Tag : interview
Tag : interview
Merritt Tierce is most recently the author of Love Me Back, a lively and fierce debut novel about a young single mother who works as a waitress and disguises her pain and humiliation behind a smile. Love Me Back was published by Doubleday.
This book is one of those rare works of art possessed with the boldness and the decency to tell the complicated truth about how women are doomed to second-class treatment in our precarious economy. It is a welcome and candid corrective to such loathsome television shows as 2 Broke Girls that prefer to prop up a sexist fantasy and outright myths rather than contend with blue-collar life. The distinction between Love Me Back‘s art and 2 Broke Girls‘s awfulness worked our production team up so much that this episode’s introduction contains a strong critique of 2 Broke Girls‘s sexist treatment of its characters and how it has influenced the perception of waitresses in American culture.
Our conversation with Ms. Tierce begins at the 4:57 mark. In our conversation with Ms. Tierce, there is also a remarkable gaffe, indeed one of the most notable flubs in our program’s long history, that involves a mangled pronoun. Apparently, Our Correspondent was so won over by Tierce’s narrative that he made the mistake of believing that the character Danny said something worse than he did in the text.
Author: Merritt Tierce
Subjects Discussed: The American novel and people who work in restaurants, James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, Mimi Pond’s Over Easy, working in a high-end steakhouse, how restaurants distort the physical form, cutting, self-harm, comparing the early version of “Suck It” to the book’s version, keeping text the same over a seven year period, the first full story that Tierce ever wrote, knowing that Love Me Back was a book, Alexander Maksik’s input into Love Me Back, approaching a book without knowing it was a novel or a short story collections, the commercial stigma against short story collections, interstitial pieces linking the stories, creating sentences that are more final than final, stripping italics and punctuation from the original stories, the fictionalized essay Tierce wrote for Pank, style and plummeting attention spans in the digital age, circumstances in which we see punctuation marks in life, why Tierce can’t add anything artificial to her writing, the sense of time related to life waiting tables, Tierce being accused of “petty rebellion” by a professor, women being defined exclusively in roles of pain, Leslie Jamison’s “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” women as second-class beings, the difficulty of writing happiness, what happens when you read too much Thomas Hardy, Edward P. Jones, Marie’s small size and her epicene identity, the ostensible fluidity of gender, vulnerability, Victoria Patterson’s LARB essay on Love Me Back, the ineluctably damaging qualities of the male gaze, when rebellion and degradation align, personal responsibility in being exploited, Tierce sharing biographical details with Marie, Tierce’s short story “Solitaire,” “This is What an Abortion Looks Like,” imagination and personal experience, the conversational stigma about abortion as a very regular part in American life, Wendy Davis, Obvious Child, and acceptance of same-sex marriage vs. acceptance of abortion.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Before we get into what this novel has to say about class, about self-abuse, and about being a woman, I’d like to get into the American novel’s often neglected history about people who work in restaurants. I think of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce and I figured you were familiar with that given the cognates in your name. And I also think about Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster. I think about Mimi Pond’s graphic novel, Over Easy, which is somewhere between a memoir and fiction. To what extent was your novel a response to this often neglected form of novel? And given that there are an estimated 2.4 million* waiters and waitresses in this country, why do you think that this very real life has been so underrepresented in literature?
Tierce: That’s a great question and I’m really impressed at that list that you just provided. Because a lot of people have asked me, “Why haven’t I read anything about restaurant life?” And I am familiar with Mildred Pierce only because of the HBO miniseries.
Tierce: With Kate Winslet. And it’s fantastic.
Correspondent: And has a great dramatization of restaurant life as well.
Tierce: Yes! It does. And there’s some similar themes at work, I think, in Mildred Pierce and in my book. And I’m also glad to hear that number. 2.4 million. Because it seems like so many people have worked in restaurants or even in some other form of retail or customer service.
Correspondent: That’s just waiters and waitresses. I pulled that from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Because I really wanted to know that number too.
Tierce: Okay. Cool. Yeah. It’s something that so many people are familiar with and I’m surprised there’s not more writing about it. But one of my theories is that it’s really hard work. And a lot of times it’s just a means to whatever real end you’re going for in your life. And I say “real” because I don’t want to diminish anyone’s work in restaurants. I worked in restaurants for fifteen years. And it was very much my real life.
Correspondent: When did you stop working at restaurants? I know that the New Stories from the South bio says that you were working in a high-end steakhouse at that time. And I was curious about when that tapered off.
Tierce: Yeah, I was. And it tapered off about two and a half years ago. So it’s fairly recent. I mean, it’s so recent that I still frequently wake up and have a moment where I’m grateful that I don’t have to go work in a restaurant tonight.
Correspondent: Wow. What kept you in that? And it seems to me there’s an almost addictive impulse to it that you tap into very well with this novel.
Tierce: I mean, I couldn’t make more money doing anything else. So there was that reality. And I have two kids. And I’ve had them since I was Marie’s age myself. So it was hard for me to simultaneously make a living and try to get advanced in any other arena of life. And I think that is why a lot of artists especially keep working in restaurants. Because you have some flexibility and you have a steady cash income usually, which is enough to keep you going. But then you do get caught in it. And it’s hard to get out. And that goes back to what I think about why it’s not written about. It’s because when you do break out of it, it’s such a relief. You don’t want to think about it one more second of your life. Especially not to write.
Correspondent: Well, I think what it is — and I had a stint working in restaurants a long time ago — but it’s this kind of illusion that you’re free. Because I can always drop the job if I get a gig. And then you get caught up in a similar cycle that has no job security whatsoever. And I guess there’s so much shame attached that we don’t want to analyze it — whether it be in literature or even in life or even in regular conversation.
Tierce: Right. Yeah. You know, that’s an unfortunate reality of life — in particular, in America. The service industry is so condescended to and looked down on. You know, it’s not thought of as worthwhile work.
Correspondent: Or if it is, it’s some kind of vibrant, effervescent comedy or something.
Correspondent: As opposed to the realities, the darkness. The physicality, which you get into very well in this book. Well, we don’t actually learn Marie’s name until a few chapters in. And this seems to reflect this regrettable cultural tendency in which customers, even the most progressive-minded ones, will often go into a restaurant and not even remember the name or not even see anything of the waiter or the waitress other than a physical blur And that opening section where it’s just this extraordinary sense of physical seizure is astonishing. But throughout the book, there’s a lot of physicality. And we become very aware of the physical presence of the waitstaff in this book through much of the sexualized scenes and so forth. I think also however of Tayna’s thumb resembling soggy bread. You have the “warm buttery smell” of Carl’s neck. These characters all seem to physically blend into the restaurants. And not even the seemingly protective plush leather of the check presenter is safe. There’s that credit card scene, where it actually gets lodged into the restaurant. And I’m wondering. What is it about the physical allure or the pull of a restaurant? I mean, this seems to me just as much of a part of it in both your novel and in life. It’s almost this vortex to a certain degree. And I’m wondering how you arrived at that or if you arrived at that or what physicality really means when both waitress and customer go to a restaurant.
Tierce: Right. Well, it is such a basic act. Eating and bringing someone food. And it is the most basic maintenance of the physical. So there’s that kind of level to it. But as a writer, I’m most interested in the sensual. Whatever details there are to be observed in a situation, the sensate ones are the most important to me. And a restaurant is, I think, a more fertile territory for that than a lot of settings because of the food and the smells and the sounds and the people and the touching, the everything of it.
Correspondent: Do you feel that much of the sex in this book — where did this come from? Did this come out of an investigation of the restaurant as physical consumptive space? Not just from experience. I mean, it just seems to become more of this great pull on all the characters. Not just Marie. Although in Marie’s case, it becomes just utterly painful to read and to see what she’s going through. Was sense of space one of the ways that you were able to triangulate her pain and the way that she dealt with it in her life as she get dragged further into this trajectory?
Tierce: Well, I wish I was smart enough to have been that deliberate about it.
Correspondent: Well, instinctively, how did it come?
Tierce: Yeah. Instinctively, it just was an element of restaurant culture that I do know from experience to be ubiquitous and to be just a part of the after hours life of a restaurant and the people who work there. I honestly don’t have a great answer for why that is or what the connection is. But I think it has partly to do with just appetites, with trying to satisfy other people’s appetites and putting yourself completely at the service of other people and then needing to get that back in some way. To convince yourself that you still exist by satisfying some of your own appetites after it’s over.
Correspondent: Being in service to other appetites creates a voracity of your own that is impossible to appease.
Tierce: Right. Exactly.
Correspondent: There are a few moments throughout Love Me Back where Marie subjects herself to self-harm, to cutting. The fondue skewer while her daughter is watching The Cosby Show. Cutting is typically associated with high school girls — at least, that’s how we look at it in society. But as we come to know more of Marie’s backstory in the short and long alternating chapters, we become very aware that Marie’s life has been thrown into this degrading trajectory because, well, she’s been thrown into the wilderness without a handbook. And I think you get at very well how, when we abandon kids or teenagers and throw them into the world, there are these lingering things. I mean, Marie has to learn much of this at the behest of men. And I’m wondering. Do restaurants contribute in any way to being in denial about throwing our kids into really terrible lives like this? And can fiction provide an adequate response to getting people to understand these gruesome but important truths?
Tierce: Maybe. I hope so. I don’t know. I don’t want my daughter to work in a restaurant anytime soon.
Correspondent: Did she ever actually say, when you were working at a restaurant, that she wanted to work in a restaurant just like Marie at all? Just out of curiosity.
Tierce: Yeah. Both my kids have said that when they were little. And it made my heart sink. But at the same time, I have to say that working in restaurants has given me some values and basic skills in life that I need and really treasure. And I wouldn’t give them back for anything.
Correspondent: Such as what exactly?
Tierce: Such as being aware of other people. I mean, when you’re forced to put other people’s needs and desires ahead of your own, no matter how you feel about them, it’s hard to kick that habit. And I’m not saying it makes you an altruistic person. I’m just saying that even on a physical level, when you’re walking down the street you have a different way of moving. You’re not oblivious to people. Because of working in restaurants. And you learn to, as Marie says, anticipate and to consolidate. And those are useful skills for life. And you learn to work really hard. And that alone is useful, I think. And now I’ve forgotten what your question was.
Correspondent: Well, we had a magical massive question of mine.
Correspondent: I’m implying magic when it was probably just prolixness on my part. But essentially I was asking, “What is it about restaurants that could cause our kids to be subjected into this vortex?” We were talking about the notion of basically throwing our kids into situations that they’re ill-prepared for. And restaurants almost pick them up where colleges or institutions or libraries or other things, which could in fact help them and prepare them more adequately. I mean, it’s almost like having soldiers go into war to a certain degree.
Tierce: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. It’s sort of inevitable, especially now. It seems harder and harder for young people to get meaningful work, to get any job at all. And people will always need to eat. So restaurant work will always be available. And if that’s the only place you can launch yourself from, that’s, I think, our fault for not making more meaningful work more available and not making college, for example, more affordable. And I say that as someone who’s still paying down student loans myself and has basically no money saved for college for any of the three children who live in my house. And I value education more than almost anything. But there are some real factors at work as to whether or not any given person can get a higher education.
Correspondent: How does writing help you to come to grips with these particular realities that, I think, all of us face to a certain degree?
Tierce: Well, writing helps me come to grips with all of reality. Just because I don’t really know what I think or how I’ve gotten to what I think until I start writing about it, which I’m borrowing straight from Flannery O’Connor. I think that’s something that she said, but it makes so much sense to me. That’s just how my mind works. I reveal myself to myself through writing.
* — Please note that, on air, our correspondent stated that the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 2.5 million waiters and waitresses in America. The correct number is 2.4 million and the excerpt text has been corrected to reflect the correct number, which is also stated correctly in this episode’s introduction.
This special two hour episode of The Bat Segundo Show details the life and work of Stefan Zweig and may quite possibly the most epic consideration of Zweig ever committed to radio. Zweig is an author I became obsessed with this year not long after a large box showed up at my doorstep containing many Zweig volumes because of an offhand comment I made to a savvy individual while sitting on my stoop. (Let this be a modest parable in publicity and obsession.) This radio program, which became far more ambitious than I intended, is the result of many weeks of reading and serves as a comprehensive overview for Zweig neophytes and experts alike. Zweig is a greatly underestimated writer, despite the fact that he was popular in Austria until the Nazis decimated the nation and even after many literary people have labored very hard to ensure that his work is properly remembered. Zweig’s books can be obtained through NYRB Classics and Pushkin Press.
If you’re new to Zweig, a good place to start is Chess Story. It is a thin and extremely compelling volume and a very good Zweig introduction that will have you wanting to read all the other ones. (Thousands of pages were read for these two interviews.) For adventurous readers, Pushkin Press’s excellent “orange volume” — The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig — is highly recommended. My thanks to NYRB Classics for igniting a Zweig obsession I never thought I would catch and to Pushkin Press for helping me get in touch with Anthea Bell, one of the best translators working today. (She’s also translated W.G. Sebald and Freud, among many others.)
Anthea Bell is Stefan Zweig’s most renowned translator. Our conversation with Bell begins at the 2:23 mark.
George Prochnik is the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, which is available through Other Press. It serves as an invaluable companion book for Zweig enthusiasts. Our conversation with Prochnik begins at the 26:26 mark.
Subjects Discussed: The friendship of James Joyce and Stefan Zweig, exiles and “languages above other languages,” Zweig’s obsession with cutting large chunks of text from his work, how complicated narrative structures and smooth language make translation tricky, preventing Zweig burnout, not knowing how much Zweig cut from The Post-Office Girl, how translators sometimes get their hands on a more expansive manuscript, why Bell didn’t translate The Post-Office Girl, coordinating translation of Zweig’s work with other translators, the mythical transatlantic English divide, why readers are suspicious of Zweig because of the popularity during his time, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Michael Hoffman’s preposterous LRB Zweig essay, Hoffman’s charge that Zweig is “the Pepsi of Austrian writing,” why people are eccentrically hostile towards writers who get through to people, eliding sentences and passages from the original manuscript, balancing the spirit of the work and the letter while translating, the tragic ending of Beware of Pity, the novella buried in Beware of Pity (aka Impatience of the Heart), similarities between “The Governess” and The World of Yesterday, the condescending attitude towards Malaysians in “Amok,” how to contend with discomfiting colonial language as a translator, Joseph Conrad, the double standard contained within Confusion, G.K. Chesterton, anti-Semitism in English writing during the time, why Bell doesn’t translate serious poetry, translating a Zweig play for Jewish Book Week performed by Henry Goodman, Zweig’s politics, silent humanism as a response to fascism, W.H. Auden and the Spanish Civil War, the salubrious qualities of delusion, the considerable observations about class trappings in The Post-Office Girl, Hitler turning Vienesse cultural centers into Nazi base camp operations, Nazi resentment, the invasion of privacy as depicted in The Post-Office Girl, Zweig’s prescience on the pervasive way in which people are observed, Heinrich Mann’s notion of “the vanquished being the first to know what history has in store,” Zweig’s ideas of luxurious torture, feeling smothered by bourgeois comforts, Zweig’s views on comic books, the arts as a vehicle for freedom, Zweig’s time in Berlin, the benefits of hanging out with monomaniacs, having Theodor Herzl as an editor, relying on Herzl’s approval, Zweig’s struggles with his Jewish identity, Zweig being mocked by Karl Kraus, Kraus’s anti-Semitism, Zweig’s relentless travel, Zionist discussion between Zweig and Martin Buber, Herzl’s funeral, community bound by death, suicide as a motif in Zweig’s fiction, the “happy corpse” notion and Vienesse spectacle, Zweig’s reclusiveness in New York, Zweig being besieged by European refugees after his escape from the Nazis, Zweig’s problems in Petropolis, letters and loneliness, helping people, guilt accompanied by taking on too much responsibility, Beware of Pity as a way for Zweig to bifurcate his emotions, the politics of Beware of Pity, Zweig demanding to know where Walt Whitman’s grave is the minute he hits New York, how Zweig saw Whitman as the connecting threat to America, ineluctable Freudian themes disseminated among Austrian notables, the influence of Emerson on Nietzsche, when the Nazis burned Zweig’s library, Zweig’s gloomy acceptance and his capitulation to anti-culture developments, Berthold Viertel’s observations of Zweig’s manic collecting, Zweig’s invasive remarks at a press conference concerning the Nazis, Zweig’s aspirations to be a “moral authority,” Hannah Arendt’s brutal review of The World of Yesterday, Jules Romain’s valedictory lecture on Zweig’s 60th birthday, Zweig’s moral dilemma of not being able to validate the destruction of life in any form during World War II, the beginnings of Vienesse anti-Semitism, why Vienesse intellectuals underestimated anti-Semitism, Arthur Schnitzler, perverse Vienesse humor, the Dreyfus affair, Englebert Dollfuss’s blunder with the progressives and Austria’s alliance with fascists in the early 1930s, right-wing nationalism, the end of Austrian radicalism after the socialists have fled, Prochnik’s family history in Austria, Zweig and Turkey, the McNally Jackson Zweig panel, Andre Aciman’s dissing of the “Eros Matutinus” section of The World of Yesterday, why even the staunchest Zweig lovers find some work of Zweig’s to dog on, when people read the wrong “first Zweig book,” Zweig’s astonishing polished prolificity, being ranked with major literary figures through the odd metric of what the Nazis decide to burn, appealing to the twee crowd and the reading audience courting despair, Zweig’s suicide, the haunting photo of Stefan and Lotte Zweig after their double suicide, Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, why Lotte Zweig wasn’t just a factotum, attempts to undermine Lotte’s legacy, the Stefan Zweig Collection in SUNY-Freedonia, Duck Soup, Zweig’s biography of Balzac, and unpacking the final moments of the Zweigs.
EXCERPTS FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Both James Joyce and Stefan Zweig were exiles when they met in Zurich. And they got along so well that Joyce lent him his only copy of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. And Joyce famously said to Zweig, “I would like a language above other languages. A language serving them all. I can’t express myself completely in English without making myself part of a certain tradition.” And I’m wondering. Since you’ve spent a lot of time looking at Zweig’s language, do you think Zweig suffered from the same problem? That as different as Joyce and Zweig were, they were both confronted in their own ways by belonging to a kind of tradition that language enslaved them to some degree.
Bell: Yes, I think you’re right there. And Zweig was himself earlier in his life, he did quite a lot of translation. And he recommended it as a way for a writer to get better acquainted with his own language, which I find very interesting.
Correspondent: What is it about his language? I mean, I’ve read your translations. I’ve read the translations of various others, such as Phyllis and Trevor Blewitt, Joel Rotenberg, and all that. And yet the romantic feel and the class and the despair of Zweig’s stories still manages to come out in much the same way. What is it about Zweig’s German that creates these parallels? And what do you do to find your own spin as a translator?
Bell: He was very, very scrupulous about his use of language. And as you probably know, he cut a great deal from everything he ever wrote. And that is one reason, I’m sure, why he wrote so many novellas. And some of them could easily developed into full-length novels and probably would have done in the hands of many another writer. But he cut and cut and cut, except with Beware of Pity. But he cut so many of the others. He didn’t let them out of his hands. And so he would just cut everything he could and still get what he was saying across. He didn’t want to say too much. And that is, I think, what gives to the irony in his fiction and makes it so compelling.
Correspondent: That’s interesting. I mean, I’m wondering first and foremost how you came to Zweig and what the first story that you translated of his was. It seems to me that you developed a great intimacy with his life and that’s part and parcel with accurately conveying his stories in English.
Bell: Well, the first one that Pushkin Press asked me to translate was the one that is called Confusion in English.
Correspondent: Oh yes.
Bell: The German means Confusion of Feelings, but it’s just Confusion in English. And after that, Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman.
Bell: Which I think is a remarkable piece of female impersonation.
Correspondent: I think it’s a masterpiece, that story.
Bell: He’s very good at getting inside women.
Correspondent: How did you first discover him? And what compelled you to carry on translating him?
Bell: Well, I had read him earlier, in the past. But it was when I got to translate him, you get a completely — well, not a completely different angle, but a much deeper view of a writer when you begin to translate him. There’s an American scholar who I’ve got on my bookshelf — I’m just getting up to look at the title of it. Anyway, he writes that the translation is a particularly intensive form of looting. And I think he’s quite right there. And you do. You get to know something far better as you translate it. Now when I had read, I don’t know how Zweig strikes you reading it, but he looks as if he would be easy to translate. Because it all flows along very lucidly. But he’s difficult as a matter of fact. More difficult than you might think.
Correspondent: What steps do you take to break down his stories? I mean, very often, you see these intriguing narrative structures that begin his stories. I think of, of course, Beware of Pity. I think of Letter from an Unknown Woman. I think of Twenty-Four Hours as well. This notion that you have some person talking about something else, who then talks about something else, who then goes into the past and then possibly creates a letter or sits in a room discussing a story. This is an extraordinarily tricky thing that Zweig does. And I’m wondering. What does this mean for you as a translator from a language standpoint? You mentioned earlier that Zweig took great care with his German. What care do you have to take on top of that to ensure that this meticulous narrative grabs the reader in the same way that it does in the German?
Bell: Well, a translator is always trying to get inside the head of an author. And, of course, it’s very helpful if your author is alive and you can ask him questions. But if your author is dead, well. His favorite adjective, whenever I come across it, is dumpf. And that means dark or the sound. But usually he uses it to mean somber in some ways. Either literally or metaphorically. And whenever I get to that adjective, I think, oh, come on, Stefan! Which sort of dumpf have we got this time? There are layers in that writing. And by always cutting, I feel he was smoothing things together, if you see what I mean.
Correspondent: So you’re saying there’s almost this false cognate situation when you translate Zweig.
Bell: Yes. Yes. He’s a very, very interesting writer to translate. And obviously I enjoy translation. But obviously also it’s when translating somebody who I feel is writing well.
Correspondent: Let’s go ahead and start with his very unusual political relationship. He was acutely aware of class trappings. We see this in The Post-Office Girl. But he seemeed to believe that the high culture or the good life could in fact be used to combat forces as nefarious as National Socialism. As you point out, he believed this as late as 1935 and this led him to be mocked later by Hannah Arendt in her brutal review of The World of Yesterday. You point to Zweig’s alliance with Richard Strauss, which backs up this tendency. And certainly much of this grew out of Zweig’s involvement with the Vienesse Secessionists. But how do you feel this approach developed over time? How did exile contribute to this undoing? Was this kind of political incoherence part of it?
Prochnik: I think it’s wonderful what you’re asking and it wraps together a number of different characteristics of him. Intrinsic psychological characteristics and also acquired traits, as it were. I mean, Zweig says explicitly in his memoir when he describes the option that he had at the start of the war to have refused service in a bold gesture. He said, “I don’t mind saying right out that there’s nothing heroic about me and I will evade, wherever possible.” So on the one hand, he had already also made the decision that, somehow or another, he was not going to end up on the battlefield. But he knew that the grand refusal was also beyond him. So part of Zweig’s difficulties, particularly over time when the Nazis, when the ascendency of Hitler and of all of the values for which he was associated became intractable and unavoidable problems. Zweig had already adopted his stance, which was not a stance, however, of pure cowardice. He had a very developed conviction that served his interests and also, I think, spoke to a real belief of his. That it was impossible ultimately to obtain a just, more tolerant world through violence. In other words, even if you were faced with a horrific form of government, a set of ideological beliefs, what he always tried to do was to garner support for his pacifist, humanist positions through positive achievements. He felt that whether through cultural acts of creativity, whether through the arts, or whether through forms of education that were explicitly devoted to promoting tolerance. That by trying to call on people’s better instincts, you ultimately got further than through nefarious denunciation. The reality is that at the very start of the Second World War, in 1939, at least when England declared war on Germany, there was a brief period when he wavered on this and said, “I don’t understand how any young Jew of age can at this point in time not enlist.” And I think at that point Zweig himself would have enlisted to fight. He grasped that Hitler was another problem, another order of destructive intent. But one of the aspects of Zweig’s stories that I find inexhaustibly interesting is the way that he tried to apply lessons of history unsuccessfully. It was not that he was denying history, but what he learned, for example, from the First World War is what madness war is.
Correspondent: We’re talking generally. Not his autobiography. Just his life philosophy.
Prochnik: Exactly. As his evolving life philosophy. He had learned very well the utter ruin to which civilization could tumble as a consequence, even if you had a relatively just aim of setting out with a gun to impose that. And that just didn’t necessarily serve him well in all instances. I mean, W.H. Auden, the poet who Zweig came to know in the summer of 1941 in New York, ran into at least a similar problem. There’s a line from Orwell. This is grossly paraphrasing, but he always knew to be where the trigger wasn’t being pulled. Something like this. That because Auden, who had initially been so supportive of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, had then gone to Spain and seen the humiliation of the Clarets and the destruction of the churches, he was then very resistant to taking up a strong outspoken stance against Hitler at the start of the Second World War, for which Klaus Mann and others really took him to task.
Correspondent: I think what fascinates me about this is this cognizance of what war can do, especially the Jewish identity. It’s there in “The Miracles of Life,” this amazing novella that he writes when he’s only 22, I believe, in 1903. And if he cannot remember the lessons that his apparent subconscious set down in fiction thirty years later, I mean, what accounts for this almost Wodehousian type of obliviousness to war, to anti-Semitism, to being uprooted, to being exiled?
Prochnik: I don’t think he was at all oblivious. And there’s evidence of that in his letters, in particular. But here and there, as well as in the memoir, I think that one of the most important passages in the opening section of that work is something that’s so brief that it’s easy to overlook. It’s where he goes on about “the world of yesterday” and the security in particular and the ways in which everyone in Vienna got along. They only chafed mildly against each other. In this fashion, he was attacked for what seemed a willful gilding, of nostalgiacizing, of an ideal tolerant Vienna that never existed. But in reality, there’s this moment where he says, “This was a delusion, but, if so, how much more of a noble and more fruitful delusion it was.”
Correspondent: It was also his delusion to keep.
Prochnik: It was his decision. Not only delusion, but his decision to keep it.
Correspondent: He was cognizantly myopic.
Prochnik: Well, whether myopic or…I think of it more in terms of his idealization. He talks about the need, particularly in his very interesting biography of Erasmus, for world leaders who hold onto these utopian visions of humanity’s possibilities, even if those must always remain to an extent a myth. Because he says, “If we don’t essentially have overreachers in imagination, we’re never going to get anywhere.” So he uses that term, the delusions of the world of his father, in a very pointed way as a fruitful, fertile delusion. That it leads at least, he says, relative to the slogans being bandied about, when he’s writing this in 1941. So that idea is really interesting about Zweig not as someone who didn’t see, but as someone who saw and saw such ugliness and such abomination unfolding around him. That it seemed ultimately to have more, it humanity was ever going to dig itself out of that ditch, that perhaps it was necessary to paint these pictures of what the world of yesterday had been in such glorious language and scenes, some of which are semi-fabricated. That after the blaze had begun to die down of the conflict, there would be sign posts. Something for humanity to look at as a way of trying to reconstruct a more humane society, a future.
Correspondent: This was his idea of idealism, basically.
Prochnik: I think so. It could actually perform a real world work. And that for me is the critical distinction in terms thinking about what Zweig did or didn’t do. And this comes into your original question. I don’t want to live it without touching on Zweig’s real philosophy of silence, which was a belief that, if someone was screaming horrible forms of abuse at you, that you never really defeated them by trying to scream louder. That in fact it was by adopting a stance of dignity and of disproving by embodying a different set of values to that. The only way to oppose it. And this was something that got him into such difficulties, with the Nazis in particular. Hitler fetishized the notion of hardness. And hardness comes up again and again, literally as a term with different sorts of German words in Mein Kampf, but again and again throughout the rhetoric of Goebbels and Göring and all the main ideologues. Rosenberg. They use this term of hardness to define essentially the ethical worth of the human being. And so Zweig, I’m certain, saw that you can’t oppose hardness with hardness. He felt you oppose hardness with softness, with pliancy, with receptivity, with a set of values that are much more associated stereotypically with feminine values, but with an idea that you came at that obliquely and proved yourself able to essentially to be metamorphic in your character, as opposed to absolutely rigid. It’s an idea with a certain Jewish resonance also. In Jewish thought and history.
Correspondent: Sure. But I would argue, especially with a novel like The Post-Office Girl, we see the rigidity reinforced by this woman who goes to a luxurious hotel, is confused with upper-class, who then has to deal with the fact that she can’t pass that way, and is then forced back into this terrible existence where she has to work in this post office. And, oddly enough, the last half of that book sort of becomes, especially with that manifesto at the end — I don’t want to give it away — a very deliberate effort to contend with reality and becomes extraordinarily bleak, devastating, and heartbreaking. And it leads me to wonder how committed Zweig was to his delusion or whether he needed to have certain kind of historical modes or present times with which to oscillate between the delusion that he deliberately courted and the realism he seemed to be aware of with that manifesto at the end of The Post-Office Girl.
Prochnik: That’s interesting. And I like very much how you’re approaching what that book is. I think the remarkable thing about what he achieves in that book is, without saying in so many words that this is what’s happening, he’s giving one of the best explanations we have for how people in Germany and Austria might have adopted these fanatical positions. You pointed to that scene early on, the definitive moment in that book, of setting events in motion for the girl herself at least, when she has a taste of the high life. A taste of how good life can be for those who have money. Really simple. There was such intense interwar poverty in Austria. And people don’t look at that enough. And, in fact, as I’m sure you know, it’s one thing that Zweig was accused of neglecting. But we see how her mean circumstances from this provincial place…
Correspondent: And not even her fault. Because her family actually got a bad rap and she fell into this rote impoverished kind of existence.
Prochnik: Not her fault at all. Then she gets just a hint by visiting this aunt in a glamorous hotel of how wonderful life can be. And then she’s flung back through a series of unfortunate events into the mire of her previous existence. And that gnawing sense of exclusion is something that I think is critical for understanding what the Nazis fed on.
Amanda Vaill is most recently the author of Hotel Florida.
Author: Amanda Vaill
Subjects Discussed: Household accidents, Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” and various claims attesting to its authenticity, staged photography, Capa’s origins, Ernest Hemingway’s bluster, his journalistic weaknesses, Virginia Cowles’s bravery, the dubious qualities of To Have and Have Not, John Dos Passos, journalistic skepticism, Hemingway’s disillusionment with the Spanish Civil War, Martha Gellhorn, Gellhorn’s 1983 interview with John Pilger, Gellhorn’s condemnation of government, Gellhorn’s relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, Gellhorn making up the facts (fabricating a Mississippi lynching) for her news story, “Justice at Night,” Henry Luce’s attention to Robert Capa, what coverage of the Spanish Civil War was real, Spain as the front line against Hitler, constraints of journalists on the Nationalist side, whether or not any amount of art and journalism could have averted the fate of Spain, the Non-Internvention Agreement, American isolationism, the civil war within the Civil War, left-wing factions squabbling against each other, Arturo Barea’s The Forging of a Rebel, Barea as a late bloomer, Barea’s stint as the Unknown Voice, confidence and post-traumatic stress, how to determine the precise words that floated through someone’s head or mouth from seven decades ago, Hemingway’s The Fifth Column, The Spanish Earth and the current print status of Spain in Flames, Archibald MacLeish and Contemporary Historians, Inc., orphan business entities, the brawl between Orson Welles and Hemingway during voiceover recording sessions, the fight between Hemingway and Max Eastman, what women thought of all the needless male fighting, George Seldes’s reception in the Spanish Civil War, Henry Buckley’s The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic, the legend of the luggage that Martha Gellhorn took to Spain, Joan Didion in El Salvador, Love Goes to Press, the American matador Sid Franklin, Ilsa Kulcsar, Gellhorn’s bravery and influence upon Hemingway, the recent Russia press gag on bloggers, comparisons between the Spanish Civil War and Syria, photographs as Instagram in slow time, whether there’s any Hemingway again, and contemplating J.K. Rowling going to the Crimea to write a novel.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: You’re doing okay, I take it.
Vaill: Except for my broken finger.
Correspondent: Oh, you broke your finger?
Vaill: Yes, I did. I had one of those household accidents. I tripped over my shoes.
Correspondent: And, of course, it’s the right hand as opposed to the left hand.
Vaill: Of course it is. So I cannot write and I cannot shake hands and I cannot sign my name. Except that it is getting better so I can now do that.
Correspondent: Although you have a good shot at taking over Spain.
Vaill: I hope so.
Correspondent: The Spanish Civil War. We have many characters and many figures and I’ll do my best to get to all of them. But let’s start with good old Robert Capa. One of the fascinating and oft argued issues in photography is, of course, Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” — the picture of the militiaman on the Andalusian hill falling to his death in battle. Some have contended that it is fake. Some have contended that it is real. Some have, as you have, tried tracking down interviews. You tried to find an NBC Radio interview with Alex Kershaw on October 20, 1947 in which Capa claimed to have killed the miliciano. But the purported truth of the story behind the photo is almost as murky as the purported truth of the photo, which in turn has us contending with the purported truth of the War. So how do even begin to come to terms with the photo — in terms of scholarship, in terms of authenticity? And how does the struggle affect our ability to wrestle with the complexities and the ideological involutions of the Spanish Civil War? Just to start off here.
Vaill: Well, that I could write a whole dissertation on. And people have. But let’s start first of all with the word “fake,” which is a…
Vaill: Yes. There is a big difference. Something that is faked is in some way manipulated so that something that is not true can be made to be true. Something that is staged is something that is perhaps not quite as extreme as something that is faked. And you have to bear in mind that in 1936, when this photograph was taken, there was no history of war photography at all. No one had taken live action photographs on a battlefield. Matthew Brady took pictures of corpses, which he manipulated and moved around so that they would be in a pose that he liked. In World War I, you couldn’t go on the battlefield. You were not allowed. And furthermore there was no equipment that you could take on there. You have big cumbersome cameras and slow film. And it was only in the 1930s, when you had 35mm film and cameras that could accommodate it, that you could take your camera onto the battlefield. So there was no rulebook for how you handled photography in wartime and no one was used to allowing photographers to be where there was combat. So when Capa and Gerda Taro, his lover and cohort in photography, came to Spain, they at first were not even allowed to go onto the battlefield. They were only given access to troops behind the lines and they tried to make them look good. But this was just not happening. They couldn’t get anything that looked like real battle. And finally, when they were near the area of Córdoba, on the Córdoba front. They had this chance to take photographs of a group of soldiers and Capa has told many stories about what happened and how he got this shot. He was an inveterate tale-teller. He was a real entertainer, Capa. He loved to charm and entertain people.
Correspondent: He felt compelled to create his own legend.
Vaill: He totally did. And he did. He created his name. He was born Andrei Friedmann in Budapest. So he created a whole persona of Robert Capa, the famous photographer, and he created not just that, but this legend of himself that he felt perhaps compelled to live up to. In 1936 though, remember, he’s 22 years old. He’s just a kid. He doesn’t know what he’s doing really. And it is my belief, based on interviews — they aren’t even interviews; conversations that he had with those close to him at times when he, in fact, was not on. The conversation that I base most of my reconstruction on this incident on is one that was with a friend. He wasn’t trying to entertain this person. He wasn’t showing off for an interviewer. He was confessing something. And what he confessed was that a real man had been killed by something that he had done and he was conscious-stricken about it, which is the kind of thing that really squares with the portrait that I received of Capa. That Capa was a very kind, very generous, very loving person and easily hurt by things and didn’t want to give pain to others. And that this thing had happened, I think, was horrifying to him.
Correspondent: Since we are talking about various artists who came to Spain and essentially either set themselves up as legends or became legends later, let’s move naturally to Ernest Hemingway. For all of his bluster about being a “real man” and a “real journalist,” he didn’t actually cover Guernica in April 1937. And he didn’t mention this devastating battle in his dispatches from Spain. Virginia Cowles, on the other hand, she headed into the Nationalist zone and not only covered it, but did so when a Nationalist staff officer said, “You probably shouldn’t be writing about this.” So you write in the book that Hemingway may not have thought this important enough, but why do you think he ignored it? Was he just not that thorough of a reporter?
Vaill: Well, actually, I hate to say this, but he wasn’t that thorough of a reporter. For all that he had a great background as a gumshoe reporter back in the day, when he was at the Kansas City Star, when he was in Toronto, he was a newspaperman. He was on the city beat and he was the cub reporter sent out to cover fires and God knows what all else. But by the time he went to Spain, he had become a legend. And he was a legend, in part, in his own mind, as much as in the minds of others, and I think he got to the point where what he really wanted to do was to sit at the big table with the big boys and get the big story, and let somebody else worry about all the little details. And in this case, Guernica happened in the Basque Country. It was in a zone that it was almost impossible for him to get to without great difficulty.
Correspondent: But that didn’t stop Cowles.
Vaill: Well, it didn’t. Because, of course, she was still building her reputation. I think Hemingway felt he didn’t have to pry. I also feel that he didn’t think it was that important. And he didn’t think it was that important because the very contemporary news reports of it were very dismissive at first. It really wasn’t until people like Cowles found out what had gone on there that it became evident that there had been a horrific disaster. So Hemingway just basically thought, “I’m going to give this a bye. It’s too much trouble. I’ll risk my neck getting there. I don’t need it. I’m heading back. Screw it.”
Correspondent: I will confess that your book had me finally, after many years, reading To Have and Have Not.
Correspondent: I had been avoiding this for a long time and, as it turns out, rightfully so. Brilliant in parts, terrible in others. I mean, was Hemingway just not up to snuff during this particular period?
Vaill: I think he was struggling. And I think that many writers do. They reach a period where they’re trying to break through to some other level and they’re not comfortable. The instrument isn’t sharp in the way that they want it to be sharp to do the work that they suddenly have decided they want to do. Hemingway after writing two extraordinarily well-received novels and an amazing bunch of short stories and maybe two of his, I think, finest works — “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” I think he was looking to do something different. The ’30s were a period of great relevance. The engagé writer was what you were supposed to be and he hadn’t been. And even though he scoffed at a lot of this stuff and said that he didn’t want to get that involved in politics and he didn’t want to hue to any -isms of one kind or another and all he really believed in was freedom, he couldn’t help noticing, particularly when his friend John Dos Passos ended up on the cover of Time Magazine in the summer of 1936, that writers who were writing about the big political themes were getting a lot of attention, the kind of attention he had always gotten, and I think he was looking for some way to do that and To Have and Have Not represented that kind of fiction for him. He wasn’t comfortable writing it, I think, and I think that was the problem of it.
Correspondent: Speaking of Dos Passos, I felt tremendous sympathy for this poor man. I mean, he comes to Spain. He’s looking into the mysterious disappearance of his friend, Jose Robles Pazos, and he’s spurned by Hemingway.
Vaill: Oh yeah.
Correspondent: Hemingway is well-connected with the Loyalists and he tells Dos Passos, “Don’t put your mouth to this Robles business. People disappear every day.” Which is an extraordinarily callous statement. Why did Hemingway have difficulties getting around his romantic vision of the Republicans? Why couldn’t he ask the difficult questions that Dos Passos had no problem in investigating?
Vaill: Well, I think it goes back to Hemingway’s wanting to be at the big boys table.
Correspondent: And he was.
Vaill: And he was. We’ve seen some of this same problem with journalists in our own day. The New York Times‘s Judith Miller, for example. And other writers writing about our involvement in the Iraq War, they wanted to just take the story that somebody wanted to hand out. Because that person was well-connected and high up in a tree.
Correspondent: And that trumps any journalistic integrity.
Vaill: Or any journalistic — I think it would be — doubt. Just the feeling that, oh wait.
Vaill: Maybe I can take this story.
Vaill: Your skepticism instrument is just not working when that happens. It’s lulled into some false quiescence by all this access that you suddenly have. And I think that’s what really happened to Hemingway here. He was so in love with the access he had and he was so taken up with his passionate identification with the cause of the Spanish Republic, which I can certainly understand. They were the democratically elected government of Spain and a bunch of right-wingers wanted to nullify an election and just take things back to the way they were before.
Correspondent: So in order to get over the crest to For Whom the Bell Tolls, an absolute masterpiece, he had to go through all these needless romance and this big review point and then he had to have his heart crushed.
Vaill: And then he had to be disillusioned. And I think the problem for him was — yes, exactly, he did have his heart broken in a way. And For Whom the Bell Tolls came out of that feeling of disillusionment. He called not just what had happened in the Republic, but also what happened at Munich — the whole thing and the dismissal of the international brigades from Spain. All that to him was what he called a carnival of treachery on both sides. And that’s pretty strong language.
Joanna Rakoff is most recently the author of My Salinger Life.
Author: Joanna Rakoff
Subjects Discussed: Responding to the universe’s concerns with short declaratory bursts, self-portrayal in memoir, bygone tones that aren’t nostalgic, growing up with Depression era parents, being enslaved by grammatical constructs, hostility to contractions, The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles, bad translations, disputes over which literary agency is New York’s oldest, the coddled affluent lifestyle, working as a PA on The Mirror Has Two Faces, bouncing around jobs as an act of rebellion, growing up in privilege, contending with a family dynamic of trying to live life while parents discourage risk, keeping details “close to the bone,” having a temperament a generation above, working in an Agency using ancient typewriters, working in an office opposed to modern technology, typing letters on carbon paper, the beginnings of computer communications in 1996, working in an office without voicemail, the benefits of archaic office structure, lengthy lunches, the advantages of working with your hands, S.J. Perelman, Pearl Buck, 20th century writers who fell out of favor but that line bookshelves of older people’s homes, the buzz that one can get from using an IBM Selectric, typewriter dreams, why J.D. Salinger is scoffed out by adults, the Salinger documentary, Bret Easton Ellis’s Salinger tweet, Martin Amis, Infinite Jest, the literary masculine movement of 1996, not reading Salinger in college, Salinger’s stories in the New Yorker, family bonding through Franny and Zooey, answering Salinger fan mail, observing when Judy Blume switched agencies, misunderstanding the appeal of Judy Blume, keeping contemporary reading sensibilities alive at the Agency when facing doughty pushback, the literary sensibilities of Phyllis Westberg, the shift in publishing short fiction during the last years of the 20th century, Blume and Claire M. Smith, agents and friendship, the backstory on how Summer Sisters was misperceived before publication, why it’s important for agents to offer love and praise to authors, reading for agents, talking up manuscripts written by college friends, Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season, developing the inclinations to be an editor and a critic, whether being employed by a slick Wylie-style agency would have turned Rakoff into a writer, how agents shape culture, the double-edged sword of keeping a journal as a young person, socialist boyfriends as a cautionary tale, secretly carving out time to write stories, Pathfinder Books, being a morning person, writing with kids, Sylvia Plath’s diary, boyfriend “Don”‘s aversion to office jobs and bourgeois accusations, contending with male nonsense, disparaging boyfriends, having literary sensibilities shaken up, operating in two literary universes, boxing memoirs, contending with being depicted in Robert Anasi’s The Last Bohemia, why Rakoff didn’t name names in the book version (and did in the Slate version), trying to nail the universal experience of My Salinger Year, overlapping cultures in New York, the DIY aesthetic, spoken word culture, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, whether the 1996 Joanna Rakoff could have survived 2014 New York, the difficulty of making ends meet, being detached from open mike culture, expensive cities, purported claims of subsisting on almost nothing in Cambridge, transient arts scenes, the Hudson River Valley, whether young people can have their Salinger year in New York, and parental supplementation.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I wanted to actually start off with the tone of the book. I mean, you present yourself in this memoir as someone who responds to the universe’s concerns with these short, declaratory bursts. When you are asked questions about how equipped you are to handle your role as an agent’s assistant and your responsibilities as an adult, you often answer, “I can.” “I do.” “I am.” “It is.” “I understand.” Never “yes,” which I found really interesting. And it leads me to wonder whether this laconic approach is perhaps the best way to negotiate early life and to sort of figure out what the beginnings of life are. How is this self-portrayal your answer to the Holden Caulfield idea, “It’s funny. All you have to do is say something nobody understands and they’ll do practically anything you want them to”?
Rakoff: Well, I definitely didn’t have that in mind when I was establishing the tone for the book. I came upon the tone in just a kind of instinctual happenstance way. I signed onto write this book with great trepidation. I’m not really a writer of memoir. I don’t write that much about myself. I’m also not a person who’s confessional in spirit. I don’t post on Facebook saying how sad I am. Anything like that. And in my fiction, I don’t even usually write in the first person. And so when I sat down to write the book, I found myself extraordinarily at sea, unsure of what this persona, this person, was. This voice that I needed to create.
Correspondent: Hence the “I am,” “I do,” “It is”? It’s kind of the early formation of “Well, how am I going to portray the Joanna on the page?”
Rakoff: Well, you know, it more came to me from the opening scene of the book in which you see it written almost as a “we.” And you kind of see vast numbers of young women going to work as assistants. And in writing that scene, I was able to kind of hit upon what I thought of as a tone that felt right to me for a book about things that took place at this point almost twenty years ago. More like fourteen, fifteen years ago when I was writing it. I wanted a tone that was not nostalgic. I thought that it would be very easy to slip into a kind of nostalgia for a bygone era. And so writing that scene that’s not purely about me, that kind of pans out and shows you lots of women who are doing the same thing that I was, like it’s a very sort of female role, this assistant’s role, allowed me to kind of hit upon this cool tone. And then I could slip into the kind of “I” of the book. In terms of the “I can,” “I am,” “I understand,” I will say that that is simply how I actually speak.
Correspondent: You do.
Rakoff: And I do tend to be a person who speaks in sentences…
Correspondent: You don’t like using “yes” or “yeah, man” or anything like that? That’s just not in your vernacular.
Rakoff: No. I do not. I will say that this is partly my parents’ fault. My parents are sort of two generations removed from me. They had me very late in life. They’re Depression era, Greatest Generation people. And they don’t use any slang. My mother’s letters to me are written as if she’s Emily Dickinson or Miss Manners. There are contractions, but there’s no slang used in my household. And certainly if I used anything that was grammatically incorrect or that fell into the realm of “of the moment” slang, if I said “Awesome!” in the ’80s, I was given a fisheye by my mom or I was told…
Correspondent: You stood in the corner with Fowler, basically reciting the rules of usage.
Rakoff: Kind of. It just was frowned upon. And without realizing it, I just sort of absorbed their grammatical constructs.
Correspondent: Well, how do you permit slang in your life now? Or even in your fiction? Or even in your memoir?
Rakoff: Well, in fiction and in memoir as well, I’m a huge stickler for dialogue. You may know this, but I spent many, many years primarily working as a book critic and one of the things that drove me crazy when I read contemporary fiction was dialogue that felt inauthentic. I remember reading a book in which nobody used contractions in the dialogue and I thought, “Why didn’t this writer read the dialogue out loud? This is absurd. Nobody actually talks like this.”
Correspondent: You haven’t actually gone to Contraction Central, this city out in West Virginia, where nobody actually…
Rakoff: Yes. I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to go to that place.
Correspondent: Yeah. They banned contractions. It’s been on the municipal ordinance for about twenty years now.
Rakoff: That may also be like the place where all bad literary translations go.
Correspondent: And cheap Dostoevsky translations in particular.
Correspondent: All the Russians. Anyway, sorry.
Rakoff: I just actually read a novel in translation that is this novel that was a huge bestseller in France called The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles.
Correspondent: Oh yeah.
Rakoff: And it’s been published all over the world. And it’s a very commercial novel. But the translation — I hope I’m not going to offend anyone listening to this — but the translation was clearly done in a very rapid way.
Correspondent: As about 80% of translations are. Because the translators are paid almost nothing.
Rakoff: Yeah. But I think this is because it was a bestseller and they wanted to get it out. And the language.
Correspondent: Much like Stieg Larsson.
Rakoff: The dialogue feels just absurd in it. Like I know these people are French, but nobody would talk like this. Like this is ridiculous. So anyway in my dialogue, I of course allow people to use slang. Because the dialogue comes out of the character. So it would be crazy to have all of my characters speak in the way that I do or address themselves in the way that I do. And I do as an adult…
Correspondent: As an adult, I will not speak slang? Is that what it is?
Rakoff: No. As an adult, I think that I find myself using slang ironically and saying things that I wouldn’t say as a teenager. Like saying, “That’s cool” or “That’s cute.” I banned the word “cute” from my lexicon for a long time and, an hour ago, I just described something as cute. Or I’ll say “Awesome!” to my kids.
Correspondent: Wow. You’re more orthodox than me. I have no problem with slang. But I do have a problem with things like “Because so and so.” That drives me nuts. And I can’t bring myself to say it, except in irony, which is kind of missing the point, I suppose. We’ve strayed quite a bit and I want to get back to the life you depict or the Joanna persona you depict on the page. You knew nothing of snow days. You knew nothing of jobs. You knew nothing of agents. You knew nothing of publishing. Of how much sandwiches cost. Of how much tax was taken from your paycheck. There’s one astonishing revelation midway through the book about unexpected student loans. This leads me to ask, especially in light of you kind of talking about your parents a little bit, how did you manage to delay learning about the responsibilities of life for so long?
Rakoff: Well, I was only 23 when this book takes place. So I don’t think I delayed them so long. I mean, I actually think — first of all, I think, and I guess I’ll say for people listening, this book takes place over the year that I was 23 and turned 24.
Rakoff: Yes. And chronicles my first job, which was at…um…
Correspondent: The Agency.
Rakoff: A very storied agency. One of the oldest agencies. The second oldest agency in New York.
Correspondent: If you mention the first agency, they will strike you dead in the street. I think that’s the New York Publishing Codex. But anyway.
Rakoff: There’s contention about which is the oldest. Because literary agencies, when they first came into existence in the ’20s…
Correspondent: Blood feuds have been drawn over this question.
Rakoff: They were less established things. They were just kind of like a guy selling someone’s literary rights. So it’s not quite clear which of the two is the oldest. Regardless, I was 23. I had gone to college. I spent a year in grad school. And then I took this job. I think that the sort of arc that I’m describing in the book is actually relatively normal. A lot of my friends were going through the same thing. They had grown up, many of them in coddled affluent suburbs or perhaps the sort of coddled upper middle-class echelons of New York City or L.A. or places like that. And their parents had essentially provided for them. And in moving to New York, especially, more so than other cities. So at this time, friends of mine were moving to Prague and Seattle and Portland and Chicago, where there was a lot of music and also comedy happening. And they had a slightly easier time. But those of us who moved to New York, I think, were unprepared for the kind of economic realities of the city. And many of my friends really struggled. I think they sort of believed that they could move to the city and survive as actors, writers, dancers, or what have you. But this was not the New York City of a James Baldwin novel or the New York City of, I don’t know, my parents, where you could rent an apartment on Mulberry Street for $30 a month. And this was 1996. We were at the end of a big recession. It was almost the worst time to be a young person in New York. I mean, it just keeps getting worse and worse. So we were at the end of this terrible reception. So there was a sort of dearth of jobs. And yet at the same time, we were at the beginning of the dot com boom. So there was all this influx of cash and all of these people moving to start dot coms in Silicon Alley and what have you. So you have these kind of wealthier people moving in and real estate sort of going up and up as it always does. But this was a particular moment where things were quite difficult.
Correspondent: But you’re saying this in the “we” as opposed to the “I.” What about you, Joanna? What did you do to adapt to this new reality? Especially — and I don’t want to give too much away — because it seems to me that your parents had a very controlling hand in how you learned about life and you really had to resist in actually leaving and figuring out what it was to be an adult.
Rakoff: Um. Sort of. So I’ll just explain a little bit about the book. So before the book begins, I had been sort of de facto engaged. My college boyfriend, who was wonderful and, always, my parents loved him and my whole family loved him. He was about to start a doctoral program in Berkeley. And it was just assumed that I was going to move out there. And he had found an apartment for us. And I would find some sort of job. I had just finished a master’s in English, but that’s another way of saying that I had dropped out of a Ph.D. program. Because I became disillusioned with academia. So I was essentially — in other words, I was on a semi-path. Like I was going to marry this person who was wonderful and always and also accepted by my family, from a very similar background to me. It was just — everyone sort of assumed that I would finish my Ph.D. maybe at Berkeley or somewhere nearby. A lot of my family was in this area. They presumed I would settle down there. We would both get academic jobs and have children. And there was something in me that — and because my parents supported this, they were somewhat generous of me financially. Because this is what they wanted me to do. And I then, where the book begins, basically I had veered from this path. I essentially went out to Berkeley to see the apartment, figure things out. And then I was supposed to go back home and just get my stuff and come and live there permanently. And I went back to New York and essentially lived like a 23-year-old. I went out every night. I went to parties. I saw all my college and high school friends. They were all there. And I somehow fell into a job working as a PA on a Barbara Streisand film.
Correspondent: Which one was it?
Rakoff: The Mirror Has Two Faces.
Correspondent: Oh, that one.
Rakoff: I’ve still never seen it.
Correspondent: I never saw it either. With Jeff Bridges. Yeah.
Rakoff: Yes. And it was filmed at Columbia and so a lot of my friends were at film school at Columbia and one of them said, “Hey, do you want to work as a PA on this film?” I said, “Sure.” So this seemed like such a weird and cool opportunity that I was able to say to my college boyfriend, “You know, I’m going to do this and then I’ll come out to you.” And then when that ended, I somehow fell into — in short, I fell into this job at the Agency. And that seemed like such a great opportunity. I said, “I got this job. I’m just going to stay for a little bit and try it out.” I very nervously said this to him. In other words, I went through a kind of almost — a little bit of the kind of rebellion that kids often go through when they’re adolescent. And I had never done anything like this. I had been the rule-following perfect student, obedient, devoted to family sort of kid. And so somehow my family — I don’t want to say that my family was oppressive. Because that’s absolutely inaccurate. They were not. But they sort of had just a very strong, defined sense of how a person should live in the world. And perhaps because they were of this older generation, they had a more conservative approach to life, where lots of my friends’ parents were more children of the ’60s and ’70s and were like “Do whatever you want! Be a writer!” Whereas my parents were like, “You need to go to law school.” They were more sort of a…
Correspondent: Have a career.
Rakoff: Be a doctor.
Correspondent: Be solid. Own property. That kind of thing.
Rakoff: Yes. Exactly. And really this was very different than most of my friends’ parents. So…
Correspondent: So wait. So where did this rebellious spirit, where did this come from? I mean, did you feel that you could sort of figure out what you wanted to do through publishing after you had done the academic racket? Or something like that?
Rakoff: Well, as I said, I really fell into that. I didn’t have any desire to work in publishing. I didn’t think, “I want to work in publishing!” I had my senior year in college as a sort of backup plan. I had interviewed just with the HR department at Random House and it was such an unpleasant experience that I thought, “I never — I don’t want to do this actually.” Like the career services people at Oberlin set it up for me. And I had to go into their corporate office in this ill-fitting suit. And I just hated the whole thing. But the agency was a whole different story. Because Random House is an enormous corporation who is now my publisher actually, ironically, and I was not really suited to working in a corporate environment, which is not my mentality. But the agency was this smaller, tiny institution. It felt like working in someone’s home. And it turned out that I was really suited to it. It was fun. It was interesting. It was actually literary. It wasn’t just about bottom line. I got to work with the estates of these sort of exciting authors. And so anyway I wasn’t trying to rebel through publishing. But I was — my parents did consider this a very strange and rebellious thing to do. They really did. And they felt like, “Oh my goodness! You went to this.” At the time, Oberlin was I think like one of the top five colleges in the country and I got like an almost perfect score on my SATs. I was like that.
Correspondent: You put this off as long as you could. And then finally, all right, it’s time to strike out.
Rakoff: Yes. they just thought it was crazy. Like “You could have gone to law school. You could have done anything. Why are you doing this? You’re making so little money.” And…and…
Correspondent: But the sense I got, at least as you portrayed yourself in the book, is that you almost kind of fell into this. Because the one thing I really actually enjoy, especially in the early part, is how you sort of say, “Well, I didn’t really know money. Yes, there were books. Plentiful books. I didn’t realize I bought so much.” That you weren’t really keeping tabs of how much things cost, how things broke down, how much of your paycheck was going to go into rent and expenses and so forth. But at the same time, that kind of amorphousness, that kind of ambiguity actually ended up working out for you. Simply by showing up to your job on the first day when it’s a snow day. You know?
Rakoff: Well, in terms of the financial stuff, it was sort of a mixed bag. My parents — here again, just to give a little context — my father’s a first generation American. His parents, as children, had escaped the pogroms and come to the U.S. My mother, her family had been in the States for a bit longer. But they were from that kind of unstable immigrant background and their priority as adults was the setting up of a stable home life and protecting me and my siblings from the kind of instability. My mother had been raised by a single mother. She had to live with various aunts and uncles being shunted from home to home. She had a very unstable upbringing. And, you know, never enough money. And I saw at the time and I really, really see now, now that I have my own kids, that they wanted to protect me from that perhaps. And they wanted to protect me — also there had been a lot of tragedy in my family. They wanted to protect me from the world in a way.
Correspondent: But I think it was in your genotype. Because your father actually was an actor before he was a dentist, as you point out in the book.
Correspondent: And he was a dentist who liked to tell jokes. So definitely that strain was certainly in the Rakoff makeup, I think.
Rakoff: Do you mean the sort of artistic strain?
Correspondent: The artistic. The want to be sort of exuberant in some sense. At least, I’m basing this, of course, off the book and off of the last time we met. But I think it was there.
Rakoff: Yeah. It’s true. And there was this kind of ambivalence, I mean in terms of like my career stuff. My father, when I was a child, actually really encouraged me to be an actor myself. I was constantly told that I was a good actor and that I had talent. And so I did sort of veer in that direction. And then my mother would freak out and kind of pull me back in. My dad was much more sort of tolerant of these things. But it was a bit schizophrenic, to use the term loosely. Like he would encourage my more artistic creative things and then he would pull back and say, “Why don’t you go to law school?” He couldn’t figure out what he wanted. And there was also very possibly a little bit of annoyance and resentment with the kind of privilege that I’d been born into. Because as I said, he’d grown up during the Depression, starting off in a tenement apartment where his bedroom was like a curtained off area behind his father’s dental office. So I think that there was a little bit of that, that he felt like, “Augh! You think that you can just do…” — there’s this scene in the book where he kind of says this to me — “…you think you can just do whatever you want, but you really need to face the realities of life.” And I didn’t even understand what that was, purely because he and my mother had been so protective. And I had never seen a bill. I had never heard any concern about money. Anything. We weren’t incredibly wealthy, but my mother earned multiple fur coats. We traveled all over the world. My parents always said to me, “You’re a kid who never asked for anything. You never asked for toys.” But if I did, there was never a problem with getting it.
Correspondent: But there’s also this impulse to conceal how you were learning to live in New York with this guy named Don, this boyfriend in this apartment who you didn’t really tell them about. Simultaneously, they’re being, as I alluded earlier, very controlling in terms of signing you up for a student loan without actually informing you and not being clear about the costs. So how do you divagate through that particular friction? I mean, you want to be who you are. You want to actually, I think, learn how to do things. You do say, “I do.” And you do do things. But at the same time, you have to make mistakes. How do you deal with this with this family dynamic?
Rakoff: I mean, I guess I’m not sure what you’re asking me.
Correspondent: How do you find yourself when you are dealing on one hand with having to conceal things from your parents while simultaneously having to kind of stave off the “Well, we’re taking care of everything. You should live with us and get up for work two hours early for the two hour commute”? Do you know what I mean? That kind of thing.
Rakoff: Yeah. Well, I mean, I suppose that’s why I rebelled in the way that I did in a kind of stealth way. Like, you know, I don’t know. Doing lots of drugs in their living room or I don’t even know what. I sort of rebelled in the kind of A student who’s secretly doing drugs in the bathroom way, although I didn’t do drugs in the bathroom. I took this job that, in New York parlance, was a glamour job and that they could, if they really wanted to, they could talk to their friends about it. And it seemed like a respectable thing to do. And it had its own career path. And I lived in Williamsburg, where we are right now, which they thought was weird but it wasn’t so where I was living in a squat with a bunch of unwashed, dreadlocked drug addicts or whatever. You know, so it was definitely clear that they disapproved of things. But I just kept a lot from them. And that was sort of my way of rebelling, was withholding from them, whereas before, when I was a kid, I definitely considered my parents my best friends. I was a really unpopular, dorky kid. And I loved my parents and sort of told them everything. But when I got older, I realized at that point — that was when I realized in order for me to live the life that I want, I have to withhold from them. I have to keep things closer to the bone. And still my mother complains about this to me. I mean, I’ll hear her talking to a friend and she’ll say, “Joanna keeps things close to the bone.” That’s her term.
(Photo: Jared Leeds)
Author: Paula Bomer
Subjects Discussed: How physically scarred characters inspire dimension inside characters, Flannery O’Connor’s thoughts on the grotesque, how character details create mystery, Dorothea Lange and the Dust Bowl, Jim Thompson and Freud symbols, when “toxic” becomes a cliched adjective to describe people, the tendency for people to seek versions of their family later in life, young people trying to make their own world, when people who make you feel like crap are confused with the right relationship fit, how structure emerges from the liberation of space, contrapuntal tension in “Inside Madeleine,” spending two years working on a novella, the 1980s fashion of people having eating disorders, strange relationships with food, eating disorder considered as a prototype for cutting, transient mental illnesses, Ian Hacking’s Mad Travelers, The Taming of Chance, train fugue, death rates and anorexia, disorders as a misunderstanding of control, exploring marriage through intimacy, Ted in “The Mother of My Children” compared with Greta’s husband in “A Walk to the Cemetery” and men in “Inside Madeleine,” sex as the defining quality of a relationship, the benefits of marriage, Jonathan Franzen’s thoughts on sex, the importance of bad sex scenes in narrative, Girls, Lena Dunham’s audience confrontation with body image, how the physical leads into the emotional, Dr. Ruth, sex described on 1980s radio vs. the ubiquity of Internet porn in 2014, setting stories in Boston and South Bend, Indiana, writers who have to wait ten years to revisit material, writing material intermittently over very long periods of time, whether stories set at home are easier to finish, writing Baby over a long period of time, Bomer’s idea folder, “Outsiders” and Bomer’s boarding school story aspirations, memories as ways to trigger imaginations, Bomer’s unpublished novel set in Berlin, the difficulty of setting a story in a place you’ve never gone to, Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, Annie Proulx vs. Richard Ford on being a stickler for location vs. making place up, locational accuracy as an act of preservation, getting the reader to believe, the lifespan of a novel, being a young girl in the 1970s and the 1980s, being called a slut and slut shaming, hookup culture, literal blindness juxtaposed against other forms of blindness, when text isn’t enough to know what’s going on with characters, going through old papers and photographs, how anthropological texts became an unexpected muse, hoarding, contending with clutter, when tough people are internally fearful, the abstract nature of what we represent through writing, writing a story compared with painting a floor, how houses become interesting because of lazy interior decorating, the minor surrealism of “Breasts,” the 1998 animated short “More,” magical glints, Bomer’s upper limits of fantasy and magical realism, subjective magic as a method of revealing urban trappings, Samuel R. Delany’s idea of pornotopia, religion in “The Shitty Handshake,” “Lightning,” Bill Burr, Scientology vs. the Catholic religion, belief and fantasy, “Two Years,” subverting titillation, taking out various Sonyas in stories to preserve certain continuity threads from Nine Months, Philip Roth, being taken seriously while also going into uncomfortable places, Sabbath’s Theater, Chaucer’s ass-kissing in “The Miller’s Tale,” Dante and scatology, Ulysses, Germans and nudism, the human reality of walking around repressed, the carnal way that apes greet each other, using the word “compartmentalize” too much, literature as a vicarious outlet for reader and author, the class divide, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the realities of class and capitalism, difficulties getting healthcare insurance, preexisting conditions, how dinner table political discussion stifles conversation, how swiftly Brooklyn has changed, Hal Ashby’s The Landlord, cab drivers who kicked you out of the car, subway muggings from decades ago, New York in the early ’90s, questioning why writers don’t get B-sides, being forced to move elsewhere because of the rich, and the alien notion of being in several stages of life so fast.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: One thing we didn’t actually discuss the last two times we chatted was your interest in the external. Many of your stories here feature side characters who have their skin pocked or acned or stretched or otherwise maimed in some sense. Anya has acne scars in “Reading to the Blind Girl.” You have Polly’s chicken pox scars in “Down the Alley.” There’s Maddy’s beginnings in “Inside Madeleine.” How much do you need to know a character physically before knowing her internally? How does a damaged physical appearance help you find unexpected internal qualities about a character? Are there any disadvantages or advantages in concentrating upon the external?
Bomer: I actually was greatly affected by an essay, or a nonfiction piece, by Flannery O’Connor, who complained about some other writers who she didn’t appreciate. Because she said, “I can’t see these people.” And then I was revisiting Flannery O’Connor and it seems quite simple. But you see her characters. And she explains how they look. It’s a little old-fashioned, but I think it works for this collection in particular. Especially dealing with external damage or how our bodies affect what’s going on inside of us. There’s a huge New Age movement about that. You have to do all these things inside your body to glow or whatever. But, yeah, interesting that you point out their scars and deformities. That too would be the “Grotesque in Southern Fiction” essay of Flannery O’Connor. And I was unware until you pointed that out. But now that you’ve pointed that out, oh, that is a theme
Correspondent: But I am curious to get into this notion of how a character looks. I’ve actually been discussing this quite a bit this year with authors — especially in relation to sustaining a mystery. How you see in mysteries that you don’t really know the protagonist, how the protagonist looks like or what not. And that’s part of the way of getting inside the character internally. And I’m wondering what motivates your need to really see them externally before you can see them internally. Do you think there’s a kind of mystery or a tension here sometimes when you’re advancing a story?
Bomer: Well, I hope there is mystery, not necessarily the classical mystery novel, but definitely you want to be discovering things in a story as you go along. And I hope I can accomplish that. I don’t know — I’m thinking of the story “Cleveland Circle House.” That story came to me and the opening is all about how she looks. Like her neck’s too big, her chin’s too long. I can’t remember exactly. But that story came to me first with this young girl’s face and how one person loves her for it and thinks she’s amazing and another person doesn’t think much of her at all. Like her parents, in other words, have this very different reaction to who she is physically and as a person. So that started the story.
Correspondent: Much as the back started “Inside Madeleine”? The back of the mother at the very beginning.
Bomer: Oh yeah.
Correspondent: I love the way you fixated on a physical part like that.
Bomer: Yeah. And the dynamic being she’s always there with her mother’s back. That weird separation and how they’re trying to bridge that separation by feeding. That was very obviously something I was trying to do and I did it in a repetitive, somewhat experimental way. Not as traditionally structured narrative.
Correspondent: It’s weird. Because the beginning of that story made me think of a Dorothea Lange photo for some reason. The hardened back. I was thinking, “Gosh, if we see her face, will she look like something out of the Dust Bowl?” (laughs)
Bomer: That’s pretty funny. I don’t think we ever really see her face.
Correspondent: No, we don’t!
Correspondent: I’m telling you. There is mystery here!
Bomer: (laughs) So when mysteries — I’m not as well-read in mystery as you are, but I do know that Jim Thompson, who I don’t know if you’d call — I guess he’s more noir.
Correspondent: I call everything “literature” myself.
Correspondent: It just happens to be categorized in the mystery section sometimes.
Bomer: Right. I’m with you. But Jim Thompson, you see his characters, although all the male characters, I’m thinking now, kind of blend together. But the women are specific. One of my favorite is how she’s really beautiful but she has long gray hair and he’s dealing with all these weird Freudian mom issues, like he often does in his stories. Her looks are a very big part of her character and his relationship to her and how he likes the fact that she’s got long gray hair, even though she’s also very young and sexual in a way. So the dichotomy of that. I guess I think that drawing, getting an idea of what people look like — weight issues are a big part of it. This book deals with the external and how it affects our place in the world. Polly, with her going through puberty, which is a horrible time and all you care about is what people think about how you look when you’re twelve.
Correspondent: Well, I mean, this leads me to wonder if external description is almost a mere…
Bomer: Sorry, guys.
Correspondent: It’s okay. We can have a few dogs bark on this podcast. Keeps the tension going. It makes me wonder if external description is in some sense almost a mirror that you can hold up to the reader, as an author, to confront either the world or to confront the notion or the worldview the reader brings into your stories. Is that safe to say?
Bomer: Yeah. I would hope so. That would be wonderful. Because I definitely put thought into how I’m describing them, what I decide to focus on, and it affects how they are seen in the world and accepted by their communities or relationship with their professor. The one you mentioned, Anya, the fact that she has pock marks endears her. It makes her vulnerable to the student and makes the student feel that she can bridge this teacher-student gap, and really have an intense friendship almost with this woman. Or at least lean on her in ways that are very gratifying. And that’s definitely — I have something where I love vulnerability in people. So basically I project that in various ways throughout all of my books. But maybe this one, because they’re all kind of coming of age, they’re in that really more insecure phase in many ways.
Correspondent: Well, that’s interesting. We have a teacher/student dynamic. But there’s also a student/student dynamic in many of these college stories. So you almost have to have two dynamics to get inside what these protagonists are dealing with. I’m wondering how that kind of relationship developed in the blind girl story and also “Cleveland Circle” as well.
Bomer: Yeah. Well, definitely a theme that I’m exploring throughout this is young women, or girls, and their relationship to other young women and girls. I don’t paint a pretty picture, I’m afraid. And even thought there is…it’s not all bad. But most people I know throughout their lives, they’re going to discard some relationships. And those relationships, because they’re…oh god, I was going to say toxic. And that’s so cheesy.
Correspondent: Well, “toxic” we can use.
Bomer: But I think there’s a book called Toxic People.
Bomer: This whole silly psychology.
Correspondent: Why is toxic cliche now? I’m curious.
Bomer: Because of a book, right? It’s like the “inner child.”
Correspondent: Well, “toxic” isn’t on that level of “inner child.”
Bomer: Okay. I hope. Maybe.
Correspondent: We can use it during the course of this conversation. It’s okay.
Bomer: Okay. I appreciate it.
Correspondent: You can use anything.
Bomer: Using the word “toxic.” I’m actually trying to think of another way of describing it. But one thing for certain is that I do believe — so this is another psychobabbly thing — when you’re young, you’re kind of reliving relationships, maybe even your family relationships. And you kind of seek out the person who’s going to be some of the negative things that happened at home. And I’m not saying that everyone is completely damaged or whatever. But most people have some bumps in life, in their family, in their social life. And then I take it to a bit of an extreme. Because to me, that’s more interesting from a literary standpoint. And I don’t always. But in this book, I would say a lot of it is quite extreme. And definitely these characters, a lot of them are attracted to these people who aren’t very nice to them and who they either worship. Because they have things that are small or are skinny or they seem confident. And then they end up getting kind of hurt by that situation. Or the opposite, the occasional “Oh, this person’s vulnerable and therefore I can be vulnerable around them.” And so there’s this safety in relationships.
Correspondent: You’re sort of suggesting that people are looking for a new family when they go to school. And this is the great fluid organizational structure that you can bring into narrative, which requires organizational structure.
Bomer: Yeah. Definitely. That’s a very good way of looking at what I’m trying to do, in particular with this book.
(Photo credit: Robert Martin)
Porochista Khakpour is most recently the author of The Last Illusion. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #249.
Author: Porochista Khakpour
Subjects Discussed: Lyme disease, the thrill of not knowing yourself, messy house syndrome, bird mythologies attached to various nations, Marco Polo and the roc, drawing from the Shahnameh, the inspirational value in Googling feral children, what artists talk about on smoke breaks, when readers hold an author morally responsible for fictitious animal abuse, BASE jumping, the Freedom Tower video, going blonde for Elle, making lunch with caviar and Wonder bread, being a white demon in a dark world, Toni Morrison’s advice on writing the book inside you (with mangled paraphrasing), being obsessed with Latin American and surrealistic writers, the appeal of the grotesque, being young and adversarial, when novels become unanticipated memoirs, when the “unreal” is more real than real, David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, Karl Ove Knausgaard, hard realism vs. surrealism, Stephen Dixon, hyperrealism, when realism becomes too polished or manicured, dry literary modes getting in the way of depicting reality, Carol Shields, harmful MFA diets, James Salter, Richard Yates, John Cheever, academics who misinterpret authenticity, finding the human in the idiosyncratic, the freaks, and the outsiders, why Bret Easton Ellis’s work is dismissed, Glamorama as an underrated novel, Khakpour’s review of Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird, the myth of perfect novels, why risks and originality are important to sustaining unique fiction, attempting to track what went wrong with risky American fiction during the last twenty years, the dangers of likable books, Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names, Yiyun Li’s Kinder Than Solitude, why young American readers are so conservative, millennials who avoid politics and history, when reading choices are impacted by economic crisis, what happens when the youth experience of bouncing around jobs is taken away from American life, needless obsessions with “being good,” when favoriting and liking intrudes upon the sincerity of genuine compliments, why hierarchies now look stupid, ridiculous formalism vs. overly casual forms of address, speed and anxiety, the threat of phones that entice us with buzzing notifications, contemporary anxieties over art that confronts, the remarkable human capacity for inventing needless popularity contests, being part of an immigrant group and fitting in, being true to yourself, ridiculous calculations set up by publishers, when New York publishing types forget regular readers who crave something different, why women’s magazines have embraced The Last Illusion, doing something daring because the universe is indifferent, blind ideological labels that cause nuance to be overlooked, “TWITTER NEVER FORGETS”, suspicion attached to sincerity, the apology cycle, media training’s assault on the real, healthy anti-authoritarian impulses, illegal methods of making money, the trap of fancy restaurants, the mistaken assumption that all writers live middle-class lifestyles, consumerist impulses that get in the way of the writing life, the appeal of New York City (when one can barely afford it), being exposed to subcultures, finding places where outsiders are accepted, Y2K and 9/11 as efforts to destroy New York, New York’s openness, medical arbiters named after guitar gods, how storytelling can combat injurious forces against the individual, inhabiting your own narrative, adopting a uniform of neon orange socks and a cowboy hat for school, pranks as a form of existence, prank phone calls, dialing up a radio station and pretending to be other people, talking in a baby voice as a professed Playboy Playmate, testing the notions of what people are willing to believe, learning international calling codes as a child and asking people in Nairobi to speak Swahili, physically digging holes to China, being paralyzed by knowing we’re going to die, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, getting the big death questions out of the way on the first date, the benefits of not caring vs. paralyzing thoughts as a kid, dramatizing how people believe in illusions, betrayal and panic attacks, differing emotions that emerge from PTSD and betrayal, fear and illusion, magical thinking, the Y2K panic in San Francisco, Y2K as a cultural embarrassment, failing to consider American time before 9/11, Asiya perceived as a villain in The Last Illusion, why a 500 pound character is the soul of The Last Illusion, eating insects (and associated ethics), being inspired by paintings, how different generations have viewed women, the absence of parents, family structure as a safeguard against feral children, destructive ways of being to survive a fractious childhood, Kafka’s response to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Kafka’s notion of the other Abraham as a solution to the parable’s heroic failings, father figures as impostors, having a checkered employment history, work as an enslavement of faith, saturating a novel with pre-9/11 paraphernalia, celebrating the autodidact, awkward paths to manhood, masturbation, connections between reading fiction and empathy, how online skimming is discouraging people from reading ambitious fiction, how to get more people to read Ulysses, trends in longform, the recent fetishization of Gay Talese, Renata Adler’s resurgence among young people, the double-edged sword of “legitimized” indie presses, marketing savvy entering into alt lit considerations, hostility towards works of ambitious fiction, Rebecca Curtis’s stories, Leslie Jamison, the impact of the VIDA Count, trying to get young men to read, reading around the world to atone for American literary inadequacies, Borges’s Ficciones, and hopes expressed for future punks.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Khakpour: I’ve got gallows humor for miles, but I’ve been having so many difficulties because of a recent relapse of Lyme disease. So I’m finding everything a little extra challenging. But maybe also a little bit thrilling. Because who knows what will come out?
Correspondent: What’s the thrill of this predicament?
Khakpour: The thrill is that I actually don’t entirely know myself. And so…
Correspondent: You’ve found out more things about yourself.
Khakpour: (laughs) Well, sort of. I’ve been teaching and lecturing and sometimes I feel like this disease attacks your softer tissue. Everywhere. Your brain and your organs and everything. At certain times…
Correspondent: I thought that the brain was a harder tissue. All that work. Especially your brain.
Khakpour: In my case…
Khakpour: …it’s pretty dim.
Correspondent: Oh, I don’t know about that.
Khakpour: It’s weird. I remember certain things that I thought I had done away with and then certain things I will completely forget. You know, I have that sort of senile dementia.
Correspondent: But, see, I’m like that without Lyme disease.
Correspondent: So I think actually, if that’s the case, you’re the most formidable intellect who has ever appeared on this show.
Khakpour: (laughs) Thank you. It’s amazing. I looked up this thing called messy house syndrome.
Correspondent: Messy house syndrome!
Khakpour: And I thought that it literally just meant, “Your house is messy.”
Correspondent: Or your house is not in order. In some family dynasty sense.
Khakpour: (laughs) I think it’s this thing. I’m not sure exactly how to pronounce it. There are various names that involve forms of senile dementia that are related to it. And it is an interesting umbrella term for various forms of cognitive dysfunction that I very much relate to. But I don’t think it’s permanent. I hope it’s not permanent. I’m enjoying it a little bit. My emotional range is quite stunted.
Correspondent: It’s kind of a temporary vacation from possibly thinking all the time.
Khakpour: Well, I’ve short circuited a lot with thinking.
Correspondent: Well, you’re associative, I think.
Khakpour: (laughs) Exactly.
Correspondent: Which some people call a short circuit, but actually is really kind of liberating. So you have this little caesura in the usual great Porochista universe.
Khakpour: It’s interesting. I used to be so obsessed with altered states and I would do drugs to achieve them and all that.
Correspondent: Now you’ve got the ultimate altered state. The ultimate natural high.
Khakpour: Exactly. So in some ways, it’s kind of amazing. But it would be nice if I knew it would end soon. I think it will.
Correspondent: And yet you have been nothing less than perspicacious so far.
Khakpour: Okay. Thank you. Phew. (laughs)
Correspondent: Let’s get into the book. So Marco Polo, he popularized the legend of the roc. The Greeks, they have the phoenix. Slavic folklore has the firebird. In short, I don’t think there’s a single culture in the world that does not have some form of a mythological bird. America has the bald ego…the bald eagle. The bald ego as well! (laughs)
Khakpour: (laughs) The bald ego as well! I was going to say.
Correspondent: The bald ego and the bald eagle. And not far from the years of your novel, in 1999 to 2001, which is when yours is set, the bald eagle was actually placed from an endangered species to a threatened species and now is actually off that list altogether. Because the bald eagle made a comeback. So beyond your inspiration from the Shahnameh, I’m curious what drew you to the bird as this malleable mythological symbol. To what extent were you interested in not only transcending culture across nations, but even subcultures, perhaps bird-related, within this nation?
Khakpour: Oh. That’s so interesting. I love that question. Yeah. There’s a lot of avian themes in everything I write. It’s strange. It was in my first novel as well. And then I just naturally gravitated toward it here. I was at a residency where everybody was working very hard. And it was one of my first residencies. And I had no interest in being there almost. I was just tired from the first book. And I just decided I was going to read during my residency time. I brought a copy of the Persian Book of Kings, the Shahnameh, the Dick Davis translation that came out a few years ago. And I was flipping through it and remembering my father reading it to me in Farsi. And there was always just this one story that I always would make him reread. And it was the story of Zal and his friendship with this giant mythological bird, the Simorgh. It’s strange to even say “friendship.” I mean, the Simorgh was this guardian. And so essentially raised him. So anyways, that was in the back of my mind. While I was flipping through it at night in this residency, I would go on smoking breaks and there was this one other lovely artist there who was the only other smoker and she was also kind of pretending to do work. And we would just talk about our lives during these smoking breaks. And one time she said to me, she would just go on these rants and she said, “Whatever you do, never Google ‘feral children.'” And I said, “Wait! Why did you say that? What?” And she said, “Oh no. I’ve just been bored. I’ve been Googling things late at night.”
Correspondent: As one does.
Khakpour: Yeah. And then so I thought, “Okay.” I went there obviously. It was late at night there one night. And it was very horrific. And I’d always been interested in both the “reality,” but also the hoaxes that have been attributed to feral children. So then I found this case, this Russian case, of a bird boy who’d been essentially partially raised in a cage and could only chirp. Maybe it was a hoax. Maybe not. And immediately I combined that with Zal in my brain. And the two just kind of mashed up seamlessly. The next day at our smoking break, I told her. I said, “I think you just helped me come up with my second novel.” I’d had the other thread of the second novel, which really involved the magician and the last illusion. But he was only — I could always tell that he was 50% most of the story. There was a whole other thread. So I don’t know. Then I came to that and it was actually interesting. I came to realize, “Boy, you’re obsessed with birds and flight and all that. What is that about?” And there’s a made up myth in the first novel that involves burning doves actually. It’s sort of the myth behind the narrative of the first novel.
Correspondent: This is what it sounds like when the doves fry.
Khakpour: (laughs) Yeah.
Khakpour: So many people scold me about that scene. It’s funny. People come to the readings. And I only started reading from it late in the game. And I would have these oftentimes older women who would come to me and say…
Correspondent: Older women?
Khakpour: Yes. Who’d say, “Why would you have such scenes of animal abuse?” And they would accuse me of having harmed animals myself. And I was just so horrified. I was, “No, this is fiction.”
Correspondent: People get very sensitive to animals being harmed in fiction, I find.
Correspondent: I mean, they are more willing to impugn an author for a fictional animal abuse more so than any real animal abuse.
Khakpour: I know.
Correspondent: It’s really odd.
Khakpour: Incredibly. I know. And people were very disturbed by that. But anyways, you brought up so many good points about the cultures in the U.S. too. I think, I mean, there’s a general awe that comes when you think about flight, right? It’s one thing we definitely can’t do. We can do it in these wonky adorable human ways. Hang glider. Sky diving.
Correspondent: BASE jumping.
Khakpour: Yeah, BASE jumping. Right.
Correspondent: That amazing video from the Freedom Tower.
Khakpour: I know.
Correspondent: I’m not even going to tell you how many times I saw it.
Khakpour: Same here.
Correspondent: It just gave me such a cathartic thrill.
Khakpour: Oh yeah. I started collecting a lot of those ideas, or collecting a lot of those instances and looking at their videos and all that, when I was writing this. And that figures — even the idea of stunts that involve flight or falling — big in this book.
Correspondent: How many times did your dad read you the legend of Zal? I’m curious. Because this seems to me that it was deeply imprinted upon you as a child.
Correspondent: And we always go back to the tales we’re told as children to find meaning and inspiration as adults.
Khakpour: Over and over, I would ask him to read this. He would keep going. There’s many amazing stories in the Shahnameh. There’s so many beautiful and incredible — you know, it has that feeling of The Canterbury Tales and The Old Testament where you can go to it for unlimited inspiration. But I was frozen on Zal. I related to him so much. Because there was also — you know, in my first novel, there’s a whole thing with I Dream of Jeannie. This blonde genie and the weirdness of that to me.
Correspondent: And here you are blonde as well. (laughs)
Khakpour: Yes. For an article.
Correspondent: It was in the prophecy! (laughs)
Khakpour: Yes. Exactly! Now I am one of the fakest blondes ever. So that was a fascination. The other thing that was interesting in the story of Zal was that he was born essentially something like an albino. It’s unclear from the text exactly what they meant. But he had a certain whiteness of skin and a lightness of hair. He basically had white hair. And that was why he was cast out. And I think for an Iranian immigrant new to the U.S. — at that point, we’d only been a few years in the U.S. — I was so fascinated by issues that surrounded race and ethnicity in the U.S. vs. Iran and what that all meant. So Zal to me was just — I didn’t know what to make out of this story. He was somehow what Americans might consider the ideal of beauty. Maybe even some other cultures of course. And yet he was cast aside. Basically left in the wilderness to be raised by a bird.
Correspondent: There were a lot of uncleared mysteries in the original tale.
Correspondent: And maybe this is perhaps what captured your imagination and led you to flesh it out and transplant it here in New York.
Khakpour: Exactly. Yeah. And I had been so anxious about fitting into America at that point. And I knew — I couldn’t even really relate to my own parents. I mean, they were of a different socioeconomic class than my brother and I. So here were two upper-class Iranians in their twenties who were fairly gutted about not being able to do fancy things. You know, my mother would be upset that we couldn’t have a childhood where we went shopping in Europe. And my father was meanwhile making us only Wonder bread sandwiches with butter and caviar on it.
Correspondent: Butter and caviar?
Khakpour: (laughs) Yeah.
Correspondent: Wow. That would make the lunch trade a little bit more convoluted.
Correspondent: “I’ll give you the caviar for the apple.”
Khakpour: (laughs Yeah. Exactly. It was a very confused issue concerning nationality and ethnicity and all that.
Correspondent: And class.
Khakpour: And class. Definitely. So I was constantly thinking about this. And when I would get tired, late at night, when he would read me these stories, I’d have horrible insomnia. I would sit with him and he’d pick up where he left off. I would just ask him, “Could you read this story one more time?” He seemed to give me both a combination of hope for the outsider — because at the end of the Zal story, he’s a great warrior and he’s a great hero of the Persian Empire. And even his whiteness starts to be discussed as silver. It’s very striking. He suddenly becomes the embodiment of strength and power. But there’s a lot of conflict in this story too. And there’s a lot of darkness in that story too. And that really got my wheels turning at a young age. And I feel like I’ve always waited to have an opportunity to do something with that story. And it sort of got me when I didn’t even know that I was looking for it.
(Photo: Darcy Rogers)
Nikil Saval is the author of Cubed and an editor at n+1.
Author: Nikil Saval
Subjects Discussed: Karen Nussbaum and the Nine to Five movement, 9 to 5 as the template for the office comedy, whether the office workplace is permanently stacked against the worker (and attempts to find hope), the beginnings of human resources, the Hawthorne effect, efforts to control workers through close supervision, attention to light and the beginnings of office architecture, the National Labor Relations Act, attempts to organize office workers in the 1930s, anti-immigrant sentiments and racism among white collar workers, unions and white collar workers, why workers feel empowered when they have nothing, the rise of freelancing culture, Richard Greenwald, how office work creates the illusion of giving the worker mastery over his fate, the Bürolandschaft ideal, Robert Propst, Action Office, the historical beginnings of the cubicle, attempts to track down the guy who first closed partitions into the cubicle, Norbert Wiener and cybernetics, King Vidor’s The Crowd, Jacques Tati’s Play Time, futile attempts to photograph “action” in offices, sitting up and standing down, healthy activities in the workplace, Propst’s failed three wall ideal, Herman Miller propaganda and Action Office possibilities, when George Nelson was jilted from the office furniture plans, how changes in the broader culture influenced changes in office culture, managers pulled from offices and deposited in cubes, Barry Lyndon, the impact of mass layoffs, the recession of the 1980s and its impact on white collar culture, when the cubicle became associated with transience, the lack of privacy in the workplace, why European countries revolted against office layout while Americans stayed silent, Frederick Taylor and Taylorism, Taylorism’s rise and fall and second rise, Louis Brandeis’s popularization of Taylorism through “scientific management” (used in his argument of the Eastern Rate Case of 1910), Taylorized families, Harry Braverman, the beginnings of human resources, Taylorism vs. eugenics, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, Douglas McGregor’s The Human Side of Enterprise as an anti-Taylorist tract, Andy Grove’s Only the Paranoid Survive as a return to Taylorism, Robert Waterman’s In Search of Excellence, perpetuating familial attitudes in the workplace, advertising and irony (and parallels to Taylorism), Taylorism vs. Taylor in Planet of the Apes, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building, natural light and the early forms of air conditioning, surveillance by overseers that is perpetuated in workplace architecture, zombie-like accountants, the ethical question of happy workers, the beginnings of glass buildings, Le Corbusier and urban planning, the Lever House, when glass curtains won over Lewis Mumford, Vico cycles, how offices may be returning to their original counting house forms, the Sony Tower’s transformation from work units to residential units in the next few years, the question of workplace architecture becoming an ineluctable and oppressive threat on the way we live, mistaken impressions of Marxism spouted by philosophers, companies spending less on office space, developments in living space and workspace, laptops in cafes, freelancers and co-working facilities, the upward presumptions of clerks, and how once stable labor conditions have become a fantasy.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: We are, in fact, talking in an office. So I’m not sure what that does to this conversation. But we’ll, I suppose, make amends.
Saval: I know. Well, at least it’s a private office and not a cubicle. Because that could be a…
Correspondent: Or an open office for that matter.
Saval: Or an open office. God.
Correspondent: Well, let’s get right into it. Back in the late 1970s, Jane Fonda met Karen Nussbaum, a remarkable figure who organized women clerical workers in this Nine to Five movement. And Fonda and a screenwriter spent an entire evening talking with 40 office workers. This became the basis for the wildly popular movie 9 to 5, which arguably set the template, comic wise, for Office Space, The Office, and, of course, most recently Silicon Valley. As you point out in the book, some of the proposed remedies at the end of that film — plants, rearranged desks, flextime, day care at work — they actually reflect what’s know as the Bürolandschaft ideal. And we’ll get to that in a bit. But, you know, this has me wondering if there is something permanently broken about the office. Is it possible that any attempt to remedy it or improve it is almost this kind of neoliberal trap? What hopes do we have for the worker? Or is the deck permanently stacked against her?
Correspondent: Just to start off here.
Saval: So softball.
Correspondent: It was such a wonderfully bleak book that I had to have a vivaciously bleak opener.
Saval: Gosh. I wish I could just say, “No no no. The story’s happy. It has a happy ending.” You know, I don’t really mean to say that the workplace is permanently broken. I guess I do want to say that the kind of repeated — as you pointed out, there’s a repeated attempt to make work better, usually through design but also through other kind of arrangements in the workplace. Architecturally and what have you. And a lot of these go wrong. And some of them go spectacularly wrong; the most famous being the office cubicle. And I think the point there is not just that the office seems to be broken, but that there is some sense of an idea of how work might be better and there is an idea of somehow you might be able to organize it better, somehow work might be more free, workers might have more control over their work. Things like that. And usually these are sort of fatally disabled by — I mean, it’s not always the case, but usually, roughly, it’s a presumption that these designers or planners know what’s best for an office worker. And there’s usually something imposed on an office worker. Or there’s a plan that starts out really well and then when it’s replicated ad nauseam, it goes wrong or it doesn’t even strike at the heart of what’s wrong at work and they try to design a way things are more fundamental to the issue of the workplace.
Correspondent: But as you also point out in the book, there is this brief moment for the worker — and perhaps it’s an illusional one or a delusional one — where you have a situation when suddenly there is care about what the worker thinks and how the worker can behave, as opposed to how the worker should behave. And I’ll get into Mr. [Frederick] Taylor in a bit. But what accounted for that particular moment, which was roughly around 1929 and up through about the 1950s, before yet another ideologue came in and had ideas about what to do for the worker and for the workplace?
Saval: Well, yeah, that’s, I guess you could call it, the human relations movement. That was the idea that…
Correspondent: That’s the 1960s of the office. (laughs)
Correspondent: That’s the hippie idealism, I suppose. That period.
Saval: Yeah. And it comes out of a lot of different sources. And one was just the office, but it was also the workplace. It took hold on factory floors as well. And the idea was just that workers needed to be in corporations that somehow ostensibly cared for them. It came out of what was known as the Hawthorne experiments, which are a famous social science experiment where they tried in the Hawthorne Works to experiment with different lighting levels and to see how this affected the way people worked. And what they realized was that actually there wasn’t a direct connection. It wasn’t that the light got better and workers worked better or got worse and workers worked better. It was just that when workers thought they were being watched — at least this was the conclusion — they felt like the company cared about them. And therefore they worked better. And so, especially at a time — this was not so true in the ’20s, but certainly in the ’30s this was true — when there were union movements, when there were the high points of the American labor movement, corporations and companies just felt that things were not going their way and they did not want unions in their workplaces. And so they thought, “Well, we just need to become more familial. We need to care more. We need to manage more lightly. We need to think of our workers’ psychology, not just their efficiency and their productivity.” And I think this results in all kinds of changes in the workplace. I sort of argue that even the architecture of the workplace somehow reflects this desire to make work better, to make workers feel more at home. Maybe with the mid-century corporation, I think I suggest that with things like the Lever House, the Seagram Building, the attention to light and to design and the explosion of design at that time in the workplace — even the idea that a workplace interior should be thoroughly planned and designed — I think reflects this attempt to make workers happy.
Correspondent: Do you think that many of the behavioral psychologists and these people who were looking into lighting were thinking very much about unions? I mean, we often forget from our — well, to get into the decline of labor in the 21st century is another can of worms, but we often forget from our vantage point now how much pull labor had in the early 20th century. And I’m wondering, in the attempt to determine how workers were feeling, how much was that a presence? How much was that a motivation? Or was it simply just innate curiosity? Or the kind of touchy-feely vibe we were implying earlier?
Saval: You know, certainly with industrial workplaces, it was definitely, absolutely a fear. Partly because union organizing, it just spiked, especially after the passage of the Wagner Act, the National Labor Relations Act. With the office, I don’t think there was a huge worry about it. I did some, to me, very fascinating but probably to other people very tedious archival work where I looked into the proceedings of the International Association of Office Managers, or rather I think it’s the National Association, and there’s a point in the ’30s when they really express worries about this and they think, “Well, it’s really taken a hold on factories and even some offices are starting to unionize.” And there actually is, more than there used to be, in certain publishing houses. The New Republic organizes at the time, with something affiliated with the Communist Party. And so you have people talking about how the last redoubt of capitalism, the place where individualism thrives. The office. Even this is under threat. And so we really need it. I mean, once this goes, I think there’s a little bit of a sense that — and again it was not so widespread, but they were definitely afraid, I think.
Correspondent: Well, you do in fact quote the possibly apocryphal Samuel Gompers line, “Show me two white collar workers on a picket line and I’ll organize the entire working class.” Why didn’t office workers latch onto labor? You suggest that there is this assumption that their talents and their skills could in fact give them an independent shot. And I suppose, I guess we see the natural offshoots of this kind of libertarian impulse with some of the tech entrepreneurs that came later. But I’m wondering. Why couldn’t there be some sort of confluence here? Because it seems to me that everybody here had the same interests in mind.
Saval: Yeah. This is sort of the central contradiction of the white collar workplace. I mean, it’s just that there is, on the one hand, you have this ideal of this perfect meritocracy, that certainly the managers talk about this in their association, that you can rise — and this was true in the early antebellum offices especially. And it made more sense then. If you were a clerk, you would become the partner of that firm. And that lasted even past the point that that was true. When some offices became much larger, business became bigger and there were only so many places at the top and many more places at the bottom. So it was just less and less likely.
Correspondent: Toil long enough at the firm and you will ascend to heaven when you’re dead.
Saval: (laughs) Right.
Correspondent: It’s a very familiar promise.
Saval: Right. Exactly. So the way that persists is partly that there’s just a lot of — that it makes sense. It was true for some people. And that had some effect. It made people think that it was true in the office. There’s something about the prestige and status of white collar work that has made it different from blue collar work, especially in the U.S. politically. It just seems like it’s cleaner. The work often required a high command of English. So when there were a lot of high waves of immigration into the United States, there weren’t a lot of immigrants working in white collar workplaces. So there was a kind of homogeneity. And then, of course, also it was very male up to a point. And then when women entered the office, they often entered into the steno pool, a typing pool, to jobs that didn’t have high levels of prestige so that men could feel themselves above in a way, could still feel like they were middle class even when they maybe weren’t. And the other thing — and I talk about this a little bit in a chapter about the skyscrapers — was that there were not a lot of appeals on the part of unions or political parties in the U.S. to white collar workers. It was not clear how to organize them.
Correspondent: It was not clear how to get through to them.
Saval: Yeah. Exactly. The whole model was predicated on industrial organizing. And this doesn’t mean that it didn’t work in a number of cases, a can of worms which I don’t deal with which is the public sector. Because I think it’s a different animal. Can of worms. Animal. Anyway.
Correspondent: Let’s mix as many metaphors as you like. (laughs) But this leads me to wonder. Why couldn’t these very dedicated labor unions get through to the white collar worker? I mean, they had — and again I cannot understate this — they had incredible power at the time.
Correspondent: How could they not actually have the communication skills or the fortitude or even the ability to massage their message? Why couldn’t they get through? I mean, they did try. There’s an AFL magazine article you quote, addressed to the white collar workers, where essentially the author says, “Hey. Look after yourselves. You want to think about the future.” But it seems to me that they needed to go further. I mean, what was the disconnect here?
Saval: You know, it just seems like a number of things. One was just the persistence of the idea that upward mobility was a given. And in periods where there are high levels, it’s mainly growth. I think of times like the 1920s, even when inequality widens, union influence starts to dip after a kind of high point in the late 1910s. And then in the ’30s, the union influence in the office increases. Because white collar unemployment becomes a real thing. But then it dips again in the ’50s and then it starts to spike up in the ’70s. And then actually in the ’80s, when things really actually go wrong for a little bit.
Correspondent: With Reagan and the air traffic controllers.
Saval: Yeah. And then it hasn’t really — I mean, you would think that and you would think now in the last four years that it would increase. I feel like I’ve read of isolated cases. But it’s not a trend. There’s a union organizer who I quote, writing in Harper’s in the ’50s — he’s an anonymous organizer — about why white collar workers can’t be organized. And he seems to think that there’s a way in which white collar workers see themselves, even though they are exploited. He says they are the most exploited workers in a certain way. But they see themselves as possessing certain skills, whereas an assembly line worker will talk about the industry that he works in. “I work in the auto industry.” Whereas a white collar worker will refer to his or her profession. “I’m a stenographer” or “I’m a typist.” “I’m a bookkeeper.” And that way of talking indicates that you’re able to move. That you have a skill that other people prize. And I don’t know if that’s a sufficient reason for people not to organize. But it sort of means that you need to talk about different things. And it’s not always the case. People do organize. It has happened. But this was his reason anyway.
Correspondent: In other words, with this particular notion, the suggestion is that one had a kind of linguistic independent identity. One had a label to hold as his own, whereas the organized worker would relate to an industry. This leads me to wonder why that notion of independence was, number one, so appealing to the worker and, number two, why they didn’t see, especially after toiling for many decades and not getting anywhere, that it was all a sham.
Saval: Yeah. It remains a sort of intractable question. But the notion of independence is powerful. And you even see that now in the rise of freelancing or contract work, which I do not want to attribute that too much to people choosing to do that all the time. I mean, there is a lot of it.
Correspondent: The sexiness of having to go ahead and pay for your own health care. Having to look for pennies under the couch. It’s just such a remarkably romantic ideal, isn’t it?
Saval: It’s so freeing. It’s liberating. But on the other hand, there are people who choose to do it. And what they’re seeking is a certain kind of freedom and autonomy over their work.
Evie Wyld is most recently the author of All the Birds, Singing.
Author: Evie Wyld
Subjects Discussed: The Call of the Wild as workplace novel, the stability of work in wild environments, physical labor and working in bookstores, coming from a family with a farming background, the engineering mindset, the virtues of being a messy writer, the interest in what we hold back, having to write moments that aren’t revealed to the reader, the dangers of creative pride, how to organize a messy 60,000 words on a floor using scissors and tape, structure and certainty, hating your book, attempts to write linearly and literally, the virtues of an innate rebellious streak, when flashbacks become integral to structure, the many insects within Wyld’s fiction, how horror films are more willing to dramatize the relationship between humans and animals, Jeffrey Lockwood’s The Infested Mind, entomophobia and Western culture, why sharks are misunderstood, Australian insects, Holiday Cigarettes, the autonomy of smoking, attempts to find control over your environment, kangaroos hit by utility trucks, appreciating life by confronting death, why kangaroos are mutinous, dogs vs. kangaroos, animals and social projection, sheep, when kangaroos stop being cute, pet kangaroos, when giving a character a job is the hardest part of fiction, sheep shearing pubs, farming pubs, sheep integrity, Ernest Hemingway, Robert De Niro and Method writing, imagination vs. process writing, getting bogged down in research, notes and memory, characters with palindromic names, bidirectional retreats to the past, how to get around writing boring scenes, romantic notions of writer’s block, why it’s important to write drivel, thinking on the page, despising the manuscript and knowing the moment when it needs to be plucked away, happy nightmares, families of solitary figures, eccentric exercise regimens, the back as a footstool, sheep killing as an ambiguous mystery, the Pulp Fiction briefcase, the appeal of monsters, the pros and cons of setting up reader expectations with a mystery, Stephen King’s It, disappointing endings, why seeing the monster isn’t relevant in storytelling, narrative entitlement, how novelists contend with increasing reader distractions, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Venn diagram of genre and literary fiction, the advantages of working as a bookseller, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Wyld confronting her dead father’s records in the bookstore database, having a healthy suspicion of lists in a BuzzFeed age, Keith Richards’s Life, and the benefits of accidents and coincidences.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I had a rather strange way of entering this rather raucous novel. About three years ago, another critic Matthew Battles and I, we were having this online conversation about The Call of the Wild. And we were both arguing that Jack London’s great novel was actually a workplace novel. Because Buck, he’s forced to contend with the aggressive cubemate, like Spitz, and essentially he has to find individualism and this independent work ethic over the course of his journey. Your book happens to involve two dogs — one of them actually named Dog — and Jake has to learn sheep shearing and driving skills during her journey. Why do you think work became such a dominant part of this novel’s fixation in your efforts to contend with these rather feral environments, both in Australia and in England?
Wyld: Well, I think work is a way of normalizing yourself. It’s a way of getting yourself away from the stuff that’s actually happening in your life. A way of processing it. So I think for Jake, handling sheep is very much who she is. She expresses herself through wrestling with sheep and trying to keep them alive. And she tries to kind of make amends for some of the things in her life by working really, really hard and working very hard at looking after these sheep, trying to keep them alive, failing a lot of the time.
Correspondent: Why do you think it’s tied so much into the idea of existing in this kind of wild environment? That’s the real question. Why work is the defining quality of a naturalistic environment.
Wyld: I think it keeps you sane in some sense. I mean, I certainly find. that lives in the wilds of Peckham, where I am in London, I work very, very hard in the bookshop and I work very hard at writing novels. And I think it’s something to do with, as long as you’re working hard, you feel you’re existing in a way that is worthwhile, in a way that you feel like — sometimes you can feel like you’re very transient and that you’re slightly floating above the earth and you’re not really experiencing anything. And you find that if you actually do something physical to kind of make your mark on the earth, then it has a calming effect, I find.
Correspondent: Do you feel that there’s any difference between working in the wild of a bookstore and working in the rather saner, urban environment of sheep shearing?
Wyld: I think probably a fair amount of difference. I think I really admire physical work. I would love to…
Correspondent: How much physical work have you done?
Wyld: Well, I’ve done absolutely no sheep shearing. I don’t know how physical bookselling is. I lift the books.
Correspondent: It is pretty physical. I mean…
Wyld: Stacking shelves.
Wyld: Dusting. The whole lot.
Correspondent: Moving shelves for author events.
Wyld: Wrestling the odd shoplifter to the ground. That sort of thing. But, yeah, I think my mother’s family are Australian and they’re farmers. So it’s always been something that I have looked on with envy and amazement, really. This amazing, quite masculine work. Actually growing stuff. Actually keeping something alive.
Correspondent: Why didn’t you decide to enter the farming racket?
Wyld: Not sure I’m that talented, to be honest. My Australian family aren’t big readers or big intellectual kind of thinkers. But somehow they’re some of the most intelligent people. They can look at a broken tractor and they can fix it. And I find that incredible. And I don’t have that skill. I don’t have the maths, I think, mainly.
Correspondent: The sort of engineering brain to look upon some casual thing to fix and then you’ll be able to find a solution through a MacGyver situation by putting it back together.
Wyld: Put some oil on it. (laughs)
Correspondent: Yeah. Exactly. Well, the novel here is built on a series of alternating chapters. It’s almost this two-lane highway. You have this forward motion in the present and you also have these backwards chapters that depict Jake’s past. I’m wondering how this structure emerged, first and foremost. But how much of Jake’s background did you plan out in advance or come to know in the act of writing? Just to start off here.
Wyld: Well, I’m a very messy writer.
Correspondent: You need structure.
Wyld: Yeah. I tend to start in the middle and kind of work outwards.
Correspondent: Okay. So you just write all over the place.
Wyld: I just write all over the place and then I get to a point where I’ve written a certain amount of words. And I try and find what the story is, what the arc of the story is. So mostly for me the writing process involves getting to know the character. And for me, that involves their childhood, their family. It doesn’t always enter into the story in the end. But it’s central to me that I can’t understand who someone is unless I know about them before the sort of now of the book. So I’d written about 60,000 words. About a third of the book. Maybe half the book. And then I just realized that I was enjoying her as a character and I was enjoying her life in Australia and in the UK. But it was lacking tension. And there was just something really to be gained by folding it over on itself. And I’m a big fan of playing around with structure, only in terms of furthering the story, only in terms of not just for fun but because it’s so exciting to me when you have two objects that shouldn’t go next to each other and they create a third feeling.
Correspondent: Yeah. Did you find that your sense of Jake deepened when you had this structure in place? That you knew here even more intimately than you could ever possibly anticipate knowing?
Wyld: Yeah. I think so. I think there’s something about somebody who is trying very hard not to think about something that appeals to me and that makes me feel that they’re much more human.
Correspondent: It allows you to get outside of your own head.
Correspondent: Because you’re sort of a cerebral person and you need something who isn’t a cerebral person to escape to.
Wyld: Yeah. I think there’s definitely something to be said for the things we hold back. I think they’re more interesting than the things we say a lot of the time.
Yiyun Li is most recently the author of Kinder Than Solitude. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #323.
Author: Yiyun Li
Subjects Discussed: [beginning], sustaining characters who inhabit their own mystery while an overarching mystery exists to tantalize the reader, judgment of characters and simultaneous mystery, Edward Jones, working out every details of a story in advance, forethought and structure, the original two structures of Kinder Than Solitude, creating a structure alternating between the past and the present, thinking about a project for two years before writing, William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, time as a collage structure, photographs as a marker of identity, not really knowing what the characters look like in Kinder Than Solitude, why Li didn’t visually describe her characters, being an internal writer and reader, writing from inside the characters, Ian Rankin not describing Rebus over the course of more than twenty novels, Patricia Highsmith, Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith, Tom Ripley’s manipulative nature, the dangers of general comments, problems when literary fiction describes objects in consummate detail instead of emotions, freedom and the courage to write about a character’s soul, Chinese Catholics who practiced in secret, priests executed as counterrevolutionaries in Communist-controlled China, underground faith and literary relationships, inevitable bifurcation in exploring an absolute, having to ask the question of whether a sentence is true before setting it down, questioning yourself in everything you do, the allure of family (and the impulse to run away from it), the mantras and maxims that flow through Kinder Than Solitude, coating truth in wise and optimistic sayings, the beauty and sharp internal emotions contained within Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, subtlety and shock in relation to internal character examination, poison as a passive-aggressive form of murder, poison as a muse, Li’s accordion skills (and other revelations), the current American accordion player crisis, “I find your lack of faith disturbing” in Star Wars, when any idea (such as “bok choy”) can be sandwiched into political ideology, notions of planned economy in 1989 China, the personal and the politically being ineluctably intertwined, exploring prohibitions on American political fiction (also discussed in Dinaw Mengestu interview), James Alan McPherson‘s “Elbow Room,” contemplating why Americans are being more careful in discussing the uncomfortable, how the need to belong often overshadows the need to talk, Communist propaganda vs. digital pressures, extraordinary conversations in Europe, considering what forms of storytelling can encourage people to talk about important issues, William Trevor, the intertwined spirit and freedom of Southern literature, Carson McCullers, the flexibility of literary heritage, notions of New South writing, regional assignation as an overstated tag of literature, establishing liminal space through place to explore flexibility in time, despair without geography, feelings and time as key qualities of fiction, writing love letters to cities, James Joyce having to go to Trieste to write about Dublin, and whether place needs to be dead in order to make it alive on the page.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: There’s this point in the book where Moran says to Joseph, “Moving on? That’s an American thing I don’t believe in.” And then there’s this moment late in the book where one American is utterly devastated by what she learns about one of the characters. I’ll try not to give it away. All of the inferences she made are essentially thrown back into her face. And I think this novel dramatizes belief culture in very interesting ways. I’m wondering. How is belief formed or reified by a national instinct, whether it is American or Chinese? And how do you think the migratory impulse of “moving on” causes us to believe in people in very harmful ways? How does this affect you as a novelist? Someone who is asking the reader to believe in lies. Just to start off here.
Li: Right. You know, it’s interesting. Because I always say “moving on” is an American concept. The reason I said that was that, right after 9/11, I was so impressed. By the two months after 9/11. All the newspapers were talking about “moving on.” Americans should move on. And for me, that was quite incredible. Because I did not understand what “moving on” meant and that concept.
Correspondent: This is your introduction to “moving on.”
Li: Yes. And so it stuck with me. And of course, Moran borrowed that concept or Moran said “moving on” after 9/11. People talked about moving on. But the national belief, it’s interesting because I think this Western concept of “moving on,” you know, there’s always a second chance. There are always more opportunities in front of you if you just get over this hurdle. Now it’s becoming more an Asian thing. Only in the past maybe three or four years. If you look at not only China but Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Singapore, all these countries start to believe in moving on. We’re not going to stay in any moment. We’re just going to catch this wave of being.
Correspondent: You left out North Korea. (laughs)
Li: (laughs) Oh no. They can’t. So to me, that’s interesting. Because that’s a belief that, as people are migrating from East to the West, ideas are migrating from the West to the East. And, of course, people coming to America are returning to Asia. So there are these waves of ideas. So now, if you look at Chinese or other Asian countries, “moving on” is a big thing. You know, we’re not going to get stuck in a Cultural Revolution. We’re not going to get stuck in Tienanmen Square. We’re just going to move on to be rich.
Correspondent: But the thing about moving on, I mean, it’s used in two senses. You allude to this American impulse of, yes, well we can move on and have a second chance and start our life over. But there’s also this idea of moving on as if we have no sense of the past. That we have no collective memory or even individual memory. And I’m wondering, if it’s increasingly becoming a way to identify the East and the West, is it essentially a flawed notion? Or is it a notion that one should essentially adopt and then discard? Because we get dangerously close into believing in illusion?
Li: Right. I would feel suspicious of any belief and, again, as you said, moving on really requires us to say we’re going to box this kind of memory. We’re going to put them away so we can do something else. And, of course, as a novelist or as a writer, you always feel suspicious when those things happen. Because you’re manipulating memories. You’re manipulating time.
Correspondent: You’re manipulating readers.
Correspondent: So in a sense, you become an ideologue as well.
Li: Exactly. So I would say that anytime anyone says, “Let’s move on” or “Let’s look at history all the time,” I would become suspicious. Because both ways are ways to manipulate readers or characters.
Correspondent: So it’s almost as if you have to dramatize belief culture to be an honest novelist. Would you say that’s the case?
Li: Well, I would say it’s to question that belief culture. And I think when you question, there are many ways to question. To dramatize is one way to question. I mean, you can write essays. I can write nonfiction to question these things, but, as a fiction writer, I think I question the belief culture more than dramatizing it.
Correspondent: How do you think fiction allows the reader to question belief culture more than nonfiction? Or perhaps in a way that nonfiction can’t possibly do?
Li: I think they do different things. For instance, I’m not an experienced nonfiction writer. I do write nonfiction.
Correspondent: You can approach this question from the reader and the writer viewpoint too.
Li: I think for me the most important thing to ask as a fiction writer is you don’t judge your characters. So if they’re flawed in their belief culture, you let them be in that culture and do all the things so that the readers can come to their own conclusions. In nonfiction, I feel that a writer needs to take a stand probably more than a fiction writer.
(Photo: Karin Higgins)
Ben Tarnoff is most recently the author of The Bohemians.
Author: Ben Tarnoff
Subjects Discussed: Why 1860s California was especially well suited to literary movements, draft riots, Thomas Starr King, how Atlantic Monthly editor James Fields interacted with numerous emerging writers, the New England influence vs. the need to rebel, Charles Stoddard, rustic towns vs. cities battling each other in California over poetic merit, Bret Harte’s aesthetic tastes, how Harte transformed from critic to short story pioneer, how Mark Twain used the door-to-door subscription model to popularize The Innocents Abroad, the influence of the railroads upon what people read, Twain’s inability to command literary respect in America during his time, Twain’s popularity in England, the disreputable qualities of Twain’s appearance, Twain’s drawl, William Dean Howells, the Eastern literary establishment’s regressive assessment of Western style, how Twain used the lecture circuit to generate vital income, early standup comics in America, Artemus Ward the first standup comic in America, New York’s emergence as a media capital in the late 19th century, the development of Twain’s iconoclasm, present day interpretations of Twain as a cuddly avuncular type, Twain’s explosive temperament, Twain’s failed attempts at suicide, how original literary movements can spring from a unique location, present day Brooklyn writers who play it safe, how Twain’s lecture persona allowed him to escape becoming a newspaper hack, Twain vs. Ed Koch as meeter-and-greeter in the streets, the Bret Harte/Mark Twain friendship and feud, Bret Harte’s creative decline upon leaving California, Margaret Duckett’s Mark Twain and Bret Harte, the mysterious inciting incident in 1877 that set Twain off on Harte, Twain’s difficulties in getting his early short story collections published, the death of irony throughout American history, disparaging reports of Anna Griswold Harte (and attempts to find positive qualities about her), how much Bret Harte is responsible for Anna’s alleged sullenness, Bret Harte’s arrogance, Harte’s abandonment of his family, Harte’s aristocratic airs, Harte’s insistence upon a cab when arriving on the East Coast, Bret Harte’s hipster-like sideburns, “Ah Sin,” Twain and Harte perpetuating racist Chinese stereotypes, Twain selling out his principles, yellowface and the Cloud Atlas movie, Twain’s unremitting vengeance against Bret Harte, Twain’s obsessive detail in depicting his grudges, Twain’s tremendous rage and his tremendous love, Twain blaming himself for the death of his son Langdon, parallels between Charles Stoddard and Walt Whitman, Stoddard’s need for approval, Stoddard seeking autographs, Stoddard’s retreat to Hawaii, attempts to determine how much transgressive behavior there was in San Francisco during the late 19th century, Bret Harte rebuffing his literary friends when he moved to the East Coast, Ina Coolbrith as the first woman poet laureate in the United States in 1911, Coolbrith’s “When the Grass Shall Cover Me,” the crushing domestic responsibilities faced by Coolbrith (and stalling Coolbrith’s literary career), grueling library hours in the late 19th century, Stoddard’s South-Sea Idyls, Harte’s remarkably swift dissolution, Harte’s inability to take root in the East, Ambrose Bierce, whether Bierce arrived too late on the scene, pulp writers who lived at the Monkey Block in the early 20th century, Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady in Darkness, and whether any literary movement today can recapture the risk-taking feel of the Bohemians.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Mark Twain and Bret Harte seem to be the big stars of this book. But what do you think it was about this particular area at this particular time that created this particular literature?
Tarnoff: Well, San Francisco in the 1860s has a lot of advantages for a writer. It’s peaceful. The Civil War never comes to California. So there’s no fighting on the coast and there’s no draft. Because Lincoln never applies the draft west of Iowa and Kansas.
Correspondent: And no draft riots.
Tarnoff: Right. Exactly. No draft riots. So it’s peaceful. It’s a great place to wait out the war. It’s very rich. Because it’s the industrial, commercial, and financial center of the region. So the massive amount of wealth that’s being generated in the City finances a range of literary papers. And it’s also very urban. It’s got about 100,000 people in the 1860s and that makes it by far the biggest city in the region, really the biggest city west of St. Louis. And that population is pretty cosmopolitan. Because of the legacy of the gold rush, you have people there from China, from South America, from all different countries in Europe. And I think that all of those are important factors behind producing the literary moment.
Correspondent: And for a while, speaking of St. Louis, it had the largest building west of St. Louis with City Hall.
Tarnoff: That’s right.
Correspondent: For a while. Until it got — I can’t remember which building it was that actually uprooted it. But it was a city of great progress and great buildings. I wanted to start off also by getting into the preacher Thomas Starr King. He’s this figure I have wanted to talk about forever. Because I have read, I’m sure as you have, the Kevin Starr books. The wonderful California Dream series. I’m grateful that your book has allowed me a chance to talk about him here. You know, it has always seemed to me that without King, you could not have had the literary culture that emerged. Because he was this really odd figure. He promoted New England writers. So he was kind of an establishment guy. But at the same time, he’s also the guy who introduces Bret Harte to James Fields, the Atlantic editor, in January 1862. Charles Stoddard — this wonderful poet — also held King up in great esteem. So he’s almost this insider/outsider figure who seems to corral the many literary strands of San Francisco that are burgeoning during this time and forming this new kind of movement that you identify as a Bohemian movement. So I’m wondering. What is your take on Thomas Starr King? Do you think that San Francisco would have been San Francisco if it had not been for that? And do you think that when The Overland Monthly appeared, that this was kind of the replacement for Thomas Starr King? Because at that point he had passed away. What of this?
Tarnoff: Well, Thomas Starr King is a fantastic figure. I think he really is a forgotten founding father of California. He’s so foundational politically, culturally, as you point out from the literary scene. He’s a fantastic mentor figure. You mentioned Charles Stoddard. There’s a scene in my book where Stoddard has just published his first poems in a big literary paper. He’s extremely shy and nervous. And Thomas Starr King comes to the bookshop where he works and tells him personally how much he loved his poems. So he’s a guy with a really personal touch and really cultivates these writers and offers them criticism. He’s an important figure from the point of view from the point of view of the Civil War as well, which is I think how he’s better known today. Because he travels throughout the state during the first year or two of the Civil War and preaches the importance of California staying in the Union. Which it probably would have stayed in anyway. But King is certainly a very persuasive champion of the Union and of abolition.
Correspondent: Yeah. But in terms of his literary contributions, I mean, he was again, like I was suggesting with this last question, this guy who was there to rebel against and this guy to garner favor with so you could actually get into some of the outlets. How did that work? Am I perhaps overreaching with my estimation of King as this great mirror that Twain, Harte, and all these other people looked at in order to find their own voices? To find their own particular perch to break into San Francisco journalism, literature, and all that?
Tarnoff: Well, I think he builds a link between the Eastern literary establishment and San Francisco. You mentioned his introduction of Harte to James Fields, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He also is friends with Longfellow and Emerson and all these literary lions who are really the most famous writers in the country at that point. And he gives these wonderful lectures on American literature in San Francisco. So he absolutely is a link between the East and the West. But he’s also someone to rebel against. I mean, he’s the father figure. You’re also trying to kill your father. And a lot of these guys — particularly Harte — you see him strain from that New England mold. Thomas Starr King sadly dies in 1864 young and prematurely. And in the coming years, Harte really develops his own style, which I think contrasts pretty sharply with those New England influences.
Correspondent: So what was essentially taken from King and even the New England influence? What made this particular area of the country the natural place to establish new voice, original voice, a rebellious voice, an iconoclastic voice?
Tarnoff: Well, Thomas Starr King has this great phrase in one of his sermons where he tells Californians they need to build Yosemites in the soul. And his point there, I think, is that they’ve been blessed with this majestic epic monumental landscape. This incredible natural beauty. And they need to create a culture and a literature, an intellectual scene, that’s commensurate with that great beauty. And the Bohemian scene really takes that advice seriously. And the West, I think, is such a fertile place for a new type of literature to develop. Which really does deviate from the path that King himself had hoped it would take. I mean, he wants California to follow closely in the footsteps of New England. He has a letter where he says California must be Northernized thoroughly by Atlantic Monthlies, by schools, by lecture halls. But the scene that he mentors after his death really takes things in a different direction, but I think makes good on his command to build Yosemites in the soul.
Correspondent: Well, it’s interesting how we’re talking about the variegated territories of California. Because Bret Harte would edit this poetry anthology and get into serious trouble. Because some of the rustic towns didn’t like the fact that they weren’t included. And he was flummoxed with all sorts of poetry entries for this thing. And he ended up choosing a lot of poems that dealt in the metropolises. So there was this rivalry and Harte was accused of being this florid sellout by some of the rustic towns. You point out in the book that actually the metropolises and the rustic towns and the mining settlements and all that had actually far more in common than they actually realized. So what accounts for this fractiousness and territorial temperament? Fractiousness in literary voices and literary temperament?
Tarnoff: Well, California’s a place where everyone wants to be a writer.
Correspondent: Like Brooklyn today!
Tarnoff: Right. Exactly. It’s like Brooklyn in 2014. But poetry in particular has a real prestige. Poets are pop stars. Poems are read at every public gathering. You need poetry in the public sphere all the time. And so all of these Californians — people who live in the countryside, people who live in the city — all think of themselves as a poet. So when Bret Harte is tasked with putting together a representative anthology of California poetry in 1865, he is overwhelmed with submissions and has a lot of fairly sarcastic, disparaging things to say about the quality of those submissions and ends up producing this fairly small volume with mostly his friends, like Charles Stoddard and Ina Coolbrith. And this ignites a kind of literary war between the city and the country. But as you point out, the distinction between the city and the country is not actually that great. I mean, the California countryside in terms of the mining and the farming operations is itself pretty heavily industrialized. We’ve got big economies of scale, a lot of heavy machinery. Places like Virginia City, in Nevada, where Mark Twain is for a few years, are highly urbanized areas. So the notion that it’s these kind of he-men in the frontier vs. the effete Bohemians in the city, it’s not totally accurate representation.
Correspondent: Well, in this sense, you’re essentially saying that the sphere of influence in both rustic town and big city is essentially homogeneous. That people are perhaps being inspired from the same physical things? I mean, what of literary tastes? What of the way that people express themselves? I mean, isn’t there an argument to be made that maybe these guys were right?
Tarnoff: Well, there’s certainly a distinction in terms of literary taste. I mean, I think both camps are living fairly urban industrialized lives. But they certainly have very different opinions about what constitutes good poetry. And Harte in particular, who is the editor of the volume, shies away from topics that he feels are too pastoral. That have too much of a certain type of California flavor, which he associates with the amateur poets. And he writes a parody of what one of those poems would look like in The Californian, which he edits. But Harte really wants to push California literature in general to a more metropolitan, to a more Bohemian, to a more sophisticated level and is very dismissive of what he feels is the kind of amateurish literary karaoke quality of some of the countryside poets.
Correspondent: Well, what is that sophisticated nature that Harte is demanding? What are we talking about? Are we just talking about endless poems devoted to being in the middle of nowhere? Essentially that’s what he’s railing against? He’s asking California to take itself more seriously, to write about civil, social, political topics? What are we talking about here?
Tarnoff: Well, the problem with Harte in these years — the mid 1860s — is he’s very good at being a critic. He’s very good at lambasting the quality of California literature, at its climate, at its boosters and philistines and capitalists. But he’s not great at producing good literature of his own. And that comes a little bit later in the decade when he starts to write these wonderful short stories. “The Luck of Roaring Camp” being the best known. And it’s not until that moment that I think he really makes good on his earlier promise to redeem California literature.
Correspondent: So he’s essentially quibbling with what he doesn’t like in order to find out what he does like and what he can actually build from the ashes he demonizes, so to speak.
Tarnoff: Exactly. He’s definitely in a more critical phase at that moment.
Dinaw Mengestu is most recently the author of All Our Names.
Author: Dinaw Mengestu
Subjects Discussed: Writing from a woman’s perspective for the first time, V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, delving into the perspective of revolutionary turmoil, Mengestu’s American perspective, how journalism helped Mengestu to pursue more serious areas in literature, “soft” fiction vs. revolutionary realities, working with alternating chapters to create narrative collusion, the shame of being impoverished, sustaining an existence on lies, the effects of trauma, when novelists writing about the other avoid abrasive fictional perspectives in the interest of attracting readers, quiet introverts in fiction, why Mengestu hasn’t written about noisier immigrants, aesthetic sensibilities, loud vs. quiet characters, imagining trauma, Mengestu’s experience of writing about characters who felt trauma before he was born, the appeal of characters who experience extreme forms of political crisis, ventriloquist-style novelists and humanism, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, exuberant characters, being tagged with the “immigrant fiction” label, deliberately keeping time and space murky in All Our Names vs. the close attention to Logan Circle in The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, the timelessness of discrimination, emotions summoned through general descriptive specifications, resisting the urge of writing a novel set in an unnamed country, the problems with naming too many things, the limitations of looking at events through a historical prism, unspoken American prohibitions against political fiction, politics in fiction without didacticism, European encouragement of political fiction, constraints imposed on American fiction, creating an artistic space within fiction, Mengestu’s sense of aesthetic value, arguments that books make for ways of seeing, living with hand-me-downs, how Mengestu’s characters express emotions through giving gifts, materials used to express emotional connection to other people, Emily Dickinson, monuments of America, holding onto emotion in a narrative using objects, when the personal and the political overlap, personal maps vs. political maps, having an internal map of someone you love, concrete political realities, the fluidity of love and how political realities shape it, Helen’s relationship to her parents, the rigidity of place, rituals shared by couples, relationships and silence, situations in life when words are less valuable than intimacy, language provoked from silence, silence as the ineffable pain of not knowing how to communicate, how to measure silence, the mysterious character of David, Edward Snowden, writing in a proto-surveillance state about people who watch other people, Michiko Kakutani’s review, Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, A Handful of Dust, Rilke, what contemporary fiction does with the brazen perspectives of colonial literature, working against Naipaul, Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim and the “great game,” Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, wrestling with postcolonialism, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s idea that there are no postcolonial errors, finding an aesthetic balance in a sentence, being a slow writer to find rhythm, and the benefits of memorizing poetry.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: This novel does something new that we haven’t seen from you. It’s the first of your novels to feature the first-person perspective from a woman, one of two alternative perspectives in this book. The other is a man named Isaac, or I’m going to use term “Not Isaac.” (laughs)
Correspondent: Because there is an Isaac and a Not Isaac. And it’s also the first to really depict this Naipaulian tableau of what seems at first to be an unnamed African country in revolutionary turmoil, almost a response to the allusion you made to A Bend in the River in the first book, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and also the lies that Jonas is spinning in How to Read the Air. So I’m wondering why it took you three novels before you could write partially from the perspective of a woman and also from this position of revolutionary turmoil. I mean, I’m curious how the first two novels led you to this particular point. Because I read all three of your novels and I thought this was a fascinating evolution.
Mengestu: Yeah. I think that was almost perfect. One of the best readings I’ve ever had of all three books. They are very closely intertwined. And if anything, even though this is the last book of the three to have been written, in some ways it actually precedes the other two. This was the book that actually precedes the revolutions that make the characters in the first novel and in the second novel flee. And so I wanted to go back to what I thought would be an earlier moment in history. A point that would say this is actually that very elusive, optimistic period just after independence when things seemed like they might turn out great in many African nations and then they didn’t. And the other thing was that after writing the first few novels, I realized there’s another part of me that I’d never really had a chance to explore in fiction, which was to write from the point of view of an American. Because I’m also, I think, deeply American and I grew up in the Midwest after leaving Ethiopia. And so Helen’s voice, I think, is partly a product of that. My novels oftentimes have been categorized in terms of immigrant fiction. To some degree, this is also perhaps a subconscious response to that idea, to say, Well, look, it’s not. Those categories are very limited and don’t actually say that much. And, in fact, here’s a way of seeing that narratives such as this are more than just immigrant friction and that immigrant narratives are very much a part of an American tableau. And you can’t micromanage them or faction them off into ethnic or political categories like that. And so Helen’s voice, I think, is my response to that. She is an American woman. She’s in many ways more intimate to me than the characters of Isaac are.
Correspondent: So Helen. It’s interesting that it takes a woman for you to say, “I’m an American too!”
Mengestu: (laughs) Yeah.
Correspondent: Was it easy? She’s a young American. She’s still trying to figure out how people work and how relationships work and where one’s place is in the universe. And I’m wondering why a woman’s voice was the best way for you to really show to yourself and show to the world that you were, in fact, an American as well.
Mengestu: You know, it’s definitely because I wanted Isaac to have a relationship with someone. So the novel, when I first began it, I never knew that it would necessarily have a part in the United States when I first started writing it. I was very much concerned about trying to capture this period in Africa’s history. I thought it would be about a group of friends in postcolonial Africa on a college campus. And then as those voices started to converge around the characters Isaac and Not Isaac, I began to realize, well, of course, inevitably there was going to be a second half that took place in America. And inevitably you’re drawn to the most complex relationships and the relationship between a couple that’s almost always the most complex. You know, friends are, of course, complex. But I wanted a love story as well in this story. And, of course, if we have Isaac and I had created Helen to follow almost immediately afterwards. And in some ways, you know, I’m not — I never really had any anxiety about her gender. In some ways, she emerged into the story as quickly as the voice of Isaac did. And so as soon as I had Isaac coming into America, I realized Helen was the one to witness him first. She was the first person to see him enter this landscape and to acknowledge him and to become close to him and to kind of help create a sense of home for him. So, yeah, she just was immediate and necessary.
Correspondent: And just to delineate to our listeners, who are probably listening to this turmoil and wondering what’s going on, there is an Isaac that is in the Helen chapters and there is an Isaac and what we’re calling a Not Isaac guy who goes by several names ranging from the Professor to a number of other noms in the other thing in these alternating series of chapters. I want to go back to the first question about looking straight into the face of revolutionary turmoil. This book seems to me to be the one that is the clearest. It’s not doing so through any kind of lying. It’s not doing so through any kind of anecdotal family episode or anything like that. It’s trying to stare at it in the face and, at the same time, doing so where the names themselves are not explicit. They’re more common noun than proper noun. And I’m wondering why it took you three novels just to really look at that in the face and confront it like that.
Mengestu: I think some of it was gaining more experience as a journalist.
Correspondent: Journalism helped.
Mengestu: It really did. And I never actually thought of myself as having that much of a dialogue between what I do as a journalist and what I do as a novelist. So my first novel touches briefly on the revolutionary politics of Ethiopia. But never having experienced those politics, I had to imagine a character who had experienced them at a very young age and then left the country. In my second novel, the characters are basically inventing those stories of revolutionary Africa because they were born in America. Now, having traveled through Darfur and the Eastern Congo and Uganda, and having met revolutionary leaders and having seen first-hand the effects of these small-scale and sometimes very large-scale conflicts, they all left a deep profound impression on my mind. And some of those impressions worked their way into the second novel. But I don’t think I had enough time to really sit with those images with a while, to really kind of let them become a part of my imagination. So by the time this novel began, I knew the terrain intimately. I knew the consequences of those conflicts. And perhaps more importantly, I felt like I knew how to create characters who could be responsible for violence, but were not strictly evil men. That to me seemed really important. I’ve met a lot of men who I knew were perpetrators of the violence, but at the same time you realize that to describe them or to limit their characters to only horrific terms denies their complexity. And so I felt finally mature enough and able enough to create characters who were responsible for violence, who witnessed violence, who are perpetrators of violence, and yet at the same time are more than just violent men.
Correspondent: Do you find though that having confronted so many revolutions and so much violence in your journalism that fiction is somehow cheapened? That anything you can contribute from the American vantage point is somehow sanded down? Because you do have a great subtlety with much of the prose, which is not to say that there aren’t things exploding not necessarily politically, but also personally. How do you reckon with the intensity of something like that? Or do you feel that fiction naturally needs to be a little softer in the presentation of these human nuances?
Mengestu: I actually feel that fiction does a better job for me. I think that what you can do as a journalist in the very limited space and time that you have to write one story is that you can tally up the consequences in a very linear fashion. But I think in order to have readers actually experience that level of violence on a scale that doesn’t feel purely remote to them, I think that’s one of the things that fiction can do. In writing this novel and having these oscillating chapters between Helen’s voice and Isaac’s voice, part of the intent was definitely to see what happens when you place these two narratives next to each other side by side. If it isn’t possible to see them as not wholly distinct stories or wholly distinct experiences, but actually narratives that are in constant collusion and constant discourse, the experiences of someone in Africa don’t necessarily seem that remote from the experiences of a white woman in middle America. And that in fact these characters, especially when you reduce it down to the scale of individual characters, so that Isaac becomes the embodiment to some degree of that violence and he takes that violence and brings it to America. And it’s relived, reimagined, when it’s passed onto Helen. And it seems to me that fiction is the space that allows us to do that. Imagining these characters, I thought that I could actually get into their lives in ways that I never could when I was writing journalism. I could imagine the men that I’d met in greater detail and give them, I think, a greater level of emotions than they would ever have given me as a journalist.
This program contains three segments. The main one is with Dorthe Nors, who is most recently the author of Karate Chop. There is also a brief Blake Bailey interview. He is most recently the author of The Splendid Things We Planned. And our introductory segment involves the Save NYPL campaign.
Subjects Discussed: Mayor Bill de Blasio’s failure to live up to his July 2013 promise to save the New York Public Library, the greed of rich people, political opportunism, Charles Jackson, The Splendid Things We Planned, the differences between biography and memoir, being the hero of your own story, subjectivity as a great muddler, the Bailey family’s tendency to destroy cars, being self-destructive, contending with a brother who threw his life away, the problems that emerge from being cold, the differences between American and Danish winters, unplanned writing, the swift composition of Beatles lyrics, the courageous existential spirit within Swedish literature, Danish precision, the Højskolesangbogen tradition, the influence of song upon prose, Kerstin Ekman, Nors’s stylistic break from the Swedish masters, Ingmar Bergman, Flaubert’s calm and orderly life, the human-animal connections within Karate Chop, considering the idea that animals may be better revealers of human character than humans, animals as mirrors, emotional connections to dogs, the human need to embrace innocence, judging people by how they treat their pets, “The Heron,” friendship built on grotesque trust, how the gift exchange aspect of friendship can become tainted or turn abusive, writing “The Buddhist” without providing a source for the protagonist’s rage, how much fiction should explain psychological motive, the hidden danger contained within people who think they are good, how Lutherans can be duped, “missionary positions,” Buddhism as a disguise, ideologies within Denmark, when small nations feel big and smug, Scandinavian egotism, Danesplaining, whether Americans or Danes behave worse in foreign nations, buffoonish American presidential candidates, how “The Heron” got to The New Yorker, Nors’s early American advocates, being a tour guide for Rick Moody and Junot Diaz, how Fiona Maazel brought Dorthe Nors’s fiction to America, Copehagen’s Frederiksberg Gardens as a place to find happiness, happiness as a form of prestige, when happy people feel needlessly superior, Denmark’s subtle efforts to win the happiest nation on earth award, setting stories in New York, how different people react to large tomato, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, how measuring objects reveals aspects of humanity, the tomato as the Holy Grail, flour babies, why strategically minded people shouldn’t be trusted, the creepy nature of control freaks, how human interpretation is enslaved by representations, competing representations of reality, whether fiction is a more authentic representation of reality, how disturbing ideas presented in books can calm you down, exploring the Danish idea of a den to eat cookies, working with translator Martin Aitken, what other nations get wrong about Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen, superficial knowledge of Denmark, Danish writers who need to be translated, Yahya Hassan, and Danish crime fiction.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I wanted to talk about the economy of these stories, which is fascinating. I mean, you have to pay very close attention to learn the details and to learn some very interesting twist or some human revelation in these stories. So this leads me to ask — just to start off here — I’m wondering how long it takes for you to write one or to conceive one. Is there a lot of planning that goes into the idea of “Aha! I’ll have the twist at this point!” I mean, what’s the level of intuition vs. the level of just really getting it down and burying all the details like this?
Nors: I don’t plan writing. It happens. Or I get an idea or I see something. Or there’s a line or a passage that I write down. And sometimes it just lies there for a while. Then a couple of days later, I will write another passage, perhaps for another story, and sometimes I put them together. They start doing things. But I write them pretty fast. When the idea and the flow and the voice and the characters are there, I just go into the zone and it kind of feels like I’m singing these. It’s like you find the voice for a story and you just stick to it and write it. It doesn’t take that long. Seven of these stories were actually written in a cottage off the west coast in Denmark. Two weeks.
Correspondent: Two weeks?
Correspondent: For seven of the stories?
Nors: Seven of the stories.
Nors: And then I would take long walks and I would go home. Boom. There was this story. So the writing process with this one, it was like that.
Correspondent: That’s like the Beatles writing the lyrics for “A Hard Day’s Night” on the back of a matchbox in ten minutes.
Nors: When it happens, it happens, right?
Correspondent: Well, to what do you attribute these incredible subconscious details? Are these details just coming from your subconscious and they’re naturally springing? Or are they discovered in the revision at all?
Nors: I think they come from training. Because it has something to do with the neck of the woods that I come from. Scandinavia. I was trained in Swedish literature. That was what I studied at university. And the Swedes have this very bold and courageous brave way of looking at existence. I mean, it turns big on them. And they look at the darkness and the pits of distress and everything. Then if you take that richness of existentialism, you might even call it, and pair it up with the Danish tradition — which is precision, accuracy, Danish design, cut to the core, don’t battle on forever. If you combine these two, you get short shorts with huge content that is laying in there like an elephant in a container and moving around all the time. And this style came from training. This came from reading a lot and writing a lot. Suddenly, I think I found my voice in these stories. I think this was a breakthrough for me in Denmark also. That I found out how I can combine the Danish and the Swedish tradition.
Correspondent: So by training, how much writing did you have to do before you could nail this remarkable approach to find the elephant, to tackle existence like this?
Nors: Well, I started writing at eight. And this book was written when I was 36.
Correspondent: But you didn’t have the Danish masters and the Swedish masters staring over you at eight, did you?
Nors: No. But I had the Danish song tradition. We have a book in Denmark called Højskolesangbogen. You’ll never learn how to say that. But it’s a songbook.
Correspondent: (laughs) She says confidently. You never know. I might learn!
Nors: You wanna try? But that songbook — in the real part of Denmark that I come from, all the farmers, they would use that songbook a lot. And there was no literature in my household. It was middle-class. A carpenter and a hairdresser. But this book was there. And what I learned from that was that these songs, they were written by great Danish poets and then put into music. It would be so precise. I love that book. I sang these songs. I read these poems. And then later on, there was my brother’s vinyl covers. It was Leonard Cohen. It was all these guys that he had up in his room and I could read. And a lot of the training came from that. And then later on, university, of course, and the boring part of training.
Correspondent: The analytical stuff. Well, that makes total sense. Because there is a definitive metric to these particular stories. You mentioned that they were akin to singing. And I’m wondering how you became more acquainted with this musicality as the stories have continued. And also, how does this work in terms of your novels? Which are not translated. There are five of them. And those are obviously a lot larger than a short story. So how does the musicality and that concise mode work with the novels?
Nors: Well, I think my first novel was extremely influenced by a Swedish writer called Kerstin Ekman, who I wrote my thesis on. And it was so influenced by her that I kind of shun away from it. Because I don’t want to sound like her anymore. And then on my third book, I started to find that the voice that blooms in Karate Chop — and there’s a breakaway there; it’s like a break in my writing.
Correspondent: A karate chop!
Nors: It really is! Because the first three of my novels were classic structures. They had plots and peaks and this whole Swedish abyss of existentialism and darkness. But then with this one, I broke away. And the next two novels I wrote are short novels. And they’re more experimental in their form and they’re very close to the whole idea of accuracy. And that line, that sentence, has to be so precise. And it has to sing. And it has to have voice. And it has to be just so accurate. That’s the sheer joy for me: to actually be able to write a sentence and to know people will get this.
Correspondent: This is extraordinary. Because if you’re writing a short story so quickly, and it’s not singing, what do you do? I mean, certainly, I presume that you will eventually sing in this mode that you want to. But that’s a remarkable speed there. So how do you keep the voice purring?
Nors: Well, actually, I do a lot of reading out loud while I do it. And the rhythm has to be good when I read it aloud myself. I talk a lot. I walk a lot. And I think literature like this has a lot to do with listening to how the words sound and how they work together. But that’s an intuitive thing. There’s no math in this. Either you can carry a tune or you can’t perhaps, right?
Correspondent: Sure. Absolutely.
Nors: So it’s something instinctive, I think.
Correspondent: I’m curious to know more about the tension between the Swedish existential dread and angst and the Danish identity. You touched upon this a little bit. I saw your little Atlantic soliloquy about Bergman and how you looked to him as a way of living a tranquil life and not living a wild life, which gets in the way of…well, gets in the way of living, frankly.
Correspondent: I’m wondering. What do you do to live or draw upon experience or to move into uncomfortable areas? Or is your imagination stronger than that? That you don’t really need the life experience. Your imagination in combination with the singing that we’re identifying here is enough to live a tranquil life? Or what? And also, I was hoping you could talk about the tension between the Swedish and Danish feelings and all that.
Nors: First of all, I try to live my life as any other human being. I just try not to really be destructive about it. I’m 43. I’m not afraid to tell you how old I am. So I tried a lot in my life and a lot of it has been dramatic. And it has been filled with emotions and breakups and stuff like that. And, of course, I draw on the experience from that. But these days, I think the discipline is very important. I don’t need more drama in my life. I don’t know why you should seek out drama. Causing pain in your life? That’s an immature thing to do at my age, I think. You can’t avoid it. It’s going to happen anyway. People you love will pass away. Your cat will be hit by a car. Or stuff like that. You don’t have to seek it out. It’s coming to you.
Correspondent: But I’m wondering if that impulse isn’t necessarily a writerly impulse, but just a human impulse. Because when we get closer to forty, we start to say, “Well, do we really want to live this way?” Our choices sometimes become a little more limited. Our responsibilities are greater. We now have a duty to other people. And so is that really a writerly thing? I mean, is the writer doomed in some sense to almost be a child to some degree?
Nors: I think you’re absolutely right. I don’t think it’s necessarily a writer thing. I think it’s a time in your life where you think that. Or you go haywire and you go right into the abyss, right? Ingamr Bergman was around 47 when this happened for him. Because he lived a pretty crazy life. Having children all over the place and women. Pretty destructive.
Correspondent: Locking Liv Ullmann up.
Nors: Yeah, exactly. Being very chaotic. An emotionally chaotic life. And then around this age, he took this path also of not living like a monk. Because he certainly didn’t. But he was just very structured and disciplined. And I enjoy that. It sounds boring to people. But I really enjoy it. Don’t need more drama in my life.