A Brilliant Visionary of Terrible Decisions: The Millions Interviews Catherine Baab-Muguira

October 6, 2021 | 4 books mentioned 7 min read

“Live your best life.” It’s one of the most common, yet worthless, aphorisms offered today. Chipper, insipid, and surprisingly relativistic (it fits arsonists as well as anybody), this meaningless maxim is the Tic-Tac of modern aspiration, boasting all the nuance and depth of Target word-art or pastel Instagram posts. Fed up with such drivel, and equally skeptical of the therapy-industrial complex, writer Catherine Baab-Muguira urges us in her debut book of nonfiction to take the exact opposite tack: to live our worst life instead.

In Poe for Your Problems: Uncommon Advice from History’s Least Likely Self-Help Guru (Running Press), Baab-Muguira preaches the good news of one of the greatest screw-ups of all time: Edgar Allan Poe. Drawing insights on work, love, ambition, and legacy from Poe’s blazing dumpster fire of a life, she concludes that the surest way to thrive is to sabotage everything you can get your mitts on, then build something new and totally novel out of the wreckage. Her literary forebears—Richard Fariña and Charles Bukowski among others—would be proud.

Recently I posed Baab-Muguira a few questions for The Millions, which she graciously answered amid her publicity tour of Richmond pubs—knocking back local spirits in honor of her favorite local spirit.

The Millions: Cat, you and Edgar Allan are both Richmond natives. Growing up in the River City, did you ever feel his ghost next to you at the bar?

Catherine Baab-Muguira: Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised right now if he walked in from the next room. He’s part of the atmosphere here—a callback to a more gruesome era but also an enlivening, animating myth. I’ve heard people propose a Poe statue to replace some others which, as you may have heard, have finally been removed. I’m not convinced, even as I love the guy profoundly. As cheesy or silly as it may sound, he’s someone I grew up with.

TM: Early on you write that your book started as a “dark joke”—which sounds almost like it started as a dare, but a dare to yourself. How did Poe for Your Problems come to be?

CBA: It was 2016 and I was doing a lot of crying in my bathtub. I’ve had depressive episodes since I was a kid, but late that year, I experienced the worst one yet. During a mental-health leave from work, some kind of intuition led me to start rereading Poe for the first time since elementary school. And suddenly, revelation: Poe wasn’t some goofy, spooky mystery man spinning 19th-century torture fiction. Instead, all the stories were metaphors for the horrendous pain of living, while the poems proved to be the most deft, intricate puzzles. Poe’s tonal complexity just blew my mind in the best way.

I read deeper, getting into the biographies, then the two volumes of his letters. One night I was having a drink with a buddy, and I started telling him about how Poe, of all people, was cheering me up. “That sounds like a book,” my friend said. “Oh yeah,” I deadpanned back, “I’m going to write a book about reading Poe for self-help and call it How to Say Nevermore to Your Problems.” The idea stayed with me, though. And when I wrote an essay about Poe for The Millions in 2017, it attracted enough of an audience that I got an agent and was eventually able to sell the book idea to Running Press/Hachette.

TM: Literature, film, and pop culture are full of anti-heroes, some of which Poe created himself. But you’re blazing a trail into what may be a new genre, the anti-self-help book. What is your vision for this genre? How can studying villains, rascals, and wretches help us flourish?

CBA: I wish I could claim to have pioneered anti-self-help altogether, but maybe I can claim to have spearheaded the subgenre of anti-self-help literary biography? And, of course, Poe would have to be first in line for the treatment, with his spectacular success a direct result of his impossible personality, feuds, mistakes, and missteps. It’s inspiring to see someone succeed because of their flaws, you know? Feels so much more accessible than your typical self-help message of becoming a better person, plus the guru’s not some self-righteous sales guy with pecs and veneers.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate self-help as a genre. I do think it needs reform, and not through legislation but irony, satire, and kayfabe. You know how teenagers on TikTok and Instagram use “girlboss” as an ironic insult, not a compliment? I love that vibe, though I am too earnest (as a person and in the book) to totally pull it off. I’m not being totally ironic when I call Poe a hero.

TM: Fair point. The self-righteousness of self-help is often its worst attribute. Yet you steal a page directly out of the genre’s playbook by including exercises, checklists, and break-away bullet points. Have you no shame?

CBA: Get with the Poe-gram, Ben! You’ll never carve out your own unique, notorious place in history if you don’t repeat every affirmation, finish every quiz, and check off every checklist item. This is about putting your most outrageous and seemingly self-defeating impulses into action, starting today. Starting right now.

TM: Okay, Okay, clearly I’m not cut out for this. On my way to mediocrity and oblivion, then, tell me: in your biographical accounts of “history’s most accomplished neurotic,” you offer some cracking stories of his childhood and youth, such as the time he lost $2,000 at poker as an undergrad at UVA—around 50 grand in today’s money. Where did you dig this stuff up?

CBA: I read Poe’s letters, and much of the material about the breakdown of his relations with his foster father comes from there, along with some lies tall tales he told friends and professional contacts about his childhood. Poe was not at all a reliable source of information about himself—one more reason to love him—though his renditions of events are revealing in their own way.

covercoverSo, to get closer to the truth, I compared his accounts to The Poe Log, scholarship, journalism and more personal, contemporary accounts about him and the era (Benjamin F. Fisher’s Poe in His Own Time was super helpful), then I fact-checked it all against Arthur Hobson Quinn’s 1941 biography, which is the most reliable and fair of all the Poe biographies. There are about a half-dozen other major biographies and at least a dozen more minor ones, but often, the sourcing is bad, and not-so-credible accounts are included, and the biographer is obviously sneering at Poe.

coverI’m very glad to have added 21st-century anachronism and my own pathological identification with Poe to the mix, clearing the air forever and making for the definitive Poe biography of our time. A tough job, you know, but somebody’s got to.

TM: One of your early claims is that in order to succeed, broke-ass freelancers like Poe and the rest of us need to get cozy with selling out: to jettison our pride, to put our idealistic dreams on layaway, and get a damn job, even a down-market one. “Developing economic insight is to develop insight, period,” you write. The future can wait. How do you square this short-term vs. long-term thinking?

CBA: Poe’s example suggests that adapting to the market and even selling out is the smartest long-term move, I’d argue. One of the reasons he translates so well to every new era, and keeps finding fans in every new generation, is that he wrote in commercial genres and a commercial style. It wasn’t his first choice. He bitched about having to. Yet the effect was to knock a crucial portion of the pretentiousness out of him. If there is a magic zone in literature, a formula for achieving some lasting literary impact, it’s in bringing one’s unique weird genius to a commercial genre, playing with and experimenting with the forms until you hit something out of the park.

That’s my big takeaway from his career. It’s an encouraging message for those of us who are trying to find our way as writers and reluctant living-earners. Poe’s probably the most unemployable person I’ve ever seen, but he managed somehow, which means there’s hope for us. 

TM: Work aside, you spend a good deal of time on Poe’s lessons for the lovelorn. Not everyone may know that he was passionately devoted to his wife (and first cousin) Virginia, before she died of illness around 10 years into their marriage. What surprised you most in learning about Poe’s personal life, and is there one key takeaway you’d offer the romantic seekers of our age?

CBA: You could almost pick an incident from his love life at random, but one of my favorite periods is the wake of his “Raven” fame, circa 1845. His semi-flirtatious exchanges with female fans, some of which were published in newspapers at the time, look so much like today’s DM slides and moony Facebook comments. The big takeaway is that, when it comes to romance, people have always been embarrassing themselves and acting out of raw infantile need. What a relief that is to know. Or is it me?

TM: Perhaps one of the most important lessons you offer is the old saw that you have to make the right enemies in life—or on Poe’s terms, if you don’t have enough enemies, you’re doing something terribly wrong. In today’s literary world, how do you see this playing out—in the post-Dale Peck era, should feuds, takedowns, and rivalries still be a thing?

CBA: I think the culture is definitely ready to move that way. While reviewing to curry favor hasn’t changed in centuries, the ongoing collapse of traditional journalism in our era seems to mean that all we ever see now are raves, deserved and not-so-deserved. And people are asking, where are the meanie reviews? Where are the unashamed truth tellers? Let’s see some hatchet jobs. Let’s bring back the literary trolls! Just please don’t troll me, obviously.

TM: No promises! Lastly—nearly every chapter has what you call a Poe (Pro) Tip, ranging from “Scams are far more reliable moneymakers than dreams” to “If you’re going to have a nervous breakdown, go big or go home.” Practice what you preach: out of the dozens of tips you offer in the book, Cat, which one has been most fruitful for your own life?

CBA: It’s that uber Poe tip I mention at the end of the introduction, unnumbered because it’s too fundamental to the Poe-gram even to be labeled number one: “Stop looking for models of perfect living. Instead, embrace a brilliant visionary of terrible decisions to guide you to an epic life.”

Got me here, didn’t it? Arguably.

Bonus Links:
Edgar Allan Poe: Self-Help Guru
Poe’s ‘Eureka’ Is a Galaxy-Brained Space Opera for Our Times
Twenty-Five Ways to Roast a Raven: The Spiciest Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe
Was Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe Story?
Edgar Allan Poe Was a Broke-Ass Freelancer

is a poet, writer and recovering academic based in New Orleans. More at benjaminalanmorris.com.