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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BEA 2011 — Michael Moore

A somewhat trashed Michael Moore arrived ten minutes late for his Wednesday morning “signature event” (“a unique new opportunity here,” according to the man who introduced him, who also declared that Moore “forces us to react”) at BookExpo America. Moore, dressed in a red baseball cap and green cargo shorts, began his presentation by offering tepid yet crowd-pleasing quips about the Republicans cutting the Veterans Administration, eliminating traffic lights, and getting rid of kittens.

“Enough picking on them,” said Moore. “They’ve got a rough road ahead of them.” He then continued with a lot of football metaphors for the audience, which didn’t really look like sports enthusiasts. “I was saying last night, you know, they caught this great pass back in November and they started running in the opposite direction back on the football field away from their goal!”

It appeared that Moore didn’t quite understand the type of audience that comes to BEA.

“I assume most of you work in bookstores?” uptalked Moore. “The librarians are here?” When a handful of teachers responded to his Catskills act, he replied, “Some teachers? Oh great. Of course teachers are to blame for everything. All the money that they’re taking from us.”

Then having secured a low-key audience, Moore announced his new book, Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life, due out in September. The book, a collection of two dozen short stories (“but they’re all nonfiction”), chronicles Moore’s life before Roger & Me.

“There’s a short story about getting lost inside the Capitol building at eleven years old,” said Moore. “I didn’t see the sign that said SENATORS ONLY.” A man reading a newspaper — who turned out to be Robert Kennedy — helped Moore find his parents that day.

Another story involves Moore asking his parents if he could leave home at fourteen. “I said I wanted to be a priest. So I went to the seminary at fourteen years old.” Moore explained that the story allowed him to investigate his Catholicism.

“There’s a whole bunch of things like that,” said Moore. “I found myself present at a terrorist incident in the 1980s.” That incident allowed Moore to “write about what it’s like to actually be present at one of those terrorist incidents and live.”

The book, continued Moore with his masterful aw-shucks put on, “explains how I got to be where I got.” Yet he never explained how any of his stories, which also concern how he hired many ex-Navy SEALS for his security detail, would be of value to someone who was unemployed or trying to pay off a subprime loan. Moore reported that the stories were “interesting and wild. Some are funny and not so funny.”

Moore than read an excerpt from his book (and most of his presentation time was devoted to this). The excerpt recreated his infamous night at the 2003 Academy Awards. “It’s weird,” said Moore in the middle of reading. “It’s the first time I’ve read those words out loud since that night.”

Moore’s excerpt revealed that Moore was convinced that he had let everybody down. “I ruined their night and I suddenly sunk into a pit of despair,” read Moore. But there was more than a hint of self-aggrandizement in his excerpt. “People stepped away from me for fear that their picture would be taken.” This correspondent had to wonder if other people considered Moore to be as important as he clearly thought himself to be. Moore noted that film studio executive Sherry Lansing came up to him and said, “It hurts now. Someday you’ll be right. I’m so proud of you.” Moore’s excerpt revealed that he “believed they were right. I got to listen to more boos over the next 24 hours. Going through the hotel. Walking through the airport.”

But Moore’s excerpt was disingenuous. Because he failed to observe that when you say something outrageous and/or contrarian before a large crowd, they’re not exactly going to welcome you in open arms. When he returned home from the Oscars ceremony, he saw signs tacked up on his property.

“It was time to call in the Navy SEALS,” Moore read with typical subtlety. Moore explained that he had hired a security group composed of former SEALS, that he had been assaulted and people had tried to assault him, and that one person had tried to blow up his house. “The SEALS basically saved me and kept me alive.”

Kept Moore alive? Moore has certainly said and filmed many brave and provocative moments in his career. But I wasn’t quite sold on his pity act. Perhaps there’s an additional moment in his forthcoming book in which he comes to terms with the fact that he’s a loudmouth. But that pivotal introspection and unapologetic acceptance of his nature seemed to be missing.

This discrepancy proved especially troubling when Moore painted two of his enemies as obsequious types seeking an apology. One guy who called him a “shithead” allegedly recanted. “I told him that we had more in common than not. Eventually I got a smile from him.” Another man working the boom mike on The Tonight Show approached Moore shortly after his guest appearance. He had apparently yelled “Asshole” at the Oscars. According to Moore, this man had tears in his eyes and said, “I never thought I’d see you again. I can’t believe I’d get the chance to apologize to you.” “You did nothing wrong,” replied Moore. “You believed your President. You’re supposed to believe your President. If we can’t expect that as the minimum in office, then we’re doomed.”

To turn Moore’s logic around, if we can’t expect the filmmaker to consider that there may be problems with his approach and that not all of humanity will bow in sycophantic deference, then perhaps his book project is a doomed prospect for anybody who disagrees with his politics or his methods.

When he finished reading, there was a loud applause.

“That was really cool,” said Moore. “I got to do this for the first time.” Moore didn’t thank the crowd.

Jane Eyre (1990 : 2011 :: Reality : Film Adaptation)

I was a teen when I first read Jane Eyre from beginning to end. The decision to read this Charlotte Bronte classic wasn’t prompted by any authority, but sprang from personal shame. An English teacher had assigned Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, pairing me up with two other students to write a collective essay in response to the book. I didn’t read the book. It wasn’t because I didn’t try. I just couldn’t read the book. And when I went to one of their comfortable middle-class homes to huddle around one of their computers, the jig was up. I was considered an impostor, with the calumnious sigil embedded invisible on my forehead for weeks.

These two other kids were right. I am still very much an impostor. I grew up in a home sullied by blows both violent and verbal, where shrieks from other family members careened around corners and mice scurried and scratched in the walls. The garage was nothing less than a shelter for junk that my parents lacked the effrontery to throw out, and I would have to climb over all manner of bric-a-brac to get the mail (which included a clandestine Playboy subscription addressed to my name, which I read for the pictures and the articles). Embarrassed friends would telephone me, hearing screaming and saying nothing and sometimes offering their homes as momentary refuge. This made it very difficult to read or concentrate or think or feel or write.

I didn’t have a computer; just an ancient electric typewriter with a highly unreliable ribbon and jittery keys. I had learned how to type 100 words per minute in eighth grade, but the contraption made my skills useless. I would type essays on this baleful beast late at night, when the chances of shouting and interruption were slimmer, often needing an hour to hone a paragraph to make sure that the ink didn’t smudge on the liberated bond and the characters hammered to the paper properly. Even one of these very patient hours, which could only come when I was holed up in my bedroom, still required the dutiful applique of white-out (mostly stolen, not purchased; there wasn’t much money). One of my English teachers – a man named Jim Jordan fond of leaving a tally on the blackboard with my name under the heading INANE COMMENTS (he did the same thing to a nice kid named Nick Hamilton; who knows how many aspiring jesters this man tormented over the years?) and who added a horizontal slice every time I overcame my shyness, announced my associative mind, and got the classroom to laugh — decided to condemn me further when I would turn in papers labored over into the early morning. As far as he was concerned, it wasn’t the content, but the pockmarked presentation, something I couldn’t help due to the poverty of my instruments, that offended this Murphy Brown watcher’s sensibilities.

Factor in all the ruthless ribbing, and this was a tough time for me. Misery at home, misery at school. But I tried my best to see the positive side of things. One needed to develop a thick hide to survive. I figured this neoliberal teacher just hated the poor kid with the wild and crazy hair and the trenchcoat and the hat and the Looney Tunes tees (found very cheap at Marshall’s and treated with some care, given that shopping for clothes was a rare occurrence) preventing him from charming a largely middle-class group as patriarchal pedagogue. It was a wonder, years later, that I ended up finding some dodgy living as a guy who wrote about books and that any page in literature spoke to me more than anything Jim Jordan, who hated genre and hated Stephen King and rebuffed my interest in HP Lovecraft and always let the class know all this, had to say over a semester.

I felt bad about not reading Robert Penn Warren. (Years later, I read the book in its entirety.) I also felt bad when I learned that the two students, whom I thought my friends, ridiculed me to another friend, figuring that I had to be a stupid son of a bitch for not reading Warren. (This third friend defended me, in part because he was also not quite in their class bracket and had some tangible understanding of what I was going through. Vice versa. We’re still friends to this very day. Old soldiers who fought many wars together.) And so I decided to prove to myself that I could read a big book that wasn’t science fiction or fantasy. I plucked a copy of Jane Eyre from a box in another classroom and I brought it home. (I would later do the same thing with George Orwell’s 1984 and Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, both of which I was not required to read but did.)

For obvious reasons, I could relate very much to Jane’s early plight in the Red Room and at Lowood. Psychologically abusive family members, teachers who tormented me because I didn’t fit into their suburban idyllic fantasy, feeling stupid and plain – what here wasn’t there to relate to? I had no kind teacher equivalent to Miss Temple at the time, although I would later encounter a marvelous teacher named James Wagner, who not only encouraged me to write by looking upon every essay as an opportunity for fun and mischief, but who paid attention to the prose style contained in my DNA. When my sister took Mr. Wagner’s class a few years later, he said to her, “That’s what I like about you Champions. Short and snappy sentences.”

But once Jane hit Thornfield, I began to despise her and the book. I didn’t like this Rochester fellow who was trying to control her. He reminded me of too many paternal figures who wanted to correct me rather than accept me. And I didn’t like the way that Jane (or Janet, as Rochester called her; a modest corruption of her name that Jean Rhys was to investigate further in Wide Sargasso Sea) wasn’t honest about her feelings. I didn’t like the convenient fortune that Jane encountered later in the book, which seemed a terrible contrivance, and I didn’t like the way that Jane heard Rochester’s voice and how this conveniently urged her to return to Thornfield. Life just didn’t work like this. But I read it to the end and returned the book back to the box, grateful that my fury towards the book would not have to be voiced and shot down by an English teacher who didn’t like me. However, before an eccentric drama teacher (Mr. Cody), I dismissed Jane Eyre as “a Harlequin romance.” I was very surprised when Mr. Cody replied with approbation and enthusiasm.

Still, as much as I hated the book, I have to credit Jane Eyre for giving me a reading discipline I had never known before that time. It hadn’t occurred to me to look at the novel again until there came a time later, more than twice a lifetime later.

* * *

January 10, 2011. I publicly pledge to read the top 100 novels of the 20th century, as decided upon in 1998 (about eight years after I read Jane Eyre and about thirteen years before I made the promise) by the Modern Library of America. What I don’t quite comprehend at the time is that Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea -– a prequel to Jane Eyre -– is #94. (April 22, 2011 Interjection: Essay on Wide Sargasso Sea now here.) What I also don’t quite get is that there’s a new film adaptation of Jane Eyre set to be released on March 11, 2011.

A few weeks later, I make the connections. I receive an email from Russell Perreault (I’m on one of Random House’s mailing lists) about the movie tie-in edition. After my high school experiences, there’s no way in hell that I’m going to obtain a fresh copy of Jane Eyre on my own. Not from a bookstore or a library. Yet somehow I cannot resist. Through sheer folly and laziness, I send Perreault an email. Much to my surprise, Perreault humors me and a copy of Jane Eyre shows up in the mail days later. My fate is sealed. I can’t exactly ignore this polite gesture. I must reread the book. Who knows? Maybe my adult self will appreciate what my kid self did not.

I arrange to attend a press screening of the movie, with the idea that I’ll have the book reread before I hit the movie. (What I don’t count on is that all this industry triggers thoughts and feelings outlined in the first part of this essay.) I reread the book. I bang out the following Goodreads review:

It shouldn’t be thoughtless to condemn this terrible book, which I read for the second time in my life. The first time was in high school. I hated it then, but I read it to the end — unprovoked by any force in particular, aside from my own flowering self-discipline. I despise this book slightly less now. But I am now most anxious indeed to read Jean Rhys’s corrective prequel, which appears to be much shorter and has the temerity to condemn such terrible characters. Jane Eyre is almost smug in the end, after 600 pages of near helplessness (especially the unintentionally hilarious chapter of her asking around for food and a job: if she were truly smart, she would have contrived the damn escape over time; what does it say about this diabolical doormat that I longed for her to take up prostitution, hoping in vain that my memory of the book was wrong, but knowing the chirpy fate of this dimwitted damsel in distress, who requires an extra-strong dose of feminist enlightenment). Rochester and St. John are two male specimens whom I would not only outdrink, but out think and out act. When Rochester begs Janet to save him, an image of castrated Williamsburg hipsters beating him to a pulp entered my mind. Alas, such a deserved fate was not to be. Don’t get me started on the doddering St. John.

But of course, being very stubborn-minded, I read this damn book to the bitter end. My partner asked me to leave the room because I was talking back so violently to the book, making sounds resembling “Wah wah wah” or something like that when I had to endure pages upon pages of angst. A critic friend says that he never made it past the first half of this book and suggested that I read Wuthering Heights. He may be right, but I think I’m done with the Bronte Sisters for at least a year. I don’t care how groundbreaking this book was on the Gothic front. It’s just plain hokey. Convenient windfalls from dead relatives, hearing Rochester’s voice from afar. Contrived! So you can’t take responsibility for marrying the crazy woman in the attic? Cry me a river. Man up and deal. Don’t take out your problems on your poor servants, illegitimate children, a governess, and so forth. Hey, Rochester, didn’t you see the sign on the boat to Jamaica? YOU BROKE IT, YOU BOUGHT IT. The fact that you view humans as hairy beasts, sir, is part of the problem. Bronte’s understanding of people, even accounting for the centuries, leaves much to be desired too.

* * *

In high school, I understand that many people consider the book to be a masterpiece. And while I don’t share this viewpoint, I do find myself in high school obtaining a VHS copy of the 1943 film starring Orson Welles as Rochester and Joan Fontaine as Jane. I love every damn minute of it. Maybe it’s the melodrama. Maybe it’s the black-and-white. I am familiar then with Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil and the wine commercials and am only just starting to understand what a great cinematic genius Orson Welles was. (My friends only seem to know him from Transformers: The Movie.) There is clearly no better man who can channel Rochester’s oily charisma and convince us why Jane Eyre would fall victim to what would now be very serious sexual harassment in the workplace.

There is, in 1996, a lesser film adaptation with William Hurt in the role. And I learn that George C. Scott has also played him, although I still haven’t seen that version. In college years, I also discover that there’s a 1973 version with Michael Jayston in the part. (I know Jayston as the Valeyard in the 1986 Doctor Who serial, “Trial of a Timelord.”) I track some of these dramatic versions down (not an easy thing to do in the pre-Internet days of video stores and tape trading by mail), but I don’t tell anyone about this adaptation fixation until March 2011, when I write and publish this essay. Perhaps in my secret watching, I am trying my best to find ways of appreciating a book I don’t care for.

“My master’s colourless, olive face, square, massive brow, broad and jetty eyebrows, deep eyes, strong features, firm, grim mouth, — all energy, decision, will, — were not beautiful, according to rule; but they were more than beautiful to me; they were full of an interest, an influence that quite mastered me, — that took my feelings from my own power and fettered them in his. I had not intended to love him; the reader knows I had wrought hard to extirpate from my soul the germs of love there detected; and now, at the first renewed view of him, they spontaneously arrived, green and strong! He made me love him without looking at me.”

Why is Rochester the entry point? Is it because I’m a man? Is it because of this idea of loving someone without the object of your affection looking back at you? I don’t think so. I think it’s because I’m trying to understand why Jane would be so attracted. That’s one of the great narrative mysteries sticking at the back of my mind for years. Even if she doesn’t have much experience with men, and even if the times weren’t exactly friendly for women, it doesn’t make sense that someone brave enough to stand up to the abuses at Lowood would fall for some of Rocheter’s dull philosophy. Yet Rochester, plainly described in that above passage, is charming in these dramatic versions in a way that he isn’t charming in the book.

* * *

March 8, 2011. I’m in the Dolby 88 screening room. I know within a minute of first seeing Michael Fassbender in this movie that he doesn’t have what it takes to be Rochester. And it gets worse as the film goes on. He isn’t fierce enough. He doesn’t have the eyes that men like Orson Welles or Oliver Reed had; the eyes that somehow convince you to jump into an abyss before you know you’re falling. When Rochester sits in a chair, the chair has more screen presence. Poor Fassbender looks as if he’s been asked to do nothing but stare intensely at the camera. His arms and legs have pinioned by bad direction.

It doesn’t help that screenwriter Moira Buffini (responsible for Tamara Drewe) has restructured Jane Eyre so that a good portion of the St. John episode comes first (i.e., the movie begins with Jane’s escape from Thornfield, which in itself is a ballsy and interesting choice), followed by a surprising extension of the early business with the Reeds, with the Lowood stuff getting cheapened into what appears to be digital cardboard decor, which results in Rochester’s first appearance getting postponed and the narrative structure collapsing in on itself.

The “pedestal of infamy” mentioned in the book, which is a metaphor, is mentioned directly by an evil teacher in the movie. That’s how literal-minded the script is. The script also includes numerous moments where characters tell each other what they’re feeling, as if Buffini doesn’t understand that this is a visual medium. “How very French,” replies Fairfax after Adele sings a song. “You’re depressed,” says Rochester to Jane Eyre, who doesn’t look depressed. “Your eyes are full,” he also says when they’re not. “You’re blushing,” he says, when she’s not. This technique certainly worked for Lev Kuleshov, whereby Kuleshov cut a blank expression of a man with a bowl of soup (he’s hungry), a girl’s coffin (grief), and so forth – with audiences praising the blank man’s great acting. But that was almost 100 years ago and it relied on visual cues rather than oral ones. You’d think that such bad narrative dialogue would have the simple explanation of lines cribbed directly from the book. In other words, that essential exposition which works in text was simply plucked wholesale and put into the script. But that isn’t the case at all. Because none of these lines are in the book. Buffini (or some tampering studio executive) has added them. Because she (or someone) believes that the audience is a collection of morons.

There is no Miss Temple in this movie. Indeed, the movie cannot afford to offer us any nuances, anything that strays from the cliches. The red-maned Mia Wasikowska is too luminous to be so plain. The movie’s real “machine without feelings” here is cinematographer-turned-director Cary Fukunaga, who comprehends how to capture a world by lantern and candlelight, and even manages a moment of battledore and shuttlecock. But he doesn’t know that cobwebs and dust and flies often clutter up a dark and expansive mansion. Fukunaga isn’t much interested in creating visual atmosphere. He’s into fake scares through an aggressive sound mix, such as a bird flying up into the air. It doesn’t really enhance the story or the mystery or give us a reason to care.

* * *

I was an adult when I reread Jane Eyre from beginning to end, and when I realized that my feelings for the classic were just as needlessly prejudicial as the teacher’s enmity towards me. I gave it a try anyway, devoting many unknowing hours trying to reconstruct something that I had locked away in the attic of my mind. My own private Bertha was not insane and would not stay caged and would not set the place on fire. I resolved to approach Jane Eyre again in ten years, when the associations were less fresh and I was presumably more human. The next time around, I will judge it not through the prism of its dramatic iterations, but on the very novel itself. After all, wasn’t it Jane herself who said that repentance is said to be its own cure?

The Bat Segundo Show: Adam Ross

Adam Ross recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #349. Mr. Ross is most recently the author of Mr. Peanut.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Caught within the vertiginous sensation of a Mobius strip.

Author: Adam Ross

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Ross: I think that what keeps us going day in and day out as we live our lives — and certainly we live our lives, hopefully, as members of caring relationships — is the belief that we can improve and change. And when I think of the idea of change, progress, and the improvability of character, that to me is a belief that character is somewhat linear. Right? That, okay, I learned that lesson back then. I’m never going to do it again. And yet my experience as a guy who’s been successfully married for fifteen years is that the experience of living with someone you care about a great deal for a long period of time is to come up against the reef of circularity, but also to enjoy the bliss of recurrence, right? So it’s paradoxical. There are these competing desires. The closed circles that Mr. Peanut presents. The entrapment, which is the same experience, I think, of looking at Escher. Which is that weird — you look at the art object from the outside. But if you really enter an Escher, you have this perceptual experience, where it’s inescapable and then you have to step back. It’s to me kind of analogous to the experience we often feel with those closest to us. Whether it’s brothers/sisters, mothers/fathers, or husbands/wives, we want to believe that we could get past X. But we often don’t. And that, to me, is the heaven and hell of marriage.

Correspondent: Yeah. So what you are suggesting here….

Ross: I’m suggesting tension. I’m suggesting a tension between those two.

Correspondent: Well, that’s true. But you’re also suggesting that by David embarking on this manuscript, by embarking on his marriage from the outside, and then also actively discouraging himself to look at the actual symbols — everything lines up. That’s really the dilemma that you’re laying down here. And then simultaneously you add an additional meta element by having the reader involved. Because then the reader is looking from the outside from the outside from the outside.

Ross: Yes. Well, let’s — because there’s nothing better to me as the writer than having this kind of a conversation. Because you’re putting your finger exactly onto me. What I was trying to examine. And so the first question I would say, in terms of decoding some aspects of Mr. Peanut is this. When is David writing this? Because essentially the book hints that there is a period of him being terribly blocked. And then there is a period where he is liberated to close the circle. Close the Mobius band, right? At the same time, it is, to me, powerful works of art — a movie that comes to mind just off the top of my head is either something like Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now or the great movie, Francis with Jessica Lange — where the effect of the work is to shock you and stun you. Another book like this would be John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig. Where the power of the nightmare is forceful enough that you emerge from it not just still reeling from the things you’ve seen, but also hopefully more awake to what’s right in front of you in the real. And so the question is: Is the virtual a prophylactic from life? Or does it have this possible saving power? Does a reader — who I bring in and as you say look from the outside in at all these moments that are fraught with conflict and violence and moments of joy and missed opportunities — is the reader there more awake to his or her life? Or, to the reader, is it just another entertainment? Is it just another enchantment? I don’t have the answer to that. My hope would be that it’s a wake-up call. But my experience is that these wake-up calls — we’re on the band also. We’re constantly forgetting. Does that make sense?

Correspondent: No, it totally does. And actually I want to lay out just a sampling of the numerous Hitchcock references in this book to jump off of this point.

Ross: Sure.

Correspondent: You have, for example, Nurse Ritter referencing Thelma Ritter in Rear Window. David encounters business cards made out to Dr. Fred Richmond from Psycho, Dr. Alex Brulov from Spellbound, which is also the name of his software company. Jesslyn Fax is a co-worker of Alice’s, but also the actress who played Miss Hearing Aid in Rear Window.

Ross: Yes.

Correspondent: And so on. So I’m wondering, based off of your last answer, whether there was a specific science in these particular references. Or whether they were all pure MacGuffins. Pure ways of detracting the reader, of inviting the reader to look in at something — again, going back to the question of semiotics — that is either complete bullshit. Or whether there is any kind of remote justification. Or whether it was just you having fun. Again, it works on this level of “Here, reader, look from the outside. But if you peer in, you will find nothing.”

Ross: I’ve been watching Hitchcock films intensively for twenty years. And it would be pure postmodern kitsch — pure postmodern trash — if those references didn’t have, as it were — that they didn’t rhyme thematically. In fact, there is, throughout the novel, a semiotics of naming which you’ve already put your finger on. And with some of the names you’ve already brought up for instance. Ward Hastroll is an anagram for Lars Thorwald [Raymond Burr’s character from Rear Window]. It’s the Hastroll section in terms of the way names are used. And not just names. They’re the Escher obverse of Rear Window. So, for instance, and I’ll only give a few of these away, but to give you an idea that there is method to the madness, I mean, the newlyweds that Ward Hastroll interviews are named the same actors in Rear Window.

Correspondent: Yes.

Ross: And if you go through, it actually in some ways — for instance, in that case — it modernizes the conflict that the couple has in Rear Window. Ross Bagdasarian is the name of the piano player in Rear Window. And his wife — that’s Judith, he says — is the woman who’s also named Miss Lonelyhearts. And so they clearly — in that one quick cameo that Ross Bagdasarian has — they clearly had a happy life. But now their life is fading from memory because of his Alzheimer’s. So there’s that. There is the superstructure. But more importantly, in the Sheppard section — and I wouldn’t want to give too much of this away, because I’m waiting for people like yourself to start really dealing with it. The Sheppard section is comprised both in terms of content and certain kinds of rhyming themes of multiple Hitchcock narratives. Vertigo plays an enormous part, both in terms of content and thematically in the Sheppard section. Shadow of a Doubt. Strangers on a Train. Marnie. Rear Window. To name but a few. Spellbound, as you said, does reemerge. I could go on. North by Northwest. Which also has its very clear semiotics of the kind of spy action caper. Because I think Hitchcock, at the time, was very tired of the action caper MacGuffin and wanted to introduce an element of absurdity. So, for instance, Cary Grant’s wallet in North by Northwest — this teeny little wallet — never empties of money. And he’s constantly doling out cash throughout the whole film. Little tricks like that. A Hitchcock scholar will start to enter that labyrinth and will start to see a way in which these themes — even on the level of mise en scene. I mean, if you look at the way certain characters are dressed in the Sheppard section, and where they go to buy clothes, it is not just using Hitchcock locales and settings.

The Bat Segundo Show #349: Adam Ross (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Nell Irvin Painter

Nell Irvin Painter appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #329. Painter is most recently the author of The History of White People.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Drowning in David Coverdale’s noxious imperialism.

Author: Nell Irvin Painter

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

Correspondent: You are careful to write, “Harvard’s importance in eugenics does not imply some nefarious scheme or even a mean-spirited ambiance. Rather, Harvard’s import in this story attests to the scholarly respectability of eugenic ideas at the time.”

Painter: And that could be said about Princeton or Yale or any of the other lofty institutions.

Correspondent: But it is curious to me. I mean, if we recognize today [Robert] Yerkes and [William] Ripley’s stuff as “junk science” essentially, why at the time were these ideas so respected? Why did some of these people get tenured at Harvard?

Painter: Indeed.

Correspondent: I mean, it couldn’t have just been Harvard’s prestige. It had to be something else, I suppose.

Painter: Well, we’re talking about what was considered good science at the time. That was the knowledge that our culture needed at the time. And, after all, Ripley consulted all sorts of authorities. European authorities, American authorities, and so forth. So he had a really big bibliography and he followed the rules.

Correspondent: If someone attempted something along those lines today, I guess the Internet would kill it, I suppose.

Painter: Not necessarily. If it were something that we all agreed upon. Like, for instance, we’re seeing in the medical field right now. Recently, I read a report in the New York Times by a doctor saying there’s just too many prostrate cancer screenings. But a year or so ago, that was considered good science to have everybody screened. So things change.

Correspondent: I wanted to talk about Emerson, who you really take to task in this book. You devote a whole chapter to English Traits.

Painter: Yes. There are three Emerson chapters.

Correspondent: Yes. There are three Emerson chapters. But English Traits seems to be the one key text with which the…

Painter: It is the key text for this reason.

Correspondent: Yeah. But I just wanted to ask you about this. You note later in the book that Henry Ford was an admirer of English Traits.

Painter: Yes.

Correspondent: But in the book that you cited from — because I was really curious about this – Neil Baldwin’s Henry Ford and the Jews. Baldwin notes that it was Emerson’s essay, “Compensation,” that Ford favored above all else. And he even handed that out as as gifts. And that essay doesn’t contain any reference to race. You also state that Theodore Roosevelt echoes the phrase “hideous brutality” in English Traits. But in English Traits, Emerson uses the word “hideous” only once, in reference to the injustice of pauperism. And granted, there are issues with pauperism related to the Saxon seed, which we had mentioned earlier. But I just want to ask. Because I don’t disagree with you that Emerson’s views on the Irish, his drawing upon Robert Knox — these are problematic.

Painter: Yeah. I’m not saying that Emerson is a bad man. But I’m saying that Emerson, because of his importance in American culture, by focusing on these themes and presenting them, orchestrating them in his impeccable prose, made it acceptable. So it’s not that I’m castigating Emerson. I’m trying to place him in an intellectual theme.

Correspondent: But in the case of Henry Ford drawing more upon “Compensation,” say, than English Traits, that’s where I was — my question mark went up.

Painter: But we’re doing Henry Ford — what? Sixty, seventy years after Emerson.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, the other thing too is picking and choosing one’s values from Emerson. Like Ralph Ellison, for example. He was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Painter: Right.

Correspondent: And actually took a lot from the transcendentalists.

Painter: Oh, there’s a lot of Emerson. Emerson’s an extraordinary figure. And one who his contemporaries said embodies the whole of American learning. And to a certain extent, he did.

Correspondent: But going back to the question or relativism. Can he be let off the hook somewhat simply because he was, in part, an abolitionist? Maybe he didn’t go all the way, but…

Painter: No. We’re talking about different things.

Correspondent: Hmmm.

Painter: We’re talking about different things. Because he had one set of views, this doesn’t change what we think about another set of views. You can still respect Emerson for his central role in the American Renaissance and still know about his Saxonism.

The Bat Segundo Show #329: Nell Irvin Painter (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Gail Godwin

Gail Godwin recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #319. Godwin is most recently the author of Unfinished Desires.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Combating an uncertain relationship with the faith.

Author: Gail Godwin

Subjects Discussed: A Mother and Two Daughters, allegorical personality change tied into a historical framework, characters who dictate into a tape recorder, sense of time and character motivation, saving up character place, three (maybe four) versions of The Red Nun, nuns who hit boys with rulers, unfinished statues, representations of representations, David Copperfield, Henry James, The Beast in the Jungle, researching the inner workings of a toilet as punishment, the downgrading of dreams, contriving a reasonable punishment, the visceral response of accepting people without judgment, third person paragraphs containing first person introspection, preferring to be inside, telling gestures, death by traffic accidents, bizarre deaths, repeating certain themes, Mount St. Gabriel, confronting stepfathers, disappearing maiden names, knowing the sources of all counties, revisionist memory, not giving details to the reader, original drafts of 900 pages, drawing pictures while writing a novel, keeping track of 15 students, Evensong, and unintentional sequels.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I’m curious where the punishment that Ravenel ekes out in relation to a sanitary pad came from. The idea of having to research the inner workings of a modern toilet. Was this based off of any of the interviews you did?

Godwin: No, this was made up. I was in Ravenel’s head and her character. I was being the headmistress. And as headmistress with a lot of boarders, especially these boarders from Cuba. The fathers really want them to be young queens. This is back before Castro. And when this girl keeps flushing things down the toilet and stopping it up, Mother Ravenel first thinks, “Well, I’ll have her, as a punishment, clean the toilet stalls.” And then she realizes, as a canny headmistress, that would not do. Because these fathers just would not go for that, for their daughters to clean the toilets. So she had to think of something that would take a lot of work and be instructive. And so she thought, “Well, I’ll have her diagram the workings of a toilet.” And I looked in books to see what this poor girl would have to do. And it’s complex.

Correspondent: So just to be fair to the characters, you had to actually consider taking on the punishment yourself.

Godwin: Yes, and this girl would not have had these books that I have. You can get books now that give you pictures of anything. So you just look up “toilet” and there it is. In color, with all the parts and full-page labels.

Correspondent: But to take this conversation further down the toilet, I should point out that here we have a situation in which a biological budding occurs. And the answer, Ravenel’s answer, is to essentially deconstruct something that doesn’t even relate to it.

Godwin: Oh!

Correspondent: The suggestion here — apparently subconscious, based on your surprise — would seem to me to indicate, “Well, maybe you should just accept the fact that girls go through this and maybe should come to terms with this instead of having to deconstruct.” Going back to “The Downgrading of Dreams,” this relates to that. Because of Maud’s visceral reaction. She’s asked to emotionally explain her essay.

Godwin: Yes.

Correspondent: And then she’s asked to consistently dissect that emotional reaction. So we have a juxtaposition here. And I’m curious as to how that factored into the toilet incident and over the course of the book. Maybe you could talk about that.

Godwin: Well, tell me how. If you had been Mother Ravenel, what would you have thought of for the punishment — that would not have been deconstruction? What would it have been? Would it have been to talk about blossoming some more?

Correspondent: Yeah. Probably, I would have. Be honest about these kinds of things.

Godwin: Uh huh.

Correspondent: Get true to the heart, which would be my solution. But then I’m not really a religious man.

Godwin: And you’re not….

Correspondent: I’m a man too. So…

Godwin: Yeah, you’re not a headmistress or a nun.

Correspondent: Yes.

Godwin: In the 1950s.

BSS #319: Gail Godwin (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Percival Everett

Percival Everett appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #295.

Percival Everett is most recently the author of I Am Not Sidney Poitier.

[For related links, check out Percival Everett Week over at Emerging Writers Network, as well as my specific thoughts about Everett’s most recent novel.]

segundo295

Condition of Mr. Segundo: He is not Percival Everett.

Subjects Discussed: Name-related jokes, puns and internal metaphors, the many ways to pronounce “Le-a,” literal misunderstandings, whether there really is a Ted Turner, Bill Cosby’s Pound Cake speech, Richard Power’s Generosity, the relationship between reality and fiction, truth vs. reality, the “magic” of writing, stress, on not paying attention to the publishing industry, making the next book, not caring about the reader, on not writing commercial successes, the impulse to entertain, Everett’s world of Dionysus, reader reactions and interpretations, having no affection for previous books, becoming a better writer, the “experimental” nature of Wounded, outlandish one-dimensional figures and subdued prose, I Am Not Sidney Poitier as a “novel of ideas,” on not knowing how to write a novel, artistic creation and gleeful sabotage, narrative worlds and anarchy, Everett’s novels as concrete recreations, loving children geniuses and idiots alike, worldbuilding, subverting subjective character understanding, limitations, writing novels as a playground, having an interest in religion while remaining an “apath,” psychics for horses, believing with character belief, laundry list descriptions, strategic use of language, the relationship between story and language.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

everett2Correspondent: I recently read Richard Powers’s forthcoming novel, Generosity, which deals with the notion of what a novel really is and what ideas and characters really are. And I’m very curious to put this question to you. To what degree do you need reality to start from? And to what degree do you feel the need to be faithful to reality? Or even faithful to real-life figures? Or can you accept a Percival Everett figure in this who also happens to have a book called Erasure?

Everett: First, I owe nothing to reality. But, of course, for any novel to work, in spite of my disregard — maybe even my disdain for facts — truth is important. If it’s not true, you can’t stay with it. You won’t believe it. And there is no work. But truth has nothing to do with reality or facts.

Correspondent: But you do have names to draw from. Not just in this book, but also in your previous books. Thomas Jefferson, Strom Thurmond. You’re a guy who likes real names like this. And so, as such, I have to ask. Is it just a constant influx of information from newspapers that is your creative muse? Where do you stop from reality and start with the inventive process? Or the misunderstandings we’re talking about?

Everett: Well, it depends on the work. But I read all the time. So it just depends on what comes to me. Some figures just present themselves as too alluring to ignore. How could I go through my life and not at some point address Strom Thurmond? (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah. Sure. But it can’t just be a simple impulse. Because obviously…

Everett: Why not?

Correspondent: Because I’m thinking when you set out to write a novel — and I’m not you obviously — but when you set out to find a concept or put your finger on something, is it a matter of instinctively knowing that that’s something to riff on or something to expand further? Or do you have any plan like this?

Everett: Sometimes I don’t have a plan. Sometimes it’s hit or miss. Trial or error. Feast or famine. All of those duals. I don’t know. For me, the way novels come together is magic. And I only question it so much.

Correspondent: Magic. Magic through pure work? You’re a prolific guy.

Everett: Yeah, I suppose. Yeah. It won’t get done unless I do it. So I try to do it. And I don’t stress.

Correspondent: You don’t stress? Never stressed at all?

Everett: I try not to be. There’s no reason to get upset about anything. Especially work. And then it happens. And the more it happens, the less stressed I become.

BSS #295: Percival Everett (Download MP3)

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Interview with Jami Attenberg

(Note: The full interview excerpted here can now be listened to as the 172nd installment of The Bat Segundo Show)

For my first 2008 interview, I met up with writer Jami Attenberg at her Williamsburg apartment. During our conversation, Attenberg’s very friendly and intelligent cat, Cracker, proceeded to climb upon my leg and claw at the wires. He then deposited his slinky corporeal mass upon my lap and, later, climbed atop the table and deliberately occluded my notes. I was then forced to wing a portion of the interview. But the cat’s daring locative intervention proved pertinent to the conversation at hand.

Attenberg’s second novel, The Kept Man, is as much about a woman’s relationship with topographical territory as it is about a passive thirtysomething drifting on the dregs of her husband’s legacy. To my mind, the two themes were linked. And during the course of the interview, I asked Attenberg about the connections between her protagonist, Jarvis Miller, and the neighborhood she inhabited. (The full interview will appear in a future installment of The Bat Segundo Show.)

attenberg.jpgCorrespondent: I’m wondering also about the Terri Schiavo narrative, because it does play in more later in the book than in the beginning of the book. Did you know immediately that there was this almost quasi-allegorical feel to that? Or did it start with the fact that you had Martin Miller in this coma?

Attenberg: It started with Martin being in a coma. I knew that. Actually, the first chapter that I wrote in the book was about the donut girls at one point.

Correspondent: Oh, interesting.

Attenberg: That was the first thing. Because I wanted to write a little bit about the art world. I knew that. And then I knew that there was this man who was in a coma. I wanted to do that. But I didn’t know how it was going to end. I’ve said this before, but when you have a guy in a coma, you set the stakes really high like that. There’s only three ways that it can possibly end, which is that he dies, or he wakes up, or somebody kills him. Or he just keeps floating along, I suppose. But that wouldn’t be a very good ending to a book now, would it? So I didn’t know about the more political stuff until I got to the end of the book. I don’t want to give away the ending though.

Correspondent: No, no, no. We’re not.

Attenberg: But I really have no idea when I start writing a book how it’s going to end at all.

Correspondent: So you actually had sort of a mish-mash here. You jumped from Point A to Point 6 to Point Z, etcetera, throughout the course of writing these novels? And that’s how you sort of stumble upon the narrative?

Attenberg: I mean, the first two books I wrote — this is the second book — I wrote in about a year. So everything, like I said, it’s very organic. I just sort of making up things around me and putting them into a book. Eventually, when you get to the end, you filter out what worked and what didn’t work.

donuts.jpgCorrespondent: Okay, well, if Davis and the donut girls was one of the key starting points, was this an imagined experience? Or was this drawn from anything specific that you observed? Because I am certainly not familiar with this phenomenon. (laughs)

Attenberg: With donut girls?

Correspondent: Yeah, yeah.

Attenberg: Well, you have to live in this neighborhood. It’s more north side. We’re on the south side right now. And we’re doing this interview in my apartment. And on the south side, it’s very Hassidic and Puerto Rican and Dominican, and then when you head towards more of the north side, it’s Greenpoint. And then it’s really Polish over there. So you notice the Polish girls that are out there. And some people are really fascinated and obsessed with beautiful young woman.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Attenberg: And they’re recent immigrants. And they’re definitely a force in the population.

Correspondent: Well, I’m wondering though. Donut shops in particular. It seemed…

Attenberg: There is a donut shop! In Greenpoint. On Manhattan Avenue. And it just stuck in my brain. I think I went there after seeing a rock show. So it’s sort of like that donut shop. And it just sort of stuck in my head. And I wanted to write about it.

Correspondent: Did you observe any specific pickup artists there?

Attenberg: No. I don’t even know if people really do pick them up. It was just in my imagination that they did.

Correspondent: Interesting. Or even someone constantly buying clothes and this whole modeling thing.

Attenberg: Right.

Correspondent: The whole thing escalating into something else. This was the imagined part.

Attenberg: But that’s no different from Jarvis wanting to be taken care of. Or these men wanting to be taken care of. That there are these people in the world who look to other people to sponsor them or meet their needs. But they provide something in return. I think I missed the point that I wanted to make, which was that, after I had all these ideas about these characters and plot points, I came across the idea of being kept or held back. Once I realized that that was going to be the title of the book and that was a major theme, then it was really to go back to move forward and make sure that every character has something that’s holding them back or keeping them into their life. That’s where it comes from.

nabokov.jpgCorrespondent: Going back to this issue of topography as a launching point, it’s reminiscent to me of Nabokov’s rule, where he basically said that he could not write a novel until he actually had a particular location. Likewise, in addition to this inspirational momentum, I wanted to first of all find out if this was a factor for you in terms of writing this. And it also leads into another question about Jarvis’s perspective, where she’s generally taking a small item and putting it into a larger neighborhood. For example, there’s a pack of cigarettes she observes. And she’s very clear in the way that she describes it as coming from a particular deli and how it was actually purchased and the like. So I wanted to ask you about this phenomenon. Was this a way for you to generate momentum in your book? You needed to get the lay of the land before the lay of the characters?

Attenberg: I’ve lived here for five years. And I’ve lived in New York for ten years. So, for me, it’s not conscious in any sort of way. I wanted to write about the neighborhood that I lived in. And I take a lot of pictures. I go out a lot to document. And I have a blog. So I have been writing about the neighborhood a lot. So, for me, it’s just a natural — I don’t know. It’s not like — it’s not a conscious thing. I would love to take credit for it being some sort of conscious, deliberate act on my part. I just write about the world around me. But I did feel like, at that moment I was writing the book, that there was so much going on in Williamsburg. I mean, this is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Thematically, it did feel perfect for Jarvis. Because Jarvis needs to break out of something in Williamsburg. And Williamsburg was very quietly becoming something. Then all of a sudden, it burst out and there was all this development. And people were really concerned with its development. And I think people in this book suddenly become very concerned with Martin Miller’s life as well.

Correspondent: Well, concerning this gentrification, you have Jarvis fleeing — almost like the Trail of Tears — across the river. And yet, she is very taken with, for example, bagel shops. The laundromat as a kind of social nexus. As well as finding comforts in the very locations that she often despises. So I’m wondering when did you know that this was coming up. Did this come about from knowing the neighborhood or as an extension of Jarvis’s consciousness?

Attenberg: I think that, if you’re going to write a true New York story, you have to write about all of these little shops and stores. We don’t know our neighbors a lot of the time. Our friends tend to live really far away from us. Or it’s not like you can walk down the street and knock on someone’s door and see them. So it becomes really crucial where you have these relationships with a person at your bodega, with a laundromat. It’s just an interesting community. And in Williamsburg, where there’s so many different kinds of people here, and there’s this big influx of young people who really like to engage, it just seems really natural. I don’t know. That’s just my version.

Correspondent: So it sounds like it very much is a topographical concentration.

Attenberg: But she’s not me. But it’s just how someone like her would. You know, I certainly identify with her. I don’t think that I’ve ever done anything that she’s done before. And I’ve certainly never had anyone support me.

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For related conversations, see Jami Attenberg in conversation with Kate Christensen and Ryan Walsh interviewing Attenberg at Largehearted Boy.