Charlie Huston II (BSS #267)

Charlie Huston is most recently the author of The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death. To listen to our previous interview with Mr. Huston, check out The Bat Segundo Show #98.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Looking for an efficient and affordable cleanup service.

Author: Charlie Huston

Subjects Discussed: Huston’s concern for locative detail, unusual sentence structures, sequential details within sentences, the run-on sentence in relation to narrative action, the burdens of writing novels quickly, rhythm and alternating sentences, whether or not the word “motherfucker” haunts Huston in his dreams, sentences repeating and following a character demand, getting across pace without having characters describe the pace, working over sequences amidst restrictive writing conditions, pushing the story forward with aggression, trying to steer around cliches, being subconsciously funny with the books, the burden of the Joe Pitt books, masturbating on the page, avoiding violence directed at dogs in the most recent books, consciously playing down the violence, on “going soft,” slipping into habit, the typographical dash mistake in Mystic Arts, on whether John Wayne is the standard for the roundhouse haymaker, why almonds were chosen over pecans, agricultural hijacking, cockroaches, transcribed speech and fey okays, the culinary horrors of Slim Jims, and conducting research.



Huston: Sometimes, if you use the same words, you can put a little tinkle of irony into it. In the fact that you describe him doing it exactly the way the person just told him. So you use the exact same words. It’s hard for me to answer questions about the writing that are that precise. Because so much of the process is not that precise for me. So much of it is shoveling. And you’re not too terribly conscious of how you shovel while you’re doing it. Whether you’re good at it or not.

Correspondent: But you just confessed to me that the “heartbeat” sequence was worked over. I mean…

Huston: That one, yes, absolutely. But in general, I’m saying. Like if you’re asking general questions about the way I use rhythm and use repetitions and stuff, I can draw out an example like that. Where it was very specific and where I had very particular goals that I’m articulating now with much more depth than I ever articulated to myself at the time. But in terms of being able to generally say why those rhythms appeal to me, why I use them, I don’t know. I’m kind of making it up right now the same way I’m making it up as I write it. Well, I think it works like this. But does it? That’s kind of where I am with that stuff.

Correspondent: Yeah. But this is interesting to me because you have such restrictive deadlines. And here you are working over a specific sequence. This is why I’m kind of interested in how you’re developing your rhythm, even with these constrictive conditions.

Huston: And that may also just be part of it. You know, some of those things. You know, Ed, I just don’t know, man. I mean, that’s really the bottom line. I don’t know how far I can penetrate into this and have it not just be bullshit at a certain point. I mean, it’s just coming out that way. It’s just coming out that way. And I don’t know if the time frame has as much to do with it. The time frame tends to play more into things that slip through the crack that might be messy. Like that long sentence that you had. And how it’s a combination of “I find myself making connections that I might not otherwise make because I’m writing clip clip clip” and also a situation in which “I find myself writing sloppy things that I might otherwise clean up if I had more time.” The time constriction tends to manifest itself more in pushing the story forward very aggressively. In sometimes making choices that, fifty pages later, I wish I hadn’t made. Because there were implications I hadn’t considered, but with enough time to go back and unchoose that choice. So I have to do some more tap dancing to make it all work. And it also plays a large role in the extent to which I will more willingly embrace some genre conventions and cliches that I might otherwise try to find ways to steer around if I had a little more time.

(Photo credit: Mary Reagan)

Categories: Fiction

Catherynne M. Valente (BSS #266)

Catherynne M. Valente is most recently the author of Palimpsest.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Looking for a way into a secret city.

Author: Catherynne M. Valente

Subjects Discussed: Writing a novel with four character perspectives, how structure influences perspective, the importance of numbers, color theory, thriving on restriction, Neal Stephenson, the importance of flow and reading out loud, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, synesthesia, the purpose of puns, being a child of the Internet generation, Italo Calvino and the literature of the new millennium, planning a book entirely in one’s head, PersonalBrain, on not outlining a novel, having semiotics for breakfast, writers with kinks, multiple topographies within Palimpsest, perceptions of New York, the individual relationship to a city in relation to one’s individual sensibilities, genre classification, New New Weird and mythpunk, thinking while doing other things, the factors that cause Valente to write very fast, fighting the forces of marketability, chick lit, a future project involving the myth of Prester John, the problems with accessibility, the addiction to story, geek outreach and the publishing industry, Lev Grossman’s article, the communal experience, novel patches, the book as a permanent medium, secretive networks, the Kindle and the Sony eReader, Cory Doctorow, the bridge between print and online, Eric Kraft, and the signal-to-noise ratio in e-books.


Correspondent: Which number is your favorite? Or maybe one of your five favorite numbers?

Valente: Oh, my favorite number!

Correspondent: Do you do this on a single digit scenario?

Valente: I’m going to have to go with seven.

Correspondent: Seven!

Valente: Actually, a little girl came to one of my Orphan’s Tales readings. She came up to me after and said, “Why are there all those sevens in your book?” And I love seven. It’s a prime number. And it’s a typically mystical number. And it’s fascinating to me. But I almost never use it in structure. Because it doesn’t fit very well. It’s kind of an ornery number that way, which, I suppose, is why I’m attracted to it. Because I’m kind of ornery myself.

Correspondent: Well, you know, Neal Stephenson told me that seven was the ideal number of guests at a dinner table.

Valente: Oh, wow. I hadn’t thought about that.

Correspondent: What are the applications of seven? Not just to your fiction, but also to your general life?

Valente: Well, I guess it’s the number that I don’t use though. Seven is a number that doesn’t occur in nature very often. There aren’t too many seven-leafed or seven-petaled plants. That is why it’s a mystical number. Because it exists outside of the world. And so I don’t actually use it all that much. When I’m arranging things, I go with three. I go with four a tremendous amount. Of course, four is a very thorny number in Eastern culture. Because there’s four noble truths. But four also means death in Chinese and Japanese. And so they will often, much as our number thirteen, consider it unlucky, remove it from hotel rooms, and things like that. But I love the number four. I love the number eight. But seven is the number apart. So I use it in fairy tales all the time in terms of time. Seven days, seven years, seven months. There’s a character named Seven in The Orphan’s Tales. And that particular character deals with coins that have a seven-pointed star on them. But seven, I love, because it’s weird.

Correspondent: What’s your position on The Magnificent Seven or The Seven Samurai?

Valente: Well, of course, those come from Seven Against Thebes! Which is a wonderful ancient Greek play. I’m a classicist. So I always go straight back to that. And, of course, Seven Against Thebes comes from the seven dragon teeth that Cadmus planted in the earth. Yeah. Seven’s great.

(Photo credit: Ellen Datlow)

Categories: Fiction

Neil deGrasse Tyson (BSS #265)

Neil deGrasse Tyson is most recently the author of The Pluto Files.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Reconfiguring his planetary paradigm, with the aid of minatory electrodes.

Author: Neil deGrasse Tyson

Subjects Discussed: The Great Planet Debate, sensible classification systems, “reorganizing” the solar system, why the International Astronomical Union wasn’t approached before the Rose Center display was established, the usefulness of the word “planet,” playing 20 Questions to gain insight into what Tyson talks about, Copernicus, acceptable groupings, quibbles with the New Horizons reconnaissance mission to “complete” the exploration of the solar system, government and space exploration, Sedna vs. Pluto, efforts to explicate Sedna’s orbit, the ethical implications of scientists who write popular books, scientists and get rich quick schemes, pedagogical paradigms, manned missions to Mars, the celebrity culture of astronauts, manned space program vs. robotic expeditions, how science can endure in the face of looming budgetary cuts, the financial return of science, communications with the Obama Administration, and the possibility of the asteroid Apophis colliding against the Earth in 2036.


Tyson: We just reorganized the solar system, combining objects of like properties together. And at the time, more frozen bodies — small with tipped orbits, crossing the orbits of other planets — were found in the outer solar system that looked more like Pluto. And Pluto looked more like them than any one of them looked like anything else in the solar system. So all we did was group Pluto with its brethren in the outer solar system. Then we grouped the gas giants together as a family. Then we grouped the terrestrials — Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars — together. So the family photo of the solar system was presented in these groupings. At no time did we recount the planets in the solar system. And, in fact, the word “planet” is undervalued in the exhibits entirely. We prefer to focus on physical properties of these objects, rather than try and salvage a word that hasn’t been formally defined since before Copernicus.

Correspondent: Well, to talk about the notion of introducing this exhibit and not tipping anybody off initially, until this New York Times reporter ran with the ball and created something of a media storm, you…

Tyson: Something of a media storm?

Correspondent: Something of a media storm.

Tyson: Just say “media storm.”

Correspondent: Well, I’d like to use reverse hyperbole here. But in the case of this considerable media storm, you didn’t tip anybody off. And I’m curious. I mean, the sentiment in this book that you express multiple times is “Science is not a democracy.” And I’m wondering though why you didn’t approach the IAU to essentially get them to get with the program. That Pluto is not a planet. That it is essentially a TNO, and…

Tyson: Trans-Neptunian Object.

Correspondent: Yes, exactly. Exactly. I’m wondering why. Perhaps you could have smoothed things over a little bit with the IAU before introducing this. Does the IAU really not matter in this particular group?

Tyson: IAU cares about what a planet is. And we didn’t. It’s that simple. We didn’t present a case for planethood or not. All we did was say, “Here’s an interesting way to look at the solar system.” Put Pluto with the icy bodies and present it as such. We didn’t say Pluto was not a planet. We made no such claims. We were widely stereotyped for having done so. And that’s the simplest — if you don’t have the time to read what we did, then that’s the simplest thing that people did. Many interviewers — media — would come up to me and say, “So how many planets are there in your exhibits?” And I said, “We don’t count planets.” We just simply don’t count planets. So I had no interest in lobbying the International Astronomical Union. Because they’re concerned with the definition of planet. And when they do, fine. Define it however they want. It doesn’t change sensible ways to organize the information content of the solar system.

Correspondent: But in the minds of people. You had to be aware of the public perception. I mean, in this book, you point, of course, to the Caltech parade in Pasadena, the funerals for Pluto, the endless editorial cartoons and the like. In fact, I actually saw a Discover magazine headline that said, “Beyond the nine planets.” That was a week ago. So people are still struggling with this taxonomy, even though it’s clearly not a planet. I mean, you had to have been aware of this in some sense. What kind of adjustment period do we need? What kind of outreach do we need? Even to the IAU members. The 10% who voted against the idea, who voted for Pluto being a planet.

Tyson: Obtaining its planet status.

Correspondent: Yes, exactly.

Tyson: A mere 10%, I might add.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Tyson: Well, let me make it clear. There are people who have a lot invested in the word “planet.” Odd. Because like I said, “planet” had no formal definition. Not since ancient Greece. Planet means — it comes from the Greek “planetas,” meaning “wanderer.” And it referred to the objects in the night sky, from night to night, would wander against the background stars. There were seven of them — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the sun, and the moon. Did I get the seven there? Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the sun, and the moon. Seven. That’s an unambiguous definition. No argument there. Seven planets. Copernicus says, “Wait a minute. The Sun is in the middle. Earth is one of these objects that goes around the sun. The moon goes around the earth.” So Earth became a planet. The sun became not a planet. The moon became not a planet. And so, okay. But even at Copernicus’s time, the word “planet” did not get a formal definition. It was only, “It just seems right. Let’s just keep it.” It was not formally defined until the IAU in August 2006. I’m fine with their definition! Because it doesn’t matter to me. The word is not useful.

Categories: Ideas

Robert G. Kaiser (BSS #264)

Robert G. Kaiser has worked at the Washington Post since 1963. He is most recently the author of So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Still waiting for the lobbyists to work out a deal with him.

Author: Robert G. Kaiser

Subjects Discussed: Obama’s first executive order, revolving door bans, Tom Daschle’s recent troubles, “exceptions in extraordinary circumstances,” candidates for office with lobbying backgrounds, Gerald Cassidy, picking a character for a Washington narrative, the birth of the lobbying firm Schlossberg-Cassidy Associates, the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, Cassidy falling into second place, lobbying problems and the 1994 Republican Revolution, the K Street Project, lobbying and partisan politics, Cassidy’s lobbying style vs. Abramoff’s lobbying style, Tom DeLay, safe seats, John Lewis, Richard Lugar, Chuck Schumer, the likelihood of an equitable earmarking system, Columbia’s early lobbying efforts with the chemistry lab, peer review, attempting to sort out differing accounts concerning the Tufts Nutrition Center, Jean Meyer, Edward Bernays and why his influential essay, “The Engineering of Consent,” took a few decades to catch on in Capitol Hill, Joe McGinnis’s The Selling of the President, Roger Ailes, the abandonment of objective reality over the past 45 years, the Jim Wright ethics investigation and whether or not Cassidy was culpable in Wright’s downfall, Newt Gingrich’s rise, and the potential for a return to the comparatively virtuous pre-Nixon Congress.


Correspondent: You also bring up one moment in the book, where you depict Senator John Stennis — the man, of course, who wrote one of the first Senate ethics codes; in fact, the first Senate ethics code. And who had not raised more than $5,000 for all of his campaigns in the past. Now here he is up for reelection in 1982. And he needs to raise $2 million. He is now forced to accept this devil’s bargain. This leads me to wonder whether, in fact, there is even room for a Sam Rayburn type of Congressman anymore. Whether it’s even possible for someone of any ethical core to be in this deeply ingrained system. If John Stennis can’t do it, then who can?

Kaiser: Well, it’s one of my favorite stories in the book. I’m glad you noticed it. But all these things are complicated. For example, in today’s Congress, in the House, we have 435 members. Probably 200 of them — or even 220 — are in totally safe seats. That is to say, they can win reelection without campaigning at all probably. Or very minimally. And that’s because of the impact of, now, two generations of very aggressive gerrymandering. We call it redrawing of the districts and state legislatures every ten years after the census is done, in which both parties have accepted the same rule of thumb that the ideal outcome is to maximize the number of safe seats for our side and minimize them for the other side. You remember this episode in Texas, which actually lead to DeLay’s downfall, when he overplayed his hand on this subject and got the Texas legislature as soon as it was under Republican control to add four more Republican seats from Texas. Which he got away with initially. But he eventually got indicted for it. And that, I think, was the beginning of the end for DeLay.

Anyhow, there are opportunities because of these safe seats for people who don’t raise any money. And they don’t participate in the corrupt system at all. Which is an interesting footnote. It just means that a large portion of members are exempt from the usual pains and tribulations of trying to raise all this money. Not true in the Senate, where everybody is theoretically more vulnerable in a way. They all try and raise the dough.

Correspondent: But if there are so many safe seats, is it possible that there could be some sort of Sam Rayburn type in a safe seat? Someone who refuses to, of course, accept any money. Pays his own way, as Rayburn did.

Kaiser: John Lewis of Atlanta. The great leader of the civil rights movement and fascinating figure, who I know slightly. I heard him preach on Sunday before the inauguration in a black church in Washington, which I just went to by chance. I didn’t realize he was going to be preaching there. He gave a remarkable presentation. But John Lewis has a very safe seat in parts of Atlanta. He’s a revered figure. I have no idea how much he raises for his elections. I should probably check that out. But Lewis is a good example of a distinguished citizen in Congress who is not corrupted by this system, as far as I know. And there are people who build up a kind of invincible status. Richard Lugar of Indiana would be a really good example of this. Lugar: former mayor of Indianapolis, Rhodes Scholar, good citizen. Conservative Republican. Nixon Republican originally when he came to town in the 70s. Lugar wins reelection, as he did this time, by huge majorities and doesn’t have to do any bad stuff, I don’t think, to raise money. There are a number of such figures who could fulfill your definition, I think, of a Sam Rayburn-like independent man. But they are the exceptions certainly.

Categories: Ideas

Nick Antosca (BSS #263)

Nick Antosca is most recently the author of Midnight Picnic.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Terrified about what his ex-wife does during a midnight picnic.

Author: Nick Antosca

Subjects Discussed: The lack of picnics in Midnight Picnic, Jackie Corley’s confusion with the title, Midnight Picnic vs. Midnight Panic, dream logic, mouth birth dogs, Mr. Antosca’s lifelong dog trauma, writing about dogs being hurt, being self-conscious about writing, Charlie Huston, interviewers who use the phrase “blown your load” in relation to Mr. Antosca, Ned Vizzini, drinking as the natural fatal flaw for a homicidal maniac, short sentences, word counts and trauma, James Salter and ghost stories, the two year waiting period before assessing, unconventional chapter headings, the geography of the afterlife, tumbling into other memories, smell of the living vs. smell of the dead, the relationship between lap dancing and rigor mortis, dining experiences at Roy Rogers restaurants, New Orleans, the reality of midgets, high school deaths, “Appalachian monsters” in Florida, breastbone descriptions, razors with frightening blades, blocking, 2666, on being self-conscious and subconscious while writing, “You can’t take the dogs out of Nick Antosca,” science and melting pit bulls in an Antosca screenplay from the early years, the last-minute publishing shift from Impetus to Word Riot, the Clinton and Obama of publishers (but no Bush apparently), the publishing apocalypse, working a day job, writing for the now defunct New York Sun books section, demand for Antosca’s work, and anxiety.


Correspondent: Do you have any personal experience of putting your mouth around a dog? How did this come about? It’s rather extraordinary. There are four of them.

Antosca: No, I can’t. I don’t know where that came from. I think the idea was just that there had to be something pretty disturbing that this kid wanted to do to the man who had killed him. Well, I don’t want to describe what the mouth birth dogs are too much for people who haven’t read the book. But it’s supposed to be a shocking moment in the book, and kind of disgusting and disturbing.

Correspondent: Enthralling, I would say.

Antosca: Yeah.

Correspondent: But then that’s just me.

Antosca: I hope it’s pretty memorable. But I don’t know. I can’t remember where the idea of them came from. I think I saw a picture of a giant Continental Rabbit somewhere. I think these are rabbits. They’re as big as dogs. And they’re sort of cute and sort of disgusting. And for some reason, I pictured that as half-rabbit and half-dog, and that became this image. Like I said, with this book, I was willing — like I encouraged myself to just follow imagery where it would lead.

Correspondent: Is there something in the obvious spelling scenario? In which dog spells “god” backwards. That this might be your inverted way of coming to terms with a potential deity. And the fact that it comes from the mouth as opposed to from the skies. I mean, I don’t know. You tell me here.

Antosca: Well…

Correspondent: Are you a religious man, Nick?

Antosca: No, not really.

Correspondent: Okay. So the dog is your religion then?

Antosca: Well, the idea of the dog god mouth is a pretty fascinating question. I don’t think that my interest in dogs has anything to do with concern about god. Or whether god exists. I think it’s more a concern about possibly being betrayed by something that you trust, aren’t close to, and think is not ever going to harm you. You think of a kid and his dog as a pure relationship. And the idea that it might turn on you and shred you is sort of compelling.

Correspondent: It certainly is.

Antosca: The idea that you might still feel an allegiance to that animal. It’s almost a cliche. The idea of the kid being attacked by the dog when the parents want to put the dog to sleep. “No! No! Don’t do that!” Which I think is what I remember from when I was five or six. When that happened.

(Photo credit: Sonja Ostrow)

Categories: Fiction

Shauna Reid (BSS #262)

Shauna Reid is most recently the author of The Amazing Adventures of Dietgirl.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Still stinging from his measly memoir efforts.

Author: Shauna Reid

Subjects Discussed: Whether the pursuit of truth is more natural through an anonymous journal, writing as “burdening people,” compartmentalizing online identities, self-esteem, contending with the permanent nature of personal stories contained within a book, how the weight loss journey never ends, remaining fallible with the success story label, connective possibilities that exceed expectations, negotiating the Weight Watchers points system, applying group rules to an individual struggle, differences between the American and the UK versions of the book, being branded “Dietgirl,” the vampire method of exercise, amazing fitness instructors, battling against body image, “perfect” people, societal guides for individual struggles, using spreadsheets to keep track of health statistics, substituting one obsession with another, reprogramming a life, the relationship between physical distance from home and moving ahead with one’s life, placing fabricated news stories within the book, being the largest size in the shop at 23, the false connections between happiness and weight, how not talking about problems put strains on friendships, finding an auctorial voice, adjustments to early journal entries, chronicling friends and marriage, Vegemite parties, immigration, marriage, and entrapment, deportation, not living life because of weight issues, “wasting” one’s twenties, and balancing anarchy and being grounded.


Reid: You don’t want to burden people with this depressing stuff. So the blog is just my little haven to finally be honest with myself about how I felt.

Correspondent: But “burdening” people. This is an interesting word that you use. I mean, do you feel that all of your writing in general involves “burdening” people? Certainly, I’ve read your stuff for quite a long time and I have never felt any sense of burden. And I’m wondering how this interior sense of burdening people — do you still feel this way?

Reid: No, I don’t feel that way anymore. I think it just goes to show just how crap my self-esteem was back when I started it. Because What’s New, Pussycat? was my original blog. It was where I kind of separated my physical self from everything that was happening in my head. It was where I could be funny. And it didn’t matter what I weighed. I felt so free to be my true self there. Whereas I felt the need to keep outside to do something about my weight. I didn’t feel comfortable letting that audience know that this was the real me. This was this problem I was dealing with. So I just had this ridiculous two separate online lives. It was very hard keeping them up, to be honest.

Correspondent: Yeah, you had to compartmentalize these identities.

Reid: Yeah, I was totally compartmentalizing my life. Because my offline friends and family didn’t know anything about this diet blog. The diet blog didn’t know about the non-diet blog. And vice versa. So it was just keeping all these ridiculous secrets. But that’s just the way I felt at the time. Even though it seems quite strange to me now that I felt that way.

Correspondent: Interesting. I want to actually talk about this notion of self-esteem. I mean, you were fighting, I think, esteem issues on multiple fronts. You had the weight loss and the job scenario and the unemployment. How much do you feel that, for example, your employment history and your employment scenarios tied into the obstacle of losing weight? You point out that staying busy at work “didn’t give you time to think about Kit-Kats and hamburgers and your general state of fatness.” And I’m curious. When did you detect these particular connections? Or by compartmentalizing them, as you indicate in your last answer, this was a way for you to tie all the various threads together.

Reid: Yeah, I think the more I tried to compartmentalize everything, the more I realized they were all connected. And it was pointless for me to try and separate everything. Because one issue rolled into another. Staying busy at work, like I said. Not thinking about Kit-Kats. And then when things got really stressful at work, I would find myself reaching for the Kit-Kats. So it’s all quite a big mess, I think, in the end. It’s not possible. I think I kept it up for about five years — these two separate identities and everything. But in the end, I think when I finally came out of the closet and stopped trying to hide parts of my personality from other people, that’s when I did tackle all of the problems and come out of the other side.

Correspondent: But coming out of the closet now, you’re also dealing with a scenario in which, well, how much do I keep privately to myself? How many of my identities do I compartmentalize? I mean, for all I know, you could have a secret blog somewhere about some other pressing issue that I don’t know about and nobody else knows about. So what is this relationship between the private and the public? Are you done compartmentalizing things at the present time?

Reid: Oh yeah. I’m totally over that now. I don’t feel the need to do that anymore.

Correspondent: Just a phase.

Reid:: Yeah, a very lengthy phase. But the book’s out now. It’s been out for over a year. The most raw, down, dark moments of my life are captured forever in that book. But I do feel a certain detachment from that time in my life now. Because writing about it is a good way of tying up all those loose ends in my own head.

Categories: Ideas, People