It’s around about one in the afternoon on a warm-but-not-hot early summer Tuesday and Luke O’Neil and I are having coffee at an outdoor table in Harvard Square in right about the same spot that “good” Will Hunting sat explaining to his lovely British girlfriend, Skylar, about how in spite of his working class roots he’s actually wicked smaht and I’ve gone and embarrassed my conversation partner. Our table happened, randomly enough, to be located next to a couple of business types who it just so happens own a local bar that O’Neil worked at and got fired from. That’s not REALLY the embarrassing part, but there’s more on that later. O’Neil has spent years as the frontman of Boston-area bands like Good North and more recently No Hope/No Harm but is undoubtedly best known for his work as a predominantly freelance writer – “I guess somehow I’ve become like this notable freelancer, which, there’s a distinction between being a notable writer and a notable freelancer. It’s not that my work is that great, but it’s the fact that I’m freelancing,“ he notes, tongue firmly embedded in cheek – who’s been featured in places The Boston Globe and Esquire the Boston Phoenix (R.I.P.) and Huffington Post.
O’Neil’s been doing his own newsletter, Welcome To Hell World: Weekly Dispatches From The Pit Of Despair, for the better part of the last year. It’s must-read fare that’s equal parts horrifying and heart-warming and disturbingly humorous and soul-crushing and at times optimistic. All that work has culminated in the pending arrival of O’Neil’s first book, Welcome To Hell World: Dispatches From The American Dystopia, and, subsequently, in his getting to talk to schlubs like me not about things like labor disputes or immigration policy or the abhorrent state of the health care or criminal justice systems in his country, but about his own work. And that, as it turns out, makes O’Neil a little uncomfortable. “I’m embarrassed talking about it this much with you. Please make it clear that I find talking about myself to be weird. And I almost get embarrassed to say what I do, like when I went to talk to those guys over there and they said “hey, what are you up to?” a normal thing would be to say “oh, I’ve got a book coming out.” But I don’t say that…“
Writing a book wasn’t entirely part of the original plan; or at least not the type of book that Welcome To Hell World eventually became. But let’s rewind the tape to the beginning. O’Neil was born in the late ’70’s and grew up in Kingston, Massachusetts, the small coastal town that’s about an hour south of Boston and an hour east of Providence, meaning he was equidistant to two vital underground music scenes at a pivotal time. After formative concert-going experiences involving Weird Al Yankovic and Rage Against The Machine – no, not on the same bill but can you imagine? – O’Neil had the opportunity to dive into two thriving underground music scenes at a vital time, as bands like Letters To Cleo and Dinosaur Jr. were blowing up. “(I would see them) and I would learn about all the bands that were opening for them. It becomes like a chain reaction – you go see a band and you find out who’s opening for them, and then you go see that band later and find out who’s opening for them, and I always really loved that about music,” O’Neil explains.
After Kingston came a trip an hour west of Boston to Worcester’s College of the Holy Cross and, following that, a stint in New York City inspired by a love for writing fiction. “I wanted to write fiction,” O’Neil remembers. “I wrote essays in fiction in college and won some stupid school awards, and that’s how I got my real first job. My real first job was I worked for Conde Nast. I moved to New York City – this was around 2000 – and magazines were just starting to have websites. Somehow, I don’t know how, I got a job just on the fact that I was a pretty good writer. I went and applied and interviewed for a normal job to be an editorial assistant and I somehow got it.”
A couple years in New York were followed by a return to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, specifically to an MFA program at Boston’s Emerson College, a degree that somehow, O’Neil never quite finished. Instead, he got a regular, paying gig at what was then called The Weekly Dig, a free, Boston-based alternative weekly newspaper, back in the waning days of those still being relatively viable thing. “I did two years at Emerson toward an MFA, and I somehow got the job at the Dig, and was like, “well, fuck it, I’m a professional writer now, I don’t need to finish this.” He continues: “I just had to do one more thing to write and defend my thesis. And I had it written, I don’t know why the fuck I didn’t do it. I just said “I don’t want to do it anymore.” And I started playing in my first band, and I thought I was hot shit. I was going to be a rock star! … I just kind of chafed against this program at Emerson, but I guess chafing against structure and discipline has always been a throughline for me…”
That chafing against structure and discipline would eventually lead to O’Neil getting fired by the Dig. As he tells it, in spite of the comparatively liberal office culture in place at the Dig, it wasn’t a fit for his personality in the long run. “Even at a place like that,” he explains, “I just didn’t like going to sit there all day and just being at a computer because the boss wanted you to be in the office.” O’Neil’s run at the Dig was followed by an editing job at free daily newspaper, The Metro (if you’ve ever taken an MBTA bus, it’s the one that’s usually open-faced on the empty seat next to you. This one would prove to be an even shorter run. “I went in the first day, and I remember everyone was so excited that there was pizza in the breakroom, and I just laughed and said “I don’t want to work at a place where people are excited that there’s pizza.” So I went back to waiting tables and freelancing when I could.”
Waiting tables and freelancing eventually lead to O’Neil’s former editor at the Dig, Joe Keohane, getting back in tough about a new opportunity a half-dozen years ago, this time on the pages of Esquire Magazine. “That obviously was a pretty big step for my career and I did lots of great work there, but then I sort of got fired, sort of quit from there? I still don’t really know.” It seems O’Neil’s penchant for what I think Oprah calls “speaking truth to power” but what essentially boils down to calling people on their respective shit had bit him in his own ass. This, you see, is a bit of a recurring theme in O’Neil’s writing career. “I tend to quit or get fired from almost everything I’ve ever done, because I have a very low tolerance for doing things just because that’s the way they’re done. I’m not afraid to speak up – I guess I’m just an impetuous teenage shit still!” As a freelancer writer, editors and websites and print publications (lol) will bring you on board because your words are hopefully going to generate eyes on their pages, sell ad space and/or subscriptions, etc. And if you’re generating content – and clicks – by pointing your spears at the power structure or class imbalance or whatever, that’s a good thing. But when you start to point those spears at the people you’re writing for, well, bad things happen. “I just started talking shit sometimes about how bad the (Esquire) site was getting while I was working there, and obviously the bosses didn’t like that, and we just sort of ghosted each other in a weird way.” O’Neil explains.
Though no longer at Esquire, O’Neil continued having his pieces picked up for publication in a variety of outlets like the Washington Post and the theoretically liberal bastion hometown newspaper that is the Boston Globe. In fact, a quick search on the Globe’s own website produces 364 results as of today. That changed earlier this year, however, in a rather notorious way, after the paper chose to pull a published O’Neil editorial amid fierce conservative backlash (O’Neil had opined – again tongue in cheek – that one of his regrets in life was not “seasoning” conservative pundit Bill Kristol’s salmon when waiting on him at a restaurant years prior). Rather than support their long-time contributor, they caved to pressure from the right-hand side of the aisle that doesn’t need to look hard to find myriad reasons to hate them anyway and instead, as O’Neil describes it, “slit (his) throat.”
And so while starting a newsletter a year ago maybe wasn’t O’Neil’s idea from the start, it has given him a regular, unfiltered, seemingly stream-of-consciousness outlet to provide his unique blend of social and political and personal commentary. “In order to be one of the people now who keeps a job, who have to by your very nature be kind of a boot-licker or a fucking cop,” O’Neil opines. “I think that’s the problem with – and I hate the term mainstream media – but when you talk about the (Washington) Post or the (New York) Times or any New York magazine, in order to stay within the business and climb the ladder and get jobs and keep jobs, you definitely have to be willing to swallow a lot more shit than I certainly am willing to.” It also allows him to address issues like police brutality or throat-punching Nazis or the border crisis or people dying due to lack of affordable health care in a way that doesn’t have to address “both sides” of an issue in order to placate audiences or bosses. “A lot of times, I’ll talk to somebody who can’t pay their hospital bills,” he explains. “The journalistic thing to do is that you’re supposed to call the insurance company to get their side of it. It’s like, “fuck you, I don’t care what your side of it is. I KNOW what your side of it is. Your side of it is that you’re fucking this person over.” It’s pointless to me to ask. It’s like, if the cops shoot somebody, it’s pointless to call the cops and ask why they shot them. They’re going to lie to you…I feel like there’s too much of that now. There’s a lot of interviewing of the alt-right and neo-Nazis and stuff where they’re like “I’m going to show this guy’s words, and they’re going to seem so absurd that everyone’s going to laugh at him!” But I’m not interested in that.”
All of that brings us back to the Hell World book, which is due out next month through O/R Books. Much of it is comprised of pieces that’ve appeared in the Hell World newsletter, with a few companion pieces that appeared in other publications but seemed to fit the theme of the book, as well as a few new essays. It’s largely unedited from it’s original, unique format, which will probably please fans of O’Neil’s work and frustrate or confuse other people. “I think the book might be interesting and weird. I’ve certainly never read anything like it, which can be a bad thing. I can imagine people thinking it sucks, and maybe it does, I don’t know. But it’s like a weird mix of reporting on labor and health care nightmares and police violence and also commentary on other people’s reporting on that and also really a memoir of my own struggles with mental health and physical issues” he explains.“I think it’s a weird book, and it’s either going to be weird and people will really like it, or really weird and people will think “this is garbage.” All of that is just fine with the author, himself.
Dying Scene (Jay Stone): You grew up around here…
Yeah, I grew up on the South Shore. Kingston, Mass. Once I was able to drive, we started coming to Boston a lot, and we went to Providence all the time because it was just about the same distance. Most of the time we’d actually go to Providence, because they had Lupo’s and the Met Cafe and stuff like that. That was sort of how I got really into music. Then I went to college and started playing music and became a radio DJ. I got super into that stuff. And then one of my first jobs, because I was so into music my whole life, was that I became the music editor for the Weekly Dig. This would have been 2002 or 3 or something like that, so it was still kinda the early days of the Dig. Around that time, I started playing in a band around the city. So, I always sort of had one foot in the music world and one foot in writing about it, which was good and bad, you know? I think it made me a better music journalist. It’s always better when you’re writing about a subject, to understand how it works. What kind of questions I would want to be asked, and that sort of thing. That was sort of my beginning as a reporter and sort of got me to where I am today.
Do you remember what your first show was?
That I saw? My first actual concert I went to was when I was real young. My dad took me to see Weird Al. I think he was opening for The Monkees (Editor’s note: It was August, 1987) at Great Woods, whatever it’s called now. I was a boy, I don’t remember how old. But my first “this is a real cool concert” – well, not that Weird Al wasn’t cool, that was pretty awesome – but was Lollapalooza ‘93. The first band that played that day was Rage Against The Machine. (Here’s an aerial picture.) So the first real rock band I ever saw was Rage Against The Machine. That was in Rhode Island too. (Editor’s note: Quonset Airport in North Kingstown, of all places. Lineup also featured Alice in Chains and Tool and Dinosaur Jr. and Fishbone and Babes In Toyland and Sebadoh and fucking Arrested Development!) That blew my mind! By then, I was super into music. I remember getting turned on early by Dinosaur Jr. I was super into Juliana Hatfield, and a lot of the Massachusetts stuff. I remember thinking it was so cool that bands could be from Massachusetts. Maybe it’s different for people now, but I feel like that’s an epiphany that people have at some point. “Wait, bands come from near where I live? They’re not all from New York City or London or something?”
Yeah, we kinda went through the same thing with The Queers. Being from New Hampshire, aside from Ronnie James Dio and Al Barr and the Bruisers, The Queers were really the only band around that time to come from New Hampshire but that people had heard of.
It makes you feel more like you’re part of something. And then, that’s when you start realizing “hey, I can go see small, local bands.” My other thing back then was that I was super into Letters To Cleo, and that was at least in part because they used to play here so much. I must have seen them like twenty times. And then I would learn about all the bands that were opening for them. It becomes like a chain reaction – you go see a band and you find out who’s opening for them, and then you go see that band later and find out who’s opening for them, and I always really loved that about music. But, I fucking hate it now. I’m like “what, that band’s on at 9? I gotta go to bed!”
“There’s five bands on the bill? What the fuck?!?”
Right?! That’s one good thing about me being super into emo and pop-punk bands, because so often the show starts at like 6. I was in a band for most of my twenties and early thirties, and we did it pretty good. We did the thing, you know? And I even didn’t really like it then, when I was young. I certainly went for it and did it, but once we started No Hope/No Harm a few years ago, me and Aaron (Perrino, The Sheila Divine) are older now, and I don’t think I have the love of like driving up at five, soundchecking, then sitting around to play at eleven. I just don’t have that stamina anymore. I mean, a big part of that is that I’m not constantly out of my mind on cocaine. (*both laugh*) That is a help…or a hurt.
Depends on your perspective (*laughs*)
It helped you want to be somewhere and stay there. The one good thing that cocaine always did. And even now with Emo Night – I don’t want this whole interview to be about me being washed up (*both laugh*) – but I have Nick (Greico) finish it out, because I don’t want to be out til 2am.
When you talked before about finding out new music by learning who was opening for whom…did that prompt the music writing thing?
I had always wanted to be a writer when I was a kid. I wrote for the high school newspaper and shit like that. And then, when I was in college (College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA), I became a voracious reader of fiction. I wanted to write fiction. I wrote essays in fiction in college and won some stupid school awards, and that’s how I got my real first job. My real first job was I worked for Conde Nast. I moved to New York City – this was around 2000 – and magazines were just starting to have websites. Somehow, I don’t know how, I got a job just on the fact that I was a pretty good writer. I went and applied and interviewed for a normal job to be an editorial assistant and I somehow got it. I don’t know if that really taught me anything.
That was a real weird time for the internet, and nobody really knew what was going on. We’d just write shitty quizzes – quizzes were big back then! I stopped doing that after two years and came back here to go to Emerson to study fiction and poetry, because the idea of writing fiction and making a living was still possible back then. It was kind of having a resurgence at the time; McSweeney’s was big then, and I was super into everything they were doing and I said “I want to be a part of this world!” So I did two years at Emerson toward an MFA, and I somehow got the job at the Dig, and was like, “well, fuck it, I’m a professional writer now, I don’t need to finish this.” So I didn’t finish the Masters, which was stupid, especially since I sill have student loans…
So what do you have left to finish if you did two full years, a thesis?
Yeah, I just had to do one more thing to write and defend my thesis. And I had it written, I don’t know why the fuck I didn’t do it. I just said “I don’t want to do it anymore.” And I started playing in my first band, and I thought I was hot shit. I was going to be a rock star! I don’t know, I just kind of chafed against this program at Emerson, but I guess chafing against structure and discipline has always been a throughline for me, up until my most recent exploits of the whole Boston Globe thing. I tend to quit or get fired from almost everything I’ve ever done, because I have a very low tolerance for doing things just because that’s the way they’re done. I’m not afraid to speak up – I guess I’m just an impetuous teenage shit still! (*both laugh*) I have not matured, but I think that’s worked out well for me. At this point, I’m never going to be a tenure-track, Beltway DC, lanyard fucker. Or I’m not going to climb the ladder at a New York City magazine.
Were those really ever goals, or is that just sort of where it usually ends up?
Certainly starting out it was. I always wanted to work at a magazine like Esquire when I was young. By the time I started writing for Esquire, the whole industry was so different. But this is a story I’ve told a few times, after I got fired from The Dig – because even at the Dig at the time, where everyone was smoking pot in the office and there were kegs – even at a place like that, I just didn’t like going to sit there all day and just being at a computer because the boss wanted you to be in the office. So I got fired from that, and the guy who fired me, Joe Keohane, who’s a good friend of mine and has been my editor still over the years. You know how you get mad when you get fired? I remember he and the publisher, Jeff Lawrence, took me to Foley’s in the South End to fire me, and a lot of times when people get fired, they get irate. I was like, “yeah, you’re probably right! I’m not really feeling this!”
Shortly after that, I got a job at the Metro as the editor, and I went in the first day, and I remember everyone was so excited that there was pizza in the breakroom, and I just laughed and said “I don’t want to work at a place where people are excited that there’s pizza.” So I went back to waiting tables and freelancing when I could. That’s what I did all through my twenties and up until I was probably like 34. I worked at restaurants and bars and freelanced on the side, and funnily enough those are the owners of the restaurant I worked at! And I got fired from there too! (*both laugh*) Well, I mean, it took like seven years though. Whenever people would ask me – I guess somehow I’ve become like this notable freelancer, which, there’s a distinction between being a notable writer and a notable freelancer. It’s not that my work is that great, but it’s the fact that I’m freelancing…you get the distinction? (*laughs*) There’s lots of people in the media who, when they think about freelancing, they think “oh, Luke O’Neil, he talks about freelancing all the time.”
So, that’s what I tell people whenever they ask. You’re not going to show up on day one and be a freelance journalist. You have to have something else that you do. Waiting tables is a great job for a freelancer to have, because of the flexible time. So I freelanced for The Phoenix and the Globe, then the guy that fired me from the Dig, Joe Keohane, he was the opposite of me. He was always good at getting jobs and being the editor, so he brought me on at Esquire maybe six or seven years ago. That obviously was a pretty big step for my career and I did lots of great work there, but then I sort of got fired, sort of quit from there? I still don’t really know. I just started talking shit sometimes about how bad the site was getting while I was working there, and obviously the bosses didn’t like that, and we just sort of ghosted each other in a weird way? I still don’t even know what happened.
Well that’s the thing. People can like the way that you write about other things, but then when they’re the target of it …
…they don’t tend to like it! That’s the thing about media now. In order to be one of the people now who keeps a job, who have to by your very nature be kind of a boot-licker or a fucking cop. I think that’s the problem with – and I hate the term mainstream media – but when you talk about the (Washington) Post or the (New York) Times or any New York magazine, in order to stay within the business and climb the ladder and get jobs and keep jobs, you definitely have to be willing to swallow a lot more shit than I certainly am willing to. That’s been both good and bad for my career, because like you said, when you’re the object of one of my angry screeds, it’s not as much fun as when I’m doing it on your behalf against someone else.
But it’s also the reason you get hired. So I’ve never understood why that’s been a thing…although maybe that’s why I never became a professional writer. But if you’re going to hire somebody because of the way that they write and the positions they take on the things that they write about, you should have a little self-awareness when you’re in those crosshairs yourself.
Right, and that’s the whole thing with the Globe. Somebody else who works there was on a Facebook thread and said “I just searched the Globe and Luke O’Neil’s written like 700 articles here. It’s not like the editorial page is having some unknown…I mean, a lot of those were music. I did a lot of music writing for them, so it’s not like I’ve been saying “fuck the police” in a music review. But yeah, that’s been the story of my career ping-ponging back and forth between “oh man, this guys tells it like it is, we gotta hire him to write for us” and then ….
“Wait, he’s telling us how we are!”
Yeah, “hey, you’re not supposed to tell us how it is!!!” So that brought me to last year, when the guys from Substack, who run the newsletter company. The said “I’m coming to Boston, would you like to have a beer, because I’d like to talk to you about writing a newsletter” and I was like “no, I don’t want to.” I was hung over and I was like “who’s this fucking guy.” But, I went to go meet him, and he was like “you can write whatever you want, and if you’re lucky, you might be able to make some money at it.” And I was like “alright, I’ll try that.” Pretty quickly, I got a few thousand subscribers, and then we started charging a little money for it, and right now I probably make more money from doing that than I’ve ever made from any job in my life. It’s crazy! I charge $6.66 a month or $69 a year, and I’ve got about 1100 paying subscribers. That’s not a bad living right there if you can keep it up. Traditionally I would make…I mean, I’m 42, I was making like $50-60,000, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but you’re not going to get rich.
Listen, I work in human services, I get it.
And don’t get me wrong, compared to what most people who work real jobs get paid, it’s an outrage. Everyone’s underpaid. Certainly a lot of people that I write about in the newsletter.
So when did the idea for the book come along? Was that prior to launching the newsletter?
Pretty much everything that happens to me in terms of doing something in my life, someone has to make me do it, you know? (*both laugh*) That was the case with the newsletter. People over the last 5, 6, 7 years or whatever it’s been used to say “oh, you should do a podcast!” I don’t want to do a podcast, but if a podcast company had come to me and said “we’re going to have you do this,” than I probably would have done it. It just so happened that the guy with the newsletter company did it. And then, this guy John Oakes, who’s the publisher of O/R Books, became a huge fan of Hell World. He was like “do you want to write a book?” and I was like “I dunno…” Literary agents had come to me from time to time over the years saying “do you want to write a book” and I was like “I guess so” and they were like “do you have an idea for one?” and I was like “no.” I think writing a book is really stupid. People spend a year or two years, and maybe they’ll get 20, 30, 40, 0 grand if they’re lucky, on the high end – famous people will get more, but an average schmuck, maybe you’ll get 20 or 30 grand for an advance. And then you spend two years living off of that, and then the book comes out and nobody buys it and nobody gives a fuck. No offense to all my colleagues. (*both laugh*)
But the reason I wanted to do this is that I was already writing the book anyway. I do like three newsletters a week, and they’re pretty long…anywhere from three-to-five thousand words. So, my problem ended up being when it came time to compile the book was that I had too much, you know? The book is basically the newsletter, for the most part, just packaged a little bit different in a more palatable book form. There’s no commas, though. My fans don’t have to worry. There’s no proper grammar (*both laugh*). And then there are some essays that have been published in Boston Magazine or Esquire or something like that that sort of fit the Hell World theme. And then some original stuff. But I wouldn’t have done it if I wasn’t already doing it, you know? So this guy came to me and said “let me take what you’re already doing and turn it into a book.”
Does he give you free reign about which articles to choose?
Pretty much, yeah. I put a bunch in, and I think the original manuscript was around 200,000 words, which was a lot. It was like 450 pages or something. But we collaborated a bit, because I don’t want it to be too long, you know? The only thing we sort of butted heads on was the cover, so we decided to do two covers. It’s pretty cool: one of them is this sort of retro-punk flier imagery and one is a sort of design-y, modern feel. It’s been great working with them so far. I mean, my deal’s not that great or anything, I’m not going to make a ton of money, unless I sell, you know, fifty thousand copies. But the point of writing a book isn’t to make money, it’s just so that you can say that you wrote a book. And I mean that in a bad way – that’s why so many people write books. It’s like, “oh, I wrote a book, now I’m an author!” As though people will respect you know. They still don’t! (*both laugh*) Like, I’m embarrassed talking about it this much with you. Please make it clear that I find talking about myself to be weird. And I almost get embarrassed to say what I do, like when I went to talk to those guys over there and they said “hey, what are you up to?” a normal thing would be to say “oh, I’ve got a book coming out.” But I don’t say that…
Well why not? Are you worried that it sounds douchey?
It sounds douchey and kind of desperate — See you guys later! – Like, who cares. It’s almost like if someone hears that you’re in a band, they’re like “oh, what’s the name of your band?” They’re never going to come see you play. (*both laugh*) I never like talking about the band. I mean, we’re not really doing much at the moment; their other projects are kind of busy. I don’t even know if I’m in a band anymore…maybe I got fired! (*both laugh*)
So 200,000 words, 400 pages…that’s a lot of Hell World!
It is, man! A lot of it has to do with the style that I write in, which is kind of run-on and stream of consciousness and bounces from one thing to another. I don’t know, I think the book might be interesting and weird. I’ve certainly never read anything like it, which can be a bad thing. I can imagine people thinking it sucks, and maybe it does, I don’t know. But it’s like a weird mix of reporting on labor and health care nightmares and police violence and also commentary on other people’s reporting on that and also really a memoir of my own struggles with mental health and physical issues. It’s weird. I think it’s a weird book, and it’s either going to be weird and people will really like it, or really weird and people will think “this is garbage.” And that’s fine by me, because that’s kind of why I committed to the weird grammatical shit, because if it’s going to be bad, at least it’s going to be bad in a way that you don’t see that often! (*both laugh*)
It’s uniquely bad!
Right! Seriously, why not give it a try? Like I said, all these people who pour their hearts and souls into crafting the perfect book and then the book comes and goes, it’s like, “well, what was that for?” Might as well take a shot.
Have you been doing it long enough now where you’re passed the point of people giving you flack for the writing style?
Some people love it…
As do I.
Thank you! Sometimes people will write and say they don’t love it, but they do it in a nice way, like “could you throw in a few commas for us that can’t pay attention?” I’m sure tons of people hate it, but I don’t really hear from many people that hate the newsletter. Like, I hear from people that hate me or other things I write almost constantly, you know?
Sort of cost of doing business, right?
Right! It’s a rare day that goes by that I don’t have ten to fifty people I fucking suck, but that’s just writing and talking about politics in this era. To be fair, I certainly give out my share of that. Last night, I was fired up about a piece of shit from the Daily Beast who was trying to “both sides” the concentration camps. And that’s what I was talking about earlier – people who want to “both sides” things because that’s how you keep a job at the Washington Post or the New York Times…
That’s how we got into the mess we’re in now anyway, not only journalistically but as a nation..
Right. And the Democrats are basically the centrist party. The professional media are essentially center-Right at best. It’s so stupid that the media always gets called the “liberal media.” It’s liberal in the pejorative sense of the word, sure, in that it’s cowardly or cautious or unwilling to take any stands. But that’s another thing. In one of the first newsletters I wrote, and it’s in the book too, I wrote “I don’t know what this is going to be, but I promise you won’t hear ‘both sides.’” I don’t think I have, and I have no interest in it. A lot of times, I’ll talk to somebody who can’t pay their hospital bills. The journalistic thing to do is that you’re supposed to call the insurance company to get their side of it. It’s like, “fuck you, I don’t care what your side of it is. I KNOW what your side of it is. Your side of it is that you’re fucking this person over.” It’s pointless to me to ask. It’s like, if the cops shoot somebody, it’s pointless to call the cops and ask why they shot them. They’re going to lie to you. That’s the problem, I think, of why media is so cowardly and wants to play it down the middle. I don’t think that has served us well. I’m not trying to give the impression that I’m making any change in the world, just to be clear, but in terms of my own mental well-being, I’m not going to give the “other side” their say.
Have you heard from people that you’ve talked to for the newsletter especially after the fact about how their situation either got better, or at least raised awareness to it?
Yeah, one that we did, and this wasn’t entirely me but I did help, was one woman I talked to was told that she was too poor to qualify for a heart transplant. I was in touch with her and friends of hers who started a GoFundMe, and a few other people in the media shared her story as well, and we ended up raising like $35,000 so she could then go back and get in line again. She was overwhelmed by that. Some of the other stuff I’ve done is I’ve reported on a lot of labor strikes, like the Stop N Shop one that just happened or the Marriott Hotels one. They all ended up getting great outcomes and that had nothing to do with me, but it’s just nice to see. I’m not taking credit for anything, but it’s nice to just talk to somebody who’s getting fucked and let them explain why they’re getting fucked without presenting the bad guy’s point of view, you know?
Do you ever want to talk to the bad guys one on one, not so much to present their side but to call them out in person on being bad guys?
I guess. One sort of famous one that I did in the newsletter, but that I didn’t end up putting in the book because it’s a little too “inside baseball” was the one about the freelance payment portal called WorkMarket, if you remember that one, and I ended up getting those guys to talk to me on the record. Sometimes it’s fun. They way they explained it, they were bullshitting, and I could tell the guy kinda knew he was bullshitting, and sometimes it’s fun to just let someone hang themselves, you know? But I feel like there’s too much of that now. There’s a lot of interviewing of the alt-right and neo-Nazis and stuff where they’re like “I’m going to show this guy’s words, and they’re going to seem so absurd that everyone’s going to laugh at him!” But I’m not interested in that. There’s too much of that going on and that sort of thing just helps to spread their message, so no, not really. I mean, I guess I would be sort of interested to talk to somebody who’s done something really bad and then learned something from it. Like, maybe a cop that hurt somebody and quit being a cop because he felt so terrible.
Do you find that there are people who talk about Hell World like it’s an overly negative thing? Because I’ll forwarded it to a lot of people that I think would enjoy the writing or the point of view, and sometimes have had to preface it by saying “no, it’s not as pessimistic as the name might imply.” The whole point is that there is some sort of hopeful thread in all of this; that we’re all in the shit right now but that maybe there’s a way out of it.
That’s what a lot of people write to me and say. They say it helps them make sense of how they’re feeling, and that’s a really cool thing for me to hear. I don’t take credit for doing anything tangible in the world, but people feel like they’re going crazy, particularly right now, and sometimes it’s really refreshing saying “no, this really is crazy, you’re not weird to be losing your mind because of this shit, because a lot of people are.” I do cover a lot of negative stuff, I guess whether or not I’m cynical or hopeful depends on the given day. I’m not particularly optimistic with all the concentration camp shit going on. A weird thing that people tell me is that it is a lot of doom and gloom but a lot of people find the newsletter somewhat funny. I guess it is. A lot of this stuff can get you down when you’re reading it, but it can take a left turn and be a little funny, and that’s something I try to do, because who wants to read about misery all the time. That’s why I include a lot of stuff about myself and how I’m a fuck-up and a dumbass.