The Alternative Encyclopedist: A Talk With Michael Largo

Michael Largo is the author of “Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die“, “Genius and Heroin: The Illustrated Catalogue of Creativity, Obsession, and Reckless Abandon Through the Ages” and “God’s Lunatics: Lost Souls, False Prophets, Martyred Saints, Murderous Cults, Demonic Nuns, and Other Victims of Man’s Eternal Search for the Divine“. I was curious about the human being behind these unique books, and recently got a chance to ask the author a few questions.

Levi: I’ve enjoyed three of your books, but I don’t know the first thing about you. Can you please fill me in on who you are, and how you became a writer and an alternative encyclopedist?

Michael: I became a writer because books captivate me. Gripped not only by words, or by certain authors’ lives, I like the very idea of what a book is. From earliest memories, I always had a book to read and at least a few in waiting. I read, and still do, anything and everything. But there were certain books that became better, or at least more interesting when I learned of the authors’ backgrounds, how they lived, wrote, and died. Hemmingway, London, Poe, Keats, Thoreau, D.H. Lawrence, Colette, Kerouac — no matter the consensus on their works, all had intriguingly perilous biographies that hooked me when I was a teen: If you lived intensely, it might be possible to one day write a book people would read. Many have this idea; however, what turns a reader, even an avid one, into a writer is something different. I believe it has to do with the desire to defy death. With books, you can read the ideas of a writer who lived long ago, know of his or her life, and in theory, make them immortal. To become a writer I obviously had to write and keep writing even when everyone said to give up, get a regular job. Like most writers, I have a huge file of single sheet rejection letters. Persistence has to be a writer’s most consistent virtue. I wrote my first poem after reading e. e. cummings, and was deceived into thinking it was simple to break all the rules. I grew up in Staten Island, New York; back when it was a countrified suburb, and I had a relatively “normal” childhood, one that any kid of a New York City homicide detective might have. I got a B.A. at Brooklyn College, back when Clarence Major, Peter Spielberg, absurdist playwright Jack Gelber, and John Ashbery were teaching writing there. I had a chapbook of poetry, Nails in Soft Wood (Piccadilly Press) published in 1975, and a novel called Southern Comfort (New Earth Books), a few years later. I lived in the East Village during the 70s and 80s, was heavily involved in the small press scene, and edited a few lit magazines, most notably New York Poetry. I got a grant from the New York State Council of the Arts for fiction. I kept publishing or posting poetry and fiction when the Internet sprung up. (Here’s a sample of one in The 2River View.)

Creative writing all those years, via the non-academic route, proved a difficult choice. If I listed all the jobs that I took to pay the bills, which still left me time to write, I’d sound like someone with serious employability issues. That goes back to the level of obsession I needed to write. For example, I got a gig on a sea-going tugboat for two years, a harsh life though with a lot of free time, after reading a Gary Snyder poem about scraping paint chips on a ship. And I opened a bar in the East Village, The St. Marks Bar & Grill, during the early ’80s after reading Herbert Selby, to know what that particular vortex was really like — and then I had loads of time to write while in rehabs. Afterward, I made money as a writer doing research and writing copy, while in turn giving myself a functional case of insomnia to work on my own stuff.

Levi: How did you formulate the concept for the encyclopedic format you use in these three books? Did you have any precursors in mind? And did you have a hard time convincing a publisher to take a chance on the idea?

Michael: It was not too hard to get a publisher, considering I worked ten years to gather the statistical data that would become Final Exits, before submitting a proposal. Offers came relatively “quickly” (if we don’t count a decade of research and twenty years plugging away in the small presses), but it was difficult for publishers to come to a consent on how to present it. One publisher wanted the manuscript changed into a narrative, while another wanted a “999-ways” kind of list. I thought the encyclopedic format, if done in an eclectic manner, was more interesting to read, and provided a subtle way to express a theme. Readers like stories, even if they contains cold facts and mind-numbing statistics, so that is how I tried to formulate each entry in those books. I also tried to make the sections small enough to be read between subway stops. I wanted to try something different in non-fiction, if possible. I turned the important academic footnote, often underrated and frequently ignored, into boxes and sidebars. As far as precursors, I’ve always been enthralled by the chroniclers and catalogers of their times. From Josephus, writing an account of how it was to be a Jew in the first century, or John James Audubon, trekking through swamps to paint a bird and make a rendering of its existence, even if in the end the naturalist suffered dementia and poverty. Their records remain. Then there is Noah Webster, another admirably obsessed man, determined to list every word, and formulate its meaning.

Levi: Looking at your three books together, I see … death, creative self-destruction and religious fanaticism. I have some idea what I think might be the common denominaton between all three, but I’d love to hear what you think the common denominator might be.

Michael: Please tell me what it is. I only know that death is extremely fascinating. A life, a person’s story, cannot be complete without it. It is interesting to write the stories of the dead when knowing the beginning, middle, and end. Thematically, there is a Dylan Thomas rage against the “dying of the light,” but of a brand that requires going to the edge of the cliff, not over it. There is a “Hail Mary Full of Nada” denominator, I imagine, but not so serious. More like being locked in a fun house. By in all, there is this lingering suspicion that life is a meaningless proposition, so what else is there to do but create something that might matter, might be remembered, and if nothing else, at least entertain.

Levi: Are you personally devoted to living life at its extremes? Or do you maintain a calm and sedate private lifestyle in contrast to the subject matters of your books?

Michael: I must not be living sedate enough since they tell me that my liver is shot. Truthfully, I was initially pissed off hearing this latest diagnosis, especially since I gave up chemical living over fifteen years ago. However, as I mention in Genius and Heroin, no one knows which one of the organs will have to pay the tab for reckless years gone by. Even so, the books I have written in the last few years equally required a good bit of obsession, including traveling frugally, not focusing on health as much. I had to see the cemeteries around America, touch the headstones of the dead, see church steeples and the catacombs of saints, as well as spend late hours fishing for documents and records. There is nothing like standing in the room where Keats died while reading his sonnets. Or at Père Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris, sitting on Jim Morrison’s grave, listening to his songs.

Levi: I bet you get asked this a lot. What topic are you going to tackle next?

Michael: I really want to do some books on the deadly sins — death and lust, death and greed — and a book about how the world dies. There is a bunch of stuff to write, and there is never enough time.

3 Responses

  1. Top notch interview about
    Top notch interview about subjects dear to my heart! Michael, keep metaphorically chopping wood and carrying water for a long time – we need writers like you. Do you have any plans to visit Jacksonville, Florida for a book signing? Or for any other reason?

  2. Michael, on your way to
    Michael, on your way to Jacksonville, FL., if you go, please stop off at Chattanooga, TN and “keep on the good foot”. These days we survivors got to keep those books & epistles coming into our twilight years…just gotta float the boat on downstream…There is lots of interest in your stuff down our way.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!