TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, John Hodgman, is an author, humorist and actor. He joined "The Daily Show" in the Jon Stewart era where he was a commentator who appeared in the roles of the Deranged Millionaire and the Resident Expert. On public radio, he's contributed stories to This American Life. He's written several best-selling books of fake facts and made-up history. And you may also remember him from his appearances in Apple's "Get A Mac" TV ad campaign where he played a stuffy, old-fashioned PC, and Justin Long played a young, hip Mac. Now Hodgman has a new collection of humorous personal essays called "Vacationland."
John Hodgman, welcome to FRESH AIR.
JOHN HODGMAN: It is absolutely my pleasure to be here.
GROSS: And my pleasure to have you. I want to start with a reading from your new book. Let me set it up a little bit. This is a reading in an essay that you wrote about buying a summer home in Maine after already having inherited your parents' summer home in Massachusetts and realizing you're now not only an adult, but you're the guy with two summer homes. And you're feeling pretty uncomfortable about that and feeling like - that you don't fit in with your new neighbors in Maine. And you're thinking, I don't belong here. I'm young, I'm cool. And then you realize you did belong there (laughter). And so you are...
HODGMAN: That is a very accurate description such to the point that my - the hairs are raising on my arms.
GROSS: (Laughter) So you want to pick it up from there with the reading?
HODGMAN: I will. I'm happy to read from there. (Reading) There are times when all the lies you have told about yourself to yourself just fall away. In your 20s, you tell yourself the lie that you are unusual, unprecedented and interesting. You do this largely by purchasing things or stealing things. You adorn yourself with songs, and clothes, and borrowed ideas and poses. In your 30s, you tell yourself the lie that you are still in your 20s. Many in their 40s tell themselves the same lie until a moment like this, and suddenly, you see yourself clearly. Yes, I went to see Public Enemy in a small club in 1990 by myself, which was pretty cool of me, but less cool now that I remember I saw them at Toad's Place in New Haven while attending Yale University.
Yes, I shoplifted some off-brand beers and snuck into the London Zoo when I was in my 20s, but only now do I realize that I did so with full, if unconscious, confidence that I would not be executed in the street for doing these things. Yes, my parents came from modest, working-middle-class families, but I have never truly wanted for anything in my life. I don't say these things to flay myself for my many privileges, just to draw out the truth and see it.
GROSS: Thanks for reading that. You know, so I was thinking, reading your book, about the different masks we all put on and the poses we take through life. And you became famous for your personas - you know, on "The Daily Show," and in the Mac commercials and as the historian collecting fake facts.
GROSS: So how did you start getting more personal, and, like, taking off some of the masks and revealing things about who you, John Hodgman, really are, like you do in the book?
HODGMAN: Yeah, so the exaggerations of those characters were how I imagined that I made myself and what I had to say interesting. I mean, obviously, it was comedy, right? It was all designed to make people laugh. And so comedy is often taking things to an absurdist degree. So it was a heightened reality. When I went and first started performing more personal, straightforward stories of my own, I felt a little ashamed of myself because everyone's got an autobiography. Why should mine be interesting? Why should my being a regular human, and husband and father to two human children be interesting at all? But the fact of the matter was that it was all that I had. There was no - there was nothing left in this weird fake-trivia world for me, and I needed to move forward.
The book is about, to some degree, moments in your life when you are faced with a sudden clarity of where you are in life. And sometimes that - and very much in this book - surrounds sort of midlife, when you've maybe accomplished everything you think is most important, and now you've got time left, and you don't know what to do with it, or you've faced a loss in your life, or you've lost a job or someone close to you or you just feel out of gas, creatively - and the panic that you feel when that happens and then figuring out how to push forward from there once you have that stark reality of the moment.
GROSS: But it seems to me you had personas that you stood behind before "The Daily Show." For example, like, you write in the book that when you were in high school, you had shoulder-length hair. You wore a fedora and a bow tie and carried a briefcase. So...
HODGMAN: I just want to say, for the record, the bow tie was really just once or twice. But I will cop to the rest of that stuff.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK.
HODGMAN: That was everyday apparel for me as I went to high school, and it is really a question of - that looms my mind is why I was not bullied more or teased more. I think I just...
GROSS: But what were you trying to convey? I mean, you were looking like either an older professor or an older businessman from another era. So why were you wearing it?
HODGMAN: Yeah, I - well, so I am an only child, and I wanted to be interesting. So the idea that I grew up with was the fear that any sort of conflict, or disagreement or any sort of high-tension confrontation, including a fight or hugging and kissing another person, all seemed fatal to me, terrifying. So I wanted to be interesting, and I wanted to - once I turned about 13, I wanted to jump over sexual adolescence and become the sexless, gentleman bachelor of about 39.
HODGMAN: That felt very comfortable to me. I mean, it's not a surprise that I dressed like Doctor Who - very specifically, the fourth Doctor Who played by Tom Baker - and wore that long scarf because Doctor Who was this man who had absolutely no emotional connection to anyone around him, and could travel around and escape from any conflict in a magic box whenever he needed to. So that's what I - that's the look I was going for in high school, which was emotionally terrified weirdo who was tricking people into thinking he was interesting by wearing funny clothes.
GROSS: It also seems to me, you were kind of, like, removing yourself emotionally by putting quotation marks around yourself by wearing a kind of ironic costume and making that, like, your brand.
HODGMAN: I guess I was - I guess my hope was, in the most base way, that people would say, that guy's interesting, let me talk to him, because I did want to reach out to people, but I was also very, very nervous and shy.
GROSS: Did people reach out to you because of what you were wearing?
HODGMAN: I think I prompted a lot of curiosity. I think of - and I made a lot of friends who also, I think, felt out of place in adolescence, you know, including the woman who is now my wife. We met in high school. We were bunch - we were friends in a gang of friends who were terrified of hugging and kissing other people. And...
GROSS: Were you terrified of hugging and kissing each other?
HODGMAN: Yeah, of course.
HODGMAN: ...Because that was going to really upset the balance of the friend group.
HODGMAN: But luckily, for me, certainly - and I hope she feels the same way - we overcame our fear, and really upset the apple cart and fell in love with each other.
GROSS: So in pursuing who you were when you were younger, in high school, you edited a publication called Samizdat, and that's the name of, like, the dissident literature that was published underground in the Soviet Union when most real literature was being censored. And a lot of novelists were risking prison for what they were saying in their fiction. So what did Samizdat mean to you as a teenager in an alternative high school who was hardly having his freedom suppressed?
HODGMAN: Well, for sure, I mean, I had a lot of ideas as a high school student. I guess we all do - pretentious and - ideas and affectations, but Samizdat was something that was kind of - ended up being pretty special. You're absolutely right to identify that I was not being oppressed the way Osip Mandelstam, the poet, was being - had been oppressed in the Soviet Union of Stalin. I was in a happy household - middle-class household in a wonderful suburb of Boston.
I wasn't in alternative high school, but it was within - the school was literally called School Within A School. It was part of the larger, regular high school. I and some friends of mine - we were all publishing our ideas, our deep thoughts, and our short stories, and our poems and cartoons in this underground, Xeroxed zine. But, of course, Nick McCarthy, who was one of the editors with me - his dad was the headmaster of the school.
HODGMAN: And because of that, we actually went to Brookline Town Hall to use their massive Xerox machine for free.
HODGMAN: It was literally being published by the state. It could not have been more upside down. But we had this policy which was that we would publish anything. And people would send it in. And we wanted submissions from anyone and everyone in the school. And we weren't going to reject anything. But we would curate stuff to make one magazine. So whatever the submissions were, we would pick and choose to create something that had some sort of beginning, middle and end to it. And while our editorial policy was essentially one of cowardice because I didn't want to say no to anybody...
GROSS: (Laughter) You hate conflict.
HODGMAN: Yeah, I hate conflict.
HODGMAN: So it's like, well, we'll publish everything eventually. We ended up publishing some stuff that I thought was really quite good. And I - as I say, the benefit to me was getting to know more people in the school than I otherwise would have.
GROSS: So you seem very aware of growing up white-privileged. And you're funny about it. But how did you first acquire that understanding? How did you first become aware of the fact that you had been afforded several privileges?
HODGMAN: Well, you know, so both of my parents were the first in their families to go to college. They met at Boston College where they were studying professional degrees. My mom eventually became a nurse administrator. And my dad, until he retired, was in business, like executive business stuff. The point is that my mom and dad came from working-class families - my dad from central Massachusetts - Fitchburg, Mass., my mom from northeast Philadelphia.
Their parents were both Catholic. They had an array of children between them. And they were able to support these children not having college degrees but working, you know, in - my grandfather on my dad's side worked in a paper factory. And my grandfather on my mom's side worked in the printing press of a newspaper. Like, they were - they literally were working in industries that would be completely consumed by technology today and do not exist in the same way at all. It was a different time.
But they were able to raise my mom and dad to go to college and get professional degrees. And they went forward and have these careers and were able to afford, not merely a whole house, but a ridiculously enormous house in Brookline, Mass., where the three of us would wander amidst, I think, 22 rooms. It was a huge step forward. And yet my mom and dad both loved their families very much, still felt greatly connected to that working-class, middle-class background. And we spent a lot of time in their much smaller homes and in their worlds.
So I was aware of the class change and what a weird artifact I was of class change and sort of class mobility. Because my mom - she grew up in a Catholic family in Philadelphia. She was the eldest of seven. She had five younger sisters and a younger brother. And they all lived together in a row home in northeast Philadelphia with two bedrooms. And when my mom got her career together, she went in a very loving but distinct 180 deciding to only have one child and move into a dilapidated house that was larger than we could ever use. I mean, we had rooms that we didn't have use for. And here I was, this one only weird child with long hair into my teens - and not cool long hair, like greasy, stringy long hair and a too-tight "Bloom County" t-shirt reading Edward Gorey books and going into, you know, my loving family - you know, extended families in Philadelphia and Fitchburg and knowing that, you know, my cousins who, you know - who were normal looked at me as a weirdo, the product of the people who left.
GROSS: OK. We have to take a short break here. If you're just joining us my guest is John Hodgman. And he has a new collection of humorous personal essays called "Vacationland." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED NASH'S "THE FOUR FREEDOMS (FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us my guest is John Hodgman. He was a contributor to "The Daily Show," a contributor to THIS AMERICAN LIFE. He's the author of several books of fake facts and made-up history. And now he has a new collection of humorous personal essays called "Vacationland."
Yeah. So you were - you worked in a literary agency as an agent...
GROSS: ...For seven years before becoming a writer. And you say...
GROSS: ...You realized at some point you didn't want to be editing the creative people, representing the creative people - you wanted to be one of the creative people.
HODGMAN: Yeah. I mean, I'm a hard worker sometimes, but I'm lazy other times. And growing a moustache or putting on a fedora was shorthand for making myself interesting when I was too nervous or afraid to actually sit down and be interesting by creating something. I loved the world of books. And I loved the world of stories, but writing them seemed hard. So I got a job where - with a wonderful company where I could help other people be creative and then take a nap in the afternoon and feel like I accomplished something.
HODGMAN: But ultimately - and I'm not - this is not an exaggeration or self-deprecation. I mean, I was indolent. I'm not suggesting that agents are lazy.
GROSS: It's just that you are (laughter).
HODGMAN: I was.
HODGMAN: And the fact is in my - no. My colleagues were amazing. But they were doing something, which was they had - they knew what they loved to do, and they were doing it. I knew that what I wanted to do that I couldn't not do was make things, was write and create things.
HODGMAN: And so even though I was lazy on some level - and I think what I really mean is fearful to commit to being a creative person - I was working hard at avoiding the thing that I knew I had to do. And it was an untenable emotional situation. And it was certainly unfair to my clients because by the end of my tenure at the literary agency, I was sneaking aside and writing little reviews of video games and stuff for magazines. I was being a writer. And I was competing with them on some level. And that's part of why I had to stop.
GROSS: You were a contributor to "The Daily Show" for about 10 years.
HODGMAN: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: And over the course of those 10 years, you had two different personas. One was as...
HODGMAN: The Resident Expert.
GROSS: The Resident Expert, and the other was the millionaire, the...
HODGMAN: The deranged.
GROSS: ...The deranged. I knew it started with a D.
GROSS: The Deranged Millionaire.
GROSS: So they both played on almost the kind of persona that you had when you were in high school when you had, like...
GROSS: ...The bow tie and the briefcase and the fedora because you...
GROSS: ...Were kind of like an old-fashioned, you know, resident scholar or millionaire living...
GROSS: ...In another era...
GROSS: ...In a bubble (laughter).
HODGMAN: Authoritative white men...
HODGMAN: ...Who think they know everything...
HODGMAN: ...Certainly in the case of the Resident Expert and then, by the time of the Deranged Millionaire, authoritative white man who believes that he deserves everything. And they were two exaggerated versions of myself, though, sort of crafted by circumstance. The Deranged Millionaire emerged in the show because I had been doing the Resident Expert for a long time. I saw one as the natural extension of the other. And Donald Trump was on television, peddling a conspiracy theory about then-President Barack Obama's birth certificate and going on serious news to talk about it.
And my feeling was we need that character on the show. We need a wealthy white man who feels that it's his business to just waltz into the news and start spouting nonsense. And it was a terrible miscalculation on my part because my humor and, to some degree, all humor is based on absurdist extrapolation to extremes. And there was no way the Deranged Millionaire could compete with the absurdist extrapolation to the extreme that Donald Trump himself was doing.
And there was no - I mean, he's just - he's beyond comedy. The people who are able to make jokes about Donald Trump - they astonish me because by the end of the Deranged Millionaire, I was like, I can't compete. There's nothing I can do comedically that will compete with the long form improv Donald Trump is doing. And he wasn't even the nominee for the Republican Party at that point. So that's what ended that.
GROSS: How much of the writing did you do yourself, and how much did the writing staff work with you on the pieces?
HODGMAN: The great gift of "The Daily Show" was teaching me to collaborate. As I have said over and over again...
GROSS: (Laughter) Only child...
HODGMAN: ...I spent most of my life up until then alone. And I believed that everything I made was perfect. It was interesting because the first few scripts that I wrote, I wrote the first script by hand by myself and then would go into notes meetings with writers. And the more that John came to trust my voice, the less he would allow me to do it all by myself. It was a weird thing. The more entrenched I was in the show and trusted in the show, the more I was encouraged to collaborate. And I realize now what a gift that was.
And it happened specifically when I was talking to - when I was teamed up with David Javerbaum - DJ Javerbaum, who's the executive producer, pretty soon after I started there. And he's an amazing comedic mind and joke machine. And I would, like, spin out these complicated jokes and things, and he would go, no, this is better. And he would be right. It taught me to let go of my ideas and be open to other ideas and to shut up sometimes when another person needed to talk. And it was an amazing experience.
GROSS: My guest is John Hodgman. He has a new collection of personal essays called "Vacationland." After we take a short break, we'll talk about a turning point in his life - the death of his mother. And Maureen Corrigan will review a new collection of short stories by Tom Hanks and a new novel by Matthew Weiner, the creator of the series "Mad Men." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "HAPPY TUNE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with author, humorist and actor John Hodgman. In the Jon Stewart era of "The Daily Show," Hodgman was a contributor and two personas, the Deranged Millionaire and the Resident Expert. He's also contributed to Public Radio's This American Life. He's written several books of fake facts and made-up history. His new book is a collection of humorous personal essays called "Vacationland."
I want to talk about a turning point in your life when you were 29 and working as a literary agent before you became a professional writer.
GROSS: And your mother was diagnosed with lung cancer...
GROSS: ...And died within eight months. And you left your job for a few weeks to be with her. I think it was a few weeks.
HODGMAN: Yeah. It was - yeah, a couple months, yeah.
GROSS: And just to give a sense of who she was, you tell this great story about after you saw "The Exorcist," and you were really - because you were a kid.
GROSS: ...And you were really afraid, like, the devil was going to get you (laughter).
HODGMAN: Yeah, well...
GROSS: Tell us how your mother reassured you (laughter).
HODGMAN: So, yeah, I - "The Exorcist" terrified me because as an only child, I believed that if I followed the rules, I would get universal approval and love from everyone on Earth. But possession by the devil - the devil didn't care what rules you followed. He might just take you over, and you'd become a bad person. And I would lie awake at night, waiting for my bed to start shaking because that's what happened in "The Exorcist" when the character was being possessed by the devil. And eventually it would shake because my heart was beating so hard. And it was causing the bed to tremble.
And I ran into my mom. And I must have been about 11 or 12. And I said, you know, I'm terrified of the devil possessing me. And she was in bed reading and smoking, the two things she did in bed all the time. And she said, well, you don't need to worry about that because there is no devil. And I said, oh, that's good to know. She said, yes. You don't know this, but I'm an atheist. I became an atheist after I left home, so I know there is no devil because there also is no God. And I'm like, I know you're trying to be comforting to me, but that's more...
HODGMAN: It was not a comfort to me exactly in this moment. Can I sleep in here - no, OK. I'll just go back and listen to soft rock until I fall asleep.
GROSS: Had you believed in God before that moment?
HODGMAN: I had no reason not to believe in God. It had not occurred to me that I shouldn't. We were not a religious family, but every culture creates a myth to, you know, reassure us that there is something beyond these meat bodies that we inhabit. And I certainly didn't want to be possessed by the devil, so I had to hope there was some God out there protecting me. And now I knew there was nothing. So thanks, Mom.
HODGMAN: But you know, she was - and she was funny when she said it, too. I mean, I remember it now. Like, that's funny. That was a funny joke to play on a child. But it was also unnerving and smart. And that's who she was.
GROSS: So what impact did that have on you?
HODGMAN: I'm sorry to pause. I'm just - I don't know. I haven't thought about it.
GROSS: OK that's a fair enough answer.
HODGMAN: Yeah. I mean, I thought a lot about what belief was. Once my mom said that she was an atheist, I wondered if I had to be. Like, was that...
GROSS: Right. That's true, right.
HODGMAN: Was that part of the obligation?
GROSS: Right. So you had to think that through for yourself.
HODGMAN: Yeah. And you know...
GROSS: You were suddenly faced with a choice you didn't know you had to make.
HODGMAN: Right. And you know, immediately once someone says, yeah, there's no God, it's like, oh, right. That's - now that you mention it, that's - the whole - that whole story doesn't make sense in a lot of ways, so why do people believe in it? And I guess I ended up thinking for some time about what it meant to be atheist or agnostic or faithful. And my basic - the thing that I came to was that I believe that there is probably stuff outside our perception that we can't see or articulate yet because that is a scientific belief that there might be more than we know. But as I get older, I kind of end up feeling like, yeah, there's nothing.
GROSS: Oh, really?
HODGMAN: We'll see what happens. We'll see what happens.
HODGMAN: I think I remember - now that I think about it, I remember sitting on the subway when I was probably in my mid-teens going, well, I guess I'll find out eventually one way or the other.
GROSS: So I found this interesting. Even though your mother was a self-described atheist, when she was dying, she started reciting the Lord's Prayer.
GROSS: And did you ask her why she was doing that?
HODGMAN: Toward the end of her illness, she had lung cancer. And her mind was not what it was by the end. And it's hard for me to know how much of that was the medications that she was taking or just the - you know, the deterioration of her facilities. But she would say the Lord's Prayer, and we would say with her. And in the book I say, I think, you know, she may have been sincerely returning to a kind of faith, or she may have been hedging her bets the way I did when I was a teenager by saying, we'll find out. I don't want to take any chances. I better say this thing.
But more it was an opportunity I think very plainly in the room when I was there. And my - and it was in - you know, she was at home, and my dad was there. And my then-girlfriend - well, actually my wife - we had just been married when my mom was diagnosed now that I think of it - to say those words together and feel less alone. And that's what prayer is. And that's what the good - the best part of religion is - to feel less alone.
GROSS: You know, I just saw Bruce Springsteen on Broadway.
GROSS: And he ends the show.
HODGMAN: Hot ticket.
GROSS: Well, he ends the show with the Lord's Prayer.
GROSS: And it's a beautiful prayer. I mean, I'm Jewish, so I never paid that much attention to the Lord's Prayer. But just hearing him recite it because he is such a good - you know, he's so good with words his own or, you know, with a - he's beautiful reciting a prayer as beautiful as the Lord's Prayer.
GROSS: But I heard it differently than I ever had before 'cause I've always heard it kind of mumbled. Like, give us this day, our daily bread, and...
GROSS: ...It always sounded to me like, today give us our meals, thanks.
HODGMAN: (Laughter) Yeah, well...
GROSS: But the way he said it...
GROSS: ...I heard it as, give us this day...
GROSS: ...Our daily bread. And like...
HODGMAN: I had always heard it mumbled.
GROSS: Thank you for this day.
GROSS: And it just - it sounded so beautiful to me.
HODGMAN: You know, I mean, I had always heard it mumbled by my cousins at their confirmations. I didn't know what it was. And then my - the interesting part of my mom reciting the Lord's Prayer was that she was reciting the Catholic Lord's Prayer. I'm forgetting how it starts. Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven. It's already beautiful poetry. I mean, it's just - the meter of it is incredible. Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen. And that's where it stops in the Catholic tradition.
And first of all, one of the things I remember is, like, I love saying the word trespasses. It's such a great - I don't know why. I never said trespasses. I said trespasses. And the forgiveness in it - forgive us, our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. It's like, I'm not sure that I can be convinced that I've always forgiven those who have trespassed against me, but this gives me something to aspire to.
But then it was my wife - then my very new wife, Katherine, in the room who said, it's funny; I grew up Episcopalian, and we had more. And at the end, instead of deliver us from evil, forgive us our trespasses - well, anyway, she would say, in the Episcopalian tradition, you would add, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, amen - which frankly is not my favorite part of the Lord's Prayer 'cause it's really worshipful and less poetic than the first part. But my mom had never said it, and now she added it to the prayer, which was a - it was an amazing moment.
GROSS: Was it kind of - you know, wasn't it, like, an acknowledgment that she was dying when she...
HODGMAN: It was an acknowledgement of death, but it was - I just need a second. I'm sorry.
GROSS: Sure. No, go ahead.
HODGMAN: It was a gift that my wife was able to give to my mother and to me 'cause I certainly had never heard it before - and then something we could all share together as an extended family for a very brief period of time.
GROSS: Do you still find yourself saying the Lord's Prayer to yourself?
HODGMAN: Yeah, every night.
GROSS: Every night.
HODGMAN: Yeah, yep, pretty much.
GROSS: What are some of the ways that your mother's death changed your life and the course of your life, you know, the direction you started off on - 'cause again, like, you were working...
GROSS: ...At the literary agency. And I think you quit not long after that and decided to...
GROSS: ...Become a writer.
HODGMAN: If my mom hadn't died, I would still be working in book publishing. And I would have a fine life probably. And I would've represented a lot of great authors, as I did before I left. Or maybe I would have quit and gotten some other job. But the experience of my mom passing away made me understand a couple of things. My going away from my life to take care of something more important was terrifying 'cause I thought everything back at my desk would fall apart, and the people who had put their creative lives in my trust would be angry at me. And I would not have the universal approval and love that I as an only child required of the world.
But I went away, and everything was fine. And I tended to this more important thing. And all my clients and friends said, good, go and do that; we'll be fine. Learning that you are not the center of the universe is a hard lesson for an only child to accept. And my mom's passing taught me that. And then of course, you know, that was the lesson that my mom tried to teach me when I came into her room that night. The devil isn't interested in you. There is no devil (laughter). There's no God. You're not the center of this. No one - if there were a devil, he's got billions of people that he or she could try to inhabit right now. It's not you.
And then I also realized the most cliched thing that any death teaches you, which is, you know, life is short. And so it became clear that if I were going to follow this other path, I would have to start immediately. And so I did. And luckily my friend Mark assigned me to write about cheese for Men's Journal. And it was - one of the greatest gifts in my life was that assignment. And the other gift, perversely, since I wish my mom were still alive, was that she passed away.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Hodgman. And he has a new collection of personal essays called "Vacationland." We're going to take a short break and then be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE SHEARING'S "THINKING OF YOU")
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Hodgman. And he has a new collection of humorous personal essays called "Vacationland."
So as you've mentioned more than once, you were an only child.
GROSS: You have two children. Did you want to make sure your child was not an only child?
HODGMAN: (Laughter) No. I wanted to have one child of course. Only children - you have to understand that for all of my self-deprecation, I'm a narcissist. I'm a narcissist who is ashamed of being a narcissist.
HODGMAN: I grew up that way. I was obsessed with myself. And I didn't appreciate how love could be distributed among two different children. Never mind having an extra person in my marriage, do you know? Objectively I knew that I wanted to have children. But you know, my wife really had to say, this is happening, and it's not going to happen five years from now. It's happening now. And I said OK.
And then we had our daughter, and that was a very good experience. And when she said I would like to have another child, I was like, that's impossible. There can only be one. And she said no. And I said, well, you were right the first time, so I'm going to have to step on faith that you're correct the second time that I can split my love between two - not only two but now three human beings. And it worked out. And we had our son. And that's also been a largely positive experience, I would say.
GROSS: How old are they now?
HODGMAN: I have no idea.
HODGMAN: They're 15 and 12.
GROSS: OK. So again, as an only child, you say that you grew up not having to have conflict with another sibling.
GROSS: And you didn't know how to reckon with conflict. You tried to avoid it. You can't avoid conflict when you're a parent. You have to learn how to say no, you can't do that.
HODGMAN: Yes, correct.
GROSS: You have to be in authority. You have to create boundaries and teach lessons and have consequences and all that stuff. Was that hard for you to do?
HODGMAN: I thought being a parent would be easy because I have a very natural authority, and I explain things very, very eloquently. But a 5-year-old doesn't respect authority, and they are not interested in patient explanations about why they can't have that toy right now or whatever. And the hard part as a parent is sometimes you do just have to say no. There is no explanation, just no.
And the child will go insane and scream and cry and say, I don't love you anymore; you're not the most important person on Earth anymore - the things that I could not bear hearing. And as a parent - a normal parent feels a biological imperative whenever a child screams or cries because everything in their body chemistry is, like, I have to find and protect this child in order to protect the species. So you're automatically going crazy. And then for an only child to hear, I don't like you, it was impossible. But you just have to wait these things out. And eventually the child comes back to him or herself, and you take a deep breath and go on.
GROSS: So you had to learn how to say no and to hear your child say, I don't love you anymore.
HODGMAN: I knew how to say - yeah, I knew how to say no. What I had to learn was to endure the biological and emotional torture of being briefly not loved...
HODGMAN: ...And knowing that that was going to be more effective for everybody down the road than giving in to the emotional terrorism that a child can visit upon you because that just becomes a terrible habit that will go on forever and affect that child adversely for the rest of his or her life, too.
GROSS: So one of the things you write about in the book is crossing over into middle age. You're in your 40s now.
GROSS: Like mid-40s?
HODGMAN: I was born on June 3, 1971. I'm 46 years old.
HODGMAN: All of these things are verifiable.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's what the internet is for.
HODGMAN: You know, I just - but I just have to - like, I would like to say mid-40s, but I'm 46. And in two seconds, I'm going 47. And in four seconds, I'm going to be 50. Time moves faster. And it just feels better to just say it.
GROSS: Right. OK. So you write about how easy it is to convince yourself you're still young in your 20s and then in your 30s and in your early 40s. And of course, young people know that you're - truly young people know that you're not young (laughter) as you get older.
HODGMAN: I know. I know.
GROSS: But still, like, what's - is this - is it an interesting period for you to become middle-aged? I mean, are you seeing yourself in a different way or seeing your future in a different way?
HODGMAN: Young people know that I'm not young. It is easy when you live in New York to trick yourself into thinking that you're still young because you never have to learn to drive if you don't want to. And everyone's living in apartments. And so essentially, they're all glorified dorm rooms. And the people at the coffee shop also have bad beards. And you know, we kind of - and they're dressing like old men, the way I used to dress like. And I remember the moment - the distinct moment of horrible clarity when I was just chatting with a young barista and making jokes that I thought everyone enjoyed. And she was wearing overalls. And I said, hey, you know what? Those are cool overalls. I believe you deserve a prize in the category of overall excellence. And she stared at me. And she said, nice dad joke.
HODGMAN: And that's how I died. That was the day I died. I'm a ghost now. I was killed. I was destroyed by that because I suddenly saw like, OK, first of all, terrible joke - that is a total corny, dad joke. Second of all, don't - we're not the same. She's a young woman. You shouldn't be commenting on the way she dresses anyway. That's creepy and weird. Get out of here, you weird dad. Go away as far away as possible. Go to Maine as quickly as possible.
HODGMAN: Yeah. I mean, you know, it's easy to trick yourself into thinking that you're young. But when you realize that you're old, I mean, there are some condolences, of course, because then you realize no one - you have some experience. And you realize that no one's really thinking about you as much as you worry they're thinking about you. Most people are just thinking about themselves all the time.
So why not just be who you are and not worry about what you do or what you're wearing or what you're saying or the poses that you're stealing or the ideas that you have? Just go ahead and be yourself and not worry about it. And that's a - that is a relief even for a person who was basically enabled by his parents to be a weirdo his entire life. There is still a great exhalation that comes when you don't care what young people think about you anymore, that they just are going to think that you're a dad joke-telling weirdo anyway.
GROSS: Well, John Hodgman, I've really enjoyed talking with you and getting to know you.
HODGMAN: Let me say it's been such a pleasure to talk to you. And I'm such a fan of the show. And thank you very much for having me.
GROSS: Oh, thank you so much. Well, back at you - and thank you for doing it.
HODGMAN: Thank you so much.
GROSS: John Hodgman's new collection of humorous personal essays is called "Vacationland." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new collection of short stories by Tom Hanks and a new novel by Matthew Weiner, the creator of "Mad Men." This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Famous names sell books. But they also stir up skepticism, especially when the famous name is a Hollywood star. So let's see what our book critic Maureen Corrigan has to say about two new books, one by Tom Hanks and the other by the creator of the series "Mad Men," Matthew Weiner.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: So is it any good? That's the question everybody asks whenever a celebrity writes a work of fiction. No one expects much from debut novels written by rhinestone-in-the-rough wordsmiths like Fabio or Snooki from the "Jersey Shore." But the work of other Hollywood stars like James Franco, Lauren Graham and Steve Martin has garnered some serious attention, which brings us to Tom Hanks' debut collection of short stories called "Uncommon Type."
So is it any good? Yeah, I think so. As you'd expect, Hanks isn't interested in experimenting with the short story form. After all, he's a guy who's still obsessed with typewriters. In fact, every one of the 17 stories in this collection features a typewriter. As often happens in large short story collections, a few of these tales should've been whited-out. And if you don't know what that term means, you're not in the target age range to enjoy most of the remaining stories, a few of which are really wonderful.
Hanks' strength as a writer is pretty much the same as his strength as an actor. He totally embraces his own earnestness. His language and references are unaffected, sometimes even Forrest-Gump-goofy. In a story called "A Month On Greene Street," his main character, a newly divorced mom, utters expressions like yowza (ph) and howdy-do (ph). And in another, called "Three Exhausting Weeks," about a frantic love affair, our hero, a millennial, drinks percolated coffee.
Most of Hanks' stories end optimistically, which contributes to their gentle appeal. But the one I'm haunted by is called "Christmas Eve 1953." It doesn't so much celebrate optimism as it does that other old-fashioned virtue, sucking it up. It's about the guys who were lucky enough to come home from World War II and the things they carried into their middle-aged lives.
A father of three named Virgil Beuell is driving home on Christmas Eve and cursing the folks at Plymouth who were unable to build a car with a heater worth a damn. By story's end, we understand why Virgil, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, has lavished money he and his family don't have on an oversized furnace and a beast of a hot water heater. We also understand that cold has permanently settled in Virgil's bones, even as he acknowledges he's one of the lucky ones.
In all, I liked Hanks' collection a lot, which sounds as if I'm damning it with faint praise. I'm not. Like is a Hanks kind of word, simple and earnest, which are two words you would never use in talking about Matthew Weiner's work. Weiner, who created "Mad Men," and wrote and directed many of its episodes, has just written a novella called "Heather, The Totality." It's about two upper-class New Yorkers named Mark and Karen Breakstone and their 14-year-old daughter, Heather. Heather is graced with an unusual degree of empathy.
As a little kid, she once caused a woman, a stranger, to burst into tears on the subway by remarking to her, everybody riding on the train acts like they're alone, but they're not. Now Heather's empathy and teenaged beauty have attracted more sinister attention. Here's the moment when Mark spots the danger lurking near his daughter in the form of a construction worker outside his Upper East Side apartment house.
As he was about to cross the street to his apartment, he froze. Heather was staring at her phone, and one of the workers was staring at her. The stare was coming from a short guy in a work apron, and was so carnal and intense that Mark charged across the street and pushed Heather away as if he were stepping between her and an oncoming car.
Given that "Mad Men" was routinely referred to as a televised epic novel, you'd expect that Weiner's foray into literary fiction would be pretty good, and it is. There's a noirish, over-the-top quality to this story, especially at the end, that's a little reminiscent of James M. Cain's signature tone. But as he did throughout "Mad Men," Weiner also deftly exposes the weirdness of mundane life changes - the transformation of a chatty toddler into a shut-down adolescent, the sudden shifting of allegiances among closed groups, whether they be ad agencies or nuclear families.
Like Hanks' stories, "Heather, The Totality" doesn't break any new ground stylistically. Instead, it chillingly reminds us of how unstable the ground is that we take for granted beneath our feet.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Uncommon Type" by Tom Hanks and "Heather, The Totality" by Matthew Weiner. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Jonathan Groff. He stars in the new Netflix series "Mindhunter." He played King George in Hamilton, was the voice of the iceman and his reindeer in the animated film "Frozen," had a recurring role in "Glee," starred in the musical "Spring Awakening" and starred in the recent HBO series "Looking" about a group of gay friends. There's lots to talk about and listen to. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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