Interview w/John Warner – Editor, McSweeney’s

SM: What do you look for in a McSweeney’s web submission?

JW: The primary, and pretty much the only criteria is whether or not it makes me laugh. I also like a balance between long and short words, extreme flattery in the cover note, and a proportional sized font. You know, the usual.

SM: How does editing for the internet differ from editing for a print publication?

JW: I don’t know that it’s all that different. Choosing pieces, then working with writers to hone their pieces isn’t any different whether the pages are electronic or paper. I do think the short attention span phenomenon is real when dealing with the Internet audience, so I try to make sure that there’s something conceptually in the piece that will hook the reader. This is doubly important because a lot of our traffic is word of mouth through links on blogs or other sites. I think it’s probably
pretty similar to doing a daily newspaper, where the pace never really slackens and there’s constantly something that must be done to keep the ball moving forward.

SM: Are you a writer as well as an editor?

JW: I am, though I’ve done a lot less writing since I started editing the site (July 2003). I’ve co-authored one book, , and am under contract for another book of humor based on some pieces I did for the site before I started doing the editing (see one here.
I’ve also published short stories, interviews, essays, reviews, other pieces of non-fiction, essentially anything that seems interesting to me. I guess these days I’m supposed to be ashamed of it, but I have an MFA in creative writing also. I never expected any kind of career in writing or editing coming out of graduate school, but over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to catch some breaks and place some stuff here and there. Just about everything I’ve done that can be read on the web is compiled here, thanks to my friend and My First Presidentiary co-author Kevin Guilfoile.

SM: Ever get tired of looking at words?

JW: Sure. I burn out on them just about every day. In my day job, I teach in the Communication Department at Virginia Tech, and every time I collect a writing assignment from my students, I have 95 pieces I not only have to read through, but also be prepared to comment on in depth on every single line. Couple that with 200-250 submissions to the website per week, and I’ll often feel like I can’t read another word.
A couple of three hours of television and this special drink I make out of seaweed always seem to revitalize me, though.

SM: When was the last time words really, really excited you?

JW: Rare is the day when words don’t excite me on some level, though sometimes it’s as simple as say, the word, “yes” after I’ve asked my wife if I can give her a sponge bath. In seriousness, I only select pieces for the site that excite me, so there’s a kind of constant pleasure in words. The greatest excitement is when I know we’re about to run something that’s going to lop off some heads.

SM: If you had to spend the next twenty hours immersed in three words (i.e., all you can hear, speak, or think are these three words) what would they be and do you think you could ever bear to encounter them again afterwards?

JW: I find that the best, and most lasting words shake us with their undeniable truth, so for this devilish little scenario you’ve cooked up, I’d choose: Shakira. Is. Hot. Think of the possibilities: a question, “Is Shakira hot?” A Yoda-like declaration, “Hot, Shakira is.” Or even the start of a conversation with the Latina singing superstar herself about the temperature of her morning coffee, Is hot, Shakira? Twenty hours may not be sufficient.

SM: Indulge us, please, in an anecdote.

JW: Thinking of words, I remember the first word that stuck with me, Watergate. I was three or four and the televised hearings must have invaded my young consciousness. To me, I’m sure it conjured images of its literal meaning, a gate made of water, and that sounded pretty cool. How would that work, exactly? It sounded so cool, that on a family trip to Washington DC., upon exiting the plane I asked the stewardess where I could go see it. Cracked up the whole place. I was awfully disappointed when they took me to a hotel.

SM: Ever blew off something really important to read a book?

JW: When I was young, it was sleep. I was the kind of kid who read the book under the covers with the flashlight and all that. Now, it’s writing, if writing can be important. I’ll often get wrapped in a book, and decide that whatever time I set aside to write that day would be better spent finishing that particular book and I’m usually right.

SM: The McSweeney’s website has certainly evolved into an impressive (free) collection of short writings. Will there ever be a print compilation of the web pieces?

JW: I’m so pleased you asked. Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans:
The Best of McSweeney’s, Humor Category will be released this summer by the Alfred A. Knopf publishing company. We’re very excited about it. It collects the best of the first five years of the site, along with a handful of choice pieces from the print journal. This book could stomp Tokyo and finish off Mothra for good measure if I do say so myself.

SM: T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and William Blake are all in separate corners of a room, in the center of which is a hundred dollar bill. Knowing what you do of their work, who reaches the bill first?

JW: The only thing more muscular than Blake’s rhythm were his calves, honed through a daily regimen of wind sprints used to stoke his fires for his sessions of automatic writing. Lewis and Eliot wouldn’t even sniff that c-note.