Slate editorial director John Swansburg was on Reddit on Wednesday answering questions about his essay on the epic life of Ben-Hur author Lew Wallace, his love of Rod Laver tennis shoes, and the best way to write a cover letter for Slate. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Echoey: Would you rather fight one panda-sized David Plotz, or 100 David Plotz-sized pandas?
John Swansburg: That's easy: 100 David Plotz-sized pandas. David Plotz is very athletic. Plus, he loves MMA and surely has learned some moves from his hours of watching the sport. Even at panda-size, I think he'd be formidable. I'll take my chances with the 100 pandas. My tactic would be to mention sex—that seems to always make them fall asleep or lose interest.
Polite_Werewolf: If there was a zombie outbreak, what would be your zombie plan?
Swansburg: I would surrender immediately and throw myself on the mercy of the undead. Not a zombie guy, never have been. If I tried to outsmart them, I'd probably start waving garlic at them, which I think is vampires, and it'd just make them angry or hungry.
Polite_Werewolf: Replace that garlic with a lit torch and you might have a better chance.
DavidHaglund: On a recent Culture Gabfest, you said that you used to sign off your emails with the phrase "tight lines."
Is this the most embarrassing thing you've ever confessed in public?
Swansburg: It's up there. I had a really bad signoff phase in college, OK? My middle initial is R., and I'm actually a Jr. I had this moment where I thought the symmetry of J.R. Swansburg Jr. was kinda badass. I'm not proud of it, but it happened.
Rob_Saget: I'm about to graduate college with a double major in broadcast and journalism. Probably a stupid question, but since I don't have any actual job experience in the field, what can I do to make my resume and cover letter more appealing to media outlets like TV stations or newspapers?
Swansburg: I love a good cover letter and am always amazed at how many bad ones I see. I think there are a few really important things to do. Be concise; don't assume anyone is going to indulge your letter for very long. Use the right tone; I'm always charmed by cover letters written in the voice of someone who seems to get Slate. We're not a very buttoned-up magazine, as I think you can tell from reading it, and I like a letter that's not too formal. That said, don't assume your reader is an old buddy—too familiar isn't good either.
Most important, perhaps, is conveying that you know the place you're applying to. I like it when someone gets across that they read Slate, they like Slate, they really could imagine contributing to Slate. I suppose some part of that is falling prey to flattery, but I want to know you've done your homework and thought about the job and the employer. You'd be amazed how many letters we get from people who don't seem to have read the magazine. And we're a free Web magazine! It's not like you're applying to Notes & Queries ... ! On the resume, one thing: Lose the GPA. I don't care.
hilarymintz: If Lew Wallace were alive today, what sort of guy do you imagine he would be? What sort of career do you imagine for him? The world is much bigger, and there is no Shiloh to recover from ...
Swansburg: This is something I thought a lot about as I worked on the piece. The 19th century was such a different time. When the Civil War started, Ulysses Grant was working in his family's leather shop, tanning hides. Four years later, he's running the Union Army and on his way to the White House. It's hard to imagine Wallace having the same sort of career in 2013; for one thing, presidents aren't in the habit of making their favorite novelists ambassador to Turkey.
As for his military career, yes, it's hard to say. Growing up in today's times, would he have developed the same romantic view of war? Kids don't tend to read Sir Walter Scott anymore, and we don't have military heroes in the same way we did when Wallace was a boy on the frontier, reading about Texas' War of Independence. Here's my guess: Wallace was always an artist. He wrote, and painted, as a kid, but his dad was a tough country guy, and he told Lew to quit it with the paints and be a man, and Lew obeyed for a while. Today, his dad would more likely encourage Lew's artistic side, so maybe Wallace would have gone on to great literary heights and skipped the war part.
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