jeffreyford2

Jeffrey Ford III (BSS #483)

Jeffrey Ford is most recently the author of Crackpot Palace. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #36 and The Bat Segundo Show #191.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Constricted by restrictive taxonomies.

Author: Jeffrey Ford

Subjects Discussed: Eleven-hour drives from Ohio, the first-person “road” stories featuring a fictitious “Jeffrey Ford” and his wife Lynn vs. the real Jeff and Lynn, Isaac Bashevis Singer, when autobiography creeps into fiction, when we aren’t really the people we really are, efforts to avoid the predictable in fiction, slightly busted stories, taking the staid form of a YA vampire story and finding a new way to do it, Let the Right One In, being persuaded by Ellen Datlow, unfettered surrealism, “The War Between Heaven and Hell Wallpaper,” varying notions of experimentalism, limitations with the surreal, the importance of grounding a story for the reader, Alice Munro, well-told tales vs. pyrotechnics, spiders burrowing into the brain, how the Fleischer cartoons and Kim Deitch are great inspirations for fiction, dark cartoons, Robert Coover, what writers are allowed to do in fiction, the difficulty of throwing stories out, finding new pathways from broken stories, how Donald Rumsfield inspires fictitious robot generals, the absurdity of war hero worship, Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson on the racetrack, Graham Joyce, why unseemly conversation topics are great for emotional fiction, how speculation leads to unexpected mimesis, when people are more concerned with categorizing a story into an obscure subgenre rather than accepting a story for what it is, the yoke of genre, the folly of labeling a story steampunk, idiosyncrasy and originality in fiction, having realistic expectations about your audience, combating story formula, the advantages of not knowing who a “Jeff Ford reader” is, rethinking The Island of Dr. Moreau, Charles Laughton’s acting and directing career, when animals go crazy, glass eels in New Jersey, working with Joyce Carol Oates for New Jersey Noir, imagination inspired by dreams vs. imagination inspired by location, the anecdotes you can collect from coroners, insects that buzz around human heads in eccentric flight patterns, paintings and esoteric folklore as starting points, Ford’s secret life as an owl enthusiast, and why it’s so difficult to write a Dust Bowl novel.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: How can fiction tell us about these unknowable sensations that stretch beyond the territory of what an embedded journalist can actually cover? That work that terrain? We’re essentially imagining and hypothesizing about what that sheer brutality or violence is likely to be. Is the kind of speculation in fiction better than, say, the speculation by priapic op-ed types?

Ford: I don’t think it is. Terry Gross had a lot of reporting from people who had actually been in Fallujah and places like that. And their descriptions of the stuff are really terrifying to me. I can’t imagine being a 19-year-old kid. I’d be just standing there stone stark scared, shitting my pants. You know what I mean? You’ve got these 19-year-old kids, 18-year-old kids, who are acting. They’re doing what they have to do. Which I don’t know how they do it. So you hear about those things. The reality of them. That’s one thing, right? You can approximate things though. I mean, I remember reading this piece by Hemingway. He was talking. He was hanging out with Sherwood Anderson. Anderson had never been to a racetrack or anything. He didn’t really know anything about horses, but he described this guy falling off his horse backwards in one of his stories. And he had never seen anything like this happen before. And he and Hemingway were at the racetrack the next day or a couple days later right after they were talking about this. And the guy, that actually happened. And they saw it. And Hemingway said it happened exactly the way that he wrote it. You know what I mean? So I think to an extent you’re able to imagine those things. Because you’re a human being. You’re in those kind of situations.

There are instances and there are moments though like when you would think something would be the way it is. You know, the way that you’d imagine it. But it’s probably the opposite. So you have a situation. I read a story once by Graham Joyce — a British writer. And he had these two fathers. And one father was kind of abusing his kid and the other father was getting mad at him and went over to him. Now most writers would take that and have it like some kind of corny screaming match. But he didn’t do that. He did this low-key conversation that was full of menace, but really controlled. You know what I mean? And that’s the way it really would have happened. But most people would have gone for the — oh, this is obviously going to turn into a fight or like fisticuffs and stuff. But I’ve seen that happen before. And it’s not what you would first go for. It’s something else entirely. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

Correspondent: I think what we’re talking about is how the fiction writer saturates herself into speculation, and enough speculation with which to offer, I suppose, a plausible narrative incident that in some strange way mimics what could happen in reality or actually even anticipates it. What do you do? Have there been incidents where you’ve had a moment that, “Aw man, I’m really embarrassed for having gotten something wrong”? Or do you even care about something like this?

Ford: Well, you know, I’ve had moments where I come to that. In “86 Deathdick Road,” right, we’re talking about one of the most basic human things that most people will not cop to. Jealousy, right? Fears of inadequacy and so forth. These are not topics that I would bring up to talk about myself in a pleasant conversation. But when you come to this stuff in the story, that’s where you have to make your decision. Like am I going to go for it? ‘Cause you know if you don’t, the story’s going to suck. But if you can do it and pull it off, you’ll say those things that most people aren’t going to say. And that’ll make the story interesting, I think, and come to life. You know? There is a period, a place sometimes where you have to ask that question to yourself. Can I do this? And then, more times than not, I’m like, “You know what? I’ve learned to appreciate those instances and then push through them.” I think that’s really the way to go. ‘Cause otherwise what’s the fucking point?

(Photo: Houari B.)

Categories: Fiction

twentyyeardeath

Ariel S. Winter (BSS #482)

Ariel S. Winter is most recently the author of The Twenty-Year Death.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he can condense the shards of his life into a twenty-year epic spanning three books.

Author: Ariel S. Winter

Subjects Discussed: Day jobs, being a stay-at-home father, sneaking out to write in the library, the exhaustion of writing after kids have gone to bed, Susan Straight, Stewart O’Nan writing 250 words a day, maximum time and page counts, the choice of pastiche, Georges Simenon writing novels in 11 days, original idea of a reader frame narrative, Police at a Funeral‘s original title, similarities between main character and F. Scott Fitzgerald, postponing writing in the first person until volume III, knowing the end based on Jim Thompson endings, The Alcoholic, narrators having the same sound, Pop. 1280, adopting specific verbal phrases, Chandler’s “automatic elevators”, Thompson’s “five-ten dollars”, consulting pages of Chandler/Simenon/Thompson books before writing, chronological accuracy, The Yellow Dog, references to World War II in Chandler’s novels, the importance of newspapermen, The Furies, punishment of those who kill members of their own family, Fitzgerald’s lone play, deaths with a comic tone, Murder, My Sweet, Thompson’s criminals never thinking they are at fault, Chandler being the most difficult to emulate, John Banville’s upcoming Philip Marlowe novel, apologizing to each writer in the dedication, poems in dialogue with other poems, Marlowe’s interest in poetry and chess,The Long Goodbye, maintaining the consistency of pastiche through various drafts, changing the ending to Malniveau Prison, Charles Ardai as editor, the Hard Case Crime editing style, James M. Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress, advantages of genre and pastiche versus original voice, and modernist aspects of The Twenty-Year Death.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: We were talking beforehand. I was curious what you did. And you said, “Well, I’m not going to tell you, Ed. I’m going to tell it to you on air.” I was curious about your life that is not a writer. What is that like? What is it that you do? What is your day job?

Winter: Well, my day job is I’m the primary caregiver to my daughter. It was always the plan that when we had kids, I would stay home. So that is what I’ve done since she was born. She’s four. She just turned four. So that’s more than a day job. (laughs)

Correspondent: It is.

Winter: Taking care is really a 24/7 job.

Correspondent: But it does allow you time to write novels.

Winter: Well, so the only way that that was able to happen was we hired somebody, a college girl, to come in three hours a day, five days a week. And I would sneak out, go to the library, and write during that time.

Correspondent: Oh really? So you had to arrange day care to ensure that you could get progress and momentum in the book.

Winter: Yes. Because it’s different.

Correspondent: People don’t talk about that too.

Winter: Well, I’ve worked full-time jobs and written books. And, believe it or not, as hard as it is to come home after working an eight-hour day and then go and sit and write, it’s doable. Where spending ten hours with a two-year-old, you can’t then sit and write when she goes to bed.

Correspondent: Not even a quick sentence or anything?

Winter: It’s too exhausting.

Correspondent: I was talking with Susan Straight and she said that she would always find time to write. Like when she was driving in her car. She scribbles down whatever sentences she can for that day. Just to get some kind of momentum. And then there’s the Stewart O’Nan thing, where he writes like a page. 250 words a day and that’s it. That’s all he can add. But in his case, it takes the whole day. So, for you, has that three hour need to get something going, I mean, what do you generally push forward on in terms of pages and words and so forth?

Winter: When things are going really well, I can write up to four hours a day. But I never write more than four hours usually. So three hours works really well, usually in that first hour might take me a little bit to get going. I might only write a page in that first hour and then I can, in that second hour, I can potentially write six pages once I’ve gotten started. So my goal is usually to write at least two hours or, if I have a ridiculous day, ten pages. I try to do one or the other. Whichever comes first. Rarely do I write ten pages in less than two hours, but those are my goals.

Correspondent: This leads me to ask if you actually adopted any techniques to write not only in the style of [Georges] Simenon, [Raymond] Chandler, and [Jim] Thompson [who represent the three styles of the novels contained in The Twenty-Year Death], but also to perhaps write the exact same way that they did. I mean, I did notice that the years that these three separate novels were set matched roughly around the type of writing that Simenon, Chandler, and Thompson were doing at the time. So as a way of offering a general question about why you need to do pastiche over say an original voice, maybe you can talk about this a little bit

Winter: Right. Well, to answer the initial part of your question, I didn’t try to drink a whole lot or smoke cigars.

Correspondent: I figured that was impossible with a two-year-old at home, although it hasn’t prevented other people from trying.

Winter: Right. So I didn’t adopt that part. And then also Simenon, he wrote his novels usually in eleven days. You know, I’m not that fast. I write fast when I’m writing, but not a novel in eleven days. Because I definitely wasn’t able to do that. The reason that I ended up writing in those voices was quite simply, initially, because I was just reading a lot of Simenon at the time. And originally the book that I had set out to write was going to be a book in which there was a reader reading a number of different books. And each of the books the reader read, we would see in full. So there would be this frame narrator — this first-person reader. Then we would see what he had read. And the first one I wrote was this Simenon pastiche. Then as I worked on that book more and I had started to feel like it wasn’t working, I wanted to hold onto them in a prison, which is the Simenon book in The Twenty-Year Death. So as I started to think about expanding and what I might want to do, that’s when I came up with the idea of what would a mystery series look like if it wasn’t the detective that we saw from book to book. Like one of the secondary characters. So since I had already written one in the voice of the author, it followed that I wanted to do the other two in the voice of different authors. And part of that was dictated just by the way that the main character’s, Shem Rosenkratz’s, life would have progressed. He was loosely based on Fitzgerald’s character.

Correspondent: Yes. Police at a Funeral [the title of the second book contained in The Twenty-Year Death] was a title that is in The Crack-Up.

Winter: You’re the first person to pick that up. But, yes, that was purposeful. And what’s really interesting is that I didn’t write the book with that in mind. So the scene where there are actually policemen at a funeral? I wrote that without realizing that was a Fitzgerald title.

Correspondent: The subconscious is an amazing thing.

Categories: Fiction

paulabomer2

Paula Bomer II (BSS #481)

Paula Bomer is most recently the author of Nine Months. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #375

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for the mother who stole the car keys.

Author: Paula Bomer

Subjects Discussed: Katie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives, similarities between exploring women’s issues in fiction and hyperbolic op-ed journalists, how emotional candor and candid language reveals issues about women and motherhood, people who use children as an excuse not to write or so what they need to do, J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand, agents who pester writers for new novels, empty nest syndrome, judging other people’s reactions in relation to children, writing about raw experience, the tendency for young writers to write about everything, the relationship between nostalgia and experience, “writing pregnancy like a man,” responding to Alison Mercer’s claims that there aren’t enough birth scenes in fiction, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, people who viewed the first chapter of Nine Months (describing birth) as disgusting, Sylvia Plath’s journals, Elizabeth Jane Howard, when the visual and the emotional becomes frightening when conveyed through language, death and rape getting better representation in fiction than birth, the animal nature of birth, how birth was portrayed in the 1930s, being scared of things that have multiple names, Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, human memory and birth, how notions of motherhood change in various parts of America, New York having an impact on the parenting industry far more than it should, South Bend, Indiana, how childhood greatly affects perception of New York parenting, doping kids up on Adderall as a solution to poor grades and to compete with others, public-sphere competition involving kids in metropolitan areas, considering the Venn diagram between work and motherhood, much ado about Marissa Mayer being a pregnant CEO, breast milk vs. formula, the Bloomberg assault on formula, Baby Einstein tests, why contemporary writers wish to avoid writing about mothers smoking pot and having sex with strangers, satire vs. farce, the need to rebel as a writer, facing the uncomfortable through humor, shifting from short stories to novels, deviating from outlines, Phillip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater, Jonathan Franzen, Amazon reviews, the importance of not looking at reviews, Michiko Kakutani, Jonathan Lethem’s needless complaints about James Wood, Mailer vs. Vidal, when rivals in literary feuds are actually secret friends (and the needless “all or nothing” nature of most of today’s literary relationships), Alice Hoffman’s posting a reviewer’s phone number, William Giraldi’s review of Alix Ohlin, when bad reviews actually sell books, writing persuasive sex scenes, the Bad Sex Award in Fiction, graphic language, Mary Gaitskill’s views on smugness, the use of “smug” in Nine Months, writing fan letters to writers, dealing with disappointment, snobbery and hierarchies, elitism and egalitarianism, occupying unknown circles, being inspired by men’s magazines, the need for magazines to require an “angle” when writing about something cool, and the demolition derby as art installation.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: By a curious coincidence, I read your book concurrently with Katie Roiphe’s latest essay collection, In Praise of Messy Lives. And what was interesting, and I’m sure it wasn’t the fact that I read them close together, was that the tone of both were actually quite similar. Sonia’s voice and Katie Roiphe’s voice were actually very, very close. And I wanted to ask you about this. I mean, they both wish to wear their messy lives on their sleeves as a badge of honor. They both don’t always understand the impact of their behavior on other people, on their families, and so forth. But what’s interesting is that the chief difference is that Sonia actually does have some sort of emotional intuition. She is capable of discerning empathy and so forth from others, even if she doesn’t necessarily choose to respond to it. And so my question to you — well, there’s two. One, I’m wondering if you had any op-ed writers along the lines of Katie Roiphe or other Double X people in mind when you were working on this book. And, two, do you feel that candor or straightforward emotion allows us to deal with these more unpleasant feelings about what it is to be a woman, what it is to be a mother, and so forth?

Bomer: To answer your first question, I didn’t have anybody else in mind. Sonia just became a character in her own right. And I’ve actually never read an article by Katie Roiphe. I don’t read a lot of journalism. I read a few things by, say, Caitlin Flanagan five years ago and now I steer clear…

Correspondent: (laughs)

Bomer: …from most hyperbolic journalism.

Correspondent: It’s just ire-inducing. Too much of that.

Bomer: Yeah. Life’s too short. So that’s interesting that the voices are similar: obviously, not purposefully.

Correspondent: I don’t know if I should have told you. But this answers why. (laughs)

Bomer: I was a little shocked.

Correspondent: You did give me this look of like “Oh my god, really?”

Bomer: (laughs) But it’s all good. And then I’m sorry. Your second question was in regard to…I forgot.

Correspondent: Emotional candor, straightforward language, how it allows us to grapple with these particular emotions dealing with motherhood and womanhood. And also while we’re on the subject, whether fiction is better at doing this than say journalism or op-eddy kind of stuff.

Bomer: I don’t think fiction is better for it, but it’s better for me. I think that fiction is a place where I’m much more comfortable writing. A lot of people ask how autobiographical this novel is. And, no, I never left my family for months. I never had an accidental third pregnancy. And one of the main differences between the character and me is that I never stopped writing when my children were little. And Sonia stops being able to paint and feels that her children disrupt her ability to be creative. And I actually had an epiphany when my son was given to me. My first son was born and he was handed to me and one of the first thoughts — first of all, “Oh my god! My beautiful baby!” And my second thought was “I’m never going to blame him for anything in my life. I’m never going to use my kids as a scapegoat.” I think my mother did a little bit. By the way, only a little bit. She accomplished so much in her life. But I never wanted my children to be the reason why I didn’t do what I wanted to do outside of family. My family was always a huge priority. I got pregnant at 27, which is unheard of in New York. But I never wanted to not write. So other people go into the gym or you have lunch with friends. And I would hit the computer. And it took me a long time to get published. But I was always writing. And for Sonia, her children really get in the way. And for me, there was a lot of “Okay. Alright. They’re taking a nap. Here, I’m going to write two paragraphs. Woo hoo!” So it wasn’t that it wasn’t a struggle at times, but never, not to her extent, where she just can’t manage both identities.

Correspondent: You know, J. Robert Lennon wrote Pieces for the Left Hand the same way. The kids were there for a nap. He would write like a few paragraphs. So this is a very common thing for writers who are also taking care of kids and so forth. The path not taken. That’s what I’m getting here with Sonia.

Bomer: Exactly. That’s a good way to look at it.

Correspondent: So I’m wondering. Did you — I mean, this is probably getting into personal territory, but did you harbor any anxieties over the idea of having a third kid?

Bomer: Definitely. This book was written when I was thinking of having a third kid. It was kind of a book talking myself out of it.

Correspondent: (laughs) Really? You had to write a piece of fiction to talk yourself out of family planning? (laughs)

Bomer: You know, I’m just trying to be funny here. But there’s some truth to it.

Correspondent: I figured there was!

Bomer: I hadn’t sold my story collection yet. But my stories had gotten some attention by agents and everybody wants to know, “Gee, do you have a novel? Do you have a novel?” And I’d say, “Okay, I’m working on this novel.” And then I really started working very hard on it. It still took ten years later before it got published. But, yeah, it’s a hard thing to let go of having babies. Babies are a little addictive. That’s why you see families with ten children who aren’t Catholic. I think I hit on it also a lot in one story. In “The Second Son,” in my collection, I have this woman who just keeps saying, “New baby’s full of possibility!” Whereas the older children start to disappoint slightly. And having children, besides infancy being incredibly exhausting and time-consuming, it’s the most intense love affair. And you love your children. I love my 13-year-old. And I love my 16-year-old. But my 16-year-old’s off all day long with girlfriends. It’s just not the same thing as holding this infant who’s still almost part of your body. And that intensity, it’s a hard thing to say, “I’m never going to do that again.” And everybody does it a different time. I have respect for people who have no children, one child, five children, whatever your thing is. No one should judge. And this book deals with a lot of judging. “I had a lot. You’re not having a third?” And three was this group of women, they were all having their third and I just was saying, “No. My boys. I have my left and my right arm. I’m not missing anybody. Nobody’s missing here.”

Correspondent: But the emotional intensity you allude to becomes, as the kids grow up — this is also another issue which I didn’t intend to talk with you about, but since you brought it up. There was a blog post I read off of Metafilter — as a matter of fact, the other day — where this woman wrote about the absolute emotional devastation she felt at that moment where she finally had to say goodbye to her kid when the kid when off to college.

Bomer: Yeah. Empty nest syndrome!

Correspondent: The empty nest syndrome.

Bomer: Oh my god. It’s not a joke.

Correspondent: And the complete emotional breakdown she had. And what was interesting about the thread — and I sort of sympathize with a number of different points, but a lot of people said, “Wow. This is really hyperbolic. A woman would not have this extreme emotion.” Then a part of me was saying, “Well, actually she would.” Or maybe there’s just something in the translation of words that forces something to become more intense than the actual feelings that you’re feeling or perhaps less intense.

Bomer: Also, everybody’s different.

Correspondent: Yes.

Bomer: That’s the plain thing. Everybody feels differently about certain junctures in their life. For instance, I was really happy to graduate from high school. And other people pined for those high school days when they were the big quarterback or whatever. So I think I’m going to have a really hard time with empty nest. I’m having a hard time just dealing with the fact that they don’t come home for dinner every night. But I remember talking with two older women up in Binghamton, where I used to spend my summers, and one at the age of 45, she had three boys. Two were almost all out of the house. She had a baby. Because she just couldn’t deal. So she just had a big baby like ten years later after her other three kids. And another woman was like, “When I was dropping my son off at college, and we were walking up the stairs and down the stairs, and up the stairs with the chair and the desk, and then finally I was like, ‘Good riddance.’ There was no problem. It was time.” So everybody’s different.

Correspondent: Well, the question I had, which I was going to get to — although this is all fantastic and I love the rambling. The notion of facing an empty nest reality vs. looking back to your own life as Paula for Sonia to how you felt when the kids were just becoming presences and who kept you up at all hours and so forth. I’m curious, first of all, if you see any parallels between looking ahead that might actually help you in looking behind. How much space do you need to go back to certain tangible feelings? Or does the idea of the path not taken allow for all sorts of emotional possibilities that you never would have anticipated being there as you’re sitting there, getting those precious paragraphs between spare moments?

Bomer: I would say both. In particular, in regard to this book, a lot of it was written when my children were still quite small. Ten years ago. So ten years ago, I had a three-year-old and a six-year-old. And that was the first draft, and the whole path not taken, and just having a lot of fun, although it was also hard work. Don’t get me wrong. But fun in imagining someone doing this. Running you off. Doing wild things. And then the other thing is perspective. Because I revised and I revised. And then ten years later, certain revisions, the fact that I’m looking back at that time with some nostalgia definitely affects certain aspects of the novel.

Correspondent: How so? Maybe you can elaborate on this. How does that nostalgia — is that altogether a beneficial thing? Could it be a harmful feeling?

Bomer: Well, perspective and nostalgia can be interchangeable. And mostly I write from perspective. The parts of Nine Months where I’m writing about the rawness of the experience, that’s rare. Although it’s not a bad thing to do. Generally, I need a few years or even longer. My next book that I’m working on, all the characters are between the ages of twelve and twenty-two. And it’s really interesting to write about junior high when you’re 40. Probably not so interesting when you are 12. And that’s where nostalgia and perspective are actually vital and why one of my problems — a lot of people are asking, “What do you think about all these young people in the small press world? And all these 22-year-olds?” And I kind of think if they had waited ten more years, what would their work have been like? Would it have been better instead of that new style of just saying whatever pops into their heads. Which I guess is a little harsh. Sorry.

Correspondent: No, no, no. It make sense. There’s kind of a tradeoff with time though. The further you are from something, you have perhaps more bravery to approach the truth. On the other hand, you realize that perhaps there are lingering wounds there or lingering pain that you never would have anticipated. You thought you had actually put it away. Did you face this problem at all?

Bomer: Definitely.

Correspondent: What did you do to confront something like that?

Bomer: Well, you suffer as a person and then you try and capture it some way and work it into the narrative, if that’s a possibility. Remorse. I think you’re talking about remorse.

Correspondent: Or things that you did that you wish you couldn’t have done.

Bomer: Your regret.

Correspondent: Genuine contrition, yeah.

Bomer: There’s a lot of that. I’m someone who — every day, I do something that I regret.

Correspondent: Don’t we all? (laughs)

Bomer: Well, some people don’t. Maybe some people more than others.

Correspondent: Well, what’s an example? What do you regret doing today?

Bomer: Well….(pause)

Correspondent: (laughs) Or can you share?

Bomer: (laughs) I don’t want to get into the specifics.

Correspondent: I don’t know. We were on the subject. (laughs)

Categories: Fiction

martinamisbk

Martin Amis II (BSS #480)

Martin Amis is most recently the author of Lionel Asbo. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #101.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Seeking the filter of considered thought.

Author: Martin Amis

Subjects Discussed: How smoking prohibitions curtail sociopaths, Katie Price as fictional inspiration, reading the collected works of Jordan, whether Amis should be writing about the working class, class anxiety, living with a Welsh coal miner’s family, Amis’s views on class disappearing in England, the London riots, the 1992 Los Angeles riots, people shooting at each other during Black Friday, income inequality, physical deterioration in Amis’s novels, Lindsay Anderson’s if…, the male climacteric, Amis’s tendency to introduce incest with legal and moral codex, researching incest, “yokel wisdom,” New Labour and education, opportunism and rioting, Occupy Wall Street, police brutality, whether fiction can ever rectify social ills, Swift’s A Modest Proposal, Dickens, the video game medium, clarifying Amis’s stance and false rumors of shame about Invasion of the Space Invaders, being befuddled by remotes, addiction, being a Luddite, representing the present in fiction without including smartphones, going back in time as a novelist, Money and Amis’s lack of interest in New York, when nonfiction serves as a muse for fiction, pornography, masturbation, young people and sex, The Pregnant Widow, not fully understanding world events when writing The Second Plane, the massacre of the Sunni Muslims in Syria, social media, the camera as world policeman, Nabokov’s slogans, what provoked Amis’s impetuous words in a 2006 interview, Amis’s problematic remarks in interviews, lacking a filter, and writing as the ultimate intercession.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I do have to ask you about something. I’d like to talk about a medium that has a $65 billion global value, a medium that, in fact, was used by President Obama in 2008 to advertise for his presidential campaign, a medium that your friend Salman Rushdie has claimed in an interview to be “something of an Angry Birds master.” That medium, of course, is the video game. I do know, and I have to ask you this, that you wrote a book about Space Invaders. And I’m wondering. I did notice you have your pinball machine still. Why are you reluctant to own up to this Space Invaders volume? I’ve been really curious. I mean, it’s hard to find. You don’t want to talk about it. But I’m telling you that, in this age when video games are so omnipresent and have arguably outsized the movie, why would you be loath to talk about it?

Amis: I’m not necessarily loath to talk about it. I’m no longer interested in it. But there it is on my “By the Same Author” page. I haven’t disowned it.

Correspondent: But you haven’t exactly welcomed it back into print.

Amis: It hasn’t come up. I think in Italy, they’ll redo it. But that generation of games, that’s gone.

Correspondent: Not on the phones.

Amis: Not on the…?

Correspondent: Yeah. You can play Space Invaders on a phone.

Amis: Can you?

Correspondent: You can play Pac-Man on a phone. In fact, the interesting thing about some of these games is that they’re so universal and the technology is in a compact form. So you can actually use them. But what’s also impressive is, as I said, Obama actually advertised in game for 18 games in 2008 to reach voters. That’s how significant this is. And that’s why I’m curious why you have been, at least from what I’ve seen, reticent to grapple with the fact that video games are a massive part of our culture.

Amis: It’s because I’ve been left behind by all that. It’s all I can do to get a picture upon our digital TV.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Amis: I have to shout for one of my children to come and help me. I’m sort of all thumbs with all that right now and no longer interested in those slightly onanistic, solitary pursuits. But I’m as aware as everyone else is that that kind of — and I saw it with all my children that they went through years of not really wanting to do anything else. And I know how addictive they are.

Correspondent: They are very addictive. I had to uninstall some myself. That’s how bad they are. I had to read. When was the last time you played Space Invaders out of curiosity?

Amis: Not for twenty-five years. But what seems to be very addictive, my daughters admit to this, is that you do the first level and then you get on to the next level. And that kind of incremental building of skills to get to a new phase of the machine seems to be very deeply wired into us all.

Correspondent: So the addictive qualities really are why you have stayed away. Because you know that if you were to touch it again, you would actually get sucked in?

Amis: I don’t think so. I think I’m too Luddite now. I’m sort of anti-machines. And I get into a fury with things that don’t respond to what seems to me to be very simple instructions. Like the remote buttons on your TV. They’ve succumbed to what they call feature creep, where they just pile on the extras until it’s unusable by someone who isn’t prepared to really enter into it. So that part of my life is just sort of dead. And I couldn’t imagine getting interested, let alone addicted, to that anymore.

Correspondent: But what about, for example, Lionel Asbo? You conveniently have an area of Diston where somehow there are no iPhones really. There’s a Mac at the very beginning, but the sounds that we hear are natural shouts, as you are careful to note. The book goes into 2013 and really doesn’t wrestle with the fact that, if you go outside, people are looking down at their phones. They’re taking pictures of everything. They’re documenting every minutiae. And I’m wondering if you’re ever going to grapple with the reality of social media and just the sheer compact technological hold, the hold that compact technology has upon our lives.

Amis: My father said at one point. He said the reason you writers hate younger writers is that younger writers are telling them — they’re saying to the older writer, “It’s not like that anymore. It’s like this.” And it’s painful not to be on the crest of modernity as you were when you were younger. It’s not that you’re hankering for anything that’s gone. It’s not a reactionary things. It’s a helpless exclusion, really, from things you no longer understand and don’t want to make the effort to understand. Though I’m sure there are many able writers who are going to do what is there to be done with that subject, social media. But it’s not me.

Correspondent: You’re on safe ground when you go back to 1970 or, with your next book that you’re working on, back to the 1940s. Is going back in time your solution to this problem? I mean, the bona-fide literary high standards type will basically say, “Well, it’s the writer’s duty to completely submerge himself into our present day culture. And if that means something as often obnoxious as social media or phones, that’s part of the deal, bub.”

Amis: Writers are under no obligation to do anything whatever. Nabokov said — well, he was perhaps a bit prescriptive the other way.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Amis: But he said, “I have absolutely no interest in these subjects that bubble up and in a year or two will resemble bloated topicalities.” He said, “My stuff is not interested in the spume on the surface of things.” That he’s looking underneath the surface. I don’t feel that I’m being at all neglectful in not finding out about social media. It’s not a subject that excites me.

Correspondent: What about — you did explore New York, especially areas of Manhattan in Money. You’re now in Brooklyn. Do you have any interest in exploring our interestingly gentrifying areas around here?

Amis: Beyond a certain point, I don’t think where you are makes much difference at all. We lived in Uruguay for three years in 2003 to 2006. And I was often asked if I intended to do anything with Uruguay in fiction. And I can imagine writing a paragraph or two about it. But you get the feeling, rightly or wrongly, that after a certain age that you’re locked into your own evolution as a writer and that the things that you’re writing about now have been gurgling away inside you for a long time. And the idea of having a sort of hectic response to what happened yesterday seems very odd to me now and distant from me.

Categories: Fiction

garland2

Lisa Cohen (BSS #479)

Lisa Cohen is most recently the author of All We Know.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Working his obsolete connections.

Author: Lisa Cohen

Subjects Discussed: Spending years conducting book research, Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland, Garland’s connection to Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf’s diaries, the early history of British Vogue, the side effects of spending considerable time in archives, letters exchanged between Greta Garbo and Mercedes de Acosta, befriending Sybille Bedford, Janet Flanner’s considerable connections, Allanah Harper, Olivia Wyndham, Edna Thomas, Flanner’s Letters from Paris, Flanner’s lifelong fear of de Acosta, women who moved in the same Sapphic circle, London, Paris and New York as 1920s cultural termini, conveying the feeling of group life, Garland’s involvement with the peace movement in 1939, Betty Penrose’s excoriating editorial letters, Garland’s abandonment of politics later in life, The Peace Pledge Union, Dick Sheppard, Aldous Huxley, strange friendships with Ivy Compton Burnett predicated on not talking, Garland’s unpredictable qualities, Dorothy Todd’s ostracization from the 1920s social circles, what it took to get ostracized from 1920s social circles, Edna Woolman Chase and the “Nast formula,” the grip that commerce had on 1920s magazines, how the best days of British modernism were in opposition to business, Listen: the Women (a now forgotten radio show that discussed women’s issues long before Friedan), Martha Rountree, Dorothy Thompson, attempts to find radio transcripts, how phonetics journals were instrumental in digging up research, copy editing titles that have an uncertain provenance, Murphy’s vulnerability and volubility, drinking and anxiety during the early 20th century, records of Listen: the Women at the Library of Congress, searching through private collections when public records were sparse, developing a good research filter, how writing a massively ambitious book can change your life, chasing after papers in Melbourne on a calculated whim, getting on a plane to chase one shard of research down, dead ends of superabundance, Edmund Wilson, Chester Arthur, Murphy’s loquacity, being known as a brilliant talker, Murphy spending an entire life working on a study of Madame de Maintenon, Hilton Als’s thoughts on All We Know, Dawn Powell, Murphy’s need to perform, talking and uncontrolled excess, writers ruined by drinking, functional alcoholics, conversational culture predicated upon drinking, whether or not de Acosta was “the world’s first celebrity stalker,” assessing de Acosta’s poetry and fiction, thinking critically about your obsession, distinctive people who arouse strong feelings in others, quirky word usage of “consummate,” de Acosta’s affairs with many leading ladies, the fashion holdings at the Brooklyn Museum, de Acosta’s shoe collection, the desire for a higher education, how education forms character, the pros and cons of passionate engagement, Michael Holroyd’s thoughts on biography, Richard Holmes’s ideas about the rhythm of falling in and out of love with a biographical subject, scholarly frustration, Murphy’s crush on Natalie Barney, movers and shakers on the Left Bank, promiscuity in 1920s Paris, when brilliant people have blind spots, writing quasi-fiction instead of confronting the facts, Dawn Powell’s idea of “piling up facts like jewels,” living a life when all of your friends are literary characters, the dangers of living through books, class and perceptions of Australians, and whether there are any comparable figures today who could match up to Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So I was flipping around the endnotes in this book. And I noticed that you had actually conducted interviews with some of the surviving members of these various circles as early as ’96, ’97, ’98. I was really impressed by this.

Cohen: Now you’ve seen my dark secret. Not as early as ’96, but…

Correspondent: ’97. I’m sorry.

Cohen: ’97.

Correspondent: Just to be clear.

Cohen: Yes.

Correspondent: But this seems as good a time as any to ask you, first of all, how you found out about these three women. And also perhaps alert our listeners — because these are fairly obscure figures in history, semi-obscure figures in history, Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland — who these people are and how you first found them. I was really curious about that.

Cohen: So the question isn’t about why it took me so long to write this book.

Correspondent: No, no. The question is really — well, look, there are people who have spent decades on books. That’s a given. The question is when you first heard of them.

Cohen: I first heard about Madge Garland even before the distant date that you first mentioned. Even several years before then. I was writing an essay about fashion and Virginia Woolf. And I had read around Woolf’s diaries before then. But I hadn’t actually read them as a whole work.

Correspondent: Did you do that from beginning to end?

Cohen: So I read the diaries from beginning to end. And when I got to the mid-’20s, I found that Woolf was in touch with, getting to know these very interesting two women — Dorothy Todd and Madge Garland. Todd was the editor and Garland was her assistant and then the fashion editor of British Vogue in the mid-1920s. And they were remaking the magazine into this, well what you now know, really interesting place.

Correspondent: While we’re on the subject of Dorothy Todd, I was wondering. Because she’s such a prominent supporting character, did you figure that she might be a fourth part? How did you come up with the three part structure here?

Cohen: Okay. Well, that is part of the whole story. Who are they? How did I find them? Why these three people? Why three and not four or not five? In fact, originally, I thought I was writing a book about Madge Garland. As time went on, I realized that I wanted this to be a different kind of book. And I wanted to show her in conversation with, in the context of — neither of those words is quite right. But I wanted to be able to think about the issues that her life brought up in a broader way. And I also wanted to think about the genre, about biography, in a somewhat different way. I became obsessed with this woman — Madge Garland — who was in the fashion world, for your listeners, in England beginning in about 1920, when she started working at British Vogue, almost until the end. She lived into her mid-90s. She died in London in 1990. She was still publishing in the 1980s. Not hugely, but she was writing book reviews and giving interviews and so on. Until really late in her life. So a fascinating figure and a fairly elusive one and someone who told a lot of stories about her life that didn’t quite add up. Which was part of why I got really, really interested. Because I didn’t know what really had happened. And she was making it a little hard for me to find out.

Correspondent: But you were pretty stubborn and seemingly obsessive about getting it.

Cohen: I was pretty obsessed with her. I really wanted to know what had happened in her life. Because I was really moved by her and interested in her. And she was also a way for me to learn about things that I wanted to learn more about. As were all of these women. In any case, it became clear to me that writing a single subject book wasn’t the way to go for somebody like this. And along the way, I wrote a magazine profile of Mercedes de Acosta. So I spent time in the archive in Philadelphia. The Rosenbach Museum and Library, to which she gave and sold her quite voluminous collection of papers.

Correspondent: This was around the Garbo release?

Cohen: No. It was well before that.

Correspondent: Okay.

Cohen: I was invited to the press conference for the Garbo release because I had spent a lot of time in that archive already and had written this profile and got to know the curators and librarians and educators. The really wonderful people who work in that archive. So, no, well before that. Anyway, the third part of this was that I was getting to know — as a result of having interviewed her about Madge Garland, I was getting to know the wonderful writer Sybille Bedford, who talked to me a lot about Esther Murphy, who was her lover and then her very, very close friend until the end of Esther’s life. And who, as I said in the book, was really in many ways haunted by Esther until the end of her life. Sybille Bedford died — again, also when she was in her nineties — in 2006. And I thought that I wanted to bring Madge Garland into contact with these people who were also in her life. They weren’t her lovers. They were her friends. They were sometimes close friends. These women all knew each other. They were all moving in Venn diagram circles. They all had things to say about each others’ lives. They were more or less intimate with each other. They were not lovers. But they were careful and interesting observers of each others’ lives. And by juxtaposing them, I thought I could say something, again, about the genre. I could do something that was challenging and interesting to me as a writer. And I could try to talk about these questions about failure and success, about importance and triviality, about what work is, what it means to produce, what it felt like to be living through that modernist moment. I thought I could give a richer, more complicated picture of that.

Correspondent: Through pure obsession.

Cohen: Through a lot of obsession and a fair amount of self-doubt and persistence.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, I would imagine, since there’s probably nowhere nearly as much information on figures like these three as say somebody else. You mentioned trying to find specific figures who connected the three. And Janet Flanner, who seems to show up and is familiar with all three, is perhaps the most prominent of your supporting cast. What do you think it was about Flanner that allowed her to know these three women? And were there any other links that you tried to incorporate in the book that weren’t actually there of specific people who were connectors or networkers and so forth?

Cohen: You mean, links who don’t end up showing up in the book?

Correspondent: Yes, exactly.

Cohen: Well, I actually did think about that. There were other women I thought about writing about. One of them is Allanah Harper, who is there, but has a much smaller part. Somebody should write about her. Her papers are at the University of Texas at the Harry Ransom Humanities Center there, as are many other amazing writers. And she was part of that lesbian scene in London in the ’20s. And she was close friends with Sybille Bedford. As a result, she was in Esther Murphy’s life. In the ’20s, she and Madge Garland knew each other. There are lots of other really interesting women. Barbara Kerr Seymour, who was a photographer. Olivia Wyndham is another, who also was a photographer. They worked in the same photo studio for a while in London in the ’20s. Olivia Wyndham had an amazing life. She came from this upper-class or upper middle-class English family and basically ran away from home. First to get a job to work as a photographer and live a kind of wild life in London in the ’20s. And then she fell in love with a woman named Edna Thomas, an African-American actress and singer, I think, who was in London performing. And Olivia Wyndham fell in love with Edna Thomas. She moved to New York. She lived the rest of her life in Harlem and in Brooklyn. She actually joined the WACs and worked as a photographer in the U.S. in the army. I think she was sent to Australia in the ’40s during the war. I mean, a really, really interesting life. She has a tiny little part in my book. But someone should write about her. Her half-brother, Frances Wyndham, has written a story that is partly true, partly fictional about her. She appears in Julie Kavanagh’s book about Frederick Ashton. I mean, there are all kinds of women. And Madge was interesting to me originally because I really wanted to try and think about how to write about fashion, which is this non-narrative thing, right? You pop in your clothes. You appear and you make an impression. But I wanted to try and think about how to write about that phenomenon, about style and about fashion, in the story of somebody’s life. In a way that was about the profound effect of how we make our surfaces.

Photo: Madge Garland, circa late 1920s; the Madge Garland Papers

Categories: Ideas

laural

Laura Lippman II (BSS #478)

Laura Lippman is most recently the author of And When She Was Good. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #280.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why some firm is checking his references.

Author: Laura Lippman

Subjects Discussed: Chekhov’s rule, Donald E. Westlake, creating a specific type of prostitution ring for a novel, how deadly paper shredders have been used in narrative, The Temp, being a failed perfectionist, the impossibility of writing a perfect novel, Ian McEwan’s problematic recent novels, The Most Dangerous Thing, taking greater care with sentences, sentences which convey detail, the alternating chapter structure in And When She Was Good, technique as a role model, talk show radio bumpers as an unexpected inspiration, Howard Stern, creating nontextual outlines, the benefits of very long pieces of paper, missing pieces in early drafts, how the past informs the present and the present informs the past, motherhood as an essential character quality, the problems that arise when one’s life is revealed, pregnancy as the opportunity for the great do-over, “If you have to stop to consider the lie, the opportunity has passed,” defining characters by lies and opportunity, swear jars, being a borderline atheist, rabbis and religious education, sitting in a wine bar during happy hour, affording the luxury of friendship, American touchstones throughout And When She Was Good, amateur Civil War enthusiasts, whether Heloise is defined by the American fabric, people who were interested in military history, adultery in a McDonald’s drive-thru, the desecration of marriage, looking to other businesses for inspiration for Heloise’s prostitution ring, parallels between matchmaking service, prostitution rings and lobbying, business acumen vs. relationship acumen, Baltimore laundry services that refused to take new customers, checking references for prostitution, the bizarre qualities of high-end consumer goods, rappers and Burberry raincoats, myths and truths concerning the 1%, Romney-Ryan, voting for a presidential candidate against your own interests, having a comfortable living, the Princeton study citing $75,000 as the magical income for happiness, Lippman’s early career as a reporter, working part-time in an Italian restaurant, diabolical marshmallow mixes in fiction and and in life, how the rich experience time differently, time vs. money, whether time is the great equalizer, sex workers and workers’ compensation, the Australian civil servant who earned workers’ comp for an accident while having sex, the increasing American tendency to waive jury trial and class action suits, the pros and cons of legalizing prostitution, brothel tourism in Spain, being guided by belief, personal blind spots, foolish beliefs and autodidacticism, reading a list of books, the arrogance of self-made people, Tom Clancy’s ego, the hubris of plaintiff’s attorneys, actors who carry around Faulkner books to prove that they have something else going on, juxtaposing the American dream against violence, how a little bit of information can turn an accountant into a creep, confronting the place where you grow up, and being unmoored from domestic conversations.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Chekhov has this famous rule — or so I have heard — that if you introduce a gun, it should go off near the end of the actual story. And in your book, we have a very intriguing paper shredder contraption that is installed beneath a false bottom in a file cabinet. This leads me to ask you. When you came up with this idea, did you have Chekhov’s rule in mind? But it also leads me to ask you: because when we talked before, you told me that you read the entirety of your manuscript aloud before you submitted it. So how does this fastidiousness and Chekhov’s law apply to an element like the paper shredder? When you have a book such as this one, where you’re exploring character in depth, I’m wondering if there’s a little bit more liberalism in mind when it comes to this extremely tight, one might say perfectionism that has entered into your writing process. So just to start off here, what are your thoughts on these multifarious matters?

Lippman: I’m glad you mentioned Chekhov. Because I actually did have that in mind. Just yesterday, I talked with my sister, who is a bookseller and a very careful, methodical reader. She doesn’t read quickly. So she does read carefully. And she said, “You know at the time I wondered why there was so much detail. But if you’d never come back to it, I never would have thought about it. But when you came back to it, and when I realized why all that detail had been lavished on the furnishings of her office in the particular design of these paper shredders and cabinets.” She said, “I wondered if that was an homage to Chekhov.” And I said, “Yes! Thank you.” Because at the time, she was the first person who had noticed that. When I came up with that, I mentioned it to my husband, who’s a writer, and he said, “I don’t know. It sounds a little James Bond to me.”

Correspondent: Really?

Lippman: I said, “No, no, it’s very pragmatic. I’ve really thought a lot about this.” I mean, I’ve said this before. I mentioned it in the book afterwards. One of my heroes was Donald Westlake. And he maintained that if you were very thoughtful about your characters and your situations, you would make it credible — even to people who knew a lot about certain things — if you were true to your characters. If you just sat in your chair and thought hard. Such an old-fashioned idea in writing fiction these days. And so in everything about this book, I sat in my chair and I thought hard. It’s funny to me that, now that the book is out in the world, there’s an emphasis on “Well, Laura Lippman used to be a reporter. So she really knows a lot about the world of sex workers.” I did do research. I did learn some things. I’m by no means an expert on prostitution. I am an expert on the rather peculiar form of prostitution that I created for this book. I sat in my chair. I thought hard about what kind of business this character would create. And that led me to her paper shredders. Even to the detail that they are built by a Polish man who never smiles, but she thinks she sees a wisp of one when he understands the design that she has handed him.

Correspondent: And you point to the fact that there’s a relentless power supply. I think the fact is that you go to such degrees to describe the details of this paper shredder that one becomes willing to accept it, although actually I thought it was a bizarre yet cool idea. Because I had never seen that. Did you encounter any homegrown paper shredder setup like this at all? Ever? Did you ask around?

Lippman: No, but if you have a paper shredder and you read the warnings — especially because a small child had come into my life — I thought a lot about someone’s hand being inserted. Not to give too much away, but I don’t think people would be surprised. It’s not the what of it, but the who of it.

Correspondent: The Temp had a very good paper shredding scene.

Lippman: (laughs)

Correspondent: There’s that cheeseball movie, The Temp, from the 90s. You remember this? There’s an infamous paper shredder….”Auggghhhh!!!!”

Lippman: I didn’t realize that. But they warn you about your tie.

Correspondent: Yes. Exactly.

Lippman: And the average one that most people of us have in our home offices would probably be quite painful but not do real damage. And the idea — it does make sense that she would want a way to, with a turn of the key, be able to wipe out the paper files that she’s been obligated to keep. Just as, now I won’t remember because I do have a poor memory, but I was reading a crime novel recently. And someone said, “Now I’m not going to let you touch the computer. Because I know that there’s a way to wipe out a computer with a few commands. And the computer has now been seized as evidence.” This is a book that’s very much about the hubris of control, of believing one’s self to be in control, of thinking that one can anticipate every single contingency. So it’s very hard for me to think of myself as a perfectionist. Because alongside the other members of my family, alongside my own husband, I am a failed perfectionist. I’m much looser than everyone else I know and consider myself to be quite a mess.

Correspondent: Perfectionism, however, can come from a more relaxed, legato mode, I would argue. I have talked to numerous writers who are extremely concerned about their sentences, but not nearly as concerned about plot. And people have differing levels of what they bring to the table. I think, all writers do. So is this really something to define yourself by as a writer? Is this really something that we should define this novel by?

Lippman: I would actually encourage most writers to abandon perfectionism. It’s obviously impossible. And I think it was Stephen King who said once that the reason you write another novel is because you can’t write a perfect novel. And so the paradox of perfectionism is that, if you’ve achieved your goal, then you would stop being a writer. You have to stop if you could, in fact, produce a perfect novel. And there are some writers in the world who it almost seems as if that happened to them. You see writers who didn’t write again after producing beloved and almost perfect works.

Correspondent: Or who are burdened by the prospect of writing a perfect novel every time. I mean, I’ll name a name so you don’t have to. Ian McEwan. I feel that this has happened to his work. And it’s been disheartening to watch him try to write perfect novels and, because of that, have his voice compromised by these very hyperstylized sentences that get in the way of the life that he has previously been so good at.

Lippman: I mean, I wish I could credit it, because I don’t remember who said it, but it was something I heard at the Theakstons Old Peculier Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. Which is that the book you write is a reaction to the last book you wrote. And so I think coming off a book like The Most Dangerous Thing, which had ten or eleven points of view depending upon how one wants to count it and was deliberately a very slow book — what I had said to myself is “I want to write a fast book. I want to write a pageturner. I want it to be highly entertaining.” And I availed myself of some larger-than-life details and some larger-than-life characters. And I really wanted to have fun. Although then as I got into this book, I could make it fast. I could achieve the pace that I was after. I found that I really could make Heloise’s world fun. And it was my husband who gave me advice, which he almost never does by the way. That’s really rare. And at one point, he said, as I was getting launched into the novel, “Don’t make her benign. Her world’s not benign.” You know, the fact that the women who work for her get health insurance doesn’t erase everything else about prostitution. And it’s not a business that one can be in and thrive in with clean hands. And I thought that was pretty good advice.

(Photo: Annie Chernow)

Categories: Fiction

chickenwithplums

Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud (BSS #477)

Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud are most recently the writers and directors of Chicken with Plums.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if his creative skills can be adapted.

Guests: Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud

Subjects Discussed: Adapting graphic novels to film, Natural Born Killers, sitcoms, Hollywood’s insistence on remakes, splitting duties as co-directors, the importance of preparation, fights during production, the importance of death threats to the creative process, Satrapi’s panels as white backgrounds, creating a cinematic look, separating the graphic novel from the film, when words cram up a panel, spending two years to prepare a film, research, German expressionism, limits on cinematic exaggeration, why vulgarity and bad taste is important, Who’s the Boss?, being inspired by high and low references, the importance of humor, finding a common vision, fighting over small details, being gentle with other people 90% of the time, the miracle of clashing personalities agreeing on something, Chicken with Plums‘s reduced politics from the novel to the film, naming characters after nations, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of the Rose, books vs. films, Erich von Stroeheim, art vs. commerce, stress, the virtues of being left in peace to make your own film, how actors provide emotional resonance, directing and finding the right actors, the freedom to telephone an actor in Europe, the importance of creating a fantastical playground for actors, and Satrapi’s tendency to choose silhouettes for the visual style.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I am extremely fascinated by the way that you adapted this movie, that you’ve adapted both of your works. In Persepolis, there’s this extended winemaking explanation for the secret parties. There’s also the increased attention to shopping with, of course, the Marjane in that saying, “One of my favorite pastimes” over and over. Which suggests something that was almost explicitly designed for the cinematic medium. Now in Chicken with Plums, you have a number of moments that take on greater life in the film adaptation. To just cite two, you have the various deaths that Nasser Ali imagines, which is only half a page in the book and which becomes this glorious montage, this wonderful set piece. And then you also have this satirical episode in California in the book take on this kind of 1950s sitcom, kind of like Natural Born Killers but a totally different style, in the movie. So my question is: do you see these movies as a way to improve upon what you laid down in the books? Or do you see them as separate entities that only film can actually create? And what do the two of you do to heighten certain moments and silent other ones?

Satrapi: No. I think a film has to have its own identity and entity. This is not that I think that the books, they are bad and that’s why we have to make the movie. And actually, you know, for myself, I never want to make a work of adaptation ever again. Because it’s very boring. You once have to think about the story in one way and then think about it in another way. But it was a reason for that. And that is that it was my idea to make Persepolis. I had a friend who wanted to become a producer, who proposed to make Persepolis, and somewhere, you know, deep down of myself, I always thought why not try something and learn something. In the worst case, we will make the worst film in the world. But at least I have learned something. And I proposed it to Vincent, who is a very good friend of mine. We used to laugh a lot for the joy of working for him. And he said “Yes!” And so we started doing it. So we made this Persepolis and obviously it got all the attention it got. And we thought that because we were Oscar nominee, now we are going to say we are going to make another film. And it will open the door to a room with billions of dollars. And they tell us, “Take all the dollars that you want and make your film.” But this is not true. Because we are living in a world of remakes. Everybody wants to make a remake of a film. We want to make the things that have already been done. Like before in Hollywood, somebody would go with a script, see a producer. Producer would say, “I would like to watch this film. And maybe, if I feel like seeing it, other people, they would like to see it.” And today you go, and I have already seen this film. It has made me lots of money. So I want to see it again. So it’s a big major difference. But in order to try something new, we had a reason, a specific reason, why we made Persepolis in animation. Because we wanted to be universal. And since that was a story, a specific story of a specific movement of the specific country, the fact of putting it in a real geography with some type of real human being, that’s what I’d been rejected from the other one. Like this geography, we don’t know. These people, they don’t know, they don’t look like us, but the abstraction of the drawing actually gave us the possibility to having a much more universal thing.

Here, we have with Chicken with Plums, of course, you have to make a work of adaptation. You have a story. You read the book. You put it apart. You take whatever you think is usable for the film, like the structure. Some dialogues. Etcetera etcetera. But then language of the cinema is very different from the language in a book, in the comic books. So you have to think cinema. And then for the highlights of the film, the question of rhythm is just as possible just by working a lot. The fact is that both of us, we like to laugh a lot. The vision that we have of the world and the complexity of the human being, the visual style are the things that we have in common, but that we work a lot. This is it.

Correspondent: So how do you two riff off each other? How do you two work together? I’m really curious to get Vincent’s thoughts on the adaptation and the creative process as well. Vincent, do you serve as a veto mechanism or anything? How do you contribute to this? I’m really curious.

Paronnaud (as translated by Satrapi): So it’s really very easy. I read the book. We see each other. And we talk about the way that we are going to make this work of adaptation. So it’s very important. Because, you know, these meetings that you have at the origins are going to affect whatever we will do later. On the set, in the way of filming, in the way of treating everything. And I work with Marjane because I love the story that she says. And my personal universe, the personal world of my own, is really the complete opposite of what she does. So it’s stimulating intellectually and artistically. Then I say all of that. Because then, you know, when we arrive on the set, we split the work. Because we have prepared it. So Marjane is with the actors. And I’m with the cinematographer. And sometimes we have lots of tension. And it doesn’t work. But most of the time, it does.

Correspondent: Oh really? So if you’re splitting it down between technical and acting, how did you two collaborate on the first film? How were the duties split for Persepolis?

Satrapi: Well, for Persepolis, it was the same. I would go and simulate the movement in front of them. We would choose the movement of the camera. The background. But all of that is so much related. Because like acting is when you are directing a film. You have to think about actors, but you have to think about the frame. So everything is connected. It’s not like you have one part of the project and the other part. So since there is connection, that’s what we were saying. You know, this work of preparation is very important. Because like that, we know what the other one is doing. But sometimes, you know, I don’t like the framing that he does. I give a direction of acting that he does not like. Most of the time, he goes, “Fine.” But sometimes it’s a fight. You know, we go out. We yell at each other.

Correspondent: How detailed do these fights get?

Satrapi: Like “Go fuck yourself.” Things like that. And in the night I pray that he will die.

Correspondent: Wow.

Satrapi: He says that they pray that I die too. But then we sleep. And then here’s the actors. And we have forgotten. And the result of that is that we are still friends.

Correspondent: So death threats are really the best way to get the creative process flowing, I presume.

Satrapi: Absolutely. Death is always the best for everything. We have to be aware of our death. Because that will come, even if we want it or not.

Categories: Film

kitamura

Katie Kitamura (BSS #476)

Katie Kitamura is most recently the author of Gone to the Forest.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hoping not to fall in a pool of ash.

Author: Katie Kitamura

Subjects Discussed: Similarities between Gone to the Forest and V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, how courage is often confused as a sentimental quality in fiction, reversing character dimensionality to make points about colonialism, straying from influence, Elfriede Jelinek, Herta Müller, moving away from long sentences, deliberately writing in a misogynistic voice, the NYPD ordering women not to wear skirts at night, how vivid voices can transcend unsettling narrative modes, the dangers of writing from a repugnant perspective, the morality of the authority, not being a violent person and writing about violence, The Longshot‘s fight scenes, empathy, the Flaubert writing maxim, training in classical ballet, not looking at the book once it is done, not reading the violent parts of Gone to the Forest aloud, Japanese for Travelers, tracking the Kitamura descriptive trajectory across three books, reinforcing stripped down sentences with metaphor, considering ideas beyond the human, why Kitamura finds fiction more freeing than nonfiction, writing The Longshot with a rhythmic physical quality in mind, Kitamura’s difficulties in writing first person, how first-person characters reflect an author’s character in revealing ways, truths revealed through a concentrated third-person mode, the burdens of feeling self-conscious on the page, choosing removed topics for fiction, the death of Kitamura’s father, differing notions of grief, being sucked into a pool of ash, how humans become absorbed by the physical landscape, the relationship between land and power and property, the charisma of a dying man, the misnomer of “peaceful death,” Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family, the marks of grief, how translated works of fiction sometimes provide greater human truths than Anglophonic ficiton, China Miéville’s Railsea, awkward language and the virtues of badly translated fiction, Clarice Lispector, attempts to talk in the pouring rain, active thinking (or the lack thereof) within fiction, Embassytown and linguistic theory, Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17, mosquitoes that chomp on Our Correspondent’s forehead during an interview, political unrest (and its duality within Gone to the Forest), how volcanoes serve as inspiration for fiction, and mixing differing countries and differing times and differing histories into an invented world.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I was reading this book and, in the first few pages of Gone to the Forest, there’s this reference to a radio, as well as a house sitting on the edge of the river. And as someone who is reading all the Modern Library classics, including Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, I said to myself, “Hmmmm. Isn’t that interesting?” And then I read a reference to “Sargasso weed,” which made me say, “Oh! Maybe this is sort of a Jena Rhys/Wide Sargasso Sea response to Naipaul.” And I’m wondering about this. Because there are certainly a lot of similarities to A Bend in the River. You have, of course, the unnamed country, the rebellion, the subjugation of women, a not so bright condescending young heir. You also, however, feature this vicious volcano, a dying father, and a terrible gang rape. And so I must ask you, first and foremost, was this at any point intended as a Jean Rhys-like response to Naipaul? How was A Bend in the River a starting point for this book in any way?

Kitamura: I read A Bend in the River before I started writing the book. I don’t think it was necessarily formulated as a response to it directly, although I like that reading very much. And I would love to think that I’d written a Jean Rhys-like response to it. I mean, I think partially the reason you get that sense of Jean Rhys against Naipaul is because the book is trying to write from the fragments of this long legacy of colonial literature, in particular. And Jean Rhys, more generally, is a writer I admire incredibly. Not just Wide Sargasso Sea, but also all the other novels. So her prose style, her directness, her sense of melancholy — I think courage is a word that could easily sound sentimental in the context of fiction, but there’s incredibly courageous fiction in writing about women. So, yeah, it’s not direct, but it’s probably in there in some way.

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about such side characters as the Wallaces, who reminded me also very much of the historian and his wife in A Bend in the River. You have a situation where they’re described as “marginal people of no interest to his father” — his, of course, being Tom, this protagonist who mimics the scummy figure in A Bend in the River. They immediately ask Celeste to prepare a meal for supper. And I’m wondering. Because the Wallaces to a large degree don’t have that dimensionality that you would normally expect from the imperialist/colonial type of figures that tend to populate these kinds of novels. I was wondering if the Wallaces were an effort on your part to invert the dimensionality, giving more dimensionality to, say, people like Jose, as opposed to these imperialists who really assume that all natives are there to be immediately put to work and so forth.

Kitmaura: I think the book as a whole, the context of it, is pretty wide. Because it’s a combination of multiple colonial settings and multiple histories. So it’s this fragmented collage-like panorama. It’s not set in a specific time. Therefore, it includes multiple times. So I think against that, I wanted to focus very, very tightly on what happened to a single family — and ultimately with Celeste and Jose, although they are servants, they are also family — on this farm. So all the other characters outside of that became secondary in some way. And also, I suppose it was a novel that’s about power and not just some relationship between whites and non-whites, but also class between the different white settlers. So I think in that particular characterization, I was interested in drawing the distinction between how the old man, the father in the novel, perceives himself against the other white colonialists. And now he makes distinctions. So in a way, they are just a foil to the old man’s arrogance.

Correspondent: You mentioned reading Naipaul before writing this book.

Kitamura: Yes.

Correspondent: And the question I have is, well, to what degree did you know that it’s time to stray? “I’ve got it in my head. I’m very familiar with what he has done and now I can carry on with this more metaphorical or more minimalist approach to metaphor.” At what point did you detract from Naipaul? And at what point was he just not even necessary?

Kitamura: I mean, I think the unnamed setting in that novel is so distinct. And the way he handles that is very distinct. And I knew that I wanted to do something that was not simply unnamed, but also completely imagined. So that was a kind of distinction I wanted to make from what he had done in that novel. The themes that he writes about honestly are critical, but the prose? I was never influenced by his prose style, for example. There is a host of other writers — really, European female writers — that I was much more influenced by.

Correspondent: Such as who?

Kitamura: For this particular novel. It’s kind of a funny thing where it changes almost with each project.

Correspondent: That’s no problem.

Kitamura: Your toolkit alters slightly. I think I was reading a great deal of Elfriede Jelinek and Herta Müller. And what I was interested in is that they don’t write these beautiful long sentences. They really break language in a lot of ways. And that was what I admired, what I thought was so striking about what they were doing, and I was also curious to see if that, in some way, could be used specifically to address a female subjectivity. So there’s the sequence: the rape scene in the novel, which is one of the more difficult parts of it. There’s a lot of breaks and fragments in that particular section. And I think there is such a long tradition of male narratives and male narrativizing, and I wonder if that hasn’t been made accessible to women in quite the same way historically. And I wondered if that was partly why this fragmentation was interesting to me and why I tried to use it.

Correspondent: I wonder if the fragmentation, especially in relation to this rape scene, was interesting to you, specifically because, well, one reads it and one is, of course, appalled by what’s going on. But at the same time, the sentences are informed very much by this need to present this as relatively normal in the confines of this catastrophe. It seems to me that you’re someone who probably who will really work and work and work to get that acceptable level so it tests the reader and it suggests almost, I suppose, a cultural relativism or a moral relativism in the way that you describe that action. What did you do to get that particular balance that I’m detecting here? To get that situation where, okay, I come in and I’m appalled by it. But at the same time, I’m also being forced to look upon this as “This is part of life.”

Kitamura: I wanted to create — the purpose of this rather extravagant volcano explosion was to create a space where social rules were being suspended and where you would see, in this case in particular, a man taking advantage of that suspension of laws. And I remember before I started writing that sequence to get the voice of it right. I wanted to try writing in a misogynistic voice, which I thought would be an interesting experiment as a woman. And I initially thought would be a difficult or an impossible one. But, in fact, it’s so easy. Because misogyny is everywhere around you. And the language of it is everywhere around you. And so some of the things, even that the girl says, are invisible quotation marks. She is kind of quoting in language of chauvinism that she has grown up in. And I know it’s a kind of morally ambiguous scene. She, to some extent, seems to instigate what happens. But what I wanted to really look at was — well, I completely, as you probably will guess, disagree with the notion that all women can in some way provoke any kind of sexual violence.

Categories: Fiction

delpyright

Julie Delpy (BSS #475)

Julie Delpy is most recently the writer, director, and star of 2 Days in New York.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for a castle that doesn’t require too much physical exertion.

Guest: Julie Delpy

Subjects Discussed: Patriarchs who key cars, countesses who murder women for their virgin blood, aberrant and eccentric behavior in Delpy’s films, the advantages of flawed characters, The King of Comedy‘s Rupert Pupkin, domestic carapaces for odd people, mental institutions, emotionless people, arguing with people you live with, comic tension, loud family arguments in quiet cafes, characters who accuse others of raping children, anger issues, struggles to get quirky independent films made, why Chris Rock was cast, 2 Days vs. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, German film financing, David Hasselhoff, Chris Rock in a straightlaced role, how romantic comedy becomes more alive when women are uncontrollable, leveling the gender playing field in narrative by offering complex women, romantic projection, thematic resonances between 2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York, toothbrushes that are confused with sex toys, how blue jeans woo men, how French people take their temperature, Delpy’s obsession with finding the right toothbrush sound, Stanley Kubrick, being a hands on filmmaker, color correction, the humor contained within The Countess, how to position an actor to stand appropriately on a throne of heads, Belvedere Castle, Merchant Ivory films, creating a fairy tale narrative, how boys like “feminine” aspects of fairy tales, the scarcity of women directors, how gender has affected Delpy’s reputation, being taken more seriously, the business aspects of cinema, nerds and cinema without emotion, why Hollywood is avoiding emotional directors, cold businessmen, Delpy’s indomitable work ethic, Delpy finishing The Countess while her mother was dying, and the financial repercussions of cinema.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: What of the interesting resonances between the two films [2 Days in New York and 2 Days in Paris]? The two that struck me: the thermometer becomes the toothbrush in New York. You have the thermometer joke. And then now it’s the toothbrush joke where…

Delpy: Toothbrush. Oh yeah. Like objects being put in the wrong spot. (laughs)

Correspondent: Exactly. Or blue jeans being used to woo a man. In the first film, we have mom ironing the blue jeans.

Delpy: The blue jeans.

Correspondent: In the second film, we have the blue jeans offer on air.

Delpy: The blue jeans are where?

Correspondent: The blue jeans, when Mingus is on the air. There’s that woman who offers them.

Delpy: Oh, the jeans! I see. That’s funny.

Correspondent: So I’m wondering. I’m guessing these were accidental. But I’m wondering if there were any conscious efforts on your part to mimic the resonances from the first film. To see if they would play a little differently in New York. Or older.

Delpy: Well, that’s something. For example, I think it’s something to do with — like I’ve always been amused that Americans — I mean, in France, if you take your temperature, everyone puts it in their butt. Just…I have to tell you. Just like if you’re a toddler. You just put it there.

Correspondent: It is a French thing.

Delpy: And I’ve always been having American boyfriends find this repulsive. That French people are perverts.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Delpy: Because we take our temperature in the butt. So we are perverts because of that. I always thought that was a funny idea. I mean, the thing about the toothbrush, I have the idea that, actually, they might have done really nothing with that toothbrush and that it’s all in his mind. That they might have used the toothbrush.

Correspondent: While they were having…

Delpy: Or it’s an object that wasn’t a toothbrush. But he’s convinced that they’re perverts using his toothbrush for sex toys. But I actually believe personally…

Correspondent: The toothbrush is your Pulp Fiction suitcase.

Delpy: (laughs) It is to me.

Correspondent: It could be used for naughty purposes. It could be used for rather eccentric purposes. They could be brushing their teeth as they’re doing it. We don’t know.

Delpy: Yeah. Who knows? They might have been brushing their teeth while doing it. But he’s convinced. Or they might have used another object that sounds like that toothbrush. But he’s convinced it’s his toothbrush. It’s this projection of this idea that, you know, once you have this idea that someone is perverted, you can imagine everything. And I like to use that. That is a kind of playful thing.

Correspondent: I don’t know. The sound sounded pretty similar to my ears. I’m wondering. Did you work with the sound guy to have it close?

Delpy: Actually, that was one of the hardest things to do. To find the right sound. And the banging on the wall. So it didn’t sound too trashy. To always find the right limit between really too crass and not too cute either.

Correspondent: Well, I’m wondering how you researched toothbrush sounds vs. dildo sounds. That would be a very interesting project for a sound man.

Delpy: I didn’t turn on dildos. I only turned on toothbrushes.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Delpy: I kept it to a toothbrush. But actually I did spend a lot of time listening to many different sounds of toothbrushes. And some toothbrushes, I just didn’t like the sound. So I kind of drove everyone crazy. I’m very…when I get into post-production, with all the mixing and the sound and all that stuff, I get really super duper duper duper…kind of precise on what I want. And that toothbrush, I drove everyone nuts over.

Correspondent: Well, like, how so? How precise can you get? Is there any sort of limit that you will reach before people are driven nuts or something? How anal are you here?

Delpy: No. I will work until I get what I want. I’m not like crazy, like going like a power trip. Like it’s too show that I have the power.

Correspondent: No Kubrick, 172 takes…(laughs)

Delpy: Even though they call me Stanley all the time. (laughs)

Correspondent: And not just because you grew a beard.

Delpy: Yeah, it’s because of my beard. Not because of my talent. I’ll tell you that. Because I get a little bit obsessed. Sometimes in details and stuff like that. But then when I have what I want, I’m fine. Then I’m done. Boom. And then I never talk about it again.

Correspondent: Well, like, how many takes did you do? Just to deflate the Stanley rumors here.

Delpy: Well, I ended up recording the toothbrush myself. Because I didn’t like any of the sounds. So I ended up taking a mike and going to record my toothbrush and the toothbrush I wanted to use in the film.

Correspondent: Are you hands on like that for cinematography? Or for other matters?

Delpy: Cinematography, no. Because I am not a very good — I don’t have the best visual ideas, you know? I’m not hands on cinematography. I’m very hands on sound. Music. Sound effects. Everything that has to do with sound, I’m very good. You know, I’m very obsessed also when we do the period of color correction. I get very — if I don’t get what I want, I will not stop.

Correspondent: What about placement of actors?

Delpy: Which is normal. I think it’s normal. I mean, if you’re a filmmaker, you want to get — it’s so much work to write. It’s so much work to shoot. And then you edit for three months and you work like a maniac. And then you end up in post-production. And you don’t want to suddenly have skin tones that are wrong. I mean, you can very quickly — now there’s such a scale of things you can do. It’s so large. You can go from a skin that looks sort of creamy to a skin that looks all greenish. I mean, you can do so much that you have to be really careful in color correction nowadays.

Correspondent: What about positioning an actor? Like, I think of the image in The Countess of the guy standing on top of the heads. I mean, how particular are you on something like that?

Delpy: Oh that, I’m very particular.

Correspondent: The angle of the head. Is the head just right at that particular angle? I’m just trying to get a sense of how precise you are really with these things.

Delpy: Yeah. I get very precise in scenes like that. Because, to me, I wanted it to look like a painting. Like a lot of 17th century painting I’ve looked at, based for this film. Like a lot and lot of Nordic painters. So I was really inspired by that. And I wanted it to look like that. Like something almost ridiculous, but kind of funny. I mean, the film, The Countess is not devoid of humor. I see the film as something a little bit funny at times. So it’s meant to be that way. Like even the craziness of wanting to stay young forever. I mean, she’s obviously such a pathetic character. Which makes me laugh. She makes me laugh actually. And so anyway, even this guy is kind of crazy. I mean, he’s sitting on a throne of beheaded Turks. So it’s kind of funny. If you’re dark. (laughs)

Correspondent: I thought a lot of it was funny, personally. But I’m a sick human being. But Belvedere Castle…

Delpy: But it’s meant to be funny.

Correspondent: Yes. Belvedere Castle, I wanted to ask you about this. You shot the end of 2 Days in New York at Belvedere Castle. And what happened with me when I saw the film — and this may be a terribly wonkish and pedantic question, but I feel the need to ask it nonetheless. I immediately thought, “Oh! The Bostonians. Merchant Ivory.” And the reason that I thought about that was because in 2 Days in Paris, you have this early moment where the American tourists come in and they have the red Da Vinci Code, which is almost serving as the red Baedeker tour guides that you see in A Room with a View. And so…

Delpy: Oh my god. That’s complicated.

Correspondent: And they are tourists, much in that mode, going through a city. And, of course, they come from Venice by train. So I think to myself, “Oh, there was maybe a Merchant Ivory nod there.” But I’m wondering, based off of these two things, whether emulating that sort of Merchant Ivory look and subverting it with wild behavior or astonishing developments was ever an interest of yours. And also: why you choose Belevedere Castle?

Delpy: Well, you know, I didn’t really think at all of Merchant Ivory. You looked into it like…oh my god. That’s pretty..

Correspondent: This is a problem of mine. I apologize. (laughs)

Delpy: That’s really cool. That’s really cool to read so much into something. No, I basically picked the Belvedere Castle because I wanted something high that made sense, that it was dangerous but not Empire State Building dangerous. Because Empire State Building — anyway, you can’t jump off the Empire State Building. Because it’s all blocked out. So it had to be realistic. And the Belvedere Castle is quite dangerous. Actually, if you jump, you can kill yourself. But I wanted it to be almost like a fairy tale. The film is a little bit like a fairy tale. It’s told to a child really. Because it’s told with these puppets. So I wanted this end to be in a castle. Like a fairy tale. And the princess, which is me, is saved by the prince, which is Chris Rock. But obviously the film is so not a fairy tale in its tone and everything. But I wanted it to be like a fairy tale. It ends in a castle like a fairy tale.

Categories: Film

meganabbott2

Megan Abbott II (BSS #474)

Megan Abbot is most recently the author of Dare Me. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #404.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Preparing to shake the appropriate pom-poms.

Author: Megan Abbott

Subjects Discussed: Secret conversations, how cheerleaders are depicted in American culture, Bring It On, cheerleaders and postmodernism, parallels between cheerleaders and soldiers, doing research almost exclusively online, how fonts and italics reinforced text message culture in Dare Me, the text message as a noir voice, theories that Dare Me started off as a recession novel, teenagers and technology, creating a sad and bleak adult world, logical reasons for why teenagers have no desire to have grown-up jobs, empty apartment buildings, people who die in luxury condos, balancing literary and mystery elements to create a transitional novel, stretching genre, crime as a tool for power relations, using Richard III as a narrative framework, obsession with Shakespeare, the Ian McKellen version of Richard III, Looking for Richard, Richard III as an innocent, the ugliness of ambition, desperation, Deadwood, how political theory and Henry IV and Henry V share much in common, Robert Caro, parallels between mean girl rhetoric and LBJ’s profanity, being afraid of individuals who open their mouths, carryover from The End of Everything of a teenage world as an adult one, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, when parents are irrelevant, what Facebook reveals about teenagers, powerful coaches, how tired men can be manipulated, similarities between Dare Me‘s Coach and Queenpin‘s Gloria Denton, how belief encourages people to commit crimes, true crime, the Aurora shootings, the 1984 San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre, the difficulties of relating to a sociopath, the short story that Dare Me sprang from, writing with a manageable evil, the smartphone as a person, how smartphones plague society (and how much we can resist them), teenagers who aren’t aware of the off button, Facebook trash talk, teenagers who crave for attention, writing about cheerleaders who have no interest in boys, relationships between football players and cheerleaders, cheerleaders as a roving gang, teens excited by the National Guard, smoking and drinking in the classroom, cheerleading coaches who are former cheerleaders, physical brutality, the difficulties of writing physical action, finding a new set of words to describe cheerleaders, using multiple verbs in a sentence, eccentric verbs, how any type of sport creates a new language, contending with copy editors, hockey subculture, The Mighty Ducks, Slap Shot, and tennis espionage.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Now we are sort of doing this secretly. We’ve tried to flag down a waitress to be polite. So it’s very possible we may have to order during this conversation. However, we will talk. Let’s see what we can do.

Abbott: That sounds good. I’m ready.

Correspondent: So let’s start off. I saw that you wrote a New York Times piece about Bring It On. But you use this piece to point out to certain realities of how cheerleaders are depicted in our culture. You point to the portrayal of cheerleaders in two modes: Ironic and Ideal. I’m wondering if some fulfillment of these two criteria is actually necessary to have a plausible narrative these days. What are your thoughts on this? And maybe this is a good way of describing how you zeroed the needle for Dare Me.

Abbott: Right. And I admit. I’m completely vulnerable to both. I love both the Ideal and the Ironic. Every cultural reference I had in there are things I kind of love. You know, Twin Peaks and all the doomed beautiful perfect cheerleaders who become corrupted? I love. And I love all the ironic ones. Some more than others. But it just seems — I mean, the word I didn’t use in the piece, that I avoided using, is “postmodernism.” But that’s essentially what has overtaken the cheerleader. She doesn’t exist as a person and probably never did. So when I actually started to look at actual cheerleaders, the divide fell even greater then in my day in the 1980s, when they were still somewhat enmeshed. Cheerleaders themselves were responding to the idea that they were cheerleaders and they should act as cheerleaders in popular culture did.

Correspondent: Cheerleaders cheerleading about themselves.

Abbott: Exactly! Exactly. But I don’t think that’s true at all today. And I think that “serious” cheerleaders — and I shouldn’t air quote that, but I did. Because they are serious.

Correspondent: Real cheerleaders. Bona-fide cheerleaders.

Abbott: I think they’d line themselves up much more to gymnasts, to serious athletes. And then that’s the parallel. And I would even take it further. When I look at them, I see them as more closely associated with Marines, boxers, the great risks like pilots ready to go down.

Correspondent: That’s very good. (laughs)

Abbott: Kamikazes. I think that there’s even more interesting aspects to them than being hard-core athletes.

Correspondent: So we should be making World War II movies with cheerleaders in place of the soldiers.

Abbott: Seriously. I actually thought about it writing the piece. Because you know how those old movies, they’d always have the guy from Brooklyn and the Oakie. Etcetera.

Correspondent: The Longest Day with cheerleaders.

Abbott: Yes! Exactly! Oh my gosh. That’s such a great pitch. (laughs)

Correspondent: We could make a million dollars on that.

Abbott: Seriously. Right here.

Correspondent: Well, the ironic mode, however, I would say that given the fact you have cheerleaders who are purging, who are regurgitating — in fact, one common motif that you repeat, I think three times in the book, is the hair behind the head as they puke into the toilet. To a certain degree, that is ironic in light of the physical robustness of these cheerleaders. Also the lemon tea diets and all that. So I would argue that perhaps you are working in some ironic mode in the sense that you’re taking a very feminine ideal and hardening it up to some degree to that same level that we generally put football players or, as you point out here, military people and so forth.

Abbott: Right. And I think that the eating disorders — the various bad eating habits, let’s say — of the girls has to do more with making weight like wrestlers than with girls wanting to have perfect bodies. And that sort of extremism is what really interested me. But it also became interesting because I was not a cheerleader.

Correspondent: You weren’t?

Abbott: No. I couldn’t imagine. (laughs)

Correspondent: But you came in with your pom poms and everything.

Abbott: I know. A skirt on.

Correspondent: You’ve been deceiving me the entire time!

Abbott: I know. Afterward I’ll show you that I…

Correspondent: Oh, I see. I brought my little barrette to twirl.

Abbott: Oh! Good, good, good! I will be dandling. It just strikes me that it’s almost like cheerleaders are a metaphor for being a girl. Because usually they do things girls do. But the cheerleader is the heightened form of it. Girls suffer mightily in high school. They do bad things to themselves and others. They torture each other. There was always this great Seinfeld joke that stuck into my head about how terrible boys are in high school, and Elaine says, “Oh, we never treated each other like that. We would just tease each other until we gave each other eating disorders.” And that always struck me as really true. So that the cheerleader — in my case, I am sort of metaphorizing it or ironizing it in some way. Because it’s a stand-in for how hard it is being a girl.

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about the research that you did. I know that you have said that you have observed various cheerleaders practice. Was this actually in person? Was this on YouTube?

Abbott: It was all online.

Correspondent: It was all online!

Abbott: Yeah. All YouTube.

Correspondent: Did you talk to any cheerleaders at all?

Abbott: I did.

Correspondent: Okay.

Abbott: Via email only.

Correspondent: Oh really?

Abbott: Well, you know, I’m not a journalist, nor do I pretend to be.

Correspondent:> But you play one on TV.

Abbott: I do! Exactly. (laughs) And I guess part of me — I felt, even in my email interviews, that they were performing for me in a way. I wasn’t really seeing them as they were. I would be an intruder. So online, or watching them online or watching them on message boards, where they didn’t know anyone was listening, seemed to be the purest and most authentic view I could get. When they didn’t care. Because they’ll post their practices. They’re performing. So they will always be performers. But I just felt like I was getting a more authentic view of it. And then, at a certain point, I didn’t want to talk to any of them. Because it might change things. My version of it is very heightened. And once I decide how I wanted the world in the book to be, I didn’t want any…

Correspondent: Realism to get in the way.

Abbott: The hyperreality of the book.

Correspondent: So that’s interesting. It seems to me that you were almost collecting textual snippets through these email interviews. Because the book is very heavy on text messages and, in fact, there’s one interesting thing. You have the iPhone font and the italicized font of something from a previous statement. And I’m wondering what this did to get this hyperreal mode that you devised, after soaking yourself so much in cheerleading culture from before.

Abbott: Right. From the beginning, I was so worried about the texting. Because I thought, “How am I going to? Nobody wants to read texts in a novel.”

Correspondent: Nobody’s going to text you. (laughs)

Abbott: Exactly.

Correspondent: You can’t pretend to be a cheerleader.

Abbott: No. And there’s nothing more depressing than reading texts. Because they’re so meant for some kind of quick communication. But once I realized it as a mechanism for the way that girls could torture each other, the way that they could be present, when people can be present when they’re not present. You know, there’s a scene where one of the cheerleaders keeps sending texts to the main girl, Addy. So it’s almost like she’s there. But she’s not there. So the text and the snippets became this opportunity to be the voices in the head. Or the classic noir voiceover. Or the voice over the shoulder. The tap on the shoulder. So once I found a way to turn it into something else, I felt that it had become mine somehow.

(Photo: John Bartlett)

Categories: Fiction

uzodinma

Uzodinma Iweala (BSS #473)

Uzodinma Iweala is most recently the author of Our Kind of People.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Looking beyond.

Subjects Discussed: The advantages of hearing stories told to understand issues, the rhythms and tones of language, how to track down people to talk with in Nigeria, China Keiteski, the advantages of bus depots, the Nigerian Civil War, Nigeria’s reticence to discuss AIDS and HIV, physical deterioration and moral stigma, the parallels between how HIV/AIDS is perceived in Nigeria and how it is perceived in the United States, prejudicial language (“dropping like flies”) and stereotypes in Western coverage of AIDS in Africa (as recent as 2006), hysterical headlines from The New York Times, the Joseph Conrad disease-ridden racist stereotype of AFrica, the difficulties of getting rid of stereotypical language in relation to minorities, how pushback in Africa has helped to improve language, why it’s important to remain unafraid of being corrected and correcting other people, regrettable posters equating Africa with AIDS, voices that have not been allowed to speak on the international stage, why AIDS needs to expand beyond the “woe is me” narrative, the “giving thanks” narrative, and the exotic narrative, journalism vs. creative nonfiction vs. personal crusading, issues pertaining to the journalist as outsider, illusory journalistic objectivity, responding to criticisms leveled by The Observer‘s David Smith, AIDS denialism in South Africa, the sheer number of books about AIDS, Philip Alcabes’s “The Ordinariness of AIDS,” needless fear and hysteria, AIDS and the Nigerian identity issue, the new normal, trying to sell people on normal, epidemic fatigue and fundraising, how the process of transformation relates to support and empathy, and the importance of nuanced understanding.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I know that with the novel you wrote, Beasts of No Nation, you started off to some degree not just with news articles, but you actually met a soldier for that particular work. And with this, of course, there’s a good deal of interviews you did with people who have HIV and who are living in Nigeria. Support activists and so forth. So my question to you is: Why do you need to hear stories in oral form before you work out how you’re going to tell the story? Whether it be fiction or, in this case, nonfiction?

Iweala: Well, for me, I’m very interested in the way that people speak. Both in the creative fiction that I do. And also the creative nonfiction. I mean, I like the rhythm of language. I like the sounds of voices. And I like how rhythm and tone really are so much a part of the storytelling itself as the words that you put down on the page. I mean, I think it’s both a result of having this oral tradition and listening to stories from the culture that I come from. And also I think there are a number of other writers that I think in the more Western literary tradition who pay a lot of attention to rhythm and flow. You can think of people like Beckett, who I love listening to when read because of that reason.

Correspondent: Did you transcribe the conversations and did you actually read them aloud to try and figure out…

Iweala: (nods head)

Correspondent: You did.

Iweala: It was a process. It was first doing interviews. Then I transcribed all the interviews — almost all of them — myself. Because I wanted to be in it. To hear the way that people spoke again. To really pick up where there were emotional stresses essentially in people’s voices. And I would take those interviews, sit down, and try to rejig them a little bit to make them flow better as stories. But I would read them aloud to myself over and over again. Just trying to get the right inflection or trying to get the right tone and trying to make sure that the language and the emotional state really coalesced.

Correspondent: So the finer details of these stories are there in the intonations of the sentences more than the actual biographical details and so forth?

Iweala: It’s nonfiction. So those details are also very on point. But there was a lot of attention paid to, yeah, just what it sounded like. And what it sounded like reflected who was speaking. So your health official of the government is going to sound and speak differently, and stress different things and have different emotional stresses, than, say, a woman living in a rural area. Each intonation, each way of speaking, is equally important and equally relevant to the larger picture of the epidemic, but definitely very different.

Correspondent: How do you track a child soldier down? Or many of the interesting people in this book? You can’t just hold up a sign while you’re walking around Lagos.

Iweala: Right. So for the first book, for Beasts of No Nation, I just got fortunate in the sense that the first person I spoke to — China Keiteski actually gave a talk at Harvard when I was an undergrad. And she just had a lot to say. And we had a very brief conversation. I didn’t really interview her. I just listened to her talk and her experiences, read her book, and it was a chat I had that really brought out what it was that I wanted to write about. And then, in Nigeria, there are a lot of people who lived through the Civil War that we had in the ’60s. A long time ago. But they still had many, many soldiers to tell and were very open with me about that. And then also we had Liberian refugees living in Nigeria at the time. Most have returned home now, I think. And where my family lives, they were doing a lot of construction. And these folks would be working on the construction crews. And so, during breaks, I would just take the time to chat with them. And that’s how I got a lot of those stories. Now for Our Kind of People, I really kind of did just do what you said. I just started walking around and asking questions. I mean, obviously a little bit more structured than that, right? You go to a health official and then they lead you to a treatment center. You speak with someone there. And then they lead you to a support group. Also walking down the street. I walked into bus depots. Just found who I could speak to. And we sat down. You buy a person a beer.

Correspondent: What else are they doing while they’re waiting for a bus, right?

Iweala: You’re either waiting for a bus you’re driving to leave or you’re waiting for the bus you’re going to take to leave. What do you have to do but sit and talk and drink? And so that’s what we would do. And then they would be like, “Well, you should contact this person,” and you’d get a phone number and go from there.

Correspondent: So you built up a network based off of these peregrinations and you finally tracked down the appropriate people. You mentioned the Civil War, which I wanted to talk with you about. Because the Civil War doesn’t really come up in this book so much. And in light of what you have to say about Nigeria’s reticence to discuss HIV and AIDS, I was wondering if you could get into why they’re reluctant to talk about it. Aside from the AIDS support groups, the efforts to spread safe sex messages among the young, and so forth.

Iweala: I think for a number of reasons. And for the same reasons that people are reluctant to discuss it here. It has been a taboo subject. It’s much less so now. But HIV, AIDS, the epidemic — especially the way that it spreads, mostly through sex — is something that I think makes people profoundly uncomfortable. And we tend to avoid speaking about it. If you can think about how many tough conversations that you put off and put off and put off, we tend to avoid speaking about those things we find really uncomfortable. That’s changing — in large part because people have decided — the federal government and also activist groups and people living with HIV have decided to make a lot of noise and make sure that we have those uncomfortable conversations and really try to bring this thing out so that we can deal with it. I mean, I think in general Nigeria is a relatively, at least outwardly, conservative country. And we’re loud people for a number of different things. But there are certain things that I think, it would be safe to say, are considered more private: sex being one of them. It’s not a place where you see sex sold on billboards or used to sell products as much as you do here or in other countries in Europe or whatever. So that definitely has impacted the way that we talk about the epidemic.

Correspondent: In the Stigma section, you describe how physical deterioration is, of course, a major part of AIDS. And there is, of course, this moral idea attached to it. That people are being punished for their sins. What’s some of the crossover? The book goes into a lot of dichotomies where there are intersections and where there are not. But in terms of grasping the idea of people who are physically deteriorating and who are suffering, why does this have to be so sinful among certain moralists in Nigeria? I was very curious about that.

Iweala: Again, I think we should also say that that also happened here as well. It’s mainly a question of absolutes, I think, in a situation where you don’t have access to treatment and being diagnosed with this disease is, in essence, an absolute thing. Like “you will die” is what people message. And I think it’s complex in some senses because its message is “you will die,” but you can still be healthy for some years before you start to deteriorate without treatment. But that absolute, it seems like a final judgment. And so people then map all kinds of anxieties, religious beliefs, cultural whatever onto that. And then you get this idea of this being judgment for something. That definitely came up a number of times. Of how initially people would say “If you get HIV, then you’re being judged for some kind of practice.” Whether that practice is some kind of immoral sex. Whether, in this country, homosexuality was considered an immoral thing and HIV was punishment for that. IV drug use was considered an immoral thing and it was punishment for that. Now in Nigeria, it’s more heterosexual sex. Much less in terms of IV drug use or anything like that. And we’re very outwardly strongly religious societies, where the prohibitions on sex before marriage are at least spoken about all over the place. And so it becomes very easy for people to make that leap. You have sex before marriage or you have some kind of immoral, by whoever’s standards, sex. And punishment comes through this disease. I found that to be a very interesting connection. I mean, it’s ages old. There are other sexually transmitted diseases, which have always been considered judgement in some way for immoral sexual practice. But I think the stories around HIV/AIDS, and then also the way that people generate stories about their relationships and their sexual encounters to moralize them in the face of this epidemic, so that you can say, “Well, I might be having sex before marriage. But my relationship, my sexual practice, is somehow not like this.” This being sinful sex. People construct all kinds of things. And I find that to be really interesting. It’s something that we should look at and spend more time with.

Correspondent: So what I’m getting is that Nigeria is essentially applying the same moral codex to HIV and AIDS that America is, but that they’re really just only a few years behind where we are. Is that safe to say? What distinguishes Nigeria from the States along a similar sort of trajectory?

Iweala: I think one of the things the book is trying to say is that, while the nature of the HIV epidemic differs depending on the society it appears in, I think there are many similarities in that what people did originally was suggest that there was something very different about the Africa AIDS epidemic than in other countries. And there is a difference. But the difference isn’t necessarily some cultural whatever or some moral feeling on the part of Africans. And I hate using the term “Africans.” So I’ll go with “specifically in Nigeria.” The issue in a lot of senses is resources. And in the United States, the difference was people recognizing a problem and then also having the resources to apply to dealing with the problem very quickly. In Nigeria, the problem was recognized at a certain point in time. But the resources weren’t necessarily as forthcoming. And that creates a huge difference. It’s just very apparent.

Categories: Ideas