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Dorthe Nors, Save NYPL, and Blake Bailey (The Bat Segundo Show #538)

This program contains three segments. The main one is with Dorthe Nors, who is most recently the author of Karate Chop. There is also a brief Blake Bailey interview. He is most recently the author of The Splendid Things We Planned. And our introductory segment involves the Save NYPL campaign.

Guests: Dorthe Nors, Blake Bailey, members of the Save NYPL campaign, Matthew Zadrozny, members of Raging Grannies.

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Subjects Discussed: Mayor Bill de Blasio’s failure to live up to his July 2013 promise to save the New York Public Library, the greed of rich people, political opportunism, Charles Jackson, The Splendid Things We Planned, the differences between biography and memoir, being the hero of your own story, subjectivity as a great muddler, the Bailey family’s tendency to destroy cars, being self-destructive, contending with a brother who threw his life away, the problems that emerge from being cold, the differences between American and Danish winters, unplanned writing, the swift composition of Beatles lyrics, the courageous existential spirit within Swedish literature, Danish precision, the Højskolesangbogen tradition, the influence of song upon prose, Kerstin Ekman, Nors’s stylistic break from the Swedish masters, Ingmar Bergman, Flaubert’s calm and orderly life, the human-animal connections within Karate Chop, considering the idea that animals may be better revealers of human character than humans, animals as mirrors, emotional connections to dogs, the human need to embrace innocence, judging people by how they treat their pets, “The Heron,” friendship built on grotesque trust, how the gift exchange aspect of friendship can become tainted or turn abusive, writing “The Buddhist” without providing a source for the protagonist’s rage, how much fiction should explain psychological motive, the hidden danger contained within people who think they are good, how Lutherans can be duped, “missionary positions,” Buddhism as a disguise, ideologies within Denmark, when small nations feel big and smug, Scandinavian egotism, Danesplaining, whether Americans or Danes behave worse in foreign nations, buffoonish American presidential candidates, how “The Heron” got to The New Yorker, Nors’s early American advocates, being a tour guide for Rick Moody and Junot Diaz, how Fiona Maazel brought Dorthe Nors’s fiction to America, Copehagen’s Frederiksberg Gardens as a place to find happiness, happiness as a form of prestige, when happy people feel needlessly superior, Denmark’s subtle efforts to win the happiest nation on earth award, setting stories in New York, how different people react to large tomato, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, how measuring objects reveals aspects of humanity, the tomato as the Holy Grail, flour babies, why strategically minded people shouldn’t be trusted, the creepy nature of control freaks, how human interpretation is enslaved by representations, competing representations of reality, whether fiction is a more authentic representation of reality, how disturbing ideas presented in books can calm you down, exploring the Danish idea of a den to eat cookies, working with translator Martin Aitken, what other nations get wrong about Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen, superficial knowledge of Denmark, Danish writers who need to be translated, Yahya Hassan, and Danish crime fiction.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to talk about the economy of these stories, which is fascinating. I mean, you have to pay very close attention to learn the details and to learn some very interesting twist or some human revelation in these stories. So this leads me to ask — just to start off here — I’m wondering how long it takes for you to write one or to conceive one. Is there a lot of planning that goes into the idea of “Aha! I’ll have the twist at this point!” I mean, what’s the level of intuition vs. the level of just really getting it down and burying all the details like this?

Nors: I don’t plan writing. It happens. Or I get an idea or I see something. Or there’s a line or a passage that I write down. And sometimes it just lies there for a while. Then a couple of days later, I will write another passage, perhaps for another story, and sometimes I put them together. They start doing things. But I write them pretty fast. When the idea and the flow and the voice and the characters are there, I just go into the zone and it kind of feels like I’m singing these. It’s like you find the voice for a story and you just stick to it and write it. It doesn’t take that long. Seven of these stories were actually written in a cottage off the west coast in Denmark. Two weeks.

Correspondent: Two weeks?

Nors: Yes.

Correspondent: For seven of the stories?

Nors: Seven of the stories.

Correspondent: Wow.

Nors: And then I would take long walks and I would go home. Boom. There was this story. So the writing process with this one, it was like that.

Correspondent: That’s like the Beatles writing the lyrics for “A Hard Day’s Night” on the back of a matchbox in ten minutes.

Nors: When it happens, it happens, right?

Correspondent: Well, to what do you attribute these incredible subconscious details? Are these details just coming from your subconscious and they’re naturally springing? Or are they discovered in the revision at all?

Nors: I think they come from training. Because it has something to do with the neck of the woods that I come from. Scandinavia. I was trained in Swedish literature. That was what I studied at university. And the Swedes have this very bold and courageous brave way of looking at existence. I mean, it turns big on them. And they look at the darkness and the pits of distress and everything. Then if you take that richness of existentialism, you might even call it, and pair it up with the Danish tradition — which is precision, accuracy, Danish design, cut to the core, don’t battle on forever. If you combine these two, you get short shorts with huge content that is laying in there like an elephant in a container and moving around all the time. And this style came from training. This came from reading a lot and writing a lot. Suddenly, I think I found my voice in these stories. I think this was a breakthrough for me in Denmark also. That I found out how I can combine the Danish and the Swedish tradition.

Correspondent: So by training, how much writing did you have to do before you could nail this remarkable approach to find the elephant, to tackle existence like this?

Nors: Well, I started writing at eight. And this book was written when I was 36.

Correspondent: But you didn’t have the Danish masters and the Swedish masters staring over you at eight, did you?

Nors: No. But I had the Danish song tradition. We have a book in Denmark called Højskolesangbogen. You’ll never learn how to say that. But it’s a songbook.

Correspondent: (laughs) She says confidently. You never know. I might learn!

Nors: You wanna try? But that songbook — in the real part of Denmark that I come from, all the farmers, they would use that songbook a lot. And there was no literature in my household. It was middle-class. A carpenter and a hairdresser. But this book was there. And what I learned from that was that these songs, they were written by great Danish poets and then put into music. It would be so precise. I love that book. I sang these songs. I read these poems. And then later on, there was my brother’s vinyl covers. It was Leonard Cohen. It was all these guys that he had up in his room and I could read. And a lot of the training came from that. And then later on, university, of course, and the boring part of training.

Correspondent: The analytical stuff. Well, that makes total sense. Because there is a definitive metric to these particular stories. You mentioned that they were akin to singing. And I’m wondering how you became more acquainted with this musicality as the stories have continued. And also, how does this work in terms of your novels? Which are not translated. There are five of them. And those are obviously a lot larger than a short story. So how does the musicality and that concise mode work with the novels?

Nors: Well, I think my first novel was extremely influenced by a Swedish writer called Kerstin Ekman, who I wrote my thesis on. And it was so influenced by her that I kind of shun away from it. Because I don’t want to sound like her anymore. And then on my third book, I started to find that the voice that blooms in Karate Chop — and there’s a breakaway there; it’s like a break in my writing.

Correspondent: A karate chop!

Nors: It really is! Because the first three of my novels were classic structures. They had plots and peaks and this whole Swedish abyss of existentialism and darkness. But then with this one, I broke away. And the next two novels I wrote are short novels. And they’re more experimental in their form and they’re very close to the whole idea of accuracy. And that line, that sentence, has to be so precise. And it has to sing. And it has to have voice. And it has to be just so accurate. That’s the sheer joy for me: to actually be able to write a sentence and to know people will get this.

Correspondent: This is extraordinary. Because if you’re writing a short story so quickly, and it’s not singing, what do you do? I mean, certainly, I presume that you will eventually sing in this mode that you want to. But that’s a remarkable speed there. So how do you keep the voice purring?

Nors: Well, actually, I do a lot of reading out loud while I do it. And the rhythm has to be good when I read it aloud myself. I talk a lot. I walk a lot. And I think literature like this has a lot to do with listening to how the words sound and how they work together. But that’s an intuitive thing. There’s no math in this. Either you can carry a tune or you can’t perhaps, right?

Correspondent: Sure. Absolutely.

Nors: So it’s something instinctive, I think.

Correspondent: I’m curious to know more about the tension between the Swedish existential dread and angst and the Danish identity. You touched upon this a little bit. I saw your little Atlantic soliloquy about Bergman and how you looked to him as a way of living a tranquil life and not living a wild life, which gets in the way of…well, gets in the way of living, frankly.

Nors: Exactly.

Correspondent: I’m wondering. What do you do to live or draw upon experience or to move into uncomfortable areas? Or is your imagination stronger than that? That you don’t really need the life experience. Your imagination in combination with the singing that we’re identifying here is enough to live a tranquil life? Or what? And also, I was hoping you could talk about the tension between the Swedish and Danish feelings and all that.

Nors: First of all, I try to live my life as any other human being. I just try not to really be destructive about it. I’m 43. I’m not afraid to tell you how old I am. So I tried a lot in my life and a lot of it has been dramatic. And it has been filled with emotions and breakups and stuff like that. And, of course, I draw on the experience from that. But these days, I think the discipline is very important. I don’t need more drama in my life. I don’t know why you should seek out drama. Causing pain in your life? That’s an immature thing to do at my age, I think. You can’t avoid it. It’s going to happen anyway. People you love will pass away. Your cat will be hit by a car. Or stuff like that. You don’t have to seek it out. It’s coming to you.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering if that impulse isn’t necessarily a writerly impulse, but just a human impulse. Because when we get closer to forty, we start to say, “Well, do we really want to live this way?” Our choices sometimes become a little more limited. Our responsibilities are greater. We now have a duty to other people. And so is that really a writerly thing? I mean, is the writer doomed in some sense to almost be a child to some degree?

Nors: I think you’re absolutely right. I don’t think it’s necessarily a writer thing. I think it’s a time in your life where you think that. Or you go haywire and you go right into the abyss, right? Ingamr Bergman was around 47 when this happened for him. Because he lived a pretty crazy life. Having children all over the place and women. Pretty destructive.

Correspondent: Locking Liv Ullmann up.

Nors: Yeah, exactly. Being very chaotic. An emotionally chaotic life. And then around this age, he took this path also of not living like a monk. Because he certainly didn’t. But he was just very structured and disciplined. And I enjoy that. It sounds boring to people. But I really enjoy it. Don’t need more drama in my life.

(Loops for this program provided by Martin Minor, Mooz, 40A, Tim Beets, Tim Beets, Aien, and DANB10.)

The Bat Segundo Show #538: Dorthe Nors, Save NYPL, and Blake Bailey (Download MP3)

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Jesmyn Ward (The Bat Segundo Show #516)

Jesmyn Ward is most recently the author of Men We Reaped. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #463.

Author: Jesmyn Ward

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Subjects Discussed: Adorable literary babies, the notion of “home” in Mississippi, the Delta Blues, Big K.R.I.T., having a very large extended family, environments that foster great art, Kiese Laymon, why culture demands engagement, Mississippi being dead last in statistics, statistics vs. stories, W.E.B. du Bois’s notion of “double consciousness,” Ward seeing her mother in another context, emotional associations from phrases in languages, “soda” vs. “pop” vs. “cold drank,” Southern language, how the world is prerigged against the poor and the black, having to settle for “live” instead of “live good,” losing early optimism, Ward losing her brother, embracing fatalism and nihilism, C.J. becoming convinced that he would die young, young men who can’t envision a future, finding hope while living in an impoverished world, coming to an understanding of grief, how family and community are elastic and intertwined, finding hope in future generations through memories, Ward’s mother, paying it forward, people who don’t have food in the house, comparisons between Daddy in Salvage the Bones and how Ward wrote about her father in Men We Reaped, how memoir creates additional need which transcends fiction, the difficulties of fictionalizing complicated people, the advantages of creative nonfiction, human contradictions, Ward’s martial arts skills, training with nunchaku and swords, being bullied by racist kids, finding ways of defending yourself when you’re outnumbered, fight or flight, being attacked by a pit bull, suffering from low self-esteem, turning to alcohol to cope, avoiding writing about writing, how to contend with grief when the public playground has been officially designated as a graveyard, the government shutdown, why people care more about baby pandas at the National Zoo than poor people who need food, David Simon, The Wire, journalism vs. storytelling, mediocre white artists who appropriate the best of black culture, shying away from true engagement, white people in the literary world who get a privileged pass, when the Other has to soften itself for white consumption, timid Goodreads reviewers, Mitchell S. Jackson, response to writers of color, “designated” African-American authors, Ward’s difficulty with the telephone, receiving terrible news, and finding the bravery to take in difficult communication.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I want to get into this incident late in the book where you describe being bullied by racist kids. There’s one moment after they crack some really terrible quip about lynching you where you say, “You ain’t going to do nothing.” And these kids, they just dissemble. They just disappear. They have nothing to say after that. And it’s this fascinating moment, particularly when we’re looking at this other incident with this kid Topher, who was verbally pulverizing you. And the teacher’s just standing there not willing to acknowledge the racist language. You write about how the kids, some of whom were your friends, “they never took up for me, for Black people, when I was in the room.” And throughout this book, you don’t let yourself off the hook. I mean, you write about how you were scared to walk through certain neighborhoods. You write about how your little brother, two years younger, had more courage in a certain situation. And so when we’re talking of this notion of self-defense, I have to ask you, Jesmyn, what do you think it was that caused you to not only stand up to these kids, but also do something that either the other black kids in the school couldn’t do? That’s something that was extraordianrily rare, especially because you’re not exactly the most extroverted person in the world.

Ward: Yeah.

Correspondent: So what do you think it was that caused you to really get these kids rightfully off of your back?

Ward: I don’t really know. Especially because, before then and even afterwards, I wasn’t very good at taking up for myself. And I think that part of that was informed by the fact that I had really low self-esteem. Because I feel like the world, and also what I saw in my community, had taught me the wrong things about what it meant to be black and poor and a woman in the South. And so I had awful self-esteem. But I don’t know. There was something about that moment — maybe because they were so overt and there were so many of them. It was a pretty large group. Six, seven boys. And they were so much older than I was. You know, I was really young when that happened. I was in seventh or eighth grade and they were upperclassmen.

Correspondent: So they were much taller too.

Ward: Much taller than I was.

Correspondent: Were they pretty muscular?

Ward: Some of them were. So I think that it was a moment where I was so clearly outnumbered and overpowered that maybe it was partly motivated by instinct, right? Fight or flight. And, for once, my response wasn’t just to leave or passively endure it. It was to actually fight. So I think a lot of it was driven by instinct. So I just came out and said it. “You ain’t going to do nothing to me. It’s not going down like that.”

Correspondent: Why do you think these instincts could only come out during certain moments? I mean, you’ve clearly had a fairly remarkable life of getting out of this situation. But what do you think it was that encouraged those instincts to come out at the right moments? Because of course, they came out at the most damaging moments as well.

Ward: Well, I think maybe the situation was so — you know, I said in that moment that the odds were really against me. I was clearly overpowered. Clearly outnumbered. And then my response was to fight in that moment. But then it also makes me think about when I was attacked by that pit bull, right? Clearly the dog is very much stronger than me. Has more weapons than I have. It would have been very easy for me to come out worse in that situation than I did. But in that moment, I chose to fight. That that was my instinctual response, right? That I fought. In both of those instances. And I think maybe in certain situations like that, that they’re the kind of situations that are so severe that the part of me that had the problem with low self-esteem, right? Of course, it’s the part that overthunk everything and that overprocessed everything. So that here in these moments, there’s no opportunity to think. All I could do was react. So my reaction in those moments was to fight. So maybe that’s why. These are these moments where the part of me that has low self-esteem can’t think about it and can’t process that moment in that way. So then I just react without thinking. And that’s what happens.

Correspondent: There is something interesting in that pit bull incident. There’s a sentence you write where you say, “The long scar in my head feels like a thin plastic cocktail straw, and like all war wounds, it itches.” And in light of how you went through this period of drinking, I’m wondering how long it took for you to make this connection between surviving a war and, with the cocktail straw, turning to drink in this effort to cope, in this effort to deal with the pain and to combat this low self-esteem.

Ward: It took me a long time. You know, I don’t think that I began to realize the way that I was turning to alcohol in order to deal with what I’d been through. Probably I began to realize that while I was at Michigan. While I was in New York, and I was doing the drinking when I said I was buying bottles of rum and basically just drinking them with a little bit of sugar. I didn’t realize it then. And I think that was from 2003, so I was in the throes of it. But it wasn’t until around 2006. Because I began to drink alone. And that’s when it suddenly hit me. Like what I was. Because I would drink alone and then I would become very depressed and very moody. And I would act out. And, see, before whenever I’d done that sort of drinking, I had roommates. I lived with other people. We were out in social situations. So I didn’t really think about it. But there was something about beginning to drink alone that made me suddenly begin to draw those conclusions between what I’d gone through and how I was responding to it and how I was basically self-medicating with alcohol.

Correspondent: It’s fascinating to me that you don’t really get into the beginning of your writing in this memoir. It comes from the exact same impulses as this kind of self-medicating, as this drinking, as this effort to combat terror, fear, low self-esteem. And I’m wondering if it’s even possible for you to even write about the beginning of how writing brought you out of this and allowed you to really manage these emotions more effectively.

Ward: I don’t know why I didn’t really speak more about it in the book or write more about that in the book. I don’t really know. I’ve spoken about it before. I sometimes speak to different universities and I have a speech that I usually give where I actually talk about how I came to writing and how committing to writing, for me, was really a response to the grief that I felt when I lost my brother.

Correspondent: Yes. But it’s compartmentalized, I think. Which I find really interesting.

Ward: I don’t really know why I didn’t address it more in the book. Maybe because I was afraid of shifting that focus maybe away from the young men. And maybe I was nervous about whether or not I could write about it and still sustain maybe the pace and the tension in the narrative, in the memoir. So maybe that’s what was going on.

Correspondent: You had your own problem of [W.E.B. du Bois's] “double consciousness.”

Ward: Yes! Yes!

Correspondent: That’s interesting. I do want to get into the way that you describe the land of the community, which is extremely fascinating. You point out that the parks, the public parks, are designated as the graveyards in the future. This is going to be the burial site for people who will die in the future. And you openly begin to wonder, “Well, is it possible to stave off this transformation from the life of the playground to the death of the grave?” You write, “The grief we bear along with all the other burdens of our lives, all our other losses, sinks us until we find ourselves in a red, sandy grave.” Yet near the end of the book, when you’re talking about your brother, you are very candid about grief having this limitless life span. So how do you deal with grief when you know that you’re also trying to work away at that buffer that’s going to turn the playground into the graves? I mean, you have to champion life. You have to fend off these forces, both societal and beahvioral, that are trying to deaden all this wonder that surrounds you. So how do you think about grief when you’re very well aware of what’s going to happen?

Ward: Well, I guess that the way that I think about that is that the grief, that’s something that I can’t change. That’s something that is here and that I have to live with everyday. But I think that what I’m attempting to do is to use that grief to really fuel this endeavor, right? The writing of the book. And then also the conversations that I have around the book with different people. So that hopefully in having these conversations, and talking about all these pressures that the grief and the sense of fear and failure that permeates life for so many of the people, that talking about these things is the first step to admitting that there is this problem. Yes, we are all living with this grief. And, yes, we are trying to survive these unbearable pressures. But I’m hoping that if we talk about them, and bring them out into the open and admit that there is a problem involved and exists, then we can begin to be more conscious about our lives, about the actions that we take, how we react to these larger pressures. So that maybe we can begin to change things, right? And to think of concrete ways that we can change things. And I haven’t gotten there yet. Whenever someone asks me “So what can we do?” my only answer so far is that, okay, first we just need to talk about it. We need to enter this conversation that’s happening across the country about race and about young black people dying and about poverty and socioeconomic inequality. If we begin to talk about these things, then maybe we can get to a point where we can come up with concrete workable solutions.

Correspondent: I wonder why small biographies, piecemeal chapters of people who have needlessly lost their lives, almost seems to be the only way to discuss this problem these days. I mean, we don’t want to look at the vast tapestry. We don’t want to all the moving parts. And it gets to be a bit of a headache. If you care at all, you know, it’s going to bog you down. I mean, right now, we’re talking right when the government is going to shut down. And what’s really bizarre about all this is that people are concerned not so much about the fact that these food programs that feed the poor are going to go out, not so much with the Library of Congress closing, not so much with military servicemen, who are living day-to-day, not getting their paychecks. They’re more concerned about these baby pandas at the National Zoo. What do you think we can do to get people on the level of baby pandas? You know what I mean?

Ward: You know, I think that when I wrote the book, and especially when I wrote each chapter about the young men — you know, their lives and their deaths. That’s something that I was trying to affect. Because even if given a chapter, and some of those chapters are short. They’re shorter. If given a chapter, I can make these young men as authentically alive and complicated and unique as I can on the page. Like I’m going to really develop their characters and develop them well enough so that the reader, when encountering these young men — instead of these young men being statistics, they’re actually human beings. They’re actually people. And they can sympathize with them. Then I will have accomplished something. Then suddenly the young man becomes the panda, right? Because we care about them. And so I think that maybe that’s part of it. Because we encounter the numbers all the time, right? And I think it was David Simon that said something like that before. I think he was being interviewed about The Wire, right? And I think the interview was asking him about the difference between the work that he’d done in journalism as a writer and then the work that he was doing as a writer. And he was saying that there’s power in the story. He felt that when he was a journalist that he was trying to communicate the same facts, the facts that he’s trying to communicate in The Wire. But as a journalist, they weren’t causing any change. They weren’t getting through. They weren’t making people care in the way that they care about the pandas. Yet when he worked on The Wire, he was able to reach a wider audience to get that audience to care about the same kind of issues that he was concerned about when he was a journalist. So I think it really is in the power of the story — even if you only have a little bit of space, just using that space as effectively as you can to make these stories real.

Correspondent: Sure. But don’t you think there’s a disconnect between, for example, Trayvon Martin. Everybody is sympathetic to that story.

Ward: Right.

Correspondent: And I marched with a bunch of people here in New York. And it was marvelous. At the time. But ultimately this doesn’t effect policy. It doesn’t actually get things to change. And even with the people who cared about The Wire, inevitably we go into the same corrupt governmental institutions. It seems to me that the only option is to either amp up the number of storytellers to get people to care or there needs to be some drastic change in the way the American mind thinks. And I’m wondering. Do you have any ideas on this?

Ward: I mean, that’s a really difficult question to answer. I think that there should be more storytellers and I think that the stories that are out there, they need more volume. I think that these stories, that’s what we need to be discussing instead of discussing the Kardashians. You know what I’m saying?

Correspondent: I agree.

Ward: That’s the discussion that we need to be having. Those are the stories that we need to be invested in. And the people that we need to be invested in need to not be so concerned with vapid celebrity culture. Because that doesn’t get us anywhere. That doesn’t foster the kind of large-scale change that we need in the American government with policymakers.

(Loops for this program provided by vlalys, djmfl, mingote,danke, and blueeskies.)

The Bat Segundo Show #516: Jesmyn Ward (Download MP3)

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Anchee Min (The Bat Segundo Show #507)

Anchee Min is most recently the author of The Cooked Seed.

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Author: Anchee Min

Subjects Discussed: Visiting Houston, Mary McCarthy, being the heroes of our own stories, writing Red Azalea as a way to learn English, owning your own material, repeatedly renting a pornographic tape, sex and loneliness, Love Story in Chinese translation, Western imports after the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese idea of Miss America, Caligula in Madame Mao’s film library, how Chinese restaurants operate during Thanksgiving and Christmas, Anchee Min’s incredible work ethic, living paycheck to paycheck, working multiple jobs, judging the homeless, how ideas of being “down and out” shift from nation to nation, having your daughter hold up sheets of drywall, managing a fixer-upper, deprived children, personal propaganda, Dr. Phil, results-oriented thinking, Americans taking their nation for granted, entitlement, the bare minimum to what people are entitled to, basic needs and health care, parallels between America and the Roman Empire, theoretical humanity, the fragile existence of living in America with a conditional visa, Min’s efforts to read English, the line between hard work and exhaustion, the eight hour day, whether Min ever has downtime, the first time in Min’s life when she felt hope, having the will to make it in America, coughing blood and passing out from overwork, feeling safe for the first time in your life, being swindled and taken advantage of by employers, being overly trustful towards the wrong people, perceptions of fast food, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the influence of television, Edward Snowden, associating music with Chicago buildings, Chinese opera, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Loved You,” working in a record store, Pearl Buck, what’s left of Min’s Chinese roots, Min’s love for Broadway, Phantom of the Opera, why it’s important to write about 95% of China (rather than the 5% elite), Kanye West, learning how to moonwalk like Michael Jackson, envying women with big butts, salsa queens, how memory defines life, memory as a mode of survival, the smartphone generation, acting in propaganda films at the Shanghai Film Studio, pretend tears, the importance of being well-fed and staying humble, Min writing about her first husband, when people forgive unflattering depictions of themselves in books, how people who immigrate to America from China have different perspectives, respecting differing approaches to the American Dream, gratitude for other perspectives, divorce proceedings and child custody, becoming a property owner because there were no job options, landlord-tenant relationships and equitable laws, Min’s views on deadbeats, the excuses of tenants, avoiding generalizations amidst hardships, notions of American childhood, China and the U.S. spying on each other, and how the future of Sino-American relations will play out.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Mary McCarthy once famously remarked, “We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour.” And this makes us the hero of our own story. So when you wrote both Red Azalea and The Cooked Seed, my question to you is: What did you take to downplay your own heroine status? Is the judgment of whether you are a good person or not left up to the reader? Or is including such moments — such as the way you portray Lauryann, your daughter, or act as a landlord — open enough for the readers to judge for themselves?

Min: I guess I will leave them to judge for themselves. For me, writing Red Azalea was a way to learn English. And I believe that only when I write it and I have other people correct me and I correct it in the copy of the text, I learn English in a solid effective way. And I did not think about anything else. Because I had nothing. Actually, what I wanted was the opposite. I wanted to write like American classmates. But I didn’t have — I did not grow up with hamburgers. So it was amazing. I did not understand what McDonald’s meant. So it was fascinating when they took me to a Chicago Avenue McDonald’s for the first time and put on makeup for the first time. And I think I was just off the boat. Nothing else. It was just survival. Try not to be deported. With this one, The Cooked Seed, I was on the other end. Because I had been making a living as an author for twenty-five years. So I knew what I possessed. It was just how far I wanted to take the material. It’s the issue of honesty. And also bringing my daughter into the picture and my divorce and everything — I felt that as an American writer, I realize I did not own my own material. I had no right to own that. But it’s a conflict. How far did I want to go? It was my daughter who said, “Mom, if you want to leave me anything, I want you to leave me your story. But not the sugarcoated version.”

Correspondent: So here’s a question for you. If you don’t own your own material, do you feel that the more English you know, the less you actually own it? The less private it may very well be in the act of writing? If Red Azalea came from this moment of almost purity, where there was no expectation of audience and there was no expectation that it would be published, how do things change when you are sharing your story? Both from an English standpoint and also from an audience standpoint?

Min: I feel that it’s the guilt I was aware of. I know my material. I know how to write by now. And I knew one thing. That if I don’t tell the story, the second generation, like my daughter — if she decides to write a story about me, she will never get to the real life I live. Because there’s so much. An immigrant mother would not want to leave behind that kind of story. For example, my relationship with a pornography tape. Because that was my only comfort. And that was the most difficult part to review. And I knew that no immigrant woman would have wanted to reveal that. But for me, what I see is the cruelty of the loneliness that impaired me as a person. If you live ten years in storage, like mice, a city rat, and you’re busy with how to make a living, you have no relationship with anyone whatsoever. But you are human. And this material would get lost. And I felt like I had a platform for the voiceless.

Correspondent: Yeah. The bravery of revealing that masturbation sex video. And you also reveal how the video store owner wanted to sell you the tape for $25 and you talked him down to $20. It was the least rented tape in that video store. But it also reminded me of how you conveyed affection and sex in Red Azalea with Yan. How you were both each other’s imaginary boyfriends. And with that, it leads me to ask you. When you write about sex, it’s interesting to me how it comes from this place of loneliness. Almost as if that’s the truest place to write about sex. You don’t really write about sex in a pleasurable way or even a romantic way. And I wanted to ask why that is. Is it possible that the way you write about sex is the truest way on the page? To be honest about the fact that a lot of people get into this because of loneliness, because of need, and things like that.

Min: Actually, you put it very well. Yes, in real life, it is almost dispassionate. It is very cruel and matter of fact. Survival mode. But as literary material, it’s the most romantic, the most sensuous way. Because that’s the moment that you’re dealing with yourself. The innermost. And also you avoid. Even with my relationship in the labor camp, it was almost — you see each other and then you meet each other like ghosts. And nothing was said. It was just under the blankets. It was inside a mosquito net. And she was love with a boy. And I was craving for boys. And we knew the price to date a man was execution and punishment and imprisonment. And we realized that we were in touch with our humanity. But the guilt of it. Yeah, you have to move on as humans. Human animals. So by accident, we discovered the poetry of God.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, it’s also interesting because I was going to mention, on a less austere note, that you did read Love Story in Chinese translation. And I was wondering if that had any kind of impact upon your notion of romance or love or even sex. How did that notion change when you came to Chicago? I mean, was this one of the things that you had to adjust your own internal feelings for?

Min: It’s quite bizarre. I did not read any Chinese romantic — anything that had that element — before the Cultural Revolution, which means before 1978. Mao died in ’76. And then that was two years later. The Western translations of first Western literature. Like Jane Eyre and Gone with the Wind started to pour into Chinese translations. But before that, the only book about relationship between a man and a woman was this medical book. The title is called From Head to Toe Looking from a Monkey’s Eye. And I was reading it when I was sixteen. And the only sentence in the book that intrigued me — I still remember — is this: “The highest form of a revolution comradeship was intercourse between a man and a woman.” And I thought, “What does it mean?” Highest form of revolution comradeship. And then the bizarre thing was, after I was picked by Madame Mao’s people and taken to be featured in a propaganda film, portraying Madame Mao’s ideal proletarian beauty, I mean, it was very much — the selection was like Miss America or Miss Universe. It’s just that the measurement’s the opposite. We have to have calluses on our shoulders and hands to prove we were real peasants and the weather-beaten face. And carry 300 pounds of manure. But I picked it up and did the screen test, and I had never learned acting before. And there were all these things. Imitating Madame Mao as a cartoonish opera. And Madame Mao decided that the test was awful. We needed to be educated. So we were cultivating in Madame Mao’s private screening room and viewed her favorite movies. Which featured — I remember one was like a battle of Rome sort of thing — like Caligula.

Correspondent: Caligula!

Min: Yeah.

Correspondent: The Bob Guccione film. (laughs)

Min: Yeah. Something like that. But I can’t recall exactly. Because the translator there was Mandarin. So mostly it was images. So for the first time, from that forbidden time, that primitive time, without any men, all of a sudden over that, you see the blue-eyed people turning your insides out. Even before that, we had sections of meetings on making sure we don’t get mentally poisoned by watching this movie. But in coming to America, I all of a sudden realize that I’m not unfamiliar with these brown-eyed, blue-eyed people, who are having orgies. And it’s really weird. And in Chicago, in my storage basement, where I lived alone and with a porno film, and then all these things stringed together. It makes pretty interesting material.

Correspondent: And the name of the video was Sex Education, which also makes it quite interesting in light of this idea of education in China as well. (laughs)

Min: (laughs) Right.

Correspondent: This is the gateway in. (laughs)

Min: Because the first time I was in a porno store, it was — Christmas and Thanksgiving, especially Thanksgiving evening, the restaurants. Nobody goes into Chinese restaurants. So I was let off early. And it’s the longest night. I couldn’t go home. Because if I’d gone back to China, I may not get a visa back. That was the terror. So I want to treat myself with a movie. And I did not know. Inside the movie store, I stepped into the porno section and that title, Sex Education, was the least threatening.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Min: But now I know it’s a cover. Because of that title, nobody borrowed that movie. That’s why the owner, after a few times, he tried to sell it to me.

Correspondent: He was lucky he had you as a customer, I guess. (laughs) You brought up the Chinese restaurant and nobody being in there during Thanksgiving. Much of your early life in America is very much concerned with living the cheapest possible existence, calculating how much money you lose when you take the train to and from work. I mean, there’s one chapter — I don’t want to give it away — in which you go straight to work after something extraordinarily terrible happens. I was reading a story this morning about how 76% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck. This leads me to ask, well, this notion of saving. Obviously family was a big part of it and wanting to make sure that they had money and also the guilt of trying to get them over to America. But how did you develop this very no nonsense approach to using money and saving it and wanting to accrue more of it? It’s almost becoming less American, especially with our economy in the toilet right now.

Min: Well, I guess it’s survival if you are in that situation. First of all, I think it has to do with my sense of gratitude. I mean, it is hard to work five jobs at the same time. But when you own your life, that’s a different perspective. I think that, bizarre as it is, in my life back in China, I was eliminated basically by the society. And in coming here, given a chance, I remember. I still — it just, what I said back to the immigrant officer who tried to deport me and who called me on the spot for not speaking English when entering America, I said, “My feet are on American soil.” And that, I really meant it. And that means a whole world to me. From then on, every time I go, this is what’s ruling me. When I see the homeless, I think I wasn’t being nice. Because the homeless was begging for my quarters. And I said, “You English! You job!” Because I was thinking, if only I had known English, I would have been given job. And I was actually happy with my Taiwanese boss at the restaurant. When I walked faster, she came behind me. She says, “The house is not on fire.” Meaning: Why are you walking so fast? If I sat down, she’d come down, walk on my back, and say, “I did not hire you to be a lazy bone.” But I was happy. Because she let me know I could improve. Which was to find the balance. But if I were in China, I would not know why I was punished.

(Loops for this program provided by Jorge Daniel Ramirez, danke, MaMaGBeats, ShortBusMusic, kingADZ12, djmfl, and R01D.)

The Bat Segundo Show #507: Anchee Min (Download MP3)

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Periel Aschenbrand

Periel Aschenbrand II (The Bat Segundo Show #505)

Periel Aschenbrand is most recently the author of On My Knees. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #7.

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Author: Periel Aschenbrand

Subjects Discussed: Borough biases, romantic attachments to Manhattan, on “knowing everything,” Ulysses, being introduced to Philip Roth as a “great writer,” when major writers put cherries in your mouth, courtesy and thank you notes, how to deal with compromise in life, going after what you want, risking everything to achieve, the importance of failure, not being qualified to do many things, Body as Billboard, House of Exposure, Aschenbrand writing more about the personal than the professional, The Only Bush I Trust is My Own, motivations to write, apartment battles, Aschenbrand as a “self-filling glass of water,” when new books are contingent upon life experience, approaching the act of writing almost exclusively through the self, crime novels, paranoia, being obsessed with Law and Order, Faye and Jonathan Kellerman, serial killer documentaries, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawki novels, the problems with reading while pregnant, Jeffrey Dahmer, going to extreme positions to keep yourself alive, James Baldwin, writing what you know, standup comedy, safeguards against excessive solipsism, entering a morgue or a crime lab, efforts to persuade Aschenbrand to visit a morgue, transgressive behavior, long walks and journalism, live poultry markets, killing chickens, cutting techniques, persona lines, participating in acts that you write about, jumping out of airplanes, obsessiveness and interest, Aschenbrand’s suspicion of doctors, dental hygienists who may have killed spouses, thoughts on justifiable homicide, hiring private investigators, blind trust and therapists, degrees of risk with medical professionals, being an insider and an outsider, the impossibility of a full-bore outsider, the benefits of locking yourself in a room, pretending to be your grandmother to get a good rental deal, living in a high-floor walk-up, emerging from the wreckage of a bad breakup, Stuyvesant Town, the allure of the East Village, Aschenbrand’s massive throne-like couch, objects to project family history upon, narcissism and furniture, avoiding the safe lives that family members live, demonizing relatives in a book, grief, changing material in books to placate lawyers, loathsome behavior, considering other people’s feelings in a memoir, revealing details, empathy and forgiveness, avoiding malicious intent, finding humor in yourself, the romance of being written about, taking notes in front of people, Mikhail Baryshnikov, judging people as a genetic legacy, Aschenbrand’s gender assumptions, and responding to Aschenbrand’s claim that straight male professionals are incapable of not thinking about blowjobs when talking with women.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: This is a rare case where someone who was in the first ten shows comes back seven or eight years later and is now here in the flesh. But we’re much different people, I think.

Aschenbrand: Um, yeah. I would imagine so.

Correspondent: How have you changed? For people who are not privy to your developments. Obviously, you’re expecting, I see.

Aschenbrand: I am expecting. So that’s a huge difference.

Correspondent: But you’ve always been expecting in some sense, I think.

Aschenbrand: (laughs) Expecting something, right? Always expecting something. In terms of the book or in terms of me personally or both?

Correspondent: Whatever, whatever. The nice thing is that there’s a lot of latitude here in terms of what we talk about.

Aschenbrand: Yeah. Well, I think that I have…the wisdom of experience maybe behind me. Which is to say that I would have done everything exactly the same.

Correspondent: No regrets. We’ll talk about this. Okay, so let’s get into the book. You say that, from a very early age, you knew that you were in the wrong borough.

Aschenbrand: Yes.

Correspondent: You also write that the last thing in the world you wanted to do was move to Brooklyn. You even say, “I hadn’t clawed my way out of one outer borough to move to another.” I have to ask. Speaking as a loyal Brooklynite, what’s so bad about Queens and Brooklyn? Why are you dissatisfied with the way you grew up? Why should Manhattan matter so much?

Aschenbrand: Well, I think I’ll probably enrage a lot of my friends — most of whom live in Brooklyn. I think that there really is something to the magic of Manhattan, especially when you grow up in Queens. And you see things are extremely different on the other side of the bridge. It’s where it all happens. I mean, it’s like — that’s where I saw, you know, the drag queens at Patricia Field transforming at, like, age 14. I mean, it’s where you see the nightlife and the skyline, which is still exciting to see every time I land here. Even after a hundred million times of seeing it.

Correspondent: But the skyline is not necessarily borough-specific.

Aschenbrand: No. It’s the skyline of Manhattan. Specifically the skyline of Manhattan. I don’t know. I think that there’s a magic to it. Anything is possible. I mean, I still think anything is possible here. I mean, if I was able to get out of Queens, anything is possible.

Correspondent: So wait. Anything is possible even though Manhattan is widely considered by many to be a playground for the rich?

Aschenbrand: Well, now, yeah. I think I still have that sort of nostalgia for what it used to be or the sort of love, the same love that I had for it when I was a kid, sort of wide-eyed and starry-eyed for it. I think Manhattan has changed a lot and not necessarily in great ways.

Correspondent: So you’re operating off of a sense of Manhattan, as opposed to…

Aschenbrand: I mean, I think it represents something. I mean, it’s a conceptual thing. I can obviously recognize it. There are beautiful parts of Brooklyn. And it’s a lovely place to live than all of those things. But for somebody who grew up in Queens and spent her entire childhood dying to get the fuck out of there, you know, when people from like Wisconsin come and start talking about how amazing Brooklyn is, it’s a little bit difficult for me to get on that ship.

Correspondent: Oh really? So actually, you’re courting some jealousy perhaps towards my lovely borough, I must say.

Aschenbrand: No!

Correspondent: It’s a little more welcoming. You can walk anywhere in a four mile range and be in a totally different neighborhood. Whereas there are wide swaths of Manhattan, especially the Upper East Side, where it’s the same thing for a long while. Until you actually get to the cool stuff that’s at about 100th. You know what I mean?

Aschenbrand: No. I think Park Slope is like the Upper West Side at this point.

Correspondent: There are some dives in Park Slope. The South Slope.

Aschenbrand: There are some dives on the Upper West Side.

Correspondent: Still.

Aschenbrand: I don’t hang out on the Upper West Side. I have no idea what’s going on in the Upper West Side. But I think that this romantic notion of the boroughs is as probably as ridiculous as my romantic notion of Manhattan. And I think that’s really what it comes down to me. To hear, like, Brooklyn and Astoria being lauded as these like amazing places — well, very well. It may be the case. It’s really hard for me to wrap my head around.

Correspondent: You’re not tendentious or anything.

Aschenbrand: (laughs)

Correspondent: Okay. So you write that you thought you knew everything at the age of twenty-two. How have you curbed yourself of this impulse in the subsequent years? I mean, how do you contend with sometimes not knowing anything?

Aschenbrand: Now I’m sure. At 37, I’m sure I know everything. Just kidding.

Correspondent: I’ll start quizzing you on Ulysses.

Aschenbrand: (laughs)

Correspondent: Ineluctable modality of the….?

Aschenbrand: (silence)

Correspondent: Okay.

Aschenbrand: Sorry. I totally missed that. I think that I take with a grain…I mean, I think it’s a good thing to recognize that there’s a lot that you don’t know. But I also think that that sort of self-assuredness and hopefully not too much arrogance, but maybe a little bit at that younger age, really helped me. I mean, I think it served me well. I think I had a good enough head on my shoulders not to think that and be a complete idiot. I think that it’s very possible to think that you know everything and also just be really a moron. Maybe I’ve become a lot more humble in my old age. (laughs)

Correspondent: Really? Even though you were introduced to Philip Roth as “a great writer” and you have to unfortunately shake off this regrettable notion. Being told that you’re a great writer to an indisputedly great writer.

Aschenbrand: Well, he didn’t say I was a great writer.

Correspondent: But you didn’t exactly talk yourself out of that after the mutual friend…

Aschenbrand: Well, why would I? (laughs)

Correspondent: If someone had introduced me to Philip Roth, and even if I was a woman or what not, I would say, “You know, they’re just kind of talking me up a little bit. I know. You’re The Man.” (laughs) At least that would be me. But you didn’t. You did not disavow yourself.

Aschenbrand: Absolutely! No fucking way!

Correspondent: Why? You’re on the level of Philip Roth?

Aschenbrand: No, I don’t think so at all. But I don’t think that those things are mutually exclusive. I don’t think that I can’t be really good at something that he is. I mean, I don’t think that you can compare — I mean, I would say “better.” But it’s ridiculous. Like he’s Philip Roth, you know? But that doesn’t mean that I can’t also be a great writer in my work, you know? I don’t. I don’t think that those things are mutually exclusive at all. You know, I don’t think that I myself would ever articulate it like that. I think that I’m proud of my work and I stand behind it. And I think that I’m pretty fucking good at what I do. So, I mean, why should I not own that? Especially if I’m being introduced to him!

Correspondent: Well, why actually ascribe a modifier like “great” to yourself?

Aschenbrand: I didn’t.

Correspondent: Or at least play up that? Gatsby thought he was great, or was thought to be great.

Aschenbrand: Well, he was right.

Correspondent: So that very much is how you operate? That you need to put yourself at a high echelon in order to…

Aschenbrand: I didn’t put myself there. I did not…

Correspondent: Even though you said that you knew everything and that you’re still sort of abiding by that even now.

Aschenbrand: No. I said that, at 22, I thought I knew everything and that I’d become much more humble in my old age and that if somebody is going to give me a compliment, which is how I was introduced to Roth, I’m going to say thank you and accept that compliment and not deflect it. And, again, I stand by my work. And I would never in a million years introduce myself as a great anything to anyone. Like, I think my work stands for itself. And if somebody wants to laud it, like I am graciously accepting of that compliment.

Correspondent: But after The Man put cherries into your mouth, you then sent him a huge crate of cherries. And you expected him to reply. You did not get a reply.

Aschenbrand: Correct.

Correspondent: And you waited weeks and weeks and weeks…

Aschenbrand: Correct.

Correspondent: …for this particular…

Aschenbrand: Years at this point.

Correspondent: Years.

Aschenbrand: I’m still waiting.

Correspondent: So I guess you and I have to figure out how he can actually reply. What do you expect? Just a thank you note? Or something more?

Aschenbrand: Yeah, I did.

Correspondent: Okay.

Aschenbrand: That was it. Just a small, like, acknowledgment. I mean, the same way that I would expect it from any other human being in the world.

Correspondent: So if you sent a big crate of cherries to the White House, you would expect a thank you note from Obama?

Aschenbrand: If he had been feeding me cherries the week before? Yeah.

Correspondent: Oh, I see.

Aschenbrand: I would.

Correspodnent: So because there was the actual feeding of the cherries and there’s this continuity, you wanted resolution on the cherry feeding.

Aschenbrand: No. I just think it’s a normal thing to do. I mean, I didn’t like ingratiate myself to him. He asked me to sit down. I mean, we were introduced by a mutual friend. It’s not like I’m some weird fan who like showed up at his house. As said in the book, you know, I actually was not familiar. The onus is on — that was my bad. And I take full responsibility for that. But, yeah, it’s normal. Like I don’t care who you are. If you’re Barack Obama or Philip Roth, like we had dinner, like I sent you something, it’s a normal thing to do to say thank you.

Correspondent: In fact, I’ve had this discussion recently with another writer about how thank you notes are starting to decline in our society. Even by email, people don’t say thank you anymore. What do you think of that? I mean, is this a way of upholding a set of dying virtues? Or is this emphatic need for a thank you note a way of carrying on a tradition, would you say?

Aschenbrand: I always send a thank you note. In the mail. So I don’t know. Maybe I’m more old-fashioned than I give off.

(Loops for this program provided by Danke.)

(Photo: George Ruhe)

The Bat Segundo Show #505: Periel Aschenbrand (Download MP3)

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anastas

Benjamin Anastas (The Bat Segundo Show)

Benjamin Anastas is most recently the author of Too Good to Be True.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wrestling with failure.

Author: Benjamin Anastas

Subjects Discussed: Memoirs devoted to literary failure, Paul Auster’s Hand to Mouth, Tom Grimes’s Mentor, being inspired by Notes from Underground, measuring life through the medium of writing, seeking existential symmetry through writing, recurring images of sedans crashing into a tree, the difference between work in fiction and work in nonfiction, Brooklyn Flea vs. South Brooklyn flea markets, being confined to specific areas of Brooklyn, maintaining a literary illusion, staying in denial about gentrification or geographical change, being slow to adapt, “you” vs. “I” in a memoir, living in Williamsburg and Italy, the need to close off the world to get your work done, the pros and cons of needing to notice, the need to believe in the illusion as a creative person, writing as a ontological gamble, the stigma of not talking about the realities of being a writer, standing in a boxing ring designed for Muhammad Ali at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Penguin/Random House merger, publishing with Amazon, talking with Jason Epstein, writing as a life going through self-inflicted hardships, why broke writers aren’t special, parental legacy, adultery as a choice, giant posters of Franzen and Eugenides, the writer’s ego, how book fairs can devastate a writer, the attenuated lifespan of a book, blurbs, why New York is an unhealthy place for a writer to live, a level playing field in which all publishing houses are equal, Brooklyn as the second most expensive place to live in the United States, publishing a celebrity journalist’s Facebook messages, Coinstar machines, the divide between the public and the private, navigating through Facebook posts, the need for reflection, the ineluctable physical demands that come with a Kindle book cover, clearing appearances of the Nominee and Marina with various legal counsel, earlier vindictive forms of Anastas’s letter to the Nominee, Dwight Garner’s hostility to the letter, the true manner in which a prize winner talks, Ali’s “It’s not bragging if you can back it up,” boasting, the blues as a shape-shifting force, writing chapters that cause you to burst into tears, what Anastas had to omit because of personal limitations, money as the stigma that has replaced sex, unknown novels being written about the financial crisis or unemployed men, the Fitzgeraldian association with the Manhattan skyline, and the many holes and changes and rebuilding in New York City**.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: There are a number of memoirs that are devoted to literary failures. I think of Paul Auster’s Hand to Mouth. I think of Tom Grimes’s Mentor. And I think that there’s something about reading a book about literary failure that’s kind of akin to looking at the mirror and seeing the sagging and aging body and so forth. This leads me to ask what it must feel like to write such a thing, to expose something that is so identified with books and so identified with failure in book form. How do you contend with the notion of shame or humiliation? Or do you have no shame?

Anastas: Do I have no shame? Well, clearly, I actually have no shame. (laughs) I never set out to write a memoir. I actually have always been kind of anti-memoir in my writing life. I’ve written screeds against them. My first novel, I thought of it as a kind of Russian tract against the memoir when I was writing it and publishing it. I was very much influenced by Dostoevsky and Notes from Underground, which was a response to — I don’t remember the name of the tract*, but it was a response to this contemporary political tract. So I was trying to use the novel in my first book as an answer to what I thought then was the memoir craze. But of course the memoir craze has just spread and metastasized. And we live in a memoir society. But anyway, I ended up writing a book honestly because I really had no other choice.

Correspondent: You had no other choice?

Anastas: Well, seriously, I mean, I’d been trying to write fiction for a long time and I just hadn’t been working. I would either abandon projects 100 pages in or I would just edit them to death so there was really nothing there. And the circumstances of my life had gotten so bad that I couldn’t really do the necessary work of imagining. Every time I sat down to write, all I could think about was, well, god, how am I going to pay the rent this month? Or, jeez, is my girlfriend going to leave me because I’m so broke? Or what am I going to do about my child support payment coming up on the 15th? That’s all financial stuff. But there was also this overwhelming sense of “How did this happen to me?” How did I find myself here?

Correspondent: Did you feel that you were a victim and that you needed to memorialize this notion of “How did I get here?” Did it come from a sense of victimhood, do you feel?

Anastas: No. Definitely not victimhood. I mean, what was really interesting to me was trying to figure out — well, the book moves in two directions simultaneously. The first is it moves forward in time, which I was literally writing in real time. How am I going to get myself out of this mess? How am I going to find a job? How am I going to keep my girlfriend? How am I going to keep on seeing my son as well? Because I absolutely want to.

Correspondent: So you weren’t a fact checker at the beginning of writing.

Anastas: No. I wasn’t. I started writing the book in the fall of 2010. And I was just about to hit financial rock bottom. And it was the kind of situation where people had stopped answering my emails. The kind of things that I had done to make money had all disappeared.

Correspondent: You weren’t led past the velvet rope in any form. (laughs)

Anastas: (laughs) Exactly. Exactly.

Correspondent: So why did you feel — I guess you felt the need to grapple to the closest reality at hand. And that was the only way to actually deal with it. I mean, there’s actually one line where you say, “How much of our lives do we write? And how much of them are written for us?” And I’m wondering why you feel life has to be measured by how it is documented or how it is written about or how it is chronicled and how this was a way for you to deal with this really sordid rock bottom existence that is there at the very beginning of the book.

Anastas: Well, it’s funny. I used the phrase “write.” “How much of our lives do we get to write?” Of course, that’s how I think about life. Because I am a writer. But I really meant that metaphorically in the sense of how much of our own lives do we get to control. How much agency do we have? And how much of it is stuff that we’ve inherited? So there were two things simultaneously happening in the book. The first is that I’m trying to figure my way out of this mess and actually find work and try to keep my relationship alive and keep my relationship with my son alive. And also at the same time try to restore my relationship to writing by going into my son’s room with a notebook everyday with a pen. Just writing this book or the pages that began this book. Writing them out in longhand. And the second thing I was trying to do was go back in time. All the way back to the beginning. To my first memories. To try and figure out, well, how much of where I found myself is due to experiences I had when I was young? How much of it can be traced to be formative experiences I had when I was three years old? Including the really bad childhood therapy, which gives the book its title. So more than assigning blame, more than claiming victimhood for myself, it’s a way to try and create connections, to find where the symmetry is. Because I did feel like my life was weirdly symmetrical. Like I had been returned to the state that was very much like my earliest beginnings.

Correspondent: But it’s interesting that you view your life from this image of premonition throughout the book. The idea of the sedan that’s running into a tree, which then starts to have applicability to other incidents later on. Or even “I lost my marriage going down a glass elevator.” There is a sense of personal responsibility we all have, that we can in fact take action to if not inform that premonition then to also throw a few curve balls at the inevitable. Why do you seem to default, at least in this book, towards the premonitory? Or the “Oh, well my life has this trajectory that’s just going to play out this way”?

Anastas: Because I think that, as I said, I was trying to trace the moments of symmetry and put the pieces of this life that had been broken up into large pieces that were kind of dangling all over the apartment and hung over the railing and all this kind of stuff. I wanted to put it all together and figure out how I got to this place in life. And to me, that’s being active. That’s not being passive and saying, “Oh, life has done these things to me.” I haven’t been an equal part in saying, “Oh, life, how could you!” To me, that feeling never really entered into it. It was more a sense of taking what I do have, which is a knowledge of writing, a knowledge of books, and some measure of talent and trying to use those to knit back together a life that had broken to pieces.

Correspondent: It’s fascinating to me that you couldn’t actually approach this dilemma through fiction or that there was difficulty. You said that you were writing fiction that was too edited. Did you just really need to have an extremely broken place with which to turn out something as a writer? What is the difference between fiction and nonfiction to you? I’m really curious about this. Why can’t you approach fiction in the same way that you approach nonfiction? Which is like “Here I am. I’m kind of responding to the broken place I’m in, but I’m going to write my way out of it.”

Anastas: Well, that’s what I had been able to do my entire writing life. Up until the last four or five years. Obviously your life informs your fiction, even if the characters you’re writing about and the time that they live in has nothing to do with where you are. You always have some kind of overwhelming feeling that you’re trying to capture. And the feeling often comes from your immediate set of circumstances. You just lend it to somebody else. But I think just because of the dire state of my circumstances and because of the ways I’d failed as a fiction writer over the past five years, I just couldn’t do it anymore. And I had to, for this book anyway, I had to write it straight. It was a reality experiment. I was writing about things as they were happening. Which was incredibly rewarding in a lot of ways. But it was also so I could get the immediate satisfaction.

* — It was Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?, which in turn was a response to Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.

** — Please note that this conversation was recorded before Hurricane Sandy.

The Bat Segundo Show #495: Benjamin Anastas (Download MP3)

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Alison Bechdel III (The Bat Segundo Show)

Alison Bechdel appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #460. She is most recently the author of Are You My Mother? She has previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #63 and The Bat Segundo Show #250.

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[PROGRAM NOTE: Because this show is so unusual, we feel compelled to offer some helpful cues. At the 7:42 mark, Our Correspondent stops tape. He then offers an explanation for why he did this. At 8:09, the conversation with Ms. Bechdel continues. And then at the 40:34 mark, shortly after hearing some unexpected news from Ms. Bechel, Our Correspondent loosens an outraged "What?" that is surely within the highest pitch points in this program's history.]

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if his false self is good enough.

Author: Alison Bechdel

Subjects Discussed: Attempting to ratiocinate on four hours of sleep, Virginia Woolf’s diary entries, Virginia Woolf’s photography, To the Lighthouse as surrogate psychotherapy, Woolf’s “glamour shoot” for Vogue, not doing enough research, attempts by Bechdel to “get her mother out of her head,” the memoir and finding the true self, Donald Winnicott, not being “well-read,” reading Finnegans Wake in a closet, not reading John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates, guilt for not reading everything, encroaching mortality, working a double shift of writing and drawing, only reading the stuff you want to use, “Alison in Between,” tinting skin with retouching ink, tinting much of Are You My Mother? in pink, the futility of writing in a word processing document, comics as a language, ambiguity in comics, Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, Bechdel’s mother disappearing into a plexiglass dome, depicting origin points of what Bechdel writes and what Bechdel illustrates, living and writing from a place of shame, aggression and psychotherapy, writing about another person as a violation of their subjectivity, Bechdel’s mother’s tendency to read everything as a personal yardstick, how Donald Winnicott to organize one’s life into a book, Bechdel’s desires to cure herself, Bechdel transcribing her mother’s conversations, difficulties in recreating conversations, Bechel’s “apprentice fiction,” vigorous nonfictional expanse, how Love Life turned into Are You My Mother?, Bechdel going to great lengths to avoid the story about her mother, the difficulties of constantly writing about your life, the connections between writing and living, protection from outside voices, Bechdel’s shifting views on herself as an artist, becoming a secret writer, “literary situations,” the strange transformation of cartooning in recent years, how cartooning and other genres have been co-opted as “literature” after being ignored, artistic liberation and oppression, the risks of mainstreaming culture, Samuel R. Delany, being hypocritical progressives on Occupy May Day, the new obligations of artists to a corporate infrastructure, Susan Cain’s Quiet, introverts, obnoxious journalists pushing for personal details, flogging and pimping, the risks of putting yourself up front, being confessional without revealing much, Chester Brown’s Paying for It, Marc Maron’s interview with Matt Graham, telling all on Facebook, Bechdel’s teaching, Roland Barthes’s autobiography, how memoir subsists in a tell-all age, Foursquare, contemplation and narrative nuances, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, “the great Internet crackhouse,” Google searches and happenstance, the rabbit holes that emerge when you’re looking for something simple, Hope and Glory, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, why World War II is an emotional trigger point for Bechdel, therapy and First World problems, Bechdel’s mother’s artistic life, palling around with Dom Deluise, ripping off Keats, the mother’s face as the precursor of the mirror, and whether any author can see herself in a memoir.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Bechdel: I need to have pictures to make the kind of associative leaps that get me through my ideas, that get me through to some kind of conclusion. When I was writing Fun Home, I felt like I had to explain why it was a comic book. Like, oh, there was lots of powerful visual images from my childhood. I grew up in this ornate house. It was important to show that. But I don’t think that’s true. I think I was just trying to accommodate, just trying to make an excuse for why I decided it to be a comic book. But I don’t feel like I need to make that excuse anymore. Comics is a language that I’m learning to be more fluent in. And it helps me to make arguments and arrive at revelations.

Correspondent: As you become more fluent in the language of comics, has it become more ambiguous in some way? Has the ambiguity of the grammar and the language that you have staked your claim on been of help in exploring the ambiguities of life and the ambiguities of some life that is presented on the page?

Bechdel: I feel like I’m always trying to push the distance between the text and the image, the stories that are being described and the scenes and the narration that’s running over it. I’m trying to stretch that as far as I can without losing the reader’s attention. But I love that distance. And I think something powerful can happen in that distance.

Correspondent: Such as what do you think?

Bechdel: Well…

Correspondent: Is there a moment in this book where you felt that you hit that particular power?

Bechdel: Oh, I think of that Dr. Seuss spread, which was a purely visually driven sequence. I’m talking about one of my favorite childhood books, which was Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book.

Correspondent: The Plexiglass Dome and all that.

Bechdel: The Plexiglass Dome. With my first therapist, I would always describe my mother as having this plexiglass dome. Like at 9:00 at night, she would disappear in plain sight under this invisible dome, where she would smoke and read and no one could talk to her. She was off duty for the night. And I didn’t realize this. But looking through Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, the phrase “plexiglass dome” is right there. And it describes this little creature who lives inside a big dome watching everyone else in the world and touting them on a big chart. It’s hard for me even to talk about this stuff. Because I kind of need the visuals. And I think visually.

Correspondent: I’ve got it right here. (hands over the book)

Bechdel: Okay. (flipping through book) But when I was looking at this illustration as an adult, it just was immediately obvious to me that this dome was in the shape of a pregnant…

Correspondent: Pregnant uterus.

Bechdel: It even has a little door that says KEEP OUT. And this is just a sequence of ideas I never would have gotten at without pictures. I’m able to trace its origins in my own childhood drawings. And I’m able to project this metaphorical connection with the womb and my own desire for that kind of primal oneness with my mother that has been forever sundered. But that was visually driven. I couldn’t have come up with that without pictures and visual metaphors.

Correspondent: It’s interesting to me that the origin point very often of what you read is depicted more than the origin point of what you illustrate, or even what you write. I think of the infamous drawing that you do on the bathroom floor in this.

Bechdel: (laughs) Oh god.

Correspondent: A doctor examining a girl. We don’t actually see this. But what’s fascinating is that we actually do see a page of a memoir, a fragment that you wrote, with your mother’s red inkings all over it. Except that is occluded by all these textual boxes of Alison in the present day.

Bechdel: Yeah. My narration overlaying it.

Correspondent: So my question is: why didn’t you portray that drawing in an explicit way? Did you feel that you were more driven by words as a way to find the track here?

Bechdel: Well, sometimes, it’s more powerful not to show an image. In that case, maybe it was a cop out. But I really didn’t have the original image.

Correspondent: Yes, there’s that.

Bechdel: My mother had thrown it out. And I couldn’t replicate my child’s drawing without seeing the original. But that was just a cop out. I was very relieved I didn’t have it. Because I wouldn’t want to show that. It was just — that chapter was so difficult to write. Just revealing that childhood sexual fantasy was excruciating. I was living in just a horrible pit of shame for months as I was working on that chapter. For all of these chapters, whatever old dark emotion I was writing about — shame or depression or grief. All of that would take over my life during the period I was writing about it in a very uncomfortable and disconcerting way.

Correspondent: Is shame a source of comfort for you? I mean, I’m sure not everything here was written in shame. I mean, to my mind, I really like the therapy sessions. Because you draw yourself as just being super-excited to confess. More so, I think. We see the Alison in the therapy sessions. She’s like, “Yes! I’m going ahead and getting my aggression out!” And all this. Aggression, I suppose, or delight must have fueled this in some way. You can’t exclusively draw from a sense of shame to really confront something.

Bechdel: No. There was a whole range of different emotions. And the realization of my aggression was a great breakthrough. Something that I think enabled me to push through and finish writing Fun Home, my first memoir, and that I had to tap into again for this memoir. But my mother — it was a terribly aggressive act. Writing about any real person is such a violation of their subjectivity.

Correspondent: Well, how do you go ahead and honor your mother either during or after this book? I mean, she did review a good deal of it — at least if I’m going by the book here.

Bechdel: Yeah, she did. Well, you know, I feel lucky to have such an interesting and smart mother who cares about writing. Maybe my whole putting myself down about how little I’ve read is like a mother issue. Because my mother reads voraciously. She’s read much more than I do. She keeps up with all the criticism. She reads the London Review of Books. She reads a lot. And I could never stack up to that. So I guess I have to just keep whining about that in public.

Correspondent: But why should that even matter at this point? I mean, that’s the thing that fascinates me. I mean, if this book was your own To the Lighthouse, to free yourself of your mother, I mean, here we are talking about books and I’m like, “Well, Alison, at this point, you have nothing to worry about.” I would think. From a reading standpoint.

Bechdel: All right.

Correspondent: Even considering the mortality thing, which I totally understand. But I think you’re perfectly erudite as it is. You’re certainly more erudite than most Americans, I would say.

Bechdel: I’ll just have to settle for that, I guess.

Correspondent: Settle for that? Why? I mean, why not just be? We were talking about the true self in this, right? What about the true self of the Alison right here?

Bechdel: Maybe it’s just that I used to read so much as a child and I don’t read at that same pace. So I feel that I’m not living up to my image of myself.

Correspondent: Is this the same for drawing? And for art? And for illustration and all that? Do you feel that you’re holding yourself up to any yardstick? Or is it really just…

Bechdel: No, I feel pretty good about my drawing output.

Correspondent: I actually wanted to as you about a number of situations in this book where words are often operating on a different track than the life that is unfolding that you were depicting. I’m thinking, of course, of the “ersatz” argument with your mother while you’re going through Winnicott. Lying in bed with a book, as you have Eloise trying to tell you something that is very vital. And you’re just there with your book. Your mother patching your jeans while you discover the Jungian mother archetype.

Bechdel: Yeah. Those are some scenes where I feel like I really am pushing on that distance and asking a lot of the reader to follow my story, but also listen to my little essayistic digression. And I never quite know if that’s going to work. I hope that it does. Often, it’s sort of a plane to the thing. I’ll try to have a really interesting, compelling scene unfolding in the foreground so that the reader has some patience for these less related thoughts.

Correspondent: Is it a way of compartmentalizing yourself? To come to grips with certain truths? To decide what you’re going to put down and what you’re not going to put down?

Bechdel: No. I’m not sure what it is though. I can’t think of a counterargument to that.

Correspondent: Well, how does someone like [Donald] Winnicott help you in organizing your life?

Bechel: Oh man. Well, Winnicott helped me in organizing the book. But I knew from the beginning that I was fascinated with him, that I wanted to learn more about his ideas. But I didn’t know for quite some time that I would actually use him as some kind of structuring device. Each chapter in the book is organized on a different one of his pivotal theories. So he organized the book. But also I feel like I was trying to vicariously be analyzed by Winnicott. I wanted to be his patient. And so I did that through reading his work. And I haven’t actually thought about this explicitly. And this is the first time I’m trying this out. But I’m creating this attenuated analysis with Winnicott. Comparing myself to other case studies that he talks about. The famous Piggle case of the little girl he worked with. Who was just about my age. And I sort of identify myself with this child. With other people in case studies. Like in his mind and the psyche-soma paper, he talks about a middle-aged woman who just never felt like she was really alive or really present in his life. And I identify myself with her. And through his patients, I’m trying to cure myself.

Correspondent: Cure yourself? Or find points of comparison? Just to have a guide here?

Bechdel: I want to cure myself.

Correspondent: Cure yourself?

Bechel: I’m always trying to cure myself.

Correspondent: Is anybody completely curable? Are you completely curable?

Bechdel: No. But I would like to be more cured.

The Bat Segundo Show #460: Alison Bechdel III (Download MP3)

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jeanettewinterson

The Bat Segundo Show: Jeanette Winterson

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

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

Author: Jeanette Winterson

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winterson: I was.

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

Winterson: Oh no! It’s not stationary.

Correspondent: It’s not stationary?

Winterson: No.

Correspondent: Oh! You actually do ride the bicycle!

Winterson: I do!

Correspondent: Really?

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

Correspondent: Aha!

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

Correspondent: I see.

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

Correspodnent: Got it. Why do you need to…

Winterson: I don’t have to.

Correspondent: You don’t have to.

Winterson: But I do.

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: No, no, no.

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

Correspondent: But 15,000 words in two weeks.

Winterson: It’s a lot.

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

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

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

Winterson: Several.

Correspondent: Do you have about ten?

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

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

Winterson: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: Okay.

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

Correspondent: Sure.

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

(Photo: Chris Boland)

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

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The Bat Segundo Show: Sara Benincasa

Sara Benincasa appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #436. She is most recently the author of Agorafabulous.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering whether or not he has actually left the house.

Author: Sara Benincasa

Subjects Discussed: How to get out of bed and leave the house, the unanticipated benefits of contextual noise, overstuffed schedules, voices inside one’s head, the picaresque existence, commitments and surprise, occupations that depend upon approval, the adventurous spirit within the urban domicile, “I Am a Rock,” mental illness metaphors, freakishness as a choice vs. those who are innately freakish, Lee Redmond‘s automobile crash, mania and obsession, envy towards freaks, long-distance walking and The Great Saunter, how one’s “normal” behavior is viewed by others as different, seeking willful disapproval, freaks and confidence, Tod Browning’s Freaks, the close alignment between educators and comedians, Sicily as “the Alabama of Italy,” American problems with geography, regional stereotypes, being part of The Other in New Jersey, punching one’s father, family fistfights, domestic violence, Benincasa’s migratory impulses, sustaining lasting friendships while moving from city to city, National Lampoon’s Vacation, F. Scott Fitzgerald, celebrity wordplay, deciding what real-life incidents and people can be reused in a memoir, writers who write for revenge, The Boston Phoenix‘s Thomas McBee, Jeanette Wells’s The Glass Castle, Kambri Crews’s Burn Down the Ground, needless humiliation through a writing platform, holding figures up for public ridicule, what Benincasa learned from blogging, revenge and negativity, working for untreated bipolar people, being treated like dirt while younger, deep needs for approval and love, growing up in a take-out family, Benincasa’s cooking progress, an itemization of the dishes Bennincasa can cook, scrambled eggs and kale salad, Alice Bradley, gaining weight on the road, being career-focused, lack of spare time, finding down time and blowing off steam, Stuff You Missed in History Class, Tara Brach, playing Dave Matthews over and over again, The Sound of Music, sound as a soothing sensation, giving away a giraffe, Momfidential, claiming adulthood at 31, being in touch with your inner child, peeing in bowls and urine constituency, memoirs written from a privileged position, outpouring and audience approval, Girl, Interrupted, discussing the complexities of Flemington, New Jersey, court reenactments of the Lindbergh trial, Bruno Hauptmann, the Lindbergh kidnapping trial vs. the Salem witch trials, supernatural powers and pining for mysticism, Weird New Jersey, WFAN, the decline of local radio show hosts, and the future of radio. Sirius XM, and online radio.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Benincasa: I’m doing well. I mean, I got out of bed and out of my house.

Correspondent: You got out of bed?

Benincasa: I’m very excited.

Correspondent: How do you get out of bed?

Benincasa: Magically.

Correspondent: I mean, I think I got out of bed this morning. Obviously I met you here.

Benincasa: Yes.

Correspondent: But I obviously don’t know how I do it sometimes.

Benincasa: Well, you know what? I was awoken by a fire alarm going off in my building. Which as it turned out was just a test. But it was very exciting. And it motivated me to get up. Because like most people who deal with depression and anxiety and certainly agoraphobia, getting out of bed is sometimes a challenge. Getting out of the house is a challenge. But in this case, I was so rudely awakened that it was just great, actually. And I got to work on time. It was amazing!

Correspondent: So you need a contextual noise these days in order to get out of bed?

Benincasa: I need you to yell at me.

Correspondent: I mean, how difficult is it now for you? Just out of curiosity.

Benincasa: It depends. Most of the time, it’s all right. A lot of times, I wake up and my first thought is, “Oh no!”

Correspondent: Oh no?

Benincasa: Oh no! A day!

Correspondent: I don’t think you have to be agoraphobic to have that thought. (laughs)

Benincasa: That’s true. Absolutely. I think that’s more of a function of probably an existential crisis.

Correspondent: It’s the default setting for 21st century life.

Benincasa: Pretty much. But I think generally it’s a lot better these days. I feel more motivated. Especially with the book coming out. I found that it helps to keep extremely busy. Like to overstuff my schedule. Because that is a very strong motivating factor. The fear of disappointing someone.

Correspondent: Overstuff your schedule? Like how overstuffed would you say? Down to every hour booked?

Benincasa: Oh gosh. Not every hour.

Correspondent: Two hour blocks?

Benincasa: You know, I do a lot of writing. I write for vice.com and for newnownext.com, which is LogoTV’s gay site, and I write for xojane.com. And I write for a startup called bookish.com, a publishing startup. And then I make videos. And I travel. And I talk to colleges. And I do comedy. And so I really take on too much on purpose. Because it keeps the brain demons away.

Corespondent: Oh yeah. The brain demons. You allude to the voice saying “I want to die!” many times in the book. When was the last time you heard that voice?

Benincasa: Well, it’s interesting. Because in the book, I chose to personify these urges I was having. It wasn’t like having a voice outside my head. It wasn’t like having a schizophrenic break, where I was experiencing auditory hallucinations. But it was like — when you listen to yourself and you think, “I need to listen to my inner voice. What is my gut telling me to do?” But your gut is all screwed up. Because all the signals are messed up. Because your brain is crazy. So it was more like that. It was more like, “Okay. I want to die. Yeah. Definitely want to die.” It wasn’t that long ago. It was really like four or five months ago. It was when I was finishing the final edits on the book. And I was in a relationship that ended in a sense. Because the guy moved a couple of continents away.

Correspondent: This is a recurring experience in your life, based on the book. (laughs)

Benincasa: Like I said, I think I need a lot of activity to distract me from the demon voices or my inner struggles. So that relationship was certainly a distraction. And the book was certainly a distraction. And with both of those things coming to an end in one sense, I didn’t have these distractions. So I had to face what was actually going on. And I didn’t really like that. So hence that. So actually my editor at William Morrow was really great and very empathetic. And so I went home for a couple months to Jersey to just kind of get better and get my shit together. And my boss at Bookish was great too and let me work remotely. So that’s the benefit of being a freelance writer. You generally aren’t making enough money. But you can do it from anywhere.

Correspondent: And it’s good when you have situations like this. I mean, these migratory impulses of yours. I’m really curious. You were saying — I learned before we talked that you had made yet another move. And this is very much a picaresque tale.

Benincasa: Yes!

Correspondent: It takes us to Boston. It takes us to Asheville.

Benincasa: It’s like Moll Flanders.

Correspondent: Yes, I know.

Benincasa: Which I think is a picaresque.

Correspondent: Yes, yes.

Benincasa: Right. I think so.

Correspondent: I think Thackeray or someone along those lines was an impulse. Or Defoe. But I’m curious. Do you have difficulties often staying in one spot? Do you feel the impulse to flee sometimes?

Benincasa: Yes! I have trouble with commitment on many levels. Commitment sometimes to a person. Commitment to a place of residence. Commitment to a career.

Correspondent: I’m surprised that I got you to commit to this interview. (laughs)

Benincasa: Yes! I did! Very exciting. I decided to marry this interview.

Correspondent: Although it was last minute.

Benincasa: So it worked. A lot of times, the last-minute stuff works best for me.

Correspondent: So short-term commitment, okay. Long-term commitment?

Benincasa: I get surprised into committing.

Correspodnent: Surprised? (laughs)

Benincasa: I have to be surprised.

Correspondent: Being shocked and galvanized into committing.

Benincasa: Oh yeah. I’m really shocked.

Correspondent: To wake up. “Wow! I’ve been married to this guy for three years.”

Benincasa: Surprise! Oh great. I have a kid?

Correspondent: (laughs)

Benincasa: I have been surprised by my commitment to New York City. Because I’ve moved around quite a bit within New York City. But I’ve been here for six years. Six and a half years. And that to me is shocking. That I’ve spent that much time in one place. And so of course, I’m itching now and thinking about moving to Los Angeles or Asheville again or somewhere. But I don’t know what that is. I have a restless nature, I guess.

Correspondent: Is this why you have applied to jobs out-of-state over the years?

Benincasa: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: Hey, if the vocation takes me here, I can blame the job.

Benincasa: Exactly.

Correspondent: As opposed to my own decision.

Benincasa: Yeah. So that I can keep moving. Kind of like a shark that never stops moving. I don’t know if that’s a myth or true.

Correspondent: Or just a Woody Allen saying.

Benincasa: Or just a thing. Yeah. I find it necessary to just keep moving. Always keep busy. Always keep busy. And the upside of that is that I’ve got to have a lot of adventures and do fun things and meet a lot of cool people. And the downside is that eventually something does happen where you have to stop. And for me, when I’ve gone through a really deep-seated depression in my life, which has happened about three or four times, that has been just a screeching halt and has made me reflect on who I am and what I’m doing.

Correspondent: I was going to ask you about — I had one question just dissolve.

Benincasa: That’s okay.

Correspondent: As they sometimes do. But I wanted to ask you. I mean, here you are. You’re a comedienne, a freelance writer. These are occupations that depend very much sometimes — especially with comedians — on approval.

Benincasa: Yes.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering how you deal with this. Because if you have all sorts of inner demons committing you to self-loathing, so to speak — at least temporarily, short-term commitment — and you can’t get a laugh from an audience or you can’t get a gig, how do you deal with that? I mean, do you have a good support base?

Benincasa: I have a really good support system in the form of a pathologically approving family and supportive family.

Correspondent: Pathologically? (laughs)

Benincasa: A really disturbing, supportive…

Correspondent: They’ve never said a bad word about you. (laughs)

Benincasa: You know, sometimes, they should have.

Correspondent: Really?

Benincasa: There are times where they should have been more critical, but just sort of very, very loving. Very supportive. So there’s that. And then I also have some great friends. But yeah, I think we all come to — those of us who are comedians often come to comedy for reasons that are not entirely healthy. And sometimes it is out of a twisted desire to be held up for ridicule. Sometimes it is out of a desperate need for love and affection. That’s me. And other times, it’s for the high of performing. And for me, I don’t think I’m chasing that high. I think it’s more about affirmation. Which is kind of ridiculous. Because it’s a losing battle. Because no one is going to be liked all the time. No one is going to be approved of all the time. So I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily the most psychologically healthy choice for a career. But it is the choice that I’ve made at this point. And writing, I think, is so similar. Comedians are writers. We just tend to do our writing in notepads and then perform very short-form stories on stage.

Correspondent: Yes. My query that had dissipated into the ruminative mist has come back.

Benincasa: Ah, excellent!

Correspondent: And it was about this notion of adventures taking you away from home. I mean, you clearly have had adventures inside an apartment and so forth.

Benincasa: Oh yes.

Correspondent: So I’m wondering why you feel that the adventurous spirit is not necessarily there within an urban domicile.

Benincasa: Well, it’s a little boring when you’re just adventuring with your television set and your books and your comfort objects. I love the song “I Am a Rock” because, you know, “I have my books / And my poetry to protect me / I’m shielded in my armor.” And he refers to the room as a womb. And that really is how it feels. So I can go adventuring in my mind when I am in my apartment. But especially because I’ve had times in my life when I was afraid to leave, I find that I need to make myself leave. It’s this impulse. Perhaps that’s part of my wandering nature. If I can wander and not be afraid, it proves to me that I’m not a slave to my particular form of madness.

Correspondent: Yeah. You still feel very much enslaved by it? I mean, it seems that you’ve had some success.

Benincasa: Sure. Definitely.

Correspondent: You’ve managed to, at least, emerge unfettered to the microphones right here.

Benincasa: I don’t feel enslaved it. But it’s there. It’s kind of like the way people who are in recovery talk about their addictions. It’s something that they manage. But it’s not something that is cured. That’s how I feel about mental illness for me. Because if I don’t take good care about myself, doing basic things like sleeping enough and eating properly and making myself leave the house and acting against type — so acting against what my instincts are sometimes — it can come back. Or it’s like, I need to constantly — it’s like keeping your house clean so that mold doesn’t grow on the corners. Because it will do that if you don’t keep it clean. That’s sort of another metaphor that works.

The Bat Segundo Show #436: Sara Benincasa (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Vincent Cassel & Rachel Shukert II

Vincent Cassel and Rachel Shukert both appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #351. Mr. Cassel stars in Mesrine: Killer Instinct, which opens in limited release on August 27, 2010, followed by Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 on September 3, 2010. Ms. Shukert is most recently the author of Everything is Going to Be Just Great and previously appeared on Show #217. (The true Shukert completist can also listen to Ms. Shukert on Show #173, where she appears in a group discussion on sex writing.)

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Dodging persuasive serial killers and angry Swiss listeners.

Guests: Vincent Cassel and Rachel Shukert

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPTS FROM SHOW:

Correspodnent: Does movement offer a more creative place to establish a character? More so than the backstory, research, or anything?

Cassel: Of course it does. I mean, look, you walk down the street. You see somebody that you’ve never met. And you see him walking. You just see his back. And you already can say a lot of things about him. Is he drunk? Is he somebody sad? Happy? What kind of energy he has. You know, all that.

Correspondent: I’m glad you mentioned that you use different movement. Because I have noticed that about your performances. I mean, Mesrine and your role in Irreversible are two completely different movements. What do you do to prevent yourself from repeating a particular gait? Or a particular walk? Or a particular way of entering a room? Or a way of inhabiting an atmosphere or what not? Do you worry about this? Repeating yourself for each character?

Cassel: No, of course. I mean, I think it’s important that you not do twice the same. But the main reason is that otherwise I get bored. So what I do is that — I’m very instinctive, I have to say. It’s not really something I think of in a very precise way. But I can feel if it’s something — actually sometimes, I start a scene and I have this feeling of deja vu. And sometimes I don’t really understand where it comes from. But that’s enough for me to just [snap] switch to something else and try something else on the moment, and then think about it. Afterwards, I understand. “Oh yeah. I did this on that scene from that movie.” But at the time, on the moment, I don’t really analyze. It’s just a question of feeling. Like most of acting is really.

Correspondent: Have you ever had a situation where an entire scene needed to be altered because you were physically adopting some cliche that you couldn’t quite identify? But it just didn’t feel right.

Cassel: Very much so. Especially in a movie like Mesrine. Because I’m so close to Jean-François Richet, the director. We were literally: get on the set in the morning. We would try. And suddenly something is wrong. Let’s change everything. Because I think acting and moviemaking in general — maybe more for an actor than for a director — it has to be organic. Whatever that word means. You don’t have too much time to think on a movie. It’s very much about the acting and being involved physically in what you do. That’s the only way to see if it’s real or not really. So, yes, you try things. It’s about trying and finding solutions.

* * *

Correspondent: You note of [your future husband] Ben that, as you watched him calmly rub soap into his hands by the communal sink, you realized that you had known all along that you would see him again. I’m wondering what it is about hand hygiene that serves as your personal madeleine.

Shukert: (laughs) I don’t know. I remember that moment. It was very calm. And he didn’t seem surprised to see me. And I had been thinking about him and having this sense that we would bump into each other again. I think it was seeing him doing something that was very mundane. We were at home together. Even like moments now. It felt almost as if we had skipped in time and we were standing in our own bathroom while he was brushing his teeth and I was trying to put my makeup on. Do you know what I mean? It felt very familiar in that sense. It’s sort of an instance of fact seeing somebody washing themselves in some way or grooming.

Correspondent: So really any guy could have come along, if they had done any remotely regular gesture at that point. They could have swept you off your feet!

Shukert: I don’t know. I was definitely in a different place. (laughs)

Correspondent: The title Everything is Going to Be Great comes from a sentiment expressed by Pete — a guy with a girlfriend who you got involved with and who had a problem of hitting on other women in restaurants. Including you. You became involved with him, justified your involvement by noting a Dutch study where a woman’s neural activity at the moment of climax is equal to that of someone in a vegetative state. I must go ahead and ask. Surely hindsight offers the basis of 20/20. Lust may indeed make us do stupid things. But there’s often another reason why we’re driven to the irrational. So I’m wondering why you’re content to throw away this particular introspection.

Shukert: But I feel that it’s really describing that moment more. I feel like later, in the exploration of that relationship, other reasons come to light. The fact that we were both — and I feel that this is there in the book — that sort of explains why I couldn’t slap him across the face in that moment. Do you know what I mean? But as far as getting involved with him later, we were both kind of lost. We were both adrift. I was, at the time, really lonely. And things were not working out the way that they were supposed to. I think I mentioned how he suddenly gauged escape to this adventure that he was supposed to be having. He made it feel like there was a point, that I was here to fall in love and have this incredible adventure. And it turned it into a narrative. It turned it into a story, as opposed to this aimless time-waster. And I feel that if I had been here, if I had been on my home turf, I don’t think that we would have gotten involved. I feel that being abroad, you are off your center of balance. Away from the practical things that you really think about. You’re removed from all of that. And there were so many things I didn’t have to deal with.

The Bat Segundo Show #351: Vincent Cassel & Rachel Shukert II (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Ander Monson II

Ander Monson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #338. Mr. Monson is most recently the author of Vanishing Point, as well as a poetry collection called The Available World, which nobody had thought to send to Mr. Segundo’s motel room. Contrary to photographic evidence, Mr. Monson does not have a beard.

Mr. Monson previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #21, just before Mr. Segundo had finally switched over from Betamax to VHS.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pointing at the designated vanishing spot.

Author: Ander Monson

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: The subtitle for this book is “Not a Memoir.”

Monson: Yes.

Correspondent: Is it safe to say that you’re not a writer and I’m not a journalist. Maybe we can establish some terms here.

Monson: I think so. Yeah, I think so. I mean, it’s a little tongue-in-cheek. But I don’t consider it to be a memoir. But at the same time, as soon as you call something “Not a Memoir,” it sets the tone of the conversation.

Correspondent: Yes.

Monson: So a number of the reviews have been suggesting the ways in which it is a memoir. But it’s also explicitly not a memoir, in the sense that the book is really not — is interested in taking apart the idea of memoir.

Correspondent: Yeah. But it’s also not a manifesto.

Monson: It’s also not that.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Monson: That’s true.

Correspondent: Maybe you need a subtitle to grab the reader’s attention for more conceptual stuff.

Monson: No, it’s true. The subtitle was actually suggested by one of the designers at Graywolf. I think they were looking for something besides “Essays.” And I actually liked it. I thought the subtitle worked quite well. Because it’s a little bit in your face.

Correspondent: In your face? Just by saying “Not a Memoir?”

Monson: I think so.

Correspondent: Really?

Monson: Yeah, I think so.

Correspondent: But then again, you can always…

Monson: I mean, “in your face” as far as nice Midwestern boys writing experimental literature.

Correspondent: I didn’t find it that way. I found it more of a playful thing.

Monson: Well, it is.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Monson: I think so too. But some of the reviews have taken it as a shot across the bow or whatever.

Correspondent: Really? I didn’t see thee reviews.

Monson: There was a review — I want to say one of the first reviews it got — Booklist maybe? Or Library Journal. One of the two did a review of it, with eighteen new memoirs.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Monson: But seemed to review it as a memoir. Which kind of pissed me off. Because it’s…

Correspondent: It’s very clearly on the title. “Not a Memoir.”

Monson: Yeah. It says very specifically. I don’t know. It’s hard to be pissy. Because it’s gotten really good reviews otherwise.

Correspondent: Yeah, but what if this thing gets categorized in the memoir section? Then what are you going to do?

Monson: Well, it kind of has to be. In a certain sense. Or else like what? Cultural criticism? They say it’s “Literature/Essays.” I mean, [John] D’Agata’s book is “Cultural Criticism.” Which I guess is apt, but…

Correspondent: I wanted to talk about this idea of the memoir. Because near the end of the book, you suggest that by reading memoir, we pretend to comprehend a life. I’m wondering if it’s more accurate that a reader, by way of seeing a life placed in narrative, might comprehend a pretense of some kind. That pretense is probably more truthful than any cold and clinical declarations of the truth.

Monson: I mean, I think so. I think that the thing that attracts readers to memoir is that you read memoir to understand your own life. In as much as you understand some semblance of a life. That whatever — simulation, which is kind of what the memoir genre offers. So I think in that sense, that’s right.

Correspondent: Well, on the subject of karaoke, I’m wondering how a song can be truly liberated from its original form. I mean, aren’t we talking about possibly some secondary or supplemental component that comes with the karaoke? Aren’t we talking more about performance than the actual song?

Monson: Well, you know, karaoke is a complicated thing. It’s partially because what it does. It allows readers or listeners to participate in the song in a way that I think people want to do now. With film, now people can remix. There’s a billion — like, homegrown — versions of Star Wars. And those kids who are doing the shot-by-shot remake of the Raiders of the Lost Ark film.

Correspondent: The Super 8 version.

Monson: Yeah. So there’s this real participatory instinct. But there hasn’t been ways to do that in books in a certain sense. Which is partially why the book is structured kind of the way that it is. You can type in some into the website and so on. But karaoke is trickier. There are songs that, by singing them, you liberate it from the original context of the crappy version, and how you felt about it, and who you were when you first heard that song. And how much you disliked it. And in some ways, it is sort of overlaying the one on the other. But it really does become a new thing by singing. If you’re doing it at all well. And there is certainly an element of performance, which is a big part of why people are successful at singing karaoke. You’ve got to deliver the rock if you’re going to sing a rock song. So there is that element. But it’s also interesting to see the way that people decide to do it. Because some people — do you choose to try and sing it like the original singer? Or it’s sort of like the ironic guy, who’s going to do the kind of William Shatnerization of things.

Correspondent: Sure.

Monson: Or are you even trying to do the voice? Which a lot of people try to do the voice. Which is also what keeps me doing AC/DC.

Correspondent: But if you’re talking also about camp, I mean, some people find a voice through an artificial delivery of a preexisting song.

Monson: They do. They do. And I think that’s in some ways that’s kind of an analogue for the ways in which a lot of writers — I mean, you learn by imitation. You love this thing. You sort of try to get it inside you and you do it. And even if you’re not doing that intentionally, trying to copy The Sun Also Rises — like type out every line. Which is not a bad exercise for a writer. You know, I read Underworld by DeLillo one summer. And I wrote a story, which is in Other Electricities, which is a very DeLilloesque story. And I still kind of recognize that in a weird way. I think the story works on its own. So there is a sense in which — I mean, you do get to a sense of your own personal voice by either opposing or working from other models. And some of those models are, just like the thousands of songs you’ve heard, the ways you’ve heard people sing, it’s pretty hard to do something really original.

The Bat Segundo Show #338: Ander Monson (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Sarah Manguso

Sarah Manguso appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #232. Manguso is most recently the author of The Two Kinds of Decay.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contemplating fifty-five additional states of decay.

Author: Sarah Manguso

Subjects Discussed: David Markson, sentences that originate in other formats, fan mail, whether a paragraph is truly a paragraph, problems with typesetting nomenclature, remembering personal moments at 1,000 words a day, word arrangement units (”WAUs”), themes vs. timeline, organic vs. inorganic writing, unrecognized planning mechanisms, thinking of the reader, Adam Thirlwell’s The Delighted States, syntactic barriers and foreshadowing meaning, mosaic tiles, the goofy perils of being called a poet, incidental metaphors, the engine of intelligence getting in the way, the uncertainty of employment, the solipsistic degrees of writing, stumbling upon a cohesive idea of what the universe entails, other memoirs of illness, categorization and after-the-fact marketing, reading fiction while writing, John Cheever’s Falconer, surveillance and paranoia, the alphabetical pursuit of hobbies, and the identity of the famous writer baffled by the idea of a hobby other than writing.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Manguso: I thought of the pieces as an arrangement in two phases. The first phase was completely chaotic and the second phase was orderly. And during the chaotic first draft phase, the project that I set myself was really just to try to remember everything I could remember about this nine-year period in my life. Just everything. Every individual memory that I could bring up. And after my latest revision had lasted seven years, after that time, it really did seem that the memories had become particulate. Like there really was just one memory that espoused the insertion of the first central line in my chest. And it really did seem to have hardened in my memory into this item, this thing, this chunk of this chapter. And so while I was first writing the book, I didn’t think about chronology. Mainly because I had no idea how to write a book about one thing. I’d never done it before. And I didn’t know anything about narrative or what should come first. I really just wrote the pages all as individual files. And once I couldn’t remember anything else, I printed them all out and tried to notate based on memory and based on asking people what months and what year each thing had happened. And then I just put them in chronological order.

Correspondent: Well, there’s specific phrasing for some of these “thingies.” Pardon my…

Manguso: Let’s call them chapters now. I think that sounds more professional.

Correspondent: These particular word arrangement units. WAUs. Wows?

Manguso: Wows.

Correspondent: We’ll call them wows. Or waz.

Manguso: I’m going to call them chapters. But I like wow.

Correspondent: You often have text within text. With this italicization. But you have a particular timeline. Because you often use “the day before the decision I wrote” or “I wrote this three months after the diagnosis.” And so it seems that not only arranging these wows into themes, but also into a timeline. I’m wondering how you place prioritization upon a theme over a timeline. Were there certain circumstances? Was this entirely an organic process? Or was there just a lot of tinkering around with order and with rhythm? The way we were talking about this, it almost seems like this quarto of some sort.

Manguso: Well, I wish I knew. I’m not really sure how to differentiate an organic process from an inorganic process.

Correspondent: Okay. Let’s just say blindly intuitive vs. carefully planned and calculated.

Manguso: Well, at the risk of sounding difficult, I’m really trying my best to remember what it was like to write this book. But I made the thing. And the thing is a result of my guiding intelligence engaged with my memory. And I don’t know if I can really distinguish between the decisions that were more intellectual than intuitive. Or more intuitive than intellectual. I wish I knew. It is true that, after the book was done or after the final draft was done, it does seem that there were themes that had been inserted or injected into the book by some planning mechanism that I didn’t really recognize. But I think that’s kind of a familiar recognition to have after you make a thing. It makes sense in ways that you weren’t exactly planning. I’d rather not say that the whole thing is mysterious to me. But I think enough of it is that I’m hesitant to say, “Well, I meant to this, this, and this.” I don’t know what I really meant.

Correspondent: Well, I mean, how much should we be really dwelling upon dichotomies?

Download BSS #232: Sarah Manguso (MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Rachel Shukert

Rachel Shukert appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #217. Shukert is the author of Have You No Shame? Incidentally, she’ll be appearing at the July 17th installment of the In the Flesh reading series.

Condition of the Show: Contending with tenuous widows and the mysterious circumstances of Mr. Segundo’s death.

Author: Rachel Shukert

Subjects Discussed: Whether Ms. Shukert is still on the Viacom blacklist, the soul-crushing aspects of temping, working odd jobs in Amsterdam, Anne Frank as a constant in life, the holy similarities between Northw__t and G_d, plane crashes vs. car crashes, airlines and gods, the legal system and divine repercussions, lawyers in Nebraska, talk show hosts who come from Nebraska, Montgomery Clift, the relationship between Jewish identity and location, Omaha vs. New York, the notion of stretching out time, writing truthfully about scatological topics, placing a parental advisory warning, expanding the limitations of personal experience, on being perceived by others, limits on confessional writing, room for the persona to grow within annotation, elevated prose, abandoned sets of footnotes left out of the book, David Foster Wallace’s “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko,” David Macaulay’s Motel of the Mysteries, Will Self’s The Book of Dave, Newt Gingrich, writing letters vs. email, using all caps in print vs. online, grouping people into taxonomies, Fred Savage and Jason Priestley, first crushes, being published as a paperback original, The Anorexic’s Cookbook vs. The Anarchist’s Cookbook, and performing pieces in front of a crowd.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Shukert: Jason Priestly and Fred Savage were the two guys on TV who I had big crushes on as a child. I had a picture of Fred Savage in my locker that I cut out from the newspaper. I remember that he was holding a candy box. Like a Valentine’s heart box. And I would pretend that he was holding it for me. And then when I got a little older, I thought Jason Priestly was the handsomest man I had ever seen. I mean, when I say “a little older,” I mean ten. But I had a big poster of him in my room too.

Correspondent: Who was the first crush you had?

Shukert: Gene Kelly.

Correspondent: Really? And he’s not referenced in the book.

Shukert: No. That’s private. (laughs)

Correspondent: Not anymore. It’s public now. But this is an interesting distinction. Are you slightly ashamed of these crushes?

Shukert: No, I’m not ashamed. But there’s a difference between being ashamed of something and just having something close to your heart. (laughs)

Correspondent: Wow. Well, I’m curious. How much does a crush linger over the course of one’s life like this? I mean, you can be safe with Jason Priestly and Fred Savage, but…

Shukert: I don’t have crushes on them anymore.

Correspondent: But you still have a crush on Gene Kelly.

Shukert: Yes, but he’s dead.

Correspondent: He’s dead. The dead people are the ones to really lust after the best.

Shukert: Yeah, I think that that’s true.

Correspondent: Because there’s no way that you can possibly consummate it.

Shukert: I also loved Paul Newman as a child.

Correspondent: What are you going to do when he dies?

Shukert: I’ll be sad. I’ll mourn like a widow.

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