Miranda July (BSS #405)

Miranda July is most recently the writer, director, and star of The Future, which opens in theaters on July 29, 2011.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Seeking further bifurcations between art and commerce.

Guest: Miranda July

Subjects Discussed: People in their mid-thirties who are crippled by their own self-judgment, empathy and resentment, workaholicism, feeling paralyzed, kidults and grups, pursuing a project without seeking a larger sociological reach, hats and gloves, the number of characters in The Future that operate as failed artists, July’s theory that most artists are in a constant state of crisis, moments in life when you don’t know what to do with yourself, entering the space of not knowing, outside forces that compel artists, talking moons and crawling T-shirts, nudges from your own security blanket, the relationship between art and commerce, the dry-erase marketing campaign for No One Belongs Here More Than You, the Internet as a commercial medium, Google+, art springing from boredom, anger and addiction, T-shirt puppeteers, screaming out windows, Howard Beale in Network, yelling out windows in real life, girls who bury themselves in the ground, self-enforced endurance rituals, vital methods that emerge from voicing a talking cat, playing multiple roles, sticking with initial intentions, accidental slips, whether July feels any obligation to speak to her generation or a cultivated audience, and the liberation of writing, directing, and performing in your own sex scene.


Correspondent: I want to discuss the fact that you have two characters in this movie who are in their mid-thirties. They are too lazy to leave the couch. They are unable to get their lives together to pursue their careers. When it comes to keeping track of the calendar, they prove negligent — I don’t want to give it away. And they are crippled so much by their judgment that Sophie is very diffident in the very beginning when she’s making these 30 dance videos and Jason keeps his hand permanently on Sophie’s head. So as a guy who is in his mid-thirties and who works very hard, I was interested in these characters. But I also felt somewhat resentful towards these characters. And I can only imagine, in concocting these characters, that you, who have worked quite hard also may have experienced perhaps some resentment towards your creation. And I was wondering if you could talk about this double-edged sword. What did you do to shake off potential resentment towards people who are really not going anywhere in their lives — at least for the large majority of the film?

July: Well, I didn’t — I felt more understanding of them than that. I mean, yeah, I’m really, really productive. Maybe even a workaholic. But I feel paralyzed a lot of the time. And just cause I work a lot doesn’t mean I feel like always deeply fulfilled or that I always know what to do next. Or who I am. So in a way, I took a lot of doubts and fears and put them into my characters and, in a way, to break out of the patterns of some of like, you know, using work in a kind of unexamined way. And yeah it’s embarrassing. It feels kind of awkward to play that role or to give these people time and space. But at the same time, I don’t really want to see a movie about these fantastic people doing everything right and knowing themselves completely. I don’t relate to that either.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, were you trying to depict a current crisis among many mid-30s types? I mean, some people could make the comparison that it absolutely mimics both the Southern California layabout and also the Williamsburg hipster. That’s one of the virtues of this film. But on the other hand, I’ve been seeing a lot more artists — especially books and now increasingly films such as yours — which are really depicting this kind of kidult phenomenon that was written about in New York Magazine. Was this a concern of yours? Did you study any larger sociological reach along these lines to depict this type of feeling?

July: I never care about the larger sociological reach. I mean, I’m almost entirely concerned with, like, an internal world. And, you know, sometimes I kind of lament that I have to create characters in order to get inside of them. You know, like I just want to start out already in them. And then I hope, if their insides resonate and are through, that I’ll end up making characters that people connect to — whether they love them or hate them, they’ll seem relevant. But I never work from the outside in like that. Yeah.

Correspondent: How do you jump around from putting your hand into the glove versus, I suppose, creating the glove and stitching the sequins and all that? What’s the difference? I mean, do you have to put on two hats? Is it one continuous process?

July: That’s a lot of clothes flying around here.

Correspondent: Yes.

July: Hats and gloves.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, there is a T-shirt in the movie.

July: And there’s a shirt in the movie. I mean, you’re talking about sort of being inside the movie and making it.

Correspondent: Yes. Acting, writing, directing. Especially some character who has this particular feeling.

July: Yeah, I mean, it seemed like if you were going to make a movie that had a lot to do with doubt and fear, like it might not be a bad thing to have a lot of doubt and fear making it? Apparently, I thought that was a good idea. Because I did. I did have lots of doubts. And when you’re in it, you know, that is part of your job. Is to feel all those things and to believe in them and to not judge them. And then when you’re outside of it, well, it’d be nice if you add some distance. But I don’t really. I pretty much am like method directing. Which isn’t that fun for everyone on the set. Especially when it’s a darker movie.

Correspondent: Why not? Why isn’t it fun?

July: Well, with like the first movie, it was more kinda hopeful and innocent in a way. And I think I embodied that as I was making it to some degree. And the second one, I also embodied. Which meant that I was fairly haunted the whole time and kind of a little bit wishing that I could flee it the same way. Very dedicated and yet still having fantasies about just walking away from the whole thing. The way that my character does. Yeah.

Categories: Film

Megan Abbott (BSS #404)

Megan Abbott is most recently the author of The End of Everything. For more on Megan Abbott, you can read Edward Champion’s essay “Megan Abbott: Literary Criminal” at The Millions,


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering unanticipated carnal connections with peach cobbler.

Author: Megan Abbott

Subjects Discussed: The need for dramatic emphasis, basing novels on real life crimes, having a preexisting narrative framework when working on fiction, mysterious PBS documentaries about missing girls, blurring criminal details to create tangible fiction, writing in locations that you don’t live in, special corners of the brain, the advantages of maintaining a blinkered perspective, Raymond Chandler, the perils of critically assessing a writer you love, James Ellroy, Daniel Woodrell’s methods of shattering language, maintaining a rhythmic balance in sentences, writers who only have one story to tell, Paul Schrader, agonizing over repeat metaphors, fanned out objects, “doomy” vs. “do me,” deploying the words “fulsome” and “candescent,” James M. Cain, using similes after five novels, Chandler’s similes, being unafraid of influence, having a hyperbolic head, working with editors (Denise Roy vs. Reagan Arthur), severe line editing, Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish (Lish’s edit of “Beginners”), stylistic repetition within sentences, breaking out of certain ruts, the difficulties of including a drunken nightclub scene in a novel about a thirteen-year-old girl, fornication within novels, pinpointing the precise moment that the police show up in a Megan Abbott novel, contemplating a pre-Amber Alert era, shame and guilt, the phrase “the end of everything” contained in Die a Little, FLAME, MASH, and childhood folded paper games, girls who are “body-close,” building a foundation to find a bridge to the end, Bury Me Deep and William Kennedy’s Ironweed, reviving twenty pages from years before, psychoanalytical connections with the American novel, using Freud to balance judgmental behavior within a novel, Stewart O’Nan, Alice Sebold, when missing girl novels are pegged as crime fiction, struggling with the absence of plot, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, literary fiction cannibalizing from genre, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, John Banville/Benjamin Black, dismissal of genre from literary practitioners and marketplace conditions, Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark, Martin Amis’s Night Train, John Updike’s external sexual imagery, Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, the relationship between sex and observational judgment in Abbott’s fiction, nonjudgmental sexual moments in life and in fiction, strangers who have sex in motel rooms, why peach is the best hue to describe porn, discovering body objectification as a kid, authenticity with real and fictitious places, David Lynch and rabbits, kimonos and forelocks as essential elements to a Megan Abbott novel, film imagery vs. tangible human experience, In a Lonely Place, fixing up a room to match the look of a room you’re writing about, nostalgia and site-specific memory, and direct transposition from reality.


Correspondent: Missing girl novels are really interesting to me. Because you have people like Stewart O’Nan and Alice Sebold, who have written these missing girl novels and yet they don’t have to face the dilemma of being pegged a “crime novelist” or a “mystery novelist” or a “noir novelist.” Why do you think O’Nan and Sebold are able to get away with this and you aren’t? I mean, obviously you’ve written noir. But what of this? I was thinking to myself, “Well, can you really call her books ‘mystery novels’ or ‘crime novels?'” I was talking with people about this. And I said, “You know, really, it doesn’t matter. It’s fiction. And fiction should work.” So how do you deal with something like this?

Abbott: You know, I’m always so mystified by that too. Because I think — talking about The Lovely Bones and what people may call the “missing girl novel,” but they’re certainly not calling it a crime novel — it sort of stupefies me. And all those designations do. Because stories are stories. Especially missing people stories. They’re really about identity. They’re really about these big issues that, in many ways, all novels are really about. The missing or the gone, and how we attach these labels. On the other hand, as a lover of crime novels, I feel okay with that too. It doesn’t bother me. But I guess there’s this fear. The fear I always have in this case. People always say this about crime novels and they won’t say this about literary novels, but they should. Which is: “Oh no. Not another missing kid book.” Or “Oh no. Not another heist novel.” Or a PI novel. And that’s just because they’ve read some that don’t sing for them. But I think that with literary fiction, you can get away with that more. I mean, someone perhaps should say, “Not another novel about a crumbling East Side marriage.” But nobody seems to! No one would say that. Because they’ll say that’s the stuff of life. Well, you know, crime is the stuff of life too.

Correspondent: Or: “Not another novel about a middle-aged man going through a crisis.”

Abbott: That’s the one I was trying to think of. (laughs)

Correspondent: That’s the thing. I mean…

Abbott: Who’s going to fall for the younger woman. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs) Even worse. Yes, I know! Why don’t we peg those as genre and the crime novels, which have a little more variety…

Abbott: We’ll call it the Ralph genre. (laughs)

Correspondent: Maybe the solution here is to just win them over with prose. If you have original enough prose, do you think that you can escape the label? Or maybe there’s a certain advantage in being locked within that label. Because you don’t have to deal with the bullshit.

Abbott: You’d think that. You know what I mean/ I guess the sort of dream is that you’d have a book that would work in both ways. That’s one of the things. I struggle with plot. It’s not my natural thing. But I love plot as a reader. And I’m a big literary fiction reader. But often the struggle I have with them is the absence of plot. It just seems like the ideal situation are those books. And I think the Sebold is one of those, where you’re able to merge the strength of a genre book’s plot with all the originality and the innovation that you can get away with more in literary fiction than you could in a crime novel. Though I think you can. Most crime readers are totally open. Because they read so much. And obviously they don’t care that much about plot. Or they wouldn’t be reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo! (laughs)

Correspondent: Sure. But we’re also seeing literary fiction cannibalizing more from genre, I think, in the last five to ten years.

Abbott: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: I mean, Colson Whitehead. His new book is a zombie book.

Abbott: I hear that!

Correspondent: Why isn’t that categorized in the science fiction section?

Abbott: Richard Price. It’s somewhat puzzling. Who’s the new one who’s doing it? There’s another one. I keep hearing of all these literary authors writing their crime novels. And I’m sure they’re doing it for a variety of reasons. And I don’t blame them for doing it. But what frustrates me sometimes is the reception they get, which is…

Correspondent: They get a free pass because they’re the literary person dipping into genre.

Abbott: Yeah.

Correspondent: You, by way of being the experienced genre novelist, get more criticism.

Abbott: Right. Exactly.

Correspondent: Do you feel that this is what the situation is with you?

Abbott: I don’t know. I mean, I guess we’ll see. I feel that my books are part of the same world. And I think a lot of these turns are sort of imposed by outside…

Correspondent: Marketplace situation.

Abbott: Right. So I think that’s okay. My greatest frustration is the John Banville thing, where it takes him three days to write a paragraph under his name. But when he writes under Benjamin Black, it takes him five minutes to write. Like that kind of dismissal of genre.

Correspondent: Well, I don’t think he really means to dismiss genre.

Abbott: Right.

Correspondent: Because if you’re spending five mintues on what normally takes you three days to write, of course it’s going to seem “easy.” Of course, you’re going to sneer down on it. Even though he’s also having a lot of fun. Even though he’s also come out and said, “Oh, I love Donald Westlake, and Richard Stark novels you must read.”

Abbott: Yes. And I think that’s the place I’m excited about. When it comes from a love. When you can feel an author’s love. When they’re not being arch. A lot of people gave Martin Amis a hard time when he came out with Night Train. Which I thought was great! Because you could tell. He was not being pastiche or arch.

Correspondent: No ambitions whatsoever. He just wanted to write a mystery novel.

Abbott: Exactly. And it’s beautiful. He didn’t hold back on his prose. He did exactly what he wanted to do. And when books come from a place of love, they always work.

Correspondent: I also feel that Paul Auster has faced that problem too. Because he’s writing very ornate mystery novels to some degree.

Abbott: Right. You think of Ellroy and DeLillo. How are they that different?

Correspondent: Yeah. They’re both confronting the major events of the 20th century.

Abbott: Right. Exactly.

Categories: Fiction

Emma Forrest (BSS #403)

Emma Forrest is most recently the author of Your Voice in My Head.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Fearing the arrival of kneeling supplicants.

Author: Emma Forrest

Subjects Discussed: Occupying the insides of planes, positive mania, Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History, novels as a dress rehearsal for a memoir, troublesome aspects of being a young female novelist, Zadie Smith, Jennifer Belle’s Going Down, the freedom of writing memoir, misery memoirs, male addiction memoirs, double standards with gender, baring one’s soul while contending with marketing labels, psychiatrists who attend readings, the personal vs. the professional, the benefits of non-prescriptive therapists, Monica Lewinsky and Chandra Levy, victimhood and celebrity culture, the miniscule Jewish community in England, newspaper articles as a solution to longing and misery, Colin Farrell’s fan community harassing Forrest, cutting, the relationship between self-disgust and self-obsession, Internet addiction, the keyboard as a surrogate knife, writing the book through osmosis, unusual General Zod metaphors, why Forrest referred to Colin Farrell as the Gypsy Husband, not being able to write other people’s names down, contending with the imprecision of memory, remembering incidents completely wrong, the difficulties of writing and speaking about rape, being susceptible to labels, breaking down before an audio book producer, being judged by others through one’s body, body image, the relationship between work and self-concern, whether the act of writing is capable of full exorcism, the English class system, Forrest’s father “learning to become British,” Jewish identity in Britain, Howard Jacobson, Superman as an inherently Jewish story, distinguishing between the serious and the trivial, the 31 flavors of pain, dissociation, rabbi sermons, whether words can change one’s life, Blur’s “Tender,” and songs vs. novels.


Correspondent: You said in an interview with The Awl that much of this book ended up on your screen by osmosis, that there was material here that you don’t even remember typing.

Forrest: Yeah.

Correspondent: If you’re caught in a fugue state when you’re writing something like this, at what point do the words mean something? At some point, you’re going to have to look at these words and come to terms with them and iron them out. So I’m curious how you became more aware of yourself and your life experience and the world if you weren’t aware of it initially?

Forrest: Well, you may have also read that I had this whole deal with myself that I didn’t have to publish it. Just because I was writing it, it didn’t mean I had to publish it. And when it was done, I did think it was good enough to publish. And, you know, I read it all the times I had to edit it. But actually — so I handed it in a year and a half ago. It takes a while for a book to come out. Now that it’s out and I’ve been touring — this sounds awful, but I’m going to admit it — I’ve been rereading the book quite often and actually enjoying it and, I think, getting out of it what you’re talking about for the first time. It’s taken a year and a half to get into it and say, “Oh! That’s what you’re about and that’s what you’re doing wrong.” And now I get it. And now I get the lessons. Because it is trapped within the pages, it’s safe for me to explore almost with an eagle eye from above. You know what I mean? Like looking down on myself.

Correspondent: On the other hand, most writers — even writers of memoirs — get sick of looking at their own work. Why is it such a great…?

Forrest: Well, I didn’t. Because I looked at it in the bare minimum. When I was editing. And we did a very light edit, actually. I find it fascinating now because I feel so removed from it. It’s like I’m intrigued and empathetic towards this girl that isn’t me anymore. It’s harder on the reader because it reads so viscerally. I’m comforting readers all the time, saying, “I’m not her. I really am not that person anymore. Don’t worry about me.”

Correspondent: Well, we are all some part of our past lives.

Forrest: But do you remember the part in the book? The rabbi’s sermon.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Forrest: About transformation. And you don’t have to be Jacob anymore. You are now Israel. And part of Jacob will cling to you for the rest of your life. But that isn’t the entirety of who you are. That’s where I feel I am.

Correspondent: But you’re saying transformation. Describe this more specifically. How do you deal with these parts of you who you inevitably are? Is it really just a matter of rereading? Is that your reminder? Why isn’t your memory of it enough? You know what I mean?

Forrest: Memory’s dangerous. It’s hard to have volume control on memory. Writing it down is my volume control. And that’s what made it safe. And that’s what — I’m going to use the cheapest pop cultural allegory. It’s really in my head. Like the villains in Superman II — is it II that they’re trapped in glass and flying through space and time?

Correspondent: Technically, I and II.

Forrest: I and II.

Correspondent: But II is where they broke out.

Forrest: Flying through space and time through all eternity, my memoir is Terence Stamp beneath the glass, trapped. And so that’s why it’s all safe for me now. And done.

Correspondent: Well, I don’t know if General Zod is the best…

Forrest: And it flies through space and time. Because it’s a book that hopefully will stay in publication.

Correspondent: You’re using General Zod as a metaphor.

Forrest: Totally.

Correspondent: Now this is dangerous. Because, of course, he wanted to be the ruler of the planet.

Forrest: Right.

Correspondent: He asked people to kneel before Zod.

Forrest: Yeah.

Correspondent: I’m certainly not going to kneel before Emma.

Forrest: Right.

Correspondent: And I don’t know if the reader is going to do that. But the reader may empathize.

Forrest: Some of them are!

Correspondent: Some of them are?

Forrest: (laughs) I didn’t ask them to!

Correspondent: Wow. So you’re seriously — why not someone humbler than General Zod?

Forrest: Because there are things in there that are evil and upsetting. Like General Zod. Come on! We have to get off this.

Categories: People

Edie Meidav II (BSS #402)

Edie Meidav previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #51 in a tag-team interview with Scott Esposito. She is most recently the author of Lola, California.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Been all around this great big world.

Author: Edie Meidav

Subjects Discussed: Returning to old neighborhoods, whether or not the first-person perspective as the most authentic method to get the reader to believe in the account, carryover between Emile in Crawl Space and Vic Mahler in Lola, California, how a third-person novel is like a panopticon, the immensity of motherhood, the chasm in American fiction between the female perspective and male-dominated, idea-centric fiction, postgender fiction, narrative stripteases, fiction as the act of omission, Freud’s dream categories, being aware of the reader’s patience, writing the equivalent of three books for every book, rewarding the reader, short chapters, failed attempts at a 250 page novel, putting the essential into a novel, Peter Orner’s The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (PDF), Eros and Thanatos driving a novel, people who read Dan Brown during a commercial break, 21st century reader expectations, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, writing about a place when you’re not in it, views of California within and without, Jerry Brown’s assault on California parks, living writers capable of writing a “California novel,” Aimee Bender, TC Boyle, Dana Spiotta, identities in California, “Daughter of California,” needlessly psychoanalytical readings, whether a prison cell can be written as a “uniquely Californian” one, overcrowded prisons, writers who are fascinated by twins, considering robots, the secret language of boys, tactile forms of enlightenment, enlightenment found by embracing one’s origins, false ideals and physical healing, burrito metaphors, using “she lied” instead of “she said,” readers who expect the truth, the courtroom trial as a dramatic device, whether it’s inevitable for an author to repeat herself, and overly modular attempts to explain the novel.


Correspondent: I want to ask about the dramatic appeal of the trial. There was a trial in the last book [Crawl Space]. And there’s a trial in this book. Sort of. What of the trial? It’s the ultimate way to force a character to become contrite with what he has done in ultimate sin. But I don’t know. I look at you now and I see a possible courtroom junkie quality. What of courtroom trials? Do you think that today’s novels and dramatizations seem to have moved away from this basic justice? Why trials?

Meidav: Well, that’s interesting. I mean, in a way, I hear what you’re saying. You’re saying, “Am I kind of creating a hysterical version of what is actually occurring?” It could be an ethical confrontation rather than something that confronts one of the institutions of society. Not being somebody who has spent a lot of time in any way linked to the law, I think I like playing — and maybe I’ll try and tone it down in the next book — but I like playing with society’s institutions. The prisons, the courtroom; in this book, there’s also a sanitarium.

Correspondent: Yes, of course.

Meidav: You know the spa? I think it interests me especially when you have such an ectoplasmic subject as California. It’s interesting to have a hard-edged setting in which somebody comes into a dark mirror moment. That said, one of my favorite scenes in literature is in Madame Bovary — to go back to Flaubert. I love this scene — and this is kind of a societal institution too — where you have a kind of village marketplace like a pig contest. A very agricultural contest taking place. And up above, you have the two lovers having this intimate scene. And it’s interspersed with this judging of the pigs. And I love that interweaving of the very small personal against the bigger habitual unseen eye of society. So maybe that’s an answer.

Correspondent: Or maybe it’s a way of turning something that is seemingly individual or personal into something that has the resonance of history. If you align a personal strength or failing with an institution, suddenly, yes, there is the societal impression! There is this sense that everything we do will matter more if it’s being judged by a jury. (laughs)

Meidav: That said, I also do deeply believe in this Wordsworth idea that in the meanest flower, a universal wind blows. So I’m hearing it. I’m thinking, “Okay, maybe in the next book, I’m going to avoid all big scenes.”

Correspondent: No!

Meidav: I’m going to keep it smaller.

Correspondent: No.

Meidav: More personal. But, you know, maybe I’m starting to lean on that as a crutch.

Correspondent: I don’t know though. I mean, you’re going to inherently repeat certain elements over several books.

Meidav: True.

Correspondent: But approaching it from a different angle, it’s going to become fresh. There’s one really great early moment where the girls are stealing slices of pizza from a parlor that, if you think about it and if you want to reduce it down to its basic essence, well, it’s common shoplifting. It’s a common theft. But because of the way you describe it, it actually means something and it resonates. And I don’t know if avoiding, say, a trial or avoiding a specific element in a future book is really an honest approach if you’re writing fiction.

Meidav: That’s true.

Correspondent: Do you think?

Meidav: Yeah, right. Because when you said that, I suddenly had this view of fiction like the mosquito eye with all its little parts. You rotate it. The element needs something different. So perhaps.

Correspondent: On the other hand, you have to be extremely reliant upon the subconscious in order to write fiction. You have to completely capitulate to the muse, so to speak, and not be aware of conscious repetition. Conscious things you may have been employing in previous books and the like. What do you do to deal with this? Do you think that the whole enormous operation of honing a book pretty much negates any concern for “Oh, I’ve done this before” or “Oh my god, Ed has noticed this from a previous book” or something like this? I mean, to what degree should it even matter?

Meidav: Do you think it’s a truism that most writes essentially write and rewrite the same book over and over and just get better at it? Until they are not better?

Correspondent: To some degree, I believe that. And it all depends on the voice. And it all depends on the ambition. I mean, some writers write the same book if you boil it down to its basic elements — even though every book will be different. I think once you strive to not do that, and I think the best way to counter that is to simply approach something perhaps as you have. An enormous mosaic of institutions with which to splay the typical into something that is a little more distinct. You think?

Meidav: You know, it’s possible. I was just thinking. You know, there are certain writers I admire. I’m thinking of Saul Bellow or others who work against this societal backdrop. Or J.M. Coetzee. But there’s a way that, even if their elements are identifiably repeated, each book they are really in a different timbre. And this is also true in a way of Alice Munro! Even though her turf is a different turf. We’re sitting in this restaurant maybe two blocks away from where, years ago, I interviewed this woman who each year — her name was Linda Montano, she was a performance artist. Each year, she would wear a different color. And that was her art. And she would have someone see her to bring out different energies. And it’s probably a question of focus. One probably brings the same understanding to what literature is meant to do to each novel. But I was trying to use Linda Montano’s words — a different shock — for this book.

Correspondent: Or maybe it’s that ambition that causes difference. I mean, okay, I love PG Wodehouse like you wouldn’t believe. But he does have a tendency to repeat some of his basic elements. But you know what? At the same time, I don’t care. Because it’s just very delightful. His sentences are so rhythmic. There’s a great sense of fun. There’s a great sense of quirkiness. Same thing goes for a lot of comic novelists. John P. Marquand, the great undersung guy who won the Pulitzer and now nobody reads. Or Donleavy, for example, who I read for the first time this year — The Ginger Man was incredible. And then I read his next book and said, “Wait, this is the same thing as the last one.”

Meidav: You know what I’m thinking as you’re talking? Maybe each author over his or her lifetime is creating rules of counterpoint. And within that, there’s greater potential tension. In other words, if you know the furniture is there, maybe you can create different kind of energy, a heightened energy, once you’ve established this is the furniture of my craft.

Correspondent: So do you think it’s a matter of every author creating as many furniture options as possible so there’s the illusion that the author is not repeating herself?

Meidav: Yeah, possibly. Possibly. I mean, that sounds so modular.

Correspondent: (laughs) Yeah, I know. It doesn’t work that way.

Meidav: (laughs) Right.

Correspondent: It’s not like a desktop theme or anything.

Categories: Fiction

James Marsh (BSS #401)

James Marsh is most recently the director of Project Nim, which opens in theaters on July 8, 2011.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering unethical experiments that might slide by today’s authorities.

Guest: James Marsh

Subjects Discussed: States of exhaustion, Project Nim’s purported origins of the 1970s hippie residue, scientific ethics and Columbia code of conduct, attempts to teach a chimpanzee to use sign language, Professor Herb Terrace, the transgressive aspects of ripping an animal from his mother, Skinner, Harry Harlow’s experiments, Terrace’s efforts to seek media coverage, Nim Chimpsky’s attacks on grad students, Terrace’s concerns for insurance issues over harm and suffering to students, Washoe, a filmmaker’s obligation to history, contending with demands from studio executives, when Marsh recreates moments in a documentary, dramatic reconstructions, murdering poodles, the inherent danger in cutting too much, audience imagination and the dangers of being too literal, balancing the needs of individual perspective and audience reaction, having ongoing debates while editing a documentary, some of the qualities that cause a documentary filmmaker to become prickly, the potential conflict of interest of obtaining film clips from the very subjects you’re interviewing, having sexual feelings for a chimp, being faithful to the honest confessions of documentary subjects, viewing documentary subjects as actors, earning trust as a filmmaker, Philippe Petit, whether discomfort is required in the questioning process, asking a question in ten different ways, trying to get a scientist to reveal he committed an affair, why people should trust James Marsh, the moral implications on Catfish, the possibilities that Catfish is a fake documentary, and phony indignation.


Correspondent: You don’t bring up the Washoe project. Allen and Beatrix Gardner and Herb Terrace had a huge rivalry going on at the time. And it’s almost like East Coast/West Coast, Biggie/Tupac…

Marsh: Well, there’s another film to be made about all that stuff. There’s quite a few PBS type documentaries that get into the whole language experiments that Washoe, the Gardners, and that whole debate. That would be a film about science, a film about ideas. And our film is a drama about a chimpanzee and people. So I was aware of that context and many people spoke about it in the course of our interviews. But I thought it was going to be a blind alley for me as a filmmaker to get into that too much. It may be an oversight on my part. But that’s a different film. If you want to go see that film, someone else can make that. That’s not my film.

Correspondent: But don’t you think you have an obligation to present, to some degree, the history…

Marsh: No.

Correspondent: Of all of these animal language…

Marsh: Why?

Correspondent: Why? Because Washoe ended up having 350 words she “learned” of sign language. You can just do a brief mention.

Marsh: Well, you see, here’s my feeling about that. It’s that a brief mention is not good enough. That’s when you’re playing with it. If you’re just trying to flirt with something and say, “Well, I can mention Chomsky and I can mention Washoe and the Gardners.” You may know about that. But my brother watching the film won’t know anything about that. So I’m not trying to be — I’m being a little defensive here. But that wasn’t the film I wanted to make. That’s a different kind of film. And that film? Go online. Nova has done that film. Washoe, the fucking dolphins — you know, the Gardners, signs. But the bottom line is that the experiment failed. And that chimps do not learn language. So I can get caught up in this whole discussion about who was right and who was wrong, and who learned the most words. That’s not a story. That’s a discussion about the practice of science and the nature of these experiments. And so I wanted to focus on a dramatic story as opposed to the issues and the context. And, of course, someone like yourself, who is very….who is familiar with this stuff, probably feels a bit cheated. Because I don’t explain and give you the context you are sort of dimly aware of or know a little bit about. But that’s a very conscious choice on my part. Not to get caught up in things you can’t really fully explain and will, I think, be a sort of sideshow to what I think my interest in the story, which is my interest in the drama of it and the life story of this chimpanzee. Now if you’re a Nim, what does he fucking care about Washoe and dolphins and the Gardners? He isn’t going to know nothing about these things. So I’m trying to put you. You know, his life story is where I’m focused here. Not so much on this whole fascinating internexual climate that you’re aware of and the film doesn’t really get into.

Correspondent: To go ahead and correct your impression that I felt cheated, what I’m actually talking about here is how you as a documentary filmmaker make the choice to not include Washoe. Is it really a consideration of “Oh, well here’s a rabbit hole that will create a three hour film”?

Marsh: Yeah. Or where is my interest in this story? Where do I think the narrative is in this story? As opposed to — I think you could cram the film with reference points to other experiments and to other thinkers and linguists. And on and on. But that isn’t the film that I think would work for me as a filmmaker, or the one I’m interested in making. And so to distill my view into I want to tell you the story of this from the point of view of the chimpanzee, who would have no awareness of the other chimpanzee lab experiments and no interest in them either, I think.

Correspondent: So to some degree, it sounds to me that when you make a film — especially one that deals with science as opposed to, say, an event that numerous people see such as Man on Wire — your problem, I suppose, is that you’re enslaved to narrative to some degree. Is that safe to say?

Marsh: Well, that’s my interest in narrative. I guess I’m a little prickly about this. Because there’s quite a lot of pressure around the making of the film of this sort. Explaining to people. “Give me more context. Give me more science. Show me the scientific debate here.” And so I’m prickly about it because it caused me a lot of trouble as I was filming it, getting these comments from people — executives involved with the film — that they wanted more of this stuff. And they’re saying, “Well, I want a narrator for the film.” And I began to get quite pissed off about this. Because it wasn’t the kind of film that I was making, nor did I say that I was going to make this film. I was making the story of Nim the chimp. And films tend to not deal with ideas terribly well. It’s not what films are good at doing. I mean, some films do it extraordinarily well. But it’s not what they’re best for. I think film is best as a medium for storytelling. And so that’s where my interest is in this particular story again.

Categories: Film

Aimee Bender II (BSS #400)

Aimee Bender is most recently the author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #16.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Feeling his inner cake and eating it too.

Author: Aimee Bender

Subjects Discussed: Fantasy and magical realism being contingent upon reader belief, domestic realism and fantasy, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake as a Los Angeles novel, foodies, apartment complexes in Southern California, high school reunions, sustaining fairytale magic in a longer work, how a shift in an author’s temperament affects a writing project over several years, positive pessimism, parallels between writing process and psychotherapy, Adam Phillips and boredom, the fine line between attention and concentration, staying put, believing in the details, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Plausibility in Fantasy,” Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, writers whose complete works you can’t read all at once, author doubt and faulty fiction premises, Kafka, early attempts and restarts on Particular Sadness, the dangers of ranting, the relationship between empathy and fantasy, reverse engineering the human relationship with food, Rose’s early form as an older man on the make for soup, MFK Fisher, the materialistic impulses of Rose’s parents, bottom-feeding consumerism and garage sales, the consumer as an eater of another kind, qualitative precision vs. quantitative precision, mathematics and fantasy, people who love making food, Cafe Gratitude, feeling simultaneously appreciative and cynical about hippie ideologies, grandmothers who send strange packages, Edward Hopper, fatalistic determinism, Hemingway’s iceberg theory, the visual advantages of not using quotes, Bender’s experience with chairs, the McSweeney’s logo, whether Hopper’s paintings are truly lonely, “The Lighthouse at Two Lights,” artists who don’t enjoy being photographed, whether movies are destroying imagination, shorter attention spans, memorizing poetry, Wallace Stevens, Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel, Kay Ryan, students who can’t remember the questions they are about to ask, and whether or not the United States is presently suffering from a short attention span epidemic.


Correspondent: We were just joking about this being a few years since we last talked. This leads me to ask: I know you to be an optimist, both in your previous books and in our previous conversation, which was quite jocular. But with this book, I almost get the sense that you’re exploring this positive pessimism with the Rose perspective. And I’m curious how much that may play into this. The idea of exploring a perspective that’s just a little different from your own. Or perhaps I have misjudged you and you have been a closet pessimist the entire time!

Bender: Well, both! I think I’m both. So it’s both exploring a point of view that’s different from my own. But of course, for any of it to ring true, it has to ring true to me in some way as well. So I think that there’s something of that balance of seeing things cynically and seeing things hopefully. Depending on the day. Will it end in a different spot? But I guess I did feel really focused in this book maybe, in particular, about what would be burdensome for that character. And also what would be burdensome for the brother. And maybe the tone again of the magical quality about her and her brother feeling different. Like hers feeling dark and his feeling darker. I somehow think of them as triangles feeding into each other. Hers is the smaller shape and his is the darker shape in some way.

Correspondent: But what do you do if you’re trying to channel this positive pessimism and you’re in an absolutely peppy mood that day? Because I think that of all your books, this is tonally very, very specific. And so what do you do to maintain that tone? Especially since it’s several years of trying to get this right.

Bender: Exactly. Well, I have this kind of system that has worked for me so far, which is to write a couple hours in the morning. And the rule — a friend of mine from grad school named Phil Hayes said if you write what you’re interested in writing each day, writing will have life in it. Which is great. It seemed simple on the surface advice, but I think it’s pretty deep. Because the idea that each day, you can generate whatever is happening on that day — it means that on the optimistic days, I probably wasn’t working on that book. But the thing is getting a good work day in feels very optimistic and hopeful, even if the work itself is kind of dour and sad and bleak. A good work day feels so good no matter what. So there’s kind of a contrast there already. But let’s say I’m in a really upbeat mood and I just can’t get into the sadness of the book. Then I would work on a short story. So it was all very mood governed. But I think once there was enough material to work with, it didn’t feel sad to work on. It felt like explorative.

Correspondent: Well, that’s interesting. Because I’ve always wanted to talk with you about the two hour session.

Bender: Right.

Correspondent: Which sounds almost like expansive psychotherapy.

Bender: I’ve wondered about that. I think that’s a bit of a model. Yeah. (laughs)

Correspondent: But I understand, and I just want to get this totally clarified, you sit on the couch.

Bender: Chair.

Correspondent: You want to channel your mind into boredom.

Bender: Right.

Correspondent: And I’m curious about this. It seems to me a more reasonable answer to, say, Jonathan Franzen blocking all sunlight from the room, which I think is really quite intense. I mean, I understand the need.

Bender: And I think he has headphones.

Correspondent: Exactly. Earplugs.

Bender: Yeah.

Correspondent: There are bats that fly in his cave. I don’t know.

Bender: Right. (laughs)

Correspondent: But the point is that your level of trying to remove yourself from distraction seems infinitely more reasonable. You’re in this fixed location. How do you will yourself into filtering these ideas? Or if you’re in a situation where you have so many ideas, so much information, so many emotions that you’re writing, that you just need to sit still in order to just access it during that two hour period?

Bender: Yeah. I think you said it in an interesting way. “Channeling myself into boredom.” But it’s not. The boredom happens.

Correspondent: (laughs) Oh come on.

Bender: The boredom does not need to be channeled. You know, there are those people who say, “I never feel bored.” I’m definitely not one of those people. So in some way, for me, it feels like a dance between boredom and concentration. And I think my concentration can feel thin. So the idea is blocking out the amount of time so that I’m going to try to concentrate. But I don’t know that I will. And inevitably I get bored. And then hopefully on the other side of boredom is something. There’s this great quote by Adam Phillips, who is a British psychoanalyst. He talks about boredom as a waiting space and as this interim place for a kid where it’s not something to be filled or plugged in. It’s something actually to sit through. And that’s often where a kid will get really creative. And they’ll be like, “Okay, I’m bored. Now I’ve created this land under the kitchen sink.” Whatever.

Correspondent: I use the term “channeling” or “willing yourself” into this concentrated focus. Is it a variation of the Flaubert maxim “Be calm and orderly in your life so you can be violent and original in your work”?

Bender: There is something to that. I do believe very strongly that structure helps creativity and boundaries in that it is like a therapy hour. The boundaries of a time, a creative space where I can go to someplace that is potentially revolting to me and leave. And knowing that I will leave. There’s something very helpful about that. But still, it’s not even that I can focus myself into concentration. It’s just that the only rule I really have is that I have to stay put. And then they’ll be many, many bad days.

Correspondent: So if you stay put, you can confront any emotion. It’s like running the gauntlet here.

Bender: I think that if you stay put, stuff comes up. I think eventually stuff will bubble up and there will be things to write about. But it’s not as if I bravely have the sword in hand and I’m rushing forward into the forest.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Bender: I’m sitting there feeling like I want to get up. I want to get up. I want to get up. And the only weapon I have is stay put.

Correspondent: Got it. Is it a matter of ADD or distraction? Or what?

Bender: It’s not ADD. But I just do feel easily distracted. There are other writers who will say, “I need time to relax. And then get into it. And then I take eight hours. And then I get lost in the world. And I feel all my characters.” And I don’t have that at all. Maybe I’ll get lost into it for ten minutes. And that’s thrilling. But I get a lot done.

Correspondent: Oh, I see.

Bender: So it will be ten minutes. Boom. Productive. And then space out.

Correspondent: Ninety minutes of thinking, thirty minutes of writing. Something like that?

Bender: Yeah. And looking at old files. And rereading, rereading.

Categories: Fiction