Merritt Tierce (The Bat Segundo Show #551)

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Merritt Tierce is most recently the author of Love Me Back, a lively and fierce debut novel about a young single mother who works as a waitress and disguises her pain and humiliation behind a smile. Love Me Back was published by Doubleday.

This book is one of those rare works of art possessed with the boldness and the decency to tell the complicated truth about how women are doomed to second-class treatment in our precarious economy. It is a welcome and candid corrective to such loathsome television shows as 2 Broke Girls that prefer to prop up a sexist fantasy and outright myths rather than contend with blue-collar life. The distinction between Love Me Back‘s art and 2 Broke Girls‘s awfulness worked our production team up so much that this episode’s introduction contains a strong critique of 2 Broke Girls‘s sexist treatment of its characters and how it has influenced the perception of waitresses in American culture.

Our conversation with Ms. Tierce begins at the 4:57 mark. In our conversation with Ms. Tierce, there is also a remarkable gaffe, indeed one of the most notable flubs in our program’s long history, that involves a mangled pronoun. Apparently, Our Correspondent was so won over by Tierce’s narrative that he made the mistake of believing that the character Danny said something worse than he did in the text.

Author: Merritt Tierce

Subjects Discussed: The American novel and people who work in restaurants, James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, Mimi Pond’s Over Easy, working in a high-end steakhouse, how restaurants distort the physical form, cutting, self-harm, comparing the early version of “Suck It” to the book’s version, keeping text the same over a seven year period, the first full story that Tierce ever wrote, knowing that Love Me Back was a book, Alexander Maksik’s input into Love Me Back, approaching a book without knowing it was a novel or a short story collections, the commercial stigma against short story collections, interstitial pieces linking the stories, creating sentences that are more final than final, stripping italics and punctuation from the original stories, the fictionalized essay Tierce wrote for Pank, style and plummeting attention spans in the digital age, circumstances in which we see punctuation marks in life, why Tierce can’t add anything artificial to her writing, the sense of time related to life waiting tables, Tierce being accused of “petty rebellion” by a professor, women being defined exclusively in roles of pain, Leslie Jamison’s “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” women as second-class beings, the difficulty of writing happiness, what happens when you read too much Thomas Hardy, Edward P. Jones, Marie’s small size and her epicene identity, the ostensible fluidity of gender, vulnerability, Victoria Patterson’s LARB essay on Love Me Back, the ineluctably damaging qualities of the male gaze, when rebellion and degradation align, personal responsibility in being exploited, Tierce sharing biographical details with Marie, Tierce’s short story “Solitaire,” “This is What an Abortion Looks Like,” imagination and personal experience, the conversational stigma about abortion as a very regular part in American life, Wendy Davis, Obvious Child, and acceptance of same-sex marriage vs. acceptance of abortion.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Before we get into what this novel has to say about class, about self-abuse, and about being a woman, I’d like to get into the American novel’s often neglected history about people who work in restaurants. I think of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce and I figured you were familiar with that given the cognates in your name. And I also think about Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster. I think about Mimi Pond’s graphic novel, Over Easy, which is somewhere between a memoir and fiction. To what extent was your novel a response to this often neglected form of novel? And given that there are an estimated 2.4 million* waiters and waitresses in this country, why do you think that this very real life has been so underrepresented in literature?

Tierce: That’s a great question and I’m really impressed at that list that you just provided. Because a lot of people have asked me, “Why haven’t I read anything about restaurant life?” And I am familiar with Mildred Pierce only because of the HBO miniseries.

mildredpiercewaitressCorrespondent: Oh, the Todd Haynes.

Tierce: With Kate Winslet. And it’s fantastic.

Correspondent: And has a great dramatization of restaurant life as well.

Tierce: Yes! It does. And there’s some similar themes at work, I think, in Mildred Pierce and in my book. And I’m also glad to hear that number. 2.4 million. Because it seems like so many people have worked in restaurants or even in some other form of retail or customer service.

Correspondent: That’s just waiters and waitresses. I pulled that from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Because I really wanted to know that number too.

Tierce: Okay. Cool. Yeah. It’s something that so many people are familiar with and I’m surprised there’s not more writing about it. But one of my theories is that it’s really hard work. And a lot of times it’s just a means to whatever real end you’re going for in your life. And I say “real” because I don’t want to diminish anyone’s work in restaurants. I worked in restaurants for fifteen years. And it was very much my real life.

Correspondent: When did you stop working at restaurants? I know that the New Stories from the South bio says that you were working in a high-end steakhouse at that time. And I was curious about when that tapered off.

Tierce: Yeah, I was. And it tapered off about two and a half years ago. So it’s fairly recent. I mean, it’s so recent that I still frequently wake up and have a moment where I’m grateful that I don’t have to go work in a restaurant tonight.

Correspondent: Wow. What kept you in that? And it seems to me there’s an almost addictive impulse to it that you tap into very well with this novel.

Tierce: I mean, I couldn’t make more money doing anything else. So there was that reality. And I have two kids. And I’ve had them since I was Marie’s age myself. So it was hard for me to simultaneously make a living and try to get advanced in any other arena of life. And I think that is why a lot of artists especially keep working in restaurants. Because you have some flexibility and you have a steady cash income usually, which is enough to keep you going. But then you do get caught in it. And it’s hard to get out. And that goes back to what I think about why it’s not written about. It’s because when you do break out of it, it’s such a relief. You don’t want to think about it one more second of your life. Especially not to write.

Correspondent: Well, I think what it is — and I had a stint working in restaurants a long time ago — but it’s this kind of illusion that you’re free. Because I can always drop the job if I get a gig. And then you get caught up in a similar cycle that has no job security whatsoever. And I guess there’s so much shame attached that we don’t want to analyze it — whether it be in literature or even in life or even in regular conversation.

Tierce: Right. Yeah. You know, that’s an unfortunate reality of life — in particular, in America. The service industry is so condescended to and looked down on. You know, it’s not thought of as worthwhile work.

Correspondent: Or if it is, it’s some kind of vibrant, effervescent comedy or something.

Tierce: Right.

Correspondent: As opposed to the realities, the darkness. The physicality, which you get into very well in this book. Well, we don’t actually learn Marie’s name until a few chapters in. And this seems to reflect this regrettable cultural tendency in which customers, even the most progressive-minded ones, will often go into a restaurant and not even remember the name or not even see anything of the waiter or the waitress other than a physical blur And that opening section where it’s just this extraordinary sense of physical seizure is astonishing. But throughout the book, there’s a lot of physicality. And we become very aware of the physical presence of the waitstaff in this book through much of the sexualized scenes and so forth. I think also however of Tayna’s thumb resembling soggy bread. You have the “warm buttery smell” of Carl’s neck. These characters all seem to physically blend into the restaurants. And not even the seemingly protective plush leather of the check presenter is safe. There’s that credit card scene, where it actually gets lodged into the restaurant. And I’m wondering. What is it about the physical allure or the pull of a restaurant? I mean, this seems to me just as much of a part of it in both your novel and in life. It’s almost this vortex to a certain degree. And I’m wondering how you arrived at that or if you arrived at that or what physicality really means when both waitress and customer go to a restaurant.

Tierce: Right. Well, it is such a basic act. Eating and bringing someone food. And it is the most basic maintenance of the physical. So there’s that kind of level to it. But as a writer, I’m most interested in the sensual. Whatever details there are to be observed in a situation, the sensate ones are the most important to me. And a restaurant is, I think, a more fertile territory for that than a lot of settings because of the food and the smells and the sounds and the people and the touching, the everything of it.

Correspondent: Do you feel that much of the sex in this book — where did this come from? Did this come out of an investigation of the restaurant as physical consumptive space? Not just from experience. I mean, it just seems to become more of this great pull on all the characters. Not just Marie. Although in Marie’s case, it becomes just utterly painful to read and to see what she’s going through. Was sense of space one of the ways that you were able to triangulate her pain and the way that she dealt with it in her life as she get dragged further into this trajectory?

Tierce: Well, I wish I was smart enough to have been that deliberate about it.

Correspondent: Well, instinctively, how did it come?

Tierce: Yeah. Instinctively, it just was an element of restaurant culture that I do know from experience to be ubiquitous and to be just a part of the after hours life of a restaurant and the people who work there. I honestly don’t have a great answer for why that is or what the connection is. But I think it has partly to do with just appetites, with trying to satisfy other people’s appetites and putting yourself completely at the service of other people and then needing to get that back in some way. To convince yourself that you still exist by satisfying some of your own appetites after it’s over.

Correspondent: Being in service to other appetites creates a voracity of your own that is impossible to appease.

Tierce: Right. Exactly.

Correspondent: There are a few moments throughout Love Me Back where Marie subjects herself to self-harm, to cutting. The fondue skewer while her daughter is watching The Cosby Show. Cutting is typically associated with high school girls — at least, that’s how we look at it in society. But as we come to know more of Marie’s backstory in the short and long alternating chapters, we become very aware that Marie’s life has been thrown into this degrading trajectory because, well, she’s been thrown into the wilderness without a handbook. And I think you get at very well how, when we abandon kids or teenagers and throw them into the world, there are these lingering things. I mean, Marie has to learn much of this at the behest of men. And I’m wondering. Do restaurants contribute in any way to being in denial about throwing our kids into really terrible lives like this? And can fiction provide an adequate response to getting people to understand these gruesome but important truths?

Tierce: Maybe. I hope so. I don’t know. I don’t want my daughter to work in a restaurant anytime soon.

Correspondent: Did she ever actually say, when you were working at a restaurant, that she wanted to work in a restaurant just like Marie at all? Just out of curiosity.

Tierce: Yeah. Both my kids have said that when they were little. And it made my heart sink. But at the same time, I have to say that working in restaurants has given me some values and basic skills in life that I need and really treasure. And I wouldn’t give them back for anything.

Correspondent: Such as what exactly?

Tierce: Such as being aware of other people. I mean, when you’re forced to put other people’s needs and desires ahead of your own, no matter how you feel about them, it’s hard to kick that habit. And I’m not saying it makes you an altruistic person. I’m just saying that even on a physical level, when you’re walking down the street you have a different way of moving. You’re not oblivious to people. Because of working in restaurants. And you learn to, as Marie says, anticipate and to consolidate. And those are useful skills for life. And you learn to work really hard. And that alone is useful, I think. And now I’ve forgotten what your question was.

Correspondent: Well, we had a magical massive question of mine.

Tierce: (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m implying magic when it was probably just prolixness on my part. But essentially I was asking, “What is it about restaurants that could cause our kids to be subjected into this vortex?” We were talking about the notion of basically throwing our kids into situations that they’re ill-prepared for. And restaurants almost pick them up where colleges or institutions or libraries or other things, which could in fact help them and prepare them more adequately. I mean, it’s almost like having soldiers go into war to a certain degree.

Tierce: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. It’s sort of inevitable, especially now. It seems harder and harder for young people to get meaningful work, to get any job at all. And people will always need to eat. So restaurant work will always be available. And if that’s the only place you can launch yourself from, that’s, I think, our fault for not making more meaningful work more available and not making college, for example, more affordable. And I say that as someone who’s still paying down student loans myself and has basically no money saved for college for any of the three children who live in my house. And I value education more than almost anything. But there are some real factors at work as to whether or not any given person can get a higher education.

Correspondent: How does writing help you to come to grips with these particular realities that, I think, all of us face to a certain degree?

Tierce: Well, writing helps me come to grips with all of reality. Just because I don’t really know what I think or how I’ve gotten to what I think until I start writing about it, which I’m borrowing straight from Flannery O’Connor. I think that’s something that she said, but it makes so much sense to me. That’s just how my mind works. I reveal myself to myself through writing.

(Loops for this program provided by nosleeves, ShortBusMusic, kingADZ12, danke, doudei, 40A, leoSMG, ebaby8119, and gutmo.)

The Bat Segundo Show #551: Merritt Tierce (Download MP3)

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* — Please note that, on air, our correspondent stated that the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 2.5 million waiters and waitresses in America. The correct number is 2.4 million and the excerpt text has been corrected to reflect the correct number, which is also stated correctly in this episode’s introduction.

Elissa Wald (The Bat Segundo Show #528)

Elissa Wald is most recently the author of The Secret Lives of Married Women.

[PROGRAM NOTE: Halfway through this conversation, Our Correspondent, frustrated at getting minor details wrong about Elissa Wald’s novel and not establishing a sufficient rapport with Wald, packed up his gear and was prepared to leave, due to his incredibly high standards and his tendency to implicate and incriminate himself when these standards drop. Wald, to her great credit, persuaded Our Correspondent to stay. So in the second half, we describe what went wrong and we talk through it, finding a new area to chat without any notes or prerigged questions. We have aired the conversation in its entirety because it is important to be transparent about flaws as well as strengths.]

Author: Elissa Wald

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Subjects Discussed: Returning to New York after living here for eighteen years, Portland, having an accidental noir subconscious sense, expanding a 96 page story into a viable book without padding it out, meeting Charles Ardai, being influenced by Alice Munro, how Munro works a lifetime of material into a short piece, defying the “literary vs. genre” war, authors who use twists to advance narrative, Stephen King, why erotic fiction isn’t taken seriously, Meeting the Master, being beholden to the category whims of bookstore chains, the erotic qualities of reading something aloud, Hysterical Literature, Beautiful Agony, the mind and body relationship and implicating the reader, sexual intimacy at a distance of six feet, literal vs. enhanced intimacy, differing perceptions of soft porn, feelings of class affinity, an unanticipated two part interview format, how Wald first started writing, not being a good singer, passing notes in class as a storytelling medium, early BDSM fantasies, differing notions of slavery, Roots, addressing transgression, noir as a natural vehicle, growing up with non-mainstream longings, the Society for Creative Anachronism, having a radar for BDSM types, mental blue screens of death, the instinct to be drawn to libertine types, first becoming aware of your provocative nature, becoming aware of morality through being provocative, the 7 Most Controversial Erotic Novels, the importance of candor and giving something up, the many different ways to be married, accepting another person’s transgressions, exploring marital truths in fiction, when readers trust novelists on dangerous subjects, and sheer invention vs. fictitious moments that are closer to home.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to bring up Norman Mailer’s review of American Psycho in Vanity Fair in 1991. He was one of the first figures to defend that book. And he wrote, “Nowhere in American literature can one point to an inhumanity of the monied upon the afflicted equal to the following description.” And he proceeded to describe Patrick Bateman’s assault on the bum. Mailer also tied this in with Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil. But this is all very much in line with the first novella in your book, “Man Under the House,” because the treatment that Stas offers this laborer Jack hits many of the same notes. And it got me thinking, “Wow, we really don’t have this idea in fiction these days.” And I wanted to ask. In the last twenty-two years, why do you think American literature has not been especially concerned with this notion of class violence? To what degree were you aware of it? And did you hope to respond to it in any way?

Wald: Well, before we get to that, could you clarify what you mean by Stas’s treatment of the…

Correspondent: Of Jack?

Wald: Yes.

Correspondent: Well, in the sense that there seems to be this strange resentment. Not just in relation to obviously his wife, Leda, but also in relation to how he kind of resents the guy. There’s this moment where he is humiliated in Home Depot. So I picked up on this kind of class resentment that dictates Stas. And we can talk about how also it informs his past in Russia. Because he was indeed a handyman in his early days, as we learn in New York. But that notion of violence with this kind of class-to-class idea attached to it was something that was different and what I don’t usually see in fiction, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to talk with you. One of the reasons I wanted to get your answer on the subject.

Wald: That’s a fascinating question and I actually would not have thought about it that way at all. I don’t think Stas is drawing a distinction between himself and the workman on a class level. I think he just felt like this man is overly interested in my wife. I think he noticed that before the wife did, and that was what he was reacting to.

Correspondent: Even though we have this move from New York to Portland suburbia, where there’s the grand announcement, “Hey! I have a backyard.” And all this. I mean, none of that was really a concern of yours? Were you playing with some of the ideas of middle-class strivings or anything like that? Were you thinking about any of this?

Wald: Not consciously. No. I mean I can’t. People bring all kinds of interpretations to your work. And I never will say, “Oh, that’s not what it’s about.” Because I don’t know, you know? I can only say it’s not consciously what it’s about. It was nowhere in my mind.

Correspondent: Class was never a factor at all?

Wald: It wasn’t.

Correspondent: Wow.

Wald: It never crossed my mind.

Correspondent: What do you think — now that I’ve rambled quite a bit about it, why do you think that I got this particular reaction from it? I mean, were you ever concerned with any socioeconomics at all?

Wald: Well, I guess the one place where I can see what you’re saying maybe is that there’s a moment when Jack is literally under the house. He’s looking at the pipes. And she flashes on this picture of this proletariat wrestling. And so, yeah, I did say a member of the underworld bent on mutiny. So, yeah, this is what I mean. I’m not dismissing your interpretation. Just saying that I wasn’t consciously aware of it for much of the book.

Correspondent: So what interested you about exploring this dynamic with Jack and with Stas? What kept the conflict brewing as you were writing this?

Wald: Well, so interestingly, my husband and I decided to buy a house. There was a very attentive worker next door. And I spun the story into something so much more dramatic and involved than anything that really happened. But something that did happen early on was that my husband really didn’t like this guy right away. And I thought he was overreacting at first. And by the time I started to feel like this guy was overbearing, I didn’t want to tell my husband. And there were a few reasons for that. But one of them was that I thought that if I tell him, then there’s going to be a war. There’s going to be a war on some level. We just moved into this house. This guy is right next door. He’s essentially a neighbor for the time being. I don’t want an open war with this person. We just moved in. I don’t want this around my home. So I think most writers are to an extent a participant/observer in life. So they’re living their lives and they’re very much a participant. But there’s also, I think, a part of the writer’s mind that’s always observing. And so I thought, “Isn’t this interesting? I’m not only becoming nervous about this man. But I feel like he’s driving an emotional wedge between my husband and myself.” And that was fascinating. Even while it was wildly uncomfortable to experience it, it was still fascinating to the writer in me. And so I just took it from there and spun it.

Correspondent: Your husband isn’t Russian by chance?

Wald: He is.

Correspondent: He is! My goodness. So you were really drawing from reality.

Wald: So like a lot of writers — you know I know a lot of writers even give their protagonists their own names. But it’s still fiction. Like Philip Roth does that a lot. So I really do draw honestly from life a lot of the time and yet it’s unequivocally fiction. I make all kinds of stuff up. So it’s really a blur.

Correspondent: Do you have any legal background at all?

Wald: No. I did work for an attorney as an assistant.

Correspondent: Was he blind?

Wald: No. I did work for a blind man.

Correspondent: Oh, okay.

Wald: But he wasn’t a lawyer.

Correspondent: So the first part, interestingly enough, is truer to your life than the second part.

Wald: You know, I think everything’s true to my life on some level. I mean, I identify with all the characters on some level. All the female characters.

Correspondent: In the New York Times Book Review, I wanted to bring up Megan Abbott’s review. She wrote about your book. She brought up James M. Cain’s notion of the “love rack,” which involves finding a way to manipulate the readers into caring for criminal figures. The way into that, she said, is often through lust or desire. That’s how you get that vicarious solicitude for a scumbag. I’m wondering to what degree the idea of planting Leda in this suburban splendor or Lillian in this seemingly stable world, vocationally as an attorney, was kind of your 21st century answer to the love rack. I mean, was one of your goals to reach these vanilla middle-class readers or anything?

Wald: You know, interestingly, we talked a moment ago about how people bring their own interpretations. It was very amusing to me — I mean, Megan Abbott is a phenomenal writer. I appreciated her review deeply. But she imagined that it was a deep, deliberate bow to legendary noir author James M. Cain and I’ve never read a word of Cain in my life.

Correspondent: You have not!

Wald: Never. Not once. Never seen a film based on any of his books. Never given him a moment’s thought.

Correspondent: My goodness.

Wald: So that was interesting to me that she decided that.

Correspondent: Well, and I apparently have done the same thing. My goodness. I mean, have you read any books? (laughs)

Wald: Actually, I think it’s great that people bring their own interpretations. To me, that means it’s speaking directly to a reader’s experience and their frame of reference. So I don’t mind that people do that.

Correspondent: But actually I agree with Megan to a large degree. Because it does fulfill some of the relationship that books have to noir, while simultaneously also breaking from them. And this leads me to ask you. I mean, what kind of criminal fiction or noir have you soaked up? Or are you just basically living a noir life and that’s where it comes from?

Wald: I’ve read almost no noir in my entire life.

Correspondent: (laughs) Wow.

Wald: This is a new genre for me. I didn’t set out to write a crime novel. What happened was that Charles Ardai is a long-time friend of mine. Charles Ardai, the publisher of Hard Case Crime.

Correspondent: He’s great.

Wald: And I have sent him everything I’ve written for the last twenty-five years. Because he’s a great reader. He’s a great editor.

Correspondent: Yes.

Wald: And it never occurred to me ever that I would ever be a Hard Case author. Because I don’t write crime fiction.

Correspondent: Well you do now. (laughs)

Wald: And it’s been wonderful. So I sent him the manuscript, “Man Under the House.” It was just a long story. And I was aware that I was trying my hand at a psychological thriller. But it honestly hadn’t crossed my mind that it was also a crime story. I just hadn’t thought of it that way. So I was astonished when he said, “I want this for Hard Case.” But, no, this isn’t my genre. It’s never been my genre. I’ve read no crime writers. Scott Turow is the one thriller writer that I’ve read and loved.

(Loops for this program provided by mingote and ebaby8119.)

The Bat Segundo Show #528: Elissa Wald (Download MP3)

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Claire Messud II (The Bat Segundo Show #504)

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

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Author: Claire Messud

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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

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

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

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

Messud: Yes. I believe it.

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messud: Right.

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

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

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

Messud: (laughs) The incredible disappearing quote!

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

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

Correspondent: It is.

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

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

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

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

Messud: Oh my goodness. I’m impressed.

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

Messud: Yes.

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

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

Correspondent: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

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BEA 2013: Neil Gaiman

There aren’t many authors who can make a largely female crowd gasp and swoon with every dulcet word, but Neil Gaiman is definitely one of them. Ostensibly at BEA to deliver an address on why storytelling is dangerous, Gaiman’s Saturday morning talk was more about toeing the line and promoting the Gaiman brand. He tossed off e-cards into the crowd like a guitar god cheerfully throwing picks. And he did manage to win over a few skeptics (including this reporter).

“So this morning I got here and I signed 1000 books,” said Gaiman at the start, which was followed by ribald applause. “Each of you gets two books.” One of the books was Make Good Art, which will be published in December.

He was dressed all in black and settled into his chair with a confident and carefully rehearsed ease.

“There isn’t really a Writing Author Lessons 101,” said Gaiman. “But if there was, there would be a list of dos and don’ts. I know that in the don’t column, ‘Don’t have a major novel for adults coming out in June followed by a book for kids in December’ would be high on the list.”

The YA book, which tells the tale of what happened to a father who leaves the house to get milk for the family cereal (among his adventures: being kidnapped by aliens who want to replace the Earth’s mountains with throw cushions and turn Australia into a huge decorative plate), is Fortunately, the Milk, which is illustrated by Skottie Young. Gaiman revealed that the connection came through Twitter, when Young had expressed interest in working with him. “If you need a time-traveling stegosaurus in a hot air balloon,” said Gaiman, “Skottie Young is your man.”

The adult book is The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which was partially inspired by a friend down on his luck who stole Gaiman’s famiily Mini, drove it down to the end of the lane, and committed suicide. It involves the Hempstocks, who have figured in Stardust and The Graveyard Book, but was a long time in coming.

“The problem with writing a story about the Hempstocks is that they lived at the end of my lane.”

Ocean started off as a short story, which Gaiman wrote because he missed his wife, who was in Melbourne for four months recording an album. “I wanted to write a story that’s not about my family,” said Gaiman, “but that’s very much about what it was to see the world through my eyes when I was seven.”

“I’ve heard people point to writing and say that it can be like driving by night. Writing this for me was like driving by night with one headlight out in the thick fog. You can just see far enough ahead not to drive off the road.”

Halfway through the appearance, Gaiman copped, “This has nothing to do with why fiction is dangerous.” He carried on by describing how he got into trouble as a boy by reading books and learning from them. He learned how to dye his father’s white shirts a deep purply red using a common beet root and got into trouble. He learned how to make toffee and became aware of its natural properties. “It will shatter like glass and completely cover the floor of the classroom.”

After offering these biographical exemplars, Gaiman shifted to his views about fiction.

“Fiction is dangerous, of course, because it lets you into other people’s heads. Fiction is dangerous because it gives you empathy. Fiction is dangerous because it shows you that the world doesn’t have to be like the one you live in.”

Gaiman described going to various companies (Google, where one of his sons works, Apple, and Microsoft) and asking the people who invented what they read as children. “They all said, we read science fiction. We read fantasy.”

“Getting into other people’s heads is dangerous,” continued Gaiman, “incredibly dangerous.”

At this point, the floor was open to questions and the talk about “dangerous fiction” was regrettably tabled. Gaiman was asked about the worst sentences he has ever written. He pointed to the story “Night of the Crabs.” One of the offending sentences: “He wasn’t going to leave Pat Benson alone that night, crabs or no crabs.”

He harbored fantasies as a young writer that he would be rewarded for his stories by a limo showing up at his house. “People would get out of it and say this is yours. We love your stories so much.”

As Gaiman described his early writing development, there was a curious pecuniary fixation. He had taped an inspirational Muddy Waters quote next to his typewriter: “Don’t let your mouth write no checks that your tail can’t cash.” He talked of an early teacher who had offered him ten shillings to read the entirety of Gone with the Wind.

He said that he was proudest of his kids, which caused the crowd to loosen an “Ahhhhhh!” that could have found a home on an episode of Community. When one audience member’s phone went off, followed by a cry of “Shit,” Gaiman responded, “Isn’t it embarrassing when that happens? If it’s any consolation, it’s usually up here.”

In other words, Gaiman is well-practiced at working the room.

Gaiman mentioned that the Ameican Gods TV show is still in development at HBO. He has finished a script and he’s waiting to hear back for notes. He compared the relationship to “a game of tennis,” leading this reporter to wonder if there was a dependable racket that didn’t involve thrones. Gaiman talked about introducing material that had never appeared in the book.

“The process has been more HBO going, ‘Can you make it more like the book?'”

Gaiman said he still feels doubt. “I’m a weird mixture of appalling arrogance and absolute self-doubt and humility. Like a nightmarish layer cake.”

He doesn’t write for any specific age. “There’s no such thing as a book just for kids. Because every book is going to have to be read aloud by someone your age.” Every novel is different for Gaiman. After writing American Gods, Gaiman told Gene Wolfe that he had figured out how to write a novel. “He looked at me with infinite pity and said, ‘Neil, you never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel you’re on.'”

He did talk about his affinity for Jack Benny’s old radio program. “They get good around 1942,” after Benny had gone through three sets of writers. He mentioned starting a story about Jack Benny, but, tellingly, he did not mention Fred Allen.

There wasn’t much elaboration on Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech. This was an appearance to please the crowds. But the very minute that his hour expired, he was led out the door by his handlers, walking with the pace of a rock star with a hectic schedule.

Cycles (FYE #3)

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This week, we examine cycles. Are our lives and our culture locked within cycles? Are we aware of it? Should we be aware of it? Or is there a certain folly in paying too much attention? Our quest for answers has us talking with bike shop owners and a Finnegans Wake reading group. We reveal how Raiders of the Lost Ark caused two teenage boys to become consumed by a relentless cycle of remaking the movie they loved with limited cinematic resources. We also talk with Scottish novelist Ian Rankin about how he returned to Inspector Rebus and got caught up in cycles he couldn’t quite describe and Lesley Alderman, the author of The Book of Times, who shows us how being aware of time doesn’t necessarily preclude you from finding enticing new cycles of existence.


3a

Like Riding a Life

We begin our investigation into cycles by wandering around Brooklyn on a cold Saturday afternoon talking with various bike shop owners about how the cycles of life relate to their passion for bicycles. Our gratitude to Fulton Bikes, R&A Cycles, and Brooklyn Cycle Works for sharing their thoughts and feelings, which range from calmness to restrained anger. (Beginning to 4:11)


3b

Commodius Vicus of Recirculation

Every month, the Finnegans Wake Society of New York gets together in a Spring Street apartment and reads aloud a page of James Joyce’s cyclical masterpiece. And then they discuss the page, whatever theories they can find, for about two hours. Organizer Murray Gross tells us why it’s important to slow down. Other members tell us how they became unexpectedly married to the book. (4:11 to 10:09)


3c

Standing in Another Man’s Cycle

Are cycles a red herring? I spoke with the novelist Ian Rankin to get more answers. Rankin’s latest book, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, marks a surprise return to the Inspector Rebus series, which Rankin had closed out in 2007 with his 17th Rebus novel, Exit Music. Somehow Rebus eluded retirement and manged to cajole Malcolm Fox, the protagonist of Rankin’s new series, into the mix. This seemed as good a time as any to press Rankin on whether he’s caught in a pleasant cycle. Our side trips in this conversation include consideration of Anthony Powell, the A9 Motorway and its homicidal possibilities, Skyfall, 20th century policing instinct, and how men in their sixties get into fistfights. (10:09 to 40:15)


3d

Pardon Me, Do You Have the Time?

We meet Lesley Alderman, author of The Book of Times, a collection of time-related data that will make your more conscious of the clock than Christian Marclay. But we learn how being aware of the time doesn’t mean you can’t find enticing new cycles hiding behind the corners of your complex existence. (40:15 to 45:51)


4e

Raiders of the Lost Remake

It was 1982 and three twelve-year-olds in Mississippi decided to remake Raiders of the Lost Ark. This was before the Internet, before the movie had been released on VHS. These kids had to hustle. What they did not know was that their ambitious project would take up their next seven summers. They would grow up making this movie. We talk with Chris Strompolos, who starred as Indiana Jones in the remake, and Alan Eisenstock, author of Raiders, a new book documenting the remake. Was all the fun and youthful ingenuity a mask? Can a cycle of remaking beget a new cycle of remaking? (45:51 to end)


Photograph by Steven Sebring.

Loops for this program were provided by Psychotropic Circle, DextDee, and HMNN.

Follow Your Ears #3: Cycles (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Annalena McAfee

Annalena McAfee appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #453. Ms. McAfee is most recently the author of The Spoiler.

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[PROGRAM NOTE: In the first few minutes of the conversation, one of the microphones decided to blow out. And while Our Correspondent was equipped with two microphones, the microphone that blew out wasn’t the one on Our Correspondent’s voice, but the one that was on the author’s voice. Ms. McAffee’s words can be detected during this program, but if her voice sounds like it’s coming out of a small radiator, well, you now know why. Many apologies for the low quality to Ms. McAfee and to our listeners. We have done our best in post-production to preserve this conversation despite this setback.]

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Selling his scandalous tales to the highest bidder.

Author: Annalena McAfee

Subjects Discussed: The journalism novel’s long tradition, Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, P.G. Wodehouse’s Psmith, Journalist, Guy de Maupassant, the number of women working as journalists, Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning, the lack of women journalists in Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, Nellie Bly, Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, using phrases as “nasal plainchant,” how style and language allows one to escape tropes, plucky newsboys, formality, balancing characters, botching an interview, Tamara Sim’s entitlement, finding redeeming value in characters who don’t comprehend basic journalism, how to counter your own biases when writing fiction, providing what the newspapers want, narcissistic protagonists, 1997 as a cusp moment in journalism, journalistic ethics, the desperate scramble to be first with a story, cash for stories, single-source Fleet Street exposés, prostitutes and TV presenters, Tory MPs and tabloid scandals, the impulse to tear people down as a journalist, including a virtuous side character, the Conservative Monday Club vs. a fictitious Monday Club, Sherman Duffy’s idea of a journalist being “somewhere between a whore and a bartender,” the differences between US and UK journalism, whether or not cultural journalism is a slightly higher form of tabloid journalism, David Simon’s Q&A comments being needlessly dissected by short-sighted journalists, the problems with celebrity journalism, Ian McEwan as in-house editor, Amsterdam, Enduring Love, being grilled on television through personal connection, Marguerite Higgins, women war journalists, the infamous hostile showdown between Gloria Emerson and John Lennon, how Higgins inspired two novels, what journalism has lost because of the Internet, needless length caps applied to present-day journalism, Kindle Singles, the influence of Maxim in the early noughts, aggregate sites, The Browser, Twitter and the move to individual curators, obsession, and internal pressure for journalists.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

McAfee: In terms of tearing people down, I did not work in that world really. I worked on The Financial Times. It’s a fantastic paper and the probity is unimpeachable. I worked on The Guardian on the culture. I founded and edited The Guardian Review. Again, that’s a paper that’s on the side of angels. I was very, very lucky. I had a spell on the Evening Standard. But I was arts editor and theater critic. And I suppose in my capacity as theater critic, sometimes I might have been less than kind. But it certainly wasn’t the kind of sustained bullying. Or I didn’t have that opportunity. And I hope that if I did, I would be able to resist it.

Correspondent: So you were really perhaps comparable to the Monitor‘s books editor the morning after the party.

McAfee: Yes.

Correspondent: Where everybody else was completely trashed and their heads were throbbing and they were incapable of any conversation. And meanwhile, those who chose not to imbibe in this debauchery, they were able to seize the reins here, so to speak. (laughs)

McAfee: Well, books editor do debauchery too.

Correspondent: Of course. Most people do. We all know this.

McAfee: There’s no character assassinations or kiss-and-tells on my particular beat, thankfully.

Correspondent: Sure. I wanted to go back to the question of character balance. Because you have this confident young woman named Tania. She’s dutifully reading books. She’s researching her subjects.

McAfee: She’s called Tamara. But the old woman gets her name wrong and calls her Tania sometimes.

Correspondent: I’m sorry. I’m talking about — anyway, she even is very nice to respond to the quip.

McAfee: Oh, Tania.

Correspondent: Tania. That’s who I’m saying. Tania.

McAfee: You know my book better than I do.

Correspondent: I know that Honor, in a joke, actually calls her Tania. And that’s the clue that there is actually something askew because she completely insists on Tania. You have that email joke. Okay. Now that we’re on the same page, so you’ve got Tania.

McAfee: Yeah.

Correspondent: She’s this erudite person who’s incredibly capable and she’s even kind enough to offer this tinselly chime that you describe when Tamara says, “Oh, well, the future is unisex jumpsuits and time travel.” But this does not exactly help us in warming to Tamara. I was reading this book and I’m saying to myself, “You know, Tania, this woman’s got her stuff together.” But I’m wondering how you worked out your method of parceling out Tania’s appearances throughout the book. Because they tend to be somewhat sparse near the beginning. And I almost got the sense that, as you were working on this, you wanted to have not so much of Tania. Because then all of a sudden, we’ll really not like Tamara. I’m wondering how you balanced the Ts here.

McAfee: Well, I did kind of concede Tania as the future. The only capable young woman journalist. Brilliant and completely ahead of the game as far as technology. And, of course, as I say, that was a time — 1997 — it was still possible to believe that the Internet was a passing fad. And indeed some of our great commentators said so. “It will be over soon. It’s like Citizens Band radio. It’s like Esperanto. It’s a craze. It will pass.” I use a quote from one of our great commentators saying exactly that in January 1997. So that’s what Tamara and all her colleagues are thinking. But gradually I hope that as a young woman who runs a website, as the future makes itself plain, as we see what direction it’s going in, that was the aim. That ultimately the future belongs to Tania and she claims it.

Correspondent: But did you worry that she might, in fact, be too virtuous? I mean, you’ve got two characters who have issues with Tamara and Honor. You’ve got Tania, who has not a single bad bone as far as I know. So how do you deal with this balance? Because if you have too much of Tania, then it gets away from the two central characters here. And so I’m wondering if there was more of Tania in an earlier draft perhaps or you had to say to yourself, “Well, I have to wait twenty or thirty pages before she appears again.”

McAfee: Well, no, there wasn’t more of Tania. And actually, again, I’m trying for complexity. And to be perfectly honest, I find Tania’s virtuousness and her capabilities slightly irritating. She’s the person who does one’s own job better than one can ever do and is always the last to leave the office. And she doesn’t laugh much. Her tinselly chimes are part of a game rather than a sense of humor.

Correspondent: No, it’s more of a polite gesture, I thought. I mean, here, she has been just totally insulted and instead of actually allowing herself to be steamrolled, she decides to respond with some grace. The tinselly chimes.

McAfee: Grace? Well, the tear of the victor.

Correspondent: Here’s the other thing about Tania. I mean, I know people like this. They go ahead and they work very hard, but they have a dark side. So I was reading this book thinking, “You know, Tania’s probably doing something we don’t know.” But we never actually get there. So I’m wondering: why? (laughs)

McAfee: Well, that’s true. That is probably true. And, in fact, she does move in on people.

Correspondent: That’s true.

McAfee: She’s incredibly attractive. That’s another of her irritating virtues.

Correspondent: (laughs)

McAfee: But she uses it and is jockeying for position and is not afraid to use her sexuality.

Correspondent: Nevertheless, you find her irritating.

McAfee: Well…

Correspondent: The successful woman is irritating. Wait a minute here. (laughs)

McAfee: She doesn’t have warmth, I suppose. And that’s really it. She’s hard to read and she doesn’t seem generous to her colleagues.

Correspondent: I see.

McAfee: She lacks generosity.

Correspondent: She moves in on the territory and she does so without really seeing what the pecking order is.

McAFee: As I say, she’s got the ambition of a young person.

Correspondent: That’s an annoying quality. I’ll give you that. So it’s interesting that you have the Monday Club in this book. Because it’s far more liberal than the conservative Monday Club. Because you have the Twisk Foundation fighting child exploitation wherever it is to be found. You have the war correspondent. And I’m saying to myself, “You know, this is almost a Bizarro World Monday Club.” And so I’m wondering why you decided to go for a more progressive form of something that is a conservative institution in the UK.

McAFee: Well, they meet on a Monday. But I chose…

Correspondent: It could have been the Tuesday Club. (laughs)

McAfee: But I quite liked it. And I think I do say an ironic reference to the conservative, right-wing thinktank of the same name. Or whatever. So I quite liked playing with that. I mean, these are bien-pensant liberals and they’ve taken the name of the arch factory of Thatcherism.

Correspondent: Do you have any personal experience with the real Monday Club at all?

McAfee: No.

Correspondent: Any efforts to peek in there?

McAfee: No. Not at all. I can’t think of any.

Correspondent: So Sherman Duffy — he was a reporter friend of Ben Hecht’s — and he has this very famous maxim. He said, “Socially a journalist fits somewhere between a whore and a bartender.” Wonderful, wonderful line. Now in the Monday Club chapter, you not only have Tamara serving canapes to these affluent types. But you also have Ruth, Honor’s publisher — she’s actually engaged in this service sector activity as well. She’s unpacking the pastries on the plate and so forth. So I’m wondering if you were thinking of the Duffy maxim when you were considering this. This is a natural extension. Is there any way that fiction can help us and assist us in rehabilitating a journalist’s social status from somewhere between the whore and the bartender?

McAfee: Well, I mean, journalists are happy to see themselves as mavericks. Aren’t they? Certainly British journalists. I know that American journalism is a more honorable tradition.

Correspondent: Really? (laughs)

McAfee: I was talking to a friend about this the other night. And she said that there’s more of a public service attitude. And it can make for more solemn journalism. But in the UK, it’s well, you know, anything can go.

Correspondent: So you would say that journalism in the UK has declined considerably in the last ten years.

McAFee: Oh no.

Correspondent: Or twenty years.

McAfee: I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. I mean, I think there’s marvelous stuff going on. Absolutely marvelous. In fact, all that’s changed is the medium really. My war correspondent is not — she’s a bit of a dragon. And she resents the fact that the world has turned and she is not the top of the pile anymore. In fact, if she’d looked around, she would have much to celebrate. Particularly women in journalism. Women like Marie Colvin, the late Marie Colvin. In Russia, Anna Politkovskaya, as she died in the cause of her work. There’s marvelous reporting going on. But there’s also a lot of dross. That’s all mainstream. I don’t get celebrity journalism. I just can’t understand the appeal.

Correspondent: But some would argue that cultural journalism is, I suppose, a classier version of celebrity journalism. What do you think?

McAfee: Yeah.

Correspondent: I ask myself this question too. I mean, look, I’ve read the book and I’m trying to tie it into a culture here. And I don’t want it to be about gossip. But at the same time, is this conversation also part of the problem? Even though it’s slightly higher on the brow? (laughs)

McAfee: Somebody said that novels were higher gossip.

Correspondent: (laughs) Yes.

McAfee: That’s the level of celebrity journalism that appeals to me. But yeah, TV stars. Reality TV shows. I mean, I don’t want to go on to that. But that seems to be cheap television and cheap journalism. And I don’t think there’s anything edifying that one gets from it.

Correspondent: Well, the problem we have here too — and this is really frustrating. David Simon, for example, recently said some things in an interview. He didn’t quite express himself very well. But he basically implied that people who didn’t watch The Wire from beginning to middle to end were not watching it according to his vision. And I can totally understand his sentiment. But from my standpoint, I was saying, “Well, this is really nothing to get all that worked up about.” But, of course, television journalists completely flipped out over this and said, “David Simon is being an ass.” And Simon then has to spend an hour of his life talking to this TV critic named Sepinwall, basically clarifying what he was saying, where he was coming from. And this, to my mind, is the epitome. This says nothing about The Wire. It says absolutely nothing about the actual relationship to art. And there were several people — including a New Yorker TV critic on Twitter — who were going off about this. And I was saying to myself, “You know, why are you devoting so much of your energy to try and systematically dismantle and deconstruct a quote that really has no bearing on what David Simon is doing as an artist?” The suggestion I’m making here — and I’m going off on a total tangent and we will get back to your book — is that, well, do you think that cultural journalism might be suffering from the same problems that reality TV, this sensationalistic journalism, is?

McAfee: Oh yes. I do. I find that a lot of interviews — and I know we’re having an interview.

Correspondent: Yeah, I know. It’s very meta here. (laughs)

McAfee: They concentrate on rehashing old stuff. Rehashing cuttings basically. Inquiring, as Tamara does, about affairs, about the personal life and not about the work. And when I was on the Guardian, we started a profile which was an essential interview about a writer or an artist. And the one rule was it was about the work. We don’t care about the personal life. If anyone cares about the personal life, they can read it. They can look it up. They can read it elsewhere. But what’s really interesting is the work. And I find that so much more enriching.

Correspondent: There is one question I have about your husband [Ian McEwan] and you, and it has nothing to do really with the personal. Although it may have something to do with the personal. But we’re talking about purely artistic terms. Okay. One, you’ve got an in-house editor. I’m really curious about how you two work as in-house editors. And, two, I noticed that this book had quite a bit in common with Amsterdam. You have a photo that is released. You have editors who are sacked. And so I wondered first of all if Amsterdam was hovering over you as you were writing this and, second, how do you guys edit each other’s work? That’s all I care about.

McAfee: Well…

Correspondent: Or do you? Or do you leave each other alone?

McAfee: Yes. We do read. I read his work. I’m his first reader with a pencil. And he returned the compliment. In terms of Amsterdam, which I love — it’s a great newspaper novel actually, though it’s guys again. I hadn’t reread it for a while. But I guess any newspaper novel about modern journalism is going to have this scandal element to it. And, in fact, what you ask me is a fairer question, less compromising. When I was on the FT, I was editing the arts and books page. I was invited to the BBC. And it was around the time of the Booker Prize, when the Booker Prize was just going to be announced. The shortlist was going to be announced. And I was asked to come on as a literary editor of the Financial Times. So I turned up. And I’m very nervous on television. And I’m in absolute agony. And I turn up in this bright lit studio. And the guy turns to me and says, “So did you help hubby write the book?” Oh, what do you say? I said, “He’s perfectly capable of writing it himself. Thanks very much. But, nope, he wrote Amsterdam by himself. Unassisted.” As I wrote The Spoiler.

Correspondent: I would have said, “Did your wife help you with that question?”

McAfee: You know, that’s good.

Correspondent: So you guys edit each other’s work. Is there a point where you say, “Hey, hands off, Ian, I’ve got this”? I mean, does he become too vigorous with the pen? Or do you become in turn too vigorous with the pen? How do you keep each other’s hands off? What’s the deal with you guys?

McAfee: Well, it’s very companionable and decent. We both make suggestions and we both know that we’re at liberty to ignore them. Which is what happens. But when I read his first — the first book when we were together was Enduring Love. And I read that. And he asked me. “Be as free as you like and put pencil marks wherever there’s any kind of doubt.” And I was very tentative about it. I mean, I was used to editing for a living. But I was very tentative about hurting things. And I’ve written children’s books.

Correspondent: Yes, I know.

McAfee: I had a children’s book that was just coming out. And so he said, “Oh, I’d like to see that.” And he went through it. And there were pencil marks and suggestions.

Correspondent: (laughs)

McAfee: I thought, “Right. That’s how it’s done. No holds barred.” I went back to Enduring Love and pulled no punches.

Correspondent: (laughs) Wow. Did you pull no punches on the opening scene? I’m curious. No one can…

McAfee: There was no work required. Absolutely. It’s superb.

(Photo: Richard Saker)

The Bat Segundo Show #453: Annalena McAfee (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Adam Johnson

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

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Revising his own narrative.

Author: Adam Johnson

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

Johnson: Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Novel 2.0

Reports of the Web’s harmful effects upon reading habits have been greatly overstated. Two recent online projects sufficiently demonstrate that we’re only just beginning to understand what the Web can do. The first is Power Moby Dick, an online depiction of Melville’s classic novel with often very helpful annotations on the side. (The annotations resemble the colored box version of David Foster Wallace’s “Host.”) The second is The Golden Notebook Project (via), in which Doris Lessing’s novel is online and searchable. Over five to six weeks, seven critics are providing side comments for the respective pages: a form somewhere between Power Moby Dick and the many roundtable literary discussions that can be found around the Web. There is also a forum, although it appears that nobody aside from the Magnificent Seven has left comments.

I’m wondering, however, if we can’t see these dynamic experiments go further. I would be very interested in seeing the Golden project provide a place for every published thought on every particular line in that novel. Perhaps there might be a way to track words and references used by earlier writers and carried on by later writers. There could be a better implementation of the forum through a wiki, in which various readers could offer additional questions in a separate accessible area. With RSS feeds, perhaps someone with a Kindle or a Sony Reader might download the latest central version with annotations.

As I observed a few days ago, it’s fantastic that nearly all the books of yesteryear are available in some form online. But I don’t think we’re being ambitious enough. If text is scannable and searchable, then the door needs to be opened for how the reader, both common and academic, can access and annotate the text. Perhaps government funding might be put into place to hire literary experts around the nation to preserve specific literary works, perform research, and annotate them for the public. (I observe that the MacArthur Foundation has provided pivotal funding for The Golden Notebook.) What amazes me in particular about these two online projects is how neither detracts from the author-reader relationship. They respect that exclusive relationship, while accounting for the additional relationships which spring up between other readers. What we have here is an opportunity to reinvigorate the novel, to expand the audience, and to live up to the helpful hypertextual ideas advocated by Robert Coover.

Chapter One

On Sunday night, I stepped into the chilly cold and ventured off to see two fabulous pals — Matt Cheney and Tayari Jones — read at the Sunday Salon series with the ebullient Frances Madeson and the somewhat intense Tony D’Souza. All four readers were compelling, but the biggest surprise came when Tayari, who had assured me early on that she would be reading a “rerun,” inveigled the crowd with a chapter from her forthcoming novel, citing, to my surprise, me specifically as the guy who had seen the act before. As Tayari came down to retrieve her manuscript pages, there was only one thing to do. Express my gratitude and hug her profusely. I am known to do this from time to time. Writers sometimes need to be encouraged.

In any event, since this was an uncommon reading of material that was still being worked out, it seemed only fair to return the favor. So I’ve prepared an audio file of the first chapter of my novel-in-progress, Humanity Unlimited, which can be sampled below. It involves balding, neuroses, a stern receptionist, false accusation, and an overly exuberant photographer. This is slightly different from another version I performed once at Writers With Drinks, and will likely be different still in six months.

(Of course, if this doesn’t tickle your fancy, I should note that four new installments of The Bat Segundo Show have just been released.)