Slate editorial director John Swansburg was on Reddit on Wednesday answering questions about his essay on the epic life of Ben-Hur author Lew Wallace, his love of Rod Laver tennis shoes, and the best way to write a cover letter for Slate. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Echoey: Would you rather fight one panda-sized David Plotz, or 100 David Plotz-sized pandas?
John Swansburg: That’s easy: 100 David Plotz-sized pandas. David Plotz is very athletic. Plus, he loves MMA and surely has learned some moves from his hours of watching the sport. Even at panda-size, I think he’d be formidable. I’ll take my chances with the 100 pandas. My tactic would be to mention sex—that seems to always make them fall asleep or lose interest.
Polite_Werewolf: If there was a zombie outbreak, what would be your zombie plan?
Swansburg: I would surrender immediately and throw myself on the mercy of the undead. Not a zombie guy, never have been. If I tried to outsmart them, I’d probably start waving garlic at them, which I think is vampires, and it’d just make them angry or hungry.
Polite_Werewolf: Replace that garlic with a lit torch and you might have a better chance.
DavidHaglund: On a recent Culture Gabfest, you said that you used to sign off your emails with the phrase “tight lines.”
Is this the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever confessed in public?
Swansburg: It’s up there. I had a really bad signoff phase in college, OK? My middle initial is R., and I’m actually a Jr. I had this moment where I thought the symmetry of J.R. Swansburg Jr. was kinda badass. I’m not proud of it, but it happened.
Rob_Saget: I’m about to graduate college with a double major in broadcast and journalism. Probably a stupid question, but since I don’t have any actual job experience in the field, what can I do to make my resume and cover letter more appealing to media outlets like TV stations or newspapers?
Swansburg: I love a good cover letter and am always amazed at how many bad ones I see. I think there are a few really important things to do. Be concise; don’t assume anyone is going to indulge your letter for very long. Use the right tone; I’m always charmed by cover letters written in the voice of someone who seems to get Slate. We’re not a very buttoned-up magazine, as I think you can tell from reading it, and I like a letter that’s not too formal. That said, don’t assume your reader is an old buddy—too familiar isn’t good either.
Most important, perhaps, is conveying that you know the place you’re applying to. I like it when someone gets across that they read Slate, they like Slate, they really could imagine contributing to Slate. I suppose some part of that is falling prey to flattery, but I want to know you’ve done your homework and thought about the job and the employer. You’d be amazed how many letters we get from people who don’t seem to have read the magazine. And we’re a free Web magazine! It’s not like you’re applying to Notes & Queries … ! On the resume, one thing: Lose the GPA. I don’t care.
hilarymintz: If Lew Wallace were alive today, what sort of guy do you imagine he would be? What sort of career do you imagine for him? The world is much bigger, and there is no Shiloh to recover from …
Swansburg: This is something I thought a lot about as I worked on the piece. The 19th century was such a different time. When the Civil War started, Ulysses Grant was working in his family’s leather shop, tanning hides. Four years later, he’s running the Union Army and on his way to the White House. It’s hard to imagine Wallace having the same sort of career in 2013; for one thing, presidents aren’t in the habit of making their favorite novelists ambassador to Turkey.
As for his military career, yes, it’s hard to say. Growing up in today’s times, would he have developed the same romantic view of war? Kids don’t tend to read Sir Walter Scott anymore, and we don’t have military heroes in the same way we did when Wallace was a boy on the frontier, reading about Texas’ War of Independence. Here’s my guess: Wallace was always an artist. He wrote, and painted, as a kid, but his dad was a tough country guy, and he told Lew to quit it with the paints and be a man, and Lew obeyed for a while. Today, his dad would more likely encourage Lew’s artistic side, so maybe Wallace would have gone on to great literary heights and skipped the war part.
skeptwit: I don’t really have any questions. Just wanted to say that I’ve enjoyed hearing you appear on the Culture Gabfest these last couple of weeks. And though Stephen Metcalf may have thought your endorsement trite, it motivated me to seek out for the first time the profound work of genius that is Cheers.
Swansburg: Music to my ears! I’m so glad you went and checked out the show. I almost made this my endorsement this week but then decided to wait till Steve is back from his vacation. To taunt Steve, I ordered a personalized Boston Red Sox T-shirt, but instead of my name on the back, I had them put “Malone.” I recently saw an episode where we learn Sam’s jersey number (16). I’m going to wear it the next time Steve is around.
jjrepanich: Where has Steve been?
Swansburg: I can only assume he’s on SPRANG BRAKE in St. Petersburg, hanging out with Alien and the girls.
jeremystahl: Why do you love Rod Laver tennis shoes so much?
Swansburg: What’s not to love? The simplicity? The elegance? The storied history? The association with one of the greatest players in tennis history? The way the pre-1990s outsole would yellow with age? The reasonable price? The sheer preppiness of the thing? (Well, I suppose maybe that might be something some people wouldn’t love.) I own over a dozen pair. I always have a blue pair and green pair in circulation, and another in reserve, in case Adidas ever does the unthinkable and stops manufacturing them.
JKMonbie: What do you see as the future for long-form journalism?
Swansburg: I think the future is bright. Personally, I find myself reading more of it than ever. I’m a huge Instapaper guy, both because I like reading in the app and because it helps me clip pieces during the day for reading in the evening. And places like the Atavist are creating new platforms, and revenue models, for long-form work, which is exciting.
At Slate, we’ve become faster and shorter in a lot of ways in the six years I’ve been here, but we’ve also made a commitment to doing long pieces, and not just out of some old-fashioned commitment to the form or for prestige. Those pieces get read—a lot. Some of our most popular pieces have been our longest ones, which is thrilling. I think Emily Bazelon’s bullying piece was the second most-read thing on Slate two years ago. I think there’s very much an appetite for this kind of work.
thecheetah: Why/how did you jump down the Lew Wallace rabbit hole?
Swansburg: A few years ago, I did a really fun travel piece on Civil War tourism. Me and some buddies drove an RV from New Orleans back to New York, stopping at as many Civil War sites as possible along the way. At Shiloh, our tour guide told us the story about Lew Wallace not showing up for the first day of battle and then going on to write Ben-Hur. That sounded really interesting, so I started reading up on Wallace, and then found out about his crazy, Zelig-like life: the Lincoln commission, Billy the Kid, etc. So I persuaded Plotz to let me do a deep dive into the life of Wallace, and he very kindly gave me the green light, despite the fact that the story was really a propos of nothing.
One of the very fun things that happened as I was writing the Wallace piece is that Ben-Hur kept popping up in the news. Well, news isn’t the right word. But while I was researching Wallace, MGM acquired a new script for a remake. The Ovation channel announced it will be airing a great Canadian miniseries version this weekend (for Easter, natch). And a scholar at Rutgers organized a daylong conference on the novel. So I could legitimately make the case that this 1880 book is still in the conversation in 2013.
Kgeee: Have you really never been invited to another birthday dinner since you wrote that story in 2008? Not even by your closest friends?
Swansburg: I honestly can’t think of one, no! I’m proud to say that I have been told by several people that my piece has been instrumental in thwarting plans for birthday dinners. An email chain starts suggesting such an event, and someone on the list sends around my piece, and the dinner is scuttled. That’s why I got into this business. Changing lives. I like to think that my own lack of birthday dinner invites is a result of having changed behavioral norms. But more likely people just think I’m anti-social now.
88327: You’ve done a great service, sir.
jjrepanich: I’ve used your article as an argument to have my own birthday dinner canceled in favor of everyone just meeting for booze.
Swansburg: Awesome! That warms my heart. Taking down your own birthday dinner—there should be a medal for that.
buildingsonfire: Gilded Age literature question: Who wins in a fight, Ragged Dick or Tom Sawyer?
Also, who would you want to direct/star in the new Ben-Hur? And it can’t be Phil Robinson/Dan Aykroyd.
Swansburg: Tom Sawyer might not win, but he’d tell the better story about it afterward. Great question about Ben-Hur. I’d love to see Channing Tatum in the title role, because I just love Tatum, and he has the physique for it—lots of shirt-off action in this story. Maybe pair him up with Soderbergh again? I know he’s retired, but he loves to try his hand at different kinds of genre, and he’s never done Biblical epic! Plus, he’d find clever ways around some of the clunkier plot elements, as anyone who’s heard him talk to Lem Dobbs will know.
George Lucas, BTW, is a big fan of Ben-Hur. He based the prequel pod-race on the chariot race from William Wyler’s 1959 film. (Though the chariot race in the 1925 silent film is arguably the better of the two—worth checking out!)