He Really Was in the Phonebook: My 2004 Harvey Pekar Interview

I rented American Splendor, the film biography of Cleveland writer and file clerk Harvey Pekar, because it was one of the few promising titles left at the video store on a Friday night. I was still hopeful of the possibility that I had stumbled upon something that was going to be worth a damn. I liked Paul Giamatti, in the few things I had seen him in at that point, and the story of a “flunky file clerk” becoming an influential figure in underground comics sounded like there was more than enough promise.

As it turned out, that optimism wound up failing to encompass how much I loved absolutely everything about American Splendor. It made me a fan of Paul Giamatti, turned me on to Harvey’s work, and remains one of the best comic book film adaptations ever made. I have yet to meet an unrepentant cynic of this film’s amiability, low-key style-but-effective style, and ability to capture the fear and frustration of wondering if life is nearly as meaningful as some swear it is.

Paul Giamatti as Pekar in the film version of American Splendor (Image © Fine Line Features)

Paul Giamatti as Pekar in the film version of American Splendor (Image © Fine Line Features)

The film features pseudo-documentary interviews with the actual Harvey Pekar (as well as appearances by the friends and family who filled his life, in spite of his constant crankiness and crackling voice). Pekar himself seemed from the first time I saw the film as a fun, if not baffled (that anyone who want to interview him) subject. I had been building a list of people I wanted to someday interview for several years, by the time I saw American Splendor in 2004. It made sense to put Harvey on the list. He was opinionated, extremely well-read, loved music, and seemed to have a profound understanding of and fascination with people (which sometimes veered into disgust or confusion). In other words, it would have been a lot of fun. I was even confident I could come up with some questions that would actually be interesting.

The problem with getting an interview with Harvey was the same problem I had in getting an interview with anyone I wanted to talk to: I had no idea how to make it happen. I knew it wasn’t as simple as just getting in touch with them. I didn’t even have a home base that would lend my request even superficial credibility. But I wanted to pretend those things weren’t really failing points, so much as they were small obstacles that could be easily brushed aside.

I was probably thinking about all of this, when I remembered one of my favorite parts of American Splendor. Paul Giamatti (as Pekar) relates the experience of discovering one day that a second Harvey Pekar had suddenly appeared in the Cleveland phonebook. In one of the film’s pivotal scenes, which came directly from the comic book Harvey wrote and had others illustrate for several years (including Robert Crumb), Pekar muses about the fantastic odds that there would be three people with such an unusual name in Cleveland, claims that the other listing is more pure, because it doesn’t have a middle initial, wonders about the other Harvey Pekars in a general sense, and then wonders who Harvey Pekar is at all. Pekar took pride in the fact that the American Splendor comic came from everyday life. It was Pekar’s assertion that ordinary life could be pretty complex stuff. That one scene in the movie, and the comic book it came from, sum up that opinion beautifully.

It made me wonder if he still had a listed number.

Why the hell not? I imagined the worst thing that could happen, and it was Harvey Pekar saying no, hanging up, and going on with his life. I could live with that, and I figured I’d at least get a story out of it that I could tell people later on. The movie had been pretty successful, racking up a variety of awards and nominations, which lead me to think that in all likelihood, the number wouldn’t be listed.

As it turned out, the only problem wound up being that Harvey wasn’t home. But his wife Joyce was (played extremely well by Hope Davis in the film), and she was extremely kind over the course of our brief conversation. I wish I could remember the conversation, because I’m pretty sure she asked me one or two basic questions. And I’m pretty sure I did a stoned Bob Newhart impression in the pursuit of trying to answer them. Regardless, she told me to call back another time.

The second attempt had me talking to their foster daughter Danielle, who was also extremely nice. Harvey was apparently pretty committed to staying busy, working on a radio show, and generally trying to keeping out of the house as often as possible. Something I took from the first few American Splendor comics I read was the thought that a hit movie about his life probably only satisfied the man but so much. It’s not that I imagined he was ungrateful. I’ve just always had a sense of community with people who are forever ready for the next gig, and who are constantly frustrated by life, finding time to be both cynical about and impressed by the world around them. I took that suspicion about Harvey from watching the movie and reading the comics. I thought it would be a good interview.

We did eventually get together. There’s a weird, kind of stupid part of me that giggles every time I remember that when we first spoke, his voice was raspy from blowing it out again. The fact that I didn’t have affiliation with even a make-believe publication didn’t faze him. He was happy to make the time for me, and I went to work on coming up with questions that would miraculously overcome the obstacle of the fact that he had been doing interviews (not including his famous Letterman appearances) for well over twenty years at that point. He was gracious with his time, was completely unchanged by the success of the film, and was the friendliest curmudgeon I had met up to that point. If I turn out like Harvey Pekar in terms of personality, if I haven’t already, I’ll be okay with that. I couldn’t have asked for a better person for my first “professional” interview.

 

He was gracious with his time, was completely unchanged by the success of the film, and was the friendliest curmudgeon I had met up to that point.

In retrospect, I probably should have invested in some recording equipment of any kind. It wasn’t that the interview went poorly because of the fact that I had to write his answers by hand. As I look at the interview almost nine years letter, I think it’s fairly decent for a 19-year-old kid with zero college education, a breathtakingly crappy high school education, and way too much ambition for the first interview of his career to be the greatest one of all time. I even had the balls to send it to Rolling Stone.

They said no, in what was slightly more personal than a standard form rejection letter, and they were fairly sweet about it. I’m sure I sent it to a few other places. No one seemed to have a burning desire to run with it. I think that had a lot to do with the interview itself. While I don’t think it’s terrible, I’m hard-pressed to make the argument that it’s extraordinary. I think it’s good, and I’ll absolutely stand by the conviction that people will enjoy reading it. Just don’t look for the color of the sky to change afterwards.

Years later, after catching his warm, wonderful tour of Cleveland on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, I wondered what Harvey was up to. Thanks to Wikipedia’s cold, humorless voice, it turned out that he had been keeping himself busy by being dead for the past several months. My first reaction was that we had lost one of the most unique, consistently relevant and necessary voices of the past few decades. That reaction hits harder than one might think, every time I happen to catch the movie, or see some example of his work online.

Harvey expressed a fear of being worn down and eventually destroyed by the mundane, without at least getting the chance to leave a mark in some form or fashion. He understood beautifully the glory that yeah, we do indeed lose the war eventually, but the fact that we can win some gruesome skirmishes along the way doesn’t make the end-result all that terrible.

A page from Pekar’s American Splendor. Art by Robert Crumb (Image © Harvey Pekar)

A page from Pekar’s American Splendor. Art by Robert Crumb (Image © Harvey Pekar)

American Splendor, in its depiction of small trials and tribulations, minor and serious setbacks (Pekar beat cancer on two separate occasions), and profound cosmic musings about it all should give us the courage, however tiresome that courage can be at times, to continue going through it all. In spite of what appears to be a considerable amount of complaining and skepticism about anything and everything in life, Harvey Pekar’s work is the poetry of a man who loved it a lot more than he generally let on. I wish he was still around, but I’m glad he got the chance to relate at least some of the things he wanted to say. Comic books and literature are equally richer for him having done so.

***

Gabriel RicardIn my opinion, one of the best scenes has to be the opening one, with you trick-or-treating as a kid. Did that really happen?

Harvey Pekar: Yeah. I dunno if any woman asked me who I was supposed to be going as. But I still didn’t really wear any costumes or anything. I’d just cut some holes in a sheet.

GR: And you gave up trick or treating?

HP: No. But I didn’t keep at it either.

GR: What did you think of Paul Giamatti?

HP: I thought he did an excellent job.

GR: I imagine you were on the set for most, if not all, of the film, right?

HP: Yeah, I was on the set a lot. But I didn’t really do too much.

GR: Any good stories then?

HP: No, not really.

GR: Are you a fan of movies? Any favorites?

HP: No, not really. I do like old Italian films though.

GR: Like Fellini?

HP: Yeah. Or even the guys before him. Movies like The Bicycle Thief. I really liked that.

GR: Do you have any interest in working on any other movies? Have there been any offers?

HP: There haven’t been any other offers, because this movie (American Splendor) took so long to make. I just did this long comic book for D.C. Comics though, like a hundred pages, which is kind of like a prequel to the movie.

GR: How about television? Any talk of developing the comic book into an animated series?

HP: No, but somebody recently got hold of me and asked if I’d do one of those reality shows.

GR: Are you gonna do it?

HP: If the money’s good.

GR: Any comic books you’ve been checking out yourself?

HP: I haven’t really been looking at too much lately. I like Chris Wares’ work though.

GR: You know, it kinda seems that these days, unless there’s a big summer movie being made about it, no one’s really interested in comic books. What do you think?

HP: Yeah, I think so. I’m no expert on it, but that’s the way it appears to me.

GR: What about books in general? Is there anything you’re reading these days?

HP: I’m reading a book called When China Ruled The Seas. It’s about China’s navy in the 15th century.

GR: Since American Splendor has come and gone to video, I would imagine your work has been opened up to a whole new generation of people. Does it surprise you at allthat people continue to relate so much to your work?

HP: Lemme put it this way. When I started out, I thought it was for the everyman. And even we got really good reviews, it didn’t sell too well. But, when the movie came out, it was real successful, and it surprised the hell out of me.

GR: Well, I know you’ve been making the rounds at comic conventions and speaking engagements, so I would imagine you’ve been meeting a lot of fans that way.

HP: Yeah, but I don’t particularly enjoy conventions. But, for promotional purposes, I do a couple every year.

GR: Could you ever see yourself doing a work of fiction? Or do you still think real life holds more entertainment?

HP: I really thought about doing a work of fiction. The D.C. Comics project actually started out as a fiction project, loosely disguised fiction, you know? But along the way, I just decided to tell it exactly as it happened. I think people will relate to it more that way.

GR: Do you still have trouble with your voice?

HP: Yeah, occasionally. But it’s not as bad as it used to be.

GR: Anyone who’s watched the movie, or read any of the comic books, will attest to the fact that you’re a huge Jazz fan. What’re you listening to these days?

HP: I mostly listen to stuff with the intention of reviewing it. Recently, I heard this seven-disc box-set of Woody Herman, from his days at Columbia, between 1945-1947.

GR: Do you still talk to Robert Crumb?

HP: Yeah. He lives in Sauve.

GR: So, what do you want to be remembered for?

HP: For doing comic books, in which I pioneered writing about everyday life.

GR: Word association:
A. Harvey Pekar: Modesty forbids me from saying anything about myself.
B. Joyce: My faithful wife of twenty-one years.
C. Danielle (daughter): Promising young artist.
D. Robert Crumb: One of the great 20th century illustrators.
E. Jazz: An art form I’ve been interested in since 1956.
F. Paul Giamatti: Excellent actor.
G. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini: Superb writer/director team.
H. David Letterman: He’s in the past.
I. Hope Davis: Very fine actress. Very versatile.
J: American Splendor: My comic, that’s gotten me through life.

GR: Any advice for those looking to break into comics?

HP: Just do work and get it out there in some kinda way. Make sure someone reads it besides yourself.