Interview with Jim ‘Suldog’ Sullivan – Part 1

by Emon Hassan on February 5, 2009

For those of you who look down on blogging, blogs, and bloggers, I feel a little sorry for you. Not only are you missing the point of this world, you are missing out on meeting some wonderful, wonderful people. Some of the most important people in my life I’ve met while just being a blogger. That’s it, being. They say (meaning I) that if you keep doing your thing (from being a rock star to bass fishing) you will meet like-minded people who will be a part of your growth, journey, destiny, or what have you.

How did I meet Jim, aka Suldog? Who found whom? I honestly can’t remember. All I care to tell you is, this man fascinates the hell out of me. Visit his blog and you will get sucked into his stories, his world. It’s not “let me tell you a story”, it’s  “let me transport you to an episode in my life”.

I wanted to interview Jim because I wanted a peek inside his head. How does that brain work the way it does? And it was, at first, tough to pick the questions for him. Where do I start? So when I launched my guitar blog some months ago, Jim became the first person to do separate interviews for both of my blogs. We focus on blogging, writing, and life on this blog, and music + life on the other one. A little patience I ask of you, that interview will be up in just a few days.

I suspect quite a good number of you good folks have come here from Jim’s. Welcome! Nothing gives me more pleasure than to share this with you all. To my regular readers…

…say hello to Jim!

E: How did you get into blogging? What did you have in mind when you started?

Suldog and HIS WIFEJS: It’s all MY WIFE’s fault.

(For your readers who might be wondering, I’ll answer the obvious question: Why “MY WIFE,” in capital letters?

When writing, I always use capital letters to refer to MY WIFE. It goes back to a time when I was writing a weekly online review of televised wrestling shows, which predated my blog by a few years. Anyway, one week I was trying to get across the idea that I was a totally pussywhipped guy writing about pretend tough men in pretend fights. It was a somewhat funny concept, although perhaps less so here, out of context.

Well, when I began blogging, I used MY WIFE’s real name at first. She expressed some discomfort about my doing so. I think I had written something about drug usage or some other aspect of my past that she [intelligently] had decided would look bad should someone see her name associated with it. So, I decided to resurrect the device of referring to her in capital letters as MY WIFE. I think now it comes off as some sort of respectful title, since there are many bloggers who only refer to their spouses via some sort of pseudonym, i.e., Magazine Man’s “Her Lovely Self”, or Thimbelle’s “The Wrench.”

Everybody should read Magazine Man, by the way, as he is The Best Writer On The Internet. However, I digress as usual. I also use boatloads of parentheses for no apparent reason. And there’s a concise explanation of what passes for style in my case, in two sentences.)

Back to the question. MY WIFE suggested some four years ago that I should have a better outlet for my excess creative energies than that afforded by such leisure time activities as watching the news, getting upset about it, and punching walls. She thought it was a swell idea until the first time she saw her actual name in it.

(Just in case anybody thinks they can find out her real name by going back to my early stuff and looking for it, it won’t work. I long ago went back and edited every instance.)

(By the way, she thinks I’m a much better writer than I actually am. So do I.)

(I know that makes little sense, but neither does WIFE SWAP and that’s a roaring success, so who am I to quibble?)

As far as what I had in mind when I started, I think it’s pretty obvious by now that I have very little in mind, ever. In truth? I only wanted fame, fortune, adulation, fortune, and maybe some money. Thus far, I’ve been greatly disappointed concerning the money, but the $10,000 you’ve promised me for this interview will be helpful.

E: How long have you been writing prose? What was your first piece?

JS: Prose? That’s a pretty fancy name for this crap.

I’ve been writing stuff for as long as I can remember. Most of it has been abominable. My mother saved all sorts of things from my school years, and it’s almost uniformly hideous, embarrassing, and also not very good. If I didn’t have such an insatiable ego, I would have burned that stuff long ago. It’s still extant, however, waiting for me to become ridiculously famous so that it can jump out of the bushes, into the public eye, making my publisher wish there were some way to rescind my royalties.

I truly have no idea what my first piece was. Some theme for school, I suppose. What I did on my summer vacation and to whom I did it; something like that.

I can tell you with certainty the first thing I had published. That would be whatever the next one is.

Hah! That’s almost something like a joke! Actually, the first thing I wrote that someone saw fit to print was a letter to the editor. I will now tell you the story, he said, knowing full well that half the audience was already gone and this dreary tale would have as good a chance of driving away the rest of them as anything else he might have to say.

I used to love this now-defunct magazine called CREEM. It was based in Detroit, and it was all about rock and roll. Rolling Stone was the rock mag for the intelligentsia and the supposedly uber-hip. CREEM was the magazine for kids who actually listened to the stuff, had a sense of humor, and actually WERE hip. It was a great magazine, full of vicious digs at pretentious poseurs (of which rock is loaded to the gills) and self-deprecating humor. Lester Bangs frequently contributed, and Robert Christgau wrote record reviews. My favorite was a writer by the name of Rick Johnson, now deceased, who never really got his due. He was startlingly original, utterly fearless, and as knee-slappingly funny as the starting line-up for the 1966 Yankees.

(If you’ve ever read anything by him, you know I copped his style in that last sentence. If you’ve never read anything by him – or you have no idea how bad the 1966 Yankees starting line-up was – then skip it.)

Well, to make this incredibly pointless story come to a deserved end, I wrote a letter to the editor of CREEM. Basically, I saw the stuff they were publishing and I figured I could write for them. I intended to impress them with my wit, with they then saying to themselves, “Wow! Who is this letter writer? We must certainly write back to him and beg him to write for us!” I know that sounds insane, but that’s pretty much what I thought.

They published my letter, but they didn’t offer me a job. I’ll give you a sample of what was in it. First, I gave them a great line for a record review. This is it:

“I’m tired of his ‘God is a painter and I’m his favorite brush’ attitude.”

I also gave them three jokes I wrote. Here they are:

Q: If Deep Purple and Lawrence Welk’s Orchestra fell out of an airplane, which one would hit the ground first?

A: Deep Purple. Lawrence Welk’s Orchestra would have to wait for the sheet music.

(See, like the Welk guys aren’t allowed to improvise? Get it? Never mind. Here are the other two, with no explanations.)

Q: What do Tommie Aaron and Alex Van Halen have in common?

A: Ted Kennedy and Dominic DiMaggio.

(See, it’s… No, I said there’d be no explanation, so either you get it or you don’t. They did, because, like I said, they were truly hip.)

Q: What do you get when you mix Sprite, Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper, and Moxie?

A: Icky Pop.

(They’re all younger and less-talented brothers of very famous guys. Now do you get it?)

The first time I ever got paid for writing something was in 1988. I got $17,260 for it, too. That sounds like a whole bunch of good cash, but it came at $8.25 an hour. I was employed by an office supplies company as their catalog publications department. Notice that I said “as,” not “in.” There was only one man in the department – me. I wrote the entire catalog. I also took photos, typeset the whole thing (prior to being able to do such miraculous stuff on a computer, so basically it was done on a ridiculously large photo-copying machine) and did the entire layout. If you have a particularly masochistic personality, you could read about it HERE. If you want to save a trip, here’s the ending: I did the job, but I ended up spending as much on cocaine and booze as I made in salary. Ah, the good ol’ days!

E: Who were some of your writing mentors and what did you learn from them?

JS: If I told you, I’d be doing them a grave disservice.

Well, I suppose I’ll tell you about them anyway. They’re all dead except for one of them. I guess I can’t do them too much damage. However, to be clear, I haven’t had many mentors. I’ve had influences, but not mentors. As with my music, I’m fairly much self-taught.

My first influence was the only one I might call a mentor. She’s also the only one still alive. That would be my mother. She pretty much taught me to read before I went to school. Obviously, if you can’t read, you can’t write. So, her part, in whatever it is that I do, was huge. As I say, she’s still alive, so I’ll tell her “Thanks!”

The next influence was my father. He showed me that words might be fun. He used to do funny voices, accents and dialects. He’d often make silly noises just for the fun of making a silly noise. And he used those things often in the telling of jokes. Now, he wasn’t a writer. His talent – and it was considerable – was oral. He was quite possibly the best storyteller I’ve ever heard. The one time I know of when he actually tried to write something, it didn’t turn out well. I still have that writing of his, I’ve read it, and it was a good idea poorly executed. He was a very erudite man, a master of the language, but his skills were strictly verbal. That lack aside, his influence on my style was considerable.

Among actual writers, I’d have to say my biggest influences have been Clemens, Vonnegut, and Johnson.

Clemens showed me that you have to use the right words. He was painstaking in his details. As he once said, “The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” So, I search for the right word. I may not always succeed, but every time I make the attempt, I have Twain’s aphorism in mind.

Twain also taught me that there is nothing wrong with being wordy, IF you actually need all of the words you’ve used. His writing never leaves doubt about how he, or one of his characters, feels. He could have been more concise, but much of his humor, as well as his heart, came from his using all of the words he wanted to use. And I believe he felt that if the reader wasn’t willing to invest the time to enjoy the deliciousness of those words, then he didn’t care about that particular reader. That’s just supposition on my part, of course, but that’s how I feel, so why not him?

Kurt Vonnegut taught me exactly the opposite. He showed me that brevity is useful. He finished many of his paragraphs with the phrase, “And so it goes.” He assumed that his reader knew where something was headed, so why bore him or her with the details? He was right.

Johnson isn’t Samuel, he was Rick. I mentioned him above. He wrote for CREEM, finished his life as a tobacco store manager, and is widely unknown. Great writer, though. Aside from the other two writers I’ve mentioned here, he made me laugh more often than anyone. He littered his stuff with references to old sitcoms, obscure sports personalities, cult movies, and other little-known ephemera. I suppose his own final obscurity was somewhat inevitable, since very few readers could have been expected to keep up with Johnson’s scattershot approach. I refuse to take that as an object lesson and will continue to use that same approach myself. I’ll no doubt end up like the 1966 Washington Senators as a result, but if it was good enough for Rick, it’s good enough for me.

E: How did you hone your writing craft? What came naturally to you and what had you struggling for a while? What do you still struggle with?

JS: You’re assuming an awful lot when you use the past tense in that first question, not to mention calling it a “craft.” To be truthful…

(Hell of a way to start a sentence, that is. It would give you the idea that everything up to this point was something less than the truth. Let me rephrase.)

To be blunt, I just sit down at the keyboard and bang away. I rarely think about it at length beforehand. I re-read my stuff before publishing, to make sure it’s not convoluted gibberish, but I almost never try to “craft” something in the manner of a potter making a pot or a painter making a painting. I just go from sentence to sentence, with a general destination in mind, and hope that it works in the end.

I’ve read Strunk & White over and over, but I’ve retained almost nothing. If you were to ask me a grammar question, I might be able to answer correctly, but it would be a bad idea to bet your mortgage on the proposition. Or the preposition.

It all comes naturally to me, and nothing comes naturally to me. I just spew it onto the paper, but I’m never sure if it’s grammatically correct. I can never tell if the “which” I used should have been a “that”.

I don’t know if this stuff answered the questions, but it’s entirely possible, so I’m moving on.

Interview with Jim concludes tomorrow.

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