A WTF! Q&A with Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

Posted by on May 6, 2013 in Books, Ripley, Writing | No Comments

Well this was fun… chatting with the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! folks for their cool WTF! blog. (No, it actually stands for Weird True Facts.)

Re-purposing the interview. Thanks for the great questions Suzanne! 

Q: What sparked your interest in Robert Ripley?  Why write a biography on him?

Neal: For starters, I was shocked and psyched to learn that no full-fledged biography of Ripley had even been written. I discovered this one day in 2007 when I read a New York Times article about the opening of a Ripley’s museum in Times Square. The story included only a brief mention of Ripley, but it was the first time I had given any thought to the real man behind the Believe It or Not franchise.

Ripley in Honolulu, Hawaii

That’s the day (August 24, to be exact) that Ripley’s overlooked story became my obsession. I also became hooked on the fact that Ripley had such a lasting influence on pop culture. You can see it all around: America’s Funniest Home Videos, Mythbusters, Jackass, Fear Factor, Survivor, The Amazing Race, even Oprah and Dr. Phil. As I argue in A Curious Man, he was sort of the godfather of the reality TV phenomenon of recent years.

Ripley with two shrunken heads

Q: Do you have any personal history with Ripley’s? For instance, did you read the cartoons growing up or have you been to a museum?

Neal: The first 15 years of my writing career were spent as a newspaper reporter, so that was my first exposure to Ripley. I had also read the occasional Believe It or Not books as a kid, but I had always been a fan of the funny pages – even before my journalism career – so I had kind of soaked up the Ripley vibe: the appreciation for the strangeness of the world, and for the weird things people do for kicks.

Q: Your narrative is so rich and full of small details. What was your research process like? How did you capture of the essence of his era in your writing?

Neal: Again, my journalism background came in handy here. I really enjoy the research part of a book project. I love playing detective and digging for clues. And I strongly believe that aggressively and meticulously researched stories allow a writer to do more with the storytelling.

I received a lot of help in this regard from the Ripley Entertainment company, whose archive of Ripley materials was a treasure trove. I spent many hours there, reading Ripley’s own handwritten notes and travel journals. I read his first impressions of Baghdad and his remorse after a drunken night in Johanessberg, for example. Getting those intimate, first-hand details was invaluable when it came to the writing.

As for my process, I’m a big fan of the three-ring binder. I think I filled about fifty of them for this book. I’ve since donated them to the Ripley archives. I still kind of miss them.

Ripley surrounded by a throng of fans

Q: You studied every facet of Ripley’s life.  What was your favorite story or fact about Robert Ripley?

Neal: Oh, there are so many, it’s hard to narrow it down. I have a few favorites, though. For example…

  • Ripley traveled more than 100,000 miles in 1933-34 alone, but never drove a car.
  • He once bumped into Will Rogers at a bazaar in the middle of the Syrian desert, en route to Baghdad.
  • Though shy and bucktoothed, Ripley became a renowned ladies man who sometimes had a few girlfriends living with him at one time—an actual harem.
  • At his private island and mansion, he’d host days-long Hefneresque parties.
  • As a radio pioneer, Ripley once broadcast a show from the bottom of the Grand Canyon, an event that helped launch Barry Goldwater’s political career.
  • Ripley was the model for Bugs Bunny’s nemesis, Elmer Fudd.
  • Even his final resting place has an eccentric twist: he’s buried at Odd Fellows Cemetery.

Ripley with his ‘harem’ of women

Q: Ben Fountain was quoted as saying “Anyone who wants to understand America needs to read this book” – What do you think he meant by this statement?

Neal:  I think he’s referring to Ripley’s influence on pop culture, how he gave his fans what they wanted – a titillating look at bizarre people and accomplishments. He loved to shock people, and he know his followers wanted to be shocked. But he also loved proving that his shockers were true. That taste for the strange-but-true, the stranger-than-fiction, the unbelievably true… those are all at the core of the reality TV phenomenon, again, from Mythbusters to Jackass to Fear Factor. So I think Ben was commenting on what another early Curious Man reviewer (David Shields) said: “the world Ripley created is the world in which we now live.”

Q:What was your biggest takeaway from the book?

Neal: My biggest take away – and this is what I hope readers will experience – is that Ripley enjoyed life, was constantly amazed by it. So for me, it was amazing to experience the wild ride of Ripley’s rambling life and over-the-top lifestyle, and I hope readers will experience the same unexpected sense that I developed, which is that Ripley’s influence is all around us, sixty-plus years after his death.

 

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