I first became aware of Shea Serrano when he was writing for the Houston Press. He was a schoolteacher at the time, freelancing to help provide for his growing family. I was still in the habit of checking out the music sections in various alternative weeklies, since that’s how I got my start and when I was music editor at the Dallas Observer I regularly pulled from other papers to fill out our section, back in the heyday of alternative weeklies when we were putting out 200-page papers every week.
Anyway, Shea’s style has gotten more finely honed since then, but it was already in place almost a decade ago. He credits his wife Larami for teaching him to write, and if you follow his very active and popular Twitter account, you know there isn’t much (at least according to him) that she can’t do. But Shea isn’t giving himself enough credit. Larami may have helped him learn where to put commas or whatever, but it’s his ability to treat silly subjects with absolute dead seriousness that has really connected with readers of his books and his stories for The Ringer, where he is a staff writer.
In addition to making his last two books, The Rap Year Book and Basketball (And Other Things), bestsellers, that connection has led to an online following — dubbed the FOH Army — that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for various charities over the years, all at the direction of a man who still acts like he’s the luckiest guy in the world to be able to do this. That enthusiasm comes through in everything he does, and it’s a large part of his success. It’s been fascinating and delightful to watch him rise from the back of the Houston Press to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list, and he’s deserved all of it. Shea is, as they say, a real one.
His latest, Movies (And Other Things), his third collaboration with Dallas’ own Arturo Torres, brings his inimitable voice to the world of film. I talked to him a couple of weeks ago as the pub date neared. It’s out today, and Shea and Arturo will be speaking and signing copies at Interabang Books on Oct. 16.
Sorry, I missed your call. Ah, you’re good. What are you doing over there?
Just actually interviewed J.J. Barea from the Mavs for the magazine. So, uh, this is going to be a big step down.
You know, you’re probably taller than he is. So I saw J.J.—you know Spurs-Mavericks games were always like a big ticket in San Antonio.
Oh, sure. And we would go all the time and one time I got to sit down low—like, my uncle who is in irrigation and somebody he does irrigation work for, some, like, rich, whatever, someone gave him tickets and it was a Mavericks game. And so we got to sit down low and it was the closest I ever got to the court at the time, and we saw J.J. Barea and he’s like, I mean he’s like 5-foot-9 or something like that. He’s not a big dude. Yeah, but his head is gigantic. His head is, like, you either have to be a—you have to be a superstar at something in your life or it’s going to be miserable because of how big your head is. He became a superstar and then he married like fucking Miss Universe or something. Like he figured it out.
Oh, yeah. She’s like Miss Puerto Rico. Yeah, there it is. Miss Puerto Rico.
Have they already made you start working on the next one, the next (And Other Things)? No, no, I’ll wait. I’ll wait awhile. I probably should. It would be smart. I’ve never turned a book in on time, and I should start right now, if I want to turn this one in on time. But I’m not going to. I’m going to be six months late again.
So you’ve given away, I think, two chapters now. How much did you overwrite? Oh, shoot, dude. I have six or seven chapters that I wrote that didn’t make it into the book.
Really? I have four or five that were in there and fully formatted—that we had art for, that Arturo drew for, that the designer laid out and put in the book. I have a few of those that we just ended up cutting out at the end, because it just kept on going.
How did you decide which ones to take out? I looked for overlap, I looked for redundancies, I looked for, “Did I do this bit already?” Stuff like that. I put out one the other day about Tom Hanks, the Tom Hanks chapter. The focus on this one is, in his movies he goes on a bunch of trips, like Cast Away. He goes on a plane ride and the plane crashes and he ends up on a deserted Island. Sully, his plane crashes again. Captain Phillips, he’s on a boat and the boat gets taken over by pirates. Like, he’s got 25 movies where he goes on a trip and something terrible happens. And so the bit in the chapter is like, OK, let’s frame it around which trip turned out the worst for Tom Hanks and go through that and this is—that’s like a funny thing that people will be able to grab ahold of easily. But also, it’ll allow us to talk about Tom Hanks as a movie star, which is like an important part.
And then when I was looking through the chapters, I realized at the time that I had, like, three chapters that were basically a similar version of that, that also ended up getting cut out. Brad Pitt, for example. A through-line for his movies is: something bad happens to whoever he’s dating or married to in a movie. Something bad almost always happens.
That is true. In Seven, Gwyneth Paltrow’s head gets cut off and, like, mailed, and that’s not good. And Benjamin Button, the woman that he falls in love with, she ends up married to a fucking baby, because he’s growing backwards. Legends of the Fall, that happened. Allied, it happens. Thelma and Louise, Too Young to Die, Fight Club—like, bad stuff is happening.
So that was, like, Oh, we’ll do that. And I had, like, five chapters that were a version of that, and that was too many. It was, like, this would work better as just like a little short sidebar or a list or something. We don’t need to do full chapters. But that’s how I figured out or decided what I wanted to cut.
This is the second in the (And Other Things) series, after Basketball (And Other Things). Do you sit down ahead of time and just come up with your master list of all the stuff you want to get to or does stuff come up while you’re working on it or—how does it work for you? It starts out with a master list, for sure, then you fill in the other pieces that as you’re going. With something like this, you don’t just think of the ideas immediately—like the Brad Pitt thing or the Tom Hanks thing, that was not just like something that I had in my head. That was, like, OK, who are the movie stars that are interesting, that I want to write about, and then I have a list of those.
OK. I have Tom Hanks on there. I have Brad Pitt, I have Diane Keaton, I have Jennifer Lopez, I have, you know, whatever—I’ve got my list of people I think are interesting as movie stars that would be fun to talk about. And then I try to find out: how can I talk about them? And then I take that and I plug it into my list, and then when I have like 50 of those, I take my whole list and I separate that into, like, these are going to be chapters that are just straight silly, these are going to be chapters that will allow me to talk about the history of movies, these are going to be chapters that will serve a functional purpose. And I’m filling in those blanks so that, well, I don’t have too much of one and not enough of the other. The book should feel balanced. You should be able to read it and laugh about some stuff and there should be some stuff that’s just totally unexpected. But there should also be some, like, substantial stuff in there. There should be some insight in there somewhere. So it’s like a, you know, a tiered process like that.
How much do you write before you show stuff to Arturo to decide what to draw? Do you have like really, really specific ideas for what you want illustrated? I write the whole chapter before I get with Arturo and tell them what I want him to draw, because, otherwise, I’ll end up telling him to draw something because I think that’s what I’m going to do. And then I write something totally different and then doesn’t fit anymore and then I screwed up and then I have to pay him for that and I don’t even get to use it. So I try to do the chapters ahead of time, and, in some cases, I have very specific things I’m looking for, but for the most part I just sort of tell him what I’m going for. “This is like the feeling I want in this chapter.” And then he goes, like, “Alright, cool, I’ll figure it out.” And then he sends me some ideas and I say, OK, do that one. And then he does that one.
You guys moved to San Antonio from Houston. That’s correct. We’ve been here for a little over a year now.
What caused the change? I know you are from there. Yeah, we were already looking at moving when we were in Houston and the twins were going from fifth to sixth grade, and so they were going to change schools, anyway, so we said, well, we’ll take this opportunity to like get into a bigger house. Our house was really tiny at the time. Everybody was sharing rooms. The boys were at the age where they needed their own space. So we were looking to move in Houston, anyway, and, and we couldn’t afford to live in the really nice, nice areas in the city and we also didn’t want to pay that much and still be like at risk for floods.
Right. But we found a spot out in the suburbs and we really liked it. And like that’s where we were going to live. And then Hurricane Harvey happened and then that place got flooded as well. And it was, like, at that point it was three years in a row—as of today, it’s four out of five years Houston has flooded. And it was, it just seemed like it was getting worse, and we were like, well, let’s look at other places to live. And it was either Houston or San Antonio and we came down here and the houses were so much cheaper and bigger and you got more space, and it all just made sense.
When you were getting going, when did you realize you had the Twitter army behind you? What was the first thing that was an indication that there were a ton of people out there? It was when The Rap Year Book came out, so that was 2015. Nobody was expecting the book to do anything. The coloring book that I’d put out two years before, I think it sold, like, 900 copies the first week, which wasn’t great. Not that that was terrible, but it wasn’t great. So I was sort of expecting a similar thing with The Rap Year Book. You know, they paid me $25,000 before taxes. Before taxes, before agency fees, before paying Arturo— 25,000 bucks for basically two years of work. So this is very much a part time job in my head. They pay me 1,000 bucks a month to do this, and so I wasn’t thinking too much about it. I wasn’t expecting it to do anything.
And then the people on Twitter started buying up copies and then it did really well. I think we sold, like, 8,500 copies the first week—enough to get on the bestseller list, enough to, like, get people to pay attention, and everything changed after that. It’s like, oh, shit, they have to take us serious now, because I’ve got a fucking group of people behind me who are going to fistfight. So pay attention.
What’s amazing to me is like—well, I mean a few things. One, you have have people who admittedly don’t even read books, who will buy and read your books. And then, two, there’s, there’s people out there who are, like, Hey, I want to buy copies for, like, four people, so hit me up. I mean, I’ve never seen something like that. Yeah, that part’s really cool. And I think, I think that sort of goes back to—I was never, like, a big reader. I was never super-smart in school. They had me taking, like, fucking remedial classes when I got to college, because my grades were so bad. I was admitted on, like, academic probation or whatever when I first got in. Yeah, it was crazy. I’m almost certain they let me in because I was Mexican. All my scores were really bad. But Sam Houston, at the time, they had maybe 15,000 people and, I don’t know, there were like 100 people who are Mexicans and so I feel like that’s probably why they let me in. They just saw my last name and were, like, alright, come on.
But yeah, it’s like a running joke at this point: we do really well with the people who don’t read books.