Nick Broomfield (BSS #413)

Nick Broomfield is most recently the co-director of Sarah Palin: You Betcha.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he has gone rogue or rouge.

Guest: Nick Broomfield

Subjects Discussed: Being attracted to conservative politicians with big hair, Christopher Hitchens’s sexual fantasies about Margaret Thatcher, Frederick Wiseman and Errol Morris, contending with publicists and press agents, Joe McGinniss’s The Rogue, Levi Johnston and Tank Jones, filming Daryl Gates accepting an interview fee on camera, the ethics of paying interview subjects, Broomfield’s amateurist aesthetic, the faux professionalism of film crews, Broomfield filming himself on the phone, Broomfield’s tendency to gravitate towards ad hominem, whether the possibility of Sarah Palin becoming President is a serious question, John Bitney, Steve Schmidt, campaign management of Palin, Broomfield doing less documentaries, the Kickstarter campaign for Sarah Palin: You Betcha, flipping between documentaries and narratives, wearing red flannel in Wasilla, JC McCavitt, the influence of Palin and the evangelical right in Wasilla, whether or not Wasilla reflects America, whether Broomfield is motivated by vengeance or retaliation, the chewing gum photo montage, balancing the visual details and the facts, collaborating with Joan Churchill, why Broomfield put himself in front of the camera after Lily Tomlin, claims of Lily Tomlin’s insecurity, the difficulty of filming Tomlin, why the construction of a documentary creates a more inclusive one, the dangers of moral labels, why people should trust Nick Broomfield, moral paralysis, subjective truth borne from a personal quest, embarrassing public questioning, Broomfield’s view of restraint as a weakness, hedge funds, getting investors to sign on for a Broomfield movie, working with non-actors, and the ever-shifting Broomfield paradigm.


Correspondent: Going back to Margaret Thatcher [Tracking Down Maggie], it seems to me that you have an especial interest in conservative politicians with very interesting hair-dos. What’s up with this particular commonality? I sense also a formalistic commonality as well with the chase for Maggie and the chase for Sarah here. What of this?

Broomfield: Well, in fact, I never thought of the similarity of the hair-dos. But now that you’ve pointed it out, it’s quite extraordinary.

Correspondent: Are you a man who likes big hair? You’re a Clintonian man?

Broomfield: I’m actually not a particularly big hair man. But when I was doing the Margaret Thatcher film, one of the people I interviewed was Christopher Hitchens.

Correspondent: Yes.

Broomfield: Who had a lot of almost sexual fantasies about Margaret Thatcher, which I hasten to add I never shared. But I noticed that a lot of people also have the same feelings about Sarah Palin.

Correspondent: Yes.

Broomfield: And, again, I’ve never succumbed to those kinds of thoughts with her. But I think that both women captured the imagination of a large part of the population. Probably also because they were women and they had a determination and a charm that was unexpected and was refreshing in its own way.

Correspondent: Yeah. Not attracted to Sarah sexually. But I also think to Fetishes and also to Heidi Fleiss; Hollywood Madam.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: It seems that there is also some sexual quality sometimes to some of your subjects. Especially women. Why do you think this is?

Broomfield: Well, I mean, I think as any full-blooded male once interested — I would apply it more to films like, yeah, Fetishes, Heidi Fleiss. I did a film, Chicken Ranch, in a legalized brothel in Nevada. Even someone like Aileen Wuornos was very interesting along those lines. Sexual lines. It’s funny. Just last week, I saw Fred Wiseman in Toronto. He’s just made a film. The Crazy Horse. A strip club. And before that, he did the ballet film. And I said, “Fred, do I get the sense of some kind of Fräulein in your work.” And he said, “I’d like to see what you’re doing when you’re 81 years old.”

Correspondent: Errol Morris’s Tabloid as well. While we’re on the subject.

Broomfield: Oh really?

Correspondent: Yeah, there you go.

Broomfield: What’s he just done?

Correspondent: He did Tabloid on the sex scandal. 1970s. So there we go.

Broomfield: There we go.

Correspondent: All you documentary filmmakers are turning into dirty old men.

Broomfield: Exactly. Exactly. Just give me a few more years and I’ll be completely there.

Correspondent: To get on a serious subject, since you had experienced difficulties in both Tracking Down Maggie and Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam when dealing with press agents and publicists, you had to know going into this one that you were probably not going to get a sitdown interview with Sarah Palin.

Broomfield: Well, I think that I always had the belief that I would get one probably. And it was only after we’d been there for about ten weeks — just before Christmas — that I really realized with that final phone call with Chuck Heath, the father, that I wasn’t going to get one. I don’t know that one would necessarily learn something devastatingly original with a sitdown interview with her. Because she’s done many interviews and nothing very revealing has come out. Generally, she’s revealing by omission. Which is: she doesn’t know something or she mispronounces a word or she is factually inaccurate or she gets things all confused. So she’s very revealing. Generally about lack of knowledge. She’s very unrevealing generally about herself and her upbringing and even her beliefs. I think she’s very guarded. For somebody who studied media at university, she is completely distrusting of the media and has more control probably over what she says and does than anybody. I mean, the only interview she does is with FOX Television, who she’s employed by. And obviously Facebook and Twitter. But I did think that as we were resident in Wasilla that maybe we would get a down moment with her that would at least be revealing of her — thank you (to barista) — of her family and her friends and the way she saw life around her or as part of the evangelical community. Which is really what Wasilla is.

Correspondent: Well, this is interesting because Joe McGinniss also has a book called The Rogue. And he managed to get more childhood friends to talk — anonymously in that book — and you had to go all the way to way to Alexandria to find someone who would talk with you. I’m curious…

Broomfield: Well, my sources were not talking anonymously. They were talking on camera. And I can back up all my various claims in the film. Whereas I think one of the problems in quoting undisclosed sources is that you cannot back up your claims. And you obviously can’t do that in a film.

Correspondent: I was curious. While we’re on the subject of interviews, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam has the famous moment where you’re showing Daryl Gates accept the cash.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: In this, you have one moment where you’re talking to Levi Johnston’s manager, Tank Jones, and you’re negotiating trying to interview him for $500. And I’m curious about this. Is this kind of thing ethical? I mean, why would it be ethical? And I’m wondering, when you do in fact pay someone for an interview, do you feel an obligation to feature that on screen? Has this always been the case for you? Have you paid other people?

Broomfield: What I think was interesting is that people like Levi Johnston basically live off — I introduce that segment in the film, saying that there’s an industry that’s grown up around Sarah Palin and people live from that industry. So that was an illustration of Levi Johnston basically — I mean, I think they were asking $20,000. So I think my derisory offer of $500 was more of a joke than anything else. But I think it’s very relevant to point out that there is a great deal of money in tabloid journalism and that people are paid to make contributions. I mean, I didn’t pay anyone in this film. But there have been other films, which you quite rightly pointed out. Like, for example, the Heidi Fleiss film, everybody expected to be paid.

Correspondent: Everybody in Heidi Fleiss pretty much got paid? Ms. Sellers and the like?

Broomfield: They all expected to be paid. I don’t know if they all got paid. But yes. And I think I make a big point of that in the film. I comment on how much money various people wanted. Like DarylGates. I think he wanted $2,000. $1,500 to take part.

Correspondent: But when you introduce money into the equation, doesn’t this affect what you’re going to be getting from your documentary subjects?

Broomfield: Well, I’m making a film about what is. And we live in a world that’s very commercial and a world that has to do with money. And as a documentary filmmaker, you’re reporting on that world. So if everyone wants money in that world, you report on that fact. And of course, that makes a difference. Yes.

Correspondent: What about this amateurist aesthetic that is often in your films? I think of the tape running out in Biggie and Tupac.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: And in this [Sarah Palin: You Betcha], your efforts to try and cross an iced lake or to try and negotiate ice in numerous ways. Or the hat trick in, of course, The Leader[, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife]. And all that.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: There’s a certain…

Broomfield: You’ve certainly done your homework here.

Correspondent: Well, I’m curious about why this exists. Are these deliberate moves on your part to either win over your subjects or win over the audience with a more amateurist approach that’s calculated? Or are these just mess ups on your part?

Broomfield: Well, I would argue that there’s sort of a faux professional approach with a lot of film crews. You know, when they climb back in the car and drive on to the next location, I’m sure they’re a whole lot of fun. And they crack a whole lot of jokes that are not in the film. But when they get the cameras out, they get the clipboards out, and they became these serious professionals. Which I think is a load of bullshit. I think it’s much better to reveal what it’s really like to be doing that film or what you really think or what the humor is, you know? Rather than having this — you know. I remember when I was working for television. I was working with a presenter. And the presenter was actually a very funny guy. And I remember we were making a film in a monastery. And he would get into all these arguments with the monks about whether God existed or how many angels he could get on a pin and all those classic debates. And he would always lose the arguments. Because the monks and the abbot and so on, that’s all they did. And they studied all the books. And they were really up on their theology and logic. And when I showed the film to the TV company, they were horrified. Because they said a professional reporter does not lose his way. Does not stumble over words. Doesn’t turn to the camera and say, “I’m stuck.” But of course, they do. And I think by including those kinds of things, you make a much more accurate portrait than if you leave them out. I think there’s a sort of faux professionalism that we’re surrounded by that is completely inaccurate.

Correspondent: But doesn’t your persona, your schtick, sometimes get in the way of the very subjects that you’re photographing. I mean, every time you make a telephone call in your movies, you’re always in a car.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering why you feel the need to film that as well. It’s almost as if you’re counting on the subject to say no.

Broomfield: Well, what…wha…I mean, I don’t really understand the point. I don’t know whether you’re saying that the phone calls are irrelevant or the fact that I’m in a car is irrelevant.

Correspondent: I’m trying to point out that you’re really trying to show yourself more than anything else.

Categories: Film

Sheila McClear (BSS #412)

Sheila McClear is most recently the author of The Last of the Live Nude Girls.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Embracing the diminishing returns of Old New York.

Author: Sheila McClear

Subjects Discussed: Peter Pan Donuts as a point of meaning in one’s life, Hunter S. Thompson and breakfast, Old New York, staying in New York by any means necessary, having unique issues with your parents, having problems with authority, the swift manner in which money disappears in New York, contending with siblings who tap parents for money, personal responsibility vs. economic victimhood, shyness and job interviews, latent rebellion, zoning out during a peep show strip, whether those who work in the nude can be turned on sexually, the many levels of compartmentalization as a stripper, zoning out in relation to performance and being uncomfortable, transactional relationships and comparisons between stripping and psychiatry, writing as a partition between shyness and performance, being charmed by wolves, how long it takes to a Midwesterner to become a true-blue New Yorker, worldliness, not talking with anybody for two weeks, writing about co-workers and allaying concerns, scribbling on the job and maintaining a notebook, memory as a great liar, expanding anecdotes into stories, how patterns inform the narrative, rebelling and dropping out, freedom and reality, being a reg, healthy addictions and obsessions, the advantages of having a focus, McClear’s reluctance to use the words “object” and “objectify,” difficulties with didacticism, the power dynamic between a stripper and a client, dealing with the inevitability of being objectified, losing one’s virginity later in life, working the same peep show stint as a top draw, Fashion Week, the importance of clothes and theatricality in the peep show, the advantages of wearing a schoolgirl skirt, how piercings trick people, guys who read your energy, not being able to hide behind your clothes, dressing like your archetype, subconscious authenticity, making more money when ovulating, the uselessness of wigs, split-second decisions, racism in the peep show industry, racial profiling and men’s sexual preferences, troubling generalizations, race and hiring practices in strip clubs, hygiene at strip clubs, the dangers of mops, sterilizing dollar bills, the necessity of internships to get a foothold in the New York media industry, Ivy League pedigrees, unemployment claims towards Gawker, improving labor conditions for sex workers, exploitation, stage fees, the difficulties of worker organization, what might have happened to McClear without the peep show industry, and the just safe enough nature of peep shows.


McClear: I have problems with all authorities in general. It makes sense.

Correspondent: It makes sense. Your parents were both lawyers. When you were out here trying to survive, did you ever tap them for money? Because that was a question that was never answered in the book.

McClear: My mom gave me two grand when I moved. And every once in a while, she’d send like a hundred dollars in the mail. I never asked them for money. Occasionally, they would send it. No, I would say, other than the two grand — which, God, that disappeared so quickly.

Correspondent: It does in New York. Yeah.

McClear: I already had money too and…well, not a lot. But no. No. I didn’t. It was that and occasional things in the mail. Also my sister was tapping them for a decent amount of money.

Correspondent: Oh, I see. You wanted to be the more respectable sister? (laughs)

McClear: I felt it was unfair to pile on.

Correspondent: Yeah.

McClear: Then there was also the point of, well, at least then I…you know?

Correspondent: Yeah. Yeah. Of other attempts at employment, you write, “It wasn’t as if I didn’t try and do something else.” And I’m curious. To what extent could you be said to be personally responsible for finding work in a peep show? I mean, you were determined to stay in New York by any means necessary. You wanted to prove something to yourself. So obviously you made the decision. So how responsible are you for something like this? Or do you view yourself as a bit of an economic victim?

McClear: Oh, not at all. No one forced me to work there. And it wasn’t my first choice at all. But as I got more and more and more — I mean, everyone has a hard time finding work.

Correspondent: Sure.

McClear; And I probably — I don’t know. I was probably doing something wrong in my job search.

Correspondent: You really think that? I mean, how many resumes did you send? How many job interviews did you go on?

McClear: I don’t know. I think I was so shy back then that I probably came off as bad in an interview. You know, a little awkward. But I was totally — I had this sort of latent thing where I never had rebelled. And I had never been a slacker. I never did drugs really. I never had acted out or been promiscuous. And like there was sort of that going on. And that sort of felt like the first excuse. Especially now that I was by myself and didn’t know anyone to reprimand me or find out what I was doing. It was sort of the first excuse that I found to act out in what was sort of a safe and controlled environment. I took it. And there are other things leading to that decision. Like needing a job and stuff. But I was looking for a way to act out obviously. It had to happen sometime.

Correspondent: Sure.

McClear: Like when people go through their drug phase or their sleeping around phase or their slacker phase. I never did any of it. And I was 25.

Correspondent: You were feeling left out?

McClear: I was feeling left out! And totally uncool. (laughs)

Correspondent: Uncool? I mean, why? I mean, by what metric, if you are so anti-authority, did you feel uncool or not hep or not with it? I mean, who gives a fuck about that?

McClear: I guess I did give a fuck. (laughs)

Correspondent: Many times in the book, you describe zoning out and shutting your brain off during a peep show strip. Of a photography modeling job that steered into an entirely unusual direction…

McClear: (laughs)

Correspondent: …you write, “I had already floated away inside my head, detaching my mind from my body. Nearly three hours had passed before we were done.” But I have to point out even before you arrived in New York, when you performed with the Terranauts in Michigan, you write, “The rush of performing canceled out the noise in my head.” So it seems to me you’re describing here this need to act out. But I should point out that there has been, at least in my reading, this tendency to want to check your brain in or zone out or just not focus. To what degree was it there before you worked in the peep show? And do you think that working at the peep show exacerbated this tendency?

McClear: Yeah. I think it was there. Because my personality type is more of an observer. A little bit of a depressive. And sort of an introverted person. And a tendency to overthink things. Which is probably like…

Correspondent: (laughs) This is going the other way!

McClear: Well, it’s probably describing most writers. So it’s always a vacation if you can find a way — whether it’s meditation or exercise or playing in a band or whatever — to put your mind at ease. But then, of course, being in the peep show was just so — doing the show was much too personal. It was uncomfortable to be present. So I would always check out. And then it did exacerbate that tendency. Just like I described. Of turning a light switch on and off until the breaks. Because you’re like unsure of like “Am I on or off?” Or you can’t toggle between them as much anymore. Which is why I flipped out that one time and went to Bellevue.

Correspondent: Yeah.

McClear: And then I think it just ends up in you withdrawing more. Or just being less present. I actually had a friend who was a nude massage therapist at the time. And she was like, “Um, are you able to be turned on sexually anymore? Because I’m not.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

McClear: And I was like, “Oh. Me neither.” And she was like, “Yeah, I think it’s my job.” “Yeah, probably mine too.”

Correspondent: You couldn’t compartmentalize in any way? That Chelsea [Sheila’s peep show identity] was one type of sex and Sheila was another?

McClear: I could have. But I felt, and I did to an extent, that compartmentalizing too much would almost be like losing some core part of your personality. And I worked with a lot of girls who compartmentalized to the point where they were not the person they used to be before they worked in the business. So I didn’t want to be like that.

Categories: People

Alexander Maksik (BSS #411)

Alexander Maksik is most recently the author of You Deserve Nothing.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Staring into unreliable news outlets for confirmation of existence.

Author: Alexander Maksik

Subjects Discussed: Writing an anti-Parisian novel in Paris, experiential qualities that find their way into fiction, being seduced by a cliche, reading Camus in the original, English prose that is deliberately written as if it is translated from another language, thinking and feeling in French and writing in English, broaching philosophy in the simplest possible manner, designing a perspective that don’t seem like a voice, depression, whether a character’s fall from grace interpreted as “devastating” can also be liberating, institutional trappings in teaching, whether a novel about depression can be a positive book, explicit revelations toned down over the course of many drafts, the finale as a revelatory meter, experiencing fear as a novelist, being edited by Alice Sebold, character change, nervousness and writing a novel within a vacuum, being fearless, existentialism and being judged by others, Sebold’s editorial emphasis on sound and language, the similarities between changing lives and leading cults, living with a directionless viewpoint, dead characters as models, introducing monstrous characters to sympathize with “less monstrous” actions in a protagonist, pushing readers into a mode of sympathy vs. challenging a reader’s assumptions, working without outlines and without moral points, time, location, and place as the best narrative confines, seeing a situation unfold from two perspectives, worrying about playing into moral ambiguity, sex and affection portrayed as directional, the teacher-student power dynamic, using minor characters to depict interpersonal tragedy, John Fowles’s The Magus, worrying about protagonists being perfect, and parallels between the voluntary senior seminars class and the voluntary reading experience.


Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start off by discussing the experiential requirements in writing an anti-Parisian novel in Paris. You told Largeheartedboy that you made it a point to avoid certain music while working on the novel. Now I’m going to have to ask you — do you also have to avoid certain people or certain locales when you’re writing this kind of novel? From an artistic position, isn’t avoiding some of these normal or privileged aspects of Parisian life just as bad as the other side? How do you fashion a perspective — or several perspectives, in this case — when you ignore certain aspects of Paris? Can’t you mine something from the totality of experience? Just to start out here.

Maksik: Yeah. I mean, I have to say that I lived in one of the most, if not the most, expensive neighborhoods in Paris. But I lived on the top floor of a building without an elevator, which allowed me to pay a lower rent.

Correspondent: Just like Will.

Maksik: Yes.

Correspondent: It makes me wonder about other experiential qualities. (laughs)

Maksik: Well, we can talk about that. We can talk about that. But when I first moved to Paris, I had this very clear sense of the kind of Paris I wanted to experience. And very quickly, it was boring to me. And I started to explore. Particularly the northern parts of the city. And I found those parts of the city to be far more interesting, and spent more and more time there, and started to read at a bar in the north of Paris. A bar called Cabaret Populaire. It was sort of there that I started to see the city as it really is. Because when I first moved to the city, it was all Hemingway and Boulevard Saint-Germain and all of that. And now I see the city in a far more different light.

Correspondent: What bored you specifically about the neighborhood you had to escape from?

Maksik: I mean, it is wonderful. Because it is a cliche. Because it is, at least physically, exactly as the postcards make it. The Luxembourg Gardens looks exactly as I imagined it would look. And the cafes remain — at least outwardly — Parisian. Like a Robert Doisneau photograph. And now it becomes — Paris is often criticized now as a museum city. Where there’s nothing behind those beautiful facades. I don’t think that that’s true. I just think that it requires a little investigation.

Correspondent: Well, you could have perhaps knocked on a few doors and asked to see the insides, introduce yourself…

Maksik: Yeah.

Correspondent: I mean, this whole idea of “I’m bored; I have to go somewhere else” intrigues me. Because a lot of novelists are determined to get at the wonder underneath the boredom or just find something that’s interesting.

Maksik: Right.

Correspondent: Why couldn’t you have found something that was interesting?

Maksik: Well, I did! I did. And, of course, it is simplistic to say that everything in the 6th [arrondissement] or the 5th or the 7th is one thing. I can’t make that argument. But because there’s so many tourists, because the city uses the center of Paris as an advertising campaign — you know, it’s very well preserved. It’s very clean. All of the gold is polished. All of the doors are kept in a certain fashion. And the outskirts of the city, in large part, are ignored by the city and by the government. Things are dirtier. The river is less elegant at the outskirts of the city.

Correspondent: It’s fascinating to have this conversation when we’re here in Midtown, which some might argue is the most boring aspect of Manhattan.

Maksik: Yeah, I would tend to agree.

Correspondent: Well, what of this? Do you think that hitting the outside of a city is really the only way to understand it? Both as a novelist and as a human being? Has this been the sort of pattern throughout your life?

Maksik: I mean, I don’t think. No. There’s never been a place in my life ever that has held so much appeal to me from afar. You know, I was never sort of caught up in New York, for example. It’s the city for many people. But I was never really seduced from afar by New York. So Paris is very particular to me.

Correspondent: What was it about it that seduced you?

Maksik: All of the cliches. All of the cliches. And I’ve said this before in other interviews. But Hemingway and Shakespeare & Company and Gertrude Stein and the whole deal. And I read A Moveable Feast many times. At a time when I was very impressionable. And I had these notions of wanting to be a writer. And I just thought — somehow it got in my mind that Paris would be the answer to all of my questions, all of my problems. This is where I would be my truest self. And that’s a recipe, I think.

Correspondent: Has this been the pattern throughout your life? Of essentially being seduced by a cliche and then pursuing the cliche and then finding out what’s around it? That this is really the only way for you to find this identity here?

Maksik: Yeah. I mean, I think I have this tendency to imagine that a place will solve the problems of my life. I will be another person in this place. Wherever it is.

Correspondent: A topographical panacea, basically.

Maksik: Yes. Absolutely. And I love to make plans. And I love to travel. And I think part of that love is this sense of reinvention. That I can be a different human being. That I can wipe the slate clean. And, of course, as I discovered in a very concrete way in Paris, you are who you are wherever you go.

Categories: Fiction

Alex Shakar (BSS #410)

Alex Shakar is most recently the author of Lumanarium.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: In search of a zendo to teach him a few cheap tricks.

Author: Alex Shakar

Subjects Discussed: Splitting novelists into scientists and mystics, how location and characters transmute over multiple drafts, novelists who are prescient about their health, spirituality, writing about the unknowable, learning how to sit and breathe properly from a zendo, the visual look of sentences and paragraphs, how experience translates into words, the icons at the head of each section in this book, design elements, 9/11 fiction, catastrophic post-ironic fiction, culture that makes meaning of historical events, the time needed to process a fictive response to a specific time, not naming specific New York landmarks, walking, Zeckendorf Towers vs. Zeckendorf’s theorem, Brounian vs. Brownian motion, finding significance in character names, Vartan and avatars, crafting a novel with meaning and mystery in equal proportions, “The Year of Wonders,” the question of whether fiction can still be dangerous when corporations co-opt irony and social satire, David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram,” the gray areas within irony and sincerity, Richard Powers’s Plowing the Dark, conscious and subconscious literary influences, Middlemarch, Dostoevsky, humiliation in literature, devising a close third-person that is close to an unreliable first-person narrator, authenticity in narrative, the benefits of being horrified by surreal dreams, out-of-body experiences, the unusual sexual qualities of twin brothers, hostile T-shirts, President Bush and chimpanzees, adult characters who live with their parents, the boomerang generation, personal economic characteristics before the recession, thirtysomethings and Bildungsromans, 21st century fiction being identified as work trying to find the fresh and the human within the cold and the inhuman, novelists who don’t want to deal with cell phones, utopias and dystopias erected by novelists as a method of evading reality, faith in technology as a method of coping with the real, faith and atopia, and an approach to spirituality that is without belief.


Correspondent: I wanted to start off by discussing a recent essay you wrote for The Wall Street Journal in which you divided novelists into scientists and mystics. You suggested that the scientist is someone who prethinks the story and the mystic is someone who kind of goes along for the ride, flies by the seat of her pants — that the best novelist is somewhere in between. And I’m curious, since Luminarium took ten years for you to write and since you were dealing with multiple drafts, hundreds of pages — my question is how you could shift gears. Because I know, for example, the twin brother George was a later addition. So it’s almost like you’re going from Earth being the center of the universe to the sun being the center of the universe. How does this work for you?

Shakar: It just seems to be my process. Even for The Savage Girl, my last novel, it started off as a novel that took place in Austin, Texas, and it was about slackers hanging out and smoking cigarettes and then, over the drafts, everything changed. Including the protagonist. She wasn’t even in the first draft and then she came into subsequent drafts. The city changed to a fictional city built on a volcano. So there’s usually some core that stays the same and then everything changes around it. And in the case of Luminarium, George is, in a way, what I consider now to be pretty much the center of the book. He’s not the protagonist, but he’s what the whole story revolves around. I spent a long time. Draft after draft. And the book kept sucking. And I couldn’t really figure out why. It just felt like the the pieces just weren’t coming together. And I couldn’t get beneath the surface of the subject. And I had this idea for George earlier on. Or, at least, for a twin brother. It was in the back of my mind. And I kept saying, “Oh no. That’ll just complicate it even more. It’s such a complicated story. Why add another component to it?” But I was amazed, once I started going in that direction, how it actually allowed everything else to really snap together around it. It was like a new backbone and a new heart for the book. And so it was nice for me to see how it was evolving in that direction.

Correspondent: I’m wondering. I’m presuming [the other brother] Sam was there in the earlier drafts.

Shakar: Yes.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering if he was possibly an overstuffed character, that the “big ideas” that George brought to this company were there within Sam in an earlier draft. Or did you have such items as the tweezers, which seemed to reflect the twin theme that was going on, and the Narcissus idea — did it just need to be more explicit? Is this one of the reasons why George came to fruition?

Shakar: Yeah. I think so. I think it helped me just manifest and physicalize and emotionalize a lot of the stuff that was going on in the story. It felt for a long time that I was looking for something. I kept trying to figure out — I mean, the main problem was what sends Fred on this journey. And it’s a hell of a journey that he goes on. So it really took something to set him off on it without just making him seem like a navel gazing type. I mean, that was the way he seemed in the earlier drafts to me. And so I experimented with giving Fred different illnesses. I gave him a heart condition. And then after a couple months, I started getting chest pains. I had to check myself into the hospital. So luckily that plot element didn’t pan out anyway. (laughs)

Correspondent: You were prescient about your own health. My goodness!

Shakar: Yeah, I don’t know. The chicken or the egg.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, how do you determine what the right medical condition is? That’s an interesting question. I mean, clearly you don’t want to feel it. But perhaps it manifested in this unknown way. But how do you zero in on what seems to be right in this case?

Shakar: Yeah. Well, for Fred, it took externalizing it. It took giving him the brother. It was odd. Because the book is so much about selfhood and it’s so much about interiority that, at first, it seemed counterintuitive for me to give him the brother. But that actually helped manifest and externalize some of the stuff that was going on. So instead of talking to himself in his head all the time, he’s talking to George. And I think that really brings him down to earth in a way.

Correspondent: There are other Georges that are scattered throughout the book. I’m wondering if George the name was there before George the body, the comatose body in the hospital, was there.

Shakar: No. I don’t think so. I mean, I’m trying to remember if George Bush was…(laughs). Yeah, I think he was actually. That’s true. You’re right about that.

Correspondent: You told The New York Observer that you knew you wanted to write about spirituality, but that it took you a while to figure out that you didn’t understand it. Are the best fiction subjects those that are unknowable? At what point do you know in the writing that you really don’t know enough?

Shakar: Yeah. I wish I had figured that out sooner. But it took me about three or four years of work on the novel before I decided that I needed some hands-on experience. I had done a lot of reading before that point. And I was drawn to writing about mystics and contemplatives. And I saw that it was just something that wasn’t only for these people. It was something that seemed accessible for a human being. And so it was something that I wanted to go and try out. So I went to my neighborhood zendo. And I don’t know what I was expecting exactly. But I had a bunch of big questions on my mind. And the guy sat me down and, for an hour, just taught me how to breathe and how to sit. And these were things that I thought I knew how to do. So it was strange at first. But I stuck with it. I sat. I breathed. I counted to ten. So for the last five years, I’ve been doing it pretty regularly. Meditating. Going on retreats. I’ve found a lot of terrific things in it. And I think it helped me get a handle on the kinds of experiences that Fred was having. Or at least some of them. And it helped me feel like the material was my own a little bit more. And there’s a lot of elements of Zen which ended up coming into play in the book.

Categories: Fiction

Lauren Beukes (BSS #409)

Lauren Beukes is most recently the author of Zoo City.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Avoiding roaming urban animals.

Author: Lauren Beukes

Subjects Discussed: Jet lags and hangovers, cultural references, I Can Haz Cheeseburger, whether or not books should be of their time, American Psycho and Phil Collins, violence and cheeseball songs, hyper-specific description, William Gibson, the influence of writing for animation, the differences in writing journalism, comics, and screenplays, considering the right level of detail, action scenes vs. dialogue, Hanna, implausible action movie scenes, getting the geography of an apartment block, the ability to get journalistic answers from people when you say you’re a novelist, magic and fantasy rooted in practical limitations and innate talent, Red, a personal belief system as a peer review process, Johannesburg’s geography, Nechama Brodie’s The Joburg Book, conversations with traditional healers, worldbuilding and getting the reader to believe, major clues hidden within conversation, bad worldbuilding involving two guys sitting in a bar, writing as a road trip, having a planned ending in advance, alligators, reclusive music industry producers who are in decline, establishing Zinzi’s streetcred, arriving at the right balance between ambiguity and just enough information, unreliable narrators, Melinda Ferguson’s Smacked, cinematography and photography references within Zoo City and Moxyland, similes throughout Zoo City, Raymond Chandler, phantasmagorical noir, Oryx and Crake, the problems of reading fiction while writing fiction, South African criminal slang, steering away from transcribed speech, The Wire, relying on other writers for certain chapters of Zoo City, conducting interviews with fictional characters, the problems with theories contradicting fictional worlds, being the “head writer” of your own novel, The Third Man, Paul Bowles, visual references, and internalizing influence.


Correspondent: Lauren, how are you doing?

Beukes: I’m very, very, very jetlagged. Thank you for asking.

Correspondent: Yes, well, I’m hungover as well. So I think it’s an equal playing field. I wanted to first of all start with the issue of cultural references. This book has quite a number of recent ones. “I can haz murder weapon.” I don’t think I’ve even seen “I can haz cheeseburger” in a novel ever. Lady Gaga: well that’s comparatively recent. The 419 scams. I’m curious. When you deploy a relatively recent cultural reference, you’re dealing with a two year lag time in terms of the book coming out. What do you do to make sure that it’s right? Or that it’s actually something that will possibly be tangible in a matter of years? Or do you have this virtue here, in this case, of a sideways universe, as it were? So that, as a result, whether a reference is dated or not, this is not so much a distinction or a problem.

Beukes: I never really worried about references dating the book. I think books are of their time and I think they should be. You know, when I was doing my masters in creative writing at the University of Cape Town, my lecturer said, “You absolutely should not put any contemporary references. Because it dates the book horribly.” You know, The Great Gatsby has dated horribly. American Psycho has dated horribly. And they still work. Because the story is compelling enough and it’s actually a really interesting snapshot of the time. So, you know what, I don’t care. I like to think that it dates it. The book is set in 2011 and those are the cultural references.

Correspondent: Interesting that you mention American Psycho. Because near the end, there’s a Phil Collins reference. So it leads me to wonder if that was a possible influence on getting that sort of juxtaposition of violence and cheeseball songs.

Beukes: Yeah. I don’t know if it was conscious. But it might have been something that I internalized. Yeah.

Correspondent: A two stroke gash across the face of a menacing street urchin. The Maltese’s car polished and waxed to within an inch of its warranty. This is hyperspecific, very measurement unit-like description. Which I like by the way. Reminiscent to some degree of William Gibson. However, at the same time, I know that you have also written for animation. And I’m curious if some of that animation writing background has affected your ability to describe things in this very ultra-precise matter. What of this?

Beukes: I think there are two influences on my writing. I’ve basically got three day jobs. I’ve been a journalist. I’ve been a TV scriptwriter. I’ve been a novelist. And now I’m doing comics as well. And all those different fields have very, very specific things to their discipline. The animation, you have to describe things very, very precisely. The same with comics. You have to absolutely describe the scene. You have to describe the emotion that the character is going through. Which means I sometimes pull funny faces in character, trying to figure out, “Oh, what does this sneerer actually look like? And how are they sneering?”

Correspondent: Do you take photographs of yourself?

Beukes: No, I don’t. That would just be silly. But I should set up a webcam and kind of do a live streaming thing where people can log in and laugh at me.

Correspondent: So you need to know the precise expression of what’s going down. And then you have the option to describe it in detail or not, whether for animation or for prose.

Beukes: Absolutely. But I think journalism also has a lot to do with it. The details of journalism. And I think details make a story. I mean, I’m lucky to do a lot of — not news journalism, but narrative journalism and investigative features in finding those telling details. So I think my eye for detail probably comes from there. And then also the specifics of having to write for animation and having to track things very, very clearly and stage manage very clearly for the animators.

Correspondent: Well, I mean, how much of this is an organic process? And how much of it is considering the right level of detail to communicate the right information to the reader?

Beukes: I think it’s pretty organic. I don’t think about it too much. Dialogue comes very easy. Actions scenes are really hard — they don’t come naturally to me. I really have to work on them.

Correspondent: Why are action scenes tougher than dialogue?

Beukes: I don’t know. I think because I really like talking. You know, I’m a talker, not a fighter. I think dialogue is so much a part of who we are. And I really like using the subtext in dialogue. And of course, that’s very, very strong in animation. I think it’s also I’m not a really big action movie fan. And action has a lot to do with movement. I really enjoyed Hanna recently. I thought the way they did the action in there was just intense and amazing and surprising. And you really felt it. So many action scenes — you know, the truck falls off the bridge and there are multiple explosions. And they’re just empty. So it’s really trying to write meaningful action.

Correspondent: Is fighting similar to gestures and facial expressions for you? Do you have to like roll on the ground to get a sense of how things are working out here?

Beukes: Uh…

Correspondent: Do you have a sparring partner?

Beukes: (laughs) No, no. I wish. I did a little bit of kickboxing, but that was years ago.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Beukes: I do sometimes act certain stuff up, but not fight scenes. But I will really think about the choreography. And I’ll spend a lot of time thinking about it.

Categories: Fiction