Catapult Extra A Conversation with Damon Young
“I’d write ten pieces a week because I liked having lights in my apartment.”
Pittsburgh native Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas (VSB), a blog-turned-magazine by and for Black people. He is also a columnist for GQ.com and EBONY Magazine. Damon is currently working on a book of essays forthcoming from Ecco. Damon writes about pop culture, race, sports, dating, politics, and just about any other topic he could infuse with his signature snark and humor—here, he talks about his writing and editing processes, building his loyal community at VSB, pancakes, and more.
How’s things? What’s your life like right now?
In a micro sense, things are decent. Wife and daughter are healthy and both seem to be entertained by my humor, I just bought two really nice adult human suits from Suitsupply, and we have a surplus of bacon in the refrigerator and the freezer. In a macro sense, however, Fuckface McPussygrabber in Chief is going to kill us all, so that kinda sucks.
VSB has been around for almost a decade at this point. What was the editorial vision when you began to expand VSB from a blog to what it is today?
I saw digital spaces like Gawker , Grantland , and The Toast—platforms infusing humor, verve, (occasional) obscenity, and sagacity with content that was timely, relevant, (often) irreverent, and (sometimes) trenchant—and I wanted to create something like that for Black writers/content.
You’re the protagonist of a low-budget PG-rated remake of a classic Blaxploitation film. What is your name?
If you had to stop doing what you’re doing and pick another profession, what would you do?
I’ve asked myself a version of this question many times: If the zombie apocalypse hit, what would my role be in the new world? (Supposing I’m not a zombie, of course.) Assuming there wouldn’t be much of a demand anymore for 1000 word thinkpieces about chicken wings, I’d probably learn how to farm. So that’s my answer. If I wasn’t a writer, I’d be a farmer.
You’ve built a uniquely close-knit and loyal community on VSB—a lot of people are as involved in the comments section itself as they are with the content. How did you build that community, and what keeps people coming back?
To understand how the community was built is to know the nature of the blog and digital media world when VSB launched in 2008. Comments weren’t generally seen as (and hadn’t yet become) the headache they seem to be regarded as now, and it wasn’t uncommon to find blogs which regularly received hundreds of comments per piece.
And while many other spaces started to move away from placing a premium on comments—and when the conversations that would exist on those types of blogs started to move to Twitter—we continued to consider them a valuable part of our identity.
What’s a difficult situation you’ve faced in your writing or editing in the past two years?
I have ambitions as both a writer and an editor/founder that mostly overlap, but sometimes do not. And that can be unsettling. There are times when I’d like to allow a thought and/or angle to marinate a bit more before writing on it, and times I’d like to spend 3000 words unpacking that thought/angle instead of 800, but I also recognize (as an editor) the necessity of prolificness, timeliness, and, gulp, traffic. I think I’ve been mostly successful finding happy mediums when that happens, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating.
I’m giving you a record deal. What’s the title of your first album?
I Can’t Fucking Sing Or Rap Or Play Any Instruments Besides The Recorder And I’m Giving This Album This Title Just So You Have Appropriate Expectations
That’s great and all, but marketing hated it, so we’ve canceled your contract. What’s the name of the first track on the diss mixtape you release in retaliation, and who is featured on it?
Thank You For Releasing Me From This Contract I Didn’t Ask For Or Deserve Because The Stress Over It Gave Me Acid Reflux. It would feature Big Sean.
Write a haiku about pancakes.
Yummy Yummy Yum
Pancake first dates are the best
Syrup on dat ass
You’ve written for VSB and other outlets with a pretty impressive consistency for several years at this point; what is your process like?
I assume my process isn’t much different than most people who do what I do for a living. Which is essentially see/think about something that interests you, discern whether it’s something you’re interested in writing about (and something people will be interested in reading), find a unique and/or compelling angle, do some quick reconnaissance to ensure it’s not replicating something that already exists, and then do it.
And the consistency, while impressive (Thanks!), is mostly due to terror. There was a not-insignificant-at-all period of time where the difference between being prolific and being whatever the opposite of prolific is was the difference between phone/rent/car/insurance/porn membership bills being paid or not. I’d write ten pieces a week because I liked having lights in my apartment.
I will add this, too: There’s a bit of an internal calculus to determine where I’m going to publish a piece. There are some very Inside Baseball-ey things in regards to Blackness that I’d put on VSB and would never give to GQ or The Guardian or any other non-Black publication, just because I’d want to place it where the audience would appreciate and “get” it.
Talk about an embarrassing moment in your writing career.
Perhaps the time a month ago or two months ago or three days ago when I mispronounced a name like Kiese Laymon or Jesmyn Ward or Ta-Nehisi Coates or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie while on a panel or a podcast or during an interview. It’s happened so many times to me that I’ve stopped keeping count.
In my defense, this frequent faux pas is (somewhat) understandable. I’ve read each of these names myriad times, as I’m huge fans of each, but because I’m a Pittsburgher (which means I’m practically a hermit) I never ever hear them aloud or have an opportunity to say them aloud. Until, of course, I’m on a panel in front of 400 people and I’m trying to make a point and I speed through the enunciation so people don’t realize I’m not quite sure if I’m pronouncing it right.
Anyway, I’m a writer who doesn’t know how to say words.
What’s your favorite movie quote?
“She deserves her revenge. And we deserve to die. But, then again, so does she. So I guess we’ll see, won’t we?” —Bud from Kill Bill: Volume 2
What was the last thing you ate, and how did it make you feel?
This pimento cheese biscuit from the Ace Hotel in Pittsburgh, which suspiciously tastes exactly like Red Lobster’s Cheddar Bay Biscuit. It was delicious, but I guess I feel suspicious now.
What are you working on right now?
The BIG IMPORTANT THING of course is my book, a memoir-ish collection of essays about Blackness, anxieties, neurosis, bacon, basketball, racism, and awkward fellatio. And I’m not quite sure yet if I enjoy writing a book as much as being able to tell people I’m writing a book. Seriously though, I’m discovering something new about myself each time I add to it, with the biggest takeaway so far being that this thing is an excavation of shit I hadn’t even realized I buried. It’s terrifying and illuminating and fulfilling. Basically, it’s just like pancake date night.