The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Arthur Plotnik

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Arthur Plotnik


Summary: Robert thought that Better Than Great by Arthur Plotnik was truly better than great and a fifty-carat, finger-licking-fabulous book which flies in the face of mediocrity. We had to chat to the author.
Date: 14 January 2013
Interviewer: Robert James
Reviewed by Robert James

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Robert thought that Better Than Great by Arthur Plotnik was truly better than great and a fifty-carat, finger-licking-fabulous book which flies in the face of mediocrity. We had to chat to the author.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Arthur Plotnik: First my late mother. She's saying, as mothers do, I don't get it, but I'm sure it's wonderful.

The audacity to spew more words into a glutted universe rests on someone's blind faith. But generally I picture a threadbare, aspiring individual in a bookstore thinking, This looks good; I hope it'll be worth the price. You moil long and hard not to disappoint this investor.

Sometimes I see myself, making obscene gestures and snarky remarks over every paragraph. But that could be pathological.

  • BB: I have to be honest, until I read it, I didn't realise there was a gap in my bookshelf waiting for a thesaurus of praise and acclaim to fill it! What gave you the idea to write it?

AP: I think the motivation came as I suffered through mind-bludgeoning repetitions of amazing in Academy Awards shows. Or the stupefying thrum of awesome and unbelievable (brilliant in the UK) in any discussion of sports, fashion, beauty, or food. Why, to celebrate our favorite things in life, do we limit ourselves to a handful of stock terms --- terms so exhausted they fail to distinguish anything as special?

Someone had to cheer for the use of fresh alternatives --- and why not me? I'd been reaching for bigger and better modifiers for decades, ever since churning out potboiler novels in my youth. (Billowing breasts, globular buttocks, intoxicated flesh.) In a later (clean) book, The Elements of Expression, I came down on great, the most overused superlative of all, encouraging a hunt for fresher, more precise or nuanced terms. A general thesaurus is a first step, but many of the so-called synonyms are only slightly less shopworn. The challenge is to discover unusual alternatives in unlikely places, create new phrases, or do inventive, gorgonizingly awesome things with stock vocabulary.

  • BB: If pushed, could you possibly pick a favourite expression from the book?

AP: I love mind-marmalizing, with its suggestion of something so extraordinary or unexpected that it pummels the mind into marmalade:

Mind-Marmalizing Choice of Plotnik as Nobel Laureate Shocks Literary Community.

Forceful, even violent actions to body or mind make for energetic superlatives: kneebucklingly sweet (David Foster Wallace). A wig-walloping spectacle. Heart-judderingly sad. Armor-piercingly gorgeous.

  • BB: I love armor-piercingly and mind-marmalizing myself!

I thought the '50 ways to txt acclaim' appendix was a pinnacular idea! I have to be honest and say that I would only have known what about 5 of them stood for myself. Do you use them a lot in texting, or did that part involve significant research?

AP: Pinnacular? UR2K,^ Robert. I do use a morsel or two of texting code, but mainly to appear wkewl^^ to my younger relatives. Rarely would I use them for acclaim; we cheat things of deserved praise when we toss them a GR8 or WD (well done). As for research---several websites offer texting abbreviations, among them But OMG, it took me, like, 4eva to find positive acclaim within this largely snide, gangsta-influenced micro-lingo.

^You are too kind. ^^Way cool.

  • BB: The variety of books you've written is bountiful - one might almost say hippopotamic. Past works of yours include a book about the calligrapher of the US constitution and a book about over 200 species of trees found on North America's streets. Of all of them, which did you most enjoy writing?

AP: My snaking from one enthusiasm to another may be more pythonine than hippopotamic. As for writing enjoyment, most of it comes during research, which for The Urban Tree Book included rambles with my wife (the illustrator) through parks and leafy streets across the U.S. and in parts of Europe. What could be more blissful?

But writing itself, as I've always maintained, is 'a bumper-to-bumper crawl through hell with an occasional jolt to the next form of anguish. (--The Elements of Authorship.) With most topics, facing a constellation of choices in every sentence is skull-dentingly difficult enough; but writing about expressiveness and striving to shape those sentences into paradigms of wit and style --- Nerve-nuking! Brains- in-a-blender exasperating! Why do it? Because having written is so ecstasiating.

  • BB: While I was wished 'Happy Holidays' so many times over the past two weeks or so that I grew rather bored of the words, I was able to respond with 'Have a clamorously crunk Christmas and a Nirvanic New Year' thanks to your excellent website - was the website your idea, or your publishers?

AP: My specific idea --- mine, mine! A typical publisher's idea goes like this: 'Build your platform and market the book in every form at every opportunity and on every medium available now and as they become available.' The mandate includes social media, to which there are no end and where self-promotion verges on the intrusive and obnoxious. But one's own website is a place for playful, creative mongering. No one has to visit, but you want to reward everyone who does. So thanks for stopping by, Robert, and have a yangy, slaphappy Year of the Snake.

  • BB: On a similar note, how important do you think a web presence is for an author today?

AP: Indispensible. It's your business card, your spiel, your virtual self, your interface with the digital world. (See It's expected! And it's becoming cheaper and easier every day to build your own site --- as I've simplemindedly done with three of them (via Be aware though, that sites and keeping them up do suck time from writing, though not as much as regular blogs. The value of blogs for marketing? Not sure.

  • BB: What are you reading at the moment?

AP: Martin Amis's Lionel ASBO: The State of England. See, I loves Amis's louts an' sociopafs and they way of talking, plus I jump on a book when Michiko Kakutani --- you NY Times critic --- says it's lumpy or, as Lionel would put it, is taking the piss. Call me Anglophilic---I've been called worse --- but your Amis, Will Self, Zadie Smith and other such wordmeisters are my cynosures, dazzling virtuosos at every level of speech.

  • BB: I tend to read more YA than adult fiction myself, but Lionel ASBO is high on my to-read list!

If you had one wish, what would it be?

AP: Will Self's vocabulary, world peace, Rory McIlroy's golf game, Hilary Mantel's imagination, Rory McIlroy's hair, a healthy planet -- oh, I just get one? The hair!

  • BB: What's next for Art Plotnik?

AP: I don't know --- I'm at the age when one thinks about memoirs or a 'legacy' work and suddenly feels wilted. Meanwhile, I've had some short memoirs out this year, one of them recalling my study under Philip Roth and lamenting the master's recently announced retirement from fiction. For purposes unknown, I'm compiling additional superlatives (e.g., concupiscible --- worthy of amorous desire) and such masterly modern metaphors as 'His tongue darted into my mouth like a tadpole escaping from a jar.' (-- Marisha Pessl.)

But a big project? I'll have to see if I'm up to the struggle at this stage. As I expressed it in my one and only, heretofore-unpublished rap lyric:

Call me 2PAC Plotnik/ widda phat pocket

in my portfolio of writin', / not bad for an oldie

tryin' to be more excitin' / than the young blood

comin' in the game, / makin' a name,

gettin' all G'd up from the feet up

while I'm goin' insane / prayin' for a critic

who don't know ah'm arthritic.

  • BB: I’d get on the phone to Eminem or 50 Cent as soon as possible, Art – I think you may have a calling there in writing for them!

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