Sarah Polley (BSS #464)

Sarah Polley is most recently the writer and director of Take This Waltz. The film opens in select theaters on June 29, 2012.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if the chicken cookbook or the adulterous egg came first.

Guest: Sarah Polley

Subjects Discussed: Similarities between Away from Her and Take This Waltz, the need for daily sweeping romance, whether film can offer corrective responses to romantic fallacies, a culture becoming increasingly uncomfortable with emptiness, holding onto transgressive moments in cinematic narrative until the last possible minute, designing a house that correctly reflects the socioeconomic status of characters, gentrification and other developments in Toronto, Kubrick’s complaints about Woody Allen, the line between the real and the fantastical in Take This Waltz, 360 degree shots, circular motifs, writing scenes out of order, why Polley’s male characters react to very emotional developments with total calmness, Polley’s father, subconscious artistic choices rooted in childhood, anger and maturity, cinematic histrionics, Polley’s views on marriage, relationships depicted by young filmmakers, living with flawed human beings, why Polley isn’t doing so much acting these days, becoming braver, avoiding the same tricks, numerous visual metaphors in Take This Waltz, “Video Killed the Radio Star” as adulterous metaphor, words as betrayal, using heavyweight dramatic and comic actors, and Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman.


Correspondent: There is a line that Fiona says in the car in Away from Her. “I think people are too demanding. People want to be in love every single day. What a liability.” So Take This Waltz almost carries on with the extension of this idea, of the need for daily sweeping romance. But this film, it’s almost the complete opposite of a movie like Brief Encounter, where you suggest in this case that Margot’s adulterous desires are selfish and childish. The “I wuv you” at the very end of the movie. So I’m wondering. Do you see your two films as writer and director as corrective responses to this notion of romance? And how do you feel independent cinema is doing in depicting this more pernicious side of adulterous desires? Just to start out here.

Polley: Wow. That was amazing! I do feel like Away from Her and Take This Waltz are companion pieces to a certain extent. Even though they’re completely different films. I do think they are talking about the same thing in very different ways. I think that the line that Fiona says — “People want to be in love every single day. What a liability. People are too demanding.” — I do actually feel that. I feel like we have unrealistic expectations of our relationships. That they’re going to fulfill us at every moment and, if they don’t, there must be something wrong with them and we better go out and solve that. But I think that that’s a cultural thing and that we have that notion in almost every aspect of our lives. I think that we’re a culture that’s incredibly uncomfortable with emptiness, with feeling like life has a gap, with feeling like things aren’t perfect. And so we feel that if there’s something missing, that automatically means that there’s something wrong and we need to go out and fix it and we just need to make the right move in our lives and everything will somehow feel complete. And I think we constantly get shocked and blindsided by the fact that — I think that feeling of something new and missing and that emptiness does kind of follow us around a little bit. Or at least for periods of time. So, yeah, it’s funny that you brought up that line. Because I never really thought of the connection between that line and Take This Waltz. But I do actually think that Take This Waltz is an extension of that a little bit. And at the same time, I think I probably started writing the script a lot more judgmentally of the main character Margot than I ended up. I ended up feeling at the end of making the film that I empathized with all three characters. And that there were no heroes or villains.

Correspondent: Interesting.

Polley: While some of her choices seem immature or childish or self-involved, I think that enough people are connecting to her as a character and feeling quite defensive of her that it’s making me see her a lot more sympathetically as well.

Correspondent: It’s interesting that in both movies you keep that transgressive moment — and I don’t want to spoil either film — to the last possible minute. I think it’s in the last ten minutes of the first film and, in this, it’s perhaps the last twenty, twenty-five. And I’m wondering about sustaining that need to transgress from this seemingly stable relationship. Of some years too, by the way. It’s interesting that both marriages — the first is 44 years, the second is four or five years. So I’m wondering. Are you more interested in that period before one transgresses? Within this way of looking at these long-term relationships?

Polley: I think it’s the most cinematic part of a relationship like that. It’s before something actually happens. I think, in a way, all the deliciousness of that kind of relationship happens before anything happens. Also, it was important to me in this film that Margot not be someone who takes this lightly. Like she is somebody who deeply loves her husband. She is extremely tempted and brought to life by this other person. But she’s not someone who’s easily going to betray her husband or leave her husband. It’s really difficult for her. And, in fact, that makes that other situation even more tempting and even more alive.

Correspondent: I also wanted to ask you about the house, which intrigued me in a number of ways. First of all, we see the kitchen obsession that was in the first one repeats in this one, which I thought was actually quite interesting. But there is this interesting notion of Margot almost seeking the real space while also seeking the fantastical space. Because you see this moment where they’re both watching TV in this cramped office, which as a freelancer I can totally relate to. In fact, the way we watch TV at our house is actually quite similar to that. But you also then see the scale of where she goes open up over the course of the film. It starts with the pool. And then later on, we have the loft. And I’m wondering. Because their space is not exactly — I buy certain rooms. Yes, that’s exactly how a struggling freelance writer, or even a successful freelance writer, would probably have that kind of space. But on the other hand, well, that kitchen is rather large even if you are a moderately successful cookbook author. So I’m curious about how you designed this space with this tension between the real and the phantasmagorical, or the fantastical in mind.

Polley: So this is an interesting question. So Downtown Toronto, up until about ten or fifteen years ago in the area where these characters live.

Correspondent: Kensington Market, right? It’s sort of there.

Polley: Sort of Little Portugal, Italy. Ten years ago, when Margot and Lou would have bought that house, when it was still primarily a community of families. Generations of families would have actually been affordable with a considerable amount of debt to two fairly bohemian people. I have friends who bought houses then with absolutely no money, with a loan, and didn’t do renovations for years and years and years. And it fell apart for a little bit. But that would realistically be a house they could have bought. There’s no way those two characters could buy that house now. If the film was taking place ten years from now, there’s no way you would believe it.

Correspondent: Comparable to Brooklyn actually.

Polley: And the truth is they probably, realistically at this point in two years’ time, would have figured out the value of their house and sold it and made a lot of money. (laughs) But I think culturally it’s a weird thing in Toronto. Where there have been traditionally these downtown neighborhoods right in the urban core with pretty lovely, maybe rundown Victorian/Edwardian houses that were fairly affordable. That’s changed and it’s changing and that’s really sad. Because it means the demographics of who lives downtown is really changing as well.

Correspondent: So you have given this some thought. (laughs)

Polley: I have given it some thought. Because it is something that I noticed doesn’t quite translate. Like in every other country, people are like, “Those people could never afford that house.” And I want to go, “Yeah. Right now. But what was amazing ten years ago in Toronto was people like them could.”

Correspondent: It’s like Kubrick sneering at Woody Allen, saying, “There’s no way these people could live in these spacious apartments in New York.” Or a similar thing.

Polley: Exactly. Then it does get fantastical. To be fair, I feel that when we go to where they live in the end in this, in this giant loft space, then I think we do take it into the realm of fantasy a little bit. Although I feel like the way we designed that was as though it was like an abandoned loft on top of a building. Which again, I think those spaces were much more readily available ten years ago than they are now.

Correspondent: Well, this leads me to ask. The ending — and it’s hard to discuss without giving it away, so I’m going to do my best. But that notion of the fantastical that enters into it. When I watched this, I thought to myself, because I was so — God, you tested my morals. I was like, “Don’t do it!” I’m not going to say what happens. But when she is in that loft. And thanks for the equal opportunity, in terms of what happened.

Polley: (laughs)

Correspondent: I appreciated that little touch. But I thought that the movie had immediately transformed into a fantasy. And then it goes back into the real. And I’m wondering if at any point during the devising of this story if you actually did think that it was going to more of this whimsy into the fantasy. Or were you forced to combat certain feelings, the impulse to turn it into a fantasy at any point?

Polley: No. But I did want that sequence you’re talking about, where it’s…

Correspondent: Yes, the circular…

Polley: It’s a 360 degree shot that shows the progression of a sexual relationship in one shot. And there is something fantastical about that. And I didn’t shy away from that. There’s something contrived about it. There’s something strange and fantastical about it. And it is to show the passing of time in one long shot. And that was one of the first images I ever had for the film. So in a way, it’s out of place in the film. It all of a sudden breaks with the tone and the reality of the film. But I felt somehow that I could get away with it. And people disagree on that. Some people think I did get away with it. And some people didn’t.

Correspondent: I appreciated being tested.

Categories: Film

Jesmyn Ward (BSS #463)

Jesmyn Ward is most recently the author of Salvage the Bones.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Testing the limits of his fury towards the Bush family.

Author: Jesmyn Ward

Subjects Discussed: Smoothies, fruit, bad franchises, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, what it means to be a mother and a woman, Medea, America’s lack of mythology vs. Greek mythology, life within a poor community, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, an author’s responsibility to community, the regional limitations of contemporary American fiction, being made angry by comments relating to Katrina, Pat Robertson, Barbara Bush’s insensitive comments about Katrina, FEMA and Michael Brown, novels of ideas, the physicality of characters, sinewy muscles, stomachs in fiction, close third person vs. first-person perspective, bad models of womanhood in the natural world, language, China as an anagram of chain, words as tokens of physical identity, present stigmas against figurative language, collisional rhythm, Outkast and Deuteronomy, finding an incidental rhythm, when to resist feedback that gets in the way of a natural voice, violence in fiction, creating a ferocious and multidimensional dog in Salvage the Bones, being surprised by the middle, pit bulls, Manny as a conflict generator, the mysterious ghostly mother, Hemingway’s iceberg theory, sexuality and promiscuity, unstoppable emotional forces, not glossing over the truth, describing trees with limbs, paradisaical cesspools, keeping a natural environment alive, and finding the right details to depict impoverishment.


Correspondent: You have Esch reading this Edith Hamilton book, especially Medea. And you also point out near the end that mythology won’t entirely help you out in a fix. Esch says that she is stuck in the middle of the book. And aside from Hamilton, I have to ask, did you draw on any other inspirational mythology when you were creating this book? Was there a point when you abandoned mythology at all like Esch? I wanted to start off here from the origin.

Ward: That’s an interesting question. I didn’t draw from any other mythology. I don’t think. Greek mythology, that was the thing in this book. I think in my first book I did — well, if you consider some of the older tales in the Bible mythology. I drew from some of those in my first book.

Correspondent: Do you consider them mythology?

Ward: Well, they are tales that explain how the world became what it is. So in ways, I think it is. But did I use any other sorts of mythologies in this, in Salvage the Bones? I don’t know. I don’t think that I abandoned it. I think that mythology’s important to her because it’s helping her understand what it means to be a mother and what it means to be a woman. So therefore, like even though she turns away from it, she still can’t help but go before the storm. To come back to that story and read more of Medea. Because see, she’s searching. And in there, she’s found something. She can’t figure out what it is. But she’s found something.

Correspondent: But it’s interesting that you would have her cleave to mythology in America, which is a nation that is constantly in search of its own great mythology. The Great American Novel. We’re Number One. You name it. I’m wondering if this mythological concern was in some sense related to, well, whatever American identity that Esch and her family had.

Ward: Well, I think she feels very much like an outsider. I think that the culture that she is from, that she lives in a small world — you know, a poor black community. I mean, I feel like they think they’re outside of that. They exist outside of that American dream. And so, in ways, they have to look elsewhere. And Esch, particularly, she finds that she is even more isolated than that community that her family is. Because she’s this only girl who grows up in a world full of men. So she really has to look outside what is easily available to her or in front of her in order to find some sort of kinship.

Correspondent: This leads me to wonder. Have you read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful ForeversWard: No.

Correspondent: Because your book, on a fiction level, reminded me of this great journalism book. Which I think you would love and I’m just in total admiration of. It basically deals with this inner life of the people who are poor, who are collecting trash on the edge of Mumbai. And your book reminded me very much of this response to typical First World guilt or what not. That instead of actually pitying or looking down upon these people, your book is very much about giving all of these characters a great inner life. They do live. And it’s important to remember that they live. And I’m wondering where this impulse came from. Whether this idea of allowing Esch and her family to live was in some sense a way for you to counter any accusations of “Well, I’m responding to politics” and so forth.

Ward: Well, I think that I write about the kind of people that I grew up with, and the kind of people that are in my family and about the place that I’m from. I mean, I’m from a poor rural Southern community that — at least in my part of the community, which is mostly black. And you know, our family’s been there for generations. And I have a very large extended family. I’m related to almost everyone in my town. And so, for me, it’s like writing about the people that I’m writing about — you know, I feel that it’s a responsibility. Because I’m writing about my people. Even though my path is very different from most of the people I grew up with, I still consider myself — you know, that’s still my place. And those are still my people. So for me, that’s what this is. I don’t feel like an outsider. I feel like an insider who’s speaking out for the rest of the people inside my group.

Correspondent: Sure. I totally understand that. Do you think that this is going to be how it’s going to be for your fiction career? That you have to respond to this responsibility of speaking for this group of people? Because nobody else will. Or, in fact, one might argue that maybe American fiction, or regional American fiction, isn’t actually hitting that particular territory. What do you think of this?

Ward: I mean, I think that for the foreseeable future, as far as my writing life is concerned, I intend to write about the place and the people that I come from. Because part of the reason that I do so — I mean, part of the reason that I wanted to write about Katrina is because I was uncomfortable and made angry by the way that I heard others speak about people who didn’t evacuate from the storm. About people who stayed. About poor people who were caught in the maw of that storm. And I wanted to write against that. And so in a way, I do think that the voices of the people that I write about, or even just the people that I write about, that they’ve been absent in the conversation, in the national conversation. And that’s part of what I’m trying to do by writing about them. Introduce their voices into the conversation so that people pay attention and people aren’t so quick to write them off as worthless or stupid or all the other crazy things that I heard after Hurricane Katrina.

Correspondent: Are there specific things that really pissed you off?

Ward: Well, I heard this one woman. She’s from Atlanta too, which is close enough. It’s six hours away from where I live. And she said that the reason that Hurricane Katrina had hit us and done so much damage is because we were sinful. That we were in a sinful place. Like, for her, it was very much about — you know, she was approaching it from a religious standpoint.

Correspondent: The Pat Robertson-like charge.

Ward: Yeah.

Correspondent: “Well, they brought it onto themselves.”

Ward: Yeah. So we deserved it because of our proclivity for gambling and drinking and all the rest. And then other people that I encountered said that, one, they couldn’t understand why people stayed. Why people would stay and try to survive a hurricane like that. And, two, that they didn’t understand why people would return and try to rebuild. Because what’s the point if global warming just means that there are going to be more storms, there are going to be just as powerful as Katrina and more of them are going to hit that part of the United States. And that comment really made me angry. Because that person was from L.A.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Ward: That person was from California, which has its own.

Correspondent: These bicoastal buffoons.

Ward: So I just heard commentary like that. And it just made me really angry. And I wanted to counter those. I really felt that our voices were absent from that. Especially that conversation. You had what’s her name. It’s Bush’s mother. Remember when she said that crazy stuff?

Correspondent: Barbara Bush.

Ward: Yeah. About the people from New Orleans. Like this was like a vacation for them. Because they got to go ahead and stay in the Astrodome. Like really? Are you serious? Just so far removed from the reality of these people’s lives and their struggles. Just so far removed. Comments like that just made me realize how, when people said them, it’s like they didn’t recognize our humanity at all. And that really made me angry, and made me want to address Hurricane Katrina in the book.

Correspondent: Well, this seems as good a time as any to confess to you, Jesmyn, that at the point where they are scrambling for their boiled eggs and their packages of ramen, and there is of course the depiction of the carton of bones in the fridge — and then they say, “Oh, well, FEMA and Red Cross will help us out.” At that point, I thought I had a maximum level of anger towards Bush and Brown. And then I read that. And I became even more furious towards them.

Ward: (laughs)

Correspondent: And you’re talking here about anger. And you’re talking about it in a very calm manner. And this book is extremely focused, I would say. So what did you do to not get so caught up in this understandably furious impulse and actually focus in on the book? Was it really the inner life of these characters that was enough for you to counter any socioeconomic, political responsive bullshit?

Ward: I think so. Because I feel that my book will fail if my characters are not alive on the page. There have been great novels of ideas, right? But, for me, the kind of writer that I am, I can’t write those novels. And I don’t think that they would be successful novels.

Correspondent: Why do you think you can’t write a novel of ideas? Or that the ideas are best represented in the environment that you set down?

Ward: I don’t know. It’s just not my style. What comes naturally to me is telling a story that’s invested in people and in the characters, and making them live on the page.

Categories: Fiction

Elizabeth L. Cline (BSS #462)

Elizabeth L. Cline is most recently the author of Overdressed.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Rubbing his hands over a personal project: a tequila haul video now in development.

Author: Elizabeth L. Cline

Subjects Discussed: The disposability of clothes, why so many clothes at the Quincy Street Salvation Army gets thrown away, fast fashion industries eyeballing China, comparisons between the fashion industry and the food industry, selling high volume product for low prices, Forever 21’s markup, Vebelenian consumption and free choice, the psychology of cheap, the haul video phenomenon, Dan Ariely’s behavioral economics, discomfort with the clothes that you’re wearing, being an “expert consumer,” Sex and the City, wanting quantity over quality, overconsumption, buying cheap items that fall apart, H&M’s addictive qualities, a 2011 Well-Spent comment thread with consumers and fashion designer Eunice Lee, what remains of domestic manufacturing, consumer price expectations, unemployment and the collapse of the garment and textile industries, how the increased price of labor in China has affected the U.S. manufacturing base, Dalma Dress Manufacturing Company, Michael DiPalma’s “labor is labor,” the Dynotex factory in Greenpoint, domestic gown markets being pushed into the luxury gowns, finding the compromise between a luxury gown and mass-production, Levi closing its last U.S. factory in 2003, the new definition of “high-end,” premium denim produced in Los Angeles, very small Los Angeles factories vs. very large Chinese factories, playing the blame game, frustrated fashion designers, the bottom line of budget fashion chains, why H&M pins the blame on consumers, the Hubbert’s Peak of fashion, new efforts to hook Chinese consumers on disposable fashion, the impact of NAFTA and the expiration of the Multi Fibre Agreement, massive imports of Chinese cotton trousers, garment protectionist measures, the unskilled labor market, spinning heads, New York’s crackdown on soft drink sizes, the cultural impact of Michelle Obama wearing a Target dress, the Slow Clothing Movement, Kate Middleton being chided for wearing the same dress twice, the rampant copying within the fashion industry, the Design Piracy Protection Act, low wages paid to Chinese workers, the impact of labor exploitation on fashion, encouraging people to sew, traveling seamstresses, and raising an army of fashion alterers.


Cline: I would say we’ve got a First Lady who is running around bragging about the fact that she wears Target and people applaud her for that. And our garment industry declined. We made 50% of our clothes here in 1990. And now we make between 2 and 3%. So the fact that we have someone in office and we’re clapping whenever they wear imported clothing. And then you’ve got this flip side reality of giving away an entire industry. That to me is what is perhaps most shocking in this situation. I mean, there are other kinds of consequences of cheap fashion. But, for me, a lot of it comes down to what’s happened to the economy. And I talk about in the book how the clothing industry is a good economic indicator. It’s like, if there’s not a middle market in the fashion industry, that usually means that there’s not a middle-class in society. And we saw this in the 1920s as well. The ready-to-wear market was split between high-end and super cheap. And that’s because there were really rich people. So when you see the fashion industry without a middle market, that’s usually a good sign that there’s not a middle-class. And the two are so tied together, it’s kind of scary.

Correspondent: You were chiding me earlier about seeking someone to point the finger at. But it seems to me that you’re doing the same thing by saying, “Wow, we now celebrate the fact that Michelle Obama wears Target.” Only fifteen years before, we would point the finger at Kathie Lee Gifford and say, “You complete hypocrite. You’re producing this clothing line and these kids are doing backbreaking labor to provide you with your clothes.” Obviously, we’ve advanced far along the lines in a matter of fifteen to twenty years. Do we have to punish someone to actually solve the problem? Do we have to find a scapegoat? Or is there a more constructive, less vigilante mob way with which to encourage consumers to use whatever rights they still have to not opt for disposable clothing? Perhaps something along the lines of The Slow Clothing Movement that you outline at the end of this book. Or perhaps encouraging people — even people who are bad with sewing machines like myself — to go ahead and replace their particular clothes.

Cline: I mean, I think that people are in the spotlight, whether it’s someone like Kate Middleton, who’s always in the news because she wore the same thing twice in ten days. I think that that does as much for the issues that I’m talking about as a book like mine does. Just because she’s such a high-profile person. And Michelle Obama, the reason why I single her out is because her fashion has probably been the most talked about aspect of her reign, if you will, as First Lady. And people take their cues from her. She is reinforcing this high/low dichotomy that we’ve got in the fashion industry now. What you’re supposed to do, according to the fashion magazines, is you splurge on your Louis Vuitton bag, but then you wear a Target dress. And that’s American fashion. That’s considered American fashion now. Where is any of that made? And why did you overpay for a pocketbook? And why did you underpay for a dress? That’s not helping anything.

Correspondent: There’s also one interesting thing that I didn’t really know about until I read your book. And that is this fascinating copyright problem in the fashion industry. I mean, it makes total sense once you lay it on the line. Of course, there have been spies at fashion shows. But we’re dealing with an industry in which everybody copies everybody and there is no absolute control over this. You point out Ralph Lauren’s quote, that he owes his career to forty-five years of copying. There isn’t copyright protection. Tom Ford, Guy Trebay even had to confess that there would be no fashion if you adopted legal rules. Now you have the Internet today. You have high-def cameras that are instantly taking in any fashion show, any exposition. You have tailors on the ready, ready to reproduce whatever it is that is being made somewhere else in the world. And that to me is absolutely fascinating. It’s a magnificent counterfeit industry. There were efforts to pass varying versions of the Design Piracy Prohibition Act. They didn’t take, however. And what was interesting about that is that with the bill’s supporters, a few of them were actually caught copying clothes made by independent designers. I thought that was hilarious. I’m wondering. Are there any signs right now in 2012 — it’s been a while since you wrote the book, maybe about a year or so — are there any signs now that this additional copying has had a drastic effect on the fashion industry? That it’s actually becoming more a problem? Or are things relatively stable? And how does this compare to some of the globalization concerns we were just talking about?

Cline: I think copying is a problem. Because it feeds this surplus of clothing. I mean, copying is what creates trends, right? Trends sell fashion today. So it just enables this speeding up of the fashion industry. So it’s like, even if you’re not copying exactly, if you’re copying something almost exactly — and every store does that. So this copyright protection bill that’s moving through Congress is really only going to eliminate exact copies. Exact replicas. And that should happen. But that’s not really going to stop the fact that you can change a button or a stripe or something and then that’s totally fine. So my whole point in bringing that up was that all these retailers are looking at each other and copying each other, and the system is just moving forward faster and faster and faster because of that.

Correspondent: But, Elizabeth, the fashion information wants to be free.

Cline: (laughs) It does. It does. You know, when I was in China, a lot of the factories there, they would — I would go into a sample room, which is where they have all the designs that they’ve made hanging up on a rack. And they would take something off the rack and be like, “Do you want us to copy this?” That’s how easy it is. And one time that happened, it was actually a Forever 21 garment. Which I thought was hilarious. I was like, okay, I’m being given the opportunity to rip off the ultimate ripoff artist. Because I went undercover as a garment buyer. I guess I should have said that at the beginning. So they were trying to sell me designs. And it can happen on that level. But it can also be as easy as someone in the U.S. in a design office emailing a photo to the factory and the factory just copies it there. It’s so easy to do now. And Forever 21 copying these other companies’ stores that copy designers, I think it’s really mostly a threat right now to independent desginers, as you were saying. I really try and support independent designers. And they’re having a hard time. Because consumers think that their price points is too high. Because they don’t understand the ways and the mechanisms of the fashion industry. But they’re also like, “Why wouldn’t I just go to Forever 21 and get it for $20 instead?”

Correspondent: We should really talk about some of what you observed in China. Especially the labor exploitation and so forth. You say in the book that they have these facilities that they offered, and your impression was that this was part of the whole drill whenever any American comes to visit. Do you feel that you got a sufficiently accurate idea of what was going on there? What do you feel is the takeaway, laborwise, from what you saw?

Cline: I actually decided when I knew I was going to write the book that I wasn’t going to write a sweatshop book. Because so many of them have been written. And I feel that people know more or less what’s going on. That I didn’t really have a whole lot to contribute to that story. I was really there to see how the business side operates. And absolutely, I think I got an accurate reflection. Because there was no reason for them to hide those things from me. What I would say about the labor conditions is that the fashion industry has been in the spotlight now for almost twenty years for labor abuses overseas. Domestically, going back to 1911. So the factories in China that I saw — and again they knew I was an American; I’m sure I was shown the better factories — were clearly products of a lot of, I guess I would say, cleanup. Because people are really afraid of getting busted for sweatshops now. Compared to American factories, the Chinese factories are very clean. Very organized. They have the latest machinery. All the fire exits are properly marked. There are fire extinguishers on the walls. So that kind of stuff, they’ve got their ducks in a row. And you can really tell that they’ve had to do that in order to do business with the West. I think instead of people looking for really extreme examples of human rights violations, they should concentrate on the wages being paid to these people. And in the garment industry, that’s poverty wages everywhere, except for in the West. So to me, that’s what’s not acceptable. I mean, you can pay someone the minimum wage in China and that’s a poverty wage. And that’s perfectly legal. That would not be considered a sweatshop story. But that’s the reality.

Correspondent: So how do we get some of these young women who make these haul videos to understand that there is tremendous poverty attached to what they get to enjoy at an H&M or any one of these particular stores?

Cline: I would like to think that people, especially people of the generation behind me — I’m 31 — a lot of them are already conscientious consumers that care about the environment and they care about human rights. But it’s like they need to be given a way to vote with their dollars. For example, if H&M had a fair trade section or a living wage tag on some of their clothes, I think that they would support that. So I think that hopefully, with a book like mine, more stories will come out. And they’ll start to say, “Go to these retailers” and “Hey! I like the designs. I want to keep shopping here. But you guys have really got to do more to earn my loyalty.”

Correspondent: I am fascinated by the idea that everything has become more disposable. That it’s a matter of buying something. It’s not going to last. And it’s going to be thrown away. And we were alluding earlier that one of the solutions to this is encouraging people to sew, to fix up their footwear, to fix up their clothes. On the other hand, I look to something like that and I say to myself, “Well, aside from the fact that sewing a button for me is something equivalent to Euclidean geometry…”

Cline: (laughs)

Correspondent: I can do it! But it takes a long time. There’s also the time factor. If I want to go ahead and fix up clothes, let’s say that’s ten hours of my time. If I value my time at $15 an hour, that’s $150. I could easily go to a store and instantly pay less for my time. What fundamentally needs to change in order to get us into this durability mode? Is there any kind of natural place for us to stop short of all of us wearing cardboard clothes or something? Or stuff made out of paper that’s going to fall apart? I guess, the no iron shirts would be close to that, right?

Cline: I know. It’s amazing how everything’s wrinkle free. You don’t have to do anything. It’s just bionic at this point. But sewing is definitely not about saving yourself time or even really about durability. People are getting back into sewing because it’s satisfying. And it’s not for everyone. But the people who do it love it because it’s just a way to connect with your clothes. We live our lives in clothes. So I don’t think it’s that surprising that people are looking for ways to interact with it in a more satisfying or meaningful way. And sewing is one way to do that. And I certainly do not have the skill. I will never be able to make most of what I wear. But I do enjoy being able to alter and tailor the things that I wear, and customize the things that I wear. And I think that that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to expect more people to get into. Just because it feels good. And it makes you like your clothes better. It honestly does.

Correspondent: So what we really need is an army of fashion alterers to go around and knock on people’s doors and say, “Are you happy with your clothes? We can alter these clothes to fit you for a small, modest fee.” And then people realize, “Oh! Well, I like these clothes better!” Maybe this is part of the solution? Maybe this is the way to durability?

Cline: Yes.

Correspondent: I think we have an idea here!

Cline: I just found out about a traveling seamstress in Williamsburg.

Correspondent: Really?

Cline: I was like, “Thank you!” Because I’m really lazy. Come to my house and fix everything of my own.

Correspondent: (laughs) So we have to bring the seamstresses and the tailors — it will be like how the old doctors used to show up to your home for in-house appointments. I guess this is the way to do it?

Cline: Maybe that will be my next career move.

Categories: Ideas

Emily St. John Mandel (BSS #461)

Emily St. John Mandel is most recently the author of The Lola Quartet.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Considering a new career as a sake mangler.

Author: Emily St. John Mandel

Subjects Discussed: Starting a novel from a comic place, Kafka, cornball jokes, never knowing how a book is going to end, Jayson Blair, trusting emotional instincts and finding a fun arena, starting off with a hook, money strapped to a baby carriage, numerous characters who shift their identity, the “mushy middle” problem, switching points of view to hold interest, E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, writing what you know, the risks of exquisite expertise, uncovering systems (real estate and trafficking), how a novel emerges from what Mandel happens to be reading, The Wire, straying from the path of curiosity, the inevitability of errors in fiction, car culture, A Clockwork Orange, how driving affects urban perception, Guy Debord, walking, finding a concrete narrative schedule out of chaos, disastrous offices, hard-core revision, the freedom of not knowing where you’re going, working out messy sentences, the difficulties of writing about sixteen-year-old girls, learning about people by reading their blogs, being an observer, trying to determine how to make a fake passport for research, not writing about people you know, compulsive behavior, seeking revenge and understanding in fiction, failed newspapermen, the diminished men throughout Mandel’s fiction, getting inside heads, Gina Frangello’s influence on The Lola Quartet, attempts to write characters with a singular identity, introspective writing, avoiding autobiography, memoir in the digital age, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, being abducted by the Taliban vs. First World problems, confessing details to friends, how people forget that their digital details are shared with an audience, safe places to express emotions, Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, maintaining privacy and authenticity, Cory Arcangel’s “working on my novel” project, Foursquare, the burdens of party culture, time management, Freedom, characters whose hands shake, depicting behavior in fiction through shorthand description, metaphorical vampirism, heat strokes, intemperate climate, Dark Shadows, inventing a fashion style for an investigator, longing for an older age with more elegance, mutual efforts to introduce “dequirkify” into the English language, the Sasaki name and cultural names, beverage cues in intense social situations, physicality in fiction, trying not to repeat tropes, characters on the run, statute of limitations on mining from personal experience, dance, and what the Internet is for.


Mandel: You know, I make a lot of stuff up. I don’t really feel like I’m an expert in any of these subjects. I’ll read the initial article. It will fascinate me. I’ll read some more online. I’ll follow some links. But I assume I’ve made enormous errors in all three books. Some of them I know about. I found out that there was a real Sebastian, Florida that was in a different part of the state. That was kind of embarrassing, but on the other hand…

Correspondent: It’s fiction!

Mandel: It’s fiction.

Correspondent: It’s fiction. Exactly.

Mandel: Yeah. And there’s a car that doesn’t exist in Last Night in Montreal.

Correspondent: Which car?

Mandel: You know, it’s funny. It shows why you should always Google everything. I had these vivid childhood memories of our family’s first car being in a blue Ford Valiant. And that memory was so strong that I didn’t bother to look it up. It turns out the Valiant is made by Chrysler.

Correspondent: I see.

Mandel: So, you know, eight or ten people have helpfully pointed that out.

Correspondent: On the other hand…

Mandel: It’s fiction. (laughs)

Correspondent: Look, I will always remember the Durango 95 from Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Or rather the cinematic version of it. It just, for whatever reason, leaves a huge thumb out. And it’s possibly more real than any car I’ve driven in my life.

Mandel: Right.

Correspondent: Well, that’s quite interesting. I mean, speaking of cars, I wanted to ask you about the one common metaphor I’ve seen in the last two books. The trail of red taillights. And it pops up in this one again!

Mandel: Oh, does it?

Correspondent: It does.

Mandel: Oh, you’re right. I had taillights disappearing down Park Avenue at the same exact time. I completely forgot about that.

Correspondent: I’m wondering. You know, I was going to ask you about this. Should any writer repeat an image that is fond to her over the course of several books? What do you think about this?

Mandel: I think they probably should. And I think I did that by accident.

Correspondent: Okay. Well, what is it about the taillights that draws you?

Mandel: You know, there’s something beautiful about them. It’s a little wistful. We’re all going away.

Correspondent: Do you own a car?

Mandel: I do not. No, I’ve never learned how to drive.

Correspondent: But cars clearly are an interest of yours, I would think.

Mandel: To some extent. Cars are more — it’s more that they’re a little bit inevitable when you’re writing books that are set outside major cities. You have to move your characters around somehow.

Correspondent: I totally skimmed over the most interesting part. You never learned how to drive.

Mandel: I never did.

Correspondent: Really?

Mandel: No. So in Canada. I’m not sure if it’s the same here. You get your driver’s license at 16.

Correspondent: Yeah. Same here.

Mandel: So when I was sixteen, I didn’t really have access to a car. Because my parents used their cars all the time for their work. And then when I was eighteen, I moved to Toronto. So at that point, I was 3,000 miles away in a major city with a transit system. And I’ve just lived in big cities ever since. So it’s never really been a desire or an opportunity.

Correspondent: It hasn’t been a desire?

Mandel: It hasn’t been a desire.

Correspondent: I mean, I only drive if I have to go from city to city. But going on that road trip and cranking up music and going 90 miles per hour down a highway is a wonderful sensation.

Mandel: Right.

Correspondent: You’re missing out, Emily!

Mandel: But I love being a passenger in those situations. My husband…

Correspondent: Yeah. But driving, you have control. (laughs)

Mandel: That’s an excellent point. Maybe for the next book tour, I should. (laughs)

Correspondent: Okay. Well, that’s interesting. So you have no desire to get behind the wheel. I mean, this must affect your view of cities and your view of places. Do you think?

Mandel: To some extent.

Correspondent: We can go all Guy Debord if you like.

Mandel: Right.

Correspondent: I know you’re a big walker and so forth.

Mandel: I am.

Correspondent: Do you feel that not driving or not having a desire to drive gives you a connection with a place that hard-core driving does not? Have you thought about this?

Mandel: That’s interesting. I haven’t thought about that. You know, I’m not crazy about car culture. I grew up in a very rural place. You needed a car to get anywhere. And I visited a few cities where you needed a car to get anywhere. And it makes your life so inactive in a way. You know, I know a lot of people whose only real activity is going from home to the car and then from the car into the office. And vice versa at the end of the day. And I just prefer to be more — I don’t want to imply that they’re not engaged people in the world. But my preferred form of engagement with the world is doing a lot of walking and being out among people.

Correspondent: And the reading time on the subway too.

Mandel: Yeah. Exactly.

Categories: Fiction

Alison Bechdel III (BSS #460)

Alison Bechdel is most recently the author of Are You My Mother? She has previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #63 and The Bat Segundo Show #250.


[PROGRAM NOTE: Because this show is so unusual, we feel compelled to offer some helpful cues. At the 7:42 mark, Our Correspondent stops tape. He then offers an explanation for why he did this. At 8:09, the conversation with Ms. Bechdel continues. And then at the 40:34 mark, shortly after hearing some unexpected news from Ms. Bechel, Our Correspondent loosens an outraged “What?” that is surely within the highest pitch points in this program’s history.]

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if his false self is good enough.

Author: Alison Bechdel

Subjects Discussed: Attempting to ratiocinate on four hours of sleep, Virginia Woolf’s diary entries, Virginia Woolf’s photography, To the Lighthouse as surrogate psychotherapy, Woolf’s “glamour shoot” for Vogue, not doing enough research, attempts by Bechdel to “get her mother out of her head,” the memoir and finding the true self, Donald Winnicott, not being “well-read,” reading Finnegans Wake in a closet, not reading John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates, guilt for not reading everything, encroaching mortality, working a double shift of writing and drawing, only reading the stuff you want to use, “Alison in Between,” tinting skin with retouching ink, tinting much of Are You My Mother? in pink, the futility of writing in a word processing document, comics as a language, ambiguity in comics, Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, Bechdel’s mother disappearing into a plexiglass dome, depicting origin points of what Bechdel writes and what Bechdel illustrates, living and writing from a place of shame, aggression and psychotherapy, writing about another person as a violation of their subjectivity, Bechdel’s mother’s tendency to read everything as a personal yardstick, how Donald Winnicott to organize one’s life into a book, Bechdel’s desires to cure herself, Bechdel transcribing her mother’s conversations, difficulties in recreating conversations, Bechel’s “apprentice fiction,” vigorous nonfictional expanse, how Love Life turned into Are You My Mother?, Bechdel going to great lengths to avoid the story about her mother, the difficulties of constantly writing about your life, the connections between writing and living, protection from outside voices, Bechdel’s shifting views on herself as an artist, becoming a secret writer, “literary situations,” the strange transformation of cartooning in recent years, how cartooning and other genres have been co-opted as “literature” after being ignored, artistic liberation and oppression, the risks of mainstreaming culture, Samuel R. Delany, being hypocritical progressives on Occupy May Day, the new obligations of artists to a corporate infrastructure, Susan Cain’s Quiet, introverts, obnoxious journalists pushing for personal details, flogging and pimping, the risks of putting yourself up front, being confessional without revealing much, Chester Brown’s Paying for It, Marc Maron’s interview with Matt Graham, telling all on Facebook, Bechdel’s teaching, Roland Barthes’s autobiography, how memoir subsists in a tell-all age, Foursquare, contemplation and narrative nuances, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, “the great Internet crackhouse,” Google searches and happenstance, the rabbit holes that emerge when you’re looking for something simple, Hope and Glory, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, why World War II is an emotional trigger point for Bechdel, therapy and First World problems, Bechdel’s mother’s artistic life, palling around with Dom Deluise, ripping off Keats, the mother’s face as the precursor of the mirror, and whether any author can see herself in a memoir.


Bechdel: I need to have pictures to make the kind of associative leaps that get me through my ideas, that get me through to some kind of conclusion. When I was writing Fun Home, I felt like I had to explain why it was a comic book. Like, oh, there was lots of powerful visual images from my childhood. I grew up in this ornate house. It was important to show that. But I don’t think that’s true. I think I was just trying to accommodate, just trying to make an excuse for why I decided it to be a comic book. But I don’t feel like I need to make that excuse anymore. Comics is a language that I’m learning to be more fluent in. And it helps me to make arguments and arrive at revelations.

Correspondent: As you become more fluent in the language of comics, has it become more ambiguous in some way? Has the ambiguity of the grammar and the language that you have staked your claim on been of help in exploring the ambiguities of life and the ambiguities of some life that is presented on the page?

Bechdel: I feel like I’m always trying to push the distance between the text and the image, the stories that are being described and the scenes and the narration that’s running over it. I’m trying to stretch that as far as I can without losing the reader’s attention. But I love that distance. And I think something powerful can happen in that distance.

Correspondent: Such as what do you think?

Bechdel: Well…

Correspondent: Is there a moment in this book where you felt that you hit that particular power?

Bechdel: Oh, I think of that Dr. Seuss spread, which was a purely visually driven sequence. I’m talking about one of my favorite childhood books, which was Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book.

Correspondent: The Plexiglass Dome and all that.

Bechdel: The Plexiglass Dome. With my first therapist, I would always describe my mother as having this plexiglass dome. Like at 9:00 at night, she would disappear in plain sight under this invisible dome, where she would smoke and read and no one could talk to her. She was off duty for the night. And I didn’t realize this. But looking through Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, the phrase “plexiglass dome” is right there. And it describes this little creature who lives inside a big dome watching everyone else in the world and touting them on a big chart. It’s hard for me even to talk about this stuff. Because I kind of need the visuals. And I think visually.

Correspondent: I’ve got it right here. (hands over the book)

Bechdel: Okay. (flipping through book) But when I was looking at this illustration as an adult, it just was immediately obvious to me that this dome was in the shape of a pregnant…

Correspondent: Pregnant uterus.

Bechdel: It even has a little door that says KEEP OUT. And this is just a sequence of ideas I never would have gotten at without pictures. I’m able to trace its origins in my own childhood drawings. And I’m able to project this metaphorical connection with the womb and my own desire for that kind of primal oneness with my mother that has been forever sundered. But that was visually driven. I couldn’t have come up with that without pictures and visual metaphors.

Correspondent: It’s interesting to me that the origin point very often of what you read is depicted more than the origin point of what you illustrate, or even what you write. I think of the infamous drawing that you do on the bathroom floor in this.

Bechdel: (laughs) Oh god.

Correspondent: A doctor examining a girl. We don’t actually see this. But what’s fascinating is that we actually do see a page of a memoir, a fragment that you wrote, with your mother’s red inkings all over it. Except that is occluded by all these textual boxes of Alison in the present day.

Bechdel: Yeah. My narration overlaying it.

Correspondent: So my question is: why didn’t you portray that drawing in an explicit way? Did you feel that you were more driven by words as a way to find the track here?

Bechdel: Well, sometimes, it’s more powerful not to show an image. In that case, maybe it was a cop out. But I really didn’t have the original image.

Correspondent: Yes, there’s that.

Bechdel: My mother had thrown it out. And I couldn’t replicate my child’s drawing without seeing the original. But that was just a cop out. I was very relieved I didn’t have it. Because I wouldn’t want to show that. It was just — that chapter was so difficult to write. Just revealing that childhood sexual fantasy was excruciating. I was living in just a horrible pit of shame for months as I was working on that chapter. For all of these chapters, whatever old dark emotion I was writing about — shame or depression or grief. All of that would take over my life during the period I was writing about it in a very uncomfortable and disconcerting way.

Correspondent: Is shame a source of comfort for you? I mean, I’m sure not everything here was written in shame. I mean, to my mind, I really like the therapy sessions. Because you draw yourself as just being super-excited to confess. More so, I think. We see the Alison in the therapy sessions. She’s like, “Yes! I’m going ahead and getting my aggression out!” And all this. Aggression, I suppose, or delight must have fueled this in some way. You can’t exclusively draw from a sense of shame to really confront something.

Bechdel: No. There was a whole range of different emotions. And the realization of my aggression was a great breakthrough. Something that I think enabled me to push through and finish writing Fun Home, my first memoir, and that I had to tap into again for this memoir. But my mother — it was a terribly aggressive act. Writing about any real person is such a violation of their subjectivity.

Correspondent: Well, how do you go ahead and honor your mother either during or after this book? I mean, she did review a good deal of it — at least if I’m going by the book here.

Bechdel: Yeah, she did. Well, you know, I feel lucky to have such an interesting and smart mother who cares about writing. Maybe my whole putting myself down about how little I’ve read is like a mother issue. Because my mother reads voraciously. She’s read much more than I do. She keeps up with all the criticism. She reads the London Review of Books. She reads a lot. And I could never stack up to that. So I guess I have to just keep whining about that in public.

Correspondent: But why should that even matter at this point? I mean, that’s the thing that fascinates me. I mean, if this book was your own To the Lighthouse, to free yourself of your mother, I mean, here we are talking about books and I’m like, “Well, Alison, at this point, you have nothing to worry about.” I would think. From a reading standpoint.

Bechdel: All right.

Correspondent: Even considering the mortality thing, which I totally understand. But I think you’re perfectly erudite as it is. You’re certainly more erudite than most Americans, I would say.

Bechdel: I’ll just have to settle for that, I guess.

Correspondent: Settle for that? Why? I mean, why not just be? We were talking about the true self in this, right? What about the true self of the Alison right here?

Bechdel: Maybe it’s just that I used to read so much as a child and I don’t read at that same pace. So I feel that I’m not living up to my image of myself.

Correspondent: Is this the same for drawing? And for art? And for illustration and all that? Do you feel that you’re holding yourself up to any yardstick? Or is it really just…

Bechdel: No, I feel pretty good about my drawing output.

Correspondent: I actually wanted to as you about a number of situations in this book where words are often operating on a different track than the life that is unfolding that you were depicting. I’m thinking, of course, of the “ersatz” argument with your mother while you’re going through Winnicott. Lying in bed with a book, as you have Eloise trying to tell you something that is very vital. And you’re just there with your book. Your mother patching your jeans while you discover the Jungian mother archetype.

Bechdel: Yeah. Those are some scenes where I feel like I really am pushing on that distance and asking a lot of the reader to follow my story, but also listen to my little essayistic digression. And I never quite know if that’s going to work. I hope that it does. Often, it’s sort of a plane to the thing. I’ll try to have a really interesting, compelling scene unfolding in the foreground so that the reader has some patience for these less related thoughts.

Correspondent: Is it a way of compartmentalizing yourself? To come to grips with certain truths? To decide what you’re going to put down and what you’re not going to put down?

Bechdel: No. I’m not sure what it is though. I can’t think of a counterargument to that.

Correspondent: Well, how does someone like [Donald] Winnicott help you in organizing your life?

Bechel: Oh man. Well, Winnicott helped me in organizing the book. But I knew from the beginning that I was fascinated with him, that I wanted to learn more about his ideas. But I didn’t know for quite some time that I would actually use him as some kind of structuring device. Each chapter in the book is organized on a different one of his pivotal theories. So he organized the book. But also I feel like I was trying to vicariously be analyzed by Winnicott. I wanted to be his patient. And so I did that through reading his work. And I haven’t actually thought about this explicitly. And this is the first time I’m trying this out. But I’m creating this attenuated analysis with Winnicott. Comparing myself to other case studies that he talks about. The famous Piggle case of the little girl he worked with. Who was just about my age. And I sort of identify myself with this child. With other people in case studies. Like in his mind and the psyche-soma paper, he talks about a middle-aged woman who just never felt like she was really alive or really present in his life. And I identify myself with her. And through his patients, I’m trying to cure myself.

Correspondent: Cure yourself? Or find points of comparison? Just to have a guide here?

Bechdel: I want to cure myself.

Correspondent: Cure yourself?

Bechel: I’m always trying to cure myself.

Correspondent: Is anybody completely curable? Are you completely curable?

Bechdel: No. But I would like to be more cured.

Categories: Ideas