Isabel Wilkerson (BSS #366)

Isabel Wilkerson is most recently the author of The Warmth of Other Suns.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Warming up to fascinating history.

Author: Isabel Wilkerson

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I wanted to ask about one of the key pieces of conflict relating to the Great Migration that fascinated me. You pointed out that the old timers — meaning the African-Americans who had lived in the northern territory before the Great Migration — were harder on the influx of new African-American migrants moving into the northern areas than almost anybody else. The Chicago Defender has this list of dos and don’ts. The endless articles about what you’re supposed to do as a new migrant. I’m curious. Based on your research, to what degree did this conflict — what effect did this have on the progress that came later in the 1960s? Did this deter efforts at unity? You kind of get into it the book. But I wanted to see if your research led to other areas here.

Wilkerson: I think that it was generally a low-grade competition rivalry — and maybe resentment — that really grew out of fear. It grew out of an insecurity. Because the people who were already there in the North were small in number. They had been pioneers from way back. And they finally established themselves in these often hostile and alienating cities. And their rival of basically country cousins in huge waves to the big cities obviously raised questions for them about what was going to happen to them. What was going to happen to this perfectly balanced, well-honed alchemy that they created with the majority of the people in these big cities. And they felt embarrassed by them. They felt shame. They felt resentment. And they often didn’t want to be around them. I must point out though that, while they were most likely to be resentful of them, and to maybe be sneeringly judgmental of them, they were not the ones who were actually hurting them physically in the same way that others were. I mean, when they moved out into other neighborhoods, when they arrived in these big cities, that was when they might be firebombed. Because they were going into a neighborhood where they were not welcome. So the people who were there, there was more a sort of insider resentment and fear that’s very different. But actually, it’s just as painful to the people who were arriving. Because the people who were arriving were like people arriving from any far away place to a new land that they hoped would be better. And they felt very hurt by that. Very hurt. And it actually limited their ability to move about. They couldn’t join certain churches. So it was an in-group stratification that is kind of an inside baseball thing, but kind of human nature. It’s about survival.

Correspondent: It also seems to me to be about class divide. And that’s one aspect of 20th century black history that we really don’t discuss. Going back to the original question of whether an internal class struggle like this, I mean, did it really have a serious deterrent upon advancement?

Wilkerson: I think it did in the beginning stages. You know, while the people were new and untutored into the ways of the North, the people, they were pretty much rejected and not welcome. Over time, like any immigrant group that’s ever come in — and they were immigrants in the true sense of the word. Because they were born in the United States. They were American citizens. They went to another region in order to realize the rights that they were born to. They essentially acted as any immigrant would. And so they went to the people who were there. And they found that it was difficult to make that adjustment. But once they did make the adjustment, they in turn would become as sneeringly judgmental as the people coming behind them. That’s just the way human beings think.

Correspondent: The retrousse noses.

Wilkerson: Yeah, that’s right. Ultimately though, larger forces would intrude. And as a group, they found themselves all hemmed in by the larger economy that didn’t really want to have them. And I wouldn’t say that it impeded progress to that degree. There were rivalries in every group. I think that it certainly didn’t help. It was very disheartening for people who just arrived. It is. Because you’re rejected by your own people. It’s very painful.

Correspondent: Instead of having a polarization effect. To really fight a lot of the racism that was going down. The firebombing and the Cicero riots.

Wilkerson: Exactly.

Correspondent: Well, this is very interesting. Because you cite this 1965 census survey, in which it was revealed that a lot of the migrants moving in had more education — equal sometimes, but often more education — than the native white Northeners.

Wilkerson: Exactly. Which is astounding. I mean, when I saw that, it was just hard to believe. But part of this is remembering the era that we’re talking about. We’re talking about an era in which many of the people were children of the Depression. And many of them had had hard lives, no matter where they were. Many of them were the children or actual immigrants from other places. So the early part of the 20th century was not a time of great enlightenment overall, unfortunately. So life was hard for everybody. But how ironic, actually, that the people who came up in this Great Migration were actually slightly better educated when it came to the numbers. Now that doesn’t mean that we’re not getting the quality. Because the quality of education in the South was markedly unequal clearly. But they had put in the time. They had gone as far as they could. And then they left finally for hopefully a better life in the North and the West. But it’s interesting that the mythology and the misconceptions about these people. Once I began to discover them, I found that that became a big focus of the work that I hadn’t anticipated.

Categories: Ideas


Tom McCarthy II (BSS #365)

Tom McCarthy is most recently the author of C. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #154 and The Bat Segundo Show #155.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Considering the vital associations between the third letter and the need to sweat.

Author: Tom McCarthy

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: Tom, how are you doing?

McCarthy: I’m fine. How nice to see you again.

Correspondent: Yes, how nice to see you too. I’ve been advised by you to ask not how you feel.

McCarthy: (laughs)

Correspondent: So now I’m wondering, by asking you how you’re doing, if I’ve betrayed what I’ve just said.

McCarthy: No, no, no. I’m doing a brisk —

Correspondent: Okay.

McCarthy: Briskly.

Correspondent: So we can have at least one bit of small talk. That’s acceptable.

McCarthy: Yeah. (laughs)

Correspondent: Okay. Serge says late in the book that the newspaper headlines have a nice alliterative ring.

McCarthy: Oh yeah. Beaulac bludgeons Mr. Block, bludgeoned in blue Beaulac.

Correspondent: Yes. Similarly, this book — it’s safe to say — that it could be read as a game of monkey see, monkey do. Ecce homo. Insert your bad pun of choice. In a word, there are numerous words beginning with — actually, not in a word, but in several words — there are numerous words that begin with the letter C. Carapace…

McCarthy: Cocaine, cyanide.

Correspondent: Copper, cable, control. You name it. The four parts are named after C. So this leads me to wonder. At what point did this come into being during the course of writing? And I’m wondering if there was a maximum C word count that you established during the course of writing this book. Just to start off here.

McCarthy: It came pretty early. Because the genesis of the book — well, there were several geneses.

Correspondent: Genesii?

McCarthy: Genesii. But one of them was thinking about Carter and Carnarvon, who dug up Tutankhamun. And I knew that a kind of hybrid of those two historical figures was going to be part of — I mean, Serge is a composite of several things. But that’s kind of one part or two parts of it. And so as a marker, I just used the letter C. I said, “Well, Carnarvon. Carter. Let’s just call them C for now.” And it was stuck. I liked the single letter title. It made me think of Sesame Street. You know, how every episode is brought to you by the letter.

Correspondent: C is for cookie.

McCarthy: C is for cookie, right.

Correspondent: But there isn’t a cookie in this.

McCarthy: No, there’s no…there’s no.

Correspondent: You do have cunt at one point.

McCarthy: (laughs) Yeah, that’s true. There was lots of Cs going on. I mean, the caul. With a U. Of the Wolfman. That was where it originally came from. Although quite a few critics later have pointed out that Copperfield — another C.

Correspondent: The Jennifer Egan review.

McCarthy: Yes, of course. And several others. And other people who have pointed out that, when he’s born, not only does he have a caul. But there is a copper being brought to make a transmission field. And I shouldn’t not take credit for it. Because it’s brilliant. But I wasn’t actually thinking of it at the time.

Correspondent: Well, maybe we can establish how much of the riffing on C was subconscious and how much of it was planned.

McCarthy: Yeah. I mean, that’s the thing. I think of it like pinball. You put a certain number of balls up. And then you hope they’re going to hit some buffers. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you may go into multiple modes. When there’s like three of them all going around the ramps and going crazy. But you’re not going to control every collision and every which lighting up of each little mushroom buffer at which point. So yeah, there were some very deliberate throwings out of different Cs. And not just Cs. A whole change in association along different mutating phonemes that’s really what the book is. More than characterization or whatever.

Correspondent: It was your own little bubbling chemical equation, essentially. With lots of Cs.

McCarthy: Yeah, kind of. Exactly. But you know the really exciting thing was when I remembered C as the chemical sign for carbon. Which is the basic element of all life. And it has a kind of proximity to writing, right? White, black. Carbon paper. CCs. Carbon copies.

Correspondent: BCCs.

McCarthy: A BCC and all this kind of stuff. It just seemed right. It started off as a marker and then it became the main thing.

Correspondent: The carbon association then came late in this act of writing.

McCarthy: No, it came early. But not at the outset. I didn’t start out thinking, “Oh, it’s all going to come down to the sign for chemical carbon.” I hadn’t even remembered that C was the chemical sign for carbon. I never did chemistry in school.

Correspondent: And then, of course, the third novel, C.

McCarthy: Yup. And already D figures in the new one. And the next one as well.

Categories: Fiction

Paul Harding (BSS #364)

Paul Harding is most recently the author of Tinkers.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Tinging with Mingus and tinkering with Tinkers.

Author: Paul Harding

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: We were talking before all this about the idea of novels and whether or not they can actually serve as a handbook for life. Something I don’t necessarily believe in. And I don’t think you do. But I wanted to address that. Because your book, Tinkers, does, in fact, present life. And I’m wondering how you, as a writer or just in general, arrange text as a way to present life rather than dictate life. Was this ever a struggle for you when writing this?

Harding: Not with this. I think I had done my apprenticeship to bad prescriptive moralizing writing and just ended up writing very bad propaganda.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Harding: You know, it was just designed to show people how progressive and enlightened and intelligent I was. And then I’d say the kind of operative word is description. And precision of description. And if you describe things precisely, you end up bearing witness to the truth of your characters — in this case, characters’ lives — in a way that does them the kind of moral justice that’s misplaced when you think you’re going to moralize. For me, it even starts with the writing process. The difference between writing declarative prose and writing interrogative prose. Like I don’t presume that I know something and I’m going to tell you how it is and that afterwards, if you’re lucky, you’ll be as smart as me. What I do is that I try to write interrogatively, discover things, work through revelation. It’s just a type of aesthetic. But then what you leave on the page behind you — when the reader reads what you’ve written, the reader will have the same kind of revelations and moments of recognition. To me, that’s like the greatest experience as a reader. Those moments of recognition. Where you read something and you simultaneously realize, “I’ve always known that’s true. I’ve never thought about it consciously and I’ve never seen anybody put it into language before.” So there’s a kind of morality to that. There’s some sort of confirmation of common humanity or whatever. But it’s not prescriptive, small-minded minor kind of moralizing.

Correspondent: I’m very glad that you brought up description. Because one thing that I really think is interesting about this book is the hyperspecific nature of the description.

Harding: Right.

Correspondent: To offer an example, you have George “reading by the dim light of a small pewter lamp set on the rolltop desk at the far end of the couch.” Now that’s extremely specific. And I’m wondering if that serves as a way for you to get the reader inside George’s head. Or is this a way for you as a novelist to kind of know where everything is situated? The only person I think who writes that hyperspecifically is possibly William Gibson or someone like that. A lot of the 19th century authors do.

Harding: Yeah. And I’ve certainly spent all my reading time trolling around 19th and early 20th century fiction. I mean, I almost think of Thomas Mann’s little preface he has to The Magic Mountain. That we will be long on detail, but when was a book ever short on interest that was long on detail? People would argue against that novel’s glacial — but it’s sort of a bit of both. Which is while I’m writing, I’m blocking the scene out, you know? And since my characters in Tinkers — it’s so interior that I knew from the beginning that I had to keep the world embodied. I had to keep it physically, tangibly present. Because otherwise it would just be feasting on ether. So there’s that. There’s the kind of geography of the room. But then it’s also to make the reader feel like he or she has been put in a real place. Actually put in a place where there’s a chair to your left. There’s a certain physical feeling you get when you feel that there’s a chair to your left and a sofa over here and a painting over there. That sort of thing. I also just believe in the virtue of concrete nouns and verbs. And I think it’s true too that there ends up being something hyperreal, rather than surreal, about it. But there’s really a cool kind of bandwidth of unintended affects that you can’t predict. But you use that process of total precision, almost pointillist precision, that you end up getting into these kind of transcendent or metaphoric realms. But not by lifting up out of the world or evaporating off of it, but by going deeper into what’s imminent. So you’d get so materialistic about it that then it turns into something you don’t recognize and you sort of double back on yourself and it becomes unrecognizable and sort of unsettling and hyperreal. So I love that. I just love that phenomenon.

Correspondent: But it’s not just also in relation to materialism. It’s also in relation to place. Of course, the clock theme that goes throughout with The Reasonable Horologist, which I presume is invented.

Harding: Yeah, that’s all invented.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if that text within the text [The Reasonable Horologist] was included almost as a way to distract the reader from the fact that the text, the prose itself, is almost written in this kind of William James, 19th century mode. And that by having this, you can almost justify the style that you’re doing within the actual prose itself.

Harding: It’s a little bit of — on the most generic level, it’s just to change things up. It’s just to use relief. So much of the book is very somber and funereal and twilit. And this is just a little more verbose and florid, and kind of tongue-in-check. It’s kind of humorous. And so it keeps the textures changing. But, yeah, I think it’s also true. Because the writing is formal and that kind of precision leads to that kind of, “It sounds formal, so it sounds archaic to some extent.” It was also just a fun way to write in that kind of, “Welcome, dear reader, to Reason!” You know, it just worked emotionally with the character, with George the clock repairman. His upbringing was so chaotic and disorderly that the idea of the deterministic, mechanical view of the universe is appealing to him. The idea that you can fix things, that it’s mendable, and that there’s an order to everything.

Categories: Fiction