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Jeffrey Ford (The Bat Segundo Show)

Jeffrey Ford is most recently the author of Crackpot Palace. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #36 and The Bat Segundo Show #191.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Constricted by restrictive taxonomies.

Author: Jeffrey Ford

Subjects Discussed: Eleven-hour drives from Ohio, the first-person “road” stories featuring a fictitious “Jeffrey Ford” and his wife Lynn vs. the real Jeff and Lynn, Isaac Bashevis Singer, when autobiography creeps into fiction, when we aren’t really the people we really are, efforts to avoid the predictable in fiction, slightly busted stories, taking the staid form of a YA vampire story and finding a new way to do it, Let the Right One In, being persuaded by Ellen Datlow, unfettered surrealism, “The War Between Heaven and Hell Wallpaper,” varying notions of experimentalism, limitations with the surreal, the importance of grounding a story for the reader, Alice Munro, well-told tales vs. pyrotechnics, spiders burrowing into the brain, how the Fleischer cartoons and Kim Deitch are great inspirations for fiction, dark cartoons, Robert Coover, what writers are allowed to do in fiction, the difficulty of throwing stories out, finding new pathways from broken stories, how Donald Rumsfield inspires fictitious robot generals, the absurdity of war hero worship, Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson on the racetrack, Graham Joyce, why unseemly conversation topics are great for emotional fiction, how speculation leads to unexpected mimesis, when people are more concerned with categorizing a story into an obscure subgenre rather than accepting a story for what it is, the yoke of genre, the folly of labeling a story steampunk, idiosyncrasy and originality in fiction, having realistic expectations about your audience, combating story formula, the advantages of not knowing who a “Jeff Ford reader” is, rethinking The Island of Dr. Moreau, Charles Laughton’s acting and directing career, when animals go crazy, glass eels in New Jersey, working with Joyce Carol Oates for New Jersey Noir, imagination inspired by dreams vs. imagination inspired by location, the anecdotes you can collect from coroners, insects that buzz around human heads in eccentric flight patterns, paintings and esoteric folklore as starting points, Ford’s secret life as an owl enthusiast, and why it’s so difficult to write a Dust Bowl novel.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: How can fiction tell us about these unknowable sensations that stretch beyond the territory of what an embedded journalist can actually cover? That work that terrain? We’re essentially imagining and hypothesizing about what that sheer brutality or violence is likely to be. Is the kind of speculation in fiction better than, say, the speculation by priapic op-ed types?

Ford: I don’t think it is. Terry Gross had a lot of reporting from people who had actually been in Fallujah and places like that. And their descriptions of the stuff are really terrifying to me. I can’t imagine being a 19-year-old kid. I’d be just standing there stone stark scared, shitting my pants. You know what I mean? You’ve got these 19-year-old kids, 18-year-old kids, who are acting. They’re doing what they have to do. Which I don’t know how they do it. So you hear about those things. The reality of them. That’s one thing, right? You can approximate things though. I mean, I remember reading this piece by Hemingway. He was talking. He was hanging out with Sherwood Anderson. Anderson had never been to a racetrack or anything. He didn’t really know anything about horses, but he described this guy falling off his horse backwards in one of his stories. And he had never seen anything like this happen before. And he and Hemingway were at the racetrack the next day or a couple days later right after they were talking about this. And the guy, that actually happened. And they saw it. And Hemingway said it happened exactly the way that he wrote it. You know what I mean? So I think to an extent you’re able to imagine those things. Because you’re a human being. You’re in those kind of situations.

There are instances and there are moments though like when you would think something would be the way it is. You know, the way that you’d imagine it. But it’s probably the opposite. So you have a situation. I read a story once by Graham Joyce — a British writer. And he had these two fathers. And one father was kind of abusing his kid and the other father was getting mad at him and went over to him. Now most writers would take that and have it like some kind of corny screaming match. But he didn’t do that. He did this low-key conversation that was full of menace, but really controlled. You know what I mean? And that’s the way it really would have happened. But most people would have gone for the — oh, this is obviously going to turn into a fight or like fisticuffs and stuff. But I’ve seen that happen before. And it’s not what you would first go for. It’s something else entirely. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

Correspondent: I think what we’re talking about is how the fiction writer saturates herself into speculation, and enough speculation with which to offer, I suppose, a plausible narrative incident that in some strange way mimics what could happen in reality or actually even anticipates it. What do you do? Have there been incidents where you’ve had a moment that, “Aw man, I’m really embarrassed for having gotten something wrong”? Or do you even care about something like this?

Ford: Well, you know, I’ve had moments where I come to that. In “86 Deathdick Road,” right, we’re talking about one of the most basic human things that most people will not cop to. Jealousy, right? Fears of inadequacy and so forth. These are not topics that I would bring up to talk about myself in a pleasant conversation. But when you come to this stuff in the story, that’s where you have to make your decision. Like am I going to go for it? ‘Cause you know if you don’t, the story’s going to suck. But if you can do it and pull it off, you’ll say those things that most people aren’t going to say. And that’ll make the story interesting, I think, and come to life. You know? There is a period, a place sometimes where you have to ask that question to yourself. Can I do this? And then, more times than not, I’m like, “You know what? I’ve learned to appreciate those instances and then push through them.” I think that’s really the way to go. ‘Cause otherwise what’s the fucking point?

(Photo: Houari B.)

The Bat Segundo Show #483: Jeffrey Ford III (Download MP3)

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Ariel S. Winter (The Bat Segundo Show)

Ariel S. Winter is most recently the author of The Twenty-Year Death.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he can condense the shards of his life into a twenty-year epic spanning three books.

Author: Ariel S. Winter

Subjects Discussed: Day jobs, being a stay-at-home father, sneaking out to write in the library, the exhaustion of writing after kids have gone to bed, Susan Straight, Stewart O’Nan writing 250 words a day, maximum time and page counts, the choice of pastiche, Georges Simenon writing novels in 11 days, original idea of a reader frame narrative, Police at a Funeral‘s original title, similarities between main character and F. Scott Fitzgerald, postponing writing in the first person until volume III, knowing the end based on Jim Thompson endings, The Alcoholic, narrators having the same sound, Pop. 1280, adopting specific verbal phrases, Chandler’s “automatic elevators”, Thompson’s “five-ten dollars”, consulting pages of Chandler/Simenon/Thompson books before writing, chronological accuracy, The Yellow Dog, references to World War II in Chandler’s novels, the importance of newspapermen, The Furies, punishment of those who kill members of their own family, Fitzgerald’s lone play, deaths with a comic tone, Murder, My Sweet, Thompson’s criminals never thinking they are at fault, Chandler being the most difficult to emulate, John Banville’s upcoming Philip Marlowe novel, apologizing to each writer in the dedication, poems in dialogue with other poems, Marlowe’s interest in poetry and chess,The Long Goodbye, maintaining the consistency of pastiche through various drafts, changing the ending to Malniveau Prison, Charles Ardai as editor, the Hard Case Crime editing style, James M. Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress, advantages of genre and pastiche versus original voice, and modernist aspects of The Twenty-Year Death.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: We were talking beforehand. I was curious what you did. And you said, “Well, I’m not going to tell you, Ed. I’m going to tell it to you on air.” I was curious about your life that is not a writer. What is that like? What is it that you do? What is your day job?

Winter: Well, my day job is I’m the primary caregiver to my daughter. It was always the plan that when we had kids, I would stay home. So that is what I’ve done since she was born. She’s four. She just turned four. So that’s more than a day job. (laughs)

Correspondent: It is.

Winter: Taking care is really a 24/7 job.

Correspondent: But it does allow you time to write novels.

Winter: Well, so the only way that that was able to happen was we hired somebody, a college girl, to come in three hours a day, five days a week. And I would sneak out, go to the library, and write during that time.

Correspondent: Oh really? So you had to arrange day care to ensure that you could get progress and momentum in the book.

Winter: Yes. Because it’s different.

Correspondent: People don’t talk about that too.

Winter: Well, I’ve worked full-time jobs and written books. And, believe it or not, as hard as it is to come home after working an eight-hour day and then go and sit and write, it’s doable. Where spending ten hours with a two-year-old, you can’t then sit and write when she goes to bed.

Correspondent: Not even a quick sentence or anything?

Winter: It’s too exhausting.

Correspondent: I was talking with Susan Straight and she said that she would always find time to write. Like when she was driving in her car. She scribbles down whatever sentences she can for that day. Just to get some kind of momentum. And then there’s the Stewart O’Nan thing, where he writes like a page. 250 words a day and that’s it. That’s all he can add. But in his case, it takes the whole day. So, for you, has that three hour need to get something going, I mean, what do you generally push forward on in terms of pages and words and so forth?

Winter: When things are going really well, I can write up to four hours a day. But I never write more than four hours usually. So three hours works really well, usually in that first hour might take me a little bit to get going. I might only write a page in that first hour and then I can, in that second hour, I can potentially write six pages once I’ve gotten started. So my goal is usually to write at least two hours or, if I have a ridiculous day, ten pages. I try to do one or the other. Whichever comes first. Rarely do I write ten pages in less than two hours, but those are my goals.

Correspondent: This leads me to ask if you actually adopted any techniques to write not only in the style of [Georges] Simenon, [Raymond] Chandler, and [Jim] Thompson [who represent the three styles of the novels contained in The Twenty-Year Death], but also to perhaps write the exact same way that they did. I mean, I did notice that the years that these three separate novels were set matched roughly around the type of writing that Simenon, Chandler, and Thompson were doing at the time. So as a way of offering a general question about why you need to do pastiche over say an original voice, maybe you can talk about this a little bit

Winter: Right. Well, to answer the initial part of your question, I didn’t try to drink a whole lot or smoke cigars.

Correspondent: I figured that was impossible with a two-year-old at home, although it hasn’t prevented other people from trying.

Winter: Right. So I didn’t adopt that part. And then also Simenon, he wrote his novels usually in eleven days. You know, I’m not that fast. I write fast when I’m writing, but not a novel in eleven days. Because I definitely wasn’t able to do that. The reason that I ended up writing in those voices was quite simply, initially, because I was just reading a lot of Simenon at the time. And originally the book that I had set out to write was going to be a book in which there was a reader reading a number of different books. And each of the books the reader read, we would see in full. So there would be this frame narrator — this first-person reader. Then we would see what he had read. And the first one I wrote was this Simenon pastiche. Then as I worked on that book more and I had started to feel like it wasn’t working, I wanted to hold onto them in a prison, which is the Simenon book in The Twenty-Year Death. So as I started to think about expanding and what I might want to do, that’s when I came up with the idea of what would a mystery series look like if it wasn’t the detective that we saw from book to book. Like one of the secondary characters. So since I had already written one in the voice of the author, it followed that I wanted to do the other two in the voice of different authors. And part of that was dictated just by the way that the main character’s, Shem Rosenkratz’s, life would have progressed. He was loosely based on Fitzgerald’s character.

Correspondent: Yes. Police at a Funeral [the title of the second book contained in The Twenty-Year Death] was a title that is in The Crack-Up.

Winter: You’re the first person to pick that up. But, yes, that was purposeful. And what’s really interesting is that I didn’t write the book with that in mind. So the scene where there are actually policemen at a funeral? I wrote that without realizing that was a Fitzgerald title.

Correspondent: The subconscious is an amazing thing.

The Bat Segundo Show #482: Ariel S. Winter (Download MP3)

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Paula Bomer (The Bat Segundo Show)

Paula Bomer is most recently the author of Nine Months. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #375

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for the mother who stole the car keys.

Author: Paula Bomer

Subjects Discussed: Katie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives, similarities between exploring women’s issues in fiction and hyperbolic op-ed journalists, how emotional candor and candid language reveals issues about women and motherhood, people who use children as an excuse not to write or so what they need to do, J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand, agents who pester writers for new novels, empty nest syndrome, judging other people’s reactions in relation to children, writing about raw experience, the tendency for young writers to write about everything, the relationship between nostalgia and experience, “writing pregnancy like a man,” responding to Alison Mercer’s claims that there aren’t enough birth scenes in fiction, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, people who viewed the first chapter of Nine Months (describing birth) as disgusting, Sylvia Plath’s journals, Elizabeth Jane Howard, when the visual and the emotional becomes frightening when conveyed through language, death and rape getting better representation in fiction than birth, the animal nature of birth, how birth was portrayed in the 1930s, being scared of things that have multiple names, Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, human memory and birth, how notions of motherhood change in various parts of America, New York having an impact on the parenting industry far more than it should, South Bend, Indiana, how childhood greatly affects perception of New York parenting, doping kids up on Adderall as a solution to poor grades and to compete with others, public-sphere competition involving kids in metropolitan areas, considering the Venn diagram between work and motherhood, much ado about Marissa Mayer being a pregnant CEO, breast milk vs. formula, the Bloomberg assault on formula, Baby Einstein tests, why contemporary writers wish to avoid writing about mothers smoking pot and having sex with strangers, satire vs. farce, the need to rebel as a writer, facing the uncomfortable through humor, shifting from short stories to novels, deviating from outlines, Phillip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater, Jonathan Franzen, Amazon reviews, the importance of not looking at reviews, Michiko Kakutani, Jonathan Lethem’s needless complaints about James Wood, Mailer vs. Vidal, when rivals in literary feuds are actually secret friends (and the needless “all or nothing” nature of most of today’s literary relationships), Alice Hoffman’s posting a reviewer’s phone number, William Giraldi’s review of Alix Ohlin, when bad reviews actually sell books, writing persuasive sex scenes, the Bad Sex Award in Fiction, graphic language, Mary Gaitskill’s views on smugness, the use of “smug” in Nine Months, writing fan letters to writers, dealing with disappointment, snobbery and hierarchies, elitism and egalitarianism, occupying unknown circles, being inspired by men’s magazines, the need for magazines to require an “angle” when writing about something cool, and the demolition derby as art installation.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: By a curious coincidence, I read your book concurrently with Katie Roiphe’s latest essay collection, In Praise of Messy Lives. And what was interesting, and I’m sure it wasn’t the fact that I read them close together, was that the tone of both were actually quite similar. Sonia’s voice and Katie Roiphe’s voice were actually very, very close. And I wanted to ask you about this. I mean, they both wish to wear their messy lives on their sleeves as a badge of honor. They both don’t always understand the impact of their behavior on other people, on their families, and so forth. But what’s interesting is that the chief difference is that Sonia actually does have some sort of emotional intuition. She is capable of discerning empathy and so forth from others, even if she doesn’t necessarily choose to respond to it. And so my question to you — well, there’s two. One, I’m wondering if you had any op-ed writers along the lines of Katie Roiphe or other Double X people in mind when you were working on this book. And, two, do you feel that candor or straightforward emotion allows us to deal with these more unpleasant feelings about what it is to be a woman, what it is to be a mother, and so forth?

Bomer: To answer your first question, I didn’t have anybody else in mind. Sonia just became a character in her own right. And I’ve actually never read an article by Katie Roiphe. I don’t read a lot of journalism. I read a few things by, say, Caitlin Flanagan five years ago and now I steer clear…

Correspondent: (laughs)

Bomer: …from most hyperbolic journalism.

Correspondent: It’s just ire-inducing. Too much of that.

Bomer: Yeah. Life’s too short. So that’s interesting that the voices are similar: obviously, not purposefully.

Correspondent: I don’t know if I should have told you. But this answers why. (laughs)

Bomer: I was a little shocked.

Correspondent: You did give me this look of like “Oh my god, really?”

Bomer: (laughs) But it’s all good. And then I’m sorry. Your second question was in regard to…I forgot.

Correspondent: Emotional candor, straightforward language, how it allows us to grapple with these particular emotions dealing with motherhood and womanhood. And also while we’re on the subject, whether fiction is better at doing this than say journalism or op-eddy kind of stuff.

Bomer: I don’t think fiction is better for it, but it’s better for me. I think that fiction is a place where I’m much more comfortable writing. A lot of people ask how autobiographical this novel is. And, no, I never left my family for months. I never had an accidental third pregnancy. And one of the main differences between the character and me is that I never stopped writing when my children were little. And Sonia stops being able to paint and feels that her children disrupt her ability to be creative. And I actually had an epiphany when my son was given to me. My first son was born and he was handed to me and one of the first thoughts — first of all, “Oh my god! My beautiful baby!” And my second thought was “I’m never going to blame him for anything in my life. I’m never going to use my kids as a scapegoat.” I think my mother did a little bit. By the way, only a little bit. She accomplished so much in her life. But I never wanted my children to be the reason why I didn’t do what I wanted to do outside of family. My family was always a huge priority. I got pregnant at 27, which is unheard of in New York. But I never wanted to not write. So other people go into the gym or you have lunch with friends. And I would hit the computer. And it took me a long time to get published. But I was always writing. And for Sonia, her children really get in the way. And for me, there was a lot of “Okay. Alright. They’re taking a nap. Here, I’m going to write two paragraphs. Woo hoo!” So it wasn’t that it wasn’t a struggle at times, but never, not to her extent, where she just can’t manage both identities.

Correspondent: You know, J. Robert Lennon wrote Pieces for the Left Hand the same way. The kids were there for a nap. He would write like a few paragraphs. So this is a very common thing for writers who are also taking care of kids and so forth. The path not taken. That’s what I’m getting here with Sonia.

Bomer: Exactly. That’s a good way to look at it.

Correspondent: So I’m wondering. Did you — I mean, this is probably getting into personal territory, but did you harbor any anxieties over the idea of having a third kid?

Bomer: Definitely. This book was written when I was thinking of having a third kid. It was kind of a book talking myself out of it.

Correspondent: (laughs) Really? You had to write a piece of fiction to talk yourself out of family planning? (laughs)

Bomer: You know, I’m just trying to be funny here. But there’s some truth to it.

Correspondent: I figured there was!

Bomer: I hadn’t sold my story collection yet. But my stories had gotten some attention by agents and everybody wants to know, “Gee, do you have a novel? Do you have a novel?” And I’d say, “Okay, I’m working on this novel.” And then I really started working very hard on it. It still took ten years later before it got published. But, yeah, it’s a hard thing to let go of having babies. Babies are a little addictive. That’s why you see families with ten children who aren’t Catholic. I think I hit on it also a lot in one story. In “The Second Son,” in my collection, I have this woman who just keeps saying, “New baby’s full of possibility!” Whereas the older children start to disappoint slightly. And having children, besides infancy being incredibly exhausting and time-consuming, it’s the most intense love affair. And you love your children. I love my 13-year-old. And I love my 16-year-old. But my 16-year-old’s off all day long with girlfriends. It’s just not the same thing as holding this infant who’s still almost part of your body. And that intensity, it’s a hard thing to say, “I’m never going to do that again.” And everybody does it a different time. I have respect for people who have no children, one child, five children, whatever your thing is. No one should judge. And this book deals with a lot of judging. “I had a lot. You’re not having a third?” And three was this group of women, they were all having their third and I just was saying, “No. My boys. I have my left and my right arm. I’m not missing anybody. Nobody’s missing here.”

Correspondent: But the emotional intensity you allude to becomes, as the kids grow up — this is also another issue which I didn’t intend to talk with you about, but since you brought it up. There was a blog post I read off of Metafilter — as a matter of fact, the other day — where this woman wrote about the absolute emotional devastation she felt at that moment where she finally had to say goodbye to her kid when the kid when off to college.

Bomer: Yeah. Empty nest syndrome!

Correspondent: The empty nest syndrome.

Bomer: Oh my god. It’s not a joke.

Correspondent: And the complete emotional breakdown she had. And what was interesting about the thread — and I sort of sympathize with a number of different points, but a lot of people said, “Wow. This is really hyperbolic. A woman would not have this extreme emotion.” Then a part of me was saying, “Well, actually she would.” Or maybe there’s just something in the translation of words that forces something to become more intense than the actual feelings that you’re feeling or perhaps less intense.

Bomer: Also, everybody’s different.

Correspondent: Yes.

Bomer: That’s the plain thing. Everybody feels differently about certain junctures in their life. For instance, I was really happy to graduate from high school. And other people pined for those high school days when they were the big quarterback or whatever. So I think I’m going to have a really hard time with empty nest. I’m having a hard time just dealing with the fact that they don’t come home for dinner every night. But I remember talking with two older women up in Binghamton, where I used to spend my summers, and one at the age of 45, she had three boys. Two were almost all out of the house. She had a baby. Because she just couldn’t deal. So she just had a big baby like ten years later after her other three kids. And another woman was like, “When I was dropping my son off at college, and we were walking up the stairs and down the stairs, and up the stairs with the chair and the desk, and then finally I was like, ‘Good riddance.’ There was no problem. It was time.” So everybody’s different.

Correspondent: Well, the question I had, which I was going to get to — although this is all fantastic and I love the rambling. The notion of facing an empty nest reality vs. looking back to your own life as Paula for Sonia to how you felt when the kids were just becoming presences and who kept you up at all hours and so forth. I’m curious, first of all, if you see any parallels between looking ahead that might actually help you in looking behind. How much space do you need to go back to certain tangible feelings? Or does the idea of the path not taken allow for all sorts of emotional possibilities that you never would have anticipated being there as you’re sitting there, getting those precious paragraphs between spare moments?

Bomer: I would say both. In particular, in regard to this book, a lot of it was written when my children were still quite small. Ten years ago. So ten years ago, I had a three-year-old and a six-year-old. And that was the first draft, and the whole path not taken, and just having a lot of fun, although it was also hard work. Don’t get me wrong. But fun in imagining someone doing this. Running you off. Doing wild things. And then the other thing is perspective. Because I revised and I revised. And then ten years later, certain revisions, the fact that I’m looking back at that time with some nostalgia definitely affects certain aspects of the novel.

Correspondent: How so? Maybe you can elaborate on this. How does that nostalgia — is that altogether a beneficial thing? Could it be a harmful feeling?

Bomer: Well, perspective and nostalgia can be interchangeable. And mostly I write from perspective. The parts of Nine Months where I’m writing about the rawness of the experience, that’s rare. Although it’s not a bad thing to do. Generally, I need a few years or even longer. My next book that I’m working on, all the characters are between the ages of twelve and twenty-two. And it’s really interesting to write about junior high when you’re 40. Probably not so interesting when you are 12. And that’s where nostalgia and perspective are actually vital and why one of my problems — a lot of people are asking, “What do you think about all these young people in the small press world? And all these 22-year-olds?” And I kind of think if they had waited ten more years, what would their work have been like? Would it have been better instead of that new style of just saying whatever pops into their heads. Which I guess is a little harsh. Sorry.

Correspondent: No, no, no. It make sense. There’s kind of a tradeoff with time though. The further you are from something, you have perhaps more bravery to approach the truth. On the other hand, you realize that perhaps there are lingering wounds there or lingering pain that you never would have anticipated. You thought you had actually put it away. Did you face this problem at all?

Bomer: Definitely.

Correspondent: What did you do to confront something like that?

Bomer: Well, you suffer as a person and then you try and capture it some way and work it into the narrative, if that’s a possibility. Remorse. I think you’re talking about remorse.

Correspondent: Or things that you did that you wish you couldn’t have done.

Bomer: Your regret.

Correspondent: Genuine contrition, yeah.

Bomer: There’s a lot of that. I’m someone who — every day, I do something that I regret.

Correspondent: Don’t we all? (laughs)

Bomer: Well, some people don’t. Maybe some people more than others.

Correspondent: Well, what’s an example? What do you regret doing today?

Bomer: Well….(pause)

Correspondent: (laughs) Or can you share?

Bomer: (laughs) I don’t want to get into the specifics.

Correspondent: I don’t know. We were on the subject. (laughs)

The Bat Segundo Show #481: Paula Bomer II (Download MP3)

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Martin Amis (The Bat Segundo Show)

Martin Amis is most recently the author of Lionel Asbo. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #101.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Seeking the filter of considered thought.

Author: Martin Amis

Subjects Discussed: How smoking prohibitions curtail sociopaths, Katie Price as fictional inspiration, reading the collected works of Jordan, whether Amis should be writing about the working class, class anxiety, living with a Welsh coal miner’s family, Amis’s views on class disappearing in England, the London riots, the 1992 Los Angeles riots, people shooting at each other during Black Friday, income inequality, physical deterioration in Amis’s novels, Lindsay Anderson’s if…, the male climacteric, Amis’s tendency to introduce incest with legal and moral codex, researching incest, “yokel wisdom,” New Labour and education, opportunism and rioting, Occupy Wall Street, police brutality, whether fiction can ever rectify social ills, Swift’s A Modest Proposal, Dickens, the video game medium, clarifying Amis’s stance and false rumors of shame about Invasion of the Space Invaders, being befuddled by remotes, addiction, being a Luddite, representing the present in fiction without including smartphones, going back in time as a novelist, Money and Amis’s lack of interest in New York, when nonfiction serves as a muse for fiction, pornography, masturbation, young people and sex, The Pregnant Widow, not fully understanding world events when writing The Second Plane, the massacre of the Sunni Muslims in Syria, social media, the camera as world policeman, Nabokov’s slogans, what provoked Amis’s impetuous words in a 2006 interview, Amis’s problematic remarks in interviews, lacking a filter, and writing as the ultimate intercession.

FULL TRANSCRIPT:

Correspondent: I wanted to actually start this conversation with smoking. I know that this an interest of yours, but it is interesting. Because I noticed something fascinating about Lionel Asbo. Here’s a guy who has no problem muttering melee-inspiring words at a wedding, right? He’s also a guy who has no problem feeding Tabasco and lager to his pit bulls. And yet, rather interestingly, when it comes to this hotel that he stays in, where everything is nonsmoking, he does, in fact, go out every fifteen to twenty minutes for his cigarette. It’s this rare moment of civilization. That he’s actually polite. Which is very surprising, in light of the fact that he’s got this considerable fortune. And I said to myself, “Well, that is uncanny.” Because in light of your real-life crack-smoking inspiration, I’m not sure if he would do that. But then I thought to myself, well, in The Pregnant Widow, there’s this very interesting moment where you talk about how people are not allowed to smoke in dreams. There’s this interesting idea. And I’m wondering perhaps this is something of a dream. I was wondering if this came from a need to give Lionel some redeeming quality or some relatable quality. How did this happen?

Amis: Well, he’s appalled to find that the whole hotel is nonsmoking. But you can’t defy that kind of rule.

Correspondent: Even with money?

Amis: No. I mean, if you’re in a grand hotel and you don’t want to get chucked out. I mean, I think even the most fanatical smokers have accepted that. That they can’t smoke indoors anymore.

Correspondent: When did you finally give up?

Amis: Give up?

Correspondent: Yeah. I mean, give up the fight trying to smoke indoors. There’s nothing you can really do, right?

Amis: No. There’s nothing you can do. And I don’t smoke indoors here. It’s something you just — it’s a battle you’re resigned to losing.

Correspondent: Yeah. Even the great sociopath can’t smoke inside of a hotel.

Amis: No.

Correspondent: Well, in terms of other real-life inspiration, I do have to talk about Threnody, who of course is inspired by Jordan, Katie Price. You once described her as “two bags of silicone.” I know that you actually read a number of her books as research. And I’m wondering. Why couldn’t you ignore the collected works of Jordan? Because I know that you have a number of outside friends who take you into intriguing places and you have this incredible real world research that you can do. What did the Jordan books offer that your various peregrinations of a clandestine nature could not?

Amis: I came to admire Katie Price, having read those books, simply because she’s a mother of three children and one of them has great problems. And she’s a brave and dedicated mother. And my opinion of her went up. By the way, the character Threnody is not based on Katie Price. She’s a Katie Price wannabe.

Correspondent: I see.

Amis: The figure who is based on Katie Price is called Danube. I thought she had to be the name of a river.

Correspondent: Sure.

Amis: And I rejected Volga as being a bit too obvious. But I read those books really for the kind of furniture and the background of what those people get up to. She goes to the VIP enclosure of the ELLE Style Awards. I mean, you can’t make that kind of thing up. Because you just don’t know the vocabulary of that weird, semi-celebrity life. So with some characters, it’s best not to go too close. To leave your imagination some room. So I didn’t want to mingle with real-life Threnodies. I wanted to dream her up.

Correspondent: I see. So the book serves as this protective buffer. So that you don’t have to deal with a certain class of people.

Amis: Well, they complained in England that I shouldn’t be writing about the working classes, which I’ve been doing for forty years without comment or challenge anyway. So there’s a new anxiety that the working classes ought to be reghettoized in fiction. Which I think is a sort of contemptible notion. Is one only allowed to write about one’s own class? I’ve written about the royal family in fiction and no one objected to that. It’s pusillanimous and ridiculous to say that. I think there are no entry signs in fiction. You can go anywhere you like.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, I saw this very interesting three part BBC4 documentary, in which it covered you in the third part. And Hari Kunzru was interviewed. And he suggested that this tension between the upper class and the lower class in your books was, in some sense, a kind of class anxiety. That the sort of rough, tough working-class yob is going to go and grab the property or the livelihood or the affluence of the top-tier classes. And I was wondering what your thoughts are on this. Is this a tension of extremes? Do you have any fears of people like Keith Talent or Lionel Asbo in this book?

Amis: No. It’s completely unanxious. In fact, it’s celebratory. What attracts me to that milieu is how rich it is. It’s full of wit and poetry that I don’t think people understand. This is just as much a part of that life as of any other. And when I talk to people who would be dismissed in those class terms, I’m astounded by how intelligent they are and how witty and how original. No, it’s affectionate and admiring. I’ve always had this vein in my life. Right from childhood. My parents parked the children in the family of a working-class Welsh coal miner and his wife. And I took to it very much. I always responded to it and enjoyed it. And they think because you’ve been to Oxford and you’ve got a poncy accent that you must be sneering at these people. You couldn’t. Who could write a novel with that kind of emotion in the forefront? Novels are all about — it’s crude, but it’s a loving form. And that’s what I feel for all my characters.

Correspondent: You love them? Because you cannot deny that there is often a monstrous element to these figures. And in writing and coming to terms to some truth, with that monstrous and vile and scabrous quality, you’re going to have to feel some fear or some anxiety, I would think, as a writer.

Amis: No. Because who was it who said that the covers of a novel are like the bars of a cage. And you can admire the tiger or the crocodile without fear. And the novel domesticates those atavistic passions. And this guy’s a dangerous guy in my Lionel Asbo. But I think he’s quite comprehensively balanced by Desmond, his nephew, who is rather implausibly generous and empathetic and altruistic. So the two sides are there. Class disappeared in England in the ’80s, really. Margaret Thatcher, for all her sins, detached the Conservative Party from the ruling classes.

Correspondent: Class disappeared? I don’t know. I saw the London riots and that seemed very much a class struggle.

Amis: Well, I mean, of course, it’s always there. And the snobbery is still there. But they hardly dare say, they hardly dare confess to it anymore. And it was a defining feeling in the ’70s and ’80s, and earlier of course, that you were being sneered at from higher up and challenged from lower down. And the novel I wrote about that was published in ’78, called Success. But that’s a thing of another generation now.

Correspondent: How would you say class has changed from the ’70s and ’80s to now in England? And how would you say this has affected your novel writing?

Amis: It’s more — the strata are different now. It used to be upper, middle, and lower. And now it’s — the upper classes are still in its huge houses and all the rest. But the middle class has hugely expanded. And there’s now what some people call the underclass. Or the old word for it is the residuum. And that’s there. And that’s what you saw during the rioting. Although it’s a funny kind of riot when the rioters go and try on various sizes of sneaker in the shops they’re looting. Although you may notice that the only shop that wasn’t looted was the bookstore in that particular strip.

Correspondent: Well, you can say the same thing about the L.A. riots from fifteen, twenty years before. It’s the same situation. Although that doesn’t take away the fact that there are very deep tensions. There’s deep tension, of course, between the classes and race and so forth. I mean, you’re always going to have a little bit of that capitalistic element or that materialistic element. Hell, even with Black Friday, we were joking here in America last time. Because it was so severe that you have to now bring home defense in order to get that deal. I mean, it was really ridiculous. People were getting shot. It’s both utterly depressing and utterly funny at the same time. But at the same time, how do we make sense of this? Or does the fiction that you write permit one to, I suppose, embrace both feelings and feel the sense of seriousness and humor at the same time to try to contend with what this exactly means?

Amis: Yeah. Such questions as “What does this mean?” don’t really come up when you’re writing a novel. And you ask, “What are you getting at? And what are you actually saying?” To which the only answer is: I’m saying the novel, all 270 pages of it, it’s not reducible to a slogan that you put on a T-shirt. But I think a couple of years later, you see certain connections and certain relationships to real life and how you feel about it. And I think what I’m writing about when I do take on this milieu is inequality. Now as you know, the whole momentum of the mid-century and beyond was for greater equality. Now that, both here and in England, inequality is now back to post-World War I levels. The difference between the rich and the poor has increased very sharply all over again. And the reversal of that tendency was widely noticed. And I think that it’s a great evil. And I think it’s very demoralizing for a society with those levels of inequality. And I think it goes without saying that you’re sort of, in as much as a novel can strike a blow or make a claim, that you’re pointing to the shameful and ridiculous aspects of inequality.

Correspondent: Sure. Let’s shift to the notion of physical decay, which I’ve been long wanting to talk to you about. It’s this especially prominent quality in your first four novels, of course. And then it gets into outright topographical territory with John Self’s Upper West Side. And then it’s become less tangible in these more recent books. It’s more observational or reflective in some sense. And let me give you some specific examples. I think of the early line in The Pregnant Widow. You have Keith Nearing. He’s in his fifties. And he’s finding “something unprecedentedly awful” every time he visits the mirror. And then, much later in the book, you have Keith note that his body in the mirror is “realer,” even though his body is “reduced to two dimensions. Without depth and without time.” So in Lionel Asbo, you have this situation with Granny Grace. And she actually has a physical decline. But in this, what seemed to me more deeply felt was the fact that she could not do the cryptic crossword. And I wanted to ask you. Why do you think you pushed this idea of physical deterioration into something where it’s in a mirror or we’re concentrating on mental faculties? It’s interesting that you’re almost doing this in reverse, it would seem. Because one would think that the young novelist would be more concerned with physical vitality and that the older novelist would be more concerned with physical deterioration. With you, it almost seems inverse here. So I was curious about this.

Amis: Well, I think there’s a bit about it in The Pregnant Widow. When you’re young, you have what they call nostalgie de la boue. You’re homesick for the mud. You’re tied up with your bodily emanations in a kind of childish way. Then a lot of self-disgust is generated by that. Remember that, in the film if…, these schoolboys are going around. And one of them is breathing into his hand and saying, “My whole body’s rotting.” And he’s nineteen. Then it does live and you’re much more at home with your body during your thirties and forties. And then suddenly it becomes a preoccupation again, as you see…

Correspondent: That wonderful thing called the male climacteric.

Amis: Yes. It’s the decline of your powers. And no one likes that. But I think, whatever else you can say about it, it’s a great subject. And it’s possible there’s a lot of humor in it and some dreadful ironies. And it’s witty. You know, it’s not a blind insensate force. It tells you who you are. And you’re in the process of completing your reality, and this is another part of it.

Correspondent: Do you think physical deterioration is the best way for you, as a novelist, to really understand the physicality of these characters? That if you know how they’re rotting or how they think that they’re rotting, you suddenly, in your mind’s eye, immediately know, “Well, I know exactly how they move. I know exactly how they look. I know exactly how they act.” What of this?

Amis: Yeah. Well, you’re always trying to get in there. Into the hearts and souls and minds of your characters. And you want to know how they dream. And self-image is quite a good way to internalize these characters. What do they think when they look in the mirror? So that’s part of what one does automatically.

Correspondent: Well, in Success, you have this section where Gregory writes, “Of course, it’s all nonsense about ‘incest,’ you know.” And then he proceeds to cite a number of legal precedents to basically back up his reason for his incestuous relationship. In Yellow Dog, you have this issue about the sentiments where “some fathers really believe that incest is ‘natural.’” You have that. And there’s also this business of there never having been “a human society that doesn’t observe incest taboos.” In Lionel Asbo, we see, of course, another incestuous relationship. Des has to write into a newspaper to ask himself about the question of whether this is legal or right or not. It is interesting to me that nearly every time incest pops up into your work, there’s this need to confirm it against some sort of legal precedent or some sort of confirmation. You can’t just have characters getting into an incestuous relationship. You have to actually back it up with what the moral code is or what the legal code is. Why can’t you just have the reader decide whether it’s bad or not? I’m curious about this.

Amis: Well, Desmond is fifteen. And the only person he could ask for advice about these things is his grandmother. And he can’t ask her. In fact, when he does, she says, “It’s only a misdemeanor just because you’re not yet sixteen.”

Correspondent: The fact of the matter is that she uses the word “misdemeanor.” Another legal term. Which is what’s really curious about this.

Amis: Yeah. Well, I mean, it seems to me a realistic point. That he has no way of finding out. And Diston, the imaginary borough of Southeast London where the novel is largely set, is full of incest, as well as other weird demographic oddities, like life expectancy is 58 and women have five or six or seven children. It’s meant to be a world where these certainties are no longer so.

Correspondent: How much research into incest have you done? How many books on incest have you read?

Amis: For Yellow Dog, I read a book called Father-Daughter Incest. It horrifies me. Fred West, the murderer who killed my cousin, I read a lot about him too. His axiom with all his many children was — he used to tell his daughters, “Your first child ought to be your dad’s.” And you can imagine some sort of yokel rhyme saying “Unless first child by father be.” And it’s a sort of yokel wisdom. And it’s such an appalling idea. There’s a good reason why it’s taboo. It’s because nature doesn’t like it. My mother’s parents were first cousins. And my wife said to me quite recently, a few years ago when I told her this, she said, “You never told me!” And I said, “I told you a long time ago. What does it matter? It’s not all my relations are cousins, which can lead to great trouble.” And then we were in Barbados and we pulled up to ask directions in the street. And a guy turned around. He had a handkerchief in his mouth. And he was sort of burbling and was obviously deeply retarded. And as we drove away, my wife grew thoughtful and said, “You know, you really ought to have told me about your mother’s parents.” As if idiocy is waiting to swoop even now. So now that you’ve pointed this out to me, I see that it is a theme that occurs. But I don’t think I have any deep feelings about it other than it’s an unnatural and criminal activity. It’s weird that in all the prohibitions about consanguinity and relationships between related people in the Bible and I think even in the Koran, there’s no mention of father/daughter. I think perhaps because it was so common and has been so common in human history that we look the other way.

Correspondent: You mention “yokel wisdom.” And we were talking earlier about how the working class — well, a lot of them are smart and so forth. So how do you reconcile this notion of class and intelligence?

Amis: It’s partly what the novel is about. It’s about intelligence and about the uses of it. And the big contrast between Desmond, who has a great thirst for cultivating his intelligence, and Lionel, who is clearly quite bright, but is anti-intelligence and is stupid on purpose much of the time.

Correspondent: He makes a decision to be stupid, you say?

Amis: Well, Desmond says, “He gives being stupid a lot of very intelligent thought.” To come up with the stupidest thing you can possibly do.

Correspondent: But maybe Desmond is trying to figure out why he’s like this, why he decides to be like this, why he doesn’t apply himself.

Amis: Yeah. He is. But I go along with, politically and in my life, the New Labour slogan “Education, education, education.” And it’s something I deeply feel, that there’s a lot of undeveloped intelligence down there. And the people feel so neglected and excluded that they think, “Oh, to hell with it. I’m going to be stupid. I’ll show them. I’ll be even stupider than they think I am.” They’re not stupid.

Correspondent: Do you think stupidity motivated something like the London riots? Or was that desperation?

Amis: That was pure opportunism.

Correspondent: Pure opportunism?

Amis: Yeah.

Correspondent: Wow.

Amis: Opportunism. I mean, it’s almost always sparked by a bit of police brutality or overreaction. And they shot a guy who was clearly a practicing criminal in Totland. This is then the signal or the excuse, the pretext for an explosion of rage.

Correspondent: What then would be an acceptable response? Because we’re seeing, for example, with Occupy Wall Street, that movement is responded to with police brutality. You’ve got infiltrators who are then splitting up the crowd. It’s the same cycle of history that we saw in the ’60s. It’s happening again. It’s going to happen again. And if the income inequality, as we established earlier, has moved to post-World War I levels, what to you would be an acceptable form of responding to a gross inequity?

Amis: Well, for me, it would be writing about it. Either as a journalist or as a novelist. Although the novelist is always three years behind the journalist. Because you have to soak it up and absorb it and go through these weird subconscious processes before you can address it in fiction. But I thought the Occupy movement was very intelligent and curiously so postmodern in its avoidance of actual concrete demands. It was just a civilized expression of disaffection with the system.

Correspondent: It proved, I think, that an amorphous general message is what will rally a number of people together to actually protest for something.

Amis: Yeah. And not factionalism. And not competing ideologies. I very much responded to the fact that they didn’t come out with a program or a manifesto. That it was just something a bit more subliminal than that. Whether it can sustain itself looks doubtful now. But you do tend to need these slogans and rallying points. But I very much respected it while it was going on.

Correspondent: To jump back to your earlier point about writing being an answer to correct gross inequities or to remedy problems or social ills, I mean, let’s look at your work. We have probably the two most prominent examples. It would be House of Meetings and Time’s Arrow to reckon with a serious — in both cases, genocide. But I’m wondering though if that’s really what the novel should do or whether that can really have the same kind of response that, say, Shostakovitch’s symphonies did. I mean, the novel is now so marginalized in comparison to other forms. The movie, television, the video game, and so forth. I’m wondering if you really can, in fact, have that when, of course, we are now living with the Peyton Place of our time, Fifty Shades of Grey, right?

Amis: But what’s your…

Correspondent: My point is: how can the novel respond and rectify social ills when it is, in fact, so marginalized and when, in fat, it could be argued that the novel’s purpose is not necessarily to be in that didactic mode?

Amis: Well, I don’t think any novel has ever rectified anything. A novel really asserts nothing. It used to be said that satire was militant irony. That’s the distinction. That satire sets out to actually have an effect on society. But it hasn’t, has it? I mean, Swift’s A Modest Proposal was written after the Great Famine. Dickens’s attacks on Chancery and imprisonment for debt, which his own family suffered from — those abuses were over, more or less, when he wrote Little Dorritt and Bleak House. The novel doesn’t work like that. And I said “Education, education, education.” That’s what novels do. Not just on particular subjects like the gulag or the Holocaust. But a novel tries to expand the perceptual world of the reader. So that anyone who reads your book will, you hope, have a richer response to their everyday surroundings, will see the world a bit through new eyes and sort of alienized and see the strangeness of what is taken for granted and what is, in fact, ordinary. Ordinary people, I keep saying to myself, are really very strange. And I think that’s true of the whole furniture of our lives.

Correspondent: Sure. While we’re on the subject of mediums, I do have to ask you about something. I’d like to talk about a medium that has a $65 billion global value, a medium that, in fact, was used by President Obama in 2008 to advertise for his presidential campaign, a medium that your friend Salman Rushdie has claimed in an interview to be “something of an Angry Birds master.” That medium, of course, is the video game. I do know, and I have to ask you this, that you wrote a book about Space Invaders. And I’m wondering. I did notice you have your pinball machine still. Why are you reluctant to own up to this Space Invaders volume? I’ve been really curious. I mean, it’s hard to find. You don’t want to talk about it. But I’m telling you that, in this age when video games are so omnipresent and have arguably outsized the movie, why would you be loath to talk about it?

Amis: I’m not necessarily loath to talk about it. I’m no longer interested in it. But there it is on my “By the Same Author” page. I haven’t disowned it.

Correspondent: But you haven’t exactly welcomed it back into print.

Amis: It hasn’t come up. I think in Italy, they’ll redo it. But that generation of games, that’s gone.

Correspondent: Not on the phones.

Amis: Not on the…?

Correspondent: Yeah. You can play Space Invaders on a phone.

Amis: Can you?

Correspondent: You can play Pac-Man on a phone. In fact, the interesting thing about some of these games is that they’re so universal and the technology is in a compact form. So you can actually use them. But what’s also impressive is, as I said, Obama actually advertised in game for 18 games in 2008 to reach voters. That’s how significant this is. And that’s why I’m curious why you have been, at least from what I’ve seen, reticent to grapple with the fact that video games are a massive part of our culture.

Amis: It’s because I’ve been left behind by all that. It’s all I can do to get a picture upon our digital TV.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Amis: I have to shout for one of my children to come and help me. I’m sort of all thumbs with all that right now and no longer interested in those slightly onanistic, solitary pursuits. But I’m as aware as everyone else is that that kind of — and I saw it with all my children that they went through years of not really wanting to do anything else. And I know how addictive they are.

Correspondent: They are very addictive. I had to uninstall some myself. That’s how bad they are. I had to read. When was the last time you played Space Invaders out of curiosity?

Amis: Not for twenty-five years. But what seems to be very addictive, my daughters admit to this, is that you do the first level and then you get on to the next level. And that kind of incremental building of skills to get to a new phase of the machine seems to be very deeply wired into us all.

Correspondent: So the addictive qualities really are why you have stayed away. Because you know that if you were to touch it again, you would actually get sucked in?

Amis: I don’t think so. I think I’m too Luddite now. I’m sort of anti-machines. And I get into a fury with things that don’t respond to what seems to me to be very simple instructions. Like the remote buttons on your TV. They’ve succumbed to what they call feature creep, where they just pile on the extras until it’s unusable by someone who isn’t prepared to really enter into it. So that part of my life is just sort of dead. And I couldn’t imagine getting interested, let alone addicted, to that anymore.

Correspondent: But what about, for example, Lionel Asbo? You conveniently have an area of Diston where somehow there are no iPhones really. There’s a Mac at the very beginning, but the sounds that we hear are natural shouts, as you are careful to note. The book goes into 2013 and really doesn’t wrestle with the fact that, if you go outside, people are looking down at their phones. They’re taking pictures of everything. They’re documenting every minutiae. And I’m wondering if you’re ever going to grapple with the reality of social media and just the sheer compact technological hold, the hold that compact technology has upon our lives.

Amis: My father said at one point. He said the reason you writers hate younger writers is that younger writers are telling them — they’re saying to the older writer, “It’s not like that anymore. It’s like this.” And it’s painful not to be on the crest of modernity as you were when you were younger. It’s not that you’re hankering for anything that’s gone. It’s not a reactionary things. It’s a helpless exclusion, really, from things you no longer understand and don’t want to make the effort to understand. Though I’m sure there are many able writers who are going to do what is there to be done with that subject, social media. But it’s not me.

Correspondent: You’re on safe ground when you go back to 1970 or, with your next book that you’re working on, back to the 1940s. Is going back in time your solution to this problem? I mean, the bona-fide literary high standards type will basically say, “Well, it’s the writer’s duty to completely submerge himself into our present day culture. And if that means something as often obnoxious as social media or phones, that’s part of the deal, bub.”

Amis: Writers are under no obligation to do anything whatever. Nabokov said — well, he was perhaps a bit prescriptive the other way.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Amis: But he said, “I have absolutely no interest in these subjects that bubble up and in a year or two will resemble bloated topicalities.” He said, “My stuff is not interested in the spume on the surface of things.” That he’s looking underneath the surface. I don’t feel that I’m being at all neglectful in not finding out about social media. It’s not a subject that excites me.

Correspondent: What about — you did explore New York, especially areas of Manhattan in Money. You’re now in Brooklyn. Do you have any interest in exploring our interestingly gentrifying areas around here?

Amis: Beyond a certain point, I don’t think where you are makes much difference at all. We lived in Uruguay for three years in 2003 to 2006. And I was often asked if I intended to do anything with Uruguay in fiction. And I can imagine writing a paragraph or two about it. But you get the feeling, rightly or wrongly, that after a certain age that you’re locked into your own evolution as a writer and that the things that you’re writing about now have been gurgling away inside you for a long time. And the idea of having a sort of hectic response to what happened yesterday seems very odd to me now and distant from me.

Correspondent: What about nonfiction as an interesting muse? The obvious example is Koba the Dread upon House of Meetings. But actually there is one interesting line from Money, which I actually pinpointed to its source. And that is when John Self was on the phone and he says, “When I’m through with you, sunshine, they’ll be nothing left but a hank of hair and teeth.” Which, by the way, is similar to something Mailer said to a novelist: “When I’m through with you, they’ll be nothing left but a hank of hair and some fillings.” And actually I read The Moronic Inferno before talking with you, while I was rereading Money. I was reading a bunch of your books before we talked. And it was interesting how much your observations of America ended up in Money. And so this leads me to ask you. Does writing a nonfiction book or does submerging yourself in journalism allow you to test out themes? Or is this largely an accidental process where, through serendipity, certain kinds of observational bubbles float to the top for some future fiction project?

Amis: Well, the way it works, in my case at lest, is that if I’m going to go into a subject in fiction, I will often take it upon myself to write a longish bit of nonfiction about the subject. I did it with the Royal Family for Yellow Dog and also with the pornography industry for Yellow Dog. And I went to California. And I went around. And I wrote a long piece about it. And that gets you a certain distance. And then when you come to write the novel, you can actually — usually, because it’s been a year or two in the making — you find you’ve advanced your feelings about it and your conclusions about it. For instance, with pornography, it took me a long time to realize that it will never be mainstream until masturbation is mainstream.

Correspondent: We’re getting there. (laughs) I mean, all you have to do is go online and see what’s available pornographically. And there you have it.

Amis: But you’ve got a way to go before, before…

Correspondent: Before people are doing it in the streets.

Amis: Before masturbation is cool. So I always thought the resistance of women to pornography, which I would say is based on the fact that the act of procreation, which peoples the world. And this is women’s great power. Men don’t have it quite the same way. And they would always have great resistance to pornography because that act — so central to everything, our existence — is trivialized and denied significance. In fact, someone described pornography as hatred of significances. So that was the conclusion I reached in the novel. But it’s moved on. And I think the next phase is actually women ascending to it and then that’s when you have to — there are several things where you can no longer follow these things through. Because it’s just indecent at a certain age to be wondering about what young people think about when they think about sex. You just have to withdraw. And I’ve reached that point with sexuality. I don’t want to imagine what the sexuality of the young is like.

Correspondent: And yet there’s The Pregnant Widow. (laughs)

Amis: Yeah, but that was set in the past and was alert to these revolutions in consciousness that have taken place since then. You know, I talk to my grown-up daughter, who’s 36 now. And when she was in her twenties, she used to tell me about what the sexual circuit was like in those days. And we always had a very candid relationship.

Correspondent: Yeah. I was about to say.

Amis: But sometimes it would sort of chill me. And I just thought, “I don’t want to know anymore about it.”

Correspondent: So you encouraged an environment of candor as your kids were growing up.

Amis: Well, I didn’t raise my oldest daughter.

Correspondent: Sure.

Amis: But, yeah, I hope so with my boys and my girls, who are fifteen and thirteen right now. The younger girls. But they never tell you exactly what’s going on, your children. It’s always edited for…

Correspondent: For senior ears.

Amis: For senior ears. Yes.

Correspondent: I know you’ve got to jam, but I had one last quick question I have to ask. In light of what has happened with the Arab Spring — you got into a lot of trouble with some of your work in The Second Plane — would you amend or alter some of your statements in that book in light of what has happened? Especially with what’s been going on in Syria right now.

Amis: I think everyone is doing a lot of realigning in their own minds. My younger son has just finished his second degree on the Muslim Brotherhood. And he’s been studying that for two years and speaks Arabic and is going to go on studying it. And he said that all the people who were finishing their degrees when the Arab Spring hit were pretending that it hadn’t made any difference to their theses. But, in fact, he said, it’s had a disastrous effect on everything they’ve thought or written. Because it’s a new page in the history of those nations. I think Islaamism has become politicized and part of the mainstream in ways that weren’t clear to me a few years ago. I thought Hassan Nasrallah and certain very clever Islamists would make the shift to politics, even though they have sort of terroristic origins. As do…

Correspondent: Are you saying that you didn’t entirely understand that situation when you wrote The Second Plane?

Amis: Yeah. Who does?

Correspondent: Would you mollify your language if you were to have written that book today?

Amis: Yeah. I think so. I think I would have been less alarmist. But, I mean, with these very difficult questions, if you can just move the argument along even half an inch, it’s worth doing, I think. And it now looks — it looked as though Islamism was locked into a kind of agonistic relationship with the West, where it was going to be an eternal struggle that would never be resolved. And now it’s looking…

Correspondent: Well, 18,000 people in Syria. These Sunni Muslims who have been protesting against Bashar al-Assad. I mean, that’s pretty serious. Now we’re talking almost genocide figures. It’s very similar to the gassing of the Kurds and so forth. And that’s why I look to something like that. When you’re dealing with such a severe assault on human lives, then you have to recalibrate the needle and you also have to consider that what you say, well, maybe there’s another angle to this. You know what I mean?

Amis: Yeah. But what was that remark? 18,000?

Correspondent: 18,000 of the Sunni Muslims in Syria who have been executed under the regime. And, of course, you’ve got the deputy fleeing to Turkey as well. So it’s been an extremely terrible situation. Just from a human life standpoint. And when you say that Sunni Muslims are all out to get us and they want to kill other people’s lives, then I present this and I say, “Well, I can’t reconcile the two when 18,000 people have…”

Amis: Over what period?

Correspondent: Just recently. The Syria stuff that’s been going on. All the stuff that’s going on in Syria right now?

Amis: Yeah. I thought the figure was more like 3,000.

Correspondent: Well, it’s anywhere from 10 to 18, depending upon where — in fact, the 18,000 comes from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. So it’s a pretty severe figure. But I’ve heard anywhere from 10 to 18. And I’ve been reading the BBC, the Guardian, stuff like that.

Amis: Right. Right.

Correspondent: The New York Times, I believe. So anyway…

Amis: I mean, the Syrian situation is very odd in that a minority leadership — just as Iraq was, the Sunnis were a minority there and the Alawites are a really small minority. And the sectarian war seems to be more or less launched already. So I think Syria is tremendously complicated and dreadful. And the difference is that we’re hearing about it every day. And when his father killed — what was it? 25,000 people in one action a generation ago — that news seeped out. But this is what social media give you. That’s the world policeman. It’s not America anymore. It’s the media.

Correspondent: The camera is the ultimate weapon these days.

Amis: Yeah, yeah.

Correspondent: Okay. So saying that you would have written it differently. Like that infamous 2006 interview you did. I mean, what accounts for some of these outlandish statements like “The Muslim community needs to self-police” and things like that. I mean, this is the kind of stuff that gets you into trouble. Is this a present emotional expression from you? And you need to dig deeper? I mean, what accounts for these kinds of statements?

Amis: It’s a slogan of Nabokov’s. “I think like a genius. I write like a distinguished man of letters. I talk like an idiot.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Amis: And it should be stressed that these are remarks. Not considered words. Nothing you say in an interview is your last word. And also it was a question of timing. I gave that interview on the day when the plot was revealed to blow up 20 airliners in midair using liquids. And the lady who’d come from England to interview me in Long Island said that on the plane you weren’t allowed to bring books. And that was the lowest I’ve ever felt about this whatever it is. This antagonism that revealed itself on September the 11th. And I did actually think, just for a day or two, that we can’t win against these forces. And the idea of depriving a transatlantic passenger of a book.

Correspondent: That is pretty lame. Yeah.

Amis: Well, it seemed to me the triumph of the forces of pedantry and dogma and a defeat for all the things we hold dear. I remember Jeff Eugenides was staying at the time and I said, “I think we should collective punish. A bit of collective punishment.” He said, “No. But that’s going to turn the rest of them against us.” And I thought, “Oh yeah. A good point.” And what I said in that interview, I felt that day and ceased to feel it the next.

Correspondent: So it seems to me that basically you need to have a filter, whether it be through friends or whether it be through someone who’s around. The interview is actually problematic for you and this is what gets you into trouble. In that case, can I trust anything you’ve said in this particular conversation?

Amis: (laughs) Yes, you can. But people think you’re being provocative on purpose or confrontational on purpose. How can you do that? You just — I answer honestly and too candidly often. And the filter is considered thought. And that means writing. You don’t know what you think until you see what you say, see what you write. And that’s the intercession I probably need.

The Bat Segundo Show #480: Martin Amis II (Download MP3)

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Lisa Cohen (The Bat Segundo Show)

Lisa Cohen is most recently the author of All We Know.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Working his obsolete connections.

Author: Lisa Cohen

Subjects Discussed: Spending years conducting book research, Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland, Garland’s connection to Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf’s diaries, the early history of British Vogue, the side effects of spending considerable time in archives, letters exchanged between Greta Garbo and Mercedes de Acosta, befriending Sybille Bedford, Janet Flanner’s considerable connections, Allanah Harper, Olivia Wyndham, Edna Thomas, Flanner’s Letters from Paris, Flanner’s lifelong fear of de Acosta, women who moved in the same Sapphic circle, London, Paris and New York as 1920s cultural termini, conveying the feeling of group life, Garland’s involvement with the peace movement in 1939, Betty Penrose’s excoriating editorial letters, Garland’s abandonment of politics later in life, The Peace Pledge Union, Dick Sheppard, Aldous Huxley, strange friendships with Ivy Compton Burnett predicated on not talking, Garland’s unpredictable qualities, Dorothy Todd’s ostracization from the 1920s social circles, what it took to get ostracized from 1920s social circles, Edna Woolman Chase and the “Nast formula,” the grip that commerce had on 1920s magazines, how the best days of British modernism were in opposition to business, Listen: the Women (a now forgotten radio show that discussed women’s issues long before Friedan), Martha Rountree, Dorothy Thompson, attempts to find radio transcripts, how phonetics journals were instrumental in digging up research, copy editing titles that have an uncertain provenance, Murphy’s vulnerability and volubility, drinking and anxiety during the early 20th century, records of Listen: the Women at the Library of Congress, searching through private collections when public records were sparse, developing a good research filter, how writing a massively ambitious book can change your life, chasing after papers in Melbourne on a calculated whim, getting on a plane to chase one shard of research down, dead ends of superabundance, Edmund Wilson, Chester Arthur, Murphy’s loquacity, being known as a brilliant talker, Murphy spending an entire life working on a study of Madame de Maintenon, Hilton Als’s thoughts on All We Know, Dawn Powell, Murphy’s need to perform, talking and uncontrolled excess, writers ruined by drinking, functional alcoholics, conversational culture predicated upon drinking, whether or not de Acosta was “the world’s first celebrity stalker,” assessing de Acosta’s poetry and fiction, thinking critically about your obsession, distinctive people who arouse strong feelings in others, quirky word usage of “consummate,” de Acosta’s affairs with many leading ladies, the fashion holdings at the Brooklyn Museum, de Acosta’s shoe collection, the desire for a higher education, how education forms character, the pros and cons of passionate engagement, Michael Holroyd’s thoughts on biography, Richard Holmes’s ideas about the rhythm of falling in and out of love with a biographical subject, scholarly frustration, Murphy’s crush on Natalie Barney, movers and shakers on the Left Bank, promiscuity in 1920s Paris, when brilliant people have blind spots, writing quasi-fiction instead of confronting the facts, Dawn Powell’s idea of “piling up facts like jewels,” living a life when all of your friends are literary characters, the dangers of living through books, class and perceptions of Australians, and whether there are any comparable figures today who could match up to Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So I was flipping around the endnotes in this book. And I noticed that you had actually conducted interviews with some of the surviving members of these various circles as early as ’96, ’97, ’98. I was really impressed by this.

Cohen: Now you’ve seen my dark secret. Not as early as ’96, but…

Correspondent: ’97. I’m sorry.

Cohen: ’97.

Correspondent: Just to be clear.

Cohen: Yes.

Correspondent: But this seems as good a time as any to ask you, first of all, how you found out about these three women. And also perhaps alert our listeners — because these are fairly obscure figures in history, semi-obscure figures in history, Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland — who these people are and how you first found them. I was really curious about that.

Cohen: So the question isn’t about why it took me so long to write this book.

Correspondent: No, no. The question is really — well, look, there are people who have spent decades on books. That’s a given. The question is when you first heard of them.

Cohen: I first heard about Madge Garland even before the distant date that you first mentioned. Even several years before then. I was writing an essay about fashion and Virginia Woolf. And I had read around Woolf’s diaries before then. But I hadn’t actually read them as a whole work.

Correspondent: Did you do that from beginning to end?

Cohen: So I read the diaries from beginning to end. And when I got to the mid-’20s, I found that Woolf was in touch with, getting to know these very interesting two women — Dorothy Todd and Madge Garland. Todd was the editor and Garland was her assistant and then the fashion editor of British Vogue in the mid-1920s. And they were remaking the magazine into this, well what you now know, really interesting place.

Correspondent: While we’re on the subject of Dorothy Todd, I was wondering. Because she’s such a prominent supporting character, did you figure that she might be a fourth part? How did you come up with the three part structure here?

Cohen: Okay. Well, that is part of the whole story. Who are they? How did I find them? Why these three people? Why three and not four or not five? In fact, originally, I thought I was writing a book about Madge Garland. As time went on, I realized that I wanted this to be a different kind of book. And I wanted to show her in conversation with, in the context of — neither of those words is quite right. But I wanted to be able to think about the issues that her life brought up in a broader way. And I also wanted to think about the genre, about biography, in a somewhat different way. I became obsessed with this woman — Madge Garland — who was in the fashion world, for your listeners, in England beginning in about 1920, when she started working at British Vogue, almost until the end. She lived into her mid-90s. She died in London in 1990. She was still publishing in the 1980s. Not hugely, but she was writing book reviews and giving interviews and so on. Until really late in her life. So a fascinating figure and a fairly elusive one and someone who told a lot of stories about her life that didn’t quite add up. Which was part of why I got really, really interested. Because I didn’t know what really had happened. And she was making it a little hard for me to find out.

Correspondent: But you were pretty stubborn and seemingly obsessive about getting it.

Cohen: I was pretty obsessed with her. I really wanted to know what had happened in her life. Because I was really moved by her and interested in her. And she was also a way for me to learn about things that I wanted to learn more about. As were all of these women. In any case, it became clear to me that writing a single subject book wasn’t the way to go for somebody like this. And along the way, I wrote a magazine profile of Mercedes de Acosta. So I spent time in the archive in Philadelphia. The Rosenbach Museum and Library, to which she gave and sold her quite voluminous collection of papers.

Correspondent: This was around the Garbo release?

Cohen: No. It was well before that.

Correspondent: Okay.

Cohen: I was invited to the press conference for the Garbo release because I had spent a lot of time in that archive already and had written this profile and got to know the curators and librarians and educators. The really wonderful people who work in that archive. So, no, well before that. Anyway, the third part of this was that I was getting to know — as a result of having interviewed her about Madge Garland, I was getting to know the wonderful writer Sybille Bedford, who talked to me a lot about Esther Murphy, who was her lover and then her very, very close friend until the end of Esther’s life. And who, as I said in the book, was really in many ways haunted by Esther until the end of her life. Sybille Bedford died — again, also when she was in her nineties — in 2006. And I thought that I wanted to bring Madge Garland into contact with these people who were also in her life. They weren’t her lovers. They were her friends. They were sometimes close friends. These women all knew each other. They were all moving in Venn diagram circles. They all had things to say about each others’ lives. They were more or less intimate with each other. They were not lovers. But they were careful and interesting observers of each others’ lives. And by juxtaposing them, I thought I could say something, again, about the genre. I could do something that was challenging and interesting to me as a writer. And I could try to talk about these questions about failure and success, about importance and triviality, about what work is, what it means to produce, what it felt like to be living through that modernist moment. I thought I could give a richer, more complicated picture of that.

Correspondent: Through pure obsession.

Cohen: Through a lot of obsession and a fair amount of self-doubt and persistence.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, I would imagine, since there’s probably nowhere nearly as much information on figures like these three as say somebody else. You mentioned trying to find specific figures who connected the three. And Janet Flanner, who seems to show up and is familiar with all three, is perhaps the most prominent of your supporting cast. What do you think it was about Flanner that allowed her to know these three women? And were there any other links that you tried to incorporate in the book that weren’t actually there of specific people who were connectors or networkers and so forth?

Cohen: You mean, links who don’t end up showing up in the book?

Correspondent: Yes, exactly.

Cohen: Well, I actually did think about that. There were other women I thought about writing about. One of them is Allanah Harper, who is there, but has a much smaller part. Somebody should write about her. Her papers are at the University of Texas at the Harry Ransom Humanities Center there, as are many other amazing writers. And she was part of that lesbian scene in London in the ’20s. And she was close friends with Sybille Bedford. As a result, she was in Esther Murphy’s life. In the ’20s, she and Madge Garland knew each other. There are lots of other really interesting women. Barbara Kerr Seymour, who was a photographer. Olivia Wyndham is another, who also was a photographer. They worked in the same photo studio for a while in London in the ’20s. Olivia Wyndham had an amazing life. She came from this upper-class or upper middle-class English family and basically ran away from home. First to get a job to work as a photographer and live a kind of wild life in London in the ’20s. And then she fell in love with a woman named Edna Thomas, an African-American actress and singer, I think, who was in London performing. And Olivia Wyndham fell in love with Edna Thomas. She moved to New York. She lived the rest of her life in Harlem and in Brooklyn. She actually joined the WACs and worked as a photographer in the U.S. in the army. I think she was sent to Australia in the ’40s during the war. I mean, a really, really interesting life. She has a tiny little part in my book. But someone should write about her. Her half-brother, Frances Wyndham, has written a story that is partly true, partly fictional about her. She appears in Julie Kavanagh’s book about Frederick Ashton. I mean, there are all kinds of women. And Madge was interesting to me originally because I really wanted to try and think about how to write about fashion, which is this non-narrative thing, right? You pop in your clothes. You appear and you make an impression. But I wanted to try and think about how to write about that phenomenon, about style and about fashion, in the story of somebody’s life. In a way that was about the profound effect of how we make our surfaces.

(Photo: Madge Garland, circa late 1920s; the Madge Garland Papers)

The Bat Segundo Show #479: Lisa Cohen (Download MP3)

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Laura Lippman (The Bat Segundo Show)

Laura Lippman is most recently the author of And When She Was Good. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #280.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why some firm is checking his references.

Author: Laura Lippman

Subjects Discussed: Chekhov’s rule, Donald E. Westlake, creating a specific type of prostitution ring for a novel, how deadly paper shredders have been used in narrative, The Temp, being a failed perfectionist, the impossibility of writing a perfect novel, Ian McEwan’s problematic recent novels, The Most Dangerous Thing, taking greater care with sentences, sentences which convey detail, the alternating chapter structure in And When She Was Good, technique as a role model, talk show radio bumpers as an unexpected inspiration, Howard Stern, creating nontextual outlines, the benefits of very long pieces of paper, missing pieces in early drafts, how the past informs the present and the present informs the past, motherhood as an essential character quality, the problems that arise when one’s life is revealed, pregnancy as the opportunity for the great do-over, “If you have to stop to consider the lie, the opportunity has passed,” defining characters by lies and opportunity, swear jars, being a borderline atheist, rabbis and religious education, sitting in a wine bar during happy hour, affording the luxury of friendship, American touchstones throughout And When She Was Good, amateur Civil War enthusiasts, whether Heloise is defined by the American fabric, people who were interested in military history, adultery in a McDonald’s drive-thru, the desecration of marriage, looking to other businesses for inspiration for Heloise’s prostitution ring, parallels between matchmaking service, prostitution rings and lobbying, business acumen vs. relationship acumen, Baltimore laundry services that refused to take new customers, checking references for prostitution, the bizarre qualities of high-end consumer goods, rappers and Burberry raincoats, myths and truths concerning the 1%, Romney-Ryan, voting for a presidential candidate against your own interests, having a comfortable living, the Princeton study citing $75,000 as the magical income for happiness, Lippman’s early career as a reporter, working part-time in an Italian restaurant, diabolical marshmallow mixes in fiction and and in life, how the rich experience time differently, time vs. money, whether time is the great equalizer, sex workers and workers’ compensation, the Australian civil servant who earned workers’ comp for an accident while having sex, the increasing American tendency to waive jury trial and class action suits, the pros and cons of legalizing prostitution, brothel tourism in Spain, being guided by belief, personal blind spots, foolish beliefs and autodidacticism, reading a list of books, the arrogance of self-made people, Tom Clancy’s ego, the hubris of plaintiff’s attorneys, actors who carry around Faulkner books to prove that they have something else going on, juxtaposing the American dream against violence, how a little bit of information can turn an accountant into a creep, confronting the place where you grow up, and being unmoored from domestic conversations.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Chekhov has this famous rule — or so I have heard — that if you introduce a gun, it should go off near the end of the actual story. And in your book, we have a very intriguing paper shredder contraption that is installed beneath a false bottom in a file cabinet. This leads me to ask you. When you came up with this idea, did you have Chekhov’s rule in mind? But it also leads me to ask you: because when we talked before, you told me that you read the entirety of your manuscript aloud before you submitted it. So how does this fastidiousness and Chekhov’s law apply to an element like the paper shredder? When you have a book such as this one, where you’re exploring character in depth, I’m wondering if there’s a little bit more liberalism in mind when it comes to this extremely tight, one might say perfectionism that has entered into your writing process. So just to start off here, what are your thoughts on these multifarious matters?

Lippman: I’m glad you mentioned Chekhov. Because I actually did have that in mind. Just yesterday, I talked with my sister, who is a bookseller and a very careful, methodical reader. She doesn’t read quickly. So she does read carefully. And she said, “You know at the time I wondered why there was so much detail. But if you’d never come back to it, I never would have thought about it. But when you came back to it, and when I realized why all that detail had been lavished on the furnishings of her office in the particular design of these paper shredders and cabinets.” She said, “I wondered if that was an homage to Chekhov.” And I said, “Yes! Thank you.” Because at the time, she was the first person who had noticed that. When I came up with that, I mentioned it to my husband, who’s a writer, and he said, “I don’t know. It sounds a little James Bond to me.”

Correspondent: Really?

Lippman: I said, “No, no, it’s very pragmatic. I’ve really thought a lot about this.” I mean, I’ve said this before. I mentioned it in the book afterwards. One of my heroes was Donald Westlake. And he maintained that if you were very thoughtful about your characters and your situations, you would make it credible — even to people who knew a lot about certain things — if you were true to your characters. If you just sat in your chair and thought hard. Such an old-fashioned idea in writing fiction these days. And so in everything about this book, I sat in my chair and I thought hard. It’s funny to me that, now that the book is out in the world, there’s an emphasis on “Well, Laura Lippman used to be a reporter. So she really knows a lot about the world of sex workers.” I did do research. I did learn some things. I’m by no means an expert on prostitution. I am an expert on the rather peculiar form of prostitution that I created for this book. I sat in my chair. I thought hard about what kind of business this character would create. And that led me to her paper shredders. Even to the detail that they are built by a Polish man who never smiles, but she thinks she sees a wisp of one when he understands the design that she has handed him.

Correspondent: And you point to the fact that there’s a relentless power supply. I think the fact is that you go to such degrees to describe the details of this paper shredder that one becomes willing to accept it, although actually I thought it was a bizarre yet cool idea. Because I had never seen that. Did you encounter any homegrown paper shredder setup like this at all? Ever? Did you ask around?

Lippman: No, but if you have a paper shredder and you read the warnings — especially because a small child had come into my life — I thought a lot about someone’s hand being inserted. Not to give too much away, but I don’t think people would be surprised. It’s not the what of it, but the who of it.

Correspondent: The Temp had a very good paper shredding scene.

Lippman: (laughs)

Correspondent: There’s that cheeseball movie, The Temp, from the 90s. You remember this? There’s an infamous paper shredder….”Auggghhhh!!!!”

Lippman: I didn’t realize that. But they warn you about your tie.

Correspondent: Yes. Exactly.

Lippman: And the average one that most people of us have in our home offices would probably be quite painful but not do real damage. And the idea — it does make sense that she would want a way to, with a turn of the key, be able to wipe out the paper files that she’s been obligated to keep. Just as, now I won’t remember because I do have a poor memory, but I was reading a crime novel recently. And someone said, “Now I’m not going to let you touch the computer. Because I know that there’s a way to wipe out a computer with a few commands. And the computer has now been seized as evidence.” This is a book that’s very much about the hubris of control, of believing one’s self to be in control, of thinking that one can anticipate every single contingency. So it’s very hard for me to think of myself as a perfectionist. Because alongside the other members of my family, alongside my own husband, I am a failed perfectionist. I’m much looser than everyone else I know and consider myself to be quite a mess.

Correspondent: Perfectionism, however, can come from a more relaxed, legato mode, I would argue. I have talked to numerous writers who are extremely concerned about their sentences, but not nearly as concerned about plot. And people have differing levels of what they bring to the table. I think, all writers do. So is this really something to define yourself by as a writer? Is this really something that we should define this novel by?

Lippman: I would actually encourage most writers to abandon perfectionism. It’s obviously impossible. And I think it was Stephen King who said once that the reason you write another novel is because you can’t write a perfect novel. And so the paradox of perfectionism is that, if you’ve achieved your goal, then you would stop being a writer. You have to stop if you could, in fact, produce a perfect novel. And there are some writers in the world who it almost seems as if that happened to them. You see writers who didn’t write again after producing beloved and almost perfect works.

Correspondent: Or who are burdened by the prospect of writing a perfect novel every time. I mean, I’ll name a name so you don’t have to. Ian McEwan. I feel that this has happened to his work. And it’s been disheartening to watch him try to write perfect novels and, because of that, have his voice compromised by these very hyperstylized sentences that get in the way of the life that he has previously been so good at.

Lippman: I mean, I wish I could credit it, because I don’t remember who said it, but it was something I heard at the Theakstons Old Peculier Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. Which is that the book you write is a reaction to the last book you wrote. And so I think coming off a book like The Most Dangerous Thing, which had ten or eleven points of view depending upon how one wants to count it and was deliberately a very slow book — what I had said to myself is “I want to write a fast book. I want to write a pageturner. I want it to be highly entertaining.” And I availed myself of some larger-than-life details and some larger-than-life characters. And I really wanted to have fun. Although then as I got into this book, I could make it fast. I could achieve the pace that I was after. I found that I really could make Heloise’s world fun. And it was my husband who gave me advice, which he almost never does by the way. That’s really rare. And at one point, he said, as I was getting launched into the novel, “Don’t make her benign. Her world’s not benign.” You know, the fact that the women who work for her get health insurance doesn’t erase everything else about prostitution. And it’s not a business that one can be in and thrive in with clean hands. And I thought that was pretty good advice.

(Photo: Annie Chernow)

The Bat Segundo Show #478: Laura Lippman II (Download MP3)

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Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud (The Bat Segundo Show)

Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud are most recently the writers and directors of Chicken with Plums.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if his creative skills can be adapted.

Guests: Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud

Subjects Discussed: Adapting graphic novels to film, Natural Born Killers, sitcoms, Hollywood’s insistence on remakes, splitting duties as co-directors, the importance of preparation, fights during production, the importance of death threats to the creative process, Satrapi’s panels as white backgrounds, creating a cinematic look, separating the graphic novel from the film, when words cram up a panel, spending two years to prepare a film, research, German expressionism, limits on cinematic exaggeration, why vulgarity and bad taste is important, Who’s the Boss?, being inspired by high and low references, the importance of humor, finding a common vision, fighting over small details, being gentle with other people 90% of the time, the miracle of clashing personalities agreeing on something, Chicken with Plums‘s reduced politics from the novel to the film, naming characters after nations, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of the Rose, books vs. films, Erich von Stroeheim, art vs. commerce, stress, the virtues of being left in peace to make your own film, how actors provide emotional resonance, directing and finding the right actors, the freedom to telephone an actor in Europe, the importance of creating a fantastical playground for actors, and Satrapi’s tendency to choose silhouettes for the visual style.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I am extremely fascinated by the way that you adapted this movie, that you’ve adapted both of your works. In Persepolis, there’s this extended winemaking explanation for the secret parties. There’s also the increased attention to shopping with, of course, the Marjane in that saying, “One of my favorite pastimes” over and over. Which suggests something that was almost explicitly designed for the cinematic medium. Now in Chicken with Plums, you have a number of moments that take on greater life in the film adaptation. To just cite two, you have the various deaths that Nasser Ali imagines, which is only half a page in the book and which becomes this glorious montage, this wonderful set piece. And then you also have this satirical episode in California in the book take on this kind of 1950s sitcom, kind of like Natural Born Killers but a totally different style, in the movie. So my question is: do you see these movies as a way to improve upon what you laid down in the books? Or do you see them as separate entities that only film can actually create? And what do the two of you do to heighten certain moments and silent other ones?

Satrapi: No. I think a film has to have its own identity and entity. This is not that I think that the books, they are bad and that’s why we have to make the movie. And actually, you know, for myself, I never want to make a work of adaptation ever again. Because it’s very boring. You once have to think about the story in one way and then think about it in another way. But it was a reason for that. And that is that it was my idea to make Persepolis. I had a friend who wanted to become a producer, who proposed to make Persepolis, and somewhere, you know, deep down of myself, I always thought why not try something and learn something. In the worst case, we will make the worst film in the world. But at least I have learned something. And I proposed it to Vincent, who is a very good friend of mine. We used to laugh a lot for the joy of working for him. And he said “Yes!” And so we started doing it. So we made this Persepolis and obviously it got all the attention it got. And we thought that because we were Oscar nominee, now we are going to say we are going to make another film. And it will open the door to a room with billions of dollars. And they tell us, “Take all the dollars that you want and make your film.” But this is not true. Because we are living in a world of remakes. Everybody wants to make a remake of a film. We want to make the things that have already been done. Like before in Hollywood, somebody would go with a script, see a producer. Producer would say, “I would like to watch this film. And maybe, if I feel like seeing it, other people, they would like to see it.” And today you go, and I have already seen this film. It has made me lots of money. So I want to see it again. So it’s a big major difference. But in order to try something new, we had a reason, a specific reason, why we made Persepolis in animation. Because we wanted to be universal. And since that was a story, a specific story of a specific movement of the specific country, the fact of putting it in a real geography with some type of real human being, that’s what I’d been rejected from the other one. Like this geography, we don’t know. These people, they don’t know, they don’t look like us, but the abstraction of the drawing actually gave us the possibility to having a much more universal thing.

Here, we have with Chicken with Plums, of course, you have to make a work of adaptation. You have a story. You read the book. You put it apart. You take whatever you think is usable for the film, like the structure. Some dialogues. Etcetera etcetera. But then language of the cinema is very different from the language in a book, in the comic books. So you have to think cinema. And then for the highlights of the film, the question of rhythm is just as possible just by working a lot. The fact is that both of us, we like to laugh a lot. The vision that we have of the world and the complexity of the human being, the visual style are the things that we have in common, but that we work a lot. This is it.

Correspondent: So how do you two riff off each other? How do you two work together? I’m really curious to get Vincent’s thoughts on the adaptation and the creative process as well. Vincent, do you serve as a veto mechanism or anything? How do you contribute to this? I’m really curious.

Paronnaud (as translated by Satrapi): So it’s really very easy. I read the book. We see each other. And we talk about the way that we are going to make this work of adaptation. So it’s very important. Because, you know, these meetings that you have at the origins are going to affect whatever we will do later. On the set, in the way of filming, in the way of treating everything. And I work with Marjane because I love the story that she says. And my personal universe, the personal world of my own, is really the complete opposite of what she does. So it’s stimulating intellectually and artistically. Then I say all of that. Because then, you know, when we arrive on the set, we split the work. Because we have prepared it. So Marjane is with the actors. And I’m with the cinematographer. And sometimes we have lots of tension. And it doesn’t work. But most of the time, it does.

Correspondent: Oh really? So if you’re splitting it down between technical and acting, how did you two collaborate on the first film? How were the duties split for Persepolis?

Satrapi: Well, for Persepolis, it was the same. I would go and simulate the movement in front of them. We would choose the movement of the camera. The background. But all of that is so much related. Because like acting is when you are directing a film. You have to think about actors, but you have to think about the frame. So everything is connected. It’s not like you have one part of the project and the other part. So since there is connection, that’s what we were saying. You know, this work of preparation is very important. Because like that, we know what the other one is doing. But sometimes, you know, I don’t like the framing that he does. I give a direction of acting that he does not like. Most of the time, he goes, “Fine.” But sometimes it’s a fight. You know, we go out. We yell at each other.

Correspondent: How detailed do these fights get?

Satrapi: Like “Go fuck yourself.” Things like that. And in the night I pray that he will die.

Correspondent: Wow.

Satrapi: He says that they pray that I die too. But then we sleep. And then here’s the actors. And we have forgotten. And the result of that is that we are still friends.

Correspondent: So death threats are really the best way to get the creative process flowing, I presume.

Satrapi: Absolutely. Death is always the best for everything. We have to be aware of our death. Because that will come, even if we want it or not.

The Bat Segundo Show #477: Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud (Download MP3)

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The Zeitoun Foundation’s Finances: An Investigation

Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun was one of the rare books that managed to turn an Entertainment Weekly review and a lengthy Times-Picayune profile into advertisements for a charitable foundation. The Zeitoun Foundation is an organization ostensibly intended as grantor for post-Katrina rebuilding initiatives. “All author proceeds from this book go to the Zeitoun Foundation,” reads the beginning of a clearly stated note at the end of Zeitoun, which is followed by a list of nonprofit organizations that will receive the proceeds.

“From the beginning, I told them I wouldn’t be paid and I would not benefit from their story in any material way,” said Eggers in a 2009 interview. “The Zeitoun Foundation will be a lean organization, one that simply acts as a conduit to donate proceeds from the book to specific charities, including the Muslim American Society, Islamic Relief and Rebuilding Together, which helps return evacuees to their homes in New Orleans. Tangible and beneficial results can be achieved, which allows the Zeitouns to feel that something good came from their suffering.”

But according to the Louisiana Secretary of State, The Zeitoun Foundation is not in good standing (as seen in the above screenshot). The foundation has failed to file a single Annual Report since its registration date on August 3, 2009. This represents over $250,000 in grants, distributed over the course of three years, that has no clear or fully accountable trail.

The only information that the foundation’s website provides is a list of “nonprofits supported by the Foundation,” but nothing on the website designates how this grant money has been disseminated. The foundation’s website has announced five separate rounds of grant allocations since its inception, but it’s troubling that these cheery dispatches offer neither a date nor a list of specific grants for each round (one such example can be seen below).

According to public records, the three officers that the Foundation lists as directors are Kathy Zeitoun, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, and Michelle Quint. Yet Kathy told The Times-Picayune‘s Laura Maggi that the Zeitouns were not involved in the foundation. This leaves Michelle Quint, who was Dave Eggers’s assistant in 2008, as the accountable director.

Quint did not return our emails or telephone calls for comment. We did manage to get through to McSweeney’s by telephone, where a young and somewhat nervous male voice informed us that “someone will get back to you very shortly.” We are still waiting.

If you give directly to The Zeitoun Foundation, you’re asked to make out your checks to a literary and visual arts collective called Press Street. But in studying financial documents, one begins to encounter a few accounting problems.

Reluctant Habits has obtained financial documents filed by Press Street with the IRS for 2009 and 2010. (To follow along, here’s the 2009 990 (PDF) and the 2010 990 (PDF).) During the year 2009, Press Street issued $62,500 in grant money to The Zeitoun Foundation, designated to “rebuilding and cultural awareness grants to New Orleans area non-profits and to other national organizations.” Obliged to reveal the grantees over $5,000, the 2009 990 contains a schedule listing the following organizations:

There’s one big problem with this. And it isn’t the $17,500 in grantees that the schedule doesn’t specify (which is likely grantees who each received less than $5,000 in money for that year).

Someone who donates money to The Zeitoun Foundation is probably going to expect that the funds will be directly allocated to post-Katrina efforts or ongoing rehabilitation in Louisiana. But a few of these groups have nothing to do with The Zeitoun Foundation’s stated goal, which is “to aid in the rebuilding and ongoing health of the city of New Orleans, and to help ensure the human rights of all Americans.” The Muslim American Society is based in Chandler, Arizona and its stated mission is “to move people to strive for God consciousness, liberty, and justice, and to convey Islam with utmost clarity.” (Additional financial documents obtained by Reluctant Habits revealed that this chapter of the Muslim American Society operates at Tulane University, based in New Orleans.) That’s a laudable goal, but this faith-based approach is somewhat different from the foundation’s stated reconstruction goals. (In contrast to this, Islamic Relief USA, another Zeitoun grantee which is based in California, has a clearly articulated relief-based mission fitting in with Zeitoun’s goals.)

And then there’s Voice of Witness, which Eggers himself is involved in.

Voice of Witness is a McSweeney’s publishing imprint founded in 2004 as a nonprofit which has released several well-received oral history collections relating to social injustices. In 2006, Voice of Witness published the book Voices from the Storm: The People of New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina and Its Aftermath. But since 2009, Voice of Witness’s activities have not involved Katrina or New Orleans at all. Here are a list of books that Voice of Witness has published from 2009 on:

  1. Out of Exile: Narratives from the Abducted and Displaced People of Sudan (September 1, 2009)
  2. A Spanish edition of Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives (April 6, 2010)
  3. Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives (March 1, 2011)
  4. Nowhere to Be Home: Narratives from Survivors of Burma’s Military Regime (April 12, 2011)
  5. Patriot Act: Narratives of Post-9/11 Justice (August 23, 2011)
  6. Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prison (November 8, 2011)
  7. Throwing Stones at the Moon: Narratives From Colombians Displaced by Violence (September 12, 2012)

Of the six new titles, only two (Patriot Act and Inside This Place, Not of It) fit into the Zeitoun Foundation’s secondary goal of ensuring “the human rights of all Americans.” The other titles, while tackling admirable issues, have nothing to do with Katrina or New Orleans.

So why would Press Street allocate funds through The Zeitoun Foundation to publish books that have little to do with its mission statement? Especially when Press Street itself has been publishing books that are more directly related to New Orleans and Katrina.

It is with the 2010 990 that the Press Street/Zeitoun Foundation finances become especially murky. The Press Street 990 shows $155,500 in grants distributed in 2010 through The Zeitoun Foundation for “rebuilding & cultural awareness grants to NOLA-area non-profits & national org + Benefits over $5,000.” Yet unlike the 2009 990, the 2010 990 doesn’t include an attached schedule which designates the organizations and individuals who received grants over $5,000, much less the class of activity, the grantee’s name and address, the amount given, and the relationship of the grantee, as required by law.

We reached out to Press Street Director Anne Gisleson — the woman who signed the 990s — by telephone, email, and Facebook to clarify the Press Street/Zeitoun connection. She informed us by email that she had become involved with Eggers’s philanthropy because Eggers had been “a longtime supporter of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts,” the high school arts conservatory where Gisleson teaches creative writing. The idea was to use Press Street as a fiscal sponsor for the foundation “because it was the most expedient way to distribute grants from the proceeds of the book.”

“The Zeitoun Foundation is a fiscally sponsored project of Press Street and focuses the rebuilding of New Orleans and the fostering of interfaith understanding,” said Gisleson. “After the book, Zeitoun, was released, the author and the Zeitoun family decided on a number of nonprofit organizations to which they would direct proceeds from the book. After compiling this list of organizations, the sole task of the Zeitoun Foundation was to direct funds to these organizations whenever funds from the book became available. Beyond helping to choose the organizations the Foundation supports, Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun have had no day-to-day duties with the Foundation.”

This statement confirms Kathy Zeitoun’s remarks with the Times-Picayune‘s Laura Maggi.

We also asked Gisleson if she could provide us with a schedule accounting for the 2010 grantees that were not listed in Press Street’s 2010 990. Gisleson claimed that Press Street was “in between spaces, with all of our papers and equipment in storage, so we’re looking into finding the hard copy of the 2010 990 to see what happened with the Schedule O pages.” She did provide us with this list of 2010 grantees:

  1. Innocence Project NOLA
  2. Muslim American Society
  3. Rebuilding Together
  4. The Green Project
  5. Louisiana Capital Assistance Center
  6. Voice of Witness
  7. Meena Magazine
  8. New Orleans Lens
  9. Islamic Relief USA
  10. The New Orleans Institute
  11. The Neighborhood Story Project
  12. Catholic Charities
  13. Jeremiah Group
  14. New Orleans Center for Creative Arts
  15. Restore Wesley United
  16. Muslim Student Association/Tulane University
  17. The Porch

But without the dollar amounts, it’s difficult to understand how these funds were allocated, or if they were even fairly divided. We pressed Ms. Gisleson further on the finances and she was kind enough to divulge the Schedule O sums (that is, the amounts over $5,000) on the 2010 990, in which the grantees are listed (with dollar amounts) as follows:

We were relieved to learn that most of the finances were accounted for and that Press Street was on firmer ground (even if The Zeitoun Foundation remains “not in good standing”). Voice of Witness, however, was the top grantee, receiving $25,000 of the funds. And as we have established above, the books don’t quite fit in with the foundation’s stated goals.

It’s bad enough that Dave Eggers has refused to speak with journalists about Abdulrhaman Zeitoun’s recent arrest on three charges of solicited murder — a set of developments which flies in the face of Eggers’s depiction of Zeitoun as a robust and morally upstanding hero in his book. Eggers did issue this statement with Jonathan Demme, stating that he and Demme were “in daily contact with Kathy since the incident on July 25″ and asking his audience to “join us in respecting the Zeitoun family’s privacy at this difficult time.” But while Demme is preparing an animated film adaptation of Zeitoun, what does Demme have to do with The Zeitoun Foundation? Shouldn’t this statement be released on the main McSweeney’s site?

But it would be refreshing to see Eggers, whose motives are clearly benevolent, open up about how he has used charitable funds. We shouldn’t have to do this much digging to find out how the foundation has been allocating its monies. All this should be outlined on the foundation’s website. (By contrast, The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation’s financial documents are more clearly accountable.)

Eggers has claimed The Zeitoun Foundation to be “a very simple grant-giving operation.” But if it was so simple, why did we have to do all this detective work? The McSweeney’s operation has been around for fourteen years. Shouldn’t it keep proper records by now? If The Zeitoun Foundation could file its documents in a timely manner or be transparent about the way it disseminates grants, we wouldn’t have to make sure that it was in the clear.

8/16/2012 UPDATE: Thanks to an anonymous source, Reluctant Habits has obtained the 990 for The Zeitoun Foundation for 2009 (PDF available here) and it appears that The Zeitoun Foundation is more complicated than previously reported.

The 990 lists another organization by the name of Jableh, LLC, which was incorporated on July 16, 2009 and lists Dave Eggers as the registered agent for the organization. The 2009 990 for The Zeitoun Foundation lists $161,331 due to Jableh, LLC, which exceeds the $145,476 in revenue taken in by The Zeitoun Foundation for that year ($84,044 in royalty income from the book, $50,000 in film rights, and $11,432 in “contributions, gifts, grants, and similar amounts received”). According to Eggers’s book, Jableh is where Abdulrahman Zeitoun was born and lived for a while.

Needless to say, our investigation has been reopened. We will offer additional findings in a separate report.

11/18/2012 UPDATE: We made efforts to talk with Mr. Eggers in person about these charges and more. As we reported at length on November 14, 2012, he ran away from us. He is also fleeing inquiries from other reporters. Mr. Zeitoun has also been indicted for attempted first-degree murder and solicitation.

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Katie Kitamura (The Bat Segundo Show)

Katie Kitamura is most recently the author of Gone to the Forest.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hoping not to fall in a pool of ash.

Author: Katie Kitamura

Subjects Discussed: Similarities between Gone to the Forest and V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, how courage is often confused as a sentimental quality in fiction, reversing character dimensionality to make points about colonialism, straying from influence, Elfriede Jelinek, Herta Müller, moving away from long sentences, deliberately writing in a misogynistic voice, the NYPD ordering women not to wear skirts at night, how vivid voices can transcend unsettling narrative modes, the dangers of writing from a repugnant perspective, the morality of the authority, not being a violent person and writing about violence, The Longshot‘s fight scenes, empathy, the Flaubert writing maxim, training in classical ballet, not looking at the book once it is done, not reading the violent parts of Gone to the Forest aloud, Japanese for Travelers, tracking the Kitamura descriptive trajectory across three books, reinforcing stripped down sentences with metaphor, considering ideas beyond the human, why Kitamura finds fiction more freeing than nonfiction, writing The Longshot with a rhythmic physical quality in mind, Kitamura’s difficulties in writing first person, how first-person characters reflect an author’s character in revealing ways, truths revealed through a concentrated third-person mode, the burdens of feeling self-conscious on the page, choosing removed topics for fiction, the death of Kitamura’s father, differing notions of grief, being sucked into a pool of ash, how humans become absorbed by the physical landscape, the relationship between land and power and property, the charisma of a dying man, the misnomer of “peaceful death,” Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family, the marks of grief, how translated works of fiction sometimes provide greater human truths than Anglophonic ficiton, China Miéville’s Railsea, awkward language and the virtues of badly translated fiction, Clarice Lispector, attempts to talk in the pouring rain, active thinking (or the lack thereof) within fiction, Embassytown and linguistic theory, Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17, mosquitoes that chomp on Our Correspondent’s forehead during an interview, political unrest (and its duality within Gone to the Forest), how volcanoes serve as inspiration for fiction, and mixing differing countries and differing times and differing histories into an invented world.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I was reading this book and, in the first few pages of Gone to the Forest, there’s this reference to a radio, as well as a house sitting on the edge of the river. And as someone who is reading all the Modern Library classics, including Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, I said to myself, “Hmmmm. Isn’t that interesting?” And then I read a reference to “Sargasso weed,” which made me say, “Oh! Maybe this is sort of a Jena Rhys/Wide Sargasso Sea response to Naipaul.” And I’m wondering about this. Because there are certainly a lot of similarities to A Bend in the River. You have, of course, the unnamed country, the rebellion, the subjugation of women, a not so bright condescending young heir. You also, however, feature this vicious volcano, a dying father, and a terrible gang rape. And so I must ask you, first and foremost, was this at any point intended as a Jean Rhys-like response to Naipaul? How was A Bend in the River a starting point for this book in any way?

Kitamura: I read A Bend in the River before I started writing the book. I don’t think it was necessarily formulated as a response to it directly, although I like that reading very much. And I would love to think that I’d written a Jean Rhys-like response to it. I mean, I think partially the reason you get that sense of Jean Rhys against Naipaul is because the book is trying to write from the fragments of this long legacy of colonial literature, in particular. And Jean Rhys, more generally, is a writer I admire incredibly. Not just Wide Sargasso Sea, but also all the other novels. So her prose style, her directness, her sense of melancholy — I think courage is a word that could easily sound sentimental in the context of fiction, but there’s incredibly courageous fiction in writing about women. So, yeah, it’s not direct, but it’s probably in there in some way.

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about such side characters as the Wallaces, who reminded me also very much of the historian and his wife in A Bend in the River. You have a situation where they’re described as “marginal people of no interest to his father” — his, of course, being Tom, this protagonist who mimics the scummy figure in A Bend in the River. They immediately ask Celeste to prepare a meal for supper. And I’m wondering. Because the Wallaces to a large degree don’t have that dimensionality that you would normally expect from the imperialist/colonial type of figures that tend to populate these kinds of novels. I was wondering if the Wallaces were an effort on your part to invert the dimensionality, giving more dimensionality to, say, people like Jose, as opposed to these imperialists who really assume that all natives are there to be immediately put to work and so forth.

Kitmaura: I think the book as a whole, the context of it, is pretty wide. Because it’s a combination of multiple colonial settings and multiple histories. So it’s this fragmented collage-like panorama. It’s not set in a specific time. Therefore, it includes multiple times. So I think against that, I wanted to focus very, very tightly on what happened to a single family — and ultimately with Celeste and Jose, although they are servants, they are also family — on this farm. So all the other characters outside of that became secondary in some way. And also, I suppose it was a novel that’s about power and not just some relationship between whites and non-whites, but also class between the different white settlers. So I think in that particular characterization, I was interested in drawing the distinction between how the old man, the father in the novel, perceives himself against the other white colonialists. And now he makes distinctions. So in a way, they are just a foil to the old man’s arrogance.

Correspondent: You mentioned reading Naipaul before writing this book.

Kitamura: Yes.

Correspondent: And the question I have is, well, to what degree did you know that it’s time to stray? “I’ve got it in my head. I’m very familiar with what he has done and now I can carry on with this more metaphorical or more minimalist approach to metaphor.” At what point did you detract from Naipaul? And at what point was he just not even necessary?

Kitamura: I mean, I think the unnamed setting in that novel is so distinct. And the way he handles that is very distinct. And I knew that I wanted to do something that was not simply unnamed, but also completely imagined. So that was a kind of distinction I wanted to make from what he had done in that novel. The themes that he writes about honestly are critical, but the prose? I was never influenced by his prose style, for example. There is a host of other writers — really, European female writers — that I was much more influenced by.

Correspondent: Such as who?

Kitamura: For this particular novel. It’s kind of a funny thing where it changes almost with each project.

Correspondent: That’s no problem.

Kitamura: Your toolkit alters slightly. I think I was reading a great deal of Elfriede Jelinek and Herta Müller. And what I was interested in is that they don’t write these beautiful long sentences. They really break language in a lot of ways. And that was what I admired, what I thought was so striking about what they were doing, and I was also curious to see if that, in some way, could be used specifically to address a female subjectivity. So there’s the sequence: the rape scene in the novel, which is one of the more difficult parts of it. There’s a lot of breaks and fragments in that particular section. And I think there is such a long tradition of male narratives and male narrativizing, and I wonder if that hasn’t been made accessible to women in quite the same way historically. And I wondered if that was partly why this fragmentation was interesting to me and why I tried to use it.

Correspondent: I wonder if the fragmentation, especially in relation to this rape scene, was interesting to you, specifically because, well, one reads it and one is, of course, appalled by what’s going on. But at the same time, the sentences are informed very much by this need to present this as relatively normal in the confines of this catastrophe. It seems to me that you’re someone who probably who will really work and work and work to get that acceptable level so it tests the reader and it suggests almost, I suppose, a cultural relativism or a moral relativism in the way that you describe that action. What did you do to get that particular balance that I’m detecting here? To get that situation where, okay, I come in and I’m appalled by it. But at the same time, I’m also being forced to look upon this as “This is part of life.”

Kitamura: I wanted to create — the purpose of this rather extravagant volcano explosion was to create a space where social rules were being suspended and where you would see, in this case in particular, a man taking advantage of that suspension of laws. And I remember before I started writing that sequence to get the voice of it right. I wanted to try writing in a misogynistic voice, which I thought would be an interesting experiment as a woman. And I initially thought would be a difficult or an impossible one. But, in fact, it’s so easy. Because misogyny is everywhere around you. And the language of it is everywhere around you. And so some of the things, even that the girl says, are invisible quotation marks. She is kind of quoting in language of chauvinism that she has grown up in. And I know it’s a kind of morally ambiguous scene. She, to some extent, seems to instigate what happens. But what I wanted to really look at was — well, I completely, as you probably will guess, disagree with the notion that all women can in some way provoke any kind of sexual violence.

The Bat Segundo Show #476: Katie Kitamura (Download MP3)

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David Rakoff (1964-2012)

The first time I met David Rakoff, he offered me food and food and more food. It was 2007, just after Thanksgiving. With typical munificence, David had made too much of it. It became very clear from David’s steadfast concern and his adamant offers, in which he also insinuated that he kept some modular storehouse in neat hidden niches throughout his modest Union Square apartment, that this wasn’t some commonplace matter of fobbing off leftovers, so much as an opportunity to feed every spare mouth he could find. And that included overly prepared literary journalists. The man was an entertainer. It extended to his conversations. It extended to his kitchen. It was always there in his work.

“There is little in this world that I find more galvanizing than someone in trouble,” Rakoff once wrote. “I am well aware of how dubious that sounds, coming from someone who makes a living writing in the first person.”

David wrote his essays extremely slow: just three slim yet pithy books (Fraud, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and Half Empty) in a little less than a decade. And this deliberate snail’s pace had much to do with the high neuroses David brought to the writing process. I once pointed out a few vaguely similar images he had used over a few essays. And David, mortified, put his hand to his mouth and cried out, “I’m a hack!” I then spent several minutes ensuring Rakoff that he wasn’t. In a world besotted with writers who recycle their own paragraphs or who fabricate quotes, David’s commitment to the original must also be memorialized. He was a man so committed to precise language that, during a 2010 interview, David and I spent five minutes looking up the word “vitiate” to ensure that we both understood its nuances.

Last year, David won a well-deserved James Thurber Prize for American Humor. Like many of our great wits, he was a man determined to dazzle you in high style with bountiful modifers. Here is how Rakoff described an unhappy couple he observed on New Year’s Day in his essay “Tokyo Story”:

He began that unmistakable wet-mouthed, lip-smacking, compulsive swallowing that indicates the impending need to vomit. His upper lip shone with perspiration, and his eyes were closed. The woman had nowhere to go — indeed, there was nothing else she would be able to do until the train reached the station, and that might not be in sufficient time. If the first thing you do on the first day augurs the spirit and tone of your new year, this woman was in for a very bad 1987.

David described giggling at this woman, but he pointed out that the joke was on him, for 1987 was to be his shitty year. Such vicious ironies would race throughout his life, yet David would receive them with realism and good humor. A self-described therapy junkie, it was hardly accidental that, years later, he read Julie Norem’s The Positive Power of Negative Thinking very carefully (yet became so consumed in his research that he was never able to write a piece about it). At 22, he was hit with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but managed to beat the cancerous rap after eighteen months of treatment. But in 2010, he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor and, in one of life’s malicious replays, was forced to start chemotherapy again. But this didn’t stop him from living. From “Another Shoe”:

I try to comfort myself with the first-person accounts I’ve heard of those who die on operating tables and come back: the light, the warmth, and the surge of love from one’s dead ancestors urging you forward. But even that doesn’t help as I wonder what on earth the Old World, necromancing Litvak primitives from whom I am descended would make of me? You’re forty-four and not married? You’re a what? We had one in the shtetl and he was chased from the town with brickbats. How much treyf do you eat? What kind of writing? And from this you make a living?

Here was a man who personally apologized to me for having to stop tape every 30 minutes to take the medication that was keeping him alive. The apology was unnecessary. I told David that if he didn’t want to talk, we didn’t have to. But for David, the show had to go on. The man summoned some wonder to the very end.

Last night, David lost his battle with cancer. But we still have the three books, the many This American Life appearances, and David’s quiet suggestion that a comic yet realistic dignity is an extraordinary defense against life’s cruel setbacks.

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Julie Delpy (The Bat Segundo Show)

Julie Delpy is most recently the writer, director, and star of 2 Days in New York.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for a castle that doesn’t require too much physical exertion.

Guest: Julie Delpy

Subjects Discussed: Patriarchs who key cars, countesses who murder women for their virgin blood, aberrant and eccentric behavior in Delpy’s films, the advantages of flawed characters, The King of Comedy‘s Rupert Pupkin, domestic carapaces for odd people, mental institutions, emotionless people, arguing with people you live with, comic tension, loud family arguments in quiet cafes, characters who accuse others of raping children, anger issues, struggles to get quirky independent films made, why Chris Rock was cast, 2 Days vs. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, German film financing, David Hasselhoff, Chris Rock in a straightlaced role, how romantic comedy becomes more alive when women are uncontrollable, leveling the gender playing field in narrative by offering complex women, romantic projection, thematic resonances between 2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York, toothbrushes that are confused with sex toys, how blue jeans woo men, how French people take their temperature, Delpy’s obsession with finding the right toothbrush sound, Stanley Kubrick, being a hands on filmmaker, color correction, the humor contained within The Countess, how to position an actor to stand appropriately on a throne of heads, Belvedere Castle, Merchant Ivory films, creating a fairy tale narrative, how boys like “feminine” aspects of fairy tales, the scarcity of women directors, how gender has affected Delpy’s reputation, being taken more seriously, the business aspects of cinema, nerds and cinema without emotion, why Hollywood is avoiding emotional directors, cold businessmen, Delpy’s indomitable work ethic, Delpy finishing The Countess while her mother was dying, and the financial repercussions of cinema.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: What of the interesting resonances between the two films [2 Days in New York and 2 Days in Paris]? The two that struck me: the thermometer becomes the toothbrush in New York. You have the thermometer joke. And then now it’s the toothbrush joke where…

Delpy: Toothbrush. Oh yeah. Like objects being put in the wrong spot. (laughs)

Correspondent: Exactly. Or blue jeans being used to woo a man. In the first film, we have mom ironing the blue jeans.

Delpy: The blue jeans.

Correspondent: In the second film, we have the blue jeans offer on air.

Delpy: The blue jeans are where?

Correspondent: The blue jeans, when Mingus is on the air. There’s that woman who offers them.

Delpy: Oh, the jeans! I see. That’s funny.

Correspondent: So I’m wondering. I’m guessing these were accidental. But I’m wondering if there were any conscious efforts on your part to mimic the resonances from the first film. To see if they would play a little differently in New York. Or older.

Delpy: Well, that’s something. For example, I think it’s something to do with — like I’ve always been amused that Americans — I mean, in France, if you take your temperature, everyone puts it in their butt. Just…I have to tell you. Just like if you’re a toddler. You just put it there.

Correspondent: It is a French thing.

Delpy: And I’ve always been having American boyfriends find this repulsive. That French people are perverts.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Delpy: Because we take our temperature in the butt. So we are perverts because of that. I always thought that was a funny idea. I mean, the thing about the toothbrush, I have the idea that, actually, they might have done really nothing with that toothbrush and that it’s all in his mind. That they might have used the toothbrush.

Correspondent: While they were having…

Delpy: Or it’s an object that wasn’t a toothbrush. But he’s convinced that they’re perverts using his toothbrush for sex toys. But I actually believe personally…

Correspondent: The toothbrush is your Pulp Fiction suitcase.

Delpy: (laughs) It is to me.

Correspondent: It could be used for naughty purposes. It could be used for rather eccentric purposes. They could be brushing their teeth as they’re doing it. We don’t know.

Delpy: Yeah. Who knows? They might have been brushing their teeth while doing it. But he’s convinced. Or they might have used another object that sounds like that toothbrush. But he’s convinced it’s his toothbrush. It’s this projection of this idea that, you know, once you have this idea that someone is perverted, you can imagine everything. And I like to use that. That is a kind of playful thing.

Correspondent: I don’t know. The sound sounded pretty similar to my ears. I’m wondering. Did you work with the sound guy to have it close?

Delpy: Actually, that was one of the hardest things to do. To find the right sound. And the banging on the wall. So it didn’t sound too trashy. To always find the right limit between really too crass and not too cute either.

Correspondent: Well, I’m wondering how you researched toothbrush sounds vs. dildo sounds. That would be a very interesting project for a sound man.

Delpy: I didn’t turn on dildos. I only turned on toothbrushes.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Delpy: I kept it to a toothbrush. But actually I did spend a lot of time listening to many different sounds of toothbrushes. And some toothbrushes, I just didn’t like the sound. So I kind of drove everyone crazy. I’m very…when I get into post-production, with all the mixing and the sound and all that stuff, I get really super duper duper duper…kind of precise on what I want. And that toothbrush, I drove everyone nuts over.

Correspondent: Well, like, how so? How precise can you get? Is there any sort of limit that you will reach before people are driven nuts or something? How anal are you here?

Delpy: No. I will work until I get what I want. I’m not like crazy, like going like a power trip. Like it’s too show that I have the power.

Correspondent: No Kubrick, 172 takes…(laughs)

Delpy: Even though they call me Stanley all the time. (laughs)

Correspondent: And not just because you grew a beard.

Delpy: Yeah, it’s because of my beard. Not because of my talent. I’ll tell you that. Because I get a little bit obsessed. Sometimes in details and stuff like that. But then when I have what I want, I’m fine. Then I’m done. Boom. And then I never talk about it again.

Correspondent: Well, like, how many takes did you do? Just to deflate the Stanley rumors here.

Delpy: Well, I ended up recording the toothbrush myself. Because I didn’t like any of the sounds. So I ended up taking a mike and going to record my toothbrush and the toothbrush I wanted to use in the film.

Correspondent: Are you hands on like that for cinematography? Or for other matters?

Delpy: Cinematography, no. Because I am not a very good — I don’t have the best visual ideas, you know? I’m not hands on cinematography. I’m very hands on sound. Music. Sound effects. Everything that has to do with sound, I’m very good. You know, I’m very obsessed also when we do the period of color correction. I get very — if I don’t get what I want, I will not stop.

Correspondent: What about placement of actors?

Delpy: Which is normal. I think it’s normal. I mean, if you’re a filmmaker, you want to get — it’s so much work to write. It’s so much work to shoot. And then you edit for three months and you work like a maniac. And then you end up in post-production. And you don’t want to suddenly have skin tones that are wrong. I mean, you can very quickly — now there’s such a scale of things you can do. It’s so large. You can go from a skin that looks sort of creamy to a skin that looks all greenish. I mean, you can do so much that you have to be really careful in color correction nowadays.

Correspondent: What about positioning an actor? Like, I think of the image in The Countess of the guy standing on top of the heads. I mean, how particular are you on something like that?

Delpy: Oh that, I’m very particular.

Correspondent: The angle of the head. Is the head just right at that particular angle? I’m just trying to get a sense of how precise you are really with these things.

Delpy: Yeah. I get very precise in scenes like that. Because, to me, I wanted it to look like a painting. Like a lot of 17th century painting I’ve looked at, based for this film. Like a lot and lot of Nordic painters. So I was really inspired by that. And I wanted it to look like that. Like something almost ridiculous, but kind of funny. I mean, the film, The Countess is not devoid of humor. I see the film as something a little bit funny at times. So it’s meant to be that way. Like even the craziness of wanting to stay young forever. I mean, she’s obviously such a pathetic character. Which makes me laugh. She makes me laugh actually. And so anyway, even this guy is kind of crazy. I mean, he’s sitting on a throne of beheaded Turks. So it’s kind of funny. If you’re dark. (laughs)

Correspondent: I thought a lot of it was funny, personally. But I’m a sick human being. But Belvedere Castle…

Delpy: But it’s meant to be funny.

Correspondent: Yes. Belvedere Castle, I wanted to ask you about this. You shot the end of 2 Days in New York at Belvedere Castle. And what happened with me when I saw the film — and this may be a terribly wonkish and pedantic question, but I feel the need to ask it nonetheless. I immediately thought, “Oh! The Bostonians. Merchant Ivory.” And the reason that I thought about that was because in 2 Days in Paris, you have this early moment where the American tourists come in and they have the red Da Vinci Code, which is almost serving as the red Baedeker tour guides that you see in A Room with a View. And so…

Delpy: Oh my god. That’s complicated.

Correspondent: And they are tourists, much in that mode, going through a city. And, of course, they come from Venice by train. So I think to myself, “Oh, there was maybe a Merchant Ivory nod there.” But I’m wondering, based off of these two things, whether emulating that sort of Merchant Ivory look and subverting it with wild behavior or astonishing developments was ever an interest of yours. And also: why you choose Belevedere Castle?

Delpy: Well, you know, I didn’t really think at all of Merchant Ivory. You looked into it like…oh my god. That’s pretty..

Correspondent: This is a problem of mine. I apologize. (laughs)

Delpy: That’s really cool. That’s really cool to read so much into something. No, I basically picked the Belvedere Castle because I wanted something high that made sense, that it was dangerous but not Empire State Building dangerous. Because Empire State Building — anyway, you can’t jump off the Empire State Building. Because it’s all blocked out. So it had to be realistic. And the Belvedere Castle is quite dangerous. Actually, if you jump, you can kill yourself. But I wanted it to be almost like a fairy tale. The film is a little bit like a fairy tale. It’s told to a child really. Because it’s told with these puppets. So I wanted this end to be in a castle. Like a fairy tale. And the princess, which is me, is saved by the prince, which is Chris Rock. But obviously the film is so not a fairy tale in its tone and everything. But I wanted it to be like a fairy tale. It ends in a castle like a fairy tale.

The Bat Segundo Show #475: Julie Delpy (Download MP3)

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Megan Abbott (The Bat Segundo Show)

Megan Abbot is most recently the author of Dare Me. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #404.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Preparing to shake the appropriate pom-poms.

Author: Megan Abbott

Subjects Discussed: Secret conversations, how cheerleaders are depicted in American culture, Bring It On, cheerleaders and postmodernism, parallels between cheerleaders and soldiers, doing research almost exclusively online, how fonts and italics reinforced text message culture in Dare Me, the text message as a noir voice, theories that Dare Me started off as a recession novel, teenagers and technology, creating a sad and bleak adult world, logical reasons for why teenagers have no desire to have grown-up jobs, empty apartment buildings, people who die in luxury condos, balancing literary and mystery elements to create a transitional novel, stretching genre, crime as a tool for power relations, using Richard III as a narrative framework, obsession with Shakespeare, the Ian McKellen version of Richard III, Looking for Richard, Richard III as an innocent, the ugliness of ambition, desperation, Deadwood, how political theory and Henry IV and Henry V share much in common, Robert Caro, parallels between mean girl rhetoric and LBJ’s profanity, being afraid of individuals who open their mouths, carryover from The End of Everything of a teenage world as an adult one, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, when parents are irrelevant, what Facebook reveals about teenagers, powerful coaches, how tired men can be manipulated, similarities between Dare Me‘s Coach and Queenpin‘s Gloria Denton, how belief encourages people to commit crimes, true crime, the Aurora shootings, the 1984 San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre, the difficulties of relating to a sociopath, the short story that Dare Me sprang from, writing with a manageable evil, the smartphone as a person, how smartphones plague society (and how much we can resist them), teenagers who aren’t aware of the off button, Facebook trash talk, teenagers who crave for attention, writing about cheerleaders who have no interest in boys, relationships between football players and cheerleaders, cheerleaders as a roving gang, teens excited by the National Guard, smoking and drinking in the classroom, cheerleading coaches who are former cheerleaders, physical brutality, the difficulties of writing physical action, finding a new set of words to describe cheerleaders, using multiple verbs in a sentence, eccentric verbs, how any type of sport creates a new language, contending with copy editors, hockey subculture, The Mighty Ducks, Slap Shot, and tennis espionage.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Now we are sort of doing this secretly. We’ve tried to flag down a waitress to be polite. So it’s very possible we may have to order during this conversation. However, we will talk. Let’s see what we can do.

Abbott: That sounds good. I’m ready.

Correspondent: So let’s start off. I saw that you wrote a New York Times piece about Bring It On. But you use this piece to point out to certain realities of how cheerleaders are depicted in our culture. You point to the portrayal of cheerleaders in two modes: Ironic and Ideal. I’m wondering if some fulfillment of these two criteria is actually necessary to have a plausible narrative these days. What are your thoughts on this? And maybe this is a good way of describing how you zeroed the needle for Dare Me.

Abbott: Right. And I admit. I’m completely vulnerable to both. I love both the Ideal and the Ironic. Every cultural reference I had in there are things I kind of love. You know, Twin Peaks and all the doomed beautiful perfect cheerleaders who become corrupted? I love. And I love all the ironic ones. Some more than others. But it just seems — I mean, the word I didn’t use in the piece, that I avoided using, is “postmodernism.” But that’s essentially what has overtaken the cheerleader. She doesn’t exist as a person and probably never did. So when I actually started to look at actual cheerleaders, the divide fell even greater then in my day in the 1980s, when they were still somewhat enmeshed. Cheerleaders themselves were responding to the idea that they were cheerleaders and they should act as cheerleaders in popular culture did.

Correspondent: Cheerleaders cheerleading about themselves.

Abbott: Exactly! Exactly. But I don’t think that’s true at all today. And I think that “serious” cheerleaders — and I shouldn’t air quote that, but I did. Because they are serious.

Correspondent: Real cheerleaders. Bona-fide cheerleaders.

Abbott: I think they’d line themselves up much more to gymnasts, to serious athletes. And then that’s the parallel. And I would even take it further. When I look at them, I see them as more closely associated with Marines, boxers, the great risks like pilots ready to go down.

Correspondent: That’s very good. (laughs)

Abbott: Kamikazes. I think that there’s even more interesting aspects to them than being hard-core athletes.

Correspondent: So we should be making World War II movies with cheerleaders in place of the soldiers.

Abbott: Seriously. I actually thought about it writing the piece. Because you know how those old movies, they’d always have the guy from Brooklyn and the Oakie. Etcetera.

Correspondent: The Longest Day with cheerleaders.

Abbott: Yes! Exactly! Oh my gosh. That’s such a great pitch. (laughs)

Correspondent: We could make a million dollars on that.

Abbott: Seriously. Right here.

Correspondent: Well, the ironic mode, however, I would say that given the fact you have cheerleaders who are purging, who are regurgitating — in fact, one common motif that you repeat, I think three times in the book, is the hair behind the head as they puke into the toilet. To a certain degree, that is ironic in light of the physical robustness of these cheerleaders. Also the lemon tea diets and all that. So I would argue that perhaps you are working in some ironic mode in the sense that you’re taking a very feminine ideal and hardening it up to some degree to that same level that we generally put football players or, as you point out here, military people and so forth.

Abbott: Right. And I think that the eating disorders — the various bad eating habits, let’s say — of the girls has to do more with making weight like wrestlers than with girls wanting to have perfect bodies. And that sort of extremism is what really interested me. But it also became interesting because I was not a cheerleader.

Correspondent: You weren’t?

Abbott: No. I couldn’t imagine. (laughs)

Correspondent: But you came in with your pom poms and everything.

Abbott: I know. A skirt on.

Correspondent: You’ve been deceiving me the entire time!

Abbott: I know. Afterward I’ll show you that I…

Correspondent: Oh, I see. I brought my little barrette to twirl.

Abbott: Oh! Good, good, good! I will be dandling. It just strikes me that it’s almost like cheerleaders are a metaphor for being a girl. Because usually they do things girls do. But the cheerleader is the heightened form of it. Girls suffer mightily in high school. They do bad things to themselves and others. They torture each other. There was always this great Seinfeld joke that stuck into my head about how terrible boys are in high school, and Elaine says, “Oh, we never treated each other like that. We would just tease each other until we gave each other eating disorders.” And that always struck me as really true. So that the cheerleader — in my case, I am sort of metaphorizing it or ironizing it in some way. Because it’s a stand-in for how hard it is being a girl.

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about the research that you did. I know that you have said that you have observed various cheerleaders practice. Was this actually in person? Was this on YouTube?

Abbott: It was all online.

Correspondent: It was all online!

Abbott: Yeah. All YouTube.

Correspondent: Did you talk to any cheerleaders at all?

Abbott: I did.

Correspondent: Okay.

Abbott: Via email only.

Correspondent: Oh really?

Abbott: Well, you know, I’m not a journalist, nor do I pretend to be.

Correspondent:> But you play one on TV.

Abbott: I do! Exactly. (laughs) And I guess part of me — I felt, even in my email interviews, that they were performing for me in a way. I wasn’t really seeing them as they were. I would be an intruder. So online, or watching them online or watching them on message boards, where they didn’t know anyone was listening, seemed to be the purest and most authentic view I could get. When they didn’t care. Because they’ll post their practices. They’re performing. So they will always be performers. But I just felt like I was getting a more authentic view of it. And then, at a certain point, I didn’t want to talk to any of them. Because it might change things. My version of it is very heightened. And once I decide how I wanted the world in the book to be, I didn’t want any…

Correspondent: Realism to get in the way.

Abbott: The hyperreality of the book.

Correspondent: So that’s interesting. It seems to me that you were almost collecting textual snippets through these email interviews. Because the book is very heavy on text messages and, in fact, there’s one interesting thing. You have the iPhone font and the italicized font of something from a previous statement. And I’m wondering what this did to get this hyperreal mode that you devised, after soaking yourself so much in cheerleading culture from before.

Abbott: Right. From the beginning, I was so worried about the texting. Because I thought, “How am I going to? Nobody wants to read texts in a novel.”

Correspondent: Nobody’s going to text you. (laughs)

Abbott: Exactly.

Correspondent: You can’t pretend to be a cheerleader.

Abbott: No. And there’s nothing more depressing than reading texts. Because they’re so meant for some kind of quick communication. But once I realized it as a mechanism for the way that girls could torture each other, the way that they could be present, when people can be present when they’re not present. You know, there’s a scene where one of the cheerleaders keeps sending texts to the main girl, Addy. So it’s almost like she’s there. But she’s not there. So the text and the snippets became this opportunity to be the voices in the head. Or the classic noir voiceover. Or the voice over the shoulder. The tap on the shoulder. So once I found a way to turn it into something else, I felt that it had become mine somehow.

(Photo: John Bartlett)

The Bat Segundo Show #474: Megan Abbott (Download MP3)

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haveaniceday

Why Being Nice Means Nothing

In all the hot and bothered blather over niceness as an epidemic on par with the bubonic plague, Internet bitchery as a sin which may or may not be equivalent to molesting a small child, and the midlist demolition job compared to a lonely book reviewer belting Eric Carmen’s Rachmaninoff knockoff into the mirror, nobody has paused to consider how tenuous the word “nice” is in the first place.

Believe it or not, there was a time when being called “a nice person” was an insult. “Nice” was originally Old French for “silly” or “foolish.” Here’s Chaucer using “nice” in Troilus and Criseyde:

Quod Pandarus, “Thou hast a full great care
Lest that the churl may fall out of the moon
Why, Lord! I hate of thee the nice fare;

So if you were the type who was overly cautious and taken with needless particularities, you were often condemned for being “nice.” The word originated from the Latin nescius for “ignorant.” By the late 14th century, nice people were fussy or fastidious types: snobs who deliberated over a restaurant menu for twenty minutes. By the turn of the century, a nice person was someone with delicate sensibilities. In the 16th century, a nice person was someone who was very careful or precise. The proverb “more nice than wise” preserves some of these original meanings.

Then in 1769, “nice” altered into something that was agreeable or delightful. In 1830, “nice” involved being kind and thoughtful. And this etymological shift rightly pissed off Fowler, who had this to say in A Dictionary of Modern Usage:

N. has been spoilt, like CLEVER, by its bonnes femmes; it has been too great a favorite with the ladies, who have charmed out of it all of its individuality & converted it into a mere diffuser of vague & mild agreeableness. Everyone who uses it in its more proper senses, which fill most of the space given to it in any dictionary, & avoids the modern one that tends to oust them all, does a real if small service to the language.

In other words, contrary to Michelle Dean’s critical conspiracy theories, “nice,” in the manner that we use it today, originated from the ladies.

“Nice” is a problematic, amorphous, and impermanent word. It could mean something altogether different in a decade. And it certainly doesn’t mean anything now. Rosie O’Donnell was once called “The Queen of Nice” before developing a decidedly belligerent reputation for speaking her mind. In 1962, Lowell Lee Andrews, “the nicest boy in Wolcott,” killed his family. (And why is it that “nice,” more than “kind” or “respectful,” is the default modifier when the next door neighbor is revealed to be a serial killer?)

“God damn it, you’ve got to be nice” sounds porous and gutless next to Kurt Vonnegut’s “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” And it reveals the inherent deceit of nice. If you’re “being nice” to someone, you’re not being honest. You’re humoring a person you don’t want to be with and I don’t think I can trust you. Especially when you’re flattering a person one minute and talking shit about that same person when they leave the room. But if you’re “being kind” to someone, you are legitimately trying to understand where another person is coming from and you are willing to change your mind. You are also willing to persuade the person who is so determined to hate.

I’m not interested in being nice. I’m interested in being kind. I’m interested in having conversations with people who have the confidence to walk down a two-way street built on respect. I’m interested in Emma Straub not because she is nice (although she once patiently listened to one of my five minute soliloquies on the BEA floor), but because she is kind and respectful. She can be trusted because she isn’t as resolutely sanguine as Jacob Silverman has suggested. This is someone who openly condemned Christmas in The New York Times. I didn’t care for Emma Straub’s short story collection and I suppose I’m guilty of “being nice” for not saying anything about it. But I truly had better things to get worked up about. I also disagree with much of Straub’s response to Jacob Silverman’s essay. But I’m pretty sure I could have an adult conversation with her, where we could agree on some points and disagree on others.

I don’t care for the majority of what Lev Grossman writes, but he has been respectful enough to respond to my criticisms in public and in private. Even Sam Tanenhaus had the stones to approach Levi Asher and me on a cold wintry night and enter into a heated but civil face-to-face exchange about The New York Times Book Review. A few years ago, John Freeman and I realized that we were not mortal enemies on the National Book Awards dance floor when I brazenly walked up to him and asked how he was doing. None of this was a matter of “being nice.” It was about being human. It was about keeping an open mind and remaining curious. Is it possible that I will get worked up enough over something that these three people write in the future? Yeah. Probably. I’m hardly a saint and I’m known to speak my mind, but I don’t hate any of these guys. It’s the work that I have had problems with.

I wish I could say munificent things about people like literary blogger Mark Athitakis, who called the cops on me rather than settling our differences over a phone call, or Los Angeles Times writer Carolyn Kellogg, who sent me a remarkably patronizing email when I pointed to flaws in her journalism and has given me the cold shoulder since (I have since learned that this remarkably oversensitive person has behaved with such petty childishness with a number of other people). But I can’t, although if either Athitakis or Kellogg were to write an essay that deeply moved me or were to break a significant news story, I would be the first to sing their hosannas. The idea of not linking or acknowledging good work because you detest the person is antithetical to first-rate intelligence. As the wise Maria Bustillos points out, it’s the immature writer who declares his critic his nemesis for life, but the mature writer who wants to understand why someone would feel that way. Athitakis and Kellogg prefer condemnation rather than consideration. I think it’s a dishonest and craven approach. But you know what? I don’t hate these two either.

People like Athitakis and Kellogg act this way, even engaging in the puerile “you don’t exist in my universe” game, because they want people to “be nice” to them. They seem to believe that any person being “mean” is incapable of being kind. They wish to live in a universe that involves other people proffering lips, prostrating themselves, and smooching posteriors. I think we can all accept that, in an age of Goodreads and Amazon reviews, this is an unreasonable and uninteresting way to live. It is also incompatible with the critic’s present value in American culture, which is far removed from the days of Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin, or Mary McCarthy.

Enthusiasm isn’t the problem. I don’t think any one type of writing should be prohibited (although strenuously argued oppositions are always interesting). On the other hand, the mainstream critical landscape has become so polluted with sterile viewpoints because people are so touchy about offending other people. And this means that honest enthusiasm, predicated upon a clear set of virtues and standards even when responding to bad books, is now considered suspect. On the other hand, Jacob Silverman’s hope for “a better literary culture…that’s not so dependent on personal esteem and mutual reinforcement” is remarkably conservative. Why can’t we live in a world that offers respect to Emma Straub’s flowery crowns and a James Wood hit piece? If we weren’t so busy being nice or being liked, we wouldn’t need to worry so much about honest criticism.

uzodinma

Uzodinma Iweala (The Bat Segundo Show)

Uzodinma Iweala is most recently the author of Our Kind of People.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Looking beyond.

Subjects Discussed: The advantages of hearing stories told to understand issues, the rhythms and tones of language, how to track down people to talk with in Nigeria, China Keiteski, the advantages of bus depots, the Nigerian Civil War, Nigeria’s reticence to discuss AIDS and HIV, physical deterioration and moral stigma, the parallels between how HIV/AIDS is perceived in Nigeria and how it is perceived in the United States, prejudicial language (“dropping like flies”) and stereotypes in Western coverage of AIDS in Africa (as recent as 2006), hysterical headlines from The New York Times, the Joseph Conrad disease-ridden racist stereotype of AFrica, the difficulties of getting rid of stereotypical language in relation to minorities, how pushback in Africa has helped to improve language, why it’s important to remain unafraid of being corrected and correcting other people, regrettable posters equating Africa with AIDS, voices that have not been allowed to speak on the international stage, why AIDS needs to expand beyond the “woe is me” narrative, the “giving thanks” narrative, and the exotic narrative, journalism vs. creative nonfiction vs. personal crusading, issues pertaining to the journalist as outsider, illusory journalistic objectivity, responding to criticisms leveled by The Observer‘s David Smith, AIDS denialism in South Africa, the sheer number of books about AIDS, Philip Alcabes’s “The Ordinariness of AIDS,” needless fear and hysteria, AIDS and the Nigerian identity issue, the new normal, trying to sell people on normal, epidemic fatigue and fundraising, how the process of transformation relates to support and empathy, and the importance of nuanced understanding.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I know that with the novel you wrote, Beasts of No Nation, you started off to some degree not just with news articles, but you actually met a soldier for that particular work. And with this, of course, there’s a good deal of interviews you did with people who have HIV and who are living in Nigeria. Support activists and so forth. So my question to you is: Why do you need to hear stories in oral form before you work out how you’re going to tell the story? Whether it be fiction or, in this case, nonfiction?

Iweala: Well, for me, I’m very interested in the way that people speak. Both in the creative fiction that I do. And also the creative nonfiction. I mean, I like the rhythm of language. I like the sounds of voices. And I like how rhythm and tone really are so much a part of the storytelling itself as the words that you put down on the page. I mean, I think it’s both a result of having this oral tradition and listening to stories from the culture that I come from. And also I think there are a number of other writers that I think in the more Western literary tradition who pay a lot of attention to rhythm and flow. You can think of people like Beckett, who I love listening to when read because of that reason.

Correspondent: Did you transcribe the conversations and did you actually read them aloud to try and figure out…

Iweala: (nods head)

Correspondent: You did.

Iweala: It was a process. It was first doing interviews. Then I transcribed all the interviews — almost all of them — myself. Because I wanted to be in it. To hear the way that people spoke again. To really pick up where there were emotional stresses essentially in people’s voices. And I would take those interviews, sit down, and try to rejig them a little bit to make them flow better as stories. But I would read them aloud to myself over and over again. Just trying to get the right inflection or trying to get the right tone and trying to make sure that the language and the emotional state really coalesced.

Correspondent: So the finer details of these stories are there in the intonations of the sentences more than the actual biographical details and so forth?

Iweala: It’s nonfiction. So those details are also very on point. But there was a lot of attention paid to, yeah, just what it sounded like. And what it sounded like reflected who was speaking. So your health official of the government is going to sound and speak differently, and stress different things and have different emotional stresses, than, say, a woman living in a rural area. Each intonation, each way of speaking, is equally important and equally relevant to the larger picture of the epidemic, but definitely very different.

Correspondent: How do you track a child soldier down? Or many of the interesting people in this book? You can’t just hold up a sign while you’re walking around Lagos.

Iweala: Right. So for the first book, for Beasts of No Nation, I just got fortunate in the sense that the first person I spoke to — China Keiteski actually gave a talk at Harvard when I was an undergrad. And she just had a lot to say. And we had a very brief conversation. I didn’t really interview her. I just listened to her talk and her experiences, read her book, and it was a chat I had that really brought out what it was that I wanted to write about. And then, in Nigeria, there are a lot of people who lived through the Civil War that we had in the ’60s. A long time ago. But they still had many, many soldiers to tell and were very open with me about that. And then also we had Liberian refugees living in Nigeria at the time. Most have returned home now, I think. And where my family lives, they were doing a lot of construction. And these folks would be working on the construction crews. And so, during breaks, I would just take the time to chat with them. And that’s how I got a lot of those stories. Now for Our Kind of People, I really kind of did just do what you said. I just started walking around and asking questions. I mean, obviously a little bit more structured than that, right? You go to a health official and then they lead you to a treatment center. You speak with someone there. And then they lead you to a support group. Also walking down the street. I walked into bus depots. Just found who I could speak to. And we sat down. You buy a person a beer.

Correspondent: What else are they doing while they’re waiting for a bus, right?

Iweala: You’re either waiting for a bus you’re driving to leave or you’re waiting for the bus you’re going to take to leave. What do you have to do but sit and talk and drink? And so that’s what we would do. And then they would be like, “Well, you should contact this person,” and you’d get a phone number and go from there.

Correspondent: So you built up a network based off of these peregrinations and you finally tracked down the appropriate people. You mentioned the Civil War, which I wanted to talk with you about. Because the Civil War doesn’t really come up in this book so much. And in light of what you have to say about Nigeria’s reticence to discuss HIV and AIDS, I was wondering if you could get into why they’re reluctant to talk about it. Aside from the AIDS support groups, the efforts to spread safe sex messages among the young, and so forth.

Iweala: I think for a number of reasons. And for the same reasons that people are reluctant to discuss it here. It has been a taboo subject. It’s much less so now. But HIV, AIDS, the epidemic — especially the way that it spreads, mostly through sex — is something that I think makes people profoundly uncomfortable. And we tend to avoid speaking about it. If you can think about how many tough conversations that you put off and put off and put off, we tend to avoid speaking about those things we find really uncomfortable. That’s changing — in large part because people have decided — the federal government and also activist groups and people living with HIV have decided to make a lot of noise and make sure that we have those uncomfortable conversations and really try to bring this thing out so that we can deal with it. I mean, I think in general Nigeria is a relatively, at least outwardly, conservative country. And we’re loud people for a number of different things. But there are certain things that I think, it would be safe to say, are considered more private: sex being one of them. It’s not a place where you see sex sold on billboards or used to sell products as much as you do here or in other countries in Europe or whatever. So that definitely has impacted the way that we talk about the epidemic.

Correspondent: In the Stigma section, you describe how physical deterioration is, of course, a major part of AIDS. And there is, of course, this moral idea attached to it. That people are being punished for their sins. What’s some of the crossover? The book goes into a lot of dichotomies where there are intersections and where there are not. But in terms of grasping the idea of people who are physically deteriorating and who are suffering, why does this have to be so sinful among certain moralists in Nigeria? I was very curious about that.

Iweala: Again, I think we should also say that that also happened here as well. It’s mainly a question of absolutes, I think, in a situation where you don’t have access to treatment and being diagnosed with this disease is, in essence, an absolute thing. Like “you will die” is what people message. And I think it’s complex in some senses because its message is “you will die,” but you can still be healthy for some years before you start to deteriorate without treatment. But that absolute, it seems like a final judgment. And so people then map all kinds of anxieties, religious beliefs, cultural whatever onto that. And then you get this idea of this being judgment for something. That definitely came up a number of times. Of how initially people would say “If you get HIV, then you’re being judged for some kind of practice.” Whether that practice is some kind of immoral sex. Whether, in this country, homosexuality was considered an immoral thing and HIV was punishment for that. IV drug use was considered an immoral thing and it was punishment for that. Now in Nigeria, it’s more heterosexual sex. Much less in terms of IV drug use or anything like that. And we’re very outwardly strongly religious societies, where the prohibitions on sex before marriage are at least spoken about all over the place. And so it becomes very easy for people to make that leap. You have sex before marriage or you have some kind of immoral, by whoever’s standards, sex. And punishment comes through this disease. I found that to be a very interesting connection. I mean, it’s ages old. There are other sexually transmitted diseases, which have always been considered judgement in some way for immoral sexual practice. But I think the stories around HIV/AIDS, and then also the way that people generate stories about their relationships and their sexual encounters to moralize them in the face of this epidemic, so that you can say, “Well, I might be having sex before marriage. But my relationship, my sexual practice, is somehow not like this.” This being sinful sex. People construct all kinds of things. And I find that to be really interesting. It’s something that we should look at and spend more time with.

Correspondent: So what I’m getting is that Nigeria is essentially applying the same moral codex to HIV and AIDS that America is, but that they’re really just only a few years behind where we are. Is that safe to say? What distinguishes Nigeria from the States along a similar sort of trajectory?

Iweala: I think one of the things the book is trying to say is that, while the nature of the HIV epidemic differs depending on the society it appears in, I think there are many similarities in that what people did originally was suggest that there was something very different about the Africa AIDS epidemic than in other countries. And there is a difference. But the difference isn’t necessarily some cultural whatever or some moral feeling on the part of Africans. And I hate using the term “Africans.” So I’ll go with “specifically in Nigeria.” The issue in a lot of senses is resources. And in the United States, the difference was people recognizing a problem and then also having the resources to apply to dealing with the problem very quickly. In Nigeria, the problem was recognized at a certain point in time. But the resources weren’t necessarily as forthcoming. And that creates a huge difference. It’s just very apparent.

The Bat Segundo Show #473: Uzodinma Iweala (Download MP3)

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roomwithaview

A Room with a View (Modern Library #79)

(This is the twenty-second entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Brideshead Revisited)

Merchant Ivory Productions has been one of the greatest threats to literature during the past three decades. Known for producing well photographed films that put most sane people to sleep, the Merchant Ivory team has demonstrated a remarkable knack for divesting zest from the literary classics. They have ordered esteemed actors across sweeping vistas as if they are unbudgeable bovine who require vast encouragement to produce milk. They have bored more often than seems reasonable. Where Orson Welles’s Shakespeare adaptations or Iain Softley’s The Wings of the Dove or Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon or Sally Potter’s Orlando or William Wyler’s The Heiress or Corman’s Poe pictures or The Royal Shakespeare Company’s nine hour version of Nicholas Nickleby bristle with life and visual excitement, demanding that you get your hands on the source material at once, the Merchant Ivory movies are the cinematic equivalent to visiting the in-laws or steeling yourself up for a dreadful Thanksgiving or attending a funeral for someone you didn’t really know that well.

I have been dragged to too many of these goddam films over the years, often by friends who had nobody else to go with or by women who I have dated, and I have been polite. Because being polite often results in perversity. But the one thing I didn’t do, thanks to Merchant Ivory’s vacation slideshow approach to literary adaptation, was read E.M. Forster. Until now.

* * *

It all began with a bundle of notes Forster scribbled during the winter of 1901. It was his first trip to Italy, and he was forming some ideas about a novel set in Florence. There was a list of characters, a fund-raising concert as part of the narrative (later dropped), and a young woman named Lucy, who changed surnames swifter than a serial matrimonialist. There were more character lists and more drafts and more notes. Then in December 1903, Forster began referencing something called “The New Lucy Novel,” reconstructed from the Italian bones of “Old Lucy” with a new English section to match. Forster then wrote Where Angels Fear to Tread and The Longest Journey, flitting between these projects and various incarnations of the Lucy novels, before completing A Room with a View. (If you can get your hands on the edition of Room edited by Oliver Stallybrass, I recommend it. Stallybrass is more thorough about these matters than a querulous tax auditor. But while he can be humorless and overreaching, his notes provide helpful connection points.)

Forster wanted to write a romantic novel because he was interested in subverting formula. Biographer Nicola Beauman has suggested that Forster’s own fears of marriage (he was a lifelong bachelor who maintained a long-term relationship with a married policeman) undermined his self-confidence as a novelist around the summer of 1906. Perhaps this internal tension accounts for the subtle manner in which Forster’s heroine, Lucy, responds to the men who woo her.

Lucy Honeychurch — a name, I am sorry to say, which implied some pornographic starlet in my dirty mind until I remembered that I was reading a book published more than a century before — is on vacation with her cousin Charlotte Bartlett, an older chaperone who is about as much fun to be around as Pat Boone. (There is a juicy moment late in the novel, where Lucy tells Charlotte to remove a certain word from her envelopes, which is especially satisfying.) The two women arrive at a lodging house called the Pension Bertolini. They are disappointed with the room, which does not have a view of the Arno. Employing the finest passive-aggressive moves that prewar chivalry is willing to put up with, the two women finagle rooms with views from a certain Mr. Emerson and his son George.

People on vacation sometimes have to deal with louts. But in the first decade of the twentieth century, you could be ostracized for your perceived class or for displaying any modest idiosyncrasy. Thus, we see the poor Emersons, despite their potential philosophical namesake (which Forster is good enough to note in the book) and their early grand gesture, shunned for being “peculiar.”

Forster has some fun with the travel culture of the time. Everybody comes to Italy clutching a bright red Baedeker travel guide. To stray from the course is nothing short of mortifying. One day, Lucy is on her own with by an aspiring novelist named Miss Lavish, who unwittingly abandons her and takes the Baedeker with her. Lucy runs into the Emersons and, without any Baedeker, the three enter Peruzzi Chapel, where Mr. Emerson earned my instant respect by shouting “No!” when told how to interpret the frescoes by a patronizing lecturer.

“Pull out from the depths those thoughts you do not understand,” says Mr. Emerson to Lucy not long after this, “and spread them out in the sunlight and know the meaning of them.” This is actually pretty good advice for people walking in concentrated metropolitan areas looking down at their smartphones. The technology may change, but conformity remains the same.

Needless to say, this casual iconoclasm has the other tourists searching for other reasons to sneer at the Emersons. George gets pegged as some working-class interloper because he says that he works on “the railway.” But this doesn’t stop him from romancing Lucy.

The first kiss Lucy receives from George comes after she falls into an open terrace in the woods, with Forster very keen to describe how “the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves.” Nature, it seems, is doomed to ensnare you into a smooch, especially if you wantonly wander on your own. But isn’t life an adventure? It’s propriety, that troubling need to maintain a certain impression or to participate in bunk etiquette, that kills the mood.

So how does a young woman like Lucy summon her passions? It comes through the freedom to play the piano, albeit badly:

She was no dazzling executante; her runs were not at all like strings of pearls, and she struck no more right notes than was suitable for one of her age and situation. Nor was she the passionate young lady, who performs so tragically on a summer’s evening with the window open. Passion was there, but it could not be easily labelled; it slipped between love and hatred and jealousy, and all the furniture of the pictorial style. And she was tragical only in the sense that she was great, for she loved to play on the side of Victory. Victory of what and over what — that is more than the words of daily life can tell us.

Yet when Forster moves the action back to England, the words of daily life tell us everything. Cecil Vyse, a young man whose surname rightfully connotes the personality of a clamp, is as far from legitimate life as one can get. How many women were forced into marrying Cecil Vyse types around 1908? And how many unhappy marriages were saved with Cecil Vyse types getting killed off during the Great War? Our first glimpse of Lucy in the second part could almost happen on a stage. The window curtains part, and we encounter a terrace differing from the one in Florence, one “transfigured by the view beyond,” with Lucy in a rustic seat that “seemed on the edge of a green magic carpet which hovered in the air above the tremulous world.” The reader’s view of Lucy changes, but her passion remains. Yet Cecil’s own view of Lucy is “only as a commonplace girl who happened to be musical,” with Italy working some unspecified marvel in her. Forster, ever skeptical, manages to get in a few digs at this problematic practice:

An engagement is so potent a thing that sooner or later it reduces all who speak of it to this state of cheerful awe. Away from it, in the solitude of their rooms, Mr Beebe, and even Freddy, might again be critical. But in its presence and in the presence of each other they were sincerely hilarious. It has a strange power, for it compels not only the lips, but the very heart. The chief parallel -to compare one great thing with another- is the power over us of a temple of some alien creed. Standing outside, we deride or oppose it, or at the most feel sentimental. Inside, though the saints and gods are not ours, we become true believers, in case any true believer should be present.

Cecil’s belief comes from material things, from playing tricks on people, and from standing against the sanctity of life. As one character suggests near the end of the book, “He’s the type who’s kept Europe back a thousand years.” The word “medieval” pops up quite a bit in Room. Cecil is described as medieval. Churches are “built by faith in the full fervour of medievalism.” It’s even the name of a chapter. Forster expressly states that “Lucy does not stand for the medieval lady, who was rather an ideal to which she was bidden to lift her eyes when feeling serious.” So how does religion, as reflected through the clergyman Mr. Beebe, fit into all this? It’s surprisingly compatible. There is a bathing scene in which the Emersons and Mr. Beebe frolic in the splendor of The Sacred Lake, a pool that forms “when a good deal of water comes down after heavy rains” (a Flood perhaps from which to build a new Ark?). They run so free and naked, tossing their clothes with mirthful abandon, that one is heartened to find a loophole for flopping chorizos within Forster’s proper world.

Room is a paean for youthful ardor no matter what one’s age, a plea for humanity to bask in Phaethon’s shining possibilities. One wonders if Forster could have finished the novel had he still been at work when the guns of August boomed. If the novel can sometimes be too light for its own good, it’s nowhere nearly as dead as the soporific cinematic adaptations which wilt in its shadow.

Next Up: Rudyard Kipling’s Kim!

evelynwaugh

Brideshead Revisited (Modern Library #80)

(This is the twenty-first entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Adventures of Augie March)

Soak up enough art over the years and you’ll run into the cultural dichotomy, either through half-cocked introspection or cocktail party gunpoint. It’s a practice where two artists of equal merit and/or influence are positioned at opposing ends in talk, much as an oily advertising tyrant pins blindfolds on fat suburban heads to establish the next tasteless drink to slam down lacquered American throats.

The participant is forced to decide between two heavyweights. The answers are revealed among pals and peers, with shocked susurrations floating through the room like a toxic Yanni album, and the participant is put in a strange mode of defense. It is wrongly assumed that a devotee of one artist cannot possibly appreciate the other, and there are many words expended which slur the subtleties of artistic appreciation. But the practice does pass the time. In my twenties, I spent a minimum of 250 hours arguing with a Liverpudlian friend on Friday nights over Lennon vs. McCartney while sitting at a stop sipping Guinness from paper cups, awaiting the N Judah’s slow crawl up the hill into San Francisco’s empyrean drinking holes. Books were passed back and forth. Albums were played over and over, often at deafening levels. In hindsight, it’s astonishing how much musical and biographical minutiae we were able to summon up during these near rabbinical talks. I fear that I may be approaching similar levels of conversational twist with my partner, who is quite vocal about her Hammett preference while I argue strenuously for Chandler as the superior.

But here’s a cultural dichotomy likely to get me into trouble. I prefer P.G. Wodehouse over Evelyn Waugh, and this partiality, when announced, has had certain snobs declare me as a yob before I get the chance to articulate my reasons. While Wodehouse’s comic situations and character types tend to repeat over his 96 volumes (with such prolificity, how could they not?), there are few equals to the charm of his syntax, his lovable myopia to modern developments, his snazzy formality, and his genial silliness. Only a reader with an ass tighter than a hummer having a hard time with a parallel park would resist the artistic romance of the short story “The Man Upstairs” or the giddy premise of a portrait used to hypnotize the masses into eating ham in Quick Service, to say nothing of Jeeves or Blandings Castle. But the Modern Library magistrates, presumably viewing the good Pellham Grenville to be too light for their lofty criteria, decided there was no room for Wodehouse on the list. They gave three slots to a savagely precise stylist who cratered not long after the war. Wodehouse, as everyone knows, had a longer and steadier run.

So it’s quite aggravating to be forced, due to my orthodox commitment to this Modern Library countdown framework, to write about Waugh on the later novels first. My love for the early stuff is bountiful enough to avoid bringing up Wodehouse altogether. Just to be clear, if Lady Metroland shows up in a Waugh novel, it’s probably a winner. Yet because Brideshead Revisited is very much about clinging to what remains of older values and expired dreams, and because it sees Waugh hiding behind Charles Ryder looking back, if not in anger then from passive despair, as an excuse to belabor these points, I couldn’t help but think of Wodehouse’s comparatively freer manner as I sludged through this often beautiful and often maddening novel. Brideshead Revisited is also considerably more depressing if you happen to read it, as I did, shortly before hitting a birthday milestone in which that vile veneer between youth and middle age is decidedly closer to the latter and you are shuffling into inevitable adulthood while trying to find legitimate methods to retain youthful wonder.

* * *

I am writing a very beautiful book, to bring tears, about very rich, beautiful, high born people who live in palaces and have no troubles except what they make themselves and those are mainly the demons sex and drink which after all are easy to bear as troubles go nowadays.

That’s Waugh in a letter to Lady Dorothy Lygon in March 23, 1944, midway through the writing of Brideshead and shortly after a parachute accident. It’s likely he’s taking the piss out of the enterprise, for Waugh was not one to suffer fools (although he once suggested to Nancy Mitford that suffering fools was one of God’s happy responsibilities). He was up against wartime censors, spending much of his time soused out of his mind. Yet he was vehemently opposed to any efforts at Catholic reform. Some of these developments probably account for why Waugh was such a miserable bastard in his final years, and why his wartime efforts exacerbated the need to produce a magnum opus to match his prodigious intake of champagne.

It is safe to say that I did not shed a single tear for any of the assholes in Brideshead Revisited, although I was not without empathy. My salubrious contempt for people who bitch and moan when they have it all has been memorialized in several places, and I’m not likely to shake this quality anytime soon. It didn’t exactly enhance my reading experience when Charles Ryder, Waugh’s protagonist, was revealed to have the very exemplar of a free ride existence. Here is a Oxonian who lives beyond his means at school. Despite having a hearty coterie, a cushy spread, and a special friend named Sebastian Flyte (“we lit fat, Turkish cigarettes and lay on our backs”), Charles feels “at heart that this was not all that Oxford had to offer.” He complains about his neighbors, treats his servant Lunt with some disgrace, and ingratiates himself with Sebastian’s family, the Marchmains, who are “rich in the way people who are who just let their money sit quiet.” First World problems all the way.

When Charles stays with his father during the long vacation, Waugh does give us a number of masterfully executed comic moments. Charles’s father cannot comprehend that his son is short of funds, yet makes many cost-prohibitive suggestions on how a young man should live. He also has funny ideas of who “young people” are. There is the gloriously preposterous three-course dinner of humdrum quality, consumed “purely out of respect for your Aunt Philippa.” Charles’s father also manages to chase away Jorkins, one of Charles’s old acquaintances, by pretending he is American and extending this fantasy into a foolish belief that the young man will spend more time living at the family home.

Such idiosyncrasies can’t last forever. Charles receives a telegram from Sebastian that could almost serve as a six word memoir of their relationship (“GRAVELY INJURED COME AT ONCE, SEBASTIAN”), which sends Charles up to the famed Marchmain estate. The grave injury is reveled to be merely a cracked ankle bone. But the pretext leads Charles to “[believe] myself very near heaven, during those languid days at Brideshead.”

Sebastian encourages Charles to draw a fountain, a pivotal experience that lays down the flagstones for Charles’s career as an architectural painter. (He later finds uncommon success during a financial slump, publishing folios such as Ryder’s Country Seats, Ryder’s English Homes, and Ryder’s Village. But, of course, it’s the war that pushes him into glum vocational duty.) There is wine tasting, appreciation of Sebastian’s foibles (which include Catholicism and his teddy bear Aloysius), rooftop sunbathing, a trip to Italy on the Marchmain dime, and romance beneath the seams.

Not long after Italy, Sebastian is revealed as an alcoholic who requires constant attention, someone so out of control that he must be watched at all times and denied money that will surely keen its way onto a bar tab. It’s disheartening and telling that Sebastian’s dipsomania is portrayed by Charles as his most memorable quality. We are never fully informed of the dashing aspects which inspired their relationship because Charles can only reveal the true extent of his feelings through omission (and this isn’t limited to Sebastian: late in the book, when Charles has married, he is remiss to name his wife for an uncomfortably long stretch of pages). For all of Charles’s talk about memory, what is he leaving out? Has he actually learned anything?

“Inappropriate” relationships turn reductio ad absurdum when Julia, Sebastian’s sister, is engaged to marry an aspiring politico named Rex Mottram in high Catholic style. By this point, Sebastian has fled the family, besotted and quite in denial about his true feelings. Charles becomes smitten with Julia because she resembles her brother. But Rex puts the kibosh on the Catholic wedding when he reveals a secret first wife. So much for the covenant of lifelong matrimony. But Waugh doesn’t stop there. There’s a richly ironic moment when Brideshead, who is Sebastian’s older brother and has an Asperger’s-like affinity for matchboxes, finds an unlikely match and Catholic maxims are bended further.

* * *

The Catholic hold on how people should live reflects Charles’s own efforts to reckon with his present existence, which he forever compares against the past. Charles’s time with his father and the the deception Charles reveals later on a cruise ship (accompanied by some gleeful skewering of modern convenience by Waugh, including an ice swan filled with caviar and passengers who are so pampered into lax inattention that adulterous shenanigans become effortless) also illustrate the divide between old virtues and contemporary developments. But sometimes Charles’s belief in the past can be more insufferable than Jay Gatsby:

These memories, which are my life — for we possess nothing certainly except the past — were always with me….These memories are the memorials and pledges of the vital hours of a lifetime. These hours of afflutus in the human spirit, the springs of art, are, in their mystery, akin to the epochs of history, when a race which for centuries has lived content, unknown, behind its own frontiers, digging, eating, sleeping, begetting, doing what was requisite for survival and nothing else, will, for a generation or two, stupefy the world; commit all manner of crimes, perhaps; follow the wildest chimeras, go down in the end in agony, but leave behind a record of new heights scaled and new rewards won for all mankind; the vision fades, the soul sickens, and the routine of survival starts again.

To which I can only reply: lighten the fuck up. I’m as skeptical and as angry about news and developments as the next guy, but if you can’t find a happy belief in everyday magic and if you can’t reckon with relationships you should have pursued before the age of thirty-nine, maybe the problem is you. Would Charles have been happier if he had embraced candor and accepted the inevitability of change? Why does he have to be old and miserable?

Anthony Blanche, the Alfred Jingle knockoff who may be the most belabored character in all of Waugh’s fiction, is an uncloseted, flamboyant homosexual who serves as counterpoint to the secret and unspecified relationship between Charles and Sebastian. Waugh gives Blanche long speeches and “an unforgettable self-taught stammer” and has this annoying habit of being overly explicit about Blanche’s otherness:

At the age of fifteen, for a wager, he was disguised as a girl and taken to play at the big table in the Jockey Club at Buenos Aries…he had practice black art in Cefaluu; he had been cured of drug-taking in California and of an Oediups complex in Vienna.

and

He swept lightly across the room to the most prominent canvas — a jungle landscape — paused a moment, his head cocked like a knowing terrier…

Wodehouse never had to sell his readership on eccentricity this hard. On the other hand, perhaps Charles is describing Blanche this way because he is needlessly “proper.” Still, if Blanche can strong-arm his way into affluent and artistic circles, surely he’s more than just a freak. Maybe the truly depraved people are the ones who cling to normalcy like a spoiled boy holding his Gyro-Bot tight.

* * *

A mere eighteen months ago, I promised that I would respond to Lydia Kiesling’s notion of Evelyn Waugh as a “bi-curious hipster boyfriend.” So let’s get this out of the way. As of August 2012, Michael Cera’s career is in modest free fall: a benison for those of us who have long tired of his squeaky-voiced faux emo act. As of August 2012, there are still a few hipsters, although they are no longer taken seriously (not even by n+1). The smarter ones have moved to Portland or joined an Occupy movement or now write for The New Inquiry. But a sizable majority have transformed into obnoxious early thirtysomething layabouts who have no desire to grow up or grapple with serious issues, much less read an author who is challenging and/or not Caucasian. In their defense, some of them have been slammed hard by the 2008 recession and face chronic unemployment. But that’s still no excuse for slacking in the worst sense of the word.

Was Waugh a bi-curious hipster boyfriend? Not quite. He was a recovering hipster. Like any figure saddled by the deep need to abide by inflexible norms incompatible with the whims of life, he was torn and hungry and more than a little sad. But when it came to expressing his inner turmoil, he was willing to go to the mat and, like all great artists, give us plenty to talk about.

Next Up: E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View!