Louis Hyman (BSS #443)

Louis Hyman is most recently the author of Borrow.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why the banks don’t cut him off like the bartenders do.

Author: Louis Hyman

Subjects Discussed: How common American notions of cash and credit shifted in less than a hundred years, an alarming Freddie Mac ad involving magical gnomes, the history of mortgages, the 1930s mortgage crisis, mortgage-backed securities, whether American citizens can be held responsible for permitting corporations to seize control of the financial system, Jack Welch’s mass firing of employees and restructuring of GE, why the postwar economy was prosperous on credit, middle-class aspirations, top tax rates throughout American history, the reasonableness of a 91% tax rate on the wealthy, the rise of discount stores in the 1960s, the beginnings of Kmart and Target, Macy’s early resistance to credit, the inability to fight the revolving credit system during the 1960s, how specialty stores like Ann Taylor catered to the middle-class, why credit cards became necessary for the newly distributed economy in the 1960s, department store credit and credit cards, the beginnings of Master Charge (later Mastercard) and BankAmericard (later VISA), how the need to dress up if you wanted to go to a department store in 1961 helped encourage the rise of the discount store, the early cash-only success of The Gap in the 1970s through computer inventory, why college students should not have credit cards, how the Maruqette Supreme Court decision paved the way for credit cards, the near total decimation of anti-usury laws, the Constitution’s commerce clause, RICO, why Congress is reluctant to protect consumers, how South Dakota became the center for finance, market regulation, protecting consumers from bad decisions, the inability for most people to do the math on exorbitant credit rates, working people who become reliant upon credit cards, living paycheck to paycheck, William H. Whyte and budgetism, the difficulty of introducing regulatory mechanisms when so many people believe in unfettered personal responsibility, the creation of the Federal Housing Authority, the housing battle between James A. Moffett and Harold Ickes in the 1930s, marshaling the business class to fulfill social ends, Henry Ford’s opposition to the extension of credit, Ford vs. GMAC in the early days of auto loans, regulation and property rights, the duty CEOs say they have to maximize profit for their shareholders, Jack Welch’s invented heroism, investing pension in the right areas, the rise of the aerospace industry, the Chicago debacle of 1966 where bankers flooded the market with credit cards without thinking, the beginnings of FICO, desperate efforts by bankers to make banks exciting, John Reed risking his career at Citibank on credit cards, Joseph Miraglia‘s pioneering efforts to scam the credit card industry, the present social stigma on using cash instead of credit, credit cards and securitization, the savings and loans crisis, fair and transparent forms of securitization, why Murray’s Cheese can’t get a bank loan, and acceptable forms of Wall Street wizardry.


Correspondent: You start this book with a late 19th century image of the fat and prosperous man who sold in cash and the skinny man who sold on credit. I think that more than a century later, it’s safe to say that those roles have now been flip-flopped. You also write, “In the era of the CMO, the smart bank could be like the Skinny Man, its vaults nearly empty, with a pile of IOUs in a nearby basket.” I have to ask you, Louis. You are the debt man. Why were so many people willing to place their faith in the supernatural qualities of the collateralized mortgage obligation? Your book describes a Freddie Mac ad that appeared in a 1984 issue of the American Bankers Association Journal which contained magical gnomes. And they frightened me when I saw that picture.

Hyman: As well they should.

Correspondent: So why were people willing to believe in gnomes? Is it possible for you to explain in plain English what in the hell a CMO is? And why did Freddie Mac even need a new financial instrument? Just to get this party started.

Hyman: Well, that’s about fifteen different questions.

Correspondent: Yes!

Hyman: I will start with the most important question.

Correspondent: Okay.

Hyman: Which is why did people want to put money into these mysterious supernatural instruments.

Correspondent: Gnomes!

Hyman: Yeah. Only the gnomes know. It’s hard to describe it over the radio. But it’s an image of gnomes advising the head chief financial officer of Freddie Mac and saying even he does not understand how these things work. Only gnomes know. It’s terrifying to comprehend that no one understood what they were doing. But the truth of the matter was that they knew what they were doing in that what they thought that they were doing. What they thought they were doing was taking together a bunch of risky things, combining it in different ways using magical alchemical transformations, and in the process they thought they were reducing the overall level of risk. And then they were making those sellable in the form of bonds to people who ordinarily would not buy them. To understand this, you need to understand the back history of mortgages and how they were financed and sold in America, which I’m very happy to talk about.

Correspondent: Feel free!

Hyman: And it’s what I talk about in the book before the time of the gnome hegemony.

Correspondent: Pre-gnome. More level-headed times.

Hyman: Yeah. Before the dwarven under kingdom began to rule us in the night.

Correspondent: Before investment bankers cleaved to the Return of the King appendix and started speaking in Elvic langauge.

Hyman: Exactly. So you need to understand that it used to be that it was very difficult to get loans in America of any kind. And that’s why I start the book off with that picture. Because the picture of the Skinny Man, who is nervous and afraid because he had lent on credit to his customers in his store. It was a picture that would be hung in a 19th century store. And the reason I start with that is because I think more than a graph, we are all besieged by numbers these days. More than a graph, it gets at the different mentality, the different practice of lending in the 19th century. That lending was something that was not profitable. It was something that in terms of cash loans wasn’t even legal. And yet today it’s the center of our capitalism. So how did that transformation happen?

So with mortgages, the story is a long one. And I’ll spare you the details. Though in the book, the details are quite intriguing, I hope. The basic idea is that, before the 1930s, you could get a mortgage from a local bank. They were very expensive and they tended to be funded by — they were balloon mortgages like we have today. We imagine that they were recent inventions. But they actually were commonplace in the 1920s. And they fueled the housing boom. Because they allowed people to pay only the interest every month on their mortgage. Which meant that they could buy more of a house. And the banks, in turn, would resell little bonds, mortgage bonds, to pay for all those mortgages going out. And so we have something like the mortgage-backed security is today. And with all that money from the investors, they could then lend to all these people to buy. Now the problem was, of course, that as soon as the stock market crash happened, all those panicked bonds people stopped buying bonds. All those panicked investors stopped buying bonds. And then suddenly the banks ran out of money to lend for mortgages and those balloon mortgages all came due.

Correspondent: We’re talking about the mortgage-backed securities period with the participation certificates.

Hyman: They were called participation certificates. That’s the technical term from the 1920s. And what happens is that suddenly they had to foreclose on all these houses and you have the housing crash of the Great Depression. It wasn’t because people lost their jobs as much as they lost their investors. Which I think is a really counterintuitive finding from what we think about when we think about the Great Depression. And so after this, the government creates the FHA. And the FHA and Fannie Mae together, what they do is they say, “Look, little bank. You can lend money to this home buyer. And then we will sell it to distant investors. Like in New York City.” So insurance companies, for the most part, bought these mortgages whole. The entirety of them. And then that money can be used to pay for a house in Texas. But these kinds of bonds, which fueled this wild, crazy, free-for-all kind of atmosphere in the 1920s — those went out of style. Investors didn’t want to buy them. Because they had all gone toxic. And the Fed actually prevented banks from using them at all. And so this period from the ’30s to the ’70s, they’re outside. They’re no longer in our economy. But the problem is that if you want to get more money into the housing market, you want people to have more money to invest in houses like they did in the late ’60s and early ’70s — predominantly to fund housing of the poor.

Correspondent: Section 235.

Hyman: Section 235. Correct. It’s as if you read a book recently on the topic.

Correspondent: Your book perhaps!

Hyman: Perhaps a book I am acquainted with. This money was to be used for that. And it was because they confused the cause for the effect in the postwar period. They looked around them. They saw on the one hand impoverished cities and, on the other hand, prosperous suburbs. And they thought, “Well, let’s make the cities like the suburbs.” And instead of realizing that the reason why the suburbs were prosperous was because of all the jobs that the well-to-do white people had, that made them prosperous, they thought, “Oh, it was just because of their houses.” They confused cause for effect. And they created this program to bring back the mortgage-backed security, which then these bonds could be sold to new kinds of investors. Not just insurance companies, but pension funds. To all kinds of people. And actually to these small banks, it turns out. They turned out to be the biggest buyers initially of these mortgage-backed securities. And so what you have is this system which actually collapses in a year or two under George Romney’s administration of the Housing and Urban Development. But the mortgage-backed security survives and becomes the new basis for our economy.

Correspondent: And they also use the term “participation certificate,” leaving one to wonder — at least this reader to wonder — why they would use the same name of a clearly failed idea.

Hyman: It had been several generations. And so they were vaguely…

Correspondent: People forget.

Hyman: People forget. They forgive. And they think that it would be different this time. Because they were tradeable in the secondary market, which the ones in the 1920s were not. They were born toxic almost in the 1920s. But they thought, “Well, these will be fine. They’ll be like FHA loans.” Which had worked for several generations. And actually they worked fine. The securitization worked fine for a long time. From the mid-1970s on for about thirty years. They worked fine.

Correspondent: Just as the participation certificates worked fine until things started to happen.

Hyman: Until things fall apart. Things work fine until they fall apart. That’s how it is. You survive every accident you have until the one that kills you.

Correspondent: So why do these financial people, who should know this — because the historical examples repeat and repeat and repeat — why are they so short-term in their thinking when they consider credit ideas or debt ideas? Or even the extension of credit? I mean, this is what gets me. That nobody seems to have a memory longer than a few years. It’s like, “We’ve got some money! We’ll go ahead and blow it!” I’ll get into the hilarious Chicago credit card thing in a bit, which I thought was funny. But also remarkably short-sighted.

Hyman: No. It is really surprising. I think people are just intoxicated by reason. They think that if a model works, then it will work in the real world too. But the way things work on the ground and the way things ought to work can be quite different. And I think that’s one of the lessons of all of this. That we should trust our experience more than our thinking on some level. Our thinking can be wildly off. Everything made sense. But when you look at the models that people actually use for all this kind of lending, they only use three or five years of data. They don’t even use a full business cycle. And they did that because that was the data that they had.

Correspondent: Well, I guess the question here is: we are looking at this from the vantage point of financial people. The question I have is whether American citizens can be held accountable for some of the problems that occurred. To what degree should they be held responsible for borrowing, believing, going ahead and taking the extension of credit options that were given to them so that they could live their middle-class lifestyles? Does historical precedent reveal that our parents and our grandparents are victims of various strains of predatory lending? Or is it really these middle-class aspirations? How do we look at this?

Hyman: Our grandparents lucked out. So if you look at the actual Federal Reserve data, you see that people began to borrow like crazy after World War II. But what was different was that they actually had good jobs. And they were able to pay back all those debts. So the amount of borrowing goes up. But so does the amount of repayment. So it looks like no one’s borrowing.

Correspondent: Sure.

Hyman: But they’re actually using car payments for their big-finned cars. They’re using mortgages for the suburban housing. They’re using charge-a-plates at the mall. They’re doing all kinds of things that require debt. Now are they better people than us? No, they just live in a different time. So that today, it’s very difficult to have the same job over your entire life. That kind of job security is no more. Wages have stagnated for forty years for average people. And people get sick. They lose their job. And they’re stuck with these bills. So they have credit cards to fall back on. Though I don’t think it’s the people who have gotten dumb or become immoral. I think it’s that the world around them has changed.

Correspondent: But when one considers such transitions as Jack Welch’s decision to move GE’s resources from manufacturing capital to financial capital, and essentially eliminate jobs that give people money that allow them to purchase goods that allow them to perpetuate an economy, the question is…

Hyman: Are we responsible for that?

Correspondent: Are we responsible for that?

Hyman: Yeah. I think on some level we were fools to let this happen.

Categories: Ideas

Catherine Chung (BSS #442)

Catherine Chung is most recently the author of Forgotten Country.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he left his car keys in Korea.

Author: Catherine Chung

Subjects Discussed: How Forgotten Country emerged from multiple stories, finding inspiration from disappearance, mysterious ghost monks that couldn’t float their way into the narrative, getting to know a character’s family by telling other stories, bad fictional boyfriends, Korean American identity as seen through reflection, character depth that springs from an aesthetic, how Chung keeps her characters separate from her identity, drawing from emotional experience, the difficulties of finding details in grief, losing your parents, giving additional details to personal experience, loneliness expressed as a dialogue between author and characters, growing up in the Midwest, “Chinaman Costumes,” racist products sold at chain stores, being surprised by people speaking against injustice, first-generation Korean Americans and second-generation Korean Americans, being bullied while growing up, being pushed into a brick wall, how schools used to react to bullying, dwelling on childhood incidents, moving around a lot as a kid, not being accepted, changing perceptions of bullying over the past few decades, grief as a way of understanding cultural identity, “From the Ruins,” whether any city or location can offer true respite, escaping to Leipzig, poorly buried corpses during the Korean War, animal-based mythology, how the subconscious fits personal anecdotes into fiction, unanticipated symbols which emerge in life, paying attention to things that seems like signs, the burdens of an analytical subconscious, finding the mathematical precision within sentences, Chung’s math background, the messier process of half-formed thoughts, the difficulties of not knowing, whether or not block is productive, obsessively circling a problem, Csikszentmihalyi and flow, using the least amount of words possible in a sentence, being concerned with a readership, how style is shaped through unexpected means, abuse and ambiguity, the creative showdown between God Cathy and Janie’s Voice, the troublesome results of divine creative intervention, and control in fiction and in life.


Correspondent: I know that Forgotten Country emerged from a number of different stories that you were working on at the same time. You have, of course, this idea of the boy falling out the window, which is at the very beginning. The mysterious hermit girl who crops up later in this book. And then you also have this story that was inspired by your father’s sister, who disappeared when you were a child. It’s really interesting to me that, first of all, these stories fused their way together into a novel and that, secondly, this came before this massive family unity of complicated relationships. So I’m curious, first and foremost, if you could describe how these stories came together in novel form and how you were able to fuse them together, and whether you needed some of these orbiting asteroids to circle around and become the planetary family unit.

Chung: Yeah. Well, you make it sounds as if I did it so intentionally.

Correspondent: (laughs) No, it never is intentional, of course. But I’m wondering how the connections came about.

Chung: Yeah. I think that they came about after a lot of time. There’s one character telling all these separate stories. And that’s what linked them. I didn’t really know what they were doing with each other or how they were related. There are other stories that were also in this book that eventually dropped out.

Correspondent: Oh really? Like what?

Chung: So there was a flying ghost monk.

Correspondent: Really?

Chung: Yeah. He was eradicated fairly early on. But he was totally in there and for a long time, he was carrying a great deal of weight in terms of just the number of pages.

Correspondent: That’s quite a feat, given that he was a ghost.

Chung: Yeah. He was a ghost. He was on a trek to find his lost daughter. And that was one of those stories I realized in my mind was related to the other three stories, right? Because all those stories are about loss and about trying to find what’s been lost once you’ve moved on. It’s almost impossible to do that. But in terms of the narrative arc, he didn’t work. And part of the reason he didn’t work was because the main narrator really was Janie, who was the protagonist and the narrator of the novel. Because he was carrying on his own story and I thought, “Well.”

Correspondent: You can’t very well have him being narrated by Janie.

Chung: Yeah. And in my mind, he was related. But in terms of the book, he didn’t fit.

Correspondent: So how then did the family come about if Janie was the narrator for these three stories?

Chung: Ah! Because she’s totally preoccupied by her family.

Correspondent: Oh, I see. In the act of telling these other stories, you got to know her family.

Chung: Yeah! That’s exactly right. These are the stories that I was really interested in. But the other stories that she was also interested in, I had to create a character who could tell these stories. But I think that she was interested in these stories because of the light they shed on her own experience. And as she told these stories, she’s sort of a secretive, hard-to-get-to-know person. So these were the stories that she wanted to tell. But then there were these underlying stories of her own life that came to play as she was telling them.

Correspondent: And allowed you to work out the connections with the sister, with the aunt, and so forth. Well, this leads me to wonder, did you have the competitive relationship between the sisters in place before the father-daughter relationship? Which of those came first?

Chung: Which of those came first? I think that the father-daughter relationship came first. Hannah’s disappearance came first.

Correspondent: Of course.

Chung: It was the absolute first thing to happen. But their competitive nature came as I was discovering why Hannah would leave and why it would be difficult to find her. I discovered what their issues were.

Correspondent: It’s interesting that competitiveness would come from disappearance. (laughs)

Chung: Yeah! And I think that the competitiveness also arose not early on in the novel — but I think Janie gets jealous with all the attention that’s focused on Hannah while she’s missing.

Correspondent: You were mentioning ghosts earlier. We’re talking about disappearance.

Chung: Yeah.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if subtraction might in fact be the way for you to pinpoint what a story or what, in this case a novel is all about.

Chung: That’s a really interesting point. I think that a lot of what I’m interested in and a lot of what I focus on is what’s missing or what’s longed for. Or what’s gone.

Correspondent: Were there any instances when you were writing this where you simply had too much and you had to remove an element? I mean, we were talking earlier…

Chung: Like a flying ghost monk.

Correspondent: Like a flying ghost. Or a character perhaps. Or some angle that just didn’t allow you to get that emotional precision that I think is there throughout the book.

Chung: Yeah. I was thinking the other day just about how many pages I removed. And I would say the book is about 300 pages, but I think I must have deleted at least six or seven hundred. Probably more like a thousand as I was going through the drafts. So entire storylines fell out. Like the flying ghost monk. There was a character. Janie’s love interest also ended up getting cut out.

Correspondent: Oh, I see.

Chung: And so as I went…

Correspondent: Is this the guy in college? Or just another love interest?

Chung: No, it was another love interest.

Correspondent: Oh! Another love interest!

Chung: There was another.

Correspondent: What was he like?

Chung: What was he like? Well, you know, I think he wasn’t all that interesting. Which is why I took him out. He wasn’t really holding his weight. I realized it wasn’t about him.

Correspondent: Well, I also wanted to ask about Hannah. The thing that’s fascinating to me about her is that she almost seems like a reflection of Janie. I mean, I think specifically about the scene in the hotel elevator, where Hannah follows her in and is essentially tailing her and mimicking her. And then you also have Hannah, which is a palindrome.

Chung: Yeah.

Correspondent: But also you observe of her at another point in the book, “how strangers, even adult men, would pause in the street to look at her, and how easily she held their attention.” So she’s also, on the other hand, resistant to Korean food. Which leads me to also wonder if her reflective nature came to mimic the idea of America or an American identity mimicking the original Korean identity that Janie has. And I’m wondering if you could talk about if Hannah came from almost a reflective pool from dwelling on Janie like this.

Chung: That’s such an interesting question, and one I haven’t heard yet. But I think that’s exactly it. Or at least that’s the source or the core of Janie’s resentment to Hannah. I think that because Hannah not only reflects Janie, but also gets to do some of the things that Janie doesn’t get to, but would like to, Janie feels that that’s been taken from her. That she only gets to be a certain kind of person because Hannah has already taken this other part of her. This reflection, exactly as you’re saying, is reflecting some part of her that is also slightly different. And so Janie is very competitive and jealous about that. But I also think that that link that you made to how her Americanness is a reflection of how her Koreanness could be a reflection is also very interesting. Because of the ways in which people change or mimic each other or come to copy an idea of what they should be. So, yeah, those were things that were with me the whole time that I was writing this book. And I just think that it’s really cool that you picked up on that.

Correspondent: But when you considered Hannah, did she first come to you as this aesthetic person? And did you need to flesh her out by this reflective thing we’re talking about? By imbuing in her some sense of her being looked at by other people? By people who were not, in fact, Janie?

Chung: Maybe. And I think that the thing that I kept getting caught on with this question is that I have often thought of both Janie and Hannah as reflections of parts of myself as well.

Correspondent: Yes. Of course. They’re your secret sisters. (laughs)

Chung: Yeah! Who live inside my head. But I was interested in Hannah as the object of attention, right? As a kind of reflection. And I think part of Hannah’s problem is that it’s hard for her to — and Janie’s problem as well — it’s for them to think of themselves, or they get tripped up on the way that they’re being looked at by other people. And it’s hard when you see yourself as a reflection. Because then what are you?

Categories: Fiction

Hari Kunzru, Part Two (BSS #441)

Hari Kunzru is most recently the author of Gods Without Men. This is the second of a two part conversation. The first part can be listened to here. But I’m afraid that This American Life isn’t the only program forced to issue a retraction. We’ve discovered that one of our longest conversations contained numerous extensions. This week, we detail this deeply troubling problem in the first few minutes of our program before carrying on with the second part of the Kunzru conversation.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Unpacking the complexities.

Author: Hari Kunzru

Subjects Discussed: David Mitchell, Kenneth Goldsmith, Tom McCarthy, what is considered valid artistry in 21st century literature, connections between Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Bolaño’s 2666, narrative and functional strands, reviews of Gods Without Men, compromises with editors, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, publishing job duties, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, rejecting the inclusion of glossaries, editions of books that Kunzru isn’t satisfied with, visiting Michael Moorcock in 2010, what Kunzru takes away from genre, the division between genre and literature, China Miéville, genre fiction that pretends, prizes given to disreputable fiction, postmodernism and the detective novel, science fiction as a method of conceptual confrontation of current trends, simulated worlds, the problems with conventional characters, playing role-playing games, Moorcock’s multiverse, getting the non-Mike people into Moorcock’s work, Moorcock and JG Ballard, a number of very geeky Moorcock references, physical locations, travel writing, writing impressionistic accounts in hotel rooms, the downside of purple lilac hotel room interiors, being close to a location to write about it, Burning Man as a business expense, skepticism about utopias, the literary value of dust storms, knowing what you’re doing before walking across desert country, mysticism, geodesic domes, avoiding certain words, imposing linguistic limitations, Kunzru’s affinity for technical vocabulary, Mormon religious terms, finding the truest deities within computers, Kunzru’s first computer, the ZX Spectrum, the Timex Sinclair 1000 vs. the Timex Sinclair 1500, early efforts to use networks, cradle modems and university computers, Lunar Lander, Adventure, Kunzru’s early efforts to write a Pynchonesque novel, not desiring to be a professional philosopher, the Conspiracy Nation newsletter in the early Internet days, connecting with the world of weirdness from your desktop, Kunzru’s days at Wired, journalism as a way into fiction, the network as a primary form for understanding culture, resolving a ridiculously pedantic pissing match between @drmabuse and @harikunzru, the results of Kunzru’s social media experiment, literary journalists, Jami Attenberg’s report on Jonathan Franzen, Twitter as a way of finding who your people are, the importance of writers getting involved with non-literary interests, how a secular writer can persuasively approach the issue of faith, the relationship between freedom of religion and freedom of expression, doubt as an ethical position, reading The Satanic Verses at the Jaipur Literature Festival, and being better friends to the believing Muslim.


Correspondent: So what then, Hari, do you make up when you write a novel? I mean, I also detected, for example — I saw at least two David Mitchell nods. Not just “Segunda,” which of course I have also plucked. But also there is an early incident with Nicky in which he complains about the waiter not understanding that he’s saying “water,” which I’ve heard David say a couple of times.

Kunzru: Oh really?

Correspondent: Yeah. And I was thinking, “Oh! Now I know they’re friends.” (laughs)

Kunzru: Yeah.

Correspondent: But I am curious about this idea of plucking almost everything from other incidents. Is this something you can help? Do you make shit up to combat that in any way? To keep it real or to keep it authentic? Or do you not even care?

Kunzru: I simply think that you’d be lying if you said everything — let’s see. There’s various positions. On one end of the spectrum, it’s that people like Kenneth Goldsmith and Tom McCarthy would say, “We’re at the end of this tradition. We’re playing in the ruins. The only valid artistic act is a kind of reconfiguration of existing material.” You know, I frankly that’s much easier to say as a straight white guy. Because you’ve had two thousand years of airtime.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Kunzru: Maybe you feel that’s all there is. But actually I think we’re in a moment where there is a lot that’s genuinely new and there’s a lot that’s genuinely unsayable. So, however, my experience of the world isn’t of this kind of wonderful, sort of romantic notion of the primary creation out of nothing and that the extraordinary poetic mind of the creator shaping raw material into art — that simply is not an accurate description of the pragmatics of making literary art. Is it important to distinguish one kind of thing from another? Only when the lawyers turn up. I think any literate person these days is literate in a way which encompasses the notion of source and secondariness. And in words: bad writers borrow, good writers steal. You can make something your own. David Mitchell’s project is interesting. We are friends. I’m friends with Tom as well. And I have productive conversations with these guys about it. I mean, Dave is a much more orderly character than me, I think. A lot of people — mostly because Dave’s blurbed my book; so that’s very nice of him. But Cloud Atlas, to which various people have connected Gods Without Men, is a very different project. That’s a response to Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, where Dave just could not stand the fact that all these stories opened and then didn’t close. And he made this very beautiful, nested structure, where the stories open, open, open, open, open, center, close, close, close, close, close, end. And that’s one way of seeing the world. And it’s a very formally perfect thing. And it allowed him to show that he’s head and shoulders above most other people working today. As I said before, I’m more interested in breaking that formal perfection and allowing silence. A model I had for this book was Bolaño’s 2666, where there are these very big — three, four very big slabs of narrative. They seem as you read to have no damn connection to each other at all, but gradually, in this almost ineffable way, they start to vibrate in harmony with each other. And it becomes clear that this is a work. I admired that so much.

And also, I think, given that plot at this point is taught everywhere. I mean, I’ve been in some screenwriting lately. You know, this world of the three act structure and this has to happen at this point. It’s those wonderful little clockwork things that you can make out of plot. And the only way of breaking out of that slightly clockwork feeling is literally by breaking out, by making openings, by making strands where things are not functioning as they are expected to function. And it’s been quite a pleasure to see that, in both the US and the UK, the reviewers who have not fundamentally liked this book have all, despite themselves, basically — I mean, Michiko Kakutani did this in the New York Times today; I was just reading her review. They all say, “Why was this not tied up properly? Why did he not concentrate on the straight story of this couple and their child? Why is this imperfectly integrated material been introduced in the book?” And that’s the project. And that’s where I find interest.

Correspondent: The Millions also accused you of doing too much style.

Kunzru: I mean, fair enough. I will never be a kind of cool writer in a certain sort of way. I don’t…

Correspondent: In a literary sort of way?

Kunzru: In an affectless sort of way.

Correspondent: A plain, hardboiled realism degree of fiction?

Kunzru: You know, I feel I have a reasonably nailed down and possibly even cynical view of human relations. But just in terms of writing prose, I like the idea of pretending to be an 18th century Spanish dude. And I like to do the different voices. And that’s the opposite of a certain sort of literary call. I read a lot of post-writing school American fiction in particular, which I find painfully self-conscious because it’s very scared of being uncool. It’s very scared of what might look like style, what might look like showing off, or what might actually look like fun. And it adopts a kind of Carver, who’s obviously the big — you know, all the sentences are stripped down. The most emotional moment is the downfall at the end. I mean, this stuff is now being put out by the yard. Because it’s become a kind of MFA staple. I think it’s what happens when a bunch of hyper-conscious 25-year-old MFA students critique each other in a room for too long. It’s that acute self-consciousness, which I think you’ve got to lose. You need to basically be able to make yourself look slightly ridiculous to be a writer. You need to ideally make yourself look a bit ugly. I mean, there are writers I admire because they can be unlikable on the page and because that’s interesting to me.

Correspondent: I agree with you. But I think we’ve seen a shift — especially from the agents and the editors. I mean, I have heard this. Editors are saying, “You know, all the novels that I get tend to hit these same notes.” This problem we’re talking about. This fear of offending. This diffidence when it comes to chronicling unlikable characters or unlikable perspectives. On the other hand, when you have agents as gatekeepers, who are preventing those types of desired perspectives from actually hitting into publishers and you’re also dealing with the need to get a return on revenue, I mean…

Kunzru: It’s structural, isn’t it? You can’t just blame the writers. You have to blame the way the industry is structured. And there are many, many ways which make books — I haven’t read Chad Harbach’s book yet. But it’s very interesting to me that that book was given the keys to the kingdom very immediately. My partner, the novelist Katie Kitamura, is reading it and, at the moment, has found it very unsatisfactory. I mean, there’s a kind of prose that is deemed by the gatekeepers to play in the Midwest.

Correspondent: Yes.

Kunzru: And hence kind of gets through. And this structural stuff — I can’t have a book that looks like I want it to look. I mean, the physicality of my book is not under my control because the publishers have certain job descriptions. There’s an art director. There’s a designer. I mean, my books would not look like the published objects that they are. Those objects should be considered as compromises. You know, you fight for the kind of cover that you feel you want. I mean, my visual taste is not always the visual taste of my publishers and my editors. In terms of font. In terms of spacing. Let alone if you were to point to really fooling around with formal stuff or you wanted to try and open your book in some way that wasn’t the traditional novel. All these things exclude certain types of things you can do with writing and make the novel look like the novel looks now. And I don’t know whether it’s fixable. Because in a way, I’m kind of into the idea that, as a writer, you’re in this very impure situation. My gallery artist friends are shocked by the lack of control I have over the presentation of my work. Because they’re able to control minutiae. Because they’re just trying to sell six things to six very wealthy dudes. You know, I’m trying to sell six thousand — hopefully more than six thousand — to many, many people. So there is this point. You’re in the market. You’re in this very, very different kind of aesthetic world. And yet you’re trying to make art in this situation. And it’s an interesting one.

Correspondent: But what do you do? Do you pull a Mark Danielewski? Do you go to Random House and sit in a carrel for three to four weeks and say, “I know exactly how this novel should look”? I mean, if you have to compromise on these levels, I’m curious also — narrative-wise, textually-wise — what compromises do you make to keep this real?

Kunzru: I know. I think that’s really a very personal question for each writer. You have different things that are redlines and things that aren’t.

Correspondent: But what are we talking about?

Kunzru: Well, I mean, I give completed drafts to an agent, an editor, a couple of other people, and I listen when they say, “I don’t understand why this is happening.” So even if I think something is clear, and I think it’s not communicating to that extent, that’s when I’ll change. I don’t know if that counts as compromise. I dug my heels in structurally on this book — in that there was a point of view that I should cut certain sections and that I should give more help, tie up more neatly. And that was precisely what I didn’t want to do. Same with previous books. I mean, I was asked to put a glossary into The Impressionist. But I figured that would be a way of saying that this book is for non-Indian readers rather than for Indian readers who will already know these words and I had written in a way where I thought that all the Hindi and slang words and stuff would be understandable from context. So I said no to that. Where do I compromise? I have ended up compromising on all the visual stuff. I’ve never really beyond a certain point tried to impose. I mean, publishers have house styles in terms of fonts. I’ve never really tried to fight my corner very hard in that.

Correspondent: Can you ever be happy with the final way that the book looks and feels and is?

Kunzru: I like some of the books that are out under my name. The objects that are under my name. I mean, I’d say that there are editions that I’m embarrassed to carry around.

Categories: Fiction

Hari Kunzru, Part One (BSS #440)

Hari Kunzru is most recently the author of Gods Without Men. This is the first of a two part conversation. The second part can be listened to at The Bat Segundo Show #441.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wrestling with issues of conversational faith.

Author: Hari Kunzru

Subjects Discussed: Variants of faith in the author/reader covenant, Kunzru’s background, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, absence and unknowability, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Celestine Prophecy, liberals who distrust science, how the media portrays women, when New Yorkers are confused with Englishmen, owning a motel in a desert town, attempting to escape the narrow possibilities of life, the appeal of cults, the desire for community, coercive situations in group living, Dawn’s tendency to accuse men of molesting a child, pedophilia, when people are faced with the offensive and the unspeakable, public discussions of children, organizing a book around echoes rather than plot, absent children and spirituality, simulacra within Gods Without Men, STRATFOR, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, housing compartmentalized illusions within the giant illusion of a novel, the gaps within storytelling, breaking the contract between author and reader, refusing to tie up all ends, growing up in a period of postmodernism, being in a period of overlays, Augmented Reality, war simulations, being trapped in the imagination of the United States, the financial model as mystical tool, complex systems that are only understood through models, high-speed trading engines, machines that disguise their positions in the marketplace, the 2010 Flash Crash, comparisons between a day trader and a novelist, the predatory nature of collecting stories from other people, Theron Wayne Johnson, hearing a grisly story from a man in a bar, the ethics of making a story sufficiently transformative from its original source, conducting research for My Revolutions, people who use violence in support of their politics, the moral difficulties of formal interviews used for fiction, recent anti-gentrification movements in London, John Barker and The Angry Brigade, Bill Ayers, the Barker/Ayers ICA discussion, the inevitability of copying and pasting in 21st century art, using living people for fiction, impinging on public personae, Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, Adam Johnson, fictional projections of Nixon, James Frey and Oprah, the authenticity of memoir, the entanglement of novels and nonfiction, living in a Googleable age, the novel as a link dump, Kunzru’s Twitter presence, and hyperlink fiction.


Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start off on a question of faith — predictably enough. A writer has a lot of faith when he is putting together a novel. A reader places her hard-earned shekels over the counter and has faith in the writer to tell a story. The characters in this novel, Gods Without Men — they are both faithful and faithless to ideologies, to their families, to their relationships. So faith is a very loaded concept. And I’m curious why any novelist would tackle something that is so tricky, so duplicitous, so hypocritical, so difficult to pin down. I mean, how do you deal with this? Because even though this novel does not always answer all questions, you are dealing with something that you have to fit into narrative. So maybe we can start here.

Kunzru: Yeah. I suppose my own relationship to faith is a complex one. I’ve got an Indian father from a Hindu background. Many people on both sides of my family are actively practicing religious. My mother’s background is Protestant English. My parents decided quite sensibly to bring me up without any religious — not to bring me up with either of those two traditions. So I was left to find my own way. And I’ve always had for many reasons a kind of inclination to see things one way and then see things another way. But over the years, I’ve developed a sense that I don’t believe in god. I’m an atheist. However, I don’t think that position — the idea that you don’t believe in some kind of personalized creator to whom you owe an ethical duty not to sleep with the wrong people. That doesn’t take any of the big questions off the table about human agency, about ethics, about meaning and value. And I’ve always been very fascinated by people of faith. Because in some ways, I find them very scary. People with a very strong faith have stopped asking questions at a certain point. There’s a certain point where they have made this leap. This extraordinary leap into the world of faith. And it’s something I felt that I understood poorly as well. The only book that’s ever really made me really kind of feel what it must be like to have a powerful religious faith is Fear and Trembling, the Kierkegaard book where he talks about the extraordinary moment where Abraham has sacrificed Isaac and he’s prepared to do this because his faith in God’s word is true. And that kind of encapsulates it. It’s a terrifying act. It’s a horrific act. And it, in a way, echoes with all these incredibly violent things that have happened in the name of religion. But at the same time, there’s a kind of horror to it. There’s a sublimity to it. There’s an absolute abandonment of the human.

And this novel is a way, is my attempt to talk about our relationship with the unknowable and with the unknown. And it’s about all sorts of people who have many different ways of conceptualizing this and many different sorts of solutions that they’ve come up with. But the essential question is the question of absence and unknowability. At a certain point, human comprehension ends. And whether you believe that everything is essentially knowable — like Jaz, the husband in this. The husband and the wife who are at the center of the book. Jaz is a rational man. He is trained as a scientist. His sense of the world is if you think hard enough and you have the right concept and you test and you hypothesize, then the world will open up its secrets. And his wife goes absolutely in the other way. She withdraws into a kind of mysticism. And other characters in the novel range from various people who have profound faith — like a Franciscan friar and a lapsed Mormon coalminer to people who have a much more complicated relationship with it and a skeptical relationship with it.

Correspondent: But I would argue that this concern for faith — both sides of the fence — almost mimicks Fitzgerald’s idea of the first-class intellectual being able to hold two opposing ideas in his mind. I mean, with Jaz and Lisa, it’s very interesting, those sections in particular. Because the prose itself is both general but specific enough for us to get an idea. It’s almost as if the prose needs to mimic their especial judgment towards the world, towards each other, and the like. And I’m curious how you developed this at the prose level. Because that was one of the things that really impressed me about your book. What struggles were there to get that balance? I’m just curious.

Kunzru: You mean, in terms of the voice for the different characters?

Correspondent: Yes. Exactly. Especially for Jaz and Lisa.

Kunzru: You know, it’s one of these things that emerges through the doing. I don’t think it was a very programmatic thing. I mean, those characters emerged as quite defined opposites to each other in their reaction to what happens to their missing child. I mean, I’m interested in the business of faith in the financial markets, faith in credit and the extraordinary kind of high wire act that is the global financial system, which depends on everybody believing that this money exists. And yet placing a kind of Mr. Science in this world of high finance was an interesting one. Out of those decisions, his way of talking and his way of understanding the world emerged quite naturally. Once you know that somebody has a higher degree in physics, you know that they’re unlikely to be basic in their worldview on The Celestine Prophecy. And Lisa’s character comes out of something I’ve observed from a lot of liberals with humanities backgrounds. Here, in London, everywhere. That actually, people aren’t very scientifically educated very often and actually have a kind of gut hostility to the procedures of science. Because they feel that it’s kind of closing down the space of wonder in the world. And that leads quite a lot of people — I’m always quite surprised by people who are very skeptical and argumentative will often have this blind spot where it comes to — especially things to do with health, in particular. Like people get into homeopathy and various other things that I would personally consider quackery. Because partly they wish to believe certain things about the world that have to do with wonder and ineffability and unknowability and often beauty and a kind of non-utiliatarian way of seeing the world. It’s all kind of very valid reasons to want to protect a sacred space from an intrusion by the methodology of science. But it can lead people into some very strange, anti-rational positions. And often those two ways of being can be very buried in people. Because we don’t tend to have these conversations. It’s off the list of what’s polite in a party chat.

Correspondent: Well, be as impolite as you like here. (laughs)

Kunzru: (laughs) Well, we can talk about it. But having a couple who basically have a great deal in common, who love each other — they genuinely love each other, these two. The kind of gradual exposure of the real contours of their ways of dealing with the unknown is what causes this terrible tension in their relationship. And that seemed to me to speak to quite an interesting fault line that runs across a lot of contemporary culture.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if Lisa, at least in relation to the question of faith, was almost sort of a spillover character for what you could not do with Dawn, who I’m also really curious about. I mean, it’s interesting that the women tend to gravitate towards issues of blind faith, often destructive faith. I mean, with Lisa, it’s interesting too because you have all these media incursions into her life. So it’s almost like some part of the world wishes to punish her for her beliefs.

Kunzru: I’m very interested in the way that media presents women. Especially mothers. The censoriousness that attaches itself to women’s choices around motherhood and around the work. I mean, in this novel, their child disappears. They become the object of this media witch hunt. And everybody zeroes in on “Is this a bad mother?” — especially “Is this a cold mother?” She fails to emote in a way that the media folk think is appropriate. And hence she’s immediately suspect. Because it’s a novel and you can get inside somebody’s inner life, we know very well that she’s absolutely destroyed by this and she’s an emotional person. She’s not some kind of psychopath who fails to have correct emotion or a response. However, the appearance sort of drifts further and further from reality. Of course, they’re also New Yorkers lost out West. Everyone hates New Yorkers in the rest of the country, as far as I can see. I now get outed as a New Yorker by other Americans in other parts. The English accent gets bracketed into some sort of New Yorker thing. So I get the prejudice as well. (laughs)

Correspondent: Those wild and crazy liberals with their British accents.

Kunzru: Yeah. Exactly.

Correspondent: You’re drinking a cappuccino right now! So there you go.

Kunzru: Drinking a cappuccino with a British accents. That’s exactly what everyone thinks happens in Chelsea.

Correspondent: You are America’s nightmare! (laughs)

Kunzru: I am. Rick Santorum, right now, is burning an effigy of me in a basement somewhere in Idaho.

Categories: Fiction

Adam Wilson (BSS #439)

Adam Wilson is most recently the author of Flatscreen.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Seeking his remote control and his dignity within an armed blanket.

Author: Adam Wilson

Subjects Discussed: Wilson’s dislike of flying, Will Self’s rules for writers, Flatscreen‘s televisual influence, working at Flavorpill, innovating literature through the Slanket, attempts to win television watchers to literature, the couch potato as Renaissance man, using bulleted lists and possible endings as alternative chapters, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, awkward uses of Viagra, the davenport vs. the Slanket, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, Johnson going to Columbia because he was a Sam Lipsyte fan, Portnoy and Playboy Go to Summer Camp,” reading Portnoy’s Complaint at the age of 13, satisfying queasiness and Jewish identity, brutal workshop smackdowns, finding a new take to send up middle-class suburbia, 21st century Borscht Belt schtick, the difficulties of writing about synagogues, spiritual vacancy, troubled and handicapped mentors, Augie March character inspiration for Flatscreen, The Modern Library Reading Challenge, creating a fictitious Boston suburb, Matt Corley’s obsessively hyperlinked interview with Wilson, Newton, Massachusetts, finding creative freedom drifting away from the realities of location, the frequency of Boston residents who live and spend time and do bad things in basements, unappealing young men with profligate sex lives, pathetic people who hook up, ensuring one sexual climax every 100 pages, throwing humiliation at a protagonist, needlessly beautiful people in contemporary fiction, the cruel fates that Martin Amis hands his characters, Money‘s John Self, Dead Babies, Success, Lord of the Flies, going through a rough period while writing Flatscreen, Kurt Vonnegut’s idea (“In America, high school never ends”), adults who live with their parents, Lipsyte’s Venus Drive, Eli being a good cook and eating good meals alone, men who build arsenals of kitchen utensils rather than making weekend trips to Home Depot, gender roles in urban environments, cooking shows and masculinity, finding an agent, writing Flatscreen over five years, resistance to unlikable characters in contemporary fiction, hostility from Goodreads, Cynthia Ozick, Amazon reviewers, Fitzgerald as a commercial failure during his lifetime, The Great Gatsby, Wilson’s father beaten down by Amazon reviews, being a victim of impressions made by blurbs, working as a bookseller at Bookcourt, false romance attached to literary people, trying to get a mass audience excited about books attached to smaller audience, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, slipping secret books to students and customers, competing literary canons vs. secret books, creative writing programs as your buying audience, Richard Nash, the literary inefficiencies of the American education system, teachers and enthusiasm, George Saunders, Donald Barthelme, how literature can encourage young people to rebel, Gary Lutz’s “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” fusing different sentences together, Wilson’s answer to “portable solitude,” ideal sentences, and the inner life vs. dramatic narrative.


Correspondent: I’m glad I could get in touch with you before you were actually getting on a plane.

Wilson: Yeah. No, it’s good. I hate flying.

Correspondent: Oh, you do? Well, what’s wrong with flying?

Wilson: Um…

Correspondent: Aside from the security theater and all that?

Wilson: No, it’s…

Correspondent: Aside from the defenseless position you’re put in?

Wilson: Yeah. That’s a big part of it.

Correspondent: Aside from the lame snacks that you get? Sorry. I don’t want to be negative here.

Wilson: Yeah. You sort of hit the nail on the head.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Wilson: Although I do love Ativan. So it’s sort of a…

Correspondent: (laughs) Let’s get into the book. I actually wanted to broach the TV question from a weird angle. One of the items contained within Will Self’s half-serious, not really serious rules for writing. He has this on his list: “Remember how much time people spend watching TV. If you’re writing a novel with a contemporary setting there need to be long passages where nothing happens save for TV watching.” Now I know that you once worked as a TV blogger for Flavorwire.

Wilson: That’s true.

Correspondent: There is a notable televisual influence down to the technical details in Flatscreen that is often so striking that one, in fact, even encounters Eli’s mom sleeping on a sofa in a Slanket. So I’m wondering. Do you have any pragmatic ideas…

Wilson: The Slanket was actually a period detail.

Correspondent: Ah, yes! Okay.

Wilson: Not to go off topic too much.

Correspondent: I’m sorry to be so out of touch. (laughs)

Wilson: But I will say the Slanket was the one thing that I guess I had to change in the book. Because I originally had it as a Snuggie. The book’s set in 2006. And the Snuggie was not yet on the market.

Correspondent: Oh, that’s right. Yeah.

Wilson: But the Slanket was.

Correspondent: Yes.

Wilson: It was sort of the precursor. But the Snuggie has since taken a monopoly on the armed blanket.

Correspondent: The armed blanket thing.

Wilson: Yes.

Correspondent: No, Slankets do seem very endurable — the Slanket, I have to say. So maybe they just seem to last like plastic that’s not going to biodegrade or something.

Wilson: Oh yeah. Anyway…

Correspondent: No, no, no! Thank you for the clarification. It’s very important to get the Slanket detail right.

Wilson: It might be that I think I learned about both items in infomercials. (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, I mean, the question I have is how novelists can win over readers from television. And do they need to follow this advice that Will Self offers. Writing long scenes describing watching television? To what degree was the process of writing Flatscreen your way of contending with your own television feelings? Clearly, we touched a nerve here on the Slanket thing.

Wilson: Yeah. (laughs)

Correspondent: Let’s just get the ball rolling here. Do you need to specialize also in short alternating chapters? That’s a lot to throw. So go for it.

Wilson: No. I don’t think necessarily. I don’t know. It does seem like a ridiculous rule. Will Self’s rule seemed almost the opposite of what you’re probably told in most writing programs. Which is: set up conflict so that your characters can move around rooms and pick up objects. And stuff like that. I don’t know. I think more so, I was just interested in a character whose worldview has been so shaped by television. Perhaps in the way that mine has, or that people of my generation or even your generation, a slightly younger, probably a slightly older generation too have. I like the idea of having this guy whose kind of poorly educated and didn’t pay attention in school. Didn’t go to college. But at the same time, he actually has quite a lot of information available to him. Based on the fact that he’s watched an incredible amount of television. And I like this idea that if you actually spend days just watching The Discovery Channel and The History Channel and The Nature Channel, but also the news and CNN and old movies on AMC, that you could sort of become this Renaissance man of knowledge, in that you know about all sorts of different things without having any kind of deeper understanding of any of them.

Correspondent: So the couch potato is a superficial Renaissance man?

Wilson: Yeah.

Correspondent: That’s all America has to offer these days? (laughs)

Wilson: (laughs) Well, I don’t know.

Correspondent: Come on! We’re trying to win these people so that they dive into libraries! I was hoping that you, the guy who managed to synthesize TV in novel form, might have a few ideas here.

Wilson: Um, no. I have almost no ideas on that front. I think we’re losing the battle.

Correspondent: We are losing the battle. But at least it’s marvelous nonetheless to watch this cultural phenomenon mushroom as it is.

Wilson: Sure. Then again, I have received — I sort of did have this idea that, oh, you know, maybe people can relate to this. Because we all spend our time on the Internet and watch a lot of movies on TV and stuff. But then I’ve gotten all sorts of criticisms on Goodreads and from bloggers complaining about how this guy just sits around and watches TV and doesn’t do anything. So maybe these people, who are complaining about the book, are like living these rich lives that the rest of us aren’t experiencing. And they’re sick of reading about characters. I don’t know. They probably wouldn’t like Will Self’s books either.

Correspondent: Yes, that’s true. Well, I’ll get into the Goodreads review thing. Because I actually checked them out too. But I wanted to get into your book before we actually did that.

Wilson: Sure.

Correspondent: I mean, you have this strategy of alternating chapters throughout the book. It kind of relates to what we’re talking about here. Where you’ll have something short, followed by another Eli episode. The first two parts of the novel have these bulleted lists. You have things such as “Facts About My Mom.” “Ways In Which I am Like a Rapper.”

Wilson: That’s one of my favorites.

Correspondent: Good! I caught the right one. And then the third part shifts to all these possible endings. And then Eli starts to reference these narrative terms near the end. Sitcom C-plot. Things like that. So I’m wondering to what extent these alternative chapters were almost a series of bona-fide notes to help you better know your character in your book. How did this tension between the self-reflective and almost the self-aware narrative occur during the course of writing this book? I’m curious.

Wilson: I think it happened in a few different stages. Originally, the book was quite a bit longer. And I felt it was bogged down. I felt it was a bit slow and that there were two things slowing it down. One is that there was a lot of time spent relating backstory. Things about this character’s childhood memories. And all this type of stuff that I felt was really slowing down the pace of the book. Because I knew I wanted to have this really quick pace. And maybe part of that is trying to appeal to readers who have low attention spans.

Correspondent: Well, this leads me to wonder. Did the bulleted lists come from the larger draft? Where one would normally expect that type of thing to come from a notebook, the awkward details you plucked from…

Wilson: Exactly. Exactly.

Correspondent: Wow.

Wilson: So I wanted to figure out a way to speed it up without losing a lot of this information. And so I thought of these kinds of lists. And I ended up cutting about 100 pages from the book and replacing it with all of these interesting little chapters that I hoped were doing some of the work in a kind of fun and more entertaining and quicker way, and that felt right for the character who is reading blogs. And it felt like it worked. So that was one thing. And then as for the other endings, I think those in part came out of — one thing I think the character Eli is struggling in the book is this idea that everything, all his points of reference, comes from television and movies. And he has this idea that he wants to be in the classic coming-of-age movie. He wants to grow and become a real person maybe. Whatever that means. And live some kind of grown-up life. But his imagination, I think, has been compromised in some way. Because I think everything he can imagine is something he’s seen in a movie or on TV. And he has bad points of reference in terms of his family. He can’t look at his father and say, “I want to be like that.” So he looks at movies and he says, “Well, I could be like that. But is that realistic? Or is that even a possibility?” Or has it gotten to the point where American life is really just a kind of imitation of these tropes and this received culture or narratives? And I think Eli’s struggle with that reflected my own struggle as a writer to try and imitate and write a book in a genre that’s been done a million times and come up with a kind of narrative that is, at the same time, aware of all that’s come before it and doesn’t cop out and have and ending where someone drives off into a sunset with a perfect song playing. And so the way I battled that was to have Eli himself imagine all these endings that he’s seen before. But then they don’t all come at the end. They come over the last 100 pages. So I think that each time one is presented, my hope is that, with the book continuing along, that ending is passed over. And that it’s pointed out as being ridiculous or unrealistic or cliche or impossible or all of those things. And then life continues to go on in the book.

Correspondent: But it’s also trying to find an ending while all these other things are happening.

Wilson: Sure.

Correspondent: Which also made me — I had a total wonkish question for you. But the whole incident on the football field with the Viagra.

Wilson: That’s not really happened to me. (laughs)

Correspondent: (i>laughs) Well, I was going to ask first and foremost, what is your Viagra experience? And second, I mean, that almost seemed to remind me, almost, of Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes. I’m wondering if that might have been a possible nod.

Wilson: A Fan’s Notes is one of the books I’ve read more times than any other book.

Correspondent: And, of course, Exley talks about reading other books multiple times.

Wilson: Yeah.

Correspondent: Was that a touchstone for you? In terms of reading?

Wilson: In my life. It’s funny. I didn’t think of it that much. In terms of when I was working on the book. But it’s a book that’s been really important to me in my life. And interestingly, I think, in that book, one of his touchstones is Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March.

Correspondent: Which I also know is a big influence on you.

Wilson: Which was in some ways a big influence on this book too. So maybe it all kind of comes together. But A Fan’s Notes is great. I just did a piece for Flavorwire on my ten favorite slacker novels,

Correspondent: Oh yeah?

Wilson: I think my favorite thing about that book is that it introduces a great piece of slacker furniture I’d never known about. Which is the davenport.

Correspondent: Yes. (laughs) So there are all these little clues for furniture that almost doesn’t exist anymore in there.

Wilson: Yeah. It’s the perfect slacker item, I think. (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, it makes me wonder if Flatscreen is, in some sense — I mean, we were talking about it being set in 2006 — whether it’s more of a historical novel as well. Maybe your davenport is the Slanket. (laughs)

Wilson: Yeah. I think so. I’d like to think that. If I leave one thing in the world, it’s to put the Slanket into the history of American literature.

Correspondent: (laughs) We need more writers to do that.

Categories: Film

Adam Johnson (BSS #438)

Adam Johnson is most recently the author of The Orphan Master’s Son.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Revising his own narrative.

Author: Adam Johnson

Subjects Discussed: Growing up in Arizona, reading a novel as an act of faith and how style reflects that, narrative which mimics Casablanca, storytelling as the North Korean identity, being the center of your own story, state-sponsored storytelling, DPRK aptittude tests, being trapped in a world of North Koreaness, the American idea of taking on new personae, populating a book with secondary characters from limited information, getting a sufficient Tolstoyian cross-section, knowing very little about Pyongyang, defecting to South Korea, Hanawon, underground societies in Pyongyang, North Korean testimonials, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, how fiction fills in missing factual gaps, the kwan-li-so labor camps, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, how to eat a newt, being unable to verify Yodok, Kenji Fujimoto, whether imagination is truthful enough to fill in the gaps, mining the Stanford libraries for North Korean books, Rikidozan and North Korean wrestling, approaching North Korea from the comic mode, interrogators who give prisoners “alone time,” playing a guitar for Kim Jong-Il, finding propaganda funny, feeling a responsibility to gulag prisoners, balancing absurdity and believability, Kim Jong-Il and the state cinema agency, Pulgasari (the North Korean answer to Godzilla), kidnapping cast and crew to make Pulgasari, the pros and cons of being an American outsider, moral responsibility in narrative, South Park, Madeleine Albright’s visit to North Korea, referring to the dead Kim Jong-Il in the present tense, getting bested by the human heart, North Korea’s attempt at an air defense system, Johnson being unable to find photographic evidence of apartment loudspeakers, the Japanese obsession with the KCNA, reading the Rodong Sinmun daily for eight years, Pork Chop Hill, trying to get a sense of how North Koreans live, North Korean humor, actresses kidnapped from South Korea, Bill Clinton’s efforts with Euna Lee and Laura Ling, Casablanca, resistance to black-and-white movies, Titanic, how the advent of DVD affected how North Koreans watched movies, relying on a stunted version of North Korea from four years, what Johnson saw in North Korea, whether photography can atone for the lack of the written word, the alleged nutritious value of dubious seaweed, scavenging extra calories, the legality of harvesting chestnuts, memory as a conduit between photography and the written word, how writing nonfiction gets in the way of advancing fiction, maintaining hundreds of pages of notes, forming unexpected narratives, being a journalism major and fabricating perfect quotes, capturing the essence of nuts, Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, Kim Jong-Il vs. Nixon, Kim Jong-Il Looking at Things, humanizing a dictator, being drawn to survivor narratives, how physicality and geographic location allowed Johnson’s North Korea to evolve, Soviet refrigerator factories in North Korea, goats on the building roof, turning on the power for the foreigners, how North Korea decides which floor you live on, avoiding exposition while writing The Orphan Master’s Son, Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14, Shin Dong-hyuk’s expense, making a choice at the expense of something else, how Texas served as a narrative mechanism to see North Korea from several vantage points, being one of the first American novels about North Korea out of the gate, Hyejin Kim’s Jia, James Church’s police procedurals, and how facets of the thriller genre helps get at the truth.


Correspondent: Stylistically, the first part of this book requires a great leap of faith for the reader. I mean, we’re asked to believe that Jun Do, despite the fact that his story does not check out, gets released by the interrogator. That he would also go to Texas with Dr. Sung. I don’t think I’m giving anything away.

Johnson: Sure.

Correspondent: But then you have this twist at the end of the first part. Then we are given this surprise and we say, “Oh ho! Maybe the narrative itself doesn’t exactly match up.” Then you have the second part. And the last part almost mimics Casablanca, which of course is a DVD of the world’s best movie that is circulated as well through the text. You have all these references to storytelling. You have Sarge saying, “You think the guys at top don’t know the real story?” You have Commander Ga wondering “if he couldn’t tell a story that seemed natural enough to them now, but upon later consideration might contain the message he was looking for.” So we’re led to believe that storytelling, or perhaps this dim awareness of narrative, is very much the North Korean identity. And I’m curious how you arrived at this involuted solution to North Korea. In terms of why this, of all things, would be their identity.

Johnson: Well, storytelling is my obsession. I love stories. I love to write them and to read them. And I’m really fascinated with how they come out. Especially troubling stories. You know, happy, funny stories are very easy to tell. Stories of success and achievement. And they’re a little boring. But, you know, I’ve studied for some time now how people tell traumatic or painful stories. And the different shapes that they take. And when I started studying North Korea, it made me reconsider how I tell my own stories, the stories I tell myself to feel good. In America, I think, in our literature and in our real lives, everyone is the center of her own story. And our job as humans and as characters is to follow our motivations toward what we want and need to overcome obstacles by looking inward and growing and changing and making discovery towards becoming our best possible selves. But, you know, as I studied the stories about North Korea, because the story there is state-sponsored, I realized that it was a national narrative written by a regime, enforced by a regime, controlled by censors, without another version. And in that, the very few people at top were the central characters. Really, the main character was Kim Il-Sung, Kim-Jong Il, and Kim Jong-un now.

And everyone else in that country was like a secondary character. And this is really borne out by my research and by the testimonials of defectors that, when you’re a child in the DPRK, early on you’re assessed for your aptitudes or certain qualities for the needs of the state. And you’re sent down paths that lead toward becoming a fisherman or a sailor or an accordionist. And in that world, having your own desires and yearnings could run counter to the role that you might fulfill to survive. So I think I started with a character who’s more trapped in a world of North Koreaness, where he must do what he’s told, go where he’s told. He does grim things. And it doesn’t really matter who he is or what he does. It’s just that the role will be fulfilled. Whereas in America, you know, we change our stories all the time. They grow and evolve. And when you go off to a new school or a new job, you just take on a new persona. You change. And I think over the course of the book, because the character meets Americans — he listens to foreign transmissions because he has some encounters; even though he doesn’t defect; even though he keeps maintaining his role — a growing sense of possibility rises in him that he could finally write his own story rather than being conscripted into the state. And in the second part of the book, he does this daring act to try and become his own person. Though there he has to impersonate somebody else even.

Correspondent: Well, secondary characters. I mean, this book is filled with them. And I’m wondering if, from the limited resources you had at your disposal — I mean, you did in fact go to North Korea; we can talk about that in a little bit; I suppose it’s an ineluctable subject — but I’m curious if you could truly, from your vantage point, get a suitable Tolstoyian cross-section when the information you had at your disposal is so thin. I mean, do you feel that there were certain secondary characters you didn’t quite include in the book? That may have actually been included in the previous draft and you would have liked to flesh out further? How do you go about creating a fictive population when the information at your disposal is so thin?

Johnson: Well, I did kind of revel in the secondary characters in my book. I’m glad you point that out. Because I had a lot of fun with them. You know, just in terms of North Korea, what we know and what we don’t know. We know very little about what happens in the secret power in Pyongyang. That the people who are ruling and who are inflicting the power upon others — we don’t know that much. For the lives of normal citizens and the rest of the country — in Wonsan, Nampho, Chongjin, etcetera, we know a great deal actually. Over 6,000 people defected last year. When they make it to South Korea, and that’s a whole journey in itself, they go to a facility called Hanawon, where they’re debriefed. And a real narrative is written about each one of them. And then they go through a kind of school that helps them reintegrate into a vastly different society. But from the information that’s gathered about normal citizens, we know how much they eat. How many hours they work. How their families live. About their housing blocks. About their group criticism sessions. We know how much volunteer labor they have to give to the squads. Etcetera. The mysterious people are in Pyongyang. They don’t tend to defect. They’re all underground. When you go to there, there’s no White House or Blue House. There’s no residence with Kim Jong-Il. He lives in an unseen place in the city. A lot of the big structures are underground. Probably because we bombed them so mercilessly during the Korean War. And there’s an underground society that exists. And we don’t know much about them at all. I saw cell phone towers when I was there, but not a single person on a phone. We have to assume they have the Internet, that they understand about the world, that they watch movies. They probably make international calls, even travel internationally. But because they don’t leave, because they don’t leave any trail, we just don’t know who they are. And what I tried to do in my book was maybe fulfill the human dimension of the normal people outside the city. And, by that I mean, in a place with such self-censorship, in a place where even being perceived to do something against your role in the state could cost you dearly, I wondered how normal people chose to share their inner thoughts. This was the imaginative part. A lot of the factual basis of the book is really accurate. But would a parent tell a child that he thought it was all a lie? Would he transmit that essential knowledge that he accumulated over a life?

Categories: Fiction

Sara Levine (BSS #437)

Sara Levine is most recently the author of Treasure Island!!!


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Seeking elusive parrot memoirs.

Author: Sara Levine

Subjects Discussed: Ways to state exclamation marks in conversation, unreliable narrators, verbal flair, taking qualities away from a character to create a voice, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, on Levine not believing that an author has a “real” voice, the academy perspective, unnamed protagonists (referred to as “UP” during the conversation), surrounding an unpleasant character with very nice people, how to separate an author’s viewpoint from a character’s unpleasant perspective, displaying items on tables, writing a book of short length, early drafts of Treasure Island!!!, being edited by Alice Sebold, parrots in heat, getting rid of fat jokes, stereotypical dialogue, American fiction that plays it safe, scabrous characters in contemporary fiction, political correctness and market conditions, creating family details, the inverse of a Facebook profile, placing the emphasis on ego, thinking of a book as a mindspace, not giving readers handles, Lydia Davis, the book’s Cymbeline-like ending, the endings of Victorian novels, four core values, author vs. character temperament, not being a good reader, Alain de Botton, “The Essayist is Sorry for Your Loss,” vocational experience, how to determine how to treat a parrot terribly, reading books about parrots, thinking about gender, living a life a certain way, and reading Stevenson biographies.


Correspondent: I’m not sure how we can say this while also respecting Stevenson. Shall we say Treasure Island Chk Chk Chk? Should we say Treasure Island — maybe Island with extra exuberance?

Levine: Yeah. I think it’s the exuberance I want.

Correspondent: Treasure [in high-pitched voice] Island!!! Something like that?

Levine: Yeah.

Correspondent: Okay. The author of Treasure [in high-pitched voice] Island!!! Sara Levine. How are you doing?

Levine: I’m fine. Thank you.

Correspondent: I’ll try to do less of that as the conversation progresses. But anyway, I wanted to first of all ask you about just what it takes to create such a winsome unlikable character and to perpetuate that for so long. How much do you feel is going over the line or enough? What do you need to do to invite the reader in to someone who is quite literally ineffable? There is no name for this character. So what of this? How does this start?

Levine: Well, how does it start? Or how do I do it? I guess those are the same.

Correspondent: How do you do it?

Levine: Well, I’ve always been interested in unreliable narrators. And part of what interests me is that there’s this gap between the narrator and the author, the implied author. And so I think what you have to do is vary that gap. If the character’s completely unlikable, despicable all the way through, the reader will toss the book aside. But I guess with this narrator, I thought, well, I’ll let her have a few things. I’ll take away compassion. I’ll take away generosity.

Correspondent: You took away quite a bit. (laughs)

Levine: Yeah, I took away a lot. But I will give her language. I will give her verbal flair. And I think that maybe that’s what keeps people interested.

Correspondent: Verbal flair? As opposed to the flair in Office Space. I mean, what do you mean by this?

Levine: Well, I just think she has a — I would say, a syntactically ambitious voice. It’s a very written book.

Correspondent: Taking qualities away. I mean, how did so many qualities get taken away over the course of this? I mean, is this just your inevitable reaction to generating conflict? To create someone who might even be described as sociopathic on some levels.

Levine: And has been. Well, you know, Stevenson himself had this idea about character formation. He said that it’s a kind of psychic surgery. And he described how he did Long John Silver, in fact. And he said, knife in hand, he thought about a friend of his. Henley. And then he cut away all his finer qualities. And left him with courage, but not much else. And I think that’s what I was interested in doing. Was taking somebody that I knew, but taking away those qualities that would help her on her passage. You know, for comic purposes.

Correspondent: So the verbal flair and the syntax — this is something of a buffer. This invites the reader into broaching someone who is just really unlikable normally, do you think?

Levine: I think. I mean, I think there has to be verbal energy there. She’s funny. If she weren’t funny, I don’t think it would be so fun to be in the company of someone like that.

Correspondent: So humor is the secret way with which to peer into these sordid human qualities.

Levine: Perhaps. Perhaps.

Correspondent: So really much of this was just really a way of keeping yourself entertained. That was really the m.o. for this book?

Levine: Well, yeah, and I’m also always interested in perception. What of my favorite parts of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is this tiny little part where the sister-in-law is talking about the money that her husband was supposed to leave to the girls. And within the course of one paragraph, although it’s third person, you watch her rationalize how they shouldn’t give the money to the girls. Maybe they’ll just give her some dishes. They’ll give them even the second best dishes. And so with this book, I think I was interested in rationalization and ego and certain psychological patterns. And so I wanted to let her be devious in ways. Ways that I think all people are devious. For the purposes of the story, she’s more devious than most.

Categories: Fiction