Evie Wyld (The Bat Segundo Show #543)

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

Author: Evie Wyld

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: How much physical work have you done?

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

Correspondent: It is pretty physical. I mean…

Wyld: Stacking shelves.

Correspondent: Stacking.

Wyld: Dusting. The whole lot.

Correspondent: Moving shelves for author events.

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

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

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

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

Wyld: Put some oil on it. (laughs)

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

Wyld: Well, I’m a very messy writer.

Correspondent: You need structure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wyld: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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Yiyun Li (The Bat Segundo Show #542)

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

Author: Yiyun Li

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: You left out North Korea. (laughs)

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

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

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

Correspondent: You’re manipulating readers.

Li: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo: Karin Higgins)

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

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

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Ben Tarnoff (The Bat Segundo Show #541)

Ben Tarnoff is most recently the author of The Bohemians.

Author: Ben Tarnoff

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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

Correspondent: And no draft riots.

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

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

Tarnoff: That’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: Like Brooklyn today!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dinaw Mengestu (The Bat Segundo Show #539)

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

Author: Dinaw Mengestu

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

Mengestu: Yes.

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

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

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

Mengestu: (laughs) Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: Journalism helped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

Itzkoff: I have nothing to be angry about.

Correspondent: Really?

Itzkoff: But the day is young.

Correspondent: The day is young?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Itzkoff: That’s right.

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: A refreshing cynicism, I would say.

Itzkoff: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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Sarah Churchwell (The Bat Segundo Show #535)

Sarah Churchwell is most recently the author of Careless People.

Author: Sarah Churchwell

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Subjects Discussed: Max Gerlach and the possible origins of “old sport,” the current conditions of Fitzgerald’s scrapbook, working in the Princeton Archives, sifting through digital facsimiles, tape marks and PDFs, Fitzgerald’s “self-Googling,” illusory objects balanced on the edges of noses, balancing Gatsby‘s surrealism against real-world parallels, Gatsby as a distorted mirror to the 1920s, present-day misconceptions about the 1920s, history and imagination, Fitzgerald scholars arguing over niceties, analytical types who suck the joy out of novels, the hunt for facts that surprise the scholar, developing rules for inclusion, playing the game of “Who knew?” with Gatsby, what swastikas meant in 1922, wrangling through the variegated meanings of the green light, the risk of divagating from novels, Childs Restaurants, the New York Public Library’s extraordinary online menu collection, the hostility to close reading, Mary McCarthy’s Pale Fire review, Edmund Wilson’s role in restoring Fitzgerald’s reputation and his relationship with Gatsby, the effect of John Keats’s life and work on Gatsby, the difficulty of determining Fitzgerald’s compositional approach during Gatsby, Fitzgerald and the Romantics, Fitzgerald’s terrible French, the benefits of not reading living writers while working on a masterpiece, Zelda and Scott trading off lines and witticisms, Zelda’s influence on Gatsby, Zelda’s critical mind, how to distinguish Scott and Zelda’s writing, the helpful scholarship of James L.W. West III, Fitzgerald’s fear of being compared with Robert W. Chambers’s romantic fiction, Burton Rascoe, why Fitzgerald was so concerned with his reception, how Churchwell tracked down an obscure Rascoe review, Fitzgerald’s touchiness and his need for reassurance, Gertrude Stein, Fitzgerald’s all-or-nothing grab for literary respectability (and failure to get it) with Gatsby and Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald’s decline, Fitzgerald’s terrible spelling and This Side of Paradise, the Fitzgeralds’s trip to Europe in 1924, the Fitzgeraldian notion of holding two simultaneous ideas (or emotions) in a first-rate mind, Gatsby as a hymn to ambivalence, Zelda’s affairs in response to boredom, Fitzgerald’s unkindness to women in his fiction, 1920s etymology, Fitzgerald as the first man to use “cocktail” as a verb, guarding against linguistic anachronism, the development of merchant banking language during the 1920s, the owl-eyed man in Gatsby’s library, Eckleberg, the numerous large eyes within Gatsby, blindness and vision, racism during the 1920s, Edith Wharton’s anti-Semitism, Meyer Wolfsheim a Jewish stereotype, Thomas Powers’s essay in the LRB, Arnold Rothstein, Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon, whether or not Fitzgerald can be called an anti-Semite, Tom Buchanan’s white supremacy, “The Crack-Up,” being judged by character vs. being judged by social conditions, Wendy Smith’s review in Newsday, specious connections between Gatsby and the Hall-Mills murder case, Nancy Mitford’s lie about “Zelda and her abortionist” picked up by five other biographers, mistaken identity as part of the 1922 discourse, Leopold and Loeb, Myrtle Wilson and Tom Buchanan, William Desmond Taylor’s murder, Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow, serving as Booker judge, contending with the Booker Prize’s inclusion of American titles and the concomitant complaints about preferring British or American titles over the other, the Folio Prize’s American titles, and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize’s “no winner” controversy.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I’m really jazzed up because only a few days ago, you forced me to reread The Great Gatsby. And it was still great after four times! Have you ever gotten sick of that book?

Churchwell: No, I really haven’t. That’s why I wrote a book that’s kind of a tribute to it. And I got to live with it for five years. I got to reread it over and over and over.

Correspondent: How many times have you read it?

Churchwell: I don’t know. Because I’ve read it sequentially at least half a dozen times. But also I was going in and out of it. And so, all told, probably hundreds of times.

Correspondent: Wow. That’s incredible. Well, let’s start with the marvelous year of 1922. The year in which the book is set, The Great Gatsby, and the year in which both The Waste Land and Ulysses were published. You point out that scholars have used the reference to “a waste land” during that one description of the ash heaps as the smoking gun that Fitzgerald intended Gatsby as a literary homage to that particular year. But Fitzgerald was also to note in his “Ten Best Books I Have Ever Read” that Ulysses is “the great novel of the future.” So what is the true source really of the 1922 setting? And to what degree is it a mistake to assign a kind of explicit literary interpretation or homage to either Eliot or Joyce?

Churchwell: I think there are a couple of other meanings to 1922, which of course is the year that Fitzgerald sets Gatsby. And, yes, I think he is tipping his hat to those great writers of 1922 and to those two great works in particular. It’s also the year that the first English translation of Swann’s Way came out. So Proust is also making his way into that year. But it’s also the year that Scott and Zelda move to Long Island and began the parties that would inspire the novel. It was in 1922 in the summer that Fitzgerald wrote to his editor Max Perkins announcing that he wanted to write the novel that would become Gatsby. So I think in his head, there were a lot of reasons why 1922 was the right year to set the novel.

Correspondent: Did he ever toy around with other years?

Churchwell: He did actually in draft. He wrote 1921. He wrote 1923. So he always knew that he wanted it to be a modern novel. He wrote it in 1924. So it was always going to be the recent past. And then he finally settles on 1922. And we can only speculate as to why that is. Maybe it was totally random. But it doesn’t seem like it was. And then he went back and he tried to adjust the math and to make sure that everything worked out for it to be set in 1922.

Correspondent: Yeah. He had this really terrible thing about double digits. $13.13 at the end. That’s sad.

Churchwell: Yeah. (laughs)

Correspondent: I was really bummed out at the end when Fitzgerald is on the decline. I’m like, “Oh, come on, Scott! You can do it!”

Churchwell: I know.

Correspondent: “Don’t let the world beat you down!”

Churchwell: It’s so sad, but the world did beat him down in exactly that way that you just said. I mean, his last royalty check was $13.13.

Correspondent: I know.

Churchwell: It is crazy. But his life was in this really uncanny way, it often tended to be symbolic in that way. Life just kind of showered him with symbolism all the time. Even the bad kind.

Correspondent: When you live a life where you’re surrounded by subconscious doubles, inevitably subconscious doubles will appear in your work.

Churchwell: Exactly.

Correspondent: You also point out — and it’s worth reminding — that Fitzgerald had this deep admiration for Joseph Conrad. You quote Conrad’s line, “Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing.” And you point to the middle-man inscription he offered to Gene Buck. You also note that Ring Lardner and Fitzgerald, they performed this drunken dance outside the Doubleday Estate in May 1923, only to be unceremoniously ejected by the night watchmen. I’m wondering. How obsessive was Fitzgerald about Conrad? Were you able to find any direct Gatsby lineage from Conrad or anything?

Churchwell: Not quite. But he was very open about his admiration for Conrad. And Conrad was certainly an important writer for him. In fact, one of the novels that Fitzgerald said was the novel that he wished he had written more than any other novel was Conrad’s Nostromo.

Correspondent: Nostromo, yeah.

Churchwell: Which is a novel that a lot of people…

Correspondent: …don’t read anymore.

Churchwell: …don’t read anymore. It’s really Heart of Darkness that tends to be the one.

Correspondent: Or even Lord Jim.

Churchwell: Or even Lord Jim. He definitely loved Lord Jim. I’ve seen Lord Jim in various places in his work. I think that where Conrad really comes into Gatsby most obviously is in the use of Nick Carraway as both character and narrator the way that Conrad used Marlow in several of his novels, including Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. And it was understanding the way that that technique could help him tell his story, I think, that is Conrad’s greatest influence on Gatsby.

Correspondent: Did he really see novels as that history that Conrad said that it was?

Churchwell: I think he did absolutely. I mean, his novels tended to be contemporary. They tended to be drawn very much from his own experiences and based on people that he knew or had met. Most of his best work is, in some sense, based on these composite characters. So the character of Dick Diver in Tender is the Night is partly Fitzgerald, it’s partly his friend Gerald Murphy, and he kind of morphs the two together.

Correspondent: As any writer does really.

Churchwell: Absolutely. I mean, it’s something he had a big argument with Hemingway about. Because Hemingway said of Tender is the Night that this was an illegitimate technique. He got kind of high-handed and announced that there were some ways that you were allowed to write fiction and some ways that you’re not allowed to write fiction. Which is a bit rich coming from Hemingway, given that The Sun Also Rises is very much a roman à clef. (laughs)

Correspondent: Exactly. And what’s also terrible about Hemingway is his treatment of Fitzgerald. I mean, Fitzgerald is really on the down and out and he’s still saying, “Yes, yes, Ernest is putting out all these great books,” and Hemingway is basically totally shit-talking him the entire time. Which is really sad!

Churchwell: It is sad. Hemingway was not adverse to kicking Fitzgerald when he was down. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs) No! He must have had some machismo thing.

Churchwell: (laughs) Ya think?

(Loops for this program provided by JamieVega, JoeFunktastic, 40a, seankh, and kristijann.)

The Bat Segundo Show #535: Sarah Churchwell (Download MP3)

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Alissa Nutting (The Bat Segundo Show #529)

Alissa Nutting is most recently the author of Tampa.

Author: Alissa Nutting

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

Nutting: That is true.

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

Nutting: (laughs)

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

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

Correspondent: A virus? (laughs)

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

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

Nutting: (laughs) Right, right.

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: The Discussion? (laughs)

Nutting: Yes, The Discussion.

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

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

Correspondent: Burning crosses on various literary websites.

Nutting: Oh definitely.

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

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

Correspondent: Like how much do you get generally?

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

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: (laughs)

Nutting: Move my bowels and go to Pilates.

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

Nutting: Yeah.

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

Nutting: It’s funny.

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: Or me.

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

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

Nutting: (laughs) No.

Correspondent: Really?

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

Correspondent: That has no moral compass whatsoever.

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

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

Nutting: (laughs)

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

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

Correspondent: Wow.

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

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

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

Correspondent: So you do have some control against Celeste!

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

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

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

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

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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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Paul Harding (The Bat Segundo Show #521)

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

Author: Paul Harding

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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

Correspondent: Oh yeah.

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

Correspondent: I figured. How very portentous of you.

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

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

Harding: (laughs) I know!

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

Harding: Right. We’re all professional dilettantes.

Correspondent: We’re all dilettantes.

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

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

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

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

Harding: Sounds like another musical comedy.

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

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

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

Harding: Right.

Correspondent: Let’s avoid cliche in this conversation.

Harding: (laughs) Right.

Correspondent: You get three hallmarks.

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

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

Harding: It’s more extreme.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: Well, that’s true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harding: No. Not this time. (laughs)

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

The Bat Segundo Show #521: Paul Harding II (Download MP3)

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Nicholson Baker (The Bat Segundo Show #520)

Nicholson Baker is most recently the author of Traveling Sprinkler. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #200.

Author: Nicholson Baker

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Subjects Discussed: Attempting to talk in the early hours of the morning, the many beginnings offered by poems vs. the many beginnings offered by the Internet, digital enjambment, tobacco dip videos, Paul Chowder’s songwriting, Baker’s protest songs, Method writing, the development of song lyrics over the last few decades, Dance Music Manual, when dance songs go on too long, Lopoerman, loops, buying a shotgun mic from B&H, phones that beep during conversations, being a proponent of the kick drum, the theology of percussion, how fiction and music composition create different principles in drawing from other work, Medea Benjamin, Glenn Greenwald, the importance of sticking it out, Paul Chowder’s politics vs. Jay’s politics in Checkpoint, Edward Snowden, the difficulty of writing controversial books, when world leader surnames become too incantatory, attending political protests, political recoil, a highly attuned relationship to language and its effect upon political commitment, language as overused wooden blocks, songs as a way of taking back familiar words, Obama’s kill list, synesthesia, stretching out a word to melodic effect, Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” Tracy Chapman’s “Change,” how repetition causes you to look at a word in a different way, Paul Chowder’s “The Right of the People,” the discomforting sight of protesters who are pepper sprayed, peaceful assembly, singing the Bill of Rights, cultural appropriation, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” Thicke’s injunction against Gaye’s family, Ray Parker’s “Ghostbusters” and Huey Lewis’s “I Want a New Drug,” the scant chords and melodies available in pop music, the swift creation of “Blurred Lines,” George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” Baker’s views on the movie music business, why Hans Zimmer is a hack, Baker’s appreciation for Paul Oakenfold and trance, the bassoon, how Harry Gregson-Williams ripped off John Powell’s score for The Bourne Identity, Carol King, efforts to duplicate songs in the 1970s, “Narrow Ruled,” putting a dot on a margin to note a passage vs. favoriting a tweet, filling notebooks with quotes from other books, analog vs. digital forms of “signing someone else’s mind signature,” anthologists who hunted for Shakespearean gems, Logan Pearsall Smith, the downside of typing too fast, forgetting handwriting, the foreign nature of writing a thank you note in the digital age, the importance of exertion, articles about the end of handwriting, handwriting vs. keyboards, how reading things aloud slows time down, Baker’s recent Harper’s essay arguing against Algebra II, the socioeconomic impact of abolishing Algebra II, Jose Vilson’s response to Baker’s article, knowledge vs. the way teachers express knowledge, Algebra II as a requirement that increases human suffering, turning core subjects into electives, educational budget cuts, compulsory education, negative high school experiences, fallacious approaches to teaching the essay, E.B. White, Robert Benchley, Baker’s attendance at the School Without Walls, the burden of having to know and do things that you don’t like, Dan Kois’s unpardonable anti-intellectualism, the importance of challenging perceptions, the importance of sitting still, migration routes of the Goths through Europe, including more choice into education, living a life where nobody is asking you to do anything, the trancelike state of being bored, House of Holes, Samuel R. Delany’s notion of pornotopia, Katie Roiphe’s advocacy of House of Holes, why so much of literary sex is a downer, House of Holes as realist novel, Grindr, Tinder, small town life, Yellow Submarine, Baker’s appreciation for Schmidt’s soliloquies in The New Girl, Baker’s appearance on The Colbert Report, why penis is an insufficient name, using the deep hindbrain words, “The Penis Song,” Victorian pornography that appears throughout many of Baker’s novels, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, Librivox and audio books, the presence of radio in the Paul Chowder novels, how audio reveals the inflection of words, the inclusion of more Chowder lead-ins in Traveling Sprinkler, Baker’s secret stash of personally recorded radio bumpers, and talking into field recorders.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: In The Anthologist, the first of these two novels, there’s this moment where Paul Chowder describes how he’s fond of books of poems. Because no matter where he flips around, he can always be at the beginning. And as he says, “Many, many beginnings.” It occurred to me that this is also the perfect description for the Internet, which actually appears quite prolifically and is almost a cultural repository in the second Paul Chowder book, Traveling Sprinkler. You seem to have, in many cases, swapped the names of poets and real people from The New Yorker with people in bookstores, such as the great Miss Liberty at River Run Books.

Baker: Oh yes.

Correspondent: And, of course, I actually found a lot of those tobacco dip videos on YouTube. You were actually quoting directly from them.

Baker: Oh sure! You don’t want to make those up.

Correspondent: (laughs) You don’t want to make those up?

Baker: No, they’re too great as is.

Correspondent: Well, you’ve written a good deal about the Internet in essays. And I have to ask: to what extent do you feel that the Internet has almost replaced or augmented poetry? There’s certainly plenty of digital enjambment out there. So I’m wondering about this.

Baker: (laughs) Digital enjambment. What a great idea! Well, I think what the Internet has done is that it’s enormously enriched our lives. And it does have that feeling of pieces, many of them. Breaks. Fragments. All over the place. And poems also are short and fragmentary and you kind of come across them and have that moment and go away. But I guess the difference is that I use the Internet — I kind of dip in constantly to learn things. Whereas when I’m in a mood to read a poem or when I just happen to read a poem, it slows everything down. And it has kind of the opposite effect on me. It doesn’t make me want to leap off in eighteen directions. It makes me want to just stop and say, “Oh my god! That pulled that thing apart! That held me still.” So it has that opposite effect. So the two are identical. In some ways, they’re in competition with each other. But in some ways, they’re similar.

Correspondent: What’s the future of poetry with these promising distractions? This enjambment of a different sort?

Baker: The future of poetry is independent, I think, of the way that we publish things. And it’s probably more closely linked to the future of pop music than some poets would want to admit. Because they want to have that division. They want to say that song lyrics aren’t poems. But obviously the two are short clumps of words that often rhyme or have some kind of metrical thing happening. And certainly the future of song lyrics is terrific, I think, isn’t it? I mean, have we ever — certainly in the history of my life — has there ever been a time when you are just constantly discovering new songs and old songs and comparing things? These great websites that tell you the history of a certain lyrical idea. I mean, it’s really happening. So I would think that the strength of that thread, or that theme, is going to propel poetry forward. And then there’s also kind of the realization that some of modernism was a mistake. Not all of it, but some of it. It was aggressive in the wrong way and was kind of disturbingly exclusive and rejecting of comprehensibility and all that. So the poets I like have learned from all of those terrific things that happened in the early part of the 20th century, but they want to be read, you know?

Correspondent: Paul Chowder’s songwriting is not a new development. There is, in fact, this song in The Anthologist that goes “I’m in the barn / I’m in the bar-harn / I’m in the barn in the afternoo-hoon.”

Baker: (laughs) Yes.

Correspondent: So why do you think songwriting turned out to be more of a muse than poetry for Paul Chowder this time? Was it from jumping off some of the hip-hop schemes that you were analyzing in The Anthologist? You were, of course, recording these songs and putting them onto YouTube, which many of us were watching with some degree of curiosity. So to some degree, I guess, this is a form of Method writing. I’m wondering how Chowder’s sensibilities as his affinities permutated here.

Baker: Well, I think Chowder is a guy who would love to be a better poet than he is. And he’s looking for a way out. He’s looking for a way out of a kind of situation in which he’s trapped in the level he can reach as a poet. So he’s looking for a way out. But he’s also looking for a way back in. And, I mean, I certainly share this with him. I share 90% of his thoughts. So I can just say that poetry is beautiful and calls to you. And then there’s moments where you just think, “God, I need something different. Something more. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand why so many people do it. All that feeling.” And getting back to music and trying to fit two art forms together is really hard and excitingly challenging. It was for me to imagine him as a lyric writer, not a very good one. But you know, he does his best. Because song lyrics are so different. They have to be simpler. And when you’re writing song lyrics and trying to match them to a melody or invent a melody, the words that come out are different than the words that come out if you’re just sitting with a typewriter. So I think it was just the thrill of the chase. It was the excitement of the idea that this maybe is the key. So if he, and if I, can possibly write some tunes or get some rhythms going that have a certain bouncy danceability or hummability or something? Wow! That is fun! And then manage to get some words going. I mean, it felt to me, once I started to play with music again, like a new chapter in my life. And so when I was writing the book, and I was writing the novel and songs at the same time…

Correspondent: Did you also become an astute scholar of all the various dance genres much like Paul Chowder? Did you go down that rabbit hole as well?

Baker: Yeah! Sure! Of course I bought a textbook called Dance Music Manual.

Correspondent: So it was actually that textbook.

Baker: Oh yeah. I studied it! Very, very thick. A very heavy textbook. And dance music really puzzles me in a way. Still I don’t really fully get it. Because the songs are too long. I love to listen to a loop. And I’ll happily listen to sixteen bars of a loop and then another layer comes in. And 32. At some point, I want the song to be over. And I think that because I grew up with the Beatles, I want it to be over at around two and a half to three minutes. And dance songs, because you’re supposed to dance to them and they are segued with other songs, go on a very long time. And so I really still haven’t learned the form of the dance song. But when I’m writing, I listen to them all the time.

Correspondent: But all of the songs that you did as Nick Baker get into that kind of trance state of a constant loop and a constant series of rhythms where you’re sort of promulgating some kind of concern about politics or something along those lines. Some of them go on quite long as well. So is the loop really the way to identify the dance song? I mean, did you start off with loops? I almost don’t want to direct you to Looperman. Are you familiar with this site? They have all sorts of loops you can use for free that I use for this particular program.

Baker: Really? Well, I don’t ever use loops. I use Logic Pro.

Correspondent: Okay.

Baker: Which is Apple’s music software. Just as my character does in the book. It’s $200. Tons of instruments. Fantastic deal. And it does everything that you need it to do. Although it isn’t Pro Tools, which is the industry standard and all that. Which is $600. And I couldn’t afford that.

Correspondent: Did you actually go down [like Paul Chowder in Traveling Sprinkler] and get a shotgun mic from B&H? (laughs)

Baker: Absolutely.

Correspondent: You did! Okay.

Baker: All that software.

Correspondent: You had that similar problem of “Oh, do I need to lay down a lot of money for this great mic?” Wow!

Baker: No. All my theories about the importance of stereo sound versus mono sound I just dumped into the book. I believe in stereo. I’m a strong believer in stereo. So I bought the mic not from B&H — oh, yes! I bought it, but not from — yeah, I bought it from B&H!

Correspondent: Wow.

Baker: And in fact, I thought of bringing it along. Because it’s kind of soothing when you’re traveling to do some music. And I thought I could practically fit the mic stand. The mic is about three feet long. And it’s pretty durable. So I thought I could put it in the suitcase. And then I thought, “Nah. Something might happen.”

Correspondent: Is it the Rode mic?

Baker: I can’t remember. It’s ATK or something.

[Mysterious beeping sound.]

Baker: I’m sorry. That’s me. I’ll turn this off.

Correspondent: (clutching his dying smartphone, which has less than 5% battery life) No, it’s actually me. Or is it you?

Baker: I think it’s me telling me. It’s telling me that tomorrow I’ll be in Washington DC. (laughs) How helpful!

Correspondent: I’m turning mine off too.

Baker: The DC Book Fest.

Correspondent: My power’s actually about to go out. So there you go. So okay…

Baker: Okay. So let me. Okay. So loops. There are different ways to think about the word “loop.” And most dance songs, and a lot of pop songs these days, are built on the looping principle. But what you don’t want to do is take somebody else’s loop and say, “Ooh! That sounds good. I’ll use it in my song.” Or at least I don’t want to do that. Because you want to build something that is your own. So I usually start with a little piano riff that goes on for four or eight bars. A little something. A chord. Just an interesting chord. Or I start with maybe a hi-hat sound that sounds just a little bit odd and interesting. Or maybe some percussion that has a bit of pitch to it that then makes me think of another sound. Then I layer, using a lot of trial and error and a certain amount of just dumb luck and whatever; incompetence — layers over that. Until I have, say, fifteen layers of sound. And that’s my loop. And the nice thing, when it goes right, is that the loop is in all of its fully official, big time, near-the-end-of-the-song glory. But you might want to take out five tracks from that when you start. And, of course, the kick drum might come in. And suddenly, sixteen bars along or something.

Correspondent: You’re a big proponent of the kick drum.

Baker: Everybody is. You can’t not be a proponent of the kick drum!

Correspondent: (laughs)

Baker: Except that it’s kind of an embarrassing term. You know, “kick drum.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Baker: It sounds sort of like the da-da-da-dum-dah-dum.

Correspondent: You make it sound like John Philip Souza or something.

Baker: Yeah. It sounds like that. But what it is, it’s a massive kind of a chest-vibrating sound that happens every beat or however you want to vary it. And once you get into this world, the theology of kick drum sounds.

Correspondent: A theology?

Baker: The number, the thousands of tiny variations. And the way you can make a chesty kick drum, but with this element of a pop on the top so that you can still get the sense of something bursting, but also get that subwoofer whomp. All of that. People think about that. You have no idea how seriously people take that. Well, you probably do. You’re into music.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, this is really interesting that in your own particular music, you basically say no to taking another loop. And yet in the fiction, we’ve established that you’re drawing very close from reality and from real world examples. Which might almost be like taking a loop and meshing it with another loop.

Baker: Interesting.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering why music allows one set of principles and fiction offers another one. Or is it really simply the expression of a sentence that offers the distinction between music taking loops and fiction taking from cultural reference and so forth?

Baker: Well, yeah, that’s really an interesting thought. I think that I’m always reluctant to quote anything without quotation marks. So I don’t believe in it. The hip-hop world uses sampling a lot, where you take a number of nice sounds — the riff, maybe the chorus — and do things. And it’s obviously brilliant. And they’ve made such great discoveries and combinations. It’s just not something that I’m ready to do yet. I think it’s because, as a writer, I can’t bear the idea that, even involuntarily, I would without remembering quoting somebody else’s phrase and thinking it was my own. It’s just not something that I ever, ever want to do.

Correspondent: Unless you devise a specific sound that can be offered in lieu of a quotation mark.

Baker: (laughs) Who?

Correspondent: A very special percussive sound that nobody else has, that everybody agrees upon. “Alright! Here’s the time where we take from a 70s Funkadelic song.” (laughs)

Baker: Exactly.

Correspondent: There’s another thing I wanted to ask you about. In Traveling Sprinkler, Paul Chowder name-checks both Medea Benjamin and Glenn Greenwald. There’s an interesting line. And this was written before Edward Snowden. “What good does it do me to read Glenn Greenwald’s excellent blog? He’s right about everything and I’m glad he’s doing it. But it doesn’t seem to have any effect.” Well, au contraire!

Baker: (laughs)

Correspondent: Granted, Paul is talking about this in relation to Roz. But Paul Chowder to me is more of a short-sighted version of your typical Baker hero, who is really taking in the world and seeing it with a kind of wonder. And also, it’s not unlike what he said of podcasters, where he says, “They’ll keep on pumping it out. But then they’ll puff up and die.”

Baker: (laughs)

Correspondent: To which we got into a minor disagreement. But that got cleared up. But I actually wanted to ask you. Why do you think that Paul Chowder does not really appreciate the long-term effect of keeping at it and sticking at it? Because that is just as much a part of the journey of being an observer, of being an intellectual seeker, of being a curious type. And so that is very curious why this is outside his temperament.

Baker: Well, I think you put it beautifully, Ed. You have to be patient. You have to keep saying the things over and over again. But that doesn’t mean we all don’t have moments of despair. Which happened, say, in the ramping up to the first Iraq War. All those brilliant op-ed pieces. All that marching. All that sustained argumentation that made the case that this was a mistake was for naught. It was going to happen. It was scheduled, planned, whatever. The launch date was planned. And it happened. And that filled me with a kind of despair. Because I thought, What is the function of rational argument and public discourse when it’s just not going to work? When there’s that feeling, that wave of almost frenzy or a thirst for war. And I think it’s worth including that sentiment if we’re going to be true to our own political lives, which are mixtures. You go up and down. Sometimes you think, “Well, my god, we’re making progress and good ideas are coming out. And good people like Medea Benjamin are saying incredibly powerful, moving things and brave things.” And then it all seems for naught. And it doesn’t get anything accomplished. So you then feel that despair. So I just had Chowder follow the ups and downs of that. But I’ve hinted that towards the end. You know, there’s a moment where his friend Tim gets arrested. And he says, “I’m glad Tim is writing the book.” And the point is that Paul Chowder is too caught up in his own worry, his own love complexities, and the mixed-upness of his own life to do something sustained like write a book against drones. But he’s very glad someone else is doing it. And at some point, he thinks that maybe he can actually do something. In my case, I’m trying to, in a sneaky way, do the same thing. I’m trying to say, “I’m going to present you with a human life.” And this is a person that, if it works, you’re going to recognize this guy. You’re going to see some things about people in this person that you think, “Oh, that’s familiar.” And you’re going to see him struggle and have dissatisfaction and give you some little political ideas to think about. So by the end of the book, I’m not going to have tired you out or disgusted you with overpoliticizing, I hope. Although maybe I redlined there. But I’m going to have included that component in a fictional life. So that the aim of the book was political in a sense. It was to try to write some sort of anti-intervention book, but to do it singingly. To sing the pain a bit and include all the other distractions that a normal life has.

Correspondent: But there are two interesting points here. Because both Glenn Greenwald and Medea Benjamin this year — I mean, when Medea Benjamin basically shouted out to Obama in a way that nobody else would, suddenly, at that moment, she was taken seriously after all these years of ridicule. Same goes with Greenwald. You centered on the two figures who stuck it out and actually became a vital part, I think, of the political discourse. Simultaneously, I’m also thinking of Chowder’s vacillating political position and comparing it to Jay from Checkpoint, where he wants to assassinate Bush for the good of humankind. And that also is a kind of intervention as well. And I’m curious why every political argument that you approach in your fiction tends to involve an intervention of some kind. It’s either an intervention that comes from within or an intervention that comes from without. I mean, is this really just kind of what you see as the American impulse right now? I mean, we’re clearly not in the streets complaining about drones or complaining about the surveillance state and all that. But it is something that this conviction does face intervention in all of your fiction, I think.

Baker: Well, first, I totally admire and — I mean, who wouldn’t admire what Glenn Greenwald did with Snowden? Which was all before. But I love his blog. I admire it so much. I’m terribly jealous of his ability to stick with it and to be patient and to go after and to say similar things, but bring new facts into it. And Medea Benjamin — I mean, I just can’t stand it. She’s so brave. And I love that.

Correspondent: You’re envious of the bravery?

Baker: Well, you know, I have been to marches a little bit. And I published a political book. Human Smoke was a very controversial book. And it’s really hard. It really hurts sometimes. The criticism, the sneering, the unfairness. The kind of misrepresentation of what you’re trying to do in order to make you into a figure of ridicule. In order to make whatever you have to say not have any weight. You know, it does hurt. And it’s hard. And I can only do it once in a while. And even when I’m doing it, I’m doing it about the Second World War! I’ll write a few letters and sign some petitions and I’ll march. I mean, I was up in Portland at an anti-Syrian intervention. Candlelight vigil. Lighting candles. But I’m going to retreat to another time and try to make the argument a different way. I’m trying to undermine the militarist impulse by undermining some of the justifications for the Second World War. I’m trying to do it indirectly. But it’s also an escape. I mean, it’s so hard to talk about the present in a fresh way. That’s the hard part. The names. The names are so familiar. And I don’t want to hear the name “Obama.” I don’t want to hear the name “Assad.” I’m tired of the names. And yet obviously those are the names you have to use. And so, you know, it feels like you need to figure out another way.

(Loops for this program provided by ShortBusMusic, ferryterry, danke, and Progressbeats5.)

The Bat Segundo Show #520: Nicholson Baker (Download MP3)

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Kathryn Davis (The Bat Segundo Show #519)

Kathryn Davis is most recently the author of Duplex.

Author: Kathryn Davis

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

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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

Correspondent: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: Quantum mechanics is lay reading basically.

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

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

Davis: Yes.

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

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

Correspondent: Unboxed it.

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

Correspondent: Which is clearly drawn from reality.

Davis: Absolutely!

Correspondent: (laughs)

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

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

Davis: Yes.

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

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

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

Davis: Right. I loved that!

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

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

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

Davis: I love that book too.

Correspondent: It can also be qualified as science fiction.

Davis: Oh, absolutely.

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: Yes! I know that.

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

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

Davis: I too — I would hate to read a murder mystery. I would hate to read a P.D. James and not have a resolution. I would want to strangle her. Because the book is set up to give you that. But the form, the generative form, the form where something happens early on or something is said or there’s some sense of a mystery that is established very early on in the book — and part of your pleasure and job as a reader is to track down what’s happening — that feeling is one of my favorite feelings in life. I love not being given a piece of evidence or a clue. I mean, this all goes back, I’m sure, to the house I grew up in. Where nobody said anything outright and you were always trying to figure out what’s going on.

Correspondent: Ah! I see.

Davis: By reading between the lines and reading the clues.

Correspondent: So a constant life of mystery and a constant reading life of mystery.

Davis: Yes! And for my own part, I actually thought, “Well, you love reading these murder mysteries. Why don’t you just write one?” I believe firmly you should write what you love to read. It turns out that if you want to write a murder mystery, you really have to figure out an awful lot of stuff ahead of time in a way that I am just not interested in doing. It would be boring to do that. And I’ve written some books that seem to me, that feel to me to sort of make use of that genre. I felt like that was true of The Walking Tour, for example. But I didn’t want there to be the detective calling everybody into the drawing room and telling everyone what happened.

Correspondent: You must be a big fan of the Antonioni film L’Avventura.

Davis: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: In which the missing girl is never explained. It never actually is explained. I mean, Antonioni to me would seem to be your match for literature. Because there’s so much rich life. And even in his most narrative film, The Passenger, even there you don’t have a clean-cut resolution. You have Jack Nicholson disappear. And you’re still invited to witness this amazing display of life at the end of the picture. I guess the way to continue this conversation is to ask why this is something to be resisted. Why is this a strange underground attitude or set of sensibilities to inhabit in 2013?

Davis: That’s a great question. I mean, I guess…

[A baby cries in the background.]

Correspondent: That was a little critic walking past.

Davis: Sad at the idea of lack of completion.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Davis: I think it makes people very nervous. I think life makes people nervous. And part of what makes people nervous about life is not knowing what lies ahead, even though, if you knew what lay ahead, the idea of actually knowing what’s about to happen is so appalling to me that I don’t even want to think about it. But I also know that the human wish to feel contained and part of a logical system, one that isn’t going to pull the rug out from under you, that’s a very, very strong wish. And it’s probably some kind of a survival mechanism also.

Correspondent: It’s not just a survival mechanism. It makes me think of the joke in the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore movie Bedazzled. There’s one situation where Peter Cook is the Devil. It’s a marvelous movie.

Davis: I love that movie.

Correspondent: The remake is terrible, but this is a genius movie. And there’s one part where Peter Cook picks up mysteries and he’s ripping out the last..

Davis: Ripping out the last page!

Correspondent: Every single one! And the fact that that’s actually condemned as something demonic or something that only the Devil can do, I think says much about our need for resolution, right? (laughs)

Davis: Oh yeah. Well, I felt like the Devil in that movie, in many ways, was doing exactly what you would want…

Correspondent: What you would want to do!

Davis: What you would want to have done! When he scratches the records.

Correspondent: Yes. And, of course, the wonderful song, the terrible pop music song in that, which is hilarious.

Davis: Yes! Scratch that record! Yes, pull out those pages!

Correspondent: But it’s a rebellious act. It’s an act of nihilism. I mean, that’s the thing. Remember — now that we’re thinking cinematic here, it makes me think of Jack Nicholson again as the Joker in Batman, going into the museum and just throwing paint and destroying art. This used to actually be something we contended with in mainstream pictures, mainstream books, mainstream art. And now it’s fascinating to me that with the nihilism, now you have to go to a house like Graywolf in order to actually explore these questions. Why do you think that is?

Davis: Boy, that’s a big question, but I have an answer!

Correspondent: You do!

Davis: Yeah. I think that the timidity, the cultural timidity, has to do with the fact that the world is a frightening place. But is it more frightening now than it was, say, in 1960? No. I don’t think so. In fact, the threat of nuclear annihilation was so present in everybody’s mind.

Correspondent: But maybe it’s out of sight, out of mind. There’s an Eric Schlosser book called Command and Control, which deals with how fragile the entire nuclear infrastructure is.

Davis: But nobody talks about it.

Correspondent: Nobody talks about this. Just as people are accepting the NSA surveillance. People want to accept this kind of thing. Maybe they’re beaten down. Maybe we’re just putting on more blinders these days. Maybe we don’t want to actually open up the floodgates to every single problem. And maybe this is what you say. It’s about living life and accepting it in all of its hard knocks and all that.

Davis: But it is really true. And I’ve thought a lot about this. Because people don’t want you to write books that don’t end happily.

Correspondent: Unlikable characters, which has become a big issue this year.

Davis: Right. Movies. It is now the case where if you go to the movies, especially with the movies made in this country…

Correspondent: You have to go to television to get a gripping narrative.

Davis: And you’re not ever going to see something where there’s going to be an inconclusive or really, really unhappy ending. So I realize the suspense level is eradicated by the fact that, even when somebody’s clinging to the edge of a cliff and you’re thinking, “Oh my God! I hope he’s going to survive,” you know he’s going to. Because they don’t make movies where people drop off cliffs. Because he’s the hero.

Correspondent: So narrative is doomed to go for the default heroic state.

(Loops for this program provided by 40a, cork27, danke, and GamingXSportXClub.)

The Bat Segundo Show #519: Kathryn Davis (Download MP3)

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Mark Slouka (The Bat Segundo Show #509)

Mark Slouka is most recently the author of Brewster.

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Author: Mark Slouka

Subjects Discussed: Gandhi’s pacifist maxims, Wilifred Owen, World War I poets, Vietnam, violence in fiction, Brewster in relation to Woodstock, people who still listened to Perry Como in 1968, memory and sex, listening as research, auctorial instinct, the poetry of real world vernacular, having a father as a storyteller, why Slouka’s characters are often defined by outside towns, viewing a life in relation to the next place you’ll settle, Slouka’s Czech background, Nazi memorabilia, Slouka’s reluctance in exploring the grounded, being a child of Czech refugees, lives lived on a borderline, geographically fraught characters, the bright bulb of heritage, broken lamps, crossing America 22 times, the wandering instinct, stories to tell at a bar, the Motel 6 as a gathering spot, developing a photograph of America through travel, Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobil with the Memphis Blues Again,” towns that people pass through on the way to somewhere nicer, the benefits of sharp elbows, why small towns get a bad rap in American literature, the influence of Sherwood Anderson, Richard Russo, metropolitan types who condescend to small towns, David Lynch, avoiding dark cartoonish material to write truthfully about bigotry, courting complexity, the terror of familiarity, when you know another person’s parents more than your own, finding approval in another family, mothers who mourn the sons that they lose, the revelations of characters who touch surfaces, being a “physical writer,” the physical as a door to memory, sudden transitions from violence to casual conversation, being a victim of belief culture, when the real enters the domain of fiction, knowing ourselves through the telling of stories, Slouka affixing misspellings of his name to the refrigerator, fridge magnet poetry, how Brewster deals with race, desegregation busing, racism and locked doors, Obama’s Trayvon Martin speech, the myth of other worlds, the 168th Street Armory, lingering racism in Brewster, “Quitting the Paint Factory,” how Slouka’s notion of leisure have adjusted in 2013, leisure vs. consumer capitalism, why humans are being colonized by machines, assaults on the inner life, Twitter and the Arab Spring, attention deficit, why the human population has turned into addicts, acceptable forms of leisure, the inevitability of multitasking, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, why four hour podcasts exist in a medium that eats away our time, being shaped in ways you don’t understand, Slouka’s declaration of war against the perpetually busy, the conditions that determine whether someone’s soul has been eaten, the church of work, why people work like dogs to consume more, being derided for sleeping eight hours a night, and Slouka’s elevator pitch for Brewster.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: The book oscillates between one of Gandhi’s most famous maxims (“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”) and references to war, whether it be Vietnam or the World War I poet Wilfred Owen. And I’m wondering, just to get started here, how did this backdrop of war and peace help you to zero in on these characters and this landscape? Was this your way of tipping your hat to a socially charged time without hitting the obvious touchstones?

Slouka: Yeah, I think so. It’s a matter of “all politics are personal” and vice versa. I was interested in writing about war. Because war’s in the background, of course. It takes place in the late 1960s. And the drums of Vietnam were going through the whole thing. But what I’m really writing about is the lives of these two young guys — seventeen or eighteen years old — who are fighting a very different private war: each in their own way, each with their own family, each with their own life. So the interplay — the back-and-forth between War writ large and war, lowercase, is something that interested me.

Correspondent: This is a very violent book. There’s a lot of smacking, slapping, and, of course, the revelation near the end. I mean, it’s pretty brutal. It’s almost as violent as being in any kind of battlefield. And I’m wondering if the larger social canvas of Vietnam almost forced your hand, when thinking about these characters, to really consider this domestic abuse and all of this terrible pugilism that’s going on underneath the surface.

Slouka: I think so. I think it’s probably unavoidable. I mean, I also grew up with guys like — let’s say Ray Cappicciano, the Ray Cap character who’s fighting a very real war at home. His dad is an ex-cop, a prison guard. He’s not a good guy. But one of my favorite scenes is actually in the book. It’s a scene in the cafeteria where Jon, the narrator, is reading Wilfred Owen’s poem about the trenches in World War I and the experience of watching someone die in a gas attack. And Ray Cap, who’s sitting across the table, basically goads him into reading it out loud. “I’m not going to read the poem.” “Read the poem.” He eventually reads the poem and Ray responds to it in a way that’s completely unexpected, even for him. And he responds to it probably because he understands on some deep visceral level what it’s like to be in battle. What it’s like to be drawn to battle and not be able to get away from it. I mean, Owen was wounded. He recovered. And then he reenlisted and then eventually died in the war. And Ray Cap is haunted by that. Because it’s like, “He went back?” He went back to this thing and eventually killed him? That’s his biggest fear. Because he keeps going back to the house where he has a hard life.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, it’s something that foreshadows his particular existence. He needs to have almost a poetic guide to understand the predicament that he’s in.

Slouka: That’s right.

Correspondent: And he just can’t understand why Owen would go back to serve after he’s written this poem.

Slouka: Exactly.

Correspondent: I wanted to ask about how you depict this late 1960s in Brewster as a different place from Woodstock across the river. A place where people really don’t matter. I mean, they’re expected to fall into line. What kind of research did you do into Brewster of the late 1960s to develop this sense of what life is like? Where you can be an individual all you want, but if you don’t fall into line, you’re going to have trouble living here.

Slouka: Oh yeah. Well, research for a writer often entails just talking with people, listening to people. There’s this gorgeous New York area vernacular that I just fell in love with while writing this book. That Italian American/Irish thing that I never wrote about. I grew up listening to it and I never wrote about it. So this book was a homecoming for me. The research I did was just sort of sticking my nose out the door and listening to how people spoke. But I also had to remember a lot. And the truth is that the ’60s didn’t happen in the same way at the same time for all people. You know, one of the guys that plays a role in this book is an Irish Catholic kid named Frank who’s still listening to Perry Como in 1968 because he is. Because some people were. Brewster in 1968 was still in 1957 in a lot of ways. And it was happening. Watts was happening. Woodstock was across the river. But the day that Woodstock happens, my heroes end up going down to Yonkers. Because they don’t want to sit around listening to everything that they’re missing across the river and also because they’re poor. They’re working class kids. And a lot of working class kids didn’t make it to Brewster. Because they didn’t know that they opened the fences and it was twenty-three movie tickets to get into Woodstock. So they couldn’t go. So they’re fighting against a conservative, repressive, frightened culture that’s all around them. You know, some guy was hitching up his office pants saying, “Yeah, I got a dream. You know, I’ll pay the goddam mortgage.”

Correspondent: But it is interesting that Jon, in telling this tale, doesn’t really hit those touchstones. He says, well, “We were more aware of the Tet Offensive than a girl’s nipples.”

Slouka: (laughs)

Correspondent: But he doesn’t really announce what they talked about. In fact, there’s one point in the Tina episode where he has a perfect memory of what he talks about with the hippies. But then, when they leave, he can’t remember a single subject of what he’s talking about with Tina. And I find that really interesting. It’s almost like, despite the fact that he was well-steeped in the subject, he can’t remember that. It’s almost as if that doesn’t matter, you know?

Slouka: Well, that’s part of it. But he’s also having sex. (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, of course! That does have a way of…

Slouka: …erase the memory for a little while. But yeah, you remember certain things. You don’t for others. I mean, I personally think that the ’60s didn’t really become the ’60s until 1980. You know what I mean? Then when look back and we say, “Well, that was the ’60s.” But when you were in it, you didn’t think things were happening. Personally, I think the ’60s were in some ways, despite all the bullshit around the edges (and they’ve been reduced to a fashion statement), the fact is that they were probably the last time that we really considered altering on a mass scale what our priorities are in this country and how we would proceed. It didn’t work. It didn’t happen. But some things happened. It was an exciting time. So these guys knew that things were happening. They could hear it happening. But it wasn’t happening in Brewster. And that’s part of the tension in the book.

Correspondent: Going back to what you were saying earlier about how you made Brewster come alive. You say that you stuck your nose out the door. But you’re also competing with memory. And you’re dealing with who is still alive, who lived through that time, versus what you remember. I mean, at what point do you have to throw that aside and just rely on your own instinct and imagination for what you feel Brewster is or should be? I mean, how do you wrestle with all this?

Slouka: I think you have to throw it out very early. You just have to go by instinct. You just walk in. You know, you create a place that feels right on the page. That feels like a place that you can inhabit as a writer and believe in as a writer. And if you get that right, then eerily enough I think you get close to something that’s actually believable for other people. And it’s a kind of counterintuitive sort of thing. You’re following your own instinct. Because why would someone else understand that? And sometimes they don’t. But in my experience, if you trust yourself, you know, you make mistakes. You try to correct them and so on. But by the time you’re done, if you’ve trusted yourself and if you followed those instincts, then there’s a really good chance that other people will sense that there’s a sort of organic quality to that imaginative thing that you brought and they’ll buy into it hopefully.

Correspondent: I’m curious about this. I mean, how many people did you talk with? And if you’re hearing another perspective of that particular time, how does this mesh with you trusting yourself as a writer? You trusting that truth, that perspective, that world that you are planting and growing in the book?

Slouka: For me, when I talk about listening to people, it’s not about listening to their stories necessarily, though people will tell you their stories and I love to hear them. It’s about listening to how they talk. It’s about listening to — you know, I love the way people talk there. I was getting some beer at the A&P recently and I asked this kid. I said, “Where’s the beer at?” And he said, “Well, okay, you go to the back and you look right.” And I was walking away. I said thanks. I’m walking away. And he said, “It’s the only thing I know where it is in the store.” Well, if you write that down on paper — “It’s the only thing I know where it is in the store” — it’s a mess. The sentence is a disaster. But it’s beautiful too. There’s a kind of poetry to it. And that can be expanded infinitely. So for me, it was a matter of imagining this place. I had certain bones I needed to pick with my own past, with the memories of people that I knew back then. You’re trying to resolve certain things that aren’t completely clear to you even as you’re writing them, except that you know that you have to write them. But the research involves just opening your ears, which I did for the first time in this. I never wrote an American book before. This is my first truly American book. It was just a question of giving myself permission to set a particular — to say, “Look, you were born and raised in this country. You’ve listened to these people for fifty years. Just shut up and write.” And I’ve tried to do that and hopefully it worked out.

Correspondent: It seems to me — I’m just going to infer here. Maybe you can clear this up. If you had a bone to pick with yourself, maybe some of these interesting sentences that you hear at the A&P or that you hear from people telling you about the period, maybe it’s a way to get outside of yourself or to plant what might almost be called a more objective voice. Because you have something more concrete to work with. Is that safe to say?

Slouka: I think that makes perfect sense. I think that’s exactly what it was really. And this book is a homecoming. I lost my father the day after this book was finished. Literally. And he was the storyteller in my life. We had our hard times. You know, he drank when I was a kid. The last fifteen years were great. But I spent most of my writing life writing stories that were set elsewhere. They were from my parents’ time. They were the Resistance in Prague during the Second World War. It was ancient Siam. The Siamese Twins. Da da da. You know, it’s time to write my own story. Not that those weren’t, but this one’s my own in a different way. I think there’s something about listening, about coming home to Brewster, which is a difficult place to explain though I’m fond of it…

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about this. Because in The Visible World, your narrator is a child of Czech refugees from World War II. Not unlike yourself. In Brewster, Jon’s family is Jewish. They have escaped from Germany. You have Frank, who we just talked about earlier. He comes from Poland. You have Karen even, from Hartford on a more limited scale. You have Ray talking with the women behind the cafeteria. So there is very much a quality to your fictitious characters in which they always come from somewhere else. Or they’re not defined by the place they live right now. And I was wondering why that’s your affinity.

Slouka: Where that comes from.

Correspondent: Not necessarily where that comes from, but do you feel that it’s truer to write about someone or that you’re going to get a more dimensional character if they have some kind of additional background? That no one is really from anywhere?

Slouka: Oh god, you’re good at this. The problem is that it’s me. I’m the one who’s not really from one place or another. You know what I mean? I grew up on the fault line between two cultures. Two languages. Two histories. I grew up in a Czech ghetto in Queens, New York, for Christ’s sake, right? My first language was Czech. I didn’t speak English until I was five and I went out on the playground and had to figure out what the hell was going on and why these kids weren’t speaking Czech. My problem — and that’s just my life — is that with the possible exception of a little cabin that we have in a place called Lost Lake, I’ve never really had a home. And whenever I was in one place, I was always looking for the next good place. The next place and the next place. That’s one of the problems for me in getting older. You’re running out of time to look for the next place and the next place and the next place. I think I’ve transferred a lot of that kind of restlessness, which I think is very American actually. Americans are always looking for the next great place. I’ve transferred that restlessness into my characters, who are usually from everywhere but here. I mean, it’s possible that actually Brewster is the most grounded of my books. Because these kids are from there. Though it’s also kind of ironic that they’re also the most trapped. I mean, they’re from Brewster and they want to get the hell out. Again, not unlike me. It’s like: I’m here. How soon can I leave?

Photo: Maya Slouka

(Loops for this program provided by Nightingale, KBRPROD, ferryterry, 40A, DeepKode, and ProducerH.)

The Bat Segundo Show #509: Mark Slouka (Download MP3)

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BEA 2013: The Editor and the Translator

On Friday afternoon, mere minutes after the frazzled feline star of a viral video had been flown in from Morristown, Arizona and dragged against its will onto the Javits floor to receive the kind of superstar adulation that literary geniuses toiling for decades would die for a tiny piece of, three dozen people met in the rank underbelly of a cold corporate convention center to contend with issues of translated literature.

This was the clearest indication I have ever seen of what Chad Post has identified as the “three percent problem” — whereby a mere 3% of all published books in the United States are works in translation. The underattended panel made me hang my head in shame.

I had not known that Grumpy Cat was at BEA, nor did I care to meet the animal or wait in line upon learning of this intelligence. There were more meaningful ways to fritter away two hours of my life. Indeed, I had encountered Open Letter‘s Chad Post on the loud floor just before the panel and personally apologized for not doing enough for translated literature. He then told me about an insane man in Italy and secured my attendance.

There were several translators and foreign language enthusiasts in the crowd, including Michael A. Orthofer and Scott Esposito (both tireless proponents for literature in translation), but the panelists pointed out the paucity of editors in the audience and seized upon this absenteeism to talk freely.

“In the long view,” said Susan Bernofsky, director of literary translation for Columbia’s School of the Arts, “we want to find an English language voice for our foreign language author. In the short run, editors want very different things. Editors want books that will read well in English and that sell. The translator wants to represent what the language said.”

Bernofsky pointed to FSG’s Elisabeth Sifton as an editorial paragon. Sifton gave Bernofsky carte blanche to translate Gregor von Rezzori however she wanted. He wasn’t especially edited in German. So he had wanted his English translation to be well edited, even if it meant obliterating whole pages and paragraphs.

I was not as well-versed on translated literature as the assembled crowd, but I was surprised by how liberal the editing process was. Post described going much further on a memoir that had a plodding section set in the 1980s. The ten page section began with the sentence, “I remember nothing good from those years.” Post felt that cutting everything that followed that sentence was an improvement.

Translator Mary Ann Caws pointed out to several fraught experiences she had encountered in her years. She described working on an anthology, where her translation was taken out of her hands and given to someone else who dumbed everything down. She described battles translating André Breton’s most famous poem, “Free Union.” The first two words of the original poem is “Mon amour.” One translation of the poem’s first line reads “My wife whose hair is a brush fire.” Another reads “My woman with her forest-fire hair.” The difference between “My wife” and “My woman” is substantial because of the connotation of the relationship. But Caws pointed out that “there’s a way of doing it without her or she” with phrases like “My dear one has gone into the streets of the city.”

Caws had also suggested publishing several translations around a sonnet to demonstrate the impossibility of a perfect translation. The editor replied, “How will they know which is the right translation?”

Victoria Wilson has been an editor at Knopf for forty years. And she insisted that cutting text has little to do with saleability, but how the book reads. “A book is going to sell if it’s 150 pages shorter,” said Wilson, who was also careful to note that she had published William Gass for twenty years.

“People ascribe motives to the publisher,” continued Wilson. “We’re all just people. I bought the book. I fought for the book.”

This was all constructive chatter, but the panel’s fireworks really started when Polish crime writer Marek Krajewski began speaking with gusto through a translator.

“In my mind,” said an animated Krajewski through his translator, “the editors who work with people who have huge egos really can’t adjust and are narcissistic. These kinds of editors treat their authors as total failures. There are editors, on the other hand, who tend to do work just for the sake of doing it. To justify their presence there.” Krajewski bemoaned editors who didn’t understand his work, including one who was “basically taking out the F words.”

“Some of them tend to be shy and don’t ask that any questions,” said Krajewski of his translators. He pointed to one who couldn’t be bothered to flesh out an abbreviation. “I had the full information. And I do know she knows how to do it. Well, sometimes, it happens that the editor is very detail-oriented.”

One of Krajewski’s books concerned multiculturalism, which turned out to be a problem for the editor and the translator. “It’s not only translating language,” said Krajewski. “It’s translating cultures.”

Bernofsky noted that she had just done a new translation of Jeremias Gottheif’s The Black Spider for NYRB Classics. Because Gottheif’s work was a horror story, the editing was much different from what she had usually experienced.

“The prose is not that amazing,” said Bernofsky. “Edwin Frank did a very heavy edit on some of the prose. He was editing both me and Gottheif. He rearranged the sentences.” Bernofsky signed off on the translation, even though the reviewer comparing the original with the translation will find it inaccurate. But for prose stylists like Robert Walser, Bernofsky said that she would “fight for keeping the complexity of the sentences.”

There was a question concerning changes in publishing over the past 40 years, in which the publishers were blamed for the drop of translated fiction in bookstores. “You can’t just look at the publishers,” noted Wilson. “The chains changed everything in terms of their ordering.” In other words, it doesn’t really matter whether a corporate behemoth owns a big publisher or not. The fate of translated literature in the States is entirely dependent on what the bookstores order. And while the recent health of independent booksellers has suggested new prospects for translated fiction, without massive orders from chains, it is often difficult for these books to be published.

This reality was simply too much for Chad Post, who began talking fast and angry.

“Every book out there is shitty,” boomed Post into the mike. “Mitch Albom? What the hell? We do not need him.”

There were some faint suggestions that Post was prepared to overturn the table, fire a pistol into the air, and demand the rightful liberation of the book industry.

“Malcolm Fucking Gladwell,” shrieked Post. “I’ve never been quite disturbed by the book business than I have been in the last few days.”

I squinted to see if the veins on Chad Post’s neck had popped out. I waited for Post’s instructions to don the balaclava carefully folded in my left inner pocket. I waited for Post to announce the Occupy Javits movement.

“I would shoot myself if I had to publish most of the books out there.”

With this suicidal statement in full swing, Post’s phone began to ring on stage. Mitch Albom’s people were coming to shut the wild-eyed revolutionary from Rochester down. Post was referred to as “that angry young man” by the next questioner.

To be clear, Post was not all froth and spittle. I could relate very much to his fury. We live in strange times when Amazon Crossing is the number one American publisher for translated fiction. As Post pointed out, it isn’t easy to secure advocates for translated work when the pitch is “Here’s a great book about a woman in Latvia who is depressed.” But perhaps with more passion, we’ll work out the kinks and expand the egregious percentage.

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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Paula Bomer (The Bat Segundo Show)

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

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

Author: Paula Bomer

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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

Correspondent: (laughs)

Bomer: …from most hyperbolic journalism.

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

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

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

Bomer: I was a little shocked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: I figured there was!

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

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

Bomer: Yeah. Empty nest syndrome!

Correspondent: The empty nest syndrome.

Bomer: Oh my god. It’s not a joke.

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

Bomer: Also, everybody’s different.

Correspondent: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bomer: Definitely.

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

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

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

Bomer: Your regret.

Correspondent: Genuine contrition, yeah.

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

Correspondent: Don’t we all? (laughs)

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

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

Bomer: Well….(pause)

Correspondent: (laughs) Or can you share?

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

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

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

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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.

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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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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.

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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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Emily St. John Mandel (The Bat Segundo Show)

Emily St. John Mandel appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #461. She is most recently the author of The Lola Quartet.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Considering a new career as a sake mangler.

Author: Emily St. John Mandel

Subjects Discussed: Starting a novel from a comic place, Kafka, cornball jokes, never knowing how a book is going to end, Jayson Blair, trusting emotional instincts and finding a fun arena, starting off with a hook, money strapped to a baby carriage, numerous characters who shift their identity, the “mushy middle” problem, switching points of view to hold interest, E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, writing what you know, the risks of exquisite expertise, uncovering systems (real estate and trafficking), how a novel emerges from what Mandel happens to be reading, The Wire, straying from the path of curiosity, the inevitability of errors in fiction, car culture, A Clockwork Orange, how driving affects urban perception, Guy Debord, walking, finding a concrete narrative schedule out of chaos, disastrous offices, hard-core revision, the freedom of not knowing where you’re going, working out messy sentences, the difficulties of writing about sixteen-year-old girls, learning about people by reading their blogs, being an observer, trying to determine how to make a fake passport for research, not writing about people you know, compulsive behavior, seeking revenge and understanding in fiction, failed newspapermen, the diminished men throughout Mandel’s fiction, getting inside heads, Gina Frangello’s influence on The Lola Quartet, attempts to write characters with a singular identity, introspective writing, avoiding autobiography, memoir in the digital age, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, being abducted by the Taliban vs. First World problems, confessing details to friends, how people forget that their digital details are shared with an audience, safe places to express emotions, Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, maintaining privacy and authenticity, Cory Arcangel’s “working on my novel” project, Foursquare, the burdens of party culture, time management, Freedom, characters whose hands shake, depicting behavior in fiction through shorthand description, metaphorical vampirism, heat strokes, intemperate climate, Dark Shadows, inventing a fashion style for an investigator, longing for an older age with more elegance, mutual efforts to introduce “dequirkify” into the English language, the Sasaki name and cultural names, beverage cues in intense social situations, physicality in fiction, trying not to repeat tropes, characters on the run, statute of limitations on mining from personal experience, dance, and what the Internet is for.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Mandel: You know, I make a lot of stuff up. I don’t really feel like I’m an expert in any of these subjects. I’ll read the initial article. It will fascinate me. I’ll read some more online. I’ll follow some links. But I assume I’ve made enormous errors in all three books. Some of them I know about. I found out that there was a real Sebastian, Florida that was in a different part of the state. That was kind of embarrassing, but on the other hand…

Correspondent: It’s fiction!

Mandel: It’s fiction.

Correspondent: It’s fiction. Exactly.

Mandel: Yeah. And there’s a car that doesn’t exist in Last Night in Montreal.

Correspondent: Which car?

Mandel: You know, it’s funny. It shows why you should always Google everything. I had these vivid childhood memories of our family’s first car being in a blue Ford Valiant. And that memory was so strong that I didn’t bother to look it up. It turns out the Valiant is made by Chrysler.

Correspondent: I see.

Mandel: So, you know, eight or ten people have helpfully pointed that out.

Correspondent: On the other hand…

Mandel: It’s fiction. (laughs)

Correspondent: Look, I will always remember the Durango 95 from Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Or rather the cinematic version of it. It just, for whatever reason, leaves a huge thumb out. And it’s possibly more real than any car I’ve driven in my life.

Mandel: Right.

Correspondent: Well, that’s quite interesting. I mean, speaking of cars, I wanted to ask you about the one common metaphor I’ve seen in the last two books. The trail of red taillights. And it pops up in this one again!

Mandel: Oh, does it?

Correspondent: It does.

Mandel: Oh, you’re right. I had taillights disappearing down Park Avenue at the same exact time. I completely forgot about that.

Correspondent: I’m wondering. You know, I was going to ask you about this. Should any writer repeat an image that is fond to her over the course of several books? What do you think about this?

Mandel: I think they probably should. And I think I did that by accident.

Correspondent: Okay. Well, what is it about the taillights that draws you?

Mandel: You know, there’s something beautiful about them. It’s a little wistful. We’re all going away.

Correspondent: Do you own a car?

Mandel: I do not. No, I’ve never learned how to drive.

Correspondent: But cars clearly are an interest of yours, I would think.

Mandel: To some extent. Cars are more — it’s more that they’re a little bit inevitable when you’re writing books that are set outside major cities. You have to move your characters around somehow.

Correspondent: I totally skimmed over the most interesting part. You never learned how to drive.

Mandel: I never did.

Correspondent: Really?

Mandel: No. So in Canada. I’m not sure if it’s the same here. You get your driver’s license at 16.

Correspondent: Yeah. Same here.

Mandel: So when I was sixteen, I didn’t really have access to a car. Because my parents used their cars all the time for their work. And then when I was eighteen, I moved to Toronto. So at that point, I was 3,000 miles away in a major city with a transit system. And I’ve just lived in big cities ever since. So it’s never really been a desire or an opportunity.

Correspondent: It hasn’t been a desire?

Mandel: It hasn’t been a desire.

Correspondent: I mean, I only drive if I have to go from city to city. But going on that road trip and cranking up music and going 90 miles per hour down a highway is a wonderful sensation.

Mandel: Right.

Correspondent: You’re missing out, Emily!

Mandel: But I love being a passenger in those situations. My husband…

Correspondent: Yeah. But driving, you have control. (laughs)

Mandel: That’s an excellent point. Maybe for the next book tour, I should. (laughs)

Correspondent: Okay. Well, that’s interesting. So you have no desire to get behind the wheel. I mean, this must affect your view of cities and your view of places. Do you think?

Mandel: To some extent.

Correspondent: We can go all Guy Debord if you like.

Mandel: Right.

Correspondent: I know you’re a big walker and so forth.

Mandel: I am.

Correspondent: Do you feel that not driving or not having a desire to drive gives you a connection with a place that hard-core driving does not? Have you thought about this?

Mandel: That’s interesting. I haven’t thought about that. You know, I’m not crazy about car culture. I grew up in a very rural place. You needed a car to get anywhere. And I visited a few cities where you needed a car to get anywhere. And it makes your life so inactive in a way. You know, I know a lot of people whose only real activity is going from home to the car and then from the car into the office. And vice versa at the end of the day. And I just prefer to be more — I don’t want to imply that they’re not engaged people in the world. But my preferred form of engagement with the world is doing a lot of walking and being out among people.

Correspondent: And the reading time on the subway too.

Mandel: Yeah. Exactly.

The Bat Segundo Show #461: Emily St. John Mandel (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: Robert A. Caro

Robert A. Caro appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #455. He is most recently the author of The Passage of Power.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Expressing his determination to keep the forward thrust of America began with notable historians.

Author: Robert A. Caro

Subjects Discussed: Lyndon B. Johnson as a great reader of men, Horace Busby, Johnson talking with people until he got what he wanted, Johnson’s misread of John F. Kennedy, the 1960 Presidential Election and Johnson’s self-sabotage streak in seeking the nomination, Emmett Till and Autherine Lucy, passing the 1957 Civil Rights Act, Jack Kennedy’s use of television, Johnson having his staff calculate the odds of a U.S. President dying in office, “power is where power goes,” Sam Rayburn, Johnson’s mode of desperation vs. Steve Jobs’s “reality distortion field,” Southerners as Presidents, Johnson’s decisiveness in the Senate, John Connally, Johnson’s fear of failure, Sam Houston, Johnson not wanting to be like his father, Johnson’s inability to stare physical reality in the face, smoking and fluctuating weight, challenging Arthur Schlesinger, Johnson being shut out from many of the key Kennedy meetings as Vice President, Johnson’s humiliations, LBJ being reduced to a “salesman for the administration,” the spiteful rivalry between Robert Kennedy and LBJ, character being a defining quality of politics, the importance of vote counting in Washington, Johnson as Senate Majority Leader, Johnson’s preying upon the loneliness of old men, Richard Russell, the Armed Service Committee, Johnson’s manipulation of Russell on civil rights and the Warren Commission, how Southern Senators were duped into believing that Johnson was against civil rights, the phone call in which Johnson forced Russell into the Warren Commission, how Johnson preyed on older men to get what he wanted, Kennedy’s tax bill, how Johnson worked on Harry Byrd, how Johnson dealt with human beings, the impact of personality on policy, Johnson’s terrible treatment of Pierre Salinger, Johnson bullying his subordinates, what Caro found the hardest to write about, triumphs of willpower, Johnson’s involvement with Bobby Baker, the Bobby Baker scandal, the surprising sensitivity with which the media handled Johnson’s corruption after the Kennedy assassination, the Life investigative team on Johnson (as well as Senate investigation), the lowering of the Presidency because of Johnson, some hints about Volume V, and Johnson’s legacy.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You challenge in this book Arthur Schlesigner’s long-standing notion about the relation between Kennedy and Johnson. Now Johnson is in the vice presidential seat. Schelsinger’s idea was that, well, Kennedy was absolutely fond, genial, and generous. The vice president was included in most of the major meetings. And then, of course, we read this chapter “Genuine Warmth” and we find out, well, wait a minute! That’s not always the case. According to Ted Sorenson, Johnson was shut out from a pivotal ExCom decision, a decision meeting relating to the Cuban Missile Crisis. And that also is in large part because Johnson is a bit hawkish to say the least. So my question is: why has the lens of history been so keen to favor the Schlesigner viewpoint? And what was the first key fact that you uncovered that made you say to yourself, “Well, this isn’t exactly true”? What caused you to start prying further and further? That caused you to think, well, things are not all wine and roses.

Caro: Well, you know, part of it was that as soon as you start to look at Johnson and the Kennedys, you hear about the nickname that the Kennedy people called him. “Rufus Cornpone.”

Correspondent: That’s right.

Caro: “Uncle Cornpone.” “Uncle Rufus.” You know, they coined phrases for Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird. They used to call them “Uncle Cornpone and His Little Pork Chop.” Then you ask someone like Ted Sorensen, who helped me immensely. He was the person probably closest to Kennedy in the administration.

Correspondent: You spent a lot of time with him.

Caro: I spent a lot of time with Ted. And he said, yes, as has previously been said, Johnson was included in all the big meetings, the Cabinet meetings, the National Security meetings. But in the Kennedy government, those weren’t the meetings that mattered. The meetings that mattered were the small little groups that Kennedy would convene. And Johnson wasn’t invited to those. You know, when the 1963 Civil Rights Act is introduced by the Kennedys and Johnson has to say to Ted Sorensen — we happen to have a recording — “You know, I don’t know what’s in this act. I have to read about it in The New York Times.” The greatest legislator possibly of the century, the greatest legislator of the 20th century is not consulted on Kennedy’s legislation.

Correspondent: Why then has the Schlesinger lens been allowed to proliferate for so long? That’s the real question.

Caro: Well, I don’t know that it’s just the Schlesinger lens.

Correspondent: Or this idea.

Caro: I really can’t answer that question. But when you talk to the surviving Kennedy people — like Sorensen — when you read their oral histories, you see it’s simply not true. I mean, Horace Busby talks basically about going to see Sorensen one day and asking, “Well, what role do you want Lyndon Johnson to play in this administration?” And Sorensen says, “Salesman for the administration.” I mean, this is Lyndon Johnson, who is to be the salesman for the administration. Johnson says to an aide, Harry McPherson — you know, they’ve turned the legislative duties over to Larry O’Brien. Johnson says, “You know, O’Brien hasn’t been to see me to ask advice once in two years.” So it’s undeniable that Johnson was shut out from Kennedy’s legislative processes and from the Cuban Missile Crisis — the key meeting of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He’s not invited to it.

Correspondent: I know. It’s really amazing. One of the other great showdowns in this book — the great clash is between Bobby Kennedy and Johnson. I mean, you want to talk about cats and dogs, these two guys were it. You have their first meeting in the Senate cafeteria in 1953 where Kennedy was glowering at Johnson and forced to shake his hand. Then years later, Johnson is Vice President. And he’s largely powerless as we’ve been establishing here. He serves on the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. And Bobby Kennedy shows up late, humiliates him over two meetings.

Caro: Yeah.

Correspondent: And then on the Saturday after the Kennedy assassination, there’s this misunderstanding over how the West Wing is going to be cleared out and ready for Johnson. There’s this very tense meeting not long after. But Johnson is in this interesting predicament of having to maintain the Kennedy faction all through Election Day in 1964. Yet he also tests the waters a bit with the Thomas Mann nomination. So my question is: was there any hope of Bobby Kennedy and Johnson putting aside their differences? What factors do you think caused Bobby to acquiesce to Johnson for the good of the nation while Johnson was President?

Caro: Well, he doesn’t always acquiesce.

Correspondent: Sure.

Caro: We see him breaking with him strongly over Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 and running for the nomination. I mean, when Bobby Kennedy enters the race, Lyndon Johnson bows out basically. You know, people don’t understand, in my opinion, enough. And I try to explain in my books how personality, how character, has so much to do with politics and government. And with Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, whatever the reasons are, at bottom you have this personal hostility. You talked about the first meeting. You know, this first meeting is when Lyndon Johnson is the Leader. He is the mighty Leader. Bobby Kennedy — I think he’s 27. And he’s just gone to work for Senator Joe McCarthy as a staffer. So Joe McCarthy — the Senate cafeteria is on the second floor of the Senate Office Building. And every morning, Johnson goes in there to have breakfast with his aides. And Joe McCarthy is sitting every morning at this big round table near the cashier with four or five or six of his aides, you know. And every time Johnson comes in, McCarthy jumps up as everyone does to Johnson and says, “Hello, Mister Leader. Can I have a few moments of your time, Mr. Leader? Good work yesterday, Mr. Leader.” One morning, there’s a new staffer there. It’s Robert Kennedy. Johnson walked over. Senator McCarthy jumps up. And so, as always, do all his staffers. Except one. Robert Kennedy, his 27-year-old staffer, sits there glaring at Johnson. Johnson knows how to handle situations like this. He holds out his hand to everybody sort of halfway out and forces Bobby Kennedy to stand up and take his hand. And George Reedy said to me — I said, “What was behind that?” George Reedy said, “You know, you ever see two dogs come into a room that never met each other and the hair rises on the back of their neck immediately and there’s a low growl?” That was the relationship between Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Of course, there were other reasons. Robert Kennedy was very attached and devoted to his father, Joseph Kennedy.

Correspondent: Sure.

Caro: And Johnson, who was close to Roosevelt, was always repeating these stories about Roosevelt firing Joe Kennedy, tricking him into coming back to Washington from England, and then firing him. Making him look bad. So I think that Robert Kennedy hated him for that. But it’s not too strong a word to use hatred for what was going on between Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. And, you know, at the convention, one of Johnson’s assistants, Bobby Baker, he thinks everything’s just politics. So he’s having breakfast in a coffee shop in Los Angeles at the convention. He sees Bobby Kennedy come in and says, “How about sitting down?” He’s Bobby Baker, sitting with his wife, having breakfast. Bobby Kennedy sits down. But within two minutes, he’s up. And he throws money on the table. And he says to Baker, “Don’t worry. You’ll get yours when the time comes.” Well, the time came. Johnson was Jack Kennedy’s Vice President. Bobby Kennedy has, in effect, power over him. And he makes life miserable for Lyndon Johnson.

Correspondent: What you said at the beginning of this, about character being a defining quality of politics. I mean, Johnson, as you establish in this book and in Master of the Senate, is a master vote counter. He has his tally sheets when he’s in the Senate. He’s going ahead and making sure he knows exactly how things line up. In this book, you point out during the wheat bill that not only does he want enough votes to make the wheat bill [an amendment from Sen. Karl Mundt banning sale of surplus wheat from Russia] die. He wants it murdered, as he says. So the question I have. He may have been a master vote counter. But how much character did he need to go along with that? Was vote counting enough for him? Was that relentless drive just as much of a quality as the sheer statistician approach that he had?

Caro: It was never a sheer statistician, of course.

Correspondent: Of course.

Caro: He was a great legislator. Listen. A key thing in politics is the ability to count. And Johnson was the great counter. He’d send aides to find out how senators were going to vote. So sometimes someone would come back. Usually they didn’t do this more. They said, “I think Senator X is going to vote this way.” Johnson would say, “What good is thinking to me? I need to know.” He never wanted to lose a vote. So vote counting. He was the great vote counter. He’s a young Congressman. He comes to Washington. He’s 29 years old. He falls in with this group of New Dealers, who later become famous. Abe Fortas. Jim Rowe. “Tommy the Cork” Corcoran. These are guys who live and breathe politics. And do you know what they do when they have a dinner party on Saturday night? They get together for dinner. They count votes. They say, “How is Roosevelt’s bill on this going to be?” And Johnson, they said, was always right. We might think this Senator was going to vote this way. Johnson always knew. He was the greatest vote counter. And when he was in the Senate, he was the greatest vote counter of them all. But that’s not all of why Johnson was great. Johnson was this master on the Senate floor. He got through amendments. And there’s the base. And there’s shouting back and forth. He can seize the moment. He sees the moment where he can win. And he acts decisively. He says, “Call the vote.” And he’s Majority Leader. And he would stand there at the Majority Leader’s desk. So he’s towering over everybody else’s front row center desk. He’s got this big arm in the air. And if he’s got the votes, he wants the vote fast before anyone can change. Or maybe some other people on the other side are absent and not there. He makes little circles on his hands, like someone revving up an airplane, to get the clerk to call the rolls faster. And if one of his votes wasn’t there, and he was being rushed from somewhere in a car across Washington, he would make a stretching motion with his hands. He ran this. There were a lot of things that went into Johnson’s dominance of the Senate.

The Bat Segundo Show #455: Robert A. Caro (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Stewart O’Nan II

Stewart O’Nan appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #454. He is most recently the author of The Odds. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #161. You can also read our lengthy conversation by email in 2011. This 2012 talk was recorded before a live audience at McNally Jackson. My gratitude to Michele Filgate, Langan Kingsley, Holly Watson, and, of course, Stewart O’Nan for their help in putting this event together.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Inexplicably hungering for Wendy’s hamburgers.

Author: Stewart O’Nan

Subjects Discussed: [forthcoming later this afternoon]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Niagara Falls. Here is a location that’s loaded with all sorts of associations. Joyce Carol Oates wrote a book there.

O’Nan: The Falls.

Correspondent: Yes, exactly.

O’Nan: Yes, I was introduced the other night as “the author of The Falls.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

O’Nan: And I was like, “Not that prolific.” Not nearly.

Correspondent: (laughs) Well, you are churning them out one a year.

O’Nan: Oh thank you. Churning them out. You said cranking before.

Correspondent: Crafting! Cranking, churning. All right. But they’re short! They’re short.

O’Nan: They’re tiny.

Correspondent: There’s craftsmanship in there. Don’t worry.

O’Nan: I understand.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering. You’re taking a location that’s loaded with all sorts of cultural baggage. There’s that Marilyn Monroe/Joseph Cotten film.

O’Nan: Gotta love it.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering. Here you are taking two characters and putting them in a touristy location. I’m wondering if you did that to work up against limitations and see what kind of behavior you could mine based off of that. I’m wondering why you chose this. What was the process of selecting the Ice Bridge or the details of the customs location? What went into nailing Niagara?

O’Nan: Well, it’s a ready made stage. Usually when I take on an area or a setting, it’s virgin territory in a way. Conneaut, Ohio. Kingsville in Songs for the Missing. No one’s ever written about that in any kind of novel. Western Pennsylvania. Butler, PA in 1974. So I always say I’ve written the best Butler, Pennsylvania novel ever written.

Correspondent: (laughs)

O’Nan: Or Avon, Connecticut. Usually these are overlooked places. Like New Britain, Connecticut, that Last Night at the Lobster takes place in. I write in that interzone, that nowhere America of strip malls. It has been kicked around forever. But in the new book, I thought, let’s focus solely on the characters and put them on a stage that everybody knows. So I don’t have to do that disorienting, here is the place that you don’t know and now I’m going to tell you about it. So I had a little less responsibility to the setting and I could spend a little bit more time on the characters.

Correspondent: I have to ask you about the odds as chapter headers for all of these. Some are, in fact, true. “Odds of a black number coming up in roulette: 1 in 2.06.” I Wikipediaed that. Some are unscientifically true. “Odds of a marriage proposal being accepted: 1 in 1.001.” So I’m wondering. How many odds did you collect? I mean, I’m wondering if you were sitting on a bunch of odds sets.

O’Nan: Yes. Yes.

Correspondent: You were?

O’Nan: Yes, I was. And I was trying to figure out: How do I weave these into the book and what effect are they going to have when I get them in there? And they seemed to me to work. When I thought of using them rather than chapter headings, in the way I did with, say, Emily or in Songs of the Missing, I saw them as how the chapter headings are in something like Blood Meridian or in, say, 19th century fiction work, which is “In this chapter I am eaten by sharks.” And before you even get into the chapter, you’re like, “Oh sharks! This could be cool!” So it kind of brings the reader and it gives them an expectation of what may happen in this chapter. Not necessarily has to happen. But it may happen. The odds of dying in a bus crash. Whoa! There might be a bus crash. I’ll stick around and find out.

Correspondent: It’s interesting. Because here you are in one sense messing with the reader for the first ten pages, repelling them, and then on this, you’re subverting their expectations. It’s actually, “Ooh! I want to continue to read this chapter.”

O’Nan: Well, you hope.

Correspondent: What of this bipolar approach to fiction writing?

O’Nan: Flannery O’Cononr. Flannery O’Connor said, “Distract them and hit them over the head.” Absolutely right. Absolutely right. Give them a reason to come into the place. A Prayer for the Dying. The opening sections are very — it’s a terrible thing to say, very beautifully written. I use the language. I make the beauty of the language a key thing to hang into. And so the reader gets rewarded somehow. And by the time they have to go through the book, they’re kind of stuck. They’re like, “Well, I don’t really want to hang around and watch this guy go crazy while I’m inside of his mind.” Well, it’s too late. So like Poe, say, in “The Black Cat.” Once you get them in the door, then after a certain point, they’re kind of yours. They have to follow along. Or you hope so. You always hope so.

Correspondent: I’m curious if the odds sets actually were methods for you to riff off of Art and Marion. If you were stuck at a certain place. Is this a point? I mean, you’re a former engineer. I presume that this was either heavily designed. Or were there false starts? And did the odds help you in anything?

O’Nan: No. There weren’t a whole lot of false starts. I knew the characters very well before I opened up. It’s also a small novel. It’s very much sort of a drawing room novel in a way. It’s the one weekend. You’ve got the unity of place. The unity of time. You’ve got a lot of pressure on them from the memories. This is their second honeymoon. They’re in Niagara Falls. And you have the time pressure of, well, at some point, they’re going to have to put their money down on the wheel. And they’re always kind of at odds with one another. They’re always picking at one another. So I had a lot to work with. The plates were already spinning when I started getting into it.

Correspondent: I wanted to also ask you. One interesting thing that you also do with Marion is body image. She doesn’t like Art to see her undress. And in one of the passages you’re going to read tonight, the only thing you mention is her stomach. We actually don’t really know what she looks like physically. So I’m wondering if this is a method for you to not reveal certain details to the reader or this reflects your relationship to the reader. Is this your way to protect your own characters? To not divulge all? Or is this your way to encourage judgment? Perception on the reader’s behalf?

O’Nan: This is more to encourage the reader to join in the process of creating the work. And I don’t say what the character looks like unless it’s really necessary to the arc of the story there. So what the characters look like is completely up to the reader there. And I leave judgment to the reader. I don’t try to steer the reader too much in terms of who’s good, who’s bad, who’s right, who’s wrong. And it’s always sort of that inkblot that shows how generous the reader can be or how, on the flip side, how stingy they can be. “I hate Marion. I hate her so much.” It’s like, “Easy there, lady. Easy there.”

Correspondent: Have you had this happen before?

O’Nan: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: Wow. Really?

O’Nan: In Wichita of all places.

Correspondent: Wichita!

O’Nan: “I didn’t like her.” Well, that’s good. That’s your prerogative. That’s fine. That’s you.

Correspondent: You know, one of the interesting things — I’ve read a number of reviews of this book. And they actually don’t mention, for example, Karen or these two characters who are having affairs with the couple. And I’m curious about this. Maybe this relates to this issue of giving the reader something. Maybe they don’t want to talk about this aspect of Art and Marion. What do you think of this?

O’Nan: Yeah. I think they want to key more on Art and Marion and just say, “Look, there are problems in the marriage.” And this is how they work them out over this weekend. Or don’t work them out.

Correspondent: Inevitably, because you do deal with Heart, I have to bring up celebrity gossip.

O’Nan: Heart.

Correspondent: So in late 2010, Nancy Wilson and Cameron Crowe initiated divorce proceedings. It was a great shocker to certain waves.

O’Nan: So sad. They had everything going for them, didn’t they? They did.

Correspondent: Yeah. I’m wondering if you including the Heart concert before or after you heard this news. Or if you possibly predicted this dissolution in anyway. I mean, what of this?

O’Nan: I don’t know.

Correspondent: Some sort of angle here.

O’Nan: No. I don’t know. It’s accidental subtext, I guess. I guess it happens from time to time.

Correspondent: Another silly question. Wendy is a character. And I have to ask you, and I know this is really pedantic, but I have noticed in all of your books — nearly all of your books — there’s a moment where someone eats Wendy’s. A Wendy’s hamburger.

O’Nan: Really?

Correspondent: But not, not in The Odds. The last time I saw this was Last Night at the Lobster. There was a Wendy’s moment. It was the Stewart O’Nan Wendy’s moment!

O’Nan: He doesn’t go to Wendy’s.

Correspondent: Oh, he doesn’t go to Wendy’s?

O’Nan: He decides not to go to Wendy’s.

Correspondent: But he does actually consider it!

O’Nan: This is a climax. This is a climax in an actual work of fiction. “Want to go to Wendy’s? Nah.”

Correspondent: Do you eat at Wendy’s quite a bit?

O’Nan: No. Maybe that’s it. Maybe I want to eat at Wendy’s more. I can see my biographer doing a lot on Wendy’s now. A map of all the Wendy’s around my house.

(Photo credit: Here)

The Bat Segundo Show: Tom Bissell, Part Two

Tom Bissell appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #450. He is most recently the author of Magic Hours. This is the second of a two-part conversation. The first part establishes Bissell’s peripatetic history and gets into his recent shift into video games, and can be listened to here. The second part gets into some entirely unanticipated truths about the relationship between life and words in 2012, among many other subjects.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Making the unanticipated five year wait count for something.

Author: Tom Bissell

Subjects Discussed: How Bissell’s father was depicted in Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, being a man with the average sadnesses, how assembling an essay collection allows one to see a life history, Bissell becoming comfortable in not presenting himself as a Wallace-like buffoon, early self-serious days working at a literary house, watching Jeff Daniels make a movie, cringing at your earlier work while reading it before a large crowd, not succumbing to glumness, abandoning the puckish but tart essays, finding humor in Werner Herzog, Bissell’s confessional streak, the lightning bolts of personal revelation, being powerless to make moves in an essay, the diminishing covenant of privacy between author and reader, the creative impact of assuming that most readers are coming into an essay for the first time, unearned intimacy, John D’Agata, not writing magazine journalism in present tense, when bad boy memoirs become ghoulish in changing tense, distinguishing one’s self from the compulsively confessional, maintaining a low-key online presence, responsibility on the page, deleted tweets, when people remark upon and say mean things about you online, the perils of Twitter Search, negative Goodreads reviews, taking on Robert D. Kaplan in Chasing the Sea and in Magic Hours, being angered by Imperial Grunts, rescuing Paula Fox, the Underground Literary Alliance, Bissell’s crusading impulses, writing negative reviews in the New York Times Book Review, Scott Spencer, recusing yourself from reviewing, getting into an online skirmish with Jorge Volpi over a Season of Ash review, putting away the remnants of Bissell’s mean streak, underrepresented voices vs. bad writing, George Plimpton’s invitation to the ULA, finding ways to calm down “boors” and be inclusive of more outsiders in the literary community, King Wenclas as a room wrecker, common embitterment about the publishing system, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, good writing and sincerity, being a “literary insider,” tolerating bad behavior, needless competition within the literary world, star systems within the publishing industry, varying notions of success, the dubious monolithic stature of The New York Times Book Review, Bissell’s negative review of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, whether we should give a damn about critical culture in 2012, James Wood, Dwight Macdonald’s “By Cozzens Possessed,” whether literary culture is more healthier than ever or starving, Dan Josefson’s That’s Not a Feeling, the problems with too many long-form online critical mechanisms, how the group blog made keeping tabs on culture a full-time job, how the Internet has altered time commitments and responsibilities, the future of Bissell’s fiction, listening to the world in a smartphone age as an eccentric or subversive act, how brains are rewired by electronic interfaces, false blame on video games, A Clockwork Orange, the impact of newspaper headline editors, chewing nicotine, obsessiveness, using words like “nummular,” learning 50 Uzbek words a day, achievements and gamification, setting goals, writing about The Room, “Bissellmania,” Jim Harrison, and the creative benefits of being in a stable relationship.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: In The Father of All Things, you remarked on how your father was depicted in Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, where Caputo, he remarks that your father is very funny in telling all these jokes to the other soldiers in the face of tragedy. You wrote back then, “I saw the still normal man my father could have become, a man with the average sadnesses.” I’m wondering if assembling the essays for this collection was in some weird way an effort to look at yourself in the same way. Do you feel that you saw a younger Tom with these average sadnesses or anything like this? Some image of what your life could have become? I mean, I also note this because there’s an interesting sentence you write in “Unflowered Aloes” — the first essay, the youngest one — where you say, “For intellectuals, destiny as it applies to life is a ludicrous thought. But destiny as it applies to works of fiction and poetry goes largely unquestioned.” So do you subscribe to any peculiar destiny these days? What of this?

Bissell: The earlier essays are the ones that I was most hesitant to include in the book at all. They’re basically — I’m sure you think this way when you look at your own stuff that’s older than, say, five years. Basically, it’s a stranger’s work, right? And I once imagined that if I ever did a nonfiction thing, I’d have all the pieces that I’d ever wrote and it would be a big chunky thing. No one wanted to do that obviously. There’s a lot of essays that I could have included, but I didn’t. Just because they were so sloppy in their thinking and they were so — what I’m saying now gets into self-congratulatory territory. Because the presupposition is that your recent work is not perfect. And that’s not what I’m trying to say. But I think you can see in the essays, and I noticed this when I was going over them, is a journey from someone who has become gradually more comfortable not presenting himself as a [DAvid Foster] Wallace-like buffoon, and actually becoming someone who is able to be present in a piece, and I hope be honest and not have these kind of ridiculous squirting boutonniere moments where you’re somewhat desperately trying to get the reader’s affection and attention. So I think I’ve become a less needy presence. And I think my interests — I feel like when I’m talking about intellectuals in that first piece, I mean, all the stuff I said, I more or less believe. I was a somewhat self-serious person then. And I was working for this literary house. And you can see the tone varies in a lot of the pieces. The tone is often directly reflective of where I was living even physically, and the experiences I’d gone through. And maybe the more average experiences I’d had until that point, I think there’s a temptation to actually make more of your experience than can really be made of it. And the Escanaba essay, which is the second essay in the book about watching Jeff Daniels make this movie about my hometown, I read it aloud at Bookcourt the other night. And I kind of kept stopping and apologizing to the audience almost for the histrionic tone. (laughs)

Correspondent: I think most writers of personal journalism or confessional essays tend to do that — especially if it’s been a long while. I know Jonathan Ames does that. I’ve seen other writers do that.

Bissell: Well, I’m glad I’m not alone then.

Correspondent: They’re embarrassed. “Oh my god. I can’t believe I wrote this about myself.” I think that’s a very human reaction. But on the other hand, I mean I have to say, if the yardstick here in comparison to your father is yourself, do you see the typical sadnesses at all that you saw as Caputo depicted your father? Or anything like that?

Bissell: I don’t know. I do know that in some of the experiences I had immediately after September 11th, then covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I became a lot more concerned with making my work as funny as possible. (laughs) And maybe that was just an attempt to not succumb to a kind of glumness about — oh, this is just veering off into territory that I’m not even sure I understand. But I became way less interested in the kind of essay I would have written — like “Unflowered Aloes.” A puckish but tart stately essay, right? And I just became more interested in stuff that puts it out there on the line emotionally, but is primarily concerned with exploring the absurd and the humorous parts of these people. And I try to do that even in the Werner Herzog essay, which — he’s not the easiest subject in the world to wring a lot of humor out of. But I don’t know. I’m not sure. I feel like I have not answered your question at all.

Correspondent: Well, this is actually all good. Maybe another way to phrase it is this. I mean, there seems to me to have always been some interesting confessional streak in your writing. I think of when you finally spill about your fiancée in Chasing the Sea. I think, of course, of the ultimate example. It’s probably the last chapter in Extra Lives. I think of your decision in the Jim Harrison essay to basically announce at the end, “I’m giving up teaching.” These are really bold — I mean, very bold, quite frankly — ways to find a personal connection into someone who you clearly revere or some thing — like Grand Theft Auto — that you clearly revere. And I’m wondering. Why do you feel this need to do this? And why has it been blowing up with, I suppose, even more extraordinary pronouncement? “Hey, I went ahead and had this coke breakdown.” Or “I am packing up my life entirely and maybe if you follow me in the next essay, I’ll tell you how things are going.”

Bissell: (laughs)

Correspondent: It also causes, at least this reader, to say, “Fuck! I hope Tom is okay!” (laughs)

Bissell: (laughs)

Correspondent: So my question is: is this an effort to draw either longtime or short-term readers into what you’re doing? Does it provide a greater authenticity? Is it a way of shaking off the sort of smarmy, sort of semi-self-confident guy in “Unflowered Aloes”? What of this? Why?

Bissell: I think some of this must come from having started as a fiction writer and being profoundly uninterested in nonfiction for a long time. And so when you’re writing fiction, there are these lightning bolts of revelation from your own life, your own experience, that are being superinjecting that into the story or paragraph you’re working on. It’s easy to do in fiction. Because no one asks any questions, right? But that electricity is actually what gives fiction its texture. And without that sensed personal connection between writer and material, even if it’s not autobiographical material, there’s that electric sense that this voice knows of what it speaks. And for me, informational nonfiction, nonfiction that doesn’t have an identifiable human being in it, I mean, I could not care less about reading that stuff. And so I realize I confess things in my pieces not out of any real objective or desire. It just seems to be the move that I’m driven to make. Like I didn’t have any idea when I was writing the Grand Theft Auto essay that I was even going to get into my collapse. Into cocaine. No idea. I just started writing the essay and it just started coming out. I didn’t even know that I was going to get into the quitting my teaching thing literally until the moment I got there. So, believe it or not, those moves are like — I’m almost powerless to not do them in some strange way. They’re never — and here’s my defense. Teaching doesn’t come up in that whole essay until the very end. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs)

Bissell: So I hope structurally I’m proving my point. And I could have gone back.

Correspondent: But in an age of Google, I mean, we can find out. The reader can find out. “Oh, Tom was teaching somewhere. Wait. What the hell? He’s no longer teaching and he’s telling us this in his essay?” I mean, part of me almost wants to say, in an age where that covenant of author-reader privacy is diminishing, where the author is now expected to tell everything about himself — because everybody is spilling everything about themselves on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr, on whatever — I’m uncomfortable with that idea too. Because I feel, well, why must the author confess everything? Unless it’s pertinent to the piece. This is why I say to myself, well, the bigger leap. If you don’t know where it comes from, and it sometimes gets out there, well, it seems like you’re working in terrain that’s very uncontrolled. What do you do to make sure you don’t say too much?

Bissell: Decorum. My girlfriend. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs) What army? What vanguard is there to prevent you? “Hey, Tom, you can’t say this!”

Bissell: Well, I think that less than 1% of my readers are keeping track of me, right? And so in one sense, I’m assuming that everyone who reads something of mine is coming to me for the first time. And so I don’t presume that they have any concern for what’s going on before with me. And especially with my video game book, I think a lot of people read it not even knowing that I had this career as a literary writer before that. So I’m just assuming that the slate is blank. And I guess maybe these bombs get dropped in there to assert some kind of — well, I guess it’s reasserting the pact of intimacy between the reader and the writer. And that intimacy is not always there in nonfiction. It’s not even really expected. And what’s weird is that, as a nonfiction writer, you start off with this utterly unearned intimacy. Which is the intimacy that, well, I’m telling you the truth. And that’s the moral bond between the nonfiction reader and the nonfiction writer. “What I’m telling you is true.” And so you start on this very intimate terrain. And then I think a lot of nonfiction writers never really wander off that terrain. That that’s enough. And for me, it’s not enough.

Correspondent: On the other hand, the extreme version of that would be someone like John D’Agata or Mike Daisey, who basically throw that trust into the water and piss a lot of people off and perhaps, depending upon where your point of view is, destroy their credibility as someone who can share a story or who can even share some acceptable version of the truth, if that makes any sense. It seems to me that your confessional streak is both bomb-dropping but also just enough for us to maintain that covenant. Yet I know you’ve also taught About a Mountain at Portland. And so forth. So do you see yourself possibly entering into “Hey! I really wasn’t telling the truth about this. Fuck you.”

Bissell: (laughs) Well, here’s an interesting point that I will make that I will stand by. I never anymore write magazine pieces in the kind of magazine journalism present tense. Ever. I kind of loathe the nonfiction present tense. And I loathe it because — especially if you’re writing about yourself — when you write in the present tense, you are almost foreclosing any possibility of reflection. And you almost don’t have to account for your decisions or your behavior. And that’s why all bad behavior memoirs are always written in the present tense. “I slapped the hooker. And then I did another line. And then I staggered out and slept with the cab driver.” Now: “I slap the hooker, step outside. I snort another line of coke. I sit down with the cab driver.” No. I’m doing this in present tense. But you turn that into past tense and suddenly it doesn’t work anymore. Now it just seems ghoulish and there’s no sensationalistic fizziness to it. And you just have a reader that’s just saying, “Well, wait a minute? Why did you do these things?” Right? So you’ll notice that I never ever, ever write in the present tense when it comes to nonfiction. And I really, really strive when I do go into confessional mode to keep part of the partition up. I have no interest in revealing the details of my life if they’re not relevant to what I’m actually writing about. And I hope that would distinguish me from some people who seem compulsively confessional. That I would like to think that the stuff that I’m letting loose has a direct emotional bearing on the material that’s under investigation.

(Photo: Trisha Miller)

The Bat Segundo Show #450: Tom Bissell, Part Two (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Tom Bissell, Part One

Tom Bissell appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #449. He is most recently the author of Magic Hours. This is the first of a two-part conversation. The first part establishes Bissell’s peripatetic history and gets into his recent shift into video games. The second part gets into some entirely unanticipated truths about the relationship between life and words in 2012, among many other subjects, and can be listened to here.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Making the unanticipated five year wait count for something.

Author: Tom Bissell

Subjects Discussed: Living a peripatetic vocational existence, how receiving fellowships and jobs influence the city you live in, Ghostbusters references, moving and books, the joys of New York City, Bissell’s interest in recreations (film, video games, and photography), Grand Theft Auto, Uzbekistan, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Chuck Lorre, the restrictions of celebrity profiles, getting fired from My Little Pony, David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction, getting fired and removed from video game projects, writing for video games, why Bissell can’t quit video games (despite his best efforts), video game script formats, how screenplays and comic book scripts found their way into bookstores, Alan Moore’s meticulous description, communicating with level designers, attempting to form paragraphs within Excel spreadsheets, the dignified advantages of a screenplay over a video game script, the joys of playing builds, the ephemeral nature of video games, Baldur’s Gate II‘s enhanced edition, splitting duties between video game writing and nonfiction writing, Planescape: Torment, Sam Anderson’s article on “stupid games,” the addictive nature of games and smartphones, when video games suck significant portions of your time, Pac-Man’s strange perseverance, how graphical enhancement creates unanticipated obsolescence, trying to watch VHS tapes in a DVD age, the epic poem’s lifespan, when forms of communication stop being useful, downloadable content, grinding and monetization, Tribes: Ascend, finding artistic integrity within a money-making medium, Emily Dickinson, Jonathan Blow, and false impressions about teaching.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Let’s start with the first sentence of this book. I think it’s a pretty telling notion that the author’s note is: “The first essay in this collection was written by a 25-year-old assistant editor living in New York City and the last was written by a 37-year-old assistant professor of English living in Portland, Oregon.” Now this is interesting because you are now no longer living in Portland, Oregon. You are now no longer an assistant professor. I read an interview you did with Owen King and I learned that, in fact, your video game script writing is also in this tetchy peripatetic vocational mode. So my question to you is, well, what do you think accounts for this existence? Were the early roots basically set down with this whole aborted Peace Corps stint? I mean, what of this? What do you think accounts for this constant travel on your end?

Bissell: I guess — I lived in New York City for nine years with a couple stints away. One in which I spent seven months living in Vietnam. I spent a summer in the Canadian Arctic. So I’d live in New York City and then go to places and spend time there. And then I won the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rome Prize, which is a great thing. But it also kind of wrecked my life in some very curious way. I mean, I don’t want to say that to give the impression that I’m not hugely grateful and it’s not an amazing prize. But from there, I wound up moving out of New York without ever really meaning to. And then I lived in Rome for a while. And then I got this fellowship. Then I moved to Vegas. And then I decided that I wanted to move to Estonia. And then that didn’t go well. And then I decided, “Oh, I need to get a job.” So I got a job as a professor at a time where it was really hard to get them. So then when I was offered this thing, I was like, “Oh god. Gotta take it. Gotta take it.” You know, economic downturn. Apocalypse coming. Cats and dogs living together. You know. That’s a Ghostbusters reference.

Correspondent: Of course. I got it.

Bissell: (laughs) For the audience.

Correspondent: Well, unlike William Atherton, you do have a penis. (laughs) I’m sorry.

Bissell: You’ve just doubled down on my Ghostbusters reference. So I moved to Portland thinking that this was where I was going to be for a while. And for various reasons, it just didn’t take. So I recognized that this was a chaotic last few years that I had as a person and as a writer. It hadn’t felt that chaotic. Every step that I’ve taken has kind of been, well, this is obviously what I have to do. But looked at objectively, I mean, I can’t believe I’ve written anything. Considering the amount of places. Moving. As I get older, I just get more and more books. So my girlfriend and I just moved to Los Angeles. And the movers, when they greeted us, they were like very hostile right away.

Correspondent: Hostile.

Bissell: Why were these guys so mad at me?

Correspondent: Books? (laughs)

Bissell: (laughs) Yeah. Because of the books.

Correspondent: Yeah, I know. Having moved many times myself, that’s always the pain in the ass right there.

Bissell: Yeah, man. For the first time in my life, for the first time in my life, I was like, “Yeah, I think Kindles might make sense.”

Correspondent: Because you might move next year.

Bissell: Because I might move. So now, if I had my druthers, I would live in New York City again.

Correspondent: But you live in L.A. right now.

Bissell: We live in L.A.

Correspondent: How long do you think that will last?

Bissell: I’m determined to live there for at least several years. And we’ll see. We’ll see.

Correspondent: But the peripatetic picaresque instinct might actually seize you again? Is this something you can entirely tame? Do you think?

Bissell: I can’t. Because, like I said, New York is the only place that’s ever never stopped boring me. And I get bored in places. And then I want to be somewhere else. And New York is really the one city that I never got sick of. Just even going back here, walking around, it’s just the most amazing place. And every neighborhood — and I’m sounding like just a hackneyed New York-loving cliche monger right now. But every neighborhood you walk through is interesting and there’s just — you never get tired here. You never get tired of it.

Correspondent: Well, let’s look at this from another point of view through the writing. In this book, you have “Escanaba’s Magic Hour,” which demonstrates how the re-creation of this real world on film leads to some problems. Because there are these stiff regulatory pronouncements upon the Escanabans. Is that how I would say it? Escanabans?

Bissell: Escanabans.

Correspondent: Okay. Fantastic. Don’t want to be rebuked by a local. (laughs)

Bissell: Escanabianite.

Correspondent: Yes! Exactly. It’s interesting that you ended up talking with Herzog when you did. Because Rescue Dawn — is that not a re-creation of a quasi-re-creation? Then you also, of course, pieced together details from your family of this photo in The Father of All Things. And then, if we go ahead and factor in your stints in Uzbekistan, the trip to Vietnam, being embedded with the Marines in 2005, much of this also involves some effort on your part to try and find a relationship with the real world. Now, with video games, much of your time, I would say, is spent working on fictitious worlds. You know, you describe the world of Grand Theft Auto IV at the end of Extra Lives: “as real as Liberty City seems, you have no hope of even figuratively living within it.” So I have to ask you about this. If Edmund Wilson said that the human imagination has already come to conceive the possibility of recreating human society, how does your imagination work? Why these efforts to take stabs at re-creation over the years? That’s a rather enormous question. But I wanted to see if we could roll the ball.

Bissell: No, no. And this is where I think you’re really onto something. I think some people — the conventionally-minded readers — would look at my interest in something like Grand Theft Auto, having started off as a travel writer to “real” places, would look at this as a kind of alarming drop in quality control on my part. But I’m really interested in travel, both literal and figurative. Right? And I’d like to think my books — and this is something I’ve consciously tried to create in my books — is a sense of realities within realities. And that photo thing that you mentioned, which is at the beginning of The Father of All Things, which is this book I wrote about my dad and my relationship, and his relationship to Vietnam, and a generational relationship to war that we both had a different version of that — and I took this photo and basically jammed a 100 page section out of just looking at this photo. And I don’t think that’s terribly different from my interest in video games in a weird way. I don’t think it’s that different from planting yourself in a place like Uzbekistan, which I didn’t really have any right to write about, you know.

Correspondent: Do you still feel that now?

Bissell: Yeah. Yeah. You know, as a nonfiction writer who’s — I’m not an expert on anything. I’m just interested in a bunch of stuff. And sometimes those interests fade.

Correspondent: But aren’t those interests enough? Isn’t that curiosity the ultimate drive that causes you to recreate in some sense?

Bissell: I hope so. Yeah. So this idea of loving worlds both real and virtual. And my favorite is I think the driving thing behind my entire goal as a writer. And I think my interest in games is finding yourself in this densely created place that human beings have populated with detail and incident, and then just running out there and finding out what’s ther4e for you. Now it may be pathetic from a certain perspective, that I’ve gone from traveling to places like Vietnam and Uzbekistan to serving these digital worlds. But I try not to think of it that way. Because I think — like what John [Jeremiah] Sullivan’s piece about Michael Jackson said — anything that is is real. And I really believe that. Because he was talking about people who had criticized Michael Jackson’s new face. No. “Anything that is is natural.” And that, I think, is a really wonderful insight. And I think it’s true. Anything that is is natural.

Correspondent: Yeah. But I’m wondering if, when you’re writing about something like a sitcom television producer, as you do in this book, and you have to hit the tropes of “Okay, here we are at the rehearsal stage,” “here we are with the joke writers trying to revise the joke so that it gets the biggest laugh for the audience” — what is interesting is the whole incident with the luncheonette at the beginning. The hard work. The failure at the beginning. Getting fired from My Little Pony. Those are very human moments. And it almost seems to me that you — particularly a guy like you, who is very much interested in the complex details of any world — it must be difficult to find a way to sandwich those moments into a profile along these lines when, in fact, you also have to meet the need of an audience who wants to know additional sordid details. Behind-the-scenes stuff.

Bissell: About Charlie Sheen.

Correspondent: Exactly.

Bissell: (laughs)

Correspondent: I mean, how do you negotiate the human in an essay like that when it would seem to me, if that is a goal of yours, to be more difficult than, say, going into ravaged terrain and seeing a disappearing sea or seeing that there are no remnants of a military campaign from decades before. You know what I mean?

Bissell: Well, this is the one thing that I think [David Foster] Wallace did so well in his essays. Which is he turned the act of noticing things into a kind of a narrative in and of itself. That the mere cataloging of things becomes the story in a weird sort of way. And I’ve never done this to the degree that he did it. But when you read these Wallace pieces, like about David Lynch or about talk radio, he’s always more interested in the cameraman or the baton twirlers. You know, he’s always interested in the freakshow qualities of the places he goes. And if you’re profiling a hit sitcom producer, you can’t do that. You can’t talk to the joke writer as much as you perhaps want to. Chuck Lorre, the subject of the piece, has to be the focus. So it took a long time to get those My Little Pony details out of him.

Correspondent: (laughs) How long did you have to work him? Did you have to grill him to get the My Little Pony details?

Bissell: Kind of. Yeah. Because it took him a long time to open up. And if there’s anything I can say about writing profiles, which writing celebrity profiles, I mean, why even bother? They’re too canny to really open up to you. And their publicists are all on everyone’s backs. And there’s all this quid pro quo that goes on with that kind of a piece. It’s not even writing. It’s like alien anthropology, right? But someone like Chuck Lorre, who has a publicist, but I think the idea of self-protection is much less pronounced as a technician type creator, right? Celebrity type creators are — I just can’t imagine ever being interested in writing about a person like that. So Chuck Lorre, you have all this access to the ins and outs of a fringe television job that he just happened to basically become the most successful sitcom producer of the modern age. It’s really interesting. But within that journey, there are all the arcana of how one goes about becoming a successful sitcom writer. And the fact that he got fired from My Little Pony was to me — I’m glad you latched onto that. Because that was the most interesting detail in that piece to me.

Correspondent: That from such a humiliation comes the great success.

(Photo: Trisha Miller)

The Bat Segundo Show #449: Tom Bissell, Part One (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: Adam Wilson

Adam Wilson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #439. He is most recently the author of Flatscreen.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Seeking his remote control and his dignity within an armed blanket.

Author: Adam Wilson

Subjects Discussed: Wilson’s dislike of flying, Will Self’s rules for writers, Flatscreen‘s televisual influence, working at Flavorpill, innovating literature through the Slanket, attempts to win television watchers to literature, the couch potato as Renaissance man, using bulleted lists and possible endings as alternative chapters, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, awkward uses of Viagra, the davenport vs. the Slanket, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, Johnson going to Columbia because he was a Sam Lipsyte fan, Portnoy and Playboy Go to Summer Camp,” reading Portnoy’s Complaint at the age of 13, satisfying queasiness and Jewish identity, brutal workshop smackdowns, finding a new take to send up middle-class suburbia, 21st century Borscht Belt schtick, the difficulties of writing about synagogues, spiritual vacancy, troubled and handicapped mentors, Augie March character inspiration for Flatscreen, The Modern Library Reading Challenge, creating a fictitious Boston suburb, Matt Corley’s obsessively hyperlinked interview with Wilson, Newton, Massachusetts, finding creative freedom drifting away from the realities of location, the frequency of Boston residents who live and spend time and do bad things in basements, unappealing young men with profligate sex lives, pathetic people who hook up, ensuring one sexual climax every 100 pages, throwing humiliation at a protagonist, needlessly beautiful people in contemporary fiction, the cruel fates that Martin Amis hands his characters, Money‘s John Self, Dead Babies, Success, Lord of the Flies, going through a rough period while writing Flatscreen, Kurt Vonnegut’s idea (“In America, high school never ends”), adults who live with their parents, Lipsyte’s Venus Drive, Eli being a good cook and eating good meals alone, men who build arsenals of kitchen utensils rather than making weekend trips to Home Depot, gender roles in urban environments, cooking shows and masculinity, finding an agent, writing Flatscreen over five years, resistance to unlikable characters in contemporary fiction, hostility from Goodreads, Cynthia Ozick, Amazon reviewers, Fitzgerald as a commercial failure during his lifetime, The Great Gatsby, Wilson’s father beaten down by Amazon reviews, being a victim of impressions made by blurbs, working as a bookseller at Bookcourt, false romance attached to literary people, trying to get a mass audience excited about books attached to smaller audience, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, slipping secret books to students and customers, competing literary canons vs. secret books, creative writing programs as your buying audience, Richard Nash, the literary inefficiencies of the American education system, teachers and enthusiasm, George Saunders, Donald Barthelme, how literature can encourage young people to rebel, Gary Lutz’s “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” fusing different sentences together, Wilson’s answer to “portable solitude,” ideal sentences, and the inner life vs. dramatic narrative.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I’m glad I could get in touch with you before you were actually getting on a plane.

Wilson: Yeah. No, it’s good. I hate flying.

Correspondent: Oh, you do? Well, what’s wrong with flying?

Wilson: Um…

Correspondent: Aside from the security theater and all that?

Wilson: No, it’s…

Correspondent: Aside from the defenseless position you’re put in?

Wilson: Yeah. That’s a big part of it.

Correspondent: Aside from the lame snacks that you get? Sorry. I don’t want to be negative here.

Wilson: Yeah. You sort of hit the nail on the head.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Wilson: Although I do love Ativan. So it’s sort of a…

Correspondent: (laughs) Let’s get into the book. I actually wanted to broach the TV question from a weird angle. One of the items contained within Will Self’s half-serious, not really serious rules for writing. He has this on his list: “Remember how much time people spend watching TV. If you’re writing a novel with a contemporary setting there need to be long passages where nothing happens save for TV watching.” Now I know that you once worked as a TV blogger for Flavorwire.

Wilson: That’s true.

Correspondent: There is a notable televisual influence down to the technical details in Flatscreen that is often so striking that one, in fact, even encounters Eli’s mom sleeping on a sofa in a Slanket. So I’m wondering. Do you have any pragmatic ideas…

Wilson: The Slanket was actually a period detail.

Correspondent: Ah, yes! Okay.

Wilson: Not to go off topic too much.

Correspondent: I’m sorry to be so out of touch. (laughs)

Wilson: But I will say the Slanket was the one thing that I guess I had to change in the book. Because I originally had it as a Snuggie. The book’s set in 2006. And the Snuggie was not yet on the market.

Correspondent: Oh, that’s right. Yeah.

Wilson: But the Slanket was.

Correspondent: Yes.

Wilson: It was sort of the precursor. But the Snuggie has since taken a monopoly on the armed blanket.

Correspondent: The armed blanket thing.

Wilson: Yes.

Correspondent: No, Slankets do seem very endurable — the Slanket, I have to say. So maybe they just seem to last like plastic that’s not going to biodegrade or something.

Wilson: Oh yeah. Anyway…

Correspondent: No, no, no! Thank you for the clarification. It’s very important to get the Slanket detail right.

Wilson: It might be that I think I learned about both items in infomercials. (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, I mean, the question I have is how novelists can win over readers from television. And do they need to follow this advice that Will Self offers. Writing long scenes describing watching television? To what degree was the process of writing Flatscreen your way of contending with your own television feelings? Clearly, we touched a nerve here on the Slanket thing.

Wilson: Yeah. (laughs)

Correspondent: Let’s just get the ball rolling here. Do you need to specialize also in short alternating chapters? That’s a lot to throw. So go for it.

Wilson: No. I don’t think necessarily. I don’t know. It does seem like a ridiculous rule. Will Self’s rule seemed almost the opposite of what you’re probably told in most writing programs. Which is: set up conflict so that your characters can move around rooms and pick up objects. And stuff like that. I don’t know. I think more so, I was just interested in a character whose worldview has been so shaped by television. Perhaps in the way that mine has, or that people of my generation or even your generation, a slightly younger, probably a slightly older generation too have. I like the idea of having this guy whose kind of poorly educated and didn’t pay attention in school. Didn’t go to college. But at the same time, he actually has quite a lot of information available to him. Based on the fact that he’s watched an incredible amount of television. And I like this idea that if you actually spend days just watching The Discovery Channel and The History Channel and The Nature Channel, but also the news and CNN and old movies on AMC, that you could sort of become this Renaissance man of knowledge, in that you know about all sorts of different things without having any kind of deeper understanding of any of them.

Correspondent: So the couch potato is a superficial Renaissance man?

Wilson: Yeah.

Correspondent: That’s all America has to offer these days? (laughs)

Wilson: (laughs) Well, I don’t know.

Correspondent: Come on! We’re trying to win these people so that they dive into libraries! I was hoping that you, the guy who managed to synthesize TV in novel form, might have a few ideas here.

Wilson: Um, no. I have almost no ideas on that front. I think we’re losing the battle.

Correspondent: We are losing the battle. But at least it’s marvelous nonetheless to watch this cultural phenomenon mushroom as it is.

Wilson: Sure. Then again, I have received — I sort of did have this idea that, oh, you know, maybe people can relate to this. Because we all spend our time on the Internet and watch a lot of movies on TV and stuff. But then I’ve gotten all sorts of criticisms on Goodreads and from bloggers complaining about how this guy just sits around and watches TV and doesn’t do anything. So maybe these people, who are complaining about the book, are like living these rich lives that the rest of us aren’t experiencing. And they’re sick of reading about characters. I don’t know. They probably wouldn’t like Will Self’s books either.

Correspondent: Yes, that’s true. Well, I’ll get into the Goodreads review thing. Because I actually checked them out too. But I wanted to get into your book before we actually did that.

Wilson: Sure.

Correspondent: I mean, you have this strategy of alternating chapters throughout the book. It kind of relates to what we’re talking about here. Where you’ll have something short, followed by another Eli episode. The first two parts of the novel have these bulleted lists. You have things such as “Facts About My Mom.” “Ways In Which I am Like a Rapper.”

Wilson: That’s one of my favorites.

Correspondent: Good! I caught the right one. And then the third part shifts to all these possible endings. And then Eli starts to reference these narrative terms near the end. Sitcom C-plot. Things like that. So I’m wondering to what extent these alternative chapters were almost a series of bona-fide notes to help you better know your character in your book. How did this tension between the self-reflective and almost the self-aware narrative occur during the course of writing this book? I’m curious.

Wilson: I think it happened in a few different stages. Originally, the book was quite a bit longer. And I felt it was bogged down. I felt it was a bit slow and that there were two things slowing it down. One is that there was a lot of time spent relating backstory. Things about this character’s childhood memories. And all this type of stuff that I felt was really slowing down the pace of the book. Because I knew I wanted to have this really quick pace. And maybe part of that is trying to appeal to readers who have low attention spans.

Correspondent: Well, this leads me to wonder. Did the bulleted lists come from the larger draft? Where one would normally expect that type of thing to come from a notebook, the awkward details you plucked from…

Wilson: Exactly. Exactly.

Correspondent: Wow.

Wilson: So I wanted to figure out a way to speed it up without losing a lot of this information. And so I thought of these kinds of lists. And I ended up cutting about 100 pages from the book and replacing it with all of these interesting little chapters that I hoped were doing some of the work in a kind of fun and more entertaining and quicker way, and that felt right for the character who is reading blogs. And it felt like it worked. So that was one thing. And then as for the other endings, I think those in part came out of — one thing I think the character Eli is struggling in the book is this idea that everything, all his points of reference, comes from television and movies. And he has this idea that he wants to be in the classic coming-of-age movie. He wants to grow and become a real person maybe. Whatever that means. And live some kind of grown-up life. But his imagination, I think, has been compromised in some way. Because I think everything he can imagine is something he’s seen in a movie or on TV. And he has bad points of reference in terms of his family. He can’t look at his father and say, “I want to be like that.” So he looks at movies and he says, “Well, I could be like that. But is that realistic? Or is that even a possibility?” Or has it gotten to the point where American life is really just a kind of imitation of these tropes and this received culture or narratives? And I think Eli’s struggle with that reflected my own struggle as a writer to try and imitate and write a book in a genre that’s been done a million times and come up with a kind of narrative that is, at the same time, aware of all that’s come before it and doesn’t cop out and have and ending where someone drives off into a sunset with a perfect song playing. And so the way I battled that was to have Eli himself imagine all these endings that he’s seen before. But then they don’t all come at the end. They come over the last 100 pages. So I think that each time one is presented, my hope is that, with the book continuing along, that ending is passed over. And that it’s pointed out as being ridiculous or unrealistic or cliche or impossible or all of those things. And then life continues to go on in the book.

Correspondent: But it’s also trying to find an ending while all these other things are happening.

Wilson: Sure.

Correspondent: Which also made me — I had a total wonkish question for you. But the whole incident on the football field with the Viagra.

Wilson: That’s not really happened to me. (laughs)

Correspondent: (i>laughs) Well, I was going to ask first and foremost, what is your Viagra experience? And second, I mean, that almost seemed to remind me, almost, of Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes. I’m wondering if that might have been a possible nod.

Wilson: A Fan’s Notes is one of the books I’ve read more times than any other book.

Correspondent: And, of course, Exley talks about reading other books multiple times.

Wilson: Yeah.

Correspondent: Was that a touchstone for you? In terms of reading?

Wilson: In my life. It’s funny. I didn’t think of it that much. In terms of when I was working on the book. But it’s a book that’s been really important to me in my life. And interestingly, I think, in that book, one of his touchstones is Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March.

Correspondent: Which I also know is a big influence on you.

Wilson: Which was in some ways a big influence on this book too. So maybe it all kind of comes together. But A Fan’s Notes is great. I just did a piece for Flavorwire on my ten favorite slacker novels,

Correspondent: Oh yeah?

Wilson: I think my favorite thing about that book is that it introduces a great piece of slacker furniture I’d never known about. Which is the davenport.

Correspondent: Yes. (laughs) So there are all these little clues for furniture that almost doesn’t exist anymore in there.

Wilson: Yeah. It’s the perfect slacker item, I think. (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, it makes me wonder if Flatscreen is, in some sense — I mean, we were talking about it being set in 2006 — whether it’s more of a historical novel as well. Maybe your davenport is the Slanket. (laughs)

Wilson: Yeah. I think so. I’d like to think that. If I leave one thing in the world, it’s to put the Slanket into the history of American literature.

Correspondent: (laughs) We need more writers to do that.

The Bat Segundo Show #439: Adam Wilson (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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