Lynne Tillman (BSS #392)

Lynne Tillman is most recently the author of Someday This Will Be Funny.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he should laugh today or five years from now.

Author: Lynne Tillman

Subjects Discussed: Giddy book titles, William S. Burroughs as a slob, Flaubert’s writing maxim, how writers stay adolescent, the soul-sucking atmosphere of Forbes magazine, the story behind the writing of the story “Dear Ollie” as perpetuated by Lynne Tillman and Paul Maliszewski, mining from personal history, the death of cats, audience reaction to animals, material that readers fill in themselves, the essaylike trajectory of American Genius echoed in “That’s How Wrong My Love Is” and “Impressions of an Artist With Haiku,” editors who have been confused about what Tillman is trying to teach them, fiction and pedagogical requirements, whether women writers are allowed to play with ideas in the way that men are, Nicholson Baker, neurotic women protagonists, Moby Dick, daily minutiae, when ideas emerge from perspective, American Genius originating from the concept of sensitivity, pronoun happy prose, Tillman’s reluctance to initially name character names and what the reader earns, first name familiarity with celebrities, disconsolate shorthand for people in American Genius, using plain names in Haunted Houses, choosing names that are sturdy, clarifying Tillman’s stance on “backstory,” Hemingway’s iceberg theory, the appropriateness of ambiguity, Method acting, film and theater crossing into contemporary fiction, Antonioni’s L’Aventura and Edith Wharton, architecture indicating people’s positions in life, when certain aspects of fiction are spelled out too much for a reader, Cast in Doubt, approaching sex and relationships from an oblique vantage point, thinking about sex every seven minutes, Weird Fucks and “getting the fucks out of your system,” Edmund White’s sexual imagination, the tongue being privileged with information, Dennis Cooper, Tillman’s apothegmatic moments, whether shame is a necessary component of fiction, Leslie Fiedler and guilt shaping the American novel, and being shocked by what you’ve written.


Tillman: I’m happy that I was finally able to title a book Someday This Will Be Funny. And if you’ve noticed, there’s no story called “Someday This Will Be Funny.”

Correspondent: Exactly.

Tillman: In the book.

Correspondent: It’s literally a grab bag for the reader. They can determine if it’s funny or it’s not funny. Or if it will be funny tomorrow or six years from now.

Tillman: Or never! (laughs)

Correspondent: Irony, it seems! I wanted to first of all start from an unusual tack. In Brandon Stousy’s Up is Up But So is Down, you bring up an interview with Lou Reed and William S. Burroughs where they’re talking about Kerouac. And Reed says he cannot understand how such a great writer was a slob. This is an anecdote you bring up. You’re just fascinated by this. That he just drinks beer in front of the TV. And then Burroughs responds, “Well, Kerouac did that while he was young. And he just grew up to be an old slob.” This is a very interesting pretext to talk about, well, what do you have to give up to be a writer? To stay fresh as a writer? I mean, it’s said that you often have to stay young. Then there’s the Flaubert maxim: “be calm and orderly in your life so you can be violent and original in your work.” So I must ask you, Lynne, in light of the fact that you’ve struck such a variegated crop here yet again, what you had to give up and what have you not given up? I mean, how adult are you? (laughs)

Tillman: Oh, I’m just a child. Totally immature. Give up. Well, I had to give up making a lot of money. I mean, it was never in my legend anyway. I never really thought about it. Only as you get older do you realize that you made a choice in life that is not financially wise. But what do I give up? I don’t think very much. Because this is what I want to do. I guess I give up a certain kind of calm or sanity because trying to write your next story or find your next book, your next novel, what you want to do, can be extremely difficult and painful and there’s no reassurance in it. I guess I’ve given up reassurance in a way. When I worked as a proofreader one week on, one week off — actually at Forbes Magazine.

Correspondent: The ultimate soul-sucking atmosphere.

Tillman: Ultimate! Ultimate. I knew that where I would be for twelve hours a day for five days. And in its tedium, it had its calming effect. And in that time, I didn’t have to think about anything. I just had to be a good proofreader. Which wasn’t that hard for me. But when you’re writing, there are no assurances. So if I’ve given up anything, it’s the sense that I can feel satisfied. Because as any writer will say to you, it’s always the next book you’re worried about.

Correspondent: Yes. You may be giving up assurances, but, on the other hand, you’re getting liberty in return. You’re getting freedom. The question I had was whether there’s some lingering adolescent quality that you’re holding onto or is it really just this idea of getting used to the idea that there is no assurance? That that, in its own way, is also creatively liberating even if you have no specific timetable for when your next story or when your next novel is going to come out of you?

Tillman: I don’t know that those two ideas are entwined with each other. I haven’t given up my childhood in the sense that it’s still a source of material for me. Not that I write autobiographically, particularly; but that whatever the desire was that made me want to be a writer from a very early age, it’s still there. It must still be there. Because I keep going.

Correspondent: I’m glad you brought that up. Because I wanted to bring up “Dear Ollie,” because a person named Lynne Tillman is the author of that letter. What’s also interesting is I know that appeared in 2002 in McSweeney’s, although it’s not actually named in the book.

Tillman: It isn’t?

Correspondent: No. It’s the one credit that’s missing! I can show you.

Tillman: Is it really? Wow. You can show me later.

Correspondent: I didn’t know if you were trying to hide the origins.

Tillman: No! I wasn’t at all.

Correspondent: Really? Okay.

Tillman: That’s probably a mistake.

Correspondent: I mention this because you recently did an interview with Lydia Davis for Electronic Book Review and you said, “By the time I use something autobiographical, it’s not about me and my life.” And we were just discussing that. Your discussion of autobiography triggered this. Does this mean you’re dispensing with emotional investment when you use something autobiographical? Are you, in the case of say “Dear Ollie,” approaching the autobiographical form from an entirely new emotional vantage point?

Tillman: Well, it would be new to me in the sense that I’m working out of stuff that happened. In this case, it had to have happened. Paul Maliszewski edited this section. And we all had to put our last names. We had to use our real names, as far as I recall. And that’s why the name is included. It’s the only time that I’ve ever done that.

Correspondent: Oh really?

Tillman: That the narrator and the author are the same.

Correspondent: You were a friendly witness.

Tillman: Exactly. Or unfriendly.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Tillman: Ambivalent anyway. And that was not difficult material to write about it. I mean, it wasn’t terribly emotional for me.

Correspondent: There was an Ollie?

Tillman: There was an Ollie. And there was a prank. It had to be — Paul wanted a real prank. And I thought, “Well, this was a prank I participated in.” A wonderful practical horrible joke.

Correspondent: This explains a lot. ‘Cause when I read that, it just sticks out. Wait a minute! Why is there this absolute need to correct the public record? Because I think of your work and I think, “I don’t think she’s the kind of person who needs to do this.” But if you were actually asked to do so, this makes complete sense.

Tillman: Oh, it’s completely invented. The writer in there.

Correspondent: Oh, I see! Got it.

Tillman: That’s the invention. I use the device of writing. It had to be a letter. And I use the device of writing to someone who had also been in this situation and who then went on to become a writer. And his characterization of this event, I objected to. And of course, the “I Lynne Tillman” who is writing this objected to it. There was an Ollie. He was a musician. There was no writer.

Correspondent: Well, I’m curious about this idea of autobiography. I mean, when you’re mining from it after you’ve experienced it, after you’ve thought about it, what dregs are left generally? Is there anything left to mine? Are there incidents that are the basis for two separate stories sometimes?

Tillman: Well, it’s not drained of all feeling. But you’re able to see in an incident that you yourself experience, with more distance, a way that it has pertinence for other readers. In other words, it’s not so close to me anymore that I can’t give it up, so to speak. It exceeds my own personal history.

Categories: Fiction

Jaimy Gordon (BSS #391)

Jaimy Gordon appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #391. She is most recently the author of Lord of Misrule.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Praying to equine gods for a better motel room.

Author: Jaimy Gordon

Subjects Discussed: Dancing with award winners, the Gargoyle interview from 1983, how “the best young writers” change in an instant, Michael Brondoli, Tom Ahern, on not being terribly prolific, being cherished by 25 people, Shamp of the City-Solo, battling procrastination, subterfuge by husbands and publishers to get Lord of Misrule finished, inspiration points from John Hawkes, learning Italian, the use of Yiddish words in Lord of Misrule, referring to the same character from multiple vantage points, creating inconsistencies, Two-Tie’s philosophy of the world, private people who scheme, passing time and stories before radio and television, Cynthia Ozick, Marilynne Robinson, the pre-Internet storytelling culture, Steven Milhauser’s Edwin Mulhouse, Kellie Wells, the use of television in fiction, DH Lawrence and sex, staying “young” as a novelist, hanging out with criminals, being preserved by immaturity, the problem of not working enough, joy and ecstasy as a requirement, Nicole Krauss’s refusal to dance, Janet Maslin’s sense of “the exotic,” the National Book Award judges, Gordon’s explanation of her “churlish” speech, “A Night’s Work” as the origin point for Lord of Misrule, characters who escaped the novel, Two-Tie vs. Batman’s Two Face, the problems of drinking a lot, having an uncle as a loan shark, the multiple meanings of dirty books, the many ways that a grown man can get into trouble, using one’s own life as material, being a dark romantic, on not believing in real life, discussing opera with Bill Clegg, challenging Jane Smiley’s notion of the “narrowness of the world,” colors and description, the dangers of falling down the linguistic rabbit hole, unexpected methods of attracting regular readers, astute reviews from horse racing people, happy accidents in the author/reader relationship, vulgar desires to see one’s novel at an airport, the need to love literature, Donald Westlake’s Parker novels, how popular literature chronicles the underworld, Leonard Gardner’s Fat City, Balzac, the myth of pulp, loving horse racing despite its corruption, Czeslaw Milosz’s notion of America as a moderately corrupt country, the complicated emotional connections between humans and animals, and the paucity of fiction dealing with animals.


Gordon: I didn’t think I was writing this for the small presses. I thought that this was a book with some commercial potential. And I eagerly gave it to my then agent, who showed it to a few places and came back and said, “You know, Jaimy, I think you have to face it. You’re still a small press author.” I was very depressed and very mad. My agent and I — she’s a very nice woman, maybe not good for that kind of book — we parted company at that point. And I worked on the manuscript again for a few years. Sporadically. Took out of it some of the Medicine Ed material. About this 72-year-old illiterate groom who knows how to work roots, knows how to do folk magic, and is looking for a home. Trying to make this big score for that purpose. I reworked some of that Medicine Ed material into a separate story, which came out in Witness and I loved the way that that chapter came together. I decided I had to redo the novel that way. But I didn’t finish it before I was overtaken by the deaths of my two parents and other things that happened in the last decade. But anyway.

Correspondent: Did it require an ultimatum from McPherson? “Hey, Jaimy, you better finish this book!” Is this the only way to finish a book for you?

Gordon: At some point, I must have rashly promised him that he could have it by the summer of 2010. I’d even kind of forgotten about that. Because I’d many times vaguely told him, “Well, if no one else will do it, you can have it.” But I had meant to get it out there and sell it. And I do think that I could have probably found someone if I had really asserted myself. Gotten a new agent and so on. But I’m a procrastinator and easily distracted. And I forgot about it. And suddenly McPherson said, “Well, it’s going to be this summer, you know. It has to be this summer because I think this book could be a contender for the National Book Awards.” After I stopped laughing, I said, “Well, alright.” I figured this book has been sitting there. An unmovable, implacable obstruction on my writing table for the last ten years. At the least, I gotta get rid of it. I’ve got to get it out of my way. I said, “Alright. I’ll start revising it.” This was maybe back in May. But I didn’t start revising it. And I found out later that he and my husband, who’s also a writer — a German writer, Peter Blickle — were having conferences. “What are we going to do to get this woman back to work? She has to finish this manuscript!” And somehow McPherson got the brilliant idea of sending me galleys with this corrupt early manuscript. It was even the earliest manuscript.

Correspondent: (laughs) Oh really?

Gordon: They must have sent him the file back before I even took the Medicine Ed material out. And so he sent me galleys. I mean, it’s easier now to generate galleys than it used to be. But he sent me galleys and he said, “Well, this is the book.” This is the book coming out in July. We’re sending this to press on such and such a date. And I was absolutely horrified. The biggest problem in getting back to work on it had been that, for five years, I couldn’t bring myself to read it. I could not make — I mean, it’s really hard to revise a book without reading it. And, for some reason, I just had an aversion to it. I know why it was. I’ll explain in a minute. But at this point, I was galvanized, horrified into reading it. And when I did, I thought, “This is not bad at all actually.” I had even forgotten a few subtle points of the plot. I found that I cried twice when I read it. I thought, “Well, you know, I must really have something here.”

Correspondent: Crying for the good reasons, I hope.

Gordon: Yeah, that’s right! I wasn’t crying because I thought it was so bad. I cried because I was moved at the plights of some of the creatures therein. But anyway.

Correspondent: Ten years of procrastination. I mean, that’s a lot of procrastination. Especially since the book here…

Gordon: Oh, that’s nothing for me.

Correspondent: Really? Nothing? Why do you require publishers and husbands to play such tricks upon you? I mean, some writers make up the excuse, “Oh well, I’m always thinking about the novel!” or “I’m submerging myself in the novel when I’m not doing anything related to the novel.”

Gordon: How about “I was occasionally thinking about the novel?”

Correspondent: Yes!

Gordon: Occasionally I thought about it.

Correspondent: Essentially, you’ve got a “My dog ate my homework” here. So what’s the real excuse?

Gordon: What do I do?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Gordon: Well, both my parents had lingering last illnesses. And they required care. But I was not — I’m one of five siblings. There were plenty of others. But nevertheless, there were very big events in my life. And then there was another family member who was sick. That took time. But what did I do to make myself better? Did I go into my study and write? No. I took Italian lessons. I got passionately involved in opera. In fact, I have to write some kind of a book about opera because I’ve spent so much of my time following opera in the last ten years. It’s the way horse racing was for me at a certain stage. So it’s going to be absolutely necessary for me to make use of it at some point.

Correspondent: Who was the novelist who said that the novel is everything that an author has been thinking about for the last five years?

Gordon: Who was that?

Correspondent: I’m blanking out on the name.

Gordon: The way I heard it, it was ten years.

Correspondent: Ten years. There’s variations of this quote. It seems to me that, for you, it’s actually the five years from forty years ago. Is that safe to say? Do you require a long introspection time before finally getting the project nipped in the bud?

Gordon: The truth is: this novel was substantially written between 1997 and about 2002. I know exactly the date because I was in the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown as a returning fellow on the beginning of a sabbatical in fall 1997. And it just so happened that John Hawkes, who had been my teacher at Brown, was there on a senior fellowship for the month. And I always associated my passionate interest in horse racing and my urge to write about it with him. Because he had written about racetracks in Sweet William and The Lime Twig. That’s probably the most famous of his novels that concern horse racing in any way. He was kind of a fantasist about horse racing, although eventually he bought a crippled old, once great stakes horse. Whereas I had actually worked on the racetrack. And when I saw him in 1997, I said, “I’m finally going to write that racetrack novel. I’m here to start it.” And he said, “Well, make sure you make the horses into real characters in that book.” Which I did, I thought. But it didn’t take an extraordinarily long time to write an advanced draft. I don’t write early drafts. I don’t tear through 400 sheets of paper never looking back. I construct every page and work on every sentence a long time. And I’m really fairly well along by the time I get to the end of the book the first time. But I also do a lot of new writing when I go through those pages again.

Categories: Fiction

Ian Rankin (BSS #390)

Ian Rankin is most recently the author of The Complaints.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Playing good cop and bad cop with his interlocutory approach.

Author: Ian Rankin

Subjects Discussed: The benefits of talking with a Scotsman on St. Patrick’s Day, sartorial description in prose, pleated miniskirts, balancing descriptive detail against dialogue, people who are intended to be larger than life, on not describing the central character, physical descriptions that compete with the expectations of television, Malcolm Fox vs. John Rebus, trying to make a protagonist who isn’t a maverick compelling, the adjacent sounds of garbage being emptied, what tastes in music reveal about character, family and backstory, the connections between Rebus’s father in The Black Book and Rankin’s father, moving past autobiographical connections, Rankin’s early pursuit of an English degree, avoiding the existential possibility of Ian Rankin the Accountant in early years, parents who don’t understand, Woody Allen, the limitation of locations in Edinburgh to write about, Doors Open, financial institutions and cities, Edinburgh as a microcosm for Scotland, the economic collapse as a creative muse, occupations that permit access to every layer of society, Michael Connelly’s start as a journalist, journalists-turned-novelists, sources who retire, making things up vs. research, not getting too close to the police, The Wire, the disadvantages of amateur detectives, Mario Puzo making the mob up in The Godfather, when imagination turns you into an unexpected police suspect, Hide and Seek‘s close similarities to real crime, serendipity, the universal nature of office politics, how much police procedure a writer really needs to know, being oblique enough to be believable, writing a first draft in six weeks, William Gibson, writing and revising on the road, Alexander McCall Smith’s prolificity, the danger of forgetting plot details, eating multiple candy bars per day as an alternative to nicotine addiction, nonsmokers who write convincingly about smoking in fiction, Rankin’s addictive personality, computer games, Iain Banks’s addiction to video games and Scottish roads, Rankin’s addiction to Twitter, being unable to tweet using a European phone due to the draconian wifi costs established by hotels, keeping a diary vs. maintaining a Twitter feed, writers as public property, the drawbacks of instant feedback, Facebook, The Social Network, Twitter as an exercise in editing, eBay addiction, compartmentalizing time, the possibilities of bringing Rebus and Siobhan Clarke back, not having a storehouse of ideas for future books, comics and working on Dark Entries, the creative differences when working with another person’s character, John Constantine, Neil Gaiman, hanging out with Alan Moore, naming characters after literary writers and rock stars in The Complaints, when too many character names begin with the same letter, long and ambitious novels, biases against shorter novels, Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the poet’s talent of distillation, the rising market share of ebooks, commercial forces and maintaining a mystery series, attracting new readers for a series, parallels between the publishing and the music industries, speculating on a future industry of freelance editors, independent bookstore alternatives to Borders, the modest revitalization of vinyl, the frequency of cheek gestures within The Complaints, repeating words and phrases, intrusive commas, manuscript fatigue, becoming part of the old guard mystery writers, and keeping books fun after multiple books.


Correspondent: Michael Connelly, who was also a journalist at one point, has discussed how he was worried that, as a journalist, a lot of his sources and a lot of his contacts would possibly go away. And this would prevent him from getting a lot of really interesting stories that he could put in his novels. I’m wondering if you’ve faced anything similar to that with your network of sources. Or whether you have accidentally burned a source. Have there been any problems?

Rankin: The problem with my sources is that a lot of them have retired.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Rankin: If they were my age — I mean, I’m going to be 51 this year — most of them have retired form the police. So guys that I met in my mid-to-late twenties when I was starting the [Rebus] series are now gone. And you either have to find a new set of people. Or you just make it up. I mean, it is fiction after all. What I do is that I’ve got enough people around me who can help me with the detail if I need them. But I don’t want to get too close to the police. Because I don’t want the books to become public relations exercises for police. And, of course, the only people who will talk to you are the good cops. The ones who are straight, you know. They’ll talk to you. Well, if that’s the only people you’re meeting, you might feel constrained. You might feel you can’t suddenly write about cops who’ve broken the rules or who’ve bent the rules a little bit. So I only go near the police when I need them. I mean, with The Complaints, I did need to talk to someone who worked in internal affairs. I set that up through another contact, who’s a senior police officer. But it was a couple of hours of conversation. And that was all I needed. That gave me a sense of what this organization would be like, what the office politics would be like, what kind of powers they have, what kind of stuff they did. Two hours. And the rest of it is invented.

Correspondent: Have facts and background been more of a limitation than a help throughout your work?

Rankin: Well, I do think there’s restrictions on what you can and cannot do. Because readers are much more sussed than they used to be. I mean, they’re watching cop shows on TV — whether it’s reality shows or dramas.

Correspondent: Or The Wire for that matter.

Rankin: Yeah. But they feel they know what goes on forensically. They feel they know what goes on at a crime scene. So you can’t suddenly start taking liberty. I mean, I’m very lucky. Because my guys are professional cops. Therefore, they would be at the scene. It’s much harder if you’re talking a kind of Miss Marple character. This notion that an amateur detective — a Lord Peter Wimsey or a Miss Marple — could just turn up at the crime scene and trample all over it. And that the cops wouldn’t give him a good kick up the backside and send him on their way. These days, it’s much harder for readers to take on board and accept. So I don’t write about private eyes. And I don’t write about amateurs who just happen to get caught up in drama. I write about people who get invited into the drama. Because that’s their job.

Correspondent: On the other hand, there’s, of course, the famous story that Mario Puzo made all of The Godfather up. So much so that mob people were reading this and they were saying, “How did he know so much about this?” Is this similar to your situation when you invent something? That almost inventing layers or systematic connections is almost better than relying on getting something right.

Rankin: Well, I mean, on the very first book that I wrote, I got the idea for the plot. And then I went to a police station to talk with a couple of cops. You know, just to get some background and some detail. And they asked me what the plot of the book was. And I told them. And it turned out that it was very close to a case they were working on. So they viewed me as a possible suspect for a short time. Until they decided that I was just insane. But the next book after that — Hide and Seek — two or three years after the book was published, a similar case came to light. And that gave me great kudos in Edinburgh. Because cops and the public alike said, “How did you know about this stuff?” I mean, it was kind of there. It was happening a few years ago. But it wasn’t. It hadn’t come to light then. And I had just invented it. And it came true later on. So people thought I knew what I was talking about. But I really wasn’t. I was making it up. And that continued to happen. There was a lot of serendipity. That I would just write about something that then seemed to be true. And it worked the other way as well. I would take a really true thing like the G8 — when the G8 came to Scotland. And that was just a great source of information. All you had to do to research that book [The Naming of the Dead] was to live in Scotland for a week. And that was a very easy book to write from my point of view. Because about half of the stuff in there actually happened. Up to and including President George W. Bush falling off his bicycle while trying to wave to a police officer. In my book, it’s Rebus. I mean, what if it wasn’t? It was someone else.

Categories: Fiction

Carol Emshwiller & Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts (BSS #389)

Today is Carol Emshwiller’s 90th birthday. She is the author of Carmen Dog, The Mount, and numerous stories. Nonstop Press has recently issued The Collected Stories of Carol Emshwiller. Her work can be thoroughly investigated through The Carol Emshwiller Project. (Many thanks to Gavin Grant for his assistance in setting up this conversation.)

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts is the author of Harlem is Nowhere.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why there’s a sentient mount attached to his back.

Authors: Carol Emshwiller and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

Subjects Discussed: Bears that Ms. Emshwiller keeps in her house, writing to please one’s self, fooling Harlan Ellison, slanting a story to sell it to a science fiction magazine, throwing strange ideas into short stories on purpose, increased short story competition, selling a story in a day, commercial value vs. name value, not writing for eight months, dealing with blindness, working on multiple stories at the same time, the difficulties of writing fiction vs. the ease of nonfiction and email, Kate Wilhelm, the visual components of sentences, being advised to purchase $150 glasses, inventing a fictional family as a way of coping with grief, how a single line of dialogue can stop a writer in her tracks, not forcing the creative process vs. keeping productivity going, whether or not Ms. Emshwiller has ever been terrified of her own ideas, the torture within Carmen Dog, Kafka’s influence, authors who laugh at terrible events on the page, the emotional truth of dangerous ideas, collaborating with Ed Emshwiller on films, formulating plot and looking ahead, repeating an idea, the cheat of characters who go for a walk, twisting an emotion, kindness as a wild emotion in “Creature,” studying animal psychology before The Mount, being seized an idea, reading for pleasure, the inseparable connections between reading and writing, books on tape, loss of reading desire with blindness, how blindness causes everything to take six times as long, competing notions of what Harlem’s boundaries are, balancing a view through books and a view through people, capturing “snapshots” of neglected figures as an observer, James Baldwin’s “Jimmy moment,” personal evasions, Rhodes-Pitts speculating on Harlem based on observing funeral parlors, having a relationship to a place without going in, aligning a piece of information from the library to personal experience, serendipity, Rhodes-Pitts’s film background, how films and photographs help make sense of a neighborhood, Aaron Siskind’s Harlem Document Series, photographs as a residue of living, addressing Dwight Garner’s white bread vantage point, interpretive demands from critics, parallels between the African American Day Parade crowd and the 1919 Harlem Hellfighters, ongoing familiarity with historical figures among Harlem residents, the applicability of historical framework, Ralph Ellison and the Federal Writers’ Project, Invisible Man, Zora Neale Hurston, 1944’s “Harlem Hunches,” quibbles with WPA oral history and manipulated slave narratives, phony dialect created by white writers, attempting to write a hopeful account when there’s a historical sense of pain, and the shock waves of Harlem gentrification.


Correspondent: In the introduction for The Collected Stories, which has been collected all in one book and published just in time for your birthday, you allude to there being five different phases of your writing life. What was interesting to me was that you mentioned the fourth phase, which was just after your husband had passed away, and you say that you were writing stories and these Western novels because you wanted to have a family. Your kids had gone away and all that. I was curious why the family on page meant more or needed to be there in addition to the real people in your life.

Emshwiller: Well, my family wasn’t there. (laughs) That’s the point! You know, the kids had all gone off. And I didn’t have any kids anymore near me. And then I didn’t have a husband anymore. And I was by myself. And what I did was — well, it’s sort of a long story. The very first thing, to get into that cowboy stuff, my daughter had a wonderful idea. She said, “Why don’t you go to this dude ranch that I know of?” Right? And I said, “I don’t even like horses anymore!” And I didn’t want to go. And I just fought her and fought her. And she said, “You gotta do something. You gotta go some place you never went before. Do something you never did before.” And she pushed me up there. And then, in two days, I was just back to horses and farm life and cows and everything. They had everything up there. Pigs and chickens. Everything.

Correspondent: Why the aversion to horses?

Emshwiller: What?

Correspondent: Why the aversion to horses?

Emshwiller: Oh, before, you mean?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Emshwiller: Well, when I was a twelve-year-old girl, I was into horses. And if I had a dollar, which I didn’t have very often, I would go and ride. Which was not every often. And after that, I grew up.

Correspondent: Horses? Yeah. Big deal. In the boonies.

Emshwiller: (laughs) Yeah, right! I didn’t hear anything about them anymore. But then it only took two days to realize that this was really great. And my daughter was absolutely right. I would just switch away into another life. And then when I came home though, I didn’t write another line for a year.

Correspondent: Oh wow.

Emshwiller: After Ed [Emshwiller] had died. And I lay comatose in front of the TV set, looking at Westerns. Trying to see. Watching horses and watching mountains, which I really learned to love the mountains with Ed. When we were together, we used to climb around a lot. And then, after I got through mourning for a year and not doing anything, then I started writing the Westerns. I made myself a family. The thing is: I wrote. I can see a lot of people doing this though. For those two novels, I wrote like I never wrote before. I didn’t go anywhere. Those people were more real than my friends.

Correspondent: Wow.

Emshwiller: More real. And they were my life. For two years. Or three years. I don’t know how long it took to write both those novels. I thought of nobody else. And I didn’t go to any movies. My friends would give readings and I didn’t go. I didn’t go to everything.

Correspondent: They were more real than your real friends. Why do you think that is? Why did they…?

Emshwiller: I don’t know how that happened! (laughs)

Correspondent: Your imagination was that powerful, I suppose.

Emshwiller: And my writing changed completely during that. Then I went back to science fiction. From that experience, I think it expanded deeper into people, I think. Although I don’t think I’m as deep as U was into those people now. I think I squeezed back a little bit to the science fiction things.

Correspondent: You needed to invent people in order to understand them?

Emshwiller: I think. I don’t know. Of course, they were my invention. I understood. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs) Yeah, it’s tilted the balance there.

Emshwiller: Of course they don’t always do what you want them to do.

Correspondent: Of course. Which is why I suggested an invented simulacrum of people might almost be more effective. Because they’re coming from your subconscious. It’s not like you are controlling them completely.

Emshwiller: No. I found that out. (laughs)

* * *

Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start with the notion of Harlem as an area. There are numerous skirmishes throughout history, some of them based off of racist fears about what Harlem’s boundaries are. And even when you were in Texas, you describe in this book creating an imaginary map of Manhattan. So given this, and given the fact that one person will call Harlem “a ruin,” another person will call it “an East Berlin whose wall is 110th Street,” how can any one person describe its totality? I mean, can this book or can any book really capture it? Or do you essentially fall into the Alexander Gumby problem of an overflowing collection of clippings?

Rhodes-Pitts: My attempt was not to give a description of Harlem in the colonial sense, when cartographers would go off into the bush and make a map that attempts to be true to life. It remains an idiosyncratic map of this place that is outlined by my personal experiences and my personal curiosity. And in the midst of living here — and really it was living here that helped for the book, it wasn’t the other way around; I didn’t move here to write this book — my own personal obsessions and curiosity collided with those of other people. And some of those encounters are captured in the book. Now whether it’s — I mean, I guess I don’t trust the project of someone who would claim that they were setting out to describe the totality of any place. It’s simply as that.

Correspondent: How about this? I’m curious about the different worlds between your peregrinations through the neighborhood, talking with people who live here, versus your dutiful efforts in the library to make sense of the history. You say that the personal quest encouraged this more scholarly quest. And I’m not sure if it’s fair to necessarily call it a dichotomy, but I’m curious how the two worked in relation to each other in terms of this book.

Rhodes-Pitts: Well, it’s a funny way of running back and forth between two fields in a way. And clearly my first encounters in Harlem, as I described in the book, were through literature, through books. And then I guess you could say I run to the field of experience when I actually move here. And then I’m simultaneously collecting things from the field of experience and from the field of the archive. And I guess as I finally set down to sort through everything that I gathered in my imagination and my experience and my reading, I was conscious of one way to make all of those things on one plane as best as I could. And I think I tried to do that through the way certain fictional characters move through that one chapter as characters and plucking them from their environment and colliding them together as figures in one scene from their different respective homes in literature. And then also making those figures live alongside the people that I knew and who told me their stories, or shared not even their whole stories but snippets of stories that come out in casual conversation. Not through interviews. Which I was really conscious about. So I just think my attempt was always to make the things equal in my treatment of them, and not to privilege one over the other.

Correspondent: Well, for example, you do write about going out of the library and seeing a man there who is reading the Koran. And you observe this tableau. But the question of what you memorialize — and this is also in relation to that photograph you mention — is something interesting and oscillates between these two points. I detected in reading this book that there was a little bit of “Should I impede on the person who’s practicing this private ceremony, but is nevertheless part of the neighborhood or should I observe him?” Was this a struggle in terms of deciding which characters to pick for the book? Who to populate the book to really present your view of Harlem?

Rhodes-Pitts: Again, I think a lot of that is defined by temperament. And I don’t think there was a method to it as much as there was my way of moving through the world, which is often as an observer, and completely aware that what I observe and then choose to describe is part of a selection process. And it was really important. The book is in no way my unscented notebook of seven years in Harlem. It’s very specific images — whether they’re flashes in the case of that particular man, who, for me, sitting outside the library. Clearly some sort of dedicated scholar or man of religion, who was also selling incense and shea butter as a street vendor. Probably not making that much money. Which is an interesting tableau, as you put it, of the pursuit of knowledge happening right outside the door of this other shrine to that pursuit. And I was always very interested in how a lot of the figures — especially the ones that I knew — when I tell their stories, it’s not just a funny story he told me, but it’s really often those stories are about an exchange of knowledge. The impossibility of seeking the stories and the truth and history in some ways. The evasiveness of those stories. And so I guess when I do go through my — whether memory or notes or the histories that I read, it’s very much with a direction. So there’s always a choice. You know, I have a background in film. So I’m very much aware of what it means to edit. To seek and to edit. To capture and sift.

Categories: Fiction, Ideas

Holly Tucker (BSS #388)

Holly Tucker is most recently the author of Blood Work.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why his bank statements come back bloody.

Author: Holly Tucker

Subjects Discussed: Early philosophical notions of blood, ill humors, whether science without the scientific method can be adequately called science, the Royal Society, William Harvey and the discovery of circulation, Descartes and mind/body dualism, the ethics of unmitigated animal torture, Sir Christopher Wren’s city plan and the Great Fire of London, the connections between architecture and medicine, Claude Perrault, Da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man, the physiology of architecture, Wren’s animal experiments at Oxford, early scientific interest in the brain, French rejection of English scientific theory in the 17th century, medical theory and medical practice, questioning everything as a sport, prostitutes vs. Protestants, claims that the English are liars, royal censorship and Henry Oldenburg, the medical culture wars between France and England, monarchies and clear ideas, staving off espionage issues while pursuing science, the Parisian medical elite, the role of women in 17th century medicine, Jean-Baptiste Denis, the remarkable sacrifice of Antoine Mauroy, throwing a scientific temper tantrum, the charming nature of megalomaniacs, whether early scientists took delight in making dogs miserable, Robert Hooke’s tracheotomy experiments, writing about dogs being muzzled and experimented upon with a dog sitting at your feet, remorse in early medicine, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, Arthur Coga, experimenting upon the poor and the vulnerable, Bethlem Royal Hospital, the shifting nature of medical consent over the centuries, and the relative “grisliness” of medicine.


Correspondent: I know bloodletting. And I know bleeding. Not personally. But I do understand that its historical basis was based off of trying to release the ill humors out of the blood. And all that.

Tucker: Absolutely.

Correspondent: The big question I think we should start off with, so that people know what we’re talking about, is: How did such a primitive approach to blood become something? Why did people start thinking, “Oh! We could probably use this for transfusion purposes! We could probably use this for transferring one blood to another!” It seems, in light of its early use before the 17th century, that there was nothing in the cards to suggest that human beings would come up with something like this.

Tucker: No. The fact that they did in the 17th century is, in itself, the story that we’re telling. Because for millennia, they believed that the body was just this mix of fluids. As you said, humors. Blood, phlegm, bile, black bile. Ill health was when those fluids were out of balance. And good health was when they were in balance. We laugh now about bloodletting. Because we think it’s the most gruesome and horrific thing. And it was. But it made total sense to them. That they would need to — well, that and purging and laxatives. So what you tried to do was rid the body, where you could, of all these foul humors. So you’re going to ask me about how they got to blood transfusion.

Correspondent: Yes.

Tucker: I’m trying to make my answer nice and compact for you.

Correspondent: Oh, I see!

Tucker: Because what happened — I will go for the next ten minutes.

Correspondent: Well, go for a protracted answer. Protracted answers, by the way, are welcome here.

Tucker: So when you start dozing off, you tell me.

Correspondent: Oh no. No, no, no.

Tucker: And jump in with questions.

Correspondent: There won’t be any dozing here. I assure you. I’m fascinated by the subject. We’re talking about blood! We’re talking about gore!

Tucker: Gore.

Correspondent: We’re talking about viscera. Okay? You note that some of the natural philosophers were so duped by their own success that they couldn’t actually judge the results objectively. Edmund King reported that sheep he had infused with milk and sugar were more than ordinarily sweet. I’m curious, just talking about the Royal Society. We’ll get into the French later. What were some of the chief factors that made the Royal Society carry on with these things without this scientific oversight that we now know in the 20th and the 21st centuries? Can we really call these early efforts “science” if there was — well, first of all, they lacked the vigorous oversight. But, second of all, the unmitigated torture of animals, which we can also get into.

Tucker: Well, I would say that what they were doing was science. They believed that what they were doing was science. In fact, early blood transfusion happened because of one of the biggest and most important scientific discoveries in medicine, which was the discovery of blood circulation, right? And William Harvey was very methodical about how he went about discovering blood circulation in 1628. So he was really confused by this idea of humors. He shouldn’t have been. Because it had been the dominant way of viewing the body for millennia, as I said. He said that there has to be a better explanation. Or at least there has to be a good scientific explanation about how these humors work. And he was suspect about the whole idea that blood was produced in the stomach and then was distilled into the liver and moved up to the heart, where it burned off like a furnace, and that breathing was a way to stoke fire and also blow off the fumes. And that’s what they believed up until Harvey. So he started to do some detailed methodical experiments by, first, dissections. Animal and human. Looking at how much blood was in the heart. And then he noticed in a human heart that there was about two ounces of human blood in the heart. Multiply that by the number of heartbeats. He found this obscene number. Forty-one pounds of blood would have to be produced in a half hour. So he said, “This cannot be.” So then he started doing experiments on live animals. Particularly coldblooded animals. And he said, “Aha. No. Blood is circulating.” So you know, for as much as we look back and, yeah, there’s a lot to laugh about in previous periods.

Correspondent: A lot to laugh about. Torturing animals? A barrel of laughs.

Tucker: Okay. A lot to laugh about as far as how they understood the body. And the way the worldview dictated the questions they could ask and the answers they could then get. Because it’s a completely different philosophical, economical, and political framework that we have now. Yeah. Torturing animals is not a cool thing. It never has been. It never will be. But there too, you can start to see what’s happening. It came from a notion of the body and the mind and the soul being distinct. And that’s an idea that’s coming out in the 17th century in the works of, for example, Rene Descartes. Quiz. Who’s Rene Descartes?

Correspondent: He’s some guy who was all about thinking. Maybe therefore. Something along those lines?

Tucker: Maybe “I think therefore I am.” We associate him with the scientific method, right? My daughter is in grade school and she just did one of her first science fair projects and came home and did the poster. And it was almost like watching Cartesian indoctrination in her science. Because he put that idea forward and he also put that idea forward along with another one — which was mind/body dualism. He said, “Hmmm. What differentiates animals from humans? Both animals and humans have bodies. And those bodies are very likely similar. Maybe they’re machines.” And this is the age of hydraulics. This is science being invented. Barometers, you name it. So it makes sense that they’re viewing the body as a machine. And he says, “Well, if we broke machines in bodies, there has to be something that is different. Well, we have minds. We think. We speak. We have souls.” And those souls and the capacity for thought can’t be in the body. Because animals, he said, don’t have that. And so if we take the soul of an animal, and they become nothing more than machines, then it’s a bit like working on your car. Are you really torturing that animal? Now I’m not saying that I think that. But that’s what Descartes allowed the natural philosophers, as scientists were called, to be able to do. It’s to start taking apart those machines. Those animals.

Correspondent: We’ll get more specific into animal torture in just a bit. But I do want to actually jump off…

Tucker: That’s a nice segue.

Categories: Ideas