Eleanor Catton (The Bat Segundo Show #524)

Eleanor Catton is most recently the author of The Luminaries, the winner of this year’s Booker Prize.

Author: Eleanor Catton

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Subjects Discussed: The rumor of John Barth writing Giles Goat-Boy from a chart with ideas taken from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the tasks of a hero, the benefits of an overly planned structure, astrological charts, the creative possibilities from the pressure of adhering to a pattern, characters and temperaments that align to the Zodiac and the planets, tonal restrictions vs. hard plot restrictions, deliberate choice, the planned 1865 trackback option in The Luminaries, the tension between the chapters and the chapter descriptions, whether description is enough to get inside the heads of characters, fictional characters who bash in heads, deciding what to reveal to the reader, controlling the reader’s intelligence, manipulating the reader’s desire to know, literary writers who flock to genre to attract more readers without respecting it, children as the ideal readers, Catton’s affinity for children’s literature, avoiding self-indulgent prose, style within The Rehearsal, style vs. voice, the proper ways to address social injustice through fiction, fiction as a way of animating questions in an affectionate theater, working with hard antecedents, writing a novel that is open with reader expectations, the many disgraces foisted upon Crosbie Wells’s corpse, Francis Carver’s monstrous nature, character expectations, when the reader doesn’t know how to feel about a character, fretting over structural inevitability, dastardly duos in adventure stories, the menace inside the law as reflected through Shepard, Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady as inspiration for Catton, being curious about the seed of corruption within an enemy, the need for a human quality within a villain, the relative nature of happy endings, sympathizing with all characters, why much of the digging in The Luminaries is offstage, Gabriel Read and Gabriel’s Gully, avoiding historical cliches and the “greatest hits,” why reading historical newspapers may be the best form of research for a fiction writer, not respecting the Forrest Gump approach to memorializing past events, how human lives are really shaped, the real role of history upon everyday life, Rob Ford’s crack cocaine use, the New York mayoral race, dashing out “damned,” how the novel’s structure allowed Catton to postpone Anna Wetherell’s fate, mid-1860s newspapers as the Internet of their day, learning how 19th century courtroom systems work exclusively from newspapers, the fluidity of money as a way to drive story, concealing gold in women’s clothing as a tax dodge, the influence of 20th century crime writing on The Luminaries, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, being very particular about characters speak, omniscient third person as a way of telling a story falling out of fashion in contemporary literature, the limitations of present tense, Catton’s fascination with adverbs, Henry James’s sentences, how adverbs expose the tension between the objective and the subjective, creative writing workshops and adverbs, Catton’s correspondence with Joan Fleming, confronting cowardice, multicultural characters in the 19th century, The Walking Dead‘s terrible use of African-American characters, Maori culture in New Zealand, New Zealand’s idea of political correctness, the Cantonese immigration during the Otago Gold Rush, the difficulties of mimicking life 150 years later, the Chinese Exclusion Act, comparing the racist histories of the U.S. and New Zealand, the relationship between capitalism and astrology, the lowest form of swindle as the only way to survive, profit vs. luck and associated assumptions about each, the strange notion of the self-made man, the seductive promise of total reinvention, mantras that belong in the civil world, Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, how ideas and objects call attention to themselves in the liminal space of fiction, strange loops, Shakespeare and Joyce as the fourth horseman in Hofstadter’s equation, the beauty of closed loop systems, the golden ratio and its associations with beauty, astrology and the circle of fifths, Martin Buber’s I and Thou, philosophical efforts to understand being in love, selfhood tangled up with feelings for others and the golden ratio, the golden spiral within The Luminaries, writing chapters that are half the size as the preceding ones, and being jolted into a creative space by getting painted into a corner.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Catton: The way that it works in The Luminaries is that all of the characters are each representative of one of the figures in the Zodiac. So you’ve got twelve signs of the Zodiac, first of all. Twelve constellations. And then you’ve got seven planets. Put quote marks around planets because that includes the Sun and the Moon. It’s really the bodies that are visible to the naked eye in the sky. And the ways in which these characters — they are characters in the book — move and interact with one another and influence one another is all patterned on actual star charts. So the book begins, for example, the Sun and Capricorn. And the character who is at this point playing the archetype of the Sun is interacting in this part of the book with the character whose temperament conforms loosely to a Capricorn temperament. And so in a way I was restricted by the twelve days on which the book appears. The planetary placements were fixed for those twelve days. And I had to make the plot be interesting and meaningful around those positions.

Correspondent: You had tonal restrictions as opposed to hard plot restrictions.

Catton: Right. Oh yeah, I like that! But on the other hand, of course, I chose those days quite deliberately. And long before I’d even written anything, I’d been studying the movement of the planets across the twelve signs of the Zodiac over the course of a few years. So I kind of knew which year was going to be suitable for narrative purposes.

Correspondent: Okay. So you knew you could backtrack to 1865 if you needed to.

Catton: Right.

Correspondent: Or did you plan on that in advance?

Catton: I think that that was there from quite early on, that movement back. Yeah. Just because the book’s a murder mystery. It begins just after a potential murder. A possible murder. And as most murder mysteries do, it ends up going forward in order to track back to return the reader to what they really have been wanting to see from the very beginning.

Correspondent: Well, there’s also this fascinating tension near the end of the book where it flits between 1866 and 1865 and back again. And then you have this tension between the chapter descriptions and the chapters themselves. I mean, I was reading the descriptions and I was thinking, “Well, this could be pulled from some astrological newspaper column or something.” But while there are numerous questions that you answer, some such as the identity of a murderer — I’m going to do my best not to give anything away — remain very murky. There’s this sense that no amount of description at this point in the book can be adequate enough to get inside the heads of these characters. So I’m wondering, first of all, do you actually know everything that happened? And, second, did you set any priorities on what you wanted to reveal to the reader and what you didn’t out of curiosity? I mean, how much of this did you map?

Catton: That’s interesting. I’m pretty sure I know everything that happening.

Correspondent: Including the head bashing.

Catton: Yes. I think we probably couldn’t talk about that on air.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Catton: For fear of spoilers.

Correspondent: How did you decide what to reveal to the reader?

Catton: Well, I think that in writing mystery, my experience of it was almost like being the conductor of an orchestra when you’ve got everybody’s stave in front of you on this big master sheet. And I realized in the writing of the book that I needed to control the reader’s intelligence in quite a different way than as usual, I suppose.

Correspondent: Control the reader’s intelligence. How so? I mean, what are we talking here?

Catton: I suppose I’m using the word “intelligence” in the 19th century sense. In terms of just knowledge.

Correspondent: That would be quite a feat. And what do you do besides pulling rabbits out of your hat?

Catton: (laughs) If you imagine these parallel tracks of music going along, on the one hand, you’ve got what the reader knows. On the next line down, you’ve got what the reader wants to know, which you can manipulate by feeding them various teasers and coaxings and so on and so forth. Then you’ve got obviously what you know, but what the reader doesn’t yet know. And that’s shaping your narrative quite a bit as well. Because you’re putting into the narrative various foreshadowings and clues that then will be exciting on a second reading for the reader, but probably not meaningful on a first reading. And last of all, you’ve got the most exciting track, which is all of the things that the reader doesn’t yet know that they want to know, but you’re going to try to make them want to know it.

Correspondent: So how do you know what the reader wants to know? I mean, even if you are the most fluid and variegated reader on this planet, what you think the reader’s going to want to know, what is going to be of interest to you is not necessarily going to be of interest to another reader. Is there any reliable way to zero the needle for the average reader here at all? Do you have a considerable army of readers who can help you pinpoint that particular desire?

Catton: I think that mystery is actually a genre that is pretty fundamental. We all want to know solutions to things. We all want closure. We all want the answer. And what a mystery novel does is open up a whole bunch of mysteries at the very beginning in a way that is seductive, hopefully, if the book’s engaging, and then solves those mysteries in a way that comes maybe a little bit before or a little bit after what the reader is going to be guessing ahead to. So when I talk about what the reader wants to know, it has to do with engaging with the mystery. In The Luminaries, for example, when the book begins, a prostitute in the town is discovered lying drugged in the middle of the….

Correspondent: Anna Wetherell, yeah.

Catton: Right. When she wakes up in jail, she’s arrested for public insentience. And when she wakes up in jail, she discovers that an enormous fortune has been stitched into the…the…

Correspondent: The insides of her gown.

Catton: Into her clothing. Into her gown. And so that’s a mystery. And I’m just trusting as a writer that the reader will think, “Well, that’s a bit curious. That hasn’t happened to me. I wonder what the reason for that is.”

Correspondent: Well, this is interesting. Because there has been this interesting critical tension among literary types where a lot of them have gravitated towards genre in an effort to get readers. And some genre readers get understandably huffy. Because a lot of these authors don’t have the understanding of genre. And yet at the same time, you have interesting books such as Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men and your book that toy with the notion of genre while simultaneously respecting it. And I’m wondering. Is genre for you the best way to contend with what a reader covets in terms of mystery? In terms of how you can even advance the literary form? If you have a massive framework, as you do with the astrological charts, is that enough to transcend genre and produce a completely new form of literature?

Catton: Ah! That’s an interesting thought. Well, I would really like to see a breakdown between the categories of genre and literary fiction. I think that genre fiction is nearly always lively and literary fiction at its worst is not lively at all. I mean, at its best, it’s many things that genre fiction is not or tends not to be. But I take a lot of my inspiration actually from children’s literature. I see every work of literature for children as a mystery. I think that they have much in common with all kinds of genre fiction actually, but engaging with very, very weighty philosophical issues. The problem of growing up. The problem of feeling betrayed in growing up.

Correspondent: Which children are quite receptive to as well.

Catton: Right.

Correspondent: In many senses, they are the best readers.

Catton: Right. Well, I agree. And that’s the other thing that I really like about children’s literature. There’s no room for showboating or for self-indulgence on the writer’s part. Because the children will just see it coming a mile away and they won’t read the book.

Correspondent: Aha. So you are trying to get away from anything you see as self-indulgence. That any kind of “self-indulgent” impulse would be in the framework itself, in the structure. That’s where you get it out and you are able to use that to woo the reader while simultaneously avoiding the pretentious card. Is that safe to say?

Catton: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think a book should be for the reader’s pleasure and pain, for the reader’s experience. And it’s not a self-aggrandizing exercise. When I read, the most powerful responses I have to works of literature are always to the characters and to the dramas that are happening within the story. I don’t think I’ve ever had a fictional experience where I’ve read a novel and thought, “Gosh, this novelist. I really want to be like this novelist.” (laughs)

Correspondent: So you don’t really see voice, at least from the author’s standpoint, as a qualifier for quality fiction? Or what? How do you respond to a voice-y writer like Will Self or Anthony Burgess or someone who you just know that it’s definitely going to be this book? Or do you feel that style needs to be shaken up with each new project? David Mitchell certainly feels that way.

Catton: I would answer differently to the style question. I’m frequently a little bit befuddled by the distinction between voice and style actually, as it’s frequently made. I don’t know. There’s something about the ventriloquism or the supposed ventriloquism of voice that bothers me in a way. I don’t know. I think there’s probably a lot of voice-driven novels that I can think of that I adore.

Correspondent: Is it parody that you find to be a cheap trick? I mean, how do you transcend that? I mean, you’re also, in this case, mimicking a Victorian novel to a large degree. Even in The Rehearsal, you’re employing stage directions to convey this very strange tension between the two schools. So style is definitely something for you. I don’t think it’s ventriloquism. But I’m wondering how is it new. How do you make it new? How do you make it new enough to satisfy not falling for the ventriloquist racket that you are identifying here?

Catton: Right. Well, I think what originality is is the bringing together of two elements that don’t belong together at the most atomic level. It’s just putting things — it’s making connections that don’t yet exist. Between words, between ideas, between approaches. And so I think that individual styles always come out of some fusion of two or more unlikely elements. Bringing things into a context where they’re not germane.

Correspondent: Conceptual blending. Endless association. I mean, what would you describe as an acceptable minimum form of association for you that would satisfy you? That would say, “Well, okay, I am doing something different. I’m venturing out into the fields and I am going to find a different caribou.”

Catton: (laughs) I don’t really know what I want to do next. It’s really important to me not to repeat myself. And so I’ve kind of sworn…

Correspondent: I’ve counted the number of “the”s you’ve used in this entire conversation. I’m keeping a running tab in my head right now.

Catton: (laughs) I’ve made myself two pacts. One is that I never want to write two books that are similar over the course of my career in the future. And the second thing is that I never want to write a novel about a writer.

Correspondent: (laughs) Or an artist. Or a musician. Or that kind of thing. The stand-in writer.

Catton: Right.

Correspondent: Well, you know, you came kind of close there with The Rehearsal. Because you do have a number of students who are studying acting and studying music.

Catton: That’s true.

Correspondent: I think of the sax teacher in that. And I think of some of the weird instructions. “You must go ahead and go out into the world and live and have rampant sex with people in order to actually physically understand your body.” And that notion is almost weirdly didactic. Do you think you got a lot of the explicit morality stated by characters out with that novel? And how have you avoided it since?

Catton: Well, I think yes. Because so much of The Rehearsal takes place in a stage environment or a theatrical space, I had no access to their inner lives really. Because I was wanting to play with the idea of performance and what could be seen and assumed and put on. And so what that meant was that the characters would have to speak very declaratively. They had to conjure the reality that they were going to inhabit as actors in the same way as all theater that is not reliant on a realistic looking set always does that and has done that from the very beginning. And so I think, partly for that reason, the book has a very didactic tie-in. And I think the other thing that partly explains that thread in the book is that I was much younger when I wrote it and much more agonistic, I think, in the way that I was thinking. And the injustices of the world, particularly around feminist performance theory and lesbian feminist performance theory, that was really driving my thinking at that time — the injustices were just, I was feeling them and being enraged by them in quite a different way than I feel now. I’ve matured a bit, I suppose. My thinking’s a little more meditative and a little less reactionary.

Correspondent: How do you deal with the dawning sense — especially in our present world as it continues to go interestingly into the toilet, frighteningly so — how do you deal with having to take on, I suppose, a partial responsibility to reflect the social and the political world around us? I mean, we’re trying to make sense of truth and reality through fiction. So if you got a lot of this out with the first one, as I suspect that you did, how does this trick of trying to find an original style by vivid association, multifarious association, allow you to grapple with the world? I mean, is it safe to say right now that you’re going to take this on as an additional responsibility at all? Or you’re going to try to reconcile this? Or is this just not what you think a novelist should do? I’m just curious.

Catton: Well, I think that it’s absolutely vital that a novelist believes what her novel believes. I think that fiction is curiously revealing. I’ve learned this many times over as a creative writing teacher. It’s like reading somebody’s dreams essentially. You’re really getting a window, a very clear window into all sorts of values and prejudices and biases that the writer has. Even if they’re not aware of the fact that they’re displaying them, they’re usually there to be reared. And so I think that you have to be able to stand behind the consciousness of your work and have to have grappled in some meaningful way with the ideas that are driving the work’s project, I suppose. But as to what those questions might be and what those ideas might be, I think that that’s up to anybody. There are mysteries that have defined the human condition since we were humans. And we haven’t figured out the answers to them. There’s no reason why somebody can’t today write a novel which asks the question, “What’s going to happen when we die?” Because nobody knows the answer to that question. And asking that question in the modern world is going to yield quite a different struggle than asking it thirty or forty years ago. I think that it’s really important to be an idealist as a fiction writer and to know what those ideals are and to be able to see how they are transmitted into the work. Not necessarily at all in a didactic way. Quite the opposite of that. But in an animated way, I suppose.

Correspondent: If you are an idealist, if a novel is an assay so to speak, the ideas and the consciousness that you have thought about, that you have put into place, will be strong enough to evolve to a point where it will possibly be able to inhabit some of the concerns that I have just mentioned in my last question and to simultaneously avoid the great curse of didacticism. Is that safe to say?

Catton: Yeah. I think so, if you’re really truly struggling with something. Because you won’t be content with an answer. You’ll only be content with a question.

(Loops for this program provided by ancoral, proecliptix, deciBel, LoonyGoon1, and ebaby8119.)

(Photo: Robert Catto)

The Bat Segundo Show #524: Eleanor Catton (Download MP3)

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Nicholson Baker (The Bat Segundo Show #520)

Nicholson Baker is most recently the author of Traveling Sprinkler. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #200.

Author: Nicholson Baker

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Subjects Discussed: Attempting to talk in the early hours of the morning, the many beginnings offered by poems vs. the many beginnings offered by the Internet, digital enjambment, tobacco dip videos, Paul Chowder’s songwriting, Baker’s protest songs, Method writing, the development of song lyrics over the last few decades, Dance Music Manual, when dance songs go on too long, Lopoerman, loops, buying a shotgun mic from B&H, phones that beep during conversations, being a proponent of the kick drum, the theology of percussion, how fiction and music composition create different principles in drawing from other work, Medea Benjamin, Glenn Greenwald, the importance of sticking it out, Paul Chowder’s politics vs. Jay’s politics in Checkpoint, Edward Snowden, the difficulty of writing controversial books, when world leader surnames become too incantatory, attending political protests, political recoil, a highly attuned relationship to language and its effect upon political commitment, language as overused wooden blocks, songs as a way of taking back familiar words, Obama’s kill list, synesthesia, stretching out a word to melodic effect, Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” Tracy Chapman’s “Change,” how repetition causes you to look at a word in a different way, Paul Chowder’s “The Right of the People,” the discomforting sight of protesters who are pepper sprayed, peaceful assembly, singing the Bill of Rights, cultural appropriation, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” Thicke’s injunction against Gaye’s family, Ray Parker’s “Ghostbusters” and Huey Lewis’s “I Want a New Drug,” the scant chords and melodies available in pop music, the swift creation of “Blurred Lines,” George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” Baker’s views on the movie music business, why Hans Zimmer is a hack, Baker’s appreciation for Paul Oakenfold and trance, the bassoon, how Harry Gregson-Williams ripped off John Powell’s score for The Bourne Identity, Carol King, efforts to duplicate songs in the 1970s, “Narrow Ruled,” putting a dot on a margin to note a passage vs. favoriting a tweet, filling notebooks with quotes from other books, analog vs. digital forms of “signing someone else’s mind signature,” anthologists who hunted for Shakespearean gems, Logan Pearsall Smith, the downside of typing too fast, forgetting handwriting, the foreign nature of writing a thank you note in the digital age, the importance of exertion, articles about the end of handwriting, handwriting vs. keyboards, how reading things aloud slows time down, Baker’s recent Harper’s essay arguing against Algebra II, the socioeconomic impact of abolishing Algebra II, Jose Vilson’s response to Baker’s article, knowledge vs. the way teachers express knowledge, Algebra II as a requirement that increases human suffering, turning core subjects into electives, educational budget cuts, compulsory education, negative high school experiences, fallacious approaches to teaching the essay, E.B. White, Robert Benchley, Baker’s attendance at the School Without Walls, the burden of having to know and do things that you don’t like, Dan Kois’s unpardonable anti-intellectualism, the importance of challenging perceptions, the importance of sitting still, migration routes of the Goths through Europe, including more choice into education, living a life where nobody is asking you to do anything, the trancelike state of being bored, House of Holes, Samuel R. Delany’s notion of pornotopia, Katie Roiphe’s advocacy of House of Holes, why so much of literary sex is a downer, House of Holes as realist novel, Grindr, Tinder, small town life, Yellow Submarine, Baker’s appreciation for Schmidt’s soliloquies in The New Girl, Baker’s appearance on The Colbert Report, why penis is an insufficient name, using the deep hindbrain words, “The Penis Song,” Victorian pornography that appears throughout many of Baker’s novels, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, Librivox and audio books, the presence of radio in the Paul Chowder novels, how audio reveals the inflection of words, the inclusion of more Chowder lead-ins in Traveling Sprinkler, Baker’s secret stash of personally recorded radio bumpers, and talking into field recorders.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: In The Anthologist, the first of these two novels, there’s this moment where Paul Chowder describes how he’s fond of books of poems. Because no matter where he flips around, he can always be at the beginning. And as he says, “Many, many beginnings.” It occurred to me that this is also the perfect description for the Internet, which actually appears quite prolifically and is almost a cultural repository in the second Paul Chowder book, Traveling Sprinkler. You seem to have, in many cases, swapped the names of poets and real people from The New Yorker with people in bookstores, such as the great Miss Liberty at River Run Books.

Baker: Oh yes.

Correspondent: And, of course, I actually found a lot of those tobacco dip videos on YouTube. You were actually quoting directly from them.

Baker: Oh sure! You don’t want to make those up.

Correspondent: (laughs) You don’t want to make those up?

Baker: No, they’re too great as is.

Correspondent: Well, you’ve written a good deal about the Internet in essays. And I have to ask: to what extent do you feel that the Internet has almost replaced or augmented poetry? There’s certainly plenty of digital enjambment out there. So I’m wondering about this.

Baker: (laughs) Digital enjambment. What a great idea! Well, I think what the Internet has done is that it’s enormously enriched our lives. And it does have that feeling of pieces, many of them. Breaks. Fragments. All over the place. And poems also are short and fragmentary and you kind of come across them and have that moment and go away. But I guess the difference is that I use the Internet — I kind of dip in constantly to learn things. Whereas when I’m in a mood to read a poem or when I just happen to read a poem, it slows everything down. And it has kind of the opposite effect on me. It doesn’t make me want to leap off in eighteen directions. It makes me want to just stop and say, “Oh my god! That pulled that thing apart! That held me still.” So it has that opposite effect. So the two are identical. In some ways, they’re in competition with each other. But in some ways, they’re similar.

Correspondent: What’s the future of poetry with these promising distractions? This enjambment of a different sort?

Baker: The future of poetry is independent, I think, of the way that we publish things. And it’s probably more closely linked to the future of pop music than some poets would want to admit. Because they want to have that division. They want to say that song lyrics aren’t poems. But obviously the two are short clumps of words that often rhyme or have some kind of metrical thing happening. And certainly the future of song lyrics is terrific, I think, isn’t it? I mean, have we ever — certainly in the history of my life — has there ever been a time when you are just constantly discovering new songs and old songs and comparing things? These great websites that tell you the history of a certain lyrical idea. I mean, it’s really happening. So I would think that the strength of that thread, or that theme, is going to propel poetry forward. And then there’s also kind of the realization that some of modernism was a mistake. Not all of it, but some of it. It was aggressive in the wrong way and was kind of disturbingly exclusive and rejecting of comprehensibility and all that. So the poets I like have learned from all of those terrific things that happened in the early part of the 20th century, but they want to be read, you know?

Correspondent: Paul Chowder’s songwriting is not a new development. There is, in fact, this song in The Anthologist that goes “I’m in the barn / I’m in the bar-harn / I’m in the barn in the afternoo-hoon.”

Baker: (laughs) Yes.

Correspondent: So why do you think songwriting turned out to be more of a muse than poetry for Paul Chowder this time? Was it from jumping off some of the hip-hop schemes that you were analyzing in The Anthologist? You were, of course, recording these songs and putting them onto YouTube, which many of us were watching with some degree of curiosity. So to some degree, I guess, this is a form of Method writing. I’m wondering how Chowder’s sensibilities as his affinities permutated here.

Baker: Well, I think Chowder is a guy who would love to be a better poet than he is. And he’s looking for a way out. He’s looking for a way out of a kind of situation in which he’s trapped in the level he can reach as a poet. So he’s looking for a way out. But he’s also looking for a way back in. And, I mean, I certainly share this with him. I share 90% of his thoughts. So I can just say that poetry is beautiful and calls to you. And then there’s moments where you just think, “God, I need something different. Something more. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand why so many people do it. All that feeling.” And getting back to music and trying to fit two art forms together is really hard and excitingly challenging. It was for me to imagine him as a lyric writer, not a very good one. But you know, he does his best. Because song lyrics are so different. They have to be simpler. And when you’re writing song lyrics and trying to match them to a melody or invent a melody, the words that come out are different than the words that come out if you’re just sitting with a typewriter. So I think it was just the thrill of the chase. It was the excitement of the idea that this maybe is the key. So if he, and if I, can possibly write some tunes or get some rhythms going that have a certain bouncy danceability or hummability or something? Wow! That is fun! And then manage to get some words going. I mean, it felt to me, once I started to play with music again, like a new chapter in my life. And so when I was writing the book, and I was writing the novel and songs at the same time…

Correspondent: Did you also become an astute scholar of all the various dance genres much like Paul Chowder? Did you go down that rabbit hole as well?

Baker: Yeah! Sure! Of course I bought a textbook called Dance Music Manual.

Correspondent: So it was actually that textbook.

Baker: Oh yeah. I studied it! Very, very thick. A very heavy textbook. And dance music really puzzles me in a way. Still I don’t really fully get it. Because the songs are too long. I love to listen to a loop. And I’ll happily listen to sixteen bars of a loop and then another layer comes in. And 32. At some point, I want the song to be over. And I think that because I grew up with the Beatles, I want it to be over at around two and a half to three minutes. And dance songs, because you’re supposed to dance to them and they are segued with other songs, go on a very long time. And so I really still haven’t learned the form of the dance song. But when I’m writing, I listen to them all the time.

Correspondent: But all of the songs that you did as Nick Baker get into that kind of trance state of a constant loop and a constant series of rhythms where you’re sort of promulgating some kind of concern about politics or something along those lines. Some of them go on quite long as well. So is the loop really the way to identify the dance song? I mean, did you start off with loops? I almost don’t want to direct you to Looperman. Are you familiar with this site? They have all sorts of loops you can use for free that I use for this particular program.

Baker: Really? Well, I don’t ever use loops. I use Logic Pro.

Correspondent: Okay.

Baker: Which is Apple’s music software. Just as my character does in the book. It’s $200. Tons of instruments. Fantastic deal. And it does everything that you need it to do. Although it isn’t Pro Tools, which is the industry standard and all that. Which is $600. And I couldn’t afford that.

Correspondent: Did you actually go down [like Paul Chowder in Traveling Sprinkler] and get a shotgun mic from B&H? (laughs)

Baker: Absolutely.

Correspondent: You did! Okay.

Baker: All that software.

Correspondent: You had that similar problem of “Oh, do I need to lay down a lot of money for this great mic?” Wow!

Baker: No. All my theories about the importance of stereo sound versus mono sound I just dumped into the book. I believe in stereo. I’m a strong believer in stereo. So I bought the mic not from B&H — oh, yes! I bought it, but not from — yeah, I bought it from B&H!

Correspondent: Wow.

Baker: And in fact, I thought of bringing it along. Because it’s kind of soothing when you’re traveling to do some music. And I thought I could practically fit the mic stand. The mic is about three feet long. And it’s pretty durable. So I thought I could put it in the suitcase. And then I thought, “Nah. Something might happen.”

Correspondent: Is it the Rode mic?

Baker: I can’t remember. It’s ATK or something.

[Mysterious beeping sound.]

Baker: I’m sorry. That’s me. I’ll turn this off.

Correspondent: (clutching his dying smartphone, which has less than 5% battery life) No, it’s actually me. Or is it you?

Baker: I think it’s me telling me. It’s telling me that tomorrow I’ll be in Washington DC. (laughs) How helpful!

Correspondent: I’m turning mine off too.

Baker: The DC Book Fest.

Correspondent: My power’s actually about to go out. So there you go. So okay…

Baker: Okay. So let me. Okay. So loops. There are different ways to think about the word “loop.” And most dance songs, and a lot of pop songs these days, are built on the looping principle. But what you don’t want to do is take somebody else’s loop and say, “Ooh! That sounds good. I’ll use it in my song.” Or at least I don’t want to do that. Because you want to build something that is your own. So I usually start with a little piano riff that goes on for four or eight bars. A little something. A chord. Just an interesting chord. Or I start with maybe a hi-hat sound that sounds just a little bit odd and interesting. Or maybe some percussion that has a bit of pitch to it that then makes me think of another sound. Then I layer, using a lot of trial and error and a certain amount of just dumb luck and whatever; incompetence — layers over that. Until I have, say, fifteen layers of sound. And that’s my loop. And the nice thing, when it goes right, is that the loop is in all of its fully official, big time, near-the-end-of-the-song glory. But you might want to take out five tracks from that when you start. And, of course, the kick drum might come in. And suddenly, sixteen bars along or something.

Correspondent: You’re a big proponent of the kick drum.

Baker: Everybody is. You can’t not be a proponent of the kick drum!

Correspondent: (laughs)

Baker: Except that it’s kind of an embarrassing term. You know, “kick drum.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Baker: It sounds sort of like the da-da-da-dum-dah-dum.

Correspondent: You make it sound like John Philip Souza or something.

Baker: Yeah. It sounds like that. But what it is, it’s a massive kind of a chest-vibrating sound that happens every beat or however you want to vary it. And once you get into this world, the theology of kick drum sounds.

Correspondent: A theology?

Baker: The number, the thousands of tiny variations. And the way you can make a chesty kick drum, but with this element of a pop on the top so that you can still get the sense of something bursting, but also get that subwoofer whomp. All of that. People think about that. You have no idea how seriously people take that. Well, you probably do. You’re into music.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, this is really interesting that in your own particular music, you basically say no to taking another loop. And yet in the fiction, we’ve established that you’re drawing very close from reality and from real world examples. Which might almost be like taking a loop and meshing it with another loop.

Baker: Interesting.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering why music allows one set of principles and fiction offers another one. Or is it really simply the expression of a sentence that offers the distinction between music taking loops and fiction taking from cultural reference and so forth?

Baker: Well, yeah, that’s really an interesting thought. I think that I’m always reluctant to quote anything without quotation marks. So I don’t believe in it. The hip-hop world uses sampling a lot, where you take a number of nice sounds — the riff, maybe the chorus — and do things. And it’s obviously brilliant. And they’ve made such great discoveries and combinations. It’s just not something that I’m ready to do yet. I think it’s because, as a writer, I can’t bear the idea that, even involuntarily, I would without remembering quoting somebody else’s phrase and thinking it was my own. It’s just not something that I ever, ever want to do.

Correspondent: Unless you devise a specific sound that can be offered in lieu of a quotation mark.

Baker: (laughs) Who?

Correspondent: A very special percussive sound that nobody else has, that everybody agrees upon. “Alright! Here’s the time where we take from a 70s Funkadelic song.” (laughs)

Baker: Exactly.

Correspondent: There’s another thing I wanted to ask you about. In Traveling Sprinkler, Paul Chowder name-checks both Medea Benjamin and Glenn Greenwald. There’s an interesting line. And this was written before Edward Snowden. “What good does it do me to read Glenn Greenwald’s excellent blog? He’s right about everything and I’m glad he’s doing it. But it doesn’t seem to have any effect.” Well, au contraire!

Baker: (laughs)

Correspondent: Granted, Paul is talking about this in relation to Roz. But Paul Chowder to me is more of a short-sighted version of your typical Baker hero, who is really taking in the world and seeing it with a kind of wonder. And also, it’s not unlike what he said of podcasters, where he says, “They’ll keep on pumping it out. But then they’ll puff up and die.”

Baker: (laughs)

Correspondent: To which we got into a minor disagreement. But that got cleared up. But I actually wanted to ask you. Why do you think that Paul Chowder does not really appreciate the long-term effect of keeping at it and sticking at it? Because that is just as much a part of the journey of being an observer, of being an intellectual seeker, of being a curious type. And so that is very curious why this is outside his temperament.

Baker: Well, I think you put it beautifully, Ed. You have to be patient. You have to keep saying the things over and over again. But that doesn’t mean we all don’t have moments of despair. Which happened, say, in the ramping up to the first Iraq War. All those brilliant op-ed pieces. All that marching. All that sustained argumentation that made the case that this was a mistake was for naught. It was going to happen. It was scheduled, planned, whatever. The launch date was planned. And it happened. And that filled me with a kind of despair. Because I thought, What is the function of rational argument and public discourse when it’s just not going to work? When there’s that feeling, that wave of almost frenzy or a thirst for war. And I think it’s worth including that sentiment if we’re going to be true to our own political lives, which are mixtures. You go up and down. Sometimes you think, “Well, my god, we’re making progress and good ideas are coming out. And good people like Medea Benjamin are saying incredibly powerful, moving things and brave things.” And then it all seems for naught. And it doesn’t get anything accomplished. So you then feel that despair. So I just had Chowder follow the ups and downs of that. But I’ve hinted that towards the end. You know, there’s a moment where his friend Tim gets arrested. And he says, “I’m glad Tim is writing the book.” And the point is that Paul Chowder is too caught up in his own worry, his own love complexities, and the mixed-upness of his own life to do something sustained like write a book against drones. But he’s very glad someone else is doing it. And at some point, he thinks that maybe he can actually do something. In my case, I’m trying to, in a sneaky way, do the same thing. I’m trying to say, “I’m going to present you with a human life.” And this is a person that, if it works, you’re going to recognize this guy. You’re going to see some things about people in this person that you think, “Oh, that’s familiar.” And you’re going to see him struggle and have dissatisfaction and give you some little political ideas to think about. So by the end of the book, I’m not going to have tired you out or disgusted you with overpoliticizing, I hope. Although maybe I redlined there. But I’m going to have included that component in a fictional life. So that the aim of the book was political in a sense. It was to try to write some sort of anti-intervention book, but to do it singingly. To sing the pain a bit and include all the other distractions that a normal life has.

Correspondent: But there are two interesting points here. Because both Glenn Greenwald and Medea Benjamin this year — I mean, when Medea Benjamin basically shouted out to Obama in a way that nobody else would, suddenly, at that moment, she was taken seriously after all these years of ridicule. Same goes with Greenwald. You centered on the two figures who stuck it out and actually became a vital part, I think, of the political discourse. Simultaneously, I’m also thinking of Chowder’s vacillating political position and comparing it to Jay from Checkpoint, where he wants to assassinate Bush for the good of humankind. And that also is a kind of intervention as well. And I’m curious why every political argument that you approach in your fiction tends to involve an intervention of some kind. It’s either an intervention that comes from within or an intervention that comes from without. I mean, is this really just kind of what you see as the American impulse right now? I mean, we’re clearly not in the streets complaining about drones or complaining about the surveillance state and all that. But it is something that this conviction does face intervention in all of your fiction, I think.

Baker: Well, first, I totally admire and — I mean, who wouldn’t admire what Glenn Greenwald did with Snowden? Which was all before. But I love his blog. I admire it so much. I’m terribly jealous of his ability to stick with it and to be patient and to go after and to say similar things, but bring new facts into it. And Medea Benjamin — I mean, I just can’t stand it. She’s so brave. And I love that.

Correspondent: You’re envious of the bravery?

Baker: Well, you know, I have been to marches a little bit. And I published a political book. Human Smoke was a very controversial book. And it’s really hard. It really hurts sometimes. The criticism, the sneering, the unfairness. The kind of misrepresentation of what you’re trying to do in order to make you into a figure of ridicule. In order to make whatever you have to say not have any weight. You know, it does hurt. And it’s hard. And I can only do it once in a while. And even when I’m doing it, I’m doing it about the Second World War! I’ll write a few letters and sign some petitions and I’ll march. I mean, I was up in Portland at an anti-Syrian intervention. Candlelight vigil. Lighting candles. But I’m going to retreat to another time and try to make the argument a different way. I’m trying to undermine the militarist impulse by undermining some of the justifications for the Second World War. I’m trying to do it indirectly. But it’s also an escape. I mean, it’s so hard to talk about the present in a fresh way. That’s the hard part. The names. The names are so familiar. And I don’t want to hear the name “Obama.” I don’t want to hear the name “Assad.” I’m tired of the names. And yet obviously those are the names you have to use. And so, you know, it feels like you need to figure out another way.

(Loops for this program provided by ShortBusMusic, ferryterry, danke, and Progressbeats5.)

The Bat Segundo Show #520: Nicholson Baker (Download MP3)

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