And the January Somerville Arts Council artist of the month is….
Ethan Gilsdorf, journalist, critic and self-described “17th-level geek!”
Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher
and 17th level geek. He wrote the award-winning travel-memoir pop culture investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. Based in Somerville, Massachusetts, Gilsdorf writes regularly for the New York Times, Boston Globe, Salon.com, BoingBoing.net, WBUR’s Cognoscenti, PsychologyToday.com, Washington Post and wired.com. He has published hundreds of articles, essays, op-eds and reviews on the arts, pop culture, gaming, geek culture and travel in dozens of other magazines, newspapers, websites and guidebooks worldwide. Gilsdorf has also published dozens of poems in literary magazines and anthologies, and is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Co-founded Grub Street’s Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), he is a lover of ELO and D&D, and a hater of littering. Sometimes he wears a tunic and chainmail, or these grampy pants.
What’s a brief overview of what you do?
I have been incredibly fortunate to call myself a writer for most of my adult life, and actually have made a living at it for the past 15 years or so. After working almost exclusively in poetry (and finger paints) for most of my 20s, around my mid-30s, I transitioned to “freelance journalist.” I’m so lucky to be able write about my personal experiences, my take on arts and culture, and my geeky passions like Tolkien, gaming and 70s culture for places like the Boston Globe, New York Times, and wired.com and Salon.com. My articles on some of these topics became the basis for my book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. I’m pretty lucky.
I also teach creative writing part-time at Grub Street, and give talks and lectures at universities about my nerdery, and inspire kids to embrace their nerdy passions. I also appear as an expert on the radio and TV and documentaries. I wear many hats. And, sometimes, chain mail.
Are there some past projects you’d like to mention in more detail?
Well, I already plugged my book, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, though I’m pretty sure everyone in Somerville has a copy of it anyway. Seriously, probably the thing I get most excited about other than seeing my name in print — still a thrill after all these years — is teaching. In addition to teaching at Grub Street, I also have taught creative writing at community centers, colleges and schools. This past summer, I taught writing classes for teens at the Somerville Library, where my co-teacher Becky Tuch met some incredibly talented young writers. It’s a thrill to see inspired. I really feel strongly about kids being creative, and about young people learning to entertain themselves by creating art, words and documenting their own stories.
Is there anything new you’re working on, or an event that’s coming up?
I’m always doing new events and writing stuff that local folks will probably see in the Boston Globe and WBUR. For example, I recently cranked out a series of stories about my preccciousss topic, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I also recently appeared on a Discovery Channel documentary called “Forbidden” to comment about geeky things like live-action role-playing. (If anyone sees this episode, please tell me? I don’t have cable.) I just did an event at Tufts where I spoke to their sci-fi and fantasy club about my geeky teenage years, and the themes of my book. I don’t have many events lined up for 2014 yet, other than a talk at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School Feb 11. But I add events all the time. Folks can keep up with where I’ll be appearing, and what classes I’m teaching on my events page. (PS — if you’re interested in hiring me (plug, plug!) to come to your classroom or group, check out my offerings. I’d love to geek out with you!)
I also have a second book in the works, which I hope to be able to talk about more publicly soon.
Why do you do what you do? What’s something you get out of it?
While I’m not getting rich, and while I miss a steady paycheck, the flexibility of my work and life is pretty awesome. I don’t necessarily know what I’ll be doing in a month, but I generally get to follow my nose, sniffing out ideas and projects that interest me. One week, I’ll write a personal essay about a tragedy in my family or my efforts to be hip in middle-age. Another week, I’ll get to interview someone like Sir Ben Kingsley, Steve Carell, Viggo Mortensen or Andy Serkis. Another week, I’ll try to teach others to get their ideas and books sold and promoted, or to revise their memoirs and essays. When I publish a blog post on WBUR or BoingBoing, or movie review on the Boston Globe, that strikes a nerve, I enjoy being part of the conversation. I can stay up till 3am to finish a deadline, and sleep until 10am if I need to. Like I said, I’m very fortunate. Now, someone please make me rich so I can actually have a retirement. (Is Ethan good about planning for his future? Not so much.)
What got you involved in doing what you do? Is there someone or something that was important in getting you on your way? (A big break you got, or a mentor who helped you, etc.)
I have always depended on the kindness of strangers. I’ve had some wonderful, inspiring, tolerant and patient teachers, friends and editors over the years who have indulged my early and amateur efforts at being a writer. I have also been the right guy at the right time in the right place. In 1999, I moved from Brattleboro, Vermont, to Paris, France, and became involved in a very welcoming expatriate writer community who shared contacts and writing tips with me. I was very lucky to stumble into the field of prose/nonfiction/journalism after a decade in the salt mines of poetry. I ended up living in Paris for five years. That was the leap I took to finally call myself “a writer,” and to leave the safety net of 9 to 5 work behind. It was a risk, but it paid off, and that was ultimately my “big break,” I think.
Any thoughts on the local Somerville, or Boston-area creative scene?
I moved to Somerville, right off the boat (OK, plane) from Paris, in 2004. I knew no one in the Boston area except one friend of a friend. Now, exactly 9 years ago this month, I am proud to call Somerville my home. The like-minded crew of writers, artists, musicians, rabble-rousers and other misfits that Somerville tends to attract suits me perfectly. I jumped on board with Porchfest, What the Fluff, ArtBeat and all the other community-building arts programs we have here.
This is an incredibly arts- and artist-friendly city. I got two grants from the Somerville Arts Council, one of which helped me write my book. The SAC has been so important to encouraging me to continue as a writer. It’s great living in a city that directly supports its artists. I also love the cafe life. I hang out and work in local cafes, where I meet many fellow freelancer/artists. Their support is huge. I wrote most of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks at True Grounds in Ball Square. Stop by, and you might find me there, pulling my hair out over my latest deadline.