Tag : novelist

Merritt Tierce (BSS #551)

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Merritt Tierce is most recently the author of Love Me Back, a lively and fierce debut novel about a young single mother who works as a waitress and disguises her pain and humiliation behind a smile. Love Me Back was published by Doubleday.

This book is one of those rare works of art possessed with the boldness and the decency to tell the complicated truth about how women are doomed to second-class treatment in our precarious economy. It is a welcome and candid corrective to such loathsome television shows as 2 Broke Girls that prefer to prop up a sexist fantasy and outright myths rather than contend with blue-collar life. The distinction between Love Me Back‘s art and 2 Broke Girls‘s awfulness worked our production team up so much that this episode’s introduction contains a strong critique of 2 Broke Girls‘s sexist treatment of its characters and how it has influenced the perception of waitresses in American culture.

Our conversation with Ms. Tierce begins at the 4:57 mark. In our conversation with Ms. Tierce, there is also a remarkable gaffe, indeed one of the most notable flubs in our program’s long history, that involves a mangled pronoun. Apparently, Our Correspondent was so won over by Tierce’s narrative that he made the mistake of believing that the character Danny said something worse than he did in the text.

Author: Merritt Tierce

Subjects Discussed: The American novel and people who work in restaurants, James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, Mimi Pond’s Over Easy, working in a high-end steakhouse, how restaurants distort the physical form, cutting, self-harm, comparing the early version of “Suck It” to the book’s version, keeping text the same over a seven year period, the first full story that Tierce ever wrote, knowing that Love Me Back was a book, Alexander Maksik’s input into Love Me Back, approaching a book without knowing it was a novel or a short story collections, the commercial stigma against short story collections, interstitial pieces linking the stories, creating sentences that are more final than final, stripping italics and punctuation from the original stories, the fictionalized essay Tierce wrote for Pank, style and plummeting attention spans in the digital age, circumstances in which we see punctuation marks in life, why Tierce can’t add anything artificial to her writing, the sense of time related to life waiting tables, Tierce being accused of “petty rebellion” by a professor, women being defined exclusively in roles of pain, Leslie Jamison’s “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” women as second-class beings, the difficulty of writing happiness, what happens when you read too much Thomas Hardy, Edward P. Jones, Marie’s small size and her epicene identity, the ostensible fluidity of gender, vulnerability, Victoria Patterson’s LARB essay on Love Me Back, the ineluctably damaging qualities of the male gaze, when rebellion and degradation align, personal responsibility in being exploited, Tierce sharing biographical details with Marie, Tierce’s short story “Solitaire,” “This is What an Abortion Looks Like,” imagination and personal experience, the conversational stigma about abortion as a very regular part in American life, Wendy Davis, Obvious Child, and acceptance of same-sex marriage vs. acceptance of abortion.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Before we get into what this novel has to say about class, about self-abuse, and about being a woman, I’d like to get into the American novel’s often neglected history about people who work in restaurants. I think of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce and I figured you were familiar with that given the cognates in your name. And I also think about Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster. I think about Mimi Pond’s graphic novel, Over Easy, which is somewhere between a memoir and fiction. To what extent was your novel a response to this often neglected form of novel? And given that there are an estimated 2.4 million* waiters and waitresses in this country, why do you think that this very real life has been so underrepresented in literature?

Tierce: That’s a great question and I’m really impressed at that list that you just provided. Because a lot of people have asked me, “Why haven’t I read anything about restaurant life?” And I am familiar with Mildred Pierce only because of the HBO miniseries.

mildredpiercewaitressCorrespondent: Oh, the Todd Haynes.

Tierce: With Kate Winslet. And it’s fantastic.

Correspondent: And has a great dramatization of restaurant life as well.

Tierce: Yes! It does. And there’s some similar themes at work, I think, in Mildred Pierce and in my book. And I’m also glad to hear that number. 2.4 million. Because it seems like so many people have worked in restaurants or even in some other form of retail or customer service.

Correspondent: That’s just waiters and waitresses. I pulled that from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Because I really wanted to know that number too.

Tierce: Okay. Cool. Yeah. It’s something that so many people are familiar with and I’m surprised there’s not more writing about it. But one of my theories is that it’s really hard work. And a lot of times it’s just a means to whatever real end you’re going for in your life. And I say “real” because I don’t want to diminish anyone’s work in restaurants. I worked in restaurants for fifteen years. And it was very much my real life.

Correspondent: When did you stop working at restaurants? I know that the New Stories from the South bio says that you were working in a high-end steakhouse at that time. And I was curious about when that tapered off.

Tierce: Yeah, I was. And it tapered off about two and a half years ago. So it’s fairly recent. I mean, it’s so recent that I still frequently wake up and have a moment where I’m grateful that I don’t have to go work in a restaurant tonight.

Correspondent: Wow. What kept you in that? And it seems to me there’s an almost addictive impulse to it that you tap into very well with this novel.

Tierce: I mean, I couldn’t make more money doing anything else. So there was that reality. And I have two kids. And I’ve had them since I was Marie’s age myself. So it was hard for me to simultaneously make a living and try to get advanced in any other arena of life. And I think that is why a lot of artists especially keep working in restaurants. Because you have some flexibility and you have a steady cash income usually, which is enough to keep you going. But then you do get caught in it. And it’s hard to get out. And that goes back to what I think about why it’s not written about. It’s because when you do break out of it, it’s such a relief. You don’t want to think about it one more second of your life. Especially not to write.

Correspondent: Well, I think what it is — and I had a stint working in restaurants a long time ago — but it’s this kind of illusion that you’re free. Because I can always drop the job if I get a gig. And then you get caught up in a similar cycle that has no job security whatsoever. And I guess there’s so much shame attached that we don’t want to analyze it — whether it be in literature or even in life or even in regular conversation.

Tierce: Right. Yeah. You know, that’s an unfortunate reality of life — in particular, in America. The service industry is so condescended to and looked down on. You know, it’s not thought of as worthwhile work.

Correspondent: Or if it is, it’s some kind of vibrant, effervescent comedy or something.

Tierce: Right.

Correspondent: As opposed to the realities, the darkness. The physicality, which you get into very well in this book. Well, we don’t actually learn Marie’s name until a few chapters in. And this seems to reflect this regrettable cultural tendency in which customers, even the most progressive-minded ones, will often go into a restaurant and not even remember the name or not even see anything of the waiter or the waitress other than a physical blur And that opening section where it’s just this extraordinary sense of physical seizure is astonishing. But throughout the book, there’s a lot of physicality. And we become very aware of the physical presence of the waitstaff in this book through much of the sexualized scenes and so forth. I think also however of Tayna’s thumb resembling soggy bread. You have the “warm buttery smell” of Carl’s neck. These characters all seem to physically blend into the restaurants. And not even the seemingly protective plush leather of the check presenter is safe. There’s that credit card scene, where it actually gets lodged into the restaurant. And I’m wondering. What is it about the physical allure or the pull of a restaurant? I mean, this seems to me just as much of a part of it in both your novel and in life. It’s almost this vortex to a certain degree. And I’m wondering how you arrived at that or if you arrived at that or what physicality really means when both waitress and customer go to a restaurant.

Tierce: Right. Well, it is such a basic act. Eating and bringing someone food. And it is the most basic maintenance of the physical. So there’s that kind of level to it. But as a writer, I’m most interested in the sensual. Whatever details there are to be observed in a situation, the sensate ones are the most important to me. And a restaurant is, I think, a more fertile territory for that than a lot of settings because of the food and the smells and the sounds and the people and the touching, the everything of it.

Correspondent: Do you feel that much of the sex in this book — where did this come from? Did this come out of an investigation of the restaurant as physical consumptive space? Not just from experience. I mean, it just seems to become more of this great pull on all the characters. Not just Marie. Although in Marie’s case, it becomes just utterly painful to read and to see what she’s going through. Was sense of space one of the ways that you were able to triangulate her pain and the way that she dealt with it in her life as she get dragged further into this trajectory?

Tierce: Well, I wish I was smart enough to have been that deliberate about it.

Correspondent: Well, instinctively, how did it come?

Tierce: Yeah. Instinctively, it just was an element of restaurant culture that I do know from experience to be ubiquitous and to be just a part of the after hours life of a restaurant and the people who work there. I honestly don’t have a great answer for why that is or what the connection is. But I think it has partly to do with just appetites, with trying to satisfy other people’s appetites and putting yourself completely at the service of other people and then needing to get that back in some way. To convince yourself that you still exist by satisfying some of your own appetites after it’s over.

Correspondent: Being in service to other appetites creates a voracity of your own that is impossible to appease.

Tierce: Right. Exactly.

Correspondent: There are a few moments throughout Love Me Back where Marie subjects herself to self-harm, to cutting. The fondue skewer while her daughter is watching The Cosby Show. Cutting is typically associated with high school girls — at least, that’s how we look at it in society. But as we come to know more of Marie’s backstory in the short and long alternating chapters, we become very aware that Marie’s life has been thrown into this degrading trajectory because, well, she’s been thrown into the wilderness without a handbook. And I think you get at very well how, when we abandon kids or teenagers and throw them into the world, there are these lingering things. I mean, Marie has to learn much of this at the behest of men. And I’m wondering. Do restaurants contribute in any way to being in denial about throwing our kids into really terrible lives like this? And can fiction provide an adequate response to getting people to understand these gruesome but important truths?

Tierce: Maybe. I hope so. I don’t know. I don’t want my daughter to work in a restaurant anytime soon.

Correspondent: Did she ever actually say, when you were working at a restaurant, that she wanted to work in a restaurant just like Marie at all? Just out of curiosity.

Tierce: Yeah. Both my kids have said that when they were little. And it made my heart sink. But at the same time, I have to say that working in restaurants has given me some values and basic skills in life that I need and really treasure. And I wouldn’t give them back for anything.

Correspondent: Such as what exactly?

Tierce: Such as being aware of other people. I mean, when you’re forced to put other people’s needs and desires ahead of your own, no matter how you feel about them, it’s hard to kick that habit. And I’m not saying it makes you an altruistic person. I’m just saying that even on a physical level, when you’re walking down the street you have a different way of moving. You’re not oblivious to people. Because of working in restaurants. And you learn to, as Marie says, anticipate and to consolidate. And those are useful skills for life. And you learn to work really hard. And that alone is useful, I think. And now I’ve forgotten what your question was.

Correspondent: Well, we had a magical massive question of mine.

Tierce: (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m implying magic when it was probably just prolixness on my part. But essentially I was asking, “What is it about restaurants that could cause our kids to be subjected into this vortex?” We were talking about the notion of basically throwing our kids into situations that they’re ill-prepared for. And restaurants almost pick them up where colleges or institutions or libraries or other things, which could in fact help them and prepare them more adequately. I mean, it’s almost like having soldiers go into war to a certain degree.

Tierce: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. It’s sort of inevitable, especially now. It seems harder and harder for young people to get meaningful work, to get any job at all. And people will always need to eat. So restaurant work will always be available. And if that’s the only place you can launch yourself from, that’s, I think, our fault for not making more meaningful work more available and not making college, for example, more affordable. And I say that as someone who’s still paying down student loans myself and has basically no money saved for college for any of the three children who live in my house. And I value education more than almost anything. But there are some real factors at work as to whether or not any given person can get a higher education.

Correspondent: How does writing help you to come to grips with these particular realities that, I think, all of us face to a certain degree?

Tierce: Well, writing helps me come to grips with all of reality. Just because I don’t really know what I think or how I’ve gotten to what I think until I start writing about it, which I’m borrowing straight from Flannery O’Connor. I think that’s something that she said, but it makes so much sense to me. That’s just how my mind works. I reveal myself to myself through writing.

(Loops for this program provided by nosleeves, ShortBusMusic, kingADZ12, danke, doudei, 40A, leoSMG, ebaby8119, and gutmo.)

* — Please note that, on air, our correspondent stated that the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 2.5 million waiters and waitresses in America. The correct number is 2.4 million and the excerpt text has been corrected to reflect the correct number, which is also stated correctly in this episode’s introduction.

Categories: Fiction

Norman Rush (BSS #512)

Norman Rush is most recently the author of Subtle Bodies.

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Author: Norman Rush

Subjects Discussed: Keeping a personal existential view of the world on one paper, utopian democracy, allusions to Ulysses in Rush’s work, Vico Cycles, the importance of the 2003 Iraq War protests (and why they have been forgotten), whether forms of liberalism have any legitimate application in the 21st century, the importance of physical space in Rush’s fiction, people who preserve language vs. people who are terrified of originality, how people express themselves, the origins of “in your wheelhouse” and “traveling fight,” comparing various drafts of a “plaid underpants” section in Subtle Bodies, carrying something in your head vs. writing it down, unsuccessful attempts to outperform geniuses, the specific cocktail chatter that led Elsa and Norman Rush to become Peace Fund co-directors in Botswana, draft resistance, amnesty, how an anti-establishment stance can you lead you into an establishment job, the virtues of insouciance, working with editor Ann Close at Knopf, invaluable oddities, personal aversions to semicolons, dialogue and punctuation, singing prose out aloud, Rush’s bygone ukelele skills, resisting the essayist and journalistic in fiction, Sherlock Holmes pastiches, being an anti-minmialist, the carefully designed reading pace of Mortals, limited word use in Botswana cable transmissions, why America is now crazier than Botswana, the three cartons of notes that Rush brought back to America, spending 15 years in the antiquarian book business, exquisitely unknown incidents in the history of the Western Left, the failure of the Socialists to come together on an antiwar platform in 1914, Rush’s stubborn focus on being an experimental writer and a poet in his early days, the anxiety of influence, measuring yourself against the impossible, the origins of Karen in “Bruns,” Patrick van Rensburg, having an indomitable vocabulary, how much Mating‘s Karen was influenced by Denoon, how Rush got to know his great literary friend Thomas Disch, being a genuine man of letters, Manhattan’s financial hostility to writers, finding creative ways to live in Brooklyn, parenthood in Subtle Bodies, connections between Nina in Subtle Bodies and Nan in “Near Pala,” ancillary subjects that propagate during writing, tales of masculine sadness throughout literature, David Foster Wallace, the limited makeup of today’s literary audience, Lena Dunham’s appreciation for Mating, comparisons between Mating and Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, characters defined by reading allegiances, the manuscript as a bomb, writing down what people have on their bookshelves, the sangoma in “Official Americans,” Morel in Mortals, why Rush’s characters are seduced by or drawn to charlatans, Rush’s father, religion and theosophy, the foundational aspects of what you are, spiritualism as an unavoidable part of being American, Rush’s “Americanity,” motives for burning a passport, why optimism is essential, parallels between Subtle Bodies and the great Edgar Wright-Simon Pegg film The World’s End, ideologues and the absence of identity, nostalgia as a panacea of anxiety, turning tropes into foundations for serious art, Rex from Mortals, flailing aspirants who write for The Awl, middling educated types, fiction as a place for failed forms of the self, dummy experimentalism, sections from Mortals that were dropped, cave art, the differences between expatriates and Americans who stay home, James Wood’s observations about Ray Finch’s interpretation of Joyce’s “The Dead,” the courage to inhabit an unseemly perspective, the reading Rush did while working as an antiquarian bookseller, fiction with numbered paragraphs, Hume’s influence upon Subtle Bodies, writing a book without a sustained perspective, the Kalahari Desert, the advantages of being overwhelmed with life you are not acquainted with, describing the landscape with waning movie metaphors, young people forced into scavenging from culture, the messianic qualities of 20th century Hollywood stars, the future of narrative, balancing the personal and the political, the importance of recognizing the evils of the world and not to be a fool, people who are increasingly duped in the digital age, facing an unreadable future, the Internet and political activism, and the future of social democracy.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I was curious about this. You were showing me these series of Venn diagrams that represents your existential view. I’m amazed that you could fit this all on one paper.

Rush: Well, actually, I’d need a much larger piece of paper to get the whole thing on. This is about current feelings about the way the world is going.

Correspondent: Are they negative or positive?

Rush: I’d say they could be described as apocalyptic, but in a piecemeal way. I’m not looking for a big bang, but I think serious trouble is coming. And I’ll explain what I mean by that in describing a lack of fit between what the evolved political institutions of our advanced capitalist world, capitalist republic, can deal with and the scale of the problems that are presenting themselves autonomously, outside of anybody’s control.

Correspondent: Well, maybe one way to kickstart this is to tie in a sentiment in Mating with what is going on in Subtle Bodies. In the early Circe-like part of Mating, you have Nelson Denoon’s speech for his solar democracy, Tsau. “Everything we want in a society is what we find brought out in people and the moment of insurrection. Spontaneity! Spontaneous hierarchy!” There are exclamation marks after all of this. “Self-sacrifice! Staying awake all night! Working until we drop! Audacity! Camaraderie! The carnival behind the barricades.” Well, in Subtle Bodies, you have this compound called The Vale. It’s a sprawling place. It’s just outside Kingston. It’s the home to activists. It’s reminiscent in some ways of the Martello Tower at the very beginning of Ulysses. And, in fact, you actually compare it to the Winchester Mystery House. As a South Bay guy, I got that little reference.

Rush: Oh, you’re South Bay.

Correspondent: Yeah. So my question to you is, well, based on what you were expressing earlier, to what degree was this your way of exploring a Vico Cycle in which America is caught within a perpetual moment of insurrection?

Rush: Well, that’s very acute. This is about one of the last flashes of the revolutionary impulse to make a significant change. In this case, stopping the impending invasion of Iraq. So it’s not about making a New Society in the old sense. In the way that Denoon was talking about. But it’s about a much more reduced yet still large objective. And that is basically a negative one. But stopping something from happening.

iraq2003

Correspondent: Well, it’s interesting. Because that Iraq War protest in 2003 is often forgotten by many of the people, like the Occupy crowd. I mean, there were regular people who attended these series of protests. And it’s kind of been swept under the dustbin of history. Is this one of the motivations to explore this in fiction?

Rush: Absolutely. And in fact, it was in its time the largest international demonstration in history. All countries, all over the West. Not only here. And it represented a high watermark of emotion left over from the Vietnam War, which had, in the minds of oppositionists, been stopped by exactly this kind of direct action and mass protest. And, of course, well, I don’t want to give away the end of the book or remind people too much about the history of it. But yes. And that’s another thing. I think the book is working with a kind of fading historical appreciation of what the last twenty or twenty-five years have really meant.

Correspondent: Well, let me ask you something. I mean, if societal ideals — as are represented in that Nelson Denoon speech — if they are constantly replenishing themselves in this new musk of want, what is the present state of revolution? How can fiction provide an answer or encourage or empower people to commit revolution?

Rush: Well, don’t hold back from the big questions. I mean, that is the question. Every serious writer is implicitly or explicitly asking that question. What is it that I’m writing about? What does it have to do with the seemingly autonomous evolution of increasingly less propitious circumstances to make change? And the answer to that is the central and most compelling question, it seems to me, for people who write novels which incorporate serious politics and political thinking into them. The answer keeps revealing itself as you write and as things change. I mean, one of the things that seems to be happening — one reason that this is such a fascinating and, in a way, dumbfounding moment — is that the three great propositions about how we should organize the world and life — that is to say, socialism, followed by its variants, social democracy, followed by neoliberalism — have all in their own ways collapsed and don’t exist as real options anymore. They carry on their shells. There’s a shell of socialism existing in pockets and enclaves around the world. There’s a kind of zombie social democracy operating mostly in Western Europe. And there’s neoliberalism, which is in a state of what you have to call a dispensational crisis. Because basic problems like inequality have not been solved. And in the meantime, coming from the outside is this continual costs in the environment of the systems we built.

Correspondent: But at the same time, Marxism has a lowercase m in Mating. So has there ever really been credence to any of these political systems? Why do we continue to gnaw at them if they are unimplementable in everyday society?

Rush: Oh sure. Actually with the ongoing collapse of socialism, the Socialist Project, one of the standard responses to that — and it’s happened in the past many times — is to take the socialist idea and incorporate it in tiny pieces. Tiny little enclaves. Make it work. Make a pilot model. Make it tiny. Make it small. That’s sort of what Denoon is up to.

Correspondent: I wanted to also talk with you about how space functions in your book. In Mating, you have this wonderful passage where Karen describes love as moving from one room or apartment to another, and each subsequent room or apartment is bigger and better. Also, we learn in Subtle Bodies that the Vale’s large space has become unwieldy, especially when you’re trying to snag some yogurt for breakfast. But what you just said about how America is compartmentalizing itself and how social democracy is doing that reminds me very much of the episode where Nina enters this closet and she hears these two men and you write, “She had gained nothing by putting herself in this predicament.” And I’m wondering if this is your wry way of suggesting that figurative space is the only space that we can trust in fiction, in life, or in politics.

Rush: That’s an interesting way to look at it. Actually, this is a case of her burning desire to know everything taking over her good judgment. And as a character, she is determined to know everything she can to relieve the unmerited suffering she sees of her husband’s milieu. So she puts her nose into everything in the place that they live.

Correspondent: In Mortals, Ray complains that “affray was one of those words that was vanishing from the language.” But in Subtle Bodies, you have Ned almost terrified with the imperfection of a pickup line such as “I stand here lonely as a turnstile.” Nina also says, “A pleasant despair of the region of the loins.” And she claims to be quoting something. But actually you can’t place the quote. So one must assume that it’s original in some sense. If your books represent in some way a history of the way that Americans express themselves, and I think we can say that they do, why do you think your characters have moved from preserving word choice — and, of course, we have the word games as well in the early days of these characters. Why have they moved from preserving language to being terrified of the original expression? I mean, why is this of interest to you? I’m curious.

Rush: I’m interested in knowing the way that people express themselves. What lasts and what doesn’t. It’s kind of a Darwinian process that has always seemed interesting to me. For example, why do we now say that something that is within your competence is “within your wheelhouse”? “In your wheelhouse.” Now the odd thing about that is, first of all, I don’t know where it started.* But it certainly has taken over every conversation. And I was unable, and Elsa too, to recall what preceded it. What did we say when were saying to someone that he was out of his field of competence? Or in it? What did we say? Not “his line of work.” No, that’s not quite right. But there is a kind of occlusion of ways of expressing states of being and possibilities that happens. And it’s happening faster now because the media are so ever present and so tightly connected to everything. It happens fast. But I ask you. What did you say before you said, “It’s not in my wheelhouse”?

Correspondent: “Not in my purview,” I guess. I don’t know. “Not in my bailiwick.”

Rush: “Purview” is not quite right. Because this has to do with competence. “Bailiwick” is closer. But anyway, ponder it. I don’t have an answer myself.

travelingfightCorrespondent: I mean, this leads me to wonder. There is one point in this book where you have a “traveling fight” occur. And I had never actually heard the expression “traveling fight.” And I became so obsessed with that notion of a fight moving from one place to another. And the only place I could really find it online was from a 1970s article in the Toledo Blade.

Rush: Oh my gosh. (laughs)

Correspondent: So this is interesting. They are so determined to use that term “traveling fight,” which comes from a place that they’re okay with. And yet when they’re actually trying to riff on their own phrases, they don’t want to relive the pleasure of those word games in their early lives. Also, I’m just curious about where you first heard “traveling fight.”

Rush: I can’t tell you. I know that it came up in some place along the way in my life and I’ve carried it around as a description. And then suddenly, when I needed it, there it was.

Correspondent: I found an early draft of the “plaid underpants” moment in Subtle Bodies between Ned and Nina that was published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. [NOTE: We have reconstructed Rush’s compositional revisions in the graphic at the end of this capsule.] What was curious about this is that the dialogue you have is almost the same, but there’s some interesting description in this early draft where Nina is a little more willing to judge Ned. The sentences here are “In the seventies, the boys had lived in a jokey plenum. Now a kind of fitful replay was emerging among them, extending even to Karl, who had a brain.” And in the book, you’ve added this passage where Nina describes how she likes “the permanent delicate subliminal trembling of the room.” And this leads me to ask you. To what degree are you discovering these characters in the early drafts? Has it been your practice to severely cut the degree to which your characters dwell on the past and concentrate on the present moment you are bringing to life as you’re writing it?

Rush: Yeah, that’s part of my struggle against saying everything. And you may know that the way I’ve proceeded in the past with books was to write a dossier for each individual character, so that I knew the life of the character up till that point and sometimes beyond. Just for my own reference. And that was a helpful way to proceed. But I do more of that in my head now than I used to feel I had to do on paper. But yes. I have cut down in favor of moving the action so that I can get to the next big thing.

Correspondent: Well, in terms of carrying something in your head versus writing it down, why do you think you’ve always had that packrat tendency to say everything? I mean, I’m looking here and, on the table, you have this massive and quite intriguing collection of files. So why do you think you need to say everything and you need to get it all down?

Rush: I could tell you part of the answer to the extent that I think is true, but there’s more to it. At the very heart of it, of course, there’s got to be something like fear of not having, knowing what you need when you need it. But on top of that is laid another impulse that I have when I write. And that is — it’s a kind of crazed Platonism. Because once you start a book and you set up your characters and you set up the situation and you discern the argument that is going to lie at the base of the structure, you — at least I’m speaking for myself — you have a sense that this is a copy of a perfect realization. There is a perfect working out of the plot. A perfect resolution. A perfect rhythm. Everything. There is a perfect embodiment. End point. Embodiment of the things that you set out to say. And that’s what I want to do when I set out. And this is all kind of philosophical more than I like to admit. But I’m looking for something that is like a realization like, oh say, Kurosawa gets in The Seven Samurai. When you get to the end of the uncut version, when you get to the end of that, you have fully and absolutely experienced what was intended from the very first scenes of the book to the end. Or the opera. Tosca. Or Ravel’s Boléro. At the end of it, you have had everything. It has completed itself. And I think it’s probably a self-destructive kind of impulse to be subject to. But that’s me.

Correspondent: Is it something you grabbed from Joyce?

Rush: Joyce is another example. Ulysses is. And that’s why there’s so much extra stuff in Ulysses. Because in his own not completely formed way, I see him as aiming for the same thing and achieving it in thunder.

Correspondent: But you’ve never really sought out to have Botswana reconstructed from the bricks you laid down in Mortals or Mating.

Rush: No. I thought I would never know enough really as a five year resident and student of an extremely complicated and interesting culture. I would never know enough to do that. That will be the work of some writer from that country in some time. But yeah, I was always very conscious that Botswana was a set in which I was privileged to place my people and my problems.

* — A Way With Words, a casual call-in radio program devoted to word origins and language (I have been a regular listener of this agreeable low-key show for more than a year and recommend it), proved instructive in answering this question on its March 5, 2011 installment. The term “wheelhouse” comes from baseball. According to the Dickson Baseball Dictionary, it involves swinging a bat when the ball is in your crush zone. A 2010 Daily Finance article reveals nautical origins. Its popularity in the last three years (which is on the downslide) can be traced to an episode of Glee, in which Darius Rucker told another singer that a song was not “in his wheelhouse.”

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An earlier draft of the “plaid underpants” episode in Subtle Bodies was published on October 23, 2011 at the Los Angeles Review of Books. This has allowed an unanticipated glimpse into Norman Rush’s compositional approach, when we compare this earlier draft against the published version. Note how Rush’s dialogue remains mostly unmodified. But his description has undergone significant revision. Rush was kind enough to discuss this at length on the program. (Please note that Rush’s additions are in boldface. His deletions are in strikethrough.):

rush-revision8

(Music: Kevin MacLeod, “As I Figure.”)

Categories: Fiction

Maggie O’Farrell (BSS #511)

Maggie O’Farrell is most recently the author of Instructions for a Heatwave.

Play

Author: Maggie O’Farrell

Subjects Discussed: People who went crazy during the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, John Cleese’s determination to commandeer a cab, how strange weather transforms communities, unusual nostalgia for the 1976 UK drought, whether fiction can prepare us for the insanity of the human race, families on their worst behavior, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (and the bizarre critical controversy, how to present character without ascribing to historical touchstones, taking down narrative scaffolding, prejudice against the Irish in the 1970s, baking bread, keeping the domestic life compartmentalized from a writing life, how writing a book in present tense permits the reader to confront folkways and mores of the past, how novelists can convey and acknowledge behavioral changes over the past, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, when historical novels transmute into accidental essays, too much detail, avoiding beanbags and other kitsch items in 1970s fiction, the raw material of a first draft, women who disguise their dyslexia by memorizing stories, the privilege of reading, literary couples who avoid homicidal impulses when reading each other’s work, having a harsh critic for a husband, surprise plot revelations, familial traits that are passed down, resisting and acknowledging qualities originating from your parents, the fine line between transforming real material into something imaginative and using personal experience, fiction that comes from what you don’t understand, paying attention to children’s disabilities, visual stimuli and curiosity, John Banville’s aversion to research, reading memoirs of British feminists and journalists for inspiration, the pub bombings of 1974, how first-person accounts can help a novelist to get inside characters, inspiration from bedsit living arrangements, family disappearances, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Elena Seymenliyska’s perspicacious review in The Telegraph pointing to the spate of recent novels with disappearing men, Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, masculinity defined by disappearance, living in a world in which everyone is spied upon, the romance of walking away from life, seeking dominoes in narrative, and the problems with gender generalization.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: My understanding is that this book was inspired from people going a little cuckoo roughly around the nigh unpronounceable Icelandic volcano. And I’m wondering how you got form Eyjafjallajökull — I think that’s what it is — to 1976. Just to start off here.

O’Farrell: Well, I had planned to write a completely different novel. It was going to be historic and sweeping and intercontinental. And I started doing a lot of research for that. And I did put a little bit of pen to paper. But then it was funny. It was a bit like radio interference. I started getting these snatches of conversation. Images of a family arguing in a kitchen. It was very, very hot in this kitchen. Very, very humid and very close. And it was annoying. Because I actually wanted to concentrate on my other book. But this family wouldn’t shut up.

Correspondent: They wouldn’t shut up? Families often don’t shut up.

O’Farrell: Exactly. I find that too. And then what happened — this was the tipping point. It was, as you say, the unpronounceable volcano in Iceland erupting. And the whole of Northern Europe just came to a standstill. It was extraordinary. There were no flights leaving. Nothing arriving. It was just lockdown.

Correspondent: You heard the story of John Cleese?

O’Farrell: Yes!

Correspondent: That was crazy!

O’Farrell: That’s one of my favorite stories.

Correspondent: He absolutely had to go home.

O’Farrell: Only he though. Only he would do that.

Correspondent: Which is insane.

O’Farrell: I was living in London at the time and my normally pretty sane neighbors were just ranting in the streets about flights they missed or holidays cancelled, visitors who never arrived. People were bulk buying bread and milk. It was this really weird panic which set into the whole of Europe.

Correspondent: Something to replace the Cold War scare. (laughs)

O’Farrell: (laughs) I guess so. And people were commandeering taxis to drive them from Paris to Madrid. It was really crazy town behavior. And I became slightly obsessed by it. I watched all the news reports. And every time I heard someone talking about it, I would listen in. And I kept thinking, “Well, this reminds me of something.” And I couldn’t think what it was. I couldn’t place it. And then, one day, it kind of came to me. It was the heat wave of 1976. And I don’t know if this was a big deal in the States. But it was certainly a huge deal in Britain and Ireland. You know, it was one of the big defining features of the decade, really. I was four at the time. And this made a huge impression on me. It kind of forms the basis of some of my earliest memories. I think it was one of those situations where the whole country pulled together. We were all in the middle of this huge drought, this huge heat wave. And that kind of unified spirit hasn’t really been called for since the Blitz. Where everybody got stuck here and we had standpipes in the street and nothing coming out the taps. We didn’t have any bars. No hose pipes. Nothing. And everybody had to fill up their own quota every day from the tap in the street. And it’s odd. People who’ve lived through it never forget it. And they all talk about it endlessly. Which for a novelist is a gift. Because I had to saddle up to people and say, “What do you remember about the 1976 heat wave?” And out this stuff would come. And it’s always amazingly personal. That was the other really interesting thing. People would talk about getting divorced and having babies or what happened to them or the kind of games they played as a child. For a novelist, it’s an amazing key to unlock all these incredible stories.

Correspondent: How did you start talking to people about what they experienced in 1976? Did you just ask around? Start from friends? Use the Internet? What happened?

O’Farrell: Yeah! There wasn’t a huge amount on the Internet, actually. Which was interesting. There were a couple of photographs and a couple of people talking about it and a few sort of newspaper articles about the time.

Correspondent: This was one of those particular moments that people hadn’t actually chronicled online, but if you went to the right places, you can get them to talk about it.

O’Farrell: Absolutely. It was one of those things where I’d just say to people, “I’m thinking of writing something about the ’76 heat wave,” and total strangers would start to tell me incredibly personal stuff. One woman I never met before started telling me about how she started having an affair with her next door neighbor. (laughs) Which is gold dust, of course. It was an amazing — I don’t know what you’d call it — catalyst to people telling you stuff.

Correspondent: Do you find that people tell you very personal things because you’re a novelist? I’ve talked with novelist-journalists before and, the minute they hang up their journalistic hat and once things get going on the novelist front, suddenly it’s like, “Well, I’m a novelist. Oh, I can’t possibly use the material in any way.” (laughs)

O’Farrell: (laughs) I think people are probably very wary. Rightly so actually. Because novelists are ruthless creatures. We will eat anything.

Correspondent: They’ll take anything.

O’Farrell: We’ll take something. We’ll just nick it. You have to realize that.

Correspondent: I know you ransacked me right before you sat down.

O’Farrell: (laughs) Oh yes, definitely. It’s all written down on a notebook. No, I think people are quite wary. But certainly, for some reason, and I’m not quite sure why, with this heat wave in Britain, people suddenly spill their guts out to you.

Correspondent: Well, there are a number of things that cropped up in relation to the heat wave. Number one: just how parallel it is to climate change right now. But simultaneously, this also leads me to wonder — and maybe we can talk about this — how fiction may actually be the best medium to discuss how humans are going to change their behavior as we have more floods and hurricanes and rising ocean levels. I mean, maybe the novel is the way to start preparing ourselves for the insanity of the human race. What are your thoughts on this?

O’Farrell: Well, possibly. I don’t know. I don’t see anyone really preparing themselves at all in any way, actually.

Correspondent: (laughs)

O’Farrell: I think we’re horribly unprepared and we’re just taking an ostrich approach to the whole issue. But I think that was one of the strangest things about researching the novel. That all this anxiety about the drought and the lack of rainfall and the dry reservoirs was in a time before anybody had heard the expression “climate change.” Nobody had even — I don’t think anyone had even heard of the ozone layer. It wasn’t discussed. It wasn’t an issue. That’s all I could think of was when I was researching it. And looking through, I found the government policy that they rushed through Parliament in 1976. And the government’s fear and panic is absolutely prevalent in that document. It’s amazing. You can feel it from the very pages, you know. They were really worried. They were worried about civil disobedience and riots over water. They had all these contingency plans in place conscribing help from the army in case there would be civil unrest. So you could tell they were really anxious. But the big question in my head, of course, the whole time was thinking, “Well what would it be like now if this happened?” Because people would be terrified if that happened.

Correspondent: Well, we’ve had a number of hurricanes here and so forth. So there’s a little bit of that. But it is interesting that here you are looking at other turmoil as represented from what people are telling you in terms of their own personal stories and as reflected in the news articles that you looked at and the government documents that you consulted. Yet this is ultimately about domestic conflict. And I’m wondering if keeping some of the extra turmoil to the distance was more of a concern for you in concentrating on these lives. Was it literally just the kickstarter to getting in these characters? To really open up their feelings? Or what?

O’Farrell: Well, I was quite interested in something that would bring together that was largely estranged growing up. Siblings, two of whom haven’t spoken to each other for three years. Putting them all and squeezing them all back in the house, the small house in which they grew up, and back into the roles they don’t fit in anymore. The family sequence that doesn’t fit anymore. I was interested in the idea of what would bring people back. Why would they have to come back? And I suppose, just to ratchet up the tension, to use this heat wave. Because it really is a melting pot with them all squashed in together. It’s like a crucible. They can’t leave the house because their dad disappears. In the first pages of the novel, the father, the patriarch, walks out and he doesn’t come back.

Correspondent: It’s been noted by several authors and several philosophers that, when you get a bunch of family members under one house, they are going to probably be on their worst behavior. I’m wondering if that might have also been one of the appeals. I mean, I know you do this continuous first draft going forward and plowing through — no plan — for all of your novels. And I’m wondering if crowding people together is going to create natural conflict or what?

O’Farrell: I think that’s inevitable. I think families are always going to be irresistible to a novelist. Because first of all, we all have one, whether we like it or not. We all come from someone. And I think also they are a kind of melting pot of different types of personality. I’m sure there’s a mathematical formula that, if there are five people in the family — you know, my math is appalling. Is it 25% different relationships? Well, you know, Freud said that every sibling has a different parent or a different mother. Every relationship — the mother has a different relationship with each child. The child has a different relationship with each other. And I think the interesting thing, for me anyway, about getting older is that you think those relationships are set in stone. But actually they’re not. There are pressures of adulthood — careers, marriages, children, mortgages, various disappointments — that exert pressure on you as a person. And those sibling relationships, and that ordering, can change and alter. And suddenly the kind of younger sibling may not want to be treated like a baby anymore. She might want to stand up for herself and say, “You know, actually, I’m an adult now.” But I think families are particularly bad about catching up with the way people change. They expect you to stay the same. But of course you don’t.

Correspondent: I have a corollary to my other question about a larger conflict of a heat wave in relation to — I believe it’s Aoife? Do I have that pretty close?

O’Farrell: Very good. Well done. Very few people get that right.

Correspondent: So Aoife — and now everyone who’s reading the book and who happens to listen to this can now know exactly how to pronounce her name! She’s drawn into this artsy New York world of 1976. Now typically, when you have a novel dealing with this world, the world itself almost becomes this separate character. Most recently we had a very notable novel here — Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowersin which critics here have been fighting on both sides of the coast. It’s kind of ridiculous. It’s gotten away from the novel. But the point is that there is this kind of political character or this sociological character that comes with the territory in writing about this period. So much happened. But what is fascinating about Aoife is that we really get to know her day-to-day dealings when she is working for Evelyn, when she is running errands. She’s trying to deal with dyslexia. And she’s trying to basically feel this broken landscape. So you’re focusing here on the nuts and bolts of the characters obviously. But I’m wondering: were you ever resisting the impulse to really have a wave of time and place, of New York, subsume Aoife and the other characters who she’s dealing with here in New York at any point during the writing? Or were you pretty much saying, “No, this is nuts and bolts. This is character. This is no nonsense. That’s what’s important. Why should this be defined exclusively by time and place?”

O’Farrell: Well, I think, as a novelist, you have to make a decision about what’s going to lead a novel and what your novel is about. I didn’t want to write a “state of the nation” book. I didn’t want to write a book so much about the politics of the 1970s, either in London or New York, which are the two locations in the book. And certainly they come into it, of course, inevitably. If you’re writing about a city, particularly about that — because I think the ’70s was a decade in both Britain and New York that was a very difficult decade for a lot of people. There was a lot of social problems, economic problems. A lot of political instability certainly in the UK. And I think you have to make a decision. And I wanted this novel to be a very, very small focus. I was almost challenging myself. I think with every book you’ve got to set yourself a new challenge. And the book I wrote previously was very, very wide-ranging. It covered fifty years in time. It went all over the world. I wanted a contrast to that. I wanted something — a very, very tight lens, a very, very tight focus. Almost the classical unities of one place.

(Loops for this program provided by Dj4Real, petitcrabe, danke, Kristijann, 40A, and mffinke.)

Categories: Fiction

Gabriel Roth (BSS #508)

Gabriel Roth is most recently the author of The Unknowns.

Play

Author: Gabriel Roth

Subjects Discussed: Leaving San Francisco for Brooklyn, observing the two dot com booms, how moving away from a city often makes you more aware of its dynamics, the benefits of isolation, National Novel Writing Month, descriptive restaurant cues, the delicate balance between invention and specific representation of a place, writing a character who is “a life support system for feelings of anxiety,” not fronting before other programmers, attempted parallels between programming code and writing prose, anxiety as literary ambiguity, My Little Pony used in flashback, brony culture, how the origins of geekdom become twisted over the course of dissemination, Maya Marcom as a loaded name, vacillating between a Bildungsroman and a social novel in the act of writing, capturing the spirit of being alive during a particular time and place, tips learned from being in an MFA program, the one-time advantages of in-state universities, reading books without understanding the mechanics behind the writing, the amount of work that a writer must do to create a vivid sensory world, systems-thinking reporting vs. the descriptive needs of fiction, the abstract nature of news writing, Bay Guardian philosophy, Bruce B. Brugmann’s “Write while you’re drunk, revise when you’re hungover” catchphrase, alt-weekly professionalism, exploring material that you are already steeped in, writing what you know vs. writing what you don’t know, what your subconscious knows, automatic writing, the revising process, ingesting drugs as a character trait, accounting for the sudden expository twist near the end of The Unknowns, repressed memory, the problems that occur after you’ve fallen in love with someone, maintaining a good-natured feel in a novel after a sexual abuse revelation, humor applied to a broader emotional spectrum, “lad lit,” Benjamin Kunkel, Nick Hornby, the glut of novels about twentysomething white males, whether style is enough to escape white male fiction trappings, judging a book by its flap copy, taking on other voices, The Orphan Master’s Son, why Roth zeroed in on Denver privilege, coming from an educated family, the help that comes from background, Eric’s lack of ideological background, selling personal data to evil corporations, characters who espouse pro-corporate values, the diminishing of principle in San Francisco, the difficulties of combining politics and fiction, the homogeneity of America’s two political cultures, the Iraq War, when people always agree, whether the idea of the overstuffed Great American Novel still applies in 2013, The Adventures of Augie March, Infinite Jest, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, critics obliged to fight over Kushner, minituarist vs. maximist fiction, and how to get a TV-obsessed culture hooked on fiction.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start off with you leaving San Francisco in 2006. I left in 2007. We both ended up in Brooklyn. And this is one of those interviews. Why didn’t we actually know each other during that decade that we were there? I’m wondering how aware you were that the City was falling apart, was being taken by the Google People, by the private buses. What caused you to flee to Brooklyn? And was this novel in some way a way of reckoning with that?

Roth: Well, I left mostly for personal reasons. I was living with a woman who is now my wife and who was starting a graduate program at Columbia.

Correspondent: Yes.

Roth: And so that was the immediate impetus for me to leave, although I had been in San Francisco for ten years. And as you probably know, ten years is a long time to spend in San Francisco.

Correspondent: I was there for thirteen.

Roth: Yeah. You start to feel that time passing under your feet a little bit. It was not yet clear in 2006 — or at least it wasn’t yet clear to me — what was going to happen with the second Internet boom and what was going to happen with the City as a result of that. I had been there since 1996. And so I had seen the first Internet boom which had sort of effloresced in the late part of the millennium and then died out very quickly in the first years of the oughts. And so I probably would have thought that any new economic activity was going to follow a similar boom and bust pattern. And now it’s not clear that that’s actually what’s going to happen. Or if there is a bust, then the City will have been pretty permanently changed and marked by the boom, it seems like.

Correspondent: Well, it is interesting. Because with the present boom underway, I remember the first one and that seemed brutal at the time. And I was very fortunate to have an apartment in which the rent had not gone up, as were many of my friends. And we somehow managed to secure apartments. Now I’m hearing reports from friends who are basically cleaving to their apartments, hoping that their building won’t be taken over and so forth. And I guess my tangent here was, if you weren’t entirely aware, does moving away from San Francisco and writing a novel actually allow you to think “Wow! All this was going on and, as shred as I was, I really wasn’t paying attention”?

Roth: Yeah. There is a certain amount of that obviously. I began the novel and I had gotten a good two thirds of the way into a draft by the time I left San Francisco. So a lot of the scenarios and the physical environment that I was describing was what was immediately around me as I was doing that first stage of writing. And then moving away — and I think this is probably true in general for writers — the act of writing is often, I think, an act of recapturing and of preserving your memories. Sort of freezing them in sentences. And I think it worked that way for me partly about the City of San Francisco and the environment around the first dot com boom, but then also about a time in my life. And of course, it’s very difficult to separate the place that you were in your early twenties from the experience of being in your early twenties.

Correspondent: Well, how so? Can you elaborate on that? It almost seems like you’re kind of mining through your own data and trying to separate it into emotion and tangible information.

Roth: Yeah. That’s absolutely right. I mean, the book is in part about San Francisco and about people working in technology and about collecting data. But then it’s also about a young man who’s preoccupied with looking for love and finding someone to be intimate with and close to. And it’s not an autobiographical book and the characters aren’t the same person as me. But that experience of being in my early twenties and really wanting to figure out how to love somebody and be loved by somebody — I was preoccupied with that for a long time. And those experiences, along with the experiences of the social world of San Francisco, are what went into the book and what got filtered through the fiction writing process and into the novel. And so there’s no way that I can say, “Oh yes. This is just a sort of satirical or an observational portrait of a little microcosm of the world.” Because it’s all wrapped up with my own subjective experience.

Correspondent: So you had two thirds of a draft before you moved here to Brooklyn. What did moving to Brooklyn produce in terms of clarity for both Eric [protagonist of The Unknowns] and for the view of San Francisco that you had?

Roth: Well, let’s see. Around the time that I moved out here, you know, I finished the MFA program at San Francisco State. I had a bunch of chapters. I was trying to figure out — I knew where the book was going to go, but I was trying to stick the landing, which is not straightforward and I think is not usually straightforward when writing a novel. And then we moved out here. And we were in our early thirties — mid-thirties even — and it was no longer a time when I would have moved to Brooklyn and gone out drinking every night or made a whole bunch of new friends. Or I wasn’t going to go out on dates. Because I was living with my girlfriend. And so moving to New York, which for many people is like stepping onto the big stage — for me, that was the time where I was a bit more isolated and I was going to work every day and getting my pages done and then coming home and eating dinner with my wife. And I think that was important in terms of finishing the thing.

Correspondent: So the isolation allowed you to finish the book.

Roth: Yeah.

Correspondent: It allowed you to come to terms with and put aside this particular part of yourself in your twenties.

Roth: Yeah. I think that’s right. It was putting a clean break on what I had been doing and what I was going to be starting to do from now on.

Correspondent: Did you have any other novels before this? I was curious.

Roth: Not that you would actually call a novel. I had like a pile of pages that I had written during National Novel Writing Month in 2003. Or something like that. That added to nothing but a pile of pages.

Correspondent: I think I remember reading one of your Bay Guardian columns. I think you wrote about it in the Bay Guardian, writing for the National Novel Writing Month.

Roth: I probably did.

Correspondent: Yeah, I remember that. I was a loyal Bay Guardian reader when I lived there. So that was you. You describe “a medium-expensive neo-Cuban restaurant with the kind of deserts that have names evocative of Catholicism” near Lazarus, your invented Valencia Street bar, which clearly evokes Cha Cha Cha. You have the photographs of tailfinned cars, which are sort of like Mel’s Drive-In, but not quite. Fiction — this is not reality. Imagination should be encouraged. But this does lead me to ask you about creating a believable San Francisco for this book. Obviously, you have to rely on things that actually exist. But are there any dangers in being too specific when you’re creating a sense of place like this? I mean, it seems that you want to alert people like me who have in fact passed and entered into Cha Cha Cha that this is indeed the San Francisco of that era. But I was curious about that fine line between telegraphing exactly what it is and just making shit up.

Roth: Yeah. I mean, I think the main issue you’re talking about is with the restaurants. Frankly, there’s a lot of restaurants. And most of the restaurants, as you point out, if you were going out to eat in the Mission in the early part of the 21st century, you’ve probably eaten in some of those restaurants. I didn’t worry about that. And I guess I think that’s fine. And if you’re reading it and you’re in the small subset of people who are going to recognize those restaurants, then hopefully that’s a sort of pleasant moment of recognition for you. Maybe it’s distracting, in which case my bad. But most people are not going to fall in that category. And I think without some amount of specificity, whether its based on real life’s specificity or completely fantastic specificity, without that, then it just becomes a generic restaurant. And the whole thing sort of looks flat. Putting in detail — in this case, often detail borrowed from actual restaurants where I ate most of my meals during the ten years I lived in San Francisco — putting in that detail hopefully gives the feeling of something that takes place in a real world that’s fully stocked with all the stuff of the real world.

Correspondent: But it is your world. It is Eric’s world. And I guess my question is not so much, “Ah! I’m going to go through The Unknowns and cut and paste all those phrases and put them on Yelp.” That’s not what I’m talking about.

Roth: (laughs)

Correspondent: What I am talking about is the idea that this is fiction. It does require invention. It is not going to be a pure 100% depiction of San Francisco. So where do you deviate between that specificity and just inventing something that doesn’t exist but is real enough for the reader to believe, whether the reader be from San Francisco or the reader be from somewhere else?

Roth: Yeah. I mean, really, it depends on the needs of the particular paragraph. You know what I mean? And what comes to my mind as I’m writing it. If, let’s say again, there’s a restaurant where I’m sending the two characters and I need to envision it, you know how sometimes in your dreams or your fantasies, sometimes there will be a place that doesn’t really exist. And sometimes all of the events will transpire in a place that does exist, but those things never happen there. Or it’s a place that does exist, only now they’re serving vegetarian food instead of Mexican food. And writing a novel seems to me exactly the same process. That you borrow these elements from the real world, but unless you’re writing a novel that’s just a direct transposition of real life — which this certainly isn’t — the filtering process is going to transform it to whatever degree is necessary.

Correspondent: So Eric describes himself to Maya as “a life support system for feelings of anxiety. The anxiety is the organism and I am the habitat.” Yet he tells his story in this book much like a programmer, almost as if he’s writing clean lines of code. The habitat of this book may indeed describe anxieties, but it seems like it’s reliant more upon nouns and adjectives rather than verbs. And I was curious about this. Did you impose any kind of stylistic ordinance upon your character to push his anxieties beneath the text? I mean, verbs are certainly the way that we absolutely spill out our emotion. And yet he seems to not use them as such. I’m wondering if this was something you were conscious of or whether it was designed or emerged through revision or what not.

Roth: That’s interesting. I certainly don’t, when I’m writing, think in terms of parts of speech like that. I’m not a sufficiently programmatic writer to be able to do that. I don’t think it would help me. I’m sure there’s some people for whom that would be a useful way to think about things. I do think — and the sentence that you quote is a good example of this — you know, he’s out on a date with this girl and she says to him — he says something that seems uptight or anxious and she says, “Do you consider yourself an anxious person?” And he says, “I consider myself a life support system for anxieties. The anxiety is the organism and I’m the habitat.” And on one hand, to some extent, that’s an accurate description. But on the other hand, hopefully on a date, that’s the clever thing to say. That’s sort of witty and self-deprecating, but also a self-revealing thing to say to a girl who you’re trying to make fall in love with you. And rather than imposing a restriction on Eric’s speech, I think of that character as being both messed up in all of these ways and having these real psychological difficulties, making life really difficult for him, and at the same time being to some useful degree self-aware about that and able to talk about and, as in that example, able to present it and able to sublimate it into a self-presentation that hopefully is a little charming and a little attractive and that Maya at least responds to. And hopefully, to some extent, the reader will respond to it in that way as well. He is an anxious person and he is a self-conscious person and yet his self-awareness about those things enables him to defuse their effects a little bit.

(Loops for this program provided by Dj4Real, chefboydee, and hamood.)

Categories: Fiction

Anchee Min (BSS #507)

Anchee Min is most recently the author of The Cooked Seed.

Play

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: Caligula!

Min: Yeah.

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.

Correspondent: (laughs)

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.

(Loops for this program provided by Jorge Daniel Ramirez, danke, MaMaGBeats, ShortBusMusic, kingADZ12, djmfl, and R01D.)

Categories: People

Roxana Robinson (BSS #503)

Roxana Robinson is most recently the author of Sparta.

Play

Author: Roxana Robinson

Subjects Discussed: The New York Times as a source of inspiration, writing a novel with a sense of time, the 2008 economic crash, the fate of the millennial generation, ailing veterans who are overlooked by society at large, unemployment, focusing exclusively on educated characters, writing about subjects you don’t know, talking with vets, being fair when using stories, Donovan Campbell’s Joker One, not using traumatic experience to preserve trust, distinctions between journalism and fiction writing, being terrified of white sedans, fear and panic triggers, why there isn’t a universal common experience among soldiers, getting to know a fictitious character’s family, the desire to visit Iraq, the need for embedded novelists, the present state of Iraq tourism, staying silent on creative details, playing tennis in inflatable courts, Ian McEwan’s unwillingness to discuss his current project, how giving away information on your latest project destroys momentum, whether self-preservation is an admirable choice in digital culture, setting Sparta in Katonah, New York, why houses are important in novels, celebrating a landscape that you love, why it’s essential to use an exact floor plan, Conrad’s miserable experiences in restaurants, California restaurant culture vs. New York City restaurant culture, not remembering the name of a restaurant but remembering the layout, Conrad vs. Joseph Conrad, how to relate the experience of returning to the States after four years of combat, celebrity magazines having more impact on American culture than soldiers, comparisons between Vietnam vets returning home and Iraq vets returning home, soldiers who are invisible, when all of America understands we did the wrong thing, why “Thank you for your service” is the wrong thing to say to a veteran, how to connect with a vet, having nothing but your military training to rely upon when moving forward in contemporary culture, women who tolerate patient aggressive behavior, avoiding female characters who are emotional doormats, balancing the need to advance the narrative with characters who serve in some ways as instruments, macroeconomics classes, difficult GMAT questions, Georgia O’Keeffe, similarities between Conard and O’Keeffe, unintended inspiration from significant artistic figures, biography vs. fiction, Conrad’s concern for cleanliness, intense shaving scenes in fiction, Marine culture and personal appearance, calls and responses, rage and depersonalization, minor quibbles from Heller McAlpin, vets and therapists, and the Marshall Plan.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: My understanding is that this book started with you reading a front page article in The New York Times in 2005 or 2006. But to my mind, Sparta seems to be more than that. It’s almost a response to certain socioeconomic conditions. Because what Conrad — this Marine returning from Iraq — has to go through is very similar to what a lot of unemployed men have to go through. There’s also the faint suggestion that this is the great terrible horror story right before the 2008 economic crash with the apartment near the end. So I’m wondering to what extent this became a response to conditions in the latter Bush years and how this tied into your research and getting this massive project started. Just to start off here.

Robinson: (laughs) Okay. Yes, as you are aware, it came about because I read an article in The New York Times. It was about our troops in Iraq and how they were given unarmed vehicles in which to drive and to go on patrols with, and how they were being blown up by IEDs and suffering traumatic brain injuries, which were then not diagnosed and treated. In my head, it wasn’t part of this economic crisis. I wasn’t really focusing on that and I think when I began to pay attention, it was before that happened. And what I’m talking about really isn’t the same as people losing jobs. Because this is a kind of transformation. And, of course, you’re right that someone who hasn’t a job has lost some essential part of himself or herself — if that’s been part of his life up until then. But this is different. Going to war, being trained for war, and being at war, and then coming back and being part of a community that has no understanding and no ability to enter into your own experience — that’s different.

Correspondent: Maybe a way of approaching this question — because there is, in fact, this Go-Go guy shows up near the end. There is mention of predatory lending. There is mention of securitization. It leads me to wonder whether when you’re taking on any kind of novel project, you need to actually have that sense of place. Because one of the reasons why this book extended beyond a mere character study was largely because I felt very much that I was reliving the last term of the Bush Administration. Warts and all, by the way. So this is why I’m asking. Was it really just a matter of talking to all of these vets — and visiting, I presume, the VA hospitals — to get a sense of time? How does a sense of time factor into developing this book?

Robinson: Yeah, that’s very interesting. You’re right. I do want to make sure when I’m writing a book that every part of it works. So when I place it, I usually set my books in the very recent past. A year or so. And it’s often quite hard to track down exactly what was going on. We all have a telescopic sense of time. So it’s hard to know exactly what happened. But yes I was very aware of the economy and how Conard’s generation shifted from happy-go-lucky guys into bundled assets and insider trading and all of that. That turned into an avalanche of bad debt and bad conscience. And yes, it was part of the way America had been led and led astray. And one was in Iraq and one was at home. So you’re right. You’re right. It’s just that I didn’t think of him as being someone who was without a job. But certainly you’re right about the whole ethos of America during that period.

Correspondent: I think the parallel I draw between Conrad’s situation and the scenario of many unemployed people of both genders is that we have increasingly moved, thanks to the Bush Administration, into a culture where those who seek help feel shameful of it, are not permitted to actually pursue it, are prohibited by funds. You’re supposed to tough it out. And the parallel I drew between Conrad and many unemployed people I know — who I’ve been on telephone support with — was substantial. Especially when he has this terrifying ordeal in the VA hospital where he’s told, “Well, you have to wait three months.” And he has a serious problem to take care of. So this leads me again to go back to this idea of looking at a situation — whether it be a heroin addict in Cost or whether it be a soldier returning back from Haditha in Sparta. Does focusing in on one angle of America allow you to tackle its many ills and to expose these common conditions that were putting our heads in the sand here over?

Robinson: Yeah. I’m always interested in consequences. And so when I explore one thing, I am always fascinated to see if there’s a network of fault lines leading out from whatever the central issue is. Cost is certainly not an indictment of anything. It’s simply an examination of a problem that’s more widespread than I understood when I started that project. And in Sparta, I was incredibly troubled to understand what we were doing to our troops at the time. I never supported the war. I never thought we should go there. It was more troubling to learn that there were not weapons of mass destruction and that there never had been. And so I wanted to bear witness to what it was like for one of our soldiers to go there and then to come back. And that exploration illuminates one part of the American experience for me.

Correspondent: Sure. Well, on this subject, I’m curious to ask you about the fact that the last two books take place in upper and middle-class environments and present an underexposed issue in both cases. And this leads me to wonder whether you’re trying to target a particular type of literary audience who may not in fact read the newspapers or the magazines or who may want to keep their heads in the sands. Is it your goal as a novelist to get otherwise erudite people to open their eyes a little bit by this socioeconomic setting? To really look into problems that they may not otherwise pay attention to? Especially in this culture right now, where it’s +1 everything and we’re supposed to like everything and we’re supposed to turn away anytime there is anything that is unsettling.

Robinson: I don’t really have a target audience. I don’t think in those terms. I’m a novelist. I’m not a journalist. I’m really not trying to persuade people of anything. As I say, I’m just bearing witness. And this particular part of society is the one that I know best. Educated people, not particularly rich, but who come from modest backgrounds. But they’re all educated. That’s sort of the main connection between all the books that I have written. But am I trying to tell a certain audience how to think?

Correspondent: Not necessarily how to think. But more exposing their eyes to the fact that, look, this problem is not going to go away. These people, they may be in your family. They may actually knock upon your door. You can’t just continue to read about, I suppose, domestic couples who are committing adultery. You know what I mean?

Robinson: Right. Well, yes, I’m not interested in easy targets. So the problems that draw my attention are ones that I find really compelling and really disturbing. I don’t know who my audience is. I’m not trying to reach a particular audience by choosing the people I do tend to write about. But there are always subjects that I find really troubling. And so if other people do, that’s great. But these are things that become very, very compelling to me.

Correspondent: So you are drawing upon your own background and you’re trying to just step outside of it so that you can understand another aspect of humanity, whether it be drug addiction or vets or that sort of thing.

Robinson: Yeah. I mean, I think that writing about subjects you don’t know is really important for a writer. Writing about circles and communities that are not your own is really risky. Because you’re going to get so many things wrong. So many signals. And so I’m not saying I would never do it. But I’m much more interested in exploring an idea and the way it reveals itself in a community than I am in trying to interpose myself in a community that I don’t know.

(Loops for this program provided by chefboydee, Keishh, MaMaGBeats, and Reed1415.)

Categories: Fiction

Elliott Holt (BSS #500)

Elliott Holt is most recently the author of You Are One of Them.

Play

Author: Elliott Holt

Subjects Discussed: Confusion on what word to emphasize in the book’s title, Elizabeth Bishop, Holt’s stint at ACT in San Francisco, the comparisons and differences between acting and writing, being a failed playwright, reading aloud your work for revision, Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman, Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three, Samantha Smith, writing an introvert based almost exclusively on what she sees and avoiding the interior monologue, smugglers who deliver KFC to Gaza through tunnels, hooking Russians on Coca-Cola, having to answer to the Coca-Cola Company in Dr. Strangelove, the weak perception of Boris Yeltsin, Yeltsin’s 1994 “Truth Decree” in advertising, creating an enemy to define yourself, Cold War cola wars, memorizing slogans to survive, Holt’s experience working as an ad agency in Moscow, the dreadful term “creatives,” Russian cigarettes, trading one form of propaganda for another, characters who are defined by advertising, child ambassadors who become branded, the joys of decrepit Moscow, why Russia is hooked on dichotomies, when mapping personal identity is obstructed by societal forces, how people spill their stories to friends and therapists and what the novel offers in return, Alice Munro, hating the Eagles, why Moscovites love “Hotel California,” Russian accents, Boris and Natasha, church vs. George, the adventures of Holt’s mother in Russia, The Moscow Rules, The International Spy Museum, conveying international calls through brackets and ellipses, having no real designs on journalism, Hollywood cliches in Russia, what people associate with Russia, taking author photographs of Reif Larsen, hanging out at the Propaganda nightclub in Moscow, nude men swimming in fish tanks, Russians on American cleanliness, menacing babushkas who enforce cleanliness in the shower, getting use to being reprimanded by Russians, cultures driven by superstition, the Russian notion of “????” (i.e., soul), being deemed a “star of tomorrow” by New York, being paralyzed by pronouncement, people who feel resentful towards those who are successful, and whether it’s okay to hate other writers.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I did some research and found that you had gone to ACT in San Francisco.

Holt: How did you find that out?

Correspondent: Oh, I have my ways.

Holt: Oh god.

Correspondent: And this is interesting. So you had an acting career at some point.

Holt: I did.

Correspondent: Roughly at the time that I was there. And I was making these short films and plays. And I’m wondering why we didn’t actually run into each other.

Holt: That’s so funny. I did go to ACT in San Francisco. I was a drama major in college.

Correspondent: Oh!

Holt: I went to Kenyon. I was in lots and lots of plays.

Correspondent: That explains why all your answers are in iambic pentameter.

Holt: I was in a lot of plays in college. And I wrote some plays in college. They were terrible. But I think because I took playwriting and read a lot of — I read Aristotle’s Poetics and I read a lot of plays by Pinter and Beckett and Mamet. And I think I was a terrible playwright. I thought I would like playwriting because I had been writing fiction since I was a little kid and one of the things I always liked about fiction writing was dialogue. And so I thought that because I liked to write dialogue, it would be fun to write plays.

Correspondent: Were any of your plays performed?

Holt: Well, my two best friends from college and I — they actually are playwrights. They’re really good playwrights. They’re working playwrights. But when we were in college, we had a student theater group. And we sort of staged our own short plays in those kinds of black box theater. I never staged any full-length thing. There were some scenes I wrote. But anyway, the point is that I was actually a terrible playwright. But I think reading all those plays helped my fiction writing. Because I think I have a really strong sense of subtext and of the importance of scenes as opposed to just interiority. So I think it helped me as a fiction writer, but I was a really bad playwright.

Correspondent: Do you still have any kind of performance quality when you are conjuring up a scene or getting in the head, in this case, of Sarah Zuckerman? I mean, did you feel..

Holt: You mean when I’m writing?

Correspondent: When you’re writing. Do you have to perform sometimes to pinpoint her voice?

Holt: No. I don’t perform. I do think that, when I’m writing, it’s not so different from when I was acting in the sense that I’m really imagining my way into the head of someone. But it’s not like I read things aloud. I think I have a good ear as a reader. And I am very sensitive to modulations in tone when I’m reading fiction. So I think I do hear the language while I’m writing. But I’m not reading it out loud. I mean, later, when I have a full draft, I’ll read it out loud to sort of hear the spots that I think would work. But…

Correspondent: Do you read the whole book? Because Laura Lippman, I know, does that too.

Holt: Yeah. And it helps. You really hear the weak sentences. But, no, not while I’m writing. I’m not performing anything. But yes, I do think in terms of scenes. And I’m sure that’s because I’ve read a lot of plays.

Correspondent: Well, since you have very kindly stepped into the fray of this revived Bat Segundo, I’m going to have to give you one of these massive Bat Segundo questions on your book, which I very much enjoyed.

Holt: Okay.

Correspondent: So this book reminded me of two specific masterpieces. Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, of course. Because we have Nathan Zuckerman and Sarah Zuckerman. But not just that. Also the whole thing with Jennifer Jones reminded me of that Anne Frank situation in The Ghost Writer.

Holt: Oh, that’s so funny. I didn’t even…

Correspondent: And then of course, I have to ask you about Billy Wilder’s masterpiece One, Two, Three. Especially since Coca-Cola is here. You’ve got the whole Russia thing. And I’m wondering. Do you need to have partial narrative frameworks — like, in this case, The Ghost Writer or One Two Three, possibly — in order to pinpoint Sarah’s life in this case? Because there’s a good chunk of the mid-section where it’s pretty much Sarah just kind of thinking. And we’re in her head. And then we go back to the plot. So it’s almost like sometimes you adopt narrative frameworks with which to provide Sarah some momentum and with which to provide the reader a good sense of steering the life along a kind of track. And then it kind of dissembles. And then it kind of reattaches again. And I’m really curious about that.

Holt: Dissembles.

Correspondent: Yes. Absolutely. So I’m curious, first of all, were these two masterpieces inspiration for you?

Holt: No.

Correspondent: No? Not at all?

Holt: I’ve never seen One, Two, Three.

Correspondent: You have not seen One, Two, Three!*

Holt: No.

Correspondent: It’s Jimmy Cagney!

Holt: I’ve never seen it. And I love Billy Wilder.

Correspondent: Oh my god.

Holt: I’ve never seen One, Two, Three.

Correspondent: This moves at a machine gun pace. And it has Coca-Cola and Soviet relations at the hub. And paternal stuff. There’s a lot of paternal stuff in [your book].

Holt: No, I’ve never seen it. And actually I think I read The Ghost Writer in college. I love Philip Roth, but I haven’t read The Ghost Writer in a long time. My favorite Roth books that I love the most are American Pastoral and The Human Stain. And I love Portnoy’s. It’s like such a great first book. No, I wasn’t conscious. I think on some intuitive level, I knew I was playing games by naming her Zuckerman in a Roth thing. But I wasn’t thinking about The Ghost Writer. What I was thinking about in terms of — no, I didn’t have the conscious narrative frame. I was inspired by Samantha Smith. So I had a historical — I had history to play with. So I had some history as a frame. And I think, otherwise, no, it wasn’t like there was a conscious frame that I was working towards. I mean, I don’t want to give too much away. But, to me, this is a book about history, personal and cultural. And the obsessive nature of grief. And I think this is a narrator who has a kind of fantasy about doing her past over or getting to see this person that she hasn’t seen in a long time. And she’s really susceptible to a lot of things when she gets to the former Soviet Union. Because there are things she wants to believe. And she gets kind of caught up in her own little spy story in her mind for a while. Because that’s her association with Russia and she wants to.

Correspondent: Sure. On that subject, I was really keen to talk with you about the way you capture Sarah’s introverted nature. Which is a little different from other books. Because it’s almost as if we can get inside her social reservations by way of what she observes in Moscow and the very specific details. It’s almost as if that exists as a way for you to not necessarily inhabit the full nature of her head. She’s taking things in. She’s trying to actually figure out how this relates to her own identity and how this relates to Jennifer Jones, this girlhood friend who has disappeared. She’s trying to make complete sense of this. But she’s doing so by merely bouncing off of the sights that she observes in the regular world. And I’m wondering. Did you feel that you wanted to avoid this almost interior monologue or descent into someone’s head? Because, most of the time, when we read an introvert in fiction — especially in, say, A.L. Kennedy novels — we’re totally inside that head. Which is fine. But in your case, you don’t always go there. And in fact, we don’t actually see what becomes of her until very late in the game when we see some more present day memories. Aspects of her life that are later. And I wanted to ask you about that.

Holt: Well, I don’t think it’s a conscious decision. This is probably just — I probably write the way I do because of the kind of writers I love to read. I mean, Chekhov did exactly that. You have a sense of the character more from what the character is observing than from anything else. And I think the other thing about this book is that Sarah is a character who has spent her life thinking of herself as a footnote in someone else’s story. Kind of playing martyr. And in this book, this is finally when she tells the story herself. But she’s not the most reliable narrator. I mean, she is still evasive in some ways. And I don’t know. But I guess what I’m saying is that it’s, for me, a pretty intuitive process. So it’s not like I thought, “Okay, this is a character whose introvertedness is only going to be revealed by what she observes.” I mean, I think it’s just the way I write. And I think it’s more to do with the kind of books that I love most.

* — Warning to Listener: This moment, featured at the 9:22 mark of the show, has the Correspondent responding to Ms. Holt in a very high-pitched and enthusiastic timbre. The Correspondent apologizes, but he cannot fathom going through life without watching One, Two, Three, a delightful film that you should watch immediately.

Categories: Fiction

Jack Butler (BSS #499)

This one hour radio special is the first in a series of “at-large” conversations presently categorized under the old “Bat Segundo” label. It features a rare interview with Jack Butler, author of Jujitsu for Christ, a highly underrated novel that has recently been reissued by the University Press of Mississippi.

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Author: Jack Butler

Subjects Discussed: Moving west over a lifetime, having a double bachelor’s in English and math, the yin-yang existence, reading science fiction as a boy, why the stars are so inspirational in the Delta, using the Holy Ghost as a narrative device, Lautréamont, narratives within the Bible, Ulysses and The Waste Land, theological implications within fables, Finnegans Wake, speaking in tongues, starting a book with only 60 pages, becoming an accidental novelist, the poet’s life, the strange yet highly modest financial incentives of novels, the Judo for Christ Club, Tom LeClair and “prodigious fiction”, comparing novels with a 7-Layer Burritos, how to present information within a story, the College of Santa Fe, Los Angeles as a source of escape, why Butler’s fiction left the South, writers who become unintentional spokesmen for the South, not being bound by assumptions, “authentic” vs. “smart,” Eudora Welty, Faulkner, science fiction and Southern literature as lowbrow inspirational territory, literary authors who scavenge from genre and write unsuccessful novels, how genre can be used to write meaningfully about humanity, African-American stereotypes, caricatures, missed opportunities because of bigotry, living in shanties, common experience, scavenging from comics and used books to form a borrowed bedrock of knowledge, the character “Jack Butler” in Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock, “autobiographical fiction,” the neediness of novelists, combating desperation in a world that increasingly devalues risk-taking authors who don’t sell, Bum Festrich modeled on the Clarion-Ledger‘s Tom Etheridge, using racist newspaper rhetoric as an unsettling guide for fictional perspective, writing about sex, religious blasphemy vs. sexual blasphemy, Hugh Hefner’s philosophy vs. the Baptists, being part of the way actuality goes, why religion in fiction often causes the author to create a comparative ideological construct to present contrast, gay rights, the Belgian Malinois making mysterious noises in the back, corporeal collision in debut novels, approaching the holy through the material, chalk talks, tragicomic side characters, when the ABA voted Jujitsu worst title, mixing the funny with the repulsive, writing about humidity in Mississippi, massive IBM clone computers in the 1980s, writing a book on a 400 pound computer, slowing down writing speed, whether or not a writer needs a sense of compulsion, chasing down a locale in one great shot, allowing the reader to experience life as Butler saw it, The Illumination of Elijah Lee Roswell, what happened with Butler’s agent, the dangers of writing with the idea of money in mind, the virtues of academics, forbidden styles, the benefits of rebellion, people who sell out, and clearing the head of extraneous voices.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to first of all talk about how you got your start. You were a poet before you were a fiction writer. And I also know that you have a bachelor’s in English and a bachelor’s in math. And I was wondering. How does a guy like you have the yin-yang thing going on here? It seems that you have a yin-yang thing in terms of what you studied and what you ended up doing as a writer.

Butler: Yeah. A lot of that — at least as far as math and the arts go — is that I loved science fiction as a kid. I used to read it all the time. Most of it is literarily horrible. But I was in a Baptist conservatory in Mississippi and they weren’t really aware of science fiction. So that was something I could get away with and what I really loved was just the ability to speculate. You know, that the world might be different from what was right around you. For pretty obvious reasons. But I’ve always been interested in mathematics. I think one of the sad things about our culture is that we have such a dichotomy set up between art and science or math. I mean, the two things I say that people are most afraid of are poetry and mathematics.

Correspondent: Yeah. How has math and poetry encouraged you to speculate? Both in terms of your imagination and in terms of, for example, books like Nightshade?

Butler: I guess it’s just that they give me the tools. I’m pretty picky about details, even though I do get some things wrong. Just in case there’s anybody listening, I’m not a medical person at all and I gave the exact opposite cure for angina. I said digitalis. And that will kill you. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs)

Butler: Aside from that, I had to not only get the gravity of Mars right. I had to allow for it in every action. Which you just don’t really see very much. So it’s more nearly that it’s given me the tools to do what I’m psychologically inclined to do.

Correspondent: So with science fiction, do you feel that it’s that speculative nature that really makes it fiction or meaningful? That this was the drive for you when you were growing up reading a lot of it as a boy, as a young man. That kind of thing?

Butler: Yeah, right. And as I said in the interview with Brannon (PDF), I believe, the Delta had a big wide sky. Because of all the flatland and not too many trees. So in spite of the humidity, you could really see the stars. And I loved the stars. That got me going on that.

Correspondent: Your first three novels (Jujitsu for Christ, Nightshade, and Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock) all feature some intriguing narrative mode somewhere between direct first person and a quite literally godlike omniscient voice. It almost reminds me, to some degree, of Lautréamont’s narrator in the way that you suggest to the reader that the narrator has lived and this allows the narrator to share some experience with the reader. And I’m wondering. Why did you need this particular type of halfway narrator to tell a story for these first three books?

Butler: Well, I’ll go back to — it’s not really an anecdote, but when I first thought of having the Holy Ghost — and I hasten to add that I mean this as a model of the Holy Ghost. I’m not pretending to represent the actual thing, if it even exists. But it’s like what Wallace Stevens said. “Not as a god, but as a god might be.” Well, not as the Holy Ghost, but as the Holy Ghost might be. And I couldn’t believe that nobody had ever picked up on it. You had the ability to have both first-person narration and a justified reason to switch personas. It was wonderful. And, of course, I got all that Holy Ghost stuff, a lot of it, growing up. It was drilled into me. So it was a chance to play with that a little bit. The Holy Ghost is narrator in Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock, but one of the main problems with Westernized Christianity is that we don’t have a trickster god. And of the candidates, I felt the Holy Ghost was the best candidate for that. So the Holy Ghost is kind of a trickster there. As for the other, one of the things I really like to think about is the nature of individuals. The nature of the individual. Mind. And so playing on narrators lets me play on that.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if this reflects any kind of storytelling you heard growing up. That when people told you stories, either around the house or around the town, that people were telling you the absolute truth or perhaps inserting their own asides. Was it something like that?

Butler: Well, it’s true that people love anecdotes in the South. I think I’ve really gotten more of my tendencies from the fact that my father stood up in the pulpit every week and talked. So that’s always seemed to me to be a natural thing to do. And like you point out, there were a lot of things that didn’t scan for me with the stories I was told. And the Bible, it’s stories. I love the Bible. But I view it as a library, not as a book. It was written over several hundred years, maybe a thousand or more, by different people with different conceptions. And it’s more fascinating as a narrative than anything else. So my storytelling probably had more to do with that. But there’s a background nature that Southerners in general love language and they love to tell stories and there’s a premium put on wit. So I think that was so naturalized without thinking of it.

Correspondent: So if the Bible is a library, what is the Ulysses or The Waste Land of the Bible?

Butler: Well, it’s more beautiful than The Waste Land. Ecclesiastes is one of the more beautiful things ever written in my opinion and it’s very much — not quite nihilistic, but Ecclesiastes very plainly does not countenance belief in an afterlife. It says people are just like grass. Like the grass of the fields. We come from the same kind of place and we go to the same kind of place when we die. Nobody imagines a heaven for grass. So if we’re the same as grass, that has a lot of theological implications.

Categories: Fiction

Paula Bomer II (BSS #481)

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

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

Author: Paula Bomer

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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

Correspondent: (laughs)

Bomer: …from most hyperbolic journalism.

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

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

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

Bomer: I was a little shocked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: I figured there was!

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

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

Bomer: Yeah. Empty nest syndrome!

Correspondent: The empty nest syndrome.

Bomer: Oh my god. It’s not a joke.

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

Bomer: Also, everybody’s different.

Correspondent: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bomer: Definitely.

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

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

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

Bomer: Your regret.

Correspondent: Genuine contrition, yeah.

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

Correspondent: Don’t we all? (laughs)

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

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

Bomer: Well….(pause)

Correspondent: (laughs) Or can you share?

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

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

Categories: Fiction

Tayari Jones II (BSS #395)

Tayari Jones is most recently the author of Silver Sparrow. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #99.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Resisting the creative death knell kickstarted by marketing forces.

Author: Tayari Jones

Subjects Discussed: The limitless stories contained within any one city, writing about Atlanta, not living in a place you’re writing about, unanticipated shifts in character perspective midway through a massive project, numerous tips from Ron Carlson, tapping out a voice, writing a last chapter from every character, the origins of Raleigh, Hemingway’s iceberg theory, inventing an extended family and ambiguity, the two types of writers, working things out on the page, finding the story from a large bundle of pages, James’s stammering, being attracted to characters who are autonomous entrepreneurs, American fiction’s failings in depicting work, bigamists, how fathers are evaluated, whether bigamy is a pack of lies, taking lines from ridiculous ex-boyfriends, perspectives guided by time and situation, [12]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I also wanted to ask you about James’s stuttering. This was a very interesting character quality. Because here’s a man who has two wives and it seems almost as if he’s stuttering wives. And so I’m curious about when the stuttering entered into the equation of his character. Was it there all along? Or did it come as you were writing the dialogue?

Jones: James always had a stammer. I knew that I didn’t want him to be like a smooth operator. Two wives, two kids. I wanted him to be kind of an awkward person and, in a way, with his two wives an embarrassment of riches. He can’t believe he had one wife. Now he has two wives. So his stammer just came as this kind of awkwardness for him. I don’t remember coming up with it. It’s always been a part of him. I mean, one of the things that came later for him was his profession as a driver. And that came later. He needed something to do. And he needed something to do that would allow him to have these two wives. And I was thinking, “Oh, he’s a driver.” And I liked the idea of him being an entrepreneur. I think I’m attracted in stories — because I have one in Leaving Atlanta — of these men who are their own bosses. They’re not rich. But they’re their own bosses. This kind of autonomous man.

Correspondent: The self-made man. Exactly.

Jones: And they get written up in their local paper in small articles. Like they have lives to be proud of. But they’re not rich. And I like my characters to work. I like my characters to have jobs. I hate the way that in so much of American fiction you have no idea how these people are supporting themselves. Every person in this story has a job.

Correspondent: Or worse yet, you have the protagonist as a writer or an artist or some sort of stand-in for the actual writer who’s writing.

Jones: Or you give them some crazy inheritance.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Jones: So that the story can happen. You need your character to take a nine year trip. But you have to give them an inheritance to take the trip. Which makes them in a different class. I think that real stories happen as people work. I know my life is happening. And I work every day. So I like to write characters as well.

Correspondent: This also leads me to ask. Did you contact any bigamists? Whether past or present practitioners?

Jones: No, no. I don’t know any bigamists. But you know, the thing about people having these half-siblings who share a father, I know a lot of people who have called them silver sparrows. I know a lot of silver sparrows. And I have talked to a number of them. Everywhere I go, I meet one. Since this book has not even been out, since it’s been in the world and people know it exists, I get emails from people that say, “I’m a silver sparrow. My father had another family.” And I’m interested in this idea of how do you evaluate a father. Because there are a lot of men with more than one set of children. And the different children have a different relationship. Just the other day at the Florida festival, a woman said to me that she had written on Facebook her status on Father’s Day. You know, “Happy Father’s Day to my amazing dad. La la la la.” And she saw her sister, who has the same father and a different mother. And for her status, she wrote, “I never had a father because the coward wasn’t there.” And it’s the same man. Is he a good man or not? How do you judge him? Do you judge him the way that he treats his best child? The way he behaves best? The way he behaves worst? Do you come up with an arithmetic mean? What do you do? So many people have this issue.

Correspondent: You approach bigamy from the vantage point of “This is a pack of lies.” On the other hand, what is a novelist but someone who also promulgates a pack of lies? Who is worse? A novelist or a bigamist?

Jones: I did not say that this bigamy is a pack of lies! I think I approach this bigamy as practical. He’s not lying to everybody. He’s not lying to his second wife. So it’s not a pack of lies. It’s a pack that involves lies.

Categories: Fiction

Andrew O’Hagan (BSS #372)

Andrew O’Hagan is most recently the author of The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Feeling sartorially inadequate and unwilling to beg for his dinner from the table.

Author: Andrew O’Hagan

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: It is interesting. You want to have the dog smarter than everybody else in the book. And this leads me to ask you about the footnotes in this. I mean, from a formalistic standpoint, well, we view dogs at our feet. And the footnotes, of course, reflect that particular —

O’Hagan: And the dog’s always going to love footnotes because they can identify the position.

Correspondent: Exactly. But initially many of these footnotes are there to clarify little cultural tidbits. Almost gossip. Like: What is Douglas Sirk’s real name? But as we read the footnotes more, they then become very concerned with clarifying specific facts. Almost in a hectoring tone towards the reader. I’m curious about how the footnotes came to be from just this tonal shift that goes throughout the book, and also if you were tempted to allow the footnotes to go maybe further than eight lines at some point. What did you do to keep that down?

O’Hagan: Well, it’s interesting that. If I had my own way, if I lived in a world of pure O’Haganism, then the footnotes would have gone on for volumes and have a Shandy-ian or Borgesian nightmare where the footnotes were longer than the book. I like the comic potential with that sort of thing. And I like the idea that this was a work of bricolage, as the French would say. That it was an attempt to build up phenomenon in the reader’s mind. Which could increase their confidence about what consciousness was. Cause after all, this was really a book about inventing the notion of consciousness for an animal. I built it up from the ground up. And he does say early in that process of life for him — quite early in the book when he’s still in England — he says, “Dogs love digression.” So it made it natural to me that at some point he would start to deploy the footnote. Which is nothing if not a little contained digressionette. I liked the idea that he would occasionally stop the narrative in order to point something out to the reader. To wag a finger or a paw and give a notion of other worlds of knowledge which might be available. Maybe while pointing towards. He’s a friendly little scholar as much as anything else. He’s a pedant too. And all these things are exciting character traits of his to me. So I had to make him stay in character. And it would be in his character to offer footnotes. Even ones that were hectoring or were strictly unnecessary. They add to the entertainment value overall, I feel.

Correspondent: But to go back to what we were discussing earlier about the comedy vs. the tragedy, and how this reflects human life, early on in the book Maf says in one of these footnotes, “Unlike humans, we can hear what people are saying from themselves. And we can sniff illusion.” Later you have Maf finding “the real difference between humans is that some care about authenticity and some don’t care at all.” Why must the humans in this book be so tied or interconnected with authenticity and illusion?

O’Hagan: Because I think it’s an utterly 20th century obsession. The mid-20th century obsession particularly. Hollywood having held such a position in cultural life the world over. American moviemaking created a sensibility in the 20th century. It didn’t just reflect sensibilities. It actually created a mind set. A notion of natural human behavior and democracy, which I often think was illusory too. But then it was very attractive to the world. Very viable. And I knew that this dog was going to be having its life at the center of that. So I wanted these questions — illusion and reality, illusion dipping into delusion, our condition of being overwhelmed by fakery almost — to be something that the dog had an inside view on. An inside view for a number of reasons: (1) Which is that he’s a novelist at heart. And novelists really know what illusion is all about. We are a conjuring artist as a novelist. You’re playing god with lives and experiences and parts of history and vocality and patterns of speech. You know, you are a trickster. And I think that I’ve always been interested in that fact. And I wanted this little avatar of mine. This little novelist manqué, of Maf the Dog, to be somebody who could look at not only the world of Hollywood and psychoanalysis and politics and the early 60s from an insider’s view — which Maf certainly had. The real dog was in all of those worlds with Marilyn at the time. She was a real figure who had very deep experience of illusion. And I wanted to manipulate that for the reader to present an opportunity to look at the relationship between reality and imagination in a fresh way.

Categories: Fiction

David Mitchell III (BSS #350)

David Mitchell is most recently the author of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #1 — the very program that started it all — along with a two-part podcast from 2006 (Show #54 and Show #55).

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Annoyed by hotel security.

Author: David Mitchell

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Mitchell: I think of words as vehicles that convey what is in my imagination into someone else’s. And we’re sort of in a dialogue. Because they don’t just replicate what’s in the imagination. They can alter it. You can mistype and you get a word that actually can be better than the one you meant. Words can feed back and suggest to the imagination, “Well, would it be neater if you imagine this instead?” Language itself is a kind of a writing partner, separate to the writer, who is deploying the language. I think. I think this is true. Has that answered your question?

Correspondent: It sort of does. Actually, there’s one thing I wanted to ask you and that is with Orito. You investigate the flashback of her sexual assault. Yet in the shrine, we don’t really see the true horror of what’s going on. I mean, granted it’s from Orito’s perspective. But I’m wondering why you didn’t really go into what was happening. I mean, she could have observed the engifting. I mean, it sounds horrific in terms of a “what is not seen” standpoint. To use a cinematic idea. But I’m wondering why you didn’t go full-borne. Or if there was a draft where you did in fact go into that dark territory and it proved just too disturbing? I don’t know.

Mitchell: I didn’t know how to do a sex scene that involved engiftment for it to not stink of misogyny. And as a male writer, that’s even worse. You know, in blunt terms, if you can ever hear a writer jerking off as he’s writing, then that’s it. Then the book’s dead. That’s a crude thing to have said.

Correspondent: You can say whatever crude things you like here.

Mitchell: But it’s what I meant. And you kind of know what I mean.

Correspondent: Yeah, I do. But on the other hand, you are dealing with an age from centuries ago where it was in fact a very misogynistic atmosphere.

Mitchell: Oh certainly. Certainly!

Correspondent: You certainly get a lot of that in the book. But I’m just curious why. I mean, don’t we have to really look at these terrible dark feelings squarely in the face in order to really get at the truth?

Mitchell: If it’s happening now — at a place about a quarter of a mile from the Helmsley Hotel that we’ve just been kicked out of in downtown New York, and it’s a social wrong, and women have been trafficked from godforsaken parts of the world and are being exploited like this — dead right. Shine cold hard truth or truth of light onto it. Please. It’s got to be stopped.

This is fiction. Two hundred years ago. And it hasn’t got that same imperative. That wrong, in this day and age, does not exist to be righted. If there’s an echo of Dejima, which is also a place that no longer exists, it’s a novelist’s requisite. That’s what the shrine on Mount Shiranui is. And for me to be offering the scenes — sort of on camera as opposed to off stage, where such physical exploitation is taking place — I think would have gone over a kind of writerly ethical mark in the sand. Which I chose not to go over.

Correspondent: What would that ethical mark in the sand be for you? I mean, it seems to me that other people — like Brian Evenson, who comes to mind — will go across that mark. And by doing so, really risk the idea of being impugned as a misogynist. Even though there is no misogyny in their particular intent. I’m wondering if it’s an overstated concern perhaps on your part. Or whether this is just one of those lines in the sand that you will possibly cross in the future or some capacity. Staring some really terrible truth in the face like that. I mean, you do. Don’t get me wrong. But this is an interesting question.

Mitchell: If it’s a real terrible truth, it has to be stared at the face. If it’s an unreal, made up, quasi-historical fictitious terrible truth, then to be describing institutionalized rape on the page in hard porn vocabulary terms, I feel that it sounds like me jerking off into my laptop. And all of a sudden, 98% of my readers have left the building. And I probably have gone with them, had I been a reader of the book.

Correspondent: Would you call something like Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho jerking off?

Mitchell: Firstly, I can’t say what I’ll be writing in the future. I don’t know. Secondly, to go back to the question that you’ve — well, two questions ago and actually one question ago as well. I don’t begin to sit in judgment on other writers who handle this, who make this call in a different way. And I’ve read that book. And it works very well. It’s distressing and awful and upsetting. And it works very well. And good luck to him really. But here in my book, in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, it felt wrong. And I’ve had a really blessed life. But I’ve also had enough hurt and pain to know it’s real stuff. And it’s not to be toyed around with just because, “Hey, I’m going somewhere no one else has gone before.” No. You have to treat your own female characters with respect as a male writer. Why I’ll stop being afraid to show the moral hypocrisies going on and the way that these things are justified quite plausibly, quite kindly, by the men who are conducting this kind of farm — that I’m not afraid of at all. Why would I be? But the language that they use. Just like a term like “ethnic cleansing.” These soft little euphemisms when reality is too horrific to be true. What gives? What bends? There’s actually language used to describe it. And these euphemisms. Rendering. Waterboarding. They sound quite pleasant. They sound quite Beach Boy-esque, don’t they? Always watch out when you hear words like that. Because it means reality is too horrific for that spade to be called a spade. Now this kind of thing, I really have to explore in the book. And I do it. And that’s great. But the thing itself that is being euphemized about — this farming of newborn children for purposes I’m not going to talk about, because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who hasn’t read it — it’s crucial that I don’t wobble my fingers in that gore in a sort of gratifying, self-regarding, “Look how brave I’m being” kind of a way.

Correspondent: I bring that up because it does resemble the farm that’s in the midsection of Cloud Atlas.

Mitchell: Yeah, it does. Doesn’t it? I hadn’t thought of that. So it does.

Correspondent: And you seem to be really concerned with the idea of slavery. Particularly in the first two parts of the book. And this is why I’m convinced that what we’re talking about here is an interesting fusion between these moral hypocrisies and, of course, the narrative steam engine. At the end, we’ve got the clearly influenced Patrick O’Brian. Which is great and all. But what I’m wondering is: Can you really pursue these dark and dangerous and really heavy topics that involve serious exploitation? I mean, I haven’t even brought up the slave chapter that was from the perspective of Weh. The only time the book slips into the first person. This is also interesting to this question. Can you really explore dark terrain like this and stop short of the mark? That’s the question. Is this something you’re still figuring out?

Mitchell: It is. And it’s an ongoing debate I have with myself. If you feel the book works, then I can and one can. If you feel the book doesn’t work, then perhaps one of the reasons it doesn’t work is because it can’t be done. You do have to slip into — not sexual porn, but a kind of pornography of violence. Maybe you do. I can’t judge my own books. I’ve no idea if they work or not. I never do. Never do.

Categories: Fiction