Category : Fiction
Category : Fiction
Andrew Shaffer is most recently the author of Fifty Shames of Earl Grey.
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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Being seduced through parody.
Author: Andrew Shaffer
Subjects Discussed: Pen names and impostors, romance novel writing aspirations, having multiple identities on Twitter (EvilWylie, EmperorFranzen, et al), dressing up to tweet, the advantages of kilts, compiling indices for books, delaying the first six scene in Fifty Shames of Earl Grey to match Fifty Shades of Grey, people who count the number of phrases in Fifty Shades, when copy editors don’t understand cultural references, battling editors over dinosaurs, the number of pescatarians in New York, when pescatarians cause confusion in communal dining environments, eating meat, copulating with parts of the face, the joys of using euphemisms, naming private parts after Katy Perry and James Franco, combing through the original Fifty Shades, the thematic obsessions of E.L. James, needless shame attached to BDSM, Star Trek, geek culture, Twilight, fan fiction, 69-sided dice, designing a T-shirt promoting for a book before writing a book, Roger Corman’s marketing techniques, book merchandise, appropriate gestures for world domination, trying to be a Philip Roth-like novelist in your twenties, trying to challenge youthful angst from a 60-year-old man’s vantage point, Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love, reading the collected works of Andrew Shaffer in the bathroom, departing from Twitter on the weekend, the side effects of working at home, finding positive aspects about Fifty Shades, fibbing to agents, the escalating commercial success of Fifty Shades of Grey during the writing of Fifty Shames of Earl Grey, when fun turns into an unexpcted high-pressure business decision, intense birthing scenes, emulating E.L. James to the point of anticipating what she would write about, pulling a string of handkerchiefs from an unexpected part of the body, being fixated on Tom Cruise, Cocktail, watching every Tom Cruise movie for research purposes, jumping on couches, the literal and metaphorical qualities of “jumping the shark,” Eyes Wide Shut, attending unsuccessful orgies, the parallels between orgy and literary cocktail parties, the importance of organization when planning a sex party, how narrative depictions of sex ruin sex in the real, reticence to depict a realistic female orgasm in fiction, reviewing romance novels, Literary Rogues, self-destructive writers, whether or not personal foibles of great people matter, why terrible moments in life are funny, viewing great people as human beings, E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, being funny in the bedroom, understanding the dominatrix, commonalities between BDSM and therapy, Tiffany Reisz, doing anything you want in college, lying to a girl about the need to make NASCAR noises in intimate situations, David Foster Wallace, truth telling, “The Depressed Person,” Infinite Jest, Elizabeth Wurtzel, retreating to the comic mode, audience reaction, having fun while writing, exhibitionism, reading Less Than Zero at the age of twelve, music vs. reading as a formative experience, drugs, lost time in college, bad behavior, being drawn to other people’s personal history, writing a parody vs. expressing the real.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Shaffer: I’ve been toying with doing a romance novel for a couple of years. And I always was wondering, “Am I going to do this under my own name? Or am I going to do this under a pen name?” And it just turned out that under my own name, I was just a guy mocking this thing.
Correspondent: You’re a man of many identities on Twitter as well.
Shaffer: Yes. Yes. So it really felt natural to write under a different voice and just assume a different role. So it came pretty naturally.
Correspondent: So do you require multiple identities to go about your life? Do you require self-deception and various disorders in order to function as a creative artist? An emerging voice of our times?
Shaffer: (laughs) It’s interesting. I never had before I got online.
Shaffer: I never did experiments with pen names or alternative identities or anything. I was pretty sure I knew exactly who I was.
Correspondent: And then the Internet came along and had you constantly questioning yourself.
Shaffer: The Internet came along and I became one person online on Twitter. And then I became another person for my friends and another person at work and another person for my family.
Correspondent: You turned into Lon Chaney.
Shaffer: Yes. I just portrayed this different face to everybody.
Correspondent: Except it was through words and text. I mean, there were avatars involved.
Shaffer: Yes. And sometimes dressing up. But not too much.
Correspondent: Oh. You dress up sometimes when you tweet or when you write? You pull like one of those Tom Wolfe things where “Well, I wear the white suits in public, but when I sit down for the typewriter, it’s all jeans all the way”?
Shaffer: Well, I do wear kilts a lot when I write. But not to assume a different identity. Just because, well, they let my balls hang out.
Correspondent: Oh, I see. Well, we were talking before we were rolling, or before I insisted that we roll because I want to get this very important info on tape, that there actually is an index. It’s not in the galley I have. But there is an “Index TK.” So I’m wondering: why did you feel that this hefty narrative required subjects and topics to guide the reader through the life of Anna Steal here? What is this index?
Shaffer: Oh my gosh.
Correspondent: What are some of the samplings?
Shaffer: So it’s not common for a work of fiction to have an index. But that was actually something that my editor at Da Capo suggested. You know, they have that form where they fill out for every book. Are we going to have an index? Are we going to have a table of contents? She’s like, “You know what? What if we did have an index?” And it lists on there where particular sex scenes are at in the book.
Correspondent: Oh, I see. That would have helped me. Because it does take quite a while for the first sex scene to happen.
Shaffer: Yes. Yes. The first sex scene.
Correspondent: But I had patience for you.
Correspondent: I was willing to wait for you.
Shaffer: Oh, thank you. Thank you. In the original book [Fifty SHades of Grey], people would say, “Oh my gosh.” They would go through and count up how many “Oh my Gods” there were or whatever.
Correspondent: There are websites for this?
Shaffer: Yeah. People have counted up. “I came across 1987 ‘Oh mys.’”
Shaffer: It’s just one sentence. “Oh my! Oh my!” And so people have actually counted up how many. Because it’s repetitive. And I think if there had been a traditional editor on the original books, they would have cut that out. So people have gone through this. So I said, “You know what? I’m going to have that in my book.”
Correspondent: So you did that with “the” and all that?
Shaffer: Some of the stuff. So at the end of the book, the index actually says like “Oh my!” and then “parentheses overuse of.” And then I list every time I’ve overused that phrase in the book.
Correspondent: And it’s a great way of expanding the page count. So you do less work. Or do you? Do you have some sub-editor go ahead and deal with the index? Assign someone else to do it? And meanwhile, you sit back and collect your hefty advance, living like the lord of the manor.
Shaffer: The funny thing about that is that every time they compile, they ask you if you want an index compiled. And who does that? It’s the copy editor usually. Or your editor or something. And they ask, “So what are some things you would like to have in your index?” And so I gave them a couple of ideas. But then the copy editor just sort of fell in love with the book and just created this whole list. “I hope it’s okay that I inserted my own stuff in here.”
Shaffer: And so she put her own different things in there.
Correspondent: The copy editor fell in love with your book. Didn’t go ahead and get out the ruler and rap you across the wrists, like they usually do.
Shaffer: No. I had an instance with — I was just talking with one of my other editors at Harper Perennial today. I had an editor on my first book — a copy editor that didn’t seem to get all of my references. And so it was very awkward when I got back this copyedited manuscript. And I think I had a chapter titled something like — it was a book on philosophy, but I had a chapter. Something like “Ain’t Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang Baby.” Or something along those lines. And I got this back from the copy editor. It had been crossed out. It said “It is Not Any Thing Except for a G Thing.”
Correspondent: (laughs) They’re a little stingy there at Harper.
Shaffer: Well, I just think it was clear that she didn’t get the reference.
Correspondent: So you have to forward YouTube links to copy editors in order for them to actually understand what you’re talking about.
Shaffer: I think sometimes. I think it’s coming from a good place. And I’m glad — it makes my book look a lot better when it’s copyedited and edited and everything. But there were some times I had to stet stuff with that book. And for this one. There was one joke in Fifty Shames where Earl Grey says, “I’m part of the .00001%.” He says, “I have certain perks for being part of that.” And so it’s written out “.00001%.” And in the copy editing, I got it changed. Actually written out “I’m part of the one millionth percentile.” And it kills the joke.
Correspondent: So is there an Andrew Shaffer style guide that you have for Harper and for Da Capo? (laughs) For Fifty Shames?
Shaffer: For Da Capo, they created a style guide actually that had everything listed out. It was just the most bizarre list of stuff. And it’s actually mostly what appears in the index. There were dinosaur names. The Kosmoceratops was a dinosaur. And I actually got into a great back and forth with my copy editor.
Correspondent: Dinosaur wars.
Shaffer: On the correct ways to capitalize and italicize dinosaur names. So I think, yeah, the copy editor was great on this book. She totally got it. But I think we learn stuff from each other. It was a good working relationship.
Correspondent: Were there any, shall we say, belligerent conference calls at all? Any David Foster Wallace style longass emails about “If you cut this particular phrase” and there’s a six page explanation. Anything along those lines?
Shaffer: Oh my. Well, you know, I really rely on the editors, like I said, to make me look good. I think that a good editor is just invaluable. At least for me. I think maybe there are other writers who can turn out a great first draft. But I’m not one of them. So I’m thankful for all the help I get. And so therefore, when I usually get stuff back from them, I usually go with everything. I stet very few things on a manuscript. Because I think, “Okay, they’ve really got a great idea of where this should go.” Probably better than I do sometimes. But I was a little concerned because when I sold this book, I did not know the editor who bought the book. And when I looked her up on Publishers Marketplace, everything else that she had done was, for the most part, like vegetarian or vegan cookbooks.
Correspondent: I see.
Shaffer: And I was like, “Did she think that Earl Grey was some sort of food book or something?” Oh no. This is not a book about tea.
Correspondent: You could have made Anna Steal a vegan.
Shaffer: Oh, I could have.
Correspondent: Sorry to have only proposed that idea.
Shaffer: Maybe the next book.
Correspondent: If only I had been there during the creative process.
Shaffer: And I’m actually a vegetarian. I was like, “Did you sign this book because I’m a vegetarian? Is there some kind of club I belong to now?”
Correspondent: Really? They can smell it on you.
Shaffer: I didn’t know.
Correspondent: I didn’t know you were a vegetarian. Is it fairly recent?
Shaffer: About six months. Yeah.
Correspondent: Okay. Have you had any dark meat cravings? Climbing up the walls at night? Screaming like The Lost Weekend or something?
Shaffer: No. Because I’m actually a pescatarian.
Correspondent: Oh, you’re one of those.
Shaffer: So I can eat fish. But I always explain it as vegetarian. Because I have a very hard time. Because if I explain pescatarian, it will lead to other questions like “My mother likes pork. Can you eat pork?” I’m like, “Okay. Let’s just go with vegetarian and just assume I can’t eat any meat.”
Correspondent: Well, we’re in New York here. We have plenty of pescatarians. In fact, everybody I know is a pescatarian. I’m one of the last guys who eats red meat around here. I had a burger for lunch.
Correspondent: Without guilt. Though I did dine with a pescatarian.
Shaffer: Well, I ate meat for many years. And it was for cholesterol reasons, actually, that I switched over. But the editing of the book. One of the interesting things. So I sent the draft in to the editor. And she sent it back to me over
John Lanchester is most recently the author of Capital.
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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he should stop sending postcards to random people.
Author: John Lanchester
Subjects Discussed: Mysterious postcards, stalkers, Ron Charles’s review, Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, people who live in close geographical terms who don’t talk with each other, parallel private lives that barely touch, “community” as a cant term, postcards as a plot device, planning out Capital, using Scrivener, E.M. Forster and Nabokov, the relationship between I.O.U. and Capital, anticipating a fictitious economic meltdown before the real one, the problems with explanation within fiction, Booth Tarkington, novels about money, describing economic phenomena within fiction, how explanation breaks fiction, the “Tell me professor” problem, audience expectation, what you can do with nonfiction that you can’t do with fiction, the problems with unlikeliness, William Goldman, why bubbles and busts are all the same story and how they can be different in fiction, the virtues of obliviousness, Christian Lorentzen’s “Fictitious Values,” Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic, why lawyers, cops, and writers can’t watch television, Californication, irreducibly complex vocations, people who work in the finance sector who have no idea what they’re doing, John Banville, cutting yourself off at the bar of curiosity, working out rules for what you could make up and what you cannot, how different novels generate their own sets of rules, whether or not the adverb gets a needlessly bad rap in fiction, whether or not American writing has converged in voice in recent years, getting a filtered view of another nation’s literary output, the influence of Wes Anderson on younger writers, self-conscious quirkiness, omnidirectional irony, David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram,” New Sincerity, Sam Sacks’s review, why we don’t see the Banksy-like Smithy at work, deciding who to depict working within a novel, throwing out characters, why Capital required a large canvass, the virtues of a gap between drafts, Paul Valéry, and writing a novel “as exactly as intended.”
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: To go to the “We Want What You Have” campaign, the Washington Post‘s Ron Charles made a comparison that also struck with me, that the postcard harassment in this book is not unlike the anonymous phone calls in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori. So I’m wondering, because this is such a pivotal narrative element upon which the book rests, where did this come from? I’m guessing this book was a little early — before the London riots. So was it Spark? Were you the recipient of too much junk mail? How did this exactly happen?
Lanchester: No. I was thinking about — I love that book, by the way. And if there is a literary referent, that’s a good one. But I was thinking about the fact that you get — and I don’t know whether this is a London thing, a UK thing, a big city thing, or a thing about modernity or maybe a thing just about some cities as opposed to others. But the sense that people living in very close geographical and physical proximity don’t actually know each other at all. They don’t know anything about each other’s lives. They have nothing in common. And the term much beloved of politicians — “community” — is actually a cant term, I think. It really describes something that people pretend exists, but a lot of the time doesn’t. Communities in a geographical sense, in my experience living in cities, just simply don’t exist. It’s certainly true of my experience in London life. And I wanted to have a novel that had the sense of these parallel private lives that barely touch, and then to have something that forced them into contact with each other and gathered up these strands of these different lives. And the idea of these postcards came from thinking about what people in the street actually have in common. And, in a sense, the main thing they have in common is that they live in a place other people want to live.
Correspondent: It’s rather ironic, in light of the fact that here in the United States we’re seeing our postal service decline. It will get to the point where what we get in the post — well, we’re not going to get much, if anything at all. So I think you’ve reached that possible maximum window of what could unite a community. But this does beg the question of, well, can you, in fact, use a plot device like this to unite a community composed of a Muslim family, a soccer player. You have a “Polish plumber” type. I’m curious as to whether communities really are united around the lines of a plot device or if it takes a plot device now for us to consider the great cosmos of Pepys Road in this or London or anything right now. Can the novel unite community in a way that, say, other forms cannot?
Lanchester: I think one of the basic movements you get in a story, or in stories in general, is that thing of strands being gathered together. And I think that sense of these things that seem to be disparate that actually do have a cohesion — that’s a very kind of fundamental underlying dynamic of lots of stories. It’s also a kind of story I really like. I like that feeling of gathering together. I mean, I suppose there’s a melancholy undercurrent to the thought that without those cards, these people actually don’t really know each other. And without an effort of weathering the imagination, I think, a lot of the time we don’t know each other. And I did want that sense in which they knew each other to feel slightly fragile. Because actually it would be very easy for it not to happen. And, as I said, that’s my personal experience of the city. That there is this thing about immensely close physical proximity being sort of shadowed by the fact that actually we don’t want to know too much about each other.
Correspondent: Well, speaking of knowing about one another, the feeling I got when reading this book was that often a chapter would spring forth from another chapter. That a particular character such as Parker would then get his own little hotel room chapter and that sometimes that narrative tension produced a desire or curiosity or a need to explore another angle of this vast community. I know that you planned much of Capital in advance. But I’m wondering to what degree you strayed from the map that you laid down when writing this novel? IF you drift away from your map in the act of writing and revising, do you need to go back and modify the floor plan? How does this work for you?
Lanchester: Well, you’re right. I did spend a lot of time thinking about what I’ve sort of described to myself as the architecture of it. The structures of the story and who goes what when. My memory is that I had — it was the equivalent of index cards. I say the equivalent because it was actually this software program called Scrivener. I write in longhand.
Correspondent: Oh, you used Scrivener.
Lanchester: I’ve been using Scrivener. I’ve never used a computer program to write a novel before, but Scrivener was very helpful because of this index card thing that I could then move around. The chapters or the scenes too. And I kept running through that rhythm of what when. And I think I had it pretty thoroughly mapped. But only I think on a very granular level of exactly what I’d say for the first quarter or third. And then once I’d got through that, the chapters further ahead did keep changing order as I was coming closer to them. In order to have that sense of “Oh, actually, no, I’m going to need that bit there just to change the tone.” Or “It’s been too long since we last had so and so back now.” And there was a lot of juggling and a lot of jiggling and a lot of swapping A with B and C with D and X with Y. But not very much going outside the framework of it. But in my view, it’s a pretty accommodating framework. There was quite a lot of room for the characters inside it. But I think in terms of genuine things — the E.M. Forster thing about characters escaping. That didn’t really happen. But I’ve always rather liked Vladimir Nabokov’s reply to this.
Lanchester: “Forster’s books are so boring that you couldn’t blame his characters for wanting to escape” And I actually think both parts of that — the structure is pretty determined in my books, but the things that the characters do and say within that structure I find constantly surprising. I find both halves of that to be the case.
Correspondent: The questions I have though is that if a character is going to act in a certain way or behave in a certain way that is in defiance of the plan — and it’s interesting that you use A, B, C, D in this answer because in the course of the book we often get these little A, B, Cs of the character mind and so forth. Do you have a situation where you lose the thread of a character because a character’s going to act in a particular way when you’re laying it down on the page? And the other question I had, sort of related to this, is, well, we do know that you wrote a book called I.O.U., Whoops! in the UK. And if you are writing in some sense in response to the 2008 economic meltdown, and if you are to some degree enslaved by newspaper headlines, what does that do to you from a novelist’s standpoint to corral this, what I would presume to be, tightly enmeshed plan? That if you stray from it, it causes more time, more difficulty, and so forth.
Lanchester: Well, it was the other way around. Because I started in 2005, early 2006. And I felt certain that there was a bust coming. I mean, certain enough to bet years on writing the book. And it was very important that, right from the start, the reader knows something that the characters don’t. That the reader could see this thing coming that they’re all oblivious of. And partly I was just very interested in obliviousness. And I had a very strong sense that there was this kind of implosion or meltdown, that things had gone out of hand. And so I started writing the book with that kind of shape in mind. And if there hadn’t been a crash, it would almost be the other way around. If there hadn’t been a crash, I really would be in trouble.
Karolina Waclawiak is most recently the author of How to Get Into the Twin Palms.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Combing through the immigrant experience and what’s left of his deliquescing hair.
Author: Karolina Waclawiak
Subjects Discussed: Kafka’s The Trial, being forced by parents to read Kafka and Dostoevsky, Roald Dahl, avoiding biographical details about a monstrous author, Norman Mailer, Madeleine L’Engle, Polish immigrants who revered Reagan in the 1980s, immigrating from Poland, the virtues of staying indoors, being a loner, kicking around Los Angeles, finding secret uncool places in Highland Park, bars that open at 7AM, discovering Bukowski and John Fante at eighteen, flophouses, the real-life Hollywood Downtowner Inn, peeping into windows and making up stories about strangers, the Hollywood Star Lanes (the former bowling alley where The Big Lebowski was filmed), stealing planted trees, finding reasons for Anya to leave the house by introducing eccentric objects in the narrative, the real Twin Palms, avoiding interaction, not talking back to people, when made up stories are more interested than the reality of the situation, the interview with Roxane Gay, talking with other immigrants, being ostracized because of ethnic identity, universal insights about being a young woman which transcend ethnicity, not being visual about who you are, being motherly about young women, gender power play between men and women, male power, Sara Finnerty’s HTML Giant review, youthful diffidence and Anya not wanting to hear her accent, comparing a Polish identity with America and Russia, family shame, being a liar to figure out who you are as a person, family ghosts, the very small Polish community in Los Angeles, similarities between Polish and Jewish identity, memoir culture and “suffering enough,” whether or not Williamsburg hipsters can stand in line, Communist food tickets, being detained at the border, input from Gary Shteyngart, animosity between Poles and Russians, sharing common suffering, the Four Yorkshiremen sketch, research into Polish solidarity (and often the lack thereof) within Los Angeles, speaking Polish, calling out bingo numbers, the collapse of bingo parlors in Brooklyn, bingo as a social outlet for older women, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, not having an agent for How to Get Into the Twin Palms, the difficulties of getting an agent, myths behind likable characters, query letters, the futility of agent mixers, working at The Believer, efforts to be a screenwriter in Los Angeles, agents who want manuscripts that they can sell quickly, commercial forces working against quirky voices and dangerous perspectives, Shteyngart as a pansexual blurber, the many voices within Waclawiak’s fiction, and wreaking havoc on shoreline communities.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: The immediate influence I saw when reading this book was, of course, “Before the Law” — that whole chapter in The Trial, where you have this priest who is sitting there trying to get in and actually study the law in Kafka’s The Trial. And I wanted to ask if this might have been an inspiration for Anya, who is also trying to get in, more than living up to your title, into the Twin Palms. What’s interesting is is that we’re not even certain why Anya wants to get into the Twin Palms. I’m curious if Kafka might have been an influence and what her version of the law might be.
Waclawiak: It’s interesting you mention Kafka. Because Kafka is pretty much one of my father’s favorite writers of all time. And he was always talking about Kafka and Dostoevsky at home. So perhaps subliminally, I was influenced by Kafka. He did make my brother read every Kafka book ever written, starting at age eight.
Correspondent: But not you?
Waclawiak: Not me.
Correspondent: Why? Why did the boys have to read in the house?
Waclawiak: Well, I was, I would say, a bad kid who just didn’t want to do anything my parents said. And if they liked something, I instantly hated it.
Correspondent: Did they do the same thing with Dostoevsky too? “You’re not leaving until you’ve read The Brothers Karamazov!”
Waclawiak: Yeah. And when he was eighteen, he gave me a Diderot book and he said, “This will explain men to you.”
Correspondent: What? Wow! Well, you had quite an interesting upbringing.
Waclawiak: (laughs) I did.
Correspondent: How on earth did you get a love of books based out of this? (laughs)
Waclawiak: Our house is pretty much all books. And my sister was a huge reader. All of us were huge readers. And my parents are both electrical engineers. But my father was a big dreamer and just loved to read. We didn’t have a ton of toys. But we had a lot of books. So I grew up reading. And strangely I would read the same book over and over and over again. So I pretty much had, as a kid, every Roald Dahl book memorized. Chocolate Factory was my favorite. Because I was just obsessed with a world where food was everywhere. It just seemed amazing to me.
Correspondent: But when did you find out that Roald Dahl was a monster?
Waclawiak: (laughs) I never wanted to believe it!
Correspondent: Oh, I see. You put your head down. “No! He’s such a great author! I don’t want to know about his life.”
Waclawiak: I feel like I can separate who you are as a human and who you are as a writer. If you’re a really good writer, I’ll give you a bit of leeway there.
Correspondent: Wow. Norman Mailer then? (laughs)
Waclawiak: He’s the best.
Correspondent: Stabbing his wife. Doing all sorts of stuff.
Waclawiak: That’s passion.
Correspondent: What other books did you have growing up in the house that you reread over and over again? I’m curious.
Waclawiak: I was really influenced by Madeleine L’Engle and really into fantasy for some reason. Although nothing that I write is fantastical at all. So it was more about just escaping and other worlds and just finding ways to be anywhere except where I was.
Correspondent: Was it a fairly austere family upbringing which caused this need to escape or…?
Waclawiak: So we emigrated to America in 1981. And we didn’t have anything. I mean, a church sponsored us in Texas. And I mean, they bought our groceries for us. We didn’t have any pots or pans or anything. Everything from the ground up was from this Catholic church.
Correspondent: Did your family revere Reagan much as Anya’s family did?
Waclawiak: Oh yeah.
Correspondent: They did. I figured that might have been from life experience. (laughs)
Waclawiak: Yes. Yes. I mean, it was flags on every…bags of clothing, basically. And Reagan was the reason we came to America. So Reagan was like…
Correspondent: When were you first skeptical about Reagan? Out of curiosity.
Waclawiak: I don’t know. When I started realizing what was going on….
Correspondent: Anyway, sorry to interrupt. A more interesting story. So you came over to America.
Waclawiak: Came over to America in 1981. And we just didn’t know anyone. In fact, we were supposed to go to Australia. We left Poland, sort of middle of the night. Lined in our suitcases were our birth certificates and stuff like that. That whole way out. We went to Austria.
Correspondent: Do you hide now in the present day things in your suitcases? Old habits die hard, I hear.
Waclawiak: No, no, no. We’re out in the open. We’re now naturalized. It’s okay.
Correspondent: Alright. Alright. No subterfuge. No evading government authorities, especially oppressive ones.
Waclawiak: I pay my taxes. So we were in Austria and we were supposed to go to Australia. But my father didn’t put enough postage on the letter to the man who was supposed to sponsor us. So it didn’t go airmail. And we were waiting and waiting and decided he must just not want to sponsor us in Australia anymore. And my mother heard that Reagan had opened the border for more families. So she essentially took us to the front of the line. My sister was seven. And I was two. And she had both of us. And she’s like, “Let us into America.” So we ended up in Texas.
Correspondent: It’s interesting. So to merge this family upbringing with your love of reading fantastical YA stuff to get to this particular novel, which is very much rooted, of course, in identity but is also interesting because Anya spends a lot of time inside. And I’m wondering how you came to Anya based off of your reading and based off your personal background. What was it that caused her to become this character that you needed to pursue in the course of a novel?
Waclawiak: Well, I think it’s interesting. Because for myself, I spend a lot of time indoors writing. And I think I decided at age 12 that I was going to be a writer. So I became very serious about wanting to be a writer.
Correspondent: And that meant staying indoors.
Correspondent: Never seeing the sun.
Waclawiak: I had many journals.
Correspondent: Only allowed out during the hours of 4 PM and 5 PM for a brief constitutional.
Waclwiak: Yes. Perhaps. To play by myself in some kind of swamp near our house.
Correspondent: To prove that you weren’t physically equipped. But you were physically equipped to be a writer.
Waclawiak: (laughs) Yes.
Waclawiak: Well, I was just really shy. Like I couldn’t talk to people. I had a few friends, but I just was so shy. And I certainly couldn’t talk to boys. And I didn’t know how to do it. I had a couple friends. But we had moved a bunch when I was a kid. So I never had those born-in-the-same-house lasting friendships. Kind of “been in this neighborhood my whole life.” So I was actually a loner. And I used to tag along after my sister, who wanted nothing to do with me. I mean nothing. So I was lost.
Correspondent: So how did you learn to talk with people?
Waclawiak: I think I was in my twenties, actually. I remember that I took classes in my high school and Columbia.
Correspondent: “How to Talk to People.” Yeah.
Waclawiak So I’d take the train. But I would wander New York by myself. So friends would pair up to go do things in New York. And I would go off by myself. And I would get lost for hours.
Correspondent: Do you still do that to this day sometimes?
Waclawiak: Yeah. I mean, I think I prefer to be alone.
Jennifer Weiner is most recently the author of The Next Best Thing.
This episode of The Bat Segundo Show is brought to you by Audible.com. If you want to listen to Jennifer Weiner’s The Next Best Thing, and help keep this show going, sign up for a free audiobook and a 30 day trial. Use this handy link: http://www.audiblepodcast.com/bat
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if Joe Esposito might be right about his questionable stature.
Author: Jennifer Weiner
Subjects Discussed: The summer heat, the size and details of Weiner’s entourage, bagels, physically scarred protagonists, broken people who work in the entertainment industry, the relationship between physicality and the emotional underpinning of a character, the writers’ room as group therapy session, using autobiographical details for fiction, exaggerating raw material, making the readers believe, the writer as precious snowflake, fighting TV network brass over the word “ass-munch,” Barbra Streisand’s litigious nature, the Eugenides Vest campaign and one percenter jokes, Louis CK, scheduling difficulties with Raven-Symoné, whether The Next Best Thing is roman à clef, television audiences vs. reading audiences, reaching young women, Girls, the YA market, Pippi Longstocking, talented TV writers who can’t manage people, Dan Harmon, pretending that adults are teenagers, why Weiner wants more, the inevitability of any arStist having haters, the Alice Gregory shiksa lit article, daddy complexes, Sylvia Plath, straying from characters who are besieged by financial problems, State of Georgia, pursuing fantasy-based elements when America faces high unemployment, tackling social issues in Then Came You, writers with obnoxious public personae, the income disparity between Weiner and her audience, social media and privacy, eclectic reading, getting behavior right, the income gender gap, unemployed men and gainfully employed women in a relationship, USA Today‘s review, Julia Phillips’s You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, William Goldman’s “Nobody knows anything,” Garry Shandling, The Larry Sanders Show, gender lines in comedy, Ginna Bellafante’s gender reductionism in relation to A Game of Thrones, Curb Your Enthusiasm, cringe comedy, Peep Show, David Mitchell not reading his reviews, Janet Maslin’s factual inaccuracies in her reviews, redacted book reviews, when women are asked to please, ambition as a negative female quality, fears of losing an audience, Emily Giffin, Jane Green, the risk of taking breaks between books, Laura Lippmann, Lisa Scottoline, slowing the six to nine month book cycle down, Susan Isaacs’s generational epics, being known as a loudmouth vs. being known as ambitious, Macbeth, the book-a-year productivity, Philip Roth, the problems with Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, being too eager to please, why it’s important to write a second book immediately after writing a first book, replying to readers on Twitter, Goodreads, trying not to look at reviews, writing a character who demands assurance, Nikki Finke, women taking responsibility for their own orgasms, Caitlin Flanagan’s oral sex sensationalism, sex as an obligation for women, whether or not The New York Times Book Review really matters, Cheryl Strayed outing herself as Dear Sugar, women winning the National Book Awards, Jennifer Egan, cultural arbiters rooted in nostalgia, fragmented books culture, the collapse of Borders, Dwight Allen’s snotty Stephen King article, living in a post-critical culture, attention, the gender imbalance in The New York Times Book Review, the considerable virtues of Pamela Paul, addressing criticisms from Roxane Gay, reduced stigmas against women’s fiction and genre in the last fifteen years, and the need for loudmouth women.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I have to ask. Did you actually fight network brass over the word “ass-munch”?
Correspondent: You did?
Weiner: Yes, I did.
Correspondent: Really? And there was this kind of exchange of viewpoints?
Correspondent: And “ass-munch” was just unacceptable.
Weiner: Yeah, exactly.
Correspondent: Even though I hear twelve years olds say it all the time.
Weiner: Yeah. It’s like they said “blow job” on NYPD Blue and I can’t have an “ass-munch”? And they’re like, “We’re ABC Family.” And I’m like, “You’re a different kind of family. It says so right on your logo.”
Weiner: I want my “ass-munch.”
Weiner: And I was denied my “ass-munch.”
Correspondent: What other words did they deny you during this time?
Weiner: You know, it wasn’t words so much as people.
Weiner: Seriously. The part about not being able to make jokes about Barbra Streisand? I guess she’s both very sensitive and very litigious.
Correspondent: So that actually happened too.
Weiner: That happened too.
Correspondent: Wow. Were there any other public figures who were declared verboten?
Correspondent: Just Barbra? (laughs)
Weiner: Just Barbra. But, you know, the funny thing was we had this line about Bruce Jenner. And Honey, who is sort of the Auntie Mame character, is like, “Now you girls probably just know him as the crazy old lady in the Kardashian house.” And I was like, “Oh my god. Standards and Practices is never going to let this go.” I guess Bruce Jenner got the joke. In fact, we approached him to play the part. To come down the stairs, as if he’d been in bed with Aunt Honey.
Correspondent: Going from these battles with Standards and Practices back to fiction writing, I have to ask — I mean, especially in light of the one percenter joke idea, which, oddly enough, your recent Eugenides Vest campaign…
Weiner: I hope we talk about that.
Correspondent: Well, we can. I’d be happy to. But it is interesting to me that you come from television, your foot is laid down for things like “ass-munch,” for esoteric references or seemingly esoteric references.
Weiner: Yes, the one percenters.
Correspondent: How do you unlearn some of these necessary exigencies when you’re writing? When you’re coming back to fiction? I have to ask you about this. Because when you’re in such an intense show biz environment, having to produce and having to fight and having to compromise and having to go ahead and create art in a highly commercial medium, how do you go to a slightly less commercial medium, like books, and be true to that voice that established you in the first place?
Weiner: For whatever reason, I didn’t have a hard time with it. I don’t know if that’s just a way that I’m lucky. But I didn’t have a hard time going from, like you said, the very mediated world of commercial TV to the world of novel where it’s just you and the people in your head and “We’ll see you in a year with that manuscript.” It wound up being okay. But, God, I loved being in a writers’ room. I miss it every day.
Correspondent: You want to go back to a writers’ room?
Weiner: I would like to go back to a writers’ room someday. It would be different, I think.
Correspondent: Even with the battles?
Weiner: Even with the battles. Because I think that there’s cases where it goes so right and the stars kind of align. And then I also think there’s different ways of doing entertainment. Like Louis CK. Where it’s basically like “Okay, network, you give me X number of dollars. I will give you Y number of shows. And no notes.”
Correspondent: But that’s a very uncommon situation. It doesn’t happen to everyone. Even you probably couldn’t get what he has.
Weiner: Well, but then there’s people doing stuff on the Web. Where it’s like, I don’t want a network. I don’t want notes. I don’t need your money. I’m going to Kickstart this thing or raise money myself and it will just be my vision unmitigated. That’s what I think we’re going to start seeing more of. Because I think that there’s going to be increasing frustration with “You can’t say that!” Or “You can’t say that about that person.” “You can’t use those words.” “We want you to do it with this actress.” And that, to me, was the hardest part. I went out there. I wanted to do a show about a big girl. And the network, ABC Family, had a holding deal with Raven-Symoné. Who during that, Raven had been a bigger girl.
Correspondent: Yes. Also put into the novel.
Weiner: Yes! And I’m like, “Fantastic! That’s great!” I mean, I guess she won’t be Jewish But we’ll deal with that. And then I want to sit down and meet with her and talk about the part and talk about how she relates to the character and where the character comes from. And they’re like “She’s busy. She’s busy. She’s traveling. She’s on vacation.”
Correspondent: So she really would not meet with you.
Weiner: Would not meet with us.
Weiner: And I remember thinking they kept saying, “She’s on vacation.” And I’m like, “On vacation from what?”
Correspondent: Why didn’t you just track her down yourself?
Weiner: She was in Hawaii.
Correspondent: She was in Hawaii. Why not fly on a plane?
Weiner: I should have!
Correspondent: And say “Raven, what’s up?”
Weiner: In retrospect, in retrospect.
Correspondent: So this is very roman à clef, it sounds like!
Weiner: It is a little.
Correspondent: But did she follow you on Twitter? (laughs)
Weiner: I don’t think she did.
Correspondent: She did not!
Weiner: I don’t think she followed me on Twitter.
Weiner: I gave her a bunch of my books. I’m not sure she read them.
Correspondent: Did she overact? As you suggest? This particular…
Weiner: I think no.
Correspondent: I know you have to be careful here.
Weiner: No. I actually think she’s got great comic chops. I think that she grew up in front of a camera. I mean, this is a girl who shot her first commercial at age nine months. She’s been a working actress for her whole life, basically. Which produces its own kind of dynamic. Which is a very interesting dynamic where you’ve got a child supporting parents. And that’s a whole other book.
Correspondent: But going back to this issue of, well, you couldn’t meet with her. I mean, this has got to be extremely frustrating for you.
Weiner: Yes! Right.
Correspondent: Speaking as someone who is largely on the literary field, and sometimes goes into independent film and so forth, you know, this has got to be, from my vantage point at least, an extremely creatively frustrating experience. What does television offer that fiction does not?
Weiner: Well, you know what it offers? I’ll tell you…is an audience. Because the absolute…
Correspondent: You’ve got an audience though!
Weiner: But listen.
Weiner: The absolute bestselling novel in its first week will sell, say, half a million copies. Okay, that is how many people will tune into the lowest rated rerun of a Kardashian show.
Correspondent: Which is frightening.
Weiner: Which is frightening and sad. But if you want to talk to young women, you go beyond TV.
Correspondent: If you want to talk with young women.
Weiner: If you want to talk to young women.
Correspondent: Why do you need that large audience?
Weiner: I want to talk to young women. I mean, I remember watching TV as a young woman and there was never anybody who looked like me. Unless she was the butt of a joke or the funny best friend or somebody tragic. Somebody who needed a makeover in order for good things to happen. And I have daughters. And they’re both blonde-haired, blue-eyed. They’re very cute little girls. I’ve basically given birth to my own unit of the Hitler Youth. I don’t get it. But I want to make shows for girls where the heroine doesn’t look like Blake Lively. Where the heroine looks like a regular girl and still gets everything. Gets the guy, gets the jokes, gets the great clothes, gets the great job. That’s what I went out there to do.
Correspondent: Well, Jen, I’m all for creative idealism as much as the next person. I mean, this program prides itself on its creative control. However, you got Raven.
Weiner: I went to the wrong place maybe.
Correspondent: Yes, exactly.
Weiner: I got Raven minus thirty pounds.
Correspondent: You really can’t always get what you want when it comes to television. So it seems to me that wouldn’t you be better off? You know, you can do pretty much whatever you want, I’m thinking…
Weiner: In a book.
Correspondent: Within a book. That you can’t do through television.
Weiner: Well, you know, I hope though — and I think I’m going to keep banging at that door. Because I do think — you look at a show like Girls on HBO.
Correspondent: Which I’m a big fan of, oddly enough. I never expected to say that.
Weiner: Yeah. But I think that there are people on networks who would say, “Well, no, we don’t want people that look like that on TV. We have to sell Valley Fitness commercials.” Well, HBO does not have to sell Valley Fitness commercials.
Weiner: They just have to have subscribers.
Correspondent: They also don’t need that great of an audience.
Correspondent: Which is why they have the shows that they do.
Weiner: Right. They can have a hit if half a million people watch. Where a network, you’d be cancelled before you got to the first commercial. So there’s places it can happen. There’s ways that it can happen. And I would like to keep trying.
Correspondent: But you have very skillfully evaded my main question.
Correspondent: Which is: You have an audience.
Weiner: I do.
Correspondent: You have a great audience.
Weiner: They love me.
Correspondent: You have an audience of girls and young women and women. And I’m saying to myself, “Well, that’s fantastic. Why isn’t that enough?”
Weiner: Well, that’s an interesting question.
Correspondent: (laughs) Nice media training there, Jen. (laughs)
Weiner: Well, you know what? I think that I’m someone who’s wired to want more. I don’t know why. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s daddy stuff. I don’t know. But I see gaps and problems and imbalance and inequity. And for whatever reason feel compelled to talk about it. You know, whether it’s the New York Times not covering women.
Correspondent: We’ll get to that.
Weiner: We’ll get to that. Whether it’s television offering a range of beauty that goes from a size zero all the way up to a size two. And it’s like, well, maybe I can do something about that. And I feel like I need to try.
Correspondent: Yeah. But it seems to me that you’re reflecting some sort of personal imbalance and stretching it into some sort of societal imbalance, creating yet another form of imbalance. I mean, why isn’t the work itself enough? Because you can always stretch yourself on that canvas. You can always try new things on the page.
Weiner: But again, who’s reading?
Correspondent: I’m reading. You have millions of people reading you.
Weiner: I don’t know if fourteen-year-old girls are — I think they’re reading Twilight. And that concerns me some.
Correspondent: They’re also reading. I mean, China Miéville, he’s writing YA books and he writes his literary books.
Weiner: This is true.
Correspondent: You can do something like that.
Weiner: I’m actually working on a YA book.
Correspondent: You are?
Weiner: Yes. Thank you for asking. I’m writing — you remember Pippi Longstocking?
Weiner: Okay, so, ten-year-old girl who is living alone with a monkey named Mr. Jingles.
Weiner: And I remember reading that and loving it. Because she has these adventures and she’s kind of an ass-kicker. Like she’s got huge feet and she sort of takes on the mean boys. And I’m like, I read it as a girl and loved it. I read it as a mom to my daughter. And I’m like, this is the most fucked up thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Why is this child living by herself with a monkey? Like what the…you know. So what I’m writing is a story about a girl who comes home from school one day and discovers her parents are missing. They’re just gone. And she doesn’t tell anybody. Because she knows that the instant that people realize her parents aren’t there, she’s going to be shipped off to her horrible aunt in Texas. And she sort of scams her way through a school year and figures out all of these tricks. My favorite one is that she signs up for a diet service to deliver her all her food. She doesn’t know how to cook. So she’s an ad on late night TV. Like “We’ll bring you three meals and two snacks every day.” So she calls up and she’s like, “It’s for my mom. I want to surprise her.” And the lady’s like, “Oh honey, that’s so sweet. How big is your mom?” So she makes up the biggest number she can think of. So she’ll get a lot of food. So I am interested in thinking about YA and thinking about reaching an audience that way. But I think television just offers — it’s a great canvas to tell a story. It gives you space. It gives you time. It gives you visibility.
Correspondent: You’ve got visibility. You’ve got time.
Weiner: Yeah, I know.
Frank Partnoy is most recently the author of Wait.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Impatient for a pause.
Author: Frank Partnoy
Subjects Discussed: Perception of time, Walter Clark, pauses and authenticity, Jon Stewart’s 20 second pause in response to Sarah Palin’s “squirmish,” This American Life, Christian Marclay’s The Clock, “Kristen Schaal is a horse,” Tao Lin’s use of repetition, John Boyd’s OODA loop, whether a military strategist’s ideas are entirely applicable to dating, how delay persuades us in other context, the first date as a military tactic, lunch-oriented dating services, making bad snap decisions because of a photo, panic and fast talking, being aware of your audience when talking, the Einstellung effect, Peter McLeod’s experiments with chess players, the three move checkmate, how even chess masters get stuck in the muck, the dangers of being overconfident, unemployment, Sarkozy’s failed efforts to readjust the GDP to help long-term economic impact, readjusting human attention from the short-term solution, cognitive bias, subliminal messages, how fast food logos help to read, SAnford DeVoe’s experiments, racist treatment decisions from doctors, the unanticipated advantages of a spare second, the effects of wealth upon happiness, finding another activity while waiting, viewing time as more scarce and impatience, when scientific developments are at odds with capitalist realities, the downside of success, procrastination, subliminal messages within the film Fight Club, topless women in The Rescuers, when people are vulnerable to subliminal messages, the invention of the Post-It, the advantage of fresh eyes, Archimedes and Newton, Arthur Fry, thin slicing and the Malcolm Gladwell reductionist incarnation of this idea now welcomed by marketing people, Dr. Phil’s incorrect use of thin slicing, and why thin slicing isn’t two seconds according to the studies.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: So let’s start off with panic, which seems a very good thing to start off with. Panic, as you say, has much to do with our perception of time. You bring up Walter Clark’s theory — he’s this acting teacher. He says that the best actors are the ones who don’t panic. So how much of our waiting has to do with panic or any other sense of emotional paralysis? How much of our anxieties come from this false comprehension of time? If there’s this correlation between good acting and not panicking, well, I have to ask, Frank, what’s the compromise between being human and being some pretender or some mimic?
Partnoy: Oh, it’s a great question. I’ve learned so much from Walter Clark, who’s one of the best acting coaches I’ve been around. My daughter takes a lot of acting classes. So I’ve learned a lot from him. And I think an acting coach, like somebody who is sophisticated watching a play or a performance, can see through a mimic. You can tell when somebody’s a fake when they’re performing. One of the things that panic does is that it leads people to speed up their performance. So that they run through what the acting coaches call beats. So it’s partly true of acting generally. But it’s especially true of comedy, I think. One of the things that I took away from watching him in action was that a lot of comedy really is about pauses and delays.
Partnoy: And understanding the audience and being authentic in your understanding of the audience and figuring out how often to pause. You know, we’re talking right now. We’ve just met each other, right? And we’re sort of watching each other and having this conversation.
Correspondent: And you’re a total phony.
Partnoy: Yeah. Sorry.
Correspondent: Or are you? Maybe I’m the total phony. Who knows? Maybe we’re both being phony. I don’t know.
Partnoy: Hopefully we won’t be as we move along.
Correspondent: I think I can trust you so far.
Partnoy: Alright. Likewise. I’m enjoying it so far.
Correspondent: Okay, good.
Partnoy: I’m grabbing my wallet now. But I do think, just when we start having these conversations in our normal lives, even if we’re not acting that there’s a role of the pause and the delay. That just speeding through something 100 miles an hour is not a very effective communication technique. So one of the things I’ve been interested in for a long time is that. I teach law school classes and my students can’t comprehend me if I’m speaking 100 miles an hour. On the other hand, I can speak pretty quickly and they’ll get content down. They’ll write. So it’s this kind of balance back and forth. And when you panic, you speed up. You speed through the pause. One of the things that I’ve been playing with, as I’ve done three years of research now on the book and wrote it, is how long I can get away with pausing. [short pause] So I talk a little bit about Jon Stewart as an example and this extraordinary moment he had in one of his shows where he had captured Sarah Palin questioning some of the Obama military action in Libya and saying she didn’t know what to call this. “We’re not at war. What’s a word for it? I don’t know the word.” And then Sarah Palin uses this non-word “squirmish.” And for me as a speaker, I would have a hard time waiting, pausing more than a couple of seconds, telling a joke and then delaying. My son actually — I have an eight-year-old son — he’s a lot better at telling a joke and then delaying the punchline. So he’ll make up some joke. “A couple of cantaloupe were married. What did they name their daughter?” And then he’ll do a dramatic pause and say, “Melony.” Which is just made up. But he’ll get a laugh where I’m not sure I can do. But Jon Stewart is able to pause for twenty full seconds. I think that must be some kind of a world record for pauses. And he’s just the opposite of panic. He’s utterly fearless with the audience, feeling them out, understanding and being totally authentic, right? I mean, that’s one of the reasons why we love Jon Stewart so much, is that he’s command of timing and gets us and gets what we want and goes through this kind of time framework, which I think is actually very valuable in all the decisions that we make. Which is a two-step process. The first step is: How long can I wait before taking this action and making this decision? What’s the maximum amount of time that I can wait? And then the second step is delaying until that moment. And so in that example, he decided it was going to be twenty seconds. Probably not consciously. Because he’s a a master. And he was able to wait twenty seconds. I could never do that.
Correspondent: Well, since you brought up pauses, I think we should talk about them.
Correspondent: You observe that the best radio announcers and interviewers use them.
Correspondent: Comedians like Jon Stewart, of course.
Correspondent: You can even point to the Mike Daisey pauses in This American Life.
Correspondent: Oh. Am I sort of interfering with the question? I don’t know.
Partnoy: Beautifully done. Masterful.
Correspondent: Actually though, I do want to bring this up. I could even bring the William Shatner pause into this equation. But I’m wondering if how we react to a pause shares much in common with how we react to, say, a loop. There’s this comedy routine — I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it — “Kristen Schaal is a Horse” — where basically it just goes on and on and repeats and repeats. It’s basically this woman dancing and a man clapping and going, “Kristen Schaal is a horse! Kristen Schaal is a horse!” And it goes on and loops for like fifteen minutes. There’s a Tao Lin poem where he constantly says the line “the next night we ate whale.” And there are all sorts of repetitions throughout art and culture and so forth. Does the manner in which we ascribe authority to a pause have much in common with this loop situation?
Partnoy: Oh, that’s a fascinating question. I think so. I mean, loops come up in all sorts of contexts and they relate to time in a very fundamental way, right? There’s — I’ll forget the artist, but there’s the 24 hour loop exhibit that’s out now.
Correspondent: Oh yeah. Christian Marclay’s The Clock.
Partnoy: It’s incredible, right? The Clock, where you’ve got, from various films, depictions of 12:01 and 1:05 sort of cycling around. And there’s something really powerful about the reinforcement of the story. A lot of jokes get funnier as they’re retold. So much so that even comedians, they might not even laugh at the joke, but they’ll just think, “Wow, that was really funny.” And loops come up also in a completely different context, I found in my research. Which is in the military.
Correspondent: Mr. Boyd.
Partnoy: Mr. Boyd, right. John Boyd, probably the greatest fighter pilot in history, who created something called the OODA loop. O-O-D-A, for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. This approach to decision making started in a military context, but now people use it in all areas of life and business. Where you take time and initially you observe. And you orient. You figure out where the enemy is. And then finally you make the decision. And then the decision is the mental part. And the act is the implementation part. And what John Boyd talks about is running through an OODA loop. So going through that cycle of Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act over and over again, watching the jet fighter you’re trying to shoot down to see what that person’s proclivities are — Do they like to faint to the left? Or the right? How fast are they? — to understand and to confuse them too. Which is also interesting. Because I’m not sure whether the art projects or films that we talked about earlier — I’m not sure they’re really meant to confuse. But in the offensive aspects of the OODA loop, part of what John Boyd is suggesting they do is get a speed advantage to confuse the enemy. And the development of the F-16, he was the person who basically created the idea of the F-16 and pushed its development. The kind of aircraft that’s like using a switchblade in a knife fight, that you can use very quickly to confuse and disorient your opponent. So these loops show up. Expertise, if you think about it. Where does expertise come from? It comes from a kind of repeated loop, right? Chess players become experts by learning openings and repeating that over and over and over again and seeing certain patterns. What behavioralists call chunking. Being able, because they’ve been through those loops so many times, to recognize patterns consistently. So it’s a really interesting question. And I think to some extent, these really deep insights and expertise come out of repeated loops as well.
Alix Ohlin is most recently the author of Inside and Signs and Wonders.
This episode of The Bat Segundo Show is brought to you by Audible.com. If you want to listen to Alix Ohlin’s Inside, and help keep this show going, sign up for a free audiobook and a 30 day trial. Use this handy link: http://www.audiblepodcast.com/bat
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Careful to distinguish between Uganda and Rwanda.
Author: Alix Ohlin
Subjects Discussed: Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, California weather, New York City as ideal place to consider the vocational experience, aspiring rock stars, working in the publishing industry before becoming a writer, slush pile people vs. literary giants, working in an atmosphere of rejection, maintaining a love of reading and writing while being employed as a publishing booster, the benefits of being familiar with canonical fiction, writing stories in secret, working in a bookstore, drinking an enormous amount of caffeine, Ohlin’s four year self-imposed apprenticeship, finding a voice, “The King of Kohlrabi” as Ohlin’s first breakout point, hiding in a cafe in Nex Mexico, being a reserved person, resisting a reserved voice, callousness and bad things in fiction, why Ohlin’s characters don’t seek revenge, when the human equation isn’t direct, being treated poorly in a relationship, whether or not revenge is true to life, parents and therapy, building dimensionality out of empathy, removing cautiousness from characters to explore human feelings, fragmented marriages and divorces, being not pro-war, Don Swaim, attempts to be a well-rounded person, Ohlin’s Harvard background, whether writing fiction can make you a more well-rounded person, doing scientific research, having Don DeLillo as a hero, being an information-based fiction writer in the early days, “Vigo Park” and Chekhov’s gun, “A Month of Sundays” vs. Updike’s A Month of Sundays, using explicit literary references in a story, being honest about the author/reader relationship, being too precious with titles and tropes, tactile elements of characters in Ohlin’s sentences, giving the reader sensory guideposts, Tug’s Rwandan backstory in Inside, moving empathy onto a greater canvas, playing around with time, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, structure and false starts, why Ohline’s stories never transform into novels, being a heavy planner, knowing the ending of a story, the pros and cons of revisiting a short story after it had been collected, short story culture in the digital age, uncollected short stories that aren’t available online, the fate of the short story, being freed of commercial restraints, instantaneous reactions to work, critics who misinterpret work, factual errors in fiction, being grateful for attention, hardcover vs. paperback, and the reduced output of short story collections.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Now I may be misconstrued as the “nine types of weather” guy in E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, but, as a native Californian, I do feel compelled to ask you this question. There are two moments in these two books where you do remark on the California weather. One is the beginning of the story “The Only Child,” where Sophie calls California weather “sunny and childlike.” And in Inside, you have the situation where Anne is in Los Angeles. She’s running along the beach and she’s calling it this sort of fantastical dream. Now I don’t know why this actually stuck inside my head. But I feel that this is a very good jumping off point to describe what it is you do in terms of selecting those right details. Because I can see it from a California point of view. Because it is too good to be true. I can also see it as someone who has lived here in New York for five years and also say, “Well, yes, it is too good to be true. And it deserves to be mocked or ridiculed in some sense.” But at the same time, we’re also dealing with an author who is ascribing this through a character. And this becomes something that I obsess with. And I’m sure that some other reader is going to obsess over something along those lines. I ask you this about how you choose these details, such as the weather, because your prose is very sparse, very economic, very selective in its own criteria in terms of its syntax. So how does something like the California weather or, for example, Chinese food — also featuring in both books — how do these things make their way in a story? What is the filtering mechanism that causes this? A very bad, eccentric, possibly deranged way to start this, but I thought I would do that.
Ohlin: No, it’s always great to start with weather. I certainly think that everything in the books is filtered through the consciousness of the characters. And that’s always where I begin. It’s my entry point as a writer to start creating a narrative. And it’s certainly how I choose the details. Which is not really a conscious process. It’s more that I’m there in the moment with the character and imagining what might be the most conspicuous thing to them. So both of those descriptions of California, to respond to that, are absolutely moments of experience that are specific to characters who are from the East Coast and wintry climates, who come out and, of course, that’s what they remark upon. Of course it feels like a fantasy and an escape and something amazing and remarkable. Because to them, it is.
Correspondent: Did you get burned in California? Did you get burned by the weather or burned metaphorically?
Ohlin: I love the weather in California. And I do think it’s amazing. But, for me, I will always experience it as not home. Not the climate of home. And I will always be the person remarking upon the sunshine in January.
Correspondent: Okay. Well, aside from Anne struggling in New York in Inside, in Signs and Wonders you have a number of stories set in New York City. And “Who Do You Love?” made an impression upon me for a number of reasons. The notion of a band called Das Boot, which is actually noted around a German mode, or a mood, as opposed to the actual Teutonic experience full boar — that resonated with me because I’ve known people like the — well, rather interestingly, she doesn’t have a name, the woman who is smit with Adam, the aging rock star who is past his prime, doesn’t want to do any particular work and yet he has a draw in Williamsburg. That men like that are allowed to get away with such pathetic behavior, both in that and what we see with Inside and what we see in a number of the other stories in Signs and Wonders. I’m curious. Do you think that this particular fixation is common largely to New York? The vocational experience, is it rooted in your own personal experience? How do these fixations on, I suppose, vocational nightmares along these lines and the terrible influence on other people, how did these come about?
Ohlin: So by “vocational experiences,” do you mean the fact that he wants to be a rock star?
Correspondent: Aspirations. Is this common to New York? Why does this seem to be your idea of what New York is?
Ohlin: Well, it’s not my only idea of what New York is. But I do think that both New York and Los Angeles are places where a lot of young people move in their twenties to pursue artistic dreams that they thought were less available to them wherever they came from. So in that story, it’s the kind of story about someone who was on the cusp of being too old to be aspiring. At a certain point, you’re just sort of a person who never made it and that’s an extremely difficult moment to switch over in your own head. And then I think I have written about other characters in Inside, like Anne, who is an aspiring actress, who starts off first of all in the theater world in New York and then goes out to L.A. to try — or winds up being cast in a TV show in L.A. I just think that there’s something about both those cities that they are conduits to not just any kind of vocational experience, but artistic experiences. And then they don’t work out for people. And that’s incredibly difficult. And it’s part of your growing up to try and figure out how to come to terms with that.
Correspondent: Did New York work out for you? I mean, I know you worked in the publishing industry. And this leads me to ask you also if you had to get certain elements of how you viewed fiction and how you viewed books outside of your system in order to truly inhabit these stories as an artist.
Ohlin: Well, you know, that’s a really interesting question. I moved to New York straight out of college and I did work in publishing. And I loved it. I learned a lot and I was having a great time. But I also had this secretly harbored desire to write. And I would go to work all day and there were two things about it that were difficult. One was that a huge part of my job as an editorial assistant was to reject manuscripts. So I was right there at the forefront of rejection and understanding how difficult the odds were.
Correspondent: Did you reject anybody big?
Ohin: I don’t really want to say who I rejected. But a big part of what I rejected were slush pile people. The people who are just writing in cold without an agent. But there were so many of them and my entire cubicle would be full of these works of love — you know, 500 page novels that people were sending in that I would write a simple two-sentence letter rejecting. That was hard, when you think about, well, what’s going to become of my work. But then on the other side of the coin was that the books that were accepted, I mean, I was working at Knopf and we were publishing people like Cormac McCarthy and Tobias Wolff and Toni Morrison. And their work was so incredibly sophisticated and adept. And then I would go home and I would write these terrible, terrible, terrible stories. And the contrast between what I could do and what these published authors could do on the one hand and the rejection of the unsolicited manuscripts on the other hand really did not create an ideal context for artistic risk-taking. So I think it was really because of that, and not something about New York in particular. I love New York. But it was really about working in this atmosphere of rejection and impossible standards that I just thought, “Well, I really can’t do this.” I made the impetuous decision that you make when you’re in your early twenties and I thought, “I’m leaving New York! I’m starting over!” You know. “And it’s going to be an adventure!” I think, had I been a little older, I probably would have realized that there are ways that you can reconcile those two things. But at the time, it seemed like going away and writing in secret far away from New York publishing was the thing that I had to do.
Brian Francis Slattery is most recently the author of Lost Everything and previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #142.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hammering in the morning, the evening, and the afternoon.
Author: Brian Francis Slattery
Subjects Discussed: Radio programs which force authors to starve for an hour, the glut of dystopian novels after 2008, taking criticisms to heart, distinguishing many forms of sarcasm and irony, a segue with two friendly gentlemen with hammers, the bleakness within Lost Everything, the seriousness of a major economic collapse, hope in the “Who knows?” area of bleakness, the possibility of restoration in Liberation vs. the unknown storm (The Big One) in Lost Everything, “squanch” as a word, Lost Everything‘s wandering narrator, using up a quota of semicolons, starting a sentence with a verb, faith and spirituality, agnosticism, the philosophical value of Christopher Reeve quotes, agnostics who dodge questions of faith, Nicholas Wolterstorff, the pacifistic and apolitical nature of taking Christianity seriously, the balance between forgiveness and righteousness, moral codes that are mishmashes of philosophy and religion, discussing issues in both religious and secular terms, the physical limitations within the Carthage, not providing the answers to the reader, deliberate ambiguities, super-omniscient narrators, narrators who match character predicaments, resisting the word “fun” when investigating nightmarish human predicaments, Russian roulette, violence and bleak humor as a defense mechanism, working at a social science research foundation, the choice between laughing and becoming serious when presented with genocide, how much a human life is worth, Guatemala vs. the Ukraine, life being cheaper in certain parts of the world, superfluous playground warnings, judgement of other parents over trifling details, sugar as a disruptive force, being reprimanded for saying “fuck” joyfully in a Park Slope restaurant, reading bleak books, finding the value in everyone, engaging in reckless behavior, when the removal of safeguards creates unanticipated possibilities, writing about a world devoid of electricity, 19th century human existence, how people live without electricity now, Darwin’s Nightmare, Hubert Sauper’s Kisangani Diary, Rwandan refugees who have nothing when coming across as a sanctuary, a maturing point in Slattery’s career, guilt, taking things seriously, a writer’s commitment to human existence, form following function, George Clinton and Bob Dylan as inspirational forces for (respectively) Spaceman Blues and Liberation, basing a narrative voice on the way people talk, Dock Boggs, Skip James, and 1920s music, expressing resistance through music, musicians authorized to marry people and given authority by the author, free spirited life in the face of chaos, music grounded in social reality, partying when everybody is freaked out, the house, river, and highway structure in Lost Everything, Life on the Mississippi, Kerouac, finding the specific region in America for Lost Everything, comparisons between Lost Everything and Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, modeling novels from The Odyssey, the Susquehanna River being underutilized in American fiction, Slattery navigating the Susquehanna River in a canoe, William T. Vollmann, “Sunny Jim” Rolph, Captain Mendoza and Lydia Mendoza, character names, eels coming out of mattress, and making sure the constant degradation wasn’t repetitive.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Slattery: Thanks for letting me eat and drink while I’m talking with you.
Slattery: Which I’ll be doing.
Correspondent: It’s one of the very rare programs that allows authors to drink and eat.
Slattery: It is.
Correspondent: Most programs allow authors to starve for an hour. Anyway, we don’t do that here. Well, first of all, how are you doing? I didn’t quite get that question answered. You’re doing okay?
Slattery: How am I doing? Oh, I’m great. I’m good.
Correspondent: Alright. Well then, let’s get right down to business. For some inexplicable reason, and I have no idea why — maybe you might have a few ideas — but since roughly around 2008 — again, I have no idea why — there’s been a great rush of dystopic novels. Dystopian novels. Doom and gloom. And here we have number three from you, sir. So just to start off here, I’m wondering, when you started writing Lost Everything, were you aware of what might be called a glut or what might be called an overpopulated filed of dystopian novels? Did you care about such an output that was going on simultaneously as you were working on a book?
Slattery: I guess I should say that I was mildly aware, but not that aware. It’s not something I pay that much attention to, I guess. Even in stuff that I read, I read a ton of nonfiction. So I’m sort of vaguely aware of trends in fiction. But they have to be pretty big for me to be aware of them, I’m afraid. But yeah, it’s not something that I think about that much. The idea of chasing a trend or worrying about a trend, you just have to sort of — at least for me, I just worry about whether I can write a good book or not, and I see where it turns out. And in the case of the third one, it was like, from the first to the third one, one grew pretty naturally out of the other. There were questions that I liked in the first one that I never got around to that I did some of in the second one. And then there was still some left over. So there’s another book. Quite a bit.
Correspondent: Such as what? What specific questions are we talking about here?
Slattery: Gosh, let me think. I think that from the second to the third one, probably the best thing was — you know, the reception to it was really great. It was really very gratifying. One of the things that I ended up taking to heart though was that there were people who were being too flippant.
Slattery: And I thought, “That’s fair.”
Correspondent: You took that to heart?
Slattery: I did.
Correspondent: Does this explain why this one is really very bleak at times?
Slattery: It is.
Correspondent: It’s not to say that it’s devoid of humor. Because you do have the music.
Slattery: No, no. It is. It’s quite a bit darker. And for a while, I got halfway through it and I thought, “God, this book is really dark.” And then I thought, “Well, at least I should finish it.” And then I finished it and I thought, “No, it’s still really dark.” And there’s a part of me that — because, you know, I’m not really that serious of a person. And I was really kind of surprised that I’d written such a serious book. But it also seemed like — you know, there’s a point where, for the first two books, I think that there was a really conscious endeavor to make sure that the stakes weren’t so high that you couldn’t joke about it. And then eventually the stakes are high enough that it seemed kind of creepy to joke about it. It was like, you know, nobody would be joking in this kind of situation. Nobody would be just kind of horsing around. There’s no place for it anymore. And so I tried to find the humor where I could get it. But it felt increasingly forced to go for it. And it also seemed like kind of a fair trade. I felt like I was trading sarcastic for creepy. And I’m sort of okay with that.
Correspondent: You are. Well, what do you define as sarcasm? Having joy and having fun against an especially bleak or depressing environment, to my mind, isn’t sarcasm. And I don’t think it has been sarcasm in either Liberation or Spaceman Blues. I think it was a sense of irony. So how do you distinguish between irony and sarcasm here? And I’m really curious about the fact that you decided to…
Slattery: That’s a fun question to ask me, actually. Because I consider myself to be a pretty sarcastic person, but also kind of anti-irony. If that makes sense. And I think that what it comes down to is that I don’t — the way that I — I mean, this is obviously the pop culture version of irony. It’s not the lit crit version of it. But, you know, the pop culture version of it is that at the end, the joke is everybody not really sure what the person’s intentions are. Like the person has done a lot to hide what they actually think. And I don’t try to do that. So like…
Slattery: No, this looks great.
Correspondent: Did you want to pause? So you can actually eat that.
Slattery: No, no, no.
Slattery: So it would be like — I try to joke around and I try to be kind of honest about it. If that makes sense. And to not be really ambiguous about what it is that I’m trying to say.
Correspondent: Okay. Well, in terms of distinguishing between lit crit irony and pop culture…
Gentleman with Hammer: Sorry. Are you recording?
Gentleman with Hammer: Because I’m going to use the hammer for a few. Do you have a long time?
Correspondent: Probably thirty or forty minutes or something like that?
Gentleman with Hammer: Okay. Do you mind? Just for five minutes. I will tell you.
Correspondent: Okay, why don’t we…?
Slattery: We’ll stop.
Correspondent: We’ll stop. Five minutes.
Correspondent: Okay. So back in action here. So we were talking about irony and sarcasm and humor and the differences between pop culture irony and lit crit irony. And then two gentlemen decided to start construction on us. And they stopped thankfully.
Correspondent: They were very nice.
Slattery: And it looks really good.
Correspondent: Yes, it does really look good. So we were trying to peg what you view your humor to be.
Correspondent: And I insisted that it was working in some quasi-ironic mode.
Slattery: (laughs) That’s nice of you.
Correspondent: A sincere irony, I suppose. Or I suppose the joys of contradiction. And you were saying, “No, no, no, Ed, actually….”
Slattery: No, no, no. We’re probably talking about the same thing.
Correspondent: Yeah. We’re probably talking about the same thing.
(Image: Houari B.)
Jess Walter is most recently the author of Beautiful Ruins and previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #163
This episode of The Bat Segundo Show is brought to you by Audible.com. If you want to listen to Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, The Financial Lives of the Poets, or The Zero (all available at Audible.com), and help keep this show going, sign up for a free audiobook and a 30 day trial. Use this handy link: http://www.audiblepodcast.com/bat
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contemplating a trip to Italy to push his debauchery to the next level.
Author: Jess Walter
Subjects Discussed: The folly of great quests, whether true quests are measured in hope, not writing the same novel twice, starting a novel in 1997 and carrying on for the next fifteen years, Scientology, the “Psych!” moment in fiction, early versions of Beautiful Ruins, Walter’s experience as a cop reporter, Over Tumbled Graves, having to write several novels to get to the end of Beautiful Ruins, the importance of hovering central questions, hiking the Cinque Terre, having a 26 page explosive breakthrough in Italy, imposing a generous structure, the problems that come when you get sick of your characters after working on a novel for a long time, curing a novel’s frustrations by writing another novel, responding to the 2008 economic meltdown through fiction, plummeting house tax assessments, funneling anxieties into The Financial Lives of the Poets‘s Matt Prior, existing in a bubble, Albert Camus’s “The Wager of Our Generation,” marrying social concerns with entertainment, “table-leg sideburns” and other poetically entertaining descriptions, big fat American novels, the advantages of being unaware of the publishing industry or not having a MFA, Walter’s dubious bachelor’s degree, being a laugh whore, introducing social dilemmas to avoid cracking jokes all the time, pegging a writer’s DNA based on her ten favorite books, Kurt Vonnegut, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joan Didion’s The White Album, secret trashy books that writers are inspired by, Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File, Clint Eastwood’s The Eiger Sanction, 1970s thrillers, the dramatic benefits of evil Nazi doctors, surprises of motive, the present literary stigma on melodrama, Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo, being fond of riffs, Shane, Dee Moray and Rebecca De Mornay, the origins of names, Robert Evans, description which mimics Hollywood screenplay description, virtual adultery in The Financial Lives of the Poets and “pining for the digital hit” in Beautiful Ruins, capturing digital life in fiction, accidental zeitgeist moments, observing other people, characters who want to be younger better versions of themselves, writing short stories about fatherhood, looking for the specific angle for a novel, journalism vs. fiction, senility, the magpie method of novel writing, the Crispin Glover movie about the Donner Party, researching Richard Burton, Burton on The Dick Cavett Show, Louis Menand’s inspirational phrase, Robert Sellers’s Hellraisers: The Inebriated Life and Times of Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris & Oliver Reed. the freedom of writing about the dead, Michael Deane’s abandoned first chapter, “We want what we want,” using narrative fragments and “bad writing” to find poignancy within characters, feeling genuine about a story, writing a section of Beautiful Ruins without using a comma, deliberate efforts to write the world’s worst poetry, when people don’t think that they are the villains of their own story, inevitable actions, responding to Allegra Goodman’s charges about extending beats too long, pushing hard on the emotional buttons, the impossibility of the perfect novel, the inevitability of bad writing, reality shows based on Web concepts, collisions between high and low culture, emotions and language, the beauty of faded art, artistic compromises, and whether writing can ever fully capture romance.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I’d like to start off with a sentiment that’s expressed late in the book. Because I think it really encapsulates what this novel is about. “But aren’t all great quests folly? El Dorado and the Fountain of Youth and the search for intelligent life in the cosmos — we know what’s out there. It’s what isn’t that truly compels us.” And in this passage, you suggest that true quests aren’t measured in time and distance. They’re actually measured in hope. So to my mind, this is also a very good description of writing.
Correspondent: So I’m wondering how you counter this idea of knowing what’s out there while writing Beautiful Ruins. This notion of the quest that guided all these considerable styles, considerable characters, considerable decades, considerable locations — all crammed quite majestically into a 350 page narrative: what steps do you take to find that quest? And to make sure you’re not writing the same novel twice?
Walter: Well, I haven’t had a problem writing the same novel twice. The novel, I think, is very much a reflection of the way I work and the things that I think are important in fiction writing. And that passage you talk about, this novel I started in 1997 and I kept putting it down. So it was that journey. It was very much one of those quests that took me to different styles of writing, to different places, to Edinburgh, to Italy, to England, to different places in the United States. And every time I’d come back to it, the thing itself would kind of be about storytelling. Those “beautiful ruins” of the title are, to me, the artifacts that make up this piece. The lives are reflected in the stories that we tell about ourselves. So it was a bit of a meta experience for me, writing this. I kept feeling as if I was commenting upon the writing of the book itself through this big storytelling voice, this third-person omniscient, where I was able to just grab a character and tell you everything you needed to know about them. That idea of storytelling kept coming around in a big grand way.
Correspondent: 1997. So what shape, what direction, was what became Beautiful Ruins like back then? I ask because there’s this tantalizing bit at the very beginning. “Oh, Jess is going to write a Scientology satire, a sendup!” And then “Psych!” No, it’s that story at all. Nicely mimicking Lydia’s parallel story near the end. So this would explain, if you worked on it for so many years, why it became so mammoth and complex. But I’m wondering what the prototypical version of this looked like.
Walter: Yeah. I like the idea of having the word “Psych!” every three or four pages. Psych! You thought it was going to be this.
Walter: We may have to talk with the audio book people about that. I’ll just lean over the actor’s shoulder and say “Psych!” every few minutes.
Correspondent: That would probably be a good way to read the David Foster Wallace footnotes.
Walter: It would.
Walter: Psych! But I went to Italy in 1997 before I published any novels. And I’d been working on two novels that would fail. That would just never be published. And this was my third failed novel in my mind. It was called at the time The Hotel Adequate View. My mom had been diagnosed with cancer. And I originally thought I would write a magical realism piece about a woman dying of cancer who goes to this small Italian village where, for some mystical reason, her cancer stops. And it was really just a way for me to take my mom to this place she’d never gotten to see. And then I was sort of tweaking with the idea. I didn’t want to write that book about my mom. But I still had this woman arriving at this village and this man Pasquale Tursi seeing her. And I had to figure out: “Who was this woman?” And my first book had been made into a miniseries on CBS. Ruby Ridge, in 1995. So I’d had my first dealings with Hollywood. And so I thought, “She’s an actress.” So in 1997, I had this idea she was an actress. I had already looked up Cleopatra. I thought she was part of that. I even had the parallel stories. But I really just hit a wall. I didn’t know how to write that novel then. It was more ornate than I think I was capable of doing. So I stepped aside and I wrote Over Tumbled Graves, which was a crime novel that I outlined. Like a lot of young writers, I was really teaching myself how to write a novel. And I didn’t have the chops then to write this book.
Correspondent: So out of this early version came this fixation on serial killers. That’s quite interesting. (laughs)
Walter: I had been a cop reporter.
Correspondent: Yeah, I know.
Walter: So I turned — I did what every young writer does. Write what you know. You don’t know Italy. You don’t know Hollywood. I lacked the confidence, I guess, to finish it. And I also didn’t know where the story was going. I mean, it becomes about the span of these lives. And I hadn’t had as much life as I’ve had now. I hadn’t had that span. So I wrote Over Tumbled Graves. When I finished it, I went back to The Hotel Adequate View. Still couldn’t crack it. Wrote Land of the Blind. Went back to it. Still couldn’t crack it. Wrote Citizen Vince. This kept happening on and on and on. Finally in 2008 — July of 2008 — I finished a draft of it. It was now called Beautiful Ruins. I gave it to a friend of mine. And I read it. And it still didn’t work. And so I set it aside and I wrote The Financial Lives of the Poets in about eight months. As a kind of palate cleanser. Because by now, it had grown to this puzzle with all these pieces that I could sort of intuit how they fit together. But I couldn’t quite get them to work in that way.
Correspondent: This is fascinating to me. So you had to write several novels to get to the end of this. To get to the end of the draft.
Walter: Yeah, right.
Correspondent: This suggests to me, perhaps, that, because you were mimicking several styles within the course of this book, each incremental step forward was almost a new style. Almost like a mini-novel, I suppose. Is that safe to say?
Walter: You know, not really. Because I would go back to the beginning…
Correspondent: Oh! Okay.
Walter: …and tear it up from the beginning. There’s not a sentence that exists which was in that original version.
Walter: Every time I would go back to it, I’d be left with Pasquale and Dee. Most of the rest of it didn’t quite make sense to me. Michael Deane exists in some form. I probably discovered Richard Burton in about 2006, that I wanted to write about him. But there were just odds and ends and bits and pieces that would make their way into it. But it was more — it really was like a 3D puzzle that fits together. And while it’s sort of complex in structure, I never wanted it to be complex in narrative. I always wanted it to be a story that pushed forward. And there’s a central question. This couple meets. And are they going to get back together fifty years later? And as long as that was hovering over it, I felt like I could do all these other pieces. So I went to Italy again after I finished The Financial Lives of the Poets. I went to speak. A friend was teaching there and I went to speak at his class. And I hiked the Cinque Terre again. And I had this burst of understanding of what was missing. I stayed up and wrote 26 pages of my journal — my writing journal — of notes. And the last note I wrote was “It’s morning. The birds are chirping. I’ve stayed up all night.” And in there was a kind of outlined description of what I thought the novel should do. I didn’t follow all those rules. But it was a nice path to get me through this last burst of writing. And when I finished it this last time, I had a sense that this is it. This is the book that I wanted to write before I knew what it was.
Correspondent: So would you say, during this period of writing this novel and also writing several other novels, that really it was a matter, with Beautiful Ruins, of giving yourself permission to set down at least a tentative structure so you could actually push forward? Was that really the breakthrough with this?
Walter: Well, every writer knows that feeling of something that fails. And I never thought it was going to succeed. Honestly. Every time I hit a wall with it, I thought, “Well, that thing’s done.” Because I’ve had other novels that peter out after however many pages. So it wasn’t that I lacked the structure. Because I thought I knew what it was. It just didn’t work. And it just wasn’t right. And I always write two or three things at once. It’s my one superpower. That I’m a really good driver. So I write poems at the same time that I write essays, at the same time I write reviews, and I just sit at the desk. And if I’m stuck on one thing, I work on something else. So I’ve got two novels going now. And I don’t know which one will grab me.
Correspondent: A race to the finish.
Walter: Yeah. And I might finish it and decide it doesn’t work. But the structure I imposed on it the last time was a little more generous structure. I think I was even more indulgent with myself and trying on the reader in earlier drafts. And this time I said, I’m going to make sure that you’re rewarded when you have to start over and meet new characters. That when things come back around, there’s a payoff. And I knew that Alvis Bender, this writer from World War II, would figure in it. And I knew that I wanted to have a pitch for a film about the Donner Party. I knew these pieces. And so I trimmed a lot of those and made them shorter so it was less trying on the reader. I tried to make the connections more complete. And I always sensed that the novel would make or break on the last chapter when I had this idea, that I wrote in my journal in Italy in 2008, that everything would swirl back around in this big present tense.