Literary Death Match: An interview with Todd Zuniga


The coupling of the words “Death” and “Match” is not a phrase that one would associate immediately with literature, except maybe in the context of a piece of work where a death match takes place. But, combining literature with battles to the, well, loss, is exactly what Todd Zuniga has done in a new wave of events that are traversing the globe.

How would you describe a Literary Death Match to the unfamiliar? Should they be thinking of thunderdome?

I guess I just go through this rocket-fast speil that’s somehow embedded in the back of my brain in the lower quadrant. I just say that it’s four writers reading their own work for seven minutes or less, three all-star judges judge them on literary merit, performance and intangibles, and then a finalist from each of the two rounds competes in a Literary Death Match finale that will basically change their life and brain just by seeing it. But in terms of the deeper things of talking abut about it, I guess to the unfamiliar, I’d say it’s like a party that happens to have a reading attached. A lot of the philosophy behind the event is to convince people that don’t go to readings, to come to a reading, that’s why the name is what it is and why we just have so many silly elements to the show in a way. It’s all about getting people there that would never think of themselves as the kind of people that go to literary events. Of course, there are plenty of people who do go to literary events, but I like that people from outside of that world come.

There’s this one thing that I was telling a friend of mine about recently, it’s this anecdote. When we did the second ever event in San Francisco, which was the sixth we’d ever done at that point, this guy came up to me afterwards and he said, “I love this, this is so cool!” and, I was like, “That’s amazing, thank you”. He’s like, “I’m a plumber! I never read, and now I can’t wait to go out and find one of these writers’ books!” He’s like, “I’m definitely coming back”. So the next month in San Francisco, he came back and afterwards he up to me and he said, “Hey I brought all my friends and they’re all plumbers”, and there were nine plumbers and were all like, “This is amazing” so I’m a big fan of that, I think that kind of sums up our event in a way because I think everyone loves stories and storytelling, they just need to be seated in front of the right thing in the right atmosphere.

The word ‘death’ automatically brings to mind something sinister, have any actual brawls occurred during any matches?

A lot of the time when people are wondering what they’re supposed to do as judges or how the reading’s going to go, or people come that are nervous about doing the event, I always say to get a feel from my hosting within the first 30 seconds and you’ll see the kind of event it is. It’s very fun-loving and spirited and goofy. There was an incident which was very surprising, the first one we ever did in San Francisco; San Francisco and Literary Death Match have a pretty awesome history.

Stephen Elliott had read and he was going up against Joyce Maynard, Joyce Maynard was the woman who had lived with J.D. Salinger when she was 18. And she’s gone on and she’s a fabulous writer and she’s performed this piece which was just sort of like, wow. It about a woman who’s writing with a man in prison and eventually it gets really really creepy as she finds out who he really is. So, she was reading against Stephen Elliott and the first judge, this was at the first judging that had even happened in Literary Death Match San Francisco history, was a man named Howard Junker who ran a magazine called ZYZZYVA, and he’s known as an older crotchety guy and we kind of like that because I love mixing in old/young funny/smart, all these different things. But his first comment was, “I think Stephen Elliott has no literary merit” and it was a shocking moment because then he passed the mic over.

During the intermission, Stephen threw a beer in Howard’s face, then Howard left. So that was the only, not quite fisticuffs that was the drinksticuffs. That was pretty shocking and it got us quite a lot of attention and not the kind we wanted of course, because I didn’t even know how to respond to it, we’d only done five at that time. That was so weird. Anyway, we haven’t had anything since then, thank god, thank heavens.

Where did the idea for the Literary Death Match come from?

In January of 2006, I was sitting with Elizabeth Koch who’s a writer and Dennis DiClaudio who works for Comedy Central, and we were just sitting around having sushi and we had met for the specific purpose of basically creating a reading series that was better than anything we were used to. I’ve gone to gazillions of readings in my life and I love them, but basically when happens is, there’s one person who’s excellent, that you feel like your heart is leaping out of your chest and then there’s one person who goes 17 minutes when the time limit’s 10 minutes and then there’s somebody that’s who’s reading a blog entry that they wrote that day. We were talking about, how do we make it so that everybody is excellent, how do we make it that everybody is one of the three people that you just feel like, “Wow, that was so good, I just want that to keep happening”, and there are writers out there who perform their own work and who write in such a way there are enough of them to have four at an event, that was thing. So we just started talking about it and the next morning I wrote Dennis and I’m like, “Good work last night cause you named the event” and he wrote back, “I don’t know what you’re talking about” and I was like, “Literary Death Match” and he’s like, “I don’t remember saying those words”.

Another thing is, I love humour, my magazine that I run out of Brooklyn/wherever I am, is Opium Magazine and that’s a literary humour magazine. I just like doing things differently and tweaking the idea of what’s normal, but also very much honouring the literature and trying to really promote and support that in a way where it’s fun and different and also funny. I’ve been to a lot of readings especially in New York where they’ll have a comedian and a reader and I always feel so sorry for the reader who goes after that comedian because it’s like the comedian stole the show, and then the writer reads a story about his sister dying and it’s like, “Oh, that’s not as much fun”. One thing I love about Literary Death Match is we contextualise the comedy, the comedy is a direct reflection on what you’ve just heard from a literary standpoint, and if we get the right judges that’s just golden.

Describe the very first Literary Death Match, has the structure changed a great deal since then?

One of the most amazing things to me in the history of doing this is, so 148, and I think I’ve hosted probably, I’d say, maybe 130, at least 125. The thing that amazes me most is the structure is the exact same, the only change we’ve ever made was, we went from a ten minute reading time-limit to eight minutes and then down to seven. Actually, I think it went from ten to nine to seven. And the reason is because I strongly believe that people quit listening at six and they just shut off at eight. And when we ask people to read for ten, they’d read for eleven or twelve. If we ask them to read for nine, they’d read for ten. So it’s seven, we get eight, which is sort-of what my real target is; I like when people keep it lower than eight.

And the very first Literary Death Match was in a bar called The Back Room, it’s co-owned by Tim Robbins, the actor, and Mark Messier who’s a hall of fame hockey player and it’s this super-sexy lit, you know; fireplace, velvet walls, just a really fucking cool place. If you get a vodka, or a vodka soda, it’ll come in a teacup and if you get beer, it’ll come in a brown paper bag. It’s a really elegant place and we asked them if we could do it there and they were like, “Well, it’s not really our thing” and we’re like, “We love this place, just let us”.

They let us do it, the microphone, the wireless mic hardly worked, it was pretty packed, the lighting for the readers, there really wasn’t any, it was all dim lighting so it looked super sexy but nobody could really read their wor. It was pretty disastrous but it was really cool because it worked, the finale was ‘Stab a hole in Nabraska’. We blindfolded the two finalists and spun them around and gave them a knife and one stab and the person closest to Omaha, Nebraska won, it was pretty wild.

What’s been the most eventful LDM so far?

I would say there have been three Literary Death Matches that I think were the greatest Literary Death Matches of all time. And I think there’s one that really was the greatest. We were invited to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and 500 people turned up, that was the largest crowd we’d ever had, we’ve actually broken that now, it’s like 503. I think 497 people had showed up and we had Brian Boitano judging who’s the Olympic gold medal winner and the “What would Brian Boitano do?” guy from the South Park song. And he judged with Daniel Handler who’s Lemony Snicket and Susie Bright. I had this co-host that I try to co-host with whenever I can because she’s great named Elissa Bassist.

So, the way the show works is, we open it, I say some stuff, I announce the event and I had her ask the judges the questions. We asked them each a question about whatever, just basically to introduce them and get a laugh. Elissa’s first question to Susie, she’s sort-of a sex writer, it was something about being a sex-positive female, some kind of question about that, and Susie just stood up, walked over, and just kissed Elissa, like totally, tounge kissed her right in the middle of the stage and the crowd, this is San Francisco so it was even better, the crowd went insane and it just was such a cool moment, it was like, I can’t believe that just happened. So then Elissa, her next question was for Brian Boitano, and she said something about if a reader is so good, or something to that effect, will he do an ice skating flip? So he stood up, he walked right up to her, he stood in front of her for like three seconds, and people were like, “Is he going to throw her? What’s going to happen?” And he just laid one on her too, he just kissed her, and it was just amazing and the crowd went insane. So then he sat back down, Elissa’s like, fanning her face, totally flushed, totally shocked, the crowd is totally going insane. She calmed herself and she started to ask Daniel Handler a question. Three words out, and he stood up and he marched across the stage and just like, just sort of sweeps her off her feet and just laid on one her for like five seconds. So that tone, I think the crowd was immediately out of their minds, 500 people just wooping and cheering like crazy.

And then we had Daniel Alarcón who’s one of the 20 under 40 writers for the New Yorker who read and he was just, amazing. We had Beth Lisick who’s just a celebrity in San Francisco, she’s a great, great, writer. We had Taylor Mali who’s been on Def Comedy Jam. Jillian Lauren; she had just released the book (Some Girls: My Life in a Harem). So we had all these people and the finale was amazing, and the energy was amazing, every reader was so good, every reader should have won. And that was the best thing ever. So really, it’s hard to top because to have that energy and that craziness of the crowd just so immediately was the coolest thing that could have ever happened.

Literary Death Matches now take place in 30 cities around the world did you imagine that it would be something that would span the globe?

As of, me taking right row, it’s 36 cities now. We did Orlando last night which is probably the weirdest city we’ve ever done. I meant, even Cardiff, which would be the smallest city we’ve ever done, would be a little bit like, “Huh, why Cardiff?”, but I think Cardiff makes sense. Orlando’s a little bit more of a stretch. The reason we did it here is because there’s a community here and it’s cool, and they were excited to be recognized. It’s weird that they would think that they were recognized by us but I guess in a way that’s an interesting to think of it.

No, is my answer to that one. We moved to San Francisco, it made sense because San Francisco’s huge and vibrant, we moved from New York which was huge and vibrant in terms of literature and I was in New York, and I saw a friend of mine who’s now the director of the Melbourne Writer’s Festival, and I saw her at the door. I had met her in Beijing a couple of years before because I’d done a reading with Elizabeth Koch and some people from Beijing. I saw her taking tickets at a PEN Festival event and I walk up to her and I was like, “Hey, I know you, and I’m not sure” and she’s like, “Oh, yeah, I’m in Beijing”. I’m like, “Oh my god, that’s amazing”, I’m like “I do this Literary Death Match thing” and she’s like, “Oh, you should come and do it in Beijing” and we did, and I just thought, this translates. It’s crazy but it translates, and that’s when were started sort-of ticking off cities. Somehow we brought it to London which was the coolest thing. I’m pretty much blown away by it every time I think about it, so I try not to think about it so much so I can just keep grinding away.

How do you select producers for each city? Do they seek you out or do you go on a quest for eligible individuals?

It’s interesting, the person who just produced the Twin Cities one, in Minneapolis, I don’t know why but she worked the door for us last time. So I basically trusted this complete stranger to take money from people and not steal it and I’ve come to find that that kind of trust has worked because she had gotten us the wonderful people there, celebrity rock star types. Basically, the old system was, I would get a tweet or an email or a Facebook note that said, “Hey, you should take the Literary Death Match to City X”. That’s how we ended up in Denver, that’s how we ended up in Savanna, that’s how we ended up in Austin and that’s how we’re spreading now. We’re working on getting it to Tel Aviv right now. I just think if a city can support it and if people turn up, we’ve made the right decision and working with whoever that takes to make it happen I think is great. We pay people just enough to make it worth their while but I think mostly, people are glad to be a part of it and showcase their city as a place to be in terms of literature.

In the UK, many seem to be under the impression that the importance placed on literature in society is declining. Libraries are being cut and there’s the common notion that children just aren’t reading, how do you respond to this? Do you think that literature is falling out of fashion?

Yes, and no. I think that the written and performed word is always going to be essential and it might not seem so but there’s always going to be a group of people who care. I don’t know if it’s a complication but right now we live a society where everybody is writer. Blogging, years ago, when it was hot, made everyone a writer but now people have different ambitions. Everyone is writer now, I don’t know if that actually makes things better, I don’t know if that means more people are buying books, if more people are reading books.

I think the complication in today’s world is that never before have there been so many accessible media opportunities, meaning, if you really want to see a movie you can download it, you can watch it on your TV and streaming fashion through something. There’s literally 400 channels now on most cable systems and, just email itself is a really wonderful way to not be reading, to not be writing, yet, it’s both reading and writing. And that’s one of the interesting arguments that people make. That actually, we’re reading more than we ever have in our lives now, but I don’t really count that. I do think that the process of going through a book and giving the time of 300 pages is the equivalent of getting 300 pages worth of content, meaning, what you put into something is what you get out of it. I always am concerned that maybe people aren’t really good at that, aren’t really good at believing that anymore, or they don’t care, they think, you know, I’ll watch twenty ten second YouTube videos for one laugh instead of one two minute video to have a deeper experience. And I think that that’s compromised.

So, I don’t think that literature is falling out of fashion but I don’t think that right now is a really interesting time because our event is sort-of, it’s not waiving a white flag, it’s sort of waiving a fist and saying, “This is how to do it” or “This is one way to do it” to excite people around literature and get them to feel that it’s important that they read, that they listen, that they attend things, that they are around like-minded people, and I do think many of us have the privilege of living in a first world society, which also means that we have the privilege to be lazy intellectually. Children need to be reading and we have to be showing them that reading is essential. I think it’s just important for people to take their kids and make that a part of their life.

In addition to being the head of Literary Death Matches, you’ve also the editor of Opium Magazine, a podcaster a cartoonist and fiction writer, do struggle to find time to fit everything in?

Yes, it’s virtually impossible. The biggest struggle for me right now is that I’m editing a novel that is ridiculously long, which is funny, going back to the last question, people, when I tell them how long it is, they say, “Well, you’ve gotta get it way shorter”. And I think, well It’s gonna be way shorter because I’m going to cut a lot, I usually cut books in half when I edit them. But, I also think the idea that a book can’t be long, what if it actually has to be long, it has to be that long to be excellent. My book’s not that book. I do struggle, I think the biggest problem with writing a book and editing a book is the amount of time and headspace that that takes, and also, that’s what I’m most passionate about, creating a great book.

And then, Literary Death Matches come up, and that’s a great way to promote literature, and make noise, and get around the world, and get to hang out with all the people I think so much of. It is tough, Opium Magazine is sort-of suffering at the moment, I need to really just, I need to get through this edit, I’ve got 400 pages left and then I’m going to just burn through a copy of Opium and have our issue come out in November. It’s exciting, but it’s a ton of work, it’s a ton of different things. I also like sleeping and just having quiet days, I find that email is the worst of all those things; I find that email is a poisonous thing and now our work days are no longer work, they’re email, email is everything, it drives everything, I think that’s problematic.

For April fool’s day, the Literary Death Match mailing list received an announcement that Literary Death Matches were headed to the White House. Who would be at your dream Literary Death Match? Would it take place at the White House?

I would say that I have a couple of dream Literary Death Match places. The Royal Albert Hall would be amazing or to do it on Broadway I think would be incredible. I know there’s a few places that I’m not thinking of that I just think it would be the greatest thing ever to do it there. The Globe? Is that place cool? I’ve never actually been there. But The White House, that’s something I really really believe we can do if everything goes the way I want it to in the coming months? Year? Two years? I mean, we have a literary president, he’s written two books, it’s awesome, I think he cares about the arts and cares about these kinds of things. I think, if we continue to do what we do, that would be the coolest honour ever, to do it for him.

In terms of who would be the dream, man this is so fun and tough. I mean, I think about it in terms of America but, Stephen King would probably be the literary merit judge because he’s actually a really funny acerbic guy. Maybe Neil Gaiman, if not him. I would want Tina Fey as the performance judge, she’s also a writer so that would be incredible, and she’s hilarious, she’s probably the funniest woman on earth. I would probably want Steve Martin, he could also be literary merit, I love his play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile; a big part of who I am comedically is who he is.

In terms of the readers, George Saunders is the most awesome writer in think going right now in terms of innovation and surprise, just genius, I’d love to have him do it. I would want Etgar Keret, an Israeli writer, every time I see him read, I almost cry. He writes some of the most beautiful stories and they’re hilarious and they’re super heart-breaking and gorgeous. Who else? Susan Orlean and I have been chatting about her doing it, she never seems to be in the right place at the right time. But I would love for her to do it, she would just be a knockout, she such a clever, fun woman, and she just rules. Colson Whitehead would actually be amazing, but he hasn’t said yes which is a bummer as I think he’d be amazing. I don’t know. I’d want Stephen Fry to judge. I want Charlie Brooker to judge. I want Kayvan Novak, he does Fonejacker and Facejacker, I just think that guy is absurdly talented and funny. We just had Josie Long do it so that’s one of my dream people. And bunch of other amazing people I’m not thinking of right now.

And if people could back from the dead I would want Flannery O’Connor, I would want Donald Barthelme, who else would I want? Can you imagine Flannery O’Connor? She would just fucking kill it. And, I guess you could have Shakespeare in there, he’s alright.


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