This Interview Is Hard: Todd Zuniga on Literary Death Match, SF vs. NY, and World Travel

Last month, our friend April Joseph interviewed Opium Magazine founder Todd Zuniga on the occasion of the 2008 edition of Litquake. Tomorrow, Zuniga’s other creation, Literary Death Match, returns to Amnesia.

APRIL (not pictured): Was that rumor about making the Literary Death Match a TV show in fact true? I can’t wait to attend my first LDM tonight!

TODD (pictured): Very true, in fact. The thing about Opium and the Literary Death Match and life, really, is trying to do things that surprise and excite. I love the LDM, in all of its literary oddity, and thought: what’s next? The idea of putting together a sizzle video (we’re taping the 11/11 LDM in NYC, and just taped the Opium7:7 launch party at The Kitchen) and pitching it to networks–here we come HBO!–seems so insane and impossible, I couldn’t help but want to try it. I like the idea of: fail? fail better (to slaughter Beckett’s quote). I just hope some TV exec sees past the obvious “no one reads anymore” and sees this as the next Def Poetry Jam, only funnier.

You have been busy, splitting your time between NYC and SF! And then “accidentally moving to NY,” how do you manage? What keeps Opium running and how have you successfully managed your literary forum during our TV/iPod/instant stimulation generation?

This question has so many tangles, I feel like I’ll realize by answering it that I haven’t managed. I’ve been lucky enough to write about sports video games for and ESPN Video Games, while on a retainer, so that’s given me the freedom to work wherever, and live in the cheapest possible cities in the world. Though mostly that just means I work 16 hour days with a rare break to watch True Blood and Mad Men. I guess I’m realizing, trying to answer this, that I’ll be patting myself on the back, so I’ll say this: it’s an incredible privilege to be able to create something like Opium and have people buy it, and to put on the LDM and have so many people show up. We’re always on the verge of financial collapse, so we’re going to finally dissolve our LLC and become a non-profit in the coming weeks. So I will hereby invite the entire planet to the fundraiser we’ll be throwing in SF after the new year.

What was your initial inspiration for Opium and has that changed since you first launched the idea? How has it evolved? And your audience: What types of readers does your work usually attract and what do they comment about?

This interview is hard! Maybe it’s just that I have a sore throat. Such big questions! Anyway, a few factors caused Opium: the death of STORY Magazine, which I loved so dearly, and having a story accepted by McSweeney’s (online). I was living in Chicago and didn’t know enough writers, so I started a website because I loved so many writers and wanted to know some of them. I didn’t know HTML, I didn’t know what an FTP was, so I just started, an attempt to learn.

My goal was to have it exist for one calendar year, then stop. But it had grown so much, submissions from all over the planet, people putting Opium Magazine in their bios. It was so flattering, such a surprise. But after that it spun into another cosmos. We had a $99 American Dollar redesign contest, and on and on.

The evolution, though, happened in 2005, when I had more money than I could spend for the first time of my life. So I launched Opium into print (all original stories). Same thing again: planned to do it once, and here I am, brainstorming for issue 8.

As for who we attract: we’ll publish anything that’s wonderfully written, surprising, heart-breaking and funny. But it’s tough to find that all in one story, but what fun when we pluck those out of our overflowing inbox.

What would you say is the tone of this year’s Litquake and how does it differ from the New York Litquake scene?

Litquake is, hands-down, the most wonderful and vibrant literary event on the planet. It’s an honor to have Opium‘s Literary Death Match be a part of it, and I love that I’m slowly moving up the ranks: Year 1 I read at Lit Crawl, Year 2 I was at Barely Published. With this type of progression, it’s no wonder I’ve got my eye on being handed the Barbary Coast Award in 2071. But seriously folks!

In terms of NYC v. SF, I’ve attached one of my cartoons, but SF is insane about books in the best possible way! People pour into readings, they’re enthusiastic and unselfconscious. In NYC, they’re nuts about books, too, but they’re a little bit cooler about it.


One cool thing: this year we did the first-ever Lit Crawl in NYC, a monster undertaking that went off with only a tiny assortment of hitches. I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure Litquake takes over the world.

I’ve looked for info about your upcoming book- Passport, and have not come up with much… care to plug it, I mean, discuss any major points, or what that makes it stand apart from other travel stories? From what I gathered last night at the Make-Out Room [during Litquake’s “Barely Published Authors” event], your experiences in Latvia and Estonia stuck out the most for you? (I loved the line that I believe goes “alien beautiful somewhere…”) 18 countries right? How long did you travel around for and are all of the stories from 2004?

I just turned in the first 25 pages of PASSPORT to my agent last night. It’s subtitled ” A COLLECTION OF REMEMBERED TRAVEL.” When I was in SF, right after the Opium6: Go Green (But Save Me First) launch party, I went out, and somehow my passport flopped out of my pocket and I lost it (along with $500 from the party, a cruel blow to Opium‘s meager finances). Losing my passport really hit me harder, though. I love that thing, and it held 20 countries worth of stamps in it. From trips to Tokyo to Sarajevo to Rio to Stockholm. I’m writing an essay (well, I’ve written, and am now fiercely editing) for each city, representing each stamp, trying to remember. It’s shocking me how much I’ve learned, how dumb I still am, how the book has evolved. Each essay is under 1,000 words, so its sparse and to the point. How it’s different is that its effectively a memoir, but with significant gaps in narrative. I only write essays about the city, and my life during my days or weeks in each city. There’s nothing that happens while in America, where I live 97% of the time. How it’s not different–or maybe different?–is that it’s ultimate a search for home, the idea of what home is, and in some ways it’s a love story, about how I’m trying to figure it out, and can’t quite.

Here’s the Tallinn excerpt if you want to use it:

I start to pretend a life here, in this alien-beauty-filled somewhere, where my inability to speak the language would serve as short-term protection against the weakest points of whoever it is I might be, my foreignness a freedom from feeling known, from having hurt anyone, ever. I think that–which is when Ben hits me across the back with a parking cone. I counter by throwing a discarded bag of McDonald’s in his face. He shoves me into the side of a car; I shove him into a trash can. This action sends me into the clouds, above the noise of my life–the collected mental junk, the minor successes, mistimed affection. My head empties of Sandra, of everyone. Ben and I, best friends, tackle one another to concrete. We laugh like we’re free of it all. Like there is only joy, like there is only love.

The collection starts with Paris, 2001, and ends with a trip I took in 2008 (though I’ll wait to say where).

Thanks, Todd! Thanks, April!

Photo of Gravity Goldberg and Todd at Litquake 2008 by *cynner*.

Further reading:

Lael Goes to Literary Death Match on Mission Mission.

Todd Zuniga, The Sports Game Guy on

2006 Todd Zuniga Interview on Gothamist.

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