Megan Abbott (The Bat Segundo Show)

Megan Abbot is most recently the author of Dare Me. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #404.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Preparing to shake the appropriate pom-poms.

Author: Megan Abbott

Subjects Discussed: Secret conversations, how cheerleaders are depicted in American culture, Bring It On, cheerleaders and postmodernism, parallels between cheerleaders and soldiers, doing research almost exclusively online, how fonts and italics reinforced text message culture in Dare Me, the text message as a noir voice, theories that Dare Me started off as a recession novel, teenagers and technology, creating a sad and bleak adult world, logical reasons for why teenagers have no desire to have grown-up jobs, empty apartment buildings, people who die in luxury condos, balancing literary and mystery elements to create a transitional novel, stretching genre, crime as a tool for power relations, using Richard III as a narrative framework, obsession with Shakespeare, the Ian McKellen version of Richard III, Looking for Richard, Richard III as an innocent, the ugliness of ambition, desperation, Deadwood, how political theory and Henry IV and Henry V share much in common, Robert Caro, parallels between mean girl rhetoric and LBJ’s profanity, being afraid of individuals who open their mouths, carryover from The End of Everything of a teenage world as an adult one, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, when parents are irrelevant, what Facebook reveals about teenagers, powerful coaches, how tired men can be manipulated, similarities between Dare Me‘s Coach and Queenpin‘s Gloria Denton, how belief encourages people to commit crimes, true crime, the Aurora shootings, the 1984 San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre, the difficulties of relating to a sociopath, the short story that Dare Me sprang from, writing with a manageable evil, the smartphone as a person, how smartphones plague society (and how much we can resist them), teenagers who aren’t aware of the off button, Facebook trash talk, teenagers who crave for attention, writing about cheerleaders who have no interest in boys, relationships between football players and cheerleaders, cheerleaders as a roving gang, teens excited by the National Guard, smoking and drinking in the classroom, cheerleading coaches who are former cheerleaders, physical brutality, the difficulties of writing physical action, finding a new set of words to describe cheerleaders, using multiple verbs in a sentence, eccentric verbs, how any type of sport creates a new language, contending with copy editors, hockey subculture, The Mighty Ducks, Slap Shot, and tennis espionage.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Now we are sort of doing this secretly. We’ve tried to flag down a waitress to be polite. So it’s very possible we may have to order during this conversation. However, we will talk. Let’s see what we can do.

Abbott: That sounds good. I’m ready.

Correspondent: So let’s start off. I saw that you wrote a New York Times piece about Bring It On. But you use this piece to point out to certain realities of how cheerleaders are depicted in our culture. You point to the portrayal of cheerleaders in two modes: Ironic and Ideal. I’m wondering if some fulfillment of these two criteria is actually necessary to have a plausible narrative these days. What are your thoughts on this? And maybe this is a good way of describing how you zeroed the needle for Dare Me.

Abbott: Right. And I admit. I’m completely vulnerable to both. I love both the Ideal and the Ironic. Every cultural reference I had in there are things I kind of love. You know, Twin Peaks and all the doomed beautiful perfect cheerleaders who become corrupted? I love. And I love all the ironic ones. Some more than others. But it just seems — I mean, the word I didn’t use in the piece, that I avoided using, is “postmodernism.” But that’s essentially what has overtaken the cheerleader. She doesn’t exist as a person and probably never did. So when I actually started to look at actual cheerleaders, the divide fell even greater then in my day in the 1980s, when they were still somewhat enmeshed. Cheerleaders themselves were responding to the idea that they were cheerleaders and they should act as cheerleaders in popular culture did.

Correspondent: Cheerleaders cheerleading about themselves.

Abbott: Exactly! Exactly. But I don’t think that’s true at all today. And I think that “serious” cheerleaders — and I shouldn’t air quote that, but I did. Because they are serious.

Correspondent: Real cheerleaders. Bona-fide cheerleaders.

Abbott: I think they’d line themselves up much more to gymnasts, to serious athletes. And then that’s the parallel. And I would even take it further. When I look at them, I see them as more closely associated with Marines, boxers, the great risks like pilots ready to go down.

Correspondent: That’s very good. (laughs)

Abbott: Kamikazes. I think that there’s even more interesting aspects to them than being hard-core athletes.

Correspondent: So we should be making World War II movies with cheerleaders in place of the soldiers.

Abbott: Seriously. I actually thought about it writing the piece. Because you know how those old movies, they’d always have the guy from Brooklyn and the Oakie. Etcetera.

Correspondent: The Longest Day with cheerleaders.

Abbott: Yes! Exactly! Oh my gosh. That’s such a great pitch. (laughs)

Correspondent: We could make a million dollars on that.

Abbott: Seriously. Right here.

Correspondent: Well, the ironic mode, however, I would say that given the fact you have cheerleaders who are purging, who are regurgitating — in fact, one common motif that you repeat, I think three times in the book, is the hair behind the head as they puke into the toilet. To a certain degree, that is ironic in light of the physical robustness of these cheerleaders. Also the lemon tea diets and all that. So I would argue that perhaps you are working in some ironic mode in the sense that you’re taking a very feminine ideal and hardening it up to some degree to that same level that we generally put football players or, as you point out here, military people and so forth.

Abbott: Right. And I think that the eating disorders — the various bad eating habits, let’s say — of the girls has to do more with making weight like wrestlers than with girls wanting to have perfect bodies. And that sort of extremism is what really interested me. But it also became interesting because I was not a cheerleader.

Correspondent: You weren’t?

Abbott: No. I couldn’t imagine. (laughs)

Correspondent: But you came in with your pom poms and everything.

Abbott: I know. A skirt on.

Correspondent: You’ve been deceiving me the entire time!

Abbott: I know. Afterward I’ll show you that I…

Correspondent: Oh, I see. I brought my little barrette to twirl.

Abbott: Oh! Good, good, good! I will be dandling. It just strikes me that it’s almost like cheerleaders are a metaphor for being a girl. Because usually they do things girls do. But the cheerleader is the heightened form of it. Girls suffer mightily in high school. They do bad things to themselves and others. They torture each other. There was always this great Seinfeld joke that stuck into my head about how terrible boys are in high school, and Elaine says, “Oh, we never treated each other like that. We would just tease each other until we gave each other eating disorders.” And that always struck me as really true. So that the cheerleader — in my case, I am sort of metaphorizing it or ironizing it in some way. Because it’s a stand-in for how hard it is being a girl.

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about the research that you did. I know that you have said that you have observed various cheerleaders practice. Was this actually in person? Was this on YouTube?

Abbott: It was all online.

Correspondent: It was all online!

Abbott: Yeah. All YouTube.

Correspondent: Did you talk to any cheerleaders at all?

Abbott: I did.

Correspondent: Okay.

Abbott: Via email only.

Correspondent: Oh really?

Abbott: Well, you know, I’m not a journalist, nor do I pretend to be.

Correspondent:> But you play one on TV.

Abbott: I do! Exactly. (laughs) And I guess part of me — I felt, even in my email interviews, that they were performing for me in a way. I wasn’t really seeing them as they were. I would be an intruder. So online, or watching them online or watching them on message boards, where they didn’t know anyone was listening, seemed to be the purest and most authentic view I could get. When they didn’t care. Because they’ll post their practices. They’re performing. So they will always be performers. But I just felt like I was getting a more authentic view of it. And then, at a certain point, I didn’t want to talk to any of them. Because it might change things. My version of it is very heightened. And once I decide how I wanted the world in the book to be, I didn’t want any…

Correspondent: Realism to get in the way.

Abbott: The hyperreality of the book.

Correspondent: So that’s interesting. It seems to me that you were almost collecting textual snippets through these email interviews. Because the book is very heavy on text messages and, in fact, there’s one interesting thing. You have the iPhone font and the italicized font of something from a previous statement. And I’m wondering what this did to get this hyperreal mode that you devised, after soaking yourself so much in cheerleading culture from before.

Abbott: Right. From the beginning, I was so worried about the texting. Because I thought, “How am I going to? Nobody wants to read texts in a novel.”

Correspondent: Nobody’s going to text you. (laughs)

Abbott: Exactly.

Correspondent: You can’t pretend to be a cheerleader.

Abbott: No. And there’s nothing more depressing than reading texts. Because they’re so meant for some kind of quick communication. But once I realized it as a mechanism for the way that girls could torture each other, the way that they could be present, when people can be present when they’re not present. You know, there’s a scene where one of the cheerleaders keeps sending texts to the main girl, Addy. So it’s almost like she’s there. But she’s not there. So the text and the snippets became this opportunity to be the voices in the head. Or the classic noir voiceover. Or the voice over the shoulder. The tap on the shoulder. So once I found a way to turn it into something else, I felt that it had become mine somehow.

(Photo: John Bartlett)

The Bat Segundo Show #474: Megan Abbott (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Jeanette Winterson

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

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

Author: Jeanette Winterson

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winterson: I was.

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

Winterson: Oh no! It’s not stationary.

Correspondent: It’s not stationary?

Winterson: No.

Correspondent: Oh! You actually do ride the bicycle!

Winterson: I do!

Correspondent: Really?

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

Correspondent: Aha!

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

Correspondent: I see.

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

Correspodnent: Got it. Why do you need to…

Winterson: I don’t have to.

Correspondent: You don’t have to.

Winterson: But I do.

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: No, no, no.

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

Correspondent: But 15,000 words in two weeks.

Winterson: It’s a lot.

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

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

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

Winterson: Several.

Correspondent: Do you have about ten?

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

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

Winterson: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: Okay.

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

Correspondent: Sure.

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

(Photo: Chris Boland)

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

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The Bat Segundo Show: Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Leher appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #448. He is most recently the author of Imagine: How Creativity Works.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Brown-bagging his imaginative faculties.

Author: Jonah Lehrer

Subjects Discussed: Continuum’s development of the Swiffer, Shakespeare, whether creativity that originates from theft is acceptable, Bob Dylan, conceptual blending, efforts to defend aerosol cheese spray, bacon cocktails, Dick Crew, Don Lee, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Alex Osborn and brainstorming, Pixar management techniques, Mike Daisey, when storytelling gets in the way of the facts, Milton Glaser and the beginnings of I ♥ NY, the creative possibilities of Benzedrine, WH Auden’s poetry, Angela Duckworth, attempting to make banal chapters, Brian Uzzi and Jarret Spiro’s work involving the Q rating, “Collaboration and Creativity: The Small World Problem,” Y combinator startups and Broadway musicals, not bringing up Stanley Milgram, comparisons between Lehrer and Malcolm Gladwell, small world theory and hit plays, Charlan Nemeeth‘s idea of dissent’s relationship to creativity, Lehrer sandwiching dissent and complacency, “Managing Innovation,” Steve Jobs tearing people apart at Pixar, Pixar’s plussing approach, the middle ground between brutal honesty and egalitarianism, Ray Oldenburg and third places, Pixar and Lehrer’s liberties with third places, the Santa Fe Institute, Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt building an equation based on urban variables, why Lehrer placed the Homebrew Community Club into the city-based West/Bettencourt model, Silicon Valley vs. New York, Tom Wolfe, California’s non-compete clause, the Duncker candle problem, functional fixedness, Robert Adamson, leaving the country to solve a problem, William Maddux and Adam Galinsky’s “Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers,” why Lehrer doesn’t use the exact nomenclature to describe science, the origin of Post-Its, Lehrer avoiding the term “functional fixedness,” avoiding terms to attract a larger readership, the problems with mashup methods, responding in depth to Tim Requarth and Meehan Crist at The Millions*, Eric Kandel’s The Age of Insight, the fMRI and the insula lighting up, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and being hamstrung by the popular science medium.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You put on the glasses. Have you always worn glasses? Because I noticed that was the new cover photo for this. Whereas before you didn’t have glasses.

Lehrer: Oh, I’ve been blind for a long, long time. Maybe — I forget. Maybe the photographer had me take them off.

Correspondent: They asked you to take them off. I was always curious.

Lehrer: No, no, no.

Correspondent: I didn’t know if it was a new mild-mannered Clark Kent look or…

Lehrer: No, no, no. I can assure you that these glasses actually work. They help me see.

Correspondent: Good. I’m more visible for you. That’s reassuring. Let’s go ahead and get right into it. Your book opens with this story of Continuum observing an elderly woman who is wetting a paper towel and wiping the remaining coffee grounds off of the linoleum as she was cleaning. This, of course, leads to the development of the Swiffer. Near the end of the book, you point out Shakespeare. He had a tendency to comb through the many books he read to find stories that he could use for plays and so forth. So it would seem to me — just to establish some terms from the beginning — that much of your notion of creativity involves the theft of ideas. That if you have financial or intellectual resources and you’re able to go ahead and pluck them from somebody else, then hey! You can be creative! So how is profiting off of another person’s idea a form of creation? Or art? Or what not?

Lehrer: I’m not sure I’d call it straight theft. I think Dylan actually has — I talk a lot about Bob Dylan in the book.

Correspondent: Yes, you do.

Lehrer: And he’s got this wonderful phrase where he describes his process as one of love and theft. That first you fall in love. Whether it’s a Woody Guthrie-style. Whether it’s a Robert Johnson riff. Whether it’s, say, old Irish lullaby from Ireland which you turn into “Blowin’ in the Wind.” So you love it and you love it. And you try and understand it and map out the intricate details and connections and then you steal it. And you make it your own. So this isn’t straight theft. This is, in theory, Shakespeare, who, as you point out, was doing pretty well for himself. He came from very humble beginnings. His father was a glover. He signed his name with a mark. But he did his dad proud and made lots of money. So he didn’t just steal Hamlet. He didn’t just steal the plot for Romeo and Juliet. And he didn’t just steal almost all his plots. Shakespeare did not like inventing his own stories, of course. He made them his own. He reinvented them. I think it’s the same thing Bob Dylan did with that Robert Johnson riff. It’s the same thing Continuum did with watching that elderly lady wipe up the coffee grinds that they actually spilled on her floor. That she didn’t invent the Swiffer. They invented the Swiffer. That triggered an insight which then led them to combine the mop, which they spent nine months studying and realizing that mopping’s a terrible idea. Because you spend more time cleaning the mop than you do the actual floor. And in that, her simple act, I mean, they had all done themselves countless times, simply triggered their breakthrough. So in a sense, I mean, I think you’re right to point out that all creativity involves a theft from somewhere. I think creativity is ultimately just a new connection between old ideas. So you are in the most literal sense thieving ideas which already exist. But the connection itself is new. At least it should be new. If it’s not new, then it actually is straight up theft. And that’s not the kind of creativity I’m interested in.

Correspondent: What is the creativity you’re interested in? Because I want to actually distinguish from an elaborate or high-class pickpocket. You know what I mean?

Lehrer: Yeah. You know, I think it’s very easy to get lost in lots of circular discussions about how to define creativity. I think creativity, as far as I’m concerned, is a bit like porn. You kind of know it when you see it.

Correspondent: Oh yeah?

Lehrer: Yeah. Or at least that’s what the Supreme Court says. You know, I think creativity is just the invention of something new. I’m not saying new in some kind of pretend sense. I’m saying something genuinely new which doesn’t exist in the patent office, doesn’t exist in the world, that other people find useful. So that’s as fancy as I get in defining creativity.

Correspondent: Well, let’s get into conceptual blending, which you get into. People exchanging ideas across different disciplines. When you take two concepts and mash them together, which seems applicable to this notion of what is creativity, I mean, it has given us some regrettable and fairly negative ideas. I think that we can both agree that aerosol cheese spray, the car alarm, telemarketing, the Pet Rock.

Lehrer: Yes. Oh come on.

Correspondent: These are things that also come from conceptual blending. So…

Lehrer: Aerosol cheese spray? I’ll go with you on the Pet Rock, but Cheese Whiz? That stuff in the can? That fueled me for much of my childhood.

Correspondent: Yes. “Childhood” being the key.

Lehrer: (laughs)

Correspondent: We’re talking about adulthood.

Lehrer: Okay. Okay.

Correspondent: I mean, we’re talking about ideas that really changed the world. That really have a revolutionary impact. Such as the iPhone or something like that. I mean, you commend Dick Drew as this innovator. And I’m fairly certain that a lot of terrible ideas have also come from 3M. And with the bartender Don Lee, you point out that most of his experiments were utter failures. His attempt to carbonate a cherry didn’t exactly work.

Lehrer: Yeah. And even his Bacon Old Fashioned is very divisive. Like I’m not sure how I feel about it.

Correspondent: Have you tried it?

Lehrer: I have. The first sip is delicious and then it’s kind of unsettling. I think it’s more about my limitations as a consumer than as an eater. And a lot of people don’t like it. So that’s a…

Correspondent: Well, who ultimately determines whether it’s creative or not? I mean, I can just go ahead and spend an evening being completely stoned out of my mind and come up with stupid ideas and that can also be conceptual blending.

Lehrer: Yeah.

Correspondent: I mean, what is the distinguishing quality here?

Lehrer: Well, that’s why I think when defining creativity, one has to invoke the second life of the idea. One has to invoke this notion that it has to be useful to yourself and other people. So you know, one of my favorite stories and moments of insight — I talk about moments of insight in Imagine and the neuroscience of it. And why they happen when we least expect it. But there’s this great story of an insight by Oliver Wendell Holmes when he first took laughing gas for the first time. And he’s stoned out of his mind. High as a kite. While high as a kite, has this big epiphany. He solved the world. This grand solution. Writes it down on a cocktail napkin. And they can’t find the cocktail napkin. And he wakes up the next day. He’s hungover. Searches everywhere. Finally finds a cocktail napkin. So excited to read it. And what it says is: “The world smells like turpentine.”

Correspondent: Yeah. But there are failed economic theories that are also written on cocktail napkins. You know what I mean?

Lehrer: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, no. So that’s why I think one has to separate the phenomenology of the idea. To use a ten dollar word. Like the feeling of the insight. Like “Oh my god, I made this great connection.” And I think we’ve all had the experience — many of us have had the experience of being stoned or high and being “That was such a brilliant epiphany.” Then you wake up in the morning and you realize it’s useless. So I think when talking about creativity, one should talk about the second life and hopefully not just in the brute financial terms. I don’t think we should get in the business of just measuring creativity by how many books you sell or whether or not it can be monetized. Etcetera etcetera. But we should talk about the second life. Cause that I think is the ultimate way our ideas are measured.

Correspondent: Well, to go ahead and get into some of what you write in the book, late, you write that Alex Osborn’s idea of brainstorming was in fact wrong. That’s been pointed out by numerous people. Why then does your book skim over the really terrible ideas? I mean, how do we reconcile Osborn with the Carson/Peterson/Higgins study involving 86 Harvard undergraduates in which those who considered the irrelevant details were seven times more likely to be rated as “eminent creative achievers”? Now being ranked as an “eminent creative achiever” is a lot different from, oh say, inventing the iPhone or coming up with something that is actually helpful.

Lehrer: Of course. So their ranking of creativity — and what I liked about this study is that it was real world creativity. A lot of limitations of the way scientists study creativity are creativity tests. So it’s tests on divergent thinking, coming up with uses for a brick, finding ways to study traffic in the Bay Area. Stuff like that. But it’s not about the real world. So what I liked about that study was that it was real world achievement. So to get back to your question about why I don’t spend a lot of time on the failed ideas….

Correspondent: Because that would seem to be important, you know.

Lehrer: Well, one of the subplots in the book — at least that I tried to engineer into the book — is this notion that there’s no success without failure, that one of the defining features of successful creators is the way they’ve learned how to fail successfully. One of my favorite lines in the book is Lee Unkrich’s quote — the director of Toy Story 3 — about the secret sauce of Pixar is failing as fast as possible. You know, you go through iteration after iteration. So I’ve got that whole chapter on the importance of revisions and drafting and the conceiving process and going through drafts, looking for your failures, and trying to fix them. So, you know, hopefully I’ve made it clear that all good ideas emerge from the litter of lots of bad ones and that even the best epiphanies, you still have to edit them. You still have to fine tune them and perfect them. So hopefully it’s implicit in the book that part of coming up with a good idea is this entangled relationship with bad ideas. As for why I don’t talk a lot about failed ideas in the book, why I don’t harp on those inventions that never work, I don’t know. I mean, to be honest, I’m sure as a storyteller, it’s easier to tell stories of success. That’s what interests me more. No one wants to buy a book that’s all about…

Correspondent: You’re more of a Mike Daisey type than a New York Times guy?

Lehrer: How’d I go from wanting to tell success stories to being a Mike Daisey type?

Correspondent: Well, because we’re talking about facts vs. storytelling. Which is an ongoing debate especially in 2012. With John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s The Lifespan of a Fact. With Mike Daisey.

Lehrer: Well, what are facts vs. storytelling?

Correspondent: The point I’m trying to make here is if you are telling a story where everything could be a conceivable success, I mean, there are some things that are inevitably failures. John Carter is probably by every standard a failure. It’s lost more money than any movie.

Lehrer: Yeah, but how does that? To get back to your question about facts and stories, how does that — I’m trying to talk about creativity and where it comes from. I think that one of the defining features of creativity — like I said before — it’s a new idea that people find useful. So there are obviously lots of ideas which people don’t find useful. Lots of failed ideas. In my book, I try to make clear that failure is a part of the creative process. One should learn how to deal with it. But one doesn’t have to write a book about creativity to talk about all the bad ideas that don’t work out. That would be a very, very, very, very long book, and I think fairly incoherent. So that’s why most of the stories I tell in the book are stories where, because that’s part of what creativity is, that’s how I define it. It’s a new idea that works. So I tell the story of new ideas that work.

Correspondent: Okay.

Lehrer: But I don’t quite understand how that means I’m Mike Daisey.

Correspondent: Well, because Mike Daisey took facts to fit his larger narrative. And while from a liberal standpoint, I suppose you could argue that looking at Shenzhen, even if the facts aren’t entirely airtight, might be a good idea, there’s still…

Lehrer: Well, which facts am I eliding to make my larger narrative? I guess that’s my…

Correspondent: Well, when you say you can learn from every failure and there’s a success from there, I don’t know if that’s entirely the truth.

Lehrer: I’m not saying you can — I don’t say that anywhere in the book that all ideas are created equal. In fact, the whole point of why brainstorming doesn’t work — you brought up Alex Osborn’s failed idea — is that it treats all ideas as equal. I mean, the whole point of brainstorming is all ideas are useful. All ideas are good. And as I point out, the reason brainstorming doesn’t work is because groups that engage in criticism and debate and dissent, groups that point out, “That idea is actually a piece of shit,” they do much better. They come up with more ideas and those ideas are better. So hopefully a theme of the book, as I’ve been trying to make clear, is this notion of being honest about which ideas are good and which ideas are bad, identifying failures and fixing them, and out of that process, which is often dismal and unpleasant and insufferable, out of that long process, you will hopefully get a good idea. But there is no shortcut around it.

Correspondent: You talked with Milton Glaser, the graphic designer who came up with the I ♥ NY logo. You mention WH Auden and how he was hopped up on Benzedrine to produce his poems. You say that it was persistence, this determination to solve the problem of how to rehabilitate the image of New York City, which led to Glaser’s solution. But aside from Earl Miller’s recursive loop, his dopamine findings, I’m curious what science you have to back up this idea of the value of persistence to the creative mind. I mean, is it not possible that maybe Glaser’s idea caught on because, well, New York was kind of stuck with it? Because I ♥ NY was everywhere? Know what I mean?

Lehrer: Yeah.

Correspondent: And also there’s this troubling idea of, well, do we have to be hopped up on Benzedrine to be a poet?

Lehrer: No, no, definitely not. As Auden himself would discover, there’s a reason why Benzedrine is now illegal. We no longer prescribe it for asthma. It’s incredibly addictive and, as I point out in the book, comes with all sorts of terrible side effects like horrible constipation, insomnia, and heart arrhythmia, and you definitely don’t want to advocate Benzedrine, no matter how much you need to edit your poetry. In terms of the science on persistence, yeah, there’s a lot of interesting research. A lot of which has nothing to do with the brain, at least not yet. Which I think demonstrates that persistence — the technical term for persistence that psychologists study is grit. This is primarily the work of Angela Duckworth. She’s at Penn. I’m actually writing about her now. Writing an article about her. She’s shown in many domains that grit is the single biggest predictor of success. More than IQ scores. So if you’re trying to figure out which 12-year-old will win the National Spelling Bee, it’s about grit. Who’s going to last at West Point? It’s about grit. Who’s going to last at Teach for America? Which amateur golfers are going to make the PGA tour? She argues that grit also plays a very important role in the creative process. She always quotes the Woody Allen line that 80% of success is showing up. Well, grit is what allows you to show up again and again. The two components of grit — and it’s important to point out, it’s not just about persistence. And I think this is an important caveat. It’s not just about persistence. You also have to have the right goal in the first place. So I may want to play in the NBA. But you’re looking at me. It’s not going to happen. So I have to have someone tell me early on hopefully that all the grit in the world, all the persistence in the world, won’t turn me into Spud Webb. Find a different goal. So I think sometimes one of the problems we have is we’re not willing to help people — you know, dreams will come true if you simply try for it. That kind of talk. It sounds really good, but it’s not entirely honest. And I think we need to be honest about it not being honest.

Correspondent: Now that’s a completely reasonable assessment. Why then would you put WH Auden on Benzedrine then in the book? And is this sort of the worst case scenario? Even though he ended up coming up with a number of great poems. If we’re talking about reasonable applications of what we’re talking about here for people to find their creative roots, why would you go for these more extraordinary examples?

Lehrer: Why I chose that in particular?

Correspondent: Yeah. I’m just curious. Why did you include a Benzedrine addict? Genius as he may very well have been.

Lehrer: Sure. To be honest, the reason I chose Auden is because I’ve long been an Auden fan. I’ve always been fascinated by why you look at his most anthologized poems — and my favorite Auden poetry is actually his late poetry. So absolutely after he weaned himself off Benzedrine, and that was a brutal process, but I actually like “In Praise of Limestone” — his later poetry — which is a little messier, a little more chaotic, a little more personal. But if you look at his most anthologized poems, they really come from this three year window when he was really on Benzedrine, “September 1,” “In Memory of Yeats,” etcetera etcetera. And I was interested in why that is. What allowed him to, in this narrow window, produce poems that were spare and precise and transparent and really, really popular and have resonated with people for decades. And so that’s why I chose Auden. Both because I liked the man and I have this lingering interest in this particular phase of his career. So that’s why I chose him. I wasn’t trying to pick an extreme example. You know, for me, it was the storytelling challenge in this chapter was — in the end, the point I’m trying to give readers is incredibly banal. And I’m sure that — I think most readers will realize that, in the end, the point of that chapter is “Sometimes you have to work really hard.” Not the most exciting idea. And so for me, the reason I chose Auden is cause drugs, Benzedrine, and that struck me as a slightly more interesting way to, in the end, make this point that creativity is also about hard work. And Milton Glaser’s motto says it best. “Art is work.”

Correspondent: But wait a minute. If the underlying point of the chapter is banal, then why stretch out a chapter? I’m not saying that…

Lehrer: Well, because that’s an important part of the creative process. I wish I could write a book in which the whole point was “Take showers when you’re stuck.” Get relaxed. Which is part of the process too. I think there’s good evidence for that. But when you talk with creative people, and I’m trying to tell the story of creativity as I see it from talking to people in the business and from the perspectives of scientists who study it. A big part of creative success is showing up, is putting in the work, is going after the drafts. That’s not the sexy stuff. But that needs to be in there too.

Correspondent: But isn’t it your job to sex it up, Jonah? I mean, you’re a guy — we were cracking up about aerosol cheese spray, right?

Lehrer: Oh, I do my best to sex it up. Which is why I begin the chapter by talking about Benzedrine. That was my attempt to sex up a very banal chapter. Hopefully the chapter itself isn’t banal. The idea in it is — you know, if you’ve ever done anything worthwhile in your life, you know it takes work, right? So my challenge as a storyteller in that chapter was, gosh, I’ve got to put this in here. Because that’s a huge part of the creative process. There’s no getting around it. But how can I make it interesting? I can’t just talk about hard work. That’s a chapter I wouldn’t want to write and people wouldn’t want to read. So the way I begin it is by talking about this poet who is an incredibly talented poet. I’m not saying that if we all take Benzedrine, we’ll pump out “September 1st, 1939.” Having dabbled in amphetamines myself, all I got out of it was several nights of insomnia. But I think it does, within the context of Auden, help show how this drug modulated his poetry a little bit.

* — In The Millions‘s comments, Lehrer responded to a lengthy criticism of Imagine offered by Requarth and Crist (namely, Lehrer criticizing the limitations of fMRI in a Wall Street Journal column, while simultaneously relying on similar data elsewhere):

I honestly can’t cite a popular brain book that either 1) doesn’t cite fMRI localization studies at face value at some point or 2) engage in speculative links between neural mechanisms and complex mental phenomena. For instance, I’m currently in the midst of Eric Kandel’s wonderful new book, which has many chapters on fMRI data combined with musings on aesthetics and beauty. Is this inappropriate?

Fortunately, Our Correspondent also happened to read Kandel’s book. In chapter 30, Kandel does cite fMRIs too. But he doesn’t just cite fMRIs. He is careful to write this in Chapter 30:

The two techniques for measuring brain activity complement each other perfectly: EEGs, which are superior for pinpointing when an event occurred but poor at identifying where it occurred, have good temporal resolution but poor spatial resolution, whereas functional MRIs have the inverse and weaknesses.”

In fairness, Lehrer, at the beginning of Imagine, writes:

By combining both techniques — fMRI and EEG — in the same study, Beeman and Kounios were able to deconstruct the epiphany.”

But inexplicably (and this is also the point of contention with Requarth and Crist), he merely applies the fMRI results in relation to jazz improvisation. Kandel did not make this slip at all in The Age of Insight. The issue here is whether Lehrer, who was good enough to talk out this problem at length during this program, is omitting essential data in an effort to appeal to a popular audience. This conversation begins at the 43:44 mark in the program.

The Bat Segundo Show #448: Jonah Lehrer (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #444. He is most recently the author of Religion for Atheists.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Seeking pragmatic forms of belief.

Author: Alain de Botton

Subjects Discussed: The difficulties of turning other people onto enthusiastic concepts, why religion draws extremists on all sides of the debate, attempting to fight capitalism through a new belief system, the Agape Restaurant, Susan Cain’s Quiet, including introverts within community-based ideas, the Day of Atonement, mandatory voting in Australia, attempts to reach people who are not inclined to forgive, voluntary mediators, a temple for atheism, the need to feel small, feeling small through extra human forces, the power of awe, aesthetic uses of science, being awed by the city and knowledge, the mass appeal of Proust and Tarkovsky, South Park, competing notions of awe and boredom applied to the same idea, religion as a populist medium, the upside of vulgarity, high and low culture, Tarkovsky as a joke high culture figure, superbia, egotistical notions in getting to know someone through prosaic conversational questions, social status as a way of fending off other people, dependence, religious distinction through coherent brand identities, role models, reductionism and marketing, responding to architecture, touching people through their senses, São Paulo’s prohibition of advertising, religion’s reliance upon advertising, making a public claim for certain states of the soul, the Kony 2012 campaign, the pros and cons of shame, how humans can be more interesting than a smartphone, how technology forces humans to relearn essential concepts, and how human life is in permanent competition with superficial biases.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Your books very often have this moment where you describe a very funny yet sometimes socially awkward encounter where you attempt to impart some concept or some amazing idea in your head that you are excited about and that the person who is receiving this intelligence often expresses some dismay. I think of, for example, your long speech at the Mojave Airport Graveyard in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work or your attempt to pitch yourself as a writer-in-flight to the British Airways head honcho Willie Walsh. Obviously, I think, based off of this, you are aware that some of your excitement is being misperceived. So in light of trying to consider a scenario along the lines of what you’re preaching in Religion for Atheists — where you’re trying to have certain concepts stick in other people’s heads and religion is more fraught, more sensitive than the norm — how do you get through to these people? I mean, if you’re aware of these things, you’re probably going to have moments even more extreme than the two I’ve cited. So what of this predicament? How do you go ahead and convert these people over to your side?

De Botton: Well, I suppose, when it comes to religion, you’ve got extremists on both sides of the debate. You’ve got religious believers who are very fervent in their belief and think that anything else, anything besides full conversion to their creed is not acceptable. And at the same time, you have very fierce atheists who think that any involvement with religion is evil and to be resisted. And I’ve tried to write a book that’s somewhere in the middle of those two. It’s a book that tries to say that, as an atheist, you can nevertheless engage with aspects of religion. And indeed those aspects may be very enriching for your understanding of secular society. So it’s a weird book. Because it really is fairly in the middle of something that most people would consider to be incompatible, which is atheism and religion. It’s arguing that atheism should engage in, and can engage, with aspects of religion. And it can be shot at from both sides. But I also think there is a silent majority that is actually in sympathy with the approach I’m taking. But that is a silent majority that don’t have the pulpits.

Correspondent: But if the movers and shakers, such as the man at the graveyard, require twenty dollar bills to advance things, I’m wondering how you can instill these ideas into a new belief system if everything is centered around commerce, centered around capitalism, centered around the need to get ahead, centered around some unusual man asking to see the airplanes and so forth. I mean, this, I think, is one of the interesting takeaways I get from your book. So how do you solve this?

De Botton: Well, I think that the proposals that I make are aiming to get secular capitalist people in secular capitalist societies to rethink their positions on things. I’m arguing that there are certain things missing from modern society. Though we’ve been fantastically good at delivering material improvements and supplying material needs in the developed world, there are some other needs, which you might call spiritual — and I use that word without any supernatural implications. But spiritual, psychological needs have been left slightly unattended. I’m thinking here of things like our need for community, our need for moral structure, our need for certain guidance through the challenges of life. These things have not been so well done by the secular world and I’m arguing that one of the ways which we can plug some of the gaps in the secular world is to look back at the lessons of religion. And my book is full of examples, of concepts, of practices, of rituals that one might rescue or at least learn from as atheists in a secular world.

Correspondent: Well, there’s one idea — the Agape Restaurant — where you have different types of people sitting at the same table, sharing their stories and so forth. But I’m wondering what safeguards you have in place for people who are shy or who are introverted. There’s a new book by Susan Cain called Quiet that gets into the amount of social energy one has to exert if one is introverted or even ambiverted. And so this also leads me to ask — well, if I go into a situation and I’m asked to share my most intimate secrets with a stranger, I’m not certain if I would want to do that. Because maybe someone there might want to steal my identity or so forth. We would enter such a social arrangement with understandable suspicion. And if you’re an introvert, you may be very scared or it may actually be a little intimidating to be asked to engage in this extroverted activity. So what of these kinds of problems here? What are your solutions? What are your workarounds?

De Botton: I guess my starting point is that the modern world is not so good at community building. There’s a lot of loneliness. Because much of who we are doesn’t get an expression in social life. And this is surprising. Because with Facebook and other social media, we were supposed to have cracked this. But I think people will still complain that in many areas, we don’t have good communities. And religion’s unparalleled at building communities. Now how do religions build communities? One of the things they do is they gather people around a table every now and then and get them to break bread together and get them to talk. That’s how early Christianity started. It started as a series of meals between the followers of Jesus who remembered his lessons and got together to eat. And, as I say, you find this in all faiths. That somehow the stranger is invited to the table and is welcome to the table and a stranger is turned into a friend. It’s a beautiful idea. A simple idea. And I couldn’t help but contrast this with the modern world, where we’re obsessed with eating. And newspapers and media are full of places to eat. The restaurant world is high on the agenda. But what’s never really spoken of is the meal as a source of a social engagement. As a source of discovery of another person. And that is really what interested me. And so with the example of religion in mind, one of the things I do in my book is to suggest how we might learn from the tradition of communal dining of religions, and precisely set up meals between strangers. Now, of course, some of them may feel uncomfortable. And some people like to eat on their own. So it wouldn’t be for everybody. But I think in many of us, there is a desire to shed the armor which we normally have to wear in daily life and to eat with others and to discuss our shared and common humanity.

Correspondent: But what I’m saying is that the introvert who is very fond of, say, one-on-one exchanges, as opposed to mass group exchanges — I mean, how does such a communal dining experience account for that? They may feel very uncomfortable. There may be a lot of social energy. You’re saying that they should go ahead and answer very deep questions about what they fear. And so how do you account for them?

De Botton: Well, look, it’s not for everyone. As I say, if someone wants a one-on-one meal, if someone’s not interested in community, then it might not be for them.

Correspondent: Well, how do you get them involved in the community? If the ideal here is to get everybody on the same page, how…

De Botton: Well, it doesn’t have to be everybody. But it has to be those among us who hunger for community, as many of us do.

Correspondent: But introverts do hunger for community. They just go about it in a different way.

De Botton: Yeah. Well, I couldn’t speak for them.

Correspondent: Okay. Early in the book, you bring up the Day of Atonement — the moment on the Hebrew calendar where Jews must identify all those who they have hurt or behaved unjustly towards. Now those who are part of the Day of Atonement are inclined to forgive any offenders for annoying them or causing them grief. But it is an undeniable truth that very often when you apologize to someone in the secular world, well, they’re not exactly going to have the same degree of understanding sometimes. In fact, your apology may aggravate the other person further. So I’m wondering. To get something along the lines of a Day of Atonement for a secular or non-religious group, I’m wondering: Does it take a specific secular rite? For example, in Australia, if you go and vote, 95% of the people turn out. Because if you don’t vote, then you’ll actually get fined. So I’m wondering if a Day of Atonement along the lines of what you’re talking about would require something like a government mandate for everybody to apologize to everybody. What of this dilemma?

De Botton: Well, I don’t know. I mean, what strikes me as a secular person is how intelligent religious communities are at realizing that community is a very nice thing in many ways. But it’s also very challenging. And you find, throughout the history of religion, mechanisms to ease social tensions. And it struck me that the Jewish Day of Atonement was particularly clever and insightful in recognizing that what holds communities back is grudges. Things that are undigested in the past. And what it encourages people to do is to both accept that another person may have a grudge to bring up, but also that it behooves you not to drag out that grudge. So there’s a kind of mutual responsibility on both sides not to drag out an argument and to move towards forgiveness. And the underlying assumption is that God is the only perfect being. And anyone else is going to be flawed. And so we have to forgive on the basis of our fragility and flawed natures. And I think that’s a very beautiful idea. Look, the specifics of how an atheist might do this can yet be worked out. But it’s food for thought. I think, for me, what’s interesting here is that the psychological mechanism of forgiveness based on a recognition of imperfection. And this is something that the modern world struggles with.

Correspondent: How do you reach, though, someone who is not inclined to forgive? Or who may not in fact be on the same page? I mean, I’m all for you. I would love to see everybody forgive everybody for their sins or their errors or their sleights or what not. But the fact is that a lot of people are just not going to. So what does it take to really bring people around? Does it take constant promotion of idealism along the lines of what you’re saying or what?

De Botton: Well, in the Jewish Day of Atonement, what gets people motivated is a sense that it is normal both to forgive and to have a grudge that you need to bring up. And I think that too often when people annoy the mood for discussing issues, of discussing grudges, it’s because they feel that they’re not going to get a proper hearing, that it might be embarrassing to do this, and that dialogue with another is impossible. So it’s a kind of pessimistic position. And sometimes we may need a bit of help. We may need a third person.

Correspondent: Mediators.

De Botton: Mediators.

Correspondent: Voluntary mediators.

De Botton: And that, in a sense, was the role that God was playing in the Jewish community at that point. He is a mediator.

Correspondent: Yeah. So in addition to having a temple for atheism, we also need to get a mediator army of volunteers. Would this also help to spread further good will and bonhomie?

De Botton: I think you’re focusing a little bit unfairly on the practical aspects of this. I’m really writing as a psychologist. I’m interested in psychology of religion and the psychology of the dynamics that are being explored. So how exactly this might apply, how a secular person might absorb this into their life is capable of many different interpretations?

Correspondent: But aren’t pragmatics important when considering the psychological possibilities of what human beings are capable of?

De Botton: Sure. Absolutely. Absolutely But we don’t have to decide today.

Correspondent: I’m just picking your brain here.

De Botton: Sure. Of course.

The Bat Segundo Show #444: Alain de Botton (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #428. He is most recently the author of Pity the Billionaire.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why Grover Norquist keeps leaving voicemails about tax pledges.

Author: Thomas Frank

Subjects Discussed: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s notion of “compromise,” the Republican failure to acknowledge Reagan’s complete history, Reagan’s Continental Illinois bailout, efforts to “erase” liberalism from Washington, Barack Obama’s failings, Congressional disapproval by the American people (as reflected by recent polls), how George W. Bush became a toxic Republican figure, the Tea Party movement, the Great Recession, how the Right co-opted populism after 2008, the 2010 extension of the Bush tax cuts and Bernie Sanders’s filibuster, Obama signing the NDAA “with serious reservations,” the Democratic Party less about the working man and more about expertise and technocrats, Obama’s TARP bailouts vs. Roosevelt’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation bailouts, government agencies that become instruments of Wall Street, “purified” capitalism, firing bank managers, conservatives mimicking progressive ideologies of the past and protest movements of the 1930s, co-opting outrage, Orson Welles’s influence on Glenn Beck, The War of the Worlds, being subscribed to Beck’s email newsletter, Jack Abramoff, Grover Norquist, the Republican base being united over the past few decades by “quasi-military victory” and lack of civility, Howard Phillips and “organized discontent,” why the Democrats are allergic to discontent and anger, Roosevelt’s tendency to stump and explain legislation vs. Obama’s failure to do so, the Democratic tendency to use experts as a selling point, Jon Stewart and the New Political Privilege, the Rally to Restore Sanity, Occupy Wall Street, blue-collar invisibility in DC, living in a neighborhood in which 50% of the population have PhDs, NASCAR, idiosyncratic hangover cures, diffidence and resistance against righteous indignation in the last few years, the hard times swindle, Scott Walker and attacks on the Wisconsin labor movement, attempts to investigate why liberalism can’t stick in recent years given The Wrecking Crew‘s suggestion that people inherently expect a liberal state, the myth of small business job creation (specific data breakdown on new jobs creation from 1992-2008 from Scott Shane discussed by Correspondent and Frank), George Lucas calling himself an “independent filmmaker,” C. Wright Mills’s White Collar, small business serving as a propaganda front for big business, America’s reticence in discussing how we are all corporate slaves in some sense, Tea Party memorabilia, Glenn Beck’s CAPITALISM painting, Rep. Nan Hayworth’s dodging questions about Verizon with empty utopian bluster, whether it’s possible to take back the term “small business,” the Black Panther Party, ways to organize political movements, whether it’s possible to build a dedicated base to combat a corrupt two-party system, legal blockades to third party movements, protesting out of resentment and self-pity, self-pity and the resurgent Right, whether the Tea Party is protesting with a shared sense of humiliation, populist politics as a gateway drug, searching for good things to say about the Tea Party, liberalism and populist movements, Atlas Shrugged, Walter Issacson’s Steve Jobs biography, Jobs being selfish with his money, why selfishness is a uniquely American draw, retreating into laissez-faire purity, Ayn Rand’s prose style, capital strikes as fantasy, leftist versions of Atlas Shrugged, John Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Frank’s collection of proletarian fiction, Upton Sinclair, the cold sex and descriptions of steel and machinery in Atlas Shrugged, the connections between recent political movements and mythology, German sociologists from the 1930s, the social construction of reality, Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia, how the Left might find political possibilities in passion, pragmatism, and anger, the neutered Left falling prey to forms of mythology that are just as nefarious as present myths on the Right, organized labor, Steven Greenhouse’s The Big Squeeze, how politics tends to inspire perverse behavior, and train wrecks.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: We’re talking only a few nights after a really fascinating 60 Minutes interview with [House Majority Leader] Eric Cantor. I’m not sure if you saw this.

Frank: I didn’t see it.

Correspondent: Well, it was interesting. Because it reminded me very much of your book. I’m about to talk with you and this happens. So [Cantor] appears. And it’s this fairly amicable, typical segment. And then Lesley Stahl basically says, “Will you compromise in any way?” And he dodged the issue of being able to compromise on anything. And then Lesley, of course, brings up the Reagan tax increase.

Frank: The 1986?*

Correspondent: Yes. And he denies that Reagan ever did that. And then, to add an additional monkey wrench into this, there’s an off-camera press secretary who says that’s a lie. And then, of course, they play the clip.

Frank: What?

Correspondent: Yes! And they play a clip of Reagan using “compromise” as a verb** when he’s talking about this tax increase. So this seems a very appropriate beginning to some of the issues in your book.

Frank: That’s amazing. That’s exactly what I’m writing about. These people who are essentially blinded by ideology. But when I say it that way, it sounds like some kind of slang term. Or something like that. But I mean it in a very serious way. That these are people who have bought an entire utopian way of seeing the world and are able to close their eyes to things that are obvious. And what you just said about Reagan, that would be a juicy detail that I would have loved to have had for the book. But there are so many other examples — essentially, they deny. Look, I went to a graduate school and studied history. One of the baseline things that historians agree on is that for the last thirty or forty years, we’ve been in a conservative era. That people around the world — governments, politicians, elites around the world — have discovered the power of markets and have moved in this direction towards markets that are deregulated, have privatized, have done all these things. This is common knowledge. A conservative movement today — you talk to a guy like Eric Cantor? No, that’s never happened. We’re still living under socialism. And we have been since Woodrow Wilson. Or something like this.

Correspondent: But why is it that Cantor and the Freshman Republicans want to just keep their blinders on about history? About their man Reagan? Is there a specific…

Frank: They have to have a hero and they’ve thrown George W. Bush under the bus. Because of the bailouts. But at the end of the day, look, it’s opportunism. Reagan is very popular. Bush is not popular. Nixon is not popular. So they have to have a hero. And it has to be someone who is beloved. Ipso facto, it has to be Reagan. But they have to deny all sorts of thing about Reagan. For example, Reagan bailed out Continential Illinois Bank — at the time, the biggest bank failure in U.S. history. Reagan, as you’ve just mentioned, raised taxes. Reagan sold weapons to Iran. You remember that one? Iran-Contra. I mean, there are all sorts of other crazy things that Reagan did that don’t look so good. I mean, Reagan really liked Franklin Roosevelt. Reagan was a more complicated person. But none of that is admissible. If you’re going to follow this ideology and this utopian vision that they have of what I call “market populism” — if you’re going to follow that all the way — and, of course, part of the idea of this is that you’re going to have to follow it all the way — and we’ll get into that a minute — you basically have to whitewash history. I mean, it’s almost Soviet, what you’re describing.

Correspondent: The phrase you use in The Wrecking Crew. “The Washington conservatives aim to make liberalism not by debating, but by erasing it.” And I’m wondering if there’s any past political precedent that would suggest they could entirely efface liberalism from our political machinations.

Frank: Or from our memory.

Correspondent: Or from our memory. It’s very strange.

Frank: Well, that was the big subject a few years ago — when The Wrecking Crew was published. One of the topics of conversation was these grand schemes that the Republicans kept coming up with. The Republicans in Washington here, I’m talking about. I’m not talking about your rank-and-file Republicans. But the Republicans in Washington kept coming up with the grand schemes for some kind of political checkmate. Some kind of move that would end the debate forever and yield victory for their side forever. And they include — privatizing social security was a big one. Another one — the one that I focused on in The Wrecking Crew — is deficits. And that, I’m sorry to say, I turned out to be right about the one. By deliberately running up the deficits in the Bush years, it doesn’t give them permanent victory, but it does stay the hand of whoever, whatever liberal follows — in this case, Barack Obama — and it has worked exactly as they planned it to. Although Obama pushed it a little farther than they thought possible with the stimulus package. But now look at what’s happened with the debt ceiling catastrophe and all that sort of thing. So that turned out to be effective. They were able to limit the debate by some deeds that they pulled while they were still in power. And some of the other things that they are trying or will try or I predict they’ll try, they are things about tricking the franchise. Somehow keeping or dissuading people from voting. That sort of thing. But there’s always this search for the doomsday device. Yes, and it still goes on.

Correspondent: But this level of no quarter, no compromise. I mean, isn’t there some kind of “uncanny valley” or Hubbert’s Peak to what they can do before it’s just not acceptable? I mean, there was that latest Rasmussen poll where Congress got a 5% approval rating. That was a few days ago.

Frank: 5%?

Correspondent: 5%.

Frank: Well, that makes a difference in the Presidential Election. But that really won’t make a whole lot of difference, strangely enough, in the Congressional Election. Because people might hate Congress, but they like their own Congressman. That’s the classic, the old saw. But, look, what you’re getting at is a really interesting phenomenon of these people, instead of being pulled to the center — as all of your political science theorizing and all of your DC punditry insists that the gravity of politics pulls people to the center. Political scientists have believed this for fifty years. And this is a pet peeve of mine. Because I think it’s rubbish, okay, for reasons that we’ll go into. But it’s been just dramatically disproven in the last couple of years. Think back to 2008. You had the Republican Party in ruins. You had all these scandals in the Bush Administration. All this corruption. And then it ends with this catastrophic meltdown in the market. The housing bubble bursts. The banks start to go under, one after another. Then Wall Street starts shedding 700 points per day. It’s this crazy disaster. The financial crisis. And then they do the bailouts, forever sealing Bush’s fate not only with the general public but with the Right. One of the most unpopular Presidents of all time. The Republican Party is in ruins in 2008. And you have pundit after pundit weighing in and saying, “These people are done for. Bush led them too far to the right.” The era of George W. Bush was where they went too far to the right, and Tom DeLay and all those guys, they went too far to the right, and now they have to make their way back to the center or they will risk being irrelevant forever more. Or for the next twenty years or something like that. And look what happened. They did the opposite. Guys like Eric Cantor, they did not embrace the moderates in their party. They excommunicated them. They purged them. I mean, these guys, they behave like Communists in a lot of ways. This is one of those things. They purged these guys. They throw people out. And they don’t want them in the Party anymore. And they moved deliberately to the right. Way to the right. That’s what the Tea Party movement is all about. And I’ll be damned if it didn’t work. They just scored their biggest victory in eighty years. Or seventy what — a whole lot of years in the 2010 off-term elections. They had a huge victory. So obviously that strategy has vindicated for them. It worked! It paid off! And there’s no reason why they would go back on something that just succeeded. It was a success.

Correspondent: But in the chapter in this book, “The Silence of the Technocrats,” you describe this collapse of Democratic populism from 2008. You point to the failings of the Democrats to challenge the Tea Party, people at the town hall meetings. You point also to the manner in which they formed corporate alliances with healthcare and also the bailouts that we were just talking about. The failure of the stimulus package. The list goes on. Only a few days ago, Obama signed into law the NDAA, which essentially gives the government the right to detain any citizen, and he had this whole “with serious reservations” claause that he did while he signed it. So the question I have is: if Democrats are offering the defense that Obama is being forced into this predicament…

Frank: They’re listening to the pundits. The Republicans did the opposite of what the pundits suggested. The Democrats are listening to them. There’s this DC elite that the Democrats are listening to. This is what Obama’s Presidency is all about — it’s looking for a grand compromise. But the Republicans, they’re not interested. Make him come to us, they say. He can come to us. He can compromise in our direction. Look, at the end of the day, this is something you can figure out with game theory. It’s really simple. If they’re the side that stands pat and makes the other guy come to them, they win. But that’s neither her nor there. I think the Democrats really misplayed the hand they were dealt with. I mean, misplayed it in a colossal manner. In a catastrophic manner. And Obama may well get re-elected in 2012 at this point. Who knows at this point?

Correspondent: Well, with the crop of candidates, it’s a big clown car.

Frank: Elected for what purpose? After what’s happened, why bother? They didn’t understand the needs of the moment. The cultural and political needs of the moment, which were populist. They didn’t understand that all that political science theorizing that I was telling you about, where the center is where the gravity always pulls you — you have to move to the center. You have to make compromises with the other side. That all of that old way of thinking about everything was discredited. The financial crisis. The Great Recession. The huge business slump. We were going into Great Depression II, it looked like back then. And what was called for was 1930s style politics. The conservatives offered it. The Republicans offered it. Or I should say the Tea Party offered it and has since grafted it on the Republican Party. And the Democrats behaved as if everything was just as it was in the 1990s. That if they acted like Bill Clinton, everything would be fine. They did not understand that the old scheme was completely out the window.

Correspondent: Why though would they continue to act as if they wished to rise above partisanship? This notion…

Frank: That’s who they are.

Correspondent: I mean, even after the whole debt ceiling showdown. That whole business.

Frank: Can you believe that? Don’t you think that that would be the big convincer?

Correspondent: But why do you think this is? I mean, why didn’t Obama just go to the people and say, “Look, this is going to have serious actions even if I approve it or veto it. I am actually going to you, the American people, and I am explaining to you that the Republicans want to throw the Bill of Rights into a flaming trash can…

Frank: (laughs)

Correspondent: “So I can’t in good conscience sign this.” Why do you think he can’t do that?

Frank: Well, the point where this really got out of hand — I mean, there were several big turning points in the Obama Presidency, but the one that really just blew my mind because it was such a misplayed moment. And we think Obama’s a very intelligent man. And he is. I met up. He’s a super-duper smart guy. But some of the political moves have just been total rookie mistakes. The one that got me was when he still had a Democratic Congress. It was a lame duck session. This would have been at the end of 2010. And he renewed the Bush tax cuts. Why not make the Republicans come to him and offer something in exchange for that? No. He just gave it to them. It’s like the biggest prize on the table. And he just handed it over.

Correspondent: Leaving Bernie Sanders to do that long filibuster. But that ended up being all for nought. Even though it was an impressive theatrical display. Everybody was behind Bernie Sanders. Finally somebody standing up.

Frank: Oh sure. But it wasn’t up to Bernie Sanders. It was up to Barack Obama. And he just gave it away — the one ace he had in the hole, he just gave it away. And so maybe he did it as a good faith gesture to the Republicans. And look what it got him? This terrible smackdown with the debt ceiling crisis.

Correspondent: An embarrassment.

Frank: The kind of naivete that that takes. To not understand that that’s how these guys play the game. There’s plenty of journalists that wrote about the DeLay Congress and the Gingrich Congress. We know how these guys play. Or George W. Bush. Look at the career of Karl Rove. These guys play to win. They don’t mess around. And the innocence of Washington that it took to make a blunder — let’s call it what it is. A blunder like that is shocking to me.

Correspondent: If he’s so smart, why does he constantly come to them? I mean, why give the game away like that?

Frank: Because that’s who they are. That’s the Democratic Party nowadays.

Correspondent: It’s been like that for a while though, you know?

Frank: It has. And, hey, let’s be fair. Obama isn’t the — all of their last six Presidential candidates have been cut from the same cloth. I think Obama is, in lots of ways, smarter and a better speaker, and more talented than a lot of their previous leaders. But this is who the Democratic Party has become. Many years ago, they were the party of the working man. Everyone knew that. They were also a party that had an ideology. An ideology that arose from organized labor, that arose from the New Deal. And that has been lost. They are the party of technocrats now. Look, everything I’m telling you right now is right on the surface down at Washington DC. The big Democratic Party thinkers talk about this all the time. We are the party of the professional class. And if we aren’t that yet, that’s who we’re going to be when we’re done. We’re going to get there eventually.

* — This is a very pedantic stickler point, but one that nonetheless demands clarity. Reagan raised taxes twelve times during his administration. Frank is referring to the Tax Reform Act of 1986. But, to be clear, Stahl was specifically referring to Reagan’s 1982 tax increase in the 60 Minutes segment.

** — Another highly pedantic (and perhaps needless) stickler point. Reagan used “compromise” as a noun, not as a verb: “Make no mistake about it, this whole package is a compromise.” And while Reagan’s specific words convey the same point (indeed more definitively with a noun), it is important to remain committed to painstaking accuracy — especially when the corresponding approach being discussed over the hour involves how political parties cleave to mythology.

The Bat Segundo Show #428: Thomas Frank (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Dennis Cooper

Dennis Cooper appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #425. He is most recently the author of The Marbled Swarm.

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Subjects Discussed: Cannibalism, worming, BDSM, “industriously garbled syntax,” reconciling confusion within literature, being a Francophile, Rimbaud, irritating certain readers, attempts to tame language, Alain Robbe-Grillet, de Sade, Cooper’s efforts to disguise his own voice, violent metaphors as a writing strategy, shock value, listening to other people, garbage languages and British dialect, rereading The Marbled Swarm and a universal explanation, confusion as the new literary strategy, Occupy Wall Street, expanding space within literary space, tight jeans, red herrings, the truth offered by the protagonist, 21st century literature and longueurs, Blake Butler and the HTML Giant crowd, David Lynch, Enter the Void, humor as an entry point for experimental writing, violence in contemporary fiction, raw first drafts, constructing a voice with every book, the difficulties of not being clever all the time, secret tunnels and connections, hostility towards anime, technology and keeping up with youth culture, The Sluts, clarifying relationships between the unnamed protagonist in The Marbled Swarm and George Miles, Joshua Cohen’s review of The Marbled Swarm, the future of transgressive fiction, whether Beckett and Joyce can be deviant in the 21st century, Lars von Trier, William Burroughs, reading as a more specialized pastime, Little Caesar, whether punk can be applied to today’s literary culture, Tao Lin, contemporary experimental writers, MFA students, revolution, the absence of sincerity in today’s age, the dilemma of ignoring sophistication, emo culture, whether or not mainstream culture matters, definitions of “cult writer,” Dancing with the Stars, outsiders who are actually insiders, Harper Perennial, Shane Jones, Amelia Gray, being disliked, receiving death threats, comparing reactions to literature over the past few decades, being excluded vs. not caring, the luck of having a following, and whether a young Dennis Cooper could flourish today.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Let’s start with cannibalism. I think that’s a very good place to start. I mean, this is not exactly a subject in which one can find first-hand material in quite easily. So I’m wondering — sort of using this as a jumping point to talk about the overall violence in your work — how do you get that precision? Of biting into things?

Cooper: Well, you know, the Internet. Imagination. I did some research into it. I did a lot of research into it.

Correspondent: Such as?

Cooper: Oh, you know, there’s a lot of people who do it. (laughs) And actually there’s not only people who do it, but there’s these fetish sites where people advertise themselves as maybe interested in all sorts of things. And one of the fetishes is cannibalism. And I don’t think anybody ever does it. Because otherwise there’d be arrests all the time. But they’re very detailed about their fetishes. About the ones who want to eat and the ones who want to be eaten. It’s not a huge subculture, but it is there. And so I go that. And, you know, there’ve been guys throughout history who’ve done it. And then ultimately in the book, there really isn’t that much. He just talks about it all the time.

Correspondent: It’s a good litmus test as to whether one should carry on further. So you looked at underground websites?

Cooper: They’re not that underground.

Correspondent: Your IP must have been tracked while you were performing these searches.

Cooper: Well, they’re not that underground. There’s this site called Recon. Essentially it’s a master and slave site. Which is what it is. But there’s all kinds of subtext for people who like it. There’s weirder things than that. There are these guys who want to get wormed.

Correspondent: Oh.

Cooper: That’s the thing. They want to be wormed. It means having their arms and legs cut off — and live as a worm for their masters. So there’s stuff that’s weirder than cannibalism.

Correspondent: Wow. Worming. They actually do get wormed.

Cooper: Well, I don’t think anybody ever — I think it’s all…

Correspondent: Yeah. Sort of BDSM onto the next level.

Cooper: But they’re very serious about it. So yeah, those are all totally above board sites.

Correspondent: Above board. The “marbled swarm” in this book. It’s described as an “industriously garbled syntax,” a quote unquote — quote unquote appears quite a lot in the book — “exalted style of speaking” that the protagonist learns from his father and that becomes in his tongue “more of an atonal fussy bleat.” So you have this protagonist who is constantly alluding to hints of a deeper story throughout the text. But he’s also using language as an excuse for his behavior, his fantasies, and what not. He claims at one point, “My father used the marbled swarm to…well, I was going to say become a wealthy man, but to say he ruined would my life would be as accurate.” So the interesting thing about that is that the implication is that language — especially this stylized language — is really almost comparable to moral justification for why you had a shitty upbringing and the like. So I’m curious about this. Especially with most of the paragraphs beginning with “still comma.” There’s almost a comic formality about this reconciliation. I’m wondering how this patois developed and to what degree is this a response to reconciling confusion.

Cooper: Well, yeah, my books are in some fundamental way always about reconciling confusion. Because that’s of super interest to me. And language presents this idea that confusion can be corralled and all that stuff. And it can’t. And that tension does interest me. But how this happened? I don’t know. It took me a long time. I’m really slow and I do all these experiments. I test out things and try different forms and things. And it was a combination of living in France and not speaking French very well. And it was a very interesting thing to be on the Métro or whatever, and hearing people talk, and sort of understanding a little bit of what they’re saying. But not completely. And having to make it up or something and imagining. Because people always say that I romanticize French people enormously. Because I’m a huge Francophile. So when I’m on the subway with these people. And I imagine them talking about Rimbaud or something. And, of course, they’re talking about their laundry or whatever. So that begin to interest me. That I do that. So that started the idea of trying to create that in fiction. And I had usually written in a spare way. But I wanted to make it really, really dense so it would really multitask. Because I like things to be really layered and experimental. And so I tried to find this voice that was really, really dense and could do a whole bunch of stuff at once, and just fiddled around until that one came up. And then I had to figure out — because it’s really limited in what it can do. Its tone is really particular. And it’s really irritating. And so then it was just a matter of how fast will the pace be. Because will people not get too sick of this guy? And he can be kind of funny. But he can be really sincere, but only in a certain way.

Correspondent: Yeah. Did you actually end up speaking like this character during the course of your writing?

Cooper: No, no, no.

Correspondent: I mean, certainly I’m listening to you now and you don’t sound anything like that.

Cooper: No. I have to do readings now and it sounds so awful. (laughs)

Correspondent: Did you read any of it aloud to make sure that it could be plausible or anything like that?

Cooper: No. It all worked in my head like that.

Correspondent: Well, you mentioned this voice being irritating and slowing things down. And I’m wondering. Your books do have a tendency to irritate some people. Especially the mainstream. So how much irritation is enough in your fiction?

Cooper: It has to be really balanced out. I mean, I always feel like I have to do something formally or stylistically or structurally to justify that stuff. Because I’m not interested in — there’s this idea that — not just me, but other writers who do stuff like me are out to shock and all this. And it’s so not true. It’s completely the opposite. It’s like: How can you use really aggressive language like that and not be shocking? That’s my interest. Cause it’s such amazing language and it’s very emotional and it’s very pure. If you take that away, if you start treating it like a horror movie, or if you start doing this psychoanalytical kind of thing about what the motivations are behind that stuff, you really lose the powers. I wrote that power and I want to try and tame it or something. So I don’t know. It’s always tricky. With this book, there’s not as much violence in it. And the language like — so when you get to the part, there’s one part that’s really kind of intense. And I’m hoping that the language, you’re so involved with the language in a pleasurable — like it’s funny or something — that that’s kind of the barrier.

Correspondent: Well, you mentioned taming the language. Can your type of language ever be entirely tamed? Especially this moment that we’re alluding to about, I think, 120 pages in the book. You know, I found parts of that both funny and vaguely horrifying. But the funny to my mind outweighed the horrifying. Maybe I’m just warped.

Cooper: Well, yeah. You can only do so much. And I try different strategies at different times in different books and things. And this one, you get used to how he’s circumventing everything and subverting everything and doing everything. And he uses metaphor all the time. So that when he gets to the scene, it’s really totally metaphoric. When something violent happens, he’ll reference like an alligator or something. So that’s just my strategy. And it isn’t going to prevent people from being shocked. But with this book, you have to really be looking for it. Because it’s not as aggressive as in my other books.

Correspondent: That’s true. I’m wondering if you looked to any specific types of people to get the marbled swarm of this book. Or the “garbled marbled swarm.” Did you listen to a specific type of affluent wanker? Or what?

Cooper: It’s a little bit like the sound of French literature. Or certain kinds of French literature. I mean, there’s a little bit of that. Like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Sade and some of the writers who were important to me. And then my own voice. I mean, it’s basically me disguising my own voice. So a lot of it is just my usual stuff. I mean, the sentences are much more complicated than my usual sentences. But it’s all basically my voice. It was just more like trying to keep it sounding foreign and maybe be kind of French, but also having this weird American stuff thrown into it. And so it was kind of like a garbage language. I mean, the thing, it sounds British.

The Bat Segundo Show #425: Dennis Cooper (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Charles Yu

Charles Yu appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #424. He is most recently the author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Saying goodbye before saying hello.

Author: Charles Yu

Subjects Discussed: Accusations of egomania, Abbott and Costello, the real Charles Yu vs. the fictive Charles Yu, writing a novel in a nonlinear fashion, how time travel encourages emotional truth, father-son bonding experiences, viewing your own memory as a bystander, freedom of movement within text, skimming vs. careful reading, intense reading experiences, Finnegans Wake and recursive reading, David Foster Wallace, Faulkner, lack of concentration and the Internet, Dan O’Bannon, Red Dwarf, working stiff protagonists, schlubbiness, inner worlds and inner schlubs, gazes and looks within fiction, non-conflict conflict, drawbacks within time travel novels and extended meditation, diagrams contained within the middle of books, loneliness and sexbots, genre and MacGuffins, sticking with skeletal plot no matter what, gobbledygook and cryogenics, Richard Feynman, legitimate and illegitimate research into quantum mechanical texts, the appeal of language vs. the appeal of ideas, the fun tone of fake science, “Problems for Self-Study” (PDF) as a precursor for How to Live Safely, schematics as the genesis for finished fiction, smudging a list and Silly Putty, not laughing at one’s own comic writing, the funny qualities of email vs. fiction, Twitter, Moisture Man, schlubbiness vs. Asimov’s robotics, Phil the Computer Program, crushing the sentient feelings of computers in the future, reconstructing individual AI personalities from Twitter feeds, personality algorithms generated from books, books as simulacrums of consciousness, fakery injected into fakery, stories that are told in other voices, the use of hypothetical robots within fiction, fakery used to aid the idea of conflict, tangible boxes that have levers and stuff, and projections of machinery.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Yu: I think schlubbiness is my default protagonist, unfortunately.

Correspondent: Oh yeah?

Yu: Yeah. I’ve yet to write — and lots of people have pointed it out, but really now it’s coming into focus. Because I realize how much I kind of schlub it up when I start designing. Not designing. But that’s how they come out. Maybe it’s a reflection of my inner schlub that I don’t know how to create a dashing hero yet.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Yu: I want to.

Correspondent: You’ve made attempts? (laughs)

Yu: I’ve probably made some half-hearted attempts. But I’m going to try harder to make a non-schlub protagonist. Because I want to try something different. I think it’s partly a reflection of just the worlds too that these guys live in — and so far they have been guys. That they’re sort of slightly broken, damaged worlds in the stories I’ve written too, for the most part. So they fit into that, I guess.

Correspondent: Inner worlds create inner schlubs.

Yu: (laughs)

Correspondent: So you’re saying that the schlubbiness is dictated more by the worldbuilding that you’re undergoing in a short story or a novel. Or the fact that you can be more, I suppose, confidently schlubby on paper as opposed to life.

Yu: No, I think the worlds make the schlub. And I think there’s a bit of a change in the Charles Yu character. I think he tries to stop being such a depressed navel gazer and look forward a bit. I mean, I don’t mean to spoil anything for people who haven’t read it and want to read it. But it also seems easier for me to see the change that I want to have in the character. Or to start with somebody who’s really sort of broken. And have them find some measure of some resolution or something.

Correspondent: Well, on that subject of something else being in plain sight — no pun intended for the next question, which is rather elaborate — in describing a sexbot, you write, “Something about the look in her eyes gets me, even though I know they aren’t really eyes.” When an older Charles observes a younger ten-year-old Charles and his father, you write, “And it looks as if they are staring, not through me, but right back at me, and with their minds immersed in the theory of time travel and their eyes fixed on the future.” Late in the book, when Charles Yu faces a serious existential crisis and contemplates several options, he has one choice. “Nor can I change the path of my body, the words from my lips, not even the focus of my eyes.” So it’s interesting to me that Charles Yu — in the book, not you — is just as aware of these fixed looks and staring into these windows of the soul and he can’t quite connect through the space-time continuum and through the act of writing. So I’m curious where this interest in eyes came about. Was this a way of informing the reader on what Charles Yu is missing out on? These recurring stares? This recurring communication with souls and the like?

Yu: Yeah, that was an elaborate question. So I’m going to try and give an appropriately elaborate answer.

Correspondent: Fantastic.

Yu: It only seems right to do justice for that question. Because I think you’ve put your finger on something I was trying to get out. Which is this kind of feeling of missed connection across time. And yet when Father and Mother are gazing toward the future, or Charles is looking at something, can sometimes sense something in the room, it’s this idea that now that future Charles is in that room looking back, maybe the first time around you feel the future there too. And that’s what you’re looking at. But you can’t connect. As you pointed out, you’re not directly looking at it. But there’s a sense in which what’s going to happen is already in the room with you and you can feel it there. You can’t see it yet. And then in the past, you can see it now. But you can’t change anything about it. And that also, in terms of narrative mechanics, there is some squiahiness to my sci-fi here. It’s not hard at all.

Correspondent: Squishy and schlubby. This is great.

Yu: That’s right. Yeah. Not hard sci-fi. Squishy, schlubby, mushy sci-fi.

Correspondent: It was never on the jacket copy though.

Yu: (laughs) But the one constraint I wanted to have in there. And I won’t pretend to know whether or not I ever violated it. But I think I said as a rule that you can’t change the past. And if you do, you shoot off into an alternate reality. But here’s where the sort of paradox comes in. You can’t — like the Charles when he realizes he’s caught in his time loop, if he wants to stay within his chronology, he can’t say or do anything different. And he can’t even look in a different place. But he can think something different. So I’m drawing what I understand is an artificial distinction between thinking and doing. But that was sort of where that comes from. It’s that even if my eyes — you know, everything I do is exactly the same as the first time down to where I’m looking. I have the tiny degree of freedom of changing how I feel about the same experience. Therein sort of lies the difference where he goes through this for the second time, basically.

Correspondent: Any alteration in the time stream causes the protagonist Charles Yu to not be able to see or to interact. Which is a really bummer offshoot of any of his decisions. Even a stray drift from this prevents him from doing anything. That’s quite a high wire act you set for yourself as a writer. How do you generate conflict if you have a protagonist who is incapable of doing what most humans are doing? When his pro-active decisions create this mess?

Yu: Right. That was a problem. It really was. And I’m not sure I surmounted that problem. I think if I were to judge by some of the responses I’ve gotten, some people have said, “Not enough conflict in this book.” And I think that’s a fair statement. And what conflict there is is necessarily pretty internal. One drawback for having a time loop novel and one in which the form of time travel requires you cannot change anything.

Correspondent: Was this form of non-conflict conflict the best way for you to explore these issues of memory and consciousness and choice and loneliness? That that was really the only comfortable or reader-accessible way for you to tackle these issues?

Yu: I think so. It’s the only way I could figure out how. I mean, I wanted it to be sort of an extended meditation on something. And that doesn’t make it sound terribly attractive when you’re thinking of reading and writing a book that’s going to last for a couple hundred pages at least on a meditation. But it was, to me, the only form that — it just kind of grew out of what I was writing about. For better or worse. So I was like, “Well, this is going to be the plot.” And as you know, there’s that diagram in the middle of the book, which sort of gives you the plot points. And there aren’t many of them But that’s what I did pretty early, like very early I drew that. And I said I’m going to stick to this. Because this will keep me from getting lost and violating the rules I’ve set up. And keep me focused on exploring the ideas of consciousness and memory that you pointed out.

The Bat Segundo Show #424: Charles Yu (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Wayne Koestenbaum

Wayne Koestenbaum appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #423. He is most recently the author of Humiliation.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Fully considering the witnesses.

Author: Wayne Koestenbaum

Subjects Discussed: Whether a deliberate slander of a surname is a humiliation, the three components of humiliation (victim, abuser, and witness), the differences between recorded humiliation and experiential humiliation, spectacles of martyrdom, preexisting humiliation and statutes of limitation, edicts of instantaneous revocation, Koestenbaum’s use of triangles to uphold book concepts, itemizing shameful personal anecdotes, self-excavation as a writer, the pleasure of sentence making, being eons away from publication, rousing one’s self from stupor through stimulated memories, glimmerings that regurgitate and abreact, Koestenbaum’s obsession with a paddled third-grader, shifting personal anecdotes around to serve the narrative and whether this cheapens it, life as an experience of first times, Freud’s cathexis, cheapening vs. coarsening, what Koestenbaum doesn’t write about, Koestenbaum’s uncertainty in knowing whether or not he humiliates his own parents, growing up in a family where disclosure is normal, observing a large woman who urinates in the middle of a sidewalk, Edith Massey, Female Trouble, parodying Russ Meyer, John Waters as instigator of a cinematic spectacle, being simultaneously atrocious and radiant, Divine, fecal doppelgangers, honesty vs. humiliation, displaying one’s body, David Foster Wallace’s “Big Red Son,” the genuine facial expression of a person in orgasm, Anita Bryant being pied, pornography and humiliation, seeing the malevolent as human, the draw of Liza Minnelli videos, the human duty to understand multiple perspectives, an artificially polarized theater of affect, Freud and children getting beaten, being kind to the humiliated, finding Alec Baldwin sexually attractive, Alec Baldwin as a macho ego ideal, rejecting tabloid culture, the scapegoating culture, the London riots, privileged humiliation, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, the Jim Crow gaze, Abu Ghraib, Michael Jackson, whether Osama bin Laden was humiliated because America withheld the photo, Annie Leibovitz taking photos of Susan Sontag’s corpse, David Rieff, respecting evil historical figures, whether Shakespeare humiliated language, Basquiat striking out words in his paintings, Finnegans Wake, humiliation vs. a sense of wonder, radical muscularity within language, “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang,” logocide, writing with physical pleasure, humiliation vs. sorting out thoughts, critiquing the sign system of American power, writing on paintings, wrongness as the new gold standard, Gertrude Stein, “maltitude,” well-done violent movies, John Woo, major human dynamics at stake, behavioral options when responding to assholes, Eleanor Roosevelt’s “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent” maxim, humiliation and consent, Freud’s anti-Semitic experiences, writerly failure, vengeance, TC Boyle’s “Bury your enemies,” and aggression in writing.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: In “Catheter,” you write at the end, “I have a noble aim: to urge you to be kind when you see someone humiliated, even if you think that the shamed person deserves punishment.” When you find someone like Alec Baldwin sexually attractive and, in your own words, “wondering why I agree to occupy this role rather than refuse it by vowing to ignore the tabloid trade of trashing the stars,” I’m wondering if you are being kind to Alec Baldwin. If you don’t know the figure who is being humiliated, if you’ve never met them, can you always be kind? I’m curious about this.

Koestenbaum: You mean, is that like the tree falling in the forest thing? Like if I’m kind to Alec Baldwin by not reading a scandalous story about him, how will he know I’m being kind?

Correspondent: That, and also this compelling allure of participating in that culture. I mean, when that whole thing came out, I heard about it from friends. But I made a conscious choice not to participate in it. Because I just felt that it wasn’t worth my time. I’m only getting one side of the story. I don’t know Alec Baldwin. I like him as an actor, but, you know, what business is it of mine? You know what I mean? So as a result, it seems to me that you’re finding or you’re vacillating with “Should I participate?” To be or not to be.

Koestenbaum: Right. Okay, I will say that I totally get your point. That you’re talking about the kind of conscientious objection to or an abstaining from the gladiatorial carnival of consuming celebrity carrion.

Correspondent: Absolutely.

Koestenbaum: And I understand that. I would say that in my life, I have made a few golden exceptions to that rule because of deep libidinal and imaginative connections that I had. And so for example, having written a whole book about Jackie Onassis, that’s a case where I flagrantly did not abstain from the national profession of consuming images of Jackie. I indulged it. But that’s because I had deep unconscious motives. And I felt that much for me was personally at stake in pursuing that obsession. In the case that you’re mentioning, where you like Alec Baldwin as an actor but you don’t have strong feelings about him, it’s not a difficult thing for you to abstain. For me, like Alec Baldwin, I didn’t consume it as deeply originally as I did when I decided to write about it. But I do have a kind of long-standing crush on Alec Baldwin. I’ve interviewed him. I wrote about him in my book Cleavage a little. “My Evening with Alec Baldwin.” We’re the same age. He is a kind of weird hectoring ego ideal — hectoring isn’t the right word. I mean, he seems like a kind of bossy guy. He’s a kind of macho ego ideal for me. So I have — he’s a — I agreed, agree I have cast him in my drama, but, yeah, I’m using him as a teaching point.

Correspondent: But how can you be kind? I mean, I think you nailed it on the head there by pointing out and being fully candid about the fact that there’s an allure there. There’s a sexual attraction there. He forms an imaginary impulse for all sorts of things in your mind. Which is perfectly fine and that’s completely understandable. But at the same time, can you also be kind when you have that going on as well? It’s almost as if this is another instigation point for humiliation.

Koestenbaum; Right. No, no, no, I will say then that, toward Alec Baldwin, perhaps I have not been supremely kind. But I’m not alone. And I would like to think — maybe I’m dreaming — I would like to think that I’m placing the whole Alec Baldwin crease within a really large cultural context of these kinds of spectacles. And I’m reviewing, I’m saying on the one hand I get a sort of sadistic erotic relish from this. And then on the other hand, I wish to abstain from the process of scapegoating others. I’m never saying he’s a bad father. There’s never a moment where I pass judgment on him. I’m commenting instead on his use of the word “humiliating” in the thing to his daughter. It’s hard for me to really explain this, except to say that I’m not making judgments about Alec Baldwin. I’m making judgment about the star culture and the culture of scapegoating.

Correspondent: It can be argued that the London riots, which occurred a few days ago at the time of this conversation, that they arose because you have the poor, the young, the disenfranchised given no choice. Essentially they are humiliated. Thus, you have revolt from humiliation. You touch upon this very early in the book where you deal with revolt, activism, and uprising as a response to humiliation. You conclude that, “Choosing homicidal martyrdom as a response to historical humiliation, I become a suicide bomber.” What of this space in between which causes riots? Very often you have no progress but more of the same. How do you reconcile? What we’ve been talking about here is essentially privileged humiliation vs. an unprivileged humiliation in which it’s unrest or activism.

Koestenbaum: That’s a really — I mean, I don’t have profound or definitive things to say. That’s a moral conundrum for deeper minds than mine. Honestly. But in a way, it’s the question of a justified violence or of revolution, a violent revolution. And when it’s justified or it’s not. And who is to decide when it’s justified. That’s a big question. And I think it’s — I want to say case by case. I would hesitate to make any generalizations about revolution. I think I talk about what I call the Rosa Parks principle, where humiliation leads to uprising and activism or Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth. But let’s just call it the suicide bomber or the terrorist question. I don’t want to say pro-terrorist things. Because I don’t really feel very pro-terrorist.

Correspondent: But you are willing to confront what you call the Jim Crow gaze. That look where someone looks at another person as if there is nothing there. Complete invisibility. Entirely because of race and also often because of class or because of sexual orientation or what have you. It seems to me that this willingness on your part to tackle this difficult question doesn’t necessarily make your views on humiliation legitimate or transferable from this place of privilege and this place of media obsession to this really stark territory of “How do I get by when I don’t have any options on the streets?”

Koestenbaum: Right.

Correspondent: No thoughts in terms of the Jim Crow gaze in comparison to the Alec Baldwin stuff we were talking about before?

Koestenbaum: It’s a really — I mean, I talk about both things in the book. Because it seems that with the title and a subject like humiliation, I have a feeling I don’t want to write a book just about the Alec Baldwin things. That’s only one question that interests me. And I was just as much motivated to write this book by the Abu Ghraib things. But as I say, very honestly, there were three catalysts: Clinton, Michael Jackson, and Abu Ghraib. They have very little to do with each other. But there is a kind of spectrum where all three instances involve the United States, power, scandal, and sex. Or the sexualizing of — I don’t know. I don’t want to say glib or wrong things.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Koestenbaum: I try in this book through the use of these numbered fragments to keep as separate as possible some of these kinds of instances for exactly what you’re suggesting. That it’s not possible to map what you’re calling “privileged humiliations” or, as I describe on my own, having had a relatively humiliation-free and lucky life, nonetheless I could go into this litany of my humiliations. I don’t want to say that all suffering is the same.

Correspondent: Life is not a comparison of horrors. That kind of thing.

Koestenbaum: No.

Correspondent: Well, let me try to get on this from another angle. You had mentioned very early on — and I was actually going to bring this up too — the photos that Annie Leibovitz took of Susan Sontag. The Osama bin Laden execution. There was no photo of a dead body. Saddam Hussein’s execution, we do get to see him. Now you write of Leibovitz taking photos of Sontag’s corpse, as we said earlier, quoting David Rieff, who said that she was humiliated posthumously. So the question is, if one doesn’t have the choice of seeing the photos, is it still possible to humiliate the object or the person? Was the decision, for example, to not release the Osama photos a more respectful choice? Or was it possibly something — by not giving Americans the option to humiliate or to not humiliate, maybe it was almost a dishonest choice. What do you think about that?

Koestenbaum: Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to chicken out of a question But I can’t. I don’t know — do I really want to talk about the Osama bin Laden photos? It feels way beyond what I can speak about responsibly in a way.

Correspondent: Even if you were also simultaneously asking us to feel kindness for those who are absolutely terrible as well.

Koestenbaum: Yeah. I mean, the only reason I say I don’t want to — it just seems — just because I wrote this book, it doesn’t mean I feel that I’m an expert on the world’s atrocities or am some extraordinary moral barometer in a way. The question has a lot of responsibility tied into it. As if because I mentioned the Susan Sontag photos in the book, I’m automatically going to have an opinion about the Osama bin Laden photos. Which I don’t. I mean, basically, I don’t have a stand about “Yes, release all photos” or “No, don’t release all photos.” Maybe I don’t understand your question.

Correspondent: Maybe the direct question to ask you is: Is Osama worthy of the same respect if someone is being humiliated as David Rieff suggested of Sontag?

Koestenbaum: Well, is that then the question of, like, “Is it possible to imagine Hitler had a mother and that she loved him?” And that’s again a question way too complicated to know the answer to. Is it possible to include in the human family some of the worst people? And I do say in the book that when I imagine or see a serial killer led to his execution, whimpering, I feel clemency rise within me. Yeah, I have that impulse. I bet you do too, if you’re asking the question. Yeah, I do have that impulse.

The Bat Segundo Show #423: Wayne Koestenbaum (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Alan Hollinghurst

Alan Hollinghurst appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #422. He is most recently the author of The Stranger’s Child.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering a new career that has nothing to do with literary biography.

Author: Alan Hollinghurst

Subjects Discussed: Ivy Compton-Burnett, attention to character panoramas in 21st century literature, the appeal of huge gaps in the narrative, Alice Munro’s Runaway, how Hollinghurst decides which characters get to pop up later, Chekhov’s gun, characters who have affairs with the same man, factoring in the reader’s need to know, The Line of Beauty, Michael Apted’s Up series, unanticipated flourishes that run throughout different historical epochs, the 1967 Sexual Offenses Act, avoiding writing directly about the Great War, the dangers of too much research, the James Wood review, how a single verb choice can alter a sentence, “muddle,” the paucity of laughter verbs in English, our correspondent’s highly pedantic (and unsuccessful) attempt to pinpoint Hollinghurst’s affinity for verbs containing the letter U, Paul Bryant as one of the most compelling cases against literary biography and literary criticism, real world Paul Bryants, how minor biographies are often written by the wrong people, Ronald Firbank, obsessiveness as a character trait, media overexposure, being comfortable with the inevitability of obsolescence, fiction and posterity, Auden and biography, Mick Imlah’s “In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson,” legitimate literary biography, Michael Holroyd’s work on Lytton Strachey, Richard Ellmann’s Joyce bio, the fallibility of human memory, the corruption of poetry, the allure of the second-rate, life vs. art, having a vivid sense of someone over a weekend but not really knowing them, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, referential character names, why Hollinghurst couldn’t get through the whole of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, depicting older people, having a wide range of friends, The Swimming-Pool Library, relationships between young and old people, sticking with “said” in dialogue and appending description, Evelyn Waugh, dealing with idiosyncratic translations, the word “satiric” offered as a cue for later satirical exercises, loose environmental description, jostling characters around, class trappings, TS Eliot and PG Wodehouse’s past experience as bankers, growing up with a father who was a bank manager, and Hollinghurst’s novels increasingly moving further into the past.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: In the first section, we are informed that Cecil’s servant cleans his change. Later in the book, you have Paul Bryant, who I want to talk about quite a bit — he works in a bank and he washes the money smell off of his hands in the gent’s room. Then you give Cecil a very firm handshake. And then in the third part, you have Paul with his bandaged hand. So there are these interesting historical parallels, historical contrasts, that I detected. And I’m curious how many of these you calculated in the book.

Hollinghurst: Well, you’re a wonderfully observant reader, I must say. I hadn’t actually been struck by the fact of the bandaged hand and the firm handshake. Yes, a great deal has been made of Cecil’s hands being very large. He’s always climbing up mountains and rowing boats and things. And seducing people with them. I mean, one is always cleverer than one knows, of course.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Hollinghurst: (laughs) One’s unconscious is just happily seeding all sorts of little details of that kind, which I may not have actually calculated. It’s always very gratifying when they’re picked up by reviewers, if they were fully conscious. But truly they’re often not.

Correspondent: Well, I’m curious. The five part structure. To what extent was this motivated by knowing the characters in advance? Or did you just know the historical settings in advance?

Hollinghurst: Did I know when I started what the different periods were going to be?

Correspondent: Well, that, and also did, for example, considering the characters and how they would evolve determine when you set those particular parts?

Hollinghurst: Possibly, yes. I mean, the first and third sections in particular happened on the eve of very significant things for their lives. The first section is on the eve of the summer before the Great War. And the 1967 section happens just before the passing of the Sexual Offenses Bill in England, which decriminalized homosexuality or homosexual acts between two consenting adults in private.

Correspondent: And the course of your book is post-Wilde as well. So there you go.

Hollinghurst: Exactly. So those dates were both significant. Partly these gaps are a way of avoiding writing about things such as the Great War and so on. Which I knew I didn’t want to write about. And I know that what I always wanted to write about really was the more intimate lives of sometimes slightly strange people. Rather than large heavily researched panoramic sorts of things. You know, the Great War has been so wonderfully well written about by people who were in it and by people since. That’s just not the kind of writer I am, I think. But I like the idea of writing scenes that the reader would know what was overshadowed by historically imminent things.

Correspondent: But most importantly, it’s a very skillful way to avoid long years of research to these battles.

Hollinghurst: (laughs) Exactly.

Correspondent: I mean, most of these scenes — most of the settings are inside. And very often, we get these wonderful descriptions of architecture and the like. So I’m wondering if setting much of the novel indoors, in specific area, was a strategy to avoid perhaps this obsessiveness that would in fact go on to researching obscure details.

Hollinghurst: Yes. I think that may be right. There’s something defensively domestic about the whole scale of the book. I mean, it’s a large book in a way. It covers a long period. But I think it is domestic in scale.

Correspondent: This leads me to ask you about how often in your sentences a verb will transform something that is normal into something that becomes beautiful and intoxicating. One example. There’s one sentence where you have a servant pour soup into a bowl. And instead of saying “pour,” you use “swim.” And I became obsessed with this verb. How that one verb choice transforms the entire sentence. And it gives you this completely different look at an ordinary action. And this leads me to ask you. How much do you agonize over a verb choice? Like something like that.

Hollinghurst: I can’t remember that particular one. Well, I do write very, very slowly, as you probably realized. So I wouldn’t generally write more — you know, on a good day, two or three hundred words. It’s not quite agony. Because it’s actually very exciting and gratifying when it goes well. And as you say, when I surprise myself by a choice for a word. Which I think is probably an improvement on the obvious one.

Correspondent: Deliberation. Okay, so there’s this James Wood review in The New Yorker of your book. And I thought that it was a little on the silly side. Because he was going on about how you use the word “muddle” repeatedly. And I asked some friends, “Do you honestly are how often Hollinghurst uses muddle?” But this also leads me to ask you. I mean, when you have the entire book done, do you go through the entire manuscript hoping you don’t use the same word multiple times? Or is there a conscious choice to use a word like muddle? Or how much does this matter to you? I’m curious.

Hollinghurst: “Muddle” I was entirely conscious of. Yes. So it’s rather galling then to have it put back into something.

Correspondent: He had a list of all the sentences. I was like, “What?”

Hollinghurst: Yes. It was ridiculous. The schoolmaster like had a finger wagging. Yes, I think it’s very interesting. I think each stage — because I write things in longhand in the first place. And then I put onto them and print them out. And then they go into the proof. But at each stage, new things rise to the surface. And you’re aware of new patterns.

Correspondent: Such as what?

Hollinghurst: Recurrences of words. I mean, the first time I printed this out and it was read — I mean, I wasn’t aware of it. But a great friend of mine noted the word “chuckle.” “Frown” and “chuckle” appeared and alternated. Sometimes people frowning and chuckling even at the same time. So I had to go through. There’s a terrible paucity of laughter verbs in English. I mean, “chuckle” doesn’t really have an easy equivalent. And I think I perhaps replaced one or two of them with “giggle.” And then I had to do a “giggle” purge as well. I think there are things that one is not quite in control of. But “muddle” was a word I was very consciously using. Because in a way, it’s what the whole book is about. “Muddle” is also consciously Forsterian.

The Bat Segundo Show #422: Alan Hollinghurst (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #415. She is most recently the author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering an alternative timeline with the golden retriever rising as the heroic dog of choice.

Author: Susan Orlean

Subjects Discussed: Rin Tin Tin references in Finnegans Wake, Rinty’s indefinable charm, Jack London, dogs in World War I, the state of marketing in different time periods, flawed people and dog heroes in early animal films, soldiers reading poetry, mass cultural mediums and heroic animal images, emotional connections with animals, Burt Leonard’s desperate efforts to revive Rin Tin Tin, Paul Klein impersonating Lee Aaker at conventions, Rin Tin Tin as the blank slate for the American obsession, Strongheart, Rinty’s durability as an American icon, devotion to dogs, a tense 1955 photo shoot with Lassie and Rin Tin Tin appearing on the cover of TV Guide, fierce competition between Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, having “bitten exclusively” written into a contract, Daphne Hereford and Rinty’s obsessive defenders, sinking one’s savings into battling intellectual property law, the perils and nature of giving into passion, knowing Lee Duncan through records, going through a dead man’s ATM slips, respect and “intimate eavesdropping” into subjects, occupational hazards in quirky journalism, cultivating trust with subjects, the bigness of passion, avoiding Rin Tin Tin overload, the rising population of German Shepherds in the 20th century, whether Rinty was bad in any way for history, the rise of fascism, and contrary images that meet on the battlefield.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to start off with something unusual. I had found this accidentally. Because I started to read Finnegans Wake a month ago. I’m now on Page 20. But on Page 12, I was very happy to find this. There is this passage: “She knows her knight’s duty while Luntum sleeps. Did ye save any tin? says he.” Now this comes after Joyce has laid down all sorts of Germanic references. And of course, While London Sleeps? Rin Tin Tin film.

Orlean: Right.

Correspondent: So this seems as good a pretext as any to ask, well, if Rin Tin Tin got the approval of James Joyce, what accounts for his appeal? What accounts for his enduring popularity? What is the ultimate quality of Mr. Rinty here?

Orlean: You know, I think, in a way, that you can’t quite answer that is the answer. There’s a kind of charisma that certainly the first Rin Tin Tin had, but also this symbol of a dog, which is a dog who is brave and true and loyal and heroic. That resonates with people. He embodied it — especially the first Rin Tin Tin — so well that I think it touched something that was already there. The desire to have a superhero who was credible and not some comic book figure, but actually something real.

Correspondent: Krypto before Krypto.

Orlean: Yeah.

Correspondent: A superdog to match a superman.

Orlean: Exactly. I also think that, if you could say what it is that makes something endure, you’ve ruined it in a way. That there is something mysterious and wonderful about something that connects something with so many people and that lasts for so long, that shouldn’t be something you could put in words. I think that it defines itself by being something emotional that you feel and that you respond to. That can’t quite be described.

Correspondent: Well, I want to point out something you mentioned in the book. You point out that in the 19th century, dogs had only been recently domesticated. They were considered to have deep feelings. They were capable of expressing their emotions more than humans. Now I should point out that Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and White Fang — well, this was only fifteen years before the Rin Tin Tin film. I’m wondering. How did World War I, I suppose, tilt this fixation from dogs as emotional beings to this heroic quality that we’re talking about? Was hero worship the next inevitable stage in the evolution of this man-dog perception situation?

Orlean: Well, for one thing, there were so many dogs in the war. People in World War I saw dogs performing heroically. When you think of a battlefield and dogs being brave and being companionable and working hard, which they did, and maybe not showing as much fear as a soldier might — because dogs don’t have the apprehension of death or the worry of mortality the way people do. So they have the chance to be brave in a way people can’t. So there’s no question that seeing dogs and being alongside dogs in the war had a very huge impact on their perception. I mean, there were tens of thousands of dogs in World War I. So I imagine this entire generation of soldiers coming back, filled with awe. It was also a time where dogs were working not as our servants — the way they might have on a farm or a ranch, but as equals pretty much. I mean, dogs were in the trenches with soldiers. So the feeling that they were our partners almost more than our possessions arose during that time.

Correspondent: Well, you mention this move toward the cities.

Orlean: Right.

Correspondent: That’s still ongoing even in our time. It’s interesting to me that we went from dogs being perceived as “Well, let’s figure out when they’re domesticated, when they come from the wild, and vice versa.” Those two Jack London novels. And then you have this situation when suddenly they’re fighting wars with us.

Orlean: Right.

Correspondent: I’m wondering what it is about that turns a dog into a hero as opposed to some emotional being or tapping into some sort of primordial instinct or what not. Do you think that the original folks — Lee Duncan and company — sort of knew that they had to push the dog thing further?

Orlean: I think what Lee did was totally instinctual. I don’t think he was somebody who did a lot of strategizing and projecting forward what would be good. And, in fact, I think that’s part of what’s so touching about him. He seemed to be somebody who was really responding entirely out of this feeling of “I have this wonderful dog and I want you to appreciate how wonderful he is” rather than “Hmmm, I can make some money off of this if we write scripts that make him such and so.” Remember too that people consumed entertainment in an entirely different way in the ’20s. It wasn’t the juggernaut that it is today. You come up with a good character. You can then merchandise it and turn it into a multi-platform marketing device. It wasn’t like that. I think it was a simpler thing. How the idea of the heroic character evolved? Well, first of all, animals very often appeared in early literature as having heroic qualities that were selfless. I think selflessness is something that an animal can have more easily than a person.

Correspondent: Or it’s easier to understand altruism when it’s placed within an animal as opposed to a man.

Orlean: Exactly. And I think that it may seem a little funny to us now. But when you look at an animal doing something heroic, you don’t project a million things onto it. You don’t think “Oooh, he reminds me of my Uncle Milton who I didn’t like that much” or “I’m sick of this type of person always being the hero” or “She isn’t my race or gender or color” or whatever. A dog is something else. So you can look at it and admire it and maybe be in awe of it without bringing a lot of your own baggage to it. It’s not a person. You don’t look at it with the critical eye that you might look at a person with. So there’s a way that it’s easier to be thrilled by them and not have that reserve of thinking, “Oh, I don’t know.” I mean, it’s funny in those films. The early Rin Tin Tin films. The people are all so flawed. Each one of them has some terrible character flaw. Even the heroes among the humans have some — they’re either naive or they’re — they all fail. And whether that’s some aftermath of the war, in which people saw what terrible things people could do to each other. That feeling that human beings were deeply flawed. Maybe that’s what made a dog a hero that could be admired more freely and with less reservation.

The Bat Segundo Show #415: Susan Orlean (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Yannick Murphy III

Yannick Murphy recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #414. Her most recent novel is The Call. She has previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #158 and The Bat Segundo Show #41.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Terrified of picking up the telephone.

Author: Yannick Murphy

Subjects Discussed: Chatty people named Ed, imagining the proper format for an illusory veterinary log, husbands who claim prodigious memory, how little bits of anecdotes help fiction, the virtues of limitations and structure, the candor in Here They Come vs. the candor in The Call, seasonal cycles, working with editor Maya Ziv, how fiction can be inspired by thinking about things in a car, the national economical environment, sensing possibilities without having a sense of time, publishing a book as a paperback original instead of a hardcover, crackpots who telephone you at home, earning the right to know the name of the character, the unanticipated origin of fictional spacemen, being asked by Dave Eggers to contribute a “sci-fi story,” Kirk Maxey and sperm donors, inventing thoughts of mice, flies, and other animals, judgment in contemporary fiction, avoiding cliches while pursuing earnestness, independent will and work, balancing ambiguous and precise description to relay the observational spirit, injecting life into side characters, and characters who read within a novel.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I was really honored to identify with the Ed who likes to talk with people. I don’t know if I was possibly an inspiration. That might be presumptuous of me. But it was nice to see a very chatty Ed in your novel.

Murphy: Okay. Well, you might have been at the back of my mind, but…

Correspondent: The rearest. First off, I wanted to determine where the daily log format arose from. Call, Action, Results. This is what is the framework of the book. I’m wondering if you consulted specifically with log books — your husband is a veterinarian — and whether you scoured through that. Did you try varying formats before you found something that was just right? What of this?

Murphy: Well, I think the idea came from the fact that my husband doesn’t keep any call logs. And I’m always wondering why not. That would be something I would do. I would know who I visited on what date and what I did to actually treat that specific animal. And he says, “No. I don’t need that. I just remember this stuff. Or, if I don’t remember it, it really isn’t relative to the next case that the animal may have or that I’m treating the animal for.” So I think it arose out of my disbelief that he doesn’t have this kind of system.

Correspondent: How does he stay organized?

Murphy: He’s pretty organized.

Correspondent: Just no log.

Correspondent: He’s one of those people who remembers. And I always thought, “What if he had a call log? What would it look like?” Because it certainly wouldn’t look like what I think it should like. It probably would look more like the book, or how the book is written. Where it’s his ruminations on the world and ruminations on just driving around and who he meets. He loves to talk with people and he really has a knack with the New Englanders. Even though they tend to be stoic, he can draw out their life stories. So what I find really fascinating is when I go along with him on those visits and he engages people and gets them talking and it’s this kind of windfall for me. Because I get to hear their stories that I would never dare to ask. Because I’m more shy than he is.

Correspondent: Well, this leads me to ask two questions. But let’s talk about these stories. How many of these anecdotes did you make up? And how many of them came from your husband’s chronicles?

Murphy: Most of them came from his chronicles. Some were mixed up with others. I think very few I had to imagine completely. There was a little bit of inspiration behind all of them that was based on a real incident.

Correspondent: Yes. So having little bits of the story helped to have your imagination fire up and invent further?

Murphy: Right. Right.

Correspondent: Well, what about the actual log format itself? If you had no logs at home, did you consult any veterinarian associations? Other veterinarians?

Murphy: No. No. I just started writing. Okay, what is the reason the veterinarian is going out on the call? Well, I’ll call that THE CALL. And then, okay, ACTION. What did I do there? RESULT. How did that end up? And then when he would leave that particular farm, then it was what I saw on the drive home. WHAT THE WIFE COOKED FOR DINNER. So I was able to integrate his home life with his work life that way.

Correspondent: What’s interesting though is, as you read the book, you find that he isn’t able to compartmentalize as much as he thinks he can. I mean, we start to see that even though he starts to think of something, it then goes into describing the action. And what’s also interesting is that, when you have WHAT THE WIFE SAID, you often have him interjecting. It’s almost as if WHAT THE WIFE SAID is like an open quote with which to carry on here. And so I’m curious. To what degree were you conscious of this design? Or did this just happen through the course of a sentence in this book in the early draft?

Murphy: Well, I knew partway in — maybe a couple pages in — that the structure had to be a little more wieldy than what I had set up. I knew that I was going to run into trouble really fast and that I had to have as much fun with it as I could. So when you set up a structure like that, sometimes you can have a lot of freedom with it. Because you’re in the structure. So you can see where places are that you need to jump out of. It actually — for some reason having the imposition of a structure actually liberates my writing a lot more. So I know that as long as I stay within that framework, I can say anything I want to say. Which makes it a lot more fun.

The Bat Segundo Show #414: Yannick Murphy III (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Nick Broomfield

Nick Broomfield appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #413. He is most recently the co-director of Sarah Palin: You Betcha.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he has gone rogue or rouge.

Guest: Nick Broomfield

Subjects Discussed: Being attracted to conservative politicians with big hair, Christopher Hitchens’s sexual fantasies about Margaret Thatcher, Frederick Wiseman and Errol Morris, contending with publicists and press agents, Joe McGinniss’s The Rogue, Levi Johnston and Tank Jones, filming Daryl Gates accepting an interview fee on camera, the ethics of paying interview subjects, Broomfield’s amateurist aesthetic, the faux professionalism of film crews, Broomfield filming himself on the phone, Broomfield’s tendency to gravitate towards ad hominem, whether the possibility of Sarah Palin becoming President is a serious question, John Bitney, Steve Schmidt, campaign management of Palin, Broomfield doing less documentaries, the Kickstarter campaign for Sarah Palin: You Betcha, flipping between documentaries and narratives, wearing red flannel in Wasilla, JC McCavitt, the influence of Palin and the evangelical right in Wasilla, whether or not Wasilla reflects America, whether Broomfield is motivated by vengeance or retaliation, the chewing gum photo montage, balancing the visual details and the facts, collaborating with Joan Churchill, why Broomfield put himself in front of the camera after Lily Tomlin, claims of Lily Tomlin’s insecurity, the difficulty of filming Tomlin, why the construction of a documentary creates a more inclusive one, the dangers of moral labels, why people should trust Nick Broomfield, moral paralysis, subjective truth borne from a personal quest, embarrassing public questioning, Broomfield’s view of restraint as a weakness, hedge funds, getting investors to sign on for a Broomfield movie, working with non-actors, and the ever-shifting Broomfield paradigm.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Going back to Margaret Thatcher [Tracking Down Maggie], it seems to me that you have an especial interest in conservative politicians with very interesting hair-dos. What’s up with this particular commonality? I sense also a formalistic commonality as well with the chase for Maggie and the chase for Sarah here. What of this?

Broomfield: Well, in fact, I never thought of the similarity of the hair-dos. But now that you’ve pointed it out, it’s quite extraordinary.

Correspondent: Are you a man who likes big hair? You’re a Clintonian man?

Broomfield: I’m actually not a particularly big hair man. But when I was doing the Margaret Thatcher film, one of the people I interviewed was Christopher Hitchens.

Correspondent: Yes.

Broomfield: Who had a lot of almost sexual fantasies about Margaret Thatcher, which I hasten to add I never shared. But I noticed that a lot of people also have the same feelings about Sarah Palin.

Correspondent: Yes.

Broomfield: And, again, I’ve never succumbed to those kinds of thoughts with her. But I think that both women captured the imagination of a large part of the population. Probably also because they were women and they had a determination and a charm that was unexpected and was refreshing in its own way.

Correspondent: Yeah. Not attracted to Sarah sexually. But I also think to Fetishes and also to Heidi Fleiss; Hollywood Madam.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: It seems that there is also some sexual quality sometimes to some of your subjects. Especially women. Why do you think this is?

Broomfield: Well, I mean, I think as any full-blooded male once interested — I would apply it more to films like, yeah, Fetishes, Heidi Fleiss. I did a film, Chicken Ranch, in a legalized brothel in Nevada. Even someone like Aileen Wuornos was very interesting along those lines. Sexual lines. It’s funny. Just last week, I saw Fred Wiseman in Toronto. He’s just made a film. The Crazy Horse. A strip club. And before that, he did the ballet film. And I said, “Fred, do I get the sense of some kind of Fräulein in your work.” And he said, “I’d like to see what you’re doing when you’re 81 years old.”

Correspondent: Errol Morris’s Tabloid as well. While we’re on the subject.

Broomfield: Oh really?

Correspondent: Yeah, there you go.

Broomfield: What’s he just done?

Correspondent: He did Tabloid on the sex scandal. 1970s. So there we go.

Broomfield: There we go.

Correspondent: All you documentary filmmakers are turning into dirty old men.

Broomfield: Exactly. Exactly. Just give me a few more years and I’ll be completely there.

Correspondent: To get on a serious subject, since you had experienced difficulties in both Tracking Down Maggie and Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam when dealing with press agents and publicists, you had to know going into this one that you were probably not going to get a sitdown interview with Sarah Palin.

Broomfield: Well, I think that I always had the belief that I would get one probably. And it was only after we’d been there for about ten weeks — just before Christmas — that I really realized with that final phone call with Chuck Heath, the father, that I wasn’t going to get one. I don’t know that one would necessarily learn something devastatingly original with a sitdown interview with her. Because she’s done many interviews and nothing very revealing has come out. Generally, she’s revealing by omission. Which is: she doesn’t know something or she mispronounces a word or she is factually inaccurate or she gets things all confused. So she’s very revealing. Generally about lack of knowledge. She’s very unrevealing generally about herself and her upbringing and even her beliefs. I think she’s very guarded. For somebody who studied media at university, she is completely distrusting of the media and has more control probably over what she says and does than anybody. I mean, the only interview she does is with FOX Television, who she’s employed by. And obviously Facebook and Twitter. But I did think that as we were resident in Wasilla that maybe we would get a down moment with her that would at least be revealing of her — thank you (to barista) — of her family and her friends and the way she saw life around her or as part of the evangelical community. Which is really what Wasilla is.

Correspondent: Well, this is interesting because Joe McGinniss also has a book called The Rogue. And he managed to get more childhood friends to talk — anonymously in that book — and you had to go all the way to way to Alexandria to find someone who would talk with you. I’m curious…

Broomfield: Well, my sources were not talking anonymously. They were talking on camera. And I can back up all my various claims in the film. Whereas I think one of the problems in quoting undisclosed sources is that you cannot back up your claims. And you obviously can’t do that in a film.

Correspondent: I was curious. While we’re on the subject of interviews, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam has the famous moment where you’re showing Daryl Gates accept the cash.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: In this, you have one moment where you’re talking to Levi Johnston’s manager, Tank Jones, and you’re negotiating trying to interview him for $500. And I’m curious about this. Is this kind of thing ethical? I mean, why would it be ethical? And I’m wondering, when you do in fact pay someone for an interview, do you feel an obligation to feature that on screen? Has this always been the case for you? Have you paid other people?

Broomfield: What I think was interesting is that people like Levi Johnston basically live off — I introduce that segment in the film, saying that there’s an industry that’s grown up around Sarah Palin and people live from that industry. So that was an illustration of Levi Johnston basically — I mean, I think they were asking $20,000. So I think my derisory offer of $500 was more of a joke than anything else. But I think it’s very relevant to point out that there is a great deal of money in tabloid journalism and that people are paid to make contributions. I mean, I didn’t pay anyone in this film. But there have been other films, which you quite rightly pointed out. Like, for example, the Heidi Fleiss film, everybody expected to be paid.

Correspondent: Everybody in Heidi Fleiss pretty much got paid? Ms. Sellers and the like?

Broomfield: They all expected to be paid. I don’t know if they all got paid. But yes. And I think I make a big point of that in the film. I comment on how much money various people wanted. Like DarylGates. I think he wanted $2,000. $1,500 to take part.

Correspondent: But when you introduce money into the equation, doesn’t this affect what you’re going to be getting from your documentary subjects?

Broomfield: Well, I’m making a film about what is. And we live in a world that’s very commercial and a world that has to do with money. And as a documentary filmmaker, you’re reporting on that world. So if everyone wants money in that world, you report on that fact. And of course, that makes a difference. Yes.

Correspondent: What about this amateurist aesthetic that is often in your films? I think of the tape running out in Biggie and Tupac.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: And in this [Sarah Palin: You Betcha], your efforts to try and cross an iced lake or to try and negotiate ice in numerous ways. Or the hat trick in, of course, The Leader[, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife]. And all that.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: There’s a certain…

Broomfield: You’ve certainly done your homework here.

Correspondent: Well, I’m curious about why this exists. Are these deliberate moves on your part to either win over your subjects or win over the audience with a more amateurist approach that’s calculated? Or are these just mess ups on your part?

Broomfield: Well, I would argue that there’s sort of a faux professional approach with a lot of film crews. You know, when they climb back in the car and drive on to the next location, I’m sure they’re a whole lot of fun. And they crack a whole lot of jokes that are not in the film. But when they get the cameras out, they get the clipboards out, and they became these serious professionals. Which I think is a load of bullshit. I think it’s much better to reveal what it’s really like to be doing that film or what you really think or what the humor is, you know? Rather than having this — you know. I remember when I was working for television. I was working with a presenter. And the presenter was actually a very funny guy. And I remember we were making a film in a monastery. And he would get into all these arguments with the monks about whether God existed or how many angels he could get on a pin and all those classic debates. And he would always lose the arguments. Because the monks and the abbot and so on, that’s all they did. And they studied all the books. And they were really up on their theology and logic. And when I showed the film to the TV company, they were horrified. Because they said a professional reporter does not lose his way. Does not stumble over words. Doesn’t turn to the camera and say, “I’m stuck.” But of course, they do. And I think by including those kinds of things, you make a much more accurate portrait than if you leave them out. I think there’s a sort of faux professionalism that we’re surrounded by that is completely inaccurate.

Correspondent: But doesn’t your persona, your schtick, sometimes get in the way of the very subjects that you’re photographing. I mean, every time you make a telephone call in your movies, you’re always in a car.

Broomfield: Right.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering why you feel the need to film that as well. It’s almost as if you’re counting on the subject to say no.

Broomfield: Well, what…wha…I mean, I don’t really understand the point. I don’t know whether you’re saying that the phone calls are irrelevant or the fact that I’m in a car is irrelevant.

Correspondent: I’m trying to point out that you’re really trying to show yourself more than anything else.

The Bat Segundo Show #413: Nick Broomfield (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Alex Shakar

Alex Shakar appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #410. He is most recently the author of Lumanarium.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: In search of a zendo to teach him a few cheap tricks.

Author: Alex Shakar

Subjects Discussed: Splitting novelists into scientists and mystics, how location and characters transmute over multiple drafts, novelists who are prescient about their health, spirituality, writing about the unknowable, learning how to sit and breathe properly from a zendo, the visual look of sentences and paragraphs, how experience translates into words, the icons at the head of each section in this book, design elements, 9/11 fiction, catastrophic post-ironic fiction, culture that makes meaning of historical events, the time needed to process a fictive response to a specific time, not naming specific New York landmarks, walking, Zeckendorf Towers vs. Zeckendorf’s theorem, Brounian vs. Brownian motion, finding significance in character names, Vartan and avatars, crafting a novel with meaning and mystery in equal proportions, “The Year of Wonders,” the question of whether fiction can still be dangerous when corporations co-opt irony and social satire, David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram,” the gray areas within irony and sincerity, Richard Powers’s Plowing the Dark, conscious and subconscious literary influences, Middlemarch, Dostoevsky, humiliation in literature, devising a close third-person that is close to an unreliable first-person narrator, authenticity in narrative, the benefits of being horrified by surreal dreams, out-of-body experiences, the unusual sexual qualities of twin brothers, hostile T-shirts, President Bush and chimpanzees, adult characters who live with their parents, the boomerang generation, personal economic characteristics before the recession, thirtysomethings and Bildungsromans, 21st century fiction being identified as work trying to find the fresh and the human within the cold and the inhuman, novelists who don’t want to deal with cell phones, utopias and dystopias erected by novelists as a method of evading reality, faith in technology as a method of coping with the real, faith and atopia, and an approach to spirituality that is without belief.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to start off by discussing a recent essay you wrote for The Wall Street Journal in which you divided novelists into scientists and mystics. You suggested that the scientist is someone who prethinks the story and the mystic is someone who kind of goes along for the ride, flies by the seat of her pants — that the best novelist is somewhere in between. And I’m curious, since Luminarium took ten years for you to write and since you were dealing with multiple drafts, hundreds of pages — my question is how you could shift gears. Because I know, for example, the twin brother George was a later addition. So it’s almost like you’re going from Earth being the center of the universe to the sun being the center of the universe. How does this work for you?

Shakar: It just seems to be my process. Even for The Savage Girl, my last novel, it started off as a novel that took place in Austin, Texas, and it was about slackers hanging out and smoking cigarettes and then, over the drafts, everything changed. Including the protagonist. She wasn’t even in the first draft and then she came into subsequent drafts. The city changed to a fictional city built on a volcano. So there’s usually some core that stays the same and then everything changes around it. And in the case of Luminarium, George is, in a way, what I consider now to be pretty much the center of the book. He’s not the protagonist, but he’s what the whole story revolves around. I spent a long time. Draft after draft. And the book kept sucking. And I couldn’t really figure out why. It just felt like the the pieces just weren’t coming together. And I couldn’t get beneath the surface of the subject. And I had this idea for George earlier on. Or, at least, for a twin brother. It was in the back of my mind. And I kept saying, “Oh no. That’ll just complicate it even more. It’s such a complicated story. Why add another component to it?” But I was amazed, once I started going in that direction, how it actually allowed everything else to really snap together around it. It was like a new backbone and a new heart for the book. And so it was nice for me to see how it was evolving in that direction.

Correspondent: I’m wondering. I’m presuming [the other brother] Sam was there in the earlier drafts.

Shakar: Yes.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering if he was possibly an overstuffed character, that the “big ideas” that George brought to this company were there within Sam in an earlier draft. Or did you have such items as the tweezers, which seemed to reflect the twin theme that was going on, and the Narcissus idea — did it just need to be more explicit? Is this one of the reasons why George came to fruition?

Shakar: Yeah. I think so. I think it helped me just manifest and physicalize and emotionalize a lot of the stuff that was going on in the story. It felt for a long time that I was looking for something. I kept trying to figure out — I mean, the main problem was what sends Fred on this journey. And it’s a hell of a journey that he goes on. So it really took something to set him off on it without just making him seem like a navel gazing type. I mean, that was the way he seemed in the earlier drafts to me. And so I experimented with giving Fred different illnesses. I gave him a heart condition. And then after a couple months, I started getting chest pains. I had to check myself into the hospital. So luckily that plot element didn’t pan out anyway. (laughs)

Correspondent: You were prescient about your own health. My goodness!

Shakar: Yeah, I don’t know. The chicken or the egg.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, how do you determine what the right medical condition is? That’s an interesting question. I mean, clearly you don’t want to feel it. But perhaps it manifested in this unknown way. But how do you zero in on what seems to be right in this case?

Shakar: Yeah. Well, for Fred, it took externalizing it. It took giving him the brother. It was odd. Because the book is so much about selfhood and it’s so much about interiority that, at first, it seemed counterintuitive for me to give him the brother. But that actually helped manifest and externalize some of the stuff that was going on. So instead of talking to himself in his head all the time, he’s talking to George. And I think that really brings him down to earth in a way.

Correspondent: There are other Georges that are scattered throughout the book. I’m wondering if George the name was there before George the body, the comatose body in the hospital, was there.

Shakar: No. I don’t think so. I mean, I’m trying to remember if George Bush was…(laughs). Yeah, I think he was actually. That’s true. You’re right about that.

Correspondent: You told The New York Observer that you knew you wanted to write about spirituality, but that it took you a while to figure out that you didn’t understand it. Are the best fiction subjects those that are unknowable? At what point do you know in the writing that you really don’t know enough?

Shakar: Yeah. I wish I had figured that out sooner. But it took me about three or four years of work on the novel before I decided that I needed some hands-on experience. I had done a lot of reading before that point. And I was drawn to writing about mystics and contemplatives. And I saw that it was just something that wasn’t only for these people. It was something that seemed accessible for a human being. And so it was something that I wanted to go and try out. So I went to my neighborhood zendo. And I don’t know what I was expecting exactly. But I had a bunch of big questions on my mind. And the guy sat me down and, for an hour, just taught me how to breathe and how to sit. And these were things that I thought I knew how to do. So it was strange at first. But I stuck with it. I sat. I breathed. I counted to ten. So for the last five years, I’ve been doing it pretty regularly. Meditating. Going on retreats. I’ve found a lot of terrific things in it. And I think it helped me get a handle on the kinds of experiences that Fred was having. Or at least some of them. And it helped me feel like the material was my own a little bit more. And there’s a lot of elements of Zen which ended up coming into play in the book.

The Bat Segundo Show #410: Alex Shakar (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #409. She is most recently the author of Zoo City.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Avoiding roaming urban animals.

Author: Lauren Beukes

Subjects Discussed: Jet lags and hangovers, cultural references, I Can Haz Cheeseburger, whether or not books should be of their time, American Psycho and Phil Collins, violence and cheeseball songs, hyper-specific description, William Gibson, the influence of writing for animation, the differences in writing journalism, comics, and screenplays, considering the right level of detail, action scenes vs. dialogue, Hanna, implausible action movie scenes, getting the geography of an apartment block, the ability to get journalistic answers from people when you say you’re a novelist, magic and fantasy rooted in practical limitations and innate talent, Red, a personal belief system as a peer review process, Johannesburg’s geography, Nechama Brodie’s The Joburg Book, conversations with traditional healers, worldbuilding and getting the reader to believe, major clues hidden within conversation, bad worldbuilding involving two guys sitting in a bar, writing as a road trip, having a planned ending in advance, alligators, reclusive music industry producers who are in decline, establishing Zinzi’s streetcred, arriving at the right balance between ambiguity and just enough information, unreliable narrators, Melinda Ferguson’s Smacked, cinematography and photography references within Zoo City and Moxyland, similes throughout Zoo City, Raymond Chandler, phantasmagorical noir, Oryx and Crake, the problems of reading fiction while writing fiction, South African criminal slang, steering away from transcribed speech, The Wire, relying on other writers for certain chapters of Zoo City, conducting interviews with fictional characters, the problems with theories contradicting fictional worlds, being the “head writer” of your own novel, The Third Man, Paul Bowles, visual references, and internalizing influence.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Lauren, how are you doing?

Beukes: I’m very, very, very jetlagged. Thank you for asking.

Correspondent: Yes, well, I’m hungover as well. So I think it’s an equal playing field. I wanted to first of all start with the issue of cultural references. This book has quite a number of recent ones. “I can haz murder weapon.” I don’t think I’ve even seen “I can haz cheeseburger” in a novel ever. Lady Gaga: well that’s comparatively recent. The 419 scams. I’m curious. When you deploy a relatively recent cultural reference, you’re dealing with a two year lag time in terms of the book coming out. What do you do to make sure that it’s right? Or that it’s actually something that will possibly be tangible in a matter of years? Or do you have this virtue here, in this case, of a sideways universe, as it were? So that, as a result, whether a reference is dated or not, this is not so much a distinction or a problem.

Beukes: I never really worried about references dating the book. I think books are of their time and I think they should be. You know, when I was doing my masters in creative writing at the University of Cape Town, my lecturer said, “You absolutely should not put any contemporary references. Because it dates the book horribly.” You know, The Great Gatsby has dated horribly. American Psycho has dated horribly. And they still work. Because the story is compelling enough and it’s actually a really interesting snapshot of the time. So, you know what, I don’t care. I like to think that it dates it. The book is set in 2011 and those are the cultural references.

Correspondent: Interesting that you mention American Psycho. Because near the end, there’s a Phil Collins reference. So it leads me to wonder if that was a possible influence on getting that sort of juxtaposition of violence and cheeseball songs.

Beukes: Yeah. I don’t know if it was conscious. But it might have been something that I internalized. Yeah.

Correspondent: A two stroke gash across the face of a menacing street urchin. The Maltese’s car polished and waxed to within an inch of its warranty. This is hyperspecific, very measurement unit-like description. Which I like by the way. Reminiscent to some degree of William Gibson. However, at the same time, I know that you have also written for animation. And I’m curious if some of that animation writing background has affected your ability to describe things in this very ultra-precise matter. What of this?

Beukes: I think there are two influences on my writing. I’ve basically got three day jobs. I’ve been a journalist. I’ve been a TV scriptwriter. I’ve been a novelist. And now I’m doing comics as well. And all those different fields have very, very specific things to their discipline. The animation, you have to describe things very, very precisely. The same with comics. You have to absolutely describe the scene. You have to describe the emotion that the character is going through. Which means I sometimes pull funny faces in character, trying to figure out, “Oh, what does this sneerer actually look like? And how are they sneering?”

Correspondent: Do you take photographs of yourself?

Beukes: No, I don’t. That would just be silly. But I should set up a webcam and kind of do a live streaming thing where people can log in and laugh at me.

Correspondent: So you need to know the precise expression of what’s going down. And then you have the option to describe it in detail or not, whether for animation or for prose.

Beukes: Absolutely. But I think journalism also has a lot to do with it. The details of journalism. And I think details make a story. I mean, I’m lucky to do a lot of — not news journalism, but narrative journalism and investigative features in finding those telling details. So I think my eye for detail probably comes from there. And then also the specifics of having to write for animation and having to track things very, very clearly and stage manage very clearly for the animators.

Correspondent: Well, I mean, how much of this is an organic process? And how much of it is considering the right level of detail to communicate the right information to the reader?

Beukes: I think it’s pretty organic. I don’t think about it too much. Dialogue comes very easy. Actions scenes are really hard — they don’t come naturally to me. I really have to work on them.

Correspondent: Why are action scenes tougher than dialogue?

Beukes: I don’t know. I think because I really like talking. You know, I’m a talker, not a fighter. I think dialogue is so much a part of who we are. And I really like using the subtext in dialogue. And of course, that’s very, very strong in animation. I think it’s also I’m not a really big action movie fan. And action has a lot to do with movement. I really enjoyed Hanna recently. I thought the way they did the action in there was just intense and amazing and surprising. And you really felt it. So many action scenes — you know, the truck falls off the bridge and there are multiple explosions. And they’re just empty. So it’s really trying to write meaningful action.

Correspondent: Is fighting similar to gestures and facial expressions for you? Do you have to like roll on the ground to get a sense of how things are working out here?

Beukes: Uh…

Correspondent: Do you have a sparring partner?

Beukes: (laughs) No, no. I wish. I did a little bit of kickboxing, but that was years ago.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Beukes: I do sometimes act certain stuff up, but not fight scenes. But I will really think about the choreography. And I’ll spend a lot of time thinking about it.

The Bat Segundo Show #409: Lauren Beukes (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Dana Spiotta II

Dana Spiotta appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #408. She is most recently the author of Stone Arabia.

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Spiotta previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #28. This particular conversation was recorded before a packed audience at McNally Jackson on July 20, 2011. My thanks to Michele Filgate and Katie Monaghan for their help in organizing this event.

For additional details about Stone Arabia, please also see our 25,000 word roundtable discussion: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Confusing dendrites with dandruff.

Author: Dana Spiotta

Subjects Discussed: Impostors within fiction, people with secret lives, double lives and triple lives, maintaining truth in fiction while avoiding obvious tricks, the role of the obstinate artist, work created to protect one’s self, avoiding obvious dichotomy, artists with exclusive audiences, familial obligation, relating to a character as a responder, the youthful longing in experiencing music, working in the dark while also being somewhat familiar with something, starting with a subject that you don’t really understand, enacting complexity, the frustration of reducing complexity through explanation, Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Torture of Others,” the difficulty of being alive without leaving artifacts, being overwhelmed by information, taking in art as a full-time obligation, being saved by illusion, the Spiotta script style in Lightning Field and Stone Arabia, whether novelists should give up dialogue description, inventing memory techniques, keeping organizing principles coherent, shifting first-person and third-person to reflect consciousness, references to Stone Arabia, finding refuge in hyperarticulateness, memory and physical urgency, devotion and artistic evaluation, the pre-Facebook age, the appeal of selecting 2004 as a terrible year, commerce as a curating principle on the Internet, the illusion of endless amounts of information as liberation, retaining selfhood from a generational standpoint, Don DeLillo, and navigating influences.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I have noticed that all of your novels are guided by having some impostor who is at the center of the narrative. And I’m curious if that notion of an impostor being sort of a prism with which to view American society or American culture — what is up with that? I mean, we’re now in an age where, thanks to the Internet, which aids and abets thousands of Don Quixotes that unleash every second — I mean, this is something that Cervantes could never have even seen in the early 17th century. What motivates your interest in impostors? Especially in this. And maybe we can use this to talk about the lovely Nik Worth, who is a wonderful impostor!

Spiotta: Okay. I don’t really — I think the word that I would use instead of “impostor” is people that have secret lives maybe. It’s another way of putting it. And I do see that in all three books there are people with secret lives. I mean, Nik Worth, the character in this book, he’s not trying to make it a secret. Nobody’s really that interested. But he’s definitely an eccentric person and has a double life to a certain extent. One: he has a fictional career and his actual life. And they are somewhat at odds with each other. And then, in other ways, they overlap. I mean, clearly, it’s something I’m interested in. But I think to a certain extent, we all have these double lives and triple lives. And the part of me who writes novels is separate from the part of me who’s speaking today. So I think that it’s an exaggerated version of what we do all the time. And certainly the Internet is amplifying that, sure.

Correspondent: Yes. But characters who hide in plain sight.

Spiotta: Right.

Correspondent: I think that might be a better way to identify this common theme.

Spiotta: Okay.

Correspondent: I mean, is this really the role of the 21st century novelist? I hesitate to use a term like “postrealist.” But it is interesting that there is this balance between what is real and what is fake. You have Casa Real. You have The Fakes — the band name in this. So it’s very pronounced here. And I’m wondering if a novelist today is almost obligated to respond to this Pandora’s box, so to speak.

Spiotta: Sure. I mean, yeah, of course. I always feel that I have, as I said, this kind of doubleness, which is natural for me. And maybe that’s because I sit in a room and I make up people. And that’s kind of a strange thing to do. So I imagine everybody does this. And maybe that’s not true. But I sort of think of everyone as having multiple selves. And this is just a more amplified version.

Correspodnent: “Versions of Me” — one of the songs that Nik Worth is actually responsible for. Nik’s Chronicles — there is in this book a very lengthy multi-volume set where Nik Worth, this character, is fabricating selves of all sorts. You have critics. He’s writing critical reviews of his own work. He is doing parodies and pastiches of his family members. I’m curious because there’s a lot of specific artistic and musical references within Nik’s Chronicles and also your book. The fake Denise letter that Denise reads at the very beginning is almost a trick on Denise. How do you write something this true without it seeming like a trick for the reader? I mean, are you thinking more in terms of how Denise is feeling? Because Denise is responding to these Chronicles.

Spiotta: Right. So that’s an interesting question because, in the book, there are — well, in the Chornicles, one character is writing and pretending to be another character. And then you’re reading that. And how does that not seem sort of manipulative and silly? And I think that the key is that there has to be a genuine — you have to inhabit that character inhabiting that other character. And you have to make Nik pretty good at what he does.

Correspondent: Yes. He’s very good.

Spiotta: He has to sort of be a novelist. So it’s just an extra layer. And so in a way, it comments on the whole idea of the artifice of creating a novel and a character. But mostly, I think it’s really about his affection for his sister and his poking her at the same time. So, so much about this book — what I really wanted the book to be was anchored in the emotional reality of a family and a brother and sister as they age. And the decisions that they made about themselves when they were 25, what does that feel 25 years later? So you have someone who says, “I want to be an artist. And I’m going to be an artist no matter what. And I don’t care if anybody likes my work.” And that’s easy to say when you’re nineteen. But then 25 years later, what does that look like? What does it feel like? And then what does it feel like for the people around you? So Nik is a kind of dramatic version of that. And he has this other layer of this invented life that he does for his amusement and, I think, to keep his sanity to a certain extent. To give him — so he makes up his own audience. He makes up his own response. He’s in dialogue with himself. So I wanted to pull that out and always keep it anchored in the emotional truth of a brother and sister, and the family.

Correspondent: Is the family really the best way to anchor that emotional truth? I mean, this also concerns memory. This concerns context. This concerns fact vs. fiction. Did everything originate from the family? How did these little side quests come about?

Spiotta: Okay. So what I envisioned for the book was to have it to be very intimate and claustrophobic. And sort of distorted by emotion and subjectivity. And to be this intimate thing. And I think, to the extent that a family — all these things tie back. Because one of the concerns of the book is how do you retain yourself in the face of, let’s say, all these things that want to annihilate you. And not just the Internet or information and all the things that come at you, but also that you’re aging and you’re watching your parents age and you’re eventually going to die. And all the things that we all have to deal with. How do you retain your sense of self? And part of it is your memory. And part of it is the things that you’ve created to protect yourself. Like Nik has his retreat, which is his way of protecting himself. But then also it’s the people in your life, who tell you who you are to a certain extent. And that can trap you. But it also can save you. And it’s both things at once. And I’m always interested in things being both. More than one thing. Not either/or. But this and this. And I don’t think of this as being ambivalent. I think of it as feeling strongly about things in two ways.

The Bat Segundo Show #408: Dana Spiotta II (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #404. She is most recently the author of The End of Everything. For more on Megan Abbott, you can read Edward Champion’s essay “Megan Abbott: Literary Criminal” at The Millions,

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering unanticipated carnal connections with peach cobbler.

Author: Megan Abbott

Subjects Discussed: The need for dramatic emphasis, basing novels on real life crimes, having a preexisting narrative framework when working on fiction, mysterious PBS documentaries about missing girls, blurring criminal details to create tangible fiction, writing in locations that you don’t live in, special corners of the brain, the advantages of maintaining a blinkered perspective, Raymond Chandler, the perils of critically assessing a writer you love, James Ellroy, Daniel Woodrell’s methods of shattering language, maintaining a rhythmic balance in sentences, writers who only have one story to tell, Paul Schrader, agonizing over repeat metaphors, fanned out objects, “doomy” vs. “do me,” deploying the words “fulsome” and “candescent,” James M. Cain, using similes after five novels, Chandler’s similes, being unafraid of influence, having a hyperbolic head, working with editors (Denise Roy vs. Reagan Arthur), severe line editing, Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish (Lish’s edit of “Beginners”), stylistic repetition within sentences, breaking out of certain ruts, the difficulties of including a drunken nightclub scene in a novel about a thirteen-year-old girl, fornication within novels, pinpointing the precise moment that the police show up in a Megan Abbott novel, contemplating a pre-Amber Alert era, shame and guilt, the phrase “the end of everything” contained in Die a Little, FLAME, MASH, and childhood folded paper games, girls who are “body-close,” building a foundation to find a bridge to the end, Bury Me Deep and William Kennedy’s Ironweed, reviving twenty pages from years before, psychoanalytical connections with the American novel, using Freud to balance judgmental behavior within a novel, Stewart O’Nan, Alice Sebold, when missing girl novels are pegged as crime fiction, struggling with the absence of plot, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, literary fiction cannibalizing from genre, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, John Banville/Benjamin Black, dismissal of genre from literary practitioners and marketplace conditions, Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark, Martin Amis’s Night Train, John Updike’s external sexual imagery, Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, the relationship between sex and observational judgment in Abbott’s fiction, nonjudgmental sexual moments in life and in fiction, strangers who have sex in motel rooms, why peach is the best hue to describe porn, discovering body objectification as a kid, authenticity with real and fictitious places, David Lynch and rabbits, kimonos and forelocks as essential elements to a Megan Abbott novel, film imagery vs. tangible human experience, In a Lonely Place, fixing up a room to match the look of a room you’re writing about, nostalgia and site-specific memory, and direct transposition from reality.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Missing girl novels are really interesting to me. Because you have people like Stewart O’Nan and Alice Sebold, who have written these missing girl novels and yet they don’t have to face the dilemma of being pegged a “crime novelist” or a “mystery novelist” or a “noir novelist.” Why do you think O’Nan and Sebold are able to get away with this and you aren’t? I mean, obviously you’ve written noir. But what of this? I was thinking to myself, “Well, can you really call her books ‘mystery novels’ or ‘crime novels?'” I was talking with people about this. And I said, “You know, really, it doesn’t matter. It’s fiction. And fiction should work.” So how do you deal with something like this?

Abbott: You know, I’m always so mystified by that too. Because I think — talking about The Lovely Bones and what people may call the “missing girl novel,” but they’re certainly not calling it a crime novel — it sort of stupefies me. And all those designations do. Because stories are stories. Especially missing people stories. They’re really about identity. They’re really about these big issues that, in many ways, all novels are really about. The missing or the gone, and how we attach these labels. On the other hand, as a lover of crime novels, I feel okay with that too. It doesn’t bother me. But I guess there’s this fear. The fear I always have in this case. People always say this about crime novels and they won’t say this about literary novels, but they should. Which is: “Oh no. Not another missing kid book.” Or “Oh no. Not another heist novel.” Or a PI novel. And that’s just because they’ve read some that don’t sing for them. But I think that with literary fiction, you can get away with that more. I mean, someone perhaps should say, “Not another novel about a crumbling East Side marriage.” But nobody seems to! No one would say that. Because they’ll say that’s the stuff of life. Well, you know, crime is the stuff of life too.

Correspondent: Or: “Not another novel about a middle-aged man going through a crisis.”

Abbott: That’s the one I was trying to think of. (laughs)

Correspondent: That’s the thing. I mean…

Abbott: Who’s going to fall for the younger woman. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs) Even worse. Yes, I know! Why don’t we peg those as genre and the crime novels, which have a little more variety…

Abbott: We’ll call it the Ralph genre. (laughs)

Correspondent: Maybe the solution here is to just win them over with prose. If you have original enough prose, do you think that you can escape the label? Or maybe there’s a certain advantage in being locked within that label. Because you don’t have to deal with the bullshit.

Abbott: You’d think that. You know what I mean/ I guess the sort of dream is that you’d have a book that would work in both ways. That’s one of the things. I struggle with plot. It’s not my natural thing. But I love plot as a reader. And I’m a big literary fiction reader. But often the struggle I have with them is the absence of plot. It just seems like the ideal situation are those books. And I think the Sebold is one of those, where you’re able to merge the strength of a genre book’s plot with all the originality and the innovation that you can get away with more in literary fiction than you could in a crime novel. Though I think you can. Most crime readers are totally open. Because they read so much. And obviously they don’t care that much about plot. Or they wouldn’t be reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo! (laughs)

Correspondent: Sure. But we’re also seeing literary fiction cannibalizing more from genre, I think, in the last five to ten years.

Abbott: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: I mean, Colson Whitehead. His new book is a zombie book.

Abbott: I hear that!

Correspondent: Why isn’t that categorized in the science fiction section?

Abbott: Richard Price. It’s somewhat puzzling. Who’s the new one who’s doing it? There’s another one. I keep hearing of all these literary authors writing their crime novels. And I’m sure they’re doing it for a variety of reasons. And I don’t blame them for doing it. But what frustrates me sometimes is the reception they get, which is…

Correspondent: They get a free pass because they’re the literary person dipping into genre.

Abbott: Yeah.

Correspondent: You, by way of being the experienced genre novelist, get more criticism.

Abbott: Right. Exactly.

Correspondent: Do you feel that this is what the situation is with you?

Abbott: I don’t know. I mean, I guess we’ll see. I feel that my books are part of the same world. And I think a lot of these turns are sort of imposed by outside…

Correspondent: Marketplace situation.

Abbott: Right. So I think that’s okay. My greatest frustration is the John Banville thing, where it takes him three days to write a paragraph under his name. But when he writes under Benjamin Black, it takes him five minutes to write. Like that kind of dismissal of genre.

Correspondent: Well, I don’t think he really means to dismiss genre.

Abbott: Right.

Correspondent: Because if you’re spending five mintues on what normally takes you three days to write, of course it’s going to seem “easy.” Of course, you’re going to sneer down on it. Even though he’s also having a lot of fun. Even though he’s also come out and said, “Oh, I love Donald Westlake, and Richard Stark novels you must read.”

Abbott: Yes. And I think that’s the place I’m excited about. When it comes from a love. When you can feel an author’s love. When they’re not being arch. A lot of people gave Martin Amis a hard time when he came out with Night Train. Which I thought was great! Because you could tell. He was not being pastiche or arch.

Correspondent: No ambitions whatsoever. He just wanted to write a mystery novel.

Abbott: Exactly. And it’s beautiful. He didn’t hold back on his prose. He did exactly what he wanted to do. And when books come from a place of love, they always work.

Correspondent: I also feel that Paul Auster has faced that problem too. Because he’s writing very ornate mystery novels to some degree.

Abbott: Right. You think of Ellroy and DeLillo. How are they that different?

Correspondent: Yeah. They’re both confronting the major events of the 20th century.

Abbott: Right. Exactly.

The Bat Segundo Show #404: Megan Abbott (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Emma Forrest

Emma Forrest recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #403. She is most recently the author of Your Voice in My Head.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Fearing the arrival of kneeling supplicants.

Author: Emma Forrest

Subjects Discussed: Occupying the insides of planes, positive mania, Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History, novels as a dress rehearsal for a memoir, troublesome aspects of being a young female novelist, Zadie Smith, Jennifer Belle’s Going Down, the freedom of writing memoir, misery memoirs, male addiction memoirs, double standards with gender, baring one’s soul while contending with marketing labels, psychiatrists who attend readings, the personal vs. the professional, the benefits of non-prescriptive therapists, Monica Lewinsky and Chandra Levy, victimhood and celebrity culture, the miniscule Jewish community in England, newspaper articles as a solution to longing and misery, Colin Farrell’s fan community harassing Forrest, cutting, the relationship between self-disgust and self-obsession, Internet addiction, the keyboard as a surrogate knife, writing the book through osmosis, unusual General Zod metaphors, why Forrest referred to Colin Farrell as the Gypsy Husband, not being able to write other people’s names down, contending with the imprecision of memory, remembering incidents completely wrong, the difficulties of writing and speaking about rape, being susceptible to labels, breaking down before an audio book producer, being judged by others through one’s body, body image, the relationship between work and self-concern, whether the act of writing is capable of full exorcism, the English class system, Forrest’s father “learning to become British,” Jewish identity in Britain, Howard Jacobson, Superman as an inherently Jewish story, distinguishing between the serious and the trivial, the 31 flavors of pain, dissociation, rabbi sermons, whether words can change one’s life, Blur’s “Tender,” and songs vs. novels.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You said in an interview with The Awl that much of this book ended up on your screen by osmosis, that there was material here that you don’t even remember typing.

Forrest: Yeah.

Correspondent: If you’re caught in a fugue state when you’re writing something like this, at what point do the words mean something? At some point, you’re going to have to look at these words and come to terms with them and iron them out. So I’m curious how you became more aware of yourself and your life experience and the world if you weren’t aware of it initially?

Forrest: Well, you may have also read that I had this whole deal with myself that I didn’t have to publish it. Just because I was writing it, it didn’t mean I had to publish it. And when it was done, I did think it was good enough to publish. And, you know, I read it all the times I had to edit it. But actually — so I handed it in a year and a half ago. It takes a while for a book to come out. Now that it’s out and I’ve been touring — this sounds awful, but I’m going to admit it — I’ve been rereading the book quite often and actually enjoying it and, I think, getting out of it what you’re talking about for the first time. It’s taken a year and a half to get into it and say, “Oh! That’s what you’re about and that’s what you’re doing wrong.” And now I get it. And now I get the lessons. Because it is trapped within the pages, it’s safe for me to explore almost with an eagle eye from above. You know what I mean? Like looking down on myself.

Correspondent: On the other hand, most writers — even writers of memoirs — get sick of looking at their own work. Why is it such a great…?

Forrest: Well, I didn’t. Because I looked at it in the bare minimum. When I was editing. And we did a very light edit, actually. I find it fascinating now because I feel so removed from it. It’s like I’m intrigued and empathetic towards this girl that isn’t me anymore. It’s harder on the reader because it reads so viscerally. I’m comforting readers all the time, saying, “I’m not her. I really am not that person anymore. Don’t worry about me.”

Correspondent: Well, we are all some part of our past lives.

Forrest: But do you remember the part in the book? The rabbi’s sermon.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Forrest: About transformation. And you don’t have to be Jacob anymore. You are now Israel. And part of Jacob will cling to you for the rest of your life. But that isn’t the entirety of who you are. That’s where I feel I am.

Correspondent: But you’re saying transformation. Describe this more specifically. How do you deal with these parts of you who you inevitably are? Is it really just a matter of rereading? Is that your reminder? Why isn’t your memory of it enough? You know what I mean?

Forrest: Memory’s dangerous. It’s hard to have volume control on memory. Writing it down is my volume control. And that’s what made it safe. And that’s what — I’m going to use the cheapest pop cultural allegory. It’s really in my head. Like the villains in Superman II — is it II that they’re trapped in glass and flying through space and time?

Correspondent: Technically, I and II.

Forrest: I and II.

Correspondent: But II is where they broke out.

Forrest: Flying through space and time through all eternity, my memoir is Terence Stamp beneath the glass, trapped. And so that’s why it’s all safe for me now. And done.

Correspondent: Well, I don’t know if General Zod is the best…

Forrest: And it flies through space and time. Because it’s a book that hopefully will stay in publication.

Correspondent: You’re using General Zod as a metaphor.

Forrest: Totally.

Correspondent: Now this is dangerous. Because, of course, he wanted to be the ruler of the planet.

Forrest: Right.

Correspondent: He asked people to kneel before Zod.

Forrest: Yeah.

Correspondent: I’m certainly not going to kneel before Emma.

Forrest: Right.

Correspondent: And I don’t know if the reader is going to do that. But the reader may empathize.

Forrest: Some of them are!

Correspondent: Some of them are?

Forrest: (laughs) I didn’t ask them to!

Correspondent: Wow. So you’re seriously — why not someone humbler than General Zod?

Forrest: Because there are things in there that are evil and upsetting. Like General Zod. Come on! We have to get off this.

The Bat Segundo Show #403: Emma Forrest (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: James Marsh

James Marsh appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #401. He is most recently the director of Project Nim, which opens in theaters on July 8, 2011.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering unethical experiments that might slide by today’s authorities.

Guest: James Marsh

Subjects Discussed: States of exhaustion, Project Nim’s purported origins of the 1970s hippie residue, scientific ethics and Columbia code of conduct, attempts to teach a chimpanzee to use sign language, Professor Herb Terrace, the transgressive aspects of ripping an animal from his mother, Skinner, Harry Harlow’s experiments, Terrace’s efforts to seek media coverage, Nim Chimpsky’s attacks on grad students, Terrace’s concerns for insurance issues over harm and suffering to students, Washoe, a filmmaker’s obligation to history, contending with demands from studio executives, when Marsh recreates moments in a documentary, dramatic reconstructions, murdering poodles, the inherent danger in cutting too much, audience imagination and the dangers of being too literal, balancing the needs of individual perspective and audience reaction, having ongoing debates while editing a documentary, some of the qualities that cause a documentary filmmaker to become prickly, the potential conflict of interest of obtaining film clips from the very subjects you’re interviewing, having sexual feelings for a chimp, being faithful to the honest confessions of documentary subjects, viewing documentary subjects as actors, earning trust as a filmmaker, Philippe Petit, whether discomfort is required in the questioning process, asking a question in ten different ways, trying to get a scientist to reveal he committed an affair, why people should trust James Marsh, the moral implications on Catfish, the possibilities that Catfish is a fake documentary, and phony indignation.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You don’t bring up the Washoe project. Allen and Beatrix Gardner and Herb Terrace had a huge rivalry going on at the time. And it’s almost like East Coast/West Coast, Biggie/Tupac…

Marsh: Well, there’s another film to be made about all that stuff. There’s quite a few PBS type documentaries that get into the whole language experiments that Washoe, the Gardners, and that whole debate. That would be a film about science, a film about ideas. And our film is a drama about a chimpanzee and people. So I was aware of that context and many people spoke about it in the course of our interviews. But I thought it was going to be a blind alley for me as a filmmaker to get into that too much. It may be an oversight on my part. But that’s a different film. If you want to go see that film, someone else can make that. That’s not my film.

Correspondent: But don’t you think you have an obligation to present, to some degree, the history…

Marsh: No.

Correspondent: Of all of these animal language…

Marsh: Why?

Correspondent: Why? Because Washoe ended up having 350 words she “learned” of sign language. You can just do a brief mention.

Marsh: Well, you see, here’s my feeling about that. It’s that a brief mention is not good enough. That’s when you’re playing with it. If you’re just trying to flirt with something and say, “Well, I can mention Chomsky and I can mention Washoe and the Gardners.” You may know about that. But my brother watching the film won’t know anything about that. So I’m not trying to be — I’m being a little defensive here. But that wasn’t the film I wanted to make. That’s a different kind of film. And that film? Go online. Nova has done that film. Washoe, the fucking dolphins — you know, the Gardners, signs. But the bottom line is that the experiment failed. And that chimps do not learn language. So I can get caught up in this whole discussion about who was right and who was wrong, and who learned the most words. That’s not a story. That’s a discussion about the practice of science and the nature of these experiments. And so I wanted to focus on a dramatic story as opposed to the issues and the context. And, of course, someone like yourself, who is very….who is familiar with this stuff, probably feels a bit cheated. Because I don’t explain and give you the context you are sort of dimly aware of or know a little bit about. But that’s a very conscious choice on my part. Not to get caught up in things you can’t really fully explain and will, I think, be a sort of sideshow to what I think my interest in the story, which is my interest in the drama of it and the life story of this chimpanzee. Now if you’re a Nim, what does he fucking care about Washoe and dolphins and the Gardners? He isn’t going to know nothing about these things. So I’m trying to put you. You know, his life story is where I’m focused here. Not so much on this whole fascinating internexual climate that you’re aware of and the film doesn’t really get into.

Correspondent: To go ahead and correct your impression that I felt cheated, what I’m actually talking about here is how you as a documentary filmmaker make the choice to not include Washoe. Is it really a consideration of “Oh, well here’s a rabbit hole that will create a three hour film”?

Marsh: Yeah. Or where is my interest in this story? Where do I think the narrative is in this story? As opposed to — I think you could cram the film with reference points to other experiments and to other thinkers and linguists. And on and on. But that isn’t the film that I think would work for me as a filmmaker, or the one I’m interested in making. And so to distill my view into I want to tell you the story of this from the point of view of the chimpanzee, who would have no awareness of the other chimpanzee lab experiments and no interest in them either, I think.

Correspondent: So to some degree, it sounds to me that when you make a film — especially one that deals with science as opposed to, say, an event that numerous people see such as Man on Wire — your problem, I suppose, is that you’re enslaved to narrative to some degree. Is that safe to say?

Marsh: Well, that’s my interest in narrative. I guess I’m a little prickly about this. Because there’s quite a lot of pressure around the making of the film of this sort. Explaining to people. “Give me more context. Give me more science. Show me the scientific debate here.” And so I’m prickly about it because it caused me a lot of trouble as I was filming it, getting these comments from people — executives involved with the film — that they wanted more of this stuff. And they’re saying, “Well, I want a narrator for the film.” And I began to get quite pissed off about this. Because it wasn’t the kind of film that I was making, nor did I say that I was going to make this film. I was making the story of Nim the chimp. And films tend to not deal with ideas terribly well. It’s not what films are good at doing. I mean, some films do it extraordinarily well. But it’s not what they’re best for. I think film is best as a medium for storytelling. And so that’s where my interest is in this particular story again.

The Bat Segundo Show #401: James Marsh (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo: Aimee Bender II

Aimee Bender appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #400. She Bender is most recently the author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #16.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Feeling his inner cake and eating it too.

Author: Aimee Bender

Subjects Discussed: Fantasy and magical realism being contingent upon reader belief, domestic realism and fantasy, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake as a Los Angeles novel, foodies, apartment complexes in Southern California, high school reunions, sustaining fairytale magic in a longer work, how a shift in an author’s temperament affects a writing project over several years, positive pessimism, parallels between writing process and psychotherapy, Adam Phillips and boredom, the fine line between attention and concentration, staying put, believing in the details, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Plausibility in Fantasy,” Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, writers whose complete works you can’t read all at once, author doubt and faulty fiction premises, Kafka, early attempts and restarts on Particular Sadness, the dangers of ranting, the relationship between empathy and fantasy, reverse engineering the human relationship with food, Rose’s early form as an older man on the make for soup, MFK Fisher, the materialistic impulses of Rose’s parents, bottom-feeding consumerism and garage sales, the consumer as an eater of another kind, qualitative precision vs. quantitative precision, mathematics and fantasy, people who love making food, Cafe Gratitude, feeling simultaneously appreciative and cynical about hippie ideologies, grandmothers who send strange packages, Edward Hopper, fatalistic determinism, Hemingway’s iceberg theory, the visual advantages of not using quotes, Bender’s experience with chairs, the McSweeney’s logo, whether Hopper’s paintings are truly lonely, “The Lighthouse at Two Lights,” artists who don’t enjoy being photographed, whether movies are destroying imagination, shorter attention spans, memorizing poetry, Wallace Stevens, Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel, Kay Ryan, students who can’t remember the questions they are about to ask, and whether or not the United States is presently suffering from a short attention span epidemic.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: We were just joking about this being a few years since we last talked. This leads me to ask: I know you to be an optimist, both in your previous books and in our previous conversation, which was quite jocular. But with this book, I almost get the sense that you’re exploring this positive pessimism with the Rose perspective. And I’m curious how much that may play into this. The idea of exploring a perspective that’s just a little different from your own. Or perhaps I have misjudged you and you have been a closet pessimist the entire time!

Bender: Well, both! I think I’m both. So it’s both exploring a point of view that’s different from my own. But of course, for any of it to ring true, it has to ring true to me in some way as well. So I think that there’s something of that balance of seeing things cynically and seeing things hopefully. Depending on the day. Will it end in a different spot? But I guess I did feel really focused in this book maybe, in particular, about what would be burdensome for that character. And also what would be burdensome for the brother. And maybe the tone again of the magical quality about her and her brother feeling different. Like hers feeling dark and his feeling darker. I somehow think of them as triangles feeding into each other. Hers is the smaller shape and his is the darker shape in some way.

Correspondent: But what do you do if you’re trying to channel this positive pessimism and you’re in an absolutely peppy mood that day? Because I think that of all your books, this is tonally very, very specific. And so what do you do to maintain that tone? Especially since it’s several years of trying to get this right.

Bender: Exactly. Well, I have this kind of system that has worked for me so far, which is to write a couple hours in the morning. And the rule — a friend of mine from grad school named Phil Hayes said if you write what you’re interested in writing each day, writing will have life in it. Which is great. It seemed simple on the surface advice, but I think it’s pretty deep. Because the idea that each day, you can generate whatever is happening on that day — it means that on the optimistic days, I probably wasn’t working on that book. But the thing is getting a good work day in feels very optimistic and hopeful, even if the work itself is kind of dour and sad and bleak. A good work day feels so good no matter what. So there’s kind of a contrast there already. But let’s say I’m in a really upbeat mood and I just can’t get into the sadness of the book. Then I would work on a short story. So it was all very mood governed. But I think once there was enough material to work with, it didn’t feel sad to work on. It felt like explorative.

Correspondent: Well, that’s interesting. Because I’ve always wanted to talk with you about the two hour session.

Bender: Right.

Correspondent: Which sounds almost like expansive psychotherapy.

Bender: I’ve wondered about that. I think that’s a bit of a model. Yeah. (laughs)

Correspondent: But I understand, and I just want to get this totally clarified, you sit on the couch.

Bender: Chair.

Correspondent: You want to channel your mind into boredom.

Bender: Right.

Correspondent: And I’m curious about this. It seems to me a more reasonable answer to, say, Jonathan Franzen blocking all sunlight from the room, which I think is really quite intense. I mean, I understand the need.

Bender: And I think he has headphones.

Correspondent: Exactly. Earplugs.

Bender: Yeah.

Correspondent: There are bats that fly in his cave. I don’t know.

Bender: Right. (laughs)

Correspondent: But the point is that your level of trying to remove yourself from distraction seems infinitely more reasonable. You’re in this fixed location. How do you will yourself into filtering these ideas? Or if you’re in a situation where you have so many ideas, so much information, so many emotions that you’re writing, that you just need to sit still in order to just access it during that two hour period?

Bender: Yeah. I think you said it in an interesting way. “Channeling myself into boredom.” But it’s not. The boredom happens.

Correspondent: (laughs) Oh come on.

Bender: The boredom does not need to be channeled. You know, there are those people who say, “I never feel bored.” I’m definitely not one of those people. So in some way, for me, it feels like a dance between boredom and concentration. And I think my concentration can feel thin. So the idea is blocking out the amount of time so that I’m going to try to concentrate. But I don’t know that I will. And inevitably I get bored. And then hopefully on the other side of boredom is something. There’s this great quote by Adam Phillips, who is a British psychoanalyst. He talks about boredom as a waiting space and as this interim place for a kid where it’s not something to be filled or plugged in. It’s something actually to sit through. And that’s often where a kid will get really creative. And they’ll be like, “Okay, I’m bored. Now I’ve created this land under the kitchen sink.” Whatever.

Correspondent: I use the term “channeling” or “willing yourself” into this concentrated focus. Is it a variation of the Flaubert maxim “Be calm and orderly in your life so you can be violent and original in your work”?

Bender: There is something to that. I do believe very strongly that structure helps creativity and boundaries in that it is like a therapy hour. The boundaries of a time, a creative space where I can go to someplace that is potentially revolting to me and leave. And knowing that I will leave. There’s something very helpful about that. But still, it’s not even that I can focus myself into concentration. It’s just that the only rule I really have is that I have to stay put. And then they’ll be many, many bad days.

Correspondent: So if you stay put, you can confront any emotion. It’s like running the gauntlet here.

Bender: I think that if you stay put, stuff comes up. I think eventually stuff will bubble up and there will be things to write about. But it’s not as if I bravely have the sword in hand and I’m rushing forward into the forest.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Bender: I’m sitting there feeling like I want to get up. I want to get up. I want to get up. And the only weapon I have is stay put.

Correspondent: Got it. Is it a matter of ADD or distraction? Or what?

Bender: It’s not ADD. But I just do feel easily distracted. There are other writers who will say, “I need time to relax. And then get into it. And then I take eight hours. And then I get lost in the world. And I feel all my characters.” And I don’t have that at all. Maybe I’ll get lost into it for ten minutes. And that’s thrilling. But I get a lot done.

Correspondent: Oh, I see.

Bender: So it will be ten minutes. Boom. Productive. And then space out.

Correspondent: Ninety minutes of thinking, thirty minutes of writing. Something like that?

Bender: Yeah. And looking at old files. And rereading, rereading.

The Bat Segundo Show #400: Aimee Bender II (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Adam Hochschild

Adam Hochschild recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #396. He is most recently the author of To End All Wars.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Conscientiously objecting and objectifying consciousness.

Author: Adam Hochschild

Subjects Discussed: What is considered morally permissible in war, mustard gas, deadly military technology, Ray Bradbury’s “The Flying Machine,” the women’s suffrage movement and World War I, Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union, splits within the Pankhurst Family, Women’s Dreadnaught, James Keir Hardie’s antiwar speeches, attempts to get socialists to agree, the duties of history to remember the losers, parallels between World War I and current wars, Osama bin Laden’s death, Wikileaks and the Czarist Archives, Margaret and Stephen Hobhouse, conscientious objectors, I Appeal Unto Caesar, Edmund Dene Morel’s hard labor sentence, the tendency of wealthy families and connections to carry more weight, Bertrand Russell, jingoistic writers during World War I, John Buchan’s imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, PG Wodehouse’s The Swoop!, the political stances of writers, contributions of famous writers to British propaganda, The 39 Steps, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and Germany spy conspiracies, responding William Anthony Hays criticism about “stack[ing] the deck by presenting such particularly unappealing characters as foils to the pacifists and liberals he seeks to praise,” attempting to find positive qualities about Douglas Haig (World War I’s worst general), Winston Churchill, Sir John French’s likable qualities, Haig vs. General Eisenhower, the Lansdowne Letter, attempts to understand why the World War I peace movement failed to catch on, relativistic courage, untrained pilots going up against the Red Baron, and the dangers of speaking out what you believe in.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: It’s an unsuccessful story. Should history really be in the business of remembering the losers?

Hochschild: Well, first of all, for me, as a writer, it was a challenge to see if I could write a narratively interesting and emotionally meaningful story about a movement that failed. My last book was about the anti-slavery movement in the British Empire. That was a successful movement. Slavery did come to an end. These people failed to stop the First World War. But I still find them very, very much writing about. Because it takes a special kind of courage and nobility to go against patriotic madness that’s in the air. And very often, a movement like this, it doesn’t succeed the first time. We still haven’t stopped war today. We’re caught up in at least two unnecessary wars, in my view, in the United States right now. I would like to see people who opposed those wars take some inspiration from these earlier folks. Even though they failed.

Correspondent: On the other hand, I wanted to bring up your recent TomDispatch article, in which you draw parallels between our present times and World War I. I’m wondering if it’s an appropriate parallel simply because in World War I, there was considerably more death. Presently, you say, “Well, why aren’t we protesting the war?” Well, we did in 2003. It was the biggest protest in America against the conflict in Iraq.

Hochschild: Yeah.

Correspondent: So I’m wondering if really the parallels should line up or whether we should consider the full scope of any kind of war when considering it. Is there a danger here of parallel relativism? Or what? Maybe you can expand upon this.

Hochschild: Well, I don’t think the parallels to anything are ever exact or anywhere near exact when there’s nearly 100 years in between. But I guess some of the parallels I saw between the First World War and those that we’re in today are several. First, look at how the First World War started. Austria-Hungary was eager to make war on little Serbia next door. They felt the existence of Serbia was a threat. Because there were a lot of restless Serbs within the border of the old Austria-Hungarian Empire. They had actually drawn up invasion plans to invade Serbia and dismember it. Then Archduke Franz Ferdinand gets assassinated by an ethnic Serb, but an Austo-Hungarian citizen. And there’s no evidence that the top officials of Serbia’s government even knew about the assassination plot. But they immediately used this as an excuse to make war on Serbia. I see some resemblance between that and Bush using the September 11th attacks to make war in Iraq, which had nothing to do with those attacks. So when countries are hungering to go to war for one reason or another, they can easily use something as an excuse. That’s one similarity. I think another is that most of the time when a country starts war, they expect it to be over very quickly and easily. Kaiser Wilhelm II, when he sent his troops off to France in 1914, said, “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” And the Germans had this masterplan that they’d worked on for years that very systematically and with great exactitude showed how they were going to subdue France, conquer Paris, and force the French surrender in exactly 42 days. Of course, it didn’t happen that way. But countries always expect it to happen that way. Like when Bush landed on the aircraft carrier in 2003 in front of that big sign MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

Correspondent: Sure.

Hochschild: Well, I’m still not sure what the mission was in Iraq. But whatever it was, it hasn’t been accomplished.

Correspondent: Well, we just recently had another MISSION ACCOMPLISHED allegedly with Osama bin Laden.

Hochschild: Yeah.

Correspondent: And I’m sure you saw some of the New York Post headlines here. They were really, really grisly. On the other hand, I should point out that there is a fundamental difference between al Qaeda, which is networked all around the world, versus the German nation, which is starving, which is machine gunning the soldiers. And the soldiers on the other side are machine gunning them. And there’s this trench warfare and all that. There’s even a sense of gentlemanly accord in World War I that one doesn’t see in the present conflict. Especially when you also factor in communications. I mean, there’s nothing even close, parallel-wise, to Wikileaks, for example, that you could have in World War I. That’s why I’m unclear as to the parallels. Are the parallels more in the way that governments inform the people and governments persuade the people to become involve in a conflict? Or what?

Hochschild: Well, as I say, the parallels from a hundred years are never completely exact. But there was a sort of Wikileaks episode in World War I, which was this. In 1917, there came the two Russian Revolutions: the February Revolution, when they overthrew the czar, and the October Revolution, when the Bolsheviks seized power in a coup. At that point, the Bolsheviks got into the Czarist Archives and they made public all the secret treaties that Russia, France, and the agreements between Russia, France, and Italy had. That showed how the Allies were planning to divide up the possessions of Germany and its allies once the war was over. And it had tremendous reverberations. In the same way that the Wikileaks material did in recent months. Because it showed that even though the Allies liked the Germans — they were saying they were fighting to defend civilization itself — nonetheless, they’d actually drawn lines on the map as to how they were going to divide up spheres of influence in the Middle East, for example.

Correspondent: Okay. I wanted to shift back to conscientious objectors. The case of Margaret Hobhouse. She’s a well-to-do woman. Her son Stephen is imprisoned as a conscientious objector. This suggests to some degree — this whole incident where she writes a book that is, of course, ghostwritten by Bertrand Russell, I Appeal Unto Caesar — that it takes the rich or the privileged in order to shift things. Because she manages to persuade 26 bishops and 200 other clergyman to sign a statement arguing for more lenient treatment of COs. Similarly, in 1916, some COs are sent to France. They’re fed bread and water. They’re forced to the front line. The No Conscription Fellowship is on the case trying to seek them out. But, of course, because they don’t have this Hobhousian connection, it’s a great difficulty to track these folks down. At the beginning of 1918, there were still more than 1,000 COs behind bars. You have Basil Thomson noticing that pacifism was on the rise. Now this comes after I Appeal Unto Caesar was published. Why was there such a delay between 1916 and 1918 in drawing attention to these maltreated COs? Does it take a book? Does it take a privileged person speaking on behalf of COs to ensure humane treatment for all classes? What of this?

Hochschild: Well, obviously, at all times and places, I think that when the people from wealthy families and so on speak out loudly on behalf of something, their voices carry much more loudly. That’s unfortunately the way the world works. One thing that was interesting to me about the war resisters in Britain was that they came from across the class spectrum. You had people in jail like Stephen Hobhouse, who you mentioned, who was from this very ancient wealthy family filled with connections to lords and bishops and so on. And a very close friend of the family was in the Cabinet — Alfred Milner, who was minister without portfolio on charge of coordinating the war effort. At the same time, there were labor unionists in jail, who didn’t have those powerful connections. And these folks all felt a real sense of solidarity with each other across those class lines.

Correspondent: But was the book really the linchpin? I mean, I don’t want to draw any false correlations here, but I’m curious how this connection to Basil Thomson saying, “Oh, pacifism is on the rise.” Is that more the increased awareness of COs? Or is that more people in grief? Because bodies are coming back. Or they’re not coming back. And they’re getting messages that their loved ones are dead.

Hochschild: Well, actually, the book you mentioned by Margaret Hobhouse, because it was allegedly written by Margaret Hobhouse, who was the wife of a prominent churchman and a big landowner and everything, it had considerable effect. Although in fact Bertrand Russell secretly co-authored it. The book helped bring about the release of several hundred conscientious objectors who were in poor health in one way or another. But that’s about all it did. The government still kept locking up conscientious objectors who refused to do alternative service. It still cracked down with increasing harshness on people who spoke out against the war. Bertrand Russell, despite being himself being the son of an earl; he later inherited the earldom from his brother, was sent to jail for six months in 1918. Edmund Dene Morel, really the country’s leading investigative journalist, spent six months in jail for his antiwar writings. Served hard labor. And it broke his health and he died a few years later.

The Bat Segundo Show #396: Adam Hochschild (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Lynne Tillman

Lynne Tillman appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #392. She is most recently the author of Someday This Will Be Funny.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if he should laugh today or five years from now.

Author: Lynne Tillman

Subjects Discussed: Giddy book titles, William S. Burroughs as a slob, Flaubert’s writing maxim, how writers stay adolescent, the soul-sucking atmosphere of Forbes magazine, the story behind the writing of the story “Dear Ollie” as perpetuated by Lynne Tillman and Paul Maliszewski, mining from personal history, the death of cats, audience reaction to animals, material that readers fill in themselves, the essaylike trajectory of American Genius echoed in “That’s How Wrong My Love Is” and “Impressions of an Artist With Haiku,” editors who have been confused about what Tillman is trying to teach them, fiction and pedagogical requirements, whether women writers are allowed to play with ideas in the way that men are, Nicholson Baker, neurotic women protagonists, Moby Dick, daily minutiae, when ideas emerge from perspective, American Genius originating from the concept of sensitivity, pronoun happy prose, Tillman’s reluctance to initially name character names and what the reader earns, first name familiarity with celebrities, disconsolate shorthand for people in American Genius, using plain names in Haunted Houses, choosing names that are sturdy, clarifying Tillman’s stance on “backstory,” Hemingway’s iceberg theory, the appropriateness of ambiguity, Method acting, film and theater crossing into contemporary fiction, Antonioni’s L’Aventura and Edith Wharton, architecture indicating people’s positions in life, when certain aspects of fiction are spelled out too much for a reader, Cast in Doubt, approaching sex and relationships from an oblique vantage point, thinking about sex every seven minutes, Weird Fucks and “getting the fucks out of your system,” Edmund White’s sexual imagination, the tongue being privileged with information, Dennis Cooper, Tillman’s apothegmatic moments, whether shame is a necessary component of fiction, Leslie Fiedler and guilt shaping the American novel, and being shocked by what you’ve written.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Tillman: I’m happy that I was finally able to title a book Someday This Will Be Funny. And if you’ve noticed, there’s no story called “Someday This Will Be Funny.”

Correspondent: Exactly.

Tillman: In the book.

Correspondent: It’s literally a grab bag for the reader. They can determine if it’s funny or it’s not funny. Or if it will be funny tomorrow or six years from now.

Tillman: Or never! (laughs)

Correspondent: Irony, it seems! I wanted to first of all start from an unusual tack. In Brandon Stousy’s Up is Up But So is Down, you bring up an interview with Lou Reed and William S. Burroughs where they’re talking about Kerouac. And Reed says he cannot understand how such a great writer was a slob. This is an anecdote you bring up. You’re just fascinated by this. That he just drinks beer in front of the TV. And then Burroughs responds, “Well, Kerouac did that while he was young. And he just grew up to be an old slob.” This is a very interesting pretext to talk about, well, what do you have to give up to be a writer? To stay fresh as a writer? I mean, it’s said that you often have to stay young. Then there’s the Flaubert maxim: “be calm and orderly in your life so you can be violent and original in your work.” So I must ask you, Lynne, in light of the fact that you’ve struck such a variegated crop here yet again, what you had to give up and what have you not given up? I mean, how adult are you? (laughs)

Tillman: Oh, I’m just a child. Totally immature. Give up. Well, I had to give up making a lot of money. I mean, it was never in my legend anyway. I never really thought about it. Only as you get older do you realize that you made a choice in life that is not financially wise. But what do I give up? I don’t think very much. Because this is what I want to do. I guess I give up a certain kind of calm or sanity because trying to write your next story or find your next book, your next novel, what you want to do, can be extremely difficult and painful and there’s no reassurance in it. I guess I’ve given up reassurance in a way. When I worked as a proofreader one week on, one week off — actually at Forbes Magazine.

Correspondent: The ultimate soul-sucking atmosphere.

Tillman: Ultimate! Ultimate. I knew that where I would be for twelve hours a day for five days. And in its tedium, it had its calming effect. And in that time, I didn’t have to think about anything. I just had to be a good proofreader. Which wasn’t that hard for me. But when you’re writing, there are no assurances. So if I’ve given up anything, it’s the sense that I can feel satisfied. Because as any writer will say to you, it’s always the next book you’re worried about.

Correspondent: Yes. You may be giving up assurances, but, on the other hand, you’re getting liberty in return. You’re getting freedom. The question I had was whether there’s some lingering adolescent quality that you’re holding onto or is it really just this idea of getting used to the idea that there is no assurance? That that, in its own way, is also creatively liberating even if you have no specific timetable for when your next story or when your next novel is going to come out of you?

Tillman: I don’t know that those two ideas are entwined with each other. I haven’t given up my childhood in the sense that it’s still a source of material for me. Not that I write autobiographically, particularly; but that whatever the desire was that made me want to be a writer from a very early age, it’s still there. It must still be there. Because I keep going.

Correspondent: I’m glad you brought that up. Because I wanted to bring up “Dear Ollie,” because a person named Lynne Tillman is the author of that letter. What’s also interesting is I know that appeared in 2002 in McSweeney’s, although it’s not actually named in the book.

Tillman: It isn’t?

Correspondent: No. It’s the one credit that’s missing! I can show you.

Tillman: Is it really? Wow. You can show me later.

Correspondent: I didn’t know if you were trying to hide the origins.

Tillman: No! I wasn’t at all.

Correspondent: Really? Okay.

Tillman: That’s probably a mistake.

Correspondent: I mention this because you recently did an interview with Lydia Davis for Electronic Book Review and you said, “By the time I use something autobiographical, it’s not about me and my life.” And we were just discussing that. Your discussion of autobiography triggered this. Does this mean you’re dispensing with emotional investment when you use something autobiographical? Are you, in the case of say “Dear Ollie,” approaching the autobiographical form from an entirely new emotional vantage point?

Tillman: Well, it would be new to me in the sense that I’m working out of stuff that happened. In this case, it had to have happened. Paul Maliszewski edited this section. And we all had to put our last names. We had to use our real names, as far as I recall. And that’s why the name is included. It’s the only time that I’ve ever done that.

Correspondent: Oh really?

Tillman: That the narrator and the author are the same.

Correspondent: You were a friendly witness.

Tillman: Exactly. Or unfriendly.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Tillman: Ambivalent anyway. And that was not difficult material to write about it. I mean, it wasn’t terribly emotional for me.

Correspondent: There was an Ollie?

Tillman: There was an Ollie. And there was a prank. It had to be — Paul wanted a real prank. And I thought, “Well, this was a prank I participated in.” A wonderful practical horrible joke.

Correspondent: This explains a lot. ‘Cause when I read that, it just sticks out. Wait a minute! Why is there this absolute need to correct the public record? Because I think of your work and I think, “I don’t think she’s the kind of person who needs to do this.” But if you were actually asked to do so, this makes complete sense.

Tillman: Oh, it’s completely invented. The writer in there.

Correspondent: Oh, I see! Got it.

Tillman: That’s the invention. I use the device of writing. It had to be a letter. And I use the device of writing to someone who had also been in this situation and who then went on to become a writer. And his characterization of this event, I objected to. And of course, the “I Lynne Tillman” who is writing this objected to it. There was an Ollie. He was a musician. There was no writer.

Correspondent: Well, I’m curious about this idea of autobiography. I mean, when you’re mining from it after you’ve experienced it, after you’ve thought about it, what dregs are left generally? Is there anything left to mine? Are there incidents that are the basis for two separate stories sometimes?

Tillman: Well, it’s not drained of all feeling. But you’re able to see in an incident that you yourself experience, with more distance, a way that it has pertinence for other readers. In other words, it’s not so close to me anymore that I can’t give it up, so to speak. It exceeds my own personal history.

The Bat Segundo Show #392: Lynne Tillman (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Jaimy Gordon

Jaimy Gordon appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #391. She is most recently the author of Lord of Misrule.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Praying to equine gods for a better motel room.

Author: Jaimy Gordon

Subjects Discussed: Dancing with award winners, the Gargoyle interview from 1983, how “the best young writers” change in an instant, Michael Brondoli, Tom Ahern, on not being terribly prolific, being cherished by 25 people, Shamp of the City-Solo, battling procrastination, subterfuge by husbands and publishers to get Lord of Misrule finished, inspiration points from John Hawkes, learning Italian, the use of Yiddish words in Lord of Misrule, referring to the same character from multiple vantage points, creating inconsistencies, Two-Tie’s philosophy of the world, private people who scheme, passing time and stories before radio and television, Cynthia Ozick, Marilynne Robinson, the pre-Internet storytelling culture, Steven Milhauser’s Edwin Mulhouse, Kellie Wells, the use of television in fiction, DH Lawrence and sex, staying “young” as a novelist, hanging out with criminals, being preserved by immaturity, the problem of not working enough, joy and ecstasy as a requirement, Nicole Krauss’s refusal to dance, Janet Maslin’s sense of “the exotic,” the National Book Award judges, Gordon’s explanation of her “churlish” speech, “A Night’s Work” as the origin point for Lord of Misrule, characters who escaped the novel, Two-Tie vs. Batman’s Two Face, the problems of drinking a lot, having an uncle as a loan shark, the multiple meanings of dirty books, the many ways that a grown man can get into trouble, using one’s own life as material, being a dark romantic, on not believing in real life, discussing opera with Bill Clegg, challenging Jane Smiley’s notion of the “narrowness of the world,” colors and description, the dangers of falling down the linguistic rabbit hole, unexpected methods of attracting regular readers, astute reviews from horse racing people, happy accidents in the author/reader relationship, vulgar desires to see one’s novel at an airport, the need to love literature, Donald Westlake’s Parker novels, how popular literature chronicles the underworld, Leonard Gardner’s Fat City, Balzac, the myth of pulp, loving horse racing despite its corruption, Czeslaw Milosz’s notion of America as a moderately corrupt country, the complicated emotional connections between humans and animals, and the paucity of fiction dealing with animals.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Gordon: I didn’t think I was writing this for the small presses. I thought that this was a book with some commercial potential. And I eagerly gave it to my then agent, who showed it to a few places and came back and said, “You know, Jaimy, I think you have to face it. You’re still a small press author.” I was very depressed and very mad. My agent and I — she’s a very nice woman, maybe not good for that kind of book — we parted company at that point. And I worked on the manuscript again for a few years. Sporadically. Took out of it some of the Medicine Ed material. About this 72-year-old illiterate groom who knows how to work roots, knows how to do folk magic, and is looking for a home. Trying to make this big score for that purpose. I reworked some of that Medicine Ed material into a separate story, which came out in Witness and I loved the way that that chapter came together. I decided I had to redo the novel that way. But I didn’t finish it before I was overtaken by the deaths of my two parents and other things that happened in the last decade. But anyway.

Correspondent: Did it require an ultimatum from McPherson? “Hey, Jaimy, you better finish this book!” Is this the only way to finish a book for you?

Gordon: At some point, I must have rashly promised him that he could have it by the summer of 2010. I’d even kind of forgotten about that. Because I’d many times vaguely told him, “Well, if no one else will do it, you can have it.” But I had meant to get it out there and sell it. And I do think that I could have probably found someone if I had really asserted myself. Gotten a new agent and so on. But I’m a procrastinator and easily distracted. And I forgot about it. And suddenly McPherson said, “Well, it’s going to be this summer, you know. It has to be this summer because I think this book could be a contender for the National Book Awards.” After I stopped laughing, I said, “Well, alright.” I figured this book has been sitting there. An unmovable, implacable obstruction on my writing table for the last ten years. At the least, I gotta get rid of it. I’ve got to get it out of my way. I said, “Alright. I’ll start revising it.” This was maybe back in May. But I didn’t start revising it. And I found out later that he and my husband, who’s also a writer — a German writer, Peter Blickle — were having conferences. “What are we going to do to get this woman back to work? She has to finish this manuscript!” And somehow McPherson got the brilliant idea of sending me galleys with this corrupt early manuscript. It was even the earliest manuscript.

Correspondent: (laughs) Oh really?

Gordon: They must have sent him the file back before I even took the Medicine Ed material out. And so he sent me galleys. I mean, it’s easier now to generate galleys than it used to be. But he sent me galleys and he said, “Well, this is the book.” This is the book coming out in July. We’re sending this to press on such and such a date. And I was absolutely horrified. The biggest problem in getting back to work on it had been that, for five years, I couldn’t bring myself to read it. I could not make — I mean, it’s really hard to revise a book without reading it. And, for some reason, I just had an aversion to it. I know why it was. I’ll explain in a minute. But at this point, I was galvanized, horrified into reading it. And when I did, I thought, “This is not bad at all actually.” I had even forgotten a few subtle points of the plot. I found that I cried twice when I read it. I thought, “Well, you know, I must really have something here.”

Correspondent: Crying for the good reasons, I hope.

Gordon: Yeah, that’s right! I wasn’t crying because I thought it was so bad. I cried because I was moved at the plights of some of the creatures therein. But anyway.

Correspondent: Ten years of procrastination. I mean, that’s a lot of procrastination. Especially since the book here…

Gordon: Oh, that’s nothing for me.

Correspondent: Really? Nothing? Why do you require publishers and husbands to play such tricks upon you? I mean, some writers make up the excuse, “Oh well, I’m always thinking about the novel!” or “I’m submerging myself in the novel when I’m not doing anything related to the novel.”

Gordon: How about “I was occasionally thinking about the novel?”

Correspondent: Yes!

Gordon: Occasionally I thought about it.

Correspondent: Essentially, you’ve got a “My dog ate my homework” here. So what’s the real excuse?

Gordon: What do I do?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Gordon: Well, both my parents had lingering last illnesses. And they required care. But I was not — I’m one of five siblings. There were plenty of others. But nevertheless, there were very big events in my life. And then there was another family member who was sick. That took time. But what did I do to make myself better? Did I go into my study and write? No. I took Italian lessons. I got passionately involved in opera. In fact, I have to write some kind of a book about opera because I’ve spent so much of my time following opera in the last ten years. It’s the way horse racing was for me at a certain stage. So it’s going to be absolutely necessary for me to make use of it at some point.

Correspondent: Who was the novelist who said that the novel is everything that an author has been thinking about for the last five years?

Gordon: Who was that?

Correspondent: I’m blanking out on the name.

Gordon: The way I heard it, it was ten years.

Correspondent: Ten years. There’s variations of this quote. It seems to me that, for you, it’s actually the five years from forty years ago. Is that safe to say? Do you require a long introspection time before finally getting the project nipped in the bud?

Gordon: The truth is: this novel was substantially written between 1997 and about 2002. I know exactly the date because I was in the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown as a returning fellow on the beginning of a sabbatical in fall 1997. And it just so happened that John Hawkes, who had been my teacher at Brown, was there on a senior fellowship for the month. And I always associated my passionate interest in horse racing and my urge to write about it with him. Because he had written about racetracks in Sweet William and The Lime Twig. That’s probably the most famous of his novels that concern horse racing in any way. He was kind of a fantasist about horse racing, although eventually he bought a crippled old, once great stakes horse. Whereas I had actually worked on the racetrack. And when I saw him in 1997, I said, “I’m finally going to write that racetrack novel. I’m here to start it.” And he said, “Well, make sure you make the horses into real characters in that book.” Which I did, I thought. But it didn’t take an extraordinarily long time to write an advanced draft. I don’t write early drafts. I don’t tear through 400 sheets of paper never looking back. I construct every page and work on every sentence a long time. And I’m really fairly well along by the time I get to the end of the book the first time. But I also do a lot of new writing when I go through those pages again.

The Bat Segundo Show #391: Jaimy Gordon (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Holly Tucker

Holly Tucker appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #388. She is most recently the author of Blood Work.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why his bank statements come back bloody.

Author: Holly Tucker

Subjects Discussed: Early philosophical notions of blood, ill humors, whether science without the scientific method can be adequately called science, the Royal Society, William Harvey and the discovery of circulation, Descartes and mind/body dualism, the ethics of unmitigated animal torture, Sir Christopher Wren’s city plan and the Great Fire of London, the connections between architecture and medicine, Claude Perrault, Da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man, the physiology of architecture, Wren’s animal experiments at Oxford, early scientific interest in the brain, French rejection of English scientific theory in the 17th century, medical theory and medical practice, questioning everything as a sport, prostitutes vs. Protestants, claims that the English are liars, royal censorship and Henry Oldenburg, the medical culture wars between France and England, monarchies and clear ideas, staving off espionage issues while pursuing science, the Parisian medical elite, the role of women in 17th century medicine, Jean-Baptiste Denis, the remarkable sacrifice of Antoine Mauroy, throwing a scientific temper tantrum, the charming nature of megalomaniacs, whether early scientists took delight in making dogs miserable, Robert Hooke’s tracheotomy experiments, writing about dogs being muzzled and experimented upon with a dog sitting at your feet, remorse in early medicine, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, Arthur Coga, experimenting upon the poor and the vulnerable, Bethlem Royal Hospital, the shifting nature of medical consent over the centuries, and the relative “grisliness” of medicine.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I know bloodletting. And I know bleeding. Not personally. But I do understand that its historical basis was based off of trying to release the ill humors out of the blood. And all that.

Tucker: Absolutely.

Correspondent: The big question I think we should start off with, so that people know what we’re talking about, is: How did such a primitive approach to blood become something? Why did people start thinking, “Oh! We could probably use this for transfusion purposes! We could probably use this for transferring one blood to another!” It seems, in light of its early use before the 17th century, that there was nothing in the cards to suggest that human beings would come up with something like this.

Tucker: No. The fact that they did in the 17th century is, in itself, the story that we’re telling. Because for millennia, they believed that the body was just this mix of fluids. As you said, humors. Blood, phlegm, bile, black bile. Ill health was when those fluids were out of balance. And good health was when they were in balance. We laugh now about bloodletting. Because we think it’s the most gruesome and horrific thing. And it was. But it made total sense to them. That they would need to — well, that and purging and laxatives. So what you tried to do was rid the body, where you could, of all these foul humors. So you’re going to ask me about how they got to blood transfusion.

Correspondent: Yes.

Tucker: I’m trying to make my answer nice and compact for you.

Correspondent: Oh, I see!

Tucker: Because what happened — I will go for the next ten minutes.

Correspondent: Well, go for a protracted answer. Protracted answers, by the way, are welcome here.

Tucker: So when you start dozing off, you tell me.

Correspondent: Oh no. No, no, no.

Tucker: And jump in with questions.

Correspondent: There won’t be any dozing here. I assure you. I’m fascinated by the subject. We’re talking about blood! We’re talking about gore!

Tucker: Gore.

Correspondent: We’re talking about viscera. Okay? You note that some of the natural philosophers were so duped by their own success that they couldn’t actually judge the results objectively. Edmund King reported that sheep he had infused with milk and sugar were more than ordinarily sweet. I’m curious, just talking about the Royal Society. We’ll get into the French later. What were some of the chief factors that made the Royal Society carry on with these things without this scientific oversight that we now know in the 20th and the 21st centuries? Can we really call these early efforts “science” if there was — well, first of all, they lacked the vigorous oversight. But, second of all, the unmitigated torture of animals, which we can also get into.

Tucker: Well, I would say that what they were doing was science. They believed that what they were doing was science. In fact, early blood transfusion happened because of one of the biggest and most important scientific discoveries in medicine, which was the discovery of blood circulation, right? And William Harvey was very methodical about how he went about discovering blood circulation in 1628. So he was really confused by this idea of humors. He shouldn’t have been. Because it had been the dominant way of viewing the body for millennia, as I said. He said that there has to be a better explanation. Or at least there has to be a good scientific explanation about how these humors work. And he was suspect about the whole idea that blood was produced in the stomach and then was distilled into the liver and moved up to the heart, where it burned off like a furnace, and that breathing was a way to stoke fire and also blow off the fumes. And that’s what they believed up until Harvey. So he started to do some detailed methodical experiments by, first, dissections. Animal and human. Looking at how much blood was in the heart. And then he noticed in a human heart that there was about two ounces of human blood in the heart. Multiply that by the number of heartbeats. He found this obscene number. Forty-one pounds of blood would have to be produced in a half hour. So he said, “This cannot be.” So then he started doing experiments on live animals. Particularly coldblooded animals. And he said, “Aha. No. Blood is circulating.” So you know, for as much as we look back and, yeah, there’s a lot to laugh about in previous periods.

Correspondent: A lot to laugh about. Torturing animals? A barrel of laughs.

Tucker: Okay. A lot to laugh about as far as how they understood the body. And the way the worldview dictated the questions they could ask and the answers they could then get. Because it’s a completely different philosophical, economical, and political framework that we have now. Yeah. Torturing animals is not a cool thing. It never has been. It never will be. But there too, you can start to see what’s happening. It came from a notion of the body and the mind and the soul being distinct. And that’s an idea that’s coming out in the 17th century in the works of, for example, Rene Descartes. Quiz. Who’s Rene Descartes?

Correspondent: He’s some guy who was all about thinking. Maybe therefore. Something along those lines?

Tucker: Maybe “I think therefore I am.” We associate him with the scientific method, right? My daughter is in grade school and she just did one of her first science fair projects and came home and did the poster. And it was almost like watching Cartesian indoctrination in her science. Because he put that idea forward and he also put that idea forward along with another one — which was mind/body dualism. He said, “Hmmm. What differentiates animals from humans? Both animals and humans have bodies. And those bodies are very likely similar. Maybe they’re machines.” And this is the age of hydraulics. This is science being invented. Barometers, you name it. So it makes sense that they’re viewing the body as a machine. And he says, “Well, if we broke machines in bodies, there has to be something that is different. Well, we have minds. We think. We speak. We have souls.” And those souls and the capacity for thought can’t be in the body. Because animals, he said, don’t have that. And so if we take the soul of an animal, and they become nothing more than machines, then it’s a bit like working on your car. Are you really torturing that animal? Now I’m not saying that I think that. But that’s what Descartes allowed the natural philosophers, as scientists were called, to be able to do. It’s to start taking apart those machines. Those animals.

Correspondent: We’ll get more specific into animal torture in just a bit. But I do want to actually jump off…

Tucker: That’s a nice segue.

The Bat Segundo Show #388: Holly Tucker (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Aminatta Forna

Aminatta Forna appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #383. She is most recently the author of The Memory of Love.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Trying to remember where his lost car keys are so he can learn to love again.

Author: Aminatta Forna

Subjects Discussed: Writing about Sierra Leone without naming the country, adopting a tone that is simultaneously universal and specific, combating the “news vision” of the Western mind set, the moon landing and the historical sense, “Kung Fu Fighting” in a different context, media mechanisms and attempts to memorialize, Albert Dada and roaming travelers, fugue controversy, narrative ideas emerging out of research, having to leave some research behind, entering other people’s lives, spending two weeks in an operating theater, carrying over the character of Adrian from Ancestor Stones, when “lesser” countries are asked to explain their existence, Adrian playing a role for the reader, the disparities between Kai and Adrian in The Memory of Love, kinship between cooking and surgery, challenging someone to a race on a beach and breaking an Achilles tendon, how similar character qualities can be a benefit and a risk, characters and a prefigured narrative, writing a perspective from the male vantage point, roadside stops and car moments used to foreshadow tragic events, getting arrested, the ethics of colluding with corruption, “writing like a scientist,” avoiding conscious thinking about metaphor, conflating fiction with fact, how a “unique” Sierra Leone story is ubiquitous in Sierra Leone, Argentina as an early influence for The Memory of Love, “pasting the facsimile of a smile on my face,” being a people person, why “not being evil” doesn’t necessarily make you good, PTSD as a normal characteristic, “write about what you know” versus “write about what you want to find out,” and the novel as a medium for relative normality.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to talk about Albert Dada, who is a figure in A History of Mental Illness, the invented book within the book. You have Adrian come across the case of this guy, who decided to abandon his gas station. And this, interestingly enough, is a psychiatrist. And then he goes ahead and starts traveling at 70 kilometers a day. Just becoming this crazy, wild, roaming traveler. I’m curious how that served as this cultural reference point. Because he’s not exactly as popular as, say, Neil Armstrong.

Forna: Oh, well it went the other way around actually. It went the other way around. I was told a story about a woman. A true story. By a human rights worker. A Sierra Leone human rights worker. And I was told a story about what this woman had suffered during the war. How she had fled to a refugee camp in a neighboring country and then come back. And what she found, this human rights worker told me. And I don’t want to give the story away. But it was so shocking. It absolutely left me speechless. And that story returned to me when I came to write The Memory of Love. And I wanted to create a patient for Adrian. You know, Adrian is there looking — he’s there to help himself as well. But anyway, what happened was that I tried to think of, to actually imagine, if that happened to you, what your mind would do. Or what it would do to your mind. How can we survive that? And I came up with something that I had already seen happen a little in Sierra Leone, which was that people often did step out of their lives. And women in particular often did just step out of their lives and go walking. Not in that fugue state. Not in a dissociative state. It was just a self-healing thing. They would say, “I’ve got to get away from here for a bit.” And they would just go traveling and they would come back. And nobody thought this was curious. It was just part of the culture. So I thought, “Well, here’s something she might do.” Because she has suffered this extreme trauma.

So I began to read about fugue. And then I realized that there was this whole controversy around it. I wrote a book about it. And it all seemed to fit. It fit with what Adrian was there to do, which was try to find something that might advance his career. As well as help the country, of course. But you know, he had other motivations. It fit with Agnes: the character, the patient he sees. So these are wonderful moments where you get this perfect storm in your research. But that’s the way I work. I do quite a lot of research and after the research comes the ideas usually. I go places. I know some writers work like this and others have a plot and then they fit everything to the plot. But I tend to go and see. And then the stories arise out of that.

Correspondent: But there must be a danger in getting bogged down in too much research. The idea perhaps that you attempt a narrative, but that it doesn’t necessarily flesh out. Is this an issue with you?

Forna: Yes. Both of them. (laughs) The “too much research” — it’s less of a problem because I used to be a journalist. So we got used to having to leave some of our research out. We knew that you can’t get it all in. Which is always the danger. The first failing of young journalists. Attempt to use everything they’ve discovered. I know that there will always be a place for it in a later book. And I was once asked this by a creative writing class that I was talking to. “Well, what do you do with the research that you don’t use?” And I said, “Well, it’s usually the next book.” Or it’s the one after it. So nothing’s ever lost. I don’t worry too much about that. And what was the other part of the question?

Correspondent: Oh. It was about the amount of research and also what happens if some finding doesn’t work its way into the narrative. Yes.

Forna: Well, of course, my books are character-led rather than plot-led. So I will always refine the plot to what they are likely to do. But research is important for all kinds of reasons to me. Because it sparks so much. I love it. The reason I am a writer, the reason I was a journalist, is because I love entering other people’s lives. So in that period before I actually sit down to inhabit the character that I’ve created and become that person, I spend quite a lot of time trying on parts of their life. So for Kai, I spent two weeks in an operating theater. For Adrian and Attila, the African psychiatrist that is rather ill-tempered who he works with, I also spent two weeks in a mental hospital in Sierra Leone. So I try on their lives to see if they’ll fit when I come to create the characters. Somebody called it “method writing.” And maybe sometimes I go too far. But I enjoy it a great deal. I enjoy all of that. And when I come to write it, I feel that I fully constructed this person. And now I can be them.

The Bat Segundo Show #383: Aminatta Forna (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Toby Ball

Toby Ball appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #380. He is most recently the author of The Vaults.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Spilling green ink all over the public records.

Author: Toby Ball

Subjects Discussed: The descriptive connection between sound and voice, Ball’s background in teaching, envisioning a scene before writing it, devising a 1935 parallel universe, alternative forms of photography, prethinking information technology, children who intrude upon the conversation and ask about the microphones, telling an old-fashioned pulp yarn, the Berlin Document Center, the Nora chapters as placeholders within The Vaults, the frantic qualities of pulp literature, characters locked in location, Hard Case Crime, Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature, detecting another person’s typing from observing the strokes, keylogging, Suge Knight as inspiration, the Anti-Subversive Unit inspired by 9/11 propaganda, designing a three book arc, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, marijuana cigarettes, Hearst and the criminalization of marijuana, mentioning alternative countries (Poland, et al.) instead of the key players in World War II, the city as physical space, ideological information, character life that comes from specific limitations in vernacular, turning a preexisting rumor into narrative fodder, working at Congressional Quarterly, Red Henry’s mistress reading Nietzsche, and tight consequential corners.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: It is interesting how the voice — somebody’s voice — tends to be imposing. More so than the bigness of Big Henry and the like. It’s very interesting to me that sound seems to be the linchpin. Particularly because the technology in this book is rather interesting. I mean, here we are roughly around 1935. A little parallel universe. And we don’t really have motion pictures. We have some possible version of photography with the replacement system that comes in the Vaults. And that’s why it is very interesting to me why sound is such an important quality. It’s almost as if sound in your world matters more than image to a large degree.

Ball: That’s an interesting idea. And I think a lot of the book is about information. Both the information that is overt and then there’s a certain amount of information that has to be gleaned from other pieces of information. And I think that the idea that people can assert powers in ways other than the physical or through violence or through having political power or whatever sometimes comes through. Certainly with your ability to dominate things vocally. Maybe not even verbally. You don’t have to necessarily have a great way with words. But if you can take up more space around you than the other person to serve as an alpha male thing, I guess.

Correspondent: Well, did you prethink any of the technology in the book? Or for that matter any of the history? We do have allusions to the Great War. We also have the Birthday Party Massacre, which is both a funny and a grisly idea. And it makes me wonder whether you had any masterplan for this alternative history or you were inventing things and filling in the gaps as you went along?

Ball: Well, what I was most interested in, I think, was how do you organize information. And because of that, it had to be before a certain period. Say the 1960s. And moving it back to the ’30s and combining it with these ideas we have about the ’20s and ’30s gangs, and things like that, I think that that was the first step in doing it. But I also wanted to create a complicated and…

[Two children walk up to the table and start staring intently at the microphones.]

Child #1: Where did you get that?

Correspondent: Well, hi.

Ball: Hi.

Correspondent: There’s a…

Ball: The microphones?

Correspondent: Yes, the microphones. You can get these microphones at just about any audio place. We have a child here who’s decided to…(laughs). Hi. What’s your name?

Child #2: (more aggressively) Where’d you get that?

Correspondent: Well, we got these through — I got these through an audio supplier. So.

Ball: Pretty cool.

Correspondent: But anyway, you were saying?

Ball: Well…

Correspondent: We have an audience. (laughs)

Ball: We have an audience of two. So from there, while I kind of wrote and sort of developed some more things I was interested in writing about, I think that’s where things kind of move on. What’s the importance of having accurate information? What’s the value of that? What can you get by taking discreet facts? And simply by organizing them, by insuring their purity, how does that in itself become information? And to try and combine that with — you know, I think there’s a certain fun aspect to the ’20s and ’30s. Where you can get this noir-y feel abut things. To a certain extent, the book has to be fun too. You have to want to read it, and the atmosphere, and things like that. Does that kind of answer your question?

Correspondent: It sort of does. I think what I’m also kind of curious about — since you are talking about information as a starting point, when did you drift off this focus on information and more into just telling a good old-fashioned pulp yarn?

Child #1: (still enraptured by microphones) Do those really work?

Correspondent: Yes, they do.

Ball: Yup, they work.

The Bat Segundo Show #380: Toby Ball (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Karen Russell

Karen Russell appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #379. She is most recently the author of Swamplandia!

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wrestling alligators that the mean men left in his motel room.

Author: Karen Russell

Subjects Discussed: How “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” transformed into Swamplandia!, origin stories of characters, expanding and embroidering, the tradition of underworld stories, Dante’s percolating possibilities, heroic kids and their totem animals, the River Styx, the Seven Remaining Houses in Stiltsville, bookmobiles as boats, Kiwi as autodidact versus Ava as experiential learner, siblings as id, ego, and the superego, torturing characters, the risks of diverging from the established text, how Russell arranges her ideas, dealing with the constant froth of ideas, the way that time and space relates to the body, writerly tics, the dangers of the word “limn,” the many alligators named Seth, characters who share names close to the writers Louis Auchincloss and Emily Barton, the health benefits associated with not looking back, sentences ending with exclamation marks, child neglect and the places where protective services can’t reach, the early introductions to Sesame Street, grief and denial, “printing the legend,” the amusement park competition between Swamplandia! and World of Darkness, Adventureland, the scarcity of quirky plots, optimistic delusions and the dangers of uncritical faith, belief in the dead as a fantasy, managing opposing fantastical virtues while finding parallels between Ava and Kiwi, the naivete of employing Max Weber’s values in the contemporary world, egotism and genius, including blanks within sentences, knowing the “music” of your own home phone number, facing the blank page, working with Jordan Pavlin, pop culture in Pavlin-edited novels, and fighting for expletives.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Russell: The sprawl. This mimetic mangrove sprawl! I really got carried away with that place. I loved that setting and could see it so clearly. I wanted to just expand and embroider in a way. My agent and editor suggested that I do some serious paring down to what ends up being the dramatic action with Ava and Ossie. And then that just did not seem the plateau to keep those sisters on. I ended up feeling very frightened for Ossie and Ava, and disturbed about both sisters. And I think at a certain point I decided it was going to be an underworld story. I thought it was going to be this underworld Odyssey. There’s a nice tradition to work in there. (laughs)

Correspondent: Certainly.

Russell: That’s not copyrighted by Persephone.

Correspondent: No lawyers involved.

Russell: (laughs) Yeah, right. Don’t tell the Greeks.

Correspondent: Well, on the other hand, by explicitly referencing the River Styx — as you do about 150, maybe 200 pages into the book — I said to myself as I was reading this, “Oh, why did she have to go ahead and do that?” Because it’s nice to have the reader infer, “Oh!”

Russell: To trust.

Correspondent: “A River Styx-like metaphor.” I’m wondering if, in relying upon a myth like that, there is a danger in being too explicit. On the other hand, a reader can infer almost a Huck Finn-style situation as well.

Russell: Right.

Correspondent: What of this conundrum?

Russell: I really didn’t want it to be a one-to-one correspondence with any one of those stories. Although I’m sure they’re just in our bloodstream. Huck Finn and, as you say, the Odyssey. Dante. I think all of that was definitely percolating. But I think it’s dangerous to say, “Right. This is going to be Hamlet. But in the voice of a parrot!” Any way it reads just as that very direct correspondence.

Correspondent: Yeah. But at some point the decision was made to reference the River Styx.

Russell: Yeah. Well, my thinking there was that Ava, this child, is so glutted on those exact stories. Both the Yearling kinds of tales about heroic kids and their totem animals or whatever, and also the older myths. These older fairy tales. So the River Styx would be something from The Spiritualist Telegraph, which is a book that her sister has found on this wrecked Library Boat. That the kids are autodidacts. They are home-schooled on this island and they go to this wrecked Library Boat to get this magpie view of the reality outside their island. So they do have these piecemeal references coming in. And so much of her vision of the world is by analogy. It’s through the lens of these fairy tales and myths that he’s reading. I didn’t want people — but I do think it’s a danger. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I’m doing in the octave of the swamp.

Correspondent: Sure.

Russell: Hades.

Correspondent: Well, there is definitely a Stilsville. There’s seven remaining homes. I’m wondering if there was actually a Library Boat system similar to the Bookmobiles. I didn’t get a chance to actually delve into this. I was trying to look around. Because that really captured my imagination.

Russell: No! Wouldn’t that be great?

Correspondent: It would be fantastic!

Russell: What a great idea!

Correspondent: It would make complete sense in an archipelago.

Russell: I’m saying. Get some government funding. I think it would be so wonderful. And I ended up excising a lot of material about in the Library Boat.

Correspondent: Really?

Russell: That didn’t belong. But I thought just because I’m a nerdy bookworm, my god, that would have been my paradise. If there was a wrecked ship full of books. No librarians to nose around what you were reading. You could just take and go. And I love the idea that people would come and leave books. Which, you know, is the system that exists. But there would just be a book with a constantly evolving library.

Correspondent: Add Borges on top of that. Then you’ve got a really interesting idea. (laughs)

Russell: Oh yeah. Get Borges to captain that boat. Seriously.

Correspondent: Well, we got in a bit of a flurry here from the original trajectory. But Kiwi. I’m curious how Kiwi came to life in this. Because he starts off being a side character. And then he becomes, well, this is the other side of the story. And as we pointed out earlier, he’s not in the original story [“Ava Wrestles an Alligator”].

Russell: Right.

Correspondent: Why Kiwi above anybody else? Or rather above Ossie, who just disappears entirely? Because it is interesting that Kiwi is more of an autodidact where Ava is more of an experiential learner.

Russell: That’s beautiful.

Correspondent: And I’m curious about how this came into being.

Russell: Oh, I’m so glad that she reads that way to you. I was thinking the two sisters — you have Ossie, who is the book’s unconscious. I mean, she is totally merged with her idea of herself. This clairvoyant psychic experience. She goes way off the deep end into the occult. And then Ava, I think she’s on a plateau where she hasn’t really committed to any one way of seeing. She’s seduced by this world of the ghosts. But I wanted her to be one more voice, one more force. I almost wanted to think of these three siblings as the superego, the ego, the unconscious almost. Because Kiwi is this hyperarticulate. Self-identifies as a genius. Knows lots of big words, but mispronounces them.

Correspondent: Now, now. Schematic though.

Russell: Thinks meningitis is a compliment. Right. So he has this idea of himself as a really literate, really astute reader. An adult reader of the world. So he is, in many cases, a voice of reason. And I think Ava toggles between these two views. She’s got her brother, her older brother, who’s more rooted in reality. Informed by the mainland. Albeit, also at the same time, stunted and naive. Because he’s grown up on this island forty miles away from the mainland. And then she has this sister, who is this frightening lost character. Sort of deranged character. I don’t know if that answers your question. But I wanted Kiwi because the book really needs a character to work in a more comic register.

Correspondent: To torture. As you did.

Russell: Well, I do in fact torture him?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Russell: Well, I don’t think that I torture him. I think that I just put him in a situation among mainland teenagers and then watch what unfolds.

The Bat Segundo Show #379: Karen Russell (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Jessie Sholl

Jessie Sholl appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #378. She is most recently the author of Dirty Secret. Ms. Sholl will also be appearing at the Barnes & Noble Tribeca on Wednesday, February 2nd, at 7:00 PM.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Packing his rats before they rat his pack.

Author: Jessie Sholl

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Sholl: Her job was affected by her hoarding in the way that her brain was affected by her hoarding. In the way that her brain causes the hoarding. Because she just wasn’t able to keep up. She wasn’t able to organize the tasks. And so she wasn’t able to complete them on time. So she would clock out when her shift was done, and she would continue doing the tasks. She would keep working for an hour or two off the clock. She kept getting into trouble for that. And also, in the book, I think she’s 63 at that point. She’s about four foot ten. And she weighs about 200 pounds. So she’s very cumbersome. And she was slow. She was just really slow. So most of the people she was working with were in their twenties and thirties. She just couldn’t keep up. So I don’t even know how much of it was the organization problems in her brain or how much of it was just, physically, she was just old and slow.

Correspondent: Absolutely. But there wasn’t any real disparity between the hoarding impulse at home and the nursing impulse at work? Being a nurse and all that.

Sholl: Yeah. That’s one thing that I found really interesting when I started doing this research. And also when I joined the Children of Hoarders support group. It’s amazing how many hoarders are nurses. And that just blew me away. I feel that it has something to do with — okay, another statistic about hoarding is that many hoarders were abused as children. And a lot of times, when someone is really abused as a child, they get something called a caretaking syndrome. Where they like to take care. This happens quite a lot with animal hoarders. That’s what animal hoarding often is. They want to take care of something that’s helpless, something that cannot reject them. Because they got no care as a child. They got just coldness. Which is what my mother had. And so personally — now I am not a doctor. This hasn’t been studied that I know of. But that’s my own theory. And I think that that’s the reason for the high rate of nurses. When they go to work, they are caring for someone. So these are people that, they can’t really take care of their children. But they can take care of a person in a hospital.

Correspondent: You mentioned abuse earlier and how that tends to be a way, that it carries on. Late in this book, you have a situation where your mother confesses to you that her own parents abused her with dogs. She, in turn, I would say, abused you with the snakes. You have a fear of snakes. She sent you down to the basement, pretending that there were snakes down there. She sent you packages with fake snakes. She put rubber snakes in your Christmas stockings. You know, this strikes me as something that is tremendously abusive. The question is: Even though she can relate to the abuse in terms of her own abuse, from years before, do you think she really understands the nature of what she’s doing when she taunts you with the snakes? Is it abuse?

Sholl: No, I don’t. I think she truly believes that it’s funny. And that’s one of the things about my mom. She’ll have a moment of clarity — and this is why it took me so long to finally just give up and throw up my hands. I mean, we still have a relationship. But I’m done fixing her. Trying to fix her. I’m done cleaning our house. All of that. But one of the reasons that it took me so long to do it is because she’s a smart woman. She has a good sense of humor a lot of the time. She’s well read. We talk about books. And she’ll have a moment of clarity where I’ll feel a connection. And so it was those moments of clarity and those moments of connection that gave me this taste of what it could really be like. And that made it hard to stop. But eventually I did. Anyway, back to your question about the snakes. I have seen tiny glimmers of “Oh, wow, maybe I should not tease Jessie anymore about snakes.” But you know what? If I got a package in the mail tomorrow from my mother, I would make my husband open it. Because I could not be sure that it wasn’t another snake.

Correspondent: Well, on that subject, there’s a moment in the book where you say there are still things about her that make you happy. It seems to me that these are related to these glimmers. But reading the book, I was almost at a loss sometimes to determine what it was about your mother that made you very happy. Because she’s constantly abusive. I haven’t even brought up the scabies situation, which I’ll get into in just a bit. It’s almost that by writing the book, you’ve got a challenge here. Because you’re depicting her problem and it may come at the expense — there’s one moment where you say that there are things she does that make me happy. But what are those? I didn’t really get that from the book.

Sholl: Well, you know, we can have very lively fun telephone conversations. She really is a charming person. I mean, when my husband first met her, I was so terrified to introduce her to him. I was just terrified that he would judge me and decide that he didn’t want to be with me, and whatever. And he said, “She’s cute. She’s adorable.” And there is that side to her.

Correspondent: But just these telephone conversations? Just this charisma? Isn’t it actions that make you happy? Because happiness for another person, or fondness for another person, or love for another person comes down to gesture and action. Not necessarily words.

Sholl: No, that’s a good point. You know, I think a lot of times the love is there. Because she’s my mother. And I just can’t help it. I just can’t help but care about her. We have a very unusual relationship. Definitely.

Correspondent: You’ve used the word “acceptance.” But what about forgiveness? Do you forgive your mother?

Sholl: Yes, I do.

Correspondent: You do?

Sholl: Well…

Correspondent: It’s okay if you don’t. I don’t forgive my mother, if you want to get down to it.

Sholl: I’ve never even thought about that before. I don’t know why I’ve never thought about that. You know, I can point to individual things. The scabies. I have forgiven her. I have never been so angry in my life when we got them the second time. And she refused initially to help. To get medicine. But I did eventually forgive her. Some of it was just time passing. I guess, for me, forgiving my mom is just accepting her.

The Bat Segundo Show #378: Jessie Sholl (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Misha Angrist

Misha Angrist appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #376. He is the tenth person to participate in the Personal Genome Project and is most recently the author of Here is a Human Being.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering how sequencing relates to funking people up.

Author: Misha Angrist

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: What’s most curious about this book is that it seems to be very much about mapping your own neuroses as much as your own genome. It’s almost as if your quest to understand the implications of the PGP has led you to understand the implications of the implications of your own particular attitude. For instance, you write that you and your wife had a rough patch. There’s the point where you declare that Loudon Wainwright’s “Therapy” as your theme song, which was astonishing to me. You attempt to interview James Watson and you have this $83 paperback that you purchase, but you don’t actually get the interview. Which made me feel for you, I must say. And the sly suggestion here, I think, is that self-reflection may very well be just as important as understanding the genome. So what of this? Why did this strategy go into writing this book?

Angrist: Well, I think to call it a strategy is very generous of you. You know, I wanted it to be a first-person personal narrative that was going to be about personal genomics. I started graduate school in 1988. And I finished my postdoc in 1998, and went on to cover the biotech industry and market research in a fairly miserable job. And I should say that Ed’s Rants and Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind were great friends to me during those years in the desert.

Correspondent: Wow! You make us seem like we’re palm trees or something.

Angrist: (laughs) You’re a lot more interesting.

Correspondent: Than a palm tree?

Angrist: Yes.

Correspondent: But we’re talking about you.

Angrist: But you gave me succor.

Correspondent: We’re talking about you and your self-reflection. I only just met you now. I just want to be clear on this.

Angrist: Yes. But it doesn’t feel that way. To me, anyway. You may want to pretend that we never met. So then I got a job as a science editor and I continued to watch the field grow and change. And so I had many years of stuff that built up inside me that I felt I needed to say. So I think that’s one thing. Another thing is when I read George Church’s article in Scientific American in 2006, it was a real lightbulb moment. And I felt like here was a guy who was articulating things that I felt for a long time, but didn’t know I felt them. And so that sort of brought me clarity. And then finally — and I alluded to this a moment ago — so many science books that are intended for popular audiences are just awful. So many trees have given their lives so that people with the best intentions wind up writing cheerleading, didactic, anti-cheerleading…

Correspondent: Polemical. Let’s not forget that.

Angrist: I’m sorry?

Correspondent: Polemical books as well.

Angrist: Yes. Right. Screeds.

Correspondent: Rants.

Angrist: Yes, rants. I mean, those are just shameful.

Correspondent: Yeah, absolutely. Expatiations.

Angrist: (laughs) So I wanted a book that had real people in it.

Correspondent: And looking in the mirror, you saw a real person.

Angrist: Well, I saw something.

Correspondent: You saw someone who was worth sacrificing trees?

Angrist: I saw something that I knew something about. I was on a panel with Annie Murphy Paul. And someone asked her, “How did you make the decision to put yourself in your book?” And she said, “Well, I happen to have access to my own thoughts and feelings.”

Correspondent: Not always mapped on a genome.

Angrist: That’s right.

Correspondent: So you’re getting the stuff that isn’t mapped. And mapping that. That was the suggestion with my question.

Angrist: Well, I think people who glance at the book probably look at it or assume that it’s this deterministic thing. And I wanted to be very clear that that’s not where I was coming from. On the other hand, I’m not interested in making the case that it’s useless. I simply wanted to take a picture of where we are now and where we might be headed and what some of the contingencies are.

Correspondent: I’m wondering. To what degree does having access to your genomic data altered your notions of privacy? I mean, this is a very confessional book.

Angrist: Yes.

Correspondent: As I said, that’s kind of why I felt the need to give you a hug right before you sat down. Because I very much worried about you during the course of reading this book. I worried that you would slip further, the more you discovered about yourself through the genome. I’m curious if your neuroses deepened as you accessed more information. Similar to this dilemma of: Well, here we have all this genomic data and we can’t map it all. Because there’s just a shitload of it.

Angrist: Right. I would say that my neuroses had relatively little to do — I’m sorry. Let me rephrase that.

Correspondent: Little to do? I was going to call you on that. (laughs)

Angrist: I would say that my genome had relatively little to do with my psychic ups and downs. And my therapist at one point tried to gently make the case that the whole book was sort of an exercise in acting out and I don’t know.

Correspondent: You required a therapist to complete the book?

Angrist: Expiation. Uh, I required a therapist. Period. (laughs)

Correspondent: Okay. Did your genome require a therapist?

Angrist: Well, probably everyone’s does. But of course, everyone’s doesn’t. I mean, this is one of the things that, being among the first, is. You know, you sit down at a computer and you look at an Excel file full of broken genes. And you think, “You know, I should be dead fifty times over.” But of course that’s a reflection of how little we know and what a redundant system we are.

Correspondent: Well, I’m going to try and make things a little bit more pithy and important with my next question.

The Bat Segundo Show #376: Misha Angrist (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Elia Suleiman

Elia Suleiman appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #374. He is most recently the writer and director of The Time That Remains.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Constantly examining his watch.

Guest: Elia Suleiman

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to touch back on a point you were making about the democratization of the audience with a specific ultimate…

Suleiman: The popcorn-less?

Correspondent: Well, the popcorn-less and those with popcorn. In Divine Intervention, there’s a wonderful clip involving your answer to The Matrix. The ultimate democratic video scenario, YouTube, features this clip and a quarter of a million people have seen the clip. A user named Firestarter89 offers this comment: “It’s like some Muslim smoked a bunch of weed and watched Wonder Woman and The Matrix.”

Suleiman: (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m wondering, with a clip like that presented on YouTube, if you’re worried if that gets away from the point of the trilogy. That presented independently without any kind of context, people don’t actually know that it’s really your clip. There’s just a bunch of people who enjoy that clip for what it is. Is that troublesome for you as a filmmaker? On one hand, you’ve got an audience here. But they have taken it and turned it into something completely different, as this user Firestarter89 clearly has.

Suleiman: Well, I mean, it would be too long to now discuss the potence and impotence of the Internet and YouTube. And I don’t look at my own clips, by the way. I never watch what they say. I’m not really interested in this kind of image ghettoization and the very consumerist element of it on the Internet. So I actually protect myself from this pollution. However, yes, to take it out of context is really harmful. Because in the narrative of the film, what we see is his fantasy, his inner fantasy of his lover disappearing. So he wants her to come back as a victorious hero in an almost B-movie like or kitsch-like ambiance. When that episode is finished, he is cutting onions in order to cry. So we see that the result of it is this impotent character who is even unable to cry. So it is an extremity to that violent and that victorious heroism.

I have to tell you a story. A funny story actually. One time, a man stops me. A young man stops me. I was trying to film something on a small camera in Ramallah on the street. For nothing specific. I forgot. Maybe to take a note. I don’t even remember. And he doesn’t know who I am. He just stops me. He stops me and he says, “Are you a filmmaker?” I said, “Well, kind of.” And he said, “You know, you Palestinian filmmakers are all losers. You know, you don’t know how to make a real film. You don’t know how to do anything. You know, make us a film like this guy who made this ninja film.” And I told him, “What guy made the ninja film?” I asked him to describe the action and it turns out to be the segment of Divine Intervention. And I told him, “Well, I’m going to try.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Suleiman: And he said, “That’s filmmaking for me!” So of course there’s going to be always this level of misinterpreting or taking things out of context. You cannot control that. Look at my biography. I mean, I’m sure that I’ve been presented with at least ten biographies of my life. None of them is true to my biography.

Correspondent: And yet here you are making movies that are rooted in autobiography. As such, there’s the classic saying that we accept fiction for its truth — particularly in this country — more than autobiography or memoir, in which you constantly question the facts.

Suleiman: But, you know, I’m not at all pointing fingers at anyone. But the fact is there’s always a tendency to bring down to earth again what you’re trying to bring to a potential reality. Rather than bring it back to the actual reality. So you’re trying to fight the media distortions. And they bring it back. Eventually you have a TV interview. You’re put in the news. So I don’t know how much we can — on how many fronts you can actually start or stop, deter — I mean, I can barely make my movies. So to start also campaigning against YouTube or distortions of the media, it’s very difficult for me. But I think that one could also say, rather than look at it from a defeatist point of view, if it gave anyone out there some pleasure and some dreamlike potential for a better world, then I think we are — if I feel that I’m doing the best I can, if I feel that I’m trying to dig out the little monster inside of one’s self. Not necessarily the monster only that you project on. You’re trying to evaluate. Re-evaluate your own acts. And trying to become a better person and call it your own moral equation. I think this far I can do. But I can’t go beyond that.

The Bat Segundo Show #374: Elia Suleiman (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Paul Murray, Part Two

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On December 5, 2010, the Irish novelist Paul Murray encountered one of Mr. Segundo’s many agents before a full audience at Word Brooklyn. The two gentlemen proceeded to talk, with smart audience interjection and Mr. Murray reading from the book, for a little under 90 minutes. Just as the tape ran out, the very patient Word Brooklyn staff wisely put an end to this gabfest. The two gentlemen had no idea they had rambled on for so long. From all reports, neither did the crowd.

The first part of this conversation is now available for your listening pleasure as The Bat Segundo Show #370 (also referred to as “Phyllis Presents,” for reasons known only to those possessing the appropriate handbook). It is about 41 minutes long and involves the initial Q&A between Mr. Murray and our most mysterious agent.

The second part of this conversation is now available for your listening pleasure as The Bat Segundo Show #371 (which does not possess any alternate name, we are sorry to report). It is about 38 minutes long and features Mr. Murray reading from his latest novel, Skippy Dies, along with further questions from our agent (and many from the crowd). If you listen carefully to this second part, you may be able to detect a broken haiku.

The producers wish to thank Brian Gittis, Stephanie Anderson, Jenn Northington, Sarah Weinman, and (of course) Paul Murray for their great assistance (much of it at the last minute) in making this special conversation happen. We hope to offer similar “live” conversations in the future.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Recoiling from the pleasures of being applauded by a recorded audience.

Author: Paul Murray

Subjects Discussed: The origins of Bethani, the original length of Skippy Dies, storylines cut from Skippy Dies, the narrative need for an adult ballast, the importance of the school as a microcosm, Infinite Jest, open-ended narratives, tradeoffs, the impossibility of second-guessing an audience, Roland Barthes, cartoon sex, absurd editorial exchanges concerning the physicality of mermaids, balancing gender perspective, getting Lori’s emotions right, Catholic schoolboys, amoral characters and teenage beauty, authentic teen voices, requests for a “director’s cut” of Skippy Dies, trying to find uses for scrapped material, when descriptive “transplants” don’t work in revision, and the importance of listening to editors.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Murray: I didn’t want it to be an Infinite Jest level narrative. I think that might have had its day, in fact. That sort of completely open-ended narrative structure. Because once you read Infinite Jest and you get to the end of 1,000 pages and realize he’s not going to tie it all up. Sorry to anyone who hasn’t read the book. The butler did it. That in itself is not quite a gimmick. But it’s a device. And it’s a device that people will get bored of. So you need to find new ways. Roland Barthes, who I read a lot unapologetically, he talks a lot about, “If you destroy something. If you try and destroy something, it just comes back.” Like you just sort of preserve the dialectic. So what you need to do is subvert it by making fun of it or just twisting things and tweaking things. I guess that’s what I was trying to do with the book. I really like — I watch tons of — far too many movies and TV programs and stuff. So I wasn’t coming at it with some kind of Puritanical urge to — like an Alain Robbe-Grillet sense of “I puke on the novel.” I wanted it to be a story that some of the people would enjoy. So yeah, it does look like a lot of elements. It’s got characters and it’s got jokes. It’s got plot twists and stuff. I would argue that it doesn’t work in a sort of three-part type of way. Because Skippy dies at the beginning. And then it tracks back. The first two parts are tracking back. What happened to him. And then the last part is just dealing with the effects of his death. So it is kind of chronological. Quite weird.

Correspondent: Well, what do you trade off when you are writing for the audience like this? Are there certain areas that you went into further? Because the book is very candid about the teenage lifestyle. And drugs and sex and things like that. Did you go further in this earlier draft? Were there things that were perhaps just too off-putting for the audience that you were seeking? I’m just curious.

Murray: I genuinely would try and avoid — I mean, if you start thinking of your audience, then it’s impossible to second-guess an audience. Because people react in ways that you can never imagine. So you’re on a losing streak with that. And also you’ll just freeze up if you start worrying about what people will think. So I tried to avoid doing that. That said, I did have more extreme things happening in earlier drafts. And I think it was because it was hard to gauge the right level of shockingness. And it wasn’t that I wanted to shock people. It was more that I was worried about censoring myself. I was worried that the editors won’t like this scene. So I’m going to leave it in there! Which is a very stupid way of writing a book. But that’s what I did.

For instance, the Bethani character, who writes a lot of these strange porno songs. There were more of those than there needed to be initially. And there’s a very disturbed character called Carl. His stuff was initially — there’s a bit where Carl is at home looking at porn on the Internet and he seems to be looking at this toon porn, which is characters from Disney — Pocahantas and the Little Mermaid, Snow White and so forth — having sense with various other toons. Smurfs having sex.

Correspondent: Imagination or research into this?

Murray: Uh, no comment. But there was a humorous exchange with the publishers. With Penguin. Because initially they were saying, “I think Disney may have copyright on these. So we’re going to have to write to them and say is it okay?”

Audience and Correspondent: (laughs)

Murray: Okay, I don’t know if they’ll go for that. But it turns out.

Correspondent: Did you get any yeses? Yes, it’s perfectly okay for a Snow White and a dwarf 69. Or something.

Murray: (laughs) You know that site!

Correspondent: No, I…no comment!

Murray: That’s one frisky dwarf.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Murray: No, but it turned out that it was legal. It was okay. The Penguin legal department checked this out. It was fine. You could use those references. But there was another bit. A Penguin editorial assistant, who is a very nice and lovely girl called Anna Kelly, said, “You have Pocahontas giving a lickout to the Little Mermaid.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Murray: “Physiologically, that’s not actually possible.”

Audience and Correspondent: (laughs)

Correspondent: Your imagination then!

Murray: “Dear Anna: Thank you so much for that.” So if you know anything about the English publishing industry, then you know it’s run by these very sweet, very polite women. And so there’s this humungously embarrassing email conversation back and forth. “Maybe we should have the Little Mermaid giving a lickout to Pocahantas.”

Audience and Correspondent: (laughs)

Murray: “Oh! That seems like the best solution!”

Audience and Correspondent: (laughs)

Correspondent: Oh boy. Anybody have a question to follow that up with?

The Bat Segundo Show #371: Paul Murray, Part Two (Download MP3)

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