What happens when you meet somebody and all of your assumptions proved to be wrong? That’s precisely what happened with this conversation with Elissa Wald, author of THE SECRET LIVES OF MARRIED WOMEN. She’s a novelist who wrote a noir novel without reading any noir and who depicted class violence without being conscious of it. The result is one of the strangest conversations we’ve ever aired, a chat that absolutely fails (which is entirely our fault) before hobbling back to an unanticipated grace.
[MP3, 51 minutes]
Elissa Wald is most recently the author of The Secret Lives of Married Women.
[PROGRAM NOTE: Halfway through this conversation, Our Correspondent, frustrated at getting minor details wrong about Elissa Wald’s novel and not establishing a sufficient rapport with Wald, packed up his gear and was prepared to leave, due to his incredibly high standards and his tendency to implicate and incriminate himself when these standards drop. Wald, to her great credit, persuaded Our Correspondent to stay. So in the second half, we describe what went wrong and we talk through it, finding a new area to chat without any notes or prerigged questions. We have aired the conversation in its entirety because it is important to be transparent about flaws as well as strengths.]
Subjects Discussed: Returning to New York after living here for eighteen years, Portland, having an accidental noir subconscious sense, expanding a 96 page story into a viable book without padding it out, meeting Charles Ardai, being influenced by Alice Munro, how Munro works a lifetime of material into a short piece, defying the “literary vs. genre” war, authors who use twists to advance narrative, Stephen King, why erotic fiction isn’t taken seriously, Meeting the Master, being beholden to the category whims of bookstore chains, the erotic qualities of reading something aloud, Hysterical Literature, Beautiful Agony, the mind and body relationship and implicating the reader, sexual intimacy at a distance of six feet, literal vs. enhanced intimacy, differing perceptions of soft porn, feelings of class affinity, an unanticipated two part interview format, how Wald first started writing, not being a good singer, passing notes in class as a storytelling medium, early BDSM fantasies, differing notions of slavery, Roots, addressing transgression, noir as a natural vehicle, growing up with non-mainstream longings, the Society for Creative Anachronism, having a radar for BDSM types, mental blue screens of death, the instinct to be drawn to libertine types, first becoming aware of your provocative nature, becoming aware of morality through being provocative, the 7 Most Controversial Erotic Novels, the importance of candor and giving something up, the many different ways to be married, accepting another person’s transgressions, exploring marital truths in fiction, when readers trust novelists on dangerous subjects, and sheer invention vs. fictitious moments that are closer to home.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I wanted to bring up Norman Mailer’s review of American Psycho in Vanity Fair in 1991. He was one of the first figures to defend that book. And he wrote, “Nowhere in American literature can one point to an inhumanity of the monied upon the afflicted equal to the following description.” And he proceeded to describe Patrick Bateman’s assault on the bum. Mailer also tied this in with Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil. But this is all very much in line with the first novella in your book, “Man Under the House,” because the treatment that Stas offers this laborer Jack hits many of the same notes. And it got me thinking, “Wow, we really don’t have this idea in fiction these days.” And I wanted to ask. In the last twenty-two years, why do you think American literature has not been especially concerned with this notion of class violence? To what degree were you aware of it? And did you hope to respond to it in any way?
Wald: Well, before we get to that, could you clarify what you mean by Stas’s treatment of the…
Correspondent: Of Jack?
Correspondent: Well, in the sense that there seems to be this strange resentment. Not just in relation to obviously his wife, Leda, but also in relation to how he kind of resents the guy. There’s this moment where he is humiliated in Home Depot. So I picked up on this kind of class resentment that dictates Stas. And we can talk about how also it informs his past in Russia. Because he was indeed a handyman in his early days, as we learn in New York. But that notion of violence with this kind of class-to-class idea attached to it was something that was different and what I don’t usually see in fiction, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to talk with you. One of the reasons I wanted to get your answer on the subject.
Wald: That’s a fascinating question and I actually would not have thought about it that way at all. I don’t think Stas is drawing a distinction between himself and the workman on a class level. I think he just felt like this man is overly interested in my wife. I think he noticed that before the wife did, and that was what he was reacting to.
Correspondent: Even though we have this move from New York to Portland suburbia, where there’s the grand announcement, “Hey! I have a backyard.” And all this. I mean, none of that was really a concern of yours? Were you playing with some of the ideas of middle-class strivings or anything like that? Were you thinking about any of this?
Wald: Not consciously. No. I mean I can’t. People bring all kinds of interpretations to your work. And I never will say, “Oh, that’s not what it’s about.” Because I don’t know, you know? I can only say it’s not consciously what it’s about. It was nowhere in my mind.
Correspondent: Class was never a factor at all?
Wald: It wasn’t.
Wald: It never crossed my mind.
Correspondent: What do you think — now that I’ve rambled quite a bit about it, why do you think that I got this particular reaction from it? I mean, were you ever concerned with any socioeconomics at all?
Wald: Well, I guess the one place where I can see what you’re saying maybe is that there’s a moment when Jack is literally under the house. He’s looking at the pipes. And she flashes on this picture of this proletariat wrestling. And so, yeah, I did say a member of the underworld bent on mutiny. So, yeah, this is what I mean. I’m not dismissing your interpretation. Just saying that I wasn’t consciously aware of it for much of the book.
Correspondent: So what interested you about exploring this dynamic with Jack and with Stas? What kept the conflict brewing as you were writing this?
Wald: Well, so interestingly, my husband and I decided to buy a house. There was a very attentive worker next door. And I spun the story into something so much more dramatic and involved than anything that really happened. But something that did happen early on was that my husband really didn’t like this guy right away. And I thought he was overreacting at first. And by the time I started to feel like this guy was overbearing, I didn’t want to tell my husband. And there were a few reasons for that. But one of them was that I thought that if I tell him, then there’s going to be a war. There’s going to be a war on some level. We just moved into this house. This guy is right next door. He’s essentially a neighbor for the time being. I don’t want an open war with this person. We just moved in. I don’t want this around my home. So I think most writers are to an extent a participant/observer in life. So they’re living their lives and they’re very much a participant. But there’s also, I think, a part of the writer’s mind that’s always observing. And so I thought, “Isn’t this interesting? I’m not only becoming nervous about this man. But I feel like he’s driving an emotional wedge between my husband and myself.” And that was fascinating. Even while it was wildly uncomfortable to experience it, it was still fascinating to the writer in me. And so I just took it from there and spun it.
Correspondent: Your husband isn’t Russian by chance?
Wald: He is.
Correspondent: He is! My goodness. So you were really drawing from reality.
Wald: So like a lot of writers — you know I know a lot of writers even give their protagonists their own names. But it’s still fiction. Like Philip Roth does that a lot. So I really do draw honestly from life a lot of the time and yet it’s unequivocally fiction. I make all kinds of stuff up. So it’s really a blur.
Correspondent: Do you have any legal background at all?
Wald: No. I did work for an attorney as an assistant.
Correspondent: Was he blind?
Wald: No. I did work for a blind man.
Correspondent: Oh, okay.
Wald: But he wasn’t a lawyer.
Correspondent: So the first part, interestingly enough, is truer to your life than the second part.
Wald: You know, I think everything’s true to my life on some level. I mean, I identify with all the characters on some level. All the female characters.
Correspondent: In the New York Times Book Review, I wanted to bring up Megan Abbott’s review. She wrote about your book. She brought up James M. Cain’s notion of the “love rack,” which involves finding a way to manipulate the readers into caring for criminal figures. The way into that, she said, is often through lust or desire. That’s how you get that vicarious solicitude for a scumbag. I’m wondering to what degree the idea of planting Leda in this suburban splendor or Lillian in this seemingly stable world, vocationally as an attorney, was kind of your 21st century answer to the love rack. I mean, was one of your goals to reach these vanilla middle-class readers or anything?
Wald: You know, interestingly, we talked a moment ago about how people bring their own interpretations. It was very amusing to me — I mean, Megan Abbott is a phenomenal writer. I appreciated her review deeply. But she imagined that it was a deep, deliberate bow to legendary noir author James M. Cain and I’ve never read a word of Cain in my life.
Correspondent: You have not!
Wald: Never. Not once. Never seen a film based on any of his books. Never given him a moment’s thought.
Correspondent: My goodness.
Wald: So that was interesting to me that she decided that.
Correspondent: Well, and I apparently have done the same thing. My goodness. I mean, have you read any books? (laughs)
Wald: Actually, I think it’s great that people bring their own interpretations. To me, that means it’s speaking directly to a reader’s experience and their frame of reference. So I don’t mind that people do that.
Correspondent: But actually I agree with Megan to a large degree. Because it does fulfill some of the relationship that books have to noir, while simultaneously also breaking from them. And this leads me to ask you. I mean, what kind of criminal fiction or noir have you soaked up? Or are you just basically living a noir life and that’s where it comes from?
Wald: I’ve read almost no noir in my entire life.
Correspondent: (laughs) Wow.
Wald: This is a new genre for me. I didn’t set out to write a crime novel. What happened was that Charles Ardai is a long-time friend of mine. Charles Ardai, the publisher of Hard Case Crime.
Correspondent: He’s great.
Wald: And I have sent him everything I’ve written for the last twenty-five years. Because he’s a great reader. He’s a great editor.
Wald: And it never occurred to me ever that I would ever be a Hard Case author. Because I don’t write crime fiction.
Correspondent: Well you do now. (laughs)
Wald: And it’s been wonderful. So I sent him the manuscript, “Man Under the House.” It was just a long story. And I was aware that I was trying my hand at a psychological thriller. But it honestly hadn’t crossed my mind that it was also a crime story. I just hadn’t thought of it that way. So I was astonished when he said, “I want this for Hard Case.” But, no, this isn’t my genre. It’s never been my genre. I’ve read no crime writers. Scott Turow is the one thriller writer that I’ve read and loved.
There are eight million year-end lists in the naked city. Why the hell do we need another one? Well, I made every effort to keep my trap shut on this dog and pony show for many weeks, figuring that fine minds and excitable souls would ensure that the right butterflies landed in the net. But a number of novels that challenged me, knocked me in the gut, or opened my eyes to the world in new ways have been left behind by tepid tastemakers who wouldn’t know the glorious rush of literature if the late great Harry Crews ran at them with a rifle and a pack of wild dogs. So I feel it my duty as a book lover to weigh in. I read nearly two hundred books in 2012. By a stroke of good fortune, I was able to interview every author who made this list. If you would like to hear these authors in conversation, feel free to click on the links. In the meantime, let’s rock and roll.
Megan Abbott, Dare Me: Before The Millions devolved into an unreadable circlejerk for risk-averse snobs, I tried to impart to these mooks why Megan Abbott was the real deal, pointing out how Abbott’s sentences employed a chewy and often operatic rhythm that was often the only way to deal with the dark edges of existence. But Abbott’s latest novel about cheerleading pushes her distinct voice further with a rich collection of wildly inventive verbs (“Everybody whoops and woohoos, jumping on the bleachers, grabbing each other around the necks like the ballers do”) that will make you wonder how you missed so much beyond the football games. She writes defiantly against the ironic or the ideal cheerleader, but her astute and enthralling observations about teens pushing themselves to their physical limits, often without parents and often with deadly adults entering their lives, left me pondering why nobody went there quite like this before. I’m very glad that Abbott is still on the case. (Bat Segundo interview with Abbott, August 2012)
Paula Bomer, 9 Months: Ayelet Waldman may have kickstarted the conversation about bad mothers a few years ago, but Bomer actually has the courage to chase maternal judgment through the pain and hilarity of its truths rather than attention-seeking pronouncements. 9 Months follows Sonia, a pregnant mother who boldly leaves her husband and even goes so far to have carnal relations with a Colin Farrell-like trucker. You could call 9 Months a Gaitskillian picaresque tale, but this doesn’t do justice to Bomer’s fierce and funny insights into how motherhood’s perceptions change from region to region, how judgment has a way of stifling a pregnant woman’s career track, and the casual cruelty of solipsistic singles who can’t understand these finer distinctions. (Bat Segundo interview with Bomer, August 2012)
Catherine Chung, Forgotten Country: This devastating and deeply visceral debut about a South Korean family fleeing to the Midwest has so many rich observations about identity, figurative ghosts, reflections you can’t escape in the existential mirror, and the pros and cons of family unity that it’s difficult to convey just how good it is. Roxane Gay suggested that the manner in which the narrator’s sister Hannah removes herself from her family “takes your breath away while it breaks your heart.” But this novel somehow manages to capture joy during these emotional moments, even while confronting cruelty, racist masks, and premonitory violence. Chung’s characters are real because we come to feel their explicit and implicit pain, the type of qualities found in nearly every family. I’m baffled by how this wonderful novel was so overlooked. (Bat Segundo interview with Chung, March 2012)
Samuel R. Delany, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders: It’s easy to understand why so many timid souls couldn’t make their way through this bold, long, and ambitious book. The book bombards the reader with so much sex, sex, and more sex that the reader is forced to come to grips with this as a way of life, even if the reader doesn’t share the desire for cock cheese or coprophagia. Yet it’s a profound mistake to dismiss a book, as one vanilla urchin did, because you lack the courage to push beyond your comfort zone. Delany’s opus may seem to be a repetitive depiction of a couple fucking, but the patient and careful reader will discover a surprisingly moving book about growing older, how underground subcultures are increasingly ignored, and how history is not so much about one person’s overnight success but sum of brave gestures from strangers. (Bat Segundo interview with Delany, May 2012)
A.M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven: Years ago, when American novels were still permitted to capture everything, books like The Adventures of Augie March were conversational centerpieces that captured the imagination of popular and literary audiences alike. Yet in recent years, literature has shifted to the twee and superficial. We apparently need our books to bray loud with sheepish sentiments, such as this dreadful sample from Dave Eggers’s A Hologram from the King:
His decisions had been short sighted.
The decisions of his peers had been short sighted.
These decisions had been foolish and expedient.
When prose this unintentionally hilarious is allowed to rise to the top, it’s enough to make you wonder how the deck is stacked against the voices that really count. Especially when the rare book like A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven comes along, demanding something more than unpardonable pablum. Homes was the truly ambitious American novelist this year. Her sixth novel dared to map the surrealistic nature of life with great humor and inventiveness: two paramount qualities missing from that doddering dope in San Francisco. Here’s what happens in the first few pages of the book: kitchen seduction, a bizarre murder, divorce, a man thrust into the role of surrogate parent. You read this book asking yourself how Homes can ever find a narrative trajectory for Harry Silver, whose scholarly devotion to Nixon suggests a Godwin-friendly update to Don DeLillo’s Jack Gladney. Somehow, despite Internet sex and bar mitzvahs in South Africa, May We Be Forgiven becomes a hopeful book about accepting the family and friends who come to you. It features amusing cameos from real-life figures like Lynne Tillman, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, and David Remnick. And it acknowledges its debt to Bellow with the wryly named firm of Herzog, Henderson, and March. (Bat Segundo interview with Homes, September 2012)
Hari Kunzru, Gods Without Men: With all due respect to Douglas Coupland, the Translit label is dodgier than New Adult. Coupland was right to celebrate Kunzru’s smart and spiritual novel for its ability to span history and geography “without changing psychic place.” But when you’re using Hollywood terms like “tentpole” to reinforce your label, there’s a good chance you’re blowing a bit of smoke up the Gray Lady’s ass to get a little attention. Still, none of this should steer readers away from this fine novel. Gods Without Men contains everything from a hilariously inept rock star to a predatory linguist whose efforts to collect Native American stories belie a sad privilege. How much of the world’s difficulties can be chalked up to abandoning one’s wonder and humility at a cross-cultural nexus point? Kunzru, to his credit, avoids a schematic answer to this question. We see how secular faith turns disastrous and back again, with an Ashtar Galactic Command acolyte transformed into a victim. Jaz and Lisa Matharu, a couple recovering from the 2008 recession and trying to contend with their missing son, form a triangulation point of sorts. It’s the reader’s duty to discover more blanks. (Two part Bat Segundo interview with Kunzru, March 2012: Part One, Part Two)
Laura Lippman, And When She Was Good: “If you have to stop to consider the lie,” says protagonist Heloise Lewis, “the opportunity has passed.” With eleven Tess Mongaghan novels and seven stand-alones, it’s become all too easy to take Laura Lippman’s work for granted. But Lippman’s latest novel, which is also something of a sly riff on Philip Roth’s 1967 novel, is one of her best: an astutely observed tale of a deeply complicated and endlessly fascinating woman. By day, Heloise Lewis is a single mother who reads classic literature. But she also runs a high-end escort service. The book’s alternating chapters headlined with dates reveal Heloise in the present day and Helen, the struggling young woman who transforms into Heloise, is captured in the past. But it becomes swiftly apparent that the present informs the past, rather than the other way around. Heloise believes she is in control. She’s thought out her business and her demeanor, but we come to wonder how she allows so many people, ranging from the imprisoned Val to a prostitute who works for her, to take advantage of her. This is a very thoughtful book about the follies of trying to know or outthink everything, which applies to all quarters. Lippman also gets bonus points for including one of the most creative paper shredding contraptions I’ve ever seen in fiction. (Bat Segundo interview with Lippman, August 2012)
Liz Moore, Heft: Last year, a research team at the University of Buffalo conducted a study with 140 undergraduates which suggested that fiction causes readers to feel more empathy towards others. Empathy seems to be getting a bad rap in fiction these days, especially among some enfants terribles who seem to believe that novels are more about slick heartless style rather than human existence. On the flip side, you have the gushing New Sincerity movement, in which people are interested in mashing irony and sincerity into a roseate sandwich. These strange tonal prohibitions on what one should or should not do in a novel drive me up the wall. If you’re spending so much of your time second-guessing how you should write, then how can ever achieve any original viewpoint? So it was with great joy and relief to discover Liz Moore’s wonderfully endearing novel early in the year about Arthur Opp, a 550 pound man who has not left his Greenwood Heights home in more than a decade and a teenager from a troubled upbringing. Heft proves, first and foremost, that caring about people has little to do with falling along an irony/sincerity axis. Moore told Jennifer Weiner that writing about Arthur let her “write sentences I would have felt self-conscious about writing.” And it (Bat Segundo interview with Moore, February 2012)
Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins: “But aren’t all great quests folly? El Dorado and the Fountain of Youth and the search for intelligent life in the cosmos –- we know what’s out there. It’s what isn’t that truly compels us.” As America slogs its way out of a recession, it was a great relief to read a book hitting romance from so many angles. Walter understands that true quests aren’t necessarily measured in time and distance, but in hope. Beyond Walter’s funny descriptive details (“table-leg sideburns,” “the big lamb-shank hand of Pelle”) which mimic the larger-than-life hyphenated banter found in a Hollywood script, Walter is so good on the page that he allows a film producer to seduce us through a cliche-ridden memoir containing such dimebag philosophy as “We want what we want.” (Bat Segundo interview with Walter, July 2012)
Chris Ware, Building Stories: The box contains no instructions. The pieces range in size and can be read in any order. The characters have no names. The illustrations are beautiful. The form is paper, but that doesn’t stop Ware from reflecting on where digital technology is taking us, both in stark and in speculative terms. There is pain and pleasure and cycles and secret history. There is loneliness and togetherness. My partner and I spent an entire Saturday sifting through this box. We felt compelled to talk more about life. As the pieces were carefully unpacked, we began to treat the comics with an unanticipated reverence, even though there was no way we would never fully know the people that Ware had rendered. Building Stories is the rare prayer that grabs the lapels of the secular. It is your duty to give a damn. It is your duty to feel. (Bat Segundo interview with Ware, November 2012)
Jami Attenberg, The Middlesteins
Brian Evenson, Immobility
Richard Ford, Canada
Nick Harkaway, Angelmaker
Katie Kitamura, Gone to the Forest
J. Robert Lennon, Familiar
Stewart O’Nan, The Odds
Nick Tosches, Me and the Devil
Karolina Waclawiak, How to Get Into the Twin Palms
Adam Wilson, Flatscreen
In this 45 minute radio interview, novelist Megan Abbott returns to our program to discuss the niceties of cheerleading culture, using Richard III as a loose narrative structure, serial killers, and tennis espionage.
Subjects Discussed: Secret conversations, how cheerleaders are depicted in American culture, Bring It On, cheerleaders and postmodernism, parallels between cheerleaders and soldiers, doing research almost exclusively online, how fonts and italics reinforced text message culture in Dare Me, the text message as a noir voice, theories that Dare Me started off as a recession novel, teenagers and technology, creating a sad and bleak adult world, logical reasons for why teenagers have no desire to have grown-up jobs, empty apartment buildings, people who die in luxury condos, balancing literary and mystery elements to create a transitional novel, stretching genre, crime as a tool for power relations, using Richard III as a narrative framework, obsession with Shakespeare, the Ian McKellen version of Richard III, Looking for Richard, Richard III as an innocent, the ugliness of ambition, desperation, Deadwood, how political theory and Henry IV and Henry V share much in common, Robert Caro, parallels between mean girl rhetoric and LBJ’s profanity, being afraid of individuals who open their mouths, carryover from The End of Everything of a teenage world as an adult one, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, when parents are irrelevant, what Facebook reveals about teenagers, powerful coaches, how tired men can be manipulated, similarities between Dare Me‘s Coach and Queenpin‘s Gloria Denton, how belief encourages people to commit crimes, true crime, the Aurora shootings, the 1984 San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre, the difficulties of relating to a sociopath, the short story that Dare Me sprang from, writing with a manageable evil, the smartphone as a person, how smartphones plague society (and how much we can resist them), teenagers who aren’t aware of the off button, Facebook trash talk, teenagers who crave for attention, writing about cheerleaders who have no interest in boys, relationships between football players and cheerleaders, cheerleaders as a roving gang, teens excited by the National Guard, smoking and drinking in the classroom, cheerleading coaches who are former cheerleaders, physical brutality, the difficulties of writing physical action, finding a new set of words to describe cheerleaders, using multiple verbs in a sentence, eccentric verbs, how any type of sport creates a new language, contending with copy editors, hockey subculture, The Mighty Ducks, Slap Shot, and tennis espionage.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Now we are sort of doing this secretly. We’ve tried to flag down a waitress to be polite. So it’s very possible we may have to order during this conversation. However, we will talk. Let’s see what we can do.
Abbott: That sounds good. I’m ready.
Correspondent: So let’s start off. I saw that you wrote a New York Times piece about Bring It On. But you use this piece to point out to certain realities of how cheerleaders are depicted in our culture. You point to the portrayal of cheerleaders in two modes: Ironic and Ideal. I’m wondering if some fulfillment of these two criteria is actually necessary to have a plausible narrative these days. What are your thoughts on this? And maybe this is a good way of describing how you zeroed the needle for Dare Me.
Abbott: Right. And I admit. I’m completely vulnerable to both. I love both the Ideal and the Ironic. Every cultural reference I had in there are things I kind of love. You know, Twin Peaks and all the doomed beautiful perfect cheerleaders who become corrupted? I love. And I love all the ironic ones. Some more than others. But it just seems — I mean, the word I didn’t use in the piece, that I avoided using, is “postmodernism.” But that’s essentially what has overtaken the cheerleader. She doesn’t exist as a person and probably never did. So when I actually started to look at actual cheerleaders, the divide fell even greater then in my day in the 1980s, when they were still somewhat enmeshed. Cheerleaders themselves were responding to the idea that they were cheerleaders and they should act as cheerleaders in popular culture did.
Correspondent: Cheerleaders cheerleading about themselves.
Abbott: Exactly! Exactly. But I don’t think that’s true at all today. And I think that “serious” cheerleaders — and I shouldn’t air quote that, but I did. Because they are serious.
Correspondent: Real cheerleaders. Bona-fide cheerleaders.
Abbott: I think they’d line themselves up much more to gymnasts, to serious athletes. And then that’s the parallel. And I would even take it further. When I look at them, I see them as more closely associated with Marines, boxers, the great risks like pilots ready to go down.
Correspondent: That’s very good. (laughs)
Abbott: Kamikazes. I think that there’s even more interesting aspects to them than being hard-core athletes.
Correspondent: So we should be making World War II movies with cheerleaders in place of the soldiers.
Abbott: Seriously. I actually thought about it writing the piece. Because you know how those old movies, they’d always have the guy from Brooklyn and the Oakie. Etcetera.
Correspondent:The Longest Day with cheerleaders.
Abbott: Yes! Exactly! Oh my gosh. That’s such a great pitch. (laughs)
Correspondent: We could make a million dollars on that.
Abbott: Seriously. Right here.
Correspondent: Well, the ironic mode, however, I would say that given the fact you have cheerleaders who are purging, who are regurgitating — in fact, one common motif that you repeat, I think three times in the book, is the hair behind the head as they puke into the toilet. To a certain degree, that is ironic in light of the physical robustness of these cheerleaders. Also the lemon tea diets and all that. So I would argue that perhaps you are working in some ironic mode in the sense that you’re taking a very feminine ideal and hardening it up to some degree to that same level that we generally put football players or, as you point out here, military people and so forth.
Abbott: Right. And I think that the eating disorders — the various bad eating habits, let’s say — of the girls has to do more with making weight like wrestlers than with girls wanting to have perfect bodies. And that sort of extremism is what really interested me. But it also became interesting because I was not a cheerleader.
Correspondent: You weren’t?
Abbott: No. I couldn’t imagine. (laughs)
Correspondent: But you came in with your pom poms and everything.
Abbott: I know. A skirt on.
Correspondent: You’ve been deceiving me the entire time!
Abbott: I know. Afterward I’ll show you that I…
Correspondent: Oh, I see. I brought my little barrette to twirl.
Abbott: Oh! Good, good, good! I will be dandling. It just strikes me that it’s almost like cheerleaders are a metaphor for being a girl. Because usually they do things girls do. But the cheerleader is the heightened form of it. Girls suffer mightily in high school. They do bad things to themselves and others. They torture each other. There was always this great Seinfeld joke that stuck into my head about how terrible boys are in high school, and Elaine says, “Oh, we never treated each other like that. We would just tease each other until we gave each other eating disorders.” And that always struck me as really true. So that the cheerleader — in my case, I am sort of metaphorizing it or ironizing it in some way. Because it’s a stand-in for how hard it is being a girl.
Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about the research that you did. I know that you have said that you have observed various cheerleaders practice. Was this actually in person? Was this on YouTube?
Abbott: It was all online.
Correspondent: It was all online!
Abbott: Yeah. All YouTube.
Correspondent: Did you talk to any cheerleaders at all?
Abbott: I did.
Abbott: Via email only.
Correspondent: Oh really?
Abbott: Well, you know, I’m not a journalist, nor do I pretend to be.
Correspondent:> But you play one on TV.
Abbott: I do! Exactly. (laughs) And I guess part of me — I felt, even in my email interviews, that they were performing for me in a way. I wasn’t really seeing them as they were. I would be an intruder. So online, or watching them online or watching them on message boards, where they didn’t know anyone was listening, seemed to be the purest and most authentic view I could get. When they didn’t care. Because they’ll post their practices. They’re performing. So they will always be performers. But I just felt like I was getting a more authentic view of it. And then, at a certain point, I didn’t want to talk to any of them. Because it might change things. My version of it is very heightened. And once I decide how I wanted the world in the book to be, I didn’t want any…
Correspondent: Realism to get in the way.
Abbott: The hyperreality of the book.
Correspondent: So that’s interesting. It seems to me that you were almost collecting textual snippets through these email interviews. Because the book is very heavy on text messages and, in fact, there’s one interesting thing. You have the iPhone font and the italicized font of something from a previous statement. And I’m wondering what this did to get this hyperreal mode that you devised, after soaking yourself so much in cheerleading culture from before.
Abbott: Right. From the beginning, I was so worried about the texting. Because I thought, “How am I going to? Nobody wants to read texts in a novel.”
Correspondent: Nobody’s going to text you. (laughs)
Correspondent: You can’t pretend to be a cheerleader.
Abbott: No. And there’s nothing more depressing than reading texts. Because they’re so meant for some kind of quick communication. But once I realized it as a mechanism for the way that girls could torture each other, the way that they could be present, when people can be present when they’re not present. You know, there’s a scene where one of the cheerleaders keeps sending texts to the main girl, Addy. So it’s almost like she’s there. But she’s not there. So the text and the snippets became this opportunity to be the voices in the head. Or the classic noir voiceover. Or the voice over the shoulder. The tap on the shoulder. So once I found a way to turn it into something else, I felt that it had become mine somehow.
This 6,000 word document could be the most important American intellectual piece you’ll read in 2012. Taking a cue from a 1939 piece in The Pancake Review, we asked several prominent breakfast experts about The Situation in American Waffles. Their thoughts may alarm you.
In 1939, The Pancake Review sent out a questionnaire to a number of prominent waffle eaters, asking them about waffles, maple syrup, and their breakfast-eating identities. While the questionnaire hasn’t been completely forgotten (right now, a Henry Darger type in Chicago hasn’t finished his response to the initial survey; an excerpt of this man’s ongoing 12,000 page work, In the Realms of the Waffles will be published next year by New Directions), we felt that these breakfast-related questions were rarely being asked of today’s waffle eaters. Considering that 2011 was a year of significant waffle eating and that most questionnaires are inherently pointless, we felt that it would be particularly relevant to update The Pancake Review’s questions.
In pursuing these vital questions with today’s breakfast experts, some figures were forced to recuse themselves or offer short answers to mimic recent breakfast austerity measures in Europe. Susannah Breslin pointed out that her gluten allergy prevented her from consuming them, even as she recognized that “everything hinges on waffles.” Elizabeth Crane Brandt professed to be “blind to this plight.” Lev Grossman insisted that he was “a French toast man.” Sheila McClear didn’t quite answer our questions, but she did inform us that she didn’t eat waffles in regular New York diners. “I will say I had a waffle at a semi-upscale breakfast place about three years ago,” reported McClear. “I was with my boyfriend, and I was cheerfully dousing it with syrup. He found this display so repulsive he actually walked. out. of. the. restaurant. on me.”
Ed Park claimed that he didn’t eat waffles anymore, but revealed that he sometimes eats a bit of leftover Eggos if they remain on other people’s plates. Dan Chaon said that he didn’t believe in the existence of breakfast, and, wishing to respect his beliefs, we didn’t press him further. Emma Straub pointed out that the New Kids on the Block “always have their after-parties at Waffle House restaurants, which tells you all you need to know about the state of American waffles.” She followed this astute observation with a Rita Coolidge quote.
But many of the waffle experts we consulted were both confident and comfortable with our questions, very frequently answering all of them.
THE BREAKFAST EXPERTS
Megan Abbott is most recently the author of The End of Everything.
Diana Abu-Jaber is most recently the author of Birds of Paradise. She is known for writing food-related prose that makes her readers very hungry.
Adrienne Davich is a writer, journalist, and editor based in Brooklyn.
Laurel Snyder grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and now makes her haome in Atlanta. She does not miss scrapple, but neither does she bother with grits.
Sarah Weinman is an author, journalist, and freelance adventurer.
2011 was the year of the Sectarian Breakfast. There have also been massive protests in Greece, Spain, Britain, and most recently, the United States. Experts now say that the pancake/waffle conflict shows no sign of abatement in 2012. Does breakfast have a responsibility to respond to popular upheaval?
Marcy Dermansky: This is a serious issue. Breakfast does have a responsibility to respond to popular upheaval, now more than ever. My concern, rather than the waffle or the pancake, is the bagel. The bagel needs to made its presence known in Europe. I say this, currently living in Europe and feeling increasingly deprived.
Laurel Snyder: Honestly, my emotional response to the current situation is one of sadness and loss. I know that in my youth, my parents’ generation engaged loudly in the breakfast debate. They marched and demanded. They were such dreamers… but it always felt smart too, like an exchange of ideas. There was respect back then. Now it seems like we’ve lost sight of breakfast itself — and what it really means, what it stands for — almost entirely. I think it says something about this generation, about what America has become. Don’t you?
Sarah Weinman: Indeed it does. Breakfast preferences alter with time and as a result of economic hardship and revolutionary fervor. A waffle is more appropriate for boom times while pancakes thrive in recessions. But then it is also more likely for people to shout “let them eat pancakes!” So the conflict continues, unresolved.
J. Robert Lennon: I think breakfast has more integrity than that, don’t you? It can remain aloof.
Jesus Angel Garcia: Absolutely. In the United States at least, breakfast owes it to the people to listen to their needs. The people cannot survive on lunch and dinner alone.
Megan Abbott: Part of me wants to say that breakfast is in fact a part of that popular upheaval. It’s the thing we all share, after all. Where would we be without breakfast? How would anything begin? How would we know how to get through the day? That said, I rely primarily on legacy media to provide me with my information, and so I guess that marks me a dinosaur when it comes to breakfast considerations. But I am from Michigan.
Michael Schaub: It would be foolish not to. What we’re seeing in the world isn’t just, as some have posited, an inchoate anger. It’s not just a movement of bored young people who don’t fully understand the breakfast system. It’s the expression of population — several populations, actually — who have decided that enough is enough, that the old system is unsustainable. And they have a point — for too long the powers that be have forced their narrow-minded idea of breakfast on people who are just now deciding they want — they need — to think for themselves. If that means rejecting the eggs/bacon/pancakes model in favor of a gingerbread waffle with pecans, or even just a lowly Eggo, thrown in the toaster and eaten on the way to work, then that’s what is bound to happen. Huxley told us all we have the right to be unhappy, and if that means Toaster Strudels with alarmingly-colored frosting, then so be it. That is democracy; we expect no less.
Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: The best thing a waffle eater can do at a time of unrest is what he does best: eat waffles. In tumultuous times, people need something constant to remind them what really matters. Waffles provide that comfort. Sure, the way we take our waffles may change -— I gave up my beloved banana-nut waffles after reading Neruda’s “La United Fruit Co.” -— but as long as we continue to eat, life goes on.
Andrew Shaffer: Conflicts within the breakfast community are unfortunate but inevitable. Breakfast eaters tend to be emotionally engaged and passionate in their food preferences than non-breakfast eaters. The pancake/waffle conflict is minor compared to the eternal war between the breakfast eater and the non-breakfast eater. While skirmishes such as the pancake/waffle conflict break out from time to time (the ugly oatmeal/grits showdown during the Kennedy administration comes readily to mind), we need to be aware that pancake and waffle eaters are more alike than different.
Jacob Silverman: Yes, absolutely. For too long breakfast has allowed other meals to do the heavy-lifting when it comes for the lobbying of political rights and social change. If one takes the time to look at the burden borne by brunch during the aughts, frankly, it’s a scandal. We have much catching up to do.
Diana Abu-Jaber: Well, clearly this is the year of the Waffle Spring. After years of being marginalized — even vilified — as a kind of forbidding yet exclusive terrain, the “Waffle Street,” they’re making their way into the main stream, with all its inherent complexity.
* * *
Do you think that waffle eating should be directed towards a definite audience? If so, how would you describe this audience? Would you say that the audience for serious waffle eating (along with all related activities) has grown or contracted in the last ten years?
Jacob Silverman: We are long removed from the days when waffle eating was a serious social activity, when Buckley and Mailer ate waffles together on television, locked in mortal intellectual combat over which vintage of syrup reigned supreme. (Unsurprisingly, National Review, in its latter day jingoistic incarnation, has scrubbed from its archives all mention of Buckley’s preference for Canadian maple.) I do not expect the audience for serious waffle eating to recover. Like my friend Philip Roth, I anticipate that it will one day have all the popularity in this country of epic poetry. Unfortunately, that day may not be long in coming.
Jesus Angel Garcia: Like all good consumption, true waffle eating will always finds its audience.
Sarah Weinman: That’s a good question. The number of Waffle Houses have increased but the number of Eggo commercials are on the wane. I guess that means waffles are directed more towards those with disposable income, or who wish to celebrate their waffle-eating in public instead of heating up the frozen ersatz kind at home. So then: Waffles are So 1 Percent.
Laurel Snyder: I don’t think we can really talk about “the waffle” without first defining our terms. What is a waffle today? It isn’t the same waffle my grandmother knew. We eat waffles in our house, but they’re crappy waffles, frozen waffles. They’re an afterthought. We’re just to busy, or that’s what we say. I’d like to think there’s a bigger market out there for waffles, that we just need to find it. But with the current waffle, I’m not sure that’s true. I think of myself as a “waffle person” but half the time, I just eat a Stella D’oro Breakfast Treat on my way out the door.
Marcy Dermansky: I think waffle makers should be distributed at birth. How grateful I would have been if I had been given a waffle maker when Nina was born. I would make her waffles all the time. Instead, I have not made her a single waffle. She is two and a half years old.
Megan Abbott: I’ve never believed in eating only for oneself, for the sating of oneself. What is eating for if not for an audience? That won’t ever change. The way we do it -— the vehicle, the mode, even the time of day may change, but that longing won’t. Appetite is appetite.
Michael Schaub: It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. Direct waffle consumption toward the traditional audience — the affluent, Wall Street-employed Manhattanites who regularly line up at The Breslin or Fedora for their fix — and you risk extincting the doughy cake if and when the next economic meltdown occurs. But if you try to expand the audience, you risk turning something undeniably special into just another run-of-the-mill breakfast food. Still, I think it’s best to at least try to market the waffle to a slightly larger audience — while most blue-collar, lower-income Midwesterners won’t be willing to give up the foie gras and Almas caviar that constitutes their traditional morning meal, the survival of the cultural icon we call the waffle may well depend on it.
Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: Homemade waffles have certainly taken a hit from Eggos and other pop pastries, frozen or otherwise, but as the video of that riot over $2 waffle irons on Black Friday shows, there will always be a demand for quality.
Adrienne Davich: I think waffle eating is personality driven. People don’t love all waffles. They love particular waffles. Waffles with blueberries & whipped cream.
Diana Abu-Jaber: Look, the Pancake 99 percent has dominated our hearts and imaginations for far too long. Pancakes are Joe the plumber. I say it’s time to occupy the waffle maker — bring the batter to the people.
J. Robert Lennon: I don’t think about audience when I’m making waffles — I’m thinking about waffles. It’s about process for me — the process of baking, and the process of eating.
* * *
Do you place much value on the criticism your waffle eating has received? For the past decade we’ve seen a series of cuts to predominant pancake and waffle magazines, and in response, breakfast criticism has moved online. Do you think this move to the non-professional realm has made breakfast criticism more or less of an isolated cult?
Megan Abbott: I’ve always been a reluctant consumer in that regard. After you are made aware of how your waffles are received, how can one make waffles in a pure way again? Once we know what’s in them, everything changes, the waffles themselves change. You begin to think of them as a product. On the other hand, I count on these magazines to excite me about new waffles and occasionally even pancakes, so I rely on them, depend on them utterly. As one would on any cult.
Michael Schaub: I do what I do for the waffles, not the critics, and if they don’t get it, it’s their problem, not mine. I will say that the transition of waffle criticism from print to the Internet is not, in my opinion, a good thing. It’s become saturated with amateurs and bloggers, who think that just because they have an Internet connection and a (usually uneducated) point of view, their opinions are just as valid as the professionals. Those of us who have dedicated our careers to the art — yes, art — of waffles, even to the point of getting advanced degrees (in my case, Ph.D. in Breakfast Pastries, Dartmouth University, 2005), disagree.
J. Robert Lennon: I don’t read waffle criticism. I’m an eater, not a critic.
Sarah Weinman: Well, remember that the rise of breakfast also includes the meteoric commensurate rise of brunch, and lord knows that’s become quite the cult in rarified circles. But I’d like to see more breakfast criticism, not less! We need people to assert their opinions on the best of the best and pan the worst of the worst. Oh wait, I said “pan.” I think that’s a pun.
Laurel Snyder: I think it has value of a sort, because some interesting things have developed from the conversation, but yeah — it’s a closed loop. If you look at the comment threads, it’s easy to see people are just preaching to their own crowds, and occasionally seeking out a fight, to drive traffic, garner some attention.
Jesus Angel Garcia: Those who criticize breakfast wish they were eating breakfast all the time. Period. They’re fat and they’re hungry. You can’t fault them. We live in lean times. A time for foraging and hoarding. That said, it’s tough to take breakfast critics seriously, especially online where bagels with cream on their faces get more play than superdeluxe three — cheese omelettes with diced Kalamata olives, capers, cayenne pepper and cilantro. In print, this would never happen.
Marcy Dermansky: I fear that I am constantly criticized for my lack of waffle eating. I am ashamed to answer these questions. I fear the public outcry when my readership learns that I have never cooked my daughter a waffle. We recently ate freshly cooked waffles at a festival. They came with powdered sugar on top and were delicious.
Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: Thoughtful, constructive criticism should always be well received. If I’m chewing my waffles with my mouth open, by all means let me know. Unfortunately, democratization has, as always, been accompanied by mediocrity. With all the waffle products on the market now, it’s great that they can get individual attention from the smaller presses (no pun intended), but a green webzine writer who has spent one morning watching me eat is not going to provide the type of insights that one could get from the pages of Waffle Aficionado, which I, like many, was sad to see dissolve. I remember reading their review of Wells’ first Belgian waffle baker when I was in high school and being blown away. When was the last time a blog blew you away?
Adrienne Davich: Speaking from no experience, no. The move seems to have made breakfast less of an isolated cult. However, breakfast seems more fractured. I guess there’s more free breakfast too. I’m not sure how I feel about that as an eater.
Jacob Silverman: I do take such criticism to heart, and it may be my downfall as a breakfast eater. I find neither shame nor pride, only a weary sadness, in admitting that many are the days I have wasted rending my clothes and weeping over the vicious barbs of a breakfast blogger (pajama-wearing and basement-dwelling, no doubt!). Through these spells, I have torn apart many wardrobes, soaked all of my handkerchiefs to their very monograms, while Frederick, my Chantilly cat, eyes me, baffled. What can be wrong with him, he must be thinking. If only I had the meows to communicate my torment. Alas, it is bottomless.
Diana Abu-Jaber: Ho hum. Everyone who’s ever held a fork or photographed a plate of cheese grits now claims they’re a breakfast critic! I say, show me the bacon. Apple-smoked.
* * *
Have you found it possible to make a living by eating the types of waffles you want to, without other work? Do you think there is a place in our current economic system and climate for waffle eating as a profession?
Michael Schaub: Sadly, I’m unable to support myself solely by waffle eating. There was a time, of course, when one could do so — when the nation treasured its breakfast heritage more. Then came the Reagan administration, which abolished the Department of Breakfast and Brunch. (President Obama’s promise to reinstate the department has, sadly, proved to be a false one.) And without the DBB, the profession has faded into, in my case, a hobby. I’m not asking anyone to feel sorry for me. I’m asking them to feel sorry for America.
Andrew Shaffer: One could, theoretically, make a living eating waffles, but what kind of life would that be? Even if the waffles were given to you, it’s a terrifying prospect to even contemplate. While it’s true that you are unlikely to starve by eating waffles, man cannot live on waffles alone. You must also have butter. You must have Vermont maple syrup. You must have non-dairy whipped cream topping. You must have sliced strawberries. You must have crushed pecans. And, if you are doing it correctly, chocolate chips. For these reasons, it is simply not possible to comfortably eat waffles without a steady source of income in the current economic climate.
Laurel Snyder: It’s a hard question for me to answer. I’m hardly a committed full-time waffle person. My husband makes more than I do. I’m more of a hobbyist. I don’t take it as seriously as I should. This is a chicken-and-egg situation though. Am I not doing it full-time because my waffles are sub-par, or are my waffles sub-par because I’m not taking them seriously enough? Who can really say?
Jesus Angel Garcia: Are we being honest here? If so, let’s admit the obvious: Waffles aren’t real food. But that doesn’t mean anyone with a dream shouldn’t be given the same opportunities to succeed as defense contractors, investment bankers and drug dealers. That’s the United States of America I know and love.
Marcy Dermansky: It occurs to me now that perhaps the time has come for me to be a professional waffle maker. It is time for me to have a marketable skill. Thank you for the suggestion.
Megan Abbott: I’ve heard of some waffle eaters believing it can bring them millions, or that it can bring them the waffle-eating life they always dreamed of, as portrayed in popular television programs, where they will be portrayed by David Duchovny, or in motion pictures, such as those of Woody Allen, or fantasies that just, quite frankly, aren’t realistic, like appearing in a Vogue in sexy outdoors gear or having their image splayed across a massive billboard in Times Square. I’ve had dreams like that too. But it’s not the real world.
Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: Of course there will always be a few stars who are able to make a living off waffles. But the majority of us will increasingly have to extend our palates to other meals. There will be more chicken salad sandwich critics, more Salisbury steak critics. Many will even take jobs at IHOP or Denny’s. But some of our best critics were already working there anyway.
Adrienne Davich: I am glad you asked this question. But what about America’s waffle and pancake servers? The tipped minimum wage in many states has stagnated at $2.13 an hour. That means pancake and waffle servers across America are living below the poverty line, sometimes starving, while waffle eaters naval-gaze and intellectualize about breakfast values! At least waffle eaters eat. Have you been to IHOP lately? The people who cook, serve, and clean up your breakfast don’t have health care either.
Sarah Weinman: As I pointed out before, waffles are more for boom times. So when the economy rebounds, there will be much more waffle-eating among the proletariat. Needless to say I’ve supplemented my waffle-eating with a ton of frittatas, parfaits and other petit dejeuner foods to get by. A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do, right?
Jacob Silverman: No. The waffle eating economy has been torn asunder, and I assign equal blame to IHOP and the Huffington Post. As to how I sustain my lifestyle, that is between me and my court-appointed attorney.
Diana Abu-Jaber: You really have to hustle if you want to make it in the breakfast rat race. I, for one, have had to subsidize my waffle arts by offering hot iron workshops — mainly online, of course.
J. Robert Lennon: Well, I used to be able to make a living with the waffles, but at some point in the mid-2000’s I realized I would have to go on the job market, and now I’m the Director of Waffle Studies at Cornmeal University.
* * *
Do you find in retrospect, that your waffle eating reveals any allegiance to any group, class, organization, region, religion, or system of thought, or do you conceive of it as mainly the expression of yourself as an individual?
Diana Abu-Jaber: I discussed waffle allegiances at length with Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Mother Theresa. The jury is still out.
Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: I like to think that my breakfast menu is relatively eclectic, but if I’m being honest, when it’s 8 a.m. and I’m sitting at the kitchen table in my pajamas with a long day ahead of me, I’m a committed continentalist. After all, waffles, with their trademark grids, are the breakfast food most directly influenced by Descartes. Give me something sweet, something with meat, some coffee, and some juice. (Perhaps I inherited this from my grandmother, who was born in Belgium. She’s American now—also dead). We critics like to split hairs over how many pancakes make a short stack, what diameter makes a silver dollar, but at the end of the day—or the beginning, I should say (an old joke, I know)—we have more in common than not. Breakfast satisfies basic human needs—hunger, nourishment, community—and when all is said and done, what is a crêpe, really, but a thin pancake? And what is a pancake but a Euclidean waffle?
Sarah Weinman: 100 percent individual preference, though now I am might curious about the correlation between waffle-eating and Objectivism. Perhaps a study can be commissioned on this post-haste?
Laurel Snyder: Can I say both? I’m generally a fence sitter. I think of my waffle-life as deeply personal, an extension of my daily life, but how can I separate that from my life as a Jew? Am woman? A mother, above all else? And those things certainly define my politics…
Jesus Angel Garcia: You’re forcing my hand, Mr. Champion. I can’t honestly answer this question. I don’t belong in this conversation. I’m a charlatan, a fraud, but I am flattered that you think of me as a waffle eater. Truth to tell, for breakfast I only eat French toast (and granola).
Marcy Dermansky: It seems like I march alone, eating waffles only when they are available at street festivals in Germany. Truth to be told, I rarely eat waffles or pancakes. Recently, my friend Tami made me pancakes for breakfast and they were so good. Usually, when I go to brunch, I order an omelet.
Megan Abbott: I think if all of us looked inside, we’d see surprising attributes about ourselves that can explain the lure of waffle eating, or particular kinds of waffles. A kind of longing for an imagined idea about American breakfasting we’d like to be a part of. An American breakfast that perhaps never really existed. But it’s very personal, very private—and yet we like to attach larger ideological resonance to it. Maybe because it makes us feel part of something now. Are we the relics of lost civilizations? Are we the last vanguard against The End? Or are we the new revolutionaries, erecting a new challenge to society? All three of those options may all feel infinitely sexier than admitting we just like waffles. They make us feel good. They are delicious.
J. Robert Lennon: I think my waffle making and eating has really strengthened my connection to the Inuit people, and to white Southerners.
Michael Schaub: Of course I try to keep an open mind, and be objective as possible, with regard to my waffle eating. But my heritage necessarily influences my breakfast habits, and I see no point in trying to change that. I’m Southern, so I often put pecans on my waffles. I was raised Catholic, so I usually accompany my waffles with whiskey. I grew up in the suburbs, so quite often I find myself using Aunt Jemima “syrup” instead of the real, hardcore Vermont stuff. And I’m a male in my thirties, so I almost always eat waffles while viewing pornography.
Adrienne Davich: I think waffle eating without any allegiance whatsoever is impossible. Marguerite Duras said, “Every waffle eater is a moralist. It’s absolutely unavoidable. A waffle eater is someone who looks at the world and the way it works, someone who takes a close look at things every day and reports what she sees, someone who represents the world, the event, for others.”
Jacob Silverman: My waffle eating belongs to me and me alone. And any agribusiness conglomerate that wishes to sponsor me.
* * *
How would you describe the political tendency of American waffle eating, as a whole, since 2001? How do you feel about it yourself?
J. Robert Lennon: Politics come and go, waffles are forever.
Michael Schaub: There’s no doubt that 9/11 changed everything. My point of view is that of, I believe, most Americans: if we give up on waffles, if we toss our waffle irons in a box and leave it outside a Goodwill store, if we — God forbid — start eating pancakes, then the terrorists have won. The French toast lobby would like us, of course, to adopt a policy of appeasement. As a real American, I would not.
Diana Abu-Jaber: Now that we’ve got the plodding old biscuit-gummers and egg-boilers out, I’m hopeful that a bold, new, imaginative approach to buttering and syruping may once more hold sway over our fair nation.
Sarah Weinman: If waffles are for the 1 percent, as I theorized already, then it’s all about the plutocracy, baby. And money trumps politics.
Laurel Snyder: I don’t think people even notice the waffles in their lives very much. But when they no longer have waffles, they’ll notice. The waffles will become more and more rarified, more underground. One day people will wake up and say, “Where have all the waffles gone?” But by then it’ll be too late.
Jesus Angel Garcia: Since 2001? It’s not French toast!
Marcy Dermansky: Waffle eating is a subversive act. For years when I lived in the South, I went to Waffle House, usually not for breakfast, often in the middle of the night. I rarely ate a waffle or saw others eating waffles. I would order the hash browns, smothered and covered. I don’t think that has changed. In the war against terror, it is best not to eat tagines, delicious as they are.
Megan Abbott: Honestly, I’m surprised to be asked. These questions are rarely posed to those of us who have been placed firmly in the toaster oven category of waffle eating. I’m not sure why that is, precisely, but I try not to think about any of these things when I eat. Maybe those placed in the “artisan” or “slow waffles” categories do. Or maybe it’s just a quality that emerges in the eating, or doesn’t, without a plan or intention. Maybe at its best it is truly organic. Even for us Eggos.
Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: The passionate responses to Michelle Obama’s efforts to restructure the food pyramid, as well as her stance against cereal mascots, are, I think, emblematic of the situation in American breakfast. Yes, many of us take breakfast for granted, but it takes only the slightest change to remind us how much is at stake. Personally, I’m of the mind that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and if it’s that important, then it should probably be the best meal of the day as well. And, for me, the best is always homemade. Just ask my mom.
Jacob Silverman: To paraphrase Gore Vidal, it’s quite clear that the Bush junta sapped the political life from waffle eating. Its condition is much like blintzes after the Harding administration, and I fear that it faces a similar path towards irrelevance.
* * *
Over the past ten years, America has been in a state of constant war with its breakfast. This war has extended to fronts throughout the world. Have you considered the question of your opinion on an unending war on breakfast? What do you think the responsibilities of waffle eaters are in general are, in the midst of unending war?
Marcy Dermansky: I think waffle eaters have to realize that they have lost the war. Waffles take too long to make and waffle irons are too expensive for the working class. I would like to start a movement to increase the consumption of New York bagels around the world.
J. Robert Lennon: Look, man, my responsibility is to three things: the waffle, the butter, and the syrup. People who want to repurpose breakfast for their petty political aims should just sleep in and dump their burdens on cheese sandwiches and reheated coffee.
Sarah Weinman; I haven’t considered that question, to be frank. But if I did consider it I’d implore regular waffle eaters to be kinder and gentler to their pancake-eating brethren. The conflict may continue but there’s no need for bloodshed. Not even bloody steaks to go along with the eggs alongside the pancakes and/or waffles!
Laurel Snyder: Just to remember, to value, to continue to engage, to continue to both produce and consume. I want to be part of the dialogue, whatever it is. I’ve promised myself I’m going to try harder this year, do more. But then — I think I said that last year. I don’t know. I just don’t know.
Jesus Angel Garcia: As I understand it, America has been at war for 99 out of the last 100 years. This war on breakfast is nothing new to anyone with a basic grasp of history. Now that Obama and the Congress have passed the NDAA, which legalizes indefinite detention for American citizens on American soil for “breakfast transgression,” the definition of which is subject to the whimsical palate of any administration that happens to occupy the White House, no one is safe. The bottom line? If you want to eat — waffles, pancakes, even oatmeal for God’s sake! — if you want your children to be able to choose their own breakfast foods, you need to take a stand now before it’s too late.
Megan Abbott: Well, in the end, the world spins on, but what we need to remember is that we each have a personal relationship with breakfast, one that is primitive and essential. That goes back to our first moments in the world, as babies, as children. We need breakfast because it’s how we’ve always understood the world. Because it reminds us we are not alone because we all need it. And that’s true whether we like our breakfast in pancake form, or waffles, toaster or otherwise. Or any form at all. We need it. It feeds us. Call me old-fashioned, call me a throwback, call me a hopelessly romantic but I really do believe it is the most important meal of the day.
Michael Schaub: “Keep Calm and Carry On” has become a cliche ever since the British poster was made popular again earlier this century. Nevertheless, the sentiment is no less true. We have been through other wars on breakfast. We have sent our troops thousands of miles away, to Antwerp and Brussels, when the Belgian waffle was threatened by the German strudel and the Italian frittata. We have won these wars, and we have become better and stronger because of it. Our responsibility as waffle eaters? Keep the faith. Whether you top your waffles with fried chicken, whipped cream, syrup, butter, whatever — we are all in this together. And it is only through togetherness we can win. In the words of the great American statesman Benjamin Franklin, “This waffle is delicious! Now to find a buxom French whore.” And that’s as true today as it was then.
Alex Shephard and Eric Jett: Breakfast is over when the plate is clean and not a second before. Every crumb of waffle, every drop of syrup. The effects of an incomplete breakfast may not be immediately apparent, but eventually, some time before lunch, that hunger pang is going to strike, and it is going to strike with a vengeance. To ensure the productivity of our work (no trips to the vending machines) and the satisfaction of our lives, it is the responsibility of every man, regardless of what he eats, to clear his plate.
Adrienne Davich: I think waffle eaters have a responsibility to the truth.
Jacob Silverman: As is the American tendency, the war on breakfast is unlikely to end; it will only assume new forms. We can only bide our time, raise our meek, syrup-slathered fists in protest, and wait for a Predator drone to pick us off as we cram our faces with so many doughy cakes.
Subjects Discussed: The need for dramatic emphasis, basing novels on real life crimes, having a preexisting narrative framework when working on fiction, mysterious PBS documentaries about missing girls, blurring criminal details to create tangible fiction, writing in locations that you don’t live in, special corners of the brain, the advantages of maintaining a blinkered perspective, Raymond Chandler, the perils of critically assessing a writer you love, James Ellroy, Daniel Woodrell’s methods of shattering language, maintaining a rhythmic balance in sentences, writers who only have one story to tell, Paul Schrader, agonizing over repeat metaphors, fanned out objects, “doomy” vs. “do me,” deploying the words “fulsome” and “candescent,” James M. Cain, using similes after five novels, Chandler’s similes, being unafraid of influence, having a hyperbolic head, working with editors (Denise Roy vs. Reagan Arthur), severe line editing, Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish (Lish’s edit of “Beginners”), stylistic repetition within sentences, breaking out of certain ruts, the difficulties of including a drunken nightclub scene in a novel about a thirteen-year-old girl, fornication within novels, pinpointing the precise moment that the police show up in a Megan Abbott novel, contemplating a pre-Amber Alert era, shame and guilt, the phrase “the end of everything” contained in Die a Little, FLAME, MASH, and childhood folded paper games, girls who are “body-close,” building a foundation to find a bridge to the end, Bury Me Deep and William Kennedy’s Ironweed, reviving twenty pages from years before, psychoanalytical connections with the American novel, using Freud to balance judgmental behavior within a novel, Stewart O’Nan, Alice Sebold, when missing girl novels are pegged as crime fiction, struggling with the absence of plot, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, literary fiction cannibalizing from genre, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, John Banville/Benjamin Black, dismissal of genre from literary practitioners and marketplace conditions, Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark, Martin Amis’s Night Train, John Updike’s external sexual imagery, Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, the relationship between sex and observational judgment in Abbott’s fiction, nonjudgmental sexual moments in life and in fiction, strangers who have sex in motel rooms, why peach is the best hue to describe porn, discovering body objectification as a kid, authenticity with real and fictitious places, David Lynch and rabbits, kimonos and forelocks as essential elements to a Megan Abbott novel, film imagery vs. tangible human experience, In a Lonely Place, fixing up a room to match the look of a room you’re writing about, nostalgia and site-specific memory, and direct transposition from reality.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Missing girl novels are really interesting to me. Because you have people like Stewart O’Nan and Alice Sebold, who have written these missing girl novels and yet they don’t have to face the dilemma of being pegged a “crime novelist” or a “mystery novelist” or a “noir novelist.” Why do you think O’Nan and Sebold are able to get away with this and you aren’t? I mean, obviously you’ve written noir. But what of this? I was thinking to myself, “Well, can you really call her books ‘mystery novels’ or ‘crime novels?'” I was talking with people about this. And I said, “You know, really, it doesn’t matter. It’s fiction. And fiction should work.” So how do you deal with something like this?
Abbott: You know, I’m always so mystified by that too. Because I think — talking about The Lovely Bones and what people may call the “missing girl novel,” but they’re certainly not calling it a crime novel — it sort of stupefies me. And all those designations do. Because stories are stories. Especially missing people stories. They’re really about identity. They’re really about these big issues that, in many ways, all novels are really about. The missing or the gone, and how we attach these labels. On the other hand, as a lover of crime novels, I feel okay with that too. It doesn’t bother me. But I guess there’s this fear. The fear I always have in this case. People always say this about crime novels and they won’t say this about literary novels, but they should. Which is: “Oh no. Not another missing kid book.” Or “Oh no. Not another heist novel.” Or a PI novel. And that’s just because they’ve read some that don’t sing for them. But I think that with literary fiction, you can get away with that more. I mean, someone perhaps should say, “Not another novel about a crumbling East Side marriage.” But nobody seems to! No one would say that. Because they’ll say that’s the stuff of life. Well, you know, crime is the stuff of life too.
Correspondent: Or: “Not another novel about a middle-aged man going through a crisis.”
Abbott: That’s the one I was trying to think of. (laughs)
Correspondent: That’s the thing. I mean…
Abbott: Who’s going to fall for the younger woman. (laughs)
Correspondent: (laughs) Even worse. Yes, I know! Why don’t we peg those as genre and the crime novels, which have a little more variety…
Abbott: We’ll call it the Ralph genre. (laughs)
Correspondent: Maybe the solution here is to just win them over with prose. If you have original enough prose, do you think that you can escape the label? Or maybe there’s a certain advantage in being locked within that label. Because you don’t have to deal with the bullshit.
Abbott: You’d think that. You know what I mean/ I guess the sort of dream is that you’d have a book that would work in both ways. That’s one of the things. I struggle with plot. It’s not my natural thing. But I love plot as a reader. And I’m a big literary fiction reader. But often the struggle I have with them is the absence of plot. It just seems like the ideal situation are those books. And I think the Sebold is one of those, where you’re able to merge the strength of a genre book’s plot with all the originality and the innovation that you can get away with more in literary fiction than you could in a crime novel. Though I think you can. Most crime readers are totally open. Because they read so much. And obviously they don’t care that much about plot. Or they wouldn’t be reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo! (laughs)
Correspondent: Sure. But we’re also seeing literary fiction cannibalizing more from genre, I think, in the last five to ten years.
Abbott: Oh yeah.
Correspondent: I mean, Colson Whitehead. His new book is a zombie book.
Abbott: I hear that!
Correspondent: Why isn’t that categorized in the science fiction section?
Abbott: Richard Price. It’s somewhat puzzling. Who’s the new one who’s doing it? There’s another one. I keep hearing of all these literary authors writing their crime novels. And I’m sure they’re doing it for a variety of reasons. And I don’t blame them for doing it. But what frustrates me sometimes is the reception they get, which is…
Correspondent: They get a free pass because they’re the literary person dipping into genre.
Correspondent: You, by way of being the experienced genre novelist, get more criticism.
Abbott: Right. Exactly.
Correspondent: Do you feel that this is what the situation is with you?
Abbott: I don’t know. I mean, I guess we’ll see. I feel that my books are part of the same world. And I think a lot of these turns are sort of imposed by outside…
Correspondent: Marketplace situation.
Abbott: Right. So I think that’s okay. My greatest frustration is the John Banville thing, where it takes him three days to write a paragraph under his name. But when he writes under Benjamin Black, it takes him five minutes to write. Like that kind of dismissal of genre.
Correspondent: Well, I don’t think he really means to dismiss genre.
Correspondent: Because if you’re spending five mintues on what normally takes you three days to write, of course it’s going to seem “easy.” Of course, you’re going to sneer down on it. Even though he’s also having a lot of fun. Even though he’s also come out and said, “Oh, I love Donald Westlake, and Richard Stark novels you must read.”
Abbott: Yes. And I think that’s the place I’m excited about. When it comes from a love. When you can feel an author’s love. When they’re not being arch. A lot of people gave Martin Amis a hard time when he came out with Night Train. Which I thought was great! Because you could tell. He was not being pastiche or arch.
Correspondent: No ambitions whatsoever. He just wanted to write a mystery novel.
Abbott: Exactly. And it’s beautiful. He didn’t hold back on his prose. He did exactly what he wanted to do. And when books come from a place of love, they always work.
Correspondent: I also feel that Paul Auster has faced that problem too. Because he’s writing very ornate mystery novels to some degree.
Abbott: Right. You think of Ellroy and DeLillo. How are they that different?
Correspondent: Yeah. They’re both confronting the major events of the 20th century.