Mike Albo: Stranger than (Non)Fiction
Author: William Johnson
September 6, 2011
“It’s odd to say this, but by saying I am writing fiction I am trying to be more honest. Unless you have had a deliriously extraordinary life, you are for sure streamlining and embellishing and condensing to create a readable story.”
In 2009, The New York Times fired writer and performer Mike Albo (Hornito, The Underminer) from his “Critical Shopper” writing gig, for taking part in a free Thrillist/JetBlue sponsored media junket to Jamaica. Though only working as a freelancer and not on assignment, The Times eventually deemed Albo’s participation in the trip contrary to its ethical standards. The entire episode initiated a Gawker/Daily Finance fueled Internet brouhaha over freelancers’ rights, NYT’s ethical practices, and the craven world of free media junkets.
In his new self-published Kindle e-book, The Junket, Albo offers his own fictionalized accounting of the events surrounding the now notorious trip. The book vividly and humorously describes the oft kilter surrealism of being on a junket, the economic degradation of being a freelance journalist, and what it’s like to be caught up in a blog induced media maelstrom.
Albo chatted with Lambda Literary over e-mail about The Junket, why he writes fiction and not memoirs, and why he is neither a literary “outsider” nor “insider.”
So, was writing The Junket cathartic?
I definitely knew I had to tell the story. It’s just so weird and funny and true. But I don’t feel like I had a catharsis and got something out of me, you know? Because I don’t feel any less convicted or angry about how freelancers are treated in the workplace.
Do you feel it was a way of setting the record straight concerning your whole experience with The New York Times—and the blog/internet hoopla that followed?
I had been telling this story to people over and over when they asked what happened, and I realized if it didn’t get it down then I would be that raving lunatic stuck in a mental loop, obsessed and conspiratorial and unkempt. Now I can just say, “read the cassingle.”
The Junket is also an attempt to explain how the individual is used as a commodity in our information age. There are dozens of stories like mine—and I hope other people tell them.
Have you heard from anyone at the Times about the novella? Any reactions from the Grey Lady?
None at all.
While still being a very personal story, The Junket is also a pointed critique on the state of today’s journalism. As you continue to work as a freelancer in the field, what things would you fix or change with in the hurly-burly world of freelance journalism?
All I know is that I work for myself, and my time is my own time. I would appreciate any employer understanding that, and understanding that I take very seriously my hours spent working for them, but at the end of the day, they aren’t paying for my healthcare or anything else, so they can’t expect to own me outside of the work that I do.
“She works hard for the money, so hard for the money. She works hard for the money so you better treat her right.”
Now I may be reading this wrong—but you seem to have a hesitancy to write a “straight” memoir. The main character in Hornito and now The Junket—is an echo of “Mike Albo,” but he is never presented as the “real” thing. Is there hesitancy there? I was wondering why you never just went in and pulled a full “Augusten Burroughs”—with memoirs being so popular right now?
I’m psyched you picked up on that. It’s less hesitancy than it is totally a conscious decision on my part to claim what I am doing as fiction.
It’s odd to say this, but by saying I am writing fiction I am trying to be more honest. Unless you have had a deliriously extraordinary life, you are for sure streamlining and embellishing and condensing to create a readable story. My life and most people’s lives are way too mundane to be true on paper. Like, if I told this story with total verisimilitude, it would be 300 pages long and have sentences like: “OK, you know that guy Paul that I told you about? Well now I am talking about this OTHER Paul I know who looks like the other Paul but isn’t that Paul.”
I wish I had the audacity to claim what I write is a memoir. I really doubt any memoir is pure truth—unless you have an extraordinary or harrowing tale to tell, like Jaycee Dugard or Ingrid Betancourt. By saying it is fiction I am saying, “yes, of course I am zipping things up here and there.”
How would you describe the differences in Mike Albo “the character” vs. Mike Albo the human being? Are you generally more muted—or more outrageous—than the character you present in your fiction?
Oh lord, I don’t know—Perhaps that “Mike Albo” was me in 2009, and the Mike Albo I am now may be a little more sturdy.
Does tapping some into your own life—when it comes to your fiction—ever pose a problem when it comes to your relationships? Do lovers, friends, or family members ever get angry when they see aspects of themselves spotlighted in your work?
I wonder…maybe it’s kept some relationships from happening, but those people need major arts education and help understanding how art is made, and how people mine the real and actual world to create things. So I probably shouldn’t be dating them anyway. Every now and then I will hear someone say: “I hope I don’t show up in a book!” Sometimes I think when someone says that they actually want you to expose something they feel guilty about.
But mostly it saddens me. I care very much for my friends and family, and they know I am not scribbling away about them all the time and exploiting them…
I may be wrong, but I often get a sense you see yourself as a sort of self-deprecating outsider in the writing world—but you have now written for both The Times and The New Yorker which is about as insider as you can get. Did being published in those publications change the perception you had of yourself as a writer?
Wait, let’s put this in perspective. I was just fired from the Times and I have only been in The New Yorker twice, barely, and it’s SO HARD to get something in there. I do not have some special Steve Martin pass. But admittedly I suppose I did feel legitimized when I was writing for the Times. I describe that feeling in The Junket…
I’m not rich enough to be an insider and not hip enough to be an outsider. I think one thing I am trying to say with The Junket is what I have always believed, and that is that I’m no better than anyone else when it comes to being a part of our seductive and consuming consumer culture. We are ALL a part of the mess.
You are known for being—and deservedly so—very very funny, but there is some real pathos in a lot of your work. Do you worry that being known as the “funny guy” readers might miss some of the sadness embedded in your writing?
I am a sad clown. Floppy hat, scraggly hair, teardrop out of one eye, bent flower.
Do you think being funny is something you can learn—or for you was it just something that was always intrinsic? Do you think it is an art that you were more or less born with?
Maybe cursed with?
Who do you think is funny? Who makes you laugh?
My friends all make me laugh of course….and Sandra Bernhard and Margaret Cho and Marga Gomez. And Jackie Beat, Dina Martina and Linda Simpson. And Nora Burns and David Ilku. And other fellow downtown performers: Amber Martin, Bridget Everett, the Wau Wau Sisters, who am I forgetting? I like people who are “convicted” and a little crazy.
You released this novella as an e-book. What was that process like as opposed to releasing it in a more traditional format?
I wanted to try out a new way of getting something out there. Something that wasn’t a magazine article that would have to go through cuts and edits and wasn’t a book that would take another year to be published.
What are you working on now? Do you have anything else in the pipeline?
That’s really nice of you to ask. I’ve been working on a sort of science fictionish story for a while now: you know when you get junk mail from Cindy Dildoface trying to sell you Viagra? I’m writing about her life. I’m also trying to turn The Junket into a solo show…and then there are one or two other works in the pipeline if I can find the time and space to write them between making a living. I’m keepin’ on…