Dan Savage may be best known for his widely syndicated sex advice column, but he’s also a TV personality, activist and editorial director of the alternative newspaper The Stranger. He’s authored several books; the latest is “American Savage.” It was Savage and his husband Terry Miller who launched the It Gets Better Project by creating a YouTube video to inspire hope for LGBT young people facing harassment. Savage grew up in Chicago and now lives in Seattle with Miller and their son, DJ.
What books are lying open on your nightstand right now?
“The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution,” by Jonathan Eig is next up — it's getting great reviews. A few years ago I could've said, "People have forgotten how controversial the pill used to be," but thanks to the efforts of Republican politicians and religious conservatives/sexphobes, the pill is controversial again. Crazy.
Also on my nightstand is “Eat, Drink & Remarry: Confessions of a Serial Wife,” by Margo Howard. Margo and I have a connection: I reached out to her after her mom's (Ann Landers) death to ask her permission to buy her mom's desk at auction. We’ve stayed in touch ever since via email and Twitter. I want to read her book — which I hear is hilarious — because I’m interviewing her next week on the Savage Lovecast, my weekly sex-advice-and-whatever-the-hell-else-I-wanna-do podcast.
Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends?
“Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe,” by Simon Winder. The Habsburgs ruled Austria for 800+ years as archdukes, Holy Roman Emperors and then finally as Emperors. The Habsburgs were the Chauncy Gardners of central Europe: they held on to power by just being there (and by being so fecund).
Winder is smart and engaging; the book is history, it's travel writing and it's social commentary. I read it this summer while traveling in Austria with friends and it was really wonderful to read about a palace in Danubia and then be able to run out and see it.
Do you read mostly fiction or non-fiction?
I pretty much only read non-fiction — histories and biographies. When I read fiction, it's almost always historical — I devoured “Wolf Hall “and “Bring Up the Bodies,” Hilary Mantels' fictionalized biography of Henry VIII's hatchet man, Thomas Cromwell. Gore Vidal's “Julian,” about the last pagan emperor of Rome, is one of my favorite books of all time, second only to “The Persian Boy,” by Mary Renault. It’s the story of Alexander the Great told from the perspective of a eunuch slave boy who becomes Alexander's lover — and, no, it's not porn. Someone should buy the rights and make a movie.
As editorial director of “The Stranger,” what do you read to keep up with what’s going on?
I'm a Twitter addict. I still surf through some of my favorite blogs a few times every day (andrewsullivan.com, Talking Points Memo, Seattlish, JoeMyGod.com, Gawker, HorsesAss and, of course, Slog). But for the most part I keep up with the news on Twitter. I follow tons of writers and activists whose work I admire — Jonathan Capehart, Ezra Klein, Lizz Winstead, Josh Barro, Martha Plimpton, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chris Geidner, John Aravosis — and I rely on them to keep me up to speed. I'm also still a subscriber to the dead-tree edition of the New York Times. I may be the last person on my block who gets a daily paper.The SLOG is a phenomena …. how do you explain it? Being in the business, what do you see as the future of newspapers and blogs?
We treat the blog (Slog) the way we treat everything else: Let's run a blog that we would want to read; the same approach we took to the newspaper when we started it — let's put out the paper we would want to read. That goal (do or be the thing we would want to read, check out, attend, etc.) is our number one rule. Rule number two: "Hey, let's try to suck less this week than we sucked last week."
As for the future of newspapers… years ago I predicted that newspapers would one day go the route of big, for-profit live performance theaters. That is, they would die — almost all of them — and the ones that remained would, like the various Seattle Reps all over the country, become non-profits and raise money from foundations and rich people who wanted to make sure their city had a "world-class" newspaper. A sort of combo of the regional theater model and the NPR model. That seems to be happening — Crosscut itself is an example of the move toward the non-profit model.
What sources of information do you turn to for help in answering questions in your column “Savage Love”? Any sex writers you can recommend?
I follow all sorts of really great sex researchers and writers — on Twitter, again, and I read their books and blog posts. Debby Herbenick, Alice Dreger, James Cantor, Marty Klein, Lori Brotto, Esther Perel, David Ley, Christopher Ryan. Look them all up, look at who they're following, and follow them and the folks they're following and in six months you'll know more about sex than you ever thought possible. Or practical.
Can you recall a specific book or author that inspired you to become an author yourself?
Um… nope. I never aspired to be an author — I wanted to direct plays. Sometimes I still do direct plays — theater is my fallback career, I suppose, which is pretty ridiculous.
I stumbled into writing a column, it took off, I wound up in dozens of papers and then a literary agent — the amazing and wonderful and patient and local Elizabeth Wales — approached me about the possibility of someday possibly writing a book if I wanted to, maybe? Before I had a chance to really think it through, Elizabeth had conned me into signing my first book deal. I proceeded to cash and spent the advance (with an assist from my husband), and then I was faced with having to write the book or pay the money back. So what inspired me to become an author? Panic and debt, really.
Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you? That you return to?
The thing that has really stuck with me over the years is a poem — and that's really, really weird, because I'm not into poetry at all. I first read this poem by A.E. Housman, tortured British closet case, when I was in my early twenties and I've been able to recite it from memory ever since—it's heartbreaking:
THE laws of God, the laws of man,
He may keep that will and can;
Not I: let God and man decree
Laws for themselves and not for me;
And if my ways are not as theirs
Let them mind their own affairs.
Their deeds I judge and much condemn,
Yet when did I make laws for them?
Please yourselves, say I , and they
Need only look the other way.
But no, they will not; they must still
Wrest their neighbour to their will,
And make me dance as they desire
With jail and gallows and hell-fire.
And how am I to face the odds
Of man's bedevilment and God's?
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
They will be master, right or wrong;
Though both are foolish, both are strong.
And since, my soul, we cannot fly
To Saturn nor to Mercury,
Keep we must, if keep we can,
These foreign laws of God and man.
Reading that — or reciting it to myself, which I sometimes do — just kills me. It opens with so much hope and defiance and ends in a place of crushed and frustrated resignation. That poem makes me think of the millions and millions of gay men who lived and died before it was possible to be openly gay, it makes me think of the millions of gay men who live today in places where "the laws of man" decree that they cannot live and love openly… and it just fucking breaks my heart.
It also reminds me how lucky I am and it inspires me to stay in the fight for the rights of all sexual minorities — gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans folks, kinksters and sex workers. But not plushophiles — mean, fuck plushies, right? (Just kidding! I am an ally to the plushy community!)
Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years and will no doubt turn to again?
“The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” by William Shirer. He was an American reporter in Germany in the 1930s and an eyewitness to the rise of Adolph Hitler. I've read it cover-to-cover four times.
What were your most cherished childhood books?
I honestly wasn't a big reader when I was a child and can't remember a single book that made an impression on me — besides, maybe, the bible, which I committed myself to reading when I was twelve. Half the time I was just dragging my eyes across the words — so many fucking begots — but certain things leapt out at me. Like the contradictory creation myths in the first two pages of Genesis. Or the fact that Jesus chose two women to deliver the news of his resurrection, which seemed to me like a pretty solid endorsement for ordaining women.
I'm an atheist now — and two things really conspired to unravel my faith: reading the Bible at age 12 and then hitting puberty, realizing I was gay and being forced to think critically about faith — because, you know, I quickly concluded that what they were telling me about me was wrong (I was neither sick nor sinful). Then I started wondering what else they might be wrong about. It didn't take long to arrive at the answer: "Everything."
Are you working on a new book?
I am. Damn it. Elizabeth Wales tricked me into signing another contract and now I have to write another goddam book.
What Val’s Reading This Week: I just finished my first novel by bestselling author Haruki Murakami; “The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” and now I understand why he’s a publishing phenomena. I was fascinated by his portrait of modern Japan. Murakami is a master at creating atmosphere, of moving between past and present, growth and stasis. The main character is passionate about designing train stations, but he’s stuck emotionally, scarred by a crushing high school rejection. In language that’s clear and simple, yet true to the heart, Murakami tells the tale of Tsukuru’s quest to understand the past in order to unravel the future.