I always was a skittish kid. If my family went out to eat at a restaurant, I was convinced that I was going to be poisoned. If I went on a roller coaster, I was sure that I would slip out from below the safety rail. If I slept with the covers not completely covering my head, vampires and/or aliens and/or serial killers would “get me.” Don’t even get me started on visiting Sea World.
As a teenager, my fascination with death turned more predictable. A fan of Joy Division, The Cure, and Nine Inch Nails, I wore all black, down to the nail-polish. My repeated internal mantra throughout high school was a cheerful mix of “I hope you die” and “I hope I die.” Reading Baudelaire and the obituaries were just some of my pass-times. Looking back on it, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that I was widely considered to be The Weird Girl in my school.
Now, as a less neurotic adult, I regard death as less of a fashion choice, more of an inevitable mystery that will one day figure me out. When Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die came out, I knew that it was the perfect book to go on the shelf, right next to The Vampire Encyclopedia. Author Michael Largo has tried his hand at an eclectic mix of work, including slinging sloe in the East Village, publishing poetry, and sorting mail. His previous books include The Portable Obituary and Genius & Heroin. I wrote to Michael asking him to shed a little light on muckraking the morbid, and how he’s wasting his time above ground.
Jerk Ethic: How do you want to die?
Michael Largo: Accession would be so much easier, but I don’t think there’s enough time to qualify. How I wouldn’t want to die comes to mind first. Not like Tycho Brahe*. Not like Lenny Bruce, or Kerouac. Dying like his buddy Neal Cassidy did, alone and walking along a railroad track in Mexico, that has an alluring pathos to it. Something Byronic would be good, like a catching a baby dropped off the Empire State Building. The baby would live and I’d die. That’s a good last line.
But, seriously, the Odin Syndrome is the best way to go. That’s when your allotted breathes are suddenly used up and you die in your sleep, and hopefully in the middle of a cool dream.
*[Editor’s Note: Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe’s death has been debated since it occurred in 1601. It’s rumored that he bit it after eleven days of being sick, due to either mercury poisoning or a severe infection, which resulted from holding his urine for too long. Historians think strained his bladder to the point of death in order to maintain propriety at a banquet, where getting up to take a leak would have been an egregious insult to his hosts. Lenny Bruce was found dead in his bathroom, accessorized with the trappings of a morphine overdose, and Kerouac was claimed by cirrhosis and internal hemorrhaging as a result of being a boozehound.]
JE: You’ve been published in almost every medium — poetry, fiction, non-fiction — how does writing each form differ in process for you?
Largo: Poetry is my first love, in a steamy window kind of way. It is absolutely freeing, without outline or plot, but so difficult to stay in that place, to be entwined, to capture that spontaneity of observation required of a good poems. I read some poems everyday. Right now I’m rereading Poe’s poetry and Robinson Jeffers before I begin writing.
Fiction is wonderful, making up new worlds, especially if it clicks and has life after a hundred pages or so. Non-fiction is like getting to be an archaeologist, digging and dusty, but then you find that bone. It becomes like a thrill, like a hit, when you discover some new fact, some hidden correlation. It’s like being Jane Goodall watching gorillas. Jane Goodall was so interesting.
JE: What’s your worst research experience?
Largo: Three times in the last year I’ve been hit by seagull shit. All near the Battery in New York City. I’ve been doing research for the next book at a number of old churches in that area, it really makes a tremendous mess. Everybody says it’s good luck — for the cleaning industry anyway — but I’m just glad it wasn’t from an albatross.
JE: Have you visited the East Village recently? What do you think about it? I hung out down there when I was in college in the late nineties, early oughts. It blows my mind to see it now. I can only imagine for people who spent more time there in the area’s notorious heyday. Before the condo-and-Starbucks takeover.
Largo: I was there for thirteen years, mostly through the ’70s and early ’80s, and it was such a dynamic time for me: crazy, beautiful and raw. I go there sometimes, but not regularly, not so much for how it has changed; New York City has being doing this cycle of transformation, like it’s something alive, over and over. It’s the ghosts I meet there in my head that makes the area not a “must see”. Shoot me if I ever become a Springsteen Glory Days kind of character.
JE: What’s the most boring job you’ve ever had?
Largo: Sorting mail drove me a little nuts. I was a night watchman at a college parking lot. I had to sit in a glass booth, lit up inside with fluorescents, so that you couldn’t see a thing outside. The sergeant banging with his nightstick on the glass during the deep hours of the night, checking to see if I was awake, used to scare the crap out of me.
JE: Do you have any writing rituals?
Largo: I have a Magic Eight Ball. Though I have a rule that I can keep shaking it until I have the answer I really need.
JE: What is the scariest thing you’ve ever seen?
Largo: My face with a hangover.
JE: You grew up in Staten Island, but I read somewhere that you live in Atlanta now. Is that true? How is it different from your time in New York? I’ve been writing a lot about my move from New York to Portland to, finally, Norman, Oklahoma. It’s a big change. So I’m always interested in hearing how those who succeed in the field handle the stresses of moving.
Largo: For me New York is home, especially after I did the genealogy. I have ancestors that were among the Dutch, and then siding with the Torres during the American Revolution. But for me its good to live in different places, and I made Miami a home base for years. Atlanta is big and small, which is what I need right now.
JE: Why did you move?
Largo: For one, I wanted to be closer to the CDC, to hope to get to another level of record access.
JE: Do any of your children want to be writers?
Largo: They do actually, some anyway.
JE: Are you working on anything now?
Largo: Yes, a book about mystics, martyrs and prophets, utopias and cults.
As a final, um, exit line, Tycho Brahe was noted to have said a real kicker before he kicked it: “Ne frustra vixisse videar!” Which translates as “Let me not seem to have lived in vain.” Words to live by.
You can see more of Michael’s work at his website, FinalExits.com.
Drop me a line and tell me how you’d like to drop dead: AinsleyDrew at gmail dot com.
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