Yiyun Li (BSS #363)

Yiyun Li is most recently the author of Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Confusing golden boys with golden tickets.

Author: Yiyun Li

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Li: The way I look at fiction is that the most dramatic moments do not come from physical or real dramas, but from internal dramas. And those moments are actually quite still, if you look from outside, and those are the moments I like to write about in fiction.

Correspondent: I’m wondering why narrative scenarios or stories tend to come more from that than, say, a natural collision of ideas. Or a natural collision of two characters arguing in a coffee shop or something.

Li: Right. I think with that scenario, if you have two characters, or two ideas, bumping into each other, there’s no space for them to stop. It’s like a train wreck. It’s like a crash. As a writer, you have to follow that. Which some writers do really well — following in that crash. By nature, I don’t think I follow that crash. But I like the aftermath of the crash. Or right before that crash. So I don’t follow the event. I follow the crash within the crash, in a way.

Correspondent: Do you feel that — if you had, say, an obvious crash, like two people — that this might complicate a narrative situation that you’re forming in your head? Or something like that? Do you work better from a minimalist narrative scenario than, say, a rather complex one?

Li: Yes. You know, in a way, I think my fiction doesn’t deal with a lot of physical actions. I think maybe that reflects my tendency to back up a little. Just to watch. And when I watch, my attention oftentimes is not with the physical crash or noise. I’m very sensitive to noises. And I think that those moments there — sometimes there’s too much noise. It’s too noisy for me. So I would go away. And I would go into the internal world. Where the noise is a different kind of noise. (laughs)

Correspondent: Have any sentences or any character developments emerged in your head from a noise? I’m curious.

Li: Oh, that’s so funny. No! I think oftentimes that the characters start with a very quiet moment. I don’t think I have — oh, I would say the counterrevolutionary who was sentenced to death in The Vagrants, she was the only one of my characters, I think, that had a little bit of noise in her. I mean, her experience was quite noisy. Loud. So she was the only one.

Correspondent: I mean, this is very interesting. Because I actually wanted to remark on one thing I’ve observed in your work. A very slight internal rhyme to your sentences. And I’m going to dig out some examples here to show that I’m not some paranoid, crazy freak here. “Spring in Bejing was as brief as a young girl’s grief over a bad haircut.” That’s in “Number Three, Garden Road.” In “House Fire,” “the court, as the last resort.” In “Kindness,” “I fumbled under the bundled clothes.” Not exact. But close enough. I mean, you mention sound. I’m curious how rhyme along these lines helps to anchor a sentence for you. How a sentence is formed based on this rhythm. Because there is this really wonderful rhythm, I think. And it comes out more directly to the reader, I think, with the internal rhyme.

Li: Right. So the question is somewhat about how do I come up with this sentences.

Correspondent: Yes! How does this musicality come about?

Li: Right. I think one thing is I have to write to the music. I actually imagine the music of my stories.

Correspondent: Oh yeah.

Li: And that’s one thing that’s really important. I’m not a visual writer. So I don’t imagine the images. I imagine the rhythm and the tone. So in a way, I think, you just have to push a sentence to match to the music in your head.

Correspondent: Aha! So you literally have the song going on.

Li: Yeah.

Correspondent: There’s a musical phrase right there.

Li: (laughs)

Correspondent: You have to get the sentence matching up exactly.

Li: Right.

Correspondent: Even if it’s diatonic.

Li: Right. It’s almost like the sentence has to talk to the music in my head, rather than anything else I think.

Correspondent: Is this why it often takes you so long to come up with a sentence or a story? Because you’re so exact like that?

Li: I am. I think I do pay a lot of attention to the sentences. And I also listen to music. Like sometimes I would choose a specific piece that would match the mood of the story. Or to the novel. I’ll listen to it again and again until I get it. The sentence and the music. They sort of have the conversation.

Correspondent: So I’m curious what kind of music is going on in your head. Are we talking the Ramones? Are we talking classical music?

Li: (laughs) Well, this is a little confession. My first book was written to U2.

Correspondent: Oh yeah?

Li: I was listening to U2 songs.

Correspondent: Which albums?

Li: Actually, all albums of the time.

Correspondent: Oh really.

Li: You know, my husband would make all these files on my computer. So I would have all the U2 sounds. And I would just go over and over again. While I listened to U2, I would write. That’s how my first collection came into being. But then I think my music has changed since then. Now it’s more classic music. I listen to Tchaikovsky a lot. Because I feel very close to his music. And Brahms is oftentimes in my accompanying pieces. And Mahler. I wrote one story — “Kindness,” the novella in the new collection — completely to Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.

Correspondent: Which Tchaikovsky? The 1812 Overture?

Li: 1812 Overture. Yes!

Correspondent: I knew it. That’s so fitting in light of the depressed nature of the characters.

Li: Yes. Tchaikovsky is really close to my mind, I think. I don’t know. His music moves me just beyond words.

Correspondent: I’m curious if you have thought to find composers and artists who are oppressed in some ways — as Tchaikovsky was.

Li: No. (laughs)

Categories: Fiction

David Rakoff II (BSS #362)

David Rakoff is most recently the author of Half-Empty. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #167 and The Bat Segundo Show #168.


PROGRAM NOTE: This show contains many unusual moments: the unanswered phone calls ringing in Mr. Rakoff’s apartment, the race to the Internet to look up the word “vitiate,” the efforts by both gentlemen to assign various forms of depression and optimism to each other, the common counting mistakes (listen carefully to the intro), and Mr. Rakoff opening up a window. Since these flubs and quirks are presented here unadorned for the listener, we must offer at least one correction. Our Correspondent mangles a George Bernard Shaw late into the conversation. The correct quote is “The real moment of success is not the moment apparent to the crowd,” and comes from Caesar and Cleopatra.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Confusing threes, fours, and fives.

Author: David Rakoff

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: You just mentioned that you will not delve into certain aspects of your life in writing these essays.

Rakoff: For the most part.

Correspondent: For the most part. This leads me to wonder about “Shrimp.” The essay in which, as a child, you report that you have a desire to have a fast track to adulthood. This led me to wonder if you had even really attempted to view this from the reverse vantage point. Of you as an adult reporting back to David Rakoff the child, “Okay. Here’s what it’s all about. It’s perfectly okay.” You say you have a happy childhood. But you also have this longing to become an adult very, very rapidly.

Rakoff: Yes.

Correspondent: As a quick rung up the ladder. That’s just not the way life works. Why view it from this linear quality? This is interesting because you are often very digressive in your essays.

Rakoff: Yes.

Correspondent: Which is why I like them. But from this vantage point, from childhood to adulthood, you’re looking at only in one direction and not really the reverse. I’m curious why that was. Or if you have made attempts to look at it the other way. Or is that where the essay “Isn’t It Romantic?” comes into play? Is that you — okay, here’s the adult looking back to being a child.

Rakoff: Wow.

Correspondent: Just to throw some things at you.

Rakoff: Okay, let me see if I can parse this into something resembling an answer. Part of the reason that I don’t look back — or, you know, look in reverse — is twofold. I’m really not kidding when I said I didn’t enjoy being a child. So I don’t really adore remembering that. I’m not comfortable with who I was. I’m a little embarrassed with who I was. So I don’t spend a lot of time looking back. And also because I don’t generally try to mine my own life. It feels a little — I’m still not entirely comfortable with what seemed to be a certain sort of self-mythologizing aspects I’m not just comfortable using the details of my life. Although it’s a somewhat waffling response. Because this particular book is full of details about my life and things that are quite personal, I suppose.

Correspondent: And possibly the most personal of the three books.

Rakoff: Oh, undoubtedly the most personal of the three books. Yes, absolutely. But in terms of the forward-looking thing, there is that anxiety that marks whatever phase you’re at. And I think it’s an anxiety that marks life in general. Which is: Everything takes longer than you hope it’s going to. Everything. Everything has to gestate. Whether it’s work, whether it’s creativity, whether it’s just having people in the world knowing who you are and therefore throw work your way. It’s always, “Everything takes longer.” Certain recipes, where the congealing of albumen in an egg where you apply heat, you know, that takes the number of minutes that it takes. Everything takes longer than they say it’s going to take. It’s going to take years. To pay your dues. To get out of a job. Whatever. So it’s that source of tension. Which is that nobody wants to wait that long. Nobody wants to put in the time. And everybody hopes to be ushered past the velvet ropes or somehow upgraded on the great flight. To business class without having deserved it in any way. That’s a constant tension. Not just among me, but I think among every person alive. And every child wants to be suddenly older.

I suppose both essays are an attempt to both make sense of that and also to — if they are speaking to those younger people, to say, “It will be okay. This period shall pass.” And you will look back upon it not fondly. Because that would just be a little nostalgic and kind of unrealistic. But at least with some kind of peace. And I no longer quite begrudge myself those feelings, embarrassing though they may have been — you know.

Correspondent: But not wanting to look back. I’m wondering if this is one of the reasons why your sentences — and even more so with this book — are so ornate and modifier heavy and very phrase happy.

Rakoff: I am phrase happy. That’s a lovely expression! I’ve never heard of it.

Correspondent: Well, it’s one that just occurred to me.

Rakoff: It’s so good.

Correspondent: But if this almost serves as a kind of insulating mechanism, so that if you are going back to your self, you’re doing so in such an idiosyncratic way as to not direct kind of…

Rakoff: Oh, that’s interesting!

Correspondent: Putting your nib into your vein and letting the blood flood onto the page, which is what’s often said about writing.

Rakoff: Yes, it’s true. I guess though that being phrase happy is just inevitable. It’s the way that one moves through the world. You know, it’s the way that one looks at things. It’s the way that one speaks about things. Or rather the way I speak about things. You know, conversation and talking is my favorite thing. It’s my meat. So “phrase happy” is inevitable. It’s interesting to me that you would maybe see it as a kind of mediating or obfuscating screen. Because I see it as the opposite. As a way of actually getting at the exact nature of something. Because a reluctance to look back is not the same thing as not looking back. One cannot help but look back. But you know, it’s inevitable. And it’s not really in my control. So insomuch as I’ve chosen to in certain places, the best I can hope to do is to do so in an accurate and evocative manner. So that someone that I’ve taken along with me (i.e., the reader) will feel like, “Oh, I get what you mean.” That seems very vivid to me and I completely understand what kind of house this was, what kind of experience this was, or something. But, no, I don’t think of the barrage. You know, that huge wave of verbal diarrhea — which is the way I both speak and write –as being a mediating factor. I think of them as being closer to the nib in the vein.

Correspondent: Well, I think maybe it could be both. Words can both insulate and also be the telltale indicator to the reader, “Hey, if you want to go down my journey with me, you’re going to have to wend through my conscious patterns.” You know?

Rakoff: Sure.

Correspondent: And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s just the way that you are introspective on the page perhaps.

Rakoff: Precisely. And in life. I’m not one of those minimal guy speakers or writers.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Rakoff: I like words. It’s just like having a lot of spices in my kitchen. It’s just that I like having access to all that stuff.

Correspondent: Well, this also leads me to wonder — because you did bring up words in “A Capacity for Wonder.” You report your concern for bad neologisms. Particularly those that are muffed on lexical blending. Words like “innovention.”

Rakoff: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: Or “snackitizer.”

Rakoff: (laughs)

Correspondent:Or “appeteaser.” In your words, “It makes one suspicious, wondering about the ways in which the object in question is found so wanting, so insufficiently innovative or lacking in invention to warrant this linguistic boost.” I’m wondering. Do you greet all words — all language — with some level of skepticism or suspicion? What does it take for you to trust a word?

Rakoff: Oh! What does it take for me to trust a word? First of all, I have to know what it means.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Rakoff: And there are a lot of words — that as often as I pack my ear with them and look them up all the time — I can’t get them. I’ve even said this in an interview. There was one word. “Vitiate.”

Correspondent: It was our interview! We talked about “vitiate” last time!

Rakoff: Yes! And then I even — I’ve still not gotten “vitiate” — and I’ve said it again in another interview with somebody else!

Correspondent: Yes!

Rakoff: Because I still can’t get it into my head.

Correspondent: To wither or to dry.

Rakoff: It means to either strengthen or weaken an argument. Which one does it mean?

Correspondent: No. I thought “vitiate” means to —

Rakoff: Strengthen?

Correspondent: To dry. Like…

Rakoff: No.

Correspondent: No, no, no! Because you’re vitiated! Your energy forces are…

Rakoff: No, it means to either strengthen an argument or weaken an argument. One vitiates one’s argument.

Correspondent: Oh, in rhetoric, that is.

Rakoff: I don’t know. In the dictionary. Should I look it up?

Correspondent: We may as well. Because….

Rakoff: All my stuff is in storage.

Correspondent: Wait, I could do it.

Rakoff: (moves off microphone to computer) Wait, I can do it right here. On the Internet.

Correspondent: I was going to suggest. I’ve got a netbook on me too.

Rakoff: Generally, I use a — is this picking up on the tape, you think?

Correspondent: We could — yeah, I think it’s going to pick up. I can boost it or something like this. We’ll get this moment or I’ll — I thought it was “to wither.”

Rakoff: (still faint, on computer) No, I don’t think so. Vitiate.

(Phone rings.)

Correspondent: Yeah. To impair the quality. To make faulty. Spoil. To repair or weaken.

Rakoff: Revert.

Correspondent: Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Rakoff: Interesting.

Correspondent: Well, do you want to answer? (indicates phone) Because I can stop.

Rakoff: No, no, no. I’ll let the machine pick up.

(Rakoff returns to mike.)

Correspondent: Anyway, now that we have used the Internet to confirm what this word is.

Rakoff: Yeah.

Correspondent: Both of us are coming at it slightly wrong. I drew my attention to the weakening aspect of the word and you drew your attention to the rhetorical quality of the word.

Rakoff: Yeah. To ruin one’s argument.

Correspondent: Yes.

Rakoff: So it’s the same.

Correspondent: We had the same idea. We’re close. But both of us are imprecise. I don’t know what that says about us or the word.

Rakoff: I think we are close. I think we both get the word. But it’s funny that we — Jesus, even five years later.

(Image: Kris Krug)

Categories: People

Andrew Ervin (BSS #361)

Andrew Ervin is most recently the author of Extraordinary Renditions.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contemplating alternative forms of freedom.

Author: Andrew Ervin

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Ervin: What else do we have but politics to write about? Ultimately. Whether it’s on a personal level or a cultural level or a national level, politics is going to play a part in every element of our lives, I would imagine. You were asking me about anger recently and I think that gets back to Brutus, who is a very angry character. And he’s the way that I found a voice from my intense anger about our political realm in America. I mean, what’s going on is disastrous to me. We’re still an incredibly racist nation. We’re still an incredibly sexist nation. And this character gave me an opportunity to voice that in some way. And it may be a bit over-the-top. It may push the radicalism a little too far in some regards. And perhaps I tried to mediate that with some of the other characters. But I’m not sure.

Correspondent: But with Brutus, you are very clear to point out that he has a good deal of materialistic hypocrisy.

Ervin: Absolutely.

Correspondent: Here’s a guy who goes ahead and he complains about blowing money. He complains about getting ripped off by the hotel and then he’s blowing money on fast food and Tom Clancy novels. And also that shopping trick he makes, where he’s totally fleeced. So for a guy who is in this really terrible and probably not very well-paying occupation of setting rat traps, and for a guy who is really anti-corporate and inflamed and into a possible post-Black Power situation, he is decidedly hypocritical. That his ultimate engagement with politics is actually a way of him getting lost further instead of finding that identity he wants.

Ervin: Is it still hypocritical if we’re aware that we’re participating? I mean, can we ever get completely outside of the system that we’re trying to critique. We can write the great environmentalist novel of our age, but it’s still going to be printed on bleached paper and packed into trucks and carried across the highway system. There’s always some participation in what we’re critiquing. No matter what. My hope is that I’m aware of the extent to which I’m working within a system to critique it to some extent. Not that I have a specific political agenda with this book. I don’t. I really don’t. Every critic that I speak to wants to ascribe one to it. And they tend to be different ones, depending upon whom I’m speaking to. Which is kind of nice. But there’s definitely an awareness both on my part and, I believe, on Brutus’s part — there’s no getting away from what we’re critiquing. We are also participating.

Correspondent: Yeah. So basically, the question I have now is why fiction is the best way to critique this problematic involvement with politics. Because…well, maybe I’m answering your question a bit. (laughs)

Ervin: (laughs) Yeah, would you please?

Correspondent: The thought I had here was maybe fiction serves as this container for you to examine our participation in the system we’re critiquing. Because it is, in itself, a container. And I did actually want to bring up some of the descriptive details about containment. You refer to “the ceiling of the sky.” There’s the Coca-Cola sign that is on the top of the apartment in the third novella. So this leads me to believe that this is indeed a preoccupation. But maybe we can tie in how you arrived at this walled in description with another query about whether fiction is the best way to create a dialogue about this issue. Do you think it is?

Ervin: I’m not sure that fiction is privileged in any way in speaking to those issues. If I could play piano, I would try that. If I could paint pictures, I would do that. I’d be willing to break out an interpretive dance for you.

Correspondent: Please do.

Ervin: If you think you can record that. I don’t know what fiction can do in relation to the other arts or any means of expression or nonfiction or poetry. They all play a part in whatever we’re trying to say. Fiction is just what works for me personally. And I don’t want to claim that it has some kind of privilege. It’s what I do.

Correspondent: Well, in terms of the description of characters walled in interiors, why do you think you’re so focused on this? I mean, you do use “the ceiling of the sky.” That is a very clear indicator that no matter where one goes, one is going to find one’s self in some kind of interior. Even walking outside.

Ervin: Are you telling me that you don’t feel that way?

Correspondent: Well, it depends.

Ervin: (laughs)

Correspondent: You’re asking me to confess perspective versus description perhaps. And maybe that’s the tension we’re describing here.

Ervin: I guess a large part of what this book is about are the restrictions that are placed on us by social organizations and political organizations. The barriers we put on ourselves. The limitations we’re wiling to put on our own imaginations very often without even knowing it. And this scares me. This frightens me a great deal. That we don’t know how free we are. And we participate in these polite little conversations in front of microphones. And we go out in public and follow the rules. And go where we’re supposed to go and buy what we’re supposed to buy. There’s some part of our humanity that we’ve lost touch with. We’ve lost something that is vitally important to who we are. We’re all so damn polite now.

Correspondent: Yes.

Ervin: And if my characters are constrained some way even by their natural environment, that may be the reason. Because I feel like we are constrained.

Correspondent: And yet you associate this freedom with violence. The end of the second novella has a very specific line about freedom. “This was something that he had not perceived for so long.” And to my mind, that is extremely interesting. Because on one level, what your freedom might be or what Brutus’s freedom might be — and then I think in my mind, Franzen’s idea of freedom, which from my standpoint is very much endorsing the exact system that you’re trying to critique. So since freedom is really a relative term, is it even a term to dwell on? Is it possibly too general a term? Does fiction, by way of ambiguity, allow one — either the author or the reader — to find not necessarily a solution, but at least an understanding of this dilemma that we’re describing?

Ervin: How are we going to know when we are free? I mean, that’s the question. Is it just opening up one more barrier and seeing a slightly bigger horizon? There’s no way for me to be able to answer that. The moment you’re talking about at the end of the second novella, with Brutus on the bridge over the Danube, I think references the [Frantz] Fanon book he’s reading. He’s carrying around The Wretched of the Earth. This great book in many ways about the curative power of violence. And to try and conflate my personal political agenda, if I have one, with that is a mistake, I think. That’s not me. That’s this one character who may have a more enlightened view of the world than I do or a more limited one in some way that I’m not sure. But freedom is not — I mean, what can you say? Who knows?

(Image: Dean Sabatino)

Categories: Fiction

Neal Pollack II (BSS #360)

Neal Pollack is most recently the author of Stretch. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #96.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Stretching for owls.

Author: Neal Pollack

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: This book isn’t, to me, just about your own personal experience with yoga. I got the sense in reading this of a man who, quite frankly, is really terrified of getting older. I mean, it starts with that review you got in The New York Times Book Review, which was, I think now, completely ridiculous. We joked about it before. Of a man who is terrified of being pegged as “another doughy guy in his thirties.” As a guy who is just looking for some replacement or affirmation of his identity. But that sense of terror is there in your personal quest. Why do you feel that is? And how aware were you of this?

Pollack: Well, the more I got into it, the more aware I was. And I think what it came down to is not necessarily a fear of getting older, but, in the end, the main fear that all of us have. Which is a fear of death. Or, as the Buddhists say, a fear of impermanence. And it’s that fear of impermanence that drives so much pain and suffering in the world. And I had that in large quantities. I had been doing all of this crazy stuff. And my ego was out of control. And a lot of that, I think, was just because I was trying to find a substitute for acceptance of impermanence. I mean, that’s what you say in Buddhism. Not like I’m a Buddhist. But it was very important to me to realize it. Not just think, “Oh, I”m going to die.” But to actually feel it in my bones that, you know, everything around me is impermanent. And that actually made my life a lot easier to live. I’m not nearly as afraid of getting old and dying as I used to be.

Correspondent: But that anger did come out during that New York yoga class. When you saw the woman spouting forth political messages.

Pollack: Yeah, I mean, there was definitely — as part of the journey — I had these eruptions of anger and envy and just reactive behavior. And it was not a smooth transition. And I think the transition is ongoing. But I definitely think I’m calmer and less angry and less envious than I was. And I’m happier because of it. I don’t know if my writing is necessarily better, although I think it is. But it certainly has — it’s made it much easier for me to move through the world.

Correspondent: But the problem here is that if you are still erupting into anger, this is very much still a part of who you are.

Pollack: Well…

Correspondent: You have to accept yourself for who you are.

Pollack: Yeah.

Correspondent: In some capacity. A large capacity, actually.

Pollack: Yeah. I would say that yoga smooths over the rough edges. That doesn’t mean that you’re going to behave exemplary — exemporarily — is that how you say it? — in all circumstances. But it will make you much more aware of how you behave in most circumstances. And so, of course, you’re still going to feel angry or be envious or say something stupid. Or eat too much or drink too much from time to time. But I don’t know. It’s nice to be a little more thoughtful and a little more mindful of the world around me. And of my body and my mind.

Correspondent: Yeah. But I mean, for example, in Thailand, you complained about the cookies they gave you, writing, “Jesus fucking Christ. We paid them enough money. They could at least give us a proper cookie.” I mean, this seems to conflict with the idea of ahimsa, where you’re supposed to be nonviolent and not dislike the world. You’re supposed to embrace it.

Pollack: I bitch to myself and maybe to a couple of friends. I didn’t throw a fit and make them bring me another cookie. It’s not like you lose all discrimination and judgment when you start practicing yoga. I mean, there still is food that tastes good. The food that doesn’t taste good. There are still good movies and bad movies. Good books and bad books. People you like and people you don’t like. That doesn’t go away, but you don’t take it all so personally maybe. And the fact that I wrote down a grouchy reaction to a bad dessert, I just did that to illustrate, “Well, yeah, so I’m still grouchy.”

Correspondent: Yeah.

Pollack: But the difference is that in the past, that grouchiness or irritability may have been destructive. Whereas now, I just like to think of it as a character trait.

Correspondent: So you say things roll off you more now than they did before?

Pollack: Everything rolls off me more easily. Some things more easily than others. But, yeah, because of practicing yoga and meditation, I’m able to take things that happen to me more in stride. It’s never 100% perfect. But even publishing a book has been easier. There are a lot of stressful things going when you publish a book. You’re dealing with editors and you’re trying to figure out how to promote it. And then you’re traveling around. And then you’re wondering if people are going to like it and are going to buy it. And you have good reviews. You have bad reviews. And…

Correspondent: Vicious reviews in this case. Paul Constant. I thought that was far more vicious than David Kamp.

Pollack: By comparison, sure. That was a horrible review. It was really mean. But, you know, I stewed about it for a couple of hours. And in the past I might have really stewed about it and written some kind of screed in response and sent him an email and maybe even call them up. I might have made things worse. And in this case, I just complained to my wife about it for a couple of hours. And then let it go.

Correspondent: Well, wait a minute here. Because with the David Kamp review, I remember this because I read your site for many years. You had to joke about it. And then, when I read this book, I was surprised to see it come back like a zombie out of the blue. I mean, this had been torturing you for a number of years.

Pollack: Well, it wasn’t torturing me anymore. But it was a key turning point in my life to perceive that review. It was like, I don’t think the review was entirely fair. But really, in retrospect, it wasn’t that unfair. It was just like somebody had dumped a bucket of cold water on my head.

Correspondent: Or a bucket of crap.

Pollack: A bucket of crap. And the Establishment said, “No, no, no. We’re not letting you in.” You know? “Sorry, you’re a schmuck.” And to some extent, he was right. And to some extent, he wasn’t. And to a large extent, it doesn’t matter. But it was a key turning point. And I am actually very grateful to that guy for writing that piece. Because it sent me on the path that really helped — it changed my life forever and helped me enormously.

Correspondent: So if I got you and Paul Constant together for a beer.

Pollack: I would prefer not to meet him for a beer. Just because…

Correspondent: He’s actually a nice guy. He probably didn’t mean it.

Pollack: I know people who work at The Stranger. And I didn’t meet him. And if I met him, I would joke with him about it. Because, you know, I’m…I’m not a bad guy. And at the end of the day, I’m sure he’s not either. There was something in the book he obviously didn’t like and he went to the wall against it. And that’s why we have the First Amendment.

(Image: Katie Spence)

Categories: People

Joe Dante (BSS #359)

Joe Dante is most recently the director of The Hole.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Doing his best not to feed Mr. Dante after midnight or before 10:10 AM on October 10, 2010.

Guest: Joe Dante

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I want to talk about the inside jokes. There are a few in The Hole. I noticed the yellow smiley face from The Howling in the background at one point. But it seemed to me that you were almost dialing down the inside jokes within the shots with this movie.

Dante: I did. Because, at heart, it’s kind of a sad movie, if you think about it. When you find out what’s in the hole, it’s much more melodramatic and personal than you would expect. It’s not little monsters coming out. And so the tone of the movie, it’s a little tricky to do a lot of those nudge nudge wink wink things, which I learned early on in my career. That you can’t do things at the expense of people who don’t know what you’re talking about. In The Howling, I had a scene in which Roger Corman looks for a dime in a phone booth. And it was funny to people who knew Roger. But when people didn’t know Roger, it was like, “Well, the scene is over. Why are you lingering on this extra piece? Because it didn’t mean anything to me.” And I realized that you can’t do that. You have to play within the rules. And if you do something that’s off the point, it should be done as an aside or in the background or as a tail — so that people maybe notice the second time when they see the picture.

Correspondent: Well, this is interesting. You’re talking about a lingering moment. And this leads me to wonder if it’s more difficult these days — not just from a financial standpoint, but also from an aesthetic standpoint — for you to convince a producer to give you work. Because your movies do, in fact, linger on that beat. Like that Corman moment in The Howling you were just mentioning. I even watched your episode of CSI out of morbid curiosity, and I’m seeing all these really great Dante master shots that unfortunately are being butchered by the crazy editing that goes on with that show. So the question is: How can a guy like you, who is extremely skillful with these Panavision-like shots, the 70mm that you did in Explorers and the like — I mean, is this more of a tougher sell?

Dante: It’s not a tough sell. People hire me for various reasons. But when you sign on to do a TV series, you must adopt the style of the TV series. Now I can shoot the stuff any way I want. But I know that in TV, you do your cutting. You hand it in. And then you see it on TV. And it’s always different. Because the show runners come in. And they change it to the style that they prefer. So you shoot a lot of long takes. But you just have to give them enough material for them to turn it into what they want. It’s never an expressive job. You don’t really feel you’re putting yourself into it. Although as much as I could, I stuck myself into it. And I stuck people who were familiar to working with me in the show. And it was, I think, a little bit different. A little bit offbeat from the usual episodes of the show. But the problem with doing a show like that, there’s an overarching storyline that happened before you came and that’s going to continue after you’re gone. So there’s really not a lot of space for you to insert yourself. Because you’re doing a job of work. And you’re not the auteur of the show. The auteur of the show is the writers. Because they’re the ones who are mapping out this entire scenario. The great thing is if you can get in on the ground floor and get in on the pilot.

Correspondent: Yes.

Dante: If you do the pilot for the show, which I did for Eerie, Indiana, then you get to not only choose the cast.

Correspondent: You set the aesthetics.

Dante: You set the aesthetic and you get to influence the way the stories go and which direction they go. And even sometimes who’s hired to direct them. So that’s very creative and interesting and fulfilling. Doing one-offs is financially rewarding and a chance to work with a lot of talented people that you probably wouldn’t get to see otherwise. But it’s never like making a feature. It’s never like saying, “Okay, this is my movie.” And that’s why I prefer on TV to do anthology shows. Because it’s much more like doing a short film than it is to coming in and doing it. Illustrating an episode of somebody’s series.

Correspondent: Is it also a way of staying in shape so you don’t atrophy?

Dante: Well, it’s also a way of paying the mortgage.

Correspondent: (laughs) That’s true. That’s really the reason you did the CSI: New York episode.

Dante: Uh, I did it because it would be fun. But also, yeah, I did it because I wasn’t working. The great thing about Eerie, Indiana was that if I was going a feature, I could do that. I could go away and then do more Eerie, Indianas. But then it went off the air. And then I couldn’t do that anymore. So the trick is to try and find a way to keep yourself employed that doesn’t turn you into a hack. Basically. I mean, I always try and do things that — for movies, my yardstick is I don’t make movies that I wouldn’t go see. And I think if more people did that, we’d have better movies.

Categories: Film

Matthew Sharpe II (BSS #358)

Matthew Sharpe is most recently the author of You Were Wrong. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #132.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Abandoning the animal experiment.

Author: Matthew Sharpe

Subjects Discussed: [The truth of the matter is that there doesn’t appear to be enough time in the day for me to summarize subjects anymore . Again, I am sorry and can only offer the lame “forthcoming” answer. Please beat me with a pool cue should we next meet, if this proves unsatisfactory for your capsule needs.]


Correspondent: Does this improvisational nature explain in part why the book is so violent? I mean, it has the rather extremely creative usage of a pool cue against a gentleman’s head. Which I thought was a very idiosyncratic form of violence. I’m curious why the book was so violent, number one. Number two, how you settled on the pool cue to the head?

Sharpe: Um…

Correspondent: That’s not an easy thing to do, you know. The head is going to move around.

Sharpe: It’s not an easy thing to…

Correspondent: To hit the head, yes.

Sharpe: To brain someone with a pool cue?

Correspondent: Yeah, I know.

Sharpe: Well, if it’s an old guy and he’s not expecting it. (laughs) Let’s see, why was it so violent? That’s a really hard question to answer. I really — it’s not a part of my temperament as a social being or even as a private individual in this house. For whatever reason, when I write fiction, I guess I’m on the lookout for conflicts. And in some way, pain and impediments — as my friend the writer Lynne says, the body is the first and last metaphor. And if you want to show someone in difficulties, show somebody whose body is being impinged upon.

Correspondent: But you also are playing a bit of a marionette with these characters — the characters serve as marionettes. Because you often have Sylvia, for example, you are extremely specific about the way she sits on the bed, about her posture. And speaking of the body, there’s also much imagery with the face. Particularly with relation to Karl and how he views people. In fact, one of the curious things about this book that I have to ask you about is that Karl perceives Sylvia only in terms of the color and the generic item of clothing. Like “a blue shirt” and “an indigo bra” or what not. And that goes on throughout the entire book. There’s probably about seven or eight of them. So how did you arrive at that generic syntax? That shorthand for Karl perceiving Sylvia? And what of this idea of these characters placed in very specific forms of posture? I mean, to some degree, it’s very hyperspecific. To some degree, it’s almost mathlike in its generic description as well. From Karl’s perspective.

Sharpe: Yeah. Wow, you notice stuff that nobody else notices by the way. So I have to think about these answers. But I just actually want to circle back to a question I didn’t answer, which is the pool cue. You know, I really wanted to place the pool table and the piano next to each other. Because I wanted this very much to be a novel about a bourgeois home. Of the kind that I grew up in. Though luckily I didn’t grow up with the kind of family that Karl had.

Correspondent: (laughs) I would hope not!

Sharpe: But I was thinking at that moment of the beating on the head of John Millington Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. Which I’m sort of deciding whether to give away a major plot surprise. I think I probably won’t give it away. But that’s a play in which a guy walks into a bar in a strange town at the beginning, having just beaten his father with some kind of implement. I can’t remember what kind. But he beats him in the head. And so I was thinking, okay, how do I transpose Synge’s rural Irish play to Long Island at the beginning of the 21st century? And I thought, okay, I actually can’t remember right now what he beats him with. Maybe a farming implement? So I’m thinking, okay, what would be handy in a house like this? So that’s the answer to that question.

About the careful description of the people’s bodies and their posture, I think I just became fascinated through Karl’s eyes with the body of his beloved. Which he is very, very attuned to. Because he really, really digs it. And he’s constantly looking at it. He just is fascinated by her body. And Karl knowing in a sense that maybe he has something like what we could call Asperger’s. Or some kind of weird disorder where he’s not very good at reading faces. He’s always trying super hard to read faces and he really thinks, “If I can only learn the vocabulary of facial expressions, I will finally be able to decipher what the hell people are ever intending toward me.”

(Image: Felicia C. Sullivan)

Categories: Fiction