Finnegans Wake (Modern Library #77)

(This is the twenty-fourth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Kim.)

It has been five years since I last tendered any heartfelt words about 20th century fiction for the Modern Library Reading Challenge. An infernal yet magnificent Irish genius is to blame for the delay. Five years is frankly too damned long, especially if I hope to complete this massive and somewhat insane project before I croak my own answer to Joyce’s “Does nobody understand?” Frank Delaney’s recent passing has made me keenly cognizant that being a wallflower is not an option when any of us could fall off the wall. (The poor man never got to finish Re: Joyce, his wonderful podcast on Ulysses.) So here we go.

What I have wondered during this Joyce-populated reading period is whether one should even attempt to match Jimmy Jimmy Jo Jo Bop’s unquestionable erudition, for this is the kooky bodkin he has wielded before readers. A Wake expert once told me that fencing with this book is comparable to being diagnosed with a disease. A good friend, as deeply moved by Ulysses as I am, told me that he never bothered with Finnegans Wake. I asked why. He said that he refused to play James Joyce’s game. I replied, “Yes, but in the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities, you are missing out on some marvelous puns and portmanteaus and the limitless richness of an obscurant dreamscape!” But I do see my pal’s point. Where Ulysses provides us with an invitational beauty to be treasured and reconsidered at nearly any time in life, Finnegans Wake is the loutish intoxicating charmer for the young, the book declaring itself the cleverest in the room, the novel above all novels that says, “Well, if you really love literature…”

In attempting to come to terms with the Wake, I certainly don’t wish to align myself with such execrable anti-intellectual oafs like Dan Kois, who see the joyful act of great art mesmerizing a daredevil reader as something akin to eating cultural vegetables. I have enjoyed longass offerings from Marugerite Young, Samuel R. Delany, Laurence Sterne, Umberto Eco, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Mark Z. Danielewski (see The Familiar, the fifth of its twenty-seven volumes will be released in October), and William T. Vollmann, but none of this could prepare me for the Wake. Finnegans Wake is worth the cerebral sweat if you are willing to sign up for the gym package, which involves knowing a little German, Gaelic, and French, familiarizing yourself with Vedic commentary, reading up on Giambattista Vico and Irish history, and doing your best to encourage and resist the urge to plunge further. It is certainly difficult to argue against the Wake‘s enchanting use of language. But if cleverness — even from a bedazzling and often sprightly brainiac such as the Wake — involves adjusting one’s mind and heart entirely to that of the author, there is unquestionably a form of literary tyranny involved. On the other hand, the Wake, unlike any other book I have ever read, does test the limits of what we’re willing to know and how you can live with not knowing. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that reading the Wake aloud and letting much of the esoterica wash over you is the best way to approach it and to love it. The only sane option is to accept that you will never know all the answers, that Joyce is smarter than you, and to enjoy the experience.

The book left me baffled, delighted, and often drove me mad. I am not sure that I want to read it again, although who’s kidding whom? I probably will. Finnegans Wake often felt like some bright and charming friend with benefits who texts you at 2AM, asking if you’re down to hook up, only to make you its bottom and leaving you cooking breakfast the next morning as your sexy lover basks in languor in your bed, singing pitch-perfect melodic ballads and cracking the smartest jokes in German. You sometimes wonder if you’re receiving any pleasure in a consummation that was supposed to be fun and spontaneous. Did I catch a case of the ten thunderclap words sprinkled throughout the book (Adam Harvey has kindly made YouTube videos on how to pronounce these) or merely the clap? These carnal metaphors on a book that essentially builds a dreamy narrative from an episode of sexual humiliation are no accident. Like Tinder, Finnegans Wake is a young man’s game. I would recommend attempting it before the age of forty, when there is still the time and the hunger to unravel the arcane wisecracking. Perhaps my mistake was reading this book on both sides of forty, with one foot steeped in bountiful possibility and the other more aware of mortality and the grave. My earlier plunges were largely felicitous. My subsequent belly flops were coated with the minor sting of missing out on something vital in the real world. And given the choice between staying home with the Wake or having a fun night out, it was a fairly easy decision. Many unreportable evenings later, I still believe I made the right choice. But how could any sensible reader not be wowed and enamored by Joyce’s uncompromising commitment to a difficult aesthetic?

All told, I worked my way through this intoxicating and frustrating melange in its full inimitable entirety twice, returning to the beginning of the Earwicker saga and then rereading other bits out of sequence, such as the mirthful and genuinely pleasurable showdown between Shaun and Shem in Book I, Chapter 7, which is among my favorite parts of the book. I can certainly follow the primary points of this “commodious vicus of recirculation,” even if the music of words usually triumphs over narrative coherence, which is often sandbagged altogether by later events such as Shaun’s ever-shifting identity. While I have largely enjoyed my journey, there were several points in which I cursed out Joyce for leading me down another rabbit hole. (The Dubliners’ low-key musical version of “The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly? My weeks-long obsession with the Wellington Monument near the south of Dublin’s Phoenix Park? My futile attempts to learn Gaelic on Duolingo? My concern with ellipses and a surprising preoccupation for how reels of film turned upon encountering “the lazily eye of his lupis” and the diagram above? My efforts to reconcile Butt and Taff with Mutt and Jute and follow the batty Irish-American connections — extending to a few visiting American characters and the dual Dublin in Laurens County, Georgia, which Joyce cites?) It has left me to ponder in all this time if Finnegans Wake and its “futurist onehorse balletbattle pictures” were entirely worth understanding. It has left me feeling very sorry indeed for Joyce’s very patient benefactor, Harriet Shaw Weaver. The phrase “tough sledding” is an understatement.

Still, you can’t help but sympathize with a man who, buttressed by the wealth and the literary notoriety that came after Ulysses, saw his “Work in Progress” (early selections of the Wake published in journals) abandoned by many of his prominent supporters as he was going blind. Stanislaus Joyce had already become suspicious of Ulysses‘s famously difficult “Oxen of the Sun” chapter and proceeded to condemn his brother further for the bits of the Wake that had appeared in the transatlantic review and would later tell Jim to his face that his “book of the night” was impenetrable. His benefactor Harriet Shaw Weaver went along with Joyce’s new direction for a while, with Joyce providing her with a pre-Campbell skeleton key on January 27, 1925, but later that year, some printers refused to set the type for these new excerpts. And two years later, Weaver would condemn the “Wholesale Safety Pun Factory” that Joyce had wrought. Ezra Pound, the putative paragon of poetic innovation, turned on Joyce, badmouthing this “circumambient peripherization.” H.G. Wells called it a dead end. (Did Rebecca West put a burr in Herbert’s ear?) In the face of declining love, Joyce’s remaining admirers published Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, featuring the likes of Samuel Beckett, Frank Budgen, and William Carlos Williams defending Joyce’s new direction. Beckett would write:

Here form is content, content is form. You complaint that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read — or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something: it is that something itself….When the sense is sleep, the words go to sleep….When the sense is dancing, the words dance.

It was believed that Joyce himself wrote one of the two letters of protest featured in this small volume. Certainly the voice in the letter is unmistakably recognizable:

You must not stink I am attempting to ridicul (de sac! )you or to be smart, but I am so disturd by my inhumility to onthorstand most of the impsolocations constrained in your work…

Joyce wanted to have it both ways. He both longed for recognition and was contemptuous of anyone who didn’t recognize his genius. The remarkably vanilla-minded Arnold Bennett, a troublesome gnat who I wrote about earlier and who only boorish bores like Philip Hensher now have wet dreams about, redoubled the troubling conventionalism that he had expressed for Ulysses and continued to attack Joyce in the press, which inspired Joyce to send him up as Jute.

In reading the Wake, I have often wondered if I have understood anything at all, but I cannot abide by D.H. Lawrence’s characterization of Joyce as “too terribly would-be and done-on purpose, utterly without spontaneity or real life.” For Joyce does not bore me. He merely maddens me with his demands on my time. I ken the puns in many tongues and can divine much of the history blurring into alluring verbs. Joyce’s wildly arrogant but nonetheless remarkable goal was to keep the professors arguing over enigmas and riddles for centuries. And with the Internet, he has succeeded. Finnegans Wiki is a vital companion when you first start reading and hope to know everything, until you realize that you never will. What is more important here is to feel the book, to take in its miasmic rushes and quell the urge to order mimosas when your noggin explodes from too much “folkenfather of familyans.”

In my early days of reading the Wake, I kept up a Tumblr on my notes. I filled up a five subject notebook with crazed and often indecipherable notes. And then I realized that to carry on like this was futile. It would be akin to resolving every unsolved mystery about life. The Wake contains almost as many tributaries.

Finnegans Wake is not a book to be read. It is a book to be lived, ideally with fellow travelers. So if you have a very rich and active life, there’s no getting around the need to make time for it. Fortunately, it has inspired any number of marvelous online offerings. The incredible project, Waywords and Meansigns, has performed three different musical versions of the Wake. Listening to these interpretations helped lift my spirits when I wondered if I should give up entirely (the bluesy interpretation of the pearlagraph episode near the beginning of Book II came at a time when I was about to throw my book into the wall for the seventh time). I attended a meeting of The Finnegans Wake Society of New York, which not only led me to this invaluable annotative resource, but allowed me to understand that even the smartest and most literary people imaginable could not entirely make head or tail of Joyce and that any and all interpretive suggestions were fair game.

If Joyce wrote Ulysses for people to reconstruct Dublin brick by brick after the apocalypse, then Finnegans Wake was written to reconstruct the whole of human existence, albeit a region teetering somewhere between reality and dreams. There are crazed Russian generals and discordance and recursiveness and twins and families and lust and religion and bawdiness and drinking and blasphemy, but, much like Molly Bloom’s beautifully baring “Penelope” monologue, the Wake ends with the singular motive voice of a woman:

First we feel. Then we fall. And let her rain now if she likes. Gently or strongly as she likes. Anyway let her rain for my time is come. I done me best when I was let. Thinking always if I go all goes. A hundred cares, a tithe of troubles and is there one who understands me? One in a thousand of years of the nights? All me life I have been lived among them but now they are becoming lothed to me. And I am lothing their little warm tricks. And lothing their mean cosy turns. And all the greedy gushes out through their small souls. And all the lazy leaks down over their brash bodies. How small it’s all! And me letting on to meself always. And lilting on all the time. I thought you were all glittering with the noblest of carriage. You’re only a bumpkin. I thought you the great in all things, in guilt and in glory. You’re but a puny. Home! My people were not their sort out beyond there so far as I can. For all the bold and bad and bleary they are blamed, the seahags. No! Nor for all our wild dances in all their wild din.

And then we read “A way a lone a last a loved a long the,” and feel and fall some more, and turn back to the beginning to finish the aborted sentence. And every time we run through the loop, there is laughter, marvel, something we missed, something that aggravates us, and something that makes the rest of literature feel irrelevant.

Next Up: Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie!

Fiction: “To Serve and Protect”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Two years ago, in response to the senseless deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the abusive hands of the police, I wrote what turned out to be a highly controversial short story called “To Serve and Protect.” It was my effort to portray the institutional trappings that perpetuate racism, police brutality, and our endemic gun culture. I submitted the story to several literary journals. All rejected it. While many of these outlets praised the story, the editors were greatly unnerved by the story’s hard truths. One editor informed me that she didn’t want to alienate her readers. And as my story made the rounds at a snail’s crawl, there were more murders, needless murders, of innocent and unarmed men by the police all around the nation. In the past week, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile also lost their lives, their final moments recorded in harrowing video that will numb and horrify anyone who is human. And that wasn’t all. Last night, five police officers were killed by snipers during a Dallas protest against police brutality. Clearly, the problem that I was attempting to dramatize isn’t going away. Clearly, the literary world is a timid and gutless bunch when it comes to publishing fiction that provokes and reflects the realities of our time. What is especially shocking to me is that, while I have not changed my story in any way, every sentence still applies. I cannot stay silent about the headlines any longer. So I have decided to publish my story here, with the hope that it might help at least a few readers to make sense and find solutions to the terrible American nightmare. Silence is not an option when it comes to stopping racism and violence. It’s on us to confront the ugly realities — through peace, art, and action — that cause these pointless plagues to endure.

* * *

We left the nigger’s body rotting on the dark and filthy asphalt for four hours as we swatted away the flies swirling around the exit wounds in drunken loops. The insects hoped to plug their thin trunks into six fresh holes spilling out the nigger’s once young blood, which dried into the baking black cracks, absorbing the funhouse light of our whirling sirens. You chided us for hitching the yellow tape into your front yards, but we can’t fulfill our duties if we don’t stretch the perimeter of a crime scene into your personal space. We asked you to move back as you lashed out with rubber necks and flimsy accusations. We enforced curfew so you wouldn’t kill yourselves and you scolded us for not calling the paramedics fast enough. You aligned yourselves with the helicopter journalists after we threw those pesky gnats into vans and cells and any space we could call prison when they pressed past the limits of their credentials and tried churning their tyro familiarity with our precinct into a national story. You never saw the fear that clouded inside the whites of our eyes.

Not that we’d let you.

Modern policing demands the deafening squelch of our sound cannons when you won’t heed our crystal-clear commands through the speakers. We are the ones in control. Not you. We crank up our warnings because your ears choose to deafen.

The nigger wasn’t armed, or maybe he was. Maybe it was a gun we couldn’t find. Maybe it was the half-melted Hershey’s bar we found buried in his hoodie pocket or the burner phone lodged in the seat of his jeans. The evidence will show that we had to take the nigger down, that he was a credible threat, and all this will wash out your social media speculations. We are working with the FBI, the Department of Justice, the Highway Patrol, any old coot with a badge pushing his beak into our jurisdiction. We will never have our men found guilty. We have the President of the United States, the Governor, and the Mayor all on our side. We can produce videos, radio scanner chatter, logs, reports, just about anything needed for a slam-dunk case. We will respond to your sunshine requests, but you must understand that it will take time for our overworked and underpaid staff to sift through your poorly worded entreaties. And by the time you get the docs you so desperately crave, it will be too late. Our first priority is to keep the community safe.

We asked the nigger to cooperate, but he wouldn’t raise his hands in the air. Dig all you want into the back story of the two primary officers involved. Why do you think we gave you their names? We know when whiny lions need measly scraps to chew on. We can assure you that every member of our department hoped the nigger would adhere to our request and step peacefully into our protective arms. The tape will show that our voices did not quaver or waver once when we crooned through our bullhorns. We were calm and professional and the nigger told us to fuck off. He cited an institution abolished 150 years ago, but we’ve read our history and we know that we’re on the right side. The nigger told us that he was tired of being harassed and that he would never be questioned or taken in. And he started waving his arms and jumping up and down, which is something you should never do in front of boys in blue. It was a common tale we see all the time: a terrified man hiding behind bold talk and false bluster. So we shot him. Because we never look in the mirror. All told, it took about two seconds. Happens all the time. If you were walking in our lead brogans and you saw that the devil had something more than fight or flight to offer the universe, wouldn’t you make the same call? Are you up on this year’s statistics? Do you have any real idea how many niggers have reached into their pockets to shoot our guys? And don’t give us that old song and dance about banning firearms or limiting our supplies. We know the Constitution (including the Thirteenth Amendment) as well as the local criminal codes, but there’s only enough room to enforce one canon. We’re here because you couldn’t form a well-regulated militia to save your hides. You’re so busy shooting up your families and blowing up stores that you never notice the bullets hurled our way as we’re trying to help you. So we’re the ones who take the rap and the crap. Look at it from our perspective. If we let one nigger walk away, then all of you will. And, yes, contrary to your racial profiling conspiracies, we’d let a dumb cracker who won’t show us his ID expire in the street the same way. There are monkeys of every color on the rainbow and they all need to learn how to behave.

So now that the nigger is dead, what do you want us to do? Stop our operations? String up the guilty parties in front of the central precinct? You don’t want to work with us and we don’t want to work with you. We know you’ll always view us as grim grunts lusting over the next 1033 shipment from the Beltway. You think our cocks harden over the wet dream of rushing into a broken hood with fresh Hummers. Well, if we were so committed to shooting tear gas at you at all hours, why do you think we let you steal some of our toys? Sure, there’s some under-the-table income that smooths out our take home pay, but maybe we wanted to give you mouthy cunts a fighting chance. You were the ones who photographed us and shared your slanted stories on YouTube. You call us pigs and crackers (and Oreos and Uncle Toms if we share your shade).

All told, we’ve been pretty fucking forgiving. It isn’t our fault that we have quotas to meet and misdemeanors to invent. We’ve given you plenty of opportunities to wiggle out of a trivial ticket, but you still insist that you’re better, even as you slip up and give us lip. Do you want this to become Detroit? How long would you uppity fuckers last if we left the streets? If you think we’re putting down our guns and letting you animals take over our turf after we’ve managed to make a few blocks safe over fifteen patient years, then we’ve got a subprime mortgage for you to sign. By all means, shoot yourselves up with semiautomatics. If you’re going to shoot someone, why not kill all the bankers? Get the city council to pay one of our officers more than thirty-five thou a year and we wouldn’t have to take any…

…time before I punch out, as soon as I squared away the next shift with the sarge. Eight years of this shit and the gray was debuting at the top of my chops and my heavy body was coming home more sore with the shellacking each night. Chasing down suspects, perp walks executed with a more elaborate show, more time testing out the latest from Washington, having to fire back shots more and more as the crime rate soared and we were busting our asses to beat the CompStat numbers and our computers malfunctioned and the paperwork rose in tall rough impossible towers. Fiddling thumbs before the door, watching the sarge lurch left, right, left, right, as a burly suspect was two minutes away from confessing to a crime he never committed, the good cop burning the sin into his brain with a bullshit plea bargain from the Frank Castle playbook. Empty squares on the shift sheet staring back, the texts coming in from the wife, who was waiting, like me, to know when I had free time.

“Tomorrow,” said the sarge. “Collect your car at midnight.”

The kid’s shift. Rodriguez, that hotshot flyboy who’d only been here two years. He called in a favor. The way I once did before they tilted their ears to the new blood. That gave me eight hours to unwind, including sleep. I’d supported Gibson and Jiminez when they shot up that unarmed kid. Fingers were itching harder these days. No more apprentice period. Small wonder that the community we tried to defend didn’t trust us anymore.

I checked my gear into the locker. In desperate need of a shower, but I never hit the stalls with these guys. They’re still shaking off the sticky dregs of rapid-fire indignities doled out by the top brass when they can’t type out their reports on time or they don’t meet the daily quota. The same eyes that size up a crime scene have a way of searing into you. I can’t even count the times that something I’ve muttered in a stressful haze gets recalled by another grunt fond of chewing out my ass when the captain calls us in for a new sting.

Sure, I’ll meet the boys for basketball and barbeques and donuts. Never in bars. I know other cops get off on walking behind a 7-11 counter and grabbing the greasy pot that’s been rusting there for hours and hours. They fill up their Styrofoam cups of shady joe without paying a dime. That’s never been my way. These guys mark their territory because there’s nobody waiting at home. You learn who the lonely ones are because you forge tight bonds fast, especially if you want to survive. The endless stream of code and calm crackling through the radio leaves little time for jokes, unless, by some miracle, you’re ahead on the calls. But the never-ending pace doesn’t halt the young hungry fucks, the ones hungering for a detective badge, from nipping at your battered heels.

I’m a good cop compared to most of these animals. But even good cops lose their cool and take out their shit on a casual scumbag. You don’t rat out your peers, not if you want to live tomorrow. You look the other way and hope that the other guy softens over time.

I don’t take bribes, but I will take gifts. I stick within my salary. I take the old lady out for dinner at the seafood place once a year on her birthday, but we do have two kids and that sucks up expenses. It’s hard enough to come home and not beat the brats within an inch of their lives for something that has nothing to do with them. I don’t know what’s harder. Keeping expenses within your frugal budget or never blowing up. But it’s too late to change. By the time my youngest hits eighteen, I’ll be well past the age for a graceful career change.

I never would have had this life if I hadn’t walked into a donut shop one foggy morning. I helped nab one of those scam artists who target the dopey guys working the register. The fucker was a big man with long dreads grown from some reggae obsession lasting longer than an old fuck’s Reader’s Digest subscription. I watched the scammer lay into the register guy, claiming he never got change back from his twenty. He came in during the rush, scoping out the place to make sure it was understaffed. There are better ways to squeeze ten bucks out of a dummy, but his crime was so small time that nobody wanted to step in. Nobody wants to do anything anymore. But I saw the whole thing. The bastard had to be stopped. So I grabbed his arms and slammed his head onto the counter and told him that I was making a citizen’s arrest. The dopey guy behind the counter called the cops. The whole donut shop cheered me on, telling me that I was a hero, telling me that they wished they had my courage because the scammer was a big man with the kind of presence that suggests homicidal intent. It was the last time anyone told me that I did a good job, that I had a place in life. I told the detective everything: the crooked slant of the scammer’s upper teeth, the faint scar he had on his chin, the suspicious boom of his voice, the banged up Chevy Beretta with its dopey diagonal frame. He laughed, fired up two cigarettes, passed me one, and said I’d be a good cop. I called the recruitment line. The rest is my sad personal history.

We hate ourselves. We go to bed angry and wake up angrier the next morning. If we could blow our collective brains out, we would. We’re so wiped out at the end of the day. It’s an exhaustion most of you can only dream about.

Yes, we shot the nigger. We aren’t going to deny that. But we became the niggers of the workforce a long fucking time ago. There’s no escaping our destiny. We’ll go on killing niggers until the captain gives us the bright gold watch and sends our spent and battered husks to Florida. There’s no room for idealism in this job. If you want uplift, join a glee club.

The one thing that keeps us going is our responsibility to stub out crime, to do the best we can. But sooner or later, you come to understand that everyone is a criminal. And while you can check in your brain and keep your head down and wonder how the years rolled by so fast, we have to endure the riffraff and live with the burden of too much authority. But we’ll keep on going. We’ll keep on going because our mission is to serve and protect.

Robin Black’s Parable of the Old and the Young

LIFE DRAWING
by Robin Black
Random House, 256 pages

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
— Wilfred Owen, “Strange Meeting”

James Joyce’s remarkable coolness towards the First World War while writing Ulysses has been observed by many, and that century-old dilemma of how to depict quotidian complexities in a time of international turmoil is something of a wry undercurrent in Robin Black’s sharply observed novel, Life Drawing. Between Black’s novel and Clare Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, characters named Nora are swiftly becoming the literary answer to NORAD, revealing cold domestic wars nearly as underestimated in their body count as some matter in the Balkans that will be surely resolved by Christmas. More on Nora in a bit.

The book’s 47-year-old protagonist, Augusta, is known as “Gus” by her husband Owen — a teacher and writer whose birthday is strongly insinuated as Bloomsday — and “Augie” by everyone else. That nickname disconnect should tell you everything about this quietly fraught marriage. Augie neither bellows nor marches, at least not at the beginning, but she does spoon out parts of her life in small details. We learn she is an artist of some kind, yet she is diffident about the projects she has painted. Augie is Jewish, but this revelation arrives almost as a perfunctory confessional aside, some hint at the iceberg hidden beneath the water. This approach not only keeps us curious, but tells us that Augie is hiding something: not dirty laundry, but an inner turmoil erected upon decisions over matters it may be too late to clear up.

Augie and Owen have fled the Philadelphia art scene for a new life and bucolic rejuvenation at a farmhouse built in 1918: in part to escape the hurtful residue of an affair Augie had and halted. This deceit is the first of many stings and untruths to come. When Augie finds a stack of newspapers used a century before to insulate the walls, the brutal reports and dead ancestors spilling from these yellowed column-inches serve as rocky and uncertain inspiration (“Why? I didn’t know why. I’d stopped thinking sensibly — which is not how projects usually begin for me.”). For Augie, making art becomes a strange, seemingly liberating narcotic, a curious, ego-flexing gauze to throw over the more important gaze you need to direct at the world. (We learn later, when an unexpected muse arrives, that Owen’s writing is driven by the same impulse. Scrupulous character strokes like this allow us to understand that, even though these two are wrong for each other, they are nevertheless bound by the same beguiling temperament. Late in the book, a gripping and circumlocutory chat in a car offers the best case against trying to work out a marital catastrophe without a couples therapist that I am likely to read in a novel this year.) Black introduces a new neighbor named Alison, who has temporarily rented an adjacent house after retreating from an abusive husband. “I am big on fresh starts,” says Alison not long after meeting Augie, “Second chances. Third, if necessary.” It’s clear from this intensity that Alison needs any soul to help her get back on her feet, yet Augie cannot detect this. They form an ephemeral bond over trips to the farmer’s market and regular visits.

There are big reasons why Augie is friendless and exiled in the country. She’s still emailing with Laine, the daughter of the man she had an affair with, offering her pointers on how to be a painter and she hasn’t told her husband about this. Alison has her own art, and, while it is more macroscopic in nature, it’s driven by a vivid fluidity that Augie can’t find with the dead soldiers she’s resurrecting by paint. And then there’s Nora, Alison’s daughter, who becomes smitten with Owen and who understandably takes up more of Alison’s time. Augie turns jealous and judgmental, and this is where matters turn nasty:

Yes, she was self-absorbed, but now that she had relaxed, it seemed less as through that were the result of ego and instead entirely appropriate for a young woman excited about her life and also excited to have met someone to idolize. She was a bit short on boundaries, but to be otherwise at twenty-two might have been off-putting in its own way.

We begin to see that, while Augie distinguishes characteristics between the old and the young, she can’t discern the same clawing and childish qualities inside herself. Moreover, Augie cannot understand that the young generation now lives in an environment in which every private action becomes public (and, strangely enough, the willful exposure of private confidences is quite similar to what ultimately befalls Nora in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs). Black’s careful juxtapositions not only reveal Augie’s desperate longing for a motherhood she never decided upon, but show how her desperate drift to art is part of the same reason she cannot see the frailty and beauty of people.

The book continues the fearless interior probing into a middle-aged woman’s life that we saw last year with Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Both Life Drawing and The Woman Upstairs feature protagonists who disguise their fury at making terrible life choices with furious painting. Yet both arrive at their jolting revelations from altogether different trajectories. It remains anyone’s guess whether Black, like Messud, will suffer the indignity of having to defend the “unlikable character” rap. But Black’s work is just as important.

Black garnered justifiable acclaim for her excellent short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This. (If you have 53 minutes, I interviewed her in 2010. There is also a wonderful interview by Anna Clark at The American Prospect that considers the politics of complicated heroines.) What made Black’s stories sing was her willingness to depict the inner lives of older women, who are often overlooked in fiction, without resorting to explicit metaphors. In Life Drawing, she builds off this promise beautifully, creating the kind of harrowing fiction that causes any reader — man or woman, older or younger, artist or non-artist — to take a hard, necessary, and emotional look in the mirror.

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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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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Daniel Woodrell (The Bat Segundo Show #517)

Daniel Woodrell is most recently the author of The Maid’s Version.

Author: Daniel Woodrell

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Subjects Discussed: Twists within Woodrell’s fiction, Thelonious Monk, mysterious narrators, William Kennedy’s Albany Cycle, The Flaming Corsage and Very Old Bones as deeply underrated novels, the snapshot montage approach to presenting history through fiction, how general observations identify people who lived 85 years before, the cemetery as the ultimate marker of memory, the novelist’s obligation to history, why it’s important to explore perspectives foreign to your own, Tomato Red as the creative turning point for Woodrell, the close connections between heightened language and heightened perspective, how respect for a town manifests itself in unusual ways, Ozark vernacular, referring to a cop as “John Law,” “Parmesan” vs. “sprinkled cheese,” consulting the OED, food in Woodrell’s novels, tasty variants of Depression stew, fatback, what people get wrong about stew, hack stew, prostitution, how Woodrell cultivated his knowledge of hookers, junior high school crushes who turn into hookers, people who manipulate others, knowing most of humanity by living in a small town, why there isn’t street crime in the Ozarks, crime that occurs among acquaintances, criminal strangers who lurch into tough guy mode, fighting against the cliche of the guy who wants an easy fight in a small town, Tony Danza’s boxing skills, why it’s important to lose fights, testifying against your cousin, how to create distinctive characters, Plug’s character in The Maid’s Version, families who accept aberrant behavior within kin, not prying into other people’s business, regional literature defined by acceptance of strange behavior, how reading Southern literature tilts real-life concerns, feeble attempts to deny knowledge of William Faulkner, the appeal of Cormac McCarthy’s darker novels, The Bayou Trilogy, Ed McBain’s Isola, how home life is defined in Woodrell’s novels, being more aware of the exterior of homes rather than the interior, reading novels as a way of knowing other regions, Comte de Lautréamont’s knowing narrator style, how illusion creates energy, the urge to feel uncertain, how shaky sales creates creative freedom, the decline of book review sections, why publishers believed in Woodrell with a terrible sales track, disasters and population ratios, the effect of a dance hall explosion on a small town vs. the Boston Marathon bombing, when larger cities don’t always comprehend the impact of disasters, why small towns permit more speculation than metropolitan clusters, the comforts of seemingly conscious forces, grief and belief culture, Woodrell’s abandoned San Francisco novel, why San Francisco didn’t work as a setting for Woodrell, Eddie Muller and the Noir City Film Festival, the joys of film noir, Woodrell’s Vietnam novel, Woodrell’s past experience as a Marine, antiwar protests, growing to accept the necessity of certain types of civil disobedience, false promises from the military, and fiction writing and political impulses.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: We’ve seen twists in your books before. I think of the brutal Civil War swap that opens up Woe to Live On. I think of the relationship revelation after that house break in Tomato Red. But in this book [The Maid’s Version], you have been extremely opaque about the narrator’s identity to the point of, I will confess, mild frustration. But then I started to get into what you were doing. I’m wondering why this opacity, along with the fragmented sense of history, more your style this time around. I’m wondering if this was a formal exercise to see how much material you could pack into a 165 page novel.

Woodrell: Well, I didn’t want to turn it into being about him so much directly. I wanted him to be in a position to know a lot of things and to observe things and to report things. In many ways, this book has a style that would fit nonfiction. Quite a bit of it. And that was also by design. Because I had felt that he was trying to relay fiction. And so I wanted him to be a little bit outside. He’s not the most important person in the book, or even very important. Just as a messenger of the story. And I did really wrestle with this book in terms of what size to make it. I tried to initially make it a big fat one and include everyone in it. It just got out of shape so badly that I essentially threw it away. I eventually realized, “Just The Maid’s Version. Just get down to the bone. To the part that really matters to you.” Or as Thelonious Monk once said, “Just play the notes you really mean.” And I kind of took that to heart here. Just played the notes I really meant.

Correspondent: When you say this was going to be “a big fat one,” what were the original drafts looking like? I mean, you say that you were reporting here. And I’m wondering, given the economy of the final product so to speak, how expansive did you get here?

Woodrell: Well, there were a lot of different rumors about what may have or may not have happened. There were a lot of different players who could have come into the picture briefly or at more length. Even the little bios of some of the victims were originally quite a few pages a piece. And it began to lose shape and focus and it wandered too much for me. And that’s a little bit depressing sometimes. When you get to page 100 and something and you say, “I think I can use ten of these.”

Correspondent: By the way, can we actually confess the narrator’s name? I guess we can.

Woodrell: Yeah. His name is…

Correspondent: Alek.

Woodrell: Alek. He is named a few times.

Correspondent: He is. He is. I didn’t know the extent of spoilers. I’ve seen reviews do this. So he’s Alek. Out of the bag.

Woodrell: And there have been people who read it and didn’t catch his name. They didn’t know he had a name. No, he is named.

Correspondent: Yes.

Woodrell: It didn’t occur to me. (laughs)

Correspondent: Did this book start with Alek? How did the reporting and how did the wrestling with history become such a part of this book? We can talk about the fire that is actually a real dance hall fire in 1928 that is also in this book. So what caused your imagination to wander into this factual milieu?

Woodrell: Well, I’d heard about this ever since I was old enough to be told this kind of detail. And I eventually began to learn there were a lot of versions or rumors about what might or might not have happened. And the very first time I attempted to get into this, it was omniscient and there was no Alek and there was no particular focus on the Dunahew family. It was going to be pretty tightly — there was a Wiliam Kennedy book I liked. A lot of other people didn’t seem to.

Correspondent: Which one? Very Old Bones?

Woodrell: The Flaming Corsage. And Very Old Bones. Both of them.

Correspondent: Very Old Bones, I feel, is very underrated.

Woodrell: I think it is too. I really like that. I love Kennedy. Period. So I’m not really capable of being unbiased toward him. But I liked that a lot. And I felt like it moved a certain story through history rather well and it certainly kept me going.

Correspondent: So his montage nature, I think, in that book appealed to you for this?

Woodrell: Yeah. It did.

Correspondent: That’s interesting. That totally makes sense.

Woodrell: So originally it was going to be here’s the maid for a minute and then here’s someone else and here’s someone else, and they’re all linked together. And the story would expand from there and go forward. But slowly over a period of time, I realized that the personal part of it, the Dunahew family’s interior relationship to this, was fundamental to me really. I just hadn’t recognized how important that part of it was to me. And it began to seem to me that that was the way to go into this.

Correspondent: I’m curious. At what point did the dance hall start to inform the snapshot approach? Was it more the dance hall? Or the Kennedy book The Flaming Corsage?

Woodrell: Well, you go around town talking about the real event, you get little snippets. And a number of the victims are remembered by one thing that was notable about them or that was often reported. “She played the piano” or “He was a good ballplayer.” Or something like that. And so over a period of time, these characters, as they’re discussed, are sitting around time with other citizens. They begin to have the one, two, or three things that have stuck about them in the minds of the people there. And I began to realize, “Yeah, that’s right. There are certain essential qualities of people that linger for 85 years. They should live here.” So that kind of informed those. And I definitely wanted the victims to be brought forward somehow. And I didn’t want it all to just be thirty-five people walking toward the dance or something like that.

Correspondent: Sure. So you felt a responsibility to imbue the victims with some kind of identity as opposed to being random names. This brings me to the cemetery, which forms a serious part of this book. I mean, Alma always ends her walks there, we learn at the very beginning. But then we learn about the dance hall owner, whose past is actually revealed through the cemetery. A lot of his associations. And I was wondering first and foremost, well, did you wander around the cemetery yourself looking for leads here? Or was this kind of a way for you to remind both the readers and also to imbue the town with additional life? I mean, here is this marker of memory. All these people have died. And you can’t escape your legacy. I mean, what was the appeal of this?

Woodrell: Well, by an accident of just chance, a fair portion of my family are buried only about fifteen feet from the memorial. So all my life, when we’d go over to put the flowers down for Memorial Day and so forth, I’d think, “What’s this?” And then slowly that would develop. And then also, by happenstance, a number of the people who were identified are also buried near there. That was the section of the cemetery that was then being filled. So as I began learning more and more of the names of the people who were actually relevant to the event, I began to realize, “Oh! They’re all planted around here.” So that very fact resonated with me. I’m not…I never say what happened. Because I don’t know what happened. I chose a story that really rang for me and went with it. But I could walk around town and find a number of people who are still debating a lot of different angles that I never really suggested.

Correspondent: This leads me to ask. What obligation do you really have to history? I mean, this isn’t your first historical novel. You explored the Kansas Irregulars in the Civil War novel. In this, you’re dealing with something that’s a little bit more local than that — and also your family history. I mean, the Civil War — even the Kansas Irregulars — offers a really wide canvas for the imagination to bristle. But in this, you’re dealing with something that is so hyperlocal that I wonder if you have any problems bending the truth as fiction requires or whether you run with the actual basis and let things go into place from there.

Woodrell: Well, none of the people who were allegedly in the periphery of this or maybe even toward the center of it appealed to me as members of the community and as historical figures, but not as fictional characters. I didn’t feel drawn to write about people with some of the characteristics that these rumored individuals actually presented. And I specifically didn’t want to write about the wealthy in town sitting around twisting their mustaches thinking of villainy to perpetrate upon the lower classes.

Correspondent: Was there a real banker?

Woodrell: There was a banker who was sometimes mentioned as having had something involved maybe. But he was a much more dangerous kind of guy and a relentless skirt chaser and all that. Not the character that I found myself writing about. It was in the same way that I ended up writing about the Southern bushwhackers instead of the Northern [in Woe to Live On]. I had originally started out to write a book about the Northern. And then I realized that that was actually a little too easy for me to inhabit that sensibility. And it was more of a stretch for me politically and as a person to try to get inside the other side and what was making them tick. So I wanted this character to be someone that it would be more of a surprise if he were accidentally or purposely involved in something.

Correspondent: So part of the appeal of The Maid’s Version and all these little bits and anecdotes you were collecting was to really inhabit the Other. In this way.

Woodrell: Yeah. As time went on, I realized more and more it’s the key to the whole book — to me anyway. It’s the Dunahew family story. That the dance hall and some of the surrounding qualities of that or aftereffects of that were propellants to the Dunahew family’s shift over a generation and a half or two.

Correspondent: I actually really wanted to ask you about a tilt in your writing style that I detected with Tomato Red, where suddenly you have sentences that demand almost this total life through language. Of course, a lot of this is evident because of that amazing first paragraph in Tomato Red, but I wanted to point it out by reading one of the sentences from Tomato Red: “This Pinto pooted small gray distress signals from the tailpipe and sounded like a chain-smoker at a cold dawn and practically shrieked for a civil rights lawyer when I forced it up hills.” So aside from the simile, we have “Pinto pooted.” We have “up hills” split into two words. I’m wondering, with this book, did you need to have that voice of Sammy Barlach to just really get these sentences? Is perspective really the way for you to evolve as a stylist? I was hoping to get something.

Woodrell: Yeah. Very much. And Sammy was probably the first voice I did that was quite — he’s not unhinged or anything, but he definitely sees everything from a little bit of a different angle than most of us probably do. And I thought of Sammy very much as an Expressionist. He’s looking at the real world but he’s just not seeing it exactly the way most people see it. And so that began to suggest a richness of language because of the insights he was having that kind of called for that. And it wouldn’t be any fun for me to write if I wasn’t allowed to let the language run amuck and then hopefully, if it’s really amuck, I’ll catch it in time to trim it back. (laughs) But that’s a big motivating force for me to write at all.

Correspondent: I was wondering if that was the aha moment for you. I mean, I like the other books before that. But that one really amps things up to this level where the language and the character are absolutely one in a way that it continues with the subsequent books. And it’s interesting that with The Maid’s Version, you go to this more succinct approach to also try and inhabit the sentence. Did the structure of this book — was it almost an obstacle for the language perspective approach? I was wondering about that.

Woodrell: Well, Tomato Red — and I would agree with you on that. I have often said that I felt that something started to click there. I wasn’t fully cognizant of just what all was going on. In fact, it was only when I had an occasional look at it maybe a year after I’d finished it, I began to recognize more of what was going on in there. And in this book, I didn’t want one character to tell the story in such a forceful way that they precluded all other possible interpretations or something. That it was just so forcefully about them that they would overshadow everything else. And that’s part of the reason why Alek is a little to the side. It’s also a book where I have a bunch of, you know, “motherfucker this motherfucker that.” And it wasn’t really on purpose initially. And then I was reading through it and I realized, “Oh! Where’s your standard?” (laughs)

Correspondent: I think though that the respect for the grief of this town is probably what motivates that. And maybe, it would seem to me anyway, that what you’re trying to do language-wise with this was to give voice to the town as opposed to one solitary perspective. Is that safe to say?

Woodrell: Yeah. And people are introduced as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” A generation and a half or two ago almost, that would be standard. The lady next door was not Joan. She was Mrs. Henry Eastall. And that suggests a certain kind of decorum and regard and circumspection.

(Loops for this program provided by vlalys, danke, maikeeelx, and megapaul.)

The Bat Segundo Show #517: Daniel Woodrell (Download MP3)

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Claire Messud II (The Bat Segundo Show #504)

Claire Messud is most recently the author of The Woman Upstairs. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #86.

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Author: Claire Messud

Subjects Discussed: How living in a surveillance state will affect contemporary fiction, the disappearing interior life, Sabbath’s Theater, proper norms and sentences that are alive, transgressions in fiction, girls who get up early to put on makeup, This American Life‘s climate change program, climatologists vs. novelists, the downside of promoting individual agency, why social novels are associated with “big books” and how “small books” can be just as big, James Joyce, reading Finnegans Wake, Ulysses references in The Woman Upstairs, A Doll’s House, how literary and ontological snippets float within your head throughout your life, Nora’s evolution, having to contend with the narrative in your head, people who are against universal health care, when interior selves set themselves up for disappointment, the fury guiding the first chapter, cultural osmosis, the glibness of assigning invisibility to a class of people, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” (Dr. Hook version and Marianne Faithfull version) Shel Silverstein’s songwriting career, not looking for original points or antecedents with family and culture, the “being wrong” speech in American Pastoral, Teju Cole’s Open City, always being a hero in your own story, peregrinations of memory, Chekhov’s “The Black Monk,” why investigation into the mind inevitably leads to the corporeal, interpretive liberation, being profoundly disembodied, Nora and foreign voices, multiculturalism and inverted xenophobia, Pierre Nora’s interpretation of the Pieds-Noirs, living a life somewhere between desperation and wanting to count, fakery and personas, giving other people what they want, how the semi-autistic genius myth has become defined by gender roles, Temple Grandin, the Google People in San Francisco, the Publishers Weekly controversy, Enlightened, Roxana Robinson’s Sparta, the unlikable character debate, why America is presently frightened by unlikable characters in art, why likability is uninteresting, +1 culture, how authors are held hostage by Goodreads reviews, the limitations of literature as escapism, how social media is regulated in the Wood-Messud household, and attempts to find a verb which adequately appreciates a difficult work of art.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I don’t want to get into the ending of The Woman Upstairs, but it would appear that recent events — certain reports by Glenn Greenwald — would have the rare notion of reinforcing your ending in terms of what privacy means. And I wanted to start off this conversation because I have to address it in some way. Now that we are aware that we are living in a surveillance state, do you think this is going to do anything for contemporary fiction? Is America going to produce its share of Kunderas and Dostoevskys? I was wondering if you had any thoughts on this.

Messud: That’s an interesting question and I don’t necessarily have an answer. But one of the things that I was thinking about when writing this book — well, I was setting out to write somebody’s interior life. And the interior life is fast disappearing. The interior life was always invisible. But now, in the highly mediated world that we live in, nothing exists unless it is manifest. My daughter photographs her breakfast and puts it on Instagram. And by the same token, maybe there’s something satisfying. I mean, where’s the line between our own willful destruction of privacy and the intrusion of government agencies or whatever into our privacy? They meet somewhere in the middle, right?

Correspondent: You’ve just given me a very terrible idea. That PRISM exists to reproduce the interior monologue. That there will be some new version of Ulysses that is generated entirely by NSA wiretapping. I mean, it could happen! It seems crazy.

Messud: One of the things I’ve been thinking too — you know, we were talking earlier about the somewhat parlous state of literary life. I think it is both a great thing and a terrible thing, but literature may just become samizdat. It may become the underground form of communication. That one’s beneath the other forms of mediated communication.

Correspondent: Aha! So in other words, by going ahead and focusing on the interior through ornate, detailed, subtle sentences that convey several meanings, we are in some way revolting against this.

Messud: Yes. I believe it.

Correspondent: Okay. Well, you know, with that in mind, I’m going to have to bring up your epigraph. “Fuck the laudable ideologies,” from Sabbath’s Theater. I do know that in your husband’s book, How Fiction Works, he singles out this sentence as “utterly alive, alive by virtue of the way it scandalizes proper norms.” So this leads me to ask. How much did you hope to scandalize proper norms with the writing of this book? I mean, what transgressions do you think are left in our oversharing age? How do novelists answer to this?

Messud: You know, it’s interesting. I think I did see in my mind Nora and the story she has to tell as transgressive. In part because she is not lovely, glamorous, fascinating. A model in New York City. She’s a schoolteacher. Part of her transgression is the fact that she’s leading a completely ordinary life in which officially nobody has any interest whatsoever. And I do think in this increasingly mediated culture where we all want to be represented, she is somebody who is completely unrepresented. So it felt like a transgression to give her a voice.

Correspondent: So today’s fiction transgressions are giving voice to those types of characters who normally don’t get on the page? I don’t know. Do you think literature is now that limited? That we can’t have anything other than a certain kind of perspective? Where is this coming from?

Messud: No, no. There’s room for everybody.

Correspondent: Absolutely.

Messud: But I wouldn’t set any limits on what can be said. But one thing that felt liberating to me was to be writing her interior life, which she was accused of being dislikable, to which you want to say, “No, no. If you met her, she would be totally charming.” Because that’s who she is on the surface. He or she is showing you what nobody gets to see. And because I have some feeling — apprehension; some of it personal, but also observed — that that is to a greater extent the lot of women than it is the lot of men. Which is not to say it isn’t in part the lot of men. But we’re all expected to put on a game face. So I felt in writing somebody where the point was precisely to express and articulate unseemly and unacceptable emotions and reactions, that felt like a great liberation. And my hope would be that for people reading it, who might have shared even one of her thoughts at some point along the way, that it would be a liberation for them too. To say, “You know, actually, nobody ever talks about it. But this is life too.”

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, I mean I want to get into the unlikable situation later. And I will do so through not just having you reiterate your points. But I want to talk about the proper norms thing and why you think perhaps people are reacting hostilely to Nora in this. Because as you say, any solipsist you meet in life is, of course, yes, going to have this wonderful epidermal layer. That once you peer and get to talking with them a little more, oh dear. There’s actually a lot of fury. There’s something else going on. And we’re living in a society now where you’re supposed to tough it up, bucko. So as a result, it would seem to me that writing about these perspectives would be increasingly necessary. Why do you think there’s this reluctance to explore the interior of something that is seemingly roseate?

Messud: Well, I think there are lots of answers to that. One is that we live now — she says it. We do live in a time that is particularly preoccupied with the surface. And the surface is what counts. I went to boarding school. I went back — this was already some years ago — to my old high school. And one of the very lovely teachers who was a dorm mother said to me, “Did you know that all the girls get up at six in the morning to blow dry their hair and put on makeup?” Which in the early 1980s, you wouldn’t have been caught dead doing. And her point was they have an hour less sleep than the boys do. Because the boys don’t have to blow dry their hair. I guess in the ’70s maybe the boys blow dried their hair too. Anyway, you realize that how you present yourself to the world counts significantly more than at one time it did. That’s a subset or a function of this mediated world. If everything’s going to be represented, then you don’t want to be represented with dirty hair on your dressing gown. Now I’m forgetting the rest of the question. But that was only part of what I was going to answer. But I can’t remember.

Correspondent: Oh, no, no, no. Free form is great on this program. I guess I was trying to tie this all into proper norms and the fact that, well, we all live lives in which we’re putting on masks. And there’s this reluctance to really penetrate further and actually wrestle with this problem. I mean, it’s not just with characters. I heard this This American Life program recently where they were talking about how people who talk about climate change are now incapable of actually being honest about it. Climatologists cannot actually mention climate change until after they have delivered two hours of lectures and a Powerpoint presentation. And this is increasingly getting in the way of having an honest look at what our world is.

Messud: Why can’t they? Why? What’s the obstacle?

Correspondent: They fear their jobs. They are afraid of losing their income. They may piss off people who may actually take away their income.

Messud: Right.

Correspondent: Obviously being a novelist is not quite on that level. Although in the likable/unlikable debate, there is nevertheless that particular reluctance. Don’t rock the boat. Maybe you can tell me what you think about this. Because I grew up and you grew up in an age where we could actually talk about things like adults and disagree and get into really shocking topics. And we wouldn’t be mortal enemies. It wouldn’t involve, “Well, how dare you say that. You’re not going to get work.” Or something like that. And now it seems like it’s moving more towards that. So it’s a reluctance to address issues in combination possibly with some aspects of the 2008 crash. What are your thoughts on this? And how do we bring this back to fiction? And that’s a very elaborate longueur! (laughs)

Messud: Well, I think — certainly there’s the sound byte problem. Jokingly, you said earlier that maybe writing complex-compound sentences that have multiple possible interpretations is an act of rebellion. Increasingly, it is. Because along with the interior life, certain modes of reflection are, if not disappearing, certainly not to the fore. So I think that’s a problem. If you want to say something complicated, but only half of it is going to be shrunk down to some supposed essence, it could easily be a misapprehension of what you were trying to say. So I think that makes people leery of saying unseemly things. But I also think — and it’s linked, it’s another conversation but it is linked — we are a nation always championing the individual, but now has put human agency, individual agency, to the fore to a ludicrous point where, if you get cancer, that would be your fault. You made bad choices. If you have negative thoughts, that can make you ill. Right? In which context everybody wants to become their mask. Everybody wants to be the cheerful, bright, upbeat, healthy, fun-loving self. That’s who you want to be. You don’t want to be the depressive, negative, whiny, anxious naysayer. Nobody wants to be the person who just says, “Climate change has reached a point where we are doomed.” Nobody wants to be that person.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, actually, I’m going to tie this in directly to your book. Because Nora does in fact say something along those lines. [searching through notes] I had a quote here. It appears to have disappeared. I’m going to have to use my damn memory.

Messud: (laughs) The incredible disappearing quote!

Correspondent: I actually had it all here. It somehow disappeared. Well, the quote is — at one point, she’s talking about Sirena and about what her allure is in terms of how the art world is drawn to her. And she basically says that Sirena is, in fact, living a persona. Or something to that effect. And it’s a shame I somehow didn’t actually type up my quote. I meant to type it up. I meant to include it. But anyway, I think this draws on the predicament. Clearly, if we are going to explore the interior, we’re going to have to explore the persona. Do you think that fiction that does this is the way to address this problem we’re talking about? That we can only look at the self as reflective of a larger ill of society through the interior, through how other people are looked at, through a persona. Issues like that. Does that make sense?

Messud: I feel as though — that’s a really complicated question!

Correspondent: It is.

Messud: And I’m not sure I can properly address it. But obviously different types of fiction address these things in different ways. I do think — and this will seem perhaps a tangent — but I think…you know, somebody asked me, “The Emperor’s Children was a big book. Is this a small book?” And I said, “Absolutely not for me.” I can’t say what it is for other people. But absolutely not for me. I do actually feel that the only way to address the biggest issues is through the smallest mouse hole, if you will. That that is the way forward. But on the other hand, it’s true that big social novels in which characters may appear largely in their personas rather than unmasked, if you will, are able to articulate a different part of the dynamic and a different relationship that then extends that to the larger systems of society and government, if you will. And I would maintain that you could follow Nora through to a commentary about broader American society, if you so chose.

Correspondent: The novel is open enough for you to find another road to somewhere else. This is where the reader comes in.

Messud: That would be my hope. Certainly I liked that you used the word “open.” Because my hope with this book is that, in a funny way, it’s more open than almost anything I’ve written before. That that was part of the enterprise: it was to write something that each person would have their own reaction to rather than there being a template of how the novel should be read.

Correspondent: Sure. I had a very geeky question for you concerning James Joyce. There’s an obvious Ulysses connection with Nora, the name of the character. But I wanted to get into a number of Ulysses connections I found in the book. Because I am presently attempting to read Finnegans Wake and I will make it to the end.

Messud: Oh my goodness. I’m impressed.

Correspondent: It’s not easy. And that has actually necessitated going back to Ulysses as well. So I’m in a James Joyce fugue state probably for the next year or two. Anyway. Sirena, of course, referencing the Sirens. There is one “Yes Yes Yes” moment…

Messud: Yes.

Correspondent: …which mimics Molly Bloom. There’s one point where Nora says that she’s “oblivious like a lotus eater.” Which is interesting. Because “The Lotus Eaters” is the first chapter in Ulysses where we suddenly start to understand, “Oh, well! It goes back to Homer.” And then with Wonderland, Sirena’s project, it’s almost kind of a response to James Joyce’s famous remark where he said you could construct all of Dublin from the brickstones that are laid down in Ulysses. And it is interesting that Sirena’s project is very much a schematic recreation. And she has also done, oddly enough, an installation of Elsinore. Which also takes us backs to Ulysses. Because that’s Hamlet and all that. And the subject of art and photos reminded me very much of “Scylla and Charybdis” and Stephen Dedalus’s speech on Hamlet. I have to ask. It’s clear to me that Ulysses was your muse in some sense. And I was wondering if you could talk about this for these references and more.

Messud: Well, I thought…you’ve done a better reading. Some were conscious and some not! I mean, certainly the photography: well, that was not on purpose. Some of them were definitely not on purpose. Others were more deliberate. This is the sort of shaming admission though. As I say, some of those are very deliberate. But the other reference that people have said. Nora. Ibsen. A Doll’s House. And the terrible truth is was when I first sent the manuscript to my editor, she said, “You refer here to Nora’s ‘doll-housed labor.’ That seems a little heavy-handed.” And that was the first moment where I thought, “Oh God, it’s true!” I had forgotten that Ibsen’s Nora was Nora. I had read the play more than once. I had seen the play maybe twelve years ago on stage. I did not reread Ulysses in the planning of this book. My father always would say, “Civilization is what’s left when you’ve forgotten everything.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Messud: So we can say it’s a relief to know that even in my midlife Alzheimer’s state, I have still some collective memory of what I read in my youth.

Correspondent: Yeah. But I think also with Ulysses, it’s a book that’s very difficult to shake. Because you’re doing a lot of heavy lifting with all of Joyce, pretty much from Ulysses onward and Portrait to some degree. So it seems to me that in exploring Nora’s past and in flashing back, you were going to perhaps certain literary highlights, which may have included Ulysses, which may have been A Doll’s House. Numerous other references as well. This leads me to wonder how your own reading serves as, I suppose, beacon points in trying to really pinpoint who Nora is. Which we haven’t really talked about! (laughs)

Messud: Well, you know, I think there’s no question. There are little snippets that you have in your head as you go through life. Literary snippets. I mean, there are other snippets. But the number of times in my life — this sounds crazy, but the number of times in my life I have had occasion just sitting there to say, “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each; I do not think they will sing to me.” You know? Which also — it’s not quoted in the book, but in some way it’s in the book. There’s your mermaid. And there she is.

(Loops for this program provided by JorgeDanielRamirez, MaMaGBeats, and KristiJann.)

The Bat Segundo Show #504: Claire Messud (Download MP3)

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Roxana Robinson (The Bat Segundo Show #503)

Roxana Robinson is most recently the author of Sparta.

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Author: Roxana Robinson

Subjects Discussed: The New York Times as a source of inspiration, writing a novel with a sense of time, the 2008 economic crash, the fate of the millennial generation, ailing veterans who are overlooked by society at large, unemployment, focusing exclusively on educated characters, writing about subjects you don’t know, talking with vets, being fair when using stories, Donovan Campbell’s Joker One, not using traumatic experience to preserve trust, distinctions between journalism and fiction writing, being terrified of white sedans, fear and panic triggers, why there isn’t a universal common experience among soldiers, getting to know a fictitious character’s family, the desire to visit Iraq, the need for embedded novelists, the present state of Iraq tourism, staying silent on creative details, playing tennis in inflatable courts, Ian McEwan’s unwillingness to discuss his current project, how giving away information on your latest project destroys momentum, whether self-preservation is an admirable choice in digital culture, setting Sparta in Katonah, New York, why houses are important in novels, celebrating a landscape that you love, why it’s essential to use an exact floor plan, Conrad’s miserable experiences in restaurants, California restaurant culture vs. New York City restaurant culture, not remembering the name of a restaurant but remembering the layout, Conrad vs. Joseph Conrad, how to relate the experience of returning to the States after four years of combat, celebrity magazines having more impact on American culture than soldiers, comparisons between Vietnam vets returning home and Iraq vets returning home, soldiers who are invisible, when all of America understands we did the wrong thing, why “Thank you for your service” is the wrong thing to say to a veteran, how to connect with a vet, having nothing but your military training to rely upon when moving forward in contemporary culture, women who tolerate patient aggressive behavior, avoiding female characters who are emotional doormats, balancing the need to advance the narrative with characters who serve in some ways as instruments, macroeconomics classes, difficult GMAT questions, Georgia O’Keeffe, similarities between Conard and O’Keeffe, unintended inspiration from significant artistic figures, biography vs. fiction, Conrad’s concern for cleanliness, intense shaving scenes in fiction, Marine culture and personal appearance, calls and responses, rage and depersonalization, minor quibbles from Heller McAlpin, vets and therapists, and the Marshall Plan.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: My understanding is that this book started with you reading a front page article in The New York Times in 2005 or 2006. But to my mind, Sparta seems to be more than that. It’s almost a response to certain socioeconomic conditions. Because what Conrad — this Marine returning from Iraq — has to go through is very similar to what a lot of unemployed men have to go through. There’s also the faint suggestion that this is the great terrible horror story right before the 2008 economic crash with the apartment near the end. So I’m wondering to what extent this became a response to conditions in the latter Bush years and how this tied into your research and getting this massive project started. Just to start off here.

Robinson: (laughs) Okay. Yes, as you are aware, it came about because I read an article in The New York Times. It was about our troops in Iraq and how they were given unarmed vehicles in which to drive and to go on patrols with, and how they were being blown up by IEDs and suffering traumatic brain injuries, which were then not diagnosed and treated. In my head, it wasn’t part of this economic crisis. I wasn’t really focusing on that and I think when I began to pay attention, it was before that happened. And what I’m talking about really isn’t the same as people losing jobs. Because this is a kind of transformation. And, of course, you’re right that someone who hasn’t a job has lost some essential part of himself or herself — if that’s been part of his life up until then. But this is different. Going to war, being trained for war, and being at war, and then coming back and being part of a community that has no understanding and no ability to enter into your own experience — that’s different.

Correspondent: Maybe a way of approaching this question — because there is, in fact, this Go-Go guy shows up near the end. There is mention of predatory lending. There is mention of securitization. It leads me to wonder whether when you’re taking on any kind of novel project, you need to actually have that sense of place. Because one of the reasons why this book extended beyond a mere character study was largely because I felt very much that I was reliving the last term of the Bush Administration. Warts and all, by the way. So this is why I’m asking. Was it really just a matter of talking to all of these vets — and visiting, I presume, the VA hospitals — to get a sense of time? How does a sense of time factor into developing this book?

Robinson: Yeah, that’s very interesting. You’re right. I do want to make sure when I’m writing a book that every part of it works. So when I place it, I usually set my books in the very recent past. A year or so. And it’s often quite hard to track down exactly what was going on. We all have a telescopic sense of time. So it’s hard to know exactly what happened. But yes I was very aware of the economy and how Conard’s generation shifted from happy-go-lucky guys into bundled assets and insider trading and all of that. That turned into an avalanche of bad debt and bad conscience. And yes, it was part of the way America had been led and led astray. And one was in Iraq and one was at home. So you’re right. You’re right. It’s just that I didn’t think of him as being someone who was without a job. But certainly you’re right about the whole ethos of America during that period.

Correspondent: I think the parallel I draw between Conrad’s situation and the scenario of many unemployed people of both genders is that we have increasingly moved, thanks to the Bush Administration, into a culture where those who seek help feel shameful of it, are not permitted to actually pursue it, are prohibited by funds. You’re supposed to tough it out. And the parallel I drew between Conrad and many unemployed people I know — who I’ve been on telephone support with — was substantial. Especially when he has this terrifying ordeal in the VA hospital where he’s told, “Well, you have to wait three months.” And he has a serious problem to take care of. So this leads me again to go back to this idea of looking at a situation — whether it be a heroin addict in Cost or whether it be a soldier returning back from Haditha in Sparta. Does focusing in on one angle of America allow you to tackle its many ills and to expose these common conditions that were putting our heads in the sand here over?

Robinson: Yeah. I’m always interested in consequences. And so when I explore one thing, I am always fascinated to see if there’s a network of fault lines leading out from whatever the central issue is. Cost is certainly not an indictment of anything. It’s simply an examination of a problem that’s more widespread than I understood when I started that project. And in Sparta, I was incredibly troubled to understand what we were doing to our troops at the time. I never supported the war. I never thought we should go there. It was more troubling to learn that there were not weapons of mass destruction and that there never had been. And so I wanted to bear witness to what it was like for one of our soldiers to go there and then to come back. And that exploration illuminates one part of the American experience for me.

Correspondent: Sure. Well, on this subject, I’m curious to ask you about the fact that the last two books take place in upper and middle-class environments and present an underexposed issue in both cases. And this leads me to wonder whether you’re trying to target a particular type of literary audience who may not in fact read the newspapers or the magazines or who may want to keep their heads in the sands. Is it your goal as a novelist to get otherwise erudite people to open their eyes a little bit by this socioeconomic setting? To really look into problems that they may not otherwise pay attention to? Especially in this culture right now, where it’s +1 everything and we’re supposed to like everything and we’re supposed to turn away anytime there is anything that is unsettling.

Robinson: I don’t really have a target audience. I don’t think in those terms. I’m a novelist. I’m not a journalist. I’m really not trying to persuade people of anything. As I say, I’m just bearing witness. And this particular part of society is the one that I know best. Educated people, not particularly rich, but who come from modest backgrounds. But they’re all educated. That’s sort of the main connection between all the books that I have written. But am I trying to tell a certain audience how to think?

Correspondent: Not necessarily how to think. But more exposing their eyes to the fact that, look, this problem is not going to go away. These people, they may be in your family. They may actually knock upon your door. You can’t just continue to read about, I suppose, domestic couples who are committing adultery. You know what I mean?

Robinson: Right. Well, yes, I’m not interested in easy targets. So the problems that draw my attention are ones that I find really compelling and really disturbing. I don’t know who my audience is. I’m not trying to reach a particular audience by choosing the people I do tend to write about. But there are always subjects that I find really troubling. And so if other people do, that’s great. But these are things that become very, very compelling to me.

Correspondent: So you are drawing upon your own background and you’re trying to just step outside of it so that you can understand another aspect of humanity, whether it be drug addiction or vets or that sort of thing.

Robinson: Yeah. I mean, I think that writing about subjects you don’t know is really important for a writer. Writing about circles and communities that are not your own is really risky. Because you’re going to get so many things wrong. So many signals. And so I’m not saying I would never do it. But I’m much more interested in exploring an idea and the way it reveals itself in a community than I am in trying to interpose myself in a community that I don’t know.

(Loops for this program provided by chefboydee, Keishh, MaMaGBeats, and Reed1415.)

The Bat Segundo Show #503: Roxana Robinson (Download MP3)

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The Best Fiction of 2012

There are eight million year-end lists in the naked city. Why the hell do we need another one? Well, I made every effort to keep my trap shut on this dog and pony show for many weeks, figuring that fine minds and excitable souls would ensure that the right butterflies landed in the net. But a number of novels that challenged me, knocked me in the gut, or opened my eyes to the world in new ways have been left behind by tepid tastemakers who wouldn’t know the glorious rush of literature if the late great Harry Crews ran at them with a rifle and a pack of wild dogs. So I feel it my duty as a book lover to weigh in. I read nearly two hundred books in 2012. By a stroke of good fortune, I was able to interview every author who made this list. If you would like to hear these authors in conversation, feel free to click on the links. In the meantime, let’s rock and roll.

megana1Megan Abbott, Dare Me: Before The Millions devolved into an unreadable circlejerk for risk-averse snobs, I tried to impart to these mooks why Megan Abbott was the real deal, pointing out how Abbott’s sentences employed a chewy and often operatic rhythm that was often the only way to deal with the dark edges of existence. But Abbott’s latest novel about cheerleading pushes her distinct voice further with a rich collection of wildly inventive verbs (“Everybody whoops and woohoos, jumping on the bleachers, grabbing each other around the necks like the ballers do”) that will make you wonder how you missed so much beyond the football games. She writes defiantly against the ironic or the ideal cheerleader, but her astute and enthralling observations about teens pushing themselves to their physical limits, often without parents and often with deadly adults entering their lives, left me pondering why nobody went there quite like this before. I’m very glad that Abbott is still on the case. (Bat Segundo interview with Abbott, August 2012)

Paula Bomer, 9 Months: Ayelet Waldman may have kickstarted the conversation about bad mothers a few years ago, but Bomer actually has the courage to chase maternal judgment through the pain and hilarity of its truths rather than attention-seeking pronouncements. 9 Months follows Sonia, a pregnant mother who boldly leaves her husband and even goes so far to have carnal relations with a Colin Farrell-like trucker. You could call 9 Months a Gaitskillian picaresque tale, but this doesn’t do justice to Bomer’s fierce and funny insights into how motherhood’s perceptions change from region to region, how judgment has a way of stifling a pregnant woman’s career track, and the casual cruelty of solipsistic singles who can’t understand these finer distinctions. (Bat Segundo interview with Bomer, August 2012)

cchung1Catherine Chung, Forgotten Country: This devastating and deeply visceral debut about a South Korean family fleeing to the Midwest has so many rich observations about identity, figurative ghosts, reflections you can’t escape in the existential mirror, and the pros and cons of family unity that it’s difficult to convey just how good it is. Roxane Gay suggested that the manner in which the narrator’s sister Hannah removes herself from her family “takes your breath away while it breaks your heart.” But this novel somehow manages to capture joy during these emotional moments, even while confronting cruelty, racist masks, and premonitory violence. Chung’s characters are real because we come to feel their explicit and implicit pain, the type of qualities found in nearly every family. I’m baffled by how this wonderful novel was so overlooked. (Bat Segundo interview with Chung, March 2012)

chipdelanySamuel R. Delany, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders: It’s easy to understand why so many timid souls couldn’t make their way through this bold, long, and ambitious book. The book bombards the reader with so much sex, sex, and more sex that the reader is forced to come to grips with this as a way of life, even if the reader doesn’t share the desire for cock cheese or coprophagia. Yet it’s a profound mistake to dismiss a book, as one vanilla urchin did, because you lack the courage to push beyond your comfort zone. Delany’s opus may seem to be a repetitive depiction of a couple fucking, but the patient and careful reader will discover a surprisingly moving book about growing older, how underground subcultures are increasingly ignored, and how history is not so much about one person’s overnight success but sum of brave gestures from strangers. (Bat Segundo interview with Delany, May 2012)

A.M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven: Years ago, when American novels were still permitted to capture everything, books like The Adventures of Augie March were conversational centerpieces that captured the imagination of popular and literary audiences alike. Yet in recent years, literature has shifted to the twee and superficial. We apparently need our books to bray loud with sheepish sentiments, such as this dreadful sample from Dave Eggers’s A Hologram from the King:

His decisions had been short sighted.
The decisions of his peers had been short sighted.
These decisions had been foolish and expedient.

When prose this unintentionally hilarious is allowed to rise to the top, it’s enough to make you wonder how the deck is stacked against the voices that really count. Especially when the rare book like A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven comes along, demanding something more than unpardonable pablum. Homes was the truly ambitious American novelist this year. Her sixth novel dared to map the surrealistic nature of life with great humor and inventiveness: two paramount qualities missing from that doddering dope in San Francisco. Here’s what happens in the first few pages of the book: kitchen seduction, a bizarre murder, divorce, a man thrust into the role of surrogate parent. You read this book asking yourself how Homes can ever find a narrative trajectory for Harry Silver, whose scholarly devotion to Nixon suggests a Godwin-friendly update to Don DeLillo’s Jack Gladney. Somehow, despite Internet sex and bar mitzvahs in South Africa, May We Be Forgiven becomes a hopeful book about accepting the family and friends who come to you. It features amusing cameos from real-life figures like Lynne Tillman, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, and David Remnick. And it acknowledges its debt to Bellow with the wryly named firm of Herzog, Henderson, and March. (Bat Segundo interview with Homes, September 2012)

harikunzru2Hari Kunzru, Gods Without Men: With all due respect to Douglas Coupland, the Translit label is dodgier than New Adult. Coupland was right to celebrate Kunzru’s smart and spiritual novel for its ability to span history and geography “without changing psychic place.” But when you’re using Hollywood terms like “tentpole” to reinforce your label, there’s a good chance you’re blowing a bit of smoke up the Gray Lady’s ass to get a little attention. Still, none of this should steer readers away from this fine novel. Gods Without Men contains everything from a hilariously inept rock star to a predatory linguist whose efforts to collect Native American stories belie a sad privilege. How much of the world’s difficulties can be chalked up to abandoning one’s wonder and humility at a cross-cultural nexus point? Kunzru, to his credit, avoids a schematic answer to this question. We see how secular faith turns disastrous and back again, with an Ashtar Galactic Command acolyte transformed into a victim. Jaz and Lisa Matharu, a couple recovering from the 2008 recession and trying to contend with their missing son, form a triangulation point of sorts. It’s the reader’s duty to discover more blanks. (Two part Bat Segundo interview with Kunzru, March 2012: Part One, Part Two)

laural2Laura Lippman, And When She Was Good: “If you have to stop to consider the lie,” says protagonist Heloise Lewis, “the opportunity has passed.” With eleven Tess Mongaghan novels and seven stand-alones, it’s become all too easy to take Laura Lippman’s work for granted. But Lippman’s latest novel, which is also something of a sly riff on Philip Roth’s 1967 novel, is one of her best: an astutely observed tale of a deeply complicated and endlessly fascinating woman. By day, Heloise Lewis is a single mother who reads classic literature. But she also runs a high-end escort service. The book’s alternating chapters headlined with dates reveal Heloise in the present day and Helen, the struggling young woman who transforms into Heloise, is captured in the past. But it becomes swiftly apparent that the present informs the past, rather than the other way around. Heloise believes she is in control. She’s thought out her business and her demeanor, but we come to wonder how she allows so many people, ranging from the imprisoned Val to a prostitute who works for her, to take advantage of her. This is a very thoughtful book about the follies of trying to know or outthink everything, which applies to all quarters. Lippman also gets bonus points for including one of the most creative paper shredding contraptions I’ve ever seen in fiction. (Bat Segundo interview with Lippman, August 2012)

lizmooreheftLiz Moore, Heft: Last year, a research team at the University of Buffalo conducted a study with 140 undergraduates which suggested that fiction causes readers to feel more empathy towards others. Empathy seems to be getting a bad rap in fiction these days, especially among some enfants terribles who seem to believe that novels are more about slick heartless style rather than human existence. On the flip side, you have the gushing New Sincerity movement, in which people are interested in mashing irony and sincerity into a roseate sandwich. These strange tonal prohibitions on what one should or should not do in a novel drive me up the wall. If you’re spending so much of your time second-guessing how you should write, then how can ever achieve any original viewpoint? So it was with great joy and relief to discover Liz Moore’s wonderfully endearing novel early in the year about Arthur Opp, a 550 pound man who has not left his Greenwood Heights home in more than a decade and a teenager from a troubled upbringing. Heft proves, first and foremost, that caring about people has little to do with falling along an irony/sincerity axis. Moore told Jennifer Weiner that writing about Arthur let her “write sentences I would have felt self-conscious about writing.” And it (Bat Segundo interview with Moore, February 2012)

jesswalter3Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins: “But aren’t all great quests folly? El Dorado and the Fountain of Youth and the search for intelligent life in the cosmos –- we know what’s out there. It’s what isn’t that truly compels us.” As America slogs its way out of a recession, it was a great relief to read a book hitting romance from so many angles. Walter understands that true quests aren’t necessarily measured in time and distance, but in hope. Beyond Walter’s funny descriptive details (“table-leg sideburns,” “the big lamb-shank hand of Pelle”) which mimic the larger-than-life hyphenated banter found in a Hollywood script, Walter is so good on the page that he allows a film producer to seduce us through a cliche-ridden memoir containing such dimebag philosophy as “We want what we want.” (Bat Segundo interview with Walter, July 2012)

Chris Ware, Building Stories: The box contains no instructions. The pieces range in size and can be read in any order. The characters have no names. The illustrations are beautiful. The form is paper, but that doesn’t stop Ware from reflecting on where digital technology is taking us, both in stark and in speculative terms. There is pain and pleasure and cycles and secret history. There is loneliness and togetherness. My partner and I spent an entire Saturday sifting through this box. We felt compelled to talk more about life. As the pieces were carefully unpacked, we began to treat the comics with an unanticipated reverence, even though there was no way we would never fully know the people that Ware had rendered. Building Stories is the rare prayer that grabs the lapels of the secular. It is your duty to give a damn. It is your duty to feel. (Bat Segundo interview with Ware, November 2012)

Honorable Mention:

Jami Attenberg, The Middlesteins
Brian Evenson, Immobility
Richard Ford, Canada
Nick Harkaway, Angelmaker
Katie Kitamura, Gone to the Forest
J. Robert Lennon, Familiar
Stewart O’Nan, The Odds
Nick Tosches, Me and the Devil
Karolina Waclawiak, How to Get Into the Twin Palms
Adam Wilson, Flatscreen

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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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)

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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).

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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Ariel S. Winter (The Bat Segundo Show)

Ariel S. Winter is most recently the author of The Twenty-Year Death.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he can condense the shards of his life into a twenty-year epic spanning three books.

Author: Ariel S. Winter

Subjects Discussed: Day jobs, being a stay-at-home father, sneaking out to write in the library, the exhaustion of writing after kids have gone to bed, Susan Straight, Stewart O’Nan writing 250 words a day, maximum time and page counts, the choice of pastiche, Georges Simenon writing novels in 11 days, original idea of a reader frame narrative, Police at a Funeral‘s original title, similarities between main character and F. Scott Fitzgerald, postponing writing in the first person until volume III, knowing the end based on Jim Thompson endings, The Alcoholic, narrators having the same sound, Pop. 1280, adopting specific verbal phrases, Chandler’s “automatic elevators”, Thompson’s “five-ten dollars”, consulting pages of Chandler/Simenon/Thompson books before writing, chronological accuracy, The Yellow Dog, references to World War II in Chandler’s novels, the importance of newspapermen, The Furies, punishment of those who kill members of their own family, Fitzgerald’s lone play, deaths with a comic tone, Murder, My Sweet, Thompson’s criminals never thinking they are at fault, Chandler being the most difficult to emulate, John Banville’s upcoming Philip Marlowe novel, apologizing to each writer in the dedication, poems in dialogue with other poems, Marlowe’s interest in poetry and chess,The Long Goodbye, maintaining the consistency of pastiche through various drafts, changing the ending to Malniveau Prison, Charles Ardai as editor, the Hard Case Crime editing style, James M. Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress, advantages of genre and pastiche versus original voice, and modernist aspects of The Twenty-Year Death.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: We were talking beforehand. I was curious what you did. And you said, “Well, I’m not going to tell you, Ed. I’m going to tell it to you on air.” I was curious about your life that is not a writer. What is that like? What is it that you do? What is your day job?

Winter: Well, my day job is I’m the primary caregiver to my daughter. It was always the plan that when we had kids, I would stay home. So that is what I’ve done since she was born. She’s four. She just turned four. So that’s more than a day job. (laughs)

Correspondent: It is.

Winter: Taking care is really a 24/7 job.

Correspondent: But it does allow you time to write novels.

Winter: Well, so the only way that that was able to happen was we hired somebody, a college girl, to come in three hours a day, five days a week. And I would sneak out, go to the library, and write during that time.

Correspondent: Oh really? So you had to arrange day care to ensure that you could get progress and momentum in the book.

Winter: Yes. Because it’s different.

Correspondent: People don’t talk about that too.

Winter: Well, I’ve worked full-time jobs and written books. And, believe it or not, as hard as it is to come home after working an eight-hour day and then go and sit and write, it’s doable. Where spending ten hours with a two-year-old, you can’t then sit and write when she goes to bed.

Correspondent: Not even a quick sentence or anything?

Winter: It’s too exhausting.

Correspondent: I was talking with Susan Straight and she said that she would always find time to write. Like when she was driving in her car. She scribbles down whatever sentences she can for that day. Just to get some kind of momentum. And then there’s the Stewart O’Nan thing, where he writes like a page. 250 words a day and that’s it. That’s all he can add. But in his case, it takes the whole day. So, for you, has that three hour need to get something going, I mean, what do you generally push forward on in terms of pages and words and so forth?

Winter: When things are going really well, I can write up to four hours a day. But I never write more than four hours usually. So three hours works really well, usually in that first hour might take me a little bit to get going. I might only write a page in that first hour and then I can, in that second hour, I can potentially write six pages once I’ve gotten started. So my goal is usually to write at least two hours or, if I have a ridiculous day, ten pages. I try to do one or the other. Whichever comes first. Rarely do I write ten pages in less than two hours, but those are my goals.

Correspondent: This leads me to ask if you actually adopted any techniques to write not only in the style of [Georges] Simenon, [Raymond] Chandler, and [Jim] Thompson [who represent the three styles of the novels contained in The Twenty-Year Death], but also to perhaps write the exact same way that they did. I mean, I did notice that the years that these three separate novels were set matched roughly around the type of writing that Simenon, Chandler, and Thompson were doing at the time. So as a way of offering a general question about why you need to do pastiche over say an original voice, maybe you can talk about this a little bit

Winter: Right. Well, to answer the initial part of your question, I didn’t try to drink a whole lot or smoke cigars.

Correspondent: I figured that was impossible with a two-year-old at home, although it hasn’t prevented other people from trying.

Winter: Right. So I didn’t adopt that part. And then also Simenon, he wrote his novels usually in eleven days. You know, I’m not that fast. I write fast when I’m writing, but not a novel in eleven days. Because I definitely wasn’t able to do that. The reason that I ended up writing in those voices was quite simply, initially, because I was just reading a lot of Simenon at the time. And originally the book that I had set out to write was going to be a book in which there was a reader reading a number of different books. And each of the books the reader read, we would see in full. So there would be this frame narrator — this first-person reader. Then we would see what he had read. And the first one I wrote was this Simenon pastiche. Then as I worked on that book more and I had started to feel like it wasn’t working, I wanted to hold onto them in a prison, which is the Simenon book in The Twenty-Year Death. So as I started to think about expanding and what I might want to do, that’s when I came up with the idea of what would a mystery series look like if it wasn’t the detective that we saw from book to book. Like one of the secondary characters. So since I had already written one in the voice of the author, it followed that I wanted to do the other two in the voice of different authors. And part of that was dictated just by the way that the main character’s, Shem Rosenkratz’s, life would have progressed. He was loosely based on Fitzgerald’s character.

Correspondent: Yes. Police at a Funeral [the title of the second book contained in The Twenty-Year Death] was a title that is in The Crack-Up.

Winter: You’re the first person to pick that up. But, yes, that was purposeful. And what’s really interesting is that I didn’t write the book with that in mind. So the scene where there are actually policemen at a funeral? I wrote that without realizing that was a Fitzgerald title.

Correspondent: The subconscious is an amazing thing.

The Bat Segundo Show #482: Ariel S. Winter (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)

This text will be replaced

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.

Play

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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Laura Lippman (The Bat Segundo Show)

Laura Lippman is most recently the author of And When She Was Good. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #280.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why some firm is checking his references.

Author: Laura Lippman

Subjects Discussed: Chekhov’s rule, Donald E. Westlake, creating a specific type of prostitution ring for a novel, how deadly paper shredders have been used in narrative, The Temp, being a failed perfectionist, the impossibility of writing a perfect novel, Ian McEwan’s problematic recent novels, The Most Dangerous Thing, taking greater care with sentences, sentences which convey detail, the alternating chapter structure in And When She Was Good, technique as a role model, talk show radio bumpers as an unexpected inspiration, Howard Stern, creating nontextual outlines, the benefits of very long pieces of paper, missing pieces in early drafts, how the past informs the present and the present informs the past, motherhood as an essential character quality, the problems that arise when one’s life is revealed, pregnancy as the opportunity for the great do-over, “If you have to stop to consider the lie, the opportunity has passed,” defining characters by lies and opportunity, swear jars, being a borderline atheist, rabbis and religious education, sitting in a wine bar during happy hour, affording the luxury of friendship, American touchstones throughout And When She Was Good, amateur Civil War enthusiasts, whether Heloise is defined by the American fabric, people who were interested in military history, adultery in a McDonald’s drive-thru, the desecration of marriage, looking to other businesses for inspiration for Heloise’s prostitution ring, parallels between matchmaking service, prostitution rings and lobbying, business acumen vs. relationship acumen, Baltimore laundry services that refused to take new customers, checking references for prostitution, the bizarre qualities of high-end consumer goods, rappers and Burberry raincoats, myths and truths concerning the 1%, Romney-Ryan, voting for a presidential candidate against your own interests, having a comfortable living, the Princeton study citing $75,000 as the magical income for happiness, Lippman’s early career as a reporter, working part-time in an Italian restaurant, diabolical marshmallow mixes in fiction and and in life, how the rich experience time differently, time vs. money, whether time is the great equalizer, sex workers and workers’ compensation, the Australian civil servant who earned workers’ comp for an accident while having sex, the increasing American tendency to waive jury trial and class action suits, the pros and cons of legalizing prostitution, brothel tourism in Spain, being guided by belief, personal blind spots, foolish beliefs and autodidacticism, reading a list of books, the arrogance of self-made people, Tom Clancy’s ego, the hubris of plaintiff’s attorneys, actors who carry around Faulkner books to prove that they have something else going on, juxtaposing the American dream against violence, how a little bit of information can turn an accountant into a creep, confronting the place where you grow up, and being unmoored from domestic conversations.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Chekhov has this famous rule — or so I have heard — that if you introduce a gun, it should go off near the end of the actual story. And in your book, we have a very intriguing paper shredder contraption that is installed beneath a false bottom in a file cabinet. This leads me to ask you. When you came up with this idea, did you have Chekhov’s rule in mind? But it also leads me to ask you: because when we talked before, you told me that you read the entirety of your manuscript aloud before you submitted it. So how does this fastidiousness and Chekhov’s law apply to an element like the paper shredder? When you have a book such as this one, where you’re exploring character in depth, I’m wondering if there’s a little bit more liberalism in mind when it comes to this extremely tight, one might say perfectionism that has entered into your writing process. So just to start off here, what are your thoughts on these multifarious matters?

Lippman: I’m glad you mentioned Chekhov. Because I actually did have that in mind. Just yesterday, I talked with my sister, who is a bookseller and a very careful, methodical reader. She doesn’t read quickly. So she does read carefully. And she said, “You know at the time I wondered why there was so much detail. But if you’d never come back to it, I never would have thought about it. But when you came back to it, and when I realized why all that detail had been lavished on the furnishings of her office in the particular design of these paper shredders and cabinets.” She said, “I wondered if that was an homage to Chekhov.” And I said, “Yes! Thank you.” Because at the time, she was the first person who had noticed that. When I came up with that, I mentioned it to my husband, who’s a writer, and he said, “I don’t know. It sounds a little James Bond to me.”

Correspondent: Really?

Lippman: I said, “No, no, it’s very pragmatic. I’ve really thought a lot about this.” I mean, I’ve said this before. I mentioned it in the book afterwards. One of my heroes was Donald Westlake. And he maintained that if you were very thoughtful about your characters and your situations, you would make it credible — even to people who knew a lot about certain things — if you were true to your characters. If you just sat in your chair and thought hard. Such an old-fashioned idea in writing fiction these days. And so in everything about this book, I sat in my chair and I thought hard. It’s funny to me that, now that the book is out in the world, there’s an emphasis on “Well, Laura Lippman used to be a reporter. So she really knows a lot about the world of sex workers.” I did do research. I did learn some things. I’m by no means an expert on prostitution. I am an expert on the rather peculiar form of prostitution that I created for this book. I sat in my chair. I thought hard about what kind of business this character would create. And that led me to her paper shredders. Even to the detail that they are built by a Polish man who never smiles, but she thinks she sees a wisp of one when he understands the design that she has handed him.

Correspondent: And you point to the fact that there’s a relentless power supply. I think the fact is that you go to such degrees to describe the details of this paper shredder that one becomes willing to accept it, although actually I thought it was a bizarre yet cool idea. Because I had never seen that. Did you encounter any homegrown paper shredder setup like this at all? Ever? Did you ask around?

Lippman: No, but if you have a paper shredder and you read the warnings — especially because a small child had come into my life — I thought a lot about someone’s hand being inserted. Not to give too much away, but I don’t think people would be surprised. It’s not the what of it, but the who of it.

Correspondent: The Temp had a very good paper shredding scene.

Lippman: (laughs)

Correspondent: There’s that cheeseball movie, The Temp, from the 90s. You remember this? There’s an infamous paper shredder….”Auggghhhh!!!!”

Lippman: I didn’t realize that. But they warn you about your tie.

Correspondent: Yes. Exactly.

Lippman: And the average one that most people of us have in our home offices would probably be quite painful but not do real damage. And the idea — it does make sense that she would want a way to, with a turn of the key, be able to wipe out the paper files that she’s been obligated to keep. Just as, now I won’t remember because I do have a poor memory, but I was reading a crime novel recently. And someone said, “Now I’m not going to let you touch the computer. Because I know that there’s a way to wipe out a computer with a few commands. And the computer has now been seized as evidence.” This is a book that’s very much about the hubris of control, of believing one’s self to be in control, of thinking that one can anticipate every single contingency. So it’s very hard for me to think of myself as a perfectionist. Because alongside the other members of my family, alongside my own husband, I am a failed perfectionist. I’m much looser than everyone else I know and consider myself to be quite a mess.

Correspondent: Perfectionism, however, can come from a more relaxed, legato mode, I would argue. I have talked to numerous writers who are extremely concerned about their sentences, but not nearly as concerned about plot. And people have differing levels of what they bring to the table. I think, all writers do. So is this really something to define yourself by as a writer? Is this really something that we should define this novel by?

Lippman: I would actually encourage most writers to abandon perfectionism. It’s obviously impossible. And I think it was Stephen King who said once that the reason you write another novel is because you can’t write a perfect novel. And so the paradox of perfectionism is that, if you’ve achieved your goal, then you would stop being a writer. You have to stop if you could, in fact, produce a perfect novel. And there are some writers in the world who it almost seems as if that happened to them. You see writers who didn’t write again after producing beloved and almost perfect works.

Correspondent: Or who are burdened by the prospect of writing a perfect novel every time. I mean, I’ll name a name so you don’t have to. Ian McEwan. I feel that this has happened to his work. And it’s been disheartening to watch him try to write perfect novels and, because of that, have his voice compromised by these very hyperstylized sentences that get in the way of the life that he has previously been so good at.

Lippman: I mean, I wish I could credit it, because I don’t remember who said it, but it was something I heard at the Theakstons Old Peculier Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. Which is that the book you write is a reaction to the last book you wrote. And so I think coming off a book like The Most Dangerous Thing, which had ten or eleven points of view depending upon how one wants to count it and was deliberately a very slow book — what I had said to myself is “I want to write a fast book. I want to write a pageturner. I want it to be highly entertaining.” And I availed myself of some larger-than-life details and some larger-than-life characters. And I really wanted to have fun. Although then as I got into this book, I could make it fast. I could achieve the pace that I was after. I found that I really could make Heloise’s world fun. And it was my husband who gave me advice, which he almost never does by the way. That’s really rare. And at one point, he said, as I was getting launched into the novel, “Don’t make her benign. Her world’s not benign.” You know, the fact that the women who work for her get health insurance doesn’t erase everything else about prostitution. And it’s not a business that one can be in and thrive in with clean hands. And I thought that was pretty good advice.

(Photo: Annie Chernow)

The Bat Segundo Show #478: Laura Lippman II (Download MP3)

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John Lanchester (The Bat Segundo Show)

John Lanchester appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #471. He is most recently the author of Capital.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he should stop sending postcards to random people.

Author: John Lanchester

Subjects Discussed: Mysterious postcards, stalkers, Ron Charles’s review, Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, people who live in close geographical terms who don’t talk with each other, parallel private lives that barely touch, “community” as a cant term, postcards as a plot device, planning out Capital, using Scrivener, E.M. Forster and Nabokov, the relationship between I.O.U. and Capital, anticipating a fictitious economic meltdown before the real one, the problems with explanation within fiction, Booth Tarkington, novels about money, describing economic phenomena within fiction, how explanation breaks fiction, the “Tell me professor” problem, audience expectation, what you can do with nonfiction that you can’t do with fiction, the problems with unlikeliness, William Goldman, why bubbles and busts are all the same story and how they can be different in fiction, the virtues of obliviousness, Christian Lorentzen’s “Fictitious Values,” Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic, why lawyers, cops, and writers can’t watch television, Californication, irreducibly complex vocations, people who work in the finance sector who have no idea what they’re doing, John Banville, cutting yourself off at the bar of curiosity, working out rules for what you could make up and what you cannot, how different novels generate their own sets of rules, whether or not the adverb gets a needlessly bad rap in fiction, whether or not American writing has converged in voice in recent years, getting a filtered view of another nation’s literary output, the influence of Wes Anderson on younger writers, self-conscious quirkiness, omnidirectional irony, David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram,” New Sincerity, Sam Sacks’s review, why we don’t see the Banksy-like Smithy at work, deciding who to depict working within a novel, throwing out characters, why Capital required a large canvass, the virtues of a gap between drafts, Paul Valéry, and writing a novel “as exactly as intended.”

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: To go to the “We Want What You Have” campaign, the Washington Post‘s Ron Charles made a comparison that also struck with me, that the postcard harassment in this book is not unlike the anonymous phone calls in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori. So I’m wondering, because this is such a pivotal narrative element upon which the book rests, where did this come from? I’m guessing this book was a little early — before the London riots. So was it Spark? Were you the recipient of too much junk mail? How did this exactly happen?

Lanchester: No. I was thinking about — I love that book, by the way. And if there is a literary referent, that’s a good one. But I was thinking about the fact that you get — and I don’t know whether this is a London thing, a UK thing, a big city thing, or a thing about modernity or maybe a thing just about some cities as opposed to others. But the sense that people living in very close geographical and physical proximity don’t actually know each other at all. They don’t know anything about each other’s lives. They have nothing in common. And the term much beloved of politicians — “community” — is actually a cant term, I think. It really describes something that people pretend exists, but a lot of the time doesn’t. Communities in a geographical sense, in my experience living in cities, just simply don’t exist. It’s certainly true of my experience in London life. And I wanted to have a novel that had the sense of these parallel private lives that barely touch, and then to have something that forced them into contact with each other and gathered up these strands of these different lives. And the idea of these postcards came from thinking about what people in the street actually have in common. And, in a sense, the main thing they have in common is that they live in a place other people want to live.

Correspondent: It’s rather ironic, in light of the fact that here in the United States we’re seeing our postal service decline. It will get to the point where what we get in the post — well, we’re not going to get much, if anything at all. So I think you’ve reached that possible maximum window of what could unite a community. But this does beg the question of, well, can you, in fact, use a plot device like this to unite a community composed of a Muslim family, a soccer player. You have a “Polish plumber” type. I’m curious as to whether communities really are united around the lines of a plot device or if it takes a plot device now for us to consider the great cosmos of Pepys Road in this or London or anything right now. Can the novel unite community in a way that, say, other forms cannot?

Lanchester: I think one of the basic movements you get in a story, or in stories in general, is that thing of strands being gathered together. And I think that sense of these things that seem to be disparate that actually do have a cohesion — that’s a very kind of fundamental underlying dynamic of lots of stories. It’s also a kind of story I really like. I like that feeling of gathering together. I mean, I suppose there’s a melancholy undercurrent to the thought that without those cards, these people actually don’t really know each other. And without an effort of weathering the imagination, I think, a lot of the time we don’t know each other. And I did want that sense in which they knew each other to feel slightly fragile. Because actually it would be very easy for it not to happen. And, as I said, that’s my personal experience of the city. That there is this thing about immensely close physical proximity being sort of shadowed by the fact that actually we don’t want to know too much about each other.

Correspondent: Well, speaking of knowing about one another, the feeling I got when reading this book was that often a chapter would spring forth from another chapter. That a particular character such as Parker would then get his own little hotel room chapter and that sometimes that narrative tension produced a desire or curiosity or a need to explore another angle of this vast community. I know that you planned much of Capital in advance. But I’m wondering to what degree you strayed from the map that you laid down when writing this novel? IF you drift away from your map in the act of writing and revising, do you need to go back and modify the floor plan? How does this work for you?

Lanchester: Well, you’re right. I did spend a lot of time thinking about what I’ve sort of described to myself as the architecture of it. The structures of the story and who goes what when. My memory is that I had — it was the equivalent of index cards. I say the equivalent because it was actually this software program called Scrivener. I write in longhand.

Correspondent: Oh, you used Scrivener.

Lanchester: I’ve been using Scrivener. I’ve never used a computer program to write a novel before, but Scrivener was very helpful because of this index card thing that I could then move around. The chapters or the scenes too. And I kept running through that rhythm of what when. And I think I had it pretty thoroughly mapped. But only I think on a very granular level of exactly what I’d say for the first quarter or third. And then once I’d got through that, the chapters further ahead did keep changing order as I was coming closer to them. In order to have that sense of “Oh, actually, no, I’m going to need that bit there just to change the tone.” Or “It’s been too long since we last had so and so back now.” And there was a lot of juggling and a lot of jiggling and a lot of swapping A with B and C with D and X with Y. But not very much going outside the framework of it. But in my view, it’s a pretty accommodating framework. There was quite a lot of room for the characters inside it. But I think in terms of genuine things — the E.M. Forster thing about characters escaping. That didn’t really happen. But I’ve always rather liked Vladimir Nabokov’s reply to this.

Correspondent: Yes.

Lanchester: “Forster’s books are so boring that you couldn’t blame his characters for wanting to escape” And I actually think both parts of that — the structure is pretty determined in my books, but the things that the characters do and say within that structure I find constantly surprising. I find both halves of that to be the case.

Correspondent: The questions I have though is that if a character is going to act in a certain way or behave in a certain way that is in defiance of the plan — and it’s interesting that you use A, B, C, D in this answer because in the course of the book we often get these little A, B, Cs of the character mind and so forth. Do you have a situation where you lose the thread of a character because a character’s going to act in a particular way when you’re laying it down on the page? And the other question I had, sort of related to this, is, well, we do know that you wrote a book called I.O.U., Whoops! in the UK. And if you are writing in some sense in response to the 2008 economic meltdown, and if you are to some degree enslaved by newspaper headlines, what does that do to you from a novelist’s standpoint to corral this, what I would presume to be, tightly enmeshed plan? That if you stray from it, it causes more time, more difficulty, and so forth.

Lanchester: Well, it was the other way around. Because I started in 2005, early 2006. And I felt certain that there was a bust coming. I mean, certain enough to bet years on writing the book. And it was very important that, right from the start, the reader knows something that the characters don’t. That the reader could see this thing coming that they’re all oblivious of. And partly I was just very interested in obliviousness. And I had a very strong sense that there was this kind of implosion or meltdown, that things had gone out of hand. And so I started writing the book with that kind of shape in mind. And if there hadn’t been a crash, it would almost be the other way around. If there hadn’t been a crash, I really would be in trouble.

The Bat Segundo Show #471: John Lanchester (Download MP3)

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Jennifer Weiner IV (The Bat Segundo Show)

Jennifer Weiner appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #469. She is most recently the author of The Next Best Thing.

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Ms. Weiner previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #14, The Bat Segundo Show #198, and The Bat Segundo Show #346.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if Joe Esposito might be right about his questionable stature.

Author: Jennifer Weiner

Subjects Discussed: The summer heat, the size and details of Weiner’s entourage, bagels, physically scarred protagonists, broken people who work in the entertainment industry, the relationship between physicality and the emotional underpinning of a character, the writers’ room as group therapy session, using autobiographical details for fiction, exaggerating raw material, making the readers believe, the writer as precious snowflake, fighting TV network brass over the word “ass-munch,” Barbra Streisand’s litigious nature, the Eugenides Vest campaign and one percenter jokes, Louis CK, scheduling difficulties with Raven-Symoné, whether The Next Best Thing is roman à clef, television audiences vs. reading audiences, reaching young women, Girls, the YA market, Pippi Longstocking, talented TV writers who can’t manage people, Dan Harmon, pretending that adults are teenagers, why Weiner wants more, the inevitability of any arStist having haters, the Alice Gregory shiksa lit article, daddy complexes, Sylvia Plath, straying from characters who are besieged by financial problems, State of Georgia, pursuing fantasy-based elements when America faces high unemployment, tackling social issues in Then Came You, writers with obnoxious public personae, the income disparity between Weiner and her audience, social media and privacy, eclectic reading, getting behavior right, the income gender gap, unemployed men and gainfully employed women in a relationship, USA Today‘s review, Julia Phillips’s You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, William Goldman’s “Nobody knows anything,” Garry Shandling, The Larry Sanders Show, gender lines in comedy, Ginna Bellafante’s gender reductionism in relation to A Game of Thrones, Curb Your Enthusiasm, cringe comedy, Peep Show, David Mitchell not reading his reviews, Janet Maslin’s factual inaccuracies in her reviews, redacted book reviews, when women are asked to please, ambition as a negative female quality, fears of losing an audience, Emily Giffin, Jane Green, the risk of taking breaks between books, Laura Lippmann, Lisa Scottoline, slowing the six to nine month book cycle down, Susan Isaacs’s generational epics, being known as a loudmouth vs. being known as ambitious, Macbeth, the book-a-year productivity, Philip Roth, the problems with Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, being too eager to please, why it’s important to write a second book immediately after writing a first book, replying to readers on Twitter, Goodreads, trying not to look at reviews, writing a character who demands assurance, Nikki Finke, women taking responsibility for their own orgasms, Caitlin Flanagan’s oral sex sensationalism, sex as an obligation for women, whether or not The New York Times Book Review really matters, Cheryl Strayed outing herself as Dear Sugar, women winning the National Book Awards, Jennifer Egan, cultural arbiters rooted in nostalgia, fragmented books culture, the collapse of Borders, Dwight Allen’s snotty Stephen King article, living in a post-critical culture, attention, the gender imbalance in The New York Times Book Review, the considerable virtues of Pamela Paul, addressing criticisms from Roxane Gay, reduced stigmas against women’s fiction and genre in the last fifteen years, and the need for loudmouth women.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I have to ask. Did you actually fight network brass over the word “ass-munch”?

Weiner: Yes.

Correspondent: You did?

Weiner: Yes, I did.

Correspondent: Really? And there was this kind of exchange of viewpoints?

Weiner: M’hmmm.

Correspondent: And “ass-munch” was just unacceptable.

Weiner: Yeah, exactly.

Correspondent: Even though I hear twelve years olds say it all the time.

Weiner: Yeah. It’s like they said “blow job” on NYPD Blue and I can’t have an “ass-munch”? And they’re like, “We’re ABC Family.” And I’m like, “You’re a different kind of family. It says so right on your logo.”

Correspondent: Yes.

Weiner: I want my “ass-munch.”

Correspondent: Yes.

Weiner: And I was denied my “ass-munch.”

Correspondent: What other words did they deny you during this time?

Weiner: You know, it wasn’t words so much as people.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Weiner: Seriously. The part about not being able to make jokes about Barbra Streisand? I guess she’s both very sensitive and very litigious.

Correspondent: So that actually happened too.

Weiner: That happened too.

Correspondent: Wow. Were there any other public figures who were declared verboten?

Weiner: No.

Correspondent: Just Barbra? (laughs)

Weiner: Just Barbra. But, you know, the funny thing was we had this line about Bruce Jenner. And Honey, who is sort of the Auntie Mame character, is like, “Now you girls probably just know him as the crazy old lady in the Kardashian house.” And I was like, “Oh my god. Standards and Practices is never going to let this go.” I guess Bruce Jenner got the joke. In fact, we approached him to play the part. To come down the stairs, as if he’d been in bed with Aunt Honey.

Correspondent: Going from these battles with Standards and Practices back to fiction writing, I have to ask — I mean, especially in light of the one percenter joke idea, which, oddly enough, your recent Eugenides Vest campaign…

Weiner: I hope we talk about that.

Correspondent: Well, we can. I’d be happy to. But it is interesting to me that you come from television, your foot is laid down for things like “ass-munch,” for esoteric references or seemingly esoteric references.

Weiner: Yes, the one percenters.

Correspondent: How do you unlearn some of these necessary exigencies when you’re writing? When you’re coming back to fiction? I have to ask you about this. Because when you’re in such an intense show biz environment, having to produce and having to fight and having to compromise and having to go ahead and create art in a highly commercial medium, how do you go to a slightly less commercial medium, like books, and be true to that voice that established you in the first place?

Weiner: For whatever reason, I didn’t have a hard time with it. I don’t know if that’s just a way that I’m lucky. But I didn’t have a hard time going from, like you said, the very mediated world of commercial TV to the world of novel where it’s just you and the people in your head and “We’ll see you in a year with that manuscript.” It wound up being okay. But, God, I loved being in a writers’ room. I miss it every day.

Correspondent: You want to go back to a writers’ room?

Weiner: I would like to go back to a writers’ room someday. It would be different, I think.

Correspondent: Even with the battles?

Weiner: Even with the battles. Because I think that there’s cases where it goes so right and the stars kind of align. And then I also think there’s different ways of doing entertainment. Like Louis CK. Where it’s basically like “Okay, network, you give me X number of dollars. I will give you Y number of shows. And no notes.”

Correspondent: But that’s a very uncommon situation. It doesn’t happen to everyone. Even you probably couldn’t get what he has.

Weiner: Well, but then there’s people doing stuff on the Web. Where it’s like, I don’t want a network. I don’t want notes. I don’t need your money. I’m going to Kickstart this thing or raise money myself and it will just be my vision unmitigated. That’s what I think we’re going to start seeing more of. Because I think that there’s going to be increasing frustration with “You can’t say that!” Or “You can’t say that about that person.” “You can’t use those words.” “We want you to do it with this actress.” And that, to me, was the hardest part. I went out there. I wanted to do a show about a big girl. And the network, ABC Family, had a holding deal with Raven-Symoné. Who during that, Raven had been a bigger girl.

Correspondent: Yes. Also put into the novel.

Weiner: Yes! And I’m like, “Fantastic! That’s great!” I mean, I guess she won’t be Jewish But we’ll deal with that. And then I want to sit down and meet with her and talk about the part and talk about how she relates to the character and where the character comes from. And they’re like “She’s busy. She’s busy. She’s traveling. She’s on vacation.”

Correspondent: So she really would not meet with you.

Weiner: Would not meet with us.

Correspondent: Wow.

Weiner: And I remember thinking they kept saying, “She’s on vacation.” And I’m like, “On vacation from what?”

Correspondent: Why didn’t you just track her down yourself?

Weiner: She was in Hawaii.

Correspondent: She was in Hawaii. Why not fly on a plane?

Weiner: I should have!

Correspondent: And say “Raven, what’s up?”

Weiner: In retrospect, in retrospect.

Correspondent: So this is very roman à clef, it sounds like!

Weiner: It is a little.

Correspondent: But did she follow you on Twitter? (laughs)

Weiner: I don’t think she did.

Correspondent: She did not!

Weiner: I don’t think she followed me on Twitter.

Correspondent: Wow.

Weiner: I gave her a bunch of my books. I’m not sure she read them.

Correspondent: Did she overact? As you suggest? This particular…

Weiner: I think no.

Correspondent: I know you have to be careful here.

Weiner: No. I actually think she’s got great comic chops. I think that she grew up in front of a camera. I mean, this is a girl who shot her first commercial at age nine months. She’s been a working actress for her whole life, basically. Which produces its own kind of dynamic. Which is a very interesting dynamic where you’ve got a child supporting parents. And that’s a whole other book.

Correspondent: But going back to this issue of, well, you couldn’t meet with her. I mean, this has got to be extremely frustrating for you.

Weiner: Yes! Right.

Correspondent: Speaking as someone who is largely on the literary field, and sometimes goes into independent film and so forth, you know, this has got to be, from my vantage point at least, an extremely creatively frustrating experience. What does television offer that fiction does not?

Weiner: Well, you know what it offers? I’ll tell you…is an audience. Because the absolute…

Correspondent: You’ve got an audience though!

Weiner: But listen.

Correspondent: Alright.

Weiner: The absolute bestselling novel in its first week will sell, say, half a million copies. Okay, that is how many people will tune into the lowest rated rerun of a Kardashian show.

Correspondent: Which is frightening.

Weiner: Which is frightening and sad. But if you want to talk to young women, you go beyond TV.

Correspondent: If you want to talk with young women.

Weiner: If you want to talk to young women.

Correspondent: Why do you need that large audience?

Weiner: I want to talk to young women. I mean, I remember watching TV as a young woman and there was never anybody who looked like me. Unless she was the butt of a joke or the funny best friend or somebody tragic. Somebody who needed a makeover in order for good things to happen. And I have daughters. And they’re both blonde-haired, blue-eyed. They’re very cute little girls. I’ve basically given birth to my own unit of the Hitler Youth. I don’t get it. But I want to make shows for girls where the heroine doesn’t look like Blake Lively. Where the heroine looks like a regular girl and still gets everything. Gets the guy, gets the jokes, gets the great clothes, gets the great job. That’s what I went out there to do.

Correspondent: Well, Jen, I’m all for creative idealism as much as the next person. I mean, this program prides itself on its creative control. However, you got Raven.

Weiner: I went to the wrong place maybe.

Correspondent: Yes, exactly.

Weiner: I got Raven minus thirty pounds.

Correspondent: You really can’t always get what you want when it comes to television. So it seems to me that wouldn’t you be better off? You know, you can do pretty much whatever you want, I’m thinking…

Weiner: In a book.

Correspondent: Within a book. That you can’t do through television.

Weiner: Well, you know, I hope though — and I think I’m going to keep banging at that door. Because I do think — you look at a show like Girls on HBO.

Correspondent: Which I’m a big fan of, oddly enough. I never expected to say that.

Weiner: Yeah. But I think that there are people on networks who would say, “Well, no, we don’t want people that look like that on TV. We have to sell Valley Fitness commercials.” Well, HBO does not have to sell Valley Fitness commercials.

Correspondent: No.

Weiner: They just have to have subscribers.

Correspondent: They also don’t need that great of an audience.

Weiner: Exactly.

Correspondent: Which is why they have the shows that they do.

Weiner: Right. They can have a hit if half a million people watch. Where a network, you’d be cancelled before you got to the first commercial. So there’s places it can happen. There’s ways that it can happen. And I would like to keep trying.

Correspondent: But you have very skillfully evaded my main question.

Weiner: Yes.

Correspondent: Which is: You have an audience.

Weiner: I do.

Correspondent: You have a great audience.

Weiner: They love me.

Correspondent: You have an audience of girls and young women and women. And I’m saying to myself, “Well, that’s fantastic. Why isn’t that enough?”

Weiner: Well, that’s an interesting question.

Correspondent: (laughs) Nice media training there, Jen. (laughs)

Weiner: Well, you know what? I think that I’m someone who’s wired to want more. I don’t know why. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s daddy stuff. I don’t know. But I see gaps and problems and imbalance and inequity. And for whatever reason feel compelled to talk about it. You know, whether it’s the New York Times not covering women.

Correspondent: We’ll get to that.

Weiner: We’ll get to that. Whether it’s television offering a range of beauty that goes from a size zero all the way up to a size two. And it’s like, well, maybe I can do something about that. And I feel like I need to try.

Correspondent: Yeah. But it seems to me that you’re reflecting some sort of personal imbalance and stretching it into some sort of societal imbalance, creating yet another form of imbalance. I mean, why isn’t the work itself enough? Because you can always stretch yourself on that canvas. You can always try new things on the page.

Weiner: But again, who’s reading?

Correspondent: I’m reading. You have millions of people reading you.

Weiner: I don’t know if fourteen-year-old girls are — I think they’re reading Twilight. And that concerns me some.

Correspondent: They’re also reading. I mean, China Miéville, he’s writing YA books and he writes his literary books.

Weiner: This is true.

Correspondent: You can do something like that.

Weiner: I’m actually working on a YA book.

Correspondent: You are?

Weiner: Yes. Thank you for asking. I’m writing — you remember Pippi Longstocking?

Correspondent: Yes.

Weiner: Okay, so, ten-year-old girl who is living alone with a monkey named Mr. Jingles.

Correspondent: Absolutely.

Weiner: And I remember reading that and loving it. Because she has these adventures and she’s kind of an ass-kicker. Like she’s got huge feet and she sort of takes on the mean boys. And I’m like, I read it as a girl and loved it. I read it as a mom to my daughter. And I’m like, this is the most fucked up thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Why is this child living by herself with a monkey? Like what the…you know. So what I’m writing is a story about a girl who comes home from school one day and discovers her parents are missing. They’re just gone. And she doesn’t tell anybody. Because she knows that the instant that people realize her parents aren’t there, she’s going to be shipped off to her horrible aunt in Texas. And she sort of scams her way through a school year and figures out all of these tricks. My favorite one is that she signs up for a diet service to deliver her all her food. She doesn’t know how to cook. So she’s an ad on late night TV. Like “We’ll bring you three meals and two snacks every day.” So she calls up and she’s like, “It’s for my mom. I want to surprise her.” And the lady’s like, “Oh honey, that’s so sweet. How big is your mom?” So she makes up the biggest number she can think of. So she’ll get a lot of food. So I am interested in thinking about YA and thinking about reaching an audience that way. But I think television just offers — it’s a great canvas to tell a story. It gives you space. It gives you time. It gives you visibility.

Correspondent: You’ve got visibility. You’ve got time.

Weiner: Yeah, I know.

The Bat Segundo Show #469: Jennifer Weiner IV (Download MP3)

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Alix Ohlin (The Bat Segundo Show)

Alix Ohlin appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #467. She is most recently the author of Inside and Signs and Wonders.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Careful to distinguish between Uganda and Rwanda.

Author: Alix Ohlin

Subjects Discussed: Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, California weather, New York City as ideal place to consider the vocational experience, aspiring rock stars, working in the publishing industry before becoming a writer, slush pile people vs. literary giants, working in an atmosphere of rejection, maintaining a love of reading and writing while being employed as a publishing booster, the benefits of being familiar with canonical fiction, writing stories in secret, working in a bookstore, drinking an enormous amount of caffeine, Ohlin’s four year self-imposed apprenticeship, finding a voice, “The King of Kohlrabi” as Ohlin’s first breakout point, hiding in a cafe in Nex Mexico, being a reserved person, resisting a reserved voice, callousness and bad things in fiction, why Ohlin’s characters don’t seek revenge, when the human equation isn’t direct, being treated poorly in a relationship, whether or not revenge is true to life, parents and therapy, building dimensionality out of empathy, removing cautiousness from characters to explore human feelings, fragmented marriages and divorces, being not pro-war, Don Swaim, attempts to be a well-rounded person, Ohlin’s Harvard background, whether writing fiction can make you a more well-rounded person, doing scientific research, having Don DeLillo as a hero, being an information-based fiction writer in the early days, “Vigo Park” and Chekhov’s gun, “A Month of Sundays” vs. Updike’s A Month of Sundays, using explicit literary references in a story, being honest about the author/reader relationship, being too precious with titles and tropes, tactile elements of characters in Ohlin’s sentences, giving the reader sensory guideposts, Tug’s Rwandan backstory in Inside, moving empathy onto a greater canvas, playing around with time, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, structure and false starts, why Ohline’s stories never transform into novels, being a heavy planner, knowing the ending of a story, the pros and cons of revisiting a short story after it had been collected, short story culture in the digital age, uncollected short stories that aren’t available online, the fate of the short story, being freed of commercial restraints, instantaneous reactions to work, critics who misinterpret work, factual errors in fiction, being grateful for attention, hardcover vs. paperback, and the reduced output of short story collections.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Now I may be misconstrued as the “nine types of weather” guy in E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, but, as a native Californian, I do feel compelled to ask you this question. There are two moments in these two books where you do remark on the California weather. One is the beginning of the story “The Only Child,” where Sophie calls California weather “sunny and childlike.” And in Inside, you have the situation where Anne is in Los Angeles. She’s running along the beach and she’s calling it this sort of fantastical dream. Now I don’t know why this actually stuck inside my head. But I feel that this is a very good jumping off point to describe what it is you do in terms of selecting those right details. Because I can see it from a California point of view. Because it is too good to be true. I can also see it as someone who has lived here in New York for five years and also say, “Well, yes, it is too good to be true. And it deserves to be mocked or ridiculed in some sense.” But at the same time, we’re also dealing with an author who is ascribing this through a character. And this becomes something that I obsess with. And I’m sure that some other reader is going to obsess over something along those lines. I ask you this about how you choose these details, such as the weather, because your prose is very sparse, very economic, very selective in its own criteria in terms of its syntax. So how does something like the California weather or, for example, Chinese food — also featuring in both books — how do these things make their way in a story? What is the filtering mechanism that causes this? A very bad, eccentric, possibly deranged way to start this, but I thought I would do that.

Ohlin: No, it’s always great to start with weather. I certainly think that everything in the books is filtered through the consciousness of the characters. And that’s always where I begin. It’s my entry point as a writer to start creating a narrative. And it’s certainly how I choose the details. Which is not really a conscious process. It’s more that I’m there in the moment with the character and imagining what might be the most conspicuous thing to them. So both of those descriptions of California, to respond to that, are absolutely moments of experience that are specific to characters who are from the East Coast and wintry climates, who come out and, of course, that’s what they remark upon. Of course it feels like a fantasy and an escape and something amazing and remarkable. Because to them, it is.

Correspondent: Did you get burned in California? Did you get burned by the weather or burned metaphorically?

Ohlin: I love the weather in California. And I do think it’s amazing. But, for me, I will always experience it as not home. Not the climate of home. And I will always be the person remarking upon the sunshine in January.

Correspondent: Okay. Well, aside from Anne struggling in New York in Inside, in Signs and Wonders you have a number of stories set in New York City. And “Who Do You Love?” made an impression upon me for a number of reasons. The notion of a band called Das Boot, which is actually noted around a German mode, or a mood, as opposed to the actual Teutonic experience full boar — that resonated with me because I’ve known people like the — well, rather interestingly, she doesn’t have a name, the woman who is smit with Adam, the aging rock star who is past his prime, doesn’t want to do any particular work and yet he has a draw in Williamsburg. That men like that are allowed to get away with such pathetic behavior, both in that and what we see with Inside and what we see in a number of the other stories in Signs and Wonders. I’m curious. Do you think that this particular fixation is common largely to New York? The vocational experience, is it rooted in your own personal experience? How do these fixations on, I suppose, vocational nightmares along these lines and the terrible influence on other people, how did these come about?

Ohlin: So by “vocational experiences,” do you mean the fact that he wants to be a rock star?

Correspondent: Aspirations. Is this common to New York? Why does this seem to be your idea of what New York is?

Ohlin: Well, it’s not my only idea of what New York is. But I do think that both New York and Los Angeles are places where a lot of young people move in their twenties to pursue artistic dreams that they thought were less available to them wherever they came from. So in that story, it’s the kind of story about someone who was on the cusp of being too old to be aspiring. At a certain point, you’re just sort of a person who never made it and that’s an extremely difficult moment to switch over in your own head. And then I think I have written about other characters in Inside, like Anne, who is an aspiring actress, who starts off first of all in the theater world in New York and then goes out to L.A. to try — or winds up being cast in a TV show in L.A. I just think that there’s something about both those cities that they are conduits to not just any kind of vocational experience, but artistic experiences. And then they don’t work out for people. And that’s incredibly difficult. And it’s part of your growing up to try and figure out how to come to terms with that.

Correspondent: Did New York work out for you? I mean, I know you worked in the publishing industry. And this leads me to ask you also if you had to get certain elements of how you viewed fiction and how you viewed books outside of your system in order to truly inhabit these stories as an artist.

Ohlin: Well, you know, that’s a really interesting question. I moved to New York straight out of college and I did work in publishing. And I loved it. I learned a lot and I was having a great time. But I also had this secretly harbored desire to write. And I would go to work all day and there were two things about it that were difficult. One was that a huge part of my job as an editorial assistant was to reject manuscripts. So I was right there at the forefront of rejection and understanding how difficult the odds were.

Correspondent: Did you reject anybody big?

Ohin: I don’t really want to say who I rejected. But a big part of what I rejected were slush pile people. The people who are just writing in cold without an agent. But there were so many of them and my entire cubicle would be full of these works of love — you know, 500 page novels that people were sending in that I would write a simple two-sentence letter rejecting. That was hard, when you think about, well, what’s going to become of my work. But then on the other side of the coin was that the books that were accepted, I mean, I was working at Knopf and we were publishing people like Cormac McCarthy and Tobias Wolff and Toni Morrison. And their work was so incredibly sophisticated and adept. And then I would go home and I would write these terrible, terrible, terrible stories. And the contrast between what I could do and what these published authors could do on the one hand and the rejection of the unsolicited manuscripts on the other hand really did not create an ideal context for artistic risk-taking. So I think it was really because of that, and not something about New York in particular. I love New York. But it was really about working in this atmosphere of rejection and impossible standards that I just thought, “Well, I really can’t do this.” I made the impetuous decision that you make when you’re in your early twenties and I thought, “I’m leaving New York! I’m starting over!” You know. “And it’s going to be an adventure!” I think, had I been a little older, I probably would have realized that there are ways that you can reconcile those two things. But at the time, it seemed like going away and writing in secret far away from New York publishing was the thing that I had to do.

The Bat Segundo Show #467: Alix Ohlin (Download MP3)

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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.

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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.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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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Jesmyn Ward (The Bat Segundo Show)

Jesmyn Ward appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #463. She is most recently the author of Salvage the Bones.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Testing the limits of his fury towards the Bush family.

Author: Jesmyn Ward

Subjects Discussed: Smoothies, fruit, bad franchises, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, what it means to be a mother and a woman, Medea, America’s lack of mythology vs. Greek mythology, life within a poor community, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, an author’s responsibility to community, the regional limitations of contemporary American fiction, being made angry by comments relating to Katrina, Pat Robertson, Barbara Bush’s insensitive comments about Katrina, FEMA and Michael Brown, novels of ideas, the physicality of characters, sinewy muscles, stomachs in fiction, close third person vs. first-person perspective, bad models of womanhood in the natural world, language, China as an anagram of chain, words as tokens of physical identity, present stigmas against figurative language, collisional rhythm, Outkast and Deuteronomy, finding an incidental rhythm, when to resist feedback that gets in the way of a natural voice, violence in fiction, creating a ferocious and multidimensional dog in Salvage the Bones, being surprised by the middle, pit bulls, Manny as a conflict generator, the mysterious ghostly mother, Hemingway’s iceberg theory, sexuality and promiscuity, unstoppable emotional forces, not glossing over the truth, describing trees with limbs, paradisaical cesspools, keeping a natural environment alive, and finding the right details to depict impoverishment.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You have Esch reading this Edith Hamilton book, especially Medea. And you also point out near the end that mythology won’t entirely help you out in a fix. Esch says that she is stuck in the middle of the book. And aside from Hamilton, I have to ask, did you draw on any other inspirational mythology when you were creating this book? Was there a point when you abandoned mythology at all like Esch? I wanted to start off here from the origin.

Ward: That’s an interesting question. I didn’t draw from any other mythology. I don’t think. Greek mythology, that was the thing in this book. I think in my first book I did — well, if you consider some of the older tales in the Bible mythology. I drew from some of those in my first book.

Correspondent: Do you consider them mythology?

Ward: Well, they are tales that explain how the world became what it is. So in ways, I think it is. But did I use any other sorts of mythologies in this, in Salvage the Bones? I don’t know. I don’t think that I abandoned it. I think that mythology’s important to her because it’s helping her understand what it means to be a mother and what it means to be a woman. So therefore, like even though she turns away from it, she still can’t help but go before the storm. To come back to that story and read more of Medea. Because see, she’s searching. And in there, she’s found something. She can’t figure out what it is. But she’s found something.

Correspondent: But it’s interesting that you would have her cleave to mythology in America, which is a nation that is constantly in search of its own great mythology. The Great American Novel. We’re Number One. You name it. I’m wondering if this mythological concern was in some sense related to, well, whatever American identity that Esch and her family had.

Ward: Well, I think she feels very much like an outsider. I think that the culture that she is from, that she lives in a small world — you know, a poor black community. I mean, I feel like they think they’re outside of that. They exist outside of that American dream. And so, in ways, they have to look elsewhere. And Esch, particularly, she finds that she is even more isolated than that community that her family is. Because she’s this only girl who grows up in a world full of men. So she really has to look outside what is easily available to her or in front of her in order to find some sort of kinship.

Correspondent: This leads me to wonder. Have you read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful ForeversWard: No.

Correspondent: Because your book, on a fiction level, reminded me of this great journalism book. Which I think you would love and I’m just in total admiration of. It basically deals with this inner life of the people who are poor, who are collecting trash on the edge of Mumbai. And your book reminded me very much of this response to typical First World guilt or what not. That instead of actually pitying or looking down upon these people, your book is very much about giving all of these characters a great inner life. They do live. And it’s important to remember that they live. And I’m wondering where this impulse came from. Whether this idea of allowing Esch and her family to live was in some sense a way for you to counter any accusations of “Well, I’m responding to politics” and so forth.

Ward: Well, I think that I write about the kind of people that I grew up with, and the kind of people that are in my family and about the place that I’m from. I mean, I’m from a poor rural Southern community that — at least in my part of the community, which is mostly black. And you know, our family’s been there for generations. And I have a very large extended family. I’m related to almost everyone in my town. And so, for me, it’s like writing about the people that I’m writing about — you know, I feel that it’s a responsibility. Because I’m writing about my people. Even though my path is very different from most of the people I grew up with, I still consider myself — you know, that’s still my place. And those are still my people. So for me, that’s what this is. I don’t feel like an outsider. I feel like an insider who’s speaking out for the rest of the people inside my group.

Correspondent: Sure. I totally understand that. Do you think that this is going to be how it’s going to be for your fiction career? That you have to respond to this responsibility of speaking for this group of people? Because nobody else will. Or, in fact, one might argue that maybe American fiction, or regional American fiction, isn’t actually hitting that particular territory. What do you think of this?

Ward: I mean, I think that for the foreseeable future, as far as my writing life is concerned, I intend to write about the place and the people that I come from. Because part of the reason that I do so — I mean, part of the reason that I wanted to write about Katrina is because I was uncomfortable and made angry by the way that I heard others speak about people who didn’t evacuate from the storm. About people who stayed. About poor people who were caught in the maw of that storm. And I wanted to write against that. And so in a way, I do think that the voices of the people that I write about, or even just the people that I write about, that they’ve been absent in the conversation, in the national conversation. And that’s part of what I’m trying to do by writing about them. Introduce their voices into the conversation so that people pay attention and people aren’t so quick to write them off as worthless or stupid or all the other crazy things that I heard after Hurricane Katrina.

Correspondent: Are there specific things that really pissed you off?

Ward: Well, I heard this one woman. She’s from Atlanta too, which is close enough. It’s six hours away from where I live. And she said that the reason that Hurricane Katrina had hit us and done so much damage is because we were sinful. That we were in a sinful place. Like, for her, it was very much about — you know, she was approaching it from a religious standpoint.

Correspondent: The Pat Robertson-like charge.

Ward: Yeah.

Correspondent: “Well, they brought it onto themselves.”

Ward: Yeah. So we deserved it because of our proclivity for gambling and drinking and all the rest. And then other people that I encountered said that, one, they couldn’t understand why people stayed. Why people would stay and try to survive a hurricane like that. And, two, that they didn’t understand why people would return and try to rebuild. Because what’s the point if global warming just means that there are going to be more storms, there are going to be just as powerful as Katrina and more of them are going to hit that part of the United States. And that comment really made me angry. Because that person was from L.A.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Ward: That person was from California, which has its own.

Correspondent: These bicoastal buffoons.

Ward: So I just heard commentary like that. And it just made me really angry. And I wanted to counter those. I really felt that our voices were absent from that. Especially that conversation. You had what’s her name. It’s Bush’s mother. Remember when she said that crazy stuff?

Correspondent: Barbara Bush.

Ward: Yeah. About the people from New Orleans. Like this was like a vacation for them. Because they got to go ahead and stay in the Astrodome. Like really? Are you serious? Just so far removed from the reality of these people’s lives and their struggles. Just so far removed. Comments like that just made me realize how, when people said them, it’s like they didn’t recognize our humanity at all. And that really made me angry, and made me want to address Hurricane Katrina in the book.

Correspondent: Well, this seems as good a time as any to confess to you, Jesmyn, that at the point where they are scrambling for their boiled eggs and their packages of ramen, and there is of course the depiction of the carton of bones in the fridge — and then they say, “Oh, well, FEMA and Red Cross will help us out.” At that point, I thought I had a maximum level of anger towards Bush and Brown. And then I read that. And I became even more furious towards them.

Ward: (laughs)

Correspondent: And you’re talking here about anger. And you’re talking about it in a very calm manner. And this book is extremely focused, I would say. So what did you do to not get so caught up in this understandably furious impulse and actually focus in on the book? Was it really the inner life of these characters that was enough for you to counter any socioeconomic, political responsive bullshit?

Ward: I think so. Because I feel that my book will fail if my characters are not alive on the page. There have been great novels of ideas, right? But, for me, the kind of writer that I am, I can’t write those novels. And I don’t think that they would be successful novels.

Correspondent: Why do you think you can’t write a novel of ideas? Or that the ideas are best represented in the environment that you set down?

Ward: I don’t know. It’s just not my style. What comes naturally to me is telling a story that’s invested in people and in the characters, and making them live on the page.

The Bat Segundo Show #463: Jesmyn Ward (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Samuel R. Delany

Sameul R. Delany appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #459. He is most recently the author of Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Growing a beard to make up for lost time.

Author: Samuel R. Delany

Subjects Discussed: Literary beards, spending the same amount of money on books as food, how many books Delany has read, developing a cataract, Jason Rohrer’s Passage, the structure of Spiders, time moving faster as you get older, Delany’s academic career, the amount of sex contained within Spiders, the male climacteric, how the body changes, About Writing, including a short story in a novel, the original version of Spiders in Black Clock, seven years contained within the first 400 pages, E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel and fleshing out the idea of “writing what you know,” Lear and “runcible,” Times Square Red Times Square Blue, the Dump vs. the Deuce, the pre-1995 porn theaters in Times Square, transplanting New York subcultures to Georgia, the importance of institutional support to a community, gay conservatives, inventing the Kyle Foundation, Goethe’s Elective Affinities, Steven Shaviro’s thoughts on Delany’s intensities, transgressive behavior, connections between The Mad Man and Spiders, pornutopic fantasies, Hogg, when pornotopia sometimes happens in reality, Fifty Shades of Grey, balancing the real and the fantastical in sexual fiction, Delany’s usage of “ass” and “butt,” how dogs have orgasms, making a phone call in the middle of dinner to find out about sexual deviancy, why Shit does a lot of grinning, Freu and infantile sexuality, the paternal thrust to Shit and Eric’s relationship in Spiders, the difficulty of reading Spinoza’s Ethica, whether a philosophical volume can replace the Bible, living a life driven by one book, Hegel, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, movies vs. books, interclass conflict, Peter Jackson’s films, how mainstream culture relates to subcultures, Jackson’s original notion of the King Kong remake as Wagnerian ambition, Tristran and Isolde, turning up the idealism dial, whether art can live up to pure ambition, the myth of the wonder decade, living through the 50s and 60s, Freedom Rides, people who are diaphanous to the forces of history, the Beatles, peasant indifference during the Dreyfus affair, the impact of not knowing the cultural canon, nanotechnology, John Dos Passos, fiction which responds to present events, life within California, living in San Francisco, how Market Street has changed, assaults on the homeless in San Francisco, the Matrix I and II programs, the gentrification of the Tenderloin, novels of ideas, whether or not genre labels hold conceptual novels hostage, market conditions that hold ambitious fiction back, Delany’s nine apprentice novels, trunk novels, and editorial compromise.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: There’s this video game art project called Passage by Jason Rohrer. Have you heard of this?

Delany: No.

Correspondent: Okay. Because your book reminded me very much of this.

Delany: Really?

Correspondent: I’ll have to forward you the link. Basically, it’s this sidescroller. It’s in a 100 pixel by, I think, 13 pixel window. And you control this person who goes from left to right. From beginning to end of life. And you pick up a partner. In fact, you grow a beard.

Delany: (laughs)

Correspondent: And you die at the end. And it takes the 8-bit sidescroller and it turns it into this unexpectedly poignant moment. If you play it enough times, you can move the cursor down and actually have the figure go into this mire and collect stars, but maybe not have a partner or maybe meet an early demise there. And it absolutely reflects what life is. And I read your book, and I was extremely aware of the physicality. Not just because it was an 800 page book, but because the first 400 pages is basically these escapades of lots of sex, youthful brio, and so forth. And then, suddenly, decades flash by often when we read this. And I’m curious, just to start off here, where did the design of this structure come from? I know you’re very keen on structures. You’ve written about this many times. But how did this come about in Spiders?

Delany: Well, it came from being a person who’s gotten older. I just had my 70th birthday.

Correspondent: Yes. Happy birthday.

Delany: Thank you very much. And one of the things that does happen, and it’s a really interesting phenomena, is that time seems to go a lot faster as you get older. When you were young, time takes forever. You go to the doctor. You wait around for two hours in the doctor’s office. It seems like three months. Whereas I went to the doctor’s office this morning. I went in. And the next thing I knew, I was on my way here. And I’d been there about two and a half hours. And it didn’t seem that any time had passed at all. And I was at the University of Massachusetts between 1988 and 1999, for eleven years. And that seemed much longer than the last twelve years, thirteen years, that I’d been at Temple University, where I’ve been there from 1999 to this year, 2012. And that seems much shorter than the eleven years that I was at UMass. And there’s no way to avoid this. As you get older and older, time just begins to rush by. And I wanted to get this. So actually, the time goes faster and faster through the book. But at a certain point, you realize, “Oh wait a minute! It’s rushing along.” As one of the reviewers said, decades drop out between paragraphs. Well, that’s what happens. That’s how your life kind of goes. So in that sense, the structure of the book is based on the structure of my own experience.

Correspondent: What’s very strange though — I read the book and, actually, I started missing the sex after that 400 page mark. I mean, all of a sudden, wait a minute, they’re not having so much sex anymore. There isn’t all the snot stuff and the pissing and the corprophiia and, of course, the father-son stuff. All of a sudden, we don’t have a lot of that at all. And then you drop some, quite literally, serious bombs later on in the book. And this leads me to ask…

Delany: Well, the sex doesn’t vanish.

Correspondent: Well, of course. It’s there. It keeps going on.

Delany: I mean, the sex is there. But it’s the sex that someone older has. And one of the things that they have to deal with is the fact that your body changes as you get older. And somewhere between 50 and 60, you go through the equivalent of the male climacteric. Which is a very strange thing to go through. Quite as odd…

Correspondent: Oh god. Thanks for warning me.

Delany: Quite as odd as, what is the term for women?

Correspondent: Menopause.

Delany: Menopause, yes. It’s very much like the menopause. And somehow you’re not warned. You aren’t warned how it’s going to change. Everybody notices the body changing. From ten to twenty, there are going to be a lot of changes. But there are going to be just as many changes from twenty to thirty, from thirty to forty, forty to fifty, fifty to sixty. You konw, I’ve been with my partner now, Dennis, for almost twenty-four years. And we still have a sex life. And we’re very fond of one another and very close. But it’s different. Things do change. And that’s one of the things that it’s about. I wanted to explore what the relationship of two men who were notably older was. And so I tried to do that.

Correspondent: You have said also in About Writing, which I’m probably going to be cribbing a lot from for this conversation, that a short story’s not exactly the best thing to include in a novel. And yet this book arose out of a short story that was published in Black Clock. Which leads me back to the original query. How did this thing become structured? How did this take on a life of its own?

Delany: Well, I had to throw away the whole second half of the original short story and rewrite something that flowed into the novel. If you actually compared it, the opening couple of scenes are very similar, although not identical by any means. There were lots of changes all through it. From the very first paragraph. But I wanted to use that as a kind of jumping off point.

Correspondent: Well, that’s one hell of a jumping off point. 800 pages. I mean, why do you think that you were interested in exploring such an expansive format? Why did Eric and Shit demand this sort of attention?

Delany: Well, because I wanted to talk about a lasting relationship between two men. And a very committed relationship. They’re very close to each other. They’re absolutely fixated on one another. I mean, neither one of them could really make it without the other. Which is the tragedy that Eric is faced with at the end. So I just wanted to explore that and see what happened, and deal with all these things. The time speeds up in the first half of the book too. The first 400 pages basically take, what, about seven years. So that’s even years. That’s a good Dickens novel. (laughs) But this is a book that goes on for basically sixty or seventy years.

Correspondent: Yeah. I wanted to also talk about the location. Since my name is Ed, I have to bring up another Ed. E.M. Forster. You have often quoted the advice given in Aspects of the Novel.

Delany: “Write what you know.”

Correspondent: “Write what you know.” But your idea here is to build upon that and say, in addition to writing what you know, it’s very good to keep the writing alive and energetic if you write about something that you’ve only experienced a few times.

Delany: Right. Exactly.

Correspondent: And in this, it’s interesting because it should be evident by your Lear-like use — another Ed — of “runcible” that this Georgia is a fantasy of sorts.

Delany: Yes. It’s a fairytale. The whole book is an 800 page fairytale.

Correspondent: Exactly.

Delany: By which I mean things like Don Quixote. (laughs)

Correspondent: Of course. But my question is: You’re almost writing what you know and you’re writing what you don’t know, or only know a little bit of. Because we have to go to Times Square Red Times Square Blue, which I also read. You write about a man in that named Tommy. He wears a sleeveless denim jacket. Well, there’s a guy with a sleeveless shirt here. And he collected scrap metal. Not unlike this. You look at The Dump. It could also be The Deuce. The Opera House. It could also be the Metropolitan Opera House.

Delany: Easily. Well, it wouldn’t be the Metropolitan. But it could be one of the old porn theaters before ’95. Before New York closed them down.

Correspondent: I guess my question though is: by putting much of these viewpoints that you have raised both in your fiction and your nonfiction to Georgia, to the edge of the earth quite literally, I mean, what does this allow you to do as a fiction writer? How does this allow you to explore a subculture that, say, keeping everything in New York would not?

Delany: Well, one of the things that I wanted to show is that the kind of life that Eric and Morgan — his nickname is Shit.

Correspondent: You can say “Shit” here.

Delany: That Eric and Shit lead — as I said, besides being a fairytale, is also — well, I’m trying to figure out a good way to put this. In some ways, it’s kind of didactic. It’s almost like a Bildungsroman. They have to learn how to live their life. And it can’t be done — and this is, I really feel — and this is one of the reasons why it had to be a fairytale — it needs institutional support. Which is why there has to be the Kyle Foundation and why there has to be a certain support, a certain community support for what they’re doing. And at the same time, they’re very much on the margin of this community. They’re not in the center of this community. So that people like Mr. Potts, for instance. A very conservative man who just doesn’t want his nephew, who has come down to spend the winter with him, associating with these riffraff who use the gay-friendly restroom. Because he doesn’t like the idea of gay men using the restrooms at all.

Correspondent: Where did the Kyle Foundation come from?

Delany: It was purely out of my head.

Correspondent: Really. Because there’s a specific phrasing in their mantra: “an institution dedicated to the betterment of the lives of black gay men and of those of all races and creeds connected to them by elective and non-elective affinities.” And that phrasing recalls any number of Islamic foundations and the like.

Delany: And also the Goethe novel.

Correspondent: Yes!

Delany: Elective Affinities.

Correspondent: So that was really more where it came from?

Delany: It came more from Goethe than it did from Islam.

Correspondent: Sure. Steven Shaviro. He has pointed out that the intensities of your pornography are never presented as transgressive. Now in a disclaimer…

Delany: Although this is pretty transgressive.

Correspondent: Well, of course. I want to talk about this. Because in a disclaimer to The Mad Man, of which we see statues of something that crops up in there appearing in this, you called The Mad Man “a pornotopic fantasy: a set of people, incidents, places, and relations among them that never happened and could not happen for any number of surely self-evident reasons.” Well, there is no such disclaimer for Spiders and we see much of the same stuff, as I said. Piss-drinking, shit-eating, you name it. I’m wondering. How does a pornotopic fantasy — how does one of these, whether it be The Mad Man or Spiders or even the infamous Hogg, how does this help us to understand or come to terms with the realities of sex and what the present limits are? What some people might call deviancy today or perhaps yesterday.

Delany: Well, literature is divided into genres like that. You have the world of comedy, the world of tragedy. And you have the world of pornography. And each of them is a kind of subgenre. And sometimes they can be mixed. You can go from one to the other. And I think pornotopia is the place, as I’ve written about, where the major qualities — the major aspect of pornotopia, it’s a place where any relation, if you put enough pressure on it, can suddenly become sexual. You walk into the reception area of the office and you look at the secretary and the secretary looks at you and the next minute you’re screwing on the desk. That’s pornotopia. Which, every once in a while, actually happens. But it doesn’t happen at the density.

Correspondent: Frequency.

Delany: At the frequency that it happens in pornotopia. In pornotopia, it happens nonstop. And yet some people are able to write about that sort of thing relatively realistically. And some people aren’t. Something like Fifty Shades of Grey is not a very realistic account.

Correspondent: I’m sure you’ve read that by now.

Delany: I’ve read about five pages.

Correspondent: And it was enough for you to throw against the wall?

Delany: No. I didn’t throw it. I just thought it was hysterically funny. But because the writer doesn’t use it to make any real observations on the world that is the case, you know, it’s ho-hum.

Correspondent: How do we hook those moms who were so driven to Fifty Shades of Grey on, say, something like this?

Delany: I don’t think you’re going to. I think the realistic — and there’s a lot that’s relatively realistic about it and there’s also a lot that isn’t. Probably less so in this book than in, let’s say, The Mad Man, which probably has a higher proportion of realism to fantasy.

Correspondent: I also wanted to ask you — what’s interesting is that there is almost a limit to the level of pornography in this. There’s one funeral scene where something is going to happen and they say, “Nuh-uh. You’re not allowed to do that. Show some respect.” And roughly around the 300 page mark, I was very conscious of the fact that you didn’t actually use the word “ass.” And you were always using “butt.” (laughs)

Delany: I didn’t even notice.

Correspondent: And so when “ass” showed up, I was actually shocked by that. So I’m wondering. Does any exploration of sexual behavior, outlandish sexual behavior or sexual behavior that’s outside the norms of what could possibly happen, whether it be frequency or density or what not — does it require limits with which to look at it? With which to see it in purely fantastical terms?

Delany: Well, I think one of the things that you need to write a book, especially a book this long, is you need a certain amount of variety. And I think that this is perhaps a failing. There are only so many things that you can do. I think I give a good sampling of them. But every once in a while, I’m sure it probably gets somewhat repetitious.

Correspondent: Well, it’s a good variety pack. But it’s also: “Okay, reader, you have to get beyond these first 350 pages and then, by then, you are actually able to get into totally unanticipated territory and I’ve already locked you in.” How did you work that out?

Delany: One of the things is that you try and keep telling interesting things about the sex. I mean, things that can be observed about the world that is the case. I mean, I tried to talk about the sex in terms of — I don’t think most people know how a dog has an orgasm.

Correspondent: How do we find this out? (laughs)

Delany: Uh, there’s a wonderful website. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs)

(Image: Ed Gaillard)

The Bat Segundo Show #459: Samuel R. Delany (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #451. She is most recently the author of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Reconsidering the ever-shifting happy/normal life spectrum.

Author: Jeanette Winterson

Subjects Discussed: How the brain spins around, getting two marriage proposals, sleeping in a brothel in Los Angeles, people who copulate in corridors, “part fact part fiction” as a cover story, Winterson’s obligations to the facts, how a new life can be found in the form of a book, a life ending that nobody wants, how literature allows an intervention into that fateful feeling of life, imaginative freedom, adopted children and being a control freak, the cyclical nature of Winterson’s work, performance spring from fiction and performance turning into nonfiction, Witnerson World, trusting the creative process, the problems with creative writing schools, Ulysses and the return, T.S. Eliot, making sense of the whole pattern of your life, textual foundation, avoiding the term “memoir,” life imitating art, David A. Hogue’s Remembering the Future, Imagining the Past, precise measurement and comparison within Winterson’s work, the importance of detail, the benefits of seeing the world in little, Winterson’s addiction to Twitter, compartmentalizing the world, wooing online people towards books, the generation of the actual, comparisons between Kindle and phone sex, the problems with guys who watch porn, examining a stranger’s bookshelves, virtual realms, Mrs. Winterson reading Jane Eyre and reinventing the end, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Our Correspondent’s problems trying to read Jane Eyre, how containing an adopted mother in words insulates her from the reader, revealing too much of yourself through writing, eccentricity and order, Winterson’s morning bicycle routine, secret rooms in Paris, playing with all your possible selves, solitude as a necessary condition to create something, the reader impression of Mrs. Winterson as a monster, the NORI brick and the Empire State Building, reclaiming Accrington, Winterson’s connection with the North, Manchester, making space in the self for things to come back, how books are more clever than their writers, how Winterson stole a cat and used this incident to teach a moral lesson, memory, screaming as a two-year-old, being a devil baby, the absurd sound of sentences, saying yes to life, false starts and messing things up, how people are presently creating a dystopian society, and how storytelling can help people to live.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Speaking of Mrs. Winterson [JW’s adopted mother], there is a dash-driven paragraph about halfway through the book where you have her applying various charges to locations. Bestiality for the pet parlor, unmarried mothers to the day nursery. So to what degree does containing Mrs. Winterson in words help you to insulate her both from yourself and also, while we’re talking about this idea of what the reader takes away, the readership?

Winterson: Well, I think this time I let her loose. She is also the Dog Woman in Sexing the Cherry. The gigantic lonely philosophical creature who adopts Jordan from the banks of the River Thames. I’ve worked with her often. As a dream figure. As a psychopath, which I suppose she was in a way. But also as a psychopomp, which in myth stories is the strange part-angel, part-devil creature who often tells the stories. You find them in the Arabian Nights very often. There’s kind of a liminal creature inhabiting two worlds. Which in a way she did. Because she lived in end times. She was waiting for Armageddon. And that’s what she wanted. So she was only ever partly in our world. She called life a pre-death experience, which tells you a lot about her psyche. So I wasn’t insulating myself any longer. I had to do that in Oranges because that was a cover version I could live with. I couldn’t have told the story twenty-five years ago. I really couldn’t. That would have been the end of me. And it would have been a very different trajectory for me. But I can tell it now. And I wanted to release her — like the genie, like the 300-foot genie from the bottle — and give her back to the reader. Because I think the reader comes out feeling compassion for this woman. Sympathy even. And also understanding more both about me — Jeanette Winterson the writer — and also about the place that I come from. It’s not covered up at all. I think this is the most revealed book that I have ever written. Which is not to say that the language isn’t as conscious or as taut as I liked it to be. It’s important to me to work with language. But it is a completely honest book. It’s a truthful book, yeah.

Correspondent: Can you reveal too much of yourself through these particular projects?

Winterson: Yes, you can. You can get very overshary if you’re not careful.

Correspondent: How have you stopped yourself from doing this? Do you have a good team that’s going to say, “Hey, Jeanette, maybe you don’t actually want to tell the world that”?

Winterson: No. I made a choice. And it’s the center of the book. There’s one page called “Intermission.” And I say, “I’m going to miss out twenty-five years.” Which I thought would be good for the memoir anyway. Because I thought, this time, the form got a kick up the ass. It became just a bit more fluent and less linear. So I thought, well, that would give people a later clue. They won’t feel so bound to go through this from A to Z. And I did that in order not to bring in lots of people from the middle of my life, which would have turned it more into a kiss-and-tell book. And it would have been about sex and gossip and money. And I thought, I’m not letting this be hijacked by the lurid press. I’m going to tell the stories I need to tell and miss out the things which will spoil the story in a real way. By that, I mean, whether it’s a spoiler and a spoiling.

Correspondent: But where does order come in for you? I mean, you’re reading the books in the library A to Z.

Winterson: I was.

Correspondent: And this leads me to ask you — because I also know that at the very beginning of each day, instead of bicycling to work — most of us who work in the freelance world have the ideal commute. Bed to desk. Thirty seconds. Best commute in the world, right? You, on the other hand, get into a stationary bike and you start just jamming in that for a while.

Winterson: Oh no! It’s not stationary.

Correspondent: It’s not stationary?

Winterson: No.

Correspondent: Oh! You actually do ride the bicycle!

Winterson: I do!

Correspondent: Really?

Winterson: Yes, but I come right back to where I started from. So we may be at the start of our conversation.

Correspondent: Aha!

Winterson: I have a studio in the garden of my house. But I will not leave my house and walk over to the studio.

Correspondent: I see.

Winterson: I have to get on my bicycle and I cycle for fifteen minutes. Because there’s a circular lane where I live. I live in a village in The Coxwells. And I just cycle round it and come back. And then I can start work.

Correspodnent: Got it. Why do you need to…

Winterson: I don’t have to.

Correspondent: You don’t have to.

Winterson: But I do.

Correspodnent: What does that do for you? Reading in sequence or going from A to Z in this case to work. It’s very fascinating to me. And this kind of relates back to my question about units of measurement. Do you need order in order to find something distinct? Something idiosyncratic? Something quirky? Something brand new that nobody else has? Do you need to have a destination to find a completely idiosyncratic journey? What’s the deal here?

Winterson: Try Flaubert, when he said that the artist needs to be ordered in his habits so that he can be wild in his imagination. That’s a good quote. That works entirely for me.

Correspondent: Calm and orderly life so you can be violent and original in your work.

Winterson: Right. If you came into my house, you know, it’s lovely. I mean, it’s ordered. It’s warm. It’s beautiful. There’s always food. You know, everything’s clean. And I like it that way. The garden’s attractive and I grow vegetables. That allows me to be completely free in my mental space. Now this isn’t a prescription.

Correspondent: No, no, no.

Winterson: By any means. But everybody who does creative work must quite soon work out the best way for that to happen and stick to it. And a lot of people imagine that there is this Bohemian disorder and somehow that’s better for them. They think it’s a kind of rock star thing. And they should just be writing the songs at four in the morning. It seems to work very well for rock stars. I’m not sure it necessarily works well for other forms of creativity.

Correspondent: But 15,000 words in two weeks.

Winterson: It’s a lot.

Correspondent: It seems to me that you’re also struck by flashes of inspiration and so you could possibly be the rock star who has an idea at four in the morning.

Winterson: Oh yeah. I have plenty of inspiration. That’s never been an issue. I’ve never had writer’s block and I’ve never had the slightest worry, even for a moment, that the thing would stop. I feel very confident there. But I do like that space. And even though I live alone — I mean I wouldn’t live with my girlfriend, because it would be terrible — but even though I live alone, I still have to have a studio space separate to my domestic space. And I have to bicycle to it. (laughs)

Correspondent: How many different spaces do you need in life? (laughs)

Winterson: Several.

Correspondent: Do you have about ten?

Winterson: Well, I have my place in London. I have my shop. And then I have a place in the country. And I have my studio. And I also have a secret room in Paris.

Correspondent: Aha! Wow, that’s very intriguing.

Winterson: (laughs)

Correspondent: I wanted to get back to the book. You are adopted, as we’ve been saying. But I’m wondering if it is an inevitable part of life that we transform in some sense to our parents. How do you deal with this? I mean, you write late in the book, “I wanted to be claimed.” Now isn’t it essential to claim yourself at some point? I mean, if you’ve always been interested in stories of disguise, in mistaken identity, how do you recognize yourself? I mean, does the disguise of truth within stories create additional problems with self-recognition here?

Winterson: No. I think it allows you to play with all your possible selves. The options. Because none of us is one thing. But sometimes it feels like that or we get forced into that because of the way society’s structured. And it’s great privilege and freedom to think, “Well, I can play with all these other selves.” It’s partly why I have a shop. That’s another life completely. That’s why I grow vegetables. You know, there are many JWs, but they all come together in the one that writes the books, which I think is the important thing. And, yes, I do feel settled now and claimed and reclaimed in myself. But, you know, I”m not free from the normal anxieties of the rest of the population. We all want to belong. We are gregarious creatures. We’re pack animals. We don’t always want to be the one who’s the outlier on the outside. We like to be inside sometimes. And it’s a very lonely place if you’re always on the outside.

Correspondent: Yeah. Do you have a finite sense of selves? Because it also seems to me that that has got to be — if you’re constantly dredging up different selves and you’re also worried about this issue of being an outsider in some sense, or being criticized by a media climate…

Winterson: Oh no! I’m not worried about that.

Correspondent: Okay.

Winterson: I don’t care about being criticized. If you’re going to be an artist, you really can’t care about that. Because nobody is going to give you any easy ride for all of your life. Someone’s always going to come out with both guns. So that’s how it is.

Correspondent: Sure.

Winterson: It’s not that. It’s actually much more of an existential loneliness. It’s where you position yourself on the radar of humanity. Are you in its sights? Or are you just always just being missed out in some ways? That sense of belonging is not to do with how many friends you’ve got. It’s not to do with how many girlfriends you’ve got. I’ve always had good friends. And I’ve usually been with somebody. It isn’t that at all. That’s why I call it an existential loneliness. It’s something that’s at the center of self. And possibly it always will be. I think so. Although I’m comfortable with that now. And I think that sultriness might be a necessary condition with being able to create something and comment on the world. You need that slight distance, I think.

(Photo: Chris Boland)

The Bat Segundo Show #451: Jeanette Winterson (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Steve Erickson II

Steve Erickson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #447. He is most recently the author of These Dreams of You. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #180.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contriving plans to join a community of one half.

Author: Steve Erickson)

Subjects Discussed: Writing a novel around short bursts, plagiarizing the future, The Sea Came In at Midnight, the novel as kaleidoscope, rationale that emerges midway through writing a novel, losing 50 pages in These Dreams of You, not writing from notes, Zan’s tendency to hear profane words from telephone conversations, the considerable downside and formality of being dunned, fake politeness and underlying tones of contempt, not naming Obama, Kennedy, or David Bowie, Molly Bloom in Ulysses and Molly in These Dreams of You, Erickson’s commitment to the ineffable, letting a reader find her own meaning, defining a character in terms of story instead of public and historical terms, listening to David Bowie to get a sense of Berlin, Erickson’s cherrypicked version of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, not capitalizing American and European throughout Dreams, using autobiographical details for fiction, Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, “part fact part fiction is what life is,” dating a Stalinist, why fiction is more informed by real life, how invented details encourage a conspiracy, the dissipating honor of being true to what is true, the last refuge of a bad writer, what a four-year-old can and cannot say, bending the truth when it sounds too fictional, Kony and Mike Daisey, combating the needs for believability and readers who feel defrauded, authenticity within lies, kids and photos who disappear in Dreams, striking a balance between the believable and the phantasmagorical, fiction which confounds public marketeers from the outset, postmodernism’s shift to something not cool, limitations and literary possibilities, the burdens of taxonomy, living in a culture that wishes to pigeonhole, why Zeroville and These Dreams of You gravitate more toward traditional narrative, reviewers who are hostile to anything remotely unconventional, writing a novel from the collective national moment, the relationship between history and fiction, being a man “out of time,” thoughts on how a private and antisocial reading culture is increasingly socialized, having an antisocial temperament, writers who cannot remember the passages that they write, the pros and cons of book conventions, and being “a community of one.”

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Erickson: We do live in a culture that wants to pigeonhole things. I don’t know whether that’s a function of late 20th century/early 21st century culture or is a function of American culture, or some combination of the two. In Japan, for instance, they don’t seem to worry about that when it comes to my novels.

Correspondent: But with Zeroville and with Dreams, we have moved a little bit more toward traditional narrative. I mean, maybe the impulse was always there. But do you think this has just been symptomatic of what you’ve been more occupied with of late? Fusing that traditional narrative with, say, some of these additional ideas of disappearance, of inserting words into sentences, and so forth?

Erickson: Right. Well, it’s hard for me to know. There are still a lot of people out there who would read this novel, These Dreams of You, and think it’s a pretty damn unconventional novel. They may not have read Our Ecstatic Days and thereby see this novel as whatever you want to call it: more accessible. But I can tell from the reviews I’ve gotten on this novel, which have largely been somewhere between good and better than good, nonetheless there are reviewers out there who really don’t quite know what to make of even this particular novel, which I think you’ve rightly said steers a little bit toward the conventional than earlier novels. And in the case of Zeroville, again, I had a strategy from the beginning, having thought about this novel for a while. I had started the novel at one point and I was writing it differently. And I was writing it — I don’t mean differently in terms of my earlier books. It was written more like my earlier books. And I stopped. I threw it out. Because I felt that this novel is about loving the movies, being obsessed with movies. It should have some of the energy of a movie. It should follow some of the narrative laws of a movie. So you had a lot of dialogue and a lot of the story being told in external terms. Being told in dialogue. Being told in action. Not a lot of motivational stuff. The main character in that novel, we never quite know where he’s coming from. We never know if he’s some kind of savant, or socially and mentally challenged. We never know.

In the case of this novel, I was aware at some point that, first of all, I was writing a story about a family, which I had never done. And, secondly, I was writing a story that it became clear to me, really from the first scene, that addressed the national moment and a moment that any reader could recognize in a way that none of my other novels quite had. Los Angeles was not submerged in a lake or covered by a sandstorm. It was out of that opening scene of the novel, which was the real-life scene that led to writing the novel. I merged a story that I thought would be recognizable to most readers. And I didn’t want to completely lose that. There are a lot of times in the novel that I think that is challenged. That recognizability. Or that recognition rather of the contemporary moment. Halfway through the book, the story suddenly changes track. But even as I was taking the reader, even as three quarters of the way through the book I knew the reader was going to be saying “Where is this thing going?” I didn’t want to lose that connection between the book and a moment of national history. It’s a history that’s still going on. It’s not a history of the past, but of the present. I didn’t want to lose that connection.

Correspondent: But why did you feel at this point, with this novel, that you needed to respond to the national moment? I mean, history is something, especially as it is unfolding, that one doesn’t necessarily feel obliged to respond to. So now you’re getting into questions of, well, is it possible that you are giving into the reader somewhat? In light of the conditions that we were describing earlier. Where did this need to respond to the 2008 climate come from?

Erickson: Well, I think it was completely personal. I was sitting on the sofa watching the election in November 2008 — Election Night — with my black daughter. And I knew this was a singular moment for me. And I knew this was a singular moment for her. And it was a singular moment for the country. And it was one of those cases where the story made itself manifest to the point of screaming at me. Here’s a story that not many other people are in a position to tell, given the circumstances of their lives as those circumstances were coinciding with the circumstances of the country.

Correspondent: Sure. I wanted to actually go back into the intertextuality within the novel. You have this character — J. Willkie Brown, the Brit who invites Zan over to give the lecture on “The Novel as a Literary Form Facing Obsolescence in the Twenty-First Century, Or the Evolution of Pure History to Fiction.” Now if we call journalism the first draft of history, it’s interesting that you also describe that “Zan’s single triumph over Brown is that, in time-honored journalistic tradition, the world-famous journalist always longed to write a novel.” It’s also interesting that Zan must return to his American roots: the original British origin point, right? To collect his thoughts on how he has dealt with words. And I’m wondering how much this relationship between history and pure fiction is predicated on Anglo-American relations. Can any novel or any life entirely deflect “the crusade against gray” that you mention?

Erickson: The crusade against what?

Correspondent: The crusade against gray. It’s when you’re describing Ronnie Jack Flowers and the specific content of his views. I wanted to talk about him, if it’s possible too.

Erickson: Yeah. That’s a big question. Early on, Zan wonders — or actually an omniscient narrator wonders by way of Zan — if this is the sort of history that puts novelists out of business. And I’m not sure I’ve got a sweeping cultural answer for all this. At some point early on in my life, well before the 21st century, I knew that I was a man out of time. I knew that the great art form of the 20th century was film. And I still believe that. And at the same time, popular music was rendering other media obsolete or, in terms of relevance, was usurping all of these other forms. But my talent and my temperament is to write novels. You know, and I should probably have been born fifty years earlier. And so as much as I would love to convince myself that I am operating in the central cultural arena of the time, I know I’m not. I know that fiction becomes not a fringe form, because too many people still read. And not even a secondary form. But a form that becomes more private. That is not shared with the culture at large. I mean, people read novels in private. Whereas they still tend to watch movies in public. Even as we watch more and more movies by ourselves at home. Even as they tend to respond still to music in public, whether they’re in the car with their sound system. So it’s just…it’s what I do. And it’s what I’m stuck doing. And the relevance or significance of fiction in relationship to history or journalism is almost beside the point for someone like me.

Correspondent: So working in a cultural medium that is below the mass culture omnipresence is the best way for you to negotiate these issues of history and fact?

Erickson: Well, I think…

Correspondent: A more dignified way?

Erickson: No, I think, Ed, it’s the only way I know. That’s all. I don’t know that it’s the best way or the more dignified way. I mean, I can’t rationalize it in those terms. In a way, I would like to be able to. You know, at some point early on, I thought a lot about filmmaking. When I was in college, I was actually a film student.

Correspondent: Yes.

Erickson: But I recognized at some point that, for better or worse, whatever talent I had — I felt I had some talent writing fiction. I had no idea whether I’d have any talent making movies. But perhaps even more importantly, temperamentally fiction is the province of a loner. Fiction is about locking yourself up in a room and having as little social interaction with other people as possible, and living in this world that you’ve created. There is nothing collaborative about it in the way that film is, or even making music is. So the answer to your question is entirely personal. It’s entirely personal. It’s what I was just meant to do.

Correspondent: You just have an anti-collaborative temperament.

Erickson: Absolutely I do. I mean, it’s more than that. I have an antisocial temperament. I teach in a writing program back in California and I have a lot of problems, actually, with writing programs and writing workshops. And I tell my students this. I say, the thing is, the paradox is that a writing program socializes what is really an antisocial endeavor. There’s something very strange about shutting yourself off from the rest of society to create this world or reality that’s completely yours and that you don’t share with anybody until it’s done, and even then you share it on a very private basis. If someone’s sitting across the room, and they’re reading one of my novels, I’m going to leave. You know, I don’t want to be there. Because even though I know that the public has complete access, what I did still remains so private to me, I don’t want to be around when somebody’s reading my work. Except for cases like this, I don’t especially want to have casual conversations about it. Perhaps strangest of all, and I’ve heard a number of other writers say this — I heard Jonathan Lethem say it a few weeks ago — people will come up to me, for instance, and ask me about a section of a book and I have no recollection of what they’re talking about. I have no recollection of writing it. I have no recollection of what I was thinking when I wrote it. I often have to ask them to show me what it is. Because I was utterly immersed in that, and then it’s done, and I need to leave it behind.

Correspondent: Running away from people who are reading your books. I mean, does this create any problems for you to go about your life? If you’re interested in the types of things that Steve Erickson readers are likely to be interested in, this could create some intriguing social problems.

Erickson: Well, as uncomfortable as it may make me to be in the same room, I would love to tell you that my life is littered with scenes of people reading my books everywhere I go. But that’s not the case. So it doesn’t happen that often. But I don’t have a lot of conversations with people who are casual friends about my work. And I don’t want to. So in that sense, the antisociability — is that the right word for it? The antisociability of the writing and the work, it does go on. It bleeds outside the lines of the life of that work, and it bleeds into areas of my other life, where I don’t, even though I’m always a writer, I don’t want to be interacting with people as a writer.

Correspondent: So is there any place for community? An increasing term used, I find, in writing. We have a “literary community” and so forth. Is this a logical extension of what some people find in, say, AWP or MFA workshops? Is there any possible place for community for you? Or that you find of value?

Erickson: For me, not especially. For other writers, perhaps. And I’ve been to AWP. And I’ve been to book conventions. The LA Times Festival of Books. And I can even drive a certain amount of pleasure for 24 hours to meet other writers. But the only community that gets any writing done is a community of one. And at the point that it becomes too much a salon, then I check out of it.

Correspondent: So for you, being antisocial is the truest temperament for an artistic writer.

Erickson: Well, I don’t know how you can be anything else. Certainly at the moment that when you’re doing the work. For me, that’s true, yeah. I can’t speak for other writers.

(Photo: Stefano Paltera)

The Bat Segundo Show #447: Steve Erickson (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Hari Kunzru, Part One

Hari Kunzru recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #440. He is most recently the author of Gods Without Men. This is the first of a two part conversation. The second part can be listened to on The Bat Segundo Show #441.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wrestling with issues of conversational faith.

Author: Hari Kunzru

Subjects Discussed: Variants of faith in the author/reader covenant, Kunzru’s background, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, absence and unknowability, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Celestine Prophecy, liberals who distrust science, how the media portrays women, when New Yorkers are confused with Englishmen, owning a motel in a desert town, attempting to escape the narrow possibilities of life, the appeal of cults, the desire for community, coercive situations in group living, Dawn’s tendency to accuse men of molesting a child, pedophilia, when people are faced with the offensive and the unspeakable, public discussions of children, organizing a book around echoes rather than plot, absent children and spirituality, simulacra within Gods Without Men, STRATFOR, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, housing compartmentalized illusions within the giant illusion of a novel, the gaps within storytelling, breaking the contract between author and reader, refusing to tie up all ends, growing up in a period of postmodernism, being in a period of overlays, Augmented Reality, war simulations, being trapped in the imagination of the United States, the financial model as mystical tool, complex systems that are only understood through models, high-speed trading engines, machines that disguise their positions in the marketplace, the 2010 Flash Crash, comparisons between a day trader and a novelist, the predatory nature of collecting stories from other people, Theron Wayne Johnson, hearing a grisly story from a man in a bar, the ethics of making a story sufficiently transformative from its original source, conducting research for My Revolutions, people who use violence in support of their politics, the moral difficulties of formal interviews used for fiction, recent anti-gentrification movements in London, John Barker and The Angry Brigade, Bill Ayers, the Barker/Ayers ICA discussion, the inevitability of copying and pasting in 21st century art, using living people for fiction, impinging on public personae, Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, Adam Johnson, fictional projections of Nixon, James Frey and Oprah, the authenticity of memoir, the entanglement of novels and nonfiction, living in a Googleable age, the novel as a link dump, Kunzru’s Twitter presence, and hyperlink fiction.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start off on a question of faith — predictably enough. A writer has a lot of faith when he is putting together a novel. A reader places her hard-earned shekels over the counter and has faith in the writer to tell a story. The characters in this novel, Gods Without Men — they are both faithful and faithless to ideologies, to their families, to their relationships. So faith is a very loaded concept. And I’m curious why any novelist would tackle something that is so tricky, so duplicitous, so hypocritical, so difficult to pin down. I mean, how do you deal with this? Because even though this novel does not always answer all questions, you are dealing with something that you have to fit into narrative. So maybe we can start here.

Kunzru: Yeah. I suppose my own relationship to faith is a complex one. I’ve got an Indian father from a Hindu background. Many people on both sides of my family are actively practicing religious. My mother’s background is Protestant English. My parents decided quite sensibly to bring me up without any religious — not to bring me up with either of those two traditions. So I was left to find my own way. And I’ve always had for many reasons a kind of inclination to see things one way and then see things another way. But over the years, I’ve developed a sense that I don’t believe in god. I’m an atheist. However, I don’t think that position — the idea that you don’t believe in some kind of personalized creator to whom you owe an ethical duty not to sleep with the wrong people. That doesn’t take any of the big questions off the table about human agency, about ethics, about meaning and value. And I’ve always been very fascinated by people of faith. Because in some ways, I find them very scary. People with a very strong faith have stopped asking questions at a certain point. There’s a certain point where they have made this leap. This extraordinary leap into the world of faith. And it’s something I felt that I understood poorly as well. The only book that’s ever really made me really kind of feel what it must be like to have a powerful religious faith is Fear and Trembling, the Kierkegaard book where he talks about the extraordinary moment where Abraham has sacrificed Isaac and he’s prepared to do this because his faith in God’s word is true. And that kind of encapsulates it. It’s a terrifying act. It’s a horrific act. And it, in a way, echoes with all these incredibly violent things that have happened in the name of religion. But at the same time, there’s a kind of horror to it. There’s a sublimity to it. There’s an absolute abandonment of the human.

And this novel is a way, is my attempt to talk about our relationship with the unknowable and with the unknown. And it’s about all sorts of people who have many different ways of conceptualizing this and many different sorts of solutions that they’ve come up with. But the essential question is the question of absence and unknowability. At a certain point, human comprehension ends. And whether you believe that everything is essentially knowable — like Jaz, the husband in this. The husband and the wife who are at the center of the book. Jaz is a rational man. He is trained as a scientist. His sense of the world is if you think hard enough and you have the right concept and you test and you hypothesize, then the world will open up its secrets. And his wife goes absolutely in the other way. She withdraws into a kind of mysticism. And other characters in the novel range from various people who have profound faith — like a Franciscan friar and a lapsed Mormon coalminer to people who have a much more complicated relationship with it and a skeptical relationship with it.

Correspondent: But I would argue that this concern for faith — both sides of the fence — almost mimicks Fitzgerald’s idea of the first-class intellectual being able to hold two opposing ideas in his mind. I mean, with Jaz and Lisa, it’s very interesting, those sections in particular. Because the prose itself is both general but specific enough for us to get an idea. It’s almost as if the prose needs to mimic their especial judgment towards the world, towards each other, and the like. And I’m curious how you developed this at the prose level. Because that was one of the things that really impressed me about your book. What struggles were there to get that balance? I’m just curious.

Kunzru: You mean, in terms of the voice for the different characters?

Correspondent: Yes. Exactly. Especially for Jaz and Lisa.

Kunzru: You know, it’s one of these things that emerges through the doing. I don’t think it was a very programmatic thing. I mean, those characters emerged as quite defined opposites to each other in their reaction to what happens to their missing child. I mean, I’m interested in the business of faith in the financial markets, faith in credit and the extraordinary kind of high wire act that is the global financial system, which depends on everybody believing that this money exists. And yet placing a kind of Mr. Science in this world of high finance was an interesting one. Out of those decisions, his way of talking and his way of understanding the world emerged quite naturally. Once you know that somebody has a higher degree in physics, you know that they’re unlikely to be basic in their worldview on The Celestine Prophecy. And Lisa’s character comes out of something I’ve observed from a lot of liberals with humanities backgrounds. Here, in London, everywhere. That actually, people aren’t very scientifically educated very often and actually have a kind of gut hostility to the procedures of science. Because they feel that it’s kind of closing down the space of wonder in the world. And that leads quite a lot of people — I’m always quite surprised by people who are very skeptical and argumentative will often have this blind spot where it comes to — especially things to do with health, in particular. Like people get into homeopathy and various other things that I would personally consider quackery. Because partly they wish to believe certain things about the world that have to do with wonder and ineffability and unknowability and often beauty and a kind of non-utiliatarian way of seeing the world. It’s all kind of very valid reasons to want to protect a sacred space from an intrusion by the methodology of science. But it can lead people into some very strange, anti-rational positions. And often those two ways of being can be very buried in people. Because we don’t tend to have these conversations. It’s off the list of what’s polite in a party chat.

Correspondent: Well, be as impolite as you like here. (laughs)

Kunzru: (laughs) Well, we can talk about it. But having a couple who basically have a great deal in common, who love each other — they genuinely love each other, these two. The kind of gradual exposure of the real contours of their ways of dealing with the unknown is what causes this terrible tension in their relationship. And that seemed to me to speak to quite an interesting fault line that runs across a lot of contemporary culture.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if Lisa, at least in relation to the question of faith, was almost sort of a spillover character for what you could not do with Dawn, who I’m also really curious about. I mean, it’s interesting that the women tend to gravitate towards issues of blind faith, often destructive faith. I mean, with Lisa, it’s interesting too because you have all these media incursions into her life. So it’s almost like some part of the world wishes to punish her for her beliefs.

Kunzru: I’m very interested in the way that media presents women. Especially mothers. The censoriousness that attaches itself to women’s choices around motherhood and around the work. I mean, in this novel, their child disappears. They become the object of this media witch hunt. And everybody zeroes in on “Is this a bad mother?” — especially “Is this a cold mother?” She fails to emote in a way that the media folk think is appropriate. And hence she’s immediately suspect. Because it’s a novel and you can get inside somebody’s inner life, we know very well that she’s absolutely destroyed by this and she’s an emotional person. She’s not some kind of psychopath who fails to have correct emotion or a response. However, the appearance sort of drifts further and further from reality. Of course, they’re also New Yorkers lost out West. Everyone hates New Yorkers in the rest of the country, as far as I can see. I now get outed as a New Yorker by other Americans in other parts. The English accent gets bracketed into some sort of New Yorker thing. So I get the prejudice as well. (laughs)

Correspondent: Those wild and crazy liberals with their British accents.

Kunzru: Yeah. Exactly.

Correspondent: You’re drinking a cappuccino right now! So there you go.

Kunzru: Drinking a cappuccino with a British accents. That’s exactly what everyone thinks happens in Chelsea.

Correspondent: You are America’s nightmare! (laughs)

Kunzru: I am. Rick Santorum, right now, is burning an effigy of me in a basement somewhere in Idaho.

The Bat Segundo Show #440: Hari Kunzru, Part One (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #438. He is most recently the author of The Orphan Master’s Son.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Revising his own narrative.

Author: Adam Johnson

Subjects Discussed: Growing up in Arizona, reading a novel as an act of faith and how style reflects that, narrative which mimics Casablanca, storytelling as the North Korean identity, being the center of your own story, state-sponsored storytelling, DPRK aptittude tests, being trapped in a world of North Koreaness, the American idea of taking on new personae, populating a book with secondary characters from limited information, getting a sufficient Tolstoyian cross-section, knowing very little about Pyongyang, defecting to South Korea, Hanawon, underground societies in Pyongyang, North Korean testimonials, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, how fiction fills in missing factual gaps, the kwan-li-so labor camps, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, how to eat a newt, being unable to verify Yodok, Kenji Fujimoto, whether imagination is truthful enough to fill in the gaps, mining the Stanford libraries for North Korean books, Rikidozan and North Korean wrestling, approaching North Korea from the comic mode, interrogators who give prisoners “alone time,” playing a guitar for Kim Jong-Il, finding propaganda funny, feeling a responsibility to gulag prisoners, balancing absurdity and believability, Kim Jong-Il and the state cinema agency, Pulgasari (the North Korean answer to Godzilla), kidnapping cast and crew to make Pulgasari, the pros and cons of being an American outsider, moral responsibility in narrative, South Park, Madeleine Albright’s visit to North Korea, referring to the dead Kim Jong-Il in the present tense, getting bested by the human heart, North Korea’s attempt at an air defense system, Johnson being unable to find photographic evidence of apartment loudspeakers, the Japanese obsession with the KCNA, reading the Rodong Sinmun daily for eight years, Pork Chop Hill, trying to get a sense of how North Koreans live, North Korean humor, actresses kidnapped from South Korea, Bill Clinton’s efforts with Euna Lee and Laura Ling, Casablanca, resistance to black-and-white movies, Titanic, how the advent of DVD affected how North Koreans watched movies, relying on a stunted version of North Korea from four years, what Johnson saw in North Korea, whether photography can atone for the lack of the written word, the alleged nutritious value of dubious seaweed, scavenging extra calories, the legality of harvesting chestnuts, memory as a conduit between photography and the written word, how writing nonfiction gets in the way of advancing fiction, maintaining hundreds of pages of notes, forming unexpected narratives, being a journalism major and fabricating perfect quotes, capturing the essence of nuts, Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, Kim Jong-Il vs. Nixon, Kim Jong-Il Looking at Things, humanizing a dictator, being drawn to survivor narratives, how physicality and geographic location allowed Johnson’s North Korea to evolve, Soviet refrigerator factories in North Korea, goats on the building roof, turning on the power for the foreigners, how North Korea decides which floor you live on, avoiding exposition while writing The Orphan Master’s Son, Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14, Shin Dong-hyuk’s expense, making a choice at the expense of something else, how Texas served as a narrative mechanism to see North Korea from several vantage points, being one of the first American novels about North Korea out of the gate, Hyejin Kim’s Jia, James Church’s police procedurals, and how facets of the thriller genre helps get at the truth.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Stylistically, the first part of this book requires a great leap of faith for the reader. I mean, we’re asked to believe that Jun Do, despite the fact that his story does not check out, gets released by the interrogator. That he would also go to Texas with Dr. Sung. I don’t think I’m giving anything away.

Johnson: Sure.

Correspondent: But then you have this twist at the end of the first part. Then we are given this surprise and we say, “Oh ho! Maybe the narrative itself doesn’t exactly match up.” Then you have the second part. And the last part almost mimics Casablanca, which of course is a DVD of the world’s best movie that is circulated as well through the text. You have all these references to storytelling. You have Sarge saying, “You think the guys at top don’t know the real story?” You have Commander Ga wondering “if he couldn’t tell a story that seemed natural enough to them now, but upon later consideration might contain the message he was looking for.” So we’re led to believe that storytelling, or perhaps this dim awareness of narrative, is very much the North Korean identity. And I’m curious how you arrived at this involuted solution to North Korea. In terms of why this, of all things, would be their identity.

Johnson: Well, storytelling is my obsession. I love stories. I love to write them and to read them. And I’m really fascinated with how they come out. Especially troubling stories. You know, happy, funny stories are very easy to tell. Stories of success and achievement. And they’re a little boring. But, you know, I’ve studied for some time now how people tell traumatic or painful stories. And the different shapes that they take. And when I started studying North Korea, it made me reconsider how I tell my own stories, the stories I tell myself to feel good. In America, I think, in our literature and in our real lives, everyone is the center of her own story. And our job as humans and as characters is to follow our motivations toward what we want and need to overcome obstacles by looking inward and growing and changing and making discovery towards becoming our best possible selves. But, you know, as I studied the stories about North Korea, because the story there is state-sponsored, I realized that it was a national narrative written by a regime, enforced by a regime, controlled by censors, without another version. And in that, the very few people at top were the central characters. Really, the main character was Kim Il-Sung, Kim-Jong Il, and Kim Jong-un now.

And everyone else in that country was like a secondary character. And this is really borne out by my research and by the testimonials of defectors that, when you’re a child in the DPRK, early on you’re assessed for your aptitudes or certain qualities for the needs of the state. And you’re sent down paths that lead toward becoming a fisherman or a sailor or an accordionist. And in that world, having your own desires and yearnings could run counter to the role that you might fulfill to survive. So I think I started with a character who’s more trapped in a world of North Koreaness, where he must do what he’s told, go where he’s told. He does grim things. And it doesn’t really matter who he is or what he does. It’s just that the role will be fulfilled. Whereas in America, you know, we change our stories all the time. They grow and evolve. And when you go off to a new school or a new job, you just take on a new persona. You change. And I think over the course of the book, because the character meets Americans — he listens to foreign transmissions because he has some encounters; even though he doesn’t defect; even though he keeps maintaining his role — a growing sense of possibility rises in him that he could finally write his own story rather than being conscripted into the state. And in the second part of the book, he does this daring act to try and become his own person. Though there he has to impersonate somebody else even.

Correspondent: Well, secondary characters. I mean, this book is filled with them. And I’m wondering if, from the limited resources you had at your disposal — I mean, you did in fact go to North Korea; we can talk about that in a little bit; I suppose it’s an ineluctable subject — but I’m curious if you could truly, from your vantage point, get a suitable Tolstoyian cross-section when the information you had at your disposal is so thin. I mean, do you feel that there were certain secondary characters you didn’t quite include in the book? That may have actually been included in the previous draft and you would have liked to flesh out further? How do you go about creating a fictive population when the information at your disposal is so thin?

Johnson: Well, I did kind of revel in the secondary characters in my book. I’m glad you point that out. Because I had a lot of fun with them. You know, just in terms of North Korea, what we know and what we don’t know. We know very little about what happens in the secret power in Pyongyang. That the people who are ruling and who are inflicting the power upon others — we don’t know that much. For the lives of normal citizens and the rest of the country — in Wonsan, Nampho, Chongjin, etcetera, we know a great deal actually. Over 6,000 people defected last year. When they make it to South Korea, and that’s a whole journey in itself, they go to a facility called Hanawon, where they’re debriefed. And a real narrative is written about each one of them. And then they go through a kind of school that helps them reintegrate into a vastly different society. But from the information that’s gathered about normal citizens, we know how much they eat. How many hours they work. How their families live. About their housing blocks. About their group criticism sessions. We know how much volunteer labor they have to give to the squads. Etcetera. The mysterious people are in Pyongyang. They don’t tend to defect. They’re all underground. When you go to there, there’s no White House or Blue House. There’s no residence with Kim Jong-Il. He lives in an unseen place in the city. A lot of the big structures are underground. Probably because we bombed them so mercilessly during the Korean War. And there’s an underground society that exists. And we don’t know much about them at all. I saw cell phone towers when I was there, but not a single person on a phone. We have to assume they have the Internet, that they understand about the world, that they watch movies. They probably make international calls, even travel internationally. But because they don’t leave, because they don’t leave any trail, we just don’t know who they are. And what I tried to do in my book was maybe fulfill the human dimension of the normal people outside the city. And, by that I mean, in a place with such self-censorship, in a place where even being perceived to do something against your role in the state could cost you dearly, I wondered how normal people chose to share their inner thoughts. This was the imaginative part. A lot of the factual basis of the book is really accurate. But would a parent tell a child that he thought it was all a lie? Would he transmit that essential knowledge that he accumulated over a life?

The Bat Segundo Show #438: Adam Johnson (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Andrew O’Hagan

Andrew O’Hagan appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #372. He is most recently the author of The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Feeling sartorially inadequate and unwilling to beg for his dinner from the table.

Author: Andrew O’Hagan

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: It is interesting. You want to have the dog smarter than everybody else in the book. And this leads me to ask you about the footnotes in this. I mean, from a formalistic standpoint, well, we view dogs at our feet. And the footnotes, of course, reflect that particular —

O’Hagan: And the dog’s always going to love footnotes because they can identify the position.

Correspondent: Exactly. But initially many of these footnotes are there to clarify little cultural tidbits. Almost gossip. Like: What is Douglas Sirk’s real name? But as we read the footnotes more, they then become very concerned with clarifying specific facts. Almost in a hectoring tone towards the reader. I’m curious about how the footnotes came to be from just this tonal shift that goes throughout the book, and also if you were tempted to allow the footnotes to go maybe further than eight lines at some point. What did you do to keep that down?

O’Hagan: Well, it’s interesting that. If I had my own way, if I lived in a world of pure O’Haganism, then the footnotes would have gone on for volumes and have a Shandy-ian or Borgesian nightmare where the footnotes were longer than the book. I like the comic potential with that sort of thing. And I like the idea that this was a work of bricolage, as the French would say. That it was an attempt to build up phenomenon in the reader’s mind. Which could increase their confidence about what consciousness was. Cause after all, this was really a book about inventing the notion of consciousness for an animal. I built it up from the ground up. And he does say early in that process of life for him — quite early in the book when he’s still in England — he says, “Dogs love digression.” So it made it natural to me that at some point he would start to deploy the footnote. Which is nothing if not a little contained digressionette. I liked the idea that he would occasionally stop the narrative in order to point something out to the reader. To wag a finger or a paw and give a notion of other worlds of knowledge which might be available. Maybe while pointing towards. He’s a friendly little scholar as much as anything else. He’s a pedant too. And all these things are exciting character traits of his to me. So I had to make him stay in character. And it would be in his character to offer footnotes. Even ones that were hectoring or were strictly unnecessary. They add to the entertainment value overall, I feel.

Correspondent: But to go back to what we were discussing earlier about the comedy vs. the tragedy, and how this reflects human life, early on in the book Maf says in one of these footnotes, “Unlike humans, we can hear what people are saying from themselves. And we can sniff illusion.” Later you have Maf finding “the real difference between humans is that some care about authenticity and some don’t care at all.” Why must the humans in this book be so tied or interconnected with authenticity and illusion?

O’Hagan: Because I think it’s an utterly 20th century obsession. The mid-20th century obsession particularly. Hollywood having held such a position in cultural life the world over. American moviemaking created a sensibility in the 20th century. It didn’t just reflect sensibilities. It actually created a mind set. A notion of natural human behavior and democracy, which I often think was illusory too. But then it was very attractive to the world. Very viable. And I knew that this dog was going to be having its life at the center of that. So I wanted these questions — illusion and reality, illusion dipping into delusion, our condition of being overwhelmed by fakery almost — to be something that the dog had an inside view on. An inside view for a number of reasons: (1) Which is that he’s a novelist at heart. And novelists really know what illusion is all about. We are a conjuring artist as a novelist. You’re playing god with lives and experiences and parts of history and vocality and patterns of speech. You know, you are a trickster. And I think that I’ve always been interested in that fact. And I wanted this little avatar of mine. This little novelist manqué, of Maf the Dog, to be somebody who could look at not only the world of Hollywood and psychoanalysis and politics and the early 60s from an insider’s view — which Maf certainly had. The real dog was in all of those worlds with Marilyn at the time. She was a real figure who had very deep experience of illusion. And I wanted to manipulate that for the reader to present an opportunity to look at the relationship between reality and imagination in a fresh way.

The Bat Segundo Show #372: Andrew O’Hagan (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Paul Murray, Part Two

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On December 5, 2010, the Irish novelist Paul Murray encountered one of Mr. Segundo’s many agents before a full audience at Word Brooklyn. The two gentlemen proceeded to talk, with smart audience interjection and Mr. Murray reading from the book, for a little under 90 minutes. Just as the tape ran out, the very patient Word Brooklyn staff wisely put an end to this gabfest. The two gentlemen had no idea they had rambled on for so long. From all reports, neither did the crowd.

The first part of this conversation is now available for your listening pleasure as The Bat Segundo Show #370 (also referred to as “Phyllis Presents,” for reasons known only to those possessing the appropriate handbook). It is about 41 minutes long and involves the initial Q&A between Mr. Murray and our most mysterious agent.

The second part of this conversation is now available for your listening pleasure as The Bat Segundo Show #371 (which does not possess any alternate name, we are sorry to report). It is about 38 minutes long and features Mr. Murray reading from his latest novel, Skippy Dies, along with further questions from our agent (and many from the crowd). If you listen carefully to this second part, you may be able to detect a broken haiku.

The producers wish to thank Brian Gittis, Stephanie Anderson, Jenn Northington, Sarah Weinman, and (of course) Paul Murray for their great assistance (much of it at the last minute) in making this special conversation happen. We hope to offer similar “live” conversations in the future.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Recoiling from the pleasures of being applauded by a recorded audience.

Author: Paul Murray

Subjects Discussed: The origins of Bethani, the original length of Skippy Dies, storylines cut from Skippy Dies, the narrative need for an adult ballast, the importance of the school as a microcosm, Infinite Jest, open-ended narratives, tradeoffs, the impossibility of second-guessing an audience, Roland Barthes, cartoon sex, absurd editorial exchanges concerning the physicality of mermaids, balancing gender perspective, getting Lori’s emotions right, Catholic schoolboys, amoral characters and teenage beauty, authentic teen voices, requests for a “director’s cut” of Skippy Dies, trying to find uses for scrapped material, when descriptive “transplants” don’t work in revision, and the importance of listening to editors.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Murray: I didn’t want it to be an Infinite Jest level narrative. I think that might have had its day, in fact. That sort of completely open-ended narrative structure. Because once you read Infinite Jest and you get to the end of 1,000 pages and realize he’s not going to tie it all up. Sorry to anyone who hasn’t read the book. The butler did it. That in itself is not quite a gimmick. But it’s a device. And it’s a device that people will get bored of. So you need to find new ways. Roland Barthes, who I read a lot unapologetically, he talks a lot about, “If you destroy something. If you try and destroy something, it just comes back.” Like you just sort of preserve the dialectic. So what you need to do is subvert it by making fun of it or just twisting things and tweaking things. I guess that’s what I was trying to do with the book. I really like — I watch tons of — far too many movies and TV programs and stuff. So I wasn’t coming at it with some kind of Puritanical urge to — like an Alain Robbe-Grillet sense of “I puke on the novel.” I wanted it to be a story that some of the people would enjoy. So yeah, it does look like a lot of elements. It’s got characters and it’s got jokes. It’s got plot twists and stuff. I would argue that it doesn’t work in a sort of three-part type of way. Because Skippy dies at the beginning. And then it tracks back. The first two parts are tracking back. What happened to him. And then the last part is just dealing with the effects of his death. So it is kind of chronological. Quite weird.

Correspondent: Well, what do you trade off when you are writing for the audience like this? Are there certain areas that you went into further? Because the book is very candid about the teenage lifestyle. And drugs and sex and things like that. Did you go further in this earlier draft? Were there things that were perhaps just too off-putting for the audience that you were seeking? I’m just curious.

Murray: I genuinely would try and avoid — I mean, if you start thinking of your audience, then it’s impossible to second-guess an audience. Because people react in ways that you can never imagine. So you’re on a losing streak with that. And also you’ll just freeze up if you start worrying about what people will think. So I tried to avoid doing that. That said, I did have more extreme things happening in earlier drafts. And I think it was because it was hard to gauge the right level of shockingness. And it wasn’t that I wanted to shock people. It was more that I was worried about censoring myself. I was worried that the editors won’t like this scene. So I’m going to leave it in there! Which is a very stupid way of writing a book. But that’s what I did.

For instance, the Bethani character, who writes a lot of these strange porno songs. There were more of those than there needed to be initially. And there’s a very disturbed character called Carl. His stuff was initially — there’s a bit where Carl is at home looking at porn on the Internet and he seems to be looking at this toon porn, which is characters from Disney — Pocahantas and the Little Mermaid, Snow White and so forth — having sense with various other toons. Smurfs having sex.

Correspondent: Imagination or research into this?

Murray: Uh, no comment. But there was a humorous exchange with the publishers. With Penguin. Because initially they were saying, “I think Disney may have copyright on these. So we’re going to have to write to them and say is it okay?”

Audience and Correspondent: (laughs)

Murray: Okay, I don’t know if they’ll go for that. But it turns out.

Correspondent: Did you get any yeses? Yes, it’s perfectly okay for a Snow White and a dwarf 69. Or something.

Murray: (laughs) You know that site!

Correspondent: No, I…no comment!

Murray: That’s one frisky dwarf.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Murray: No, but it turned out that it was legal. It was okay. The Penguin legal department checked this out. It was fine. You could use those references. But there was another bit. A Penguin editorial assistant, who is a very nice and lovely girl called Anna Kelly, said, “You have Pocahontas giving a lickout to the Little Mermaid.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Murray: “Physiologically, that’s not actually possible.”

Audience and Correspondent: (laughs)

Correspondent: Your imagination then!

Murray: “Dear Anna: Thank you so much for that.” So if you know anything about the English publishing industry, then you know it’s run by these very sweet, very polite women. And so there’s this humungously embarrassing email conversation back and forth. “Maybe we should have the Little Mermaid giving a lickout to Pocahantas.”

Audience and Correspondent: (laughs)

Murray: “Oh! That seems like the best solution!”

Audience and Correspondent: (laughs)

Correspondent: Oh boy. Anybody have a question to follow that up with?

The Bat Segundo Show #371: Paul Murray, Part Two (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Paul Murray, Part One

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On December 5, 2010, the Irish novelist Paul Murray encountered one of Mr. Segundo’s many agents before a full audience at Word Brooklyn. The two gentlemen proceeded to talk, with smart audience interjection and Mr. Murray reading from the book, for a little under 90 minutes. Just as the tape ran out, the very patient Word Brooklyn staff wisely put an end to this gabfest. The two gentlemen had no idea they had rambled on for so long. From all reports, neither did the crowd.

The first part of this conversation is now available for your listening pleasure as The Bat Segundo Show #370 (also referred to as “Phyllis Presents,” for reasons known only to those possessing the appropriate handbook). It is about 41 minutes long and involves the initial Q&A between Mr. Murray and our most mysterious agent.

The second part of this conversation is now available for your listening pleasure as The Bat Segundo Show #371 (which does not possess any alternate name, we are sorry to report). It is about 38 minutes long and features Mr. Murray reading from his latest novel, Skippy Dies, along with further questions from our agent (and many from the crowd). If you listen carefully to this second part, you may be able to detect a broken haiku.

The producers wish to thank Brian Gittis, Stephanie Anderson, Jenn Northington, Sarah Weinman, and (of course) Paul Murray for their great assistance (much of it at the last minute) in making this special conversation happen. We hope to offer similar “live” conversations in the future.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Recoiling from the pleasures of being applauded by a recorded audience.

Author: Paul Murray

Subjects Discussed: The influence of cinema, Gene Tierney, Glengarry Glenn Ross, the “Intelligent Eye” system, constructing a soundtrack for life, characters who flee reality, Anthony Lane and the Beijing Olympics, the camera increasingly pervading existence, Murray’s hero worship of David Lynch, balancing audience demand for traditional logic with shocking character revelation, Twin Peaks, not making sense as a bold aesthetic move, David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Lynch vs. Pynchon, David Shields’s Reality Hunger, excavating the old in the quest for new fiction, Tristram Shandy, the importance of having a big nose, gutting from reality, Russell Hoban’s “feeling unreal is an essential part of reality,” mid-century Irish naturalistic writers, Irish fiction’s failure to interrogate modernity, video games as a teenage refuge, gamebooks of the 1980s, the Walkman as a shift in the way we perceive reality, The Legend of Zelda, Team Fortress 2, Shigeru Miyamoto, computer games and narcissism, Skippy Dies‘s slips into second person, the frustrations with maintaining a dimwit first-person perspective in An Evening of Long Goodbyes, the Celtic Tiger, writers and bank statements, the unexpected rise of phones in Ireland, lattes in Ireland, working in a cafe without comprehending focaccia, Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches, ineffectual use of outdoor jacuzzis in Ireland, property fairs, Robert Graves and the Great War, Gallipoli, World War I Irish involvement erased from the history books, the Church and child abuse, Michael Durbin of The Irish Times, derivatives, and whether the novelist is guilty in ignoring certain narratives while coating reality within a fantasy.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Murray: It needed to be structured in a way that wasn’t linear and that wasn’t naturalistic. Because I just don’t think like that. I wasn’t trying to be experimental. I just thought that, if you are a kid nowadays, your life is not very linear and it’s not very naturalistic. Because you’ll spend most of your time looking at your phone or looking at a screen. Or watching the TV. You’re very rarely actually where you are. Do you know what I mean? I guess maybe that’s part of the human condition. Never to be actually tuned into what’s around you. But it seems like the whole thrust of the 21st century is just to take us further and further and further away from where we are. And further away into strange digital fantasies.

Correspondent: And this probably explains why so much of Skippy is about this meshing between reality and fantasy. That, in your efforts possibly to examine life with these delimiting technological factors, you’re saying that it led inevitably to this blur between reality and fantasy?

Murray: Yeah, I think that’s what you do when you’re a kid. As I say, when I was a kid, there was no Internet. And computer games — I wasn’t quite Pong era.

Correspondent: Asteroids maybe.

Murray: Yeah. But I think the teenage — the way you kind of cope with the stresses of being a teenager is to take refuge in TV shows or films or computer games. Like I was really into those — well, I wasn’t into role playing. But there were these gamebook things.

Correspondent: Oh yeah.

Murray: Where you rolled the dice and fought orcs.

Correspondent: Yeah. Like the Lone Wolf books?

Murray: Yeah! Yeah! Totally!

Correspondent: I totally played those. They were great.

Murray: Don’t tell anyone.

Correspondent: It’s on tape, I’m afraid.

Murray: Ah! Again with the orcs! Oh no! When are the orcs going to get along?

Correspondent: I know.

Murray: That’s what you do. You’re constantly — like when I was growing up, the Walkman arrived, you know? And I’m going to argue that the Walkman is a major shift in the way we perceive reality. Because for the first time, you can carry music around you. And you start narrating your life. Like the self-narration just shifts gear. Shifts higher up. And that kind of process is — as I say, what technology gives us is more and more elaborate ways of doing that. So the kids in the book, because they’re young and they’re afraid and they’re lost, they take refuge. The big example is Skippy. Skippy’s this fourteen year old, quite reclusive boy who is addictively playing this computer game. Kind of a Legend of Zelda-like computer game. And have you ever played?

Correspondent: Zelda? Yeah, yeah. That thing sucked too many hours out of my life.

Murray: Yeah, it’s crazy.

Correspondent: Now it’s Team Fortress 2. If we’re going to be professional.

Murray: Yeah?

Correspondent: Oh yeah. Oh god.

Murray: Okay. We can talk about this later.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Murray: I mean, I’m not a huge computer games player. But my brother had a — whatever the machine was to play Zelda.

Correspondent: NES.

Murray: And it’s the same guy. The same game designer. The guy who invented Donkey Kong back in the ’70s has now done Legend of Zelda. And he creates these incredible worlds that are so powerful and are like art forms in some ways. In the richness of detail and in the beauty of them. But they’re not like art forms in the fact that they don’t challenge your perception. They don’t challenge you as a person at all. They make you like the master of this world that you find yourself in. Which is like a really narcissistic kind of fantasy. And the kids lose themselves in these fantasies of control and power. You know, like the same way if you walk down the street and you’re listening to Tupac, you kind of imagine that you’re Tupac. And even if you’re fourteen and very small, if motherfuckers come at you, look out. So that’s what you’re doing. I guess the really obvious conceit of the book is that that’s what everybody’s doing these days. That as an adult, being an adult or being mature is less and less part of the adult experience. Instead, being old and adult is someone with more spending power who can buy better enhancers or escapes from reality. Part of the reason the world is so — I’m trying to say fucked — is because we feel less and less responsibility for the world around us. Instead we’re just fleeing into whatever Apple has just produced and for a thousand dollars.

The Bat Segundo Show #370: Paul Murray, Part One (Download MP3)

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