UW Today

April 25, 2012

'Occupy Loneliness': A talk with David Shields about 'One Lonely Guy'

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David Shields

David Shields

In October 2011, former University of Washington student Jeff Ragsdale, living in New York, had hit a low point — his stand-up comedy and acting career had stalled, he had been through a bad breakup and he was living in a cheap rented room. Despondent, Ragsdale posted a flyer around the city that said, “If anyone wants to talk about anything, call me. (347) 469-3173.”

To his surprise he got about 100 calls and texts the first day alone, and they kept on coming, finally numbering in the thousands. In time he brought the messages to the attention of his former teacher, UW English Professor David Shields. From that came the book “One Lonely Guy,” edited by Ragdsale, Shields and Michael Logan of Seattle.

What attracted you to this project? When Jeff Ragsdale contacted you about the responses he’d received to his note, what made you want to know more and work with the material?

I had kept in touch with Jeff over the years; I knew he was always up to interesting projects. Still, I resisted for as long as I possibly could. I kept saying no, I’m too busy, I don’t have time, but Jeff kept sending me the most amazing transcriptions of phone calls and texts that he had received. At a certain point, I just couldn’t say no. The material was simply too interesting; it spoke too deeply to the culture.

'One Lonely Guy,' by Jeff Ragsdale, David Shields and Michael Logan, published by Amazon.com.

"One Lonely Guy," by Jeff Ragsdale, David Shields and Michael Logan, published by Amazon.com.

As I explained to our editor at one point: “What I love about the book (and I can say this because its less anything any of us did, and its more the voices that came in on Jeff’s cell phone) is what it tells us about what its like to live in America right now. I can’t think of a book that evokes more specifically how people talk now (the new words and phrases and sayings are extraordinary — its a virtual Rogets of contemporary slang); how much they/we hunger for connection to themselves/ourselves, to each other, to a larger community; how energized and enervated they are/we are by Big Media and digital culture; how confusing love is in a 24/7 porn environment; and how baffling transcendence is — how fame or brief flickers of fame seem to beckon out of every internet portal. This book is a remarkable document of contemporary existence.”

By what general criteria did you decide on which messages to include in the book? What sort of things got left out?

One of the other co-authors of the book, Michael Logan, and I went through hundreds and hundreds of passages that Jeff sent to us. Perhaps thousands of passages. Our only criterion was, “Do we love the passage?” Is there some humor or pathos or insight peeking out of the passage somewhere? Also, Michael and I and Jeff were building a book with an undeniable thematic weave: The book begins with the flyer, then returns to “Childhood,” comes forward to “Love Sucks” and “Love Really Sucks,” opens out into “Problems,” then “Solutions,” then “No God Created This Mess.” We needed hundreds of passages to build all the thematic threads.

This is compelling reading, but often in a dark, voyeuristic way. What sort of reactions have you heard from readers?

I’ve found that people tend to love the book or not like it at all. Some people seem to just instinctively get what a complete portrait it is of contemporary existence. Others dismiss the book as some sort of random and/or salacious gathering.

In “Reality Hunger” you speak of “deforming the medium in order to say what has never been said before … which is the mark of great writing.” Does that apply to this work? Do you consider this “writing” at all? Or is it something different?

It would be rather vainglorious of me to say that this is a great book, but I love this book a lot. It clearly is an attempt to deform the medium as a way to say what has never been said before. As to whether it’s writing or not, I love the collage nature of this project, which is a perfect expression of my aesthetic, and Id even go so far as to say its an apt metaphor for any writers artistic process.

When youre dealing with such a massive amount of material, you perforce ask yourself, “Isnt this what all writing is, more or less —taking the raw data of the world and editing it, framing it, thematizing it, running your voice and vision over it?”

What youre doing is just as much an act of writing, in a way, as it is an act of editing. Multiply the thousands of passages we perused by a very large number — a trillion, say — and you have the whole of a persons experience (thoughts, anecdotes, misremembered song lyrics, etc.), which he or she then “edits” into art.

Are there future incarnations of this material in mind or planned — on stage or film?

There has been quite a lot of interest from film and television companies, but of course nothing definite as yet.