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Maine and Moxie, Black Francis and Alpha Flight

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Talking “Vacationland” and more with John Hodgman

Author, actor, comedian, raconteur, bon vivant – these are just a few of the words with which you might describe John Hodgman.

From his time as a correspondent on “The Daily Show” to his commercial heyday as the PC to Justin Long’s Mac to his three books (“The Areas of My Expertise,” “More Information Than You Require” and “That Is All”) filled with fake facts and his stage shows filled with truth – not to mention his work as Judge John Hodgman across assorted media – Hodgman has proven to be an engaging and entertaining figure, one whose dry, matter-of-fact absurdity lends him an utterly unique voice.

Oh, and he spends his summers here in Maine.

In fact, Hodgman’s new book “Vacationland: True Stories of Painful Beaches” – his first attempt to write about his real life – contains plenty of stories about his experiences here in, well – Vacationland. He also spins several tales about his younger days spent with his family in western Massachusetts.

Mr. Hodgman was gracious enough to grant some time to The Maine Edge for a phone interview; despite my best efforts, I managed to largely not embarrass myself.

“I wanted to be more truthful,” Hodgman said when asked what prompted him to go in this direction with his newest book. “My previous three books were simply made up entirely; fake facts, false trivia and the like. But now, it seems as if everyone is doing that, so I wanted to do something different.”

This new direction – and the idea of a book in general – turned out to be a bit of a surprise when it started to come about.

“Well, I had made a prediction in 2012 that the world was going to end,” said Hodgman. “When that didn’t happen, I was a little embarrassed. And I hadn’t really planned anything creatively or professionally going forward. I didn’t know what was next.”

It turned out that what was next came courtesy of comedian Mike Birbiglia. Hodgman found himself on a stage at Union Hall in Brooklyn, where he quickly started offering more than made-up trivia.

“I set the date and was perhaps a bit worried,” he said. “But I found that I had a lot to say. It was no longer weird or absurd. It was truthful … which was much scarier to me. Still, it’s not hard for me to tell stories on stage; I have little trouble venting my feelings.”

These stories grew into a one-man show. However, the idea of translating these tales from stage to page was a little daunting.

“On stage, I’m fine,” he said. “I’m just talking to other humans. I say my piece, they laugh or they don’t. They may remember, but either way, I speak and then it disappears. I can share all my dumb feelings, my thoughts, my self-aggrandizement and/or self-deprecation.

“But to put it in print, where people can see it forever, where they can take it down and take it apart, that’s hard.”

(At this point, I asked Hodgman about Maine – specifically, how much time he and his family spends here and how his celebrity impacts that time – and was told that no one was privy to that information. I was then asked point blank if my intention was to track his movements and find him and follow him around and … I’m almost certain he said “and check my mail.” I note this because it is just one of many examples of moments where I was delighted by John Hodgman in ways that interviewees rarely delight me. Oh, and he definitely answered my question.)

“My wife is a high school teacher,” he said. “So we’re able to spend a good chunk of time there, most of the summer. As for the celebrity, well – there’s not a lot of celebrity left. In fact, I just met someone who didn’t remember the Mac/PC ads.

“Really, the idea of celebrity is at odds with the Maine desire for solitude,” he continued. “If you want to go where you’ll be noticed, maybe don’t choose Maine. Being left alone is basically the primary goal there.”

However, he is recognized from time to time, including once in Acadia National Park – a story he also recounts in “Vacationland.”

“I got spotted one time,” Hodgman said. “I was driving through Acadia National Park and I’m flagged down by this young couple that needs a ride. They get in and are immediately ‘You’re John Hodgman.’ I confirm that I am and they say they’re fans. I say ‘It must be strange to get picked up like this by your hero’ and they said that perhaps hero was a bit strong.

“And then I went on to tell them that it’s odd because usually it’s the hitchhiker who murders the driver in this situation.”

That tenuous relationship with celebrity is mentioned – and made light of – several times in “Vacationland.” Hodgman is careful when it comes to naming names, including an ongoing bit where he makes reference to a “famous author” who lived in Hodgman’s summer town for many years, yet never actually calls the writer by name.

According to Hodgman, it’s a way to stay true to the ethos of Maine.

“This famous author, we didn’t even know that he had lived there,” he said. “This is one of my wife’s favorite authors. But he had kept it fairly secret; he was easily one of the least braggy white men ever encountered. In truth, I wasn’t intending to mention it at all, but it wound up that the story required it. But this way, I was able to honor the region’s propensity for privacy.”

However, that isn’t to say that no names are named. In fact, one of my personal favorite stories in the book – albeit one that took place in Massachusetts rather than Maine – involves Hodgman getting a chance to engage personally with one of his cultural heroes – Black Francis, lead singer of The Pixies.

“Specificity is the soul of narrative,” said Hodgman. “And while there might be some moral misgivings about sharing the name, it isn’t as good a story for me to talk about a ‘member of an influential rock band from the 1990s that was wildly unappreciated in its time only to see renewed attention in later years.’ There was no reason to be coy. I made the calculation and I hoped they wouldn’t be mad, but rather that they’d be happy that I held the memory with such fondness.”

That experience was one that really drove home for Hodgman the benefits of becoming a “real” adult.

“It was an unexpected chance,” he said. “But I had become an adult. I was making money. We were able to clean up the house – update and renovate it. I felt like a real grown-up. And it’s rare for people to feel so secure that you’re comfortable being generous. That’s the best version of being a grown-up – being able to invite Black Francis over to your house and share all of your Diet Moxie with him.”

(Delightful Hodgman interview moment #2: It was at this point that I confessed to Hodgman my general distaste for Moxie. His immediate response was a “How dare you!” followed by a “This interview is over.” Like I said – delightful. From there, we spoke briefly about my own Maine bona fides. Specifically, that I have them – my family has been here for multiple generations on both sides. He said that I was clearly the real deal and I replied by informing him that there were no flatlanders in my family tree.)

As for my final question, well … it was maybe a bit farther afield than it ought to have been. But I had caught a reference to the Marvel Comics series “Alpha Flight” in the book and I had to ask him about it (though in truth, my “question” more or less boiled down to “‘Alpha Flight?’ Really?”).

“Yeah, ‘Alpha Flight,’” said Hodgman. “I’m a big John Byrne fan. I love his art. I really enjoy the work he did with Chris Claremont on ‘X-Men.’

“Maybe it’s that I love weird underdogs,” he continued. “Moxie and Canada. I love the idea of an all-Canadian team and I still have a fondness for those early issues, though I stopped reading after Guardian died.”

(Please note: this is a magnificent deep cut for a Marvel fanboy like me who came of age during that era. I probably didn’t even need to share this as part of the interview, but I am unapologetic about how weirdly happy this made me.)

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Look, John Hodgman is never going to be a Mainer. That’s just how things work around here. And he appears to have made his peace with that fact. But he hasn’t let it stop him from embracing our state fully and warmly.

Anyone “from away” who has spent a lot of time here in Maine would do well to check out “Vacationland” – you’ll likely see at least a bit of yourself in Hodgman’s experience. And if you’re a Mainer through and through, you should still read it, because seeing our home as refracted through the prism of Hodgman’s skewed brilliance is a wonderful experience.

So while the beaches might be painful, John Hodgman’s take on them - and on the world at large - is anything but.

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For those interested in spending some time in John Hodgman's physical presence, there's a book event set to take place in Portland:

OCTOBER 26 in PORTLAND: “The Portland of Maine!”

In conversation with GUEST BAILIFF MONTE BELMONTE!

At Port City Music Hall

In partnership with PRINT: A Bookstore

504 Congress Street

7:00 p.m.

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 October 2017 14:13

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