Errol Morris (BSS #205)

Errol Morris is most recently the director of Standard Operating Procedure, which opens on April 25, 2008. (There is also an accompanying book written by Philip Gourevitch.)


Guest: Errol Morris

Subjects Discussed: Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Torture of Others,” the American cycle of photographing physical abuse, finding out what we’re looking at before drawing conclusions, the differences between a still image and a moving image, reenactments, guiding the viewer’s ability to map reality, Comte de Lautréamont, misinterpreting Crimean War photographs, the milkshake toss in The Thin Blue Line, basing an illustrated montage on a line from an interview, Sabrina Harman’s thumbs-up gesture, Harman and the Cheshire cat, Paul Ekman, perceiving the bad apples, what makes Morris angry, little guys taking the blame, Morris’s fondness for pariahs, extending understanding, whether flying subjects into Cambridge creates truth, Shoah, and Werner Herzog.


Correspondent: I actually want to bring up your most recent article for the New York Times, in which you delineated the difference between a single image and a moving image, in the sense that a moving image involves trying to create a map of reality. Because you’re not paying consistent attention to the actual moving image. But here you are with a film that has reenactments as well as interviews. And so I’m wondering: to what degree do you guide the viewer’s sense of mapping reality? Or is this a kind of cinematic device that is similar to, say, for example, the writings of Lautréamont in which he has this narrator who guides the reader and this is your effort to help out the viewer through the reenactments and through the juxtaposition and through the editing?

Morris: I think it’s both. I’ve never been compared to Lautréamont before. Here’s what I would say. There’s a movie. A movie is a movie. But you can also ask what is behind the movie. Was my intention to investigate the story? Was it my intention to find out new things? It’s self-serving of me to say so, but I would say yes! I mean, what’s the idea here? The idea is there is this set of photographs. They’ve been shown all around the world. Hundreds of millions of people have seen these photographs. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. But do we really know what we’re looking at? Has anyone talked to the people who took the photographs? What actually was going on in the photographs? I’ll give you an example. One picture that Susan Sontag remarks on is the picture of Sabrina Harman with her thumbs up. Smiling. The body of an Iraqi prisoner. Al-Jamadi. A lynching? I would say yes. But who is responsible? You look at the picture and you think, Ugh! It’s the woman in the picture. The smile! The thumbs up! She’s the culprit. She’s implicated. We come to find out. Wrong! Wrong! So this is an ongoing problem that I have with how photographs are interpreted in general.

Categories: Film, Ideas

New York ComicCon 2008 (BSS #204)

New York ComicCon is a rather insane event featuring all manner of comic artists and other assorted individuals. Many thanks to Eric Rosenfield for interview assistance and his laconic pal Phil for moral support and a shoulder to cry on.


1. Mike Pellerito — In this somewhat naughty conversation, Archie Comic Publications, Inc. Managing Editor Mike Pellerito offers his candid views on maintaining the purity of the Archie universe.

2. Joe Gonzalez — We venture into Podcast Arena to discuss the appropriate way of covering New York ComicCon with a fellow podcaster.

3. Aaron Goold — One of the folks behind Yo Yo Nation explains why he is a spokesman for Duncan. There is also some speculation on secret yo-yo societies in New York.

4. Jack Ringca — I am unsure what pernicious position Mr. Ringca holds within Duncan, but he seemed to have a few diabolical ideas involving Mr. Goold and conquering the universe with a yo-yo army.

5. Joseph Semling — The purchasing manager of Brian’s Toys offers a helpful explanation of the economics behind lightsabers.

6. David Williams — The co-founder of Fanlib insists that he’s flying fan fiction writers out to Hollywood. But we learn that this isn’t the case at all. He seemed especially convinced that all fans are protected from lawyers.

7. Dan Piraro — The man behind Bizarro explains the precise circumstances that help him generate ideas and reveals how some of his more daring strips end up in Scandinavia.

8. Ross Milhako — Attracted by the risque title, Our Young, Roving Correspondent questions the creator of Dead Dick — Zombie Detective upon the filthy and salacious qualities of his comic’s name.

9. Tim Fish — The Boston-based comic book writer behind Cavalcade of Boys explains precisely what he means by “cavalcade” and offers some insights on gay romance comics.

10. Patch — A gentleman who only referred to himself as “Patch” explains how Teddy Scares inverts the nature of the cute and cuddly teddy bear. There is also an ethical debate over whether zombie teddy bears can appeal to an UglyDoll audience. We dutifully pledge, per this interview, to investigate Teddy Scares in five years and determine, per Patch’s assured declarations, whether or not Teddy Scares retain their edge.

11. Kim Caltagrione, Mike McLaughlin & Steve Vincent — We talk with the New Jersey underground comics operation, Angry Drunk Grahics, about the fine line between angry and drunk and how Ms. Caltagrione ties this ontological spectrum together. Includes discussion of Mike Diana, the first artist to receive a criminal conviction for obscenity in the United States and who is published by Angry Drunk Graphics, and the Diana-drawn illustration of Jesus with a penis.

12. Brian Phillipson — The co-creator of God the Dyslexic Dog insinuates a forthcoming jihad involving canines. Or at least that’s what we’re left to conclude from this conversation that somehow manages to include nonoverlapping magisteria and dyslexic fundamentalists.

13. Chris Wozniak — Chris Wozniak insists, despite developments involving Kathy Griffin, that he is the Woz. But even though he has created bitter midgets, the Woz doesn’t have any explanation as to why his midgets are bitter.

14. Jeffrey Brown — A mention of Brown’s appearance on a Canadian sex program leads into an unexpected delineation between the real Brown vs. the invented Brown. (Partial transcript here.)

15. Kyle Baker — A conversation between Baker and McCloud is unexpectedly interrupted, but segues into issues of artistic control, television, people who don’t read comics, thwarted animation deals, families coming back in style, Special Forces, Nat Turner, the Haitian Revolution, mainstream publishers getting into graphic novels, and other assorted topics.

16. Scott McCloud — Scott McCloud reveals a future deal involving a graphic novel in New York, the present state of advocating graphic novels, the Creator’s Bill of Rights, and the failure of micropayment systems.

Categories: Ideas

Chen Shi-Zheng & Liu Ye (BSS #203)

Chen Shi-Zheng is the director of Dark Matter. Liu Ye is the star. The film is now out in theaters.


Condition of the Show: Adopting a theoretical construct.

Guests: Chen Shi-Zheng and Liu Ye

Subjects Discussed: The visual emphasis on stairwells, metallic college environments, the relationship between character and environment, string theory, researching cosmology, comparisons between Joanna Silver and Jo Ann Beard, basing a film on Gang Lu, the Virginia Tech massacre, “Amazing Grace” being sung in Chinese, Chen’s operatic background, performing an intimate scene with Meryl Streep, behavioral mannerisms, tables and windows, glass architecture, the origins of the Laurence Fang character, the corrupting influence of America, chemistry between Liu Ye and Aidan Quinn, television motifs, reflective surfaces, shallow information, Britney Spears, and the five elements of the Chinese horoscope.


Correspondent: The Meryl Streep character, Joanna Silver, bears a striking resemblance to Jo Ann Beard, who wrote, of course, “The Fourth State of Matter.” And I’m wondering, in terms of secondary materials, if this was intentioned. The Joanna Silver character seems to have more money than Jo Ann Beard did, and I wanted…

Chen: First off, I don’t know Jo Ann Beard. I know a lot of Joannas in New York. And there’s a lot of people. Rich ladies interested in Chinese culture studying tai-chi, trying to speak a few words of Chinese to me in my world. So that’s where the Joanna character comes from.

Correspondent: Oh, okay.

Chen: Just people who saw China as an exotic country, an exotic culture, that were fascinated by what was Chinese.

Correspondent: Because there was a very famous essay written in The New Yorker based off of the Iowa State massacre that was also reprinted in The Best American Essays that was written by Jo Ann Beard. And here you had a Joanna Silver character. So I didn’t know if there was any overlapping in terms of the Gang Lu scenario. In terms of there being overlapping characteristics upon this film. Or is this really not meant to be something that is rooted in a real…?

Chen: It’s not rooted in the real events. The real events were the starting point in making a movie. I think most of the characters you see most are friends of mine who came to this country, who have experienced a different life, and it isn’t meant to tell the stories I know. Not the story of Lu Gang.

Categories: Film

Brad & John Hennegan (BSS #202)

Brad and John Hennegan are the filmmakers behind First Saturday in May, which opens in theaters on April 17, 2008.


Condition of the Show: Racing to the finish line.

Guests: Brad Hennegan and John Hennegan

Subjects Discussed: Why the Hennegans chose six horse trainers, cutting the film down from a three hour epic, Pop-Up Video-style captions, the seven mysterious trainers who didn’t make it into the film, the problems of knowing that Barbaro was going to win the Kentucky Derby, tracking a story after a victory, focusing upon the media, frightening reporters who hold both a cup of coffee and a reporter’s pad in one hand, not using a voiceover, footage that begins with a question, laying down the rules, juxtaposing the God’s eye view of NBC footage with ground-level footage, giving cameras to children, why the trainers were not photographed in their homes, getting away from the track, whether or not Dale Romans is humorless, Frank Amonte’s effusiveness, trainers who feel the need to look good in front of the camera, the lack of gambling portrayed in the film, the Kentucky Derby elite, previous film experience,, and cheap travel.


Correspondent: Going back to this notion of family, we see many kids essentially speak in lieu of the trainers. I thought that that was an interesting choice on your part. Because I’m watching this, going, wow, these folks are really trying to keep up a presence. They must actually look good in light of this particular Derby crowd. And then on top of that, they have this whole family image. I think of — I’m forgetting. It’s the Arkansas trainer Holthus.

Brad Hennegan: Bob Holthus.

Correspondent: Bob Holthus, who has his wife wearing this garish, white outfit. This genteel kind of appearance. And this was striking to me, because it seemed very much that image was even more important in some cases than the actual training. And then you have this juxtaposed by Frank [Amonte], who is very much a naturalistic person. Who is openly affectionate with his family in contrast to the other people. How much was look a part of this documentary? You have to keep the image in order to…

John Hennegan: No, no, no. I mean, Bonnie’s a woman, like a lot of women we know, that just likes to look good. She’s got a hundred hats.

Brad Hennegan: She calls it her costumes.

John Hennegan: Right. She likes to go to the racetrack and dress up. If you saw Bob, her husband, Bob probably wears a variation of the same thing everyday. To someone like Bonnie, the racetrack’s a celebration of her. And she wants to look good. Etcetera.

Brad Hennegan: Bonnie’s also a hell of a handicapper by the way. She’s a great handicapper. But, you know, it’s just like any business. There’s some people that are slick. Slick talking businessmen. There are others who aren’t. You can compare it to any business where some feel that the exterior is very important, where others don’t.

Categories: Film

Mark Sarvas (BSS #201)

Mark Sarvas is the author of Harry, Revised.


Condition of Show: Concerned with revision.

Author: Mark Sarvas

Subjects Discussed: Harry Rent and Arthur Dent, James Wood’s How Fiction Works, character names, Jean Cocteau, Tod Goldberg and fucktard, serendipitous phone calls, Harry’s level of hypocrisy, Deconstructing Harry, how screenplay experience tied into novel writing, human inconsistencies, spending money to solve problems, relating to people in a vocational capacity, Laila Lalami’s “Fiction in the Age of Poverty,” portly clerks, David Foster Wallace, overweight characters, elegant variations, the middle ground between first person and third person, outlines and protracted chapters, chapters with alternating flashbacks, subconscious symmetry, crutch words, Dan Wickett, what constitutes repetition, John Banville’s The Untouchable, idiosyncratic verbs, stretching language, Martin Amis as a critic, The Great Gatsby and “classical” style, pushing the discomfort, the myth of West Coast literature, masking internal pain, White Teeth, being corrupted by other authors, John Banville, John Banville, John Banville, dialogue and one-sentence paragraphs, tonal crossover between blog and novel, not being sure of the funny moments, not relying on the joke, spinning, the squash chapter in Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Harry’s weight, and interior monologue.


Correspondent: Anna is actually a palindrome. Is that intentional?

Sarvas: No. And the thing that really troubled me with Anna was that I was, I think, a year and a half into writing this book when John Banville’s novel, The Sea, came out. And in The Sea, the main character Max is mourning the death of his wife Anna. And I thought, “Oh my God. Everybody’s going to think that this is my Banville homage.” And this was really not. I was looking for a simple and an elegant name. And Anna floated into my mind. That was a more instinctive choice than anything else.

Correspondent: And yet there’s inarguably an elegant variation in this. I have to ask you about “a dancing St. Elmo’s fire of the groin.”

Sarvas: Okay, you…

Correspondent: This was really — all you had to say was that it was an erection.

Sarvas: Well, see, you mentioned that. You sent me a text message, and…

Correspondent: I asked five people about this and they said, “What the fuck?” (laughs)

Sarvas: But, and look. First of all, this is a book of nearly 300 pages. Not every single metaphor’s going to sail. There will be those that don’t.

Correspondent: Well, it’s definitely memorable. That’s for sure.

Sarvas: But to my mind, I was not describing an erection. I didn’t intend to. And the fact that you thought that that was what I meant argues that I didn’t do my job well. Because what I was really hoping to describe. And this is perhaps not the stuff of a normal Segundo podcast and I hope my wife isn’t listening to this….

Correspondent: (laughs)

Sarvas: …is that weird sort of tingling, pre-erotic moment that announces the onset of an erection. Where you’re beginning to feel that surge, that electricity in that way. But you haven’t actually flown the flag up the pole yet. And that’s what I meant. If I wanted to say erection or boner or some other, I would have said that.

Correspondent: But the fact that it’s ambiguous is very interesting. Because then it leaves — I mean, this could be discussed endlessly in book clubs across the country.

Sarvas: And I think it’s actually better that way.

Correspondent: It’s the phrase that definitely I can’t get out of my mind and makes me look at you in a sort of cockeyed way.

Categories: Fiction

Nicholson Baker (BSS #200)

Nicholson Baker is most recently the author of Human Smoke.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Deceased.

Author: Nicholson Baker

Subjects Discussed: Baker’s antipathy for placing the date at the top of an entry, the blogginess of A Box of Matches and Human Smoke, the discrepancy between what Baker remembered and what Updike wrote in U & I, anchored time, the “Splunge” sketch from Monty Python, subjective vs. objective, ground rules, contradictory sources, America First, parallels between September 11, 1941 and September 11, 2001, repeating phrases, cutting out Churchill speeches, Howard Schoenfeld, trying to squeeze invents into an impacted timeline, sources, Baker’s father, the Treaty of Versailles, imbuing a history with a cast of characters, Roosevelt, Victor Klemperer, “The Charms of Wikipedia,” how text informs perspective, Human Smoke as a pointillism of fact, text as a mutable medium, the footnotes in The Mezzanine, traps within the text, form and content, the dialogue-only books (Vox and Checkpoint), Thomas de Quincey, digressions, the anarchic narrative of life vs. the enforced narrative of the book, Baker’s aborted musical career, Vox‘s “what happens” narrative, a Theory of Everything for Baker’s oeuvre, the sudden plot within the last 20 pages of The Fermata, the late episodic novels, Henry Ford, Alfred Sloan and the German economic miracle, Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust, the moral ramifications of industrialism, giving cultural weight to pacifists, Columbine, pinning blame on ancillary factors, following the thread, intelligence and the capacity of observing everything, Sherlock Holmes, having huge gaps of knowledge, William Hazlitt’s “On the Conduct of Life,” preservation, found shopping lists, people who are moved to go on record, the advantages of indiscriminateness, New York World, Johnny Carson, revisiting Baker’s complaints about scanning in Double Fold in light of digital developments at Harper’s and The New York Times, newspaper language, the inefficiencies of newspaper online archiving, why The New York Times is better today than in the 1930s, the natural selection of informative details, Human Smoke as a Rorschach test, and the gradients of ideology.


Baker: What I always find is that the stuff that was kept indiscriminately is often more interesting than the stuff that was deliberately kept. You know, the stuff that was in the pocket of somebody when — I don’t know, when some terrible thing happened. The shopping list that you find on the sidewalk. I mean, there are many, many shopping lists right now in people’s lives. Millions of them. And I’m not going to worry that they’re all being thrown out. I don’t think that people should be saving all their shopping lists. I just think that it’s sometimes beautiful to have one and think about the order of things on it. And that anytime you have those odd things in a place like Wikipedia, if you have strange, sometimes misshapen entries that people have written about something that they want — an ancestor that they’re proud of or themselves — that there’s something really fascinating about what it was that moved people to want to go on record for that thing.

[NOTE: For related discussion pertaining to Human Smoke, visit the Human Smoke entries on Filthy Habits.]

Categories: Fiction, Ideas

Richard Price (BSS #199)

Richard Price is most recently the author of Lush Life.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Caught in a crime scene.

Author: Richard Price

Subjects Discussed: Setting a novel on the Lower East Side, tenement houses turned into tenement museums, juxtaposing a struggling Boho actor against the Old World, real estate as violence, gentrification, people who don’t see each other, knowing about the yuppie influx, having difficulties getting access to the NYPD, beating preconceived notions, OCD and fiction, making things up vs. reporting accurately, the facsimile of New York, not liking to write but liking to be finished, avoiding writing, Price and upward mobility, Child 44, adapting a book into a film, working with editor Lorin Stein, and writing Michael Jackson’s “Bad.”


Correspondent: Another thing I had read is that you don’t like to write. At least you do like to write. But then you also don’t like to write.

Price: I like to be finished. If I could take a pill that would knock me out and put me in a coma for two years, but when I woke up, there would be a completed manuscript that I would like, I’ll give you the two years.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Price: Yeah, I don’t like writing. I mean, this is kind of like abstract. But I find writing agony. Basically, you just sit there by yourself and rearrange twenty-six letters of the alphabet for decades on end. I mean, there’s no physicality to what you’re doing. There’s no hand-eye coordination. There’s no social element.

Correspondent: Well, there is hand-eye coordination now.

Price: What? Typing?

Categories: Fiction

Jennifer Weiner II (BSS #198)

Jennifer Weiner is most recently the author of Certain Girls.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Avoiding literary desegregation.

Author: Jennifer Weiner

Subjects Discussed: The similarities between Good in Bed and Certain Girls, how to quantify the past, text as a responsive medium, an embedded critique of chick lit, being embarrassed by your mother, making Cannie more conservative, bluntness, effusiveness, the demands of having to write for an audience, the problems of writing a sequel, not wanting to disappoint people, setting a book in the future, Erica Jong, kids being scandalized, Jezebel Bright, science fiction, geeky components in Certain Girls, preoccupation with media culture, Anne Rice’s schlocky Jesus novel, writing true to one’s voice, poetry throughout Weiner’s novels, writing a book in 42 chapters, the ABC development deal, writing under a pseudonym, “pumpkin” as a safe word, self-help, surrogate mothers, Peter as the most understanding man in the history of marriages, and the happy enough ending.


Correspondent: There are also these larger thematics, I think, in your work. In both of these books, you have a pregnancy happening while you’re having to let go of someone. In the first case, it’s the boyfriend. And in the second case, it’s the daughter. And this to me is intriguing. Likewise, there’s the poetry that is frequently throughout your books. And so I’m saying that there’s some stuff in here that I’m wondering why not push this further? It’s almost innately a part of a Jennifer Weiner book.

Weiner: And no one notices it. It’s interesting.

Correspondent: I do.

Weiner: Well, thank you. You are rare. You’re a rare reader. Because for most people, it’s like, “Yeah! Shoe shopping!” And I love shoe shopping. There’s nothing wrong with it. But I always like it when people get those little coded things that sneak in there. Because I was a closet Trekkie.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Weiner: We can talk about that.

Correspondent: Yeah, well, we can talk about that!

Weiner: I’m in a support group.

Correspondent: I mean, let’s say that you were to write a chick lit book. Or rather a novel. Let’s just do away with this really ridiculous term. Because, quite frankly, if we were to apply David Copperfield to the same standards, it would be a chick lit book because it ends up happy.

Weiner: Yes.

Correspondent: So let’s just go ahead and do away with that. And let’s just talk about you, hypothetically, writing about a closet Trekkie who finds love or something. Or even Jezebel Bright.

Weiner: Uh huh. Well, it could happen. I mean, I never really know what my next book’s going to be until it just kind of comes. So there’s two things I’m playing with now. One is fiction. One is nonfiction. And the fiction one has really dark, dark, dark stuff going on. And I’m not really sure how the whole science fiction part of the puzzle fits into it. But I don’t know if it’s going to be Jezebel Bright or if Jezebel Bright becomes the book within that book almost. The way it kind of did a little bit with Certain Girls and Lyla Dare and the Stargirls stuff. I don’t know. We’ll see. I’ll have to wait for my muse to get in touch. I’ll check my BlackBerry.

(For our previous conversation with Jennifer Weiner, go here.)

Categories: Fiction

Michio Kaku (BSS #197)

Michio Kaku is most recently the author of Physics of the Impossible.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Dreaming the impossible dream.

Author: Michio Kaku

Subjects Discussed: Maximum caps on bandying about theory in physics, relativity and string theory, the Theory of Everything, decoherence and the wave function of the universe, the Large Hadron Collider, detecting sparticles, how journalists are duped by perpetual motion machines, the Alcubierre warp drive, Edward Teller, the hydrogen bomb, military funding for research, invisibility, being asked to prognosticate on when new technologies are available, the slingshot effect, ray guns, phasers, WR104 and the Death Star, neural networks, the Blue Brain Project, Moore’s Law, the deficiencies of quantum computing, functional MRIs, telepathy, and lie detectors.


Correspondent: But I’m wondering though where does science fiction play into this? If some people are losing their shirts and some people are actually profiting from knowledge — like the Alcubierre drive, for example — then is science fiction good, bad, or is it one of those neutral constructs in our world in which people can be exploited or actually be inspired by?

Kaku: Well, science fiction, I think, plays several roles. First of all, it inspires scientists. Jules Verne’s work inspired Edwin Hubble to become an astronomer — the greatest astronomer of the 20th century — rather than a lawyer. He was in law school when he switched and decided to become an astronomer, because he remembered the thrill as a child of reading Jules Verne. Also, Carl Sagan read Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars series and dreamed about roaming on the surface of Mars. That’s why Carl Sagan became an astronomer. And second of all, there’s a lot of cross-pollination between the two. Many people think that antimatter was invented by Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek fame. Wrong. Antimatter comes from physics. 1928. The work of Paul Dirac. He predicted the existence of antimatter. Second of all, when you look at warp drive, warp drive had its origins in the work of Albert Einstein. So Gene Roddenberry copied Einstein. But then Alcubierre was watching Star Trek one day and said, “Let’s take this seriously. A warp drive just like the Enterprise.” He put that into Einstein’s equations and out popped out the Alcubierre drive. So here was a question of physics fertilizing Roddenberry, fertilizing physics.

Correspondent: But most people opt to believe in the Roddenberry over the Alcubierre. That’s the question, you know?

Kaku: Yeah. But when we physicists though — we’re the ones who build these things. When we have to look at these equations, we realize that Roddenberry was a fiction writer. Also, I mention in the book that H.G. Wells predicted the atomic bomb. He predicted the year that a scientist would discover the secret of the atomic bomb. Leó Szilárd read that book. I repeat, the man who discovered the chain reaction read H.G. Wells’s book, saw himself as the man who discovered the secret of the atomic bomb, and got the secret just within a year or so of the prediction. And that led to the atomic bomb. So in some sense, the atomic bomb was in some sense inspired by H.G. Wells.

Correspondent: You’re rather giddy talking about the atomic bomb. I’m a little worried here.

Kaku: When I was a kid, my mentor was Edward Teller. He’s the father of the hydrogen bomb. And he even offered me a job building hydrogen bombs.

Correspondent: And you declined that job.

Kaku: I declined that job.

Correspondent: Why did you do that?

Kaku: I’d rather work on something even bigger.

Categories: Ideas

Jennifer 8. Lee (BSS #196)

Jennifer 8. Lee is the author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Indignant towards the ungrateful.

Author: Jennifer 8. Lee

Subjects Discussed: Comparisons between Chinese restaurants and open source software, General Tso’s chicken, fortune cookies and Analects, how frequently fortune cookie companies rotate fortunes, melon patches, making a living as a fortune cookie writer, Edward Louie, attempting to discover the fortune cookie’s origins in a non-academic manner, the next chop suey, broccoli, Lee’s assumptions about race and class, boys playing with Barbies, blowing a lot of money to find the greatest Chinese restaurant, the underground network of Chinese laborers underneath Manhattan Bridge, illegal restaurant workers, smuggling, takeout menus, pizza vs. Chinese food, and a sad tale concerning a delivery man.


Lee: As I went and discovered old Chinese cookie maxims, like booklets of these idioms or whatever, if you’re really educated in China, you were forced to memorize all these pithy maxims or whatever. So when you go and you find these maxims, you basically find out, a lot of it doesn’t make sense to an American audience, right? Because let’s think about it. China. Old traditions. Very rural. So a lot of their wisdom has to do with agriculture. So for example, there’s a saying that’s — my mom shared this with me: DO NOT BEND DOWN AND TIE YOUR SHOES WHEN YOU’RE IN A MELON PATCH. Right. So if you say that to an American, it doesn’t really make all that much sense.

Correspondent: It makes sense to me.

Lee: It does?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Lee: It does make sense? What does it say to you?

Correspondent: Well, the melon patch is symptomatic of some very major paradigm in my head that, if I were to tell you, I would start to tear up. It’s a very emotional metaphor for me.

Lee: Is it? (laughs)

Correspondent: And I’m kind of blushing now just thinking about my own personal melon patch. But now I know how to go about the rest of the day from this piece of wisdom.

Lee: So what this means to most Chinese people…

Correspondent: Oh, I’m sorry.

Lee: (laughs)

Correspondent: I may be just a bit idiosyncratic. Go for it.

Lee: It means: Don’t do anything if it looks suspicious, even thought it’s not. But Americans don’t grow melons and they’re not depending on melon patches.

Correspondent: Well, speak for yourself.

Categories: Ideas

Elizabeth Crane II (BSS #195)

Elizabeth Crane is most recently the author of You Must Be This Happy to Enter.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Failing to understand why so many people are happy.

Author: Elizabeth Crane

Subjects Discussed: The unwarranted stigma behind the exclamation mark, what it means to be happy, zombies and reality TV, Max Brooks’s World War Z, Betty the Yeti, zombie sex, pushing the envelope further, shaking the DFW yoke, short story collections and independent publishers, the novel in stories vs. a short story collection, disappearing publicists, David Foster Wallace’s “Host,” Joyce Carol Oates, dwelling more on a concept for a story, writing stories to read out loud, Stories on Stage, Joe Meno, stories composed only of one paragraph, the conversation as an organism, the new boyfriend in relation to the misfit spirit, enclosed spaces, happiness in contemporary fiction and as a legitimate experience, the chatty quality within Crane’s stories, concern for mass media, iPods, writing about the future, cardboard, judgment, and bald men.


Correspondent: I wanted to first of all ask you about the story, “My Life is Awesome! And Great!”

Crane: Yes.

Correspondent: Which uses exclamation marks quite effusively!

Crane: Yes.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering if this was your effort to reclaim the exclamation mark. I mean, it has a bit of a stigma these days, I would think.

Crane: (laughs) It’s underrated. It’s underappreciated.

Correspondent: It really is!

Crane: Yes. I really was just having fun. I mean, I do think that there are personalities out there who are overenthusiastic. Or over-optimistic about this date of their lives. And I was sort of inspired by that. But I wasn’t consciously thinking, “It’s time for Crane to bring back the exclamation point.”

Correspondent: (laughs) Well, I mean, there’s a certain kind of gusto. Because there’s a perseverance here in the constant stream of sentences that all end in exclamation marks as all these woes are communicated.

Crane: Exactly. That’s what I was really trying to say. I’m going to just carry on in the face of everything.

Correspondent: But it’s not just that. There’s this interesting semantic quality because we have a scenario in which we see all range of emotions through these sentences.

(To listen to our previous conversation with Elizabeth Crane, go here.)

Categories: Fiction

Lydia Millet II (BSS #194)

Lydia Millet is most recently the author of How the Dead Dream.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Battling upholders of decency.

Author: Lydia Millet

Subjects Discussed: The “nation” of ideology, empathy as an endangered species, graying hair color compared against graying landscape, obnoxious cell phones, subconsciousness vs. the innate design of a novel, the life cycle of animals, wild pastures that “bear fruit,” big novels, finding a middle road between John Irving and William Gaddis, the short books of Gaddis, being underedited, Richard Nash, the blank pages vs. calibration, the How the Dead Dream trilogy, the instinctive pursuit of concision, living in a green desert, global warming, answering pessimism with a novel, activism as a grind, being around lawyers, the relationship between humor and pessimism, cartoon-like peripheral characters, earnestness, cruelty at zoos, accredited zoos, and trying to avoid patterns.


Millet: Humor for me has to be a part of everything that I write. I mean, I’m not saying that it’s always successful or anything like that. But it has to be part of it for me. Partly because the lexicon I was just talking about is a very earnest one. And I get so sick of earnestness. On the other hand, I really don’t have much time for the sort of cynicism that completely decries earnestness. So I want to forge a middle ground between those two. That’s why I end up having these very cartoonish characters. Even in this book, which is sort of a serious book. But there are all these cartoon-like peripheral characters. And I can never seem to give those up. You know, the Fultons.

Correspondent: Well, they stand in juxtaposition against earnestness. I mean, what’s so wrong with earnestness though? How would you define earnestness?

Millet: That’s a really good question. I guess it’s a humorlessness that is purpose-driven. That talks only about — you know, that’s a really good question. Because there’s earnestness and then there’s irony. And there’s always these twin poles. And I want to live in a world that contains both of them really. And so my books — and certainly this one — try to do that. I think that you can have irony without being cynical. And I think you can have earnestness without being repulsive. Or without being off-putting. There’s a way to talk seriously about things and not be devoid of laughter, I hope.

Correspondent: I think what you’re objecting to is not so much earnestness. Because empathy and hope and doing something, that’s a very earnest…

Millet: Position.

Correspondent: Yeah. And I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with that. But I think what you’re…

Millet: It just has to be interesting. That’s all.

(To listen to our previous conversation with Lydia Millet, go here.)

Categories: Fiction