This interview is cross-posted from NYWF where I’m one of the official bloggers this year.
It’s easy to doubt yourself when writing to Christian Lander. But it’s only after I send him my interview questions that I realise they’re written in Helvetica and that I’ve just potentially marked myself as hopelessly ‘white person’ too.
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Lander has turned this sort of self-conscious lampooning into an art form – when he began his blog Stuff White People Like in 2008, he tapped into a cultural phenomenon of ‘left-leaning, city-dwelling, white folk.’ His ‘White Person’ was essentially a hipster, yet with less of the sneering negativity that word has come to connote.
The blog spawned a New York Times bestselling book, a world tour, and countless imitations. He’s responsible for brilliantly self-aware entries, such as #127 on book-to-film adaptations:
To have read the book after the movie is one of the great crimes in white culture, and under no circumstances should you ever admit to doing this. Literally dozens of white friendships have imploded when it was revealed that someone read Fight Club after 1999.
Any project as wildly successful as Lander’s has the potential to corner its creator into being asked about nothing else. White puns are present in the title of almost every interview – Salon’s ‘Unbearable Whiteness of Being’ the particular highlight. But part of the success of SWPL was Lander’s own story — that a guy writing a joke blog to entertain his friends could gain a million hits a day and a book deal in less than six months.
On the final day of TiNA, at an event about how to make it on the internet, Lander says that the key to a successful blog is a simple idea that everyone thinks they could have thought of — but didn’t.
In Newcastle this year as the international guest of the National Young Writers’ Festival, I asked him about writing both before and after becoming the official voice of the ‘white person.’
How did you begin your writing, pre-Stuff White People Like?
I grew up wanting to be a stand up comedian, then just someone rich enough to afford a lamborghini, then a professional baseball player, and finally a rockstar. By the time I was 12, I realized that I wasn’t going to become any of those things. I figured that writing about them was as close as I was going to get. Then I saw the Simpsons. It was about as perfect a show as television has ever produced and I wanted nothing more than to be a TV writer. But as a Canadian I had no idea how I was ever going to get to the United States, so I left it as a pipe dream and focused on journalism.
Even as a tween I always believed in dreaming within reason. I went to University to get a degree in English and History and work on the school paper, but by the time I was ready to graduate I realized I had no passion for journalism. I had a passion for writing, just not journalism, so I went to graduate school to study Film and literature with the intent of being a professor. Well, that didn’t work out either as my heart wasn’t in it. Thankfully, while I was in graduate school I met a girl, we got married, dropped out, and moved to Los Angeles to pursue my dream of being a TV writer. Somehow I was less practical at 28 than I was at 12. I ended up getting a job as a copywriter at an Ad Agency, I was pretty good at it, but I didn’t love it. Then I started Stuff White People Like and somehow all those dreams from when I was twelve, came true.
You’re here in Newcastle for the National Young Writers’ Festival and you’ll be appearing across a number of panels – one in particular about ‘making it on the internet.’ What are your tips for creating successful online projects?
The truth is that finding success on the internet has no trick. If you create something that’s original and connects with people, you’ll be a hit. Constantly begging your readers to forward everything you write to all of their friends is essentially you asking them to turn you into a star. It will never work. You have to create something that’s so compelling that anyone who reads it feels the need to pass it on. So my tips are be original, be funny, be short, and don’t make your readers do the work for you.
You’re now a writer for MTVs upcoming Underemployed. How did that come about?
Working in television has been a relatively simple process. After Stuff White People Like got popular, I got an agent, they paired me with someone to turn it into a TV show, I then started writing more TV episodes and various producers read my material and decide if they want to hire me. In the case of Underemployed I was invited to an unpaid punch up session (where a group of writers try to add one line jokes to an existing script) and the show runner (the writer/producer in charge of the show) liked me enough to want to bring me on.
What’s it like writing for MTV? (Is it like the writers’ room from 30 Rock? I’m imagining it as the writers’ room from 30 Rock.)
Writing for MTV is great. It’s not exactly like the writers room on thirty rock, but you do put a group of very smart people in a room for very long periods of time. Somedays you are just humming and the stories are breaking and everything is falling into place. Other days, it’s crawling, everything you pitch fails, nothing seems to be working and you feel like you’ve painted yourself into a corner. Those are the days you end up asking hypothetical questions about whether or not you would eat someone on a desert island. Those are long days.
The trailer for Underemployed shows a girl working in a donut shop who describes being there as ‘underachieving.’ What was the worst job you ever had to support your writing?
I worked at an Ice Cream shop in Toronto one summer. I was a manager, and that meant a slightly higher pay but I was expected to order our ice cream for the week and unload it from the truck. So I would carry these tubs of ice cream into the freezer and on my way in there the condensation would melt so my shirt would get wet. When I got into the freezer, it would freeze and then melt on my way back to the truck in the humid summer sun. It’s a miracle I didn’t get hypothermia. Also I had an insane Swiss manager, I’m not going to say he was a Nazi descendant, but I’m also not going to say he wasn’t. He told us that weather should not affect ice cream sales and that he was very disappointed that we hadn’t met our goal on a day when it was pouring rain and eight degrees outside.
You write across a number of platforms – you’ve begun a PhD, created a successful blog, now you’re working in script writing. Which do you prefer? And do you think it’s important for writers to have a presence across multiple platforms?
I think I prefer screenwriting. I like working in a collaborative environment and it’s pretty incredible to see your ideas and jokes come to life on screen. However, the process of pitching, writing, editing, revising and taking notes from executives and other writers can be heartbreaking.
If you could give one piece of advice to young writers starting out – especially those writing online, what would it be?
My advice to young writers would be ‘prepare for failure.’ That doesn’t meant you shouldn’t write, it means you should prepare for the times when you are going to fail or be rejected. The best advice I can give is to recognize that there is no single standard for good writing. It’s all a matter of taste and try to remember that rejection is not personal, it’s business. You will fail, we all do, but how you react to that failure is what will guide your career.