The Bat Segundo Show: Mark Kurlansky II

Mark Kurlansky recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #292.

Mark Kurlansky is most recently the translator of Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris and the editor of The Food of a Younger Land. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #220.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pushing past the patois of a forgotten linguistic formation.

Author: Mark Kurlansky

Subjects Discussed: Wanting to be Zola as a kid, thorough food research, the difficulties imposed by lawyers, racist patois, Don Dolan’s failure to understand the burrito, why so many unqualified people got jobs with the Federal Writers Project, Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, manuscripts that were never intended for publication become published thanks to Kurlansky, investigative anthropologists, Coca-Cola parties, lost culinary rituals, Brunswick stew and the original recipe involving squirrel, Kurlansky’s obsession with recipes involving beaver tail, Vermont maple trees, “Nebraskans Eat the Weiners,” corroborating dishes and rituals that made it into the present day, the Nebraskan Popcorn Queen, trying to whittle down Library of Congress material for a book, food conflicts, regional gaps in the America Eats project, Kenneth Rexroth, Basque inaccuracies, Claire Warner Churchill’s extraordinary fury concerning mashed potatoes, World War II’s effect on the WPA, editorial oversight with the Federal Writers Project, geoducks, rarefied cuisine, drying meat over an open fire, hoecakes, low-class and slave forms of cornbread, an altogether different notion of Texas chuck wagon, sheriff’s barbeque, and the mint julep controversy.


kurlansky4Correspondent: First off, just a general question to tie in Zola with the Federal Writers Project book. In an introduction to The Belly of Paris, you confess that, in fact, you wanted to be Zola when you grow up. And this is very interesting because Zola, of course, was a serious investigator. And, of course, going through the endnotes of The Belly of Paris, I see all these references to sausage and meat, and simultaneously I’m thinking in terms of the investigations in this book, The Food of a Younger Land. I’m curious if you think that investigation of that particular time is comparable with Zola and the Federal Writers Project and whether you think perhaps that there’s something that is missing from that type of investigation today. What are your thoughts on all this? Just to start off here.

Kurlansky: Well, Zola was — especially as fiction writers go — a very thorough researcher. This book takes place in the Les Halles market. And he spends a lot of time in the Les Halles market and actually followed wagons from the entry of Paris to the Les Halles market. And when he did Germinal, he spent weeks and weeks in the mines with the miners. I don’t know how much writers do that now. I certainly do. And I think other writers must. Of course, there’s a lot of things where it’s getting more difficult in America to do these things. Because lawyers won’t let you.

Correspondent: (laughs) Yeah.

Kurlansky: There are all these legal issues if it’s a dangerous workplace.

Correspondent: Is this why the time of the past is better then?

Kurlansky: (laughs)

Correspondent: Because you have the statute of limitations.

Well, the concept of “proceed at your own risk” has been lost through lawyers. I’m married to a lawyer. I understand this.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Kurlansky: I mean, part of the reason I admired Zola, outside of the fact that he was such a great writer, was that he had deep political commitments. And those commitments can be found in his writing. But his writing never descends into political diatribe. He always had it very clear in his mind that art was above that kind of thing. That in art, you could show society with all its faults, but you couldn’t rant about it. And, in fact, in The Belly of Paris, he has characters who he probably very much agreed with who he makes look ridiculous. Because they go into these rants all the time.

Correspondent: But in terms of this level of investigation, also in the anthropological folklore component of many of the Federal Writers Project’s writers, I mean, there is something interesting in reading an entry or an article in a particular dialect and essentially listening on the page to someone essentially listening a recipe. The question though is whether this is entirely accurate of the patois at the particular time or whether there are problems. I mean, you allude to a lot of racism that you uncovered and that you didn’t put into the book.

Kurlansky: Yeah, well, some I did. My original reaction was not to put any of it in. But since my whole idea of doing Food of a Younger Land was that I wanted to give readers the experience that I had when I looked through these boxes and accidentally falling into another time into 1940 America, and how different it was, and different in a lot of positive ways. And why cover up the negative ways? This was pre-civil rights South. Black people were referred to by their first name, comma “a Negro.” And a lot of the dialogue sounds like master and slave. And the black dialect is stretched to absurdity. To a point where it’s clearly racist.

(Photo: Lawrence Sumulong)

BSS #292: Mark Kurlansky II (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Laila Lalami II

Laila Lalami recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #291.

Laila Lalami is most recently the author of Secret Son. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #11.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Unpersuaded by fictive convictions.

Author: Laila Lalami

Subjects Discussed: Interviewing enthusiasm, similarities between Secret Son and Richard Wright’s Native Son, Invisible Man, the original title of The Outsider, Ayelet Waldman’s similar title, the maximum number of story and title configurations, the Brooklyn titular fiasco, depicting scenes from multiple perspectives, character restrictions, masculinity and swagger, fiction and personal experience, blogging and silly distinctions, not having time to pay attention to the publishing industry, violence and representative characters from the slums, subverting terrorist expectations in fiction, brown falcons with twigs in their beaks, symbolism vs. emotional and psychological signs, not having a sense of home, censorship in Morocco, the Western Sahara Separatist Movement, TelQuel, questionable freelancing circumstances portrayed in Secret Son, questioning acts of generosity in the novel, inconsistent character qualities and financial transactions, Chekhov’s gun, personal experiences with paperweights, the problems with making things up, Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers, being more comfortable with the least strange aspect of invention, government bailouts, legalized pot, and truth vs. believability.


llalamiCorrespondent: Do you view Youssef stealing the paperweight as a financial transaction?

Lalami: Do you know, to this day, I have no idea why he does that?

Correspondent: Really?

Lalami: Yeah, I was just in the middle of the scene. And before I knew it, he was walking down the elevator with it. And it just…I don’t know.

Correspondent: I kept thinking it was like Biff from Death of a Salesman or something.

Lalami: Oh my god. (laughs)

Correspondent: But instead of the fountain pen, it was a paperweight. I don’t know.

Lalami: Very clever. No, no. I wasn’t thinking of that. You know, to this day, I don’t know why he does that. I mean, I think — I don’t know. And the fact that it turns up later on in the book, that again. I mean, literally, two lines before it happened, I didn’t know it was going to be on that desk.

Correspondent: Maybe you needed Chekhov’s gun.

Lalami: (laughs)

Correspondent: Maybe that’s what this is all about.

Lalami: Yes, maybe.

Correspondent: I mean, intuitively, when you introduce a character or an element or an object along these lines, to what degree is your subconscious saying, “Hey, I’ve got to go ahead and put things in here that I can follow up later, and resolve, and wrap things up.”

Lalami: Honestly, yes. Honestly, it really did happen at the level of the subconscious. And I couldn’t tell you why he steals it. Or why? I mean, it seemed fitting to me that the friend would convince him to sell it. I mean, that was just something that fit with the character. But why it would then turn up on Hateem’s desk, I don’t know. You know, honestly, it just seemed to be intuitive. I was just following my intuition with that. Maybe there is a larger symbolic subconscious meaning to it.

Correspondent: Or maybe you had a really painful, cathartic, and emotional experience with a paperweight.

Lalami: No.

Correspondent: That you’re just not going to share.

Lalami: (laughs) Then the story would be a lot more interesting.

BSS #291: Laila Lalami (Download MP3)

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RIP David Carradine

David Carradine was one of the last grungy B-movie kings. The fight scene above from Kung Fu: The Movie, featuring Carradine fighting against Brandon Lee, is preposterous by just about every measure. But it captures our interest because Carradine truly wanted to sell the scene in his strange and distinctive manner. Carradine was the master of the silly gesture and the rip-your-guts-out expression, a combination rarely seen in contemporary cinema and, for that matter, rarely seen in the 1970s and the 1980s. But Carradine had the boldness to make it work. As Caine, Carradine had a higher tenor than you expected. His voice was slightly unsuited to his character. The constant declarations that he would not fight or that he was not interested in money proved to be a load of bollocks. But goddammit, he was interesting. He came up during a time in which schlocky filmmakers compensated for cheesy scripts by giving actors bizarre things to do. He was quirky yet strangely masculine. And it’s doubtful we’ll see his like again for some time.

Forthcoming Books

Over the weekend, the Chicago Sun-Times ran a summer reading preview in which it asked many of its contributors about books that they were looking for. Darby Dixon III has written recently about the dangers of anticipating new books. And the issue of having too many interesting books to read has caused grumblings even from the most robust readers. It’s not that we don’t want to read these books. We just don’t know when we’ll read them. Speaking for myself, William T. Vollmann’s Imperial sits in the pile, and it looks like it might devour some of the smaller books as snacks. (To give you some sense of the problem, Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist and Richard Powers’s Generosity are 50 cent bags of Doritos by comparison. Is this really fair?)

But you can’t just stick with the tried and true. There are books from emerging authors and small presses that must not be overlooked! There are good books that are being ignored. There are books that don’t stand a chance if everybody’s looking forward to the new Lethem.

This begs the question of whether we should be asking some of these these authors to stop writing for six months so that some of us may catch up on our reading and be fair to all the books. Or perhaps we should ask the federal government to bail out readers so that literary culture can thrive. Then again, it’s possible that we may approach a six month window in which there is nothing particularly worthwhile to read. And then America can be humiliated yet again with another public denouncement from Horace Engdahl that only people like Harold Augenbraum will actually care about. The rest of us will catch up with the backlog.

There’s a new David Mitchell novel and a new Scarlett Thomas novel set for publication in 2010. It just doesn’t stop, does it?

There has to be a solution to all this. And the Chicago Sun-Times is to be commended for its salubrious idea. But I’d like to take the experiment further. Instead of just listening to the experts, what about readers as a whole? If you’ve never left a comment on this website, your time to get conversational has come. What books are you looking forward to this year? Who are the authors that jazz you up? Please know that the answers aren’t limited to literary titles. This is not a snobbish query, but a curious one. Which books are you looking forward to in 2009?

Is Wall Street 2 Happening?

geckoNikki Finke claims that Wall Street 2 is in the works, with Michael Douglas returning as Gordon Gekko and Shia LaBeouf purportedly in negotiations to co-star. The news was also reported by The Telegraph and the Hollywood Reporter back in April.

I called Bryan Lourd’s office — Lourd is Oliver Stone’s agent — but Lourd’s assistant could neither confirm nor deny with me that Wall Street 2 was actually happening. Calls to Oliver Stone’s publicist were not returned.

I contacted Melissa Kates’s office by telephone and email. Kates’s office, who handles LaBeouf’s publicity, could not tell me anything over the phone. Emails have not yet been returned.

Efforts to reach individuals representing Michael Douglas were unsuccessful.

The project seems to be happening, but nobody seems to be talking to anyone other than Finke.

Sherman Alexie Clarifies “Elitist” Charges

As noted by Kassia Kroszer and others, Sherman Alexie recently expressed some controversial remarks in relation to the eReader. At a BookExpo panel, Alexie called the Amazon Kindle “elitist” and said that he wanted to hit a woman sitting on a plane who was using a Kindle on her flight to New York.

Now since I’m a man known to make extraordinary statements myself, I recognized Alexie’s pugilistic promise as the conversational theater he intended. Nevertheless, I was baffled by Alexie’s position. So I took it upon myself to contact Alexie to figure out where the guy was coming from. I didn’t believe the boilerplate message on his website was enough. Alexie was very gracious to respond to my questions.

alexieWhy do you consider the Kindle “elitist?”

I consider the Kindle elitist because it’s too expensive. I also consider it elitist because, right now, one company is making all the rules. I am also worried about Jeff Bezos’ comments about wanting to change the way we read books. That’s rather imperial. Having grown up poor, I’m also highly aware that there’s always a massive technology gap between rich and poor kids. I haven’t yet heard what Amazon plans to do about this potential technology gap. And that’s a vital question considering that Bezos wants to change the way we read books. How does he plan to change the way that poor kids read books? How does he plan to make sure that poor kids have access to the technology? Poor kids all over the country don’t have access to current textbooks, so will they have access to Kindle?

Have you ever used a Kindle? What has been your experience?

I’ve played with a Kindle. Didn’t emotionally connect with it like I immediately did with my iPod. That’s been the fascinating thing for me. I’m not even remotely a Luddite. I love all of my tech toys (and I love, but I have a visceral negative reaction to eBooks. I recognize that it is partly irrational and that’s why it was easy to be influenced by some of the powerful letters of dissent I read from Kindle lovers.

Several eReaders were introduced at BEA with a $249 price point. If your objections to the Kindle involve price point, would you consider the Kindle (or any eReader) to be elitist if everybody could afford it?

Is there an ideal price point? Capitalism decides that. But I do want to know about Amazon’s social commitments to literacy and other social issues. If eBooks do take over the market, then dozens more independent bookstores will close, and all sorts of communities will lose a vital social force. Does Amazon have any plans to fill the social gaps left by those closed stores?

If more people wanted to read your books in digital form than in print form, would you still refuse to make your books available in digital? Why?

I have to make my books available electronically. I have held out on the matter for as long as possible, but I have no author allies in this fight, so I have to submit. I have to sign contracts for eBook rights. I’m doing this in the blind because none of us know what’s going to happen. The last screenwriters’ strike in Hollywood was largely the result of this same issue. The legal issues regarding the Internet and copyrights and revenue are still unclear. And I don’t think I’m so crazy to worry that large corporations may not have my best interests in mind when they are offering me deals. I guess this is the thing that amazes me most. I am taking a very tiny stand against many large corporations. I am asking what I think are serious, tough questions and all sorts of people are vilifying me for it. When it comes to this, many people are taking the side of massive corporations over one writer trying to get answers. They’re treating me like I’m Goliath. It reminds me of the way people think of professional athletes and their salaries. All sorts of middle-class folks agree with the billionaire owners of sports teams that the millionaire players make too much money.

Isn’t it reverse elitism to be against those who use eReaders?

And I’m not against eBook readers. I’m worried about the eBook’s influence on the whole culture. And while I certainly insulted Kindle lovers, I meant to tease and razz the Kindle itself. I meant to razz Amazon.

What makes a digital copy of your book any different from a book on tape? Surely, a recorded version of your book is just as much of a corruptible form.

I am in control of my audio books. And, as you will notice, I have only done three audio books, and have not been happy with that process, either, for various reasons. But when it comes to subrights, it seems that the farther one gets from the original writer and publisher, the more likely it is that the subrights licenser thinks of the books as product and not as art. The author of the original work becomes less and less important. And at every step off the way, the original artist makes far less money and has far less power than any of the companies profiting from the work.

In what manner are you embracing digital media? What is your present familiarity with technology? Can you say anything positive about e-books?

I am also worried about what effect our video screen culture is having on us and our children. We all spend so much time looking at screens-TVs, computers, video games, cell phones, PDAs, and now eBooks-but we don’t know yet much about the negative effects of this technology on us. I seem to recall plenty of times when human beings rushed to use a certain technology because it was incredibly effective and convenient, and only later learned about the minor and major negative effects of that technology. A friend said something interesting to me and this is a paraphrase, “Those eBooks are like a gold rush, and people get irrational during gold rushes. Sherman, you’re being negatively irrational about the technology, but lots of people are being positively irrational.”

I love my iPod, my cell phone, my computer, and my HDTV. I have and enjoy a strong Internet presence with a great website and I have published poems and stories all over the web. In fact, I just published a poem that’s in the current online and print versions of the New Yorker. People are eager to portray me as being anti-technology, but that’s not the case at all. I think the iPod is as vital as the fork and wheel. So I’m not even sure why I have this strange, subterranean fear and loathing of the Kindle and its kind. I think it’s really about childhood. Books saved my life, Edward. I rose out of poverty and incredible social dysfunction because of books. And all of my senses-sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste-come into play when I think and read about books. Books are tactile and eccentric. An eBook will always be a gorgeous but anonymous box. It will also be just a tool–perhaps an amazing and useful tool-but I don’t want it to replace the book. And I’m worried that many people don’t care about the book itself, and see the eBook as a replacement. And I’m worried that Amazon and other eBook distributors will completely replace bookstores. The careers of nearly every successful writer are based on the amazing human interaction between bookstore employees and readers. I enjoy an amazing career because, over the last seventeen years, bookstore employees, librarians, and book lovers have handed a copy of my book to another person and said, “You have to read this.” That face-to-face interaction will become more and more rare. Sure, the Internet can launch careers, but there is a loss of intimacy that should be acknowledged and mourned.

BEA 2009: Michael Lewis


As the above photo reveals, I did indeed talk with Michael Lewis at BookExpo. Unfortunately, it appears that we didn’t get audio for this three minute conversation. This was due to a regrettable technical glitch with the equipment. But in my defense, this interview occurred on a day in which I didn’t really intend to do interviews. But the Norton people suggested it. And I had the equipment on me. And I had precisely 90 seconds to get everything out of my backpack. It seemed a good idea at the time.

Mr. Lewis, known predominantly for his financial writing, has a new book called Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood. The book has cobbled together numerous journals that Mr. Lewis kept as he became a father. I asked Mr. Lewis if, over the course of this journal writing, he had viewed fatherhood in the same manner in which he viewed denominated bills, or whether he possibly arranged the book in chapters that lined up to specific monetary units. Mr. Lewis became a little confused by this, but he denied that he had set out to reconsider fatherhood in ones, fives, and tens. When I asked Mr. Lewis if his book had mentioned any dead presidents, he said that the book did not. I did not understand why Mr. Lewis dropped eye contact with me as the interview progressed. I thought we were having a pleasant conversation. Perhaps his throat was parched and he needed a bottle of water.

But let me assure you that Mr. Lewis does take fatherhood very seriously. And anyone who needs a serious book about fatherhood may want to consider purchasing Michael Lewis’s Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood for the family home. I thank Mr. Lewis and Norton for the three-minute conversation, and I apologize that this post serves as an accidental guide to a conversation in which I did not get audio.

I should also observe that Michael Lewis’s shirt was somewhat liberally unbuttoned. Apparently, fatherhood is something in which your neck may require additional contact with the air. I sincerely hope that there is a chapter in Home Game that explains Mr. Lewis’s sartorial decision.