Brian Francis Slattery II (The Bat Segundo Show)

Brian Francis Slattery appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #466. He is most recently the author of Lost Everything and previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #142.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hammering in the morning, the evening, and the afternoon.

Author: Brian Francis Slattery

Subjects Discussed: Radio programs which force authors to starve for an hour, the glut of dystopian novels after 2008, taking criticisms to heart, distinguishing many forms of sarcasm and irony, a segue with two friendly gentlemen with hammers, the bleakness within Lost Everything, the seriousness of a major economic collapse, hope in the “Who knows?” area of bleakness, the possibility of restoration in Liberation vs. the unknown storm (The Big One) in Lost Everything, “squanch” as a word, Lost Everything‘s wandering narrator, using up a quota of semicolons, starting a sentence with a verb, faith and spirituality, agnosticism, the philosophical value of Christopher Reeve quotes, agnostics who dodge questions of faith, Nicholas Wolterstorff, the pacifistic and apolitical nature of taking Christianity seriously, the balance between forgiveness and righteousness, moral codes that are mishmashes of philosophy and religion, discussing issues in both religious and secular terms, the physical limitations within the Carthage, not providing the answers to the reader, deliberate ambiguities, super-omniscient narrators, narrators who match character predicaments, resisting the word “fun” when investigating nightmarish human predicaments, Russian roulette, violence and bleak humor as a defense mechanism, working at a social science research foundation, the choice between laughing and becoming serious when presented with genocide, how much a human life is worth, Guatemala vs. the Ukraine, life being cheaper in certain parts of the world, superfluous playground warnings, judgement of other parents over trifling details, sugar as a disruptive force, being reprimanded for saying “fuck” joyfully in a Park Slope restaurant, reading bleak books, finding the value in everyone, engaging in reckless behavior, when the removal of safeguards creates unanticipated possibilities, writing about a world devoid of electricity, 19th century human existence, how people live without electricity now, Darwin’s Nightmare, Hubert Sauper’s Kisangani Diary, Rwandan refugees who have nothing when coming across as a sanctuary, a maturing point in Slattery’s career, guilt, taking things seriously, a writer’s commitment to human existence, form following function, George Clinton and Bob Dylan as inspirational forces for (respectively) Spaceman Blues and Liberation, basing a narrative voice on the way people talk, Dock Boggs, Skip James, and 1920s music, expressing resistance through music, musicians authorized to marry people and given authority by the author, free spirited life in the face of chaos, music grounded in social reality, partying when everybody is freaked out, the house, river, and highway structure in Lost Everything, Life on the Mississippi, Kerouac, finding the specific region in America for Lost Everything, comparisons between Lost Everything and Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, modeling novels from The Odyssey, the Susquehanna River being underutilized in American fiction, Slattery navigating the Susquehanna River in a canoe, William T. Vollmann, “Sunny Jim” Rolph, Captain Mendoza and Lydia Mendoza, character names, eels coming out of mattress, and making sure the constant degradation wasn’t repetitive.


Slattery: Thanks for letting me eat and drink while I’m talking with you.

Correspondent: Yes.

Slattery: Which I’ll be doing.

Correspondent: It’s one of the very rare programs that allows authors to drink and eat.

Slattery: It is.

Correspondent: Most programs allow authors to starve for an hour. Anyway, we don’t do that here. Well, first of all, how are you doing? I didn’t quite get that question answered. You’re doing okay?

Slattery: How am I doing? Oh, I’m great. I’m good.

Correspondent: Alright. Well then, let’s get right down to business. For some inexplicable reason, and I have no idea why — maybe you might have a few ideas — but since roughly around 2008 — again, I have no idea why — there’s been a great rush of dystopic novels. Dystopian novels. Doom and gloom. And here we have number three from you, sir. So just to start off here, I’m wondering, when you started writing Lost Everything, were you aware of what might be called a glut or what might be called an overpopulated filed of dystopian novels? Did you care about such an output that was going on simultaneously as you were working on a book?

Slattery: I guess I should say that I was mildly aware, but not that aware. It’s not something I pay that much attention to, I guess. Even in stuff that I read, I read a ton of nonfiction. So I’m sort of vaguely aware of trends in fiction. But they have to be pretty big for me to be aware of them, I’m afraid. But yeah, it’s not something that I think about that much. The idea of chasing a trend or worrying about a trend, you just have to sort of — at least for me, I just worry about whether I can write a good book or not, and I see where it turns out. And in the case of the third one, it was like, from the first to the third one, one grew pretty naturally out of the other. There were questions that I liked in the first one that I never got around to that I did some of in the second one. And then there was still some left over. So there’s another book. Quite a bit.

Correspondent: Such as what? What specific questions are we talking about here?

Slattery: Gosh, let me think. I think that from the second to the third one, probably the best thing was — you know, the reception to it was really great. It was really very gratifying. One of the things that I ended up taking to heart though was that there were people who were being too flippant.

Correspondent: Really?

Slattery: And I thought, “That’s fair.”

Correspondent: You took that to heart?

Slattery: I did.

Correspondent: Does this explain why this one is really very bleak at times?

Slattery: It is.

Correspondent: It’s not to say that it’s devoid of humor. Because you do have the music.

Slattery: No, no. It is. It’s quite a bit darker. And for a while, I got halfway through it and I thought, “God, this book is really dark.” And then I thought, “Well, at least I should finish it.” And then I finished it and I thought, “No, it’s still really dark.” And there’s a part of me that — because, you know, I’m not really that serious of a person. And I was really kind of surprised that I’d written such a serious book. But it also seemed like — you know, there’s a point where, for the first two books, I think that there was a really conscious endeavor to make sure that the stakes weren’t so high that you couldn’t joke about it. And then eventually the stakes are high enough that it seemed kind of creepy to joke about it. It was like, you know, nobody would be joking in this kind of situation. Nobody would be just kind of horsing around. There’s no place for it anymore. And so I tried to find the humor where I could get it. But it felt increasingly forced to go for it. And it also seemed like kind of a fair trade. I felt like I was trading sarcastic for creepy. And I’m sort of okay with that.

Correspondent: You are. Well, what do you define as sarcasm? Having joy and having fun against an especially bleak or depressing environment, to my mind, isn’t sarcasm. And I don’t think it has been sarcasm in either Liberation or Spaceman Blues. I think it was a sense of irony. So how do you distinguish between irony and sarcasm here? And I’m really curious about the fact that you decided to…

Slattery: That’s a fun question to ask me, actually. Because I consider myself to be a pretty sarcastic person, but also kind of anti-irony. If that makes sense. And I think that what it comes down to is that I don’t — the way that I — I mean, this is obviously the pop culture version of irony. It’s not the lit crit version of it. But, you know, the pop culture version of it is that at the end, the joke is everybody not really sure what the person’s intentions are. Like the person has done a lot to hide what they actually think. And I don’t try to do that. So like…

[Food arrives.]

Slattery: No, this looks great.

Correspondent: Did you want to pause? So you can actually eat that.

Slattery: No, no, no.

Correspondent: Okay.

Slattery: So it would be like — I try to joke around and I try to be kind of honest about it. If that makes sense. And to not be really ambiguous about what it is that I’m trying to say.

Correspondent: Okay. Well, in terms of distinguishing between lit crit irony and pop culture…

Gentleman with Hammer: Sorry. Are you recording?

Correspondent: Yes.

Gentleman with Hammer: Because I’m going to use the hammer for a few. Do you have a long time?

Correspondent: Probably thirty or forty minutes or something like that?

Gentleman with Hammer: Okay. Do you mind? Just for five minutes. I will tell you.

Correspondent: Okay, why don’t we…?

Slattery: We’ll stop.

Correspondent: We’ll stop. Five minutes.

* * *

Correspondent: Okay. So back in action here. So we were talking about irony and sarcasm and humor and the differences between pop culture irony and lit crit irony. And then two gentlemen decided to start construction on us. And they stopped thankfully.

Slattery: Yes.

Correspondent: They were very nice.

Slattery: And it looks really good.

Correspondent: Yes, it does really look good. So we were trying to peg what you view your humor to be.

Slattery: Right.

Correspondent: And I insisted that it was working in some quasi-ironic mode.

Slattery: (laughs) That’s nice of you.

Correspondent: A sincere irony, I suppose. Or I suppose the joys of contradiction. And you were saying, “No, no, no, Ed, actually….”

Slattery: No, no, no. We’re probably talking about the same thing.

Correspondent: Yeah. We’re probably talking about the same thing.

(Image: Houari B.)

The Bat Segundo Show #466: Brian Francis Slattery II (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #369. Mr. Bacigalupi is most recently the author of Ship Breaker. His short story collection, Pump Six, has been recently issued in paperback.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Attempting to juggle several bleak futures.

Author: Paolo Bacigalupi

Subjects Discussed: How to stay writing after getting four novels rejected, Schopenhauer and the will to write, Mr. Bacigalupi’s bleak temperament, the relationship between personal temperament and fictional temperament, why short fiction markets are more open to a dark vision, talking specifically about specifics, imaginative detail in Bacigalupi’s early stories, William Gibson and hyperspecificity, permitting the reader to fill in the gaps, improvisation and what details emerge from the memory banks, devising an imaginative concept vs. the influence of phrasing, the relationship between language and spontaneity, the importance of manipulative violence, whether or not addicts can be sympathized with, stylistic momentum, past tense verbs and participles, getting annoyed with language tics, getting self-conscious about repetition, the frequency of words, the mysterious obsession of the (ology) site, John Banville, using the word “spray,” dreaming space, cannibalizing from the four unpublished novels, uprooting reader expectations through the Windup reading order, origin stories, the disadvantages of writing within established universes, cheshires and megadonts, contending with the logical fallacies of a really cool imagined creature, how the location of a calorie company created numerous narrative variables, the influence of Katrina on the Windup universe and the Ship Breaker universe, descriptive teeth and metaphorical Teeth, the inspirational qualities of biting and tearing, body metaphors, analyzing one’s own writing patterns, J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun, speculative narrative extrapolated from details in the present moment, consequential details vs. making things up, global warming, liquified coal, applying an aesthetic to data points, Lewis Carroll, missing hands and facial scars, Heinlein’s Friday, the Dauntless, James Lennox Kerr, Patrick O’Brian, Citizen of the Galaxy‘s heavy influence, and extrapolating from facts vs. extrapolating from books.


Bacigalupi: It’s almost all improvisation, actually. Very little is planned out. There’s a detail that I have in my bank. And I use it. And you’re always acquiring material, whether that’s from visiting your in-laws or whether that’s from reading a novel. If it’s somebody else’s novel, you’re reading some natural history of the world. Whatever it is. You’re always gathering material. And so then it’s just there. And I don’t even know why, oh, at this moment, I’m looking for a detail that does this kind of a thing. I want to indicate the scope of the world. Or in this particular case, I want to indicate the scope of the calorie companies. Things like that. And, okay, where can I go to do that? What do I have in my repository that seems like it’s a useful tool for that? And then I’ll start pulling things down. So is there an intention that I have? There’s something I want to illustrate. There’s an experience I want to get deeper into. Then which pieces are going to go into it? That’s very much on the fly.

Correspondent: In terms of this being on the fly, how does this work in relation to you devising an imaginative concept versus language? Does phrasing sometimes kickstart a concept more than what you have in the bank, so to speak? I mean, I note for example “cillin” instead of “penicillin.”

Bacigaulpi: Right.

Correspondent: Little things like that we often find in your universes.

Bacigalupi: Right.

Correspondent: So the question, I suppose, is how much language motivates the spontaneity versus how much some leg that you have motivates that particular spontaneity?

Bacigalupi: I don’t know. It’s sort of a combination. You know, the spot where I actually remember a piece of language inspiring me to write a story was more connected to “The People of Sand and Slag.” When I wrote that short story, there had been a little piece of microfiction that I’d written. I had written a paragraph. And it was all about these people lying out on the beach and chopping each other up. And it was sort of compelling. But I didn’t have any idea what to do with it. But I liked the prose. I liked the rhythms of it. And there was something so bizarre about it that I knew that I liked it. That became a part of the bank. That went in and sat there for a very long time until, much later, I was starting to play around with some other concepts for “The People of Sand and Slag.” And suddenly that thing was there. Oh, I get it. These people are immortal. These people are regenerative. They can do all of these things. And this is the perfect illustration for this cascade. And so this piece of — we’ll call it “poetic prose,” and almost none of it survived or entered into the story. But the prose of that, the experience of it for me, resonated for me strongly enough that it could then form an entire piece.

Correspondent: Well, I’m glad you brought that up. Because I actually do want to ask about a recurrent theme. It’s here in Ship Breaker as well. In “Sand and Slag,” we have violence directed towards girls or women. The Windup Girl has that with Emiko. “The Fluted Girl,” of course, has that. And it concludes on an act of revenge. I’m curious as to why you are really drawn to the kind of really degrading violence towards girls and women like that. Whether it’s just part of the bleak temperament or you feel that that’s really a good way to get the audience to feel sympathy towards these particular characters. Or whether it’s just an environmental reality that you need to convey.

Bacigalupi: Honestly, I think this actually comes in different moments for different stories.

Correspondent: Yes.

Bacigalupi: And you’re really illustrating very specific things. The violence that you see for Emiko is pretty manipulative violence. Because you’re really trying to get to a point where you generate enough empathy for her, so that later on she can go on a slaughterfest. And that you feel that that’s entirely reasonable. One of the things that’s interesting to me is that I felt very comfortable depicting her being degraded at one early point in the story and yet I didn’t depict her doing the slaughter later on. And the reason is, I don’t want to lose — I want to maintain character empathy in her. And if you see more than just the blood on the walls, if you see her tearing every single piece of meat and bone out of every one of her enemies, then you might not have that later empathy for her at the very end of the story. And so a lot of this is just manipulation honestly. It’s just flat-out manipulation. And it’s interesting. So in “The People of Sand and Slag,” the guy is the one being dismembered as an experiment in sex fun. And so I’m not sure. It definitely shows up every once in a while. “Softer,” the woman is definitely killed by her husband. And that one too has some disturbing aspects. Who knows? Maybe I’m a misogynist.

Correspondent: I’m not going to go ahead and put that label down. But I am curious about this. We’re talking about manipulation vs. empathy. And this also leads me to ask you about Lopez in Ship Breaker. The father. He’s a very brutal character. I’m wondering if there were efforts on your part to try to make him more sympathetic. When does a character, I suppose, become violent? Almost serving as a manipulative way to get the audience to sympathize with the hero?

Bacigalupi: Right. Yeah, with Lopez — Richard Lopez, he’s sort of based on my own — I had a next door neighbor who was sort of a crystal meth addict. And so I’ve never really had much sympathy for addicts anyway. And so I was perfectly happy to have that villain role fulfilled by him. Honestly, I wanted to illustrate a certain — in a lot of ways — over-the-top idea about what point you look around at family and say that family is no longer family. That they aren’t really valuable anymore. That they need to be done away with. And I tend to think of almost all human relationships as contingent relations. Everything is dependent on good behavior. I don’t really believe in the idea of family as family, or that friends are friends. It’s whether or not, every day, you’re sort of earning your friendship or earning the connections and support of your family. And vice versa. And so, for me, I just really wanted to illustrate Richard Lopez’s break with any sense of his obligations. The mutual obligations of family.

The Bat Segundo Show #369: Paolo Bacigalupi (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #206. Hall is most recently the author of Daughters of the North (published in the UK as The Carhullan Army). My essay on Sarah Hall can be found at the B&N Review.

Condition of the Show: Remaining optimistic about a dystopian future.

Author: Sarah Hall

Subjects Discussed: Daughters of the North vs. The Carhullan Army, writing books that aren’t set in the present day, concern for environmental details, the comforts of familiar territory, catastrophe knocking everything to the past, the wandering impulse within British dystopian novels, Rupert Thomson, Anthony Burgess’s The Wanting Seed, the tension between town and country, literary conversations and outdoing Margaret Atwood’s sense of terror, overcoming perceptions associated with women writers, Samantha Power’s castigation, being overly scrutinized, presentation of the author, the authenticity of testimony, writing a pageturner vs. a leisurely literary novel, being more selective with sentences, writing within confining environments, switching to first person, the origins of the Nixon surname, characters with reddened faces, rural words, Brave New World, names that echo across history, the origins of Rith, schools and buildings that shut down after centuries, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” the dog box and the military training that inspired it, a microutopia within a macrodystopia, nitpicking the apathy within Daughters of the North, the possibilities of revolt and verisimilitude, manipulating the reader and gray areas, violence that occurs offstage, women and violence, bumps on heads, the beauty of corporeal flaws and dilapidated environments, how society transforms the body, To Kill a Mockingbird, Robert C. O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah, sudden relationships and getting to the naughty bits, pornography, the risks of thinking on the page, and romance.


Hall: I think familiar territory is always of comfort to a writer. I find the North of England, where I’m from, fascinating. It’s a very dramatic landscape. It’s kind of a Wordsworth country. So you’ve got the Romantic sense on one hand. And then you’ve got the strange past battling with the future. I suppose Hardy did this to an extent as well. You pick a territory. And even if it’s rural, you have human beings working within that arena. So human drama is going to arise out of those interactions. And I’ve always felt, even though the settings are sometimes quite remote and underpopulated in my fiction, there’s enough going on. You can explore ideas of civilization, breakdown of civilization, human emotional dramas. All the rest of that. But I think what’s interesting with Daughters of the North is — even though we’re casting ahead maybe thirty, forty years from now — and I think British science fiction and speculative fiction does this a lot — there’s this idea of play. When catastrophe happens, everything is knocked back to the past. And so here is what you’re left with. Day of the Triffids. This strange science fiction going on. But at the same time, everybody’s going down to the pub like they always have.