Alan Hollinghurst (BSS #422)

Alan Hollinghurst appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #422. He is most recently the author of The Stranger’s Child.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering a new career that has nothing to do with literary biography.

Author: Alan Hollinghurst

Subjects Discussed: Ivy Compton-Burnett, attention to character panoramas in 21st century literature, the appeal of huge gaps in the narrative, Alice Munro’s Runaway, how Hollinghurst decides which characters get to pop up later, Chekhov’s gun, characters who have affairs with the same man, factoring in the reader’s need to know, The Line of Beauty, Michael Apted’s Up series, unanticipated flourishes that run throughout different historical epochs, the 1967 Sexual Offenses Act, avoiding writing directly about the Great War, the dangers of too much research, the James Wood review, how a single verb choice can alter a sentence, “muddle,” the paucity of laughter verbs in English, our correspondent’s highly pedantic (and unsuccessful) attempt to pinpoint Hollinghurst’s affinity for verbs containing the letter U, Paul Bryant as one of the most compelling cases against literary biography and literary criticism, real world Paul Bryants, how minor biographies are often written by the wrong people, Ronald Firbank, obsessiveness as a character trait, media overexposure, being comfortable with the inevitability of obsolescence, fiction and posterity, Auden and biography, Mick Imlah’s “In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson,” legitimate literary biography, Michael Holroyd’s work on Lytton Strachey, Richard Ellmann’s Joyce bio, the fallibility of human memory, the corruption of poetry, the allure of the second-rate, life vs. art, having a vivid sense of someone over a weekend but not really knowing them, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, referential character names, why Hollinghurst couldn’t get through the whole of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, depicting older people, having a wide range of friends, The Swimming-Pool Library, relationships between young and old people, sticking with “said” in dialogue and appending description, Evelyn Waugh, dealing with idiosyncratic translations, the word “satiric” offered as a cue for later satirical exercises, loose environmental description, jostling characters around, class trappings, TS Eliot and PG Wodehouse’s past experience as bankers, growing up with a father who was a bank manager, and Hollinghurst’s novels increasingly moving further into the past.


Correspondent: In the first section, we are informed that Cecil’s servant cleans his change. Later in the book, you have Paul Bryant, who I want to talk about quite a bit — he works in a bank and he washes the money smell off of his hands in the gent’s room. Then you give Cecil a very firm handshake. And then in the third part, you have Paul with his bandaged hand. So there are these interesting historical parallels, historical contrasts, that I detected. And I’m curious how many of these you calculated in the book.

Hollinghurst: Well, you’re a wonderfully observant reader, I must say. I hadn’t actually been struck by the fact of the bandaged hand and the firm handshake. Yes, a great deal has been made of Cecil’s hands being very large. He’s always climbing up mountains and rowing boats and things. And seducing people with them. I mean, one is always cleverer than one knows, of course.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Hollinghurst: (laughs) One’s unconscious is just happily seeding all sorts of little details of that kind, which I may not have actually calculated. It’s always very gratifying when they’re picked up by reviewers, if they were fully conscious. But truly they’re often not.

Correspondent: Well, I’m curious. The five part structure. To what extent was this motivated by knowing the characters in advance? Or did you just know the historical settings in advance?

Hollinghurst: Did I know when I started what the different periods were going to be?

Correspondent: Well, that, and also did, for example, considering the characters and how they would evolve determine when you set those particular parts?

Hollinghurst: Possibly, yes. I mean, the first and third sections in particular happened on the eve of very significant things for their lives. The first section is on the eve of the summer before the Great War. And the 1967 section happens just before the passing of the Sexual Offenses Bill in England, which decriminalized homosexuality or homosexual acts between two consenting adults in private.

Correspondent: And the course of your book is post-Wilde as well. So there you go.

Hollinghurst: Exactly. So those dates were both significant. Partly these gaps are a way of avoiding writing about things such as the Great War and so on. Which I knew I didn’t want to write about. And I know that what I always wanted to write about really was the more intimate lives of sometimes slightly strange people. Rather than large heavily researched panoramic sorts of things. You know, the Great War has been so wonderfully well written about by people who were in it and by people since. That’s just not the kind of writer I am, I think. But I like the idea of writing scenes that the reader would know what was overshadowed by historically imminent things.

Correspondent: But most importantly, it’s a very skillful way to avoid long years of research to these battles.

Hollinghurst: (laughs) Exactly.

Correspondent: I mean, most of these scenes — most of the settings are inside. And very often, we get these wonderful descriptions of architecture and the like. So I’m wondering if setting much of the novel indoors, in specific area, was a strategy to avoid perhaps this obsessiveness that would in fact go on to researching obscure details.

Hollinghurst: Yes. I think that may be right. There’s something defensively domestic about the whole scale of the book. I mean, it’s a large book in a way. It covers a long period. But I think it is domestic in scale.

Correspondent: This leads me to ask you about how often in your sentences a verb will transform something that is normal into something that becomes beautiful and intoxicating. One example. There’s one sentence where you have a servant pour soup into a bowl. And instead of saying “pour,” you use “swim.” And I became obsessed with this verb. How that one verb choice transforms the entire sentence. And it gives you this completely different look at an ordinary action. And this leads me to ask you. How much do you agonize over a verb choice? Like something like that.

Hollinghurst: I can’t remember that particular one. Well, I do write very, very slowly, as you probably realized. So I wouldn’t generally write more — you know, on a good day, two or three hundred words. It’s not quite agony. Because it’s actually very exciting and gratifying when it goes well. And as you say, when I surprise myself by a choice for a word. Which I think is probably an improvement on the obvious one.

Correspondent: Deliberation. Okay, so there’s this James Wood review in The New Yorker of your book. And I thought that it was a little on the silly side. Because he was going on about how you use the word “muddle” repeatedly. And I asked some friends, “Do you honestly are how often Hollinghurst uses muddle?” But this also leads me to ask you. I mean, when you have the entire book done, do you go through the entire manuscript hoping you don’t use the same word multiple times? Or is there a conscious choice to use a word like muddle? Or how much does this matter to you? I’m curious.

Hollinghurst: “Muddle” I was entirely conscious of. Yes. So it’s rather galling then to have it put back into something.

Correspondent: He had a list of all the sentences. I was like, “What?”

Hollinghurst: Yes. It was ridiculous. The schoolmaster like had a finger wagging. Yes, I think it’s very interesting. I think each stage — because I write things in longhand in the first place. And then I put onto them and print them out. And then they go into the proof. But at each stage, new things rise to the surface. And you’re aware of new patterns.

Correspondent: Such as what?

Hollinghurst: Recurrences of words. I mean, the first time I printed this out and it was read — I mean, I wasn’t aware of it. But a great friend of mine noted the word “chuckle.” “Frown” and “chuckle” appeared and alternated. Sometimes people frowning and chuckling even at the same time. So I had to go through. There’s a terrible paucity of laughter verbs in English. I mean, “chuckle” doesn’t really have an easy equivalent. And I think I perhaps replaced one or two of them with “giggle.” And then I had to do a “giggle” purge as well. I think there are things that one is not quite in control of. But “muddle” was a word I was very consciously using. Because in a way, it’s what the whole book is about. “Muddle” is also consciously Forsterian.

Categories: Fiction

Téa Obreht (BSS #421)

Téa Obreht is most recently the author of The Tiger’s Wife, winner of the Orange Prize and finalist for the National Book Awards (to be announced on Wednesday: check out Reluctant Habits and the Twitter feed for live coverage from the floor that evening).


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering a future in which writers are trained by Carl Weathers.

Author: Téa Obreht

Subjects Discussed: Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” how much one needs to know about tigers, being a National Geographic nerd, research and laziness, readers who have different takes on a story, clumsiness, musicians who become butchers, precise metaphors within The Tiger’s Wife, having the illusion of knowing what you’re doing, talking in first person plural, storytelling and The Secret, regularly arriving at the wrong formula, the elephant scene, deathless men, finding inspiration at the Syracuse Zoo, why brains need to sit with ideas, working in a faux Balkans world, finding verisimilitude for faraway places within common present-day incidents, sharing earbuds on Walkmen and iPods, immediate points within life that connect you to stories, family members who avoid writers, writing what you know “at the moment,” trigger points, similarities between Underground and The Tiger’s Wife, Emir Kusturica, gypsy film soundtracks, learning English from Disney films, legends particular to Belgrade, the Kalemegdan fortress, film as a greater influence for dialogue than real life, Howard Hawks, bad cinematic trilogies, the Qatsi Trilogy, treating fiction as something fabricated, relationships between truth and fabrication, humor bridging the gap between magic and realism, laughing over awful events, Shoah, The Gulag Archipelago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Master and Margarita, finding a humorous path to the real, Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying, bonding emotional with a book, whether death is inherently funny, Fawlty Towers, coffee grounds as personal mythology, thick Turkish coffee in the Balkans, parrots that quote poetry, legends that tend to spring up about English Bull Terriers in Belgrade, Kipling’s The Jungle Book vs. the 1967 Disney film, mythological animals, the rosy Disney view, reading from a non-American standpoint, being shocked by Kipling’s imperialism when discovered later in life, the dangers of embedded narrative, academics obliged to find silly interpretations in order to keep their jobs, mythology that is tied to a specific place, learning everything from Disney, American mythology, cowboy hats and immigrant stories, unnecessary suburban symbolism, hostile reviews from women, being confused as a YA novelist, paying attention to reviews, good art and polarizing people, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, critics who see things that the author never intended, standing by work, having doubts about early work, the inevitability of a few clunkers, deleting pages, overexposure and overexplaining, the possibility of Obreht turning into Smeagol if she wins the National Book Award, becoming corrupted by attention, J. Robert Lennon, insulating one’s self from attention, Sunset Boulevard, the importance of humility, defending the pursuit of writing and the need for books in a terrible economy, Richard Powers’s “What Does Fiction Know?”, the Occupy movements, and fiction as a form of help.


Correspondent: I must confess that Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” was in my head on the way over here the entire time. And I have you to blame for that.

Obreht: (laughs) Thank you. I keep hearing it on radios now. Like whenever I do, I get embarrassed.

Correspondent: Really? You get embarrassed? You get shamed?

Obreht: I don’t know why. Because I get really into it. It’s pertinent now. And then I get embarrassed about myself.

Correspondent: Do you get sick of tigers now that you have dwelt upon them quite heavily and you have to constantly talk about them?

Obreht: You know, I don’t think I do. I think it’s just getting more and more entrenched into what I do every day. Every email I send has a tiger picture attached to it that’s pertinent to the conversation.

Correspondent: (laughs) Wow.

Obreht: I’m sure that at aome moment a big break will come and I’ll say, “I never want to see any feline again!” And I’ll kick cats as I go down the street. No, not really. Not really.

Correspondent: (laughs) Violence is welcome on this program.

Obreht: (laughs)

Correspondent: Even hypothetical violence. So you have to become a tiger expert, I presume? Have you been reading up on cats and the like?

Obreht: You know, I studied tigers a little bit for the writing of the book and went and sat in zoos a lot. And I’m a total National Geographic nerd anyway. So it came naturally.

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about nerdom. National Geographic nerdom.

Obreht: Yay!

Correspondent: How much do you have to know about tigers to know about them? Or do they exist within the wonderful theater of the mind? What’s up?

Obreht: I’m a big believer in the theater of the mind. Especially when you’re dealing with fiction. I mean, there’s only so much you can know. And then there’s only so much of what you know that you can transmit before it begins to be clinical. So I think research, while it helps, can sometimes destroy you. And I was very happy to take a little bit of what I knew and run with that and let a thousand imaginations bloom about tigers.

Correspondent: Wow. So you’ve learned this fairly early on. A lot of writers have to wait decades before they realize sometimes, “You know, maybe I shouldn’t read every book on a subject.” You’ve actually managed to avoid that from the get-go. To what do you attribute this extra wisdom?

Obreht: Laziness. (laughs)

Correspondent: Laziness? Oh, I see. I see. Practical temperament concerns. (laughs)

Obrhet: No. I think I’m always terrified — I think a lot of students that I have had at Cornell have been terrified of not making their intentions known in their writing or not having something clear in their writing. I’ve always been terrified of the exact opposite. I’ve always been afraid of letting too much be known too quickly or hitting the reader over the head with something. Because I know that used to be one of my flaws. So I’m so overly cautious about it that I think that it sometimes cripples me. I think that there are some things that I could research a little more heavily or whatever I write about them.

Correspondent: Being too explicit about stuff. Like. Such as?

Obreht: Such as? I don’t know. I think that such as a particular kind of character interaction or…

Correspondent: Such as?

Obreht: Such as — well, actually I’m thinking about my short story — for some reason I can’t think of an example from the book, but my short story, “The Laugh” — there’s this tension between the two main characters. One is the husband of a recently deceased woman. And the other is his best friend, but also someone who was interested in the deceased wife. And I was terrified of laying this out too quickly and immediately and explicitly at the beginning of the story. Because it would totally break the tension. And so in an early — in the first five drafts of the story, it wasn’t clear at all. And people were like, “Why is this happening?” And I was like, “Well, he likes her! Or used to and now she’s dead.” So, for me, it’s always this holding back and then trying to ease into being okay with the information being there.

Correspondent: Is this one of the chief concerns when you’re going through this endless rewriting and endless revising? To find that tonal balance that really strikes between what the reader needs to know and what the reader needs to infer?

Obreht: Absolutely. And that’s one of the great endeavors of the short story — this negotiation between the reader and the writer and how that information is being transferred. And you can transfer information in a way where the reader knows. Like the implication is already there and all you have to do is trigger it with that one word for the reader’s neural pathways to open up in that particular direction. And it’s so much fun.

Correspondent: You sound like a drug dealer. Dopamine hits or something. (laughs)

Obreht: I do use a lot of caffeine! (laughs) But as a reader, I enjoy seeing how that happens. You know, how I came to the same conclusion as anther reader. That was one of the great exercises of workshop. How did you get to this place with this story? And I got to a completely different place? Or how did we arrive at the same place? Where was the information that led us both there? I love that as a reader. So I enjoy that as a writer as well.

Correspondent: But if you’re constantly revising to get that precision, how do you keep yourself in surprise? Because that, of course, is very important to maintain the life of a story.

Obreht: Oh, that just comes normally. Because I have no idea what I’m doing! (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah. The big thing that nobody really understands. That writers really don’t know what they’re doing often.

Obreht: Yeah. Exactly. You know, you stumble into things. And you’ll be 75% of the way through something and suddenly it’s like, “Oh, I changed my mind! Actually, this is going to happen because it feels more normal, more natural.” Then you have to backtrack and shift everything. (flourishes with considerable exuberance, nearly knocking an object over)

Correspondent: (reflexes kicking in, saves object from falling off table) Almost knock things over.

Obreht: I’m gesticulating here!

Correspondent: No, no, no. If we knock something over, it will make this conversation 300% better.

Obreht: That’s awesome.

Correspondent: It’s already going very well.

Categories: Fiction

Lawrence Weschler (BSS #420)

Lawrence Weschler is most recently the author of Uncanny Valley.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Feeling 95% himself, wondering why he recoils at his mirror image.

Author: Lawrence Weschler

Subjects Discussed: Masahiro Mori’s “uncanny valley,” Zeno’s paradox, the difficulties of animating the face, getting past the uncanny valley in our lifetime, Quidditch matches, the human face as the welter of emotions, Paul Ekman’s Action Units, how humans are attuned to the slightest variation, human and robotic faces, engineers and college experiments, Nicholas of Cusa and his arguments with Aquinas, circles and polygons, the beginnings of the “leap of faith,” narrative, Peter Paul, and Mary’s “The Great Mandala,” “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” Avatar, the human brain secreting stories, the Capgras delusion theory, the Oakes twins, reconfiguring perspective onto a convex plane, Stephen Wiltshire, Oliver Sacks’s An Anthropologist on Mars, tracing the world purely through the eyes, the difficulties in confining thoughts to footnotes, Kepler and how to observe comets, Cinerama, curved projection and straight perception, David Hockney, the illusory nature of “straight” streets, architects who cannot compensate for bowing, natural bowed perception and digital rectilinear recreation, Walter Murch, In the Blink of an Eye, teaching a class with 50% poets and 50% reporters, analog vs. digital editing, the Apocalypse Now Valkyrie sequence reconfigured in Jarhead, crazy remarks uttered by John Milius, whether or not war films inevitably transform into war pornography, Anthony Swofford, authentic war movies, Samuel Fuller, contemplating the idea of a film capable of killing an audience through its authenticity, confusing moths for motes within the twin lights of the 9/11 WTC memorial, Decasia, trusting visual associations when our ocular proof is so unreliable, Everything That Rises, apophenia, confronting paradoxical forms of art, Freud’s unheimlich, a 1982 anti-nuclear protest at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum, responding to David Ulin’s knee-jerk hostility to anarchism, Occupy Wall Street, whether protest is nullified if the activists aren’t aware of the symbolism, Bill Zimmerman, comparisons between the Occupy movement and Polish resistance in the 1960s, politics as theater, “No Drama” Obama, Tahrir Square, the generational conditions of protest, comparisons between Ugandan corruption and American corruption, the lack of an “enoughness” concept, and the acquisition of wealth and the uncanny valley.


Correspondent: Let’s start off with the basis of this book. The uncanny valley. Masahiro Mori’s notion where at a certain point in the evolution of robots — maybe 90 or 95% — suddenly humans tend to recoil if the look or the feel is just not human. The opening essay in this book, which appeared in Wired nearly a decade ago, juxtaposes this issue against Zeno’s paradox, where you’re forever trying to travel the half distance, then the half distance after that, and you’ll never actually reach the end point. You declare “Close Enough for All Practical Purposes” to be the engineer’s ultimate response — this essay, of course, being one in regard to animating the face. But I’m wondering if there’s any legitimate way to reconcile Mori and Zeno. And also, based off of recent developments, is getting past the uncanny valley possible in our lifetimes on the robotics front? What of this? Let’s start off here.

Weschler: (laughs) Well, lots of stuff there. The piece is indeed a piece that I was doing about digital animation of the face. The first of the many pieces in the book. But it sets up a whole set of themes in the book, as you say. At the time, ten years ago, the digital animators had gotten to the point where they could do a hand. They could do a body. They could do a war. They could do a Quidditch match. They could do all kinds of things. But they seem to have hit this wall with the face. And they were getting to the point where it’s interesting — because the face on the one hand is possibly the welter of emotion and things that happen on the face may be the most complicated thing we know. Much the way that it is emphatically the case that the human brain is the most complicated thing we’ve encountered in the world. The human face may be the most complicated thing we’ve encountered in nature in the sense of — it’s a thing where 42 muscles, many of them not attaching on their own, but to other muscles with incredible subtlety and so forth.

Correspondent: Ekman and his Action Units. Unfortunately reduced by Gladwell.

Weschler: Right. Well, there you go. But the point is that, on the one hand, the face itself is complicated. On the other hand, and parallel to that, humans are incredibly attuned to the slightest variation. You could look across the street and see what somebody is looking at. Think about that for a second. Basically, what you’re doing is you’re zoning in on where the whites of the eyes are compared to the pupils and how much squint is happening. There’s tons of stuff going on in the brow. But that allows you to triangulate from — if you think about how tiny a part of your visual field that is, you get all that information. So we are incredibly attuned to that! We’re not particularly attuned to bellies or to kneecaps. But faces we’re attuned to. So indeed you get this problem that it’s both the most complicated thing and we have the most complicated response to it. And the question that was beginning to arise with these people was whether it was ever going to be possible at all to do it. And they indeed talked about the uncanny valley. Now interestingly, Mashairo Mori’s idea was about robots. And he would say that if you got 95%, great. That was fantastic. But 96%, suddenly it was revolting. It was a kind of revulsion. And one way of thinking about that is that, at 95%, it’s a robot that’s incredibly lifelike. And 96%, it’s a human being with something that’s wrong. You can’t figure out what. Now the interesting thing about robots. Forget the face for a second. But robots — the valley you go into, where it’s revolting, maybe only goes up to about 98% and then it comes out of it again. The whole thing is that you do get out of the uncanny valley. The questions with faces is whether you ever get out of the uncanny valley. Whether if you made it 99.999999% perfect, it would still be icky. In fact, we’d get ickier and ickier. In some vague way that we can’t quite identify.

Correspondent: And even if you could, perhaps there would be a new uncanny valley with which to mimic.

Weschler: Well, and that brings us to Zeno’s paradox. The paradox of: you can get halfway there and halfway to halfway. The whole point was that if you shoot an arrow, and the arrow gets halfway to its target, and gets halfway to its target again, before it gets halfway to its target in that remaining distance, therefore it could never get to its target.

Correspondent: There’s also a Cal Poly variation of that. Where they have these students gradually move half the distance, half the distance, with a very attractive woman at the other end.

Weschler: And that’a a variation on the old joke about the Oxford dons. They’re talking with each other. One of them’s an engineer. The other’s a mathematician. I think you referred to that in your opening question. And they’re talking about Zeno’s paradox. And at that moment, a beautiful woman walks by. And the mathematician despairs of ever being able to attain her, but the engineer knows that he can get Close Enough for All Practical Purposes.

Categories: Ideas

Diana Abu-Jaber (BSS #419)

Diana Abu-Jaber is most recently the author of Birds of Paradise.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Salivating in tandem with his diminishing wallet.

Author: Diana Abu-Jaber

Subjects Discussed: The dangers of French pastries, Abu-Jaber’s propensity for describing food in lurid terms, growing up with food-obsessed parents, wooing people and readers with food, Abu-Jaber’s former life as a restaurant critic, the atmosphere of revolving restaurants, getting irate letters from restauranters, early skirmishes with vegans, faux meat and tofurkey, the differences between foodies and egalitarian food lovers, Brillat-Savarian, MFK Fisher, needless food elitism, gourmet food trucks and gentrification, people who shy away from cooking, overpriced farmers markets, the dark side of sugar, writing without a routine, writing while cooking and while being stuck at a red light, Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap, studying elements of craft, consumerism and literature, finding precision within a chaotic work environment, outlines, laborious revision, setting imaginary deadlines, working with artistically-minded editors, characters who play with their hair throughout Abu-Jaber’s novels, writing about hair loss in women, being bitten by a brown recluse spider, suppurating wounds, when writing about a subject leads you to people who are living with the subject, the difficulties of cutting curly hair, exploring the Florida gutterpunk culture, real estate and Glengarry Glen Ross, talking with street kids, predatory people in their thirties living with kids in abandoned shacks, income disparity in Miami Beach, the dregs of club kids culture, earning the trust of street kids, maintaining an optimistic sheen while writing about victims of capitalism, readers who have complained about Birds of Paradise being too dark, Last Exit to Brooklyn, whether fiction has the obligation to solve problems, Dickens, Cristina Garcia’s review, Cynthia Ozick, Amazon reviewers who demand uplifting stories, unlikable characters being stigmatized in contemporary fiction, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, literary audiences and competing reader desires, Meghan Cox Gurdon’s uninformed YA stance, Sherman Alexie’s response, encouraging readers to take risks in fiction, commercial forces and offering novel samples, the origin of Origin, the pros and cons of having a genre-reading husband, the benefits of having a writing group (as well as having actual human beings in your life), character names names after notable American figures (Muir and Emerson), Idiocracy, autodidacts and American spirit, finding the good qualities within monstrous people, serial killers and the 1%, being very inspired by sunlight and water, cinematic imagery within Abu-Jaber’s prose, colons, Graham Greene, laziness and thwarted screenwriting ambitions, Elizabeth Taylor as a model for Felice, Richard Burton, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, tinkering with the idea of beauty, steering readers away from flattened culture, the narcotic allure of cooking shows, how food can enlarge a story, European novelists and food, T.C. Boyle, Kate Christensen, and food memoirs.


Abu-Jaber: Writing about a French pastry chef? All these venues are bringing in French pastries. People are bringing me pastries.

Correspondent: Oh no.

Abu-Jaber: People bring me cookies and croissants and Napoleons. I mean, it’s just fantastic. But it’s kind of like, oh my god! How am I going to fit into my airplane seat on the way home? Because it’s wild. And, of course, I have to eat them all.

Correspondent: So you have to eat them all? You can’t give them away to generous readers who have been standing in line?

Abu-Jaber: (laughs) Yeah, right. My excellent interviewers. Actually, I have given out some of my pastries. But I have to admit. I want to eat all of them, if possible.

Correspondent: I noticed that with Ron Charles, the first sentence of his review in the Washington Post was “Diana Abu-Jaber’s delicious new novel weighs less than two pounds, but you may gain more than that by reading it.” So this seems as good a time as any to talk about your propensity for describing food in very lurid terms. I mean, to offer an example, you even have those moments between dialogue. In Crescent, you have, “She starts splitting open heads of garlic and picking at the papery skin covering the cloves.” Now this is between lines. So it forces one to both be engaged with the text and it forces one’s saliva to start running. And so the question is how this business with food started.

Abu-Jaber: Oh! It’s not something I did deliberately. I didn’t choose this metaphor. It’s weird. I think that a lot of it came up because of being raised by a food-obsessed parent. My dad always wanted to have his own restaurant. As an immigrant from Jordan, he used food as a way of giving his children culture. And so I grew up with a sensibility just informing the very fabric of our days. And then my grandmother was a very serious Irish Catholic baker. And so my grandmother and my father waged this war over our souls — the children — to try and woo us through their separate crafts. And so I grew up between falafel and cream puffs. And between Dad’s wonderful Jordanian cuisine and my grandmother’s incredibly yummy cookies and cakes and pastries.

Correspondent: And no doubt, along with that, came a very imposing exercise regimen.

Abu-Jaber: (laughs)

Correspondent: I mean, that’s got to be terrible. Wooing people through food. You’re wooing your readers with food. Why was food the ultimate axe to wield here? As opposed to, say, fashion or conversation or what not?

Abu-Jaber: It’s something that kind of happened organically in this book. I saw this woman. I was thinking about the book. And I had this image in my head of a woman wearing a chef’s apron. And I could see her back. And I could see that she had these very strong arms and shoulders. So I knew that she was someone who worked with her hands. And it became very clear to me that she was a pastry chef. And I had worked in food journalism for a while. I used to have a restaurant column.

Correspondent: You were a restaurant critic?

Abu-Jaber: I was.

Correspondent: Did you ever tear a restaurant to shreds?

Abu-Jaber: I think…I’m a pretty nice person! I tried to offer constructive criticism.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Abu-Jaber: But you are aware that you’re doing a social service by being a food critic. So you have to help the consumer, as well as the purveyor. And I might have shredded a little bit.

Correspondent: Like…such as what? What kind of constructive criticism was the worst that you possibly endowed?

Abu-Jaber: Oh jeez! Well, you know what I would do? I would try to offer people little guidelines about what to avoid in general. And I remember one of my big ones was that, if a restaurant has a great view, beware of the food.

Correspondent: (laughs Yeah. That’s actually very true.

Abu-Jaber: Uh huh.

Correspondent: Especially in this city too.

Abu-Jaber: Yes. Exactly. Or if it’s in a railroad car. Or if there’s a gigantic playground in the middle. It’s probably not going to be the best.

Correspondent: Or the infamous revolving restaurants.

Abu-Jaber: Ah, yes! If it moves, don’t chew. (laughs)

Correspondent: Which is a shame! Because it’s such — I’m a big fan of revolving restaurants. Not for the food, but for the kitsch of the experience.

Abu-Jaber: Sure. Sure. Just remember that some people are going for experience.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Abu-Jaber: I am somebody who likes to eat for the food. But I know that for many, many people, atmosphere trumps all.

Correspondent: Did you ever get a restaurant wrong during these early days? Did you get irate readers sending you letters saying, “Diana! You are absolutely off! Who do you think you are?” Anything like that?

Abu-Jaber: I used to get irate letters from restauranters.

Correspondent: Yes.

Abu-Jaber: From the people who felt that I’d gotten them wrong. I remember that I did a vegetarian roundup once. The vegetarian restaurants of Portland. And one of the local restaurant owners wrote to me irate. Absolutely irate. Because he had some vegetarian dishes on his menu. And he just thought that I should have included him. And he just really wanted to let me know that I had disrespected him.

Correspondent: Be thankful that you didn’t get involved with the vegans. Because they weren’t around back then.

Abu-Jaber: Yikes! Oh, lord in heaven. I think at that time — now this was the late ’90s.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Abu-Jaber: So at that time, there was maybe one vegan restaurant. And what they tried to do was present faux meat. So you’d go and you’d have turkey sculpted out of soy bean.

Correspondent: Tofurkey.

Abu-Jaber: Yeah. Exactly. So that was a whole other can of beans, so to speak.

Correspondent: So just to be straight here on the food issue, I mean, you would not identify yourself as a foodie, but a more egalitarian food person?

Abu-Jaber: Yeah. I’m sympathetic to the whole foodie idea. But I think that foodieism — if that’s a word — tends to elevate food to this sacred thing. It’s like this exalted object on an alter place, basically. And I just have never felt that that was never the point of enjoyment of any kind of primary activity like eating. That food is something that adds enormously to our lives, but that it’s a simple thing. And that we’re animals and that animal enjoyment is just a natural easy part of our lives. Or it should be.

Correspondent: Well, it went from something that was fairly harmless. Like Brillat-Savarin and MFK Fisher, who offer the perfectly sensible advice, “Well, if we’re spending so much of our time eating, we should probably pay attention to it,” but who are also championing food culture during the Great Depression. And this is the thing. It went from this rather egalitarian place to something that was ridiculously elitist or Ortega y Gasset-like, you know?

Abu-Jaber: Yes. Yes. We have started rhapsodizing about food and nobody wants to make it. People go out and buy cookbooks because they love the images and they love the idea of it and reading the cookbook like literature. But really nobody tries the recipes.

Correspondent: Yeah! I know, that’s the fun part!

Abu-Jaber: Yeah.

Correspondent: Especially when you make it with other people, who are as clueless as you are.

Abu-Jaber: You’re all in it together. You know, as an individual and as a parent, I want to make good, easy, nutritious food. And as a writer, I like the metaphor of food. Because it’s so malleable. It casts light on all these different elements in our psyche. All the different ways that we look at relationships in general. I don’t write about food to stop in food. That’s not the point. It’s more a filter through which to look at experience.

Correspondent: Sure. Have you seen, while you’ve been here in New York, some of our ridiculous gourmet food trucks? It totally defeats the purpose. Where before you’d get a hot dog for a dollar.

Abu-Jaber: Right.

Correspondent: Or you’d get some shish kabob or some sort of falafel really cheap. Now they have gourmet food trucks here. You should check these out. Empanadas that are really overpriced. Like six bucks.

Abu-Jaber: Oh really.

Correspondent: It’s now become — they’ve taken our food trucks!

Abu-Jaber: (laughs)

Correspondent: The food trucks have gentrified!

Abu-Jaber: (laughs) Wow.

Correspondent: I mean, this leads me to wonder, just as a fiction writer, whether you may explore this in a future book. This issue of, well, we make our food, but now even the price of food goes up and the experience of eating food goes up.

Abu-Jaber: Right.

Correspondent: And even something like white trash cuisine, even the good parts of that, becomes taken away from us. So there is no affordable base. Like there used to be. The traditional kind of food.

Abu-Jaber: Right.

Correspondent: I guess I have some feelings on this issue, now that we’ve talked about this.

Abu-Jaber: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, because it’s an economic issue. It’s health and it’s relationships and family and economics, for sure. And that’s part of the problem with the foodie movement. Foodies indulge in a kind of extreme experience. They’re the top of the pyramid. The people who can afford to go into Williams-Sonoma and buy a special strawberry huller. Or just that experience of going into a glorious kitchen in which none of the instruments in the kitchen have been touched. You know, it’s s more like an operating room than it is a kitchen.

Correspondent: It’s almost like the Trail of Tears.

Abu-Jaber: (laughs)

Correspondent: Because you have to find the produce places that the middle-class people have not found yet.

Abu-Jaber: Right.

Correspondent: So I’m never going to name them on the air — the places where I get really kickass produce.

Abu-Jaber: Yeah. And you see that in the farmers markets.

Correspondent: Overpriced. Needlessly organic. God, don’t get me started on that.

Abu-Jaber: Absolutely.

Correspondent: We will discuss fiction. Don’t worry!

Categories: Fiction

Weird Al Yankovic (BSS #418)

Weird Al Yankovic’s most recent album is Alpocalypse. Many thanks to Jay Levey for helping to make this unlikely conversation happen.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Got skills, he’s a champion of D&D.

Guest: Weird Al Yankovic

Subjects Discussed: Whether most people in the world are doing okay, Weird Al’s longevity, a fastidious concern for the English language, Weird Al as a storyteller, epic songs, writing about human behavior vs. writing about food, thinking of new ways to be funny, narrative songwriting, parodies in which words are transposed, Freytag’s triangle, recording dates, why original songs and style parodies are recorded for explicit parodies, trying to finish an album while responding to present a musical trend, how Al studies an artist’s oeuvre, earlier songs as prototypes for later songs, “One More Minute” to “You Don’t Love Me Anymore,” “It’s All About the Pentiums” to “White and Nerdy,” confronting the defects of earlier material, the number of lists that Al keeps, when your laptop is more organized than your life, Amy Winehouse, keeping up with the increased cycle of emerging artists, the Arcade Fire and Muse, Weird Al’s criteria for selecting hits to parody, finding number one hits despite the rise of Internet culture, rap and polka medleys, attempts to break into long-form film and television, UHF, parts in movies that Al turned down, clearing up several suggestions made by the critic Sam Anderson, whether a gang of barbarians will delete the Internet to the ground, efforts to clarify Weird Al’s vegetarianism status amidst recent self-allegations of cheating, spouses who salivate in response to billboards depicting prime rib, not forcing children into a specific dietary direction, Matt Stone’s tendency to eat junk food, references to bowling in Weird Al’s work, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, watching 100 episodes of The Flintstones for “Bedrock Anthem,” whether intense research gets in the way of spontaneity, fake educational films, the Prelinger Archive, responding to charges that Al is “a parasite of ubiquity,” “Dare to Be Stupid” and The Transformers, Michael Bay, digital distribution, maintaining a long-term legacy, the accidental iconic nature of songs, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Mick Jagger, Weird Al’s confidantes, how Weird Al listens to music, including burps and other delightful gastrointestinal sounds in songs, avoiding profanity in work, Shel Silverstein’s “Get My Rocks Off,” the pros and cons of being family-friendly, Radio Disney asking Al to change lyrics in “The Saga Begins,” Nickelodeon asking Al to remove “gay,” why doesn’t Weird Al always call the shots, art vs. commerce, lines that Weird Al won’t cross, multiple versions of “The Night Santa Went Crazy,” choosing edgy animators for music videos, John Kricfalusi and the “Close But No Cigar” video, why there isn’t an Al TV installment for Alpocalypse and why these haven’t been released in video, taking advantage of blanket waivers, why Al took so long to sit in the producer’s chair after Rick Derringer, “Don’t Download This Song,” applying mainstream cultural values to hip-hop, whether “I’ll Sue Ya” props up reactionary values, unanticipated advocacy of the status quo, tort reform, Hot Coffee, attempts to keep songs non-political, fans who defaced the Atlantic Records Wikipedia page, the consequence of words, political groups who made Weird Al as a poster boy for tort reform, donating proceeds of songs to charity foundations, morality and the gray areas of parody, the breakdown of revenue, contemplating the end of albums, digital distribution, whether Weird Al will reinvent himself on schedule on January 24, 2018, William Shatner’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Has Been, playing the camp card, how Weird Al has stayed sincere over the years, and “Since You’ve Been Gone.”


Correspondent: Weird Al, how are you doing?

Yankovic: I’m doing well. Thank you for asking. Yourself?

Correspondent: Oh. I think I’m doing okay.

Yankovic: Good. I’m glad to hear that.

Correspondent: I’m glad we’re on the same page.

Yankovic: I’m glad we’re all doing very well.

Correspondent: Do you think everyone’s doing okay in general?

Yankovic: In the world? Probably not.

Correspondent: Okay.

Yankovic: If you go with the percentages, there are certainly some people in the world who are not doing well currently.

Correspondent: Yeah. I hope you don’t mind. But I may have to — well, actually I will. I will start this off on a tenebrous tone. We’re talking about a year of heavy losses. We have seen the end of REM. The end of the White Stripes. The dissolution of the marriage of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore. And I look to you, Weird Al, and I say to myself, “Wow, this guy’s been in business for 28 years. He’s had the same manager. The same band.” How do you do it, Al?

Yankovic: Yeah. Everybody’s wondering. When is Weird Al going to break up?

Correspondent: Yes.

Yankovic: And I don’t know. I keep waiting for my limbs to fall off. It just hasn’t happened.

Correspondent: Really? Really? Your mind perhaps?

Yankovic: You know, I have actually had the same band from the very beginning. Which in rock and roll terms is pretty unheard of. But I just still enjoy doing what I’m doing. And apparently the world at large hasn’t gotten completely sick of me yet. And the people that I work with still enjoy working with me. So it just seems to have all worked out. It’s pretty ironic. Because a career like mine, historically speaking, should not have lasted more than a few months. And here I am still.

Correspondent: Well, how do you avoid the fights and the fractiousness? Or is it all very carefully concealed so that the public doesn’t know about how dangerous things are backstage?

Yankovic: Well, I’ve got incriminating Polaroids of everybody in the band and crew.

Correspondent: Oh, I see.

Yankovic: If they don’t want them in public, I’ll play nice.

Correspondent: I’ve detected a fastidious concern for the English language in the course of my research. There was, of course, the infamous 2003 interview with Eminem that you did in which you corrected his triple negative.

Yankovic: Yes indeed.

Correspondent: But also, in an interview with Nardwuar, who I like quite a bit, you actually repeated “Otis Wedding’s Riffs.”* Where he said that to you. And you were very

Yankovic: Don’t remember that. Otis Wedding…what?

Correspondent: He said to you, “Otis Wedding’s Riffs.” And you corrected and repeated that back to him.

Yankovic: Oh.

Correspondent: But the point I’m trying to make here, Al, is why, in an age of increasing illiteracy, would you be concerned with such quaint things as English grammar?

Yankovic: I don’t know. You pick your battles, I guess. I mean, I’m one of those kind of guys — you know, I will not ever text the letter U instead of writing out “Y-O-U.”

Correspondent: Oh yeah?

Yankovic: I am not Prince and I’m not a 13-year-old girl.

Correspondent: You’re not Prince? I’m getting out of here.

Yankovic: Oh, sorry. Sorry. Waste of time. No, I don’t know what it is. It’s kind of a knee-jerk reaction. I mean, I just enjoy the English language and several other national languages as well. So I prefer not to bastardize it.

Correspondent: Does it relate to your increasing need for precision in your audio, in your shows, in your songs…

Yankovic: It’s probably an extension of my whole OCD, anal retentive, compulsive control freak personality.

Correspondent: You’re a control freak. Well, how so? How do you keep it at bay? Because you have to work with people.

Yankovic: No. I mean, it’s not obnoxious. Or at least, if it is, people aren’t telling me about.

Correspondent: Oh, I see. You have handlers to prevent people from getting the truth.

Yankovic: No. But I mean, I work with people who understand that what I do is very precise. When we do parodies these days, we’re trying to emulate a sound exactly. And I don’t have to crack a whip. Everybody in the band knows. They know what we’re looking for. And they’re as OCD as I am. They’re very fastidious about getting it exactly the right sounds.

Correspondent: I want to ask you. Two recent songs, as well as your children’s book, suggest that what you’re really working toward more as an artist is storytelling. I’m thinking of “Skipper Dan” on this latest album, which transcends the Weezer style parody to become this really harrowing tale about this poor man. This guide. As does “Trapped in the Drive-Thru,” where it isn’t really about the R. Kelly parody after a while. You listen to it and you say to yourself, “Wow, this thing’s going on for eleven minutes. And I’m not conscious of it.”

Yankovic: (laughs)

Correspondent: Which is kind of a carryover from “Albuquerque” from the album before. These songs seem to me more about human behavior than your typical obsessions with TV and food and the like. And I’m wondering if these are efforts to get away from the fact of “I’m stuck in parody and I’m stuck of having to replicate things.” And also, in contrast to things like “The Saga Begins” and “Ode to a Superhero,” which are really just cultural retellings of what we already know. I’m more interested in this new Al that’s talking about human behavior. Are we moving towards that? Are you consciously trying to move?

Yankovic: Well, it’s not conscious or calculated. But I’m always trying to think of new ways to be funny. Because I get stuck in ruts sometimes. Like in the ’80s, I wrote a lot of songs about food. And that was pointed out to me by a number of people for a few years. And then I wrote a lot of songs about TV. And currently I think I’m stuck in an Internet/nerd culture era where I’m writing a lot of songs about that. Because I surf on the Internet for a disproportionate amount of time per day. And you write what you know about. But I’m always trying to figure out different ways to be funny. And the nerdom style is a classic way of being funny, of telling a joke, doing a song. I’m a big fan of all those narrative songs from the ’70s. Like, you know, Gordon Lightfoot and Harry Chapin and things like that. And every now and then, I’ll throw a song of that ilk. “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” is something along those lines as well. Again, I try to mix it up and be eclectic. And I wouldn’t want to do all narrative songs. But every now and then, it’s nice to throw one in there. Because people like a good story.

Correspondent: Well, why not? What’s so wrong about these really quirky behavioral narratives that we’re talking about here? I mean, why not more of those? The problem here is that, when you think of something like “I Want a New Duck,” well, that whole humor thing comes from transposing “drug” and “duck.” And it doesn’t always work. Although in the case of “Trapped in the Drive-Thru,” which I think is epic and wonderful, that just transcends the parody. What of this conundrum?

Yankovic: It really depends from song to song. “Trapped in the Drive-Thru” — I mean, the reason I wrote that particular narrative was because I figured I needed to do something with the R. Kelly song. It was such an iconic song. It was such a big part of the zeitgeist at the time that, you know, what can I do with this? Because it’s already pretty much about as ridiculous as it can possibly be. Kind of the same problem I had recently with Lady Gaga. How do you go a step above? So instead of even attempting that, I decided to go the other direction and make the song as banal as possible and do a very dramatic, a melodramatic eleven minute song where basically nothing happens. So that was my challenge there. To try and keep a compelling narrative and still have the story be pretty much about nothing.

Correspondent: But I would argue that actually is about something. Because it subscribes to Freytag’s triangle. You have escalating conflict from absolute banality.

Yankovic: Yes.

Correspondent: So as a result, I would say, “Well, despite the fact that he tried to bore the tears out of the audience, you’re absolutely hooked on every consequential step forward!”

Yankovic: Very much like Waiting for Godot or Seinfeld.

* — Yankovic scholars may wish to consult the source to determine if indeed Our Correspondent has his facts correct. Additionally, one word has been uttered throughout this program exactly 27 times.

Categories: People