Alissa Nutting (The Bat Segundo Show #529)

Alissa Nutting is most recently the author of Tampa.

Author: Alissa Nutting


Subjects Discussed: Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls as preparation for Tampa, how to build up immunization against narcissism and sociopathy, people who have called for Nutting’s demise, becoming enslaved to a character, contending with a protagonist who has no moral compass, incorporating hate mail into your daily routine, writers who are able to manage intense emotional characters, writers as mediums, Sylvia Browne, avoiding novels that are sunshine and teddy bears, pleasant weather in Tampa, PTSD moments that novelists experience, how Celeste encouraged the propagation of mean jokes inside Nutting’s head, attempts to be a positive person, why horror writers are so nice, literary novelists as passive-aggressive dicks, parallels between acting and teaching, teachers who can’t remember students, a porous memory as an occupational advantage, the state of being 400% bubbly, parents and memory vacations, Celeste’s sexuality defined almost exclusively in power, the inability of America to consider that women in power can abuse it, the evils of Slate articles, people who get riled up by The Cuckoo Clock of Doom, the advantages of not having a safe place, the scourge of happy movies, being angered by The Sound of Music, obnoxious musicals, the benefits of gloomy art, Kiese Laymon, the problems with cultural engagement, A.M. Homes’s early fiction, violence within David Foster Wallace’s short stories, why America is growing more reactionary in its fiction tastes, side characters within Tampa, Celeste pinpointing upon the corporeal form of people she isn’t attracted to, operating within a world of physical perfection, assumptions made by TV pundits, how Celeste doesn’t talk about her parents, examining extraordinary behavior without explanation, the best male monsters in fiction, how being a daughter can be a powerless role, Samuel R. Delany and poronotopia, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, Fatal Attraction, Dhalgren, teachers at the mercy of No Child Left Behind, students who are bound by an anti-PDA contract, martyrs who live on the poverty line, reduced freedom of expression for teachers, the teacher surveillance state, trading in your classics degree for an educational one, why today’s kids are still interested in engaging with literature, Lord of the Flies as a Christmas story, teaching “The Pit and the Pendulum” without understanding it, when kids are smarter and more curious than adults, shock collar fantasies, teachers who go crazy, education as a dating service, Celeste’s metaphysical ideas about the soul and the body, language and metaphor, impoverished bands who refuse to write pop songs, how similes can kick you in the brain, Nutting’s love for the first-person, the contrast between thought and action, the inspiration that emerges from a boring childhood, Nutting’s Catholicism, John Waters, giving characters “thought vacations,” America’s indebtedness to religious language and principles, having family conversations about how we pretend, the extraordinary conditions it takes to miss church, taking off the Catholicism glasses to get inside the head of a pedophile, hedging your bets against intense obsession, when teachers teach behavior more than knowledge, Celeste being dictated by her smells, the Jack-Celeste relationship defined by food, insouciant perversity, why comedy is the scariest thing in the world, obsession and objectivity, the presentation of moral behavior and problems with neutrality, the desire to write a book with a soulless protagonist, soulless characters conveyed through language rooted in soul, men with monosyllabic names who transform into steak-eating, cigar-chomping, bear-swilling Visigoths, exhibition and parental duties, the terror of returning to the womb, notions of the dream woman, and being oblivious when everybody is watching.


Correspondent: I wanted to start with some of the stories in Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls. Because I read this collection, and it seems to me that this was unknowing preparation for developing Celeste’s character in Tampa. We see in “Teenager” that it depicts much of the familiarity with school-related procedures, adults who determine what behavior is appropriate, the counselor who says, “I’m here to tell you all about your choices.” But then you have these — and I’m out of breath because I was running around cleaning up a beer mess.

Nutting: That is true.

Correspondent: So if I sound like I’m hehuhhehuh, suitably like some of the male characters in Tampa

Nutting: (laughs)

Correspondent: Anyway…but then you have these surrealistic stories like “Ant Colony” and “Porn Star,” where you’re examining behavior related to intimacy in this kind of phantasmagorical context. So I’m wondering. How did writing these stories force you to get at the truths of Celeste’s aberrant behavior or deviant behavior in general? How did a fantastical tilt towards perversity aid you in becoming braver and truer as a writer?

Nutting: Yeah. That’s a great question. I mean, I’ve always been really attracted to female characters that are on the margins. And I think that this was. I can kind of relate it to immunizations, where you get a tiny bit of a virus and then you build up more and more immunity.

Correspondent: A virus? (laughs)

Nutting: Yes. I think these stories were my first experience with a virus. And after I was done with all of them, I could just withstand such a walloping dose or narcissism and sociopathy. Celeste was a pretty natural progression.

Correspondent: So you joined the Peace Corps, went to faraway countries, inoculated yourself from all hypothetical problems.

Nutting: (laughs) Right, right.

Correspondent: Do you think you developed empathy for this type of scoundrel?

Nutting: You know, what I did develop is this ease to see the humor in extremity and in perversity. That’s one of the questions that I get most often about Celeste. To what extent do you empathize with her or not? And it’s funny. Because I don’t think Celeste cares if someone empathizes with her. I feel a little proud that I made a character that is that much beyond my judgment. I mean, she just would not give a shit what I think about her. Or anyone else. I think that that’s kind of great. Because one of the things that I’ve explored so much in Unclean Jobs is different social pressures for women. And a lot of the characters really experienced and felt those social pressures as a form of pain. Because they didn’t live up to them or they didn’t resonate with them or they were not that individual’s experience of being in the world. It did not match what they saw. The behaviors they were asked to do and emulate. So I think in that way too, it was a fine marriage to pair myself with someone that just was further past anyone I’d written about before.

Correspondent: Well, what you just said there about how Celeste just really wouldn’t care if you empathized with her — if the writer, if her god, empathized with her — that is interesting to me. Because she is very clearly an emotional character. So if you have an emotional relationship with the character, how do you do it without empathy? How do you summon it like that? Or do you feel that such moral definitions are just outside the scope of what you should be doing as a fiction writer?

Nutting: Yeah. And that’s another huge aspect of the discussion.

Correspondent: The Discussion? (laughs)

Nutting: Yes, The Discussion.

Correspondent: The people with pitchforks calling for your demise. (laughs)

Nutting: (laughs) Yeah, and the pitchforks are on fire. And there’s all kinds of pyrotechnics when people are talking about you.

Correspondent: Burning crosses on various literary websites.

Nutting: Oh definitely.

Correspondent: What should be done with you? Have you been getting serious…

Nutting: Oh yes. Yes. I get hate mail. Like I wake up getting hate mail.

Correspondent: Like how much do you get generally?

Nutting: Well, it’s tapered a bit since the fall. In the summer, I was getting five or six a day.

Correspondent: Oh okay. I’ve gotten about that much when I write something inflammatory. So you and I are buds here. (laughs)

Nutting: Nice! And it was weird. Because it actually became integrated into my day.

Correspondent: (laughs) The routine of responding to hate mail!

Nutting: Yeah. It was like make my coffee, see who wants to kill me.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Nutting: Move my bowels and go to Pilates.

Correspondent: Maybe the best way is to check your mail when you’re moving your bowels.

Nutting: Yeah.

Correspondent: On the phone? It’s the best way to deal with it in that position.

Nutting: It’s funny.

Correspondent: If you’re going to get shit, you may as well expel it.

Nutting: Right! Right. I never respond to it.

Correspondent: Well, we got scatological pretty quick. (laughs)

Nutting: Sorry. That’s the hazard of having a conversation with me.

Correspondent: Or me.

Nutting: I mean, it’s interesting. Because partially, once I really got into her voice. Once that template was melded into my brain, I mean, I really feel like she just rode me around like a horse. And I was just crawling on my knees in a dog collar. “Yes, Celeste. Okay, Celeste. I will, Celeste.” Like it wasn’t…

Correspondent: You couldn’t just manage the character and say, “No. You know what? Celeste, you can do whatever you want. But you ain’t going to get me!”

Nutting: (laughs) No.

Correspondent: Really?

Nutting: I mean, I just felt like I had to submit to her truly. But one of the conversation aspects that the book has sparked is that, on one count, it’s literature must be redemptive. And if it is not redemptive, it shouldn’t be written about. Or it’s a worthless book. And then on the other side, it’s people who can see worth in a book that is not redemptive.

Correspondent: That has no moral compass whatsoever.

Nutting: That has zero moral compass. That is what I felt I had to do, particularly with the subject, with a female protagonist. Particularly as a female writer. I just felt that the expected trajectory to write about the situation would be to do it dramatically and with sympathy and have some kind of level of rationalization that would be easily digestible for readers. Which is exactly why I felt that I can’t do any of that. I have to do the opposite. Because I don’t think people would blink. That conversation’s already out there. We’re already taking that line to its thus far unproductive end. And I wanted to do something that would shake up the patterns that we seem to have fallen into in talking about this behavior.

Correspondent: At the risk of possibly objectifying you, I still have this image of you on all fours answering to Celeste’s orders.

Nutting: (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m curious to know more about what this was like. You’re the author. You say what goes. You can push back against a character’s whims or you can go ahead and say, “Yeah! Do it! It’s not going to affect me.” I’m wondering why you felt you were basically the bottom here. (laughs)

Nutting: Yeah, yeah. I mean, intellectually, what you’re saying makes perfect sense. But that was not how it felt to me. Like that was not how she felt to me. And I mean, I really was a wreck. It was not uncommon for me to just work on the manuscript eight or nine hours a day, not leave the house, not eat except for coffee. It was just manic. And my partner would come home and we’d be talking. He was like, “Where are you?” And it would take me a while to get out from under. I mean, she likes slipped me roofies on the regular.

Correspondent: Wow.

Nutting: I mean, that’s how it felt. I’m like, “What happened? Where am I?” I have these hazy, disturbing images in my head.

Correspondent: Did she cause you to wake up on a park bench somewhere in Cleveland?

Nutting: (laughs) Luckily it didn’t go that far.

Correspondent: So you do have some control against Celeste!

Nutting: I think that if I had resisted her, she would have shown me zero mercy. And, yeah, I would have woken up on a Greyhound bus having urinated all over myself.

Correspondent: You would have knocked on this door and we would have had to check you in somewhere.

(Loops for this program provided by 40a, bdenney, striddy2, and hennasee.)

The Bat Segundo Show #529: Alissa Nutting (Download MP3)

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Elissa Wald (The Bat Segundo Show #528)

Elissa Wald is most recently the author of The Secret Lives of Married Women.

[PROGRAM NOTE: Halfway through this conversation, Our Correspondent, frustrated at getting minor details wrong about Elissa Wald’s novel and not establishing a sufficient rapport with Wald, packed up his gear and was prepared to leave, due to his incredibly high standards and his tendency to implicate and incriminate himself when these standards drop. Wald, to her great credit, persuaded Our Correspondent to stay. So in the second half, we describe what went wrong and we talk through it, finding a new area to chat without any notes or prerigged questions. We have aired the conversation in its entirety because it is important to be transparent about flaws as well as strengths.]

Author: Elissa Wald


Subjects Discussed: Returning to New York after living here for eighteen years, Portland, having an accidental noir subconscious sense, expanding a 96 page story into a viable book without padding it out, meeting Charles Ardai, being influenced by Alice Munro, how Munro works a lifetime of material into a short piece, defying the “literary vs. genre” war, authors who use twists to advance narrative, Stephen King, why erotic fiction isn’t taken seriously, Meeting the Master, being beholden to the category whims of bookstore chains, the erotic qualities of reading something aloud, Hysterical Literature, Beautiful Agony, the mind and body relationship and implicating the reader, sexual intimacy at a distance of six feet, literal vs. enhanced intimacy, differing perceptions of soft porn, feelings of class affinity, an unanticipated two part interview format, how Wald first started writing, not being a good singer, passing notes in class as a storytelling medium, early BDSM fantasies, differing notions of slavery, Roots, addressing transgression, noir as a natural vehicle, growing up with non-mainstream longings, the Society for Creative Anachronism, having a radar for BDSM types, mental blue screens of death, the instinct to be drawn to libertine types, first becoming aware of your provocative nature, becoming aware of morality through being provocative, the 7 Most Controversial Erotic Novels, the importance of candor and giving something up, the many different ways to be married, accepting another person’s transgressions, exploring marital truths in fiction, when readers trust novelists on dangerous subjects, and sheer invention vs. fictitious moments that are closer to home.


Correspondent: I wanted to bring up Norman Mailer’s review of American Psycho in Vanity Fair in 1991. He was one of the first figures to defend that book. And he wrote, “Nowhere in American literature can one point to an inhumanity of the monied upon the afflicted equal to the following description.” And he proceeded to describe Patrick Bateman’s assault on the bum. Mailer also tied this in with Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil. But this is all very much in line with the first novella in your book, “Man Under the House,” because the treatment that Stas offers this laborer Jack hits many of the same notes. And it got me thinking, “Wow, we really don’t have this idea in fiction these days.” And I wanted to ask. In the last twenty-two years, why do you think American literature has not been especially concerned with this notion of class violence? To what degree were you aware of it? And did you hope to respond to it in any way?

Wald: Well, before we get to that, could you clarify what you mean by Stas’s treatment of the…

Correspondent: Of Jack?

Wald: Yes.

Correspondent: Well, in the sense that there seems to be this strange resentment. Not just in relation to obviously his wife, Leda, but also in relation to how he kind of resents the guy. There’s this moment where he is humiliated in Home Depot. So I picked up on this kind of class resentment that dictates Stas. And we can talk about how also it informs his past in Russia. Because he was indeed a handyman in his early days, as we learn in New York. But that notion of violence with this kind of class-to-class idea attached to it was something that was different and what I don’t usually see in fiction, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to talk with you. One of the reasons I wanted to get your answer on the subject.

Wald: That’s a fascinating question and I actually would not have thought about it that way at all. I don’t think Stas is drawing a distinction between himself and the workman on a class level. I think he just felt like this man is overly interested in my wife. I think he noticed that before the wife did, and that was what he was reacting to.

Correspondent: Even though we have this move from New York to Portland suburbia, where there’s the grand announcement, “Hey! I have a backyard.” And all this. I mean, none of that was really a concern of yours? Were you playing with some of the ideas of middle-class strivings or anything like that? Were you thinking about any of this?

Wald: Not consciously. No. I mean I can’t. People bring all kinds of interpretations to your work. And I never will say, “Oh, that’s not what it’s about.” Because I don’t know, you know? I can only say it’s not consciously what it’s about. It was nowhere in my mind.

Correspondent: Class was never a factor at all?

Wald: It wasn’t.

Correspondent: Wow.

Wald: It never crossed my mind.

Correspondent: What do you think — now that I’ve rambled quite a bit about it, why do you think that I got this particular reaction from it? I mean, were you ever concerned with any socioeconomics at all?

Wald: Well, I guess the one place where I can see what you’re saying maybe is that there’s a moment when Jack is literally under the house. He’s looking at the pipes. And she flashes on this picture of this proletariat wrestling. And so, yeah, I did say a member of the underworld bent on mutiny. So, yeah, this is what I mean. I’m not dismissing your interpretation. Just saying that I wasn’t consciously aware of it for much of the book.

Correspondent: So what interested you about exploring this dynamic with Jack and with Stas? What kept the conflict brewing as you were writing this?

Wald: Well, so interestingly, my husband and I decided to buy a house. There was a very attentive worker next door. And I spun the story into something so much more dramatic and involved than anything that really happened. But something that did happen early on was that my husband really didn’t like this guy right away. And I thought he was overreacting at first. And by the time I started to feel like this guy was overbearing, I didn’t want to tell my husband. And there were a few reasons for that. But one of them was that I thought that if I tell him, then there’s going to be a war. There’s going to be a war on some level. We just moved into this house. This guy is right next door. He’s essentially a neighbor for the time being. I don’t want an open war with this person. We just moved in. I don’t want this around my home. So I think most writers are to an extent a participant/observer in life. So they’re living their lives and they’re very much a participant. But there’s also, I think, a part of the writer’s mind that’s always observing. And so I thought, “Isn’t this interesting? I’m not only becoming nervous about this man. But I feel like he’s driving an emotional wedge between my husband and myself.” And that was fascinating. Even while it was wildly uncomfortable to experience it, it was still fascinating to the writer in me. And so I just took it from there and spun it.

Correspondent: Your husband isn’t Russian by chance?

Wald: He is.

Correspondent: He is! My goodness. So you were really drawing from reality.

Wald: So like a lot of writers — you know I know a lot of writers even give their protagonists their own names. But it’s still fiction. Like Philip Roth does that a lot. So I really do draw honestly from life a lot of the time and yet it’s unequivocally fiction. I make all kinds of stuff up. So it’s really a blur.

Correspondent: Do you have any legal background at all?

Wald: No. I did work for an attorney as an assistant.

Correspondent: Was he blind?

Wald: No. I did work for a blind man.

Correspondent: Oh, okay.

Wald: But he wasn’t a lawyer.

Correspondent: So the first part, interestingly enough, is truer to your life than the second part.

Wald: You know, I think everything’s true to my life on some level. I mean, I identify with all the characters on some level. All the female characters.

Correspondent: In the New York Times Book Review, I wanted to bring up Megan Abbott’s review. She wrote about your book. She brought up James M. Cain’s notion of the “love rack,” which involves finding a way to manipulate the readers into caring for criminal figures. The way into that, she said, is often through lust or desire. That’s how you get that vicarious solicitude for a scumbag. I’m wondering to what degree the idea of planting Leda in this suburban splendor or Lillian in this seemingly stable world, vocationally as an attorney, was kind of your 21st century answer to the love rack. I mean, was one of your goals to reach these vanilla middle-class readers or anything?

Wald: You know, interestingly, we talked a moment ago about how people bring their own interpretations. It was very amusing to me — I mean, Megan Abbott is a phenomenal writer. I appreciated her review deeply. But she imagined that it was a deep, deliberate bow to legendary noir author James M. Cain and I’ve never read a word of Cain in my life.

Correspondent: You have not!

Wald: Never. Not once. Never seen a film based on any of his books. Never given him a moment’s thought.

Correspondent: My goodness.

Wald: So that was interesting to me that she decided that.

Correspondent: Well, and I apparently have done the same thing. My goodness. I mean, have you read any books? (laughs)

Wald: Actually, I think it’s great that people bring their own interpretations. To me, that means it’s speaking directly to a reader’s experience and their frame of reference. So I don’t mind that people do that.

Correspondent: But actually I agree with Megan to a large degree. Because it does fulfill some of the relationship that books have to noir, while simultaneously also breaking from them. And this leads me to ask you. I mean, what kind of criminal fiction or noir have you soaked up? Or are you just basically living a noir life and that’s where it comes from?

Wald: I’ve read almost no noir in my entire life.

Correspondent: (laughs) Wow.

Wald: This is a new genre for me. I didn’t set out to write a crime novel. What happened was that Charles Ardai is a long-time friend of mine. Charles Ardai, the publisher of Hard Case Crime.

Correspondent: He’s great.

Wald: And I have sent him everything I’ve written for the last twenty-five years. Because he’s a great reader. He’s a great editor.

Correspondent: Yes.

Wald: And it never occurred to me ever that I would ever be a Hard Case author. Because I don’t write crime fiction.

Correspondent: Well you do now. (laughs)

Wald: And it’s been wonderful. So I sent him the manuscript, “Man Under the House.” It was just a long story. And I was aware that I was trying my hand at a psychological thriller. But it honestly hadn’t crossed my mind that it was also a crime story. I just hadn’t thought of it that way. So I was astonished when he said, “I want this for Hard Case.” But, no, this isn’t my genre. It’s never been my genre. I’ve read no crime writers. Scott Turow is the one thriller writer that I’ve read and loved.

(Loops for this program provided by mingote and ebaby8119.)

The Bat Segundo Show #528: Elissa Wald (Download MP3)

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Simon Winchester (The Bat Segundo Show #527)

Simon Winchester is most recently the author of The Men Who United the States. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #87.

Author: Simon Winchester


Subjects Discussed: Becoming an American citizen, the diamond hoax of 1872, revisiting historical locations in contemporary times, driving over Donner Pass during a relentless blizzard, Clarence King, buying a tract of land in Montana, having Huey Lewis as a neighbor, attempts to buy chains from mysterious opportunists, avoiding the term “flyover states,” American Heartbeat, William Gilpin’s claim that the Western Territory of the United States could accommodate two billion people, New Harmony, David Dale Owen, Robert Owen, belief scams, the Hudson-Mohawk Gap, the construction of the Erie Canal, geopolitics, efforts to get at the truth about the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, 99% Invisible, standing up for the forgotten Ellis Chesbrough, The Jungle, leaving out historical figures, surveying and mapping the territory as essential elements of mapping the states, the Warren Map of 1858 as the definitive map of the United States, Roosevelt slicing a map of the States with a crayon to project his image of the U.S. interstate highway system, how American policy makers wavered from the norm, the “Yellow Book” basis for the interstate system, the military connections within the origins of America’s roads, Eisenhower as geographical observer, the UK Ordnance Survey vs. the U.S. Geographical Survey maps, rural electrification, Robert Caro’s LBJ volumes, “the pitiless arithmetic of capitalism” and its influence on areas of the States that didn’t get electricity, Samuel Insull, the real model for Citizen Kane, Roosevelt’s New Deal policies for the farmers, Western Ohio political ironies, Sacagawea, challenging Winchester on the lack of women in >The Men Who United the States, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the slavery debate, Ameila Earhart, risky book titles in an age of Jezebel, men and big ideas, Winchester’s crush on Donna Reed, ideas vs. physical links uniting the States, gender equality, John Wesley Powell’s extraordinary climbing claims, arguing over the legacy of Theodore Dehone Judah, the N Judah line and the 38 Geary, Ted Judah vs. The Big Four, Winchester’s six page love letter to NPR, NPR’s transphobia over Chelsea Manning, NPR on Iran, misreporting Gabrielle Giffords’s death, Democracy Now, This American Life, NPR vs. BBC and CBC, >Winchester’s 1981 thoughts on public radio, Bill Siemering and the origins of “All Things Considered,” the dormant exploratory impulse vs. guys who look at computers, metaphorical nation states, Winchester founding a newspaper, innovation vs. repeating the last two centuries of history. and Winchester’s forthcoming book on the Pacific Ocean.


Winchester: It’s lovely to see you again.

Correspondent: I was saying before. Last time we talked, you weren’t an American citizen.

Winchester: I wasn’t. It was in San Francisco.

Correspondent: Yes, it was.

Winchester: As I recall, I was enormously hungry and a little bit bad tempered.

Correspondent: Oh yeah.

Winchester: But this morning I’m very good.

Correspondent: No, no. You’ve been extraordinarily charming. Anyway, one of your strategies for this book involved revisiting many of the locations and taking in the sights as they are today. You encounter military installations on the Lewis and Clark route. When you visited Diamond Peak in Sweetwater County, Wyoming, the site of the Philip Arnold/John Slack diamond hoax of 1872, you express a certain kind of romantic disappointment that there isn’t a diamond for you to pick up and pluck.

Winchester: (laughs)

Correspondent: And there’s also, of course, your journey by car over Donner Pass, kind of getting a sense of what it was — because you were traveling through a blizzard. So my question first and foremost is: What advantages are there in visiting a place today when there is often no trace whatsoever of the original geography? Was this a peculiar criteria that you applied in selecting the locations you decided to write about for this book? What happened here?

Winchester: I don’t think they were criteria. Let’s go through them one by one. I was following the Lewis and Clark trail and they started, as you probably remember, in St. Charles, just north of St. Louis. And you turn left. You turn westwards and go up to the Missouri. And there isn’t a lot that’s very interesting until you come to this funny place called Knob Noster, which has to be one of the more peculiar town names in America. And I remembered when I got there and read Lewis’s account of being there and finding some sort of snake that gobbles like a turkey or a turkey that make noise.

Correspondent: Gobbles knobs.

Winchester: Yes.

Correspondent: We’re getting naughty very quickly. (laughs)

Winchester: Stop this. And I remembered that years before when I wrote an extremely unsuccessful book about the Midwest that I had been to Knob Noster because it’s the size of this enormous Air Force base. So I wanted to go and see how the Air Force base had changed in the thirty, forty years since I’d last been there. And of course, it has changed in a very important and significant way. The diamond field in Wyoming? Well, this all relates to the career of an extraordinary geologist called Clarence King, who happens to be a great hero of mine. The first ever director of the United States Geological Survey. He made his name by uncovering a fraud, the people you mentioned, which cheated a lot of wealthy San Franciscans — a great proportion of their fortune — by claiming to have found a field full of diamonds. They, of course, salted the diamond. They bought them cheaply in London and then put them in anthills. And so I went down to Diamond Peak, which is an extremely lonely place. And I’m walking along and thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just uncover a diamond or an emerald or a sapphire?” But, no, there’s nothing left.

Correspondent: Were there any anthills at all?

Winchester: There were lots of anthills. Oh yes.

Correspondent: Because you didn’t mention that in the book.

Winchester: Well, there were.

Correspondent: I mean, come on. You’ve got to be grateful for second place, right?

Winchester: (laughs) Indeed. Quite. But Diamond Peak was there, just as described. But it started to snow. It started to get very cold and very windy and we were a long way from anywhere and it was starting to get dark. So we thought, “Well, there are no diamonds.” So screw it. I’m going home.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Winchester: Sorry if I didn’t mention the anthills.

Correspondent: I was in suspense.

Winchester: I’m sure you were.

Correspondent: You disappointed me on that point.

Winchester: I’m so sorry. I beg your pardon. And then Donner Pass, well, that was some while ago — not on doing specific research for this book. But I bought a tract of land, which I’ve since sold.

Correspondent: Montana.

Winchester: So foolishly. Yes. On Route 93 in Western Montana. And I was hightailing it back to San Francisco because I had to catch a plane back to Hong Kong, where I was living at the time. And so I was going fast on Route 80. West. And all the radio stations were saying that the Donner Pass is dry and clear, to use the expression. But it clearly wasn’t. Because since I started leaving from Reno and going up the hills, it started to rain. There were flashing lights on the side of the road, saying DONNER PASS CHAINS REQUIRED. And then I got up to where the rain turned to sleet, then to snow, then to driving snow. And then there was a Highway Patrol barrier saying ONLY CHAINS REQUIRED. And, of course, inevitably, this being America, there were a couple of entrepreneurial chaps by the side of the road, saying, “Oh! You want chains? We’ll give you chains. We’ll sell you chains.”

Correspondent: No doubt you were Huey Lewis’s mark.

Winchester: Huey Lewis was next in the piece of land in Montana. He was my next door neighbor.

Correspondent: Yeah. I was stunned.

Winchester: Huey Lewis and the News.

Correspondent: I was wondering if he led you astray. Now I have the timeline absolute here.

Winchester: (laughs) No. But what did happen, which I didn’t put in the book, was that I paid my $75. I had the chains put on. I crossed the Donner Pass. It’s fairly dramatic during a horrible snowstorm. But the point of my telling the story is that the Union Pacific trains were roaring through it at the same time with no problem caused by the snow, illustrating that that was indeed the logical place for the Union Pacific route to go. But then I got over the summit finally. About two in the morning. Started going down the other side towards Sacramento. The snow turned to sleet. Turned to rain. I unbolted my chains, put them in the trunk of the car. Note I say “trunk” now, not “boot.” Because I am an American.

Correspondent: Good on you.

Winchester: Thank you. Drove over the Bay Bridge ultimately to the hotel I stay in, which is a very nice hotel. I’ve always stayed because I’m from Hong Kong. The Mandarin Oriental. San Francisco, California. And the chap at the door says, “Oh, hello. Good morning, Mr. Winchester.” He’s been there for so long. “Do you want these chains?” And I said, “No no no. Just put them aside.” So he took the chains out and labeled them. Every time that I have stayed in the Mandarin, in the twenty years or fifteen years since that moment, always on my bed are Mr. Winchester’s chains.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Winchester: As if I get up to something really unspeakable in my room involving chains.

Correspondent: Wow.

Winchester: Indeed.

Correspondent: This has all sorts of implications.

Winchester: (laughs)

Correspondent: This kind of strays from my original question about using the actual physical presence of Simon Winchester at these locations as a way of writing about them. But it seems to me that you are almost atoning for past peregrination mistakes in previous books. Is that safe to say?

Winchester: Well, one particular book.

Correspondent: Okay. Alright.

Winchester: So nice of you to mention it. Yes, thank you.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Winchester: I am perfectly happy to admit it. This book, The Men Who United the States, is my second attempt to write about the United States in book form. The first was in 1976 when I was based in America, in Washington, for The Guardian, and had this, what I now realize to have been, somewhat naive belief that the essence of America, the quiddity if you like of the country, could be found not in the effete East or the decadent West, but in the imperturbable, solid, rock-ribbed heart of the country. The Midwest. So I took six months’s leave.

Correspondent: Thank you for not using the term “flyover states.”

Winchester: I certainly would never dream. I did once actually. So I’ve got to confess that in case.

Correspondent: Okay. Well, you’ve really become a great American.

Winchester: Well…

Correspondent: A very, very noble one. (laughs)

Winchester: And also I happen to like the Midwest. So I didn’t rent a car. I drove my Volvo, I remember, and spent six months driving on I-35, which goes from International Falls, Minnesota, through Minnesota, Iowa, a bit of Missouri, where the Air Force base was, Kansas, Oklahoma, down through Texas, and finally ends in Laredo, up and down and up and down and wrote this book. The timing was for it to come out during the bicentennial year. 1976. And to be fair to the book, which was called American Heartbeat, it was credibly reviewed. I mean, people were very generous. But not the people who buy books. They were not generous at all and when the royalty statement came in ’77, or at least I couldn’t dignify it with the term “royalty,” it showed that it had sold twelve copies. So it was not a success.

Correspondent: Really?

Winchester: It was a dismal, dismal commercial failure.

Correspondent: Wow.

Winchester: So in a way you’re right to use the word “atonement.” This new book is, let us say, learning from the lessons of that failure. The one thing I was determined to do was to write a book that was in no way similar to the book that I’d written in ’76.

Correspondent: Wow. That’s incredible. Well, I mentioned the Diamond Hoax of 1872. But this is by no means the only fraud that you dig up in this book. There’s Samuel Adams — no relation to the beer, no relation to John Adams’s second cousin — he came close to milking $20,000 from Congress for an expedition he claimed he made in Colorado. William Gilpin claimed that two billion people could easily be accommodated in the Western Territory.

Winchester: Two billion. Please note that.

Correspondent: Yes. Two billion.

Winchester: Not million, but billion!

Correspondent: Yes. Exactly. The folly of New Harmony, with David Dale Owen. Is it safe to say that many of these efforts to unite America required a crazed belief culture or possibly a set of existential blinders with which to achieve ambition?

Winchester: Well, I have to hold you there. Your reference to David Dale Owen and to New Harmony. I actually think New Harmony was a story very creditable in American history. Just very briefly, this is a little town at the confluence of the Wabash and the Ohio Rivers. Initially, it was a utopian settlement built by a group of Suebians, Germans who were being persecuted back home. Very similar to the Pilgrim fathers and all that. They prospered. They sold this little community to the next utopian who came along the line, who was a man called Robert Owen. And he intended to build a community of fiercely intelligent intellectuals who would use it as a base for proselytizing intelligence for teaching. And he lured a number of Philadelphia intellectuals — most notably, a man called William Maclure, who drew the first ever geological map of this country in 1809, I think it was. And they all came down from Philadelphia by way of Pittsburgh on a boat, which was called the Boat Load of Knowledge and joined Robert Owen and set up this little settlement. Now it is true to say that the settlement, like so many utopian settlements, floundered because of schismatic arguments. I think there were ten subcults within about a year.

Correspondent: What amazes me was that one could get on the Boat Load of Knowledge. I mean, that name should have been the big tip off.

Winchester: You would have thought so. The Boat Load of Extreme Pretension.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Winchester: But nonetheless David Dale Owen, who was the son of Robert Owen and who was taught geology by this man Maclure, went on to become a real evangelist for early geology. And I know that geology in this country is ill-regarded. I try and do my best to get people to say that it was a great deal more than Rocks for Jocks. It quite literally underlies everything we can see in this room today. The metal for your tape recorder, the television, the paper, the paint, the wood. Everything comes from the earth as a result of geology. He, David Dale Owen, essentially started the Geological Surveys or triggered them in some way in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota. So the mapping and the discovering of the mineral wealth of these states could all be put down to the efforts of New Harmony. So I would completely repudiate your idea that in any way that that’s a scam. It failed.

Correspondent: A belief scam, I thought.

Winchester: Yes. A belief scam. I couldn’t agree with you more. But in terms of its legacy, it’s a very important place. And it is a shame — and I’m going to sound rather sort of not belligerent here, but I just think that it is a shame that more people don’t know of New Harmony. And it should be a shrine to the early phenomenon of learning in this country. It’s a very important place.

Correspondent: It’s interesting that you’re more pro-New Harmony and not so much Paradise in this book. That’s interesting. Since you had mentioned geology — and as an American, well as a fellow American, geology is not exactly one of my best spots. But I do want to discuss the Eastern American Fall Line and the Hudson-Mohawk Gap. Much of American settlement owes its existence to these two geographical realities. Explorers fell into this natural expansionist rhythm when pushing against this. But I’m wondering to what degree were the explorers aware that they were kind of fulfilling almost a geopolitical destiny here.

Winchester: I can safely say that none of them imagined. It is conceivable that in the construction of the Erie Canal there was a thought given to the geopolitical consequences. But let me just explain. All the people who you’ve talked about or alluded to journeyed into the interior of America from the Eastern settlements by river. And as you sailed and counted after fifty, sixty, ninety miles of paddling, suddenly the waters got rougher. There were waterfalls. There were rapids. Their progress was blocked. So they had to stay there and have a settlement from which they would portage. And those settlements eventually became cities. Richmond, Fredericksburg, Washington D.C., Albany. Then to circumvent those rapids, and to allow those communities to trade with the interior beyond the Appalachians, the settlers had to build primitive canals. So they learned how to build canals. They then, once they realized the economic importance of canals, once they had learned the technology of constructing them, then they started this mania of building them all over the country to connect places where there were minerals or work or whatever with the nearest ports. So that the Middlesex Canal in Southern New Hampshire led to the creation of the expansion of Boston. The important one — and this is where your geopolitical question, I think, comes to the fore — was the one that linked Buffalo to Albany through the Hudson-Mohawk Gap, which all of us at school in England when we were eleven years old had to know the significance of the Hudson-Mohawk Gap in world history. Because once that gap was filled with the canal and once trade could be brought theoretically from Lake Superior, Hudson, Lake Huron, Michigan, to the port Buffalo, taken down the Erie Canal, turn right and go down to New York City, then this allowed New York to prosper in a way that no other American city did at the time and to become a world port. The man who had the idea for the Erie Canal, which is the name of the canal between Buffalo and Albany, was a man called Jesse Hawley. And Jesse Hawley was a highly intelligent farmer in Canindaigua, New York who could not get his wheat down to the bakers in New York because the little canal that existed in the Mohawk Gap charged such extortionate rates that it actually drove him bankrupt. Drove him to debtors’ prison. He sat in a debtors’ prison for many months and, while there, studied European canals. Because he said, “What we really need is something that isn’t extortionately run which is a canal between Buffalo and Albany.” So he wrote the local newspaper called The Genesee Messenger from his cell in the debtors’ prison under the pseudonym “Hercules.” Fourteen extremely well-argued essays saying that if you, the State of New York, build this mighty canal, not only will you give New York City prosperity, but you will change America’s standing in the world. These essays were read by the then Governor of New York State, Governor Clinton, and he said, “This man Hercules, whoever he is,” — he had no idea he was in a debtors’ prison — “is right.” And he got the money through the Legislature. And the Erie Canal was built. And the first person to attend the ceremony of the wedding of the waters, where the Great Lake’s water was dipped into the Atlantic Ocean at the Verrazano Narrows, where the bridge is there — the first person to pour the first water was Jesse Hawley, now free from the debtors’ prison, who had this brilliant idea. So I’m certain that he, and probably he alone, had an idea of the geopolitical importance of the canal.

Correspondent: Got it. Well, while we’re on the subject of canals, I have to bring up the Chicago Sanitary Canal. The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to be quite precise. This was an engineering effort in the late 19th century to quite frankly rid the rapidly growing Second City of its escalating shit. Now 99% Invisible, this wonderful radio program, happened to actually do this wonderful show on the canal back in August, and host Roman Mars pointed out how Ellis Chesbrough — this Boston engineer now forgotten to history — was responsible for this canal and he had the audacity to jack up the street level in Chicago up ten feet. It took twenty years. It was amazing. But you didn’t mention Chesbrough at all. And I’m wondering about this. You claim that this guy Isham Randolph was the guy who came up with the Chicago Sanitary Canal. So why didn’t you include Chesbrough? And I’m wondering what research you relied on for the Chicago Sanitary Canal?

Winchester: Well, that is a good question. Principally, the editing process of this book — and I’m not blaming anything on the editor at all. When I turned in the manuscript, which was for 150,000 words — that was the contract — it was 195,000. Because I had found so many ancillary personnel, of whom Chesbrough was clearly one. He didn’t have the idea for the Canal. Isham Randolph was the central figure in the building of this canal. Chesbrough did, yes, that’s why when you go down Wacker Drive, all the underneath, that’s all part of Chesbrough’s achievements, which are laudable, but quite reasonably, I think, we had to strip down — and I remember I was in Bangkok in Thailand — and my editor said, “Look, Simon, this is wonderful. It’s full of wonderful stuff. But we’ve got to eliminate some people. Some ideas.”

Correspondent: (laughs) We’ve got to assassinate a few of them.

Winchester: We do. And I make no apologies for it. The book has got to be a manageable length. And you, I dare say, will come up with other people who you can say in an accusatory way, “Why did you leave him out?” Well, I’ll say, “I’m sorry. Life needs to be edited.” And so Isham Randolph to me is the important character. The other one, not so.

Correspondent: Well, what 99% Invisible pointed out was that Chesbrough didn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.

Winchester: (laughs)

Correspondent: And how he was just completely cut out from the great story of the Chicago Sanitary Canal! And I’m wondering. The sense I got, at least from that segment and from a few other things I read, was that actually Chesbrough was the real deal. And you say he’s not. And I’m wondering what books and what scholarship say that Randolph is the guy rather than Chesbrough.

Winchester: Well, the history of the Chicago Canal by a lady who, I think, her last name is Kelly. I don’t have the bibliography in front of me at the moment. [NOTE: Winchester’s bibliography lists Libby Hill’s The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History. This is likely the book he consulted.] And my friend, and the husband of my agent, who has written a book called The Third Coast about the development of modern Chicago. The history of the Armour Meat Company. Upton Sinclair’s book on Chicago, which I’m sure you’ll remember the title.

Correspondent: Yeah. The Jungle.

Winchester: The Jungle. All of these taken together helped me in this late 19th century, early 20th century construction of Chicago. And if they don’t mention Chesbrough, then I don’t mention Chesbrough.

Correspondent: Even though the newspapers of the time mention Chesbrough.

Winchester: I am not going to sit here and justify every omission in this book.

Correspondent: Alright.

Winchester: There are bound to be some people who are going to fall by the wayside. It’s like being cut and ending up on the cutting room floor. I’m in no way defensive about it. I’m simply saying that, in my view, Isham Randolph was the more important figure.

Correspondent: Okay. Well, I was curious how you came to that view.

(Loops for this program provided by sintheeticrecords, proecliptix, leoSMG, boogieman0307, and progressbeats5.)

The Bat Segundo Show #527: Simon Winchester (Download MP3)

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The 2013 National Book Awards: Needs More Wit and Suspense, Enough with the Old Coots

If Wednesday night represented an elegant soothsaying session determining where American literature is heading, then white men who cannot embrace the tenor of our time are being shown the door. I contend that this is a good thing. Dr. Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison radiated such pure joy and effusive class on the dais, with Morrison defiantly refusing her wheelchair and Angelou belting out an inspirational tune, that the hoary and vastly overrated writer E.L. Doctorow easily made the case for his own obsolescence with an indulgent anti-Internet screed that felt like the late Andy Rooney rambling without editorial consultation. “A search engine is not an engine,” said Doctorow. “A bookmark is not a bookmark because an e-book is not a book.” Well, a writer is not a speaker, especially when he cannot hear the hollow rattle in his burned out subwoofer.

Behatted author James McBride beat out Thomas Pynchon and George Saunders to win the Fiction award for The Good Lord Bird, observing how the novel had kept him company as his marriage was dissolving. Of the distinguished competition, McBride said, “They are fine writers. But it sure is nice to be here.”

Cynthia Kadohata claimed the Young People’s Literature award for The Thing About Luck, noting, “I didn’t write a speech because I thought it would be bad luck. I guess it worked out.”

Mary Szybist won the Poetry award for her collection Incarnadine. “Poetry is the place where speaking differently is the most prevalent,” she said just before softly tearing up on stage. She thanked “the mother who made me,” and accepted her award with great grace.

George Packer took the Nonfiction award for The Unwinding, a blistering depiction of the ongoing war against the American middle class. He proved the Flaubert maxim by accepting his laurels with the ease of a relaxed and dedicated man valuing calm before work. He thanked his kids. He thanked his wife for “sharing my life and my work.”

The awards ceremony was not helped by host Mika Brzezinski. Despite her past valiant efforts to destroy Morning Joe scripts containing trivial news, Brzezinski was the height of superfluousness on Wednesday night. She offered tired and groan-inducing gags about the Random House/Penguin merger and was so hopelessly amateurish that she set up the Fiction category before Nonfiction, only to backpedal as the giant screens at Cipriani flashed to an awkward title card.

The newly introduced longlist of ten titles per category, revealed just before the finalists, has added a juddering layer of suspense for book geeks. The National Book Foundation is also to be lauded for working hard in recent years to get the awards televised and live streamed. But something has gone terribly amiss in the host selection department. If the National Book Awards is to reach the American public, we need real wit written by professional comedy writers. We need hosts who will seamlessly run a show. We need people who read.

We also need to hand out lifetime awards to writers who represent a truer link between the past and the future. Maya Angelou was that person. E.L. Doctorow was not.


George Saunders (2013 National Book Awards Audio Interview)

George Saunders is nominated for the Fiction Award for Tenth of December. Saunders told me he had never attended the ceremony before and that he has a 17% chance of winning. Since he is a very optimistic guy, I asked him about the future of books. I also presented Saunders with this inquiry: Given how Joyce could construct Dublin from the bricks set down in Ulysses, what city could be constructed from the works of George Saunders?


Gene Luen Yang (2013 National Book Awards Audio Interview)

Gene Luen Yang is nominated for the Young People’s Literature Award in this year’s National Book Awards. I ran into Yang on the floor before the National Book Awards and chatted with him for about three minutes about the intersection between comics and literary work.


Wendy Lower (The Bat Segundo Show #526)

Wendy Lower is most recently the author of Hitler’s Furies, a nonfiction finalist for this year’s National Book Awards, which will be awarded on Wednesday night.

Author: Wendy Lower


Subjects Discussed: Marriage and genocide, the hausfrau who shot at Jews from the balcony, Liesel Willhaus, Hitler’s “baby machine” speech in 1934, Nazi ideology and gender roles, Volksgemeinschaft, Erna Petri, societal cues and massacring children, the fluidity of women’s personality in 1930s Germany, women in higher education restricted from participation, women who advanced up the social ladder, the League of German Girls, upward mobility among German women existing before the Nazi regime, Michael Wildt, looking at history through mundane everyday activities, Leni Riefenstahl’s rally footage, organized marches as rituals, looking at the motives for people who participated in these marches, concentrating on the half million women in the Eastern territories where communities of violence flourished, the Red Swastika Sisters, women serving as nurses, Annette Schücking, women listening to men boasting of massacres and being forced to comfort them, Nazis socializing by looking down at the inferior to affirm their superiority, Claudia Koonz’s Mothers in the Fatherland, women’s complicity in Nazi crimes, secretaries and bosses organizing massacres together, complicity in the workplace, shooting people from balconies, differing ideas about Vera Wohlauf, Christopher Browning’s claim of men feeling uncomfortable by Wohlauf’s presence because it made them feel shameful, Goldhagen’s ideas of men proud of their acts, genocide as men’s work, Browning’s Ordinary Men, German women using their pregnant condition to reduce their perceived culpability, the question of whether being close to the Miedzyrzec Aktion makes you an accomplice to atrocities, terrorizing by attendance, defining women’s culpability in relation to men, Gertrude Segel and Felix Landau, why it’s taken so long to consider women as part of the Nazi regime, how focusing on killing centers shifts the dialogue away from exploring violence within the general population during the Holocaust, how the German and Austrian courts excluded witness testimony after the war, how many women committing atrocities were allowed to return to regular life, cruelty focused on eroticized forms by the courts, the 500 women vs. the 20,00 men who stood trial after the war, low conviction rates, the Lemberg Trial, appearance stereotypes, the curious case of Johanna Altvater Zelle (aka Fräulein Hanna), how masculine appearances of women “explained” barbaric behavior, the natural Germanic ideal and its role in Nazi crimes (and subsequent exoneration), Nazi cowgirl types, Karl May, Nazi ideas of the wild west, German women telling journalists, scholars, and historians exactly what they wanted to hear (and how scholars have sorted out the truth from the hyperbole), the choices that women had under the Nazi regime, euthanasia programs, duty prevailing over morality, executed women, Nazi Empire Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine, resistance figure Maria Kondratenko, women who took advantage of the Nazi idea that women were intellectually inferior, why gender matters in looking at the Holocaust, the Black Misha, how secretaries were responsible for the administrative part of the Holocaust, workplace relationships and Nazi socialization, Nazi consumer culture, German women who were raped, and questioning the narrative of innocence.


Correspondent: Let’s discuss the idea of genocide as men’s work under the Nazi regime. There was this duty to serve the Reich and anyone who was considered work-shy was sent to a concentration camp, of course, to be reeducated. Men were expected to go out and perform an Aktion, which meant of course massacring Jews. You have this idea of marriage, where a woman had to be fulfilled with domestic work while she was simultaneously subordinate to her husband. But then you have people like Liesel Willhaus. She would often shoot at Jewish slaves working on her villa from her second story balcony for the sport of it. So I’m wondering. To what degree were figures like Willhaus responding to Nazi societal cues and to what degree were they reacting to these gender roles that were associated with work?

Lower: You know, in a speech that Hitler gave in 1934 at one of the rallies, he was very explicit. He said that women are supposed to serve their Reich to propagate the race. As baby machines, as it were. He didn’t use that term. But that’s kind of how we’ve come to understand it. But he also mentioned using the term “fellow combatants,” which I refer to in my book. And I do that deliberately to show that there were two strands of thinking in Nazi ideology vis-à–vis women and gender roles. One was obviously predominantly racial: the drive to expand the German race. But that drive to expand the German race was about survival. And survival was about militarized operations and it was expansion of the living space and building of the empire. So you have women in the role of the expansion of the German population to fulfill these megalomaniac global ambitions of Hitler’s and also serving as fellow combatants. There you see this paradox, where you see the kind of femininity of the hausfrau, of the mother, of the wife. But they also are mobilized in these campaigns. And the uniform culture, for instance, that is very a clear theme in my book, when these young women like Liesel Willhaus aspire to seek careers through the party and better themselves. They’re swept up in this fervor when they’re mobilized to go to the Eastern territories. She was sent to the Ukraine in this case. So there’s social mobility that is possible in the Volksgemeinschaft. But it has both this traditional feminine role as well as this very militaristic revolutionary experiment.

Correspondent: I guess what I’m trying to unravel here — I mean, I looked also to Erna Petri. She comes to the East in June 1942, observing her husband Horst beating and sexually assaulting servants shortly after arriving in Thuringia. By the summer of 1943, she’s already not only an accomplished hausfrau hostess, but she invites six starving Jewish children in and she shoots them in the back of the head. She had heard other Nazis saying that this was the best way to dispose of them. And the thing that fascinates me, and I’m hoping to hear you unravel, is how this kind of societal cue of “This is the best way to shoot a child” — how is that tied into what it was to be a hausfrau hostess or be this woman who, as you put it earlier, Hitler called a baby machine?

Lower: Yeah. The Nazi experiment tested all kinds of boundaries of matrimony, femininity, child rearing. These are all coming out, I think, in these individual cases that I delve into in a way, in which I’m putting faces on this lost generation of women and straightening out these different examples of those who went east. And you’ve focused on the worst cases. And the killer Erna Petri is probably the most extreme case in the book that really is the most shocking. But we see even in her case that she starts out as an ordinary farmgirl, a farmer’s daughter from a town near Erfurt, near Weimar, and attaches herself to a rising star in the SS movement, is then sent east with him to one of these plantations. And they’re kind of lording over this estate. So they have a lot of unsupervised power over the laborers on the estate. And you mentioned Jewish boys who fled the boxcar that was headed to Sobibor in ’43. And she slipped in and out of multiple roles at any given moment. She was both self-aware of being part of this revolution and wanting to assert herself, to prove herself. But then she had been socialized in traditional ways of how one should behave as a hausfrau, as a mother. And these are coming together. There’s a perversion that takes place here of these gender roles that are instrumentalized in the genocide. So you have a lot of tension in this history between racial ideals, gendered stereotypes, and this extreme violence that comes together. In the Eastern territories in particular.

Correspondent: But would you say that a particular gender role encouraged, “Hey, since this is the best way to dispose of a Jewish child, I will quite naturally fall into this because of the state.” I’ll later get into the fascinating postwar trials, in which a lot of these women got away. But I am curious, first and foremost, how many of these roles amalgamated into something where — is it even possible to unravel? It is even possible to isolate what could cause someone in one year to go to this state of being a hausfrau hostess who thinks nothing of shooting a child in the back of the head?

Lower: I think that these transformations were not — it’s a very fluid situation. They’re kind of moving back and forth. And this is after some intense socialization in the ’30s. So Erna Petri is born in 1920. In the 1920s, she was very young. But this was kind of the heyday of the explosion of women’s activity in politics. They gained the vote. So you have the politicization of women. And then boom. She’s coming of age in the ’30s in that kind of atmosphere. But it’s being shaped by this genocidal Nazi regime, which is highly ideological. And she said even in her testimony that the indoctrination of the ’30s was her motive, that she had been taught to hate Jews. And so she’s learning things along the way as well. And there’s a lot of leeway. There’s a lot of room for maneuvering too that we see in her behavior and many women like her, which was exciting for them and empowering. They were acting out. They didn’t assume that this regime was going to come to a screeching halt and be defeated. They just saw career tracks opening up. Bright futures in front of them. And especially someone like Petri and some of the wives of these SS men. They had entered into this new nobility under Himmler. And that was another level of being part of a community. And their actions, of course, because of the emphasis on this racial community. Volksgemeinschaft is a German term. People’s community. One could act out individually, but also understand one’s actions within this society. So later on for instance, not to jump too far ahead, someone like Erna Petri and many male perpetrators who find in their testimony these kinds of defense rationales in the courtroom, I don’t know how deep they went in terms of their own psychology, in which they literally state, “I feel myself.” They use the reflexive case in German. “I don’t feel myself to be guilty.” They don’t appreciate the individual responsibility and culpability because of the pervasiveness of this social experiment, being part of a national revolution and how unity and duty were so heavily stressed more than, say, morality.

Correspondent: Hitler, as you say — this whole “baby machine.” I want to go with this further. Basically, he said that a mother of multiple children was more beneficial to the Nazi regime than a woman lawyer. There were quotas in place preventing women from obtaining these degrees in higher education and political office. You point to upward mobility in this book as one of the big reasons why these women left villages and they saw jobs. Vera Wohlauf, she advanced up the social ladder through this office encounter and by marrying this wealthy merchant. So you didn’t have a lot of choices. But there were ways around this. How much of these ambitions emerged from, say, the League of German Girls, which was the girl answer to the Hitler Youth, and how did disregarding and humiliating Jews in the pre-Kristallnacht period lead to this alternative empowerment for women? It’s extraordinarily strange and I’m just trying to isolate certain aspects of this.

Lower: When I talk about the socialization during the Nazi regime, let me break that down. So, for instance, the League of German Girls was compulsory after the mid-’30s. So anyone — and with the boys as well obviously — after the age of ten, they had to be part of these youth movements. And they predominated and swallowed up all the other activities. I mean, the Nazi Party was really clever, insidiously so, in mobilizing the youth. They didn’t need to shut down the churches as such. They would just hold a lot of party meetings in these youth programs on Sunday morning. So people couldn’t go to church. Or they, of course, infiltrated the entire education system. The textbooks were completely rewritten. So each of these professional groups were somehow restructured along party lines as a one party system. Now in the beginning, thousands of German women — ordinary German women; Jewish women among them — who had been very active politically in the 1920s in the Communist movement, in the Social Democratic Party, the Catholic Center Party, other parties that the Nazis were destroying basically in ’33 as they consolidated their dictatorship — these women, especially the Communists, were sought out, arrested, and many were killed. And German women were also victims of sterilization policies. About 200,000. So within the German female population, already an early part of the ’30s, those who might be resistant to these policies are being weeded out, terrorized, incarcerated, and so forth. And so some like the individuals in my book — Erna Petri, Vera — they’re not part of that. They’ve survived that and they’ve triumphed. And now they’ve got this bright future ahead of them. And they can get out of there. Liesel Willhaus was the daughter of a foreman in a czar land. Worked on a chicken farm. And those who were not the killers in my book — the witnesses and bystanders — were similar demographics. They didn’t have educations beyond grammar school. They had secretarial training or nursing. Obviously nursing training was essential for the war effort. That particular career path was opened up. So this is how the socialization happens and what it means in terms of how women’s lives and their futures shift into these different directions under the regime.

The Bat Segundo Show #526: Wendy Lower (Download MP3)

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Terry Teachout (The Bat Segundo Show #525)

Terry Teachout is most recently the author of Duke. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #314.

[PROGRAM NOTE: There are a few modest errors in this program, all of them spoken by Our Correspondent. Our Correspondent referred to the “National Front,” when he meant the “Popular Front.” He misstated the year of Duke Ellington’s comeback concert at the Newport Jazz Festival. It was 1956, not 1959. There are also a number of moments where Our Correspondent refers to Duke Ellington as “the Duke.” We strive to keep this show as accurate as possible and apologize for these errors.]

Author: Terry Teachout


Subjects Discussed: Guther Schuller’s Early Jazz, vertical harmony vs. horizontal melody, the way Ellington used his musicians, David Hajdu’s Lush Life, Ellington’s exploitation of Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s ability to attract women close to his death, attempts to track Strayhorn’s true contributions, what pop songs reveal about Ellington’s composition skills, transformative art vs. plagiarism, the Cotton Club, playing racially segregated venues, broadcasting on CBS Radio, William Paley, Irving Mills as publicist and manager, Ellington’s terrible management skills, his tolerance of drunken and drugged up musicians, Paul Gonslaves, Ellington’s comeback at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show with Herman’s Hermits, the decline of jazz and the rise of R&B, the ribald songs of the 1920s written by Jimmy McHugh, Bessie Smith’s “Kitchen Man”, Dorothy Fields’s lyrics, high-class talents writing smutty songs, Ellington’s emulation of pop, why Duke Ellington is sexy, the suggestive qualities of “Warm Valley,” Ellington’s remarkable promiscuity (and his adroit skills in using as many as four hotel rooms at once in one city), the influence of Bubber Miley’s solo on “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” on Jimi Hendrix’s wah-wah, how Ellington surrounded himself with master musicians, viewing Ellington as the auteur of the band, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, why Ellington’s band members kept coming back, Cootie Williams leaving Ellington’s band for Benny Goodman, Raymond Scott’s “When Cootie Left the Duke,” Clark Terry, why Ellington’s best soloists didn’t function as well when they tried to make a break on their own, Billy Strayhorn’s body of work, the one interview that Edna Ellington gave to Ebony, the circumstances that caused Duke’s scar on his left cheek, why Duke and Edna stayed married, Duke’s philandering, Ellington’s fear and distrust of women, the value of Betty McGettigan’s oral history, networks of Ellington gossip, plausible vs. usable material, the mysterious Countess Fernanda de Castro Monte, fakes who contain multitudes, women who are prepared to lick the feet of geniuses, Ellington’s contradictory politics, Ellington’s idea of fighting segregation through paying people, his views on the 1963 March on Washington, Ellington winning the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, Ellington’s Popular Front activities, Jump for Joy, Ellington’s pecuniary political commitment, fame and money as the road to equality, being a member of the black bourgeoisie, Ellington’s devastation over not getting the Pulitzer Prize, the tight-lipped Teachout moment, John Hammond’s inept evisceration of “Reminiscing in Tempo,” the difficulties of synthesizing one man’s life, Mercer Ellington, quintessential connections between geniuses and their talented sons, the 1941 ASCAP strike, Herb Jeffries, John Garfield’s questionable suggestions about makeup, lighter skinned performers asked to darken their skin, Ellington’s sensitivity to questions of intra-prejudice, clueless white audiences and Duke, Ellington playing country clubs, the working life of a musician, Duke taking care of his fellow musicians, being beholden to marketing demands, a spontaneous 1940 recording in Fargo, North Dakota, the convergence of popular and sophisticated tastes.


Correspondent: I want to start with a very geeky musical technical question. You point out that Duke Ellington thought almost exclusively in terms of vertical harmony rather than horizontal melody, that his best-known tunes were little more than elaborations on the top notes of chord progressions. You quote Gunther Schuller in Early Jazz about him noticing, “The parallel blocks of sound he favors so predominantly are handled with such variety that we as listeners never notice the lack of occasional contrapuntal relief.” You suggest that this compositional liability, which Duke was, in fact, able to work around led him to rely on other composers, other musicians, other band members. And, of course, he didn’t always share credit. So I’m wondering. To what degree was Duke himself aware of this creative liability? How was he able to keep so many of his collaborators, and even the audience who was listening to him, in the dark about this for so long?

Teachout: Well, a lot of it has to do with the fact that Ellington was the biggest public personality in his band. I mean, his great soloists, except for Ben Webster, who was known to beat up people, tended not to have that kind of flashy personality. So even though, if you look at the credits of a song like “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” You see Johnny Hodges’s name on there. You’re not going to think Hodges. You’re going to think of Ellington. Because Ellington is the trademark of the Ellington Band. And this is even true in the case of Billy Strayhorn, a composer of equal quality and I think equal genius to Ellington. But Strayhorn is completely in the background, doesn’t appear with the band. Maybe a half dozen times in the band’s whole life. I’ve only seen one bit of film with Strayhorn playing with the Ellington Band at a gig. So even though for the last fifteen years or so of their working together their albums were jointly credited to Ellington and Strayhorn, and that’s to be taken very seriously, the fact is that if you don’t know the score, if you don’t know how important Strayhorn is, you’re going to assume that Ellington is the senior partner.

Correspondent: Yeah. And actually there’s also a wonderful book by David Hajdu, Lush Life, as well. Let’s talk about Strayhorn. He’s one of the tragic figures in this book.

Teachout: Yes.

Correspondent: He’s a man who has composed and arranged many of Duke’s finest moments. Duke, as we are implying here and establishing here, was an incessant credit hog. And he strung Strayhorn along for decades. So I’m wondering. What was it about Duke’s charisma? It was so formidable that he even attracted women when he came close to death, when he was ill. Which was really impressive, I gotta say! (laughs)

Teachout: (laughs) I was pretty amazed by that myself. Yes.

Correspondent: What caused people like Strayhorn and other people who were robbed of their credit — what kept them coming back to Duke?

Teachout: He was what he was. He was a genius. I mean, Strayhorn became what he became because Ellington was his model. And also we have to talk about the specific nature of Strayhorn’s life and personality and why it worked for him to work for Ellington. Billy Strayhorn was a homosexual. You were not a homosexual who was out and a public figure. Least of all if you were black in the world of jazz in the ’30s and ’40s. This was not an option for Strayhorn. And Strayhorn, who was completely at ease with his sexuality, wished to live his life the way he wanted to live it. So he made a kind of bargain — with himself, with the world, and with Ellington — that he would remain on the sidelines. Ellington would pay him — quite generously as a matter of fact. Strayhorn essentially had the equivalent of a drawing account and could pretty much do whatever he wanted. And in return for this, in supplying this music and writing hundreds of uncredited arrangements for Ellington, he just steps back into the shadows and lets Edward, as he always called him — “We’ll let Edward do that” would be Strayhorn’s line. And Ellington, unlike Strayhorn, was not only a creative personality, but a kind of theatrical figure. Now one of Duke Ellington’s greatest creations was Duke Ellington, the man who goes out on stage with the fabulous outfits and the baggy eyes and the gorgeous bass baritone voice and the catchphrases. And he charms your socks off. Now even if he couldn’t have done all this, he would have still been Duke Ellington the great composer. But because he served it up with all that frosting, people whom might not otherwise have been drawn to him and especially, when we talk about race again, drawn to a black man in the ’20s and ’30s, this is a different kind of black man. This is the elegant presentable fellow. And that is an important part of what Ellington was. And Strayhorn knew, consciously or not, that he needed this kind of front man to lead the kind of life he wanted to lead and be able to have that great Ellington Band play his music the way it played Ellington’s music.

Correspondent: Do we really know in 2013 the full extent of Strayhorn’s contributions to Ellington? Because it’s come out over and over in the last several decades. We have suddenly understood, “Well, he did this. He did this.”

Teachout: It’s completely knowable now. Because the manuscripts have survived. And a lot of people in Ellington’s life and in Strayhorn’s life, and for many years after it, speculated about who wrote what. Now it’s not a matter of speculation. We know right down to the fact that Billy Strayhorn wrote the last ten bars of Ellington’s Harlem, for example. That’s the level of specificity that we’re talking about. So there is a debunking line that’s gotten about, that Strayhorn was the power behind the throne. And that’s just not true. In the suites that they wrote together, Strayhorn would normally compose maybe between a third and a quarter of the numbers. They were not written jointly. The movements are separate. There’s a Strayhorn movement. There’s an Ellington movement.

Correspondent: You describe that moment in the hotel room where they’re trading off. One’s asleep. The other composing.

Teachout: It’s a wonderful story.

Correspondent: There’s a monster movie playing in the background.

Teachout: It’s an unusual thing to have happen. So Strayhorn’s contribution is immensely important. And he didn’t get, for these complicated reasons we’ve talked about, complete credit for it. But most of the music that we believe is written by Duke Ellington is written by Duke Ellington, including virtually all of his major instrumental works. The real problem of attribution with Ellington is the pop songs. For me, that was the big surprise. When I started to go systematically into the Ellington output, I heard stories about this. I heard stories about that. But suddenly, as I looked at the work as a totality, the light went on. And I realized, “Well, of course! It’s the pop songs. Because he’s not a natural melody writer.” It stands to reason that that would be where he went. To those natural melody improvisers like Johnny Hodges.

Correspondent: Pop songs not only reveal Duke’s limitations. It also reveals how much he plundered from other people.

Teachout: Yes. That’s right. But there’s another side of it. It also reveals what his essential contribution is. In a song like “Sophisticated Lady” — that’s the most striking example of this — the main strain is by Lawrence Brown, the trombone player. The bridge, the release is by Otto Hardwick, the alto saxophone player. But it was Duke Ellington’s idea to take these two bar fragments and put them together in a 32 bar pop song and harmonize them and orchestrate it and create the total composition that we know as “Sophisticated Lady.” So who wrote what? The question is, and the answer is, Ellington didn’t write the melody. But it is his composer’s mind that took these two found objects, if you want to put it that way, and transformed them into the song “Sophisticated Lady.” So it’s a complex attribution problem. You can’t just sum it up by saying, “Oh yes. Duke Ellington was a plagiarist.” Duke Ellington was never — in the sense that a literary person normally uses the term — a plagiarist. He didn’t steal without telling you and then you looked up six months later and your work was in print under his name.

Correspondent: He was not the Jonah Lehrer of… (laughs)

Teachout: No, sir. Not in the slightest. Was he scrupulous? Not always. And sometimes he was entirely unscrupulous. And sometimes unscrupulous things were done in his name. A fair number of Strayhorn pieces — the royalties were copyrighted in Ellington’s name. But there’s no reason to assume that Ellington himself was responsible for that. It may, in some cases, just have been sloppy bookkeeping. But when Strayhorn finally did look into this, he was horrified and it led to a temporary break between the two men and ultimately to the renegotiation of billing that created the later Ellington/Strayhorn compositions where they always get equal billing.

Correspondent: I’m abashed almost to say this. But I have not once mentioned the Cotton Club in more than 500 shows of Bat Segundo.

Teachout: (laughs)

Correspondent: So thank goodness you wrote about it, Terry!

Teachout: Now’s the time.

Correspondent: Now is the time. And I wanted to get into this. You know, here was a segregated venue. A place that paid its performers quite handsomely.

Teachout: And mobbed up to the eyebrows.

Correspondent: That’s right. Langston Hughes railed against how most whites who attended the Cotton Club saw the cabarets rather than the houses of Harlem. Duke played there. But he didn’t really mention this other aspect of the Cotton Club in his memoir, Music is My Mistress.

Teachout: Right.

Correspondent: But he also broadcast on CBS Radio from the Cotton Club. This risk taken by William Paley. And he got the attention of the press simultaneously by playing midtown clubs. So he has these broadcasts through CBS that give him that national attention while simultaneously it had me wondering. Was there any other way for Duke to make his way to CBS without the Cotton Club? Was he going to face racial segregation no matter what path he took?

Teachout: Oh sure. Remember. We’re talking about 1927, 1928. Black bands get paid less. They get inferior gigs. So suddenly Ellington gets this break. And it’s an extraordinary break. The price he pays for it is he’s coming into a segregated club in the middle of Harlem, where the only way that a black person can get in is if he is very famous and then they put him in a table in a corner. Preferably in the shadows. But in return for that, the Cotton Club’s got a national radio wire on CBS. Every rich person in New York is going to hear him. The word gets around. And that radio wire suddenly puts Duke Ellington in your living room, no matter where you live. So I think the biggest break that ever happened to Duke Ellington was meeting Irving Mills. The second biggest — and it’s related to this — is going into the Cotton Club. That and Mills’s publicity campaign, presenting Ellington as a different kind of black man — you fuse those together and you get the root to the great success that Ellington had by the ’30s.

Correspondent: But when Mills was no longer around, Ellington seems to collapse. Did he really take any hard lessons? Did any of the hard lessons he learned from Mills get taken to heart in later years? Because I was reading this book and my mouth was agog at what a terrible organizer he was. He tolerated his band coming at odd hours. Any hour. Even not showing up to the actual gig. He tolerated musicians who were hopped up on heroin, who were alcoholic.

Teachout: His was the most irresponsible band maybe in jazz. But you have to remember that Duke Ellington had a very clear sense of priorities. He knew what he wanted. He wanted a band that would play his music every night. He was willing to put up with an enormous amount of nonsense from extraordinarily gifted players. Because they were the particular guys that he wanted on the stand at the time. He was never a businessman. And when he worked with organized businessmen after Mills — well, Mills really ran the show. But after that, they had to do things within the parameters of the way Ellington wanted them to be done. You know, if you’d brought in a hardass manager in 1956 to transform the situation with the Ellington Band, probably the first thing you would have done would have been to fire Paul Gonsalves, this man who was simultaneously an alcoholic and a heroin addict, who would nod off on the bandstand. But if you made that smart business decision, then you wouldn’t have had Paul Gonsalves on the bandstand for the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, where he plays a million choruses and “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” and the crowd explodes and Ellington is on the cover of Time Magazine. So I think in the long run, Ellington wasn’t interested in money. He wanted an operation that would allow him to lead the life he wanted, which was a life on the road, a life where a lot of women were passing through his life, a life lived in hotel rooms, and a life where his music gets played every night. He didn’t want to be a millionaire. He wouldn’t have known what to do with it.

Correspondent: But before that 1956 Newport appearance, he is really on the skids. I mean, it seems as if he is not going to come back. But even with that Newport appearance that is a huge sensation, he’s going onto Ed Sullivan and he’s sharing the bill with Herman’s Hermits.

Teachout: Well, yes, the world has changed. Ellington predates the Big Band era. But it was the booster rocket that made him the culture celebrity that he was in the ’40s. But he outlived it. After World War II, first big bands themselves become financially dicey. And then the whole flavor of pop music changes. You have rhythm and blues, which soaks up the black audience that was formerly in jazz. You have rock and roll becoming the lingua franca of modern music. And so by ’56, Ellington was perceived pretty widely as yesterday’s news. And it wasn’t just him. It was everybody who was playing that kind of music. This incredible good fortune that he had, of coming into the Newport Jazz Festival and getting on the cover of Time Magazine, which pretty much insured that for the rest of his life people who didn’t necessarily know much about jazz would know who he was. And you mentioned Ed Sullivan. Television exposure generally, but Sullivan in particular, is enormously important to Ellington in those last twenty years of his life. Because he is, as we said earlier, this personality. I looked through thousands of photographs to choose the ones for the book and they’re all good. You can’t take a bad picture of Duke Ellington. So you put a guy like that on television. And television was made for him. Just like it was made for Louis Armstrong. So even if Ellington went on Ed Sullivan — maybe he wasn’t playing particularly what you wanted to hear or the bill was an odd mixed one — the fact was that it was going out to the largest audience in television.

Correspondent: But I think we’re straying away from the point I’m trying to get from you. We were talking about how Ellington was a terrible organizer while simultaneously he’s facing the reality of rock and roll becoming a dominant part of the culture and rhythm and blues taking away the audience. I mean, he faced Frank Sinatra before. If he was yesterday’s news, could any amount of mad organization revive his career? I mean, he had so many shots there with the Newport thing and all that.

Teachout: If he’d lived another fifteen years, I don’t know what his life would have been like. He and Louis Armstrong, who died around the same time. Early to mid ’70s. Remember that Armstrong made the last number one pop single, “Hello Dolly,” which was jazz. After that, never again. So they may have died at a particularly fortuitous moment. It would have gotten harder for Ellington. The bookings, they weren’t drying up. But they were becoming more difficult in the ’70s. You know, part of genius is having good timing. And maybe he knew when to make the exit.

The Bat Segundo Show #525: Terry Teachout II (Download MP3)

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Eleanor Catton (The Bat Segundo Show #524)

Eleanor Catton is most recently the author of The Luminaries, the winner of this year’s Booker Prize.

Author: Eleanor Catton


Subjects Discussed: The rumor of John Barth writing Giles Goat-Boy from a chart with ideas taken from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the tasks of a hero, the benefits of an overly planned structure, astrological charts, the creative possibilities from the pressure of adhering to a pattern, characters and temperaments that align to the Zodiac and the planets, tonal restrictions vs. hard plot restrictions, deliberate choice, the planned 1865 trackback option in The Luminaries, the tension between the chapters and the chapter descriptions, whether description is enough to get inside the heads of characters, fictional characters who bash in heads, deciding what to reveal to the reader, controlling the reader’s intelligence, manipulating the reader’s desire to know, literary writers who flock to genre to attract more readers without respecting it, children as the ideal readers, Catton’s affinity for children’s literature, avoiding self-indulgent prose, style within The Rehearsal, style vs. voice, the proper ways to address social injustice through fiction, fiction as a way of animating questions in an affectionate theater, working with hard antecedents, writing a novel that is open with reader expectations, the many disgraces foisted upon Crosbie Wells’s corpse, Francis Carver’s monstrous nature, character expectations, when the reader doesn’t know how to feel about a character, fretting over structural inevitability, dastardly duos in adventure stories, the menace inside the law as reflected through Shepard, Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady as inspiration for Catton, being curious about the seed of corruption within an enemy, the need for a human quality within a villain, the relative nature of happy endings, sympathizing with all characters, why much of the digging in The Luminaries is offstage, Gabriel Read and Gabriel’s Gully, avoiding historical cliches and the “greatest hits,” why reading historical newspapers may be the best form of research for a fiction writer, not respecting the Forrest Gump approach to memorializing past events, how human lives are really shaped, the real role of history upon everyday life, Rob Ford’s crack cocaine use, the New York mayoral race, dashing out “damned,” how the novel’s structure allowed Catton to postpone Anna Wetherell’s fate, mid-1860s newspapers as the Internet of their day, learning how 19th century courtroom systems work exclusively from newspapers, the fluidity of money as a way to drive story, concealing gold in women’s clothing as a tax dodge, the influence of 20th century crime writing on The Luminaries, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, being very particular about characters speak, omniscient third person as a way of telling a story falling out of fashion in contemporary literature, the limitations of present tense, Catton’s fascination with adverbs, Henry James’s sentences, how adverbs expose the tension between the objective and the subjective, creative writing workshops and adverbs, Catton’s correspondence with Joan Fleming, confronting cowardice, multicultural characters in the 19th century, The Walking Dead‘s terrible use of African-American characters, Maori culture in New Zealand, New Zealand’s idea of political correctness, the Cantonese immigration during the Otago Gold Rush, the difficulties of mimicking life 150 years later, the Chinese Exclusion Act, comparing the racist histories of the U.S. and New Zealand, the relationship between capitalism and astrology, the lowest form of swindle as the only way to survive, profit vs. luck and associated assumptions about each, the strange notion of the self-made man, the seductive promise of total reinvention, mantras that belong in the civil world, Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, how ideas and objects call attention to themselves in the liminal space of fiction, strange loops, Shakespeare and Joyce as the fourth horseman in Hofstadter’s equation, the beauty of closed loop systems, the golden ratio and its associations with beauty, astrology and the circle of fifths, Martin Buber’s I and Thou, philosophical efforts to understand being in love, selfhood tangled up with feelings for others and the golden ratio, the golden spiral within The Luminaries, writing chapters that are half the size as the preceding ones, and being jolted into a creative space by getting painted into a corner.


Catton: The way that it works in The Luminaries is that all of the characters are each representative of one of the figures in the Zodiac. So you’ve got twelve signs of the Zodiac, first of all. Twelve constellations. And then you’ve got seven planets. Put quote marks around planets because that includes the Sun and the Moon. It’s really the bodies that are visible to the naked eye in the sky. And the ways in which these characters — they are characters in the book — move and interact with one another and influence one another is all patterned on actual star charts. So the book begins, for example, the Sun and Capricorn. And the character who is at this point playing the archetype of the Sun is interacting in this part of the book with the character whose temperament conforms loosely to a Capricorn temperament. And so in a way I was restricted by the twelve days on which the book appears. The planetary placements were fixed for those twelve days. And I had to make the plot be interesting and meaningful around those positions.

Correspondent: You had tonal restrictions as opposed to hard plot restrictions.

Catton: Right. Oh yeah, I like that! But on the other hand, of course, I chose those days quite deliberately. And long before I’d even written anything, I’d been studying the movement of the planets across the twelve signs of the Zodiac over the course of a few years. So I kind of knew which year was going to be suitable for narrative purposes.

Correspondent: Okay. So you knew you could backtrack to 1865 if you needed to.

Catton: Right.

Correspondent: Or did you plan on that in advance?

Catton: I think that that was there from quite early on, that movement back. Yeah. Just because the book’s a murder mystery. It begins just after a potential murder. A possible murder. And as most murder mysteries do, it ends up going forward in order to track back to return the reader to what they really have been wanting to see from the very beginning.

Correspondent: Well, there’s also this fascinating tension near the end of the book where it flits between 1866 and 1865 and back again. And then you have this tension between the chapter descriptions and the chapters themselves. I mean, I was reading the descriptions and I was thinking, “Well, this could be pulled from some astrological newspaper column or something.” But while there are numerous questions that you answer, some such as the identity of a murderer — I’m going to do my best not to give anything away — remain very murky. There’s this sense that no amount of description at this point in the book can be adequate enough to get inside the heads of these characters. So I’m wondering, first of all, do you actually know everything that happened? And, second, did you set any priorities on what you wanted to reveal to the reader and what you didn’t out of curiosity? I mean, how much of this did you map?

Catton: That’s interesting. I’m pretty sure I know everything that happening.

Correspondent: Including the head bashing.

Catton: Yes. I think we probably couldn’t talk about that on air.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Catton: For fear of spoilers.

Correspondent: How did you decide what to reveal to the reader?

Catton: Well, I think that in writing mystery, my experience of it was almost like being the conductor of an orchestra when you’ve got everybody’s stave in front of you on this big master sheet. And I realized in the writing of the book that I needed to control the reader’s intelligence in quite a different way than as usual, I suppose.

Correspondent: Control the reader’s intelligence. How so? I mean, what are we talking here?

Catton: I suppose I’m using the word “intelligence” in the 19th century sense. In terms of just knowledge.

Correspondent: That would be quite a feat. And what do you do besides pulling rabbits out of your hat?

Catton: (laughs) If you imagine these parallel tracks of music going along, on the one hand, you’ve got what the reader knows. On the next line down, you’ve got what the reader wants to know, which you can manipulate by feeding them various teasers and coaxings and so on and so forth. Then you’ve got obviously what you know, but what the reader doesn’t yet know. And that’s shaping your narrative quite a bit as well. Because you’re putting into the narrative various foreshadowings and clues that then will be exciting on a second reading for the reader, but probably not meaningful on a first reading. And last of all, you’ve got the most exciting track, which is all of the things that the reader doesn’t yet know that they want to know, but you’re going to try to make them want to know it.

Correspondent: So how do you know what the reader wants to know? I mean, even if you are the most fluid and variegated reader on this planet, what you think the reader’s going to want to know, what is going to be of interest to you is not necessarily going to be of interest to another reader. Is there any reliable way to zero the needle for the average reader here at all? Do you have a considerable army of readers who can help you pinpoint that particular desire?

Catton: I think that mystery is actually a genre that is pretty fundamental. We all want to know solutions to things. We all want closure. We all want the answer. And what a mystery novel does is open up a whole bunch of mysteries at the very beginning in a way that is seductive, hopefully, if the book’s engaging, and then solves those mysteries in a way that comes maybe a little bit before or a little bit after what the reader is going to be guessing ahead to. So when I talk about what the reader wants to know, it has to do with engaging with the mystery. In The Luminaries, for example, when the book begins, a prostitute in the town is discovered lying drugged in the middle of the….

Correspondent: Anna Wetherell, yeah.

Catton: Right. When she wakes up in jail, she’s arrested for public insentience. And when she wakes up in jail, she discovers that an enormous fortune has been stitched into the…the…

Correspondent: The insides of her gown.

Catton: Into her clothing. Into her gown. And so that’s a mystery. And I’m just trusting as a writer that the reader will think, “Well, that’s a bit curious. That hasn’t happened to me. I wonder what the reason for that is.”

Correspondent: Well, this is interesting. Because there has been this interesting critical tension among literary types where a lot of them have gravitated towards genre in an effort to get readers. And some genre readers get understandably huffy. Because a lot of these authors don’t have the understanding of genre. And yet at the same time, you have interesting books such as Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men and your book that toy with the notion of genre while simultaneously respecting it. And I’m wondering. Is genre for you the best way to contend with what a reader covets in terms of mystery? In terms of how you can even advance the literary form? If you have a massive framework, as you do with the astrological charts, is that enough to transcend genre and produce a completely new form of literature?

Catton: Ah! That’s an interesting thought. Well, I would really like to see a breakdown between the categories of genre and literary fiction. I think that genre fiction is nearly always lively and literary fiction at its worst is not lively at all. I mean, at its best, it’s many things that genre fiction is not or tends not to be. But I take a lot of my inspiration actually from children’s literature. I see every work of literature for children as a mystery. I think that they have much in common with all kinds of genre fiction actually, but engaging with very, very weighty philosophical issues. The problem of growing up. The problem of feeling betrayed in growing up.

Correspondent: Which children are quite receptive to as well.

Catton: Right.

Correspondent: In many senses, they are the best readers.

Catton: Right. Well, I agree. And that’s the other thing that I really like about children’s literature. There’s no room for showboating or for self-indulgence on the writer’s part. Because the children will just see it coming a mile away and they won’t read the book.

Correspondent: Aha. So you are trying to get away from anything you see as self-indulgence. That any kind of “self-indulgent” impulse would be in the framework itself, in the structure. That’s where you get it out and you are able to use that to woo the reader while simultaneously avoiding the pretentious card. Is that safe to say?

Catton: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think a book should be for the reader’s pleasure and pain, for the reader’s experience. And it’s not a self-aggrandizing exercise. When I read, the most powerful responses I have to works of literature are always to the characters and to the dramas that are happening within the story. I don’t think I’ve ever had a fictional experience where I’ve read a novel and thought, “Gosh, this novelist. I really want to be like this novelist.” (laughs)

Correspondent: So you don’t really see voice, at least from the author’s standpoint, as a qualifier for quality fiction? Or what? How do you respond to a voice-y writer like Will Self or Anthony Burgess or someone who you just know that it’s definitely going to be this book? Or do you feel that style needs to be shaken up with each new project? David Mitchell certainly feels that way.

Catton: I would answer differently to the style question. I’m frequently a little bit befuddled by the distinction between voice and style actually, as it’s frequently made. I don’t know. There’s something about the ventriloquism or the supposed ventriloquism of voice that bothers me in a way. I don’t know. I think there’s probably a lot of voice-driven novels that I can think of that I adore.

Correspondent: Is it parody that you find to be a cheap trick? I mean, how do you transcend that? I mean, you’re also, in this case, mimicking a Victorian novel to a large degree. Even in The Rehearsal, you’re employing stage directions to convey this very strange tension between the two schools. So style is definitely something for you. I don’t think it’s ventriloquism. But I’m wondering how is it new. How do you make it new? How do you make it new enough to satisfy not falling for the ventriloquist racket that you are identifying here?

Catton: Right. Well, I think what originality is is the bringing together of two elements that don’t belong together at the most atomic level. It’s just putting things — it’s making connections that don’t yet exist. Between words, between ideas, between approaches. And so I think that individual styles always come out of some fusion of two or more unlikely elements. Bringing things into a context where they’re not germane.

Correspondent: Conceptual blending. Endless association. I mean, what would you describe as an acceptable minimum form of association for you that would satisfy you? That would say, “Well, okay, I am doing something different. I’m venturing out into the fields and I am going to find a different caribou.”

Catton: (laughs) I don’t really know what I want to do next. It’s really important to me not to repeat myself. And so I’ve kind of sworn…

Correspondent: I’ve counted the number of “the”s you’ve used in this entire conversation. I’m keeping a running tab in my head right now.

Catton: (laughs) I’ve made myself two pacts. One is that I never want to write two books that are similar over the course of my career in the future. And the second thing is that I never want to write a novel about a writer.

Correspondent: (laughs) Or an artist. Or a musician. Or that kind of thing. The stand-in writer.

Catton: Right.

Correspondent: Well, you know, you came kind of close there with The Rehearsal. Because you do have a number of students who are studying acting and studying music.

Catton: That’s true.

Correspondent: I think of the sax teacher in that. And I think of some of the weird instructions. “You must go ahead and go out into the world and live and have rampant sex with people in order to actually physically understand your body.” And that notion is almost weirdly didactic. Do you think you got a lot of the explicit morality stated by characters out with that novel? And how have you avoided it since?

Catton: Well, I think yes. Because so much of The Rehearsal takes place in a stage environment or a theatrical space, I had no access to their inner lives really. Because I was wanting to play with the idea of performance and what could be seen and assumed and put on. And so what that meant was that the characters would have to speak very declaratively. They had to conjure the reality that they were going to inhabit as actors in the same way as all theater that is not reliant on a realistic looking set always does that and has done that from the very beginning. And so I think, partly for that reason, the book has a very didactic tie-in. And I think the other thing that partly explains that thread in the book is that I was much younger when I wrote it and much more agonistic, I think, in the way that I was thinking. And the injustices of the world, particularly around feminist performance theory and lesbian feminist performance theory, that was really driving my thinking at that time — the injustices were just, I was feeling them and being enraged by them in quite a different way than I feel now. I’ve matured a bit, I suppose. My thinking’s a little more meditative and a little less reactionary.

Correspondent: How do you deal with the dawning sense — especially in our present world as it continues to go interestingly into the toilet, frighteningly so — how do you deal with having to take on, I suppose, a partial responsibility to reflect the social and the political world around us? I mean, we’re trying to make sense of truth and reality through fiction. So if you got a lot of this out with the first one, as I suspect that you did, how does this trick of trying to find an original style by vivid association, multifarious association, allow you to grapple with the world? I mean, is it safe to say right now that you’re going to take this on as an additional responsibility at all? Or you’re going to try to reconcile this? Or is this just not what you think a novelist should do? I’m just curious.

Catton: Well, I think that it’s absolutely vital that a novelist believes what her novel believes. I think that fiction is curiously revealing. I’ve learned this many times over as a creative writing teacher. It’s like reading somebody’s dreams essentially. You’re really getting a window, a very clear window into all sorts of values and prejudices and biases that the writer has. Even if they’re not aware of the fact that they’re displaying them, they’re usually there to be reared. And so I think that you have to be able to stand behind the consciousness of your work and have to have grappled in some meaningful way with the ideas that are driving the work’s project, I suppose. But as to what those questions might be and what those ideas might be, I think that that’s up to anybody. There are mysteries that have defined the human condition since we were humans. And we haven’t figured out the answers to them. There’s no reason why somebody can’t today write a novel which asks the question, “What’s going to happen when we die?” Because nobody knows the answer to that question. And asking that question in the modern world is going to yield quite a different struggle than asking it thirty or forty years ago. I think that it’s really important to be an idealist as a fiction writer and to know what those ideals are and to be able to see how they are transmitted into the work. Not necessarily at all in a didactic way. Quite the opposite of that. But in an animated way, I suppose.

Correspondent: If you are an idealist, if a novel is an assay so to speak, the ideas and the consciousness that you have thought about, that you have put into place, will be strong enough to evolve to a point where it will possibly be able to inhabit some of the concerns that I have just mentioned in my last question and to simultaneously avoid the great curse of didacticism. Is that safe to say?

Catton: Yeah. I think so, if you’re really truly struggling with something. Because you won’t be content with an answer. You’ll only be content with a question.

(Loops for this program provided by ancoral, proecliptix, deciBel, LoonyGoon1, and ebaby8119.)

(Photo: Robert Catto)

The Bat Segundo Show #524: Eleanor Catton (Download MP3)

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The Year in Reading 2013

Well, the end of another mighty reading year has arrived. Since we don’t have any new tricks left in our magician’s kit, it’s time to mix our metaphors and roll out our annual staple, which should growl around social media with all the wolflike éclat of those dogs barking “Jingle Bells” on the radio. The time has come to harass dozens of distinguished novelists hoping for a bit of meager attention after being denied review coverage in what’s left of the newspapers — through email, through threatening telephone calls, through an unemployed bouncer named Guido who we picked up in our Prius in New Jersey. We have asked writers and thinkers to take precious time out of their schedules to write several paragraphs (without pay!) for this Most Important Literary Website, which is, after all, More Important than their fiction and, frankly, More Important than you.

We ourselves are not real writers. But we’ve toiled long enough in the online books world to know that if you want to get mentioned at the right cocktail parties, all you have to do is (1) refer to yourself in the first person plural to suggest some august and powerful entity inspiring fear in the nervous hearts of publicists and (2) run middlebrow pablum for years until Dwight Garner gets bored enough to name-check you in an interview. (Thanks Dwight! We love you too! Can we come over to your house and drink iced tea and play backgammon?)

We readers tend to be a thoughtful bunch, sometimes even remembering the titles of the books we skim. We are true intellectuals, able to dust off a 111-year-old novel from our shelves and offer a feeble comparison to a fashionable vegan hipster who most tasteful readers loathe with every fiber of their being. But when we’re not patting ourselves on the back for our achievements, we’re making lists, invaluable lists that you must print out and share and tweet and like and otherwise disseminate into this mortal online coil so that our egos can live to inflate another day!

With this in mind, we offer you The Only List You’ll Need for the tenth year in a row. We have begged, bribed, babbled, cajoled, and sobbed like infants to corral the below guests, who have offered their invaluable ruminations on What You Should Read. Listen to their wisdom! Know that we had them all over a barrel at some point! Know that many of these participants were terribly afraid!

garth1Jennifer Bartleby, author of I Would Prefer Not To:

Imprimis: I am a reader who, from her youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest books are the best. I belong to a profession proverbially energetic and nervous, a terrible workplace with an open office plan. I am one of those unambitious journalists who never pounds the pavement and who refuses to use the phone. The cool tranquility of a listicle gets me through a rather restless day. All who know me consider me an eminently safe reader. The late Lou Reed, a personage given to poetic enthusiasm, once saw me in the Village streets and told me to fuck off. Stirred from the bliss of this perfect day, I picked up Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire and began to feel six years of hard creative labor pounding me with an alternative view of the universe. Big political ideas, tightly knitted stories. It was a movie that I was content to hold in my hands. As long as I imagined that Hallberg’s opus was a movie rather than a book, and as long as Scott Rudin remained involved in sustaining the illusion, I could ignore the fact that this wasn’t a beach read. I could ignore the fact that I wasn’t really reading.

Ronald Donald, author of I’m Not the Clown You Think I Am:

I never met Willard Cot, but, as someone with more than five decades of hurt from associative insults, I share Cot’s pain at being misidentified as a Today Show weatherman. It doesn’t matter. Because if there were actually a Ronald Donald mascot for a fast food franchise, he would be rubbed from the history books, left to be ridiculed by guys spending too much time on Wikipedia edit wars. As any lofty essay on this website will remind you, we long for physical space, but inevitably find callow apothegms and crass sentiments that we can argue about on Twitter.

I hate Jonathan Franzen. Hate him. And you should too. Never mind why.

Usually I hate white male novelists. But Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire proved to be the one book written by a white male that I could read to the bitter end. It felt good to read another white male. As comfortable as walking in a gentrified neighborhood. As soothing as watching another Golden Arches erected in a new American pocket of nowhere. Garth Risk Hallberg is the best white male novelist of his generation. Read him. Never mind why.

garth2Raquel Fertilizer, author of A Tumblr I Spent Six Minutes of My Life Putting Together Turned Into a Book That Nobody Read:

This year, I read 22 books. With the exception of one novel, which I’ll be getting to in a minute, none of them were more than 180 pages. It is true that I am illiterate, that I spend most of my time pushing down my closeted fury through passive-aggression when I’m not putting out the relentless lie that everything in the world is JUST SUPER! But there was something about Darth Disc Tallboy’s City on Fjords (is that the right title?) that stirred my inner child, the giddy hateful adolescent that I still wear well into my thirties. The book was longer than 180 pages. 900 pages. But more importantly, the author had nabbed nearly $2 million. Well, I dumped my talentless boyfriend immediately and decided that City on Fjords was a good enough book to spark a NEW (!!!) purpose in my aimless life, which has mostly involved trying to persuade rich people in the tech world, people who are more obnoxious than me and who have ADD, to read. I would make Darth Tallboy mine! Was Darth married? Did he need a muse? A groupie? He wrote MARVELOUSLY well, even if I didn’t understand what he was writing about. As 2014 approaches us and I push ever closer to forty, I feel that Darth’s book will come to define me (and I’m thinking a certain Facebook relationship status update, people!) in ways nobody can expect!

Jamie Hakenkreuz, NPR books editor:

It isn’t my habit to pick and choose. At NPR, we run the reviews. Under my tenure, the reviews are positive. We adopted the “No haters” policy long before BuzzFeed did, but we never had to announce it. What I basically do is work this job until either The New York Times Book Review hires me or someone pays me an obscene amount of money for a superficial biography. Which is why I’m all for Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire — a book that will usher in a new hopeful era of MFAs viewing the publishing game as a new way of winning at Powerball.

garth4Edward Second Place, host of The Crap She Grooves To Show:

As a man approaching middle age with a sense of inescapable dread, I look back to the more than 500 episodes of my podcast, wondering how I managed to fill up all those hours with highly analytical questions about the terrible music that women listen to. Am I a misogynist? Will VIDA arrest me in the streets? I think they should. Like most self-loathing types in the publishing industry, I want something terrible to happen to me soon. And fast. I am certainly not the reader that the other Year in Reading participants are and, frankly, I’m only writing this entry because the proprietor of this site promised that he would refill my growler. I did manage to read one book that rocked my world. Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire reminded me just how old I was. Its vast and imbricated portrait of a New York in turmoil during the 1970s made me wonder if I should hit the Village and raise some naked hell instead of answering these stupid Year in Reading emails. Not a bad idea. See ya!

Kenny Sunbeam, author of 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover to Love 50 New Lovers You Haven’t Touched Since High School:

I’ve spent the last year reconnecting with old girlfriends that I was assigned in high school English. Oh, the teachers didn’t assign them. No ho ho! The girlfriends were not actual people. They were books. Sexy, sinuous books that were better than people. Books that were designed to appeal to a dormant nostalgia that I cleaved to in my adult years because I had little else. Of course, sometimes you confuse the books with real people and you find yourself in court while someone files a temporary restraining order. And you need to move on to something new.

In this case, it was Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, a very long novel with a lot of structure to it.

I feel that all healthy relationships require challenge and structure. So I commend Hallberg for his bravery, his effrontery, and his careful hygiene. Most of all, his hygiene. Hallberg has inspired me to floss more regularly, to eat more fruits and vegetables, and to open more doors for strangers.

Gideon Trumpet-Flatulence, author of A Sense of Hubris:

Every now and then, I wake up screaming in the dead of night thinking about townhouses in the East Village. So when Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire washed up in my mailbox, promising to address this issue through a socioeconomic prism of great import, I found myself flipping through its 900 pages and howling like a lunatic until I reached the gripping conclusion. My neighbors knocked on the door, threatening to call the police. But after I explained to them that I was reading the greatest novel published in the last ten years, they backed off, deciding to call the men in white suits. Hallberg’s massive novel helped me to get outside my shut-in existence. It revealed for me what was at stake in my sad life: namely, an inability to leave the house and consider that the carbon-based organisms who saunter the streets actually have feelings too.

garth3Wendy Wallabo, editor of The Hallberg Monthly:

For years, I was ridiculed for keeping up a monthly magazine devoted to Garth Risk Hallberg. The haters thought Garth was washed up. Some guy who had little more than A Field Guide to the North American Family in him and a few essays here and there in quality literary publications. But every month, I kept putting out a new issue. I devoted the April 2010 issue to unpacking the deep semiotics of that picture of Garth holding a beer bottle, his head mischievously cocked to one side. Was he drunk? Or was he foreshadowing ambition? I was the first literary critic to point out that Garth wasn’t drinking at all in that picture. The Hallberg Monthly had the guts to stand by its controversial position: that Garth was writing a novel, a big novel, a novel that would be bigger than most of our diary entries. And now my views have been redeemed. Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire is the novel I always imagined it to be. I will read it five times in 2014, ten times in 2015, and fifteen times in 2016. My magazine has a new reason for existing.


J. Michael Lennon (The Bat Segundo Show #523)

J. Michael Lennon is most recently the author of Norman Mailer: A Double Life. This conversation also references essays contained in the new Mailer collection, Mind of an Outlaw.

Author: J. Michael Lennon


Subjects Discussed: Mind of an Outlaw, Jonathan Lethem’s thoughts on Mailer, why Mailer couldn’t control his expressive impulses, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” Gary Gilmore, addressing thoughts raised by Richard Brody concerning why Mailer didn’t mine from his boyhood, Mailer’s relationship with Brooklyn, the difficulty of finding out about Mailer’s high school days, Mailer vs. Bellow, Mailer’s mayoral results vs. Anthony Weiner’s mayoral results, the formation of Mailer’s politics, how Mailer was manipulated by the Kennedys, Mailer’s bizarre filmmaking career, the “Oh god! Oh man!” moment from Tough Guys Don’t Dance, the Rip Torn/Norman Mailer brawl during the filming of Maidstone, D.A. Pennebaker, the spirit of assassination summer, Mailer as Norman T. Kingsley, when Method acting goes too far, Rip Torn’s Mailer-like qualities, Mailer taking out ads where he quoted from his bad reviews, William Buckley’s joke on Mailer, how Mailer was played as a fool by the literary community before The Armies of the Night, writing An American Dream as a serial novel, Mailer’s hot streak during the late 1960s, Mailer’s battle to write during The Deer Park, prolificity and deadlines, Mailer’s convoluted form of writing discipline, Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain as model, sprint writing, Mailer’s inability to fulfill his ambitious multi-novel project in the 1970s, setting crazed ambitions, the sporadic quality of Mailer’s fiction, Lethem’s “Mailer is parts” assessment, Mailer’s sense of humiliation, Jack Henry Abbott, why Mailer’s efforts to spring Abbott weren’t as influential as people thought, how Mailer left Abbott to be cared for by Norris, why people believed in Mailer, the belief culture of the 1970s, Abbot’s murder of Richard Adan, Mailer’s famous “culture is worth a little risk” remark, Mailer’s belief that there was a morsel of good within very evil people, literature as a way to save your soul, Mailer’s willingness to appear foolish at a press conference after Abbott vs. Dave Eggers’s silence in response to Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Cynthia Ozick’s famous response to Mailer in Town Bloody Hall, Germaine Greer’s desire to sleep with Mailer, Mailer’s disastrous positions on feminism and women writers, Mailer’s simultaneous fury and chivalry, Mailer’s forthcoming letter collection, the stabbing of Adele Morales, why Lennon didn’t reveal details about his telephone conversation with Adele, responding to Louis Menand’s criticisms, The Last Party, how Adele has lived in recent years, other first-hand accounts of the party, Mailer’s diary, why the literary community forgave Mailer easily and ganged up on Adele Mailer (and blamed her for the stabbing!), what men were able to get away with in the pre-feminism days, Mailer’s bizarre pattern recognition schemes, his interest and Reich and the orgone box, the Kakutani file, Mailer’s attempt to connect biorhythms to a football team’s success, why Mailer was receptive to charlatans, how Mailer detected bad omens in rooms, transcendentalism, Mailer’s numerous accents, Dwight Macdonald, Brendan Behan, Mailer’s love for The Sopranos, Mailer’s attempts to escape his identity, why people kept coming back to Mailer, Mailer’s desire to know other people’s stories, Mailer’s sensitivity to interruptions, serving as Mailer’s bartenders, Mailer’s relationship with Gore Vidal, Mailer referring to himself in the third person in his nonfiction, Occupy Wall Street, how The Armies of the Night came about, Picasso’s influence, Henry Adams, early stylistic versions of The Armies of the Night, the difficulties of putting yourself in a story, Mailer’s formidable memory during The Armies of the Night, Robert Lowell, the 1967 March on the Pentagon, Noam Chomsky’s influence on Armies, how Alfred Kazin and Joan Didion’s reviews saved Mailer’s reputation, the contemporary decline of culture, cultural engagement, and contemplating whether today’s conditions could allow for a Mailer type today.


Correspondent: I want to get into this book by tying it into this recently published collection, Mind of an Outlaw, which I also have right here and I have also been reading. Jonathan Lethem’s introduction contends with thoughts he had previously voiced in an essay that was collected in The Ecstasy of Influence. He points out that he “buried the man before I even began to try to figure out how to praise him.” Part of accepting Mailer, I have found in both reading the biography and in reading the essays and in reading various other work, is that you have to put up with the fact that he will say something utterly brilliant one minute and then he’ll say something utterly foolish the next. He will trash Waiting for Godot without actually bothering to see it. He will dig himself out of a hole of his own making. So why do you think Mailer could not really control these expressive impulses? Why did he need to court disaster?

Lennon: Well, you know, some questions answer themselves by being asked. He couldn’t control his impetuous nature. He was — I’ve said it many times — the most impetuous person I’ve ever met in my life. If he felt the instinct, he followed the instinct. And that’s part of it. His notion of the existential life was “Listen to what’s going on inside you. Don’t preplan everything. Don’t have guidelines and rules and restrictions and guide ropes. Jump into life.” And what did he say? He said, “It’s better to expire as a devil in a fire than an angel in the wings.” So it was part of his nature to be that way. And so he got himself in a lot of trouble. With the feminists, with literary critics, with his friends. By being impetuous, outrageous. In his literary criticism, I felt that it was sitting next to him in a little bar in Provincetown, drinking bourbon with him, and listening to tell stories about Gore Vidal and James Jones. Because his literary criticism can’t be separated from his intimate personal knowledge of them.

Correspondent: This is the rare case where you actually have to know his life to know his work.

Lennon: Yes, I think you do. I really do.

Correspondent: Well, the title of this book comes from a famous passage in Mailer’s essay, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” where he points to how American history was moving along two rivers: one visible, the other underground. Mailer also spent much of his life trying to wrestle with this saint and the psychopath duality, which he was later to apply to Gary Gilmore. You’ve traced the origins of this to Mailer reading Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and I’m wondering to what degree Mailer’s dualities come from concepts that he read and he wished to hold onto in his mind and he wished to play around with in this elastic, impetuous nature of expression.

Lennon: I think that the reading came a little bit later, but it was a confirmation. He was forever finding confirmations for what he sensed were the two people living inside him. And where did that come from? Well, I think initially it came from the fact that, when he was a young boy growing up in New Jersey and in Brooklyn, he was the center of attention. Everything was focused on him. And yet when he went out into the Brooklyn streets, he was a skinny little kid. There were a lot of Irish tough guys around. He was fearful. He was timid. He was small. And he realized that there was this gap between the two sides of his life. He was no one on the streets and he was everyone at home. I think that was the beginning of it. And then he looked for confirmation of that in places. And when he read Kierkegaard, seeing that there were a lot of connections between the saint and the psychopath and in their passionate way of living their lives, he realized there’s the clue. That was one of the clinchers for him. Absolutely.

Correspondent: What’s interesting though is that you point out that there really isn’t a lot of information about his high school days.

Lennon: Right.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering. What searches did you do to try to find something out? I mean, was it just that everybody was dead? Or nobody wanted to talk? What happened here?

Lennon: My chief sources for his high school years were some of the other biographies where people interviewed some of his friends, but also his sister. His sister and her best friend Rhoda: two young women who were a couple of years younger than Norman, but who watched him. They knew his girlfriends. They knew what was going on. They found him to be an utterly charming person. But Mailer said that his life was kind of quiet. He’d go to high school. Everybody thought he was studious, quiet, boring. And when he went home, he had to do homework. He had to go to Hebrew class, religious classes which he loathed, but he went anyway for a long time. And there wasn’t really that much time. I mean, the friends that he had said Norman didn’t get out much. They kept him on a close leash. I know that somebody just wrote a piece on the New Yorker blog.

Correspondent: Richard Brody, yeah.

Lennon: Richard Brody. Wonderful piece. But he said Mailer never wrote a Brooklyn novel. He did. He wrote a novel called No Percentage and it’s set in Brooklyn. He also wrote thirty short stories about Brooklyn when he was in college. So, you know, writing thirty short stories, writing an unpublished and unpublishable novel which is set in Brooklyn, and then, of course, The Naked and the Dead has a couple of real Brooklyn characters in it. Writes Barbary Shore, which is also a Brooklyn novel. I think he was sick of Brooklyn by the middle ’50s and he didn’t want to write about it anymore and he felt that not much happened to him in high school. There wasn’t an awful lot to write about. He was a good student, but good students were boring. I mean, athletes were the heroes.

Correspondent: But it was rather curious. I thought Brody’s essay was extremely interesting.

Lennon: It was.

Correspondent: Because he seemed to think that, because Mailer couldn’t actually look backward in adulthood, this crippled his ability to write fiction. And he had a lot of trouble writing fiction between the years of The Naked and the Dead and The Armies of the Night.

Lennon: Yes, he did.

Correspondent: So is there any kind of biographical information to sort of back that up? Did he make any kind of plunges into his boyhood after these stories you mentioned in later years? Or anything like that?

Lennon: No. Brooklyn was always a touchstone. When he wrote Miami and the Siege of Chicago, he compared Chicago to Brooklyn. He said that they were very similar, that there was a lot of life, that there was a lot of reality, that there were authentic people. He liked that about both Brooklyn and Chicago. Of course, he wrote An American Dream in 1964 and 1965. That was a Manhattan novel. But it was still a quintessential novel. And you got the feeling that Rojack was a guy who had escaped from Brooklyn and made it in Manhattan. And, of course, in those days, that’s what everyone wanted to do if you came from Brooklyn. They wanted to make it in Manhattan. So I think that Brody makes some wonderful points, but I feel that Mailer didn’t want to get bogged down in Brooklyn. Oh, there’s another point too. I was talking with Mailer’s sister about it this morning. And she said, “I can tell you another reason he didn’t want to write another novel about Brooklyn.” She said he read Meyer Levin’s novel, The Old Bunch. And while it’s set in Chicago, he read it and he goes, “This is it! He’s caught the middle-class Jewish family. I can’t ever improve on this!” And he loved that book. So there were multiple reasons for it. But also I think the fundamental reason was that Mailer wanted to play on a bigger stage. He wanted the New York stage and that wasn’t big enough for him. He wanted America to be his stage. He didn’t want to be seen as merely a Brooklyn writer.

Correspondent: It’s interesting how he really admired Meyer Levin, but actually dissed Augie March, which to my mind is the quintessential American novel.

Lennon: I couldn’t agree with you more. But I think Mailer was so competitive with Bellow. He rarely had a good word to say about Bellow until the ’80s. Everything he said about Bellow: Bellow was basically a professor who was spewing out his old ideas from his classes on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and he wasn’t really getting out and experiencing life. Which Mailer felt he was doing. Did he have a good word? You know, in his literary criticism, he finally admitted when he read Henderson and the Rain King, he said, “Alright. I’m going to eat crow. This is a hell of a character worthy of Huckleberry Finn.” So he had that generous streak, but it vied with the competitive steak.

Correspondent: I wanted to actually get into Mailer’s politics. I’m sure you’re familiar with this, but I noted this. It’s worth pointing out that when Mailer ran for Mayor of New York in 1969, he received 41,000 votes in the primary. 5% of the vote. That is actually a good deal more than Anthony Weiner, who received a mere 34,192 votes in the recent primary. Times have changed. But you point out in your biography that Mailer came to politics late. You have Jean Malaquais. He prepares this political tutorial for Mailer that he engages in between October ’48 and March 1950. And before this, he’s relying very much on Spengler as his guide.

Lennon: Yes.

Correspondent: He was spurred on to run for Mayor because of the success of “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” which has actually large sections that don’t have anything to do with politics and is more almost a continuation of “The White Negro.” So I’m wondering about this. Why didn’t politics factor into the Mailer psyche earlier than this? Did he need to actually be ushered in with the attention and the adulation? Is that how this worked with him?

Lennon: Yes, it is. You’ve put your finger on it. He found out that he could be a player. Remember in 1948, he campaigned hard for George Wallace. Made thirty speeches.

Correspondent: That’s right.

Lennon: In Hollywood and mainly in New York City. He put his heart into it. He thought that the progressive elements were going to win. Wallace got slaughtered. He got a couple million votes in the entire country. Mailer was completely alienated. And that’s, of course, when he began to go underground. The Village Voice and all the years moving into the country. Trying that out. Moving to Perry Street in the Village and trying that out. Flirting with the Beats and so forth. And then when Clay Felker said, “You know, Mailer’s got huge ambitions. He says he wants to be President of the United States. Maybe he’d be a good guy to cover the 1960 campaign and so forth.” There was no plan to write an essay about Jack Kennedy. It was supposed to be about the Convention. Well, Mailer was just blown away by Kennedy’s good looks, his charm, his war record, and all that. And he wrote the piece. And then he gets a letter in the mail from Jackie Kennedy telling him it’s the best political writing she’s ever read in her life and it’s fantastic and why can’t anybody write like that. And Kennedy wins. And Mailer immediately says, “Well, you know, I helped win this election for Kennedy. I might have shifted some votes.” And it’s possible that he did. Because Esquire was a hot magazine then. People were reading it. Based on that, he decided on the spur of the moment, within a week or two after that article had appeared, he decided to run for Mayor of New York City and jumped in two feet. His sister told me, “You know, we thought he was crazy. You know, we’re a middle-class family. He has no political connections. No ties. We thought he was nuts.” Everybody thought he was nuts. But this was in the period where he had Napoleonic aspirations. He was right on the edge of going really nuts.

Correspondent: Well, the other interesting thing about Kennedy, which is actually quite funny, is that Mailer is very insistent in that essay, “I highly doubt that Kennedy would have planned to say that he had read The Deer Park before The Naked and the Dead.” But we learn. Au contraire. He was advised, “Hey, Jack, if you really want to impress him, why don’t you mention that you read The Deer Park rather than The Naked and the Dead.” So he was so willing to believe that he was the king.

Lennon: That’s right.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering if just having those blinders on is what propelled him. It’s really fascinating that a figure like that could last. I mean, it’s inconceivable today that a figure like that, operating off of pure impetuous blinders, could still be fairly revered. Even in this wandering period where he’s writing all these crazy columns for the Voice and all that.

Lennon: Well, you know, the question of whether Kennedy read The Deer Park is a very vexed question. On the one hand, Kennedy says it. But we know he was briefed to say it. Mailer said, “Well, even if he was briefed, that shows that his advisers had good instincts. And Kennedy hired them. So I like him for that.” But then he got the letter from Jackie Kennedy. And she said in the letter, “I remember Jack reading it on the second floor of the house in Hyannis Port. And he did read it.” I mean, I don’t know whether someone prompted her to say that or whatever. She said, “And then I read it. I read it when I was out on the campaign with Jack.” So whether he actually read it or not, I don’t know. But it doesn’t strike me as the kind of thing Jackie Kennedy would make up. I mean, how important would it be to do that? But maybe she did. The Kennedys were notorious for attention to detail.

Correspondent: My theory is that Jackie actually read it and Jack did not. She’s covering his ass basically, saying, “Well, I happened to read it too!”

Lennon: (laughs) That’s right.

Correspondent: And then she can talk about it with Norman. Because guess what? He’s not going to talk with Kennedy again.

Lennon: That’s a good appraisal. It’s very possible it worked out that way.

The Bat Segundo Show #523: J. Michael Lennon (Download MP3)

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