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The Unbridled Enthusiasm of Todd Zuniga

The Unbridled Enthusiasm of Todd Zuniga

The founder of Literary Death Match will make you believe in literature again.

Todd Zuniga after a Literary Death Match in Beijing. Photo courtesy of Todd Zuniga.

The future of American literature has decamped for Los Angeles. Todd Zuniga, the founder of Literary Death Match, a touring event that pits writers against each other in mock battles, says he wishes he'd made the move earlier. After leaving New York, "I'd avoid that city with everything I've got," he says. "Now that I'm in LA, I'm like, This is the greatest place on earth." Aside from a brief period in Paris, Zuniga had been based in New York for over a decade, steadily building up a different sort of literary community. Zuniga wants to prove that writing is not a dying or solitary practice. It is, or it can be, a way to get people away from the page and toward a dialogue—one that includes not just authors and readers, but people who might not be interested in the plodding solipsism of many literary events.

The debate about literature's imminent death, a Gutenberg-era complaint that seems to renew itself weekly, has no place in the Literary Death Match scope. In an age when keeping literary culture contemporary means bringing it to the internet, Zuniga looks elsewhere—backward, perhaps. He has moved to Los Angeles, in fact, to try to bring Literary Death Match to television. Zuniga sees, in LA, the kind of engagement that in New York only masks self-interest. In California, "everybody's doing something interesting to me," he says. "New York seems that way, but people are just so irritated and busy."

That pervasive culture of urgency and anxiety—is there anything more dreadful to a writer?—did, at least, give rise to Zuniga's two most prominent projects. He founded Opium Magazine in New York in 2001 and developed LDM five years later as a response to the general sameness of literary events in the city. Since then, there have been over 150 events in thirty-six cities worldwide, numbers that are increasing logarithmically. At the Death Match, three "celebrity" judges consider the merits of four writers, two of whom eventually go head-to-head in a finale that has nothing to do with literature: a basketball contest, a Nerf-gun fight, trivia.

Zuniga's vision of a writing community does not limit itself to writers. LDM targets a new kind of audience: ideally, a diverse group of people who might not identify themselves as explicitly literary. The uniting element is Zuniga himself, who hosts the events in bespoke silvered suits and the kind of under-eye circles that come from six years' worth of constant travel. He is tall and thin, slightly hoarse and gesticulating, and his stage presence pleads the case for a literary revival: one that gets writers to talk to each other, and gets writing itself to talk.

The linchpin of the experience may be outside of the event itself: there is always an after-party at a nearby bar, where readers and audience can get drunk together and (oh, horrible word) network. The time I have spent at these unofficial events, as an intern for Opium in 2010, far exceeds that spent watching the Death Matches themselves, though the after-party memories are of course much less clear. Zuniga, a skilled entrepreneur, barely drinks in these settings. Perhaps this was how he got me to agree, crushed into the elbow of a beer-soaked banquette, to attend a Death Match in Baltimore (alone, via discount bus, in a blizzard) that coming weekend. More than the booze, though, it was the spillover of Zuniga's particular brand of excitement. You believe in the event. You forget about the death of literature.

Every Literary Death Match requires a frightening amount of coordination and pleading. Its lungs and skeleton and nervous system are Zuniga, who has hosted the vast majority of events to date and who spends a similar majority of his own nights sleeping on couches in foreign cities. The move from New York to LA marks a kind of rupture in his itinerary. After spending a year and a half in Paris, he'd planned to winter in California, then to go to Berlin, "but in fact," he says, "I'm in LA permanently. I just signed a lease. I'm here for the good long haul." Over the digital distortion of Skype, he sounds tired. "I'm so glad. It's nice. It's nice to sit down and stay put."

There is a simple and tired humanity to the way that Zuniga talks about writing, and reading, and talking to others about writing and reading. He says he is confident about the prospect of turning LDM into a TV show, about that being a way to reach more people. It is refreshing: to hear someone talk not about a lack of appreciation for good literature, but about that literature's responsibility. He wants people to be enthusiastic about this event and to achieve that elusive balance of self-forgetting and awareness. ("Find someone cute to make out with" is his usual sign-off at the New York events.) When the right people are reading and judging, he says, "and they're all about being onstage, and they're having fun, and they love it, it's fucking awesome. I love it."

Those moments of reward are costly. Putting together a Death Match takes months of preparation and dozens of emails—to venues, contacts, strangers, authors, perhaps-influential local personalities. I estimated email as 700 percent of Zuniga's job, which, laughing, he said was accurate. When I spoke to him in February, he was preparing for an event circuit in Scandinavia, a region he calls his "marriage belt." He wrote about the process for the Huffington Post, outlining the unending pitches and airfare purchases that comprise the plans for each event, "firing off enough emails to make my wrists swell." ("I want to look in my inbox that I have about 140 emails in," he said, " and I want to answer them all. Oh—145 now.")

Literary Death Match's expansion overseas is a relatively recent development, and an interesting one. London hosted the first foreign event in 2010 and now holds monthly Death Matches; Zuniga has since brought LDM to Amsterdam, Beijing, Montreal (where it shared billing with Maisonneuve's Fall Issue launch), Vilnius and Dublin, among other cities. Jeffrey Eugenides (of Times Square billboard fame) was recently a judge at Helsinki's.

Zuniga is especially excited about going to Finland; he writes that he feels "a flutter of awesome under the sidewalks" there. We expressed appreciation for the language ("So many vowels! I love it!") and the people: "I'm starting to fall in love with Helsinki more, because I just like things that are nice to me."

He communicates this sort of humility without passing into the self-deprecation that is so common in New York—another reason, perhaps, to have left it. Despite those emails awaiting response—he knew the exact date of the oldest one and seemed embarrassed—Zuniga is not elusive or aloof, and he went out of his way to talk with me, a lowly ex-intern, as he cooked pasta in his new and real home. I was most curious about how he can find the time for his own writing while coordinating these events, living in transit or in absentia. I knew he was writing novels while putting on Death Matches and publishing Opium—I heard him read an excerpt from one book a couple of years ago, in a strange Financial District gallery distinctly empty of the literary contacts he's built up over the past decade—and I wanted to know when I could read more.

Zuniga is now in the process of revising a novel. "It's hard," he says. "To me, when I am producing an event—well, when I'm writing a novel, or when I'm editing my novel, I can do it forever. I can live in that world. And after about two weeks, I get really weird, and I need to do something else." The problem, though, is that LDM "takes up an awesome amount of space" in his mental landscape. It's a full-time job.

But it gives him "a great boost," he says, to host. "By doing an event and by seeing so many readers, and by being around so many writers, it challenges me to not do common work." This is the driving principle behind any literary community: by leaving the vacuum of solitude and by coming into contact with other working writers, you can see what is being done and what still remains to be done. The goal of the Literary Death Match—to get people of all interests talking about literature—has helped Zuniga shape his own understanding of the writing process. A fellow-writer asked him, after a recent event, what it was like to write alone in a room: "It's a lot of me just yelling at the wall, saying, That's not good enough. It has to be better."

The depth of investment in his own writing doesn't come out in Zuniga's other literary projects. I went to all of the New York LDM events over the span of a year or so and never, outside of that unconnected reading, heard him mention his own work. I wanted to know how that dynamic could possibly exist, how someone with an infinite network could resist making use of it.

"My whole angle," Zuniga, says, "when my book comes out, is Buy this book and see if I'm a fraud. The idea being that I've traveled the world, I know all these writers, I do this event... I write all the time, but I think there will be a time when it's relevant that I write." He points to the tautology of the literary scene: "When you first start any literary thing, you want people to think of you in the way you want to be thought of. And then as you age and you become more intelligent, you realize that people only have the bandwidth to see you as what you actually are. I've been progressing for years toward that thing I want to be. So when I'm actually a novelist, then I will mention it. It will be a core part of me."

There is no such patience in New York, where everything is surreptitious promotion of forthcoming work. Zuniga's attitude—if when, only then—suggests a certain respect for the reader. It is the desire to produce quality work rather than to generate, for lack of a better word, buzz. The Literary Death Match, in this light, becomes a heightened version of a literary apprenticeship: learning how and why to avoid premature publicity while, through some kind of strange osmosis, coming to understand the functioning of prose. This is a far more selfish view than Zuniga himself would ever espouse, and it's a sign of my own entrenchment in the ordinary literary attitude that he seeks to de-centre.

He does not ask people to read his writing. "I just don't think of it that way," he says. "I should, because people come in pretty handy. When it comes time to get a blurb, I'm going to start knocking on doors. But I also have a lot of respect for not bothering people, because I know what it's like, and I'm always bothering them. I try to make things as good for people as possible, so that if I ask them to do something, there's a significant benefit for themselves." Who else, saying such a thing, could be as earnest?