He might have popped into your field of digital vision in the guise of Miklo Velka, the protagonist in the 1993 gangster movie Blood In Blood Out. He is not Miklo, though, or even Damian Chapa, the actor who portrayed him. The man behind the Twitter avatar, Shea Serrano, is a writer and podcaster and New York Times-bestselling author who’s a cultural phenomenon all his own by now. He just fucking loves that movie. He also loves being online. Serrano is a creature of and by the internet ecosystem, who sprang to life through a thoroughly American evolutionary process. Serrano and his wife, Larami, were Texas schoolteachers when they married and started a family. But when the time came, they realized childcare would cost more than Larami would bring in if she went back to work. America the beautiful. So she stayed home with the kids, and, in 2008, Shea took a side job writing. A few years later, he’s a bestselling author twice over.
What happened in between is less familiar these days than stories about our pitiful social safety net. Serrano is a formidable talent who was writing about hip-hop for the Houston Press when he was discovered by Bill Simmons and Grantland. Simmons gave him a shot and he took it, building his name as a thinker on music and movies and basketball with an unmistakable style that combined a casual and familiar tone with almost obsessively penetrating looks at relative minutiae. He was made for the internet, but his forays into book-writing—first with The Rap Yearbook, and then with Basketball (And Other Things)—showed he could bring his let’s-just-nerd-out-on-this-for-a-sec style to the physical world.
He also brought his audience. Serrano has developed a legion of fans, particularly on Twitter, where many of his 302,000 followers don’t just enjoy his work—they seem to have a personal investment in it. He runs very transparent promotional campaigns that his followers jump on without a moment’s hesitation. His success is their success, a rare (and getting rarer) feel-good story that is unmistakably Online. Now, he’s out with his latest, Movies (And Other Things), a charming examination of industry tropes and his personal hobby-horses across all the movies he’s watched—sometimes many times—since the ’80s. We jumped on the phone a few days before its October 8 release to talk about movies and how he’d managed to have a rare positive experience on the Internet.
When you’re promoting your books, it seems you almost get people on your team—like, they’re giving you money, but they seem really excited about it, and they get invested in your book’s success. How does that happen?
My favorite thing is when people tweet me and ask, “Hey, where are we at on preorder numbers?” That makes me feel like I’m doing a good job of writing stuff, but also of just being on the internet with people. Because that’s really all that it is, especially in the beginning. It’s people who are following me and caught a tweet seven months ago at 2:30 AM.
Do you think it all has to do with how you’re transparent that you’re grinding to try and get people to preorder this book? Do they appreciate your hustle?
I think that’s also a part of it. One of the things that I started doing very early on—and the publishers hated this—is I would tell people how many copies I wanted to sell. I would tell people how much money I got paid to write a thing. I would tell people where we were at as far as how many copies we’d sold. The publishers, they couldn’t stand it at the time. “No, we usually don’t share these numbers. We’re not going to give them to you. Blah, blah, blah.”
That seemed very counterintuitive to me. You don’t have a fundraiser and say, “We want to raise a lot of money, but we’re not going to tell you how much we need to rebuild the basketball court.” It doesn’t work that way. You need a goal. If you have a goal, then people can try to chase down that goal. Same as if I tell you, “Hey. Do as many pushups as you can.” You’re like, “Alright.” You get down, and as soon as you start to feel a little bit tired, you’re going to quit. You’re like, “I did 12 pushups.” But if I tell you, “Hey, do 20 pushups,” and you get tired at 12, but you know where the end is, you’re probably going to try a little harder to push through to get to that number.
Of course, there’s a risk, because if you don’t hit the numbers, you have to take to this L in front of everybody.
You started writing as a schoolteacher to make some extra money when your wife had to stay home with your kids. Is it crazy that’s how it goes in this country?
It’s absolutely absurd. It doesn’t make any sense how little teachers get paid, how little so many jobs get paid. You’re like, “Damn, you’re a fireman and you’re making this much money? So you’re fighting fires and this is what they’re paying you?” Or you’re responsible for teaching the children of America, and they’re paying you $36,000 a year, $3,000 a month before taxes? That’s fucking nuts. That’s how the whole writing career started, just as a result of that.
How has your life changed since?
Well, we’re not poor anymore, which is cool. I was just having this conversation the other day with my sons. We were eating dinner and they were asking, “Afterwards, can we go get some ice cream?” I was reminding them of a time when they were little, and I was teaching and Larami was staying home with them. I was explaining to them we used to do a thing every Friday where we would go to Blockbuster. There was Blockbuster still. We could rent two kids’ movies. You’d get two sodas, a popcorn, and two candies, all for $7. It was a special they had, and that was all we could really afford.
When they got a little older, we started buying this ice cream sandwich, a cookie ice cream sandwich. It costs $2.50. We would buy one and on the ride home, we would all take bites, and share it. Larami wouldn’t. She doesn’t like ice cream too much. But me and the boys were taking turns. It was this very cute, charming tradition. I was letting them know, like, “That was a charming thing to do, but we were buying one because we didn’t have enough money to buy more than one. That’s why we had to share it.” Now, we don’t have to fucking share that ice cream sandwich anymore. We can go get ice cream if we want it. That’s the main difference, really.
What does Bill Simmons mean to you?
Oh, Bill Simmons. Bill Simmons is a legitimate, life-changing force. He shows up and he picks you up into the air like Rafiki and you’re Simba. He’s like, “Hey, everybody. Look what this guy’s doing. It’s valuable.” And as soon as he starts doing that, everybody else is like, “Oh. Look what that guy’s doing. It’s valuable.” Everything changed after that.
It’s crazy to have somebody like that in your corner. He was straight up like, “How much money do I need to pay you so that you don’t need to teach anymore? I just want you to write. I think you can make it. I want to give you this chance. Tell me what I have to do.”
All he’s ever wanted to do was encourage me to be a writer. It’s crazy and powerful having somebody like him standing behind you, sort of patting you on the back, saying, “You can do this. Go do this.” It’s like a fucking shoot-around with Steph Curry, and he’s giving you tips, and telling you that you’re going to get there.
I don’t know that you ever subscribed to the stick-to-sports mentality, but it seems like recently you’ve been more explicit in pointing things out that you think are wrong in our society, especially in politics. Was there a moment that changed things?
Oh, yeah. It was Trump, that dumb fuck. He showed up and everything changed. It was like, you can’t be silent about this anymore. This has to be a part of your conversation. If you’re going to be a Mexican-American writer with a little bit of profile, you have to address this stuff.
Do you ever worry about alienating a section of your fanbase?
Yeah, no. Those are the people that you don’t care about at all. They weren’t there for the right reasons, or even if they were at the time, you don’t want to be aligned with that in any sort of way. That happened a bunch too. People were like, “Oh, I can’t believe you say this. You’re supposed to be selling a book.” And it’s just like, man, fuck a book sale, first of all. Some stuff is more important than that. Second of all, we were number one on the bestseller list. We’re doing okay without you. We don’t need you on the team. We got a team.
Speaking of your team, how’d you settle on Arturo Torres as your illustrator?
I saw a flyer that he did several years ago, when I was working on The Rap Yearbook. I hit him up. I had to go through the rap group that he did the flyer for, and then their manager, and then finally, I found out it was Arturo Torres. I was like, “Yes. That’s a Mexican name. I know that name. I’ve known 10 Arturo Torreses.” Then I found out he lived in Dallas. Then I found out he grew up poor just like I did, a poor Mexican kid in Texas. We have so much in common already that I was like, “This is one of those things where it was supposed to happen.”
Maybe you were the Bill Simmons in that instance.
That’s the goal eventually. I tell him that all the time. I would like very much for the day to come where I’m like, “Hey, I need to hire you to work on a book,” and I can’t afford him anymore. That’s the goal.
In the foreword, John Leguizamo talks about movies as a blend of your dreams and reality. “A movie seeps into your subconscious,” he says. What does that mean to you?
A movie sort of happens to you. Like Get Out. You watch it and you’re like, “Dang, this is going to be a part of my brain for the rest of my life, for sure.” When Quentin Tarantino started making movies, five years later, people started talking like that in real life. Even people who had not seen Quentin Tarantino movies, that just became a speech pattern. It sort of shaped other things.
Yeah. When I was in high school, dudes’ lexicon was 30 percent Judd Apatow movie quotes.
There was no way to have a conversation with somebody and not have somebody say, “I’m kind of a big deal.”
I’m not really an Old Movie Guy, and you chose to focus only on movies from the ‘80s—and really the ‘90s—on. Are you like me in that you don’t see a ton of appeal in movies older than that?
I’m with you on that. I watch old movies and I’m like, “No, thanks.” They’re not fun. It’s clear they were still trying to figure out how to do things. Some of them, of course, were undeniable, like a Jaws or Star Wars or Indiana Jones. You watch those and you go, “Oh, I see in this the bones of what eventually became whatever action franchise.” Or Alien. [But mostly], they’re just not that fun to watch.
When I was working on the “Heist” chapter, I was reading best lists of heist movies. One that kept appearing on the list was this movie called Rififi. It’s in black and white. Everybody talks about how great it was. They do this really cool trick in there where there’s a long stretch of just straight-up silence while they try to break into wherever. I get it. That part was cool, and I imagine, at the time, it was really fun. But you watch it today, and it’s just not that great.
Do you think people just get accustomed to a certain [technical] level of moviemaking?
Yeah. The same thing happened when I was researching for the basketball book, and everybody just fawned over the Lakers-Celtics rivalry from the early ’80s. I was a baby at the time, but I went back and rewatched it. If you watch a four-minute stretch of any of those games, they’re not that great. I’m just like, if I drop a LeBron James in on this game, you all are all fucking getting murdered. This is crazy.
You seem to enjoy rehashing really minor details of 20-year-old movies. There’s a part where you break down at length whether a player should have been traded in A League of Their Own. What do you like about that?
Number one, I really love A League of Their Own. But I really like to pick just one thing, and drill down into it as far as I can, and just see what happens. It’s an excuse to nerd out on something. But also, I’m trying to write about something in a way that even if you’ve never seen the movie, even if you have no idea what this moment is that I’m talking about, you will read it, and you will sort of implicitly understand the feelings that I’m having in my chest about it. Then you’d go like, “Oh, I know exactly what this means because I feel the same exact way about The Last Dragon or Good Will Hunting or Waiting to Exhale.”
What movie could you absolutely not live without?
Blood In Blood Out, my all-time favorite movie. It’s a Chicano gangster movie from 1993 that has just stuck with me for a long, long time. I’ve got a framed poster of it in my office. Miklo, the main character in it, is mentioned in the book’s dedication.
What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen?
Oh, God. I feel bad that I even have to say this because it stars people that I like a great, great deal. But the first thing I think of is Fantastic Four. Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara are in it. It’s just not good. I wish it was better. I was really excited to see it when it came out. Me and my sons went. They were tiny kids at the time, five or six. When we walked out, they were like, “Daddy, that was a bad movie.” It was the first time that they’d ever described anything as a bad movie, and we’ve watched a ton of bad shit.