Unemployment (Follow Your Ears #7)


The national unemployment rate continues to hover just under 8%. It’s been like this for about a year. That’s higher than the 1991 recession. And the unemployment numbers are starting to match the recession of the early 1980s, just before unemployment hit over 10% in 1982. This program looks into whether or not the jobs are really coming back. Are we avoiding a serious problem that we don’t have the courage to stare in the face? To what degree are we repeating history? We meet a man who motivates the unemployed in library basements, get experts to respond to Chairman Bernanke’s recent claims that unemployment will fall between 5.8 and 6.2% by 2015, discuss the finer points of Beveridge curves with economics professor William Dickens, chat about how the last four decades of labor developments have contributed to the unemployment crisis with Down the Up Escalator author Barbara Garson, discover a company that protected the unemployed against discrimination with the National Employment Law Project’s Mitchell Hirsch, and learn about discrimination and how local labor policy reveals national labor policy with Dr. Michelle Holder of the Community Service Society of New York.


I Really Want This Job

Barry Cohen is a well-dressed man with impressive cheekbones and an indefatigable smile. He reminds me of some 20th century titan who wants you to sign on the dotted line for a set of steak knives. On hot summer nights, he can be found in the basements of public libraries addressing the unemployed on how to find and get the jobs they really want. We talk with Barry and the people who look for confidence and guidance in his words. It turns out that Barry is working from an unexpected vicarious place. (Beginning to 9:40)


Curves and Predictions

Last Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told reporters that we were at the beginning of the end. He predicted that unemployment would fall between 5.8 and 6.2% by 2015. But William Dickens, Distinguished Professor of Economics and Social Policy at Northeastern University, feels that Bernanke is being overly optimistic. He also demystifies Beveridge curves for us and elucidates a policy paper he co-authored with Rand Ghayad that caused at least journalist to freak out in the final moments of 2012. (9:40 to 18:37)


Down the Up Escalator

Barbara Garson, author of Down the Up Escalator, offers a more sociological view of the unemployment problem. She tells us that it’s not so much the recession that reveals the causes of unemployment, but the American worker’s dwindling prospects over the past four decades. We discuss the Pink Slip Club, the “new normal” of unemployment, and consider how the unemployed can contribute to society as they pine for nonexistent jobs. (18:37 to 29:10)



It’s difficult to feel inspired and real when the deck is stacked against you. One little discussed truth about being unemployed is the rampant discrimination against job seekers who are not presently employed. The situation is so bad that New York City was forced to pass Introduction 814, a groundbreaking piece of local legislation that made it illegal under the human rights law for an employer to base a hiring decision on an applicant’s unemployment. We speak with Mitchell Hirsch, the Web and Campaign Associate at the National Employment Law Project, to get a handle on just how bad discrimination against the unemployed remains. It turns out that Introduction 814 doesn’t go far enough. We also meet Dr. Michelle Holder, Senior Labor Market Analyst at the Community Service Society of New York, to determine why New York is a good microcosm for American unemployment. The conversation reveals how local policy reflects national policy and gets into problems with the Georgia Works program and “business-friendly” politicians. (29:10 to end)

Loops for this program were provided by BlackNebula, danke, djmfl, drmistersir, EOS, JorgeDanielRamirez, kristijann, KRP92, MaMaGBeats, Megapaul, morpheusd, and ShortBusMusic. Follow Your Ears Theme (licensed) by Mark Allaway.

Follow Your Ears #7: Unemployment (Download MP3)

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Richard Matheson: The Man and His Fiction

This afternoon, both John Shirley and Harlan Ellison confirmed that Richard Matheson, the author of some of the most awe-inspiring scripts and stories of the 20th century, had passed away. He was 87. The cause of his death is unknown.

On April 5, 2008, I wrote the following essay for The Los Angeles Times on Richard Matheson, pertaining to Button, Button: Uncanny Stories, a collection published by Tor.

* * *

Had he not cemented his cinematic rep with Richard Matheson’s horror story “Duel,” Steven Spielberg might still be struggling in television. Had George A. Romero not openly pilfered from Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, the flinty fount of zombie flicks might not have struck. And had not Stephen King studied Matheson’s tales for their focus on attention to American fears, he might not have become a mass-market juggernaut.

Yet Matheson’s influence remains somewhat understated. It’s almost as if he’s the second-string quarterback called up only when Ray Bradbury can’t carry a second-half drive.

Perhaps this is because Matheson’s concise stories, like the dozen in the new collection Button, Button: Uncanny Stories, read less like fantasy and more like domestic tales from the glory days of Collier’s Weekly. “Dying Room Only” features a couple making a pit stop for lunch at a desert cafe. The husband disappears into a washroom and the wife accuses the regulars of kidnapping her man. In the pitch-perfect title story, another couple is torn apart by an outsider’s unexpected offer: Push a button and collect $50,000, but at the cost of another person dying.

Matheson has a talent for sustaining tension through proximity. In “Button, Button,” a woman glares “at the carton as she unlocked the door” and a man reaches “into an inside coat pocket” to withdraw “a small sealed envelope.” In “Shock Wave,” a character’s fingers “lay tensely on the table.” His almost theatrical concern for where his characters are situated and where objects are located may explain why so many of his stories have been adapted for film and television.

He also builds narrative momentum with nouns and adjectives. In “Mute,” a home-schooled child who has been trained not to speak has survived a fire. His parents have died, and as the boy tries to blend into society, Matheson describes the boy’s predicament: “Words. Empty, with no power to convey the moist, warm feel of earth.”

Matheson often ends his stories with O. Henry-like twists, as in “Button, Button” and the lightly libidinous “A Flourish of Strumpets.” But surprises also arise from overly optimistic faith in the law. His characters often summon police to assist in pedantic matters. In “Dying Room Only,” a sheriff looks into the husband’s disappearance, even though he’s been gone only a few hours. “Strumpets” takes this further. Various women knock on the door of a happy couple’s home propositioning them to take part in “an experimental program.” A cop called in to investigate dismisses this as a sorority prank. An FBI man likewise brushes it off. The inability of authority to serve and protect allows Matheson to tap into the familiar American fear of helplessness.

When Matheson’s conceptual angles trump quotidian concerns, his stories can be a bit labored. “No Such Thing as a Vampire” is a competent yarn, but it dwells less on fear and more on traditional problem-solving to trap the ostensible vampire. Nevertheless, it’s worth observing that “Clothes Make the Man,” which deals with “magical” apparel, came a good seven years before Bradbury’s classic short story “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit.”

As serious as Matheson is, he also has a marvelous sense of humor. “‘Tis the Season to Be Jelly,” a comic tale written in unwonted vernacular, begins with the eye-popping opening line, “Pa’s nose fell off at breakfast.” The satirical “Pattern for Survival” describes a manuscript’s journey from typewriter to typesetting, openly taking on science fiction publishers who boast too much about schlocky material: “[H]e dropped into his leather chair, restrained emphatic finger twitchings for the blue pencil (No need of it for a Shaggley yarn!).” And I suspect even the bleak-minded urban theorist Mike Davis could not resist “The Creeping Terror,” which depicts suburban sprawl afflicting the nation, with California citrus trees popping up in Nebraska cornfields. (In a nod to Robert Noble’s “Ham and Eggs” social initiative in the late 1930s, Matheson describes a “‘Bacon and Waffles’ movement . . . $750 per month for every person in Los Angeles over forty years of age.”)

Because Matheson wrote these stories in the 1950s and 1960s, well before Third Wave feminism and New Wave science fiction, some narrative elements don’t hold up as well. Wives sometimes remain troublingly submissive to their husbands. When Matheson describes a woman’s “sick feeling of being without help” in “Dying Room Only,” I expected a mustache-twirling villain to tie her to a railroad track.

But on the whole, these tales provide remarkably fresh evidence that Matheson deserves more than a footnote in speculative fiction.


Claire Messud II (The Bat Segundo Show #504)

Claire Messud is most recently the author of The Woman Upstairs. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #86.


Author: Claire Messud

Subjects Discussed: How living in a surveillance state will affect contemporary fiction, the disappearing interior life, Sabbath’s Theater, proper norms and sentences that are alive, transgressions in fiction, girls who get up early to put on makeup, This American Life‘s climate change program, climatologists vs. novelists, the downside of promoting individual agency, why social novels are associated with “big books” and how “small books” can be just as big, James Joyce, reading Finnegans Wake, Ulysses references in The Woman Upstairs, A Doll’s House, how literary and ontological snippets float within your head throughout your life, Nora’s evolution, having to contend with the narrative in your head, people who are against universal health care, when interior selves set themselves up for disappointment, the fury guiding the first chapter, cultural osmosis, the glibness of assigning invisibility to a class of people, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” (Dr. Hook version and Marianne Faithfull version) Shel Silverstein’s songwriting career, not looking for original points or antecedents with family and culture, the “being wrong” speech in American Pastoral, Teju Cole’s Open City, always being a hero in your own story, peregrinations of memory, Chekhov’s “The Black Monk,” why investigation into the mind inevitably leads to the corporeal, interpretive liberation, being profoundly disembodied, Nora and foreign voices, multiculturalism and inverted xenophobia, Pierre Nora’s interpretation of the Pieds-Noirs, living a life somewhere between desperation and wanting to count, fakery and personas, giving other people what they want, how the semi-autistic genius myth has become defined by gender roles, Temple Grandin, the Google People in San Francisco, the Publishers Weekly controversy, Enlightened, Roxana Robinson’s Sparta, the unlikable character debate, why America is presently frightened by unlikable characters in art, why likability is uninteresting, +1 culture, how authors are held hostage by Goodreads reviews, the limitations of literature as escapism, how social media is regulated in the Wood-Messud household, and attempts to find a verb which adequately appreciates a difficult work of art.


Correspondent: I don’t want to get into the ending of The Woman Upstairs, but it would appear that recent events — certain reports by Glenn Greenwald — would have the rare notion of reinforcing your ending in terms of what privacy means. And I wanted to start off this conversation because I have to address it in some way. Now that we are aware that we are living in a surveillance state, do you think this is going to do anything for contemporary fiction? Is America going to produce its share of Kunderas and Dostoevskys? I was wondering if you had any thoughts on this.

Messud: That’s an interesting question and I don’t necessarily have an answer. But one of the things that I was thinking about when writing this book — well, I was setting out to write somebody’s interior life. And the interior life is fast disappearing. The interior life was always invisible. But now, in the highly mediated world that we live in, nothing exists unless it is manifest. My daughter photographs her breakfast and puts it on Instagram. And by the same token, maybe there’s something satisfying. I mean, where’s the line between our own willful destruction of privacy and the intrusion of government agencies or whatever into our privacy? They meet somewhere in the middle, right?

Correspondent: You’ve just given me a very terrible idea. That PRISM exists to reproduce the interior monologue. That there will be some new version of Ulysses that is generated entirely by NSA wiretapping. I mean, it could happen! It seems crazy.

Messud: One of the things I’ve been thinking too — you know, we were talking earlier about the somewhat parlous state of literary life. I think it is both a great thing and a terrible thing, but literature may just become samizdat. It may become the underground form of communication. That one’s beneath the other forms of mediated communication.

Correspondent: Aha! So in other words, by going ahead and focusing on the interior through ornate, detailed, subtle sentences that convey several meanings, we are in some way revolting against this.

Messud: Yes. I believe it.

Correspondent: Okay. Well, you know, with that in mind, I’m going to have to bring up your epigraph. “Fuck the laudable ideologies,” from Sabbath’s Theater. I do know that in your husband’s book, How Fiction Works, he singles out this sentence as “utterly alive, alive by virtue of the way it scandalizes proper norms.” So this leads me to ask. How much did you hope to scandalize proper norms with the writing of this book? I mean, what transgressions do you think are left in our oversharing age? How do novelists answer to this?

Messud: You know, it’s interesting. I think I did see in my mind Nora and the story she has to tell as transgressive. In part because she is not lovely, glamorous, fascinating. A model in New York City. She’s a schoolteacher. Part of her transgression is the fact that she’s leading a completely ordinary life in which officially nobody has any interest whatsoever. And I do think in this increasingly mediated culture where we all want to be represented, she is somebody who is completely unrepresented. So it felt like a transgression to give her a voice.

Correspondent: So today’s fiction transgressions are giving voice to those types of characters who normally don’t get on the page? I don’t know. Do you think literature is now that limited? That we can’t have anything other than a certain kind of perspective? Where is this coming from?

Messud: No, no. There’s room for everybody.

Correspondent: Absolutely.

Messud: But I wouldn’t set any limits on what can be said. But one thing that felt liberating to me was to be writing her interior life, which she was accused of being dislikable, to which you want to say, “No, no. If you met her, she would be totally charming.” Because that’s who she is on the surface. He or she is showing you what nobody gets to see. And because I have some feeling — apprehension; some of it personal, but also observed — that that is to a greater extent the lot of women than it is the lot of men. Which is not to say it isn’t in part the lot of men. But we’re all expected to put on a game face. So I felt in writing somebody where the point was precisely to express and articulate unseemly and unacceptable emotions and reactions, that felt like a great liberation. And my hope would be that for people reading it, who might have shared even one of her thoughts at some point along the way, that it would be a liberation for them too. To say, “You know, actually, nobody ever talks about it. But this is life too.”

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, I mean I want to get into the unlikable situation later. And I will do so through not just having you reiterate your points. But I want to talk about the proper norms thing and why you think perhaps people are reacting hostilely to Nora in this. Because as you say, any solipsist you meet in life is, of course, yes, going to have this wonderful epidermal layer. That once you peer and get to talking with them a little more, oh dear. There’s actually a lot of fury. There’s something else going on. And we’re living in a society now where you’re supposed to tough it up, bucko. So as a result, it would seem to me that writing about these perspectives would be increasingly necessary. Why do you think there’s this reluctance to explore the interior of something that is seemingly roseate?

Messud: Well, I think there are lots of answers to that. One is that we live now — she says it. We do live in a time that is particularly preoccupied with the surface. And the surface is what counts. I went to boarding school. I went back — this was already some years ago — to my old high school. And one of the very lovely teachers who was a dorm mother said to me, “Did you know that all the girls get up at six in the morning to blow dry their hair and put on makeup?” Which in the early 1980s, you wouldn’t have been caught dead doing. And her point was they have an hour less sleep than the boys do. Because the boys don’t have to blow dry their hair. I guess in the ’70s maybe the boys blow dried their hair too. Anyway, you realize that how you present yourself to the world counts significantly more than at one time it did. That’s a subset or a function of this mediated world. If everything’s going to be represented, then you don’t want to be represented with dirty hair on your dressing gown. Now I’m forgetting the rest of the question. But that was only part of what I was going to answer. But I can’t remember.

Correspondent: Oh, no, no, no. Free form is great on this program. I guess I was trying to tie this all into proper norms and the fact that, well, we all live lives in which we’re putting on masks. And there’s this reluctance to really penetrate further and actually wrestle with this problem. I mean, it’s not just with characters. I heard this This American Life program recently where they were talking about how people who talk about climate change are now incapable of actually being honest about it. Climatologists cannot actually mention climate change until after they have delivered two hours of lectures and a Powerpoint presentation. And this is increasingly getting in the way of having an honest look at what our world is.

Messud: Why can’t they? Why? What’s the obstacle?

Correspondent: They fear their jobs. They are afraid of losing their income. They may piss off people who may actually take away their income.

Messud: Right.

Correspondent: Obviously being a novelist is not quite on that level. Although in the likable/unlikable debate, there is nevertheless that particular reluctance. Don’t rock the boat. Maybe you can tell me what you think about this. Because I grew up and you grew up in an age where we could actually talk about things like adults and disagree and get into really shocking topics. And we wouldn’t be mortal enemies. It wouldn’t involve, “Well, how dare you say that. You’re not going to get work.” Or something like that. And now it seems like it’s moving more towards that. So it’s a reluctance to address issues in combination possibly with some aspects of the 2008 crash. What are your thoughts on this? And how do we bring this back to fiction? And that’s a very elaborate longueur! (laughs)

Messud: Well, I think — certainly there’s the sound byte problem. Jokingly, you said earlier that maybe writing complex-compound sentences that have multiple possible interpretations is an act of rebellion. Increasingly, it is. Because along with the interior life, certain modes of reflection are, if not disappearing, certainly not to the fore. So I think that’s a problem. If you want to say something complicated, but only half of it is going to be shrunk down to some supposed essence, it could easily be a misapprehension of what you were trying to say. So I think that makes people leery of saying unseemly things. But I also think — and it’s linked, it’s another conversation but it is linked — we are a nation always championing the individual, but now has put human agency, individual agency, to the fore to a ludicrous point where, if you get cancer, that would be your fault. You made bad choices. If you have negative thoughts, that can make you ill. Right? In which context everybody wants to become their mask. Everybody wants to be the cheerful, bright, upbeat, healthy, fun-loving self. That’s who you want to be. You don’t want to be the depressive, negative, whiny, anxious naysayer. Nobody wants to be the person who just says, “Climate change has reached a point where we are doomed.” Nobody wants to be that person.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, actually, I’m going to tie this in directly to your book. Because Nora does in fact say something along those lines. [searching through notes] I had a quote here. It appears to have disappeared. I’m going to have to use my damn memory.

Messud: (laughs) The incredible disappearing quote!

Correspondent: I actually had it all here. It somehow disappeared. Well, the quote is — at one point, she’s talking about Sirena and about what her allure is in terms of how the art world is drawn to her. And she basically says that Sirena is, in fact, living a persona. Or something to that effect. And it’s a shame I somehow didn’t actually type up my quote. I meant to type it up. I meant to include it. But anyway, I think this draws on the predicament. Clearly, if we are going to explore the interior, we’re going to have to explore the persona. Do you think that fiction that does this is the way to address this problem we’re talking about? That we can only look at the self as reflective of a larger ill of society through the interior, through how other people are looked at, through a persona. Issues like that. Does that make sense?

Messud: I feel as though — that’s a really complicated question!

Correspondent: It is.

Messud: And I’m not sure I can properly address it. But obviously different types of fiction address these things in different ways. I do think — and this will seem perhaps a tangent — but I think…you know, somebody asked me, “The Emperor’s Children was a big book. Is this a small book?” And I said, “Absolutely not for me.” I can’t say what it is for other people. But absolutely not for me. I do actually feel that the only way to address the biggest issues is through the smallest mouse hole, if you will. That that is the way forward. But on the other hand, it’s true that big social novels in which characters may appear largely in their personas rather than unmasked, if you will, are able to articulate a different part of the dynamic and a different relationship that then extends that to the larger systems of society and government, if you will. And I would maintain that you could follow Nora through to a commentary about broader American society, if you so chose.

Correspondent: The novel is open enough for you to find another road to somewhere else. This is where the reader comes in.

Messud: That would be my hope. Certainly I liked that you used the word “open.” Because my hope with this book is that, in a funny way, it’s more open than almost anything I’ve written before. That that was part of the enterprise: it was to write something that each person would have their own reaction to rather than there being a template of how the novel should be read.

Correspondent: Sure. I had a very geeky question for you concerning James Joyce. There’s an obvious Ulysses connection with Nora, the name of the character. But I wanted to get into a number of Ulysses connections I found in the book. Because I am presently attempting to read Finnegans Wake and I will make it to the end.

Messud: Oh my goodness. I’m impressed.

Correspondent: It’s not easy. And that has actually necessitated going back to Ulysses as well. So I’m in a James Joyce fugue state probably for the next year or two. Anyway. Sirena, of course, referencing the Sirens. There is one “Yes Yes Yes” moment…

Messud: Yes.

Correspondent: …which mimics Molly Bloom. There’s one point where Nora says that she’s “oblivious like a lotus eater.” Which is interesting. Because “The Lotus Eaters” is the first chapter in Ulysses where we suddenly start to understand, “Oh, well! It goes back to Homer.” And then with Wonderland, Sirena’s project, it’s almost kind of a response to James Joyce’s famous remark where he said you could construct all of Dublin from the brickstones that are laid down in Ulysses. And it is interesting that Sirena’s project is very much a schematic recreation. And she has also done, oddly enough, an installation of Elsinore. Which also takes us backs to Ulysses. Because that’s Hamlet and all that. And the subject of art and photos reminded me very much of “Scylla and Charybdis” and Stephen Dedalus’s speech on Hamlet. I have to ask. It’s clear to me that Ulysses was your muse in some sense. And I was wondering if you could talk about this for these references and more.

Messud: Well, I thought…you’ve done a better reading. Some were conscious and some not! I mean, certainly the photography: well, that was not on purpose. Some of them were definitely not on purpose. Others were more deliberate. This is the sort of shaming admission though. As I say, some of those are very deliberate. But the other reference that people have said. Nora. Ibsen. A Doll’s House. And the terrible truth is was when I first sent the manuscript to my editor, she said, “You refer here to Nora’s ‘doll-housed labor.’ That seems a little heavy-handed.” And that was the first moment where I thought, “Oh God, it’s true!” I had forgotten that Ibsen’s Nora was Nora. I had read the play more than once. I had seen the play maybe twelve years ago on stage. I did not reread Ulysses in the planning of this book. My father always would say, “Civilization is what’s left when you’ve forgotten everything.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Messud: So we can say it’s a relief to know that even in my midlife Alzheimer’s state, I have still some collective memory of what I read in my youth.

Correspondent: Yeah. But I think also with Ulysses, it’s a book that’s very difficult to shake. Because you’re doing a lot of heavy lifting with all of Joyce, pretty much from Ulysses onward and Portrait to some degree. So it seems to me that in exploring Nora’s past and in flashing back, you were going to perhaps certain literary highlights, which may have included Ulysses, which may have been A Doll’s House. Numerous other references as well. This leads me to wonder how your own reading serves as, I suppose, beacon points in trying to really pinpoint who Nora is. Which we haven’t really talked about! (laughs)

Messud: Well, you know, I think there’s no question. There are little snippets that you have in your head as you go through life. Literary snippets. I mean, there are other snippets. But the number of times in my life — this sounds crazy, but the number of times in my life I have had occasion just sitting there to say, “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each; I do not think they will sing to me.” You know? Which also — it’s not quoted in the book, but in some way it’s in the book. There’s your mermaid. And there she is.

(Loops for this program provided by JorgeDanielRamirez, MaMaGBeats, and KristiJann.)

The Bat Segundo Show #504: Claire Messud (Download MP3)

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Roxana Robinson (The Bat Segundo Show #503)

Roxana Robinson is most recently the author of Sparta.


Author: Roxana Robinson

Subjects Discussed: The New York Times as a source of inspiration, writing a novel with a sense of time, the 2008 economic crash, the fate of the millennial generation, ailing veterans who are overlooked by society at large, unemployment, focusing exclusively on educated characters, writing about subjects you don’t know, talking with vets, being fair when using stories, Donovan Campbell’s Joker One, not using traumatic experience to preserve trust, distinctions between journalism and fiction writing, being terrified of white sedans, fear and panic triggers, why there isn’t a universal common experience among soldiers, getting to know a fictitious character’s family, the desire to visit Iraq, the need for embedded novelists, the present state of Iraq tourism, staying silent on creative details, playing tennis in inflatable courts, Ian McEwan’s unwillingness to discuss his current project, how giving away information on your latest project destroys momentum, whether self-preservation is an admirable choice in digital culture, setting Sparta in Katonah, New York, why houses are important in novels, celebrating a landscape that you love, why it’s essential to use an exact floor plan, Conrad’s miserable experiences in restaurants, California restaurant culture vs. New York City restaurant culture, not remembering the name of a restaurant but remembering the layout, Conrad vs. Joseph Conrad, how to relate the experience of returning to the States after four years of combat, celebrity magazines having more impact on American culture than soldiers, comparisons between Vietnam vets returning home and Iraq vets returning home, soldiers who are invisible, when all of America understands we did the wrong thing, why “Thank you for your service” is the wrong thing to say to a veteran, how to connect with a vet, having nothing but your military training to rely upon when moving forward in contemporary culture, women who tolerate patient aggressive behavior, avoiding female characters who are emotional doormats, balancing the need to advance the narrative with characters who serve in some ways as instruments, macroeconomics classes, difficult GMAT questions, Georgia O’Keeffe, similarities between Conard and O’Keeffe, unintended inspiration from significant artistic figures, biography vs. fiction, Conrad’s concern for cleanliness, intense shaving scenes in fiction, Marine culture and personal appearance, calls and responses, rage and depersonalization, minor quibbles from Heller McAlpin, vets and therapists, and the Marshall Plan.


Correspondent: My understanding is that this book started with you reading a front page article in The New York Times in 2005 or 2006. But to my mind, Sparta seems to be more than that. It’s almost a response to certain socioeconomic conditions. Because what Conrad — this Marine returning from Iraq — has to go through is very similar to what a lot of unemployed men have to go through. There’s also the faint suggestion that this is the great terrible horror story right before the 2008 economic crash with the apartment near the end. So I’m wondering to what extent this became a response to conditions in the latter Bush years and how this tied into your research and getting this massive project started. Just to start off here.

Robinson: (laughs) Okay. Yes, as you are aware, it came about because I read an article in The New York Times. It was about our troops in Iraq and how they were given unarmed vehicles in which to drive and to go on patrols with, and how they were being blown up by IEDs and suffering traumatic brain injuries, which were then not diagnosed and treated. In my head, it wasn’t part of this economic crisis. I wasn’t really focusing on that and I think when I began to pay attention, it was before that happened. And what I’m talking about really isn’t the same as people losing jobs. Because this is a kind of transformation. And, of course, you’re right that someone who hasn’t a job has lost some essential part of himself or herself — if that’s been part of his life up until then. But this is different. Going to war, being trained for war, and being at war, and then coming back and being part of a community that has no understanding and no ability to enter into your own experience — that’s different.

Correspondent: Maybe a way of approaching this question — because there is, in fact, this Go-Go guy shows up near the end. There is mention of predatory lending. There is mention of securitization. It leads me to wonder whether when you’re taking on any kind of novel project, you need to actually have that sense of place. Because one of the reasons why this book extended beyond a mere character study was largely because I felt very much that I was reliving the last term of the Bush Administration. Warts and all, by the way. So this is why I’m asking. Was it really just a matter of talking to all of these vets — and visiting, I presume, the VA hospitals — to get a sense of time? How does a sense of time factor into developing this book?

Robinson: Yeah, that’s very interesting. You’re right. I do want to make sure when I’m writing a book that every part of it works. So when I place it, I usually set my books in the very recent past. A year or so. And it’s often quite hard to track down exactly what was going on. We all have a telescopic sense of time. So it’s hard to know exactly what happened. But yes I was very aware of the economy and how Conard’s generation shifted from happy-go-lucky guys into bundled assets and insider trading and all of that. That turned into an avalanche of bad debt and bad conscience. And yes, it was part of the way America had been led and led astray. And one was in Iraq and one was at home. So you’re right. You’re right. It’s just that I didn’t think of him as being someone who was without a job. But certainly you’re right about the whole ethos of America during that period.

Correspondent: I think the parallel I draw between Conrad’s situation and the scenario of many unemployed people of both genders is that we have increasingly moved, thanks to the Bush Administration, into a culture where those who seek help feel shameful of it, are not permitted to actually pursue it, are prohibited by funds. You’re supposed to tough it out. And the parallel I drew between Conrad and many unemployed people I know — who I’ve been on telephone support with — was substantial. Especially when he has this terrifying ordeal in the VA hospital where he’s told, “Well, you have to wait three months.” And he has a serious problem to take care of. So this leads me again to go back to this idea of looking at a situation — whether it be a heroin addict in Cost or whether it be a soldier returning back from Haditha in Sparta. Does focusing in on one angle of America allow you to tackle its many ills and to expose these common conditions that were putting our heads in the sand here over?

Robinson: Yeah. I’m always interested in consequences. And so when I explore one thing, I am always fascinated to see if there’s a network of fault lines leading out from whatever the central issue is. Cost is certainly not an indictment of anything. It’s simply an examination of a problem that’s more widespread than I understood when I started that project. And in Sparta, I was incredibly troubled to understand what we were doing to our troops at the time. I never supported the war. I never thought we should go there. It was more troubling to learn that there were not weapons of mass destruction and that there never had been. And so I wanted to bear witness to what it was like for one of our soldiers to go there and then to come back. And that exploration illuminates one part of the American experience for me.

Correspondent: Sure. Well, on this subject, I’m curious to ask you about the fact that the last two books take place in upper and middle-class environments and present an underexposed issue in both cases. And this leads me to wonder whether you’re trying to target a particular type of literary audience who may not in fact read the newspapers or the magazines or who may want to keep their heads in the sands. Is it your goal as a novelist to get otherwise erudite people to open their eyes a little bit by this socioeconomic setting? To really look into problems that they may not otherwise pay attention to? Especially in this culture right now, where it’s +1 everything and we’re supposed to like everything and we’re supposed to turn away anytime there is anything that is unsettling.

Robinson: I don’t really have a target audience. I don’t think in those terms. I’m a novelist. I’m not a journalist. I’m really not trying to persuade people of anything. As I say, I’m just bearing witness. And this particular part of society is the one that I know best. Educated people, not particularly rich, but who come from modest backgrounds. But they’re all educated. That’s sort of the main connection between all the books that I have written. But am I trying to tell a certain audience how to think?

Correspondent: Not necessarily how to think. But more exposing their eyes to the fact that, look, this problem is not going to go away. These people, they may be in your family. They may actually knock upon your door. You can’t just continue to read about, I suppose, domestic couples who are committing adultery. You know what I mean?

Robinson: Right. Well, yes, I’m not interested in easy targets. So the problems that draw my attention are ones that I find really compelling and really disturbing. I don’t know who my audience is. I’m not trying to reach a particular audience by choosing the people I do tend to write about. But there are always subjects that I find really troubling. And so if other people do, that’s great. But these are things that become very, very compelling to me.

Correspondent: So you are drawing upon your own background and you’re trying to just step outside of it so that you can understand another aspect of humanity, whether it be drug addiction or vets or that sort of thing.

Robinson: Yeah. I mean, I think that writing about subjects you don’t know is really important for a writer. Writing about circles and communities that are not your own is really risky. Because you’re going to get so many things wrong. So many signals. And so I’m not saying I would never do it. But I’m much more interested in exploring an idea and the way it reveals itself in a community than I am in trying to interpose myself in a community that I don’t know.

(Loops for this program provided by chefboydee, Keishh, MaMaGBeats, and Reed1415.)

The Bat Segundo Show #503: Roxana Robinson (Download MP3)

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The Culture Novels of Iain M. Banks

This morning, the BBC reported that Iain Banks had passed away from cancer. In 2008, I was commissioned to read all of Banks’s Culture novels, which had been reissued by Orbit in the United States, and I wrote the following essay for another outlet. The publication rights have reverted back to me. I am reprinting the essay here. My condolences to the Banks family.

* * *

In an Iain M. Banks novel, you will find sour antiheroes sweet-talking corpulent cannibal kings, erratic robot drones so caught up in lending a helping hand that they overlook the telltale traces of emotional breakdown within those they serve, and a febrile zeal for blowing things up which suggests that Banks isn’t so much an author of bawdy and exciting adventures as he is a giddy eight-year-old with an elaborate train set scattered across a football field.

When not committing his considerable energies to such intense Bildungsromans as The Wasp Factory or bleak-humored narratives like The Crow Road, Banks inserts an M into “Iain Banks” and writes science fiction novels. Most of these speculative volumes concern the Culture, a utopian-anarchist society that extends across a sizable cluster of the universe. These Culture vultures gambol across the galaxy in ships with such eccentric names as Don’t Try This at Home and Serious Callers Only. Culture citizens live for centuries, and can even change their appearances if they grow discontent with their corpora. These conditions encourage these civilized sybarites to have more fun than a flighty Dalmatian discovering a chiaroscuro sea of spotty companions. Never mind that there’s always an intergalactic war going on.

Red Smith once suggested that writing involves sitting down at a typewriter and opening a vein. But Banks’s unique form of bloodletting appears more modeled on the Black Knight’s stubborn persistence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He writes one book per annum, devoting three months of the year to writing and the remaining nine months to “thinking” about the narrative. And while Banks’s idiosyncratic approach has resulted in twenty-two novels, his methods aren’t entirely foolproof. When writing Matter, Banks became so addicted to the real-time strategy game Civilization that he blew his deadline. One can detect the video game addict within the book’s early descriptions. An army is described as “a single giant organism inching darkly across the tawny sweep of desert.” Sid Meier should be proud.

Part of the fun in reading a Banks book involves watching this boisterous Scottish author figuring out his elaborate plots as he goes along. There’s a moment in every novel in which Banks eventually meshes his anarchic energy into the needs of a narrative. At the onset of Use of Weapons, a reworking of an abandoned 1974 manuscript that Banks once claimed “was impossible to comprehend without thinking in six dimensions,” the reader can’t entirely pinpoint just where the book is heading. One series of chapters depicts a Culture agent attempting to recruit a non-Culture mercenary named Zakalwe for a “Special Circumstances” mission for a planet that the Culture hasn’t yet contacted. The other chapters unfold in reverse chronological order, depicting Zakalwe’s previous assignments. But as Banks stitches together these threads, he ends Use of Weapons with a devastating insight into the consequences of following authority without question.

The early Culture novels were inspired by grand space opera and Larry Niven’s Ringworld books. The first, Consider Phlebas, begins with its hero, Horza, standing shirtless in a prison cell, his hands tied above him, as murky liquid rises to his nostrils — a scene that might have come from Flash Gordon. But as Banks carried on writing, he began to imbue his universe with moral quandaries. In the second Culture novel, The Player of Games, Banks’s protagonist, Jernau Gurgeh, is a galaxy-renowned gamemaster who cannot seem to find an amusement worth his while and has grown bored. (There’s also a wry symbolic motif throughout the book of Guregh stroking his beard, as if to suggest that he’s constantly in doubt of his smarts.) Gurgeh sets off on a deranged adventure in which his very life becomes the wager, and the pleasure that Gurgeh takes for granted is juxtaposed against the realities of a three-gender species with severe class and enslavement problems. When Gurgeh witnesses just what this species is up to, he returns to playing, but with a newborn chill and intensity: Banks describes Gurgeh’s face as “a flag hoisted by a soul that no longer cared.”

Excession (1997), perhaps the most elaborate and entertaining of the Culture novels, sees Banks probing into the Minds that control the many spaceships in the Culture universe. Anticipating the frenetic outburst of instant messaging and blog commentary by only a few years, Banks includes elaborate communication transcripts between these Minds within the text. Each speaker is separated by the infinity symbol, suggesting that there isn’t an end to the constant chatter. But Banks also makes his Minds more empathic and personality-driven than his pleasure-seeking Culture characters. Some of the ships even go “Eccentric,” turning unpredictable. Status, contingent as always upon who one knows, appears to matter even when a ship or character inhabits an unfettered anarchy. But as one Eccentric ship, the Shoot Them Later, tells another, “Just because I’m eccentric doesn’t mean I don’t know some big hitters.”

In this novel, it is technology that shapes the Culture’s social equilibrium. Banks even anticipates Linda Stone’s idea of continuous partial attention when he has one Culture diplomat named Genar-Hofoen bond with an obstreperous, four-limbed alien named Fivetide Humidyear VII. As Genar-Hofoen is in the middle of a diplomatic game with Fivetide, he is interrupted by an urgent message in his mind. He is forced to use a “quicken” gland and performs “the mental equivalent of sighing and putting his chins in his hands while…everything around him seemed to happen in slow motion.” Likewise, Genar-Hofoen considers transforming into an Affront (Fivetide’s species). But this technological panacea is juxtaposed against Genar-Hofoen’s existential plight. He’s escaping the entrails of a previous relationship — a woman named Dajeil, whom he impregnated and left after being unfaithful to her. So while Genar-Hofoen might find plentiful distractions within the Culture’s plentiful baubles, they remain distractions that are not unlike narcotics. One is left with the possibility of the Minds inevitably adopting similar temperaments. But at what cost to the freewheeling libertinism sustaining the Culture?

Banks’s willingness to address these ethical issues while keeping his books brisk and enjoyable makes one wonder why his name isn’t often uttered in the same breath as Kim Stanley Robinson or Greg Bear in this country. While Banks’s reputation has soared in the United Kingdom and Europe, he is sometimes overlooked in the United States. Perhaps with the Culture novels now being reissued by Orbit, there’s a good chance that American readers will at long last be seduced by his magic touch.


Lisa Hanawalt (The Bat Segundo Show #502)

Lisa Hanawalt is most recently the author of My Dirty Dumb Eyes. Please note the prefatory reading contains wild and rambunctious horse noises to simulate accompanying images in audio form.


Author: Lisa Hanawalt

Subjects Discussed: Language that perplexes Planet of the Apes aficionados, revolting against natural euphony, being a native Californian, San Francisco Bay Area people who end up in Brooklyn, Alternative Press Expo, Buenaventura Press, how UCLA grooms its art students, immersing yourself in the comics scene, the disadvantages of hyphenates, drawing animal humanoid figures, being a “horse girl,” the best horse sounds, interspecies relationships, childhood notions of marriage, crawling around on all fours, having parents as scientists, taxonomic qualities in genotypes, the inspirational qualities of illustrated guides, the single comic strip as batty syllogism, unlimited space, The Vow, “based on a true story,” scribbling notes after seeing a movie, War Horse, imagining that you’re a horse, venturing into surrealistic realms to get into personal truths, Hanawalt not drawing herself, Julia Wertz, how voice translates generic labels, artists who lean too much on pop culture, the horrors of Slate Culture Gabfest, recap culture, the artistic response as a way to avoid pop culture trappings, Hanawalt’s toy fair report, why the tangible and the physical is more rewarding than the pop cultural, going into a war zone, Sarah Glidden, Israel, being shy around strangers, David Foster Wallace, the comics answer to the footnote, the animalized person as a form of armor, ribald sexuality, wedding registries, seeking permission to draw friends within pieces, varieties of “in vino veritas,” art professors who are obsessive about faces, teachers who are too nice, sculpting, dogs who bark once a day, taking a break from two-dimensional work, visual cues from movies and visual cues from comics, having friends who are comics, the toy company pecking order, why power structures are interesting, commenting upon politics, the advantages of presenting yourself as an idiot, the New York Times‘s veto of “butt turkey,” restrictions from family newspapers, balancing artistic integrity and paying the rent, being read comics by her dad, not leaving the house, living in Greenpoint, shifting from hating to loving New York, anxieties about public transportation, the hermetic seal of a car, the use of colors to enhance personal stories, the unsettling nature of sickly blues, the pristine look of Apple advertisements, white space, enhancing Ryan Gosling’s costume in Drive, deepening visual observations with the sartorial, the pleasant sounds of dogs lapping at water, Roger Corman’s Twitter presence, judging people from what they wear, paying attention to men’s clothing, best dressed cartoonists, how Jason Diamond dresses, Johnny Negron, how people get offended by everything, feeling like you’re on display for putting yourself out there, blocking people, the appeal of lines, silly statistics, the New York approval matrix, and infographics as the perfect joke structure.


Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about the title. Because in light of the Planet of the Apes story you have in this, I kept thinking that your title was My Damn Dirty Eyes.

Hanawalt: (laughs)

Correspondent: It’s like you deliberately designed a title to make Planet of the Apes fans, to just throw them off. I’m not sure if that was conscious.

Hanawalt: I didn’t even think about that until now. You just blew my mind. I didn’t think about that.

Correspondent: Especially since there’s the Rise of the Planet of the Apes review. And I was thinking…

Hanawalt: And that’s something I say to my boyfriend. I call him, “You damn dirty ape!” Whenever he’s doing anything.

Correspondent: So you generally say “my dumb dirty” instead of “my dirty dumb”? How did that get swipped? Swapped?

Hanawalt: It’s Dirty Dumb, right?

Correspondent: Yes, it’s Dirty Dumb.

Hanawalt: I actually tried it both ways and I just liked the way “dirty dumb” sounded. I thought “dumb dirty” is the more natural way to say it. But I just like…it sounded like a musical. Dirty Dumb. Dirty Dumb. I don’t know.

Correspondent: You were revolting against natural euphony, basically.

Hanawalt: Yeah. I guess so. People keep switching them in reviews and stuff.

Correspondent: I was determined to get it right.

Hanawalt: Thank you. I appreciate it.

Correspondent: So you went to UCLA. And I’m a fellow Californian.

Hanawalt: Oh!

Correspondent: Although I was a northern Californian and you were a southern Californian.

Hanawalt: No, I”m from northern California originally.

Correspondent: You are!

Hanawalt: Yes.

Correspondent: Where were you at?

Hanawalt: Palo Alto.

Correspondent: Palo Alto! Oh my god, I was born in Santa Clara.

Hanawalt: Whoa.

Correspondent: So we’re Bay Areaites.

Hanawalt: Yup.

Correspondent: So how did we both end up in Brooklyn? You first. Actually, you only. (laughs)

Hanawalt: (laughs) Me only. Well, I met my boyfriend. So that was big.

Correspondent: Oh! Well, I met a girl too. Oh my god.

Hanawalt: It’s a good reason to move.

Correspondent: How did we not run into each other until now?

Hanawalt: I don’t know. But that was not the official reason I moved for a long time. Just in case it didn’t work out. I didn’t want to say that. So I said it was to become part of a more vibrant comics community in Brooklyn, for more people of my age making comics here.

Correspondent: How did we not run into each other at Alternative Press Expo?

Hanawalt: I’ve been there.

Correspondent: I’ve been there multiple times. I covered it. I would go and I would interview everybody. Every person with minicomics there.

Hanawalt: Really? I used to go every year.

Correspondent: I went every year too. And I miss it. It was great.

Hanawalt: I would table with Buenaventura when I was there. I think I went 2008, 2009.

Correspondent: Yeah. Just a little after I did.

Hanawalt: We just missed each other.

Correspondent: We just missed each other. Well, now we’re talking.

Hanawalt: (laughs)

Correspondent: So you went to UCLA.

Hanawalt: Yes.

Correspondent: And you wanted to become a part of a comics community? Is that how you ended up in Greenpoint?

Hanawalt: Eventually. When I was at UCLA, I thought I wanted to be like a studio artist. Like an actual gallery painter. And that’s what they were sort of grooming me to be. But I guess once I graduated and didn’t immediately become a famous painter with solo shows in Chelsea, I was like, “Oh, I guess I’ll keep making these comics that I make at Kinko’s and write with my friends. Then eventually I got more into the comics scene as I started going to conventions and I met my first publisher.

Correspondent: So it was really kind of an accidental existence going into…

Hanawalt: Yeah, it was.

Correspondent: I read one interview where you said you didn’t feel that you were a cartoonist.

Hanawalt: Oh really? Did I?

Correspondent: Yes. You said that in 2010.

Hanawalt: Oh, I guess I changed my mind about it.

Correspondent: You are officially a cartoonist.

Hanawalt: Yeah, I do. You know, I make comics. If people ask me if I’m an artist, an illustrator, or a cartoonist, I say that I’m all three. And depending on my mood, I’ll introduce myself as one of the three.

Correspondent: And you can’t just call yourself a hyphenate or something.

Hanawalt: No, it’s just too complicated. And at that point, people — their eyes start to wander and they lose interest in talking with me. So….(laughs)

Correspondent: So what was the first animal humanoid figure that you ever drew? I was curious about that. They’re throughout your work. And I’m wondering when you started putting, say, lizard heads on regular people or pop cultural figures. Things like that.

Hanawalt: I started drawing cats as people when I was like five or six. And I was drawing myself. What I wanted to be when I grew up was a black cat that was also a human who wore an orange Hawaiian shirt. Because I was really into Weird Al Yankovic at the time. So I would draw my self-portrait as a black kitty cat. And then later I started drawing horses as people. When I was like seven, eight.

Correspondent: I know you were a “horse girl.” What does that entail? Did you ride horses? Did you enact a life as a horse? Did you do a lot of horse sounds? “Neeeeeeeeeigh” and all that?

Hanawalt: Yeah. I was a cat girl until I took my first riding lesson at eight. And it set off a bomb in my brain. And I just was like “Horses! Horses! Horses! I want to marry a horse. I want to be a horse. I just want to…”

Correspondent: You want to marry a horse?

Hanawalt: Yes. I used to want to marry a horse. I asked my mom if I could and she was like, “Maybe that will be legal someday.” She had a very…

Correspondent: A lax view on bestiality.

Hanawalt: I guess.

Correspondent: Interspecies relations.

Hanawalt: I didn’t know at the time that marrying kind of meant that you were sexually partnered.

Correspondent: Oh, it was a more romantic image!

Hanawalt: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I was only six or eight. And I just wanted to be linked with a horse forever.

Correspondent: It’s sort of that moment where you’re playing with Barbie and Ken in the Dreamhouse. Then all of a sudden you realize, “Oh! They’re actually going to have sex as well.”

Hanawalt: Yeah. You figure that part out later. But yeah, I made a lot of horse noises. I drew horses. I crawled around on all fours.

Correspondent: Do you make horse noises to this very day?

Hanawalt: I can make a snorting sound. [highly commendable snorting sound]

Correspondent: Oh! That’s pretty good.

(Loops for this program provided by HardstyleRythm, ShortBusMusic, and Reed1415.)

The Bat Segundo Show #502: Lisa Hanawalt (Download MP3)

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Lauren Beukes II (The Bat Segundo Show #501)

Lauren Beukes is most recently the author of The Shining Girls. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #409.


Author: Lauren Beukes

Subjects Discussed: Predicting the future, whether 2013 is more of an apocalyptic year than 2012, killer bunnies, laughing rats, H.P. Lovecraft, the best zombie dramatizations, explanation in narrative, trusting the reader with interesting definitions of how the world works, the Greek tragedy of time travel, killing Hitler, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, criss-crossing timelines, Looper, finding spontaneity in a careful foundation, E.L. Doctorow’s description of writing, developing the close third person perspective, working against the sophisticated predator stereotype, the catharsis of hurting mean characters, T.C. Boyle, fictitious injuries, time periods that are defined by pop cultural references, Studs Terkel, Forrest Gump, women’s rights, McCarthyism, connections between American and South African history, spies and informants, surveillance society, Todd Akin, Candyman, Spencer Tracy explaining baseball to Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year, interviewing real people, not understanding sports, the difficulty of forgiving people for political atrocities, Sarah Lotz, objecting to fictitious murders, living in Chicago, why the Midwest is an ideal setting for an American novel, the tendency to invoke Detroit with symbolism, parallels between Hillbrow and Detroit, Mark Binelli’s Detroit City is the Place to Be, Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy, the U.S. Radium Corporation’s exploitation of women, paying researchers, Radium Girls, quoting directly from a 1936 story in the Milwaukee Sentinel, Mad Dog Maddux, naming your company after an employer’s fictitious creation to secure a job, the annoyance of getting minor details right, John Banville, the invention/research spectrum, location scouting, women who are objectified by her scars, Murderball, the sex lives of the injured, characters defined by the interior, physical description, how visual photos serve as emotional reference, why fictitious sociopaths drink Canadian Club, Amity Gaige’s Schroeder, A Clockwork Oraange, Al Capone, Velázquez’s Las Meninas, and rabid eating.


Correspondent: The thing about this conversation is that we’re doing this months before it actually airs. So what do you think’s going to happen in May or June when this actually goes up? Will the world even exist? What will happen?

Beukes: Well, you know, I think the Mayans were off by a couple of months.

Correspondent: I’d say that 2013 is more the apocalyptic year than 2012.

Beukes: Definitely. Way more apocalyptic. And I think actually we’re going to be overrun by killer bunnies that are taking revenge for the deaths of all the bees. And we’ll all be wiped out.

Correspondent: I learned recently that rats laugh. Did you know this?

Beukes: No, I did not.

Correspondent: Yeah. Rats actually laugh. If you tickle them, they emit this supersonic, high-pitched laughter that humans can’t hear. I’m not sure if this factors into your prediction or not, but I bring it up just for the hell of it.

Beukes: Well, we can use the rat laughter death ray. It’s kind of a sonic death ray which will explode all our cell phone devices and we’ll be cut open. I know I certainly will die without my cell phone.

Correspondent: Sure. Well, Lovecraft probably predicted this too. “The Rats in the Walls.”

Beukes: Absolutely.

Correspondent: Anyway, to your book. It is my view that the best zombie dramatizations do not involve an explanation. The zombies merely rise from the grave. And that’s it. It could be allegory. It could be gripping suspense. I bring this up because I think about the time travel in your book, which for the most part, except for the end, we don’t actually have an explanation for why this man Harper can jump from time to time. And when the explanation does come, I read it and said, “Oh, okay, that makes complete sense.” But I was so wiling to believe that he somehow willed himself into various times. So I have to ask you, Lauren Beukes the author, did you have an explanation from the start? Why did you feel the need to give the reader the explanation for the time travel? And is narrative hampered sometimes when you explain too much to the reader? What of this?

Beukes: I don’t like to explain too much to the reader. I like readers to bring their depth and experience into a text, and I think that makes it just way more interesting and exciting and personal. Overexplaining is boring. And I think you have to trust your reader. And I think you have to trust them with interesting definitions of how the world works. So I specifically went with the Greek tragedy model of time travel. You can’t kill Hitler. The more you try to kill Hitler, the more you’re just going to reinforce the events which will absolutely play out it always has been intended to play out. Which is not to say that there aren’t loops and paradoxes or that the ending doesn’t explain why everything has been happening.

Correspondent: Sounds like you’ve read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.

Beukes: Uh, yeah, maybe.

Correspondent: Gotcha.

Beukes: So I really wanted to just play with that. And the time travel is almost secondary to a lot of everything else. But everything has been immaculately plotted out. You know, I had this crazy murder wall with all these diagrams and strings and three different criss-crossing timelines, linking them and triple-checking that everything made sense. And for that one moment which they keep looking back to, everything is very carefully coordinated. There’s no Looper moment where Bruce Willis says, “Well, I could explain time travel. But we’d be here all day doing diagrams with straws.” No, I really did plot it out and make sure everything worked.

Correspondent: How does spontaneity work for you? If you have a foundation that you’ve set — with strings. I’m very curious about the strings. I mean, Will Self has his Post-It notes. You have the strings. How do you digress from that? How do you account for spontaneity? And does explanation sometimes get in the way of spontaneity?

Beukes: I think explanation can. The way I write, and I’m going to paraphrase E.L. Doctorow, is that it’s like taking a road trip at night. I know where I’m leaving from and I know where I’m going to. I always know my beginnings and my endings. And I know some of the major way points along the way. But the rest of the time you’re driving. It’s pitch black. You can see twenty feet ahead of you in the headlights. And you’ve just got to stay on the road and figure it out. And so the spontaneity and the play and the subconscious diversions, which is my favorite part of the writing process, happens in between.

Correspondent: So Harper, you knew how he did it.

Beukes: I knew how Harper did it. I knew why it happens that way. That ending was in there from the beginning.

Correspondent: Sure. Which leads me to ask you about the strange perspective. I mean, here is a close third person. And as we read more and as we start to understand how he views his victims, it’s very hallucinatory. Especially with Etta the nurse. We start to really know that he’s probably making this up and furthermore he doesn’t quite understand sometimes that he’s murdering these victims. This is interesting because you’re almost asking the reader here to share this blindness by making it third person. How did this stylistic tic develop out of curiosity?

Beukes: My previous two books were first person. And I really felt like I needed a break from that, that I needed to be able to step back a little bit. Especially because Harper was such a loathsome, vile person. Which doesn’t make us any less complicit, even though it’s third-person. It just felt natural for the book. I would love to give you an in-depth analysis, but a lot of it is relying on intuition. And I wanted Harper to struggle with it and I wanted you to see his struggle. I also did a lot of research into what real serial killers are like. And I wanted to avoid the sexy predatorial Hannibal Lector model. You know, the sophisticate who drinks Chianti. And most serial killers are awful, vile, pathetic human beings who have major sexual dysfunctions. And I wanted to get at that and the kind of real horror of like what that kind of monster is. It’s actually quite sad and pathetic and no less horrible. But not the sophisticated predator.

Correspondent: But it’s also an interesting way of possibly avoiding full immersion into this guy’s mind as both author and reader. I mean, if you during the course of your research are growing increasingly queasy about what human beings do, well you have a perfect safeguard here. Was that another aspect of doing that? Another advantage here?

Beukes: That could well have been a subconscious aspect. You know, the way I dealt with writing Harper was that I just messed him up at every opportunity. You know, if I could damage him in a scene, I absolutely would. I was like, “Okay, he’s in a fight with someone. I’m going to break his jaw. Awesome.” But then I had to keep track of the broken jaw and figure out how it was healing. Was it healed in 1984? Or was it still wired up in 1951? And that just added a whole another layer of complexity. So it was very cathartic to hurt him. But it didn’t help me with my planning.

Correspondent: So you were able to deal with this monster by beating the shit out of him.

Beukes: Exactly.

The Bat Segundo Show #501: Lauren Beukes (Download MP3)

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BEA 2013: The Editor and the Translator

On Friday afternoon, mere minutes after the frazzled feline star of a viral video had been flown in from Morristown, Arizona and dragged against its will onto the Javits floor to receive the kind of superstar adulation that literary geniuses toiling for decades would die for a tiny piece of, three dozen people met in the rank underbelly of a cold corporate convention center to contend with issues of translated literature.

This was the clearest indication I have ever seen of what Chad Post has identified as the “three percent problem” — whereby a mere 3% of all published books in the United States are works in translation. The underattended panel made me hang my head in shame.

I had not known that Grumpy Cat was at BEA, nor did I care to meet the animal or wait in line upon learning of this intelligence. There were more meaningful ways to fritter away two hours of my life. Indeed, I had encountered Open Letter‘s Chad Post on the loud floor just before the panel and personally apologized for not doing enough for translated literature. He then told me about an insane man in Italy and secured my attendance.

There were several translators and foreign language enthusiasts in the crowd, including Michael A. Orthofer and Scott Esposito (both tireless proponents for literature in translation), but the panelists pointed out the paucity of editors in the audience and seized upon this absenteeism to talk freely.

“In the long view,” said Susan Bernofsky, director of literary translation for Columbia’s School of the Arts, “we want to find an English language voice for our foreign language author. In the short run, editors want very different things. Editors want books that will read well in English and that sell. The translator wants to represent what the language said.”

Bernofsky pointed to FSG’s Elisabeth Sifton as an editorial paragon. Sifton gave Bernofsky carte blanche to translate Gregor von Rezzori however she wanted. He wasn’t especially edited in German. So he had wanted his English translation to be well edited, even if it meant obliterating whole pages and paragraphs.

I was not as well-versed on translated literature as the assembled crowd, but I was surprised by how liberal the editing process was. Post described going much further on a memoir that had a plodding section set in the 1980s. The ten page section began with the sentence, “I remember nothing good from those years.” Post felt that cutting everything that followed that sentence was an improvement.

Translator Mary Ann Caws pointed out to several fraught experiences she had encountered in her years. She described working on an anthology, where her translation was taken out of her hands and given to someone else who dumbed everything down. She described battles translating André Breton’s most famous poem, “Free Union.” The first two words of the original poem is “Mon amour.” One translation of the poem’s first line reads “My wife whose hair is a brush fire.” Another reads “My woman with her forest-fire hair.” The difference between “My wife” and “My woman” is substantial because of the connotation of the relationship. But Caws pointed out that “there’s a way of doing it without her or she” with phrases like “My dear one has gone into the streets of the city.”

Caws had also suggested publishing several translations around a sonnet to demonstrate the impossibility of a perfect translation. The editor replied, “How will they know which is the right translation?”

Victoria Wilson has been an editor at Knopf for forty years. And she insisted that cutting text has little to do with saleability, but how the book reads. “A book is going to sell if it’s 150 pages shorter,” said Wilson, who was also careful to note that she had published William Gass for twenty years.

“People ascribe motives to the publisher,” continued Wilson. “We’re all just people. I bought the book. I fought for the book.”

This was all constructive chatter, but the panel’s fireworks really started when Polish crime writer Marek Krajewski began speaking with gusto through a translator.

“In my mind,” said an animated Krajewski through his translator, “the editors who work with people who have huge egos really can’t adjust and are narcissistic. These kinds of editors treat their authors as total failures. There are editors, on the other hand, who tend to do work just for the sake of doing it. To justify their presence there.” Krajewski bemoaned editors who didn’t understand his work, including one who was “basically taking out the F words.”

“Some of them tend to be shy and don’t ask that any questions,” said Krajewski of his translators. He pointed to one who couldn’t be bothered to flesh out an abbreviation. “I had the full information. And I do know she knows how to do it. Well, sometimes, it happens that the editor is very detail-oriented.”

One of Krajewski’s books concerned multiculturalism, which turned out to be a problem for the editor and the translator. “It’s not only translating language,” said Krajewski. “It’s translating cultures.”

Bernofsky noted that she had just done a new translation of Jeremias Gottheif’s The Black Spider for NYRB Classics. Because Gottheif’s work was a horror story, the editing was much different from what she had usually experienced.

“The prose is not that amazing,” said Bernofsky. “Edwin Frank did a very heavy edit on some of the prose. He was editing both me and Gottheif. He rearranged the sentences.” Bernofsky signed off on the translation, even though the reviewer comparing the original with the translation will find it inaccurate. But for prose stylists like Robert Walser, Bernofsky said that she would “fight for keeping the complexity of the sentences.”

There was a question concerning changes in publishing over the past 40 years, in which the publishers were blamed for the drop of translated fiction in bookstores. “You can’t just look at the publishers,” noted Wilson. “The chains changed everything in terms of their ordering.” In other words, it doesn’t really matter whether a corporate behemoth owns a big publisher or not. The fate of translated literature in the States is entirely dependent on what the bookstores order. And while the recent health of independent booksellers has suggested new prospects for translated fiction, without massive orders from chains, it is often difficult for these books to be published.

This reality was simply too much for Chad Post, who began talking fast and angry.

“Every book out there is shitty,” boomed Post into the mike. “Mitch Albom? What the hell? We do not need him.”

There were some faint suggestions that Post was prepared to overturn the table, fire a pistol into the air, and demand the rightful liberation of the book industry.

“Malcolm Fucking Gladwell,” shrieked Post. “I’ve never been quite disturbed by the book business than I have been in the last few days.”

I squinted to see if the veins on Chad Post’s neck had popped out. I waited for Post’s instructions to don the balaclava carefully folded in my left inner pocket. I waited for Post to announce the Occupy Javits movement.

“I would shoot myself if I had to publish most of the books out there.”

With this suicidal statement in full swing, Post’s phone began to ring on stage. Mitch Albom’s people were coming to shut the wild-eyed revolutionary from Rochester down. Post was referred to as “that angry young man” by the next questioner.

To be clear, Post was not all froth and spittle. I could relate very much to his fury. We live in strange times when Amazon Crossing is the number one American publisher for translated fiction. As Post pointed out, it isn’t easy to secure advocates for translated work when the pitch is “Here’s a great book about a woman in Latvia who is depressed.” But perhaps with more passion, we’ll work out the kinks and expand the egregious percentage.


BEA 2013: Neil Gaiman

There aren’t many authors who can make a largely female crowd gasp and swoon with every dulcet word, but Neil Gaiman is definitely one of them. Ostensibly at BEA to deliver an address on why storytelling is dangerous, Gaiman’s Saturday morning talk was more about toeing the line and promoting the Gaiman brand. He tossed off e-cards into the crowd like a guitar god cheerfully throwing picks. And he did manage to win over a few skeptics (including this reporter).

“So this morning I got here and I signed 1000 books,” said Gaiman at the start, which was followed by ribald applause. “Each of you gets two books.” One of the books was Make Good Art, which will be published in December.

He was dressed all in black and settled into his chair with a confident and carefully rehearsed ease.

“There isn’t really a Writing Author Lessons 101,” said Gaiman. “But if there was, there would be a list of dos and don’ts. I know that in the don’t column, ‘Don’t have a major novel for adults coming out in June followed by a book for kids in December’ would be high on the list.”

The YA book, which tells the tale of what happened to a father who leaves the house to get milk for the family cereal (among his adventures: being kidnapped by aliens who want to replace the Earth’s mountains with throw cushions and turn Australia into a huge decorative plate), is Fortunately, the Milk, which is illustrated by Skottie Young. Gaiman revealed that the connection came through Twitter, when Young had expressed interest in working with him. “If you need a time-traveling stegosaurus in a hot air balloon,” said Gaiman, “Skottie Young is your man.”

The adult book is The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which was partially inspired by a friend down on his luck who stole Gaiman’s famiily Mini, drove it down to the end of the lane, and committed suicide. It involves the Hempstocks, who have figured in Stardust and The Graveyard Book, but was a long time in coming.

“The problem with writing a story about the Hempstocks is that they lived at the end of my lane.”

Ocean started off as a short story, which Gaiman wrote because he missed his wife, who was in Melbourne for four months recording an album. “I wanted to write a story that’s not about my family,” said Gaiman, “but that’s very much about what it was to see the world through my eyes when I was seven.”

“I’ve heard people point to writing and say that it can be like driving by night. Writing this for me was like driving by night with one headlight out in the thick fog. You can just see far enough ahead not to drive off the road.”

Halfway through the appearance, Gaiman copped, “This has nothing to do with why fiction is dangerous.” He carried on by describing how he got into trouble as a boy by reading books and learning from them. He learned how to dye his father’s white shirts a deep purply red using a common beet root and got into trouble. He learned how to make toffee and became aware of its natural properties. “It will shatter like glass and completely cover the floor of the classroom.”

After offering these biographical exemplars, Gaiman shifted to his views about fiction.

“Fiction is dangerous, of course, because it lets you into other people’s heads. Fiction is dangerous because it gives you empathy. Fiction is dangerous because it shows you that the world doesn’t have to be like the one you live in.”

Gaiman described going to various companies (Google, where one of his sons works, Apple, and Microsoft) and asking the people who invented what they read as children. “They all said, we read science fiction. We read fantasy.”

“Getting into other people’s heads is dangerous,” continued Gaiman, “incredibly dangerous.”

At this point, the floor was open to questions and the talk about “dangerous fiction” was regrettably tabled. Gaiman was asked about the worst sentences he has ever written. He pointed to the story “Night of the Crabs.” One of the offending sentences: “He wasn’t going to leave Pat Benson alone that night, crabs or no crabs.”

He harbored fantasies as a young writer that he would be rewarded for his stories by a limo showing up at his house. “People would get out of it and say this is yours. We love your stories so much.”

As Gaiman described his early writing development, there was a curious pecuniary fixation. He had taped an inspirational Muddy Waters quote next to his typewriter: “Don’t let your mouth write no checks that your tail can’t cash.” He talked of an early teacher who had offered him ten shillings to read the entirety of Gone with the Wind.

He said that he was proudest of his kids, which caused the crowd to loosen an “Ahhhhhh!” that could have found a home on an episode of Community. When one audience member’s phone went off, followed by a cry of “Shit,” Gaiman responded, “Isn’t it embarrassing when that happens? If it’s any consolation, it’s usually up here.”

In other words, Gaiman is well-practiced at working the room.

Gaiman mentioned that the Ameican Gods TV show is still in development at HBO. He has finished a script and he’s waiting to hear back for notes. He compared the relationship to “a game of tennis,” leading this reporter to wonder if there was a dependable racket that didn’t involve thrones. Gaiman talked about introducing material that had never appeared in the book.

“The process has been more HBO going, ‘Can you make it more like the book?'”

Gaiman said he still feels doubt. “I’m a weird mixture of appalling arrogance and absolute self-doubt and humility. Like a nightmarish layer cake.”

He doesn’t write for any specific age. “There’s no such thing as a book just for kids. Because every book is going to have to be read aloud by someone your age.” Every novel is different for Gaiman. After writing American Gods, Gaiman told Gene Wolfe that he had figured out how to write a novel. “He looked at me with infinite pity and said, ‘Neil, you never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel you’re on.'”

He did talk about his affinity for Jack Benny’s old radio program. “They get good around 1942,” after Benny had gone through three sets of writers. He mentioned starting a story about Jack Benny, but, tellingly, he did not mention Fred Allen.

There wasn’t much elaboration on Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech. This was an appearance to please the crowds. But the very minute that his hour expired, he was led out the door by his handlers, walking with the pace of a rock star with a hectic schedule.