Everyone get ‘Happy’: Paul Lundgren’s book is finally doneDeb DeRosier, the assistant principal during Paul Lundgren’s reign of terror at Morgan Park Junior High, was on to something: He just doesn’t know when to quit.
Deb DeRosier, the assistant principal during Paul Lundgren’s reign of terror at Morgan Park Junior High, was on to something: He just doesn’t know when to quit. Nearly a decade and a half after some of his stories first began appearing in print, the local columnist, poet and altogether “very nice man” is once again inflicting them on the masses, in the form of his first book, “The Spowl Ribbon.”
Why now? Perhaps it’s because he simply didn’t slap together a collection of “greatest hits” from his various writing roles that it took so long. (Lundgren, a Denfeld graduate and former Budgeteer news editor, has contributed to a slew of local publications, including Transistor, the Ripsaw, Business North and Lake Superior Magazine.)
But we won’t dwell on the why; we’ll leave that up to Lundgren, as he seems more than happy to explain what he’s been up to since 1996 (when the first of the “Ribbon” ideas came to him). What follows are the most relevant highlights we could muster from our recent lengthy conversation with the prolific funnyman and event organizer (Geek Prom, anyone?):
Budgeteer: Where does the bulk of material for “The Spowl Ribbon” come from?
Lundgren: I would say that a vast majority of those have been in Transistor at some point, and I think most of them are from about the year 2004. … That was kind of a year where I had started looking back at some of the other things I had written and kind of reworked them, so a style was kind of born at that time — the style that most of the pieces of the book are written in.
Are they reworked Ripsaw pieces?
Some of them are, some of them are things that I wrote for Transistor … and some of them are just things that I reworked that never had a home anywhere.
I have a hard time explaining exactly what this style is. Because this isn’t like pulling together 40 columns; there’s a select style of piece that’s going into these, and there’s nothing in there really, besides maybe one or two, that’s just me trying to be funny.
“Parade” is an example of that. I just talk about how parades should be really fun but actually they’re kind of lame. They just sound great … going to a parade, what fun! And then you go there and it’s like, Hey, here’s the Madill dance group and here’s the Johnson dance group … how many more 12-year-old girls dancing do I want to watch? [Laughs] And here comes another high school band. All right, I’ve seen that now … is this thing almost over?
… So, at times in the column, I’ll do something that’s just basically straight humor, but the focus of the things in the book are more, I think, tragic, and some of them have more joy and sadness in a way that’s funny. I don’t know if there’s anything in there that isn’t in some way funny — or at least I hope it’s funny. At least I think it’s funny.
I guess the perfect example of that would be “Linda’s Surprise,” the woman with the ruptured ectopic pregnancy. … “After the emergency surgery, we all had a good laugh.” I mean, that’s actually a story from a woman named Linda as she related it to me. That’s what she said: “Boy, after the emergency, we sure had a good laugh about that one.” I said, “Well, I’ll take my notebook out here….”
You know, things that are so painful that you can’t help but laugh — that’s what I like — or moments so wonderful you want to cry. That’s what I focused on for this book.
Are these stories you hear from friends ... or random people at bars?
It’s a little bit of everything, you know. The story at the end (“Mr. Smarty Pants”), which is one of the two longer pieces, is almost entirely an actual account of my experience in sixth grade. The names were changed to protect the guilty or innocent or not otherwise involved — if that made any sense.
But there are other things that are completely bogus in there, too. That’s kind of why I used the “Spowl Ribbon” title, of the tying together of fact and fiction.
My hope is that, in reading this, everything in it will seem as if it could’ve happened — and, as long as it could’ve happened, well then it might as well have, right?
My favorite one was “Calling Out,” where you call yourself from the future, but your advice sucks.
[Laughs] I guess the problem is, you know, these time-travel phone calls only happen when I’m drunk. Why is that I never do them when I’m sober and give some practical advice? ... Put a couple drinks in me and I’m on the phone with myself, blabbering. [Laughs]
I’m really surprised you haven’t done a comedy show.
Well, that’s [the “Happy Hour” shows]. ... The first eight minutes of the shows are basically going to be completely boiled down to what I guess I would have to call stand-up comedy.
And it’s very nerve-wracking, because I won’t have a script. I’ll have to know what I’m doing — and have to rely on my ability to perform, rather than just words. Because words you can just keep messing with over and over again, and that’s what this book is: me messing around with the same words for 15 years until I felt like, This is as good as it’s going to get. [Laughs]
But when you’re on stage, it comes out the way it comes out, and then it’s over. Unless you’re a stand-up comic who’s traveling to the next town to do the same thing over again, then you have another chance at it. But, for me, I’m going to do this one time and then it’s over and that’s that.
So, however it comes out is how it is, and we move on.
Have you ever wanted to write a novel?
Yeah, and I have kind of a loose idea for one, and I’ve made some notes on it.
Part of the reason for putting out this book was to sort of put this material behind me, so that I can do something else. Because anytime I would start to work on a novel, I would think, What am I doing? I’ve got all these other things [sitting around].
My visual tool for how I handle these things is a football stiff-arm. When a new idea comes along, I just have to give it the stiff-arm. [Laughs] “Go away; I’m still working on this idea! They’re all going to get screwed up if I can’t focus on something here.”
Sometimes you gotta give things the stiff-arm.
Have you ever put together your poems in a chapbook? Because I know you’ve been involved with a bunch of different readings around town.
No, I’ve never had a chapbook.
Well, I guess I had a chapbook in sixth grade. In fact, I think one of my finest works was a shared piece with Barrett Chase. We had a study hall together in seventh grade, and we had a spiral-bound Mead notebook with “Adventures in Study Hall” written on the front. We just passed that back and forth and write things.
And one day on the way home from school I left it on the back on the DTA bus and never saw it again.
That is one lucky bus driver.
Yeah, well, I don’t know ... seventh grade; I’m sure it had its moments, but I’m sure it was also largely terrible.
So you and Barrett grew up together then?
Well, we became aware of each other in the fourth grade [at MacArthur]. ... But we truly bonded on the playground one day. It was a really windy day, and I noticed that Barrett was spitting into the wind so that the wind would catch it, curl around and hit Sam Cooley without Sam Cooley noticing it. And I thought that was really great.
That was when the friendship truly formed. [Laughs]
Were you into creative writing before seventh grade?
In the sixth grade, Barrett and I were doing something similar to “Adventures in Study Hall.” I think it was called “I Was a Teenage Chowderhead” or something like that. I think we were kind of into Mad magazine and things like that, so we also did little parody things that we’d pass back and forth in sixth grade.
That was when that collaboration began. I didn’t consider myself a writer at that time, but that was when I started writing and working on my writing even though it was 100 percent for the purpose of goofing off.
What kind of authors were you into when you started getting serious about your writing?
I kind of went through a few different phases.
I don’t know how many writers you’ll meet who are like this, but I’ve never really been that big of a reader, really, of books. I read a lot of newspapers and, because I read newspapers so much, I don’t end up having a lot of time to read. And now with the damn Internet, [Laughs] I spend a lot of time there now too.
... But, in college, [I was into] Henry David Thoreau, which would probably not be someone anyone would pick as an inspiration. [Laughs] But I read pretty much everything Henry David Thoreau wrote in his life during the course of college, working at the Shack’s liquor store Sunday night when no one would come in, sitting on the counter reading Henry David Thoreau.
I love Kurt Vonnegut, too. And that is something that you might not notice offhand, but, if you’ve read a lot of Vonnegut and you read me knowing that I like Vonnegut, you’ll probably notice that I steal a few style things from him from time to time. Or should I say “borrow”? [Laughs]
... Thoreau and Vonnegut were early influences, but, by the late 1990s, my favorites were all local: Anthony Bukoski, Barton Sutter, Louis Jenkins and Jim Johnson.
Bukoski is a professor at UWS and taught a major-author class that focused on [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and Thoreau when I was there. I thought that he was a wonderful guy and a great professor, but I didn’t realize at the time that he was one of the best short story writers in the country: When his book “Polonaise” came out I was blown away.
I’m more influenced by Johnson and Jenkins, though. I guess it’s because I’ve written a column for so long and I need my stories to start and end quickly. Those two guys, who are prose poets, are very succinct, and reading their work definitely inspired me tighten up my style.
Were you active with UWS’s school paper, The Promethean?
The Promethean? No. I actually had absolutely nothing to do with the UWS Promethean – other than I wrote one letter to the editor in my five years there. [Laughs]
And I don’t think I had anything to do with the Denfeld Criterion, either.
But I did, for one semester, work on the Morgan Park WildCats Chronicle, the newspaper of Morgan Park Junior High School. [Laughs] And that’s an experience that’s mostly forgotten; I don’t have any great memories from that or anything, and it didn’t obviously inspire me to get real involved with newspapers, because I didn’t again for 10 years.
And, in college, I got a mass communication degree that wasn’t particularly focused on newspapers. I don’t have a journalism degree; I don’t have an English degree. I did take some upper-level English classes — just because you gotta take something — but I didn’t graduate with the notion that I would have anything to do with newspapers.
Finally, where is your new book available to purchase?
The book, right now, is only available at the Happy Hour shows or if you find me on the street and I have a copy with me. And there’s a reason for this: Partially, perhaps in my mind, I like the idea of creating scarcity but, more importantly than that, I am just trying to eliminate the middleman.
In other words, why let the bookstore or PayPal take part of my cut?
Maybe after 15 years this is the piece of savvy that I’ve been missing in my dealings. Or, perhaps it is a big disaster and I’ve done it again.
NEWS TO USE
“The Spowl Ribbon” will be available for purchase at the remaining two Paul Lundgren Happy Hours, free shows at Teatro Zuccone which the author hosts. Christa Schulz will be the guest at 6 p.m. Wednesday, and poet Ryan Vine the week after that (same time, same place). See www.paullundgren.com for complete details.
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