On Wednesday afternoon, Colin Atrophy and I met up for pizza in Bushwick to discuss his book Slice Harvester: A Memoir In Pizza, officially out this week. The book expands upon the writings Colin has penned over the years under the "Slice Harvester" moniker, using reviews of every pizza shop in Manhattan as a lens for personal musings on punk, the city, relationships, recovery, and more. It's a project he took on in August 2009, eating over 400 plain slices in about two years, writing blog reviews and compiling them into zines along the way.
Colin's memoir is a rare story, both funny and heavy, using his trajectory as pizza blogger/zinester to pick apart his his own self growth, and also channel a social and political subtext you would expect from someone raised on a critical punk worldview. "It's about me dealing with a bunch of unhealthy patterns and acknowledging my shitty behaviors," he explains. "The roots of a lot of that stuff lie in the impacts the patriarchy has had on me, and has on all people."
After grabbing a few slices, we walked under a rolling JMZ train at dusk back towards the Silent Barn, where we sat up in the yard loft and chatted for an hour about growing up punk in the suburbs, the radical potential of making stuff, the value of humor, how techno-capitalism is making us all fucking not talk to each other, and a lot of other stuff. The Barn is also where he'll celebrate the release of the book this Tuesday night at 8pm, with a reading, sets by Downtown Boys and In School, and 69 free pizzas.
How are you feeling? The book is out in a week!
It's really surreal and I'm still just stressed out that no one's going to like it. Or that they'll be like, "I thought this book was gonna be about pizza but then it was about drugs. And alcohol. I don't like that. This person's vulgar and they curse too much."
That's funny, as I was reading it I was kind of imagining people who have never been exposed to punk or radical politics reading it. And at every turn being like, "Huh? ... What? . . . WHAT." Because literally every sentence could be its own story.
Are you nervous about people who are in the book reading it?
No. Most of them have already read it. I was a little bit scared because a lot of the book deals with a pretty heavy relationship I was in at a super vulnerable point in my life. That relationship was really transformative and I grew a lot, but it ended while I was finishing the book. It kind of just ran its course. In a lot of ways, writing the relationship helped me process and realize that it was ending, but also when it was done and the book was handed in and it was out my hands, I was really scared about how she was going to feel. But she read it, and she's proud of me. Because she's a good person. That was something that stressed me out in terms of being a memoirist.
Aaron Cometbus said he wasn't going to read the chapter about himself because he doesn't read about himself, but I secretly hope he did. I wrote this sentence about him trying to make a Billy Idol face and then getting stuck like that, and I just want him to read it. I've thought about reading that chapter at the release party just so he has to hear it, but that seems spiteful in a way that I'm not.
It seems hard, that process of negotiating your life with your art and knowing where to draw the lines.
Luckily for me it's not, like, a "tell-all". Some of my friends are important subcultural figures, but it's not about that. The hook is that I'm going to eat all of this pizza. Everything else is the icing. Whereas with other memoirs the hook is like, "Gene Simmons' ex wife tells you about what a dick he is in details that are worse than you imagined!" I have the liberty to just talk about how great my friends are. It's about the transformative nature of friendship.
When you think about the book, besides the obvious through-line of eating at all these pizza shops, what are some of the other themes that seem obvious to you?
I think it's largely about the toxic nature of contemporary American masculinity. And the way that masculine socialization happens, and how it is harmful to all humans. It's also about punk being really awesome, obviously, and how punk is maybe not just for kids. I once called it a version of Great Gatsby where I'm the non-trustworthy narrator and New York City is Gatsby. What's that character's name? I forget. I'm not really an encyclopedic literary person. I wasted all of that brain space on like, rap facts. For instance, did you know Martin Lawrence and Salt n Peppa worked in a call center together in Jamaica, Queens?
That is a good rap fact.
I wanted to ask you more about what you said about masculinity. What was your path to becoming someone for whom thinking about gender and feminism is important? How do those politics play out in the book?
It's hard to say how I got into thinking about gender and feminism. I think it has to do with my mom, for sure. I also think it has to do with a lot of my cool kid role models when I was younger being tough older girls, but that's kind of a chicken or egg scenario, because it could be argued that I was drawn to these types of people because of some intrinsic desire. So like, who can say? I've always been drawn to "social justice" issues for as long as I can remember. I think I just have an acute sense of like, unfairness, and a desire to rectify that in whatever ways I feel capable of. I don't really know.
As far as how those politics play out in the book, I would just say that it's about my life and about me dealing with a bunch of unhealthy patterns and acknowledging my shitty behaviors and I think the roots of a lot of that stuff lie in the impacts the patriarchy has had on me, specifically, and has on all people, more generally. I think it would be impossible for me to write something like this, something so personal, without some of my politics making their way into the narrative.
How did this book happen anyway? Simon and Schuster. . . ?
They asked me to write the book, essentially. I got a bunch of press from the blog finishing. I was on the cover of the WSJ. It's really strange. . . It was their fluff story for the day. I got all this attention from dirtbags, and then this one cool guy. The one cool guy was from Simon and Schuster and he was like, "We want you to write a book . . . I'm picturing Eat Pray Love meets The Basketball Diaries." I thought that was the funniest sentence I'd ever heard, so I was like, "Yeah I'll write that book for you."
What made you want to be a writer? Did you always want to be a writer, when you were a kid?
I always read as a little kid. My parents read to me a lot. My first favorite author was this guy Lloyd Alexander, who wrote these fantasy stories. I met him at a book signing when I was 8 or 9 and he actually sent me a Christmas card every year until I was 16 .... I was also really into Ursula Leguin. Like I said, I've always been drawn to what we call "social justice" now. That's a term that's really new in my life. But I've always been interested in stories about dystopian, fucked up worlds where there is too much power and some rag tag group of weirdos gets together to fight it.
That's kind of what punk is.
Right! I love that shit. I think I was just really lucky. My parents read to me a lot, and bought me a lot of books. They both came from families that did not prioritize intellect in any way, [but] they both came out of that as compassionate, empathic people. And when they had a child they were like, "Well, we want it to be different for our kid." I don't know when I started writing, but I definitely was into writing and had these romantic notions about carrying around a notebook and being tortured or whatever.
Growing up in the punk scene in the 90s, on the East Coast, the two biggest bands that I really liked were probably The Pissed and the Bouncing Souls. Both of those bands had songs that were about being a participant. Everything about punk to me, as a child, that made this different from mainstream culture, was that we all participate.
What were your high school zines like?
My first zine was called Atrophy. That's where I got the name. For my book, it's Colin Atrophy Hagendorf because I wanted to use my family name, but I didn't want to get rid of my punk name. Mostly the zine was these humor pieces. There were show reviews, record reviews, and then ads. There was always a lot of ads but they were always ads for other local zines, or some label that some kid runs out of his bedroom that doesn't actually have any releases but they'd send me a thing on AOL and I printed it and put it in my zine because they put one of mine in their zine.
There were a lot of zines around then. There was this unfortunately named record store in Port Chester, NY called the Vinyl Solution, with this whole front window area. Kids would just leave their zines there for free. There was a half dozen, maybe even 8-10 zines that came out every few months.
Atrophy zines are around if you look hard enough. I think the Denver Zine Library has some issue. The ABC No Rio zine library probably has a couple. The Civic Media Center in Gainesville definitely has issues of in the zine library.
After Atrophy, I made a few that had one-off titles. One was called Rock and Roll High School. Then there was a single issue of Every Day Is My Birthday. And one called Toy Store Handcuffs in 2003, I think. Then I did a bunch of little weird super strange surrealist things between 2003 and Slice Harvester, but none of those had names. And they were all really ephemeral. I don't even think I have copies of those. And then six years later in 2009 I did Slice Harvester.
Were you writing much between making those zines and starting Slice Harvester?
No. Part of why I tapered off doing zines was because of Livejournal. When I did zines, there was barely the internet. I was on this list-serve called "Zinesters" at Yahoo.com with a bunch of zine people. It was kind of mostly women and most of them were 10-15 years older than me. That Yahoo group is actually where I became friends with Mimi Thi Nyugen. She's been a really consistent positive influence in my life forever. I can't thank her enough.
I like making stuff but for me zines were mostly about sharing stuff and communicating and interacting with other people. Then when the Internet happened, I could suddenly communicate immediately with these same people. All of my penpals and people who I traded zines with had Livejournals. And so I would put out a zine here or there just to have something, to keep up, but I didn't really care about it.
Then I just got really lazy because I was partying all the time. I stopped doing everything really. I always played in bands, and just stopped. I just liked being wasted. I think I was at a moment of crisis and I didn't even realize the extent of it when I started Slice Harvester. It was like, I pinpointed, "My life is not going right, it's not going how I want it to go, and feeling how I want it to feel. Why is that? Well, I don't make anything anymore. That's where I'm going to start. We'll see." And that kind of ended up organically spreading to address all of the other things that I hated about my life too.
How do you think you actually pushed through that moment of realizing, "My life is not going the way I want to go, I'm not making anything." It's one of those things that I'm sure a lot of people think at a certain point, but have trouble acting on it.
I don't know if everybody has the same foundation of having made stuff. I was always making stuff since I was a kind because of growing up punk and adopting this set of values, prioritizing from a very young age that participation and cultural creation were necessary things, and fundamental to my identity as a person in the world. So when I was in this crisis later on in my life. It was easy to think, "What is different from times before this?" It was basically like, "I'm miserable, let me try to remember the last time I wasn't miserable, figure out what was different, and try to do those things." I didn't think the things I was going to make had any value beyond validating my being alive, and giving some purpose to getting up in the morning.
I talk about it so much that I don't want to talk about it anymore, but, I do think it was also my friend Jamie dying. Jamie died and then I went on Shotwell tour for a while. And then I traveled a bit, and came home. And then I started Slice Harvester, pretty much.
I wrote about Jamie on my blog, and in the book. He was someone who raged pretty hard, but he was always making shit. He was really productive, even when he was at his saddest. He was always playing in bands, he always had some fucking tape to give me, or a 7-inch, or a weird little comic that he drew, or a CD. He wrote amazing songs. I listen to [his band] Bent Outta Shape's records all the time.
I think I was kind of spiraling out after Jamie died, and I was also processing my uncle dying and I hadn't really dealt with that. I think I just felt like, it was really ungrateful to be alive and not doing more. I just felt weird about it. I had to do something. I had so many ideas that I didn't do for so long. And I think the pizza idea was just too good to not do. It was such a good idea and it was so easy to start. I was ready to have a big project, and I needed it.
I want to ask you about your relationship with humor. Your book is really funny. Even on a surface level, the general concept of a pizza reviews zine is pretty funny. But there is a lot of heavy stuff covered too.
That's just how I process the world. If you look at the continuum of secular Jewish weirdos who I talk about and try to assert myself into, a lot of those people are always funny. It's just a cultural sensibility that comes with being an East Coast non-religious Jewish person. That everything is a joke. Everything is a potential subject for comedy. That's like the basis of Curb Your Enthusiasm, or Seinfeld. Nothing is funny and everything is funny. And the most mundane shit is ridiculous and it's funny because it's ridiculous. I don't know, I have a tattoo of a fucking Lenny Bruce comedy bit.
What's the tattoo?
It's a Jesus as a wolf-man. In the comedy bit, he goes, "Look, we killed Jesus. Alright. The Jews killed Jesus. Fine. We all know. Get off my back. The thing is, no one ever wants to know why!" And then he puts his hand over the mic and does this conspiratorial stage whisper, and is like, "He was a werewolf!" I saw it and I lost it. It's everything. It's sacrilegious. It's punching up. It's not making fun of the underdog. It's taking down those in power, deflating them a little bit. It's just fucking weird and funny to think about. And also, it's founded on the fact that all Jews know that the Romans killed Jesus and it's racist to say that it was the Jews. I just think that everything is funny. I come from a cultural moment and location where comedy and humor are very important.
What do you feel like you learned about yourself through the process of writing the book?
This is something I touched upon in my second or third Maximum Rocknroll column. I think I always had this perception of myself that I was just someone who doesn't finish things, or doesn't follow through, or is unreliable. I had this idea in my head that it was a fundamental part of who I was. After I finished the book, I offhand mentioned this to my friend Maya one day, someone I've known for 20 years. She said, "That's not true Colin. You finished drinking. And you finished a book. Those are two really big things that you finished."
And that got me thinking. The idea that I'd been framing myself as a person who doesn't follow through, it was a way of escaping and not being responsible for myself. It was a way of having an out for any time I would let someone down. To think, "Oh I'm nice and well intentioned but I'm not someone you can rely on so it's kind of your fault for trusting me." It was also a self-sabotaging, self-defeating thing.
Finishing the book and having that conversation with my friend Maya, I realized, "Hey, I actually am someone who finishes things, and I am responsible for anyone who I let down." That has been huge in terms of making me feel capable of tackling future stuff. I've done the Slice Harvester podcast now for over a year and I don't think I would have had the guts to start it; to think, "I'm going to do it and it's going to be worthwhile. I will figure it out, it will be good, i am capable of doing the work."
I think I'm just way more amped to get started on something new. Part of that is because I feel more confident and part of that is because I feel I'm not scared to let anybody down. And if I do, I will be accountable for that and I can be accountable for that. I'm not looking to avoid potential responsibility the way that I used to.
What kind of impact do you hope the book has on readers?
Honestly, I just hope that people think I'm likable. That's the real truth. I want to be a sympathetic character. That is, dead ass, why I do everything.
I guess to give a less self-psychologizing answer, some people I just want to say, "Oh, that was cool," because none of it is new to them. And then some people I hope read it and say, "I'm going to reconsider the way that I interact with cities and the way I feel entitled to space and the way that I talk to people around me. And reconsider the impact I have on the world, the potential negative impact I can have on the world, and the potential positive impact I can have on the world." I want people to be cognizant of the fact that we all have agency.
The part about changing the way you think about cities is interesting to think about in regard to this book.
It's about humanizing people. I think punks are maybe more interested in the humanity of the person making their food. It's important to remember that every single person that you see every single day everywhere has as complex and nuanced an interiority as you, as me. Every single person. It's easy to forget that and I think part of this moment of awful techno-capitalism that we're living in right now is about alienating people from each other and deliberately obfuscating one another's humanity for the sake of making people feel insecure and needy of the emotional fulfilment that they can get from other people that they're not getting because no one is talking to each other because everyone is on Snapchat or at Forever 21.
I'm not trying to front, I was at Forever 21 yesterday.
But I just want everyone to remember the full humanity of every other person - whether that person is irritating them by saying something racist. Or making the meal that they are having. Or driving a cab. Or almost hitting them because they are driving a cab and you're on a bike. I just want everyone to remember that all the time. Cities are populated by people and everything that sucks in the world that happens is the responsibility of people working together. Or being passive together. To either passively make the things that suck happen, or to let the things that suck happen. So let's try and all do a little better.