A Conversation with Alan Olifson

I recently reunited with an old friend from the Los Angeles storytelling community, Alan Olifson, who has recently published a collection of essays, entitled Manchild: My Life Without Adult Supervision. While I was busy producing Spark Off Rose, he was producing and performing at his spoken word show WordPlay. All these years later, he is now living in Pittsburgh where he landed a publishing deal. In our interview below you'll get a peek inside his writing journey and his best advice on how to get your essay anthology published!

ALAN OLIFSON is an award-winning humor columnist, public radio commentator, comedian and regular host of Pittsburgh's monthly Moth StorySLAMs. He created the acclaimed storytelling series WordPlay in his hometown of Los Angeles which he now produces in Pittsburgh along with Bricolage Production Company as part of their regular season. He has hosted storytelling events for conferences, schools and, believe it or not, bridal showers. Alan relocated to Pittsburgh with his wife and two children years ago but never tires of hearing people complain about "traffic." His book, Manchild: My Life Without Adult Supervision, is now out on Six Gallery Press.


Karin: Well, this is very exciting about your book. Of course I remember the ManChild essays well from your spoken word days in Los Angeles. Can you share the basic premise for those who are new to your writing?

Alan: So it's called Manchild: My Life Without Adult Supervision and it's really just a chronicle of finding out what it means to be an adult. I think most people have a hard time, especially just out of college, like in your early 20s, like, “Oh wow, I'm an adult now.” There's not really a big transition period from college to adulthood. And I think it took a long time fumbling my way through my 20s and 30s to figure out what adulthood meant to me. And in doing so I did all the adult things like getting married and having kids and buying a house, but I never felt like an adult doing them. So it's kind of exploring what that's like.

How did it make its way into book form?

It has been a long winding journey. It's been funny editing it now because some of these essays are now over 10 years old. I started writing these when I briefly had a column for The Boston Phoenix through some random connections. I think it's defunct now. It was like the L.A. Weekly of Boston. I wrote a column once a month, and that got me into essay writing in the first place.

I amassed a nice little backlog of stories and I got into the story telling scene out in LA. I would take these essays around to shows and tweak them and rewrite them. I did Sit and Spin, and your show (Spark Off Rose) and then I started my own show Wordplay out there at the Fake Gallery, which ended up going on for five years. So at the end I had 20 or 30 essays.

And then it all started because an agent contacted me, through Twitter or Facebook, I can't remember where. She found one of my pieces on The Phoenix and really enjoyed it and was curious if I ever thought about putting a book together. That kind of got my wheels turning. It was really encouraging, but it still never amounted to anything. She was just a low-level agent and she never really could sell the idea to her upper-whoever. Through that I worked with various people and got a proposal together and a decent query letter. The query letter got a good amount of response but basically it came down to “an essay collection by someone that no one's ever heard of is just a tough sell,” which I understand. Everyone was like, “the writing is funny and I enjoyed it, but I just can't sell this.” So I put it on the back burner.

So when I moved to Pittsburgh I thought I'd start to put my feelers out for a local, Pittsburgh-based publisher - a micro press - because I was basically ready to self-publish it. One of the draws of Pittsburgh is it's got a pretty lively comedy and literary and theater scene. So I was like, “I'll just try and see if I can get a small press interested.” I sent out a few letters and one place got back to me - Six Gallery Press - and they were really interested, but they were totally backlogged. It's a very small company and I waited about a year for them to finally have some time. It took another year of them editing it and here we are. It took moving to Pittsburgh to make it happen.

Tell us about Six Gallery Press.

They do a lot of poetry and more experimental fiction. My editor has admitted to me that “This is the most bourgeois thing we've ever put out.” They're kind of on the 'anarchist' end of the spectrum politically. And you know my book is very much the suburban dad kind of stuff. So it's a funny combination but it seems to work. It meant a lot that this guy actually found it funny and wanted to publish given that he's coming from a completely different place in his life. So it's nice to see some kind of universal appeal there, I guess.

Can you still stand behind your essays even though they were written so long ago?

It's a good question. Some of them I cringed reading them again. And some of them don't represent who I think I am now. But the book is more about the journey. I talked about it with the editor and we kind of liked the idea of just including the stuff that may not be who I am now, because it's who I was when I wrote it. It's the evolution of me from being a single guy to starting to date my wife, to getting married, having kids. Hopefully that's what's interesting... to see not only what's changed, but also the voice that stays the same through all that 10 or 15 years.

What was the editing process like for you?

It was very interesting. I gave the editor a lot of control. I mean, he ran everything by me, but I really trusted him and that made the whole process very easy. I don't know how it would be if you had an editor whose sensibility you didn't trust or who didn't get what you were trying to do. But I think this guy really got it. There wasn't a lot of content editing. We weren't trying to mold it into any kind of narrative, or take essays and make it into more of a memoir. It really is a collection of essays. It reads like a memoir in the sense that they're all written by me, and it kind of follows my life over time, but each one is meant to be its own stand-alone. It was very interesting to have someone read all these things back to back in context of one another, when they've been written over the course of 10 or 15 years. I got a lot of comments back like, “You know you make a lot of jokes about hookers. You sure you want to do that? Like maybe one.” There are certain phrases I would use all the time, because I thought it was funny; and it was fine to use them all the time, you know, five years apart. So it was interesting to see the crutches I would rely on. It was kind of cool to be called out on that -- so cleaning up in that sense.

Are you exploring completely different territory now?

No, it's still very much the same actually, but my kids are getting older and I'm getting older and my life is getting a little more suburban and settled. And I'm more used to it. This book is about being grown up and not feeling prepared for that. But I'm getting closer to 50, and I think I'm fairly comfortable being an adult at this point.

Well that's good to hear, congratulations.

Thank you, I finally made it.

What I love about your writing is that you have a lot of comedy without losing the depth of what you're writing about. Is that something you're conscious of or is it just what you do?

I'm trying to be more conscious of it, mostly because here in Pittsburgh there's not the talent pool that there was in LA. So I have to coach. I get a lot of really good submissions that just aren't quite there, so I'm trying to get better at giving notes. I still do WordPlay as a comedy show but it has become much more of a storytelling show with hopefully some funny stories. They're always good stories, but I can't always get five funny ones. So I'm trying to find ways to do exactly what you're asking me. But to be honest because I started as a stand-up when I was 16 and I did that for a good 10 or 15 years before I started writing essays, the comedy was just part of how I thought about the world. Mostly with my essays I usually write a couple of the jokes first and then build the depth around it.

You do, still?

Yeah, for the most part. The really early ones all had a stand-up bit. I'd start with a bit and then work my way down. Because for me, I have to force and allow myself to slow it down and paint the picture and be more descriptive without worrying about making it funny. That's always a struggle for me when I'm writing.

But also I think a lot of the humor comes from the depths, it comes from it being very specific and very real. So doing both seems natural to me. Stuff that doesn't have any depth to it isn't that funny. I think you need both.

Can you give an example of how you started with a bit and then mined that further?

Yeah, I had this one bit about being Jewish, but I don't typically look Jewish. So I had this whole bit about how I was a “stealth Jew.” And I had a little song I would sing about how I would freak people when they would say something anti-Semitic and I would catch them. “But I'm a Jew!” It's a five-minute little bit. And I ended up writing a whole story about moving to Chicago and what it was like to be Jewish, especially outside of LA. You know, everyone in LA, if they weren't Jewish they knew what being Jewish is about. And then I moved to the Midwest and was questioned about it more; you know, if we celebrate Christmas or not? And what we did on Christmas? It's still a pretty funny story, but it started from just, “How can I write a story about using this 'Jew gag' that I have?”

What theme were you exploring?

It ended up being about what it means to be a minority. Being a Jew in LA you're technically a minority but it feels very different than being Jewish in Pittsburgh or in the Midwest where you actually feel like you're “the other.” So there are different layers to that minority status that I don't think I was aware of having grown up in Los Angeles.

Have you gotten involved in the literary scene in Pittsburgh? Did you continue WordPlay out there?

Yeah, I did. It was one of the draws of moving here. I pretty quickly got WordPlay up and running again, within six months. I started talking to a few theaters and found this one theater. They helped me navigate the grants. There's a lot of money out here; a lot of people call it “guilty steel money.” There's the Carnegie Foundation, the Frick Foundation and there's a cultural trust - basically all of these sources of great arts funding - and the money has really been earmarked for the arts. So even in recessions and hard times it's still a decent pool of money for the arts. This theatre helped me put together a grant proposal and I got a small grant to kick off the show. The grant was basically to help us fund, I think, three shows to get it off the ground and try to get momentum for it. I got to pay myself. I got to pay all the performers.

Is it still doing well?

So yeah, we're doing another one in March. It's going to be our 13th one here. After a couple of years the theater basically took it on as part of their regular season. So at the end of every year I meet with them, we pick out the dates and we plan on our season.

I also host The Moth StorySLAM here. I got very lucky. It was the fourth city they started story slams in. I moved here in April, in August they started; so they were gearing up and actively looking for a host. And the people who were helping to bring it here had happened to see me at another event in town.

How cool...

It's really the best gig. I love it. For that I don't do any producing. I really just show up. And they do it at this like beautiful old theater. It seats like three hundred people. It's great. I love it.

As you know, many writers would love to publish a collection of essays. Do you have any advice for them?

Yeah, move to a smaller town and then use your local press.


To learn more about Alan Olifson, visit themanchild.net

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