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Cursing is no curse for Ian Frazier

Christopher Borrelli

6:13 PM EST, November 7, 2012

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Ian (expletive) Frazier, whose journalism has been a mainstay of the New Yorker for almost four (expletive) decades, whose subjects have included fly-fishing, Native American reservations, (expletive) Siberia, the security detail for hip-hop performers, typewriter repairmen, Don Cornelius, (expletive) meteorites, (expletive) trees, cellphone-sniffing canines and his own (expletive) (expletive) Ohio ancestry, has written his first novel, "The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days." It is inspired by his "Cursing Mommy" columns for the New Yorker. It is the satiric daybook of a tightly wound mom with a terrible family.

For instance, on page 215, while attempting to make a Thanksgiving Day table centerpiece, Cursing Mommy has a mishap: "The glue ran down the feet and permeated the paper and while I was enjoying my sloe gin it DRIED LIKE (expletive) CONCRETE AND ANNEALED ITSELF TO THE (expletive) (expletive) COUNTER!!"

The actual copy is slightly more explicit.

It may also seem a stretch for the celebrated journalist behind such classic works of reportage as "Great Plains" and "Family" and "On the Rez." Though if so, YOU DON'T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT (expletive) IAN FRAZIER, DO YOU?! As long as Frazier has been a serious writer, he has been a humorist. He's twice won the prestigious Thurber Prize for American Humor. Saturday, he speaks at the Chicago Humanities Festival (at the First United Methodist Church, 77 W. Washington St.). The following is an edited version of a longer (expletive) conversation.

Q: Have you always wanted to curse in print?

A: No, but I have certainly felt the taboo against it. I started working at the New Yorker in 1974 and, you know, forget curse words, you couldn't say a lot of noncurse words. The editor then was William Shawn, a Chicagoan. I had an aversion to curses because it was how I thought under Shawn. When that particular restraint was lifted later, it was a dizzying feeling. You wanted to take advantage of it, though it's not like I have a sort of Tourette's where I am typing all these curses all day then have to go back and edit them out.

Q: Did you know about Shawn's famous queasiness?

A: I assumed it. I read the magazine, so I knew. The thing is, you couldn't print certain words anywhere then. You couldn't say 'suck' on TV. Of course, things have changed dramatically, throughout society.

Q: Did writers ever try to slip certain words past Shawn?

A: All the time. But it wasn't always curse words. I wanted to write a piece about fishing. He hated fishing and anything that resembled a blood sport. He hated hooks. So when he finally did approve a piece about fishing, he said to me, 'Go ahead, but can you possibly not mention hooks?' He thought it was horrifying that a fish could be hooked. I wrote a 14,000-word piece on fishing and there may be no mention of hooks.

Q: I once had an editor who hated the word "turtle."

A: There are word prohibitions at some places. Shawn also didn't like any mention of wigs.

Q: Why did you start the Cursing Mommy pieces in the New Yorker?

A: I did one for an artist friend who had a newsletter, a short one where Cursing Mommy is making chili but runs out of chili powder and flips out. It was easy, I liked the voice and it turned out to be a good character. David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker now, saw that newsletter and said he liked it. Which is the mark of a good editor: He is widely read and sees possibilities everywhere. I've done a bunch of them now.

Q: You feel comfortable putting in curse words now.

A: I feel weird. But relief at writing the way people talk. Remember, women didn't used to curse. More likely if it was a couple, the man would curse. My mother never cursed. Women would say "Mercy me." Now they say "Mercy me, (expletive) this." Of course, women, mommies, did flip out, but it took an entire movement for people to admit this happened. The utopian fantasy of postwar life was so strong it held the lid down.

Q: You're known for spending a long time as a journalist in far-flung places like Siberia, the Dakotas. But you've lived in suburban New Jersey for years and write so rarely about suburbia.

A: I've done a few small things about the suburbs, but yeah, it is a reason to write about the suburbs. The suburbs have kind of disappeared as a subject in fiction. When I first started at the New Yorker, there was Cheever, Updike, all these writers who spent a lot of time on the suburbs then, because there was this certain assumption that life there had been placid. That assumption is gone now. People behave differently.

Q: You also don't see comic novels anymore.

A: It's not popular. It's a renegade form. It doesn't fit anywhere. But whenever a comic novel succeeds, it is just itself, not really a genre. "Catch-22"? Where did it come from and what comes from it? "True Grit," the great Charles Portis comic novel — Portis in general is a great comic writer who has never fit anywhere cleanly into American literature. I would love to be part of that tradition, but I don't deserve to claim to be.

Q: But a lot of your work has never really fit any overall category, or even arrived at larger points.

A: I feel you give a reader a kit: "Here are some interesting pieces." I suppose there are meanings I mean to convey in my stories. There's a takeaway at the end. But even that, "takeaway," it gives me the creeps.

Q: Just as randomly, before you went to the New Yorker, you worked at Oui, the Playboy spin-off?

A: I did. I lived at 1856 N. Lincoln Ave., near the zoo. Before I was writing for Talk of the Town, I was writing "girl copy" in Oui. It appalls women when they find out. Girl copy was like, "Sandra would like to show you where she keeps her things …" That kind of stuff, the copy that ran next to pictures of naked women.

Q: Is it true before you went there you were offered a job as a fact-checker at the New Yorker?

A: Yes. I knew it wouldn't have been my strong suit so I didn't take it, but if I had been a more decent person I probably would have taken that job. Instead I went to Playboy. They had this really interesting editor, Jon Carroll, who wrote to Harvard Lampoon, which I was part of in college, and they said, "If anyone wants to come to Chicago …" He was inventive and did interesting things with tone. His basic tone was to run a picture of a woman and give the copy attitude, like "Eat your heart out!" Which may be the reason why Oui didn't take off. If you were buying Oui, you probably didn't want irony. Ironic sex does not sell. No, this makes me sound like a sex writer and I am at the Humanities Festival to talk about the American family.

Q: Did you ever want to specialize, careerwise?

A: I have only ever wanted to generalize.

Q: Why?

A: Because it's more interesting to look at a whole picture. The way to make anything work anymore is to find a niche. But if I am a white, middle-aged male writer, I want to read a young black female writer. I am contrarian and curious. You know how Amazon tells you what books you would like? I hate that. I want Amazon to say, "Look, this is the last book you should read." I like that impulse. You know when you go to a bookstore and see a black author section, a section for women authors? I get the reason for supporting writers who have been traditionally neglected, but I've always liked the bigger category, the open category.

cborrelli@tribune.com
Twitter @borrelli