Readers have long known Drew Magary for his journalism and acerbic yet hilarious rants at GQ, Deadspin, and elsewhere. But Magary wears several hats. In addition to his non-fiction writing — and the cooking skills that made him a winner on the reality cooking show Chopped — Magary writes smart, hilarious, and kind of crazy fiction. Magary’s first novel, 2011’s The Postmortal, was a darkly funny dystopian vision of a future where the cure for aging had been found. It ended up a finalist for the Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke science fiction awards.
This year, Magary returns to fiction with an entirely different kind of novel titled The Hike. His sophomore work is a gonzo fantasy adventure with a simple premise: a guy gets lost in the woods. Yet with Magary, getting lost means being chased by dog-faced murderers, crashing into an iceberg, almost getting eaten by a giant, and being forced to build a castle for the undead. In short, things get weird. I talked to Magary over email about genre fiction, the influence of video games on his writing, and how “2016 feels like a yearlong troll job by the creator.”
The Hike tells the story of a man who decides to go follow a trail and ends up stumbling into a murder scene, forced to kill monsters, and enslaved by the undead as he tries to find his way back. What inspired you to write the book?
The first part of the book is actually based on a true story. I went to an isolated country inn and wanted to take a walk but the clerk said there was no path, which sounded crazy to me. So I went out back and found one and walked down it, all alone, for like an hour. And I never saw anyone in my whole time out there, which weirded me out. From there, the idea just kind of blossomed.
What’s the worst you’ve ever been lost?
The worst I ever got lost myself was when I was driving in Los Angeles and failed to load the GPS entry properly, and the GPS lady thought I was asking to go to “Los Angeles” and nothing else. So she led me to random intersection in downtown L.A. and said, “You have arrived.” I was very angry. A dozen times a year, I am lost in a car and swearing.
What do you think is a scarier thought for readers: getting chased by murders or losing all cell phone reception and battery life?
Oh the latter. Go to the airport and look at people desperately huddled around charging stanchions to prevent running out of battery on the plane ride. It’s like running low on heroin. And I’m one of those people addicted to screens, so I know it’s bad for me and I try to put it away, but then I’m back at it five seconds later.
Genre-bending literary fiction is becoming increasingly popular. Why do you think that trend is happening now?
Well, I think a lot of it is that you have a new generation of writers who grew up with ’80s and ’90s pop culture, and that finds a way into anything they write. They didn’t just read as kids. They played video games and watched MTV and all that shit, and those can serve as literary influences too. And the stigma of genre shit is gone, too, if it ever existed to begin with. Any work of art in any genre can be elevated if you put enough thought and care into it. I’m too young to remember book critics scoffing at Stephen King, but I know they used to, and that seems unfathomable to me as an adult.
Do you ever wish you could just escape your life?
Oh yeah! That’s the push-and-pull I feel a lot as a middle-aged dude. There’s an episode of Mad Men where Don Draper goes to L.A. and just never bothers to come back, and it ends with him wading further and further into the ocean. And I sort of get that instinct, the temptation to go out there and explore. I wanna get away, but then I get away and I wanna go back home. I want to stumble onto new and exotic lands, but only in my imagination. It’s a fucking weird mindset to be in.
At one point, Ben says, “I didn’t even believe in God before this. I just figured if God existed, then He was an asshole. This only clinches it.” That seems like main philosophy of the novel: that god (or fate or the universe) isn’t just absurd, but basically a big jerk. Does that sound right?
That’s actually not what I believe. I tend to be a sunnier person than Ben, probably because I never got lost in purgatory. But yeah, sometimes it can feel like there’s someone up there who’s just fucking with you. Especially in 2016. 2016 feels like a yearlong troll job by the creator.
In addition to writing fiction, last year you won an episode of the cooking reality TV show Chopped. What’s more surreal, The Hike or reality television?
I think reality TV is basically a known quantity at this point. I don’t think anyone watches The Real Housewives of Tulsa thinking that it’s all real and that the camera has no influence over anything. With Chopped, the cooking is real, but you spend all day taping interviews and shit because they need enough footage to put together something people will enjoy watching. And so it’s not surreal, but more of a grinding industry, with crew people and producers all busting their asses 18 hours a day to make the product.
You’re perhaps best known for writing about sports for Deadspin. Do readers who know you for your sports writing ever read your fiction and just say, “What the hell is this insane shit?”
They tend to be supportive, but when it comes to books, I can’t necessarily rely on that audience to lift something onto the bestseller list. Writing a book means venturing outside of that cozy little sports bubble I tend to work in. And if some readers elect to not go with me, that’s fine. It’s just good to work different writing muscles.
What are you working on next?