gellhornhemingway

Amanda Vaill (The Bat Segundo Show #549)

Amanda Vaill is most recently the author of Hotel Florida.

Author: Amanda Vaill

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Subjects Discussed: Household accidents, Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” and various claims attesting to its authenticity, staged photography, Capa’s origins, Ernest Hemingway’s bluster, his journalistic weaknesses, Virginia Cowles’s bravery, the dubious qualities of To Have and Have Not, John Dos Passos, journalistic skepticism, Hemingway’s disillusionment with the Spanish Civil War, Martha Gellhorn, Gellhorn’s 1983 interview with John Pilger, Gellhorn’s condemnation of government, Gellhorn’s relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, Gellhorn making up the facts (fabricating a Mississippi lynching) for her news story, “Justice at Night,” Henry Luce’s attention to Robert Capa, what coverage of the Spanish Civil War was real, Spain as the front line against Hitler, constraints of journalists on the Nationalist side, whether or not any amount of art and journalism could have averted the fate of Spain, the Non-Internvention Agreement, American isolationism, the civil war within the Civil War, left-wing factions squabbling against each other, Arturo Barea’s The Forging of a Rebel, Barea as a late bloomer, Barea’s stint as the Unknown Voice, confidence and post-traumatic stress, how to determine the precise words that floated through someone’s head or mouth from seven decades ago, Hemingway’s The Fifth Column, The Spanish Earth and the current print status of Spain in Flames, Archibald MacLeish and Contemporary Historians, Inc., orphan business entities, the brawl between Orson Welles and Hemingway during voiceover recording sessions, the fight between Hemingway and Max Eastman, what women thought of all the needless male fighting, George Seldes’s reception in the Spanish Civil War, Henry Buckley’s The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic, the legend of the luggage that Martha Gellhorn took to Spain, Joan Didion in El Salvador, Love Goes to Press, the American matador Sid Franklin, Ilsa Kulcsar, Gellhorn’s bravery and influence upon Hemingway, the recent Russia press gag on bloggers, comparisons between the Spanish Civil War and Syria, photographs as Instagram in slow time, whether there’s any Hemingway again, and contemplating J.K. Rowling going to the Crimea to write a novel.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You’re doing okay, I take it.

Vaill: Except for my broken finger.

Correspondent: Oh, you broke your finger?

Vaill: Yes, I did. I had one of those household accidents. I tripped over my shoes.

Correspondent: And, of course, it’s the right hand as opposed to the left hand.

Vaill: Of course it is. So I cannot write and I cannot shake hands and I cannot sign my name. Except that it is getting better so I can now do that.

Correspondent: Although you have a good shot at taking over Spain.

Vaill: I hope so.

fallingsoldier

Correspondent: The Spanish Civil War. We have many characters and many figures and I’ll do my best to get to all of them. But let’s start with good old Robert Capa. One of the fascinating and oft argued issues in photography is, of course, Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” — the picture of the militiaman on the Andalusian hill falling to his death in battle. Some have contended that it is fake. Some have contended that it is real. Some have, as you have, tried tracking down interviews. You tried to find an NBC Radio interview with Alex Kershaw on October 20, 1947 in which Capa claimed to have killed the miliciano. But the purported truth of the story behind the photo is almost as murky as the purported truth of the photo, which in turn has us contending with the purported truth of the War. So how do even begin to come to terms with the photo — in terms of scholarship, in terms of authenticity? And how does the struggle affect our ability to wrestle with the complexities and the ideological involutions of the Spanish Civil War? Just to start off here.

Vaill: Well, that I could write a whole dissertation on. And people have. But let’s start first of all with the word “fake,” which is a…

Correspondent: Staged.

Vaill: Yes. There is a big difference. Something that is faked is in some way manipulated so that something that is not true can be made to be true. Something that is staged is something that is perhaps not quite as extreme as something that is faked. And you have to bear in mind that in 1936, when this photograph was taken, there was no history of war photography at all. No one had taken live action photographs on a battlefield. Matthew Brady took pictures of corpses, which he manipulated and moved around so that they would be in a pose that he liked. In World War I, you couldn’t go on the battlefield. You were not allowed. And furthermore there was no equipment that you could take on there. You have big cumbersome cameras and slow film. And it was only in the 1930s, when you had 35mm film and cameras that could accommodate it, that you could take your camera onto the battlefield. So there was no rulebook for how you handled photography in wartime and no one was used to allowing photographers to be where there was combat. So when Capa and Gerda Taro, his lover and cohort in photography, came to Spain, they at first were not even allowed to go onto the battlefield. They were only given access to troops behind the lines and they tried to make them look good. But this was just not happening. They couldn’t get anything that looked like real battle. And finally, when they were near the area of Córdoba, on the Córdoba front. They had this chance to take photographs of a group of soldiers and Capa has told many stories about what happened and how he got this shot. He was an inveterate tale-teller. He was a real entertainer, Capa. He loved to charm and entertain people.

Correspondent: He felt compelled to create his own legend.

Vaill: He totally did. And he did. He created his name. He was born Andrei Friedmann in Budapest. So he created a whole persona of Robert Capa, the famous photographer, and he created not just that, but this legend of himself that he felt perhaps compelled to live up to. In 1936 though, remember, he’s 22 years old. He’s just a kid. He doesn’t know what he’s doing really. And it is my belief, based on interviews — they aren’t even interviews; conversations that he had with those close to him at times when he, in fact, was not on. The conversation that I base most of my reconstruction on this incident on is one that was with a friend. He wasn’t trying to entertain this person. He wasn’t showing off for an interviewer. He was confessing something. And what he confessed was that a real man had been killed by something that he had done and he was conscious-stricken about it, which is the kind of thing that really squares with the portrait that I received of Capa. That Capa was a very kind, very generous, very loving person and easily hurt by things and didn’t want to give pain to others. And that this thing had happened, I think, was horrifying to him.

Correspondent: Since we are talking about various artists who came to Spain and essentially either set themselves up as legends or became legends later, let’s move naturally to Ernest Hemingway. For all of his bluster about being a “real man” and a “real journalist,” he didn’t actually cover Guernica in April 1937. And he didn’t mention this devastating battle in his dispatches from Spain. Virginia Cowles, on the other hand, she headed into the Nationalist zone and not only covered it, but did so when a Nationalist staff officer said, “You probably shouldn’t be writing about this.” So you write in the book that Hemingway may not have thought this important enough, but why do you think he ignored it? Was he just not that thorough of a reporter?

Vaill: Well, actually, I hate to say this, but he wasn’t that thorough of a reporter. For all that he had a great background as a gumshoe reporter back in the day, when he was at the Kansas City Star, when he was in Toronto, he was a newspaperman. He was on the city beat and he was the cub reporter sent out to cover fires and God knows what all else. But by the time he went to Spain, he had become a legend. And he was a legend, in part, in his own mind, as much as in the minds of others, and I think he got to the point where what he really wanted to do was to sit at the big table with the big boys and get the big story, and let somebody else worry about all the little details. And in this case, Guernica happened in the Basque Country. It was in a zone that it was almost impossible for him to get to without great difficulty.

Correspondent: But that didn’t stop Cowles.

Vaill: Well, it didn’t. Because, of course, she was still building her reputation. I think Hemingway felt he didn’t have to pry. I also feel that he didn’t think it was that important. And he didn’t think it was that important because the very contemporary news reports of it were very dismissive at first. It really wasn’t until people like Cowles found out what had gone on there that it became evident that there had been a horrific disaster. So Hemingway just basically thought, “I’m going to give this a bye. It’s too much trouble. I’ll risk my neck getting there. I don’t need it. I’m heading back. Screw it.”

Correspondent: I will confess that your book had me finally, after many years, reading To Have and Have Not.

Vaill: (laughs)

Correspondent: I had been avoiding this for a long time and, as it turns out, rightfully so. Brilliant in parts, terrible in others. I mean, was Hemingway just not up to snuff during this particular period?

Vaill: I think he was struggling. And I think that many writers do. They reach a period where they’re trying to break through to some other level and they’re not comfortable. The instrument isn’t sharp in the way that they want it to be sharp to do the work that they suddenly have decided they want to do. Hemingway after writing two extraordinarily well-received novels and an amazing bunch of short stories and maybe two of his, I think, finest works — “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” I think he was looking to do something different. The ’30s were a period of great relevance. The engagé writer was what you were supposed to be and he hadn’t been. And even though he scoffed at a lot of this stuff and said that he didn’t want to get that involved in politics and he didn’t want to hue to any -isms of one kind or another and all he really believed in was freedom, he couldn’t help noticing, particularly when his friend John Dos Passos ended up on the cover of Time Magazine in the summer of 1936, that writers who were writing about the big political themes were getting a lot of attention, the kind of attention he had always gotten, and I think he was looking for some way to do that and To Have and Have Not represented that kind of fiction for him. He wasn’t comfortable writing it, I think, and I think that was the problem of it.

Correspondent: Speaking of Dos Passos, I felt tremendous sympathy for this poor man. I mean, he comes to Spain. He’s looking into the mysterious disappearance of his friend, Jose Robles Pazos, and he’s spurned by Hemingway.

Vaill: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: Hemingway is well-connected with the Loyalists and he tells Dos Passos, “Don’t put your mouth to this Robles business. People disappear every day.” Which is an extraordinarily callous statement. Why did Hemingway have difficulties getting around his romantic vision of the Republicans? Why couldn’t he ask the difficult questions that Dos Passos had no problem in investigating?

Vaill: Well, I think it goes back to Hemingway’s wanting to be at the big boys table.

Correspondent: And he was.

Vaill: And he was. We’ve seen some of this same problem with journalists in our own day. The New York Times‘s Judith Miller, for example. And other writers writing about our involvement in the Iraq War, they wanted to just take the story that somebody wanted to hand out. Because that person was well-connected and high up in a tree.

Correspondent: And that trumps any journalistic integrity.

Vaill: Or any journalistic — I think it would be — doubt. Just the feeling that, oh wait.

Correspondent: Skepticism.

Vaill: Maybe I can take this story.

Correspodnent: Questioning.

Vaill: Your skepticism instrument is just not working when that happens. It’s lulled into some false quiescence by all this access that you suddenly have. And I think that’s what really happened to Hemingway here. He was so in love with the access he had and he was so taken up with his passionate identification with the cause of the Spanish Republic, which I can certainly understand. They were the democratically elected government of Spain and a bunch of right-wingers wanted to nullify an election and just take things back to the way they were before.

Correspondent: So in order to get over the crest to For Whom the Bell Tolls, an absolute masterpiece, he had to go through all these needless romance and this big review point and then he had to have his heart crushed.

Vaill: And then he had to be disillusioned. And I think the problem for him was — yes, exactly, he did have his heart broken in a way. And For Whom the Bell Tolls came out of that feeling of disillusionment. He called not just what had happened in the Republic, but also what happened at Munich — the whole thing and the dismissal of the international brigades from Spain. All that to him was what he called a carnival of treachery on both sides. And that’s pretty strong language.

The Bat Segundo Show #549: Amanda Vaill (Download MP3)

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Mimi Pond (The Bat Segundo Show #548)

Mimi Pond is most recently the author of Over Easy.

Author: Mimi Pond

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Subjects Discussed: Different forms of memoir (and related resistance by publishing), James Frey, autobiographical fiction vs. memoir in comics, realizing Over Easy from a manuscript, working from a textual framework, trash-talking line cooks, Charles Dickens, Daniel Clowes, comic book characters often cast into inevitable film adaptations, imagination, picture books, Mama’s Royal Cafe as a locational inspiration, memory vs. reference shots, the difficulty of filling up sketch books while waiting tables, the mysterious Nestor Marzipan, keeping in touch with former restaurant co-workers, keeping gossip alive, taking notes, when memories elude the nostalgia trap, what 1978 establishments can teach 21st century diners, drugs and the willful stupidity of kids, disco wars, how a rudderless culture was maintained by a manager who made waitresses feel special by listening, what people found charming about diners in 1978, Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, Todd Haynes’s miniseries adaptation of Mildred Pierce, dramatizing working-class life, how dishwaters can form more legitimate claques than art school, the haziness of art school, the green chromatic feel throughout Over Easy, the one character with a jet black character in the book, the cameo appearance of Flipper‘s Ted Falconi, “Art is dead!” proclamations, maintaining aesthetic standards during a time of bad music and bad art, the oppressive nature of avocado green, young kids today who glorify the 1970s, Peter Frampton, the band America, the influence of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, people who overanalyze comics, the early seeds of storytelling, being nursed at the bosom of MAD Magazine, working with Shary Flenniken at the National Lampoon, learning the basics of a comic strip, circular text around objects, cartoonists and the daily grind, doing monthly strips for the Voice, social commentary in comics form, drowning babies, editorial arguments with Drawn and Quarterly, politically incorrect language excised from the finished product, ironic epithets from 1970s liberals, the importance of getting upset to understand a time, Norman Mailer’s “fug,” living in a high mesa in San Diego comparable to the unshaded area of a picnic table, public park metaphors for living circumstances, the New York Times‘s claim that Oakland is the new Brooklyn, being attracted to bad poets before knowing their poetry is bad, the lack of good coffee in the 1970s, diners that once used real linen napkins, the virtues of not being judged for sleeping with anyone in 1978, and slut shaming and Lulu.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: What specific points in 1978 did you really feel compelled to capture? I mean, how could you do 1978 right while also adhering to the exigencies of narrative, which requires a kind of linear path and all that? What was the organizational process like?

Pond: I was just remembering things the way they were then. Things that really stuck with me. And I worked on this over a fifteen-year period, from about 1998 until early this year. It wasn’t so much that I was like “I’m going to capture 1978!” It was “I’m going to remember it the way I’m going to remember it.” So it wasn’t anything that specifically deliberate. It was just the time and the place and what it felt like at the time. And I did take notes over the years from the time I left up until 1982, until about 1998, and I also went back to visit many times. And I talked to my former co-workers, who very generously shared their experiences with me, which I also incorporated into the story.

Correspondent: Were there any stories or anecdotes that were pure romantic forms of nostalgia? Or things you wish would have happened? Anything along those lines?

Pond: No. I don’t think of it as nostalgia. Because there were too many hard lessons learned.

Correspondent: It was too rough to be nostalgic. (laughs)

Pond: Yeah, it was too rough to be nostalgic and there were too many people who wound up down the rabbit hole of drug abuse for too many years to have the dewy glow of nostalgia around it. It was one of those situations where it was really following up to a point until it wasn’t fun anymore. And there’s going to be a Part Two. I’m working on that now.

Correspondent: I know that.

Pond: Part Two gets darker.

Correspondent: Well, what about Part One? Did the darkness threaten to overwhelm some of the romance of the diner? The kind of effervescent look of the place and the feel of the actual book?

Pond: No. I don’t think so. I mean, I’ve always been in love with the look of that place. The first time I walked into it, it just felt like home. So I could just draw that counter and those booths and all that stuff endlessly.

Correspondent: Well, what does a diner like the Imperial — I mean, what could it teach diners of today? What does a 21st century diner not have that the Imperial did have?

Pond: Well, there were no rules. In the ’60s, the hippies threw out all the rules. And in the ’70s, we looked up and we just said, “Oh, the rules are gone. So which ones do we put back? And which ones do we leave out? And how does this all work?” And it was kind of up to you to figure it out. There was no one saying, “Just say no.” So everyone was going, “Woohoo! Drugs! Yeah, drugs are fun!” Like no one said, “That cocaine thing? That’s not such a good idea.” “Jazz musicians used to snort cocaine in the ’30s. So it’s really cool, right?” And kids are always stupid. And this is what drug abuse is about. Like heroin, people are just stupid enough. “I’m not going to get hooked!”

Correspondent: What was the common ground of such a place? You mention early on how the disco wars were what united the punks and the hippies. And then at the end of the book, we see this poetry night in which everybody is allowed his particular moment. Does it really take a place to unite so many subcultures? So many groups? What was the cross-pollination at the time that you were trying to capture here?

Pond: Well, the uniting force in that particular place was Lazlo Meringue, the manager.

Correspondent: Who everybody told their problems to.

Pond: Yeah. Everyone told him their problems. And he was one of those people that just made you feel like you were the most important person in the room. And he validated your experiences by telling you that the fact that you had observed this and you think that about it is meaningful. Not just “Oh! You’re full of shit.” And the other thing was that, yes, this was important and we need to write this down. Because we’re going to make some kind of art about this later. And that was very important to me. And it made all the difference. I mean, I don’t think I ever could have worked in any other restaurant after that. I made a few futile stabs at putting in applications after I left that place, but luckily — I say luckily — no one ever hired me again. And then I had a career as a cartoonist and I never had to go back to that. But it never would have been the same. I mean, his motto was “The Customer is Always Wrong,” which did not really mean that you were entitled to give bad service. In fact, we all kind of prided ourselves on giving good service. It was more like he had your back. And if anyone gave you any crap, he would back you up.

Correspondent: And presumably the walls between the kitchen and the restaurant were thick enough to prevent any of the customers from hearing all of the profane screeches and all that.

Pond: I think, at the time, people were down for that too. Because that’s the kind of place it was. A cook would drop the end of his roach into an omelet and the customer would finally go, “Oh, I found this. Ha ha ha!”

Correspondent: “How charming!”

Pond: Yeah.

(Loops for this program provided by 40a, dj4real, minor2go, and platanos. )

The Bat Segundo Show #548: Mimi Pond (Download MP3)

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joannarakoff

Joanna Rakoff (The Bat Segundo Show #547)

Joanna Rakoff is most recently the author of My Salinger Life.

Author: Joanna Rakoff

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Subjects Discussed: Responding to the universe’s concerns with short declaratory bursts, self-portrayal in memoir, bygone tones that aren’t nostalgic, growing up with Depression era parents, being enslaved by grammatical constructs, hostility to contractions, The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles, bad translations, disputes over which literary agency is New York’s oldest, the coddled affluent lifestyle, working as a PA on The Mirror Has Two Faces, bouncing around jobs as an act of rebellion, growing up in privilege, contending with a family dynamic of trying to live life while parents discourage risk, keeping details “close to the bone,” having a temperament a generation above, working in an Agency using ancient typewriters, working in an office opposed to modern technology, typing letters on carbon paper, the beginnings of computer communications in 1996, working in an office without voicemail, the benefits of archaic office structure, lengthy lunches, the advantages of working with your hands, S.J. Perelman, Pearl Buck, 20th century writers who fell out of favor but that line bookshelves of older people’s homes, the buzz that one can get from using an IBM Selectric, typewriter dreams, why J.D. Salinger is scoffed out by adults, the Salinger documentary, Bret Easton Ellis’s Salinger tweet, Martin Amis, Infinite Jest, the literary masculine movement of 1996, not reading Salinger in college, Salinger’s stories in the New Yorker, family bonding through Franny and Zooey, answering Salinger fan mail, observing when Judy Blume switched agencies, misunderstanding the appeal of Judy Blume, keeping contemporary reading sensibilities alive at the Agency when facing doughty pushback, the literary sensibilities of Phyllis Westberg, the shift in publishing short fiction during the last years of the 20th century, Blume and Claire M. Smith, agents and friendship, the backstory on how Summer Sisters was misperceived before publication, why it’s important for agents to offer love and praise to authors, reading for agents, talking up manuscripts written by college friends, Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season, developing the inclinations to be an editor and a critic, whether being employed by a slick Wylie-style agency would have turned Rakoff into a writer, how agents shape culture, the double-edged sword of keeping a journal as a young person, socialist boyfriends as a cautionary tale, secretly carving out time to write stories, Pathfinder Books, being a morning person, writing with kids, Sylvia Plath’s diary, boyfriend “Don”‘s aversion to office jobs and bourgeois accusations, contending with male nonsense, disparaging boyfriends, having literary sensibilities shaken up, operating in two literary universes, boxing memoirs, contending with being depicted in Robert Anasi’s The Last Bohemia, why Rakoff didn’t name names in the book version (and did in the Slate version), trying to nail the universal experience of My Salinger Year, overlapping cultures in New York, the DIY aesthetic, spoken word culture, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, whether the 1996 Joanna Rakoff could have survived 2014 New York, the difficulty of making ends meet, being detached from open mike culture, expensive cities, purported claims of subsisting on almost nothing in Cambridge, transient arts scenes, the Hudson River Valley, whether young people can have their Salinger year in New York, and parental supplementation.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to actually start off with the tone of the book. I mean, you present yourself in this memoir as someone who responds to the universe’s concerns with these short, declaratory bursts. When you are asked questions about how equipped you are to handle your role as an agent’s assistant and your responsibilities as an adult, you often answer, “I can.” “I do.” “I am.” “It is.” “I understand.” Never “yes,” which I found really interesting. And it leads me to wonder whether this laconic approach is perhaps the best way to negotiate early life and to sort of figure out what the beginnings of life are. How is this self-portrayal your answer to the Holden Caulfield idea, “It’s funny. All you have to do is say something nobody understands and they’ll do practically anything you want them to”?

Rakoff: Well, I definitely didn’t have that in mind when I was establishing the tone for the book. I came upon the tone in just a kind of instinctual happenstance way. I signed onto write this book with great trepidation. I’m not really a writer of memoir. I don’t write that much about myself. I’m also not a person who’s confessional in spirit. I don’t post on Facebook saying how sad I am. Anything like that. And in my fiction, I don’t even usually write in the first person. And so when I sat down to write the book, I found myself extraordinarily at sea, unsure of what this persona, this person, was. This voice that I needed to create.

Correspondent: Hence the “I am,” “I do,” “It is”? It’s kind of the early formation of “Well, how am I going to portray the Joanna on the page?”

Rakoff: Well, you know, it more came to me from the opening scene of the book in which you see it written almost as a “we.” And you kind of see vast numbers of young women going to work as assistants. And in writing that scene, I was able to kind of hit upon what I thought of as a tone that felt right to me for a book about things that took place at this point almost twenty years ago. More like fourteen, fifteen years ago when I was writing it. I wanted a tone that was not nostalgic. I thought that it would be very easy to slip into a kind of nostalgia for a bygone era. And so writing that scene that’s not purely about me, that kind of pans out and shows you lots of women who are doing the same thing that I was, like it’s a very sort of female role, this assistant’s role, allowed me to kind of hit upon this cool tone. And then I could slip into the kind of “I” of the book. In terms of the “I can,” “I am,” “I understand,” I will say that that is simply how I actually speak.

Correspondent: You do.

Rakoff: And I do tend to be a person who speaks in sentences…

Correspondent: You don’t like using “yes” or “yeah, man” or anything like that? That’s just not in your vernacular.

Rakoff: No. I do not. I will say that this is partly my parents’ fault. My parents are sort of two generations removed from me. They had me very late in life. They’re Depression era, Greatest Generation people. And they don’t use any slang. My mother’s letters to me are written as if she’s Emily Dickinson or Miss Manners. There are contractions, but there’s no slang used in my household. And certainly if I used anything that was grammatically incorrect or that fell into the realm of “of the moment” slang, if I said “Awesome!” in the ’80s, I was given a fisheye by my mom or I was told…

Correspondent: You stood in the corner with Fowler, basically reciting the rules of usage.

Rakoff: Kind of. It just was frowned upon. And without realizing it, I just sort of absorbed their grammatical constructs.

Correspondent: Well, how do you permit slang in your life now? Or even in your fiction? Or even in your memoir?

Rakoff: Well, in fiction and in memoir as well, I’m a huge stickler for dialogue. You may know this, but I spent many, many years primarily working as a book critic and one of the things that drove me crazy when I read contemporary fiction was dialogue that felt inauthentic. I remember reading a book in which nobody used contractions in the dialogue and I thought, “Why didn’t this writer read the dialogue out loud? This is absurd. Nobody actually talks like this.”

Correspondent: You haven’t actually gone to Contraction Central, this city out in West Virginia, where nobody actually…

Rakoff: Yes. I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to go to that place.

Correspondent: Yeah. They banned contractions. It’s been on the municipal ordinance for about twenty years now.

Rakoff: That may also be like the place where all bad literary translations go.

Correspondent: And cheap Dostoevsky translations in particular.

Rakoff: Yes.

Correspondent: All the Russians. Anyway, sorry.

Rakoff: I just actually read a novel in translation that is this novel that was a huge bestseller in France called The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles.

Correspondent: Oh yeah.

Rakoff: And it’s been published all over the world. And it’s a very commercial novel. But the translation — I hope I’m not going to offend anyone listening to this — but the translation was clearly done in a very rapid way.

Correspondent: As about 80% of translations are. Because the translators are paid almost nothing.

Rakoff: Yeah. But I think this is because it was a bestseller and they wanted to get it out. And the language.

Correspondent: Much like Stieg Larsson.

Rakoff: The dialogue feels just absurd in it. Like I know these people are French, but nobody would talk like this. Like this is ridiculous. So anyway in my dialogue, I of course allow people to use slang. Because the dialogue comes out of the character. So it would be crazy to have all of my characters speak in the way that I do or address themselves in the way that I do. And I do as an adult…

Correspondent: As an adult, I will not speak slang? Is that what it is?

Rakoff: No. As an adult, I think that I find myself using slang ironically and saying things that I wouldn’t say as a teenager. Like saying, “That’s cool” or “That’s cute.” I banned the word “cute” from my lexicon for a long time and, an hour ago, I just described something as cute. Or I’ll say “Awesome!” to my kids.

Correspondent: Wow. You’re more orthodox than me. I have no problem with slang. But I do have a problem with things like “Because so and so.” That drives me nuts. And I can’t bring myself to say it, except in irony, which is kind of missing the point, I suppose. We’ve strayed quite a bit and I want to get back to the life you depict or the Joanna persona you depict on the page. You knew nothing of snow days. You knew nothing of jobs. You knew nothing of agents. You knew nothing of publishing. Of how much sandwiches cost. Of how much tax was taken from your paycheck. There’s one astonishing revelation midway through the book about unexpected student loans. This leads me to ask, especially in light of you kind of talking about your parents a little bit, how did you manage to delay learning about the responsibilities of life for so long?

Rakoff: Well, I was only 23 when this book takes place. So I don’t think I delayed them so long. I mean, I actually think — first of all, I think, and I guess I’ll say for people listening, this book takes place over the year that I was 23 and turned 24.

Correspondent: 1996.

Rakoff: Yes. And chronicles my first job, which was at…um…

Correspondent: The Agency.

Rakoff: A very storied agency. One of the oldest agencies. The second oldest agency in New York.

Correspondent: If you mention the first agency, they will strike you dead in the street. I think that’s the New York Publishing Codex. But anyway.

Rakoff: There’s contention about which is the oldest. Because literary agencies, when they first came into existence in the ’20s…

Correspondent: Blood feuds have been drawn over this question.

Rakoff: They were less established things. They were just kind of like a guy selling someone’s literary rights. So it’s not quite clear which of the two is the oldest. Regardless, I was 23. I had gone to college. I spent a year in grad school. And then I took this job. I think that the sort of arc that I’m describing in the book is actually relatively normal. A lot of my friends were going through the same thing. They had grown up, many of them in coddled affluent suburbs or perhaps the sort of coddled upper middle-class echelons of New York City or L.A. or places like that. And their parents had essentially provided for them. And in moving to New York, especially, more so than other cities. So at this time, friends of mine were moving to Prague and Seattle and Portland and Chicago, where there was a lot of music and also comedy happening. And they had a slightly easier time. But those of us who moved to New York, I think, were unprepared for the kind of economic realities of the city. And many of my friends really struggled. I think they sort of believed that they could move to the city and survive as actors, writers, dancers, or what have you. But this was not the New York City of a James Baldwin novel or the New York City of, I don’t know, my parents, where you could rent an apartment on Mulberry Street for $30 a month. And this was 1996. We were at the end of a big recession. It was almost the worst time to be a young person in New York. I mean, it just keeps getting worse and worse. So we were at the end of this terrible reception. So there was a sort of dearth of jobs. And yet at the same time, we were at the beginning of the dot com boom. So there was all this influx of cash and all of these people moving to start dot coms in Silicon Alley and what have you. So you have these kind of wealthier people moving in and real estate sort of going up and up as it always does. But this was a particular moment where things were quite difficult.

Correspondent: But you’re saying this in the “we” as opposed to the “I.” What about you, Joanna? What did you do to adapt to this new reality? Especially — and I don’t want to give too much away — because it seems to me that your parents had a very controlling hand in how you learned about life and you really had to resist in actually leaving and figuring out what it was to be an adult.

Rakoff: Um. Sort of. So I’ll just explain a little bit about the book. So before the book begins, I had been sort of de facto engaged. My college boyfriend, who was wonderful and, always, my parents loved him and my whole family loved him. He was about to start a doctoral program in Berkeley. And it was just assumed that I was going to move out there. And he had found an apartment for us. And I would find some sort of job. I had just finished a master’s in English, but that’s another way of saying that I had dropped out of a Ph.D. program. Because I became disillusioned with academia. So I was essentially — in other words, I was on a semi-path. Like I was going to marry this person who was wonderful and always and also accepted by my family, from a very similar background to me. It was just — everyone sort of assumed that I would finish my Ph.D. maybe at Berkeley or somewhere nearby. A lot of my family was in this area. They presumed I would settle down there. We would both get academic jobs and have children. And there was something in me that — and because my parents supported this, they were somewhat generous of me financially. Because this is what they wanted me to do. And I then, where the book begins, basically I had veered from this path. I essentially went out to Berkeley to see the apartment, figure things out. And then I was supposed to go back home and just get my stuff and come and live there permanently. And I went back to New York and essentially lived like a 23-year-old. I went out every night. I went to parties. I saw all my college and high school friends. They were all there. And I somehow fell into a job working as a PA on a Barbara Streisand film.

Correspondent: Really?

Rakoff: Yes.

Correspondent: Which one was it?

Rakoff: The Mirror Has Two Faces.

Correspondent: Oh, that one.

Rakoff: I’ve still never seen it.

Correspondent: I never saw it either. With Jeff Bridges. Yeah.

Rakoff: Yes. And it was filmed at Columbia and so a lot of my friends were at film school at Columbia and one of them said, “Hey, do you want to work as a PA on this film?” I said, “Sure.” So this seemed like such a weird and cool opportunity that I was able to say to my college boyfriend, “You know, I’m going to do this and then I’ll come out to you.” And then when that ended, I somehow fell into — in short, I fell into this job at the Agency. And that seemed like such a great opportunity. I said, “I got this job. I’m just going to stay for a little bit and try it out.” I very nervously said this to him. In other words, I went through a kind of almost — a little bit of the kind of rebellion that kids often go through when they’re adolescent. And I had never done anything like this. I had been the rule-following perfect student, obedient, devoted to family sort of kid. And so somehow my family — I don’t want to say that my family was oppressive. Because that’s absolutely inaccurate. They were not. But they sort of had just a very strong, defined sense of how a person should live in the world. And perhaps because they were of this older generation, they had a more conservative approach to life, where lots of my friends’ parents were more children of the ’60s and ’70s and were like “Do whatever you want! Be a writer!” Whereas my parents were like, “You need to go to law school.” They were more sort of a…

Correspondent: Have a career.

Rakoff: Be a doctor.

Correspondent: Be solid. Own property. That kind of thing.

Rakoff: Yes. Exactly. And really this was very different than most of my friends’ parents. So…

Correspondent: So wait. So where did this rebellious spirit, where did this come from? I mean, did you feel that you could sort of figure out what you wanted to do through publishing after you had done the academic racket? Or something like that?

Rakoff: Well, as I said, I really fell into that. I didn’t have any desire to work in publishing. I didn’t think, “I want to work in publishing!” I had my senior year in college as a sort of backup plan. I had interviewed just with the HR department at Random House and it was such an unpleasant experience that I thought, “I never — I don’t want to do this actually.” Like the career services people at Oberlin set it up for me. And I had to go into their corporate office in this ill-fitting suit. And I just hated the whole thing. But the agency was a whole different story. Because Random House is an enormous corporation who is now my publisher actually, ironically, and I was not really suited to working in a corporate environment, which is not my mentality. But the agency was this smaller, tiny institution. It felt like working in someone’s home. And it turned out that I was really suited to it. It was fun. It was interesting. It was actually literary. It wasn’t just about bottom line. I got to work with the estates of these sort of exciting authors. And so anyway I wasn’t trying to rebel through publishing. But I was — my parents did consider this a very strange and rebellious thing to do. They really did. And they felt like, “Oh my goodness! You went to this.” At the time, Oberlin was I think like one of the top five colleges in the country and I got like an almost perfect score on my SATs. I was like that.

Correspondent: You put this off as long as you could. And then finally, all right, it’s time to strike out.

Rakoff: Yes. they just thought it was crazy. Like “You could have gone to law school. You could have done anything. Why are you doing this? You’re making so little money.” And…and…

Correspondent: But the sense I got, at least as you portrayed yourself in the book, is that you almost kind of fell into this. Because the one thing I really actually enjoy, especially in the early part, is how you sort of say, “Well, I didn’t really know money. Yes, there were books. Plentiful books. I didn’t realize I bought so much.” That you weren’t really keeping tabs of how much things cost, how things broke down, how much of your paycheck was going to go into rent and expenses and so forth. But at the same time, that kind of amorphousness, that kind of ambiguity actually ended up working out for you. Simply by showing up to your job on the first day when it’s a snow day. You know?

Rakoff: Well, in terms of the financial stuff, it was sort of a mixed bag. My parents — here again, just to give a little context — my father’s a first generation American. His parents, as children, had escaped the pogroms and come to the U.S. My mother, her family had been in the States for a bit longer. But they were from that kind of unstable immigrant background and their priority as adults was the setting up of a stable home life and protecting me and my siblings from the kind of instability. My mother had been raised by a single mother. She had to live with various aunts and uncles being shunted from home to home. She had a very unstable upbringing. And, you know, never enough money. And I saw at the time and I really, really see now, now that I have my own kids, that they wanted to protect me from that perhaps. And they wanted to protect me — also there had been a lot of tragedy in my family. They wanted to protect me from the world in a way.

Correspondent: But I think it was in your genotype. Because your father actually was an actor before he was a dentist, as you point out in the book.

Rakoff: Yes.

Correspondent: And he was a dentist who liked to tell jokes. So definitely that strain was certainly in the Rakoff makeup, I think.

Rakoff: Do you mean the sort of artistic strain?

Correspondent: The artistic. The want to be sort of exuberant in some sense. At least, I’m basing this, of course, off the book and off of the last time we met. But I think it was there.

Rakoff: Yeah. It’s true. And there was this kind of ambivalence, I mean in terms of like my career stuff. My father, when I was a child, actually really encouraged me to be an actor myself. I was constantly told that I was a good actor and that I had talent. And so I did sort of veer in that direction. And then my mother would freak out and kind of pull me back in. My dad was much more sort of tolerant of these things. But it was a bit schizophrenic, to use the term loosely. Like he would encourage my more artistic creative things and then he would pull back and say, “Why don’t you go to law school?” He couldn’t figure out what he wanted. And there was also very possibly a little bit of annoyance and resentment with the kind of privilege that I’d been born into. Because as I said, he’d grown up during the Depression, starting off in a tenement apartment where his bedroom was like a curtained off area behind his father’s dental office. So I think that there was a little bit of that, that he felt like, “Augh! You think that you can just do…” — there’s this scene in the book where he kind of says this to me — “…you think you can just do whatever you want, but you really need to face the realities of life.” And I didn’t even understand what that was, purely because he and my mother had been so protective. And I had never seen a bill. I had never heard any concern about money. Anything. We weren’t incredibly wealthy, but my mother earned multiple fur coats. We traveled all over the world. My parents always said to me, “You’re a kid who never asked for anything. You never asked for toys.” But if I did, there was never a problem with getting it.

Correspondent: But there’s also this impulse to conceal how you were learning to live in New York with this guy named Don, this boyfriend in this apartment who you didn’t really tell them about. Simultaneously, they’re being, as I alluded earlier, very controlling in terms of signing you up for a student loan without actually informing you and not being clear about the costs. So how do you divagate through that particular friction? I mean, you want to be who you are. You want to actually, I think, learn how to do things. You do say, “I do.” And you do do things. But at the same time, you have to make mistakes. How do you deal with this with this family dynamic?

Rakoff: I mean, I guess I’m not sure what you’re asking me.

Correspondent: How do you find yourself when you are dealing on one hand with having to conceal things from your parents while simultaneously having to kind of stave off the “Well, we’re taking care of everything. You should live with us and get up for work two hours early for the two hour commute”? Do you know what I mean? That kind of thing.

Rakoff: Yeah. Well, I mean, I suppose that’s why I rebelled in the way that I did in a kind of stealth way. Like, you know, I don’t know. Doing lots of drugs in their living room or I don’t even know what. I sort of rebelled in the kind of A student who’s secretly doing drugs in the bathroom way, although I didn’t do drugs in the bathroom. I took this job that, in New York parlance, was a glamour job and that they could, if they really wanted to, they could talk to their friends about it. And it seemed like a respectable thing to do. And it had its own career path. And I lived in Williamsburg, where we are right now, which they thought was weird but it wasn’t so where I was living in a squat with a bunch of unwashed, dreadlocked drug addicts or whatever. You know, so it was definitely clear that they disapproved of things. But I just kept a lot from them. And that was sort of my way of rebelling, was withholding from them, whereas before, when I was a kid, I definitely considered my parents my best friends. I was a really unpopular, dorky kid. And I loved my parents and sort of told them everything. But when I got older, I realized at that point — that was when I realized in order for me to live the life that I want, I have to withhold from them. I have to keep things closer to the bone. And still my mother complains about this to me. I mean, I’ll hear her talking to a friend and she’ll say, “Joanna keeps things close to the bone.” That’s her term.

(Photo: Jared Leeds)

The Bat Segundo Show #547: Joanna Rakoff (Download MP3)

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Paula Bomer (The Bat Segundo Show #546)

Paula Bomer is most recently the author of Inside Madeleine. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #375 and The Bat Segundo Show #481.

Author: Paula Bomer

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Subjects Discussed: How physically scarred characters inspire dimension inside characters, Flannery O’Connor’s thoughts on the grotesque, how character details create mystery, Dorothea Lange and the Dust Bowl, Jim Thompson and Freud symbols, when “toxic” becomes a cliched adjective to describe people, the tendency for people to seek versions of their family later in life, young people trying to make their own world, when people who make you feel like crap are confused with the right relationship fit, how structure emerges from the liberation of space, contrapuntal tension in “Inside Madeleine,” spending two years working on a novella, the 1980s fashion of people having eating disorders, strange relationships with food, eating disorder considered as a prototype for cutting, transient mental illnesses, Ian Hacking’s Mad Travelers, The Taming of Chance, train fugue, death rates and anorexia, disorders as a misunderstanding of control, exploring marriage through intimacy, Ted in “The Mother of My Children” compared with Greta’s husband in “A Walk to the Cemetery” and men in “Inside Madeleine,” sex as the defining quality of a relationship, the benefits of marriage, Jonathan Franzen’s thoughts on sex, the importance of bad sex scenes in narrative, Girls, Lena Dunham’s audience confrontation with body image, how the physical leads into the emotional, Dr. Ruth, sex described on 1980s radio vs. the ubiquity of Internet porn in 2014, setting stories in Boston and South Bend, Indiana, writers who have to wait ten years to revisit material, writing material intermittently over very long periods of time, whether stories set at home are easier to finish, writing Baby over a long period of time, Bomer’s idea folder, “Outsiders” and Bomer’s boarding school story aspirations, memories as ways to trigger imaginations, Bomer’s unpublished novel set in Berlin, the difficulty of setting a story in a place you’ve never gone to, Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, Annie Proulx vs. Richard Ford on being a stickler for location vs. making place up, locational accuracy as an act of preservation, getting the reader to believe, the lifespan of a novel, being a young girl in the 1970s and the 1980s, being called a slut and slut shaming, hookup culture, literal blindness juxtaposed against other forms of blindness, when text isn’t enough to know what’s going on with characters, going through old papers and photographs, how anthropological texts became an unexpected muse, hoarding, contending with clutter, when tough people are internally fearful, the abstract nature of what we represent through writing, writing a story compared with painting a floor, how houses become interesting because of lazy interior decorating, the minor surrealism of “Breasts,” the 1998 animated short “More,” magical glints, Bomer’s upper limits of fantasy and magical realism, subjective magic as a method of revealing urban trappings, Samuel R. Delany’s idea of pornotopia, religion in “The Shitty Handshake,” “Lightning,” Bill Burr, Scientology vs. the Catholic religion, belief and fantasy, “Two Years,” subverting titillation, taking out various Sonyas in stories to preserve certain continuity threads from Nine Months, Philip Roth, being taken seriously while also going into uncomfortable places, Sabbath’s Theater, Chaucer’s ass-kissing in “The Miller’s Tale,” Dante and scatology, Ulysses, Germans and nudism, the human reality of walking around repressed, the carnal way that apes greet each other, using the word “compartmentalize” too much, literature as a vicarious outlet for reader and author, the class divide, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the realities of class and capitalism, difficulties getting healthcare insurance, preexisting conditions, how dinner table political discussion stifles conversation, how swiftly Brooklyn has changed, Hal Ashby’s The Landlord, cab drivers who kicked you out of the car, subway muggings from decades ago, New York in the early ’90s, questioning why writers don’t get B-sides, being forced to move elsewhere because of the rich, and the alien notion of being in several stages of life so fast.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: One thing we didn’t actually discuss the last two times we chatted was your interest in the external. Many of your stories here feature side characters who have their skin pocked or acned or stretched or otherwise maimed in some sense. Anya has acne scars in “Reading to the Blind Girl.” You have Polly’s chicken pox scars in “Down the Alley.” There’s Maddy’s beginnings in “Inside Madeleine.” How much do you need to know a character physically before knowing her internally? How does a damaged physical appearance help you find unexpected internal qualities about a character? Are there any disadvantages or advantages in concentrating upon the external?

Bomer: I actually was greatly affected by an essay, or a nonfiction piece, by Flannery O’Connor, who complained about some other writers who she didn’t appreciate. Because she said, “I can’t see these people.” And then I was revisiting Flannery O’Connor and it seems quite simple. But you see her characters. And she explains how they look. It’s a little old-fashioned, but I think it works for this collection in particular. Especially dealing with external damage or how our bodies affect what’s going on inside of us. There’s a huge New Age movement about that. You have to do all these things inside your body to glow or whatever. But, yeah, interesting that you point out their scars and deformities. That too would be the “Grotesque in Southern Fiction” essay of Flannery O’Connor. And I was unware until you pointed that out. But now that you’ve pointed that out, oh, that is a theme

Correspondent: But I am curious to get into this notion of how a character looks. I’ve actually been discussing this quite a bit this year with authors — especially in relation to sustaining a mystery. How you see in mysteries that you don’t really know the protagonist, how the protagonist looks like or what not. And that’s part of the way of getting inside the character internally. And I’m wondering what motivates your need to really see them externally before you can see them internally. Do you think there’s a kind of mystery or a tension here sometimes when you’re advancing a story?

Bomer: Well, I hope there is mystery, not necessarily the classical mystery novel, but definitely you want to be discovering things in a story as you go along. And I hope I can accomplish that. I don’t know — I’m thinking of the story “Cleveland Circle House.” That story came to me and the opening is all about how she looks. Like her neck’s too big, her chin’s too long. I can’t remember exactly. But that story came to me first with this young girl’s face and how one person loves her for it and thinks she’s amazing and another person doesn’t think much of her at all. Like her parents, in other words, have this very different reaction to who she is physically and as a person. So that started the story.

Correspondent: Much as the back started “Inside Madeleine”? The back of the mother at the very beginning.

Bomer: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: I love the way you fixated on a physical part like that.

Bomer: Yeah. And the dynamic being she’s always there with her mother’s back. That weird separation and how they’re trying to bridge that separation by feeding. That was very obviously something I was trying to do and I did it in a repetitive, somewhat experimental way. Not as traditionally structured narrative.

Correspondent: It’s weird. Because the beginning of that story made me think of a Dorothea Lange photo for some reason. The hardened back. I was thinking, “Gosh, if we see her face, will she look like something out of the Dust Bowl?” (laughs)

Bomer: That’s pretty funny. I don’t think we ever really see her face.

Correspondent: No, we don’t!

Bomer: No.

Correspondent: I’m telling you. There is mystery here!

Bomer: (laughs) So when mysteries — I’m not as well-read in mystery as you are, but I do know that Jim Thompson, who I don’t know if you’d call — I guess he’s more noir.

Correspondent: I call everything “literature” myself.

Bomer: Yes.

Correspondent: It just happens to be categorized in the mystery section sometimes.

Bomer: Right. I’m with you. But Jim Thompson, you see his characters, although all the male characters, I’m thinking now, kind of blend together. But the women are specific. One of my favorite is how she’s really beautiful but she has long gray hair and he’s dealing with all these weird Freudian mom issues, like he often does in his stories. Her looks are a very big part of her character and his relationship to her and how he likes the fact that she’s got long gray hair, even though she’s also very young and sexual in a way. So the dichotomy of that. I guess I think that drawing, getting an idea of what people look like — weight issues are a big part of it. This book deals with the external and how it affects our place in the world. Polly, with her going through puberty, which is a horrible time and all you care about is what people think about how you look when you’re twelve.

Correspondent: Well, I mean, this leads me to wonder if external description is almost a mere…

[DOG BARKS]

Bomer: Sorry, guys.

Correspondent: It’s okay. We can have a few dogs bark on this podcast. Keeps the tension going. It makes me wonder if external description is in some sense almost a mirror that you can hold up to the reader, as an author, to confront either the world or to confront the notion or the worldview the reader brings into your stories. Is that safe to say?

Bomer: Yeah. I would hope so. That would be wonderful. Because I definitely put thought into how I’m describing them, what I decide to focus on, and it affects how they are seen in the world and accepted by their communities or relationship with their professor. The one you mentioned, Anya, the fact that she has pock marks endears her. It makes her vulnerable to the student and makes the student feel that she can bridge this teacher-student gap, and really have an intense friendship almost with this woman. Or at least lean on her in ways that are very gratifying. And that’s definitely — I have something where I love vulnerability in people. So basically I project that in various ways throughout all of my books. But maybe this one, because they’re all kind of coming of age, they’re in that really more insecure phase in many ways.

Correspondent: Well, that’s interesting. We have a teacher/student dynamic. But there’s also a student/student dynamic in many of these college stories. So you almost have to have two dynamics to get inside what these protagonists are dealing with. I’m wondering how that kind of relationship developed in the blind girl story and also “Cleveland Circle” as well.

Bomer: Yeah. Well, definitely a theme that I’m exploring throughout this is young women, or girls, and their relationship to other young women and girls. I don’t paint a pretty picture, I’m afraid. And even thought there is…it’s not all bad. But most people I know throughout their lives, they’re going to discard some relationships. And those relationships, because they’re…oh god, I was going to say toxic. And that’s so cheesy.

Correspondent: Well, “toxic” we can use.

Bomer: But I think there’s a book called Toxic People.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Bomer: This whole silly psychology.

Correspondent: Why is toxic cliche now? I’m curious.

Bomer: Because of a book, right? It’s like the “inner child.”

Correspondent: Well, “toxic” isn’t on that level of “inner child.”

Bomer: Okay. I hope. Maybe.

Correspondent: We can use it during the course of this conversation. It’s okay.

Bomer: Okay. I appreciate it.

Correspondent: You can use anything.

Bomer: Using the word “toxic.” I’m actually trying to think of another way of describing it. But one thing for certain is that I do believe — so this is another psychobabbly thing — when you’re young, you’re kind of reliving relationships, maybe even your family relationships. And you kind of seek out the person who’s going to be some of the negative things that happened at home. And I’m not saying that everyone is completely damaged or whatever. But most people have some bumps in life, in their family, in their social life. And then I take it to a bit of an extreme. Because to me, that’s more interesting from a literary standpoint. And I don’t always. But in this book, I would say a lot of it is quite extreme. And definitely these characters, a lot of them are attracted to these people who aren’t very nice to them and who they either worship. Because they have things that are small or are skinny or they seem confident. And then they end up getting kind of hurt by that situation. Or the opposite, the occasional “Oh, this person’s vulnerable and therefore I can be vulnerable around them.” And so there’s this safety in relationships.

Correspondent: You’re sort of suggesting that people are looking for a new family when they go to school. And this is the great fluid organizational structure that you can bring into narrative, which requires organizational structure.

Bomer: Yeah. Definitely. That’s a very good way of looking at what I’m trying to do, in particular with this book.

(Photo credit: Robert Martin)

The Bat Segundo Show #546: Paula Bomer III (Download MP3)

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Porochista Khakpour (The Bat Segundo Show #545)

Porochista Khakpour is most recently the author of The Last Illusion. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #249.

Author: Porochista Khakpour

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Subjects Discussed: Lyme disease, the thrill of not knowing yourself, messy house syndrome, bird mythologies attached to various nations, Marco Polo and the roc, drawing from the Shahnameh, the inspirational value in Googling feral children, what artists talk about on smoke breaks, when readers hold an author morally responsible for fictitious animal abuse, BASE jumping, the Freedom Tower video, going blonde for Elle, making lunch with caviar and Wonder bread, being a white demon in a dark world, Toni Morrison’s advice on writing the book inside you (with mangled paraphrasing), being obsessed with Latin American and surrealistic writers, the appeal of the grotesque, being young and adversarial, when novels become unanticipated memoirs, when the “unreal” is more real than real, David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, Karl Ove Knausgaard, hard realism vs. surrealism, Stephen Dixon, hyperrealism, when realism becomes too polished or manicured, dry literary modes getting in the way of depicting reality, Carol Shields, harmful MFA diets, James Salter, Richard Yates, John Cheever, academics who misinterpret authenticity, finding the human in the idiosyncratic, the freaks, and the outsiders, why Bret Easton Ellis’s work is dismissed, Glamorama as an underrated novel, Khakpour’s review of Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird, the myth of perfect novels, why risks and originality are important to sustaining unique fiction, attempting to track what went wrong with risky American fiction during the last twenty years, the dangers of likable books, Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names, Yiyun Li’s Kinder Than Solitude, why young American readers are so conservative, millennials who avoid politics and history, when reading choices are impacted by economic crisis, what happens when the youth experience of bouncing around jobs is taken away from American life, needless obsessions with “being good,” when favoriting and liking intrudes upon the sincerity of genuine compliments, why hierarchies now look stupid, ridiculous formalism vs. overly casual forms of address, speed and anxiety, the threat of phones that entice us with buzzing notifications, contemporary anxieties over art that confronts, the remarkable human capacity for inventing needless popularity contests, being part of an immigrant group and fitting in, being true to yourself, ridiculous calculations set up by publishers, when New York publishing types forget regular readers who crave something different, why women’s magazines have embraced The Last Illusion, doing something daring because the universe is indifferent, blind ideological labels that cause nuance to be overlooked, “TWITTER NEVER FORGETS”, suspicion attached to sincerity, the apology cycle, media training’s assault on the real, healthy anti-authoritarian impulses, illegal methods of making money, the trap of fancy restaurants, the mistaken assumption that all writers live middle-class lifestyles, consumerist impulses that get in the way of the writing life, the appeal of New York City (when one can barely afford it), being exposed to subcultures, finding places where outsiders are accepted, Y2K and 9/11 as efforts to destroy New York, New York’s openness, medical arbiters named after guitar gods, how storytelling can combat injurious forces against the individual, inhabiting your own narrative, adopting a uniform of neon orange socks and a cowboy hat for school, pranks as a form of existence, prank phone calls, dialing up a radio station and pretending to be other people, talking in a baby voice as a professed Playboy Playmate, testing the notions of what people are willing to believe, learning international calling codes as a child and asking people in Nairobi to speak Swahili, physically digging holes to China, being paralyzed by knowing we’re going to die, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, getting the big death questions out of the way on the first date, the benefits of not caring vs. paralyzing thoughts as a kid, dramatizing how people believe in illusions, betrayal and panic attacks, differing emotions that emerge from PTSD and betrayal, fear and illusion, magical thinking, the Y2K panic in San Francisco, Y2K as a cultural embarrassment, failing to consider American time before 9/11, Asiya perceived as a villain in The Last Illusion, why a 500 pound character is the soul of The Last Illusion, eating insects (and associated ethics), being inspired by paintings, how different generations have viewed women, the absence of parents, family structure as a safeguard against feral children, destructive ways of being to survive a fractious childhood, Kafka’s response to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Kafka’s notion of the other Abraham as a solution to the parable’s heroic failings, father figures as impostors, having a checkered employment history, work as an enslavement of faith, saturating a novel with pre-9/11 paraphernalia, celebrating the autodidact, awkward paths to manhood, masturbation, connections between reading fiction and empathy, how online skimming is discouraging people from reading ambitious fiction, how to get more people to read Ulysses, trends in longform, the recent fetishization of Gay Talese, Renata Adler’s resurgence among young people, the double-edged sword of “legitimized” indie presses, marketing savvy entering into alt lit considerations, hostility towards works of ambitious fiction, Rebecca Curtis’s stories, Leslie Jamison, the impact of the VIDA Count, trying to get young men to read, reading around the world to atone for American literary inadequacies, Borges’s Ficciones, and hopes expressed for future punks.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Khakpour: I’ve got gallows humor for miles, but I’ve been having so many difficulties because of a recent relapse of Lyme disease. So I’m finding everything a little extra challenging. But maybe also a little bit thrilling. Because who knows what will come out?

Correspondent: What’s the thrill of this predicament?

Khakpour: The thrill is that I actually don’t entirely know myself. And so…

Correspondent: You’ve found out more things about yourself.

Khakpour: (laughs) Well, sort of. I’ve been teaching and lecturing and sometimes I feel like this disease attacks your softer tissue. Everywhere. Your brain and your organs and everything. At certain times…

Correspondent: I thought that the brain was a harder tissue. All that work. Especially your brain.

Khakpour: In my case…

Correspondent: No.

Khakpour: …it’s pretty dim.

Correspondent: Oh, I don’t know about that.

Khakpour: It’s weird. I remember certain things that I thought I had done away with and then certain things I will completely forget. You know, I have that sort of senile dementia.

Correspondent: But, see, I’m like that without Lyme disease.

Khakpour: (laughs)

Correspondent: So I think actually, if that’s the case, you’re the most formidable intellect who has ever appeared on this show.

Khakpour: (laughs) Thank you. It’s amazing. I looked up this thing called messy house syndrome.

Correspondent: Messy house syndrome!

Khakpour: And I thought that it literally just meant, “Your house is messy.”

Correspondent: Or your house is not in order. In some family dynasty sense.

Khakpour: (laughs) I think it’s this thing. I’m not sure exactly how to pronounce it. There are various names that involve forms of senile dementia that are related to it. And it is an interesting umbrella term for various forms of cognitive dysfunction that I very much relate to. But I don’t think it’s permanent. I hope it’s not permanent. I’m enjoying it a little bit. My emotional range is quite stunted.

Correspondent: It’s kind of a temporary vacation from possibly thinking all the time.

Khakpour: Well, I’ve short circuited a lot with thinking.

Correspondent: Well, you’re associative, I think.

Khakpour: (laughs) Exactly.

Correspondent: Which some people call a short circuit, but actually is really kind of liberating. So you have this little caesura in the usual great Porochista universe.

Khakpour: It’s interesting. I used to be so obsessed with altered states and I would do drugs to achieve them and all that.

Correspondent: Now you’ve got the ultimate altered state. The ultimate natural high.

Khakpour: Exactly. So in some ways, it’s kind of amazing. But it would be nice if I knew it would end soon. I think it will.

Correspondent: And yet you have been nothing less than perspicacious so far.

Khakpour: Okay. Thank you. Phew. (laughs)

Correspondent: Let’s get into the book. So Marco Polo, he popularized the legend of the roc. The Greeks, they have the phoenix. Slavic folklore has the firebird. In short, I don’t think there’s a single culture in the world that does not have some form of a mythological bird. America has the bald ego…the bald eagle. The bald ego as well! (laughs)

Khakpour: (laughs) The bald ego as well! I was going to say.

Correspondent: The bald ego and the bald eagle. And not far from the years of your novel, in 1999 to 2001, which is when yours is set, the bald eagle was actually placed from an endangered species to a threatened species and now is actually off that list altogether. Because the bald eagle made a comeback. So beyond your inspiration from the Shahnameh, I’m curious what drew you to the bird as this malleable mythological symbol. To what extent were you interested in not only transcending culture across nations, but even subcultures, perhaps bird-related, within this nation?

Khakpour: Oh. That’s so interesting. I love that question. Yeah. There’s a lot of avian themes in everything I write. It’s strange. It was in my first novel as well. And then I just naturally gravitated toward it here. I was at a residency where everybody was working very hard. And it was one of my first residencies. And I had no interest in being there almost. I was just tired from the first book. And I just decided I was going to read during my residency time. I brought a copy of the Persian Book of Kings, the Shahnameh, the Dick Davis translation that came out a few years ago. And I was flipping through it and remembering my father reading it to me in Farsi. And there was always just this one story that I always would make him reread. And it was the story of Zal and his friendship with this giant mythological bird, the Simorgh. It’s strange to even say “friendship.” I mean, the Simorgh was this guardian. And so essentially raised him. So anyways, that was in the back of my mind. While I was flipping through it at night in this residency, I would go on smoking breaks and there was this one other lovely artist there who was the only other smoker and she was also kind of pretending to do work. And we would just talk about our lives during these smoking breaks. And one time she said to me, she would just go on these rants and she said, “Whatever you do, never Google ‘feral children.'” And I said, “Wait! Why did you say that? What?” And she said, “Oh no. I’ve just been bored. I’ve been Googling things late at night.”

Correspondent: As one does.

Khakpour: Yeah. And then so I thought, “Okay.” I went there obviously. It was late at night there one night. And it was very horrific. And I’d always been interested in both the “reality,” but also the hoaxes that have been attributed to feral children. So then I found this case, this Russian case, of a bird boy who’d been essentially partially raised in a cage and could only chirp. Maybe it was a hoax. Maybe not. And immediately I combined that with Zal in my brain. And the two just kind of mashed up seamlessly. The next day at our smoking break, I told her. I said, “I think you just helped me come up with my second novel.” I’d had the other thread of the second novel, which really involved the magician and the last illusion. But he was only — I could always tell that he was 50% most of the story. There was a whole other thread. So I don’t know. Then I came to that and it was actually interesting. I came to realize, “Boy, you’re obsessed with birds and flight and all that. What is that about?” And there’s a made up myth in the first novel that involves burning doves actually. It’s sort of the myth behind the narrative of the first novel.

Correspondent: This is what it sounds like when the doves fry.

Khakpour: (laughs) Yeah.

Correspondent: Sorry.

Khakpour: So many people scold me about that scene. It’s funny. People come to the readings. And I only started reading from it late in the game. And I would have these oftentimes older women who would come to me and say…

Correspondent: Older women?

Khakpour: Yes. Who’d say, “Why would you have such scenes of animal abuse?” And they would accuse me of having harmed animals myself. And I was just so horrified. I was, “No, this is fiction.”

Correspondent: People get very sensitive to animals being harmed in fiction, I find.

Khakpour: Totally.

Correspondent: I mean, they are more willing to impugn an author for a fictional animal abuse more so than any real animal abuse.

Khakpour: I know.

Correspondent: It’s really odd.

Khakpour: Incredibly. I know. And people were very disturbed by that. But anyways, you brought up so many good points about the cultures in the U.S. too. I think, I mean, there’s a general awe that comes when you think about flight, right? It’s one thing we definitely can’t do. We can do it in these wonky adorable human ways. Hang glider. Sky diving.

Correspondent: BASE jumping.

Khakpour: Yeah, BASE jumping. Right.

Correspondent: That amazing video from the Freedom Tower.

Khakpour: I know.

Correspondent: I’m not even going to tell you how many times I saw it.

Khakpour: Same here.

Correspondent: It just gave me such a cathartic thrill.

Khakpour: Oh yeah. I started collecting a lot of those ideas, or collecting a lot of those instances and looking at their videos and all that, when I was writing this. And that figures — even the idea of stunts that involve flight or falling — big in this book.

Correspondent: How many times did your dad read you the legend of Zal? I’m curious. Because this seems to me that it was deeply imprinted upon you as a child.

Khakpour: Yeah.

Correspondent: And we always go back to the tales we’re told as children to find meaning and inspiration as adults.

Khakpour: Over and over, I would ask him to read this. He would keep going. There’s many amazing stories in the Shahnameh. There’s so many beautiful and incredible — you know, it has that feeling of The Canterbury Tales and The Old Testament where you can go to it for unlimited inspiration. But I was frozen on Zal. I related to him so much. Because there was also — you know, in my first novel, there’s a whole thing with I Dream of Jeannie. This blonde genie and the weirdness of that to me.

Correspondent: And here you are blonde as well. (laughs)

Khakpour: Yes. For an article.

Correspondent: It was in the prophecy! (laughs)

Khakpour: Yes. Exactly! Now I am one of the fakest blondes ever. So that was a fascination. The other thing that was interesting in the story of Zal was that he was born essentially something like an albino. It’s unclear from the text exactly what they meant. But he had a certain whiteness of skin and a lightness of hair. He basically had white hair. And that was why he was cast out. And I think for an Iranian immigrant new to the U.S. — at that point, we’d only been a few years in the U.S. — I was so fascinated by issues that surrounded race and ethnicity in the U.S. vs. Iran and what that all meant. So Zal to me was just — I didn’t know what to make out of this story. He was somehow what Americans might consider the ideal of beauty. Maybe even some other cultures of course. And yet he was cast aside. Basically left in the wilderness to be raised by a bird.

Correspondent: There were a lot of uncleared mysteries in the original tale.

Khakpour: Yeah.

Correspondent: And maybe this is perhaps what captured your imagination and led you to flesh it out and transplant it here in New York.

Khakpour: Exactly. Yeah. And I had been so anxious about fitting into America at that point. And I knew — I couldn’t even really relate to my own parents. I mean, they were of a different socioeconomic class than my brother and I. So here were two upper-class Iranians in their twenties who were fairly gutted about not being able to do fancy things. You know, my mother would be upset that we couldn’t have a childhood where we went shopping in Europe. And my father was meanwhile making us only Wonder bread sandwiches with butter and caviar on it.

Correspondent: Butter and caviar?

Khakpour: (laughs) Yeah.

Correspondent: Wow. That would make the lunch trade a little bit more convoluted.

Khakpour: (laughs)

Correspondent: “I’ll give you the caviar for the apple.”

Khakpour: (laughs Yeah. Exactly. It was a very confused issue concerning nationality and ethnicity and all that.

Correspondent: And class.

Khakpour: And class. Definitely. So I was constantly thinking about this. And when I would get tired, late at night, when he would read me these stories, I’d have horrible insomnia. I would sit with him and he’d pick up where he left off. I would just ask him, “Could you read this story one more time?” He seemed to give me both a combination of hope for the outsider — because at the end of the Zal story, he’s a great warrior and he’s a great hero of the Persian Empire. And even his whiteness starts to be discussed as silver. It’s very striking. He suddenly becomes the embodiment of strength and power. But there’s a lot of conflict in this story too. And there’s a lot of darkness in that story too. And that really got my wheels turning at a young age. And I feel like I’ve always waited to have an opportunity to do something with that story. And it sort of got me when I didn’t even know that I was looking for it.

(Photo: Darcy Rogers)

(Music provided through Free Music Archive: Jose Travieso’s “Zombie Nation.”)

The Bat Segundo Show #545: Porochista Khakpour II (Download MP3)

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Nikil Saval (The Bat Segundo Show #544)

Nikil Saval is the author of Cubed and an editor at n+1.

Author: Nikil Saval

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Subjects Discussed: Karen Nussbaum and the Nine to Five movement, 9 to 5 as the template for the office comedy, whether the office workplace is permanently stacked against the worker (and attempts to find hope), the beginnings of human resources, the Hawthorne effect, efforts to control workers through close supervision, attention to light and the beginnings of office architecture, the National Labor Relations Act, attempts to organize office workers in the 1930s, anti-immigrant sentiments and racism among white collar workers, unions and white collar workers, why workers feel empowered when they have nothing, the rise of freelancing culture, Richard Greenwald, how office work creates the illusion of giving the worker mastery over his fate, the Bürolandschaft ideal, Robert Propst, Action Office, the historical beginnings of the cubicle, attempts to track down the guy who first closed partitions into the cubicle, Norbert Wiener and cybernetics, King Vidor’s The Crowd, Jacques Tati’s Play Time, futile attempts to photograph “action” in offices, sitting up and standing down, healthy activities in the workplace, Propst’s failed three wall ideal, Herman Miller propaganda and Action Office possibilities, when George Nelson was jilted from the office furniture plans, how changes in the broader culture influenced changes in office culture, managers pulled from offices and deposited in cubes, Barry Lyndon, the impact of mass layoffs, the recession of the 1980s and its impact on white collar culture, when the cubicle became associated with transience, the lack of privacy in the workplace, why European countries revolted against office layout while Americans stayed silent, Frederick Taylor and Taylorism, Taylorism’s rise and fall and second rise, Louis Brandeis’s popularization of Taylorism through “scientific management” (used in his argument of the Eastern Rate Case of 1910), Taylorized families, Harry Braverman, the beginnings of human resources, Taylorism vs. eugenics, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, Douglas McGregor’s The Human Side of Enterprise as an anti-Taylorist tract, Andy Grove’s Only the Paranoid Survive as a return to Taylorism, Robert Waterman’s In Search of Excellence, perpetuating familial attitudes in the workplace, advertising and irony (and parallels to Taylorism), Taylorism vs. Taylor in Planet of the Apes, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building, natural light and the early forms of air conditioning, surveillance by overseers that is perpetuated in workplace architecture, zombie-like accountants, the ethical question of happy workers, the beginnings of glass buildings, Le Corbusier and urban planning, the Lever House, when glass curtains won over Lewis Mumford, Vico cycles, how offices may be returning to their original counting house forms, the Sony Tower’s transformation from work units to residential units in the next few years, the question of workplace architecture becoming an ineluctable and oppressive threat on the way we live, mistaken impressions of Marxism spouted by philosophers, companies spending less on office space, developments in living space and workspace, laptops in cafes, freelancers and co-working facilities, the upward presumptions of clerks, and how once stable labor conditions have become a fantasy.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: We are, in fact, talking in an office. So I’m not sure what that does to this conversation. But we’ll, I suppose, make amends.

Saval: I know. Well, at least it’s a private office and not a cubicle. Because that could be a…

Correspondent: Or an open office for that matter.

Saval: Or an open office. God.

Correspondent: Well, let’s get right into it. Back in the late 1970s, Jane Fonda met Karen Nussbaum, a remarkable figure who organized women clerical workers in this Nine to Five movement. And Fonda and a screenwriter spent an entire evening talking with 40 office workers. This became the basis for the wildly popular movie 9 to 5, which arguably set the template, comic wise, for Office Space, The Office, and, of course, most recently Silicon Valley. As you point out in the book, some of the proposed remedies at the end of that film — plants, rearranged desks, flextime, day care at work — they actually reflect what’s know as the Bürolandschaft ideal. And we’ll get to that in a bit. But, you know, this has me wondering if there is something permanently broken about the office. Is it possible that any attempt to remedy it or improve it is almost this kind of neoliberal trap? What hopes do we have for the worker? Or is the deck permanently stacked against her?

Saval: (laughs)

Correspondent: Just to start off here.

Saval: So softball.

Correspondent: It was such a wonderfully bleak book that I had to have a vivaciously bleak opener.

Saval: Gosh. I wish I could just say, “No no no. The story’s happy. It has a happy ending.” You know, I don’t really mean to say that the workplace is permanently broken. I guess I do want to say that the kind of repeated — as you pointed out, there’s a repeated attempt to make work better, usually through design but also through other kind of arrangements in the workplace. Architecturally and what have you. And a lot of these go wrong. And some of them go spectacularly wrong; the most famous being the office cubicle. And I think the point there is not just that the office seems to be broken, but that there is some sense of an idea of how work might be better and there is an idea of somehow you might be able to organize it better, somehow work might be more free, workers might have more control over their work. Things like that. And usually these are sort of fatally disabled by — I mean, it’s not always the case, but usually, roughly, it’s a presumption that these designers or planners know what’s best for an office worker. And there’s usually something imposed on an office worker. Or there’s a plan that starts out really well and then when it’s replicated ad nauseam, it goes wrong or it doesn’t even strike at the heart of what’s wrong at work and they try to design a way things are more fundamental to the issue of the workplace.

Correspondent: But as you also point out in the book, there is this brief moment for the worker — and perhaps it’s an illusional one or a delusional one — where you have a situation when suddenly there is care about what the worker thinks and how the worker can behave, as opposed to how the worker should behave. And I’ll get into Mr. [Frederick] Taylor in a bit. But what accounted for that particular moment, which was roughly around 1929 and up through about the 1950s, before yet another ideologue came in and had ideas about what to do for the worker and for the workplace?

Saval: Well, yeah, that’s, I guess you could call it, the human relations movement. That was the idea that…

Correspondent: That’s the 1960s of the office. (laughs)

Saval: Exactly.

Correspondent: That’s the hippie idealism, I suppose. That period.

Saval: Yeah. And it comes out of a lot of different sources. And one was just the office, but it was also the workplace. It took hold on factory floors as well. And the idea was just that workers needed to be in corporations that somehow ostensibly cared for them. It came out of what was known as the Hawthorne experiments, which are a famous social science experiment where they tried in the Hawthorne Works to experiment with different lighting levels and to see how this affected the way people worked. And what they realized was that actually there wasn’t a direct connection. It wasn’t that the light got better and workers worked better or got worse and workers worked better. It was just that when workers thought they were being watched — at least this was the conclusion — they felt like the company cared about them. And therefore they worked better. And so, especially at a time — this was not so true in the ’20s, but certainly in the ’30s this was true — when there were union movements, when there were the high points of the American labor movement, corporations and companies just felt that things were not going their way and they did not want unions in their workplaces. And so they thought, “Well, we just need to become more familial. We need to care more. We need to manage more lightly. We need to think of our workers’ psychology, not just their efficiency and their productivity.” And I think this results in all kinds of changes in the workplace. I sort of argue that even the architecture of the workplace somehow reflects this desire to make work better, to make workers feel more at home. Maybe with the mid-century corporation, I think I suggest that with things like the Lever House, the Seagram Building, the attention to light and to design and the explosion of design at that time in the workplace — even the idea that a workplace interior should be thoroughly planned and designed — I think reflects this attempt to make workers happy.

Correspondent: Do you think that many of the behavioral psychologists and these people who were looking into lighting were thinking very much about unions? I mean, we often forget from our — well, to get into the decline of labor in the 21st century is another can of worms, but we often forget from our vantage point now how much pull labor had in the early 20th century. And I’m wondering, in the attempt to determine how workers were feeling, how much was that a presence? How much was that a motivation? Or was it simply just innate curiosity? Or the kind of touchy-feely vibe we were implying earlier?

Saval: You know, certainly with industrial workplaces, it was definitely, absolutely a fear. Partly because union organizing, it just spiked, especially after the passage of the Wagner Act, the National Labor Relations Act. With the office, I don’t think there was a huge worry about it. I did some, to me, very fascinating but probably to other people very tedious archival work where I looked into the proceedings of the International Association of Office Managers, or rather I think it’s the National Association, and there’s a point in the ’30s when they really express worries about this and they think, “Well, it’s really taken a hold on factories and even some offices are starting to unionize.” And there actually is, more than there used to be, in certain publishing houses. The New Republic organizes at the time, with something affiliated with the Communist Party. And so you have people talking about how the last redoubt of capitalism, the place where individualism thrives. The office. Even this is under threat. And so we really need it. I mean, once this goes, I think there’s a little bit of a sense that — and again it was not so widespread, but they were definitely afraid, I think.

Correspondent: Well, you do in fact quote the possibly apocryphal Samuel Gompers line, “Show me two white collar workers on a picket line and I’ll organize the entire working class.” Why didn’t office workers latch onto labor? You suggest that there is this assumption that their talents and their skills could in fact give them an independent shot. And I suppose, I guess we see the natural offshoots of this kind of libertarian impulse with some of the tech entrepreneurs that came later. But I’m wondering. Why couldn’t there be some sort of confluence here? Because it seems to me that everybody here had the same interests in mind.

Saval: Yeah. This is sort of the central contradiction of the white collar workplace. I mean, it’s just that there is, on the one hand, you have this ideal of this perfect meritocracy, that certainly the managers talk about this in their association, that you can rise — and this was true in the early antebellum offices especially. And it made more sense then. If you were a clerk, you would become the partner of that firm. And that lasted even past the point that that was true. When some offices became much larger, business became bigger and there were only so many places at the top and many more places at the bottom. So it was just less and less likely.

Correspondent: Toil long enough at the firm and you will ascend to heaven when you’re dead.

Saval: (laughs) Right.

Correspondent: It’s a very familiar promise.

Saval: Right. Exactly. So the way that persists is partly that there’s just a lot of — that it makes sense. It was true for some people. And that had some effect. It made people think that it was true in the office. There’s something about the prestige and status of white collar work that has made it different from blue collar work, especially in the U.S. politically. It just seems like it’s cleaner. The work often required a high command of English. So when there were a lot of high waves of immigration into the United States, there weren’t a lot of immigrants working in white collar workplaces. So there was a kind of homogeneity. And then, of course, also it was very male up to a point. And then when women entered the office, they often entered into the steno pool, a typing pool, to jobs that didn’t have high levels of prestige so that men could feel themselves above in a way, could still feel like they were middle class even when they maybe weren’t. And the other thing — and I talk about this a little bit in a chapter about the skyscrapers — was that there were not a lot of appeals on the part of unions or political parties in the U.S. to white collar workers. It was not clear how to organize them.

Correspondent: It was not clear how to get through to them.

Saval: Yeah. Exactly. The whole model was predicated on industrial organizing. And this doesn’t mean that it didn’t work in a number of cases, a can of worms which I don’t deal with which is the public sector. Because I think it’s a different animal. Can of worms. Animal. Anyway.

Correspondent: Let’s mix as many metaphors as you like. (laughs) But this leads me to wonder. Why couldn’t these very dedicated labor unions get through to the white collar worker? I mean, they had — and again I cannot understate this — they had incredible power at the time.

Saval: Right.

Correspondent: How could they not actually have the communication skills or the fortitude or even the ability to massage their message? Why couldn’t they get through? I mean, they did try. There’s an AFL magazine article you quote, addressed to the white collar workers, where essentially the author says, “Hey. Look after yourselves. You want to think about the future.” But it seems to me that they needed to go further. I mean, what was the disconnect here?

Saval: You know, it just seems like a number of things. One was just the persistence of the idea that upward mobility was a given. And in periods where there are high levels, it’s mainly growth. I think of times like the 1920s, even when inequality widens, union influence starts to dip after a kind of high point in the late 1910s. And then in the ’30s, the union influence in the office increases. Because white collar unemployment becomes a real thing. But then it dips again in the ’50s and then it starts to spike up in the ’70s. And then actually in the ’80s, when things really actually go wrong for a little bit.

Correspondent: With Reagan and the air traffic controllers.

Saval: Yeah. And then it hasn’t really — I mean, you would think that and you would think now in the last four years that it would increase. I feel like I’ve read of isolated cases. But it’s not a trend. There’s a union organizer who I quote, writing in Harper’s in the ’50s — he’s an anonymous organizer — about why white collar workers can’t be organized. And he seems to think that there’s a way in which white collar workers see themselves, even though they are exploited. He says they are the most exploited workers in a certain way. But they see themselves as possessing certain skills, whereas an assembly line worker will talk about the industry that he works in. “I work in the auto industry.” Whereas a white collar worker will refer to his or her profession. “I’m a stenographer” or “I’m a typist.” “I’m a bookkeeper.” And that way of talking indicates that you’re able to move. That you have a skill that other people prize. And I don’t know if that’s a sufficient reason for people not to organize. But it sort of means that you need to talk about different things. And it’s not always the case. People do organize. It has happened. But this was his reason anyway.

Correspondent: In other words, with this particular notion, the suggestion is that one had a kind of linguistic independent identity. One had a label to hold as his own, whereas the organized worker would relate to an industry. This leads me to wonder why that notion of independence was, number one, so appealing to the worker and, number two, why they didn’t see, especially after toiling for many decades and not getting anywhere, that it was all a sham.

Saval: Yeah. It remains a sort of intractable question. But the notion of independence is powerful. And you even see that now in the rise of freelancing or contract work, which I do not want to attribute that too much to people choosing to do that all the time. I mean, there is a lot of it.

Correspondent: The sexiness of having to go ahead and pay for your own health care. Having to look for pennies under the couch. It’s just such a remarkably romantic ideal, isn’t it?

Saval: It’s so freeing. It’s liberating. But on the other hand, there are people who choose to do it. And what they’re seeking is a certain kind of freedom and autonomy over their work.

(Loops for this program provided by Martin Minor, MaxJC, danke, ozzi, 40a, ebaby8119, and Dokfraktal. )

The Bat Segundo Show #544: Nikil Saval (Download MP3)

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Evie Wyld (The Bat Segundo Show #543)

Evie Wyld is most recently the author of All the Birds, Singing.

Author: Evie Wyld

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Subjects Discussed: The Call of the Wild as workplace novel, the stability of work in wild environments, physical labor and working in bookstores, coming from a family with a farming background, the engineering mindset, the virtues of being a messy writer, the interest in what we hold back, having to write moments that aren’t revealed to the reader, the dangers of creative pride, how to organize a messy 60,000 words on a floor using scissors and tape, structure and certainty, hating your book, attempts to write linearly and literally, the virtues of an innate rebellious streak, when flashbacks become integral to structure, the many insects within Wyld’s fiction, how horror films are more willing to dramatize the relationship between humans and animals, Jeffrey Lockwood’s The Infested Mind, entomophobia and Western culture, why sharks are misunderstood, Australian insects, Holiday Cigarettes, the autonomy of smoking, attempts to find control over your environment, kangaroos hit by utility trucks, appreciating life by confronting death, why kangaroos are mutinous, dogs vs. kangaroos, animals and social projection, sheep, when kangaroos stop being cute, pet kangaroos, when giving a character a job is the hardest part of fiction, sheep shearing pubs, farming pubs, sheep integrity, Ernest Hemingway, Robert De Niro and Method writing, imagination vs. process writing, getting bogged down in research, notes and memory, characters with palindromic names, bidirectional retreats to the past, how to get around writing boring scenes, romantic notions of writer’s block, why it’s important to write drivel, thinking on the page, despising the manuscript and knowing the moment when it needs to be plucked away, happy nightmares, families of solitary figures, eccentric exercise regimens, the back as a footstool, sheep killing as an ambiguous mystery, the Pulp Fiction briefcase, the appeal of monsters, the pros and cons of setting up reader expectations with a mystery, Stephen King’s It, disappointing endings, why seeing the monster isn’t relevant in storytelling, narrative entitlement, how novelists contend with increasing reader distractions, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Venn diagram of genre and literary fiction, the advantages of working as a bookseller, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Wyld confronting her dead father’s records in the bookstore database, having a healthy suspicion of lists in a BuzzFeed age, Keith Richards’s Life, and the benefits of accidents and coincidences.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I had a rather strange way of entering this rather raucous novel. About three years ago, another critic Matthew Battles and I, we were having this online conversation about The Call of the Wild. And we were both arguing that Jack London’s great novel was actually a workplace novel. Because Buck, he’s forced to contend with the aggressive cubemate, like Spitz, and essentially he has to find individualism and this independent work ethic over the course of his journey. Your book happens to involve two dogs — one of them actually named Dog — and Jake has to learn sheep shearing and driving skills during her journey. Why do you think work became such a dominant part of this novel’s fixation in your efforts to contend with these rather feral environments, both in Australia and in England?

Wyld: Well, I think work is a way of normalizing yourself. It’s a way of getting yourself away from the stuff that’s actually happening in your life. A way of processing it. So I think for Jake, handling sheep is very much who she is. She expresses herself through wrestling with sheep and trying to keep them alive. And she tries to kind of make amends for some of the things in her life by working really, really hard and working very hard at looking after these sheep, trying to keep them alive, failing a lot of the time.

Correspondent: Why do you think it’s tied so much into the idea of existing in this kind of wild environment? That’s the real question. Why work is the defining quality of a naturalistic environment.

Wyld: I think it keeps you sane in some sense. I mean, I certainly find. that lives in the wilds of Peckham, where I am in London, I work very, very hard in the bookshop and I work very hard at writing novels. And I think it’s something to do with, as long as you’re working hard, you feel you’re existing in a way that is worthwhile, in a way that you feel like — sometimes you can feel like you’re very transient and that you’re slightly floating above the earth and you’re not really experiencing anything. And you find that if you actually do something physical to kind of make your mark on the earth, then it has a calming effect, I find.

Correspondent: Do you feel that there’s any difference between working in the wild of a bookstore and working in the rather saner, urban environment of sheep shearing?

Wyld: I think probably a fair amount of difference. I think I really admire physical work. I would love to…

Correspondent: How much physical work have you done?

Wyld: Well, I’ve done absolutely no sheep shearing. I don’t know how physical bookselling is. I lift the books.

Correspondent: It is pretty physical. I mean…

Wyld: Stacking shelves.

Correspondent: Stacking.

Wyld: Dusting. The whole lot.

Correspondent: Moving shelves for author events.

Wyld: Wrestling the odd shoplifter to the ground. That sort of thing. But, yeah, I think my mother’s family are Australian and they’re farmers. So it’s always been something that I have looked on with envy and amazement, really. This amazing, quite masculine work. Actually growing stuff. Actually keeping something alive.

Correspondent: Why didn’t you decide to enter the farming racket?

Wyld: Not sure I’m that talented, to be honest. My Australian family aren’t big readers or big intellectual kind of thinkers. But somehow they’re some of the most intelligent people. They can look at a broken tractor and they can fix it. And I find that incredible. And I don’t have that skill. I don’t have the maths, I think, mainly.

Correspondent: The sort of engineering brain to look upon some casual thing to fix and then you’ll be able to find a solution through a MacGyver situation by putting it back together.

Wyld: Put some oil on it. (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah. Exactly. Well, the novel here is built on a series of alternating chapters. It’s almost this two-lane highway. You have this forward motion in the present and you also have these backwards chapters that depict Jake’s past. I’m wondering how this structure emerged, first and foremost. But how much of Jake’s background did you plan out in advance or come to know in the act of writing? Just to start off here.

Wyld: Well, I’m a very messy writer.

Correspondent: You need structure.

Wyld: Yeah. I tend to start in the middle and kind of work outwards.

Correspondent: Okay. So you just write all over the place.

Wyld: I just write all over the place and then I get to a point where I’ve written a certain amount of words. And I try and find what the story is, what the arc of the story is. So mostly for me the writing process involves getting to know the character. And for me, that involves their childhood, their family. It doesn’t always enter into the story in the end. But it’s central to me that I can’t understand who someone is unless I know about them before the sort of now of the book. So I’d written about 60,000 words. About a third of the book. Maybe half the book. And then I just realized that I was enjoying her as a character and I was enjoying her life in Australia and in the UK. But it was lacking tension. And there was just something really to be gained by folding it over on itself. And I’m a big fan of playing around with structure, only in terms of furthering the story, only in terms of not just for fun but because it’s so exciting to me when you have two objects that shouldn’t go next to each other and they create a third feeling.

Correspondent: Yeah. Did you find that your sense of Jake deepened when you had this structure in place? That you knew here even more intimately than you could ever possibly anticipate knowing?

Wyld: Yeah. I think so. I think there’s something about somebody who is trying very hard not to think about something that appeals to me and that makes me feel that they’re much more human.

Correspondent: It allows you to get outside of your own head.

Wyld: Exactly.

Correspondent: Because you’re sort of a cerebral person and you need something who isn’t a cerebral person to escape to.

Wyld: Yeah. I think there’s definitely something to be said for the things we hold back. I think they’re more interesting than the things we say a lot of the time.

(Loops for this program provided by danke, ozzi, and 40a. )

The Bat Segundo Show #543: Evie Wyld (Download MP3)

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Yiyun Li (The Bat Segundo Show #542)

Yiyun Li is most recently the author of Kinder Than Solitude. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #323.

Author: Yiyun Li

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Subjects Discussed: Moving on, sustaining characters who inhabit their own mystery while an overarching mystery exists to tantalize the reader, judgment of characters and simultaneous mystery, Edward Jones, working out every details of a story in advance, forethought and structure, the original two structures of Kinder Than Solitude, creating a structure alternating between the past and the present, thinking about a project for two years before writing, William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, time as a collage structure, photographs as a marker of identity, not really knowing what the characters look like in Kinder Than Solitude, why Li didn’t visually describe her characters, being an internal writer and reader, writing from inside the characters, Ian Rankin not describing Rebus over the course of more than twenty novels, Patricia Highsmith, Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith, Tom Ripley’s manipulative nature, the dangers of general comments, problems when literary fiction describes objects in consummate detail instead of emotions, freedom and the courage to write about a character’s soul, Chinese Catholics who practiced in secret, priests executed as counterrevolutionaries in Communist-controlled China, underground faith and literary relationships, inevitable bifurcation in exploring an absolute, having to ask the question of whether a sentence is true before setting it down, questioning yourself in everything you do, the allure of family (and the impulse to run away from it), the mantras and maxims that flow through Kinder Than Solitude, coating truth in wise and optimistic sayings, the beauty and sharp internal emotions contained within Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, subtlety and shock in relation to internal character examination, poison as a passive-aggressive form of murder, poison as a muse, Li’s accordion skills (and other revelations), the current American accordion player crisis, “I find your lack of faith disturbing” in Star Wars, when any idea (such as “bok choy”) can be sandwiched into political ideology, notions of planned economy in 1989 China, the personal and the politically being ineluctably intertwined, exploring prohibitions on American political fiction (also discussed in Dinaw Mengestu interview), James Alan McPherson‘s “Elbow Room,” contemplating why Americans are being more careful in discussing the uncomfortable, how the need to belong often overshadows the need to talk, Communist propaganda vs. digital pressures, extraordinary conversations in Europe, considering what forms of storytelling can encourage people to talk about important issues, William Trevor, the intertwined spirit and freedom of Southern literature, Carson McCullers, the flexibility of literary heritage, notions of New South writing, regional assignation as an overstated tag of literature, establishing liminal space through place to explore flexibility in time, despair without geography, feelings and time as key qualities of fiction, writing love letters to cities, James Joyce having to go to Trieste to write about Dublin, and whether place needs to be dead in order to make it alive on the page.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: There’s this point in the book where Moran says to Joseph, “Moving on? That’s an American thing I don’t believe in.” And then there’s this moment late in the book where one American is utterly devastated by what she learns about one of the characters. I’ll try not to give it away. All of the inferences she made are essentially thrown back into her face. And I think this novel dramatizes belief culture in very interesting ways. I’m wondering. How is belief formed or reified by a national instinct, whether it is American or Chinese? And how do you think the migratory impulse of “moving on” causes us to believe in people in very harmful ways? How does this affect you as a novelist? Someone who is asking the reader to believe in lies. Just to start off here.

Li: Right. You know, it’s interesting. Because I always say “moving on” is an American concept. The reason I said that was that, right after 9/11, I was so impressed. By the two months after 9/11. All the newspapers were talking about “moving on.” Americans should move on. And for me, that was quite incredible. Because I did not understand what “moving on” meant and that concept.

Correspondent: This is your introduction to “moving on.”

Li: Yes. And so it stuck with me. And of course, Moran borrowed that concept or Moran said “moving on” after 9/11. People talked about moving on. But the national belief, it’s interesting because I think this Western concept of “moving on,” you know, there’s always a second chance. There are always more opportunities in front of you if you just get over this hurdle. Now it’s becoming more an Asian thing. Only in the past maybe three or four years. If you look at not only China but Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Singapore, all these countries start to believe in moving on. We’re not going to stay in any moment. We’re just going to catch this wave of being.

Correspondent: You left out North Korea. (laughs)

Li: (laughs) Oh no. They can’t. So to me, that’s interesting. Because that’s a belief that, as people are migrating from East to the West, ideas are migrating from the West to the East. And, of course, people coming to America are returning to Asia. So there are these waves of ideas. So now, if you look at Chinese or other Asian countries, “moving on” is a big thing. You know, we’re not going to get stuck in a Cultural Revolution. We’re not going to get stuck in Tienanmen Square. We’re just going to move on to be rich.

Correspondent: But the thing about moving on, I mean, it’s used in two senses. You allude to this American impulse of, yes, well we can move on and have a second chance and start our life over. But there’s also this idea of moving on as if we have no sense of the past. That we have no collective memory or even individual memory. And I’m wondering, if it’s increasingly becoming a way to identify the East and the West, is it essentially a flawed notion? Or is it a notion that one should essentially adopt and then discard? Because we get dangerously close into believing in illusion?

Li: Right. I would feel suspicious of any belief and, again, as you said, moving on really requires us to say we’re going to box this kind of memory. We’re going to put them away so we can do something else. And, of course, as a novelist or as a writer, you always feel suspicious when those things happen. Because you’re manipulating memories. You’re manipulating time.

Correspondent: You’re manipulating readers.

Li: Yes.

Correspondent: So in a sense, you become an ideologue as well.

Li: Exactly. So I would say that anytime anyone says, “Let’s move on” or “Let’s look at history all the time,” I would become suspicious. Because both ways are ways to manipulate readers or characters.

Correspondent: So it’s almost as if you have to dramatize belief culture to be an honest novelist. Would you say that’s the case?

Li: Well, I would say it’s to question that belief culture. And I think when you question, there are many ways to question. To dramatize is one way to question. I mean, you can write essays. I can write nonfiction to question these things, but, as a fiction writer, I think I question the belief culture more than dramatizing it.

Correspondent: How do you think fiction allows the reader to question belief culture more than nonfiction? Or perhaps in a way that nonfiction can’t possibly do?

Li: I think they do different things. For instance, I’m not an experienced nonfiction writer. I do write nonfiction.

Correspondent: You can approach this question from the reader and the writer viewpoint too.

Li: I think for me the most important thing to ask as a fiction writer is you don’t judge your characters. So if they’re flawed in their belief culture, you let them be in that culture and do all the things so that the readers can come to their own conclusions. In nonfiction, I feel that a writer needs to take a stand probably more than a fiction writer.

(Photo: Karin Higgins)

(Loops for this program provided by danke, ozzi, decibel, michiel56, and OzoneOfficial. )

The Bat Segundo Show #542: Yiyun Li II (Download MP3)

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Ben Tarnoff (The Bat Segundo Show #541)

Ben Tarnoff is most recently the author of The Bohemians.

Author: Ben Tarnoff

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Subjects Discussed: Why 1860s California was especially well suited to literary movements, draft riots, Thomas Starr King, how Atlantic Monthly editor James Fields interacted with numerous emerging writers, the New England influence vs. the need to rebel, Charles Stoddard, rustic towns vs. cities battling each other in California over poetic merit, Bret Harte’s aesthetic tastes, how Harte transformed from critic to short story pioneer, how Mark Twain used the door-to-door subscription model to popularize The Innocents Abroad, the influence of the railroads upon what people read, Twain’s inability to command literary respect in America during his time, Twain’s popularity in England, the disreputable qualities of Twain’s appearance, Twain’s drawl, William Dean Howells, the Eastern literary establishment’s regressive assessment of Western style, how Twain used the lecture circuit to generate vital income, early standup comics in America, Artemus Ward the first standup comic in America, New York’s emergence as a media capital in the late 19th century, the development of Twain’s iconoclasm, present day interpretations of Twain as a cuddly avuncular type, Twain’s explosive temperament, Twain’s failed attempts at suicide, how original literary movements can spring from a unique location, present day Brooklyn writers who play it safe, how Twain’s lecture persona allowed him to escape becoming a newspaper hack, Twain vs. Ed Koch as meeter-and-greeter in the streets, the Bret Harte/Mark Twain friendship and feud, Bret Harte’s creative decline upon leaving California, Margaret Duckett’s Mark Twain and Bret Harte, the mysterious inciting incident in 1877 that set Twain off on Harte, Twain’s difficulties in getting his early short story collections published, the death of irony throughout American history, disparaging reports of Anna Griswold Harte (and attempts to find positive qualities about her), how much Bret Harte is responsible for Anna’s alleged sullenness, Bret Harte’s arrogance, Harte’s abandonment of his family, Harte’s aristocratic airs, Harte’s insistence upon a cab when arriving on the East Coast, Bret Harte’s hipster-like sideburns, “Ah Sin,” Twain and Harte perpetuating racist Chinese stereotypes, Twain selling out his principles, yellowface and the Cloud Atlas movie, Twain’s unremitting vengeance against Bret Harte, Twain’s obsessive detail in depicting his grudges, Twain’s tremendous rage and his tremendous love, Twain blaming himself for the death of his son Langdon, parallels between Charles Stoddard and Walt Whitman, Stoddard’s need for approval, Stoddard seeking autographs, Stoddard’s retreat to Hawaii, attempts to determine how much transgressive behavior there was in San Francisco during the late 19th century, Bret Harte rebuffing his literary friends when he moved to the East Coast, Ina Coolbrith as the first woman poet laureate in the United States in 1911, Coolbrith’s “When the Grass Shall Cover Me,” the crushing domestic responsibilities faced by Coolbrith (and stalling Coolbrith’s literary career), grueling library hours in the late 19th century, Stoddard’s South-Sea Idyls, Harte’s remarkably swift dissolution, Harte’s inability to take root in the East, Ambrose Bierce, whether Bierce arrived too late on the scene, pulp writers who lived at the Monkey Block in the early 20th century, Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady in Darkness, and whether any literary movement today can recapture the risk-taking feel of the Bohemians.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Mark Twain and Bret Harte seem to be the big stars of this book. But what do you think it was about this particular area at this particular time that created this particular literature?

Tarnoff: Well, San Francisco in the 1860s has a lot of advantages for a writer. It’s peaceful. The Civil War never comes to California. So there’s no fighting on the coast and there’s no draft. Because Lincoln never applies the draft west of Iowa and Kansas.

Correspondent: And no draft riots.

Tarnoff: Right. Exactly. No draft riots. So it’s peaceful. It’s a great place to wait out the war. It’s very rich. Because it’s the industrial, commercial, and financial center of the region. So the massive amount of wealth that’s being generated in the City finances a range of literary papers. And it’s also very urban. It’s got about 100,000 people in the 1860s and that makes it by far the biggest city in the region, really the biggest city west of St. Louis. And that population is pretty cosmopolitan. Because of the legacy of the gold rush, you have people there from China, from South America, from all different countries in Europe. And I think that all of those are important factors behind producing the literary moment.

Correspondent: And for a while, speaking of St. Louis, it had the largest building west of St. Louis with City Hall.

Tarnoff: That’s right.

Correspondent: For a while. Until it got — I can’t remember which building it was that actually uprooted it. But it was a city of great progress and great buildings. I wanted to start off also by getting into the preacher Thomas Starr King. He’s this figure I have wanted to talk about forever. Because I have read, I’m sure as you have, the Kevin Starr books. The wonderful California Dream series. I’m grateful that your book has allowed me a chance to talk about him here. You know, it has always seemed to me that without King, you could not have had the literary culture that emerged. Because he was this really odd figure. He promoted New England writers. So he was kind of an establishment guy. But at the same time, he’s also the guy who introduces Bret Harte to James Fields, the Atlantic editor, in January 1862. Charles Stoddard — this wonderful poet — also held King up in great esteem. So he’s almost this insider/outsider figure who seems to corral the many literary strands of San Francisco that are burgeoning during this time and forming this new kind of movement that you identify as a Bohemian movement. So I’m wondering. What is your take on Thomas Starr King? Do you think that San Francisco would have been San Francisco if it had not been for that? And do you think that when The Overland Monthly appeared, that this was kind of the replacement for Thomas Starr King? Because at that point he had passed away. What of this?

Tarnoff: Well, Thomas Starr King is a fantastic figure. I think he really is a forgotten founding father of California. He’s so foundational politically, culturally, as you point out from the literary scene. He’s a fantastic mentor figure. You mentioned Charles Stoddard. There’s a scene in my book where Stoddard has just published his first poems in a big literary paper. He’s extremely shy and nervous. And Thomas Starr King comes to the bookshop where he works and tells him personally how much he loved his poems. So he’s a guy with a really personal touch and really cultivates these writers and offers them criticism. He’s an important figure from the point of view from the point of view of the Civil War as well, which is I think how he’s better known today. Because he travels throughout the state during the first year or two of the Civil War and preaches the importance of California staying in the Union. Which it probably would have stayed in anyway. But King is certainly a very persuasive champion of the Union and of abolition.

Correspondent: Yeah. But in terms of his literary contributions, I mean, he was again, like I was suggesting with this last question, this guy who was there to rebel against and this guy to garner favor with so you could actually get into some of the outlets. How did that work? Am I perhaps overreaching with my estimation of King as this great mirror that Twain, Harte, and all these other people looked at in order to find their own voices? To find their own particular perch to break into San Francisco journalism, literature, and all that?

Tarnoff: Well, I think he builds a link between the Eastern literary establishment and San Francisco. You mentioned his introduction of Harte to James Fields, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He also is friends with Longfellow and Emerson and all these literary lions who are really the most famous writers in the country at that point. And he gives these wonderful lectures on American literature in San Francisco. So he absolutely is a link between the East and the West. But he’s also someone to rebel against. I mean, he’s the father figure. You’re also trying to kill your father. And a lot of these guys — particularly Harte — you see him strain from that New England mold. Thomas Starr King sadly dies in 1864 young and prematurely. And in the coming years, Harte really develops his own style, which I think contrasts pretty sharply with those New England influences.

Correspondent: So what was essentially taken from King and even the New England influence? What made this particular area of the country the natural place to establish new voice, original voice, a rebellious voice, an iconoclastic voice?

Tarnoff: Well, Thomas Starr King has this great phrase in one of his sermons where he tells Californians they need to build Yosemites in the soul. And his point there, I think, is that they’ve been blessed with this majestic epic monumental landscape. This incredible natural beauty. And they need to create a culture and a literature, an intellectual scene, that’s commensurate with that great beauty. And the Bohemian scene really takes that advice seriously. And the West, I think, is such a fertile place for a new type of literature to develop. Which really does deviate from the path that King himself had hoped it would take. I mean, he wants California to follow closely in the footsteps of New England. He has a letter where he says California must be Northernized thoroughly by Atlantic Monthlies, by schools, by lecture halls. But the scene that he mentors after his death really takes things in a different direction, but I think makes good on his command to build Yosemites in the soul.

Correspondent: Well, it’s interesting how we’re talking about the variegated territories of California. Because Bret Harte would edit this poetry anthology and get into serious trouble. Because some of the rustic towns didn’t like the fact that they weren’t included. And he was flummoxed with all sorts of poetry entries for this thing. And he ended up choosing a lot of poems that dealt in the metropolises. So there was this rivalry and Harte was accused of being this florid sellout by some of the rustic towns. You point out in the book that actually the metropolises and the rustic towns and the mining settlements and all that had actually far more in common than they actually realized. So what accounts for this fractiousness and territorial temperament? Fractiousness in literary voices and literary temperament?

Tarnoff: Well, California’s a place where everyone wants to be a writer.

Correspondent: Like Brooklyn today!

Tarnoff: Right. Exactly. It’s like Brooklyn in 2014. But poetry in particular has a real prestige. Poets are pop stars. Poems are read at every public gathering. You need poetry in the public sphere all the time. And so all of these Californians — people who live in the countryside, people who live in the city — all think of themselves as a poet. So when Bret Harte is tasked with putting together a representative anthology of California poetry in 1865, he is overwhelmed with submissions and has a lot of fairly sarcastic, disparaging things to say about the quality of those submissions and ends up producing this fairly small volume with mostly his friends, like Charles Stoddard and Ina Coolbrith. And this ignites a kind of literary war between the city and the country. But as you point out, the distinction between the city and the country is not actually that great. I mean, the California countryside in terms of the mining and the farming operations is itself pretty heavily industrialized. We’ve got big economies of scale, a lot of heavy machinery. Places like Virginia City, in Nevada, where Mark Twain is for a few years, are highly urbanized areas. So the notion that it’s these kind of he-men in the frontier vs. the effete Bohemians in the city, it’s not totally accurate representation.

Correspondent: Well, in this sense, you’re essentially saying that the sphere of influence in both rustic town and big city is essentially homogeneous. That people are perhaps being inspired from the same physical things? I mean, what of literary tastes? What of the way that people express themselves? I mean, isn’t there an argument to be made that maybe these guys were right?

Tarnoff: Well, there’s certainly a distinction in terms of literary taste. I mean, I think both camps are living fairly urban industrialized lives. But they certainly have very different opinions about what constitutes good poetry. And Harte in particular, who is the editor of the volume, shies away from topics that he feels are too pastoral. That have too much of a certain type of California flavor, which he associates with the amateur poets. And he writes a parody of what one of those poems would look like in The Californian, which he edits. But Harte really wants to push California literature in general to a more metropolitan, to a more Bohemian, to a more sophisticated level and is very dismissive of what he feels is the kind of amateurish literary karaoke quality of some of the countryside poets.

Correspondent: Well, what is that sophisticated nature that Harte is demanding? What are we talking about? Are we just talking about endless poems devoted to being in the middle of nowhere? Essentially that’s what he’s railing against? He’s asking California to take itself more seriously, to write about civil, social, political topics? What are we talking about here?

Tarnoff: Well, the problem with Harte in these years — the mid 1860s — is he’s very good at being a critic. He’s very good at lambasting the quality of California literature, at its climate, at its boosters and philistines and capitalists. But he’s not great at producing good literature of his own. And that comes a little bit later in the decade when he starts to write these wonderful short stories. “The Luck of Roaring Camp” being the best known. And it’s not until that moment that I think he really makes good on his earlier promise to redeem California literature.

Correspondent: So he’s essentially quibbling with what he doesn’t like in order to find out what he does like and what he can actually build from the ashes he demonizes, so to speak.

Tarnoff: Exactly. He’s definitely in a more critical phase at that moment.

(Loops for this program provided by Martin Minor and nilooy. Also, Kai Engel’s “Chant of Night Blades” and Kevin MacLeod’s “Ghost Dance” through Free Music Archive.)

The Bat Segundo Show #541: Ben Tarnoff(Download MP3)

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Islamophobia, Extremism, and the War on Terror: Arun Kundnani (The Bat Segundo Show #540)

Arun Kundnani is most recently the author of The Muslims Are Coming.

Author: Arun Kundnani

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Subjects Discussed: How Islamophobia came to be, how the Obama Administration has continued an Islamophobic policy, the good Muslim and bad Muslim framework, Bernard Lewis’s “The Roots of Muslim Rage” as one of the key foundational Islamophobic texts, bogus terrorist studies that reinforce counterterrorism studies within the national security apparatus, flawed FBI radicalization models, how philosophical academics are making ideology virulent, Faisal Shahzad’s attempts to bomb Times Square, the Boston Marathon bombing, the NYPD’s “Radicalization in the West” study used to justify its Muslim surveillance efforts, Minority Report, zero tolerance, whether society or specific individuals should be blamed for Islamophobia, societal culpability in policy changes, changing the conversation about terrorism, the need to get out of 9/11’s shadows to address present realities, why Muslims who make any political statement are categorized as terrorists, fear in the Muslim community, Edward Snowden, how surveillance affects specific communities, the death of Fred Phelps, whether some over-the-top extremism is necessary to galvanize a civil rights movement, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” when notable figures for justice embrace extremist labels, the queer movement, Malcolm X, the sudden transformation of Muslims into the “enemy” after 9/11, class distinctions and Islamophobia, the Prevent program adopted in the UK, New Labour’s culpability in misidentifying Muslims as “radical,” the Salafi movement, failed efforts to promote a counterextremism narrative, Homeland‘s Nick Brody and the inability of contemporary narratives to allow for a Muslim character to have a political voice that isn’t extremist, the vicious campaign to paint All-American Muslim as propaganda and the conservative effort to shut the show down, the Somali population in the Twin Cities, the al-Shabaab ring in Minneapolis, Congressman Peter King’s Islamophobic statements about mosques, when attempts to preserve constitutional rights are reframed as “noncooperation,” Operation Rhino, St. Paul’s AIMCOP program funded by a $670,000 DHS grant, law enforcement tenor dictated by power and money, the arrest of Najibullah Zazi, hyperbolic clampdowns on Islamic communities after an attempted plot is thwarted, financial incentives by local police departments to continue flawed counterterrorism strategies to receive federal grant money, fusion centers, why so much of surveillance and prosecution rationale is rooted in Muslim stereotypes, what can be done with the wasted resources, the Muslim Brotherhood’s fluctuating status as movement and terrorist organization by U.S. authorities, Mohamed Morsi, whether or not Western nations can view organizations in subtle terms, comparisons between the Cold War and ongoing American foreign policy ideas about Islam, the Egyptian revolution, the sharia conspiracy theory adopted by neoconservative Islamophobes that Islamic terrorism is the beginning of a hidden jihad, why Islamophobes like Robert Spencer and Frank Gaffney are able to infiltrate the mainstream, conspiracy theories and racist discourse, the English Defence League, Islamophobia promulgated by David Cameron, the lack of self-awareness among far-right groups, how Islamophobic groups have adopted the media strategies of the Left, neo-Nazis who rebrand themselves, positive developments, New York Muslims protesting NYPD surveillance programs, and how the generation of young Muslims can change present intolerance.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So let’s go ahead and start off with why Islamophobia exists. The first and most obvious question is why any political strand of Islam, any vocal element that objects to an attack has come to be associated with terrorism. So I have to ask. Why has this continued twelve and a half years after September 11th? Why are all Muslims roped up into this misleading category?

Kundnani: One of the interesting things I think is that we had that early period in the War on Terror under the Bush years where we had this quite intense narrative of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. And Obama came in, trying to have a different kind of analysis. And actually what’s interesting is that the kind of popular Islamophobia in the media, the amount of racist violence against Muslims in the United States, it all went up under Obama. So in my analysis, what’s going on here is, as well as the kind of neoconservative narrative of a clash of civilizations, we also need to think about the liberal Islamophobia that’s been much more powerful under the Obama administration over the last few years.

Correspondent: What do you think the ultimate appeal of the Obama trigger effect here is for Islamophobia? Why have liberals fanned the flames here, do you think? Is it just a misunderstanding of policy? I can get into this further later on in this, but I wanted to get a general idea here.

Kundnani: I think, at root, what’s going on here is a kind of flawed analysis of what the causes of terrorism are. There’s a liberal analysis that says, basically, that some kind of religious extremism causes terrorism. And therefore you need to intervene in Muslim populations to make sure that people have the right interpretation of Islam. That’s actually the kind of basic analysis that we’ve had in this kind of later period of the War on Terror. Which means that you’re associating some interpretation of Islam with terrorism, right? And then from that flows all kinds of other things. So, for example, then you get the idea of the good Muslim and the bad Muslim, right? Because the bad Muslim is the one who interprets the religion in the wrong ways. So you want to put Muslims under surveillance to check that they have the right interpretation of their religion, etcetera, right? So I think a lot of what we’ve seen under Obama flows from that fundamental analysis, which actually doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Correspondent: If it’s so flawed and it does not stand up to scrutiny, why then does it continue to perpetuate?

Kundnani: Well, one of the reasons is because from the liberal point of view, it seems like a better way of doing things than the kind of neoconservative clash of civilizations model, right? It has certain practical benefits from the point of view of managing this issue, right? This kind of fraught issue with all this fear ground up in the popular mind. So it enables you to say, “Well, you know, we’re partnering with Muslim communities to tackle extremism” and so forth. That sounds quite nice. That sounds quite effective. Even though the basic assumptions behind it don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Correspondent: You identify two strains of thinking about Islamic extremism in your book. The culturalists, who believe that Muslim communities are incapable of adapting to modern life because their Islamic culture essentially is extreme and is therefore incompatible, which leads to extremism. Then you have the reformists, who look not to Islamic teachings but ideologues who reinterpret Islam for violent and nefarious purposes. How could one article — Bernard Lewis’s “The Roots of Muslim Rage” in 1990 — be so prominently responsible for the development of these two ideas? Why do they continue to endure? Why do they continue to be so compelling? I mean, it seems to me that there are so many arguments against them. Yet these two ideological strains continue.

Kundnani: Right. Intellectually, the argument has been discredited time and time again. And so the reason that these ideas continue to circulate has nothing to do with their intellectual merit. But it’s more about the political convenience of those ideas. So we find it much easier to think about why people want to direct violence against our society. We find it much easier to answer that question by saying it’s their culture rather than, at least in part, our politics. And so I think because it’s uncomfortable for us to think about what the alternative to these narratives would be — the alternative to these narratives which involve us thinking about our foreign policy and the political effects of that in creating contexts within which terrorism becomes more likely — it’s much easier, rather than having that difficult conversation, it’s much easier to say it’s their culture, right? Or it’s not their culture, but it’s a minority who have adopted this ideology of extremism and that’s what causing it.

Correspondent: But we’ve had twenty years of this strain in both British and American society. Surely that’s enough time for people to perhaps call it into question or to actually think about it more sophisticatedly. And I’m wondering why — I keep going to the question “Why?” But I am trying to get something a little more specific over why this is still of appeal.

Kundnani: Some of the answers to that are about the ways in which it’s been institutionalized in various settings, right? So for example, since 9/11, we’ve had terrorism studies departments created with government funding in the United States and in Britain. And those terrorism studies departments have a set of incentives in terms of the funding and so forth to produce certain kinds of knowledge that serve the interests of the national security apparatus. So they will tend to avoid asking deeper questions about what lies behind violence, what is the politics of that, and instead try and deliver policy solutions that have embedded within them all kinds of assumptions about what they call radicalization. So that kind of institutionalizes these ways of thinking in a whole set of academic departments. Then you have these ways of thinking being institutionalized in the national security agencies. The FBI, for example, has a radicalization model. It’s an analysis of how someone goes from being an ordinary person to becoming a terrorist. Embedded within that is these same ideas of some kind of religious ideology driving it. The New York Police Department does the same thing. So all these ways of thinking are not just kind of free-floating in some kind of intellectual depaint. They are embedded in policy and practice in institutions.

Correspondent: Would you say that academics have essentially been influencing this interpretation for the last twenty years? I mean, there was a strain of articles recently about academics complaining about how they don’t actually get through to the masses. But this would seem to suggest that they are in a very nefarious way.

Kundnani: Absolutely. If you’re an academic and you want to be influential in government policy, be an academic in terrorism studies. Because that’s where you’re in and out of government departments. But what you have to give up is actually quite a large degree of scholarly independence. Because you’re effectively serving the intellectual needs of the government rather than any kind of idea of an objective independent study of what causes terrorism. That doesn’t really happen. So I think academics have been influential. Both the terrorism studies academics and the other ones — like Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington — some of those folks who are more on the philosophical level and geopolitical level who are thinking about these issues.

Correspondent: So if you get a philosophical academic, it could essentially activate a strain of virulent ideology.

Kundnani: Absolutely. Ultimately, all our kind of different forms of racism and so forth have some kind of intellectual history. They go back to people who innovate, who come up with new ways of being racist in an intellectual setting. And then that filters down to the streets over time. That’s how racism originates.

Correspondent: Sure. So you point to a time in the United States when this nation was considered more tolerant and inclusive towards Muslims. Immune from Muslim radicalization because of the apparent belief that a free market society was better at absorbing Muslims. That changed in 2009. There were a number of violent incidents that were believed to be associated with Islam, including Faisal Shahzad’s failed efforts to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. You point to a 2010 Bipartisan Policy Center report which concluded that the American melting pot had not provided protection against Muslim radicalization. Why were the government, the pundits, and the policy people so willing to change their tune in so short a time? Because that seems to me also a big part of this problem as well.

Kundnani: Right. So something interesting happens in the first few years of the Obama Administration, where you find that you do have one or two attempted terrorist plots that were serious plots, like the attempted car bombing in Times Square by Faisal Shahzad and one or two others. You also have a set of developments that happen in the FBI, where they’re starting to change how they do counterterrorism and becoming much more pro-active in sting operations, in bringing charges to some of the material support for terrorism, which involves criminalizing people’s ideological expressive activities rather than actual terrorist plots. So those kinds of things from the FBI drive up the numbers in terms of the kind of annual statistics on a number of attempted terrorist acts.

Correspondent: Drive up the numbers exactly how?

Kundnani: Well, because one of the things that we’ve seen is the FBI doing something when they have someone who seems to have what they would call an extremist ideology. Put informants in that person’s life and use these tactics of trying to pressurizing that person into being involved in an imaginary plot that would probably not have been something that they would have been predisposed to were it not for the FBI coming in and creating that environment around that person’s life. And this is something that the RAND Corporation has a very good phrase to describe. They call it “lubricating that person’s decision making” through government intervention. So I think the FBI started to put a lot more resources in doing those kinds of operations. Then the numbers come up. So it looks like we’ve got this objective increase in attempted terrorist plots, but actually it’s at least to a large degree the result of a change in FBI strategy around that time.

Correspondent: So you’re saying that the FBI essentially was cooking the books to get higher crime statistics. Is that what you’re basically saying?

Kundnani: Well, in effect, that’s what happened. I’m not sure that it’s some kind of conspiracy by senior leaders in the FBI to…

Correspondent: It’s a policy change.

Kundnani: It’s a policy change. And obviously you can see an incentive structure there where the FBI, as a result of doing that, seems like it’s a very efficient counterterrorism organization. Because it’s got all these terrorist plots happening in the United States and every single one of them is getting a conviction and that looks good on the annual report to Congress. What you won’t know unless you look in more detail is the fact that most of those plots are ones that the FBI itself has invented.

Correspondent: I’d like to get into the fine details of the radicalization model that the FBI was using in just a bit, but I want to actually ask did they essentially have this policy change before they had the radicalization model? What does your research suggest here?

Kudnani: The radicalization model goes back to the early years after 9/11. The policy shift, I mean, we don’t know what caused it. It may be that there had been a number of changes in legislation that came through in that period and it may be that new options were created for that. It may be that if you look at the data for terrorism convictions around that time, sort of 2008 and 2009, a big chunk of the people who were getting prosecuted is Somali Americans, who are traveling to Somalia to fight with al-Shabaab, which is designated a terrorist organization shortly before that moment. And so therefore, traveling over there becomes a felonious act. So that also becomes another of these kind of scare scenarios around that time, that maybe we’re going to have a huge problem of American Somalis going off to fight for al-Shabaab and coming back and committing acts of violence here, which actually never happened.

Correspondent: I will get into the Somali situation in just a sec, but I want to actually unpack the radicalization model a bit. You cite this 2006 memo from the Counterterrorism Division which suggests anger, watching inflammatory speeches online, an individual identifying with an extremist cause, Internet interaction with extremist elements, and acceptance of radical ideology, and eventually terrorism. What is the academic basis for this model? You also mention this 2007 NYPD study called “Radicalization in the West” that adopted a simplified version of models that were adopted by Quentin Wiktorowicz and Marc Sageman. What has made these specific ideas stick? Why hasn’t law enforcement passed a wider research net before adopting these models? Why are these radicalization models in place? They seem to me to be more like a sudoku puzzle.

Kudnani: Right. I mean, these radicalization models have come from — you mentioned the two key people here, Marc Sageman and Quentin Wiktorowicz, both of whom have a history within the intelligence world as well as in the academic world. They kind of cross those divisions. I think the reason those models have been used to the exclusion of any other kind of analysis and the reason that they’ve stuck is because they do something very important for the FBI and the NYPD — at least at first glance, which is they give them a tool for prediction.

Correspondent: Precog. Minority Report.

Kundnani: Right. This is Minority Report. It’s a way of saying, “We have a way of knowing who’s going to be a terrorist tomorrow. Even though they’re not a terrorist today.” And so having that claim to predictive power is what lies beneath the appeal of these studies.

Correspondent: And the problem with this is that they wake up from the amniotic fluid and instead of crying “Murder!” they say “Muslims!” So that’s problematic.

Kundnani: And they don’t stand up in terms of having that predictive capability. And that’s kind of obvious when you think it through. It would be ridiculous to think that someone growing a beard, which is one of the indicators, is a predictor of someone on the way to becoming a terrorist. Or someone wearing traditional Islamic clothing or joining a pro-Muslim social group. These are the various things that these studies talk about. So they don’t have this predictive power. But because they’re perceived as doing so, they become very important in these institutional settings and enforcement agencies.

Correspondent: Perceived by who?

Kundnani: By law enforcement agencies and by policy makers in DC. So the FBI has been instructed by the federal government since very soon after 9/11 to adopt what is called a preemptive approach to counterterrorism, right? Which means don’t wait until someone’s committing a crime. Go back to some point before that person’s committed a crime and arrest them there or intervene in their lives there. So from the point of view of the FBI, there’s a dilemma there. How on earth do you criminalize someone who hasn’t committed a crime yet but you think may do in the future? You have to have some kind of analytic way of predicting behavior. And so that’s the dilemma for them.

Correspondent: But if it’s a corrupted analytical model, surely there’s someone inside the FBI or even the NYPD who is basically saying, “You know, this doesn’t really cut mustard. We’re actually only doing this to get our numbers up.” Were you able to uncover…

Kundnani: I spent a bit of time interviewing a number of different FBI agents who work in counterterrorism and I put that question to them as well. And their answer was, “Well, if you think this radicalization model doesn’t work,” which they were open to that possibility that it doesn’t stand up in terms of its academic merits, “then give us another model that will do the same job.”

Correspondent: So they just need some kind of model.

Kundnani: Yeah. Because they’ve been told you need to predict. You can’t just go on what someone’s done. You need to go on what they’re about to do. That’s how counterterrorism works in the United States post-9/11. So for them, it’s not an option to say, “Okay, let’s just focus on who is actively involved in preparing a terrorist plot, who’s inciting terrorism, and who’s financing terrorism.” That would be my argument. What we should be doing here is focusing on that. And that gives us enough to be getting onward and has the advantage that we don’t widen our search to this kind of vague notion of ideology, which gets messy and uses up our hard-earned resources on things that we shouldn’t be worried about. Now that is not an option for the FBI. Because that’s what we as a society have told them that we don’t want. We don’t want them to wait. We want them to be preemptive.

Correspondent: We as a society? I mean, that seems really amorphous. Isn’t there some specific person who we can identify and say, “That is the person who caused this requirement, that the FBI…”

Kundnani: I don’t think so.

Correspondent: Really?

Kundnani: I think if you look at — for example, early on in the Obama Administration, there was the so-called underwear bomber. And if you talk to people in the Obama Administration, they will talk about that being a very scary moment for them because they felt for a moment, in the aftermath of that attempted attack, they lost the narrative. They were very much on the defensive. And for a moment, they thought, “We’re going to have this thing hanging over us that we weren’t tough enough on terrorism and we almost let this guy through.” And then they basically made the decision thereafter that we can’t allow that to happen again. Because if that hangs over us, we lose the political capital to do all the other things we want to do. So even if you convince people in the Obama Administration to do things a different way, they would say, “Our hands are tied by what society expects of us.” The fear in society around these things. The fact that we have now created a society in which it’s not enough to say we will minimize the risk of terrorism.

Correspondent: You have the zero tolerance thing.

Kundnani: Right. What society expects is absolutely no terrorist attacks of any kind at all and do everything possible with unlimited resources to deal with this problem. Even though we’ve had the Boston Marathon last year, dozens of people in jail, and three people killed. But we have 15,000 murders every year in the United States. So in terms of an objective assessment of the amount of harm that counterterrorism does to U.S. society, it would not be our top priority. But it has become our top priority. Half of the FBI’s budget is dedicated to counterterrorism.

Correspondent: But I don’t know if that’s really — that’s an answer that just doesn’t sit well with me. The idea that society is the one to blame when you’re using a flawed radicalization model to enforce counterterrorism, which actually isn’t true based off of some of the findings in your book, and you’re reinforcing stereotypes and you’re also disseminating further fear into the American clime, it seems to me that you’re the one responsible for generating the way that people react, that is this very society that people point to…

Kundnani: Sure. Sure.

Correspondent: I mean, I’m asking for some….there needs to be some person. Some kind of element here.

Kundnani: I think there’s all kinds of different agencies and individuals that are culpable here. No doubt. From the top down. From Obama, the leadership at the FBI, the whole national security apparatus. All of these different agencies and individuals are bound up in a set of practices that are causing great harm to our fellow citizens in the United States. But I would also say it’s a little bit too easy just to stop there. I would say we have all kind of got sucked into this culture of counterterrorism. The word “radicalization” is not just a word that you see in academic studies and police reports. It’s the word that is now in our everyday language, in how we talk about terrorism. We didn’t need the word “radicalization” fifteen years ago to talk about terrorism. But now it’s the normal way that we do it. So, for me, it’s a little bit too neat to pin the blame on government agencies. We need to acknowledge that there’s a cultural change we need in society more widely.

(Loops for this program provided by Martin Minor, danke, DesignedImpression, Blueeskies, and drkcarnivalninja.)

The Bat Segundo Show #540: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the War on Terror: Arun Kundnani (Download MP3)

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Dinaw Mengestu (The Bat Segundo Show #539)

Dinaw Mengestu is most recently the author of All Our Names.

Author: Dinaw Mengestu

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Subjects Discussed: Writing from a woman’s perspective for the first time, V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, delving into the perspective of revolutionary turmoil, Mengestu’s American perspective, how journalism helped Mengestu to pursue more serious areas in literature, “soft” fiction vs. revolutionary realities, working with alternating chapters to create narrative collusion, the shame of being impoverished, sustaining an existence on lies, the effects of trauma, when novelists writing about the other avoid abrasive fictional perspectives in the interest of attracting readers, quiet introverts in fiction, why Mengestu hasn’t written about noisier immigrants, aesthetic sensibilities, loud vs. quiet characters, imagining trauma, Mengestu’s experience of writing about characters who felt trauma before he was born, the appeal of characters who experience extreme forms of political crisis, ventriloquist-style novelists and humanism, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, exuberant characters, being tagged with the “immigrant fiction” label, deliberately keeping time and space murky in All Our Names vs. the close attention to Logan Circle in The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, the timelessness of discrimination, emotions summoned through general descriptive specifications, resisting the urge of writing a novel set in an unnamed country, the problems with naming too many things, the limitations of looking at events through a historical prism, unspoken American prohibitions against political fiction, politics in fiction without didacticism, European encouragement of political fiction, constraints imposed on American fiction, creating an artistic space within fiction, Mengestu’s sense of aesthetic value, arguments that books make for ways of seeing, living with hand-me-downs, how Mengestu’s characters express emotions through giving gifts, materials used to express emotional connection to other people, Emily Dickinson, monuments of America, holding onto emotion in a narrative using objects, when the personal and the political overlap, personal maps vs. political maps, having an internal map of someone you love, concrete political realities, the fluidity of love and how political realities shape it, Helen’s relationship to her parents, the rigidity of place, rituals shared by couples, relationships and silence, situations in life when words are less valuable than intimacy, language provoked from silence, silence as the ineffable pain of not knowing how to communicate, how to measure silence, the mysterious character of David, Edward Snowden, writing in a proto-surveillance state about people who watch other people, Michiko Kakutani’s review, Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, A Handful of Dust, Rilke, what contemporary fiction does with the brazen perspectives of colonial literature, working against Naipaul, Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim and the “great game,” Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, wrestling with postcolonialism, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s idea that there are no postcolonial errors, finding an aesthetic balance in a sentence, being a slow writer to find rhythm, and the benefits of memorizing poetry.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: This novel does something new that we haven’t seen from you. It’s the first of your novels to feature the first-person perspective from a woman, one of two alternative perspectives in this book. The other is a man named Isaac, or I’m going to use term “Not Isaac.” (laughs)

Mengestu: Yes.

Correspondent: Because there is an Isaac and a Not Isaac. And it’s also the first to really depict this Naipaulian tableau of what seems at first to be an unnamed African country in revolutionary turmoil, almost a response to the allusion you made to A Bend in the River in the first book, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and also the lies that Jonas is spinning in How to Read the Air. So I’m wondering why it took you three novels before you could write partially from the perspective of a woman and also from this position of revolutionary turmoil. I mean, I’m curious how the first two novels led you to this particular point. Because I read all three of your novels and I thought this was a fascinating evolution.

Mengestu: Yeah. I think that was almost perfect. One of the best readings I’ve ever had of all three books. They are very closely intertwined. And if anything, even though this is the last book of the three to have been written, in some ways it actually precedes the other two. This was the book that actually precedes the revolutions that make the characters in the first novel and in the second novel flee. And so I wanted to go back to what I thought would be an earlier moment in history. A point that would say this is actually that very elusive, optimistic period just after independence when things seemed like they might turn out great in many African nations and then they didn’t. And the other thing was that after writing the first few novels, I realized there’s another part of me that I’d never really had a chance to explore in fiction, which was to write from the point of view of an American. Because I’m also, I think, deeply American and I grew up in the Midwest after leaving Ethiopia. And so Helen’s voice, I think, is partly a product of that. My novels oftentimes have been categorized in terms of immigrant fiction. To some degree, this is also perhaps a subconscious response to that idea, to say, Well, look, it’s not. Those categories are very limited and don’t actually say that much. And, in fact, here’s a way of seeing that narratives such as this are more than just immigrant friction and that immigrant narratives are very much a part of an American tableau. And you can’t micromanage them or faction them off into ethnic or political categories like that. And so Helen’s voice, I think, is my response to that. She is an American woman. She’s in many ways more intimate to me than the characters of Isaac are.

Correspondent: So Helen. It’s interesting that it takes a woman for you to say, “I’m an American too!”

Mengestu: (laughs) Yeah.

Correspondent: Was it easy? She’s a young American. She’s still trying to figure out how people work and how relationships work and where one’s place is in the universe. And I’m wondering why a woman’s voice was the best way for you to really show to yourself and show to the world that you were, in fact, an American as well.

Mengestu: You know, it’s definitely because I wanted Isaac to have a relationship with someone. So the novel, when I first began it, I never knew that it would necessarily have a part in the United States when I first started writing it. I was very much concerned about trying to capture this period in Africa’s history. I thought it would be about a group of friends in postcolonial Africa on a college campus. And then as those voices started to converge around the characters Isaac and Not Isaac, I began to realize, well, of course, inevitably there was going to be a second half that took place in America. And inevitably you’re drawn to the most complex relationships and the relationship between a couple that’s almost always the most complex. You know, friends are, of course, complex. But I wanted a love story as well in this story. And, of course, if we have Isaac and I had created Helen to follow almost immediately afterwards. And in some ways, you know, I’m not — I never really had any anxiety about her gender. In some ways, she emerged into the story as quickly as the voice of Isaac did. And so as soon as I had Isaac coming into America, I realized Helen was the one to witness him first. She was the first person to see him enter this landscape and to acknowledge him and to become close to him and to kind of help create a sense of home for him. So, yeah, she just was immediate and necessary.

Correspondent: And just to delineate to our listeners, who are probably listening to this turmoil and wondering what’s going on, there is an Isaac that is in the Helen chapters and there is an Isaac and what we’re calling a Not Isaac guy who goes by several names ranging from the Professor to a number of other noms in the other thing in these alternating series of chapters. I want to go back to the first question about looking straight into the face of revolutionary turmoil. This book seems to me to be the one that is the clearest. It’s not doing so through any kind of lying. It’s not doing so through any kind of anecdotal family episode or anything like that. It’s trying to stare at it in the face and, at the same time, doing so where the names themselves are not explicit. They’re more common noun than proper noun. And I’m wondering why it took you three novels just to really look at that in the face and confront it like that.

Mengestu: I think some of it was gaining more experience as a journalist.

Correspondent: Journalism helped.

Mengestu: It really did. And I never actually thought of myself as having that much of a dialogue between what I do as a journalist and what I do as a novelist. So my first novel touches briefly on the revolutionary politics of Ethiopia. But never having experienced those politics, I had to imagine a character who had experienced them at a very young age and then left the country. In my second novel, the characters are basically inventing those stories of revolutionary Africa because they were born in America. Now, having traveled through Darfur and the Eastern Congo and Uganda, and having met revolutionary leaders and having seen first-hand the effects of these small-scale and sometimes very large-scale conflicts, they all left a deep profound impression on my mind. And some of those impressions worked their way into the second novel. But I don’t think I had enough time to really sit with those images with a while, to really kind of let them become a part of my imagination. So by the time this novel began, I knew the terrain intimately. I knew the consequences of those conflicts. And perhaps more importantly, I felt like I knew how to create characters who could be responsible for violence, but were not strictly evil men. That to me seemed really important. I’ve met a lot of men who I knew were perpetrators of the violence, but at the same time you realize that to describe them or to limit their characters to only horrific terms denies their complexity. And so I felt finally mature enough and able enough to create characters who were responsible for violence, who witnessed violence, who are perpetrators of violence, and yet at the same time are more than just violent men.

Correspondent: Do you find though that having confronted so many revolutions and so much violence in your journalism that fiction is somehow cheapened? That anything you can contribute from the American vantage point is somehow sanded down? Because you do have a great subtlety with much of the prose, which is not to say that there aren’t things exploding not necessarily politically, but also personally. How do you reckon with the intensity of something like that? Or do you feel that fiction naturally needs to be a little softer in the presentation of these human nuances?

Mengestu: I actually feel that fiction does a better job for me. I think that what you can do as a journalist in the very limited space and time that you have to write one story is that you can tally up the consequences in a very linear fashion. But I think in order to have readers actually experience that level of violence on a scale that doesn’t feel purely remote to them, I think that’s one of the things that fiction can do. In writing this novel and having these oscillating chapters between Helen’s voice and Isaac’s voice, part of the intent was definitely to see what happens when you place these two narratives next to each other side by side. If it isn’t possible to see them as not wholly distinct stories or wholly distinct experiences, but actually narratives that are in constant collusion and constant discourse, the experiences of someone in Africa don’t necessarily seem that remote from the experiences of a white woman in middle America. And that in fact these characters, especially when you reduce it down to the scale of individual characters, so that Isaac becomes the embodiment to some degree of that violence and he takes that violence and brings it to America. And it’s relived, reimagined, when it’s passed onto Helen. And it seems to me that fiction is the space that allows us to do that. Imagining these characters, I thought that I could actually get into their lives in ways that I never could when I was writing journalism. I could imagine the men that I’d met in greater detail and give them, I think, a greater level of emotions than they would ever have given me as a journalist.

(Loops for this program provided by reed1415, tendeir0, and nilooy. Some music provided by Vio/Mire through Free Music Archive.)

The Bat Segundo Show #539: Dinaw Mengestu (Download MP3)

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Dorthe Nors, Save NYPL, and Blake Bailey (The Bat Segundo Show #538)

This program contains three segments. The main one is with Dorthe Nors, who is most recently the author of Karate Chop. There is also a brief Blake Bailey interview. He is most recently the author of The Splendid Things We Planned. And our introductory segment involves the Save NYPL campaign.

Guests: Dorthe Nors, Blake Bailey, members of the Save NYPL campaign, Matthew Zadrozny, members of Raging Grannies.

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Subjects Discussed: Mayor Bill de Blasio’s failure to live up to his July 2013 promise to save the New York Public Library, the greed of rich people, political opportunism, Charles Jackson, The Splendid Things We Planned, the differences between biography and memoir, being the hero of your own story, subjectivity as a great muddler, the Bailey family’s tendency to destroy cars, being self-destructive, contending with a brother who threw his life away, the problems that emerge from being cold, the differences between American and Danish winters, unplanned writing, the swift composition of Beatles lyrics, the courageous existential spirit within Swedish literature, Danish precision, the Højskolesangbogen tradition, the influence of song upon prose, Kerstin Ekman, Nors’s stylistic break from the Swedish masters, Ingmar Bergman, Flaubert’s calm and orderly life, the human-animal connections within Karate Chop, considering the idea that animals may be better revealers of human character than humans, animals as mirrors, emotional connections to dogs, the human need to embrace innocence, judging people by how they treat their pets, “The Heron,” friendship built on grotesque trust, how the gift exchange aspect of friendship can become tainted or turn abusive, writing “The Buddhist” without providing a source for the protagonist’s rage, how much fiction should explain psychological motive, the hidden danger contained within people who think they are good, how Lutherans can be duped, “missionary positions,” Buddhism as a disguise, ideologies within Denmark, when small nations feel big and smug, Scandinavian egotism, Danesplaining, whether Americans or Danes behave worse in foreign nations, buffoonish American presidential candidates, how “The Heron” got to The New Yorker, Nors’s early American advocates, being a tour guide for Rick Moody and Junot Diaz, how Fiona Maazel brought Dorthe Nors’s fiction to America, Copehagen’s Frederiksberg Gardens as a place to find happiness, happiness as a form of prestige, when happy people feel needlessly superior, Denmark’s subtle efforts to win the happiest nation on earth award, setting stories in New York, how different people react to large tomato, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, how measuring objects reveals aspects of humanity, the tomato as the Holy Grail, flour babies, why strategically minded people shouldn’t be trusted, the creepy nature of control freaks, how human interpretation is enslaved by representations, competing representations of reality, whether fiction is a more authentic representation of reality, how disturbing ideas presented in books can calm you down, exploring the Danish idea of a den to eat cookies, working with translator Martin Aitken, what other nations get wrong about Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen, superficial knowledge of Denmark, Danish writers who need to be translated, Yahya Hassan, and Danish crime fiction.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to talk about the economy of these stories, which is fascinating. I mean, you have to pay very close attention to learn the details and to learn some very interesting twist or some human revelation in these stories. So this leads me to ask — just to start off here — I’m wondering how long it takes for you to write one or to conceive one. Is there a lot of planning that goes into the idea of “Aha! I’ll have the twist at this point!” I mean, what’s the level of intuition vs. the level of just really getting it down and burying all the details like this?

Nors: I don’t plan writing. It happens. Or I get an idea or I see something. Or there’s a line or a passage that I write down. And sometimes it just lies there for a while. Then a couple of days later, I will write another passage, perhaps for another story, and sometimes I put them together. They start doing things. But I write them pretty fast. When the idea and the flow and the voice and the characters are there, I just go into the zone and it kind of feels like I’m singing these. It’s like you find the voice for a story and you just stick to it and write it. It doesn’t take that long. Seven of these stories were actually written in a cottage off the west coast in Denmark. Two weeks.

Correspondent: Two weeks?

Nors: Yes.

Correspondent: For seven of the stories?

Nors: Seven of the stories.

Correspondent: Wow.

Nors: And then I would take long walks and I would go home. Boom. There was this story. So the writing process with this one, it was like that.

Correspondent: That’s like the Beatles writing the lyrics for “A Hard Day’s Night” on the back of a matchbox in ten minutes.

Nors: When it happens, it happens, right?

Correspondent: Well, to what do you attribute these incredible subconscious details? Are these details just coming from your subconscious and they’re naturally springing? Or are they discovered in the revision at all?

Nors: I think they come from training. Because it has something to do with the neck of the woods that I come from. Scandinavia. I was trained in Swedish literature. That was what I studied at university. And the Swedes have this very bold and courageous brave way of looking at existence. I mean, it turns big on them. And they look at the darkness and the pits of distress and everything. Then if you take that richness of existentialism, you might even call it, and pair it up with the Danish tradition — which is precision, accuracy, Danish design, cut to the core, don’t battle on forever. If you combine these two, you get short shorts with huge content that is laying in there like an elephant in a container and moving around all the time. And this style came from training. This came from reading a lot and writing a lot. Suddenly, I think I found my voice in these stories. I think this was a breakthrough for me in Denmark also. That I found out how I can combine the Danish and the Swedish tradition.

Correspondent: So by training, how much writing did you have to do before you could nail this remarkable approach to find the elephant, to tackle existence like this?

Nors: Well, I started writing at eight. And this book was written when I was 36.

Correspondent: But you didn’t have the Danish masters and the Swedish masters staring over you at eight, did you?

Nors: No. But I had the Danish song tradition. We have a book in Denmark called Højskolesangbogen. You’ll never learn how to say that. But it’s a songbook.

Correspondent: (laughs) She says confidently. You never know. I might learn!

Nors: You wanna try? But that songbook — in the real part of Denmark that I come from, all the farmers, they would use that songbook a lot. And there was no literature in my household. It was middle-class. A carpenter and a hairdresser. But this book was there. And what I learned from that was that these songs, they were written by great Danish poets and then put into music. It would be so precise. I love that book. I sang these songs. I read these poems. And then later on, there was my brother’s vinyl covers. It was Leonard Cohen. It was all these guys that he had up in his room and I could read. And a lot of the training came from that. And then later on, university, of course, and the boring part of training.

Correspondent: The analytical stuff. Well, that makes total sense. Because there is a definitive metric to these particular stories. You mentioned that they were akin to singing. And I’m wondering how you became more acquainted with this musicality as the stories have continued. And also, how does this work in terms of your novels? Which are not translated. There are five of them. And those are obviously a lot larger than a short story. So how does the musicality and that concise mode work with the novels?

Nors: Well, I think my first novel was extremely influenced by a Swedish writer called Kerstin Ekman, who I wrote my thesis on. And it was so influenced by her that I kind of shun away from it. Because I don’t want to sound like her anymore. And then on my third book, I started to find that the voice that blooms in Karate Chop — and there’s a breakaway there; it’s like a break in my writing.

Correspondent: A karate chop!

Nors: It really is! Because the first three of my novels were classic structures. They had plots and peaks and this whole Swedish abyss of existentialism and darkness. But then with this one, I broke away. And the next two novels I wrote are short novels. And they’re more experimental in their form and they’re very close to the whole idea of accuracy. And that line, that sentence, has to be so precise. And it has to sing. And it has to have voice. And it has to be just so accurate. That’s the sheer joy for me: to actually be able to write a sentence and to know people will get this.

Correspondent: This is extraordinary. Because if you’re writing a short story so quickly, and it’s not singing, what do you do? I mean, certainly, I presume that you will eventually sing in this mode that you want to. But that’s a remarkable speed there. So how do you keep the voice purring?

Nors: Well, actually, I do a lot of reading out loud while I do it. And the rhythm has to be good when I read it aloud myself. I talk a lot. I walk a lot. And I think literature like this has a lot to do with listening to how the words sound and how they work together. But that’s an intuitive thing. There’s no math in this. Either you can carry a tune or you can’t perhaps, right?

Correspondent: Sure. Absolutely.

Nors: So it’s something instinctive, I think.

Correspondent: I’m curious to know more about the tension between the Swedish existential dread and angst and the Danish identity. You touched upon this a little bit. I saw your little Atlantic soliloquy about Bergman and how you looked to him as a way of living a tranquil life and not living a wild life, which gets in the way of…well, gets in the way of living, frankly.

Nors: Exactly.

Correspondent: I’m wondering. What do you do to live or draw upon experience or to move into uncomfortable areas? Or is your imagination stronger than that? That you don’t really need the life experience. Your imagination in combination with the singing that we’re identifying here is enough to live a tranquil life? Or what? And also, I was hoping you could talk about the tension between the Swedish and Danish feelings and all that.

Nors: First of all, I try to live my life as any other human being. I just try not to really be destructive about it. I’m 43. I’m not afraid to tell you how old I am. So I tried a lot in my life and a lot of it has been dramatic. And it has been filled with emotions and breakups and stuff like that. And, of course, I draw on the experience from that. But these days, I think the discipline is very important. I don’t need more drama in my life. I don’t know why you should seek out drama. Causing pain in your life? That’s an immature thing to do at my age, I think. You can’t avoid it. It’s going to happen anyway. People you love will pass away. Your cat will be hit by a car. Or stuff like that. You don’t have to seek it out. It’s coming to you.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering if that impulse isn’t necessarily a writerly impulse, but just a human impulse. Because when we get closer to forty, we start to say, “Well, do we really want to live this way?” Our choices sometimes become a little more limited. Our responsibilities are greater. We now have a duty to other people. And so is that really a writerly thing? I mean, is the writer doomed in some sense to almost be a child to some degree?

Nors: I think you’re absolutely right. I don’t think it’s necessarily a writer thing. I think it’s a time in your life where you think that. Or you go haywire and you go right into the abyss, right? Ingamr Bergman was around 47 when this happened for him. Because he lived a pretty crazy life. Having children all over the place and women. Pretty destructive.

Correspondent: Locking Liv Ullmann up.

Nors: Yeah, exactly. Being very chaotic. An emotionally chaotic life. And then around this age, he took this path also of not living like a monk. Because he certainly didn’t. But he was just very structured and disciplined. And I enjoy that. It sounds boring to people. But I really enjoy it. Don’t need more drama in my life.

(Loops for this program provided by Martin Minor, Mooz, 40A, Tim Beets, Tim Beets, Aien, and DANB10.)

The Bat Segundo Show #538: Dorthe Nors, Save NYPL, and Blake Bailey (Download MP3)

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Julia Angwin (The Bat Segundo Show #537)

Julia Angwin is most recently the author of Dragnet Nation.

Author: Julia Angwin

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Subjects Discussed: How much we’re being spied on, the great American historical tradition of spying on needless people, Jay Feldman’s Manufacturing Hysteria, why post-9/11 surveillance is worse than all previous forms, comparisons between the NSA and the Stasi, privacy as a confusing construct, climate change, life mediated by the technological existence, wading through content, a period in American culture where people wore pink and turquoise, when all life choices become part of a permanent record, personal data being shared among companies, Lane v. Facebook, Inc., Sean Lane’s surprise diamond ring exposed by Facebook, Google Street View collecting the names of wi-fi networks (followed by Android), Faraday cages, wrapping your phone in aluminum foil, the black helicopter lifestyle becoming more legitimate, not having access to the data that online giants create, disputing your credit vs. disputing your terrorist status, the informal lack of statute of limitations over stupid things you expressed years ago, giving civil liberties to terrible people, the price of free speech, comparisons between the Stasi and the NSA, how Google changes the way that you browse, switching to DuckDuckGo, people who are attracted to convenience, canned food, local food, fair trade coffee, whether it is possible to vote with our dollars, the convenience of ordering goods through your phone, the hidden costs of convenience through ordering diapers, acknowledging your phone before acknowledging your spouse, using a credit card with the name of Ida Tarbell, when alias are uprooted by people who know your name, automated fake names, MaskMe, attempting to organize a birthday dinner using encrypted instructions, the new responsibility of defending your online territory, hacking, Tor and privacy, the problems of privacy software having no consumer market, the importance of open source software, GitHub, the glacial pace of anonymizing traffic, Sarah Abdurrahman’s detention at the Canadian border, Yassar Afifi being harassed by the FBI over a Reddit comment, the difficulties of Muslim Americans being able to express themselves in the present law enforcement climate, the World Press Freedom Index 2014 issued by Reporters Without Borders with the U.S. dropping in rank, journalism as a tightrope involving the illusion of press freedom, confidential information, meeting with Jacob Appelbaum, the deeply ingrained habit of taking your phone wherever you go, “To Protect and Infect,” Angwin’s inability to get data from data brokers, and the benefits of using encryption badly.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: We’re in a room. I don’t think we’re being spied on right now. But that may actually change. Well, we do have our phones.

Angwin: You know what? First of all, we have our phones. And I’m sure there’s a camera here somewhere.

Correspondent: Anyway, let’s start off and look at this from a historical standpoint. Between J. Edgar Hoover’s harassment of dissidents in the early 20th century and the American Protective League — a volunteer organization during World War I that spied on “persons unfriendly to the government” — with the exception of technology that enables spying to be done faster, the so-called “dragnet nation” that you identify fits in with this regrettable American tradition. There’s a wonderful book by Jay Feldman called Manufacturing Hysteria, I’m sure you’re familiar with it, that’s a good overview of this. What makes any of the post-9/11 developments any different?

Angwin: Well, what we have post-9/11 is better spying technology, first of all. And it’s cheaper. So we have much bigger dragnets. And that’s why I called my book Dragnet Nation. Because we see this new kind of surveillance, which is vast, computerized, and impersonal, right? You’re not a suspect. You’re not even a customer of the company that’s tracking you. You have no relationship anymore with the person who’s spying on you. And it used to be that spying was hard enough that, although there were many regrettable incidents of spying on the wrong people, it still took effort on the part of the spies to do that.

Correspondent: There’s the Stasi comparison to the NSA, which we’ll get into in a little bit. But I am curious about this. You get into the relationship between privacy and behavioral economics quite a bit. It seems to me that there’s a voluntary impulse on the part of most Americans. You bring up experiments from Carnegie Mellon professor Alessandro Acquisti, where people are less willing to pay for privacy when they don’t already have it. You also bring up Dan Ariely’s findings on irrational compulsion to keep doors open — I talked with him; he’s a blast — when you try justifying why you, Julia, still have a LinkedIn profile. And one of the ultimate problems here is that, well, we have to be part of these services in order to get a job that will allow us to pay our rent and feed our families. We have to use social networks to keep in touch with our family and our friends. So honestly, it seems to me that we’re complicit in this devil’s bargain. So what do we do? Is there a way to exist with this dragnet culture without giving everything away?

Angwin: Well, you know, the thing is that you’re right. Privacy is a very confusing construct. No one wants to pay for it. No one really understands what it is. It’s kind of murky. But the thing is that we’re in a situation. I think what everyone can understand is the idea that you do want certain things to be within a certain channel. Like the way that you portray your day at the end of the day to your spouse is different from the way that you would portray your day to your boss, for instance. These are just very simple examples. But I think everyone can understand that not all audiences are the same. And so we’re in this world where you really can’t trust who the audience is. It’s most likely that the whole world is your audience. And so that’s sort of the fundamental psychological problem that we have. Now when we talk about the aversion to paying for it, as Alessandro has demonstrated, we are just unwilling to pay for things we don’t have. And since we basically perceive that we have no privacy, we don’t want to pay for it. But we’ve had this experience in the past with the environment. We had a really dirty environment. We lived with a lot of pollution. Our rivers caught fire. Our air was filled with soot. And no one wanted to “pay” for that. And then as a society, collectively, we actually figured out ways to adjust that situation so that now we don’t have as much rampant pollution. So we have dealt with similar types of issues.

Correspondent: Well, we do have climate change and rising waters. I hate to break it to you. (laughs)

Angwin: The problem with the environmental comparison is we didn’t adequately capture all the threats. But of the ones that we saw on the ground, like the rivers catching fire and the air being filled with soot, we containerized those. We basically said we’re willing to live with a certain amount of particulates, but not our rivers catching fire.

Correspondent: So inevitably in the question of privacy, it seems to me that we’re going to have to find a compromise solution, if we find any solution at all.

Angwin: We’re going to have to find where we are going to draw the line. Right now, it’s really kind of a Wild West. On the commercial side, there are very few laws that regulate our commercial entities that collect data about us. And then as we’ve seen since Edward Snowden’s revelations, the government side possibly didn’t have the oversight. Congress was surprised at what they were doing. And so both sides feel a little Wild West.

Correspondent: Well, you had mentioned a little bit earlier about this idea that what we portray about ourselves online, our virtual selves, doesn’t necessarily match our real selves. Is there enough in that to counter the problems of all this data scooping? Of all the stuff that we are willfully giving up? Of all of the search results that Google grabs? Of all of the little details on Facebook that we share? Is there anything about that separation that is positive? That might actually be used to fool the authorities who are happy to go ahead and scoop scoop scoop?

Angwin: Right. So when I did this book, I tried to answer the question of what can we do about everything. Exactly what you’re saying. Is there something we can do to protect ourselves in this world of indiscriminate surveillance? And I tried a whole bunch of strategies and one of my most effective strategies was what you’re describing. Which is basically spreading disinformation about myself. Which sounds a little unethical. (laughs)

Correspondent: Especially since you have a problem lying, as you say in the book.

Angwin: I do.

Correspondent: Although you’ve been very good about outing yourself as Ida Tarbell, just for the record.

Angwin: Right. So I did struggle with this idea of lying about myself online. And I went through certain steps to try and understand whether I felt that it was ethical. And in the end, I decided that I was in a situation where what was being done, collecting all my data, was also unethical and that this was my best strategy. And so given those constraints, I was willing to do it, but only within the legal limit. So I didn’t do anything illegal, I’d just like to point out. But I did create fake identities and spread disinformation about myself. And I did find that this was an effective counterstrategy. I think the question we have to ask as a society is: Do we want to live in a society where everyone is doing that? Because I think that that is unfortunately not going to be pretty.

Correspondent: Especially since we promulgate the George Washington notion. “I shall never tell a lie!” Well, in order to actually have an honorable existence that is, in fact, claimed by corporations, we do have to lie now. And we all have to feel like a criminal. And that’s just incredible!

Angwin: Yes. Right. So that’s actually what indiscriminate surveillance creates. It creates this thing where everyone says, “Oh, I have nothing to hide.” But the truth is that there are enough laws out there that, if everything is known about you, you have broken some law somewhere and there is now going to be this opportunity for discretionary justice, right? You are in the crosshairs because you’ve spoken out against some government official and they will have an opportunity to have something on you. And so we do have now the perfect tools for any bad politician who wants to do that.

Correspondent: We’ve only been talking for a little bit, Julia. But I have a feeling that you are someone who likes to stare into the bleak truth while maintaining some hope of optimism. And I’m wondering. Okay, let’s say that most Americans are placed into this existence where they constantly have to lie and spread misinformation. What would that do to are digital identity? To our digital culture? To our national culture? I mean, is this a reasonable expectation of what the next five, ten, twenty years will bring?

Angwin: Well, we did have — think about it. Our life online, living in a world that’s so mediated by all this technology, is really new. And basically in the first ten years of it, it was so awesome. Because we were empowered as citizens and individuals and as consumers in ways that we never had been before, right? Remember the days where you had to call every airline to get a fare. Now you know…

Correspondent: Kayak.

Angwin: They’re all competing. And so we have, as consumers, really benefited from this. But the problem is now that the tables are turning. We had kind of our ten years of fun. Now that the companies have got better weapons than we do. And now they’re going to spread in just the same way that you notice that it’s harder to get a good fare these days — and no one has proved it yet, but there have been so many rumors that they are tracking which fares you search for and then they lock it in at some higher price. And of course that is technically perfectly possible. So even if no one’s doing it now, somebody will. So the problem is that the companies are going to start organizing in their own way, spreading a little disinformation to shape how you behave and then as a natural countermeasure, we’re all going to start doing the same. Now what this does is actually very similar to pollution, which is what I was saying before. It pollutes the common environment, right? The idea of the Internet was that it was this amazing place where we could all have equal access to the world’s information and it was incredibly empowering. And it still is. But the more we pollute that environment, with propaganda on the company side and propaganda on the individual side…

Correspondent: Mutually assured disinformation.

Angwin: It is mutually assured disinformation. And it’s something that we have to think about as an environmental problem, I think.

(Loops for this program provided by SintheticRecords, kneegwahh, ebaby8119, and ferryterry.)

The Bat Segundo Show #537: Julia Angwin (Download MP3)

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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.

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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.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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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.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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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.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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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.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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

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Okey Ndibe (The Bat Segundo Show #532)

Okey Ndibe is most recently the author of Foreign Gods, Inc.

Author: Okey Ndibe

Play

Subjects Discussed: The tendency of authors to gravitate to specific locations to find a city’s identity, Ndibe’s fictitious village of Utonki, Barclay Center’s encroachment upon Brooklyn, how eating fish can help you to better understand Nigeria, whether or not people who live close to water are more equipped to deal with life, conjuring up a novel from a 1,000 page draft, writing “the Great Nigerian Novel,” the Nigerian census problem, Festus Odiemegwu’s controversial remarks about Nigeria not having a reliable census since 1816, Nigeria as the third most populous nation in the world by the end of the 21st century, what the inability to track a population does to a national identity and a fictional identity, Nigeria as a country where absurdity makes sense, the disastrous Yar-Adua-Goodluck government, Nigeria ascribing honesty to criminals and criminal enterprises that masquerade as governments, Nigeria’s “honest criminals,” Gov. James Ibori’s 13 year sentence, bribery, American vs. Nigerian corruption, why it’s so difficult to end corrupt Nigerian politicians to jail, Ndibe’s arrest at the Lagos Airport, Nigeria’s Enemies of the State list vs. America’s No Fly list, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and the do-or-die affair, Yar’Adua’s attempts to reach Ndibe after Ndibe refused to address him as President, anonymous messages sent to Ndibe in 2009 threatening arrest, decrying corruption and crime, the state of dissident writing in Nigeria, public and private media distinctions in Nigeria, the influence of journalism upon fiction, the lengthy italicized chapter in Foreign Gods, Inc., the impact of colonialism and religiosity on Nigeria, how certain events can encroach upon a reader’s experience comparable to imperialism, how past relationships between Europe and Nigeria affects current relationships, African artifacts, fuel and oil prices, spiritual implication, religious origins for a fictitious war god, settling on the right types of allegorical men to represent Nigeria, gourmands, poetic talkers, reformed Marxists, religion and performance artists, Igbo religious innovations compared against Christianity, the human qualities of gods in Igbo culture, why orthodoxy is incompatible with Igbo sensibilities, sectarian extremism in Nigeria, jihads against western values, rogue pastors, Nigeria’s 400 to 500 languages, Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, The Complete Review‘s pedantic review of Foreign Gods, Inc., Africans with considerable educational credentials who can’t get jobs in the United States, the common experience of educated immigrants shut out of the American job market (and trying to pinpoint why contemporary narratives don’t always consider Africans), American exclusion, the role of taste and experience in the editing process, the current renaissance of African fiction, how market conditions affect translated fiction, names and cultural differences, why Nigerian immigrants do better in the States than in England, Ndibe’s debt to Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, how Soyinka saved Ndibe’s Christmas, malfunctioning tape recorders, how Achebe brought Ndibe to the United States,

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to start off from a very odd angle. James Joyce had Eccles Street. James Baldwin had, of course, areas of Paris and southern France. I couldn’t help but notice that in Foreign Gods, Inc., in concentrating on both Nigeria and Brooklyn, you look to very specific regions. In the case of southeastern Nigeria — that’s where you’re looking at — you have this fictitious village named Utonki.

Ndibe: Yes.

Correspondent: Which was also featured in Arrows of Rain, your previous book. And then for the Brooklyn stretch, you have 99 Flatbush Avenue, this second-story flat that Ike — I hope I don’t have the ass pronunciation.

Ndibe: It’s actually Eekeh. Ike [correct] is strength. ị́kẹ̀ [incorrect] is the buttocks.

Correspondent: Okay. I’ve got that right. So Ike, he lives in this second-story flat at 99 Flatbush Avenue. And I know that because my book drop is actually not far from there. What’s interesting about that is that if you go there now, you’ve got Barclay Center there. And it’s completely different from whatever regional inspiration you had when you first decided upon it. So I wanted to talk about Utonki and 99 Flatbush Ave as the representative area for which to draw a larger idea about what Nigeria is and what Brooklyn is, and why these particular places were draws for you and why it needed to start there.

Ndibe: Well, for Utonki, I wanted to set a location in Nigeria that is close to my hometown, which is Adamawa. Now in writing my first novel, I am drawn to water, to rivers and so on. And my hometown doesn’t have much by way of the river. We have a few streams. So there is a stream called Benue, which figures in this novel. So Utonki is actually based on a part of Nigeria that I had visited to see a friend of mine from years ago. And I was drawn there because this friend told me that the village is surrounded by this river and they ate a lot of fish. And I’ve always been a sucker for fish. So I went to his village and spent a whole week eating a lot of fish. So this becomes my hommage to this village where I ate fish and which is surrounded by water.

Correspondent: Where did you eat fish in Brooklyn then? (laughs) There’s a fish market downtown.

Ndibe: So in Brooklyn, I actually happened to have a cousin who lives in Brooklyn. And so the apartment and my description of it is my cousin’s apartment. But the address is different. My cousin lives on Lafayette, but I decided to name it a different address in the novel. So again, aware of having something, an image in my mind, but also inventing, as it were.

Correspondent: I’m still drawn to this idea of you in this Nigerian village eating fish and using this to zero in on what the country is about. What does fish eating allow you — and fish eating, of course, is a euphemism for something else as well (laughs) — but what does that do to get you to fixate your geographical energies in fiction? Or your sense of place on what it is to be a Nigerian?

Ndibe: Yes. Well, again, I’m intrigued by bodies of water. I’m intrigued by the ocean, by rivers, by lakes and so on. And so Utonki was, if you like — my mother in Nigeria is from Jimeta, which is on the banks of the river Niger, which is the grand river of Nigeria. And so I’ve always been intrigued by bodies of water, partly because I don’t swim a lake. I can’t swim to save my life. My wife actually was going to represent Nigeria in swimming at the Olympic Games. But I tell people that our winning record is for the fastest to sink to the bottom to any body of water. So in a lot of ways when I see water, or when I see a community with water, there is a part of me that wants to pay hommage to it. And so Utonki, which has a river but also brings me to that fish that I’ve always loved all my life. So if I have an ideal community, if I was going to make myself come from someplace, it would be a place like Utonki. So I invented it. So I would inhabit it, as it were.

Correspondent: This may seem a bizarre question, but it comes to mind in hearing you talk about being near bodies of water. Do you think that people who have a tendency to live near water tend to be more interesting than the people who live inland or who are landlocked?

Ndibe: I believe so. At least those who live close to water. Just like, for me, anybody who can swim becomes exceedingly interesting for me. Which is part of why perhaps I found my wife, Sheri, extraordinarily interesting. Just the fact that she can move with such ease, with such comfort, and with such gusto in water. So, yes, I do believe that those who inhabit the river, who live near bodies of water, are more resourceful. I don’t know if this can hold up to scientific scrutiny.

Correspondent: No.

Ndibe: But in my imaginative world, I think that this is true. Very much so.

Correspondent: It totally makes sense. I mean, I’ve lived pretty much near water in my adult life. I was in San Francisco, then New York. So I think we’re on the same level — even though I also recognize that this is a completely bizarre, tendentious principle. (laughs)

Ndibe: Yes. (laughs)

Correspondent: Speaking of location, I wanted to get into the contrast between Ike’s apartment at 99 Flatbush Ave, which you describe often very specifically. And near the end, we really know the geography of that place. Because some things happen, which I won’t give away, involving furniture. But after Ike’s first trip through the Lagos Airport, you almost avoid describing the look of Nigeria. I mean, we have a better sense also, for example, of the art dealer’s layout than the house late in the book where there’s all this basketball boasting. All these guys saying, “Hey, if you pay me that kind of money, I can go ahead and play like Michael Jordan.” I wanted to ask why that was. Do you think that Nigeria is marked more by this kind of general approach to existence? That, whether consciously or subconsciously, you’re going to just describe the country that way because there just are no specifics. I have a followup in relation to this, but I wanted to get your thoughts as to the level of self-awareness here and what it is to live and describe something that is often abstract.

Ndibe: Yes. Well, first of all, when I finished this novel, it actually came to more than a thousand pages.

Correspondent: Wow!

Ndibe: So there was a lot of editing. A lot of sloughing off huge swaths of the novel. And so when Ike’s plane is hovering over Lagos, there’s a long scene in the original draft of the novel where I describe how he sees Nigeria.

Correspondent: That’s fascinating.

Ndibe: In the original draft, he actually spends a week in Lagos with a friend of his who’s become very wealthy from doing all kinds of underhanded deals with the politicians and so on. And so we get to see Lagos, through Ike’s eyes, as his friend takes him to various parties of the rich and famous in Nigeria. All of those scenes became a casualty, if you like, of this huge cutting process. But that’s going to be worked into a different novel. Because I actually cut about 300 pages from the middle of the novel. And so I had Ike stay that night in a stop-off motel when, in the original draft of the novel, he spends a week in Lagos with this classmate of his who has a lot of money. So that’s one. But once he goes to his village, I guess there’s the sense of familiarity, the sense that he’s returning to a place where he was born. And so I allowed the novel to achieve, if you like, a sense of the unstated. So again, because this is filtered constantly through Ike’s consciousness, the village changes a lot when he returns to it. And there’s this classmate of his, Tony Iba, who has become a very wealthy, local politician and who has a sense that he’s giving back to poor people by building a small room where they can watch television and daydream about American life and so forth. So that kind of absence, if you like, of this particularity in the way that Nigeria is described owes to the process of editing that entailed a lot of cutting of details. And also the fact that Ike wants this in his village, the descriptions become physical locations muted, except in areas where he notes the dramatic changes in that landscape.

The Bat Segundo Show #532: Okey Ndibe (Download MP3)

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Alissa Nutting (The Bat Segundo Show #529)

Alissa Nutting is most recently the author of Tampa.

Author: Alissa Nutting

Play

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.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

Play

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.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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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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

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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.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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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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

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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.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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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Lots of jellybeans

Samira Kawash (The Bat Segundo Show #522)

Samira Kawash is most recently the author of Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure.

Author: Samira Kawash

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Subjects Discussed: The candy bar as a substitute for a sandwich, how the notion of “three meals a day” altered as Americans moved to cities, the candy bar’s evolution between the wars, the Chicken Dinner bar, how the mechanical age caused people to view themselves as engines, how candy manufacturers capitalized on the calorie-happy clime of the 1920s, Ray Brokel, the difficulty of tracking down bygone candy bar flavors, candy as a reflection of cultural taste, why some candy bars have endured to this day, why it’s difficult to reverse engineer a candy bar from the early 20th century, candy and the military, medical fasts and hard candy, how sugar fuels the brain, German chemists and nutritional science, how the German military used lemon drops as a secret weapon, lemon drops built to military specifications, overworked soldiers and increased productivity, comparing sugar and stimulant use among soldiers, drugs and the Vietnam War, modern connections between candy and the military, how trade show candy is foisted upon today’s soldiers, dentists and candy, candy conspiracies, early 20th century candy advertising, how cigarette companies hooked candy lovers on their product, competition and collusion between candy makers and cigarette companies in the 1920s, tobacco’s efforts to grab discretionary spending sapped up by candy, candy as a weight scapegoat, candy cigarettes and chocolate cigars, kids who emulate adults, candy as “a gateway to sin,” oleomargarine, the candy industry’s early hostility to glucose, food reformer Mary Theiss, 1908 warnings of “adulterated” candy, the distinctions between glucose and corn syrup, when corn syrup sounded wholesome, efforts to clean up glucose’s image during the 20th century, overblown fears about corn syrup in the present day, candy used as a restorative in health spas during the First World War, chocolate’s powers as a restorative, The Shotwell Candy Company’s attempts at vitamin-fortified candy bars, nutrition bars, horrific Figurines ads, the unholy alignment between chocolate and nutrition, chocolate’s introduction in Europe, cats who wander around the house, the demise of homemade candy dippers, how machinery affected the rise of candy and cigarettes, the ups and downs of homemade candymaking, gender roles and candymaking, the strange disappearance of candy cookbooks in recent years, the sinister origins of trick-or-treating, allowable pranking within the confines of Halloween, when child gangsters were considered cute, Sylvester Graham, Lulu Hunt Peters and the chocolate cream debouch, the relationship between Christian proselytizers and candy, Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s frightening poem about candy, religion of the body, secular morality, orthorexia, purity of the body, John Kellogg, efforts to capitalize on breakfast, the rise of Sugar Crisp and sugar-based cereals, Robert Choate’s cereal crackdown, the National Confectioners’ Association as a formidable lobbying organization, candy bar portions, dessert portions, the future of artisanal candy,

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Let’s start from the very beginning. There were many things that were fascinating about this book, but one of the things that fascinated me was how you pointed to this period where Americans shifted from a three meals-a-day life, where they were having breakfast in the morning, followed by dinner in the mid-afternoon, followed by supper before bedtime. And then things shifted to a breakfast-lunch-dinner life as Americans moved away from the farms and into more urban and industrial settings. To my great surprise, what was especially astonishing was how the chocolate lunch bar entered the market as a viable snack that could serve in lieu of a sandwich for lunch! I mean, that’s astonishing! The Waleco Sandwich Bar, Kline’s Lunch Bar, the Chicken Dinner Bar. So this is a good place to ask. How did the taste for candy shift from mere snacks to wholesale meal replacements? And also, you say that the taste of the Chicken Dinner Bar, which stopped manufacture around the 1960s, has been lost to history. But surely someone out there has described it. Did people really eat these things? How many of these lunch bars were manufactured? How did this happen?

Kawash: Well, I think I’m going to back up a little.

Correspondent: Okay. Sure!

Kawash: And talk about that transition that you pointed to from three meals a day at home to a much more fast-paced lifestyle that’s familiar to us. I mean, when we say breakfast, lunch, and dinner, what do you think of lunch? Lunch is away from home. Lunch is something fast. Lunch is something convenient. We just don’t have time to sit down for meals. We’re always on the go go go. And since the ’70s, sociologists have been bemoaning the loss of proper meals in our life and looking at the increasing number of our eating occasions which are really snacks. We’re eating things out of packages, on the go, and that’s only increasing. This kind of “eat what I want when I want it” lifestyle. And what people want for those increasing number of snacks is something candy-like. That is to say, something that is portable, something that is tasty, something that is easy to eat, something that isn’t messy. And candy fits the bill perfectly. And what is fascinating about the candy story is that this whole possibility of eating on the go and grabbing something that is almost as substantial as a meal, but out of a package — that starts with candy. And that period of transition when people started leaving the farms and leaving that rural lifestyle where you could come home in the middle of the day and have a substantial meal that would fuel you up for the rest of the afternoon’s labor, that starts fading away at about the same time that candy becomes available as a mass produced product. In the 19th century, there wasn’t that much candy around. And so it was really a treat. You’d go down into town and get a candy stick maybe. You’d hope for some candy in your Christmas stocking. And if you were an adult and you had some money, you could go to the import shop in the city and get some luxurious French bonbons, let’s say. But for most people, most of the time, there just wasn’t that much candy to eat. So towards the end of the 19th century, there’s a huge transformation both in the ways people are living — they’re living faster; they’re living on the move more — and also in the availability of this new kind of food that is portable and also entirely artificial. A new kind of substance in the world.

Correspondent: But how did we get to candy bars replacing sandwiches? I mean, I get that people actually needed something that was packaged and that they could cram into their mouths before going back on the clock. But did people really eat these chocolate sandwiches? Which were often quite humungous!

Kawash: Well, I think that some of the candy bar marketing in this period that we’re talking about — the period between the wars, between the First World War and the Second World War — was the glory days of the candy bar. And this is the period where we see thousands and thousands of new kind of candy bars coming on the market and advertising themselves in all sorts of fanciful ways. And one of the main ways that candy bars position themselves was exactly this — as a substantial meal replacement. When you couldn’t eat a meal, you could eat a candy bar. Now did people eat candy bars instead of meals? It’s hard to say. But we do know that quite a lot of those candy bars had meal-like names. Like you mentioned the Chicken Dinner. The Idaho Spud. The Denver Sandwich. The Lunch Bar. And all of this suggested that people could look at candy bars as something much more than the luxury foods that candy had been understood to be in the 19th century, that candy was substantial and that candy could fill you up. Not only that it was substantial and would fill you up, but also, and more importantly, candy was good food for quick energy. Now let’s go back to the 1920s and think about what’s happening. It’s the era of the airplane. It’s the air of streamline. It’s the era of the factory and the office and the businessman. People are moving fast. And fast is good. But fast means energy. People are looking around at these internal combustion engines that are just starting to putter around on the streets and thinking about fuel and our bodies as engines like cars that need fuel. What is fuel? Fuel is food. What is food? Food is calories. And this new idea of food as chemicals in the form of calories that would fuel your body — this was a new idea in the early 20th century. And what it meant was that things that had more calories were better. Because they had more fuel. So it’s like filling up your gas tank with a full tank. A candy bar that had two or three hundred calories, or sometimes a quarter pound candy bar, was not uncommon. Maybe five or six hundred calories in a candy bar. This was seen primarily as a compact source of energy that you could get quickly into your body. And the science of sugar in that era was also promoting the idea that sugar was quickly metabolized. That eating sugar gave you energy that you could use right away as opposed to, let’s say, whole wheat bread that just took a little while to digest. And so you weren’t as able to quickly access that energy. So the speed with which sugar would enter your system and fuel you was another important factor in the favor for candy. That candy was quick energy. It was compact. It was economical too. Because the number of calories that you could buy with your candy dollar were much higher than the number you could buy with your egg dollar or your pickle dollar.

chickendinnerCorrespondent: But this also leads me to go back to the question of the sandwich. I mean, I get that calories were new. They were in the air. People didn’t make any distinction between the calories one received from sugar and the calories one received from an apple. And there are a number of forms of advertisement you depict in this book that show that candy manufacturers played into this and used this to manipulate the public into buying more candy. But with things like the Chicken Dinner bar, I’m just absolutely curious about why something like that could be on the market for so long and yet you say that it’s lost to history. The taste. I mean, certainly there’s someone out there who knows about it and there’s someone out there who has a sense of how many of these sandwich-realted chocolate bars were actually eaten between the clock, so to speak.

Kawash: Well, sadly, our foremost historian of the candy bar, Ray Broekel, is no longer with us. And he is probably the only person who could have answered these questions.

Correspondent: He has papers! He has an archive! He must!

Kawash: He collected candy bar wrappers for several decades. And much of what we know of those lost candy bars is from his archives and from what he collected. He published at least two books where he would just chronicle what the candy bars were and what we know, what they were made of. You know, some of the candy bars, we know a lot about their composition. Because they would describe them in the advertising. So for example, I have seen Chicken Dinner ads that open up the candy bar. You can see the nuts. You can see the caramel. And we know that it was a sort of nut roll. So that would be caramel nougats and nuts. But other bars, all we have is maybe an image of the wrapper or maybe just a name of the candy bar. What’s in a Love Nest? Who knows?

Correspondent: Wow. But I’m wondering if there’s any way — and I guess I’m stuck on the idea of a Chicken Dinner bar — whether the plans or the formula for these bars exist in a vault somewhere and we just don’t know it. I mean, certain companies probably consolidated with companies. Certainly the original way to make these particular chocolate bars must exist somewhere. Or is that just a truly difficult question to solve in 2013?

Kawash: Well, I think that the candy business has changed so dramatically that, even if someone were to discover in the vaults the formula for the Chicken Dinner bar, there would be a large distance to travel between the formula in the vault and an actual Chicken Dinner bar. I mean, today we have a candy business that is dominated by two or three major players. Anywhere you go in America, you’ll see the same candy bars and you know what they are and they’re successful because they’re good. But also because those companies are huge and have huge marketing and advertising budgets. Most of the candy bars that have been lost were produced by tiny companies and often just local or regional companies. And one of the things that I discovered in my research was that, for the most part, candy manufacturers and candy makers were not always very good businessmen. They didn’t always understand the principles of accounting and the ways in which they needed to adjust their production to take into account their expenses. One of the things about candy is that it’s driven by novelty. You want to always be coming out with something new to catch people’s eye. So in the old days, candy makers would frequently just keep making the old stuff and start making the new stuff. And this would create enormous expenses. Because they never had those economies of scale. So part of the problem was just that their passion was candy making, not bookkeeping. And oftentimes, it’s really interesting to go back to some of those candy bars from the 1920s and see which ones have survived even just the brand. Like O. Henry, for example, or Baby Ruth. Those were candy bars that were invented and sold by individuals who had really business acumen. They thought about marketing. They thought about manufacturing in a way that gave them tools to become successful, where becoming successful is becoming national and becoming bought out by Nestle or Kraft or something like that. So I think that it’s a fascinating question. Are there these secret vaults of the lost candies? But I think the sad answer is probably for the most part not. Those companies are gone.

Correspondent: Geraldo opening Al Capone’s vault to see nothing.

Kawash: Yeah. Actually, there are some people now because of nostalgia. I mean, we’re really going through a period now of nostalgia for the old brands and the old candies. And I think your question of “If only I could have a Chicken Dinner bar!” I think a lot of us feel that way.

Correspondent: I mean, if a culture is defined by taste, there’s that question as well. But what you’re saying here about the fact that most of the early candy manufacturers were small and were absolutely terrible at business, sounding not unlike the book industry, I’m wondering at what point was there the first candy kingpin gobbling up all the great innovators that were actually selling certain forms of candy that were more than mere novelties? That had some legs, so to speak. Stuff like candy corn or lemon drops and all that.

Kawash: Well, the real consolidation happened starting in the ’60s. And it was a period of real complacency for candy. Candy manufacturers had been enormously — I mean, the ’20s, the Golden Age of the Candy Bar, you go back to the advertising and the trade publications and you can feel the vibration of excitement! It’s like, “Wow! We’re doing something really amazing here.” The Depression comes. It hits the candy industry as well. But those who survive make it out of the Depression and start ramping up again until the Second World War comes along. And, oh boy, war is good for candy. Why? Because candy is quick and portable energy. And so candy became a really key element in the rations for the troops. There were these headlines. CANDY FIGHTS IN THE WAR! CANDY BULLETS FOR EVERYONE! So the high point of candy production actually comes during the Second World War at a time when there is rationing and food shortage and all these other things that are really impinging on American industry. But candy, because it comes to be perceived as such an important source of energy and morale for the troops also, candy makes people happy.

Correspondent: Well, not only that. But emergency compartments, where bits of candy would fly out. Chocolate bars that are contained in a soldier’s emergency kit and, in fact, were consumed faster than the really terrible Meals Ready to Eat that they had at the time. At one point in the book, you point out that the fact that there was candy in the aircraft actually contributed to fewer accidents from the pilots, which is rather remarkable. I mean, why did candy have such a hold upon the military? I mean, I guess if you’re flying a very fragile plane, you need to be on a sugar high, I suppose.

Kawash: Well, I think that whatever the long term consequences of a high refined sugar diet, we know that….

Correspondent: (laughs) Whatever the consequences? That’s a great big conditional statement there!

Kawash: Let’s just put that to the side and talk about the immediate effects of, you know, sucking on a lemon drop.

The Bat Segundo Show #522: Samira Kawash (Download MP3)

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pidgeon_15harding1_arts

Paul Harding (The Bat Segundo Show #521)

Paul Harding is most recently the author of Enon. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #364.

Author: Paul Harding

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Subjects Discussed: William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, the relationship between Enon‘s Charlie Crosby and Tinkers‘s George Washington Crosby, Quentin Compson, dilettantes, Mark Slouka’s Brewster, Ross Raisin’s Waterline, the grief novel, blackouts, Greek mythology, Hallmark cards, spooky Halloween ghost stories, the Kübler-Ross model of grief, breaking your hand by smashing it into a wall, the many physical holes throughout Enon, Emily Dickinson, poetic dashes, what Charlie does for a living, living off meager insurance money, unemployed men in America, Harding’s disinterest in socioeconomics within fiction, house painting, avoiding the realm of fictional realism through mythology, John Cheever’s “The Jewels of the Cabots,” how a story announces its own priorities, the impact of grief on the work life, Franky Shuey, Easy Rider, self-reliant guys who work the seedy side of life, unreliable narrators, when the perspective of dreams is truer than reality, considering reader’s doubt of the facticity, unreliability as an act of bad faith, how readers determine the way in which a character is in bad shape, how common language is inadequate in describing extraordinary emotional experience, projecting personal history on to a local collective history, human connection predicated on lies, not being able to use “man” in everyday vernacular, coming to terms with ignorance, clarity usurped by dreams, the oneiric morass inside the skull, when communities enforce timetables on how to grieve, Mrs. Hale, pious matriarchs in small towns, moral standards, pardoning grievers for their morbid fantasies, violence and grief, the Protestant notion of “I am thou,” parallels between civilian grief and military grief, being familiar with the local graveyard, Harding’s stint playing in a marching band, Marilyn Robinson’s influence, fire and brimstone types, Charlie’s largely secular journey, Karl Barth, Emerson’s connection with Calvinism, leaving the church in order to find God, Emily Dickinson as “no hoper,” speaking in William Tyndale’s English, “burning strange fires” and burning the memory of your daughter, improvising a religion by worshiping the dead, making coffee and tea from ashes, coming to terms with our national history of religiosity, verifying the story of Noah’s Ark, how Moby Dick is true, bowling as an indelible part of American heritage, candlepin bowling, Charlie’s relationship with sound, grief compared with an organ chord, silence and secular prayer, thinking about emotions musically, homes in Tinkers and Enon, the home as an onion, phantoms, the impermanence of location when considered from a historical perspective, Cheever’s “The Pig Fell Into the Well,” spending your time ruminating, the correct pronunciation of “Aloysius,” how reading informs mispronunciation, old photos, the temporal bandwidth of a small town, drawing from crumbs, defining originality, Kantian notions of space and time, and the connection between originality and experience.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I have to ask about Charlie Crosby. He is the protagonist of Enon. He appeared in an early part of Tinkers, where he is seen reading as a child to his grandfather, who is George Washington. And in Enon, he calls himself “a reader’s reader.” Yet we are not really entirely sure what kind of scholar he is. Whether he’s professional or some sort of amateur autodidact. So I’m wondering. To what extent did you map out the Crosby family? And is there room for Cathy Lee and David in the family line?

Harding: (laughs) Well, I improvise things as I go along. Because I think technically I fudged the family a little bit. Because in Tinkers, I think Charlie has a brother.

Correspondent: Oh yeah.

Harding: Named Sam. And I pulled the Faulkner Yoknapatawpha card.

Correspondent: I figured. How very portentous of you.

Harding: Well, it’s one of those things where the Quentin Compson of Absalom, Absalom! is not the Quentin Compson of The Sound and the Fury. And so I keep these characters in this loose fictional world in this fictional family. But I never sacrificed the story to the rigors of genealogy. And I think you hit the term right on the head. I think of him like an autodidact. He’s a little bit better than a dilettante.

Correspondent: Well, let’s actually defend the dilettante here, Paul!

Harding: (laughs) I know!

Correspondent: I mean, they are, after all, your readers.

Harding: Right. We’re all professional dilettantes.

Correspondent: We’re all dilettantes.

Harding: Yeah. Well, I think of him as reading aloud on his own.

Correspondent: This book reminded me of two other books. I’m not sure if you’ve read them. Mark Slouka’s Brewster, which came out earlier this year, dealt with grief by looking at it from a long distance ahead. It was set in the 1960s. There’s another book which, really, you must read. Of course, both of the books are great. Ross Raisin’s Waterline. Are you familiar with that?

Harding: No. I haven’t heard of either of those.

Correspondent: Oh my God! This book is about a guy. He loses his wife. He’s a Scottish guy. He’s unemployed. He ends up getting on a bus and working in a London hotel restaurant and gets totally exploited and then ends up drifting into homelessness.

Harding: Sounds like another musical comedy.

Correspondent: Exactly! Well, you have written a book. I”m talking about one book that deals with grief as a surrender of time, which is Brewster. And with Waterline, it’s a book that deals with grief as a capitulation of place. You’ve written a grief novel — if we can call it that, if that’s a genre — that involves the surrender of both time and place. There are porous months that just flit right by, often because of Charlie’s blackouts with pills and whiskey. I’m wondering why you think grief in fiction tends to explore this erosion of time and space more than real life. Was this one of the appeals of working on Enon?

Harding: I think it has to do, in my instance, with the way that I line up what I think of as the subjects and predicates when you’re writing narrative fiction. So I don’t think of myself as having written a book about grief. I wrote a book about Charlie, who is grieving. Because the danger is that — and this is the danger from the end of writing fiction. For me, if you think of grief thematically or objectively, as it were, the danger is that then you’ll spend all of your time making your character conform to your preconceived ideas of how grief is experienced. And so I think of the books that I write as very, if not anything else, experiential. So the hallmark of fiction is character. The hallmark of character is consciousness. The hallmark of consciousness is the experience of being in time.

Correspondent: Just so long as there’s no Hallmark cards.

Harding: Right.

Correspondent: Let’s avoid cliche in this conversation.

Harding: (laughs) Right.

Correspondent: You get three hallmarks.

Harding: So the whole idea is that time accelerates or decelerates or explodes or compresses, according to Charlie’s experience of it. So then I’m not imposing any of my preconceived notions of what happens when you’re grieving on to him. And then I just followed his lead in terms of what he found himself thinking. When I gave him the resources of knowing the town’s history and all that sort of stuff. And then he was able to superimpose his daughter, the memory of his daughter, in with all the different compounded times of the town. And I think of all these things as almost like Perseus and the mirror. He can’t look at Medusa. You can’t look at the tragedy head on or you’ll perish. You’ll turn to stone. So all of these other narratives, these other books, the history of the town, are things that I give him through which he mediates the memory of his daughter so he can try to negotiate it, be equal to it, without basically doing himself in.

Correspondent: But it is interesting that you have to choose. I mean, here’s the thing. You write fiction. You’re trying to align life to a narrative. But in the case of grief, you actually have to choose far more than a lot of other life experiences in fiction.

Harding: It’s more extreme.

Correspondent: And I”m wondering what you do to account for things you can’t include in choices you have to make. It seems to me like it would be a much harder proposition as a fiction writer.

Harding: Yeah, I think it is. I mean, when I first got the idea for the book, I thought, “Oh boy! It’s like a spooky Hawthornesque, Emily Dickinsonian.” You know, the kind of first-person death poem. The posthumous poems and everything. And then, within writing half a page of the book, I realized, “Wait, this is incredibly tragic.”

Correspondent: You thought this was going to be a barrel of laughs. (laughs)

Harding: Well, I thought it would be a Halloween spooky ghost story. But of course, the premise then is much more tragic. And so I thought more about Greek tragedy and Shakespearean tragedy and just the myths. Orpheus and Demeter and Persephone. A grieving parent going down to the underworld to fetch back a child. And it was. It turned out to be an incredibly difficult subject to write about. But to me, that was almost a guarantee of quality control. If you’re writing a story about a parent who’s suffering the life of a child, you take one false step in any direction and you’ve got melodrama, sentimentality, maudlin. You’re just ringing cheap emotion out of the inherently sad, tragic nature of things. So just as a writer, I was interested in trying to rise to that occasion. Trying to write the novel that I felt that I was actually not good enough to write when I started.

Correspondent: This is interesting. Because if melodrama is always the risk in looking at a death poem or looking at grief, in this case what’s remarkable about Charlie is that he doesn’t at least audibly beat himself up. He certainly does it with the pills and with the whiskey and all that. But he never really gets beyond that first stage of grief of the Kübler-Ross model.

Harding: Never heard of it. That’s the thing. The Kübler-Ross model — that’s been a subsequent description, which is interesting. But I see him as wrestling with his conscience. I seem him as essentially being very aware of the fact that he’s ashamed of who he’s become since she’s died. And then that gave me an opportunity to explore a universal dramatic human predicament, which is not doing the right thing. Knowing what the right thing and not being able to do it. Him understanding. Being on the couch and being paralyzed and becoming addicted to drugs and then breaking into people’s houses. He understands the whole time that that’s wrong. And yet he can’t stop himself.

Correspondent: But he is in that denial stage pretty much for this one year of grief.

Harding: I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. I just saw it as him having his attention on. Because maybe if he’s denying other things, it’s because they’re at the expense of what he finds most important and most pressing about the experience.

Correspondent: Why didn’t he get angry over this? I mean, he’s a very, very…

Harding: He breaks his hand. He punches the window.

Correspondent: Well, that’s true.

Harding: He breaks his hand. You know, he’s not a particularly violent guy. So I think the anger is diffused by his conscience. So I think it’s a subtle thing. But it’s funny. I had a scene in an early draft of the book where he runs through the house and breaks the whole house to pieces. And it never seemed authentic. You know, he’s more Thoreau. The quiet lives of desperation. The drama is interior with him. And so the anger is more diffused. I think it refracted prismatically through his conscience. So it dispersed in a subtler way.

Correspondent: But here’s the weird thing about when he punches the wall with his hand. As a reader, I was very well aware of the many holes in this book. And by holes, I mean literally. Just tons of holes. There’s everything from the cribbage board to the golf course to the holes in the cemetery to the holes that he punches into the wall.

Harding: And then he cuts a hole in the wall at the end.

Correspondent: Of course. There’s that. To the hole in the caretaker’s throat.

Harding: That’s funny. I wasn’t aware of those things.

Correspondent: It’s because this book is so, for lack of a better word, hole happy, I didn’t see that gesture of him smashing the wall as an absolute indignant one. Even though it is. But at the same time, it just seems to me that that is his way of connecting with his home.

Harding: Could be. It’s the cathartic moment then.

Correspondent: Well, what of all the holes? I mean, the landscape in this book is just utterly porous. And I was wondering about that. Why it ended up that way. It seems to me there was no conscious plan.

Harding: Your guess is as good as mine! I mean, that happened with Tinkers. I realized that the book was composed of a series of houses that were imperiled, where nests were disappearing or falling. And I didn’t consciously put that in the book. And so here, it makes sense that the portal between this life and the next are doorways, I suppose. And he spends a lot of his time trying to break through the doorways or climb down through the grave or something like that. And the guardian angel of the book was Emily Dickinson and the way that she crosses through the portals or the rabbit holes or whatever between this life and an imagined metaphysical realm passing this life. So I guess that inevitably that verbiage and imagery would naturally precipitate into the language.

Correspondent: And yet dashes really aren’t that much of a part of this book.

Harding: No. Not this time. (laughs)

(Loops for this program provided by cork27, djmfl, 40a, Cyto, and mingote.)

The Bat Segundo Show #521: Paul Harding II (Download MP3)

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Nicholson Baker (The Bat Segundo Show #520)

Nicholson Baker is most recently the author of Traveling Sprinkler. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #200.

Author: Nicholson Baker

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Subjects Discussed: Attempting to talk in the early hours of the morning, the many beginnings offered by poems vs. the many beginnings offered by the Internet, digital enjambment, tobacco dip videos, Paul Chowder’s songwriting, Baker’s protest songs, Method writing, the development of song lyrics over the last few decades, Dance Music Manual, when dance songs go on too long, Lopoerman, loops, buying a shotgun mic from B&H, phones that beep during conversations, being a proponent of the kick drum, the theology of percussion, how fiction and music composition create different principles in drawing from other work, Medea Benjamin, Glenn Greenwald, the importance of sticking it out, Paul Chowder’s politics vs. Jay’s politics in Checkpoint, Edward Snowden, the difficulty of writing controversial books, when world leader surnames become too incantatory, attending political protests, political recoil, a highly attuned relationship to language and its effect upon political commitment, language as overused wooden blocks, songs as a way of taking back familiar words, Obama’s kill list, synesthesia, stretching out a word to melodic effect, Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” Tracy Chapman’s “Change,” how repetition causes you to look at a word in a different way, Paul Chowder’s “The Right of the People,” the discomforting sight of protesters who are pepper sprayed, peaceful assembly, singing the Bill of Rights, cultural appropriation, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” Thicke’s injunction against Gaye’s family, Ray Parker’s “Ghostbusters” and Huey Lewis’s “I Want a New Drug,” the scant chords and melodies available in pop music, the swift creation of “Blurred Lines,” George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” Baker’s views on the movie music business, why Hans Zimmer is a hack, Baker’s appreciation for Paul Oakenfold and trance, the bassoon, how Harry Gregson-Williams ripped off John Powell’s score for The Bourne Identity, Carol King, efforts to duplicate songs in the 1970s, “Narrow Ruled,” putting a dot on a margin to note a passage vs. favoriting a tweet, filling notebooks with quotes from other books, analog vs. digital forms of “signing someone else’s mind signature,” anthologists who hunted for Shakespearean gems, Logan Pearsall Smith, the downside of typing too fast, forgetting handwriting, the foreign nature of writing a thank you note in the digital age, the importance of exertion, articles about the end of handwriting, handwriting vs. keyboards, how reading things aloud slows time down, Baker’s recent Harper’s essay arguing against Algebra II, the socioeconomic impact of abolishing Algebra II, Jose Vilson’s response to Baker’s article, knowledge vs. the way teachers express knowledge, Algebra II as a requirement that increases human suffering, turning core subjects into electives, educational budget cuts, compulsory education, negative high school experiences, fallacious approaches to teaching the essay, E.B. White, Robert Benchley, Baker’s attendance at the School Without Walls, the burden of having to know and do things that you don’t like, Dan Kois’s unpardonable anti-intellectualism, the importance of challenging perceptions, the importance of sitting still, migration routes of the Goths through Europe, including more choice into education, living a life where nobody is asking you to do anything, the trancelike state of being bored, House of Holes, Samuel R. Delany’s notion of pornotopia, Katie Roiphe’s advocacy of House of Holes, why so much of literary sex is a downer, House of Holes as realist novel, Grindr, Tinder, small town life, Yellow Submarine, Baker’s appreciation for Schmidt’s soliloquies in The New Girl, Baker’s appearance on The Colbert Report, why penis is an insufficient name, using the deep hindbrain words, “The Penis Song,” Victorian pornography that appears throughout many of Baker’s novels, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, Librivox and audio books, the presence of radio in the Paul Chowder novels, how audio reveals the inflection of words, the inclusion of more Chowder lead-ins in Traveling Sprinkler, Baker’s secret stash of personally recorded radio bumpers, and talking into field recorders.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: In The Anthologist, the first of these two novels, there’s this moment where Paul Chowder describes how he’s fond of books of poems. Because no matter where he flips around, he can always be at the beginning. And as he says, “Many, many beginnings.” It occurred to me that this is also the perfect description for the Internet, which actually appears quite prolifically and is almost a cultural repository in the second Paul Chowder book, Traveling Sprinkler. You seem to have, in many cases, swapped the names of poets and real people from The New Yorker with people in bookstores, such as the great Miss Liberty at River Run Books.

Baker: Oh yes.

Correspondent: And, of course, I actually found a lot of those tobacco dip videos on YouTube. You were actually quoting directly from them.

Baker: Oh sure! You don’t want to make those up.

Correspondent: (laughs) You don’t want to make those up?

Baker: No, they’re too great as is.

Correspondent: Well, you’ve written a good deal about the Internet in essays. And I have to ask: to what extent do you feel that the Internet has almost replaced or augmented poetry? There’s certainly plenty of digital enjambment out there. So I’m wondering about this.

Baker: (laughs) Digital enjambment. What a great idea! Well, I think what the Internet has done is that it’s enormously enriched our lives. And it does have that feeling of pieces, many of them. Breaks. Fragments. All over the place. And poems also are short and fragmentary and you kind of come across them and have that moment and go away. But I guess the difference is that I use the Internet — I kind of dip in constantly to learn things. Whereas when I’m in a mood to read a poem or when I just happen to read a poem, it slows everything down. And it has kind of the opposite effect on me. It doesn’t make me want to leap off in eighteen directions. It makes me want to just stop and say, “Oh my god! That pulled that thing apart! That held me still.” So it has that opposite effect. So the two are identical. In some ways, they’re in competition with each other. But in some ways, they’re similar.

Correspondent: What’s the future of poetry with these promising distractions? This enjambment of a different sort?

Baker: The future of poetry is independent, I think, of the way that we publish things. And it’s probably more closely linked to the future of pop music than some poets would want to admit. Because they want to have that division. They want to say that song lyrics aren’t poems. But obviously the two are short clumps of words that often rhyme or have some kind of metrical thing happening. And certainly the future of song lyrics is terrific, I think, isn’t it? I mean, have we ever — certainly in the history of my life — has there ever been a time when you are just constantly discovering new songs and old songs and comparing things? These great websites that tell you the history of a certain lyrical idea. I mean, it’s really happening. So I would think that the strength of that thread, or that theme, is going to propel poetry forward. And then there’s also kind of the realization that some of modernism was a mistake. Not all of it, but some of it. It was aggressive in the wrong way and was kind of disturbingly exclusive and rejecting of comprehensibility and all that. So the poets I like have learned from all of those terrific things that happened in the early part of the 20th century, but they want to be read, you know?

Correspondent: Paul Chowder’s songwriting is not a new development. There is, in fact, this song in The Anthologist that goes “I’m in the barn / I’m in the bar-harn / I’m in the barn in the afternoo-hoon.”

Baker: (laughs) Yes.

Correspondent: So why do you think songwriting turned out to be more of a muse than poetry for Paul Chowder this time? Was it from jumping off some of the hip-hop schemes that you were analyzing in The Anthologist? You were, of course, recording these songs and putting them onto YouTube, which many of us were watching with some degree of curiosity. So to some degree, I guess, this is a form of Method writing. I’m wondering how Chowder’s sensibilities as his affinities permutated here.

Baker: Well, I think Chowder is a guy who would love to be a better poet than he is. And he’s looking for a way out. He’s looking for a way out of a kind of situation in which he’s trapped in the level he can reach as a poet. So he’s looking for a way out. But he’s also looking for a way back in. And, I mean, I certainly share this with him. I share 90% of his thoughts. So I can just say that poetry is beautiful and calls to you. And then there’s moments where you just think, “God, I need something different. Something more. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand why so many people do it. All that feeling.” And getting back to music and trying to fit two art forms together is really hard and excitingly challenging. It was for me to imagine him as a lyric writer, not a very good one. But you know, he does his best. Because song lyrics are so different. They have to be simpler. And when you’re writing song lyrics and trying to match them to a melody or invent a melody, the words that come out are different than the words that come out if you’re just sitting with a typewriter. So I think it was just the thrill of the chase. It was the excitement of the idea that this maybe is the key. So if he, and if I, can possibly write some tunes or get some rhythms going that have a certain bouncy danceability or hummability or something? Wow! That is fun! And then manage to get some words going. I mean, it felt to me, once I started to play with music again, like a new chapter in my life. And so when I was writing the book, and I was writing the novel and songs at the same time…

Correspondent: Did you also become an astute scholar of all the various dance genres much like Paul Chowder? Did you go down that rabbit hole as well?

Baker: Yeah! Sure! Of course I bought a textbook called Dance Music Manual.

Correspondent: So it was actually that textbook.

Baker: Oh yeah. I studied it! Very, very thick. A very heavy textbook. And dance music really puzzles me in a way. Still I don’t really fully get it. Because the songs are too long. I love to listen to a loop. And I’ll happily listen to sixteen bars of a loop and then another layer comes in. And 32. At some point, I want the song to be over. And I think that because I grew up with the Beatles, I want it to be over at around two and a half to three minutes. And dance songs, because you’re supposed to dance to them and they are segued with other songs, go on a very long time. And so I really still haven’t learned the form of the dance song. But when I’m writing, I listen to them all the time.

Correspondent: But all of the songs that you did as Nick Baker get into that kind of trance state of a constant loop and a constant series of rhythms where you’re sort of promulgating some kind of concern about politics or something along those lines. Some of them go on quite long as well. So is the loop really the way to identify the dance song? I mean, did you start off with loops? I almost don’t want to direct you to Looperman. Are you familiar with this site? They have all sorts of loops you can use for free that I use for this particular program.

Baker: Really? Well, I don’t ever use loops. I use Logic Pro.

Correspondent: Okay.

Baker: Which is Apple’s music software. Just as my character does in the book. It’s $200. Tons of instruments. Fantastic deal. And it does everything that you need it to do. Although it isn’t Pro Tools, which is the industry standard and all that. Which is $600. And I couldn’t afford that.

Correspondent: Did you actually go down [like Paul Chowder in Traveling Sprinkler] and get a shotgun mic from B&H? (laughs)

Baker: Absolutely.

Correspondent: You did! Okay.

Baker: All that software.

Correspondent: You had that similar problem of “Oh, do I need to lay down a lot of money for this great mic?” Wow!

Baker: No. All my theories about the importance of stereo sound versus mono sound I just dumped into the book. I believe in stereo. I’m a strong believer in stereo. So I bought the mic not from B&H — oh, yes! I bought it, but not from — yeah, I bought it from B&H!

Correspondent: Wow.

Baker: And in fact, I thought of bringing it along. Because it’s kind of soothing when you’re traveling to do some music. And I thought I could practically fit the mic stand. The mic is about three feet long. And it’s pretty durable. So I thought I could put it in the suitcase. And then I thought, “Nah. Something might happen.”

Correspondent: Is it the Rode mic?

Baker: I can’t remember. It’s ATK or something.

[Mysterious beeping sound.]

Baker: I’m sorry. That’s me. I’ll turn this off.

Correspondent: (clutching his dying smartphone, which has less than 5% battery life) No, it’s actually me. Or is it you?

Baker: I think it’s me telling me. It’s telling me that tomorrow I’ll be in Washington DC. (laughs) How helpful!

Correspondent: I’m turning mine off too.

Baker: The DC Book Fest.

Correspondent: My power’s actually about to go out. So there you go. So okay…

Baker: Okay. So let me. Okay. So loops. There are different ways to think about the word “loop.” And most dance songs, and a lot of pop songs these days, are built on the looping principle. But what you don’t want to do is take somebody else’s loop and say, “Ooh! That sounds good. I’ll use it in my song.” Or at least I don’t want to do that. Because you want to build something that is your own. So I usually start with a little piano riff that goes on for four or eight bars. A little something. A chord. Just an interesting chord. Or I start with maybe a hi-hat sound that sounds just a little bit odd and interesting. Or maybe some percussion that has a bit of pitch to it that then makes me think of another sound. Then I layer, using a lot of trial and error and a certain amount of just dumb luck and whatever; incompetence — layers over that. Until I have, say, fifteen layers of sound. And that’s my loop. And the nice thing, when it goes right, is that the loop is in all of its fully official, big time, near-the-end-of-the-song glory. But you might want to take out five tracks from that when you start. And, of course, the kick drum might come in. And suddenly, sixteen bars along or something.

Correspondent: You’re a big proponent of the kick drum.

Baker: Everybody is. You can’t not be a proponent of the kick drum!

Correspondent: (laughs)

Baker: Except that it’s kind of an embarrassing term. You know, “kick drum.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Baker: It sounds sort of like the da-da-da-dum-dah-dum.

Correspondent: You make it sound like John Philip Souza or something.

Baker: Yeah. It sounds like that. But what it is, it’s a massive kind of a chest-vibrating sound that happens every beat or however you want to vary it. And once you get into this world, the theology of kick drum sounds.

Correspondent: A theology?

Baker: The number, the thousands of tiny variations. And the way you can make a chesty kick drum, but with this element of a pop on the top so that you can still get the sense of something bursting, but also get that subwoofer whomp. All of that. People think about that. You have no idea how seriously people take that. Well, you probably do. You’re into music.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, this is really interesting that in your own particular music, you basically say no to taking another loop. And yet in the fiction, we’ve established that you’re drawing very close from reality and from real world examples. Which might almost be like taking a loop and meshing it with another loop.

Baker: Interesting.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering why music allows one set of principles and fiction offers another one. Or is it really simply the expression of a sentence that offers the distinction between music taking loops and fiction taking from cultural reference and so forth?

Baker: Well, yeah, that’s really an interesting thought. I think that I’m always reluctant to quote anything without quotation marks. So I don’t believe in it. The hip-hop world uses sampling a lot, where you take a number of nice sounds — the riff, maybe the chorus — and do things. And it’s obviously brilliant. And they’ve made such great discoveries and combinations. It’s just not something that I’m ready to do yet. I think it’s because, as a writer, I can’t bear the idea that, even involuntarily, I would without remembering quoting somebody else’s phrase and thinking it was my own. It’s just not something that I ever, ever want to do.

Correspondent: Unless you devise a specific sound that can be offered in lieu of a quotation mark.

Baker: (laughs) Who?

Correspondent: A very special percussive sound that nobody else has, that everybody agrees upon. “Alright! Here’s the time where we take from a 70s Funkadelic song.” (laughs)

Baker: Exactly.

Correspondent: There’s another thing I wanted to ask you about. In Traveling Sprinkler, Paul Chowder name-checks both Medea Benjamin and Glenn Greenwald. There’s an interesting line. And this was written before Edward Snowden. “What good does it do me to read Glenn Greenwald’s excellent blog? He’s right about everything and I’m glad he’s doing it. But it doesn’t seem to have any effect.” Well, au contraire!

Baker: (laughs)

Correspondent: Granted, Paul is talking about this in relation to Roz. But Paul Chowder to me is more of a short-sighted version of your typical Baker hero, who is really taking in the world and seeing it with a kind of wonder. And also, it’s not unlike what he said of podcasters, where he says, “They’ll keep on pumping it out. But then they’ll puff up and die.”

Baker: (laughs)

Correspondent: To which we got into a minor disagreement. But that got cleared up. But I actually wanted to ask you. Why do you think that Paul Chowder does not really appreciate the long-term effect of keeping at it and sticking at it? Because that is just as much a part of the journey of being an observer, of being an intellectual seeker, of being a curious type. And so that is very curious why this is outside his temperament.

Baker: Well, I think you put it beautifully, Ed. You have to be patient. You have to keep saying the things over and over again. But that doesn’t mean we all don’t have moments of despair. Which happened, say, in the ramping up to the first Iraq War. All those brilliant op-ed pieces. All that marching. All that sustained argumentation that made the case that this was a mistake was for naught. It was going to happen. It was scheduled, planned, whatever. The launch date was planned. And it happened. And that filled me with a kind of despair. Because I thought, What is the function of rational argument and public discourse when it’s just not going to work? When there’s that feeling, that wave of almost frenzy or a thirst for war. And I think it’s worth including that sentiment if we’re going to be true to our own political lives, which are mixtures. You go up and down. Sometimes you think, “Well, my god, we’re making progress and good ideas are coming out. And good people like Medea Benjamin are saying incredibly powerful, moving things and brave things.” And then it all seems for naught. And it doesn’t get anything accomplished. So you then feel that despair. So I just had Chowder follow the ups and downs of that. But I’ve hinted that towards the end. You know, there’s a moment where his friend Tim gets arrested. And he says, “I’m glad Tim is writing the book.” And the point is that Paul Chowder is too caught up in his own worry, his own love complexities, and the mixed-upness of his own life to do something sustained like write a book against drones. But he’s very glad someone else is doing it. And at some point, he thinks that maybe he can actually do something. In my case, I’m trying to, in a sneaky way, do the same thing. I’m trying to say, “I’m going to present you with a human life.” And this is a person that, if it works, you’re going to recognize this guy. You’re going to see some things about people in this person that you think, “Oh, that’s familiar.” And you’re going to see him struggle and have dissatisfaction and give you some little political ideas to think about. So by the end of the book, I’m not going to have tired you out or disgusted you with overpoliticizing, I hope. Although maybe I redlined there. But I’m going to have included that component in a fictional life. So that the aim of the book was political in a sense. It was to try to write some sort of anti-intervention book, but to do it singingly. To sing the pain a bit and include all the other distractions that a normal life has.

Correspondent: But there are two interesting points here. Because both Glenn Greenwald and Medea Benjamin this year — I mean, when Medea Benjamin basically shouted out to Obama in a way that nobody else would, suddenly, at that moment, she was taken seriously after all these years of ridicule. Same goes with Greenwald. You centered on the two figures who stuck it out and actually became a vital part, I think, of the political discourse. Simultaneously, I’m also thinking of Chowder’s vacillating political position and comparing it to Jay from Checkpoint, where he wants to assassinate Bush for the good of humankind. And that also is a kind of intervention as well. And I’m curious why every political argument that you approach in your fiction tends to involve an intervention of some kind. It’s either an intervention that comes from within or an intervention that comes from without. I mean, is this really just kind of what you see as the American impulse right now? I mean, we’re clearly not in the streets complaining about drones or complaining about the surveillance state and all that. But it is something that this conviction does face intervention in all of your fiction, I think.

Baker: Well, first, I totally admire and — I mean, who wouldn’t admire what Glenn Greenwald did with Snowden? Which was all before. But I love his blog. I admire it so much. I’m terribly jealous of his ability to stick with it and to be patient and to go after and to say similar things, but bring new facts into it. And Medea Benjamin — I mean, I just can’t stand it. She’s so brave. And I love that.

Correspondent: You’re envious of the bravery?

Baker: Well, you know, I have been to marches a little bit. And I published a political book. Human Smoke was a very controversial book. And it’s really hard. It really hurts sometimes. The criticism, the sneering, the unfairness. The kind of misrepresentation of what you’re trying to do in order to make you into a figure of ridicule. In order to make whatever you have to say not have any weight. You know, it does hurt. And it’s hard. And I can only do it once in a while. And even when I’m doing it, I’m doing it about the Second World War! I’ll write a few letters and sign some petitions and I’ll march. I mean, I was up in Portland at an anti-Syrian intervention. Candlelight vigil. Lighting candles. But I’m going to retreat to another time and try to make the argument a different way. I’m trying to undermine the militarist impulse by undermining some of the justifications for the Second World War. I’m trying to do it indirectly. But it’s also an escape. I mean, it’s so hard to talk about the present in a fresh way. That’s the hard part. The names. The names are so familiar. And I don’t want to hear the name “Obama.” I don’t want to hear the name “Assad.” I’m tired of the names. And yet obviously those are the names you have to use. And so, you know, it feels like you need to figure out another way.

(Loops for this program provided by ShortBusMusic, ferryterry, danke, and Progressbeats5.)

The Bat Segundo Show #520: Nicholson Baker (Download MP3)

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kathryndavis

Kathryn Davis (The Bat Segundo Show #519)

Kathryn Davis is most recently the author of Duplex.

Author: Kathryn Davis

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[PROGRAM NOTE: During this program, there is a moment in which Kathryn Davis and Our Correspondent blank out on the name of a religious studies professor who has been studying the intersection of robots and spirituality. That professor's name is Noreen Herzfeld. And her book, Technology and Religion, examines how technology alters our approach to religion and spirituality. Our apologies to Professor Herzfeld!]

Subjects Discussed: Dogs and babies who occupy Central Park, Leibniz’s idea of the multiverse, the idea of gods forcing followers to believe in a false world, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel, casual reading of quantum mechanics, how drawing from one’s own reality creates phantasmagorical realities, the influence of Alice in Wonderland, being declared the offspring of Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll by Joy Press, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, fluidity of consciousness, when unfinished novels have greater moral standing and gravitas than finished novels, the human need for resolution, Davis’s love for murder mysteries, the 1967 Dudley Moore/Peter Cook film Bedazzled, Drimble Wedge & The Vegetations, the sin attached to destroying endings, the decline of mainstream nihilism, the museum scene in Batman, The Passenger, Eric Schlosser’s Command and Conquer, whether today is less traumatic than decades past, the edge of the world as a real place, when limitless realities involve soul searching, fluidity of time and fluidity of place and the commodification of the soul, questions of the animating spirit, essential essence buried in Duplex, castigating the unadventurous human spirit, when people value states more than having a soul, consumption vs. the spirit, the false notion of “having it all,” word origins of “aquanaut” and “robot,” the aquanaut and robot as spiritual ways of being human, whether the age of a word affect its usage, living in a pre-Snooki Jersey Shore, attempting to pin down how the concept of being out in the open air came to define living, viewing the word “monster” in a positive light, the etymology of “monster” (which has the same Latin root as “monitor”), writing someone off with a word, conquering fears by understanding the history of a word, having sympathy for monsters, when robots are fond of naming things, broadening interest in the Other, applying finite nouns in an infinite universe, how technology can generate its own creation myths, why Davis didn’t always explore the nature of religion in Duplex, developing the “rain of beads” parable, The Thin Place, approaching spirituality from a secular place, the tech crowd’s alignment with atheism, singularity, Noreen Herzfeld’s thoughts on the soul in the machine, Davis’s fondness of dachshunds, literary connections to dachshunds, Gary Shteyngart, Nabokov, babushka dancing, extremely geeky literary dog jokes, horse storytelling, Jane Smiley, writing for Significant Objects and incorporating the material in Duplex, Molly Peck’s remarkable video in response to Our Correspondent’s Significant Objects story, being an unapologetic magpie, how yellow bears helped to inform Davis’s sense of a sorcerer, the violent sexuality within Duplex, intimacy and pilfering space, the appalling horror of growing up, observations from Alizah Salario, how real women aren’t immune to time, gender roles and age, including an entire lifetime in a book, triangular sideburns, Charlie Sheen’s strange haircut in Major League, baseball players and facial hair, trading cards, the Cabbage Patch Dolls vs. the Garbage Pail Kids, negotiating difficult territory, Calvino’s “Body-without-Soul,” the hesitation when opening doors, how language provides a path forward in the novel, when writers force themselves to stay in a place where they are clearly bored, Kate Atkinson, and writing about what you want to know about.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: This morning, I was reading this piece at Aeon Magazine by Andrew Crumey about how much of contemporary art is still wrestling with Leibniz’s ideas about the multiverse. Now Leibniz claimed that all possible worlds exist in the mind of God and that he ultimately chooses one universe made consistent by a principle of harmony. And of course, I was reading this and thinking, “Oh! This is absolutely what Kathryn’s doing with her book.” God is usually benevolent, but he wouldn’t make us believe in the reality of a false world, according to Leibniz. But your novel Duplex seems to be resisting this idea to some extent. Because you’re almost asking us to believe in a world that is almost post-reality. So I’m wondering, just to start off here, to what degree did Leibniz and the spirit of the multiverse inform the writing of this book? Just a minor little question like that.

Davis: An easy question. I would say that there was nothing so specific as something I read that informed the universe of the book. But the universe of the book is, in fact, the universe I dwell in. So that in a way, I feel like Duplex is as much a work of realism as Look Homeward Angel.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Davis: I don’t know why that occurred to me.

Correspondent: Especially since he writes very fat books. Thomas Wolfe.

Davis: That’s right. And I didn’t want this to be a thick book.

Correspondent: Are you claiming to be Eugene Gant in any way?

Davis: No. Not a bit. But I do feel like it’s my experience of the world that I was trying to replicate in the book. Now I, at one time, read an enormous amount of cosmology, got very interested in that without being at all trained as a scientist. So I got interested in the way that non-scientists do, taking a more metaphoric…

Correspondent: Quantum mechanics is lay reading basically.

Davis: Yeah. And that is true also of topology, which I’m attracted to without understanding anything about it really. And yet the idea that there are ways to think about the world we live in that stretch the logical mind into a shape that doesn’t resemble anything recognizable — that is very appealing to me.

Correspondent: So what I’m getting here is you’re drawing initially from your particular reality.

Davis: Yes.

Correspondent: Whether it be suburban, whether it be smaller city. And you’re using much of this additional reading to create the kind of fantastic and phantsmagorical experience. I’m wondering, aside from just how it subverts the experience, how language plays into this as well. Because that’s extremely curious. Why do you think you’re reading something along the lines of this gives your novel an edge? I mean, are you always resisting the prosaic or what here?

Davis: Well, I don’t know that I resist the prosaic. In fact, writing this book, I felt that, with my experience growing up on a suburban street in Philadelphia, I really wanted to replicate that, which was a very — in its own way — prosaic experience. And yet it was also clear to me that the prosaic had, if you unfolded it or untucked the edge…

Correspondent: Unboxed it.

Davis: Yes. There would be things much less prosaic going on, as, for example, a family of robots living on the street.

Correspondent: Which is clearly drawn from reality.

Davis: Absolutely!

Correspondent: (laughs)

Davis: I won’t name the family, but there certainly was a family where the oddness of the family, as on any suburban street — I would say anyone. Ask anyone and they will say, “Oh yeah. There could have been a family of robots living on our street.” There could have been a sorcerer who came and messed around with the souls of the young people. That would be another way of describing a family that just didn’t seem like all the other families.

Correspondent: So what you’re basically doing is that you’re trying to, I suppose, avoid the prosaic or chronicle the prosaic by really tapping into all forms of perception.

Davis: Yes.

Correspondent: And, as a result, this is why this particular world in Duplex has no time, no space, has edges that are constantly shifting, has waves that are constantly intruding. To my mind, it seemed like you were challenging the reader to look at something typical. I guess what I’m trying to get at here is that anything typical can become magical simply by just tilting it any kind of direction.

Davis: Yeah. And when I was a kid, the book that my parents read to me, the book that I loved the most and that always seemed like the purest expression of the world I lived in, was Alice in Wonderland. I could not get enough of it. And it really described to me the world I grew up in, the house I grew up in, the people I spent my time with. So in a way, I’m doing nothing different in this book than I feel that Lewis Carroll was doing in Alice.

Correspondent: Well, I know Joy Press once said that you were the offspring of Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll.

Davis: Right. I loved that!

Correspondent: Which has cropped up in a couple of interviews I’ve read. But that does bring to mind: would you say that you err more on the side of Carroll than Woolf? Or what?

Davis: Oh, I’d like to think I’m equal parts. I feel like what I learned from reading Virginia Woolf — and again it was the same kind of encounter with a book. In the case of Virginia Woolf, it was To the Lighthouse. And reading it, I couldn’t believe that someone had written that book that just so perfectly talked about the way I experienced the world, which is what you really want, I think, a book to do even if it takes you by surprise. Even if it’s talking about climbing Mount Everest or something, which you’ve never done. But it tells you something that you sort of knew, but in a way that you didn’t know you knew it. So the language of Virginia Woolf and the psychological realm that she so amazingly dwells in and describes: that is every bit as important to me as the perverse antic quality of Carroll’s prose and the world he describes.

Correspondent: So I guess the grounding in consciousness of Virginia Woolf, or even the fluidity of consciousness seen in something like Orlando, which is a favorite of mine…

Davis: I love that book too.

Correspondent: It can also be qualified as science fiction.

Davis: Oh, absolutely.

Correspondent: Why do you think so much of fiction just puts a border there when we’re talking about consciousness? It basically says, “No, you actually have to go ahead and adhere to this idea that life must be crammed into the valise of narrative.” You know what I mean?

Davis: I don’t know. I think it’s a more boring approach to the world of possibility when you’re writing. I certainly know that if I felt like I had to subscribe to a set of rules — if that’s what you had to do in order to be a writer of fiction, I wouldn’t have wanted to be a writer of fiction. I think my sense of not wanting to be a mathematician when I was much younger was because it just seemed like a whole bunch of rules. It turns out I was wrong about that. But the sense that you are being told you can only go this far and no further is of no interest to me.

Correspondent: Yeah. There was an essay in Bookforum — I believe in July. And I can’t remember who wrote it. But it was basically saying that the unfinished novel is of greater moral uplift than the finished novel. Because as you’re writing a novel, this essay said, you’re basically fighting against some kind of mortality. And that mortality is fresh and alive when it’s unfinished. How do you contend with this notion? Because resolutions in your books are not always neat, nor are they actually clear-cut. And I’m wondering. What are your thoughts on this idea of keeping that mortality alive in something that is both unfinished but, as it so happens in your case, is also finished?

Davis: That’s a great question. I’ll say that one of the forms that really appeals to me is the murder mystery.

Correspondent: Yes! I know that.

Davis: And I love everything about a murder mystery actually, except the ending.

Correspondent: Yes. Because you have to have resolution. When I found this out — I was doing research — I was going to ask you about that. Because, I mean, how could you love a form so much? What do you take away from it as a reading experience when you have the cop explain everything or the criminal say, “Here was my plan all along”? I mean, how do you wrestle with such a genre? Which I love, by the way. And actually I do happen to love some of those explanations myself. But what do you take away from it?

Davis: I too — I would hate to read a murder mystery. I would hate to read a P.D. James and not have a resolution. I would want to strangle her. Because the book is set up to give you that. But the form, the generative form, the form where something happens early on or something is said or there’s some sense of a mystery that is established very early on in the book — and part of your pleasure and job as a reader is to track down what’s happening — that feeling is one of my favorite feelings in life. I love not being given a piece of evidence or a clue. I mean, this all goes back, I’m sure, to the house I grew up in. Where nobody said anything outright and you were always trying to figure out what’s going on.

Correspondent: Ah! I see.

Davis: By reading between the lines and reading the clues.

Correspondent: So a constant life of mystery and a constant reading life of mystery.

Davis: Yes! And for my own part, I actually thought, “Well, you love reading these murder mysteries. Why don’t you just write one?” I believe firmly you should write what you love to read. It turns out that if you want to write a murder mystery, you really have to figure out an awful lot of stuff ahead of time in a way that I am just not interested in doing. It would be boring to do that. And I’ve written some books that seem to me, that feel to me to sort of make use of that genre. I felt like that was true of The Walking Tour, for example. But I didn’t want there to be the detective calling everybody into the drawing room and telling everyone what happened.

Correspondent: You must be a big fan of the Antonioni film L’Avventura.

Davis: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: In which the missing girl is never explained. It never actually is explained. I mean, Antonioni to me would seem to be your match for literature. Because there’s so much rich life. And even in his most narrative film, The Passenger, even there you don’t have a clean-cut resolution. You have Jack Nicholson disappear. And you’re still invited to witness this amazing display of life at the end of the picture. I guess the way to continue this conversation is to ask why this is something to be resisted. Why is this a strange underground attitude or set of sensibilities to inhabit in 2013?

Davis: That’s a great question. I mean, I guess…

[A baby cries in the background.]

Correspondent: That was a little critic walking past.

Davis: Sad at the idea of lack of completion.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Davis: I think it makes people very nervous. I think life makes people nervous. And part of what makes people nervous about life is not knowing what lies ahead, even though, if you knew what lay ahead, the idea of actually knowing what’s about to happen is so appalling to me that I don’t even want to think about it. But I also know that the human wish to feel contained and part of a logical system, one that isn’t going to pull the rug out from under you, that’s a very, very strong wish. And it’s probably some kind of a survival mechanism also.

Correspondent: It’s not just a survival mechanism. It makes me think of the joke in the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore movie Bedazzled. There’s one situation where Peter Cook is the Devil. It’s a marvelous movie.

Davis: I love that movie.

Correspondent: The remake is terrible, but this is a genius movie. And there’s one part where Peter Cook picks up mysteries and he’s ripping out the last..

Davis: Ripping out the last page!

Correspondent: Every single one! And the fact that that’s actually condemned as something demonic or something that only the Devil can do, I think says much about our need for resolution, right? (laughs)

Davis: Oh yeah. Well, I felt like the Devil in that movie, in many ways, was doing exactly what you would want…

Correspondent: What you would want to do!

Davis: What you would want to have done! When he scratches the records.

Correspondent: Yes. And, of course, the wonderful song, the terrible pop music song in that, which is hilarious.

Davis: Yes! Scratch that record! Yes, pull out those pages!

Correspondent: But it’s a rebellious act. It’s an act of nihilism. I mean, that’s the thing. Remember — now that we’re thinking cinematic here, it makes me think of Jack Nicholson again as the Joker in Batman, going into the museum and just throwing paint and destroying art. This used to actually be something we contended with in mainstream pictures, mainstream books, mainstream art. And now it’s fascinating to me that with the nihilism, now you have to go to a house like Graywolf in order to actually explore these questions. Why do you think that is?

Davis: Boy, that’s a big question, but I have an answer!

Correspondent: You do!

Davis: Yeah. I think that the timidity, the cultural timidity, has to do with the fact that the world is a frightening place. But is it more frightening now than it was, say, in 1960? No. I don’t think so. In fact, the threat of nuclear annihilation was so present in everybody’s mind.

Correspondent: But maybe it’s out of sight, out of mind. There’s an Eric Schlosser book called Command and Control, which deals with how fragile the entire nuclear infrastructure is.

Davis: But nobody talks about it.

Correspondent: Nobody talks about this. Just as people are accepting the NSA surveillance. People want to accept this kind of thing. Maybe they’re beaten down. Maybe we’re just putting on more blinders these days. Maybe we don’t want to actually open up the floodgates to every single problem. And maybe this is what you say. It’s about living life and accepting it in all of its hard knocks and all that.

Davis: But it is really true. And I’ve thought a lot about this. Because people don’t want you to write books that don’t end happily.

Correspondent: Unlikable characters, which has become a big issue this year.

Davis: Right. Movies. It is now the case where if you go to the movies, especially with the movies made in this country…

Correspondent: You have to go to television to get a gripping narrative.

Davis: And you’re not ever going to see something where there’s going to be an inconclusive or really, really unhappy ending. So I realize the suspense level is eradicated by the fact that, even when somebody’s clinging to the edge of a cliff and you’re thinking, “Oh my God! I hope he’s going to survive,” you know he’s going to. Because they don’t make movies where people drop off cliffs. Because he’s the hero.

Correspondent: So narrative is doomed to go for the default heroic state.

(Loops for this program provided by 40a, cork27, danke, and GamingXSportXClub.)

The Bat Segundo Show #519: Kathryn Davis (Download MP3)

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Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell (The Bat Segundo Show #518)

Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell are the co-authors of The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, a book which documents the making of The Room. Bissell previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #449 and The Bat Segundo Show #450.

Authors: Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell

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Subjects Discussed: Ideal Hollywood standing positions to check smartphones, being addicted to technology, how Sestero and Bissell collaborated, Tommy Wiseau’s vernacular, how the Wiseau philosophy is applicable to real life, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s unanticipated influence on The Room, Wiseau’s thoughts on Fight Club, why Sestero put up with Tommy Wiseau for so long, Robin Williams vs. Tommy Wiseau, Patch Adams, a melodramatic video that Wiseau photographed and sent to an insurance company, the blind and reckless Hollywood producer attitude, Brad Pitt, the unspeakable display of Tommy Wiseau’s ass, Wiseau’s philosophy on shooting sex scenes, Bon Jovi’s reluctance to collaborate with Wiseau, getting music for The Room, composers hired by Tommy Wiseau, shooting The Room simultaneously in 35mm and HD, Wiseau’s curious innovations, Citizen Kane, being the first person to build a private bathroom on set, Hitchcock’s aversion to shooting on location, The Birds, Wiseau’s cinematic influences, “Cinema Crudité,” Wiseau’s Berlin Wall of personal involvement, occupying a territory (and a life) that is half invention and half real, Wiseau’s mysterious past in Europe, incidents from The Room pulled from real life, the Bay to Breakers race, Wiseau’s efforts to cash out-of-state checks, The Room as Wiseau’s secret autobiography, Wiseau’s fixation on James Dean, Giant, actors who dye their hair, A Rebel Without a Cause, Marlon Brando, whether Sestero’s involvement in The Room made any dents in his acting career, the challenges of conveying incomprehensible dialogue, the advantages of knowing people named Tom, penetrating into the great mystery of Mark’s disappearing beard in The Room, being nicknamed “Babyface” in acting class, being photographed being shaven, the film set as a surveillance state, crew members on The Room who worked simultaneously on Terminator 3, Wiseau’s fixation on youth, The Room as a parallel identity for Wiseau, parallels between The Room and Grand Theft Auto, The Room video game, and Bissell’s open letter to Niko Bellic.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I’m curious about how you guys both wrote this book. There are large chunks of dialogue between Greg and Tommy Wiseau. And it’s often so specific that I can’t imagine how you could get it that specific after several years had passed. So I’m wondering. I have to assume much of it is invented. Tom, you happened to share Tommy’s name. Did you two talk to each other in a dark room? You with the Wiseau accent? How did this come about? The dialogue in this book? To flesh out the big important story behind The Room.

Bissell: Well, Greg and I recorded all these chapters. We have like thirty hours of tape.

Correspondent: Oh!

Bissell: And Greg is an actor. Greg has a very good memory. And I would ask him to dig back into his memory. And he would do these conversations as clearly as he could remember them. And he knows Tommy so well that he could get those Tommytastic little grammatical flubs. I did very little of the dialogue. It kind of came out of Greg as he remembered the tenor of his conversations. That’s how it was recorded. And that’s how we transcribed it.

Correspondent: Was there any severe trauma, Greg, in this sense memory?

Sestero: Yeah. Actually, that’s off to a very good start. I do have a very good memory for better or for worse.

Bissell: And you’ve taken a lot of notes over the years.

Sestero: Yeah. And with Tommy, he’s so unique that you don’t really forget. As you can tell with the movie. People quote it all the time. You don’t really forget the way he speaks. There’s a very signature way of saying things. And it was such an unforgettable experience that I just remembered almost everything. And it came to me very quickly. I told stories about my experience to many people. So they were very vivid. Very clear in my memory. And the dialogue — I read excerpts of it to Tommy. Chapter Four. “Tommy’s Planet.” And he was shocked. He’s like, “My God! That’s exactly what happened. You remembered exactly what I say. Good job.”

Bissell: (laughs) You have to say it like he would say it.

Sestero: (in Wiseau voice) “My God! Good job!”

Correspondent: So he was consulted for all of the dialogue in this. I mean, he is a control freak, from what I gather.

Sestero: Yeah. I went over a lot of things with him about his past. And I traveled with him and I had gone to the places that I spoke about in the book. And he was very clear on stuff that he was comfortable with me putting in. His background, his retail career in San Francisco. But I knew he wouldn’t want me to talk about certain things. And I left that up to him. And I cut those things out. And the dialogue. Yeah. That’s the way he speaks. Basically verbatim. Especially when I traveled with him when I was writing the book on tour. And I was interviewing him. And it reconnected me with the way he talked. So a lot of that dialogue is straight out of how it happened.

Bissell: You also note that in the film, the film is a constant recycling of the same six or seven pieces of language. And when I’ve interviewed Tommy, he says those things. He wrote them. He says them. They kick around in his head. And so one of the real pleasures was, as Greg was remembering back and recreating these conversations, I would notice that those phrases would slip in. And I was like, the great thing I like about it is that a real avid Room fan will be reading these pre-Room scenes. And then suddenly boom! There’s a phrase from the movie. You’re like, “Oh my god!” Like when he asks Greg about how to get into SAG, he’s like, “Well like now that you are expert, how do you get into the SAG?” And then in the film, he’s like, “It seems to me that you are the expert, Mark!”

Sestero: Yeah. You can’t invent stuff with Tommy. He’s just this character that exists. So to do him justice, you need to quote him verbatim. And that was my goal with it. Is to be as exact as possible.

Correspondent: Has the Wiseau vernacular helped you in the course of your adult life? Has it allowed you to, I suppose, be more forthcoming in certain ways? When talking with family or friends or therapists?

Sestero: Yeah. It definitely has.

Correspondent: Do you have any examples you can offer? I mean, if you go to sleep at night, do you sometimes hear that Balkan voice lulling you?

Sestero: Yeah.

Bissell: (laughs)

Correspondent: Encouraging certain nocturnal dreams and associated emissions?

Sestero: Definitely nocturnal. I do have many laughs about what Tommy would say in this moment. And I’ll even think like him sometimes.

Correspondent: Think like him?

Sestero: Yeah. Like what would he say? There’s one thing I really find. He’s always going. He’s always grabbing things and bringing things places. And I’d just be standing there and watching him. He’d be like, “My god, do something! Don’t be Statue of Liberty!” And so I’ve noticed myself carrying posters and getting really busy during this time. When somebody’s standing there. “Will you help me?” And I’ll think, I say, “Could you help me?” But Tommy would be like, “My god! Do something!” So it’s funny. I’ve understood him a lot more in the last few years what he says. But the way he communicates is so funny that it just makes him the character that he is.

Correspondent: One thing I didn’t know until I read this book was that The Talented Mr. Ripley was a huge influence on The Room, which I had no idea about and which makes complete sense in hindsight.

Bissell: It’s the source text.

Correspondent: The source text. Tommy and Greg. Tom and Dickie. And as you point out, it gave you the flu when you watched it the first time, without Tommy, for about two weeks.

Sestero: Yeah.

Correspondent: This was fascinating to me. I’m wondering if you have actually gone back to the original source, Patricia Highsmith, and tried to mine those novels for deeper insights about Tommy or your own life or how you became friends with him and all that.

Sestero: Yeah. I actually started reading — I’ve read the entire Ripley series. Yeah, they’re very similar characters in ways. The difference is, I think, that Tommy, deep down, he’s a genuine person. He’s charismatic. While Tom Ripley has a dark streak. He’s just not comfortable with himself. So there are fine lines of the way they operated. But it’s amazing.

Bissell: It’s the longing.

Sestero: Yeah. And it’s the core. When Tommy watched The Talented Mr. Ripley, what it did to him, how it really got a rise out of him like no other movie that I’d seen when I’d watched it. Like we watched Fight Club and he’s like, “My god! This is so boring.”

Correspondent: (laughs) He was bored by Fight Club?

Sestero: Yeah, I know, right? He was like, “I do better acting in class.”

Correspondent: Wow. Even with Meat Loaf and the cool editing?

Sestero: Fight Club‘s one of my favorite movies. But The Talented Mr. Ripley is — it has that element. He lit up. And that’s what he wanted to make.

Bissell: When Greg revealed that to me, and I didn’t know that until it actually came out in our interviews, I was like, “Stop the fucking tape.” And we actually stopped the tape. And we sat there and we talked through all of the correspondences. You and I just started bringing up things from the movie.

Sestero: It all started to happen!

Bissell: It all started making sense. Oh my god!

Sestero: Peter. There’s a character named Peter in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Matt Damon. It’s all his fault. Mark Damon. The all-American guy.

Bissell: And we both read Strangers on a Train when we were working on this book. That’s the reason we talked about that book a lot. So there’s a weird Highsmithian quality.

Sestero: Yeah.

Correspondent: Except there have been no murders thankfully.

Bissell: (laughs)

Correspondent: Unless you did a criss-cross thing.

Bissell: Well, there was that one vagrant you and I hunted for sport.

Correspondent: Greg, it seems to me that with this Los Angeles apartment, the repeat playback of Tommy’s audition tape, the phone calls when you worked as a salesman at Armani Exchange, that you were either remarkably patient with Tommy or, well, you enjoyed being walked over. And I was really curious about this. I mean, even accounting for the whimsical follies of being a young man, what do you think kept you coming back to Tommy Wiseau? I mean, what was it? Was he just extraordinarily charismatic? Or did you just overlook some of these qualities?

Sestero: Yeah, I think youth obviously comes into play. But there’s just something about Tommy that was different. And I felt like an outcast with my family. And Tommy made me feel like I belonged to something. And I couldn’t really let go of the fact of the L.A. experience that I had when I first got there, the excitement of it and thinking that really I would have never had that. And even if that’s all it was, I never would have had that. And it was really because of him. So that bond really became strong. And it was really difficult. I mean, obviously, I thought about saying, “My god, I’ve got to just get out of this.” But anytime I tried to flee or tell Tommy what I thought or got emotional, and said those things, he would always retreat and come back and be like he didn’t mean to make me feel that way. So it was tough to leave somebody, especially in the book when he disappeared. When I saw him outside that acting class, just standing away from everybody, I felt for him. Because I felt the same way in a lot of ways. Except that I fit in more. But I understood what he was going through. So it’s hard to let someone float off into despair, knowing that you can make a difference. I always felt at the end of the day that I’d rather make a difference, to make someone feel better, than be self-aggrandizing. I guess this is all about being selfless than being selfish. I mean, obviously, I look crazy when you are able to look at the experience from the outside and see all these problems. It’s easy to just leave. But sometimes when you’re in it, you want to do what’s right hopefully and help that person.

Correspondent: Well, he probably gave you more approval than Robin Williams did on Patch Adams. Who knew that Tommy would have more solicitude than Robin Williams? Who I thought would exude that kind of thing being a wild and crazy guy from San Francisco.

Sestero: Yeah. Tommy’s a force and he challenged me to say, “Don’t be a chicken. Go for what you want to accomplish.” And I just never really forgot that.

Correspondent: Okay. I wanted to ask about the mysterious $6 million that financed The Room. There are allusions to a string of shops. The TSW Corporation so intrigued me that I actually did a business search at the California Secretary of State, finding nothing in relation to this.

Sestero: Really? (laughs)

Correspondent: I didn’t. So I’m wondering, Tom, what investigative acumen did you bring to this project? To really track down the Wiseau mystique? The unknown trail that people have been thinking about and conjuring up all sorts of theories about over these many years.

Bissell: Everything I know is in the book. And at a certain point, I have no idea how he amassed this fortune. I don’t think you really know either.

Sestero: I know he works around the clock. I know he had retail shops. I’d been there. I know he has those things. I know he owns a lot of real estate.

Bissell: He owns real estate.

Sestero: And that’s as far as it goes. I did research and interview people, but really I wanted him to tell his story and let the readers decide what was there.

Correspondent: Is there any way to get that video he sent to the insurance company? Because the way it was described was rather extraordinary.

Sestero: It was extraordinary.

Bissell: I’ve seen it.

Sestero: When Tom watched it…

Bissell: It’s incredible.

Sestero: …his reaction was that he put his hand up and he was just like, “Oh my god.”

Bissell: (laughs)

Sestero: What have I gotten myself into?

Correspondent: Basically, just to tell our listeners, he had all this classical music over it apparently and also he recruited people to say good things about Tommy. So that he could get the insurance money. (laughs)

Bissell: And there are these really mournful shots of these burned blue jeans, scorched.

Correspondent: Blue jeans? Really? (laughs)

Sestero: They actually didn’t even look that bad.

Correspondent: (laughs) The insurance company went for this?

Bissell: I don’t know.

Sestero: I don’t know.

Bissell: All we have is the tape.

Sestero: He’s a relentless retail guy. In fact, right now, he’s even designing an underwear line and a jeans line.

Correspondent: Is he really?

Sestero: He’s going all out.

Correspondent: Are you going to be one of his models?

Sestero: No. I’ll delegate that to somebody else.

Correspondent: Tom, do you need some additional income?

Bissell: I don’t think the world needs to see that.

Sestero: (laughs)

Correspondent: Okay.

Bissell: But I will say the line that I’m happiest with in this book is: “In discussing Tommy’s background, the simplest answer is the right answer. But with Tommy, there doesn’t seem to be a simplest answer.” That’s the astounding thing about him.

Sestero: Yeah. You think you know something. And then there’s just a trail of mystery that you’re lead down. And after knowing him for fifteen years, there’s still a lot left to know.

Correspondent: But if you think about it, the creative financing that he brought to The Room is really no different than the creative financing that is behind most Hollywood projects.

Sestero: That’s true.

Bissell: (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m wondering if, for some reason, he inhabited that same kind of blind reckless instinct that we usually associate with Hollywood producers who hope someone else can cook the books. And really that’s why he was able to get The Room made. Just because that’s the way it is in L.A.

Bissell: It seems like he read a how to make a movie book, but skipped every other paragraph. Because some things he obviously did right. One of his quotes is “How they do so in Hollywood. We no different from big studio.” So he clearly believed he was doing things according to studio procedures.

Correspondent: He was following some of the guidelines.

Sestero: Yeah. His interpretation for The Room was that he was doing it like the big sharks. The billboard, the equipment, the green screen. He thought that’s how a high-end Hollywood production does their movie.

Correspondent: One of the most frightening elements of The Room, which I really must talk to you gentlemen about just to clarify this, is Tommy Wiseau’s ass. It is there. It reportedly scared the editor’s wife. It is covered during the love scenes and yet we have this one Brad Pitt-like moment when he’s out of bed. And as the book puts it, “I’ve never seen anyone more comfortable naked around people who resented him.” But this still doesn’t explain something, which I had hoped to get from the book. Maybe you guys can answer. Which was the relentless soundtrack of groans and thrusting that are over all of these love scenes. They’re relentlessly noisy. And I’m wondering if there’s something about Tommy Wiseau’s relationship with his ass contributed to the kind of noise factor in these particular scenes, to say nothing of the fact that eleven minutes of the film is composed of love scenes and all that.

Bissell: (to Sestero) You had to record those groan tracks.

Correspondent: You were actually the groaner?!?

Bissell: You can hear Greg in one of the groan scenes going “Ohhhhhhhhhhh!!!!”

Sestero: Yeah, I had to sit in a video booth and do those while watching it. And I just thought, “My god. This is just painful.” And I thought, okay, let’s make it easy. Again, I didn’t think anyone would see it. So I did that. And it came out terrible. But Tommy did the same thing. I think with Tommy, he’s proud of his rear end. And that’s great. But he was trying to create a leading man moment for himself and felt good about it and he believed. He has to show his ass in this movie or it will not sell. So that’s what made him decide. He was laying on the ground inside Birns & Saywer, wondering if he should do it. And he’s like, “You know what? I have to.”

Correspondent: And it was not even a closed set. That’s what’s even more fascinating about that.

Bissell: He opened the set.

Correspondent: He opened the set. Wow. But that’s the other thing! Could he just not remember his groans? Much as he could not remember his lines?

Sestero: Well, with the groans, I think sometimes they do do those little things in post to fill them in. But his groans went really too far. Which I think make those scenes even more fun.

Correspondent: (laughs) Oh yeah? There’s groan outtakes.

Sestero: Yeah.

Bissell: How long is that first sex scene? It’s three and a half minutes.

Sestero: So long.

Correspondent: I know.

Sestero: It was actually even longer in the rough cut. It was like a music video. It just kept going on and on.

Correspondent: But he had to find something. A song that would last just as long.

Sestero: Exactly.

Correspondent: He couldn’t find a seven minute song that would work.

Sestero: He actually wanted to have one of Bon Jovi’s songs.

Bissell: “Always.”

Sestero: “Always.” To be there. And I don’t think Bon Jovi went for it.

(Loops for this program provided by oryan55, cork27, EOS, camzee, and supertex.)

The Bat Segundo Show #518: Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell (Download MP3)

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Daniel Woodrell (The Bat Segundo Show #517)

Daniel Woodrell is most recently the author of The Maid’s Version.

Author: Daniel Woodrell

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Subjects Discussed: Twists within Woodrell’s fiction, Thelonious Monk, mysterious narrators, William Kennedy’s Albany Cycle, The Flaming Corsage and Very Old Bones as deeply underrated novels, the snapshot montage approach to presenting history through fiction, how general observations identify people who lived 85 years before, the cemetery as the ultimate marker of memory, the novelist’s obligation to history, why it’s important to explore perspectives foreign to your own, Tomato Red as the creative turning point for Woodrell, the close connections between heightened language and heightened perspective, how respect for a town manifests itself in unusual ways, Ozark vernacular, referring to a cop as “John Law,” “Parmesan” vs. “sprinkled cheese,” consulting the OED, food in Woodrell’s novels, tasty variants of Depression stew, fatback, what people get wrong about stew, hack stew, prostitution, how Woodrell cultivated his knowledge of hookers, junior high school crushes who turn into hookers, people who manipulate others, knowing most of humanity by living in a small town, why there isn’t street crime in the Ozarks, crime that occurs among acquaintances, criminal strangers who lurch into tough guy mode, fighting against the cliche of the guy who wants an easy fight in a small town, Tony Danza’s boxing skills, why it’s important to lose fights, testifying against your cousin, how to create distinctive characters, Plug’s character in The Maid’s Version, families who accept aberrant behavior within kin, not prying into other people’s business, regional literature defined by acceptance of strange behavior, how reading Southern literature tilts real-life concerns, feeble attempts to deny knowledge of William Faulkner, the appeal of Cormac McCarthy’s darker novels, The Bayou Trilogy, Ed McBain’s Isola, how home life is defined in Woodrell’s novels, being more aware of the exterior of homes rather than the interior, reading novels as a way of knowing other regions, Comte de Lautréamont’s knowing narrator style, how illusion creates energy, the urge to feel uncertain, how shaky sales creates creative freedom, the decline of book review sections, why publishers believed in Woodrell with a terrible sales track, disasters and population ratios, the effect of a dance hall explosion on a small town vs. the Boston Marathon bombing, when larger cities don’t always comprehend the impact of disasters, why small towns permit more speculation than metropolitan clusters, the comforts of seemingly conscious forces, grief and belief culture, Woodrell’s abandoned San Francisco novel, why San Francisco didn’t work as a setting for Woodrell, Eddie Muller and the Noir City Film Festival, the joys of film noir, Woodrell’s Vietnam novel, Woodrell’s past experience as a Marine, antiwar protests, growing to accept the necessity of certain types of civil disobedience, false promises from the military, and fiction writing and political impulses.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: We’ve seen twists in your books before. I think of the brutal Civil War swap that opens up Woe to Live On. I think of the relationship revelation after that house break in Tomato Red. But in this book [The Maid's Version], you have been extremely opaque about the narrator’s identity to the point of, I will confess, mild frustration. But then I started to get into what you were doing. I’m wondering why this opacity, along with the fragmented sense of history, more your style this time around. I’m wondering if this was a formal exercise to see how much material you could pack into a 165 page novel.

Woodrell: Well, I didn’t want to turn it into being about him so much directly. I wanted him to be in a position to know a lot of things and to observe things and to report things. In many ways, this book has a style that would fit nonfiction. Quite a bit of it. And that was also by design. Because I had felt that he was trying to relay fiction. And so I wanted him to be a little bit outside. He’s not the most important person in the book, or even very important. Just as a messenger of the story. And I did really wrestle with this book in terms of what size to make it. I tried to initially make it a big fat one and include everyone in it. It just got out of shape so badly that I essentially threw it away. I eventually realized, “Just The Maid’s Version. Just get down to the bone. To the part that really matters to you.” Or as Thelonious Monk once said, “Just play the notes you really mean.” And I kind of took that to heart here. Just played the notes I really meant.

Correspondent: When you say this was going to be “a big fat one,” what were the original drafts looking like? I mean, you say that you were reporting here. And I’m wondering, given the economy of the final product so to speak, how expansive did you get here?

Woodrell: Well, there were a lot of different rumors about what may have or may not have happened. There were a lot of different players who could have come into the picture briefly or at more length. Even the little bios of some of the victims were originally quite a few pages a piece. And it began to lose shape and focus and it wandered too much for me. And that’s a little bit depressing sometimes. When you get to page 100 and something and you say, “I think I can use ten of these.”

Correspondent: By the way, can we actually confess the narrator’s name? I guess we can.

Woodrell: Yeah. His name is…

Correspondent: Alek.

Woodrell: Alek. He is named a few times.

Correspondent: He is. He is. I didn’t know the extent of spoilers. I’ve seen reviews do this. So he’s Alek. Out of the bag.

Woodrell: And there have been people who read it and didn’t catch his name. They didn’t know he had a name. No, he is named.

Correspondent: Yes.

Woodrell: It didn’t occur to me. (laughs)

Correspondent: Did this book start with Alek? How did the reporting and how did the wrestling with history become such a part of this book? We can talk about the fire that is actually a real dance hall fire in 1928 that is also in this book. So what caused your imagination to wander into this factual milieu?

Woodrell: Well, I’d heard about this ever since I was old enough to be told this kind of detail. And I eventually began to learn there were a lot of versions or rumors about what might or might not have happened. And the very first time I attempted to get into this, it was omniscient and there was no Alek and there was no particular focus on the Dunahew family. It was going to be pretty tightly — there was a Wiliam Kennedy book I liked. A lot of other people didn’t seem to.

Correspondent: Which one? Very Old Bones?

Woodrell: The Flaming Corsage. And Very Old Bones. Both of them.

Correspondent: Very Old Bones, I feel, is very underrated.

Woodrell: I think it is too. I really like that. I love Kennedy. Period. So I’m not really capable of being unbiased toward him. But I liked that a lot. And I felt like it moved a certain story through history rather well and it certainly kept me going.

Correspondent: So his montage nature, I think, in that book appealed to you for this?

Woodrell: Yeah. It did.

Correspondent: That’s interesting. That totally makes sense.

Woodrell: So originally it was going to be here’s the maid for a minute and then here’s someone else and here’s someone else, and they’re all linked together. And the story would expand from there and go forward. But slowly over a period of time, I realized that the personal part of it, the Dunahew family’s interior relationship to this, was fundamental to me really. I just hadn’t recognized how important that part of it was to me. And it began to seem to me that that was the way to go into this.

Correspondent: I’m curious. At what point did the dance hall start to inform the snapshot approach? Was it more the dance hall? Or the Kennedy book The Flaming Corsage?

Woodrell: Well, you go around town talking about the real event, you get little snippets. And a number of the victims are remembered by one thing that was notable about them or that was often reported. “She played the piano” or “He was a good ballplayer.” Or something like that. And so over a period of time, these characters, as they’re discussed, are sitting around time with other citizens. They begin to have the one, two, or three things that have stuck about them in the minds of the people there. And I began to realize, “Yeah, that’s right. There are certain essential qualities of people that linger for 85 years. They should live here.” So that kind of informed those. And I definitely wanted the victims to be brought forward somehow. And I didn’t want it all to just be thirty-five people walking toward the dance or something like that.

Correspondent: Sure. So you felt a responsibility to imbue the victims with some kind of identity as opposed to being random names. This brings me to the cemetery, which forms a serious part of this book. I mean, Alma always ends her walks there, we learn at the very beginning. But then we learn about the dance hall owner, whose past is actually revealed through the cemetery. A lot of his associations. And I was wondering first and foremost, well, did you wander around the cemetery yourself looking for leads here? Or was this kind of a way for you to remind both the readers and also to imbue the town with additional life? I mean, here is this marker of memory. All these people have died. And you can’t escape your legacy. I mean, what was the appeal of this?

Woodrell: Well, by an accident of just chance, a fair portion of my family are buried only about fifteen feet from the memorial. So all my life, when we’d go over to put the flowers down for Memorial Day and so forth, I’d think, “What’s this?” And then slowly that would develop. And then also, by happenstance, a number of the people who were identified are also buried near there. That was the section of the cemetery that was then being filled. So as I began learning more and more of the names of the people who were actually relevant to the event, I began to realize, “Oh! They’re all planted around here.” So that very fact resonated with me. I’m not…I never say what happened. Because I don’t know what happened. I chose a story that really rang for me and went with it. But I could walk around town and find a number of people who are still debating a lot of different angles that I never really suggested.

Correspondent: This leads me to ask. What obligation do you really have to history? I mean, this isn’t your first historical novel. You explored the Kansas Irregulars in the Civil War novel. In this, you’re dealing with something that’s a little bit more local than that — and also your family history. I mean, the Civil War — even the Kansas Irregulars — offers a really wide canvas for the imagination to bristle. But in this, you’re dealing with something that is so hyperlocal that I wonder if you have any problems bending the truth as fiction requires or whether you run with the actual basis and let things go into place from there.

Woodrell: Well, none of the people who were allegedly in the periphery of this or maybe even toward the center of it appealed to me as members of the community and as historical figures, but not as fictional characters. I didn’t feel drawn to write about people with some of the characteristics that these rumored individuals actually presented. And I specifically didn’t want to write about the wealthy in town sitting around twisting their mustaches thinking of villainy to perpetrate upon the lower classes.

Correspondent: Was there a real banker?

Woodrell: There was a banker who was sometimes mentioned as having had something involved maybe. But he was a much more dangerous kind of guy and a relentless skirt chaser and all that. Not the character that I found myself writing about. It was in the same way that I ended up writing about the Southern bushwhackers instead of the Northern [in Woe to Live On]. I had originally started out to write a book about the Northern. And then I realized that that was actually a little too easy for me to inhabit that sensibility. And it was more of a stretch for me politically and as a person to try to get inside the other side and what was making them tick. So I wanted this character to be someone that it would be more of a surprise if he were accidentally or purposely involved in something.

Correspondent: So part of the appeal of The Maid’s Version and all these little bits and anecdotes you were collecting was to really inhabit the Other. In this way.

Woodrell: Yeah. As time went on, I realized more and more it’s the key to the whole book — to me anyway. It’s the Dunahew family story. That the dance hall and some of the surrounding qualities of that or aftereffects of that were propellants to the Dunahew family’s shift over a generation and a half or two.

Correspondent: I actually really wanted to ask you about a tilt in your writing style that I detected with Tomato Red, where suddenly you have sentences that demand almost this total life through language. Of course, a lot of this is evident because of that amazing first paragraph in Tomato Red, but I wanted to point it out by reading one of the sentences from Tomato Red: “This Pinto pooted small gray distress signals from the tailpipe and sounded like a chain-smoker at a cold dawn and practically shrieked for a civil rights lawyer when I forced it up hills.” So aside from the simile, we have “Pinto pooted.” We have “up hills” split into two words. I’m wondering, with this book, did you need to have that voice of Sammy Barlach to just really get these sentences? Is perspective really the way for you to evolve as a stylist? I was hoping to get something.

Woodrell: Yeah. Very much. And Sammy was probably the first voice I did that was quite — he’s not unhinged or anything, but he definitely sees everything from a little bit of a different angle than most of us probably do. And I thought of Sammy very much as an Expressionist. He’s looking at the real world but he’s just not seeing it exactly the way most people see it. And so that began to suggest a richness of language because of the insights he was having that kind of called for that. And it wouldn’t be any fun for me to write if I wasn’t allowed to let the language run amuck and then hopefully, if it’s really amuck, I’ll catch it in time to trim it back. (laughs) But that’s a big motivating force for me to write at all.

Correspondent: I was wondering if that was the aha moment for you. I mean, I like the other books before that. But that one really amps things up to this level where the language and the character are absolutely one in a way that it continues with the subsequent books. And it’s interesting that with The Maid’s Version, you go to this more succinct approach to also try and inhabit the sentence. Did the structure of this book — was it almost an obstacle for the language perspective approach? I was wondering about that.

Woodrell: Well, Tomato Red — and I would agree with you on that. I have often said that I felt that something started to click there. I wasn’t fully cognizant of just what all was going on. In fact, it was only when I had an occasional look at it maybe a year after I’d finished it, I began to recognize more of what was going on in there. And in this book, I didn’t want one character to tell the story in such a forceful way that they precluded all other possible interpretations or something. That it was just so forcefully about them that they would overshadow everything else. And that’s part of the reason why Alek is a little to the side. It’s also a book where I have a bunch of, you know, “motherfucker this motherfucker that.” And it wasn’t really on purpose initially. And then I was reading through it and I realized, “Oh! Where’s your standard?” (laughs)

Correspondent: I think though that the respect for the grief of this town is probably what motivates that. And maybe, it would seem to me anyway, that what you’re trying to do language-wise with this was to give voice to the town as opposed to one solitary perspective. Is that safe to say?

Woodrell: Yeah. And people are introduced as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” A generation and a half or two ago almost, that would be standard. The lady next door was not Joan. She was Mrs. Henry Eastall. And that suggests a certain kind of decorum and regard and circumspection.

(Loops for this program provided by vlalys, danke, maikeeelx, and megapaul.)

The Bat Segundo Show #517: Daniel Woodrell (Download MP3)

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Jesmyn Ward (The Bat Segundo Show #516)

Jesmyn Ward is most recently the author of Men We Reaped. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #463.

Author: Jesmyn Ward

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Subjects Discussed: Adorable literary babies, the notion of “home” in Mississippi, the Delta Blues, Big K.R.I.T., having a very large extended family, environments that foster great art, Kiese Laymon, why culture demands engagement, Mississippi being dead last in statistics, statistics vs. stories, W.E.B. du Bois’s notion of “double consciousness,” Ward seeing her mother in another context, emotional associations from phrases in languages, “soda” vs. “pop” vs. “cold drank,” Southern language, how the world is prerigged against the poor and the black, having to settle for “live” instead of “live good,” losing early optimism, Ward losing her brother, embracing fatalism and nihilism, C.J. becoming convinced that he would die young, young men who can’t envision a future, finding hope while living in an impoverished world, coming to an understanding of grief, how family and community are elastic and intertwined, finding hope in future generations through memories, Ward’s mother, paying it forward, people who don’t have food in the house, comparisons between Daddy in Salvage the Bones and how Ward wrote about her father in Men We Reaped, how memoir creates additional need which transcends fiction, the difficulties of fictionalizing complicated people, the advantages of creative nonfiction, human contradictions, Ward’s martial arts skills, training with nunchaku and swords, being bullied by racist kids, finding ways of defending yourself when you’re outnumbered, fight or flight, being attacked by a pit bull, suffering from low self-esteem, turning to alcohol to cope, avoiding writing about writing, how to contend with grief when the public playground has been officially designated as a graveyard, the government shutdown, why people care more about baby pandas at the National Zoo than poor people who need food, David Simon, The Wire, journalism vs. storytelling, mediocre white artists who appropriate the best of black culture, shying away from true engagement, white people in the literary world who get a privileged pass, when the Other has to soften itself for white consumption, timid Goodreads reviewers, Mitchell S. Jackson, response to writers of color, “designated” African-American authors, Ward’s difficulty with the telephone, receiving terrible news, and finding the bravery to take in difficult communication.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I want to get into this incident late in the book where you describe being bullied by racist kids. There’s one moment after they crack some really terrible quip about lynching you where you say, “You ain’t going to do nothing.” And these kids, they just dissemble. They just disappear. They have nothing to say after that. And it’s this fascinating moment, particularly when we’re looking at this other incident with this kid Topher, who was verbally pulverizing you. And the teacher’s just standing there not willing to acknowledge the racist language. You write about how the kids, some of whom were your friends, “they never took up for me, for Black people, when I was in the room.” And throughout this book, you don’t let yourself off the hook. I mean, you write about how you were scared to walk through certain neighborhoods. You write about how your little brother, two years younger, had more courage in a certain situation. And so when we’re talking of this notion of self-defense, I have to ask you, Jesmyn, what do you think it was that caused you to not only stand up to these kids, but also do something that either the other black kids in the school couldn’t do? That’s something that was extraordianrily rare, especially because you’re not exactly the most extroverted person in the world.

Ward: Yeah.

Correspondent: So what do you think it was that caused you to really get these kids rightfully off of your back?

Ward: I don’t really know. Especially because, before then and even afterwards, I wasn’t very good at taking up for myself. And I think that part of that was informed by the fact that I had really low self-esteem. Because I feel like the world, and also what I saw in my community, had taught me the wrong things about what it meant to be black and poor and a woman in the South. And so I had awful self-esteem. But I don’t know. There was something about that moment — maybe because they were so overt and there were so many of them. It was a pretty large group. Six, seven boys. And they were so much older than I was. You know, I was really young when that happened. I was in seventh or eighth grade and they were upperclassmen.

Correspondent: So they were much taller too.

Ward: Much taller than I was.

Correspondent: Were they pretty muscular?

Ward: Some of them were. So I think that it was a moment where I was so clearly outnumbered and overpowered that maybe it was partly motivated by instinct, right? Fight or flight. And, for once, my response wasn’t just to leave or passively endure it. It was to actually fight. So I think a lot of it was driven by instinct. So I just came out and said it. “You ain’t going to do nothing to me. It’s not going down like that.”

Correspondent: Why do you think these instincts could only come out during certain moments? I mean, you’ve clearly had a fairly remarkable life of getting out of this situation. But what do you think it was that encouraged those instincts to come out at the right moments? Because of course, they came out at the most damaging moments as well.

Ward: Well, I think maybe the situation was so — you know, I said in that moment that the odds were really against me. I was clearly overpowered. Clearly outnumbered. And then my response was to fight in that moment. But then it also makes me think about when I was attacked by that pit bull, right? Clearly the dog is very much stronger than me. Has more weapons than I have. It would have been very easy for me to come out worse in that situation than I did. But in that moment, I chose to fight. That that was my instinctual response, right? That I fought. In both of those instances. And I think maybe in certain situations like that, that they’re the kind of situations that are so severe that the part of me that had the problem with low self-esteem, right? Of course, it’s the part that overthunk everything and that overprocessed everything. So that here in these moments, there’s no opportunity to think. All I could do was react. So my reaction in those moments was to fight. So maybe that’s why. These are these moments where the part of me that has low self-esteem can’t think about it and can’t process that moment in that way. So then I just react without thinking. And that’s what happens.

Correspondent: There is something interesting in that pit bull incident. There’s a sentence you write where you say, “The long scar in my head feels like a thin plastic cocktail straw, and like all war wounds, it itches.” And in light of how you went through this period of drinking, I’m wondering how long it took for you to make this connection between surviving a war and, with the cocktail straw, turning to drink in this effort to cope, in this effort to deal with the pain and to combat this low self-esteem.

Ward: It took me a long time. You know, I don’t think that I began to realize the way that I was turning to alcohol in order to deal with what I’d been through. Probably I began to realize that while I was at Michigan. While I was in New York, and I was doing the drinking when I said I was buying bottles of rum and basically just drinking them with a little bit of sugar. I didn’t realize it then. And I think that was from 2003, so I was in the throes of it. But it wasn’t until around 2006. Because I began to drink alone. And that’s when it suddenly hit me. Like what I was. Because I would drink alone and then I would become very depressed and very moody. And I would act out. And, see, before whenever I’d done that sort of drinking, I had roommates. I lived with other people. We were out in social situations. So I didn’t really think about it. But there was something about beginning to drink alone that made me suddenly begin to draw those conclusions between what I’d gone through and how I was responding to it and how I was basically self-medicating with alcohol.

Correspondent: It’s fascinating to me that you don’t really get into the beginning of your writing in this memoir. It comes from the exact same impulses as this kind of self-medicating, as this drinking, as this effort to combat terror, fear, low self-esteem. And I’m wondering if it’s even possible for you to even write about the beginning of how writing brought you out of this and allowed you to really manage these emotions more effectively.

Ward: I don’t know why I didn’t really speak more about it in the book or write more about that in the book. I don’t really know. I’ve spoken about it before. I sometimes speak to different universities and I have a speech that I usually give where I actually talk about how I came to writing and how committing to writing, for me, was really a response to the grief that I felt when I lost my brother.

Correspondent: Yes. But it’s compartmentalized, I think. Which I find really interesting.

Ward: I don’t really know why I didn’t address it more in the book. Maybe because I was afraid of shifting that focus maybe away from the young men. And maybe I was nervous about whether or not I could write about it and still sustain maybe the pace and the tension in the narrative, in the memoir. So maybe that’s what was going on.

Correspondent: You had your own problem of [W.E.B. du Bois's] “double consciousness.”

Ward: Yes! Yes!

Correspondent: That’s interesting. I do want to get into the way that you describe the land of the community, which is extremely fascinating. You point out that the parks, the public parks, are designated as the graveyards in the future. This is going to be the burial site for people who will die in the future. And you openly begin to wonder, “Well, is it possible to stave off this transformation from the life of the playground to the death of the grave?” You write, “The grief we bear along with all the other burdens of our lives, all our other losses, sinks us until we find ourselves in a red, sandy grave.” Yet near the end of the book, when you’re talking about your brother, you are very candid about grief having this limitless life span. So how do you deal with grief when you know that you’re also trying to work away at that buffer that’s going to turn the playground into the graves? I mean, you have to champion life. You have to fend off these forces, both societal and beahvioral, that are trying to deaden all this wonder that surrounds you. So how do you think about grief when you’re very well aware of what’s going to happen?

Ward: Well, I guess that the way that I think about that is that the grief, that’s something that I can’t change. That’s something that is here and that I have to live with everyday. But I think that what I’m attempting to do is to use that grief to really fuel this endeavor, right? The writing of the book. And then also the conversations that I have around the book with different people. So that hopefully in having these conversations, and talking about all these pressures that the grief and the sense of fear and failure that permeates life for so many of the people, that talking about these things is the first step to admitting that there is this problem. Yes, we are all living with this grief. And, yes, we are trying to survive these unbearable pressures. But I’m hoping that if we talk about them, and bring them out into the open and admit that there is a problem involved and exists, then we can begin to be more conscious about our lives, about the actions that we take, how we react to these larger pressures. So that maybe we can begin to change things, right? And to think of concrete ways that we can change things. And I haven’t gotten there yet. Whenever someone asks me “So what can we do?” my only answer so far is that, okay, first we just need to talk about it. We need to enter this conversation that’s happening across the country about race and about young black people dying and about poverty and socioeconomic inequality. If we begin to talk about these things, then maybe we can get to a point where we can come up with concrete workable solutions.

Correspondent: I wonder why small biographies, piecemeal chapters of people who have needlessly lost their lives, almost seems to be the only way to discuss this problem these days. I mean, we don’t want to look at the vast tapestry. We don’t want to all the moving parts. And it gets to be a bit of a headache. If you care at all, you know, it’s going to bog you down. I mean, right now, we’re talking right when the government is going to shut down. And what’s really bizarre about all this is that people are concerned not so much about the fact that these food programs that feed the poor are going to go out, not so much with the Library of Congress closing, not so much with military servicemen, who are living day-to-day, not getting their paychecks. They’re more concerned about these baby pandas at the National Zoo. What do you think we can do to get people on the level of baby pandas? You know what I mean?

Ward: You know, I think that when I wrote the book, and especially when I wrote each chapter about the young men — you know, their lives and their deaths. That’s something that I was trying to affect. Because even if given a chapter, and some of those chapters are short. They’re shorter. If given a chapter, I can make these young men as authentically alive and complicated and unique as I can on the page. Like I’m going to really develop their characters and develop them well enough so that the reader, when encountering these young men — instead of these young men being statistics, they’re actually human beings. They’re actually people. And they can sympathize with them. Then I will have accomplished something. Then suddenly the young man becomes the panda, right? Because we care about them. And so I think that maybe that’s part of it. Because we encounter the numbers all the time, right? And I think it was David Simon that said something like that before. I think he was being interviewed about The Wire, right? And I think the interview was asking him about the difference between the work that he’d done in journalism as a writer and then the work that he was doing as a writer. And he was saying that there’s power in the story. He felt that when he was a journalist that he was trying to communicate the same facts, the facts that he’s trying to communicate in The Wire. But as a journalist, they weren’t causing any change. They weren’t getting through. They weren’t making people care in the way that they care about the pandas. Yet when he worked on The Wire, he was able to reach a wider audience to get that audience to care about the same kind of issues that he was concerned about when he was a journalist. So I think it really is in the power of the story — even if you only have a little bit of space, just using that space as effectively as you can to make these stories real.

Correspondent: Sure. But don’t you think there’s a disconnect between, for example, Trayvon Martin. Everybody is sympathetic to that story.

Ward: Right.

Correspondent: And I marched with a bunch of people here in New York. And it was marvelous. At the time. But ultimately this doesn’t effect policy. It doesn’t actually get things to change. And even with the people who cared about The Wire, inevitably we go into the same corrupt governmental institutions. It seems to me that the only option is to either amp up the number of storytellers to get people to care or there needs to be some drastic change in the way the American mind thinks. And I’m wondering. Do you have any ideas on this?

Ward: I mean, that’s a really difficult question to answer. I think that there should be more storytellers and I think that the stories that are out there, they need more volume. I think that these stories, that’s what we need to be discussing instead of discussing the Kardashians. You know what I’m saying?

Correspondent: I agree.

Ward: That’s the discussion that we need to be having. Those are the stories that we need to be invested in. And the people that we need to be invested in need to not be so concerned with vapid celebrity culture. Because that doesn’t get us anywhere. That doesn’t foster the kind of large-scale change that we need in the American government with policymakers.

(Loops for this program provided by vlalys, djmfl, mingote,danke, and blueeskies.)

The Bat Segundo Show #516: Jesmyn Ward (Download MP3)

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nucleartest

Eric Schlosser (The Bat Segundo Show #515)

Eric Schlosser is most recently the author of Command and Control.

Play

Author: Eric Schlosser

Subject Discussed: The 1980 nuclear missile accident in Damascus, Arkansas, drug use among the military after the Vietnam War, the Titan II’s continuous deployment even after it was unsafe, Fred Iklé, efforts to point out safety shortfalls in the military, the lack of locks on nuclear weapons, Permissive Action Links, Robert Peurifoy, Curtis LeMay, the real-life inspiration for Dr. Strangelove, Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, LeMay’s bellicose attitude, 1960s defense culture, alternative perceptions of LeMay, LeMay’s attention to detail, checklists and operating procedures, a giant nuclear arsenal intended as a deterrent, limited vs. total war, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, the influence of male attitude on deterrents, what we needed from LeMay during the Cold War, the risks taken by Strategic Air Command officers, recent safety mishaps with U.S. nuclear missile units, responding to speculation that LeMay wanted to start World War III, the history of the the Strategic Air Command, why the Command and Control system couldn’t factor in human exhaustion, how the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union caused unreasonable labor for servicemen, the difficulties of accounting for all nuclear weapons, Robert McNamara’s belief that mad decisions were logical at the time, the 1978 Titan II accident in Rock, Kansas, why there were so many mishaps with Titan II oxidizer, the RFHCO suits (and the astonishing wear-and-tear on this protection, which wasn’t replaced in many cases), blame directed at the workers, how systemic problems contributed to an unrealistic and bureaucratic view of Air Force servicemen, putting men into dangerous systems with defective gear, black electrical tape used to “secure” suits in missile silos, loose arming wires that permitted bombs to drop, an atomic bomb that nearly went off in North Carolina in 1961, the missing atomic bomb still entombed in Nahunta Swamp, the H-bomb accidentally dropped on Spain in 1966, why America’s military infrastructure still relies on aging B-52 bombers, the 1968 Thule Air Base B-52 crash, the importance of morale within workers who are tending to the most dangerous machines in the world, Kissinger’s efforts to get rid of the Titan II, the Single Integrated Operational Plan, Eisenhower’s deadly arbitration between the Air Force and the Navy, how the Strategic Air Command kept SIOP details away from Kissinger, bureaucratic rivalries, William Odom’s briefing on the SIOP, the interplay between Kennedy and Khrushchev, the lack of a direct line between the United States and the Soviet Union through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the effect of nuclear policy on diplomacy, miscommunication and unreliable back channels, the present nuclear risk in South Asia, the recent terrorist attack in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, the Peshawar church attack, Edward Snowden’s findings about the United States’s lack of information about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, conflict between India and Pakistan, why deterrence theory doesn’t apply to religious fanatics, how storage facilities are prime targets for adversaries and how this is a serious problem in Pakistan.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Much of the missile culture that you describe in this book is, to say the least, remarkably unsafe. You have this Arkansas Titan II mishap at Launch Complex 374-7 — the so-called Damascus accident — that forms the backbone of this book. It all hinges on a socket wrench that is dropped down a silo and pierces this fuel tank. And if that isn’t enough, you have oxidizer that permeates around the station, causes 22-year-old David Livingston to die and several men to be severely wounded. You have procedures that aren’t followed. You have the Propellant Transfer System team violating this careful two man policy, where you have two keys turning at the same time. We often see that in the movies, but this was, in fact, the policy during the mid-20th century and onward to activate the missile. So this leads me to ask. How did the Launch Complex adopt such a far from cautious approach to daily maintenance duties? How much of this was systematic? And how much of this was human error?

Schlosser: You know, our military was in pretty rough shape after the Vietnam War. And it’s a forgotten fact now because we have our precision-guided munitions and we go to war with one country after another. And we seem so completely dominant. But after the Vietnam War, there was major underinvestment in the military. There were terrible morale problems. Huge percentages of our troops in the Army came back addicted to heroin. And there were remarkably high levels of illegal drug use even in the Air Force. So in the book, I write about guys smoking pot on the missile site. Launch officers who have responsibility for launching intercontinental ballistic missiles smoking pot. In the book, I go into guys who are busted with LSD and cocaine who had nuclear weapons responsibilities. And that was part of the bigger culture of the ’70s. There was really poor morale. The Titan II missile that’s at the heart of this story was obsolete. It was supposed to be taken out of service in the late 1960s. In 1980, it was still on alert. It was leaking all the time. They didn’t have spare parts. So the accident I write about is precipitated by somebody dropping a socket in a missile silo and the socket pierces the skin of the missile. But in many ways, this weapons system was an accident waiting to happen. And in my criticism of some of the procedures in the 1970s and early 1980s, I really don’t imply a criticism of the ordinary servicemen who worked on these weapons systems. On the contrary. The book is about the incredible heroism of ordinary guys put in custody of nuclear weapons at a remarkably young age. I’m getting old enough now. So when I think of a nineteen, twenty, twenty-one year old person having custody of a thermonuclear weapon, it takes me aback. And those guys again and again in the Cold War had this responsibility. Maybe some of them were smoking pot. But most of them were quite serious about not wanting these weapons to go off and about making sure that we were safe from attack from the Soviet Union.

Correspondent: What’s fascinating is why so many young and inexperienced greenhorns would be given such responsibility for these missiles. I mean, that’s what boggles the mind. Especially since there were several other accidents. The B-52s that you have dropping bombs that thankfully didn’t have charged warheads. I mean, this is very serious. This isn’t asking regular people to go ahead and mop up the floor of a hangar. This is our system. And I’m wondering what conditions allowed this to perpetuate for so long, notwithstanding the heroism that you depict in your book.

Schlosser: The accident that is the central narrative of the book — the Titan II accident in Damascus, Arkansas — was unquestionably linked to understaffing, to poorly trained personnel, shortage of spare parts, an obsolete weapons system. But I write about many other accidents in the book. And in those accidents, they had extremely well-trained personnel. They had the most modern weapons imaginable. The best systems in place imaginable. But one of the big themes of the book is that we’re a lot better at creating complex technologies than we are at controlling them or managing them. And it’s hard to think of a machine that doesn’t mess up. From your toaster oven to your laptop to commercial airliners to commercial nuclear power plants, no matter how sophisticated the people and no matter how well-trained, it’s just beyond fallible, imperfect human beings to create something that’s infallible and perfect. And when you’re talking about nuclear weapons, you’re talking about the most dangerous machines ever invented. So it makes sense that those machines and the complex technological systems that manage them would mess up occasionally. But the consequences of one of those things screwing up is a lot more than if your toaster oven freezes up and catches on fire in the kitchen. And one of the reasons I wrote the book was, firstly, I thought the story of this missile accident was just unbelievable. And I thought the heroism of the guys who tried to save the missile was unbelievable. But I’m just trying to remind people that these things are out there. There are thousands of nuclear weapons right now that are ready to go. And people my age — I’m 54; I grew up in the Cold War — remember what it was like to live with this dread that there might be an all-out nuclear war any day. But half the people who live in the United States either weren’t born yet or were small children when the Soviet Union vanished. And there’s a historical amnesia. And most people just don’t realize these weapons are there. Now I’m not trying to create an existential dread in anybody. I’m not trying to create late night anxiety. But this is really important information. And people need to know it.

Correspondent: Well, even in the 1950s, you have this guy named Fred Iklé. He disseminates this RAND report on nuclear weapon safety and he outlines all the motivations that would cause someone to disobey orders and set off a nuclear weapon. His reports were disseminated, as you point out in the book, to the highest levels of the Air Force and the Department of Defense. You’ve got this guy Bob Peurifoy. He points to numerous safety problems as well. Your book, as we have established, documents several incidents in which safety is sacrificed for ease of intercontinental ballistic missile use in retaliation. Why was the top brass so recalcitrant against safety? Why were they so interested in taking shortcuts? I mean, it seems to me that it goes beyond a cultural problem or an institutional problem and into just pure recklessness.

Schlosser: Yeah. And that top secret report by Iklé was really cool to read. I mean, it was looking into the ways that not only mechanically these weapons could go wrong, but I think in one section of the report there’s a catalog of derangement, which is looking at what sort of psychological problems airmen might have that would lead them to deliberately set off a weapon, deliberately steal a weapon. And at the time that Iklé was writing, literally there were no locks on our nuclear weapons. There were no coded switches. So a pilot who wanted to take a weapon could just fly to the target in the Soviet Union, in the Eastern Bloc, or even in the United States and just drop it, if he or she wanted to do that. And Iklé’s report was important in one respect. It really encouraged what you’d think would be a no brainer, but nobody had thought of doing. Putting locks on the weapons. The locks that were eventually put on them — these coded switches called Permissive Action Links — they were effective. But to someone who really understood the innards of the weapon, in a few hours, they could just disable it. Robert Peurifoy is one of the heroes of the book. He’s a weapons designer at one of the weapons labs: the Sandia National Laboratories. He realized in the late 1960s that our nuclear weapons just weren’t safe enough and that during what is called an “abnormal environment” — I mean, you could argue that the whole history that I write about in the book is an abnormal environment. But at the weapons labs, they refer to abnormal environments as a fire, a subversion of a weapon, a plane crash, a lightning strike.

Correspondent: Amazingly, no acronym.

Schlosser: Right. He realized that our weapons were not safe enough in these abnormal environments. But it took him like a twenty year bureaucratic battle to get modern safety devices put in the weapons, which we now have today. But you would never build a nuclear weapon today in the United States without these sorts of safety devices. Ultimately, at the heart of the problem, firstly is a sort of bureaucratic mentality. Someone said recently to me, “If you want to understand how bureaucracies work, it’s better to be wrong than be alone.” So it takes somebody with some personal courage to stand up, willing to buck the bureaucracy, and be alienated from everyone else as a result. And there also has been since the very first nuclear weapon was deployed an internal contradiction, a tension between wanting the weapons to be as safe as possible and wanting them to be as reliable as possible and available for immediate use. If you wanted the weapons to be totally safe, you would never fully assemble them until you’re about to use them. But if you want to use them within 45 seconds or a minute, you need to have them fully assembled on top of the missile or inside the bomber and ready to go. So in the book, I talk about this internal tension between always wanting to be able to use the weapon and never wanting it to go out by accident. And again and again, throughout our nuclear history, the military preferred always to never. And some of it I can understand. These bomber pilots knew that if they got the order to go bomb the Soviet Union, they would be flying into an environment that no pilot had ever flown into before. Missiles would probably have already hit the Soviet Union. They would be flying into this atomic wasteland, in many ways, to drop their bombs and they were probably on one-way suicide missions to do so. And yet they were willing to do it. And it would be a bummer for them if they risked everything to take out a Soviet Union airfield and that weapon turned out to be a dud because there were too many safety devices on it. Having said that, I would have voted for greater safety. Robert Peurifoy, the Sandia engineer, felt like we could make the weapons reliable enough and still make them much safer. And eventually his view prevailed. But it took…

Correspondent: Decades.

Schlosser: Almost two decades. And I think it really hurt his career. He wound up being a vice president at this weapons lab. But he was ostracized. It hurt his career. And I think it was enormously stressful for him to live with this constant knowledge that one of our weapons might detonate and be trying to fight the system to make them safe. And he prevailed. But it was a pretty stressful job.

(Loops for this program provided by 40A, petitcrabe, Nebraskaboy12, chefboydee, danke, and mejiam, .)

The Bat Segundo Show #515: Eric Schlosser (Download MP3)

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