Maggie Estep (BSS #304)

Maggie Estep is most recently the author of Alice Fantastic.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hoping to see Alice at the next opportunity.

Author: Maggie Estep

Subjects Discussed: Efforts to determine if it’s good to be happy, animals throughout Estep’s work, how love for animals is directly proportional to love for human beings, Of Mice and Men, literary allusions, “The Rocking Horse Winner,” women who are described as tiny, the reverse symmetry of characters being kicked out of bed, mother figures, manuscript revision and cleavers, the difficulties of writing something in 1872, being accused of deliberately being shocking, idioms that pop up in lines, “take a raincheck” as a generational cliche, fantastical survival systems, the ethics of plucking from real life, getting bogged down in the minutiae, living in the Lower East Side in the 1980s, characters with brown hair, being dismissive of blonde people, Uma Thurman, people carrying gingerbread houses, Rikers Island, getting procedures right, nothing but raw chicken necks in the fridge, the naming criteria for 17 dogs, Ira from Yo La Tengo, people who were mad at Estep’s first book, asking permission from lifting life experience, Estep’s horse racing experience, soundtracks that are more musical than fingers on a chalkboard, internal rhyme, Estep’s spoken word background, vomiting as a MacGuffin, being mildly clumsy, vacation, and quirky translation.


Estep: “Our love of animals is directly proportionate to our indifference to human beings.” It’s a little bit of an exaggeration. I grew up around all sorts of horses and cats and dogs. To this day, my mom — if I want to get her talking to me for more than two minutes — it has to be about the dogs. So it’s an off-the-nose dialogue where we’re talking about the dogs. But really we’re talking about something else.

Correspondent: Interesting. And in this, you are talking about something else with the dogs. Because from the very beginning, the big oaf with the puppy and all this reminded me very much of Lennie from Of Mice and Men, among many other literary allusions. First of all, I want to ask if some of these literary allusions that are there — “The Rocking Horse Winner,” for example — were these intentional or were these just part of the whole…?

Estep: It’s never, never deliberate. It’s all there swimming around in my little brain and comes out inadvertently sometimes.

Correspondent: Little brain. I wanted to ask you about littleness. Because one thing that is very curious is that many of the women in this book are described as tiny.

Estep: Oh.

Correspondent: You have the tiny goth girl waitress. And Eloise is described as tiny by her mother. And, of course, Kimberly is described as tiny. And then, of course, there’s Tina in this. Tiny. Tina.

Estep: (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m getting a little theme here that most of the women in this book are tiny. And I’m curious as to why this is. What is it with this modifier here?

Estep: I actually had not really thought of that. (laughs) I don’t know. But Alice, who is sort of the main one, is not tiny. She’s rangy. I don’t know. There’s something about small women who are very tough that’s really a beautiful prototype. And until you pointed it out, I didn’t realize that’s what was going on in the book.

Correspondent: There’s an inverse ratio between height and toughness in your mind?

Estep: (laughs)

Correspondent: Is that your theory?

Estep: Maybe. That might be something.

Correspondent: Okay. Did you develop this theory over the course of time? Or did it just apply to the particular universe of this novel?

Estep: It just came out at this very moment. (laughs)

Categories: Fiction

Philip Alcabes (BSS #303)

Philip Alcabes is most recently the author of Dread.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Attempting to understand the certainty of certain dread, and the dread of dreadful certainty.

Author: Philip Alcabes

Subjects Discussed: Overstating the three Ps (pandemic, pestilence, and plague), contending with a hypothetical situation involving a Norway rat eating your sandwich for lunch, the acceptable level of fear that is required in Western society, the media’s initial coverage in 1982 of AIDS as “the gay plague,” fear of social dissolution, epidemiology as a reasonable response to a disease outbreak, Jerry Falwell and Pat Buchanan, whether initial irrational fear is demagogic, germ theory, calls for healthy skepticism, the linguistic misuse of “tragedy,” being flexible with the word “epidemic,” swine flu and confirmed deaths, reconsidering hysterical value, recent cases of plague, the National Research Act of 1974, Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, the Tuskegee syphilis study, the ethics of administering PolyHeme to unconscious patients in Chicago, contending with correlations between race and poverty, how a story about an epidemic becomes shaped around race, Nushawn Williams, parallels between painting Xs on houses infected with plague and prejudices in the 1980s against gay clubs (and calls to tattoo gay men), positive and negative liberty and how much the government is permitted to go in protecting us, the possibility of scientists being co-opted into political campaigns, the ethics of tweeting, and science at the behest of elasticity of terms.


Correspondent: Reading this book, I got the sense that the three Ps — pandemic, pestilence, and what’s the other one? plague! — that we’re essentially overstating them. But I want to start off by offering a hypothetical scenario. If I’m sitting at a restaurant, and a Norway rat jumps onto the table and starts nibbling at my sandwich, I’m going to have some understandable concerns. So I guess the question is, if we are in a culture of needless dread about the three Ps, what is the amount of fear that is acceptable for you? Some general terms.

Alcabes: So what is the amount of fear that is acceptable?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Alcabes: Well, I accept any amount of fear. People feel the fear that they fear. But to answer your question about the rat, would I eat the sandwich? No. Would I think I’m going to die because I saw the rat? No. Is that what you’re getting at?

Correspondent: It’s what I’m getting at.

Alcabes: Would I think that the black death is about to start again? Also, no. And do I think that we’re too worried about pandemics, pestilence, and plague? Well, we’re how worried we are. What’s odd is that we’re as worried as we are, given that we know so much. In the 14th century, which is when plague came to Europe and became what we now know as the Black Death, people didn’t know much about that illness. They didn’t actually know that it was connected to rats. They didn’t know that it was spread by fleas jumping from rats to humans. They didn’t know that it was caused by a bacterium. They didn’t know exactly how to prevent it. They didn’t know, as we do now, how we can cure it. It can be cured now by common antibiotics. But given that we know so much now, why do we get so panicky? Why do we still think that we’re about to be consumed by some new black death? And that’s the more puzzling question. It’s really the question that launched my book.

Correspondent: When the media initially covered AIDS in 1982, they referred to it as “the gay plague.” But one might argue that here we are twenty-seven years later and most people are not going to use the insensitive term “gay plague” to reference AIDS or HIV. And I’m wondering if you’re possibly being a little hard on people when some new development or some “epidemic” actually occurs. Because people are going to try and want to pinpoint it. They’re going to be frightened. They’re going to be scared. How do we transmute that initial impulse of fear that goes into atavistic territory into something that is more reasonable along the lines of what you’re suggesting? Since we have the knowledge, how do we deploy it among the general public so that they don’t freak out like this?

Alcabes: You know, it would be unreasonable for me to say, “Don’t be afraid.” People are afraid. And, in fact, I think that one of the premises of my book is that we carry with us innate, inchoate dreads. And the innate ones are about death, at least from what the psychologists tell us. And there are inchoate ones — I think this is what you meant by “atavistic territory” — that have to do with a kind of ineffable dark realm of randomness where anything can happen. And I think some people have called that a fear of social disarray, of the dissolution of society. And I think that’s a way to put it. We’re afraid of whatever’s out there. And it’s not unreasonable to think that we’re going to stop being so afraid. I do think that it’s quite reasonable to do epidemiology on it. I was trained as an epidemiologist. It’s a reasonable response to collect data and try and make sense of a disease outbreak. Where I think we let ourselves go wrong, where we let ourselves harm our own society, is when we let our fears shape narrative, if you will, of disease outbreaks, in which somebody’s to blame. Somebody has crossed a line, imperiled the rest of us. And I think your example of the early days of AIDS is really well taken. Because that’s a great example of some people looking at AIDS as a kind of ratification of suspicions they had about what some people were doing that was “bad,” right? That people were suspicious that the sexual revolution of the ’60s was going too far or who had a specific fear about homosexuality allowed themselves to see AIDS as a validation of those anxieties.

Categories: Ideas

Lizzie Skurnick II (BSS #302)

Lizzie Skurnick is most recently the author of Shelf Discovery. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #13.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Sacrificing his manhood to fight the patriarchal overlords.

Author: Lizzie Skurnick

Subjects Discussed: Bridge to Terabithia and class distinctions, the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary, issues surrounding mothers working, reader perceptions vs. authorial intentions, how much an author has to do with the work, concern for redheads, The Moon by Night, The Gift of Magic, a streak of redheads in the Skurnick family, Pippi Longstocking, redheads as outsiders, Skurnick’s propensity for ALL CAPS, modesty vs. competent performance, Are You In the House Alone?, sitcoms and oblique references to rape, Hunter, The Facts of Life, very special episodes, afterschool specials using YA novels as source material, Mariel Hemingway, Judy Blume, Lois Duncan, reviewing many books by one author vs. spreading reviews among several authors, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Post-Birthday World and similarities between Match Point and Double Fault, The Shining, reviewing The Clan of the Cave Bear twice, not having a definitive word on a particular subject, on not getting caught up with writing about too many authors, the YA category’s birth in the 1980s, Robert Cormier, “Shelf Pleasuring”, Scruples, Jaws, Graham Greene, market categorizations, Scholastic book fair sales, the Weekly Reader catalog, books for the 25-35 age demographic, read-a-thons, David Simon, M.A. Orthofer’s criticisms, Choose Your Own Adventure, Robert Heinlein, on boys reading books designated for girls, Flowers in the Attic, ghettoizing women writers, The New York Times Book Review, Mary Rogers, Freaky Friday,Superfudge, Louise Fitzhugh, merging of the sexes in previous generations, trivia competitions, sexism among college boys, women gravitating towards publishing jobs, the potential reception for Shelf Discovery, writing Sweet Valley High novels for 17th Street Productions, patriarchy vs. general elitism, Oz books by L. Frank Baum, on books with young men making the front page of the NYTBR, what books are taken seriously, Jacob Have I Loved, Portnoy’s Complaint, Wifey, hysterical vaginitis, Kin Flicks, women having a hard time getting satisfaction, gonorrhea as punishment, Pretty Woman having a “happy ending”, sex & shopping books with nuanced roles about men and women, Island of the Blue Dolphins, bad accents in period pieces vs. overly formal internal monologue, Sherman Alexie, being strategic towards a market that does not exist, blogs as a new form of writing, pressure of wanting to be like the pretty girl, today’s teens needing to be little adults to be as interesting, Naomi Wolf, training kids to make a nation, the problem of well-rounded individuals, The Babysitters Club and Gossip Girl as part of the book packaging factory, Meg Cabot, cruel mothers, Daughters of Eve, The Red Pony, The Old Man and the Sea, a documentary on To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout’s loneliness, and the quietness of childhood.


Skurnick: You know, you make up a story for what you’re trying to do later, but who knows what you were trying to do?

Correspondent: Well, then I’m going to go ahead and put my own particular question of interest to you.

Skurnick: Go for it.

Correspondent: Okay. The concern for redheads in your review of The Moon by Night.

Skurnick: Oh.

Correspondent: The author who has the redheaded stepchild in A Gift of….A Gift of Magic. Yes. I’m sorry. My handwriting’s terrible. But I found out last night that there are, in fact, a streak of redheaded people in your family.

Skurnick: Yes.

Correspondent: And so, as a result, I must put forth the psychological question to you, Ms. Skurnick, over whether this preoccupation with redheads reflects this familial genetic scenario.

Skurnick: Okay. It’s hilarious. Because if you — I don’t know if you notice this at the party. Because not all of my friends were at the party. But my Grandma Dora was a redhead, my father is a redhead, my Aunt Francine is a redhead. Growing up, one of my good friends Becky was a redhead. I think I have another good friend who was a redhead. And throughout my life — it’s hilarious — two of my dearest friends — Casey and Jane — were redheads. I have dated many redheads. And my new nephew Asher is a redhead. So I think that certainly I have a huge streak of redheadedness in my life. And I could not tell you why. And it is actually funny. Because whenever I write about Meg’s boyfriend — Calvin is redhead — and there’s quite a few redheads in L’Engle, in general. You know, Polyhymnia is a redhead. Calvin’s daughter. And when you write about it, there’s always a few girls in the comments who will go, “Oh, Calvin, I love a ginger!” Like if you do it with Prince William and his brother, you’ll get that too. So there is — that is a theme in my life. But it is also a theme in YA.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Skurnick: It’s a huge theme in YA. And I don’t know. I guess it’s because — I’ve never understood this because, like I said, there’s zillions of redheads in my life. But redheadness in society does always — it’s like you are marked as a very different thing. Everybody looks at redheads. You know, when Asher, my nephew, was born, it was the first thing five people told me. And then when people looked at him, they would say, “He’s a redhead.” You know, that’s like the first thing. And so I guess it’s often a little bit of what the author is talking about. You know, the sense of being deliberately put outside. And then what do you do with that? What do you do with the fact that you are an individual. You know, redheads are forced from a very young age to be individuals in the way that we are not. And I think maybe that’s…

Correspondent: I was a redhead, you know.

Skurnick: Really?

Correspondent: Yeah, yeah. You’re drawing a generalization here. But I’ll let you continue. I am very curious to hear your answer.

Skurnick: Well, all of the redheads in my life are actually like fire red. You know, it doesn’t go away. Like I actually have some red in my hair, although you can’t tell right now. Because it’s wet.

(Image: Tayari Jones)

Categories: Fiction, Ideas

Richard Russo II (BSS #301)

Richard Russo is most recently the author of That Old Cape Magic. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #152.



Condition of Mr. Segundo: Shoving Cape Cod mackerel down his throat.

Author: Richard Russo

Subjects Discussed: Signs with unusual spacing, drawing from the sign at The Silver Lounge Restaurant in North Falmouth, MA for inspiration, bad driving and auto accidents in parking lots, how much Russo draws from reality vs. how much he invents, Griffin’s name, Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” and wedding rituals involving Bon Jovi, couples and homes, Griffin seeking solace in narrative, cantilevered environments within That Old Cape Magic, sloped porches, the Sagamore Bridge, why writers have to be smart enough to recognize metaphors, making the ducks face the same direction in the revision process, how a short story turned into a novel, the importance of momentum, numerous twins, a family in which every person’s first name begins with J, Griffin pelted by seagulls and rain, metaphorical symmetry, the origins of Marguerite, grief hidden from men, responding to false charges of misogyny, the difficulties of using close third person voice in relation to uncomfortable perspectives, contending with moralists who don’t like fiction, “Monhegan Light,” investing sympathy in fools, close third person narrative and authenticity, Sunny Kim’s stereotypical qualities, Edgar Allan Poe, how first-person voice may indeed “hide” similarities between an author and a character, repressed characters, shifting from writing Bridge of Sighs to That Old Cape Magic, the difficulties of telling literal truth, and imagination as subtraction from reality.


Correspondent: Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.” Why “Living on a Prayer” over “You Give Love a Bad Name?”

Russo: (laughs)

Correspondent: Was “Living on a Prayer” the tune that was more applicable to weddings here?

Russo: Ed, Ed, you’re trying to make me feel regret now, aren’t you? Because that would have been perfect as well.

Correspondent: Was it more about living than love? With the emphasis in the book.

Russo: It was the result of my wife and I having gone recently to a number of weddings and being absolutely fascinated by the way young people my daugghters’ age react to the song. Because it is so much before their time. And for a lot of young people — 28, 29, 30 — it is a kind of anthem And the way they not only know the words, they have a kind of routine worked out on the dance floor. Those in the know have this routine on the dance floor that involves the fist-pumping, which they do in unison. Sometimes forty or fifty of them, young people out on the dance floor, to a song that is just so much before their time. But they’ve adopted it. So it was a wonderful way to show a bridge between those generations. And Laura, who does such a kind act in that redeems her father, at least temporarily. It just fit that slot so nicely. It also suggests that when Griffin begins this novel, he’s had a tiff with his wife. But it’s really just a tiff. I mean, he has a kind of tenure in his job. He loves his life. He loves his wife. He loves his daughter. Everything is right. And yet by the end of the first half of this book, he’s living on a prayer. And he knows it. Whereas he didn’t in the beginning.

Correspondent: But it’s interesting. Because your timing is absolutely perfect! Recently, on YouTube, there’s this video that’s been going around, that 18 million people have seen, of this elaborate dance at a wedding all set to music.

Russo: Oh really? I hadn’t seen it.

Correspondent: Well, I know. I don’t think you’re much of an online guy.

Russo: (laughs)

Correspondent: I wanted to talk about the notion of the home in this book. There’s a sentiment that is expressed: “You aren’t a real adult until you have a mortgage you can’t afford.”

Russo: Right.

Correspondent: Griffin is pressured into home ownership. And he and his wife often sift through the real estate catalogs, splitting up properties into Cannot Afford It and Wouldn’t Have It As a Gift.

Russo: Right.

Correspondent: And then also, 13-year-old Sunny Kim says, “You have a lovely home,” later on in the book. Home though is not necessarily where the heart is in this. This is a couple that is united by home as a piece of property, as opposed to a place where one can establish a family. This is a couple that settles on The Great Truro Accord and actually figures that this prearranged stratagem will aid them in deflecting every curveball of life thrown their way. So I wanted to just ask you why the home, of all things — or even just property in general — would be the central place for this couple’s failure to (1) deal with life and (2) come to the real terms that they are their parents and that they share a lot of family qualities. That’s a lot of points. I’ll stop there.

Russo: No, no, that’s — yes, I’m overwhelmed by the question. The other conflict, of course, is that Griffin’s parents, of course, are confirmed renters. So their notion of a home is something which recedes before them. Like the Cape itself. I mean, home for them is a place that you can only visit. And so, for Griffin, home is something that he is really reluctant to go to. Joy loves her parents’ home. She loves the vacation home. The same home that they rent every year. For her, home is a central place, as you said. It is the place where love resides most powerfully. And I think I would also expand that to say that home, like marriage, is not just a private thing. Just as marriage institutionalizes love in some way, home institutionalizes family. So when Sunny Kim — the outsider — comes in and says, “You have a lovely home.” He’s saying, “You have a lovely daughter with whom I’m in love. You have a lovely marriage to which I aspire. You have a lovely home that I would like to live in one day and you have a lovely nation that is now my adopted home.”

So just as your question is big, my answer is kind of big. In the sense that the notion of home, by the time we get to the end of this book — especially that final Sunny Kim scene — that notion of home has gone from something at the beginning — it was two people separating real estate property on a place they can’t afford into those two categories — Can’t Afford It and Wouldn’t Have It As a Gift. And by the time we get to the end of the novel, it’s almost something that you would expect to be taken over at some point by Department of Homeland Security. (laughs)

Categories: Fiction