I’ll probably be ground into dirt myself before too long: An interview with Luke O’Neil

Before the world blew up, I interviewed Luke O’Neil, author of the Welcome to Hell World newsletter, about the then still-recent anthology of his work. The piece was supposed to run in February in a fairly popular magazine, but for various reasons it was pushed until March, at which point the world changed forever. Now, almost a full year since we talked, Luke has a new book out — “Lockdown in Hell World,” a collection of his newsletters about the pandemic — and I’m finally publishing this interview here because however much things change they stay the same, and I think Luke’s points are more relevant and worth your consideration than ever.

Below, you will find my original, unedited introduction to the interview, followed by the interview itself, which has been slightly edited for clarity but nothing else. Thanks for reading.

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When I asked Luke O’Neil what term he wanted me to use to refer to the writing in Welcome to Hell World, his daily newsletter that has recently been turned into a 500-page epic of American misery, he shrugged away the question, uninterested in categorizing the work into which he seems to pour every last drop of his heart and soul. The non-answer was a bit of modesty on his part, just as the question was a bit of sycophantry on mine, but behind his aloofness was the essence of O’Neil’s project of imagining new, uncharted approaches to journalism that can be more useful and, in his opinion, more honest than what we have now.

O’Neil is approaching twenty years in the newspaper business. In a way that might not be possible anymore, he worked his way up from alt weeklies to the Boston Globe and the Washington Post and online outlets like Vice, Slate, and the Guardian, landing along the way at Esquire as an Writer-at-Large, which “came with a title and everything official but still payed me as a freelancer,” he told me. Hell World is very much the culmination of those two decades of experience in that it breaks every single convention that the journalism industry has held as gospel for the last hundred years. Unrestricted by editors or house style, and with a DIY ethic from time spent in the punk rock scene, O’Neil merges disciplines and forms, creating a voice-driven collage of outrage as far from objectivity as he can manage.

Writing like that shouldn’t work at all. A typical Hell World post careens from topic to topic with a violent disregard for transitions, and almost every sentence is a run-on. One early entry, for example, begins at a Trump rally in Montana then swings to a photo shoot with an adderall-addled, pre-Proud Boys Gavin McInnes, then jumps to American-trained jailers of women in Saudi Arabia, brutality in Nicaragua, back to Trump, then El Salvador, and finally comes to rest on a personal anecdote about the magnets on his fridge announcing marriages that have since ended in divorce. It works like magic, for reasons O’Neil and I discussed at length, engaging and enraging readers — more than 17,000, enough of whom pay for subscriptions that O’Neil no longer has to write for publications that pull his articles when he jokes about waiters pissing in Kirstjen Nielsen’s food — in a way that straight reporting cannot.

As he told me on the phone one Tuesday morning in February, O’Neil believes that journalism, which may or may not be breathing its dying breaths, isn’t doing a good enough job empathizing with the victims of capitalism. Hell World is about people, and while O’Neil features prominently in the work, he writes like he’s reaching out to each individual reader. By O’Neil’s own admission, it’s not writing that should replace journalism, but instead the piece missing from the “what the hell just happened” media puzzle that we started assembling in November 2016.

So much of my own energy these days is spent either throwing my hands up in the air or clumsily screaming at my friends about their Amazon deliveries. Hell World, like all great editorial writing, puts my frustrations and feelings into words, thereby making them real and something I can begin to manage. It also gives me something persuasive to send to my friends without the usual fear that they’ll finally cut me out of their lives. Now anthologized by OR Books as Welcome to Hell World: Dispatches from the American Dystopia, Luke O’Neil’s work is literature that all Americans should read, especially those who think that civility works or that humanity has been lost, and especially those who mistakenly think civility and humanity are the same thing.

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DAN TOVROV: What have you been up to this morning?

LUKE O’NEIL: I just got off the phone with my health insurance company. I needed them to explain this bullshit bill I just got. Which is, you know, very Hell World-y. It’s not a catastrophic bill; it’s like $600. But $600 is still a lot of money that I don’t want to pay on top of the hundreds I pay for the insurance every month. So I call and they tell me that because I had this procedure done in a hospital instead of a regular doctor’s office, it was something like a $250 copay instead of $25. But while I was on hold, they had this lovely orchestral piece, which I figured out was Handel’s “Water Music.” And I started reading up on that, so it was an educational call. I got some culture.

DT: Have you written the next newsletter yet?

LO: I’m working on it today. I might write a little bit about the bill, and I’m going to talk to a friend of mine who is really getting fucked. He just received a bill for $120,000 for a pretty serious surgery that he had.

DT: Is he insured?

LO: Yeah, he’s insured. He believes they’re going to pay half of it. So he’ll only have to pay $60,000. But we gotta name for the place we live, you know?

DT: Let’s talk about it. A thing that Hell World readers are really drawn to is the discursive, stream of consciousness style of your writing. Is it that you write the newsletter in a kind of fugue state?

LO: The first time I did it, maybe, I remember I was watching the Iraq War documentary, with that photo. I was writing about it right at the time when the John McCain funeral was on TV. Do you remember how long that was? It was on TV for like a week.

I was bowled over by the cognitive dissonance. And angry. When you’re angry, you don’t choose your words carefully. You’re communicating emotionally. And when I was writing it, I found that I was naturally writing in that way. Just writing and writing and writing. That isn’t the way I’d been writing most of my career as a journalist, where you have to be thoughtful and clear in what you’re saying and how you say it, not because it’s necessarily better, but because that’s what they make you do at mainstream publications.

So the style was an accident. It was a confluence of anger and the emotional response to the news. It’s visceral. It’s the best that I can do to translate my disgust into the written word.

DT: What I’ve been surprised while reading the book is how much the topic jumping still works. I don’t quite understand why.

LO: In a way, [the essays] approximate what I feel when I’m looking at Twitter. It’s a cascade of disparate emotions. A bomb went off here, and you feel horror, and here’s a football highlight, and Trump did something stupid, and here’s somebody telling a dumb dick joke, here’s a mass shooting, here’s a rape. And we have to process all of those things in the span of two minutes.

My approach is to take that and slow it down a little. So that it’s not every five seconds you’re getting pummeled by a different emotional response, and you get a little bit of time to sit with the one particular item before moving on to the next.

DT: I hate admitting it, but I almost never read news articles all the way to the end anymore. But I almost always get to the end of Hell World. Does that style you described have anything to do with that?

LO: It’s very rare to read an article that captivates you to the point where you can’t think about anything else. You might read half of it then start thinking about, “oh my back kind of hurts” or “I’m pretty hungover,” or you might check your email in the middle. And that’s the kind of experience I’ve replicated in my writing. None of us have the focus to spend time on anything, so why not accurately convey what I’m thinking in the middle of writing? Your mind is going to wander anyway when you’re reading it, so why not take the initiative and help it wander for you?

DT: One way you do that is by injecting yourself into the work. I can’t think of anyone who puts themselves in their work in such close proximity to their reportage. Can you talk about this?

LO: It’s all a reaction to spending, like, 15 years in the journalism industry, and increasingly the content industry. I hate both equally, the prestigious “News From Nowhere” shit and the 800 words about whatever stupid horse shit we’re talking about on Twitter that day. When I set out to do this, I wanted to be as different from that as possible. One way to fight back against the radical neutrality of the mainstream press, where you’re supposed to be this opinionless automaton reporting the facts, is to say exactly what you mean and what you think about any given topic.

To pretend that we don’t have visceral reactions to the news is a type of lying. The neutrality that’s forced on reporters is an offensive fucking lie to me. That’s part of what makes reading the news hard for me now, too. You know these people aren’t dispassionate arbiters, they’re just taking all of that out. It’s an enemy of clarity.

I think that’s what readers respond to. To just pop in in the middle of relaying some horrific story to highlight how grotesque it is — that’s how people feel when they’re reading. You can read better reporting and better writing than you’ll get from me in wherever — the New Yorker, the Washington Post — but you don’t get the writer saying, “are you seeing this the way I’m seeing this? Because this is fucking crazy, right?”

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DT: You also write a lot about your own mental and physical health.

LO: Yeah, right. I don’t know why. Everything sort of feeds into each other. The run up to the [2016] election happened to coincide with me injuring myself really badly after years of obsessive exercising. It derailed my life and mental health in a way led to self-medicating with alcohol. And both things are all part of the same hole, personally. Politics broke my back, literally and metaphorically. My therapist talks about how you can internalize agitation and frustration, and they’ll manifest in your body. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s true enough as a frame for the writing. So it feels natural to think about all those things at the same time.

DT: As a reader, when you put in the personal stuff about, say, addiction or trauma, the first thing it does is make me trust you. And, as you’re saying, trust can be hard to find, because with the internet even the casual observer is now so aware of how journalism is made. The second thing it does is it makes me think about what I’m going through — and helps me accept it. Is self-reflection on the reader’s part political?

LO: It’s no big revelation but our bodies are the places where the violence of politics is played out. One thing I hear people say is that what I write humanizes the casualties of capitalism. If you internalize that humanization and look at these systems, you realize: if they haven’t fucked you up yet, at any minute they could.

Most people whose lives are untouched by pain or illness or suffering are aware of these things, but they don’t think enough about how these things are going on around us constantly. And it’s not an accident that it’s happening. These are things that are being done to us because of decisions that were made — political, systemic decisions. This friend with the $60,000 bill — that’s not shitty luck, that’s a decision that a series of people made to destroy his life. I’d like people to make that connection. A lot of people go through life with their fingers crossed hoping that nothing bad happens to them. I’d like us to prevent those bad things from happening in the first place.

DT: People forget that politics is always life or death.

LO: That’s why I get so angry! I can’t become the type of person who can’t be friends with someone because they aren’t a radical socialist or I’ll end up with no fucking friends in the world. But I do wonder: Are you that comfortable that you don’t understand that tens of millions of people’s lives are being ground into the mud every day?

DT: Do you think that traditional journalism has an empathy problem?

Luke O’Neil, courtesy of Luke O’Neil

LO: It’s no longer an aspiration of mine to be a journalist in the way that we understand the term. I think something happens to a person once they get on these tenure-track Beltway jobs. They lose all sense of their humanity and it becomes a game show to them. Especially on cable news, but also in the higher paying prestige jobs. That’s not to say that there aren’t vital journalists doing real work at small newspapers around the country, but I think that on the higher end of the scale — I’m sure they’re all nice people, or whatever — the job precludes you from expressing the fury that’s necessary if you’re a feeling person at this time.

Part of that is, they’re prevented by where they work to express how they really feel. After a certain amount of time of being that system, the institutional norms start to seem normal to you. I’ve always had trouble staying employed. I was constantly getting reprimanded for my tweets at Esquire, where I was a writer-at-large. And there was the thing with the Boston Globe. I’ve basically been talked to at every mainstream publication that I’ve written for. “Can you tone it down with the tweets?” No, I can’t.

Through my twenties, I thought, “I want to be a New York Times reporter. I want to write for the New Yorker.” None of that means anything to me anymore. After you see the type of fucking morons that get to those types of positions, the soulless ambition vampires, you see it’s nothing. I don’t want it.

DT: One thing that a mainstream outlet has — or once had — is a fact checker. And there are values to having an editor. Do you worry about that?

LO: While I talk a lot of shit about the traditional standards of professional journalism being a lie, I obviously hold onto a lot of the rules. I certainly don’t want to get anything wrong or lie. Not having an editor means I might occasionally fuck up, but if I do I correct myself instantly and admit my mistake. It’s really very easy to say, “Ah I fucked up there, gonna try to not make that mistake again.”

DT: Is there a staff job you’d say yes to right now?

LO: No. Well, maybe if the Times was like, “We’ll fire Brett Stevens and let you write whatever you want,” I’d give it a try. I’d like to run a five minute mile, too.

DT: So, what’s the solution?

LO: I don’t know, man. Taking advertising money out of journalism would be a big help. But look at NPR. They’ll have a story and say, “this bad policy is about to take place and here’s why it’s bad,” then say, “OK, here’s the evil mastermind behind the policy to explain himself.” So even taking advertising money out of it still leaves a problem. We need to continue to chip away at the false idea of neutrality.

Another solution I talk about as a joke but I also kind of mean is: with every person who goes on CNN, there should be a graphic with how much money they make, how much they’re worth, how much their parents are worth. It would be like listing an athlete’s stats during the game. When you watch the game, they tell you where the player went to college years ago, but they don’t do that for pundits. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see for everyone on an MSNBC panel? Harvard, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Harvard.

DT: Or how much Aetna stock they have in their mutual funds.

LO: Exactly. I think we’re constantly being lied to. Not in the sense that people are making things up. CNN’s not making things up. The New York Times doesn’t make things up. They want to be accurate. But what the fuck do I know? I’m just a newsletter writer. It’s quite possible that I’m wrong and that I’m the asshole. But…

DT: But in the meantime, you’ve opted out.

LO: Yes. It could all be naught. It probably will be. I’m not the first guy to say “the system sucks man.” I’ll probably be ground into dirt myself before too long. I could get canceled tomorrow and everyone will stop reading. But in the meantime, this stuff that I’m writing seems ok. It seems to be making people feel a certain way. I’ll keep on doing it as long as I can. It’s a fucking magic trick, making a living in this business.

DT: I want to ask a big personal question right now. How do you define yourself, or think of yourself? How does Hell World fit into your idea of how you exist in the world?

LO: I don’t think I’m anything. I’m nothing. If I stop doing this, there would be a week where people go “what the fuck” and then I’m gone. That drives me, in a way, to keep trying. I don’t want to disappear. But I don’t like the thing writers do when they talk about “imposter syndrome.” I don’t like the diagnostication of a regular human emotion. It’s not unique to feel like you don’t belong. I’m not under the impression that I’m some great man of letters, but, at the same time, I think I’m pretty good. I do a pretty good job. Not the best writer, not the funniest guy, not the best reporter, not the smartest, but I do them all well enough, in the right combination, to make it feel like it’s something. I’m proud of that. I don’t think I’m going to change the world, but I do think I’m going to change a few people.

DT: What about Richard Munslow, the last sin-eater? In one of the earlier chapters in the book, you talk about Munslow’s funeral, and at the end of the piece, you write:

“Sometimes I think, like the sin-eaters with no other options, I behold the grief of the world without respite because I have no other choice. … We’ve been driven mad with grief, and we know nothing else but to continue to compound it in a gluttonous feast. We gorge ourselves on the sins of others until it sickens us, hoping, without any sort of reliable proof, that in the end it might help someone, but knowing nonetheless that it won’t.”

How does that fit in?

LO: The thrust of that essay is reporters keeping their eye on the prize — to translate the pain of the world. That might be a calling for some people but it’s also a profession, and happens to be the one that I’ve, through a series of missteps, found myself in. If that’s what I’m gonna do, then I’m happy to do it. Well, maybe not happy, but I’m gonna.

Since I wrote that, it’s taken on a new connotation. People write to me with their own things now, and that’s something I struggle with. People are telling me their sad stories, their failures, their addiction stories, the ways they’ve been fucked over. I feel, right now, that it’s my responsibility to handle those as carefully as possible. But I also feel this immense responsibility not to influence people in the wrong way. My personal way of dealing with mental health stuff, addiction stuff, is dark humor and irony, but I’m aware I can’t joke about that stuff the way I might otherwise without fucking with somebody. But as I said in a newsletter, I’m not anyone’s therapist. Please don’t take my advice on any of this.

DT: Let’s go back to the book. The book starts with Samar Hassan, the Iraqi girl who was with her parents when they were shot to death by an American serviceman, and then the next two chapters are intensely personal essays that cover your grandmother, your drug use, fear, meditations on the past, a confederate flag–adorned bar in Prague. Then the following chapter gets very political again with Kirstjen Nielsen’s “baby jails.” Were you going for anything in how you ordered the pieces or what you chose to include?

LO: I spent a lot of time as a musician, making records, and I thought about the book that way. I thought, the first [essay] is short and punchy and gives you an idea of what you’re getting into, like how with the first song on an album you want to grab someone’s attention. And then, once you have someone interested, you can be more indulgent.

I also didn’t want people to think, “Oh, this is a political book about how the military is bad.” I wanted people to think, “This is weird; what’s going on here?” The whole idea of the newsletter and the book is to throw people off balance. To make them feel a little uneasy. So I thought, going back and forth between things that are straight, things are more political reporting, and things that are more broadly focused or that are about me would do that.

DT: Does the work feel different in book form?

LO: It really is exciting. It all happened quickly. I didn’t have designs on making it a book. The folks at OR Books really encouraged me and let me do it how I wanted to do it. I love the package that it became. It’s everything you’re not supposed to do. It’s super fucking long; the chapter titles don’t tell you what anything means; it’s hard to read, in terms of the lack of punctuation; it’s aggressive and off-putting topics. There are so many books that nobody cares about — I happen to think there are too many books — so why not try to do everything you’re not supposed to do and see if it works?

DT: I told a friend I was interviewing you, and he asked me to ask you to tell him what the word “patriotism” is and has become, and your feelings about that.

LO: I have zero sense of patriotism. I don’t understand it. I think it’s one of the most corrosive and corrupting forces throughout the entirety of human history. Patriotism, tribalism. It’s the cause of all the wars, all the suffering. I don’t give a fuck. Fuck all of it. Fuck America. Fuck Donald Trump. Fuck Barack Obama. That sounds like impetuous, punk rock, teenager shit, but I think we’re conditioned to lose that feeling by associating it with teenage rebellion. We should keep that inside of us all the time. Why should I give a fuck about America? I care about the people who live here, but not more than I care about the people who live anywhere else — Mexico, China, wherever. I think it’s a destructive force meant for the people who want us to be patriotic, who don’t have our best interest at heart, because it gets in the way of their ability to make money.

DT: You watched the Super Bowl, with the intro with the troops and all that?

LO: It’s insane. Fuck the troops. No, I don’t hate this young man personally. I’m sure he had a life like anyone else’s that brought him to where he enlisted in the military. But at the end of the day, who are the people who carry out atrocities on our behalf? Soldiers don’t make the decisions, but they’re out there killing people. The spectacle, the extravagance, the jingoism — that’s all paid for! The military uses our tax dollars to sell the military back to us.

It sounds so stupid to say out loud. It feels embarrassing to be this obvious and earnest. But then things don’t get better so maybe we keep saying them until they do. That’s a tagline for the book right there.

DT: Last question: I just saw on Twitter some photos you posted of you as a young man meeting John Kerry and Bill Clinton. What did you glean anything shaking hands with guys like that?

LO: I thought I wanted to be in politics when I was young. I interned at the White House in college. I got fired from it, because I had to show up every day and sit there, then photocopy a thousand pages, and I walked out. I came back to college and I got D+’s the rest of the semester because I walked out of my White House internship. That’s a pretty good origin story for Luke O’Neil. I had this great career-making opportunity and I thought it sucked and told them to go to hell. So what did I learn? I learned that everyone sucks in all the ways we know they do. I was 18 and hadn’t seen it for myself yet.

There’s one more photo of me and Ted Kennedy that I can’t find. I like that. I’m not a big Kennedy fan anymore, but being a young aspiring democrat from Massachusetts that was very exciting.

Note: This post has been updated to reflect the current number of Hell World subscribers. I have also corrected O’Neil’s position at Esquire.

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