Tag : language

Matt Bell (BSS #506)

Matt Bell is most recently the author of In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods.

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Author: Matt Bell

Subjects Discussed: Attempts to abridge a rather lengthy book title, House Party, Kate Bernheimer, finding the balance between open and closed stories, inclusive novelists vs. exclusive novelists, Raymond Friedman’s Critifiction, self-built and self-contained worlds, the constraints of pragmatics, how fabulism creates solutions to fiction problems, singing and karaoke, depictions of singing in fiction, James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the links between music and emotion, William Blake’s distinction between Fable and Vision in “A Vision of the Last Judgment,” Brian Evenson, how the fantastic can be the new religion, incorporating liminal space into fiction, Denis Johnson, Jesus’s Son, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, how a fiction moment can shift from gritty realism to the mythic, the futility of rigid fact-based interactions with the world, vicarious imagination and liminal space, removing logic and explanation to find clarity, James Joyce lookalikes attempting to set a world record, how hard specifics encourage the imagination, Santa Claus parades and Santa subway rides, finding moments in the real world that trigger the imagination, the importance of daily writing, hiking, when life happens in books, Norman Lock, the futility of finding biographical origin points in an author’s fiction, fingerling potatoes, Dick Laan, foundlings and nouns that rhyme with thing, not always knowing how fictitious bears work, individual sentences that contain mysteries, unintended allegory, George Romero’s zombie movies, how codas can re-open a novel, when characters serve as an instrument to push forward a story, when some elements of traditional fiction become necessary, mansplaining, the original massive version of In the House, finding the trajectory within a first novel, “I am a writer!” bloat destroyed in revision, holding only forty pages in your head at one time, dealing with an underpopulated world, “Control F Squid,” finding ways to control specific words, when notes become a constraint, the head as an ancient 40 MB hard drive, not being able to work on an entire novel all at once, Gary Lutz’s “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” Christine Schutt’s “The Blood Jet,” projecting sentences before students, teaching, Lishean poetics vs. intuition, the advantages of working on fiction at the sentence level, why it’s vital to be blind during the act of creation, Robert Boswell’s notion of the half-known world, video games, Bioshock Infinite, video games as a way to steer young people into fiction through the labyrinth, Nethack, Choose Your Own Adventure, malleable narrative, Mike Meginnis’s Exits Are, Infocom text adventure games, Robert Coover’s views on hypertext, how fiction can combat the entitlement of today’s audiences, being trained to be on the side of the protagonist, galvanizing the reader to be emotionally engaged, ambiguity, the outdoors gap in contemporary fiction, Jack London, how much of 21st century life is defined by being indoors, the Laird Hunt/Roxane Gay interview from January, writing a book about Detroit, the problems with depicting the minutiae of everyday life, Girls, Nicholson Baker, the knowing the names of quotidian things moment in Underworld, hard edicts laid down as a young writer, the benefits of imitating prose in early days, and giving certain approaches up.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: When I finished this book, I was especially intrigued by how you kept the world of this book open enough for the reader to fill in the blanks, while the husband’s emotions are fairly open. But it’s also fairly closed in the way that he’s cut off from the world and the rest of society. He’s confined to this life that’s pretty much his wife, the fingerling, and the foundling. I’m actually going to reference a quote you Tumbled only ninety minutes ago.

Bell: (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah. That’s how current we are here. Ironically, this will air many weeks later. But anyway…

Bell: Right, right, right.

Correspondent: So you had quoted Kate Bernheimer.

Bell: Yes, absolutely.

Correspondent: “From sentence to sentence, in fairy tales there is no reality that is subordinated to any other. Just as, outside the pages there is no reality.” So you know, I’m wondering. Do you feel that the best fairy tales or the best stories involve finding the right balance along the lines of this open and closed notion and all that? How did you arrive at the balance for this book?

Bell: Well, one of the ways I think about I guess is that there’s lots of kinds of writers. But there’s two kinds of writers for this model, right? There’s people who are includers and people who are excluders, right? As soon as you’re writing the Great American Novel, then you’re jamming everything from your decade into the book, right? I’m going to get it all in here. I’m going to capture the entire American experience. And that’s one way to make a book. To capture the world and put it into a book. I think the other is to try and like make a world and to push back. To write from the center out and define your boundaries. So that what you’re creating becomes the world of the book and it doesn’t have these outside things. And I think in the end there was a balance act to that in the book. As you know, there are these allusions to the outside world and where they’re from. And I wanted it to be there. I didn’t want this to be completely abstract or separate. But for the most part, the only things that can happen are things that are already in this world. Within the first thirty pages, the world is built fairly quickly. And then the only way they can solve their problems or to progress the story is using these elements. Using these things. And I found that really interesting. That’s one of the reasons, I think, for the long title. It’s like that setting is part of the book’s constraint in a certain way. And knowing that was really helpful.

Correspondent: Well, it offers a maximal precision with minimal revelation.

Bell: Right! That’s a really nice way to say it. Yeah, I really enjoy that kind of writing where the world of the book is self-built and self-contained. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like the other kind either. But I think that those modes are really different. And Bernheimer speaks to that for me. Raymond Federman talks about that in Critifiction. He talks about a similar thing. That the book is the world. I’m paraphrasing badly from a couple of years ago. But the book itself is a world really no matter what you’re writing about. If you’re writing in a very realist mode, that’s still the case. The language the book is, is all you have to work with. And the outside world doesn’t necessarily enter it in the same way.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering as a writer, do you feel what I felt as a reader? Because I kept saying, well, okay, there’s a lot of fishing and hunting going on. But how do they develop the skills to make things? Aside from, of course, the magic you have in the book. I’m thinking pragmatics. Even though I’m also involved with the imagination and I’m involved with the world that you’re creating, I’m thinking to myself, well, how did they get here? Why this particular location? How did the fingerling get into this? And we don’t actually have the answers to those questions. So I’m wondering how much they aggravate you as an author. Or do you know the answers to these questions and you just don’t want to impart certain things to the reader?

Bell: No. I mean, I think a lot of it works. It’s a fairy tale or mythic mode. So they can do it because they have to for the story. Which you can’t get away with in a different mode. There were some things that were funnier, that I was wrong about or I was too specific about them with early readers. The lake, of course, is salty. Which causes them a drinking water problem. And in the early versions of the book, they were always boiling water for drinking water. But when you boil salt water, you don’t end up with clean water. You end up with salt, right? (laughs) So when I was trying to explain the pragmatics, it was actually getting in the way a lot. Or it was causing problems. He’s a fisherman who becomes a trapper because that’s what’s necessary for his family. You know, that’s the next thing. And some of that works with the wife singing stuff into being. It’s like the next object that was necessary is this. And so here it is. Which in fairy tales would just happen in a sentence. It would just appear. And there’s sort of this device that does some of that. But I agree. Like he becomes a taxidermist at a point just because that’s what he needs to do. The wife is able to — she doesn’t study maze making before she sings the maze. He can get away with that, I hope in this mode. But in other kinds of books, that would….yeah, we’d have to watch the guy study it for years or something.

Correspondent: This leads me to ask to what degree fabulism served as a method for you to deal with the hurdles of “Oh, he can’t actually boil salt water. Let’s just go ahead and have her sing something into existence.” Did that come as a — I don’t want to say, crutch, but was that a method for you to maximize the world here? I mean, how did that happen?

Bell: I mean, I think it preexisted it. It ends up helping with some of that stuff. But that’s not the reasoning for it. The very first image I had for the book — the first thing I wrote — isn’t actually in the book. But it was this husband watching his wife singing and having this vision of all these shape-shifting she had within her that she could one day bring into the world, right? And being intoxicated and tranced by this. And that was why he had married her. He had seen this world she was singing into being. And of course, the book ended up going — it didn’t work exactly like that. But that singing was the foundational aspect of this world in a certain way. I don’t know. I never thought about this when I was writing it. But looking back, I think it’s interesting that I had to discover this whole world through his voice and his very limited egomaniacal point of view when she’s the creating aspect of the world in a weird way, right? The person I had to create it through is now the person who is like the creator of most of the world they spend their time in.

Correspondent: Are you a singer at all? I’m curious.

Bell: No! Terrible. Awful.

Correspondent: You don’t do karaoke or anything? (laughs)

Bell: You know, weirdly, we had a Soho Press karaoke thing.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Bell: No, I grew up a Midwest Catholic. I just mumbled through songs a lot. (laughs) Music, I love music. Music’s really a big part of my life. But, no, not a singer in any way. Thankfully yes. No samples for you today.

Correspondent: Why do you think music serves as the act of creation for the wife in this? To create rooms, to create objects, and all that. I’m wondering why you associate that with music. I mean, I know you’re big on sentences. And we’ll get into that in a little bit. And you’re big on language. It’s interesting that you have language tangoing with music here. And I’m wondering how that came into being or possibly why, at the risk of delving into ambiguity involving the text.

Bell: Sure. And the first answer always sounds so weak. Because partly I don’t know. It was right. It was what instinctually happened. You know, I think it’s interesting. Music has those deep links to emotion. I mean, it’s weird to describe someone’s singing a lot in a book. Especially because you never get to hear it. But there’s something very abstract about that. Because the husband talks and talks and talks. I mean, you can just imagine them together. He’d be that husband that never stops talking to the wife. Never stops speaking. Right? But then when she does open her mouth, she’s able to do this thing, you know? And in the early parts of the book, there’s only a few times where she has the upper hand in the conversation. And she’s often explaining to him the way the world could be. And he’s missing it totally, right? He’s missing this world he could have. And it’s something that she can give him by doing this. There’s so much where he comes to this place in this possessor way. He’s building the house. I’m going to get the food. I’m going to build the house. I’m going to do all these things. And she’s completely self-sufficient. Because she can do this in a way that he can’t. He can’t sing. He can’t do this. His mouth is always open. He’s always talking. He can do all these things by taking from the world, but she can make it herself. And those differences were important to me, the way that those things balanced or offset each other.

Correspondent: Is it difficult to describe the magic of singing in fiction? I mean, the first thing that comes to mind — largely because it’s Bloomsday* as we’re talking. Of course, the wonderful description of singing in “The Dead.”**

Bell: Right, right.

Correspondent: You absolutely feel the power of that. But in this, the singing brings things into creation. Is that easier for you to wrap your head around as a writer? How do you get into that? Being a creative person who describes the act of creation, it gets pretty difficult.

Bell: Absolutely.

Correspondent: How do you work around that?

Bell: I mean, I feel like there’s less actual description of it now than there was in early versions. I think I tried more directly to describe what those things were like or something. But that’s almost impossible, right? But I think that everybody’s probably hearing it differently as they’re reading. A little blinker, there’s a little more room for the reader to fill that in. I think at one point it was very specific. And it was in the way. And now there’s sort of, again, that fairy tale mode where you can just say she was singing and she was doing this and there’s an image that goes along with that and a song that goes along with that. Everybody’s a little different. And that’s totally fine. Because it doesn’t need to be — I don’t even known what the terms are. In the key of C or whatever it is. Who cares? Right? I think that’s just not important. The importance is more the outcome and the feeling of it. So sometimes by flattening that a little bit, I think you actually get more out of it.

Correspondent: I wanted to bring up William Blake and his “Vision of the Last Judgment.”

Bell: Okay! (laughs)

Correspondent: He was careful to distinguish between Fable and Vision. Fable, of course, being this cheap allegory that was an inferior kind of poetry. What he described as “formed by the daughters of memory.”

Bell: Nice! (laughs)

Correspondent: Now Vision, which is what he preferred, or Imagination — this represented what actually exists. There are portions of your novel, especially with the material involving the squid, which was reshaping into the husband’s body, that seems to have these two Blake distinctions in mind. The words “fable” and “vision,” however, never actually appear in the book. I looked for them. Because I got obsessed with this. But when you were writing this book, to what extent were you wrestling with distinctions along these lines? I’m curious. Were you writing in any kind of broader mythological distinction at all? I mean, I know you reference a number of fairy tales.

Bell: I mean myth was the term I thought of a lot when I think of it that way. But I’ve changed the way I think about it. I called my work “non-realist” for a long time. That was a term I felt comfortable with, when asked. And I sort of feel like I’m moving away from it a little bit — in part because of other people’s helpful thinking on the subject. Brian Evenson — his work is a big influence on mine, thankfully. I saw him give a talk a couple of years ago. And he was talking about growing up Mormon and growing up in a culture in which religion and day-to-day life aren’t separate. Like he literally grew up thinking that angels would come to earth and interact with people. And I grew up Catholic, but in a very literal sort of family. People interact with angels. And we talked about the burning bush — that’s not a myth. That’s not a symbol. That’s like a thing that happened in the past. And I’m not religious anymore. And I’ve moved away from that direction. But I think that writing something like this and letting these magical or fabulist elements ride alongside like something really grounded — it’s less non-realist and more like where I’m from. Like there’s a way into my backstory as much as the geography I’m from. So it’s weird. I feel like I want more and more for them to be able to co-exist. These people live in a world in which the fantastical is real. And so did I once.

Correspondent: So the fantastic is a kind of religiosity for you that has replaced your previous religiosity?

Bell: Yeah. A little bit. It’s another way to access those feelings or to get to some of those places. And it’s a way to write about where my imagination comes from. Some of these things are seeded in me and I have trouble getting to them sometimes in a more strictly realist story.

* — June 16, 2013, Bloomsday — the morning we recorded this conversation.

** — A sample from Joyce: “Her voice, strong and clear in tone, attacked with great spirit the runs which embellish the air and though she sang very rapidly she did not miss even the smallest of the grace notes. To follow the voice, without looking at the singer’s face, was to feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight.”

(Loops for this program provided by Dj4Real, danke, SpadeOfficial, kristijann, and MaMaGBeats.)

Categories: Fiction

Stephen Fry (BSS #432)

Stephen Fry is most recently the author of The Fry Chronicles.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Basking in a pleasant tsunami of erudition.

Author: Stephen Fry

Subjects Discussed: Journalists who attack morally and spiritually, capitulating an iPhone, the number of gadgets that Fry carries on him, physical books vs. ebooks, high school physics lessons and vacillating ideas about the atom, books and mass, Anthony Powell’s Books Do Furnish a Room, technological developments and misunderstanding about replacement, ways in which technologies complement each other, the plight of newspapers, Page One, whether The New York Times is a trusted platform, accepting the fact that Gaddafi is dead, embedded journalists, Kickstarter campaigns and journalism, working for free in the post-Internet age, Fry’s presence on Twitter, Twitter vs. newspapers, not giving print interviews, the achievements of journalists, terrorists who rely on newspapers, the difficulties of not reporting serious changes to the Manhattan skyline, “cheating” on essays in school by writing them in advance, Fry’s ability to recall books by line number and specific edition, Shakespeare, hypothetical exam answers to Macbeth, the Wooly Willy, the pointlessness of exams, Fry’s love for technology, what education can learn from the ancient Greeks, the numerous intellectual trajectories which spring from coffee, Diderot, Secessionist Viennese coffeeshops, Gustav Klimt, the value of giving someone a single word to jump off from, Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis,” Lord Alfred Douglas, the Oxford manner, education as “the ability to play gracefully with ideas,” intelligence rooted around connection, the No Child Left Behind Act, Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, the etymology of “draconian,” vocational training, fruit trees, people who believe the Alps to be dull, those who blame teachers, having a busy schedule, Fry’s schedule vs. a politician’s schedule, not knowing things and greed, Fry’s shaky terpsichorean skills, humans and language, Steven Pinker, Guy Deutscher, how tenses imply futurity, animals and sex, the Phoenicians and writing, cuneiform and the alphabet, hip-hop, Fry’s rapping talent, forgetting to delight in the beauty of language, Wodehousian language rhythms and music, connections between Wodehouse, Cicero, and W.S. Gilbert, film adaptations of The Importance of Being Earnest, Jewish and gay identity, the linguistic roots of Shoah, 19th century anti-Semitism, meeting Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, playing Schumann’s Träumerei on the cello for Josef Mengele, when human beings are treated like machines, Hannah Arendt, Ring Lardner’s golden rule for screenwriting, political correctness, restrictions on the depictions of smoking in BBC documentaries and drama, Spooks, bizarre moral standards on British television, being exploited by Stephen Sondheim for a scavenger hunt, having a fax machine in the early days, Fry’s efforts to read Atlas Shrugged, the 1949 film adaptation of The Fountainhead, writing the book for Me and My Girl, the fine aural distinctions between a fax machine and a 56k modem, the 21st century audience for Ayn Rand, maniacal ideologies that don’t include joy or hope, the RAND Corporation, the Tea Party, reasonable addictions vs. extreme addictions, empathy, false categories when contemplating what it is to be human, Artistole’s “man is a political animal,” Kant’s symbolic logic, the behavioral thrust of David Hume, the readability of philosophers, TE Hulme’s influence on Pound and the modernists, moralists, Hulme’s “concrete flux of interpenetrating intensities,” humans being verbs rather than nouns, doctors and diagnosis-based language, referring to people by their condition, kindness and cheerfulness as essential virtues, eudaimonism, Mad cartoons, the “pay it forward” principle, Fry’s aborted career as a book reviewer, whether criticism is necessary, thick skins vs. thin skins, not wanting to hurt people’s feelings, Alec Guinness’s rude remarks to other actors, Paul Eddington, The Browning Version, Fry’s desire to play Crocker-Harris, pathetic efforts to be polite, Fry’s futile efforts to hawk his own book, teaching Aeschylus to inspire, cruelty, “Never presume to understand another man’s marriage,” ethics and absolute evil, Schindler’s Ark, the French Resistance bombing restaurants, Fry’s Apple zeal in relation to Foxconn abuses, suicides at Foxconn, Steve Jobs vs. Henry Ford, Brave New World, Godwin’s law, Apple’s business in China, overseas industrialization, Alms for Oblivion, and why Fry believes Simon Raven is better than Anthony Powell.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Tying these multifarious observations with what is in your book, I actually wanted to ask you about this intriguing period when you were at Cambridge. You describe how you were “cheating” on essays because you wrote all of the essays in advance in your head — to the point where you were able to cite chapter and verse.

Fry: Yes.

Correspondent: Specific lines down to the line number of Shakespeare. Specific critical reference works down to the publisher, the edition.

Fry: The review course.

Correspondent: Whether it was in trade or whether it was in hardcover. Rather extraordinary. And that you would actually tilt these essays in relation to the question that was asked of you.

Fry: That’s the point. Exactly. The point is: if you have an essay on Othello, if you have an essay on Anthony and Cleopatra — we’ll stick with Shakespeare just for the sake of a closed canon, so we can think about it — if you have an essay on Macbeth, you have a point of view. I know I can deliver 3,000 words very quickly on Macbeth if I know I can.

Correspondent: You have 45 minutes right now, man!

Fry: And the question is “The essence of Macbeth is the difference between the microcosm of Macbeth’s mind and the macrocosm of the real world,” say. Now that may not suit my thesis at all for Macbeth, which is actually to do with the way the poetry disintegrates as the play progresses. But I can make it exactly answer that question. You just have to polarize. You know, it’s like getting a magnet. Did you ever have it in — you probably were American. So I don’t know why I’m asking if you had them. Those little bald men with iron filings and a magnet and you used to make beards out of them.

Correspondent: That was, I think, before my time.

Fry: It probably was before your time. But that’s what you’re doing. You’re taking a magnet and you’re polarizing what you know. Now it’s kind of cheating. It’s not cheating really. Because I am passionate about Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare. But I’m very, very lazy when it comes to exams. And I also am aware that an examination is nothing other than the ability to pass an exam. And what use is that? You might as well say, “In order to qualify from Harvard University, you have to win a squash match. Or you have to do the best Lady Bracknell of your year. Then you’ll get your top degree.” But why is the ability to reproduce prepared pappy ideas about intellectual concepts on paper — why is that a good reason to give someone a job in a law firm, in Wall Street, or in a publishing company for that matter? And part of my love of technology, personally what I would love is, of course, to go all the way back to the days of ancient Greece where you had Aristotle and you had Plato and you had the Lyceum and you had the Academy. So you would actually have a master. And to me, this is how an ideal examination would go. It doesn’t matter what subject the person is reading, as we say in England, or studying, as you would say here. You would just say, “Coffee.” Now someone who’s reading history might just instantly start talking about the coffee shops and how they were banned by Charles II, how they then came back again under Queen Anne, and how they caused a movement with the coffee shops in Paris with Diderot and the Republic of Letters and Voltaire and the Enlightenment. Or they could talk about the Secessionist Viennese coffee shops of Mahler and Klimt and so on. And Stefan Zweig and the whole generation of intellectuals. Rilke and Kraus and so on. Or you could talk about coffee as: Is it an emulsion? Is it a solution? How is coffee grown? What is it as a cash crop? What is is politically? Ethically? That there are some countries who are not allowed to grow food that they can eat. They can only grow food that they can sell. Currency rates. It’s a geopolitical issue. You can talk about the history — here we are in a publisher’s office — about the coffee table book. You could talk about it as a medical student. You could talk about it as a stimulant. You could talk about caffeine.

Correspondent: Worker exploitation. Fair trade.

Fry: Yeah. Basically, what you want, if you’re examining someone, is just to give them a single word and watch them run with it. One of my absolutely favorite quotations — and I’ll try and get it right — is from “De Profundis,” the letter that Oscar Wilde wrote in prison to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Bosie, as he nicknamed him. The man who basically destroyed his life. The boy who destroyed his life. And at one point, he’s talking about Oxford, and he’s saying, “The fact that you didn’t get a first-class degree is a disgrace. Many first-class minds never achieve first-class degrees. The fact that you didn’t get any degree at all is no disgrace. Many first-class minds never finish their course and get their degrees. But what to me, Bosie, is unforgivable is that you never achieved what I believe used to be called” — he put in inverted commas — “the Oxford manner.” And he then says, “Which I take to mean the ability to play gracefully with ideas.” Isn’t that the most beautiful definition of education you’ve ever heard? The ability to play gracefully with ideas! So whether the idea be coffee, whether it be paper, whether it be homosexuality, whether it be floorboards, it doesn’t matter. Because intelligence is about connection.

Correspondent: Yes!

Fry: So an exam question that just says, “Discuss Shakespeare’s use of imagery in Measure for Measure.” Well, gah! Come on.

Correspondent: But it’s actually much worse here in America. I’m sure you’re familiar with the No Child Left Behind Act, which is imposing these draconian standards and is absolutely convinced that all schools can offer 100% competence adhering to these standards. As a result — and there’s a great book by Diane Ravitch called The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Fry: Oh yes. I’ve heard about it.

Correspondent: Which outlines exactly what’s been going on. Which means that if the school doesn’t meet these draconian standards, it gets sanctioned. It can fire teachers and administrators who are considered to be failures.

Fry: The pedant in me would say that Draco was a leader of the Greek Republic at a time when every single crime was punishable by death. Which is what “draconian” really means. And I’m sure it isn’t draconian in that sense. (laughs)

Correspondent: But when the Oxford manner is in opposition like this…

Fry: I know what you mean.

Correspondent: …it’s difficult.

Fry: And even more in opposition to that is the other group of people, which tend to be the right-wing industrial nexus. Whatever you might call them. Those who have influence over politics who say that education actually is irrelevant. What matters is vocational training. And so they want people with MBAs. They want people with apprenticeships. They want people who don’t have a wide, broad education and the ability to play with ideas, but who can do very specific things. Like training. It’s training. and think of that in terms of a tree. You know how you used to train a fruit tree against a wall. You straightened out its branches. [begins spreading arms] You stapled them to the wall. And that’s it. And it bears fruit very efficiently. Now we’re human beings. We’re not fruit trees. And we’re certainly not there to have ourselves straightened out to produce fruit for the state. We’re here to question, to wonder, to oppose.

Correspondent: But you are extending your arms very impressively, resembling a branch.

Fry: Thank you very much.

Correspondent: So I think that if you wanted to be a fruit tree, you could. You have a good line in that.

Fry: (laughs) I’ve certainly been a good fruit. Whether or not I’m a tree — well, of course, by their fruits, shall ye know them.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Fry: But the education point is a really interesting one. And I don’t know what the answer to it is. I think, oddly enough, if I am educated, if I have an education, it’s obviously one I’ve given myself. Because that’s what, by definition, what all educations are. You’re drawn out. Nothing’s put in. You’re not a bucket that is filled by a good teacher. And one of the saddest things is when people say, “Ah, well, Shakespeare was ruined for me at school. Because I had a terrible Shakespeare teacher.” I would say back to them, “Yeah. It’s the Alps for me. I had this awful geography teacher. I just find the Alps so dull. Because I had this awful geography teacher.” I mean, it’s ridiculous. I think it’s either beautiful or it isn’t. You can’t blame a teacher for not being able to communicate its beauty. I can look at the Alps and see that they’re beautiful. And if you can’t look at Shakespeare and see that it’s beautiful, don’t blame a teacher. Blame yourself for not looking hard enough. And I know people don’t want to hear that. But that’s the answer.

Correspondent: And you get into that in the book. And I actually wanted to discuss this further. I mean, I’m in agreement that, okay, we are in a world of riches. We have more information available to us than at any point in human history. But at the same time, learning about apple trees, Shakespeare, or what not, this requires time. And if you are someone who is working two jobs, who is raising a kid, how do you factor that into your dismissal of…

Fry: I like that. Because I’m a gay actor who doesn’t do much…

Correspondent: (laughs) No, no, no. It’s not that at all.

Fry: No. I know you weren’t. But it is funny. I have to say — and I don’t mean this in a boastful way, but I have yet to share diaries with someone who is busier than I am. Including politicians. I’ve had meetings recently. I’m trying to get…

Correspondent: (laughs) Including politicians? Like who?

Fry: Well, they always say that every single hour of every day is taken up by…

Correspondent: Even the bathroom breaks and all that.

Fry: Yeah. Etcetera. And, of course, they are to some extent. But they’re not busier than me. Because that’s actually all stuff that’s done. And then when it’s done, it’s done. If you’re a writer and you have other things, it’s never finished. And I am a very, very busy person. But you may notice I’m quite tubby. It’s because I’m greedy. And if people say they don’t know anything, it’s only because they’re not greedy. They’re not greedy for knowledge. Sometimes an image I give is — imagine that the Mayor of Washington was told when he was a child, “Go to London. Because the streets are paved with gold.” If he knew that in every city, the sidewalks, as you call them here — the pavements were piled high with gold coins and it made a noise. It made a kind of clashing noise as you shuffled your way through it. And it was terrible. And you bumped into a beggar standing with his hat out, saying, “Please. Please. Give me some money. I’m poor. I can’t eat.” You’d look at him and go, “What? Look around you! Just bend down and pick it up!” And that’s what I feel when people say, “Oh, it’s all right for you. You went to Cambridge and were taught things. Oh, why can’t I? I don’t know about this stuff.” I just want to say, “Bend down and pick it up.” It’s never been more available. All it takes is greed. Curiosity.

Correspondent: You are in a country where most Americans don’t have a passport. You are in a country where they actually don’t know these options. I’ll give you a perfect existential example of my own. So the New York Public Library — if you go in that marvelous reading room, it’s capacious. Tables. Everything. It’s like, “Of course! I’m going to study. Because this is an environment totally made to not slack off in any way.” Right? But if you try to find a seat at a coffeehouse now, every single table is completely filled up with people with their laptops. And there’s often people who sit down and they have this board meeting vernacular. And you can’t get anything done. I mean, it’s to the point where it’s almost a Trail of Tears-like situation for me and my friends.

Fry: (laughs)

Correspondent: We have to go to the next coffeehouse before they discover it! But you can pretty much almost always get a seat at the New York Public Library. And the question is: What do we do to restore the balance? To get people understanding that, yes, the streets are paved with informational gold if you go and reach down and pick it up. What do you think?

Fry: To me, this is simply prejudice. It’s prejudice that comes from the gifts that nature never gave me. And they were coordination and music. Although I love music and I’m passionate about music and I listen to music every day and I collect music. I have musical heroes that are distinct and different. You may know that I made a film about Richard Wagner, which is very important to me. Partly because as a Jewish person, Wagner is always going to be traumatic if you love him. Because he was such a bestial anti-Semite. Of course, that was not his fault. Because he died fifty years before — literally fifty years before Hitler became Vice-Chancellor of Germany, who of course adored Wagner too. So I do love music. But I can’t do it. I can’t perform it. I can’t sing. I can play the odd note on the piano.

Correspondent: But can you dance?

Fry: Absolutely cannot dance! I can’t even begin to put myself in a position.

Correspondent: Have you tried to take ballroom dance lessons?

Fry: I would hate it! I would loathe it!

Correspondent: Come on, Stephen! Pick it up! The dance is right there! (laughs)

Fry: If you read my book, you would know my physical self-consciousness is extreme.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Fry: But bad as this sounds, and this is no complaint, the fact that I was so incompetent, so uncoordinated physically, so ungifted musically, meant that all I had to give myself any pride was language. It’s all I had. And the odd thing is that’s all any of us have. It is the miracle of the human species.

Categories: Ideas, People

Ross Raisin (BSS #229)

Ross Raisin is the author of God’s Own Country (UK title)/Out Backward.

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(Please note: This discussion deals at length with many of the Yorkshire terms that Mr. Raisin uses within his novel. Please consult this lexicon if you’d like to know more.)

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Abdicating to a helium-impaired fill-in host.

Author: Ross Raisin

Subjects Discussed: Schizophrenia, designing a particular voice and the relationship to environment, talking in a peculiar way, reference books, snickets, the relationship between topography, reference books, and reality, looking through books, cookbooks, foreshadowing, talking with animals, verbs transferred to nouns, subconscious immersion into language, the third-person origins of God’s Own Country, the rhythmic origins of the lexical voice, “gleg” vs. “gawp,” the frequency of words for specific meaning, the Yorkshire vernacular, working as a waiter vs. working as a writer, nouns from specific regions in England, trunklements, the etymology of “bogtrotter,” crammocky creel, jarp and Easter, Nobbut a Lad, ferntickles, “upskittled” and ninepins, nouns transferred to verbs, “normaltimes,” “gleg,” and “chuntering” — the most frequent words in the book, snitter, references to Dracula, the concern for backsides within the book, The Butcher Boy, literary attempts to understand the monster, being ransacked by Raisin, Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory, separation between style and content, tankards and chalices, the historical cycle of gentrification within bars and restaurants, and stools vs. metal buffets.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: There are a number of Yorkshire terms in which you take a verb meaning and you transfer it into a noun. And so everything is inverted. Even his communicative methods with the animals, as well as his particular idiosyncratic way of talking to the reader, which is presumably the only person he has to talk with aside from his parents and the like. And how this notion of inversion essentially announced itself. Was this more of a subconscious immersion in language on your part? Or a conscious decision to take a verb and transfer it to noun form and the like?

Raisin: The whole thing with the language being in that peculiar idiomatic language didn’t come about immediately. It came about as a result of thinking about character and wanting to think about a character who was very much inside their own strange little world. And one of the main ways you can achieve that is through language. And so I started experimenting with different ways of working with language. And that’s how it turned into a first-person book. Actually, it was initially third-person. Okay, some of the language in it. Most of it is a real Yorkshire language. Sort of a different melange of different parts of Yorkshire, to be honest. And a lot of it is invented. It actually came more out of rhythm — it began with rhythm — more than actual lexicon. And so I got a real feel for this rhythm of the landscape, and the way that transposed into the voice. And then through the second draft, I suppose, I started inserting all these words. And a lot of them are verbs actually. Like glegging and blathering and all these kind of blunt Yorkshire, quite masculinized words that he peppers his language with.

Correspondent: But “gleg” comes from the Scottish noun. Alert and quick to respond.

Raisin: Is that right?

Correspondent: That’s at least what I discovered. And I’m wondering where you transformed it into more of a verb. And also the difference between “gleg” and “gawp” as well. Because he gawps at some points and glegs at others.

Raisin: Well, a gleg is more of a brief look. It’s more of a glance, I suppose. And a gawp is a more of staring. But that’s quite an interesting point actually. Because when you’re writing the book, you become so observed with it. And I’m convinced that these words that I’ve researched, they’re Yorkshire words. And I hold them very preciously. They’re Yorkshire words. And then you tell them to somebody else, and they say, “Oh yeah. We use that word.”

Categories: Fiction

Stewart O’Nan (BSS #161)

Stewart O’Nan is the author of Last Night at the Lobster.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Permitting authors to depict his sad quotidian life.

Author: Stewart O’Nan

Subjects Discussed: The anonymous perception of the service sector, avoiding legal clearances from the Red Lobster, personal loyalty and honor vs. corporations, High Noon, the advantages of a setting a novel within a 24 hour period, using the present tense, collecting stories from restaurant employees, coats being sliced, the importance of cars, the sad-ass nature of the Chevy Regal, character names, working as a caterer, personal experience vs. imagination, education vs. reality, staying true to a character’s experience, Old World figures, attitudes toward the lottery, salting a parking lot vs. salting a meal, “five page” fabrications from reviewers, routine triggering memory, sugar packets vs. snow, Last Night at the Lobster as a Christmas book, Dickens, the comic nature of Christmas stories, Rudy Rucker’s power chords, hyphenated adjective-noun combos, avoiding adjectives, nouns vs. adjectives, whether Last Night at the Lobster is a novel or a novella, FSG rejecting O’Nan, working-class fiction and contemporary literature, on writing without worrying about the market, and efforts to write a different book every time.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

O’Nan: Some people will say that about FSG, that it was too working class for FSG. I think that’s kind of unfair to FSG. I mean, they’ve done a lot of good work over the years. A lot of good work. No, I just think that my editor there didn’t really like the book that much and didn’t feel that they could bring it out and do well by it.

Correspondent: Was there any explanation offered?

O’Nan: No. Nothing too specific, I think. But I don’t think that they were very happy with The Good Wife, which they’d done beforehand. And we’d gone back and forth on that a lot. But, no, I don’t think there’s any lack of working-class fiction out there in American fiction. I don’t know. I mean, this story is — I think in the New York world, it wouldn’t be seen as what people call a “sexy” novel. I mean, it’s relatively low-key. It deals with characters that are somewhat overlooked, I think. You don’t see these particular characters starring in TV shows or big films. It’s a quiet story. Maybe in this market, especially for fiction nowadays, things have to be louder or more fantastic or more quirky or more fabulist. But that’s not really what I’m interested in. I mean, this book, these are the people who I really wanted to show to the reader. Because I think they’re relatively invisible and that there are millions of them out there.

Categories: Fiction

Will Self (BSS #160)

Will Self is the author of Psychogeography and The Book of Dave.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Frightened by walking and crosswalk signals.

Author: Will Self

Subjects Discussed: The overlapping relationship between The Book of Dave and Psychogeography, topographical narrative, Nicholson Baker, Nabokov’s rule about topographical necessity and novels, John Updike’s Brazil, the Post-It notes in Self’s writing room, early plotting efforts with 3×5 cards, short-term memory, Self’s use of arcane words, My Idea of Fun, working with a large vocabulary, Peter Carey’s “The Cartographers,” why Self uses “minatory,” lexical blending, “kidults,” writing 1,000 words a day, Anthony Burgess, the writers who showed Self the way, David Markson, NADSAT vs. Mockney, Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker, George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex,” bodily functions and literature, J.G. Ballard, starting from corporeal qualities for characters, Jonathan Swift, Oliver Rackham as armchair historian, Karrie Higgins’s review, austere terms for psychogeography, why Self went to the obvious tourist spots, the Situationists’s failure to account for family, on having two passports and national identity, being a citizen of London and trying to get out of the city, the problems with the travel industry, the cigarette as a narrative unit, airline travel, Marx and Guy Debord, Self’s definition of the dérive, walking 25-30 miles a day, Self’s theories about Our Young, Roving Correspondent’s anxieties over long walks and drab details, how long walks become variegated, expanding one’s curiosity, Self’s difficulty in talking with people, and learning more about people through a system.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Self: When I wrote My Idea of Fun years ago, I was a stripling. I had a character — The Fat Controller — who was a kind of rampant sesquipedalian who was obsessed with neologisms and coinages and recondite terms. And maybe that was an expression of that part of myself. I mean, some of my stuff’s actually pretty straightforward. It just depends on what the mot juste is. I don’t think I’m a kind of wanton in that way, though many people charge me with it. I don’t collect words in any kind of obsessive way. I mean, I work with a good old-fashioned analog Oxford English Dictionary and if I look up a word, as a writer frequently must, and I see an interesting word next to it, I’ll note it down. But I never go truffling for words.

Categories: Fiction

Steven Pinker (BSS #147)

Steven Pinker is most recently the author of The Stuff of Thought.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: He knows his first name is not Steven.

Author: Steven Pinker

Subjects Discussed: The Starbucks coffee cup size hierarchy, L.A. Story, “divorce project” and unusual noun phrase connotations, perceptive illusions in language, connotation and denotation, polysemy, campus slang and being hip, euphemisms, the unpredictable nature of words and terminology, the origins of “spam,” the absence of specific terms, locative elements of verbs, meanings and brute memorization, “giggle” vs. “Google,” profanity, offensive language, the difficulties of the surname “Koch,” groups adopting pejorative terms, Lenny Bruce’s infamous routines, dysphemisms, whether the Internet truly reflects language, Overheard in New York, William Safire’s columns, linguists being forever behind the language curve, the origins of “not” (from Wayne’s World) and “my bad,” Jerry Fodor’s extreme nativism vs. reductionism, cultural colloquies vs. cultural status, George Lakoff and language as metaphor, the inevitability of metaphor within certain occupations, language and politics, the brain as a computer, the Declaration of Independence, syntactical memes just under the radar, spatial elements and morphemes, memorization, rigid designators and Saul Kripke, given names that are already in the human continuum, and causation within language.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You respond to many of Jerry Fodor’s cognitive theories and you compare his approach to a trampoline. And you respond to his extreme nativism by observing that language can be arranged in more reductive units than he actually allows for. But actually, I wanted to ask you how reductive can one get with language? Does it go back to suffixes? Letters? I mean, is there a point where one can get too small? Or what?

Pinker: Well, you can’t just keep going, uncovering layer after layer after layer. And eventually I think you reach some sort of bedrock. We do know that language thrives on combinations. Like the Starbucks coffees again. Where sentences are composed of phrases, are composed of words. Words are composed of vowels and consonants — well, first, of morphemes, which are composed of vowels and consonants. Vowels and consonants are composed of features, like voicing. The difference between /s/ and /z/. Voicing probably relates to features of motor control. That is, whether you raise the root of your tongue, whether you start your vocal chords buzzing. So that would be pretty much as low as you could get while still finding something lawful in language. Now we’ve known that for a long time. The question is: Can you do the same thing with meaning? Are there meaning elements in the same way that there are sound elements. Namely phonological features. In the book, I argue, contra my former colleague Jerry Fodor, who argued that there are no meaning elements. Basically, every word is a meaning element. So the meaning of “kill” is kill. The meaning of “carburetor” is carburetor. The meaning of “trombone” is trombone. But there aren’t constituents or components of a word that are basic elements like features in pronunciation. I argue against him and say that there is evidence for meaning elements like “cause,” “change,” “goal,” “act,” “be,” “place,” and that many verb meanings can be decomposed or analyzed in terms of these more basic atoms of meaning.

Categories: Ideas