Kathleen Collins (BSS #290)

Kathleen Collins is most recently the author of Watching What We Eat.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contending with traumatic cooking show associations.

Author: Kathleen Collins

Subjects Discussed: Understandable fears of Rachael Ray, shifting from the extremes of quiet 1940s home economists to Food Network bombast, Graham Kerr and The Galloping Gourmet, Julia Child’s charisma, the exhibitionism of cooking shows vs. connective plausibility, Rachael Ray as “the voice of America,” the disparity between the Food Network’s target demographic and regular people, television values vs. real values, cooking shows vs. reality shows, quibbling with the definition of “foodie,” Gen Xers and expendable income, the cooking show as education vs. the cooking show as entertainment, Martha Stewart viewing her choking on a nut as “embarrassing and unacceptable,” the common experience, a minimum level of teaching within the cooking show, Emeril and catchphrases, the commercial impulse and intimacy, how The Food Network managed to kill PBS, Graham Kerr’s notion of success, exploiting a want and audience intelligence, creating audiences who are vegging out instead of chopping up vegetables, the dangers of cooking show fantasies, the emphasis on attractive people in the TV kitchen, cooking shows vs. game shows, David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise, the possibility of the Internet taking over the Food Network, interactivity, cooking show alternatives, the shelf life of beautiful people, and the replaceable nature of current cooking shows.


Correspondent: I should probably start this conversation off by confessing something to you. I think that Rachael Ray is a bit on the crazy side. She’s not someone who really makes me comfortable. I’m actually quite frightened by her. You know, I don’t find her down-to-earth at all. And I think maybe we can start off by describing how we went from this relatively benign cooking show setup, in which you had a quieter, less frenetic impulse, to this more exhibitionistic cooking show that involves a Jerry Springer-like audience shouting for the EVOO and all that. How did we get from one extreme to the other? Do you have any fundamental observation throughout the course of your meticulous observations?

Collins: I do. Although first I have to address your fear of Rachael Ray. Of which I don’t think you’re alone. I can’t remember where I read it. But I heard somebody liken her to Shrek. I don’t know if it was physicality. Or the monsterness. But you’re not alone. I mean, there are people who absolutely adore her. And they’re usually moms. Somebody’s mom who loves her. But otherwise I think, yeah, she can be pretty scary. How we got to that from, let’s say, the home economists of the 1940s and ’50s?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Collins: Long story. I mean, that’s basically what I tried to cover. And it was just a gradual process from the early days of cooking shows where it was all about selling the sponsor’s products. And let’s just use this kitchen space that we have in our studio. Let’s sell this refrigerator. How are we going to fill the time? Well, this is a cheap thing to do. Let’s have some home economists in here and whip something up. Very dry. And then gradually though, they would add some spiciness. There were some shows in the ’50s that had a little entertainment in them. There was Chef Milani out of Los Angeles. And his show was almost slapstick. There was a lot of comedy in it. So for the most part, it was the home ec ladies in the early days. Very, very gradual. Adding entertainment elements. But things didn’t really change until the entertainment aspect really came on with Graham Kerr. The Galloping Gourmet in 1969. At least 1969 in the U.S. Julia Child, everyone will tell you they were in love with her. They were completely entertained by her. But that was not her sole purpose. That was not her purpose at all. She just happened to be extremely charming and lovable. And there’s been no one like her since. So, you know, as soon as the Galloping Gourmet came on the scene and people saw what you could do with the cooking show, it was sort of a light bulb going off. And then other people tried to do it. But none of them for a while. You know, there was a dry spell.

Correspondent: Yeah. But there’s a fundamental difference between Graham Kerr leaping over the divide.

Collins: And leaping over the chair.

Correspondent: Yeah. Leaping over the chair. That is something I can kind of accept. Because I can imagine a friend of mine cooking penne alfredo doing just that.

Collins: (laughs)

Correspondent: I cannot imagine, for example, Rachael Ray, who is bulging her eyes at the camera, holding the utensils in a manner that is completely unnatural — just from the start — and having this thirty-minute, almost exhibitionistic quality to what we’re doing. We move from something that is plausible. Something that is — okay, we’ve got this fourth wall between the television and us. And it’s just plausible for us to have a realistic connection. We can imagine Graham Kerr possibly coming into the kitchen with us.

Collins; That’s true.

Correspondent: But we can’t quite imagine Rachael Ray demanding that we conform to this thirty-minute rigid time. I mean, she’s almost like an HR manager controlling the exact conditions of your employment.

Collins: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, I think a lot of it has to do with the highly produced nature of the show. They have these sets that are just glistening with stainless steel and granite and all the perfect elements that we don’t — many of us don’t have in our homes. Most of us probably don’t have such nice stuff in our kitchens. So we can’t relate to that. And, you know, she doesn’t really cook a meal in front of us. She puts ingredients together in front of us. So it doesn’t look like a real activity. And as for the exhibitionism, I mean, it’s all about personality. I mean, that’s when the Food Network came into being. That’s what they quickly realized was the focal point of every show.

Categories: Ideas

Javier Calvo and Mara Faye Lethem (BSS #289)

Javier Calvo is the author of Wonderful World. Mara Faye Lethem is the translator.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Considering the unseen cantaloupe.

Guests: Javier Calvo and Mara Faye Lethem

Subjects Discussed: The pleasures and challenges of having an in-house translator, Pandora in the Congo, the paucity of foreign writers published in America, the frequent use of “nambly-pambly,” whether or not the translator has the final word, emphasis on large asses, people sprawled out in chairs, recurring motifs, brands of men’s suits, Charles Dickens, writing a more traditional novel compared to earlier, more post-modern efforts, pompous language to comic effect, phrase repetition, constant concern for green eye-coverings, sticking close to author’s original syntax and grammar, breaking up convoluted sentences, differences between inner rhythms of Spanish and English, translating David Foster Wallace, why Calvo doesn’t translate his own work, “being native” in original language, resemblances to Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, false comparisons to graphic novels and Quentin Tarantino, roots in 19th century fiction, on reading books within a particular genre while translating, staying faithful to text, trap of feeling translator knows more than the author, searching for the perfect word, averting the “potential nightmare” of having a wife as translator with professional distance, masculinity issues, the penis as a character, pathological approaches to sexuality, assigning specific set of problems to characters, excerpts of a fictitious Stephen King novel, parallel metafiction, the Fantastic Four, Louis Armstrong, on being asked if the title is ironic, comedy and optimism, compromises needed to reach an American audience, Pink Floyd, particular football/soccer references, Spanish vs. Latin American vocabulary, adding clauses to explain things, why footnotes are horrible, Donald Duck, character cruelty, fossils and ruins of 1940s jokes, 24, the world one-upping fiction, risk in losing subtlety, the Sung Society, references to stealing art and how it reflects the world, recreating Spanish translations of Stephen King novels, series of paintings based on the Book of Revelation, hermeticism and magic, replicating agoraphobia and photophobia, quest for absent fathers, anti-Christ-like gestures.


Correspondent: I must ask then, Mara Faye, if you had read any other books to get the idiom right in English for this. Because both your translation of this book [Wonderful World] and your translation of Pandora in the Congo strike me as far more specific. It’s almost as if the translation itself can be placed within a neat, genre-specific feel in the prose. And I’m curious if you do it more intuitively or if you actually do, in fact, try and read books surrounding a particular genre or a particular place it might end up. So that it might be more palatable to the English ear.

Lethem: No, I don’t do that. I don’t think that that would be fair to the author. I work with the text. And much more so than the author. Even if he’s in the room next door. Because there are two very separate things. The voice I try to pull from the text itself, not from any other text. Obviously, if the author is working with references — as in Pandora in the Congo, with adventure stories and things like that — it should come through in the original. And so I really try to be as faithful to that as I can. I think a mistake in translation can involve feeling that you know more than the author. It’s like a trap. You think, “Oh, I know what he’s trying to say here.” But you sometimes have to be able to say, “Okay, I can make this choice for him.” Because there’s choices to be made. Definitely. Sometimes, there’s the perfect word. And sometimes there isn’t. You know, there’s no one word that means that in English. But I try to avoid anticipating the author.

Correspondent: But in this case, what did you do to insulate yourself? Because the author here is in the next room. Did you essentially communicate as minimally or as little as possible with Javier? Or what happened here?

Lethem: Oh well, we communicate a lot.

(A noisy siren momentarily interrupts the conversation.)

Lethem: Often about what we’re going to have for lunch. Or who’s going to pick up our daughter from school.

Calvo: I think that the situation where your wife is your translator and you’re living under the same roof — or your husband is the author you’re translating — is a potential nightmare. So it was good that she didn’t really come to me that much or I wasn’t bothering her. And we had some space between us. It’s very easy too to create a professional distance in a question like that. But yeah, it was very good that we didn’t try and work together. And she only came to me when she had an important question or something like that. Because imagine. I think translating your husband’s work might be a pretty good cause for divorce. Potentially.

Categories: Fiction

Arthur Phillips (BSS #288)

Arthur Phillips is most recently the author of The Song is You.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Reconsidering the playlists and those who play him.

Author: Arthur Phillips

Subjects Discussed: Characters who are enslaved to culture, partisan positions in relation to hoarding facts, being in denial about larger arguments within novels, Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, aesthetic concerns, muses and playing against reader expectations, the myth of an author’s personal connection, listening to headphones, ghosts and Jeopardy experiences gone awry, personal experience and lies within fiction, speculating on the specific conditions in which a man can be a muse, being a male model and a musician, the myth of writing what you know, getting excited about emotion, the distance required to contend with a fictive location, the wall between the personal and the artistic, the magic souffle, predicting 2009 weather in New York, reading time, the danger of boredom, William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, outlines and improvisation, reinventing the wheel, the little changes within a manuscript vs. changing as a writer, the value of urgency, being a metaphorical roofer and upholsterer, Re-Flex’s “The Politics of Dancing,” and the crazy amounts of money one must pay to republish lyrics.


Correspondent: If we’re talking about time, there’s also the notion of reader’s time. And as a stylist, you have some control over how frequently or how long or how short the reader’s going to turn the page. When I read your book, I found numerous passages when I would slow down. And then when dialogue would bump up, particularly with the scenes with the cop, it then sped up.

Phillips: Right.

Correspondent: And so I’m curious. If time on a structural level was important, I’m curious if there was any importance you placed in terms of thinking of the reader and thinking of this notion of how fast the reader’s going to turn the page?

Phillips: That’s such a great question. And on one hand, I want to say, “Jeez, I wish I had more conscious — and I will vow in the future to have more conscious — understanding of those technical matters.” On the other hand, it seems a little impossible to control. Well, not just a little. It’s entirely impossible. I think any time you start getting into what does the reader or what does a reader expect, react to, experience, you’re doomed. I mean, you’re just — it can’t be. If you have one or ten or a hundred or ten thousand or a hundred million readers, they’re just different. And this is just so obvious that it’s just not saying anything. But it says everything. Because if everybody’s going to have a slightly different reaction, even taking a smaller subset of the people who “like” it, they’re going to all have a different reaction. You can’t plan for them. So the only reader that you can really have much planning for is yourself. At which point, I don’t really have to think very consciously about “I need to speed it up here, I need to slow it down here.” All I have is the feeling of “I’m bored.” And so when I’m writing and I go back and I read the draft, I say, “Oh this is just — I’m just bored.” Something has to happen here that is different from what’s happening. Because I don’t like it. And then at the end of it, when I’ve gone and I’ve done that twenty-five times, and I say, “I like the whole thing,” then it’s done.

Correspondent: Well, to deflate my own interlocutory souffle…

Phillips: (laughs)

Correspondent: I should point out that this may very well be the difference between having lots of dialogue and having lots of imagery. I guess the question here is how intuitive is it really. I mean, when you’re getting lost in a long sentence, whether as a writer or even as a reader, you’re going to be aware of the slowness. Or maybe you’re lost in such a fugue state that there really is no sense of time.

Phillips: Right. I’m reading The Recognitions right now and…

Correspondent: First time?

Phillips: First time.

Correspondent: Oh wow.

Phillips: And I’m having all kinds of temporal feelings about that book as I work with it. There are times when I am lost in a fugue state, although not often enough for my taste. And often I’m feeling, “I think Gaddis was lost in a fugue state. And I just can’t join him for some reason.” I don’t know that it’s just images and dialogue. I think that you can have some very impenetrable, hard-to-wrestle-with dialogue. And actually that’s what brings The Recognitions to mind. Because there are passages. Long passages.

Correspondent: The party scenes, I know.

Phillips: You know, there’s a forty page party scene with almost nothing but dialogue. And you have to go, “Oh wait a minute. Is this the same person who four pages earlier was talking? And where is that in relation to the little girl asking for sleeping pills?” And all the rest of it. So it goes on and on. So you can have some very slow-moving dialogue. And actually I was thinking about Gaddis writing that in ’55, and Nabokov in some period around the same time doing one of his customary unappealing little digs at novels that are all dialogue, and thinking, “I wonder if he read this, looked at it, had any feeling about this, would have included or excluded it from that grouping.” Generally speaking, light dialogue goes faster than description or internal thought. But not necessarily, I guess is the short answer. I could have said “Not necessarily” about fifteen minutes ago.

Correspondent: (laughs) That’s all right.

Phillips: There you go. Just cut it down to the dialogue.

Categories: Fiction

Sarah Waters II (BSS #287)

Sarah Waters is most recently the author of The Little Stranger.

To listen to our previous interview with Sarah Waters, check out The Bat Segundo Show #37.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Creeping into the dark shadows of fabricated identities.

Author: Sarah Waters

Subjects Discussed: Research involving poltergeists, country doctors, and other topics, lingering interests from The Night Watch, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, similar story elements across multiple novels, the limited elements of a haunted house story, dashed out four letter words, male consciousness in the postwar age, M.R. James, class relations and entitlement, job security, giant manses as characters, noun-heavy descriptions, science vs. faith, the eleventh-hour patriarchy in The Little Stranger, the value of empathy in relation to uncomfortable character qualities, character names, unintentional symbolism, Gyp the dog as a potential symbol of an Old World attitude, when a friend’s dog becomes menacing, writing about characters who could potentially live in the present time, the burdens of living memory and authenticity, on not drawing from real life, the KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON poster, tackling new genres, the paucity of contemporary ghost stories, and sustaining a cringe-worthy romance.


Waters: He’s about to turn forty.

Correspondent: He’s about to turn forty. But he’s very coy about this particular age. He’s constantly saying, “Oh, I can’t go up in there. Because I’m too old.” It’s nonsense! You’re forty years old. You could still — today, you could go to the gym.

Waters: Today, you could go to the gym. But of course, in the 1940s, I think being forty was being middle-aged. People were older in their style and, even physically, kind of older. So I was very mindful that he’s of a different generation than Caroline — the daughter. He develops a bit of a romance with Caroline. But he’s definitely on the way into old age. I think that’s part of his problem. He feels that he’s been this boy. This young boy of enormous promise. The working-class boy who really clever people have picked him out, singled him out. He’s actually had all the advantages. But all they’ve done really is to alienate him from his own class. And he’s never really lived up to that promise. And here he is at forty about to enter into the second half of his life, not really having achieved very much. Which is why, I think, his exposure to the Hall is so crucial for him. Because it does open up something for him.

Correspondent: But Seely is older than him. And he doesn’t concern himself with his age.

Waters: Well, everybody’s different. It’s not like — for me, I was very interested in the doctor’s individual take on things. So he is a man who’s slightly apart from his colleagues. He has these quite pleasant colleagues. But they are family men. He’s not. He’s a bachelor. He’s quite a lonely figure really. Which again is why he fastens on to the Hall. Which actually was a problem for bachelor doctors. That people would often leave the family doctor alone. Because they knew that he had his own children, his own wife to take care of, and they’d go to the bachelor doctor. And I think the problem for doctors was that they were at risk for giving too much to their patients. That they had to guard against that. And I think that, to a certain extent, that’s what happens to Dr. Faraday. He gets sucked into this extraordinary Hall with these things going on in it.

Categories: Fiction

Michelle Goldberg (BSS #286)

Michelle Goldberg is most recently the author of The Means of Reproduction.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if there’s any fate in what we make.

Author: Michelle Goldberg

Subjects Discussed: Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, the proper response to reproductive rights issues, the damage of hyperbolic predictions, European birth rates, parental leave and working mothers, obsolescence and internal upheavals, the fear of Muslim populations in Europe, replacement fertility, the mommy wars, panic about the birth rate and public debate, the gender selection process in India thanks to the ubiquity of ultrasound, the lack of an anti-abortion movement and feminism in India, “seemingly liberated” women, Fuambai Ahmadu, female circumcision, cultural relativism, the Vatican’s role in the 1994 Cairo UN Population Conference, Eve Ensler and imperialism, Agnes Pareyio, the steamroller of globalization, the United States’s global gag rule on family planning, reaching out to conservatives, Africa and abortion, abortion-related mortality, the greater commonality among religious conservatives than with feminists, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination and the United States’s failure to ratify CEDAW, whether or not international law has an impact on a national level in relation to reproductive rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, Reagan and the rise of the religious right, Ray Ravenholt’s birth control efforts in Pakistan during 1976, sophists and generalist arguments, Julian Simon’s comforting fallacies, George Lakoff, supply-side demography, and demagoguery vs. nuanced arguments.


Correspondent: You use the words — the modifier “seemingly liberated’ — to describe this educated Indian woman who goes and, of her own volition, says, “I want to have boys. I don’t want to have girls.” Let’s actually take this into consideration, along with the case of Fuambai Ahmadu, who would feel very much insulted by the notion that she is not empowered. Here is someone who has been circumcized and who finds the notion of being mutilated — that particular verb as applied to her — very gravely offensive. So now we’re dealing with a scenario in which, if we are trying to talk about broader problems like reproduction and reproduction rights, we are also talking about having to deal with people who have values that are 180 from us. And simultaneously we’re trying to get through to them. But now we’re in a situation in which we have to find some kind of Venn diagram of how we talk with them. And if you think that this is not reconcilable, as you suggested two answers ago, I must point out some problems with this overall thesis. Because if we cannot communicate to these people; if we cannot respect the rights in a cultural relativist way of these people to make decisions that are converse to pro-choice, that are converse to women’s right (at least as they are established in our country), how then do we find common ground here?

Goldberg: Well, I’m not saying that we can’t discuss them. I’m saying that I don’t think it’s always — or maybe it’s just beyond me — to create some kind of absolutist system in which we can kind of hallucinate and create a hierarchy of what falls under the category of universal human rights, what is multiculturalism, and how we value the right of people to perpetuate their own cultural practices vs. the rights of dissidents to be protected by universal human rights guarantees. I clearly, over and over again, tend to side with people who say — with minorities who do demand to be protected by the same kind of universal human rights guarantees that I cherish. I’m not particularly sympathetic to multiculturalist or relativistic arguments, as opposed to universal kind of enlightenment type arguments. But I guess what I’m saying is that this book is about — I’m often interested in the ambiguities and the hard questions and the human stories in which it’s not as easy to sort out this hierarchy of values. You know, I’m not a philosopher like Martha Nussbaum, who has created this very rigorous and well thought out taxonomy of these different issues.

Correspondent: I guess that the question here is: When someone like Eve Ensler goes to Kenya and gives a V Day jeep to Agnes Pareyio, is there not something imperialistic about that notion of taking our particular values and stamping them onto another country that doesn’t necessarily reflect it? I mean, this is really what the problem is in terms of your complaints about the Cairo conference — the UN convention — in which you complain about the Vatican and you point out, “Well, it’s a country of 1,000 people. Mostly celibate men.” Nevertheless, it is a country. Nevertheless, we do have to have some sort of communicative process. The question is what conditions would seem to be fair to present these messages in ways that don’t feel imperialist and that don’t encroach upon these terms that we may consider here in America to be terrible or perjorative or just really against our notion of human rights and what someone else considers to be, “Well, this is my form of empowerment. This is the way I go about the universe.”

Goldberg: Well, let’s back up and explain what we’re talking about here, right? We’re talking about the context of Agnes Pareyio.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Goldberg: And Fuambai Ahmadu. We’re talking about female genital cutting, or female circumcision. Fuamabi Ahmadu is a woman in this book who is from Sierra Leone, who undergoes circumcision as an adult, who is someone who talks about it being a valuable part of her cultural identity, who is probably the most eloquent defender of the practice on the global stage. In part because, although it’s clearly very valued in these societies — otherwise, people wouldn’t fight so hard to keep the practices alive — the people who genuinely practice it aren’t people who have a lot of access to NGOs and the media, etcetera. So I think she’s an important voice. At the same time, I think the question of whether Eve Ensler is being imperialistic by supporting these women in Kenya who are fighting female genital cutting, I don’t know. To me, it’s not that interesting. And I think if you brought that up with Agnes Pareyio, who is someone who’s from the community who practices this, who’s underwent it herself, who’s regretted it her whole life, who’s a grassroots activist against it. Girls were running away from home to escape this practice and she was finding them places to stay and enrolling them in school. And then she finally met Eve Ensler. And then Eve Ensler started to support her. I think that the question of “Well, is it imperialist to support Agnes Pareyio?” is kind of insulting to her. Because she has just as much right. She’s just as authentic a voice for her community. She has just as much right to try to change and create progress in her community as we have to create progress in ours.

Categories: Ideas

Nelson George (BSS #285)

Nelson George is most recently the author of City Kid.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Drowning in the inevitable tide of gentrification.

Author: Nelson George

Subjects Discussed: George’s thoughts on Fort Greene, gentrification, black artists and real estate, the inevitable nature of change, finding a balance between the personal and the artistic, artistic arrogance, on not being the person at the party who wanted to do something, living a fatherless life, mentoring Chris Rock and other artists, jealousy, helping other people, the concept of ass power, inspiration vs. perspiration, making art in little rooms, the relationship between creativity and place, Babyface and L.A. Reid, Hemingway, being around artistic peers, crime and guerrilla art, loft jazz, the rigid distinctions between black music genres, world music and cross-genre fusion, undermentioned hip-hop metaphors, WBLS and Frankie Crocker, whether or not Hot 97 lives up to cross-genre fusion, Auto-Tune and narrowcasting, trying to get work from Robert Christgau, Grandmaster Flash, going to Prince’s apartment to listen to Parade, junkets and ethical journalism, the crazy amounts of money that Island Records threw at Bob Marley, journalism and the sports industry, the corruption of the music industry, why sports figures weren’t interesting subjects to George, Oscar Micheaux and Warren Hudlington, getting tired of critical analysis, how book-writing changed George’s career, artistic evolution, and revenge.


Correspondent: You write, “In my adult life, I’ve seen that while white institutions could be unthinking, even brutal, toward black aspirations, individual whites, either through genuine friendship or political philosophy, could be crucial allies. So while I never lost sight of racism, it became a huge part of my personal development to take whites as they came, not expecting racism or prejudice from them. And even if it was there, not to overreact, but remember it and exact revenge when I could.” But isn’t revenge along the lines of a kind of negative emotion? Or a negative idea like racism? I mean…

George: Revenge is…

Correspondent: Success itself is the best revenge, I would argue.

George: Depends on what they did to you. It depends on what they did to you.

Correspondent: Well, what did they do to you exactly?

George: People can get you fired from jobs. People can try and sully your name. People can try and hurt people you love. And so sometimes if you can get them, you will.

Correspondent: Yeah, but…

George: It’s just very basic.

Correspondent: But how much have…

George: It depends on what it is.

Correspondent: How much have you dwelt on this notion of vengeance? Is vengeance good?

George: Not very much.

Correspondent: Not really.

George: Not very much. I mean, vengeance is not a very useful emotion most of the time. But selective getting back at people is always very refreshing.

Correspondent: When was the last time you got back at someone?

George: About a year ago.

Correspondent: And what provoked that particular impulse? You just were feeling…

George: No, no, no. It’s not so much a thing. It’s just…revenge is actually very useful. It’s acts of commission. It’s acts of omission, not commission.

Correspondent: Yeah.

George: That is, there are things that happen. Opportunities that arise. That you know someone who it might be really good for. Or it could help them. And you don’t help them. You don’t tell them about it.

Correspondent: Yeah. So it’s really exclusion. That’s your form of revenge.

George: I would say that it’s the easiest one to apply. Because it involves no action.

Correspondent: Yeah. It involves very little in the true destroying of someone’s career.

George: Right, right.

Correspondent: It’s just a step back. It’s a therefore healthy vengeance.

George: Yeah, because it’s too — oh, I don’t have time to be conniving. That’s crazy.

Correspondent: (laughs)

George: I’ve got to actually — you know, because I’m not that. And it puts it. You know, to be that. I know people who really do think that way. And it takes a lot of their time. Like, well when are you going to do something for yourself?

Correspondent: Yeah.

George: But if you feel like you’ve been wronged by someone, and you’re in a position to help them and you don’t, then you’ve got that out of your system and you can move on.

Categories: Ideas, People

Blake Bailey (BSS #284)

Blake Bailey is most recently the author of Cheever and the editor of the two-volume John Cheever set recently issued by Library of America.



Subjects Discussed: Eponymous titles, Cheever as a brand name, whether literary biographies are needed, contending with Updike’s review, the hard things that Cheever said about Updike, the literary biography as a history of the 20th century, interview subjects who use pseudonyms, telephone prank calls, writing a biography while considering the Cheever family, establishing total independence, corralling incidents in Cheever’s journal with real-life incidents, whether or not Cheever’s accounts could even be trusted, explicit connections between the stories and Cheever’s life, similarities between Richard Yates and John Cheever, shyness and courtliness, living in squalor, Cheever’s phony aristocratic voice, getting naked, Robert Gottlieb’s late-career intervention, whether or not Cheever was washed up after Falconer, financial unease, Dwight MacDonald’s “By Cozzens Possessed,” the power of literary critics in the 1960s, narcissism, status and quids pro quo, Cheever pushing the envelope in his fiction, Cheever’s strange obsession with television commercials, Cheever and postmodernism, Donald Barthelmie, and Cheever and postmodernism.


Correspondent: John Updike. He wrote a piece called “On Literary Biography” — I’m pretty sure you’re familiar with it — in which he asked whether we needed literary biographies at all. He concluded that “[t]he vocabularies of psychoanalysis and of literary analysis become increasingly entwined; though we must not forget that these invalids receive our attention because of the truth and poetry and entertainment to be found in their creations.” Now, of course, in the last piece he wrote for the New Yorker, after his death, he reviewed your book. And he wrote that “all this biographer’s zeal makes a heavy, dispiriting read,” where he wanted your narrative “pursued in methodical chapters that tick past year after year, to hurry through the menacing miasma of a life which, for all the sparkle of its creative moments, brought so little happiness to its possessor and to those around him.” So I put forth to you, Mr. Bigshot Literary Biographer, why do we need literary biographies? Are you perhaps more of a literary historian? Because there is a considerable amount of detail in this. Would you call your book more of a history? Is it really gossip-peddling? What’s the deal here? Defend yourself from Mr. Updike’s charges!

Bailey: That’s a pretty involved question, Ed. Can I take it one at a time? You mention Updike first of all. And I’m sure that Updike would be tempted to do without literary biography. Particularly a literary biography of himself. And I think that that was somewhere in his agenda when he reviewed my book. Which he was kind enough to call and which will be used as a pull quote in one of the advertisements “a triumph of thorough research and unblinkered appraisal.” Now I would venture to suggest a couple of things. First of all, that Updike was a dying man when he reviewed my book. And it was very depressing to read — and not the first time that Updike has been exposed to this — to read about some of the many hard, hard things that Cheever had to say about him in private. Because as Updike has noted on many occasions, Cheever was always witty and debonair and charming in person. And really tirelessly promoted Updike’s career. He seconded his nomination in the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He was the primary nominator of Updike to the Academy of Arts and Letters. And so on. And blurbed hiim, and congratulated him. On and on and on. In private, in his journals, Cheever was, to put it charitably, very ambivalent on the subject of Updike. And so that can’t be very pleasant to read. And also the chapters dealing with Cheever’s own death from cancer must have been grindingly lugubrious for Updike to read.

I would also — and this is a very self-serving theory, but not without merit, I think. I have now written a very thorough biography of Richard Yates. I have now written a very thorough biography of John Cheever. The three great chroniclers of the American postwar middle-class are generally perceived to be Richard Yates, John Cheever, and John Updike. I have been named on more than a few occasions as a prospective biographer of John Updike. He is vary chary of biographers. And I think that he did not like the prospect of my bringing my thorough research and unblinkered appraisal to bear on an account of his own life. So this was a very shrewd way of steering me off at the pass. Because I could hardly seem disinterested after a biting review of my book. One of the very few biting reviews I have received, I might add.

Correspondent: I’ll jump back to that point momentarily. But going back to the idea.

Bailey: Do we need…?

Correspondent: Why do we need literary biographies?

Bailey: Well, I mean, I think that that’s a silly rumination on Updike’s part. Unless he’s — I would have to see the entire context. Is he calling it a question of validity of biographies in general? Because I think biographies are one of the most fascinating genres. Certainly I am more attracted to exploring the universe of a single individual and can imply so much thereby. I think that, and indeed, it’s been noted that my biographer of Cheever has also something of a history of the 20th century of literary life in America. So, well, of course we need literary biographies. Who’s more interesting than Cheever? I mean, he had the most exhaustively documented inner life of any major American writer. A 4,300 page single-spaced typed journal, which one can constantly counterpoint with his rather absurd and certainly disparate public personae. So I think literary biography is fascinating. And I think well-done literary biography is doubly fascinating.

Correspondent: But would you say that this history of the 20th century would be your way of essentially deflating or countering the Updike charge that really it should be just about the writer’s work?

Bailey: Oh absolutely not. What nonsense. Uh, no. I think that again — Joyce Carol Oates, of course, is famous or infamous for coining the term “pathography.”

Correspondent: Yeah.

Bailey: In her review of the Jean Stafford biography. That is any biography which places an unseemly emphasis on the subject’s tortured inner life. I think if you tell the whole truth about your subject that everything will work out. You just show the man in the round. And ultimately, you will deplore certain aspects of him or her. And you will sympathize with certain aspects. I was confronted with some pretty nasty stuff about Cheever. But in the end, I the biographer felt compassion for him.

Categories: Fiction, People

Atom Egoyan (BSS #283)

Atom Egoyan is most recently the writer and director of Adoration, which opens in limited release on May 8, 2009. He is also a very friendly and interesting Canadian who does not bite people, but who somehow frightens the MPAA.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering whether he is adored.

Guest: Atom Egoyan

Subjects Discussed: Scenes in airports, custom lines, airport security interrogations, passage within cinematic narrative, literal and figurative baggage, detonation devices, comparisons between Adoration‘s Simon and Ararat‘s Raffi, the video camera as a suitcase for memories, family confessions captured on video, making an experience substantial, technology in Egoyan’s films, closed-circuit vs. open-circuit technology, the lack of emotional filtering on the Internet, creating a chat room prototype hat doesn’t exist in reality, Nezar Hindawi, drawing from real-life incidents for ideas vs. cinematic invention, whether a narrative filmmaker needs to be responsible to history, finding the meaning in creches, the violin as a permanent artistic symbol, suggestions that we are now living in a cultural Roman Empire that is now crumbling, embracing an order to a material world, victims and mourning subcultures, the inheritance of tradition vs. new traditions, the excitement of interpretation vs. meaning to interpretation, teaching vs. primordial instinct, giving substance to the gaze of obsession, being driven to trauma, decorative masks and drama, concerns for class, role-playing and therapy, “democracy” and the Internet, shooting in natural locations vs. constructed sets, Chloe, and abstracting characters in a designed space.


Correspondent: I had a rather funny question. But it’s one concerning your films that I have been obsessed with for some time. And I was pleasantly surprised to see the motif crop up again in Adoration. And that is your propensity to have shots set in airports or custom lines. We have them in the beginning of Exotica. We have them in Ararat with Christopher Plummer.

Egoyan: Felicia’s Journey.

Correspondent: Well, yes, Felicia’s Journey. But I noticed that from Exotica onward, every one word film title of yours has an airport security scene or a custom lines scene. I’m wondering if this is Egoyan house style for a one word title. I’m wondering if it’s a scenario in which you have a particular preoccupation or a concern or an anxiety for airports. What of this?

Egoyan: Well, I think that, first of all, they are the borders where someone asks you, “What are you doing?” And how do you define yourself. And to me, it’s such a fundamental question. I love that idea of having to prove who you are. And I also think it probably has to do with the fact that, at a certain age in my formation, I went through a major airport. The family moved into a new country. And so we must have been grilled by some customs agent. I must have seen my parents break down in the process. I’m just assuming all this. Because it’s obviously is something that has left such a huge impression on me. I actually have gone through some pretty nasty interrogations too at airports. Where you try and answer a question with a joke. Which is never a good idea. And I’ve been whisked away and gone through more intense procedures. So I do think that there’s this moment where, if you take that question really seriously — when someone says, “So what are you doing? And why are you coming into this country?” — you can actually provoke a whole series of responses. Which may not necessarily be helpful or fruitful to getting you into the country, where a very simple response is required.

I can’t really explain it any more than that. It’s just that — and in this film certainly — it’s very stylized. And the whole environment of it is quite dreamlike. But it’s a huge part of the beginning of the film.

Correspondent: I should point out that the very beginning of Next of Kin features suitcases at the airport.

Egoyan: Absolutely.

Correspondent: I mean, is the airport for you what the bathroom was to Kubrick?

Egoyan: Uh, that’s a really interesting way of putting it. I would say that somehow, if I could combine a bathroom with an airport, that would probably be the best place I could situate any scene.

Categories: Film

John Wray (BSS #282)

John Wray is most recently the author of Lowboy.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for those who will listen to him in the subway.

Author: John Wray

Subjects Discussed: The ABAB narrative of Lowboy, mirroring schizophrenia within a narrative structure, a sane perspective that assists the reader, subway details, Franz Kafka’s Amerika, real vs. imaginary details, Jonathan Zizmor, the C#/A subway tone, the origin of the character name Heller, Ulysses, resisting eccentric character names, merging two words into one unhyphenated word, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ideal seating positions in a subway, appealing to a wider audience, balancing the uncompromising literary voice with suspense, comparing the research in Wray’s three books, the difficulties of convincing the reader, Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, sexual preoccupation and schizophrenia, an intimate third-person voice, the relationship (or lack thereof) between Freud and Schreber, pat summations, urban exploration, the benefits of imagination, the Sikh religion and the end of the Seventh Avenue Line, open interpretations and false connections, respect for the subconscious, the old City Hall station, the dangers of being subsumed by research, writing vs. thinking, graphical segues in prose, B.S. Johnson’s holes, and John Wray vs. John Henderson.


Correspondent: You have Emily and Lowboy entering at the 14th Street station. I’m going to get subway geeky with you here.

Wray: Okay.

Correspondent: I should point out that when you get into Union Square, there is — or there is now and there won’t be very soon — a Virgin Megastore.

Wray: Right.

Correspondent: Was that particular location a deliberate choice on your part?

Wray: (laughs) You know, sometimes there are just these happy accidents that come about either completely by chance or through some sort of action of the subconscious. I’m not really sure. The German editor of Lowboy was very proud of himself for the game of interpretation that he played, which involved a lot of reversals and mirror image analyses, that I guess you could say. He was very proud of himself for having been the only person to discover that the name of the detective in the novel, Ali Lateef..

Correspondent: Either the jazz artist or even the hip-hop artist in Oakland.

Wray: Well, there’s that. Yeah, that was a conscious reference on my part. But this German editor of mine was very proud to have figured out that Lateef spelled backwards is “fetal.”

Correspondent: Yes.

Wray: Which is something that I never thought of. In a million years, I wouldn’t have thought of that. And I still don’t know what he was getting at. But who knows? I mean, it’s quite possible that these things percolate up from the subconscious in some way.

Correspondent: But I also must point out that the 86th Street Station does not have a line that you can see across, as you point out in this particular book. This led me then to believe as I was reading it, “Oh! Is this really real or not?” It was a kind of clue. Deliberate choice on your part?

Wray: Well, I deliberately — I’ve always been a big fan of Franz Kafka’s novel, Amerika. Particularly of the way that Amerika begins. Amerika, of course, being a novel written by someone who had never been to America and who was making deliberate use of the myth of America as a way of addressing many other things. Kafka was not particularly interested in the United States. And in the beginning of the novel Amerika, this boat filled with immigrants enters New York Harbor. And one of the very first sentences describes the Statue of Liberty holding aloft its wonderful gleaming sword.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Wray: Rather than the torch, of course. So in an earlier version of Lowboy, in a bit of a tip of the hat to that novel, I introduced various, fairly overt features into this New York City that would differentiate it from the New York of realistic fiction. Then as the novel evolved, it became more and more naturalistic in a way, and eventually settled into this mode of heightened realism that it now occupies. But there are still certain little vestiges of that earlier alternative New York.

Correspondent: And this would be one of them.

Wray: I think you’ve caught one of them. Yeah.

Categories: Fiction