Tag : science-fiction
Tag : science-fiction
Lauren Beukes is most recently the author of The Shining Girls. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #409.
Author: Lauren Beukes
Subjects Discussed: Predicting the future, whether 2013 is more of an apocalyptic year than 2012, killer bunnies, laughing rats, H.P. Lovecraft, the best zombie dramatizations, explanation in narrative, trusting the reader with interesting definitions of how the world works, the Greek tragedy of time travel, killing Hitler, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, criss-crossing timelines, Looper, finding spontaneity in a careful foundation, E.L. Doctorow’s description of writing, developing the close third person perspective, working against the sophisticated predator stereotype, the catharsis of hurting mean characters, T.C. Boyle, fictitious injuries, time periods that are defined by pop cultural references, Studs Terkel, Forrest Gump, women’s rights, McCarthyism, connections between American and South African history, spies and informants, surveillance society, Todd Akin, Candyman, Spencer Tracy explaining baseball to Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year, interviewing real people, not understanding sports, the difficulty of forgiving people for political atrocities, Sarah Lotz, objecting to fictitious murders, living in Chicago, why the Midwest is an ideal setting for an American novel, the tendency to invoke Detroit with symbolism, parallels between Hillbrow and Detroit, Mark Binelli’s Detroit City is the Place to Be, Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy, the U.S. Radium Corporation’s exploitation of women, paying researchers, Radium Girls, quoting directly from a 1936 story in the Milwaukee Sentinel, Mad Dog Maddux, naming your company after an employer’s fictitious creation to secure a job, the annoyance of getting minor details right, John Banville, the invention/research spectrum, location scouting, women who are objectified by her scars, Murderball, the sex lives of the injured, characters defined by the interior, physical description, how visual photos serve as emotional reference, why fictitious sociopaths drink Canadian Club, Amity Gaige’s Schroeder, A Clockwork Oraange, Al Capone, Velázquez’s Las Meninas, and rabid eating.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: The thing about this conversation is that we’re doing this months before it actually airs. So what do you think’s going to happen in May or June when this actually goes up? Will the world even exist? What will happen?
Beukes: Well, you know, I think the Mayans were off by a couple of months.
Correspondent: I’d say that 2013 is more the apocalyptic year than 2012.
Beukes: Definitely. Way more apocalyptic. And I think actually we’re going to be overrun by killer bunnies that are taking revenge for the deaths of all the bees. And we’ll all be wiped out.
Correspondent: I learned recently that rats laugh. Did you know this?
Beukes: No, I did not.
Correspondent: Yeah. Rats actually laugh. If you tickle them, they emit this supersonic, high-pitched laughter that humans can’t hear. I’m not sure if this factors into your prediction or not, but I bring it up just for the hell of it.
Beukes: Well, we can use the rat laughter death ray. It’s kind of a sonic death ray which will explode all our cell phone devices and we’ll be cut open. I know I certainly will die without my cell phone.
Correspondent: Sure. Well, Lovecraft probably predicted this too. “The Rats in the Walls.”
Correspondent: Anyway, to your book. It is my view that the best zombie dramatizations do not involve an explanation. The zombies merely rise from the grave. And that’s it. It could be allegory. It could be gripping suspense. I bring this up because I think about the time travel in your book, which for the most part, except for the end, we don’t actually have an explanation for why this man Harper can jump from time to time. And when the explanation does come, I read it and said, “Oh, okay, that makes complete sense.” But I was so wiling to believe that he somehow willed himself into various times. So I have to ask you, Lauren Beukes the author, did you have an explanation from the start? Why did you feel the need to give the reader the explanation for the time travel? And is narrative hampered sometimes when you explain too much to the reader? What of this?
Beukes: I don’t like to explain too much to the reader. I like readers to bring their depth and experience into a text, and I think that makes it just way more interesting and exciting and personal. Overexplaining is boring. And I think you have to trust your reader. And I think you have to trust them with interesting definitions of how the world works. So I specifically went with the Greek tragedy model of time travel. You can’t kill Hitler. The more you try to kill Hitler, the more you’re just going to reinforce the events which will absolutely play out it always has been intended to play out. Which is not to say that there aren’t loops and paradoxes or that the ending doesn’t explain why everything has been happening.
Correspondent: Sounds like you’ve read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.
Beukes: Uh, yeah, maybe.
Beukes: So I really wanted to just play with that. And the time travel is almost secondary to a lot of everything else. But everything has been immaculately plotted out. You know, I had this crazy murder wall with all these diagrams and strings and three different criss-crossing timelines, linking them and triple-checking that everything made sense. And for that one moment which they keep looking back to, everything is very carefully coordinated. There’s no Looper moment where Bruce Willis says, “Well, I could explain time travel. But we’d be here all day doing diagrams with straws.” No, I really did plot it out and make sure everything worked.
Correspondent: How does spontaneity work for you? If you have a foundation that you’ve set — with strings. I’m very curious about the strings. I mean, Will Self has his Post-It notes. You have the strings. How do you digress from that? How do you account for spontaneity? And does explanation sometimes get in the way of spontaneity?
Beukes: I think explanation can. The way I write, and I’m going to paraphrase E.L. Doctorow, is that it’s like taking a road trip at night. I know where I’m leaving from and I know where I’m going to. I always know my beginnings and my endings. And I know some of the major way points along the way. But the rest of the time you’re driving. It’s pitch black. You can see twenty feet ahead of you in the headlights. And you’ve just got to stay on the road and figure it out. And so the spontaneity and the play and the subconscious diversions, which is my favorite part of the writing process, happens in between.
Correspondent: So Harper, you knew how he did it.
Beukes: I knew how Harper did it. I knew why it happens that way. That ending was in there from the beginning.
Correspondent: Sure. Which leads me to ask you about the strange perspective. I mean, here is a close third person. And as we read more and as we start to understand how he views his victims, it’s very hallucinatory. Especially with Etta the nurse. We start to really know that he’s probably making this up and furthermore he doesn’t quite understand sometimes that he’s murdering these victims. This is interesting because you’re almost asking the reader here to share this blindness by making it third person. How did this stylistic tic develop out of curiosity?
Beukes: My previous two books were first person. And I really felt like I needed a break from that, that I needed to be able to step back a little bit. Especially because Harper was such a loathsome, vile person. Which doesn’t make us any less complicit, even though it’s third-person. It just felt natural for the book. I would love to give you an in-depth analysis, but a lot of it is relying on intuition. And I wanted Harper to struggle with it and I wanted you to see his struggle. I also did a lot of research into what real serial killers are like. And I wanted to avoid the sexy predatorial Hannibal Lector model. You know, the sophisticate who drinks Chianti. And most serial killers are awful, vile, pathetic human beings who have major sexual dysfunctions. And I wanted to get at that and the kind of real horror of like what that kind of monster is. It’s actually quite sad and pathetic and no less horrible. But not the sophisticated predator.
Correspondent: But it’s also an interesting way of possibly avoiding full immersion into this guy’s mind as both author and reader. I mean, if you during the course of your research are growing increasingly queasy about what human beings do, well you have a perfect safeguard here. Was that another aspect of doing that? Another advantage here?
Beukes: That could well have been a subconscious aspect. You know, the way I dealt with writing Harper was that I just messed him up at every opportunity. You know, if I could damage him in a scene, I absolutely would. I was like, “Okay, he’s in a fight with someone. I’m going to break his jaw. Awesome.” But then I had to keep track of the broken jaw and figure out how it was healing. Was it healed in 1984? Or was it still wired up in 1951? And that just added a whole another layer of complexity. So it was very cathartic to hurt him. But it didn’t help me with my planning.
Correspondent: So you were able to deal with this monster by beating the shit out of him.
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.)
Today is Carol Emshwiller’s 90th birthday. She is the author of Carmen Dog, The Mount, and numerous stories. Nonstop Press has recently issued The Collected Stories of Carol Emshwiller. Her work can be thoroughly investigated through The Carol Emshwiller Project. (Many thanks to Gavin Grant for his assistance in setting up this conversation.)
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts is the author of Harlem is Nowhere.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why there’s a sentient mount attached to his back.
Subjects Discussed: Bears that Ms. Emshwiller keeps in her house, writing to please one’s self, fooling Harlan Ellison, slanting a story to sell it to a science fiction magazine, throwing strange ideas into short stories on purpose, increased short story competition, selling a story in a day, commercial value vs. name value, not writing for eight months, dealing with blindness, working on multiple stories at the same time, the difficulties of writing fiction vs. the ease of nonfiction and email, Kate Wilhelm, the visual components of sentences, being advised to purchase $150 glasses, inventing a fictional family as a way of coping with grief, how a single line of dialogue can stop a writer in her tracks, not forcing the creative process vs. keeping productivity going, whether or not Ms. Emshwiller has ever been terrified of her own ideas, the torture within Carmen Dog, Kafka’s influence, authors who laugh at terrible events on the page, the emotional truth of dangerous ideas, collaborating with Ed Emshwiller on films, formulating plot and looking ahead, repeating an idea, the cheat of characters who go for a walk, twisting an emotion, kindness as a wild emotion in “Creature,” studying animal psychology before The Mount, being seized an idea, reading for pleasure, the inseparable connections between reading and writing, books on tape, loss of reading desire with blindness, how blindness causes everything to take six times as long, competing notions of what Harlem’s boundaries are, balancing a view through books and a view through people, capturing “snapshots” of neglected figures as an observer, James Baldwin’s “Jimmy moment,” personal evasions, Rhodes-Pitts speculating on Harlem based on observing funeral parlors, having a relationship to a place without going in, aligning a piece of information from the library to personal experience, serendipity, Rhodes-Pitts’s film background, how films and photographs help make sense of a neighborhood, Aaron Siskind’s Harlem Document Series, photographs as a residue of living, addressing Dwight Garner’s white bread vantage point, interpretive demands from critics, parallels between the African American Day Parade crowd and the 1919 Harlem Hellfighters, ongoing familiarity with historical figures among Harlem residents, the applicability of historical framework, Ralph Ellison and the Federal Writers’ Project, Invisible Man, Zora Neale Hurston, 1944’s “Harlem Hunches,” quibbles with WPA oral history and manipulated slave narratives, phony dialect created by white writers, attempting to write a hopeful account when there’s a historical sense of pain, and the shock waves of Harlem gentrification.
EXCERPTS FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: In the introduction for The Collected Stories, which has been collected all in one book and published just in time for your birthday, you allude to there being five different phases of your writing life. What was interesting to me was that you mentioned the fourth phase, which was just after your husband had passed away, and you say that you were writing stories and these Western novels because you wanted to have a family. Your kids had gone away and all that. I was curious why the family on page meant more or needed to be there in addition to the real people in your life.
Emshwiller: Well, my family wasn’t there. (laughs) That’s the point! You know, the kids had all gone off. And I didn’t have any kids anymore near me. And then I didn’t have a husband anymore. And I was by myself. And what I did was — well, it’s sort of a long story. The very first thing, to get into that cowboy stuff, my daughter had a wonderful idea. She said, “Why don’t you go to this dude ranch that I know of?” Right? And I said, “I don’t even like horses anymore!” And I didn’t want to go. And I just fought her and fought her. And she said, “You gotta do something. You gotta go some place you never went before. Do something you never did before.” And she pushed me up there. And then, in two days, I was just back to horses and farm life and cows and everything. They had everything up there. Pigs and chickens. Everything.
Correspondent: Why the aversion to horses?
Correspondent: Why the aversion to horses?
Emshwiller: Oh, before, you mean?
Emshwiller: Well, when I was a twelve-year-old girl, I was into horses. And if I had a dollar, which I didn’t have very often, I would go and ride. Which was not every often. And after that, I grew up.
Correspondent: Horses? Yeah. Big deal. In the boonies.
Emshwiller: (laughs) Yeah, right! I didn’t hear anything about them anymore. But then it only took two days to realize that this was really great. And my daughter was absolutely right. I would just switch away into another life. And then when I came home though, I didn’t write another line for a year.
Correspondent: Oh wow.
Emshwiller: After Ed [Emshwiller] had died. And I lay comatose in front of the TV set, looking at Westerns. Trying to see. Watching horses and watching mountains, which I really learned to love the mountains with Ed. When we were together, we used to climb around a lot. And then, after I got through mourning for a year and not doing anything, then I started writing the Westerns. I made myself a family. The thing is: I wrote. I can see a lot of people doing this though. For those two novels, I wrote like I never wrote before. I didn’t go anywhere. Those people were more real than my friends.
Emshwiller: More real. And they were my life. For two years. Or three years. I don’t know how long it took to write both those novels. I thought of nobody else. And I didn’t go to any movies. My friends would give readings and I didn’t go. I didn’t go to everything.
Correspondent: They were more real than your real friends. Why do you think that is? Why did they…?
Emshwiller: I don’t know how that happened! (laughs)
Correspondent: Your imagination was that powerful, I suppose.
Emshwiller: And my writing changed completely during that. Then I went back to science fiction. From that experience, I think it expanded deeper into people, I think. Although I don’t think I’m as deep as U was into those people now. I think I squeezed back a little bit to the science fiction things.
Correspondent: You needed to invent people in order to understand them?
Emshwiller: I think. I don’t know. Of course, they were my invention. I understood. (laughs)
Correspondent: (laughs) Yeah, it’s tilted the balance there.
Emshwiller: Of course they don’t always do what you want them to do.
Correspondent: Of course. Which is why I suggested an invented simulacrum of people might almost be more effective. Because they’re coming from your subconscious. It’s not like you are controlling them completely.
Emshwiller: No. I found that out. (laughs)
Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start with the notion of Harlem as an area. There are numerous skirmishes throughout history, some of them based off of racist fears about what Harlem’s boundaries are. And even when you were in Texas, you describe in this book creating an imaginary map of Manhattan. So given this, and given the fact that one person will call Harlem “a ruin,” another person will call it “an East Berlin whose wall is 110th Street,” how can any one person describe its totality? I mean, can this book or can any book really capture it? Or do you essentially fall into the Alexander Gumby problem of an overflowing collection of clippings?
Rhodes-Pitts: My attempt was not to give a description of Harlem in the colonial sense, when cartographers would go off into the bush and make a map that attempts to be true to life. It remains an idiosyncratic map of this place that is outlined by my personal experiences and my personal curiosity. And in the midst of living here — and really it was living here that helped for the book, it wasn’t the other way around; I didn’t move here to write this book — my own personal obsessions and curiosity collided with those of other people. And some of those encounters are captured in the book. Now whether it’s — I mean, I guess I don’t trust the project of someone who would claim that they were setting out to describe the totality of any place. It’s simply as that.
Correspondent: How about this? I’m curious about the different worlds between your peregrinations through the neighborhood, talking with people who live here, versus your dutiful efforts in the library to make sense of the history. You say that the personal quest encouraged this more scholarly quest. And I’m not sure if it’s fair to necessarily call it a dichotomy, but I’m curious how the two worked in relation to each other in terms of this book.
Rhodes-Pitts: Well, it’s a funny way of running back and forth between two fields in a way. And clearly my first encounters in Harlem, as I described in the book, were through literature, through books. And then I guess you could say I run to the field of experience when I actually move here. And then I’m simultaneously collecting things from the field of experience and from the field of the archive. And I guess as I finally set down to sort through everything that I gathered in my imagination and my experience and my reading, I was conscious of one way to make all of those things on one plane as best as I could. And I think I tried to do that through the way certain fictional characters move through that one chapter as characters and plucking them from their environment and colliding them together as figures in one scene from their different respective homes in literature. And then also making those figures live alongside the people that I knew and who told me their stories, or shared not even their whole stories but snippets of stories that come out in casual conversation. Not through interviews. Which I was really conscious about. So I just think my attempt was always to make the things equal in my treatment of them, and not to privilege one over the other.
Correspondent: Well, for example, you do write about going out of the library and seeing a man there who is reading the Koran. And you observe this tableau. But the question of what you memorialize — and this is also in relation to that photograph you mention — is something interesting and oscillates between these two points. I detected in reading this book that there was a little bit of “Should I impede on the person who’s practicing this private ceremony, but is nevertheless part of the neighborhood or should I observe him?” Was this a struggle in terms of deciding which characters to pick for the book? Who to populate the book to really present your view of Harlem?
Rhodes-Pitts: Again, I think a lot of that is defined by temperament. And I don’t think there was a method to it as much as there was my way of moving through the world, which is often as an observer, and completely aware that what I observe and then choose to describe is part of a selection process. And it was really important. The book is in no way my unscented notebook of seven years in Harlem. It’s very specific images — whether they’re flashes in the case of that particular man, who, for me, sitting outside the library. Clearly some sort of dedicated scholar or man of religion, who was also selling incense and shea butter as a street vendor. Probably not making that much money. Which is an interesting tableau, as you put it, of the pursuit of knowledge happening right outside the door of this other shrine to that pursuit. And I was always very interested in how a lot of the figures — especially the ones that I knew — when I tell their stories, it’s not just a funny story he told me, but it’s really often those stories are about an exchange of knowledge. The impossibility of seeking the stories and the truth and history in some ways. The evasiveness of those stories. And so I guess when I do go through my — whether memory or notes or the histories that I read, it’s very much with a direction. So there’s always a choice. You know, I have a background in film. So I’m very much aware of what it means to edit. To seek and to edit. To capture and sift.
Paolo Bacigalupi is most recently the author of Ship Breaker. His short story collection, Pump Six, has been recently issued in paperback.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Attempting to juggle several bleak futures.
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Subjects Discussed: How to stay writing after getting four novels rejected, Schopenhauer and the will to write, Mr. Bacigalupi’s bleak temperament, the relationship between personal temperament and fictional temperament, why short fiction markets are more open to a dark vision, talking specifically about specifics, imaginative detail in Bacigalupi’s early stories, William Gibson and hyperspecificity, permitting the reader to fill in the gaps, improvisation and what details emerge from the memory banks, devising an imaginative concept vs. the influence of phrasing, the relationship between language and spontaneity, the importance of manipulative violence, whether or not addicts can be sympathized with, stylistic momentum, past tense verbs and participles, getting annoyed with language tics, getting self-conscious about repetition, the frequency of words, the mysterious obsession of the (ology) site, John Banville, using the word “spray,” dreaming space, cannibalizing from the four unpublished novels, uprooting reader expectations through the Windup reading order, origin stories, the disadvantages of writing within established universes, cheshires and megadonts, contending with the logical fallacies of a really cool imagined creature, how the location of a calorie company created numerous narrative variables, the influence of Katrina on the Windup universe and the Ship Breaker universe, descriptive teeth and metaphorical Teeth, the inspirational qualities of biting and tearing, body metaphors, analyzing one’s own writing patterns, J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun, speculative narrative extrapolated from details in the present moment, consequential details vs. making things up, global warming, liquified coal, applying an aesthetic to data points, Lewis Carroll, missing hands and facial scars, Heinlein’s Friday, the Dauntless, James Lennox Kerr, Patrick O’Brian, Citizen of the Galaxy‘s heavy influence, and extrapolating from facts vs. extrapolating from books.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Bacigalupi: It’s almost all improvisation, actually. Very little is planned out. There’s a detail that I have in my bank. And I use it. And you’re always acquiring material, whether that’s from visiting your in-laws or whether that’s from reading a novel. If it’s somebody else’s novel, you’re reading some natural history of the world. Whatever it is. You’re always gathering material. And so then it’s just there. And I don’t even know why, oh, at this moment, I’m looking for a detail that does this kind of a thing. I want to indicate the scope of the world. Or in this particular case, I want to indicate the scope of the calorie companies. Things like that. And, okay, where can I go to do that? What do I have in my repository that seems like it’s a useful tool for that? And then I’ll start pulling things down. So is there an intention that I have? There’s something I want to illustrate. There’s an experience I want to get deeper into. Then which pieces are going to go into it? That’s very much on the fly.
Correspondent: In terms of this being on the fly, how does this work in relation to you devising an imaginative concept versus language? Does phrasing sometimes kickstart a concept more than what you have in the bank, so to speak? I mean, I note for example “cillin” instead of “penicillin.”
Correspondent: Little things like that we often find in your universes.
Correspondent: So the question, I suppose, is how much language motivates the spontaneity versus how much some leg that you have motivates that particular spontaneity?
Bacigalupi: I don’t know. It’s sort of a combination. You know, the spot where I actually remember a piece of language inspiring me to write a story was more connected to “The People of Sand and Slag.” When I wrote that short story, there had been a little piece of microfiction that I’d written. I had written a paragraph. And it was all about these people lying out on the beach and chopping each other up. And it was sort of compelling. But I didn’t have any idea what to do with it. But I liked the prose. I liked the rhythms of it. And there was something so bizarre about it that I knew that I liked it. That became a part of the bank. That went in and sat there for a very long time until, much later, I was starting to play around with some other concepts for “The People of Sand and Slag.” And suddenly that thing was there. Oh, I get it. These people are immortal. These people are regenerative. They can do all of these things. And this is the perfect illustration for this cascade. And so this piece of — we’ll call it “poetic prose,” and almost none of it survived or entered into the story. But the prose of that, the experience of it for me, resonated for me strongly enough that it could then form an entire piece.
Correspondent: Well, I’m glad you brought that up. Because I actually do want to ask about a recurrent theme. It’s here in Ship Breaker as well. In “Sand and Slag,” we have violence directed towards girls or women. The Windup Girl has that with Emiko. “The Fluted Girl,” of course, has that. And it concludes on an act of revenge. I’m curious as to why you are really drawn to the kind of really degrading violence towards girls and women like that. Whether it’s just part of the bleak temperament or you feel that that’s really a good way to get the audience to feel sympathy towards these particular characters. Or whether it’s just an environmental reality that you need to convey.
Bacigalupi: Honestly, I think this actually comes in different moments for different stories.
Bacigalupi: And you’re really illustrating very specific things. The violence that you see for Emiko is pretty manipulative violence. Because you’re really trying to get to a point where you generate enough empathy for her, so that later on she can go on a slaughterfest. And that you feel that that’s entirely reasonable. One of the things that’s interesting to me is that I felt very comfortable depicting her being degraded at one early point in the story and yet I didn’t depict her doing the slaughter later on. And the reason is, I don’t want to lose — I want to maintain character empathy in her. And if you see more than just the blood on the walls, if you see her tearing every single piece of meat and bone out of every one of her enemies, then you might not have that later empathy for her at the very end of the story. And so a lot of this is just manipulation honestly. It’s just flat-out manipulation. And it’s interesting. So in “The People of Sand and Slag,” the guy is the one being dismembered as an experiment in sex fun. And so I’m not sure. It definitely shows up every once in a while. “Softer,” the woman is definitely killed by her husband. And that one too has some disturbing aspects. Who knows? Maybe I’m a misogynist.
Correspondent: I’m not going to go ahead and put that label down. But I am curious about this. We’re talking about manipulation vs. empathy. And this also leads me to ask you about Lopez in Ship Breaker. The father. He’s a very brutal character. I’m wondering if there were efforts on your part to try to make him more sympathetic. When does a character, I suppose, become violent? Almost serving as a manipulative way to get the audience to sympathize with the hero?
Bacigalupi: Right. Yeah, with Lopez — Richard Lopez, he’s sort of based on my own — I had a next door neighbor who was sort of a crystal meth addict. And so I’ve never really had much sympathy for addicts anyway. And so I was perfectly happy to have that villain role fulfilled by him. Honestly, I wanted to illustrate a certain — in a lot of ways — over-the-top idea about what point you look around at family and say that family is no longer family. That they aren’t really valuable anymore. That they need to be done away with. And I tend to think of almost all human relationships as contingent relations. Everything is dependent on good behavior. I don’t really believe in the idea of family as family, or that friends are friends. It’s whether or not, every day, you’re sort of earning your friendship or earning the connections and support of your family. And vice versa. And so, for me, I just really wanted to illustrate Richard Lopez’s break with any sense of his obligations. The mutual obligations of family.
Cynthia Ozick is most recently the author of Foreign Bodies. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #210.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why Henry James forces him to have alarming dreams.
Author: Cynthia Ozick
Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Ozick: The joy of dialogue. Oh, dialogue! It took me such a long time how to learn how to do dialogue. And I think I learned it from a single book. Which is Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. Which I actually studied to see how he made it concise and dramatic. And I think once you know the character, you have the voice. I suppose you could say that once you have the voice, you have the character. But I don’t think it works like that for me. Once you know the character, you can hear the character speak. And of course, they all speak in their own voices. I don’t know if that’s really related to music. I think that’s more related to seeing. Because you see the character. And if you see visually the character, then if I am looking at you, the voice that comes out of you is naturally yours. Because I see you. Whereas music is this mystery of mathematics. Including Confucius, music and math go together. And that’s a wonder about E.M. Forster. He’s one of the few writers who was very musical. I mean, seriously musical. And that’s in his writing as well. But I think the link with writing is more painting. We see this. It’s so interesting. John Updike had the ability to draw and write. So did Thackeray. Kipling. There are others. I can’t think of them now, but they’re so many linkages in writing and art. In other words, the pen and the eye. Whereas music is abstract math. So that’s where the voices come from. From the eye, I think.
Correspondent: It’s interesting that you mention Greene. Because of course, we know him for the colon. And in terms of looking at your dialogue in this book, what is rather interesting is that sometimes you have almost a Marianne Wiggins-like dash. And sometimes you have the quotes. I’m curious to the methodology behind that. How that developed.
Ozick: Well, that was pretty simple. I needed to have a dialogue in the historic present, so to speak. And dialogue before then. So for the earlier dialogue, I used the dash to distinguish it from the dialogue that’s occurring in the now. Even though the now is in the past tense. Because I have to confess. I have a lot of trouble with our common currency of present tense. Despite those great books of Rabbit [Angstrom]. I was once standing in a group of writers and was so humiliated. Because I mentioned my prejudice against writing in the present tense. And Updike was standing at my right elbow and said, “Well, my Rabbit books are in the present tense.” That was not a good moment. (laughs)
Correspondent: Well, why the aversion specifically to present tense? It’s used a lot more, I think, now than it was thirty years ago.
Ozick: Absolutely. It’s ubiquitous. I don’t know. It just seems that it spoils storytelling. Because it escapes from the magical “Once upon a time.” This happened once. If it’s happening now, then there’s almost no history in it. It destroys the past. And, of course, you see that writers who write in the present tense have to go back and deal with the past. You see that they then have to revert to past tense anyway. And it has a kind of inconsistency. And it’s simply unpleasant to me.
Correspondent: You’re saying that a novel really should present itself almost as a sense of history.
Ozick: Exactly. It’s a story that happened. Not a story that’s happening. And I guess that really needs to be explored. Why should a story that happened be better than a story that’s happening? I don’t know. Help me. Why?
Correspondent: Well, I think when you have a situation like — there was a book by Elliot Perlman called Seven Types of Ambiguity. Named, of course, after the great text. I mean, I like the book. But it has this really absurd situation because it’s written in the present tense. And the narrator’s going, “He’s hitting me.”* When I read this, I thought, “This is just utterly preposterous.” It immediately takes you out of the story.
Ozick: (laughs) Right!
Correspondent: If he “hit” him, right. But “He’s hitting me.” It’s like — wait a minute.
Ozick: Then how can you be writing?
Correspondent: How can I be participating in this? But with the past tense, you can feel a greater sense of participation in the activity.
Ozick: You can believe in it!
Ozick: You can believe in it. I mean, it really helps the suspension of disbelief if you present it as a history. And isn’t this the beginning of the modern novel? My Man Friday?
Ozick: We’re supposed to believe that.
Ozick: And we do. Because it’s written like a history. No, I think you hit it when you said it has to do with history. And maybe that is a problem — if there is a problem — with much of American writing today. That it is rather amnesiac.
* — In all fairness to Mr. Perlman, I feel compelled to issue a slight correction. I told Ms. Ozick that I remembered the phrase “He’s hitting me” from Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. It has been a good six years since I read Mr. Perlman’s book — sent to me with a handwritten note by Ami Greko, one of the few publicists back in the day to grasp the litblog medium that is now simultaneously ubiquitous and passe. But I can find no indication of the phrase “He’s hitting me” within Perlman’s book. Yet the specific passage I was trying to remember when Ms. Ozick put me on the spot, presented below and written in the present tense, does indeed reveal how the reader can be thrown off when violent gerunds are involved. It still reads as absurd and remains just as applicable to the conversation at hand. This funny little episode also reveals how a fatal expressive error can be misremembered years later, perhaps subject to the same “rather amnesiac” problem with American writing that Ms. Ozick mentions. Authors, take heed when using the present tense!
“I’m going to fucking kill you!” I scream at him. I am punching his face repeatedly, left then right again and again against the smooth stone paving and I am going to kill him. He is squeezing tighter. I am killing him. I am trying to kill him as Anna is pulling me off. She has her arms around my shoulders. She uses all her strength to drag me off him. (80, U.S. hardcover)
(Image: Zugoli Lany)
Neal Stephenson is most recently the author of Anathem. It is not known whether or not he “likes cake a lot.”
Condition of Mr. Segundo: He likes cake a lot.
Author: Neal Stephenson
Subjects Discussed: Seven as the ideal number of guests for dinner, William Gibson, the shift from the near future to the past, Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle, science fiction about the alternative present, the various manners in which one interprets information as forms of discipline, Kurt Godel’s life at the Institute for Advanced Study, Platonism, Edmund Husserl, the Kantian influence in Anathem, units of measurement, Gene Wolfe, the use of “runcible,” using very old words to avoid the high tech feel, “aut” and auto-da-fe, devising quasi-Latin lingo, Riddley Walker, learning new words as an essential part of the experience of literature, considering the general reader, devising a script that went through the entire text to determine how many words were invented, concocting an intuitive vernacular, cognitive philosophy concerning the fly, the bat, and the worm inspired by Husserl, reader accessibility, My Dinner with Andre, the danger of getting caught up in an invented world, the snowscape journey as a side quest, finding humor in unexpected places, Ras as the anti-Enoch Root, Robert Heinlein’s YA novels, Ras’s perception of music, music and mathematics, literal and figurative meanings, Max Tegmark’s The Mathematical Universe, creating a metaverse and happy accidents, being “family-based” and types of relationships within the Avout, Laura Miller’s suggestion that Anathem is “a campus novel,” use of the first-person, narrative constraints, criticism about women as nurturers, female characters, and the risk of writing books about ideas.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Going back to the idea of the general reader, or the common reader — whatever we want to call the audience here — the philosophical proposition involving the fly, the bat, and the worm expressing basic cognitive abilities, and how cognitive abilities come together so that humans are a higher form of animal than other animals, this was a very clear way of expressing this particular concept of individual senses. And I’m wondering if this was something that you concocted. Or that you took from Kant. Because I actually tried to find a philosophical precedent for this as well.
Stephenson: It’s more from [Edmund] Husserl. So Husserl was an amazing guy who could just sit in his office and look at a copper ashtray, and then write at great length about all of the processes that went on in his mind when he was perceiving that ashtray, and recognizing it from one moment to the next as being the same object. And so he’s got a number of lengthy books about this, which, as you can imagine, are pretty hard to read. So the content of the dialogue, or the parable you mention — the fly, the bat, and the worm — really comes from him. But it’s me trying to write a somewhat more accessible version of similar ideas.
Correspondent: So you really wanted to be accessible in some sense, it seems to me.
Stephenson: In some sense, yeah.
Correspondent: Well, what sense exactly?
Stephenson: (laughs) Well…
Correspondent: If the reader doesn’t matter and, at the same time, there’s this accessibility here, it seems…what’s the real story? (laughs)
Stephenson: Oh no. The reader matters. The criterion is very simple. It’s got to be a good yarn. If it’s not a good yarn, then the whole enterprise fails. So I think that to have a good yarn, you’ve got to have characters that people are interested in. And they’ve got to get into situations that make for a good story. It’s okay to stop the action and have them sit down and have an interesting conversation. You know, for some reason, I always go back to the movie, My Dinner with Andre, which is a long movie consisting of two guys just sitting there talking with each other. But it’s a completely engaging and fascinating movie. That’s kind of an existence proof that you can build a good yarn that consists largely of people just having conversations. And so that was kind of my guiding — that was my guideline, I guess you could say, for trying to work that material in.
To my great shock, the late, great Thomas M. Disch committed suicide on July 4, 2008. This was his last face-to-face interview before his death, conducted on June 25, 2008 at his apartment. For more on Disch, start here. His most recent book was The Word of God.
Condition of the Show: In memoriam.
Author: Thomas M. Disch
Subjects Discussed: The difficulties of declaring yourself a deity, truth and memoirs, authenticity, James Frey, Disch’s takedown of Whitley Streiber, Democrats and evangelism, Reverend James Dobson, the unexpected reaction to Disch declaring himself an atheist at a North Dakota convention, Clifford Irving, the fun of footnotes and annotation, fundamentalists, writing books in which the ground is always shifting, Emerson and the trinity, Algis Budrys, Thomas Mann, the taboos of simulacra and alternative realities, war and commandments, the fantasy of having different parents, griping about editors and agents, the American literary tradition of celebrating con artistry, L. Ron Hubbard, Disch’s religious acolytes, Michael Moorcock, asking for blurbs without any of the blurbers reading the book, Philip K. Dick’s 1972 letter to the FBI, Camp Concentration, pulp fiction and literary posterity, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” and Clement Brown, whether or not literature (and civilization) will survive into the next century, maintaining a LiveJournal, on not submitting poems to magazines, Samuel Johnson’s maxim, poetry and the New Yorker, editors or critics who hate Disch’s guts, being ignored, being snubbed by Stephen Donaldson, ridiculing enemies, nonoverlapping magesteria, having Catholic friends, cowboys, literature as a religion, Disch’s efforts to read The Tale of Genji before death, the reading of “approved classics,” Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Jane Austen, Disch’s strong love of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, writing Amnesia and building a model of Manhattan within the text adventure game, literature as a constantly changing medium, inhabiting the now and obsolescence, silent film, and poetry as Disch’s “one good horse.”
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I wanted to also ask you about A.J. Budrys, who I know you — I saw your LiveJournal where there were many caustic remarks directed his way. But I should point out that when I received this galley well before June 9th, when he died, you referred to him as “the late Algis Budrys.”
Disch: (laughs) Yes!
Correspondent: I’m wondering if you had some inside dope or if this is another example of your divine powers.
Disch: I guess so. I mean, I never know what my divine powers are going to do often, until they’ve done it. And this is certainly a case where I had picked the right horse without even knowing.
Correspondent: Well, I mean, why did you type “the late” so early on? I mean…
Disch: (laughs) Well, for one thing, I didn’t know.
Correspondent: You didn’t know he was alive?
Disch: Yeah. I sort of figured it was likely that he was dead. And wishing it to be the case, I just wrote it that way.
Correspondent: Or he was dead to you in other words?
Disch: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, if I had my druthers, there he is.
Photo credit: Flickr
Sarah Hall is most recently the author of Daughters of the North (published in the UK as The Carhullan Army).
Condition of the Show: Remaining optimistic about a dystopian future.
Author: Sarah Hall
Subjects Discussed: Daughters of the North vs. The Carhullan Army, writing books that aren’t set in the present day, concern for environmental details, the comforts of familiar territory, catastrophe knocking everything to the past, the wandering impulse within British dystopian novels, Rupert Thomson, Anthony Burgess’s The Wanting Seed, the tension between town and country, literary conversations and outdoing Margaret Atwood’s sense of terror, overcoming perceptions associated with women writers, Samantha Power’s castigation, being overly scrutinized, presentation of the author, the authenticity of testimony, writing a pageturner vs. a leisurely literary novel, being more selective with sentences, writing within confining environments, switching to first person, the origins of the Nixon surname, characters with reddened faces, rural words, Brave New World, names that echo across history, the origins of Rith, schools and buildings that shut down after centuries, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” the dog box and the military training that inspired it, a microutopia within a macrodystopia, nitpicking the apathy within Daughters of the North, the possibilities of revolt and verisimilitude, manipulating the reader and gray areas, violence that occurs offstage, women and violence, bumps on heads, the beauty of corporeal flaws and dilapidated environments, how society transforms the body, To Kill a Mockingbird, Robert C. O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah, sudden relationships and getting to the naughty bits, pornography, the risks of thinking on the page, and romance.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Hall: I think familiar territory is always of comfort to a writer. I find the North of England, where I’m from, fascinating. It’s a very dramatic landscape. It’s kind of a Wordsworth country. So you’ve got the Romantic sense on one hand. And then you’ve got the strange past battling with the future. I suppose Hardy did this to an extent as well. You pick a territory. And even if it’s rural, you have human beings working within that arena. So human drama is going to arise out of those interactions. And I’ve always felt, even though the settings are sometimes quite remote and underpopulated in my fiction, there’s enough going on. You can explore ideas of civilization, breakdown of civilization, human emotional dramas. All the rest of that. But I think what’s interesting with Daughters of the North is — even though we’re casting ahead maybe thirty, forty years from now — and I think British science fiction and speculative fiction does this a lot — there’s this idea of play. When catastrophe happens, everything is knocked back to the past. And so here is what you’re left with. Day of the Triffids. This strange science fiction going on. But at the same time, everybody’s going down to the pub like they always have.
Brian Francis Slattery is most recently the author of Spaceman Blues.
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Objecting to snobbish Manhattan types who use three names.
Author: Brian Francis Slattery
Subjects Discussed: Matt Cheney’s “leap of faith,” paranoia, the advantages of writing in Guatemala, secret economies, food as cultural shorthand, the underground world of Darktown, H.P. Lovecraft and other fictive antecedents, disparate relationship models, writing sentences without many verbs, locative and temporal fugue states, writing to African music, polyrhythm, disorienting the reader, Square video games, dialogue, ellipses, em dashes, William Gaddis, quotation marks vs. dashes in dialogue, sticking in one’s hometown, attempting to classify the book, coming to New York vs. coming to America, Spaceman Blues as a “systems novel,” sentences, not casting judgment on characters, cockfighting, warning the reader of weirdness, on not knowing the ending, apocalyptic novels, hyperverbosity, resisting the 9/11 card, Don DeLillo, and Pynchonian character names.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Slattery: For a while, I thought that I would have those scenes take place in a specific neighborhood in New York. And I spent a long time thinking about, well what group would I want to focus on and where would I want it to be? And then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized I kind of wanted to talk about the immigrant experience — generally. I didn’t want to have to tie it to a specific group. And in some ways, I wanted to talk about the ways that the various immigrant groups, when they get here, will tend to work together. There’s such a thing as an immigrant community. And I wanted to be able to talk about that in a sort of cool and engaging way, and also to really get across the point that that’s this full network that you don’t see. You know, it exists here. But you have to know where to look in order to find it.