Hugh Gallagher wrote that college application essay. You know which one I
mean. Since appearing in Harper's in 1990, it's become an Internet
staple; before web pages made it easy to preserve information, it wound up in
just about everybody's email at one point or another. It's so widely known, in
fact, that many people aren't aware who wrote it. But Gallagher's not fazed
that the essay's more famous than the author. Until he started getting asked
about the essay while on tour to promote his first novel, Teeth, he hadn't
really thought about it in a long time. "I think it's really cool," he says about
the longevity. "I wrote it when I was seventeen, so, to think that it's still in
circulation, that it's still out there eight, nine years later,, is really great. And
the fact that it's making a lot of people smile, or that they're enjoying it, is
Teeth is the story of Neil, a struggling young writer who's more than a
little in love with the idea of being a "struggling young writer." When the
zine he's writing for shuts down, and his punk friends turn out to be not quite
what they seem, he sets out on a round-the-world trip that takes him from the
hip clubs of LA to the jungles of Indonesia to an anarchist squat in London. His
teeth are a mess--and a metaphor for his own ragged life. The novel's full of
fictionally distorted references to mid-90s pop culture (it isn't too hard to
figure out who film stars like "Nile Rivers" and "Gertie" are supposed to
resemble), and Gallagher eagerly cites hip-hop as an inspiration for the DIY
spirit in which he wrote the book. "Hip-hop was started by people who
couldn't get into the right clubs because they didn't have the right clothes,"
he enthuses. "They weren't on radio because their music wasn't commercial at
first. And the words and rhythm...It's about creating your own identity and
just having fun with it and lyrically representing yourself, giving yourself
RH: Given the sort of notoriety that you'd achieved as the
writer of the college application, what sort of pressures did you
feel when you were writing Teeth?
HG: Pretty much the same pressures that are on anybody in terms of
writing the first novel. It's just you with the computer, you and your words,
and the same challenges are going to come up for every writer because every
writer has their own standards. I really didn't feel the pressure in terms of
this having to be as good as something I'd done before. I approach everything as
its own piece of work, and whatever standards I have apply to that.
RH: How did you hit upon the framework of Neil's story?
HG: Basically, I just started to write. I wanted to have this traveler who
was moving through all these places but still never quite escaping from his
mouth. And I just love being able to write about the differences between
places like Indonesia or London and New York or Los Angeles. To me, it was
very exciting to be able to jump back and forth between all those different
areas and try to capture a bit of them.
RH: How closely do Neil's experiences parallel your own?
HG: A lot of the emotions and feelings that Neil has are stuff I was
wrestling with as I was writing the book. But the more I wrote, Neil and I took
a split, so that he kept going this way and I went that way, and I'd check in on
him and see what he was up to. I think I share a lot of the frustrations he has,
and a lot of the hopes, too. He's got his love/hate thing going on for pop
culture. He's outside it, viewing it with a lot of cynicism, but at the same time,
he's going backstage. He's trying to be famous. He's trying to get really into
it and accepted by it, and I can really identify with that, too.
RH: Neil's very preoccupied with the idea of "selling out," as
are many of the other characters. There's this balancing act
everyone has to perform between staying true to their own
artistic ideals versus having to live in the real world.
HG: It's really, really challenging. I wondered when I finished this
book, too, what Neil would think of me--you know, for finishing the book,
getting it published. Would he be interested in what I was doing, or would I be
just another sellout to him? Because in a lot of ways, Neil has a very adolescent
attachment to the world and he isn't really dealing with the realities of
adulthood. And that's really going to change the way you work as an artist and
the way you fit in to society.
Neil has to come to an acceptance of his responsibility and taking care of
himself, has to get past the images of rebellion and punk which really are not
quite working. The real punks he's seeing are living in crumbling homes,
and the Hollywood punks are rich, they're only images of punks. And so I
think he has to come to a sort of middle ground to really find himself.
RH: You have to contend with certain expectations put on a book
by someone in his or her mid-twenties: "Okay, here's the voice of
Generation X." And you're like, "No, I'm just writing for me."
HG: I like that people completely outside of our age demographic have
been really moved by it, because over all I think it's a coming-of-age tale.
There's things in it about friendship, about family, about interrelations with
culture, that everyone can relate to. But also, sure, it comes from my
experience growing up with a unique set of influences that someone ten or
fifteen years ahead of me didn't have: MTV, call waiting, VCRs, hip-hop, all
these things that entered my life at a young, impressionable age which really
affects the way you think. So, in that way, people closer to my age and my
cultural background will probably be affected in a different way than
someone who's fifty years old who lives in the Midwest, but I hope that they
would still get a moving experience out of the book. And that's what I try to do,
to make something inclusive and accessible rather than exclusive and
RH: Having finished the first book, does it become easier to go
on to the next project?
HG: As you're working on your first book, or imagine if you're a
choreographer working on your first big dance production, or an artist
working on your first gallery opening, it's THE book or THE show. Once you
finish, it becomes a book, a show, and, the next thing will be
a thing, too. It doesn't have that towering importance that's largely
built up within the artist's mind. So it's a relief, really.
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