Norman Rush (The Bat Segundo Show #512)

Norman Rush is most recently the author of Subtle Bodies.

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Author: Norman Rush

Subjects Discussed: Keeping a personal existential view of the world on one paper, utopian democracy, allusions to Ulysses in Rush’s work, Vico Cycles, the importance of the 2003 Iraq War protests (and why they have been forgotten), whether forms of liberalism have any legitimate application in the 21st century, the importance of physical space in Rush’s fiction, people who preserve language vs. people who are terrified of originality, how people express themselves, the origins of “in your wheelhouse” and “traveling fight,” comparing various drafts of a “plaid underpants” section in Subtle Bodies, carrying something in your head vs. writing it down, unsuccessful attempts to outperform geniuses, the specific cocktail chatter that led Elsa and Norman Rush to become Peace Fund co-directors in Botswana, draft resistance, amnesty, how an anti-establishment stance can you lead you into an establishment job, the virtues of insouciance, working with editor Ann Close at Knopf, invaluable oddities, personal aversions to semicolons, dialogue and punctuation, singing prose out aloud, Rush’s bygone ukelele skills, resisting the essayist and journalistic in fiction, Sherlock Holmes pastiches, being an anti-minmialist, the carefully designed reading pace of Mortals, limited word use in Botswana cable transmissions, why America is now crazier than Botswana, the three cartons of notes that Rush brought back to America, spending 15 years in the antiquarian book business, exquisitely unknown incidents in the history of the Western Left, the failure of the Socialists to come together on an antiwar platform in 1914, Rush’s stubborn focus on being an experimental writer and a poet in his early days, the anxiety of influence, measuring yourself against the impossible, the origins of Karen in “Bruns,” Patrick van Rensburg, having an indomitable vocabulary, how much Mating‘s Karen was influenced by Denoon, how Rush got to know his great literary friend Thomas Disch, being a genuine man of letters, Manhattan’s financial hostility to writers, finding creative ways to live in Brooklyn, parenthood in Subtle Bodies, connections between Nina in Subtle Bodies and Nan in “Near Pala,” ancillary subjects that propagate during writing, tales of masculine sadness throughout literature, David Foster Wallace, the limited makeup of today’s literary audience, Lena Dunham’s appreciation for Mating, comparisons between Mating and Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, characters defined by reading allegiances, the manuscript as a bomb, writing down what people have on their bookshelves, the sangoma in “Official Americans,” Morel in Mortals, why Rush’s characters are seduced by or drawn to charlatans, Rush’s father, religion and theosophy, the foundational aspects of what you are, spiritualism as an unavoidable part of being American, Rush’s “Americanity,” motives for burning a passport, why optimism is essential, parallels between Subtle Bodies and the great Edgar Wright-Simon Pegg film The World’s End, ideologues and the absence of identity, nostalgia as a panacea of anxiety, turning tropes into foundations for serious art, Rex from Mortals, flailing aspirants who write for The Awl, middling educated types, fiction as a place for failed forms of the self, dummy experimentalism, sections from Mortals that were dropped, cave art, the differences between expatriates and Americans who stay home, James Wood’s observations about Ray Finch’s interpretation of Joyce’s “The Dead,” the courage to inhabit an unseemly perspective, the reading Rush did while working as an antiquarian bookseller, fiction with numbered paragraphs, Hume’s influence upon Subtle Bodies, writing a book without a sustained perspective, the Kalahari Desert, the advantages of being overwhelmed with life you are not acquainted with, describing the landscape with waning movie metaphors, young people forced into scavenging from culture, the messianic qualities of 20th century Hollywood stars, the future of narrative, balancing the personal and the political, the importance of recognizing the evils of the world and not to be a fool, people who are increasingly duped in the digital age, facing an unreadable future, the Internet and political activism, and the future of social democracy.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I was curious about this. You were showing me these series of Venn diagrams that represents your existential view. I’m amazed that you could fit this all on one paper.

Rush: Well, actually, I’d need a much larger piece of paper to get the whole thing on. This is about current feelings about the way the world is going.

Correspondent: Are they negative or positive?

Rush: I’d say they could be described as apocalyptic, but in a piecemeal way. I’m not looking for a big bang, but I think serious trouble is coming. And I’ll explain what I mean by that in describing a lack of fit between what the evolved political institutions of our advanced capitalist world, capitalist republic, can deal with and the scale of the problems that are presenting themselves autonomously, outside of anybody’s control.

Correspondent: Well, maybe one way to kickstart this is to tie in a sentiment in Mating with what is going on in Subtle Bodies. In the early Circe-like part of Mating, you have Nelson Denoon’s speech for his solar democracy, Tsau. “Everything we want in a society is what we find brought out in people and the moment of insurrection. Spontaneity! Spontaneous hierarchy!” There are exclamation marks after all of this. “Self-sacrifice! Staying awake all night! Working until we drop! Audacity! Camaraderie! The carnival behind the barricades.” Well, in Subtle Bodies, you have this compound called The Vale. It’s a sprawling place. It’s just outside Kingston. It’s the home to activists. It’s reminiscent in some ways of the Martello Tower at the very beginning of Ulysses. And, in fact, you actually compare it to the Winchester Mystery House. As a South Bay guy, I got that little reference.

Rush: Oh, you’re South Bay.

Correspondent: Yeah. So my question to you is, well, based on what you were expressing earlier, to what degree was this your way of exploring a Vico Cycle in which America is caught within a perpetual moment of insurrection?

Rush: Well, that’s very acute. This is about one of the last flashes of the revolutionary impulse to make a significant change. In this case, stopping the impending invasion of Iraq. So it’s not about making a New Society in the old sense. In the way that Denoon was talking about. But it’s about a much more reduced yet still large objective. And that is basically a negative one. But stopping something from happening.

iraq2003

Correspondent: Well, it’s interesting. Because that Iraq War protest in 2003 is often forgotten by many of the people, like the Occupy crowd. I mean, there were regular people who attended these series of protests. And it’s kind of been swept under the dustbin of history. Is this one of the motivations to explore this in fiction?

Rush: Absolutely. And in fact, it was in its time the largest international demonstration in history. All countries, all over the West. Not only here. And it represented a high watermark of emotion left over from the Vietnam War, which had, in the minds of oppositionists, been stopped by exactly this kind of direct action and mass protest. And, of course, well, I don’t want to give away the end of the book or remind people too much about the history of it. But yes. And that’s another thing. I think the book is working with a kind of fading historical appreciation of what the last twenty or twenty-five years have really meant.

Correspondent: Well, let me ask you something. I mean, if societal ideals — as are represented in that Nelson Denoon speech — if they are constantly replenishing themselves in this new musk of want, what is the present state of revolution? How can fiction provide an answer or encourage or empower people to commit revolution?

Rush: Well, don’t hold back from the big questions. I mean, that is the question. Every serious writer is implicitly or explicitly asking that question. What is it that I’m writing about? What does it have to do with the seemingly autonomous evolution of increasingly less propitious circumstances to make change? And the answer to that is the central and most compelling question, it seems to me, for people who write novels which incorporate serious politics and political thinking into them. The answer keeps revealing itself as you write and as things change. I mean, one of the things that seems to be happening — one reason that this is such a fascinating and, in a way, dumbfounding moment — is that the three great propositions about how we should organize the world and life — that is to say, socialism, followed by its variants, social democracy, followed by neoliberalism — have all in their own ways collapsed and don’t exist as real options anymore. They carry on their shells. There’s a shell of socialism existing in pockets and enclaves around the world. There’s a kind of zombie social democracy operating mostly in Western Europe. And there’s neoliberalism, which is in a state of what you have to call a dispensational crisis. Because basic problems like inequality have not been solved. And in the meantime, coming from the outside is this continual costs in the environment of the systems we built.

Correspondent: But at the same time, Marxism has a lowercase m in Mating. So has there ever really been credence to any of these political systems? Why do we continue to gnaw at them if they are unimplementable in everyday society?

Rush: Oh sure. Actually with the ongoing collapse of socialism, the Socialist Project, one of the standard responses to that — and it’s happened in the past many times — is to take the socialist idea and incorporate it in tiny pieces. Tiny little enclaves. Make it work. Make a pilot model. Make it tiny. Make it small. That’s sort of what Denoon is up to.

Correspondent: I wanted to also talk with you about how space functions in your book. In Mating, you have this wonderful passage where Karen describes love as moving from one room or apartment to another, and each subsequent room or apartment is bigger and better. Also, we learn in Subtle Bodies that the Vale’s large space has become unwieldy, especially when you’re trying to snag some yogurt for breakfast. But what you just said about how America is compartmentalizing itself and how social democracy is doing that reminds me very much of the episode where Nina enters this closet and she hears these two men and you write, “She had gained nothing by putting herself in this predicament.” And I’m wondering if this is your wry way of suggesting that figurative space is the only space that we can trust in fiction, in life, or in politics.

Rush: That’s an interesting way to look at it. Actually, this is a case of her burning desire to know everything taking over her good judgment. And as a character, she is determined to know everything she can to relieve the unmerited suffering she sees of her husband’s milieu. So she puts her nose into everything in the place that they live.

Correspondent: In Mortals, Ray complains that “affray was one of those words that was vanishing from the language.” But in Subtle Bodies, you have Ned almost terrified with the imperfection of a pickup line such as “I stand here lonely as a turnstile.” Nina also says, “A pleasant despair of the region of the loins.” And she claims to be quoting something. But actually you can’t place the quote. So one must assume that it’s original in some sense. If your books represent in some way a history of the way that Americans express themselves, and I think we can say that they do, why do you think your characters have moved from preserving word choice — and, of course, we have the word games as well in the early days of these characters. Why have they moved from preserving language to being terrified of the original expression? I mean, why is this of interest to you? I’m curious.

Rush: I’m interested in knowing the way that people express themselves. What lasts and what doesn’t. It’s kind of a Darwinian process that has always seemed interesting to me. For example, why do we now say that something that is within your competence is “within your wheelhouse”? “In your wheelhouse.” Now the odd thing about that is, first of all, I don’t know where it started.* But it certainly has taken over every conversation. And I was unable, and Elsa too, to recall what preceded it. What did we say when were saying to someone that he was out of his field of competence? Or in it? What did we say? Not “his line of work.” No, that’s not quite right. But there is a kind of occlusion of ways of expressing states of being and possibilities that happens. And it’s happening faster now because the media are so ever present and so tightly connected to everything. It happens fast. But I ask you. What did you say before you said, “It’s not in my wheelhouse”?

Correspondent: “Not in my purview,” I guess. I don’t know. “Not in my bailiwick.”

Rush: “Purview” is not quite right. Because this has to do with competence. “Bailiwick” is closer. But anyway, ponder it. I don’t have an answer myself.

travelingfightCorrespondent: I mean, this leads me to wonder. There is one point in this book where you have a “traveling fight” occur. And I had never actually heard the expression “traveling fight.” And I became so obsessed with that notion of a fight moving from one place to another. And the only place I could really find it online was from a 1970s article in the Toledo Blade.

Rush: Oh my gosh. (laughs)

Correspondent: So this is interesting. They are so determined to use that term “traveling fight,” which comes from a place that they’re okay with. And yet when they’re actually trying to riff on their own phrases, they don’t want to relive the pleasure of those word games in their early lives. Also, I’m just curious about where you first heard “traveling fight.”

Rush: I can’t tell you. I know that it came up in some place along the way in my life and I’ve carried it around as a description. And then suddenly, when I needed it, there it was.

Correspondent: I found an early draft of the “plaid underpants” moment in Subtle Bodies between Ned and Nina that was published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. [NOTE: We have reconstructed Rush’s compositional revisions in the graphic at the end of this capsule.] What was curious about this is that the dialogue you have is almost the same, but there’s some interesting description in this early draft where Nina is a little more willing to judge Ned. The sentences here are “In the seventies, the boys had lived in a jokey plenum. Now a kind of fitful replay was emerging among them, extending even to Karl, who had a brain.” And in the book, you’ve added this passage where Nina describes how she likes “the permanent delicate subliminal trembling of the room.” And this leads me to ask you. To what degree are you discovering these characters in the early drafts? Has it been your practice to severely cut the degree to which your characters dwell on the past and concentrate on the present moment you are bringing to life as you’re writing it?

Rush: Yeah, that’s part of my struggle against saying everything. And you may know that the way I’ve proceeded in the past with books was to write a dossier for each individual character, so that I knew the life of the character up till that point and sometimes beyond. Just for my own reference. And that was a helpful way to proceed. But I do more of that in my head now than I used to feel I had to do on paper. But yes. I have cut down in favor of moving the action so that I can get to the next big thing.

Correspondent: Well, in terms of carrying something in your head versus writing it down, why do you think you’ve always had that packrat tendency to say everything? I mean, I’m looking here and, on the table, you have this massive and quite intriguing collection of files. So why do you think you need to say everything and you need to get it all down?

Rush: I could tell you part of the answer to the extent that I think is true, but there’s more to it. At the very heart of it, of course, there’s got to be something like fear of not having, knowing what you need when you need it. But on top of that is laid another impulse that I have when I write. And that is — it’s a kind of crazed Platonism. Because once you start a book and you set up your characters and you set up the situation and you discern the argument that is going to lie at the base of the structure, you — at least I’m speaking for myself — you have a sense that this is a copy of a perfect realization. There is a perfect working out of the plot. A perfect resolution. A perfect rhythm. Everything. There is a perfect embodiment. End point. Embodiment of the things that you set out to say. And that’s what I want to do when I set out. And this is all kind of philosophical more than I like to admit. But I’m looking for something that is like a realization like, oh say, Kurosawa gets in The Seven Samurai. When you get to the end of the uncut version, when you get to the end of that, you have fully and absolutely experienced what was intended from the very first scenes of the book to the end. Or the opera. Tosca. Or Ravel’s Boléro. At the end of it, you have had everything. It has completed itself. And I think it’s probably a self-destructive kind of impulse to be subject to. But that’s me.

Correspondent: Is it something you grabbed from Joyce?

Rush: Joyce is another example. Ulysses is. And that’s why there’s so much extra stuff in Ulysses. Because in his own not completely formed way, I see him as aiming for the same thing and achieving it in thunder.

Correspondent: But you’ve never really sought out to have Botswana reconstructed from the bricks you laid down in Mortals or Mating.

Rush: No. I thought I would never know enough really as a five year resident and student of an extremely complicated and interesting culture. I would never know enough to do that. That will be the work of some writer from that country in some time. But yeah, I was always very conscious that Botswana was a set in which I was privileged to place my people and my problems.

* — A Way With Words, a casual call-in radio program devoted to word origins and language (I have been a regular listener of this agreeable low-key show for more than a year and recommend it), proved instructive in answering this question on its March 5, 2011 installment. The term “wheelhouse” comes from baseball. According to the Dickson Baseball Dictionary, it involves swinging a bat when the ball is in your crush zone. A 2010 Daily Finance article reveals nautical origins. Its popularity in the last three years (which is on the downslide) can be traced to an episode of Glee, in which Darius Rucker told another singer that a song was not “in his wheelhouse.”

* * *

An earlier draft of the “plaid underpants” episode in Subtle Bodies was published on October 23, 2011 at the Los Angeles Review of Books. This has allowed an unanticipated glimpse into Norman Rush’s compositional approach, when we compare this earlier draft against the published version. Note how Rush’s dialogue remains mostly unmodified. But his description has undergone significant revision. Rush was kind enough to discuss this at length on the program. (Please note that Rush’s additions are in boldface. His deletions are in strikethrough.):

rush-revision8

(Photo: Wyatt Mason, permission through Random House. Music: Kevin MacLeod, “As I Figure.”)

The Bat Segundo Show #512: Norman Rush (Download MP3)

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Maggie O’Farrell (The Bat Segundo Show #511)

Maggie O’Farrell is most recently the author of Instructions for a Heatwave.

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Author: Maggie O’Farrell

Subjects Discussed: People who went crazy during the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, John Cleese’s determination to commandeer a cab, how strange weather transforms communities, unusual nostalgia for the 1976 UK drought, whether fiction can prepare us for the insanity of the human race, families on their worst behavior, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (and the bizarre critical controversy, how to present character without ascribing to historical touchstones, taking down narrative scaffolding, prejudice against the Irish in the 1970s, baking bread, keeping the domestic life compartmentalized from a writing life, how writing a book in present tense permits the reader to confront folkways and mores of the past, how novelists can convey and acknowledge behavioral changes over the past, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, when historical novels transmute into accidental essays, too much detail, avoiding beanbags and other kitsch items in 1970s fiction, the raw material of a first draft, women who disguise their dyslexia by memorizing stories, the privilege of reading, literary couples who avoid homicidal impulses when reading each other’s work, having a harsh critic for a husband, surprise plot revelations, familial traits that are passed down, resisting and acknowledging qualities originating from your parents, the fine line between transforming real material into something imaginative and using personal experience, fiction that comes from what you don’t understand, paying attention to children’s disabilities, visual stimuli and curiosity, John Banville’s aversion to research, reading memoirs of British feminists and journalists for inspiration, the pub bombings of 1974, how first-person accounts can help a novelist to get inside characters, inspiration from bedsit living arrangements, family disappearances, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Elena Seymenliyska’s perspicacious review in The Telegraph pointing to the spate of recent novels with disappearing men, Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, masculinity defined by disappearance, living in a world in which everyone is spied upon, the romance of walking away from life, seeking dominoes in narrative, and the problems with gender generalization.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: My understanding is that this book was inspired from people going a little cuckoo roughly around the nigh unpronounceable Icelandic volcano. And I’m wondering how you got form Eyjafjallajökull — I think that’s what it is — to 1976. Just to start off here.

O’Farrell: Well, I had planned to write a completely different novel. It was going to be historic and sweeping and intercontinental. And I started doing a lot of research for that. And I did put a little bit of pen to paper. But then it was funny. It was a bit like radio interference. I started getting these snatches of conversation. Images of a family arguing in a kitchen. It was very, very hot in this kitchen. Very, very humid and very close. And it was annoying. Because I actually wanted to concentrate on my other book. But this family wouldn’t shut up.

Correspondent: They wouldn’t shut up? Families often don’t shut up.

O’Farrell: Exactly. I find that too. And then what happened — this was the tipping point. It was, as you say, the unpronounceable volcano in Iceland erupting. And the whole of Northern Europe just came to a standstill. It was extraordinary. There were no flights leaving. Nothing arriving. It was just lockdown.

Correspondent: You heard the story of John Cleese?

O’Farrell: Yes!

Correspondent: That was crazy!

O’Farrell: That’s one of my favorite stories.

Correspondent: He absolutely had to go home.

O’Farrell: Only he though. Only he would do that.

Correspondent: Which is insane.

O’Farrell: I was living in London at the time and my normally pretty sane neighbors were just ranting in the streets about flights they missed or holidays cancelled, visitors who never arrived. People were bulk buying bread and milk. It was this really weird panic which set into the whole of Europe.

Correspondent: Something to replace the Cold War scare. (laughs)

O’Farrell: (laughs) I guess so. And people were commandeering taxis to drive them from Paris to Madrid. It was really crazy town behavior. And I became slightly obsessed by it. I watched all the news reports. And every time I heard someone talking about it, I would listen in. And I kept thinking, “Well, this reminds me of something.” And I couldn’t think what it was. I couldn’t place it. And then, one day, it kind of came to me. It was the heat wave of 1976. And I don’t know if this was a big deal in the States. But it was certainly a huge deal in Britain and Ireland. You know, it was one of the big defining features of the decade, really. I was four at the time. And this made a huge impression on me. It kind of forms the basis of some of my earliest memories. I think it was one of those situations where the whole country pulled together. We were all in the middle of this huge drought, this huge heat wave. And that kind of unified spirit hasn’t really been called for since the Blitz. Where everybody got stuck here and we had standpipes in the street and nothing coming out the taps. We didn’t have any bars. No hose pipes. Nothing. And everybody had to fill up their own quota every day from the tap in the street. And it’s odd. People who’ve lived through it never forget it. And they all talk about it endlessly. Which for a novelist is a gift. Because I had to saddle up to people and say, “What do you remember about the 1976 heat wave?” And out this stuff would come. And it’s always amazingly personal. That was the other really interesting thing. People would talk about getting divorced and having babies or what happened to them or the kind of games they played as a child. For a novelist, it’s an amazing key to unlock all these incredible stories.

Correspondent: How did you start talking to people about what they experienced in 1976? Did you just ask around? Start from friends? Use the Internet? What happened?

O’Farrell: Yeah! There wasn’t a huge amount on the Internet, actually. Which was interesting. There were a couple of photographs and a couple of people talking about it and a few sort of newspaper articles about the time.

Correspondent: This was one of those particular moments that people hadn’t actually chronicled online, but if you went to the right places, you can get them to talk about it.

O’Farrell: Absolutely. It was one of those things where I’d just say to people, “I’m thinking of writing something about the ’76 heat wave,” and total strangers would start to tell me incredibly personal stuff. One woman I never met before started telling me about how she started having an affair with her next door neighbor. (laughs) Which is gold dust, of course. It was an amazing — I don’t know what you’d call it — catalyst to people telling you stuff.

Correspondent: Do you find that people tell you very personal things because you’re a novelist? I’ve talked with novelist-journalists before and, the minute they hang up their journalistic hat and once things get going on the novelist front, suddenly it’s like, “Well, I’m a novelist. Oh, I can’t possibly use the material in any way.” (laughs)

O’Farrell: (laughs) I think people are probably very wary. Rightly so actually. Because novelists are ruthless creatures. We will eat anything.

Correspondent: They’ll take anything.

O’Farrell: We’ll take something. We’ll just nick it. You have to realize that.

Correspondent: I know you ransacked me right before you sat down.

O’Farrell: (laughs) Oh yes, definitely. It’s all written down on a notebook. No, I think people are quite wary. But certainly, for some reason, and I’m not quite sure why, with this heat wave in Britain, people suddenly spill their guts out to you.

Correspondent: Well, there are a number of things that cropped up in relation to the heat wave. Number one: just how parallel it is to climate change right now. But simultaneously, this also leads me to wonder — and maybe we can talk about this — how fiction may actually be the best medium to discuss how humans are going to change their behavior as we have more floods and hurricanes and rising ocean levels. I mean, maybe the novel is the way to start preparing ourselves for the insanity of the human race. What are your thoughts on this?

O’Farrell: Well, possibly. I don’t know. I don’t see anyone really preparing themselves at all in any way, actually.

Correspondent: (laughs)

O’Farrell: I think we’re horribly unprepared and we’re just taking an ostrich approach to the whole issue. But I think that was one of the strangest things about researching the novel. That all this anxiety about the drought and the lack of rainfall and the dry reservoirs was in a time before anybody had heard the expression “climate change.” Nobody had even — I don’t think anyone had even heard of the ozone layer. It wasn’t discussed. It wasn’t an issue. That’s all I could think of was when I was researching it. And looking through, I found the government policy that they rushed through Parliament in 1976. And the government’s fear and panic is absolutely prevalent in that document. It’s amazing. You can feel it from the very pages, you know. They were really worried. They were worried about civil disobedience and riots over water. They had all these contingency plans in place conscribing help from the army in case there would be civil unrest. So you could tell they were really anxious. But the big question in my head, of course, the whole time was thinking, “Well what would it be like now if this happened?” Because people would be terrified if that happened.

Correspondent: Well, we’ve had a number of hurricanes here and so forth. So there’s a little bit of that. But it is interesting that here you are looking at other turmoil as represented from what people are telling you in terms of their own personal stories and as reflected in the news articles that you looked at and the government documents that you consulted. Yet this is ultimately about domestic conflict. And I’m wondering if keeping some of the extra turmoil to the distance was more of a concern for you in concentrating on these lives. Was it literally just the kickstarter to getting in these characters? To really open up their feelings? Or what?

O’Farrell: Well, I was quite interested in something that would bring together that was largely estranged growing up. Siblings, two of whom haven’t spoken to each other for three years. Putting them all and squeezing them all back in the house, the small house in which they grew up, and back into the roles they don’t fit in anymore. The family sequence that doesn’t fit anymore. I was interested in the idea of what would bring people back. Why would they have to come back? And I suppose, just to ratchet up the tension, to use this heat wave. Because it really is a melting pot with them all squashed in together. It’s like a crucible. They can’t leave the house because their dad disappears. In the first pages of the novel, the father, the patriarch, walks out and he doesn’t come back.

Correspondent: It’s been noted by several authors and several philosophers that, when you get a bunch of family members under one house, they are going to probably be on their worst behavior. I’m wondering if that might have also been one of the appeals. I mean, I know you do this continuous first draft going forward and plowing through — no plan — for all of your novels. And I’m wondering if crowding people together is going to create natural conflict or what?

O’Farrell: I think that’s inevitable. I think families are always going to be irresistible to a novelist. Because first of all, we all have one, whether we like it or not. We all come from someone. And I think also they are a kind of melting pot of different types of personality. I’m sure there’s a mathematical formula that, if there are five people in the family — you know, my math is appalling. Is it 25% different relationships? Well, you know, Freud said that every sibling has a different parent or a different mother. Every relationship — the mother has a different relationship with each child. The child has a different relationship with each other. And I think the interesting thing, for me anyway, about getting older is that you think those relationships are set in stone. But actually they’re not. There are pressures of adulthood — careers, marriages, children, mortgages, various disappointments — that exert pressure on you as a person. And those sibling relationships, and that ordering, can change and alter. And suddenly the kind of younger sibling may not want to be treated like a baby anymore. She might want to stand up for herself and say, “You know, actually, I’m an adult now.” But I think families are particularly bad about catching up with the way people change. They expect you to stay the same. But of course you don’t.

Correspondent: I have a corollary to my other question about a larger conflict of a heat wave in relation to — I believe it’s Aoife? Do I have that pretty close?

O’Farrell: Very good. Well done. Very few people get that right.

Correspondent: So Aoife — and now everyone who’s reading the book and who happens to listen to this can now know exactly how to pronounce her name! She’s drawn into this artsy New York world of 1976. Now typically, when you have a novel dealing with this world, the world itself almost becomes this separate character. Most recently we had a very notable novel here — Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowersin which critics here have been fighting on both sides of the coast. It’s kind of ridiculous. It’s gotten away from the novel. But the point is that there is this kind of political character or this sociological character that comes with the territory in writing about this period. So much happened. But what is fascinating about Aoife is that we really get to know her day-to-day dealings when she is working for Evelyn, when she is running errands. She’s trying to deal with dyslexia. And she’s trying to basically feel this broken landscape. So you’re focusing here on the nuts and bolts of the characters obviously. But I’m wondering: were you ever resisting the impulse to really have a wave of time and place, of New York, subsume Aoife and the other characters who she’s dealing with here in New York at any point during the writing? Or were you pretty much saying, “No, this is nuts and bolts. This is character. This is no nonsense. That’s what’s important. Why should this be defined exclusively by time and place?”

O’Farrell: Well, I think, as a novelist, you have to make a decision about what’s going to lead a novel and what your novel is about. I didn’t want to write a “state of the nation” book. I didn’t want to write a book so much about the politics of the 1970s, either in London or New York, which are the two locations in the book. And certainly they come into it, of course, inevitably. If you’re writing about a city, particularly about that — because I think the ’70s was a decade in both Britain and New York that was a very difficult decade for a lot of people. There was a lot of social problems, economic problems. A lot of political instability certainly in the UK. And I think you have to make a decision. And I wanted this novel to be a very, very small focus. I was almost challenging myself. I think with every book you’ve got to set yourself a new challenge. And the book I wrote previously was very, very wide-ranging. It covered fifty years in time. It went all over the world. I wanted a contrast to that. I wanted something — a very, very tight lens, a very, very tight focus. Almost the classical unities of one place.

(Loops for this program provided by Dj4Real, petitcrabe, danke, Kristijann, 40A, and mffinke.)

The Bat Segundo Show #511: Maggie O’Farrell (Download MP3)

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Travis Nichols (The Bat Segundo Show #510)

Travis Nichols is most recently the author of The More You Ignore Me.

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Author: Travis Nichols

Subjects Discussed: Comparing smells in Washington DC and New York City, Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder and The More You Ignore Me as epistolary novels, digital narcissism, the difficulties of writing novels with a wide swath of perspective, the benefits of coming from a deeply singular place, lathering yourself into a George Hamilton-like frenzy, the medium vs. the solitary voice, finding a way into the head of an abhorrent character, @AvoidComments, the remarkable amount of text generated by commenters, contending with trolls while working as editor at The Poetry Foundation, the freedom (and lack thereof) that comes with specific forms of writing, ruminating on why some people type so much online, when extreme behavior is rewarded, averted vision and the Pleiades, Jack Spicer’s After Lorca, “oppressed” people swimming in white privilege, the self-declared outcast, teachers who guided Nichols into considering the wider world, privilege and exclusion, writing about something insane and not taking it with you into your regular life, family members who disown you by email, Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries, the adventurous nature of Coffee House Press, readings where you bomb, qualities shared with theater and literature, laughter within the head, why the worst poems go over very well in front of bar audiences, craven desperation for approval, intense listening, the importance of pursuing the idea, Anselm Berrigan blanking his mind out by writing zeroes and ones, how to quiet a mind, working at Bailey Coy Books, not leaving the house, listening to singers who don’t sing in English, Princess Nicotine, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, linguistic phrases and online formality, baroque language, Literature Subreddit, the sentiment held by certain online types that literature after World War I is worthless, War and Peace, Thomas Eakins, Clint Eastwood talking with a chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention, artsplaining diction, Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse,” seductive caesuras, balancing breaks and relentless formalism, willfully not giving the reader any space, online harassment of women, Anita Sarkeesian being harassed for speaking her mind, threats against Lindy West, early reaction to The More You Ignore Me, Alissa Nutting’s Tampa, women readers and literature, and whether it’s possible to tell the whole truth in fiction today.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Nichols: With The More You Ignore Me, there were some very particular people that I was dealing with on an everyday basis because of my job at the Poetry Foundation. But they were essentially harmless. They were basically having fun with reputation and inventing characters. But I found myself trying to interact with a person. Because there was a rule of thumb that everyone would say: “Well, you wouldn’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face.” And I was like, “Oh, right. So you’re going to take that tack and you’re going to lose.” Because there’s all these other people who are saying everything they would never say. And, one, they’re having so much fun. Sort of. It was a really dark kind of fun. It seemed like it was painful. But there were hints of real inventiveness. There would be actual interesting thought. But then, of course, they couldn’t let it go. There’d be something like — I’m sure you’ve had this. The amount of text that’s being generated is remarkable. So that’s one thing. “God, that’s amazing. Some people can type that much.” But then also there are a number of ideas and some of them are almost there. And so, in probably a really shitty way, I thought, “Oh, well maybe I can look at that and try and make them into something that I can take as good.” Totally insulting to those people that they’re not doing it well and I would do it better, but I can own that. Because I think that they weren’t doing it very well. And then I thought, No one would ever actually want to read a 220 page book, which this novel is, unless it was doing something more than just being your standard comment. So I thought, There is a form. To get to what you’re asking, there’s a form there that allows for a lot more than many of the other forms that we have. Like I actually think that with a lot of poetry and with a lot of fiction, there’s not a lot of freedom to do this, that, or the other. That you get a lot more freedom.

I mean, if you look at slash fiction or you look at a lot of other kinds of online writing, they don’t give a fuck about what the form is. They have this amazing freedom. One, because the audience is there or not there. But also there’s some part of the frontal lobe that might be missing which just allows them to not check themselves. And I thought, “Oh, well, that could be really remarkable to try and go with.”

Correspondent: Or the Internet encourages them to speak in this unfiltered, raw, feral, atavistic at times mode.

Nichols: Right. And you’re rewarded by how extreme you can be. But then also the ultimate trolling is that you say something provocative to get a conversation going.

Correspondent: Some would call it a rise, as opposed to a dialogue.

Nichols: Right. Definitely. And the tragedy of this narrator in The More You Ignore Me is that he is sort of trying to do that, but he doesn’t allow anyone else to speak. So there’s no discussion that happens. And one of the things that I found interacting with other people like this — and also not just online; offline; everyone has these people in their lives — is that you can get worried. Like I have felt that I’m coming across with this person, my relationship with this person, I’m not being a good person. Because I’m getting this reaction. And it took me a long time to realize that it has absolutely nothing to do with me. That it has everything to do with this other person. They, in some ways, don’t even see me. I’m being steamrolled and just assimilated into this person’s psychosis a lot of times. And so one of the things I was trying to do with this narration is just to show that it starts out very much really about someone else. Could there be something that’s more about someone else than a wedding? I mean, that seems like that’s supposed to be about these people truly. And then, as it goes, those people are totally obliterated and then they’re gone by the end. It has nothing to do with them. And so that’s what I found over and over again. And now I see it. And I think, Right. This. You think that if there’s a comment on a post that’s about Obama’s judicial nominations or whatever, you’re like, maybe I’ll learn about the nominations. And you’re like, Oh no. I’m going to learn about this person and his, almost always…

Correspondent: Or you’re going to learn about some really terrible part of the national fabric. As we learned recently with the whole Zimmerman verdict. I wanted to go into this a little further by looking at both books again. The central voices in both of your novels, they latch upon a random target. In the first book, Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder, it’s this woman named Luddie. She’s in this photograph, as you describe “black eyes, black hair, black dimples, black dress.” And in the second book, this most recent one, it’s a random wedding site and later the cooking website. They have little, if any, direct correlation to where these unnamed characters are in the present. And I’m wondering if this is your way of taking a look at the way we approach truth, either through letters or through a blog comment, that we’re likely to say the darkest and deepest things that are on our mind if we approach everything indirectly. Or was this just some sort of natural crazy salad? That any way you actually went into this, you would have this madness.

Nichols: Oh wow. That’s a great question. I definitely think that you or I get at a more accurate picture of the world indirectly. Maybe you know the answer to this. I remember reading this idea about the Pleiades. That you cannot look at them directly. You have to look at them sideways. Er, just glancing and that’s the only you’ll actually see them. Is that true?

Correspondent: Yeah. I believe so.

Nichols: Great! So that’s there. It’s like the Pleiades. Um, I’ve thought that often. And I was just about now to say that. And I thought, Maybe that’s not true. So great. At least between us, that’s the way it is. I mean, I think that there’s one thing that was really formative just in probably, I guess you could say, my adult writing life, when I got my shit together and really felt like I was finding a certain way in which the limited skills that I have are able to be used effectively in communicating what I want to audiences, is Jack Spicer’s, uh, poetry, but especially his book, After Lorca, in which he writes letters to Lorca, who’s dead, and talks about the idea of the programmatic letter of one poet writing to another in order to describe his poetics or her poetics, but also just as a way of — he calls it the wastage of the poem that’s the real thing. I think he probably knew that he was being funny because the letters; well, some are better than the poems. Sometimes.

Correspondent: He was also a wide outcast for a long while, which creates a connection with this particular narrator.

Nichols: Yeah. There’s a lot of Spicer in there. I mean, it’s almost like — it’s sort of camping up an idea of Spicer. Because he’s very sane. And I think there are moments of real clarity in The More You Ignore Me‘s narrator. But, you know, there’s a lot of stuff where you really start somewhere where you’re like, okay, I can really go along with that. And then by the end of even a sentence, you’re like, “No, that’s not where I would go with that.” And I think I was interested in the idea of this outcast, the writer as an outcast or the poet as an outcast. Or someone who wasn’t made for these times. And so then we seem to be a nation of outcasts in that way, where it seems that if you go on anything there is, there’s this sort of dominant narrative that shows up and then you have all these things under it, which is all these people disagreeing and fighting and saying, “This is just the mainstream media’s version of it.” There’s all these people who feel disaffected even and often most than these people who are often in power. There’s the backlash Republicans. People who are so swimming in white privilege that they’re not able to see that they are and they feel besieged by the fact that this isn’t the country that they feel like they grew up in or some idea that they have. That all these people that I’ve romanticized, being writers and poets and artists, who seem like they’re outside the mainstream, but then a lot of them when I look back on them, “Oh, well, they’re all straight white men. They’re all people who came from basically middle-class background.” A lot of them were really rich, it turns out. If you look at the history, especially of postwar American poetry, it’s arguably a history of Harvard undergrads. And so it becomes this very weird thing where people try to own their outsideness to an absurd degree. And so I wanted to sort of take that from A to Z with this narrator a little bit. Whereas I think in the first book, that narrator felt and was genuinely outside of things a little more. God, when I say that, it sounds ridiculous. That he would be more outside than this guy.

Correspondent: No. I think — let me see if we can steer the train on track here.

Nichols: Please do.

Correspondent: You’re saying that this narrator emerged in some sense from ruminating upon self-declared outcasts or people who were labeled outcasts. People like Jack Spicer, who came from the exact same place that every single other great mind came from. I’m wondering at what point this was a kind of — I don’t want to say ideological thrust, but in what way did this idea help to ground your narrator? The notion of outsider/insider. The notion that, for all of his claims of being banned or of wanting to go ahead and change the world, he was given the exact same privilege that everybody else did.

Nichols: Yeah. I mean I think that he’s also coming from this very — a little bit of this Southern Baptist idea or a certain kind of Christianity that really loves conflict. Because they see it as “Well, Jesus was persecuted. You must be doing something right.” Or Winston Churchill’s “You can judge me by my enemies.” And there’s a lot of that in literary culture. And a lot of that especially in the arts, who are like, “If you get people upset, then you must be doing something right.” And I agree to a point. There’s also like, “No, well, actually there are people who are genuinely disagreeing with you that maybe you should pay attention to that viewpoint and reconcile your behavior.” But instead it gets people to hunker down into the sense of self and entitlement. Like every genius was misunderstood at one time. Most likely. That doesn’t mean that every misunderstood person is a genius. So you have all these people who are taking all of the outside trappings of being an artist and claiming that that makes them an artist without any of the inside. And so this guy is not an artist. I mean, he’s a frustrated artist. But he can’t figure out where he went wrong. And he won’t admit really that it was him that went wrong. Like it’s something that he had all right. But it turns out that everybody else was wrong. And that is definitely not an unfamiliar place for me. Especially coming out of the poetry world, where you really feel like that the things that you value are not valued by the wider culture. And you can be in the little scene that celebrates itself and feel like, “Oh right. We all do really good…” Like Jack Spicer now. Everybody knows about him. So it’s not interesting anymore. But then as soon as you step out into any other kind of world, I mean, no one gives a shit at all. And not only that, but it’s not that they don’t care. It’s that they actively dislike what you like.

Correspondent: I think what you’re talking about here, especially with blog comments, is the fine line between being a genuine iconoclast who can in fact change her mind or adjust views and be engaged in a dialogue and someone who is a full-bore troll, who is incapable of that. Who has to erect some mythical status to justify why they continue to express themselves. And in this case, I’m curious if at any point during the writing of this, you saw this guy more in the first category. Where he was getting pushback from people who didn’t want to hear his perspective when it was legitimate. I mean, did you see him in that mould at any point? But it seems to me he clearly moves more into the second, the more custom troll. But I’m wondering if you considered the first.

The Bat Segundo Show #510: Travis Nichols (Download MP3)

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Mark Slouka (The Bat Segundo Show #509)

Mark Slouka is most recently the author of Brewster.

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Author: Mark Slouka

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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

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

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

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

Slouka: That’s right.

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

Slouka: Exactly.

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

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

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

Slouka: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slouka: Where that comes from.

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

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

Photo: Maya Slouka

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

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

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Gabriel Roth (The Bat Segundo Show #508)

Gabriel Roth is most recently the author of The Unknowns.

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Author: Gabriel Roth

Subjects Discussed: Leaving San Francisco for Brooklyn, observing the two dot com booms, how moving away from a city often makes you more aware of its dynamics, the benefits of isolation, National Novel Writing Month, descriptive restaurant cues, the delicate balance between invention and specific representation of a place, writing a character who is “a life support system for feelings of anxiety,” not fronting before other programmers, attempted parallels between programming code and writing prose, anxiety as literary ambiguity, My Little Pony used in flashback, brony culture, how the origins of geekdom become twisted over the course of dissemination, Maya Marcom as a loaded name, vacillating between a Bildungsroman and a social novel in the act of writing, capturing the spirit of being alive during a particular time and place, tips learned from being in an MFA program, the one-time advantages of in-state universities, reading books without understanding the mechanics behind the writing, the amount of work that a writer must do to create a vivid sensory world, systems-thinking reporting vs. the descriptive needs of fiction, the abstract nature of news writing, Bay Guardian philosophy, Bruce B. Brugmann’s “Write while you’re drunk, revise when you’re hungover” catchphrase, alt-weekly professionalism, exploring material that you are already steeped in, writing what you know vs. writing what you don’t know, what your subconscious knows, automatic writing, the revising process, ingesting drugs as a character trait, accounting for the sudden expository twist near the end of The Unknowns, repressed memory, the problems that occur after you’ve fallen in love with someone, maintaining a good-natured feel in a novel after a sexual abuse revelation, humor applied to a broader emotional spectrum, “lad lit,” Benjamin Kunkel, Nick Hornby, the glut of novels about twentysomething white males, whether style is enough to escape white male fiction trappings, judging a book by its flap copy, taking on other voices, The Orphan Master’s Son, why Roth zeroed in on Denver privilege, coming from an educated family, the help that comes from background, Eric’s lack of ideological background, selling personal data to evil corporations, characters who espouse pro-corporate values, the diminishing of principle in San Francisco, the difficulties of combining politics and fiction, the homogeneity of America’s two political cultures, the Iraq War, when people always agree, whether the idea of the overstuffed Great American Novel still applies in 2013, The Adventures of Augie March, Infinite Jest, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, critics obliged to fight over Kushner, minituarist vs. maximist fiction, and how to get a TV-obsessed culture hooked on fiction.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start off with you leaving San Francisco in 2006. I left in 2007. We both ended up in Brooklyn. And this is one of those interviews. Why didn’t we actually know each other during that decade that we were there? I’m wondering how aware you were that the City was falling apart, was being taken by the Google People, by the private buses. What caused you to flee to Brooklyn? And was this novel in some way a way of reckoning with that?

Roth: Well, I left mostly for personal reasons. I was living with a woman who is now my wife and who was starting a graduate program at Columbia.

Correspondent: Yes.

Roth: And so that was the immediate impetus for me to leave, although I had been in San Francisco for ten years. And as you probably know, ten years is a long time to spend in San Francisco.

Correspondent: I was there for thirteen.

Roth: Yeah. You start to feel that time passing under your feet a little bit. It was not yet clear in 2006 — or at least it wasn’t yet clear to me — what was going to happen with the second Internet boom and what was going to happen with the City as a result of that. I had been there since 1996. And so I had seen the first Internet boom which had sort of effloresced in the late part of the millennium and then died out very quickly in the first years of the oughts. And so I probably would have thought that any new economic activity was going to follow a similar boom and bust pattern. And now it’s not clear that that’s actually what’s going to happen. Or if there is a bust, then the City will have been pretty permanently changed and marked by the boom, it seems like.

Correspondent: Well, it is interesting. Because with the present boom underway, I remember the first one and that seemed brutal at the time. And I was very fortunate to have an apartment in which the rent had not gone up, as were many of my friends. And we somehow managed to secure apartments. Now I’m hearing reports from friends who are basically cleaving to their apartments, hoping that their building won’t be taken over and so forth. And I guess my tangent here was, if you weren’t entirely aware, does moving away from San Francisco and writing a novel actually allow you to think “Wow! All this was going on and, as shred as I was, I really wasn’t paying attention”?

Roth: Yeah. There is a certain amount of that obviously. I began the novel and I had gotten a good two thirds of the way into a draft by the time I left San Francisco. So a lot of the scenarios and the physical environment that I was describing was what was immediately around me as I was doing that first stage of writing. And then moving away — and I think this is probably true in general for writers — the act of writing is often, I think, an act of recapturing and of preserving your memories. Sort of freezing them in sentences. And I think it worked that way for me partly about the City of San Francisco and the environment around the first dot com boom, but then also about a time in my life. And of course, it’s very difficult to separate the place that you were in your early twenties from the experience of being in your early twenties.

Correspondent: Well, how so? Can you elaborate on that? It almost seems like you’re kind of mining through your own data and trying to separate it into emotion and tangible information.

Roth: Yeah. That’s absolutely right. I mean, the book is in part about San Francisco and about people working in technology and about collecting data. But then it’s also about a young man who’s preoccupied with looking for love and finding someone to be intimate with and close to. And it’s not an autobiographical book and the characters aren’t the same person as me. But that experience of being in my early twenties and really wanting to figure out how to love somebody and be loved by somebody — I was preoccupied with that for a long time. And those experiences, along with the experiences of the social world of San Francisco, are what went into the book and what got filtered through the fiction writing process and into the novel. And so there’s no way that I can say, “Oh yes. This is just a sort of satirical or an observational portrait of a little microcosm of the world.” Because it’s all wrapped up with my own subjective experience.

Correspondent: So you had two thirds of a draft before you moved here to Brooklyn. What did moving to Brooklyn produce in terms of clarity for both Eric [protagonist of The Unknowns] and for the view of San Francisco that you had?

Roth: Well, let’s see. Around the time that I moved out here, you know, I finished the MFA program at San Francisco State. I had a bunch of chapters. I was trying to figure out — I knew where the book was going to go, but I was trying to stick the landing, which is not straightforward and I think is not usually straightforward when writing a novel. And then we moved out here. And we were in our early thirties — mid-thirties even — and it was no longer a time when I would have moved to Brooklyn and gone out drinking every night or made a whole bunch of new friends. Or I wasn’t going to go out on dates. Because I was living with my girlfriend. And so moving to New York, which for many people is like stepping onto the big stage — for me, that was the time where I was a bit more isolated and I was going to work every day and getting my pages done and then coming home and eating dinner with my wife. And I think that was important in terms of finishing the thing.

Correspondent: So the isolation allowed you to finish the book.

Roth: Yeah.

Correspondent: It allowed you to come to terms with and put aside this particular part of yourself in your twenties.

Roth: Yeah. I think that’s right. It was putting a clean break on what I had been doing and what I was going to be starting to do from now on.

Correspondent: Did you have any other novels before this? I was curious.

Roth: Not that you would actually call a novel. I had like a pile of pages that I had written during National Novel Writing Month in 2003. Or something like that. That added to nothing but a pile of pages.

Correspondent: I think I remember reading one of your Bay Guardian columns. I think you wrote about it in the Bay Guardian, writing for the National Novel Writing Month.

Roth: I probably did.

Correspondent: Yeah, I remember that. I was a loyal Bay Guardian reader when I lived there. So that was you. You describe “a medium-expensive neo-Cuban restaurant with the kind of deserts that have names evocative of Catholicism” near Lazarus, your invented Valencia Street bar, which clearly evokes Cha Cha Cha. You have the photographs of tailfinned cars, which are sort of like Mel’s Drive-In, but not quite. Fiction — this is not reality. Imagination should be encouraged. But this does lead me to ask you about creating a believable San Francisco for this book. Obviously, you have to rely on things that actually exist. But are there any dangers in being too specific when you’re creating a sense of place like this? I mean, it seems that you want to alert people like me who have in fact passed and entered into Cha Cha Cha that this is indeed the San Francisco of that era. But I was curious about that fine line between telegraphing exactly what it is and just making shit up.

Roth: Yeah. I mean, I think the main issue you’re talking about is with the restaurants. Frankly, there’s a lot of restaurants. And most of the restaurants, as you point out, if you were going out to eat in the Mission in the early part of the 21st century, you’ve probably eaten in some of those restaurants. I didn’t worry about that. And I guess I think that’s fine. And if you’re reading it and you’re in the small subset of people who are going to recognize those restaurants, then hopefully that’s a sort of pleasant moment of recognition for you. Maybe it’s distracting, in which case my bad. But most people are not going to fall in that category. And I think without some amount of specificity, whether its based on real life’s specificity or completely fantastic specificity, without that, then it just becomes a generic restaurant. And the whole thing sort of looks flat. Putting in detail — in this case, often detail borrowed from actual restaurants where I ate most of my meals during the ten years I lived in San Francisco — putting in that detail hopefully gives the feeling of something that takes place in a real world that’s fully stocked with all the stuff of the real world.

Correspondent: But it is your world. It is Eric’s world. And I guess my question is not so much, “Ah! I’m going to go through The Unknowns and cut and paste all those phrases and put them on Yelp.” That’s not what I’m talking about.

Roth: (laughs)

Correspondent: What I am talking about is the idea that this is fiction. It does require invention. It is not going to be a pure 100% depiction of San Francisco. So where do you deviate between that specificity and just inventing something that doesn’t exist but is real enough for the reader to believe, whether the reader be from San Francisco or the reader be from somewhere else?

Roth: Yeah. I mean, really, it depends on the needs of the particular paragraph. You know what I mean? And what comes to my mind as I’m writing it. If, let’s say again, there’s a restaurant where I’m sending the two characters and I need to envision it, you know how sometimes in your dreams or your fantasies, sometimes there will be a place that doesn’t really exist. And sometimes all of the events will transpire in a place that does exist, but those things never happen there. Or it’s a place that does exist, only now they’re serving vegetarian food instead of Mexican food. And writing a novel seems to me exactly the same process. That you borrow these elements from the real world, but unless you’re writing a novel that’s just a direct transposition of real life — which this certainly isn’t — the filtering process is going to transform it to whatever degree is necessary.

Correspondent: So Eric describes himself to Maya as “a life support system for feelings of anxiety. The anxiety is the organism and I am the habitat.” Yet he tells his story in this book much like a programmer, almost as if he’s writing clean lines of code. The habitat of this book may indeed describe anxieties, but it seems like it’s reliant more upon nouns and adjectives rather than verbs. And I was curious about this. Did you impose any kind of stylistic ordinance upon your character to push his anxieties beneath the text? I mean, verbs are certainly the way that we absolutely spill out our emotion. And yet he seems to not use them as such. I’m wondering if this was something you were conscious of or whether it was designed or emerged through revision or what not.

Roth: That’s interesting. I certainly don’t, when I’m writing, think in terms of parts of speech like that. I’m not a sufficiently programmatic writer to be able to do that. I don’t think it would help me. I’m sure there’s some people for whom that would be a useful way to think about things. I do think — and the sentence that you quote is a good example of this — you know, he’s out on a date with this girl and she says to him — he says something that seems uptight or anxious and she says, “Do you consider yourself an anxious person?” And he says, “I consider myself a life support system for anxieties. The anxiety is the organism and I’m the habitat.” And on one hand, to some extent, that’s an accurate description. But on the other hand, hopefully on a date, that’s the clever thing to say. That’s sort of witty and self-deprecating, but also a self-revealing thing to say to a girl who you’re trying to make fall in love with you. And rather than imposing a restriction on Eric’s speech, I think of that character as being both messed up in all of these ways and having these real psychological difficulties, making life really difficult for him, and at the same time being to some useful degree self-aware about that and able to talk about and, as in that example, able to present it and able to sublimate it into a self-presentation that hopefully is a little charming and a little attractive and that Maya at least responds to. And hopefully, to some extent, the reader will respond to it in that way as well. He is an anxious person and he is a self-conscious person and yet his self-awareness about those things enables him to defuse their effects a little bit.

(Loops for this program provided by Dj4Real, chefboydee, and hamood.)

The Bat Segundo Show #508: Gabriel Roth (Download MP3)

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Anchee Min (The Bat Segundo Show #507)

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

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Author: Anchee Min

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: Caligula!

Min: Yeah.

Correspondent: The Bob Guccione film. (laughs)

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

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

Min: (laughs) Right.

Correspondent: This is the gateway in. (laughs)

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

Correspondent: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

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Matt Bell (The Bat Segundo Show #506)

Matt Bell is most recently the author of In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods.

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Author: Matt Bell

Subjects Discussed: Attempts to abridge a rather lengthy book title, House Party, Kate Bernheimer, finding the balance between open and closed stories, inclusive novelists vs. exclusive novelists, Raymond Friedman’s Critifiction, self-built and self-contained worlds, the constraints of pragmatics, how fabulism creates solutions to fiction problems, singing and karaoke, depictions of singing in fiction, James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the links between music and emotion, William Blake’s distinction between Fable and Vision in “A Vision of the Last Judgment,” Brian Evenson, how the fantastic can be the new religion, incorporating liminal space into fiction, Denis Johnson, Jesus’s Son, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, how a fiction moment can shift from gritty realism to the mythic, the futility of rigid fact-based interactions with the world, vicarious imagination and liminal space, removing logic and explanation to find clarity, James Joyce lookalikes attempting to set a world record, how hard specifics encourage the imagination, Santa Claus parades and Santa subway rides, finding moments in the real world that trigger the imagination, the importance of daily writing, hiking, when life happens in books, Norman Lock, the futility of finding biographical origin points in an author’s fiction, fingerling potatoes, Dick Laan, foundlings and nouns that rhyme with thing, not always knowing how fictitious bears work, individual sentences that contain mysteries, unintended allegory, George Romero’s zombie movies, how codas can re-open a novel, when characters serve as an instrument to push forward a story, when some elements of traditional fiction become necessary, mansplaining, the original massive version of In the House, finding the trajectory within a first novel, “I am a writer!” bloat destroyed in revision, holding only forty pages in your head at one time, dealing with an underpopulated world, “Control F Squid,” finding ways to control specific words, when notes become a constraint, the head as an ancient 40 MB hard drive, not being able to work on an entire novel all at once, Gary Lutz’s “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” Christine Schutt’s “The Blood Jet,” projecting sentences before students, teaching, Lishean poetics vs. intuition, the advantages of working on fiction at the sentence level, why it’s vital to be blind during the act of creation, Robert Boswell’s notion of the half-known world, video games, Bioshock Infinite, video games as a way to steer young people into fiction through the labyrinth, Nethack, Choose Your Own Adventure, malleable narrative, Mike Meginnis’s Exits Are, Infocom text adventure games, Robert Coover’s views on hypertext, how fiction can combat the entitlement of today’s audiences, being trained to be on the side of the protagonist, galvanizing the reader to be emotionally engaged, ambiguity, the outdoors gap in contemporary fiction, Jack London, how much of 21st century life is defined by being indoors, the Laird Hunt/Roxane Gay interview from January, writing a book about Detroit, the problems with depicting the minutiae of everyday life, Girls, Nicholson Baker, the knowing the names of quotidian things moment in Underworld, hard edicts laid down as a young writer, the benefits of imitating prose in early days, and giving certain approaches up.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: When I finished this book, I was especially intrigued by how you kept the world of this book open enough for the reader to fill in the blanks, while the husband’s emotions are fairly open. But it’s also fairly closed in the way that he’s cut off from the world and the rest of society. He’s confined to this life that’s pretty much his wife, the fingerling, and the foundling. I’m actually going to reference a quote you Tumbled only ninety minutes ago.

Bell: (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah. That’s how current we are here. Ironically, this will air many weeks later. But anyway…

Bell: Right, right, right.

Correspondent: So you had quoted Kate Bernheimer.

Bell: Yes, absolutely.

Correspondent: “From sentence to sentence, in fairy tales there is no reality that is subordinated to any other. Just as, outside the pages there is no reality.” So you know, I’m wondering. Do you feel that the best fairy tales or the best stories involve finding the right balance along the lines of this open and closed notion and all that? How did you arrive at the balance for this book?

Bell: Well, one of the ways I think about I guess is that there’s lots of kinds of writers. But there’s two kinds of writers for this model, right? There’s people who are includers and people who are excluders, right? As soon as you’re writing the Great American Novel, then you’re jamming everything from your decade into the book, right? I’m going to get it all in here. I’m going to capture the entire American experience. And that’s one way to make a book. To capture the world and put it into a book. I think the other is to try and like make a world and to push back. To write from the center out and define your boundaries. So that what you’re creating becomes the world of the book and it doesn’t have these outside things. And I think in the end there was a balance act to that in the book. As you know, there are these allusions to the outside world and where they’re from. And I wanted it to be there. I didn’t want this to be completely abstract or separate. But for the most part, the only things that can happen are things that are already in this world. Within the first thirty pages, the world is built fairly quickly. And then the only way they can solve their problems or to progress the story is using these elements. Using these things. And I found that really interesting. That’s one of the reasons, I think, for the long title. It’s like that setting is part of the book’s constraint in a certain way. And knowing that was really helpful.

Correspondent: Well, it offers a maximal precision with minimal revelation.

Bell: Right! That’s a really nice way to say it. Yeah, I really enjoy that kind of writing where the world of the book is self-built and self-contained. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like the other kind either. But I think that those modes are really different. And Bernheimer speaks to that for me. Raymond Federman talks about that in Critifiction. He talks about a similar thing. That the book is the world. I’m paraphrasing badly from a couple of years ago. But the book itself is a world really no matter what you’re writing about. If you’re writing in a very realist mode, that’s still the case. The language the book is, is all you have to work with. And the outside world doesn’t necessarily enter it in the same way.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering as a writer, do you feel what I felt as a reader? Because I kept saying, well, okay, there’s a lot of fishing and hunting going on. But how do they develop the skills to make things? Aside from, of course, the magic you have in the book. I’m thinking pragmatics. Even though I’m also involved with the imagination and I’m involved with the world that you’re creating, I’m thinking to myself, well, how did they get here? Why this particular location? How did the fingerling get into this? And we don’t actually have the answers to those questions. So I’m wondering how much they aggravate you as an author. Or do you know the answers to these questions and you just don’t want to impart certain things to the reader?

Bell: No. I mean, I think a lot of it works. It’s a fairy tale or mythic mode. So they can do it because they have to for the story. Which you can’t get away with in a different mode. There were some things that were funnier, that I was wrong about or I was too specific about them with early readers. The lake, of course, is salty. Which causes them a drinking water problem. And in the early versions of the book, they were always boiling water for drinking water. But when you boil salt water, you don’t end up with clean water. You end up with salt, right? (laughs) So when I was trying to explain the pragmatics, it was actually getting in the way a lot. Or it was causing problems. He’s a fisherman who becomes a trapper because that’s what’s necessary for his family. You know, that’s the next thing. And some of that works with the wife singing stuff into being. It’s like the next object that was necessary is this. And so here it is. Which in fairy tales would just happen in a sentence. It would just appear. And there’s sort of this device that does some of that. But I agree. Like he becomes a taxidermist at a point just because that’s what he needs to do. The wife is able to — she doesn’t study maze making before she sings the maze. He can get away with that, I hope in this mode. But in other kinds of books, that would….yeah, we’d have to watch the guy study it for years or something.

Correspondent: This leads me to ask to what degree fabulism served as a method for you to deal with the hurdles of “Oh, he can’t actually boil salt water. Let’s just go ahead and have her sing something into existence.” Did that come as a — I don’t want to say, crutch, but was that a method for you to maximize the world here? I mean, how did that happen?

Bell: I mean, I think it preexisted it. It ends up helping with some of that stuff. But that’s not the reasoning for it. The very first image I had for the book — the first thing I wrote — isn’t actually in the book. But it was this husband watching his wife singing and having this vision of all these shape-shifting she had within her that she could one day bring into the world, right? And being intoxicated and tranced by this. And that was why he had married her. He had seen this world she was singing into being. And of course, the book ended up going — it didn’t work exactly like that. But that singing was the foundational aspect of this world in a certain way. I don’t know. I never thought about this when I was writing it. But looking back, I think it’s interesting that I had to discover this whole world through his voice and his very limited egomaniacal point of view when she’s the creating aspect of the world in a weird way, right? The person I had to create it through is now the person who is like the creator of most of the world they spend their time in.

Correspondent: Are you a singer at all? I’m curious.

Bell: No! Terrible. Awful.

Correspondent: You don’t do karaoke or anything? (laughs)

Bell: You know, weirdly, we had a Soho Press karaoke thing.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Bell: No, I grew up a Midwest Catholic. I just mumbled through songs a lot. (laughs) Music, I love music. Music’s really a big part of my life. But, no, not a singer in any way. Thankfully yes. No samples for you today.

Correspondent: Why do you think music serves as the act of creation for the wife in this? To create rooms, to create objects, and all that. I’m wondering why you associate that with music. I mean, I know you’re big on sentences. And we’ll get into that in a little bit. And you’re big on language. It’s interesting that you have language tangoing with music here. And I’m wondering how that came into being or possibly why, at the risk of delving into ambiguity involving the text.

Bell: Sure. And the first answer always sounds so weak. Because partly I don’t know. It was right. It was what instinctually happened. You know, I think it’s interesting. Music has those deep links to emotion. I mean, it’s weird to describe someone’s singing a lot in a book. Especially because you never get to hear it. But there’s something very abstract about that. Because the husband talks and talks and talks. I mean, you can just imagine them together. He’d be that husband that never stops talking to the wife. Never stops speaking. Right? But then when she does open her mouth, she’s able to do this thing, you know? And in the early parts of the book, there’s only a few times where she has the upper hand in the conversation. And she’s often explaining to him the way the world could be. And he’s missing it totally, right? He’s missing this world he could have. And it’s something that she can give him by doing this. There’s so much where he comes to this place in this possessor way. He’s building the house. I’m going to get the food. I’m going to build the house. I’m going to do all these things. And she’s completely self-sufficient. Because she can do this in a way that he can’t. He can’t sing. He can’t do this. His mouth is always open. He’s always talking. He can do all these things by taking from the world, but she can make it herself. And those differences were important to me, the way that those things balanced or offset each other.

Correspondent: Is it difficult to describe the magic of singing in fiction? I mean, the first thing that comes to mind — largely because it’s Bloomsday* as we’re talking. Of course, the wonderful description of singing in “The Dead.”**

Bell: Right, right.

Correspondent: You absolutely feel the power of that. But in this, the singing brings things into creation. Is that easier for you to wrap your head around as a writer? How do you get into that? Being a creative person who describes the act of creation, it gets pretty difficult.

Bell: Absolutely.

Correspondent: How do you work around that?

Bell: I mean, I feel like there’s less actual description of it now than there was in early versions. I think I tried more directly to describe what those things were like or something. But that’s almost impossible, right? But I think that everybody’s probably hearing it differently as they’re reading. A little blinker, there’s a little more room for the reader to fill that in. I think at one point it was very specific. And it was in the way. And now there’s sort of, again, that fairy tale mode where you can just say she was singing and she was doing this and there’s an image that goes along with that and a song that goes along with that. Everybody’s a little different. And that’s totally fine. Because it doesn’t need to be — I don’t even known what the terms are. In the key of C or whatever it is. Who cares? Right? I think that’s just not important. The importance is more the outcome and the feeling of it. So sometimes by flattening that a little bit, I think you actually get more out of it.

Correspondent: I wanted to bring up William Blake and his “Vision of the Last Judgment.”

Bell: Okay! (laughs)

Correspondent: He was careful to distinguish between Fable and Vision. Fable, of course, being this cheap allegory that was an inferior kind of poetry. What he described as “formed by the daughters of memory.”

Bell: Nice! (laughs)

Correspondent: Now Vision, which is what he preferred, or Imagination — this represented what actually exists. There are portions of your novel, especially with the material involving the squid, which was reshaping into the husband’s body, that seems to have these two Blake distinctions in mind. The words “fable” and “vision,” however, never actually appear in the book. I looked for them. Because I got obsessed with this. But when you were writing this book, to what extent were you wrestling with distinctions along these lines? I’m curious. Were you writing in any kind of broader mythological distinction at all? I mean, I know you reference a number of fairy tales.

Bell: I mean myth was the term I thought of a lot when I think of it that way. But I’ve changed the way I think about it. I called my work “non-realist” for a long time. That was a term I felt comfortable with, when asked. And I sort of feel like I’m moving away from it a little bit — in part because of other people’s helpful thinking on the subject. Brian Evenson — his work is a big influence on mine, thankfully. I saw him give a talk a couple of years ago. And he was talking about growing up Mormon and growing up in a culture in which religion and day-to-day life aren’t separate. Like he literally grew up thinking that angels would come to earth and interact with people. And I grew up Catholic, but in a very literal sort of family. People interact with angels. And we talked about the burning bush — that’s not a myth. That’s not a symbol. That’s like a thing that happened in the past. And I’m not religious anymore. And I’ve moved away from that direction. But I think that writing something like this and letting these magical or fabulist elements ride alongside like something really grounded — it’s less non-realist and more like where I’m from. Like there’s a way into my backstory as much as the geography I’m from. So it’s weird. I feel like I want more and more for them to be able to co-exist. These people live in a world in which the fantastical is real. And so did I once.

Correspondent: So the fantastic is a kind of religiosity for you that has replaced your previous religiosity?

Bell: Yeah. A little bit. It’s another way to access those feelings or to get to some of those places. And it’s a way to write about where my imagination comes from. Some of these things are seeded in me and I have trouble getting to them sometimes in a more strictly realist story.

* — June 16, 2013, Bloomsday — the morning we recorded this conversation.

** — A sample from Joyce: “Her voice, strong and clear in tone, attacked with great spirit the runs which embellish the air and though she sang very rapidly she did not miss even the smallest of the grace notes. To follow the voice, without looking at the singer’s face, was to feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight.”

(Loops for this program provided by Dj4Real, danke, SpadeOfficial, kristijann, and MaMaGBeats.)

The Bat Segundo Show #506: Matt Bell (Download MP3)

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Roxana Robinson (The Bat Segundo Show #503)

Roxana Robinson is most recently the author of Sparta.

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Author: Roxana Robinson

Subjects Discussed: The New York Times as a source of inspiration, writing a novel with a sense of time, the 2008 economic crash, the fate of the millennial generation, ailing veterans who are overlooked by society at large, unemployment, focusing exclusively on educated characters, writing about subjects you don’t know, talking with vets, being fair when using stories, Donovan Campbell’s Joker One, not using traumatic experience to preserve trust, distinctions between journalism and fiction writing, being terrified of white sedans, fear and panic triggers, why there isn’t a universal common experience among soldiers, getting to know a fictitious character’s family, the desire to visit Iraq, the need for embedded novelists, the present state of Iraq tourism, staying silent on creative details, playing tennis in inflatable courts, Ian McEwan’s unwillingness to discuss his current project, how giving away information on your latest project destroys momentum, whether self-preservation is an admirable choice in digital culture, setting Sparta in Katonah, New York, why houses are important in novels, celebrating a landscape that you love, why it’s essential to use an exact floor plan, Conrad’s miserable experiences in restaurants, California restaurant culture vs. New York City restaurant culture, not remembering the name of a restaurant but remembering the layout, Conrad vs. Joseph Conrad, how to relate the experience of returning to the States after four years of combat, celebrity magazines having more impact on American culture than soldiers, comparisons between Vietnam vets returning home and Iraq vets returning home, soldiers who are invisible, when all of America understands we did the wrong thing, why “Thank you for your service” is the wrong thing to say to a veteran, how to connect with a vet, having nothing but your military training to rely upon when moving forward in contemporary culture, women who tolerate patient aggressive behavior, avoiding female characters who are emotional doormats, balancing the need to advance the narrative with characters who serve in some ways as instruments, macroeconomics classes, difficult GMAT questions, Georgia O’Keeffe, similarities between Conard and O’Keeffe, unintended inspiration from significant artistic figures, biography vs. fiction, Conrad’s concern for cleanliness, intense shaving scenes in fiction, Marine culture and personal appearance, calls and responses, rage and depersonalization, minor quibbles from Heller McAlpin, vets and therapists, and the Marshall Plan.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: My understanding is that this book started with you reading a front page article in The New York Times in 2005 or 2006. But to my mind, Sparta seems to be more than that. It’s almost a response to certain socioeconomic conditions. Because what Conrad — this Marine returning from Iraq — has to go through is very similar to what a lot of unemployed men have to go through. There’s also the faint suggestion that this is the great terrible horror story right before the 2008 economic crash with the apartment near the end. So I’m wondering to what extent this became a response to conditions in the latter Bush years and how this tied into your research and getting this massive project started. Just to start off here.

Robinson: (laughs) Okay. Yes, as you are aware, it came about because I read an article in The New York Times. It was about our troops in Iraq and how they were given unarmed vehicles in which to drive and to go on patrols with, and how they were being blown up by IEDs and suffering traumatic brain injuries, which were then not diagnosed and treated. In my head, it wasn’t part of this economic crisis. I wasn’t really focusing on that and I think when I began to pay attention, it was before that happened. And what I’m talking about really isn’t the same as people losing jobs. Because this is a kind of transformation. And, of course, you’re right that someone who hasn’t a job has lost some essential part of himself or herself — if that’s been part of his life up until then. But this is different. Going to war, being trained for war, and being at war, and then coming back and being part of a community that has no understanding and no ability to enter into your own experience — that’s different.

Correspondent: Maybe a way of approaching this question — because there is, in fact, this Go-Go guy shows up near the end. There is mention of predatory lending. There is mention of securitization. It leads me to wonder whether when you’re taking on any kind of novel project, you need to actually have that sense of place. Because one of the reasons why this book extended beyond a mere character study was largely because I felt very much that I was reliving the last term of the Bush Administration. Warts and all, by the way. So this is why I’m asking. Was it really just a matter of talking to all of these vets — and visiting, I presume, the VA hospitals — to get a sense of time? How does a sense of time factor into developing this book?

Robinson: Yeah, that’s very interesting. You’re right. I do want to make sure when I’m writing a book that every part of it works. So when I place it, I usually set my books in the very recent past. A year or so. And it’s often quite hard to track down exactly what was going on. We all have a telescopic sense of time. So it’s hard to know exactly what happened. But yes I was very aware of the economy and how Conard’s generation shifted from happy-go-lucky guys into bundled assets and insider trading and all of that. That turned into an avalanche of bad debt and bad conscience. And yes, it was part of the way America had been led and led astray. And one was in Iraq and one was at home. So you’re right. You’re right. It’s just that I didn’t think of him as being someone who was without a job. But certainly you’re right about the whole ethos of America during that period.

Correspondent: I think the parallel I draw between Conrad’s situation and the scenario of many unemployed people of both genders is that we have increasingly moved, thanks to the Bush Administration, into a culture where those who seek help feel shameful of it, are not permitted to actually pursue it, are prohibited by funds. You’re supposed to tough it out. And the parallel I drew between Conrad and many unemployed people I know — who I’ve been on telephone support with — was substantial. Especially when he has this terrifying ordeal in the VA hospital where he’s told, “Well, you have to wait three months.” And he has a serious problem to take care of. So this leads me again to go back to this idea of looking at a situation — whether it be a heroin addict in Cost or whether it be a soldier returning back from Haditha in Sparta. Does focusing in on one angle of America allow you to tackle its many ills and to expose these common conditions that were putting our heads in the sand here over?

Robinson: Yeah. I’m always interested in consequences. And so when I explore one thing, I am always fascinated to see if there’s a network of fault lines leading out from whatever the central issue is. Cost is certainly not an indictment of anything. It’s simply an examination of a problem that’s more widespread than I understood when I started that project. And in Sparta, I was incredibly troubled to understand what we were doing to our troops at the time. I never supported the war. I never thought we should go there. It was more troubling to learn that there were not weapons of mass destruction and that there never had been. And so I wanted to bear witness to what it was like for one of our soldiers to go there and then to come back. And that exploration illuminates one part of the American experience for me.

Correspondent: Sure. Well, on this subject, I’m curious to ask you about the fact that the last two books take place in upper and middle-class environments and present an underexposed issue in both cases. And this leads me to wonder whether you’re trying to target a particular type of literary audience who may not in fact read the newspapers or the magazines or who may want to keep their heads in the sands. Is it your goal as a novelist to get otherwise erudite people to open their eyes a little bit by this socioeconomic setting? To really look into problems that they may not otherwise pay attention to? Especially in this culture right now, where it’s +1 everything and we’re supposed to like everything and we’re supposed to turn away anytime there is anything that is unsettling.

Robinson: I don’t really have a target audience. I don’t think in those terms. I’m a novelist. I’m not a journalist. I’m really not trying to persuade people of anything. As I say, I’m just bearing witness. And this particular part of society is the one that I know best. Educated people, not particularly rich, but who come from modest backgrounds. But they’re all educated. That’s sort of the main connection between all the books that I have written. But am I trying to tell a certain audience how to think?

Correspondent: Not necessarily how to think. But more exposing their eyes to the fact that, look, this problem is not going to go away. These people, they may be in your family. They may actually knock upon your door. You can’t just continue to read about, I suppose, domestic couples who are committing adultery. You know what I mean?

Robinson: Right. Well, yes, I’m not interested in easy targets. So the problems that draw my attention are ones that I find really compelling and really disturbing. I don’t know who my audience is. I’m not trying to reach a particular audience by choosing the people I do tend to write about. But there are always subjects that I find really troubling. And so if other people do, that’s great. But these are things that become very, very compelling to me.

Correspondent: So you are drawing upon your own background and you’re trying to just step outside of it so that you can understand another aspect of humanity, whether it be drug addiction or vets or that sort of thing.

Robinson: Yeah. I mean, I think that writing about subjects you don’t know is really important for a writer. Writing about circles and communities that are not your own is really risky. Because you’re going to get so many things wrong. So many signals. And so I’m not saying I would never do it. But I’m much more interested in exploring an idea and the way it reveals itself in a community than I am in trying to interpose myself in a community that I don’t know.

(Loops for this program provided by chefboydee, Keishh, MaMaGBeats, and Reed1415.)

The Bat Segundo Show #503: Roxana Robinson (Download MP3)

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Elliott Holt (The Bat Segundo Show #500)

Elliott Holt is most recently the author of You Are One of Them.

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Author: Elliott Holt

Subjects Discussed: Confusion on what word to emphasize in the book’s title, Elizabeth Bishop, Holt’s stint at ACT in San Francisco, the comparisons and differences between acting and writing, being a failed playwright, reading aloud your work for revision, Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman, Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three, Samantha Smith, writing an introvert based almost exclusively on what she sees and avoiding the interior monologue, smugglers who deliver KFC to Gaza through tunnels, hooking Russians on Coca-Cola, having to answer to the Coca-Cola Company in Dr. Strangelove, the weak perception of Boris Yeltsin, Yeltsin’s 1994 “Truth Decree” in advertising, creating an enemy to define yourself, Cold War cola wars, memorizing slogans to survive, Holt’s experience working as an ad agency in Moscow, the dreadful term “creatives,” Russian cigarettes, trading one form of propaganda for another, characters who are defined by advertising, child ambassadors who become branded, the joys of decrepit Moscow, why Russia is hooked on dichotomies, when mapping personal identity is obstructed by societal forces, how people spill their stories to friends and therapists and what the novel offers in return, Alice Munro, hating the Eagles, why Moscovites love “Hotel California,” Russian accents, Boris and Natasha, church vs. George, the adventures of Holt’s mother in Russia, The Moscow Rules, The International Spy Museum, conveying international calls through brackets and ellipses, having no real designs on journalism, Hollywood cliches in Russia, what people associate with Russia, taking author photographs of Reif Larsen, hanging out at the Propaganda nightclub in Moscow, nude men swimming in fish tanks, Russians on American cleanliness, menacing babushkas who enforce cleanliness in the shower, getting use to being reprimanded by Russians, cultures driven by superstition, the Russian notion of “????” (i.e., soul), being deemed a “star of tomorrow” by New York, being paralyzed by pronouncement, people who feel resentful towards those who are successful, and whether it’s okay to hate other writers.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I did some research and found that you had gone to ACT in San Francisco.

Holt: How did you find that out?

Correspondent: Oh, I have my ways.

Holt: Oh god.

Correspondent: And this is interesting. So you had an acting career at some point.

Holt: I did.

Correspondent: Roughly at the time that I was there. And I was making these short films and plays. And I’m wondering why we didn’t actually run into each other.

Holt: That’s so funny. I did go to ACT in San Francisco. I was a drama major in college.

Correspondent: Oh!

Holt: I went to Kenyon. I was in lots and lots of plays.

Correspondent: That explains why all your answers are in iambic pentameter.

Holt: I was in a lot of plays in college. And I wrote some plays in college. They were terrible. But I think because I took playwriting and read a lot of — I read Aristotle’s Poetics and I read a lot of plays by Pinter and Beckett and Mamet. And I think I was a terrible playwright. I thought I would like playwriting because I had been writing fiction since I was a little kid and one of the things I always liked about fiction writing was dialogue. And so I thought that because I liked to write dialogue, it would be fun to write plays.

Correspondent: Were any of your plays performed?

Holt: Well, my two best friends from college and I — they actually are playwrights. They’re really good playwrights. They’re working playwrights. But when we were in college, we had a student theater group. And we sort of staged our own short plays in those kinds of black box theater. I never staged any full-length thing. There were some scenes I wrote. But anyway, the point is that I was actually a terrible playwright. But I think reading all those plays helped my fiction writing. Because I think I have a really strong sense of subtext and of the importance of scenes as opposed to just interiority. So I think it helped me as a fiction writer, but I was a really bad playwright.

Correspondent: Do you still have any kind of performance quality when you are conjuring up a scene or getting in the head, in this case, of Sarah Zuckerman? I mean, did you feel..

Holt: You mean when I’m writing?

Correspondent: When you’re writing. Do you have to perform sometimes to pinpoint her voice?

Holt: No. I don’t perform. I do think that, when I’m writing, it’s not so different from when I was acting in the sense that I’m really imagining my way into the head of someone. But it’s not like I read things aloud. I think I have a good ear as a reader. And I am very sensitive to modulations in tone when I’m reading fiction. So I think I do hear the language while I’m writing. But I’m not reading it out loud. I mean, later, when I have a full draft, I’ll read it out loud to sort of hear the spots that I think would work. But…

Correspondent: Do you read the whole book? Because Laura Lippman, I know, does that too.

Holt: Yeah. And it helps. You really hear the weak sentences. But, no, not while I’m writing. I’m not performing anything. But yes, I do think in terms of scenes. And I’m sure that’s because I’ve read a lot of plays.

Correspondent: Well, since you have very kindly stepped into the fray of this revived Bat Segundo, I’m going to have to give you one of these massive Bat Segundo questions on your book, which I very much enjoyed.

Holt: Okay.

Correspondent: So this book reminded me of two specific masterpieces. Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, of course. Because we have Nathan Zuckerman and Sarah Zuckerman. But not just that. Also the whole thing with Jennifer Jones reminded me of that Anne Frank situation in The Ghost Writer.

Holt: Oh, that’s so funny. I didn’t even…

Correspondent: And then of course, I have to ask you about Billy Wilder’s masterpiece One, Two, Three. Especially since Coca-Cola is here. You’ve got the whole Russia thing. And I’m wondering. Do you need to have partial narrative frameworks — like, in this case, The Ghost Writer or One Two Three, possibly — in order to pinpoint Sarah’s life in this case? Because there’s a good chunk of the mid-section where it’s pretty much Sarah just kind of thinking. And we’re in her head. And then we go back to the plot. So it’s almost like sometimes you adopt narrative frameworks with which to provide Sarah some momentum and with which to provide the reader a good sense of steering the life along a kind of track. And then it kind of dissembles. And then it kind of reattaches again. And I’m really curious about that.

Holt: Dissembles.

Correspondent: Yes. Absolutely. So I’m curious, first of all, were these two masterpieces inspiration for you?

Holt: No.

Correspondent: No? Not at all?

Holt: I’ve never seen One, Two, Three.

Correspondent: You have not seen One, Two, Three!*

Holt: No.

Correspondent: It’s Jimmy Cagney!

Holt: I’ve never seen it. And I love Billy Wilder.

Correspondent: Oh my god.

Holt: I’ve never seen One, Two, Three.

Correspondent: This moves at a machine gun pace. And it has Coca-Cola and Soviet relations at the hub. And paternal stuff. There’s a lot of paternal stuff in [your book].

Holt: No, I’ve never seen it. And actually I think I read The Ghost Writer in college. I love Philip Roth, but I haven’t read The Ghost Writer in a long time. My favorite Roth books that I love the most are American Pastoral and The Human Stain. And I love Portnoy’s. It’s like such a great first book. No, I wasn’t conscious. I think on some intuitive level, I knew I was playing games by naming her Zuckerman in a Roth thing. But I wasn’t thinking about The Ghost Writer. What I was thinking about in terms of — no, I didn’t have the conscious narrative frame. I was inspired by Samantha Smith. So I had a historical — I had history to play with. So I had some history as a frame. And I think, otherwise, no, it wasn’t like there was a conscious frame that I was working towards. I mean, I don’t want to give too much away. But, to me, this is a book about history, personal and cultural. And the obsessive nature of grief. And I think this is a narrator who has a kind of fantasy about doing her past over or getting to see this person that she hasn’t seen in a long time. And she’s really susceptible to a lot of things when she gets to the former Soviet Union. Because there are things she wants to believe. And she gets kind of caught up in her own little spy story in her mind for a while. Because that’s her association with Russia and she wants to.

Correspondent: Sure. On that subject, I was really keen to talk with you about the way you capture Sarah’s introverted nature. Which is a little different from other books. Because it’s almost as if we can get inside her social reservations by way of what she observes in Moscow and the very specific details. It’s almost as if that exists as a way for you to not necessarily inhabit the full nature of her head. She’s taking things in. She’s trying to actually figure out how this relates to her own identity and how this relates to Jennifer Jones, this girlhood friend who has disappeared. She’s trying to make complete sense of this. But she’s doing so by merely bouncing off of the sights that she observes in the regular world. And I’m wondering. Did you feel that you wanted to avoid this almost interior monologue or descent into someone’s head? Because, most of the time, when we read an introvert in fiction — especially in, say, A.L. Kennedy novels — we’re totally inside that head. Which is fine. But in your case, you don’t always go there. And in fact, we don’t actually see what becomes of her until very late in the game when we see some more present day memories. Aspects of her life that are later. And I wanted to ask you about that.

Holt: Well, I don’t think it’s a conscious decision. This is probably just — I probably write the way I do because of the kind of writers I love to read. I mean, Chekhov did exactly that. You have a sense of the character more from what the character is observing than from anything else. And I think the other thing about this book is that Sarah is a character who has spent her life thinking of herself as a footnote in someone else’s story. Kind of playing martyr. And in this book, this is finally when she tells the story herself. But she’s not the most reliable narrator. I mean, she is still evasive in some ways. And I don’t know. But I guess what I’m saying is that it’s, for me, a pretty intuitive process. So it’s not like I thought, “Okay, this is a character whose introvertedness is only going to be revealed by what she observes.” I mean, I think it’s just the way I write. And I think it’s more to do with the kind of books that I love most.

* — Warning to Listener: This moment, featured at the 9:22 mark of the show, has the Correspondent responding to Ms. Holt in a very high-pitched and enthusiastic timbre. The Correspondent apologizes, but he cannot fathom going through life without watching One, Two, Three, a delightful film that you should watch immediately.

The Bat Segundo Show #500: Elliott Holt (Download MP3)

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A Conversation with Jack Butler (Bat Segundo Special)

This one hour radio special is the first in a series of “at-large” conversations presently categorized under the old “Bat Segundo” label. It features a rare interview with Jack Butler, author of Jujitsu for Christ, a highly underrated novel that has recently been reissued by the University Press of Mississippi.

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Author: Jack Butler

Subjects Discussed: Moving west over a lifetime, having a double bachelor’s in English and math, the yin-yang existence, reading science fiction as a boy, why the stars are so inspirational in the Delta, using the Holy Ghost as a narrative device, Lautréamont, narratives within the Bible, Ulysses and The Waste Land, theological implications within fables, Finnegans Wake, speaking in tongues, starting a book with only 60 pages, becoming an accidental novelist, the poet’s life, the strange yet highly modest financial incentives of novels, the Judo for Christ Club, Tom LeClair and “prodigious fiction”, comparing novels with a 7-Layer Burritos, how to present information within a story, the College of Santa Fe, Los Angeles as a source of escape, why Butler’s fiction left the South, writers who become unintentional spokesmen for the South, not being bound by assumptions, “authentic” vs. “smart,” Eudora Welty, Faulkner, science fiction and Southern literature as lowbrow inspirational territory, literary authors who scavenge from genre and write unsuccessful novels, how genre can be used to write meaningfully about humanity, African-American stereotypes, caricatures, missed opportunities because of bigotry, living in shanties, common experience, scavenging from comics and used books to form a borrowed bedrock of knowledge, the character “Jack Butler” in Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock, “autobiographical fiction,” the neediness of novelists, combating desperation in a world that increasingly devalues risk-taking authors who don’t sell, Bum Festrich modeled on the Clarion-Ledger‘s Tom Etheridge, using racist newspaper rhetoric as an unsettling guide for fictional perspective, writing about sex, religious blasphemy vs. sexual blasphemy, Hugh Hefner’s philosophy vs. the Baptists, being part of the way actuality goes, why religion in fiction often causes the author to create a comparative ideological construct to present contrast, gay rights, the Belgian Malinois making mysterious noises in the back, corporeal collision in debut novels, approaching the holy through the material, chalk talks, tragicomic side characters, when the ABA voted Jujitsu worst title, mixing the funny with the repulsive, writing about humidity in Mississippi, massive IBM clone computers in the 1980s, writing a book on a 400 pound computer, slowing down writing speed, whether or not a writer needs a sense of compulsion, chasing down a locale in one great shot, allowing the reader to experience life as Butler saw it, The Illumination of Elijah Lee Roswell, what happened with Butler’s agent, the dangers of writing with the idea of money in mind, the virtues of academics, forbidden styles, the benefits of rebellion, people who sell out, clearing the head of extraneous voices,

jujitsuchrist

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to first of all talk about how you got your start. You were a poet before you were a fiction writer. And I also know that you have a bachelor’s in English and a bachelor’s in math. And I was wondering. How does a guy like you have the yin-yang thing going on here? It seems that you have a yin-yang thing in terms of what you studied and what you ended up doing as a writer.

Butler: Yeah. A lot of that — at least as far as math and the arts go — is that I loved science fiction as a kid. I used to read it all the time. Most of it is literarily horrible. But I was in a Baptist conservatory in Mississippi and they weren’t really aware of science fiction. So that was something I could get away with and what I really loved was just the ability to speculate. You know, that the world might be different from what was right around you. For pretty obvious reasons. But I’ve always been interested in mathematics. I think one of the sad things about our culture is that we have such a dichotomy set up between art and science or math. I mean, the two things I say that people are most afraid of are poetry and mathematics.

Correspondent: Yeah. How has math and poetry encouraged you to speculate? Both in terms of your imagination and in terms of, for example, books like Nightshade?

Butler: I guess it’s just that they give me the tools. I’m pretty picky about details, even though I do get some things wrong. Just in case there’s anybody listening, I’m not a medical person at all and I gave the exact opposite cure for angina. I said digitalis. And that will kill you. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs)

Butler: Aside from that, I had to not only get the gravity of Mars right. I had to allow for it in every action. Which you just don’t really see very much. So it’s more nearly that it’s given me the tools to do what I’m psychologically inclined to do.

Correspondent: So with science fiction, do you feel that it’s that speculative nature that really makes it fiction or meaningful? That this was the drive for you when you were growing up reading a lot of it as a boy, as a young man. That kind of thing?

Butler: Yeah, right. And as I said in the interview with Brannon (PDF), I believe, the Delta had a big wide sky. Because of all the flatland and not too many trees. So in spite of the humidity, you could really see the stars. And I loved the stars. That got me going on that.

Correspondent: Your first three novels (Jujitsu for Christ, Nightshade, and Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock) all feature some intriguing narrative mode somewhere between direct first person and a quite literally godlike omniscient voice. It almost reminds me, to some degree, of Lautréamont’s narrator in the way that you suggest to the reader that the narrator has lived and this allows the narrator to share some experience with the reader. And I’m wondering. Why did you need this particular type of halfway narrator to tell a story for these first three books?

Butler: Well, I’ll go back to — it’s not really an anecdote, but when I first thought of having the Holy Ghost — and I hasten to add that I mean this as a model of the Holy Ghost. I’m not pretending to represent the actual thing, if it even exists. But it’s like what Wallace Stevens said. “Not as a god, but as a god might be.” Well, not as the Holy Ghost, but as the Holy Ghost might be. And I couldn’t believe that nobody had ever picked up on it. You had the ability to have both first-person narration and a justified reason to switch personas. It was wonderful. And, of course, I got all that Holy Ghost stuff, a lot of it, growing up. It was drilled into me. So it was a chance to play with that a little bit. The Holy Ghost is narrator in Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock, but one of the main problems with Westernized Christianity is that we don’t have a trickster god. And of the candidates, I felt the Holy Ghost was the best candidate for that. So the Holy Ghost is kind of a trickster there. As for the other, one of the things I really like to think about is the nature of individuals. The nature of the individual. Mind. And so playing on narrators lets me play on that.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if this reflects any kind of storytelling you heard growing up. That when people told you stories, either around the house or around the town, that people were telling you the absolute truth or perhaps inserting their own asides. Was it something like that?

Butler: Well, it’s true that people love anecdotes in the South. I think I’ve really gotten more of my tendencies from the fact that my father stood up in the pulpit every week and talked. So that’s always seemed to me to be a natural thing to do. And like you point out, there were a lot of things that didn’t scan for me with the stories I was told. And the Bible, it’s stories. I love the Bible. But I view it as a library, not as a book. It was written over several hundred years, maybe a thousand or more, by different people with different conceptions. And it’s more fascinating as a narrative than anything else. So my storytelling probably had more to do with that. But there’s a background nature that Southerners in general love language and they love to tell stories and there’s a premium put on wit. So I think that was so naturalized without thinking of it.

Correspondent: So if the Bible is a library, what is the Ulysses or The Waste Land of the Bible?

Butler: Well, it’s more beautiful than The Waste Land. Ecclesiastes is one of the more beautiful things ever written in my opinion and it’s very much — not quite nihilistic, but Ecclesiastes very plainly does not countenance belief in an afterlife. It says people are just like grass. Like the grass of the fields. We come from the same kind of place and we go to the same kind of place when we die. Nobody imagines a heaven for grass. So if we’re the same as grass, that has a lot of theological implications.

The Bat Segundo Show Special (“#499”): Jack Butler (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Hari Kunzru, Part One

Hari Kunzru recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #440. He is most recently the author of Gods Without Men. This is the first of a two part conversation. The second part can be listened to on The Bat Segundo Show #441.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wrestling with issues of conversational faith.

Author: Hari Kunzru

Subjects Discussed: Variants of faith in the author/reader covenant, Kunzru’s background, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, absence and unknowability, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Celestine Prophecy, liberals who distrust science, how the media portrays women, when New Yorkers are confused with Englishmen, owning a motel in a desert town, attempting to escape the narrow possibilities of life, the appeal of cults, the desire for community, coercive situations in group living, Dawn’s tendency to accuse men of molesting a child, pedophilia, when people are faced with the offensive and the unspeakable, public discussions of children, organizing a book around echoes rather than plot, absent children and spirituality, simulacra within Gods Without Men, STRATFOR, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, housing compartmentalized illusions within the giant illusion of a novel, the gaps within storytelling, breaking the contract between author and reader, refusing to tie up all ends, growing up in a period of postmodernism, being in a period of overlays, Augmented Reality, war simulations, being trapped in the imagination of the United States, the financial model as mystical tool, complex systems that are only understood through models, high-speed trading engines, machines that disguise their positions in the marketplace, the 2010 Flash Crash, comparisons between a day trader and a novelist, the predatory nature of collecting stories from other people, Theron Wayne Johnson, hearing a grisly story from a man in a bar, the ethics of making a story sufficiently transformative from its original source, conducting research for My Revolutions, people who use violence in support of their politics, the moral difficulties of formal interviews used for fiction, recent anti-gentrification movements in London, John Barker and The Angry Brigade, Bill Ayers, the Barker/Ayers ICA discussion, the inevitability of copying and pasting in 21st century art, using living people for fiction, impinging on public personae, Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, Adam Johnson, fictional projections of Nixon, James Frey and Oprah, the authenticity of memoir, the entanglement of novels and nonfiction, living in a Googleable age, the novel as a link dump, Kunzru’s Twitter presence, and hyperlink fiction.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start off on a question of faith — predictably enough. A writer has a lot of faith when he is putting together a novel. A reader places her hard-earned shekels over the counter and has faith in the writer to tell a story. The characters in this novel, Gods Without Men — they are both faithful and faithless to ideologies, to their families, to their relationships. So faith is a very loaded concept. And I’m curious why any novelist would tackle something that is so tricky, so duplicitous, so hypocritical, so difficult to pin down. I mean, how do you deal with this? Because even though this novel does not always answer all questions, you are dealing with something that you have to fit into narrative. So maybe we can start here.

Kunzru: Yeah. I suppose my own relationship to faith is a complex one. I’ve got an Indian father from a Hindu background. Many people on both sides of my family are actively practicing religious. My mother’s background is Protestant English. My parents decided quite sensibly to bring me up without any religious — not to bring me up with either of those two traditions. So I was left to find my own way. And I’ve always had for many reasons a kind of inclination to see things one way and then see things another way. But over the years, I’ve developed a sense that I don’t believe in god. I’m an atheist. However, I don’t think that position — the idea that you don’t believe in some kind of personalized creator to whom you owe an ethical duty not to sleep with the wrong people. That doesn’t take any of the big questions off the table about human agency, about ethics, about meaning and value. And I’ve always been very fascinated by people of faith. Because in some ways, I find them very scary. People with a very strong faith have stopped asking questions at a certain point. There’s a certain point where they have made this leap. This extraordinary leap into the world of faith. And it’s something I felt that I understood poorly as well. The only book that’s ever really made me really kind of feel what it must be like to have a powerful religious faith is Fear and Trembling, the Kierkegaard book where he talks about the extraordinary moment where Abraham has sacrificed Isaac and he’s prepared to do this because his faith in God’s word is true. And that kind of encapsulates it. It’s a terrifying act. It’s a horrific act. And it, in a way, echoes with all these incredibly violent things that have happened in the name of religion. But at the same time, there’s a kind of horror to it. There’s a sublimity to it. There’s an absolute abandonment of the human.

And this novel is a way, is my attempt to talk about our relationship with the unknowable and with the unknown. And it’s about all sorts of people who have many different ways of conceptualizing this and many different sorts of solutions that they’ve come up with. But the essential question is the question of absence and unknowability. At a certain point, human comprehension ends. And whether you believe that everything is essentially knowable — like Jaz, the husband in this. The husband and the wife who are at the center of the book. Jaz is a rational man. He is trained as a scientist. His sense of the world is if you think hard enough and you have the right concept and you test and you hypothesize, then the world will open up its secrets. And his wife goes absolutely in the other way. She withdraws into a kind of mysticism. And other characters in the novel range from various people who have profound faith — like a Franciscan friar and a lapsed Mormon coalminer to people who have a much more complicated relationship with it and a skeptical relationship with it.

Correspondent: But I would argue that this concern for faith — both sides of the fence — almost mimicks Fitzgerald’s idea of the first-class intellectual being able to hold two opposing ideas in his mind. I mean, with Jaz and Lisa, it’s very interesting, those sections in particular. Because the prose itself is both general but specific enough for us to get an idea. It’s almost as if the prose needs to mimic their especial judgment towards the world, towards each other, and the like. And I’m curious how you developed this at the prose level. Because that was one of the things that really impressed me about your book. What struggles were there to get that balance? I’m just curious.

Kunzru: You mean, in terms of the voice for the different characters?

Correspondent: Yes. Exactly. Especially for Jaz and Lisa.

Kunzru: You know, it’s one of these things that emerges through the doing. I don’t think it was a very programmatic thing. I mean, those characters emerged as quite defined opposites to each other in their reaction to what happens to their missing child. I mean, I’m interested in the business of faith in the financial markets, faith in credit and the extraordinary kind of high wire act that is the global financial system, which depends on everybody believing that this money exists. And yet placing a kind of Mr. Science in this world of high finance was an interesting one. Out of those decisions, his way of talking and his way of understanding the world emerged quite naturally. Once you know that somebody has a higher degree in physics, you know that they’re unlikely to be basic in their worldview on The Celestine Prophecy. And Lisa’s character comes out of something I’ve observed from a lot of liberals with humanities backgrounds. Here, in London, everywhere. That actually, people aren’t very scientifically educated very often and actually have a kind of gut hostility to the procedures of science. Because they feel that it’s kind of closing down the space of wonder in the world. And that leads quite a lot of people — I’m always quite surprised by people who are very skeptical and argumentative will often have this blind spot where it comes to — especially things to do with health, in particular. Like people get into homeopathy and various other things that I would personally consider quackery. Because partly they wish to believe certain things about the world that have to do with wonder and ineffability and unknowability and often beauty and a kind of non-utiliatarian way of seeing the world. It’s all kind of very valid reasons to want to protect a sacred space from an intrusion by the methodology of science. But it can lead people into some very strange, anti-rational positions. And often those two ways of being can be very buried in people. Because we don’t tend to have these conversations. It’s off the list of what’s polite in a party chat.

Correspondent: Well, be as impolite as you like here. (laughs)

Kunzru: (laughs) Well, we can talk about it. But having a couple who basically have a great deal in common, who love each other — they genuinely love each other, these two. The kind of gradual exposure of the real contours of their ways of dealing with the unknown is what causes this terrible tension in their relationship. And that seemed to me to speak to quite an interesting fault line that runs across a lot of contemporary culture.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if Lisa, at least in relation to the question of faith, was almost sort of a spillover character for what you could not do with Dawn, who I’m also really curious about. I mean, it’s interesting that the women tend to gravitate towards issues of blind faith, often destructive faith. I mean, with Lisa, it’s interesting too because you have all these media incursions into her life. So it’s almost like some part of the world wishes to punish her for her beliefs.

Kunzru: I’m very interested in the way that media presents women. Especially mothers. The censoriousness that attaches itself to women’s choices around motherhood and around the work. I mean, in this novel, their child disappears. They become the object of this media witch hunt. And everybody zeroes in on “Is this a bad mother?” — especially “Is this a cold mother?” She fails to emote in a way that the media folk think is appropriate. And hence she’s immediately suspect. Because it’s a novel and you can get inside somebody’s inner life, we know very well that she’s absolutely destroyed by this and she’s an emotional person. She’s not some kind of psychopath who fails to have correct emotion or a response. However, the appearance sort of drifts further and further from reality. Of course, they’re also New Yorkers lost out West. Everyone hates New Yorkers in the rest of the country, as far as I can see. I now get outed as a New Yorker by other Americans in other parts. The English accent gets bracketed into some sort of New Yorker thing. So I get the prejudice as well. (laughs)

Correspondent: Those wild and crazy liberals with their British accents.

Kunzru: Yeah. Exactly.

Correspondent: You’re drinking a cappuccino right now! So there you go.

Kunzru: Drinking a cappuccino with a British accents. That’s exactly what everyone thinks happens in Chelsea.

Correspondent: You are America’s nightmare! (laughs)

Kunzru: I am. Rick Santorum, right now, is burning an effigy of me in a basement somewhere in Idaho.

The Bat Segundo Show #440: Hari Kunzru, Part One (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: William Kennedy

William Kennedy appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #427. He is most recently the author of Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes.

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For related material, you can read my Modern Library Reading Challenge essay on Ironweed.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Caught in a migratory comedy of errors.

Author: William Kennedy

Subjects Discussed: Resonances in historical fiction that align with the present day, the William Gibson notion (“The future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”), Guantanamo Bay and waterboarding, the 2008 Greek riots, writing Ironweed while being firmly immersed in the 1930s, referring to the homeless before “homeless” existed as a word, prophetic novelists, Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, the tradition of torture, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Roscoe, writing about the Albany political machine for forty years, stolen elections and kickbacks, interviewing morally shady figures as a novelist and as a journalist, meeting with Charlie Ryan, Dan O’Connell, how Kennedy coaxed political figures to tell him stories over the years, sources who insist on being on the record as insiders, intrusive noise, the journalist as the intellectual equivalent to the bartender or the barista, politicians who talk differently when microphones are present, Newspaper Row in Albany, lead filings and rats descending from newspaper ceilings, journalistic squalor, Kennedy’s relationship with Hunter S. Thompson, Pulitzer’s notion of journalism, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, fiction vs. journalism, The Ink Truck, Fellini, how a multidimensional fictitious form of Albany sprang from extremely devoted research, writing seven drafts of Legs, invention and informed speculation, the importance of letting imagination settle, Legs‘s resistance to realism, structuring a novel on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, discovering newness as a writer, precedents for Ironweed, parallels between Cuban history and civil rights, efforts to find the right Cuban history period for Chango’s Beads, Fulgencio Batista’s kids going to school in Albany, the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses as a possible inspiration point, The Gut in Albany, Black Power and community action during the late 1960s, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X sitting in the balcony of the New York Senate, Eldridge Cleaver, the Albany Cycle beyond 1968, telescoping Albany history for the sake of telling a story, arson and riots, the figure of Matt Daughterty, having to publish newspaper stories in out-of-town newspapers to avoid the wrath of the Albany political machine, comparisons between Quinn’s Book and Chango’s Beads, following personalities contained within fictitious families over many years, journeys away from Albany in the Albany cycle, avoiding Albany burnout, a new play based on a departure from Very Old Bones, and fiction driven by bullet-like dialogue.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: We were drawing a distinction between the journalist who is the bartender or the barista — the intellectual equivalent to that — and the novelist, who may in fact have an even greater advantage. Some novelists who were former journalists have told me that they’ll get people to talk with them more if they say they’re a novelist. I’m sure this has been the case with you.

Kennedy: Oh yeah. When the Mayor invited me over to talk about writing a book with him, he didn’t say quite why. I couldn’t understand it. Because I thought he had great antipathy toward me. But I went over. And we just had this conversation. And I sat there and talked to him. And I took a lot of notes. And he said he wanted me to maybe interview him and dredge up whatever I wanted to and write whatever I wanted to. And then he would rebut it. And I didn’t think that was going to work. But I knew that it was a great opportunity to talk to the Mayor.

So anyway we carried on. And it turned out I did write a lot about him in this book. It was kind of a biography. I wrote three pieces actually on him. And he was great in the first meeting. And then the second time, I brought over a mike and a tape recorder. And he clammed up. I mean, he didn’t stop talking, but he didn’t say anything. I mean, he was very salty in the first conversation. And he was a very intelligent man and very well-educated and smart as they come politically. And he had a great sense of humor. But it was boring in the second interview. So I took him out again. I took him to lunch. And he opened right up again as soon as he knew there was no tape recorder. And I took notes. He’s safe with notes because he can say, “He got it wrong.” There’s no proof.

Correspondent: Well, I actually wanted to ask — speaking of history, there are moments in Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Quinn’s Book where you have newspapermen who are wearing hats as the lead filings are falling upon them. In the case of Billy Phelan, there’s actual rats falling from the ceiling.

Kennedy: That’s true.

Correspondent: I’m curious. Did you have first-hand experience of this?

Kennedy: No. This was at the newspaper that I was working on. But in their previous incarnation, which was only a few years before I got there, they were on Beaver Street in a very old, old center of the city. The South End. In The Gut. And it was Newspaper Row. The Albany Journal was there. The Albany Argus. The Knickerbocker News. The Knickerbocker Press. Etcetera etcetera. The Times Union was up the street a bit. And then they moved into new digs. But I remember that one of the reporters and the copy editors said that the rats used to come down, walk the ceiling. The composing room was upstairs. Over the city room. And there was always these lead filings that were coming through the cracks in the floor. And so these guys wore their hats around the desks. And the reporters wore their hats indoors.

Correspondent: The pre-OSHA days. (laughs)

Kennedy: You know, it had a practical application, those hats. In addition to being the style of the day. And the rats used to come down and eat the paste out of the paste pots.

Correspondent: Which is also immortalized in Billy Phelan.

Kennedy: That’s in Billy Phelan. They were all stories that these guys who had grown up there, they’d seen it. One of my buddies, he’d been a reporter for ten years or so all during that period in Beaver Street. And he was a great storyteller. And he told me…well, you know.

Correspondent: Did you experience any first-hand journalistic squalor?

Kennedy: Journalistic squalor.

Correspondent: Along those lines. Or perhaps other forms of squalor.

Kennedy; (laughs) Well, no. Not quite like that. The paper had modernized. I mean, I was there in the age of the typewriter and the clacking teletypes and papers would stack up on the floor like crazy. At the end of the work day, everybody threw everything onto the floor. The old newspapers. All the old teletypes. And it was a great mess. There was….hmm, squalor. (laughs)

Correspondent: Rotting walls? Asbestos-laden environments? (laughs)

Kennedy: Sorry, I can’t. I knew all the guys who had gone through it.

Correspondent: Well, on a similar note, Hunter S. Thompson. I have to ask this largely because The Paris Review interviewed you and cut this bit. He said, “He refused to hire me. Called me swine, fool, beatnik. We go way back.” But I also know that he wrote you a quite hubristic letter. How did you two patch things up after this early exchange of invective and all that?

Kennedy: Well, I never called him a swine.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Kennedy: It’s possible in a letter, in later years, I might have called him a swine. But that was his terminology.

Correspondent: He was trying to prop you up.

Kennedy: I would just throw it back at him or something like that. You know, there was no rancor at all. After the first exchange of letters, almost immediately it was patched up. I mean, he was furious at me for rejecting him when he applied for a job. You’re talking about the quote there where he said…

Correspondent: He said that on Charlie Rose.

Kennedy: Charlie Rose. But he was referring to my attitude toward The Rum Diary. Which was the novel that he was writing down in Puerto Rico when I got to know him. And he had just started it. And in later years, he sent it to me. I wish I had kept it. I don’t know why. I can’t find it. I don’t think I have any remnants of it and I’ve got a lot of his stuff. But maybe I have some pieces. But I don’t remember. And I can’t even remember the letter I wrote. But I wrote him a letter and I told him, “Forget about this novel. You can’t publish this. This is terrible.” And it was a big fat novel. It was fat and it was logorrhea. And it was a young man’s ruminations and discoveries of all of that.

Correspondent: A journalist aspiring to be a novelist.

Kennedy: Right, right, right. And he was a smart guy. Very, very smart guy. But that novel just didn’t work. What was published — the book that was published is one third of the text of the old book. It doesn’t have any of those flaws that I could see — I just started to read it again the other day. I tried to see the movie three times, and I can’t.

Correspondent: Oh really?

Kennedy: Well, I’m in the Academy and I get these screeners from the Academy. But it didn’t work. The screener didn’t work. It says “Wrong disc.”

Correspondent: Oh no.

Kennedy: So I have to get another one. But I’m anxious to see it. I think it’s full of probably libelous accusations against the [San Juan] Star, the newspaper down there and the people who run it. But that was expected from Hunter.

Correspondent: What do you think distinguishes your approach — being a journalist turning into a novelist — from Hunter’s approach? I mean, was he just not serious enough and you were more devoted? Was it a matter of being well-read? What was it exactly that distinguished the two of you?

Kennedy: Well, I was a serious journalist. I mean, he presumed to be. That was the basis for our initial argument about that bronze plaque. You know about that? The bronze plaque on the side of The New York Times — it’s a quote from Joseph Pulitzer When that building was home to The New York World, a great newspaper that Pulitzer ran in New York. Anyway, he revered that. You know, it’s this high-minded attitude toward the news. No fear of favor or whatever. Work against the thieves. Whatever. I’ve absolutely forgotten what Pulitzer said.

[Note: The Pulitzer plaque reads: “An institution that should always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.”]

Kennedy; I remember its tone. And I could find it. And this whole episode is summed up in the introduction to Hunter’s book, The Proud Highway — his first collection of letters. He asked me to write an introduction to that. And I told the whole story of how he applied for the job and didn’t get it and so on. But his attitude toward journalism was high-minded. But when he started to practice it, a year or so later, roaming around South America, he started writing — he was winging it, you know? He wasn’t interested in “Just the facts, ma’am.” He was half a fiction writer in those days. Roaming around. Whatever caught his fancy or his imagination, he would write it. I mean, it came to a point where he went to the Kentucky Derby and that was the one that really put him on the map. “The Kentucky Derby is decadent and depraved.” It ran in Scanlan’s Monthly, I think. And it had nothing to do with reporting. He was making it up. And it was fiction.

There may have been some basis in all that happens in the story for it. But he just invents the dialogue that goes on between the various people and follows his own chart and reacts as a novelist, and then presents it as journalism. This is what Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was presumably journalism. But it’s fiction. It’s a novel. And he claimed in retrospect that he had notes to prove every element in that novel. But he didn’t. (laughs) I mean, all the hallucinations. Whatever his hallucinations were, they were hallucinations. And they’re his. And they’re internal. And who’s to say who’s hallucinating when he’s writing what he’s writing. The sum and substance of Thompson was that he started off as a journalist and he became this wild crazy gonzo journalist, which was half a fiction writer’s achievement. And he was always in the early days thinking about the novel and new forms of the novel. And he created one. Novels are very valuable in their wisdom and their insights and their reporting and their historical penetration of the world that they’re centering on. And he was famously talented in all those realms to achieve those things. And he did. But in the end, I mean he comes off as a career journalist and a singular one. There was nobody like him and there never will be. A lot of people have tried. He’s inimitable. But when he started out, he had all the baggage that goes with the aspiring novelist. And he always made the distinction that I started off to be a journalist and turned into a novelist and he started off to be a novelist and turned into a journalist. And that’s true enough.

My journalism very rarely could be challenged — it could never be challenged as a work of fiction. I never did anything like that. I found ways to enliven the text with language. So did Hunter. But Hunter also reimagined history and reimagined daily life when he invented his world.

Correspondent: To go to your work, The Ink Truck — I wanted to ask you about this. Your first published novel. This is interesting because, unlike the topographical precision that you see in the Albany Cycle, the details of Albany in The Ink Truck are not nearly that precise. They’re more abstract. And I’m curious why that sense of place only emerged in the subsequent novels.

Kennedy: Well, because when I wrote that novel, I was reacting to my resistance to traditional realism and naturalism. You know, I had been there with Steinbeck, Dreiser, James T. Farrell, and so on. And Hemingway also was a great realist. Not the naturalist, but the great realist and the great reporter. And I was in a different mode. I was immersed in Joyce at that time and very much aware of Ulysses and the wildness of the invention that pervades that novel. I was thinking of the surrealists. I was in the grip of Buñuel the filmmaker. I loved his work.

Correspondent: Also a wonderful late bloomer too.

Kennedy: (laughs) And Fellini. I though that 8 1/2 was one of the great movies ever made. It may be the greatest to me and I’m not sure I don’t think that still.

Correspondent: What of Satyricon? (laughs)

Kennedy: Well, I thought it was interesting. So much of Fellini I do love. But 8 1/2, because it was in one guy’s head and it just went in and out of reality, that’s what I wanted to do. I used to say that novel was always six inches off the ground. So levitating was important. And I wasn’t really interested in grounding myself in the squalor of that situation. That was a pretty squalid time when we were in the guild room during that strike. There was a strike that I went through and was the inspiration for that novel. But that book is sort of an excursion to comedy and surreal comedy. I mean, it presumes to be serious in certain stages of its intensity. But basically it’s a wild, crazy, surreal story.

Correspondent: But when you have the character of Albany begin to appear in your work, suddenly I think there’s more of a kitchen sink approach. You have very hard-core realism. You have hallucinations. Surrealism. You have all sorts of things. Almost a kitchen sink approach. And I’m curious if the increasing complexity of your books, where this comes from. Does it arise out of your very meticulous and fastidious research? Does it arise from wanting to reinvent the form of the novel? To not repeat yourself? Does it arise from having established a Yoknapatawpha-like universe of characters? What of this?

Kennedy: Well, all of the above. Everything you said. I was always trying to do something that I hadn’t done before, that I couldn’t attach to anybody in particular. You know, you can’t imitate Joyce. You can’t imitate Hemingway. I tried and I did all the way along in various failed enterprises. And I knew that it was a dead end. I was trying for something new. With Legs, I was inundated with research. I spent two years under the microfilm machine. We no longer have to do that. Just punch in Google. Now it’s amazing. But in those days, I would spend days. All day. Half the week inside the library. Not only microfilm, but all the books of the age. All the magazines. I went to New York and got the morgues of all the major newspapers. The Times. The New York Post. The Daily News, which was fantastic. And so on. And I researched everything there was to find on Legs Diamond serendipitously. And then I also kept turning — I probably interviewed 300 people. I don’t know how many. Sort of cops and gangsters. Retired gangsters with prostate trouble. And I really stultified myself at a certain stage in that novel. And I had to stop and take account of what was really going on. And I had to reinvent the book.

Correspondent: You wrote it seven times, I understand.

Kennedy: I guess the seventh was the final time. I wrote it six times. Or was it six years and eight times? The eighth time was a cut. I had finished it but it was too fat. So I cut 70, 80 pages. I don’t remember what I cut. But I don’t miss them. Whatever I cut, it was all right. But I started from scratch really. After six drafts, I went back and spent three months just designing the book all over again and designing history of every character all over again and putting a totally new perspective on it. Because I had too much material. And there was no way to stop it from coming to me. Except to just close it off and say, “I’m not going to read another newspaper. I’m not going to crack another book. I’m going to write the story. I’m done with the research.” Of course, that never really happens. You have to go back and check. But that’s what I did. And that’s how I finished the book.

The Bat Segundo Show #427: William Kennedy (Download MP3)

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(Image: Judy C. Sanders)

The Bat Segundo Show: Tayari Jones II

Tayari Jones appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #395. She is most recently the author of Silver Sparrow. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #99.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Resisting the creative death knell kickstarted by marketing forces.

Author: Tayari Jones

Subjects Discussed: The limitless stories contained within any one city, writing about Atlanta, not living in a place you’re writing about, unanticipated shifts in character perspective midway through a massive project, numerous tips from Ron Carlson, tapping out a voice, writing a last chapter from every character, the origins of Raleigh, Hemingway’s iceberg theory, inventing an extended family and ambiguity, the two types of writers, working things out on the page, finding the story from a large bundle of pages, James’s stammering, being attracted to characters who are autonomous entrepreneurs, American fiction’s failings in depicting work, bigamists, how fathers are evaluated, whether bigamy is a pack of lies, taking lines from ridiculous ex-boyfriends, perspectives guided by time and situation, [12]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I also wanted to ask you about James’s stuttering. This was a very interesting character quality. Because here’s a man who has two wives and it seems almost as if he’s stuttering wives. And so I’m curious about when the stuttering entered into the equation of his character. Was it there all along? Or did it come as you were writing the dialogue?

Jones: James always had a stammer. I knew that I didn’t want him to be like a smooth operator. Two wives, two kids. I wanted him to be kind of an awkward person and, in a way, with his two wives an embarrassment of riches. He can’t believe he had one wife. Now he has two wives. So his stammer just came as this kind of awkwardness for him. I don’t remember coming up with it. It’s always been a part of him. I mean, one of the things that came later for him was his profession as a driver. And that came later. He needed something to do. And he needed something to do that would allow him to have these two wives. And I was thinking, “Oh, he’s a driver.” And I liked the idea of him being an entrepreneur. I think I’m attracted in stories — because I have one in Leaving Atlanta — of these men who are their own bosses. They’re not rich. But they’re their own bosses. This kind of autonomous man.

Correspondent: The self-made man. Exactly.

Jones: And they get written up in their local paper in small articles. Like they have lives to be proud of. But they’re not rich. And I like my characters to work. I like my characters to have jobs. I hate the way that in so much of American fiction you have no idea how these people are supporting themselves. Every person in this story has a job.

Correspondent: Or worse yet, you have the protagonist as a writer or an artist or some sort of stand-in for the actual writer who’s writing.

Jones: Or you give them some crazy inheritance.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Jones: So that the story can happen. You need your character to take a nine year trip. But you have to give them an inheritance to take the trip. Which makes them in a different class. I think that real stories happen as people work. I know my life is happening. And I work every day. So I like to write characters as well.

Correspondent: This also leads me to ask. Did you contact any bigamists? Whether past or present practitioners?

Jones: No, no. I don’t know any bigamists. But you know, the thing about people having these half-siblings who share a father, I know a lot of people who have called them silver sparrows. I know a lot of silver sparrows. And I have talked to a number of them. Everywhere I go, I meet one. Since this book has not even been out, since it’s been in the world and people know it exists, I get emails from people that say, “I’m a silver sparrow. My father had another family.” And I’m interested in this idea of how do you evaluate a father. Because there are a lot of men with more than one set of children. And the different children have a different relationship. Just the other day at the Florida festival, a woman said to me that she had written on Facebook her status on Father’s Day. You know, “Happy Father’s Day to my amazing dad. La la la la.” And she saw her sister, who has the same father and a different mother. And for her status, she wrote, “I never had a father because the coward wasn’t there.” And it’s the same man. Is he a good man or not? How do you judge him? Do you judge him the way that he treats his best child? The way he behaves best? The way he behaves worst? Do you come up with an arithmetic mean? What do you do? So many people have this issue.

Correspondent: You approach bigamy from the vantage point of “This is a pack of lies.” On the other hand, what is a novelist but someone who also promulgates a pack of lies? Who is worse? A novelist or a bigamist?

Jones: I did not say that this bigamy is a pack of lies! I think I approach this bigamy as practical. He’s not lying to everybody. He’s not lying to his second wife. So it’s not a pack of lies. It’s a pack that involves lies.

The Bat Segundo Show #395: Tayari Jones II (Download MP3)

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A Conversation with Stewart O’Nan

[Stewart O’Nan has also appeared twice on The Bat Segundo Show: Show #161 (2007, 38 minutes) and Show #454 (2012: 57 minutes).]

Stewart O’Nan has been called “a national treasure” by Three Guys One Book. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer has compared him to Dickens. In The New York Times, Joanna Smith-Rakoff suggested that O’Nan was influenced by “the spectre of Henry James.”

O’Nan’s twelfth novel, Emily, Alone — a sequel to O’Nan”s 2002 novel, Wish You Were Here that doesn’t require that you read the first book — follows an 80-year-old woman as she carries on a quiet routine in her Pittsburgh home. Her husband is dead. Her children have grown up and moved away. Her once lively dog Rufus is, quite literally, on his last legs. Her friend Arlene could go any minute. Despite this mortality, the novel remains determined to capture Emily’s life through very careful sentences devoted to telling details. When Emily replaces a box of Kleenex, we get economical insight into how she spends her money (“She’d bought a three-pack last week, saving a dollar, as always, with a coupon.”). We learn of generational differences when Emily considers her daughter Margaret’s attitude (“Thank-you notes belonged to the same category of useless formalities her square parents followed blindly, like sitting down to meals at prescribed times or going to church on Sunday.”). When an older acquaintance dies, O’Nan foreshadows the insufficient shorthand Emily is likely to have directed towards her in a few years (“She always had a lot of energy”).

I had interviewed Stewart O’Nan before in 2007 for The Bat Segundo Show. And after reading Emily, Alone, I had hoped to set up a second interview. Unfortunately, O’Nan’s hectic schedule of teaching and long driving to author events made things a bit difficult. And when I received an unexpected jury duty summons in the mail, I prepared for the distinct possibility that a few weeks of my life would be sacrificed to the courtroom.

We started volleying by email. And the two of us learned that we both had quite a lot to say about American fiction. Our conversation touched upon the influence of Richard Yates, what a writer can learn from John Gardner, avoiding parody and creating dimensional characters, and how one can protest marketplace realities while appealing to the reader. My many thanks to Stewart for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer my somewhat verbose concatenations.

* * *

Reluctant Habits: Before we started this conversation, I remarked upon a jury duty summons that I had received (and should our conversation extend into a diversion from the courtroom, thank you very much in advance!). This led us both to remark upon the importance of civil duty in American life. But this got me thinking. Emily Maxwell is someone who maintains her dignity, a quality that might also be described as a civil duty. And your work offers an attention to the everyday that, when stacked against other fiction, might almost be said to originate from a similar impulse — namely, a civil duty to portray certain everyday Americans who don’t always get these narratives. To what extent do you feel that it’s your civil duty to portray families like the Maxwells? Does the duty ever burden you or threaten to take away from the curiosity or the fun? Additionally, why do you think civil duty has been given short shrift in recent American fiction? To what degree are you aware that you’re working a corner of the room that few other writers wish to peer into?

Stewart O’Nan: Emily does see herself as a part of larger social constructs–her marriage, her family (as a mother), her original family (as a daughter), her church, her neighborhood, the city of Pittsburgh, the town of Kersey, the old-guard Republican party–yet for all her sense of civic duty, she’s incredibly private and not always available, emotionally or otherwise. Plus so much of her world is gone and lives only in her memory. So she’s not as involved in that larger life as she sometimes wishes she were. Some days the only soul she speaks to is her dog, Rufus.

I think when I run into a character I find interesting, I feel a wild curiosity about him or her. How does this person feel, and how does he or she get through the days? What’s important to this person? Usually I write about people unlike myself, so there’s a constant process of discovery, of trying to get close enough and understand enough so I can provide the reader with a true sense of intimacy. And definitely, when I’m taking on someone in a realistic mode, I feel a responsibility to the character, in how I portray him or her. Not that I’ll soft-sell Emily’s faults (readers will want to shake her at times) or make things easy on her, even though I care for her deeply. The goal is to be honest and go deep, find the voice and style and structure to bring across her emotional life as powerfully as possible (not as loudly as possible, or as showily as possible, or as cleverly as possible), with the hope that readers will see their own lives and their own Emilys and add their memories and emotions to the book and end up being moved, not in a corny way, but really moved.

Impossible, I know, but that’s what interests me: How does it feel to be you? When I discover a character like Emily, or Manny in Last Night at the Lobster, or Patty in The Good Wife, after following them a while I realize that their stories are huge stories, their lives shared by millions of people yet rarely examined or taken seriously. So it’s an opportunity to take the reader a place they might never go otherwise and show them a whole world that’s been right in front of them the whole time, hidden in plain sight.

I’m aware that during the whole time I’ve been publishing, the main stage of American literary fiction has featured a kind of pyrotechnic fabulism. The Ice Storm is ’93, I think, The Virgin Suicides right around there, Infinite Jest is ’95, Lethem’s putting out his genre-bending stuff around then…and I dig all that stuff. I cut my teeth on Gaddis and Gardner and Gass and Barthelme and Barth and Coover and Hawkes too, and I admire the comic virtuosity of all these writers, first- and second-generation. The Speed Queen is obviously a whacky metafiction, and A Prayer for the Dying is a bit of a bravura performance in the manner of Charles Johnson, just as The Night Country owes much of its soul to Ray Bradbury and George A. Romero, so I haven’t entirely forsaken those roots, but even in those books I hope I’m using those dire means because they seemed to me the best solution — the unique solution, the ex-engineer would say — to the problem off getting my characters’ worlds across to the reader as powerfully as possible. Because in the end the writing isn’t what’s important — it’s just a medium. If the reader pays more attention to the writing than to what’s going on with the characters, the writing isn’t working.

RH: In your essay, “The Lost World of Richard Yates,” you observed that “the danger Yates courts is combining the conflicted character with the average or unexceptional person — with a talent I can only aspire to.” Yates, rather famously, was influenced by F. Scott Fitzgerald — which is quite interesting, seeing as how Fitzgerald often wrote about the rich and Yates gravitated toward the middle class. Following this natural path of inspiration, we see in your work that the danger you’re courting involves both the working class and the middle class. Last Night at the Lobster very clearly documents working class life. But I’m wondering to what degree the 2008 election — seen in Emily, Alone — served as an effort to chronicle a social sector that is rapidly eroding. In other words, as was suggested in the recent PEN America correspondence between David Gates and Jonathan Lethem, are you setting yourself up to be more of a historical novelist rather than a social novelist? What do you think accounts for the downmarket class drifting in this trajectory from Fitzgerald to Yates to you? How does this constant process of discovery pretty much demolish literary influence (whether Yates or pyrotechnic fabulism)?

O’Nan: Oh, definitely social fiction, utterly contemporary fiction, the skin of life as it’s lived now. Which is why the last seven books or so are set right here, right now, as opposed to the first five, which were all set in the historical past, in very different American eras and locales. How does life feel? What do we care about, what do we really fear? What do we really feel about the people closest to us, about ourselves? I still think fiction lets us go deeper into what life feels like than any other medium. Film is shallow, nonfiction is suspect (the more creative, the more suspect), memoir is unreliable and self-serving. The novel, by its very name, is utterly plastic, capable of taking any form, focusing on anything (an entire epoch or a guy riding an escalator after buying a pair of shoelaces — both accounts hilariously footnoted with unexpected yet absolutely true musings). Realism is a misnomer, since any art takes on, twists, or knowingly overthrows a convention to get the feel of life across to the reader/viewer/listener. Shields in Reality Hunger says he’s against the novel, then lists a whole raft of anti-novels that he claims are exceptions. But the anti-novel is still a novel. So it’s like saying, I don’t like vegetables, but I do like beets and carrots and squash and peas and kohlrabi and…While it’s true that viewers love reality TV, there’s a formulaic sameness to even the best reality shows that can’t approach the variety, depth, drama and comedy of scripted shows, the best of which — Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Party Down — make reality TV look shallow and silly. Likewise, documentary film, feature journalism since the mid-’60s, and everyday newspaper writing since the ’80s, have taken on as many of fiction’s tools as they can to seduce a larger audience. What’s the basis of all mass communication? Tell a good story.

Fitzgerald and Yates had their specific social territory which they rarely strayed from, especially Yates, who, though he wrote from the ’40s till the ’90s, only once stepped away from his home base of the ’40s and ’50s in Disturbing the Peace. I haven’t claimed one territory, and wouldn’t want to. I’m no spokesperson or poster child. As a reader I have very catholic tastes (Stephen King and Virginia Woolf, Ray Bradbury and John Wideman). So it makes sense that as a writer I write very different books about very different things. It’s been that way from the start, and because I don’t have to fulfill any expectations, I’m free to write about the affluent, the middle class, the working class, the poor, children, teenagers, young adults, the middle-aged, the elderly, urban life, the suburbs, small towns, country, frontier, and in any manner I choose. I’m not locked into a bankable voice or style, so it doesn’t become self-parody or shtick, like James Taylor singing Christmas carols with the same intonation he’d sing Motown covers. If there’s a common thread, I’d say I tend to dip into very American subcultures and address very American questions or traits. In each book there are influences, most of them consciously chosen — say, James Salter in A World Away, the Cormac McCarthy of Blood Meridian and George A. Romero in A Prayer for the Dying, or Sherwood Anderson and Dickens in Last Night at the Lobster — never in imitation but using their schemes to support whatever I’m doing. Hoping it turns out to be interesting, well done and ultimately true. And if it doesn’t, well, hell, they’re not all going to be good. It’s not supposed to be easy. If you’re a writer, you keep trying. You don’t throw your hands up and say the novel is dead just because yours is.

RH: I bring up the idea of Emily, Alone being historical (both in terms of literary influence and charting a specific time), rather than “utterly contemporary” (as you suggest), because there’s a chapter late in the book (“The Lesser of Two Evils”) where we understand that, despite Emily being a “lifelong Republican,” her life choices involve that sense of duty we were discussing here at the outset. She asks the question, “Was it too much to ask for someone she could believe in?” Yet she leaves the gym with the I VOTE TODAY sticker on her lapel, feeling a sense of pride. Here is someone who feels compelled to be part of the community, but who also finds some solace in being solitary. My takeaway here is that Emily, who has bought a brand new car (and if she didn’t have the money, this deal may have been comparable to some dubious tranche loan) and who is also contending with the home in her neighborhood that’s about to be sold. You’re telling me, Stewart, that this materialist solace competing with the communal solace (whether it be Arlene, Rufus, or even the reluctant relatives who come visit) isn’t capturing a national mood (or a specific type of older person in 2008) to some degree? Doesn’t the process of keeping a novel alive — especially social fiction — involve rigorous interplay between well-defined characters and where they are likely to stand in their particular period? What makes the process of knowing people in 2011, in 2008, or the Civil War different on a novel-to-novel basis? Is this simply a matter of how much you’re willing to throw yourself into a time period or talk with people or think about these motivations?

O’Nan: When I say contemporary, I mean that I was writing the novel at the very same time as the events (and the world, the moment) it describes. So that, unlike when you’re writing a historical novel, the zeitgeist hasn’t been codified. You have the opportunity to feel it and get it across fresh through your character. Emily is so much of the past that she’s actually a little behind the times, and the book, at heart, is about the collision of her rich and busy memories with the empty and quiet present. I didn’t write her story to capture the national mood, but in her brushes with the world, some of it might bleed through. Her story is essentially personal and private, unlike, say, Patty’s or Manny’s or the Larsens, all of whom have to confront the current world in a very public way, often against their will. But in all of these cases, it’s a question of what, from the larger world, realistically and naturally, would impinge on their lives. It’s their motivations and their world that everything has to come out of, and that comes from staying close to them, knowing them intimately and trying to see the world–their private world and the larger world–through their eyes, not impressing my views onto them and the world. It’s their book, not mine.

And it also differs book to book in how important the time frame is to the storyline. Emily’s storyline is anchored in 2007-2008, but it could have happened in other years and felt relatively the same, whereas A World Away, set in 1943, is so tied to larger world events, and the characters so tied to the movements of the outside world that it naturally contains more of the zeitgeist, for lack of a better word.

It’s a tough question, especially for this particular novel, because while it’s trying to take on some very large areas — time, family, memory, life, death — it’s trying to do so quietly, almost sneakily.

RH: This discussion about fiction having resonant points with American life brings us to inevitable comparisons between Emily, Alone and its prequel, Wish You Were Here. The first book, which is quite sprawling, seems determined to capture almost every detail, from the book barn to the specific movies that the Maxwells watch to discussions of the board game Sorry. There’s also the subplot involving the missing person at the gas station, which threatens to take away from such character dilemmas as Margaret’s recovery from alcoholism, Kenneth hiding his vocational problems, and so forth. By contrast, in Emily, Alone, there’s something of a concession to narrative right from the get-go with that incident at the buffet. What ultimately accounts for Emily, Alone‘s leaner feel? Do you feel that there was any loss of control when you wrote Wish You Were Here? That the previous book involved creative propagation you had to go the distance with? Aside from keeping the focus on Emily, what steps did you take in curtailing the possibility of writing another 600 page novel? Were there certain advantages in thinking about the Maxwell family before that allowed you to rein things in? How does some of this account for the quieter and sneakier investigation into larger areas? (And while we’re on the subject, do you see the Maxwells as your answer to Rabbit Angstrom or Frank Bascombe?)

O’Nan; Wish purposely slows things down and doesn’t make the usual pregnant narrative promises to the reader we expect from fiction. I was trying on a new mode of storytelling, trusting John Gardner’s dictum that if a character is worthy of and capable of love, then the reader will follow him or her anywhere. I expected that 80% of the readers who opened the book would never finish it, and that was fine with me. That was the risk I was willing to take for the reward of getting deep into the characters and their worlds, thinking that the readers who did stick with it would mingle their own lives and memories with those of the Maxwells and come away with a richer, more intimate experience than from some plug-and-chug potboiler of a story line. Even the girl who goes missing line takes place off-stage and is really just K’s version of avoidance and escape (they all have some version of escape from what’s supposed to be family togetherness). The novel’s put together by poetic juxtaposition, by tone, by mood, and the fact that it’s so long (and was a hundred-plus pages longer in ms) just emphasizes that strategy. No nifty ironies, no self-conscious tricks, no mannered quirkiness to distract the reader. It lives or dies by the quality of its observations, by its truth (or lack thereof). As a friend of mine says, it’s an epic about nothing. My wife calls it the Big Boring Book. And that’s fine. Everyone doesn’t have to like every book. (And honestly, every book isn’t going to be good.) But the people who do get into the book really feel like they’re part of it. Some say it’s spooky — it’s as if I’ve been eavesdropping on their families, or reading their minds — so I feel like the method worked. Not for everyone, but for more than the 20% I’d hoped for.

And it’s a book that couldn’t have been written by anyone else, which makes me happy. I guess it was a bit of a protest. A quiet maybe even underground protest (since no one really cares), but a definite break from what I’d been doing previously, and what you’d call the norm. Ditching the whole here-we-are-now-entertain-us premise. A book wholly on the writer’s terms.

Emily, Alone is organized a little differently, around what puzzles or bothers or thrills her — the bumps in her otherwise quiet days — but also makes no promises to the reader plotwise, other than that she cares and worries about the people closest to her, and of course Rufus. And at their age, she has reason to worry.

In Wish, I was coming to know all the different Maxwells at that one moment, a turning point in their family life. Going into Emily, Alone, I knew Emily well, but I knew I wanted to get deeper and closer, really find out how she became the person she was in Wish and the person she is now, seven years later. What’s changed? What could possibly be new? A lot, it turned out, though I didn’t know exactly what when I sat down to write it.

The scope of Emily, Alone is narrower but deeper, necessarily, by my choice of point of view, and that’s what I was hoping for — a book even quieter and more intimate than Wish, a book comprised of flurries of busyness and then long stretches of stillness. Another book only I could write, and one some readers would see their lives in, and the lives of their sisters and aunts and mothers and grandmothers, I hope.

RH: So it seems to me that readers are very much an important factor when you’re writing a book. On the other hand, as Ron Charles recently suggested, your determination to chart the seemingly routine results in “the Kobayashi Maru scenario of book marketing.” Yet here’s the double-edged sword. If you’re hoping to write books where readers see their lives, or the lives of someone dear to them, then one might conclude that Emily, Alone isn’t wholly on the writer’s terms. Have you had to give more to the readers with the more recent books? If Emily, Alone is more of a Rorschach test for readers, then how do you find ways of protesting? If protesting is part of your voice, don’t you have to do that? Or are you happy with the present compromise?

O’Nan: The Rorschach blot is the protest, that’s the beauty of it. In Wish and Emily (and to a lesser extent in The Good Wife and Last Night at the Lobster), I’ve asked the reader to make the sacrifices, giving up any semblance of the usual set-up/build-up/payoff of conventional storytelling without substituting the overactive surface or off-beat/trendy characters of the contemporary literary scene. Instead of the industry standard extraordinary character in an ordinary situation or the ordinary character in an extraordinary situation, I’m going — like Yates — for that rare, dull bird, the ordinary character in an ordinary situation. As Gardner says, as readers we naturally hold any fiction up to life, testing it for truth, and since that rare, dull bird is most of us, I actually have a better chance of connecting deeply. In these books, if I’ve done them well enough, readers will also hold their lives up to the fiction, completing the exchange. Everyone has an Emily.

(Image: Sidney Davis)

The Bat Segundo Show: Andrew O’Hagan

Andrew O’Hagan appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #372. He is most recently the author of The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Feeling sartorially inadequate and unwilling to beg for his dinner from the table.

Author: Andrew O’Hagan

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: It is interesting. You want to have the dog smarter than everybody else in the book. And this leads me to ask you about the footnotes in this. I mean, from a formalistic standpoint, well, we view dogs at our feet. And the footnotes, of course, reflect that particular —

O’Hagan: And the dog’s always going to love footnotes because they can identify the position.

Correspondent: Exactly. But initially many of these footnotes are there to clarify little cultural tidbits. Almost gossip. Like: What is Douglas Sirk’s real name? But as we read the footnotes more, they then become very concerned with clarifying specific facts. Almost in a hectoring tone towards the reader. I’m curious about how the footnotes came to be from just this tonal shift that goes throughout the book, and also if you were tempted to allow the footnotes to go maybe further than eight lines at some point. What did you do to keep that down?

O’Hagan: Well, it’s interesting that. If I had my own way, if I lived in a world of pure O’Haganism, then the footnotes would have gone on for volumes and have a Shandy-ian or Borgesian nightmare where the footnotes were longer than the book. I like the comic potential with that sort of thing. And I like the idea that this was a work of bricolage, as the French would say. That it was an attempt to build up phenomenon in the reader’s mind. Which could increase their confidence about what consciousness was. Cause after all, this was really a book about inventing the notion of consciousness for an animal. I built it up from the ground up. And he does say early in that process of life for him — quite early in the book when he’s still in England — he says, “Dogs love digression.” So it made it natural to me that at some point he would start to deploy the footnote. Which is nothing if not a little contained digressionette. I liked the idea that he would occasionally stop the narrative in order to point something out to the reader. To wag a finger or a paw and give a notion of other worlds of knowledge which might be available. Maybe while pointing towards. He’s a friendly little scholar as much as anything else. He’s a pedant too. And all these things are exciting character traits of his to me. So I had to make him stay in character. And it would be in his character to offer footnotes. Even ones that were hectoring or were strictly unnecessary. They add to the entertainment value overall, I feel.

Correspondent: But to go back to what we were discussing earlier about the comedy vs. the tragedy, and how this reflects human life, early on in the book Maf says in one of these footnotes, “Unlike humans, we can hear what people are saying from themselves. And we can sniff illusion.” Later you have Maf finding “the real difference between humans is that some care about authenticity and some don’t care at all.” Why must the humans in this book be so tied or interconnected with authenticity and illusion?

O’Hagan: Because I think it’s an utterly 20th century obsession. The mid-20th century obsession particularly. Hollywood having held such a position in cultural life the world over. American moviemaking created a sensibility in the 20th century. It didn’t just reflect sensibilities. It actually created a mind set. A notion of natural human behavior and democracy, which I often think was illusory too. But then it was very attractive to the world. Very viable. And I knew that this dog was going to be having its life at the center of that. So I wanted these questions — illusion and reality, illusion dipping into delusion, our condition of being overwhelmed by fakery almost — to be something that the dog had an inside view on. An inside view for a number of reasons: (1) Which is that he’s a novelist at heart. And novelists really know what illusion is all about. We are a conjuring artist as a novelist. You’re playing god with lives and experiences and parts of history and vocality and patterns of speech. You know, you are a trickster. And I think that I’ve always been interested in that fact. And I wanted this little avatar of mine. This little novelist manqué, of Maf the Dog, to be somebody who could look at not only the world of Hollywood and psychoanalysis and politics and the early 60s from an insider’s view — which Maf certainly had. The real dog was in all of those worlds with Marilyn at the time. She was a real figure who had very deep experience of illusion. And I wanted to manipulate that for the reader to present an opportunity to look at the relationship between reality and imagination in a fresh way.

The Bat Segundo Show #372: Andrew O’Hagan (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Adam Ross

Adam Ross recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #349. Mr. Ross is most recently the author of Mr. Peanut.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Caught within the vertiginous sensation of a Mobius strip.

Author: Adam Ross

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Ross: I think that what keeps us going day in and day out as we live our lives — and certainly we live our lives, hopefully, as members of caring relationships — is the belief that we can improve and change. And when I think of the idea of change, progress, and the improvability of character, that to me is a belief that character is somewhat linear. Right? That, okay, I learned that lesson back then. I’m never going to do it again. And yet my experience as a guy who’s been successfully married for fifteen years is that the experience of living with someone you care about a great deal for a long period of time is to come up against the reef of circularity, but also to enjoy the bliss of recurrence, right? So it’s paradoxical. There are these competing desires. The closed circles that Mr. Peanut presents. The entrapment, which is the same experience, I think, of looking at Escher. Which is that weird — you look at the art object from the outside. But if you really enter an Escher, you have this perceptual experience, where it’s inescapable and then you have to step back. It’s to me kind of analogous to the experience we often feel with those closest to us. Whether it’s brothers/sisters, mothers/fathers, or husbands/wives, we want to believe that we could get past X. But we often don’t. And that, to me, is the heaven and hell of marriage.

Correspondent: Yeah. So what you are suggesting here….

Ross: I’m suggesting tension. I’m suggesting a tension between those two.

Correspondent: Well, that’s true. But you’re also suggesting that by David embarking on this manuscript, by embarking on his marriage from the outside, and then also actively discouraging himself to look at the actual symbols — everything lines up. That’s really the dilemma that you’re laying down here. And then simultaneously you add an additional meta element by having the reader involved. Because then the reader is looking from the outside from the outside from the outside.

Ross: Yes. Well, let’s — because there’s nothing better to me as the writer than having this kind of a conversation. Because you’re putting your finger exactly onto me. What I was trying to examine. And so the first question I would say, in terms of decoding some aspects of Mr. Peanut is this. When is David writing this? Because essentially the book hints that there is a period of him being terribly blocked. And then there is a period where he is liberated to close the circle. Close the Mobius band, right? At the same time, it is, to me, powerful works of art — a movie that comes to mind just off the top of my head is either something like Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now or the great movie, Francis with Jessica Lange — where the effect of the work is to shock you and stun you. Another book like this would be John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig. Where the power of the nightmare is forceful enough that you emerge from it not just still reeling from the things you’ve seen, but also hopefully more awake to what’s right in front of you in the real. And so the question is: Is the virtual a prophylactic from life? Or does it have this possible saving power? Does a reader — who I bring in and as you say look from the outside in at all these moments that are fraught with conflict and violence and moments of joy and missed opportunities — is the reader there more awake to his or her life? Or, to the reader, is it just another entertainment? Is it just another enchantment? I don’t have the answer to that. My hope would be that it’s a wake-up call. But my experience is that these wake-up calls — we’re on the band also. We’re constantly forgetting. Does that make sense?

Correspondent: No, it totally does. And actually I want to lay out just a sampling of the numerous Hitchcock references in this book to jump off of this point.

Ross: Sure.

Correspondent: You have, for example, Nurse Ritter referencing Thelma Ritter in Rear Window. David encounters business cards made out to Dr. Fred Richmond from Psycho, Dr. Alex Brulov from Spellbound, which is also the name of his software company. Jesslyn Fax is a co-worker of Alice’s, but also the actress who played Miss Hearing Aid in Rear Window.

Ross: Yes.

Correspondent: And so on. So I’m wondering, based off of your last answer, whether there was a specific science in these particular references. Or whether they were all pure MacGuffins. Pure ways of detracting the reader, of inviting the reader to look in at something — again, going back to the question of semiotics — that is either complete bullshit. Or whether there is any kind of remote justification. Or whether it was just you having fun. Again, it works on this level of “Here, reader, look from the outside. But if you peer in, you will find nothing.”

Ross: I’ve been watching Hitchcock films intensively for twenty years. And it would be pure postmodern kitsch — pure postmodern trash — if those references didn’t have, as it were — that they didn’t rhyme thematically. In fact, there is, throughout the novel, a semiotics of naming which you’ve already put your finger on. And with some of the names you’ve already brought up for instance. Ward Hastroll is an anagram for Lars Thorwald [Raymond Burr’s character from Rear Window]. It’s the Hastroll section in terms of the way names are used. And not just names. They’re the Escher obverse of Rear Window. So, for instance, and I’ll only give a few of these away, but to give you an idea that there is method to the madness, I mean, the newlyweds that Ward Hastroll interviews are named the same actors in Rear Window.

Correspondent: Yes.

Ross: And if you go through, it actually in some ways — for instance, in that case — it modernizes the conflict that the couple has in Rear Window. Ross Bagdasarian is the name of the piano player in Rear Window. And his wife — that’s Judith, he says — is the woman who’s also named Miss Lonelyhearts. And so they clearly — in that one quick cameo that Ross Bagdasarian has — they clearly had a happy life. But now their life is fading from memory because of his Alzheimer’s. So there’s that. There is the superstructure. But more importantly, in the Sheppard section — and I wouldn’t want to give too much of this away, because I’m waiting for people like yourself to start really dealing with it. The Sheppard section is comprised both in terms of content and certain kinds of rhyming themes of multiple Hitchcock narratives. Vertigo plays an enormous part, both in terms of content and thematically in the Sheppard section. Shadow of a Doubt. Strangers on a Train. Marnie. Rear Window. To name but a few. Spellbound, as you said, does reemerge. I could go on. North by Northwest. Which also has its very clear semiotics of the kind of spy action caper. Because I think Hitchcock, at the time, was very tired of the action caper MacGuffin and wanted to introduce an element of absurdity. So, for instance, Cary Grant’s wallet in North by Northwest — this teeny little wallet — never empties of money. And he’s constantly doling out cash throughout the whole film. Little tricks like that. A Hitchcock scholar will start to enter that labyrinth and will start to see a way in which these themes — even on the level of mise en scene. I mean, if you look at the way certain characters are dressed in the Sheppard section, and where they go to buy clothes, it is not just using Hitchcock locales and settings.

The Bat Segundo Show #349: Adam Ross (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Dan Chaon

Dan Chaon appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #345. Mr. Chaon is most recently the author of Await Your Reply.

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[PROGRAM NOTES: This conversation, conducted in May, was almost lost when a Seagate drive bit the dust. Considerable gratitude to data recovery specialist Wayman Ng, who managed to resuscitate this conversation from the grave. My apologies also to the very kind and patient Dan Chaon for the unanticipated two month delay, which came after an aborted attempt to talk with the man during the book’s hardcover release. Additionally, during a moment in which the conversation shifts to Lost, narrative momentum, and concision, the Correspondent misidentifies Charles Beaumont’s “The Howling Man” as “The Wolf Man.” The short story, not to be confused with the Twilight Zone adaptation, can be found in Beaumont’s Night Ride and Other Journeys, along with several collections and is well worth reading (along with Dan’s books, for that matter).]

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Tired of waiting on dying hard drives.

Author: Dan Chaon

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I have to remark upon the frequency of auto accidents in your work. In Await Your Reply, Lucy Lattimore’s parents die in an automobile accident. There’s the car accident excuse offered by Jonah in You Remind Me of Me. The car accident identity similarly appropriated by George Orson. And all this reminded me of Charlotte Haze’s death in Lolita. Similarly, in You Remind Me of Me, Jonah kidnaps Loomis in a car. And this reminds me very much of Humbert Humbert taking away Lolita. And, of course, the epigraph for the second part in Await Your Reply is from The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: “Whatever his secret was, I have learnt one secret too, and namely: that the soul is a manner of being – not a constant state…” So I must ask you, first and foremost, about the Nabokov influence in these books and whether this preoccupation with cars is sort of a Lolita thing. I’m curious.

Chaon: The car thing is not a Lolita thing. It’s just that I spend a lot of time in cars. And when I was in my twenties, a psychic told me that I would die in a car accident.

Correspondent: (laughs) Really?

Chaon: I haven’t yet. But I have a fear of car accidents. Partially because I do a lot of driving, but I’m not known as the best driver. I’m a spacey driver. My sister has me listed as one of her top five worst drivers that she’s ever driven with. I’m only at five though.

Correspondent: This psychic premonition — were there any other premonitions? Did they have any effect on your stature as a writer? “Go write, young man?”

Chaon: No. It was one of those things where it was like this weird friend of my wife who fancied herself a medium type person and was always making pronouncements and things like that. But it did stick with me. So I guess car accidents are one of my fears, along with being in a house that’s burning down. Which is also something that I tend to write about a lot. Burning houses. The Nabokov stuff though — I mean, I do feel like it’s a big influence on me. I mean, both Lolita and Sebastian Knight. Despair as well. Which is also about identity theft. I don’t know if you’ve — have you read Despair?

Correspondent: I haven’t.

Chaon: It’s about someone who switches identities with a hobo. So, yeah, I definitely think about the big in quite a bit. In terms of people that I’ve read over and over, he’s one of the main ones.

Correspondent: Was Despair one of the guides for this particular book? Or the plot?

Chaon: I guess I had it in mind to some extent. I mean, I don’t feel like I have the same kind of intellectual or verbal chops that Nabokov does, of course. But I certainly admire his work and I think about him a lot as a writer.

Correspondent: I wanted to also ask, since we were on the topic of mediums and the like — I mean, there are a lot of aphorisms contained in this book. The Eleanor Roosevelt maxim “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” And these aphorisms are almost out there — little driftwood that the characters can clutch upon. But they don’t actually take heed or comprehend the aphorisms. And I’m curious how that came about.

Chaon: Well, I wanted the book to be full of a kind of webbing of different references and a level of gamesmanship that was thinking about the ways we put together ideas about the self and ideas about our lives through various quotations and mediums, and the way that that’s actually encouraged in our education, right? We’re being presented with various models about how to behave and how to think about ourselves, and so on and so forth. So I had a lot of these things that I was playing with. I mean, there’s self-help stuff. There’s the kind of quotes that you see in high schools to encourage kids to be good citizens or whatever. And there’s the kind of things that people try to pull out when they’re trying to make intellectual pronouncements — some of which are real and some of which are made up. And some of them — I found some interesting quotes that are misattributed. There’s a [Anais] Nin quote in there that is often attributed to her. But she never really said it. And that’s another fun thing. There are all these quotes out there that people get attached to, but they don’t really belong to those people.

Correspondent: This may be an obvious observation, but I wanted to compare You Remind Me of Me with Await Your Reply. You Remind Me of Me reveals, to my mind, how characters cannot fit into the world before them. And then in Await Your Reply, you have a situation in which, well, let’s go further. Now you have to invent an identity to fit within the world. And I’m wondering if the idea here with Await Your Reply was to approach the same idea of You Remind Me of Me in a manner that was (a) more representative of 21st century life and (b) represented a greater pigeonholing of possibility through this invention of identity.

Chaon: Yeah, I think to some extent. You Remind Me of Me is very much a regionalist novel in some ways. I mean, I think I was still thinking about myself in terms of the Midwest and in terms of what the possibilities of the Midwest are. And Await Your Reply, I think, comes out of having, for the first time in my life, traveled a lot. I mean, in some ways, it comes out of book touring.

Correspondent: (laughs) Free research. I know David Mitchell, he keeps meticulous notebooks when he is on tour.

Chaon: Yeah. But I guess I started to think about the way the characters — even in Await Your Reply — would, by this point, be in larger touch with the world. Whether they wanted to or not. In Await Your Reply, people are affected by the globalization of media and by all that stuff in a way that probably the people in You Remind Me of Me weren’t — only because of the time period that they were living in.

Correspondent: I’m curious about this Midwestern jumping point. I’m not sure if that was really a straitjacket for you. But I’m curious if it was difficult, when you’re starting to envelop a larger world with this book, to really keep those limitations which you set up in You Remind Me of Me — the bar and so forth. I’m curious to what degree this was a challenge with Await Your Reply.

Chaon: Well, I wouldn’t say that it’s a challenge. A lot of the energy that I get from the landscape of the Midwest is fed into my inspiration for writing. A lot of times I’ll start out with landscape. And a lot of times, I’ll start out with these isolated places that, for whatever reason, are emotional touchstones for me. That’s the place where I’m usually starting. It was fun to start to branch out and start writing about places that I never tried to write about before. Like the Arctic. Or like Ecuador. Or like Las Vegas. And it was also fun realizing that I didn’t necessarily have to have lived in those places to write about them. I think there was a part of me that always felt that you had to have this deep instinctive sense of a place before you could write about it. And I guess I feel, after writing this, less constrained by that sense.

The Bat Segundo Show #345: Dan Chaon (Download MP3)

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(Image: ALA)

The Novelist as Used Car Salesman

There is a type of novelist who saddens me: the kind of novelist who prefers the status of having written instead of the consistent joys of writing, the type of author who only communicates to people if he wants something instead of being curious in other viewpoints. This novelist’s primary subject of interest is likely to be himself, but he’s capable of cloaking this solipsism by suggesting to others that they are just as much a part of his process. The novelist, in cues straight out of the Dale Carnegie playbook, will remember one specific detail about the other person that nobody else has and thereby create a greater impression.

Now this novelist may be talented, but he is so quietly convinced of his own apparent superiority to others that he refuses to listen to any person conveying the truth to him. And because a good deal of the literary community is wise enough to know about the novelist’s narcissistic temperament, even those who feel that the novelist’s latest work isn’t up to snuff will never go on the public record about how lacking it truly is. This is an understandable impulse, because the novelist has probably written at least one book that is amazing. And there remains the hope that he will write something that good again. And there also remains the hope that the novelist will grow out of this self-centeredness. Except that the novelist is probably over forty, and the novelist may have entered into the period of permanent emotional calcification.

All this is complicated by the novelist going out of his way to befriend every known person in the literary community so that he can secure positive coverage of his book. Again, it’s never really about writing the novel or even having a pleasant conversation with another person without any quid pro quo. It’s all about feeding the novelist’s narcissism. And when certain people have granted him the coverage or the bookstore appearances he so desperately craves, the novelist then dismisses and ignores them. For he never really wanted to know them. Even though he pretended to be nice. But, hey, he got what he wanted. And through numerous princely gestures, these people become useless to him. And he gradually moves up the totem pole and does the same thing. And anyone who has been used in such a manner has to bite her tongue. Because if you tell the truth, you’ll look like an asshole. Because those people who are presently being charmed by the novelist will never understand. The novelist is just so gosh darn nice.

This novelist is so fundamentally insecure in his own work that he must resort to these dishonest maneuvers. And indeed the novelist may play up his background or his circumstances in an effort to secure more press coverage or garner repeat mentions from a litblogger. But he lacks the spine or the smarts for civil disagreement or natural evolution.

These actions really aren’t too different from having to endure a charming yet sleazy used car salesman who won’t go away. But the literary world is so peculiar that it very much enjoys and inveigles these passive-aggressive hucksters. It wants to be told that what it’s doing is worthwhile. And while used car dealerships don’t face the same degree of marginalization that the literary world has, and while it is indeed possible to find a good used car at a decent price, wouldn’t we be more suspicious of the used car salesman than the insecure novelist who preys on the good will of other people in the same way?

Fortunately, most novelists aren’t like this at all. And I should probably remove the type of novelist who is an unapologetic publicity whore. For that type of novelist, at least, is honest about the fact that he’s shilling. But the type of novelist I’m talking about here not only seems to be cluelessly unaware of the grief he gives to publicists, booksellers, other authors, and those who wish to help them. He seems to actually enjoy it. And why shouldn’t he? This novelist is a legend in his own mind. If only he knew what people really thought of him.

The Bat Segundo Show: Porochista Khakpour

Porochista Khakpour recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #249. Ms. Khakpour is the author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Avoiding the seemingly erudite man with the flamethrower.

Author: Porochista Khakpour

Subjects Discussed: Professional doodling, italics that represent facial expressions, acting out dialogue, the protracted difficulties of editing, the creative benefits of neurosis, thinking of an audience vs. writing in a distinct voice, maintaining lists of words, bulleted lists within the novel, the relationship between the equal sign and character consciousness, writing lengthy scenes that involve the anxiety of waiting, working from a journal to get at feelings within fiction, playing games in novels, aversion to mainstream narratives, the burden of universality, the novelist as an authoritarian figure, David Foster Wallace as a distinct author who reached a mass audience, “Good People,” the cycle of abuse that runs through Xerxes, missing daughters, how women relate to men, character names and explicit historical associations, the Americanization of Iranian names, truncated names, contrast and comparison with Sam and Suzanne, how 9/11 transformed the idea of looking at other people with an open mind into something else, relying on general descriptions for physical details, keeping specific details from the reader, how far an author must go for emotional truth, going against the contract of a book, the diminished acknowledgments section between hardcover and paperback, losing old friends, reading group questions, moving into an age where 9/11 novels are going to date, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and American diplomacy, and lucky timing with pub dates.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So you actually added 10,000 words just in the editing process?

Khakpour: Yeah, I did.

Correspondent: Really?

Khakpour: Every time I edit. Everything. I have. Even with my journalism. They’ll tell me cut this piece down. And we’ll get to the editing phase. And I’ll always end up adding. Even when they tell me specifically, “Cut it down.” I don’t know what it is. Editing to me just means adding instead of cutting. It’s crazy.

Correspondent: Is it possible that perhaps you’re getting questions from an editor and this influx of information causes you to think more, and therefore causes any kind of piece or novel or whatever you write to expand and protract or the like?

Khakpour: Yeah. Probably, I think. I always think of my audience. And that person that I think of as my audience is very quiet and sits with their folded hands, and is very polite and approving.

Correspondent: Folded hands? I didn’t have my hands folded when I read this. I want to assure you.

Khakpour: (laughs) It’s a good somber schoolgirl.

Correspondent: Wow, I didn’t realize this.

Khakpour: Crossed legs. Very approving. (laughs)

Correspondent: There should have been an etiquette guide in the paperback here.

Khakpour: But then the minute the editor speaks up, I’m like, “Uh oh. This is a very intelligent human being who is not going to buy all my bullshit, is actually going to question me now.” And then I fall into super-neurotic mode. And that always means, well, not only am I going to think of this editor, but I’m going to think of all the other voices of dissent. All the people. And it goes from there. And so it just involves adding and adding and adding. To appease all the various voices in my head. (laughs)

Correspondent: Thinking about the audience then makes you more neurotic.

Khakpour: Overanticipating often. Yeah. I’m trying to tone that down right now.

Correspondent: That’s interesting. But then to a certain degree, you have to leave things relatively organic and intuitive, and you can’t think about an audience. It’s important to have gestation here. And I’m curious if this might possibly be an issue.

Khakpour: I think it is. I’m a control freak.

Correspondent: You want people to like you? Really, really like you?

Khakpour: Well, not even like me. But I like some control over how people are digesting my work. That’s ridiculous. But I think it also has to do with communication. And because English wasn’t my first language. I always feel like I repeat. I’m like Joe Biden. I’m often repeating the same thing over and over and over at people. “I got it the first time.” You know, there’s no need to say the same sentence over and over and over. But I always feel that people aren’t hearing me, or somehow don’t understand what I’m saying. So….

Correspondent: You know, I…

Khakpour: I think I’m going to have to back off now. I’m learning that.

Correspondent: I’ve heard that Nicholson Baker — what he does is that he Control-Fs a specific phrase throughout all of his work to make sure that he has not written that particular phrase before.

Khakpour: Oh, that’s great.

Correspondent: Do you have this level of detail?

Khakpour: I’ll do that with certain words. Because I’ll have certain words that are my favorite word of the moment. And I’ll still — I’ll do that thing that I did when I was a young immigrant. I used to keep a list of vocab words that I loved. And even now, there will be some word every once in a while on a little list by my desk. Like I like that word! Let’s use that word somewhere.

Correspondent: You actually have a list of words by your desk?

Khakpour: Yes, sometimes I do that.

Correspondent: The words I have to include in the book. Really?

Khakpour: Yeah. And they’re not like ten dollar words.

Correspondent: Okay.

Khakpour: Or hundred dollar words. But they’re just interesting or strange. Or words. Or unusual usages. I’m often very much tried to find the Find function or the Replace function. So I’ll have to double check and make sure I don’t use that word several times. But it’s usually on a word level there.

BSS #249: Porochista Khakpour (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Fiona Maazel

Fiona Maazel appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #212. Maazel is the author of Last, Last Chance.

[LISTENING NOTE! Please note that this show contains numerous grinding noises. We have endeavored to remove as many of these as possible, and reduce the noise where possible. Alas, SOME aural residue remains.]

Condition of the Show: Considering the niceties of superplagues.

Author: Fiona Maazel

Subjects Discussed: Being under observation, the relationship between kosher chickens and superplagues, rich WASPy girls, individual vs. societal ironies, keeping the protagonist’s name somewhat secret, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, on not reading Camus for protective purposes, Panic in the Streets, the anxiety of influence, opting for a more realistic plague narrative, using humor to cantilever a dark narrative, devising multiple historical voices, pawing around in the dark, reincarnations, Groundhog Day as the essence of reincarnation, thongs and corporeal elliptical themes, the dangers of reading too fast, perceived titular homages to Nabokov, reviewers who are “certain” about books, auctorial intentions, moving around and setting a portion of the book in Texas, wanting to be T.S. Eliot, pursuing the grit, the pervasiveness of television, revolting against cultural media, Nordic tales, developing a conscious understanding of a deity, Stanley as a barometer, and agitprop.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: If one looks at more lower brow choices, like Stephen King’s The Stand or The Andromeda Strain, or any number of superplague television series, like The Survivors and things like that, one tends to find a narrative that begins with the decimation of humanity. Yours is not that particular book. Again, going back to this question of inversions, I’m wondering if you made a particular choice. You had to have known about The Stand.

Maazel: Sure, it’s true. But I didn’t think it was an inversion. I thought it was credible actually. I did a lot of research about plague and also about the CDC and bioterrorism. And just how unlikely the scenario I proposed is. It’s extraordinarily likely. This isn’t an alternate reality kind of novel. It didn’t seem likely that someone would unleash a plague and actually wipe out all of humanity. That’s just not credible. I wanted to come up with a credible scenario. So I guess from the perspective of someone writing fiction or reading fiction, one might expect something like a terrific slate wiper to come along, as we’ve seen in so many of these movies and books. But I actually wanted something that seemed really realistic. That only 3,000 people would die and the fact that they put a stop to it. For instance, when we had this little anthrax outbreak or even bird flu, people are dying, but they’re still containing it. I was more interested in the anxiety, the terror, the foreboding of what could happen. Might this thing wipe out a hundred million Americans or a hundred million people? That was more interesting to me than watching this disease tramp across the country and actually kill off half the United States.

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The Bat Segundo Show: Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #210. Ozick is most recently the author of Dictation.

Condition of the Show: Overtaken by a tyrannical dictator.

Author: Cynthia Ozick

Subjects Discussed: Balancing two authors, two secretaries and other stylistic repetitions that evoke typewriters in “Dictation,” purloining language from Henry James and Joseph Conrad’s letters, Henry James’s “forgotten umbrella,” “Literary Entrails,” parallels between the last two turns of the century, feeling like Queen Victoria, the language GNU within “What Happened to the Baby?” and open source GNU, crosswords in “Actors,” agonizing over every particular sentence, the slowness of sentences, auctorial fingerprints, John Updike, not wanting to be a writer of drafts, a lost manuscript by Lionel Trilling, whether postwar critics are being suitably remembered, those who mock Trilling for his moral seriousness, the origin of names, fiction as a pack of lies, being a stickler for the details vs. sustaining ambiguity, contradicting yourself in essays, when essays are unduly compared with fiction, John Barth’s “The Literature of Exhaustion,” the current literary critical environment, E.M. Forster, descriptive references to necks, on not leaving the house, not writing stories set in the present day, getting lost in one’s head, re-rereading Sense and Sensibility, how much Ozick has to think about a book before writing it, the reputation of America over the past fifty years, defining a “contemporary” novel, the dangers of writing in the present moment, clinging to brand names, books that rethink a particular epoch, religious identity in “At Fumicaro,” pretending about pretending, literary impersonation and multiple personalities, and anchoring fiction with reality.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about “Dictation,” the title story. This was very interesting to me for a number of reasons. Because here you have two writers, Henry James and Joseph Conrad, two secretaries of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, and then on top of that, you have a number of repetitions throughout the story, as if to echo or beckon the typewriter. Like in the very beginning, when you have Henry James describing Almayer’s Folly, you kept saying, “He saw. He saw.” And there’s a number of interesting things you are doing in the syntax of the story that almost echoes the typewriter. So I wanted to ask how this particular stylistic device came about. I know you spend a lot of time on your sentences. So you had to have been at least somewhat aware of this.

Ozick: Well not so much of the repetition in consonance with the typewriter, no. I wasn’t aware of that at all. And I’m rather taken aback by hearing you say, “Have you actually seen this or heard this?” I have not. (laughs) I have not. I’m sorry to disappoint. That is not what I had in mind. What I had in mind really was the joy of the mischief when it occurred to me. And the stylistic aspect had to do more not with the sounds — if that’s what you’re getting at — but with the tones and styles of speech of these people in that era. Particularly with the formality of the young ladies, who must call each other “Miss.” To venture into a first name is really quite forward and not to be countenanced by polite society at first. And also the great pleasure of, I suppose, my parodying of James and Conrad. Though, here’s a confession, and having very much to do with style. I purloined certain phrases directly from the letters of James and Conrad. So there are sentences buried in there which are absolutely authentic. Because they’re stolen directly. Not full sentences, but phrases here and there. So that gave me a lot of joy too. Because it was a kind of imitation, mimicry, reflection of what these two amanuenses were up to in their mischievous plan.

Play

Interview with Jami Attenberg

(Note: The full interview excerpted here can now be listened to as the 172nd installment of The Bat Segundo Show)

For my first 2008 interview, I met up with writer Jami Attenberg at her Williamsburg apartment. During our conversation, Attenberg’s very friendly and intelligent cat, Cracker, proceeded to climb upon my leg and claw at the wires. He then deposited his slinky corporeal mass upon my lap and, later, climbed atop the table and deliberately occluded my notes. I was then forced to wing a portion of the interview. But the cat’s daring locative intervention proved pertinent to the conversation at hand.

Attenberg’s second novel, The Kept Man, is as much about a woman’s relationship with topographical territory as it is about a passive thirtysomething drifting on the dregs of her husband’s legacy. To my mind, the two themes were linked. And during the course of the interview, I asked Attenberg about the connections between her protagonist, Jarvis Miller, and the neighborhood she inhabited. (The full interview will appear in a future installment of The Bat Segundo Show.)

attenberg.jpgCorrespondent: I’m wondering also about the Terri Schiavo narrative, because it does play in more later in the book than in the beginning of the book. Did you know immediately that there was this almost quasi-allegorical feel to that? Or did it start with the fact that you had Martin Miller in this coma?

Attenberg: It started with Martin being in a coma. I knew that. Actually, the first chapter that I wrote in the book was about the donut girls at one point.

Correspondent: Oh, interesting.

Attenberg: That was the first thing. Because I wanted to write a little bit about the art world. I knew that. And then I knew that there was this man who was in a coma. I wanted to do that. But I didn’t know how it was going to end. I’ve said this before, but when you have a guy in a coma, you set the stakes really high like that. There’s only three ways that it can possibly end, which is that he dies, or he wakes up, or somebody kills him. Or he just keeps floating along, I suppose. But that wouldn’t be a very good ending to a book now, would it? So I didn’t know about the more political stuff until I got to the end of the book. I don’t want to give away the ending though.

Correspondent: No, no, no. We’re not.

Attenberg: But I really have no idea when I start writing a book how it’s going to end at all.

Correspondent: So you actually had sort of a mish-mash here. You jumped from Point A to Point 6 to Point Z, etcetera, throughout the course of writing these novels? And that’s how you sort of stumble upon the narrative?

Attenberg: I mean, the first two books I wrote — this is the second book — I wrote in about a year. So everything, like I said, it’s very organic. I just sort of making up things around me and putting them into a book. Eventually, when you get to the end, you filter out what worked and what didn’t work.

donuts.jpgCorrespondent: Okay, well, if Davis and the donut girls was one of the key starting points, was this an imagined experience? Or was this drawn from anything specific that you observed? Because I am certainly not familiar with this phenomenon. (laughs)

Attenberg: With donut girls?

Correspondent: Yeah, yeah.

Attenberg: Well, you have to live in this neighborhood. It’s more north side. We’re on the south side right now. And we’re doing this interview in my apartment. And on the south side, it’s very Hassidic and Puerto Rican and Dominican, and then when you head towards more of the north side, it’s Greenpoint. And then it’s really Polish over there. So you notice the Polish girls that are out there. And some people are really fascinated and obsessed with beautiful young woman.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Attenberg: And they’re recent immigrants. And they’re definitely a force in the population.

Correspondent: Well, I’m wondering though. Donut shops in particular. It seemed…

Attenberg: There is a donut shop! In Greenpoint. On Manhattan Avenue. And it just stuck in my brain. I think I went there after seeing a rock show. So it’s sort of like that donut shop. And it just sort of stuck in my head. And I wanted to write about it.

Correspondent: Did you observe any specific pickup artists there?

Attenberg: No. I don’t even know if people really do pick them up. It was just in my imagination that they did.

Correspondent: Interesting. Or even someone constantly buying clothes and this whole modeling thing.

Attenberg: Right.

Correspondent: The whole thing escalating into something else. This was the imagined part.

Attenberg: But that’s no different from Jarvis wanting to be taken care of. Or these men wanting to be taken care of. That there are these people in the world who look to other people to sponsor them or meet their needs. But they provide something in return. I think I missed the point that I wanted to make, which was that, after I had all these ideas about these characters and plot points, I came across the idea of being kept or held back. Once I realized that that was going to be the title of the book and that was a major theme, then it was really to go back to move forward and make sure that every character has something that’s holding them back or keeping them into their life. That’s where it comes from.

nabokov.jpgCorrespondent: Going back to this issue of topography as a launching point, it’s reminiscent to me of Nabokov’s rule, where he basically said that he could not write a novel until he actually had a particular location. Likewise, in addition to this inspirational momentum, I wanted to first of all find out if this was a factor for you in terms of writing this. And it also leads into another question about Jarvis’s perspective, where she’s generally taking a small item and putting it into a larger neighborhood. For example, there’s a pack of cigarettes she observes. And she’s very clear in the way that she describes it as coming from a particular deli and how it was actually purchased and the like. So I wanted to ask you about this phenomenon. Was this a way for you to generate momentum in your book? You needed to get the lay of the land before the lay of the characters?

Attenberg: I’ve lived here for five years. And I’ve lived in New York for ten years. So, for me, it’s not conscious in any sort of way. I wanted to write about the neighborhood that I lived in. And I take a lot of pictures. I go out a lot to document. And I have a blog. So I have been writing about the neighborhood a lot. So, for me, it’s just a natural — I don’t know. It’s not like — it’s not a conscious thing. I would love to take credit for it being some sort of conscious, deliberate act on my part. I just write about the world around me. But I did feel like, at that moment I was writing the book, that there was so much going on in Williamsburg. I mean, this is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Thematically, it did feel perfect for Jarvis. Because Jarvis needs to break out of something in Williamsburg. And Williamsburg was very quietly becoming something. Then all of a sudden, it burst out and there was all this development. And people were really concerned with its development. And I think people in this book suddenly become very concerned with Martin Miller’s life as well.

Correspondent: Well, concerning this gentrification, you have Jarvis fleeing — almost like the Trail of Tears — across the river. And yet, she is very taken with, for example, bagel shops. The laundromat as a kind of social nexus. As well as finding comforts in the very locations that she often despises. So I’m wondering when did you know that this was coming up. Did this come about from knowing the neighborhood or as an extension of Jarvis’s consciousness?

Attenberg: I think that, if you’re going to write a true New York story, you have to write about all of these little shops and stores. We don’t know our neighbors a lot of the time. Our friends tend to live really far away from us. Or it’s not like you can walk down the street and knock on someone’s door and see them. So it becomes really crucial where you have these relationships with a person at your bodega, with a laundromat. It’s just an interesting community. And in Williamsburg, where there’s so many different kinds of people here, and there’s this big influx of young people who really like to engage, it just seems really natural. I don’t know. That’s just my version.

Correspondent: So it sounds like it very much is a topographical concentration.

Attenberg: But she’s not me. But it’s just how someone like her would. You know, I certainly identify with her. I don’t think that I’ve ever done anything that she’s done before. And I’ve certainly never had anyone support me.

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For related conversations, see Jami Attenberg in conversation with Kate Christensen and Ryan Walsh interviewing Attenberg at Largehearted Boy.