Category : Fiction
Category : Fiction
Michael Crummey is most recently the author of Galore.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if you can rent a motel room in the whale of a belly.
Author: Michael Crummey
Subjects Discussed: Childbearing in poor families, grisly deaths and irresponsible life decisions, infant mortality in the early 20th century, the relationship between historical investigation and magical realism, Crummey’s intense dislike of the term “magical realism,” dominant spectres and other ghosts, how the stench of death encourages the reader to get acquainted with new characters, the complexities in basing novels on historical events, aligning Galore‘s narrative to the Great War, not mentioning dates, the advance of religion before medicine in 19th century Newfoundland, the dissolute nature of Father Phelan, the netherworld beneath the real world, the truck system and fishing unions, whether Yoknapatawpha-like organization is required in building a world, avoiding Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and learning to love it, alcoholic opera singers, balancing multiple characters into a narrative coherence, being saved by having family characteristics, being influenced by Marquez, another book as a road map, the unavoidable serendipity of reading, “happening” onto books with which to inspire a novel, Moby Dick, riffing on other people’s work, being suspicious of magical realism, magical realism as a cheat, not being able to talk about Newfoundland folklore, the importance of mechanical laws in the telling of the story, what readers are willing to accept, the song “Jack Was Every Inch a Sailor” as an unexpected inspirational force, magical realism as an interpretive notion similar to the Bible, and having faith in characters and fakery.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: In terms of character balancing, if you’re running into the jungle and wildly whacking around with a machete, there needs to be something systematic. Particularly if you hope to arrange it in any sort of coherence.
Crummey: (laughs) Right. Well, I definitely had particular themes the book was following that, in a way, matched the trajectories for each of these characters for each of the generations. I was playing with the whole notion. Newfoundland is a tiny place. About a half million people. I mean, it’s big geographically. But it’s a tiny community. Half a million people today. A hundred years ago, I think it was less than half of that. And a hundred years before that, it was miniscule. Maybe twenty, thirty thousand people. So everybody’s related. And the gene lines between those generations. I mean, there are researchers from all over the world in Newfoundland studying because they can map how these genes crossed generations. Because there’s been so little contamination. For lack of a better word. So I wanted to play with that in the book. So when I started off with Judah, for example, I knew that the book was going to end with a direct descendant of Judah — and, of course, some of Judah’s characteristics; the smell, the white skin, and all that sort of stuff was passed on. And I knew that I wanted the book to end with someone who was in some way saved by being the direct descendant and having those characteristics. So all the way along, of course, I have this map to follow where these particular characteristics had to be passed down and then to do something interesting with those characteristics, all the way along, before I got to this end point.
Correspondent: Does this explain in part some of the copious cock imagery throughout the book? I mean, lots of blades and penises.
Correspondent: Lots of propagation I found.
Crummey: Yeah. Well, I mean, partly that was homage to [Gabriel Garcia] Marquez as well.
Crummey: Because every penis in Marquez is monstrous.
Correspondent: Yes. No pun intended.
Crummey: It’s huge. And that was just something else again I stole from Marquez. (laughs) But the whole sense of propagation — I mean, this was a place that was incredibly difficult to survive in. And my sense of it is that only people with an incredible life force in them would have made it.
Correspondent: This explains in part the considerable virility of many of these characters.
Crummey: That’s right. And it is rather astonishing when you go to the old graveyards in Newfoundland. The graves seem primarily to be divided into two categories. There are people who died before they were fifteen, often of some disease or drowning or whatever. And then there are people who died when they were ninety-eight. So the people who were strong enough to survive past the fifteenth year seemed to go on forever. So there is a sense of unbelievable stubborn virility in these communities. And often, sometimes there’s not much life-affirming about it even. I wanted to get that sense across and, in some sense, it just seems like a stupid animal stubbornness that keeps these people going.
Correspondent: Well, based off your research, what’s the dip like in terms of the middle aged? In terms of death.
Crummey: Well, I mean, to be fair, I would say that most people didn’t live much past fifty-five. Right? And that fifty was considered to be old. And in every community, there’s this group of people who live to ancient years. But for most people, I think they were broken by the life they were supposed to live. By the time they were fifty, they were probably crippled by the work that they were forced to do and by the fact that women, in particular, probably started having children in their teens and would continue to have them until it killed them almost.
Correspondent: I’m curious. You’ve brought up Marquez a couple of times. And I’m wondering at what point during the writing did you shake off the inevitable yoke of influence?
Crummey: Right. Well, I mean, I was a little concerned when I first started talking about this book with people about even bringing Marquez up.
Correspondent: You brought him up here. Just for the record.
Crummey: I’m much more comfortable with it now over time. Because it’s ridiculous. There’s Marquez and then there’s me. But I think the thing that gave me the courage to try the book was the fact that I felt like Newfoundland and Newfoundland culture was every bit as rich and bizarre and otherworldly and maddening as the world that Marquez was writing about. And I trusted that to create its own uniqueness as I wrote the book. So it made me unafraid to steal what I needed from Marquez and to see that almost as a road map for a way to tell the story. Because I knew that the stories and the places I was writing about were so unique onto themselves that they could create their own. If I let them be, they could create their own world. And I feel like I did that. A lot of people when they read this book, I think, think of Marquez. But I haven’t — at least I haven’t heard anyone yet — heard anyone say it’s just a Marquez knockoff. Because the place itself is so completely different. It stands on its own feet as a culture.
Correspondent: It was more of a narrative canvas. A map on the wall with which to go ahead and put your pushpins in.
Deb Olin Unferth appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #386. She is most recently the author of Revolution.
PROGRAM NOTE: Just before the tape rolled, Our Correspondent, who met with Deb Olin Unferth at a Vegan restaurant, had casually mentioned (in an entirely different context) that he was a meat eater. Our Correspondent’s revelation was rejoined by a scowl from a man sitting directly behind Ms. Unferth. The scowl was so minatory that Our Correspondent, not an especially homicidal individual, wondered if he had killed a few random New Yorkers on the way to the restaurant. And then he realized that he had unthinkingly revealed his carnivorous habits in a Vegan restaurant. Had the story stopped there, it would not be worth reporting. But as it turned out, the Vegan’s fury made its way into our program. At about the 35:30 mark in this program, Ms. Unferth noted that a strange man was photographing both she and Our Correspondent through the window, just outside the restaurant. And this wasn’t just a one-time snapshot, but multiple angles. For all we know, there are photographs of us on some “meat is murder” website. Our Correspondent fully accepts the blame for his gustatory effrontery. Our Correspondent respectfully requests that Ms. Unferth, who is a very nice person and not a meat eater, not be implicated in any Angry Vegan movement that arises from this conversation.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he accidentally signed up for a revolution sometime in the late 1980s.
Author: Deb Olin Unferth
Subjects Discussed: The nonfiction volume Revolution containing echoes of the fictional Vacation, the Bowles-like distinction between tourist and traveler, Unferth’s early efforts to write about her Nicaraguan experiences as a murder mystery, Minor Robberies as a warmup for the memorialized document, the key qualities that Unferth sought in a revolution in 1987, the influence of Marxism, taping people for interviews, capturing history, lasting urgencies vs. ephemeral urgencies, how urgencies are captured into text, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, the El Salvador peace accords of 1992, revolutionizing your way into legitimacy, remembering what you did at eighteen, confusion and youth, sufficiently recapturing certain feelings in book form, being harassed by men, violence from men as a deliberate omission, making choices about what to reveal in a book, whether two bad boat tales are balanced by one good tail, having confidence in adages, alliteration, Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, comedy and disturbing situations that are poignant, the pleasant sound of “so say sailors,” whether it’s possible to run away and have it mean something, the fear of being left, being rejected as a writer, early success with McSweeney’s, the inspiration that comes from fleeing, multiple acts of creation, Unferth’s storytelling efforts as a child, unanticipated reverberations in life that aren’t remembered, taking dialogue verbatim from old notebooks, La Prensa and censored newspapers, competing mnemonic notions of what you lived, contending with Angry Vegans taking photographs of Our Correspondent and Deb Olin Unferth, tracking down an ex-fiance, the need for corroboration, the private investigator’s role in assembling the memoir, legal reasons as a convenient excuse, “if I could write the book,” the first question Unferth would say to her ex-fiance, and chronicling the unique voice.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: As the interviewer, I feel compelled to ask why you felt taping the people was the best way for understanding them. You describe this bundle of tapes. And later you were stopped because of these particular tapes. And thankfully they weren’t actually played. But it is rather curious that recording these stories seemed to be the best way for you to try and understand them. Why do you think that was?
Unferth: That’s a good question. I think it was that we felt that maybe the tapes — we would be able to go back and listen to the tapes later. That the tapes would be useful in some way at a later date. That we felt that we could understand the people we were interviewing better and have opportunities to meet them if we had a tape recorder and were saying, “You know, we’re asking questions.” I don’t know. I could ask you the same question. Why do you feel it’s important to interview people?
Correspondent: Well, that’s a good question. Well, to my mind, in some vague way, I perhaps would like to — and this almost sounds hubristic, even though I don’t mean it to sound like that. I would like to think that I’m recording a history of some kind. That let’s say, in ten years, you Deb produce your masterpiece. And we can go back ten years before and see, well, what were you thinking before these germinations? The three books leading up to what ended up being an even bigger book. Well, there’s the trajectory right there. It’s also why I like to talk with people multiple times. I’ve talked with TC Boyle now four times. And even then, I find that he’s a little bit different each time. So maybe history was perhaps the draw for you at a very young age?
Unferth: Yeah. But if I think about you, and what you do, it seems like you’re also recording the echoes of contemporary culture.
Unferth: So you are getting — because you’ve interviewed quite a few people. So you’re getting a wide swath of contemporary letters and what are people thinking about in contemporary letters at this time.
Unferth: And so I would say that it’s a similar thing to what we were trying to do. To establish the tone and the concerns of liberation theologians and people who were involved in these revolutions at the time.
Correspondent: We have to capture the present moment in an effort to see it differently five years from now. Or ten years from now. Or twenty years from now.
Unferth: That’s true. Yeah.
Correspondent: Does text for you serve the same function? Or a similar function? Or is it a little bit different? By coming at it from memory, from research, from your notebooks at the time, I presume. You allude to those in the book. What is the effort of this cycle for you? What is the ultimate purpose? That’s a very general question. But since we’re talking about this.
Unferth: The ultimate purpose of writing Revolution?
Correspondent: Yes! Exactly!
Unferth: Well, I mean, it felt like an urgent thing to do. It felt like I really really wanted to write it. Which is also how it felt with Vacation and Minor Robberies. And I haven’t felt that way about many other things in my life. So I would say that’s the primary thing. It’s a personal urgency. And just a desire to untangle the questions that were being asked for myself. But then if I look at it with a broader — like what place does this book have? I really wanted it to contribute to the conversation about memoirs. Was one thing. I wanted to be thinking about what a memoir is. And I wanted to expand that a little bit. I wanted to do something a little different from most memoirists. Because I feel like memoir is such an interesting form. And then I wanted to write a coming-of-age story that isn’t quite as simple as “something is learned and then someone grows as a result of it.” I mean, I think that there are so many different ways to approach coming-of-age stories. And so in this one, it’s almost like someone becomes slowly disillusioned. And that’s how the coming of age is accomplished in some way. So I think that was part of it. And then also I think my continued fascination with those countries — especially Nicaragua. Nicaragua to me just seems like such a fascinating place. And El Salvador. Both just fascinating places. And they were these people who did these incredibly courageous things and developed whole philosophies and risked their lives and all these things. And now we’ve just forgotten about it.
Unferth: And I find that to be so heartbreaking. I haven’t forgotten. So I want to talk about it.
Correspondent: Well, to go back to what you were saying at the beginning of that answer about this sense of urgency. It is very interesting to me that you have chosen perhaps the least urgent of all mediums. The book, which takes a long time to write. Which then has to go through editing. Which then has to sit in drydock for two years before it’s published. And then here you are two years later talking about something. And we’re not talking about the urgent moment. This is the difficulty, I suppose, of some of these conversations. Because you’re probably working on something else right now. And yet, that spirit of urgency is what was the guiding principle of this particular project. Why try urgency in such a slow burn medium?
Unferth: Because my moments of urgency last a long time.
Correspondent: Aha! So it’s lasting urgency you seek.
Unferth: Yeah. It’s not that my urgencies aren’t something that sweep in on me and last for a moment and then flee. They just sit inside me for a long time.
Correspondent: So, for you, some of your very taut paragraphs, your one-sentence paragraphs, they’re almost an attempt to capture a lasting urgency. And then the ephemeral urgencies don’t actually make it into your book. Would that be safe to say?
Unferth: What do you mean by my ephemeral urgencies?
Correspondent: Well, would you say that all of your urgencies are lasting? Or is some of it ephemeral?
Unferth: No. Some are. I guess in many ways we’re all sort of a bundle of urgencies, right? We’re all trying to do all sorts of things to stay calm. To try and stay calm. And some of those things are satisfied very easily. Just by eating something if I’m hungry. And others feel deep and existential and possibly without solution.
Unferth: So there are many different levels of urgencies, I suppose.
Correspondent: When your urgencies are captured into text, is it less urgent? Or does it still last?
Unferth: Maybe it feels less urgent once it’s done and out there. Like this particular topic. Now that it’s written and it’s done and the book is out, I don’t feel as urgent about that topic anymore.
(Image: Meghan Kenny)