David Rakoff, Part Two (BSS #168)

David Rakoff is the author of Fraud and Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and a contributor to This American Life.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Bitter towards cheapskates.

Author: David Rakoff

Subjects Discussed: What type of journalist Rakoff is, being careful with revealing a personal life, Gypsy Rose Lee, whether or not Rakoff has contacted the people that he’s written about, working in an ice cream parlor, the distinction between “secretary” and “assistant,” the fear of using a person as comic fodder, the culture of scrutinizing people, contending with a call from Albert Maysles in relation to a Little Edie Beale tribute piece, a sense of disproportionate entitlement, the Log Cabin Republicans, how political views encroach upon a personal essay, the similarities and differences between the real Rakoff and the Rakoff persona, being a shy reporter, finding it difficult to approach people, dwelling on decor, Rakoff’s false belief that he is a hack, Joan Didion’s crop knowledge, Bugs Bunny, Puppetry of the Penis, the need to report upon things alone, Rammstein, being frightened and confronting fear, how details are changed to suit an essay, narrative liberties, being an American immigrant, the difference between writing before 9/11 and after 9/11, writing essays that are love letters to New York, “frauding” readers, Marion Ettlinger and photographic poses, plastic shoes, writing travel pieces, and trying to write fiction.


Rakoff: I’m very indulged. I am allowed to be at least 50% of the story, which is a weird thing to do. And I should learn how to do a little bit less of that. Simply because I think it’s a good set of tools to have. I think all of them are good sets of tools to have. Because of that, because I am allowed to be 50% of the story, I’ve been tremendously careful. From day one, I was tremendously careful about what I revealed and what I didn’t reveal. You know.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Rakoff: No one knows about my family. No one knows about my love life. You know, it’s a very controlled revelation. I’m not a memoirist, for example. Weirdly enough, I’ve been working on pieces that are a little more personal right now. Which has been odd to do. But, yeah, I’m both in the story and not of the story.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering if there’s a certain risk that you have to confess something if you are 50% of the story. I mean, that has got to be a terrible bridge to walk if you really don’t want to reveal things about yourself.

Rakoff: Sure. Yes. But I don’t feel — you know, and I’m sure the day will come when, like Gypsy Rose Lee, who made a career of not revealing anything, eventually found her star power fading and finally took it all off. And by that point, nobody cared. There might come a time when I do have to do that. But it’s not that difficult to say not going to do this, not going to talk about this, not going to talk about that. Invariably, whatever I reveal in stories are either in direct response to what’s going on or they’re just a kind of a return to a homeostatic kind of despair that suffuses everything I do or observe. Almost invariably, the insights that I come to are somewhat melancholy.

Categories: People

David Rakoff, Part One (BSS #167)

David Rakoff is the author of Fraud and Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and a contributor to This American Life.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Considering his fraudulent nature.

Author: David Rakoff

Subjects Discussed: Being indoors, how Rakoff gets outdoors to write a travel piece, the necessity of deadlines, writing not for money, Rakoff’s homemade furnishings, performing as a way of making something, writing for the ear vs. writing for the eyes, This American Life, direct sentences vs. baroque sentences, words that don’t penetrate the brain, words as an intellectual bellows, the many different versions of a Rakoff essay, half-alliteration, vowel sounds and “Eleanor Rigby,” entering a story with a hypothesis and a judgment, and observing people.


Rakoff: Whatever ended up in the first book, even if it began orally, was fairly significantly rewritten and lengthened for the text version thereof. No, my primary allegiance is to written text and whatever oral stuff happens. And if I haven’t had the folks on the radio editing it, when I go out and do a reading, my editions of my two books from which I read are incredibly marked up. Vast sections are deleted. Pages are simply dog-eared so that I’ll simply pass over them. You know, it’s essentially the teacher’s edition. It’s very different. It’s significantly shorter what I will read to a crowd out loud. But, no, if I’m thinking about what I’m writing for the page and the thought that anyone might actually read it on the page, I’m not concerned with myself or a reader running out of breath. You know, my hope is that it’s being read silently or something or in — what’s that thing that Steven Pinker calls it? — mentalese. So I don’t think anyone’s going to forget it. And the hope is also that there’s enough of a voice or a flavor that, within a page or two, you can sort of understand the rhythms. That I think it’s a pretty quick learning curve. I don’t think my stuff is inaccessible or difficult to read. But the rhythms, I think, assert themselves fairly quickly and you can jaunt along for the ride pretty easily.

Categories: People

Dave White (BSS #166)

Dave White is the author of When One Man Dies.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hostile towards Our Young, Roving Correspondent’s inability to spell “Jack Daniel’s” correctly.

Author: Dave White

Subjects Discussed: John Donne quotes, first names and hangovers, Billy Martin and the Yankees, war veterans, color blindness, Anthony Burgess, first-person and third-person chapters, having an antagonist who continually pines for a protagonist’s death, rhythm, Taylor ham and eggs, New Jersey culture, the spelling of Jack Daniel’s, invented private investigative tricks, the problems of ordering a pizza by cell phone, Jackson Donne’s tendency to throw money around, whether one can cut a driver’s license with a Swiss Army knife, Jon Bon Jovi, women and service sector jobs, music, the reliability of Glock guns, whether “sailing away” is a peaceful phrase, burgers as sustenance, drugs and teachers, stoner stereotypes, sentence fragments and commas, newspaper journalists, and hubristic statements from New Jersey.


Correspondent: But surely colors and textures, these things have value too? These things trigger memories as well!

White: Yes.

Correspondent: These things often trigger family memories. At least for me.

White: Well, I’m color blind. Partially. So color doesn’t have the same…

Correspondent: Oh, interesting!

White: …same power.

Correspondent: I was just going to ask you. Because Burgess in this book — I was wondering if you were familiar with Anthony Burgess. Because he was also color blind. I’m not sure if you knew that.

White: I did not know that.

Correspondent: That’s why colors were tricky for him too.

White: Yeah. I did not know that. I’m not familiar with Anthony Burgess.

Correspondent: Are you familiar with any Burgesses?

White: Wasn’t the guy who played the Penguin in the Batman series…?

Correspondent: Burgess Meredith.

White: Burgess Meredith.

Correspondent: Well, now, Burgess was his first name.

White: I know, but that’s the only Burgess I could think of.

Correspondent: Why didn’t he squawk like a penguin in this then?

Categories: Fiction

Howard Jacobson (BSS #165)

Howard Jacobson is the author of Kalooki Nights.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Taking umbrage with card game titles.

Author: Howard Jacobson

Subjects Discussed: The onus of being on tour, the strange exercise of talking about books, loose trousers, the Jewish relationship with the body, being Jewish in England, jokes and audience reaction, Seriously Funny, Jewish comedy as a “strategy for survival,” the subtleties of cruelty, Seinfeld and the dentist, comic appropriation, antisemitism, being married to multiple wives, being criticized for being overly Zionist, what Zionism means, those who deny the Holocaust, argument, Shalom Auslander’s The Foreskin’s Lament, coming from “befuddled Judiasm,” Manchester, writers and novelists as prophets, on being more Jewish than your spouse, the material things of the world, Suite Francaise, torture, Jews as victims, geographical specificity, the origins of “Kalooki,” Philistinism, and the evil of sandals.


Jacobson: One of the things they say to you here is, “We’ve done all that. You’re struggling with something that we’ve dealt with.” And someone said something to me in — not Detroit, but Atlanta. I was reading a little bit of the beginning of the novel, when much is made of the fact that the hero, who is a cartoonist, can’t draw some of the more sexual details in some homoerotic cartoons that he’s employed to copy for a pirate of gay eroticism. And he says he can’t do it because he can’t imagine what it’s like wearing tight leather pants or tight denims. Because Jewish men wear loose pleated trousers and a cardigan. The joke being that Jewish men don’t live in their body. Someone who was taking me around Atlanta who heard that said, “You’re wrong there, you know. You might be like that in England, but we’ve passed all that. We’ve dealt with the body. We’re now at home in the body.” And I thought, “Is that right? Well, am I dealing with a problem that’s gone?” But then I remember that every Jew I’ve actually met over here is in exactly the same state of mind. They might be out there playing their round of golf, but they are living in their heads. They do live within their heads more than in their body. Their neuroses are exactly the same as the English neuroses. And I thought, I’m actually — the thing that I thought that they told me that I was dealing with that’s out of date is not, in fact, out of date.

Categories: Fiction

Peter Fernandez & Corinne Orr (BSS #164)

Peter Fernandez and Corinne Orr are best known for their voiceover work on Speed Racer.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Trying to figure out why his voice gone all funny.

Guests: Peter Fernandez and Corinne Orr

Subjects Discussed: Being referred to as a voiceover artist vs. being referred to as an actor, dubbing foreign films into English, Corinne Orr’s talent for performing little kids, Speed Racer and Marine Boy, female actors who perform as boys, children performing on old-time radio, animation vs. old-time radio, “theatre of the mind,” Friends of Old-Time Radio, radio drama in the television and Internet age, performing crazy voices, overprepared actors and animation, the necessity for spontaneity, getting multiple takes, “one more for safety,” voice catalogs, the reasons why the “Huhs” and the “Whas” are fond in anime, a full explanation for the change in voices in Star Blazers‘s third season, playing to the lips, working union vs. non-union, not getting residuals from Speed Racer, anime festivals, toning down the violence for Speed Racer, the Chim-Chim dynamic, generating sound effects for the American version of Speed Racer, Spritle’s punkass qualities, Jack Grimes, trying to corral storylines based on sporadic shipments, recording individually vs. recording as a group, and redubbing a 1986 episode of Late Night for David Letterman.


orrweb2.jpgFernandez: I want to address that. My favorite medium of all time is radio, and it always will be. You’ve heard the cliche “theater of the mind.” And it’s absolutely true. Every listener had a different picture of what he was listening to in his head. And it was a marvelous medium. And great for actors. It was live!

Orr: We do a convention each year called Friends of Old Time Radio in New Jersey. And it’s glorious. They recreate all the old shows with some of the original actors who are still alive, and they use other people to do the shows. And it’s great fun! We do it each year. And I just won an award last year.

Correspondent: Oh! Congratulations.

Orr: Thank you.

fernandezweb2.jpgCorrespondent: Well, we’re talking about radio as “It was a fabulous medium.” Do you think there’s absolutely no hope — particularly in this podcasting era; I mean, here we are talking on a podcast — of old time radio returning?

Fernandez: I don’t think it can ever return. Because now it’s a commercial every three minutes on whatever you’re watching or listening to. Three or four minutes. However, I was thinking of maybe devising three minute segments of soap operas — you know, original ones. Not going back to the old ones. And having a little brief drama or comedy. Whatever. Lasting only for the three minutes. What stations would run it, I don’t know. Because you need X amount of stations to pay for it.

Categories: Film, People

Jess Walter (BSS #163)

Jess Walter is the author of the 2006 National Book Award-nominated book, The Zero.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hostile towards definite articles.

Author: Jess Walter

Subjects Discussed: Writing novels with protagonists groping for an identity, political allegory, growing up in Spokane, authors who fail to address grit and the working class, looking at New York from a West Coast vantage point, the influence of reporting upon fiction writing, getting access to the New York cop world, flamboyant police characters, sex with deer, Kurt Vonnegut, the conflation of patriotism and consumerism, Remy’s memory gaps, whether a novel serves as a panacea for a childish culture, Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, the purpose of a novel, references to television in The Zero, the dash as a remote control button, children named after months, Percival Everett’s Erasure, unusual similes, Ruby Ridge, long sentences with many commas, irony without knowing, coming up with a distinctive voice, stylizing a plot contingent upon food and recipes, wasabi marinated duck and wordplay, police being used as celebrity escorts, cynicism, Jesus and the Koran, religion and destruction, writing ambiguous fiction, and being contacted by conspiracy theorists.


Correspondent: But it’s not all bad. You have, for example, the honor of the tip. The dollars constantly inserted under the martini glass.

Walter: Right.

Correspondent: So I don’t think it’s entirely a cynical view you have of the..

Walter: No, no. I’m not entirely cynical. Again, this is all — I sound so dour and political. But this is all framed in a novel that’s hopefully funny and entertaining. And I remember those ghost bars being in Lower Manhattan. I mean, I was right in the thick of Ground Zero. So you’d walk into these ghost bars and there’s no reason for firefighters not to take the bottle down and take a drink. And some of them would leave a dollar tip. Was that an ironic tip? Was that a real tip? I don’t know. But the descriptions of Ground Zero in the book. In my mind, the book starts when I arrived five days after. And so, from that moment on, it does hopefully capture everything. Some honor, some pathos, and a lot of cynicism.

Categories: Fiction

Ken Kalfus (BSS #162)

Ken Kalfus is the author of the 2006 National Book Award-nominated book, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: On the defensive in relation to disorders and his divorce.

Author: Ken Kalfus

Subjects Discussed: The outlandish nature of Peculiar in relation with the more realist tone of Thirst, designing an episodic novel, the 9/11 allegory (or lack thereof), “shopping for an opinion,” soap operas, The New Republic, the hirsute nature of Harriman, character names, the list of students in Humbert Humbert’s class, obscure baseball players with really great names, starting from notes, third-person narration, Philip Roth, messy lives, death and victimization, Cantor Fitzgerald, specific sentences that kick-start the narrative, commas in sentences, rewriting, the most pleasurable thing about writing, Shakespeare, and political incorrectness and satirical limits.


Correspondent: So, for you, the sentence is more of the motivating factor than the actual plot and the character…

Kalfus: You know what. I can’t answer for everybody. I think we write because we love language. Was Shakespeare really obsessed about Denmark? About succession in Elsinore? Or fathers and sons? He had some ideas for some great lines. And he found a story that he could use. But I think all of us come to writing for the love of language. And the stories come after that. There’s a story when I write a book or a project. But I saw a way of using language in a way that was interesting to me.

Categories: Fiction

Stewart O’Nan (BSS #161)

Stewart O’Nan is the author of Last Night at the Lobster.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Permitting authors to depict his sad quotidian life.

Author: Stewart O’Nan

Subjects Discussed: The anonymous perception of the service sector, avoiding legal clearances from the Red Lobster, personal loyalty and honor vs. corporations, High Noon, the advantages of a setting a novel within a 24 hour period, using the present tense, collecting stories from restaurant employees, coats being sliced, the importance of cars, the sad-ass nature of the Chevy Regal, character names, working as a caterer, personal experience vs. imagination, education vs. reality, staying true to a character’s experience, Old World figures, attitudes toward the lottery, salting a parking lot vs. salting a meal, “five page” fabrications from reviewers, routine triggering memory, sugar packets vs. snow, Last Night at the Lobster as a Christmas book, Dickens, the comic nature of Christmas stories, Rudy Rucker’s power chords, hyphenated adjective-noun combos, avoiding adjectives, nouns vs. adjectives, whether Last Night at the Lobster is a novel or a novella, FSG rejecting O’Nan, working-class fiction and contemporary literature, on writing without worrying about the market, and efforts to write a different book every time.


O’Nan: Some people will say that about FSG, that it was too working class for FSG. I think that’s kind of unfair to FSG. I mean, they’ve done a lot of good work over the years. A lot of good work. No, I just think that my editor there didn’t really like the book that much and didn’t feel that they could bring it out and do well by it.

Correspondent: Was there any explanation offered?

O’Nan: No. Nothing too specific, I think. But I don’t think that they were very happy with The Good Wife, which they’d done beforehand. And we’d gone back and forth on that a lot. But, no, I don’t think there’s any lack of working-class fiction out there in American fiction. I don’t know. I mean, this story is — I think in the New York world, it wouldn’t be seen as what people call a “sexy” novel. I mean, it’s relatively low-key. It deals with characters that are somewhat overlooked, I think. You don’t see these particular characters starring in TV shows or big films. It’s a quiet story. Maybe in this market, especially for fiction nowadays, things have to be louder or more fantastic or more quirky or more fabulist. But that’s not really what I’m interested in. I mean, this book, these are the people who I really wanted to show to the reader. Because I think they’re relatively invisible and that there are millions of them out there.

Categories: Fiction

Will Self (BSS #160)

Will Self is the author of Psychogeography and The Book of Dave.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Frightened by walking and crosswalk signals.

Author: Will Self

Subjects Discussed: The overlapping relationship between The Book of Dave and Psychogeography, topographical narrative, Nicholson Baker, Nabokov’s rule about topographical necessity and novels, John Updike’s Brazil, the Post-It notes in Self’s writing room, early plotting efforts with 3×5 cards, short-term memory, Self’s use of arcane words, My Idea of Fun, working with a large vocabulary, Peter Carey’s “The Cartographers,” why Self uses “minatory,” lexical blending, “kidults,” writing 1,000 words a day, Anthony Burgess, the writers who showed Self the way, David Markson, NADSAT vs. Mockney, Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker, George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex,” bodily functions and literature, J.G. Ballard, starting from corporeal qualities for characters, Jonathan Swift, Oliver Rackham as armchair historian, Karrie Higgins’s review, austere terms for psychogeography, why Self went to the obvious tourist spots, the Situationists’s failure to account for family, on having two passports and national identity, being a citizen of London and trying to get out of the city, the problems with the travel industry, the cigarette as a narrative unit, airline travel, Marx and Guy Debord, Self’s definition of the dérive, walking 25-30 miles a day, Self’s theories about Our Young, Roving Correspondent’s anxieties over long walks and drab details, how long walks become variegated, expanding one’s curiosity, Self’s difficulty in talking with people, and learning more about people through a system.


Self: When I wrote My Idea of Fun years ago, I was a stripling. I had a character — The Fat Controller — who was a kind of rampant sesquipedalian who was obsessed with neologisms and coinages and recondite terms. And maybe that was an expression of that part of myself. I mean, some of my stuff’s actually pretty straightforward. It just depends on what the mot juste is. I don’t think I’m a kind of wanton in that way, though many people charge me with it. I don’t collect words in any kind of obsessive way. I mean, I work with a good old-fashioned analog Oxford English Dictionary and if I look up a word, as a writer frequently must, and I see an interesting word next to it, I’ll note it down. But I never go truffling for words.

Categories: Fiction

Garth Risk Hallberg (BSS #159)

Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Considering alternatives to artsy-fartsy books.

Author: Garth Risk Hallberg

Subjects Discussed: Authoring a conceptual book with veto power over the designer, family detachment, cross-references, Bay Area literary magazines, the McSweeney’s influence, Em Magazine, book art practitioners, being on a first name basis with Dave Eggers without really meeting him, teaching a class on design with scant knowledge, frightened photographers, how to organize artists without having them succumb to advertising influence, inviting readers to cut up the book, John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, nepotism and William Gass, character who share surnames with authors, speculating on character deaths, Garth Risk Hallberg’s streetcred, drugs, the problems of a representative North American family living in New York, lying and imagination, the “healthy glow” on cheerleaders, penis envy, lengthy sentences and commas, Raymond Queneau’s “sonnet machine,” being hostile towards Geos, plastic bags and trees, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Ian Frazier’s “Bags in Trees,” on the reader being unfairly tricked by the book’s trompe-l’Å“il, whether all books should be published in hardcover, e-books, and reading Bob Woodward in PDF.


Correspondent: In “Security,” you suggest that cheerleading practice actually results in a healthy glow. Do you have any personal evidence for this? Why did the healthy glow of cheerleading practice sort of stick out in this section? It certainly stuck out for me. Because I’ve seen cheerleaders coming back from practice and they don’t always have that healthy glow. So why did you, Garth, have this healthy glow described in this book?

Hallberg: Something about the character of Lacy, who is the cheerleader. She seems to always be ensconced in a healthy glow to me. And that sounds kind of trite. But in a way, she’s the least afflicted of these characters. Again, I think I have an image in my head of someone I went to high school with, who was just kind of — again, this sounds trite, but she was kind of the all-American girl and she was happy and functional and emotionally available and friendly and just a generally cool person.

Correspondent: But no healthy glow! You haven’t described that!

Hallberg: Well, and she had an extremely healthy glow.

Correspondent: Okay, really. I mean, how — can you elaborate on the healthy glow? What kind of healthy glow did she have? How did this actually get from ten years later into this book?

Hallberg: Do I use the phrase “healthy glow?”

Correspondent: You use the phrase “healthy glow.” That’s why I’m so excited about it.

Hallberg: (laughs) I guess it is sort of an exciting concept.

Categories: Fiction

Yannick Murphy II (BSS #158)

Yannick Murphy is most recently the author of Signed, Mata Hari.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Abdicating any and all Mata Hari dreams for a far more noble ideal.

Author: Yannick Murphy

Subjects Discussed: The juxtaposition of first person, second person, and third person within Signed, Mata Hari, the loss of Mata Hari’s voice within the novel, on not pushing a point of view upon the reader, balancing source texts vs. imagination, books that accessed some of Mata Hari’s closed files, how to work within the lack of non-specific biographical details, being a young mother in a foreign country, writing hyper-exuberant sex scenes, S-shaped and elliptical symbols, gibbons and the male gaze, the expressive possibilities of symbols, narrative transitions, extremes vs. gradients, the “third eye,” balding gentlemen, the importance of environment, the relationship between personal experience and objective data, dreams, on making Mata Hari’s husband evil, the oppression of women in pre-World War I, and novels telling unknown history.


Murphy: Well, I started off thinking that it would be just in the first person. But there was so much about her in later life that I thought her mature-sounding voice would need a second person. And that’s how the person began with “If you want to be a spy….” That’s how that voice came about. Because it showed her being more mature about the entire situation, about all of the conflicts that she had had in her life, and the first person worked for her as a young girl — for me, when she was a young girl. But then there was so much that happened in her life that I knew that that first person as a young girl, that particular sounding voice, wouldn’t work for the whole book. Because I wasn’t going to write a book that actually detailed every point of her life.

Categories: Fiction