Episode 302: Drew Magary, Mary South, and Joe Wong

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Courtesy of Netflix

Writer Drew Magary on how he finished his sci-fi novel, ‘Point B,’ after a traumatic brain injury. And Milwaukee native Joe Wong unveils his debut solo album, ‘Nite Creatures.’ Also, Mary South talks about her debut short-story collection.

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  • Drew Magary Finishes New Novel After Traumatic Brain Injury

    Drew Magary doesn’t remember what happened.

    When Magary recently spoke with Doug Gordon of WPR’s “BETA”, he recalled the night he suffered a traumatic brain injury, his recovery, his return to writing, and the completion of his new novel, “Point B (A Teleportation Love Story).”

    “I had hosted an award show for Deadspin, where I was working at the time. We were in a private room doing karaoke because we were being fancy pants,” he recalled. “And I went out into a hall and I don’t remember what happened after that.”

    But does he remember the song he’d sung during karaoke?

    “I do. I remember intimately. It was ‘You Got Lucky’ by Tom Petty,” he said.

    “I don’t know about you, but certain people have karaoke staples that they usually rely on. Like, I go with ‘Purple Rain‘ and stuff like that,” he continued. “I had had a beer and was feeling frisky. I was like, ‘I’ll try something I haven’t done before.’ And then I had some pizza, and I had a beer, and then I collapsed. I did manage to sing the song. So that was nice.”

    Given his eventual recovery, does he think that Tom Petty song was fitting in any way?

    “Yeah, the joke I made was that it’s either fitting or ironic depending upon how you look at it,” Magary said.

    Magary was rushed to the hospital, and then to another for emergency surgery to repair what he described as a catastrophic brain hemorrhage. He was placed in a medically induced coma to heal.

    He described a lengthy recovery: inpatient and outpatient physical therapy, learning to walk again, overcoming dizziness, nausea, and the loss of hearing in one ear.

    “It was really just this gradual process to get my brain just back to where it could do basic civilization tasks all over again. And, of course, there is no civilization now, so it was all for nothing,” he said, referring to life in the age of coronavirus.

    The cover of
    The cover of “Point B (A Teleportation Love Story).” Photo courtesy of Drew Magary

    At the time of his injury in 2018, Magary was nearly finished with his new novel, “Point B (A Teleportation Love Story).” But he said once he had recovered, his new outlook on life didn’t influence the completion of the book. He just wanted to finish. The novel was released last month.

    “I felt as if the coma was this really annoying interruption in the middle of the process that I didn’t want to be there,” he said. “So oddly, I just wanted to get back to where it was, which sort of also factors in the story of my recovery, because I want everything to be exactly the same as it was prior to my injury, ‘Point B’ included.”

    “But I, of course, was not the same. And again, I had to accept that,” he said.

    The novel focuses on main character Anna. After her sister dies by suicide, Anna seeks revenge her sister’s bully.

    “This is a world where everyone can teleport,” Magary said of his book. “And so imagine if the man who’s bullying you in cyberspace can actually come teleport right to your house and do so. This is a man who menaced Anna’s sister and essentially drove her into death by suicide.”

    Along the way, Anna falls in love with a classmate, who mysteriously disappears.

    “And so the fact that she’s fallen in love with a girl who disappears and the fact that her sister’s killer is still out there somewhere gives her all the reason she needs to scheme and figure out ways to port around the world and to chase down both love and revenge in equal measure,” he said.

    The novel dives deep into details about the physics of teleportation. Magary said he even had a physicist help him “physicist” the book to make the premise more believable, something Magary said is important in sci-fi writing.

    “If you’re like, ‘OK, I can teleport using my phone.’ All right, fine,” he said. “But you better believe everything else that happens around it, you know?”

    For instance, Magary also tackles issues in the book such as immigration, surveillance capitalism and hate crimes. Was it difficult for Magary to weave it all together?

    “That part actually wasn’t very hard because you and I, we live in this crap every day,” he said. “There’s just, there’s no avoiding it. It’s just smothering, all this news, and it’s omnipresent.”

    “It’s a kind of societal brain damage that I did not expect, even before my own brain was damaged,” he said.

    Drew Magary
    Drew Magary. Photo courtesy of Drew Magary.

    Magary has jumped easily between styles in his writing career. He’s written exposés for GQ, fantasy novels and food columns. He may be best known for his work at Deadspin, a site that saw mass resignations, including Magary’s, in late 2019 after new ownership demanded staff stick to sports. During his time at Deadspin, Magary wrote passionately about and often poked fun at sports.

    He authored a particularly popular column series during each NFL preseason called, “Why Your Team Sucks.”

    “The instant that we started the series at Deadspin, people started writing in right away because there’s no team that NFL fans love to hate more than their own,” he said.

    But why does he like making fun of sports so much, and what’s the value? “Because sports is so eminently self-serious,” he said.

    “There’s so much sports news being left on the table right now that I think Deadspin would have covered well. Leagues experimenting with figuring out ways to come back and how ESPN has to essentially lean on 10 hours of Jordan filler documentary to create its own sports news ecosystem,” Magary said, referring to COVID-19.

    “We always agreed that Deadspin was less a site about sports, but really about sports culture,” he continued. “And right now, sports culture is very weird and is responding to this outbreak in very typically sports culture-ish ways, with equal bits of machismo and ignorance and blind stupidity and pretend compassion, in ways that deserve to be called out.”

  • Mary South’s Short Stories Explore How Technology Affects Our Relationships

    Editor’s note: This article deals with adult themes including rape and suicide.

    Mary South’s debut short-story collection is called “You Will Never Be Forgotten.” The stories feature characters trying to use technology to escape their uncontrollable feelings of grief, rage or despair. South uses carefully-crafted sentences and a fair share of dark humor to show that the results aren’t always what her characters hoped for.

    “One of the things that really interests me about technology is that no matter how much it advances, no matter how instantaneously we can get the news, or how much information we now have than ever before, that our baseline, like human emotions and human psyche, hasn’t changed,” South told WPR’s “BETA.”

    South said as a millennial woman growing up with technology, she still remembers the dial-up modem of the early days of the web when it took what felt like eons, to download an image, whereas today we receive endless amounts of news and commentary instantaneously.

    “I’m interested how that sort of reroutes our psychology, but then our emotions and our needs are still baseline the same,” South said. “We still crave acceptance and nurturing and connection with others. But now that we have these amazing tools at our disposal, how do we go about getting them? When we have a dating app where you can meet hundreds of people that you would never have been able to meet before in your life, how do you go and adjust your behavior and go about getting that and fulfilling that need?”

    South said she wants her stories to be complex and nuanced, which she says it is difficult to do when it comes to the internet.

    “It’s like trying to ground the story in the character’s emotions, trying to ground it and where they’re coming from, to really imagine them fully in my mind and how they would respond to situations in their life,” she said.

    South said her stories have often been compared to the British science-fiction TV anthology series, “Black Mirror,” which explores the dark side of technological innovation. She told “BETA” the “Black Mirror” episodes she most enjoys are the ones that really focus on the characters’ emotions.

    “So it doesn’t just become like a story about like, ‘Oh, this is how we have no privacy anymore or this is how social media makes us lose empathy for each other,’” she said. “It’s really about a character struggling with a core trauma or a core desire that they’ve never been able to fulfill in their life. And now, how are they going to go about getting that when they have all of these tools?”

    South points to her story, “Not Setsuko,” as an example. It’s a story about a mother who has lost her daughter tragically. The mother then clones her and tries to remake her memories, so she can live in the illusion that her daughter is back with her.

    “The story is not really about cloning, although that’s like a futuristic, near-futuristic technology,” South said. “I really wanted to stay grounded with the mother and her desire to have her child back. I really wanted the story to be about grief.”

    The title story, “You Will Never Be Forgotten,” is about a content moderator who is screening content to prevent traumatic and violent content from ending up online.

    “She is also monitoring her rapist as he is living his life online, seeing what he’s posting on social media,” South said. “And she starts also monitoring him in real life, following him around the neighborhood after he goes home from work. And that kind of thing.”

    “And it’s mostly because she’s trying to process the trauma of her sexual assaults. But also, she’s worried that what happened to her is going to happen to other women. So there’s a lot emotionally for her to deal with,” she added.

    In the story, the woman makes a fake profile on the dating site where she originally met the rapist and begins corresponding with him.

    “But then the whole thing seems really false and wrong,” South said. “So she confesses: ‘This is me, this is the woman you sexually assaulted. Do you remember me?’”

    South said it was a difficult story for her to write.

    “I didn’t want to retraumatize the reader by the way I dealt with it. But then again, I also thought it was important if I was going to write about these things that I fully look at them and not shy away from writing about them,” she said.

    “What I hope I accomplished was by grounding it in her emotions and her point of view and her struggle to get over it, I hope that the reader can really feel her pain,” South said. “It’s really about her pain and recovery. I wanted to fully inhabit her and fully present her to the world and do her justice and have her be seen in the way that she feels very invisible. Her rapist hasn’t been held accountable. So I wanted that character to be fully seen and have her justice in a fictional way.”

  • Milwaukee Native Joe Wong Won't Let His 'Dreams Wash Away'

    Musician Joe Wong was still roaming the halls of Wilson Elementary School in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa when he discovered a passion that still drives him today.

    “I started playing drums when I was 11 and the drums felt like a vehicle into the world and also the medium through which I found myself,” Wong told WPR’s “BETA.” “I can remember the first time I played drums with another musician and how incredible it felt and in some ways I feel like I’ve been chasing that feeling my whole life.”

    Wong would become an acclaimed drummer in the Milwaukee jazz scene and enrolled at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.

    “I had already had some experience recording and touring and had found an artistic voice to a certain extent before I went to the school,” Wong said. “Then when I went to the school, it made me question everything and subvert my own voice and absorb information from a lot of different sources and it was a bit overwhelming.”

    Wong would eventually leave Berklee after a few years — joking that “most people drop out of that school” — and return to Wisconsin where he secluded himself at a non-functioning farm in Chippewa Falls.

    “I felt like I had gotten what I needed out of the school, and so then I kind of retreated to a farmhouse in Wisconsin to try to parse through everything and metabolize the information that I had gotten,” Wong recalled. “I was basically trying to figure out what information that I had been exposed to in the past couple of years that I wanted to hold on to and develop and what I want to let go of. It was just a way of trying to find my center again.”

    Wong moved to Los Angeles and became an accomplished touring drummer for several acts. After a while, however, he was beginning to burn out on music and that creative joy the drums brought him at age 11.

    While on tour with Marnie Stern (now of The 8G Band on “Late Night with Seth Meyers”), Wong bumped into friend and former Fugazi drummer, Brendan Canty, at a “Saturday Night Live” taping in New York. Canty had pivoted to composing for film and TV after Fugazi went on hiatus in 2003. The two of them ended up having a life-changing conversation.

    “After the taping, we drank whiskey together, and I was just basically parsing through all of my neuroses with Brendan and trying to figure out how he built the life that he had. It occurred to me that could make for an interesting podcast,” said Wong.

    So, in 2015, Wong launched his podcast, “The Trap Set.” It was ostensibly a drumming podcast featuring in-depth conversations with fellow drummers including drumming royalty like Phil Collins, Sheila E, Bryan Devendorf, Clyde Stubblefield and Janet Weiss. Wong would broaden the scope in recent years to musicians and comedians like Todd Barry and Fred Armisen who moonlit as drummers.

    “The Trap Set” found a good audience and counts among its growing fans, podcasting icon Marc Maron (“WTF with Marc Maron”).

    Around the same time Wong was launching his podcast, he reconnected with Kerri Drootin who was the music supervisor for NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” who he had met a few years earlier while on tour with New York band, Parts and Labor. She let Wong know she was working on a new show for Netflix with Aziz Ansari called “Master of None” and encouraged Wong to demo for the series.

    “At the time I was working with a partner who still lives in Milwaukee, Didier Leplae, and so we made some demos and Aziz and the other music supervisor, Zach Cowie, were really into what we were doing,” said Wong.

    Wong would continue to build an impressive resume of scoring some of the most groundbreaking and original shows to come out in the streaming era, including Natasha Lyonne’s surreal Netflix hit, “Russian Doll.”

    It was watching Lyonne lead her passion project that inspired Wong’s to really focus on his desire to create “Nite Creatures.”

    “I think it started percolating shortly before I scored ‘Russian Doll’ and it was really, really interesting to watch Natasha as she was making ‘Russian Doll’ because it was basically her first project as a creator,” said Wong. “I got to see her confront all of the attendant insecurities that come along with making something for the first time and seeing her navigate through that was really instructive as far as how I pushed myself through it.”

    Wong enlisted Helium’s Mary Timony as producer and said he got in the mindset of treating himself as the client. The result is grandiose, beautiful, melancholy and very personal. Wong wrote the album in the wake of his father’s death and his grappling of that grief and processing it.

    “My dad had a massive stroke in 2010 and I had to step in and help manage his life for a few years after the stroke. And ultimately, he never recovered, and so I saw him lose pieces of his personality over time and that’s basically what the album is about. It’s my way of working through that,” Wong said.

    The first single off the album, “Dreams Wash Away,” is a stunning example of this sentiment and was used by Pendelton Ward and Duncan Trussell in the finale for their animated Netflix series, “The Midnight Gospel” which Wong also serves as the composer for.

    “The final episode of the show, without giving too much away, is about confronting the mortality of self and of a parent and so it was kind of a perfect project for me at the time,” said Wong. “Duncan, who co-created the show with Pen, was going through that when the conversation that structures the final episode was taking place. So, it was almost like one of those situations where it really felt like it was meant to be.”

    Nite Creatures” will be available this summer from Decca Records and Wong is already planning a follow-up.

    “I feel like I kind of just scratched the surface of what I want to do artistically with this first album,” he said. “At the same time, I’ve developed this muscle of writing a lot of material from my career as a film and TV composer, so I’m trying to deploy that muscle in service of making another album right now.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Brad Kolberg Producer
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Drew Magary Guest
  • Mary South Guest
  • Joe Wong Guest

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