Tag : memoir
Tag : memoir
Mimi Pond is most recently the author of Over Easy.
Author: Mimi Pond
Subjects Discussed: Different forms of memoir (and related resistance by publishing), James Frey, autobiographical fiction vs. memoir in comics, realizing Over Easy from a manuscript, working from a textual framework, trash-talking line cooks, Charles Dickens, Daniel Clowes, comic book characters often cast into inevitable film adaptations, imagination, picture books, Mama’s Royal Cafe as a locational inspiration, memory vs. reference shots, the difficulty of filling up sketch books while waiting tables, the mysterious Nestor Marzipan, keeping in touch with former restaurant co-workers, keeping gossip alive, taking notes, when memories elude the nostalgia trap, what 1978 establishments can teach 21st century diners, drugs and the willful stupidity of kids, disco wars, how a rudderless culture was maintained by a manager who made waitresses feel special by listening, what people found charming about diners in 1978, Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, Todd Haynes’s miniseries adaptation of Mildred Pierce, dramatizing working-class life, how dishwaters can form more legitimate claques than art school, the haziness of art school, the green chromatic feel throughout Over Easy, the one character with a jet black character in the book, the cameo appearance of Flipper‘s Ted Falconi, “Art is dead!” proclamations, maintaining aesthetic standards during a time of bad music and bad art, the oppressive nature of avocado green, young kids today who glorify the 1970s, Peter Frampton, the band America, the influence of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, people who overanalyze comics, the early seeds of storytelling, being nursed at the bosom of MAD Magazine, working with Shary Flenniken at the National Lampoon, learning the basics of a comic strip, circular text around objects, cartoonists and the daily grind, doing monthly strips for the Voice, social commentary in comics form, drowning babies, editorial arguments with Drawn and Quarterly, politically incorrect language excised from the finished product, ironic epithets from 1970s liberals, the importance of getting upset to understand a time, Norman Mailer’s “fug,” living in a high mesa in San Diego comparable to the unshaded area of a picnic table, public park metaphors for living circumstances, the New York Times‘s claim that Oakland is the new Brooklyn, being attracted to bad poets before knowing their poetry is bad, the lack of good coffee in the 1970s, diners that once used real linen napkins, the virtues of not being judged for sleeping with anyone in 1978, and slut shaming and Lulu.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: What specific points in 1978 did you really feel compelled to capture? I mean, how could you do 1978 right while also adhering to the exigencies of narrative, which requires a kind of linear path and all that? What was the organizational process like?
Pond: I was just remembering things the way they were then. Things that really stuck with me. And I worked on this over a fifteen-year period, from about 1998 until early this year. It wasn’t so much that I was like “I’m going to capture 1978!” It was “I’m going to remember it the way I’m going to remember it.” So it wasn’t anything that specifically deliberate. It was just the time and the place and what it felt like at the time. And I did take notes over the years from the time I left up until 1982, until about 1998, and I also went back to visit many times. And I talked to my former co-workers, who very generously shared their experiences with me, which I also incorporated into the story.
Correspondent: Were there any stories or anecdotes that were pure romantic forms of nostalgia? Or things you wish would have happened? Anything along those lines?
Pond: No. I don’t think of it as nostalgia. Because there were too many hard lessons learned.
Correspondent: It was too rough to be nostalgic. (laughs)
Pond: Yeah, it was too rough to be nostalgic and there were too many people who wound up down the rabbit hole of drug abuse for too many years to have the dewy glow of nostalgia around it. It was one of those situations where it was really following up to a point until it wasn’t fun anymore. And there’s going to be a Part Two. I’m working on that now.
Correspondent: I know that.
Pond: Part Two gets darker.
Correspondent: Well, what about Part One? Did the darkness threaten to overwhelm some of the romance of the diner? The kind of effervescent look of the place and the feel of the actual book?
Pond: No. I don’t think so. I mean, I’ve always been in love with the look of that place. The first time I walked into it, it just felt like home. So I could just draw that counter and those booths and all that stuff endlessly.
Correspondent: Well, what does a diner like the Imperial — I mean, what could it teach diners of today? What does a 21st century diner not have that the Imperial did have?
Pond: Well, there were no rules. In the ’60s, the hippies threw out all the rules. And in the ’70s, we looked up and we just said, “Oh, the rules are gone. So which ones do we put back? And which ones do we leave out? And how does this all work?” And it was kind of up to you to figure it out. There was no one saying, “Just say no.” So everyone was going, “Woohoo! Drugs! Yeah, drugs are fun!” Like no one said, “That cocaine thing? That’s not such a good idea.” “Jazz musicians used to snort cocaine in the ’30s. So it’s really cool, right?” And kids are always stupid. And this is what drug abuse is about. Like heroin, people are just stupid enough. “I’m not going to get hooked!”
Correspondent: What was the common ground of such a place? You mention early on how the disco wars were what united the punks and the hippies. And then at the end of the book, we see this poetry night in which everybody is allowed his particular moment. Does it really take a place to unite so many subcultures? So many groups? What was the cross-pollination at the time that you were trying to capture here?
Pond: Well, the uniting force in that particular place was Lazlo Meringue, the manager.
Correspondent: Who everybody told their problems to.
Pond: Yeah. Everyone told him their problems. And he was one of those people that just made you feel like you were the most important person in the room. And he validated your experiences by telling you that the fact that you had observed this and you think that about it is meaningful. Not just “Oh! You’re full of shit.” And the other thing was that, yes, this was important and we need to write this down. Because we’re going to make some kind of art about this later. And that was very important to me. And it made all the difference. I mean, I don’t think I ever could have worked in any other restaurant after that. I made a few futile stabs at putting in applications after I left that place, but luckily — I say luckily — no one ever hired me again. And then I had a career as a cartoonist and I never had to go back to that. But it never would have been the same. I mean, his motto was “The Customer is Always Wrong,” which did not really mean that you were entitled to give bad service. In fact, we all kind of prided ourselves on giving good service. It was more like he had your back. And if anyone gave you any crap, he would back you up.
Correspondent: And presumably the walls between the kitchen and the restaurant were thick enough to prevent any of the customers from hearing all of the profane screeches and all that.
Pond: I think, at the time, people were down for that too. Because that’s the kind of place it was. A cook would drop the end of his roach into an omelet and the customer would finally go, “Oh, I found this. Ha ha ha!”
Correspondent: “How charming!”
Anchee Min is most recently the author of The Cooked Seed.
Author: Anchee Min
Subjects Discussed: Visiting Houston, Mary McCarthy, being the heroes of our own stories, writing Red Azalea as a way to learn English, owning your own material, repeatedly renting a pornographic tape, sex and loneliness, Love Story in Chinese translation, Western imports after the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese idea of Miss America, Caligula in Madame Mao’s film library, how Chinese restaurants operate during Thanksgiving and Christmas, Anchee Min’s incredible work ethic, living paycheck to paycheck, working multiple jobs, judging the homeless, how ideas of being “down and out” shift from nation to nation, having your daughter hold up sheets of drywall, managing a fixer-upper, deprived children, personal propaganda, Dr. Phil, results-oriented thinking, Americans taking their nation for granted, entitlement, the bare minimum to what people are entitled to, basic needs and health care, parallels between America and the Roman Empire, theoretical humanity, the fragile existence of living in America with a conditional visa, Min’s efforts to read English, the line between hard work and exhaustion, the eight hour day, whether Min ever has downtime, the first time in Min’s life when she felt hope, having the will to make it in America, coughing blood and passing out from overwork, feeling safe for the first time in your life, being swindled and taken advantage of by employers, being overly trustful towards the wrong people, perceptions of fast food, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the influence of television, Edward Snowden, associating music with Chicago buildings, Chinese opera, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Loved You,” working in a record store, Pearl Buck, what’s left of Min’s Chinese roots, Min’s love for Broadway, Phantom of the Opera, why it’s important to write about 95% of China (rather than the 5% elite), Kanye West, learning how to moonwalk like Michael Jackson, envying women with big butts, salsa queens, how memory defines life, memory as a mode of survival, the smartphone generation, acting in propaganda films at the Shanghai Film Studio, pretend tears, the importance of being well-fed and staying humble, Min writing about her first husband, when people forgive unflattering depictions of themselves in books, how people who immigrate to America from China have different perspectives, respecting differing approaches to the American Dream, gratitude for other perspectives, divorce proceedings and child custody, becoming a property owner because there were no job options, landlord-tenant relationships and equitable laws, Min’s views on deadbeats, the excuses of tenants, avoiding generalizations amidst hardships, notions of American childhood, China and the U.S. spying on each other, and how the future of Sino-American relations will play out.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Mary McCarthy once famously remarked, “We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour.” And this makes us the hero of our own story. So when you wrote both Red Azalea and The Cooked Seed, my question to you is: What did you take to downplay your own heroine status? Is the judgment of whether you are a good person or not left up to the reader? Or is including such moments — such as the way you portray Lauryann, your daughter, or act as a landlord — open enough for the readers to judge for themselves?
Min: I guess I will leave them to judge for themselves. For me, writing Red Azalea was a way to learn English. And I believe that only when I write it and I have other people correct me and I correct it in the copy of the text, I learn English in a solid effective way. And I did not think about anything else. Because I had nothing. Actually, what I wanted was the opposite. I wanted to write like American classmates. But I didn’t have — I did not grow up with hamburgers. So it was amazing. I did not understand what McDonald’s meant. So it was fascinating when they took me to a Chicago Avenue McDonald’s for the first time and put on makeup for the first time. And I think I was just off the boat. Nothing else. It was just survival. Try not to be deported. With this one, The Cooked Seed, I was on the other end. Because I had been making a living as an author for twenty-five years. So I knew what I possessed. It was just how far I wanted to take the material. It’s the issue of honesty. And also bringing my daughter into the picture and my divorce and everything — I felt that as an American writer, I realize I did not own my own material. I had no right to own that. But it’s a conflict. How far did I want to go? It was my daughter who said, “Mom, if you want to leave me anything, I want you to leave me your story. But not the sugarcoated version.”
Correspondent: So here’s a question for you. If you don’t own your own material, do you feel that the more English you know, the less you actually own it? The less private it may very well be in the act of writing? If Red Azalea came from this moment of almost purity, where there was no expectation of audience and there was no expectation that it would be published, how do things change when you are sharing your story? Both from an English standpoint and also from an audience standpoint?
Min: I feel that it’s the guilt I was aware of. I know my material. I know how to write by now. And I knew one thing. That if I don’t tell the story, the second generation, like my daughter — if she decides to write a story about me, she will never get to the real life I live. Because there’s so much. An immigrant mother would not want to leave behind that kind of story. For example, my relationship with a pornography tape. Because that was my only comfort. And that was the most difficult part to review. And I knew that no immigrant woman would have wanted to reveal that. But for me, what I see is the cruelty of the loneliness that impaired me as a person. If you live ten years in storage, like mice, a city rat, and you’re busy with how to make a living, you have no relationship with anyone whatsoever. But you are human. And this material would get lost. And I felt like I had a platform for the voiceless.
Correspondent: Yeah. The bravery of revealing that masturbation sex video. And you also reveal how the video store owner wanted to sell you the tape for $25 and you talked him down to $20. It was the least rented tape in that video store. But it also reminded me of how you conveyed affection and sex in Red Azalea with Yan. How you were both each other’s imaginary boyfriends. And with that, it leads me to ask you. When you write about sex, it’s interesting to me how it comes from this place of loneliness. Almost as if that’s the truest place to write about sex. You don’t really write about sex in a pleasurable way or even a romantic way. And I wanted to ask why that is. Is it possible that the way you write about sex is the truest way on the page? To be honest about the fact that a lot of people get into this because of loneliness, because of need, and things like that.
Min: Actually, you put it very well. Yes, in real life, it is almost dispassionate. It is very cruel and matter of fact. Survival mode. But as literary material, it’s the most romantic, the most sensuous way. Because that’s the moment that you’re dealing with yourself. The innermost. And also you avoid. Even with my relationship in the labor camp, it was almost — you see each other and then you meet each other like ghosts. And nothing was said. It was just under the blankets. It was inside a mosquito net. And she was love with a boy. And I was craving for boys. And we knew the price to date a man was execution and punishment and imprisonment. And we realized that we were in touch with our humanity. But the guilt of it. Yeah, you have to move on as humans. Human animals. So by accident, we discovered the poetry of God.
Correspondent: Yeah. Well, it’s also interesting because I was going to mention, on a less austere note, that you did read Love Story in Chinese translation. And I was wondering if that had any kind of impact upon your notion of romance or love or even sex. How did that notion change when you came to Chicago? I mean, was this one of the things that you had to adjust your own internal feelings for?
Min: It’s quite bizarre. I did not read any Chinese romantic — anything that had that element — before the Cultural Revolution, which means before 1978. Mao died in ’76. And then that was two years later. The Western translations of first Western literature. Like Jane Eyre and Gone with the Wind started to pour into Chinese translations. But before that, the only book about relationship between a man and a woman was this medical book. The title is called From Head to Toe Looking from a Monkey’s Eye. And I was reading it when I was sixteen. And the only sentence in the book that intrigued me — I still remember — is this: “The highest form of a revolution comradeship was intercourse between a man and a woman.” And I thought, “What does it mean?” Highest form of revolution comradeship. And then the bizarre thing was, after I was picked by Madame Mao’s people and taken to be featured in a propaganda film, portraying Madame Mao’s ideal proletarian beauty, I mean, it was very much — the selection was like Miss America or Miss Universe. It’s just that the measurement’s the opposite. We have to have calluses on our shoulders and hands to prove we were real peasants and the weather-beaten face. And carry 300 pounds of manure. But I picked it up and did the screen test, and I had never learned acting before. And there were all these things. Imitating Madame Mao as a cartoonish opera. And Madame Mao decided that the test was awful. We needed to be educated. So we were cultivating in Madame Mao’s private screening room and viewed her favorite movies. Which featured — I remember one was like a battle of Rome sort of thing — like Caligula.
Correspondent: The Bob Guccione film. (laughs)
Min: Yeah. Something like that. But I can’t recall exactly. Because the translator there was Mandarin. So mostly it was images. So for the first time, from that forbidden time, that primitive time, without any men, all of a sudden over that, you see the blue-eyed people turning your insides out. Even before that, we had sections of meetings on making sure we don’t get mentally poisoned by watching this movie. But in coming to America, I all of a sudden realize that I’m not unfamiliar with these brown-eyed, blue-eyed people, who are having orgies. And it’s really weird. And in Chicago, in my storage basement, where I lived alone and with a porno film, and then all these things stringed together. It makes pretty interesting material.
Correspondent: And the name of the video was Sex Education, which also makes it quite interesting in light of this idea of education in China as well. (laughs)
Min: (laughs) Right.
Correspondent: This is the gateway in. (laughs)
Min: Because the first time I was in a porno store, it was — Christmas and Thanksgiving, especially Thanksgiving evening, the restaurants. Nobody goes into Chinese restaurants. So I was let off early. And it’s the longest night. I couldn’t go home. Because if I’d gone back to China, I may not get a visa back. That was the terror. So I want to treat myself with a movie. And I did not know. Inside the movie store, I stepped into the porno section and that title, Sex Education, was the least threatening.
Min: But now I know it’s a cover. Because of that title, nobody borrowed that movie. That’s why the owner, after a few times, he tried to sell it to me.
Correspondent: He was lucky he had you as a customer, I guess. (laughs) You brought up the Chinese restaurant and nobody being in there during Thanksgiving. Much of your early life in America is very much concerned with living the cheapest possible existence, calculating how much money you lose when you take the train to and from work. I mean, there’s one chapter — I don’t want to give it away — in which you go straight to work after something extraordinarily terrible happens. I was reading a story this morning about how 76% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck. This leads me to ask, well, this notion of saving. Obviously family was a big part of it and wanting to make sure that they had money and also the guilt of trying to get them over to America. But how did you develop this very no nonsense approach to using money and saving it and wanting to accrue more of it? It’s almost becoming less American, especially with our economy in the toilet right now.
Min: Well, I guess it’s survival if you are in that situation. First of all, I think it has to do with my sense of gratitude. I mean, it is hard to work five jobs at the same time. But when you own your life, that’s a different perspective. I think that, bizarre as it is, in my life back in China, I was eliminated basically by the society. And in coming here, given a chance, I remember. I still — it just, what I said back to the immigrant officer who tried to deport me and who called me on the spot for not speaking English when entering America, I said, “My feet are on American soil.” And that, I really meant it. And that means a whole world to me. From then on, every time I go, this is what’s ruling me. When I see the homeless, I think I wasn’t being nice. Because the homeless was begging for my quarters. And I said, “You English! You job!” Because I was thinking, if only I had known English, I would have been given job. And I was actually happy with my Taiwanese boss at the restaurant. When I walked faster, she came behind me. She says, “The house is not on fire.” Meaning: Why are you walking so fast? If I sat down, she’d come down, walk on my back, and say, “I did not hire you to be a lazy bone.” But I was happy. Because she let me know I could improve. Which was to find the balance. But if I were in China, I would not know why I was punished.
Benjamin Anastas is most recently the author of Too Good to Be True.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wrestling with failure.
Author: Benjamin Anastas
Subjects Discussed: Memoirs devoted to literary failure, Paul Auster’s Hand to Mouth, Tom Grimes’s Mentor, being inspired by Notes from Underground, measuring life through the medium of writing, seeking existential symmetry through writing, recurring images of sedans crashing into a tree, the difference between work in fiction and work in nonfiction, Brooklyn Flea vs. South Brooklyn flea markets, being confined to specific areas of Brooklyn, maintaining a literary illusion, staying in denial about gentrification or geographical change, being slow to adapt, “you” vs. “I” in a memoir, living in Williamsburg and Italy, the need to close off the world to get your work done, the pros and cons of needing to notice, the need to believe in the illusion as a creative person, writing as a ontological gamble, the stigma of not talking about the realities of being a writer, standing in a boxing ring designed for Muhammad Ali at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Penguin/Random House merger, publishing with Amazon, talking with Jason Epstein, writing as a life going through self-inflicted hardships, why broke writers aren’t special, parental legacy, adultery as a choice, giant posters of Franzen and Eugenides, the writer’s ego, how book fairs can devastate a writer, the attenuated lifespan of a book, blurbs, why New York is an unhealthy place for a writer to live, a level playing field in which all publishing houses are equal, Brooklyn as the second most expensive place to live in the United States, publishing a celebrity journalist’s Facebook messages, Coinstar machines, the divide between the public and the private, navigating through Facebook posts, the need for reflection, the ineluctable physical demands that come with a Kindle book cover, clearing appearances of the Nominee and Marina with various legal counsel, earlier vindictive forms of Anastas’s letter to the Nominee, Dwight Garner’s hostility to the letter, the true manner in which a prize winner talks, Ali’s “It’s not bragging if you can back it up,” boasting, the blues as a shape-shifting force, writing chapters that cause you to burst into tears, what Anastas had to omit because of personal limitations, money as the stigma that has replaced sex, unknown novels being written about the financial crisis or unemployed men, the Fitzgeraldian association with the Manhattan skyline, and the many holes and changes and rebuilding in New York City**.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: There are a number of memoirs that are devoted to literary failures. I think of Paul Auster’s Hand to Mouth. I think of Tom Grimes’s Mentor. And I think that there’s something about reading a book about literary failure that’s kind of akin to looking at the mirror and seeing the sagging and aging body and so forth. This leads me to ask what it must feel like to write such a thing, to expose something that is so identified with books and so identified with failure in book form. How do you contend with the notion of shame or humiliation? Or do you have no shame?
Anastas: Do I have no shame? Well, clearly, I actually have no shame. (laughs) I never set out to write a memoir. I actually have always been kind of anti-memoir in my writing life. I’ve written screeds against them. My first novel, I thought of it as a kind of Russian tract against the memoir when I was writing it and publishing it. I was very much influenced by Dostoevsky and Notes from Underground, which was a response to — I don’t remember the name of the tract*, but it was a response to this contemporary political tract. So I was trying to use the novel in my first book as an answer to what I thought then was the memoir craze. But of course the memoir craze has just spread and metastasized. And we live in a memoir society. But anyway, I ended up writing a book honestly because I really had no other choice.
Correspondent: You had no other choice?
Anastas: Well, seriously, I mean, I’d been trying to write fiction for a long time and I just hadn’t been working. I would either abandon projects 100 pages in or I would just edit them to death so there was really nothing there. And the circumstances of my life had gotten so bad that I couldn’t really do the necessary work of imagining. Every time I sat down to write, all I could think about was, well, god, how am I going to pay the rent this month? Or, jeez, is my girlfriend going to leave me because I’m so broke? Or what am I going to do about my child support payment coming up on the 15th? That’s all financial stuff. But there was also this overwhelming sense of “How did this happen to me?” How did I find myself here?
Correspondent: Did you feel that you were a victim and that you needed to memorialize this notion of “How did I get here?” Did it come from a sense of victimhood, do you feel?
Anastas: No. Definitely not victimhood. I mean, what was really interesting to me was trying to figure out — well, the book moves in two directions simultaneously. The first is it moves forward in time, which I was literally writing in real time. How am I going to get myself out of this mess? How am I going to find a job? How am I going to keep my girlfriend? How am I going to keep on seeing my son as well? Because I absolutely want to.
Correspondent: So you weren’t a fact checker at the beginning of writing.
Anastas: No. I wasn’t. I started writing the book in the fall of 2010. And I was just about to hit financial rock bottom. And it was the kind of situation where people had stopped answering my emails. The kind of things that I had done to make money had all disappeared.
Correspondent: You weren’t led past the velvet rope in any form. (laughs)
Anastas: (laughs) Exactly. Exactly.
Correspondent: So why did you feel — I guess you felt the need to grapple to the closest reality at hand. And that was the only way to actually deal with it. I mean, there’s actually one line where you say, “How much of our lives do we write? And how much of them are written for us?” And I’m wondering why you feel life has to be measured by how it is documented or how it is written about or how it is chronicled and how this was a way for you to deal with this really sordid rock bottom existence that is there at the very beginning of the book.
Anastas: Well, it’s funny. I used the phrase “write.” “How much of our lives do we get to write?” Of course, that’s how I think about life. Because I am a writer. But I really meant that metaphorically in the sense of how much of our own lives do we get to control. How much agency do we have? And how much of it is stuff that we’ve inherited? So there were two things simultaneously happening in the book. The first is that I’m trying to figure my way out of this mess and actually find work and try to keep my relationship alive and keep my relationship with my son alive. And also at the same time try to restore my relationship to writing by going into my son’s room with a notebook everyday with a pen. Just writing this book or the pages that began this book. Writing them out in longhand. And the second thing I was trying to do was go back in time. All the way back to the beginning. To my first memories. To try and figure out, well, how much of where I found myself is due to experiences I had when I was young? How much of it can be traced to be formative experiences I had when I was three years old? Including the really bad childhood therapy, which gives the book its title. So more than assigning blame, more than claiming victimhood for myself, it’s a way to try and create connections, to find where the symmetry is. Because I did feel like my life was weirdly symmetrical. Like I had been returned to the state that was very much like my earliest beginnings.
Correspondent: But it’s interesting that you view your life from this image of premonition throughout the book. The idea of the sedan that’s running into a tree, which then starts to have applicability to other incidents later on. Or even “I lost my marriage going down a glass elevator.” There is a sense of personal responsibility we all have, that we can in fact take action to if not inform that premonition then to also throw a few curve balls at the inevitable. Why do you seem to default, at least in this book, towards the premonitory? Or the “Oh, well my life has this trajectory that’s just going to play out this way”?
Anastas: Because I think that, as I said, I was trying to trace the moments of symmetry and put the pieces of this life that had been broken up into large pieces that were kind of dangling all over the apartment and hung over the railing and all this kind of stuff. I wanted to put it all together and figure out how I got to this place in life. And to me, that’s being active. That’s not being passive and saying, “Oh, life has done these things to me.” I haven’t been an equal part in saying, “Oh, life, how could you!” To me, that feeling never really entered into it. It was more a sense of taking what I do have, which is a knowledge of writing, a knowledge of books, and some measure of talent and trying to use those to knit back together a life that had broken to pieces.
Correspondent: It’s fascinating to me that you couldn’t actually approach this dilemma through fiction or that there was difficulty. You said that you were writing fiction that was too edited. Did you just really need to have an extremely broken place with which to turn out something as a writer? What is the difference between fiction and nonfiction to you? I’m really curious about this. Why can’t you approach fiction in the same way that you approach nonfiction? Which is like “Here I am. I’m kind of responding to the broken place I’m in, but I’m going to write my way out of it.”
Anastas: Well, that’s what I had been able to do my entire writing life. Up until the last four or five years. Obviously your life informs your fiction, even if the characters you’re writing about and the time that they live in has nothing to do with where you are. You always have some kind of overwhelming feeling that you’re trying to capture. And the feeling often comes from your immediate set of circumstances. You just lend it to somebody else. But I think just because of the dire state of my circumstances and because of the ways I’d failed as a fiction writer over the past five years, I just couldn’t do it anymore. And I had to, for this book anyway, I had to write it straight. It was a reality experiment. I was writing about things as they were happening. Which was incredibly rewarding in a lot of ways. But it was also so I could get the immediate satisfaction.
* — It was Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?, which in turn was a response to Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.
** — Please note that this conversation was recorded before Hurricane Sandy.
[PROGRAM NOTE: Because this show is so unusual, we feel compelled to offer some helpful cues. At the 7:42 mark, Our Correspondent stops tape. He then offers an explanation for why he did this. At 8:09, the conversation with Ms. Bechdel continues. And then at the 40:34 mark, shortly after hearing some unexpected news from Ms. Bechel, Our Correspondent loosens an outraged “What?” that is surely within the highest pitch points in this program’s history.]
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if his false self is good enough.
Author: Alison Bechdel
Subjects Discussed: Attempting to ratiocinate on four hours of sleep, Virginia Woolf’s diary entries, Virginia Woolf’s photography, To the Lighthouse as surrogate psychotherapy, Woolf’s “glamour shoot” for Vogue, not doing enough research, attempts by Bechdel to “get her mother out of her head,” the memoir and finding the true self, Donald Winnicott, not being “well-read,” reading Finnegans Wake in a closet, not reading John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates, guilt for not reading everything, encroaching mortality, working a double shift of writing and drawing, only reading the stuff you want to use, “Alison in Between,” tinting skin with retouching ink, tinting much of Are You My Mother? in pink, the futility of writing in a word processing document, comics as a language, ambiguity in comics, Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, Bechdel’s mother disappearing into a plexiglass dome, depicting origin points of what Bechdel writes and what Bechdel illustrates, living and writing from a place of shame, aggression and psychotherapy, writing about another person as a violation of their subjectivity, Bechdel’s mother’s tendency to read everything as a personal yardstick, how Donald Winnicott to organize one’s life into a book, Bechdel’s desires to cure herself, Bechdel transcribing her mother’s conversations, difficulties in recreating conversations, Bechel’s “apprentice fiction,” vigorous nonfictional expanse, how Love Life turned into Are You My Mother?, Bechdel going to great lengths to avoid the story about her mother, the difficulties of constantly writing about your life, the connections between writing and living, protection from outside voices, Bechdel’s shifting views on herself as an artist, becoming a secret writer, “literary situations,” the strange transformation of cartooning in recent years, how cartooning and other genres have been co-opted as “literature” after being ignored, artistic liberation and oppression, the risks of mainstreaming culture, Samuel R. Delany, being hypocritical progressives on Occupy May Day, the new obligations of artists to a corporate infrastructure, Susan Cain’s Quiet, introverts, obnoxious journalists pushing for personal details, flogging and pimping, the risks of putting yourself up front, being confessional without revealing much, Chester Brown’s Paying for It, Marc Maron’s interview with Matt Graham, telling all on Facebook, Bechdel’s teaching, Roland Barthes’s autobiography, how memoir subsists in a tell-all age, Foursquare, contemplation and narrative nuances, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, “the great Internet crackhouse,” Google searches and happenstance, the rabbit holes that emerge when you’re looking for something simple, Hope and Glory, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, why World War II is an emotional trigger point for Bechdel, therapy and First World problems, Bechdel’s mother’s artistic life, palling around with Dom Deluise, ripping off Keats, the mother’s face as the precursor of the mirror, and whether any author can see herself in a memoir.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Bechdel: I need to have pictures to make the kind of associative leaps that get me through my ideas, that get me through to some kind of conclusion. When I was writing Fun Home, I felt like I had to explain why it was a comic book. Like, oh, there was lots of powerful visual images from my childhood. I grew up in this ornate house. It was important to show that. But I don’t think that’s true. I think I was just trying to accommodate, just trying to make an excuse for why I decided it to be a comic book. But I don’t feel like I need to make that excuse anymore. Comics is a language that I’m learning to be more fluent in. And it helps me to make arguments and arrive at revelations.
Correspondent: As you become more fluent in the language of comics, has it become more ambiguous in some way? Has the ambiguity of the grammar and the language that you have staked your claim on been of help in exploring the ambiguities of life and the ambiguities of some life that is presented on the page?
Bechdel: I feel like I’m always trying to push the distance between the text and the image, the stories that are being described and the scenes and the narration that’s running over it. I’m trying to stretch that as far as I can without losing the reader’s attention. But I love that distance. And I think something powerful can happen in that distance.
Correspondent: Such as what do you think?
Correspondent: Is there a moment in this book where you felt that you hit that particular power?
Bechdel: Oh, I think of that Dr. Seuss spread, which was a purely visually driven sequence. I’m talking about one of my favorite childhood books, which was Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book.
Correspondent: The Plexiglass Dome and all that.
Bechdel: The Plexiglass Dome. With my first therapist, I would always describe my mother as having this plexiglass dome. Like at 9:00 at night, she would disappear in plain sight under this invisible dome, where she would smoke and read and no one could talk to her. She was off duty for the night. And I didn’t realize this. But looking through Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, the phrase “plexiglass dome” is right there. And it describes this little creature who lives inside a big dome watching everyone else in the world and touting them on a big chart. It’s hard for me even to talk about this stuff. Because I kind of need the visuals. And I think visually.
Correspondent: I’ve got it right here. (hands over the book)
Bechdel: Okay. (flipping through book) But when I was looking at this illustration as an adult, it just was immediately obvious to me that this dome was in the shape of a pregnant…
Correspondent: Pregnant uterus.
Bechdel: It even has a little door that says KEEP OUT. And this is just a sequence of ideas I never would have gotten at without pictures. I’m able to trace its origins in my own childhood drawings. And I’m able to project this metaphorical connection with the womb and my own desire for that kind of primal oneness with my mother that has been forever sundered. But that was visually driven. I couldn’t have come up with that without pictures and visual metaphors.
Correspondent: It’s interesting to me that the origin point very often of what you read is depicted more than the origin point of what you illustrate, or even what you write. I think of the infamous drawing that you do on the bathroom floor in this.
Bechdel: (laughs) Oh god.
Correspondent: A doctor examining a girl. We don’t actually see this. But what’s fascinating is that we actually do see a page of a memoir, a fragment that you wrote, with your mother’s red inkings all over it. Except that is occluded by all these textual boxes of Alison in the present day.
Bechdel: Yeah. My narration overlaying it.
Correspondent: So my question is: why didn’t you portray that drawing in an explicit way? Did you feel that you were more driven by words as a way to find the track here?
Bechdel: Well, sometimes, it’s more powerful not to show an image. In that case, maybe it was a cop out. But I really didn’t have the original image.
Correspondent: Yes, there’s that.
Bechdel: My mother had thrown it out. And I couldn’t replicate my child’s drawing without seeing the original. But that was just a cop out. I was very relieved I didn’t have it. Because I wouldn’t want to show that. It was just — that chapter was so difficult to write. Just revealing that childhood sexual fantasy was excruciating. I was living in just a horrible pit of shame for months as I was working on that chapter. For all of these chapters, whatever old dark emotion I was writing about — shame or depression or grief. All of that would take over my life during the period I was writing about it in a very uncomfortable and disconcerting way.
Correspondent: Is shame a source of comfort for you? I mean, I’m sure not everything here was written in shame. I mean, to my mind, I really like the therapy sessions. Because you draw yourself as just being super-excited to confess. More so, I think. We see the Alison in the therapy sessions. She’s like, “Yes! I’m going ahead and getting my aggression out!” And all this. Aggression, I suppose, or delight must have fueled this in some way. You can’t exclusively draw from a sense of shame to really confront something.
Bechdel: No. There was a whole range of different emotions. And the realization of my aggression was a great breakthrough. Something that I think enabled me to push through and finish writing Fun Home, my first memoir, and that I had to tap into again for this memoir. But my mother — it was a terribly aggressive act. Writing about any real person is such a violation of their subjectivity.
Correspondent: Well, how do you go ahead and honor your mother either during or after this book? I mean, she did review a good deal of it — at least if I’m going by the book here.
Bechdel: Yeah, she did. Well, you know, I feel lucky to have such an interesting and smart mother who cares about writing. Maybe my whole putting myself down about how little I’ve read is like a mother issue. Because my mother reads voraciously. She’s read much more than I do. She keeps up with all the criticism. She reads the London Review of Books. She reads a lot. And I could never stack up to that. So I guess I have to just keep whining about that in public.
Correspondent: But why should that even matter at this point? I mean, that’s the thing that fascinates me. I mean, if this book was your own To the Lighthouse, to free yourself of your mother, I mean, here we are talking about books and I’m like, “Well, Alison, at this point, you have nothing to worry about.” I would think. From a reading standpoint.
Bechdel: All right.
Correspondent: Even considering the mortality thing, which I totally understand. But I think you’re perfectly erudite as it is. You’re certainly more erudite than most Americans, I would say.
Bechdel: I’ll just have to settle for that, I guess.
Correspondent: Settle for that? Why? I mean, why not just be? We were talking about the true self in this, right? What about the true self of the Alison right here?
Bechdel: Maybe it’s just that I used to read so much as a child and I don’t read at that same pace. So I feel that I’m not living up to my image of myself.
Correspondent: Is this the same for drawing? And for art? And for illustration and all that? Do you feel that you’re holding yourself up to any yardstick? Or is it really just…
Bechdel: No, I feel pretty good about my drawing output.
Correspondent: I actually wanted to as you about a number of situations in this book where words are often operating on a different track than the life that is unfolding that you were depicting. I’m thinking, of course, of the “ersatz” argument with your mother while you’re going through Winnicott. Lying in bed with a book, as you have Eloise trying to tell you something that is very vital. And you’re just there with your book. Your mother patching your jeans while you discover the Jungian mother archetype.
Bechdel: Yeah. Those are some scenes where I feel like I really am pushing on that distance and asking a lot of the reader to follow my story, but also listen to my little essayistic digression. And I never quite know if that’s going to work. I hope that it does. Often, it’s sort of a plane to the thing. I’ll try to have a really interesting, compelling scene unfolding in the foreground so that the reader has some patience for these less related thoughts.
Correspondent: Is it a way of compartmentalizing yourself? To come to grips with certain truths? To decide what you’re going to put down and what you’re not going to put down?
Bechdel: No. I’m not sure what it is though. I can’t think of a counterargument to that.
Correspondent: Well, how does someone like [Donald] Winnicott help you in organizing your life?
Bechel: Oh man. Well, Winnicott helped me in organizing the book. But I knew from the beginning that I was fascinated with him, that I wanted to learn more about his ideas. But I didn’t know for quite some time that I would actually use him as some kind of structuring device. Each chapter in the book is organized on a different one of his pivotal theories. So he organized the book. But also I feel like I was trying to vicariously be analyzed by Winnicott. I wanted to be his patient. And so I did that through reading his work. And I haven’t actually thought about this explicitly. And this is the first time I’m trying this out. But I’m creating this attenuated analysis with Winnicott. Comparing myself to other case studies that he talks about. The famous Piggle case of the little girl he worked with. Who was just about my age. And I sort of identify myself with this child. With other people in case studies. Like in his mind and the psyche-soma paper, he talks about a middle-aged woman who just never felt like she was really alive or really present in his life. And I identify myself with her. And through his patients, I’m trying to cure myself.
Correspondent: Cure yourself? Or find points of comparison? Just to have a guide here?
Bechdel: I want to cure myself.
Correspondent: Cure yourself?
Bechel: I’m always trying to cure myself.
Correspondent: Is anybody completely curable? Are you completely curable?
Bechdel: No. But I would like to be more cured.
Vincent Cassel stars in Mesrine: Killer Instinct, which opens in limited release on August 27, 2010, followed by Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 on September 3, 2010. Rachel Shukert is most recently the author of Everything is Going to Be Just Great and previously appeared on Show #217. (The true Shukert completist can also listen to Ms. Shukert on Show #173, where she appears in a group discussion on sex writing.)
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Dodging persuasive serial killers and angry Swiss listeners.
Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]
EXCERPTS FROM SHOW:
Correspodnent: Does movement offer a more creative place to establish a character? More so than the backstory, research, or anything?
Cassel: Of course it does. I mean, look, you walk down the street. You see somebody that you’ve never met. And you see him walking. You just see his back. And you already can say a lot of things about him. Is he drunk? Is he somebody sad? Happy? What kind of energy he has. You know, all that.
Correspondent: I’m glad you mentioned that you use different movement. Because I have noticed that about your performances. I mean, Mesrine and your role in Irreversible are two completely different movements. What do you do to prevent yourself from repeating a particular gait? Or a particular walk? Or a particular way of entering a room? Or a way of inhabiting an atmosphere or what not? Do you worry about this? Repeating yourself for each character?
Cassel: No, of course. I mean, I think it’s important that you not do twice the same. But the main reason is that otherwise I get bored. So what I do is that — I’m very instinctive, I have to say. It’s not really something I think of in a very precise way. But I can feel if it’s something — actually sometimes, I start a scene and I have this feeling of deja vu. And sometimes I don’t really understand where it comes from. But that’s enough for me to just [snap] switch to something else and try something else on the moment, and then think about it. Afterwards, I understand. “Oh yeah. I did this on that scene from that movie.” But at the time, on the moment, I don’t really analyze. It’s just a question of feeling. Like most of acting is really.
Correspondent: Have you ever had a situation where an entire scene needed to be altered because you were physically adopting some cliche that you couldn’t quite identify? But it just didn’t feel right.
Cassel: Very much so. Especially in a movie like Mesrine. Because I’m so close to Jean-François Richet, the director. We were literally: get on the set in the morning. We would try. And suddenly something is wrong. Let’s change everything. Because I think acting and moviemaking in general — maybe more for an actor than for a director — it has to be organic. Whatever that word means. You don’t have too much time to think on a movie. It’s very much about the acting and being involved physically in what you do. That’s the only way to see if it’s real or not really. So, yes, you try things. It’s about trying and finding solutions.
Correspondent: You note of [your future husband] Ben that, as you watched him calmly rub soap into his hands by the communal sink, you realized that you had known all along that you would see him again. I’m wondering what it is about hand hygiene that serves as your personal madeleine.
Shukert: (laughs) I don’t know. I remember that moment. It was very calm. And he didn’t seem surprised to see me. And I had been thinking about him and having this sense that we would bump into each other again. I think it was seeing him doing something that was very mundane. We were at home together. Even like moments now. It felt almost as if we had skipped in time and we were standing in our own bathroom while he was brushing his teeth and I was trying to put my makeup on. Do you know what I mean? It felt very familiar in that sense. It’s sort of an instance of fact seeing somebody washing themselves in some way or grooming.
Correspondent: So really any guy could have come along, if they had done any remotely regular gesture at that point. They could have swept you off your feet!
Shukert: I don’t know. I was definitely in a different place. (laughs)
Correspondent: The title Everything is Going to Be Great comes from a sentiment expressed by Pete — a guy with a girlfriend who you got involved with and who had a problem of hitting on other women in restaurants. Including you. You became involved with him, justified your involvement by noting a Dutch study where a woman’s neural activity at the moment of climax is equal to that of someone in a vegetative state. I must go ahead and ask. Surely hindsight offers the basis of 20/20. Lust may indeed make us do stupid things. But there’s often another reason why we’re driven to the irrational. So I’m wondering why you’re content to throw away this particular introspection.
Shukert: But I feel that it’s really describing that moment more. I feel like later, in the exploration of that relationship, other reasons come to light. The fact that we were both — and I feel that this is there in the book — that sort of explains why I couldn’t slap him across the face in that moment. Do you know what I mean? But as far as getting involved with him later, we were both kind of lost. We were both adrift. I was, at the time, really lonely. And things were not working out the way that they were supposed to. I think I mentioned how he suddenly gauged escape to this adventure that he was supposed to be having. He made it feel like there was a point, that I was here to fall in love and have this incredible adventure. And it turned it into a narrative. It turned it into a story, as opposed to this aimless time-waster. And I feel that if I had been here, if I had been on my home turf, I don’t think that we would have gotten involved. I feel that being abroad, you are off your center of balance. Away from the practical things that you really think about. You’re removed from all of that. And there were so many things I didn’t have to deal with.
Ander Monson appeared is most recently the author of Vanishing Point, as well as a poetry collection called The Available World, which nobody had thought to send to Mr. Segundo’s motel room. Contrary to photographic evidence, Mr. Monson does not have a beard.
Mr. Monson previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #21, just before Mr. Segundo had finally switched over from Betamax to VHS.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pointing at the designated vanishing spot.
Author: Ander Monson
Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: The subtitle for this book is “Not a Memoir.”
Correspondent: Is it safe to say that you’re not a writer and I’m not a journalist. Maybe we can establish some terms here.
Monson: I think so. Yeah, I think so. I mean, it’s a little tongue-in-cheek. But I don’t consider it to be a memoir. But at the same time, as soon as you call something “Not a Memoir,” it sets the tone of the conversation.
Monson: So a number of the reviews have been suggesting the ways in which it is a memoir. But it’s also explicitly not a memoir, in the sense that the book is really not — is interested in taking apart the idea of memoir.
Correspondent: Yeah. But it’s also not a manifesto.
Monson: It’s also not that.
Monson: That’s true.
Correspondent: Maybe you need a subtitle to grab the reader’s attention for more conceptual stuff.
Monson: No, it’s true. The subtitle was actually suggested by one of the designers at Graywolf. I think they were looking for something besides “Essays.” And I actually liked it. I thought the subtitle worked quite well. Because it’s a little bit in your face.
Correspondent: In your face? Just by saying “Not a Memoir?”
Monson: I think so.
Monson: Yeah, I think so.
Correspondent: But then again, you can always…
Monson: I mean, “in your face” as far as nice Midwestern boys writing experimental literature.
Correspondent: I didn’t find it that way. I found it more of a playful thing.
Monson: Well, it is.
Monson: I think so too. But some of the reviews have taken it as a shot across the bow or whatever.
Correspondent: Really? I didn’t see thee reviews.
Monson: There was a review — I want to say one of the first reviews it got — Booklist maybe? Or Library Journal. One of the two did a review of it, with eighteen new memoirs.
Monson: But seemed to review it as a memoir. Which kind of pissed me off. Because it’s…
Correspondent: It’s very clearly on the title. “Not a Memoir.”
Monson: Yeah. It says very specifically. I don’t know. It’s hard to be pissy. Because it’s gotten really good reviews otherwise.
Correspondent: Yeah, but what if this thing gets categorized in the memoir section? Then what are you going to do?
Monson: Well, it kind of has to be. In a certain sense. Or else like what? Cultural criticism? They say it’s “Literature/Essays.” I mean, [John] D’Agata’s book is “Cultural Criticism.” Which I guess is apt, but…
Correspondent: I wanted to talk about this idea of the memoir. Because near the end of the book, you suggest that by reading memoir, we pretend to comprehend a life. I’m wondering if it’s more accurate that a reader, by way of seeing a life placed in narrative, might comprehend a pretense of some kind. That pretense is probably more truthful than any cold and clinical declarations of the truth.
Monson: I mean, I think so. I think that the thing that attracts readers to memoir is that you read memoir to understand your own life. In as much as you understand some semblance of a life. That whatever — simulation, which is kind of what the memoir genre offers. So I think in that sense, that’s right.
Correspondent: Well, on the subject of karaoke, I’m wondering how a song can be truly liberated from its original form. I mean, aren’t we talking about possibly some secondary or supplemental component that comes with the karaoke? Aren’t we talking more about performance than the actual song?
Monson: Well, you know, karaoke is a complicated thing. It’s partially because what it does. It allows readers or listeners to participate in the song in a way that I think people want to do now. With film, now people can remix. There’s a billion — like, homegrown — versions of Star Wars. And those kids who are doing the shot-by-shot remake of the Raiders of the Lost Ark film.
Correspondent: The Super 8 version.
Monson: Yeah. So there’s this real participatory instinct. But there hasn’t been ways to do that in books in a certain sense. Which is partially why the book is structured kind of the way that it is. You can type in some into the website and so on. But karaoke is trickier. There are songs that, by singing them, you liberate it from the original context of the crappy version, and how you felt about it, and who you were when you first heard that song. And how much you disliked it. And in some ways, it is sort of overlaying the one on the other. But it really does become a new thing by singing. If you’re doing it at all well. And there is certainly an element of performance, which is a big part of why people are successful at singing karaoke. You’ve got to deliver the rock if you’re going to sing a rock song. So there is that element. But it’s also interesting to see the way that people decide to do it. Because some people — do you choose to try and sing it like the original singer? Or it’s sort of like the ironic guy, who’s going to do the kind of William Shatnerization of things.
Monson: Or are you even trying to do the voice? Which a lot of people try to do the voice. Which is also what keeps me doing AC/DC.
Correspondent: But if you’re talking also about camp, I mean, some people find a voice through an artificial delivery of a preexisting song.
Monson: They do. They do. And I think that’s in some ways that’s kind of an analogue for the ways in which a lot of writers — I mean, you learn by imitation. You love this thing. You sort of try to get it inside you and you do it. And even if you’re not doing that intentionally, trying to copy The Sun Also Rises — like type out every line. Which is not a bad exercise for a writer. You know, I read Underworld by DeLillo one summer. And I wrote a story, which is in Other Electricities, which is a very DeLilloesque story. And I still kind of recognize that in a weird way. I think the story works on its own. So there is a sense in which — I mean, you do get to a sense of your own personal voice by either opposing or working from other models. And some of those models are, just like the thousands of songs you’ve heard, the ways you’ve heard people sing, it’s pretty hard to do something really original.