Michael Malice: What I Read

The 'Dear Writer' and North Korea expert on Facebook sharing, his love of reality TV, and how the North Korean media uses memes, just like we do. 

This article is from the archive of our partner .

How do people deal with the torrent of information pouring down on us all? What sources can't they live without? We regularly reach out to prominent figures in media, entertainment, politics, the arts, and the literary world to hear their answers. This is drawn from a conversation with Michael Malice, co-author of several celebrity memoirs and the 'Dear Writer' of his most recent book about North Korea's late dictator, Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il.

I'm on this secret Facebook group called the Troll Board, and everyone is just very irreverent and obnoxious and has the same sensibility. So what I'm personally seeing is that everyone is consuming media socially, because so much of our media is — and I'm understanding this because of my background with the North Korea project  — so much of media is geared towards an audience, as opposed to general information. You know, if you're a Democrat you're going to refer to "revenue increases;" if you're a Republican, you're going to talk about "tax hikes." The very verbiage itself is determined by who's going to be reading it and what the reporter thinks. It's largely unavoidable and unconscious. So rather than being irritated and annoyed by stuff like this, it's a lot of fun to have people with the same perspective and ideas sharing together.

You know, Kim Jong Il — and he did this very intentionally, I think we do it unintentionally — he had the same thing where, for Americans in North Korea, you have to refer to "U.S. Imperialists." And you can't refer to Japanese people, you have to say "Jap Devils." Even the language itself is being used as a tool to force the reader to a foregone conclusion — the dear reader.

When I write a book with someone, I am stepping into their shoes. I'm thinking as much as I can through their eyes, seeing how they look at the world. So D.L. Hughley... where we bonded is that he has a very irreverent world view. He gets annoyed at things, but at the same time he's pretty cynical. He's a big fan of MSNBC, but he also watches things on the right, because he is, I think, amused by the absurdity of how some things are presented. Especially with the issue of race, which he talks a lot about in his act.

When I was working with Matt Hughes, the Ultimate Fighting Champion — he's not a big reader, he's an athlete. Which is fine. He got me to learn a lot about jock culture, and like, alpha-male culture. Something that, as a writer in New York, is completely not here. I think they put estrogen in the water for all of us, which is a very useful technique. I think in media circles we tend to think that men are the aggressive ones, and women are taught — this was that big Atlantic piece — that women are being given short shrift. But watching how he operates really reminds me a lot more of the female people I know who work in media, because they, I think, are more comfortable. Whereas a lot of men are trying to compensate and are trying not to be aggressive, and they end up being these kind of, beta-MSNBC-host types.

Michael Fazio, for the book Concierge Confidential — you know like any writer, I'm not wealthy, I don't live an extravagant life — so he pointed me to, there's a media group called Niche. They have Hamptons Magazine. Looking through those kinds of magazines, and how the ads look, I felt like North Korean media made more sense to me. It was closer to my upbringing than this. (I was born in the Soviet Union.) I just don't understand how these people live. This sounds like an insult, but the concept of money is just completely different for them. Even if I had money, I don't think I'm at the place where I would feel comfortable spending ten grand on a watch. It just seems so crazy, but it's not. I don't begrudge them that, it's just something completely foreign to my world view.

When I went [to North Korea], all their books are translated into different languages — French, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, English, Russian, and I think Arabic. Their conceit is that the rest of the world is pretty much obsessed with Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, therefore they have to put out this idea that these [books] are just bestsellers jumping off the shelves. It's very hard to get these books out of North Korea. You can't, like, mail a letter there. They're not really interacting with the outside world, so it doesn't make sense on that level. In fact, a couple of Westerners who they've hired as translators have written memoirs about their time there and how bizarre it was.

I think one of the things that is interesting about comparing our media to theirs, is that a lot of times they use memes the same way we use memes. Not memes in a comedic sense; but there will be certain ideas that they'll reiterate over and over. Like the idea that Americans are invading any minute; the idea that you better stay the course or calamity is going to come; the idea that the leaders, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un, and Kim Il Sung, are the only ones keeping the barbarians at the gate. You'll just have these casually repeated over and over to the point where it's so pervasive it forms your context. And I think we have the same kind of things here. You know, you'll have ideas about Obama or Mitt Romney. On the Right, it will be Obama is kind of not American, and his values are not American values, although his biography is pretty much quintessentially the American dream. Or on the other side you'll have this idea that Mitt Romney, being a function of his wealth, that it's impossible for him to have good ideas, because he has no idea how people live. So, it's just kind of taking for granted that these ideas are true, and whether or not they're true, they're still kind of unavoidable to form your perspective on politics and I think, the world.

I'm home 23 hours a day. I'm one hour a day away from being a recluse. Getting there. Hopefully, I'll be one of those people fused with my sofa. So I don't really have to use apps, because I think this idea that people have that media has to be consumed quickly, and all this other stuff  ... writing books is old school at this point. I'm a little sad that my Kindle sales are greater than my paperback sales. It hurts my feelings, frankly, even though I make more money from the Kindle. So I like the equivalent of sipping on a cup of tea. I like to sit there. I want to enjoy, I want to read the article, I want to think about it. I don't just need the headline and the visceral reaction, and let me put it on Facebook. I think I'm different from a lot of people like that. Especially people who work in media. Forget it.

I'm very big on reality TV, and there are two groups that I kind of am obsessed with. When I write a book with a celebrity — even Kim Jong Il, obviously I didn't work with him — I have to create a narrative, given data. So the data is real, you have to make a story, it has to apply to reality, and it has to be entertaining and readable. So this is a big task to do. So what I really relate to are shows like Project Runway and Top Chef, or Face Off, where they are talented people, and the focus isn't on the drama. The focus is on talented people being forced to apply their talents under specific constraints. Make a dress that looks like envy, or [on] Top Chef, it's make monkfish palatable for kids. I have to write this story, make Kim Jong Il's life entertaining, funny, exciting, and coherent, and not boring. Given the data I had, [it] was very difficult to do, because all of the North Korean propaganda is mind-numbingly awful and boring and hard to get through. So that's something I really relate to. It kind of inspires me in my work.

On the other hand ... I only work two hours a day, and the rest of the time I kind of have to veg out. I work extremely, extremely intensely. Especially when you're working in someone else's voice, it's just a whole other level of difficulty. With the Kim Jong Il book, I'm working with someone else's voice who's just evil and crazy and his entire context is false and his entire context is foreign to me. So it was extremely intense. So I really enjoy the reality TV that's just like really, really bad. I don't want to say Bad Girls Club, because I haven't watched that in a while. It's really like sorbet for the brain. I'm sitting there not thinking anything whatsoever, and you need that cool down period, if you're going to go back and have that intense focus again. Honey Boo Boo is a big one I watch. There's absolutely nothing in that show, I'm not learning anything. These people aren't even particularly interesting in a bad sense. Like, there's an episode where they all decide they're gonna have a New Year's resolution. I don't care if these people have their New Year's resolutions or not. No one cares. They're just some random family, not particularly attractive, but you watch that show and all thought leaves your brain. It's very useful in that regard.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.