Star power: an interview with writer Matthew Rettenmund
Wed. December 2, 2015 by Gregg Shapiro
I was obsessed with Madonna and Cyndi Lauper and all these `80s people.
Starf*cker and Encyclopedia Madonnica 20 author Rettenmund tells (almost) all
Written with an ear for nostalgia, both personal and pop culture, and a humorous self-awareness, gay writer Matthew Rettenmund’s “meme-oir” Starf*cker (Lethe Press, 2015) is simultaneously sassy, sexy and unafraid to spill the beans. Rettenmund writes about his Michigan childhood, his Chicago college days, and his New York professional life, pushing the pun button nearly every chance he gets. From his early obsession with music and stars to his own star turn with the publication of his Encyclopedia Madonnica and novel Boy Culture (later turned into a popular movie) in the1990s and his return to star gazing while working in the magazine publishing industry. I spoke with Rettenmund, who operates the boyculture.com blog, about Starf*cker and the expanded/update reissue of Encyclopedia Madonnica 20 (Boy Culture, 2015) in the fall of 2015.
Gregg Shapiro: As a journalist with a number of high profile interviews under your belt, how do you feel about being an interview subject?
Matthew Rettenmund: It’s always different. You kind of remember how it works, but you forget that people are going to actually ask you questions that you have to answer. I’m always amazed, especially with all of the teen stars that I’ve interviewed over the years, how prepared people are, how coached they are. As an interviewer, I hated that. But in a way, I can almost respect that, because whenever I’m interviewed I tend to shoot from the hip. It has to be from the heart, completely unprepared.
GS: You write in the “What Ever” chapter that your mother instilled in you “a healthy respect for stars of the past.” Does that mean your parents reacted well to your early obsession with stars?
MR: Yes, definitely. My mom was never fascinated with stars to the extent that I later became obsessed with them. She fondly remembered receiving autographs in the mail and going to the movies and she had her idols when she was young. Something she noticed about me was that when I was obsessed with Madonna and Cyndi Lauper and all these `80s people, I also had space on my walls for stars from her era. My room was covered in blondes, but it wasn’t all Madonna, it was Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly, too. It was an homage to my mother on the wall, too. In a way my mother [laughs] was the ultimate star that I was obsessed with.
GS: Throughout the book, you write about drawing, beginning with the fake movie posters and pictures of stars you drew as a child and later illustrations of an NYC roommate, for example. Do you still draw?
MR: I haven’t lost my drawing ability entirely, but it’s not as finely honed as it once was. I used to, before I had the internet to take up all of my time, doodle obsessively, all the time. I got very good at capturing likenesses. Then, when I was in high school, I became much more interested in being abstract. I don’t think they were especially amazing, but in my small town, I did well in my art class. My teacher always encouraged us to be creative. I did a lot of elaborate, almost Escher-like drawings. Over the years, I think it’s going to become a vestigial thing, because everything now is me and a keyboard.
GS: In “The Fair Sex” chapter, you write about your lifelong sobriety. Why was it important to include that fact about yourself?
MR: I don’t know. In social situations, when I say I don’t drink, when I was younger, people would say, “Why?” Now they ask, “Are you sober?,” (meaning), are you in recovery? I know that I’m kind of a scaredy cat when it comes to losing control. I know I’m always thinking about analyzing every situation and observing, and I feel like I would give that up. I did have grandparents on one side who drank to excess. I don’t know if you would call them alcoholics, but it was definitely an issue. When I hit high school and everyone was drinking, I do remember having this conversation with this very cute guy that I worked with at a department store. I told him I didn’t drink and he said, “Wait until you go to college!” And I said, “No, I won’t (drink). I don’t have any interest in it.” He kept egging me on saying that I wouldn’t even be able to control it, that the peer pressure would be such that I would have to. [Laughs] I do think that at that moment, unbeknownst to him, some weird covenant was made and I decided I wasn’t going to do it. I actually went to University of Chicago, which is not a party school, and that helped me avoid the demon grape. There weren’t a lot of partying opportunities, which I think helped me along. Once you make it through college (with drinking), you think, “What’s the point?” Although, lately, I’ve been teasing my friends when we go out, saying, “Maybe I’ll start drinking tonight.” They love it and really want me to drink, which I think says something about people who drink socially as opposed to ones who stubbornly refuse to. They want me to drink so bad [laughs].
GS: You also describe yourself as a list-maker. Do you think it was a natural progression to writing a memoir and creating an encyclopedia such as Encyclopedia Madonnica 20?
MR: I think it was an unnatural progression [laughs], yes. It’s a compulsive habit that I have. I’m not sure what fuels it. I know I was really turned on by lists when I was young. Once I got the concept of it, everything appeared in my head as lists. I was good at it because I was able to be all encompassing. Doing a list is also a natural progression to becoming a blogger, because, unless it’s a very finite subject, a list has a lot of personality in it because you are curating it. If you do a list of everyone who is famous, it’s going to say a lot about who you are, if you look at the first 10 names, because no one is going to have the same 10 names. I suppose that did lead me into blogging which is a lot of aggregation of other material. Along with writing a memoir, writing a book in an encyclopedic form is an extension of that. It was also an extension of my being a collector. I’ve always been a collector – the first thing I ever collected was pins of `80s stars and that kind of stuff. I have a Sal Mineo fan club button and things like that. That also led into me doing the encyclopedia. There was also a great book on Marilyn Monroe that was somewhat less crazy A to Z that was a reference. There was also a part of me as a kid that liked to dive headlong into a subject and learn everything I could about it, especially if it was something from before my time. I think a lot of younger people today – and I sound like I’m shaking my fist at the air – have the access to the internet and can learn about anything that came before them, and yet, I don’t get a sense that they really do. Whenever I talk to young people, very few that I meet know anything about pop culture from before they were born. When I was a kid, I wanted to learn about silent movies and what was going on in the earlier part of the century. Creating an encyclopedia was my way of providing a reference for anyone who wanted to know everything there was to know about that one subject all in one place.
GS: Your first books, including the original edition of Encyclopedia Madonnica and Boy Culture were published by St. Martin’s Press, at a time when you were employed at the publisher. In terms of gay lit, the St. Martin’s of today is not the same St. Martin’s of the `90s, but had you considered going to them with the new edition of Encyclopedia Madonnica 20 and Starf*cker anyway?
MR: I don’t know a lot about how they’ve degenerated over the years, but I’m sure like everybody we all age [laughs]. I would have gone to them. I don’t have anything against them or other big publishers. The thing with the Madonna book was that no one wanted it over theyears. When it came time to update it, St. Martin’s said, “We’re still selling copies of the old one, so we don’t want to update it.” It was so old that it was embarrassing at that point. Then when it went out of print, publishers said, “Madonna’s fan-base is too mature. They wouldn’t want this kind of gimmicky, pop culture treatment of her.” I thought, “Oh, no, you’re definitely underestimating our immaturity [laughs]. We like this fun stuff.” I did make (the new edition) a little more grown up and in doing so I knew that it would be a little more serious with her artistic career and I knew it would have to have better production values. No one wants to spend money on that. It’s hard to get publishers to see that Madonna still has a following. It’s cool to think that she’s over and not generating any money anymore. I did it myself and it was profitable from before it came out. I learned a lot from doing the book and I’m grateful that I took that plunge. I went through Kickstarter and I learned about self-publishing. It didn’t burn me. It was a positive experience and it makes me feel like I want to do more self-publishing. It’s great to have that kind of control and know where all the dollars are going and how well you are doing. In the old days, I would do a book and some of them would earn out and some wouldn’t. For the ones that didn’t, I was like, “How is this possible? Did they really pay me too much for this to earn back the small amount they gave me?” It was weird, because I was writing books on famous subjects that were popular with kids and some wouldn’t make money. The short answer is that I would still go to a big publisher if they came to me, but I’m happy that they didn’t. It worked out better.
GS: Do you know if Madonna has seen the updated and expanded Encyclopedia Madonnica 20?
MR: I know that her management received copies of the book and they thanked me for it. They’ve very nice to me. They’ve always been kind to me. When the original book was published, her publicists had me sign a copy to her and they had her sign a copy to me, which was really great. I don’t know if she’s actually seen the update. With social media being what it is, I’d be surprised if someone hasn’t somehow gotten some factoid or the cover under her nose. But things are tight, in terms of branding, and it is unauthorized, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there was no public comment.
GS: Shortly after I interview you, I am going to be interviewing Paul Lisicky whose new memoir The Narrow Door deals with his break-up with Mark Doty. You write frankly about the break-up of your long-term relationship in the “18 Again” chapter. Please say something about writing about a serious subject in the midst of all the humorous subject matter.
MR: I do think there are shifts in tone like that (in the book) and that’s probably not the only place where things get a little more melancholy. I could have gone through and weeded that stuff out to make it a more even ride, but I wanted to write it the way it felt and the way things happened. Not everything is going to be superficial and funny, not everything is going to be angst ridden. It was a conscious decision to include that and I’m glad I did. It’s a challenge because you’re going along a a breezy clip and then you have to stop and say, “Then this happened.” I hope people will laugh at the funny parts and that when there are parts that are more contemplative, I hope they won’t resent that they are in there. I hope they will relate to them and see some dark humor in those events as well.
GS: In light of the good reception for the Boy Culture movie, if there was a Starf*cker movie, who would you want to play you?
MR: [Laughs] this is the kind of question I never anticipate and that all of these professional interview subjects know are coming. Oh my gosh -- who would play me? This is a wish fulfillment. I’ll tell you an actor that I really love and think is underrated, Jonathan Bennett. He was in Mean Girls. [Laugh] I’m not saying he’s a dead ringer for me, but maybe that’s who I see in my mind’s eye on my best day. He’s an aspirational me. He’s a good actor, too. Obviously, he’s really cute and it would be great to be portrayed by someone attractive [laughs].
GS: Do you have your own starf*cker?
MR: [Laughs] I do, but it’s on a whole different level. I say that affectionately. Anytime you put yourself out there, even on a small level, you’re going to get people who despise you and people who think you hung the moon. I have a small, but growing collection [laughs]. I’m looking to add to it all the time.
Interviewed by Gregg Shapiro. Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.