25 Women to Read Before You Die

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Powell's Q&A

Pope Brock

Describe your latest project.
Charlatan is a nonfiction black comedy about "Dr." John Brinkley, the most successful quack in American history, and the quack-buster from Chicago who finally brought him down. Brinkley first became famous for transplanting goat testicles into impotent men as a virility booster. He went on to build a vast, bogus, and often lethal medical practice during the 1920s and '30s, amassing great wealth while making brilliant innovations in advertising, broadcasting, political campaigning, and country music. The million-watt radio station he built in Mexico, which reached all over the Western world, peddled his spurious cures along with perfume to increase your earning power and autographed pictures of Christ. It also created the template for AM radio and helped kick-start rock and roll. Though largely forgotten, Brinkley's impact on American culture was enormous, and the whole thing was terrific fun to research and write.

  1. Charlatan: America
    $2.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "Told with uproarious brio...heavenly....A book so lively that its wild stories are virtually wall-to-wall." Janet Maslin, New York Times

    "Wonderful American social history and lots of fun." Kirkus Reviews

    "An entrancing book....Brock masterfully captures this amazing and amusing history." USA Today

If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
All of us writers proceed by a sort of trick of the mind: we have to believe that our prose doesn't just matter, it's of vital importance, that there's a desperate hole out there in the world that only our next book will fill. Writers need this inflated sense of mission to get anything done. Nevertheless, I'm fully aware that the only reason someone would ever write my biography would be to have his family returned unharmed.

What fictional character would you like to date, and why?
Is Candy too obvious?

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
My first job out of college was working at a conveyer belt in a vitamin warehouse in Massachusetts. I stood with other workers on either side, separated from them by urinal-style panels so we couldn't talk to each other. The job was to fill mail-order requests from the racks of different bottled vitamins behind us. We worked from 8:30 to 10:20, when a bell would ring and we'd run to the far wall and smoke. Ten minutes later the bell would ring again and we'd go back. It went on like this all day. The shocking monotony aside, what I remember most are the notes some customers scrawled on their vitamin orders. I began to realize how many impoverished people were turning to overpriced vitamins as a last resort to try to keep themselves and their families healthy since they couldn't afford a decent diet. I found this increasingly disturbing. One day I came home from that job to find a notice on the door saying my building was condemned. After that there was nowhere to go but up.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why, or not?
Mothers are the best liars. Think back.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.

I don't like crooks. And if I did like crooks, I wouldn't like crooks who are stool pigeons. And if I did like crooks who are stool pigeons, I still wouldn't like you!
The Thin Man (screenplay)

Name the best television series of all time, and explain why it's the best.
In the 1980s I was enthralled by Hill Street Blues, and I still think it stands as the most influential TV series of the last 30 years. Hill Street was the first show to feature a large, diverse cast with cross-cutting storylines that often unspooled across several weeks, comic one moment, dramatic the next. This whole concept (created by Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll) was brand-new in 1981. All those sprawling shows we've rhapsodized over since, right down to The Sopranos, etc., are riffs on the Hill Street model.

Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
We have two gerbils we keep in a closet so the cats can't get at them. They're living in what amounts to solitary confinement with the lights on 24 hours a day. (We're afraid that if we turned the lights out, it would scare them more.) I think if Dick Cheney had gerbils, this is how he would treat them, and I feel bad about it. If anyone out there would like two gerbils, please let me know.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.

Great Books without Prose in the Normal Sense:

Thirty Years of Treason, Eric Bentley, ed. — HUAC testimony during the McCarthy era

The Essential Lenny Bruce, John Cohen

Unsold Television Pilots, 1955–1990, Lee Goldberg, ed.

The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin, Robert Kimball, ed.

The Glory of Their Times, Lawrence Ritter, ed. — Oral histories of baseball players from the early 20th century

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Pope Brock is the author of Charlatan and the critically acclaimed Indiana Gothic, the story of his great grandfather's murder in 1908. He lives in upstate New York with his twin daughters, Molly and Hannah. Visit his website at www.popebrock.com.


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