dated her. Do you want to comment on that?

I.S.: We did have drinks, but not by ourselves, no. We've not been on a public date. We've never been on a date, no. I'm still open for that possibility, you know, especially now. People rag on her. She's actually very nice and pretty misunderstood.

D.J.: Okay. That was my tryout for Page Six. Now let's get back to your career. Is being a gossip writer related to being a fiction writer?

I.S.: Well, I did fiction before I did anything. The first story that I ever wrote was when I was eighteen, and it was about when my girlfriend kind of beat the shit out of me.

D.J.: You mean, in reality?

I.S.: Yeah. She got really mad, and she kind of kicked my ass. I was in school in New Paltz. I was a freshmen, but I wanted to get into this junior level writing class, and you had to like have something to get you in there, so I just kind of typed out my own version of what happened, why my girlfriend beat the shit out of me. And it got me into the class.
      But it was years later that I got into gossip. I was twenty–four when I got into gossip. But the thing that's related between them is, for me, I've always been attuned to what people are talking about. Like, my whole neighborhood, the only way you could ever kind of know what's going on is by hanging out at the kegger, or on the strip on Bell Boulevard, drinking. And you hear, you know, who was really fucking who, and you knew one of your friends got the shit beat out of them, you'd find out who did it and why. And it's not just what happened last week — it's like, you know, this dude beat the shit out of that dude, well actually his older brother back in '83 got an M–80 shoved in his fucking mailbox, and this kid's other older brother ...

D.J.: So in one light what you're describing could be called gossip, and in another could be called an epic narrative.

I.S.: But that's the thing with gossip is it can. You take the Hilton sisters — you can brush 'em off as a couple of stupid rich bitches, and they might be that, but at the same time, they're like this American tragedy. They have everything. There's no reason why they shouldn't live a great life and do great things, but at the same time, they've had no parental supervision, ever. There's no one around who seems to care what happens to them, and so, every time you look at them, they're falling down. And as much as I dislike rich people, I have sympathy for what's happened to them, because they don't even know what's happened to them. They're just two girls who someone should've looked after, and no one ever did, and no one ever will. They're gonna go through guy after guy that they think could be Daddy. It's not gonna be Daddy. And they're going to abuse maid after maid . . . I mean, what connects me to Page Six is that these are human beings that we're talking about. My book is about people who should've been watched at some point, somewhere when they were kids. And every day I write about people who someone should've watched, except that they're rich. And that, to me, is not a mitigating circumstance. It doesn't matter to me if you're rich; someone should've looked out for them. Someone should've looked out for Bijou Phillips ... all the kids I write about.

D.J.: I'm sure this has never occurred to a lot of people — being a gossip columnist can fine tune your sympathies for your fellow creatures.

I.S.: I mean, there's two people we cover. We cover the person who's actually powerful and is causing harm to other people, and we cover the person who seems powerful who's just harming themselves. So on one side of that you have Russell Crowe, who has all the power he could ever want in Hollywood, and all he can think to do is beat up on some dumb drunk in a bar. And that's the guy, in terms of a literary story, that's the dude who you want to see fall. He's risen, and now it's time to fall. And he has it coming because he lives like an asshole. All I ever say anything about — whether it's gossip, fiction, when I did my poetry – it's everyone fucking behave yourself. I don't mean don't drink. I don't mean don't have sex. I mean behave yourself. Don't victimize other humans, because that's all I ever see people doing. And then you take people like Paris and Nicky, or even Monica, and these are just girls who did not get what they should have gotten as kids. All I see out there when I look at the city is a nation of kids who got fucked.

NEXT PAGE: Why "Everyone's Burning" includes some of the most outgeous sex scenes ever ....

©2003 Dennis Loy Johnson


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