Yiyun Li (The Bat Segundo Show #542)

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

Author: Yiyun Li

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: You left out North Korea. (laughs)

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

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

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

Correspondent: You’re manipulating readers.

Li: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo: Karin Higgins)

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

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

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Eleanor Catton (The Bat Segundo Show #524)

Eleanor Catton is most recently the author of The Luminaries, the winner of this year’s Booker Prize.

Author: Eleanor Catton

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Subjects Discussed: The rumor of John Barth writing Giles Goat-Boy from a chart with ideas taken from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the tasks of a hero, the benefits of an overly planned structure, astrological charts, the creative possibilities from the pressure of adhering to a pattern, characters and temperaments that align to the Zodiac and the planets, tonal restrictions vs. hard plot restrictions, deliberate choice, the planned 1865 trackback option in The Luminaries, the tension between the chapters and the chapter descriptions, whether description is enough to get inside the heads of characters, fictional characters who bash in heads, deciding what to reveal to the reader, controlling the reader’s intelligence, manipulating the reader’s desire to know, literary writers who flock to genre to attract more readers without respecting it, children as the ideal readers, Catton’s affinity for children’s literature, avoiding self-indulgent prose, style within The Rehearsal, style vs. voice, the proper ways to address social injustice through fiction, fiction as a way of animating questions in an affectionate theater, working with hard antecedents, writing a novel that is open with reader expectations, the many disgraces foisted upon Crosbie Wells’s corpse, Francis Carver’s monstrous nature, character expectations, when the reader doesn’t know how to feel about a character, fretting over structural inevitability, dastardly duos in adventure stories, the menace inside the law as reflected through Shepard, Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady as inspiration for Catton, being curious about the seed of corruption within an enemy, the need for a human quality within a villain, the relative nature of happy endings, sympathizing with all characters, why much of the digging in The Luminaries is offstage, Gabriel Read and Gabriel’s Gully, avoiding historical cliches and the “greatest hits,” why reading historical newspapers may be the best form of research for a fiction writer, not respecting the Forrest Gump approach to memorializing past events, how human lives are really shaped, the real role of history upon everyday life, Rob Ford’s crack cocaine use, the New York mayoral race, dashing out “damned,” how the novel’s structure allowed Catton to postpone Anna Wetherell’s fate, mid-1860s newspapers as the Internet of their day, learning how 19th century courtroom systems work exclusively from newspapers, the fluidity of money as a way to drive story, concealing gold in women’s clothing as a tax dodge, the influence of 20th century crime writing on The Luminaries, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, being very particular about characters speak, omniscient third person as a way of telling a story falling out of fashion in contemporary literature, the limitations of present tense, Catton’s fascination with adverbs, Henry James’s sentences, how adverbs expose the tension between the objective and the subjective, creative writing workshops and adverbs, Catton’s correspondence with Joan Fleming, confronting cowardice, multicultural characters in the 19th century, The Walking Dead‘s terrible use of African-American characters, Maori culture in New Zealand, New Zealand’s idea of political correctness, the Cantonese immigration during the Otago Gold Rush, the difficulties of mimicking life 150 years later, the Chinese Exclusion Act, comparing the racist histories of the U.S. and New Zealand, the relationship between capitalism and astrology, the lowest form of swindle as the only way to survive, profit vs. luck and associated assumptions about each, the strange notion of the self-made man, the seductive promise of total reinvention, mantras that belong in the civil world, Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, how ideas and objects call attention to themselves in the liminal space of fiction, strange loops, Shakespeare and Joyce as the fourth horseman in Hofstadter’s equation, the beauty of closed loop systems, the golden ratio and its associations with beauty, astrology and the circle of fifths, Martin Buber’s I and Thou, philosophical efforts to understand being in love, selfhood tangled up with feelings for others and the golden ratio, the golden spiral within The Luminaries, writing chapters that are half the size as the preceding ones, and being jolted into a creative space by getting painted into a corner.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Catton: The way that it works in The Luminaries is that all of the characters are each representative of one of the figures in the Zodiac. So you’ve got twelve signs of the Zodiac, first of all. Twelve constellations. And then you’ve got seven planets. Put quote marks around planets because that includes the Sun and the Moon. It’s really the bodies that are visible to the naked eye in the sky. And the ways in which these characters — they are characters in the book — move and interact with one another and influence one another is all patterned on actual star charts. So the book begins, for example, the Sun and Capricorn. And the character who is at this point playing the archetype of the Sun is interacting in this part of the book with the character whose temperament conforms loosely to a Capricorn temperament. And so in a way I was restricted by the twelve days on which the book appears. The planetary placements were fixed for those twelve days. And I had to make the plot be interesting and meaningful around those positions.

Correspondent: You had tonal restrictions as opposed to hard plot restrictions.

Catton: Right. Oh yeah, I like that! But on the other hand, of course, I chose those days quite deliberately. And long before I’d even written anything, I’d been studying the movement of the planets across the twelve signs of the Zodiac over the course of a few years. So I kind of knew which year was going to be suitable for narrative purposes.

Correspondent: Okay. So you knew you could backtrack to 1865 if you needed to.

Catton: Right.

Correspondent: Or did you plan on that in advance?

Catton: I think that that was there from quite early on, that movement back. Yeah. Just because the book’s a murder mystery. It begins just after a potential murder. A possible murder. And as most murder mysteries do, it ends up going forward in order to track back to return the reader to what they really have been wanting to see from the very beginning.

Correspondent: Well, there’s also this fascinating tension near the end of the book where it flits between 1866 and 1865 and back again. And then you have this tension between the chapter descriptions and the chapters themselves. I mean, I was reading the descriptions and I was thinking, “Well, this could be pulled from some astrological newspaper column or something.” But while there are numerous questions that you answer, some such as the identity of a murderer — I’m going to do my best not to give anything away — remain very murky. There’s this sense that no amount of description at this point in the book can be adequate enough to get inside the heads of these characters. So I’m wondering, first of all, do you actually know everything that happened? And, second, did you set any priorities on what you wanted to reveal to the reader and what you didn’t out of curiosity? I mean, how much of this did you map?

Catton: That’s interesting. I’m pretty sure I know everything that happening.

Correspondent: Including the head bashing.

Catton: Yes. I think we probably couldn’t talk about that on air.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Catton: For fear of spoilers.

Correspondent: How did you decide what to reveal to the reader?

Catton: Well, I think that in writing mystery, my experience of it was almost like being the conductor of an orchestra when you’ve got everybody’s stave in front of you on this big master sheet. And I realized in the writing of the book that I needed to control the reader’s intelligence in quite a different way than as usual, I suppose.

Correspondent: Control the reader’s intelligence. How so? I mean, what are we talking here?

Catton: I suppose I’m using the word “intelligence” in the 19th century sense. In terms of just knowledge.

Correspondent: That would be quite a feat. And what do you do besides pulling rabbits out of your hat?

Catton: (laughs) If you imagine these parallel tracks of music going along, on the one hand, you’ve got what the reader knows. On the next line down, you’ve got what the reader wants to know, which you can manipulate by feeding them various teasers and coaxings and so on and so forth. Then you’ve got obviously what you know, but what the reader doesn’t yet know. And that’s shaping your narrative quite a bit as well. Because you’re putting into the narrative various foreshadowings and clues that then will be exciting on a second reading for the reader, but probably not meaningful on a first reading. And last of all, you’ve got the most exciting track, which is all of the things that the reader doesn’t yet know that they want to know, but you’re going to try to make them want to know it.

Correspondent: So how do you know what the reader wants to know? I mean, even if you are the most fluid and variegated reader on this planet, what you think the reader’s going to want to know, what is going to be of interest to you is not necessarily going to be of interest to another reader. Is there any reliable way to zero the needle for the average reader here at all? Do you have a considerable army of readers who can help you pinpoint that particular desire?

Catton: I think that mystery is actually a genre that is pretty fundamental. We all want to know solutions to things. We all want closure. We all want the answer. And what a mystery novel does is open up a whole bunch of mysteries at the very beginning in a way that is seductive, hopefully, if the book’s engaging, and then solves those mysteries in a way that comes maybe a little bit before or a little bit after what the reader is going to be guessing ahead to. So when I talk about what the reader wants to know, it has to do with engaging with the mystery. In The Luminaries, for example, when the book begins, a prostitute in the town is discovered lying drugged in the middle of the….

Correspondent: Anna Wetherell, yeah.

Catton: Right. When she wakes up in jail, she’s arrested for public insentience. And when she wakes up in jail, she discovers that an enormous fortune has been stitched into the…the…

Correspondent: The insides of her gown.

Catton: Into her clothing. Into her gown. And so that’s a mystery. And I’m just trusting as a writer that the reader will think, “Well, that’s a bit curious. That hasn’t happened to me. I wonder what the reason for that is.”

Correspondent: Well, this is interesting. Because there has been this interesting critical tension among literary types where a lot of them have gravitated towards genre in an effort to get readers. And some genre readers get understandably huffy. Because a lot of these authors don’t have the understanding of genre. And yet at the same time, you have interesting books such as Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men and your book that toy with the notion of genre while simultaneously respecting it. And I’m wondering. Is genre for you the best way to contend with what a reader covets in terms of mystery? In terms of how you can even advance the literary form? If you have a massive framework, as you do with the astrological charts, is that enough to transcend genre and produce a completely new form of literature?

Catton: Ah! That’s an interesting thought. Well, I would really like to see a breakdown between the categories of genre and literary fiction. I think that genre fiction is nearly always lively and literary fiction at its worst is not lively at all. I mean, at its best, it’s many things that genre fiction is not or tends not to be. But I take a lot of my inspiration actually from children’s literature. I see every work of literature for children as a mystery. I think that they have much in common with all kinds of genre fiction actually, but engaging with very, very weighty philosophical issues. The problem of growing up. The problem of feeling betrayed in growing up.

Correspondent: Which children are quite receptive to as well.

Catton: Right.

Correspondent: In many senses, they are the best readers.

Catton: Right. Well, I agree. And that’s the other thing that I really like about children’s literature. There’s no room for showboating or for self-indulgence on the writer’s part. Because the children will just see it coming a mile away and they won’t read the book.

Correspondent: Aha. So you are trying to get away from anything you see as self-indulgence. That any kind of “self-indulgent” impulse would be in the framework itself, in the structure. That’s where you get it out and you are able to use that to woo the reader while simultaneously avoiding the pretentious card. Is that safe to say?

Catton: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think a book should be for the reader’s pleasure and pain, for the reader’s experience. And it’s not a self-aggrandizing exercise. When I read, the most powerful responses I have to works of literature are always to the characters and to the dramas that are happening within the story. I don’t think I’ve ever had a fictional experience where I’ve read a novel and thought, “Gosh, this novelist. I really want to be like this novelist.” (laughs)

Correspondent: So you don’t really see voice, at least from the author’s standpoint, as a qualifier for quality fiction? Or what? How do you respond to a voice-y writer like Will Self or Anthony Burgess or someone who you just know that it’s definitely going to be this book? Or do you feel that style needs to be shaken up with each new project? David Mitchell certainly feels that way.

Catton: I would answer differently to the style question. I’m frequently a little bit befuddled by the distinction between voice and style actually, as it’s frequently made. I don’t know. There’s something about the ventriloquism or the supposed ventriloquism of voice that bothers me in a way. I don’t know. I think there’s probably a lot of voice-driven novels that I can think of that I adore.

Correspondent: Is it parody that you find to be a cheap trick? I mean, how do you transcend that? I mean, you’re also, in this case, mimicking a Victorian novel to a large degree. Even in The Rehearsal, you’re employing stage directions to convey this very strange tension between the two schools. So style is definitely something for you. I don’t think it’s ventriloquism. But I’m wondering how is it new. How do you make it new? How do you make it new enough to satisfy not falling for the ventriloquist racket that you are identifying here?

Catton: Right. Well, I think what originality is is the bringing together of two elements that don’t belong together at the most atomic level. It’s just putting things — it’s making connections that don’t yet exist. Between words, between ideas, between approaches. And so I think that individual styles always come out of some fusion of two or more unlikely elements. Bringing things into a context where they’re not germane.

Correspondent: Conceptual blending. Endless association. I mean, what would you describe as an acceptable minimum form of association for you that would satisfy you? That would say, “Well, okay, I am doing something different. I’m venturing out into the fields and I am going to find a different caribou.”

Catton: (laughs) I don’t really know what I want to do next. It’s really important to me not to repeat myself. And so I’ve kind of sworn…

Correspondent: I’ve counted the number of “the”s you’ve used in this entire conversation. I’m keeping a running tab in my head right now.

Catton: (laughs) I’ve made myself two pacts. One is that I never want to write two books that are similar over the course of my career in the future. And the second thing is that I never want to write a novel about a writer.

Correspondent: (laughs) Or an artist. Or a musician. Or that kind of thing. The stand-in writer.

Catton: Right.

Correspondent: Well, you know, you came kind of close there with The Rehearsal. Because you do have a number of students who are studying acting and studying music.

Catton: That’s true.

Correspondent: I think of the sax teacher in that. And I think of some of the weird instructions. “You must go ahead and go out into the world and live and have rampant sex with people in order to actually physically understand your body.” And that notion is almost weirdly didactic. Do you think you got a lot of the explicit morality stated by characters out with that novel? And how have you avoided it since?

Catton: Well, I think yes. Because so much of The Rehearsal takes place in a stage environment or a theatrical space, I had no access to their inner lives really. Because I was wanting to play with the idea of performance and what could be seen and assumed and put on. And so what that meant was that the characters would have to speak very declaratively. They had to conjure the reality that they were going to inhabit as actors in the same way as all theater that is not reliant on a realistic looking set always does that and has done that from the very beginning. And so I think, partly for that reason, the book has a very didactic tie-in. And I think the other thing that partly explains that thread in the book is that I was much younger when I wrote it and much more agonistic, I think, in the way that I was thinking. And the injustices of the world, particularly around feminist performance theory and lesbian feminist performance theory, that was really driving my thinking at that time — the injustices were just, I was feeling them and being enraged by them in quite a different way than I feel now. I’ve matured a bit, I suppose. My thinking’s a little more meditative and a little less reactionary.

Correspondent: How do you deal with the dawning sense — especially in our present world as it continues to go interestingly into the toilet, frighteningly so — how do you deal with having to take on, I suppose, a partial responsibility to reflect the social and the political world around us? I mean, we’re trying to make sense of truth and reality through fiction. So if you got a lot of this out with the first one, as I suspect that you did, how does this trick of trying to find an original style by vivid association, multifarious association, allow you to grapple with the world? I mean, is it safe to say right now that you’re going to take this on as an additional responsibility at all? Or you’re going to try to reconcile this? Or is this just not what you think a novelist should do? I’m just curious.

Catton: Well, I think that it’s absolutely vital that a novelist believes what her novel believes. I think that fiction is curiously revealing. I’ve learned this many times over as a creative writing teacher. It’s like reading somebody’s dreams essentially. You’re really getting a window, a very clear window into all sorts of values and prejudices and biases that the writer has. Even if they’re not aware of the fact that they’re displaying them, they’re usually there to be reared. And so I think that you have to be able to stand behind the consciousness of your work and have to have grappled in some meaningful way with the ideas that are driving the work’s project, I suppose. But as to what those questions might be and what those ideas might be, I think that that’s up to anybody. There are mysteries that have defined the human condition since we were humans. And we haven’t figured out the answers to them. There’s no reason why somebody can’t today write a novel which asks the question, “What’s going to happen when we die?” Because nobody knows the answer to that question. And asking that question in the modern world is going to yield quite a different struggle than asking it thirty or forty years ago. I think that it’s really important to be an idealist as a fiction writer and to know what those ideals are and to be able to see how they are transmitted into the work. Not necessarily at all in a didactic way. Quite the opposite of that. But in an animated way, I suppose.

Correspondent: If you are an idealist, if a novel is an assay so to speak, the ideas and the consciousness that you have thought about, that you have put into place, will be strong enough to evolve to a point where it will possibly be able to inhabit some of the concerns that I have just mentioned in my last question and to simultaneously avoid the great curse of didacticism. Is that safe to say?

Catton: Yeah. I think so, if you’re really truly struggling with something. Because you won’t be content with an answer. You’ll only be content with a question.

(Loops for this program provided by ancoral, proecliptix, deciBel, LoonyGoon1, and ebaby8119.)

(Photo: Robert Catto)

The Bat Segundo Show #524: Eleanor Catton (Download MP3)

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Ariel S. Winter (The Bat Segundo Show)

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

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

Author: Ariel S. Winter

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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

Correspondent: It is.

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

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

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

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

Winter: Yes. Because it’s different.

Correspondent: People don’t talk about that too.

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

Correspondent: Not even a quick sentence or anything?

Winter: It’s too exhausting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: The subconscious is an amazing thing.

The Bat Segundo Show #482: Ariel S. Winter (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #390. He is most recently the author of The Complaints.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Playing good cop and bad cop with his interlocutory approach.

Author: Ian Rankin

Subjects Discussed: The benefits of talking with a Scotsman on St. Patrick’s Day, sartorial description in prose, pleated miniskirts, balancing descriptive detail against dialogue, people who are intended to be larger than life, on not describing the central character, physical descriptions that compete with the expectations of television, Malcolm Fox vs. John Rebus, trying to make a protagonist who isn’t a maverick compelling, the adjacent sounds of garbage being emptied, what tastes in music reveal about character, family and backstory, the connections between Rebus’s father in The Black Book and Rankin’s father, moving past autobiographical connections, Rankin’s early pursuit of an English degree, avoiding the existential possibility of Ian Rankin the Accountant in early years, parents who don’t understand, Woody Allen, the limitation of locations in Edinburgh to write about, Doors Open, financial institutions and cities, Edinburgh as a microcosm for Scotland, the economic collapse as a creative muse, occupations that permit access to every layer of society, Michael Connelly’s start as a journalist, journalists-turned-novelists, sources who retire, making things up vs. research, not getting too close to the police, The Wire, the disadvantages of amateur detectives, Mario Puzo making the mob up in The Godfather, when imagination turns you into an unexpected police suspect, Hide and Seek‘s close similarities to real crime, serendipity, the universal nature of office politics, how much police procedure a writer really needs to know, being oblique enough to be believable, writing a first draft in six weeks, William Gibson, writing and revising on the road, Alexander McCall Smith’s prolificity, the danger of forgetting plot details, eating multiple candy bars per day as an alternative to nicotine addiction, nonsmokers who write convincingly about smoking in fiction, Rankin’s addictive personality, computer games, Iain Banks’s addiction to video games and Scottish roads, Rankin’s addiction to Twitter, being unable to tweet using a European phone due to the draconian wifi costs established by hotels, keeping a diary vs. maintaining a Twitter feed, writers as public property, the drawbacks of instant feedback, Facebook, The Social Network, Twitter as an exercise in editing, eBay addiction, compartmentalizing time, the possibilities of bringing Rebus and Siobhan Clarke back, not having a storehouse of ideas for future books, comics and working on Dark Entries, the creative differences when working with another person’s character, John Constantine, Neil Gaiman, hanging out with Alan Moore, naming characters after literary writers and rock stars in The Complaints, when too many character names begin with the same letter, long and ambitious novels, biases against shorter novels, Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the poet’s talent of distillation, the rising market share of ebooks, commercial forces and maintaining a mystery series, attracting new readers for a series, parallels between the publishing and the music industries, speculating on a future industry of freelance editors, independent bookstore alternatives to Borders, the modest revitalization of vinyl, the frequency of cheek gestures within The Complaints, repeating words and phrases, intrusive commas, manuscript fatigue, becoming part of the old guard mystery writers, and keeping books fun after multiple books.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Michael Connelly, who was also a journalist at one point, has discussed how he was worried that, as a journalist, a lot of his sources and a lot of his contacts would possibly go away. And this would prevent him from getting a lot of really interesting stories that he could put in his novels. I’m wondering if you’ve faced anything similar to that with your network of sources. Or whether you have accidentally burned a source. Have there been any problems?

Rankin: The problem with my sources is that a lot of them have retired.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Rankin: If they were my age — I mean, I’m going to be 51 this year — most of them have retired form the police. So guys that I met in my mid-to-late twenties when I was starting the [Rebus] series are now gone. And you either have to find a new set of people. Or you just make it up. I mean, it is fiction after all. What I do is that I’ve got enough people around me who can help me with the detail if I need them. But I don’t want to get too close to the police. Because I don’t want the books to become public relations exercises for police. And, of course, the only people who will talk to you are the good cops. The ones who are straight, you know. They’ll talk to you. Well, if that’s the only people you’re meeting, you might feel constrained. You might feel you can’t suddenly write about cops who’ve broken the rules or who’ve bent the rules a little bit. So I only go near the police when I need them. I mean, with The Complaints, I did need to talk to someone who worked in internal affairs. I set that up through another contact, who’s a senior police officer. But it was a couple of hours of conversation. And that was all I needed. That gave me a sense of what this organization would be like, what the office politics would be like, what kind of powers they have, what kind of stuff they did. Two hours. And the rest of it is invented.

Correspondent: Have facts and background been more of a limitation than a help throughout your work?

Rankin: Well, I do think there’s restrictions on what you can and cannot do. Because readers are much more sussed than they used to be. I mean, they’re watching cop shows on TV — whether it’s reality shows or dramas.

Correspondent: Or The Wire for that matter.

Rankin: Yeah. But they feel they know what goes on forensically. They feel they know what goes on at a crime scene. So you can’t suddenly start taking liberty. I mean, I’m very lucky. Because my guys are professional cops. Therefore, they would be at the scene. It’s much harder if you’re talking a kind of Miss Marple character. This notion that an amateur detective — a Lord Peter Wimsey or a Miss Marple — could just turn up at the crime scene and trample all over it. And that the cops wouldn’t give him a good kick up the backside and send him on their way. These days, it’s much harder for readers to take on board and accept. So I don’t write about private eyes. And I don’t write about amateurs who just happen to get caught up in drama. I write about people who get invited into the drama. Because that’s their job.

Correspondent: On the other hand, there’s, of course, the famous story that Mario Puzo made all of The Godfather up. So much so that mob people were reading this and they were saying, “How did he know so much about this?” Is this similar to your situation when you invent something? That almost inventing layers or systematic connections is almost better than relying on getting something right.

Rankin: Well, I mean, on the very first book that I wrote, I got the idea for the plot. And then I went to a police station to talk with a couple of cops. You know, just to get some background and some detail. And they asked me what the plot of the book was. And I told them. And it turned out that it was very close to a case they were working on. So they viewed me as a possible suspect for a short time. Until they decided that I was just insane. But the next book after that — Hide and Seek — two or three years after the book was published, a similar case came to light. And that gave me great kudos in Edinburgh. Because cops and the public alike said, “How did you know about this stuff?” I mean, it was kind of there. It was happening a few years ago. But it wasn’t. It hadn’t come to light then. And I had just invented it. And it came true later on. So people thought I knew what I was talking about. But I really wasn’t. I was making it up. And that continued to happen. There was a lot of serendipity. That I would just write about something that then seemed to be true. And it worked the other way as well. I would take a really true thing like the G8 — when the G8 came to Scotland. And that was just a great source of information. All you had to do to research that book [The Naming of the Dead] was to live in Scotland for a week. And that was a very easy book to write from my point of view. Because about half of the stuff in there actually happened. Up to and including President George W. Bush falling off his bicycle while trying to wave to a police officer. In my book, it’s Rebus. I mean, what if it wasn’t? It was someone else.

The Bat Segundo Show #390: Ian Rankin (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #320. Grafton is most recently the author of U is for Undertow.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Looking for a man named Snake to help him escape from Santa Teresa.

Author: Sue Grafton

Subjects Discussed: Kinsey Millhone’s early announcement to the readers regarding the bad guys, foreshadowing murder, not writing the same book twice, the ethics of investigation, the emotions associated with kidnapped children, Jaycee Dugard, Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, gray areas of moral conduct, the difficulties reconciling real crime and fictional crime, the horror of people killing each other over a pair of tennis shoes, Grafton’s comfort level, working from an arsenal of journals, juggling voices and large character canvases, the writer’s fantasy of having the luxury of time, the solace of observing creative struggle in past books, being influenced by the complaints of a single reader, the motivation behind creating a mystery writer character, Howard Unruh and Grafton’s “Unruh,” why Grafton wishes to take the alphabet series to Z, Grafton’s reluctance to embrace Hollywood and Grafton’s early career as a screenwriter, Nabokov’s The Original of Laura, and Grafton’s relationship with readers and the mystery community.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Grafton: I don’t like to repel readers. I mean, we’re always dealing with homicide and violence of this sort, which is difficult enough. I don’t want to rub that in my reader’s face.

Correspondent: So it’s like, on the one hand, with this crime, you wanted to keep it off stage so that the gory details didn’t come front and center.

Grafton: Right.

Correspondent: But in other instances, like what we just talked about, you like to foreshadow and give the reader a taste of what’s going on. Do you feel these are contradictory impulses?

Grafton: I don’t know. If they are contradictory, I hope it’s an interesting contradiction. In some ways, in the reports you get about the crime itself from another child who is involved, by hook or by crook, nothing evil happens. And I hope I’ve gained a little sense. This is a story about people who make mistakes, people who use poor judgment. It is not the act of wicked evil men. These are kids who do something stupid and it backfires.

Correspondent: But in a way, at least when I was reading you, it almost struck me as being more horrible — not to get into Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil, but that’s essentially what you set up here. These people are sucked into the situation by virtue of their own stupidity. Their drug use, who they hang out with. And it almost feels — have you read A Simple Plan by Scott Smith?

Grafton: No.

Correspondent: It was made into a movie with Billy Bob Thornton and the like. But it’s a similar thing, where you start off with one guy and he does one act, and then another action. And you suddenly realize you’re drawn into a world as he’s doing really horrible things. And there’s a justification for everything. And I really did find that you did establish that there’s a weird little justification for how things developed. And even though these are horrible crimes, there’s some underlying motivation. This goes back to structure and the like. What did you know about you prior to setting it all down? And I do want to get into the writing process a bit. But what did you know first off?

Grafton: Well, part of what I feel I’m doing here is — and some of this I discover after the fact. I think of this as the anatomy of a crime. This is that strange subterranean accumulation of events that results in a crime. And I thought it was interesting to look at it from that perspective. One thing I’m fascinated by, at this pace in my career, is gray areas. Black and white and evil, while repellent, are not as representative of the public at large. Many people, I think, cross the line. That’s always a question to me. What makes people cross the line? Most people are law-abiding, good-natured, and yet circumstances. You know, I think many criminals are not evil people. They’re not pathologically twisted. Many ordinary folk somehow wander from the straight and narrow. And those kinds of deviations, and those kinds of crimes, are interesting to me. Because they’re a little closer to the norm. They are still outside what I consider acceptable behavior. But it’s not as cut and dried as many types of crime might be.

The Bat Segundo Show #320 (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #308.

Lawrence Block is most recently the author of Step by Step.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Ruminating upon a life of exquisite indolence.

Author: Lawrence Block

Subjects Discussed: Step by Step as an anti-memoir, exploring childhood experience in print, randomness and finding connections, writing with a greater degree of freedom, Random Walk, concerns about a limited audience, earlier attempts at memoir, attempts by Block to write memoirs in the mid-1990s, the virtues of getting older, being less guarded with age, following up on Block’s remarks from Galut, avarice as the guiding principle, Evan Hunter, Charles Ardai and Hard Case Crime, growing less reticent about limited editions, the $479 Kindle, not carrying about work being preserved, genre fiction as a window to a specific world, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie never going out of print, Block and Judaism, being a creature of intense and transitory enthusiasms, not having a goal, the lack of commonality between writing and race walking, becoming increasingly drawn to pursuits that don’t involve leaving the house, writing screenplays, short stories vs. novels, and Alexander McCall Smith’s Wall Street Journal article and reader “ownership” of the characters.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

lawrence_blockCorrespondent: You mentioned that you had attempted memoir before.

Block: Right.

Correspondent: And that memoir, which I presume is still unfinished, that had more to do with the working life of a writer, I suppose?

Block: That memoir was about the early years. About the years writing pseudonymous books and getting started in the business. And I wrote about 50,000 words of it. And it still exists. And I went back to it. It was part of a multiple contract. It was submitted as part of that. And eventually the day came when I bought it back. It was a tiny portion of the advance. And I don’t think anybody at Morrow was that excited about it. My agent had just bundled things together. And because I didn’t seem inclined to resume it, oddly enough, now I find myself thinking maybe I ought to. That maybe that’s what I might want to do next.

Correspondent: Really?

Block: Yeah.

Correspondent: What brought this on? Was it just from…?

Block: The experience of Step by Step. It’s early days. I have no idea how it will sell. But people seem to like it and it seems to be getting a fair amount of attention. So we’ll see.

Correspondent: Well, I think just speaking as one person familiar with your work, the reason I was piqued when you talked about this unfinished memoir was because there’s almost like a surprising lack of amount of stuff written about that time period where you were writing pseudonymously. There was a book written by the guy who later went on to do Don’t Know Much About History, who wrote a book published about twenty-five years ago about the paperbacking of America [Kenneth C. Davis’s Two-Bit Culture] and went on about mass market paperbacks as a whole. But nothing much about the dawn of Gold Medal and Dell and all the other paperback houses. And the pseudonymous aspect. So I wonder could this interest also have to do with the fact that, with all due respect, you’re also one of the few people left who remember.

Block: Yeah. That might have something to do with it. Also, when I wrote — I think it was about ’95, ’94 or ‘5, that I wrote the memoir. And I hadn’t been planning to, as I may have mentioned in there. I was stuck on something else. I had time booked at Ragdale. And I had to write something. And at the time — that was what, fourteen years ago? — I was fifty-five, fifty-six years old. It felt early days to be writing a memoir to me.

Correspondent: Right.

Block: And before the memoir genre became something.

Correspondent: Now you have memoirs by twentysomethings.

Block: I know. I know it. “I remember the birth canal.” (laughs)

BSS #308: Lawrence Block (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #280.

Laura Lippman is most recently the author of Life Sentences.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Frightened of sleazy and opportunistic biographers.

Author: Laura Lippman

Subjects Discussed: Cassandra Fallows vs. Kathryn Harrison, writers with peculiar personalities, the memoir dictating the memoirist, Hegelian synthesis, the Quarter Pounder and Proustian comparisons, philosophical modifiers, the inauthentic self, stereotypes of NPR listeners, book smart vs. people smart, satire and gentle fun, shaking the “serious is better” notion, Thomas Pynchon, being true to voice, the problems with the word “ballsy,” writing effrontery, Janet Maslin’s overanalysis of Life Sentences, the value of the red herring, the benefits of found opportunities, the problems with plans, Portnoy’s Complaint, creating deflections for the reader, the Oz books and the Nome King, Philip Roth’s Zuckerman, overworking sentences, the joys of dashes, Emily Dickinson, smarmy memoirs, reading the entire book aloud at 40 pages per day, writing a book a year, following instructions, William Gibson, editing as “deboning a fish,” Lippman’s work ethic as a saving grace, racist perceptions, generalizations, and the older generation in Baltimore, the fallibility of memory, the purpose of memoir, Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, making stuff up, basing a novel on true crime, the ethics of taking from real-life stories, responding to email, investigative journalism and amateurism, faking it, and losing sight of the victims over the course of fiction or investigation.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

lippmanCorrespondent: You have, of course, Callie-ope — Calliope — and Cassandra. I read Janet Maslin’s review in the New York Times and she seemed to be really hung up on the notion that this represented some Greek mythology. But when I read your book, I immediately said to myself, “Oh! Well, this is a very funny red herring to throw the reader off.” Just as the dates that precede each particular section have no significant meaning, or very little meaning, on the narrative. And I’m wondering if little red herrings along these lines are intended to either see if the critics of the Janet Maslin streak are going to latch onto them or whether they represent a way for you to obtain this level of “just doing it” that you just described in your last answer.

Lippman: It is true that both Cassandra and Calliope show up in the narrative, show up in my writing, with their names attached to them. I did not sit down and schematically design a story in which, yes, I will create two characters named after classic figures of Greek mythology. Cassandra was Cassandra. And then I realized her father was a Classics professor, and I began to think he would have conveyed. And Calliope was just always Calliope. There’s a certain Baltimore-ness to it. But I’m a really big believer in found opportunity. And sometimes writers create their own found opportunities. So it’s an accident that the two main characters of this novel have these names that have a lot of resonance. But I’m okay when people then see the resonance and point it out. It’s like someone at a painting and focusing on a detail that might not have been the intent. But it’s in there. It is there.

My belief is that if one is overly schematic in writing, it will feel a little stale and airless. So on the one hand, I’m delighted that people come to this and say, “Oh! Cassandra and Calliope. There’s all this significance.” Well, there is for them. They found it and it affects the way they read the story. And that’s great. At the same time, I think that if I had had a plan, I think the novel would have a really contrived feeling to it. I think it would feel kind of pedantic. One of the things I didn’t plan. You know, it just comes out. You’re writing. I write trying to think about who is this person and what would they be doing and what would they be thinking at this moment. And there’s a scene in which Cassandra has sex with someone who she’s really been yearning for. And because Cassandra can’t turn her head off ever, she’s thinking and thinking. And for some reason, she starts thinking about Leda and the Swan. Which if people are really paying attention, and they’ve seen the bit about Portnoy’s Complaint in the book, that’s very important in Portnoy’s Complaint. So Cassandra, whether she knows or not, is actually channeling that book that she read as a kid, which she remembers seeing in her father’s house.

So I’m writing this. And, you know, I don’t remember every line of Leda and the Swan! And, by the way, although I’m pretty well versed in Greek mythology, I didn’t remember that Leda gave birth to Cassandra. I didn’t remember that. So I go back and I read the poem and I just think, “Oh my god. That’s hilarious!” And if I had planned it. If I had been writing to that moment steadily for days and days — “Oh, I can’t wait until the moment in which Cassandra evokes her namesake’s mother. Via Yeats in bed.” — I think it would have felt a little off.

BSS #280: Laura Lippman (Download MP3)

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