As Neal Pollack tells it, the idea for his new book came to him while chatting “in the shvitz.”
More often he uses himself for inspiration. In his 2000 debut novel, “The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature” (Harper Perennial, 2002), Pollack portrayed himself as a parody of the self-aggrandizing authors of previous generations, the bloviating novelists, the pompous foreign correspondents.
He wrote about his actual self in “Alternadad” (Pantheon), his best-selling 2007 memoir about his most enduring relationships — with his wife, his son and marijuana. He was again his own subject in last year’s “Stretch” (Harper Perennial, 2010), which chronicles Pollack’s deepening interest in (or descent into, depending upon your opinion) the world of yoga.
But “Jewball,” Pollack’s latest novel, came from elsewhere. During a 2005 Reboot retreat (the author describes the organization as a “Jewish hipster-connector”), Pollack was in the sauna with a history professor, and the conversation turned to Jews and basketball.
“I never understood how key Jews were to the development of the modern game,” Pollack told me, over coffee in Los Angeles. “It caught my fancy.”
Hence “Jewball,” a fictional take on the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, a real, very competitive team that flourished in the 1930s — the same time as the rise of American fascism.
“I found both of those tracks so interesting, both Jewish basketball and the rise of American Nazism, that I concocted a plot to tie them together,” Pollack explained. “I didn’t want to do an ethnography, I wanted a two-fisted, action-packed noir. Because that’s the kind of book I like to read.”
It’s a clever premise — American Jews brawling with American Nazis — but there’s more to it than that. After all, Pollack is the sort of writer who formed a punk band, The Neal Pollack Invasion, to support his 2003 novel, “Never Mind the Pollacks” (HarperCollins). To help promote “Stretch,” Pollack went through a yoga teacher-training program, which he funded through Kickstarter, a website that connects artists with micro-donors.
In other words, Pollack has chutzpah. With his new book, Pollack is using that knack for self-promotion (or, as some have called it, shamelessness) in an interesting way — he’s self-publishing. On October 11, “Jewball” will be available for the Amazon Kindle.
In “The Case for Self-Publishing,” an article that ran last May in The New York Times, Pollack explained the economics. With Amazon, the author gets 70% of the price (“more than three times what I’d get from a mainstream publisher”) for each paperback sale. Thus, if Pollack gets 1,000 downloads at $4.99, he nets $3,500; 5,000 downloads means $17,500, “the equivalent of a pleasant advance.”
I asked Pollack if he had tried to shop the book to a traditional publisher.
“I didn’t try real hard,” Pollack said. “I sent the first few chapters to my editor at HarperCollins. But let’s face it: I have my readers, but I’m not a best-selling author. I could have sold [the manuscript] but probably not for much.”
When I suggested that there was still a whiff of something less than professional about self-publishing, Pollack agreed. But he was also optimistic: “I’d like to think that I can set up a precedent where a writer with a track record and a modest audience can put a quality book out and not give anything up — financially, artistically, promotionally.”
Why not? There’s no reason to believe that “Jewball” won’t sell as Pollack predicts. And his traditional career seems secure: He’s under contract with HarperCollins to write what he called a “quasi-sequel to the yoga book.” So, best-case scenario, Pollack makes a nice chunk of change; worst-case scenario, self-publishing was an intriguing experiment.
Still, it’s hard not to separate the book from another aspect of his life. After five years in Los Angeles, Pollack and his family — wife Regina Allen and their 8-year-old son, Elijah — are moving back to Austin, Texas.
“The main reason we’re leaving is because of money,” Pollack said. “I moved here when ‘Alternadad’ came out. I had several TV deals, and then that dried up. I had to be honest with myself. We looked at our expenses and income and it didn’t match living here. Not in the way we wanted to live.”
So then, perhaps he feels some relief at leaving, as he writes in “Stretch,” L.A. is “a town where everyone is out to destroy you whether they know you or not.”
“L.A.’s got its points,” Pollack replied, unperturbed. “Gorgeous weather, really good Korean food. I played a lot of poker, smoked a lot of good weed. I had some fun.”
Maybe so. But I couldn’t help adding (as politely as possible) that it seems as if the trajectory of his career has become more humble, both in scale and in the tone of the work.
“I’d say that’s accurate,” he said. “I was trendy, early in my book-writing career. It kind of went to my head. I believed that I was worthy of forming a band and spitting on people in public. I lost sight of the goal. ‘Jewball’ is the kind of book I wanted to write from the beginning, books with characters that didn’t share my name.”
Any regrets as he departs Los Angeles?
At this question, Pollack, who is a remarkably fluid speaker, paused before he answered. “I’m giving up my quote-unquote dream of making it in Hollywood,” he finally said. “And, in some ways, I’m giving up what I thought an author was: You know, you get some books published, and then you’re the toast of the town for 40 years. Being a writer now means something different. You have to take more charge of your own destiny. Yes, you can still get a corporate publishing deal. Or you can try to carve out a niche for yourself.”
Gordon Haber is a frequent contributor to the Forward.