Uncommon interview: John Scalzi (A.B. ’91)

By Sindhu Gnanasambandan

John Scalzi (A.B. ’91) is the author of seven novels, various nonfiction works, and an award-winning blog. A former editor-in-chief of the Maroon, he currently serves as the president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. After speaking at an event sponsored by UChicago Careers in Arts and the Committee on Creative Writing on Friday, Scalzi sat down with the Maroon to talk about his time at the University, his career, and what it means to be a newspaper nerd.

Chicago Maroon: I understand you live in Ohio. What brings you to the Chicago area?

John Scalzi: I am here for C2E2, which is the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Exposition…. Basically everything nerd-related is there, and since I write science fiction, you know, that’s the nerd’s genre, so I am going there to participate in that.

CM: Do you identify yourself as a nerd?

JS: I went to the University of Chicago, come on! The famous thing we used to say is that each new class is better dressed and better looking, but the simple fact of the matter, I mean, I was running around campus today: Y’all are still nerds. And that’s great. I wasn’t always the same kind of nerd, though. I wasn’t a science fiction nerd; I was a newspaper nerd. “I majored in the Maroon” is what I like saying. I have a degree in philosophy, but I spent all my time there. I also wrote for the [Chicago] Sun-Times and the Newcity magazine as a freelancer.

CM: How was your undergraduate experience here at the University?

JS: Kind of unusual for a University of Chicago student. I was not hugely grade-intensive. I didn’t stress out: I had a 2.8 GPA…. I did well in the classes that I liked, and I did very poorly in the classes that I did not care about. The reason I did not stress too much about it is because I knew I had no plans of going on to graduate school. But part of it is that I knew the reason I was coming here was to work on the newspaper and to learn how to be a writer. I was more interested in the quality of my life experience than whether or not I was going to get that A in my Conrad class.

CM: When would you say you got to the point where you looked at yourself as a popular writer?

JS: In 2007, I was doing a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books. Another panelist and I are good friends, and we were walking and talking together. After every panel at the festival, they take the writers over to autograph books…. He has a good line, 20 to 30 people. We couldn’t even see the end of my line. He looked at me and said, “When did that happen?” I said, “I have no idea.” Also getting on the New York Times best seller list was like, “Wow, that doesn’t suck.” Having my book optioned for a movie was another step. It’s the little things, and it begins to add up.

CM: Your article “Being Poor” was published in the Chicago Tribune and was read by millions. What inspired you to write that piece?

JS: It was right around the time of Hurricane Katrina, and a lot of people were stranded in New Orleans, and most of those people were poor. A lot of people asked, “Why didn’t they just leave?” The answer to that is complicated and rooted in poverty. They didn’t have cars because they couldn’t afford cars. They didn’t want to leave their possessions because that’s all they had in the world. I was poor growing up. I was a scholarship case at my boarding school. Tuition was more than my mom made in a year. We lived in a trailer park, while my friends would be going on ski vacations during Christmas. So I knew something about poverty…. I knew why they couldn’t leave. I had to be able to explain it to people. It was one of the most wrenching things I ever wrote. I was crying the entire time I was writing. I got it out, and it exploded all over the place.