nytsorry3

Casual Sexism: The Author Gender Breakdown for the New York Times Daily Book Reviewers

I was recently informed by a reader that the gender ratio numbers I posted in one of my BookExpo America reports, which I obtained from Rebecca Mead, were incorrect. In an effort to provide accurate information, I have conducted an independent audit on the three current New York Times daily book reviewers — Dwight Garner, Michiko Kakutani, and Janet Maslin — for the period between June 1, 2013 and May 30, 2014 using the Times‘s website. (It is also worth noting out that, in February 2014, Publishers Marketplace did a gender bias count for the whole of 2013. 30 of Janet Maslin’s 80 reviews, or 37.5%, were female authors. 15 of Michiko Kakutani’s 54 reviews, or 28%, were female authors.)

To get an appropriately detailed takeaway on Times gender bias, I have counted every book selected for coverage, whether a full review, a capsule, or a roundup. Please note that I have excluded obituaries, a gift guide that featured Garner’s content (and Maslin’s), as well as the three critics’ favorite books of the year — as these are not bona-fide reviews. I have provided links to all reviews, along with the author, title, and author’s gender. If a single book has multiple authors, I have used incremental values (.5 Male and .5 Female for a book co-written by a man and a woman, a full Male value for two male authors.) I have also emailed Garner and Maslin (Kakutani’s email address is unknown) to give them an opportunity to dispute the tally, which I have checked twice, and in the event that I have somehow missed any of their reviews. With translated authors, I have counted the gender of the original author. With anthologies, I have counted the gender of the editor. (I realize that this leaves out contributors. But very often, the gender bias between editor and contributors correlates. For example, in the case of MFA vs. NYC, 60% of the contributors are men.)

As can be seen below, none of the three reviewers come anywhere close to gender parity. Dwight Garner is the most women-friendly of the three reviewers, but when the percentage is a mere 34.1%, one has to wonder how a publication can operate with such a egregious gender bias in 2014. Maslin is behind Garner at 31.3%. Kakutani is the most casually sexist of the trio at 30.6%.

The below study is, to my knowledge, the most detailed effort to examine a long-standing problem at the Times, one that Garner, Kakutani, and Maslin, and their editors are all responsible for and refuse to discuss. Their choices, whether conscious or subconscious, have led a disproportionate amount of male writers to be represented in the Times‘s pages over the past year. I hope that these more accurate numbers lead to a constructive conversation on author gender bias in reviews, with efforts to rectify this imbalance. This is an important subject that public editor Margaret Sullivan has regrettably remained silent on. [UPDATE: As noted by Jennifer Weiner on Tuesday evening, Sullivan previously discussed the repeat review problem among male authors in 2013. Let us hope that she will opine on the gender bias issue that has been thoroughly documented by Rebecca Mead, Publishers Marketplace, and myself. I alerted Sullivan to this article by email and, as of Tuesday evening, have heard nothing back.]

[UPDATE: Andrew Krucoff helpfully points to a 1972 panel discussion with Nora Ephron. Ephron pointed out that 101 of 697 New York Times reviews, or 14.5%, between 1971 and 1972 were on books written by women. Compared against the 1956 Book Review, the figure was 107 of 725 reviews, or 14.5%.]

Dwight Garner

6/4/13: Tao Lin, Taipei (Male)
6/9/13: Charles Glass, The Deserters (Male)
6/13/13: Brendan I. Koerner, The Skies Belong to Us (Male)
6/18/13: Kenneth Goldsmith, Seven American Deaths and Disasters (Male)
6/25/13: Ahmir Thompson, Mo’ Meta Blues (Male)
7/3/13: Margot Mifflin, Bodies of Subversion (Female)
7/9/13: Roberto Bolaño, Unknown University (Male)
7/11/13: Double review of Terry Eagleton (2 Males)
7/16/13: Robert Kolker, Lost Girls (Male)
7/18/13: The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy (Male)
7/23/13: Lawrence Osborne, The Wet and the Dry (Male)
7/30/13: Juan Gabriel Vásquez, The Sound of Things Falling (Male)
8/1/13: Tash Aw, Five Star Billionaire (Male)
8/7/13: Robert Wilson, Matthew Brady: Portraits of a Nation (Male)
8/15/13: Sophie Fontanel, The Art of Sleeping Alone: Why One French Woman Suddenly Gave Up Sex (Female)
8/18/13: Resisting the Siren Call of the Screen: 3 books; 2 Males, 3 Females.)
8/28/13: J.M. Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus (Male)
9/9/13: Nicholson Baker, Traveling Sprinkler (Male)
9/12/13: Nate Jackson, Slow Getting Up (Male)
9/17/13: Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped (Female)
9/24/13: Allan Gurganus, Local Souls (Male)
9/26/13: Jill Lepore, Book of Ages (Female)
10/1/13: Karl Kraus, The Kraus Project (Male)
10/8/13: Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies (Female)
10/10/13: Stanley Crouch, Kansas City Lightning (Male)
10/16/13: Rose George, Ninety Percent of Everything (Female)
10/24/13: James Wolcott, Critical Mass (Male)
10/29/13: Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, The Siege (.5 Female, .5 Male)
11/5/13: Gregory Zuckerman, The Frackers (Male)
11/7/13: Dana Goodyear, Anything That Moves (Female)
11/12/13: Alexander Cockburn, A Colossal Wreck (Male)
11/19/13: Ari Shavit, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (Male)
11/21/13: Geordie Greig, Breakfast with Lucian (Male)
11/26/13: Retha Powers (editor), Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations (Female)
2/5/14: Joyce Carol Oates, Carthage (Female)
2/11/14: Malcolm Cowley, The Long Voyage (Male)
2/13/14: Marcel Theroux, Strange Bodies (Male)
2/20/14: Greg Kot, I’ll Take You There (Male)
2/22/14: 5 Books to Take on Your Travels (Capsule piece: 3 male, 2 female)
2/25/14: Chad Harbach (editor), MFA vs. NYC (Male)
2/27/14: Juan Pablo Villalobos, Quesadillas (Male)
3/3/14: Dan Jenkins, His Ownself: A Semi-Memoir (Male)
3/10/14: Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews (Male)
3/13/14: Jolie Kerr, My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag…and Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha (Female)
3/15/14: Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans (Female)
3/25/14: Teju Cole, Every Day is for the Thief (Male)
3/27/14: Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams (Female)
4/1/14: Lydia Davis, Can’t and Won’t (Female)
4/8/14: Adam Begley, Updike (Male)
4/15/14: Barbara Ehreinreich, Living with a Wild God (Female)
4/18/14: Theodore Rosengarten, All God’s Dangers (Male)
4/22/14: Nina Stibbe, Love, Nina (Female)
4/25/14: Nikil Saval, Cubed (Male)
4/30/14: Lisa Robinson, There Goes Gravity (Female)
5/7/14: Ruth Reichl, Delicious! (Female)
5/9/14: Colson Whitehead, The Noble Hustle (Male)
5/15/14: Kai Bird, The Good Spy (Male)
5/27/14: Tom Robbins, Tibetan Peach Pie (Male)
5/28/14: Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle (Male)
5/29/14: Patricia Lockwood, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (Female)

FINAL GARNER STATS:
Male Writers: 45.5 writers (65.9%)
Female Writers: 23.5 writers (34.1%)
TOTAL WRITERS: 69

garner-graph

Michiko Kakutani

6/2/13: Jonathan Alter, The Center Holds (Male)
6/3/13: Anton DiSclafani, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls (Female)
6/10/13: Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukie, Big Data (Male)
6/12/13: Lea Carpenter, Eleven Days (Female)
6/16/13: Curtis Sittenfeld, Sisterland (Female)
6/24/13: Brett Martin, Difficult Men (Male)
6/27/13: Colum McCann, TransAtlantic (Male)
7/1/13: Joseph J. Ellis, Revolutionary Summer (Male)
7/8/13: Stephen Grosz, The Examined Life (Male)
7/15/13: Jenni Fagan, The Panopticon (Female)
7/17/13: J.K. Rowling, The Cuckoo’s Calling (Female)
7/28/13: David Gilbert, & Sons (Male)
8/12/13: Thurston Clarke, J.F.K.’s Last Hundred Days (Male)
8/21/13: A.A. Gill, To America with Love (Male)
8/25/13: David Shields and Shane Salerno, Salinger (Male)
9/5/13: Edwidge Danticat, Claire of the Sea Light (Female)
9/10/13: Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge (Male)
9/16/13: Norman Rush, Subtle Bodies (Male)
9/19/13: Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland (Female)
9/30/13: David Finkel, Thank You for Your Service (Male)
10/3/13: Dave Eggers, The Circle (Male)
10/7/13: Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (Female)
10/14/13: William Boyd, Solo) (Male)
10/28/13: Brad Stone, The Everything Store (Male)
11/4/13: Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Double Down (Male)
11/11/13: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Bully Pulpit (Female)
11/18/13: Mike Tyson, The Undisputed Truth (Male)
11/25/13: Robert Stone, Death of the Black-Haired Girl (Male)
12/1/13: Robert Hilburn, Johnny Cash: The Life (Male)
12/9/13: Russell Banks, A Permanent Member of the Family (Male)
12/16/13: Bruce Wagner, The Empty Chair (Male)
1/6/14: Gary Shteyngart, Little Failure (Male)
1/8/14: Robert M. Gates, Duty (Male)
1/13/14: Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea (Male)
1/20/14: Jay Cantor, Forgiving the Angel (Male)
1/27/14: B.J. Novak, One More Thing (Male)
1/29/14: Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation (Female)
2/2/14: Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction (Female)
2/4/14: Luke Harding, The Snowden Files (Male)
2/6/14: Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes, H R C (.5 Male, .5 Female)
2/17/14: Gregory Feifer, Russians: The People Behind the Power (Male)
2/19/14: Lorrie Moore, Bark (Female)
2/26/14: Phil Klay, Deployment (Male)
3/3/14: Dinaw Mengestu, All Our Names (Male)
3/24/14: Scott Eyman, John Wayne: The Life and Legend (Male)
3/31/14: Francesca Marciano, The Other Language (Female)
4/3/14: Karen Russell, “Sleep Donation” (Female)
4/15/14: Mona Simpson, Casebook (Female)
4/18/14: David Grimm, Citizen Canine (Male)
4/28/14: Michael Cunningham, The Snow Queen (Male)
5/6/14: Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Female)
5/12/14: Timothy F. Geithner, Stress Test (Male)
5/13/14: Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide (Male)
5/20/14: Edward St. Aubyn, Lost for Words (Male)

FINAL KAKUTANI STATS:
Male Writers: 37.5 writers (69.4%)
Female Writers: 16.5 writers (30.6%)
TOTAL WRITERS: 54

kakutani-graph

Janet Maslin

6/6/13: Summer Roundup (16 books: 13 Males, 3 Females)
6/17/13: Carl Hiaasen, Bad Monkey (Male)
6/19/13: Phillipp Meyer, The Son (Male)
6/23/13: Lionel Shriver, Big Brother (Female)
6/26/13: Rebecca Lee, Bobcat (Female)
6/30/13: Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians (Male)
7/14/13: Mark Kurlansky, Ready for a Brand New Beat (Male)
7/10/13: Gabriel Roth, The Unknowns (Male)
7/14/13: Charlie Huston, Skinner (Male)
7/22/13: Michael Paterniti, The Telling Room (Male)
7/24/13: David Rakoff, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish (Male)
8/6/13: Jeff Guinn, Manson (Male)
8/6/13: Boris Kachka, Hothouse (Male)
8/14/13: Marisha Pessl, Night Film (Female)
8/26/13: Samantha Shannon, The Bone Season (Female)
8/29/13: Lee Child, Never Go Back (Male)
9/1/13: Samantha Geimer, The Girl (Female)
9/2/13: Andrea Barrett, Archangel (Female)
9/4/13: Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., Empty Mansions (Male)
9/8/13: Scott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia (Male)
9/11/13: Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens (Male)
9/15/13: Stephen King, Doctor Sleep (Male)
9/18/13: Richard Dawkins, An Appetite for Wonder (Male)
9/29/13: Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things (Female)
10/2/13: Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath (Male)
10/6/13: Alice McDermott, Someone (Female)
10/9/13: Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, The Disaster Artist (Male)
10/13/13: Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy (Female)
10/15/13: Henry Bushkin, Johnny Carson (Male)
10/23/13: Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (Female)
10/30/13: John Grisham, Sycamore Row (Male)
11/6/13: Sam Wasson, Fosse (Male)
11/10/13: Russell Shorto, Amsterdam (Male)
11/13/13: Victoria Wilson, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck (Female)
11/17/13: Theresa Schwegel, The Good Boy (Female)
11/20/13: Anjelica Houston, A Story Lately Told (Female)
11/24/13: Jane Ridley, Heir Apparent (Female)
11/27/13: Gigi Levangie, Seven Deadlies (Female)
12/2/13: Donald Fagen, Eminent Hipsters (Male)
12/8/13: Michael Connelly, The Gods of Guilt (Male)
12/11/13: Mark Lewisohn, Tune In (Male)
12/15/13: Bob Brier, Egyptomania (Male)
12/19/13: Christopher Fowler, The Invisible Code (Male)
12/22/13: Ann Patchett, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Female)
12/25/13: Robert Evans, The Fat Lady Sang (Male)
12/29/13: Okey Ndibe, Foreign Gods, Inc. (Male)
1/2/14: Nicholas Griffin, Ping-Pong Diplomacy (Male)
1/19/14: Gabriel Sherman, The Loudest Voice in the Room (Male)
1/22/14: Rachel Joyce, Perfect (Female)
1/26/14: Jennifer Senior, All Joy and No Fun (Female)
2/3/14: Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy (Male)
2/10/14: Matthew Quick, The Good Luck of Right Now (Male)
2/16/14: Laura Lippmann, After I’m Gone (Female)
2/23/14: Blake Bailey, The Splendid Things We Planned (Male)
3/5/14: Chris Pavone, The Accident (Male)
3/6/14: Benjamin Black, The Black-Eyed Blonde (Male)
3/9/14: Nikolas Butler, Shotgun Lovesongs (Male)
3/12/14: Olen Steinhauer, The Cairo Affair (Male)
3/17/14: Walter Kirn, Blood Will Out (Male)
3/19/14: Bob Mankoff, How About Never — Is Never Good for You? (Male)
3/23/14: Holly George-Warren, A Man Called Destruction (Female)
3/26/14: Jean Hanff Korelitz, You Should Have Known (Female)
4/1/14: Michael Lewis, Flash Boys (Male)
4/4/14: Boyd Varty, Cathedral of the Wild (Male)
4/8/14: Emma Donoghue, Frog Music (Female)
4/11/14: Francine Prose, Lovers at the Chameleon Club (Female)
4/17/14: The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan (Male)
4/24/14: Hisham D. Aidi, Rebel Music (Male)
4/29/14: Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (Male)
5/2/14: Howard Norman, Next Life Might Be Kinder (Male)
5/5/14: David Kinney, The Dylanologists (Male)
5/23/14: Summer Roundup (14 books: 8 Males, 6 Females)

FINAL MASLIN STATS:
Male Writers: 68 writers (68.7%)
Female Writers: 31 writers (31.3%)
TOTAL WRITERS: 99

maslin-graph

paulabomer3a

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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yiyunli2

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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marktwain

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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islamophobia

Islamophobia, Extremism, and the War on Terror: Arun Kundnani (The Bat Segundo Show #540)

Arun Kundnani is most recently the author of The Muslims Are Coming.

Author: Arun Kundnani

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Subjects Discussed: How Islamophobia came to be, how the Obama Administration has continued an Islamophobic policy, the good Muslim and bad Muslim framework, Bernard Lewis’s “The Roots of Muslim Rage” as one of the key foundational Islamophobic texts, bogus terrorist studies that reinforce counterterrorism studies within the national security apparatus, flawed FBI radicalization models, how philosophical academics are making ideology virulent, Faisal Shahzad’s attempts to bomb Times Square, the Boston Marathon bombing, the NYPD’s “Radicalization in the West” study used to justify its Muslim surveillance efforts, Minority Report, zero tolerance, whether society or specific individuals should be blamed for Islamophobia, societal culpability in policy changes, changing the conversation about terrorism, the need to get out of 9/11’s shadows to address present realities, why Muslims who make any political statement are categorized as terrorists, fear in the Muslim community, Edward Snowden, how surveillance affects specific communities, the death of Fred Phelps, whether some over-the-top extremism is necessary to galvanize a civil rights movement, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” when notable figures for justice embrace extremist labels, the queer movement, Malcolm X, the sudden transformation of Muslims into the “enemy” after 9/11, class distinctions and Islamophobia, the Prevent program adopted in the UK, New Labour’s culpability in misidentifying Muslims as “radical,” the Salafi movement, failed efforts to promote a counterextremism narrative, Homeland‘s Nick Brody and the inability of contemporary narratives to allow for a Muslim character to have a political voice that isn’t extremist, the vicious campaign to paint All-American Muslim as propaganda and the conservative effort to shut the show down, the Somali population in the Twin Cities, the al-Shabaab ring in Minneapolis, Congressman Peter King’s Islamophobic statements about mosques, when attempts to preserve constitutional rights are reframed as “noncooperation,” Operation Rhino, St. Paul’s AIMCOP program funded by a $670,000 DHS grant, law enforcement tenor dictated by power and money, the arrest of Najibullah Zazi, hyperbolic clampdowns on Islamic communities after an attempted plot is thwarted, financial incentives by local police departments to continue flawed counterterrorism strategies to receive federal grant money, fusion centers, why so much of surveillance and prosecution rationale is rooted in Muslim stereotypes, what can be done with the wasted resources, the Muslim Brotherhood’s fluctuating status as movement and terrorist organization by U.S. authorities, Mohamed Morsi, whether or not Western nations can view organizations in subtle terms, comparisons between the Cold War and ongoing American foreign policy ideas about Islam, the Egyptian revolution, the sharia conspiracy theory adopted by neoconservative Islamophobes that Islamic terrorism is the beginning of a hidden jihad, why Islamophobes like Robert Spencer and Frank Gaffney are able to infiltrate the mainstream, conspiracy theories and racist discourse, the English Defence League, Islamophobia promulgated by David Cameron, the lack of self-awareness among far-right groups, how Islamophobic groups have adopted the media strategies of the Left, neo-Nazis who rebrand themselves, positive developments, New York Muslims protesting NYPD surveillance programs, and how the generation of young Muslims can change present intolerance.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So let’s go ahead and start off with why Islamophobia exists. The first and most obvious question is why any political strand of Islam, any vocal element that objects to an attack has come to be associated with terrorism. So I have to ask. Why has this continued twelve and a half years after September 11th? Why are all Muslims roped up into this misleading category?

Kundnani: One of the interesting things I think is that we had that early period in the War on Terror under the Bush years where we had this quite intense narrative of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. And Obama came in, trying to have a different kind of analysis. And actually what’s interesting is that the kind of popular Islamophobia in the media, the amount of racist violence against Muslims in the United States, it all went up under Obama. So in my analysis, what’s going on here is, as well as the kind of neoconservative narrative of a clash of civilizations, we also need to think about the liberal Islamophobia that’s been much more powerful under the Obama administration over the last few years.

Correspondent: What do you think the ultimate appeal of the Obama trigger effect here is for Islamophobia? Why have liberals fanned the flames here, do you think? Is it just a misunderstanding of policy? I can get into this further later on in this, but I wanted to get a general idea here.

Kundnani: I think, at root, what’s going on here is a kind of flawed analysis of what the causes of terrorism are. There’s a liberal analysis that says, basically, that some kind of religious extremism causes terrorism. And therefore you need to intervene in Muslim populations to make sure that people have the right interpretation of Islam. That’s actually the kind of basic analysis that we’ve had in this kind of later period of the War on Terror. Which means that you’re associating some interpretation of Islam with terrorism, right? And then from that flows all kinds of other things. So, for example, then you get the idea of the good Muslim and the bad Muslim, right? Because the bad Muslim is the one who interprets the religion in the wrong ways. So you want to put Muslims under surveillance to check that they have the right interpretation of their religion, etcetera, right? So I think a lot of what we’ve seen under Obama flows from that fundamental analysis, which actually doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Correspondent: If it’s so flawed and it does not stand up to scrutiny, why then does it continue to perpetuate?

Kundnani: Well, one of the reasons is because from the liberal point of view, it seems like a better way of doing things than the kind of neoconservative clash of civilizations model, right? It has certain practical benefits from the point of view of managing this issue, right? This kind of fraught issue with all this fear ground up in the popular mind. So it enables you to say, “Well, you know, we’re partnering with Muslim communities to tackle extremism” and so forth. That sounds quite nice. That sounds quite effective. Even though the basic assumptions behind it don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Correspondent: You identify two strains of thinking about Islamic extremism in your book. The culturalists, who believe that Muslim communities are incapable of adapting to modern life because their Islamic culture essentially is extreme and is therefore incompatible, which leads to extremism. Then you have the reformists, who look not to Islamic teachings but ideologues who reinterpret Islam for violent and nefarious purposes. How could one article — Bernard Lewis’s “The Roots of Muslim Rage” in 1990 — be so prominently responsible for the development of these two ideas? Why do they continue to endure? Why do they continue to be so compelling? I mean, it seems to me that there are so many arguments against them. Yet these two ideological strains continue.

Kundnani: Right. Intellectually, the argument has been discredited time and time again. And so the reason that these ideas continue to circulate has nothing to do with their intellectual merit. But it’s more about the political convenience of those ideas. So we find it much easier to think about why people want to direct violence against our society. We find it much easier to answer that question by saying it’s their culture rather than, at least in part, our politics. And so I think because it’s uncomfortable for us to think about what the alternative to these narratives would be — the alternative to these narratives which involve us thinking about our foreign policy and the political effects of that in creating contexts within which terrorism becomes more likely — it’s much easier, rather than having that difficult conversation, it’s much easier to say it’s their culture, right? Or it’s not their culture, but it’s a minority who have adopted this ideology of extremism and that’s what causing it.

Correspondent: But we’ve had twenty years of this strain in both British and American society. Surely that’s enough time for people to perhaps call it into question or to actually think about it more sophisticatedly. And I’m wondering why — I keep going to the question “Why?” But I am trying to get something a little more specific over why this is still of appeal.

Kundnani: Some of the answers to that are about the ways in which it’s been institutionalized in various settings, right? So for example, since 9/11, we’ve had terrorism studies departments created with government funding in the United States and in Britain. And those terrorism studies departments have a set of incentives in terms of the funding and so forth to produce certain kinds of knowledge that serve the interests of the national security apparatus. So they will tend to avoid asking deeper questions about what lies behind violence, what is the politics of that, and instead try and deliver policy solutions that have embedded within them all kinds of assumptions about what they call radicalization. So that kind of institutionalizes these ways of thinking in a whole set of academic departments. Then you have these ways of thinking being institutionalized in the national security agencies. The FBI, for example, has a radicalization model. It’s an analysis of how someone goes from being an ordinary person to becoming a terrorist. Embedded within that is these same ideas of some kind of religious ideology driving it. The New York Police Department does the same thing. So all these ways of thinking are not just kind of free-floating in some kind of intellectual depaint. They are embedded in policy and practice in institutions.

Correspondent: Would you say that academics have essentially been influencing this interpretation for the last twenty years? I mean, there was a strain of articles recently about academics complaining about how they don’t actually get through to the masses. But this would seem to suggest that they are in a very nefarious way.

Kundnani: Absolutely. If you’re an academic and you want to be influential in government policy, be an academic in terrorism studies. Because that’s where you’re in and out of government departments. But what you have to give up is actually quite a large degree of scholarly independence. Because you’re effectively serving the intellectual needs of the government rather than any kind of idea of an objective independent study of what causes terrorism. That doesn’t really happen. So I think academics have been influential. Both the terrorism studies academics and the other ones — like Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington — some of those folks who are more on the philosophical level and geopolitical level who are thinking about these issues.

Correspondent: So if you get a philosophical academic, it could essentially activate a strain of virulent ideology.

Kundnani: Absolutely. Ultimately, all our kind of different forms of racism and so forth have some kind of intellectual history. They go back to people who innovate, who come up with new ways of being racist in an intellectual setting. And then that filters down to the streets over time. That’s how racism originates.

Correspondent: Sure. So you point to a time in the United States when this nation was considered more tolerant and inclusive towards Muslims. Immune from Muslim radicalization because of the apparent belief that a free market society was better at absorbing Muslims. That changed in 2009. There were a number of violent incidents that were believed to be associated with Islam, including Faisal Shahzad’s failed efforts to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. You point to a 2010 Bipartisan Policy Center report which concluded that the American melting pot had not provided protection against Muslim radicalization. Why were the government, the pundits, and the policy people so willing to change their tune in so short a time? Because that seems to me also a big part of this problem as well.

Kundnani: Right. So something interesting happens in the first few years of the Obama Administration, where you find that you do have one or two attempted terrorist plots that were serious plots, like the attempted car bombing in Times Square by Faisal Shahzad and one or two others. You also have a set of developments that happen in the FBI, where they’re starting to change how they do counterterrorism and becoming much more pro-active in sting operations, in bringing charges to some of the material support for terrorism, which involves criminalizing people’s ideological expressive activities rather than actual terrorist plots. So those kinds of things from the FBI drive up the numbers in terms of the kind of annual statistics on a number of attempted terrorist acts.

Correspondent: Drive up the numbers exactly how?

Kundnani: Well, because one of the things that we’ve seen is the FBI doing something when they have someone who seems to have what they would call an extremist ideology. Put informants in that person’s life and use these tactics of trying to pressurizing that person into being involved in an imaginary plot that would probably not have been something that they would have been predisposed to were it not for the FBI coming in and creating that environment around that person’s life. And this is something that the RAND Corporation has a very good phrase to describe. They call it “lubricating that person’s decision making” through government intervention. So I think the FBI started to put a lot more resources in doing those kinds of operations. Then the numbers come up. So it looks like we’ve got this objective increase in attempted terrorist plots, but actually it’s at least to a large degree the result of a change in FBI strategy around that time.

Correspondent: So you’re saying that the FBI essentially was cooking the books to get higher crime statistics. Is that what you’re basically saying?

Kundnani: Well, in effect, that’s what happened. I’m not sure that it’s some kind of conspiracy by senior leaders in the FBI to…

Correspondent: It’s a policy change.

Kundnani: It’s a policy change. And obviously you can see an incentive structure there where the FBI, as a result of doing that, seems like it’s a very efficient counterterrorism organization. Because it’s got all these terrorist plots happening in the United States and every single one of them is getting a conviction and that looks good on the annual report to Congress. What you won’t know unless you look in more detail is the fact that most of those plots are ones that the FBI itself has invented.

Correspondent: I’d like to get into the fine details of the radicalization model that the FBI was using in just a bit, but I want to actually ask did they essentially have this policy change before they had the radicalization model? What does your research suggest here?

Kudnani: The radicalization model goes back to the early years after 9/11. The policy shift, I mean, we don’t know what caused it. It may be that there had been a number of changes in legislation that came through in that period and it may be that new options were created for that. It may be that if you look at the data for terrorism convictions around that time, sort of 2008 and 2009, a big chunk of the people who were getting prosecuted is Somali Americans, who are traveling to Somalia to fight with al-Shabaab, which is designated a terrorist organization shortly before that moment. And so therefore, traveling over there becomes a felonious act. So that also becomes another of these kind of scare scenarios around that time, that maybe we’re going to have a huge problem of American Somalis going off to fight for al-Shabaab and coming back and committing acts of violence here, which actually never happened.

Correspondent: I will get into the Somali situation in just a sec, but I want to actually unpack the radicalization model a bit. You cite this 2006 memo from the Counterterrorism Division which suggests anger, watching inflammatory speeches online, an individual identifying with an extremist cause, Internet interaction with extremist elements, and acceptance of radical ideology, and eventually terrorism. What is the academic basis for this model? You also mention this 2007 NYPD study called “Radicalization in the West” that adopted a simplified version of models that were adopted by Quentin Wiktorowicz and Marc Sageman. What has made these specific ideas stick? Why hasn’t law enforcement passed a wider research net before adopting these models? Why are these radicalization models in place? They seem to me to be more like a sudoku puzzle.

Kudnani: Right. I mean, these radicalization models have come from — you mentioned the two key people here, Marc Sageman and Quentin Wiktorowicz, both of whom have a history within the intelligence world as well as in the academic world. They kind of cross those divisions. I think the reason those models have been used to the exclusion of any other kind of analysis and the reason that they’ve stuck is because they do something very important for the FBI and the NYPD — at least at first glance, which is they give them a tool for prediction.

Correspondent: Precog. Minority Report.

Kundnani: Right. This is Minority Report. It’s a way of saying, “We have a way of knowing who’s going to be a terrorist tomorrow. Even though they’re not a terrorist today.” And so having that claim to predictive power is what lies beneath the appeal of these studies.

Correspondent: And the problem with this is that they wake up from the amniotic fluid and instead of crying “Murder!” they say “Muslims!” So that’s problematic.

Kundnani: And they don’t stand up in terms of having that predictive capability. And that’s kind of obvious when you think it through. It would be ridiculous to think that someone growing a beard, which is one of the indicators, is a predictor of someone on the way to becoming a terrorist. Or someone wearing traditional Islamic clothing or joining a pro-Muslim social group. These are the various things that these studies talk about. So they don’t have this predictive power. But because they’re perceived as doing so, they become very important in these institutional settings and enforcement agencies.

Correspondent: Perceived by who?

Kundnani: By law enforcement agencies and by policy makers in DC. So the FBI has been instructed by the federal government since very soon after 9/11 to adopt what is called a preemptive approach to counterterrorism, right? Which means don’t wait until someone’s committing a crime. Go back to some point before that person’s committed a crime and arrest them there or intervene in their lives there. So from the point of view of the FBI, there’s a dilemma there. How on earth do you criminalize someone who hasn’t committed a crime yet but you think may do in the future? You have to have some kind of analytic way of predicting behavior. And so that’s the dilemma for them.

Correspondent: But if it’s a corrupted analytical model, surely there’s someone inside the FBI or even the NYPD who is basically saying, “You know, this doesn’t really cut mustard. We’re actually only doing this to get our numbers up.” Were you able to uncover…

Kundnani: I spent a bit of time interviewing a number of different FBI agents who work in counterterrorism and I put that question to them as well. And their answer was, “Well, if you think this radicalization model doesn’t work,” which they were open to that possibility that it doesn’t stand up in terms of its academic merits, “then give us another model that will do the same job.”

Correspondent: So they just need some kind of model.

Kundnani: Yeah. Because they’ve been told you need to predict. You can’t just go on what someone’s done. You need to go on what they’re about to do. That’s how counterterrorism works in the United States post-9/11. So for them, it’s not an option to say, “Okay, let’s just focus on who is actively involved in preparing a terrorist plot, who’s inciting terrorism, and who’s financing terrorism.” That would be my argument. What we should be doing here is focusing on that. And that gives us enough to be getting onward and has the advantage that we don’t widen our search to this kind of vague notion of ideology, which gets messy and uses up our hard-earned resources on things that we shouldn’t be worried about. Now that is not an option for the FBI. Because that’s what we as a society have told them that we don’t want. We don’t want them to wait. We want them to be preemptive.

Correspondent: We as a society? I mean, that seems really amorphous. Isn’t there some specific person who we can identify and say, “That is the person who caused this requirement, that the FBI…”

Kundnani: I don’t think so.

Correspondent: Really?

Kundnani: I think if you look at — for example, early on in the Obama Administration, there was the so-called underwear bomber. And if you talk to people in the Obama Administration, they will talk about that being a very scary moment for them because they felt for a moment, in the aftermath of that attempted attack, they lost the narrative. They were very much on the defensive. And for a moment, they thought, “We’re going to have this thing hanging over us that we weren’t tough enough on terrorism and we almost let this guy through.” And then they basically made the decision thereafter that we can’t allow that to happen again. Because if that hangs over us, we lose the political capital to do all the other things we want to do. So even if you convince people in the Obama Administration to do things a different way, they would say, “Our hands are tied by what society expects of us.” The fear in society around these things. The fact that we have now created a society in which it’s not enough to say we will minimize the risk of terrorism.

Correspondent: You have the zero tolerance thing.

Kundnani: Right. What society expects is absolutely no terrorist attacks of any kind at all and do everything possible with unlimited resources to deal with this problem. Even though we’ve had the Boston Marathon last year, dozens of people in jail, and three people killed. But we have 15,000 murders every year in the United States. So in terms of an objective assessment of the amount of harm that counterterrorism does to U.S. society, it would not be our top priority. But it has become our top priority. Half of the FBI’s budget is dedicated to counterterrorism.

Correspondent: But I don’t know if that’s really — that’s an answer that just doesn’t sit well with me. The idea that society is the one to blame when you’re using a flawed radicalization model to enforce counterterrorism, which actually isn’t true based off of some of the findings in your book, and you’re reinforcing stereotypes and you’re also disseminating further fear into the American clime, it seems to me that you’re the one responsible for generating the way that people react, that is this very society that people point to…

Kundnani: Sure. Sure.

Correspondent: I mean, I’m asking for some….there needs to be some person. Some kind of element here.

Kundnani: I think there’s all kinds of different agencies and individuals that are culpable here. No doubt. From the top down. From Obama, the leadership at the FBI, the whole national security apparatus. All of these different agencies and individuals are bound up in a set of practices that are causing great harm to our fellow citizens in the United States. But I would also say it’s a little bit too easy just to stop there. I would say we have all kind of got sucked into this culture of counterterrorism. The word “radicalization” is not just a word that you see in academic studies and police reports. It’s the word that is now in our everyday language, in how we talk about terrorism. We didn’t need the word “radicalization” fifteen years ago to talk about terrorism. But now it’s the normal way that we do it. So, for me, it’s a little bit too neat to pin the blame on government agencies. We need to acknowledge that there’s a cultural change we need in society more widely.

(Loops for this program provided by Martin Minor, danke, DesignedImpression, Blueeskies, and drkcarnivalninja.)

The Bat Segundo Show #540: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the War on Terror: Arun Kundnani (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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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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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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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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Victoria Wilson (The Bat Segundo Show #531)

Victoria Wilson is most recently the author of A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940.

Author: Victoria Wilson

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Subjects Discussed: Stanwyck shifting from being known as “Frank Fay’s husband” to being the dominant breadwinner in a matter of years, when Frank Fay was a washed-up actor spending Stanwyck’s money, Jimmy Cagney taking his inspiration from Frank Fay, Stanwyck learning how to simplify her acting, Fay’s alcoholism, Stanwyck’s initial hatred for Hollywood, Fay being ahead of his time, Frank Fay as the origin point of standup comedy, Stanwyck’s early fractious relationship with Frank Capra, the frustration of endless screen tests, Meet John Doe, Ladies of Leisure, Stanwyck’s defiance and resentment, how Fay helped Stanwyck get her big break, Stanwyck’s near-affair with Capra, difficult actors, Stanwyck’s aversion to parties, Stanwyck and class distinctions, how Stanwyck closed the iron door on a lot of people, Stanwyck shutting out Mae Clarke, Clarke and Cagney’s grapefruit, Stanwyck’s conservative politics, anti-Roosevelt actors, Republicanism vs. modern conservatism, the gold standard, Stanwyck becoming more discerning with her politics with Robert Taylor, Stanwyck’s acts of generosity, unemployment during the Depression, Stanwcyk’s literacy, being an autodidact, Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn, how Stanwyck cultivated her modernity, how Stanwyck networked, reading a book at a party, Stanwyck’s shyness, Frank Fay’s attempts to kidnap his adopted son, how Wilson tracked down Dion Anthony Fay (Stanwyck’s son) in the pre-Internet age, mysterious investigators, sinister methods of finding sources, Stanwyck’s clothes, motherly love, when Stanwyck accidentally wore a dress backwards, the moral assaults on unmarried Hollywood couples living together, Clark Gable’s forced marriage to Carol Lombard, how Stanwyck and Robert Taylor were encouraged to marry, the Hays Production Code’s hold on the private life of actors, Stonewall, Olivia de Havilland’s resistance, Stanwyck teaching younger men how to act, Stanwyck’s relationship with Robert Wagner, Joel McCrea, Stanwyck identifying herself as the masculine presence in relationships, what contributed to the dying years of the Stanwyck/Taylor marriage, Stanwyck’s monogamy and possible affairs late in the Taylor marriage, Harry Hay, a secret anecdote from Anthony Quinn, Stanwyck’s involvement with Gary Cooper, Stanwyck’s unexpected nude appearance before a crowd at a surprise birthday party, what conditions cause a biographer to trust a source, Stanwyck and Joan Crawford, Al Jolson’s assault on Stanwyck, editorial forensics, determining authenticity, how Wilson used her editorial background to determine the accuracy of a fanzine report on Stanwyck, the balance between facts and imagination, Wilson’s set of rules, avoiding movie star biography tropes, the difficulty of getting Richard Chamberlain to talk, the differences between today’s media-trained actors and yesterday’s more open actors, Robert Stack, when actors once drove to their own screenings, building trust with sources, Wilson’s formidable fanzine collection and her efforts to preserve it, some details about the second Stanwyck volume, the end of the studio system, Stanwyck’s willingness to work in television, and how talent makes you larger than the time.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So let’s talk about Ruby Stevens, aka Barbara Stanwyck. She had one of the most formidable work ethics I think I have ever read about of any Hollywood actress of that time. I mean, she worked after she fell down the stairs, her right leg shorter than the left during Ten Cents a Dance. She toiled through that. She toiled through a painful leg injury that she had in Ever in My Heart. She would run lines with other actors when she was completely exhausted, after a long shift.

Wilson: Ed, I’m happy to say that I can see you’ve read the book.

Correspondent: I have read the book. Yes. She kept her costume and her makeup on, even when she was asked to go home for the day because she figured that a director would ask her to work. So my question — and this is a good way of getting into her origins here in Brooklyn. How did this work ethic originate? I mean, I’m wondering if she had some sort of incident in her early showgirl days or her early Broadway days where she may have flubbed a line and she figured that committing everything to memory and also always being there was going to be the absolute advantage that she would have over everyone else. So I was hoping you could talk about this and unpack this incredible ethic that she had.

Wilson: Well, let me see if I can unravel this mystery. To begin with, Stanwyck knew — what she did learn — you’re right in that she did learn in being in shows on Broadway and being in other kinds of shows. Revues. Which she said. She could always be replaced. And she understood that. But what she got, well, it wasn’t really one specific incident. I think, given the childhood that she had, the most important thing to her, speaking of Baby Face, was for her to be able to get out. She wanted to get out and she didn’t want to go back to that. And her sister brought her into her world — the sister who was an actress and who was a dancer, etcetera etcetera. She loved her sister. And she loved that world because it allowed her to escape in her head what the circumstances were of her life. And that world, that theater world, that world of working actors was her way out. It was her road out. And combining that with a need to understand that she could be fired or replaced at any time, over time she and the people who she admired were serious workers. And I think it all combined to give her that work ethic.

Correspondent: Well, I’m wondering. Obviously this book only goes up to 1940. Did this particular work ethic ever dissipate in her later years?

Wilson: Never.

Correspondent: Never. Wow.

Wilson: And at a certain point in the early ’50s, when she absolutely could not get a job, it was a torment to her. Because it was an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. And that was what you did. And it didn’t matter if it was 90 degrees and she had on all this makeup. At one point, Mitchell Leisen said, “For god’s sake, loosen that corset.” “No, you may need me.” And when she had to do a scene over again because another actor — there’s a story, again, in Volume 2, when she’s making Clash by Night and Marilyn Monroe keeps screwing up the line. And she has to pack that suitcase. She unpacked that suitcase in exactly the way that it had to be packed before the prop men could get there. But it was all perfect. And that was another thing that interested her about radio. Because the voice had to be perfect. And it had to be so modulated to express everything that had to be expressed. But she had that discipline.

Correspondent: I alluded in this question to the fact that she would memorize the entire script, transcribing it out multiple times, and she would know not only her lines, but everybody else’s lines. And this Marilyn Monroe story you mentioned, which is in the next volume, has me curious about the level of tolerance she had for other actors. I mean, she was pretty brutal on Joel McCrea, which I’ll get into later on. But I’m wondering how this method originated and why knowing every single angle like this was essential to her. And also, in light of the fact that she did a lot of improvisation, how that worked into this steel memory. This almost military-like work ethic which we’ve been discussing here.

Wilson: Well, actually, she didn’t do improvisation in terms of veering away from the script. She was absolutely disciplined about that. But I think that there’s one word to describe why she did what she did and that word is fear. Not something that people associate with Barbara Stanwyck, but there was a lot of fear around her and, over that, there was the overlay that drove her. And I think that she thought she needed to get it perfect. I mean, at the beginning, she was thrown by the way these movies were made. And she wanted to be in command, in control, so that she could be able to pick it up at any point and also I think she got something out of the fact that she knew everybody else’s part. But I do think, at the heart of it, it was fear.

Correspondent: Fear. This is interesting. Because I was kind of curious about these early Broadway days. She has great success with The Noose. But I’m wondering, given that it took probably another decade or two for her comedic instincts to really come out in, of course, The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire, I’m wondering how that particular play reinforced certain acting tics or certain acting methods. Were you able to find out anything through your very meticulous research about what that play did to get her going and to get her adjusting?

Wilson: Well, now that’s a very interesting story. Because what she has always done — and the thing about working with Barbara Stanwyck for fifteen years is that she was not a liar. She was honest. I’ve caught her in a couple of inventions, which were self-protective. I suppose most lies are.

Correspondent: Such as what? What were those particular lies?

Wilson: Well, she said that she could not have children because she was a bleeder. Okay, let’s put it this way. If you’re a bleeder, you’re not doing your own stunts. You’re not riding horses the way she rode horses. You’re not taking falls the way she took falls. You’re just not doing that. She had an abortion at a certain age and it was a terrible abortion. And she couldn’t have children.

Correspondent: At twelve?

Wilson: (pause, unanswered) So there’s that. I mean, but other than that, in another few instances, she was somebody who basically was straight up honest. Steel true and blade straight. And so what I started to say was in The Noose, she always reported that it was Willard Mack who taught her everything she needed to know for that play. But it wasn’t just Willard Mack. It was Mrs. Harris. Mrs. Renee Harris, who was the widow, the last surviving person, which I write about, to get off the Titanic as it was sinking, who was the person who spotted her and who gave her the larger part and who worked with her until Willard Mack came back from New York, where he was looking for another actress and had sent up Francine Larrimore, who was going to take the part. Once Willard Mack came back to work with her to join the show, and said, “Alright, you can do it out-of-town until we get to New York,” he was the one who worked with her and really just taught her everything. And, you know, I write about what happened to theater after the First World War, where it became much more naturalistic. The Noose itself, written by Willard Mack, was an attempt to be more naturalistic in terms of showing the realities of how people talked and how people in nightclubs talked and how lowdowns would talk. It was like this was supposed to be the real thing. And that’s what he was interested in capturing. It wasn’t artifice anymore. Or melodrama. I mean, the play is somewhat melodramatic. It is still of its time. But I do think that it was a combination of Willard Mack and then, when she goes to make burlesque, unless I’m getting ahead of you.

Correspondent: No. I’m hearing you.

Wilson: When she goes to make burlesque, she’s working with Arthur Hopkins, one of the great directors and producers, who also was very involved in naturalism. And again, he helped her strip herself down and simplify her work. And then, of course, who does she end up with and who was she in awe of? Long before she met him? That was Frank Fay, who was as simple and unadorned as a performer as you could possibly be.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, I’m wondering. She is operating off of fear, as you say. The book regrettably does not get as far as Double Indemnity, where Billy Wilder basically cajoles her into the role by saying, “Are you a mouse or are you an actress?” So it seems to me that she was still driven by fear in terms of what her range was likely to be. Is that safe to say?

Wilson: Well, I don’t think — look, when you’re asking me that one question, I say she wrote it down because of fear. She did this because of fear. I mean, yes, in a way, it was fear. But it was fear coupled with a whole range of other emotions. And one of them was determination to get the hell out from where she came, to make sure she never had to go back there. So I think that it wasn’t just fear.

Correspondent: Well, in terms of developing a range, when do you think she became aware that she could more than either cry on stage or be a very physical performer? I mean, did she know this fairly early on? Based off of what I mentioned about Billy Wilder, it seems that even after being nominated for Stella Dallas, she still didn’t realize what she could do. Or did she?

Wilson: No, she did. Because it was earlier, before Stella Dallas. I mean, people didn’t know this, but what I discovered and what I put together is that it was Zeppo Marx, who basically said, “You can do comedy,” and who pushed her roles in those minor movies where it was Breakfast for Two or The Mad Miss Manton, which was later. But it was those. The Runaway Bride, which was supposed to be a kind of Frank Capraesque, It Happened One Night, which, believe me, it wasn’t. But it’s an interesting movie for a lot of other reasons. Where she tries to do a kind of screwball comedy. And she was terrified of that. But she tried it. And the one thing she understood was, if you’re going to do just one thing and you’re just going to play it, you’re screwed.

Correspondent: It’s also interesting, this period where she’s at Columbia, where she’s about to jump to another studio. But, of course, she has to fulfill her contract. And she is quite adamant, even during the Great Depression, about sticking for that $50,000 figure. And I was curious about that. I mean, money was certainly a drive for her to act in the pictures. But how did that interplay with this range that you say she knew she had and that was actually urged on later by Zeppo Marx, who was her manager.

Wilson: Well, I don’t know at that point, when she was fighting for that contract at Colubmia Pictures, for that raise, that it was about her range. It was about her…

Correspondent: Respect?

Wilson: Well, I think it was about her looking at Constance Bennett and Ann Harding and seeing what they were making and saying, “I can damn well do that too.” I mean, the thing about her is that she didn’t have — from a very early age, there was nobody who was really fighting her battles, except for Ruby Stevens. And even after she married Frank Fay, he says to her — one days, she’s upset — he says, “You can tell me. I’m here for you.” It wasn’t a natural impulse for her. It wasn’t the kind of thing that she could rely upon a mommy or daddy. She had no mommy or daddy. And so when you do that, which is the perfect training for her in terms of the choices she made in Hollywood, which was living outside of that studio system as much as she could. And then, by that point, she could rely on Frank Fay. And she could see what she was doing. She could see the response. She could see how her career was building. And I think she just said, “Screw this. This is what I’m going to do.” And I also think that there’s something to be said about the bond that she had with Frank Fay, which basically was a bond that brought them together and excluded the rest of Hollywood. Because they were excluded and they became isolated and more isolated and this reproduced itself. So I think her attitude was “Screw this. I don’t need you. We’re onto ourselves and we’re going to be just fine.”

The Bat Segundo Show #531: Victoria Wilson (Download MP3)

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joycelibrary

The Best Books of 2013

It is quite possible that I sacrificed some of my best reading hours in 2013 wading through anything written by or having to do with James Joyce: all part of my slow yet methodical efforts to advance behind #77 in the Modern Library Reading Challenge.* I’ve been working on Joyce since November 20, 2012. It’s a healthy relationship. He cooks dinner. I wash the dishes. On pleasant days, we go for long walks together. Sometimes, we even cuddle. Reading Finnegans Wake at a near glacial pace has forced me to revisit Dubliners, Portrait, and Ulysses, which has summoned Richard Ellmann, Gordon Bowker, and Homer from the stacks and Frank Delaney through the earbuds. I have looked up endless esoteric references. I have met with Joyce acolytes in secret dens. I have spent many late nights contemplating everything from Vico’s New Science to back issues of Tit-Bits published around 1904. All this will be written about in depth — hopefully sometime in 2014, when I reach the mighty “A way a lone a last a loved a long the” wending its cyclical posterior back to “riverrun.”

Despite all this, I did manage to read 125 books in 2013. The fifteen titles below all popped out like scandalous performers exploding from a giant birthday cake. I also started Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a wise and breathtaking autobiographical novel that chronicles the pains and pleasures of existence. I didn’t include My Struggle on my list because, as marvelous as it is, I really need to see how it ends. (There are six volumes in total. Only the first two have been translated into English, with the third due in May.) But I am fairly certain that Knausgaard will make the cut in the future, once the extraordinarily capable Don Bartlett concludes his fine translation work on this quite important contribution to literature.

Here are my fifteen favorite books from 2013, in alphabetical order. I was able to interview many of these writers for The Bat Segundo Show and Follow Your Ears and have provided links to the shows.

mattbellMatt Bell, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods: It remains my belief that bears are among the most underrated animals in fiction. Not enough novelists use them. When bears do show up in narratives, they are often found in trite poems written by addled hipsters who are more concerned with courting shallow attention than writing real literature. Bell’s debut novel not only contains a bear. It includes a whole universe of squids and “fingerlings” that could be fabulist creations or could originate from intricate grief. It uses minimalist designators (“the husband,” “the wife,” “the fingerling,” a fixed location seemingly in the middle of nowhere) to grow a maximalist universe, with endless rooms in the titular house propagating in direct proportion with complicated feelings. Language itself obscures and deepens seemingly simplistic sentiments. (It wasn’t a surprise to see the unadventurous reactionaries at the New York Times Book Review willfully misunderstand that last flourish, not kenning how Bell’s repetition and emphasis on physicality could be part of the puzzle.) After one too many wretched novels written by loathsome subjects of vapid Thought Catalog essays, it turned out that Bell’s book was the surreal corrective we needed all along. (Bat Segundo interview, 62 minutes)

Eleanor CattonEleanor Catton, The Luminaries: What if you designed a 900 page novel around the dichotomy paradox, where each section was half the length of the previous section? What if you also attempted to work in the golden ratio? And just for the hell of it, what if you decided to set the action in 1865 and 1866, aligning the temperament of twelve characters to astrology? But let’s not stop there. What if you also injected this novel with slyly accurate historical detail and a shifting relationship between what is articulated to the reader and what is not? You’d have Eleanor Catton’s extraordinary second novel, which has been wrongfully trivialized in America as a mere Dickens pastiche. I’m sure that if you’re a joyless illiterate dope like Janet Maslin, this probably is a “critic’s nightmare.” But here’s the truth: I have not read a contemporary novel that has so adroitly manipulated massive strands of storytelling with an ambitious thematic structure since David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. There is much in this great book to chew on: what we know about people through facts and gossip, how wealth becomes fluid through avarice and want. Even the way in which narrative information is conveyed and reader assumptions is skillfully challenged, forming almost an alternative astrology beneath the apparent astrological structure. Catton is a novelist of the first rank. She absolutely deserved the Booker for this. And I urge all interested parties to read this massive novel when they have the chance. (Bat Segundo interview, 71 minutes)

duplexcoverKathryn Davis, Duplex: I must confess that I have a slight prejudice against novels that go out of their way to destroy the underlying structure every other chapter. Yet it is to Davis’s tremendous credit that I was not only won over by her remarkably inventive and deeply emotional novel, but that I found myself urging strangers in bookstores to buy it. This novel, with its robots, dogs, sorcerers, outlandish suburbs, tsunamis, and rabbits, is almost impossible to describe. But it offers its own unusual argument for the promising anarchism of life. When we stick to our conclusive guns, what do we give up in knowing people? Are there indeed duplexes we will discover when we’re not looking? I found myself greatly enjoying the fluidity of Davis’s universe, in part because of the novel’s descriptive precision (“The Woodard Estate used to be a brilliant jewel on the brow of the third of the three little green hills you come to upon leaving the schoolyard, after passing the water tower and crossing the old railroad bridge.”). You may very well enjoy meticulous geography as you experience it, but Davis’s provocative question involves knowing how to survive when it disappears tomorrow. (Bat Segundo interview, 62 minutes)

elliottholtElliott Holt, You Are One of Them: It’s fascinating to me that two coruscating works of art in 2013 — Elliott Holt’s debut novel and the wonderful television series, The Americans — have involved revisiting the end of the Cold War. There’s a part of me that would like to think that the artists in question were preparing themselves for Edward Snowden’s extremely disturbing revelations about our surveillance state. But exploring defection, in both cases, reveals that pivotal tie between loyalty and memory. You Are One of Them starts with the most seemingly innocuous of premises: idealistic letters sent by two schoolgirls to Premier Andropov beseeching peace. One of the sisters gets an answer and a Samantha Smith-style invitation to visit the Soviet Union. Fame follows. So does death. Or does it? Years later, Sarah Zuckerman (the other schoolgirl) takes a trip to Russia. And her journey, intermingled with such exacting details expat nightclubs in Moscow, the Russian advertising world, and American cleanliness, is a painful unveiling of how to contend with the lies and deceits of other people as an adult while holding onto your dignity. (Bat Segundo interview, 65 minutes)

kieselaymonKiese Laymon, Long Division: While other writers squandered the sad scraps of their waning talent with inane books about zombies and poker, beckoning empty nostalgic calories to fulfill a book contract, Kiese Laymon — much like James McBride and Mitchell S. Jackson — had the vivacity and the stones to explore the uncomfortable truths about what it means to live in America, specifically Mississippi, through genre’s empowering possibilities. Long Division is a bold time-traveling saga unafraid to take risks, recalling the biting ire of a young Percival Everett. It includes daring comparisons between slavery and the Holocaust. It’s one of the few novels I read this year exploring how a community survives on throwaway book culture (“the Bible was better than those other spinach-colored Classic books that spent most of their time flossing with long sentences about pastures and fake sunsets and white dudes named Spence”), even as it stares down the influence of viral videos, teenage sex, and celebrity. In offering two versions of a 14-year-old boy named City Coldson, one in 1985 and one in 2013, Laymon confronts how black identity remains rooted in fragmentation, what he has identified in a separate essay as “the worst of white folks.” Long Division‘s original corporate publisher was too afraid to put out this book. Fortunately, the good folks at Agate Publishing allowed Kiese to be Kiese. Let us hope that more important voices like Laymons’s are allowed to storm the gates in 2014. (Bat Segundo interview, 54 minutes)

mailerJ. Michael Lennon, Norman Mailer: A Double Life: It’s easy to dog on Norman Mailer. He stabbed his second wife Adele and didn’t suffer any consequences. He helped to get Jack Henry Abbott released from prison, only to see Abbott stab a waiter to death as he was loose on the streets. He stood against women’s liberation. There is an undeniably savage quality to Mailer as a writer and Mailer as a man. Indeed, I penned a vituperative obituary not long after Mailer kicked the bucket. (I had not read The Armies of the Night, arguably a Mailer masterpiece, at the time.) Lennon’s biography does a remarkable job at getting 21st century readers to understand that there was more to Mailer than his sins would lead us to believe. Lennon doesn’t flinch from many of Mailer’s indiscretions, nor is he diffident in pointing out just how crazy some of his arguments were. This biography makes such a persuasive case for Mailer that it actually compelled me to read all of Mind of an Outlaw (a big, carefully edited essay collection released by Random House this year), as well as other Mailer books. It turns out that Mailer’s spirit is strangely inspiring amid the turmoil of today. And one comes away from this book wondering whether any talent close to Mailer could flourish in today’s atmosphere of instant digital gratification. Perhaps within Mailer’s double life are some kernels of tomorrow’s possibilities. (Bat Segundo interview, 63 minutes)

messudClaire Messud, The Woman Upstairs: “How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” So begins The Woman Upstairs. Nora Eldridge, the self-proclaimed “good girl” who narrates Messud’s latest novel, has the kind of anger that seethes just underneath the surface of American life, but that is rarely voiced in fiction and in public debate: in part because Nora is a woman and in part because she thinks and feels in ways we’re not expected to express anymore. Of course, none of these prohibitions stops Nora. As Nora tells us more about her life, we begin to wonder just how responsible she is for the place she’s in. Does cruelty from others beget more cruelty? Or are we all the victims of, quite literally, naked opportunism? Many literary tastemakers leaned toward Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, which was a laudable portrait of 1970s radicalism. But, for me, Messud’s was the more slyly political and visceral novel. In an age where people are more determined to hide how they really feel, what’s more subversive than telling someone what’s really on your mind? (Bat Segundo interview, 51 minutes)

alissanuttingAlissa Nutting, Tampa: So Nutting’s controversial novel about a Florida middle-school teacher named Celeste Price who seduces and sexually abuses her students makes you uncomfortable? Cry me a fucking river. Life is uncomfortable. Like all great art, Tampa enters into dangerous territory. But it is brave, vivacious, and it has the courage to pursue its subject with a sense of humor. The people who have condemned this book have done so without actually engaging with the text. Earlier this year, at the Strand Bookstore, I observed an obnoxious and humorless freelance book critic, someone who has been published in several outlets, speak very loudly about how she couldn’t be bothered to make it past Page 50 because she was so offended by the book. She derided Tampa in the strongest possible terms, even though she had never finished it. I also got into an online argument with some illiterate nitwit who writes for Book Riot because she too had condemned the book as “unbelievable” even though she couldn’t cite a specific example when I challenged her. If you feel the need to condemn a book and you can cannot be bothered to read it or cite it, then you don’t have the right to venture an opinion. You are lazy, ignorant, and uninformed. No better than some Tea Party type holding the government hostage. More importantly, you’re missing out on one of the best books of 2013. (Bat Segundo interview, 75 minutes)

bleedingedgeThomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge: Several reviewers were needlessly hostile to Pynchon’s latest volume, blaming the famous recluse for not delivering another Gravity’s Rainbow. But Bleeding Edge is not only a very funny book stacked to the nines with references (meticulously documented by the good folks at Pynchon Wiki). It’s a loving and sometimes irreverent portrait of the end of the 20th century and perhaps the end of America’s soul, reading at times like a call and response to William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition with its many simulacra, its worlds within worlds, and its fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow, much like Cayce Pollard, trying to make sense of some digital plot tied in with organized crime as the very real factor of family comes increasingly closer into the picture.

roxanaorbinsonRoxana Robinson, Sparta: It’s absolutely criminal that Roxana Robinson’s carefully observed study of an Iraq War veteran returning home hasn’t received wider recognition. Perhaps some readers were too busy wasting their time blasting Jonathan Franzen over his latest grumbling or writing another installment in the meaningless snark vs. smarm war. Whatever the reason, it’s a poor excuse to ignore this honed, gut-wrenching novel revealing just what happens when you cannot return to the life you gave up, along with the psychological costs of being left for dead even after you escape a mortal fate on the battlefield. Like Messud, Robinson probes with wisdom and sensitivity into every anger-inducing quality of her protagonist, Conrad Farrell, who cannot even be solaced by his classics education. As we come to realize that not even a stable family is panacea for PTSD or returning home without a clearly defined role, we begin to understand how callous this nation has been to the men we asked to do the dirty work. And if the “hard, burnished carapace” of spent men hollowed out Sparta, what is it doing to our nation today? This is a vital and needlessly ignored work of fiction. (Bat Segundo interview, 55 minutes)

nucleartestEric Schlosser, Command and Control: Thirty-three years ago, the United States came very close to a nuclear holocaust in Damascus, Arkansas. In a Titan II silo, an overworked airman dropped a socket wrench, which pierced the skin on the missile’s fuel tank, causing poisonous oxidizer to permeate through the air. The W-53 nuclear warhead mounted at the top of the missile came very close to exploding. This is all documented in Command and Control, which also covers our reckless history of avoiding safety and taking shortcuts to maintain missiles. It’s a sobering and necessary reminder on how unsafe we have been in the past and how reckless we may be operating today, as other nations develop the same nuclear capabilities (and concomitant measures) that we once had. (Bat Segundo interview, 56 minutes)

sloukacloseMark Slouka, Brewster: I’m going to confess that when I first read Mark Slouka’s novel, I was a little suspicious of its narrative swagger. Here was a book told from the story of a teenager named Jon Mosher who seemed to talk just a little too tough. But as I read on, I realized that this was the point. If you’re not part of the panorama that other people insist is the one to watch, then aren’t you going to speak a little louder? Brewster describes life in the more blue-collar area of upstate New York, portraying teenagers who didn’t have the bread to attend Woodstock and who need friendship to make it past the hidden brutality of daily life. Slouka is smart enough to reveal Brewster as a town where nearly everyone comes from somewhere else. Jon Mosher, the book’s narrator, portrays Ray Cappicciano is a sleek bad boy who can skim his finger across any metal surface. But as the reader gets to know Ray Cap, we come to understand how not being known reveals hidden torrents of other people’s cruelty. (Bat Segundo interview, 61 minutes)

dukeellingtonTerry Teachout, Duke: Teachout’s biography of Duke Ellington is arguably his smoothest and best-researched book. Longlisted for the National Book Awards, Duke demonstrates, like the best of arts-related biographies, that it is as much about chronicling the culture that allowed Ellington to flourish as it is about revealing the niceties of this titanic jazz figure. Thanks to Teachout, I spent large chunks of a weekend listening to all sorts of music, tracing, for example, Bubber Miley’s solo on “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” to Jimi Hendrix’s wah-wah work on “All Along the Watchtower” after Teachout found a fascinating connection. I was happy to fall down this YouTube rabbit hole and follow the eventful ups and downs of a man who could be found dazzling audiences at the Newport Jazz Festival one minute and appearing with Herman’s Hermits on The Ed Sullivan Show the next. (Bat Segundo interview, 50 minutes)

rosaparksJeanne Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks: Released at the beginning of the year, Theoharis’s meticulously researched volume of the woman who refused to give up her seat reveals a far more sophisticated and politically active figure than the one in the history books. This is a much needed replacement for such cheap hagiographies as David Brinkley’s Rosa Parks: A Life that reveals everything that happened after the famous day in Montgomery. It exposes the sexism of Black Power, shows how numerous statesmen attempted to co-opt Parks to gain extra footing during their careers, and illustrates the costs and personal hardships of being a revolutionary. (Follow Your Ears #5, “Rosa Parks: Not Just a Meek Seamstress” radio segment at 47:16)

jesmynward3Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped: Jesmyn Ward remains one of our most vital chroniclers of American life. This searing yet understated memoir examines why racism continues to flourish and why so many young black men continue to die. It looks into how five needless deaths, including West’s own brother, affected and informed her own life. It’s a deeply affecting book which points out how the deck is stacked against you if you’re a young African-American living in Mississippi. But it also reveals how stories allow us to live and understand and possibly break out of some of these vicious cycles. Maybe if we focus our attention into how other people live, we may just come up with a new way of storytelling that allows us to lob some stones at the incompetent political forces that would prefer to shut down our government than address our deepest needs and our greatest ills. (Bat Segundo interview, 42 minutes)

* I also started another reading project, The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge. I am presently reading Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance and will be writing about the volumes before this in the next few weeks.

overlookedbacks

Ignored and Overlooked Books in 2013

(A version of this post originally appeared at Our Man in Boston. This piece was copyedited — with all book titles and author spellings corrected — before being published on Reluctant Habits.)

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Prolific literary journalist Robert Birnbaum, whose conversations have adorned The Morning News, Identity Theory, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, decided to combat year-end list fatigue by contacting several esteemed authors. He asked them to remark upon books they felt were ignored or overlooked. Some of the authors named titles published in 2013. Others expanded the possibilities to the entire history of published literature. What follows is the result of Birnbaum's grand experiment, along with some sentiments from Birnbaum himself.]

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b13aAdult onset solipsism can be distinguished from the youth version of self-centeredness by the admission that, as Van Morrison croons in “The Meaning of Loneliness,” “it takes a lifetime just to know yourself.” Thus, one is beset with constant instances of self-doubt and self-interrogation. One coping mechanism or technique I have employed to gain a foothold on serenity and enlightenment is to regulate or gate-keep my intake of information, allowing my intuition to guide me. For example, I am prepared to make decisions on what to investigate further past a snappy headline or synopsis. As in my immediate disinterest for going any further in the text when I encountered this fatuous mandate at Arts and Letters Daily: “‘Undergraduates should be kept away from theory at all costs,’ says _____ __________. ‘They should read Kael, not Derrida…'” Immediately sensing its syllogistic unsoundness, I saw this bit of grandiloquence as the kind of Tourette’s outburst one might encounter at a faculty meeting or a party. Of course, one of the joys of engaging this form of short form journalism (web journalizing) is the opportunity to engage in such orotund pronouncements.

(Photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Some Ignored Titles (Photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Okay. For the longest time, I had an aversion to lists, viewing them as a lazy journalistic ploy to contribute to the ongoing dumbing down of everything (uh, I still think I am correct about that). On the other hand, I can see some creative usefulness in lists. Umberto Eco creates some that interesting. And then there is Paul Zimmer’s poem, “Zimmer Imagines Heaven,” where in his recording of it introduces it as a “list” and encourages people to make their own lists:

I sit with Joseph Conrad in Monet’s garden,
We are listening to Yeats chant his poems,
A breeze stirs through Thomas Hardy’s moustache,
John Skelton has gone to the house for beer,
Wanda Landowska lightly fingers a clavichord,
Along the spruce tree walk Roberto Clemente and
Thurman Munson whistle a baseball back and forth.
Mozart chats with Ellington in the roses.

Monet smokes and dabs his canvas in the sun,
Brueghel and Turner set easels behind the wisteria.
the band is warming up in the Big Studio:
Bean, Brute, Bird and Serge on saxes,
Kai, Bill Harris, Lawrence Brown, trombones,
Klook plays drums, Mingus bass, Bud the piano.
Later Madam Schumann-Heink will sing Schubert,
The monks of bendictine Abbey will chant.
There will be more poems from Emily Dickinson,
James Wright, John Clare, Walt Whitman.
Shakespeare rehearses players for King Lear.

At dusk Alice Toklas brings out platters
Of Sweetbreads à la Napolitaine, Salad Livonière,
And a tureen of Gaspacho of Malaga.
After the meal Brahms passes fine cigars.
God comes then, radiant with a bottle of cognac,
She pours generously into the snifters,
I tell Her I have begun to learn what
Heaven is about. She wants to hear.
It is, I say, being thankful for eternity.
Her smile is the best part of the day.

So, here’s a list (of sorts) that I created. I considered offering reasons for my choices, but I decided to rely on your good opinion of me and your curiosity:

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Additionally, I asked some bookish acquaintances for their recommendations of overlooked books that come to mind. (These are pretty much reprinted as I received them.)

b13dElizabeth Cox, novelist, Night Talk (Random House):

One overlooked novel I would like to add to the list is The Iguana Tree by Michel Stone. My husband (Mike Curtis) edited that novel and it is a good story.

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David Rieff, author, Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir (Simon & Schuster):

Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution

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b13fRobert Stone, novelist, Death of the Black-Haired Girl (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):

Off the top of my head, I recall only one, and I’ve forgotten the author’s name. There was a novel about a man in Maine published some years ago, called Harbor Lights. It was reviewed “In Brief” at the New York Times Book Review. A short, excellent novel.

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b13gKatherine Powers, literary personage, author, Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life (FSG):

So, I don’t know about “tragically.” By “overlooked,” I would mean that most people haven’t heard of the following titles. They are all A+:

20,000 Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton
The Armstrong Trilogy by Roy Heath
In Hazard by Richard Hughes
The Golovlyov Family by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin

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Richard Russo, award winning novelist, author of Elsewhere, (Knopf), screenwriter (The Ice Harvest):

But for my bookseller daughter Emily’s recommendation, I doubt I’d have come across A Marker to Measure Drift. You might want to check to see if it did better than I imagine, but my sense is that it slipped into oblivion, and the last scene in the novel is as brutal and breathtaking as anything I’ve read in a long time.

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b13hRon Rash, novelist, The Cove (ECCO):

With by Donald Harington. Harington is America’s Chaucer.

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b13iEdwidge Danticat, novelist, Claire of the Sea Light (Knopf), humanitarian:

I’d say many of Percival Everett‘s novels including Erasure. Everett is as a brilliant at creating narratives as he is at bending genres. He has one of the least classifiable careers, but one of the most brilliant, in American letters. Everett’s 2001 masterpiece, Erasure — a parody of the African-American urban novel — offers a lyrical critique of a publishing establishment which continues to pigeonhole writers, particular African-American writers. Everett is also a respected poet and painter. His previous honors include: The PEN Center USA Award for Fiction, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Fiction and the Dos Passos Prize.

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b13jJoseph O’Connor, overlooked Irish novelist, Where Have You Been? (Harvill Secker):

Tragically overlooked novels? Well, all of mine, for a start. But do you mean tragically overlooked novels from 2013 or in general? In my view, Death and Nightingales by Eugene McCabe is one of the great novels of the late 20th Century. It’s a story of thwarted love set in 1883 in rural County Fermanagh, on the border of Ulster and what is now as the Republic of Ireland. The events of a single day in the life of Elizabeth Winters provide the plot, which is so utterly gripping that you can’t stop reading. But McCabe smuggles in all sorts of darkness and depth. This is a truly brilliant book about racism, gender politics, and political rage, but the subtle (and supple) language weaves you into the story with such fierce and clever grace that you never feel you’re attending a lecture. It’s got touches of Coetzee and Faulkner, but it’s a mesmerizing smolder all on its own. If you’ve ever doubted the novel’s power to express realities that politics can’t reach, you need to read this magnificent thing.

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b13kStuart Dybek, author, Northwestern University mentor, Paper Lantern: Love Stories (FSG, forthcoming):

I don’t know how “overlooked” Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga is, but I saw it on no lists whatsoever when the millennium nonsense was going on and I don’t think there’s been a change since.

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David Thomson, cultural encyclopedia, author Moments That Made the Movies (Thames & Hudson):

Troubles by J.G Farrell. If you don’t think it’s overlooked, then try The Purchase by Linda Spalding.

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b13lDarin Strauss, author, Half a Life: A Memoir (McSweeney’s), NYU mentor:

I don’t know what counts as forgotten anymore. The Fixer, which is tough and beautiful and unsentimental in its treatment of something awful? Perhaps Memento Mori, which I just read and which taught me about the consoling half-thoughts and cruelties, the passing cruelties of stupid people. (In other words, most dumbasses will act dumb and assy and never feel bad about it, will come up with reasons, in fact, to feel good about the immoral way they act.) Or maybe The Statement by Brian Moore, which is a perfect thriller, a smart philosophical treatment of evil and racism, a fun read, and about an afternoon’s read?

All of the above?

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b13mBrian Doyle, novelist, Mink River (University of Oregon Press), editor of Portland:

Hmmm. Maybe The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary. Best novel I ever read, period, but not one that many people have on their shelves. Also made into a terrific movie, which is a rare case of a glorious novel being made into a glorious movie. The few others I know: Little Big Man, To Kill a Mockingbird, A River Runs Through It, Lord of the Rings, The Year of Living Dangerously, maybe The English Patient, maybe Master and Commander.

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b13nDaniel Olivas, novelist, The Book of Want (University of Arizona Press):

The Old Man’s Love Story by Rudolfo Anaya

I interviewed him for the first print. Enjoy the list-making edition of the Los Angeles Review of Books regarding this novel. It’s quite beautiful, but did not receive the kind of coverage it should have.

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Michael A. Orthofer, editor, éminence grise, editor of The Complete Review:

Way too much gets way too overlooked, but I guess I’d suggest: Where Tigers Are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès (which seems to have gotten almost no review — and little reader-attention). Runner-up: Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, which got a bit more attention but nowhere what it deserves (it’s a best-of-year contender) —- perhaps overshadowed by Herman Koch’s somewhat similar (and considerably inferior) The Dinner. Still: that’s just the tip of the overlooked iceberg.

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Ben Fountain, award-winning author, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco):

Several come to mind:

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger. I don’t know if it could be called “tragically overlooked,” given that it was made into a blockbuster movie in the late ’60s, but nobody talks about it much these days. I think it’s one of the Great American Novels. Top ten for sure, maybe top five.

We Agreed to Meet Just Here by Scott Blackwood. A lovely, short novel that came out about seven to eight years ago. It won the AWP award, and Scott subsequently got a Whiting Award on the strength of it. It’s just about perfect. His forthcoming novel from Knopf is even better.

The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer. A novel of Texas politics, published 1961 or ’62.

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Robert McCrum, author, Globish: How English Became the World’s Language (W.W. Norton):

Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe.

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b13oAllan Gurganus, novella-ist, Local Souls:

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards: This is the single novel by a bureaucrat who spent his life on the Isle of Guernsey. G.B. Edwards imagined a trilogy of such works but he died in a mainland boarding house with this manuscript under his bed. The landlady got it published in 1981. The work is erotic, tumultuous and heroic as a Beethoven symphony. We get the twisted history of incestuous island families. We get the German occupation of the island during World War II. Love stories are offset by men battling the ocean and its creatures. This novel, a rare instance of folk art in narrative, deserves a larger readership, a secure place in our literature.

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b13pGary Fisketjon, veteran editor at Knopf:

Indeed, I could fill a volume in that category with many new additions every fucking year. But given that we’re in 2013, I’d say that Steve Yarbrough’s The Realm of Last Chances has been overlooked most tragically. That’s one reason my only lingering resolution -– to quit smoking -– always fails to get any real traction.

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Billy Giraldi, novelist, Busy Monsters (WW Norton), critic, essayist, long-form journalist editor, Agni:

Indeed. Caleb Williams by William Godwin and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Neglected masterworks of suspense, both of them. Divinely written.

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b13q
Hari Kunzru, novelist, Gods without Men (Knopf):

I’ll nominate Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell To Earth. Bowie fans have seen the movie, but the book is beautiful and poised. As if Richard Yates wrote speculative fiction.

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b13rJoseph Epstein, short fiction writer, The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff: And Other Stories (HMH):

1. Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard.
2. Sándor Márai’s Embers.

I’m not sure if these are tragically overlooked or merely insufficiently well-known, but both are swell novels.

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b13sSven Birkerts, Literary Man for All Seasons, editor, Agni, memoirist, writing program administrator (Bennington):

I’m Not Stiller by Max Frisch
The German Lesson by Siegfried Lenz
The Death of a Beekeeper by Lars Gustafsson

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b13tTom Piazza, novelist, City of Refuge (Ecco), screenwriter (Treme), musical connoisseur:

I’d have to vote for Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, in the H.T. Lowe-Porter translation. Mann is underread in general these days, but Buddenbrooks was a masterpiece. People tend to think it’s just a 19th century family saga, but it’s really a book that combines 19th century techniques and sonorities with startlingly modern technical strategies that get missed because they work wholly in the service of the narrative. It’s almost like a Mahler symphony — one foot in the 19th century and one stepping off the cliff into the unspooling chaos of the 20th. Very important to get the old Lowe-Porter translation. Random House made the mistake of letting somebody “update” the translation and they ruined it, sort of the way Pevear and Volokhonsky ruin the Russians.

Among contemporary books, Lives of the Monster Dogs should have made Kirsten Bakis a big literary star.

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Susan Bergholz, nonpareil and sage literary agent (Eduardo Galeano, et al):

Here you go. Can’t do just one! Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine by Stanley Crawford, simply the best book about marriage ever written in the US by a living treasure. The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage: dead now, extraordinary work. An Imaginary Life by David Malouf: a pitch-perfect novel, except for the Afterword. The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers, our most brilliant and amazing male novelist; makes Franzen and company sound as though they are writing soap operas. Prepare for his novel out in January, Orfeo: stunning!

I forgot one very important novel: Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
And another one: In the Palm of Darkness by Mayra Montero
And: Their Dogs Came with Them by Helena Maria Viramontes.
Okay. I’ll stop now!

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Blake Bailey, literary biographer, Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson (Knopf):

The Lost Weekend, of course. And Anthony Powell’s first novel, Afternoon Men.

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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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dukeellington

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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Lots of jellybeans

Samira Kawash (The Bat Segundo Show #522)

Samira Kawash is most recently the author of Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure.

Author: Samira Kawash

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Subjects Discussed: The candy bar as a substitute for a sandwich, how the notion of “three meals a day” altered as Americans moved to cities, the candy bar’s evolution between the wars, the Chicken Dinner bar, how the mechanical age caused people to view themselves as engines, how candy manufacturers capitalized on the calorie-happy clime of the 1920s, Ray Brokel, the difficulty of tracking down bygone candy bar flavors, candy as a reflection of cultural taste, why some candy bars have endured to this day, why it’s difficult to reverse engineer a candy bar from the early 20th century, candy and the military, medical fasts and hard candy, how sugar fuels the brain, German chemists and nutritional science, how the German military used lemon drops as a secret weapon, lemon drops built to military specifications, overworked soldiers and increased productivity, comparing sugar and stimulant use among soldiers, drugs and the Vietnam War, modern connections between candy and the military, how trade show candy is foisted upon today’s soldiers, dentists and candy, candy conspiracies, early 20th century candy advertising, how cigarette companies hooked candy lovers on their product, competition and collusion between candy makers and cigarette companies in the 1920s, tobacco’s efforts to grab discretionary spending sapped up by candy, candy as a weight scapegoat, candy cigarettes and chocolate cigars, kids who emulate adults, candy as “a gateway to sin,” oleomargarine, the candy industry’s early hostility to glucose, food reformer Mary Theiss, 1908 warnings of “adulterated” candy, the distinctions between glucose and corn syrup, when corn syrup sounded wholesome, efforts to clean up glucose’s image during the 20th century, overblown fears about corn syrup in the present day, candy used as a restorative in health spas during the First World War, chocolate’s powers as a restorative, The Shotwell Candy Company’s attempts at vitamin-fortified candy bars, nutrition bars, horrific Figurines ads, the unholy alignment between chocolate and nutrition, chocolate’s introduction in Europe, cats who wander around the house, the demise of homemade candy dippers, how machinery affected the rise of candy and cigarettes, the ups and downs of homemade candymaking, gender roles and candymaking, the strange disappearance of candy cookbooks in recent years, the sinister origins of trick-or-treating, allowable pranking within the confines of Halloween, when child gangsters were considered cute, Sylvester Graham, Lulu Hunt Peters and the chocolate cream debouch, the relationship between Christian proselytizers and candy, Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s frightening poem about candy, religion of the body, secular morality, orthorexia, purity of the body, John Kellogg, efforts to capitalize on breakfast, the rise of Sugar Crisp and sugar-based cereals, Robert Choate’s cereal crackdown, the National Confectioners’ Association as a formidable lobbying organization, candy bar portions, dessert portions, the future of artisanal candy,

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Let’s start from the very beginning. There were many things that were fascinating about this book, but one of the things that fascinated me was how you pointed to this period where Americans shifted from a three meals-a-day life, where they were having breakfast in the morning, followed by dinner in the mid-afternoon, followed by supper before bedtime. And then things shifted to a breakfast-lunch-dinner life as Americans moved away from the farms and into more urban and industrial settings. To my great surprise, what was especially astonishing was how the chocolate lunch bar entered the market as a viable snack that could serve in lieu of a sandwich for lunch! I mean, that’s astonishing! The Waleco Sandwich Bar, Kline’s Lunch Bar, the Chicken Dinner Bar. So this is a good place to ask. How did the taste for candy shift from mere snacks to wholesale meal replacements? And also, you say that the taste of the Chicken Dinner Bar, which stopped manufacture around the 1960s, has been lost to history. But surely someone out there has described it. Did people really eat these things? How many of these lunch bars were manufactured? How did this happen?

Kawash: Well, I think I’m going to back up a little.

Correspondent: Okay. Sure!

Kawash: And talk about that transition that you pointed to from three meals a day at home to a much more fast-paced lifestyle that’s familiar to us. I mean, when we say breakfast, lunch, and dinner, what do you think of lunch? Lunch is away from home. Lunch is something fast. Lunch is something convenient. We just don’t have time to sit down for meals. We’re always on the go go go. And since the ’70s, sociologists have been bemoaning the loss of proper meals in our life and looking at the increasing number of our eating occasions which are really snacks. We’re eating things out of packages, on the go, and that’s only increasing. This kind of “eat what I want when I want it” lifestyle. And what people want for those increasing number of snacks is something candy-like. That is to say, something that is portable, something that is tasty, something that is easy to eat, something that isn’t messy. And candy fits the bill perfectly. And what is fascinating about the candy story is that this whole possibility of eating on the go and grabbing something that is almost as substantial as a meal, but out of a package — that starts with candy. And that period of transition when people started leaving the farms and leaving that rural lifestyle where you could come home in the middle of the day and have a substantial meal that would fuel you up for the rest of the afternoon’s labor, that starts fading away at about the same time that candy becomes available as a mass produced product. In the 19th century, there wasn’t that much candy around. And so it was really a treat. You’d go down into town and get a candy stick maybe. You’d hope for some candy in your Christmas stocking. And if you were an adult and you had some money, you could go to the import shop in the city and get some luxurious French bonbons, let’s say. But for most people, most of the time, there just wasn’t that much candy to eat. So towards the end of the 19th century, there’s a huge transformation both in the ways people are living — they’re living faster; they’re living on the move more — and also in the availability of this new kind of food that is portable and also entirely artificial. A new kind of substance in the world.

Correspondent: But how did we get to candy bars replacing sandwiches? I mean, I get that people actually needed something that was packaged and that they could cram into their mouths before going back on the clock. But did people really eat these chocolate sandwiches? Which were often quite humungous!

Kawash: Well, I think that some of the candy bar marketing in this period that we’re talking about — the period between the wars, between the First World War and the Second World War — was the glory days of the candy bar. And this is the period where we see thousands and thousands of new kind of candy bars coming on the market and advertising themselves in all sorts of fanciful ways. And one of the main ways that candy bars position themselves was exactly this — as a substantial meal replacement. When you couldn’t eat a meal, you could eat a candy bar. Now did people eat candy bars instead of meals? It’s hard to say. But we do know that quite a lot of those candy bars had meal-like names. Like you mentioned the Chicken Dinner. The Idaho Spud. The Denver Sandwich. The Lunch Bar. And all of this suggested that people could look at candy bars as something much more than the luxury foods that candy had been understood to be in the 19th century, that candy was substantial and that candy could fill you up. Not only that it was substantial and would fill you up, but also, and more importantly, candy was good food for quick energy. Now let’s go back to the 1920s and think about what’s happening. It’s the era of the airplane. It’s the air of streamline. It’s the era of the factory and the office and the businessman. People are moving fast. And fast is good. But fast means energy. People are looking around at these internal combustion engines that are just starting to putter around on the streets and thinking about fuel and our bodies as engines like cars that need fuel. What is fuel? Fuel is food. What is food? Food is calories. And this new idea of food as chemicals in the form of calories that would fuel your body — this was a new idea in the early 20th century. And what it meant was that things that had more calories were better. Because they had more fuel. So it’s like filling up your gas tank with a full tank. A candy bar that had two or three hundred calories, or sometimes a quarter pound candy bar, was not uncommon. Maybe five or six hundred calories in a candy bar. This was seen primarily as a compact source of energy that you could get quickly into your body. And the science of sugar in that era was also promoting the idea that sugar was quickly metabolized. That eating sugar gave you energy that you could use right away as opposed to, let’s say, whole wheat bread that just took a little while to digest. And so you weren’t as able to quickly access that energy. So the speed with which sugar would enter your system and fuel you was another important factor in the favor for candy. That candy was quick energy. It was compact. It was economical too. Because the number of calories that you could buy with your candy dollar were much higher than the number you could buy with your egg dollar or your pickle dollar.

chickendinnerCorrespondent: But this also leads me to go back to the question of the sandwich. I mean, I get that calories were new. They were in the air. People didn’t make any distinction between the calories one received from sugar and the calories one received from an apple. And there are a number of forms of advertisement you depict in this book that show that candy manufacturers played into this and used this to manipulate the public into buying more candy. But with things like the Chicken Dinner bar, I’m just absolutely curious about why something like that could be on the market for so long and yet you say that it’s lost to history. The taste. I mean, certainly there’s someone out there who knows about it and there’s someone out there who has a sense of how many of these sandwich-realted chocolate bars were actually eaten between the clock, so to speak.

Kawash: Well, sadly, our foremost historian of the candy bar, Ray Broekel, is no longer with us. And he is probably the only person who could have answered these questions.

Correspondent: He has papers! He has an archive! He must!

Kawash: He collected candy bar wrappers for several decades. And much of what we know of those lost candy bars is from his archives and from what he collected. He published at least two books where he would just chronicle what the candy bars were and what we know, what they were made of. You know, some of the candy bars, we know a lot about their composition. Because they would describe them in the advertising. So for example, I have seen Chicken Dinner ads that open up the candy bar. You can see the nuts. You can see the caramel. And we know that it was a sort of nut roll. So that would be caramel nougats and nuts. But other bars, all we have is maybe an image of the wrapper or maybe just a name of the candy bar. What’s in a Love Nest? Who knows?

Correspondent: Wow. But I’m wondering if there’s any way — and I guess I’m stuck on the idea of a Chicken Dinner bar — whether the plans or the formula for these bars exist in a vault somewhere and we just don’t know it. I mean, certain companies probably consolidated with companies. Certainly the original way to make these particular chocolate bars must exist somewhere. Or is that just a truly difficult question to solve in 2013?

Kawash: Well, I think that the candy business has changed so dramatically that, even if someone were to discover in the vaults the formula for the Chicken Dinner bar, there would be a large distance to travel between the formula in the vault and an actual Chicken Dinner bar. I mean, today we have a candy business that is dominated by two or three major players. Anywhere you go in America, you’ll see the same candy bars and you know what they are and they’re successful because they’re good. But also because those companies are huge and have huge marketing and advertising budgets. Most of the candy bars that have been lost were produced by tiny companies and often just local or regional companies. And one of the things that I discovered in my research was that, for the most part, candy manufacturers and candy makers were not always very good businessmen. They didn’t always understand the principles of accounting and the ways in which they needed to adjust their production to take into account their expenses. One of the things about candy is that it’s driven by novelty. You want to always be coming out with something new to catch people’s eye. So in the old days, candy makers would frequently just keep making the old stuff and start making the new stuff. And this would create enormous expenses. Because they never had those economies of scale. So part of the problem was just that their passion was candy making, not bookkeeping. And oftentimes, it’s really interesting to go back to some of those candy bars from the 1920s and see which ones have survived even just the brand. Like O. Henry, for example, or Baby Ruth. Those were candy bars that were invented and sold by individuals who had really business acumen. They thought about marketing. They thought about manufacturing in a way that gave them tools to become successful, where becoming successful is becoming national and becoming bought out by Nestle or Kraft or something like that. So I think that it’s a fascinating question. Are there these secret vaults of the lost candies? But I think the sad answer is probably for the most part not. Those companies are gone.

Correspondent: Geraldo opening Al Capone’s vault to see nothing.

Kawash: Yeah. Actually, there are some people now because of nostalgia. I mean, we’re really going through a period now of nostalgia for the old brands and the old candies. And I think your question of “If only I could have a Chicken Dinner bar!” I think a lot of us feel that way.

Correspondent: I mean, if a culture is defined by taste, there’s that question as well. But what you’re saying here about the fact that most of the early candy manufacturers were small and were absolutely terrible at business, sounding not unlike the book industry, I’m wondering at what point was there the first candy kingpin gobbling up all the great innovators that were actually selling certain forms of candy that were more than mere novelties? That had some legs, so to speak. Stuff like candy corn or lemon drops and all that.

Kawash: Well, the real consolidation happened starting in the ’60s. And it was a period of real complacency for candy. Candy manufacturers had been enormously — I mean, the ’20s, the Golden Age of the Candy Bar, you go back to the advertising and the trade publications and you can feel the vibration of excitement! It’s like, “Wow! We’re doing something really amazing here.” The Depression comes. It hits the candy industry as well. But those who survive make it out of the Depression and start ramping up again until the Second World War comes along. And, oh boy, war is good for candy. Why? Because candy is quick and portable energy. And so candy became a really key element in the rations for the troops. There were these headlines. CANDY FIGHTS IN THE WAR! CANDY BULLETS FOR EVERYONE! So the high point of candy production actually comes during the Second World War at a time when there is rationing and food shortage and all these other things that are really impinging on American industry. But candy, because it comes to be perceived as such an important source of energy and morale for the troops also, candy makes people happy.

Correspondent: Well, not only that. But emergency compartments, where bits of candy would fly out. Chocolate bars that are contained in a soldier’s emergency kit and, in fact, were consumed faster than the really terrible Meals Ready to Eat that they had at the time. At one point in the book, you point out that the fact that there was candy in the aircraft actually contributed to fewer accidents from the pilots, which is rather remarkable. I mean, why did candy have such a hold upon the military? I mean, I guess if you’re flying a very fragile plane, you need to be on a sugar high, I suppose.

Kawash: Well, I think that whatever the long term consequences of a high refined sugar diet, we know that….

Correspondent: (laughs) Whatever the consequences? That’s a great big conditional statement there!

Kawash: Let’s just put that to the side and talk about the immediate effects of, you know, sucking on a lemon drop.

The Bat Segundo Show #522: Samira Kawash (Download MP3)

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pidgeon_15harding1_arts

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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Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell (The Bat Segundo Show #518)

Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell are the co-authors of The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, a book which documents the making of The Room. Bissell previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #449 and The Bat Segundo Show #450.

Authors: Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell

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Subjects Discussed: Ideal Hollywood standing positions to check smartphones, being addicted to technology, how Sestero and Bissell collaborated, Tommy Wiseau’s vernacular, how the Wiseau philosophy is applicable to real life, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s unanticipated influence on The Room, Wiseau’s thoughts on Fight Club, why Sestero put up with Tommy Wiseau for so long, Robin Williams vs. Tommy Wiseau, Patch Adams, a melodramatic video that Wiseau photographed and sent to an insurance company, the blind and reckless Hollywood producer attitude, Brad Pitt, the unspeakable display of Tommy Wiseau’s ass, Wiseau’s philosophy on shooting sex scenes, Bon Jovi’s reluctance to collaborate with Wiseau, getting music for The Room, composers hired by Tommy Wiseau, shooting The Room simultaneously in 35mm and HD, Wiseau’s curious innovations, Citizen Kane, being the first person to build a private bathroom on set, Hitchcock’s aversion to shooting on location, The Birds, Wiseau’s cinematic influences, “Cinema Crudité,” Wiseau’s Berlin Wall of personal involvement, occupying a territory (and a life) that is half invention and half real, Wiseau’s mysterious past in Europe, incidents from The Room pulled from real life, the Bay to Breakers race, Wiseau’s efforts to cash out-of-state checks, The Room as Wiseau’s secret autobiography, Wiseau’s fixation on James Dean, Giant, actors who dye their hair, A Rebel Without a Cause, Marlon Brando, whether Sestero’s involvement in The Room made any dents in his acting career, the challenges of conveying incomprehensible dialogue, the advantages of knowing people named Tom, penetrating into the great mystery of Mark’s disappearing beard in The Room, being nicknamed “Babyface” in acting class, being photographed being shaven, the film set as a surveillance state, crew members on The Room who worked simultaneously on Terminator 3, Wiseau’s fixation on youth, The Room as a parallel identity for Wiseau, parallels between The Room and Grand Theft Auto, The Room video game, and Bissell’s open letter to Niko Bellic.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I’m curious about how you guys both wrote this book. There are large chunks of dialogue between Greg and Tommy Wiseau. And it’s often so specific that I can’t imagine how you could get it that specific after several years had passed. So I’m wondering. I have to assume much of it is invented. Tom, you happened to share Tommy’s name. Did you two talk to each other in a dark room? You with the Wiseau accent? How did this come about? The dialogue in this book? To flesh out the big important story behind The Room.

Bissell: Well, Greg and I recorded all these chapters. We have like thirty hours of tape.

Correspondent: Oh!

Bissell: And Greg is an actor. Greg has a very good memory. And I would ask him to dig back into his memory. And he would do these conversations as clearly as he could remember them. And he knows Tommy so well that he could get those Tommytastic little grammatical flubs. I did very little of the dialogue. It kind of came out of Greg as he remembered the tenor of his conversations. That’s how it was recorded. And that’s how we transcribed it.

Correspondent: Was there any severe trauma, Greg, in this sense memory?

Sestero: Yeah. Actually, that’s off to a very good start. I do have a very good memory for better or for worse.

Bissell: And you’ve taken a lot of notes over the years.

Sestero: Yeah. And with Tommy, he’s so unique that you don’t really forget. As you can tell with the movie. People quote it all the time. You don’t really forget the way he speaks. There’s a very signature way of saying things. And it was such an unforgettable experience that I just remembered almost everything. And it came to me very quickly. I told stories about my experience to many people. So they were very vivid. Very clear in my memory. And the dialogue — I read excerpts of it to Tommy. Chapter Four. “Tommy’s Planet.” And he was shocked. He’s like, “My God! That’s exactly what happened. You remembered exactly what I say. Good job.”

Bissell: (laughs) You have to say it like he would say it.

Sestero: (in Wiseau voice) “My God! Good job!”

Correspondent: So he was consulted for all of the dialogue in this. I mean, he is a control freak, from what I gather.

Sestero: Yeah. I went over a lot of things with him about his past. And I traveled with him and I had gone to the places that I spoke about in the book. And he was very clear on stuff that he was comfortable with me putting in. His background, his retail career in San Francisco. But I knew he wouldn’t want me to talk about certain things. And I left that up to him. And I cut those things out. And the dialogue. Yeah. That’s the way he speaks. Basically verbatim. Especially when I traveled with him when I was writing the book on tour. And I was interviewing him. And it reconnected me with the way he talked. So a lot of that dialogue is straight out of how it happened.

Bissell: You also note that in the film, the film is a constant recycling of the same six or seven pieces of language. And when I’ve interviewed Tommy, he says those things. He wrote them. He says them. They kick around in his head. And so one of the real pleasures was, as Greg was remembering back and recreating these conversations, I would notice that those phrases would slip in. And I was like, the great thing I like about it is that a real avid Room fan will be reading these pre-Room scenes. And then suddenly boom! There’s a phrase from the movie. You’re like, “Oh my god!” Like when he asks Greg about how to get into SAG, he’s like, “Well like now that you are expert, how do you get into the SAG?” And then in the film, he’s like, “It seems to me that you are the expert, Mark!”

Sestero: Yeah. You can’t invent stuff with Tommy. He’s just this character that exists. So to do him justice, you need to quote him verbatim. And that was my goal with it. Is to be as exact as possible.

Correspondent: Has the Wiseau vernacular helped you in the course of your adult life? Has it allowed you to, I suppose, be more forthcoming in certain ways? When talking with family or friends or therapists?

Sestero: Yeah. It definitely has.

Correspondent: Do you have any examples you can offer? I mean, if you go to sleep at night, do you sometimes hear that Balkan voice lulling you?

Sestero: Yeah.

Bissell: (laughs)

Correspondent: Encouraging certain nocturnal dreams and associated emissions?

Sestero: Definitely nocturnal. I do have many laughs about what Tommy would say in this moment. And I’ll even think like him sometimes.

Correspondent: Think like him?

Sestero: Yeah. Like what would he say? There’s one thing I really find. He’s always going. He’s always grabbing things and bringing things places. And I’d just be standing there and watching him. He’d be like, “My god, do something! Don’t be Statue of Liberty!” And so I’ve noticed myself carrying posters and getting really busy during this time. When somebody’s standing there. “Will you help me?” And I’ll think, I say, “Could you help me?” But Tommy would be like, “My god! Do something!” So it’s funny. I’ve understood him a lot more in the last few years what he says. But the way he communicates is so funny that it just makes him the character that he is.

Correspondent: One thing I didn’t know until I read this book was that The Talented Mr. Ripley was a huge influence on The Room, which I had no idea about and which makes complete sense in hindsight.

Bissell: It’s the source text.

Correspondent: The source text. Tommy and Greg. Tom and Dickie. And as you point out, it gave you the flu when you watched it the first time, without Tommy, for about two weeks.

Sestero: Yeah.

Correspondent: This was fascinating to me. I’m wondering if you have actually gone back to the original source, Patricia Highsmith, and tried to mine those novels for deeper insights about Tommy or your own life or how you became friends with him and all that.

Sestero: Yeah. I actually started reading — I’ve read the entire Ripley series. Yeah, they’re very similar characters in ways. The difference is, I think, that Tommy, deep down, he’s a genuine person. He’s charismatic. While Tom Ripley has a dark streak. He’s just not comfortable with himself. So there are fine lines of the way they operated. But it’s amazing.

Bissell: It’s the longing.

Sestero: Yeah. And it’s the core. When Tommy watched The Talented Mr. Ripley, what it did to him, how it really got a rise out of him like no other movie that I’d seen when I’d watched it. Like we watched Fight Club and he’s like, “My god! This is so boring.”

Correspondent: (laughs) He was bored by Fight Club?

Sestero: Yeah, I know, right? He was like, “I do better acting in class.”

Correspondent: Wow. Even with Meat Loaf and the cool editing?

Sestero: Fight Club‘s one of my favorite movies. But The Talented Mr. Ripley is — it has that element. He lit up. And that’s what he wanted to make.

Bissell: When Greg revealed that to me, and I didn’t know that until it actually came out in our interviews, I was like, “Stop the fucking tape.” And we actually stopped the tape. And we sat there and we talked through all of the correspondences. You and I just started bringing up things from the movie.

Sestero: It all started to happen!

Bissell: It all started making sense. Oh my god!

Sestero: Peter. There’s a character named Peter in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Matt Damon. It’s all his fault. Mark Damon. The all-American guy.

Bissell: And we both read Strangers on a Train when we were working on this book. That’s the reason we talked about that book a lot. So there’s a weird Highsmithian quality.

Sestero: Yeah.

Correspondent: Except there have been no murders thankfully.

Bissell: (laughs)

Correspondent: Unless you did a criss-cross thing.

Bissell: Well, there was that one vagrant you and I hunted for sport.

Correspondent: Greg, it seems to me that with this Los Angeles apartment, the repeat playback of Tommy’s audition tape, the phone calls when you worked as a salesman at Armani Exchange, that you were either remarkably patient with Tommy or, well, you enjoyed being walked over. And I was really curious about this. I mean, even accounting for the whimsical follies of being a young man, what do you think kept you coming back to Tommy Wiseau? I mean, what was it? Was he just extraordinarily charismatic? Or did you just overlook some of these qualities?

Sestero: Yeah, I think youth obviously comes into play. But there’s just something about Tommy that was different. And I felt like an outcast with my family. And Tommy made me feel like I belonged to something. And I couldn’t really let go of the fact of the L.A. experience that I had when I first got there, the excitement of it and thinking that really I would have never had that. And even if that’s all it was, I never would have had that. And it was really because of him. So that bond really became strong. And it was really difficult. I mean, obviously, I thought about saying, “My god, I’ve got to just get out of this.” But anytime I tried to flee or tell Tommy what I thought or got emotional, and said those things, he would always retreat and come back and be like he didn’t mean to make me feel that way. So it was tough to leave somebody, especially in the book when he disappeared. When I saw him outside that acting class, just standing away from everybody, I felt for him. Because I felt the same way in a lot of ways. Except that I fit in more. But I understood what he was going through. So it’s hard to let someone float off into despair, knowing that you can make a difference. I always felt at the end of the day that I’d rather make a difference, to make someone feel better, than be self-aggrandizing. I guess this is all about being selfless than being selfish. I mean, obviously, I look crazy when you are able to look at the experience from the outside and see all these problems. It’s easy to just leave. But sometimes when you’re in it, you want to do what’s right hopefully and help that person.

Correspondent: Well, he probably gave you more approval than Robin Williams did on Patch Adams. Who knew that Tommy would have more solicitude than Robin Williams? Who I thought would exude that kind of thing being a wild and crazy guy from San Francisco.

Sestero: Yeah. Tommy’s a force and he challenged me to say, “Don’t be a chicken. Go for what you want to accomplish.” And I just never really forgot that.

Correspondent: Okay. I wanted to ask about the mysterious $6 million that financed The Room. There are allusions to a string of shops. The TSW Corporation so intrigued me that I actually did a business search at the California Secretary of State, finding nothing in relation to this.

Sestero: Really? (laughs)

Correspondent: I didn’t. So I’m wondering, Tom, what investigative acumen did you bring to this project? To really track down the Wiseau mystique? The unknown trail that people have been thinking about and conjuring up all sorts of theories about over these many years.

Bissell: Everything I know is in the book. And at a certain point, I have no idea how he amassed this fortune. I don’t think you really know either.

Sestero: I know he works around the clock. I know he had retail shops. I’d been there. I know he has those things. I know he owns a lot of real estate.

Bissell: He owns real estate.

Sestero: And that’s as far as it goes. I did research and interview people, but really I wanted him to tell his story and let the readers decide what was there.

Correspondent: Is there any way to get that video he sent to the insurance company? Because the way it was described was rather extraordinary.

Sestero: It was extraordinary.

Bissell: I’ve seen it.

Sestero: When Tom watched it…

Bissell: It’s incredible.

Sestero: …his reaction was that he put his hand up and he was just like, “Oh my god.”

Bissell: (laughs)

Sestero: What have I gotten myself into?

Correspondent: Basically, just to tell our listeners, he had all this classical music over it apparently and also he recruited people to say good things about Tommy. So that he could get the insurance money. (laughs)

Bissell: And there are these really mournful shots of these burned blue jeans, scorched.

Correspondent: Blue jeans? Really? (laughs)

Sestero: They actually didn’t even look that bad.

Correspondent: (laughs) The insurance company went for this?

Bissell: I don’t know.

Sestero: I don’t know.

Bissell: All we have is the tape.

Sestero: He’s a relentless retail guy. In fact, right now, he’s even designing an underwear line and a jeans line.

Correspondent: Is he really?

Sestero: He’s going all out.

Correspondent: Are you going to be one of his models?

Sestero: No. I’ll delegate that to somebody else.

Correspondent: Tom, do you need some additional income?

Bissell: I don’t think the world needs to see that.

Sestero: (laughs)

Correspondent: Okay.

Bissell: But I will say the line that I’m happiest with in this book is: “In discussing Tommy’s background, the simplest answer is the right answer. But with Tommy, there doesn’t seem to be a simplest answer.” That’s the astounding thing about him.

Sestero: Yeah. You think you know something. And then there’s just a trail of mystery that you’re lead down. And after knowing him for fifteen years, there’s still a lot left to know.

Correspondent: But if you think about it, the creative financing that he brought to The Room is really no different than the creative financing that is behind most Hollywood projects.

Sestero: That’s true.

Bissell: (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m wondering if, for some reason, he inhabited that same kind of blind reckless instinct that we usually associate with Hollywood producers who hope someone else can cook the books. And really that’s why he was able to get The Room made. Just because that’s the way it is in L.A.

Bissell: It seems like he read a how to make a movie book, but skipped every other paragraph. Because some things he obviously did right. One of his quotes is “How they do so in Hollywood. We no different from big studio.” So he clearly believed he was doing things according to studio procedures.

Correspondent: He was following some of the guidelines.

Sestero: Yeah. His interpretation for The Room was that he was doing it like the big sharks. The billboard, the equipment, the green screen. He thought that’s how a high-end Hollywood production does their movie.

Correspondent: One of the most frightening elements of The Room, which I really must talk to you gentlemen about just to clarify this, is Tommy Wiseau’s ass. It is there. It reportedly scared the editor’s wife. It is covered during the love scenes and yet we have this one Brad Pitt-like moment when he’s out of bed. And as the book puts it, “I’ve never seen anyone more comfortable naked around people who resented him.” But this still doesn’t explain something, which I had hoped to get from the book. Maybe you guys can answer. Which was the relentless soundtrack of groans and thrusting that are over all of these love scenes. They’re relentlessly noisy. And I’m wondering if there’s something about Tommy Wiseau’s relationship with his ass contributed to the kind of noise factor in these particular scenes, to say nothing of the fact that eleven minutes of the film is composed of love scenes and all that.

Bissell: (to Sestero) You had to record those groan tracks.

Correspondent: You were actually the groaner?!?

Bissell: You can hear Greg in one of the groan scenes going “Ohhhhhhhhhhh!!!!”

Sestero: Yeah, I had to sit in a video booth and do those while watching it. And I just thought, “My god. This is just painful.” And I thought, okay, let’s make it easy. Again, I didn’t think anyone would see it. So I did that. And it came out terrible. But Tommy did the same thing. I think with Tommy, he’s proud of his rear end. And that’s great. But he was trying to create a leading man moment for himself and felt good about it and he believed. He has to show his ass in this movie or it will not sell. So that’s what made him decide. He was laying on the ground inside Birns & Saywer, wondering if he should do it. And he’s like, “You know what? I have to.”

Correspondent: And it was not even a closed set. That’s what’s even more fascinating about that.

Bissell: He opened the set.

Correspondent: He opened the set. Wow. But that’s the other thing! Could he just not remember his groans? Much as he could not remember his lines?

Sestero: Well, with the groans, I think sometimes they do do those little things in post to fill them in. But his groans went really too far. Which I think make those scenes even more fun.

Correspondent: (laughs) Oh yeah? There’s groan outtakes.

Sestero: Yeah.

Bissell: How long is that first sex scene? It’s three and a half minutes.

Sestero: So long.

Correspondent: I know.

Sestero: It was actually even longer in the rough cut. It was like a music video. It just kept going on and on.

Correspondent: But he had to find something. A song that would last just as long.

Sestero: Exactly.

Correspondent: He couldn’t find a seven minute song that would work.

Sestero: He actually wanted to have one of Bon Jovi’s songs.

Bissell: “Always.”

Sestero: “Always.” To be there. And I don’t think Bon Jovi went for it.

(Loops for this program provided by oryan55, cork27, EOS, camzee, and supertex.)

The Bat Segundo Show #518: Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell (Download MP3)

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lennonmcnally

J. Robert Lennon (The Bat Segundo Show)

J. Robert Lennon is most recently the author of Familiar. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #300. This conversation was recorded live at McNally Jackson on October 3, 2012. This is also the final episode of The Bat Segundo Show. Thank you for listening.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contending with five possible endings to his existence.

Author: J. Robert Lennon.

Subjects Discussed: Attempts to disseminate chocolate chip cookies in a bookstore, parallel universes, being confident in the rightness of not knowing, getting inside other people’s heads, how Elisa’s conditional ambiguity created a deeper connection with the reader, whether framing shops can exist after the Great Recession, why guys named Larry tend to sound sexy, Stephen Dixon’s “The Frame,” art and self-therapy, Wilhelm Reich as influence and huckster, technological reliance and memory, a digital camera in which nobody bothers to offload the photos, being a photography nerd, the multiverse per Brian Greene and William James, Lennon’s affinity for characters with bare feet, subconscious calls for New Age aesthetic, the Stephen King aesthetic of everyone wearing blue jeans, casual Fridays applied to novels, when a character can be associated with both Hugh Hefner and Hephaestus, spending far more time revising than writing, a definition of insanity of finding meaning when there is no meaning, needlessly close reading, Reevesport, Lennon’s secret shadow map of central New York, Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, physically impossible floor plans in fiction and films, labyrinths and labyrinthine structures, how the question of identity is a trap, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, The Funnies, comparisons between Silas and David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Blow, revision revelations, Braid, advice Lennon received from Tom Bissell, video game titles that aren’t dumb enough, Lennon’s efforts to write a draft without internal monologues, Richard Matheson, The Twilight Zone, the thin line between insanity and genius, the stigma against unusual perspectives, broken and corrupt institutions, crackpots, impostor syndrome, Capgras delusion, Roger Zelazny’s Amber books, similarities between Familiar and Nine Princes in Amber, the Nine Princes in Amber Commodore 64 ROM, cell phone addiction, how smartphones reveal mundane lives, Infocom text adventure games, and fictional vs. video game description.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: We have a lot of cookies and they have to be eaten. So please pass these along.

Lennon: These are the very same cookies you saw today on Twitter in the form of uncooked dough.

Correspondent: In the form of uncooked. And then there was a picture of them being cooked. So now we see the transmission from digital to reality. Sort of like your book.

Lennon: You see the baby pictures. And now they’re graduating from college. And now they’re all going to die.

Correspondent: Yes. And they need to be sent away to your stomachs. So please. Anyway, John, how are you doing?

Lennon: Hey, Ed, I’m doing very well. Thank you for having me on the show again. And thanks for sharing your swan song with me.

Correspondent: No worries. So in this book, you have this 46-year-old woman and she’s named Elisa Brown. She enters another life very early on in the book. She’s put on some weight. She trades in this cracked Volvo — or cracked Honda; there’s a Volvo that comes later — with a Dodge Intrepid. She sees her son Silas, who has died in her previous life, suddenly alive in this new one.

Lennon: I think what you’re not explaining is that it seems to be a parallel universe.

Correspondent: It seems.

Lennon: All this happens instantaneously. And she’s transferred into this apparent other world.

Correspondent: Yes. Apparent. Which leads me to my initial question. I mean, she could be inhabiting a parallel universe. This could be a psychological projection. This could be a maternal fantasy. It could be any number of things. You leave this up to the reader. I’m wondering, as author, if you knew with any certainty what this was all about.

Lennon: I aggressively and definitively refuse to know.

Correspondent: You refuse to know. It’s a hell of a way to write a book.

Lennon: Like I’m very confident in the rightness of not knowing. I’ll put it that way.

Correspondent: Okay. But how do you get inside the head of a character when you don’t exactly know what the condition of that head is? Or do you?

Lennon: Does anyone know the condition of their own head? Or the meaning or the circumstances?

Correspondent: Do you know the condition of your own head?

Lennon: Of course not! No! I think it’s an arch sci-fi metaphor for the feelings of dislocation that all of us have in the less obviously nerdy way.

Correspondent: Well, it seems that the very ambiguity of Elisa would allow, as I suggested, the reader to find her own way into what this is all about. And I’m curious. Were you thinking more about the reader in mind with this book? Some of your other books have dealt with minutiae or quotidian life — such as Mailman, to very alarming degrees in that wonderful book.

Lennon: Alarming quotidianness.

Correspondent: Yes, exactly. In the case of Elisa, I’m wondering. Did that uncertainty allow you to connect with the reader perhaps more than your other characters?

Lennon: That was my hope. I mean, my goal in presenting this conceit or this unsolvable dilemma to the character — she ends up quite logically, because she’s a scientist, searching for both the meaning and the cause of what has apparently happened to her. But in the process, it forces her to do other types of searching of the self that she was previously unwilling to undertake.

Correspondent: Got it. So there’s this framing shop in the book run by a guy named Larry. And this intrigued me quite a bit. Because I said to myself, “Well, how can a framing shop exist in a small town after the 2008 recession?” It leads me to wonder, hmmm, I wonder if this is possibly a fantasy.

Lennon: (laughs) You’re onto me.

Correspondent: I think there’s something romantic about a guy named Larry. I think you and I can both agree about that.

Lennon: Sure. Sure.

Correspondent: But I wanted to ask you where this came from. Do you know of a framing shop in a small town that is financially successful? Or does Larry have another business of some sort? And, of course, Elisa as well does all sorts of naughty things with him and we only really see him through how Elisa observes him in that Korean cafe and so forth. So I’m curious about the origins of Larry and how you stuck your thumb in the nose of present economic realities.

Lennon: This is a curious thing to fixate on, I must say.

Correspondent: Well, I’m a curious person. And you’ve written a curious book!

Lennon: Thank you. There are several functioning frame shops in my town. It didn’t seem terribly unusual. But the framing bit is — I don’t know why he’s in a frame shop. Maybe…has anyone read the Stephen Dixon story “The Frame”? It’s essentially a joke about a framed story. And a guy goes into a frame shop. And this reminds him of something that happened with his sister in the past. And the frame of the story is a frame. Maybe I had that in mind as a goofy meta device. But in any event, the plot device that you’re talking about is that, in her old life, what she considers to be her real life, she is having an affair with this guy Larry from the frame shop. Whom she met because she brought some art that she was trying to make to be framed. And the art was therapeutic art to deal with the death of her son. And in this new world, where her son never died, this guy doesn’t know her. And so she tries to get it on with him. It doesn’t go as planned. But I like the idea of a quiet business. That the whole point of it is not about the content. It’s about the context.

Correspondent: Yes, it’s about the framing.

Lennon: Exactly.

Correspondent: I see. So the artistic aspirations that Elisa has in this book, which aren’t necessarily totally fulfilled. We sort of see a little bit toward the end. But basically she has this studio. She’s not really doing much about it. Why is it that art — represented of course through Elisa’s painting and then transferred later onto Silas and his video game company — why is this the benchmark for these characters who are in such disarray to try to find themselves? I was curious why this seemed to be the motive for these characters.

Lennon: Well, I’m always kind of interested in this idea that creative effort is a form of therapy for people. And that usually doesn’t create good art necessarily. That the kind of self-criticism required for making…

Correspondent: True art.

Lennon: Yeah. It’s maybe not compatible with the needs of a self-therapeutic process. So in each of these worlds, I gave the creative output to one or the other character as one of them is dealing with the death and her possible culpability in it. And the other is dealing with his horrible childhood, for which he blames her. And she doesn’t get to do art in the world where he’s alive.

Correspondent: Yes. But it’s interesting that you call it therapy in light of all of the Wilhelm Reich references throughout the book. There’s some sly quotes. There’s this crazy family therapist named Amos, who is using very Reichian-like techniques. The whole idea of “blame yourself first,” which comes from Reich. And it’s interesting that that exists side by side with art. And it makes me wonder, well, is Larry, who we were talking about earlier, is he offering a form of therapy in terms of his sexual escapades? But I’m curious about where the Reich interest came from. I mean, he’s known as both one of the most important therapeutic forces of the early 20th century. But simultaneously, he’s also something of a huckster.

Lennon: Yeah. And I haven’t read him extensively. I’ve read some of the book that that quote comes from. But I read enough to use him as a motif. But not enough to know what the hell I’m talking about. But the entire book is about ways of perceiving experience and the extent to which people choose, no matter how hard we think we’re working, to understand the truth about our lives. We’re engaged in a form of self-serving narrative making. And so this whole process, which I think is hidden from us a lot of the time in real life — I’m sort of foregrounding this book by giving her an extra life and an extra version of her life to compose. And she seems to be screwing it up just the same way she screwed up the other life, which I think is what we would all do if we were given a second chance.

Correspondent: But is she entirely screwing it up? I mean, this book has some fairly damning things to say about technology, starting from the first technological implement we see. This camera, that has about a year worth of photos on it. And there is an interesting domestic dispute when all of the photos disappear. And the fact that these photos have not been transferred over says something about what our relationship is to memory through technology. And we see later on, of course, she sees a guy whose looking down at his phone over the last dregs of his meal. And of course there’s the video game motif as well. So I’m wondering why this notion of technology is almost defining many of these characters. Do you think we’re just now in this realm and fiction has to wrestle with this vital point of living?

Lennon: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think of technology as a motif that’s sort of extrinsic from psychology and emotion and that which has to be addressed. Rather, I wanted to bring it into the fabric of the book in a way that it might not naturally do so for nerdy people like this family. My wife said she was very proud of me with the camera thing. The deal with the camera is that they just never print the photos or put them on the computer or anything. They’re just all on the camera. And so everyone, they want to look at pictures, they just look for the camera and they pick it up and they just go like this for a while. And then Elisa’s mother-in-law appears to have deleted the photos of the child who has died. And for whatever reasons we don’t really understand.

Correspondent: Or did she? She just could have been messing with it. We don’t know.

Lennon: Maybe not. And Elisa ends up — she realizes that if she really wanted, that the files are still on there. That all, when you delete a file from, say, a hard disk or a memory card or something, all that changes is the bit of information that tells the computer or the camera that the photo is there. It’s still there. It just can’t be seen anymore. So this for me was kind of the metaphor for things that we try and put out of our heads that are still there. And the reason my wife is proud of me is because I’m a photography nerd. And I would never in a million years treat photographs like this. I’d have to download them to my computer and then edit them and disseminate them into a million different places and print them out and flog them in front of people. And I think it was really a stretch for me to realize that not everyone is like this.

(Photo: Sarah Weinman)

The Bat Segundo Show #497: J. Robert Lennon II (Download MP3)

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jamiattenberg

Jami Attenberg (The Bat Segundo Show)

Jami Attenberg is most recently the author of The Middlesteins. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #172.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Dodging the slings and arrows of families.

Author: Jami Attenberg

Subjects Discussed: Chapter headings with weight listings, why Edie wasn’t the first Middlestein to emerge from the Attenberg brain, finding the structure in The Middlesteins, The Corrections, how imagining alternative universe versions of the self is helpful in creating three-dimensional characters, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, why it took so long for Attenberg to write about where she came from, the virtues of getting older, why it took nine years and four books for Attenberg to write about Judaism, the two books that Attenberg threw away, the aborted Antiheroine novel about a comic book artist, the inspirational qualities of breaking an ankle, pop-up books, the aborted Upstate novel, the problems with territorial novels, being message-oriented, attempts to get rid of bullshit, turning forty, writing a chapter in the first person plural, Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, Nick Hornby, unspoken statute of limitations concerning style, hearing fictional people gossip in the background, when agents find certain chapters to be too much of a risk, Benny’s mysterious and sudden hair loss, the long Richard chapter, how to sympathize with a bastard character, being protective of characters, leaving someone who is sick, balancing hope with hopelessness, emotional life vs. assessment, using the word “like” too much, Marilynne Robinson, when small domestic issues feel big in fiction, research into vascular surgery and Chinese cooking, exploring the unknown, asking mom for help with Yiddish, Attenberg’s new historical novel, writing a draft in four months, being a fast writer, spending too much time on a book, overthinking fiction, Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, having no idea what’s going to happen, why Paul Ryan is an evil man, the horrors of National Bohemian Beer, what people drink in Baltimore, Joseph Mitchell’s Mazie as inspirational force, getting into the head of a real person, Instant Love vs. the fictional characters that inspire Attenberg now, how much “me” a novelist needs, Attenberg’s expanding worldview, and efforts to control life.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I was curious not only about Edie’s fluctuating weight over the course of time and how time shows the perception of that, but also Benny’s hair loss. And not just because I’m bald. The fact of the matter is that you have this character. He balds all at once. Which suggests that there’s some Hapsburg-like problem within the Middlestein genotype. But I’m wondering. Was this a way to level the gender playing field in any way? Or was this a way of showing that anybody in this book could have her physicality or her place in the world just change on a dime?

Attenberg: Yes. That sounds really good.

Correspondent: (in melodramatic voice) How did it come about, Jami? (laughs)

Attenberg: I know. You always make it sound better and really important. You have a way of heightening things.

Correspondent: You’re saying you’re not important? I would disagree with that.

Attenberg: I think that Benny — I don’t know. It might be a really personal thing. Like all the men in my family, they all go bald really young.

Correspondent: All at once like that?

Attenberg: No! Not at all.

Correspondent: (laughs) I mean, it’s really one hell of a fate.

Attenberg: It’s like that psychic obvious emotional disturbance. He doesn’t really deal with things as he should in the time that he should. And he keeps things inside the family. And so that’s how it gets manifested. The hair loss. So it’s not really like a tough metaphor to get.

Correspondent: What about the long Richard chapter? This was one of my favorite parts of the book. Because he leaves Edie. And at that point, I’m thinking, “Well, this guy is a total bastard.” And then you have this long sad chapter of his efforts to date and who he gets involved with. And I then felt extremely sorry for him. And my feelings for the character changed over the course of this twenty or thirty page stretch. We were talking earlier about how a lot of the book was dictated by instinct. And I’m wondering. How much of the other side of Richard were you aware of in advance when you were working on this chapter? Or was this chapter a way for you to not view him as “Ah, this guy’s an asshole”?

Attenberg: It is a really good question that you ask. Because I actually had to write my way into feeling sympathetic for him. So you actually were with me on the journey. By the end of the book, I actually — I don’t know if I love him. But I like all of them. I was just trying to understand them all really deeply and understand all their imperfections. Again, when I say it, it just sounds so obvious and not complicated in the slightest. But people are flawed. And we need to understand why they’re flawed. And these people feel very real to me, even though I don’t know them. By the end of the book, I felt that I knew them. And I’m very protective of them actually. I’m a little terrified of any bad reviews. Like where they judge these characters. I’ll be like, “I’ll be the judge of them! Nobody else can!”

Correspondent: The books aren’t your children. The characters are your children.

Attenberg: The characters are my people. Yeah, I was trying to understand how somebody could do that. And how you could leave somebody who was sick. People do it all the time. And I know people who’ve done it. And I also know people who have gone back when they find out that people are sick. At some point, you have to be able to take care of yourself, I think.

Correspondent: But it seems to me — I’m wondering if you ever actually got a definitive answer to that question in exploring the other side of his character. Because people may leave someone who’s sick, but they may not even know why they do it.

Attenberg: I think he did the best that he could for himself. I don’t think he could be with her anymore. But it didn’t work out perfectly. But you just don’t get everything that you want. I don’t think there’s a lot of loose ends necessarily in the book. It’s not unfinished. There’s hope in it, but there’s also a little bit of hopelessness. You can’t have it all. You just can’t have all. Sorry, I’m getting strangely emotional about this. Because I haven’t talked about the book before. Not really, but I’m just…

Correspondent: I have yet to make anybody cry on this program.

Attenberg: Oh no! I’m not going to cry.

Correspondent: This is not a Mike Wallace kind of thing.

Attenberg: Because this is the first interview that I’ve done. So I haven’t really thought about this. Because so much of it is instinctual. So you don’t.

Correspondent: Where does thought apply when we’re talking about instinct? Obviously, assessing what you have done is an awkward thing for any author to do. But how does it play into the writing process? How do you assess what you have written? Or do you leave it and let it have its own emotional life?

Attenberg: No. I’m just starting to be able — by the way, I’m appalled at my use of the word “like” in this interview. I hear it like every five seconds and it’s making me crazy.

Correspondent: Do you need me to edit it out? (laughs)

Attenberg: What? Can you just do all the ums and all the likes?

Correspondent: We can just put a really strange sound where you say “like.” Auggh! Or something like that.

Attenberg: A little honking noise or something.

Correspondent: But seriously, back to this idea of, like, emotional life and analysis or assessment or intellectualizing something. I mean, does that play into any part of your writing process?

Attenberg: I’m so much more of a visceral writer than I am a cerebral writer. But I’m getting better at being a cerebral writer. Just the fact that I even thought about structure in the way that I did for this book makes me just think it actually is exciting to me. Because it’s just a step forward for me. I’m strategic. I’m getting to be more strategic. The more I read, the more I write. I treasure the fact that I’m a visceral writer. That it’s such a pure emotional — like, I’m on a quest for the emotional truth at all times. Again, everything I say sounds so pretentious. But I’m really trying so hard to be responsible to people’s emotions. Even if they’re fictional.

Correspondent: Maybe a way to answer this. Because we were talking before the tape was rolling about you reading Marilynne Robinson. And I’m wondering. What is it about her work right now that speaks to you as a writer? I mean, you mentioned that you were reading her for some future project. What do you draw from her? What do you take from her that is of value to you in evolving as a writer?

Attenberg: Well, she writes about faith. And since I’m writing a book about a character right now who’s finding faith, I was interested in that. But I think she’s someone who can just write about things that are very emotional and small and personal and domestic, I guess, but makes it feel really big. Like apocalyptic almost. I’m interested in the little moments, in making the little moments feel bigger. Am I answering this question? Sorry.

Correspondent: No, no, no, no. Don’t worry about it. Look, honestly, if you were to provide an insufficient answer, I would probably pester you. Or pester you politely. Or nudge you or what not. So in the acknowledgments, you mention your research into vascular surgery, Chinese cooking, and the magical powers of cumin and cinnamon. So I’m curious. What topics in this book required no research at all? And do you need to sometimes explore the unknown to push yourself further as a writer? Is this something that was part of the whole process of exploring faith? Getting older and so forth?

Attenberg: I mean, I had asked my mom for help on a lot of the Yiddish words. I will say that. Like I remember them from my youth. But I didn’t know when certain things were going to be appropriate. I was just talking about it. So the book that I’m working on now is a historical novel. And then The Middlesteins is more present tense, but also set in the world that I grew up in. And I visit there once a year and see a parents, who still live there. Who are still happily married and not morbidly obese. I should just clarify that. They’re not these characters. But it was whenever I stepped away from The Middlesteins — and I wrote it really fast. I wrote it in four months. The first draft was four months. Whenever I stepped away from it, I could come back to it fairly easily. Because I always knew where it was located. So little things that I had to research ended up informing it and being really delightful and helpful. But I didn’t have to do a lot of research on it. Because it felt really familiar. The book that I’m working on now is a million times harder. Because it’s set in an unfamiliar location. It’s set in an unfamiliar time. Everything about it is new. Everything has to be invented. And it’s just really hard for me to put myself in the room. That said, once I get there, it’s a really wonderful place to be.

Correspondent: Everything has to be invented? I mean, there’s a lot of documentation for a particular time.

Attenberg: Yeah. But it doesn’t feel like anything familiar to me for some reason. Yeah, I mean, I could look at pictures of things.

Correspondent: So you need a certain amount of familiarity with any kind of novel.

Attenberg: For it to go like super fast. Yes. I don’t need it. But it was certainly much more helpful. Like I admit. I think this book is going to take me a year to write for a first draft. Like it’s hard for me to imagine just flying through it. But I love it. I love it. I’m like very struck by the character. The narrator. And it’s fun to write first person. I haven’t done it in a while. But The Middlesteins was, I don’t want to say it was an easy book. That’s not true. Because I really thought very deeply about things. But it came out of me very easily.

Correspondent: How important, do you think, is it to maintain a certain amount of speed? Do you have any frustrations of any part of the process going slower than the norm? Or anything like that?

Attenberg: No.

Correspondent: Do you accept the pace that it is?

Attenberg: Yeah. I have always been a really fast writer. I think it’s because I have a background maybe in advertising. Or I’m a fast thinker. Or whatever. But I’m learning that it’s good to slow it down. I’m learning that your senses — like, I think you can spend too much time on a book. I actually do believe that. Because I know people who overwrite. And I’m like, “You know what? Sometimes somebody just walks across the room.” It’s totally fine for them to just walk across the room and not experience eight emotions while they do it. And you don’t need to know how their foot fell on the floor. Sometimes you just have to get that character across the room. So I think that you can overthink things. But I’m pretty into just getting to the heart of the matter. Getting to the story.

Correspondent: When was the last time you overthought any piece of fiction that you were working on?

Attenberg: I’m overthinking it right now a little bit. I have to admit. I usually write 1,000 words a day. And I’m doing 500 words a day. And it’s like pulling teeth. Even though I love it. I love writing. And I love this book. It’s because it’s inspired by a real person, I think. That’s part of it. And I want to be respectful of her. Even though I never met her. She died before I was born. Twenty years before I was born. And I don’t know very much about her.

Correspondent: Do you fear knowing too much about her?

Attenberg: Oh yeah. I mean, it’s inspired by one of the characters in Up in the Old Hotel. Did you ever read that?

Correspondent: No, I haven’t.

Attenberg: It’s by Joseph Mitchell. Oh, you have to read it! You have to!

Correspondent: I have not read Joseph Mitchell. I know. I know.

Attenberg: Oh my god! YOU have to.

Correspondent: I know. There are gaps, I’m afraid.

Attenberg: And also because it’s reported. And you’re somebody who reports. Oh yeah. It’s totally for you.

Correspondent: I know. I know.

Attenberg: Maybe you’re afraid to read it. Are you afraid?

Correspondent: No! I just…I’ve never gotten around to it! I read a lot!

Attenberg: It’s so good.

Correspondent: I read like 200 books a year or something. So…

Attenberg: I think it’s important for you to read it.

Correspondent: I know. Other people have told me this.

Attenberg: The next interview.

Correspondent: I will read it next year. How about that?

Attenberg: Promise? Alright. I want to hear how much you love it. So anyway, that was one of the characters in the book. She — see, I’m almost more excited talking about the book that I’m working on now…

Correspondent: Sure! We can do that.

Attenberg: …than The Middlesteins. Not because I’m not excited about it, but it’s in such a no man’s land. Because I don’t know when you’re going to put this on the Internet. But I have two and a half months left to go until the book comes out. As of right now.

Correspondent: It’s going to go up in two and a half months.

Attenberg: So it’s going to go up in two and a half. So right now, I have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s August in New York. The publishing industry is dead. Everyone’s like on vacation somewhere.

Correspondent: We don’t even know what’s going to happen politically.

Attenberg: Politically.

Correspondent: Ryan has just been announced as VP. So for those who would like to travel in time with us. (laughs)

Attenberg: I know! It’s freaking me out.

Correspondent: Because what else is going to happen? This has been a crazy cataclysmic year, news wise.

Attenberg: I don’t even have anything to say about Ryan. Because I’m really stunned by the whole thing. Like he’s like a horrible evil man! He’s a terrible person.

Correspondent: I should point out that, when you said “horrible evil man,” you had this huge, huge smile on your face and this great delight and glee in your eyes. Just to be clear on this. (laughs)

Attenberg: (laughs) He’s just like the worst human being ever. And it’s interesting to read all the coverage today.

Correspondent: Oh man! What if something happens to Ryan in the next two and a half months? And this goes on. And we’ve been talking about him. And we’ve called him a horrible evil man. And it’s actually proved. And he’s disgraced or something. And then Romney has to choose another VP candidate.

Attenberg: There’s not going to be any disgrace. This man is a robot.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Attenberg: He’s such an evil robot! He’s been living a perfect unassailable life since he was like born basically. He’s like Satan’s spawn! I mean, I think he’s really been sent here to destroy all of us. I think. God, and the glee from all the commentators. They’re losing their minds over this. Because he’s so evil. Gosh, anyway…

Correspondent: Okay. I have a very important question. Probably the most important question I will ask you. And that involves National Bohemian Beer. It’s a rather notorious Baltimore specialty.

Attenberg: Yes.

Correspondent: Fifteen years, you could not even get this in draft. And they only recently put in kegs. In 2011. So I’m curious if Kenneth’s adventures late in the book was a way to atone for any notorious carousing experiences in the Baltimore area that you might have had. To exact retribution, perhaps, on the Pabst Brewing Company.

Attenberg: (laughs) No! I was just thinking about Baltimore. Because that’s where I went to college. But I’m really surprised that you know so much about this. How do you know so much about this? Or you from there?

Correspondent: I’ve been to Baltimore a few times, but, no, I just know this.

Attenberg: You just researched this.

Correspondent: National Bohemian is a terrible beer. And it’s only a Baltimore beer.

Attenberg: Natty Boh. That’s what we used to call it in college. Because he lived in Baltimore. That was the beer that you drink in vast quantities. Whether you wanted to or not.

(Photo: Jesse Chan-Norris)

The Bat Segundo Show #494: Jami Attenberg (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

anonymous

Cole Stryker (The Bat Segundo Show)

Cole Stryker is most recently the author of Hacking the Future.

Play

(PROGRAM NOTE: This episode’s introduction contains the first appearance of Jorge and Mr. Segundo in two years. As The Bat Segundo Show winds down, we will do our best to resolve numerous plot threads that were established years before in these introductions.)

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Revealing his new vocation and discovering unanticipated maturity.

Author: Cole Stryker

Subjects Discussed: Whether thinking people should pay attention to web culture, generational cycles and inevitable evolution, whether Pastebin and text files represent the future of the info leak economy, why people have no awareness of how vulnerable their personal data is, the increasing need for certain hackers to gloat or impress people, attempts to distinguish between different strands of Anonymous, 4chan and the Occupy label, hacking PBS, how one should understand Anonymous and the difficulties of investigating a group that doesn’t wish to be understood, political ethos, Fight Club, the inevitable trajectories of ideological groups, Steve Wozniak, hacktivists who started out as pranksters, the V for Vendetta aesthetic, attempting to pinpoint Anonymous’s ethos, the importance of preserving anonymous free speech, vicious Internet bullying, Jessi Slaughter, the question of seeking restitution against anonymous bullies, government and editorial control, government regulation vs. community management, when self-policing doesn’t work, Danah Boyd’s views on cyberbullying, Pew’s investigations into bullying, Megan Meier’s suicide, how the misnomer “backtracing” was appropriated, online harassment, online blackout protests of SOPA, Steam’s recent class action waiver, Firefox’s “do not track” feature, Facebook’s data collection, photo recognition tools like Orbeus which scan all details of a photo to determine user taste and patterns, not being able to encrypt our faces, the hacker Sabu’s transformation into an FBI informant, the difficulties of sorting out multiple online identities, the lifespan of the darknet, Bitcoin, and the next iterations of Anonymous and hacktivism.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I read both of your books. And in Epic Win for Anonymous, you describe web culture as “something so self-referential as to become virtually incomprehensible to those who do not live inside it.” You then point out in that same section how finding out about one cultural reference causes you to look up two additional ones that may have some meaning to that initial reference. And then, of course, you write that “it’s a skill that only today’s younger generation is equipped to grasp.” Larger issues, such as the Arab Spring and Wikileaks, that you mention in this book — this is sometimes aligned with Anonymous. But if the default icon is something like Nyan Cat or Pedobear, how can the present online generation be expected to understand, oh say, nuance of social issues? What’s the incentive for any thinking person over the age of 30 to get on board the online culture you so championed in the first book?

Stryker: Well, I think that the culture specifically to me is interesting because of the way that it enables everyone to be a producer, in addition to a consumer. And I think that the older generation can get a foothold by looking at sites like Know Your Meme, for instance. It’s a place where a lot of these memes are explained. And I don’t know. You kind of had a couple of different questions in there.

Correspondent: I tend to do that. Yeah.

Stryker: I guess one of them is how do older people understand what this is all about.

Correspondent: Or why should they?

Stryker: Or why should they? I think it’s important because this is the future of culture. I think that participatory mimetic culture is going to replace eventually mass produced entertainment within the next twenty years. I think that it’s becoming increasingly more difficult for companies to make money by producing big budget pieces of entertainment and it’s becoming increasingly cheap for fourteen-year-olds in basements to create compelling entertainment content. And not just entertainment, but informative content as well. So I think that we’re looking at the future. And if you don’t try to wrap your head around it now, you’re going to be left behind.

Correspondent: Well, on the other hand, one can also argue that there will be another generation that you will experience. A younger generation who will be faster, who will think smarter, who will have their own memes, who will have their own forms of communication, and you will be just as befuddled as, I suppose, the older web user who is perhaps only looking through Google News, maybe Reddit if we’re lucky. You’ll fall in the same situation. I mean, is this an inevitable cycle? Why does anybody have to get hooked onto memes? Why do you have to constantly check Know Your Meme when, in fact, there are greater issues like, say, Syria and so forth?

Stryker: Well, I think, to answer one question, it’s very likely that I will one day feel out of touch. It’s almost inevitable. However, I think that there’s a difference between my generation and my parent’s generation, for instance, in that I was born in the computer age when I grew up learning how to master systems. Whereas if my parents get a new DVD player, because the buttons are placed in differently, they don’t know how to approach that system. Whereas my mind is wired to instantly learn the inner workings and try and figure out, like, okay, what’s different? Where are the buttons located? How is this different from what I knew before? And my parents just look at it. And they’re like, “Well, this is just alien technology. I can’t get my head around it.” So I think that’s a crucial difference between my generation and my parents’. But yeah, who knows what technology will come into play in the future that will make me feel just as out of touch as they do?

Correspondent: But why should the generation be dictated by what your mind sees? Isn’t that a bit solipsistic? Maybe we can define territory here. Are you saying you’re the representation of your generation? Are we overstating things a little bit here?

Stryker: Perhaps. Although I look at young children who have been born in the last five years, and I think it was in a book by Clay Shirky. He was writing about his friend’s toddler, who was trying to figure out where the mouse for the TV was by fiddling with the wires. Just assuming that everything was interactive. And I think that that’s sort of an evolution of our ways of thinking. That everyone is going to be able to interact with everything in that way.

Correspondent: So you basically accept the inevitable. That infamous video which is probably a more damning depiction of what you’re describing, of the baby sliding the fingers along the magazine, where the self-righteous parent is saying, “See, there’s no need for paper.” That, you say, is an inevitable evolution? That we’re all going to have to deal with? Including bookish people like me?

Stryker: I mean, I don’t use a Kindle myself.

Correspondent: Ah! Traitor!

Stryker: But I think it’s silly to think that things aren’t moving inexorably in that direction towards digital.

Correspondent: So just the other day, AntiSec, they stole one million Apple unique IDs from an FBI laptop. They uploaded it onto Pastebin.

Stryker: Allegedly.

Correspondent: Allegedly. They uploaded it onto Pastebin, which, of course, you write about in this book [Hacking the Future]. You state in the book that “Pastebin might indeed be the future of the info leak economy.” How much of today’s hacking would you say is rooted, if you’ll pardon the pun, around text culture or text files? Scarlett Johansson also discovered that she was not immune to this. What extent does our commonplace reliance upon, say, mobile devices — does this create an even more insecure online identity? I mean, what’s the status here?

Stryker: Absolutely. Well, I think — and Steve Wozniak recently spoke about this — the biggest threat to security right now is the fact that we’re putting everything in the cloud. So your information is no longer secure on a hard drive in your bedroom. It is now on a server farm somewhere. And now, if a hacker can get into that system, they immediately have access to millions of people’s, for instance, credit card numbers or home addresses — depending upon how many layers they’re able to penetrate of the security. So I think that, yes, this is going to be something that we’re going to have to wrestle with over the next few years. This disparity between what they expect from our technology and what it’s able to offer in terms of security.

Correspondent: Or hacking the very networks that people play their games on and so forth. Why aren’t people really aware of the fact that so much of their information is so readily hackable or even readily disseminating through third parties that Facebook uses? And so forth. Is there just no awareness? Is the generation that we were describing before, as represented by you — do they just not care about this distinction?

Stryker: Well, I think there’s a couple reasons. One is that, up until recently, hackers weren’t necessarily prone to publicizing their victories the way they are now. Anonymous especially brought about this age of the gloating hacker on Twitter. Prior to that, they would gloat in their little IRC channels and stuff. But it wasn’t meant for public consumption: (a) because they didn’t want to get arrested and any sort of publicity would only make it easier for the feds to track them down and (b) because they weren’t interested in impressing anyone that wasn’t just as skilled as they are.

Correspondent: Why did they feel the need to start impressing other people? Or putting a public face? Or are we talking about factions and sectarianism?

Stryker: I think it’s both. I think, speaking about Anonymous specifically, a lot of it’s hubris. Younger hackers that manage to pull something off — they might not necessarily have the ability of one of these autistic geniuses somewhere who’s bringing down some huge corporation and no one ever hears about it. They bring down cia.gov, which is just a public facing website with no actual information on it worth stealing, and suddenly they’re on Twitter and speaking to millions about how they just achieved this epic victory.

Correspondent: Why do they feel the need to gloat? Is this a byproduct of like culture? Is this a byproduct of having to ratchet up the great hacking achievements over the years? Is this the more wired world with mobile devices and everything else?

Stryker: I think you might be right about the like culture thing. Never before have so many people been able to receive a communique of that nature. If you had a hacking victory that you wanted to brag about, you could go on a message board and the thousand people who attend that message board might see it and then maybe it might get picked up by a blog. Now you have stuff like Facebook and Twitter that enables a massive audience to be galvanized around something like this. And for Anonymous, it’s not just about the gloating. It’s about getting people excited and hopefully wanting to participate.

Correspondent: Maybe you can delineate between how Anonymous operates through 4chan and how it operates through Twitter. It would seem to me that one, of course, dictated by internal rules is more likely to fit in with the prototypical hacker. The hacker culture that we perhaps celebrated in the ’80s and the ’90s, the autistic geniuses that you suggest vs. Twitter, which is based around following and so forth. How are the two different? Do the two get along? Maybe you can go into that a little bit.

Stryker: Well, there’s a lot of, I would say, condescension from these old time classical hackers, if you will, towards the pranksters and Anonymous because a lot of Anonymous’s attacks don’t require a hell of a lot of technical knowledge.

Correspondent: Script kiddies basically.

Stryker: Right. And also because they are often very principled people who don’t find the gloating and the lingo to be very cool. So I think that, even if they were to agree with their political aims of whether it’s somehow anti-capitalism or protesting tyranny in the Middle East, they feel that Anonymous probably does more harm to the cause than good.

Correspondent: But doesn’t Anonymous function more or less like the Occupy label? It’s an amorphous title that everyone can get behind and everyone can find some kind of inclusion, perhaps not specific inclusion but inclusion nonetheless. So that we’re all in this together. Or if someone happens to be on an IRC channel or so forth. Or Pastebin, the attack on PBS that you mention. What motivates this? Is it an amorphous identity that allows them to operate in the same collective function?

Stryker: I think the Anonymous ideology is just solidified enough or just unified enough to provide people with just a lowest common denominator sense of solidarity. But beyond that, it means all things to all people. And this is Anonymous’s greatest strength and greatest flaw in my opinion. Because anybody can take charge and say that they’re going to go off and kill Facebook, for instance. And obviously nobody’s ever going to accomplish that. And all the other members of Anonymous say, “Well this isn’t the authentic Anonymous. This is some rogue group or some jackass.” So, yeah, we talked about sectarianism. And even within Anonymous itself, there’s hundreds of different opposing views and goals.

Correspondent: Yet there are common rules in a forum such as 4chan. And mainstream media is often easily fooled, often to ridiculing effect from the 4chan community. The Oprah exposé on Anonymous and so forth. Is there more of an understanding by the mainstream media now that you would say? Than a couple of years? I mean, you yourself put yourself on the line with the first book and were, in fact, heckled and harassed by 4chan. Maybe you’re just as part of the problem as Oprah is. What do we do to understand this? How do we understand a group of people who really don’t want to be understood?

Stryker: I still, even a year later, after releasing that first book, I still get contacted randomly by trolls who hate my guts and write nasty reviews on Amazon. I think that part of is that they simply just don’t like people talking about their secret club, even though I felt like I was rather sympathetic to their cause in both books. I think that specifically the 4chan bred version of Anonymous is more trollish in nature and really doesn’t care about political ideology. And they exist simply to mess with people and generate tons of controversy. And I think that the latter group of politically minded Anonymous is more interested in what I’m doing, in discussing these issues, and they don’t really have a problem with me. It’s the complete nihilists.

Correspondent: The ones who are in it for the lulz.

Stryker: Yeah. Exactly.

Correspondent: But isn’t that also a part of the political ethos as well? I mean, you can’t just take one away from the other, can you?

Stryker: I think there’s a little bit of lulz in even the most politically minded Anons. Like even the ones who are trying to bring down these entrenched corporate powers. There’s certainly at least an aesthetic of lulz, where they’re using the lingo and they’re gloating and basically using the same terminology that they would use if they had just killed a guy in Halo or some other video game regarding a federal agent.

Correspondent: Getting pwned and all that.

Stryker: Yeah. So that’s definitely there as an aesthetic. But the specific — I compare it to Tyler Durden, the character of Tyler Durden in Fight Club, who is just this completely — you know, all he cares about is fucking shit up essentially. Those are the ones that — they intrigue me and kind of terrify me at the same time. Because you wonder if they’re living this double life and in real life they’re not like that. And I would assume that that’s the case for many of them. That this is just an outlet for them to express the id. But I’m sure there are also some genuine psychopaths that call themselves Anonymous.

Correspondent: Okay. So if we’re talking about a group that is guided by aesthetic, the most prominent aesthetic of course is the V for Vendetta mask, what then would you say is their ultimate ethos? Which is probably what people would want to know if we were to acknowledge them as a legitimate group. I mean, are they more driven by lexical keywords, mashing things up into memes, and constantly perpetuating meme after meme after meme? How do you get distinguish between that and whatever sort of political ethos they stand for? Or whatever good that they do?

Stryker: I mean, I distinguish it in the book by using capital A when I refer to the politically minded group and a lowercase a when referring to just random trolls. You can try to synthesize them. But I think it makes more sense to almost consider them as two completely different groups. When they began, they were one and the same. When it was all anti-Scientology. Over time, the more politically minded members of Anonymous have grown increasingly humorless and more passionate, and they use lingo from like the ’60s’s counterculture. Like “Don’t lose heart, my brothers” and things like that. The more trollish anons would look at that and say, “You’ve got to be kidding me. This is what we’ve turned into?” They’re for pure chaos and any political goal is, to them, ridiculous.

Correspondent: But isn’t that the iteration of any countercultural hacking movement that we’ve seen? Where people grow more sour as they grow up, as they have kids or turn more libertarian sometimes. We saw that in the ’80s, if you hung around in USENET and checked out some of that. Or looked through the archives. What was once a very fresh countercultural movement became quickly driven towards money, towards entrepreneurship, towards that sort of thing. And then of course the initial enthusiasm that motivated the movement in the first place — I mean, isn’t this the function of all ideological groups? How does Anonymous, whether capital A or small a, differ from activists that came from before?

Stryker: Well, I think that earlier hacktivists were not bred in this mimetic culture. I mean, 4chan is a pretty unique place. There were places like it that existed before, but not at the same magnitude of just constantly churning weirdness. And most hacktivists don’t come into hacktivism from a desire to have fun. Or at least previously to Anonymous. I would think that a lot of politically minded hackers came to that way of life through a desire to achieve political change or to disrupt powerful entities. Not to just goof off.

Correspondent: Not predicated on blue boxing? Or pulling pranks? Any of the number of things that Steve Wozniak outlines in his book.

Stryker: But I don’t think they would ever call themselves hacktivists. I mean, even Steve Jobs did it as well. But I think that’s separate. I think Anonymous is a convergence of both of those. I think that it’s a natural evolution.

Correspondent: So it’s a natural evolution to go from prank-driven hacker in it for the lulz to hacktivist if you stick around in it too much? What’s the trajectory you’re describing here?

Stryker: I think that — it’s hard to say whether Anonymous has grown less prankish over the last few years or if simply that the more political oriented actions of Anonymous are the ones that are getting all the press. There’s still that chaotic — I mean, I know people that — you still hear these stories about teenage girls that are getting harassed online and people getting doxed, which is when all their personal identifying information gets leaked to the Web. That still happens all the time. And I think it will continue to go on as long as people are able to do that. But I think that the more politically minded stuff is what gets the press attention. So it looks like Anonymous is morphing into more of a political beast when that might not necessarily be the case. They just have the loudest voices.

The Bat Segundo Show #487: Cole Stryker (Download MP3)

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A.M. Homes (The Bat Segundo Show)

A.M. Homes is most recently the author of May We Be Forgiven. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #58 and The Bat Segundo Show #115.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Seeing if there’s anyone left to forgive him.

Author: A.M. Homes

Subjects Discussed: May We Be Forgiven as an update to White Noise, Nixon as a replacement for the Holocaust, Don DeLillo’s influence, Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon, David Greenberg’s Nixon’s Shadow, the evolution of televised presidential debates, growing up with Nixon as the first President on one’s consciousness, how personal commentary has replaced professional commentary, references to David Lynch in May We Be Forgiven, This Book Will Save Your Life, families as an inevitable narrative solution, how a series of calamities unexpectedly transformed into dimensional character, the picaresque qualities of The Adventures of Augie March, knowing when a protagonist has a path, turning uninteresting lumps into vivid people, Paul Slovak’s input as editor, being asked to add material to the manuscript, finding hope and battling literature, including vaguely surreal qualities that are real, the South African bar mitzvah as cultural triangulation, being taught by Grace Paley, taking Yaddo people of all ages to play Laser Tag, John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” Blake Bailey, Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, the hunger for lost communication, media and narrative in relation to existence, fashioning a narrative based off quotidian minutiae, Instagram, how American fiction responds to the predicament of snapshot-based life, men who write big books, assumptions about women writing domestic novels, George’s homicidal impulses, unusual psychiatric institutions within May We Be Forgiven, when a novel adopts a hostile stance to therapy, Homes’s enrollment in a prison survival class, Erving Goffman’s Asylums, having a lifelong fear of ending up in jail, the burdens of being an outsider, how outsiders become insiders, Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, why even outsiders even needed to be rooted, balancing being an insider with being an outsider, the responsibilities of being a Girl Scout leader, when trying to be like other people doesn’t come naturally, operating within a system, growing up in an upper middle class suburb, having socialist parents, lunatics who believe in rational conversation, simple anti-Thanksgiving food contained within May We Be Forgiven, fish sticks, Nixon and China, the dangers of stereotypical Chinese characters, George Shima*, working the cultural and the psychological fiction angles rather than the socioeconomic ones, Chinese manufacturing, the women who are attracted to Harry Silver, whether empathy gives promiscuity a distinction, the inevitability of family history, Homes being judgmental to her characters, how viewpoints change with age, pretending that you don’t have a family, and when parents interfere within telephone calls at inopportune moments.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You’ve got this guy named Harry Silver. He’s a Nixon Studies scholar. And this, together with a homeless version of Don DeLillo who crops up in the book, suggests a deep connection to, of course, White Noise. And I wanted to ask you about this. To what extent would you say this novel serves almost as an update to White Noise? And has Nixon replaced the Holocaust as the go-to reflective tragedy in American life?

Homes: That’s a very enormous and large and interesting question. Did you say a homeless DeLillo?

Correspondent: Well, he’s like a homeless DeLillo. He’s a ragged DeLillo in the book.

Homes: Well, he’s not homeless.

Correspondent: Well…

Homes: He’s a wandering DeLillo.

Correspondent: A wandering DeLillo. All right. A vagabondish DeLillo.

Homes: In fact, in my mind, I’m stressing that. Because I thinking that the novel takes place quite near where DeLillo lives in reality. So I’m sure that he’s well housed.

Correspondent: Is DeLillo apprised of your narrative tinkering here?

Homes: I’m not sure.

Correspondent: Along with David Remnick and all the others. Lynne Tillman even shows up.

Homes: I think they’re dimly aware and soon will be more aware.

Correspondent: They certainly will be very soon. But anyway, White Noise.

Homes: The bigger question.

Correspondent: Nixon. Holocaust.

Homes: Right. You know it’s funny. I hadn’t thought about it directly in relation to White Noise, which I think conceptually or philosophically in terms of how I think of as a writer. Clearly, DeLillo is a huge influence. And it’s funny. You know how — I think it is in White Noise — there’s the big airborne incident? Which if you go back to Music for Torching, there’s that thing where they close off the house with the hazmat and all that stuff. It definitely comes out of that. But I think for me, the thing about DeLillo that’s so interesting — especially increasingly — is his ability to blend fact and fiction, and to combine the exploration of fact through the use of fictional characters. Like in Libra and in White Noise and in the last novel and in Underworld. So that definitely is a touchstone for me. I think the thing’s that interesting about Nixon as the defining American tragedy in some ways…

Correspondent: The only one people can remember.

Homes: Well, exactly. The only one that people can remember. But you know, what caught me off guard was that this year, Ann Beattie published the book Mrs. Nixon, which is very much a literary response not only to Mrs. Nixon, but to her own kind of evolution as a writer and a thinker. And I think that that book was in many ways was underreviewed or inappropriately reviewed or taken too much along the lines by Nixon scholars as being about Nixon and not enough as a literary exploration. But then also Tom Mallon wrote this book called Watergate: A Novel. So I think it’s odd that all of a sudden, without having spoken to each other, three people are launching Nixon-related fiction in a given year, which I think says that, yes, there is something about Nixon that is in some ways unresolved and that is representative of a classic American tragedy.

Correspondent: Well, I have to ask. How much research into Nixon did you do? Because I thought immediately of David Greenberg’s book, Nixon’s Shadow.

Homes: I don’t think I know that one.

Correspondent: Oh! It’s a really wonderful book that’s all about Nixon’s image. And I had developed this theory in my own head that you had actually read that book and said, “Well, I’ll make the brother a television executive.” Of course, if you look at Nixon from a purely straight standpoint, it was television that he learned to understand and therefore learned to master and become who he was.

Homes: It was also television that initially also undid him in the public eye.

Correspondent: Exactly. Unless, of course, you closed your eyes and listened to it on radio.

Homes: Well, right. So I wrote the other day this piece for one of the newspapers in England that talks about how after the Nixon/Kennedy debate, the people who heard it on radio thought that Nixon had won and the people who’d seen it on TV thought Kennedy had won. And that was the first ever, for TV, debate. But curiously after that, Nixon refused to debate again. So there was no debate. Then LBJ, also intimidated by it, refused to debate. It wasn’t until Gerald Ford in ’76 that the debates came back. And I think what’s so interesting is, we see right now in looking at the televised convention, we all know in a way how much the media plays a role in it. But the other piece we don’t even get to evaluate is how much the guy in the media truck plays a role in it. Because it’s also a lot about how that producer’s shots of the audience or what he cuts to or how they literally frame and deliver it to us. We’re not thinking about the choices that are made for us and that guide us in lots of ways that we don’t realize. So I find that all very interesting. For me, Nixon, weirdly, is a childhood thing. I grew up just at the edge of Washington DC and Nixon was the first President of my consciousness. And we took these class field trips to see Nixon greet the leader of France and things, and we’d be playing on the White House lawn while Nixon’s up there speaking. Because what did we know? Nothing. We were little, little kids. And we always used to see the Nixon girls in the shoe department at Saks, which funnily enough, Ann Beattie writes about the shoe department at Woodward & Lothrop was the opposite store from Saks in that neighborhood called Friendship Heights, just at the edge of Washington. It’s also things like I was at summer camp when Nixon resigned. In the South. And I remember this one counselor saying something like “I bet my mom was having a heart attack.” And I remember thinking, “That’s so odd. Because in Georgetown, I’m sure they’re having a party.” So just beginning to realize that the President wasn’t just the mayor of a town, but this much larger figure. So Nixon really for me evolved as part of my growing up, but also, curiously, there’s still more and more information about Nixon and Nixon’s presidency being unveiled. Which we don’t have usually to that degree of a President.

Correspondent: But there’s also this intriguing idea that you present in your book that I actually thought of last night in relation to the Democratic National Convention and watching Obama speak — last night would be when we are recording this. This is the first series of political conventions where now you’re required to participate in the commentary. On Twitter. I was tweeting up a storm. So was everybody else. And it’s a rather fascinating idea that, instead of actually studying or trusting other people to comment upon the actions, we are the ones who actually filter it. And people now seem to be watching CSPAN. They don’t necessarily trust the news. I mention this because, in light of what your book has to say about narrative — I want to get into this too. So little time. I’ll do my best. So you have at least three references to David Lynch in this book. You have the tied cherry stems. You have “blue velvet curtains.” You have a missing girl who shows up later, which is very reminiscent of Laura Palmer. And I said to myself, “Hmmm. Well, isn’t this interesting?” And isn’t it also interesting that you even have a firm show up. Herzog, Henderson & March. Which of course has us going back to Bellow. And, of course, you mentioned DeLillo earlier. What is the degree that narrative now plays in our life if we’re constantly commentating? Does fiction even have a place for reflection anymore? Or do we now have to, as you have with this book quite wonderfully, stuff our novels with commentary on all sorts of things so that people can commentate further? What of this?

Homes: You know, it’s a good question. And in many ways, I don’t actually know the answer. I mean, I think the idea of “Does fiction have a place?” is an important one. And I think people really don’t know anymore what the difference between fiction and nonfiction is. And often they’ll say, “So you wrote a fictional novel?” And I’m thinking, “That’s right.” Or they’ll say, “Is it all true?” And you think, “Well, it’s a novel.” So it’s very difficult. And I’m not sure that there is a sense of what the role of the novel is. It’s kind of in culture at this point. And it would be curious to actually try to think about what the evolution of that is. We’ve kind of lost that. Is it a result of the memoir? The idea that everything has to be a real thing. Reality TV. The impact of all these things. Have we moved away from an imagination? And my sense is that in many ways — I mean, I see this when I teach — people have forgotten what the imagination is and how to use it. It’s as though there’s not any trust in the idea of being able to make something that wasn’t there before, as though that’s too magical an idea, or how to use fiction and story to weave something together that is a heightened version of an unreal thing that is incredibly reflective of real experience in some way.

Correspondent: Well, I’m going to quote from This Book Will Save Your Life. You have the voiceover of the disaster film. “What you are about to see is a work of fiction. It has not yet happened and yet each of the elements represented are real. It was written using everything I know about the state of the world we live in, which means it’s coming soon.” So here we have in May We Be Forgiven, this notion of “coming soon.” Each of the elements are represented as real. I’m curious if this was in fact a problem in writing the book. Because the first half of the book has Harry engaged in one calamity after another. It’s this heap of abuse and he carries through. But then something rather interesting happens halfway through. Families are formed. Families are formed in the strangest of places. And every amount of narrative that you can actually heap upon Harry, going back to this idea of “coming soon,” well, it’s simply not enough for him to live as a character, as a human. So I’m wondering how this dilemma afflicted you during the writing of this and how this was your response. The idea of family, the idea of finding other people and creating this interesting snowball effect. So by the end, we have all these people in the house and so forth.

Homes: Right. That’s a good question. I’m not sure exactly what the question is. But I think the thing that was interesting for me is that this, in many ways, started as a short story. Not in many ways. It did start as a short story. So I feel like if you cause a tragic injury in the beginning, you have to raise the stakes. Because where do you go from there? On Page 20, there’s this gigantic upsetting incident. So part of it was that. And also the interesting thing for me as a writer was, early on, my difficulty with Harry was that I was writing about somebody who didn’t know himself. And it’s very hard to be led by a person who doesn’t know where they’re going. So I think as Harry began to unfold as a person, to himself actually, he became more of a character. A more open character to me as a writer. If that makes any sense. Because only by coming to some understanding of who he is and what’s happening to him is he then able to make the connections. And the connections are family and to build this family. And that’s both what slows him down and what begins to kind of ground it. And then you’re not rolling from calamity to calamity. And I think it’s very true of our lives as well. That we often live in reaction to things and things happen to us. And it’s very hard sometimes to get enough — I don’t know what you call it — traction to slow it down, to make choices or to take action or to not just be responding.

The Bat Segundo Show #486: A.M. Homes III (Download MP3)

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* — At the 36:29 mark, during an impromptu moment, Our Correspondent mistakenly referred to “Joe Shima” when he meant to refer to George Shima. George Shima was known as the Potato King of California and his story deserves more than the rushed reference offered by Our Correspondent. When the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — one of the most diabolically racist acts of legislation in our nation’s history — restricted Chinese laborers in the States, including those who had just come across the Pacific to work on the transcontinental railroad, several Japanese came across and took their place because of the domestic labor shortage. George Shima became a self-made millionaire. Our Correspondent suggested that Shima had fought the Chinese Exclusion Act, when he really fought against the California Alien Land Law years later (which restricted Asians from owning land), although he was quite vocal about many of the discriminatory laws during the line. Much of this is documented in Kevin Starr’s excellent volumes of California history. And if you would like to learn more about George Shima, there’s a good article here (PDF).

stevestern

Steve Stern (The Bat Segundo Show)

Steve Stern is most recently the author of The Book of Mischief.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why they’re playing the bagpipes.

Author: Steve Stern

Subjects Discussed: Playing bagpipes for the dead, the relationship between Jewish identity and the phantasmagorical in Stern’s fiction, growing up without Jewish identity, being an oral historian in Memphis, Beale Street culture, becoming an ethnic heritage director by accident, hippies and Jewish magic, learning about culture almost exclusively from books, finding moral heft within the fantastical, the pedestrian vs. the imagination, the human possibilities that arise from distinguishing between two worlds, paradoxical success, balancing present-day comic calamities vs. past heritage within The Frozen Rabbi, how the brain is affected by coffee, authors who suffer from impostor syndrome, Bernard Malamud’s “Man in the Drawer,” living in books more than living in life, misfits and outsiders defined by heritage, entering the zone of the collective dreamife by climbing a tree, juxtaposing human faith against religious faith through observation, the ambivalence of wanting to make connections and not being able to fit within a community, recurring disembodied characters within Stern’s stories, not writing for the drawer, dealing with a very limited reading audience, varying notions of “being an entertainer,” saturating a story with Yiddish words and ethnic identity and why the American fiction landscape is hostile to this, Stern’s fictional descriptions of The Pinch in Memphis, Stern being bitten by Tova Mirvis’s mother, comparisons between Steve Stern and Saul Bozoff in “The Wedding Jester,” Bozoff as Stern’s Zuckerman, being sued for a quarter million dollars because of mischievous fictional representation, the dark side of Steve Stern, getting vengeance through the use of Elvis Presley, “The Man Who Would Be Kafka,” how stories are vulnerable to interpretation, changing the rules vs. respecting folklore, legendary Jewish jesters, Kafka’s “Above the Law,” “Legend of the Lost,” pondering an existence without a soul or empathy, why Stern’s new stories are darker than the old ones, connecting with a spiritual dimension, and paradoxical parables.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: We are outside a place that is playing bagpipes for someone who we believe is dead. Steve, how are you doing? You’re quite alive, I see.

Stern: Well, I’ve got one and a half feet in the grave with me.

Correspondent: Oh really?

Stern: I don’t know. I’m a very lively undead author.

Correspondent: (laughs) Who deals with the dead quite a bit. The Frozen Rabbi. Well, at least it’s frozen there. It seems to be the ultimate metaphor for this.

Stern: My characters tend not to stay dead.

Correspondent: Despite your best efforts. Well, let’s talk about some of the qualities of your work. One intriguing quality about your fiction is the way in which you have this idea of being Jewish aligned with these fantastical elements. In The Frozen Rabbi, you have this kid named Bernie. He’s constantly having to remind himself of his faith. Because he has this thawed out rabbi that he has to deal with, even as the rabbi becomes more craven and commercial as we learn more about his existence and we go back to the past. And then a story like “Avigdor of the Apes” sees its title character transform as he reads the secular, decidedly secular Edgar Rice Burroughs. You have “Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven,” which takes much of its influence from the story of the golem, as well as this premise of the stubborn father-in-law, who, like we’re talking about here, refuses to die. So I’m wondering. When you come up with a fantastical element for a story, are you thinking in terms of Jewish identity? Or does the Jewish identity tend to come along the more you think about the story? Or the more you tend to write about it? How important is it for that fantastical element to work on some moral or thematic level?

Stern: You want the long answer or the short answer?

Correspondent: Feel free to be as long-winded as you like on this program.

Stern: Well, the truth is that I grew up with virtually no Jewish identity. I was raised in a Reform synagogue in Memphis in the ’50s and ’60s, during a time when the Jews in the South were trying their best to be invisible. So Reform Judaism was a lot like Lutheranism, I think, in those days. The rabbi wore ecclesiastical robes. He had choirs and robes, a pipe organ, very little Hebrew in the liturgy. So I pretty much was confirmed, not bar mitzvahed, and then walked away from it virtually untouched by heritage or tradition.

Correspondent: What kind of reading of Jewishness did you do during this time?

Stern: None.

Correspondent: None whatsoever?

Stern: Absolutely none.

Correspondent: Not even a scrap of the Torah here and there?

Stern: No. In fact, I wasn’t sure that the Torah and the Bible were the same thing. So, yeah, I was — if an orthodox anything, it was a hippie for years with the kind of counterculture life. Always was a reader. So I certainly read Bellow, Roth, and Malamud, and came, I think, to more traditional Jewish work — Yiddish books in translation — through a non-Yiddish writer, but Russian. Isaak Babel and his world of the Odessa ghetto was an easy segue into reading about the shtetl and Isaac Singer and becoming interested in Yiddish literature. But the truth is I was well into my thirties. And I’d come sort of full circle back to Memphis and kind of washed up there. Couldn’t find a job. Went to work for a folklore center, where I was transcribing oral history tapes of Beale Street and Beale Street characters. Black bluesmen and promoters. People who remember the heyday of Beale Street, which is fascinating to me. Because present day Memphis was a bit of a wasteland. And it turned out that there was this Jewish component on the street. The pawn shops, the dry goods dealers…

Correspondent: This would be Old Main Street then.

Stern: Well, Beale off of Main. And there was a kind of symbiosis between the black population and these Jewish merchants. And it was the first I’d heard of it really. Before my time. And I was fascinated.

Correspondent: Did you read a lot about the Jewish gangsters who crop up in a few stories here and in The Frozen Rabbi?

Stern: At this point, I’m pretty much tabula rasa. So they thought, “Well, he’s local. He works cheap. And he’s a Jew.” So they assigned me to do this. I became the Ethnic Heritage Director. I was suddenly elevated into researching the roots of the old Jewish community, which, again, I knew nothing about. It turned out that there had been an authentic East European ghetto community on North Main Street in Memphis, which was the other end of town. So I went about with a big Nagra tape recorder, knocking on doors and finding old folks who’d grown up in this neighborhood.

Correspondent: You were a one man Federal Writers Project.

Stern: Yeah. In a way. And working on a grant. And hurrying, trying to gather information before the grant ran out. And it turned out that the stories were fascinating. And I’d say, “Well, how did he get here?” So they generally begin in the old country and then bring their tradition with them and the tradition involved a lot of lore. Aside from the religion itself and the culture. There was a literature attached. There was a folklore attached. There were 1,000 years of just traditional stuff that I knew nothing about. So I fell into that world, kind of like down a rabbit hole, and thought, “Wow, here’s a place I can set my stories,” which had been kind of homeless before. And here’s a culture. You know, I grew up in the South. My friends were all in the tradition of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty. I love those writers. But it was not a tradition that I could ever connect with. And I thought…

Correspondent: You needed a heritage then. And this came out of the blue. Were you trying to write fiction before this?

Stern: I’d been writing fiction for years. For a decade.

Correspondent: And it just didn’t hit until you had that folklore element.

Stern: Well, I had this wonderful day when I had a novel and a book of stories that were just kind of traveling around New York. And the agent called to say, “Well, you know, I’ve just had another rejection of your books. And the truth is I’m not very enthused either.”

Correspondent: (laughs) Jeez. Why did this agent take you on?

Stern: Three minutes later, I get a phone call from the schools that I’d been adjuncting at, saying, “Enrollment’s down and your presence will not be required.” So I was desperate.

Correspondent: So all doors shut on you at the same time.

Stern: Yeah. And to be honest, I think in redacting my life, you look for a way to find elements or events that spell destiny. So the folklore center and the discovery of the Pinch has that kind of feel for me. But on the other hand, I’m romanticizing and twisting the facts in a way to make it seem like a good story.

Correspondent: We’ve strayed quite a bit from my initial inquiry.

Stern: The initial question!

Correspondent: Which is totally fine. Because I like this answer.

Stern: Coming back to it!

Correspondent: Coming soon! So how do we get from folklore to fantastical elements? That’s the question.

Stern: Well, because in beginning to explore this heretofore unexplored heritage, I began to discover a thing that I had never known about Jewish tradition. And that’s that it has this incredibly rich, incredibly vast, diverse folklore that includes all kinds of magic.

Correspondent: Was the magic — that was a big element for why it hit for you? Why you could connect to it?

Stern: I’m an old hippie.

Correspondent: It was either that or getting stoned all day. (laughs)

Stern: Well, that too. But I’d been led to believe that the tradition that I grew up in was as completely dry as dust. Sterile, antiseptic. And it was as if I had stolen into the attic of this old Methodist synagogue and discovered, whoa! Here’s a dybbuk. (laughs) You know, a possessing demon. Here’s a golem. A Jewish Frankenstein. Here’s a wandering soul. A fallen angel. All this.

Correspondent: So did you know anything of shuls or Shabos or wedding canopies or breaking the glass? Anything along those lines? Because your fiction is obviously very Jewish. Was most of that informed by all this folklore that you were soaking up during this time of discovery here?

Stern: Well, sad to say, and don’t tell Cynthia Ozick this, it’s all book learned. And I’ve had very little first-hand experience of authentic Jewish communities.

Correspondent: Even recently?

Stern: No. Because of what I’ve written, I’ve been mistaken for a Jew these many years.

The Bat Segundo Show #485: Steve Stern (Download MP3)

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(Photo: Zachary Tomanelli)

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Jeffrey Ford (The Bat Segundo Show)

Jeffrey Ford is most recently the author of Crackpot Palace. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #36 and The Bat Segundo Show #191.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Constricted by restrictive taxonomies.

Author: Jeffrey Ford

Subjects Discussed: Eleven-hour drives from Ohio, the first-person “road” stories featuring a fictitious “Jeffrey Ford” and his wife Lynn vs. the real Jeff and Lynn, Isaac Bashevis Singer, when autobiography creeps into fiction, when we aren’t really the people we really are, efforts to avoid the predictable in fiction, slightly busted stories, taking the staid form of a YA vampire story and finding a new way to do it, Let the Right One In, being persuaded by Ellen Datlow, unfettered surrealism, “The War Between Heaven and Hell Wallpaper,” varying notions of experimentalism, limitations with the surreal, the importance of grounding a story for the reader, Alice Munro, well-told tales vs. pyrotechnics, spiders burrowing into the brain, how the Fleischer cartoons and Kim Deitch are great inspirations for fiction, dark cartoons, Robert Coover, what writers are allowed to do in fiction, the difficulty of throwing stories out, finding new pathways from broken stories, how Donald Rumsfield inspires fictitious robot generals, the absurdity of war hero worship, Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson on the racetrack, Graham Joyce, why unseemly conversation topics are great for emotional fiction, how speculation leads to unexpected mimesis, when people are more concerned with categorizing a story into an obscure subgenre rather than accepting a story for what it is, the yoke of genre, the folly of labeling a story steampunk, idiosyncrasy and originality in fiction, having realistic expectations about your audience, combating story formula, the advantages of not knowing who a “Jeff Ford reader” is, rethinking The Island of Dr. Moreau, Charles Laughton’s acting and directing career, when animals go crazy, glass eels in New Jersey, working with Joyce Carol Oates for New Jersey Noir, imagination inspired by dreams vs. imagination inspired by location, the anecdotes you can collect from coroners, insects that buzz around human heads in eccentric flight patterns, paintings and esoteric folklore as starting points, Ford’s secret life as an owl enthusiast, and why it’s so difficult to write a Dust Bowl novel.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: How can fiction tell us about these unknowable sensations that stretch beyond the territory of what an embedded journalist can actually cover? That work that terrain? We’re essentially imagining and hypothesizing about what that sheer brutality or violence is likely to be. Is the kind of speculation in fiction better than, say, the speculation by priapic op-ed types?

Ford: I don’t think it is. Terry Gross had a lot of reporting from people who had actually been in Fallujah and places like that. And their descriptions of the stuff are really terrifying to me. I can’t imagine being a 19-year-old kid. I’d be just standing there stone stark scared, shitting my pants. You know what I mean? You’ve got these 19-year-old kids, 18-year-old kids, who are acting. They’re doing what they have to do. Which I don’t know how they do it. So you hear about those things. The reality of them. That’s one thing, right? You can approximate things though. I mean, I remember reading this piece by Hemingway. He was talking. He was hanging out with Sherwood Anderson. Anderson had never been to a racetrack or anything. He didn’t really know anything about horses, but he described this guy falling off his horse backwards in one of his stories. And he had never seen anything like this happen before. And he and Hemingway were at the racetrack the next day or a couple days later right after they were talking about this. And the guy, that actually happened. And they saw it. And Hemingway said it happened exactly the way that he wrote it. You know what I mean? So I think to an extent you’re able to imagine those things. Because you’re a human being. You’re in those kind of situations.

There are instances and there are moments though like when you would think something would be the way it is. You know, the way that you’d imagine it. But it’s probably the opposite. So you have a situation. I read a story once by Graham Joyce — a British writer. And he had these two fathers. And one father was kind of abusing his kid and the other father was getting mad at him and went over to him. Now most writers would take that and have it like some kind of corny screaming match. But he didn’t do that. He did this low-key conversation that was full of menace, but really controlled. You know what I mean? And that’s the way it really would have happened. But most people would have gone for the — oh, this is obviously going to turn into a fight or like fisticuffs and stuff. But I’ve seen that happen before. And it’s not what you would first go for. It’s something else entirely. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

Correspondent: I think what we’re talking about is how the fiction writer saturates herself into speculation, and enough speculation with which to offer, I suppose, a plausible narrative incident that in some strange way mimics what could happen in reality or actually even anticipates it. What do you do? Have there been incidents where you’ve had a moment that, “Aw man, I’m really embarrassed for having gotten something wrong”? Or do you even care about something like this?

Ford: Well, you know, I’ve had moments where I come to that. In “86 Deathdick Road,” right, we’re talking about one of the most basic human things that most people will not cop to. Jealousy, right? Fears of inadequacy and so forth. These are not topics that I would bring up to talk about myself in a pleasant conversation. But when you come to this stuff in the story, that’s where you have to make your decision. Like am I going to go for it? ‘Cause you know if you don’t, the story’s going to suck. But if you can do it and pull it off, you’ll say those things that most people aren’t going to say. And that’ll make the story interesting, I think, and come to life. You know? There is a period, a place sometimes where you have to ask that question to yourself. Can I do this? And then, more times than not, I’m like, “You know what? I’ve learned to appreciate those instances and then push through them.” I think that’s really the way to go. ‘Cause otherwise what’s the fucking point?

(Photo: Houari B.)

The Bat Segundo Show #483: Jeffrey Ford III (Download MP3)

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Paula Bomer (The Bat Segundo Show)

Paula Bomer is most recently the author of Nine Months. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #375

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for the mother who stole the car keys.

Author: Paula Bomer

Subjects Discussed: Katie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives, similarities between exploring women’s issues in fiction and hyperbolic op-ed journalists, how emotional candor and candid language reveals issues about women and motherhood, people who use children as an excuse not to write or so what they need to do, J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand, agents who pester writers for new novels, empty nest syndrome, judging other people’s reactions in relation to children, writing about raw experience, the tendency for young writers to write about everything, the relationship between nostalgia and experience, “writing pregnancy like a man,” responding to Alison Mercer’s claims that there aren’t enough birth scenes in fiction, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, people who viewed the first chapter of Nine Months (describing birth) as disgusting, Sylvia Plath’s journals, Elizabeth Jane Howard, when the visual and the emotional becomes frightening when conveyed through language, death and rape getting better representation in fiction than birth, the animal nature of birth, how birth was portrayed in the 1930s, being scared of things that have multiple names, Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, human memory and birth, how notions of motherhood change in various parts of America, New York having an impact on the parenting industry far more than it should, South Bend, Indiana, how childhood greatly affects perception of New York parenting, doping kids up on Adderall as a solution to poor grades and to compete with others, public-sphere competition involving kids in metropolitan areas, considering the Venn diagram between work and motherhood, much ado about Marissa Mayer being a pregnant CEO, breast milk vs. formula, the Bloomberg assault on formula, Baby Einstein tests, why contemporary writers wish to avoid writing about mothers smoking pot and having sex with strangers, satire vs. farce, the need to rebel as a writer, facing the uncomfortable through humor, shifting from short stories to novels, deviating from outlines, Phillip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater, Jonathan Franzen, Amazon reviews, the importance of not looking at reviews, Michiko Kakutani, Jonathan Lethem’s needless complaints about James Wood, Mailer vs. Vidal, when rivals in literary feuds are actually secret friends (and the needless “all or nothing” nature of most of today’s literary relationships), Alice Hoffman’s posting a reviewer’s phone number, William Giraldi’s review of Alix Ohlin, when bad reviews actually sell books, writing persuasive sex scenes, the Bad Sex Award in Fiction, graphic language, Mary Gaitskill’s views on smugness, the use of “smug” in Nine Months, writing fan letters to writers, dealing with disappointment, snobbery and hierarchies, elitism and egalitarianism, occupying unknown circles, being inspired by men’s magazines, the need for magazines to require an “angle” when writing about something cool, and the demolition derby as art installation.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: By a curious coincidence, I read your book concurrently with Katie Roiphe’s latest essay collection, In Praise of Messy Lives. And what was interesting, and I’m sure it wasn’t the fact that I read them close together, was that the tone of both were actually quite similar. Sonia’s voice and Katie Roiphe’s voice were actually very, very close. And I wanted to ask you about this. I mean, they both wish to wear their messy lives on their sleeves as a badge of honor. They both don’t always understand the impact of their behavior on other people, on their families, and so forth. But what’s interesting is that the chief difference is that Sonia actually does have some sort of emotional intuition. She is capable of discerning empathy and so forth from others, even if she doesn’t necessarily choose to respond to it. And so my question to you — well, there’s two. One, I’m wondering if you had any op-ed writers along the lines of Katie Roiphe or other Double X people in mind when you were working on this book. And, two, do you feel that candor or straightforward emotion allows us to deal with these more unpleasant feelings about what it is to be a woman, what it is to be a mother, and so forth?

Bomer: To answer your first question, I didn’t have anybody else in mind. Sonia just became a character in her own right. And I’ve actually never read an article by Katie Roiphe. I don’t read a lot of journalism. I read a few things by, say, Caitlin Flanagan five years ago and now I steer clear…

Correspondent: (laughs)

Bomer: …from most hyperbolic journalism.

Correspondent: It’s just ire-inducing. Too much of that.

Bomer: Yeah. Life’s too short. So that’s interesting that the voices are similar: obviously, not purposefully.

Correspondent: I don’t know if I should have told you. But this answers why. (laughs)

Bomer: I was a little shocked.

Correspondent: You did give me this look of like “Oh my god, really?”

Bomer: (laughs) But it’s all good. And then I’m sorry. Your second question was in regard to…I forgot.

Correspondent: Emotional candor, straightforward language, how it allows us to grapple with these particular emotions dealing with motherhood and womanhood. And also while we’re on the subject, whether fiction is better at doing this than say journalism or op-eddy kind of stuff.

Bomer: I don’t think fiction is better for it, but it’s better for me. I think that fiction is a place where I’m much more comfortable writing. A lot of people ask how autobiographical this novel is. And, no, I never left my family for months. I never had an accidental third pregnancy. And one of the main differences between the character and me is that I never stopped writing when my children were little. And Sonia stops being able to paint and feels that her children disrupt her ability to be creative. And I actually had an epiphany when my son was given to me. My first son was born and he was handed to me and one of the first thoughts — first of all, “Oh my god! My beautiful baby!” And my second thought was “I’m never going to blame him for anything in my life. I’m never going to use my kids as a scapegoat.” I think my mother did a little bit. By the way, only a little bit. She accomplished so much in her life. But I never wanted my children to be the reason why I didn’t do what I wanted to do outside of family. My family was always a huge priority. I got pregnant at 27, which is unheard of in New York. But I never wanted to not write. So other people go into the gym or you have lunch with friends. And I would hit the computer. And it took me a long time to get published. But I was always writing. And for Sonia, her children really get in the way. And for me, there was a lot of “Okay. Alright. They’re taking a nap. Here, I’m going to write two paragraphs. Woo hoo!” So it wasn’t that it wasn’t a struggle at times, but never, not to her extent, where she just can’t manage both identities.

Correspondent: You know, J. Robert Lennon wrote Pieces for the Left Hand the same way. The kids were there for a nap. He would write like a few paragraphs. So this is a very common thing for writers who are also taking care of kids and so forth. The path not taken. That’s what I’m getting here with Sonia.

Bomer: Exactly. That’s a good way to look at it.

Correspondent: So I’m wondering. Did you — I mean, this is probably getting into personal territory, but did you harbor any anxieties over the idea of having a third kid?

Bomer: Definitely. This book was written when I was thinking of having a third kid. It was kind of a book talking myself out of it.

Correspondent: (laughs) Really? You had to write a piece of fiction to talk yourself out of family planning? (laughs)

Bomer: You know, I’m just trying to be funny here. But there’s some truth to it.

Correspondent: I figured there was!

Bomer: I hadn’t sold my story collection yet. But my stories had gotten some attention by agents and everybody wants to know, “Gee, do you have a novel? Do you have a novel?” And I’d say, “Okay, I’m working on this novel.” And then I really started working very hard on it. It still took ten years later before it got published. But, yeah, it’s a hard thing to let go of having babies. Babies are a little addictive. That’s why you see families with ten children who aren’t Catholic. I think I hit on it also a lot in one story. In “The Second Son,” in my collection, I have this woman who just keeps saying, “New baby’s full of possibility!” Whereas the older children start to disappoint slightly. And having children, besides infancy being incredibly exhausting and time-consuming, it’s the most intense love affair. And you love your children. I love my 13-year-old. And I love my 16-year-old. But my 16-year-old’s off all day long with girlfriends. It’s just not the same thing as holding this infant who’s still almost part of your body. And that intensity, it’s a hard thing to say, “I’m never going to do that again.” And everybody does it a different time. I have respect for people who have no children, one child, five children, whatever your thing is. No one should judge. And this book deals with a lot of judging. “I had a lot. You’re not having a third?” And three was this group of women, they were all having their third and I just was saying, “No. My boys. I have my left and my right arm. I’m not missing anybody. Nobody’s missing here.”

Correspondent: But the emotional intensity you allude to becomes, as the kids grow up — this is also another issue which I didn’t intend to talk with you about, but since you brought it up. There was a blog post I read off of Metafilter — as a matter of fact, the other day — where this woman wrote about the absolute emotional devastation she felt at that moment where she finally had to say goodbye to her kid when the kid when off to college.

Bomer: Yeah. Empty nest syndrome!

Correspondent: The empty nest syndrome.

Bomer: Oh my god. It’s not a joke.

Correspondent: And the complete emotional breakdown she had. And what was interesting about the thread — and I sort of sympathize with a number of different points, but a lot of people said, “Wow. This is really hyperbolic. A woman would not have this extreme emotion.” Then a part of me was saying, “Well, actually she would.” Or maybe there’s just something in the translation of words that forces something to become more intense than the actual feelings that you’re feeling or perhaps less intense.

Bomer: Also, everybody’s different.

Correspondent: Yes.

Bomer: That’s the plain thing. Everybody feels differently about certain junctures in their life. For instance, I was really happy to graduate from high school. And other people pined for those high school days when they were the big quarterback or whatever. So I think I’m going to have a really hard time with empty nest. I’m having a hard time just dealing with the fact that they don’t come home for dinner every night. But I remember talking with two older women up in Binghamton, where I used to spend my summers, and one at the age of 45, she had three boys. Two were almost all out of the house. She had a baby. Because she just couldn’t deal. So she just had a big baby like ten years later after her other three kids. And another woman was like, “When I was dropping my son off at college, and we were walking up the stairs and down the stairs, and up the stairs with the chair and the desk, and then finally I was like, ‘Good riddance.’ There was no problem. It was time.” So everybody’s different.

Correspondent: Well, the question I had, which I was going to get to — although this is all fantastic and I love the rambling. The notion of facing an empty nest reality vs. looking back to your own life as Paula for Sonia to how you felt when the kids were just becoming presences and who kept you up at all hours and so forth. I’m curious, first of all, if you see any parallels between looking ahead that might actually help you in looking behind. How much space do you need to go back to certain tangible feelings? Or does the idea of the path not taken allow for all sorts of emotional possibilities that you never would have anticipated being there as you’re sitting there, getting those precious paragraphs between spare moments?

Bomer: I would say both. In particular, in regard to this book, a lot of it was written when my children were still quite small. Ten years ago. So ten years ago, I had a three-year-old and a six-year-old. And that was the first draft, and the whole path not taken, and just having a lot of fun, although it was also hard work. Don’t get me wrong. But fun in imagining someone doing this. Running you off. Doing wild things. And then the other thing is perspective. Because I revised and I revised. And then ten years later, certain revisions, the fact that I’m looking back at that time with some nostalgia definitely affects certain aspects of the novel.

Correspondent: How so? Maybe you can elaborate on this. How does that nostalgia — is that altogether a beneficial thing? Could it be a harmful feeling?

Bomer: Well, perspective and nostalgia can be interchangeable. And mostly I write from perspective. The parts of Nine Months where I’m writing about the rawness of the experience, that’s rare. Although it’s not a bad thing to do. Generally, I need a few years or even longer. My next book that I’m working on, all the characters are between the ages of twelve and twenty-two. And it’s really interesting to write about junior high when you’re 40. Probably not so interesting when you are 12. And that’s where nostalgia and perspective are actually vital and why one of my problems — a lot of people are asking, “What do you think about all these young people in the small press world? And all these 22-year-olds?” And I kind of think if they had waited ten more years, what would their work have been like? Would it have been better instead of that new style of just saying whatever pops into their heads. Which I guess is a little harsh. Sorry.

Correspondent: No, no, no. It make sense. There’s kind of a tradeoff with time though. The further you are from something, you have perhaps more bravery to approach the truth. On the other hand, you realize that perhaps there are lingering wounds there or lingering pain that you never would have anticipated. You thought you had actually put it away. Did you face this problem at all?

Bomer: Definitely.

Correspondent: What did you do to confront something like that?

Bomer: Well, you suffer as a person and then you try and capture it some way and work it into the narrative, if that’s a possibility. Remorse. I think you’re talking about remorse.

Correspondent: Or things that you did that you wish you couldn’t have done.

Bomer: Your regret.

Correspondent: Genuine contrition, yeah.

Bomer: There’s a lot of that. I’m someone who — every day, I do something that I regret.

Correspondent: Don’t we all? (laughs)

Bomer: Well, some people don’t. Maybe some people more than others.

Correspondent: Well, what’s an example? What do you regret doing today?

Bomer: Well….(pause)

Correspondent: (laughs) Or can you share?

Bomer: (laughs) I don’t want to get into the specifics.

Correspondent: I don’t know. We were on the subject. (laughs)

The Bat Segundo Show #481: Paula Bomer II (Download MP3)

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Martin Amis (The Bat Segundo Show)

Martin Amis is most recently the author of Lionel Asbo. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #101.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Seeking the filter of considered thought.

Author: Martin Amis

Subjects Discussed: How smoking prohibitions curtail sociopaths, Katie Price as fictional inspiration, reading the collected works of Jordan, whether Amis should be writing about the working class, class anxiety, living with a Welsh coal miner’s family, Amis’s views on class disappearing in England, the London riots, the 1992 Los Angeles riots, people shooting at each other during Black Friday, income inequality, physical deterioration in Amis’s novels, Lindsay Anderson’s if…, the male climacteric, Amis’s tendency to introduce incest with legal and moral codex, researching incest, “yokel wisdom,” New Labour and education, opportunism and rioting, Occupy Wall Street, police brutality, whether fiction can ever rectify social ills, Swift’s A Modest Proposal, Dickens, the video game medium, clarifying Amis’s stance and false rumors of shame about Invasion of the Space Invaders, being befuddled by remotes, addiction, being a Luddite, representing the present in fiction without including smartphones, going back in time as a novelist, Money and Amis’s lack of interest in New York, when nonfiction serves as a muse for fiction, pornography, masturbation, young people and sex, The Pregnant Widow, not fully understanding world events when writing The Second Plane, the massacre of the Sunni Muslims in Syria, social media, the camera as world policeman, Nabokov’s slogans, what provoked Amis’s impetuous words in a 2006 interview, Amis’s problematic remarks in interviews, lacking a filter, and writing as the ultimate intercession.

FULL TRANSCRIPT:

Correspondent: I wanted to actually start this conversation with smoking. I know that this an interest of yours, but it is interesting. Because I noticed something fascinating about Lionel Asbo. Here’s a guy who has no problem muttering melee-inspiring words at a wedding, right? He’s also a guy who has no problem feeding Tabasco and lager to his pit bulls. And yet, rather interestingly, when it comes to this hotel that he stays in, where everything is nonsmoking, he does, in fact, go out every fifteen to twenty minutes for his cigarette. It’s this rare moment of civilization. That he’s actually polite. Which is very surprising, in light of the fact that he’s got this considerable fortune. And I said to myself, “Well, that is uncanny.” Because in light of your real-life crack-smoking inspiration, I’m not sure if he would do that. But then I thought to myself, well, in The Pregnant Widow, there’s this very interesting moment where you talk about how people are not allowed to smoke in dreams. There’s this interesting idea. And I’m wondering perhaps this is something of a dream. I was wondering if this came from a need to give Lionel some redeeming quality or some relatable quality. How did this happen?

Amis: Well, he’s appalled to find that the whole hotel is nonsmoking. But you can’t defy that kind of rule.

Correspondent: Even with money?

Amis: No. I mean, if you’re in a grand hotel and you don’t want to get chucked out. I mean, I think even the most fanatical smokers have accepted that. That they can’t smoke indoors anymore.

Correspondent: When did you finally give up?

Amis: Give up?

Correspondent: Yeah. I mean, give up the fight trying to smoke indoors. There’s nothing you can really do, right?

Amis: No. There’s nothing you can do. And I don’t smoke indoors here. It’s something you just — it’s a battle you’re resigned to losing.

Correspondent: Yeah. Even the great sociopath can’t smoke inside of a hotel.

Amis: No.

Correspondent: Well, in terms of other real-life inspiration, I do have to talk about Threnody, who of course is inspired by Jordan, Katie Price. You once described her as “two bags of silicone.” I know that you actually read a number of her books as research. And I’m wondering. Why couldn’t you ignore the collected works of Jordan? Because I know that you have a number of outside friends who take you into intriguing places and you have this incredible real world research that you can do. What did the Jordan books offer that your various peregrinations of a clandestine nature could not?

Amis: I came to admire Katie Price, having read those books, simply because she’s a mother of three children and one of them has great problems. And she’s a brave and dedicated mother. And my opinion of her went up. By the way, the character Threnody is not based on Katie Price. She’s a Katie Price wannabe.

Correspondent: I see.

Amis: The figure who is based on Katie Price is called Danube. I thought she had to be the name of a river.

Correspondent: Sure.

Amis: And I rejected Volga as being a bit too obvious. But I read those books really for the kind of furniture and the background of what those people get up to. She goes to the VIP enclosure of the ELLE Style Awards. I mean, you can’t make that kind of thing up. Because you just don’t know the vocabulary of that weird, semi-celebrity life. So with some characters, it’s best not to go too close. To leave your imagination some room. So I didn’t want to mingle with real-life Threnodies. I wanted to dream her up.

Correspondent: I see. So the book serves as this protective buffer. So that you don’t have to deal with a certain class of people.

Amis: Well, they complained in England that I shouldn’t be writing about the working classes, which I’ve been doing for forty years without comment or challenge anyway. So there’s a new anxiety that the working classes ought to be reghettoized in fiction. Which I think is a sort of contemptible notion. Is one only allowed to write about one’s own class? I’ve written about the royal family in fiction and no one objected to that. It’s pusillanimous and ridiculous to say that. I think there are no entry signs in fiction. You can go anywhere you like.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, I saw this very interesting three part BBC4 documentary, in which it covered you in the third part. And Hari Kunzru was interviewed. And he suggested that this tension between the upper class and the lower class in your books was, in some sense, a kind of class anxiety. That the sort of rough, tough working-class yob is going to go and grab the property or the livelihood or the affluence of the top-tier classes. And I was wondering what your thoughts are on this. Is this a tension of extremes? Do you have any fears of people like Keith Talent or Lionel Asbo in this book?

Amis: No. It’s completely unanxious. In fact, it’s celebratory. What attracts me to that milieu is how rich it is. It’s full of wit and poetry that I don’t think people understand. This is just as much a part of that life as of any other. And when I talk to people who would be dismissed in those class terms, I’m astounded by how intelligent they are and how witty and how original. No, it’s affectionate and admiring. I’ve always had this vein in my life. Right from childhood. My parents parked the children in the family of a working-class Welsh coal miner and his wife. And I took to it very much. I always responded to it and enjoyed it. And they think because you’ve been to Oxford and you’ve got a poncy accent that you must be sneering at these people. You couldn’t. Who could write a novel with that kind of emotion in the forefront? Novels are all about — it’s crude, but it’s a loving form. And that’s what I feel for all my characters.

Correspondent: You love them? Because you cannot deny that there is often a monstrous element to these figures. And in writing and coming to terms to some truth, with that monstrous and vile and scabrous quality, you’re going to have to feel some fear or some anxiety, I would think, as a writer.

Amis: No. Because who was it who said that the covers of a novel are like the bars of a cage. And you can admire the tiger or the crocodile without fear. And the novel domesticates those atavistic passions. And this guy’s a dangerous guy in my Lionel Asbo. But I think he’s quite comprehensively balanced by Desmond, his nephew, who is rather implausibly generous and empathetic and altruistic. So the two sides are there. Class disappeared in England in the ’80s, really. Margaret Thatcher, for all her sins, detached the Conservative Party from the ruling classes.

Correspondent: Class disappeared? I don’t know. I saw the London riots and that seemed very much a class struggle.

Amis: Well, I mean, of course, it’s always there. And the snobbery is still there. But they hardly dare say, they hardly dare confess to it anymore. And it was a defining feeling in the ’70s and ’80s, and earlier of course, that you were being sneered at from higher up and challenged from lower down. And the novel I wrote about that was published in ’78, called Success. But that’s a thing of another generation now.

Correspondent: How would you say class has changed from the ’70s and ’80s to now in England? And how would you say this has affected your novel writing?

Amis: It’s more — the strata are different now. It used to be upper, middle, and lower. And now it’s — the upper classes are still in its huge houses and all the rest. But the middle class has hugely expanded. And there’s now what some people call the underclass. Or the old word for it is the residuum. And that’s there. And that’s what you saw during the rioting. Although it’s a funny kind of riot when the rioters go and try on various sizes of sneaker in the shops they’re looting. Although you may notice that the only shop that wasn’t looted was the bookstore in that particular strip.

Correspondent: Well, you can say the same thing about the L.A. riots from fifteen, twenty years before. It’s the same situation. Although that doesn’t take away the fact that there are very deep tensions. There’s deep tension, of course, between the classes and race and so forth. I mean, you’re always going to have a little bit of that capitalistic element or that materialistic element. Hell, even with Black Friday, we were joking here in America last time. Because it was so severe that you have to now bring home defense in order to get that deal. I mean, it was really ridiculous. People were getting shot. It’s both utterly depressing and utterly funny at the same time. But at the same time, how do we make sense of this? Or does the fiction that you write permit one to, I suppose, embrace both feelings and feel the sense of seriousness and humor at the same time to try to contend with what this exactly means?

Amis: Yeah. Such questions as “What does this mean?” don’t really come up when you’re writing a novel. And you ask, “What are you getting at? And what are you actually saying?” To which the only answer is: I’m saying the novel, all 270 pages of it, it’s not reducible to a slogan that you put on a T-shirt. But I think a couple of years later, you see certain connections and certain relationships to real life and how you feel about it. And I think what I’m writing about when I do take on this milieu is inequality. Now as you know, the whole momentum of the mid-century and beyond was for greater equality. Now that, both here and in England, inequality is now back to post-World War I levels. The difference between the rich and the poor has increased very sharply all over again. And the reversal of that tendency was widely noticed. And I think that it’s a great evil. And I think it’s very demoralizing for a society with those levels of inequality. And I think it goes without saying that you’re sort of, in as much as a novel can strike a blow or make a claim, that you’re pointing to the shameful and ridiculous aspects of inequality.

Correspondent: Sure. Let’s shift to the notion of physical decay, which I’ve been long wanting to talk to you about. It’s this especially prominent quality in your first four novels, of course. And then it gets into outright topographical territory with John Self’s Upper West Side. And then it’s become less tangible in these more recent books. It’s more observational or reflective in some sense. And let me give you some specific examples. I think of the early line in The Pregnant Widow. You have Keith Nearing. He’s in his fifties. And he’s finding “something unprecedentedly awful” every time he visits the mirror. And then, much later in the book, you have Keith note that his body in the mirror is “realer,” even though his body is “reduced to two dimensions. Without depth and without time.” So in Lionel Asbo, you have this situation with Granny Grace. And she actually has a physical decline. But in this, what seemed to me more deeply felt was the fact that she could not do the cryptic crossword. And I wanted to ask you. Why do you think you pushed this idea of physical deterioration into something where it’s in a mirror or we’re concentrating on mental faculties? It’s interesting that you’re almost doing this in reverse, it would seem. Because one would think that the young novelist would be more concerned with physical vitality and that the older novelist would be more concerned with physical deterioration. With you, it almost seems inverse here. So I was curious about this.

Amis: Well, I think there’s a bit about it in The Pregnant Widow. When you’re young, you have what they call nostalgie de la boue. You’re homesick for the mud. You’re tied up with your bodily emanations in a kind of childish way. Then a lot of self-disgust is generated by that. Remember that, in the film if…, these schoolboys are going around. And one of them is breathing into his hand and saying, “My whole body’s rotting.” And he’s nineteen. Then it does live and you’re much more at home with your body during your thirties and forties. And then suddenly it becomes a preoccupation again, as you see…

Correspondent: That wonderful thing called the male climacteric.

Amis: Yes. It’s the decline of your powers. And no one likes that. But I think, whatever else you can say about it, it’s a great subject. And it’s possible there’s a lot of humor in it and some dreadful ironies. And it’s witty. You know, it’s not a blind insensate force. It tells you who you are. And you’re in the process of completing your reality, and this is another part of it.

Correspondent: Do you think physical deterioration is the best way for you, as a novelist, to really understand the physicality of these characters? That if you know how they’re rotting or how they think that they’re rotting, you suddenly, in your mind’s eye, immediately know, “Well, I know exactly how they move. I know exactly how they look. I know exactly how they act.” What of this?

Amis: Yeah. Well, you’re always trying to get in there. Into the hearts and souls and minds of your characters. And you want to know how they dream. And self-image is quite a good way to internalize these characters. What do they think when they look in the mirror? So that’s part of what one does automatically.

Correspondent: Well, in Success, you have this section where Gregory writes, “Of course, it’s all nonsense about ‘incest,’ you know.” And then he proceeds to cite a number of legal precedents to basically back up his reason for his incestuous relationship. In Yellow Dog, you have this issue about the sentiments where “some fathers really believe that incest is ‘natural.'” You have that. And there’s also this business of there never having been “a human society that doesn’t observe incest taboos.” In Lionel Asbo, we see, of course, another incestuous relationship. Des has to write into a newspaper to ask himself about the question of whether this is legal or right or not. It is interesting to me that nearly every time incest pops up into your work, there’s this need to confirm it against some sort of legal precedent or some sort of confirmation. You can’t just have characters getting into an incestuous relationship. You have to actually back it up with what the moral code is or what the legal code is. Why can’t you just have the reader decide whether it’s bad or not? I’m curious about this.

Amis: Well, Desmond is fifteen. And the only person he could ask for advice about these things is his grandmother. And he can’t ask her. In fact, when he does, she says, “It’s only a misdemeanor just because you’re not yet sixteen.”

Correspondent: The fact of the matter is that she uses the word “misdemeanor.” Another legal term. Which is what’s really curious about this.

Amis: Yeah. Well, I mean, it seems to me a realistic point. That he has no way of finding out. And Diston, the imaginary borough of Southeast London where the novel is largely set, is full of incest, as well as other weird demographic oddities, like life expectancy is 58 and women have five or six or seven children. It’s meant to be a world where these certainties are no longer so.

Correspondent: How much research into incest have you done? How many books on incest have you read?

Amis: For Yellow Dog, I read a book called Father-Daughter Incest. It horrifies me. Fred West, the murderer who killed my cousin, I read a lot about him too. His axiom with all his many children was — he used to tell his daughters, “Your first child ought to be your dad’s.” And you can imagine some sort of yokel rhyme saying “Unless first child by father be.” And it’s a sort of yokel wisdom. And it’s such an appalling idea. There’s a good reason why it’s taboo. It’s because nature doesn’t like it. My mother’s parents were first cousins. And my wife said to me quite recently, a few years ago when I told her this, she said, “You never told me!” And I said, “I told you a long time ago. What does it matter? It’s not all my relations are cousins, which can lead to great trouble.” And then we were in Barbados and we pulled up to ask directions in the street. And a guy turned around. He had a handkerchief in his mouth. And he was sort of burbling and was obviously deeply retarded. And as we drove away, my wife grew thoughtful and said, “You know, you really ought to have told me about your mother’s parents.” As if idiocy is waiting to swoop even now. So now that you’ve pointed this out to me, I see that it is a theme that occurs. But I don’t think I have any deep feelings about it other than it’s an unnatural and criminal activity. It’s weird that in all the prohibitions about consanguinity and relationships between related people in the Bible and I think even in the Koran, there’s no mention of father/daughter. I think perhaps because it was so common and has been so common in human history that we look the other way.

Correspondent: You mention “yokel wisdom.” And we were talking earlier about how the working class — well, a lot of them are smart and so forth. So how do you reconcile this notion of class and intelligence?

Amis: It’s partly what the novel is about. It’s about intelligence and about the uses of it. And the big contrast between Desmond, who has a great thirst for cultivating his intelligence, and Lionel, who is clearly quite bright, but is anti-intelligence and is stupid on purpose much of the time.

Correspondent: He makes a decision to be stupid, you say?

Amis: Well, Desmond says, “He gives being stupid a lot of very intelligent thought.” To come up with the stupidest thing you can possibly do.

Correspondent: But maybe Desmond is trying to figure out why he’s like this, why he decides to be like this, why he doesn’t apply himself.

Amis: Yeah. He is. But I go along with, politically and in my life, the New Labour slogan “Education, education, education.” And it’s something I deeply feel, that there’s a lot of undeveloped intelligence down there. And the people feel so neglected and excluded that they think, “Oh, to hell with it. I’m going to be stupid. I’ll show them. I’ll be even stupider than they think I am.” They’re not stupid.

Correspondent: Do you think stupidity motivated something like the London riots? Or was that desperation?

Amis: That was pure opportunism.

Correspondent: Pure opportunism?

Amis: Yeah.

Correspondent: Wow.

Amis: Opportunism. I mean, it’s almost always sparked by a bit of police brutality or overreaction. And they shot a guy who was clearly a practicing criminal in Totland. This is then the signal or the excuse, the pretext for an explosion of rage.

Correspondent: What then would be an acceptable response? Because we’re seeing, for example, with Occupy Wall Street, that movement is responded to with police brutality. You’ve got infiltrators who are then splitting up the crowd. It’s the same cycle of history that we saw in the ’60s. It’s happening again. It’s going to happen again. And if the income inequality, as we established earlier, has moved to post-World War I levels, what to you would be an acceptable form of responding to a gross inequity?

Amis: Well, for me, it would be writing about it. Either as a journalist or as a novelist. Although the novelist is always three years behind the journalist. Because you have to soak it up and absorb it and go through these weird subconscious processes before you can address it in fiction. But I thought the Occupy movement was very intelligent and curiously so postmodern in its avoidance of actual concrete demands. It was just a civilized expression of disaffection with the system.

Correspondent: It proved, I think, that an amorphous general message is what will rally a number of people together to actually protest for something.

Amis: Yeah. And not factionalism. And not competing ideologies. I very much responded to the fact that they didn’t come out with a program or a manifesto. That it was just something a bit more subliminal than that. Whether it can sustain itself looks doubtful now. But you do tend to need these slogans and rallying points. But I very much respected it while it was going on.

Correspondent: To jump back to your earlier point about writing being an answer to correct gross inequities or to remedy problems or social ills, I mean, let’s look at your work. We have probably the two most prominent examples. It would be House of Meetings and Time’s Arrow to reckon with a serious — in both cases, genocide. But I’m wondering though if that’s really what the novel should do or whether that can really have the same kind of response that, say, Shostakovitch’s symphonies did. I mean, the novel is now so marginalized in comparison to other forms. The movie, television, the video game, and so forth. I’m wondering if you really can, in fact, have that when, of course, we are now living with the Peyton Place of our time, Fifty Shades of Grey, right?

Amis: But what’s your…

Correspondent: My point is: how can the novel respond and rectify social ills when it is, in fact, so marginalized and when, in fat, it could be argued that the novel’s purpose is not necessarily to be in that didactic mode?

Amis: Well, I don’t think any novel has ever rectified anything. A novel really asserts nothing. It used to be said that satire was militant irony. That’s the distinction. That satire sets out to actually have an effect on society. But it hasn’t, has it? I mean, Swift’s A Modest Proposal was written after the Great Famine. Dickens’s attacks on Chancery and imprisonment for debt, which his own family suffered from — those abuses were over, more or less, when he wrote Little Dorritt and Bleak House. The novel doesn’t work like that. And I said “Education, education, education.” That’s what novels do. Not just on particular subjects like the gulag or the Holocaust. But a novel tries to expand the perceptual world of the reader. So that anyone who reads your book will, you hope, have a richer response to their everyday surroundings, will see the world a bit through new eyes and sort of alienized and see the strangeness of what is taken for granted and what is, in fact, ordinary. Ordinary people, I keep saying to myself, are really very strange. And I think that’s true of the whole furniture of our lives.

Correspondent: Sure. While we’re on the subject of mediums, I do have to ask you about something. I’d like to talk about a medium that has a $65 billion global value, a medium that, in fact, was used by President Obama in 2008 to advertise for his presidential campaign, a medium that your friend Salman Rushdie has claimed in an interview to be “something of an Angry Birds master.” That medium, of course, is the video game. I do know, and I have to ask you this, that you wrote a book about Space Invaders. And I’m wondering. I did notice you have your pinball machine still. Why are you reluctant to own up to this Space Invaders volume? I’ve been really curious. I mean, it’s hard to find. You don’t want to talk about it. But I’m telling you that, in this age when video games are so omnipresent and have arguably outsized the movie, why would you be loath to talk about it?

Amis: I’m not necessarily loath to talk about it. I’m no longer interested in it. But there it is on my “By the Same Author” page. I haven’t disowned it.

Correspondent: But you haven’t exactly welcomed it back into print.

Amis: It hasn’t come up. I think in Italy, they’ll redo it. But that generation of games, that’s gone.

Correspondent: Not on the phones.

Amis: Not on the…?

Correspondent: Yeah. You can play Space Invaders on a phone.

Amis: Can you?

Correspondent: You can play Pac-Man on a phone. In fact, the interesting thing about some of these games is that they’re so universal and the technology is in a compact form. So you can actually use them. But what’s also impressive is, as I said, Obama actually advertised in game for 18 games in 2008 to reach voters. That’s how significant this is. And that’s why I’m curious why you have been, at least from what I’ve seen, reticent to grapple with the fact that video games are a massive part of our culture.

Amis: It’s because I’ve been left behind by all that. It’s all I can do to get a picture upon our digital TV.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Amis: I have to shout for one of my children to come and help me. I’m sort of all thumbs with all that right now and no longer interested in those slightly onanistic, solitary pursuits. But I’m as aware as everyone else is that that kind of — and I saw it with all my children that they went through years of not really wanting to do anything else. And I know how addictive they are.

Correspondent: They are very addictive. I had to uninstall some myself. That’s how bad they are. I had to read. When was the last time you played Space Invaders out of curiosity?

Amis: Not for twenty-five years. But what seems to be very addictive, my daughters admit to this, is that you do the first level and then you get on to the next level. And that kind of incremental building of skills to get to a new phase of the machine seems to be very deeply wired into us all.

Correspondent: So the addictive qualities really are why you have stayed away. Because you know that if you were to touch it again, you would actually get sucked in?

Amis: I don’t think so. I think I’m too Luddite now. I’m sort of anti-machines. And I get into a fury with things that don’t respond to what seems to me to be very simple instructions. Like the remote buttons on your TV. They’ve succumbed to what they call feature creep, where they just pile on the extras until it’s unusable by someone who isn’t prepared to really enter into it. So that part of my life is just sort of dead. And I couldn’t imagine getting interested, let alone addicted, to that anymore.

Correspondent: But what about, for example, Lionel Asbo? You conveniently have an area of Diston where somehow there are no iPhones really. There’s a Mac at the very beginning, but the sounds that we hear are natural shouts, as you are careful to note. The book goes into 2013 and really doesn’t wrestle with the fact that, if you go outside, people are looking down at their phones. They’re taking pictures of everything. They’re documenting every minutiae. And I’m wondering if you’re ever going to grapple with the reality of social media and just the sheer compact technological hold, the hold that compact technology has upon our lives.

Amis: My father said at one point. He said the reason you writers hate younger writers is that younger writers are telling them — they’re saying to the older writer, “It’s not like that anymore. It’s like this.” And it’s painful not to be on the crest of modernity as you were when you were younger. It’s not that you’re hankering for anything that’s gone. It’s not a reactionary things. It’s a helpless exclusion, really, from things you no longer understand and don’t want to make the effort to understand. Though I’m sure there are many able writers who are going to do what is there to be done with that subject, social media. But it’s not me.

Correspondent: You’re on safe ground when you go back to 1970 or, with your next book that you’re working on, back to the 1940s. Is going back in time your solution to this problem? I mean, the bona-fide literary high standards type will basically say, “Well, it’s the writer’s duty to completely submerge himself into our present day culture. And if that means something as often obnoxious as social media or phones, that’s part of the deal, bub.”

Amis: Writers are under no obligation to do anything whatever. Nabokov said — well, he was perhaps a bit prescriptive the other way.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Amis: But he said, “I have absolutely no interest in these subjects that bubble up and in a year or two will resemble bloated topicalities.” He said, “My stuff is not interested in the spume on the surface of things.” That he’s looking underneath the surface. I don’t feel that I’m being at all neglectful in not finding out about social media. It’s not a subject that excites me.

Correspondent: What about — you did explore New York, especially areas of Manhattan in Money. You’re now in Brooklyn. Do you have any interest in exploring our interestingly gentrifying areas around here?

Amis: Beyond a certain point, I don’t think where you are makes much difference at all. We lived in Uruguay for three years in 2003 to 2006. And I was often asked if I intended to do anything with Uruguay in fiction. And I can imagine writing a paragraph or two about it. But you get the feeling, rightly or wrongly, that after a certain age that you’re locked into your own evolution as a writer and that the things that you’re writing about now have been gurgling away inside you for a long time. And the idea of having a sort of hectic response to what happened yesterday seems very odd to me now and distant from me.

Correspondent: What about nonfiction as an interesting muse? The obvious example is Koba the Dread upon House of Meetings. But actually there is one interesting line from Money, which I actually pinpointed to its source. And that is when John Self was on the phone and he says, “When I’m through with you, sunshine, they’ll be nothing left but a hank of hair and teeth.” Which, by the way, is similar to something Mailer said to a novelist: “When I’m through with you, they’ll be nothing left but a hank of hair and some fillings.” And actually I read The Moronic Inferno before talking with you, while I was rereading Money. I was reading a bunch of your books before we talked. And it was interesting how much your observations of America ended up in Money. And so this leads me to ask you. Does writing a nonfiction book or does submerging yourself in journalism allow you to test out themes? Or is this largely an accidental process where, through serendipity, certain kinds of observational bubbles float to the top for some future fiction project?

Amis: Well, the way it works, in my case at lest, is that if I’m going to go into a subject in fiction, I will often take it upon myself to write a longish bit of nonfiction about the subject. I did it with the Royal Family for Yellow Dog and also with the pornography industry for Yellow Dog. And I went to California. And I went around. And I wrote a long piece about it. And that gets you a certain distance. And then when you come to write the novel, you can actually — usually, because it’s been a year or two in the making — you find you’ve advanced your feelings about it and your conclusions about it. For instance, with pornography, it took me a long time to realize that it will never be mainstream until masturbation is mainstream.

Correspondent: We’re getting there. (laughs) I mean, all you have to do is go online and see what’s available pornographically. And there you have it.

Amis: But you’ve got a way to go before, before…

Correspondent: Before people are doing it in the streets.

Amis: Before masturbation is cool. So I always thought the resistance of women to pornography, which I would say is based on the fact that the act of procreation, which peoples the world. And this is women’s great power. Men don’t have it quite the same way. And they would always have great resistance to pornography because that act — so central to everything, our existence — is trivialized and denied significance. In fact, someone described pornography as hatred of significances. So that was the conclusion I reached in the novel. But it’s moved on. And I think the next phase is actually women ascending to it and then that’s when you have to — there are several things where you can no longer follow these things through. Because it’s just indecent at a certain age to be wondering about what young people think about when they think about sex. You just have to withdraw. And I’ve reached that point with sexuality. I don’t want to imagine what the sexuality of the young is like.

Correspondent: And yet there’s The Pregnant Widow. (laughs)

Amis: Yeah, but that was set in the past and was alert to these revolutions in consciousness that have taken place since then. You know, I talk to my grown-up daughter, who’s 36 now. And when she was in her twenties, she used to tell me about what the sexual circuit was like in those days. And we always had a very candid relationship.

Correspondent: Yeah. I was about to say.

Amis: But sometimes it would sort of chill me. And I just thought, “I don’t want to know anymore about it.”

Correspondent: So you encouraged an environment of candor as your kids were growing up.

Amis: Well, I didn’t raise my oldest daughter.

Correspondent: Sure.

Amis: But, yeah, I hope so with my boys and my girls, who are fifteen and thirteen right now. The younger girls. But they never tell you exactly what’s going on, your children. It’s always edited for…

Correspondent: For senior ears.

Amis: For senior ears. Yes.

Correspondent: I know you’ve got to jam, but I had one last quick question I have to ask. In light of what has happened with the Arab Spring — you got into a lot of trouble with some of your work in The Second Plane — would you amend or alter some of your statements in that book in light of what has happened? Especially with what’s been going on in Syria right now.

Amis: I think everyone is doing a lot of realigning in their own minds. My younger son has just finished his second degree on the Muslim Brotherhood. And he’s been studying that for two years and speaks Arabic and is going to go on studying it. And he said that all the people who were finishing their degrees when the Arab Spring hit were pretending that it hadn’t made any difference to their theses. But, in fact, he said, it’s had a disastrous effect on everything they’ve thought or written. Because it’s a new page in the history of those nations. I think Islaamism has become politicized and part of the mainstream in ways that weren’t clear to me a few years ago. I thought Hassan Nasrallah and certain very clever Islamists would make the shift to politics, even though they have sort of terroristic origins. As do…

Correspondent: Are you saying that you didn’t entirely understand that situation when you wrote The Second Plane?

Amis: Yeah. Who does?

Correspondent: Would you mollify your language if you were to have written that book today?

Amis: Yeah. I think so. I think I would have been less alarmist. But, I mean, with these very difficult questions, if you can just move the argument along even half an inch, it’s worth doing, I think. And it now looks — it looked as though Islamism was locked into a kind of agonistic relationship with the West, where it was going to be an eternal struggle that would never be resolved. And now it’s looking…

Correspondent: Well, 18,000 people in Syria. These Sunni Muslims who have been protesting against Bashar al-Assad. I mean, that’s pretty serious. Now we’re talking almost genocide figures. It’s very similar to the gassing of the Kurds and so forth. And that’s why I look to something like that. When you’re dealing with such a severe assault on human lives, then you have to recalibrate the needle and you also have to consider that what you say, well, maybe there’s another angle to this. You know what I mean?

Amis: Yeah. But what was that remark? 18,000?

Correspondent: 18,000 of the Sunni Muslims in Syria who have been executed under the regime. And, of course, you’ve got the deputy fleeing to Turkey as well. So it’s been an extremely terrible situation. Just from a human life standpoint. And when you say that Sunni Muslims are all out to get us and they want to kill other people’s lives, then I present this and I say, “Well, I can’t reconcile the two when 18,000 people have…”

Amis: Over what period?

Correspondent: Just recently. The Syria stuff that’s been going on. All the stuff that’s going on in Syria right now?

Amis: Yeah. I thought the figure was more like 3,000.

Correspondent: Well, it’s anywhere from 10 to 18, depending upon where — in fact, the 18,000 comes from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. So it’s a pretty severe figure. But I’ve heard anywhere from 10 to 18. And I’ve been reading the BBC, the Guardian, stuff like that.

Amis: Right. Right.

Correspondent: The New York Times, I believe. So anyway…

Amis: I mean, the Syrian situation is very odd in that a minority leadership — just as Iraq was, the Sunnis were a minority there and the Alawites are a really small minority. And the sectarian war seems to be more or less launched already. So I think Syria is tremendously complicated and dreadful. And the difference is that we’re hearing about it every day. And when his father killed — what was it? 25,000 people in one action a generation ago — that news seeped out. But this is what social media give you. That’s the world policeman. It’s not America anymore. It’s the media.

Correspondent: The camera is the ultimate weapon these days.

Amis: Yeah, yeah.

Correspondent: Okay. So saying that you would have written it differently. Like that infamous 2006 interview you did. I mean, what accounts for some of these outlandish statements like “The Muslim community needs to self-police” and things like that. I mean, this is the kind of stuff that gets you into trouble. Is this a present emotional expression from you? And you need to dig deeper? I mean, what accounts for these kinds of statements?

Amis: It’s a slogan of Nabokov’s. “I think like a genius. I write like a distinguished man of letters. I talk like an idiot.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Amis: And it should be stressed that these are remarks. Not considered words. Nothing you say in an interview is your last word. And also it was a question of timing. I gave that interview on the day when the plot was revealed to blow up 20 airliners in midair using liquids. And the lady who’d come from England to interview me in Long Island said that on the plane you weren’t allowed to bring books. And that was the lowest I’ve ever felt about this whatever it is. This antagonism that revealed itself on September the 11th. And I did actually think, just for a day or two, that we can’t win against these forces. And the idea of depriving a transatlantic passenger of a book.

Correspondent: That is pretty lame. Yeah.

Amis: Well, it seemed to me the triumph of the forces of pedantry and dogma and a defeat for all the things we hold dear. I remember Jeff Eugenides was staying at the time and I said, “I think we should collective punish. A bit of collective punishment.” He said, “No. But that’s going to turn the rest of them against us.” And I thought, “Oh yeah. A good point.” And what I said in that interview, I felt that day and ceased to feel it the next.

Correspondent: So it seems to me that basically you need to have a filter, whether it be through friends or whether it be through someone who’s around. The interview is actually problematic for you and this is what gets you into trouble. In that case, can I trust anything you’ve said in this particular conversation?

Amis: (laughs) Yes, you can. But people think you’re being provocative on purpose or confrontational on purpose. How can you do that? You just — I answer honestly and too candidly often. And the filter is considered thought. And that means writing. You don’t know what you think until you see what you say, see what you write. And that’s the intercession I probably need.

The Bat Segundo Show #480: Martin Amis II (Download MP3)

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