Michael Stusser's “Interview with a Dead Guy” columns, which appear in mental_floss magazine, have just been published in The Dead Guy Interviews: Conversations with 45 of the Most Accomplished, Notorious, and Deceased Personalities in History. He is a frequent contributor to Seattle Magazine and Law & Politics. His “Accidental Parent” column (ParentMap magazine) recently won the prestigious Gold Award from the Parenting Publication of America. Stusser has also authored several board games including “The Doonesbury Game” (with Garry Trudeau), “Hear Me Out” and “EarthAlert.”
The Dead Guy Interviews is entertaining as well as edifying; as the publisher puts it, "this collection of conversations is incredibly funny, but each interview is also based on serious research, so in addition to laughing, readers actually learn real history."
Stusser answered my questions about his book:
Zeringue: How much research did you do to give what appear to be an accurate historical pictures of your subjects?Read more about The Dead Guy Interviews at the Penguin website and visit Michael Stusser's website and MySpace page.
Stusser: Oh this is serious stuff. My chief researcher is Anne Kaiser, who spent 25 years at Harvard University as manager of the Program on Information Policy. It took us 2 years to do the research for 50 interviews (we cut 5), and another year for final fact-checking. She’d make sure I didn’t ask Darwin how he came up with his theory of relativity or da Vinci about painting the Sistine Chapel. I also write the “Interview with a Dead Guy” column for mental_floss magazine, and so the staff there does all the fact-checking – and, let me tell you, nerds don’t mess around.
Zeringue: As far as I can tell, you do a fine job of separating the apocryphal from the historically accepted facts. And you do it in an engaging way; for example, you badger Catherine the Great about the rumors of her dalliance with the Love that Dare Not Neigh Its Name, thereby raising -- and clearing up -- a rumor that most historians consider unfounded. Of those figures you interviewed, who benefits most from (or suffers worst because of) a widely believed but untrue legend?
Stusser: Napoleon’s not as short as you might think. I mean, he’s short (4’6”), but I thought they’d bring him out in a thimble or something. Hell, he’s the same size as Alexander the Great. Also, Joan of Arc wasn’t hearing voices – she was wearing an early version of the iPod. Plus, Mozart’s not so bad…. (He paid me to say that.) Also, Sun Tzu is actually an incredibly peaceful warrior – he’d love Bono or Angelina Jolie. Even though he wrote The Art of War, he’s all about conflict as a last resort. His new book is The Art of Golf, so you know he’s mellowed over the years.
Zeringue: Who is the vilest dead person you interviewed?
Stusser: Not surprisingly, the French. Napoleon you might expect – but Coco Chanel was not only a Nazi-lover, but a pain in the ass. Plus, she’s upset they haven’t asked her to judge “Project Runway.” And Salvador Dali isn't vile, exactly, but he's a superfreak, for sure. What’s strange about him is that he’s so flabbergasted how normal everyone else is. “Nothing of what might happen ever happens!” he kept saying. “Why are bath tubs always the same shape? Why, when I ask for grilled lobster, am I never served a cooked telephone?” An odd bird, to be sure.
Zeringue: Who is the nicest dead person you interviewed?
Stusser: Cliché as it sounds, I’d have to say honest Abe; he’s an incredibly bright fellow and a great President during the roughest of times. He’s also got a helluva sense of humor. When we were talking about an opponent who called him two-faced, he said, “If I had two faces, do you think I’d be using this one?”
Zeringue: I run the Page 69 Test and the Page 99 Test: which test would more likely pull in the busy book browser and make her want to read more?
Stusser: I'd say Page 99 (with Charles Darwin). But every page should stand up - so I'll let you choose.
Zeringue: Was there anyone who you thought would be an interesting subject but decided to abandon after your research?
Stusser: At the beginning we had 50 interviews lined up, but there were some cancellations. Apparently, Jesus is miffed about being constantly misquoted, not to mention my request to turn my water filter into a wine dispenser. We had Gandhi all set to chat when my idiot intern offered him a foot-long sub during one of his frickin’ fasts. And Helen Keller - don’t get me started…. Oh, and the reason Elvis refused to be interviewed? He’s not dead yet. I’ll give you a hint: The Golden Nugget, Reno…. We also had to cut some folks because, quite frankly, they were boring. Aristotle, anyone ... don't get me started....
Zeringue: Is there going to be a volume 2?
Stusser: With your help and folks buying this one! There are still plenty of dead people to interview. It's not like they're going anywhere....
Zeringue: These interviews would make great sketch comedy. Any plans to bring them to the stage or screen? If you're camera-shy, I can see Jon Stewart playing the role of Michael Stusser....
Stusser: We will be introducing two Dead Guy Interviews next month via YouTube - Genghis Khan and Sigmund Freud both stopped by the studio. And you can hear audio samples on my MySpace page.
Zeringue: What question do you wish someone would ask you about your book but no one has asked? And what's the answer?
Stusser: What was the best piece of advice you got from a dead guy?
I was talking to Ben Franklin at Starbucks the other day and he said, “Some people die at 25 and aren’t buried until 75. When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” He also said that the best way to avoid flatulence is to drink perfume, so take it for what it’s worth.