Interview with Brendan Koerner, Microkhan

Brendan Koerner writes the delightfully eclectic blog Microkhan, covering the latest developments in imaginary comic books, excessive ceremonies and the great sport of kabaddi. This outlet stays updated daily, somehow worked around his writing for Wired, Mother Jones and elsewhere. Among other hats he wears, he’s been Slate’s Explainer and is currently Wired’s Mr. Know-It-All. He wrote a gripping, painstakingly researched book about the World War II-era manhunt for Herman Perry in the jungles of South Asia, not to mention the script for its film adaptation. So why blog?

“95% of my ideas suck,” he tells me. “The blog is for trolling through idea after idea, trying to find something that connects.” Ideas include the economics of collecting snake venom, the lesser known Choctaw code talkers and the unconventional recruitment techniques of the North Korean film industry. Sure, a little obscure but with a blog “there’s no penalty for doing it. For a magazine, the stakes are high. If I write a shitty blog post… it doesn’t matter.” At Microkhan, no topic is too obscure, providing what is both direct outlet and creative release valve for the stories and scraps that might not survive the harsher climate of national-level, ad-supported magazine writing.

Brendan was kind enough to take time out from his breakneck pace of storycraft and parenting to have a few beers with me at the highly recommended Pony Bar in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. A bar on the corner of a block that holds a active horse barn, a direct sales dry ice outlet and a plumber’s office with a 20 foot long Albert Einstein quote seemed appropriate to meet a fellow chronicler of the unusual and talk shop.

“I need a very set routine,” he says. “When I’m in writing mode, I have my ritual. I write in the Columbia library and I walk the same route there, listening to the same music… I work in one library in the morning and another in the afternoon. I can’t be too isolated when I write. I need some level of distraction to keep me focused. I don’t socialize when I write but I observe.” And no headphones when he’s writing. “Some people can write with music but… that doesn’t work for me. I think writing is, itself, musical.”

And by writing, he means non-fiction. “I love the challenge of doing [non-fiction] in different ways.” Thus far, that’d be magazines, books, blogs and film adaptation. Regardless of format, Brendan emphasizes that the point and the reward are still the same. “It’s all informed by this notion of communicating with the reader and these days, you’ve got to have your finger in a lot of pies to make that work… It’s all jacking into the hive mind, finding something useful in the scraps of facts and data and making it your own.”

The border between blog-oriented creative mulch and paid writing is by no means watertight. The manhunt, trial and execution of Herman Perry that is the center of Now the Hell Will Start evolved from a stray note jotted down while researching a 2003 Slate column, languishing in the junk file for a couple years before the story’s inherent mystery prompted a deeper investigation.

What’s more, Brendan’s recent Wired piece on the stem rust blight that’s presently threatening global wheat production evolved out of a post on Microkhan. “Wired has been a godsend, just incredible. I pitch them something like ‘Here’s a story about a fungus.’ and they actually tell me ‘Go do it.’”

Rather than a distraction, Microkhan adds routine and form to the writing life, keeping the momentum going. “It enforces a discipline. I know that in the morning, I have to post. That’s really good for me.” While it might seem that cranking out an average of three, well-developed and link-laden posts a day on everything under the sun would be a job itself, Brendan uses it to structure the time he lets his mind wander. “I’m a believer int he idea that work expands to fill the time allotted. Blogging helps define the boundaries [of that work].”

In case you’re wondering, Brendan’s junk file is the trusty old app notepad.exe. Sometimes simple just works.

True to form, I left our meeting with a plethora of random tips and things to check out scribbled in my notebook. Here’s the best of it:
– When traveling somewhere less than developed and you need a fixer, “find out what a doctor makes in that area and pay them that. That’s the rule of thumb.”
– Brendan recommends the Detroit sounds of Second Wave Ghetto Tech; check out DJ Assault, Tasha T and Juicy Titties (no link, nearly un-google-able).
– Some inspiring non-fiction: Eating Glass by Alfred Lawrie, a profile of a man who lives to collect world records, and The Lives of Brian Cathcart by Brian Cathcart, a tale of two lives with the same name, similar starts and very different endings.

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