The following interview with Ian Frazier originally appeared in the May 1996 issue of Interview magazine.
What Is Ian Frazier?: Interview with Fiction Writer Ian Frazier
Nobody looks at life the same way after reading a story by Ian Frazier.
Ian Frazier's new book of stories, Coyote v. Acme (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), is a collection of ten years' worth of humorous pieces, mostly written for The New Yorker. Frazier is the author of the sorrowful yet moving memoir Family, the drivin' and cryin' history-cum-travelogue Great Plains, and a previous collection of humor, Dating Your Mom, just reissued in paperback by Farrar, Straus. Known to friends as Sandy, he lives in Montana with his wife, writer Jacqueline Carey, and their two children, Cora and Thomas. Interviewer John Howell, editor and publisher of Hemp Times, a new lifestyle magazine, is a longtime Frazier fan who contributed seminal Stonewall Jackson stories to the "Civil War" chapter of Family.
JOHN HOWELL: I was reading "Stalin's Chuckle," the last story in your new book, where Comrade Stalin tells his secretary, "A comic is one who says things funny, while a comedian is one who says funny things." I wonder which category you put yourself in.
IAN FRAZIER: Mmmm . . . probably neither. I mean, I don't even know if that's really true.
JH: It sounds so authoritative, though.
IF: It sounds authoritative, but that's the point of what I try to do - write stuff that sounds authoritative. If you read it more slowly, you realize it means absolutely nothing. I don't know that that means nothing, but I think about it, and then my mind breaks down thinking about it.
JH: There's a lot of silly officialese in your stories: letters from banks, questionnaires, tax notices.
IF: You get all this stuff in the mail that frightens you. You read the whole thing, and then at the bottom, it says THIS IS NOT A BILL. [laughs] Why did you read the damn thing? What's the interchange between you and these people? It's just money, right? So if this is not a bill, what are they bugging you with it for? They say things like, "Your money has to work for you" [in his story "From the Bank With Your Money on Its Mind"]. I wrote, "Money that just sits around actually loses value, and must be cared for the way you would care for any helpless thing." You could read that in a bank statement and not notice. A lot of writing - and so much of what you read as part of your life - is just boilerplate that somebody wrote.
JH: A story like "Line 46A," which is a "Dear Taxpayer" notice, is why people stand up at political rallies now and cheer anybody who threatens to do away with anybody who has anything to do with the whole tax system.
IF: The movie ad that I based that piece on read THE GOVERNMENT GAVE HER A CHOICE: DEATH, OR LIFE AS AN ASSASSIN. [laughs] That slogan was on a billboard I saw. You just see these things. Today I saw - you used to be an editor at Elle, right?
IF: I saw this Elle cover line: THE SUNBLOCK BIBLE. [laughs] What is that? I can understand The Shooter's Bible, we grew up with that. And I can understand the PC Bible, but the "Sunblock Bible"? That's really getting far from the idea of a bible.
JH: We can look for Elle's "Shampoo Missal: the Common Book of Conditioner." [laughs]
IF: Mike Royko wrote about how the phrase Internet surfing is the most exciting thing about that activity. You're sitting looking at a screen! It has nothing to do with surfing. The stock market came up one-hundred points today, and they said [in deep, ominous voice], "Stock market bungee jumps." The stock market did not bungee jump. It's what writers do now; they lay a lot of language on something.
JH: Speaking of laying on the language, a couple of your stories adopt a literary attitude toward pop-culture phenomena and get a lot of laughs out of the contrast. For example, "Boswell's Life of Don Johnson." Are you a fan of Don Johnson's?
IF: Actually, the reason I did that piece was because when my previous humor book came out ten years ago [Dating Your Mom], people would say, "What are you working on now?" I would say, "Boswell's Life of Don Johnson." Mel Brooks did "Springtime for Hitler" in that movie The Producers, because when people asked, "What are you working on?" he would say, "A musical called 'Springtime for Hitler.'" So then he made The Producers, and after he made it, people would ask, "What are you working on now?" He would say, "A movie called The Green Awning," [laughs] . . . which he never did make.
JH: Your title story, "Coyote v. Acme," has the max of two of the qualities we've been talking about, the absurd officialese and highfalutin language applied to an offbeat phenomenon, i.e., Wile E. Coyote's legal brief against the Acme Company. Wile E. Coyote stands for an American kind of surrealism, don't you think? The parallels in your stories are those Insane eruptions of wacky violence that seem to come out of nowhere - like the story about the satanic college president whose commencement address is constantly being interrupted by the devil, or the one where the suburbanites are lounging in the backyard when World War II-era Germans attack. That's like a traditional New Yorker short story interrupted by history.
IF: You mean those stories that go, "I am sitting at my mother's . . ." That kind of present-tense story? I hate the first-person present. God, that's why I love history. If you can't write it in the past tense, then don't write it. Now, everybody writes in the present. The worst are stories that begin with a phone call. "The phone rings. I pick it up. 'Hello, Madonna,' I say. 'Am I waking you?' Madonna asks." [laughs]
JH: The last couple of pieces in the book, "Your Face or Mine" and "Making 'Movies' in New York" sound to me more like your own voice as I know It, as opposed to a sort of officialese or the Bob Hope-like ventriloquism of "Thanks for the Memory."
IF: About "Your Face or Mine" - I'd hoped that if I wrote a piece in which the phrase "in your face" appeared, it would disappear from the language. I thought if I made fun of it forcefully enough, people would be disciplined into taking it the hell out of there.
JH: "Making Movies" is one of those quintessential New York experiences. You come around the corner to your neighborhood deli, and you can't get in because it's been commandeered by a film crew for shooting.
IF: I got more angry mail about that piece than anything I've written in years. In that story I wrote, tongue in cheek, "And the movies never appear." And then I wrote, "Did anybody ever see a movie called Hudson Hawk?" I knew that Hudson Hawk had been made, but I was just pretending that no one had ever made it. I got a letter that said, "What is Ian Frazier? Out of it? Doesn't he know that Hudson Hawk, while not one of Bruce Willis's finest efforts, blab, blab, blab." They really belabor the hell out of it. You would be amazed at the things people take seriously.