Tucker Max on empathy, assholery and getting older

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Tucker Max is living the dream. Since his early twenties, the author of Assholes Finish First has been getting blackout drunk, chasing women and generally indulging every hedonistic whim toward the end of compiling the stories of his wild and often shockingly hilarious exploits (one ends in him covered in his own feces, for example) into book form.

He hit on that formula with 2006's I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, which has been on the New York Times bestseller list since its release, and now he's doing it again. In advance of his book signing tonight at the Tattered Cover, Westword caught up with Max to talk Assholes, empathy versus narcissism, and growing up and out of it.

Westword: Is Assholes Finish First going to be basically in the same narrative vein as I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, like a collection of stories? Tucker Max: It's almost exactly the same. It's a collection of stories just like Beer in Hell. The thing that's a little bit different about Assholes Finish First -- because it's the same voice, same style, same subject matter -- what's a little bit different is, the second half of Assholes Finish First is what I call the "post-fame sex stories." It's sort of a collection of stories that do have kind of an underlying theme, and the theme is just sort of how weird and different it is when girls come to you. Like, you know, when you're just a normal guy, even if you have good game, you've got to go out and pick up girls. Once you become famous -- or infamous, or whatever -- then you get girls who start coming to you to hook up. And I still got into all sorts of weird, crazy situations, but they were just different. And so that's sort of the theme of the second half of the book.

WW: That's interesting, because it seems from what you've written before that you enjoy the chase, or the challenge of winning girls over by being a dick, right? But when girls are approaching you because you're famous, that kind of changes the dynamic. Do you miss the chase? TM: Yeah, that's a good question, and, I mean, it's different. In some ways it's better, man. I'd be a liar if I said there's nothing good about girls coming to me to hook up [laughs]. Like of course, there's an obvious benefit to that. But then, on the other hand, you're right, man, hooking up does lose some of what made it fun, which is kind of the challenge and the game and the interaction with somebody else. You know, everything in life is a trade-off, and the issue that I explore is what's good about it and what's bad about it.

WW: I want to talk about this persona that you've cultivated, which is basically "I'm the world's biggest asshole." TM: Well, I don't think I'm the world's biggest. There are other guys who are bigger assholes than me. I'm a big one who writes about it.

WW: That's fair. I wonder, though, how you came to fall into that kind of role, like "I'm a dick and this what I do." TM: Well, I didn't just take an identity and then go fit it. I just kind of was who I was, and it's just about... You know, I say "asshole" in the title of the book, but there's lots of ways to use "asshole." The way I use it is just to say, "I'm going to do what I want, the way I want, and I'm not going to change up my style to please somebody who says I need to be a certain way that I don't want to be."

So that sort of devil-may-care, I'm-going-to-do-what-I-want-without-regard-to-the-consequences thing, a lot of people perceive that as asshole-ish, so I'm like, okay, fine, call me an asshole. You know, I'm going to be who I am. And the title is a play on the aphorism "Nice guys finish last," you know. So I just thought Assholes Finish First was a cool-sounding title, and nobody's used it before, so let's use it.

WW: So in a way, you've just kind of adopted a negative label that other people have assigned to you? TM: I would say I've co-opted it. Here's a good analogy: You know how the word "queer" used to be a negative thing to say about a gay person, but then homosexuals kind of adopted or co-opted that word? And they kind of took it over and started calling themselves queer, and now there's the queer alliance and all this sort of stuff, and now it's not a negative term anymore? I would say it's a similar type of thing. Like, if people want to critique me as being an asshole, fine. I'm an asshole. And then whatever I say, if I do things that are asshole-ish or whatever and I co-opt that title, then what else are you going to say about me? What are you going to say that I haven't already said?

My favorite movie ever -- and you're going to laugh at this, and that's cool -- but my favorite movie ever is 8 Mile. It's like the battle rap at the end: Eminem is like "Yeah, I'm white trash, they did sleep with my girl, they did beat me up, so what are you going to say about me now?" Like, I've already said everything bad about me, you know? Same sort of thing.

WW: That's a good analogy, assholes to queers, but I think the difference is, being gay is not really a lifestyle choice; these people are part of this marginalized group. You're going out and actively participating in this asshole-ish behavior. A big part of what you do -- and this is right there in the narrative -- is you are actively going out and demeaning people. TM: Well, clearly this analogy breaks down at a certain point. I totally agree with you: Being gay is not a lifestyle choice; that's just who you are. I mean, I do stuff that is messed up sometimes, man -- and I know it's messed up, and I say it's messed up. Sometimes I even know it's messed up when I'm doing it. And that's kind of why I think a lot of people like my book, because I write about what I do honestly, and I'll talk about my thought process, like, "I know this is messed up, I know I shouldn't do it, but the hell with it, I'm going to do it anyway." I think we all do that at times. The difference is, I'm honest about it and I'm up-front about it, and I think most people aren't.

The last thing I would ever try and say is that all my actions are defensible. They're not, man. Sometimes I do bad, stupid things that I shouldn't do, but who is that not true for? And maybe everybody doesn't go to the extreme that I do, but we all do things we regret, we all do things we shouldn't do. People make mistakes. I just write about mine in an honest way.

WW: It seems like you're a guy who appreciates the storytelling tradition, and the way your narratives are set up is almost as if you're relating the story to a listener. And in that tradition, there's always going to be some degree of embellishment, so I'm wondering, how much, would you say, of your stories are fact? TM: That's a good question. That's a better question than "Is this story true or not?" Of course they're true. Something P.J. O'Rourke said, and I think this applies to me, is that a good story, by its nature, is always more truthful than factual. All my stories are truthful. All the major events I say happened, happened. All the people I talk to and talk about -- I mean, I'm not making anything up. But there's no doubt that I see my reality through my lens. I've written a lot of stories where the people who were there are like, "Okay, that's true, but that is not the way I remember it happening."

It seems like a contradiction, but it's not. It's like, have you ever been telling a story to your friends, and your friends stop you and they're like, "It didn't happen like that; it happened like this"? I mean, you guys aren't arguing about basic facts of the story, you guys are arguing about how you perceive them. So there's no doubt that my stories are kind of told through my lens and my way of perceiving them. But I don't intentionally embellish them. Like, embellishment would be like, in reality I'm five-foot-five, in the book I'm six foot or something. I tell the story, and I tell it from my perspective, which sometimes is a very skewed, messed-up, dysfunctional perspective. But I don't ever make anything up, like, "Oh, it would be so cool if this had happened, so I'm just going to write this instead.

Although, I'll tell you, I definitely have had a lot of situations where my buddies will be like, "Okay, dude, you did not say this," or "I said this." And I'm like "No, I thought I said it," and they're like "Dude, you are such a narcissist, you think everything funny anyone says, you said." [Laughs]. But that's just...whatever. I'm not writing police reports.

WW: On the subject of being a narcissist, which seems like a label you own, I think that's a pretty accurate label, and I think you do, too. Do you ever find that alienating, as far as having relationships with people? Does that ever get in the way? TM: Yeah, of course. You can't have a healthy, functional relationship with someone who's a narcissist. It's just not possible. I mean, a pure narcissist, in its purest, clinical DSM-IV sense, is someone who essentially does not recognize the humanity of other people. That's the difference between a sociopath and a narcissist: A sociopath is somebody who recognizes that humanity and doesn't care and will violate anyway; a narcissist just kind of doesn't get it.

I actually took the NPI test, the Narcissist Personality Inventory, when I was on Dr. Drew's show, and I fall in the narcissist range, but not as high as I thought. I actually scored almost exactly the same as Dr. Drew, which kind of shocked me; I thought I'd be a lot higher.

There's no doubt I was much more narcissistic in my twenties than I am now. One of the things I've learned is that, if I want to have a healthy relationship, I really have to out-think my narcissism and kind of focus on empathy and understanding and caring about the world from other peoples' perspectives. Which is a great thing to do as a human, but the irony is, not doing that is part of what made my writing so funny. Like, "This guy's such a narcissist, and he kind of admits it but also kind of doesn't realize it," and as I become more empathetic and less narcissistic, the writing has kind of lost a little bit of that. So I want to hurry up and get all my books written before I get married or something, because I'm not going to be able to write the same stuff anymore, you know? [Laughs].

WW: That's a lot more self-aware than I expected you to be, I've got to admit. TM: If we had done this interview at 28, I would not have known all that stuff. That's definitely all stuff I've learned in the last two, three years.

WW: Still, you're obviously a smart guy. You have a JD from Duke Law, you were an honors student in college. Do you ever think one day you might want to do something more productive with your life? TM: Hold on -- what's not productive about writing a book that sells millions of copies and makes and makes lots of people's lives better? What's unproductive about that?

I mean, I've sold millions of books because people love what I write and it brings a lot of joy and happiness to them. I mean, I don't know how many other people can say that. Clearly, I'm not like curing brain cancer. I don't want to act like I'm a saint, because I'm not, but how many people are? I mean, the fact that I've positively touched the lives of millions, I'm not sure what else you want me to do to be productive.

WW: But at the same time, the writing process of those books has been about indulging your own demons. It's been about going out and doing stuff that's messed up. So we were talking about empathy, and I wonder if that's a direction you see yourself going -- in a vein of helping people, maybe. Or maybe you don't see it that way. TM: Well, you've got an underlying assumption that I don't agree with. The assumption is that what I'm doing now is not helping people, and I just don't agree. People don't go out and spend $15 or $20 on a book unless they think it's going to add to their life in some way or another. You know, my book didn't get any press; my book is not like a corporate machine churned out this thing and got it pumped up and artificially inflated sales. My book only sold because of word of mouth, because people read it and loved it and told their friends.

Entertainment is not the most important thing in life. You know, food, shelter, relationships, taking value in your work. Those are the most important things. But entertainment is important. And my writing provides a lot of entertainment for a lot of people. So do I want to keep producing value and entertainment for people? Of course. But I think the underlying assumption of your question is that I haven't done that so far, and that's what I would disagree with.

WW: Fair enough. I do wonder, though, going back to something we talked about earlier: Moving into your thirties, getting a little bit older, as your exploits become less indulgent, what do you think you'll write about, when you don't want to do all that kind of stuff anymore? TM: That's a good question, and that's the question that I'm facing right now. I don't do the same stuff at 34 that I did at 24, and I'm not really creating any new stories. But I knew from the beginning -- look, I loved G.I. Joes when I was ten, and I didn't when I was twenty. So I absolutely understand and recognize, you know, there's a time limit on this. When I don't feel like doing this stuff anymore, then I'm not going to do it anymore. And I don't know -- to answer your question, I don't know what I'm going to be doing after this. I mean, I assume I'm going to be writing, because I really like writing, but I don't know, man.

But that's the cool thing about writing a book that sells millions of copies, is that you can sort of take your time, because you've made a lot of money.

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