Profile of Writer, Robert Lanham

Robert Lanham, the author of the bestselling books, The Hipster Handbook and the The Sinner’s Guide to the Evangelical Right, always wanted to write books. But after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University and moving to New York City, Lanham ended up shelving books instead. Unable to break into the publishing industry, he worked at the Strand bookstore, often hiding in corners of the store to read books during his shifts. In 1999, at the age of 28, Lanham decided to publish on his own by finding the website, To lure readers, he posted his work alongside listings and reviews of Brooklyn’s art, music, and nightlife. A few years later, an agent from International Creative Management saw a humorous glossary of hipster terminology he posted on the site and contacted him to see if he would be interested in a book deal. Lanham, unaware of ICM’s status as power brokers in the literary industry, didn’t return the phone call until six months later.

“I casually mentioned to my friend that this agent from ICM called me about a book deal,” Lanham, now 40, says. His friend thought he was crazy for not returning the agent’s phone call since ICM represented authors of more than 100 titles on the New York Times Best Seller list. So, he picked up the phone.

The piece he’d posted on consisted of a list of slang terms—all made up by him—ostensibly used by hipsters. Although made up, major news organizations accepted them and started to report on them as if they were legitimate. The glossary served as a template for The Hipster Handbook, published in 2003, which wasdescribed by Newsweek as the first ever blog to book deal.

Other books followed, including Food Court Druids, Cherohonkees, and Other Creatures Unique to the Republic and The Sinner’s Guide to the Evangelical Right. Lanham explains that one of the keys to his productivity is to discover his most creative writing hours and to refrain from writing during his down time. “My creative hours are usually from 10 in the morning to about 1 in the afternoon. Then the peak time goes down and picks up again around four in the afternoon. I like to take a nap during the downtime.”

Lanham also uses writing as an outlet to express the differences he has with his family. Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, he was the youngest of three children in a deeply religious, conservative family. Before retiring, his father was a car dealer for almost twenty years. His mother was a full time homemaker. Lanham said, “Even though my mother was a hard core Republican, she despised Sarah Palin because she believed that women shouldn’t enter the workplace.”

In 2005, Lanham’s family kicked out his sister when she revealed her homosexuality. He sided with his sister after her revelation and she was one of the reasons that he wrote his next book, The Sinner’s Guide to the Evangelical Right, which he also dedicated to her. “If my parents are not going to embrace my sister for being honest about her sex orientation then I don’t really have much of a place in their home either. I don’t feel welcomed in the house that wouldn’t welcome somebody who is gay, especially if that person is their own daughter.” 

In order to write The Sinner’s Guide,Lanham traveled to Colorado Springs and researched its famous mega-churches. He went undercover as a businessman who was about to move there and was looking for a church to join. Growing up in a religious family, Lanham spoke the language that member’s of the church spoke. When he first contacted Ted Haggard for an interview, the founder and former pastor of NewLifeChurch, he signed his e-mail with “Have a blessed day.” That gave him an entry to interview Haggard.  

In 2006, Haggard’s sex and drug scandal was exposed. An opponent of gay marriages, the pastor of the 14,000-strong, New Life Church was accused of paying a male prostitute for sex for many years and using the drug crystal methamphetamine. Lanham thought he would have been happy when the scandal was exposed but he wasn’t. He said, “I felt really sad for his wife. But, my friend, who was also a member of Haggard’s church, was appalled that Ted Haggard was gay. He said nothing about Haggard betraying his wife or lying. He was really missing the big picture here.”

Aside from writing and researching for his books, Lanham has been trying to find writing projects to work on with his wife, Amy, a documentary filmmaker. The two had met at a mutual friend’s party in New York in 1998. He found out where Amy was going to be that weekend and showed up at the same place, pretending that it was a weird coincidence. That night, he got her number and they began dating. Although Amy refers to Lanham’s courting tactics as stalking her, they have been married for eight years.

While the two try to find ways to work together, Lanham believes it will be hard. “Amy has been to Africa for several times in the past years because her focus is on Rwanda. We’re both a little frustrated sometimes that we can’t find overlapping topics to work on since she’s writing about post Rwanda Genocide and I’m writing about shoes and music.”

Q&A with Seth Kugel, Frugal Travel columnist for The New York Times

Writer’s Note: This is a Q&A piece that I did for a writing class. I figured that since I spent a good chunk of time on this and my professor helped me edit it that I should post it. If you’re an agent from ICM who is interested in hiring me, I’ll think about it because I’m too busy editing Jay Carney’s work. And I’m not vain.


As the Frugal Travel columnist for The New York Times, Seth Kugel has lost his passport a few times. He’s slept in his car in a foreign country because he couldn’t locate his hotel. He’s rented an apartment in London but later discovered that it was a scam and lost $600. I spoke to Kugel on how he managed to survive while keeping his editor happy.

TY: As a budget travel writer, sometimes you spend less than a week researching a piece on a big city. For instance, you were in Paris for one weekend on a $100 budget. How did you do it?

SK: By being stressed out. I stayed at a friend’s house and only ate one meal in a restaurant, and everything else was discounted with something. I was told that if I get to Comedie Francaise early enough, I could get tickets to see a play for 5 Euros instead of 60 Euros. I didn’t know how early to go. So, I went three hours before the play started. Before that, I went to the discounted hours at an art museum and sprinted around for half an hour, looking for clever things to write. Then, I ran across the bridge from the museum to Comedie Francaise to get the discounted play tickets.

TY: Did you make it in time?

SK: Yes. In fact, nobody was in line when I got there. So, I was there for an hour before the second person even came.

TY: You had to be the first guinea pig…

SK: Yep! It’s my job!

TY: How do you write while you’re on the run like that?

SK: I use three systems. First, I always have a tiny, durable notebook so it can sit in my pocket without falling apart. I travel anonymously so I don’t want to use reporter notebooks that are long and rectangular shaped because then people would know that I’m a reporter. Second, I also take a lot of visual notes with my camera. I take pictures of every page of a restaurant’s menu. For instance, when I can’t remember what was in my salad, I can zoom in on my photos to find the answers. Third, when I come home each night I pretend that I’m writing a story just about that day. I don’t look at my notes or my pictures. I almost just vomit my notes into my computer.

TY: Vomit! Nice! Maybe you can open an international buffet restaurant with all those photos of menu pages.   

SK: Perhaps! But, my photos helped me when my editors want details and sometimes I can’t remember them. One time I wrote that a famous tea shop in London was “beautiful.” But my editor said I had to describe it. There was no way I could remember what the store was like since I had been there two months prior. So I looked back at my photos to find the shop and described it as having chandeliers hanging all over and rock wrought iron banister.

TY: You have traveled to numerous countries. How is the United States different from them?

SK: In the States, I always hear people screaming and being rude. For instance, I had gone to Brazil for a month and just came back to the States. The second day, I walked into a McDonald’s to get a drink. I stepped to the front of the line and someone turned to me and sarcastically screamed, “Oh! Is that what you ALWAYS do, you ALWAYS just cut in front of people?”

TY: We can really be that rude huh…

SK: I seriously got off the plane a day before and this was the attitude that I was faced with. So I told him “I just got back from Brazil, people don’t talk like this. I’m sorry I cut in front of you. Whatever. But you shouldn’t have yelled in public.”

No One RSVPed to My Funeral, Do You Think They Forgot?

The first time I encountered death was when my seven-year-old cousin died. Her death was meaningless to me because I was only 4 years old and I only cared about collecting candy and sunflower seeds at the dinner after the funeral. The second time and third time that I encountered death were still meaningless to me because I was still young and they were when my grandparents died. Since they were already in their 70s and 80s, death was an immediate expectation so their passing had little emotional impact on me. The first time when death had a meaning to me was when I was in high school and a classmate of mine, Kevin, unexpectedly passed away during an annual school trip to visit colleges. We remembered that he looked tense throughout the trip and frequently used the restroom. He said he had a cold. When we were sitting in a classroom listening to the college admission officer’s presentation, an ambulance arrived. Then the next thing I knew, we were on the bus ride back to our high school. During the long bus ride, we were not told why our trip was cut short. As soon as we all gathered in our school’s auditorium, all 250 of us who were about to apply to college the following year, were told that Kevin would not be going to college; he had passed away.

At Kevin’s wake, my friends and I could not even see what was in front of us as we sat down in the rows of seats and wept. We would cry for about ten minutes, rest, and then cry again. We did this repetitively because we felt that we were never “done” mourning. We all bawled, even the boys, who were going through puberty and wanted to be cool and bawling in public was not cool. Kevin’s mom would get up from her seat to greet the guests. With the arrival of new guests, she would be reminded of the painful truth and begin weeping. She would take a break and begin crying again. She kept saying to Kevin as if he could hear her, “Kevin, get up. You told mommy that you were just going to visit the colleges and you would come back. Get up Kevin. Get up Kevin.” Our tears busted out of our eyes as if they were water molecules massive enough to fill a swimming pool but trapped in a bottle of soda.

After the wake, we wiped our tears and congregated outside the funeral home. We started joking about how we would have to go home and immediately wash our clothes because “negative spirits” filled them (a Chinese superstition). None of us talked about how we felt. We did not talk about Kevin. It was probably because most of us never went to a funeral for someone not expected to die and for someone that we knew so personally. We were young and did not know what the proper etiquette was, if there even was one.

Should we have talked about Kevin? Should we have shared our feelings? Should we have shared whatever memory it was that we had with Kevin? We did not know. I did not know. I think I just wanted to go home and forget about the sadness that we just went through. And so when I arrived home and my mom asked me how it “went,” I told her nonchalantly what Kevin’s mother said. She said she wanted to cry too hearing that but I just proceeded to set my alarm clock for the next day and acted as if attending the funeral was like watching a movie and the movie was over.

Between that year and now, my high school friends and I would rarely bring up Kevin. Even if we did, it was a non-emotional statement, which consisted only of one or two sentences. We seem to have forgotten him. Or we just choose not to talk about him anymore because it was a sad memory. I seldom bring up topics about dead people who were close to me because I don’t want to be reminded of the painful departing, especially in instances when the death was unexpected. I don’t want to be reminded of how heartbreaking it was to hear what his mother said during his wake, how helpless and tormented she was. I wanted to forget that death existed and the fact that it could happen to any one of my close friends.

Four years later, I was reminded again, of how it felt to lose a friend of mine, unexpectedly. In April of 2006, my college friend, Wei Wei, passed away from a car accident near my college campus. My friends and I drove from Pittsburgh to New York to attend her wake, where her hometown was. Because some of Wei Wei’s friends had graduated from college already, I received a couple of phone calls and emails from friends who could not physically express their condolences and to let me know that they are there for me if I ever wanted to talk.

Prior to her memorial service in New York, our college held a meeting on campus where people gathered with a counselor who encouraged us to share thoughts, feelings, or anything we wanted to Wei Wei. And people did.

At the wake, my friends and I performed as a loud, live orchestra. All you heard was people bawling. Again, we couldn’t even see what was in front of us because our tears covered our pupils so rapidly. This time it felt different because while I had a closer relationship with Wei Wei than I did with Kevin, I felt that I could share whatever I was feeling with my other friends because we talked about the various memories we had with her. This time, I witnessed another mother’s broken heart over her daughter who didn’t even reach her twentieth birthday. She said everything felt like a dream and that she doesn’t believe this was really happening.

The next day was a service when we shared any thoughts about Wei Wei. It was a less overwhelming experience because we weren’t all crying and bawling. We were remembering her. Wei Wei’s body wasn’t at the service like it was the day before, where she was just lying in front of the room, not moving, not feeling, and not knowing that we were there.

After the service, we all went to eat. None of us talked about Wei Wei. Some of us joked about things happening in our lives and what they were going to do next week. It didn’t feel like we had just came back from a funeral service and it didn’t feel like a good friend of ours passed away. It might have been because we were done mourning and didn’t want to dwell on negative emotions.

My friends and I still mention Wei Wei from time to time but not very often because she’s no longer with us so we don’t have anything new to share about her. On her twentieth birthday, had she survived, and on the anniversary date of when she passed away, some of us brought flowers and put them where her accident was or gave a shout out to her on xanga (the then popular version of facebook). But slowly, over the years, we talked about her less and less. I don’t know if it’s because we’ve forgotten about her. I shouldn’t speak for others. But, I know that I at least sometimes forget about her but would be reminded of her through random stumbles. For instance, like seeing an Asian cheerleader because she loved dancing and was a cheerleader in high school and in college. I knew though that if I ever wanted to talk to someone about her or about my feelings, that there were plenty of people to talk to.

Slowly over the years, my friends and I talked about her less and less. I mean what were we really going to say, “So last month I had coffee with Wei Wei, and she told me about her new job”?  That wasn’t possible because she was no longer a part of our ongoing lives. She was gone. I don’t know where she is. I can’t even go to her xanga or facebook to see what she wrote about, what she felt during certain times of her live because her social medias were shut down after she passed away.

A while back, my self-proclaimed godsister, Dee Hsu, who hosts the Taiwanese talk show “Kang Xi Lai Le,” said something about death that was cut and posted on YouTube. She started crying after a singer sang a song written by one of her friends, who died in his early 20s. She said the song reminded her of him because he wrote it and he acted in the music video. And every time she goes karaoke, she’d select the MV, which he is in.

Her co-host asked, “Then wouldn’t that make you sadder?”

Dee said, “Yes but after people die, I don’t want to be afraid of getting sad that I avoid things that remind me of them. I wanna think about them from time to time so that way when they’re up there, they don’t think that I’ve forgotten about them.”

About 372 people liked this specific comment. I think it’s probably because a lot of us don’t know what to “do” after we’re done mourning or we do know what to “do” but are afraid of being said again.

My memory of my friends who passed away is fading away throughout the years but I just want to let them know that I haven’t forgotten about them. And if I do die before any of my friends do, I hope they will not forget about me and think about me from time to time.

People’s Energy Affect Us


A while back, I auditioned at a showcase event to receive feedback from these TV Host Agents and Casting Directors. Those who auditioned received host scripts the day before the event. We were to choose one script, memorize it, and present it to the agents the following day. I did not worry too much about the audition until I discovered, about six hours before it, that I did not receive copies of the scripts.

I phoned the school but no one at the office had the executive power to e-mail me the. They explained that they had to talk to a higher official, who was not present at the office, because the scripts contained secretive information about who really killed President Kennedy and how North Korea really treated the two captured U.S. journalists. I started panicking because it was the day of the event and I did not have the key ingredient to my showcase, which was my script! Fortunately, about two minutes after my phone call, I received them. Had I received them one more second later, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything anyway. What was I going to do? Break into their computer system and proxy at my own computer to get the scripts?

I chose a script that had the fewest lines and one that most fitted my personality. With these two standards, I was able to absorb the script…after about ten hours.

I was just such a fast learner.

That day, I arrived at the event calm and relaxed. I had already applied about 2.5 pounds of makeup on me so my face looked flawless. I arrived in comfortable pants because I had came straight from a meeting with the Vice President of the U.S… I did bring a skirt with me but did not change because I was lazy.

I sat down and saw that I was the only Asian there, but not the only female. In fact, about 90% of the people at the audition were female.  And they all wore dresses or short skirts. As soon as I realized that, I fled to the bathroom and changed into my skirt.

Then, we played the waiting game. The order of who goes into the room was based on the alphabetical sequence of last names. Each person was to go into the room as if she were auditioning for a real part and the entire audition was videotaped. Then, each agent and casting director judged you and gave you feedback.

This last name procedure always haunted me. When I was a student, the lunch lady lined us up by the alphabetical order of our last names. So, I was always fortunate enough to pick my lunch after everyone else did. I got the dried macaroni and cheese and the French fries that looked like they could make potato soup. Not having many food options and eating cold food were my most delighted privileges. Heck, the process helped me stay skinny because I do not eat anymore. I just go on detox diets.  Hey. The camera adds ten pounds.

I thought the “alphabetical sequence by last name” procedure would not get worse than that. But, one time, my teacher decided to be fair and reverse the order, except it was not for lunch, it was for the order in which people would present their projects in front of the class. And we all know that public speaking is the number one fear for most people, placed even before the fear of death.

So that was my childhood in a nutshell-eating foods that other people in my class did not select and dealing with something that was even more frightening than death.

Since the casting directors and agents decided to see our auditions in an order based on the alphabetical order of our last names, I auditioned near the end.

Thank you papa Zyu for the last name you gave me.

Then, the torments began. At first, I was fine. I sat there with an open mind. I was not looking for an agent; I was not looking for someone to “discover” me and ship me to Hollywood. I just wanted to receive feedbacks from casting directors and agents. I did not even pay for the event like the other hosts did because I won it from a detox tea sweepstake.

Therefore, I had no monetary incentive or Hollywood dream expectations. Plus, I knew I wasn’t going to screw up my lines because my script was one line and it fitted my personality so well that I could just ad-lib it if I couldn’t remember it verbatim.

But all that indifference vanished as I waited outside the room with the other hosts. They were mumbling and rehearsing their lines for whatever Discovery Channel or lipstick conversation scripts that they had. They paced the hallway back and forth, in their 4-inch heels and perfectly iron curled long hair.

Seeing all of that made me dizzy. So, I re-located myself to a different hallway, just another location that brought me to another group of hosts rehearsing their lines, checking their eye makeup, lipstick and their hair.

I pulled out my mirror and examined every square centimeter of my face to make sure my 2.5 pounds of makeup did not need any touch up. I then made sure that the three strands of hair on my baldhead did not move to an unintended location. Then, I looked at my feet to make sure I did not grow any fungus because of all the madness.

Everything that I checked was fine and normal.

I then pulled out my one line script and started rehearsing it because the other hosts made me so nervous that I began doubting myself. I was afraid I would mess up my line, my one line. After saying it about ten times, in five different body postures, and in five different facial expressions, I realized that the more I practiced, the more I stumbled. So I told myself to stop and to get some deodorant because my armpits were sweating as if it were on a mission to convert a desert into an ocean.

Then, I re-applied my lipstick, adding .1 pound to the 2.5 pounds of makeup that was already on my face.

It still was not my turn.

At that point, I wanted to hug my parents for giving me such a great last name – Zyu.

I started meditating in the hallway and nobody noticed because they were too busy repeating the things that I just did. Finally, the agents called my name. I entered the room. I said my script. I got feedback and the process felt like a walk in the park.

Everyone around me was so nervous that I started copying their actions and absorbing their energy that my indifference to the event disappeared. I am not sure if that nervous energy had a positive or a negative effect on me because I am not a scientist so I did not run a control experiment to compare the results. And I did not really care because I did not screw up and did fine. I do not know if I would have received the same results had I kept myself away from these nervous people. All I know is that people’s energy can easily transfer to those around them. That can be scary…or sweaty. Because I know we all definitely used a good chunk of our deodorants that day.

How to Disagree Agreeably

One of my former students, Jon Stewart, who hosts The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, had been bugging me to watch his show and to give him some feedback. At first I told him that I was extremely busy, coaching other celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Jay Leno. But, I made time to watch one episode because it also featured another student of mine, Sandra Day O’Connor, a former Supreme Court Justice. As you all know, I not only coach celebrities on how to improve their talent but I also coach judges on how to interpret the law. I’m like the Jack of all trades.

One part of the interview that I found interesting was when O’Connor said she had to disagree agreeably with the other Justices.

How the hell do you disagree agreeably, I asked myself. That’s like an oxymoron. It was like saying “pretty ugly” except we all knew what pretty ugly meant. We don’t all know what “disagree agreeably” meant.

That day, I Facebook messaged O’Connor to ask if she could stay a little longer after our weekly coaching session. I wanted her to teach me how to “disagree agreeably” because I was her teacher and I couldn’t accept that she knew something that I didn’t know.

O’Connor told me that when she first started her gig at the U.S. Supreme Court, she was the ninth Justice. The Justices often voted 4 to 4 and her arrival was important because she brought the number of Justices to an odd number, making her vote a crucial one when votes were split in half. O’Connor said that since she was stuck with this gig until she retired, she tried her best to disagree agreeably.

But how do you do it? I fidgeted as I questioned her because she still wasn’t telling me how!

Unfortunately, she couldn’t spare me any more time because she had a board meeting with iCivics, an educational project that she started after she retired as a Justice. Her and her board members were going to talk about new games that they were launching onto the website.

She wrote me a $0.25 check for teaching her how to interpret the law for the past twenty years and immediately left my office. That day, as I waited in line at my local bank to deposit the check, I browsed the internet to learn more about disagreeing agreeably.

I found some pointers that I think we’d all find helpful. They included suggestions such as remaining calm and respecting your disagree-er’s opinion. Don’t attack them by saying “but,” “however.” Don’t even consider things like “Actually, you are wrong…,” “There is just no way that is right…,” “Are you serious?” “I disagree…”

And you probably shouldn’t roll your eyes either.

Kathy Tosoian, a speaker, suggested that, “It is never to your advantage to disagree with any opinion. It often results in a heated and argumentative discussion where nobody wins.” When you realize that you probably can’t change the person’s opinion, just move on. Display that you’ve listened to them and that you respect their opinion. Say something like, “I can understand why you feel that way,” or “I hear what you’re saying,” and then say, “what do you think of this (insert your opinion).”

I’ve recently found the above to be extremely helpful when I was listening to a person who was a dictator and thought that his opinion was the golden rule (but it was not). After hearing his endless, wrong opinions, I decided, in my most diplomatic way, to question his opinion. I kept asking why. Why should you do that? Why should you do this? And after he finished telling me his reasons, I rebutted him by saying, “But, so and so did it this way,” which implied that he was wrong because the “so and so” was far superior than he was.

Our discussion did not go well. After 5 minutes of disagreeing with this man, I told myself to shut up because it wasn’t productive. He still insisted that his opinion was right even though it was wrong. And his face was as red as a tomato, which indicated to me that he wasn’t evening listening to me but, just busy defending his opinion. So I ended the conversation with “Oh, ok.”

After I gave the bank teller my deposit slip for the $0.25 check from O’Connor, he told me one of my account numbers was incorrect. I took the slip back from him and saw that my handwritten 7 looked like a 1. I told him that he was wrong and I was right, and that he needed to get glasses because clearly that 7 was a 1.

I was really glad that I was already starting to apply the techniques of disagreeing agreeably.

Be a Good Team Player

To celebrate omega-3s, a friend of my papa’s, Mr. Fish, invited me to a restaurant that served delicious fish hot pot. A few of his students (he was a professor in the performing arts), who were actors and singers, also joined us for dinner because eating delicious fish was one of the main ingredients to reaching fame.

As I began picking through the 100 pieces of bones in the fishes, they began talking about a charity show that they hosted to raise money for the victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. My papa’s friend, Mr. Fish, was praising one of his students who was the show host for the charity event. The event was held in one of the poorest areas in China so there was no “venue” to work with; thus, the show crew had to build everything from scratch, such as the stage and the seating area.

Numerous problems occurred that day because of limited human resources and limits on technology equipments. Therefore, no staff had time to set up the hundreds of chairs for the audience. While Mr. Fish was frantically solving other problems, he saw his student, Ms. Show Host, in her nice shoes and pretty dress, lifting the chairs off trolleys and setting them down in the seating area. He said she impressed him because that was not her responsibility and seeing a young woman doing so, in clothing unsuitable for such manual labor work, was a pleasant surprise.

As I spit out five fish bones, I looked up to see what her reaction was. All she did was smile and said that if she didn’t help, it would have further delayed the event.

At that point, I understood why out of the thousands of students that Mr. Fish had, that he chose to invite her to celebrate the existence of omega-3s. She was not only easily likeable but she was also a great team player. Her job was to be prepared to host the charity event, which she did. So she was done. The need to set up the chairs for the event was not her problem. She could care less and could’ve just hung out with the grass and the trees and waited for the event to start. But she wanted to be a great team player, not just a great player. She knew that they were short on staff and already ran into numerous problems. So if she didn’t pitch in, then the event would’ve been much delayed.

Sometimes we work so hard to shine after extensively preparing for that shining moment that we forget what really matters. If Ms. Show Host didn’t help set up the chairs, the charity show would have been more delayed and people would have left. The goal to raise money would have gotten a slash since the delay would have pushed people away. It wasn’t her job to help set up the chairs but she knew that if she didn’t pitch in, the event would be going down hill faster than it already was.

One of my coaches said not to try so hard to make yourself look good but instead to make your partner look good. This is because if your partner looks good, you’ll look good. And that’s all good. Now everybody sing with me! Make your partner look good and you look good and we all look good!

(I am going to search for a synonym for “good.”)


Please keep in mind though that there’s a difference between “partner” and “enemy.” If we were combating during World War I, I don’t think it’ll be such a good idea to make our enemies look good by offering Germany submarines after we destroy theirs. President Wilson would not have been too happy about that.