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Amanda Vaill (The Bat Segundo Show #549)

Amanda Vaill is most recently the author of Hotel Florida.

Author: Amanda Vaill

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Subjects Discussed: Household accidents, Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” and various claims attesting to its authenticity, staged photography, Capa’s origins, Ernest Hemingway’s bluster, his journalistic weaknesses, Virginia Cowles’s bravery, the dubious qualities of To Have and Have Not, John Dos Passos, journalistic skepticism, Hemingway’s disillusionment with the Spanish Civil War, Martha Gellhorn, Gellhorn’s 1983 interview with John Pilger, Gellhorn’s condemnation of government, Gellhorn’s relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, Gellhorn making up the facts (fabricating a Mississippi lynching) for her news story, “Justice at Night,” Henry Luce’s attention to Robert Capa, what coverage of the Spanish Civil War was real, Spain as the front line against Hitler, constraints of journalists on the Nationalist side, whether or not any amount of art and journalism could have averted the fate of Spain, the Non-Internvention Agreement, American isolationism, the civil war within the Civil War, left-wing factions squabbling against each other, Arturo Barea’s The Forging of a Rebel, Barea as a late bloomer, Barea’s stint as the Unknown Voice, confidence and post-traumatic stress, how to determine the precise words that floated through someone’s head or mouth from seven decades ago, Hemingway’s The Fifth Column, The Spanish Earth and the current print status of Spain in Flames, Archibald MacLeish and Contemporary Historians, Inc., orphan business entities, the brawl between Orson Welles and Hemingway during voiceover recording sessions, the fight between Hemingway and Max Eastman, what women thought of all the needless male fighting, George Seldes’s reception in the Spanish Civil War, Henry Buckley’s The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic, the legend of the luggage that Martha Gellhorn took to Spain, Joan Didion in El Salvador, Love Goes to Press, the American matador Sid Franklin, Ilsa Kulcsar, Gellhorn’s bravery and influence upon Hemingway, the recent Russia press gag on bloggers, comparisons between the Spanish Civil War and Syria, photographs as Instagram in slow time, whether there’s any Hemingway again, and contemplating J.K. Rowling going to the Crimea to write a novel.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You’re doing okay, I take it.

Vaill: Except for my broken finger.

Correspondent: Oh, you broke your finger?

Vaill: Yes, I did. I had one of those household accidents. I tripped over my shoes.

Correspondent: And, of course, it’s the right hand as opposed to the left hand.

Vaill: Of course it is. So I cannot write and I cannot shake hands and I cannot sign my name. Except that it is getting better so I can now do that.

Correspondent: Although you have a good shot at taking over Spain.

Vaill: I hope so.

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Correspondent: The Spanish Civil War. We have many characters and many figures and I’ll do my best to get to all of them. But let’s start with good old Robert Capa. One of the fascinating and oft argued issues in photography is, of course, Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” — the picture of the militiaman on the Andalusian hill falling to his death in battle. Some have contended that it is fake. Some have contended that it is real. Some have, as you have, tried tracking down interviews. You tried to find an NBC Radio interview with Alex Kershaw on October 20, 1947 in which Capa claimed to have killed the miliciano. But the purported truth of the story behind the photo is almost as murky as the purported truth of the photo, which in turn has us contending with the purported truth of the War. So how do even begin to come to terms with the photo — in terms of scholarship, in terms of authenticity? And how does the struggle affect our ability to wrestle with the complexities and the ideological involutions of the Spanish Civil War? Just to start off here.

Vaill: Well, that I could write a whole dissertation on. And people have. But let’s start first of all with the word “fake,” which is a…

Correspondent: Staged.

Vaill: Yes. There is a big difference. Something that is faked is in some way manipulated so that something that is not true can be made to be true. Something that is staged is something that is perhaps not quite as extreme as something that is faked. And you have to bear in mind that in 1936, when this photograph was taken, there was no history of war photography at all. No one had taken live action photographs on a battlefield. Matthew Brady took pictures of corpses, which he manipulated and moved around so that they would be in a pose that he liked. In World War I, you couldn’t go on the battlefield. You were not allowed. And furthermore there was no equipment that you could take on there. You have big cumbersome cameras and slow film. And it was only in the 1930s, when you had 35mm film and cameras that could accommodate it, that you could take your camera onto the battlefield. So there was no rulebook for how you handled photography in wartime and no one was used to allowing photographers to be where there was combat. So when Capa and Gerda Taro, his lover and cohort in photography, came to Spain, they at first were not even allowed to go onto the battlefield. They were only given access to troops behind the lines and they tried to make them look good. But this was just not happening. They couldn’t get anything that looked like real battle. And finally, when they were near the area of Córdoba, on the Córdoba front. They had this chance to take photographs of a group of soldiers and Capa has told many stories about what happened and how he got this shot. He was an inveterate tale-teller. He was a real entertainer, Capa. He loved to charm and entertain people.

Correspondent: He felt compelled to create his own legend.

Vaill: He totally did. And he did. He created his name. He was born Andrei Friedmann in Budapest. So he created a whole persona of Robert Capa, the famous photographer, and he created not just that, but this legend of himself that he felt perhaps compelled to live up to. In 1936 though, remember, he’s 22 years old. He’s just a kid. He doesn’t know what he’s doing really. And it is my belief, based on interviews — they aren’t even interviews; conversations that he had with those close to him at times when he, in fact, was not on. The conversation that I base most of my reconstruction on this incident on is one that was with a friend. He wasn’t trying to entertain this person. He wasn’t showing off for an interviewer. He was confessing something. And what he confessed was that a real man had been killed by something that he had done and he was conscious-stricken about it, which is the kind of thing that really squares with the portrait that I received of Capa. That Capa was a very kind, very generous, very loving person and easily hurt by things and didn’t want to give pain to others. And that this thing had happened, I think, was horrifying to him.

Correspondent: Since we are talking about various artists who came to Spain and essentially either set themselves up as legends or became legends later, let’s move naturally to Ernest Hemingway. For all of his bluster about being a “real man” and a “real journalist,” he didn’t actually cover Guernica in April 1937. And he didn’t mention this devastating battle in his dispatches from Spain. Virginia Cowles, on the other hand, she headed into the Nationalist zone and not only covered it, but did so when a Nationalist staff officer said, “You probably shouldn’t be writing about this.” So you write in the book that Hemingway may not have thought this important enough, but why do you think he ignored it? Was he just not that thorough of a reporter?

Vaill: Well, actually, I hate to say this, but he wasn’t that thorough of a reporter. For all that he had a great background as a gumshoe reporter back in the day, when he was at the Kansas City Star, when he was in Toronto, he was a newspaperman. He was on the city beat and he was the cub reporter sent out to cover fires and God knows what all else. But by the time he went to Spain, he had become a legend. And he was a legend, in part, in his own mind, as much as in the minds of others, and I think he got to the point where what he really wanted to do was to sit at the big table with the big boys and get the big story, and let somebody else worry about all the little details. And in this case, Guernica happened in the Basque Country. It was in a zone that it was almost impossible for him to get to without great difficulty.

Correspondent: But that didn’t stop Cowles.

Vaill: Well, it didn’t. Because, of course, she was still building her reputation. I think Hemingway felt he didn’t have to pry. I also feel that he didn’t think it was that important. And he didn’t think it was that important because the very contemporary news reports of it were very dismissive at first. It really wasn’t until people like Cowles found out what had gone on there that it became evident that there had been a horrific disaster. So Hemingway just basically thought, “I’m going to give this a bye. It’s too much trouble. I’ll risk my neck getting there. I don’t need it. I’m heading back. Screw it.”

Correspondent: I will confess that your book had me finally, after many years, reading To Have and Have Not.

Vaill: (laughs)

Correspondent: I had been avoiding this for a long time and, as it turns out, rightfully so. Brilliant in parts, terrible in others. I mean, was Hemingway just not up to snuff during this particular period?

Vaill: I think he was struggling. And I think that many writers do. They reach a period where they’re trying to break through to some other level and they’re not comfortable. The instrument isn’t sharp in the way that they want it to be sharp to do the work that they suddenly have decided they want to do. Hemingway after writing two extraordinarily well-received novels and an amazing bunch of short stories and maybe two of his, I think, finest works — “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” I think he was looking to do something different. The ’30s were a period of great relevance. The engagé writer was what you were supposed to be and he hadn’t been. And even though he scoffed at a lot of this stuff and said that he didn’t want to get that involved in politics and he didn’t want to hue to any -isms of one kind or another and all he really believed in was freedom, he couldn’t help noticing, particularly when his friend John Dos Passos ended up on the cover of Time Magazine in the summer of 1936, that writers who were writing about the big political themes were getting a lot of attention, the kind of attention he had always gotten, and I think he was looking for some way to do that and To Have and Have Not represented that kind of fiction for him. He wasn’t comfortable writing it, I think, and I think that was the problem of it.

Correspondent: Speaking of Dos Passos, I felt tremendous sympathy for this poor man. I mean, he comes to Spain. He’s looking into the mysterious disappearance of his friend, Jose Robles Pazos, and he’s spurned by Hemingway.

Vaill: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: Hemingway is well-connected with the Loyalists and he tells Dos Passos, “Don’t put your mouth to this Robles business. People disappear every day.” Which is an extraordinarily callous statement. Why did Hemingway have difficulties getting around his romantic vision of the Republicans? Why couldn’t he ask the difficult questions that Dos Passos had no problem in investigating?

Vaill: Well, I think it goes back to Hemingway’s wanting to be at the big boys table.

Correspondent: And he was.

Vaill: And he was. We’ve seen some of this same problem with journalists in our own day. The New York Times‘s Judith Miller, for example. And other writers writing about our involvement in the Iraq War, they wanted to just take the story that somebody wanted to hand out. Because that person was well-connected and high up in a tree.

Correspondent: And that trumps any journalistic integrity.

Vaill: Or any journalistic — I think it would be — doubt. Just the feeling that, oh wait.

Correspondent: Skepticism.

Vaill: Maybe I can take this story.

Correspodnent: Questioning.

Vaill: Your skepticism instrument is just not working when that happens. It’s lulled into some false quiescence by all this access that you suddenly have. And I think that’s what really happened to Hemingway here. He was so in love with the access he had and he was so taken up with his passionate identification with the cause of the Spanish Republic, which I can certainly understand. They were the democratically elected government of Spain and a bunch of right-wingers wanted to nullify an election and just take things back to the way they were before.

Correspondent: So in order to get over the crest to For Whom the Bell Tolls, an absolute masterpiece, he had to go through all these needless romance and this big review point and then he had to have his heart crushed.

Vaill: And then he had to be disillusioned. And I think the problem for him was — yes, exactly, he did have his heart broken in a way. And For Whom the Bell Tolls came out of that feeling of disillusionment. He called not just what had happened in the Republic, but also what happened at Munich — the whole thing and the dismissal of the international brigades from Spain. All that to him was what he called a carnival of treachery on both sides. And that’s pretty strong language.

The Bat Segundo Show #549: Amanda Vaill (Download MP3)

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Emily Gould, Literary Narcissism, and the Middling Millennials

“I just expect more from life. Seriously, it’s like I want every day to be exciting! And scary! And a rollercoaster of creative experience, as if I’m making a new life for myself in France.” — Hannah, shortly before being fired from GQ, Girls, “I Saw You.”

“The bottom line is this: You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it….If there is no moral question, there is no reason to write. I’m an old-fashioned writer and, despite the odds, I want to change the world. ” — James Baldwin, September 1979 interview with The New York Times

Richard Wright was 32 when he published Native Son. Dinaw Mengestu was 26 when he published All the Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. Edwidge Danticat had two novels and a short story collection under her belt before she was 30. James Baldwin published Go Tell It on the Mountain when he was 29. Publishing fiction was neither an act of vanity nor a declaration of entitlement for these formidably talented figures. Their novels were all serious works of art peering fearlessly into America’s troubled soul, demanding that readers pay attention and alter their reality by a bristling strand. Their stories burned from their typewriters and computers as naturally as kindling on an uncontainable fire.

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Yet an insufferable new group of mediocre writers and book boosters, armed with a 24/7 presence on social media, has emerged not only to debase literature, but to drive out vibrant, risk-taking literary lights with the advocation of childish, anglophonic, and apolitical narratives that read more like the old Sassy articles once devoured by preening teens. (Indeed, the obsession with nostalgia and adolescent mimicry is so commiserable that this group’s indefatigable flight from adulthood at such a late age is quite embarrassing when compared against the commendable industry of RookieMag‘s teen prodigy Tavi Gevinson.) To some degree, this is an offshoot of what Tom Whyman has smartly identified as “cupcake fascism,” whereby embracing empty bourgeois comfort supplants even the most half-hearted engagement. It is almost a cultural variant to Gresham’s law, with bad writers supported by vulgar and illiterate marketing people, a crass coterie of booksellers and digital evangelists who show more evidence of hoarding books than reading them, and ancillary parties tweeting wistfully about wanting more time to write or going to France or eating in French restaurants, with the reliable flow of selfies, smartphone snaps of status galleys, and Instagram photos with authors interspersed for appropriate authenticity. They aspire to see cultural metropolises much as Stefan Zweig romanticized Old Vienna in The World of Yesterday, but lack the careful grace, the painstakingly acquired erudition, and the interdisciplinary refinement to go the distance. The results are little more than slovenly self-love.

straub-emmaIf you are a dedicated reader in Brooklyn fond of sliding bills across smooth countertops in exchange for tantalizing tomes in independent bookstores, you have probably encountered the Middling Millennials. They are largely white women who are almost totally in the dark about their privilege, many bolstering a blinkered neoliberal feminism that demands a rectifying army of Mikki Kendalls and Djuna Barneses. They often confuse the act of literary engagement with coquettish pom-pom flogging. They are somewhere between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-three and are often found on Tumblr interspersing “fun facts” and JPEGs with quotes that, despite the lofty intent, are more self-help than literary. These relentlessly unchallenging digital shrines are frequently adorned with a bean-boosting “THIS” appended to the head of a calcified, well-tread, self-righteous sentiment that is reblogged — that is, if the MMs are not too busy Gchatting with others about the latest literary gossip. Some of the more pathetic specimens lean closer to forty and are often enlisted to interview esteemed authors before a small crowd under the mistaken impression that the interviewer is the center of attention. This group is not to be confused with the fine young minds and respectable hustlers who run and contribute to The New Inquiry, Open Letters Monthly, Jacobin, Hazlitt, Full Stop, HTML Giant, The American Reader, and Triple Canopy (to name but a few), who have all proven to be promising and proficient readers of a wide range open to lively and respectful challenge. To be perfectly pellucid, we are identifying disproportionate tadpoles who respond to any form of disagreement with a knee-jerk “Dead to me!” block on social media and return to their cheery consumerist chatter, blissfully unaware of greater global problems.

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The Middling Millennials are hostile to nonfiction, history, politics, and any topic that is real or remotely challenging. They have been harming the literary clime with their relentless pablum for at least a good year, actively encouraged by hoary outlets like n+1, The Awl, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and The Millions, all quietly hoping that this confluence of cheerleading and seductive reductionism will enlarge their cultural influence. While the actual population of Middling Millennials is difficult to measure (MFA vs. NYC, a volume published earlier this year by n+1, was allegedly substantive enough to attract the notice of The New Republic, The New York Times, and other outlets), the quality of the MM arguments are, on the whole, remarkably pauce — with thinking deracinated altogether, swapped with a fawning devotion more at home in a San Diego entrepôt.

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The Middling Millennials are never just booksellers or writers or publishers. They have not heeded the realities promulgated by Barnard College president Debora L. Spar in her book Wonder Woman. They must “have it all” and announce their hyphenates, even when untrue. Thus, unremarkable people believe that they should be the center of attention, presenting themselves as superheroes committed to supererogatory tasks. Michele Filgate, a selfie enthusiast with a compulsive need for attention, begins a purportedly thoughtful article on Dave Eggers’s The Circle with “I get a sort of high [sic] when people retweet me,” and announces herself as a “writer and Community Bookstore Events Coordinator” — even as published novelists report having to endure her unspeakably boorish “Do you know who I am?” hijinks off the clock.

rachelf2Rachel Fershleiser, who once described herself as a “writer, editor, and bookseller in New York City,” has a LinkedIn profile that reveals not much more than a dumb-as-dirt, insufferable publicist who wishes to limit discourse while feigning her belief in community as she toils at Tumblr in some “Literary and Nonprofit Outreach” capacity. Note how real vocational callings (“Events Coordinator” and “bookseller in New York City”) are always placed second. When this thoroughly mediocre woman in her early thirties isn’t chirruping like a red-billed quelea who doesn’t understand that 1.5 billion other birds are twittering the same tune, she’s regressing back into adolescence with the camera as her enabling muse, uptalking her superficial platitudes through the intellectually ignoble forum of TED Talk (and employing the linguistically impecunious neologism “Bookternet”), when not dropping her dry and cavernous rictus not out of any fealty to enduring literature, but for a Veronica Mars tie-in novel written by Rob Thomas that nobody will remember in ten years. Improbably, this fatuous, tenth-rate Bernays disciple was asked to serve as judge for The Morning News‘s annual Tournament of Books, where she had to decide between Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (an ambitious and bona-fide masterpiece written by the 28-year-old Eleanor Catton that went onto win the Booker Prize) and Scott McClanahan’s Hill William. (Poor McClanahan asked to be removed from the bloodthirsty contest without success.) Fershleiser opted for the latter. The Luminaries was merely “a fussy book about men and their money and their honor and their prostitutes and their ships. Catton can and should write about whatever she likes, but I’ve read about these guys before. I want to read something new.”

“A fussy book about men and their money” is a gross mischaracterization of what Catton was up to in The Luminaries. The novel concerns itself with, among other things, Cantonese immigrants during the Otago Gold Rush, the burdens and reliance upon astrology during a time in human history before accurate measurement, a vicious trafficking system and the lack of options for women, Maori culture, and the influence of the 1865 tradeback option on New Zealand. Fershleiser’s impoverished cramming session speaks to the abysmal folly of assigning a sophisticated book to someone clearly out of her depth. One can only imagine the ample idiocy that Rachel “Seen It All Before” Fershleiser would serve up had someone deigned to anoint her judge in the 1922 Tournament of Books with Ulysses pitted against another book. To denounce a book that a writer has toiled on for years with a few carelessly expressed, willfully uncomprehending paragraphs is a very Middling Millennial quality indeed. But then Fershleiser has never been about having a constructive conversation. When Jacob Silverman wrote his essay “Against Enthusiasm,” which asked perfectly reasonable questions concerning why the literary world had “become mired in clubbiness and glad-handing,” Fershleiser preferred to troll Silverman rather than consider his dialogue:

Maybe the MMs are part of what Leslie Jamison has identified as “post-wounded women” in her essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” Rather than weigh and confront the anguish that burns inside their hearts or consult the writing that may lead them to express their complicated feelings, they not only deny and prohibit writers who are willing to enter this realm, but openly deride them without an argument, even as they attempt to sublimate their “too cool for this” posturing into the public space of a bookstore, whose raison d’être is not to provide a forum for unconventional thought and serious discussion, but to move units to keep the place running at a tiny profit margin.

Perhaps the worst of these obnoxious crusaders is Emily Gould, a narcissist so delusional that she actually believes affixing her first name to a media unit (“books,” “magazine”) will sprout an empasmic empire. Her new novel, Friendship, not only advocates the MM way of life, but is surely the most aloofly written novel about youthful striving since Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men. (As it so happens, Gould and Gessen are getting married in October. Solipsists make strange bedfellows.)

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“For young people…ecstatic admiration for talent in all its forms leads them irresistibly to look at themselves, wondering whether they can perhaps detect a trace of that sublime essence in their own unexplored bodies or still partly unenlightened minds.” — Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday

gould4Emily Gould was hatched in Silver Spring, Maryland on October 13, 1981: the bouncing daughter of a public relations man and a self-employed lawyer and mediator. Had social media and smartphones been around more than three decades ago, it is almost certain that her dewy newborn hands would have stretched out with hollow hunger to replace the default egg avatar on her Twitter account not long after overworked doctors snipped her umbilical cord. It did not take long for Gould to develop a worldview that placed her at the center of the universe. In her execrable autobiography And the Heart Says Whatever, Gould reports being “dagger-stared [sic] by half the people I passed” in high school. There is no worthwhile self-examination, no attempt to comprehend why other students find her mean and selfish behavior loathsome, no efforts to empathize with their feelings. But she does compare this to “bad television.” One clearly sees that, even before she poured the Internet’s water over her naked confessional form in an oddly bathetic baptism, Gould’s relationship with other people was predicated upon diminishing their perspectives and rigging the narrative so that she emerged as the coldblooded white bread winner:

Luke was cute, not handsome, but adorable, like a basset hound puppy. He had wide, pretty eyes and a long nose and a sweet, tender mouth. Even when enraged there was something about his face that was just funny. Rage looked out of place when expressed by his amiable features. He had heard what I’d done, he told me, his voice trembling, and he wanted to work past it.

texaveryLike many young ambitious types, she moved to New York, where her hostility to anyone making art ripened, even as she believed herself “extraordinary.” In Heart, Gould describes an aspiring young man who asked her to be part of an amateur movie project. She went to his apartment and read his lines before the camera in a stilted manner. The director saw that Gould was nervous and kindly offered her a beer. Gould viewed this an opportunity to “see what an adult man’s bathroom would look like.” Gould’s NSA-like instinct for seizing private information while humiliating others in incremental ways was well-formed, almost awaiting Nick Denton’s curling hand to usher her into Gawker HQ. When the young man relayed the film’s story to Gould, Gould thought it was “the dumbest thing I’d ever heard.” But the young man was at least trying to create something. What was Gould doing other than wishing to be superior or waiting to be noticed? Gould’s astonishing egocentrism unfolds further when her “slowly building suspicion that he was not going to put the moves on me finally crystallized into certain knowledge.” This preposterous a priori sexuality oozes throughout the book, pleading for the more surefire helm of a young Elizabeth Wurtzel to push Gould’s sad makeshift schooner across the ocean. In the book’s introduction, Gould describes her first job, where she reported the presence of male eyes “following the movement of my back, conscious always that I was like the books displayed in the waiting are: an ornament that demonstrated the company’s power,” as if every Manhattan man is a lascivious Tex Avery creature with an outstretched tongue.

There is incessant condescension directed at working stiffs (“I admired the Balthazar employees, the way they danced around each other with studied grace as they fulfilled their patrons’ picky requests”) and a soupçon of transphobia (“the notorious ass-cheeked ads catering to the needs of the apparently huge New York population whose back pain can only be soothed by the massaging hands of a pre-op transexual”). But Gould eventually landed a job at Hyperion Books as an editor (among her most prominent acquisitions were “a graphic novel version of Dante’s Inferno, illustrated by ‘a group of leading artists’” and “a book of political humor” from the talk show host Lionel). She co-wrote a dreadful YA novel called Hex Education. Here is a small sample of her prose at the time, culled from a 2005 story published in Girl’s Life:

“Dudes, I saw A-piss-a with her shirt off today,” he told Paul Westlay and Doug Terrien. Those chuckleheads chuckled, as they always do at their lord and master Joel’s crappy jokes, which are nearly always at someone else’s expense.

gould5It was ultimately Gould’s blog, Emily Magazine, that got her writing for Gawker, where, lacking any real talent, she quickly made a name for herself invading people’s privacy. Gawker‘s ethos, if it can be called that, relied on poring through emails sent from anonymous tipsters. Aggrieved workers in the media industry would pass along rumors, forward memos, or shoot any toxic grist into this digital bundt cake factory. “I would investigate by quoting their anonymous allegations on the site,” wrote Gould in Heart, “and asking if anyone else knew anything more.” Note Gould’s improper and irresponsible usage of “investigate.” Even the lowliest Page Six or TMZ writer attempts to confirm a piece of gossip before reporting it. But Gawker did not. This was because Gould was an easily manipulated rube fueled by the prospect of spite. It hardly mattered if the item was true. “The rules for tips,” wrote Gould, “was that if three people wrote in about the same thing, we probably ought to do a post about it, no matter how dumb it seemed.” It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Gould that savvy publicists may have noticed this pattern and manipulated Gawker much as they do other prominent outlets. But when a minx’s head is so deeply deposited up her own slimy passage, it’s often hard to see the sunshine.

* * *

“I don’t even really want to be a writer,” said Gould in an October 2007 article, “but I feel like I don’t have a choice. It’s all I’ve ever known how to do.”

This cry is similar, if considerably more arrogant, to Bret Harte’s declaration, just four months before his twenty-first birthday: “I have written some poetry; passable and some prose (good) which have been published. The conclusion forced upon me by observation and not by vain enthusiasm that I am fit for nothing else — must impel me to seek distinction and fortune in literature.” Harte may have been a fop, but he had talent and paid his dues doing meaningful work. He became editor of The Overland Monthly at the age of 32 after a raucous life of dutiful journalism on the pioneering front lines, catapulted to international fame through “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” his harrowing tale of how ruthless flooding impacted California. Gould would spend the next seven years wallowing in brackish muck of celebrity culture, whether actual or self-erected, with her vanity mirror kept close.

Like many bright young things who move to New York, this dim bulb believed that she was entitled to everything. And if that meant tearing down another person to advance another rung on the ladder, then so be it. Jason Pinter, who is one of the kindest and hardest working people in publishing I have ever known, was fired from his job at Crown because Gould had reposted one of his shop talk blog entries on Gawker. Did Gould have any sympathy, any sense of the impact of her actions, or any understanding about the way the book business worked (even after her Hyperion stint)? Not at all. She was colder than the mist on a chilled champagne glass. Here is how she responded to the news of Pinter’s sacking:

But don’t feel too bad for Pinter: he’s got his career as a thriller writer to fall back on! And besides, his last few stinky acquisitions for Three Rivers — which include a gimmicky blog book by that dude who bartered a paperclip for a house, and the latest by Modern Drunkard Frank Kelly Rich — are all someone else’s problem now. So really, Pinter owes us and Galleycat a beer or something for linking to his blog and getting him fired. We’ll hold our breaths waiting for the thank you note.

Aside from the fact that Gould didn’t appear to understand how book advances, often meager, were parceled out, the astonishing and inhumane claim that Pinter in some way “owes” Gould is the baffling takeaway that could only be tendered by a callous sociopath. Despite the fact that Gould would later state that, “It’s not OK to say false things about anyone,” she would continue to post irresponsible items on Gawker without checking or corroborating with the people she reported on. (For the record, I sent Gould a list of questions by email to give her an opportunity to respond to several points raised in this essay. She did not answer.)

On April 7, 2007, Gould appeared on Larry King Live to discuss the increasing nexus between celebrity journalism and citizen journalism. Jimmy Kimmel was filling in for Larry King. Gould’s appearance was disastrous, yet particularly revealing of the flimsy and fluctuating justifications she would offer for the nasty taint that has drifted over her professional life to the present day. Here is the pertinent part of the transcript:

KIMMEL: My problem is you post things that simply aren’t true on the site and you do no checking on your stories whatsoever. I’ll give you an example. There was a story about me that popped up on my Google search. It said “Daily Gawker Stalker, when isn’t Jimmy Kimmel visibly intoxicated?” And there’s a story about me being visibly intoxicated. I know it may be funny to you but I didn’t find it that amusing.

GOULD: OK.

KIMMEL: And a matter of fact, the story that talks about me being drunk, I was coming home with my cousin’s — my cousin’s 1-year- old birthday party with my elderly aunt and uncle and my kids and my cousins and I was — I may have been loud but I was far from intoxicated and you put these things on there. I mean I know you’re an editor. What exactly are you editing from the website?

GOULD: There’s a whole other aspect of our website that doesn’t have anything to do with the Stalker Map. But what the Stalker Map is citizen journalism. People don’t read with the expectation that every word of it will be gospel. Everyone who reads it knows that it isn’t checked at all.

KIMMEL: Well…

GOULD: What they read it for is immediacy.

KIMMEL: I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

GOULD: You don’t unfilter sort of the way people that perceive celebrities in real time that you don’t get from any other media. And that’s what I think is great about it.

KIMMEL: Well, I mean you also get what is essentially slanderous statements or libelous statements put on your website. For instance, today I noticed there was something about Kevin Costner. I went on to see what was there today. It said how fat Kevin Costner was and it had a picture of Jabba the Hutt next to him. Now, I know you sell advertising. I don’t know why anybody would buy advertising on a website. But I don’t know what the point of something like that is.

BRAGMAN: There’s also a big contradiction. She said citizen journalism. She used the word “journalism” and then said, “Everybody knows not everything is true.” Most journalists at least try for the truth. It’s a goal.

GOULD: I mean do you read “US Weekly” and expect that everything in it is true or “Star.”

(CROSSTALK)

BRAGMAN: I expect that they try. I get calls from them fact checking and I don’t from your website.

GERAGOS: That’s absolutely true. “US Weekly” at least has a legal department that vets things.

KIMMEL: And our photographers at least are taking photographs of things that are happening, as opposed to — I mean I’d just want you to think about your life and…

GOULD: Wow!

KIMMEL: …weigh your options. And I mean because I would hate to see you arriving in hell and somebody sending a text message saying, “Guess who’s here?” You know what I’m saying?

GOULD: Honestly, I think that there’s a shifting definition of what is public and what is private space for everyone not just celebrities. The Internet, blogs, MySpace, no one has the reasonable expectation of being able to walk around the street and not being noticed by someone.

KIMMEL: Well, that is just a terrible thing, though, isn’t it? I mean…

GOULD: Is it really? I mean I think it’s great that we’re not putting people up on a pedestal and worshipping them anymore. I think it’s that good people are acknowledging celebrities are real people.

KIMMEL: But you’re throwing rocks at them, though. I mean it seems to me that…

GOULD: Aren’t they kind of protected by piles of money from those rocks?

KIMMEL: No, no. And by the way, not all celebrities are wealthy. I mean you know that’s a silly and stupid thing to say, you know that. Come on now, just because people have money means it’s OK to say false things about them, to tear them down?

GOULD: It’s not OK to say false things about anyone.

KIMMEL: Well, you should check your website then.

* * *

Hyacinth Bucket: Is that for me?
The Postman: It says Bucket on the envelope.
Hyacinth Bucket: It’s Bouquet. B-U-C-K-E-T, Bouquet. The accent on the second syllable.
Keeping Up Appearances

edamesI was asked to serve as an announcer in a boxing match between Jonathan Ames and Craig Davidson at Gleason’s Boxing Gym on the evening of July 24, 2007. I had just moved to Brooklyn and was one year into a relationship with another journalist. She was Jewish. I was not. Because of this, we took great pains to keep our relationship out of the public eye — as several of her more religious family members were exceptionally sensitive to this development and we needed time to ease them into this reality. (The other journalist and I are still together.)

The boxing match was a great success and was exuberantly described by Ames himself in an essay included in his book, The Double Life is Twice as Good. As the other journalist and I walked into the streets holding hands, a young woman with blonde hair — who I later learned was Emily Gould from Gawker — rushed up to us and demanded to know my name. I didn’t really read Gawker, although I had expressed my dismay in May over a a Gould piece summoning needless resentment for Meghan O’Rourke, a fine writer and, to this day, nothing less than generous whenever I run into her. I was spending my time carefully studying books, developing my writing voice, and interviewing prominent writers only after thoroughly perusing and researching their work. But I sussed out immediately that she was some type of bizarre gossip columnist. I let go of my girlfriend’s hand.

“Hey,” said Gould in a bright and invasive voice.

“Hey,” replied my girlfriend.

“What are you guys doing tonight?”

No hello. No “My name’s Emily Gould.” No small talk. Just an immediate vulturous demand from a stranger on how we were living our lives.

I politely mumbled that it was none of her business. But she didn’t seem to hear me. For whatever reason, she had deemed the other journalist and me important. She insisted on knowing who I was. She felt she had a right to know who I was fucking, when my relationship was private and founded on more heart than she would ever know. I was utterly baffled by her boorish inquisitiveness. I was just some guy who ran a literary blog, who wrote a few things for newspapers, and who talked with authors.

I told her that I was Publius, figuring that Gould would suss out my reference to the anonymous authors of The Federalist Papers and be on her merry way.

“Publius?” she asked.

“Jack Publius,” I replied.

Gould still didn’t get the hint. My girlfriend picked up the reference immediately.

“It’s Italian,” said my girlfriend.

“Roman origins,” I said.

“Can you spell that?” replied Gould.

I was utterly stunned that someone who wrote for a major media site, someone who had an undergraduate education in the liberal arts, could be this ignorant. I spelled out “Publius” for Gould, pointing out that I was especially concerned whenever people mispronounced and misspelled it. She jotted this down into her little notebook, her lips rustling over the three syllables as her pen whirled. Then she left.

* * *

“One of the great conditions of anger and hatred is, that you must tell and believe lies against the hated object, in order, as we said, to be consistent.” — William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

gouldlaughingMonths later — on November 21, 2007 — Gould attempted to paint me as a lunatic in a Gawker post for having the temerity to ask for a check, a check that was four months late. Gould had intercepted a private email. I badly needed the money at the time. It was the only way that I could pay my rent. I had burned through the savings that I’d brought with me from San Francisco. Having little income beyond books I was able to sell to the Strand Book Store, I would often go for walks and, during an especially grim time, I overturned a cup of collected pennies onto the rickety wooden counter at a corner store to purchase the produce stacked in neat lines outside. There were a few weeks when the power went out in my apartment due to my inability to pay the electricity bill. I plucked power from the building by plugging an extension cord into the hallway outlet just outside my front door, using this to fuel my computer. I still had freelancing work. And I did, after all, have pieces to file. I am reluctant to call this poverty, because that that would be a gross insult to the estimated 1.29 billion people who live in soul-shattering squalor around the globe. But it was life more common than most writers would care to admit. I survived. Because I spent most of my time reading and writing and living and loving. And that was enough to keep me happy and alive.

Gould never once contacted me to get my side of the story, nor did she have the guts or the decency to return an email I sent her just after her hit piece ran. Having singled me out at the Ames-Davidson fight, she presumably viewed me as a “celebrity” in the form of a “famously crotchety book blogger.” Much as she defended her invasiveness to Kimmel by claiming that celebrities were “kind of protected by piles of money from those rocks,” failing to comprehend that not all public figures were cushioned by such wealth, she presumed that I was similarly buffered. So long as the story fit her nefarious thesis, her incessant need to poke her nose in business that was not hers to know, Gould could say anything she wanted.

* * *

gould3But even a torrid hoyden hopped up on spite cannot bang out twelve daily vituperative blog posts forever. On November 30, 2007, now firmly aligned with the n+1 frat club of vaguely punkish Hemingway wannabes, Gould resigned from Gawker (along with her aging co-editor Choire Sicha) in a public post. Gould claimed that Carla Blumenkranz’s article on Gawker had been one of the linchpins. Blumenkranz had nailed the cargo cult mentality of Gawker writers at the time: they believed themselves outsiders, the last humans standing in a media wasteland fighting for the remaining principles of journalism. But Gould had never represented any tenet other than the Promotion of Emily. Yet n+1 and one of its co-editors Keith Gessen represented a way out, a step towards legitimacy, the beginnings of mainstream acceptance, the furthering of autonomy.

Gessen and Gould began dating not long after.

On January 15, 2008, Gould returned to the airwaves, claiming that she had “stopped caring about the Internet” and soon began blogging again. This was all a warmup for “Exposed” — a May 25, 2008 New York Times Magazine cover story that would result in some of the most gargantuan vitriol Gould ever received. Almost setting the stage for the fallout to follow, on March 6, 2008, Gawker Media honcho Nick Denton spilled the beans on Gould’s involvement with Gessen, the last in a string of careerist bedhopping (co-blogger at Gawker, dumped for Observer reporter, dumped for Gessen) that resembled Barbara Stanwyck’s upward trajectory in the 1933 film Baby Face, and her gig with the Gray Lady, speculating that Gessen had used his connections to get her through the door.

Vanity Fair‘s Jim Windolf documented the fracas in great detail. Denton’s gambit worked. The tide turned against Gould and Gessen, especially when Gould broke up with Gessen, an especially mean and public dissolution that even Gessen’s greatest detractors would find unsettling, while he was on tour in May 2008, facing merciless reviews for his debut novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, and blogging his tour for The Stranger. As always, Gould had timed her behavior to get maximum attention.

nytcovers

On May 25, “Exposed” was published in the New York Times Magazine. It was a remarkably self-absorbed essay, with one of the most pitiful displays of navel gazing ever published in a major newspaper:

In high school, I encouraged my friends to circulate a notebook in which we shared our candid thoughts about teachers, and when we got caught, I was the one who wanted to argue about the First Amendment rather than gracefully accept punishment. I walked down the hall of my high school passing out copies of a comic-book zine I drew, featuring a mock superhero called SuperEmily, who battled thinly veiled versions of my grade’s reigning mean girls. In college, I sent out an all-student e-mail message revealing that an ex-boyfriend shaved his chest hair. The big difference between these youthful indiscretions and my more recent ones is that you can Google my more recent ones.

The cover story was significantly trite for a first-class venue, especially when compared against the ones that ran during the previous two weeks (a feature on girls’ sports injuries published on May 11, 2008 and an examination of John McCain’s lonely support for the Iraq War on May 18, 2008). The blog Young Manhattanite wrote one of the more memorable takedowns, rightly calling out Gould for being in denial about her narcissism. But this was also the beginning of the “Emily Gould Reborn/Reinvented” narrative that would play out exactly the same way six years later. Gould had shifted from being some malleable tool into a figure just charismatic enough to persuade prominent outlets that she was reformed. Gould had the congregation. All she needed was a sizable chorus, a thick hymn book, and enough saps who would buy into her turnabout tale. Who knows? Perhaps her father, a public relations executive, had given her a few pointers.

Gould began playing the victimhood card, mentioning that she began experiencing panic attacks and had started to see a therapist about her “feelings of being inordinately scrutinized.” Yet the Emily Reinvented storyline could not find space for any of the potential panic attacks and therapy experienced by those she casually brutalized on Gawker. If the reader feels sorry for Gould — and one can always find a little pity for a mangy dog about to be gassed at the pound — the feeling dissolves when one ponders her perpetual devotion to betraying people while seeing herself as the target. It especially helps if you’re familiar with Nixon.

Meanwhile, Gould pretended to be a journalist. She was a bad actor stumbling through a clumsy run of a Ben Hecht play (or auditioning for some budding director with a camera whose storyline she believed was “the dumbest thing she ever heard”). If that meant writing an article for Russia! about Russian-born American writers prominently featuring her boyfriend (without disclosing the relationship or recusing herself or dropping Gessen from the article because of this conflict of interest), Gould would cross the line. Because she had no scruples. She had only a depraved appetite for more.

The “Exposed” article helped Gould land a book deal with a $200,000 advance. She confessed, as late as 2012, that it was “a lot of money.” But close to the early allocation of her windfall, she continued to bray about her enemies on her blog. She would tinker with the tale to continue the Emily Reinvented storyline, spinning her profligacy into a story of “poverty” that, when I was skipping meals and working my ass of and trying to get a break as a writer, I could only dream about.

* * *

“I was double, English and Philosophy. I don’t remember a thing.”
“Who does?”
“Seriously, though. I look at the books on my shelves and it’s clear that I read them, back then, but I can’t remember ever doing it, and I don’t have the first idea what they might be about.”
“Read them again, then?”
Danielle sighed. “Not now. Maybe someday. I look at them and wonder who I was, you know? It’s a long time ago. I’m thirty.”
– Claire Messud, The Emperor’s Children

Gould’s ravenous need to tear people down didn’t end with Gawker. She still specializes in trolling and clumsy railing to this day, whether it’s calling out the “unprecedented entitled band of horrible assholes” who live in Bushwick, Greenpoint, and Williamsburg right now (a perfect test case for Eric Schwitzgebel’s “theory of jerks”) or feminists who offer bold journalistic critiques of The Daily Show‘s gender problem with its staff. (Of the latter umbrage, Gould failed to note that Jezebel‘s Irin Carmon actually interviewed people — a reportorial regularity that Gould remains incapable of practicing.)

These days, Gould often snipes through the more pusillanimous form of the subtweet. Twitter remains a fairly dependable fishbowl for tweets that not only debunk the Emily Reinvented storyline, but reveal that the gormlessness and the nastiness, which once guided Gould through twelve bilious posts a day at Gawker, is alive and well.

gouldknausgaard

Gould’s flippant posturing involves dismissing Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six volume, 3,600 page, groundbreaking autobiographical fiction with an emoticon and then offering a cutesy, anti-intellectual “i’m kind of a philistine.” It involves not letting Adelle Waldman, who wrote one of the most accomplished debut novels of 2013, have her rare moment in the sun when Lena Dunham, who raved over how marvelous The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P was — indeed, so marvelous that the writers of Girls consulted the book for inspiration during the third season, arguably the strongest run of the series — to her then 1.2 million followers. Only three minutes after Dunham’s tweet, Gould posted a derisory “no thanks.”

gouldwaldman

And these are just the tweets that remain open for public inspection. On any given long, dark early evening of the soul (with or without Keith Gessen), Gould can be found revealing her vicious nature, provided you happen to be there. On the stormy night of April 30, 2014, when five inches of rain barraged New York City over the course of a single evening, I happened to be on Twitter. Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz had recently published a very moving piece in response to the publication of MFA v. NYC, pointing to how people of color were being actively discouraged in MFA workshops. Forms of creative expression that weren’t white enough were being systematically pushed out. Promising talent was giving up. Rather than engaging with Diaz’s argument, Gould chided Diaz on Twitter for using “impacted” as a verb. Novelist Porochista Khakpour challenged Gould. Gould responded with a series of vicious tweets (all swiftly deleted). I was able to screenshot some of the conversation, which reflected the utterly superficial manner in which Gould approached an important and racially loaded subject.

gouldporochista

It was an uncomfortable repetition of an episode from And the Heart Says Whatever, when Gould described a young student reading an essay called “Memoirs of an Angry Black Woman Syndrome,” a tale of victimhood that could not have been easy to write. This was not unlike a writing student, who Diaz identified as Athena, talking “constantly about the workshop’s race problem, about the shit our peers said to us (shit like: Why is there even Spanish in this story? Or: I don’t want to write about race, I want to write about real literature.)” Athena disappeared, a casualty of a system that believes in Alice Munro but that often turns its back on Octavia Butler or Love and Rockets. It is telling that Gould doesn’t remember any details of the Angry Black Woman’s essay. Her response to the student mimics her clueless online behavior in 2014:

When it was my turn, I asked a clarification question in a way that made it unnecessarily obvious that I thought the essay was poorly written. Its author narrowed her eyes at me, then kept glaring as her mouth smiled. “I’m sure you’re just speaking from ignorance, not racism,” she said.

One has to wonder whether the Angry Black Woman used “impact” as a verb. That Gould doesn’t have the courage to reveal the full extent of her ugliness — and it’s worth pointing out that even Dave Eggers had the stones to cop to his racist fears on a beach in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius — is telling of the timidity that belies Gould’s professed candor. Of course, now that Gould is a grown woman, her insensitivity can’t just be chalked up to mere ignorance. If Emily has “changed,” then why does the song remain the same? Gould’s commitment to white literary power is reflected in her curatorial instincts at her online bookstore, Emily Books. Of the thirty-two authors listed on the site, only two — Samantha Irby and Sigrid Nunez — are not white. Barbara Browning is a white woman who has written extensively about Brazil. But it’s telling that Gould’s commitment to writers of color fits in with the Middling Millennial/Jezebel hard line. Perhaps the time has come to coin a #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomenWriters hashtag to protest this atavism.

Despite being set in sections of Brooklyn substantially populated by people of color, there are no black characters in Gould’s novel, Friendship. Indeed, when Gould writes, “Bev’s shoulders were strong and white in her tank top,” one can’t help but wonder if there is the modest trace of Leni Riefenstahl purring in her Caucasians-first heart. Compare this with Adelle Waldman’s careful detail in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, which also features prominent white characters: “a newish establishment that appeared to be patronized almost exclusively by the white people who’d begun to move into the historically black neighborhood in which it is located,” “a crowd of black women whose calf-length skirts clung to their legs in the breeze,” and “as the train moved deeper into Brooklyn, more and more white people got off. Eventually almost everyone who remained was black — and tired.” Even Lena Dunham responded to critics who rightly chided her for featuring too many white characters by featuring more African-American characters in Girls‘s third season. That Gould lacks the basic observational skills to notice non-white people in Brooklyn says much about her distorted reality and her ineluctable self-absorption.

Gould’s reaction to Khakpour was pure Middling Millennialism all the way: the assumption that she was always right, the indifference to history and the inflexibility to other perspectives, the failure to offer a reasonable argument, and the hostility to being challenged. While Gould went out of her way to scrub her tweets, Khakpour’s response remains a good indicator of how a clueless and privileged white woman deals with the big questions:

Gould’s spineless stratagem is not unlike the revisionism of prominent Republicans who pulled their support for a released POW not long after learning that Taliban prisoners were traded to make the deal happen. Gould, the invasive non-journalist who scoured through the bathrooms of budding directors and reveled in getting people fired, won’t hold herself accountable. There is, after all, the Emily Reinvented narrative to promote.

* * *

On February 24, 2014, Gould published an essay on Medium, which would also appear in the MFA vs. NYC anthology, in which she set forth her purported financial suffering. She wrote that the $200,000, after taxes and agent’s commission, allowed her to live alone in Brooklyn for three years in a one bedroom apartment and pay for health insurance. She did not seem to understand that not only is this an extraordinarily rare, if unrepeatable, success, but that three years is quite ample time to work out a day job/freelancing strategy that leaves enough writing time to keep the books career going. Gould squandered her time on her blog. She was very fortunate, unlike many writers, to have a boyfriend who could pay her rent and float one of her credit cards. She didn’t seem to understand that working people don’t have the luxury of blowing $1,500 for a vet or $1,700 for rent.

But let’s move away from the class argument.

A real writer sits in front of the computer and does the work. Every day. Or close to it. It does not matter if the writer is published or not. It does not matter if the audience is three, three thousand, or three million. A real writer is free and imaginative enough to take risks. A real writer writes when the chips are down. A real writer writes when she is hungry or when she is at her lowest point. A real writer doesn’t even need an Internet connection. So long as there are pens, paper, electricity somewhere, functional computers, dictionaries, and grammar books, there are no reasons other than your own laziness not to write. Fifteen minutes, twelve hours, whatever you can spare each day.

Gould was not a real writer.

She was not a real writer because she could not listen to a man who wanted to tell her his sob story after she purchased him a kebab. She was not a real writer because she could not bring herself to fully feel a musical. She was not a real writer because she fantasized more about patrician coziness than the worlds she created on the page or the joyful people and iridescent details around her or the marvel and beauty of language. She was not a real writer because she cared too much about how people perceived her, about how her books were marketed, about where she was in the pecking order. She was not a real writer because she did not have the discipline to not pay attention to the people (in this case, Lena Dunham) preventing her from doing the work, even as she had the full financial and emotional support of her lover.

Most of all, she was not a real writer because the only person she could tap was the uncreative figure staring back in the vanity mirror.

* * *

“Amy had been sitting around the creepy loft all morning in front of her laptop, headphones on to foreclose the possibility of conversation with the hippies, telling herself she was gathering her strength and was just about to go to the cafe around the corner, where she’d disable her computer’s access to the Internet and spend time revising her C.V. to reflect her newly adjusted set of goals. She wanted to position herself as someone who wasn’t a writer so much as a “content creator” or, better, a “content strategy consultant” — someone who might be able to work for brands or ad agencies, not blogs like Yidster. It was getting close to noon now, she was hungry for lunch, and her limbs twitched restlessly because they craved motion, but somehow she couldn’t stop mindlessly scrolling through Tumblr, liking photographs of food and animals. Her actual cat lay at her feet, occasionally pawing her and trying to engage her in play, but she fobbed him off with some desultory petting and then continued to ignore him in favor of the cats on the screen.” — Friendship

Gould still managed to write a novel. It isn’t a very good one, in large part because Gould has little imagination or insight. Emily became Amy. Her cat Raffles became Waffles. Keith became Sam.

Friendship tells the story of Beverly Tunney and Amy Schein, two white women both over the cusp of thirty. The book purports to be a vivid chronicle of their friendship, yet these two flat and uninteresting characters share nothing of consequence about themselves in their conversations or their experience. They do not talk about the world’s bountiful wonders or their families and friends or the thrill of being alive. Their banter is largely comprised of trash-talking people they despise. They are the creations of a desultory demimonde who does not do a lot of listening.

It is possible to write about young and self-absorbed people living in Brooklyn without coming across as a turgid typist mining familiar white-collar territory. Adelle Waldman has done this tremendously well in her novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P:

No matter how much he told himself that he had done nothing wrong with regard to her, not according to the standards that he and everyone he knew lived (if anything she was in the wrong in her clinginess and undignified hysteria, on some intuitive level, Nate began to feel culpable. A stentorian, Faulker-like voice within him insisted on seeing the relationship in stark moralistic terms. He’d been drawn — this voice intoned — to Elisa because of her beauty, because she seemed first-rate, because of her well-known father and shining pedigree, and he, nerd, loser that he’d been, had always suspected that people like her, people like Amy Perelman, with their good looks and popularity, had something he didn’t, something impenetrable by intelligence alone, a sort of magic and grace, a wordless wisdom about how to live, and a corresponding access to unknown pleasures.

Waldman’s phrases are neatly separated by commas, representing the jumbled torment of conflicting ideas colliding inside Nate’s head. We see how literary aspirations and status anxiety — the “stentorian, Faulkner-like voice” — trigger a flood of qualitative nouns (“beauty,” “looks,” “popularity,” “pedigree,” “intelligence,” “magic,” “wisdom,” and “grace”) that Nate feels entitled to possess and how this, in turn, galvanizes his interest in Elisa and Amy Perelman. And because Waldman has given us an origin point for Nate’s coveting (an inner self-reflective voice, one that could curb the selfishness and the neuroses if it didn’t transmute into a chatty tendril warped by literature and superficial judgment), we become more curious about his personality. One year after the novel’s publication, young people are calling a certain kind of a man “a total Nathaniel P.”

But when we contrast Waldman’s passage against Gould’s representations of youthful struggle, it becomes very clear who the real writer is:

Amy stared at Sam, the cigarette cherry burning dangerously close to her clenching fingertips. They’d spent so much time together, breathing the same air, sleeping in the same bed, hearing each other use the bathroom and not really caring or even thinking about it. For the past few months it had seemed as if they were in each other’s lives for real, maybe for good. But now it seemed that Amy might have made a mistake. Maybe she had assumed that what she and Sam had was veering in a permanent direction because they were at an age when people got married.

This train ride into the internal goes off the rails after four mere words, beginning with the irrelevant and awkwardly written detail of “the cigarette cherry.” Gould’s habit of imbuing meaningless objects with hollow language is a tic throughout the book, one that asphyxiates her characters before they get a chance to use their lungs, but the sheer waste here should have been caught by an editor. Where Waldman deftly deploys “had” throughout a sentence so that our attention gravitates to the chunky nouns, Gould clings to gerunds like a quavering literature student too terrified to push past the cover of a Henry Green novel. The result is banality (“not really caring or even thinking about it”), stilted greeting card copy (“they were in each other’s lives for real”), extraneous declarations (“it seemed that Amy might have made a mistake”), and, above all, an absence and avoidance of real feeling, bulldozed for vapid and generalized notions of life (“they were at an age when people got married”). It is the work of someone who rushes to words much as a sorority clamors to a kegger. It is a strong sign that fiction writing is not Gould’s true calling. Which is perfectly fine. Since Gould pines for affluence, there are more reliable modes of securing it. One does not write to become rich.

But let us give Gould’s above passage some benefit of the doubt. It is also possible to use a woman’s gaze to establish what her perspective is, even lassoing the smartly positioned adverb or two along the way, as Kate Zambreno does to great effect in Green Girl:

Her eyes feast on the rows and rows of color, like a neatly ordered painter’s palette, the pyramid of tubes of lip gloss, gilted compacts bearing a prism of tiny mirrors. Occasionally she would smooth one finger over a glittery palette of eyeshadows with enigmatic names. Types of flora and fauna. Names of movie stars, presidential wives, ordinary girls. Marilyns and Audreys and Sophias and Jackies and Julies and Kathys.

In five sentences, Zambreno unlatches the trap designed to ensnare many women, illuminating how consumerist allure forces them into an almost Ramesean ideal, converting ordinary names into monuments, with the scarring cartouches just outside the public eye. If Gould had possessed even a whit of Zambreno’s talent or awareness, she could have forged a more fluid take on how influence shapes women and how women, in turn, shape influence. But instead of letting Bev and Amy talk or act upon these feelings, they came off as passive characters who meet up in bars to deride co-workers or anyone living a happy life, watch TV, and eat constantly. This pair is so poorly realized that, aside from Bev’s “Irish tolerance” and Amy’s spendthrift ways with money, they are practically indistinguishable from each other. There’s one late point in the book when Amy transforms into a kind of chick lit Smeagol when she learns of another character’s engagement:

Amy felt a visceral, impulsive pang of desire, the kind that could make someone grab food off a stranger’s plate. She wanted the ring so badly. She thought, crazily, of stealing it. She wanted to take it off Jackie’s finger and put in her mouth.

One almost expects Amy to seethe, “My precious,” with Andy Serkis waiting in the wings to perform a cross-cutting colloquy between Amy and Bev. It’s almost as if Gould, impelled by the desire to become a “real writer,” stared hard into the mirror until it shattered in half, with the two reflections spilling onto the page twice.

Gould has one atavistic emotion to fall back on. It’s the same vicious impulse that sustained her at Gawker:

“For a moment, rage flickered through her tensed body.”

“Amy felt a stab of genuine rage.” (Later, Bev feels a “stab of terror that shot through her viscera.” It is telling that Gould’s crutch words can be traced to sharp knives.)

“a little bit of what probably sounded like anger out of her voice”

“she was so angry, suddenly, that she felt as if she might spontaneously burst into flames” (Someone alert Jarndyce and Jarndyce.)

“She had shower monologued so many scathing condemnations of his behavior and his personality so many times.”

Moreover, when Bev springs a significant life-altering surprise upon an older woman named Sally Katzen, who lives in comfortable affluence and seems to exist solely as a target for Gould’s childish jealousy (a continuation of her pointless animus towards Meghan O’Rourke?), we learn that Bev has not talked out her plan in advance with Amy, which is especially strange, given that they are supposed to be best friends. Contrary to the preposterous claim by Virginia Quarterly Review‘s S. Kirk Walsh that “the reader is presented with strong female characters in all their complexities and imperfections,” Gould’s friendship is remarkably pat and simplistic, carefully established to avoid any serious plunge into social dynamics or visceral risk:

It was weird that in their five years of best friendship, Amy and Bev had never discussed morality, or whatever you wanted to call the rules they, respectively, lived by.

That amorality also extends to Gould herself. Late in the book, Sally asks one of the two fictionalized Goulds to perform an act of mercy. When the character does not respond, Sally then offers to write a check. And the character refuses. It’s the kind of blind cruelty that makes a reader with a conscience want to write a long and detailed debunking.

Bev becomes pregnant halfway through the book. Since Gould claims to be a feminist, one would think that Bev would consider abortion not long after, especially since Bev is experiencing financial difficulties. (An abortion typically costs between $300 and $950, while an uncomplicated pregnancy is anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000.) Gould, by her own admission, is terrible with money, and refuses to consider any perspective other than the privileged white woman’s. She opts for a a bizarrely reactionary twist. Abortion isn’t on the table, nor are any dimensional feelings. There are nebulous references to Bev’s religion, but because the Middling Millennials never want to think too hard about touchy subjects that affect a wide swath of people outside New York, this spirituality is never explored, just as the Jewish culture guiding the Jewcy-like Yidster (both have offices located in DUMBO) is unpursued. Gould is a juggler of generalities. She’ll never have the mettle to contend with live rotating chainsaws.

Gould is such a cowardly writer that she can’t even coax her characters to speak at the times they need to. Late in the book, there is a key moment in which Amy needs to say something serious to her boyfriend Sam (like Keith Gessen, Sam is Russian, a cultural figure, a man who married and divorced in his early twenties, and about eight years older than his girlfriend), but Gould is so inept that she offers this description instead:

She was wandering around the way you do on the phone, reaching out and plucking leaves from low branches of the saplings at the yard’s border, then crumpling them in her palm.

With Gould, there are always inconsequential objects for her characters to grab so that she can pad out her interminable 272-page novel with prolix description.

This is also bad storytelling, because Gould’s failure to get at the truth leads any vaguely sharp reader to swiftly deduce where the story is heading. And because Bev and Amy aren’t especially compelling figures, the book becomes an insufferable snoozefest. To add insult to incompetence, at novel’s end, the heart literally says whatever.

* * *

Two lengthy Gould profiles published in June — one in Elle, another in the New York Times Fashion & Style section written by Ruth La Ferla — have served as image-boosting propaganda, suggesting that Gould has changed or “reinvented” herself. But she’s still the same scabrous and manipulative opportunist that she was when she deflowered a 14-year-old boy at the age of seventeen.

emilyreborn2One of La Ferla’s many whoppers include suggesting that “Ms. Gould’s warts-and-all brand of self-exposure anticipated a wave of confessional writing that paved the way for Girls, Lena Dunham’s quasi-autobiographical hit on HBO.” This is not true. Dunham’s first film, Tiny Furniture, was shown at SXSW on March 15, 2010 and firmly established the voice that she would push further with Girls. And the Heart Says Whatever was published on May 4, 2010. Perhaps La Ferla shouldn’t be entirely blamed. After all, it was Gould herself who first perpetuated the Dunham parallel earlier this year, much as Gould compared herself to Chloë Sevigny in And the Heart Says Whatever. Should Dunham’s star wane, there is little doubt that Gould will find some other pop figure to blame for her indolence and inconsequential output.

La Ferla’s piece called Gould “resilient as a Slinky,” with Gould claiming, “Attention is not a commodity I’m interested in,” even as her friend notes, “The eye that she turns on the world she also turns on herself.” Gould’s determination to condemn anyone she can’t use is evident in her remarks, especially with bloggers, which she described as “that tiny subset of outliers who are live-tweeting their mammogram the next day” — a veiled anti-feminist jab at writers like Xeni Jardin and Susannah Breslin, who have both bravely responded to their diagnoses of breast cancer by documenting it online and raising awareness for a disease that the American Cancer Society estimates will kill 400,000 women in 2014. Gould, being a Middling Millennial, has no desire to comprehend that truth. This is because Gould has the valiance and the moral conscience of a small vole.

Gould claimed that she’s “mostly apologized personally to the people I’ve offended,” but her attempt to paint herself as some online twelve-step program survivor is a lie. Three victims of Gould’s shenanigans, including me, haven’t heard so much as a word from her. Clearly, this simpering sicarian is “mostly apologizing” to people who will pull her slippery limbs up from the common pit. Even after the fair-minded La Ferla profile appeared online, Gould was on Twitter, caviling over the perfectly reasonable sentence “Before long she herself become a piñata, subjected to random bashings by readers who took issue with, among other things, her perceived status-chasing and shameless self-involvement” with the kind of intuitive persecution complex eager to coil around an incoherent ideology, much like a resilient Slinky:

Hypocrisy and solipsism are not gender specific. One does not become a misogynist the minute that one begins examining a woman’s history of self-absorption. The second tweet, mentioning the Dunham comparison in the Times story, is particularly confusing. Dunham created a successful television show that has lasted for three seasons. What was it that Gould created exactly? A novel, of course. One that she worked “very hard” on, “diligence” that was talked up in risibly extravagant terms in the Elle profile:

She’s put in her time on both the California kind of work (getting to know yourself) and the East Coast variety (showing up every day to fill the blank page and generate creative projects). If carving out a fulfilling sui generis role that’s sustainable, socially 
meaningful, and more or less on our own terms is the essential fourth-wave feminist project, Gould’s okayness is a triumph.

shawshankrobbinsGould won’t be seen stretching her arms in the rain like Tim Robbins anytime soon (unless, of course, the FSG sales force determines that a stormy crucifixion motif will move a few units), but she found modest redemption working as editorial director at 29th Street Publishing, an electronic distribution outlet that includes The Awl, Harper’s, The Rumpus, ProPublica, and more that presumably precludes many movers and shakers from speaking out. But that professional relationship ended on Monday, with opaque explanation and Gould out of a job. Before this, she attempted to combine her literary connections and love for food with a web series called Cooking the Books. The results were awkward and embarrassing. Tao Lin exploited the opportunity for some hilarious performance art (“I actually just bite little pieces off into it,” muttered as Lin was “preparing” a salad) that Gould seemed utterly in the dark about. Then there was Chad Harbach’s dudebro regressivism, as he mansplained about Wisconsin and creole with a glass of wine poking from his hand like a general’s pointing stick as Gould did all the kitchen work. There is also the far less successful e-books venture, Emily Books, which boasts a mere 150 subscribers. Many Emily Books authors are worthwhile. But if Emily Books’s professed goal is to “want authors, agents and publishers to get paid so they can continue creating and curating,” the outfit is largely a bust. Still, I’m sure Sigrid Nunez appreciated the extra beer money, which has been known to keep authors “creating” — for one evening at least.

* * *

friendshipiris

Gould continues to surveil Twitter for any mention of her name, sending handwritten notes along with her galley (such as the one pictured above, tweeted by Iris Blasi) to any potential influencer. The result has been a litany of people who are all over the moon about this heap of shit, for much the same reasons that they went gaga for Keith Gessen’s mediocre book. It is an absolute replay of what Jessica Roy wrote about in 2008:

It just was all so fucking fake. These people that I had admired my entire New York existence — they all disappointed me. I don’t understand how people can exist in such a dishonest way and still call themselves writers. Isn’t it the responsibility of a writer to be honest? And why would you uphold a conversation with someone whom you’re going to talk shit on while walking back to the G train? They’re living in a box, where they only talk to others who have read Gessen’s book and think it sucks but will tell him it’s brilliant because they need his approval.

I did not move to New York to return to high school, but that’s exactly what it felt like.

Roy went on to become a senior editor at the New York Observer and the editor of Time‘s NewsFeed. Thankfully, there are still some honest writers out there who can make it.

But the “high school” that Roy described in 2008 is even more prominent among the Middling Millennials, who will defame, traduce, or block someone over a perceived sleight. They are terrified of confrontation, conflict, or engagement with the real world. And like Gould’s treatment of Pinter, they expect obeisance and a thank you note when they treat you with contempt.

This is not a healthy foundation for any cultural landscape. And if we truly had a robust and risk-taking literary culture, such gutless and treacherous yes men (and former publicists) like BuzzFeed‘s Isaac Fitzgerald would be widely reviled and laughed out of town for their “No haters” policy, a mealy-mouthed code for zero tolerance of any vibrant voice who rocks the boat. It isn’t just smarm that is to blame for these developments, although Tom Scocca was right to point to Dave Eggers as one prominent example of the kind of rampant duplicity and ladder-climbing that is killing voices courageous enough to throw giddy Molotovs at the right institutions. A true cri de coeur should come from the knowledge that irredeemable scumbags like Emily Gould are not only rewarded for pushing honest heads under the water and fucking the right people, but are lavished with the kind of media attention incommensurate with their middling abilities.

And then there’s the juvenile Middling Millennial culture. Why would anyone want to attend an overhyped event in which they are expected to become some slavish fan who didn’t really read the book but who nevertheless feels compelled to announce what a “good friend” he is by dint of spending five minutes in close proximity to the author? Having witnessed first-hand the worst impulses of science fiction fandom a few decades ago and having a good sense of the hell that authors go through, it’s distressing to see the same nasty and possessive tendencies happening on the literary scene, with authors reduced to mere projections of what childish audiences desire to see, rather than the complex and fascinating people they truly are.

I am not jealous or envious of Gould’s success. I’m simply astounded that this is the dunce now being propped up. I’m deeply appalled that I have to write such a lengthy essay because nobody else has the time to remember history or the smarts to uphold standards or the balls to call her out. The relentless distaste expressed about the Middling Millennials in private must be voiced publicly if we have any shot at curing it. And I maintain a position of principled indignation because truly original and interesting talents, many of whom I’ve featured on The Bat Segundo Show, who are incapable of playing the game or who cannot sell out are increasingly being marginalized, ignored, and stubbed out by these vicious overgrown kids, even as craven, manipulative, untalented, clueless, and ungenerous assholes announce the latest status of their novels on social media (reviewed in the NYTBR, in third printing, hit the NYT bestseller list, seen in the hands of a major figure on a subway) with the self-centered glee of a bratty suburban tot constantly shaking his rattle.

Well, enough is fucking enough.

A society that holds up Emily Gould as a charitable person, a formidable intellect, or a knowing chronicler of our age is a diseased one. And an army of Middling Millennials recoiling at any risk memorialized or imagined on the page or flinching at unsettling developments in the real world must be outed, fought, and resisted until we get some part of our collective soul back. It’s the only way we can make literature truly indispensable to the world again.

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Mimi Pond (The Bat Segundo Show #548)

Mimi Pond is most recently the author of Over Easy.

Author: Mimi Pond

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Subjects Discussed: Different forms of memoir (and related resistance by publishing), James Frey, autobiographical fiction vs. memoir in comics, realizing Over Easy from a manuscript, working from a textual framework, trash-talking line cooks, Charles Dickens, Daniel Clowes, comic book characters often cast into inevitable film adaptations, imagination, picture books, Mama’s Royal Cafe as a locational inspiration, memory vs. reference shots, the difficulty of filling up sketch books while waiting tables, the mysterious Nestor Marzipan, keeping in touch with former restaurant co-workers, keeping gossip alive, taking notes, when memories elude the nostalgia trap, what 1978 establishments can teach 21st century diners, drugs and the willful stupidity of kids, disco wars, how a rudderless culture was maintained by a manager who made waitresses feel special by listening, what people found charming about diners in 1978, Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, Todd Haynes’s miniseries adaptation of Mildred Pierce, dramatizing working-class life, how dishwaters can form more legitimate claques than art school, the haziness of art school, the green chromatic feel throughout Over Easy, the one character with a jet black character in the book, the cameo appearance of Flipper‘s Ted Falconi, “Art is dead!” proclamations, maintaining aesthetic standards during a time of bad music and bad art, the oppressive nature of avocado green, young kids today who glorify the 1970s, Peter Frampton, the band America, the influence of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, people who overanalyze comics, the early seeds of storytelling, being nursed at the bosom of MAD Magazine, working with Shary Flenniken at the National Lampoon, learning the basics of a comic strip, circular text around objects, cartoonists and the daily grind, doing monthly strips for the Voice, social commentary in comics form, drowning babies, editorial arguments with Drawn and Quarterly, politically incorrect language excised from the finished product, ironic epithets from 1970s liberals, the importance of getting upset to understand a time, Norman Mailer’s “fug,” living in a high mesa in San Diego comparable to the unshaded area of a picnic table, public park metaphors for living circumstances, the New York Times‘s claim that Oakland is the new Brooklyn, being attracted to bad poets before knowing their poetry is bad, the lack of good coffee in the 1970s, diners that once used real linen napkins, the virtues of not being judged for sleeping with anyone in 1978, and slut shaming and Lulu.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: What specific points in 1978 did you really feel compelled to capture? I mean, how could you do 1978 right while also adhering to the exigencies of narrative, which requires a kind of linear path and all that? What was the organizational process like?

Pond: I was just remembering things the way they were then. Things that really stuck with me. And I worked on this over a fifteen-year period, from about 1998 until early this year. It wasn’t so much that I was like “I’m going to capture 1978!” It was “I’m going to remember it the way I’m going to remember it.” So it wasn’t anything that specifically deliberate. It was just the time and the place and what it felt like at the time. And I did take notes over the years from the time I left up until 1982, until about 1998, and I also went back to visit many times. And I talked to my former co-workers, who very generously shared their experiences with me, which I also incorporated into the story.

Correspondent: Were there any stories or anecdotes that were pure romantic forms of nostalgia? Or things you wish would have happened? Anything along those lines?

Pond: No. I don’t think of it as nostalgia. Because there were too many hard lessons learned.

Correspondent: It was too rough to be nostalgic. (laughs)

Pond: Yeah, it was too rough to be nostalgic and there were too many people who wound up down the rabbit hole of drug abuse for too many years to have the dewy glow of nostalgia around it. It was one of those situations where it was really following up to a point until it wasn’t fun anymore. And there’s going to be a Part Two. I’m working on that now.

Correspondent: I know that.

Pond: Part Two gets darker.

Correspondent: Well, what about Part One? Did the darkness threaten to overwhelm some of the romance of the diner? The kind of effervescent look of the place and the feel of the actual book?

Pond: No. I don’t think so. I mean, I’ve always been in love with the look of that place. The first time I walked into it, it just felt like home. So I could just draw that counter and those booths and all that stuff endlessly.

Correspondent: Well, what does a diner like the Imperial — I mean, what could it teach diners of today? What does a 21st century diner not have that the Imperial did have?

Pond: Well, there were no rules. In the ’60s, the hippies threw out all the rules. And in the ’70s, we looked up and we just said, “Oh, the rules are gone. So which ones do we put back? And which ones do we leave out? And how does this all work?” And it was kind of up to you to figure it out. There was no one saying, “Just say no.” So everyone was going, “Woohoo! Drugs! Yeah, drugs are fun!” Like no one said, “That cocaine thing? That’s not such a good idea.” “Jazz musicians used to snort cocaine in the ’30s. So it’s really cool, right?” And kids are always stupid. And this is what drug abuse is about. Like heroin, people are just stupid enough. “I’m not going to get hooked!”

Correspondent: What was the common ground of such a place? You mention early on how the disco wars were what united the punks and the hippies. And then at the end of the book, we see this poetry night in which everybody is allowed his particular moment. Does it really take a place to unite so many subcultures? So many groups? What was the cross-pollination at the time that you were trying to capture here?

Pond: Well, the uniting force in that particular place was Lazlo Meringue, the manager.

Correspondent: Who everybody told their problems to.

Pond: Yeah. Everyone told him their problems. And he was one of those people that just made you feel like you were the most important person in the room. And he validated your experiences by telling you that the fact that you had observed this and you think that about it is meaningful. Not just “Oh! You’re full of shit.” And the other thing was that, yes, this was important and we need to write this down. Because we’re going to make some kind of art about this later. And that was very important to me. And it made all the difference. I mean, I don’t think I ever could have worked in any other restaurant after that. I made a few futile stabs at putting in applications after I left that place, but luckily — I say luckily — no one ever hired me again. And then I had a career as a cartoonist and I never had to go back to that. But it never would have been the same. I mean, his motto was “The Customer is Always Wrong,” which did not really mean that you were entitled to give bad service. In fact, we all kind of prided ourselves on giving good service. It was more like he had your back. And if anyone gave you any crap, he would back you up.

Correspondent: And presumably the walls between the kitchen and the restaurant were thick enough to prevent any of the customers from hearing all of the profane screeches and all that.

Pond: I think, at the time, people were down for that too. Because that’s the kind of place it was. A cook would drop the end of his roach into an omelet and the customer would finally go, “Oh, I found this. Ha ha ha!”

Correspondent: “How charming!”

Pond: Yeah.

(Loops for this program provided by 40a, dj4real, minor2go, and platanos. )

The Bat Segundo Show #548: Mimi Pond (Download MP3)

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Joanna Rakoff (The Bat Segundo Show #547)

Joanna Rakoff is most recently the author of My Salinger Life.

Author: Joanna Rakoff

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Subjects Discussed: Responding to the universe’s concerns with short declaratory bursts, self-portrayal in memoir, bygone tones that aren’t nostalgic, growing up with Depression era parents, being enslaved by grammatical constructs, hostility to contractions, The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles, bad translations, disputes over which literary agency is New York’s oldest, the coddled affluent lifestyle, working as a PA on The Mirror Has Two Faces, bouncing around jobs as an act of rebellion, growing up in privilege, contending with a family dynamic of trying to live life while parents discourage risk, keeping details “close to the bone,” having a temperament a generation above, working in an Agency using ancient typewriters, working in an office opposed to modern technology, typing letters on carbon paper, the beginnings of computer communications in 1996, working in an office without voicemail, the benefits of archaic office structure, lengthy lunches, the advantages of working with your hands, S.J. Perelman, Pearl Buck, 20th century writers who fell out of favor but that line bookshelves of older people’s homes, the buzz that one can get from using an IBM Selectric, typewriter dreams, why J.D. Salinger is scoffed out by adults, the Salinger documentary, Bret Easton Ellis’s Salinger tweet, Martin Amis, Infinite Jest, the literary masculine movement of 1996, not reading Salinger in college, Salinger’s stories in the New Yorker, family bonding through Franny and Zooey, answering Salinger fan mail, observing when Judy Blume switched agencies, misunderstanding the appeal of Judy Blume, keeping contemporary reading sensibilities alive at the Agency when facing doughty pushback, the literary sensibilities of Phyllis Westberg, the shift in publishing short fiction during the last years of the 20th century, Blume and Claire M. Smith, agents and friendship, the backstory on how Summer Sisters was misperceived before publication, why it’s important for agents to offer love and praise to authors, reading for agents, talking up manuscripts written by college friends, Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season, developing the inclinations to be an editor and a critic, whether being employed by a slick Wylie-style agency would have turned Rakoff into a writer, how agents shape culture, the double-edged sword of keeping a journal as a young person, socialist boyfriends as a cautionary tale, secretly carving out time to write stories, Pathfinder Books, being a morning person, writing with kids, Sylvia Plath’s diary, boyfriend “Don”‘s aversion to office jobs and bourgeois accusations, contending with male nonsense, disparaging boyfriends, having literary sensibilities shaken up, operating in two literary universes, boxing memoirs, contending with being depicted in Robert Anasi’s The Last Bohemia, why Rakoff didn’t name names in the book version (and did in the Slate version), trying to nail the universal experience of My Salinger Year, overlapping cultures in New York, the DIY aesthetic, spoken word culture, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, whether the 1996 Joanna Rakoff could have survived 2014 New York, the difficulty of making ends meet, being detached from open mike culture, expensive cities, purported claims of subsisting on almost nothing in Cambridge, transient arts scenes, the Hudson River Valley, whether young people can have their Salinger year in New York, and parental supplementation.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to actually start off with the tone of the book. I mean, you present yourself in this memoir as someone who responds to the universe’s concerns with these short, declaratory bursts. When you are asked questions about how equipped you are to handle your role as an agent’s assistant and your responsibilities as an adult, you often answer, “I can.” “I do.” “I am.” “It is.” “I understand.” Never “yes,” which I found really interesting. And it leads me to wonder whether this laconic approach is perhaps the best way to negotiate early life and to sort of figure out what the beginnings of life are. How is this self-portrayal your answer to the Holden Caulfield idea, “It’s funny. All you have to do is say something nobody understands and they’ll do practically anything you want them to”?

Rakoff: Well, I definitely didn’t have that in mind when I was establishing the tone for the book. I came upon the tone in just a kind of instinctual happenstance way. I signed onto write this book with great trepidation. I’m not really a writer of memoir. I don’t write that much about myself. I’m also not a person who’s confessional in spirit. I don’t post on Facebook saying how sad I am. Anything like that. And in my fiction, I don’t even usually write in the first person. And so when I sat down to write the book, I found myself extraordinarily at sea, unsure of what this persona, this person, was. This voice that I needed to create.

Correspondent: Hence the “I am,” “I do,” “It is”? It’s kind of the early formation of “Well, how am I going to portray the Joanna on the page?”

Rakoff: Well, you know, it more came to me from the opening scene of the book in which you see it written almost as a “we.” And you kind of see vast numbers of young women going to work as assistants. And in writing that scene, I was able to kind of hit upon what I thought of as a tone that felt right to me for a book about things that took place at this point almost twenty years ago. More like fourteen, fifteen years ago when I was writing it. I wanted a tone that was not nostalgic. I thought that it would be very easy to slip into a kind of nostalgia for a bygone era. And so writing that scene that’s not purely about me, that kind of pans out and shows you lots of women who are doing the same thing that I was, like it’s a very sort of female role, this assistant’s role, allowed me to kind of hit upon this cool tone. And then I could slip into the kind of “I” of the book. In terms of the “I can,” “I am,” “I understand,” I will say that that is simply how I actually speak.

Correspondent: You do.

Rakoff: And I do tend to be a person who speaks in sentences…

Correspondent: You don’t like using “yes” or “yeah, man” or anything like that? That’s just not in your vernacular.

Rakoff: No. I do not. I will say that this is partly my parents’ fault. My parents are sort of two generations removed from me. They had me very late in life. They’re Depression era, Greatest Generation people. And they don’t use any slang. My mother’s letters to me are written as if she’s Emily Dickinson or Miss Manners. There are contractions, but there’s no slang used in my household. And certainly if I used anything that was grammatically incorrect or that fell into the realm of “of the moment” slang, if I said “Awesome!” in the ’80s, I was given a fisheye by my mom or I was told…

Correspondent: You stood in the corner with Fowler, basically reciting the rules of usage.

Rakoff: Kind of. It just was frowned upon. And without realizing it, I just sort of absorbed their grammatical constructs.

Correspondent: Well, how do you permit slang in your life now? Or even in your fiction? Or even in your memoir?

Rakoff: Well, in fiction and in memoir as well, I’m a huge stickler for dialogue. You may know this, but I spent many, many years primarily working as a book critic and one of the things that drove me crazy when I read contemporary fiction was dialogue that felt inauthentic. I remember reading a book in which nobody used contractions in the dialogue and I thought, “Why didn’t this writer read the dialogue out loud? This is absurd. Nobody actually talks like this.”

Correspondent: You haven’t actually gone to Contraction Central, this city out in West Virginia, where nobody actually…

Rakoff: Yes. I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to go to that place.

Correspondent: Yeah. They banned contractions. It’s been on the municipal ordinance for about twenty years now.

Rakoff: That may also be like the place where all bad literary translations go.

Correspondent: And cheap Dostoevsky translations in particular.

Rakoff: Yes.

Correspondent: All the Russians. Anyway, sorry.

Rakoff: I just actually read a novel in translation that is this novel that was a huge bestseller in France called The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles.

Correspondent: Oh yeah.

Rakoff: And it’s been published all over the world. And it’s a very commercial novel. But the translation — I hope I’m not going to offend anyone listening to this — but the translation was clearly done in a very rapid way.

Correspondent: As about 80% of translations are. Because the translators are paid almost nothing.

Rakoff: Yeah. But I think this is because it was a bestseller and they wanted to get it out. And the language.

Correspondent: Much like Stieg Larsson.

Rakoff: The dialogue feels just absurd in it. Like I know these people are French, but nobody would talk like this. Like this is ridiculous. So anyway in my dialogue, I of course allow people to use slang. Because the dialogue comes out of the character. So it would be crazy to have all of my characters speak in the way that I do or address themselves in the way that I do. And I do as an adult…

Correspondent: As an adult, I will not speak slang? Is that what it is?

Rakoff: No. As an adult, I think that I find myself using slang ironically and saying things that I wouldn’t say as a teenager. Like saying, “That’s cool” or “That’s cute.” I banned the word “cute” from my lexicon for a long time and, an hour ago, I just described something as cute. Or I’ll say “Awesome!” to my kids.

Correspondent: Wow. You’re more orthodox than me. I have no problem with slang. But I do have a problem with things like “Because so and so.” That drives me nuts. And I can’t bring myself to say it, except in irony, which is kind of missing the point, I suppose. We’ve strayed quite a bit and I want to get back to the life you depict or the Joanna persona you depict on the page. You knew nothing of snow days. You knew nothing of jobs. You knew nothing of agents. You knew nothing of publishing. Of how much sandwiches cost. Of how much tax was taken from your paycheck. There’s one astonishing revelation midway through the book about unexpected student loans. This leads me to ask, especially in light of you kind of talking about your parents a little bit, how did you manage to delay learning about the responsibilities of life for so long?

Rakoff: Well, I was only 23 when this book takes place. So I don’t think I delayed them so long. I mean, I actually think — first of all, I think, and I guess I’ll say for people listening, this book takes place over the year that I was 23 and turned 24.

Correspondent: 1996.

Rakoff: Yes. And chronicles my first job, which was at…um…

Correspondent: The Agency.

Rakoff: A very storied agency. One of the oldest agencies. The second oldest agency in New York.

Correspondent: If you mention the first agency, they will strike you dead in the street. I think that’s the New York Publishing Codex. But anyway.

Rakoff: There’s contention about which is the oldest. Because literary agencies, when they first came into existence in the ’20s…

Correspondent: Blood feuds have been drawn over this question.

Rakoff: They were less established things. They were just kind of like a guy selling someone’s literary rights. So it’s not quite clear which of the two is the oldest. Regardless, I was 23. I had gone to college. I spent a year in grad school. And then I took this job. I think that the sort of arc that I’m describing in the book is actually relatively normal. A lot of my friends were going through the same thing. They had grown up, many of them in coddled affluent suburbs or perhaps the sort of coddled upper middle-class echelons of New York City or L.A. or places like that. And their parents had essentially provided for them. And in moving to New York, especially, more so than other cities. So at this time, friends of mine were moving to Prague and Seattle and Portland and Chicago, where there was a lot of music and also comedy happening. And they had a slightly easier time. But those of us who moved to New York, I think, were unprepared for the kind of economic realities of the city. And many of my friends really struggled. I think they sort of believed that they could move to the city and survive as actors, writers, dancers, or what have you. But this was not the New York City of a James Baldwin novel or the New York City of, I don’t know, my parents, where you could rent an apartment on Mulberry Street for $30 a month. And this was 1996. We were at the end of a big recession. It was almost the worst time to be a young person in New York. I mean, it just keeps getting worse and worse. So we were at the end of this terrible reception. So there was a sort of dearth of jobs. And yet at the same time, we were at the beginning of the dot com boom. So there was all this influx of cash and all of these people moving to start dot coms in Silicon Alley and what have you. So you have these kind of wealthier people moving in and real estate sort of going up and up as it always does. But this was a particular moment where things were quite difficult.

Correspondent: But you’re saying this in the “we” as opposed to the “I.” What about you, Joanna? What did you do to adapt to this new reality? Especially — and I don’t want to give too much away — because it seems to me that your parents had a very controlling hand in how you learned about life and you really had to resist in actually leaving and figuring out what it was to be an adult.

Rakoff: Um. Sort of. So I’ll just explain a little bit about the book. So before the book begins, I had been sort of de facto engaged. My college boyfriend, who was wonderful and, always, my parents loved him and my whole family loved him. He was about to start a doctoral program in Berkeley. And it was just assumed that I was going to move out there. And he had found an apartment for us. And I would find some sort of job. I had just finished a master’s in English, but that’s another way of saying that I had dropped out of a Ph.D. program. Because I became disillusioned with academia. So I was essentially — in other words, I was on a semi-path. Like I was going to marry this person who was wonderful and always and also accepted by my family, from a very similar background to me. It was just — everyone sort of assumed that I would finish my Ph.D. maybe at Berkeley or somewhere nearby. A lot of my family was in this area. They presumed I would settle down there. We would both get academic jobs and have children. And there was something in me that — and because my parents supported this, they were somewhat generous of me financially. Because this is what they wanted me to do. And I then, where the book begins, basically I had veered from this path. I essentially went out to Berkeley to see the apartment, figure things out. And then I was supposed to go back home and just get my stuff and come and live there permanently. And I went back to New York and essentially lived like a 23-year-old. I went out every night. I went to parties. I saw all my college and high school friends. They were all there. And I somehow fell into a job working as a PA on a Barbara Streisand film.

Correspondent: Really?

Rakoff: Yes.

Correspondent: Which one was it?

Rakoff: The Mirror Has Two Faces.

Correspondent: Oh, that one.

Rakoff: I’ve still never seen it.

Correspondent: I never saw it either. With Jeff Bridges. Yeah.

Rakoff: Yes. And it was filmed at Columbia and so a lot of my friends were at film school at Columbia and one of them said, “Hey, do you want to work as a PA on this film?” I said, “Sure.” So this seemed like such a weird and cool opportunity that I was able to say to my college boyfriend, “You know, I’m going to do this and then I’ll come out to you.” And then when that ended, I somehow fell into — in short, I fell into this job at the Agency. And that seemed like such a great opportunity. I said, “I got this job. I’m just going to stay for a little bit and try it out.” I very nervously said this to him. In other words, I went through a kind of almost — a little bit of the kind of rebellion that kids often go through when they’re adolescent. And I had never done anything like this. I had been the rule-following perfect student, obedient, devoted to family sort of kid. And so somehow my family — I don’t want to say that my family was oppressive. Because that’s absolutely inaccurate. They were not. But they sort of had just a very strong, defined sense of how a person should live in the world. And perhaps because they were of this older generation, they had a more conservative approach to life, where lots of my friends’ parents were more children of the ’60s and ’70s and were like “Do whatever you want! Be a writer!” Whereas my parents were like, “You need to go to law school.” They were more sort of a…

Correspondent: Have a career.

Rakoff: Be a doctor.

Correspondent: Be solid. Own property. That kind of thing.

Rakoff: Yes. Exactly. And really this was very different than most of my friends’ parents. So…

Correspondent: So wait. So where did this rebellious spirit, where did this come from? I mean, did you feel that you could sort of figure out what you wanted to do through publishing after you had done the academic racket? Or something like that?

Rakoff: Well, as I said, I really fell into that. I didn’t have any desire to work in publishing. I didn’t think, “I want to work in publishing!” I had my senior year in college as a sort of backup plan. I had interviewed just with the HR department at Random House and it was such an unpleasant experience that I thought, “I never — I don’t want to do this actually.” Like the career services people at Oberlin set it up for me. And I had to go into their corporate office in this ill-fitting suit. And I just hated the whole thing. But the agency was a whole different story. Because Random House is an enormous corporation who is now my publisher actually, ironically, and I was not really suited to working in a corporate environment, which is not my mentality. But the agency was this smaller, tiny institution. It felt like working in someone’s home. And it turned out that I was really suited to it. It was fun. It was interesting. It was actually literary. It wasn’t just about bottom line. I got to work with the estates of these sort of exciting authors. And so anyway I wasn’t trying to rebel through publishing. But I was — my parents did consider this a very strange and rebellious thing to do. They really did. And they felt like, “Oh my goodness! You went to this.” At the time, Oberlin was I think like one of the top five colleges in the country and I got like an almost perfect score on my SATs. I was like that.

Correspondent: You put this off as long as you could. And then finally, all right, it’s time to strike out.

Rakoff: Yes. they just thought it was crazy. Like “You could have gone to law school. You could have done anything. Why are you doing this? You’re making so little money.” And…and…

Correspondent: But the sense I got, at least as you portrayed yourself in the book, is that you almost kind of fell into this. Because the one thing I really actually enjoy, especially in the early part, is how you sort of say, “Well, I didn’t really know money. Yes, there were books. Plentiful books. I didn’t realize I bought so much.” That you weren’t really keeping tabs of how much things cost, how things broke down, how much of your paycheck was going to go into rent and expenses and so forth. But at the same time, that kind of amorphousness, that kind of ambiguity actually ended up working out for you. Simply by showing up to your job on the first day when it’s a snow day. You know?

Rakoff: Well, in terms of the financial stuff, it was sort of a mixed bag. My parents — here again, just to give a little context — my father’s a first generation American. His parents, as children, had escaped the pogroms and come to the U.S. My mother, her family had been in the States for a bit longer. But they were from that kind of unstable immigrant background and their priority as adults was the setting up of a stable home life and protecting me and my siblings from the kind of instability. My mother had been raised by a single mother. She had to live with various aunts and uncles being shunted from home to home. She had a very unstable upbringing. And, you know, never enough money. And I saw at the time and I really, really see now, now that I have my own kids, that they wanted to protect me from that perhaps. And they wanted to protect me — also there had been a lot of tragedy in my family. They wanted to protect me from the world in a way.

Correspondent: But I think it was in your genotype. Because your father actually was an actor before he was a dentist, as you point out in the book.

Rakoff: Yes.

Correspondent: And he was a dentist who liked to tell jokes. So definitely that strain was certainly in the Rakoff makeup, I think.

Rakoff: Do you mean the sort of artistic strain?

Correspondent: The artistic. The want to be sort of exuberant in some sense. At least, I’m basing this, of course, off the book and off of the last time we met. But I think it was there.

Rakoff: Yeah. It’s true. And there was this kind of ambivalence, I mean in terms of like my career stuff. My father, when I was a child, actually really encouraged me to be an actor myself. I was constantly told that I was a good actor and that I had talent. And so I did sort of veer in that direction. And then my mother would freak out and kind of pull me back in. My dad was much more sort of tolerant of these things. But it was a bit schizophrenic, to use the term loosely. Like he would encourage my more artistic creative things and then he would pull back and say, “Why don’t you go to law school?” He couldn’t figure out what he wanted. And there was also very possibly a little bit of annoyance and resentment with the kind of privilege that I’d been born into. Because as I said, he’d grown up during the Depression, starting off in a tenement apartment where his bedroom was like a curtained off area behind his father’s dental office. So I think that there was a little bit of that, that he felt like, “Augh! You think that you can just do…” — there’s this scene in the book where he kind of says this to me — “…you think you can just do whatever you want, but you really need to face the realities of life.” And I didn’t even understand what that was, purely because he and my mother had been so protective. And I had never seen a bill. I had never heard any concern about money. Anything. We weren’t incredibly wealthy, but my mother earned multiple fur coats. We traveled all over the world. My parents always said to me, “You’re a kid who never asked for anything. You never asked for toys.” But if I did, there was never a problem with getting it.

Correspondent: But there’s also this impulse to conceal how you were learning to live in New York with this guy named Don, this boyfriend in this apartment who you didn’t really tell them about. Simultaneously, they’re being, as I alluded earlier, very controlling in terms of signing you up for a student loan without actually informing you and not being clear about the costs. So how do you divagate through that particular friction? I mean, you want to be who you are. You want to actually, I think, learn how to do things. You do say, “I do.” And you do do things. But at the same time, you have to make mistakes. How do you deal with this with this family dynamic?

Rakoff: I mean, I guess I’m not sure what you’re asking me.

Correspondent: How do you find yourself when you are dealing on one hand with having to conceal things from your parents while simultaneously having to kind of stave off the “Well, we’re taking care of everything. You should live with us and get up for work two hours early for the two hour commute”? Do you know what I mean? That kind of thing.

Rakoff: Yeah. Well, I mean, I suppose that’s why I rebelled in the way that I did in a kind of stealth way. Like, you know, I don’t know. Doing lots of drugs in their living room or I don’t even know what. I sort of rebelled in the kind of A student who’s secretly doing drugs in the bathroom way, although I didn’t do drugs in the bathroom. I took this job that, in New York parlance, was a glamour job and that they could, if they really wanted to, they could talk to their friends about it. And it seemed like a respectable thing to do. And it had its own career path. And I lived in Williamsburg, where we are right now, which they thought was weird but it wasn’t so where I was living in a squat with a bunch of unwashed, dreadlocked drug addicts or whatever. You know, so it was definitely clear that they disapproved of things. But I just kept a lot from them. And that was sort of my way of rebelling, was withholding from them, whereas before, when I was a kid, I definitely considered my parents my best friends. I was a really unpopular, dorky kid. And I loved my parents and sort of told them everything. But when I got older, I realized at that point — that was when I realized in order for me to live the life that I want, I have to withhold from them. I have to keep things closer to the bone. And still my mother complains about this to me. I mean, I’ll hear her talking to a friend and she’ll say, “Joanna keeps things close to the bone.” That’s her term.

(Photo: Jared Leeds)

The Bat Segundo Show #547: Joanna Rakoff (Download MP3)

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Paula Bomer (The Bat Segundo Show #546)

Paula Bomer is most recently the author of Inside Madeleine. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #375 and The Bat Segundo Show #481.

Author: Paula Bomer

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Subjects Discussed: How physically scarred characters inspire dimension inside characters, Flannery O’Connor’s thoughts on the grotesque, how character details create mystery, Dorothea Lange and the Dust Bowl, Jim Thompson and Freud symbols, when “toxic” becomes a cliched adjective to describe people, the tendency for people to seek versions of their family later in life, young people trying to make their own world, when people who make you feel like crap are confused with the right relationship fit, how structure emerges from the liberation of space, contrapuntal tension in “Inside Madeleine,” spending two years working on a novella, the 1980s fashion of people having eating disorders, strange relationships with food, eating disorder considered as a prototype for cutting, transient mental illnesses, Ian Hacking’s Mad Travelers, The Taming of Chance, train fugue, death rates and anorexia, disorders as a misunderstanding of control, exploring marriage through intimacy, Ted in “The Mother of My Children” compared with Greta’s husband in “A Walk to the Cemetery” and men in “Inside Madeleine,” sex as the defining quality of a relationship, the benefits of marriage, Jonathan Franzen’s thoughts on sex, the importance of bad sex scenes in narrative, Girls, Lena Dunham’s audience confrontation with body image, how the physical leads into the emotional, Dr. Ruth, sex described on 1980s radio vs. the ubiquity of Internet porn in 2014, setting stories in Boston and South Bend, Indiana, writers who have to wait ten years to revisit material, writing material intermittently over very long periods of time, whether stories set at home are easier to finish, writing Baby over a long period of time, Bomer’s idea folder, “Outsiders” and Bomer’s boarding school story aspirations, memories as ways to trigger imaginations, Bomer’s unpublished novel set in Berlin, the difficulty of setting a story in a place you’ve never gone to, Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, Annie Proulx vs. Richard Ford on being a stickler for location vs. making place up, locational accuracy as an act of preservation, getting the reader to believe, the lifespan of a novel, being a young girl in the 1970s and the 1980s, being called a slut and slut shaming, hookup culture, literal blindness juxtaposed against other forms of blindness, when text isn’t enough to know what’s going on with characters, going through old papers and photographs, how anthropological texts became an unexpected muse, hoarding, contending with clutter, when tough people are internally fearful, the abstract nature of what we represent through writing, writing a story compared with painting a floor, how houses become interesting because of lazy interior decorating, the minor surrealism of “Breasts,” the 1998 animated short “More,” magical glints, Bomer’s upper limits of fantasy and magical realism, subjective magic as a method of revealing urban trappings, Samuel R. Delany’s idea of pornotopia, religion in “The Shitty Handshake,” “Lightning,” Bill Burr, Scientology vs. the Catholic religion, belief and fantasy, “Two Years,” subverting titillation, taking out various Sonyas in stories to preserve certain continuity threads from Nine Months, Philip Roth, being taken seriously while also going into uncomfortable places, Sabbath’s Theater, Chaucer’s ass-kissing in “The Miller’s Tale,” Dante and scatology, Ulysses, Germans and nudism, the human reality of walking around repressed, the carnal way that apes greet each other, using the word “compartmentalize” too much, literature as a vicarious outlet for reader and author, the class divide, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the realities of class and capitalism, difficulties getting healthcare insurance, preexisting conditions, how dinner table political discussion stifles conversation, how swiftly Brooklyn has changed, Hal Ashby’s The Landlord, cab drivers who kicked you out of the car, subway muggings from decades ago, New York in the early ’90s, questioning why writers don’t get B-sides, being forced to move elsewhere because of the rich, and the alien notion of being in several stages of life so fast.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: One thing we didn’t actually discuss the last two times we chatted was your interest in the external. Many of your stories here feature side characters who have their skin pocked or acned or stretched or otherwise maimed in some sense. Anya has acne scars in “Reading to the Blind Girl.” You have Polly’s chicken pox scars in “Down the Alley.” There’s Maddy’s beginnings in “Inside Madeleine.” How much do you need to know a character physically before knowing her internally? How does a damaged physical appearance help you find unexpected internal qualities about a character? Are there any disadvantages or advantages in concentrating upon the external?

Bomer: I actually was greatly affected by an essay, or a nonfiction piece, by Flannery O’Connor, who complained about some other writers who she didn’t appreciate. Because she said, “I can’t see these people.” And then I was revisiting Flannery O’Connor and it seems quite simple. But you see her characters. And she explains how they look. It’s a little old-fashioned, but I think it works for this collection in particular. Especially dealing with external damage or how our bodies affect what’s going on inside of us. There’s a huge New Age movement about that. You have to do all these things inside your body to glow or whatever. But, yeah, interesting that you point out their scars and deformities. That too would be the “Grotesque in Southern Fiction” essay of Flannery O’Connor. And I was unware until you pointed that out. But now that you’ve pointed that out, oh, that is a theme

Correspondent: But I am curious to get into this notion of how a character looks. I’ve actually been discussing this quite a bit this year with authors — especially in relation to sustaining a mystery. How you see in mysteries that you don’t really know the protagonist, how the protagonist looks like or what not. And that’s part of the way of getting inside the character internally. And I’m wondering what motivates your need to really see them externally before you can see them internally. Do you think there’s a kind of mystery or a tension here sometimes when you’re advancing a story?

Bomer: Well, I hope there is mystery, not necessarily the classical mystery novel, but definitely you want to be discovering things in a story as you go along. And I hope I can accomplish that. I don’t know — I’m thinking of the story “Cleveland Circle House.” That story came to me and the opening is all about how she looks. Like her neck’s too big, her chin’s too long. I can’t remember exactly. But that story came to me first with this young girl’s face and how one person loves her for it and thinks she’s amazing and another person doesn’t think much of her at all. Like her parents, in other words, have this very different reaction to who she is physically and as a person. So that started the story.

Correspondent: Much as the back started “Inside Madeleine”? The back of the mother at the very beginning.

Bomer: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: I love the way you fixated on a physical part like that.

Bomer: Yeah. And the dynamic being she’s always there with her mother’s back. That weird separation and how they’re trying to bridge that separation by feeding. That was very obviously something I was trying to do and I did it in a repetitive, somewhat experimental way. Not as traditionally structured narrative.

Correspondent: It’s weird. Because the beginning of that story made me think of a Dorothea Lange photo for some reason. The hardened back. I was thinking, “Gosh, if we see her face, will she look like something out of the Dust Bowl?” (laughs)

Bomer: That’s pretty funny. I don’t think we ever really see her face.

Correspondent: No, we don’t!

Bomer: No.

Correspondent: I’m telling you. There is mystery here!

Bomer: (laughs) So when mysteries — I’m not as well-read in mystery as you are, but I do know that Jim Thompson, who I don’t know if you’d call — I guess he’s more noir.

Correspondent: I call everything “literature” myself.

Bomer: Yes.

Correspondent: It just happens to be categorized in the mystery section sometimes.

Bomer: Right. I’m with you. But Jim Thompson, you see his characters, although all the male characters, I’m thinking now, kind of blend together. But the women are specific. One of my favorite is how she’s really beautiful but she has long gray hair and he’s dealing with all these weird Freudian mom issues, like he often does in his stories. Her looks are a very big part of her character and his relationship to her and how he likes the fact that she’s got long gray hair, even though she’s also very young and sexual in a way. So the dichotomy of that. I guess I think that drawing, getting an idea of what people look like — weight issues are a big part of it. This book deals with the external and how it affects our place in the world. Polly, with her going through puberty, which is a horrible time and all you care about is what people think about how you look when you’re twelve.

Correspondent: Well, I mean, this leads me to wonder if external description is almost a mere…

[DOG BARKS]

Bomer: Sorry, guys.

Correspondent: It’s okay. We can have a few dogs bark on this podcast. Keeps the tension going. It makes me wonder if external description is in some sense almost a mirror that you can hold up to the reader, as an author, to confront either the world or to confront the notion or the worldview the reader brings into your stories. Is that safe to say?

Bomer: Yeah. I would hope so. That would be wonderful. Because I definitely put thought into how I’m describing them, what I decide to focus on, and it affects how they are seen in the world and accepted by their communities or relationship with their professor. The one you mentioned, Anya, the fact that she has pock marks endears her. It makes her vulnerable to the student and makes the student feel that she can bridge this teacher-student gap, and really have an intense friendship almost with this woman. Or at least lean on her in ways that are very gratifying. And that’s definitely — I have something where I love vulnerability in people. So basically I project that in various ways throughout all of my books. But maybe this one, because they’re all kind of coming of age, they’re in that really more insecure phase in many ways.

Correspondent: Well, that’s interesting. We have a teacher/student dynamic. But there’s also a student/student dynamic in many of these college stories. So you almost have to have two dynamics to get inside what these protagonists are dealing with. I’m wondering how that kind of relationship developed in the blind girl story and also “Cleveland Circle” as well.

Bomer: Yeah. Well, definitely a theme that I’m exploring throughout this is young women, or girls, and their relationship to other young women and girls. I don’t paint a pretty picture, I’m afraid. And even thought there is…it’s not all bad. But most people I know throughout their lives, they’re going to discard some relationships. And those relationships, because they’re…oh god, I was going to say toxic. And that’s so cheesy.

Correspondent: Well, “toxic” we can use.

Bomer: But I think there’s a book called Toxic People.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Bomer: This whole silly psychology.

Correspondent: Why is toxic cliche now? I’m curious.

Bomer: Because of a book, right? It’s like the “inner child.”

Correspondent: Well, “toxic” isn’t on that level of “inner child.”

Bomer: Okay. I hope. Maybe.

Correspondent: We can use it during the course of this conversation. It’s okay.

Bomer: Okay. I appreciate it.

Correspondent: You can use anything.

Bomer: Using the word “toxic.” I’m actually trying to think of another way of describing it. But one thing for certain is that I do believe — so this is another psychobabbly thing — when you’re young, you’re kind of reliving relationships, maybe even your family relationships. And you kind of seek out the person who’s going to be some of the negative things that happened at home. And I’m not saying that everyone is completely damaged or whatever. But most people have some bumps in life, in their family, in their social life. And then I take it to a bit of an extreme. Because to me, that’s more interesting from a literary standpoint. And I don’t always. But in this book, I would say a lot of it is quite extreme. And definitely these characters, a lot of them are attracted to these people who aren’t very nice to them and who they either worship. Because they have things that are small or are skinny or they seem confident. And then they end up getting kind of hurt by that situation. Or the opposite, the occasional “Oh, this person’s vulnerable and therefore I can be vulnerable around them.” And so there’s this safety in relationships.

Correspondent: You’re sort of suggesting that people are looking for a new family when they go to school. And this is the great fluid organizational structure that you can bring into narrative, which requires organizational structure.

Bomer: Yeah. Definitely. That’s a very good way of looking at what I’m trying to do, in particular with this book.

(Photo credit: Robert Martin)

The Bat Segundo Show #546: Paula Bomer III (Download MP3)

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Porochista Khakpour (The Bat Segundo Show #545)

Porochista Khakpour is most recently the author of The Last Illusion. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #249.

Author: Porochista Khakpour

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Subjects Discussed: Lyme disease, the thrill of not knowing yourself, messy house syndrome, bird mythologies attached to various nations, Marco Polo and the roc, drawing from the Shahnameh, the inspirational value in Googling feral children, what artists talk about on smoke breaks, when readers hold an author morally responsible for fictitious animal abuse, BASE jumping, the Freedom Tower video, going blonde for Elle, making lunch with caviar and Wonder bread, being a white demon in a dark world, Toni Morrison’s advice on writing the book inside you (with mangled paraphrasing), being obsessed with Latin American and surrealistic writers, the appeal of the grotesque, being young and adversarial, when novels become unanticipated memoirs, when the “unreal” is more real than real, David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, Karl Ove Knausgaard, hard realism vs. surrealism, Stephen Dixon, hyperrealism, when realism becomes too polished or manicured, dry literary modes getting in the way of depicting reality, Carol Shields, harmful MFA diets, James Salter, Richard Yates, John Cheever, academics who misinterpret authenticity, finding the human in the idiosyncratic, the freaks, and the outsiders, why Bret Easton Ellis’s work is dismissed, Glamorama as an underrated novel, Khakpour’s review of Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird, the myth of perfect novels, why risks and originality are important to sustaining unique fiction, attempting to track what went wrong with risky American fiction during the last twenty years, the dangers of likable books, Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names, Yiyun Li’s Kinder Than Solitude, why young American readers are so conservative, millennials who avoid politics and history, when reading choices are impacted by economic crisis, what happens when the youth experience of bouncing around jobs is taken away from American life, needless obsessions with “being good,” when favoriting and liking intrudes upon the sincerity of genuine compliments, why hierarchies now look stupid, ridiculous formalism vs. overly casual forms of address, speed and anxiety, the threat of phones that entice us with buzzing notifications, contemporary anxieties over art that confronts, the remarkable human capacity for inventing needless popularity contests, being part of an immigrant group and fitting in, being true to yourself, ridiculous calculations set up by publishers, when New York publishing types forget regular readers who crave something different, why women’s magazines have embraced The Last Illusion, doing something daring because the universe is indifferent, blind ideological labels that cause nuance to be overlooked, “TWITTER NEVER FORGETS”, suspicion attached to sincerity, the apology cycle, media training’s assault on the real, healthy anti-authoritarian impulses, illegal methods of making money, the trap of fancy restaurants, the mistaken assumption that all writers live middle-class lifestyles, consumerist impulses that get in the way of the writing life, the appeal of New York City (when one can barely afford it), being exposed to subcultures, finding places where outsiders are accepted, Y2K and 9/11 as efforts to destroy New York, New York’s openness, medical arbiters named after guitar gods, how storytelling can combat injurious forces against the individual, inhabiting your own narrative, adopting a uniform of neon orange socks and a cowboy hat for school, pranks as a form of existence, prank phone calls, dialing up a radio station and pretending to be other people, talking in a baby voice as a professed Playboy Playmate, testing the notions of what people are willing to believe, learning international calling codes as a child and asking people in Nairobi to speak Swahili, physically digging holes to China, being paralyzed by knowing we’re going to die, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, getting the big death questions out of the way on the first date, the benefits of not caring vs. paralyzing thoughts as a kid, dramatizing how people believe in illusions, betrayal and panic attacks, differing emotions that emerge from PTSD and betrayal, fear and illusion, magical thinking, the Y2K panic in San Francisco, Y2K as a cultural embarrassment, failing to consider American time before 9/11, Asiya perceived as a villain in The Last Illusion, why a 500 pound character is the soul of The Last Illusion, eating insects (and associated ethics), being inspired by paintings, how different generations have viewed women, the absence of parents, family structure as a safeguard against feral children, destructive ways of being to survive a fractious childhood, Kafka’s response to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Kafka’s notion of the other Abraham as a solution to the parable’s heroic failings, father figures as impostors, having a checkered employment history, work as an enslavement of faith, saturating a novel with pre-9/11 paraphernalia, celebrating the autodidact, awkward paths to manhood, masturbation, connections between reading fiction and empathy, how online skimming is discouraging people from reading ambitious fiction, how to get more people to read Ulysses, trends in longform, the recent fetishization of Gay Talese, Renata Adler’s resurgence among young people, the double-edged sword of “legitimized” indie presses, marketing savvy entering into alt lit considerations, hostility towards works of ambitious fiction, Rebecca Curtis’s stories, Leslie Jamison, the impact of the VIDA Count, trying to get young men to read, reading around the world to atone for American literary inadequacies, Borges’s Ficciones, and hopes expressed for future punks.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Khakpour: I’ve got gallows humor for miles, but I’ve been having so many difficulties because of a recent relapse of Lyme disease. So I’m finding everything a little extra challenging. But maybe also a little bit thrilling. Because who knows what will come out?

Correspondent: What’s the thrill of this predicament?

Khakpour: The thrill is that I actually don’t entirely know myself. And so…

Correspondent: You’ve found out more things about yourself.

Khakpour: (laughs) Well, sort of. I’ve been teaching and lecturing and sometimes I feel like this disease attacks your softer tissue. Everywhere. Your brain and your organs and everything. At certain times…

Correspondent: I thought that the brain was a harder tissue. All that work. Especially your brain.

Khakpour: In my case…

Correspondent: No.

Khakpour: …it’s pretty dim.

Correspondent: Oh, I don’t know about that.

Khakpour: It’s weird. I remember certain things that I thought I had done away with and then certain things I will completely forget. You know, I have that sort of senile dementia.

Correspondent: But, see, I’m like that without Lyme disease.

Khakpour: (laughs)

Correspondent: So I think actually, if that’s the case, you’re the most formidable intellect who has ever appeared on this show.

Khakpour: (laughs) Thank you. It’s amazing. I looked up this thing called messy house syndrome.

Correspondent: Messy house syndrome!

Khakpour: And I thought that it literally just meant, “Your house is messy.”

Correspondent: Or your house is not in order. In some family dynasty sense.

Khakpour: (laughs) I think it’s this thing. I’m not sure exactly how to pronounce it. There are various names that involve forms of senile dementia that are related to it. And it is an interesting umbrella term for various forms of cognitive dysfunction that I very much relate to. But I don’t think it’s permanent. I hope it’s not permanent. I’m enjoying it a little bit. My emotional range is quite stunted.

Correspondent: It’s kind of a temporary vacation from possibly thinking all the time.

Khakpour: Well, I’ve short circuited a lot with thinking.

Correspondent: Well, you’re associative, I think.

Khakpour: (laughs) Exactly.

Correspondent: Which some people call a short circuit, but actually is really kind of liberating. So you have this little caesura in the usual great Porochista universe.

Khakpour: It’s interesting. I used to be so obsessed with altered states and I would do drugs to achieve them and all that.

Correspondent: Now you’ve got the ultimate altered state. The ultimate natural high.

Khakpour: Exactly. So in some ways, it’s kind of amazing. But it would be nice if I knew it would end soon. I think it will.

Correspondent: And yet you have been nothing less than perspicacious so far.

Khakpour: Okay. Thank you. Phew. (laughs)

Correspondent: Let’s get into the book. So Marco Polo, he popularized the legend of the roc. The Greeks, they have the phoenix. Slavic folklore has the firebird. In short, I don’t think there’s a single culture in the world that does not have some form of a mythological bird. America has the bald ego…the bald eagle. The bald ego as well! (laughs)

Khakpour: (laughs) The bald ego as well! I was going to say.

Correspondent: The bald ego and the bald eagle. And not far from the years of your novel, in 1999 to 2001, which is when yours is set, the bald eagle was actually placed from an endangered species to a threatened species and now is actually off that list altogether. Because the bald eagle made a comeback. So beyond your inspiration from the Shahnameh, I’m curious what drew you to the bird as this malleable mythological symbol. To what extent were you interested in not only transcending culture across nations, but even subcultures, perhaps bird-related, within this nation?

Khakpour: Oh. That’s so interesting. I love that question. Yeah. There’s a lot of avian themes in everything I write. It’s strange. It was in my first novel as well. And then I just naturally gravitated toward it here. I was at a residency where everybody was working very hard. And it was one of my first residencies. And I had no interest in being there almost. I was just tired from the first book. And I just decided I was going to read during my residency time. I brought a copy of the Persian Book of Kings, the Shahnameh, the Dick Davis translation that came out a few years ago. And I was flipping through it and remembering my father reading it to me in Farsi. And there was always just this one story that I always would make him reread. And it was the story of Zal and his friendship with this giant mythological bird, the Simorgh. It’s strange to even say “friendship.” I mean, the Simorgh was this guardian. And so essentially raised him. So anyways, that was in the back of my mind. While I was flipping through it at night in this residency, I would go on smoking breaks and there was this one other lovely artist there who was the only other smoker and she was also kind of pretending to do work. And we would just talk about our lives during these smoking breaks. And one time she said to me, she would just go on these rants and she said, “Whatever you do, never Google ‘feral children.’” And I said, “Wait! Why did you say that? What?” And she said, “Oh no. I’ve just been bored. I’ve been Googling things late at night.”

Correspondent: As one does.

Khakpour: Yeah. And then so I thought, “Okay.” I went there obviously. It was late at night there one night. And it was very horrific. And I’d always been interested in both the “reality,” but also the hoaxes that have been attributed to feral children. So then I found this case, this Russian case, of a bird boy who’d been essentially partially raised in a cage and could only chirp. Maybe it was a hoax. Maybe not. And immediately I combined that with Zal in my brain. And the two just kind of mashed up seamlessly. The next day at our smoking break, I told her. I said, “I think you just helped me come up with my second novel.” I’d had the other thread of the second novel, which really involved the magician and the last illusion. But he was only — I could always tell that he was 50% most of the story. There was a whole other thread. So I don’t know. Then I came to that and it was actually interesting. I came to realize, “Boy, you’re obsessed with birds and flight and all that. What is that about?” And there’s a made up myth in the first novel that involves burning doves actually. It’s sort of the myth behind the narrative of the first novel.

Correspondent: This is what it sounds like when the doves fry.

Khakpour: (laughs) Yeah.

Correspondent: Sorry.

Khakpour: So many people scold me about that scene. It’s funny. People come to the readings. And I only started reading from it late in the game. And I would have these oftentimes older women who would come to me and say…

Correspondent: Older women?

Khakpour: Yes. Who’d say, “Why would you have such scenes of animal abuse?” And they would accuse me of having harmed animals myself. And I was just so horrified. I was, “No, this is fiction.”

Correspondent: People get very sensitive to animals being harmed in fiction, I find.

Khakpour: Totally.

Correspondent: I mean, they are more willing to impugn an author for a fictional animal abuse more so than any real animal abuse.

Khakpour: I know.

Correspondent: It’s really odd.

Khakpour: Incredibly. I know. And people were very disturbed by that. But anyways, you brought up so many good points about the cultures in the U.S. too. I think, I mean, there’s a general awe that comes when you think about flight, right? It’s one thing we definitely can’t do. We can do it in these wonky adorable human ways. Hang glider. Sky diving.

Correspondent: BASE jumping.

Khakpour: Yeah, BASE jumping. Right.

Correspondent: That amazing video from the Freedom Tower.

Khakpour: I know.

Correspondent: I’m not even going to tell you how many times I saw it.

Khakpour: Same here.

Correspondent: It just gave me such a cathartic thrill.

Khakpour: Oh yeah. I started collecting a lot of those ideas, or collecting a lot of those instances and looking at their videos and all that, when I was writing this. And that figures — even the idea of stunts that involve flight or falling — big in this book.

Correspondent: How many times did your dad read you the legend of Zal? I’m curious. Because this seems to me that it was deeply imprinted upon you as a child.

Khakpour: Yeah.

Correspondent: And we always go back to the tales we’re told as children to find meaning and inspiration as adults.

Khakpour: Over and over, I would ask him to read this. He would keep going. There’s many amazing stories in the Shahnameh. There’s so many beautiful and incredible — you know, it has that feeling of The Canterbury Tales and The Old Testament where you can go to it for unlimited inspiration. But I was frozen on Zal. I related to him so much. Because there was also — you know, in my first novel, there’s a whole thing with I Dream of Jeannie. This blonde genie and the weirdness of that to me.

Correspondent: And here you are blonde as well. (laughs)

Khakpour: Yes. For an article.

Correspondent: It was in the prophecy! (laughs)

Khakpour: Yes. Exactly! Now I am one of the fakest blondes ever. So that was a fascination. The other thing that was interesting in the story of Zal was that he was born essentially something like an albino. It’s unclear from the text exactly what they meant. But he had a certain whiteness of skin and a lightness of hair. He basically had white hair. And that was why he was cast out. And I think for an Iranian immigrant new to the U.S. — at that point, we’d only been a few years in the U.S. — I was so fascinated by issues that surrounded race and ethnicity in the U.S. vs. Iran and what that all meant. So Zal to me was just — I didn’t know what to make out of this story. He was somehow what Americans might consider the ideal of beauty. Maybe even some other cultures of course. And yet he was cast aside. Basically left in the wilderness to be raised by a bird.

Correspondent: There were a lot of uncleared mysteries in the original tale.

Khakpour: Yeah.

Correspondent: And maybe this is perhaps what captured your imagination and led you to flesh it out and transplant it here in New York.

Khakpour: Exactly. Yeah. And I had been so anxious about fitting into America at that point. And I knew — I couldn’t even really relate to my own parents. I mean, they were of a different socioeconomic class than my brother and I. So here were two upper-class Iranians in their twenties who were fairly gutted about not being able to do fancy things. You know, my mother would be upset that we couldn’t have a childhood where we went shopping in Europe. And my father was meanwhile making us only Wonder bread sandwiches with butter and caviar on it.

Correspondent: Butter and caviar?

Khakpour: (laughs) Yeah.

Correspondent: Wow. That would make the lunch trade a little bit more convoluted.

Khakpour: (laughs)

Correspondent: “I’ll give you the caviar for the apple.”

Khakpour: (laughs Yeah. Exactly. It was a very confused issue concerning nationality and ethnicity and all that.

Correspondent: And class.

Khakpour: And class. Definitely. So I was constantly thinking about this. And when I would get tired, late at night, when he would read me these stories, I’d have horrible insomnia. I would sit with him and he’d pick up where he left off. I would just ask him, “Could you read this story one more time?” He seemed to give me both a combination of hope for the outsider — because at the end of the Zal story, he’s a great warrior and he’s a great hero of the Persian Empire. And even his whiteness starts to be discussed as silver. It’s very striking. He suddenly becomes the embodiment of strength and power. But there’s a lot of conflict in this story too. And there’s a lot of darkness in that story too. And that really got my wheels turning at a young age. And I feel like I’ve always waited to have an opportunity to do something with that story. And it sort of got me when I didn’t even know that I was looking for it.

(Photo: Darcy Rogers)

(Music provided through Free Music Archive: Jose Travieso’s “Zombie Nation.”)

The Bat Segundo Show #545: Porochista Khakpour II (Download MP3)

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Nikil Saval (The Bat Segundo Show #544)

Nikil Saval is the author of Cubed and an editor at n+1.

Author: Nikil Saval

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Subjects Discussed: Karen Nussbaum and the Nine to Five movement, 9 to 5 as the template for the office comedy, whether the office workplace is permanently stacked against the worker (and attempts to find hope), the beginnings of human resources, the Hawthorne effect, efforts to control workers through close supervision, attention to light and the beginnings of office architecture, the National Labor Relations Act, attempts to organize office workers in the 1930s, anti-immigrant sentiments and racism among white collar workers, unions and white collar workers, why workers feel empowered when they have nothing, the rise of freelancing culture, Richard Greenwald, how office work creates the illusion of giving the worker mastery over his fate, the Bürolandschaft ideal, Robert Propst, Action Office, the historical beginnings of the cubicle, attempts to track down the guy who first closed partitions into the cubicle, Norbert Wiener and cybernetics, King Vidor’s The Crowd, Jacques Tati’s Play Time, futile attempts to photograph “action” in offices, sitting up and standing down, healthy activities in the workplace, Propst’s failed three wall ideal, Herman Miller propaganda and Action Office possibilities, when George Nelson was jilted from the office furniture plans, how changes in the broader culture influenced changes in office culture, managers pulled from offices and deposited in cubes, Barry Lyndon, the impact of mass layoffs, the recession of the 1980s and its impact on white collar culture, when the cubicle became associated with transience, the lack of privacy in the workplace, why European countries revolted against office layout while Americans stayed silent, Frederick Taylor and Taylorism, Taylorism’s rise and fall and second rise, Louis Brandeis’s popularization of Taylorism through “scientific management” (used in his argument of the Eastern Rate Case of 1910), Taylorized families, Harry Braverman, the beginnings of human resources, Taylorism vs. eugenics, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, Douglas McGregor’s The Human Side of Enterprise as an anti-Taylorist tract, Andy Grove’s Only the Paranoid Survive as a return to Taylorism, Robert Waterman’s In Search of Excellence, perpetuating familial attitudes in the workplace, advertising and irony (and parallels to Taylorism), Taylorism vs. Taylor in Planet of the Apes, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building, natural light and the early forms of air conditioning, surveillance by overseers that is perpetuated in workplace architecture, zombie-like accountants, the ethical question of happy workers, the beginnings of glass buildings, Le Corbusier and urban planning, the Lever House, when glass curtains won over Lewis Mumford, Vico cycles, how offices may be returning to their original counting house forms, the Sony Tower’s transformation from work units to residential units in the next few years, the question of workplace architecture becoming an ineluctable and oppressive threat on the way we live, mistaken impressions of Marxism spouted by philosophers, companies spending less on office space, developments in living space and workspace, laptops in cafes, freelancers and co-working facilities, the upward presumptions of clerks, and how once stable labor conditions have become a fantasy.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: We are, in fact, talking in an office. So I’m not sure what that does to this conversation. But we’ll, I suppose, make amends.

Saval: I know. Well, at least it’s a private office and not a cubicle. Because that could be a…

Correspondent: Or an open office for that matter.

Saval: Or an open office. God.

Correspondent: Well, let’s get right into it. Back in the late 1970s, Jane Fonda met Karen Nussbaum, a remarkable figure who organized women clerical workers in this Nine to Five movement. And Fonda and a screenwriter spent an entire evening talking with 40 office workers. This became the basis for the wildly popular movie 9 to 5, which arguably set the template, comic wise, for Office Space, The Office, and, of course, most recently Silicon Valley. As you point out in the book, some of the proposed remedies at the end of that film — plants, rearranged desks, flextime, day care at work — they actually reflect what’s know as the Bürolandschaft ideal. And we’ll get to that in a bit. But, you know, this has me wondering if there is something permanently broken about the office. Is it possible that any attempt to remedy it or improve it is almost this kind of neoliberal trap? What hopes do we have for the worker? Or is the deck permanently stacked against her?

Saval: (laughs)

Correspondent: Just to start off here.

Saval: So softball.

Correspondent: It was such a wonderfully bleak book that I had to have a vivaciously bleak opener.

Saval: Gosh. I wish I could just say, “No no no. The story’s happy. It has a happy ending.” You know, I don’t really mean to say that the workplace is permanently broken. I guess I do want to say that the kind of repeated — as you pointed out, there’s a repeated attempt to make work better, usually through design but also through other kind of arrangements in the workplace. Architecturally and what have you. And a lot of these go wrong. And some of them go spectacularly wrong; the most famous being the office cubicle. And I think the point there is not just that the office seems to be broken, but that there is some sense of an idea of how work might be better and there is an idea of somehow you might be able to organize it better, somehow work might be more free, workers might have more control over their work. Things like that. And usually these are sort of fatally disabled by — I mean, it’s not always the case, but usually, roughly, it’s a presumption that these designers or planners know what’s best for an office worker. And there’s usually something imposed on an office worker. Or there’s a plan that starts out really well and then when it’s replicated ad nauseam, it goes wrong or it doesn’t even strike at the heart of what’s wrong at work and they try to design a way things are more fundamental to the issue of the workplace.

Correspondent: But as you also point out in the book, there is this brief moment for the worker — and perhaps it’s an illusional one or a delusional one — where you have a situation when suddenly there is care about what the worker thinks and how the worker can behave, as opposed to how the worker should behave. And I’ll get into Mr. [Frederick] Taylor in a bit. But what accounted for that particular moment, which was roughly around 1929 and up through about the 1950s, before yet another ideologue came in and had ideas about what to do for the worker and for the workplace?

Saval: Well, yeah, that’s, I guess you could call it, the human relations movement. That was the idea that…

Correspondent: That’s the 1960s of the office. (laughs)

Saval: Exactly.

Correspondent: That’s the hippie idealism, I suppose. That period.

Saval: Yeah. And it comes out of a lot of different sources. And one was just the office, but it was also the workplace. It took hold on factory floors as well. And the idea was just that workers needed to be in corporations that somehow ostensibly cared for them. It came out of what was known as the Hawthorne experiments, which are a famous social science experiment where they tried in the Hawthorne Works to experiment with different lighting levels and to see how this affected the way people worked. And what they realized was that actually there wasn’t a direct connection. It wasn’t that the light got better and workers worked better or got worse and workers worked better. It was just that when workers thought they were being watched — at least this was the conclusion — they felt like the company cared about them. And therefore they worked better. And so, especially at a time — this was not so true in the ’20s, but certainly in the ’30s this was true — when there were union movements, when there were the high points of the American labor movement, corporations and companies just felt that things were not going their way and they did not want unions in their workplaces. And so they thought, “Well, we just need to become more familial. We need to care more. We need to manage more lightly. We need to think of our workers’ psychology, not just their efficiency and their productivity.” And I think this results in all kinds of changes in the workplace. I sort of argue that even the architecture of the workplace somehow reflects this desire to make work better, to make workers feel more at home. Maybe with the mid-century corporation, I think I suggest that with things like the Lever House, the Seagram Building, the attention to light and to design and the explosion of design at that time in the workplace — even the idea that a workplace interior should be thoroughly planned and designed — I think reflects this attempt to make workers happy.

Correspondent: Do you think that many of the behavioral psychologists and these people who were looking into lighting were thinking very much about unions? I mean, we often forget from our — well, to get into the decline of labor in the 21st century is another can of worms, but we often forget from our vantage point now how much pull labor had in the early 20th century. And I’m wondering, in the attempt to determine how workers were feeling, how much was that a presence? How much was that a motivation? Or was it simply just innate curiosity? Or the kind of touchy-feely vibe we were implying earlier?

Saval: You know, certainly with industrial workplaces, it was definitely, absolutely a fear. Partly because union organizing, it just spiked, especially after the passage of the Wagner Act, the National Labor Relations Act. With the office, I don’t think there was a huge worry about it. I did some, to me, very fascinating but probably to other people very tedious archival work where I looked into the proceedings of the International Association of Office Managers, or rather I think it’s the National Association, and there’s a point in the ’30s when they really express worries about this and they think, “Well, it’s really taken a hold on factories and even some offices are starting to unionize.” And there actually is, more than there used to be, in certain publishing houses. The New Republic organizes at the time, with something affiliated with the Communist Party. And so you have people talking about how the last redoubt of capitalism, the place where individualism thrives. The office. Even this is under threat. And so we really need it. I mean, once this goes, I think there’s a little bit of a sense that — and again it was not so widespread, but they were definitely afraid, I think.

Correspondent: Well, you do in fact quote the possibly apocryphal Samuel Gompers line, “Show me two white collar workers on a picket line and I’ll organize the entire working class.” Why didn’t office workers latch onto labor? You suggest that there is this assumption that their talents and their skills could in fact give them an independent shot. And I suppose, I guess we see the natural offshoots of this kind of libertarian impulse with some of the tech entrepreneurs that came later. But I’m wondering. Why couldn’t there be some sort of confluence here? Because it seems to me that everybody here had the same interests in mind.

Saval: Yeah. This is sort of the central contradiction of the white collar workplace. I mean, it’s just that there is, on the one hand, you have this ideal of this perfect meritocracy, that certainly the managers talk about this in their association, that you can rise — and this was true in the early antebellum offices especially. And it made more sense then. If you were a clerk, you would become the partner of that firm. And that lasted even past the point that that was true. When some offices became much larger, business became bigger and there were only so many places at the top and many more places at the bottom. So it was just less and less likely.

Correspondent: Toil long enough at the firm and you will ascend to heaven when you’re dead.

Saval: (laughs) Right.

Correspondent: It’s a very familiar promise.

Saval: Right. Exactly. So the way that persists is partly that there’s just a lot of — that it makes sense. It was true for some people. And that had some effect. It made people think that it was true in the office. There’s something about the prestige and status of white collar work that has made it different from blue collar work, especially in the U.S. politically. It just seems like it’s cleaner. The work often required a high command of English. So when there were a lot of high waves of immigration into the United States, there weren’t a lot of immigrants working in white collar workplaces. So there was a kind of homogeneity. And then, of course, also it was very male up to a point. And then when women entered the office, they often entered into the steno pool, a typing pool, to jobs that didn’t have high levels of prestige so that men could feel themselves above in a way, could still feel like they were middle class even when they maybe weren’t. And the other thing — and I talk about this a little bit in a chapter about the skyscrapers — was that there were not a lot of appeals on the part of unions or political parties in the U.S. to white collar workers. It was not clear how to organize them.

Correspondent: It was not clear how to get through to them.

Saval: Yeah. Exactly. The whole model was predicated on industrial organizing. And this doesn’t mean that it didn’t work in a number of cases, a can of worms which I don’t deal with which is the public sector. Because I think it’s a different animal. Can of worms. Animal. Anyway.

Correspondent: Let’s mix as many metaphors as you like. (laughs) But this leads me to wonder. Why couldn’t these very dedicated labor unions get through to the white collar worker? I mean, they had — and again I cannot understate this — they had incredible power at the time.

Saval: Right.

Correspondent: How could they not actually have the communication skills or the fortitude or even the ability to massage their message? Why couldn’t they get through? I mean, they did try. There’s an AFL magazine article you quote, addressed to the white collar workers, where essentially the author says, “Hey. Look after yourselves. You want to think about the future.” But it seems to me that they needed to go further. I mean, what was the disconnect here?

Saval: You know, it just seems like a number of things. One was just the persistence of the idea that upward mobility was a given. And in periods where there are high levels, it’s mainly growth. I think of times like the 1920s, even when inequality widens, union influence starts to dip after a kind of high point in the late 1910s. And then in the ’30s, the union influence in the office increases. Because white collar unemployment becomes a real thing. But then it dips again in the ’50s and then it starts to spike up in the ’70s. And then actually in the ’80s, when things really actually go wrong for a little bit.

Correspondent: With Reagan and the air traffic controllers.

Saval: Yeah. And then it hasn’t really — I mean, you would think that and you would think now in the last four years that it would increase. I feel like I’ve read of isolated cases. But it’s not a trend. There’s a union organizer who I quote, writing in Harper’s in the ’50s — he’s an anonymous organizer — about why white collar workers can’t be organized. And he seems to think that there’s a way in which white collar workers see themselves, even though they are exploited. He says they are the most exploited workers in a certain way. But they see themselves as possessing certain skills, whereas an assembly line worker will talk about the industry that he works in. “I work in the auto industry.” Whereas a white collar worker will refer to his or her profession. “I’m a stenographer” or “I’m a typist.” “I’m a bookkeeper.” And that way of talking indicates that you’re able to move. That you have a skill that other people prize. And I don’t know if that’s a sufficient reason for people not to organize. But it sort of means that you need to talk about different things. And it’s not always the case. People do organize. It has happened. But this was his reason anyway.

Correspondent: In other words, with this particular notion, the suggestion is that one had a kind of linguistic independent identity. One had a label to hold as his own, whereas the organized worker would relate to an industry. This leads me to wonder why that notion of independence was, number one, so appealing to the worker and, number two, why they didn’t see, especially after toiling for many decades and not getting anywhere, that it was all a sham.

Saval: Yeah. It remains a sort of intractable question. But the notion of independence is powerful. And you even see that now in the rise of freelancing or contract work, which I do not want to attribute that too much to people choosing to do that all the time. I mean, there is a lot of it.

Correspondent: The sexiness of having to go ahead and pay for your own health care. Having to look for pennies under the couch. It’s just such a remarkably romantic ideal, isn’t it?

Saval: It’s so freeing. It’s liberating. But on the other hand, there are people who choose to do it. And what they’re seeking is a certain kind of freedom and autonomy over their work.

(Loops for this program provided by Martin Minor, MaxJC, danke, ozzi, 40a, ebaby8119, and Dokfraktal. )

The Bat Segundo Show #544: Nikil Saval (Download MP3)

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Evie Wyld (The Bat Segundo Show #543)

Evie Wyld is most recently the author of All the Birds, Singing.

Author: Evie Wyld

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Subjects Discussed: The Call of the Wild as workplace novel, the stability of work in wild environments, physical labor and working in bookstores, coming from a family with a farming background, the engineering mindset, the virtues of being a messy writer, the interest in what we hold back, having to write moments that aren’t revealed to the reader, the dangers of creative pride, how to organize a messy 60,000 words on a floor using scissors and tape, structure and certainty, hating your book, attempts to write linearly and literally, the virtues of an innate rebellious streak, when flashbacks become integral to structure, the many insects within Wyld’s fiction, how horror films are more willing to dramatize the relationship between humans and animals, Jeffrey Lockwood’s The Infested Mind, entomophobia and Western culture, why sharks are misunderstood, Australian insects, Holiday Cigarettes, the autonomy of smoking, attempts to find control over your environment, kangaroos hit by utility trucks, appreciating life by confronting death, why kangaroos are mutinous, dogs vs. kangaroos, animals and social projection, sheep, when kangaroos stop being cute, pet kangaroos, when giving a character a job is the hardest part of fiction, sheep shearing pubs, farming pubs, sheep integrity, Ernest Hemingway, Robert De Niro and Method writing, imagination vs. process writing, getting bogged down in research, notes and memory, characters with palindromic names, bidirectional retreats to the past, how to get around writing boring scenes, romantic notions of writer’s block, why it’s important to write drivel, thinking on the page, despising the manuscript and knowing the moment when it needs to be plucked away, happy nightmares, families of solitary figures, eccentric exercise regimens, the back as a footstool, sheep killing as an ambiguous mystery, the Pulp Fiction briefcase, the appeal of monsters, the pros and cons of setting up reader expectations with a mystery, Stephen King’s It, disappointing endings, why seeing the monster isn’t relevant in storytelling, narrative entitlement, how novelists contend with increasing reader distractions, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Venn diagram of genre and literary fiction, the advantages of working as a bookseller, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Wyld confronting her dead father’s records in the bookstore database, having a healthy suspicion of lists in a BuzzFeed age, Keith Richards’s Life, and the benefits of accidents and coincidences.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I had a rather strange way of entering this rather raucous novel. About three years ago, another critic Matthew Battles and I, we were having this online conversation about The Call of the Wild. And we were both arguing that Jack London’s great novel was actually a workplace novel. Because Buck, he’s forced to contend with the aggressive cubemate, like Spitz, and essentially he has to find individualism and this independent work ethic over the course of his journey. Your book happens to involve two dogs — one of them actually named Dog — and Jake has to learn sheep shearing and driving skills during her journey. Why do you think work became such a dominant part of this novel’s fixation in your efforts to contend with these rather feral environments, both in Australia and in England?

Wyld: Well, I think work is a way of normalizing yourself. It’s a way of getting yourself away from the stuff that’s actually happening in your life. A way of processing it. So I think for Jake, handling sheep is very much who she is. She expresses herself through wrestling with sheep and trying to keep them alive. And she tries to kind of make amends for some of the things in her life by working really, really hard and working very hard at looking after these sheep, trying to keep them alive, failing a lot of the time.

Correspondent: Why do you think it’s tied so much into the idea of existing in this kind of wild environment? That’s the real question. Why work is the defining quality of a naturalistic environment.

Wyld: I think it keeps you sane in some sense. I mean, I certainly find. that lives in the wilds of Peckham, where I am in London, I work very, very hard in the bookshop and I work very hard at writing novels. And I think it’s something to do with, as long as you’re working hard, you feel you’re existing in a way that is worthwhile, in a way that you feel like — sometimes you can feel like you’re very transient and that you’re slightly floating above the earth and you’re not really experiencing anything. And you find that if you actually do something physical to kind of make your mark on the earth, then it has a calming effect, I find.

Correspondent: Do you feel that there’s any difference between working in the wild of a bookstore and working in the rather saner, urban environment of sheep shearing?

Wyld: I think probably a fair amount of difference. I think I really admire physical work. I would love to…

Correspondent: How much physical work have you done?

Wyld: Well, I’ve done absolutely no sheep shearing. I don’t know how physical bookselling is. I lift the books.

Correspondent: It is pretty physical. I mean…

Wyld: Stacking shelves.

Correspondent: Stacking.

Wyld: Dusting. The whole lot.

Correspondent: Moving shelves for author events.

Wyld: Wrestling the odd shoplifter to the ground. That sort of thing. But, yeah, I think my mother’s family are Australian and they’re farmers. So it’s always been something that I have looked on with envy and amazement, really. This amazing, quite masculine work. Actually growing stuff. Actually keeping something alive.

Correspondent: Why didn’t you decide to enter the farming racket?

Wyld: Not sure I’m that talented, to be honest. My Australian family aren’t big readers or big intellectual kind of thinkers. But somehow they’re some of the most intelligent people. They can look at a broken tractor and they can fix it. And I find that incredible. And I don’t have that skill. I don’t have the maths, I think, mainly.

Correspondent: The sort of engineering brain to look upon some casual thing to fix and then you’ll be able to find a solution through a MacGyver situation by putting it back together.

Wyld: Put some oil on it. (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah. Exactly. Well, the novel here is built on a series of alternating chapters. It’s almost this two-lane highway. You have this forward motion in the present and you also have these backwards chapters that depict Jake’s past. I’m wondering how this structure emerged, first and foremost. But how much of Jake’s background did you plan out in advance or come to know in the act of writing? Just to start off here.

Wyld: Well, I’m a very messy writer.

Correspondent: You need structure.

Wyld: Yeah. I tend to start in the middle and kind of work outwards.

Correspondent: Okay. So you just write all over the place.

Wyld: I just write all over the place and then I get to a point where I’ve written a certain amount of words. And I try and find what the story is, what the arc of the story is. So mostly for me the writing process involves getting to know the character. And for me, that involves their childhood, their family. It doesn’t always enter into the story in the end. But it’s central to me that I can’t understand who someone is unless I know about them before the sort of now of the book. So I’d written about 60,000 words. About a third of the book. Maybe half the book. And then I just realized that I was enjoying her as a character and I was enjoying her life in Australia and in the UK. But it was lacking tension. And there was just something really to be gained by folding it over on itself. And I’m a big fan of playing around with structure, only in terms of furthering the story, only in terms of not just for fun but because it’s so exciting to me when you have two objects that shouldn’t go next to each other and they create a third feeling.

Correspondent: Yeah. Did you find that your sense of Jake deepened when you had this structure in place? That you knew here even more intimately than you could ever possibly anticipate knowing?

Wyld: Yeah. I think so. I think there’s something about somebody who is trying very hard not to think about something that appeals to me and that makes me feel that they’re much more human.

Correspondent: It allows you to get outside of your own head.

Wyld: Exactly.

Correspondent: Because you’re sort of a cerebral person and you need something who isn’t a cerebral person to escape to.

Wyld: Yeah. I think there’s definitely something to be said for the things we hold back. I think they’re more interesting than the things we say a lot of the time.

(Loops for this program provided by danke, ozzi, and 40a. )

The Bat Segundo Show #543: Evie Wyld (Download MP3)

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Yiyun Li (The Bat Segundo Show #542)

Yiyun Li is most recently the author of Kinder Than Solitude. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #323.

Author: Yiyun Li

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Subjects Discussed: Moving on, sustaining characters who inhabit their own mystery while an overarching mystery exists to tantalize the reader, judgment of characters and simultaneous mystery, Edward Jones, working out every details of a story in advance, forethought and structure, the original two structures of Kinder Than Solitude, creating a structure alternating between the past and the present, thinking about a project for two years before writing, William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, time as a collage structure, photographs as a marker of identity, not really knowing what the characters look like in Kinder Than Solitude, why Li didn’t visually describe her characters, being an internal writer and reader, writing from inside the characters, Ian Rankin not describing Rebus over the course of more than twenty novels, Patricia Highsmith, Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith, Tom Ripley’s manipulative nature, the dangers of general comments, problems when literary fiction describes objects in consummate detail instead of emotions, freedom and the courage to write about a character’s soul, Chinese Catholics who practiced in secret, priests executed as counterrevolutionaries in Communist-controlled China, underground faith and literary relationships, inevitable bifurcation in exploring an absolute, having to ask the question of whether a sentence is true before setting it down, questioning yourself in everything you do, the allure of family (and the impulse to run away from it), the mantras and maxims that flow through Kinder Than Solitude, coating truth in wise and optimistic sayings, the beauty and sharp internal emotions contained within Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, subtlety and shock in relation to internal character examination, poison as a passive-aggressive form of murder, poison as a muse, Li’s accordion skills (and other revelations), the current American accordion player crisis, “I find your lack of faith disturbing” in Star Wars, when any idea (such as “bok choy”) can be sandwiched into political ideology, notions of planned economy in 1989 China, the personal and the politically being ineluctably intertwined, exploring prohibitions on American political fiction (also discussed in Dinaw Mengestu interview), James Alan McPherson‘s “Elbow Room,” contemplating why Americans are being more careful in discussing the uncomfortable, how the need to belong often overshadows the need to talk, Communist propaganda vs. digital pressures, extraordinary conversations in Europe, considering what forms of storytelling can encourage people to talk about important issues, William Trevor, the intertwined spirit and freedom of Southern literature, Carson McCullers, the flexibility of literary heritage, notions of New South writing, regional assignation as an overstated tag of literature, establishing liminal space through place to explore flexibility in time, despair without geography, feelings and time as key qualities of fiction, writing love letters to cities, James Joyce having to go to Trieste to write about Dublin, and whether place needs to be dead in order to make it alive on the page.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: There’s this point in the book where Moran says to Joseph, “Moving on? That’s an American thing I don’t believe in.” And then there’s this moment late in the book where one American is utterly devastated by what she learns about one of the characters. I’ll try not to give it away. All of the inferences she made are essentially thrown back into her face. And I think this novel dramatizes belief culture in very interesting ways. I’m wondering. How is belief formed or reified by a national instinct, whether it is American or Chinese? And how do you think the migratory impulse of “moving on” causes us to believe in people in very harmful ways? How does this affect you as a novelist? Someone who is asking the reader to believe in lies. Just to start off here.

Li: Right. You know, it’s interesting. Because I always say “moving on” is an American concept. The reason I said that was that, right after 9/11, I was so impressed. By the two months after 9/11. All the newspapers were talking about “moving on.” Americans should move on. And for me, that was quite incredible. Because I did not understand what “moving on” meant and that concept.

Correspondent: This is your introduction to “moving on.”

Li: Yes. And so it stuck with me. And of course, Moran borrowed that concept or Moran said “moving on” after 9/11. People talked about moving on. But the national belief, it’s interesting because I think this Western concept of “moving on,” you know, there’s always a second chance. There are always more opportunities in front of you if you just get over this hurdle. Now it’s becoming more an Asian thing. Only in the past maybe three or four years. If you look at not only China but Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Singapore, all these countries start to believe in moving on. We’re not going to stay in any moment. We’re just going to catch this wave of being.

Correspondent: You left out North Korea. (laughs)

Li: (laughs) Oh no. They can’t. So to me, that’s interesting. Because that’s a belief that, as people are migrating from East to the West, ideas are migrating from the West to the East. And, of course, people coming to America are returning to Asia. So there are these waves of ideas. So now, if you look at Chinese or other Asian countries, “moving on” is a big thing. You know, we’re not going to get stuck in a Cultural Revolution. We’re not going to get stuck in Tienanmen Square. We’re just going to move on to be rich.

Correspondent: But the thing about moving on, I mean, it’s used in two senses. You allude to this American impulse of, yes, well we can move on and have a second chance and start our life over. But there’s also this idea of moving on as if we have no sense of the past. That we have no collective memory or even individual memory. And I’m wondering, if it’s increasingly becoming a way to identify the East and the West, is it essentially a flawed notion? Or is it a notion that one should essentially adopt and then discard? Because we get dangerously close into believing in illusion?

Li: Right. I would feel suspicious of any belief and, again, as you said, moving on really requires us to say we’re going to box this kind of memory. We’re going to put them away so we can do something else. And, of course, as a novelist or as a writer, you always feel suspicious when those things happen. Because you’re manipulating memories. You’re manipulating time.

Correspondent: You’re manipulating readers.

Li: Yes.

Correspondent: So in a sense, you become an ideologue as well.

Li: Exactly. So I would say that anytime anyone says, “Let’s move on” or “Let’s look at history all the time,” I would become suspicious. Because both ways are ways to manipulate readers or characters.

Correspondent: So it’s almost as if you have to dramatize belief culture to be an honest novelist. Would you say that’s the case?

Li: Well, I would say it’s to question that belief culture. And I think when you question, there are many ways to question. To dramatize is one way to question. I mean, you can write essays. I can write nonfiction to question these things, but, as a fiction writer, I think I question the belief culture more than dramatizing it.

Correspondent: How do you think fiction allows the reader to question belief culture more than nonfiction? Or perhaps in a way that nonfiction can’t possibly do?

Li: I think they do different things. For instance, I’m not an experienced nonfiction writer. I do write nonfiction.

Correspondent: You can approach this question from the reader and the writer viewpoint too.

Li: I think for me the most important thing to ask as a fiction writer is you don’t judge your characters. So if they’re flawed in their belief culture, you let them be in that culture and do all the things so that the readers can come to their own conclusions. In nonfiction, I feel that a writer needs to take a stand probably more than a fiction writer.

(Photo: Karin Higgins)

(Loops for this program provided by danke, ozzi, decibel, michiel56, and OzoneOfficial. )

The Bat Segundo Show #542: Yiyun Li II (Download MP3)

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Ben Tarnoff (The Bat Segundo Show #541)

Ben Tarnoff is most recently the author of The Bohemians.

Author: Ben Tarnoff

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Subjects Discussed: Why 1860s California was especially well suited to literary movements, draft riots, Thomas Starr King, how Atlantic Monthly editor James Fields interacted with numerous emerging writers, the New England influence vs. the need to rebel, Charles Stoddard, rustic towns vs. cities battling each other in California over poetic merit, Bret Harte’s aesthetic tastes, how Harte transformed from critic to short story pioneer, how Mark Twain used the door-to-door subscription model to popularize The Innocents Abroad, the influence of the railroads upon what people read, Twain’s inability to command literary respect in America during his time, Twain’s popularity in England, the disreputable qualities of Twain’s appearance, Twain’s drawl, William Dean Howells, the Eastern literary establishment’s regressive assessment of Western style, how Twain used the lecture circuit to generate vital income, early standup comics in America, Artemus Ward the first standup comic in America, New York’s emergence as a media capital in the late 19th century, the development of Twain’s iconoclasm, present day interpretations of Twain as a cuddly avuncular type, Twain’s explosive temperament, Twain’s failed attempts at suicide, how original literary movements can spring from a unique location, present day Brooklyn writers who play it safe, how Twain’s lecture persona allowed him to escape becoming a newspaper hack, Twain vs. Ed Koch as meeter-and-greeter in the streets, the Bret Harte/Mark Twain friendship and feud, Bret Harte’s creative decline upon leaving California, Margaret Duckett’s Mark Twain and Bret Harte, the mysterious inciting incident in 1877 that set Twain off on Harte, Twain’s difficulties in getting his early short story collections published, the death of irony throughout American history, disparaging reports of Anna Griswold Harte (and attempts to find positive qualities about her), how much Bret Harte is responsible for Anna’s alleged sullenness, Bret Harte’s arrogance, Harte’s abandonment of his family, Harte’s aristocratic airs, Harte’s insistence upon a cab when arriving on the East Coast, Bret Harte’s hipster-like sideburns, “Ah Sin,” Twain and Harte perpetuating racist Chinese stereotypes, Twain selling out his principles, yellowface and the Cloud Atlas movie, Twain’s unremitting vengeance against Bret Harte, Twain’s obsessive detail in depicting his grudges, Twain’s tremendous rage and his tremendous love, Twain blaming himself for the death of his son Langdon, parallels between Charles Stoddard and Walt Whitman, Stoddard’s need for approval, Stoddard seeking autographs, Stoddard’s retreat to Hawaii, attempts to determine how much transgressive behavior there was in San Francisco during the late 19th century, Bret Harte rebuffing his literary friends when he moved to the East Coast, Ina Coolbrith as the first woman poet laureate in the United States in 1911, Coolbrith’s “When the Grass Shall Cover Me,” the crushing domestic responsibilities faced by Coolbrith (and stalling Coolbrith’s literary career), grueling library hours in the late 19th century, Stoddard’s South-Sea Idyls, Harte’s remarkably swift dissolution, Harte’s inability to take root in the East, Ambrose Bierce, whether Bierce arrived too late on the scene, pulp writers who lived at the Monkey Block in the early 20th century, Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady in Darkness, and whether any literary movement today can recapture the risk-taking feel of the Bohemians.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Mark Twain and Bret Harte seem to be the big stars of this book. But what do you think it was about this particular area at this particular time that created this particular literature?

Tarnoff: Well, San Francisco in the 1860s has a lot of advantages for a writer. It’s peaceful. The Civil War never comes to California. So there’s no fighting on the coast and there’s no draft. Because Lincoln never applies the draft west of Iowa and Kansas.

Correspondent: And no draft riots.

Tarnoff: Right. Exactly. No draft riots. So it’s peaceful. It’s a great place to wait out the war. It’s very rich. Because it’s the industrial, commercial, and financial center of the region. So the massive amount of wealth that’s being generated in the City finances a range of literary papers. And it’s also very urban. It’s got about 100,000 people in the 1860s and that makes it by far the biggest city in the region, really the biggest city west of St. Louis. And that population is pretty cosmopolitan. Because of the legacy of the gold rush, you have people there from China, from South America, from all different countries in Europe. And I think that all of those are important factors behind producing the literary moment.

Correspondent: And for a while, speaking of St. Louis, it had the largest building west of St. Louis with City Hall.

Tarnoff: That’s right.

Correspondent: For a while. Until it got — I can’t remember which building it was that actually uprooted it. But it was a city of great progress and great buildings. I wanted to start off also by getting into the preacher Thomas Starr King. He’s this figure I have wanted to talk about forever. Because I have read, I’m sure as you have, the Kevin Starr books. The wonderful California Dream series. I’m grateful that your book has allowed me a chance to talk about him here. You know, it has always seemed to me that without King, you could not have had the literary culture that emerged. Because he was this really odd figure. He promoted New England writers. So he was kind of an establishment guy. But at the same time, he’s also the guy who introduces Bret Harte to James Fields, the Atlantic editor, in January 1862. Charles Stoddard — this wonderful poet — also held King up in great esteem. So he’s almost this insider/outsider figure who seems to corral the many literary strands of San Francisco that are burgeoning during this time and forming this new kind of movement that you identify as a Bohemian movement. So I’m wondering. What is your take on Thomas Starr King? Do you think that San Francisco would have been San Francisco if it had not been for that? And do you think that when The Overland Monthly appeared, that this was kind of the replacement for Thomas Starr King? Because at that point he had passed away. What of this?

Tarnoff: Well, Thomas Starr King is a fantastic figure. I think he really is a forgotten founding father of California. He’s so foundational politically, culturally, as you point out from the literary scene. He’s a fantastic mentor figure. You mentioned Charles Stoddard. There’s a scene in my book where Stoddard has just published his first poems in a big literary paper. He’s extremely shy and nervous. And Thomas Starr King comes to the bookshop where he works and tells him personally how much he loved his poems. So he’s a guy with a really personal touch and really cultivates these writers and offers them criticism. He’s an important figure from the point of view from the point of view of the Civil War as well, which is I think how he’s better known today. Because he travels throughout the state during the first year or two of the Civil War and preaches the importance of California staying in the Union. Which it probably would have stayed in anyway. But King is certainly a very persuasive champion of the Union and of abolition.

Correspondent: Yeah. But in terms of his literary contributions, I mean, he was again, like I was suggesting with this last question, this guy who was there to rebel against and this guy to garner favor with so you could actually get into some of the outlets. How did that work? Am I perhaps overreaching with my estimation of King as this great mirror that Twain, Harte, and all these other people looked at in order to find their own voices? To find their own particular perch to break into San Francisco journalism, literature, and all that?

Tarnoff: Well, I think he builds a link between the Eastern literary establishment and San Francisco. You mentioned his introduction of Harte to James Fields, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He also is friends with Longfellow and Emerson and all these literary lions who are really the most famous writers in the country at that point. And he gives these wonderful lectures on American literature in San Francisco. So he absolutely is a link between the East and the West. But he’s also someone to rebel against. I mean, he’s the father figure. You’re also trying to kill your father. And a lot of these guys — particularly Harte — you see him strain from that New England mold. Thomas Starr King sadly dies in 1864 young and prematurely. And in the coming years, Harte really develops his own style, which I think contrasts pretty sharply with those New England influences.

Correspondent: So what was essentially taken from King and even the New England influence? What made this particular area of the country the natural place to establish new voice, original voice, a rebellious voice, an iconoclastic voice?

Tarnoff: Well, Thomas Starr King has this great phrase in one of his sermons where he tells Californians they need to build Yosemites in the soul. And his point there, I think, is that they’ve been blessed with this majestic epic monumental landscape. This incredible natural beauty. And they need to create a culture and a literature, an intellectual scene, that’s commensurate with that great beauty. And the Bohemian scene really takes that advice seriously. And the West, I think, is such a fertile place for a new type of literature to develop. Which really does deviate from the path that King himself had hoped it would take. I mean, he wants California to follow closely in the footsteps of New England. He has a letter where he says California must be Northernized thoroughly by Atlantic Monthlies, by schools, by lecture halls. But the scene that he mentors after his death really takes things in a different direction, but I think makes good on his command to build Yosemites in the soul.

Correspondent: Well, it’s interesting how we’re talking about the variegated territories of California. Because Bret Harte would edit this poetry anthology and get into serious trouble. Because some of the rustic towns didn’t like the fact that they weren’t included. And he was flummoxed with all sorts of poetry entries for this thing. And he ended up choosing a lot of poems that dealt in the metropolises. So there was this rivalry and Harte was accused of being this florid sellout by some of the rustic towns. You point out in the book that actually the metropolises and the rustic towns and the mining settlements and all that had actually far more in common than they actually realized. So what accounts for this fractiousness and territorial temperament? Fractiousness in literary voices and literary temperament?

Tarnoff: Well, California’s a place where everyone wants to be a writer.

Correspondent: Like Brooklyn today!

Tarnoff: Right. Exactly. It’s like Brooklyn in 2014. But poetry in particular has a real prestige. Poets are pop stars. Poems are read at every public gathering. You need poetry in the public sphere all the time. And so all of these Californians — people who live in the countryside, people who live in the city — all think of themselves as a poet. So when Bret Harte is tasked with putting together a representative anthology of California poetry in 1865, he is overwhelmed with submissions and has a lot of fairly sarcastic, disparaging things to say about the quality of those submissions and ends up producing this fairly small volume with mostly his friends, like Charles Stoddard and Ina Coolbrith. And this ignites a kind of literary war between the city and the country. But as you point out, the distinction between the city and the country is not actually that great. I mean, the California countryside in terms of the mining and the farming operations is itself pretty heavily industrialized. We’ve got big economies of scale, a lot of heavy machinery. Places like Virginia City, in Nevada, where Mark Twain is for a few years, are highly urbanized areas. So the notion that it’s these kind of he-men in the frontier vs. the effete Bohemians in the city, it’s not totally accurate representation.

Correspondent: Well, in this sense, you’re essentially saying that the sphere of influence in both rustic town and big city is essentially homogeneous. That people are perhaps being inspired from the same physical things? I mean, what of literary tastes? What of the way that people express themselves? I mean, isn’t there an argument to be made that maybe these guys were right?

Tarnoff: Well, there’s certainly a distinction in terms of literary taste. I mean, I think both camps are living fairly urban industrialized lives. But they certainly have very different opinions about what constitutes good poetry. And Harte in particular, who is the editor of the volume, shies away from topics that he feels are too pastoral. That have too much of a certain type of California flavor, which he associates with the amateur poets. And he writes a parody of what one of those poems would look like in The Californian, which he edits. But Harte really wants to push California literature in general to a more metropolitan, to a more Bohemian, to a more sophisticated level and is very dismissive of what he feels is the kind of amateurish literary karaoke quality of some of the countryside poets.

Correspondent: Well, what is that sophisticated nature that Harte is demanding? What are we talking about? Are we just talking about endless poems devoted to being in the middle of nowhere? Essentially that’s what he’s railing against? He’s asking California to take itself more seriously, to write about civil, social, political topics? What are we talking about here?

Tarnoff: Well, the problem with Harte in these years — the mid 1860s — is he’s very good at being a critic. He’s very good at lambasting the quality of California literature, at its climate, at its boosters and philistines and capitalists. But he’s not great at producing good literature of his own. And that comes a little bit later in the decade when he starts to write these wonderful short stories. “The Luck of Roaring Camp” being the best known. And it’s not until that moment that I think he really makes good on his earlier promise to redeem California literature.

Correspondent: So he’s essentially quibbling with what he doesn’t like in order to find out what he does like and what he can actually build from the ashes he demonizes, so to speak.

Tarnoff: Exactly. He’s definitely in a more critical phase at that moment.

(Loops for this program provided by Martin Minor and nilooy. Also, Kai Engel’s “Chant of Night Blades” and Kevin MacLeod’s “Ghost Dance” through Free Music Archive.)

The Bat Segundo Show #541: Ben Tarnoff(Download MP3)

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Dinaw Mengestu (The Bat Segundo Show #539)

Dinaw Mengestu is most recently the author of All Our Names.

Author: Dinaw Mengestu

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Subjects Discussed: Writing from a woman’s perspective for the first time, V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, delving into the perspective of revolutionary turmoil, Mengestu’s American perspective, how journalism helped Mengestu to pursue more serious areas in literature, “soft” fiction vs. revolutionary realities, working with alternating chapters to create narrative collusion, the shame of being impoverished, sustaining an existence on lies, the effects of trauma, when novelists writing about the other avoid abrasive fictional perspectives in the interest of attracting readers, quiet introverts in fiction, why Mengestu hasn’t written about noisier immigrants, aesthetic sensibilities, loud vs. quiet characters, imagining trauma, Mengestu’s experience of writing about characters who felt trauma before he was born, the appeal of characters who experience extreme forms of political crisis, ventriloquist-style novelists and humanism, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, exuberant characters, being tagged with the “immigrant fiction” label, deliberately keeping time and space murky in All Our Names vs. the close attention to Logan Circle in The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, the timelessness of discrimination, emotions summoned through general descriptive specifications, resisting the urge of writing a novel set in an unnamed country, the problems with naming too many things, the limitations of looking at events through a historical prism, unspoken American prohibitions against political fiction, politics in fiction without didacticism, European encouragement of political fiction, constraints imposed on American fiction, creating an artistic space within fiction, Mengestu’s sense of aesthetic value, arguments that books make for ways of seeing, living with hand-me-downs, how Mengestu’s characters express emotions through giving gifts, materials used to express emotional connection to other people, Emily Dickinson, monuments of America, holding onto emotion in a narrative using objects, when the personal and the political overlap, personal maps vs. political maps, having an internal map of someone you love, concrete political realities, the fluidity of love and how political realities shape it, Helen’s relationship to her parents, the rigidity of place, rituals shared by couples, relationships and silence, situations in life when words are less valuable than intimacy, language provoked from silence, silence as the ineffable pain of not knowing how to communicate, how to measure silence, the mysterious character of David, Edward Snowden, writing in a proto-surveillance state about people who watch other people, Michiko Kakutani’s review, Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, A Handful of Dust, Rilke, what contemporary fiction does with the brazen perspectives of colonial literature, working against Naipaul, Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim and the “great game,” Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, wrestling with postcolonialism, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s idea that there are no postcolonial errors, finding an aesthetic balance in a sentence, being a slow writer to find rhythm, and the benefits of memorizing poetry.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: This novel does something new that we haven’t seen from you. It’s the first of your novels to feature the first-person perspective from a woman, one of two alternative perspectives in this book. The other is a man named Isaac, or I’m going to use term “Not Isaac.” (laughs)

Mengestu: Yes.

Correspondent: Because there is an Isaac and a Not Isaac. And it’s also the first to really depict this Naipaulian tableau of what seems at first to be an unnamed African country in revolutionary turmoil, almost a response to the allusion you made to A Bend in the River in the first book, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and also the lies that Jonas is spinning in How to Read the Air. So I’m wondering why it took you three novels before you could write partially from the perspective of a woman and also from this position of revolutionary turmoil. I mean, I’m curious how the first two novels led you to this particular point. Because I read all three of your novels and I thought this was a fascinating evolution.

Mengestu: Yeah. I think that was almost perfect. One of the best readings I’ve ever had of all three books. They are very closely intertwined. And if anything, even though this is the last book of the three to have been written, in some ways it actually precedes the other two. This was the book that actually precedes the revolutions that make the characters in the first novel and in the second novel flee. And so I wanted to go back to what I thought would be an earlier moment in history. A point that would say this is actually that very elusive, optimistic period just after independence when things seemed like they might turn out great in many African nations and then they didn’t. And the other thing was that after writing the first few novels, I realized there’s another part of me that I’d never really had a chance to explore in fiction, which was to write from the point of view of an American. Because I’m also, I think, deeply American and I grew up in the Midwest after leaving Ethiopia. And so Helen’s voice, I think, is partly a product of that. My novels oftentimes have been categorized in terms of immigrant fiction. To some degree, this is also perhaps a subconscious response to that idea, to say, Well, look, it’s not. Those categories are very limited and don’t actually say that much. And, in fact, here’s a way of seeing that narratives such as this are more than just immigrant friction and that immigrant narratives are very much a part of an American tableau. And you can’t micromanage them or faction them off into ethnic or political categories like that. And so Helen’s voice, I think, is my response to that. She is an American woman. She’s in many ways more intimate to me than the characters of Isaac are.

Correspondent: So Helen. It’s interesting that it takes a woman for you to say, “I’m an American too!”

Mengestu: (laughs) Yeah.

Correspondent: Was it easy? She’s a young American. She’s still trying to figure out how people work and how relationships work and where one’s place is in the universe. And I’m wondering why a woman’s voice was the best way for you to really show to yourself and show to the world that you were, in fact, an American as well.

Mengestu: You know, it’s definitely because I wanted Isaac to have a relationship with someone. So the novel, when I first began it, I never knew that it would necessarily have a part in the United States when I first started writing it. I was very much concerned about trying to capture this period in Africa’s history. I thought it would be about a group of friends in postcolonial Africa on a college campus. And then as those voices started to converge around the characters Isaac and Not Isaac, I began to realize, well, of course, inevitably there was going to be a second half that took place in America. And inevitably you’re drawn to the most complex relationships and the relationship between a couple that’s almost always the most complex. You know, friends are, of course, complex. But I wanted a love story as well in this story. And, of course, if we have Isaac and I had created Helen to follow almost immediately afterwards. And in some ways, you know, I’m not — I never really had any anxiety about her gender. In some ways, she emerged into the story as quickly as the voice of Isaac did. And so as soon as I had Isaac coming into America, I realized Helen was the one to witness him first. She was the first person to see him enter this landscape and to acknowledge him and to become close to him and to kind of help create a sense of home for him. So, yeah, she just was immediate and necessary.

Correspondent: And just to delineate to our listeners, who are probably listening to this turmoil and wondering what’s going on, there is an Isaac that is in the Helen chapters and there is an Isaac and what we’re calling a Not Isaac guy who goes by several names ranging from the Professor to a number of other noms in the other thing in these alternating series of chapters. I want to go back to the first question about looking straight into the face of revolutionary turmoil. This book seems to me to be the one that is the clearest. It’s not doing so through any kind of lying. It’s not doing so through any kind of anecdotal family episode or anything like that. It’s trying to stare at it in the face and, at the same time, doing so where the names themselves are not explicit. They’re more common noun than proper noun. And I’m wondering why it took you three novels just to really look at that in the face and confront it like that.

Mengestu: I think some of it was gaining more experience as a journalist.

Correspondent: Journalism helped.

Mengestu: It really did. And I never actually thought of myself as having that much of a dialogue between what I do as a journalist and what I do as a novelist. So my first novel touches briefly on the revolutionary politics of Ethiopia. But never having experienced those politics, I had to imagine a character who had experienced them at a very young age and then left the country. In my second novel, the characters are basically inventing those stories of revolutionary Africa because they were born in America. Now, having traveled through Darfur and the Eastern Congo and Uganda, and having met revolutionary leaders and having seen first-hand the effects of these small-scale and sometimes very large-scale conflicts, they all left a deep profound impression on my mind. And some of those impressions worked their way into the second novel. But I don’t think I had enough time to really sit with those images with a while, to really kind of let them become a part of my imagination. So by the time this novel began, I knew the terrain intimately. I knew the consequences of those conflicts. And perhaps more importantly, I felt like I knew how to create characters who could be responsible for violence, but were not strictly evil men. That to me seemed really important. I’ve met a lot of men who I knew were perpetrators of the violence, but at the same time you realize that to describe them or to limit their characters to only horrific terms denies their complexity. And so I felt finally mature enough and able enough to create characters who were responsible for violence, who witnessed violence, who are perpetrators of violence, and yet at the same time are more than just violent men.

Correspondent: Do you find though that having confronted so many revolutions and so much violence in your journalism that fiction is somehow cheapened? That anything you can contribute from the American vantage point is somehow sanded down? Because you do have a great subtlety with much of the prose, which is not to say that there aren’t things exploding not necessarily politically, but also personally. How do you reckon with the intensity of something like that? Or do you feel that fiction naturally needs to be a little softer in the presentation of these human nuances?

Mengestu: I actually feel that fiction does a better job for me. I think that what you can do as a journalist in the very limited space and time that you have to write one story is that you can tally up the consequences in a very linear fashion. But I think in order to have readers actually experience that level of violence on a scale that doesn’t feel purely remote to them, I think that’s one of the things that fiction can do. In writing this novel and having these oscillating chapters between Helen’s voice and Isaac’s voice, part of the intent was definitely to see what happens when you place these two narratives next to each other side by side. If it isn’t possible to see them as not wholly distinct stories or wholly distinct experiences, but actually narratives that are in constant collusion and constant discourse, the experiences of someone in Africa don’t necessarily seem that remote from the experiences of a white woman in middle America. And that in fact these characters, especially when you reduce it down to the scale of individual characters, so that Isaac becomes the embodiment to some degree of that violence and he takes that violence and brings it to America. And it’s relived, reimagined, when it’s passed onto Helen. And it seems to me that fiction is the space that allows us to do that. Imagining these characters, I thought that I could actually get into their lives in ways that I never could when I was writing journalism. I could imagine the men that I’d met in greater detail and give them, I think, a greater level of emotions than they would ever have given me as a journalist.

(Loops for this program provided by reed1415, tendeir0, and nilooy. Some music provided by Vio/Mire through Free Music Archive.)

The Bat Segundo Show #539: Dinaw Mengestu (Download MP3)

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dorthenors

Dorthe Nors, Save NYPL, and Blake Bailey (The Bat Segundo Show #538)

This program contains three segments. The main one is with Dorthe Nors, who is most recently the author of Karate Chop. There is also a brief Blake Bailey interview. He is most recently the author of The Splendid Things We Planned. And our introductory segment involves the Save NYPL campaign.

Guests: Dorthe Nors, Blake Bailey, members of the Save NYPL campaign, Matthew Zadrozny, members of Raging Grannies.

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Subjects Discussed: Mayor Bill de Blasio’s failure to live up to his July 2013 promise to save the New York Public Library, the greed of rich people, political opportunism, Charles Jackson, The Splendid Things We Planned, the differences between biography and memoir, being the hero of your own story, subjectivity as a great muddler, the Bailey family’s tendency to destroy cars, being self-destructive, contending with a brother who threw his life away, the problems that emerge from being cold, the differences between American and Danish winters, unplanned writing, the swift composition of Beatles lyrics, the courageous existential spirit within Swedish literature, Danish precision, the Højskolesangbogen tradition, the influence of song upon prose, Kerstin Ekman, Nors’s stylistic break from the Swedish masters, Ingmar Bergman, Flaubert’s calm and orderly life, the human-animal connections within Karate Chop, considering the idea that animals may be better revealers of human character than humans, animals as mirrors, emotional connections to dogs, the human need to embrace innocence, judging people by how they treat their pets, “The Heron,” friendship built on grotesque trust, how the gift exchange aspect of friendship can become tainted or turn abusive, writing “The Buddhist” without providing a source for the protagonist’s rage, how much fiction should explain psychological motive, the hidden danger contained within people who think they are good, how Lutherans can be duped, “missionary positions,” Buddhism as a disguise, ideologies within Denmark, when small nations feel big and smug, Scandinavian egotism, Danesplaining, whether Americans or Danes behave worse in foreign nations, buffoonish American presidential candidates, how “The Heron” got to The New Yorker, Nors’s early American advocates, being a tour guide for Rick Moody and Junot Diaz, how Fiona Maazel brought Dorthe Nors’s fiction to America, Copehagen’s Frederiksberg Gardens as a place to find happiness, happiness as a form of prestige, when happy people feel needlessly superior, Denmark’s subtle efforts to win the happiest nation on earth award, setting stories in New York, how different people react to large tomato, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, how measuring objects reveals aspects of humanity, the tomato as the Holy Grail, flour babies, why strategically minded people shouldn’t be trusted, the creepy nature of control freaks, how human interpretation is enslaved by representations, competing representations of reality, whether fiction is a more authentic representation of reality, how disturbing ideas presented in books can calm you down, exploring the Danish idea of a den to eat cookies, working with translator Martin Aitken, what other nations get wrong about Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen, superficial knowledge of Denmark, Danish writers who need to be translated, Yahya Hassan, and Danish crime fiction.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to talk about the economy of these stories, which is fascinating. I mean, you have to pay very close attention to learn the details and to learn some very interesting twist or some human revelation in these stories. So this leads me to ask — just to start off here — I’m wondering how long it takes for you to write one or to conceive one. Is there a lot of planning that goes into the idea of “Aha! I’ll have the twist at this point!” I mean, what’s the level of intuition vs. the level of just really getting it down and burying all the details like this?

Nors: I don’t plan writing. It happens. Or I get an idea or I see something. Or there’s a line or a passage that I write down. And sometimes it just lies there for a while. Then a couple of days later, I will write another passage, perhaps for another story, and sometimes I put them together. They start doing things. But I write them pretty fast. When the idea and the flow and the voice and the characters are there, I just go into the zone and it kind of feels like I’m singing these. It’s like you find the voice for a story and you just stick to it and write it. It doesn’t take that long. Seven of these stories were actually written in a cottage off the west coast in Denmark. Two weeks.

Correspondent: Two weeks?

Nors: Yes.

Correspondent: For seven of the stories?

Nors: Seven of the stories.

Correspondent: Wow.

Nors: And then I would take long walks and I would go home. Boom. There was this story. So the writing process with this one, it was like that.

Correspondent: That’s like the Beatles writing the lyrics for “A Hard Day’s Night” on the back of a matchbox in ten minutes.

Nors: When it happens, it happens, right?

Correspondent: Well, to what do you attribute these incredible subconscious details? Are these details just coming from your subconscious and they’re naturally springing? Or are they discovered in the revision at all?

Nors: I think they come from training. Because it has something to do with the neck of the woods that I come from. Scandinavia. I was trained in Swedish literature. That was what I studied at university. And the Swedes have this very bold and courageous brave way of looking at existence. I mean, it turns big on them. And they look at the darkness and the pits of distress and everything. Then if you take that richness of existentialism, you might even call it, and pair it up with the Danish tradition — which is precision, accuracy, Danish design, cut to the core, don’t battle on forever. If you combine these two, you get short shorts with huge content that is laying in there like an elephant in a container and moving around all the time. And this style came from training. This came from reading a lot and writing a lot. Suddenly, I think I found my voice in these stories. I think this was a breakthrough for me in Denmark also. That I found out how I can combine the Danish and the Swedish tradition.

Correspondent: So by training, how much writing did you have to do before you could nail this remarkable approach to find the elephant, to tackle existence like this?

Nors: Well, I started writing at eight. And this book was written when I was 36.

Correspondent: But you didn’t have the Danish masters and the Swedish masters staring over you at eight, did you?

Nors: No. But I had the Danish song tradition. We have a book in Denmark called Højskolesangbogen. You’ll never learn how to say that. But it’s a songbook.

Correspondent: (laughs) She says confidently. You never know. I might learn!

Nors: You wanna try? But that songbook — in the real part of Denmark that I come from, all the farmers, they would use that songbook a lot. And there was no literature in my household. It was middle-class. A carpenter and a hairdresser. But this book was there. And what I learned from that was that these songs, they were written by great Danish poets and then put into music. It would be so precise. I love that book. I sang these songs. I read these poems. And then later on, there was my brother’s vinyl covers. It was Leonard Cohen. It was all these guys that he had up in his room and I could read. And a lot of the training came from that. And then later on, university, of course, and the boring part of training.

Correspondent: The analytical stuff. Well, that makes total sense. Because there is a definitive metric to these particular stories. You mentioned that they were akin to singing. And I’m wondering how you became more acquainted with this musicality as the stories have continued. And also, how does this work in terms of your novels? Which are not translated. There are five of them. And those are obviously a lot larger than a short story. So how does the musicality and that concise mode work with the novels?

Nors: Well, I think my first novel was extremely influenced by a Swedish writer called Kerstin Ekman, who I wrote my thesis on. And it was so influenced by her that I kind of shun away from it. Because I don’t want to sound like her anymore. And then on my third book, I started to find that the voice that blooms in Karate Chop — and there’s a breakaway there; it’s like a break in my writing.

Correspondent: A karate chop!

Nors: It really is! Because the first three of my novels were classic structures. They had plots and peaks and this whole Swedish abyss of existentialism and darkness. But then with this one, I broke away. And the next two novels I wrote are short novels. And they’re more experimental in their form and they’re very close to the whole idea of accuracy. And that line, that sentence, has to be so precise. And it has to sing. And it has to have voice. And it has to be just so accurate. That’s the sheer joy for me: to actually be able to write a sentence and to know people will get this.

Correspondent: This is extraordinary. Because if you’re writing a short story so quickly, and it’s not singing, what do you do? I mean, certainly, I presume that you will eventually sing in this mode that you want to. But that’s a remarkable speed there. So how do you keep the voice purring?

Nors: Well, actually, I do a lot of reading out loud while I do it. And the rhythm has to be good when I read it aloud myself. I talk a lot. I walk a lot. And I think literature like this has a lot to do with listening to how the words sound and how they work together. But that’s an intuitive thing. There’s no math in this. Either you can carry a tune or you can’t perhaps, right?

Correspondent: Sure. Absolutely.

Nors: So it’s something instinctive, I think.

Correspondent: I’m curious to know more about the tension between the Swedish existential dread and angst and the Danish identity. You touched upon this a little bit. I saw your little Atlantic soliloquy about Bergman and how you looked to him as a way of living a tranquil life and not living a wild life, which gets in the way of…well, gets in the way of living, frankly.

Nors: Exactly.

Correspondent: I’m wondering. What do you do to live or draw upon experience or to move into uncomfortable areas? Or is your imagination stronger than that? That you don’t really need the life experience. Your imagination in combination with the singing that we’re identifying here is enough to live a tranquil life? Or what? And also, I was hoping you could talk about the tension between the Swedish and Danish feelings and all that.

Nors: First of all, I try to live my life as any other human being. I just try not to really be destructive about it. I’m 43. I’m not afraid to tell you how old I am. So I tried a lot in my life and a lot of it has been dramatic. And it has been filled with emotions and breakups and stuff like that. And, of course, I draw on the experience from that. But these days, I think the discipline is very important. I don’t need more drama in my life. I don’t know why you should seek out drama. Causing pain in your life? That’s an immature thing to do at my age, I think. You can’t avoid it. It’s going to happen anyway. People you love will pass away. Your cat will be hit by a car. Or stuff like that. You don’t have to seek it out. It’s coming to you.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering if that impulse isn’t necessarily a writerly impulse, but just a human impulse. Because when we get closer to forty, we start to say, “Well, do we really want to live this way?” Our choices sometimes become a little more limited. Our responsibilities are greater. We now have a duty to other people. And so is that really a writerly thing? I mean, is the writer doomed in some sense to almost be a child to some degree?

Nors: I think you’re absolutely right. I don’t think it’s necessarily a writer thing. I think it’s a time in your life where you think that. Or you go haywire and you go right into the abyss, right? Ingamr Bergman was around 47 when this happened for him. Because he lived a pretty crazy life. Having children all over the place and women. Pretty destructive.

Correspondent: Locking Liv Ullmann up.

Nors: Yeah, exactly. Being very chaotic. An emotionally chaotic life. And then around this age, he took this path also of not living like a monk. Because he certainly didn’t. But he was just very structured and disciplined. And I enjoy that. It sounds boring to people. But I really enjoy it. Don’t need more drama in my life.

(Loops for this program provided by Martin Minor, Mooz, 40A, Tim Beets, Tim Beets, Aien, and DANB10.)

The Bat Segundo Show #538: Dorthe Nors, Save NYPL, and Blake Bailey (Download MP3)

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dragnet

Julia Angwin (The Bat Segundo Show #537)

Julia Angwin is most recently the author of Dragnet Nation.

Author: Julia Angwin

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Subjects Discussed: How much we’re being spied on, the great American historical tradition of spying on needless people, Jay Feldman’s Manufacturing Hysteria, why post-9/11 surveillance is worse than all previous forms, comparisons between the NSA and the Stasi, privacy as a confusing construct, climate change, life mediated by the technological existence, wading through content, a period in American culture where people wore pink and turquoise, when all life choices become part of a permanent record, personal data being shared among companies, Lane v. Facebook, Inc., Sean Lane’s surprise diamond ring exposed by Facebook, Google Street View collecting the names of wi-fi networks (followed by Android), Faraday cages, wrapping your phone in aluminum foil, the black helicopter lifestyle becoming more legitimate, not having access to the data that online giants create, disputing your credit vs. disputing your terrorist status, the informal lack of statute of limitations over stupid things you expressed years ago, giving civil liberties to terrible people, the price of free speech, comparisons between the Stasi and the NSA, how Google changes the way that you browse, switching to DuckDuckGo, people who are attracted to convenience, canned food, local food, fair trade coffee, whether it is possible to vote with our dollars, the convenience of ordering goods through your phone, the hidden costs of convenience through ordering diapers, acknowledging your phone before acknowledging your spouse, using a credit card with the name of Ida Tarbell, when alias are uprooted by people who know your name, automated fake names, MaskMe, attempting to organize a birthday dinner using encrypted instructions, the new responsibility of defending your online territory, hacking, Tor and privacy, the problems of privacy software having no consumer market, the importance of open source software, GitHub, the glacial pace of anonymizing traffic, Sarah Abdurrahman’s detention at the Canadian border, Yassar Afifi being harassed by the FBI over a Reddit comment, the difficulties of Muslim Americans being able to express themselves in the present law enforcement climate, the World Press Freedom Index 2014 issued by Reporters Without Borders with the U.S. dropping in rank, journalism as a tightrope involving the illusion of press freedom, confidential information, meeting with Jacob Appelbaum, the deeply ingrained habit of taking your phone wherever you go, “To Protect and Infect,” Angwin’s inability to get data from data brokers, and the benefits of using encryption badly.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: We’re in a room. I don’t think we’re being spied on right now. But that may actually change. Well, we do have our phones.

Angwin: You know what? First of all, we have our phones. And I’m sure there’s a camera here somewhere.

Correspondent: Anyway, let’s start off and look at this from a historical standpoint. Between J. Edgar Hoover’s harassment of dissidents in the early 20th century and the American Protective League — a volunteer organization during World War I that spied on “persons unfriendly to the government” — with the exception of technology that enables spying to be done faster, the so-called “dragnet nation” that you identify fits in with this regrettable American tradition. There’s a wonderful book by Jay Feldman called Manufacturing Hysteria, I’m sure you’re familiar with it, that’s a good overview of this. What makes any of the post-9/11 developments any different?

Angwin: Well, what we have post-9/11 is better spying technology, first of all. And it’s cheaper. So we have much bigger dragnets. And that’s why I called my book Dragnet Nation. Because we see this new kind of surveillance, which is vast, computerized, and impersonal, right? You’re not a suspect. You’re not even a customer of the company that’s tracking you. You have no relationship anymore with the person who’s spying on you. And it used to be that spying was hard enough that, although there were many regrettable incidents of spying on the wrong people, it still took effort on the part of the spies to do that.

Correspondent: There’s the Stasi comparison to the NSA, which we’ll get into in a little bit. But I am curious about this. You get into the relationship between privacy and behavioral economics quite a bit. It seems to me that there’s a voluntary impulse on the part of most Americans. You bring up experiments from Carnegie Mellon professor Alessandro Acquisti, where people are less willing to pay for privacy when they don’t already have it. You also bring up Dan Ariely’s findings on irrational compulsion to keep doors open — I talked with him; he’s a blast — when you try justifying why you, Julia, still have a LinkedIn profile. And one of the ultimate problems here is that, well, we have to be part of these services in order to get a job that will allow us to pay our rent and feed our families. We have to use social networks to keep in touch with our family and our friends. So honestly, it seems to me that we’re complicit in this devil’s bargain. So what do we do? Is there a way to exist with this dragnet culture without giving everything away?

Angwin: Well, you know, the thing is that you’re right. Privacy is a very confusing construct. No one wants to pay for it. No one really understands what it is. It’s kind of murky. But the thing is that we’re in a situation. I think what everyone can understand is the idea that you do want certain things to be within a certain channel. Like the way that you portray your day at the end of the day to your spouse is different from the way that you would portray your day to your boss, for instance. These are just very simple examples. But I think everyone can understand that not all audiences are the same. And so we’re in this world where you really can’t trust who the audience is. It’s most likely that the whole world is your audience. And so that’s sort of the fundamental psychological problem that we have. Now when we talk about the aversion to paying for it, as Alessandro has demonstrated, we are just unwilling to pay for things we don’t have. And since we basically perceive that we have no privacy, we don’t want to pay for it. But we’ve had this experience in the past with the environment. We had a really dirty environment. We lived with a lot of pollution. Our rivers caught fire. Our air was filled with soot. And no one wanted to “pay” for that. And then as a society, collectively, we actually figured out ways to adjust that situation so that now we don’t have as much rampant pollution. So we have dealt with similar types of issues.

Correspondent: Well, we do have climate change and rising waters. I hate to break it to you. (laughs)

Angwin: The problem with the environmental comparison is we didn’t adequately capture all the threats. But of the ones that we saw on the ground, like the rivers catching fire and the air being filled with soot, we containerized those. We basically said we’re willing to live with a certain amount of particulates, but not our rivers catching fire.

Correspondent: So inevitably in the question of privacy, it seems to me that we’re going to have to find a compromise solution, if we find any solution at all.

Angwin: We’re going to have to find where we are going to draw the line. Right now, it’s really kind of a Wild West. On the commercial side, there are very few laws that regulate our commercial entities that collect data about us. And then as we’ve seen since Edward Snowden’s revelations, the government side possibly didn’t have the oversight. Congress was surprised at what they were doing. And so both sides feel a little Wild West.

Correspondent: Well, you had mentioned a little bit earlier about this idea that what we portray about ourselves online, our virtual selves, doesn’t necessarily match our real selves. Is there enough in that to counter the problems of all this data scooping? Of all the stuff that we are willfully giving up? Of all of the search results that Google grabs? Of all of the little details on Facebook that we share? Is there anything about that separation that is positive? That might actually be used to fool the authorities who are happy to go ahead and scoop scoop scoop?

Angwin: Right. So when I did this book, I tried to answer the question of what can we do about everything. Exactly what you’re saying. Is there something we can do to protect ourselves in this world of indiscriminate surveillance? And I tried a whole bunch of strategies and one of my most effective strategies was what you’re describing. Which is basically spreading disinformation about myself. Which sounds a little unethical. (laughs)

Correspondent: Especially since you have a problem lying, as you say in the book.

Angwin: I do.

Correspondent: Although you’ve been very good about outing yourself as Ida Tarbell, just for the record.

Angwin: Right. So I did struggle with this idea of lying about myself online. And I went through certain steps to try and understand whether I felt that it was ethical. And in the end, I decided that I was in a situation where what was being done, collecting all my data, was also unethical and that this was my best strategy. And so given those constraints, I was willing to do it, but only within the legal limit. So I didn’t do anything illegal, I’d just like to point out. But I did create fake identities and spread disinformation about myself. And I did find that this was an effective counterstrategy. I think the question we have to ask as a society is: Do we want to live in a society where everyone is doing that? Because I think that that is unfortunately not going to be pretty.

Correspondent: Especially since we promulgate the George Washington notion. “I shall never tell a lie!” Well, in order to actually have an honorable existence that is, in fact, claimed by corporations, we do have to lie now. And we all have to feel like a criminal. And that’s just incredible!

Angwin: Yes. Right. So that’s actually what indiscriminate surveillance creates. It creates this thing where everyone says, “Oh, I have nothing to hide.” But the truth is that there are enough laws out there that, if everything is known about you, you have broken some law somewhere and there is now going to be this opportunity for discretionary justice, right? You are in the crosshairs because you’ve spoken out against some government official and they will have an opportunity to have something on you. And so we do have now the perfect tools for any bad politician who wants to do that.

Correspondent: We’ve only been talking for a little bit, Julia. But I have a feeling that you are someone who likes to stare into the bleak truth while maintaining some hope of optimism. And I’m wondering. Okay, let’s say that most Americans are placed into this existence where they constantly have to lie and spread misinformation. What would that do to are digital identity? To our digital culture? To our national culture? I mean, is this a reasonable expectation of what the next five, ten, twenty years will bring?

Angwin: Well, we did have — think about it. Our life online, living in a world that’s so mediated by all this technology, is really new. And basically in the first ten years of it, it was so awesome. Because we were empowered as citizens and individuals and as consumers in ways that we never had been before, right? Remember the days where you had to call every airline to get a fare. Now you know…

Correspondent: Kayak.

Angwin: They’re all competing. And so we have, as consumers, really benefited from this. But the problem is now that the tables are turning. We had kind of our ten years of fun. Now that the companies have got better weapons than we do. And now they’re going to spread in just the same way that you notice that it’s harder to get a good fare these days — and no one has proved it yet, but there have been so many rumors that they are tracking which fares you search for and then they lock it in at some higher price. And of course that is technically perfectly possible. So even if no one’s doing it now, somebody will. So the problem is that the companies are going to start organizing in their own way, spreading a little disinformation to shape how you behave and then as a natural countermeasure, we’re all going to start doing the same. Now what this does is actually very similar to pollution, which is what I was saying before. It pollutes the common environment, right? The idea of the Internet was that it was this amazing place where we could all have equal access to the world’s information and it was incredibly empowering. And it still is. But the more we pollute that environment, with propaganda on the company side and propaganda on the individual side…

Correspondent: Mutually assured disinformation.

Angwin: It is mutually assured disinformation. And it’s something that we have to think about as an environmental problem, I think.

(Loops for this program provided by SintheticRecords, kneegwahh, ebaby8119, and ferryterry.)

The Bat Segundo Show #537: Julia Angwin (Download MP3)

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Dave Itzkoff and Translated Literature: Mad as Hell (The Bat Segundo Show #536)

This program contains two segments. The first segment is an investigation into the realities of publishing translated literature, following up on frustrations expressed by Open Letter’s Chad Post, after agent Oscar van Gelderen retracted Arnon Grunberg’s book because of “poor sales.” The segment features Post, The Complete Review‘s Michael Orthofer, and critic Scott Esposito. (Oscar van Gelderen did not return our phone calls, emails, and tweets for comment on this story.)

The second segment features Dave Itzkoff, who is most recently the author of Mad as Hell, a book that chronicles the making of Network.

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Guests: Dave Itzkoff, Chad Post, Scott Esposito, and Michael Orthofer.

Subjects Discussed: The Howard Beale of translated literature, Open Letter Books, Oscar van Gelderen, Arnon Grunberg, why success in other countries can’t be easily repeated in the United States, relative success of translated literature, Nordic noir, Pauline Kael decrying Paddy Chayefsky’s righteousness, the New York Times Book Review, whether or not Itzkoff is angry, the emotional qualities of buildings, Paddy Chayefsky’s early dramaturgical assaults on television, the comforts of cynicism, The Hospital, the possibility of Network becoming a more earnest movie in earlier drafts, Chayefsky attending television boardroom meetings in sweatpants, what Chayefsky could get away with because of his esteemed reputation, Walter Cronkite, the tendency for people to believe that television was an infallible medium in the 1970s, Chayefsky’s extraordinary creative control, Shaun Considine’s Mad as Hell, Chayefsky’s ability to work the system, Chayefsky exploiting a clause during The Bachelor Party to live in extraordinary affluence, Chayefsky’s demands for ultimate authority, Arthur Penn, the problems that emerge when firing too many directors in a short period of time, Chayefsky’s meticulous scripts, intransigent self-editing, Chayefsky’s self-flagellation, resisting studio notes, Chayefsky’s notes to himself, how the tight deadlines of television contributed to the hastily devised third act of Marty, Chayefsky’s presence on the set and during the casting process, the Paddy light on Network, Chayefsky’s intense stare, whether or not Chayefsky needed actor-friendly directors like Sidney Lumet, Lumet’s rehearsal process, getting access to Kay Chapin’s diary, calling around vs. looking through papers, Chayefsky’s letters of apology, Faye Dunaway’s difficulty, Itzkoff’s inability to get access to Dunaway, finding Peter Finch’s daughter, Delbert Mann, Chayefsky’s relationships with directors, the battle between Chayefsky and Ken Russell on Altered States, the ultimatum that Sidney Lumet gave to Faye Dunaway to ensure her casting as Diana Christensen, the appeal of an unlikable character to Dunaway, the role of women in the workplace in the 1970s, the flack that Barbara Walters got for a $1 million salary, Ned Beatty lying like a snake to get the role of Arthur Jensen, Jimmy Stewart considered as Howard Beale (with accompanying impression), actors snapped up on the basis of a single audition, why New York locations were hard to find in 1976, stairwells that link two different cities, the New York Stock Exchange’s diffidence in allowing Chayefsky’s anti-corporate speeches to be filmed there, recreating a functioning television studio in Toronto, unions, romanticizing decrepit 1970s New York, filming second-unit shots of people shouting “I’m as mad as hell!” in abandoned buildings, the difficulty of Peter Finch delivering the “mad as hell” speech, Lumet’s desire to work as rapidly as possible, Woody Van Dyke, Al Pacino (with accompanying impression), extraordinary claims of Robert Duvall shouting at random strangers and mooning people from a tall building, whether character is enough to serve as a second source, behind-the-scenes controversy on the William Holden/Faye Dunaway love scene, getting quotes from Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann, Olbermann’s obsession with Network, O’Reilly’s co-opting aspects of Howard Beale for his show, how Network‘s language was changed for television, why Chayefsky was allowed three “bullshits” on network TV, ruminating over the regrettable idea of Aaron Sorkin as Chayefsky’s heir, and whether there can be a Chayefsky today.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Dave, you’re not looking terribly indignant, but how are you doing?

Itzkoff: I have nothing to be angry about.

Correspondent: Really?

Itzkoff: But the day is young.

Correspondent: The day is young?

Itzkoff: I mean, it’s only 11 AM. It’s a Tuesday.

Correspondent: How much rage do you typically go through in a 24 hour period?

Itzkoff: Actually, it can be a lot. It really depends on my morning commute. I take the subway. That is definitely a source of a lot of ire and provocation, depending upon how crowded or empty my train.

Correspondent: Yes. But for now, ensconced within the New York Times Building, you are calm and sanguine.

Itzkoff: Exactly. As the building tends to do to one, yes.

Correspondent: Really? This building has an outside power? A karma? You can levitate it like the Pentagon? The Pentagon like Abbie Hoffman?

Itzkoff: (laughs) It seems to have a calming influence.

Correspondent: Well, let’s get into Paddy Chayefsky and Network, the film that this book, Mad as Hell — not the only book, as I have pointed out. There’s another book here called Mad as Hell that also deals with Paddy Chayefsky on the table.

Itzkoff: That’s right.

Correspondent: So it’s not just you. Anyway, Network was actually not Paddy Chayefsky’s first dramaturgical assault upon television. In 1955, and you did not note this in your book, Chayefsky wrote a script called “The Man Who Beat Ed Sullivan.” And this is about an Ohio TV host. He was going to match the length of a three-hour talent show in this script that he wrote. You do mention The Imposters, this pilot that Chayefsky wrote in 1969 about a fictional television executive who had the wry name of Eddie Gresham, which I thought was funny. And it was not until Chayefsky started hanging out with Richard Wald and attending various television boardroom meetings that he came upon Network. I’m curious about this. I mean, he drew from his life experience for The Bachelor Party and for Marty. Is it safe to say that he needed experience for Network before he could actually really take on television in this indelible move that we continue to quote and continue to reference today?

Itzkoff: Right. Well, you know, in some ways the book is trying to make the point — I mean, I hate stating the thesis so bluntly like this, but his whole life’s work, in a sense, is bound up in Network. And, yes, it is nominally and very much a story about television and people who inhabit television. But it is also a story about everything that ever upset him or irked him or bothered him in his life. And to some extent, a story that he was rewriting and rewriting not only in works that had to do or were set in the world of television. But if you look at some of the other early television plays, going all the way back to Marty and even works that predate Marty, you will see there is a recurring idea or a theme about characters who have a kind of simmering rage. People who are unfulfilled or can’t express themselves and then are often not always given an opportunity to cut loose or say what they really think and it is explosive. So that is an idea that he refines and revisits. It comes up not only in obviously his drama, but in his own life. That he’s somebody who often feels that the ideas that he is trying to communicate to his audience are not being received or they’re not getting in the way that he meant them. And that frustrates and annoys him. And that makes him an angry person. Not unfulfilled, but he often feels that he’s falling short of whatever goal he set for himself. And so Network becomes the vehicle for all of this, compounded by a feeling that media itself and a medium that he came up with was at a real crossroads. Something could potentially happen, at least in his lifetime or in the era that he was writing. Something might happen that could send it in a very different direction. And that kind of corruption was representative of a lot of other things that were happening in life in that moment.

Correspondent: Based off of your research, is it safe to say that perhaps the cynicism that is attached to Network came from having to silently observe all of these boardroom meetings and these people moving money around? Going ahead and gutting any kind of credible programming, the kind of wonderful drama, the news that Chayefsky himself championed?

Itzkoff: I think that that was something that was even refined over time during the writing of this script. I mean, you reference a situation that happens in the book where he does visit both NBC and CBS just to do research for a movie about television. When he met with Richard Wald, who was then the President of NBC News, he told Wald he didn’t know yet whether he was going to write something that was maybe more a kind of “day in the life” piece that would have lots of moving parts and characters. Almost in the way that The Hospital was. Except in just a slightly different setting. Or maybe he would write something that was a little more satirical. And Wald says now that he had a pretty strong sense that that’s the direction Chayefsky was going to go in. But if you want to call it cynicism.

Correspondent: A refreshing cynicism, I would say.

Itzkoff: (laughs)

Correspondent: I mean, I watched the movie twice. I had to see it a second time and I hadn’t seen it in years. And it just bathed me in such a wonderful, exuberant cynicism. Maybe skepticism perhaps is the better term.

Itzkoff: Sure. And it’s fascinating. You can look at earlier incarnations of the script and see that there were moments where it might have gone in more earnest directions. I’m sure we’ll get into some of the nitty-gritty later, but characters who we now think of as having mean streaks or really were just going for it all, they could have been much nicer people. It could have had a happier ending. Something about him told Chayefsky this was not really how life worked.

(Loops for this program provided by danke, JoeFunktastic, smpulse, supertex, DJLikwid2013, and chanho17. Also Kevin MacLeod’s “Call to Adventure” through Free Music Archive.)

The Bat Segundo Show #536: Dave Itzkoff and Translated Literature: Mad as Hell (Download MP3)

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Jenny Offill (The Bat Segundo Show #534)

Jenny Offill is most recently the author of Dept. of Speculation.

Author: Jenny Offill

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Subjects Discussed: Words dropped from ellipses, Thomas Edison quotes, digital binaries, John Keats, fabricated quotes, fact-checking fiction, David Markson, spreading false literary rumors, a writer’s obligation to resist the literary canon, destroying forms that came before, motherhood as a stigma war, merging the domestic novel with the novel of ideas, the mommy wars, “being pecked to death by little birds,” falling into the world of the body, motherhood erroneously framed as ambivalence, secular spirituality, Richard Powers, views of Jesus outside apartment windows, fake Buddhism, the tension between exploring vs. leaving material out in Dept. of Speculation, seeking emotional velocity in a novel, outrunning your precocity, the attempted novel before Dept. of Speculation, creating a compendium of consciousness, Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else, the vaguely criminal impulse of secretly depositing meat you can’t eat from a massive plate into a napkin, extreme self-consciousness, the imitative fallacy, how deadpan humor allows the reader to confront despair, Jesus’ Son, John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Janet Malcolm, how facts line up to a narrative, Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, the mutability of facts in the Ann Druyan/Carl Sagan marriage, Mary Ruefle, Ann Parson, the freedom to move essayistic in fiction, the brief “lyrical essay” movement, John D’Agata, the problem of novelists being asked about literal parallels to autobiographical details, author and character temperament, “doctor” and “daughter,” the risk of getting stuck in the wrong regions of the book, gaffes as creative possibilities, James Joyce, Gilbert Sorrentino and generative devices, having a permanent sense of loneliness, being awake to the world around you and porousness, a world populated by people with dead eyes, brightness as a qualifier for a worldview, the fun of listening, Kummerspeck, physical space defined more by how it is infested as opposed to its layout, proverbs about insects, words as insects, Voyager’s Golden Record, and making fiction more emotionally charged.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: One of the first things I noticed in this book — and it’s there from the opening epigraph — is the ellipses. This is definitely one of those books where close reading is greatly rewarded and I was fascinated by how you used ellipses to leave out very pivotal parts of quotes. Just to offer one example, you have the epigraph from Socrates. “Speculators on the universe…are no better than madmen.” But the words between the dots that you leave out are “and on the laws of the heavenly bodies.” Which is interesting. Because that’s cosmological and you also explore that later in the book. I also noticed later in the book that you have this Edison quote, which I believe you plucked from Gaby Wood’s Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life. Because the ellipses actually match the exact same citation that Wood did.

Offill: That is where it’s from.

Correspondent: Okay. Fantastic! So anyway, just to start off here, we are pressed in our life right now to confine our instant thoughts to 140 characters, to submit to the dreadful binary of +1 and Facebook liking and all that nonsense. So I’m wondering how you arrived at the ellipses as a way of reckoning with what we leave out and how what we leave out actually tells a story. How do you think these dropped phrases can possibly combat the digital reductionist age that we have to suffer in right now?

Offill: Oh my gosh. What an amazing question. I think that I’ve always been, as a writer, in compression and in how much you can distill in a small space. And so an ellipses is one of those ways to create either a pause — like you might have a breath in a poetry line — or also that trailing off feeling.

Correspondent: Sure.

Offill: Like there’s a moment in the book where the character says, “I was expecting to have the crackup with the head scarf and the people speaking kindly at my funeral.” And then it says, “Oh wait. Might still get that one.” And it trails off. And it’s because it’s meant to capture that feeling of thought where you get halfway through a thought and then you kind of stop. And I feel like instead of what we think of as the kind of digital version of compression, which is about pithiness and sound bites and more of that kind of thing, something that was more about when our thoughts hesitate and our words follow. That’s what I was trying to capture.

Correspondent: In a weird way, it almost responds to the subtweet, where you are talking about someone without really talking about someone. Except that actually ends up becoming more vulgar and not as interesting as, say, just leaving something out. Which is the ultimate way of responding to the world. Anyway, so the wife — I’m going to call her “the wife” because she’s the unnamed protagonist of this novel — she has this very unusual relationship with John Keats.

Offill: (laughs)

Correspondent: Keats, he informs her concern for death and dread, I think. I mean, her insistence that she is a part of a minority that experiences permanent anguish as opposed to the majority that experiences temporary anguish. There’s that distinction. But I caught the Keats thing. Because we first see this when she cites the words on Keats’s tombstone — “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water” — without actually naming Keats! And then she claims later on — and this was amazing — she claims that Keats said, “No such thing as the world becoming an easy place to save your soul in.” I have done a thorough search. I have not found that quote from Keats. I did start to catch on. Hmmm, anytime that Jenny actually says, “What X said,” it’s not true for a large chunk of the book! And I wanted to ask you about this. Keats emboldens the wife to invent these further quotes, including one from Simone Weil. which Meg Wolitzer on NPR actually thought was true. But it was not. So I’m wondering what was it about Keats that triggered this particular impulse to invent quotes for this character?

Offill: I think that he’s always been a sort of Romantic ideal for most writers — or, at least, a certain type of writer. And that line about your gravestone being writ in water, I think for anyone who’s thinking, “Why am I doing this? This isn’t going to last. This isn’t anything,” it seems to have some kind of resonance. As for the other one, I do believe that I had a citation for it. But I also meant for the ones that say “What so-and-so said” to be filtered through her mind and slightly changed.

Correspondent: Yes.

Offill: So that may be why it was hard to Google. We did sort of extensively fact-check the quotes. I had to go through and give citations for all of them.

Correspondent: Really?

Offill: Yeah. So I could probably pull that out somewhere. But I noticed that even people who are far more eloquent than I am, I somehow had managed to take a word out or add a word. It was always that controlling writer impulse where you want to change rhythms and change everything to sound right to your ear.

Correspondent: Well, on the other hand, there’s a certain kind of fluidity in taking quotes and putting them into other people’s mouths. And changing one word, then actually frustrating the obsessive reader type like me…

Offill: Right. Right.

Correspondent: Because I can’t quite find the exactness. I mean, maybe this is also part of the problem, of having to scavenge from the guts of what has gone before in order to find new forms of expression, in order to come to terms with what we leave out of our stories.

Offill: Right. Well, I like writers like David Markson. And I like the way that he brings in those small literary anecdotes. And you also find, if you go through his books…

Correspondent: A lot of them are not true.

Offill: Yeah. A lot of them are not true. In fact, someone — I think it was Blake Butler — did a kind of hilarious thing recently that was “Literary Rumors.”

Correspondent: Yes.

Offill: They were all just like really absurd. And so I think that kind of — I want to call it the pattern-making part of our brain. It makes over even something that seems like it should be complete and puts it into the pattern of the world as that character sees it.

Correspondent: Do you think we have a certain obligation to resist the canon? Or to resist the cultural conditioning that we are inevitably going to take in when we read all sorts of books and we memorize quotes and memorize poems and we use that as a kind of reference for our lives? I mean, inevitably, we’re going to have to resist that, I think, to find some original form of expression. What are your thoughts on this? And is this book in some sense a solution to that?

Offill: I thought a lot about that. Because I was wondering if I should include quotes at all. And I certainly thought about not having any of them in there. Not least of which because it’s hard to put your writing next to some of the people I was quoting. But I also felt like I was trying — and whether I succeeded is really more for the reader to say — but I was trying to make a form that felt modern and new to me. And so the feeling of having those quotes as springboards into other thoughts — I do think you always have to go against and have a contrarian impulse to what’s been made before. And that’s how you make new things. And that’s how you startle and surprise yourself as a writer.

Correspondent: Maybe another way to approach this question is to ask you how you, as the author, and you, as the character, work together to mangle quotes in a very interesting way. Did you find that the vicarious…

Offill: You’re starting to worry me. How many did I mangle? You must have it worked out. (laughs)

Correspondent: No, no! I actually love the fact that some are mangled and some are unfindable. But I’m wondering — especially since you had mentioned the fact-checking earlier. I think writers have a duty to bust shit up. So the question I have is: how much of the tossing rocks through windows came from the character and came from you? And how did you work together to ensure there was a certain kind of nihilism that was healthy for this?

Offill: Right. Well, I definitely wanted to create in the character of the wife someone who was bolder and a little more “Fuck you” and “Fuck things up” than I am in my life. I’m a much more timid creature.

Correspondent: Which is why you’re holding the knife right now.

Offill: That’s why I’m holding the knife to your throat and making sure that you start to praise the book really soon. But I do think…

Correspondent: Can’t I just give you twenty dollars instead? Maybe a hundred?

Offill: Are you kidding? Yeah, when I’m done. I’ll take twenty dollars.

(Loops for this program provided by kraweic, mingote, 40a, and ebaby8119.)

The Bat Segundo Show #534: Jenny Offill (Download MP3)

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Diane Johnson (The Bat Segundo Show #533)

Diane Johnson is most recently the author of Flyover Lives.

Author: Diane Johnson

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Subjects Discussed: Knock-knock jokes*, vacationing in Provence, being married to a mysterious professor of medicine, being surrounded by generals who demand their fellow vacationing Americans to pay their fair share, why the French decry the professed American indifference to history, flowers, what the Americans and the French could learn from each other, the American propensity for tearing up train tracks, Anne Matthews’s Where the Buffalo Roam, the difficulty of traveling to the Dakotas, the destruction of national interconnectivity, America’s war on its own history, what America cultivated from European culture, Jefferson and the Library of Congress, freedom fries, the inspiration drawn from those who kept good records centuries ago, living in the most photographed age in the history of America, sharing our data with the NSA, multiculturalism and European roots, mutually assured destruction and Franco-American relations, Kevin Starr and California history, growing up in Moline, Illinois, Ranna Cossitt, Catharine Martin, the forced resignation of Johnson’s father, escaping a vocational destiny as a flight attendant, the benefits of being a voracious reader, what women were expected to do in the 1950s, Mad Men regimes, quilting as a pre-1950s pastime for women, Betty Freidan, matrimonial prospects as tickets out of town, pizza as a novelty, the Methodist practice of being frightened into good, Jonathan Edwards’s sermon language, looking up profane Latin, living in language-based religious torment, skepticism as a Midwestern feature, learning language as a weapon, the first excuse note that Johnson wrote in grade school and the beginnings of fiction, the origins of The Shadow Knows, crazy housekeepers, the delayed impulse in exploring a feeling in fiction, the migratory impulse, the Land Act of 1820, the American ideal expressed through settling and appropriation, Sarah Palin, the future of Detroit, similar historical currents in France and America, creating something new from the historical dregs of expansionism, the foodie movement, promiscuity without consequences, Henry James, stylistic tension when existing somewhere between two nations, chick lit and book covers, the hidden politics within Johnson’s novels, Lulu in Marrakech, exploring Islam and America’s relationship with the Middle East, Theodore Dreiser, Thomas Wolfe’s former reputation as one of the greatest American writers, Gaston Bachelord’s notion of the “hut dream,” an ideal coziness desired by everybody, infant mortality during the 19th century, how much of recent life is indebted to a simulacrum of 19th century life, the increasing shift of humans living in cities, co-writing an episode of My Three Sons, being rewritten by Francis Ford Coppola, having to schmaltz up description for Hollywood, attempting to explain things in language that studio executives can understand, working with Stanley Kubrick on The Shining, mining through Freud with Kubrick to determine what frightens people, the terror of eyes, Stephen King and Kubrick, supernatural forces as a projection of the consciousness, the typical questions that Kubrick asked over the telephone, Kubrick’s literary qualities, Madame Bovary, a planned eight hour structure for The Shining, Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, Room 237, The Shining projected forwards and backwards, Kubrick’s sense of mathematics, exploring narrative forms, the Overlook Hotel’s labyrinth, critics who overanalyze art, reference books consulted during The Shining, seeing the Holocaust in newsreel images as a girl, contending with work adapted for the screen, Faye Dunaway, Richard Roth, Sydney Pollack, and thwarted adaptations of The Shadow Knows.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You’ve bookended this particular volume with a personal episode at a vacation retreat in Provence, where you and your husband — the mysterious professor of medicine, who I thought was here — were surrounded by these generals demanding that you pay your fair share, while the French are decrying the professed American indifference to history. I’m wondering. How do you think Americans are failing to pay their fair share in knowing history? You bring up this American late in the book who you overhear saying, “You know what’s a good civilization? By the way they always have fresh flowers everywhere, every day.” But if nobody knows how the flowers are arriving there or how frequent they are, well, are Americans really equipped to complain about this? Or to adequately respond to the French? Let’s talk about this parallel. What do you think?

Johnson: Well, I’m not sure we are in some departments. We could learn a lot from the French. And they could learn a lot from us. But that’s not our subject here.

Correspondent: (laughs) Well, we could unpack that. Yeah.

Johnson: Yeah. We could learn that we shouldn’t tear up our train tracks. That’s one of my particular pet peeves about America. Because once you live in France for any reason, you can take the train everywhere. And it’s so great. So that would be one example.

Correspondent: Well, you describe late in the book, I know, that in areas of the Midwest where you used to travel by train, those rails are gone.

Johnson: Yes. Exactly.

Correspondent: And that to me — I mean, I’ve never been in those areas of the Midwest. But I was like, “Wow, if I wanted to get there, it would be a hassle.”

Johnson: That’s right. You can’t even get to some places. Because in South Dakota, I read — that book was called Where the Buffalo Roam. I don’t know if you ever read that. It was written about South Dakota or maybe the Dakotas. And there was no longer any Greyhound bus, airplane, or train to get to North Dakota and certain areas of the Dakotas. And the suggestions of the author to just turn it back to the buffalo and have it be a glamorous nature experience with resorts. Because there’s no point in trying to grow anything up there, since you can’t get there anyway.

Correspondent: Well, that’s also quite interesting. Because if the French are tagging us with this label of not knowing our own history, well, our nation is doing a remarkable job at gutting the interconnectivity and the urban hubs and even the hubs into the Midwest that allows us to really…

Johnson: …keep ourselves together.

Correspondent: Yeah. To unite the States. And that’s quite something.

Johnson: I think it is. And I think it does show that we don’t really care about history or see its value. And that may have been some way we were programmed at the beginning by the idea that we were separating ourselves from Europe and improving upon it. Which was, I’m sure, the idea of the founders. But they didn’t really mean that we’d have nothing to do with Europe and not adopt their ways. They assumed…

Correspondent: …we’d figure out our own system. (laughs)

Johnson: Well, we carried over things that were valuable like universities and the wine culture that Thomas Jefferson was careful to transplant. I’m sure they always envisioned a continuity in everything except politics.

Correspondent: The beginnings of the Library of Congress also came from Jefferson, from his book collection. So it almost seems like we’re looking towards figures who could somehow do this. And that actually became the beginnings of our public institutions.

Johnson: Absolutely. So there was no way we really wanted to cut ourselves off and completely throw out all that European culture. But somehow it got transmogrified — maybe at the time of the Revolution — into a sort of ill-natured mistrust of Europe. Especially France for some reason. I don’t know why there’s a special antagonism for France.

Correspondent: Well, I think it works both ways. With the freedom fries incident.

Johnson: Yeah. That’s what I was thinking of.

Correspondent: There’s that. But at the same time, this leads me to wonder. Well, what is our present relationship with history and how does Europe figure into it? And how did this help you mine your own past going back to Moline and even before that?

Johnson: Well, the connections that helped me were the good records of things that people kept at the beginning of the country. So the earliest thing I found was 1711. The first document to do with one of these people in the book. So obviously people were cherishing history, keeping faithful records of what was going on.

Correspondent: Well, centuries ago. But what about now?

Johnson: Well, now, it’s all turned sour in some funny way.

Correspondent: In the past, we were meticulous documenters of our own history.

Johnson: Do you have another theory about that?

Correspondent: I do actually. I mean, I was going to point to the fact that here we are in this digital age and we take all sorts of photos of ourselves. This is perhaps the most photographed aged in the entire history of America. And yet we don’t actually want to look to our past to see if that can inform our present document taking, our present struggle, in terms of revealing our data to the NSA. Things like that.

Johnson: (laughs) Yeah.

Correspondent: We’re happy to go ahead and share every single private part of ourselves. But it is fascinating to me that we aren’t willing to look to the past to see how that could inform.

Johnson: Exactly. How we could have learned from that. I think part of my theory is that with multiculturalism, one consequence of it, although not intended by it, was to interrupt those early roots with France and England in order to not disappoint people who were coming from other places or seeming to privilege those early arrivals with later immigrant groups. People had to say, “Well, what about the Irish?” And, you know, “My folks came from Russia.” And so everybody acknowledged the richness of those other traditions and maybe just decided, well, okay, then let’s just call it a truce and we’re not going to really think about what happened back there.

Correspondent: I love this theory that the clash of Franco-American cultures has everything to do with each culture not wanting to disappoint the other. It’s kind of like a mutually assured destruction, culturally speaking.

Johnson: I think so.

(Loops provided for this program by JoeFunktastic, FerryTerry, smpulse, and buffalonugaluss.)

* — During the early part of this conversation, Ms. Johnson identifies a knock-knock joke involving Kilroy that neither Our Correspondent nor Johnson could remember. It may be this one:

“Knock knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Kilroy.”
“Kilroy who?”
“Kill Roy Rogers. I’m Gene Autry’s fan!”

The Bat Segundo Show #533: Diane Johnson (Download MP3)

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Okey Ndibe (The Bat Segundo Show #532)

Okey Ndibe is most recently the author of Foreign Gods, Inc.

Author: Okey Ndibe

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Subjects Discussed: The tendency of authors to gravitate to specific locations to find a city’s identity, Ndibe’s fictitious village of Utonki, Barclay Center’s encroachment upon Brooklyn, how eating fish can help you to better understand Nigeria, whether or not people who live close to water are more equipped to deal with life, conjuring up a novel from a 1,000 page draft, writing “the Great Nigerian Novel,” the Nigerian census problem, Festus Odiemegwu’s controversial remarks about Nigeria not having a reliable census since 1816, Nigeria as the third most populous nation in the world by the end of the 21st century, what the inability to track a population does to a national identity and a fictional identity, Nigeria as a country where absurdity makes sense, the disastrous Yar-Adua-Goodluck government, Nigeria ascribing honesty to criminals and criminal enterprises that masquerade as governments, Nigeria’s “honest criminals,” Gov. James Ibori’s 13 year sentence, bribery, American vs. Nigerian corruption, why it’s so difficult to end corrupt Nigerian politicians to jail, Ndibe’s arrest at the Lagos Airport, Nigeria’s Enemies of the State list vs. America’s No Fly list, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and the do-or-die affair, Yar’Adua’s attempts to reach Ndibe after Ndibe refused to address him as President, anonymous messages sent to Ndibe in 2009 threatening arrest, decrying corruption and crime, the state of dissident writing in Nigeria, public and private media distinctions in Nigeria, the influence of journalism upon fiction, the lengthy italicized chapter in Foreign Gods, Inc., the impact of colonialism and religiosity on Nigeria, how certain events can encroach upon a reader’s experience comparable to imperialism, how past relationships between Europe and Nigeria affects current relationships, African artifacts, fuel and oil prices, spiritual implication, religious origins for a fictitious war god, settling on the right types of allegorical men to represent Nigeria, gourmands, poetic talkers, reformed Marxists, religion and performance artists, Igbo religious innovations compared against Christianity, the human qualities of gods in Igbo culture, why orthodoxy is incompatible with Igbo sensibilities, sectarian extremism in Nigeria, jihads against western values, rogue pastors, Nigeria’s 400 to 500 languages, Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, The Complete Review‘s pedantic review of Foreign Gods, Inc., Africans with considerable educational credentials who can’t get jobs in the United States, the common experience of educated immigrants shut out of the American job market (and trying to pinpoint why contemporary narratives don’t always consider Africans), American exclusion, the role of taste and experience in the editing process, the current renaissance of African fiction, how market conditions affect translated fiction, names and cultural differences, why Nigerian immigrants do better in the States than in England, Ndibe’s debt to Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, how Soyinka saved Ndibe’s Christmas, malfunctioning tape recorders, how Achebe brought Ndibe to the United States,

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to start off from a very odd angle. James Joyce had Eccles Street. James Baldwin had, of course, areas of Paris and southern France. I couldn’t help but notice that in Foreign Gods, Inc., in concentrating on both Nigeria and Brooklyn, you look to very specific regions. In the case of southeastern Nigeria — that’s where you’re looking at — you have this fictitious village named Utonki.

Ndibe: Yes.

Correspondent: Which was also featured in Arrows of Rain, your previous book. And then for the Brooklyn stretch, you have 99 Flatbush Avenue, this second-story flat that Ike — I hope I don’t have the ass pronunciation.

Ndibe: It’s actually Eekeh. Ike [correct] is strength. ị́kẹ̀ [incorrect] is the buttocks.

Correspondent: Okay. I’ve got that right. So Ike, he lives in this second-story flat at 99 Flatbush Avenue. And I know that because my book drop is actually not far from there. What’s interesting about that is that if you go there now, you’ve got Barclay Center there. And it’s completely different from whatever regional inspiration you had when you first decided upon it. So I wanted to talk about Utonki and 99 Flatbush Ave as the representative area for which to draw a larger idea about what Nigeria is and what Brooklyn is, and why these particular places were draws for you and why it needed to start there.

Ndibe: Well, for Utonki, I wanted to set a location in Nigeria that is close to my hometown, which is Adamawa. Now in writing my first novel, I am drawn to water, to rivers and so on. And my hometown doesn’t have much by way of the river. We have a few streams. So there is a stream called Benue, which figures in this novel. So Utonki is actually based on a part of Nigeria that I had visited to see a friend of mine from years ago. And I was drawn there because this friend told me that the village is surrounded by this river and they ate a lot of fish. And I’ve always been a sucker for fish. So I went to his village and spent a whole week eating a lot of fish. So this becomes my hommage to this village where I ate fish and which is surrounded by water.

Correspondent: Where did you eat fish in Brooklyn then? (laughs) There’s a fish market downtown.

Ndibe: So in Brooklyn, I actually happened to have a cousin who lives in Brooklyn. And so the apartment and my description of it is my cousin’s apartment. But the address is different. My cousin lives on Lafayette, but I decided to name it a different address in the novel. So again, aware of having something, an image in my mind, but also inventing, as it were.

Correspondent: I’m still drawn to this idea of you in this Nigerian village eating fish and using this to zero in on what the country is about. What does fish eating allow you — and fish eating, of course, is a euphemism for something else as well (laughs) — but what does that do to get you to fixate your geographical energies in fiction? Or your sense of place on what it is to be a Nigerian?

Ndibe: Yes. Well, again, I’m intrigued by bodies of water. I’m intrigued by the ocean, by rivers, by lakes and so on. And so Utonki was, if you like — my mother in Nigeria is from Jimeta, which is on the banks of the river Niger, which is the grand river of Nigeria. And so I’ve always been intrigued by bodies of water, partly because I don’t swim a lake. I can’t swim to save my life. My wife actually was going to represent Nigeria in swimming at the Olympic Games. But I tell people that our winning record is for the fastest to sink to the bottom to any body of water. So in a lot of ways when I see water, or when I see a community with water, there is a part of me that wants to pay hommage to it. And so Utonki, which has a river but also brings me to that fish that I’ve always loved all my life. So if I have an ideal community, if I was going to make myself come from someplace, it would be a place like Utonki. So I invented it. So I would inhabit it, as it were.

Correspondent: This may seem a bizarre question, but it comes to mind in hearing you talk about being near bodies of water. Do you think that people who have a tendency to live near water tend to be more interesting than the people who live inland or who are landlocked?

Ndibe: I believe so. At least those who live close to water. Just like, for me, anybody who can swim becomes exceedingly interesting for me. Which is part of why perhaps I found my wife, Sheri, extraordinarily interesting. Just the fact that she can move with such ease, with such comfort, and with such gusto in water. So, yes, I do believe that those who inhabit the river, who live near bodies of water, are more resourceful. I don’t know if this can hold up to scientific scrutiny.

Correspondent: No.

Ndibe: But in my imaginative world, I think that this is true. Very much so.

Correspondent: It totally makes sense. I mean, I’ve lived pretty much near water in my adult life. I was in San Francisco, then New York. So I think we’re on the same level — even though I also recognize that this is a completely bizarre, tendentious principle. (laughs)

Ndibe: Yes. (laughs)

Correspondent: Speaking of location, I wanted to get into the contrast between Ike’s apartment at 99 Flatbush Ave, which you describe often very specifically. And near the end, we really know the geography of that place. Because some things happen, which I won’t give away, involving furniture. But after Ike’s first trip through the Lagos Airport, you almost avoid describing the look of Nigeria. I mean, we have a better sense also, for example, of the art dealer’s layout than the house late in the book where there’s all this basketball boasting. All these guys saying, “Hey, if you pay me that kind of money, I can go ahead and play like Michael Jordan.” I wanted to ask why that was. Do you think that Nigeria is marked more by this kind of general approach to existence? That, whether consciously or subconsciously, you’re going to just describe the country that way because there just are no specifics. I have a followup in relation to this, but I wanted to get your thoughts as to the level of self-awareness here and what it is to live and describe something that is often abstract.

Ndibe: Yes. Well, first of all, when I finished this novel, it actually came to more than a thousand pages.

Correspondent: Wow!

Ndibe: So there was a lot of editing. A lot of sloughing off huge swaths of the novel. And so when Ike’s plane is hovering over Lagos, there’s a long scene in the original draft of the novel where I describe how he sees Nigeria.

Correspondent: That’s fascinating.

Ndibe: In the original draft, he actually spends a week in Lagos with a friend of his who’s become very wealthy from doing all kinds of underhanded deals with the politicians and so on. And so we get to see Lagos, through Ike’s eyes, as his friend takes him to various parties of the rich and famous in Nigeria. All of those scenes became a casualty, if you like, of this huge cutting process. But that’s going to be worked into a different novel. Because I actually cut about 300 pages from the middle of the novel. And so I had Ike stay that night in a stop-off motel when, in the original draft of the novel, he spends a week in Lagos with this classmate of his who has a lot of money. So that’s one. But once he goes to his village, I guess there’s the sense of familiarity, the sense that he’s returning to a place where he was born. And so I allowed the novel to achieve, if you like, a sense of the unstated. So again, because this is filtered constantly through Ike’s consciousness, the village changes a lot when he returns to it. And there’s this classmate of his, Tony Iba, who has become a very wealthy, local politician and who has a sense that he’s giving back to poor people by building a small room where they can watch television and daydream about American life and so forth. So that kind of absence, if you like, of this particularity in the way that Nigeria is described owes to the process of editing that entailed a lot of cutting of details. And also the fact that Ike wants this in his village, the descriptions become physical locations muted, except in areas where he notes the dramatic changes in that landscape.

The Bat Segundo Show #532: Okey Ndibe (Download MP3)

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Blake Bailey (The Bat Segundo Show #530)

Blake Bailey is most recently the author of Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson. He is also the author of the forthcoming The Splendid Things We Planned, to be published in March. Both books, along with every Charles Jackson volume ever published, were read and consulted for this comprehensive conversation. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #284.

Author: Blake Bailey

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[PROGRAM NOTE: In Farther & Wilder, Blake Bailey mentioned an extraordinary radio program called The Author Meets the Critics, in which authors confronted their critics live on radio. After a diligent search, I was able to locate 46 episodes of this program and I've collected them at the Internet Archive, where they can be downloaded for your enjoyment.]

Subjects Discussed: Jackson’s need for money, how The Lost Weekend‘s success freaked him out, Jackson’s self-perception as a misfit, becoming an unintentional spokesman for dipsomania, Jackson’s block after The Lost Weekend, Seconal addiction, Jackson’s hospitalization, Mary McCarthy’s fictionalized version of Jackson, McCarthy’s unfinished manuscript The Lost Week, John P. Marquand, vacations in Truro, the friendship between McCarthy and Jackson, why one shouldn’t read all of Charles Jackson, Jackson vs. Cheever and Yates, the perversity of reading A Second-Hand Life, prosaic sexual affairs in Jackson’s later work, Jackson’s obsession with Shakespeare busts, Adam Kirsch’s review of Farther & Wilder, average writers who long to be geniuses, literary failures, the origins of Farther & Wilder, Calvin Kentfield, Nathan Asch, Flannery Lewis, Jackson’s death by overdose at the Chelsea, undiscovered papers at Dartmouth, the impossible-to-find TV adaptation of Waugh’s “The Man Who Liked Dickens” directed by Nicholas Ray and written by Jackson, Jackson’s involvement with radio and television, the nineteen years when Jackson didn’t publish a novel, William Inge, how television affected Jackson’s storytelling abilities, comparisons between “The Outlander” and The Fall of Valor, the way that Jackson wrote about writers, the stories that Jackson wrote sober, Jackson’s writing difficulties when stoned on Seconal, how Jackson’s fiction explored writing ego, Jackson being ahead of postmodernism with “The Sunnier Side,” what literary biography can do, The Author Meets the Critics (in which Jackson appeared three times), Dwight Macdonald’s “By Cozzens Possessed,” when literary critics had the power to destroy a career, James Agee’s A Death to the Family, the mid-20th century war on midcult, why Jonathan Yardley is a terrible critic, Yardley’s negative review of Norman Rush’s Mating, John P. Marquand’s overlooked novels (The Late George Apley, Sincerely, Willis Wayde, and So Little Time), Roger Straus financing Jackson’s life, Philip Wylie, Wylie’s futile attempts to respond to The Fall of Valor‘s terrible qualities, when critics used to give talented writers a fair pass for sophomore slumps, Daniel Mendelsohn’s attempted takedown of Mad Men, Rhoda Jackson’s tolerance for her husband’s behavior, how the Jacksons managed their money, the many literary people who got their start at Fortune Magazine, Ron Sproat, Rhoda’s acceptance of Charlie’s sexuality, Jackson coming out of the closet, the weirdly limited way in which Jackson’s fictional wives were portrayed, D.T. Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, Max angling for motive about David Foster Wallace, the importance to double source details and relate it to a writer’s career, Mary Karr’s response to D.T. Max on Twitter, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, Bailey’s work on the Roth biography, how to ensure that people don’t come at you with pitchforks on Twitter while working on a literary biography, Karen Green’s Bough Down, DFW’s saintlike image, Infinite Jest, DFW’s nonfiction, literary biographers addressing issues of posterity, the DFW death porn industry, J.D. Salinger’s legacy held hostage by commercial interests, the collaboration between Roth and Bailey, Bailey’s access to Roth’s papers (sealed through 2050), coaxing Claire Bloom to talk, Philip Roth’s retirement, Bailey’s forthcoming memoir The Splendid Things We Planned, similarities and differences between memoir and literary biography, how hard you need to be on yourself when writing about yourself, Blake Bailey’s appearance diminishing somewhat in the second half of The Splendid Things We Planned, and writing about family.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So I basically surprised you by pointing to the fact that I think you and I may be among the few people in America who have actually read all of Charles Jackson’s work.

Bailey: Living people. You know, Ed, probably the only two. His own daughters, who are alive and well, they have not read the oeuvre of Charles Jackson.

Correspondent: Wow.

Bailey: No. It’s you and me.

Correspondent: That’s it? Wow. So let’s talk. Charles Jackson, best known as the author of The Lost Weekend. Let’s get into what he did. I mean, he was adamantly determined in his early days to write what he knew, as you outline in your biography of him. Don Birnam, the protagonist of The Lost Weekend, many of Jackson’s short stories, and also the hero of this unfinished multivolume book project, What Happened? — this is basically Jackson’s life. This is what Jackson drew heavily on for his fiction. But then you have Jackson’s later fiction — The Outer Edges, A Second-Hand Life, and “The Outlander,” which I’m happy to argue with you about. These are adamantly determined to suggest deviance or behavioral aberration in common everyday fallacies, often out of step with the cultural mores of the time. And then, of course, you have “The Sunnier Side,” this story in which Charles Jackson himself appears and is commenting upon various people in Newark. So just to get started here — and that’s a lot to talk about — why do you think Jackson was so terrified of his own life in fiction? And so willing to castigate himself? Why did he need to pit his real and his fictional selves against each other and against society?

Bailey: Well, it’s interesting. You mention Newark. And I want to clarify for your listeners that is not Newark, New Jersey — the hometown of my current subject, Philip Roth. That is Newark, New York in the township of Arcadia. Up in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. It was a little town of about six thousand souls where Charles Jackson led a very tortured childhood and idyllic childhood. It was a little of both. Beautiful region. And people are kind to you in a sort of condescending way there. Charlie and his brother Fred, known always throughout his adult life as Boom, were the town sissies.

Correspondent: There’s also a beefcake shot of Boom in the book as well.

Bailey: A gorgeous beefcake shot of Boom taken by the famous gay photographer George Platt Lynes. There are photos by Man Ray of Boom at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth. Anyway, Charlie kind of deplored the way that people gossiped maliciously in small towns such as Newark and yet put a good face on things. And when the worst catastrophes happened — for example, Charlie was molested by the choirmaster of his church; a man named Herbert Quance, who appears in Charlie’s first published story, “Palm Sunday,” which was a pioneering work. It appeared in Partisan Review in 1939 and nobody was writing about pedophilia. And it’s quite frank in its treatment of that. It’s a terrific story. And it caused as much of a ripple at Partisan Review as Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”. So he was molested at age 14. The year before, his 16-year-old sister Thelma and 4-year-old brother Richard were killed by a train. And the egregious phony kindness with which he was treated — and meanwhile people knew about this pedophiliac choirmaster, but nice people didn’t talk about that sort of thing. You didn’t talk about touching little boys and what not. So he was tolerated, even though they knew that their own children were in danger of being molested. So long story short: Charlie regarded this as a deplorable state of affairs and he thinks that human beings should face up to their vagaries. And so that’s what he chose to write about. The vagaries in himself, which were considerable, and in humankind very much at large.

Correspondent: But, with “The Sunnier Side,” he’s there to castigate these three real-life women in Newark, which is also quite interesting. And that also is sort of a You Can’t Go Home Again/Thomas Wolfe type of thing too. But at the same time, with The Outer Edges, this book is utterly bizarre. Especially the guilt of the dog. That whole incident. This protagonist. He runs over a dog. And then he’s comparing himself to this true sociopath. So there’s this weird impulse going along in Jackson’s fiction as well. On one hand, he wants to go ahead and out the truth. On the other hand, he wants to hold everybody, including himself, accountable for every conceivable moral failing — even putting it up there and comparing it with a rapist and so forth. He’s a really bizarre guy.

Bailey: Okay. Let me explain The Outer Edges. It is based on the Edward Haight murders. Edward Haight, when he was sixteen years old, gave a lift to two kids — two girls, 11 and 9. Not only did he rape them, he tied them up, put them in the street, ran over them repeatedly. I mean, it was horrific. And Charlie was deeply disturbed by that. Now Charlie was disturbed by the viciousness of Edward Haight. Because Charlie was a married father of two girls and a homosexual. These days, people don’t understand the opprobrium in middle-class, mid-century America. Especially gay men, who presumed to get married and lead a normal life and were still seeing men on the side, as Charlie certainly was. So he did feel this kind of horrifying kinship with this child murderer Edward Haight. So how to acceptably portray that in fiction? He comes up with a Charlie-like character who, like him, is married to a long suffering woman and he’s a doting father, as Charlie was. And he feels a kinship with the murder in the book because he’s having an affair. Heterosexual with this tootsie. And because he inadvertently runs over a dog, now that, of course, is the fatal flaw with The Outer Edges. It doesn’t work and everyone told Charlie it doesn’t work.

Correspondent: But also there’s that weird phone call heard through the gas station restroom, which makes absolutely no sense. Like this is the reason why the wife decides to leave. Because she’s speculating upon a phone call. Just as he’s actually more concerned about driving over the dog than this particular affair. He just has a really bizarre moral compass.

Bailey: Yeah. Well, but I don’t want to dismiss The Outer Edges out of hand. Because certainly Charlie wrote worse books than The Outer Edges.

Correspondent: [looking at the stack of Jackson books on the table] He looks at A Second-Hand Life. (laughs)

Bailey: Oh my god. Let’s save that. What does work in The Outer Edges is the portrayal of the murderer himself, which really captures this whole Hannah Arendt notion of the banality of evil in a way that I think is sort of pioneering and very effective. And it’s a very episodic book. The French, Bovary-esque woman whose stuck in the boring marriage and tries for her maids not to see her having nothing to do. All that was very astute. I mean, again, no less than — I’m blanking on his name, which is terrible. A great British novelist. Sort of out of favor now. Anyway, he reviewed the book in The Listener and said, “Charlie Jackson is the man to write the Great American Novel of suburban ennui.” And if he wasn’t such a complete pill freak, he might have pulled it off.

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about this. Okay, so he’s an alcoholic. And he uses this to write The Lost Weekend. Then he becomes this big AA spokesperson. But he’s also this go-to guy for Spencer Tracy, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker. He chronicles this problem — alcoholism — and, as you say, at the time this had not been pursued to this depth in fiction. And then this is interesting. He pitches his Uncle Mr. Kinbar to Roger Straus and he writes, “This book has everything. Humor, pathos, real social comment.” There’s the story idea that Jackson conveys to Sandy with the wife as “a shock absorber between him and the world around him.” Given Jackson’s keen interest in Thomas Mann, I’m wondering why he felt the need to mimic or outperform his better. I mean, the Fitzgerald passage in The Lost Weekend, where he just speaks glowingly about Fitzgerald, you would think that Jackson could have figured out that one of Fitzgerald’s fatal flaws was trying to actually reproduce Gatsby. So why was he just not self-aware enough to realize that masterpieces just kind of happen by accident?

Bailey: Well, I think that Charlie had a taste for fine things, which was very much like Scott Fitzgerald. Scott Fitzgerald had a very big nut. He liked to live lavishly and that meant writing trashy stories for the Saturday Evening Post and not writing great novels. So there it is. Charlie, his great surrogate parents in Newark was the Bloomer family in town. And he wrote a story, Charlie did, called “Tenting Tonight.” In the midst of this dreary provincial place, here are people with real tastes, who have culture, who have this opulent house. And this is something that Charlie aspires to. And then later, this man, this gay bachelor, this Wall Street lawyer with a fabulous fortune whose father was Edith Wharton’s best friend, Bronson Winthrop, takes Charlie and his brother Boom under his wing and really gives them a taste for fine things. You know, they both had tuberculosis. Bronson Winthrop sent them to these luxury sanitoria in Davos, Switzerland. So Charlie said, “I want to live like that.” And he managed miraculously — we’re condensing a lot, but he went through this period of horrific alcoholism where he miraculously got sober. He wrote The Lost Weekend, which was not only regarded critically as a masterpiece. That’s the very word that The New York Times used.

Correspondent: I’d call it a masterpiece.

Bailey: I would too. I think that Don Birnam is still the definitive portrait of an alcoholic in American literature. And he goes to Hollywood and suddenly he’s this alcoholism guru, which you pointed out. People like Spencer Tracy and Dorothy Parker and Benchley and so on. And, you know, he wants to keep living like that. He wants to still have the celebrity friends. He wants Judy Garland to remain his pal. And he buys this ridiculous federal mansion in New Hampshire and finds that he can’t keep it up without writing dreck. And pretty soon, he falls into the same trap that poor Fitzgerald did, which was writing terrible short stories for the slicks.

Correspondent: Was it Hollywood that forced him to have this yardstick to measure himself by? Or was it the success of The Lost Weekend? Because that sold like crazy. Like Franzen style at the time.

Bailey: It did sell like Franzen style. But what happened was — he goes to Hollywood. Everything’s going Charlie’s way. He’s the most popular man in town. He was very endearing and very charming. Everyone invited him. He never had to dine alone in Hollywood. All the stars loved him, especially all the alcoholic stars. Which was every one of them. What was the question again?

Correspondent: I’m trying to get from you why he felt the need to be this great social novelist and I gave you a hint with the Thomas Mann thing.

Bailey: Right. Charlie had a terrible need to be loved. And he adored the work of Thomas Mann. And Mann — they had sort of an Eckermann/Goethe-like relationship. Mann met him in Hollywood. And they became correspondents and friends who saw each other maybe three times. It wasn’t misguided for Charlie to aspire to write great books. He’d written one. And to his credit, he terminated his contract at MGM. He didn’t want to stay in Hollywood and be this hack. He wanted to write The Fall of Valor, which was the first mainstream novel about homosexuality in American fiction. 1946. Two years ahead of Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar. The problem was it wasn’t that great of a novel. Now if you want to talk about what the real reason that Charlie’s fiction never equaled The Lost Weekend, we can do that.

Correspondent: Well, sure. Feel free. We’re getting into some really high-end reading geek things.

(Loops for this program provided by danke, ozzi, 40a, and bedenney.)

The Bat Segundo Show #530: Blake Bailey II (Download MP3)

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Alissa Nutting (The Bat Segundo Show #529)

Alissa Nutting is most recently the author of Tampa.

Author: Alissa Nutting

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Subjects Discussed: Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls as preparation for Tampa, how to build up immunization against narcissism and sociopathy, people who have called for Nutting’s demise, becoming enslaved to a character, contending with a protagonist who has no moral compass, incorporating hate mail into your daily routine, writers who are able to manage intense emotional characters, writers as mediums, Sylvia Browne, avoiding novels that are sunshine and teddy bears, pleasant weather in Tampa, PTSD moments that novelists experience, how Celeste encouraged the propagation of mean jokes inside Nutting’s head, attempts to be a positive person, why horror writers are so nice, literary novelists as passive-aggressive dicks, parallels between acting and teaching, teachers who can’t remember students, a porous memory as an occupational advantage, the state of being 400% bubbly, parents and memory vacations, Celeste’s sexuality defined almost exclusively in power, the inability of America to consider that women in power can abuse it, the evils of Slate articles, people who get riled up by The Cuckoo Clock of Doom, the advantages of not having a safe place, the scourge of happy movies, being angered by The Sound of Music, obnoxious musicals, the benefits of gloomy art, Kiese Laymon, the problems with cultural engagement, A.M. Homes’s early fiction, violence within David Foster Wallace’s short stories, why America is growing more reactionary in its fiction tastes, side characters within Tampa, Celeste pinpointing upon the corporeal form of people she isn’t attracted to, operating within a world of physical perfection, assumptions made by TV pundits, how Celeste doesn’t talk about her parents, examining extraordinary behavior without explanation, the best male monsters in fiction, how being a daughter can be a powerless role, Samuel R. Delany and poronotopia, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, Fatal Attraction, Dhalgren, teachers at the mercy of No Child Left Behind, students who are bound by an anti-PDA contract, martyrs who live on the poverty line, reduced freedom of expression for teachers, the teacher surveillance state, trading in your classics degree for an educational one, why today’s kids are still interested in engaging with literature, Lord of the Flies as a Christmas story, teaching “The Pit and the Pendulum” without understanding it, when kids are smarter and more curious than adults, shock collar fantasies, teachers who go crazy, education as a dating service, Celeste’s metaphysical ideas about the soul and the body, language and metaphor, impoverished bands who refuse to write pop songs, how similes can kick you in the brain, Nutting’s love for the first-person, the contrast between thought and action, the inspiration that emerges from a boring childhood, Nutting’s Catholicism, John Waters, giving characters “thought vacations,” America’s indebtedness to religious language and principles, having family conversations about how we pretend, the extraordinary conditions it takes to miss church, taking off the Catholicism glasses to get inside the head of a pedophile, hedging your bets against intense obsession, when teachers teach behavior more than knowledge, Celeste being dictated by her smells, the Jack-Celeste relationship defined by food, insouciant perversity, why comedy is the scariest thing in the world, obsession and objectivity, the presentation of moral behavior and problems with neutrality, the desire to write a book with a soulless protagonist, soulless characters conveyed through language rooted in soul, men with monosyllabic names who transform into steak-eating, cigar-chomping, bear-swilling Visigoths, exhibition and parental duties, the terror of returning to the womb, notions of the dream woman, and being oblivious when everybody is watching.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to start with some of the stories in Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls. Because I read this collection, and it seems to me that this was unknowing preparation for developing Celeste’s character in Tampa. We see in “Teenager” that it depicts much of the familiarity with school-related procedures, adults who determine what behavior is appropriate, the counselor who says, “I’m here to tell you all about your choices.” But then you have these — and I’m out of breath because I was running around cleaning up a beer mess.

Nutting: That is true.

Correspondent: So if I sound like I’m hehuhhehuh, suitably like some of the male characters in Tampa

Nutting: (laughs)

Correspondent: Anyway…but then you have these surrealistic stories like “Ant Colony” and “Porn Star,” where you’re examining behavior related to intimacy in this kind of phantasmagorical context. So I’m wondering. How did writing these stories force you to get at the truths of Celeste’s aberrant behavior or deviant behavior in general? How did a fantastical tilt towards perversity aid you in becoming braver and truer as a writer?

Nutting: Yeah. That’s a great question. I mean, I’ve always been really attracted to female characters that are on the margins. And I think that this was. I can kind of relate it to immunizations, where you get a tiny bit of a virus and then you build up more and more immunity.

Correspondent: A virus? (laughs)

Nutting: Yes. I think these stories were my first experience with a virus. And after I was done with all of them, I could just withstand such a walloping dose or narcissism and sociopathy. Celeste was a pretty natural progression.

Correspondent: So you joined the Peace Corps, went to faraway countries, inoculated yourself from all hypothetical problems.

Nutting: (laughs) Right, right.

Correspondent: Do you think you developed empathy for this type of scoundrel?

Nutting: You know, what I did develop is this ease to see the humor in extremity and in perversity. That’s one of the questions that I get most often about Celeste. To what extent do you empathize with her or not? And it’s funny. Because I don’t think Celeste cares if someone empathizes with her. I feel a little proud that I made a character that is that much beyond my judgment. I mean, she just would not give a shit what I think about her. Or anyone else. I think that that’s kind of great. Because one of the things that I’ve explored so much in Unclean Jobs is different social pressures for women. And a lot of the characters really experienced and felt those social pressures as a form of pain. Because they didn’t live up to them or they didn’t resonate with them or they were not that individual’s experience of being in the world. It did not match what they saw. The behaviors they were asked to do and emulate. So I think in that way too, it was a fine marriage to pair myself with someone that just was further past anyone I’d written about before.

Correspondent: Well, what you just said there about how Celeste just really wouldn’t care if you empathized with her — if the writer, if her god, empathized with her — that is interesting to me. Because she is very clearly an emotional character. So if you have an emotional relationship with the character, how do you do it without empathy? How do you summon it like that? Or do you feel that such moral definitions are just outside the scope of what you should be doing as a fiction writer?

Nutting: Yeah. And that’s another huge aspect of the discussion.

Correspondent: The Discussion? (laughs)

Nutting: Yes, The Discussion.

Correspondent: The people with pitchforks calling for your demise. (laughs)

Nutting: (laughs) Yeah, and the pitchforks are on fire. And there’s all kinds of pyrotechnics when people are talking about you.

Correspondent: Burning crosses on various literary websites.

Nutting: Oh definitely.

Correspondent: What should be done with you? Have you been getting serious…

Nutting: Oh yes. Yes. I get hate mail. Like I wake up getting hate mail.

Correspondent: Like how much do you get generally?

Nutting: Well, it’s tapered a bit since the fall. In the summer, I was getting five or six a day.

Correspondent: Oh okay. I’ve gotten about that much when I write something inflammatory. So you and I are buds here. (laughs)

Nutting: Nice! And it was weird. Because it actually became integrated into my day.

Correspondent: (laughs) The routine of responding to hate mail!

Nutting: Yeah. It was like make my coffee, see who wants to kill me.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Nutting: Move my bowels and go to Pilates.

Correspondent: Maybe the best way is to check your mail when you’re moving your bowels.

Nutting: Yeah.

Correspondent: On the phone? It’s the best way to deal with it in that position.

Nutting: It’s funny.

Correspondent: If you’re going to get shit, you may as well expel it.

Nutting: Right! Right. I never respond to it.

Correspondent: Well, we got scatological pretty quick. (laughs)

Nutting: Sorry. That’s the hazard of having a conversation with me.

Correspondent: Or me.

Nutting: I mean, it’s interesting. Because partially, once I really got into her voice. Once that template was melded into my brain, I mean, I really feel like she just rode me around like a horse. And I was just crawling on my knees in a dog collar. “Yes, Celeste. Okay, Celeste. I will, Celeste.” Like it wasn’t…

Correspondent: You couldn’t just manage the character and say, “No. You know what? Celeste, you can do whatever you want. But you ain’t going to get me!”

Nutting: (laughs) No.

Correspondent: Really?

Nutting: I mean, I just felt like I had to submit to her truly. But one of the conversation aspects that the book has sparked is that, on one count, it’s literature must be redemptive. And if it is not redemptive, it shouldn’t be written about. Or it’s a worthless book. And then on the other side, it’s people who can see worth in a book that is not redemptive.

Correspondent: That has no moral compass whatsoever.

Nutting: That has zero moral compass. That is what I felt I had to do, particularly with the subject, with a female protagonist. Particularly as a female writer. I just felt that the expected trajectory to write about the situation would be to do it dramatically and with sympathy and have some kind of level of rationalization that would be easily digestible for readers. Which is exactly why I felt that I can’t do any of that. I have to do the opposite. Because I don’t think people would blink. That conversation’s already out there. We’re already taking that line to its thus far unproductive end. And I wanted to do something that would shake up the patterns that we seem to have fallen into in talking about this behavior.

Correspondent: At the risk of possibly objectifying you, I still have this image of you on all fours answering to Celeste’s orders.

Nutting: (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m curious to know more about what this was like. You’re the author. You say what goes. You can push back against a character’s whims or you can go ahead and say, “Yeah! Do it! It’s not going to affect me.” I’m wondering why you felt you were basically the bottom here. (laughs)

Nutting: Yeah, yeah. I mean, intellectually, what you’re saying makes perfect sense. But that was not how it felt to me. Like that was not how she felt to me. And I mean, I really was a wreck. It was not uncommon for me to just work on the manuscript eight or nine hours a day, not leave the house, not eat except for coffee. It was just manic. And my partner would come home and we’d be talking. He was like, “Where are you?” And it would take me a while to get out from under. I mean, she likes slipped me roofies on the regular.

Correspondent: Wow.

Nutting: I mean, that’s how it felt. I’m like, “What happened? Where am I?” I have these hazy, disturbing images in my head.

Correspondent: Did she cause you to wake up on a park bench somewhere in Cleveland?

Nutting: (laughs) Luckily it didn’t go that far.

Correspondent: So you do have some control against Celeste!

Nutting: I think that if I had resisted her, she would have shown me zero mercy. And, yeah, I would have woken up on a Greyhound bus having urinated all over myself.

Correspondent: You would have knocked on this door and we would have had to check you in somewhere.

(Loops for this program provided by 40a, bdenney, striddy2, and hennasee.)

The Bat Segundo Show #529: Alissa Nutting (Download MP3)

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Elissa Wald (The Bat Segundo Show #528)

Elissa Wald is most recently the author of The Secret Lives of Married Women.

[PROGRAM NOTE: Halfway through this conversation, Our Correspondent, frustrated at getting minor details wrong about Elissa Wald's novel and not establishing a sufficient rapport with Wald, packed up his gear and was prepared to leave, due to his incredibly high standards and his tendency to implicate and incriminate himself when these standards drop. Wald, to her great credit, persuaded Our Correspondent to stay. So in the second half, we describe what went wrong and we talk through it, finding a new area to chat without any notes or prerigged questions. We have aired the conversation in its entirety because it is important to be transparent about flaws as well as strengths.]

Author: Elissa Wald

Play

Subjects Discussed: Returning to New York after living here for eighteen years, Portland, having an accidental noir subconscious sense, expanding a 96 page story into a viable book without padding it out, meeting Charles Ardai, being influenced by Alice Munro, how Munro works a lifetime of material into a short piece, defying the “literary vs. genre” war, authors who use twists to advance narrative, Stephen King, why erotic fiction isn’t taken seriously, Meeting the Master, being beholden to the category whims of bookstore chains, the erotic qualities of reading something aloud, Hysterical Literature, Beautiful Agony, the mind and body relationship and implicating the reader, sexual intimacy at a distance of six feet, literal vs. enhanced intimacy, differing perceptions of soft porn, feelings of class affinity, an unanticipated two part interview format, how Wald first started writing, not being a good singer, passing notes in class as a storytelling medium, early BDSM fantasies, differing notions of slavery, Roots, addressing transgression, noir as a natural vehicle, growing up with non-mainstream longings, the Society for Creative Anachronism, having a radar for BDSM types, mental blue screens of death, the instinct to be drawn to libertine types, first becoming aware of your provocative nature, becoming aware of morality through being provocative, the 7 Most Controversial Erotic Novels, the importance of candor and giving something up, the many different ways to be married, accepting another person’s transgressions, exploring marital truths in fiction, when readers trust novelists on dangerous subjects, and sheer invention vs. fictitious moments that are closer to home.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to bring up Norman Mailer’s review of American Psycho in Vanity Fair in 1991. He was one of the first figures to defend that book. And he wrote, “Nowhere in American literature can one point to an inhumanity of the monied upon the afflicted equal to the following description.” And he proceeded to describe Patrick Bateman’s assault on the bum. Mailer also tied this in with Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil. But this is all very much in line with the first novella in your book, “Man Under the House,” because the treatment that Stas offers this laborer Jack hits many of the same notes. And it got me thinking, “Wow, we really don’t have this idea in fiction these days.” And I wanted to ask. In the last twenty-two years, why do you think American literature has not been especially concerned with this notion of class violence? To what degree were you aware of it? And did you hope to respond to it in any way?

Wald: Well, before we get to that, could you clarify what you mean by Stas’s treatment of the…

Correspondent: Of Jack?

Wald: Yes.

Correspondent: Well, in the sense that there seems to be this strange resentment. Not just in relation to obviously his wife, Leda, but also in relation to how he kind of resents the guy. There’s this moment where he is humiliated in Home Depot. So I picked up on this kind of class resentment that dictates Stas. And we can talk about how also it informs his past in Russia. Because he was indeed a handyman in his early days, as we learn in New York. But that notion of violence with this kind of class-to-class idea attached to it was something that was different and what I don’t usually see in fiction, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to talk with you. One of the reasons I wanted to get your answer on the subject.

Wald: That’s a fascinating question and I actually would not have thought about it that way at all. I don’t think Stas is drawing a distinction between himself and the workman on a class level. I think he just felt like this man is overly interested in my wife. I think he noticed that before the wife did, and that was what he was reacting to.

Correspondent: Even though we have this move from New York to Portland suburbia, where there’s the grand announcement, “Hey! I have a backyard.” And all this. I mean, none of that was really a concern of yours? Were you playing with some of the ideas of middle-class strivings or anything like that? Were you thinking about any of this?

Wald: Not consciously. No. I mean I can’t. People bring all kinds of interpretations to your work. And I never will say, “Oh, that’s not what it’s about.” Because I don’t know, you know? I can only say it’s not consciously what it’s about. It was nowhere in my mind.

Correspondent: Class was never a factor at all?

Wald: It wasn’t.

Correspondent: Wow.

Wald: It never crossed my mind.

Correspondent: What do you think — now that I’ve rambled quite a bit about it, why do you think that I got this particular reaction from it? I mean, were you ever concerned with any socioeconomics at all?

Wald: Well, I guess the one place where I can see what you’re saying maybe is that there’s a moment when Jack is literally under the house. He’s looking at the pipes. And she flashes on this picture of this proletariat wrestling. And so, yeah, I did say a member of the underworld bent on mutiny. So, yeah, this is what I mean. I’m not dismissing your interpretation. Just saying that I wasn’t consciously aware of it for much of the book.

Correspondent: So what interested you about exploring this dynamic with Jack and with Stas? What kept the conflict brewing as you were writing this?

Wald: Well, so interestingly, my husband and I decided to buy a house. There was a very attentive worker next door. And I spun the story into something so much more dramatic and involved than anything that really happened. But something that did happen early on was that my husband really didn’t like this guy right away. And I thought he was overreacting at first. And by the time I started to feel like this guy was overbearing, I didn’t want to tell my husband. And there were a few reasons for that. But one of them was that I thought that if I tell him, then there’s going to be a war. There’s going to be a war on some level. We just moved into this house. This guy is right next door. He’s essentially a neighbor for the time being. I don’t want an open war with this person. We just moved in. I don’t want this around my home. So I think most writers are to an extent a participant/observer in life. So they’re living their lives and they’re very much a participant. But there’s also, I think, a part of the writer’s mind that’s always observing. And so I thought, “Isn’t this interesting? I’m not only becoming nervous about this man. But I feel like he’s driving an emotional wedge between my husband and myself.” And that was fascinating. Even while it was wildly uncomfortable to experience it, it was still fascinating to the writer in me. And so I just took it from there and spun it.

Correspondent: Your husband isn’t Russian by chance?

Wald: He is.

Correspondent: He is! My goodness. So you were really drawing from reality.

Wald: So like a lot of writers — you know I know a lot of writers even give their protagonists their own names. But it’s still fiction. Like Philip Roth does that a lot. So I really do draw honestly from life a lot of the time and yet it’s unequivocally fiction. I make all kinds of stuff up. So it’s really a blur.

Correspondent: Do you have any legal background at all?

Wald: No. I did work for an attorney as an assistant.

Correspondent: Was he blind?

Wald: No. I did work for a blind man.

Correspondent: Oh, okay.

Wald: But he wasn’t a lawyer.

Correspondent: So the first part, interestingly enough, is truer to your life than the second part.

Wald: You know, I think everything’s true to my life on some level. I mean, I identify with all the characters on some level. All the female characters.

Correspondent: In the New York Times Book Review, I wanted to bring up Megan Abbott’s review. She wrote about your book. She brought up James M. Cain’s notion of the “love rack,” which involves finding a way to manipulate the readers into caring for criminal figures. The way into that, she said, is often through lust or desire. That’s how you get that vicarious solicitude for a scumbag. I’m wondering to what degree the idea of planting Leda in this suburban splendor or Lillian in this seemingly stable world, vocationally as an attorney, was kind of your 21st century answer to the love rack. I mean, was one of your goals to reach these vanilla middle-class readers or anything?

Wald: You know, interestingly, we talked a moment ago about how people bring their own interpretations. It was very amusing to me — I mean, Megan Abbott is a phenomenal writer. I appreciated her review deeply. But she imagined that it was a deep, deliberate bow to legendary noir author James M. Cain and I’ve never read a word of Cain in my life.

Correspondent: You have not!

Wald: Never. Not once. Never seen a film based on any of his books. Never given him a moment’s thought.

Correspondent: My goodness.

Wald: So that was interesting to me that she decided that.

Correspondent: Well, and I apparently have done the same thing. My goodness. I mean, have you read any books? (laughs)

Wald: Actually, I think it’s great that people bring their own interpretations. To me, that means it’s speaking directly to a reader’s experience and their frame of reference. So I don’t mind that people do that.

Correspondent: But actually I agree with Megan to a large degree. Because it does fulfill some of the relationship that books have to noir, while simultaneously also breaking from them. And this leads me to ask you. I mean, what kind of criminal fiction or noir have you soaked up? Or are you just basically living a noir life and that’s where it comes from?

Wald: I’ve read almost no noir in my entire life.

Correspondent: (laughs) Wow.

Wald: This is a new genre for me. I didn’t set out to write a crime novel. What happened was that Charles Ardai is a long-time friend of mine. Charles Ardai, the publisher of Hard Case Crime.

Correspondent: He’s great.

Wald: And I have sent him everything I’ve written for the last twenty-five years. Because he’s a great reader. He’s a great editor.

Correspondent: Yes.

Wald: And it never occurred to me ever that I would ever be a Hard Case author. Because I don’t write crime fiction.

Correspondent: Well you do now. (laughs)

Wald: And it’s been wonderful. So I sent him the manuscript, “Man Under the House.” It was just a long story. And I was aware that I was trying my hand at a psychological thriller. But it honestly hadn’t crossed my mind that it was also a crime story. I just hadn’t thought of it that way. So I was astonished when he said, “I want this for Hard Case.” But, no, this isn’t my genre. It’s never been my genre. I’ve read no crime writers. Scott Turow is the one thriller writer that I’ve read and loved.

(Loops for this program provided by mingote and ebaby8119.)

The Bat Segundo Show #528: Elissa Wald (Download MP3)

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Wendy Lower (The Bat Segundo Show #526)

Wendy Lower is most recently the author of Hitler’s Furies, a nonfiction finalist for this year’s National Book Awards, which will be awarded on Wednesday night.

Author: Wendy Lower

Play

Subjects Discussed: Marriage and genocide, the hausfrau who shot at Jews from the balcony, Liesel Willhaus, Hitler’s “baby machine” speech in 1934, Nazi ideology and gender roles, Volksgemeinschaft, Erna Petri, societal cues and massacring children, the fluidity of women’s personality in 1930s Germany, women in higher education restricted from participation, women who advanced up the social ladder, the League of German Girls, upward mobility among German women existing before the Nazi regime, Michael Wildt, looking at history through mundane everyday activities, Leni Riefenstahl’s rally footage, organized marches as rituals, looking at the motives for people who participated in these marches, concentrating on the half million women in the Eastern territories where communities of violence flourished, the Red Swastika Sisters, women serving as nurses, Annette Schücking, women listening to men boasting of massacres and being forced to comfort them, Nazis socializing by looking down at the inferior to affirm their superiority, Claudia Koonz’s Mothers in the Fatherland, women’s complicity in Nazi crimes, secretaries and bosses organizing massacres together, complicity in the workplace, shooting people from balconies, differing ideas about Vera Wohlauf, Christopher Browning’s claim of men feeling uncomfortable by Wohlauf’s presence because it made them feel shameful, Goldhagen’s ideas of men proud of their acts, genocide as men’s work, Browning’s Ordinary Men, German women using their pregnant condition to reduce their perceived culpability, the question of whether being close to the Miedzyrzec Aktion makes you an accomplice to atrocities, terrorizing by attendance, defining women’s culpability in relation to men, Gertrude Segel and Felix Landau, why it’s taken so long to consider women as part of the Nazi regime, how focusing on killing centers shifts the dialogue away from exploring violence within the general population during the Holocaust, how the German and Austrian courts excluded witness testimony after the war, how many women committing atrocities were allowed to return to regular life, cruelty focused on eroticized forms by the courts, the 500 women vs. the 20,00 men who stood trial after the war, low conviction rates, the Lemberg Trial, appearance stereotypes, the curious case of Johanna Altvater Zelle (aka Fräulein Hanna), how masculine appearances of women “explained” barbaric behavior, the natural Germanic ideal and its role in Nazi crimes (and subsequent exoneration), Nazi cowgirl types, Karl May, Nazi ideas of the wild west, German women telling journalists, scholars, and historians exactly what they wanted to hear (and how scholars have sorted out the truth from the hyperbole), the choices that women had under the Nazi regime, euthanasia programs, duty prevailing over morality, executed women, Nazi Empire Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine, resistance figure Maria Kondratenko, women who took advantage of the Nazi idea that women were intellectually inferior, why gender matters in looking at the Holocaust, the Black Misha, how secretaries were responsible for the administrative part of the Holocaust, workplace relationships and Nazi socialization, Nazi consumer culture, German women who were raped, and questioning the narrative of innocence.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Let’s discuss the idea of genocide as men’s work under the Nazi regime. There was this duty to serve the Reich and anyone who was considered work-shy was sent to a concentration camp, of course, to be reeducated. Men were expected to go out and perform an Aktion, which meant of course massacring Jews. You have this idea of marriage, where a woman had to be fulfilled with domestic work while she was simultaneously subordinate to her husband. But then you have people like Liesel Willhaus. She would often shoot at Jewish slaves working on her villa from her second story balcony for the sport of it. So I’m wondering. To what degree were figures like Willhaus responding to Nazi societal cues and to what degree were they reacting to these gender roles that were associated with work?

Lower: You know, in a speech that Hitler gave in 1934 at one of the rallies, he was very explicit. He said that women are supposed to serve their Reich to propagate the race. As baby machines, as it were. He didn’t use that term. But that’s kind of how we’ve come to understand it. But he also mentioned using the term “fellow combatants,” which I refer to in my book. And I do that deliberately to show that there were two strands of thinking in Nazi ideology vis-à–vis women and gender roles. One was obviously predominantly racial: the drive to expand the German race. But that drive to expand the German race was about survival. And survival was about militarized operations and it was expansion of the living space and building of the empire. So you have women in the role of the expansion of the German population to fulfill these megalomaniac global ambitions of Hitler’s and also serving as fellow combatants. There you see this paradox, where you see the kind of femininity of the hausfrau, of the mother, of the wife. But they also are mobilized in these campaigns. And the uniform culture, for instance, that is very a clear theme in my book, when these young women like Liesel Willhaus aspire to seek careers through the party and better themselves. They’re swept up in this fervor when they’re mobilized to go to the Eastern territories. She was sent to the Ukraine in this case. So there’s social mobility that is possible in the Volksgemeinschaft. But it has both this traditional feminine role as well as this very militaristic revolutionary experiment.

Correspondent: I guess what I’m trying to unravel here — I mean, I looked also to Erna Petri. She comes to the East in June 1942, observing her husband Horst beating and sexually assaulting servants shortly after arriving in Thuringia. By the summer of 1943, she’s already not only an accomplished hausfrau hostess, but she invites six starving Jewish children in and she shoots them in the back of the head. She had heard other Nazis saying that this was the best way to dispose of them. And the thing that fascinates me, and I’m hoping to hear you unravel, is how this kind of societal cue of “This is the best way to shoot a child” — how is that tied into what it was to be a hausfrau hostess or be this woman who, as you put it earlier, Hitler called a baby machine?

Lower: Yeah. The Nazi experiment tested all kinds of boundaries of matrimony, femininity, child rearing. These are all coming out, I think, in these individual cases that I delve into in a way, in which I’m putting faces on this lost generation of women and straightening out these different examples of those who went east. And you’ve focused on the worst cases. And the killer Erna Petri is probably the most extreme case in the book that really is the most shocking. But we see even in her case that she starts out as an ordinary farmgirl, a farmer’s daughter from a town near Erfurt, near Weimar, and attaches herself to a rising star in the SS movement, is then sent east with him to one of these plantations. And they’re kind of lording over this estate. So they have a lot of unsupervised power over the laborers on the estate. And you mentioned Jewish boys who fled the boxcar that was headed to Sobibor in ’43. And she slipped in and out of multiple roles at any given moment. She was both self-aware of being part of this revolution and wanting to assert herself, to prove herself. But then she had been socialized in traditional ways of how one should behave as a hausfrau, as a mother. And these are coming together. There’s a perversion that takes place here of these gender roles that are instrumentalized in the genocide. So you have a lot of tension in this history between racial ideals, gendered stereotypes, and this extreme violence that comes together. In the Eastern territories in particular.

Correspondent: But would you say that a particular gender role encouraged, “Hey, since this is the best way to dispose of a Jewish child, I will quite naturally fall into this because of the state.” I’ll later get into the fascinating postwar trials, in which a lot of these women got away. But I am curious, first and foremost, how many of these roles amalgamated into something where — is it even possible to unravel? It is even possible to isolate what could cause someone in one year to go to this state of being a hausfrau hostess who thinks nothing of shooting a child in the back of the head?

Lower: I think that these transformations were not — it’s a very fluid situation. They’re kind of moving back and forth. And this is after some intense socialization in the ’30s. So Erna Petri is born in 1920. In the 1920s, she was very young. But this was kind of the heyday of the explosion of women’s activity in politics. They gained the vote. So you have the politicization of women. And then boom. She’s coming of age in the ’30s in that kind of atmosphere. But it’s being shaped by this genocidal Nazi regime, which is highly ideological. And she said even in her testimony that the indoctrination of the ’30s was her motive, that she had been taught to hate Jews. And so she’s learning things along the way as well. And there’s a lot of leeway. There’s a lot of room for maneuvering too that we see in her behavior and many women like her, which was exciting for them and empowering. They were acting out. They didn’t assume that this regime was going to come to a screeching halt and be defeated. They just saw career tracks opening up. Bright futures in front of them. And especially someone like Petri and some of the wives of these SS men. They had entered into this new nobility under Himmler. And that was another level of being part of a community. And their actions, of course, because of the emphasis on this racial community. Volksgemeinschaft is a German term. People’s community. One could act out individually, but also understand one’s actions within this society. So later on for instance, not to jump too far ahead, someone like Erna Petri and many male perpetrators who find in their testimony these kinds of defense rationales in the courtroom, I don’t know how deep they went in terms of their own psychology, in which they literally state, “I feel myself.” They use the reflexive case in German. “I don’t feel myself to be guilty.” They don’t appreciate the individual responsibility and culpability because of the pervasiveness of this social experiment, being part of a national revolution and how unity and duty were so heavily stressed more than, say, morality.

Correspondent: Hitler, as you say — this whole “baby machine.” I want to go with this further. Basically, he said that a mother of multiple children was more beneficial to the Nazi regime than a woman lawyer. There were quotas in place preventing women from obtaining these degrees in higher education and political office. You point to upward mobility in this book as one of the big reasons why these women left villages and they saw jobs. Vera Wohlauf, she advanced up the social ladder through this office encounter and by marrying this wealthy merchant. So you didn’t have a lot of choices. But there were ways around this. How much of these ambitions emerged from, say, the League of German Girls, which was the girl answer to the Hitler Youth, and how did disregarding and humiliating Jews in the pre-Kristallnacht period lead to this alternative empowerment for women? It’s extraordinarily strange and I’m just trying to isolate certain aspects of this.

Lower: When I talk about the socialization during the Nazi regime, let me break that down. So, for instance, the League of German Girls was compulsory after the mid-’30s. So anyone — and with the boys as well obviously — after the age of ten, they had to be part of these youth movements. And they predominated and swallowed up all the other activities. I mean, the Nazi Party was really clever, insidiously so, in mobilizing the youth. They didn’t need to shut down the churches as such. They would just hold a lot of party meetings in these youth programs on Sunday morning. So people couldn’t go to church. Or they, of course, infiltrated the entire education system. The textbooks were completely rewritten. So each of these professional groups were somehow restructured along party lines as a one party system. Now in the beginning, thousands of German women — ordinary German women; Jewish women among them — who had been very active politically in the 1920s in the Communist movement, in the Social Democratic Party, the Catholic Center Party, other parties that the Nazis were destroying basically in ’33 as they consolidated their dictatorship — these women, especially the Communists, were sought out, arrested, and many were killed. And German women were also victims of sterilization policies. About 200,000. So within the German female population, already an early part of the ’30s, those who might be resistant to these policies are being weeded out, terrorized, incarcerated, and so forth. And so some like the individuals in my book — Erna Petri, Vera — they’re not part of that. They’ve survived that and they’ve triumphed. And now they’ve got this bright future ahead of them. And they can get out of there. Liesel Willhaus was the daughter of a foreman in a czar land. Worked on a chicken farm. And those who were not the killers in my book — the witnesses and bystanders — were similar demographics. They didn’t have educations beyond grammar school. They had secretarial training or nursing. Obviously nursing training was essential for the war effort. That particular career path was opened up. So this is how the socialization happens and what it means in terms of how women’s lives and their futures shift into these different directions under the regime.

The Bat Segundo Show #526: Wendy Lower (Download MP3)

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Terry Teachout (The Bat Segundo Show #525)

Terry Teachout is most recently the author of Duke. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #314.

[PROGRAM NOTE: There are a few modest errors in this program, all of them spoken by Our Correspondent. Our Correspondent referred to the "National Front," when he meant the "Popular Front." He misstated the year of Duke Ellington's comeback concert at the Newport Jazz Festival. It was 1956, not 1959. There are also a number of moments where Our Correspondent refers to Duke Ellington as "the Duke." We strive to keep this show as accurate as possible and apologize for these errors.]

Author: Terry Teachout

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Subjects Discussed: Guther Schuller’s Early Jazz, vertical harmony vs. horizontal melody, the way Ellington used his musicians, David Hajdu’s Lush Life, Ellington’s exploitation of Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s ability to attract women close to his death, attempts to track Strayhorn’s true contributions, what pop songs reveal about Ellington’s composition skills, transformative art vs. plagiarism, the Cotton Club, playing racially segregated venues, broadcasting on CBS Radio, William Paley, Irving Mills as publicist and manager, Ellington’s terrible management skills, his tolerance of drunken and drugged up musicians, Paul Gonslaves, Ellington’s comeback at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show with Herman’s Hermits, the decline of jazz and the rise of R&B, the ribald songs of the 1920s written by Jimmy McHugh, Bessie Smith’s “Kitchen Man”, Dorothy Fields’s lyrics, high-class talents writing smutty songs, Ellington’s emulation of pop, why Duke Ellington is sexy, the suggestive qualities of “Warm Valley,” Ellington’s remarkable promiscuity (and his adroit skills in using as many as four hotel rooms at once in one city), the influence of Bubber Miley’s solo on “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” on Jimi Hendrix’s wah-wah, how Ellington surrounded himself with master musicians, viewing Ellington as the auteur of the band, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, why Ellington’s band members kept coming back, Cootie Williams leaving Ellington’s band for Benny Goodman, Raymond Scott’s “When Cootie Left the Duke,” Clark Terry, why Ellington’s best soloists didn’t function as well when they tried to make a break on their own, Billy Strayhorn’s body of work, the one interview that Edna Ellington gave to Ebony, the circumstances that caused Duke’s scar on his left cheek, why Duke and Edna stayed married, Duke’s philandering, Ellington’s fear and distrust of women, the value of Betty McGettigan’s oral history, networks of Ellington gossip, plausible vs. usable material, the mysterious Countess Fernanda de Castro Monte, fakes who contain multitudes, women who are prepared to lick the feet of geniuses, Ellington’s contradictory politics, Ellington’s idea of fighting segregation through paying people, his views on the 1963 March on Washington, Ellington winning the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, Ellington’s Popular Front activities, Jump for Joy, Ellington’s pecuniary political commitment, fame and money as the road to equality, being a member of the black bourgeoisie, Ellington’s devastation over not getting the Pulitzer Prize, the tight-lipped Teachout moment, John Hammond’s inept evisceration of “Reminiscing in Tempo,” the difficulties of synthesizing one man’s life, Mercer Ellington, quintessential connections between geniuses and their talented sons, the 1941 ASCAP strike, Herb Jeffries, John Garfield’s questionable suggestions about makeup, lighter skinned performers asked to darken their skin, Ellington’s sensitivity to questions of intra-prejudice, clueless white audiences and Duke, Ellington playing country clubs, the working life of a musician, Duke taking care of his fellow musicians, being beholden to marketing demands, a spontaneous 1940 recording in Fargo, North Dakota, the convergence of popular and sophisticated tastes.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I want to start with a very geeky musical technical question. You point out that Duke Ellington thought almost exclusively in terms of vertical harmony rather than horizontal melody, that his best-known tunes were little more than elaborations on the top notes of chord progressions. You quote Gunther Schuller in Early Jazz about him noticing, “The parallel blocks of sound he favors so predominantly are handled with such variety that we as listeners never notice the lack of occasional contrapuntal relief.” You suggest that this compositional liability, which Duke was, in fact, able to work around led him to rely on other composers, other musicians, other band members. And, of course, he didn’t always share credit. So I’m wondering. To what degree was Duke himself aware of this creative liability? How was he able to keep so many of his collaborators, and even the audience who was listening to him, in the dark about this for so long?

Teachout: Well, a lot of it has to do with the fact that Ellington was the biggest public personality in his band. I mean, his great soloists, except for Ben Webster, who was known to beat up people, tended not to have that kind of flashy personality. So even though, if you look at the credits of a song like “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” You see Johnny Hodges’s name on there. You’re not going to think Hodges. You’re going to think of Ellington. Because Ellington is the trademark of the Ellington Band. And this is even true in the case of Billy Strayhorn, a composer of equal quality and I think equal genius to Ellington. But Strayhorn is completely in the background, doesn’t appear with the band. Maybe a half dozen times in the band’s whole life. I’ve only seen one bit of film with Strayhorn playing with the Ellington Band at a gig. So even though for the last fifteen years or so of their working together their albums were jointly credited to Ellington and Strayhorn, and that’s to be taken very seriously, the fact is that if you don’t know the score, if you don’t know how important Strayhorn is, you’re going to assume that Ellington is the senior partner.

Correspondent: Yeah. And actually there’s also a wonderful book by David Hajdu, Lush Life, as well. Let’s talk about Strayhorn. He’s one of the tragic figures in this book.

Teachout: Yes.

Correspondent: He’s a man who has composed and arranged many of Duke’s finest moments. Duke, as we are implying here and establishing here, was an incessant credit hog. And he strung Strayhorn along for decades. So I’m wondering. What was it about Duke’s charisma? It was so formidable that he even attracted women when he came close to death, when he was ill. Which was really impressive, I gotta say! (laughs)

Teachout: (laughs) I was pretty amazed by that myself. Yes.

Correspondent: What caused people like Strayhorn and other people who were robbed of their credit — what kept them coming back to Duke?

Teachout: He was what he was. He was a genius. I mean, Strayhorn became what he became because Ellington was his model. And also we have to talk about the specific nature of Strayhorn’s life and personality and why it worked for him to work for Ellington. Billy Strayhorn was a homosexual. You were not a homosexual who was out and a public figure. Least of all if you were black in the world of jazz in the ’30s and ’40s. This was not an option for Strayhorn. And Strayhorn, who was completely at ease with his sexuality, wished to live his life the way he wanted to live it. So he made a kind of bargain — with himself, with the world, and with Ellington — that he would remain on the sidelines. Ellington would pay him — quite generously as a matter of fact. Strayhorn essentially had the equivalent of a drawing account and could pretty much do whatever he wanted. And in return for this, in supplying this music and writing hundreds of uncredited arrangements for Ellington, he just steps back into the shadows and lets Edward, as he always called him — “We’ll let Edward do that” would be Strayhorn’s line. And Ellington, unlike Strayhorn, was not only a creative personality, but a kind of theatrical figure. Now one of Duke Ellington’s greatest creations was Duke Ellington, the man who goes out on stage with the fabulous outfits and the baggy eyes and the gorgeous bass baritone voice and the catchphrases. And he charms your socks off. Now even if he couldn’t have done all this, he would have still been Duke Ellington the great composer. But because he served it up with all that frosting, people whom might not otherwise have been drawn to him and especially, when we talk about race again, drawn to a black man in the ’20s and ’30s, this is a different kind of black man. This is the elegant presentable fellow. And that is an important part of what Ellington was. And Strayhorn knew, consciously or not, that he needed this kind of front man to lead the kind of life he wanted to lead and be able to have that great Ellington Band play his music the way it played Ellington’s music.

Correspondent: Do we really know in 2013 the full extent of Strayhorn’s contributions to Ellington? Because it’s come out over and over in the last several decades. We have suddenly understood, “Well, he did this. He did this.”

Teachout: It’s completely knowable now. Because the manuscripts have survived. And a lot of people in Ellington’s life and in Strayhorn’s life, and for many years after it, speculated about who wrote what. Now it’s not a matter of speculation. We know right down to the fact that Billy Strayhorn wrote the last ten bars of Ellington’s Harlem, for example. That’s the level of specificity that we’re talking about. So there is a debunking line that’s gotten about, that Strayhorn was the power behind the throne. And that’s just not true. In the suites that they wrote together, Strayhorn would normally compose maybe between a third and a quarter of the numbers. They were not written jointly. The movements are separate. There’s a Strayhorn movement. There’s an Ellington movement.

Correspondent: You describe that moment in the hotel room where they’re trading off. One’s asleep. The other composing.

Teachout: It’s a wonderful story.

Correspondent: There’s a monster movie playing in the background.

Teachout: It’s an unusual thing to have happen. So Strayhorn’s contribution is immensely important. And he didn’t get, for these complicated reasons we’ve talked about, complete credit for it. But most of the music that we believe is written by Duke Ellington is written by Duke Ellington, including virtually all of his major instrumental works. The real problem of attribution with Ellington is the pop songs. For me, that was the big surprise. When I started to go systematically into the Ellington output, I heard stories about this. I heard stories about that. But suddenly, as I looked at the work as a totality, the light went on. And I realized, “Well, of course! It’s the pop songs. Because he’s not a natural melody writer.” It stands to reason that that would be where he went. To those natural melody improvisers like Johnny Hodges.

Correspondent: Pop songs not only reveal Duke’s limitations. It also reveals how much he plundered from other people.

Teachout: Yes. That’s right. But there’s another side of it. It also reveals what his essential contribution is. In a song like “Sophisticated Lady” — that’s the most striking example of this — the main strain is by Lawrence Brown, the trombone player. The bridge, the release is by Otto Hardwick, the alto saxophone player. But it was Duke Ellington’s idea to take these two bar fragments and put them together in a 32 bar pop song and harmonize them and orchestrate it and create the total composition that we know as “Sophisticated Lady.” So who wrote what? The question is, and the answer is, Ellington didn’t write the melody. But it is his composer’s mind that took these two found objects, if you want to put it that way, and transformed them into the song “Sophisticated Lady.” So it’s a complex attribution problem. You can’t just sum it up by saying, “Oh yes. Duke Ellington was a plagiarist.” Duke Ellington was never — in the sense that a literary person normally uses the term — a plagiarist. He didn’t steal without telling you and then you looked up six months later and your work was in print under his name.

Correspondent: He was not the Jonah Lehrer of… (laughs)

Teachout: No, sir. Not in the slightest. Was he scrupulous? Not always. And sometimes he was entirely unscrupulous. And sometimes unscrupulous things were done in his name. A fair number of Strayhorn pieces — the royalties were copyrighted in Ellington’s name. But there’s no reason to assume that Ellington himself was responsible for that. It may, in some cases, just have been sloppy bookkeeping. But when Strayhorn finally did look into this, he was horrified and it led to a temporary break between the two men and ultimately to the renegotiation of billing that created the later Ellington/Strayhorn compositions where they always get equal billing.

Correspondent: I’m abashed almost to say this. But I have not once mentioned the Cotton Club in more than 500 shows of Bat Segundo.

Teachout: (laughs)

Correspondent: So thank goodness you wrote about it, Terry!

Teachout: Now’s the time.

Correspondent: Now is the time. And I wanted to get into this. You know, here was a segregated venue. A place that paid its performers quite handsomely.

Teachout: And mobbed up to the eyebrows.

Correspondent: That’s right. Langston Hughes railed against how most whites who attended the Cotton Club saw the cabarets rather than the houses of Harlem. Duke played there. But he didn’t really mention this other aspect of the Cotton Club in his memoir, Music is My Mistress.

Teachout: Right.

Correspondent: But he also broadcast on CBS Radio from the Cotton Club. This risk taken by William Paley. And he got the attention of the press simultaneously by playing midtown clubs. So he has these broadcasts through CBS that give him that national attention while simultaneously it had me wondering. Was there any other way for Duke to make his way to CBS without the Cotton Club? Was he going to face racial segregation no matter what path he took?

Teachout: Oh sure. Remember. We’re talking about 1927, 1928. Black bands get paid less. They get inferior gigs. So suddenly Ellington gets this break. And it’s an extraordinary break. The price he pays for it is he’s coming into a segregated club in the middle of Harlem, where the only way that a black person can get in is if he is very famous and then they put him in a table in a corner. Preferably in the shadows. But in return for that, the Cotton Club’s got a national radio wire on CBS. Every rich person in New York is going to hear him. The word gets around. And that radio wire suddenly puts Duke Ellington in your living room, no matter where you live. So I think the biggest break that ever happened to Duke Ellington was meeting Irving Mills. The second biggest — and it’s related to this — is going into the Cotton Club. That and Mills’s publicity campaign, presenting Ellington as a different kind of black man — you fuse those together and you get the root to the great success that Ellington had by the ’30s.

Correspondent: But when Mills was no longer around, Ellington seems to collapse. Did he really take any hard lessons? Did any of the hard lessons he learned from Mills get taken to heart in later years? Because I was reading this book and my mouth was agog at what a terrible organizer he was. He tolerated his band coming at odd hours. Any hour. Even not showing up to the actual gig. He tolerated musicians who were hopped up on heroin, who were alcoholic.

Teachout: His was the most irresponsible band maybe in jazz. But you have to remember that Duke Ellington had a very clear sense of priorities. He knew what he wanted. He wanted a band that would play his music every night. He was willing to put up with an enormous amount of nonsense from extraordinarily gifted players. Because they were the particular guys that he wanted on the stand at the time. He was never a businessman. And when he worked with organized businessmen after Mills — well, Mills really ran the show. But after that, they had to do things within the parameters of the way Ellington wanted them to be done. You know, if you’d brought in a hardass manager in 1956 to transform the situation with the Ellington Band, probably the first thing you would have done would have been to fire Paul Gonsalves, this man who was simultaneously an alcoholic and a heroin addict, who would nod off on the bandstand. But if you made that smart business decision, then you wouldn’t have had Paul Gonsalves on the bandstand for the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, where he plays a million choruses and “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” and the crowd explodes and Ellington is on the cover of Time Magazine. So I think in the long run, Ellington wasn’t interested in money. He wanted an operation that would allow him to lead the life he wanted, which was a life on the road, a life where a lot of women were passing through his life, a life lived in hotel rooms, and a life where his music gets played every night. He didn’t want to be a millionaire. He wouldn’t have known what to do with it.

Correspondent: But before that 1956 Newport appearance, he is really on the skids. I mean, it seems as if he is not going to come back. But even with that Newport appearance that is a huge sensation, he’s going onto Ed Sullivan and he’s sharing the bill with Herman’s Hermits.

Teachout: Well, yes, the world has changed. Ellington predates the Big Band era. But it was the booster rocket that made him the culture celebrity that he was in the ’40s. But he outlived it. After World War II, first big bands themselves become financially dicey. And then the whole flavor of pop music changes. You have rhythm and blues, which soaks up the black audience that was formerly in jazz. You have rock and roll becoming the lingua franca of modern music. And so by ’56, Ellington was perceived pretty widely as yesterday’s news. And it wasn’t just him. It was everybody who was playing that kind of music. This incredible good fortune that he had, of coming into the Newport Jazz Festival and getting on the cover of Time Magazine, which pretty much insured that for the rest of his life people who didn’t necessarily know much about jazz would know who he was. And you mentioned Ed Sullivan. Television exposure generally, but Sullivan in particular, is enormously important to Ellington in those last twenty years of his life. Because he is, as we said earlier, this personality. I looked through thousands of photographs to choose the ones for the book and they’re all good. You can’t take a bad picture of Duke Ellington. So you put a guy like that on television. And television was made for him. Just like it was made for Louis Armstrong. So even if Ellington went on Ed Sullivan — maybe he wasn’t playing particularly what you wanted to hear or the bill was an odd mixed one — the fact was that it was going out to the largest audience in television.

Correspondent: But I think we’re straying away from the point I’m trying to get from you. We were talking about how Ellington was a terrible organizer while simultaneously he’s facing the reality of rock and roll becoming a dominant part of the culture and rhythm and blues taking away the audience. I mean, he faced Frank Sinatra before. If he was yesterday’s news, could any amount of mad organization revive his career? I mean, he had so many shots there with the Newport thing and all that.

Teachout: If he’d lived another fifteen years, I don’t know what his life would have been like. He and Louis Armstrong, who died around the same time. Early to mid ’70s. Remember that Armstrong made the last number one pop single, “Hello Dolly,” which was jazz. After that, never again. So they may have died at a particularly fortuitous moment. It would have gotten harder for Ellington. The bookings, they weren’t drying up. But they were becoming more difficult in the ’70s. You know, part of genius is having good timing. And maybe he knew when to make the exit.

The Bat Segundo Show #525: Terry Teachout II (Download MP3)

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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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J. Michael Lennon (The Bat Segundo Show #523)

J. Michael Lennon is most recently the author of Norman Mailer: A Double Life. This conversation also references essays contained in the new Mailer collection, Mind of an Outlaw.

Author: J. Michael Lennon

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Subjects Discussed: Mind of an Outlaw, Jonathan Lethem’s thoughts on Mailer, why Mailer couldn’t control his expressive impulses, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” Gary Gilmore, addressing thoughts raised by Richard Brody concerning why Mailer didn’t mine from his boyhood, Mailer’s relationship with Brooklyn, the difficulty of finding out about Mailer’s high school days, Mailer vs. Bellow, Mailer’s mayoral results vs. Anthony Weiner’s mayoral results, the formation of Mailer’s politics, how Mailer was manipulated by the Kennedys, Mailer’s bizarre filmmaking career, the “Oh god! Oh man!” moment from Tough Guys Don’t Dance, the Rip Torn/Norman Mailer brawl during the filming of Maidstone, D.A. Pennebaker, the spirit of assassination summer, Mailer as Norman T. Kingsley, when Method acting goes too far, Rip Torn’s Mailer-like qualities, Mailer taking out ads where he quoted from his bad reviews, William Buckley’s joke on Mailer, how Mailer was played as a fool by the literary community before The Armies of the Night, writing An American Dream as a serial novel, Mailer’s hot streak during the late 1960s, Mailer’s battle to write during The Deer Park, prolificity and deadlines, Mailer’s convoluted form of writing discipline, Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain as model, sprint writing, Mailer’s inability to fulfill his ambitious multi-novel project in the 1970s, setting crazed ambitions, the sporadic quality of Mailer’s fiction, Lethem’s “Mailer is parts” assessment, Mailer’s sense of humiliation, Jack Henry Abbott, why Mailer’s efforts to spring Abbott weren’t as influential as people thought, how Mailer left Abbott to be cared for by Norris, why people believed in Mailer, the belief culture of the 1970s, Abbot’s murder of Richard Adan, Mailer’s famous “culture is worth a little risk” remark, Mailer’s belief that there was a morsel of good within very evil people, literature as a way to save your soul, Mailer’s willingness to appear foolish at a press conference after Abbott vs. Dave Eggers’s silence in response to Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Cynthia Ozick’s famous response to Mailer in Town Bloody Hall, Germaine Greer’s desire to sleep with Mailer, Mailer’s disastrous positions on feminism and women writers, Mailer’s simultaneous fury and chivalry, Mailer’s forthcoming letter collection, the stabbing of Adele Morales, why Lennon didn’t reveal details about his telephone conversation with Adele, responding to Louis Menand’s criticisms, The Last Party, how Adele has lived in recent years, other first-hand accounts of the party, Mailer’s diary, why the literary community forgave Mailer easily and ganged up on Adele Mailer (and blamed her for the stabbing!), what men were able to get away with in the pre-feminism days, Mailer’s bizarre pattern recognition schemes, his interest and Reich and the orgone box, the Kakutani file, Mailer’s attempt to connect biorhythms to a football team’s success, why Mailer was receptive to charlatans, how Mailer detected bad omens in rooms, transcendentalism, Mailer’s numerous accents, Dwight Macdonald, Brendan Behan, Mailer’s love for The Sopranos, Mailer’s attempts to escape his identity, why people kept coming back to Mailer, Mailer’s desire to know other people’s stories, Mailer’s sensitivity to interruptions, serving as Mailer’s bartenders, Mailer’s relationship with Gore Vidal, Mailer referring to himself in the third person in his nonfiction, Occupy Wall Street, how The Armies of the Night came about, Picasso’s influence, Henry Adams, early stylistic versions of The Armies of the Night, the difficulties of putting yourself in a story, Mailer’s formidable memory during The Armies of the Night, Robert Lowell, the 1967 March on the Pentagon, Noam Chomsky’s influence on Armies, how Alfred Kazin and Joan Didion’s reviews saved Mailer’s reputation, the contemporary decline of culture, cultural engagement, and contemplating whether today’s conditions could allow for a Mailer type today.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I want to get into this book by tying it into this recently published collection, Mind of an Outlaw, which I also have right here and I have also been reading. Jonathan Lethem’s introduction contends with thoughts he had previously voiced in an essay that was collected in The Ecstasy of Influence. He points out that he “buried the man before I even began to try to figure out how to praise him.” Part of accepting Mailer, I have found in both reading the biography and in reading the essays and in reading various other work, is that you have to put up with the fact that he will say something utterly brilliant one minute and then he’ll say something utterly foolish the next. He will trash Waiting for Godot without actually bothering to see it. He will dig himself out of a hole of his own making. So why do you think Mailer could not really control these expressive impulses? Why did he need to court disaster?

Lennon: Well, you know, some questions answer themselves by being asked. He couldn’t control his impetuous nature. He was — I’ve said it many times — the most impetuous person I’ve ever met in my life. If he felt the instinct, he followed the instinct. And that’s part of it. His notion of the existential life was “Listen to what’s going on inside you. Don’t preplan everything. Don’t have guidelines and rules and restrictions and guide ropes. Jump into life.” And what did he say? He said, “It’s better to expire as a devil in a fire than an angel in the wings.” So it was part of his nature to be that way. And so he got himself in a lot of trouble. With the feminists, with literary critics, with his friends. By being impetuous, outrageous. In his literary criticism, I felt that it was sitting next to him in a little bar in Provincetown, drinking bourbon with him, and listening to tell stories about Gore Vidal and James Jones. Because his literary criticism can’t be separated from his intimate personal knowledge of them.

Correspondent: This is the rare case where you actually have to know his life to know his work.

Lennon: Yes, I think you do. I really do.

Correspondent: Well, the title of this book comes from a famous passage in Mailer’s essay, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” where he points to how American history was moving along two rivers: one visible, the other underground. Mailer also spent much of his life trying to wrestle with this saint and the psychopath duality, which he was later to apply to Gary Gilmore. You’ve traced the origins of this to Mailer reading Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and I’m wondering to what degree Mailer’s dualities come from concepts that he read and he wished to hold onto in his mind and he wished to play around with in this elastic, impetuous nature of expression.

Lennon: I think that the reading came a little bit later, but it was a confirmation. He was forever finding confirmations for what he sensed were the two people living inside him. And where did that come from? Well, I think initially it came from the fact that, when he was a young boy growing up in New Jersey and in Brooklyn, he was the center of attention. Everything was focused on him. And yet when he went out into the Brooklyn streets, he was a skinny little kid. There were a lot of Irish tough guys around. He was fearful. He was timid. He was small. And he realized that there was this gap between the two sides of his life. He was no one on the streets and he was everyone at home. I think that was the beginning of it. And then he looked for confirmation of that in places. And when he read Kierkegaard, seeing that there were a lot of connections between the saint and the psychopath and in their passionate way of living their lives, he realized there’s the clue. That was one of the clinchers for him. Absolutely.

Correspondent: What’s interesting though is that you point out that there really isn’t a lot of information about his high school days.

Lennon: Right.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering. What searches did you do to try to find something out? I mean, was it just that everybody was dead? Or nobody wanted to talk? What happened here?

Lennon: My chief sources for his high school years were some of the other biographies where people interviewed some of his friends, but also his sister. His sister and her best friend Rhoda: two young women who were a couple of years younger than Norman, but who watched him. They knew his girlfriends. They knew what was going on. They found him to be an utterly charming person. But Mailer said that his life was kind of quiet. He’d go to high school. Everybody thought he was studious, quiet, boring. And when he went home, he had to do homework. He had to go to Hebrew class, religious classes which he loathed, but he went anyway for a long time. And there wasn’t really that much time. I mean, the friends that he had said Norman didn’t get out much. They kept him on a close leash. I know that somebody just wrote a piece on the New Yorker blog.

Correspondent: Richard Brody, yeah.

Lennon: Richard Brody. Wonderful piece. But he said Mailer never wrote a Brooklyn novel. He did. He wrote a novel called No Percentage and it’s set in Brooklyn. He also wrote thirty short stories about Brooklyn when he was in college. So, you know, writing thirty short stories, writing an unpublished and unpublishable novel which is set in Brooklyn, and then, of course, The Naked and the Dead has a couple of real Brooklyn characters in it. Writes Barbary Shore, which is also a Brooklyn novel. I think he was sick of Brooklyn by the middle ’50s and he didn’t want to write about it anymore and he felt that not much happened to him in high school. There wasn’t an awful lot to write about. He was a good student, but good students were boring. I mean, athletes were the heroes.

Correspondent: But it was rather curious. I thought Brody’s essay was extremely interesting.

Lennon: It was.

Correspondent: Because he seemed to think that, because Mailer couldn’t actually look backward in adulthood, this crippled his ability to write fiction. And he had a lot of trouble writing fiction between the years of The Naked and the Dead and The Armies of the Night.

Lennon: Yes, he did.

Correspondent: So is there any kind of biographical information to sort of back that up? Did he make any kind of plunges into his boyhood after these stories you mentioned in later years? Or anything like that?

Lennon: No. Brooklyn was always a touchstone. When he wrote Miami and the Siege of Chicago, he compared Chicago to Brooklyn. He said that they were very similar, that there was a lot of life, that there was a lot of reality, that there were authentic people. He liked that about both Brooklyn and Chicago. Of course, he wrote An American Dream in 1964 and 1965. That was a Manhattan novel. But it was still a quintessential novel. And you got the feeling that Rojack was a guy who had escaped from Brooklyn and made it in Manhattan. And, of course, in those days, that’s what everyone wanted to do if you came from Brooklyn. They wanted to make it in Manhattan. So I think that Brody makes some wonderful points, but I feel that Mailer didn’t want to get bogged down in Brooklyn. Oh, there’s another point too. I was talking with Mailer’s sister about it this morning. And she said, “I can tell you another reason he didn’t want to write another novel about Brooklyn.” She said he read Meyer Levin’s novel, The Old Bunch. And while it’s set in Chicago, he read it and he goes, “This is it! He’s caught the middle-class Jewish family. I can’t ever improve on this!” And he loved that book. So there were multiple reasons for it. But also I think the fundamental reason was that Mailer wanted to play on a bigger stage. He wanted the New York stage and that wasn’t big enough for him. He wanted America to be his stage. He didn’t want to be seen as merely a Brooklyn writer.

Correspondent: It’s interesting how he really admired Meyer Levin, but actually dissed Augie March, which to my mind is the quintessential American novel.

Lennon: I couldn’t agree with you more. But I think Mailer was so competitive with Bellow. He rarely had a good word to say about Bellow until the ’80s. Everything he said about Bellow: Bellow was basically a professor who was spewing out his old ideas from his classes on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and he wasn’t really getting out and experiencing life. Which Mailer felt he was doing. Did he have a good word? You know, in his literary criticism, he finally admitted when he read Henderson and the Rain King, he said, “Alright. I’m going to eat crow. This is a hell of a character worthy of Huckleberry Finn.” So he had that generous streak, but it vied with the competitive steak.

Correspondent: I wanted to actually get into Mailer’s politics. I’m sure you’re familiar with this, but I noted this. It’s worth pointing out that when Mailer ran for Mayor of New York in 1969, he received 41,000 votes in the primary. 5% of the vote. That is actually a good deal more than Anthony Weiner, who received a mere 34,192 votes in the recent primary. Times have changed. But you point out in your biography that Mailer came to politics late. You have Jean Malaquais. He prepares this political tutorial for Mailer that he engages in between October ’48 and March 1950. And before this, he’s relying very much on Spengler as his guide.

Lennon: Yes.

Correspondent: He was spurred on to run for Mayor because of the success of “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” which has actually large sections that don’t have anything to do with politics and is more almost a continuation of “The White Negro.” So I’m wondering about this. Why didn’t politics factor into the Mailer psyche earlier than this? Did he need to actually be ushered in with the attention and the adulation? Is that how this worked with him?

Lennon: Yes, it is. You’ve put your finger on it. He found out that he could be a player. Remember in 1948, he campaigned hard for George Wallace. Made thirty speeches.

Correspondent: That’s right.

Lennon: In Hollywood and mainly in New York City. He put his heart into it. He thought that the progressive elements were going to win. Wallace got slaughtered. He got a couple million votes in the entire country. Mailer was completely alienated. And that’s, of course, when he began to go underground. The Village Voice and all the years moving into the country. Trying that out. Moving to Perry Street in the Village and trying that out. Flirting with the Beats and so forth. And then when Clay Felker said, “You know, Mailer’s got huge ambitions. He says he wants to be President of the United States. Maybe he’d be a good guy to cover the 1960 campaign and so forth.” There was no plan to write an essay about Jack Kennedy. It was supposed to be about the Convention. Well, Mailer was just blown away by Kennedy’s good looks, his charm, his war record, and all that. And he wrote the piece. And then he gets a letter in the mail from Jackie Kennedy telling him it’s the best political writing she’s ever read in her life and it’s fantastic and why can’t anybody write like that. And Kennedy wins. And Mailer immediately says, “Well, you know, I helped win this election for Kennedy. I might have shifted some votes.” And it’s possible that he did. Because Esquire was a hot magazine then. People were reading it. Based on that, he decided on the spur of the moment, within a week or two after that article had appeared, he decided to run for Mayor of New York City and jumped in two feet. His sister told me, “You know, we thought he was crazy. You know, we’re a middle-class family. He has no political connections. No ties. We thought he was nuts.” Everybody thought he was nuts. But this was in the period where he had Napoleonic aspirations. He was right on the edge of going really nuts.

Correspondent: Well, the other interesting thing about Kennedy, which is actually quite funny, is that Mailer is very insistent in that essay, “I highly doubt that Kennedy would have planned to say that he had read The Deer Park before The Naked and the Dead.” But we learn. Au contraire. He was advised, “Hey, Jack, if you really want to impress him, why don’t you mention that you read The Deer Park rather than The Naked and the Dead.” So he was so willing to believe that he was the king.

Lennon: That’s right.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering if just having those blinders on is what propelled him. It’s really fascinating that a figure like that could last. I mean, it’s inconceivable today that a figure like that, operating off of pure impetuous blinders, could still be fairly revered. Even in this wandering period where he’s writing all these crazy columns for the Voice and all that.

Lennon: Well, you know, the question of whether Kennedy read The Deer Park is a very vexed question. On the one hand, Kennedy says it. But we know he was briefed to say it. Mailer said, “Well, even if he was briefed, that shows that his advisers had good instincts. And Kennedy hired them. So I like him for that.” But then he got the letter from Jackie Kennedy. And she said in the letter, “I remember Jack reading it on the second floor of the house in Hyannis Port. And he did read it.” I mean, I don’t know whether someone prompted her to say that or whatever. She said, “And then I read it. I read it when I was out on the campaign with Jack.” So whether he actually read it or not, I don’t know. But it doesn’t strike me as the kind of thing Jackie Kennedy would make up. I mean, how important would it be to do that? But maybe she did. The Kennedys were notorious for attention to detail.

Correspondent: My theory is that Jackie actually read it and Jack did not. She’s covering his ass basically, saying, “Well, I happened to read it too!”

Lennon: (laughs) That’s right.

Correspondent: And then she can talk about it with Norman. Because guess what? He’s not going to talk with Kennedy again.

Lennon: That’s a good appraisal. It’s very possible it worked out that way.

The Bat Segundo Show #523: J. Michael Lennon (Download MP3)

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Paul Harding (The Bat Segundo Show #521)

Paul Harding is most recently the author of Enon. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #364.

Author: Paul Harding

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Subjects Discussed: William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, the relationship between Enon‘s Charlie Crosby and Tinkers‘s George Washington Crosby, Quentin Compson, dilettantes, Mark Slouka’s Brewster, Ross Raisin’s Waterline, the grief novel, blackouts, Greek mythology, Hallmark cards, spooky Halloween ghost stories, the Kübler-Ross model of grief, breaking your hand by smashing it into a wall, the many physical holes throughout Enon, Emily Dickinson, poetic dashes, what Charlie does for a living, living off meager insurance money, unemployed men in America, Harding’s disinterest in socioeconomics within fiction, house painting, avoiding the realm of fictional realism through mythology, John Cheever’s “The Jewels of the Cabots,” how a story announces its own priorities, the impact of grief on the work life, Franky Shuey, Easy Rider, self-reliant guys who work the seedy side of life, unreliable narrators, when the perspective of dreams is truer than reality, considering reader’s doubt of the facticity, unreliability as an act of bad faith, how readers determine the way in which a character is in bad shape, how common language is inadequate in describing extraordinary emotional experience, projecting personal history on to a local collective history, human connection predicated on lies, not being able to use “man” in everyday vernacular, coming to terms with ignorance, clarity usurped by dreams, the oneiric morass inside the skull, when communities enforce timetables on how to grieve, Mrs. Hale, pious matriarchs in small towns, moral standards, pardoning grievers for their morbid fantasies, violence and grief, the Protestant notion of “I am thou,” parallels between civilian grief and military grief, being familiar with the local graveyard, Harding’s stint playing in a marching band, Marilyn Robinson’s influence, fire and brimstone types, Charlie’s largely secular journey, Karl Barth, Emerson’s connection with Calvinism, leaving the church in order to find God, Emily Dickinson as “no hoper,” speaking in William Tyndale’s English, “burning strange fires” and burning the memory of your daughter, improvising a religion by worshiping the dead, making coffee and tea from ashes, coming to terms with our national history of religiosity, verifying the story of Noah’s Ark, how Moby Dick is true, bowling as an indelible part of American heritage, candlepin bowling, Charlie’s relationship with sound, grief compared with an organ chord, silence and secular prayer, thinking about emotions musically, homes in Tinkers and Enon, the home as an onion, phantoms, the impermanence of location when considered from a historical perspective, Cheever’s “The Pig Fell Into the Well,” spending your time ruminating, the correct pronunciation of “Aloysius,” how reading informs mispronunciation, old photos, the temporal bandwidth of a small town, drawing from crumbs, defining originality, Kantian notions of space and time, and the connection between originality and experience.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I have to ask about Charlie Crosby. He is the protagonist of Enon. He appeared in an early part of Tinkers, where he is seen reading as a child to his grandfather, who is George Washington. And in Enon, he calls himself “a reader’s reader.” Yet we are not really entirely sure what kind of scholar he is. Whether he’s professional or some sort of amateur autodidact. So I’m wondering. To what extent did you map out the Crosby family? And is there room for Cathy Lee and David in the family line?

Harding: (laughs) Well, I improvise things as I go along. Because I think technically I fudged the family a little bit. Because in Tinkers, I think Charlie has a brother.

Correspondent: Oh yeah.

Harding: Named Sam. And I pulled the Faulkner Yoknapatawpha card.

Correspondent: I figured. How very portentous of you.

Harding: Well, it’s one of those things where the Quentin Compson of Absalom, Absalom! is not the Quentin Compson of The Sound and the Fury. And so I keep these characters in this loose fictional world in this fictional family. But I never sacrificed the story to the rigors of genealogy. And I think you hit the term right on the head. I think of him like an autodidact. He’s a little bit better than a dilettante.

Correspondent: Well, let’s actually defend the dilettante here, Paul!

Harding: (laughs) I know!

Correspondent: I mean, they are, after all, your readers.

Harding: Right. We’re all professional dilettantes.

Correspondent: We’re all dilettantes.

Harding: Yeah. Well, I think of him as reading aloud on his own.

Correspondent: This book reminded me of two other books. I’m not sure if you’ve read them. Mark Slouka’s Brewster, which came out earlier this year, dealt with grief by looking at it from a long distance ahead. It was set in the 1960s. There’s another book which, really, you must read. Of course, both of the books are great. Ross Raisin’s Waterline. Are you familiar with that?

Harding: No. I haven’t heard of either of those.

Correspondent: Oh my God! This book is about a guy. He loses his wife. He’s a Scottish guy. He’s unemployed. He ends up getting on a bus and working in a London hotel restaurant and gets totally exploited and then ends up drifting into homelessness.

Harding: Sounds like another musical comedy.

Correspondent: Exactly! Well, you have written a book. I”m talking about one book that deals with grief as a surrender of time, which is Brewster. And with Waterline, it’s a book that deals with grief as a capitulation of place. You’ve written a grief novel — if we can call it that, if that’s a genre — that involves the surrender of both time and place. There are porous months that just flit right by, often because of Charlie’s blackouts with pills and whiskey. I’m wondering why you think grief in fiction tends to explore this erosion of time and space more than real life. Was this one of the appeals of working on Enon?

Harding: I think it has to do, in my instance, with the way that I line up what I think of as the subjects and predicates when you’re writing narrative fiction. So I don’t think of myself as having written a book about grief. I wrote a book about Charlie, who is grieving. Because the danger is that — and this is the danger from the end of writing fiction. For me, if you think of grief thematically or objectively, as it were, the danger is that then you’ll spend all of your time making your character conform to your preconceived ideas of how grief is experienced. And so I think of the books that I write as very, if not anything else, experiential. So the hallmark of fiction is character. The hallmark of character is consciousness. The hallmark of consciousness is the experience of being in time.

Correspondent: Just so long as there’s no Hallmark cards.

Harding: Right.

Correspondent: Let’s avoid cliche in this conversation.

Harding: (laughs) Right.

Correspondent: You get three hallmarks.

Harding: So the whole idea is that time accelerates or decelerates or explodes or compresses, according to Charlie’s experience of it. So then I’m not imposing any of my preconceived notions of what happens when you’re grieving on to him. And then I just followed his lead in terms of what he found himself thinking. When I gave him the resources of knowing the town’s history and all that sort of stuff. And then he was able to superimpose his daughter, the memory of his daughter, in with all the different compounded times of the town. And I think of all these things as almost like Perseus and the mirror. He can’t look at Medusa. You can’t look at the tragedy head on or you’ll perish. You’ll turn to stone. So all of these other narratives, these other books, the history of the town, are things that I give him through which he mediates the memory of his daughter so he can try to negotiate it, be equal to it, without basically doing himself in.

Correspondent: But it is interesting that you have to choose. I mean, here’s the thing. You write fiction. You’re trying to align life to a narrative. But in the case of grief, you actually have to choose far more than a lot of other life experiences in fiction.

Harding: It’s more extreme.

Correspondent: And I”m wondering what you do to account for things you can’t include in choices you have to make. It seems to me like it would be a much harder proposition as a fiction writer.

Harding: Yeah, I think it is. I mean, when I first got the idea for the book, I thought, “Oh boy! It’s like a spooky Hawthornesque, Emily Dickinsonian.” You know, the kind of first-person death poem. The posthumous poems and everything. And then, within writing half a page of the book, I realized, “Wait, this is incredibly tragic.”

Correspondent: You thought this was going to be a barrel of laughs. (laughs)

Harding: Well, I thought it would be a Halloween spooky ghost story. But of course, the premise then is much more tragic. And so I thought more about Greek tragedy and Shakespearean tragedy and just the myths. Orpheus and Demeter and Persephone. A grieving parent going down to the underworld to fetch back a child. And it was. It turned out to be an incredibly difficult subject to write about. But to me, that was almost a guarantee of quality control. If you’re writing a story about a parent who’s suffering the life of a child, you take one false step in any direction and you’ve got melodrama, sentimentality, maudlin. You’re just ringing cheap emotion out of the inherently sad, tragic nature of things. So just as a writer, I was interested in trying to rise to that occasion. Trying to write the novel that I felt that I was actually not good enough to write when I started.

Correspondent: This is interesting. Because if melodrama is always the risk in looking at a death poem or looking at grief, in this case what’s remarkable about Charlie is that he doesn’t at least audibly beat himself up. He certainly does it with the pills and with the whiskey and all that. But he never really gets beyond that first stage of grief of the Kübler-Ross model.

Harding: Never heard of it. That’s the thing. The Kübler-Ross model — that’s been a subsequent description, which is interesting. But I see him as wrestling with his conscience. I seem him as essentially being very aware of the fact that he’s ashamed of who he’s become since she’s died. And then that gave me an opportunity to explore a universal dramatic human predicament, which is not doing the right thing. Knowing what the right thing and not being able to do it. Him understanding. Being on the couch and being paralyzed and becoming addicted to drugs and then breaking into people’s houses. He understands the whole time that that’s wrong. And yet he can’t stop himself.

Correspondent: But he is in that denial stage pretty much for this one year of grief.

Harding: I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. I just saw it as him having his attention on. Because maybe if he’s denying other things, it’s because they’re at the expense of what he finds most important and most pressing about the experience.

Correspondent: Why didn’t he get angry over this? I mean, he’s a very, very…

Harding: He breaks his hand. He punches the window.

Correspondent: Well, that’s true.

Harding: He breaks his hand. You know, he’s not a particularly violent guy. So I think the anger is diffused by his conscience. So I think it’s a subtle thing. But it’s funny. I had a scene in an early draft of the book where he runs through the house and breaks the whole house to pieces. And it never seemed authentic. You know, he’s more Thoreau. The quiet lives of desperation. The drama is interior with him. And so the anger is more diffused. I think it refracted prismatically through his conscience. So it dispersed in a subtler way.

Correspondent: But here’s the weird thing about when he punches the wall with his hand. As a reader, I was very well aware of the many holes in this book. And by holes, I mean literally. Just tons of holes. There’s everything from the cribbage board to the golf course to the holes in the cemetery to the holes that he punches into the wall.

Harding: And then he cuts a hole in the wall at the end.

Correspondent: Of course. There’s that. To the hole in the caretaker’s throat.

Harding: That’s funny. I wasn’t aware of those things.

Correspondent: It’s because this book is so, for lack of a better word, hole happy, I didn’t see that gesture of him smashing the wall as an absolute indignant one. Even though it is. But at the same time, it just seems to me that that is his way of connecting with his home.

Harding: Could be. It’s the cathartic moment then.

Correspondent: Well, what of all the holes? I mean, the landscape in this book is just utterly porous. And I was wondering about that. Why it ended up that way. It seems to me there was no conscious plan.

Harding: Your guess is as good as mine! I mean, that happened with Tinkers. I realized that the book was composed of a series of houses that were imperiled, where nests were disappearing or falling. And I didn’t consciously put that in the book. And so here, it makes sense that the portal between this life and the next are doorways, I suppose. And he spends a lot of his time trying to break through the doorways or climb down through the grave or something like that. And the guardian angel of the book was Emily Dickinson and the way that she crosses through the portals or the rabbit holes or whatever between this life and an imagined metaphysical realm passing this life. So I guess that inevitably that verbiage and imagery would naturally precipitate into the language.

Correspondent: And yet dashes really aren’t that much of a part of this book.

Harding: No. Not this time. (laughs)

(Loops for this program provided by cork27, djmfl, 40a, Cyto, and mingote.)

The Bat Segundo Show #521: Paul Harding II (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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kathryndavis

Kathryn Davis (The Bat Segundo Show #519)

Kathryn Davis is most recently the author of Duplex.

Author: Kathryn Davis

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[PROGRAM NOTE: During this program, there is a moment in which Kathryn Davis and Our Correspondent blank out on the name of a religious studies professor who has been studying the intersection of robots and spirituality. That professor's name is Noreen Herzfeld. And her book, Technology and Religion, examines how technology alters our approach to religion and spirituality. Our apologies to Professor Herzfeld!]

Subjects Discussed: Dogs and babies who occupy Central Park, Leibniz’s idea of the multiverse, the idea of gods forcing followers to believe in a false world, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel, casual reading of quantum mechanics, how drawing from one’s own reality creates phantasmagorical realities, the influence of Alice in Wonderland, being declared the offspring of Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll by Joy Press, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, fluidity of consciousness, when unfinished novels have greater moral standing and gravitas than finished novels, the human need for resolution, Davis’s love for murder mysteries, the 1967 Dudley Moore/Peter Cook film Bedazzled, Drimble Wedge & The Vegetations, the sin attached to destroying endings, the decline of mainstream nihilism, the museum scene in Batman, The Passenger, Eric Schlosser’s Command and Conquer, whether today is less traumatic than decades past, the edge of the world as a real place, when limitless realities involve soul searching, fluidity of time and fluidity of place and the commodification of the soul, questions of the animating spirit, essential essence buried in Duplex, castigating the unadventurous human spirit, when people value states more than having a soul, consumption vs. the spirit, the false notion of “having it all,” word origins of “aquanaut” and “robot,” the aquanaut and robot as spiritual ways of being human, whether the age of a word affect its usage, living in a pre-Snooki Jersey Shore, attempting to pin down how the concept of being out in the open air came to define living, viewing the word “monster” in a positive light, the etymology of “monster” (which has the same Latin root as “monitor”), writing someone off with a word, conquering fears by understanding the history of a word, having sympathy for monsters, when robots are fond of naming things, broadening interest in the Other, applying finite nouns in an infinite universe, how technology can generate its own creation myths, why Davis didn’t always explore the nature of religion in Duplex, developing the “rain of beads” parable, The Thin Place, approaching spirituality from a secular place, the tech crowd’s alignment with atheism, singularity, Noreen Herzfeld’s thoughts on the soul in the machine, Davis’s fondness of dachshunds, literary connections to dachshunds, Gary Shteyngart, Nabokov, babushka dancing, extremely geeky literary dog jokes, horse storytelling, Jane Smiley, writing for Significant Objects and incorporating the material in Duplex, Molly Peck’s remarkable video in response to Our Correspondent’s Significant Objects story, being an unapologetic magpie, how yellow bears helped to inform Davis’s sense of a sorcerer, the violent sexuality within Duplex, intimacy and pilfering space, the appalling horror of growing up, observations from Alizah Salario, how real women aren’t immune to time, gender roles and age, including an entire lifetime in a book, triangular sideburns, Charlie Sheen’s strange haircut in Major League, baseball players and facial hair, trading cards, the Cabbage Patch Dolls vs. the Garbage Pail Kids, negotiating difficult territory, Calvino’s “Body-without-Soul,” the hesitation when opening doors, how language provides a path forward in the novel, when writers force themselves to stay in a place where they are clearly bored, Kate Atkinson, and writing about what you want to know about.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: This morning, I was reading this piece at Aeon Magazine by Andrew Crumey about how much of contemporary art is still wrestling with Leibniz’s ideas about the multiverse. Now Leibniz claimed that all possible worlds exist in the mind of God and that he ultimately chooses one universe made consistent by a principle of harmony. And of course, I was reading this and thinking, “Oh! This is absolutely what Kathryn’s doing with her book.” God is usually benevolent, but he wouldn’t make us believe in the reality of a false world, according to Leibniz. But your novel Duplex seems to be resisting this idea to some extent. Because you’re almost asking us to believe in a world that is almost post-reality. So I’m wondering, just to start off here, to what degree did Leibniz and the spirit of the multiverse inform the writing of this book? Just a minor little question like that.

Davis: An easy question. I would say that there was nothing so specific as something I read that informed the universe of the book. But the universe of the book is, in fact, the universe I dwell in. So that in a way, I feel like Duplex is as much a work of realism as Look Homeward Angel.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Davis: I don’t know why that occurred to me.

Correspondent: Especially since he writes very fat books. Thomas Wolfe.

Davis: That’s right. And I didn’t want this to be a thick book.

Correspondent: Are you claiming to be Eugene Gant in any way?

Davis: No. Not a bit. But I do feel like it’s my experience of the world that I was trying to replicate in the book. Now I, at one time, read an enormous amount of cosmology, got very interested in that without being at all trained as a scientist. So I got interested in the way that non-scientists do, taking a more metaphoric…

Correspondent: Quantum mechanics is lay reading basically.

Davis: Yeah. And that is true also of topology, which I’m attracted to without understanding anything about it really. And yet the idea that there are ways to think about the world we live in that stretch the logical mind into a shape that doesn’t resemble anything recognizable — that is very appealing to me.

Correspondent: So what I’m getting here is you’re drawing initially from your particular reality.

Davis: Yes.

Correspondent: Whether it be suburban, whether it be smaller city. And you’re using much of this additional reading to create the kind of fantastic and phantsmagorical experience. I’m wondering, aside from just how it subverts the experience, how language plays into this as well. Because that’s extremely curious. Why do you think you’re reading something along the lines of this gives your novel an edge? I mean, are you always resisting the prosaic or what here?

Davis: Well, I don’t know that I resist the prosaic. In fact, writing this book, I felt that, with my experience growing up on a suburban street in Philadelphia, I really wanted to replicate that, which was a very — in its own way — prosaic experience. And yet it was also clear to me that the prosaic had, if you unfolded it or untucked the edge…

Correspondent: Unboxed it.

Davis: Yes. There would be things much less prosaic going on, as, for example, a family of robots living on the street.

Correspondent: Which is clearly drawn from reality.

Davis: Absolutely!

Correspondent: (laughs)

Davis: I won’t name the family, but there certainly was a family where the oddness of the family, as on any suburban street — I would say anyone. Ask anyone and they will say, “Oh yeah. There could have been a family of robots living on our street.” There could have been a sorcerer who came and messed around with the souls of the young people. That would be another way of describing a family that just didn’t seem like all the other families.

Correspondent: So what you’re basically doing is that you’re trying to, I suppose, avoid the prosaic or chronicle the prosaic by really tapping into all forms of perception.

Davis: Yes.

Correspondent: And, as a result, this is why this particular world in Duplex has no time, no space, has edges that are constantly shifting, has waves that are constantly intruding. To my mind, it seemed like you were challenging the reader to look at something typical. I guess what I’m trying to get at here is that anything typical can become magical simply by just tilting it any kind of direction.

Davis: Yeah. And when I was a kid, the book that my parents read to me, the book that I loved the most and that always seemed like the purest expression of the world I lived in, was Alice in Wonderland. I could not get enough of it. And it really described to me the world I grew up in, the house I grew up in, the people I spent my time with. So in a way, I’m doing nothing different in this book than I feel that Lewis Carroll was doing in Alice.

Correspondent: Well, I know Joy Press once said that you were the offspring of Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll.

Davis: Right. I loved that!

Correspondent: Which has cropped up in a couple of interviews I’ve read. But that does bring to mind: would you say that you err more on the side of Carroll than Woolf? Or what?

Davis: Oh, I’d like to think I’m equal parts. I feel like what I learned from reading Virginia Woolf — and again it was the same kind of encounter with a book. In the case of Virginia Woolf, it was To the Lighthouse. And reading it, I couldn’t believe that someone had written that book that just so perfectly talked about the way I experienced the world, which is what you really want, I think, a book to do even if it takes you by surprise. Even if it’s talking about climbing Mount Everest or something, which you’ve never done. But it tells you something that you sort of knew, but in a way that you didn’t know you knew it. So the language of Virginia Woolf and the psychological realm that she so amazingly dwells in and describes: that is every bit as important to me as the perverse antic quality of Carroll’s prose and the world he describes.

Correspondent: So I guess the grounding in consciousness of Virginia Woolf, or even the fluidity of consciousness seen in something like Orlando, which is a favorite of mine…

Davis: I love that book too.

Correspondent: It can also be qualified as science fiction.

Davis: Oh, absolutely.

Correspondent: Why do you think so much of fiction just puts a border there when we’re talking about consciousness? It basically says, “No, you actually have to go ahead and adhere to this idea that life must be crammed into the valise of narrative.” You know what I mean?

Davis: I don’t know. I think it’s a more boring approach to the world of possibility when you’re writing. I certainly know that if I felt like I had to subscribe to a set of rules — if that’s what you had to do in order to be a writer of fiction, I wouldn’t have wanted to be a writer of fiction. I think my sense of not wanting to be a mathematician when I was much younger was because it just seemed like a whole bunch of rules. It turns out I was wrong about that. But the sense that you are being told you can only go this far and no further is of no interest to me.

Correspondent: Yeah. There was an essay in Bookforum — I believe in July. And I can’t remember who wrote it. But it was basically saying that the unfinished novel is of greater moral uplift than the finished novel. Because as you’re writing a novel, this essay said, you’re basically fighting against some kind of mortality. And that mortality is fresh and alive when it’s unfinished. How do you contend with this notion? Because resolutions in your books are not always neat, nor are they actually clear-cut. And I’m wondering. What are your thoughts on this idea of keeping that mortality alive in something that is both unfinished but, as it so happens in your case, is also finished?

Davis: That’s a great question. I’ll say that one of the forms that really appeals to me is the murder mystery.

Correspondent: Yes! I know that.

Davis: And I love everything about a murder mystery actually, except the ending.

Correspondent: Yes. Because you have to have resolution. When I found this out — I was doing research — I was going to ask you about that. Because, I mean, how could you love a form so much? What do you take away from it as a reading experience when you have the cop explain everything or the criminal say, “Here was my plan all along”? I mean, how do you wrestle with such a genre? Which I love, by the way. And actually I do happen to love some of those explanations myself. But what do you take away from it?

Davis: I too — I would hate to read a murder mystery. I would hate to read a P.D. James and not have a resolution. I would want to strangle her. Because the book is set up to give you that. But the form, the generative form, the form where something happens early on or something is said or there’s some sense of a mystery that is established very early on in the book — and part of your pleasure and job as a reader is to track down what’s happening — that feeling is one of my favorite feelings in life. I love not being given a piece of evidence or a clue. I mean, this all goes back, I’m sure, to the house I grew up in. Where nobody said anything outright and you were always trying to figure out what’s going on.

Correspondent: Ah! I see.

Davis: By reading between the lines and reading the clues.

Correspondent: So a constant life of mystery and a constant reading life of mystery.

Davis: Yes! And for my own part, I actually thought, “Well, you love reading these murder mysteries. Why don’t you just write one?” I believe firmly you should write what you love to read. It turns out that if you want to write a murder mystery, you really have to figure out an awful lot of stuff ahead of time in a way that I am just not interested in doing. It would be boring to do that. And I’ve written some books that seem to me, that feel to me to sort of make use of that genre. I felt like that was true of The Walking Tour, for example. But I didn’t want there to be the detective calling everybody into the drawing room and telling everyone what happened.

Correspondent: You must be a big fan of the Antonioni film L’Avventura.

Davis: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: In which the missing girl is never explained. It never actually is explained. I mean, Antonioni to me would seem to be your match for literature. Because there’s so much rich life. And even in his most narrative film, The Passenger, even there you don’t have a clean-cut resolution. You have Jack Nicholson disappear. And you’re still invited to witness this amazing display of life at the end of the picture. I guess the way to continue this conversation is to ask why this is something to be resisted. Why is this a strange underground attitude or set of sensibilities to inhabit in 2013?

Davis: That’s a great question. I mean, I guess…

[A baby cries in the background.]

Correspondent: That was a little critic walking past.

Davis: Sad at the idea of lack of completion.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Davis: I think it makes people very nervous. I think life makes people nervous. And part of what makes people nervous about life is not knowing what lies ahead, even though, if you knew what lay ahead, the idea of actually knowing what’s about to happen is so appalling to me that I don’t even want to think about it. But I also know that the human wish to feel contained and part of a logical system, one that isn’t going to pull the rug out from under you, that’s a very, very strong wish. And it’s probably some kind of a survival mechanism also.

Correspondent: It’s not just a survival mechanism. It makes me think of the joke in the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore movie Bedazzled. There’s one situation where Peter Cook is the Devil. It’s a marvelous movie.

Davis: I love that movie.

Correspondent: The remake is terrible, but this is a genius movie. And there’s one part where Peter Cook picks up mysteries and he’s ripping out the last..

Davis: Ripping out the last page!

Correspondent: Every single one! And the fact that that’s actually condemned as something demonic or something that only the Devil can do, I think says much about our need for resolution, right? (laughs)

Davis: Oh yeah. Well, I felt like the Devil in that movie, in many ways, was doing exactly what you would want…

Correspondent: What you would want to do!

Davis: What you would want to have done! When he scratches the records.

Correspondent: Yes. And, of course, the wonderful song, the terrible pop music song in that, which is hilarious.

Davis: Yes! Scratch that record! Yes, pull out those pages!

Correspondent: But it’s a rebellious act. It’s an act of nihilism. I mean, that’s the thing. Remember — now that we’re thinking cinematic here, it makes me think of Jack Nicholson again as the Joker in Batman, going into the museum and just throwing paint and destroying art. This used to actually be something we contended with in mainstream pictures, mainstream books, mainstream art. And now it’s fascinating to me that with the nihilism, now you have to go to a house like Graywolf in order to actually explore these questions. Why do you think that is?

Davis: Boy, that’s a big question, but I have an answer!

Correspondent: You do!

Davis: Yeah. I think that the timidity, the cultural timidity, has to do with the fact that the world is a frightening place. But is it more frightening now than it was, say, in 1960? No. I don’t think so. In fact, the threat of nuclear annihilation was so present in everybody’s mind.

Correspondent: But maybe it’s out of sight, out of mind. There’s an Eric Schlosser book called Command and Control, which deals with how fragile the entire nuclear infrastructure is.

Davis: But nobody talks about it.

Correspondent: Nobody talks about this. Just as people are accepting the NSA surveillance. People want to accept this kind of thing. Maybe they’re beaten down. Maybe we’re just putting on more blinders these days. Maybe we don’t want to actually open up the floodgates to every single problem. And maybe this is what you say. It’s about living life and accepting it in all of its hard knocks and all that.

Davis: But it is really true. And I’ve thought a lot about this. Because people don’t want you to write books that don’t end happily.

Correspondent: Unlikable characters, which has become a big issue this year.

Davis: Right. Movies. It is now the case where if you go to the movies, especially with the movies made in this country…

Correspondent: You have to go to television to get a gripping narrative.

Davis: And you’re not ever going to see something where there’s going to be an inconclusive or really, really unhappy ending. So I realize the suspense level is eradicated by the fact that, even when somebody’s clinging to the edge of a cliff and you’re thinking, “Oh my God! I hope he’s going to survive,” you know he’s going to. Because they don’t make movies where people drop off cliffs. Because he’s the hero.

Correspondent: So narrative is doomed to go for the default heroic state.

(Loops for this program provided by 40a, cork27, danke, and GamingXSportXClub.)

The Bat Segundo Show #519: Kathryn Davis (Download MP3)

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woodrell

Daniel Woodrell (The Bat Segundo Show #517)

Daniel Woodrell is most recently the author of The Maid’s Version.

Author: Daniel Woodrell

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Subjects Discussed: Twists within Woodrell’s fiction, Thelonious Monk, mysterious narrators, William Kennedy’s Albany Cycle, The Flaming Corsage and Very Old Bones as deeply underrated novels, the snapshot montage approach to presenting history through fiction, how general observations identify people who lived 85 years before, the cemetery as the ultimate marker of memory, the novelist’s obligation to history, why it’s important to explore perspectives foreign to your own, Tomato Red as the creative turning point for Woodrell, the close connections between heightened language and heightened perspective, how respect for a town manifests itself in unusual ways, Ozark vernacular, referring to a cop as “John Law,” “Parmesan” vs. “sprinkled cheese,” consulting the OED, food in Woodrell’s novels, tasty variants of Depression stew, fatback, what people get wrong about stew, hack stew, prostitution, how Woodrell cultivated his knowledge of hookers, junior high school crushes who turn into hookers, people who manipulate others, knowing most of humanity by living in a small town, why there isn’t street crime in the Ozarks, crime that occurs among acquaintances, criminal strangers who lurch into tough guy mode, fighting against the cliche of the guy who wants an easy fight in a small town, Tony Danza’s boxing skills, why it’s important to lose fights, testifying against your cousin, how to create distinctive characters, Plug’s character in The Maid’s Version, families who accept aberrant behavior within kin, not prying into other people’s business, regional literature defined by acceptance of strange behavior, how reading Southern literature tilts real-life concerns, feeble attempts to deny knowledge of William Faulkner, the appeal of Cormac McCarthy’s darker novels, The Bayou Trilogy, Ed McBain’s Isola, how home life is defined in Woodrell’s novels, being more aware of the exterior of homes rather than the interior, reading novels as a way of knowing other regions, Comte de Lautréamont’s knowing narrator style, how illusion creates energy, the urge to feel uncertain, how shaky sales creates creative freedom, the decline of book review sections, why publishers believed in Woodrell with a terrible sales track, disasters and population ratios, the effect of a dance hall explosion on a small town vs. the Boston Marathon bombing, when larger cities don’t always comprehend the impact of disasters, why small towns permit more speculation than metropolitan clusters, the comforts of seemingly conscious forces, grief and belief culture, Woodrell’s abandoned San Francisco novel, why San Francisco didn’t work as a setting for Woodrell, Eddie Muller and the Noir City Film Festival, the joys of film noir, Woodrell’s Vietnam novel, Woodrell’s past experience as a Marine, antiwar protests, growing to accept the necessity of certain types of civil disobedience, false promises from the military, and fiction writing and political impulses.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: We’ve seen twists in your books before. I think of the brutal Civil War swap that opens up Woe to Live On. I think of the relationship revelation after that house break in Tomato Red. But in this book [The Maid's Version], you have been extremely opaque about the narrator’s identity to the point of, I will confess, mild frustration. But then I started to get into what you were doing. I’m wondering why this opacity, along with the fragmented sense of history, more your style this time around. I’m wondering if this was a formal exercise to see how much material you could pack into a 165 page novel.

Woodrell: Well, I didn’t want to turn it into being about him so much directly. I wanted him to be in a position to know a lot of things and to observe things and to report things. In many ways, this book has a style that would fit nonfiction. Quite a bit of it. And that was also by design. Because I had felt that he was trying to relay fiction. And so I wanted him to be a little bit outside. He’s not the most important person in the book, or even very important. Just as a messenger of the story. And I did really wrestle with this book in terms of what size to make it. I tried to initially make it a big fat one and include everyone in it. It just got out of shape so badly that I essentially threw it away. I eventually realized, “Just The Maid’s Version. Just get down to the bone. To the part that really matters to you.” Or as Thelonious Monk once said, “Just play the notes you really mean.” And I kind of took that to heart here. Just played the notes I really meant.

Correspondent: When you say this was going to be “a big fat one,” what were the original drafts looking like? I mean, you say that you were reporting here. And I’m wondering, given the economy of the final product so to speak, how expansive did you get here?

Woodrell: Well, there were a lot of different rumors about what may have or may not have happened. There were a lot of different players who could have come into the picture briefly or at more length. Even the little bios of some of the victims were originally quite a few pages a piece. And it began to lose shape and focus and it wandered too much for me. And that’s a little bit depressing sometimes. When you get to page 100 and something and you say, “I think I can use ten of these.”

Correspondent: By the way, can we actually confess the narrator’s name? I guess we can.

Woodrell: Yeah. His name is…

Correspondent: Alek.

Woodrell: Alek. He is named a few times.

Correspondent: He is. He is. I didn’t know the extent of spoilers. I’ve seen reviews do this. So he’s Alek. Out of the bag.

Woodrell: And there have been people who read it and didn’t catch his name. They didn’t know he had a name. No, he is named.

Correspondent: Yes.

Woodrell: It didn’t occur to me. (laughs)

Correspondent: Did this book start with Alek? How did the reporting and how did the wrestling with history become such a part of this book? We can talk about the fire that is actually a real dance hall fire in 1928 that is also in this book. So what caused your imagination to wander into this factual milieu?

Woodrell: Well, I’d heard about this ever since I was old enough to be told this kind of detail. And I eventually began to learn there were a lot of versions or rumors about what might or might not have happened. And the very first time I attempted to get into this, it was omniscient and there was no Alek and there was no particular focus on the Dunahew family. It was going to be pretty tightly — there was a Wiliam Kennedy book I liked. A lot of other people didn’t seem to.

Correspondent: Which one? Very Old Bones?

Woodrell: The Flaming Corsage. And Very Old Bones. Both of them.

Correspondent: Very Old Bones, I feel, is very underrated.

Woodrell: I think it is too. I really like that. I love Kennedy. Period. So I’m not really capable of being unbiased toward him. But I liked that a lot. And I felt like it moved a certain story through history rather well and it certainly kept me going.

Correspondent: So his montage nature, I think, in that book appealed to you for this?

Woodrell: Yeah. It did.

Correspondent: That’s interesting. That totally makes sense.

Woodrell: So originally it was going to be here’s the maid for a minute and then here’s someone else and here’s someone else, and they’re all linked together. And the story would expand from there and go forward. But slowly over a period of time, I realized that the personal part of it, the Dunahew family’s interior relationship to this, was fundamental to me really. I just hadn’t recognized how important that part of it was to me. And it began to seem to me that that was the way to go into this.

Correspondent: I’m curious. At what point did the dance hall start to inform the snapshot approach? Was it more the dance hall? Or the Kennedy book The Flaming Corsage?

Woodrell: Well, you go around town talking about the real event, you get little snippets. And a number of the victims are remembered by one thing that was notable about them or that was often reported. “She played the piano” or “He was a good ballplayer.” Or something like that. And so over a period of time, these characters, as they’re discussed, are sitting around time with other citizens. They begin to have the one, two, or three things that have stuck about them in the minds of the people there. And I began to realize, “Yeah, that’s right. There are certain essential qualities of people that linger for 85 years. They should live here.” So that kind of informed those. And I definitely wanted the victims to be brought forward somehow. And I didn’t want it all to just be thirty-five people walking toward the dance or something like that.

Correspondent: Sure. So you felt a responsibility to imbue the victims with some kind of identity as opposed to being random names. This brings me to the cemetery, which forms a serious part of this book. I mean, Alma always ends her walks there, we learn at the very beginning. But then we learn about the dance hall owner, whose past is actually revealed through the cemetery. A lot of his associations. And I was wondering first and foremost, well, did you wander around the cemetery yourself looking for leads here? Or was this kind of a way for you to remind both the readers and also to imbue the town with additional life? I mean, here is this marker of memory. All these people have died. And you can’t escape your legacy. I mean, what was the appeal of this?

Woodrell: Well, by an accident of just chance, a fair portion of my family are buried only about fifteen feet from the memorial. So all my life, when we’d go over to put the flowers down for Memorial Day and so forth, I’d think, “What’s this?” And then slowly that would develop. And then also, by happenstance, a number of the people who were identified are also buried near there. That was the section of the cemetery that was then being filled. So as I began learning more and more of the names of the people who were actually relevant to the event, I began to realize, “Oh! They’re all planted around here.” So that very fact resonated with me. I’m not…I never say what happened. Because I don’t know what happened. I chose a story that really rang for me and went with it. But I could walk around town and find a number of people who are still debating a lot of different angles that I never really suggested.

Correspondent: This leads me to ask. What obligation do you really have to history? I mean, this isn’t your first historical novel. You explored the Kansas Irregulars in the Civil War novel. In this, you’re dealing with something that’s a little bit more local than that — and also your family history. I mean, the Civil War — even the Kansas Irregulars — offers a really wide canvas for the imagination to bristle. But in this, you’re dealing with something that is so hyperlocal that I wonder if you have any problems bending the truth as fiction requires or whether you run with the actual basis and let things go into place from there.

Woodrell: Well, none of the people who were allegedly in the periphery of this or maybe even toward the center of it appealed to me as members of the community and as historical figures, but not as fictional characters. I didn’t feel drawn to write about people with some of the characteristics that these rumored individuals actually presented. And I specifically didn’t want to write about the wealthy in town sitting around twisting their mustaches thinking of villainy to perpetrate upon the lower classes.

Correspondent: Was there a real banker?

Woodrell: There was a banker who was sometimes mentioned as having had something involved maybe. But he was a much more dangerous kind of guy and a relentless skirt chaser and all that. Not the character that I found myself writing about. It was in the same way that I ended up writing about the Southern bushwhackers instead of the Northern [in Woe to Live On]. I had originally started out to write a book about the Northern. And then I realized that that was actually a little too easy for me to inhabit that sensibility. And it was more of a stretch for me politically and as a person to try to get inside the other side and what was making them tick. So I wanted this character to be someone that it would be more of a surprise if he were accidentally or purposely involved in something.

Correspondent: So part of the appeal of The Maid’s Version and all these little bits and anecdotes you were collecting was to really inhabit the Other. In this way.

Woodrell: Yeah. As time went on, I realized more and more it’s the key to the whole book — to me anyway. It’s the Dunahew family story. That the dance hall and some of the surrounding qualities of that or aftereffects of that were propellants to the Dunahew family’s shift over a generation and a half or two.

Correspondent: I actually really wanted to ask you about a tilt in your writing style that I detected with Tomato Red, where suddenly you have sentences that demand almost this total life through language. Of course, a lot of this is evident because of that amazing first paragraph in Tomato Red, but I wanted to point it out by reading one of the sentences from Tomato Red: “This Pinto pooted small gray distress signals from the tailpipe and sounded like a chain-smoker at a cold dawn and practically shrieked for a civil rights lawyer when I forced it up hills.” So aside from the simile, we have “Pinto pooted.” We have “up hills” split into two words. I’m wondering, with this book, did you need to have that voice of Sammy Barlach to just really get these sentences? Is perspective really the way for you to evolve as a stylist? I was hoping to get something.

Woodrell: Yeah. Very much. And Sammy was probably the first voice I did that was quite — he’s not unhinged or anything, but he definitely sees everything from a little bit of a different angle than most of us probably do. And I thought of Sammy very much as an Expressionist. He’s looking at the real world but he’s just not seeing it exactly the way most people see it. And so that began to suggest a richness of language because of the insights he was having that kind of called for that. And it wouldn’t be any fun for me to write if I wasn’t allowed to let the language run amuck and then hopefully, if it’s really amuck, I’ll catch it in time to trim it back. (laughs) But that’s a big motivating force for me to write at all.

Correspondent: I was wondering if that was the aha moment for you. I mean, I like the other books before that. But that one really amps things up to this level where the language and the character are absolutely one in a way that it continues with the subsequent books. And it’s interesting that with The Maid’s Version, you go to this more succinct approach to also try and inhabit the sentence. Did the structure of this book — was it almost an obstacle for the language perspective approach? I was wondering about that.

Woodrell: Well, Tomato Red — and I would agree with you on that. I have often said that I felt that something started to click there. I wasn’t fully cognizant of just what all was going on. In fact, it was only when I had an occasional look at it maybe a year after I’d finished it, I began to recognize more of what was going on in there. And in this book, I didn’t want one character to tell the story in such a forceful way that they precluded all other possible interpretations or something. That it was just so forcefully about them that they would overshadow everything else. And that’s part of the reason why Alek is a little to the side. It’s also a book where I have a bunch of, you know, “motherfucker this motherfucker that.” And it wasn’t really on purpose initially. And then I was reading through it and I realized, “Oh! Where’s your standard?” (laughs)

Correspondent: I think though that the respect for the grief of this town is probably what motivates that. And maybe, it would seem to me anyway, that what you’re trying to do language-wise with this was to give voice to the town as opposed to one solitary perspective. Is that safe to say?

Woodrell: Yeah. And people are introduced as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” A generation and a half or two ago almost, that would be standard. The lady next door was not Joan. She was Mrs. Henry Eastall. And that suggests a certain kind of decorum and regard and circumspection.

(Loops for this program provided by vlalys, danke, maikeeelx, and megapaul.)

The Bat Segundo Show #517: Daniel Woodrell (Download MP3)

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Jesmyn Ward (The Bat Segundo Show #516)

Jesmyn Ward is most recently the author of Men We Reaped. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #463.

Author: Jesmyn Ward

Play

Subjects Discussed: Adorable literary babies, the notion of “home” in Mississippi, the Delta Blues, Big K.R.I.T., having a very large extended family, environments that foster great art, Kiese Laymon, why culture demands engagement, Mississippi being dead last in statistics, statistics vs. stories, W.E.B. du Bois’s notion of “double consciousness,” Ward seeing her mother in another context, emotional associations from phrases in languages, “soda” vs. “pop” vs. “cold drank,” Southern language, how the world is prerigged against the poor and the black, having to settle for “live” instead of “live good,” losing early optimism, Ward losing her brother, embracing fatalism and nihilism, C.J. becoming convinced that he would die young, young men who can’t envision a future, finding hope while living in an impoverished world, coming to an understanding of grief, how family and community are elastic and intertwined, finding hope in future generations through memories, Ward’s mother, paying it forward, people who don’t have food in the house, comparisons between Daddy in Salvage the Bones and how Ward wrote about her father in Men We Reaped, how memoir creates additional need which transcends fiction, the difficulties of fictionalizing complicated people, the advantages of creative nonfiction, human contradictions, Ward’s martial arts skills, training with nunchaku and swords, being bullied by racist kids, finding ways of defending yourself when you’re outnumbered, fight or flight, being attacked by a pit bull, suffering from low self-esteem, turning to alcohol to cope, avoiding writing about writing, how to contend with grief when the public playground has been officially designated as a graveyard, the government shutdown, why people care more about baby pandas at the National Zoo than poor people who need food, David Simon, The Wire, journalism vs. storytelling, mediocre white artists who appropriate the best of black culture, shying away from true engagement, white people in the literary world who get a privileged pass, when the Other has to soften itself for white consumption, timid Goodreads reviewers, Mitchell S. Jackson, response to writers of color, “designated” African-American authors, Ward’s difficulty with the telephone, receiving terrible news, and finding the bravery to take in difficult communication.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I want to get into this incident late in the book where you describe being bullied by racist kids. There’s one moment after they crack some really terrible quip about lynching you where you say, “You ain’t going to do nothing.” And these kids, they just dissemble. They just disappear. They have nothing to say after that. And it’s this fascinating moment, particularly when we’re looking at this other incident with this kid Topher, who was verbally pulverizing you. And the teacher’s just standing there not willing to acknowledge the racist language. You write about how the kids, some of whom were your friends, “they never took up for me, for Black people, when I was in the room.” And throughout this book, you don’t let yourself off the hook. I mean, you write about how you were scared to walk through certain neighborhoods. You write about how your little brother, two years younger, had more courage in a certain situation. And so when we’re talking of this notion of self-defense, I have to ask you, Jesmyn, what do you think it was that caused you to not only stand up to these kids, but also do something that either the other black kids in the school couldn’t do? That’s something that was extraordianrily rare, especially because you’re not exactly the most extroverted person in the world.

Ward: Yeah.

Correspondent: So what do you think it was that caused you to really get these kids rightfully off of your back?

Ward: I don’t really know. Especially because, before then and even afterwards, I wasn’t very good at taking up for myself. And I think that part of that was informed by the fact that I had really low self-esteem. Because I feel like the world, and also what I saw in my community, had taught me the wrong things about what it meant to be black and poor and a woman in the South. And so I had awful self-esteem. But I don’t know. There was something about that moment — maybe because they were so overt and there were so many of them. It was a pretty large group. Six, seven boys. And they were so much older than I was. You know, I was really young when that happened. I was in seventh or eighth grade and they were upperclassmen.

Correspondent: So they were much taller too.

Ward: Much taller than I was.

Correspondent: Were they pretty muscular?

Ward: Some of them were. So I think that it was a moment where I was so clearly outnumbered and overpowered that maybe it was partly motivated by instinct, right? Fight or flight. And, for once, my response wasn’t just to leave or passively endure it. It was to actually fight. So I think a lot of it was driven by instinct. So I just came out and said it. “You ain’t going to do nothing to me. It’s not going down like that.”

Correspondent: Why do you think these instincts could only come out during certain moments? I mean, you’ve clearly had a fairly remarkable life of getting out of this situation. But what do you think it was that encouraged those instincts to come out at the right moments? Because of course, they came out at the most damaging moments as well.

Ward: Well, I think maybe the situation was so — you know, I said in that moment that the odds were really against me. I was clearly overpowered. Clearly outnumbered. And then my response was to fight in that moment. But then it also makes me think about when I was attacked by that pit bull, right? Clearly the dog is very much stronger than me. Has more weapons than I have. It would have been very easy for me to come out worse in that situation than I did. But in that moment, I chose to fight. That that was my instinctual response, right? That I fought. In both of those instances. And I think maybe in certain situations like that, that they’re the kind of situations that are so severe that the part of me that had the problem with low self-esteem, right? Of course, it’s the part that overthunk everything and that overprocessed everything. So that here in these moments, there’s no opportunity to think. All I could do was react. So my reaction in those moments was to fight. So maybe that’s why. These are these moments where the part of me that has low self-esteem can’t think about it and can’t process that moment in that way. So then I just react without thinking. And that’s what happens.

Correspondent: There is something interesting in that pit bull incident. There’s a sentence you write where you say, “The long scar in my head feels like a thin plastic cocktail straw, and like all war wounds, it itches.” And in light of how you went through this period of drinking, I’m wondering how long it took for you to make this connection between surviving a war and, with the cocktail straw, turning to drink in this effort to cope, in this effort to deal with the pain and to combat this low self-esteem.

Ward: It took me a long time. You know, I don’t think that I began to realize the way that I was turning to alcohol in order to deal with what I’d been through. Probably I began to realize that while I was at Michigan. While I was in New York, and I was doing the drinking when I said I was buying bottles of rum and basically just drinking them with a little bit of sugar. I didn’t realize it then. And I think that was from 2003, so I was in the throes of it. But it wasn’t until around 2006. Because I began to drink alone. And that’s when it suddenly hit me. Like what I was. Because I would drink alone and then I would become very depressed and very moody. And I would act out. And, see, before whenever I’d done that sort of drinking, I had roommates. I lived with other people. We were out in social situations. So I didn’t really think about it. But there was something about beginning to drink alone that made me suddenly begin to draw those conclusions between what I’d gone through and how I was responding to it and how I was basically self-medicating with alcohol.

Correspondent: It’s fascinating to me that you don’t really get into the beginning of your writing in this memoir. It comes from the exact same impulses as this kind of self-medicating, as this drinking, as this effort to combat terror, fear, low self-esteem. And I’m wondering if it’s even possible for you to even write about the beginning of how writing brought you out of this and allowed you to really manage these emotions more effectively.

Ward: I don’t know why I didn’t really speak more about it in the book or write more about that in the book. I don’t really know. I’ve spoken about it before. I sometimes speak to different universities and I have a speech that I usually give where I actually talk about how I came to writing and how committing to writing, for me, was really a response to the grief that I felt when I lost my brother.

Correspondent: Yes. But it’s compartmentalized, I think. Which I find really interesting.

Ward: I don’t really know why I didn’t address it more in the book. Maybe because I was afraid of shifting that focus maybe away from the young men. And maybe I was nervous about whether or not I could write about it and still sustain maybe the pace and the tension in the narrative, in the memoir. So maybe that’s what was going on.

Correspondent: You had your own problem of [W.E.B. du Bois's] “double consciousness.”

Ward: Yes! Yes!

Correspondent: That’s interesting. I do want to get into the way that you describe the land of the community, which is extremely fascinating. You point out that the parks, the public parks, are designated as the graveyards in the future. This is going to be the burial site for people who will die in the future. And you openly begin to wonder, “Well, is it possible to stave off this transformation from the life of the playground to the death of the grave?” You write, “The grief we bear along with all the other burdens of our lives, all our other losses, sinks us until we find ourselves in a red, sandy grave.” Yet near the end of the book, when you’re talking about your brother, you are very candid about grief having this limitless life span. So how do you deal with grief when you know that you’re also trying to work away at that buffer that’s going to turn the playground into the graves? I mean, you have to champion life. You have to fend off these forces, both societal and beahvioral, that are trying to deaden all this wonder that surrounds you. So how do you think about grief when you’re very well aware of what’s going to happen?

Ward: Well, I guess that the way that I think about that is that the grief, that’s something that I can’t change. That’s something that is here and that I have to live with everyday. But I think that what I’m attempting to do is to use that grief to really fuel this endeavor, right? The writing of the book. And then also the conversations that I have around the book with different people. So that hopefully in having these conversations, and talking about all these pressures that the grief and the sense of fear and failure that permeates life for so many of the people, that talking about these things is the first step to admitting that there is this problem. Yes, we are all living with this grief. And, yes, we are trying to survive these unbearable pressures. But I’m hoping that if we talk about them, and bring them out into the open and admit that there is a problem involved and exists, then we can begin to be more conscious about our lives, about the actions that we take, how we react to these larger pressures. So that maybe we can begin to change things, right? And to think of concrete ways that we can change things. And I haven’t gotten there yet. Whenever someone asks me “So what can we do?” my only answer so far is that, okay, first we just need to talk about it. We need to enter this conversation that’s happening across the country about race and about young black people dying and about poverty and socioeconomic inequality. If we begin to talk about these things, then maybe we can get to a point where we can come up with concrete workable solutions.

Correspondent: I wonder why small biographies, piecemeal chapters of people who have needlessly lost their lives, almost seems to be the only way to discuss this problem these days. I mean, we don’t want to look at the vast tapestry. We don’t want to all the moving parts. And it gets to be a bit of a headache. If you care at all, you know, it’s going to bog you down. I mean, right now, we’re talking right when the government is going to shut down. And what’s really bizarre about all this is that people are concerned not so much about the fact that these food programs that feed the poor are going to go out, not so much with the Library of Congress closing, not so much with military servicemen, who are living day-to-day, not getting their paychecks. They’re more concerned about these baby pandas at the National Zoo. What do you think we can do to get people on the level of baby pandas? You know what I mean?

Ward: You know, I think that when I wrote the book, and especially when I wrote each chapter about the young men — you know, their lives and their deaths. That’s something that I was trying to affect. Because even if given a chapter, and some of those chapters are short. They’re shorter. If given a chapter, I can make these young men as authentically alive and complicated and unique as I can on the page. Like I’m going to really develop their characters and develop them well enough so that the reader, when encountering these young men — instead of these young men being statistics, they’re actually human beings. They’re actually people. And they can sympathize with them. Then I will have accomplished something. Then suddenly the young man becomes the panda, right? Because we care about them. And so I think that maybe that’s part of it. Because we encounter the numbers all the time, right? And I think it was David Simon that said something like that before. I think he was being interviewed about The Wire, right? And I think the interview was asking him about the difference between the work that he’d done in journalism as a writer and then the work that he was doing as a writer. And he was saying that there’s power in the story. He felt that when he was a journalist that he was trying to communicate the same facts, the facts that he’s trying to communicate in The Wire. But as a journalist, they weren’t causing any change. They weren’t getting through. They weren’t making people care in the way that they care about the pandas. Yet when he worked on The Wire, he was able to reach a wider audience to get that audience to care about the same kind of issues that he was concerned about when he was a journalist. So I think it really is in the power of the story — even if you only have a little bit of space, just using that space as effectively as you can to make these stories real.

Correspondent: Sure. But don’t you think there’s a disconnect between, for example, Trayvon Martin. Everybody is sympathetic to that story.

Ward: Right.

Correspondent: And I marched with a bunch of people here in New York. And it was marvelous. At the time. But ultimately this doesn’t effect policy. It doesn’t actually get things to change. And even with the people who cared about The Wire, inevitably we go into the same corrupt governmental institutions. It seems to me that the only option is to either amp up the number of storytellers to get people to care or there needs to be some drastic change in the way the American mind thinks. And I’m wondering. Do you have any ideas on this?

Ward: I mean, that’s a really difficult question to answer. I think that there should be more storytellers and I think that the stories that are out there, they need more volume. I think that these stories, that’s what we need to be discussing instead of discussing the Kardashians. You know what I’m saying?

Correspondent: I agree.

Ward: That’s the discussion that we need to be having. Those are the stories that we need to be invested in. And the people that we need to be invested in need to not be so concerned with vapid celebrity culture. Because that doesn’t get us anywhere. That doesn’t foster the kind of large-scale change that we need in the American government with policymakers.

(Loops for this program provided by vlalys, djmfl, mingote,danke, and blueeskies.)

The Bat Segundo Show #516: Jesmyn Ward (Download MP3)

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Alissa Quart (The Bat Segundo Show #514)

Alissa Quart is most recently the author of Republic of Outsiders. This show is the second of two related programs devoted to the American epidemic of gravitating to mainstream culture in an age of limitless choice. (You can listen to the first part: Show #513 with Kiese Laymon.)

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Author: Alissa Quart

Subjects Discussed: George Lucas as “independent filmmaker,” how the presumed amateur mediums of YouTube and Kickstarter have become dominated by established figures, Amanda Palmer’s exploitation of musicians, Marina Abramović’s exploitation of dancers, Tilda Swinton marketing herself as an outsider, problems with the term “maverick,” the problems with Dave Eggers’s “selling out” rant, why resisting “selling out” has declined in the last ten years, Branded, OK Soda, how alternative cartoonists defied corporations, the decline in ad parodies, Yahoo cracking down on Tumblrs with sexual content, the flat self, how the lack of privacy destroys existential possibilities, the online exhibitionist impulse, Marie Calloway and easily deciphered pseudonyms, the relationship between the professional and the amateur, the rise of Etsy, T.J. Jackson Lear’s notion of antimodern dissent, people who strive to be featured sellers, false feminist fantasies, stealth capitalistic wish fulfillment, how physical space of hobbyists is appropriated by digital companies, handmade status, parallels between Etsy and freemium video games, addiction to Candy Crush Saga, Team Fortress 2, Netflix as an elaborate scheme to mine entertainment data, the narcotic state of false entertainment empowerment, vegans and fake meat, sanctimonious parallels between an animal rights activist telling you to watching a stream of slaughterhouse videos and a supermarket chain which claims that it slaughters animals humanely, crying over a field mouse dying, animal rights futurists, how prescriptive dichotomies develop into mainstream tropes, morally ostentatious ideological positions, The Icarus Project, the fine line between being eccentric and in need of help, bipolar writers, Mad Pride, a thought experiment concerning healthcare, whether or not it is the outsider’s to constantly resist, nontraditional settings for psychiatric care, Wikipedia’s transphobia against Chelsea Manning, transfeminists pointing to the assumption that the decision to have children is an assumption for all women, #solidarityisforwhitewomen, blind spots of mainstream feminists, gender distinctions at Barnard, young people and privacy*, Snapchat, how outsider ideas become mainstream, a Comics Alliance review of Heroes of Cosplay, cosplay as the professionalization of fans, the Tron Guy, how body image is becoming more Hollywood with professional cosplay, Vimeo auteurs, viral videos about broken subway steps, corporations that use images of people against their will, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Star Wars Uncut, contemporary collective filmmaking of today vs. truly independent filmmaking of the past (John Cassevetes, et al.), how tastemakers saved Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, the entitled fan critic vs. the designated gatekeeper, the decline of auteurism, mumblecore, documentary collectives in the 1960s, designated advocates vs. fan advocates, Kickstarter and behavioral economics, what a true outsider is, Sublime Frequencies’s Alan Bishop, the discipline of only being influenced by the sensibilities you cultivate, Pitchfork, taste as the last recourse in a world with too much information, how the word “curator” has been inverted, Maria Popova, the obligation to be outsider in some way, NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour, Lev Manovich’s idea of data streams, and the limited cultural scope of hyperniche groups on Twitter.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: When George Lucas made Star Wars Episodes I through III, he declared himself an “independent filmmaker.” Even though he was self-financing these movies for many millions of dollars. I also remember in 2011 when Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gorden Levitt were singing “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” and they released this to YouTube. They faced a great deal of criticism. YouTube is the amateur medium. Well, now we’re in a totally different ball game these days. Now we have crowdfunding. We have Spike Lee, Zach Braff, Veronica Mars on Kicktarter. And these people say, “Hey, it’s okay.” And what’s even more astonishing is that people are more accepting of this. And maybe, just to start off on what we’re dealing with here in terms of insiders and outsiders, why do you think that independent filmmaking has changed so that we now accept these people moving into the turf previously occupied by outsiders and people who were scrabbling together various resources to make different, eclectic art?

Quart: Well, I think right now we’re seeing coalitions of insiders and outsiders in a single person. So you have someone like Spike Lee, who is doing a Kickstarter campaign. He may have raised it by now. He was trying to raise $1.4 million. And then you have Amanda Palmer raising something similar on Kickstarter. Even more. And then you have actual true outsiders, or people who would have defined themselves as outsiders for many years, also using these same media. And it becomes, as I write in my book, a “republic of outsiders” — some which are arguably relying on their fans too much.

Correspondent: To the point of exploiting them, as Amanda Palmer is. “Hey, we’re going to have professional musicians play for free.” Which she’s received a lot of understandable flack for.

Quart: And I just saw recently Marina Abramović — the performance artist who had a big show at MOMA, quite famous. A dancer was complaining about being exploited for her labor in a crowdsourcing. Now there’s highbrow artists who are getting in on this kind of fan/star collapse and also monetizing the labor of people who are non-stars.

Correspondent: It’s interesting. Because I saw recently that Tilda Swinton went to Russia and is presenting herself as a total outsider. Of course, there’s her famous exhibit where she’s basically sleeping there. We’re now seeing a situation where mainstream people, or people who have dabbled between mainstream and outsider type of art, now feel this overwhelming need to define themselves as a rebel in some way. And yet they’re still reliant in many ways upon corporate cash or mainstream sources.

Quart: Or ordinary people’s cash.

Correspondent: Yes!

Quart: Or a friend’s cash.

Correspondent: And with crowdfunding. Yes.

Quart: Or a friend’s labor. And in a sense, the traditional selling out, where you’re relying on a corporation, can start to seem somewhat more innocent.

Correspondent: Well, why do you think that identifying yourself as an outsider is now a fundamental part of being? We can all sort of see through it. Especially when one tracks the general tenor or some artist’s voice. So why is this such a big thing these days?

Quart: Originally I was going to call this book either The Maverick Principle or Mavericks. And then there was the 2008 election. Sarah Palin and John McCain calling themselves “mavericks.”

Correspondent: “A real maverick.” Yes.

Quart: And then at some point Obama was even called “renegade.” So I think it’s really interesting. There’s a lot of use of language of the rebel/renegade. But part of what I did in this book was that I tried to include as many people who I considered — and I use this word advisedly — authentic outsiders, as well as people who are in this inside/outside thing like Amanda Palmer.

Correspondent: Sure. Well, one piece of writing you don’t actually include in the book, that I feel is actually germane to this argument, is Dave Eggers’s famous “selling out” speech, which he gave to The Harvard Advocate. And I still see it crop up all the time on Tumblr, where people constantly post it. And he basically says, okay, so the Flaming Lips appeared on 90210 and they performed their popular songs. But who cares? And he says, “Hey, I take money. Considerable thousands of dollars from Fortune Magazine. But I’m giving that away.” But what’s interesting about this, and what no one actually seems to think about in considering the Eggers rant, is that he’s not willing to hold himself accountable for how being indoctrinated in that kind of mainstream situation is going to affect his outsider nature or is actually going to compromise it in some way. And I’m wondering why this is such a compelling piece of text even almost fifteen years later, after it was originally disseminated. Why do you think people are still clinging to this notion of being an outsider or wanting to justify the fact that we’re all ensnared in this trap of having to…

Quart: As I said, the term “selling out,” which I considered an honorific when I was growing up. Or the opposite. Not selling out was honorific. Selling out was a terrible thing to do. I think the paradoxes of the term “selling out” have collapsed. And so you see people not even recognizing what that means. Now I’m going to start sounding like an old fuddy-duddy. But it’s not really a term that people really use or judge themselves by. It’s seen as a compliment. “Oh, I got Doritos to use my content that I created. Even though I’m just a fanboy.” Or “I got the latest hip-hop artist to use my remix in an advertisement. I’m so great.” So I think one of the reasons this document may hold appeal is that it’s a smart, well-heeled person kind of explaining what a lot of people are experiencing and addressing, if there is any, their lingering doubt. Is this a problem that I don’t even have this lodestone of selling out/not selling out anymore?

Correspondent: Why do you think that the notion of “selling out” became — when do you think the stigma was deflated? I mean, is this probably the last ten years, would you say?

Quart: I could feel it. I wrote a book. It came out in 2003.

Correspondent: You did.

Quart: Branded. And that to me was like — I didn’t even know it then, but I was seeing all these adolescents — I called it self-branding — who were defining themselves by the products they were consuming. Like “I am Coke. I am Pepsi. I am Abercrombie.” And I thought to myself, “Wow, this is just a teen thing.” But then the more I looked into it, these kids were growing up. And they were going to similarly retain that kind of identification. So I think a lot of it happened in the ’90s. It happened during the consolidation of corporations. It happened with the faltering economy. So people didn’t feel that they had the courage necessarily, even if they wanted to. To not define themselves by status markers. So I think there’s a multitude of factors that went into it.

Correspondent: You think people wanted to belong? And not really finding an absolute group, they turned to what corporations had to offer?

Quart: Yeah. I think it was just a surround sound culture. I mean, it is right now. We live in a screen culture where there’s endless pop-up ads, where our data is being mined. Where if I check out a jacket on a site, I’ll be seeing that jacket reappearing endlessly on my browser with every site I visit. In the early 2000s, when I wrote Branded, the line between advertorial and editorial in teen publications was collapsing. And that itself was a cause for dismay in media critic circles. And I wrote about it. “Oh no. They’re getting these advertising giveaways that are masquerading as magazines for teenagers.” Now everything they read carries promotional content. Magazines themselves are promotional entities. Again, the paradoxes of what selling out means have collapsed. And given the difficulties of the magazine and newspaper businesses right now, people don’t even focus on this that much. What content carries a commercial valence and which doesn’t.

Correspondent: But there was a time — like I think, for example, of OK Soda, where Coca-Cola hired Dan Clowes and Charles Burns to make this hip kind of design. I love this story. And they basically took the money and ran. I mean, there used to be a more honorable way of taking corporate money and pissing in their face.

Quart: Well, I think what you’re talking about is subversion, or subvertising. Remember all those terms that people used to use, and I loved? They don’t seem to be around so much anymore. Remember there was that moment. Well, it starts with MAD Magazine. Ad parodies? I mean, I don’t even see ad parodies anymore. It’s kind of weird.

Correspondent: Yeah! There used to be a rich culture in the ’90s and even in the early noughts. They were still, I think, flourishing even after September 11th. But I think something happened. And I guess I’m trying to ask you, Alissa…

Quart: What happened?

Correspondent: What was it? It probably, as you say, was post-2008 economic problems.

Quart: Some of them. 9/11 is a pertinent moment. Because you saw our President telling us to go shopping. It wasn’t “Have courage! Batten down the hatches!” It was “Go to the mall!” This is the way to be American. That was just one of many data points on that journey towards becoming an American shopper, not an American citizen.

Correspondent: One thing you didn’t really write about in this book that I think is possibly germane to this conversation is Tumblr. I mean, here is a situation where people think they’re being alternative on Tumblr. And very often, I see that they’re actually tailoring their posts so they can be liked or favorited and reposted elsewhere. And then on top of that, we had Yahoo recently purchase Tumblr. And they’ve started to quash down on certain blogs that actually have sexual content. And — I call them the Tumblrettes — the people who work at Tumblr, they scurry away when anybody has a more outsider or traditionally pugnacious reply in response to a cultural ill. Do you think that sometimes mediums such as Tumblr enable our worst impulses?

Quart: I mean, if we’re talking about companies buying other companies, we see that all the time. We see Goodreads being bought by Amazon. I guess in the ’90s, they would have called it mini-majors. Remember when independent studios were being bought? Miramax or Sony would purchase an independent company. Well, you see that happening a lot with companies that would be offering alternative platforms, that would be bought by companies that don’t offer those platforms. What happens, I guess, is that eventually there’s a neutralization of content. That’s another way in which outsiderdom is controlled.

Correspondent: But I think people have a choice to limit themselves or put themselves into some position where some moderating force is going to discourage them from truly expressing what’s on their mind. Clearly, there is something to be said about people’s choice of expression. I mean, they’re consenting to this. It’s not just evil corporate forces. And I’m wondering why that is.

Quart: I think, in the past, you used to see science fiction movies where people’s souls would be sucked out of their bodies by alien beings. And now we give away our information for the price of a five dollar badge online. For a sale item. There’s just such a level in a certain way. I call it the flat self. I mean, this isn’t in my book. But it’s something that I see a lot. And I guess it’s one of the incentives for writing a book like this, for people who are less flat. But for people who are willing to give away their information, their data — even the reaction to the fact that our information is being obtained against our will by all these companies and by our government. People are like, “Eh? Sure! I’ll give that away for 10% off!”

Correspondent: Well, what would be the typical flat self? Or I suppose a pernicious flat self? Since we’re on this particular metaphor. It seems to me it’s kind of an evolution of the dyed hair craze of people. As I grew up in San Francisco and Berkeley, you’d see people with dyed hair and punk T-shirts and they’d all look alike. Possibly more alike than a sea of corporate navy blue suits.

Quart: Well, there’s lots of ways to be a flat self. I guess what we’re talking about here is people who have, in some ways, are afraid and have succumbed to just a commercialized self that doesn’t have an interior life. So if you don’t think you have much of an interior life, the only thing you’re afraid of is if you’ve done anything wrong that people will see. You don’t really care about protecting the nature of your subjectivity. That’s not something that you’re concerned about.

Correspondent: A lack of an interior life is possibly part of this problem?

Quart: Perhaps. Or a lack of an interior life that you care about preserving.

* — Our Correspondent misstated the exact statistic. We regret the error and hope that the above link will set the matter straight.

(Loops for this program provided by Kristijann, 40A, ferryterry, and Boogieman0307.)

The Bat Segundo Show #514: Alissa Quart (Download MP3)

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