RIP Harold Ramis

On Monday morning, Harold Ramis passed away after a four year battle with autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis. He was 69.

Much like the subtle and unassuming presence he exuded through his crisp form of comedy, Ramis stayed quiet about his illness. He was such a reliable bedrock in any film that he wrote, directed, or appeared in — whether as Ghostbusters‘s Egon Spengler, one of Ramis’s many doctors, or as Ben’s dad in Knocked Up — that comedy feels inequitably barren without him.

While Ramis worked with many Canadians, he was an American, Chicago born. In his early days, he had the tall hair and lanky mien of someone born to play scientists. Yet he brought an odd gravitas and clarity to his scripts. Of the three men who wrote National Lampoon’s Animal House, it was Ramis who was the one to write Bluto specifically for John Belushi. And it was Ramis’s knack for apt casting on the page that led him to become a natural director, where he restored Rodney Dangerfield’s flagging career in his first feature film, Caddyshack, and coaxed Imogene Coca to appear as Aunt Edna in National Lampoon’s Vacation, despite Coca’s reservations about the character being too vituperative.

As both writer and director, Ramis had a formidable dexterity with ensemble comedy. Aside from co-writing Stripes (it was Ramis who reworked the script for Bill Murray and himself) and Ghostbusters (Ramis was the one to balance Dan Aykroyd’s affinity for the paranormal within the rooted world of New York), he was also enlisted to direct four episodes of The Office, including “Beach Games” and “A Benihana Christmas.”

If his comedy films floundered a bit near the end (Analyze That, Year One, and an ill-advised remake of Bedazzled), Ramis atoned for this by attempting a blend of film noir and dark comedy with The Ice Harvest — a script written by Richard Russo and Robert Benton. But his directorial chops were very much alive in the energetic episodes he helmed for The Office. If the vasculitis hadn’t nabbed him, what would he have accomplished if he had been given a television series like Christopher Guest’s Family Tree?

We still have the summer camp heart of Meatballs, the carefully realized underbelly of road trips gone awry in Vacation, and the overlooked Stuart Saves His Family, among many others. Much like a John P. Marquand novel, Stuart managed to celebrate its subject without resorting to cheap ridicule. That human quality was what made Harold Ramis’s subtlety so masterful.


Dave Itzkoff and Translated Literature: Mad as Hell (The Bat Segundo Show #536)

This program contains two segments. The first segment is an investigation into the realities of publishing translated literature, following up on frustrations expressed by Open Letter’s Chad Post, after agent Oscar van Gelderen retracted Arnon Grunberg’s book because of “poor sales.” The segment features Post, The Complete Review‘s Michael Orthofer, and critic Scott Esposito. (Oscar van Gelderen did not return our phone calls, emails, and tweets for comment on this story.)

The second segment features Dave Itzkoff, who is most recently the author of Mad as Hell, a book that chronicles the making of Network.


Guests: Dave Itzkoff, Chad Post, Scott Esposito, and Michael Orthofer.

Subjects Discussed: The Howard Beale of translated literature, Open Letter Books, Oscar van Gelderen, Arnon Grunberg, why success in other countries can’t be easily repeated in the United States, relative success of translated literature, Nordic noir, Pauline Kael decrying Paddy Chayefsky’s righteousness, the New York Times Book Review, whether or not Itzkoff is angry, the emotional qualities of buildings, Paddy Chayefsky’s early dramaturgical assaults on television, the comforts of cynicism, The Hospital, the possibility of Network becoming a more earnest movie in earlier drafts, Chayefsky attending television boardroom meetings in sweatpants, what Chayefsky could get away with because of his esteemed reputation, Walter Cronkite, the tendency for people to believe that television was an infallible medium in the 1970s, Chayefsky’s extraordinary creative control, Shaun Considine’s Mad as Hell, Chayefsky’s ability to work the system, Chayefsky exploiting a clause during The Bachelor Party to live in extraordinary affluence, Chayefsky’s demands for ultimate authority, Arthur Penn, the problems that emerge when firing too many directors in a short period of time, Chayefsky’s meticulous scripts, intransigent self-editing, Chayefsky’s self-flagellation, resisting studio notes, Chayefsky’s notes to himself, how the tight deadlines of television contributed to the hastily devised third act of Marty, Chayefsky’s presence on the set and during the casting process, the Paddy light on Network, Chayefsky’s intense stare, whether or not Chayefsky needed actor-friendly directors like Sidney Lumet, Lumet’s rehearsal process, getting access to Kay Chapin’s diary, calling around vs. looking through papers, Chayefsky’s letters of apology, Faye Dunaway’s difficulty, Itzkoff’s inability to get access to Dunaway, finding Peter Finch’s daughter, Delbert Mann, Chayefsky’s relationships with directors, the battle between Chayefsky and Ken Russell on Altered States, the ultimatum that Sidney Lumet gave to Faye Dunaway to ensure her casting as Diana Christensen, the appeal of an unlikable character to Dunaway, the role of women in the workplace in the 1970s, the flack that Barbara Walters got for a $1 million salary, Ned Beatty lying like a snake to get the role of Arthur Jensen, Jimmy Stewart considered as Howard Beale (with accompanying impression), actors snapped up on the basis of a single audition, why New York locations were hard to find in 1976, stairwells that link two different cities, the New York Stock Exchange’s diffidence in allowing Chayefsky’s anti-corporate speeches to be filmed there, recreating a functioning television studio in Toronto, unions, romanticizing decrepit 1970s New York, filming second-unit shots of people shouting “I’m as mad as hell!” in abandoned buildings, the difficulty of Peter Finch delivering the “mad as hell” speech, Lumet’s desire to work as rapidly as possible, Woody Van Dyke, Al Pacino (with accompanying impression), extraordinary claims of Robert Duvall shouting at random strangers and mooning people from a tall building, whether character is enough to serve as a second source, behind-the-scenes controversy on the William Holden/Faye Dunaway love scene, getting quotes from Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann, Olbermann’s obsession with Network, O’Reilly’s co-opting aspects of Howard Beale for his show, how Network‘s language was changed for television, why Chayefsky was allowed three “bullshits” on network TV, ruminating over the regrettable idea of Aaron Sorkin as Chayefsky’s heir, and whether there can be a Chayefsky today.


Correspondent: Dave, you’re not looking terribly indignant, but how are you doing?

Itzkoff: I have nothing to be angry about.

Correspondent: Really?

Itzkoff: But the day is young.

Correspondent: The day is young?

Itzkoff: I mean, it’s only 11 AM. It’s a Tuesday.

Correspondent: How much rage do you typically go through in a 24 hour period?

Itzkoff: Actually, it can be a lot. It really depends on my morning commute. I take the subway. That is definitely a source of a lot of ire and provocation, depending upon how crowded or empty my train.

Correspondent: Yes. But for now, ensconced within the New York Times Building, you are calm and sanguine.

Itzkoff: Exactly. As the building tends to do to one, yes.

Correspondent: Really? This building has an outside power? A karma? You can levitate it like the Pentagon? The Pentagon like Abbie Hoffman?

Itzkoff: (laughs) It seems to have a calming influence.

Correspondent: Well, let’s get into Paddy Chayefsky and Network, the film that this book, Mad as Hell — not the only book, as I have pointed out. There’s another book here called Mad as Hell that also deals with Paddy Chayefsky on the table.

Itzkoff: That’s right.

Correspondent: So it’s not just you. Anyway, Network was actually not Paddy Chayefsky’s first dramaturgical assault upon television. In 1955, and you did not note this in your book, Chayefsky wrote a script called “The Man Who Beat Ed Sullivan.” And this is about an Ohio TV host. He was going to match the length of a three-hour talent show in this script that he wrote. You do mention The Imposters, this pilot that Chayefsky wrote in 1969 about a fictional television executive who had the wry name of Eddie Gresham, which I thought was funny. And it was not until Chayefsky started hanging out with Richard Wald and attending various television boardroom meetings that he came upon Network. I’m curious about this. I mean, he drew from his life experience for The Bachelor Party and for Marty. Is it safe to say that he needed experience for Network before he could actually really take on television in this indelible move that we continue to quote and continue to reference today?

Itzkoff: Right. Well, you know, in some ways the book is trying to make the point — I mean, I hate stating the thesis so bluntly like this, but his whole life’s work, in a sense, is bound up in Network. And, yes, it is nominally and very much a story about television and people who inhabit television. But it is also a story about everything that ever upset him or irked him or bothered him in his life. And to some extent, a story that he was rewriting and rewriting not only in works that had to do or were set in the world of television. But if you look at some of the other early television plays, going all the way back to Marty and even works that predate Marty, you will see there is a recurring idea or a theme about characters who have a kind of simmering rage. People who are unfulfilled or can’t express themselves and then are often not always given an opportunity to cut loose or say what they really think and it is explosive. So that is an idea that he refines and revisits. It comes up not only in obviously his drama, but in his own life. That he’s somebody who often feels that the ideas that he is trying to communicate to his audience are not being received or they’re not getting in the way that he meant them. And that frustrates and annoys him. And that makes him an angry person. Not unfulfilled, but he often feels that he’s falling short of whatever goal he set for himself. And so Network becomes the vehicle for all of this, compounded by a feeling that media itself and a medium that he came up with was at a real crossroads. Something could potentially happen, at least in his lifetime or in the era that he was writing. Something might happen that could send it in a very different direction. And that kind of corruption was representative of a lot of other things that were happening in life in that moment.

Correspondent: Based off of your research, is it safe to say that perhaps the cynicism that is attached to Network came from having to silently observe all of these boardroom meetings and these people moving money around? Going ahead and gutting any kind of credible programming, the kind of wonderful drama, the news that Chayefsky himself championed?

Itzkoff: I think that that was something that was even refined over time during the writing of this script. I mean, you reference a situation that happens in the book where he does visit both NBC and CBS just to do research for a movie about television. When he met with Richard Wald, who was then the President of NBC News, he told Wald he didn’t know yet whether he was going to write something that was maybe more a kind of “day in the life” piece that would have lots of moving parts and characters. Almost in the way that The Hospital was. Except in just a slightly different setting. Or maybe he would write something that was a little more satirical. And Wald says now that he had a pretty strong sense that that’s the direction Chayefsky was going to go in. But if you want to call it cynicism.

Correspondent: A refreshing cynicism, I would say.

Itzkoff: (laughs)

Correspondent: I mean, I watched the movie twice. I had to see it a second time and I hadn’t seen it in years. And it just bathed me in such a wonderful, exuberant cynicism. Maybe skepticism perhaps is the better term.

Itzkoff: Sure. And it’s fascinating. You can look at earlier incarnations of the script and see that there were moments where it might have gone in more earnest directions. I’m sure we’ll get into some of the nitty-gritty later, but characters who we now think of as having mean streaks or really were just going for it all, they could have been much nicer people. It could have had a happier ending. Something about him told Chayefsky this was not really how life worked.

(Loops for this program provided by danke, JoeFunktastic, smpulse, supertex, DJLikwid2013, and chanho17. Also Kevin MacLeod’s “Call to Adventure” through Free Music Archive.)

The Bat Segundo Show #536: Dave Itzkoff and Translated Literature: Mad as Hell (Download MP3)

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Sarah Churchwell (The Bat Segundo Show #535)

Sarah Churchwell is most recently the author of Careless People.

Author: Sarah Churchwell


Subjects Discussed: Max Gerlach and the possible origins of “old sport,” the current conditions of Fitzgerald’s scrapbook, working in the Princeton Archives, sifting through digital facsimiles, tape marks and PDFs, Fitzgerald’s “self-Googling,” illusory objects balanced on the edges of noses, balancing Gatsby‘s surrealism against real-world parallels, Gatsby as a distorted mirror to the 1920s, present-day misconceptions about the 1920s, history and imagination, Fitzgerald scholars arguing over niceties, analytical types who suck the joy out of novels, the hunt for facts that surprise the scholar, developing rules for inclusion, playing the game of “Who knew?” with Gatsby, what swastikas meant in 1922, wrangling through the variegated meanings of the green light, the risk of divagating from novels, Childs Restaurants, the New York Public Library’s extraordinary online menu collection, the hostility to close reading, Mary McCarthy’s Pale Fire review, Edmund Wilson’s role in restoring Fitzgerald’s reputation and his relationship with Gatsby, the effect of John Keats’s life and work on Gatsby, the difficulty of determining Fitzgerald’s compositional approach during Gatsby, Fitzgerald and the Romantics, Fitzgerald’s terrible French, the benefits of not reading living writers while working on a masterpiece, Zelda and Scott trading off lines and witticisms, Zelda’s influence on Gatsby, Zelda’s critical mind, how to distinguish Scott and Zelda’s writing, the helpful scholarship of James L.W. West III, Fitzgerald’s fear of being compared with Robert W. Chambers’s romantic fiction, Burton Rascoe, why Fitzgerald was so concerned with his reception, how Churchwell tracked down an obscure Rascoe review, Fitzgerald’s touchiness and his need for reassurance, Gertrude Stein, Fitzgerald’s all-or-nothing grab for literary respectability (and failure to get it) with Gatsby and Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald’s decline, Fitzgerald’s terrible spelling and This Side of Paradise, the Fitzgeralds’s trip to Europe in 1924, the Fitzgeraldian notion of holding two simultaneous ideas (or emotions) in a first-rate mind, Gatsby as a hymn to ambivalence, Zelda’s affairs in response to boredom, Fitzgerald’s unkindness to women in his fiction, 1920s etymology, Fitzgerald as the first man to use “cocktail” as a verb, guarding against linguistic anachronism, the development of merchant banking language during the 1920s, the owl-eyed man in Gatsby’s library, Eckleberg, the numerous large eyes within Gatsby, blindness and vision, racism during the 1920s, Edith Wharton’s anti-Semitism, Meyer Wolfsheim a Jewish stereotype, Thomas Powers’s essay in the LRB, Arnold Rothstein, Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon, whether or not Fitzgerald can be called an anti-Semite, Tom Buchanan’s white supremacy, “The Crack-Up,” being judged by character vs. being judged by social conditions, Wendy Smith’s review in Newsday, specious connections between Gatsby and the Hall-Mills murder case, Nancy Mitford’s lie about “Zelda and her abortionist” picked up by five other biographers, mistaken identity as part of the 1922 discourse, Leopold and Loeb, Myrtle Wilson and Tom Buchanan, William Desmond Taylor’s murder, Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow, serving as Booker judge, contending with the Booker Prize’s inclusion of American titles and the concomitant complaints about preferring British or American titles over the other, the Folio Prize’s American titles, and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize’s “no winner” controversy.


Correspondent: I’m really jazzed up because only a few days ago, you forced me to reread The Great Gatsby. And it was still great after four times! Have you ever gotten sick of that book?

Churchwell: No, I really haven’t. That’s why I wrote a book that’s kind of a tribute to it. And I got to live with it for five years. I got to reread it over and over and over.

Correspondent: How many times have you read it?

Churchwell: I don’t know. Because I’ve read it sequentially at least half a dozen times. But also I was going in and out of it. And so, all told, probably hundreds of times.

Correspondent: Wow. That’s incredible. Well, let’s start with the marvelous year of 1922. The year in which the book is set, The Great Gatsby, and the year in which both The Waste Land and Ulysses were published. You point out that scholars have used the reference to “a waste land” during that one description of the ash heaps as the smoking gun that Fitzgerald intended Gatsby as a literary homage to that particular year. But Fitzgerald was also to note in his “Ten Best Books I Have Ever Read” that Ulysses is “the great novel of the future.” So what is the true source really of the 1922 setting? And to what degree is it a mistake to assign a kind of explicit literary interpretation or homage to either Eliot or Joyce?

Churchwell: I think there are a couple of other meanings to 1922, which of course is the year that Fitzgerald sets Gatsby. And, yes, I think he is tipping his hat to those great writers of 1922 and to those two great works in particular. It’s also the year that the first English translation of Swann’s Way came out. So Proust is also making his way into that year. But it’s also the year that Scott and Zelda move to Long Island and began the parties that would inspire the novel. It was in 1922 in the summer that Fitzgerald wrote to his editor Max Perkins announcing that he wanted to write the novel that would become Gatsby. So I think in his head, there were a lot of reasons why 1922 was the right year to set the novel.

Correspondent: Did he ever toy around with other years?

Churchwell: He did actually in draft. He wrote 1921. He wrote 1923. So he always knew that he wanted it to be a modern novel. He wrote it in 1924. So it was always going to be the recent past. And then he finally settles on 1922. And we can only speculate as to why that is. Maybe it was totally random. But it doesn’t seem like it was. And then he went back and he tried to adjust the math and to make sure that everything worked out for it to be set in 1922.

Correspondent: Yeah. He had this really terrible thing about double digits. $13.13 at the end. That’s sad.

Churchwell: Yeah. (laughs)

Correspondent: I was really bummed out at the end when Fitzgerald is on the decline. I’m like, “Oh, come on, Scott! You can do it!”

Churchwell: I know.

Correspondent: “Don’t let the world beat you down!”

Churchwell: It’s so sad, but the world did beat him down in exactly that way that you just said. I mean, his last royalty check was $13.13.

Correspondent: I know.

Churchwell: It is crazy. But his life was in this really uncanny way, it often tended to be symbolic in that way. Life just kind of showered him with symbolism all the time. Even the bad kind.

Correspondent: When you live a life where you’re surrounded by subconscious doubles, inevitably subconscious doubles will appear in your work.

Churchwell: Exactly.

Correspondent: You also point out — and it’s worth reminding — that Fitzgerald had this deep admiration for Joseph Conrad. You quote Conrad’s line, “Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing.” And you point to the middle-man inscription he offered to Gene Buck. You also note that Ring Lardner and Fitzgerald, they performed this drunken dance outside the Doubleday Estate in May 1923, only to be unceremoniously ejected by the night watchmen. I’m wondering. How obsessive was Fitzgerald about Conrad? Were you able to find any direct Gatsby lineage from Conrad or anything?

Churchwell: Not quite. But he was very open about his admiration for Conrad. And Conrad was certainly an important writer for him. In fact, one of the novels that Fitzgerald said was the novel that he wished he had written more than any other novel was Conrad’s Nostromo.

Correspondent: Nostromo, yeah.

Churchwell: Which is a novel that a lot of people…

Correspondent: …don’t read anymore.

Churchwell: …don’t read anymore. It’s really Heart of Darkness that tends to be the one.

Correspondent: Or even Lord Jim.

Churchwell: Or even Lord Jim. He definitely loved Lord Jim. I’ve seen Lord Jim in various places in his work. I think that where Conrad really comes into Gatsby most obviously is in the use of Nick Carraway as both character and narrator the way that Conrad used Marlow in several of his novels, including Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. And it was understanding the way that that technique could help him tell his story, I think, that is Conrad’s greatest influence on Gatsby.

Correspondent: Did he really see novels as that history that Conrad said that it was?

Churchwell: I think he did absolutely. I mean, his novels tended to be contemporary. They tended to be drawn very much from his own experiences and based on people that he knew or had met. Most of his best work is, in some sense, based on these composite characters. So the character of Dick Diver in Tender is the Night is partly Fitzgerald, it’s partly his friend Gerald Murphy, and he kind of morphs the two together.

Correspondent: As any writer does really.

Churchwell: Absolutely. I mean, it’s something he had a big argument with Hemingway about. Because Hemingway said of Tender is the Night that this was an illegitimate technique. He got kind of high-handed and announced that there were some ways that you were allowed to write fiction and some ways that you’re not allowed to write fiction. Which is a bit rich coming from Hemingway, given that The Sun Also Rises is very much a roman à clef. (laughs)

Correspondent: Exactly. And what’s also terrible about Hemingway is his treatment of Fitzgerald. I mean, Fitzgerald is really on the down and out and he’s still saying, “Yes, yes, Ernest is putting out all these great books,” and Hemingway is basically totally shit-talking him the entire time. Which is really sad!

Churchwell: It is sad. Hemingway was not adverse to kicking Fitzgerald when he was down. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs) No! He must have had some machismo thing.

Churchwell: (laughs) Ya think?

(Loops for this program provided by JamieVega, JoeFunktastic, 40a, seankh, and kristijann.)

The Bat Segundo Show #535: Sarah Churchwell (Download MP3)

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Jenny Offill (The Bat Segundo Show #534)

Jenny Offill is most recently the author of Dept. of Speculation.

Author: Jenny Offill


Subjects Discussed: Words dropped from ellipses, Thomas Edison quotes, digital binaries, John Keats, fabricated quotes, fact-checking fiction, David Markson, spreading false literary rumors, a writer’s obligation to resist the literary canon, destroying forms that came before, motherhood as a stigma war, merging the domestic novel with the novel of ideas, the mommy wars, “being pecked to death by little birds,” falling into the world of the body, motherhood erroneously framed as ambivalence, secular spirituality, Richard Powers, views of Jesus outside apartment windows, fake Buddhism, the tension between exploring vs. leaving material out in Dept. of Speculation, seeking emotional velocity in a novel, outrunning your precocity, the attempted novel before Dept. of Speculation, creating a compendium of consciousness, Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else, the vaguely criminal impulse of secretly depositing meat you can’t eat from a massive plate into a napkin, extreme self-consciousness, the imitative fallacy, how deadpan humor allows the reader to confront despair, Jesus’ Son, John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Janet Malcolm, how facts line up to a narrative, Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, the mutability of facts in the Ann Druyan/Carl Sagan marriage, Mary Ruefle, Ann Parson, the freedom to move essayistic in fiction, the brief “lyrical essay” movement, John D’Agata, the problem of novelists being asked about literal parallels to autobiographical details, author and character temperament, “doctor” and “daughter,” the risk of getting stuck in the wrong regions of the book, gaffes as creative possibilities, James Joyce, Gilbert Sorrentino and generative devices, having a permanent sense of loneliness, being awake to the world around you and porousness, a world populated by people with dead eyes, brightness as a qualifier for a worldview, the fun of listening, Kummerspeck, physical space defined more by how it is infested as opposed to its layout, proverbs about insects, words as insects, Voyager’s Golden Record, and making fiction more emotionally charged.


Correspondent: One of the first things I noticed in this book — and it’s there from the opening epigraph — is the ellipses. This is definitely one of those books where close reading is greatly rewarded and I was fascinated by how you used ellipses to leave out very pivotal parts of quotes. Just to offer one example, you have the epigraph from Socrates. “Speculators on the universe…are no better than madmen.” But the words between the dots that you leave out are “and on the laws of the heavenly bodies.” Which is interesting. Because that’s cosmological and you also explore that later in the book. I also noticed later in the book that you have this Edison quote, which I believe you plucked from Gaby Wood’s Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life. Because the ellipses actually match the exact same citation that Wood did.

Offill: That is where it’s from.

Correspondent: Okay. Fantastic! So anyway, just to start off here, we are pressed in our life right now to confine our instant thoughts to 140 characters, to submit to the dreadful binary of +1 and Facebook liking and all that nonsense. So I’m wondering how you arrived at the ellipses as a way of reckoning with what we leave out and how what we leave out actually tells a story. How do you think these dropped phrases can possibly combat the digital reductionist age that we have to suffer in right now?

Offill: Oh my gosh. What an amazing question. I think that I’ve always been, as a writer, in compression and in how much you can distill in a small space. And so an ellipses is one of those ways to create either a pause — like you might have a breath in a poetry line — or also that trailing off feeling.

Correspondent: Sure.

Offill: Like there’s a moment in the book where the character says, “I was expecting to have the crackup with the head scarf and the people speaking kindly at my funeral.” And then it says, “Oh wait. Might still get that one.” And it trails off. And it’s because it’s meant to capture that feeling of thought where you get halfway through a thought and then you kind of stop. And I feel like instead of what we think of as the kind of digital version of compression, which is about pithiness and sound bites and more of that kind of thing, something that was more about when our thoughts hesitate and our words follow. That’s what I was trying to capture.

Correspondent: In a weird way, it almost responds to the subtweet, where you are talking about someone without really talking about someone. Except that actually ends up becoming more vulgar and not as interesting as, say, just leaving something out. Which is the ultimate way of responding to the world. Anyway, so the wife — I’m going to call her “the wife” because she’s the unnamed protagonist of this novel — she has this very unusual relationship with John Keats.

Offill: (laughs)

Correspondent: Keats, he informs her concern for death and dread, I think. I mean, her insistence that she is a part of a minority that experiences permanent anguish as opposed to the majority that experiences temporary anguish. There’s that distinction. But I caught the Keats thing. Because we first see this when she cites the words on Keats’s tombstone — “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water” — without actually naming Keats! And then she claims later on — and this was amazing — she claims that Keats said, “No such thing as the world becoming an easy place to save your soul in.” I have done a thorough search. I have not found that quote from Keats. I did start to catch on. Hmmm, anytime that Jenny actually says, “What X said,” it’s not true for a large chunk of the book! And I wanted to ask you about this. Keats emboldens the wife to invent these further quotes, including one from Simone Weil. which Meg Wolitzer on NPR actually thought was true. But it was not. So I’m wondering what was it about Keats that triggered this particular impulse to invent quotes for this character?

Offill: I think that he’s always been a sort of Romantic ideal for most writers — or, at least, a certain type of writer. And that line about your gravestone being writ in water, I think for anyone who’s thinking, “Why am I doing this? This isn’t going to last. This isn’t anything,” it seems to have some kind of resonance. As for the other one, I do believe that I had a citation for it. But I also meant for the ones that say “What so-and-so said” to be filtered through her mind and slightly changed.

Correspondent: Yes.

Offill: So that may be why it was hard to Google. We did sort of extensively fact-check the quotes. I had to go through and give citations for all of them.

Correspondent: Really?

Offill: Yeah. So I could probably pull that out somewhere. But I noticed that even people who are far more eloquent than I am, I somehow had managed to take a word out or add a word. It was always that controlling writer impulse where you want to change rhythms and change everything to sound right to your ear.

Correspondent: Well, on the other hand, there’s a certain kind of fluidity in taking quotes and putting them into other people’s mouths. And changing one word, then actually frustrating the obsessive reader type like me…

Offill: Right. Right.

Correspondent: Because I can’t quite find the exactness. I mean, maybe this is also part of the problem, of having to scavenge from the guts of what has gone before in order to find new forms of expression, in order to come to terms with what we leave out of our stories.

Offill: Right. Well, I like writers like David Markson. And I like the way that he brings in those small literary anecdotes. And you also find, if you go through his books…

Correspondent: A lot of them are not true.

Offill: Yeah. A lot of them are not true. In fact, someone — I think it was Blake Butler — did a kind of hilarious thing recently that was “Literary Rumors.”

Correspondent: Yes.

Offill: They were all just like really absurd. And so I think that kind of — I want to call it the pattern-making part of our brain. It makes over even something that seems like it should be complete and puts it into the pattern of the world as that character sees it.

Correspondent: Do you think we have a certain obligation to resist the canon? Or to resist the cultural conditioning that we are inevitably going to take in when we read all sorts of books and we memorize quotes and memorize poems and we use that as a kind of reference for our lives? I mean, inevitably, we’re going to have to resist that, I think, to find some original form of expression. What are your thoughts on this? And is this book in some sense a solution to that?

Offill: I thought a lot about that. Because I was wondering if I should include quotes at all. And I certainly thought about not having any of them in there. Not least of which because it’s hard to put your writing next to some of the people I was quoting. But I also felt like I was trying — and whether I succeeded is really more for the reader to say — but I was trying to make a form that felt modern and new to me. And so the feeling of having those quotes as springboards into other thoughts — I do think you always have to go against and have a contrarian impulse to what’s been made before. And that’s how you make new things. And that’s how you startle and surprise yourself as a writer.

Correspondent: Maybe another way to approach this question is to ask you how you, as the author, and you, as the character, work together to mangle quotes in a very interesting way. Did you find that the vicarious…

Offill: You’re starting to worry me. How many did I mangle? You must have it worked out. (laughs)

Correspondent: No, no! I actually love the fact that some are mangled and some are unfindable. But I’m wondering — especially since you had mentioned the fact-checking earlier. I think writers have a duty to bust shit up. So the question I have is: how much of the tossing rocks through windows came from the character and came from you? And how did you work together to ensure there was a certain kind of nihilism that was healthy for this?

Offill: Right. Well, I definitely wanted to create in the character of the wife someone who was bolder and a little more “Fuck you” and “Fuck things up” than I am in my life. I’m a much more timid creature.

Correspondent: Which is why you’re holding the knife right now.

Offill: That’s why I’m holding the knife to your throat and making sure that you start to praise the book really soon. But I do think…

Correspondent: Can’t I just give you twenty dollars instead? Maybe a hundred?

Offill: Are you kidding? Yeah, when I’m done. I’ll take twenty dollars.

(Loops for this program provided by kraweic, mingote, 40a, and ebaby8119.)

The Bat Segundo Show #534: Jenny Offill (Download MP3)

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Diane Johnson (The Bat Segundo Show #533)

Diane Johnson is most recently the author of Flyover Lives.

Author: Diane Johnson


Subjects Discussed: Knock-knock jokes*, vacationing in Provence, being married to a mysterious professor of medicine, being surrounded by generals who demand their fellow vacationing Americans to pay their fair share, why the French decry the professed American indifference to history, flowers, what the Americans and the French could learn from each other, the American propensity for tearing up train tracks, Anne Matthews’s Where the Buffalo Roam, the difficulty of traveling to the Dakotas, the destruction of national interconnectivity, America’s war on its own history, what America cultivated from European culture, Jefferson and the Library of Congress, freedom fries, the inspiration drawn from those who kept good records centuries ago, living in the most photographed age in the history of America, sharing our data with the NSA, multiculturalism and European roots, mutually assured destruction and Franco-American relations, Kevin Starr and California history, growing up in Moline, Illinois, Ranna Cossitt, Catharine Martin, the forced resignation of Johnson’s father, escaping a vocational destiny as a flight attendant, the benefits of being a voracious reader, what women were expected to do in the 1950s, Mad Men regimes, quilting as a pre-1950s pastime for women, Betty Freidan, matrimonial prospects as tickets out of town, pizza as a novelty, the Methodist practice of being frightened into good, Jonathan Edwards’s sermon language, looking up profane Latin, living in language-based religious torment, skepticism as a Midwestern feature, learning language as a weapon, the first excuse note that Johnson wrote in grade school and the beginnings of fiction, the origins of The Shadow Knows, crazy housekeepers, the delayed impulse in exploring a feeling in fiction, the migratory impulse, the Land Act of 1820, the American ideal expressed through settling and appropriation, Sarah Palin, the future of Detroit, similar historical currents in France and America, creating something new from the historical dregs of expansionism, the foodie movement, promiscuity without consequences, Henry James, stylistic tension when existing somewhere between two nations, chick lit and book covers, the hidden politics within Johnson’s novels, Lulu in Marrakech, exploring Islam and America’s relationship with the Middle East, Theodore Dreiser, Thomas Wolfe’s former reputation as one of the greatest American writers, Gaston Bachelord’s notion of the “hut dream,” an ideal coziness desired by everybody, infant mortality during the 19th century, how much of recent life is indebted to a simulacrum of 19th century life, the increasing shift of humans living in cities, co-writing an episode of My Three Sons, being rewritten by Francis Ford Coppola, having to schmaltz up description for Hollywood, attempting to explain things in language that studio executives can understand, working with Stanley Kubrick on The Shining, mining through Freud with Kubrick to determine what frightens people, the terror of eyes, Stephen King and Kubrick, supernatural forces as a projection of the consciousness, the typical questions that Kubrick asked over the telephone, Kubrick’s literary qualities, Madame Bovary, a planned eight hour structure for The Shining, Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, Room 237, The Shining projected forwards and backwards, Kubrick’s sense of mathematics, exploring narrative forms, the Overlook Hotel’s labyrinth, critics who overanalyze art, reference books consulted during The Shining, seeing the Holocaust in newsreel images as a girl, contending with work adapted for the screen, Faye Dunaway, Richard Roth, Sydney Pollack, and thwarted adaptations of The Shadow Knows.


Correspondent: You’ve bookended this particular volume with a personal episode at a vacation retreat in Provence, where you and your husband — the mysterious professor of medicine, who I thought was here — were surrounded by these generals demanding that you pay your fair share, while the French are decrying the professed American indifference to history. I’m wondering. How do you think Americans are failing to pay their fair share in knowing history? You bring up this American late in the book who you overhear saying, “You know what’s a good civilization? By the way they always have fresh flowers everywhere, every day.” But if nobody knows how the flowers are arriving there or how frequent they are, well, are Americans really equipped to complain about this? Or to adequately respond to the French? Let’s talk about this parallel. What do you think?

Johnson: Well, I’m not sure we are in some departments. We could learn a lot from the French. And they could learn a lot from us. But that’s not our subject here.

Correspondent: (laughs) Well, we could unpack that. Yeah.

Johnson: Yeah. We could learn that we shouldn’t tear up our train tracks. That’s one of my particular pet peeves about America. Because once you live in France for any reason, you can take the train everywhere. And it’s so great. So that would be one example.

Correspondent: Well, you describe late in the book, I know, that in areas of the Midwest where you used to travel by train, those rails are gone.

Johnson: Yes. Exactly.

Correspondent: And that to me — I mean, I’ve never been in those areas of the Midwest. But I was like, “Wow, if I wanted to get there, it would be a hassle.”

Johnson: That’s right. You can’t even get to some places. Because in South Dakota, I read — that book was called Where the Buffalo Roam. I don’t know if you ever read that. It was written about South Dakota or maybe the Dakotas. And there was no longer any Greyhound bus, airplane, or train to get to North Dakota and certain areas of the Dakotas. And the suggestions of the author to just turn it back to the buffalo and have it be a glamorous nature experience with resorts. Because there’s no point in trying to grow anything up there, since you can’t get there anyway.

Correspondent: Well, that’s also quite interesting. Because if the French are tagging us with this label of not knowing our own history, well, our nation is doing a remarkable job at gutting the interconnectivity and the urban hubs and even the hubs into the Midwest that allows us to really…

Johnson: …keep ourselves together.

Correspondent: Yeah. To unite the States. And that’s quite something.

Johnson: I think it is. And I think it does show that we don’t really care about history or see its value. And that may have been some way we were programmed at the beginning by the idea that we were separating ourselves from Europe and improving upon it. Which was, I’m sure, the idea of the founders. But they didn’t really mean that we’d have nothing to do with Europe and not adopt their ways. They assumed…

Correspondent: …we’d figure out our own system. (laughs)

Johnson: Well, we carried over things that were valuable like universities and the wine culture that Thomas Jefferson was careful to transplant. I’m sure they always envisioned a continuity in everything except politics.

Correspondent: The beginnings of the Library of Congress also came from Jefferson, from his book collection. So it almost seems like we’re looking towards figures who could somehow do this. And that actually became the beginnings of our public institutions.

Johnson: Absolutely. So there was no way we really wanted to cut ourselves off and completely throw out all that European culture. But somehow it got transmogrified — maybe at the time of the Revolution — into a sort of ill-natured mistrust of Europe. Especially France for some reason. I don’t know why there’s a special antagonism for France.

Correspondent: Well, I think it works both ways. With the freedom fries incident.

Johnson: Yeah. That’s what I was thinking of.

Correspondent: There’s that. But at the same time, this leads me to wonder. Well, what is our present relationship with history and how does Europe figure into it? And how did this help you mine your own past going back to Moline and even before that?

Johnson: Well, the connections that helped me were the good records of things that people kept at the beginning of the country. So the earliest thing I found was 1711. The first document to do with one of these people in the book. So obviously people were cherishing history, keeping faithful records of what was going on.

Correspondent: Well, centuries ago. But what about now?

Johnson: Well, now, it’s all turned sour in some funny way.

Correspondent: In the past, we were meticulous documenters of our own history.

Johnson: Do you have another theory about that?

Correspondent: I do actually. I mean, I was going to point to the fact that here we are in this digital age and we take all sorts of photos of ourselves. This is perhaps the most photographed aged in the entire history of America. And yet we don’t actually want to look to our past to see if that can inform our present document taking, our present struggle, in terms of revealing our data to the NSA. Things like that.

Johnson: (laughs) Yeah.

Correspondent: We’re happy to go ahead and share every single private part of ourselves. But it is fascinating to me that we aren’t willing to look to the past to see how that could inform.

Johnson: Exactly. How we could have learned from that. I think part of my theory is that with multiculturalism, one consequence of it, although not intended by it, was to interrupt those early roots with France and England in order to not disappoint people who were coming from other places or seeming to privilege those early arrivals with later immigrant groups. People had to say, “Well, what about the Irish?” And, you know, “My folks came from Russia.” And so everybody acknowledged the richness of those other traditions and maybe just decided, well, okay, then let’s just call it a truce and we’re not going to really think about what happened back there.

Correspondent: I love this theory that the clash of Franco-American cultures has everything to do with each culture not wanting to disappoint the other. It’s kind of like a mutually assured destruction, culturally speaking.

Johnson: I think so.

(Loops provided for this program by JoeFunktastic, FerryTerry, smpulse, and buffalonugaluss.)

* — During the early part of this conversation, Ms. Johnson identifies a knock-knock joke involving Kilroy that neither Our Correspondent nor Johnson could remember. It may be this one:

“Knock knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Kilroy who?”
“Kill Roy Rogers. I’m Gene Autry’s fan!”

The Bat Segundo Show #533: Diane Johnson (Download MP3)

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RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman

On Sunday morning, Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his New York apartment. He was the victim of an apparent heroin overdose. The New York Police Department found a syringe sticking out of his arm. He was only 46.

Hoffman was a rara avis: an energetic and unforgettable vessel of thespic truth that comes once in a generation, if not every two. His dramatic range was as wide and as variegated as such indelible character actors as Paul Muni, John Cazale, or Lon Chaney Jr. You could watch three minutes of any Hoffman performance, even when he was cast in a mediocre movie, and learn six new things about acting. Hoffman’s smartest directors often imbued this great and irreplaceable performer with some physical limitation. In Charlie Wilson’s War, Mike Nichols put Hoffman behind glasses, dyed hair, and a mustache and Hoffman’s body moved inward, almost of its own will. One of his most memorable early performances was in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, a scene in which Hoffman is situated behind a craps table for three minutes, and the force of nature that emerged when Hoffman ferociously fired up a cigarette or addressed his audience simply could not be contained as he stood coiled in the same place.

The man never gave a boring or derivative performance. He could swing from Lester Bangs’s cautious idealism in Almost Famous, masticating ever so slightly while addressing the young music journalist as if his own convictions were malleable, to vampiric addiction in Owning Mahowny, always keeping his head down in shame and his arms scooping up sad racks of chips with the routine need of a man who knows nothing else. He played heroes, losers, villains, and psychotics, but he used the titanic force of his charisma to demand that we peer inside men we would otherwise avoid. In this sense and many more, Philip Seymour Hoffman was a true artist.

He walked on the stage and screen as if he had a thousand souls trapped inside him, all screaming to come out. Yet he was also fighting a chronic drug addition. There were reports last year of Hoffman falling off the wagon and entering rehab. It is truly tragic that drugs got him in the end.

We may never know the true totality of Hoffman’s demons, or what Hoffman had to sacrifice to give us his electric performances. It seems vulgar to probe further, even as any cursory flip through his cinematic performances reveals that they were all great, not a dud among them.

The loss of a talent as huge as Philip Seymour Hoffman feels like a referendum on American culture: a baleful strike against the waning truth and intelligence increasingly in short supply within our motion pictures. You could find the people that Hoffman played all across America, yet neither time nor place could contain this giant. Philip Seymour Hoffman will not be easily forgotten.