The Bat Segundo Show will be taking a break for the holidays. But we plan to return with fresh conversations in early January! In the meantime, feel free to sift through the more than 400 conversations in our archive. Thanks again for listening!
William Kennedy is most recently the author of Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes. For related material, you can read my Modern Library Reading Challenge essay on Ironweed.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Caught in a migratory comedy of errors.
Author: William Kennedy
Subjects Discussed: Resonances in historical fiction that align with the present day, the William Gibson notion (“The future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”), Guantanamo Bay and waterboarding, the 2008 Greek riots, writing Ironweed while being firmly immersed in the 1930s, referring to the homeless before “homeless” existed as a word, prophetic novelists, Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, the tradition of torture, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Roscoe, writing about the Albany political machine for forty years, stolen elections and kickbacks, interviewing morally shady figures as a novelist and as a journalist, meeting with Charlie Ryan, Dan O’Connell, how Kennedy coaxed political figures to tell him stories over the years, sources who insist on being on the record as insiders, intrusive noise, the journalist as the intellectual equivalent to the bartender or the barista, politicians who talk differently when microphones are present, Newspaper Row in Albany, lead filings and rats descending from newspaper ceilings, journalistic squalor, Kennedy’s relationship with Hunter S. Thompson, Pulitzer’s notion of journalism, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, fiction vs. journalism, The Ink Truck, Fellini, how a multidimensional fictitious form of Albany sprang from extremely devoted research, writing seven drafts of Legs, invention and informed speculation, the importance of letting imagination settle, Legs‘s resistance to realism, structuring a novel on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, discovering newness as a writer, precedents for Ironweed, parallels between Cuban history and civil rights, efforts to find the right Cuban history period for Chango’s Beads, Fulgencio Batista’s kids going to school in Albany, the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses as a possible inspiration point, The Gut in Albany, Black Power and community action during the late 1960s, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X sitting in the balcony of the New York Senate, Eldridge Cleaver, the Albany Cycle beyond 1968, telescoping Albany history for the sake of telling a story, arson and riots, the figure of Matt Daughterty, having to publish newspaper stories in out-of-town newspapers to avoid the wrath of the Albany political machine, comparisons between Quinn’s Book and Chango’s Beads, following personalities contained within fictitious families over many years, journeys away from Albany in the Albany cycle, avoiding Albany burnout, a new play based on a departure from Very Old Bones, and fiction driven by bullet-like dialogue.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: We were drawing a distinction between the journalist who is the bartender or the barista — the intellectual equivalent to that — and the novelist, who may in fact have an even greater advantage. Some novelists who were former journalists have told me that they’ll get people to talk with them more if they say they’re a novelist. I’m sure this has been the case with you.
Kennedy: Oh yeah. When the Mayor invited me over to talk about writing a book with him, he didn’t say quite why. I couldn’t understand it. Because I thought he had great antipathy toward me. But I went over. And we just had this conversation. And I sat there and talked to him. And I took a lot of notes. And he said he wanted me to maybe interview him and dredge up whatever I wanted to and write whatever I wanted to. And then he would rebut it. And I didn’t think that was going to work. But I knew that it was a great opportunity to talk to the Mayor.
So anyway we carried on. And it turned out I did write a lot about him in this book. It was kind of a biography. I wrote three pieces actually on him. And he was great in the first meeting. And then the second time, I brought over a mike and a tape recorder. And he clammed up. I mean, he didn’t stop talking, but he didn’t say anything. I mean, he was very salty in the first conversation. And he was a very intelligent man and very well-educated and smart as they come politically. And he had a great sense of humor. But it was boring in the second interview. So I took him out again. I took him to lunch. And he opened right up again as soon as he knew there was no tape recorder. And I took notes. He’s safe with notes because he can say, “He got it wrong.” There’s no proof.
Correspondent: Well, I actually wanted to ask — speaking of history, there are moments in Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Quinn’s Book where you have newspapermen who are wearing hats as the lead filings are falling upon them. In the case of Billy Phelan, there’s actual rats falling from the ceiling.
Kennedy: That’s true.
Correspondent: I’m curious. Did you have first-hand experience of this?
Kennedy: No. This was at the newspaper that I was working on. But in their previous incarnation, which was only a few years before I got there, they were on Beaver Street in a very old, old center of the city. The South End. In The Gut. And it was Newspaper Row. The Albany Journal was there. The Albany Argus. The Knickerbocker News. The Knickerbocker Press. Etcetera etcetera. The Times Union was up the street a bit. And then they moved into new digs. But I remember that one of the reporters and the copy editors said that the rats used to come down, walk the ceiling. The composing room was upstairs. Over the city room. And there was always these lead filings that were coming through the cracks in the floor. And so these guys wore their hats around the desks. And the reporters wore their hats indoors.
Correspondent: The pre-OSHA days. (laughs)
Kennedy: You know, it had a practical application, those hats. In addition to being the style of the day. And the rats used to come down and eat the paste out of the paste pots.
Correspondent: Which is also immortalized in Billy Phelan.
Kennedy: That’s in Billy Phelan. They were all stories that these guys who had grown up there, they’d seen it. One of my buddies, he’d been a reporter for ten years or so all during that period in Beaver Street. And he was a great storyteller. And he told me…well, you know.
Correspondent: Did you experience any first-hand journalistic squalor?
Kennedy: Journalistic squalor.
Correspondent: Along those lines. Or perhaps other forms of squalor.
Kennedy; (laughs) Well, no. Not quite like that. The paper had modernized. I mean, I was there in the age of the typewriter and the clacking teletypes and papers would stack up on the floor like crazy. At the end of the work day, everybody threw everything onto the floor. The old newspapers. All the old teletypes. And it was a great mess. There was….hmm, squalor. (laughs)
Correspondent: Rotting walls? Asbestos-laden environments? (laughs)
Kennedy: Sorry, I can’t. I knew all the guys who had gone through it.
Correspondent: Well, on a similar note, Hunter S. Thompson. I have to ask this largely because The Paris Review interviewed you and cut this bit. He said, “He refused to hire me. Called me swine, fool, beatnik. We go way back.” But I also know that he wrote you a quite hubristic letter. How did you two patch things up after this early exchange of invective and all that?
Kennedy: Well, I never called him a swine.
Kennedy: It’s possible in a letter, in later years, I might have called him a swine. But that was his terminology.
Correspondent: He was trying to prop you up.
Kennedy: I would just throw it back at him or something like that. You know, there was no rancor at all. After the first exchange of letters, almost immediately it was patched up. I mean, he was furious at me for rejecting him when he applied for a job. You’re talking about the quote there where he said…
Correspondent: He said that on Charlie Rose.
Kennedy: Charlie Rose. But he was referring to my attitude toward The Rum Diary. Which was the novel that he was writing down in Puerto Rico when I got to know him. And he had just started it. And in later years, he sent it to me. I wish I had kept it. I don’t know why. I can’t find it. I don’t think I have any remnants of it and I’ve got a lot of his stuff. But maybe I have some pieces. But I don’t remember. And I can’t even remember the letter I wrote. But I wrote him a letter and I told him, “Forget about this novel. You can’t publish this. This is terrible.” And it was a big fat novel. It was fat and it was logorrhea. And it was a young man’s ruminations and discoveries of all of that.
Correspondent: A journalist aspiring to be a novelist.
Kennedy: Right, right, right. And he was a smart guy. Very, very smart guy. But that novel just didn’t work. What was published — the book that was published is one third of the text of the old book. It doesn’t have any of those flaws that I could see — I just started to read it again the other day. I tried to see the movie three times, and I can’t.
Correspondent: Oh really?
Kennedy: Well, I’m in the Academy and I get these screeners from the Academy. But it didn’t work. The screener didn’t work. It says “Wrong disc.”
Correspondent: Oh no.
Kennedy: So I have to get another one. But I’m anxious to see it. I think it’s full of probably libelous accusations against the [San Juan] Star, the newspaper down there and the people who run it. But that was expected from Hunter.
Correspondent: What do you think distinguishes your approach — being a journalist turning into a novelist — from Hunter’s approach? I mean, was he just not serious enough and you were more devoted? Was it a matter of being well-read? What was it exactly that distinguished the two of you?
Kennedy: Well, I was a serious journalist. I mean, he presumed to be. That was the basis for our initial argument about that bronze plaque. You know about that? The bronze plaque on the side of The New York Times — it’s a quote from Joseph Pulitzer When that building was home to The New York World, a great newspaper that Pulitzer ran in New York. Anyway, he revered that. You know, it’s this high-minded attitude toward the news. No fear of favor or whatever. Work against the thieves. Whatever. I’ve absolutely forgotten what Pulitzer said.
[Note: The Pulitzer plaque reads: "An institution that should always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty."]
Kennedy; I remember its tone. And I could find it. And this whole episode is summed up in the introduction to Hunter’s book, The Proud Highway — his first collection of letters. He asked me to write an introduction to that. And I told the whole story of how he applied for the job and didn’t get it and so on. But his attitude toward journalism was high-minded. But when he started to practice it, a year or so later, roaming around South America, he started writing — he was winging it, you know? He wasn’t interested in “Just the facts, ma’am.” He was half a fiction writer in those days. Roaming around. Whatever caught his fancy or his imagination, he would write it. I mean, it came to a point where he went to the Kentucky Derby and that was the one that really put him on the map. “The Kentucky Derby is decadent and depraved.” It ran in Scanlan’s Monthly, I think. And it had nothing to do with reporting. He was making it up. And it was fiction.
There may have been some basis in all that happens in the story for it. But he just invents the dialogue that goes on between the various people and follows his own chart and reacts as a novelist, and then presents it as journalism. This is what Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was presumably journalism. But it’s fiction. It’s a novel. And he claimed in retrospect that he had notes to prove every element in that novel. But he didn’t. (laughs) I mean, all the hallucinations. Whatever his hallucinations were, they were hallucinations. And they’re his. And they’re internal. And who’s to say who’s hallucinating when he’s writing what he’s writing. The sum and substance of Thompson was that he started off as a journalist and he became this wild crazy gonzo journalist, which was half a fiction writer’s achievement. And he was always in the early days thinking about the novel and new forms of the novel. And he created one. Novels are very valuable in their wisdom and their insights and their reporting and their historical penetration of the world that they’re centering on. And he was famously talented in all those realms to achieve those things. And he did. But in the end, I mean he comes off as a career journalist and a singular one. There was nobody like him and there never will be. A lot of people have tried. He’s inimitable. But when he started out, he had all the baggage that goes with the aspiring novelist. And he always made the distinction that I started off to be a journalist and turned into a novelist and he started off to be a novelist and turned into a journalist. And that’s true enough.
My journalism very rarely could be challenged — it could never be challenged as a work of fiction. I never did anything like that. I found ways to enliven the text with language. So did Hunter. But Hunter also reimagined history and reimagined daily life when he invented his world.
Correspondent: To go to your work, The Ink Truck — I wanted to ask you about this. Your first published novel. This is interesting because, unlike the topographical precision that you see in the Albany Cycle, the details of Albany in The Ink Truck are not nearly that precise. They’re more abstract. And I’m curious why that sense of place only emerged in the subsequent novels.
Kennedy: Well, because when I wrote that novel, I was reacting to my resistance to traditional realism and naturalism. You know, I had been there with Steinbeck, Dreiser, James T. Farrell, and so on. And Hemingway also was a great realist. Not the naturalist, but the great realist and the great reporter. And I was in a different mode. I was immersed in Joyce at that time and very much aware of Ulysses and the wildness of the invention that pervades that novel. I was thinking of the surrealists. I was in the grip of Buñuel the filmmaker. I loved his work.
Correspondent: Also a wonderful late bloomer too.
Kennedy: (laughs) And Fellini. I though that 8 1/2 was one of the great movies ever made. It may be the greatest to me and I’m not sure I don’t think that still.
Correspondent: What of Satyricon? (laughs)
Kennedy: Well, I thought it was interesting. So much of Fellini I do love. But 8 1/2, because it was in one guy’s head and it just went in and out of reality, that’s what I wanted to do. I used to say that novel was always six inches off the ground. So levitating was important. And I wasn’t really interested in grounding myself in the squalor of that situation. That was a pretty squalid time when we were in the guild room during that strike. There was a strike that I went through and was the inspiration for that novel. But that book is sort of an excursion to comedy and surreal comedy. I mean, it presumes to be serious in certain stages of its intensity. But basically it’s a wild, crazy, surreal story.
Correspondent: But when you have the character of Albany begin to appear in your work, suddenly I think there’s more of a kitchen sink approach. You have very hard-core realism. You have hallucinations. Surrealism. You have all sorts of things. Almost a kitchen sink approach. And I’m curious if the increasing complexity of your books, where this comes from. Does it arise out of your very meticulous and fastidious research? Does it arise from wanting to reinvent the form of the novel? To not repeat yourself? Does it arise from having established a Yoknapatawpha-like universe of characters? What of this?
Kennedy: Well, all of the above. Everything you said. I was always trying to do something that I hadn’t done before, that I couldn’t attach to anybody in particular. You know, you can’t imitate Joyce. You can’t imitate Hemingway. I tried and I did all the way along in various failed enterprises. And I knew that it was a dead end. I was trying for something new. With Legs, I was inundated with research. I spent two years under the microfilm machine. We no longer have to do that. Just punch in Google. Now it’s amazing. But in those days, I would spend days. All day. Half the week inside the library. Not only microfilm, but all the books of the age. All the magazines. I went to New York and got the morgues of all the major newspapers. The Times. The New York Post. The Daily News, which was fantastic. And so on. And I researched everything there was to find on Legs Diamond serendipitously. And then I also kept turning — I probably interviewed 300 people. I don’t know how many. Sort of cops and gangsters. Retired gangsters with prostate trouble. And I really stultified myself at a certain stage in that novel. And I had to stop and take account of what was really going on. And I had to reinvent the book.
Correspondent: You wrote it seven times, I understand.
Kennedy: I guess the seventh was the final time. I wrote it six times. Or was it six years and eight times? The eighth time was a cut. I had finished it but it was too fat. So I cut 70, 80 pages. I don’t remember what I cut. But I don’t miss them. Whatever I cut, it was all right. But I started from scratch really. After six drafts, I went back and spent three months just designing the book all over again and designing history of every character all over again and putting a totally new perspective on it. Because I had too much material. And there was no way to stop it from coming to me. Except to just close it off and say, “I’m not going to read another newspaper. I’m not going to crack another book. I’m going to write the story. I’m done with the research.” Of course, that never really happens. You have to go back and check. But that’s what I did. And that’s how I finished the book.
(Image: Judy C. Sanders)
Joyce Carol Oates is most recently the author of The Corn Maiden and the editor of New Jersey Noir.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contending with needless tempers and false heaters.
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
PROGRAM NOTE: For many years, I had hoped to schedule Joyce Carol Oates on this program. And the opportunity at long last came in November. Wishing to make the most of this, I read eight Joyce Carol Oates books in advance of the conversation. The interview was to take place in Otto Penzler’s basement office at the Mysterious Bookshop.
There was just one problem. Otto Penzler didn’t like me. You see, five years ago, I had written some satirical blog post about Penzler. Something I barely remember. For all I know, I was drunk or stoned at the time. I probably banged it out in about twenty minutes. What I did not know was that Penzler had neither the humor nor the ability to let any perceived sleights roll off his back.
Why is any of this important? Because during this program, I had the misfortune of having one of the audio channels – the channel that was recording Ms. Oates’s voice – blow out on me. Normally, this wouldn’t have been a problem. Because I could have salvaged the sound from the other channel. Unfortunately, because Penzler is not the type who likes to give up a petty grudge, he decided to turn on what he insisted was a “heater” during the course of our conversation. Not only did this “heater,” which spewed out cold air, cause Ms. Oates to shiver, but it also disrupted the conversation. And this “heater” is also the reason why Ms. Oates, despite my best efforts with EQ and noise removing tools, sounds like a robot for about eight minutes of this conversation. It is also the reason why this episode contains the most passive-aggressive moment in the history of The Bat Segundo Show. Thank you for listening.
Subjects Discussed: Prolific writing, nightmares in fiction, psychological realism, Edgar Allan Poe, carving swastikas into foreheads, pesky heaters, feral characters, the history of violence contained within tragic narrative, stories generated by characters who meet, My Sister, My Love, experiments in style, being the child of a well-known infamous figure, JonBenet Ramsey, articulate sociopaths, writing in the satirical mode, Expensive People, humor in Joyce Carol Oates’s work, characters who have a penchant for malapropisms, A Fair Maiden, characters who give into naive situations, pathetic fantasies, editorial relationships with Daniel Halpern and Otto Penzler, not sending novels out for publication until they’re ready, advances and author contracts, needy authors and first drafts, Russell Banks, Richard Ford, when business concerns impede into artistic discovery, keeping a novel in a drawer for a year to avoid emotional connections, on whether JCO requires an immediate response to the world, contending with short story requests for anthologies, Otto Penzler’s rejection of a JCO short story title, words that JCO is fond of (including “glisten”), word choice, Nicholson Baker, James Joyce, “formula” contained within Ulysses, similarities between feeling and image, the allure of vacuum cleaning, memoir vs. fiction, A Widow’s Story, feral cats that wander around dumpsters, the tough clime of New Jersey, Martin Scorsese, organized crime, fictitious communities that are inspired by the classics, appropriating places and giving the place a very different way, places like Princeton, Russell Banks and Miami, Jaimy Gordon’s Shamp of the City-Solo, Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, revisiting a 1982 keynote address collected in Woman Writer, being a woman writer in 2011, William James and multiple selves, chick lit, Kate Christensen, contemplating The Sportswriter as a “boy novel,” Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds, Ursula K. Le Guin, Dostoevsky as crime writer, epistolary fiction, Twitter, the pleasures of reading letters, finding pleasure during the difficult early stages of writing a novel, TC Boyle, and comparisons between writing and heroin.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: In considering the ideas of nightmares as fiction — because, of course, this is The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares, that’s the title of this book — I think of John Hawkes. I think of Poe. I think of Kafka. I think of Shirley Jackson. The nightmares in The Corn Maiden, I think, differ. Because these tales are careful in the way that they relate psychological realism to the dream state. In the title novella, you juxtapose this troubled mother who is losing her daughter with this sacrificial ritual. There’s the psychological grief in “Helping Hands,” which triggers a nightmare, it could be argued. In “Fossil-Figures,” you describe Eddy Waldman’s work as “covered in dream/nightmare shapes.” So I’m curious how psychological realism gives shape to these nightmares that are in your fiction.
[Otto Penzler turns on an alleged "heater" in his office, which, unbeknownst to Correspondent and Oates, begins to pump cold air throughout the room in the next few minutes. Said "heater" also creates noticeable interference on the audio, which producer does his best to rid from this program with parametric EQ. Said hiss of "heater" also interferes with collective concentration.]
Correspondent: Do you find that, without such realism, these nightmares can sometimes be too burly to contend with?
Oates: Well, it’s a very good question. I think it’s a matter of what sort of genre one is working in. If you’re working in a horror or fantasy genre, you would have no hesitation about writing about the supernatural. But I tend often to write in a realistic mode. And, of course, in reality, people have dreams. So the psychic experience or the neurological experience of a dream is real, even though it’s invisible. So in writing about dreams and nightmares, I’m not writing about a supernatural world at all. Particularly The Corn Maiden is completely realistic. There’s nothing in it that’s far-fetched or particularly preposterous. Some of the other stories shade into the surreal. Sort of the Edgar Allan Poe zone. And I think Shirley Jackson often moved into that zone where the more supernatural figures.
Correspondent: Violence. I have to bring that up. It’s an ineluctable quality in your work as well. In “Beersheba,” you have a character who is denied his diabetic shot and who experiences this very specific yet savage wound. At the end of A Fair Maiden, another book, you have a character bleeding from a deep cut at his right eye and cuts at his nose and mouth. You have, of course, the trepanning in “A Hole in the Head.” You have Herschel carving the swastika in Jeb Meunzer’s forehead in The Gravedigger’s Daughter. I could go on. But what I’m interested in is how precise your violence is. And this leads me to wonder. Well, what do you do to get that level of precision? Does this come entirely from the imagination? Do you read a lot of police reports? A lot of true crime stuff? What of this?
Oates: I don’t read any police reports or true crime material really. I don’t write about violence. I write about people. And some of the people find themselves in dramatic or tragic situations in which violence is a consequence of some choices that they made or decisions that they made. But I don’t set out to write about violence. It’s more about human beings and their complexity. And they might make a bad decision. When Shakespeare writes his great tragedies of Macbeth and Othello, they are extraordinary people who’ve made a mistake. And they take a wrong turn. King Lear is another great example. And Hamlet. They’re all examples. But Shakespeare is beginning with the character. That’s what interests him. And I begin with characters and with language. A certain tone. Certain cadences. A certain music. That to me is very interesting. And it’s interesting. I’m surprised that you mentioned the swastika cut in the forehead in The Gravedigger’s Daughter. Because that sort of came to me as I was writing that scene. That this particular character has been so mistreated, his family of Jews have been treated so badly, and now it’s his turn to get revenge. And he does something almost spontaneously. Even unconsciously. He carves the swastika in the forehead of his enemy. But I didn’t set out to write that. It’s more like it was a consequence of that character.
Correspondent: Well, that swastika certainly makes itself known in the text. But describe this. How does such violence keep coming up in your work? Is it a matter of a character proving so feral that things up that way? I mean, how does this exploration of the human condition lead to such stark and striking imagery?
Oates: Well, tragic fiction — so tragedy deals with acts of violence that sometimes are ritualistic. In works of tragedy by Aeschylus or Euripides, the acts of violence are offstage or they came before. Before the action of the play. But it’s caught in certain ritualistic, almost ceremonial language. And that’s what I’m more interested in. How people enact their destinies. I’m interested in maybe two people meeting. Or three people. Or a family. Moving through time and encountering events that then translate into their personal destinies.
[Oates is now visibly shivering, with Otto Penzler seemingly oblivious to his malfunctioning "heater."]
Oates: It’s just a little cold in here.
Correspondent: Oh. (to Otto Penzler) Uh, Joy…
[Otto Penzler pretends not to be paying attention.]
Oates: Hello? Otto?
Otto Penzler: Yeah.
Oates: Hi. It’s just a little cold in here. The vent.
Otto Penzler: (faux incredulous) It’s cold? That’s the heater.
Oates: It’s the heater?
Correspondent: (baffled by this bizarre Dickensian exchange) It seems like cold air.
Oates: It’s actually like an air conditioner.
Otto Penzler: It’s not. It’s a heater.
Otto Penzler: But I’ll turn it off.
Oates: Because it seems like the ai…
Otto Penzler: It’s probably just because you’re right in front of the vent, which is…
Oates: Okay. It seems like the air conditioner.
Correspondent: Yeah. It’s cool air. Or it’s one of those heaters that take the length of this conversation to get started.
Oates: Yeah. But also, it’s a little distracting with the noise.
(Image: Shawn Calhoun)
Dennis Cooper is most recently the author of The Marbled Swarm.
Subjects Discussed: Cannibalism, worming, BDSM, “industriously garbled syntax,” reconciling confusion within literature, being a Francophile, Rimbaud, irritating certain readers, attempts to tame language, Alain Robbe-Grillet, de Sade, Cooper’s efforts to disguise his own voice, violent metaphors as a writing strategy, shock value, listening to other people, garbage languages and British dialect, rereading The Marbled Swarm and a universal explanation, confusion as the new literary strategy, Occupy Wall Street, expanding space within literary space, tight jeans, red herrings, the truth offered by the protagonist, 21st century literature and longueurs, Blake Butler and the HTML Giant crowd, David Lynch, Enter the Void, humor as an entry point for experimental writing, violence in contemporary fiction, raw first drafts, constructing a voice with every book, the difficulties of not being clever all the time, secret tunnels and connections, hostility towards anime, technology and keeping up with youth culture, The Sluts, clarifying relationships between the unnamed protagonist in The Marbled Swarm and George Miles, Joshua Cohen’s review of The Marbled Swarm, the future of transgressive fiction, whether Beckett and Joyce can be deviant in the 21st century, Lars von Trier, William Burroughs, reading as a more specialized pastime, Little Caesar, whether punk can be applied to today’s literary culture, Tao Lin, contemporary experimental writers, MFA students, revolution, the absence of sincerity in today’s age, the dilemma of ignoring sophistication, emo culture, whether or not mainstream culture matters, definitions of “cult writer,” Dancing with the Stars, outsiders who are actually insiders, Harper Perennial, Shane Jones, Amelia Gray, being disliked, receiving death threats, comparing reactions to literature over the past few decades, being excluded vs. not caring, the luck of having a following, and whether a young Dennis Cooper could flourish today.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Let’s start with cannibalism. I think that’s a very good place to start. I mean, this is not exactly a subject in which one can find first-hand material in quite easily. So I’m wondering — sort of using this as a jumping point to talk about the overall violence in your work — how do you get that precision? Of biting into things?
Cooper: Well, you know, the Internet. Imagination. I did some research into it. I did a lot of research into it.
Correspondent: Such as?
Cooper: Oh, you know, there’s a lot of people who do it. (laughs) And actually there’s not only people who do it, but there’s these fetish sites where people advertise themselves as maybe interested in all sorts of things. And one of the fetishes is cannibalism. And I don’t think anybody ever does it. Because otherwise there’d be arrests all the time. But they’re very detailed about their fetishes. About the ones who want to eat and the ones who want to be eaten. It’s not a huge subculture, but it is there. And so I go that. And, you know, there’ve been guys throughout history who’ve done it. And then ultimately in the book, there really isn’t that much. He just talks about it all the time.
Correspondent: It’s a good litmus test as to whether one should carry on further. So you looked at underground websites?
Cooper: They’re not that underground.
Correspondent: Your IP must have been tracked while you were performing these searches.
Cooper: Well, they’re not that underground. There’s this site called Recon. Essentially it’s a master and slave site. Which is what it is. But there’s all kinds of subtext for people who like it. There’s weirder things than that. There are these guys who want to get wormed.
Cooper: That’s the thing. They want to be wormed. It means having their arms and legs cut off — and live as a worm for their masters. So there’s stuff that’s weirder than cannibalism.
Correspondent: Wow. Worming. They actually do get wormed.
Cooper: Well, I don’t think anybody ever — I think it’s all…
Correspondent: Yeah. Sort of BDSM onto the next level.
Cooper: But they’re very serious about it. So yeah, those are all totally above board sites.
Correspondent: Above board. The “marbled swarm” in this book. It’s described as an “industriously garbled syntax,” a quote unquote — quote unquote appears quite a lot in the book — “exalted style of speaking” that the protagonist learns from his father and that becomes in his tongue “more of an atonal fussy bleat.” So you have this protagonist who is constantly alluding to hints of a deeper story throughout the text. But he’s also using language as an excuse for his behavior, his fantasies, and what not. He claims at one point, “My father used the marbled swarm to…well, I was going to say become a wealthy man, but to say he ruined would my life would be as accurate.” So the interesting thing about that is that the implication is that language — especially this stylized language — is really almost comparable to moral justification for why you had a shitty upbringing and the like. So I’m curious about this. Especially with most of the paragraphs beginning with “still comma.” There’s almost a comic formality about this reconciliation. I’m wondering how this patois developed and to what degree is this a response to reconciling confusion.
Cooper: Well, yeah, my books are in some fundamental way always about reconciling confusion. Because that’s of super interest to me. And language presents this idea that confusion can be corralled and all that stuff. And it can’t. And that tension does interest me. But how this happened? I don’t know. It took me a long time. I’m really slow and I do all these experiments. I test out things and try different forms and things. And it was a combination of living in France and not speaking French very well. And it was a very interesting thing to be on the Métro or whatever, and hearing people talk, and sort of understanding a little bit of what they’re saying. But not completely. And having to make it up or something and imagining. Because people always say that I romanticize French people enormously. Because I’m a huge Francophile. So when I’m on the subway with these people. And I imagine them talking about Rimbaud or something. And, of course, they’re talking about their laundry or whatever. So that begin to interest me. That I do that. So that started the idea of trying to create that in fiction. And I had usually written in a spare way. But I wanted to make it really, really dense so it would really multitask. Because I like things to be really layered and experimental. And so I tried to find this voice that was really, really dense and could do a whole bunch of stuff at once, and just fiddled around until that one came up. And then I had to figure out — because it’s really limited in what it can do. Its tone is really particular. And it’s really irritating. And so then it was just a matter of how fast will the pace be. Because will people not get too sick of this guy? And he can be kind of funny. But he can be really sincere, but only in a certain way.
Correspondent: Yeah. Did you actually end up speaking like this character during the course of your writing?
Cooper: No, no, no.
Correspondent: I mean, certainly I’m listening to you now and you don’t sound anything like that.
Cooper: No. I have to do readings now and it sounds so awful. (laughs)
Correspondent: Did you read any of it aloud to make sure that it could be plausible or anything like that?
Cooper: No. It all worked in my head like that.
Correspondent: Well, you mentioned this voice being irritating and slowing things down. And I’m wondering. Your books do have a tendency to irritate some people. Especially the mainstream. So how much irritation is enough in your fiction?
Cooper: It has to be really balanced out. I mean, I always feel like I have to do something formally or stylistically or structurally to justify that stuff. Because I’m not interested in — there’s this idea that — not just me, but other writers who do stuff like me are out to shock and all this. And it’s so not true. It’s completely the opposite. It’s like: How can you use really aggressive language like that and not be shocking? That’s my interest. Cause it’s such amazing language and it’s very emotional and it’s very pure. If you take that away, if you start treating it like a horror movie, or if you start doing this psychoanalytical kind of thing about what the motivations are behind that stuff, you really lose the powers. I wrote that power and I want to try and tame it or something. So I don’t know. It’s always tricky. With this book, there’s not as much violence in it. And the language like — so when you get to the part, there’s one part that’s really kind of intense. And I’m hoping that the language, you’re so involved with the language in a pleasurable — like it’s funny or something — that that’s kind of the barrier.
Correspondent: Well, you mentioned taming the language. Can your type of language ever be entirely tamed? Especially this moment that we’re alluding to about, I think, 120 pages in the book. You know, I found parts of that both funny and vaguely horrifying. But the funny to my mind outweighed the horrifying. Maybe I’m just warped.
Cooper: Well, yeah. You can only do so much. And I try different strategies at different times in different books and things. And this one, you get used to how he’s circumventing everything and subverting everything and doing everything. And he uses metaphor all the time. So that when he gets to the scene, it’s really totally metaphoric. When something violent happens, he’ll reference like an alligator or something. So that’s just my strategy. And it isn’t going to prevent people from being shocked. But with this book, you have to really be looking for it. Because it’s not as aggressive as in my other books.
Correspondent: That’s true. I’m wondering if you looked to any specific types of people to get the marbled swarm of this book. Or the “garbled marbled swarm.” Did you listen to a specific type of affluent wanker? Or what?
Cooper: It’s a little bit like the sound of French literature. Or certain kinds of French literature. I mean, there’s a little bit of that. Like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Sade and some of the writers who were important to me. And then my own voice. I mean, it’s basically me disguising my own voice. So a lot of it is just my usual stuff. I mean, the sentences are much more complicated than my usual sentences. But it’s all basically my voice. It was just more like trying to keep it sounding foreign and maybe be kind of French, but also having this weird American stuff thrown into it. And so it was kind of like a garbage language. I mean, the thing, it sounds British.
Charles Yu is most recently the author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Saying goodbye before saying hello.
Author: Charles Yu
Subjects Discussed: Accusations of egomania, Abbott and Costello, the real Charles Yu vs. the fictive Charles Yu, writing a novel in a nonlinear fashion, how time travel encourages emotional truth, father-son bonding experiences, viewing your own memory as a bystander, freedom of movement within text, skimming vs. careful reading, intense reading experiences, Finnegans Wake and recursive reading, David Foster Wallace, Faulkner, lack of concentration and the Internet, Dan O’Bannon, Red Dwarf, working stiff protagonists, schlubbiness, inner worlds and inner schlubs, gazes and looks within fiction, non-conflict conflict, drawbacks within time travel novels and extended meditation, diagrams contained within the middle of books, loneliness and sexbots, genre and MacGuffins, sticking with skeletal plot no matter what, gobbledygook and cryogenics, Richard Feynman, legitimate and illegitimate research into quantum mechanical texts, the appeal of language vs. the appeal of ideas, the fun tone of fake science, “Problems for Self-Study” (PDF) as a precursor for How to Live Safely, schematics as the genesis for finished fiction, smudging a list and Silly Putty, not laughing at one’s own comic writing, the funny qualities of email vs. fiction, Twitter, Moisture Man, schlubbiness vs. Asimov’s robotics, Phil the Computer Program, crushing the sentient feelings of computers in the future, reconstructing individual AI personalities from Twitter feeds, personality algorithms generated from books, books as simulacrums of consciousness, fakery injected into fakery, stories that are told in other voices, the use of hypothetical robots within fiction, fakery used to aid the idea of conflict, tangible boxes that have levers and stuff, and projections of machinery.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Yu: I think schlubbiness is my default protagonist, unfortunately.
Correspondent: Oh yeah?
Yu: Yeah. I’ve yet to write — and lots of people have pointed it out, but really now it’s coming into focus. Because I realize how much I kind of schlub it up when I start designing. Not designing. But that’s how they come out. Maybe it’s a reflection of my inner schlub that I don’t know how to create a dashing hero yet.
Yu: I want to.
Correspondent: You’ve made attempts? (laughs)
Yu: I’ve probably made some half-hearted attempts. But I’m going to try harder to make a non-schlub protagonist. Because I want to try something different. I think it’s partly a reflection of just the worlds too that these guys live in — and so far they have been guys. That they’re sort of slightly broken, damaged worlds in the stories I’ve written too, for the most part. So they fit into that, I guess.
Correspondent: Inner worlds create inner schlubs.
Correspondent: So you’re saying that the schlubbiness is dictated more by the worldbuilding that you’re undergoing in a short story or a novel. Or the fact that you can be more, I suppose, confidently schlubby on paper as opposed to life.
Yu: No, I think the worlds make the schlub. And I think there’s a bit of a change in the Charles Yu character. I think he tries to stop being such a depressed navel gazer and look forward a bit. I mean, I don’t mean to spoil anything for people who haven’t read it and want to read it. But it also seems easier for me to see the change that I want to have in the character. Or to start with somebody who’s really sort of broken. And have them find some measure of some resolution or something.
Correspondent: Well, on that subject of something else being in plain sight — no pun intended for the next question, which is rather elaborate — in describing a sexbot, you write, “Something about the look in her eyes gets me, even though I know they aren’t really eyes.” When an older Charles observes a younger ten-year-old Charles and his father, you write, “And it looks as if they are staring, not through me, but right back at me, and with their minds immersed in the theory of time travel and their eyes fixed on the future.” Late in the book, when Charles Yu faces a serious existential crisis and contemplates several options, he has one choice. “Nor can I change the path of my body, the words from my lips, not even the focus of my eyes.” So it’s interesting to me that Charles Yu — in the book, not you — is just as aware of these fixed looks and staring into these windows of the soul and he can’t quite connect through the space-time continuum and through the act of writing. So I’m curious where this interest in eyes came about. Was this a way of informing the reader on what Charles Yu is missing out on? These recurring stares? This recurring communication with souls and the like?
Yu: Yeah, that was an elaborate question. So I’m going to try and give an appropriately elaborate answer.
Yu: It only seems right to do justice for that question. Because I think you’ve put your finger on something I was trying to get out. Which is this kind of feeling of missed connection across time. And yet when Father and Mother are gazing toward the future, or Charles is looking at something, can sometimes sense something in the room, it’s this idea that now that future Charles is in that room looking back, maybe the first time around you feel the future there too. And that’s what you’re looking at. But you can’t connect. As you pointed out, you’re not directly looking at it. But there’s a sense in which what’s going to happen is already in the room with you and you can feel it there. You can’t see it yet. And then in the past, you can see it now. But you can’t change anything about it. And that also, in terms of narrative mechanics, there is some squiahiness to my sci-fi here. It’s not hard at all.
Correspondent: Squishy and schlubby. This is great.
Yu: That’s right. Yeah. Not hard sci-fi. Squishy, schlubby, mushy sci-fi.
Correspondent: It was never on the jacket copy though.
Yu: (laughs) But the one constraint I wanted to have in there. And I won’t pretend to know whether or not I ever violated it. But I think I said as a rule that you can’t change the past. And if you do, you shoot off into an alternate reality. But here’s where the sort of paradox comes in. You can’t — like the Charles when he realizes he’s caught in his time loop, if he wants to stay within his chronology, he can’t say or do anything different. And he can’t even look in a different place. But he can think something different. So I’m drawing what I understand is an artificial distinction between thinking and doing. But that was sort of where that comes from. It’s that even if my eyes — you know, everything I do is exactly the same as the first time down to where I’m looking. I have the tiny degree of freedom of changing how I feel about the same experience. Therein sort of lies the difference where he goes through this for the second time, basically.
Correspondent: Any alteration in the time stream causes the protagonist Charles Yu to not be able to see or to interact. Which is a really bummer offshoot of any of his decisions. Even a stray drift from this prevents him from doing anything. That’s quite a high wire act you set for yourself as a writer. How do you generate conflict if you have a protagonist who is incapable of doing what most humans are doing? When his pro-active decisions create this mess?
Yu: Right. That was a problem. It really was. And I’m not sure I surmounted that problem. I think if I were to judge by some of the responses I’ve gotten, some people have said, “Not enough conflict in this book.” And I think that’s a fair statement. And what conflict there is is necessarily pretty internal. One drawback for having a time loop novel and one in which the form of time travel requires you cannot change anything.
Correspondent: Was this form of non-conflict conflict the best way for you to explore these issues of memory and consciousness and choice and loneliness? That that was really the only comfortable or reader-accessible way for you to tackle these issues?
Yu: I think so. It’s the only way I could figure out how. I mean, I wanted it to be sort of an extended meditation on something. And that doesn’t make it sound terribly attractive when you’re thinking of reading and writing a book that’s going to last for a couple hundred pages at least on a meditation. But it was, to me, the only form that — it just kind of grew out of what I was writing about. For better or worse. So I was like, “Well, this is going to be the plot.” And as you know, there’s that diagram in the middle of the book, which sort of gives you the plot points. And there aren’t many of them But that’s what I did pretty early, like very early I drew that. And I said I’m going to stick to this. Because this will keep me from getting lost and violating the rules I’ve set up. And keep me focused on exploring the ideas of consciousness and memory that you pointed out.
Wayne Koestenbaum is most recently the author of Humiliation.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Fully considering the witnesses.
Author: Wayne Koestenbaum
Subjects Discussed: Whether a deliberate slander of a surname is a humiliation, the three components of humiliation (victim, abuser, and witness), the differences between recorded humiliation and experiential humiliation, spectacles of martyrdom, preexisting humiliation and statutes of limitation, edicts of instantaneous revocation, Koestenbaum’s use of triangles to uphold book concepts, itemizing shameful personal anecdotes, self-excavation as a writer, the pleasure of sentence making, being eons away from publication, rousing one’s self from stupor through stimulated memories, glimmerings that regurgitate and abreact, Koestenbaum’s obsession with a paddled third-grader, shifting personal anecdotes around to serve the narrative and whether this cheapens it, life as an experience of first times, Freud’s cathexis, cheapening vs. coarsening, what Koestenbaum doesn’t write about, Koestenbaum’s uncertainty in knowing whether or not he humiliates his own parents, growing up in a family where disclosure is normal, observing a large woman who urinates in the middle of a sidewalk, Edith Massey, Female Trouble, parodying Russ Meyer, John Waters as instigator of a cinematic spectacle, being simultaneously atrocious and radiant, Divine, fecal doppelgangers, honesty vs. humiliation, displaying one’s body, David Foster Wallace’s “Big Red Son,” the genuine facial expression of a person in orgasm, Anita Bryant being pied, pornography and humiliation, seeing the malevolent as human, the draw of Liza Minnelli videos, the human duty to understand multiple perspectives, an artificially polarized theater of affect, Freud and children getting beaten, being kind to the humiliated, finding Alec Baldwin sexually attractive, Alec Baldwin as a macho ego ideal, rejecting tabloid culture, the scapegoating culture, the London riots, privileged humiliation, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, the Jim Crow gaze, Abu Ghraib, Michael Jackson, whether Osama bin Laden was humiliated because America withheld the photo, Annie Leibovitz taking photos of Susan Sontag’s corpse, David Rieff, respecting evil historical figures, whether Shakespeare humiliated language, Basquiat striking out words in his paintings, Finnegans Wake, humiliation vs. a sense of wonder, radical muscularity within language, “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang,” logocide, writing with physical pleasure, humiliation vs. sorting out thoughts, critiquing the sign system of American power, writing on paintings, wrongness as the new gold standard, Gertrude Stein, “maltitude,” well-done violent movies, John Woo, major human dynamics at stake, behavioral options when responding to assholes, Eleanor Roosevelt’s “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent” maxim, humiliation and consent, Freud’s anti-Semitic experiences, writerly failure, vengeance, TC Boyle’s “Bury your enemies,” and aggression in writing.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: In “Catheter,” you write at the end, “I have a noble aim: to urge you to be kind when you see someone humiliated, even if you think that the shamed person deserves punishment.” When you find someone like Alec Baldwin sexually attractive and, in your own words, “wondering why I agree to occupy this role rather than refuse it by vowing to ignore the tabloid trade of trashing the stars,” I’m wondering if you are being kind to Alec Baldwin. If you don’t know the figure who is being humiliated, if you’ve never met them, can you always be kind? I’m curious about this.
Koestenbaum: You mean, is that like the tree falling in the forest thing? Like if I’m kind to Alec Baldwin by not reading a scandalous story about him, how will he know I’m being kind?
Correspondent: That, and also this compelling allure of participating in that culture. I mean, when that whole thing came out, I heard about it from friends. But I made a conscious choice not to participate in it. Because I just felt that it wasn’t worth my time. I’m only getting one side of the story. I don’t know Alec Baldwin. I like him as an actor, but, you know, what business is it of mine? You know what I mean? So as a result, it seems to me that you’re finding or you’re vacillating with “Should I participate?” To be or not to be.
Koestenbaum: Right. Okay, I will say that I totally get your point. That you’re talking about the kind of conscientious objection to or an abstaining from the gladiatorial carnival of consuming celebrity carrion.
Koestenbaum: And I understand that. I would say that in my life, I have made a few golden exceptions to that rule because of deep libidinal and imaginative connections that I had. And so for example, having written a whole book about Jackie Onassis, that’s a case where I flagrantly did not abstain from the national profession of consuming images of Jackie. I indulged it. But that’s because I had deep unconscious motives. And I felt that much for me was personally at stake in pursuing that obsession. In the case that you’re mentioning, where you like Alec Baldwin as an actor but you don’t have strong feelings about him, it’s not a difficult thing for you to abstain. For me, like Alec Baldwin, I didn’t consume it as deeply originally as I did when I decided to write about it. But I do have a kind of long-standing crush on Alec Baldwin. I’ve interviewed him. I wrote about him in my book Cleavage a little. “My Evening with Alec Baldwin.” We’re the same age. He is a kind of weird hectoring ego ideal — hectoring isn’t the right word. I mean, he seems like a kind of bossy guy. He’s a kind of macho ego ideal for me. So I have — he’s a — I agreed, agree I have cast him in my drama, but, yeah, I’m using him as a teaching point.
Correspondent: But how can you be kind? I mean, I think you nailed it on the head there by pointing out and being fully candid about the fact that there’s an allure there. There’s a sexual attraction there. He forms an imaginary impulse for all sorts of things in your mind. Which is perfectly fine and that’s completely understandable. But at the same time, can you also be kind when you have that going on as well? It’s almost as if this is another instigation point for humiliation.
Koestenbaum; Right. No, no, no, I will say then that, toward Alec Baldwin, perhaps I have not been supremely kind. But I’m not alone. And I would like to think — maybe I’m dreaming — I would like to think that I’m placing the whole Alec Baldwin crease within a really large cultural context of these kinds of spectacles. And I’m reviewing, I’m saying on the one hand I get a sort of sadistic erotic relish from this. And then on the other hand, I wish to abstain from the process of scapegoating others. I’m never saying he’s a bad father. There’s never a moment where I pass judgment on him. I’m commenting instead on his use of the word “humiliating” in the thing to his daughter. It’s hard for me to really explain this, except to say that I’m not making judgments about Alec Baldwin. I’m making judgment about the star culture and the culture of scapegoating.
Correspondent: It can be argued that the London riots, which occurred a few days ago at the time of this conversation, that they arose because you have the poor, the young, the disenfranchised given no choice. Essentially they are humiliated. Thus, you have revolt from humiliation. You touch upon this very early in the book where you deal with revolt, activism, and uprising as a response to humiliation. You conclude that, “Choosing homicidal martyrdom as a response to historical humiliation, I become a suicide bomber.” What of this space in between which causes riots? Very often you have no progress but more of the same. How do you reconcile? What we’ve been talking about here is essentially privileged humiliation vs. an unprivileged humiliation in which it’s unrest or activism.
Koestenbaum: That’s a really — I mean, I don’t have profound or definitive things to say. That’s a moral conundrum for deeper minds than mine. Honestly. But in a way, it’s the question of a justified violence or of revolution, a violent revolution. And when it’s justified or it’s not. And who is to decide when it’s justified. That’s a big question. And I think it’s — I want to say case by case. I would hesitate to make any generalizations about revolution. I think I talk about what I call the Rosa Parks principle, where humiliation leads to uprising and activism or Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth. But let’s just call it the suicide bomber or the terrorist question. I don’t want to say pro-terrorist things. Because I don’t really feel very pro-terrorist.
Correspondent: But you are willing to confront what you call the Jim Crow gaze. That look where someone looks at another person as if there is nothing there. Complete invisibility. Entirely because of race and also often because of class or because of sexual orientation or what have you. It seems to me that this willingness on your part to tackle this difficult question doesn’t necessarily make your views on humiliation legitimate or transferable from this place of privilege and this place of media obsession to this really stark territory of “How do I get by when I don’t have any options on the streets?”
Correspondent: No thoughts in terms of the Jim Crow gaze in comparison to the Alec Baldwin stuff we were talking about before?
Koestenbaum: It’s a really — I mean, I talk about both things in the book. Because it seems that with the title and a subject like humiliation, I have a feeling I don’t want to write a book just about the Alec Baldwin things. That’s only one question that interests me. And I was just as much motivated to write this book by the Abu Ghraib things. But as I say, very honestly, there were three catalysts: Clinton, Michael Jackson, and Abu Ghraib. They have very little to do with each other. But there is a kind of spectrum where all three instances involve the United States, power, scandal, and sex. Or the sexualizing of — I don’t know. I don’t want to say glib or wrong things.
Koestenbaum: I try in this book through the use of these numbered fragments to keep as separate as possible some of these kinds of instances for exactly what you’re suggesting. That it’s not possible to map what you’re calling “privileged humiliations” or, as I describe on my own, having had a relatively humiliation-free and lucky life, nonetheless I could go into this litany of my humiliations. I don’t want to say that all suffering is the same.
Correspondent: Life is not a comparison of horrors. That kind of thing.
Correspondent: Well, let me try to get on this from another angle. You had mentioned very early on — and I was actually going to bring this up too — the photos that Annie Leibovitz took of Susan Sontag. The Osama bin Laden execution. There was no photo of a dead body. Saddam Hussein’s execution, we do get to see him. Now you write of Leibovitz taking photos of Sontag’s corpse, as we said earlier, quoting David Rieff, who said that she was humiliated posthumously. So the question is, if one doesn’t have the choice of seeing the photos, is it still possible to humiliate the object or the person? Was the decision, for example, to not release the Osama photos a more respectful choice? Or was it possibly something — by not giving Americans the option to humiliate or to not humiliate, maybe it was almost a dishonest choice. What do you think about that?
Koestenbaum: Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to chicken out of a question But I can’t. I don’t know — do I really want to talk about the Osama bin Laden photos? It feels way beyond what I can speak about responsibly in a way.
Correspondent: Even if you were also simultaneously asking us to feel kindness for those who are absolutely terrible as well.
Koestenbaum: Yeah. I mean, the only reason I say I don’t want to — it just seems — just because I wrote this book, it doesn’t mean I feel that I’m an expert on the world’s atrocities or am some extraordinary moral barometer in a way. The question has a lot of responsibility tied into it. As if because I mentioned the Susan Sontag photos in the book, I’m automatically going to have an opinion about the Osama bin Laden photos. Which I don’t. I mean, basically, I don’t have a stand about “Yes, release all photos” or “No, don’t release all photos.” Maybe I don’t understand your question.
Correspondent: Maybe the direct question to ask you is: Is Osama worthy of the same respect if someone is being humiliated as David Rieff suggested of Sontag?
Koestenbaum: Well, is that then the question of, like, “Is it possible to imagine Hitler had a mother and that she loved him?” And that’s again a question way too complicated to know the answer to. Is it possible to include in the human family some of the worst people? And I do say in the book that when I imagine or see a serial killer led to his execution, whimpering, I feel clemency rise within me. Yeah, I have that impulse. I bet you do too, if you’re asking the question. Yeah, I do have that impulse.