mikeleigh2

Mike Leigh II (BSS #373)

Mike Leigh’s most recent film is Another Year, which is now playing in American theaters and is very much worth your attention. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #238. There’s a very lengthy review of Another Year from October that relates to this rather unusual interview, which is part straight journalism and part performance.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Making sure to keep the conversation under 40 minutes.

Guest: Mike Leigh

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Are your films, would you say, a Rorschach test? The reason I ask is because two reviews I read at Cannes basically said, “Oh well. These are people who I wouldn’t want to meet at a cocktail party.” And that leads me to think to myself, “Well, actually, if that’s the case, then Mike Leigh did his job. Because he presented such vivid characters.”

Leigh: Look, look, here’s the thing about this. I’m concerned in making films that talk to people. Like anybody, I only want to talk to anybody who wants to listen, who wants to know, who wants to share, or have a conversation with me, as it were. I can’t deal with, or I can’t follow, the kind of media-obsessed, decadent position that can’t decode the film for what it actually is. Which is to say an open, honest look at real people and how real people are, with their needs and all their vulnerabilities. Warts and all. If you can’t embrace that, then go away basically. You’re quoting people at Cannes. Journalists, no doubt, who say that these are people I wouldn’t want to meet at a cocktail party. Well, you know, you’re not going to meet these people at a cocktail party. Clear off to the cocktail party and don’t worry about this sort of film. Because you’re not interested basically. And if you’re not interested, I can’t do anything about it. Real people out there. Which is to say: not journalists. People who are going to go to the movies to enjoy, be stimulated by, be moved by, be upset, be amused, whatever it is by this film. And they’re not preoccupied with all sorts of decadent media nonsense.

Correspondent: Yeah. And certainly I’m in agreement with you on that. But I’m wondering though if it’s getting harder to make these movies. Particularly with the austerity stuff that you have going on in Europe and whether this idea of depicting real life on film is becoming a bigger problem for you. I mean, you’re doing another play, I know.

Leigh: No, no. I’m doing another play for other reasons. I’m not doing another play because I can’t make a film. It’s just that the next film I make will take longer. I have plans. The truth of the matter is this film has the lowest budget I’ve had for a long time. Because of the recession. I don’t know. I can’t talk about whether it’s easier or harder. Because I just get on and do what I do basically. I never discuss the subject matter or even the style of anything of my films with anybody. We just get the money and we make the films. I just get on with it really.

Correspondent: Well, considering the actors, I know that in the production notes were very clear to point out how many times each individual cast member and crew member collaborated with you. Which I thought was actually quite funny. But I did notice that, of all the main cast at least, only three people had worked for you for the first time. And I’m wondering if that’s because of this budgetary issue. Is it harder to find actors who you can go through…

Leigh: No, no, no. It’s absolutely not. It’s not hard at all. We are blessed with huge numbers of actors who have all the time in the world. No, it’s not that. I just chose to cast the people in this film that I did. There’s no significance in it whatever really.

Correspondent: I also wanted to ask about the triangular sandwiches really quick.

Leigh: Say it again?

Correspondent: The triangular plastic sandwiches! There’s one that appears with Joe in his office and he’s clutching it. And then we see it later at the funeral. This seemed to me a very specific choice on your part. Is it reflecting, I guess, the class that these respective characters are in or…

Leigh: Well, I mean, it may do that. But that’s not — I’ve never thought of it in those terms. That is what they would get.

Correspondent: Yes.

Leigh: I mean, if you want to get — they take sandwiches.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Leigh: A hundred miles to this funeral.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Leigh: And you can buy them at well-known department stores. Ready packed in these hard plastic containers. That’s what they got. And the other one is the same. There’s no — I mean, I don’t think in terms of I’m making a statement about working-class life.

Correspondent: Oh, I didn’t mean that at all.

Leigh: Sorry, what did you mean?

Correspondent: I meant it as reflective of their particular station.

Leigh: Well, it is! You know, of course, what you get in my films — lots of films, but my films I’m particularly concerned with it — is the accuracy in the details and minutiae of how people live. And that’s what those sandwiches are.

Correspondent: Sure.

Leigh: Nothing more or less. Also, there’s no Pythagorean meaning.

Correspondent: Or even an encased shroud of plastic consumerism.

Leigh: Absolutely.

Categories: Film

ohagan

Andrew O’Hagan (BSS #372)

Andrew O’Hagan is most recently the author of The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Feeling sartorially inadequate and unwilling to beg for his dinner from the table.

Author: Andrew O’Hagan

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: It is interesting. You want to have the dog smarter than everybody else in the book. And this leads me to ask you about the footnotes in this. I mean, from a formalistic standpoint, well, we view dogs at our feet. And the footnotes, of course, reflect that particular —

O’Hagan: And the dog’s always going to love footnotes because they can identify the position.

Correspondent: Exactly. But initially many of these footnotes are there to clarify little cultural tidbits. Almost gossip. Like: What is Douglas Sirk’s real name? But as we read the footnotes more, they then become very concerned with clarifying specific facts. Almost in a hectoring tone towards the reader. I’m curious about how the footnotes came to be from just this tonal shift that goes throughout the book, and also if you were tempted to allow the footnotes to go maybe further than eight lines at some point. What did you do to keep that down?

O’Hagan: Well, it’s interesting that. If I had my own way, if I lived in a world of pure O’Haganism, then the footnotes would have gone on for volumes and have a Shandy-ian or Borgesian nightmare where the footnotes were longer than the book. I like the comic potential with that sort of thing. And I like the idea that this was a work of bricolage, as the French would say. That it was an attempt to build up phenomenon in the reader’s mind. Which could increase their confidence about what consciousness was. Cause after all, this was really a book about inventing the notion of consciousness for an animal. I built it up from the ground up. And he does say early in that process of life for him — quite early in the book when he’s still in England — he says, “Dogs love digression.” So it made it natural to me that at some point he would start to deploy the footnote. Which is nothing if not a little contained digressionette. I liked the idea that he would occasionally stop the narrative in order to point something out to the reader. To wag a finger or a paw and give a notion of other worlds of knowledge which might be available. Maybe while pointing towards. He’s a friendly little scholar as much as anything else. He’s a pedant too. And all these things are exciting character traits of his to me. So I had to make him stay in character. And it would be in his character to offer footnotes. Even ones that were hectoring or were strictly unnecessary. They add to the entertainment value overall, I feel.

Correspondent: But to go back to what we were discussing earlier about the comedy vs. the tragedy, and how this reflects human life, early on in the book Maf says in one of these footnotes, “Unlike humans, we can hear what people are saying from themselves. And we can sniff illusion.” Later you have Maf finding “the real difference between humans is that some care about authenticity and some don’t care at all.” Why must the humans in this book be so tied or interconnected with authenticity and illusion?

O’Hagan: Because I think it’s an utterly 20th century obsession. The mid-20th century obsession particularly. Hollywood having held such a position in cultural life the world over. American moviemaking created a sensibility in the 20th century. It didn’t just reflect sensibilities. It actually created a mind set. A notion of natural human behavior and democracy, which I often think was illusory too. But then it was very attractive to the world. Very viable. And I knew that this dog was going to be having its life at the center of that. So I wanted these questions — illusion and reality, illusion dipping into delusion, our condition of being overwhelmed by fakery almost — to be something that the dog had an inside view on. An inside view for a number of reasons: (1) Which is that he’s a novelist at heart. And novelists really know what illusion is all about. We are a conjuring artist as a novelist. You’re playing god with lives and experiences and parts of history and vocality and patterns of speech. You know, you are a trickster. And I think that I’ve always been interested in that fact. And I wanted this little avatar of mine. This little novelist manqué, of Maf the Dog, to be somebody who could look at not only the world of Hollywood and psychoanalysis and politics and the early 60s from an insider’s view — which Maf certainly had. The real dog was in all of those worlds with Marilyn at the time. She was a real figure who had very deep experience of illusion. And I wanted to manipulate that for the reader to present an opportunity to look at the relationship between reality and imagination in a fresh way.

Categories: Fiction

murray-paul

Paul Murray, Part Two (BSS #371)

Paul Murray is most recently the author of Skippy Dies.

Play

On December 5, 2010, the Irish novelist Paul Murray encountered one of Mr. Segundo’s many agents before a full audience at Word Brooklyn. The two gentlemen proceeded to talk, with smart audience interjection and Mr. Murray reading from the book, for a little under 90 minutes. Just as the tape ran out, the very patient Word Brooklyn staff wisely put an end to this gabfest. The two gentlemen had no idea they had rambled on for so long. From all reports, neither did the crowd.

The first part of this conversation is available for your listening pleasure as The Bat Segundo Show #370 (also referred to as “Phyllis Presents,” for reasons known only to those possessing the appropriate handbook). It is about 41 minutes long and involves the initial Q&A between Mr. Murray and our most mysterious agent.

The second part of this conversation is available for your listening pleasure as The Bat Segundo Show #371 (which does not possess any alternate name, we are sorry to report). It is about 38 minutes long and features Mr. Murray reading from his latest novel, Skippy Dies, along with further questions from our agent (and many from the crowd). If you listen carefully to this second part, you may be able to detect a broken haiku.

The producers wish to thank Brian Gittis, Stephanie Anderson, Jenn Northington, Sarah Weinman, and (of course) Paul Murray for their great assistance (much of it at the last minute) in making this special conversation happen. We hope to offer similar “live” conversations in the future.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Recoiling from the pleasures of being applauded by a recorded audience.

Author: Paul Murray

Subjects Discussed: The origins of Bethani, the original length of Skippy Dies, storylines cut from Skippy Dies, the narrative need for an adult ballast, the importance of the school as a microcosm, Infinite Jest, open-ended narratives, tradeoffs, the impossibility of second-guessing an audience, Roland Barthes, cartoon sex, absurd editorial exchanges concerning the physicality of mermaids, balancing gender perspective, getting Lori’s emotions right, Catholic schoolboys, amoral characters and teenage beauty, authentic teen voices, requests for a “director’s cut” of Skippy Dies, trying to find uses for scrapped material, when descriptive “transplants” don’t work in revision, and the importance of listening to editors.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Murray: I didn’t want it to be an Infinite Jest level narrative. I think that might have had its day, in fact. That sort of completely open-ended narrative structure. Because once you read Infinite Jest and you get to the end of 1,000 pages and realize he’s not going to tie it all up. Sorry to anyone who hasn’t read the book. The butler did it. That in itself is not quite a gimmick. But it’s a device. And it’s a device that people will get bored of. So you need to find new ways. Roland Barthes, who I read a lot unapologetically, he talks a lot about, “If you destroy something. If you try and destroy something, it just comes back.” Like you just sort of preserve the dialectic. So what you need to do is subvert it by making fun of it or just twisting things and tweaking things. I guess that’s what I was trying to do with the book. I really like — I watch tons of — far too many movies and TV programs and stuff. So I wasn’t coming at it with some kind of Puritanical urge to — like an Alain Robbe-Grillet sense of “I puke on the novel.” I wanted it to be a story that some of the people would enjoy. So yeah, it does look like a lot of elements. It’s got characters and it’s got jokes. It’s got plot twists and stuff. I would argue that it doesn’t work in a sort of three-part type of way. Because Skippy dies at the beginning. And then it tracks back. The first two parts are tracking back. What happened to him. And then the last part is just dealing with the effects of his death. So it is kind of chronological. Quite weird.

Correspondent: Well, what do you trade off when you are writing for the audience like this? Are there certain areas that you went into further? Because the book is very candid about the teenage lifestyle. And drugs and sex and things like that. Did you go further in this earlier draft? Were there things that were perhaps just too off-putting for the audience that you were seeking? I’m just curious.

Murray: I genuinely would try and avoid — I mean, if you start thinking of your audience, then it’s impossible to second-guess an audience. Because people react in ways that you can never imagine. So you’re on a losing streak with that. And also you’ll just freeze up if you start worrying about what people will think. So I tried to avoid doing that. That said, I did have more extreme things happening in earlier drafts. And I think it was because it was hard to gauge the right level of shockingness. And it wasn’t that I wanted to shock people. It was more that I was worried about censoring myself. I was worried that the editors won’t like this scene. So I’m going to leave it in there! Which is a very stupid way of writing a book. But that’s what I did.

For instance, the Bethani character, who writes a lot of these strange porno songs. There were more of those than there needed to be initially. And there’s a very disturbed character called Carl. His stuff was initially — there’s a bit where Carl is at home looking at porn on the Internet and he seems to be looking at this toon porn, which is characters from Disney — Pocahantas and the Little Mermaid, Snow White and so forth — having sense with various other toons. Smurfs having sex.

Correspondent: Imagination or research into this?

Murray: Uh, no comment. But there was a humorous exchange with the publishers. With Penguin. Because initially they were saying, “I think Disney may have copyright on these. So we’re going to have to write to them and say is it okay?”

Audience and Correspondent: (laughs)

Murray: Okay, I don’t know if they’ll go for that. But it turns out.

Correspondent: Did you get any yeses? Yes, it’s perfectly okay for a Snow White and a dwarf 69. Or something.

Murray: (laughs) You know that site!

Correspondent: No, I…no comment!

Murray: That’s one frisky dwarf.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Murray: No, but it turned out that it was legal. It was okay. The Penguin legal department checked this out. It was fine. You could use those references. But there was another bit. A Penguin editorial assistant, who is a very nice and lovely girl called Anna Kelly, said, “You have Pocahontas giving a lickout to the Little Mermaid.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Murray: “Physiologically, that’s not actually possible.”

Audience and Correspondent: (laughs)

Correspondent: Your imagination then!

Murray: “Dear Anna: Thank you so much for that.” So if you know anything about the English publishing industry, then you know it’s run by these very sweet, very polite women. And so there’s this humungously embarrassing email conversation back and forth. “Maybe we should have the Little Mermaid giving a lickout to Pocahantas.”

Audience and Correspondent: (laughs)

Murray: “Oh! That seems like the best solution!”

Audience and Correspondent: (laughs)

Correspondent: Oh boy. Anybody have a question to follow that up with?

Categories: Fiction

murray-paul

Paul Murray, Part One (BSS #370)

Paul Murray is most recently the author of Skippy Dies.

Play

On December 5, 2010, the Irish novelist Paul Murray encountered one of Mr. Segundo’s many agents before a full audience at Word Brooklyn. The two gentlemen proceeded to talk, with smart audience interjection and Mr. Murray reading from the book, for a little under 90 minutes. Just as the tape ran out, the very patient Word Brooklyn staff wisely put an end to this gabfest. The two gentlemen had no idea they had rambled on for so long. From all reports, neither did the crowd.

The first part of this conversation is now available for your listening pleasure as The Bat Segundo Show #370 (also referred to as “Phyllis Presents,” for reasons known only to those possessing the appropriate handbook). It is about 41 minutes long and involves the initial Q&A between Mr. Murray and our most mysterious agent.

The second part of this conversation will be available very soon for your listening pleasure as The Bat Segundo Show #371 (which does not possess any alternate name, we are sorry to report). It is about 38 minutes long and features Mr. Murray reading from his latest novel, Skippy Dies, along with further questions from our agent (and many from the crowd). If you listen carefully to this second part, you may be able to detect a broken haiku.

The producers wish to thank Brian Gittis, Stephanie Anderson, Jenn Northington, Sarah Weinman, and (of course) Paul Murray for their great assistance (much of it at the last minute) in making this special conversation happen. We hope to offer similar “live” conversations in the future.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Recoiling from the pleasures of being applauded by a recorded audience.

Author: Paul Murray

Subjects Discussed: The influence of cinema, Gene Tierney, Glengarry Glenn Ross, the “Intelligent Eye” system, constructing a soundtrack for life, characters who flee reality, Anthony Lane and the Beijing Olympics, the camera increasingly pervading existence, Murray’s hero worship of David Lynch, balancing audience demand for traditional logic with shocking character revelation, Twin Peaks, not making sense as a bold aesthetic move, David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Lynch vs. Pynchon, David Shields’s Reality Hunger, excavating the old in the quest for new fiction, Tristram Shandy, the importance of having a big nose, gutting from reality, Russell Hoban’s “feeling unreal is an essential part of reality,” mid-century Irish naturalistic writers, Irish fiction’s failure to interrogate modernity, video games as a teenage refuge, gamebooks of the 1980s, the Walkman as a shift in the way we perceive reality, The Legend of Zelda, Team Fortress 2, Shigeru Miyamoto, computer games and narcissism, Skippy Dies‘s slips into second person, the frustrations with maintaining a dimwit first-person perspective in An Evening of Long Goodbyes, the Celtic Tiger, writers and bank statements, the unexpected rise of phones in Ireland, lattes in Ireland, working in a cafe without comprehending focaccia, Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches, ineffectual use of outdoor jacuzzis in Ireland, property fairs, Robert Graves and the Great War, Gallipoli, World War I Irish involvement erased from the history books, the Church and child abuse, Michael Durbin of The Irish Times, derivatives, and whether the novelist is guilty in ignoring certain narratives while coating reality within a fantasy.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Murray: It needed to be structured in a way that wasn’t linear and that wasn’t naturalistic. Because I just don’t think like that. I wasn’t trying to be experimental. I just thought that, if you are a kid nowadays, your life is not very linear and it’s not very naturalistic. Because you’ll spend most of your time looking at your phone or looking at a screen. Or watching the TV. You’re very rarely actually where you are. Do you know what I mean? I guess maybe that’s part of the human condition. Never to be actually tuned into what’s around you. But it seems like the whole thrust of the 21st century is just to take us further and further and further away from where we are. And further away into strange digital fantasies.

Correspondent: And this probably explains why so much of Skippy is about this meshing between reality and fantasy. That, in your efforts possibly to examine life with these delimiting technological factors, you’re saying that it led inevitably to this blur between reality and fantasy?

Murray: Yeah, I think that’s what you do when you’re a kid. As I say, when I was a kid, there was no Internet. And computer games — I wasn’t quite Pong era.

Correspondent: Asteroids maybe.

Murray: Yeah. But I think the teenage — the way you kind of cope with the stresses of being a teenager is to take refuge in TV shows or films or computer games. Like I was really into those — well, I wasn’t into role playing. But there were these gamebook things.

Correspondent: Oh yeah.

Murray: Where you rolled the dice and fought orcs.

Correspondent: Yeah. Like the Lone Wolf books?

Murray: Yeah! Yeah! Totally!

Correspondent: I totally played those. They were great.

Murray: Don’t tell anyone.

Correspondent: It’s on tape, I’m afraid.

Murray: Ah! Again with the orcs! Oh no! When are the orcs going to get along?

Correspondent: I know.

Murray: That’s what you do. You’re constantly — like when I was growing up, the Walkman arrived, you know? And I’m going to argue that the Walkman is a major shift in the way we perceive reality. Because for the first time, you can carry music around you. And you start narrating your life. Like the self-narration just shifts gear. Shifts higher up. And that kind of process is — as I say, what technology gives us is more and more elaborate ways of doing that. So the kids in the book, because they’re young and they’re afraid and they’re lost, they take refuge. The big example is Skippy. Skippy’s this fourteen year old, quite reclusive boy who is addictively playing this computer game. Kind of a Legend of Zelda-like computer game. And have you ever played?

Correspondent: Zelda? Yeah, yeah. That thing sucked too many hours out of my life.

Murray: Yeah, it’s crazy.

Correspondent: Now it’s Team Fortress 2. If we’re going to be professional.

Murray: Yeah?

Correspondent: Oh yeah. Oh god.

Murray: Okay. We can talk about this later.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Murray: I mean, I’m not a huge computer games player. But my brother had a — whatever the machine was to play Zelda.

Correspondent: NES.

Murray: And it’s the same guy. The same game designer. The guy who invented Donkey Kong back in the ’70s has now done Legend of Zelda. And he creates these incredible worlds that are so powerful and are like art forms in some ways. In the richness of detail and in the beauty of them. But they’re not like art forms in the fact that they don’t challenge your perception. They don’t challenge you as a person at all. They make you like the master of this world that you find yourself in. Which is like a really narcissistic kind of fantasy. And the kids lose themselves in these fantasies of control and power. You know, like the same way if you walk down the street and you’re listening to Tupac, you kind of imagine that you’re Tupac. And even if you’re fourteen and very small, if motherfuckers come at you, look out. So that’s what you’re doing. I guess the really obvious conceit of the book is that that’s what everybody’s doing these days. That as an adult, being an adult or being mature is less and less part of the adult experience. Instead, being old and adult is someone with more spending power who can buy better enhancers or escapes from reality. Part of the reason the world is so — I’m trying to say fucked — is because we feel less and less responsibility for the world around us. Instead we’re just fleeing into whatever Apple has just produced and for a thousand dollars.

Categories: Fiction

paolobleft

Paolo Bacigalupi (BSS #369)

Paolo Bacigalupi is most recently the author of Ship Breaker. His short story collection, Pump Six, has been recently issued in paperback.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Attempting to juggle several bleak futures.

Author: Paolo Bacigalupi

Subjects Discussed: How to stay writing after getting four novels rejected, Schopenhauer and the will to write, Mr. Bacigalupi’s bleak temperament, the relationship between personal temperament and fictional temperament, why short fiction markets are more open to a dark vision, talking specifically about specifics, imaginative detail in Bacigalupi’s early stories, William Gibson and hyperspecificity, permitting the reader to fill in the gaps, improvisation and what details emerge from the memory banks, devising an imaginative concept vs. the influence of phrasing, the relationship between language and spontaneity, the importance of manipulative violence, whether or not addicts can be sympathized with, stylistic momentum, past tense verbs and participles, getting annoyed with language tics, getting self-conscious about repetition, the frequency of words, the mysterious obsession of the (ology) site, John Banville, using the word “spray,” dreaming space, cannibalizing from the four unpublished novels, uprooting reader expectations through the Windup reading order, origin stories, the disadvantages of writing within established universes, cheshires and megadonts, contending with the logical fallacies of a really cool imagined creature, how the location of a calorie company created numerous narrative variables, the influence of Katrina on the Windup universe and the Ship Breaker universe, descriptive teeth and metaphorical Teeth, the inspirational qualities of biting and tearing, body metaphors, analyzing one’s own writing patterns, J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun, speculative narrative extrapolated from details in the present moment, consequential details vs. making things up, global warming, liquified coal, applying an aesthetic to data points, Lewis Carroll, missing hands and facial scars, Heinlein’s Friday, the Dauntless, James Lennox Kerr, Patrick O’Brian, Citizen of the Galaxy‘s heavy influence, and extrapolating from facts vs. extrapolating from books.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Bacigalupi: It’s almost all improvisation, actually. Very little is planned out. There’s a detail that I have in my bank. And I use it. And you’re always acquiring material, whether that’s from visiting your in-laws or whether that’s from reading a novel. If it’s somebody else’s novel, you’re reading some natural history of the world. Whatever it is. You’re always gathering material. And so then it’s just there. And I don’t even know why, oh, at this moment, I’m looking for a detail that does this kind of a thing. I want to indicate the scope of the world. Or in this particular case, I want to indicate the scope of the calorie companies. Things like that. And, okay, where can I go to do that? What do I have in my repository that seems like it’s a useful tool for that? And then I’ll start pulling things down. So is there an intention that I have? There’s something I want to illustrate. There’s an experience I want to get deeper into. Then which pieces are going to go into it? That’s very much on the fly.

Correspondent: In terms of this being on the fly, how does this work in relation to you devising an imaginative concept versus language? Does phrasing sometimes kickstart a concept more than what you have in the bank, so to speak? I mean, I note for example “cillin” instead of “penicillin.”

Bacigaulpi: Right.

Correspondent: Little things like that we often find in your universes.

Bacigalupi: Right.

Correspondent: So the question, I suppose, is how much language motivates the spontaneity versus how much some leg that you have motivates that particular spontaneity?

Bacigalupi: I don’t know. It’s sort of a combination. You know, the spot where I actually remember a piece of language inspiring me to write a story was more connected to “The People of Sand and Slag.” When I wrote that short story, there had been a little piece of microfiction that I’d written. I had written a paragraph. And it was all about these people lying out on the beach and chopping each other up. And it was sort of compelling. But I didn’t have any idea what to do with it. But I liked the prose. I liked the rhythms of it. And there was something so bizarre about it that I knew that I liked it. That became a part of the bank. That went in and sat there for a very long time until, much later, I was starting to play around with some other concepts for “The People of Sand and Slag.” And suddenly that thing was there. Oh, I get it. These people are immortal. These people are regenerative. They can do all of these things. And this is the perfect illustration for this cascade. And so this piece of — we’ll call it “poetic prose,” and almost none of it survived or entered into the story. But the prose of that, the experience of it for me, resonated for me strongly enough that it could then form an entire piece.

Correspondent: Well, I’m glad you brought that up. Because I actually do want to ask about a recurrent theme. It’s here in Ship Breaker as well. In “Sand and Slag,” we have violence directed towards girls or women. The Windup Girl has that with Emiko. “The Fluted Girl,” of course, has that. And it concludes on an act of revenge. I’m curious as to why you are really drawn to the kind of really degrading violence towards girls and women like that. Whether it’s just part of the bleak temperament or you feel that that’s really a good way to get the audience to feel sympathy towards these particular characters. Or whether it’s just an environmental reality that you need to convey.

Bacigalupi: Honestly, I think this actually comes in different moments for different stories.

Correspondent: Yes.

Bacigalupi: And you’re really illustrating very specific things. The violence that you see for Emiko is pretty manipulative violence. Because you’re really trying to get to a point where you generate enough empathy for her, so that later on she can go on a slaughterfest. And that you feel that that’s entirely reasonable. One of the things that’s interesting to me is that I felt very comfortable depicting her being degraded at one early point in the story and yet I didn’t depict her doing the slaughter later on. And the reason is, I don’t want to lose — I want to maintain character empathy in her. And if you see more than just the blood on the walls, if you see her tearing every single piece of meat and bone out of every one of her enemies, then you might not have that later empathy for her at the very end of the story. And so a lot of this is just manipulation honestly. It’s just flat-out manipulation. And it’s interesting. So in “The People of Sand and Slag,” the guy is the one being dismembered as an experiment in sex fun. And so I’m not sure. It definitely shows up every once in a while. “Softer,” the woman is definitely killed by her husband. And that one too has some disturbing aspects. Who knows? Maybe I’m a misogynist.

Correspondent: I’m not going to go ahead and put that label down. But I am curious about this. We’re talking about manipulation vs. empathy. And this also leads me to ask you about Lopez in Ship Breaker. The father. He’s a very brutal character. I’m wondering if there were efforts on your part to try to make him more sympathetic. When does a character, I suppose, become violent? Almost serving as a manipulative way to get the audience to sympathize with the hero?

Bacigalupi: Right. Yeah, with Lopez — Richard Lopez, he’s sort of based on my own — I had a next door neighbor who was sort of a crystal meth addict. And so I’ve never really had much sympathy for addicts anyway. And so I was perfectly happy to have that villain role fulfilled by him. Honestly, I wanted to illustrate a certain — in a lot of ways — over-the-top idea about what point you look around at family and say that family is no longer family. That they aren’t really valuable anymore. That they need to be done away with. And I tend to think of almost all human relationships as contingent relations. Everything is dependent on good behavior. I don’t really believe in the idea of family as family, or that friends are friends. It’s whether or not, every day, you’re sort of earning your friendship or earning the connections and support of your family. And vice versa. And so, for me, I just really wanted to illustrate Richard Lopez’s break with any sense of his obligations. The mutual obligations of family.

Categories: Fiction

ozick3

Cynthia Ozick II (BSS #368)

Cynthia Ozick is most recently the author of Foreign Bodies. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #210.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why Henry James forces him to have alarming dreams.

Author: Cynthia Ozick

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Ozick: The joy of dialogue. Oh, dialogue! It took me such a long time how to learn how to do dialogue. And I think I learned it from a single book. Which is Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. Which I actually studied to see how he made it concise and dramatic. And I think once you know the character, you have the voice. I suppose you could say that once you have the voice, you have the character. But I don’t think it works like that for me. Once you know the character, you can hear the character speak. And of course, they all speak in their own voices. I don’t know if that’s really related to music. I think that’s more related to seeing. Because you see the character. And if you see visually the character, then if I am looking at you, the voice that comes out of you is naturally yours. Because I see you. Whereas music is this mystery of mathematics. Including Confucius, music and math go together. And that’s a wonder about E.M. Forster. He’s one of the few writers who was very musical. I mean, seriously musical. And that’s in his writing as well. But I think the link with writing is more painting. We see this. It’s so interesting. John Updike had the ability to draw and write. So did Thackeray. Kipling. There are others. I can’t think of them now, but they’re so many linkages in writing and art. In other words, the pen and the eye. Whereas music is abstract math. So that’s where the voices come from. From the eye, I think.

Correspondent: It’s interesting that you mention Greene. Because of course, we know him for the colon. And in terms of looking at your dialogue in this book, what is rather interesting is that sometimes you have almost a Marianne Wiggins-like dash. And sometimes you have the quotes. I’m curious to the methodology behind that. How that developed.

Ozick: Well, that was pretty simple. I needed to have a dialogue in the historic present, so to speak. And dialogue before then. So for the earlier dialogue, I used the dash to distinguish it from the dialogue that’s occurring in the now. Even though the now is in the past tense. Because I have to confess. I have a lot of trouble with our common currency of present tense. Despite those great books of Rabbit [Angstrom]. I was once standing in a group of writers and was so humiliated. Because I mentioned my prejudice against writing in the present tense. And Updike was standing at my right elbow and said, “Well, my Rabbit books are in the present tense.” That was not a good moment. (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, why the aversion specifically to present tense? It’s used a lot more, I think, now than it was thirty years ago.

Ozick: Absolutely. It’s ubiquitous. I don’t know. It just seems that it spoils storytelling. Because it escapes from the magical “Once upon a time.” This happened once. If it’s happening now, then there’s almost no history in it. It destroys the past. And, of course, you see that writers who write in the present tense have to go back and deal with the past. You see that they then have to revert to past tense anyway. And it has a kind of inconsistency. And it’s simply unpleasant to me.

Correspondent: You’re saying that a novel really should present itself almost as a sense of history.

Ozick: Exactly. It’s a story that happened. Not a story that’s happening. And I guess that really needs to be explored. Why should a story that happened be better than a story that’s happening? I don’t know. Help me. Why?

Correspondent: Well, I think when you have a situation like — there was a book by Elliot Perlman called Seven Types of Ambiguity. Named, of course, after the great text. I mean, I like the book. But it has this really absurd situation because it’s written in the present tense. And the narrator’s going, “He’s hitting me.”* When I read this, I thought, “This is just utterly preposterous.” It immediately takes you out of the story.

Ozick: (laughs) Right!

Correspondent: If he “hit” him, right. But “He’s hitting me.” It’s like — wait a minute.

Ozick: Then how can you be writing?

Correspondent: How can I be participating in this? But with the past tense, you can feel a greater sense of participation in the activity.

Ozick: You can believe in it!

Correspondent: Yes!

Ozick: You can believe in it. I mean, it really helps the suspension of disbelief if you present it as a history. And isn’t this the beginning of the modern novel? My Man Friday?

Correspondent: (laughs)

Ozick: We’re supposed to believe that.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Ozick: And we do. Because it’s written like a history. No, I think you hit it when you said it has to do with history. And maybe that is a problem — if there is a problem — with much of American writing today. That it is rather amnesiac.

* — In all fairness to Mr. Perlman, I feel compelled to issue a slight correction. I told Ms. Ozick that I remembered the phrase “He’s hitting me” from Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. It has been a good six years since I read Mr. Perlman’s book — sent to me with a handwritten note by Ami Greko, one of the few publicists back in the day to grasp the litblog medium that is now simultaneously ubiquitous and passe. But I can find no indication of the phrase “He’s hitting me” within Perlman’s book. Yet the specific passage I was trying to remember when Ms. Ozick put me on the spot, presented below and written in the present tense, does indeed reveal how the reader can be thrown off when violent gerunds are involved. It still reads as absurd and remains just as applicable to the conversation at hand. This funny little episode also reveals how a fatal expressive error can be misremembered years later, perhaps subject to the same “rather amnesiac” problem with American writing that Ms. Ozick mentions. Authors, take heed when using the present tense!

“I’m going to fucking kill you!” I scream at him. I am punching his face repeatedly, left then right again and again against the smooth stone paving and I am going to kill him. He is squeezing tighter. I am killing him. I am trying to kill him as Anna is pulling me off. She has her arms around my shoulders. She uses all her strength to drag me off him. (80, U.S. hardcover)

(Image: Zugoli Lany)

Categories: Fiction

straightsthumb

Susan Straight (BSS #367)

Susan Straight is most recently the author of Take One Candle, Light a Room.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Exploding Roman candles overlooked by the elite.

Author: Susan Straight

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Straight: I think what I’m trying to say about America is that it’s a series of villages. And everyone has a village. Again, people stay or people leave. But the idea that Americans want to forget that you come from a village — whether it’s the Upper East Side or Clackmannan Parish — that’s your village and you have to honor it. Fantine is the ultimate rootless traveler who goes on the road trip from hell with her father. Her father was really a pivotal character to me. I thought about Gustave and Enrique for months before I wrote this. And I wrote two short stories about them. The way that they became brothers was based to me on a true story told to me by an elderly neighbor. He came to my house for me to write letters to him. Because he couldn’t read or write. And I wrote letters to the VA. He was missing a little finger from the Korean War. And he was still trying to get money for it. And I grew up with his son. So he would come to my house. And I would write letters for him. And one day, we were sitting on the porch. And he told me this story of how he was an orphan. I mean, his dad was killed when his mom was pregnant with him. And he was seven years old. And he was hungry. And he wanted some meat. And nobody would give him any meat. No one would go get any meat. So he took a hammer. He walked three miles. He found a pig on a farm, killed it, dragged it three miles back to his house. Seven years old. And said, “Cook me some meat.” So that to me — the Enrique/Gustave — those are the men that I grew up listening to their stories of immense deprivation. Of walking fifty miles to go find a job. Of not ever having a mother and father, and making themselves into brothers. So that meant a lot to me too. That family at the end of the Clackmannan Parish Delta would say, “We’re still here.” It doesn’t matter what you do to us. We will still be here. Enrique was a big part of that for me.

Correspondent: Related to this desperate hunting, I have to ask you: Where did you get the idea of wrapping bacon around a gunshot wound as a home remedy? I asked a forensic science masters. I asked a medical student. And they had not heard of this. And I had not heard of this.

Straight: (nodding her head)

Correspondent: Aha! You did.

Straight: My mother-in-law told me that. My mother-in-law, I miss her so much. She died the year that that youngest child was born. And the last thing we whispered in her ear was that I was pregnant with her third granddaughter of our family. I mean, she had twenty-five grandchildren. My mother-in-law could have been born in Mississippi. She could have been born in Arkansas. She could have been born in Calexico. Nobody ever knew where she was born. We had to get her a birth certificate when she was fifty. My mother-in-law told me that when they were so poor — probably in Mississippi — that you would wrap bacon around the wound or salt meat. More likely salt meat. And that the salt pulled out the infection. She told me that when my children were really, really young. I mean, I knew her from the time I was sixteen on. And [my daughter] Rosette had this horrible infection on her leg. And we couldn’t figure out what it was. And we had tried everything. Antibiotics. Everything. One night, it was as if my mother-in-law spoke to me. And I had a piece of maple cured bacon. Farmer John. Stupid maple cured bacon. And I took that part. And I put it on Rosette’s wound. And I wrapped a dish towel around it. And the only thing I had to tie it with was Christmas tool. Like wrapping ribbon.

Correspondent: Wow.

Straight: She kept it on all night and all morning. Pulled it off. And the infection came out with the piece of bacon. It was the most disgusting thing you can imagine. And her wound healed over. And I just thought, “Okay, this is Alberta telling me what to do from the beyond.” And that’s exactly where that came from.

Correspondent: I’m shocked that, if this has happened, no mystery novel has picked this up. Or anything like that.

Straight: Exactly!

Correspondent: It sounds like the coolest way to get rid of a wound.

Straight: I took her to the dermatologist, who was Chinese. And she was like, “No, that’s not true. That’s not true at all. It couldn’t have happened.” And she dug a big hole in Rosette’s leg after that. And Rosette has a horrible scar now.

Correspondent: Oh wow.

Straight: So for us, the bacon. We should have just stuck with Grandma Alberta.

Correspondent: Quite literally, you must bring home the bacon.

Straight: Well, the sad thing is that that is one of those folk remedies that was passed down to me from my mother-in-law. Along with the title of the book. Take One Candle, Light a Room is something I’ve heard some older women say at some family reunion. And someone said, “Oh, is that your only child?” And she was like, “Take one candle, light a room.” And I was like, “Wow.” That’s the best phrase I could ever imagine. In a kind of defiant way to say, “Yes, I have one child. And that’s all I ever needed to make my life.” So everything I’ve been given like that is kind of like a gift from listening, I think. I’m the person who listens.

Categories: Fiction