There’s not one among us who — in our quieter, more pensive moments — hasn’t fantasized about ditching our adult lives to embark on some grand, fanciful adventure. It’s a daydream as old as storytelling itself. Whether it’s Ulysses and the Mediterranean, Frodo and Mordor or Dean Moriarity and the open road, humankind has long romanticized leaving behind civilized life to face the unknown.
And now Drew Magary has reimagined that trope, only this time starring an emasculated suburban dad. In his new book, The Hike, Magary tells the story of Ben, a middle-aged man who happens upon a walking path that transports him into a mystical realm filled with man-beasts, vampires, smoke monsters and talking crabs. But the trip is more than a series of tribulations for Ben — it’s a stroll through his past. Ben encounters exes, old friends and long-forgotten personal enemies along the way, forcing him to grapple with issues and people he would rather ignore.
Magary — who’s a columnist at Deadspin and a correspondent at GQ — spoke with MEL Radio about The Hike, how fatherhood hasn’t changed him, what it’s like being GQ’s “white trash correspondent” and why he was one of the few people to accurately predict Donald Trump’s political ascendance.
One of your long-running bits on Deadspin is poking fun at nerds of all stripes — sabermetrics nerds, comic book nerds. Yet, I never pegged you as a sci-fi or fantasy fan.
I try to goof on everybody. Especially the way I write, the number-one target always has to be me. Otherwise, I’m not justified in going after anybody else. But yeah, I played Dungeons & Dragons and lots of PC games growing up. So even though I’m a suburban dad now, that still exists inside of me pretty prominently.
What kind of books did you read as a kid?
I used to go to the library for these folk-tale compilations. They were by a woman named Ruth Manning-Sanders, and she would group them by monster. There must have been like 20 or 30 of them. There was a book of demons, a book of dragons, a book of ogres and a book of giants. She would gather the tales from everywhere — Africa, Eastern Europe, Western Europe and Russia. I remember them so vividly, because as a kid, I wasn’t the greatest reader but that was the kind of shit I really got into. When I finished The Postmortal, my last book, I tried writing a couple of other social sci-fi books and got stuck. I just kept coming back to this idea of reviving these crazy-ass folktales that I used to read. That’s really how The Hike came to be.
There’s a lot of heart in this book. Ben, the main character, happens into this adventure accidentally. He’s on a business trip and decides to go on a hike, and suddenly finds himself in this fantasy world. But there’s a sense that he desperately wanted, and needed, something like this to happen to him.
He’s sort of based on me and sort of not. I’m like any other dad where I’m like, “I need to get away for a second.” Then I get far away, and I’m like, “Oh, God, I don’t want this.” There’s always this push/pull: I want to be here; I don’t want to be here. The book takes that to the most extreme possible conclusion.
Thematically, the book is about Ben realizing he’s not in control of his own life. Does that come from you personally as well?
Yeah. I’m a little better about it now. But it was hard when I first became a parent. It takes time to accept that I didn’t have any control over how my kids acted. I could only hope they would act in a way I wanted them to and model my own behavior so they would follow suit. But it doesn’t always work like that, which takes a long time to accept. In fact, I still don’t know if I’m there yet or not.
The other thing I don’t have a great deal of control over is the outside world — for example, who’s going to be president, how the public schools are doing and all of this other shit that affects my family. I have a hard time with that sometimes, too. Either I have to accept that the world is nutsoid and find a way to survive within it, shut it out entirely or try to change it as one person, which I’m not inclined to do.
When you were single and childless, did you ever think you’d be one of those people who were like, “Children will totally change your life and perspective!”
Not at all. People who say their kids change them are full of shit. They’re the same dicks they used to be; they just have kids to take care of now. So I don’t think that I’m a terrifically different person. I’m not as selfish, but that’s by necessity. Like saying you’d take a bullet for your kid … that’s standard. It’s like the vowels they give you in Wheel of Fortune. But I don’t think that in terms of my attitude or sense of humor, I’m vastly different from who I was.
Another big theme of the book is how cushy our lives have become, so much so that life is slightly emasculating.
I’m totally emasculated. I certainly don’t feel very self-reliant at all. I’m some suburban goofball who has a bad back and can’t mow his own lawn. So I do feel emasculated at times, and I have to reckon with that. I remember when I was in my 20s I was like, “I should’ve joined the military.” My grandpa fought in World War II so I thought, He’s a man, and I’m not. I had this passing fancy about how I hadn’t really proven myself. Sometimes I think it’s inherent in all guys, but maybe that’s just my bullshit insecurity showing.
Do you have a lot of friends? Not a lot of older men with families tend to have legitimate friends.
I mean, it’s true, you have to cast them aside. All your single friends are like, “What happened? Where did you go?” But I still hang out with some of my childhood friends. I also have work friends who I like to hang out with — like the staff of Deadspin or GQ. And I have neighborhood friends; you know, you get together with the neighbors and have beers and stuff like that. I do, however, have that same sort of Stand By Me regret that you get older and your friendships aren’t as strong as they were when you were 13, because they can’t be.
Has it ever gotten awkward writing about people in your life? You do that a lot in both your fiction and nonfiction.
Yeah, sure. I’ve been very, very conscious about it. I’ll write about my wife and kids, but I don’t name my kids. And I don’t write about my sex life at all because my wife would be like, “What the fuck are you doing?” Nor do I want people to think that I have ill intent. Because when I started blogging, I wrote about one event that I went to and goofed on all the people there, and it really offended somebody that I cared about. It was awful. I never want to be in that position again. So I’ve done my best to be cognizant of that and remain respectful.
Talk a little more about writing about your kids.
Especially now that they’re getting older, I’m not specific about them. When they were babies it wasn’t as big a deal. I mean, babies shit their pants; it’s not embarrassing for a kid for read that when they get older. The other thing is that I get along with them so there’s not as much material as there used to be. Because they behave; they don’t throw rocks at me or anything. I do get that question a lot though: “What do you do when your wife and kids read what you write?” In general, I have a good enough relationship with them that they know my intentions and they don’t care. To me, it’s more about their names and pictures being online. I’m not going to introduce them to the horrors of the internet against their wishes. They will have to make that leap themselves.
What piece have you written that’s received the most internet backlash?
Probably something I wrote for GQ called “Fuck Ben Carson,” which was strange because it was a very short, nothing post. But the headline was such that I guess Roger Ailes read it and put it into the Fox News morning briefing. From there, it was being brought up on Fox News like every 8 minutes. That’s when all of the hate mail and death threats started rolling in.
But I have it easy. I mean the shit that Jezebel writers gets day after day after day is so much more personal and so much worse, such that I don’t have any complaint to lodge. That said, it can be rough when people are openly talking about finding you and beating the shit out of you. Or if they’re tweeting personal information you didn’t realize they could get.
Your writing career is pretty unconventional. You started in advertising, right?
Yeah, I wrote headlines and radio and TV ads. Then I got a Blogspot site. This is back before social networks; it was sort of free-range internet.
What was your goal with the Blogspot site?
It was basically a joke repository. I had done stand-up a few times in New York. I wasn’t very good at it. I forgot all the material, and I would sweat a lot. But I knew I had some jokes that were pretty good. So I started blogging instead as a creative outlet. It was a way to advertise myself, too, because back in the day on Deadspin, you could comment in a way that brought people right to your blog. Then I got hooked up with another commenter named Matt Ufford, who is now at SBNation. He said, “I have this blog, too, and I don’t know what to do with it.” I said, “Let’s do an NFL site.” And we started one called Kissing Suzy Kolber, which did really well and that we ended up selling. Around 2007 is when Will Leitch asked me to write an NFL column for Deadspin. That’s when things really started cooking.
It seems like a lot of other writers have since co-opted your self-mocking, angry, grumpy NFL fan shtick. PFT Commenter is probably the best personification of it.
In some ways, yeah. I’ll get a lot of Deadspin emails that sound like me and that’s fine. I don’t really mind. But it’s hard for me to think or talk about whether I’ve had an influence on other people and not sound like a prick. Because we’re still desperate for good football writing. And football writing hasn’t improved that much in the past 10 years. It’s still extremely serious.
Yes. It’s a sport. It should be fun!
It should be fun. It should be funny. It kills me that it’s not. It’s weird that “You don’t know football!” is still the go-to insult for football fans.
On the flip side, GQ has had you write about Duck Dynasty, profile Guy Fieri and attend a Trump rally. It seems like when they need a voice of Middle America, somebody who can explain all of those flyover states, they call in Drew Magary.
“And now… White Trash Correspondent Drew Magary!”
How, though, do you talk about these things from a different perspective?
It’s awful. In New York and D.C., they have media echo chambers. The only people they contact is each other, and the only people they drink with is each other. They get sort of glued into thinking that their worldview is the prevailing worldview, and it sucks. We’re now living in the middle of an election that’s, essentially, a huge byproduct of the resentment toward those people. For better, and for terribly worse.
That said, I think people are right to begrudge the media for thinking they have the right to know what’s best for everybody. Or to assume that theirs is the prevailing worldview of the rest of the nation. I mean, if you go out there, you will find value. Like when I interviewed Trump voters or when I interviewed the Duck Dynasty guys, there was stuff I genuinely liked and admired about them. I went to the Trump rally in August 2015. So it’s weird when you have David Brooks being like, “Well, one thing I learned from this Trump thing is that I should go meet more poor people!” Yeah, you should have two decades ago!
In some ways I like to think that I haven’t lost — this sounds so pedantic — my ability to understand real people. And not just with white trash, with everybody. To assume that I don’t know anything, and when I meet different groups of people I’m not usually associated with, to keep an open mind about how they feel and where they’re coming from. Be that gun culture, be that foreign nations, be that the inner city. All it requires is an open mind and an empathy that I don’t think is difficult to muster. But it’s amazing how often it doesn’t happen.
It’s worked to your advantage. When the Trump ascendance was just beginning, so many people were dismissive. And that kind of emboldened him and his base.
Sure. How would you feel as a voter if they said, “Nah, your candidate doesn’t matter”? That dismissiveness makes people more angry and more strident, and they harden from there. At the same time, people take the media too seriously. You can believe in something on your own, and not worry about if it’s being dismissed or not.
Do you think the internet has made people more or less open-minded?
Both. I don’t subscribe to these theories about us and the internet, as if you could really diagnose it. Because since I’ve been on the internet, I can tell you that I’ve had my views challenged, and I’ve been awakened to things that I didn’t know about. And that’s a good thing.
Speaking of having your views challenged, have your thoughts and feelings toward football changed at all in light of all the research linking football to neurological disease?
I think the only thing that has changed for me is that if I see a really vicious hit, I wince. I’m like “Oh God.” I mean, I’ve always known the game was damaging. You can go back to Johnny Unitas, who was an absolute trainwreck, and Lyle Alzado, who killed himself with steroids. The long-term effect of football, not just with your head, but with the rest of your body, is something I’ve known about for a long time.
In terms of viewing games, I still watch them and still enjoy them. I’m probably one of those new suburban hypocrites who isn’t as wild about my kids playing it as I used to be. Although I wouldn’t say my experience playing football was super duper. So I can’t say I was all that gung-ho about my kids to play football to begin with. But certainly now I’m one of those people who’s like, “I’m not sending them out for pee wee football. That’s crazy.”
You didn’t have a great experience playing football? You write a lot about it on Deadspin.
I had an indelible experience, but I wasn’t good at it. It’s not fun when you suck. And sometimes the relationships were sort of weird. You want to fit in, but you don’t quite fit in so you feel weird and emasculated. And you got coaches yelling at you and you don’t want to let them down. That’s sort of weird, too. It’s definitely a part of me, and it’ll always be a part of me. But I have some ambivalence about it.
Bringing it back to The Hike: a lot of the book is about reflection. Is that something every guy does when he gets to be a father or reaches middle age?
Yeah, sure. Because it’s just a different life. Like I said before, I’m still the same person, but I have clear responsibilities and clear purpose. There was a time when that wasn’t true. And so, sometimes I can’t help but ruminate on the person I was and why that person did what he did. And the choices he made leading to where I am now.
The past is something I always carry around, and it’s something I always deal with. Sometimes it’s there to entertain you; sometimes it’s there to haunt you; sometimes it’s there to reassure you. But there’s always going to be a relationship with it because my past grows as I get closer to death.
What’s your biggest regret, and what’s the best decision you’ve ever made?
I have a couple of professional regrets. I accidentally posted Brett Favre’s penis on Deadspin before my editor had planned on doing it, and I felt bad about that. Women that I’ve messed up with. Any hurtful thing I’ve ever said to my parents or to my wife.
The best choice I made was marrying the person I married. If you marry someone who believes in you, a lot of things fall into place. And I’m not saying that to gets points with my wife. I’m not sure she’s even going to listen to this fucking podcast. But it’s 100 percent true, I swear to God.