Step two involved calling him, and seeing if he was willing to do an interview. That happened yesterday. I ended up talking to him on the phone for about 40 minutes — about as long as I'd normally spend on an interview. I ended up wishing I'd taped the conversation, and just run that in the paper. Because it was fascinating, and also likely a lot more direct and concise than anything we're going to get from him for print.
Highlights of the conversation:
- He initially thought I was putting him on. He accused me a couple of times of having a joke at his expense. He's familiar with The Onion, but not The A.V. Club — I've heard this one often enough that I don't even feel disappointed when I run into it any more — so he couldn't understand why a satirical paper would want to interview him.
- I reassured him that we do long-form interviews. I offered to fax him copies of the interviews I've done with Alan Moore and Scott McCloud, so he could see what kind of stuff we do. I mentioned that we look for people who have non-mainstream opinions. He said that Scott McCloud and Alan Moore ARE mainstream. I said that they've been embraced by the mainstream, but that they don't necessarily express themselves in mainstream-friendly ways; for instance, Alan Moore claims that he worships a sock puppet. Dave said something about that depending on whether it's a feminist issue. I asked how worshipping a sock puppet was a feminist issue. He said "Same pus, different zit." I said "I'm not getting you." He said "Yeah. I know."
- I told him we expected the interview to run about 4,000 words. He said that wasn't enough to get any kind of meaningful ideas across, and that after 25 years of producing a comic where he could publish 100,000-word essays if he wanted to, any sort of word limit was basically a limit to thinking. He said there was no way he could sum up his thoughts in 4,000 words. I said that we weren't trying to replace 26 years of work with one article, we were just trying to point people to his body of work. He said that this was of no use to him and he didn't expect to get anything useful out of it. I said "Over a million people read The Onion every week. You don't think any of them will be interested enough to check out your work after reading about it?" He said that he'd once done an interview with a major news outlet, on the condition that they publish his address, with the notation that anyone interested in reading a full copy of "Tangent," his 20-page essay debunking the "feminist/homosexualist axis," could write to him, and he'd send them a full copy. He said he got exactly one query, and it was from a teenage girl, writing on Spice Girls stationary.
- He said that I probably had the attitude that everyone's heard of The Onion and no one's heard of him, and that I was right, but that The Onion still wasn't going to help him in any way. I said again that that was possible, and given what he believed, I wasn't sure that there was a point in arguing, but that given the percentage of The Onion's readers who look at it solely online, it was certainly probable that many of them would be hearing about "Cerebus" for the first time, especially since it doesn't have much of a web presence. He pointed out that there is both a rec.arts newsgroup and a Yahoo! Group devoted to the comic.
- He said that we probably thought we were doing him a favor by coming to him, and that most news outlets thought they were being very generous to him by offering him a space in which to present his ideas, but we weren't. In fact, he would be doing US a favor by trying his best to compress his concepts into tiny, untenable spaces.
- He said that he'd been approached by people wanting interviews before, and they always kissed his ass beforehand, when they were trying to get the interview, and then burned him in print later, in a vindictive way. I suggested that one problem was that news outlets involve a lot of people, and the person getting the interview wasn't the person editing the interviewer's piece, or approving it, or laying it out, and there were many stages at which his words could be abbreviated or altered. Since The Onion A.V. Club consists of about nine people, and only two were actually going to be involved in negotiating and editing his piece, I could assure him that the piece wasn't going to get taken out of my hands and then butchered. He basically said I should go to the other person and find out whether we could expand the paper, or do a special 10-part series, or something, and that the answer would be "No, Dave Sim isn't famous enough," and that that answer would be correct, but it still left us with him not having enough space to deliver his ideas.
- I pointed out that over the course of our (at that point) 20-minute conversation, he'd already delivered a series of interesting and concise concepts without requiring 10,000 words of explanation, and that the conversation we were having could practically stand as an interview itself, on the nature of the media and independent creators and the transmission of ideas. He said that if I transcribed everything we'd already said, it would be 20,000 words long. I said I had to argue with him on that — I've been transcribing phone and in-person interviews for six or seven years now, and they tend to average out to about a hundred words per minute (i.e. a 4,000-word interview takes about 40 minutes of interview time, which is what I usually ask for when pitching interviews), so our conversation would actually come out to about 2,000 words. He said that yeah, he could probably give me a 4,000-word interview on why he shouldn't do an interview with The Onion, but he didn't think that was what I wanted.
- He said he might be willing to do an interview via fax, and that I could fax him one question, and he'd see if he could possibly answer it in 4,000 words. We negotiated terms on and off throughout this entire conversation. What it comes down to is, he might be willing to answer our questions, but his answers must run uncut and unedited, and we have to assure him that we're going to run what he gives us — he's not writing on spec and giving us the right of refusal. I said that we couldn't operate without a backout clause; we weren't going to promise to run whatever he gave us, because if he really wanted to, he could send us 4,000 instances of the word "banana," and claim that we were obligated to print it. He said "I'm not going to give you anything unprintable." I said we'd need an opportunity to judge that.
- He also said that it was certainly possible that a given question might not take 4,000 words to answer, if it was narrow and specific enough. I asked him if he'd actually find it remotely interesting to answer questions like that. He said probably not.
- What I offered — and it seems possible that this is what will happen — was that I should send him a series of questions, maybe 10 or so, and he can decide whether those questions interest him and whether he can answer them, and then he can decide whether to do the interview, and decide how many of those questions he could answer in 4,000 words. He counter-offered that he could look at the questions and tell us roughly how many words it would take him to answer each, and we could pick what we wanted, given our space constraints. But…
- …He wants all these terms in writing, so in case we screw him over, he has proof that we lied, so he can take it to the newsgroups and show them what asses we are.
- I went over all the terms we'd agreed on together, to make sure I hadn't missed anything, and I told him I needed to get approval from my editor before we could proceed. I offered to talk to my editor and then just fax over a list of our agreed-upon conditions and the proposed questions. He said no, we should talk by phone again first, and hammer everything out. I said fine, I'd be in touch, once I'd gotten approval from my boss. He said, heavily, "Okay… but that's a funny way to live your life." And that was pretty much his final word in the conversation.
So I spent an hour today talking to my boss on the phone about the conditions, and whether we could meet them, and whether there was anything else we needed from Dave, and so forth. And it looks like we're actually going to meet his terms and see what he gives us. Now it's just up to me to make sure everything's negotiated correctly, and then somehow come up with 10 or so questions that are narrow enough that he can answer them, but broad enough to actually interest him, and simultaneously both broad and narrow enough to interest our readership, who by and large probably are media-savvy enough to have actually heard of "Cerebus" at some point, but very likely haven't read it. Simple! No problem! Right! I'm on it!
Okay, I'm not. But I knew this wasn't going to be easy when I got involved with it — I mean, I'm a woman, and I'm trying to have meaningful dialogue with someone who's spent the last 10 years of his career espousing, in great detail, the belief that women are inhuman life-suckers, responsible for everything wrong with the world. And I could have at any point said "This isn't worth it, get bent." So as usual, I'm not bitching — I have no one but myself to blame for my continued involvement at this point. I'm just observing, and wondering exactly what's going to happen next. I expect to talk to him again on Monday.