David Rees, best known for his comic strip Get Your War On, is all over town this week promoting his new book, How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths & Civil Servants. Better let him explain it, in our Q&A:
What is it about pencil sharpening and you?
I have to thank the United States Census Bureau for providing its temporary employees with pencils and a pocket sharpener, because on that first day of staff training when we were instructed to sharpen our pencils, I realized my life was about to change — that I would find a way to get paid to sharpen pencils. In the last two years, I have completely fallen in love with pencils, pencil sharpeners and pencil-sharpening techniques. And now I want to go down in history as the Johnny Appleseed of pencil sharpeners.
What do you think when you see a sloppily sharpened pencil?
It's basically the same as when I see ads for The Walking Dead: I just shake my head and mutter something about the indignity of wasted opportunities.
Can you make a living as a pencil sharpener?
Perhaps others can; I can't. It's a lucrative hobby but not a full-time job. My initial goal was to cover my start-up costs and not lose money on the project. Everything after that has been a pleasant surprise.
Why should someone buy your book who hasn't used a pencil since high school?
The book, in addition to de- (and then re-) familiarizing the reader [with] the elegance and efficiency of the No. 2 pencil, also serves as a memoir of a tumultuous period in my life. It's basically an emotional memoir disguised as a how-to manual hidden inside a “humor” book. But aside from all that, one of the goals of the book is to encourage people to start sharpening their own pencils again — to empower readers as they take up their sharpeners and rediscover the pleasures attendant to them.
What will you do for fun in L.A.?
I'm not sure. I don't know many people in LA. I hope I'll be able to make some new friends during my visit. The last time I was in L.A., I was invited to a Canadian Thanksgiving by [comedian] Paul F. Tompkins — a kindness I haven't forgotten, which is the only reason I'm allowing him to darken the Largo stage with me on April 21.
You are quoted by Gothamist as saying, “I'm not really crazy about L.A.” How much do you hate it here?
Since that Gothamist interview, I've visited L.A. more than once; its advantages are less foreign to me now. I like the Getty — even Richard Meier's architecture, which doesn't usually move me. My first visit to the Museum of Jurassic Technology was stupendous; after years of hearing about it, I spent a few hours in its dark corridors and felt like I was having a lucid dream. Basically, I'm reconciling myself to the fact that L.A. is not defined solely by its ghouls and agonies. It's like in college, when, after years of putting down the Smiths, I realized their songs were incredible and I was in love with Morrissey — the shame of my former churlishness was limited only by the new pleasures afforded me.
You also said, “People are going to assume one of two things: I am a douchebag hipster or a hard-core, libertarian capitalist.” Which is it?
I think I'm more like Carrie, because I love writing, shopping for shoes and having my heart broken.
David Rees appears at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Sunday. Also Mon., April 23, 7 p.m., at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., W. Hlwyd., (310) 659-3110; and Sat., April 21, 8 p.m., at Largo at the Coronet, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd.; $25, (310) 855-0350.