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Life & Arts
10/23/05, Page 52

By JACK RIGHTMYER, Staff Writer
Hodgman to read from wry writings at UAlbany

Ex-agent offers outrageously funny expertise

If you’re a fan of the literary journal McSweeney’s, you’ve probably read some of the hilarious commentary by John Hodgman, who writes a regular column titled "As A Former Professional Literary Agent." In that column Hodgman takes on the persona of an arrogant know-it-all.

"I actually was a literary agent for a few years," said Hodgman in a recent phone interview from his home in New York City. "Like many young people just out of college, I came to New York City, in January of 1994, hoping to make a career in the publishing industry."

His first job was as a receptionist at the literary agency Writer’s House. "After doing that for a while, I became an assistant to a literary agent and in 1997 I began representing clients, a few writers and some B-movie actors."

During that time, he also began to dabble with his own writing. "It was sort of a hobby, but in the winter of 1996 I was published in The Paris Review. My story was edited by George Plimpton, and that was one of the happiest moments of my life."

WORKING WITH PLIMPTON

Hodgman considers himself fortunate to have worked with Plimpton, the founder and longtime editor of The Paris Review who died a few years ago.

"He was such a giant in the literary world," said Hodgman. "He also really knew how to live his life. He was a great intellect, but he was never a snob, and he considered every manuscript that was submitted to the magazine, even mine. He took a chance on my story, even though I had never before been published, and I also admired that he could dance disco into his mature years."

On Thursday, Hodgman will conduct a public reading with fiction writer and filmmaker Arthur Bradford at 8 p.m. at the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center at the University at Albany’s uptown campus. Earlier in the day, they will conduct a seminar at 4:15 at the Assembly Hall location of the Campus Center of the uptown campus.

Both talks are free, part of the Visiting Writers Series of the New York State Writers Institute.

"I’ll be reading from my new book," said Hodgman.

His new book and also his first, called "The Areas of my Expertise" (227 pages, $22, Dutton), is a collection of ridiculous trivia invented by the author. Writing as the former literary agent, Hodgman explains some relevant trivialities, such as why lobsters were once a grave threat to New Yorkers. Which presidents had hooks for hands? Why does the Mall of America not want you to know about its cheese-on-a-stick?

"This book really came about from the literary reading series I host in Brooklyn called The Little Gray Book Lectures," said Hodgman. "I’ve always been a fan of literary readings, even though they’re usually very boring except to the author. What I’ve tried to do is bring some showmanship and humor to the readings."

LECTURE SERIES

The monthly lectures are often filled to capacity with audience members expecting the outrageous from authors smashing guitars to floating miniature blimps with sparklers attached.

"As the host," said Hodgman, "I’m a bit of a ham, and I often explain that as a one-time literary agent I’m knowledgeable about everything. So I will often answer questions from the audience. Sometimes the questions are about literature, and sometimes they’re about how to cure chronic knee pain. As an authority figure I provide completely absurd answers, and in this book I’ve taken some of the answers and I’m trying to parlay it into a collection because that’s where the money is."

Hodgman hopes to write a second and third edition. "I hope that each book is a bit longer," he said. "I plan on continuing to write in this way until the world dissuades me."

He has always been a fan of humorous writing, but he never thought he could actually make a career of it till he came upon a copy of McSweeney’s, which was created by author Dave Eggers in the late 1990s.

"Here was a journal that was serious and ridiculous at the same time," said Hodgman. "I knew I had found a place where people like me could write. It’s been a nice partnership to write a column for them."

He has also published articles in GQ, Men’s Journal, and has recently been named an editor of a humor section in the New York Times Magazine. Along with all his writing, he has also been a frequent contributor to the National Public Radio show "This American Life."

FREELANCE WRITING

Not working as an agent means that he no longer has a safety net. "It’s a bit of a gamble to be a freelance writer, but I’m enjoying it," said Hodgman. "I’m a professional journalist now; so I work mostly for me. I enjoyed my time as an agent because I genuinely like writers very much, but with the lecture series I feel like I’m still helping writers to a certain degree by finding an audience for them."

As a writer of humor, he doesn’t need to get himself into a certain mood to write. "As the readers of my book will find out, there’s no formal product testing of the humor. I do have a few confidants who share my point of view on many subjects and occasionally I’ll show them something I’ve written, but mostly I write for my own amusement."

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