Tag : podcast
Tag : podcast
Uzodinma Iweala is most recently the author of Our Kind of People.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Looking beyond.
Subjects Discussed: The advantages of hearing stories told to understand issues, the rhythms and tones of language, how to track down people to talk with in Nigeria, China Keiteski, the advantages of bus depots, the Nigerian Civil War, Nigeria’s reticence to discuss AIDS and HIV, physical deterioration and moral stigma, the parallels between how HIV/AIDS is perceived in Nigeria and how it is perceived in the United States, prejudicial language (“dropping like flies”) and stereotypes in Western coverage of AIDS in Africa (as recent as 2006), hysterical headlines from The New York Times, the Joseph Conrad disease-ridden racist stereotype of AFrica, the difficulties of getting rid of stereotypical language in relation to minorities, how pushback in Africa has helped to improve language, why it’s important to remain unafraid of being corrected and correcting other people, regrettable posters equating Africa with AIDS, voices that have not been allowed to speak on the international stage, why AIDS needs to expand beyond the “woe is me” narrative, the “giving thanks” narrative, and the exotic narrative, journalism vs. creative nonfiction vs. personal crusading, issues pertaining to the journalist as outsider, illusory journalistic objectivity, responding to criticisms leveled by The Observer‘s David Smith, AIDS denialism in South Africa, the sheer number of books about AIDS, Philip Alcabes’s “The Ordinariness of AIDS,” needless fear and hysteria, AIDS and the Nigerian identity issue, the new normal, trying to sell people on normal, epidemic fatigue and fundraising, how the process of transformation relates to support and empathy, and the importance of nuanced understanding.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I know that with the novel you wrote, Beasts of No Nation, you started off to some degree not just with news articles, but you actually met a soldier for that particular work. And with this, of course, there’s a good deal of interviews you did with people who have HIV and who are living in Nigeria. Support activists and so forth. So my question to you is: Why do you need to hear stories in oral form before you work out how you’re going to tell the story? Whether it be fiction or, in this case, nonfiction?
Iweala: Well, for me, I’m very interested in the way that people speak. Both in the creative fiction that I do. And also the creative nonfiction. I mean, I like the rhythm of language. I like the sounds of voices. And I like how rhythm and tone really are so much a part of the storytelling itself as the words that you put down on the page. I mean, I think it’s both a result of having this oral tradition and listening to stories from the culture that I come from. And also I think there are a number of other writers that I think in the more Western literary tradition who pay a lot of attention to rhythm and flow. You can think of people like Beckett, who I love listening to when read because of that reason.
Correspondent: Did you transcribe the conversations and did you actually read them aloud to try and figure out…
Iweala: (nods head)
Correspondent: You did.
Iweala: It was a process. It was first doing interviews. Then I transcribed all the interviews — almost all of them — myself. Because I wanted to be in it. To hear the way that people spoke again. To really pick up where there were emotional stresses essentially in people’s voices. And I would take those interviews, sit down, and try to rejig them a little bit to make them flow better as stories. But I would read them aloud to myself over and over again. Just trying to get the right inflection or trying to get the right tone and trying to make sure that the language and the emotional state really coalesced.
Correspondent: So the finer details of these stories are there in the intonations of the sentences more than the actual biographical details and so forth?
Iweala: It’s nonfiction. So those details are also very on point. But there was a lot of attention paid to, yeah, just what it sounded like. And what it sounded like reflected who was speaking. So your health official of the government is going to sound and speak differently, and stress different things and have different emotional stresses, than, say, a woman living in a rural area. Each intonation, each way of speaking, is equally important and equally relevant to the larger picture of the epidemic, but definitely very different.
Correspondent: How do you track a child soldier down? Or many of the interesting people in this book? You can’t just hold up a sign while you’re walking around Lagos.
Iweala: Right. So for the first book, for Beasts of No Nation, I just got fortunate in the sense that the first person I spoke to — China Keiteski actually gave a talk at Harvard when I was an undergrad. And she just had a lot to say. And we had a very brief conversation. I didn’t really interview her. I just listened to her talk and her experiences, read her book, and it was a chat I had that really brought out what it was that I wanted to write about. And then, in Nigeria, there are a lot of people who lived through the Civil War that we had in the ’60s. A long time ago. But they still had many, many soldiers to tell and were very open with me about that. And then also we had Liberian refugees living in Nigeria at the time. Most have returned home now, I think. And where my family lives, they were doing a lot of construction. And these folks would be working on the construction crews. And so, during breaks, I would just take the time to chat with them. And that’s how I got a lot of those stories. Now for Our Kind of People, I really kind of did just do what you said. I just started walking around and asking questions. I mean, obviously a little bit more structured than that, right? You go to a health official and then they lead you to a treatment center. You speak with someone there. And then they lead you to a support group. Also walking down the street. I walked into bus depots. Just found who I could speak to. And we sat down. You buy a person a beer.
Correspondent: What else are they doing while they’re waiting for a bus, right?
Iweala: You’re either waiting for a bus you’re driving to leave or you’re waiting for the bus you’re going to take to leave. What do you have to do but sit and talk and drink? And so that’s what we would do. And then they would be like, “Well, you should contact this person,” and you’d get a phone number and go from there.
Correspondent: So you built up a network based off of these peregrinations and you finally tracked down the appropriate people. You mentioned the Civil War, which I wanted to talk with you about. Because the Civil War doesn’t really come up in this book so much. And in light of what you have to say about Nigeria’s reticence to discuss HIV and AIDS, I was wondering if you could get into why they’re reluctant to talk about it. Aside from the AIDS support groups, the efforts to spread safe sex messages among the young, and so forth.
Iweala: I think for a number of reasons. And for the same reasons that people are reluctant to discuss it here. It has been a taboo subject. It’s much less so now. But HIV, AIDS, the epidemic — especially the way that it spreads, mostly through sex — is something that I think makes people profoundly uncomfortable. And we tend to avoid speaking about it. If you can think about how many tough conversations that you put off and put off and put off, we tend to avoid speaking about those things we find really uncomfortable. That’s changing — in large part because people have decided — the federal government and also activist groups and people living with HIV have decided to make a lot of noise and make sure that we have those uncomfortable conversations and really try to bring this thing out so that we can deal with it. I mean, I think in general Nigeria is a relatively, at least outwardly, conservative country. And we’re loud people for a number of different things. But there are certain things that I think, it would be safe to say, are considered more private: sex being one of them. It’s not a place where you see sex sold on billboards or used to sell products as much as you do here or in other countries in Europe or whatever. So that definitely has impacted the way that we talk about the epidemic.
Correspondent: In the Stigma section, you describe how physical deterioration is, of course, a major part of AIDS. And there is, of course, this moral idea attached to it. That people are being punished for their sins. What’s some of the crossover? The book goes into a lot of dichotomies where there are intersections and where there are not. But in terms of grasping the idea of people who are physically deteriorating and who are suffering, why does this have to be so sinful among certain moralists in Nigeria? I was very curious about that.
Iweala: Again, I think we should also say that that also happened here as well. It’s mainly a question of absolutes, I think, in a situation where you don’t have access to treatment and being diagnosed with this disease is, in essence, an absolute thing. Like “you will die” is what people message. And I think it’s complex in some senses because its message is “you will die,” but you can still be healthy for some years before you start to deteriorate without treatment. But that absolute, it seems like a final judgment. And so people then map all kinds of anxieties, religious beliefs, cultural whatever onto that. And then you get this idea of this being judgment for something. That definitely came up a number of times. Of how initially people would say “If you get HIV, then you’re being judged for some kind of practice.” Whether that practice is some kind of immoral sex. Whether, in this country, homosexuality was considered an immoral thing and HIV was punishment for that. IV drug use was considered an immoral thing and it was punishment for that. Now in Nigeria, it’s more heterosexual sex. Much less in terms of IV drug use or anything like that. And we’re very outwardly strongly religious societies, where the prohibitions on sex before marriage are at least spoken about all over the place. And so it becomes very easy for people to make that leap. You have sex before marriage or you have some kind of immoral, by whoever’s standards, sex. And punishment comes through this disease. I found that to be a very interesting connection. I mean, it’s ages old. There are other sexually transmitted diseases, which have always been considered judgement in some way for immoral sexual practice. But I think the stories around HIV/AIDS, and then also the way that people generate stories about their relationships and their sexual encounters to moralize them in the face of this epidemic, so that you can say, “Well, I might be having sex before marriage. But my relationship, my sexual practice, is somehow not like this.” This being sinful sex. People construct all kinds of things. And I find that to be really interesting. It’s something that we should look at and spend more time with.
Correspondent: So what I’m getting is that Nigeria is essentially applying the same moral codex to HIV and AIDS that America is, but that they’re really just only a few years behind where we are. Is that safe to say? What distinguishes Nigeria from the States along a similar sort of trajectory?
Iweala: I think one of the things the book is trying to say is that, while the nature of the HIV epidemic differs depending on the society it appears in, I think there are many similarities in that what people did originally was suggest that there was something very different about the Africa AIDS epidemic than in other countries. And there is a difference. But the difference isn’t necessarily some cultural whatever or some moral feeling on the part of Africans. And I hate using the term “Africans.” So I’ll go with “specifically in Nigeria.” The issue in a lot of senses is resources. And in the United States, the difference was people recognizing a problem and then also having the resources to apply to dealing with the problem very quickly. In Nigeria, the problem was recognized at a certain point in time. But the resources weren’t necessarily as forthcoming. And that creates a huge difference. It’s just very apparent.
John Lanchester is most recently the author of Capital.
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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he should stop sending postcards to random people.
Author: John Lanchester
Subjects Discussed: Mysterious postcards, stalkers, Ron Charles’s review, Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, people who live in close geographical terms who don’t talk with each other, parallel private lives that barely touch, “community” as a cant term, postcards as a plot device, planning out Capital, using Scrivener, E.M. Forster and Nabokov, the relationship between I.O.U. and Capital, anticipating a fictitious economic meltdown before the real one, the problems with explanation within fiction, Booth Tarkington, novels about money, describing economic phenomena within fiction, how explanation breaks fiction, the “Tell me professor” problem, audience expectation, what you can do with nonfiction that you can’t do with fiction, the problems with unlikeliness, William Goldman, why bubbles and busts are all the same story and how they can be different in fiction, the virtues of obliviousness, Christian Lorentzen’s “Fictitious Values,” Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic, why lawyers, cops, and writers can’t watch television, Californication, irreducibly complex vocations, people who work in the finance sector who have no idea what they’re doing, John Banville, cutting yourself off at the bar of curiosity, working out rules for what you could make up and what you cannot, how different novels generate their own sets of rules, whether or not the adverb gets a needlessly bad rap in fiction, whether or not American writing has converged in voice in recent years, getting a filtered view of another nation’s literary output, the influence of Wes Anderson on younger writers, self-conscious quirkiness, omnidirectional irony, David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram,” New Sincerity, Sam Sacks’s review, why we don’t see the Banksy-like Smithy at work, deciding who to depict working within a novel, throwing out characters, why Capital required a large canvass, the virtues of a gap between drafts, Paul Valéry, and writing a novel “as exactly as intended.”
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: To go to the “We Want What You Have” campaign, the Washington Post‘s Ron Charles made a comparison that also struck with me, that the postcard harassment in this book is not unlike the anonymous phone calls in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori. So I’m wondering, because this is such a pivotal narrative element upon which the book rests, where did this come from? I’m guessing this book was a little early — before the London riots. So was it Spark? Were you the recipient of too much junk mail? How did this exactly happen?
Lanchester: No. I was thinking about — I love that book, by the way. And if there is a literary referent, that’s a good one. But I was thinking about the fact that you get — and I don’t know whether this is a London thing, a UK thing, a big city thing, or a thing about modernity or maybe a thing just about some cities as opposed to others. But the sense that people living in very close geographical and physical proximity don’t actually know each other at all. They don’t know anything about each other’s lives. They have nothing in common. And the term much beloved of politicians — “community” — is actually a cant term, I think. It really describes something that people pretend exists, but a lot of the time doesn’t. Communities in a geographical sense, in my experience living in cities, just simply don’t exist. It’s certainly true of my experience in London life. And I wanted to have a novel that had the sense of these parallel private lives that barely touch, and then to have something that forced them into contact with each other and gathered up these strands of these different lives. And the idea of these postcards came from thinking about what people in the street actually have in common. And, in a sense, the main thing they have in common is that they live in a place other people want to live.
Correspondent: It’s rather ironic, in light of the fact that here in the United States we’re seeing our postal service decline. It will get to the point where what we get in the post — well, we’re not going to get much, if anything at all. So I think you’ve reached that possible maximum window of what could unite a community. But this does beg the question of, well, can you, in fact, use a plot device like this to unite a community composed of a Muslim family, a soccer player. You have a “Polish plumber” type. I’m curious as to whether communities really are united around the lines of a plot device or if it takes a plot device now for us to consider the great cosmos of Pepys Road in this or London or anything right now. Can the novel unite community in a way that, say, other forms cannot?
Lanchester: I think one of the basic movements you get in a story, or in stories in general, is that thing of strands being gathered together. And I think that sense of these things that seem to be disparate that actually do have a cohesion — that’s a very kind of fundamental underlying dynamic of lots of stories. It’s also a kind of story I really like. I like that feeling of gathering together. I mean, I suppose there’s a melancholy undercurrent to the thought that without those cards, these people actually don’t really know each other. And without an effort of weathering the imagination, I think, a lot of the time we don’t know each other. And I did want that sense in which they knew each other to feel slightly fragile. Because actually it would be very easy for it not to happen. And, as I said, that’s my personal experience of the city. That there is this thing about immensely close physical proximity being sort of shadowed by the fact that actually we don’t want to know too much about each other.
Correspondent: Well, speaking of knowing about one another, the feeling I got when reading this book was that often a chapter would spring forth from another chapter. That a particular character such as Parker would then get his own little hotel room chapter and that sometimes that narrative tension produced a desire or curiosity or a need to explore another angle of this vast community. I know that you planned much of Capital in advance. But I’m wondering to what degree you strayed from the map that you laid down when writing this novel? IF you drift away from your map in the act of writing and revising, do you need to go back and modify the floor plan? How does this work for you?
Lanchester: Well, you’re right. I did spend a lot of time thinking about what I’ve sort of described to myself as the architecture of it. The structures of the story and who goes what when. My memory is that I had — it was the equivalent of index cards. I say the equivalent because it was actually this software program called Scrivener. I write in longhand.
Correspondent: Oh, you used Scrivener.
Lanchester: I’ve been using Scrivener. I’ve never used a computer program to write a novel before, but Scrivener was very helpful because of this index card thing that I could then move around. The chapters or the scenes too. And I kept running through that rhythm of what when. And I think I had it pretty thoroughly mapped. But only I think on a very granular level of exactly what I’d say for the first quarter or third. And then once I’d got through that, the chapters further ahead did keep changing order as I was coming closer to them. In order to have that sense of “Oh, actually, no, I’m going to need that bit there just to change the tone.” Or “It’s been too long since we last had so and so back now.” And there was a lot of juggling and a lot of jiggling and a lot of swapping A with B and C with D and X with Y. But not very much going outside the framework of it. But in my view, it’s a pretty accommodating framework. There was quite a lot of room for the characters inside it. But I think in terms of genuine things — the E.M. Forster thing about characters escaping. That didn’t really happen. But I’ve always rather liked Vladimir Nabokov’s reply to this.
Lanchester: “Forster’s books are so boring that you couldn’t blame his characters for wanting to escape” And I actually think both parts of that — the structure is pretty determined in my books, but the things that the characters do and say within that structure I find constantly surprising. I find both halves of that to be the case.
Correspondent: The questions I have though is that if a character is going to act in a certain way or behave in a certain way that is in defiance of the plan — and it’s interesting that you use A, B, C, D in this answer because in the course of the book we often get these little A, B, Cs of the character mind and so forth. Do you have a situation where you lose the thread of a character because a character’s going to act in a particular way when you’re laying it down on the page? And the other question I had, sort of related to this, is, well, we do know that you wrote a book called I.O.U., Whoops! in the UK. And if you are writing in some sense in response to the 2008 economic meltdown, and if you are to some degree enslaved by newspaper headlines, what does that do to you from a novelist’s standpoint to corral this, what I would presume to be, tightly enmeshed plan? That if you stray from it, it causes more time, more difficulty, and so forth.
Lanchester: Well, it was the other way around. Because I started in 2005, early 2006. And I felt certain that there was a bust coming. I mean, certain enough to bet years on writing the book. And it was very important that, right from the start, the reader knows something that the characters don’t. That the reader could see this thing coming that they’re all oblivious of. And partly I was just very interested in obliviousness. And I had a very strong sense that there was this kind of implosion or meltdown, that things had gone out of hand. And so I started writing the book with that kind of shape in mind. And if there hadn’t been a crash, it would almost be the other way around. If there hadn’t been a crash, I really would be in trouble.
Frank Partnoy is most recently the author of Wait.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Impatient for a pause.
Author: Frank Partnoy
Subjects Discussed: Perception of time, Walter Clark, pauses and authenticity, Jon Stewart’s 20 second pause in response to Sarah Palin’s “squirmish,” This American Life, Christian Marclay’s The Clock, “Kristen Schaal is a horse,” Tao Lin’s use of repetition, John Boyd’s OODA loop, whether a military strategist’s ideas are entirely applicable to dating, how delay persuades us in other context, the first date as a military tactic, lunch-oriented dating services, making bad snap decisions because of a photo, panic and fast talking, being aware of your audience when talking, the Einstellung effect, Peter McLeod’s experiments with chess players, the three move checkmate, how even chess masters get stuck in the muck, the dangers of being overconfident, unemployment, Sarkozy’s failed efforts to readjust the GDP to help long-term economic impact, readjusting human attention from the short-term solution, cognitive bias, subliminal messages, how fast food logos help to read, SAnford DeVoe’s experiments, racist treatment decisions from doctors, the unanticipated advantages of a spare second, the effects of wealth upon happiness, finding another activity while waiting, viewing time as more scarce and impatience, when scientific developments are at odds with capitalist realities, the downside of success, procrastination, subliminal messages within the film Fight Club, topless women in The Rescuers, when people are vulnerable to subliminal messages, the invention of the Post-It, the advantage of fresh eyes, Archimedes and Newton, Arthur Fry, thin slicing and the Malcolm Gladwell reductionist incarnation of this idea now welcomed by marketing people, Dr. Phil’s incorrect use of thin slicing, and why thin slicing isn’t two seconds according to the studies.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: So let’s start off with panic, which seems a very good thing to start off with. Panic, as you say, has much to do with our perception of time. You bring up Walter Clark’s theory — he’s this acting teacher. He says that the best actors are the ones who don’t panic. So how much of our waiting has to do with panic or any other sense of emotional paralysis? How much of our anxieties come from this false comprehension of time? If there’s this correlation between good acting and not panicking, well, I have to ask, Frank, what’s the compromise between being human and being some pretender or some mimic?
Partnoy: Oh, it’s a great question. I’ve learned so much from Walter Clark, who’s one of the best acting coaches I’ve been around. My daughter takes a lot of acting classes. So I’ve learned a lot from him. And I think an acting coach, like somebody who is sophisticated watching a play or a performance, can see through a mimic. You can tell when somebody’s a fake when they’re performing. One of the things that panic does is that it leads people to speed up their performance. So that they run through what the acting coaches call beats. So it’s partly true of acting generally. But it’s especially true of comedy, I think. One of the things that I took away from watching him in action was that a lot of comedy really is about pauses and delays.
Partnoy: And understanding the audience and being authentic in your understanding of the audience and figuring out how often to pause. You know, we’re talking right now. We’ve just met each other, right? And we’re sort of watching each other and having this conversation.
Correspondent: And you’re a total phony.
Partnoy: Yeah. Sorry.
Correspondent: Or are you? Maybe I’m the total phony. Who knows? Maybe we’re both being phony. I don’t know.
Partnoy: Hopefully we won’t be as we move along.
Correspondent: I think I can trust you so far.
Partnoy: Alright. Likewise. I’m enjoying it so far.
Correspondent: Okay, good.
Partnoy: I’m grabbing my wallet now. But I do think, just when we start having these conversations in our normal lives, even if we’re not acting that there’s a role of the pause and the delay. That just speeding through something 100 miles an hour is not a very effective communication technique. So one of the things I’ve been interested in for a long time is that. I teach law school classes and my students can’t comprehend me if I’m speaking 100 miles an hour. On the other hand, I can speak pretty quickly and they’ll get content down. They’ll write. So it’s this kind of balance back and forth. And when you panic, you speed up. You speed through the pause. One of the things that I’ve been playing with, as I’ve done three years of research now on the book and wrote it, is how long I can get away with pausing. [short pause] So I talk a little bit about Jon Stewart as an example and this extraordinary moment he had in one of his shows where he had captured Sarah Palin questioning some of the Obama military action in Libya and saying she didn’t know what to call this. “We’re not at war. What’s a word for it? I don’t know the word.” And then Sarah Palin uses this non-word “squirmish.” And for me as a speaker, I would have a hard time waiting, pausing more than a couple of seconds, telling a joke and then delaying. My son actually — I have an eight-year-old son — he’s a lot better at telling a joke and then delaying the punchline. So he’ll make up some joke. “A couple of cantaloupe were married. What did they name their daughter?” And then he’ll do a dramatic pause and say, “Melony.” Which is just made up. But he’ll get a laugh where I’m not sure I can do. But Jon Stewart is able to pause for twenty full seconds. I think that must be some kind of a world record for pauses. And he’s just the opposite of panic. He’s utterly fearless with the audience, feeling them out, understanding and being totally authentic, right? I mean, that’s one of the reasons why we love Jon Stewart so much, is that he’s command of timing and gets us and gets what we want and goes through this kind of time framework, which I think is actually very valuable in all the decisions that we make. Which is a two-step process. The first step is: How long can I wait before taking this action and making this decision? What’s the maximum amount of time that I can wait? And then the second step is delaying until that moment. And so in that example, he decided it was going to be twenty seconds. Probably not consciously. Because he’s a a master. And he was able to wait twenty seconds. I could never do that.
Correspondent: Well, since you brought up pauses, I think we should talk about them.
Correspondent: You observe that the best radio announcers and interviewers use them.
Correspondent: Comedians like Jon Stewart, of course.
Correspondent: You can even point to the Mike Daisey pauses in This American Life.
Correspondent: Oh. Am I sort of interfering with the question? I don’t know.
Partnoy: Beautifully done. Masterful.
Correspondent: Actually though, I do want to bring this up. I could even bring the William Shatner pause into this equation. But I’m wondering if how we react to a pause shares much in common with how we react to, say, a loop. There’s this comedy routine — I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it — “Kristen Schaal is a Horse” — where basically it just goes on and on and repeats and repeats. It’s basically this woman dancing and a man clapping and going, “Kristen Schaal is a horse! Kristen Schaal is a horse!” And it goes on and loops for like fifteen minutes. There’s a Tao Lin poem where he constantly says the line “the next night we ate whale.” And there are all sorts of repetitions throughout art and culture and so forth. Does the manner in which we ascribe authority to a pause have much in common with this loop situation?
Partnoy: Oh, that’s a fascinating question. I think so. I mean, loops come up in all sorts of contexts and they relate to time in a very fundamental way, right? There’s — I’ll forget the artist, but there’s the 24 hour loop exhibit that’s out now.
Correspondent: Oh yeah. Christian Marclay’s The Clock.
Partnoy: It’s incredible, right? The Clock, where you’ve got, from various films, depictions of 12:01 and 1:05 sort of cycling around. And there’s something really powerful about the reinforcement of the story. A lot of jokes get funnier as they’re retold. So much so that even comedians, they might not even laugh at the joke, but they’ll just think, “Wow, that was really funny.” And loops come up also in a completely different context, I found in my research. Which is in the military.
Correspondent: Mr. Boyd.
Partnoy: Mr. Boyd, right. John Boyd, probably the greatest fighter pilot in history, who created something called the OODA loop. O-O-D-A, for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. This approach to decision making started in a military context, but now people use it in all areas of life and business. Where you take time and initially you observe. And you orient. You figure out where the enemy is. And then finally you make the decision. And then the decision is the mental part. And the act is the implementation part. And what John Boyd talks about is running through an OODA loop. So going through that cycle of Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act over and over again, watching the jet fighter you’re trying to shoot down to see what that person’s proclivities are — Do they like to faint to the left? Or the right? How fast are they? — to understand and to confuse them too. Which is also interesting. Because I’m not sure whether the art projects or films that we talked about earlier — I’m not sure they’re really meant to confuse. But in the offensive aspects of the OODA loop, part of what John Boyd is suggesting they do is get a speed advantage to confuse the enemy. And the development of the F-16, he was the person who basically created the idea of the F-16 and pushed its development. The kind of aircraft that’s like using a switchblade in a knife fight, that you can use very quickly to confuse and disorient your opponent. So these loops show up. Expertise, if you think about it. Where does expertise come from? It comes from a kind of repeated loop, right? Chess players become experts by learning openings and repeating that over and over and over again and seeing certain patterns. What behavioralists call chunking. Being able, because they’ve been through those loops so many times, to recognize patterns consistently. So it’s a really interesting question. And I think to some extent, these really deep insights and expertise come out of repeated loops as well.
Brian Francis Slattery is most recently the author of Lost Everything and previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #142.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hammering in the morning, the evening, and the afternoon.
Author: Brian Francis Slattery
Subjects Discussed: Radio programs which force authors to starve for an hour, the glut of dystopian novels after 2008, taking criticisms to heart, distinguishing many forms of sarcasm and irony, a segue with two friendly gentlemen with hammers, the bleakness within Lost Everything, the seriousness of a major economic collapse, hope in the “Who knows?” area of bleakness, the possibility of restoration in Liberation vs. the unknown storm (The Big One) in Lost Everything, “squanch” as a word, Lost Everything‘s wandering narrator, using up a quota of semicolons, starting a sentence with a verb, faith and spirituality, agnosticism, the philosophical value of Christopher Reeve quotes, agnostics who dodge questions of faith, Nicholas Wolterstorff, the pacifistic and apolitical nature of taking Christianity seriously, the balance between forgiveness and righteousness, moral codes that are mishmashes of philosophy and religion, discussing issues in both religious and secular terms, the physical limitations within the Carthage, not providing the answers to the reader, deliberate ambiguities, super-omniscient narrators, narrators who match character predicaments, resisting the word “fun” when investigating nightmarish human predicaments, Russian roulette, violence and bleak humor as a defense mechanism, working at a social science research foundation, the choice between laughing and becoming serious when presented with genocide, how much a human life is worth, Guatemala vs. the Ukraine, life being cheaper in certain parts of the world, superfluous playground warnings, judgement of other parents over trifling details, sugar as a disruptive force, being reprimanded for saying “fuck” joyfully in a Park Slope restaurant, reading bleak books, finding the value in everyone, engaging in reckless behavior, when the removal of safeguards creates unanticipated possibilities, writing about a world devoid of electricity, 19th century human existence, how people live without electricity now, Darwin’s Nightmare, Hubert Sauper’s Kisangani Diary, Rwandan refugees who have nothing when coming across as a sanctuary, a maturing point in Slattery’s career, guilt, taking things seriously, a writer’s commitment to human existence, form following function, George Clinton and Bob Dylan as inspirational forces for (respectively) Spaceman Blues and Liberation, basing a narrative voice on the way people talk, Dock Boggs, Skip James, and 1920s music, expressing resistance through music, musicians authorized to marry people and given authority by the author, free spirited life in the face of chaos, music grounded in social reality, partying when everybody is freaked out, the house, river, and highway structure in Lost Everything, Life on the Mississippi, Kerouac, finding the specific region in America for Lost Everything, comparisons between Lost Everything and Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, modeling novels from The Odyssey, the Susquehanna River being underutilized in American fiction, Slattery navigating the Susquehanna River in a canoe, William T. Vollmann, “Sunny Jim” Rolph, Captain Mendoza and Lydia Mendoza, character names, eels coming out of mattress, and making sure the constant degradation wasn’t repetitive.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Slattery: Thanks for letting me eat and drink while I’m talking with you.
Slattery: Which I’ll be doing.
Correspondent: It’s one of the very rare programs that allows authors to drink and eat.
Slattery: It is.
Correspondent: Most programs allow authors to starve for an hour. Anyway, we don’t do that here. Well, first of all, how are you doing? I didn’t quite get that question answered. You’re doing okay?
Slattery: How am I doing? Oh, I’m great. I’m good.
Correspondent: Alright. Well then, let’s get right down to business. For some inexplicable reason, and I have no idea why — maybe you might have a few ideas — but since roughly around 2008 — again, I have no idea why — there’s been a great rush of dystopic novels. Dystopian novels. Doom and gloom. And here we have number three from you, sir. So just to start off here, I’m wondering, when you started writing Lost Everything, were you aware of what might be called a glut or what might be called an overpopulated filed of dystopian novels? Did you care about such an output that was going on simultaneously as you were working on a book?
Slattery: I guess I should say that I was mildly aware, but not that aware. It’s not something I pay that much attention to, I guess. Even in stuff that I read, I read a ton of nonfiction. So I’m sort of vaguely aware of trends in fiction. But they have to be pretty big for me to be aware of them, I’m afraid. But yeah, it’s not something that I think about that much. The idea of chasing a trend or worrying about a trend, you just have to sort of — at least for me, I just worry about whether I can write a good book or not, and I see where it turns out. And in the case of the third one, it was like, from the first to the third one, one grew pretty naturally out of the other. There were questions that I liked in the first one that I never got around to that I did some of in the second one. And then there was still some left over. So there’s another book. Quite a bit.
Correspondent: Such as what? What specific questions are we talking about here?
Slattery: Gosh, let me think. I think that from the second to the third one, probably the best thing was — you know, the reception to it was really great. It was really very gratifying. One of the things that I ended up taking to heart though was that there were people who were being too flippant.
Slattery: And I thought, “That’s fair.”
Correspondent: You took that to heart?
Slattery: I did.
Correspondent: Does this explain why this one is really very bleak at times?
Slattery: It is.
Correspondent: It’s not to say that it’s devoid of humor. Because you do have the music.
Slattery: No, no. It is. It’s quite a bit darker. And for a while, I got halfway through it and I thought, “God, this book is really dark.” And then I thought, “Well, at least I should finish it.” And then I finished it and I thought, “No, it’s still really dark.” And there’s a part of me that — because, you know, I’m not really that serious of a person. And I was really kind of surprised that I’d written such a serious book. But it also seemed like — you know, there’s a point where, for the first two books, I think that there was a really conscious endeavor to make sure that the stakes weren’t so high that you couldn’t joke about it. And then eventually the stakes are high enough that it seemed kind of creepy to joke about it. It was like, you know, nobody would be joking in this kind of situation. Nobody would be just kind of horsing around. There’s no place for it anymore. And so I tried to find the humor where I could get it. But it felt increasingly forced to go for it. And it also seemed like kind of a fair trade. I felt like I was trading sarcastic for creepy. And I’m sort of okay with that.
Correspondent: You are. Well, what do you define as sarcasm? Having joy and having fun against an especially bleak or depressing environment, to my mind, isn’t sarcasm. And I don’t think it has been sarcasm in either Liberation or Spaceman Blues. I think it was a sense of irony. So how do you distinguish between irony and sarcasm here? And I’m really curious about the fact that you decided to…
Slattery: That’s a fun question to ask me, actually. Because I consider myself to be a pretty sarcastic person, but also kind of anti-irony. If that makes sense. And I think that what it comes down to is that I don’t — the way that I — I mean, this is obviously the pop culture version of irony. It’s not the lit crit version of it. But, you know, the pop culture version of it is that at the end, the joke is everybody not really sure what the person’s intentions are. Like the person has done a lot to hide what they actually think. And I don’t try to do that. So like…
Slattery: No, this looks great.
Correspondent: Did you want to pause? So you can actually eat that.
Slattery: No, no, no.
Slattery: So it would be like — I try to joke around and I try to be kind of honest about it. If that makes sense. And to not be really ambiguous about what it is that I’m trying to say.
Correspondent: Okay. Well, in terms of distinguishing between lit crit irony and pop culture…
Gentleman with Hammer: Sorry. Are you recording?
Gentleman with Hammer: Because I’m going to use the hammer for a few. Do you have a long time?
Correspondent: Probably thirty or forty minutes or something like that?
Gentleman with Hammer: Okay. Do you mind? Just for five minutes. I will tell you.
Correspondent: Okay, why don’t we…?
Slattery: We’ll stop.
Correspondent: We’ll stop. Five minutes.
Correspondent: Okay. So back in action here. So we were talking about irony and sarcasm and humor and the differences between pop culture irony and lit crit irony. And then two gentlemen decided to start construction on us. And they stopped thankfully.
Correspondent: They were very nice.
Slattery: And it looks really good.
Correspondent: Yes, it does really look good. So we were trying to peg what you view your humor to be.
Correspondent: And I insisted that it was working in some quasi-ironic mode.
Slattery: (laughs) That’s nice of you.
Correspondent: A sincere irony, I suppose. Or I suppose the joys of contradiction. And you were saying, “No, no, no, Ed, actually….”
Slattery: No, no, no. We’re probably talking about the same thing.
Correspondent: Yeah. We’re probably talking about the same thing.
(Image: Houari B.)
Jesmyn Ward is most recently the author of Salvage the Bones.
This episode of The Bat Segundo Show is brought to you by Audible.com. If you want to listen to Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (available at Audible.com), and help keep this show going, sign up for a free audiobook and a 30 day trial. Use this handy link: http://www.audiblepodcast.com/bat
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Testing the limits of his fury towards the Bush family.
Author: Jesmyn Ward
Subjects Discussed: Smoothies, fruit, bad franchises, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, what it means to be a mother and a woman, Medea, America’s lack of mythology vs. Greek mythology, life within a poor community, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, an author’s responsibility to community, the regional limitations of contemporary American fiction, being made angry by comments relating to Katrina, Pat Robertson, Barbara Bush’s insensitive comments about Katrina, FEMA and Michael Brown, novels of ideas, the physicality of characters, sinewy muscles, stomachs in fiction, close third person vs. first-person perspective, bad models of womanhood in the natural world, language, China as an anagram of chain, words as tokens of physical identity, present stigmas against figurative language, collisional rhythm, Outkast and Deuteronomy, finding an incidental rhythm, when to resist feedback that gets in the way of a natural voice, violence in fiction, creating a ferocious and multidimensional dog in Salvage the Bones, being surprised by the middle, pit bulls, Manny as a conflict generator, the mysterious ghostly mother, Hemingway’s iceberg theory, sexuality and promiscuity, unstoppable emotional forces, not glossing over the truth, describing trees with limbs, paradisaical cesspools, keeping a natural environment alive, and finding the right details to depict impoverishment.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: You have Esch reading this Edith Hamilton book, especially Medea. And you also point out near the end that mythology won’t entirely help you out in a fix. Esch says that she is stuck in the middle of the book. And aside from Hamilton, I have to ask, did you draw on any other inspirational mythology when you were creating this book? Was there a point when you abandoned mythology at all like Esch? I wanted to start off here from the origin.
Ward: That’s an interesting question. I didn’t draw from any other mythology. I don’t think. Greek mythology, that was the thing in this book. I think in my first book I did — well, if you consider some of the older tales in the Bible mythology. I drew from some of those in my first book.
Correspondent: Do you consider them mythology?
Ward: Well, they are tales that explain how the world became what it is. So in ways, I think it is. But did I use any other sorts of mythologies in this, in Salvage the Bones? I don’t know. I don’t think that I abandoned it. I think that mythology’s important to her because it’s helping her understand what it means to be a mother and what it means to be a woman. So therefore, like even though she turns away from it, she still can’t help but go before the storm. To come back to that story and read more of Medea. Because see, she’s searching. And in there, she’s found something. She can’t figure out what it is. But she’s found something.
Correspondent: But it’s interesting that you would have her cleave to mythology in America, which is a nation that is constantly in search of its own great mythology. The Great American Novel. We’re Number One. You name it. I’m wondering if this mythological concern was in some sense related to, well, whatever American identity that Esch and her family had.
Ward: Well, I think she feels very much like an outsider. I think that the culture that she is from, that she lives in a small world — you know, a poor black community. I mean, I feel like they think they’re outside of that. They exist outside of that American dream. And so, in ways, they have to look elsewhere. And Esch, particularly, she finds that she is even more isolated than that community that her family is. Because she’s this only girl who grows up in a world full of men. So she really has to look outside what is easily available to her or in front of her in order to find some sort of kinship.
Correspondent: This leads me to wonder. Have you read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful ForeversWard: No.
Correspondent: Because your book, on a fiction level, reminded me of this great journalism book. Which I think you would love and I’m just in total admiration of. It basically deals with this inner life of the people who are poor, who are collecting trash on the edge of Mumbai. And your book reminded me very much of this response to typical First World guilt or what not. That instead of actually pitying or looking down upon these people, your book is very much about giving all of these characters a great inner life. They do live. And it’s important to remember that they live. And I’m wondering where this impulse came from. Whether this idea of allowing Esch and her family to live was in some sense a way for you to counter any accusations of “Well, I’m responding to politics” and so forth.
Ward: Well, I think that I write about the kind of people that I grew up with, and the kind of people that are in my family and about the place that I’m from. I mean, I’m from a poor rural Southern community that — at least in my part of the community, which is mostly black. And you know, our family’s been there for generations. And I have a very large extended family. I’m related to almost everyone in my town. And so, for me, it’s like writing about the people that I’m writing about — you know, I feel that it’s a responsibility. Because I’m writing about my people. Even though my path is very different from most of the people I grew up with, I still consider myself — you know, that’s still my place. And those are still my people. So for me, that’s what this is. I don’t feel like an outsider. I feel like an insider who’s speaking out for the rest of the people inside my group.
Correspondent: Sure. I totally understand that. Do you think that this is going to be how it’s going to be for your fiction career? That you have to respond to this responsibility of speaking for this group of people? Because nobody else will. Or, in fact, one might argue that maybe American fiction, or regional American fiction, isn’t actually hitting that particular territory. What do you think of this?
Ward: I mean, I think that for the foreseeable future, as far as my writing life is concerned, I intend to write about the place and the people that I come from. Because part of the reason that I do so — I mean, part of the reason that I wanted to write about Katrina is because I was uncomfortable and made angry by the way that I heard others speak about people who didn’t evacuate from the storm. About people who stayed. About poor people who were caught in the maw of that storm. And I wanted to write against that. And so in a way, I do think that the voices of the people that I write about, or even just the people that I write about, that they’ve been absent in the conversation, in the national conversation. And that’s part of what I’m trying to do by writing about them. Introduce their voices into the conversation so that people pay attention and people aren’t so quick to write them off as worthless or stupid or all the other crazy things that I heard after Hurricane Katrina.
Correspondent: Are there specific things that really pissed you off?
Ward: Well, I heard this one woman. She’s from Atlanta too, which is close enough. It’s six hours away from where I live. And she said that the reason that Hurricane Katrina had hit us and done so much damage is because we were sinful. That we were in a sinful place. Like, for her, it was very much about — you know, she was approaching it from a religious standpoint.
Correspondent: The Pat Robertson-like charge.
Correspondent: “Well, they brought it onto themselves.”
Ward: Yeah. So we deserved it because of our proclivity for gambling and drinking and all the rest. And then other people that I encountered said that, one, they couldn’t understand why people stayed. Why people would stay and try to survive a hurricane like that. And, two, that they didn’t understand why people would return and try to rebuild. Because what’s the point if global warming just means that there are going to be more storms, there are going to be just as powerful as Katrina and more of them are going to hit that part of the United States. And that comment really made me angry. Because that person was from L.A.
Ward: That person was from California, which has its own.
Correspondent: These bicoastal buffoons.
Ward: So I just heard commentary like that. And it just made me really angry. And I wanted to counter those. I really felt that our voices were absent from that. Especially that conversation. You had what’s her name. It’s Bush’s mother. Remember when she said that crazy stuff?
Correspondent: Barbara Bush.
Ward: Yeah. About the people from New Orleans. Like this was like a vacation for them. Because they got to go ahead and stay in the Astrodome. Like really? Are you serious? Just so far removed from the reality of these people’s lives and their struggles. Just so far removed. Comments like that just made me realize how, when people said them, it’s like they didn’t recognize our humanity at all. And that really made me angry, and made me want to address Hurricane Katrina in the book.
Correspondent: Well, this seems as good a time as any to confess to you, Jesmyn, that at the point where they are scrambling for their boiled eggs and their packages of ramen, and there is of course the depiction of the carton of bones in the fridge — and then they say, “Oh, well, FEMA and Red Cross will help us out.” At that point, I thought I had a maximum level of anger towards Bush and Brown. And then I read that. And I became even more furious towards them.
Correspondent: And you’re talking here about anger. And you’re talking about it in a very calm manner. And this book is extremely focused, I would say. So what did you do to not get so caught up in this understandably furious impulse and actually focus in on the book? Was it really the inner life of these characters that was enough for you to counter any socioeconomic, political responsive bullshit?
Ward: I think so. Because I feel that my book will fail if my characters are not alive on the page. There have been great novels of ideas, right? But, for me, the kind of writer that I am, I can’t write those novels. And I don’t think that they would be successful novels.
Correspondent: Why do you think you can’t write a novel of ideas? Or that the ideas are best represented in the environment that you set down?
Ward: I don’t know. It’s just not my style. What comes naturally to me is telling a story that’s invested in people and in the characters, and making them live on the page.
Sameul R. Delany is most recently the author of Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Growing a beard to make up for lost time.
Author: Samuel R. Delany
Subjects Discussed: Literary beards, spending the same amount of money on books as food, how many books Delany has read, developing a cataract, Jason Rohrer’s Passage, the structure of Spiders, time moving faster as you get older, Delany’s academic career, the amount of sex contained within Spiders, the male climacteric, how the body changes, About Writing, including a short story in a novel, the original version of Spiders in Black Clock, seven years contained within the first 400 pages, E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel and fleshing out the idea of “writing what you know,” Lear and “runcible,” Times Square Red Times Square Blue, the Dump vs. the Deuce, the pre-1995 porn theaters in Times Square, transplanting New York subcultures to Georgia, the importance of institutional support to a community, gay conservatives, inventing the Kyle Foundation, Goethe’s Elective Affinities, Steven Shaviro’s thoughts on Delany’s intensities, transgressive behavior, connections between The Mad Man and Spiders, pornutopic fantasies, Hogg, when pornotopia sometimes happens in reality, Fifty Shades of Grey, balancing the real and the fantastical in sexual fiction, Delany’s usage of “ass” and “butt,” how dogs have orgasms, making a phone call in the middle of dinner to find out about sexual deviancy, why Shit does a lot of grinning, Freu and infantile sexuality, the paternal thrust to Shit and Eric’s relationship in Spiders, the difficulty of reading Spinoza’s Ethica, whether a philosophical volume can replace the Bible, living a life driven by one book, Hegel, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, movies vs. books, interclass conflict, Peter Jackson’s films, how mainstream culture relates to subcultures, Jackson’s original notion of the King Kong remake as Wagnerian ambition, Tristran and Isolde, turning up the idealism dial, whether art can live up to pure ambition, the myth of the wonder decade, living through the 50s and 60s, Freedom Rides, people who are diaphanous to the forces of history, the Beatles, peasant indifference during the Dreyfus affair, the impact of not knowing the cultural canon, nanotechnology, John Dos Passos, fiction which responds to present events, life within California, living in San Francisco, how Market Street has changed, assaults on the homeless in San Francisco, the Matrix I and II programs, the gentrification of the Tenderloin, novels of ideas, whether or not genre labels hold conceptual novels hostage, market conditions that hold ambitious fiction back, Delany’s nine apprentice novels, trunk novels, and editorial compromise.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: There’s this video game art project called Passage by Jason Rohrer. Have you heard of this?
Correspondent: Okay. Because your book reminded me very much of this.
Correspondent: I’ll have to forward you the link. Basically, it’s this sidescroller. It’s in a 100 pixel by, I think, 13 pixel window. And you control this person who goes from left to right. From beginning to end of life. And you pick up a partner. In fact, you grow a beard.
Correspondent: And you die at the end. And it takes the 8-bit sidescroller and it turns it into this unexpectedly poignant moment. If you play it enough times, you can move the cursor down and actually have the figure go into this mire and collect stars, but maybe not have a partner or maybe meet an early demise there. And it absolutely reflects what life is. And I read your book, and I was extremely aware of the physicality. Not just because it was an 800 page book, but because the first 400 pages is basically these escapades of lots of sex, youthful brio, and so forth. And then, suddenly, decades flash by often when we read this. And I’m curious, just to start off here, where did the design of this structure come from? I know you’re very keen on structures. You’ve written about this many times. But how did this come about in Spiders?
Delany: Well, it came from being a person who’s gotten older. I just had my 70th birthday.
Correspondent: Yes. Happy birthday.
Delany: Thank you very much. And one of the things that does happen, and it’s a really interesting phenomena, is that time seems to go a lot faster as you get older. When you were young, time takes forever. You go to the doctor. You wait around for two hours in the doctor’s office. It seems like three months. Whereas I went to the doctor’s office this morning. I went in. And the next thing I knew, I was on my way here. And I’d been there about two and a half hours. And it didn’t seem that any time had passed at all. And I was at the University of Massachusetts between 1988 and 1999, for eleven years. And that seemed much longer than the last twelve years, thirteen years, that I’d been at Temple University, where I’ve been there from 1999 to this year, 2012. And that seems much shorter than the eleven years that I was at UMass. And there’s no way to avoid this. As you get older and older, time just begins to rush by. And I wanted to get this. So actually, the time goes faster and faster through the book. But at a certain point, you realize, “Oh wait a minute! It’s rushing along.” As one of the reviewers said, decades drop out between paragraphs. Well, that’s what happens. That’s how your life kind of goes. So in that sense, the structure of the book is based on the structure of my own experience.
Correspondent: What’s very strange though — I read the book and, actually, I started missing the sex after that 400 page mark. I mean, all of a sudden, wait a minute, they’re not having so much sex anymore. There isn’t all the snot stuff and the pissing and the corprophiia and, of course, the father-son stuff. All of a sudden, we don’t have a lot of that at all. And then you drop some, quite literally, serious bombs later on in the book. And this leads me to ask…
Delany: Well, the sex doesn’t vanish.
Correspondent: Well, of course. It’s there. It keeps going on.
Delany: I mean, the sex is there. But it’s the sex that someone older has. And one of the things that they have to deal with is the fact that your body changes as you get older. And somewhere between 50 and 60, you go through the equivalent of the male climacteric. Which is a very strange thing to go through. Quite as odd…
Correspondent: Oh god. Thanks for warning me.
Delany: Quite as odd as, what is the term for women?
Delany: Menopause, yes. It’s very much like the menopause. And somehow you’re not warned. You aren’t warned how it’s going to change. Everybody notices the body changing. From ten to twenty, there are going to be a lot of changes. But there are going to be just as many changes from twenty to thirty, from thirty to forty, forty to fifty, fifty to sixty. You konw, I’ve been with my partner now, Dennis, for almost twenty-four years. And we still have a sex life. And we’re very fond of one another and very close. But it’s different. Things do change. And that’s one of the things that it’s about. I wanted to explore what the relationship of two men who were notably older was. And so I tried to do that.
Correspondent: You have said also in About Writing, which I’m probably going to be cribbing a lot from for this conversation, that a short story’s not exactly the best thing to include in a novel. And yet this book arose out of a short story that was published in Black Clock. Which leads me back to the original query. How did this thing become structured? How did this take on a life of its own?
Delany: Well, I had to throw away the whole second half of the original short story and rewrite something that flowed into the novel. If you actually compared it, the opening couple of scenes are very similar, although not identical by any means. There were lots of changes all through it. From the very first paragraph. But I wanted to use that as a kind of jumping off point.
Correspondent: Well, that’s one hell of a jumping off point. 800 pages. I mean, why do you think that you were interested in exploring such an expansive format? Why did Eric and Shit demand this sort of attention?
Delany: Well, because I wanted to talk about a lasting relationship between two men. And a very committed relationship. They’re very close to each other. They’re absolutely fixated on one another. I mean, neither one of them could really make it without the other. Which is the tragedy that Eric is faced with at the end. So I just wanted to explore that and see what happened, and deal with all these things. The time speeds up in the first half of the book too. The first 400 pages basically take, what, about seven years. So that’s even years. That’s a good Dickens novel. (laughs) But this is a book that goes on for basically sixty or seventy years.
Correspondent: Yeah. I wanted to also talk about the location. Since my name is Ed, I have to bring up another Ed. E.M. Forster. You have often quoted the advice given in Aspects of the Novel.
Delany: “Write what you know.”
Correspondent: “Write what you know.” But your idea here is to build upon that and say, in addition to writing what you know, it’s very good to keep the writing alive and energetic if you write about something that you’ve only experienced a few times.
Delany: Right. Exactly.
Correspondent: And in this, it’s interesting because it should be evident by your Lear-like use — another Ed — of “runcible” that this Georgia is a fantasy of sorts.
Delany: Yes. It’s a fairytale. The whole book is an 800 page fairytale.
Delany: By which I mean things like Don Quixote. (laughs)
Correspondent: Of course. But my question is: You’re almost writing what you know and you’re writing what you don’t know, or only know a little bit of. Because we have to go to Times Square Red Times Square Blue, which I also read. You write about a man in that named Tommy. He wears a sleeveless denim jacket. Well, there’s a guy with a sleeveless shirt here. And he collected scrap metal. Not unlike this. You look at The Dump. It could also be The Deuce. The Opera House. It could also be the Metropolitan Opera House.
Delany: Easily. Well, it wouldn’t be the Metropolitan. But it could be one of the old porn theaters before ’95. Before New York closed them down.
Correspondent: I guess my question though is: by putting much of these viewpoints that you have raised both in your fiction and your nonfiction to Georgia, to the edge of the earth quite literally, I mean, what does this allow you to do as a fiction writer? How does this allow you to explore a subculture that, say, keeping everything in New York would not?
Delany: Well, one of the things that I wanted to show is that the kind of life that Eric and Morgan — his nickname is Shit.
Correspondent: You can say “Shit” here.
Delany: That Eric and Shit lead — as I said, besides being a fairytale, is also — well, I’m trying to figure out a good way to put this. In some ways, it’s kind of didactic. It’s almost like a Bildungsroman. They have to learn how to live their life. And it can’t be done — and this is, I really feel — and this is one of the reasons why it had to be a fairytale — it needs institutional support. Which is why there has to be the Kyle Foundation and why there has to be a certain support, a certain community support for what they’re doing. And at the same time, they’re very much on the margin of this community. They’re not in the center of this community. So that people like Mr. Potts, for instance. A very conservative man who just doesn’t want his nephew, who has come down to spend the winter with him, associating with these riffraff who use the gay-friendly restroom. Because he doesn’t like the idea of gay men using the restrooms at all.
Correspondent: Where did the Kyle Foundation come from?
Delany: It was purely out of my head.
Correspondent: Really. Because there’s a specific phrasing in their mantra: “an institution dedicated to the betterment of the lives of black gay men and of those of all races and creeds connected to them by elective and non-elective affinities.” And that phrasing recalls any number of Islamic foundations and the like.
Delany: And also the Goethe novel.
Delany: Elective Affinities.
Correspondent: So that was really more where it came from?
Delany: It came more from Goethe than it did from Islam.
Correspondent: Sure. Steven Shaviro. He has pointed out that the intensities of your pornography are never presented as transgressive. Now in a disclaimer…
Delany: Although this is pretty transgressive.
Correspondent: Well, of course. I want to talk about this. Because in a disclaimer to The Mad Man, of which we see statues of something that crops up in there appearing in this, you called The Mad Man “a pornotopic fantasy: a set of people, incidents, places, and relations among them that never happened and could not happen for any number of surely self-evident reasons.” Well, there is no such disclaimer for Spiders and we see much of the same stuff, as I said. Piss-drinking, shit-eating, you name it. I’m wondering. How does a pornotopic fantasy — how does one of these, whether it be The Mad Man or Spiders or even the infamous Hogg, how does this help us to understand or come to terms with the realities of sex and what the present limits are? What some people might call deviancy today or perhaps yesterday.
Delany: Well, literature is divided into genres like that. You have the world of comedy, the world of tragedy. And you have the world of pornography. And each of them is a kind of subgenre. And sometimes they can be mixed. You can go from one to the other. And I think pornotopia is the place, as I’ve written about, where the major qualities — the major aspect of pornotopia, it’s a place where any relation, if you put enough pressure on it, can suddenly become sexual. You walk into the reception area of the office and you look at the secretary and the secretary looks at you and the next minute you’re screwing on the desk. That’s pornotopia. Which, every once in a while, actually happens. But it doesn’t happen at the density.
Delany: At the frequency that it happens in pornotopia. In pornotopia, it happens nonstop. And yet some people are able to write about that sort of thing relatively realistically. And some people aren’t. Something like Fifty Shades of Grey is not a very realistic account.
Correspondent: I’m sure you’ve read that by now.
Delany: I’ve read about five pages.
Correspondent: And it was enough for you to throw against the wall?
Delany: No. I didn’t throw it. I just thought it was hysterically funny. But because the writer doesn’t use it to make any real observations on the world that is the case, you know, it’s ho-hum.
Correspondent: How do we hook those moms who were so driven to Fifty Shades of Grey on, say, something like this?
Delany: I don’t think you’re going to. I think the realistic — and there’s a lot that’s relatively realistic about it and there’s also a lot that isn’t. Probably less so in this book than in, let’s say, The Mad Man, which probably has a higher proportion of realism to fantasy.
Correspondent: I also wanted to ask you — what’s interesting is that there is almost a limit to the level of pornography in this. There’s one funeral scene where something is going to happen and they say, “Nuh-uh. You’re not allowed to do that. Show some respect.” And roughly around the 300 page mark, I was very conscious of the fact that you didn’t actually use the word “ass.” And you were always using “butt.” (laughs)
Delany: I didn’t even notice.
Correspondent: And so when “ass” showed up, I was actually shocked by that. So I’m wondering. Does any exploration of sexual behavior, outlandish sexual behavior or sexual behavior that’s outside the norms of what could possibly happen, whether it be frequency or density or what not — does it require limits with which to look at it? With which to see it in purely fantastical terms?
Delany: Well, I think one of the things that you need to write a book, especially a book this long, is you need a certain amount of variety. And I think that this is perhaps a failing. There are only so many things that you can do. I think I give a good sampling of them. But every once in a while, I’m sure it probably gets somewhat repetitious.
Correspondent: Well, it’s a good variety pack. But it’s also: “Okay, reader, you have to get beyond these first 350 pages and then, by then, you are actually able to get into totally unanticipated territory and I’ve already locked you in.” How did you work that out?
Delany: One of the things is that you try and keep telling interesting things about the sex. I mean, things that can be observed about the world that is the case. I mean, I tried to talk about the sex in terms of — I don’t think most people know how a dog has an orgasm.
Correspondent: How do we find this out? (laughs)
Delany: Uh, there’s a wonderful website. (laughs)
(Image: Ed Gaillard)
Timothy Noah is most recently the author of The Great Divergence.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Holding onto the remains of his wallet.
Author: Timothy Noah
Subjects Discussed: The 1984 “Morning in America” ad, why the American public gets suckered into the American Dream panacea, the Kuznets curve, the decline of the bank teller, Obama’s 2012 State of the Union speech, closing the skills gap as the present Democratic position for increasing jobs, the WPA, high school graduation rate decline and skilled labor demand in the 1970s, universal early education, the high school movement, Richard Vedder’s notion of janitors with PhDs, college tuition being priced out of reach for the middle crisis, the 1% vs. the 99%, the American inability to grapple with income inequality, overseas jobs, Germany’s ability to hang onto its manufacturing sector, the decimation of the American labor movement, Alan Blinder’s ideas about an increase in skilled overseas jobs, the Lewis Powell memo, Bryce Harlow, Wal-Mart’s war upon unions, the dismal dregs of union culture in 2012, Occupy Wall Street and anti-activist regulations, Walter Reuther, the gender gap in higher education and with job income, decline of the male median income, closing the gender gap in income, sexism’s strange legacy, how women have exempted themselves from the great divergence, how immigration developments during the 20th century impacted 21st century labor, Paul Samuelson’s views on immigration, the benefits of unskilled labor, high school dropouts and declining wages, the recent Mexican immigration dropoff, checking up on Jim and Ann Marie Blentlinger, Bob Davis and David Wessel’s Prosperity, upward mobility and government jobs, the collapse of the US Postal Service, the brief benefits of computerization, being honest about the decline in upward mobility, and the expiration date of American exceptionalism.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: What about overseas jobs? I mean, two-thirds of all the people who made or sold iPods in 2006, as you point out in the book, were located overseas — most in production jobs. One of your solutions in the “What to Do” section at the end is to import more skilled labor. What of these Apple production jobs? I think I’m returning to what we were talking about earlier, about the difference between skilled labor and unskilled labor and moderately skilled labor. Surely, there needs to be some sort of infrastructure in place. Some patch till we actually get to this great skills gap solution which we seem to be talking about. I mean, it just seems to me that we’re trying to fight a very difficult problem with a form of idealism that is just incompatible with that reality.
Noah: Well, it’s very hard to compete globally for low skilled jobs. Because it’s a race to the bottom. You end up engaging in wage competition with some of the poorest countries in the world and that’s not going to make anybody prosper. If you look at a country like Germany, they’ve managed to hang onto their manufacturing sector. But the way they’ve done it is they have gone after the highly skilled manufacturing jobs. Of course, they also have a much more healthy labor movement. Here in the United States, we’ve had the labor movement been decimated or down and out. 7% of all employed workers. So another part of the solution is to rebuild the labor movement. I’m not saying that it’s going to be easy to address these problems. But in talking about ways to address them, I decided there was really very little point in pretending that tiny little solutions were going to do much. I think it’s time to start a discussion about some of the more ambitious things we can do.
Correspondent: But as you also note, “If you have a job that you can perform from home, it’s worth asking yourself whether an English speaker could perform the job tolerably well from halfway around the world at one thirtieth the pay.” Do you think that America has the obligation to give everybody a job? That that might actually be the solution in some way? Or do you think the labor force really needs to revert to its inherent skills? Or skills that they can actually acquire to get those jobs? I think I’m trying to get an answer from you in terms of whether it’s actually the corporations’ fault or whether it’s education’s fault or whether it’s the people who are unskilled — whether it’s their fault.
Noah: Well, I don’t know whose fault it is, per se. I mean, I think our workers need to acquire those skills one way or the other. And anything we can do to encourage that would be good. Because offshoring is a real problem. Although interestingly, the projections from here forward are that offshoring will have a bad impact on our economy. But it won’t continue probably to have a very bad impact on income inequality. And that’s because those other countries are now coming after the skilled jobs. And it will be very interesting politically to see how that plays out. There are a lot of affluent people who, when you talk about other countries eating our lunch in manufacturing, they say, “Well, we need free trade. You have to have capital flow across borders. Otherwise, we won’t have prosperity.” Well, I wonder if they’ll still be saying the same thing when suddenly you have, for example, American radiologists competing with radiologists overseas. You’ve already got a bit of that. And there are any number of very highly paid jobs that could be performed offsite. And Alan Blinder, an economist at Princeton, he says that he actually thinks that slightly more of the offshore jobs of the future will be skilled rather than unskilled.
Correspondent: Wow. Well, in 1971, Lewis Powell wrote a memo: “The American economic system was under attack from Communists, New Leftists, and other revolutionaries,” as well as “perfectly respectable elements of society.” So this memo results in this tremendous flurry of pro-business lobbying from organizations and so forth. Various consumer-oriented laws are killed through this effective lobbying. And that was forty years ago. Now pro-business lobbying today is arguably more pronounced than then. You point out in the book the figure — that the Chamber of Commerce spent $132 million in 2010. As you point out, not a single labor union could be found among the top twenty lobbyists. So how then can any pro-labor organization make a serious dent with these particular states? I mean, what hope is there for a modern day Walter Reuther in this post-Taft-Hartley age?
Noah: Well, it is true that the corporate power in Washington has vastly increased. And it increased not just because of the Powell memo, but really throughout the late ’60s and the 1970s, you had corporations absolutely flipping out at the rise of the regulatory state and counter-culture politics and Ralph Nader. And one person I write about in the book a great deal is Bryce Harlow, who is best known as a White House aide in the Nixon White House, where he was kind of a good guy. He was trying to keep Nixon honest. Failed at that, but he was considered one of the few honorable men in the Nixon White House. That’s all true. But he had a separate role where he spent most of his career post-1960. And that was as the Procter & Gamble representative in Washington DC. In 1961, when he came to work for Procter & Gamble, there were just a handful of corporate representatives in Washington DC. And Harlow looked around and thought, “We need troops here.” And he started going around the country and evangelizing and giving speeches saying, “We need to build up corporate power in Washington.” And one of the things I really like about Harlow is that he didn’t mince words. He identified the enemy as a movement towards greater equality. Sometimes people say, “Well, what does the rise of corporate influence in Washington have to do with equality?” Well, Harlow himself made the connection. And he succeeded. And Lewis Powell wrote that memo in ’71. Succeeded. Over time, corporations were bestirred to increase their presence in Washignton. Increase their lobbying. And they get a lot more done actually through lobbying than they do through campaign contributions. And as a result, you saw a change in our politics. It hurt the consumer movement. And it hurt the general movement towards greater equality. So, yes, that makes the task a lot more difficult. But I don’t think there is a bigger, more important challenge to liberalism right now than to find a way to rebuild the labor movements somehow.
Correspondent: Do you have any ideas on this? Because it’s pretty decimated and gutted. As you point out, the Walmart situation is terrible.
Noah: Yes. In part of the book, I have a narrative about the attempt to unionize a Wal-Mart in Colorado. And the extent to which the deck is stacked against labor is not to be believed. It is literally true that nobody has ever managed to unionize a Wal-Mart, except for once when the meat cutters in some place in Texas managed to get themselves declared a bargaining unit. And they voted to unionize. And what do you know? About a week later, Wal-Mart said, “We’re not going to be cutting meat anymore. We’re just going to be selling prepackaged meat.” So it is very, very difficult. But there’s an interesting idea that’s been put forward by Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation. Part of the underlying problem is simply a matter of law. I mean, laws favor management over unions. And the ultimate source of this is the 1947 Taft-Hartley law. Which was passed right before the peak of the union movement. But it acted as a slow-acting poison on the labor movement. So you need to roll back Taft-Hartley. And you need to revitalize the National Labor Relations Board. And Kahlenberg’s idea is: he says, “Look, nobody seems to really — it’s been multiple generations since anybody got really excited about workers’ rights. So rather than frame this as labor rights, why don’t we frame it as a civil right? Why don’t we pass a law saying that it is a civil right protected by the Civil Rights Act to organize a union?” It is actually illegal for a boss to fire somebody for trying to form a union. But the law is so weak that, as Kahlenberg says, it’s actually economically irrational for bosses to obey that law. But if you were to extend protection of the Civil Rights Act, then workers would be able to take their bosses to court and sue them. And that might change the equation. That might help.
Correspondent: I agree with you. But unfortunately, as we saw with the healthcare debate, framing anything as a civil right creates a protracted battle and constant gridlock and endless concessions. And as you pointed out with the Wal-Mart example, businesses are pretty much free to do whatever they want. If someone’s going ahead and being an irksome worker, well, we’ll go ahead and whack that part of our operations out. So is there any hope for labor when you have legislation against them and you also have this anything goes, unfettered approach from Wal-Mart and the like?
Noah: Sure. There’s always hope. There’s always hope. There was a time. If you go back to 1932, things were looking pretty bleak then too. And we got a government that was pro-labor And really the growth of labor unions was largely a result of the New Deal. So government could make it happen again. It’s very difficult in this environment, I will grant you. There is a huge amount of demonization of labor. I was talking with a liberal economics writer the other day. And he was saying, “The problem with labor unions is that labor unions in America, they have this culture that’s so adversarial.” And I said, “Culture? Culture? They’re down to 7% of the private sector workforce. You can have any culture you want. Because they’re going to be starting from scratch.” So I think there needs to be — as I say, it is the most difficult challenge. But I don’t think you’re going to see any substantial improvement towards equality without empowering workers. There’s just no reason for bosses to pay workers a lot of money if they don’t have to.
Correspondent: Do you think any movement that would actually amend some of these problems is not being adversarial enough? I mean, even Occupy Wall Street has to be careful. Because you have the police issuing all of these crazy regulations, as we saw with Federal Hall. And now you have competing statutes of how they can protest. The world’s most exclusive club at 25, as we saw. So the question is, well, they have to remain calm. Which is totally unprecedented if you look at our history. If you look at bombs going off in Wall Street decades before. So maybe the economics writer who you were talking to might, in fact, be right. That the problem is also cultural as well. Do you think that?
Noah: Well, you just need to be strategic about the proper methods to use. I think there are certain situations where an adversarial approach is called for. There are other situations where a cooperative approach is called for. One thing that distinguishes European — Western European — labor unions from American ones is they are more cooperative. They have a part of a three-part partnership between industry and labor and the government. Walter Reuther, who was I think maybe the greatest labor leader who ever lived, was the president of the United Auto Workers in the 1940s, the 1950s, and the 1960s. And he tried very hard to establish something like that European model here. And it’s fascinating. He was a brilliant man. And he was constantly proposing things to management that would actually help the company. He would say — for example, after World War II, he said, “My workers will sacrifice some pay because we need to worry about postwar inflation. They will sacrifice some pay. But they have to see that management will show some restraint too by not raising the price of cars.” And this was a time when auto sales were oligopolistic in the United States. It didn’t have a lot to do with supply and demand. So you could knock the price down of the car and still have plenty of profit. Reuther would say — there’s actually one instance — I can’t remember if it was that instance or another one — where he was actually told, “You know, Walter, that’s a really good idea. But because it’s your idea, we’re not going to do it.”
Florence Williams is most recently the author of Breasts.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contemplating a new career in unique dairy products.
Author: Florence Williams
Subjects Discussed: The history of breastfeeding, formula ushered into the industrial age, artificial selection and breasts, 19th century mothers who raised infants on oatmeal, infant mortality, contaminants within breast milk, the recent Time breastfeeding cover controversy, finding flame retardants in breast milk, why formula isn’t a particularly pure product, public breastfeeding laws, lactating moms with pitchforks, phthalates, the difficulty of studying the effects of industrial chemicals on humans, chemicals untested on humans, California’s Proposition 65, being helpless in the wake of Beltway indifference to industrial chemicals, the increase in breast cancer, the Komen for the Cure controversy earlier in the year, breast cancer awareness, increased rates of breast cancer in China, Zena Werb’s molecular research, the Burke and Hare murders, murdering the poor and selling organs to anatomists, burking, John Landis films, the Anatomy Act of 1832, studying breasts at the cellular level, studying rat mammaries to understand humans, the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, ideas on implementing Google Maps for milk ducts, breast apps, knowing more about the cow diary industry than human milk, red wine, the human milk demographic, thought experiments on a human cheese market, making money from human milk, prebiotics, the human breast milk black market, how to confuse vegans with breast milk, imagining a world where one can pick up a gallon of human milk in a bodega, breast enlargement, Dr. Michael Ciaravino and his Houston breast augmentation factory, breasts and patriarchal associations, pornography being ratcheted up, boosting the self-esteem of girls, the virtues of small breasts, Timmie Jean Lindsey and the first breast implant, the problems with objectification from several angles, the problems with early silicone implants, the Dow Corning class action lawsuit, women with breast implants who lose nipple sensation, the marketing of breast implants, the inevitability of living with toxic dust and radiation, and the Stockholm Protocol (and the United States’s failure to sign it).
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I wouldn’t to actually get into the history of breastfeeding. Before the 20th century, of course, breastfeeding was the main method of feeding babies. Then we have postwar life ushering in formula and so forth. It has been pointed out, as you say in the book, by evolutionary biologists that 6,000 human genes relating to lactation are among our most stubbornly conserved ones and, if natural selection as even Darwin has pointed out is in favor of lactation, my question to you is: why is artificial selection through industry so very much against it? Just to get things started here.
Williams: Oh, that’s a big question. Well, you know, there have always been women throughout history — even in our deep evolutionary past — who didn’t want to breastfeed or who couldn’t breastfeed. Of course, many women died in child birth. There were lots of breast infections, as well as other infections related to child birth. And so sometimes women couldn’t produce enough milk. And so as I point out in the book, actually wet nursing is one of the oldest professions known to humankind. You know, humans are very flexible and picky in their feeding habits. And some populations wouldn’t wean their infants for years. Three, four years. The recent cover of Time Magazine was so shocking because it had a three-year-old on the cover. But, in fact, the human race would not be here if it weren’t for toddlers breastfeeding in our deep evolutionary past. And then there have always been populations that wean their young earlier. So when formula came along, many, many women thought this was a great liberating phenomenon and invention. And, you know, they went for it with greater and lesser success, I would say. You know, in the 19th century, women sometimes tried to raise their infants on oatmeal, basically, and cow’s milk.
Correspondent: That was sort of the formula of its time.
Williams: That was the formula of its time. It was often a total disaster.
Correspondent: I would imagine oatmeal wouldn’t be exactly quite the same constituency.
Williams: It’s not really everything you need. And so infant mortality was really high among infants who were not breastfed. Fortunately, now, formula is pretty good at approximating the nutritional needs of the infant. But as we’re learning more and more all the time, breast milk isn’t just a food. It’s a medicine.
Correspondent: It’s a way of life.
Williams: It’s a way of life. (laughs)
Correspondent: Sorry. But it is actually a way of life — in all seriousness. As you point out in this book, there’s also a good deal of adulterated breast milk that is running around right now. We’ll get into the whole phthalates and plastic chemicals in just a bit. But I’m wondering. Why aren’t we considering this? I mean, I guess your book is a starting point. Or is this, in fact, one of the serious issues that scientists are presently looking into? Or is it?
Williams: Oh yes. It is. You know, breast milk now has been known to have contaminants in it from the industrial world. I tested my breast milk while I was breastfeeding my second child and I found out that I had flame retardants and jet fuel ingredient. Trace amounts of pesticide.
Correspondent: That’s what you get for having a pilot career.
Correspondent: Oh, you didn’t have a pilot career! I see.
Williams: Oops! I didn’t have a pilot career.
Williams: We all have these substances coursing through our bodies. Unfortunately, some of them really collect in fatty tissue in the breast. And then the breast is really masterful at converting these substances into food. So it ends up in our breast milk. But I would point out that I did continue breastfeeding. I was convinced that the benefits still outweighed the risks. And, of course, formula is not a completely pure product either. It’s also contaminated with heavy metals and pesticides and whatever else is in the water that you’re mixing it with. And then, you know, of course there are sometimes these scares that come out of China where you find melamine and other weird additives in the formula. So unfortunately, I feel that we’ve taken this miraculous evolutionary substance and we’ve degraded it to the point where you can really now almost compare to formula.
Correspondent: So we can, in fact, compare sullied breast milk of the present industrial age with the formula of yesteryear that infants relied upon. Is it safe to say that we can determine which is the greater threat these days? Or what?
Williams: I still think the benefits of breast milk are incredibly profound and amazing. You know, we’re just learning more and more all the time about how breast milk boosts the immune system. And there’s some evidence that despite all the pollutants in breast milk, it still protects the infant possibly from the effects of other chemicals. You know, it boosts the IQ and it helps teach the human immune system what’s a good pathogen, what’s a bad pathogen. So there are all kinds of great reasons to still use it. Of course, unfortunately, in the United States anyway, we don’t really support breastfeeding. As you can tell from the reaction to that Time cover, we’re still deeply uncomfortable with it.
Correspondent: There are still public laws, however, that permit women to breastfeed their children that we’ve seen more and more of in the last decade or two. I think there’s — well, we’re in New York City. So we can be a little hubristic about this.
Williams: You can do anything. (laughs)
Correspondent: You’re coming from Colorado. So I think it’s a little more challenging there.
Williams: Well, there’s always these stories in the news of women who get kicked out of the shopping mall because they need to breastfeed their infant. And sometimes that creates this big reaction. And sometimes lactating moms will come and have protests.
Correspondent: Lactating moms with pitchforks. I love it! (laughs)
Williams: Stay away from them. They’re dangerous!
Steve Erickson is most recently the author of These Dreams of You. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #180.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contriving plans to join a community of one half.
Author: Steve Erickson)
Subjects Discussed: Writing a novel around short bursts, plagiarizing the future, The Sea Came In at Midnight, the novel as kaleidoscope, rationale that emerges midway through writing a novel, losing 50 pages in These Dreams of You, not writing from notes, Zan’s tendency to hear profane words from telephone conversations, the considerable downside and formality of being dunned, fake politeness and underlying tones of contempt, not naming Obama, Kennedy, or David Bowie, Molly Bloom in Ulysses and Molly in These Dreams of You, Erickson’s commitment to the ineffable, letting a reader find her own meaning, defining a character in terms of story instead of public and historical terms, listening to David Bowie to get a sense of Berlin, Erickson’s cherrypicked version of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, not capitalizing American and European throughout Dreams, using autobiographical details for fiction, Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, “part fact part fiction is what life is,” dating a Stalinist, why fiction is more informed by real life, how invented details encourage a conspiracy, the dissipating honor of being true to what is true, the last refuge of a bad writer, what a four-year-old can and cannot say, bending the truth when it sounds too fictional, Kony and Mike Daisey, combating the needs for believability and readers who feel defrauded, authenticity within lies, kids and photos who disappear in Dreams, striking a balance between the believable and the phantasmagorical, fiction which confounds public marketeers from the outset, postmodernism’s shift to something not cool, limitations and literary possibilities, the burdens of taxonomy, living in a culture that wishes to pigeonhole, why Zeroville and These Dreams of You gravitate more toward traditional narrative, reviewers who are hostile to anything remotely unconventional, writing a novel from the collective national moment, the relationship between history and fiction, being a man “out of time,” thoughts on how a private and antisocial reading culture is increasingly socialized, having an antisocial temperament, writers who cannot remember the passages that they write, the pros and cons of book conventions, and being “a community of one.”
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Erickson: We do live in a culture that wants to pigeonhole things. I don’t know whether that’s a function of late 20th century/early 21st century culture or is a function of American culture, or some combination of the two. In Japan, for instance, they don’t seem to worry about that when it comes to my novels.
Correspondent: But with Zeroville and with Dreams, we have moved a little bit more toward traditional narrative. I mean, maybe the impulse was always there. But do you think this has just been symptomatic of what you’ve been more occupied with of late? Fusing that traditional narrative with, say, some of these additional ideas of disappearance, of inserting words into sentences, and so forth?
Erickson: Right. Well, it’s hard for me to know. There are still a lot of people out there who would read this novel, These Dreams of You, and think it’s a pretty damn unconventional novel. They may not have read Our Ecstatic Days and thereby see this novel as whatever you want to call it: more accessible. But I can tell from the reviews I’ve gotten on this novel, which have largely been somewhere between good and better than good, nonetheless there are reviewers out there who really don’t quite know what to make of even this particular novel, which I think you’ve rightly said steers a little bit toward the conventional than earlier novels. And in the case of Zeroville, again, I had a strategy from the beginning, having thought about this novel for a while. I had started the novel at one point and I was writing it differently. And I was writing it — I don’t mean differently in terms of my earlier books. It was written more like my earlier books. And I stopped. I threw it out. Because I felt that this novel is about loving the movies, being obsessed with movies. It should have some of the energy of a movie. It should follow some of the narrative laws of a movie. So you had a lot of dialogue and a lot of the story being told in external terms. Being told in dialogue. Being told in action. Not a lot of motivational stuff. The main character in that novel, we never quite know where he’s coming from. We never know if he’s some kind of savant, or socially and mentally challenged. We never know.
In the case of this novel, I was aware at some point that, first of all, I was writing a story about a family, which I had never done. And, secondly, I was writing a story that it became clear to me, really from the first scene, that addressed the national moment and a moment that any reader could recognize in a way that none of my other novels quite had. Los Angeles was not submerged in a lake or covered by a sandstorm. It was out of that opening scene of the novel, which was the real-life scene that led to writing the novel. I merged a story that I thought would be recognizable to most readers. And I didn’t want to completely lose that. There are a lot of times in the novel that I think that is challenged. That recognizability. Or that recognition rather of the contemporary moment. Halfway through the book, the story suddenly changes track. But even as I was taking the reader, even as three quarters of the way through the book I knew the reader was going to be saying “Where is this thing going?” I didn’t want to lose that connection between the book and a moment of national history. It’s a history that’s still going on. It’s not a history of the past, but of the present. I didn’t want to lose that connection.
Correspondent: But why did you feel at this point, with this novel, that you needed to respond to the national moment? I mean, history is something, especially as it is unfolding, that one doesn’t necessarily feel obliged to respond to. So now you’re getting into questions of, well, is it possible that you are giving into the reader somewhat? In light of the conditions that we were describing earlier. Where did this need to respond to the 2008 climate come from?
Erickson: Well, I think it was completely personal. I was sitting on the sofa watching the election in November 2008 — Election Night — with my black daughter. And I knew this was a singular moment for me. And I knew this was a singular moment for her. And it was a singular moment for the country. And it was one of those cases where the story made itself manifest to the point of screaming at me. Here’s a story that not many other people are in a position to tell, given the circumstances of their lives as those circumstances were coinciding with the circumstances of the country.
Correspondent: Sure. I wanted to actually go back into the intertextuality within the novel. You have this character — J. Willkie Brown, the Brit who invites Zan over to give the lecture on “The Novel as a Literary Form Facing Obsolescence in the Twenty-First Century, Or the Evolution of Pure History to Fiction.” Now if we call journalism the first draft of history, it’s interesting that you also describe that “Zan’s single triumph over Brown is that, in time-honored journalistic tradition, the world-famous journalist always longed to write a novel.” It’s also interesting that Zan must return to his American roots: the original British origin point, right? To collect his thoughts on how he has dealt with words. And I’m wondering how much this relationship between history and pure fiction is predicated on Anglo-American relations. Can any novel or any life entirely deflect “the crusade against gray” that you mention?
Erickson: The crusade against what?
Correspondent: The crusade against gray. It’s when you’re describing Ronnie Jack Flowers and the specific content of his views. I wanted to talk about him, if it’s possible too.
Erickson: Yeah. That’s a big question. Early on, Zan wonders — or actually an omniscient narrator wonders by way of Zan — if this is the sort of history that puts novelists out of business. And I’m not sure I’ve got a sweeping cultural answer for all this. At some point early on in my life, well before the 21st century, I knew that I was a man out of time. I knew that the great art form of the 20th century was film. And I still believe that. And at the same time, popular music was rendering other media obsolete or, in terms of relevance, was usurping all of these other forms. But my talent and my temperament is to write novels. You know, and I should probably have been born fifty years earlier. And so as much as I would love to convince myself that I am operating in the central cultural arena of the time, I know I’m not. I know that fiction becomes not a fringe form, because too many people still read. And not even a secondary form. But a form that becomes more private. That is not shared with the culture at large. I mean, people read novels in private. Whereas they still tend to watch movies in public. Even as we watch more and more movies by ourselves at home. Even as they tend to respond still to music in public, whether they’re in the car with their sound system. So it’s just…it’s what I do. And it’s what I’m stuck doing. And the relevance or significance of fiction in relationship to history or journalism is almost beside the point for someone like me.
Correspondent: So working in a cultural medium that is below the mass culture omnipresence is the best way for you to negotiate these issues of history and fact?
Erickson: Well, I think…
Correspondent: A more dignified way?
Erickson: No, I think, Ed, it’s the only way I know. That’s all. I don’t know that it’s the best way or the more dignified way. I mean, I can’t rationalize it in those terms. In a way, I would like to be able to. You know, at some point early on, I thought a lot about filmmaking. When I was in college, I was actually a film student.
Erickson: But I recognized at some point that, for better or worse, whatever talent I had — I felt I had some talent writing fiction. I had no idea whether I’d have any talent making movies. But perhaps even more importantly, temperamentally fiction is the province of a loner. Fiction is about locking yourself up in a room and having as little social interaction with other people as possible, and living in this world that you’ve created. There is nothing collaborative about it in the way that film is, or even making music is. So the answer to your question is entirely personal. It’s entirely personal. It’s what I was just meant to do.
Correspondent: You just have an anti-collaborative temperament.
Erickson: Absolutely I do. I mean, it’s more than that. I have an antisocial temperament. I teach in a writing program back in California and I have a lot of problems, actually, with writing programs and writing workshops. And I tell my students this. I say, the thing is, the paradox is that a writing program socializes what is really an antisocial endeavor. There’s something very strange about shutting yourself off from the rest of society to create this world or reality that’s completely yours and that you don’t share with anybody until it’s done, and even then you share it on a very private basis. If someone’s sitting across the room, and they’re reading one of my novels, I’m going to leave. You know, I don’t want to be there. Because even though I know that the public has complete access, what I did still remains so private to me, I don’t want to be around when somebody’s reading my work. Except for cases like this, I don’t especially want to have casual conversations about it. Perhaps strangest of all, and I’ve heard a number of other writers say this — I heard Jonathan Lethem say it a few weeks ago — people will come up to me, for instance, and ask me about a section of a book and I have no recollection of what they’re talking about. I have no recollection of writing it. I have no recollection of what I was thinking when I wrote it. I often have to ask them to show me what it is. Because I was utterly immersed in that, and then it’s done, and I need to leave it behind.
Correspondent: Running away from people who are reading your books. I mean, does this create any problems for you to go about your life? If you’re interested in the types of things that Steve Erickson readers are likely to be interested in, this could create some intriguing social problems.
Erickson: Well, as uncomfortable as it may make me to be in the same room, I would love to tell you that my life is littered with scenes of people reading my books everywhere I go. But that’s not the case. So it doesn’t happen that often. But I don’t have a lot of conversations with people who are casual friends about my work. And I don’t want to. So in that sense, the antisociability — is that the right word for it? The antisociability of the writing and the work, it does go on. It bleeds outside the lines of the life of that work, and it bleeds into areas of my other life, where I don’t, even though I’m always a writer, I don’t want to be interacting with people as a writer.
Correspondent: So is there any place for community? An increasing term used, I find, in writing. We have a “literary community” and so forth. Is this a logical extension of what some people find in, say, AWP or MFA workshops? Is there any possible place for community for you? Or that you find of value?
Erickson: For me, not especially. For other writers, perhaps. And I’ve been to AWP. And I’ve been to book conventions. The LA Times Festival of Books. And I can even drive a certain amount of pleasure for 24 hours to meet other writers. But the only community that gets any writing done is a community of one. And at the point that it becomes too much a salon, then I check out of it.
Correspondent: So for you, being antisocial is the truest temperament for an artistic writer.
Erickson: Well, I don’t know how you can be anything else. Certainly at the moment that when you’re doing the work. For me, that’s true, yeah. I can’t speak for other writers.
(Photo: Stefano Paltera)
Catherine Chung is most recently the author of Forgotten Country.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he left his car keys in Korea.
Author: Catherine Chung
Subjects Discussed: How Forgotten Country emerged from multiple stories, finding inspiration from disappearance, mysterious ghost monks that couldn’t float their way into the narrative, getting to know a character’s family by telling other stories, bad fictional boyfriends, Korean American identity as seen through reflection, character depth that springs from an aesthetic, how Chung keeps her characters separate from her identity, drawing from emotional experience, the difficulties of finding details in grief, losing your parents, giving additional details to personal experience, loneliness expressed as a dialogue between author and characters, growing up in the Midwest, “Chinaman Costumes,” racist products sold at chain stores, being surprised by people speaking against injustice, first-generation Korean Americans and second-generation Korean Americans, being bullied while growing up, being pushed into a brick wall, how schools used to react to bullying, dwelling on childhood incidents, moving around a lot as a kid, not being accepted, changing perceptions of bullying over the past few decades, grief as a way of understanding cultural identity, “From the Ruins,” whether any city or location can offer true respite, escaping to Leipzig, poorly buried corpses during the Korean War, animal-based mythology, how the subconscious fits personal anecdotes into fiction, unanticipated symbols which emerge in life, paying attention to things that seems like signs, the burdens of an analytical subconscious, finding the mathematical precision within sentences, Chung’s math background, the messier process of half-formed thoughts, the difficulties of not knowing, whether or not block is productive, obsessively circling a problem, Csikszentmihalyi and flow, using the least amount of words possible in a sentence, being concerned with a readership, how style is shaped through unexpected means, abuse and ambiguity, the creative showdown between God Cathy and Janie’s Voice, the troublesome results of divine creative intervention, and control in fiction and in life.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I know that Forgotten Country emerged from a number of different stories that you were working on at the same time. You have, of course, this idea of the boy falling out the window, which is at the very beginning. The mysterious hermit girl who crops up later in this book. And then you also have this story that was inspired by your father’s sister, who disappeared when you were a child. It’s really interesting to me that, first of all, these stories fused their way together into a novel and that, secondly, this came before this massive family unity of complicated relationships. So I’m curious, first and foremost, if you could describe how these stories came together in novel form and how you were able to fuse them together, and whether you needed some of these orbiting asteroids to circle around and become the planetary family unit.
Chung: Yeah. Well, you make it sounds as if I did it so intentionally.
Correspondent: (laughs) No, it never is intentional, of course. But I’m wondering how the connections came about.
Chung: Yeah. I think that they came about after a lot of time. There’s one character telling all these separate stories. And that’s what linked them. I didn’t really know what they were doing with each other or how they were related. There are other stories that were also in this book that eventually dropped out.
Correspondent: Oh really? Like what?
Chung: So there was a flying ghost monk.
Chung: Yeah. He was eradicated fairly early on. But he was totally in there and for a long time, he was carrying a great deal of weight in terms of just the number of pages.
Correspondent: That’s quite a feat, given that he was a ghost.
Chung: Yeah. He was a ghost. He was on a trek to find his lost daughter. And that was one of those stories I realized in my mind was related to the other three stories, right? Because all those stories are about loss and about trying to find what’s been lost once you’ve moved on. It’s almost impossible to do that. But in terms of the narrative arc, he didn’t work. And part of the reason he didn’t work was because the main narrator really was Janie, who was the protagonist and the narrator of the novel. Because he was carrying on his own story and I thought, “Well.”
Correspondent: You can’t very well have him being narrated by Janie.
Chung: Yeah. And in my mind, he was related. But in terms of the book, he didn’t fit.
Correspondent: So how then did the family come about if Janie was the narrator for these three stories?
Chung: Ah! Because she’s totally preoccupied by her family.
Correspondent: Oh, I see. In the act of telling these other stories, you got to know her family.
Chung: Yeah! That’s exactly right. These are the stories that I was really interested in. But the other stories that she was also interested in, I had to create a character who could tell these stories. But I think that she was interested in these stories because of the light they shed on her own experience. And as she told these stories, she’s sort of a secretive, hard-to-get-to-know person. So these were the stories that she wanted to tell. But then there were these underlying stories of her own life that came to play as she was telling them.
Correspondent: And allowed you to work out the connections with the sister, with the aunt, and so forth. Well, this leads me to wonder, did you have the competitive relationship between the sisters in place before the father-daughter relationship? Which of those came first?
Chung: Which of those came first? I think that the father-daughter relationship came first. Hannah’s disappearance came first.
Correspondent: Of course.
Chung: It was the absolute first thing to happen. But their competitive nature came as I was discovering why Hannah would leave and why it would be difficult to find her. I discovered what their issues were.
Correspondent: It’s interesting that competitiveness would come from disappearance. (laughs)
Chung: Yeah! And I think that the competitiveness also arose not early on in the novel — but I think Janie gets jealous with all the attention that’s focused on Hannah while she’s missing.
Correspondent: You were mentioning ghosts earlier. We’re talking about disappearance.
Correspondent: I’m wondering if subtraction might in fact be the way for you to pinpoint what a story or what, in this case a novel is all about.
Chung: That’s a really interesting point. I think that a lot of what I’m interested in and a lot of what I focus on is what’s missing or what’s longed for. Or what’s gone.
Correspondent: Were there any instances when you were writing this where you simply had too much and you had to remove an element? I mean, we were talking earlier…
Chung: Like a flying ghost monk.
Correspondent: Like a flying ghost. Or a character perhaps. Or some angle that just didn’t allow you to get that emotional precision that I think is there throughout the book.
Chung: Yeah. I was thinking the other day just about how many pages I removed. And I would say the book is about 300 pages, but I think I must have deleted at least six or seven hundred. Probably more like a thousand as I was going through the drafts. So entire storylines fell out. Like the flying ghost monk. There was a character. Janie’s love interest also ended up getting cut out.
Correspondent: Oh, I see.
Chung: And so as I went…
Correspondent: Is this the guy in college? Or just another love interest?
Chung: No, it was another love interest.
Correspondent: Oh! Another love interest!
Chung: There was another.
Correspondent: What was he like?
Chung: What was he like? Well, you know, I think he wasn’t all that interesting. Which is why I took him out. He wasn’t really holding his weight. I realized it wasn’t about him.
Correspondent: Well, I also wanted to ask about Hannah. The thing that’s fascinating to me about her is that she almost seems like a reflection of Janie. I mean, I think specifically about the scene in the hotel elevator, where Hannah follows her in and is essentially tailing her and mimicking her. And then you also have Hannah, which is a palindrome.
Correspondent: But also you observe of her at another point in the book, “how strangers, even adult men, would pause in the street to look at her, and how easily she held their attention.” So she’s also, on the other hand, resistant to Korean food. Which leads me to also wonder if her reflective nature came to mimic the idea of America or an American identity mimicking the original Korean identity that Janie has. And I’m wondering if you could talk about if Hannah came from almost a reflective pool from dwelling on Janie like this.
Chung: That’s such an interesting question, and one I haven’t heard yet. But I think that’s exactly it. Or at least that’s the source or the core of Janie’s resentment to Hannah. I think that because Hannah not only reflects Janie, but also gets to do some of the things that Janie doesn’t get to, but would like to, Janie feels that that’s been taken from her. That she only gets to be a certain kind of person because Hannah has already taken this other part of her. This reflection, exactly as you’re saying, is reflecting some part of her that is also slightly different. And so Janie is very competitive and jealous about that. But I also think that that link that you made to how her Americanness is a reflection of how her Koreanness could be a reflection is also very interesting. Because of the ways in which people change or mimic each other or come to copy an idea of what they should be. So, yeah, those were things that were with me the whole time that I was writing this book. And I just think that it’s really cool that you picked up on that.
Correspondent: But when you considered Hannah, did she first come to you as this aesthetic person? And did you need to flesh her out by this reflective thing we’re talking about? By imbuing in her some sense of her being looked at by other people? By people who were not, in fact, Janie?
Chung: Maybe. And I think that the thing that I kept getting caught on with this question is that I have often thought of both Janie and Hannah as reflections of parts of myself as well.
Correspondent: Yes. Of course. They’re your secret sisters. (laughs)
Chung: Yeah! Who live inside my head. But I was interested in Hannah as the object of attention, right? As a kind of reflection. And I think part of Hannah’s problem is that it’s hard for her to — and Janie’s problem as well — it’s for them to think of themselves, or they get tripped up on the way that they’re being looked at by other people. And it’s hard when you see yourself as a reflection. Because then what are you?
Liz Moore is most recently the author of Heft.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Swelling with untapped emotional weight.
Author: Liz Moore
Subjects Discussed: Emotional sincerity through a twin narrative, Mary Gordon, McNally Jackson, “grotesque” characters, Flannery O’Connor, complicated relationships with food in the developed world, body image issues, the perception of physicality, researching addictions and obsessions, Harper Lee, Beverly Cleary, Holden Caulfield, masculinity as a virtue and as a pathetic quality, feminine qualities, being the strong person in a relationship, emotional sensitivity, Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, looking at the failings of our contemporary world through children, broken families and togetherness, the necessity of breaking a character in some way, the difficulties of generating plot, mystery narratives, maintaining a stacked series of coincidences, writing insecurities, ensuring the believability of events, imposing incidents, shifting back-and-forth on the book’s ending (not revealed in this conversation: don’t worry!), parallel character qualities, red herrings, readers who impose their own notions of authenticity, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, confusing sentiment with sentimentality, writing nasty and unlikable characters, the necessity of liking your characters, sincerity as a revolutionary act in 2012, Gordon Lish and style-oriented fiction, modernist writers, reading James Joyce as a teenager, “The Dead,” “Counterparts,” how different readers choose different favorite stories from Dubliners, giving Arthur a monied background, various characters who give Kel money, how money changes everything, withholding godlike interventions when writing fiction, an early version of Heft written in the third person, first person vs. third person, The Words of Every Song, playing around with third-person, the influence of music upon writing, listening to lots of jazz, dashed dialogue, artificially congealed viewpoints, working at a guitar shop, the best places to observe people, being easily distractable, peripheral hearing, writing exercises from Colum McCann, teaching, the meanness of people who stare through other people and pretend that they don’t exist, people who cry by themselves, the giddy embrace of an old friend, the relationship between observation and imagination, when your friends begin to die, when your friends get married and having kids, increasingly delayed marriage among twentysomethings, and assorted existential possibilities.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I was curious, first of all, about a certain quality in this novel that is channeled through these two very different perspectives. You have, of course, Arthur, who is this man who is an ex-professor. He is just under 600 pounds. You have this kid, Kel, who has an alcoholic mother and the like. What’s interesting to me is that these types of perspectives in another author’s hands might almost be grotesque or caricaturish. Yet there’s a good deal of emotional sincerity to this work. And I’m wondering what you did to get that. I mean, is it a matter of knowing the characters extremely well before you set out on this journey to describe their intertwined fates? What of this? Let’s start from there.
Moore: Sure. Well, it’s interesting that you use the word “grotesque.” Because last night, actually, I had an event at McNally Jackson with Mary Gordon. It was a conversation with Mary Gordon. And I used the word “grotesque” to describe the characters.
Moore: And she looked at me. She correct me and said, “They’re not grotesque. Not in the literary sense.” They’re not grotesque the way Flannery O’Connor’s characters are grotesque because neither one of them is mean or intentionally malevolent in a way. So I think they both have good intentions. And despite the fact that Arthur is certainly grotesque-looking, I think his internal life or his interior life is — I don’t know. There’s something pathetic about him in a way. But I like to think that his thoughts kind of save him from whatever lack of appeal he has physically. I hope his interior life is appealing in some way.
Correspondent: The thing is: I read this and I was both conscious and not conscious of Arthur’s physicality. I mean, he describes it also on a compartmentalized level. Like he’ll sometimes describe his belly or he’ll describe what he eats more so than who he is. I mean, he is what he eats. And I guess this goes back to the question of emotional sincerity and how you managed that. Whether this is the way to turn any physicality into something more. To nail that. I mean, four years is a long time to work on a book. So I’m curious.
Moore: Yeah. You’re talking about how…
Correspondent: How you put yourself on the line emotionally. Yeah.
Moore: Well, it was difficult. So, okay, I am not obese. I know this is a radio interview. But I’m not. And so I think some people have asked me, I guess, a two-part question. One is how I know what it’s like to be obese or to compulsively overeat. And the other is what right do I have to write from that perspective — in the same way that you might ask somebody why am I writing from the point of view of men. What authority do I have to do that?
Correspondent: I’m more in the former camp. (laughs)
Moore: You’re more in the former camp. Okay. Well, I’ll say this. I think it is impossible in the developed world not to have a somewhat messed up relationship with food. So I’ll say this. Because I’m a woman, from my point of view, every woman that I know has some sort of messed up relationship with food or I can imagine very clearly what it would be like to let go and to go to the very extreme place I can imagine food-wise and to just say, “That’s it. I’ve given up. I’m done restricting what I eat. And therefore I’m just going to eat whatever it is that I want.” And ao, in a sense, that was easy to imagine. Because I have imagined it. I mean, I don’t want to speak for every woman or every person. But I think it’s a place that I could easily imagine myself going. And so investing those thoughts into Arthur was easy. I’ve had them. In terms of his physicality, I guess that was more imaginary. But even again, we all loathe. I think he’s a self-loathing character. And we all loathe certain parts of ourselves. Even our own bodies. I mean, I have spent energy in my life loathing certain parts of myself. So that too comes, even though it’s not extreme, I’m —
Correspondent: Such as what?
Moore: I’m some place on the spectrum of both those things.
Correspondent: What is it that you loathe about yourself that you can draw from?
Moore: My physicality — if you want me to get specific? No, I’m not going to get specific.
Correspondent: Okay. No problem.
Moore: But there’s…
Correspondent: I’m just trying to get a general idea here.
Moore: Yeah. I mean, just growing up as a young woman, you fixate. You almost disconnect certain parts of your body from yourself. You disconnect. You fixate on whatever part of your body you imagine to be grotesque — to use that word again. And you just…you spend a lot of time and energy detaching yourself from it or imagining it as some thing outside of yourself. And I guess that I think Arthur does that a lot by describing his failure, his gut. The way he describes it. Or describing his chins. Or describing the way that his gut hangs down between his legs when he sits down. That’s almost something outside of himself. I mean, it is outside of him. But the way I have, or people in general sometimes think of their bodies as not being part of themselves, as being something else, interests me. And that’s what I was imagining when I was writing Arthur.
Correspondent: But for his specific feelings and thoughts on food — especially the early incident with the chocolate eggs that is late in the book — I mean, did you talk to people who are overweight? Did you observe? Or did you draw from this sense of the imagination or this transposition of your own experiential point of view?
Moore: I did not go out and intentionally binge ever in researching this character. Although that would have been a good excuse to. If I really wanted to.
Correspondent: Yes. “I’m having that second bowl of ice cream, dammit!” (laughs)
Moore: Research! I didn’t do that. I know what it’s like to. From history. And I know people who are overweight. And more than that though. I know people who have had addictions. And when I think of Arthur — I mean, he doesn’t just eat too much. He has an addiction to food. And to other things too. To isolation and solitude and to being inside of his home. He’s certainly, I would say, agoraphobic on some level. And other characters in the book have addictions too. And so I was drawing from, when I say my own experience of addiction, I don’t mean my own addictions, but my personal experience with people who have had addictions. I wouldn’t call it research. Because it’s just been part of my life. And the research that I did tended to be more technical. Like I spoke to a couple of different doctors about the medical consequences of obesity and also the medical consequences of long-term alcoholism. There’s another character in the book who’s an alcoholic. And also, without giving too much of the plot away, I had to research some medical interventions. Emergency treatments and stuff like that.
Correspondent: You don’t necessarily have to have your left tail in your car go out in order to actually write about it. Or did you?
Moore: Never had my left taillight in my car out. Good memory. That’s outstanding. And I’ve never punched anyone. And I’ve never… (laughs)
Correspondent: Punched by accident too.
Moore: I’ve never…I’ve never…well, now we’re getting into too many plot points. But I think every author that I’ve ever spoken to will say that personal experience is what invests the book with its energy. But certainly very little of this book is autobiographical.
Correspondent: Would you say, especially with Kel, that it has been drawn from reading, for example, of Harper Lee? There’s a Cleary in there. Beverly Cleary?
Moore: Oh, I love that. Beverly Cleary. (laughs)
Correspondent: I’m wondering, I suppose, if the muse in a sense wasn’t just the transposition theory I have offered, but also a lot of reading and wanting to capture that feeling of what it is to be young so that you can have this emotional sincerity alive on the page with Kel.
Moore: Yeah. I mean, I’ve heard Kel compared to Holden Caulfield and angry young man type characters, and I’m sure that I’ve been influenced over the years by a lot of the young — I guess the most famous adolescent characters in history. I think it’s impossible to avoid. But for me, he comes out of a lot of kids I grew up with, many of whom had very serious burdens that they were carrying around. But especially the young men, who had to perform this kind of extreme bravado. Especially the athletes too. There’s something so sad and kind of pathetic, again, I guess you could use that word again, about watching kids, young kids, being externally macho or externally tough and internally just torn apart and really sad and lonely and needing help and having to still be tough.
Correspondent: Masculinity’s a pathetic quality? Not just that quality in youth — speaking as a man, we all have our little moments, I suppose. But why do you find it to be pathetic? I mean, maybe I’m not viewing it that way — in large part because I found the book to also really grapple with issues of sensitivity in these characters. So maybe this is a way to anchor what you might view as pathetic.
Moore: Yeah. I think masculinity can be a virtue in a lot of cases. But I think it’s the idea of having to perform it when you don’t feel it. Or perform an extreme version of it or something that is pathetic and that makes me sad to see. Mostly it makes me sad to see in children.
Stephen Fry is most recently the author of The Fry Chronicles.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Basking in a pleasant tsunami of erudition.
Author: Stephen Fry
Subjects Discussed: Journalists who attack morally and spiritually, capitulating an iPhone, the number of gadgets that Fry carries on him, physical books vs. ebooks, high school physics lessons and vacillating ideas about the atom, books and mass, Anthony Powell’s Books Do Furnish a Room, technological developments and misunderstanding about replacement, ways in which technologies complement each other, the plight of newspapers, Page One, whether The New York Times is a trusted platform, accepting the fact that Gaddafi is dead, embedded journalists, Kickstarter campaigns and journalism, working for free in the post-Internet age, Fry’s presence on Twitter, Twitter vs. newspapers, not giving print interviews, the achievements of journalists, terrorists who rely on newspapers, the difficulties of not reporting serious changes to the Manhattan skyline, “cheating” on essays in school by writing them in advance, Fry’s ability to recall books by line number and specific edition, Shakespeare, hypothetical exam answers to Macbeth, the Wooly Willy, the pointlessness of exams, Fry’s love for technology, what education can learn from the ancient Greeks, the numerous intellectual trajectories which spring from coffee, Diderot, Secessionist Viennese coffeeshops, Gustav Klimt, the value of giving someone a single word to jump off from, Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis,” Lord Alfred Douglas, the Oxford manner, education as “the ability to play gracefully with ideas,” intelligence rooted around connection, the No Child Left Behind Act, Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, the etymology of “draconian,” vocational training, fruit trees, people who believe the Alps to be dull, those who blame teachers, having a busy schedule, Fry’s schedule vs. a politician’s schedule, not knowing things and greed, Fry’s shaky terpsichorean skills, humans and language, Steven Pinker, Guy Deutscher, how tenses imply futurity, animals and sex, the Phoenicians and writing, cuneiform and the alphabet, hip-hop, Fry’s rapping talent, forgetting to delight in the beauty of language, Wodehousian language rhythms and music, connections between Wodehouse, Cicero, and W.S. Gilbert, film adaptations of The Importance of Being Earnest, Jewish and gay identity, the linguistic roots of Shoah, 19th century anti-Semitism, meeting Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, playing Schumann’s Träumerei on the cello for Josef Mengele, when human beings are treated like machines, Hannah Arendt, Ring Lardner’s golden rule for screenwriting, political correctness, restrictions on the depictions of smoking in BBC documentaries and drama, Spooks, bizarre moral standards on British television, being exploited by Stephen Sondheim for a scavenger hunt, having a fax machine in the early days, Fry’s efforts to read Atlas Shrugged, the 1949 film adaptation of The Fountainhead, writing the book for Me and My Girl, the fine aural distinctions between a fax machine and a 56k modem, the 21st century audience for Ayn Rand, maniacal ideologies that don’t include joy or hope, the RAND Corporation, the Tea Party, reasonable addictions vs. extreme addictions, empathy, false categories when contemplating what it is to be human, Artistole’s “man is a political animal,” Kant’s symbolic logic, the behavioral thrust of David Hume, the readability of philosophers, TE Hulme’s influence on Pound and the modernists, moralists, Hulme’s “concrete flux of interpenetrating intensities,” humans being verbs rather than nouns, doctors and diagnosis-based language, referring to people by their condition, kindness and cheerfulness as essential virtues, eudaimonism, Mad cartoons, the “pay it forward” principle, Fry’s aborted career as a book reviewer, whether criticism is necessary, thick skins vs. thin skins, not wanting to hurt people’s feelings, Alec Guinness’s rude remarks to other actors, Paul Eddington, The Browning Version, Fry’s desire to play Crocker-Harris, pathetic efforts to be polite, Fry’s futile efforts to hawk his own book, teaching Aeschylus to inspire, cruelty, “Never presume to understand another man’s marriage,” ethics and absolute evil, Schindler’s Ark, the French Resistance bombing restaurants, Fry’s Apple zeal in relation to Foxconn abuses, suicides at Foxconn, Steve Jobs vs. Henry Ford, Brave New World, Godwin’s law, Apple’s business in China, overseas industrialization, Alms for Oblivion, and why Fry believes Simon Raven is better than Anthony Powell.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Tying these multifarious observations with what is in your book, I actually wanted to ask you about this intriguing period when you were at Cambridge. You describe how you were “cheating” on essays because you wrote all of the essays in advance in your head — to the point where you were able to cite chapter and verse.
Correspondent: Specific lines down to the line number of Shakespeare. Specific critical reference works down to the publisher, the edition.
Fry: The review course.
Correspondent: Whether it was in trade or whether it was in hardcover. Rather extraordinary. And that you would actually tilt these essays in relation to the question that was asked of you.
Fry: That’s the point. Exactly. The point is: if you have an essay on Othello, if you have an essay on Anthony and Cleopatra — we’ll stick with Shakespeare just for the sake of a closed canon, so we can think about it — if you have an essay on Macbeth, you have a point of view. I know I can deliver 3,000 words very quickly on Macbeth if I know I can.
Correspondent: You have 45 minutes right now, man!
Fry: And the question is “The essence of Macbeth is the difference between the microcosm of Macbeth’s mind and the macrocosm of the real world,” say. Now that may not suit my thesis at all for Macbeth, which is actually to do with the way the poetry disintegrates as the play progresses. But I can make it exactly answer that question. You just have to polarize. You know, it’s like getting a magnet. Did you ever have it in — you probably were American. So I don’t know why I’m asking if you had them. Those little bald men with iron filings and a magnet and you used to make beards out of them.
Correspondent: That was, I think, before my time.
Fry: It probably was before your time. But that’s what you’re doing. You’re taking a magnet and you’re polarizing what you know. Now it’s kind of cheating. It’s not cheating really. Because I am passionate about Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare. But I’m very, very lazy when it comes to exams. And I also am aware that an examination is nothing other than the ability to pass an exam. And what use is that? You might as well say, “In order to qualify from Harvard University, you have to win a squash match. Or you have to do the best Lady Bracknell of your year. Then you’ll get your top degree.” But why is the ability to reproduce prepared pappy ideas about intellectual concepts on paper — why is that a good reason to give someone a job in a law firm, in Wall Street, or in a publishing company for that matter? And part of my love of technology, personally what I would love is, of course, to go all the way back to the days of ancient Greece where you had Aristotle and you had Plato and you had the Lyceum and you had the Academy. So you would actually have a master. And to me, this is how an ideal examination would go. It doesn’t matter what subject the person is reading, as we say in England, or studying, as you would say here. You would just say, “Coffee.” Now someone who’s reading history might just instantly start talking about the coffee shops and how they were banned by Charles II, how they then came back again under Queen Anne, and how they caused a movement with the coffee shops in Paris with Diderot and the Republic of Letters and Voltaire and the Enlightenment. Or they could talk about the Secessionist Viennese coffee shops of Mahler and Klimt and so on. And Stefan Zweig and the whole generation of intellectuals. Rilke and Kraus and so on. Or you could talk about coffee as: Is it an emulsion? Is it a solution? How is coffee grown? What is it as a cash crop? What is is politically? Ethically? That there are some countries who are not allowed to grow food that they can eat. They can only grow food that they can sell. Currency rates. It’s a geopolitical issue. You can talk about the history — here we are in a publisher’s office — about the coffee table book. You could talk about it as a medical student. You could talk about it as a stimulant. You could talk about caffeine.
Correspondent: Worker exploitation. Fair trade.
Fry: Yeah. Basically, what you want, if you’re examining someone, is just to give them a single word and watch them run with it. One of my absolutely favorite quotations — and I’ll try and get it right — is from “De Profundis,” the letter that Oscar Wilde wrote in prison to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Bosie, as he nicknamed him. The man who basically destroyed his life. The boy who destroyed his life. And at one point, he’s talking about Oxford, and he’s saying, “The fact that you didn’t get a first-class degree is a disgrace. Many first-class minds never achieve first-class degrees. The fact that you didn’t get any degree at all is no disgrace. Many first-class minds never finish their course and get their degrees. But what to me, Bosie, is unforgivable is that you never achieved what I believe used to be called” — he put in inverted commas — “the Oxford manner.” And he then says, “Which I take to mean the ability to play gracefully with ideas.” Isn’t that the most beautiful definition of education you’ve ever heard? The ability to play gracefully with ideas! So whether the idea be coffee, whether it be paper, whether it be homosexuality, whether it be floorboards, it doesn’t matter. Because intelligence is about connection.
Fry: So an exam question that just says, “Discuss Shakespeare’s use of imagery in Measure for Measure.” Well, gah! Come on.
Correspondent: But it’s actually much worse here in America. I’m sure you’re familiar with the No Child Left Behind Act, which is imposing these draconian standards and is absolutely convinced that all schools can offer 100% competence adhering to these standards. As a result — and there’s a great book by Diane Ravitch called The Death and Life of the Great American School System.
Fry: Oh yes. I’ve heard about it.
Correspondent: Which outlines exactly what’s been going on. Which means that if the school doesn’t meet these draconian standards, it gets sanctioned. It can fire teachers and administrators who are considered to be failures.
Fry: The pedant in me would say that Draco was a leader of the Greek Republic at a time when every single crime was punishable by death. Which is what “draconian” really means. And I’m sure it isn’t draconian in that sense. (laughs)
Correspondent: But when the Oxford manner is in opposition like this…
Fry: I know what you mean.
Correspondent: …it’s difficult.
Fry: And even more in opposition to that is the other group of people, which tend to be the right-wing industrial nexus. Whatever you might call them. Those who have influence over politics who say that education actually is irrelevant. What matters is vocational training. And so they want people with MBAs. They want people with apprenticeships. They want people who don’t have a wide, broad education and the ability to play with ideas, but who can do very specific things. Like training. It’s training. and think of that in terms of a tree. You know how you used to train a fruit tree against a wall. You straightened out its branches. [begins spreading arms] You stapled them to the wall. And that’s it. And it bears fruit very efficiently. Now we’re human beings. We’re not fruit trees. And we’re certainly not there to have ourselves straightened out to produce fruit for the state. We’re here to question, to wonder, to oppose.
Correspondent: But you are extending your arms very impressively, resembling a branch.
Fry: Thank you very much.
Correspondent: So I think that if you wanted to be a fruit tree, you could. You have a good line in that.
Fry: (laughs) I’ve certainly been a good fruit. Whether or not I’m a tree — well, of course, by their fruits, shall ye know them.
Fry: But the education point is a really interesting one. And I don’t know what the answer to it is. I think, oddly enough, if I am educated, if I have an education, it’s obviously one I’ve given myself. Because that’s what, by definition, what all educations are. You’re drawn out. Nothing’s put in. You’re not a bucket that is filled by a good teacher. And one of the saddest things is when people say, “Ah, well, Shakespeare was ruined for me at school. Because I had a terrible Shakespeare teacher.” I would say back to them, “Yeah. It’s the Alps for me. I had this awful geography teacher. I just find the Alps so dull. Because I had this awful geography teacher.” I mean, it’s ridiculous. I think it’s either beautiful or it isn’t. You can’t blame a teacher for not being able to communicate its beauty. I can look at the Alps and see that they’re beautiful. And if you can’t look at Shakespeare and see that it’s beautiful, don’t blame a teacher. Blame yourself for not looking hard enough. And I know people don’t want to hear that. But that’s the answer.
Correspondent: And you get into that in the book. And I actually wanted to discuss this further. I mean, I’m in agreement that, okay, we are in a world of riches. We have more information available to us than at any point in human history. But at the same time, learning about apple trees, Shakespeare, or what not, this requires time. And if you are someone who is working two jobs, who is raising a kid, how do you factor that into your dismissal of…
Fry: I like that. Because I’m a gay actor who doesn’t do much…
Correspondent: (laughs) No, no, no. It’s not that at all.
Fry: No. I know you weren’t. But it is funny. I have to say — and I don’t mean this in a boastful way, but I have yet to share diaries with someone who is busier than I am. Including politicians. I’ve had meetings recently. I’m trying to get…
Correspondent: (laughs) Including politicians? Like who?
Fry: Well, they always say that every single hour of every day is taken up by…
Correspondent: Even the bathroom breaks and all that.
Fry: Yeah. Etcetera. And, of course, they are to some extent. But they’re not busier than me. Because that’s actually all stuff that’s done. And then when it’s done, it’s done. If you’re a writer and you have other things, it’s never finished. And I am a very, very busy person. But you may notice I’m quite tubby. It’s because I’m greedy. And if people say they don’t know anything, it’s only because they’re not greedy. They’re not greedy for knowledge. Sometimes an image I give is — imagine that the Mayor of Washington was told when he was a child, “Go to London. Because the streets are paved with gold.” If he knew that in every city, the sidewalks, as you call them here — the pavements were piled high with gold coins and it made a noise. It made a kind of clashing noise as you shuffled your way through it. And it was terrible. And you bumped into a beggar standing with his hat out, saying, “Please. Please. Give me some money. I’m poor. I can’t eat.” You’d look at him and go, “What? Look around you! Just bend down and pick it up!” And that’s what I feel when people say, “Oh, it’s all right for you. You went to Cambridge and were taught things. Oh, why can’t I? I don’t know about this stuff.” I just want to say, “Bend down and pick it up.” It’s never been more available. All it takes is greed. Curiosity.
Correspondent: You are in a country where most Americans don’t have a passport. You are in a country where they actually don’t know these options. I’ll give you a perfect existential example of my own. So the New York Public Library — if you go in that marvelous reading room, it’s capacious. Tables. Everything. It’s like, “Of course! I’m going to study. Because this is an environment totally made to not slack off in any way.” Right? But if you try to find a seat at a coffeehouse now, every single table is completely filled up with people with their laptops. And there’s often people who sit down and they have this board meeting vernacular. And you can’t get anything done. I mean, it’s to the point where it’s almost a Trail of Tears-like situation for me and my friends.
Correspondent: We have to go to the next coffeehouse before they discover it! But you can pretty much almost always get a seat at the New York Public Library. And the question is: What do we do to restore the balance? To get people understanding that, yes, the streets are paved with informational gold if you go and reach down and pick it up. What do you think?
Fry: To me, this is simply prejudice. It’s prejudice that comes from the gifts that nature never gave me. And they were coordination and music. Although I love music and I’m passionate about music and I listen to music every day and I collect music. I have musical heroes that are distinct and different. You may know that I made a film about Richard Wagner, which is very important to me. Partly because as a Jewish person, Wagner is always going to be traumatic if you love him. Because he was such a bestial anti-Semite. Of course, that was not his fault. Because he died fifty years before — literally fifty years before Hitler became Vice-Chancellor of Germany, who of course adored Wagner too. So I do love music. But I can’t do it. I can’t perform it. I can’t sing. I can play the odd note on the piano.
Correspondent: But can you dance?
Fry: Absolutely cannot dance! I can’t even begin to put myself in a position.
Correspondent: Have you tried to take ballroom dance lessons?
Fry: I would hate it! I would loathe it!
Correspondent: Come on, Stephen! Pick it up! The dance is right there! (laughs)
Fry: If you read my book, you would know my physical self-consciousness is extreme.
Fry: But bad as this sounds, and this is no complaint, the fact that I was so incompetent, so uncoordinated physically, so ungifted musically, meant that all I had to give myself any pride was language. It’s all I had. And the odd thing is that’s all any of us have. It is the miracle of the human species.