The Bat Segundo Show: Paul Murray, Part Two


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.


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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The Bat Segundo Show: Paul Murray, Part One


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 influence of cinema, Gene Tierney, Glengarry Glenn Ross, the “Intelligent Eye” system, constructing a soundtrack for life, characters who flee reality, Anthony Lane and the Beijing Olympics, the camera increasingly pervading existence, Murray’s hero worship of David Lynch, balancing audience demand for traditional logic with shocking character revelation, Twin Peaks, not making sense as a bold aesthetic move, David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Lynch vs. Pynchon, David Shields’s Reality Hunger, excavating the old in the quest for new fiction, Tristram Shandy, the importance of having a big nose, gutting from reality, Russell Hoban’s “feeling unreal is an essential part of reality,” mid-century Irish naturalistic writers, Irish fiction’s failure to interrogate modernity, video games as a teenage refuge, gamebooks of the 1980s, the Walkman as a shift in the way we perceive reality, The Legend of Zelda, Team Fortress 2, Shigeru Miyamoto, computer games and narcissism, Skippy Dies‘s slips into second person, the frustrations with maintaining a dimwit first-person perspective in An Evening of Long Goodbyes, the Celtic Tiger, writers and bank statements, the unexpected rise of phones in Ireland, lattes in Ireland, working in a cafe without comprehending focaccia, Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches, ineffectual use of outdoor jacuzzis in Ireland, property fairs, Robert Graves and the Great War, Gallipoli, World War I Irish involvement erased from the history books, the Church and child abuse, Michael Durbin of The Irish Times, derivatives, and whether the novelist is guilty in ignoring certain narratives while coating reality within a fantasy.


Murray: It needed to be structured in a way that wasn’t linear and that wasn’t naturalistic. Because I just don’t think like that. I wasn’t trying to be experimental. I just thought that, if you are a kid nowadays, your life is not very linear and it’s not very naturalistic. Because you’ll spend most of your time looking at your phone or looking at a screen. Or watching the TV. You’re very rarely actually where you are. Do you know what I mean? I guess maybe that’s part of the human condition. Never to be actually tuned into what’s around you. But it seems like the whole thrust of the 21st century is just to take us further and further and further away from where we are. And further away into strange digital fantasies.

Correspondent: And this probably explains why so much of Skippy is about this meshing between reality and fantasy. That, in your efforts possibly to examine life with these delimiting technological factors, you’re saying that it led inevitably to this blur between reality and fantasy?

Murray: Yeah, I think that’s what you do when you’re a kid. As I say, when I was a kid, there was no Internet. And computer games — I wasn’t quite Pong era.

Correspondent: Asteroids maybe.

Murray: Yeah. But I think the teenage — the way you kind of cope with the stresses of being a teenager is to take refuge in TV shows or films or computer games. Like I was really into those — well, I wasn’t into role playing. But there were these gamebook things.

Correspondent: Oh yeah.

Murray: Where you rolled the dice and fought orcs.

Correspondent: Yeah. Like the Lone Wolf books?

Murray: Yeah! Yeah! Totally!

Correspondent: I totally played those. They were great.

Murray: Don’t tell anyone.

Correspondent: It’s on tape, I’m afraid.

Murray: Ah! Again with the orcs! Oh no! When are the orcs going to get along?

Correspondent: I know.

Murray: That’s what you do. You’re constantly — like when I was growing up, the Walkman arrived, you know? And I’m going to argue that the Walkman is a major shift in the way we perceive reality. Because for the first time, you can carry music around you. And you start narrating your life. Like the self-narration just shifts gear. Shifts higher up. And that kind of process is — as I say, what technology gives us is more and more elaborate ways of doing that. So the kids in the book, because they’re young and they’re afraid and they’re lost, they take refuge. The big example is Skippy. Skippy’s this fourteen year old, quite reclusive boy who is addictively playing this computer game. Kind of a Legend of Zelda-like computer game. And have you ever played?

Correspondent: Zelda? Yeah, yeah. That thing sucked too many hours out of my life.

Murray: Yeah, it’s crazy.

Correspondent: Now it’s Team Fortress 2. If we’re going to be professional.

Murray: Yeah?

Correspondent: Oh yeah. Oh god.

Murray: Okay. We can talk about this later.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Murray: I mean, I’m not a huge computer games player. But my brother had a — whatever the machine was to play Zelda.

Correspondent: NES.

Murray: And it’s the same guy. The same game designer. The guy who invented Donkey Kong back in the ’70s has now done Legend of Zelda. And he creates these incredible worlds that are so powerful and are like art forms in some ways. In the richness of detail and in the beauty of them. But they’re not like art forms in the fact that they don’t challenge your perception. They don’t challenge you as a person at all. They make you like the master of this world that you find yourself in. Which is like a really narcissistic kind of fantasy. And the kids lose themselves in these fantasies of control and power. You know, like the same way if you walk down the street and you’re listening to Tupac, you kind of imagine that you’re Tupac. And even if you’re fourteen and very small, if motherfuckers come at you, look out. So that’s what you’re doing. I guess the really obvious conceit of the book is that that’s what everybody’s doing these days. That as an adult, being an adult or being mature is less and less part of the adult experience. Instead, being old and adult is someone with more spending power who can buy better enhancers or escapes from reality. Part of the reason the world is so — I’m trying to say fucked — is because we feel less and less responsibility for the world around us. Instead we’re just fleeing into whatever Apple has just produced and for a thousand dollars.

The Bat Segundo Show #370: Paul Murray, Part One (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #369. Mr. Bacigalupi is most recently the author of Ship Breaker. His short story collection, Pump Six, has been recently issued in paperback.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Attempting to juggle several bleak futures.

Author: Paolo Bacigalupi

Subjects Discussed: How to stay writing after getting four novels rejected, Schopenhauer and the will to write, Mr. Bacigalupi’s bleak temperament, the relationship between personal temperament and fictional temperament, why short fiction markets are more open to a dark vision, talking specifically about specifics, imaginative detail in Bacigalupi’s early stories, William Gibson and hyperspecificity, permitting the reader to fill in the gaps, improvisation and what details emerge from the memory banks, devising an imaginative concept vs. the influence of phrasing, the relationship between language and spontaneity, the importance of manipulative violence, whether or not addicts can be sympathized with, stylistic momentum, past tense verbs and participles, getting annoyed with language tics, getting self-conscious about repetition, the frequency of words, the mysterious obsession of the (ology) site, John Banville, using the word “spray,” dreaming space, cannibalizing from the four unpublished novels, uprooting reader expectations through the Windup reading order, origin stories, the disadvantages of writing within established universes, cheshires and megadonts, contending with the logical fallacies of a really cool imagined creature, how the location of a calorie company created numerous narrative variables, the influence of Katrina on the Windup universe and the Ship Breaker universe, descriptive teeth and metaphorical Teeth, the inspirational qualities of biting and tearing, body metaphors, analyzing one’s own writing patterns, J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun, speculative narrative extrapolated from details in the present moment, consequential details vs. making things up, global warming, liquified coal, applying an aesthetic to data points, Lewis Carroll, missing hands and facial scars, Heinlein’s Friday, the Dauntless, James Lennox Kerr, Patrick O’Brian, Citizen of the Galaxy‘s heavy influence, and extrapolating from facts vs. extrapolating from books.


Bacigalupi: It’s almost all improvisation, actually. Very little is planned out. There’s a detail that I have in my bank. And I use it. And you’re always acquiring material, whether that’s from visiting your in-laws or whether that’s from reading a novel. If it’s somebody else’s novel, you’re reading some natural history of the world. Whatever it is. You’re always gathering material. And so then it’s just there. And I don’t even know why, oh, at this moment, I’m looking for a detail that does this kind of a thing. I want to indicate the scope of the world. Or in this particular case, I want to indicate the scope of the calorie companies. Things like that. And, okay, where can I go to do that? What do I have in my repository that seems like it’s a useful tool for that? And then I’ll start pulling things down. So is there an intention that I have? There’s something I want to illustrate. There’s an experience I want to get deeper into. Then which pieces are going to go into it? That’s very much on the fly.

Correspondent: In terms of this being on the fly, how does this work in relation to you devising an imaginative concept versus language? Does phrasing sometimes kickstart a concept more than what you have in the bank, so to speak? I mean, I note for example “cillin” instead of “penicillin.”

Bacigaulpi: Right.

Correspondent: Little things like that we often find in your universes.

Bacigalupi: Right.

Correspondent: So the question, I suppose, is how much language motivates the spontaneity versus how much some leg that you have motivates that particular spontaneity?

Bacigalupi: I don’t know. It’s sort of a combination. You know, the spot where I actually remember a piece of language inspiring me to write a story was more connected to “The People of Sand and Slag.” When I wrote that short story, there had been a little piece of microfiction that I’d written. I had written a paragraph. And it was all about these people lying out on the beach and chopping each other up. And it was sort of compelling. But I didn’t have any idea what to do with it. But I liked the prose. I liked the rhythms of it. And there was something so bizarre about it that I knew that I liked it. That became a part of the bank. That went in and sat there for a very long time until, much later, I was starting to play around with some other concepts for “The People of Sand and Slag.” And suddenly that thing was there. Oh, I get it. These people are immortal. These people are regenerative. They can do all of these things. And this is the perfect illustration for this cascade. And so this piece of — we’ll call it “poetic prose,” and almost none of it survived or entered into the story. But the prose of that, the experience of it for me, resonated for me strongly enough that it could then form an entire piece.

Correspondent: Well, I’m glad you brought that up. Because I actually do want to ask about a recurrent theme. It’s here in Ship Breaker as well. In “Sand and Slag,” we have violence directed towards girls or women. The Windup Girl has that with Emiko. “The Fluted Girl,” of course, has that. And it concludes on an act of revenge. I’m curious as to why you are really drawn to the kind of really degrading violence towards girls and women like that. Whether it’s just part of the bleak temperament or you feel that that’s really a good way to get the audience to feel sympathy towards these particular characters. Or whether it’s just an environmental reality that you need to convey.

Bacigalupi: Honestly, I think this actually comes in different moments for different stories.

Correspondent: Yes.

Bacigalupi: And you’re really illustrating very specific things. The violence that you see for Emiko is pretty manipulative violence. Because you’re really trying to get to a point where you generate enough empathy for her, so that later on she can go on a slaughterfest. And that you feel that that’s entirely reasonable. One of the things that’s interesting to me is that I felt very comfortable depicting her being degraded at one early point in the story and yet I didn’t depict her doing the slaughter later on. And the reason is, I don’t want to lose — I want to maintain character empathy in her. And if you see more than just the blood on the walls, if you see her tearing every single piece of meat and bone out of every one of her enemies, then you might not have that later empathy for her at the very end of the story. And so a lot of this is just manipulation honestly. It’s just flat-out manipulation. And it’s interesting. So in “The People of Sand and Slag,” the guy is the one being dismembered as an experiment in sex fun. And so I’m not sure. It definitely shows up every once in a while. “Softer,” the woman is definitely killed by her husband. And that one too has some disturbing aspects. Who knows? Maybe I’m a misogynist.

Correspondent: I’m not going to go ahead and put that label down. But I am curious about this. We’re talking about manipulation vs. empathy. And this also leads me to ask you about Lopez in Ship Breaker. The father. He’s a very brutal character. I’m wondering if there were efforts on your part to try to make him more sympathetic. When does a character, I suppose, become violent? Almost serving as a manipulative way to get the audience to sympathize with the hero?

Bacigalupi: Right. Yeah, with Lopez — Richard Lopez, he’s sort of based on my own — I had a next door neighbor who was sort of a crystal meth addict. And so I’ve never really had much sympathy for addicts anyway. And so I was perfectly happy to have that villain role fulfilled by him. Honestly, I wanted to illustrate a certain — in a lot of ways — over-the-top idea about what point you look around at family and say that family is no longer family. That they aren’t really valuable anymore. That they need to be done away with. And I tend to think of almost all human relationships as contingent relations. Everything is dependent on good behavior. I don’t really believe in the idea of family as family, or that friends are friends. It’s whether or not, every day, you’re sort of earning your friendship or earning the connections and support of your family. And vice versa. And so, for me, I just really wanted to illustrate Richard Lopez’s break with any sense of his obligations. The mutual obligations of family.

The Bat Segundo Show #369: Paolo Bacigalupi (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Cynthia Ozick II

Cynthia Ozick recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #368. Ms. Ozick is most recently the author of Foreign Bodies. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #210.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why Henry James forces him to have alarming dreams.

Author: Cynthia Ozick

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Ozick: The joy of dialogue. Oh, dialogue! It took me such a long time how to learn how to do dialogue. And I think I learned it from a single book. Which is Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. Which I actually studied to see how he made it concise and dramatic. And I think once you know the character, you have the voice. I suppose you could say that once you have the voice, you have the character. But I don’t think it works like that for me. Once you know the character, you can hear the character speak. And of course, they all speak in their own voices. I don’t know if that’s really related to music. I think that’s more related to seeing. Because you see the character. And if you see visually the character, then if I am looking at you, the voice that comes out of you is naturally yours. Because I see you. Whereas music is this mystery of mathematics. Including Confucius, music and math go together. And that’s a wonder about E.M. Forster. He’s one of the few writers who was very musical. I mean, seriously musical. And that’s in his writing as well. But I think the link with writing is more painting. We see this. It’s so interesting. John Updike had the ability to draw and write. So did Thackeray. Kipling. There are others. I can’t think of them now, but they’re so many linkages in writing and art. In other words, the pen and the eye. Whereas music is abstract math. So that’s where the voices come from. From the eye, I think.

Correspondent: It’s interesting that you mention Greene. Because of course, we know him for the colon. And in terms of looking at your dialogue in this book, what is rather interesting is that sometimes you have almost a Marianne Wiggins-like dash. And sometimes you have the quotes. I’m curious to the methodology behind that. How that developed.

Ozick: Well, that was pretty simple. I needed to have a dialogue in the historic present, so to speak. And dialogue before then. So for the earlier dialogue, I used the dash to distinguish it from the dialogue that’s occurring in the now. Even though the now is in the past tense. Because I have to confess. I have a lot of trouble with our common currency of present tense. Despite those great books of Rabbit [Angstrom]. I was once standing in a group of writers and was so humiliated. Because I mentioned my prejudice against writing in the present tense. And Updike was standing at my right elbow and said, “Well, my Rabbit books are in the present tense.” That was not a good moment. (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, why the aversion specifically to present tense? It’s used a lot more, I think, now than it was thirty years ago.

Ozick: Absolutely. It’s ubiquitous. I don’t know. It just seems that it spoils storytelling. Because it escapes from the magical “Once upon a time.” This happened once. If it’s happening now, then there’s almost no history in it. It destroys the past. And, of course, you see that writers who write in the present tense have to go back and deal with the past. You see that they then have to revert to past tense anyway. And it has a kind of inconsistency. And it’s simply unpleasant to me.

Correspondent: You’re saying that a novel really should present itself almost as a sense of history.

Ozick: Exactly. It’s a story that happened. Not a story that’s happening. And I guess that really needs to be explored. Why should a story that happened be better than a story that’s happening? I don’t know. Help me. Why?

Correspondent: Well, I think when you have a situation like — there was a book by Elliot Perlman called Seven Types of Ambiguity. Named, of course, after the great text. I mean, I like the book. But it has this really absurd situation because it’s written in the present tense. And the narrator’s going, “He’s hitting me.”* When I read this, I thought, “This is just utterly preposterous.” It immediately takes you out of the story.

Ozick: (laughs) Right!

Correspondent: If he “hit” him, right. But “He’s hitting me.” It’s like — wait a minute.

Ozick: Then how can you be writing?

Correspondent: How can I be participating in this? But with the past tense, you can feel a greater sense of participation in the activity.

Ozick: You can believe in it!

Correspondent: Yes!

Ozick: You can believe in it. I mean, it really helps the suspension of disbelief if you present it as a history. And isn’t this the beginning of the modern novel? My Man Friday?

Correspondent: (laughs)

Ozick: We’re supposed to believe that.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Ozick: And we do. Because it’s written like a history. No, I think you hit it when you said it has to do with history. And maybe that is a problem — if there is a problem — with much of American writing today. That it is rather amnesiac.

* — In all fairness to Mr. Perlman, I feel compelled to issue a slight correction. I told Ms. Ozick that I remembered the phrase “He’s hitting me” from Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. It has been a good six years since I read Mr. Perlman’s book — sent to me with a handwritten note by Ami Greko, one of the few publicists back in the day to grasp the litblog medium that is now simultaneously ubiquitous and passe. But I can find no indication of the phrase “He’s hitting me” within Perlman’s book. Yet the specific passage I was trying to remember when Ms. Ozick put me on the spot, presented below and written in the present tense, does indeed reveal how the reader can be thrown off when violent gerunds are involved. It still reads as absurd and remains just as applicable to the conversation at hand. This funny little episode also reveals how a fatal expressive error can be misremembered years later, perhaps subject to the same “rather amnesiac” problem with American writing that Ms. Ozick mentions. Authors, take heed when using the present tense!

“I’m going to fucking kill you!” I scream at him. I am punching his face repeatedly, left then right again and again against the smooth stone paving and I am going to kill him. He is squeezing tighter. I am killing him. I am trying to kill him as Anna is pulling me off. She has her arms around my shoulders. She uses all her strength to drag me off him. (80, U.S. hardcover)

(Image: Zugoli Lany)

The Bat Segundo Show #368: Cynthia Ozick II (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Susan Straight

Susan Straight recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #367. Ms. Straight is most recently the author of Take One Candle Light a Room.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Exploding Roman candles overlooked by the elite.

Author: Susan Straight

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Straight: I think what I’m trying to say about America is that it’s a series of villages. And everyone has a village. Again, people stay or people leave. But the idea that Americans want to forget that you come from a village — whether it’s the Upper East Side or Clackmannan Parish — that’s your village and you have to honor it. Fantine is the ultimate rootless traveler who goes on the road trip from hell with her father. Her father was really a pivotal character to me. I thought about Gustave and Enrique for months before I wrote this. And I wrote two short stories about them. The way that they became brothers was based to me on a true story told to me by an elderly neighbor. He came to my house for me to write letters to him. Because he couldn’t read or write. And I wrote letters to the VA. He was missing a little finger from the Korean War. And he was still trying to get money for it. And I grew up with his son. So he would come to my house. And I would write letters for him. And one day, we were sitting on the porch. And he told me this story of how he was an orphan. I mean, his dad was killed when his mom was pregnant with him. And he was seven years old. And he was hungry. And he wanted some meat. And nobody would give him any meat. No one would go get any meat. So he took a hammer. He walked three miles. He found a pig on a farm, killed it, dragged it three miles back to his house. Seven years old. And said, “Cook me some meat.” So that to me — the Enrique/Gustave — those are the men that I grew up listening to their stories of immense deprivation. Of walking fifty miles to go find a job. Of not ever having a mother and father, and making themselves into brothers. So that meant a lot to me too. That family at the end of the Clackmannan Parish Delta would say, “We’re still here.” It doesn’t matter what you do to us. We will still be here. Enrique was a big part of that for me.

Correspondent: Related to this desperate hunting, I have to ask you: Where did you get the idea of wrapping bacon around a gunshot wound as a home remedy? I asked a forensic science masters. I asked a medical student. And they had not heard of this. And I had not heard of this.

Straight: (nodding her head)

Correspondent: Aha! You did.

Straight: My mother-in-law told me that. My mother-in-law, I miss her so much. She died the year that that youngest child was born. And the last thing we whispered in her ear was that I was pregnant with her third granddaughter of our family. I mean, she had twenty-five grandchildren. My mother-in-law could have been born in Mississippi. She could have been born in Arkansas. She could have been born in Calexico. Nobody ever knew where she was born. We had to get her a birth certificate when she was fifty. My mother-in-law told me that when they were so poor — probably in Mississippi — that you would wrap bacon around the wound or salt meat. More likely salt meat. And that the salt pulled out the infection. She told me that when my children were really, really young. I mean, I knew her from the time I was sixteen on. And [my daughter] Rosette had this horrible infection on her leg. And we couldn’t figure out what it was. And we had tried everything. Antibiotics. Everything. One night, it was as if my mother-in-law spoke to me. And I had a piece of maple cured bacon. Farmer John. Stupid maple cured bacon. And I took that part. And I put it on Rosette’s wound. And I wrapped a dish towel around it. And the only thing I had to tie it with was Christmas tool. Like wrapping ribbon.

Correspondent: Wow.

Straight: She kept it on all night and all morning. Pulled it off. And the infection came out with the piece of bacon. It was the most disgusting thing you can imagine. And her wound healed over. And I just thought, “Okay, this is Alberta telling me what to do from the beyond.” And that’s exactly where that came from.

Correspondent: I’m shocked that, if this has happened, no mystery novel has picked this up. Or anything like that.

Straight: Exactly!

Correspondent: It sounds like the coolest way to get rid of a wound.

Straight: I took her to the dermatologist, who was Chinese. And she was like, “No, that’s not true. That’s not true at all. It couldn’t have happened.” And she dug a big hole in Rosette’s leg after that. And Rosette has a horrible scar now.

Correspondent: Oh wow.

Straight: So for us, the bacon. We should have just stuck with Grandma Alberta.

Correspondent: Quite literally, you must bring home the bacon.

Straight: Well, the sad thing is that that is one of those folk remedies that was passed down to me from my mother-in-law. Along with the title of the book. Take One Candle, Light a Room is something I’ve heard some older women say at some family reunion. And someone said, “Oh, is that your only child?” And she was like, “Take one candle, light a room.” And I was like, “Wow.” That’s the best phrase I could ever imagine. In a kind of defiant way to say, “Yes, I have one child. And that’s all I ever needed to make my life.” So everything I’ve been given like that is kind of like a gift from listening, I think. I’m the person who listens.

The Bat Segundo Show #367: Susan Straight (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #366. Ms. Wilkerson is most recently the author of The Warmth of Other Suns.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Warming up to fascinating history.

Author: Isabel Wilkerson

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I wanted to ask about one of the key pieces of conflict relating to the Great Migration that fascinated me. You pointed out that the old timers — meaning the African-Americans who had lived in the northern territory before the Great Migration — were harder on the influx of new African-American migrants moving into the northern areas than almost anybody else. The Chicago Defender has this list of dos and don’ts. The endless articles about what you’re supposed to do as a new migrant. I’m curious. Based on your research, to what degree did this conflict — what effect did this have on the progress that came later in the 1960s? Did this deter efforts at unity? You kind of get into it the book. But I wanted to see if your research led to other areas here.

Wilkerson: I think that it was generally a low-grade competition rivalry — and maybe resentment — that really grew out of fear. It grew out of an insecurity. Because the people who were already there in the North were small in number. They had been pioneers from way back. And they finally established themselves in these often hostile and alienating cities. And their rival of basically country cousins in huge waves to the big cities obviously raised questions for them about what was going to happen to them. What was going to happen to this perfectly balanced, well-honed alchemy that they created with the majority of the people in these big cities. And they felt embarrassed by them. They felt shame. They felt resentment. And they often didn’t want to be around them. I must point out though that, while they were most likely to be resentful of them, and to maybe be sneeringly judgmental of them, they were not the ones who were actually hurting them physically in the same way that others were. I mean, when they moved out into other neighborhoods, when they arrived in these big cities, that was when they might be firebombed. Because they were going into a neighborhood where they were not welcome. So the people who were there, there was more a sort of insider resentment and fear that’s very different. But actually, it’s just as painful to the people who were arriving. Because the people who were arriving were like people arriving from any far away place to a new land that they hoped would be better. And they felt very hurt by that. Very hurt. And it actually limited their ability to move about. They couldn’t join certain churches. So it was an in-group stratification that is kind of an inside baseball thing, but kind of human nature. It’s about survival.

Correspondent: It also seems to me to be about class divide. And that’s one aspect of 20th century black history that we really don’t discuss. Going back to the original question of whether an internal class struggle like this, I mean, did it really have a serious deterrent upon advancement?

Wilkerson: I think it did in the beginning stages. You know, while the people were new and untutored into the ways of the North, the people, they were pretty much rejected and not welcome. Over time, like any immigrant group that’s ever come in — and they were immigrants in the true sense of the word. Because they were born in the United States. They were American citizens. They went to another region in order to realize the rights that they were born to. They essentially acted as any immigrant would. And so they went to the people who were there. And they found that it was difficult to make that adjustment. But once they did make the adjustment, they in turn would become as sneeringly judgmental as the people coming behind them. That’s just the way human beings think.

Correspondent: The retrousse noses.

Wilkerson: Yeah, that’s right. Ultimately though, larger forces would intrude. And as a group, they found themselves all hemmed in by the larger economy that didn’t really want to have them. And I wouldn’t say that it impeded progress to that degree. There were rivalries in every group. I think that it certainly didn’t help. It was very disheartening for people who just arrived. It is. Because you’re rejected by your own people. It’s very painful.

Correspondent: Instead of having a polarization effect. To really fight a lot of the racism that was going down. The firebombing and the Cicero riots.

Wilkerson: Exactly.

Correspondent: Well, this is very interesting. Because you cite this 1965 census survey, in which it was revealed that a lot of the migrants moving in had more education — equal sometimes, but often more education — than the native white Northeners.

Wilkerson: Exactly. Which is astounding. I mean, when I saw that, it was just hard to believe. But part of this is remembering the era that we’re talking about. We’re talking about an era in which many of the people were children of the Depression. And many of them had had hard lives, no matter where they were. Many of them were the children or actual immigrants from other places. So the early part of the 20th century was not a time of great enlightenment overall, unfortunately. So life was hard for everybody. But how ironic, actually, that the people who came up in this Great Migration were actually slightly better educated when it came to the numbers. Now that doesn’t mean that we’re not getting the quality. Because the quality of education in the South was markedly unequal clearly. But they had put in the time. They had gone as far as they could. And then they left finally for hopefully a better life in the North and the West. But it’s interesting that the mythology and the misconceptions about these people. Once I began to discover them, I found that that became a big focus of the work that I hadn’t anticipated.

The Bat Segundo Show #366: Isabel Wilkerson (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Tom McCarthy II

Tom McCarthy appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #365. He is most recently the author of C. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #154 and The Bat Segundo Show #155.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Considering the vital associations between the third letter and the need to sweat.

Author: Tom McCarthy

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: Tom, how are you doing?

McCarthy: I’m fine. How nice to see you again.

Correspondent: Yes, how nice to see you too. I’ve been advised by you to ask not how you feel.

McCarthy: (laughs)

Correspondent: So now I’m wondering, by asking you how you’re doing, if I’ve betrayed what I’ve just said.

McCarthy: No, no, no. I’m doing a brisk —

Correspondent: Okay.

McCarthy: Briskly.

Correspondent: So we can have at least one bit of small talk. That’s acceptable.

McCarthy: Yeah. (laughs)

Correspondent: Okay. Serge says late in the book that the newspaper headlines have a nice alliterative ring.

McCarthy: Oh yeah. Beaulac bludgeons Mr. Block, bludgeoned in blue Beaulac.

Correspondent: Yes. Similarly, this book — it’s safe to say — that it could be read as a game of monkey see, monkey do. Ecce homo. Insert your bad pun of choice. In a word, there are numerous words beginning with — actually, not in a word, but in several words — there are numerous words that begin with the letter C. Carapace…

McCarthy: Cocaine, cyanide.

Correspondent: Copper, cable, control. You name it. The four parts are named after C. So this leads me to wonder. At what point did this come into being during the course of writing? And I’m wondering if there was a maximum C word count that you established during the course of writing this book. Just to start off here.

McCarthy: It came pretty early. Because the genesis of the book — well, there were several geneses.

Correspondent: Genesii?

McCarthy: Genesii. But one of them was thinking about Carter and Carnarvon, who dug up Tutankhamun. And I knew that a kind of hybrid of those two historical figures was going to be part of — I mean, Serge is a composite of several things. But that’s kind of one part or two parts of it. And so as a marker, I just used the letter C. I said, “Well, Carnarvon. Carter. Let’s just call them C for now.” And it was stuck. I liked the single letter title. It made me think of Sesame Street. You know, how every episode is brought to you by the letter.

Correspondent: C is for cookie.

McCarthy: C is for cookie, right.

Correspondent: But there isn’t a cookie in this.

McCarthy: No, there’s no…there’s no.

Correspondent: You do have cunt at one point.

McCarthy: (laughs) Yeah, that’s true. There was lots of Cs going on. I mean, the caul. With a U. Of the Wolfman. That was where it originally came from. Although quite a few critics later have pointed out that Copperfield — another C.

Correspondent: The Jennifer Egan review.

McCarthy: Yes, of course. And several others. And other people who have pointed out that, when he’s born, not only does he have a caul. But there is a copper being brought to make a transmission field. And I shouldn’t not take credit for it. Because it’s brilliant. But I wasn’t actually thinking of it at the time.

Correspondent: Well, maybe we can establish how much of the riffing on C was subconscious and how much of it was planned.

McCarthy: Yeah. I mean, that’s the thing. I think of it like pinball. You put a certain number of balls up. And then you hope they’re going to hit some buffers. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you may go into multiple modes. When there’s like three of them all going around the ramps and going crazy. But you’re not going to control every collision and every which lighting up of each little mushroom buffer at which point. So yeah, there were some very deliberate throwings out of different Cs. And not just Cs. A whole change in association along different mutating phonemes that’s really what the book is. More than characterization or whatever.

Correspondent: It was your own little bubbling chemical equation, essentially. With lots of Cs.

McCarthy: Yeah, kind of. Exactly. But you know the really exciting thing was when I remembered C as the chemical sign for carbon. Which is the basic element of all life. And it has a kind of proximity to writing, right? White, black. Carbon paper. CCs. Carbon copies.

Correspondent: BCCs.

McCarthy: A BCC and all this kind of stuff. It just seemed right. It started off as a marker and then it became the main thing.

Correspondent: The carbon association then came late in this act of writing.

McCarthy: No, it came early. But not at the outset. I didn’t start out thinking, “Oh, it’s all going to come down to the sign for chemical carbon.” I hadn’t even remembered that C was the chemical sign for carbon. I never did chemistry in school.

Correspondent: And then, of course, the third novel, C.

McCarthy: Yup. And already D figures in the new one. And the next one as well.

The Bat Segundo Show #365: Tom McCarthy II (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Paul Harding

Paul Harding appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #364. He is most recently the author of Tinkers.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Tinging with Mingus and tinkering with Tinkers.

Author: Paul Harding

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: We were talking before all this about the idea of novels and whether or not they can actually serve as a handbook for life. Something I don’t necessarily believe in. And I don’t think you do. But I wanted to address that. Because your book, Tinkers, does, in fact, present life. And I’m wondering how you, as a writer or just in general, arrange text as a way to present life rather than dictate life. Was this ever a struggle for you when writing this?

Harding: Not with this. I think I had done my apprenticeship to bad prescriptive moralizing writing and just ended up writing very bad propaganda.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Harding: You know, it was just designed to show people how progressive and enlightened and intelligent I was. And then I’d say the kind of operative word is description. And precision of description. And if you describe things precisely, you end up bearing witness to the truth of your characters — in this case, characters’ lives — in a way that does them the kind of moral justice that’s misplaced when you think you’re going to moralize. For me, it even starts with the writing process. The difference between writing declarative prose and writing interrogative prose. Like I don’t presume that I know something and I’m going to tell you how it is and that afterwards, if you’re lucky, you’ll be as smart as me. What I do is that I try to write interrogatively, discover things, work through revelation. It’s just a type of aesthetic. But then what you leave on the page behind you — when the reader reads what you’ve written, the reader will have the same kind of revelations and moments of recognition. To me, that’s like the greatest experience as a reader. Those moments of recognition. Where you read something and you simultaneously realize, “I’ve always known that’s true. I’ve never thought about it consciously and I’ve never seen anybody put it into language before.” So there’s a kind of morality to that. There’s some sort of confirmation of common humanity or whatever. But it’s not prescriptive, small-minded minor kind of moralizing.

Correspondent: I’m very glad that you brought up description. Because one thing that I really think is interesting about this book is the hyperspecific nature of the description.

Harding: Right.

Correspondent: To offer an example, you have George “reading by the dim light of a small pewter lamp set on the rolltop desk at the far end of the couch.” Now that’s extremely specific. And I’m wondering if that serves as a way for you to get the reader inside George’s head. Or is this a way for you as a novelist to kind of know where everything is situated? The only person I think who writes that hyperspecifically is possibly William Gibson or someone like that. A lot of the 19th century authors do.

Harding: Yeah. And I’ve certainly spent all my reading time trolling around 19th and early 20th century fiction. I mean, I almost think of Thomas Mann’s little preface he has to The Magic Mountain. That we will be long on detail, but when was a book ever short on interest that was long on detail? People would argue against that novel’s glacial — but it’s sort of a bit of both. Which is while I’m writing, I’m blocking the scene out, you know? And since my characters in Tinkers — it’s so interior that I knew from the beginning that I had to keep the world embodied. I had to keep it physically, tangibly present. Because otherwise it would just be feasting on ether. So there’s that. There’s the kind of geography of the room. But then it’s also to make the reader feel like he or she has been put in a real place. Actually put in a place where there’s a chair to your left. There’s a certain physical feeling you get when you feel that there’s a chair to your left and a sofa over here and a painting over there. That sort of thing. I also just believe in the virtue of concrete nouns and verbs. And I think it’s true too that there ends up being something hyperreal, rather than surreal, about it. But there’s really a cool kind of bandwidth of unintended affects that you can’t predict. But you use that process of total precision, almost pointillist precision, that you end up getting into these kind of transcendent or metaphoric realms. But not by lifting up out of the world or evaporating off of it, but by going deeper into what’s imminent. So you’d get so materialistic about it that then it turns into something you don’t recognize and you sort of double back on yourself and it becomes unrecognizable and sort of unsettling and hyperreal. So I love that. I just love that phenomenon.

Correspondent: But it’s not just also in relation to materialism. It’s also in relation to place. Of course, the clock theme that goes throughout with The Reasonable Horologist, which I presume is invented.

Harding: Yeah, that’s all invented.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if that text within the text [The Reasonable Horologist] was included almost as a way to distract the reader from the fact that the text, the prose itself, is almost written in this kind of William James, 19th century mode. And that by having this, you can almost justify the style that you’re doing within the actual prose itself.

Harding: It’s a little bit of — on the most generic level, it’s just to change things up. It’s just to use relief. So much of the book is very somber and funereal and twilit. And this is just a little more verbose and florid, and kind of tongue-in-check. It’s kind of humorous. And so it keeps the textures changing. But, yeah, I think it’s also true. Because the writing is formal and that kind of precision leads to that kind of, “It sounds formal, so it sounds archaic to some extent.” It was also just a fun way to write in that kind of, “Welcome, dear reader, to Reason!” You know, it just worked emotionally with the character, with George the clock repairman. His upbringing was so chaotic and disorderly that the idea of the deterministic, mechanical view of the universe is appealing to him. The idea that you can fix things, that it’s mendable, and that there’s an order to everything.

The Bat Segundo Show #364: Paul Harding (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #363. She is most recently the author of Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Confusing golden boys with golden tickets.

Author: Yiyun Li

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Li: The way I look at fiction is that the most dramatic moments do not come from physical or real dramas, but from internal dramas. And those moments are actually quite still, if you look from outside, and those are the moments I like to write about in fiction.

Correspondent: I’m wondering why narrative scenarios or stories tend to come more from that than, say, a natural collision of ideas. Or a natural collision of two characters arguing in a coffee shop or something.

Li: Right. I think with that scenario, if you have two characters, or two ideas, bumping into each other, there’s no space for them to stop. It’s like a train wreck. It’s like a crash. As a writer, you have to follow that. Which some writers do really well — following in that crash. By nature, I don’t think I follow that crash. But I like the aftermath of the crash. Or right before that crash. So I don’t follow the event. I follow the crash within the crash, in a way.

Correspondent: Do you feel that — if you had, say, an obvious crash, like two people — that this might complicate a narrative situation that you’re forming in your head? Or something like that? Do you work better from a minimalist narrative scenario than, say, a rather complex one?

Li: Yes. You know, in a way, I think my fiction doesn’t deal with a lot of physical actions. I think maybe that reflects my tendency to back up a little. Just to watch. And when I watch, my attention oftentimes is not with the physical crash or noise. I’m very sensitive to noises. And I think that those moments there — sometimes there’s too much noise. It’s too noisy for me. So I would go away. And I would go into the internal world. Where the noise is a different kind of noise. (laughs)

Correspondent: Have any sentences or any character developments emerged in your head from a noise? I’m curious.

Li: Oh, that’s so funny. No! I think oftentimes that the characters start with a very quiet moment. I don’t think I have — oh, I would say the counterrevolutionary who was sentenced to death in The Vagrants, she was the only one of my characters, I think, that had a little bit of noise in her. I mean, her experience was quite noisy. Loud. So she was the only one.

Correspondent: I mean, this is very interesting. Because I actually wanted to remark on one thing I’ve observed in your work. A very slight internal rhyme to your sentences. And I’m going to dig out some examples here to show that I’m not some paranoid, crazy freak here. “Spring in Bejing was as brief as a young girl’s grief over a bad haircut.” That’s in “Number Three, Garden Road.” In “House Fire,” “the court, as the last resort.” In “Kindness,” “I fumbled under the bundled clothes.” Not exact. But close enough. I mean, you mention sound. I’m curious how rhyme along these lines helps to anchor a sentence for you. How a sentence is formed based on this rhythm. Because there is this really wonderful rhythm, I think. And it comes out more directly to the reader, I think, with the internal rhyme.

Li: Right. So the question is somewhat about how do I come up with this sentences.

Correspondent: Yes! How does this musicality come about?

Li: Right. I think one thing is I have to write to the music. I actually imagine the music of my stories.

Correspondent: Oh yeah.

Li: And that’s one thing that’s really important. I’m not a visual writer. So I don’t imagine the images. I imagine the rhythm and the tone. So in a way, I think, you just have to push a sentence to match to the music in your head.

Correspondent: Aha! So you literally have the song going on.

Li: Yeah.

Correspondent: There’s a musical phrase right there.

Li: (laughs)

Correspondent: You have to get the sentence matching up exactly.

Li: Right.

Correspondent: Even if it’s diatonic.

Li: Right. It’s almost like the sentence has to talk to the music in my head, rather than anything else I think.

Correspondent: Is this why it often takes you so long to come up with a sentence or a story? Because you’re so exact like that?

Li: I am. I think I do pay a lot of attention to the sentences. And I also listen to music. Like sometimes I would choose a specific piece that would match the mood of the story. Or to the novel. I’ll listen to it again and again until I get it. The sentence and the music. They sort of have the conversation.

Correspondent: So I’m curious what kind of music is going on in your head. Are we talking the Ramones? Are we talking classical music?

Li: (laughs) Well, this is a little confession. My first book was written to U2.

Correspondent: Oh yeah?

Li: I was listening to U2 songs.

Correspondent: Which albums?

Li: Actually, all albums of the time.

Correspondent: Oh really.

Li: You know, my husband would make all these files on my computer. So I would have all the U2 sounds. And I would just go over and over again. While I listened to U2, I would write. That’s how my first collection came into being. But then I think my music has changed since then. Now it’s more classic music. I listen to Tchaikovsky a lot. Because I feel very close to his music. And Brahms is oftentimes in my accompanying pieces. And Mahler. I wrote one story — “Kindness,” the novella in the new collection — completely to Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.

Correspondent: Which Tchaikovsky? The 1812 Overture?

Li: 1812 Overture. Yes!

Correspondent: I knew it. That’s so fitting in light of the depressed nature of the characters.

Li: Yes. Tchaikovsky is really close to my mind, I think. I don’t know. His music moves me just beyond words.

Correspondent: I’m curious if you have thought to find composers and artists who are oppressed in some ways — as Tchaikovsky was.

Li: No. (laughs)

The Bat Segundo Show #363: Yiyun Li (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: David Rakoff II

David Rakoff recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #362. Mr. Rakoff is most recently the author of Half-Empty. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #167 and The Bat Segundo Show #168.


PROGRAM NOTE: This show contains many unusual moments: the unanswered phone calls ringing in Mr. Rakoff’s apartment, the race to the Internet to look up the word “vitiate,” the efforts by both gentlemen to assign various forms of depression and optimism to each other, the common counting mistakes (listen carefully to the intro), and Mr. Rakoff opening up a window. Since these flubs and quirks are presented here unadorned for the listener, we must offer at least one correction. Our Correspondent mangles a George Bernard Shaw late into the conversation. The correct quote is “The real moment of success is not the moment apparent to the crowd,” and comes from Caesar and Cleopatra.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Confusing threes, fours, and fives.

Author: David Rakoff

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: You just mentioned that you will not delve into certain aspects of your life in writing these essays.

Rakoff: For the most part.

Correspondent: For the most part. This leads me to wonder about “Shrimp.” The essay in which, as a child, you report that you have a desire to have a fast track to adulthood. This led me to wonder if you had even really attempted to view this from the reverse vantage point. Of you as an adult reporting back to David Rakoff the child, “Okay. Here’s what it’s all about. It’s perfectly okay.” You say you have a happy childhood. But you also have this longing to become an adult very, very rapidly.

Rakoff: Yes.

Correspondent: As a quick rung up the ladder. That’s just not the way life works. Why view it from this linear quality? This is interesting because you are often very digressive in your essays.

Rakoff: Yes.

Correspondent: Which is why I like them. But from this vantage point, from childhood to adulthood, you’re looking at only in one direction and not really the reverse. I’m curious why that was. Or if you have made attempts to look at it the other way. Or is that where the essay “Isn’t It Romantic?” comes into play? Is that you — okay, here’s the adult looking back to being a child.

Rakoff: Wow.

Correspondent: Just to throw some things at you.

Rakoff: Okay, let me see if I can parse this into something resembling an answer. Part of the reason that I don’t look back — or, you know, look in reverse — is twofold. I’m really not kidding when I said I didn’t enjoy being a child. So I don’t really adore remembering that. I’m not comfortable with who I was. I’m a little embarrassed with who I was. So I don’t spend a lot of time looking back. And also because I don’t generally try to mine my own life. It feels a little — I’m still not entirely comfortable with what seemed to be a certain sort of self-mythologizing aspects I’m not just comfortable using the details of my life. Although it’s a somewhat waffling response. Because this particular book is full of details about my life and things that are quite personal, I suppose.

Correspondent: And possibly the most personal of the three books.

Rakoff: Oh, undoubtedly the most personal of the three books. Yes, absolutely. But in terms of the forward-looking thing, there is that anxiety that marks whatever phase you’re at. And I think it’s an anxiety that marks life in general. Which is: Everything takes longer than you hope it’s going to. Everything. Everything has to gestate. Whether it’s work, whether it’s creativity, whether it’s just having people in the world knowing who you are and therefore throw work your way. It’s always, “Everything takes longer.” Certain recipes, where the congealing of albumen in an egg where you apply heat, you know, that takes the number of minutes that it takes. Everything takes longer than they say it’s going to take. It’s going to take years. To pay your dues. To get out of a job. Whatever. So it’s that source of tension. Which is that nobody wants to wait that long. Nobody wants to put in the time. And everybody hopes to be ushered past the velvet ropes or somehow upgraded on the great flight. To business class without having deserved it in any way. That’s a constant tension. Not just among me, but I think among every person alive. And every child wants to be suddenly older.

I suppose both essays are an attempt to both make sense of that and also to — if they are speaking to those younger people, to say, “It will be okay. This period shall pass.” And you will look back upon it not fondly. Because that would just be a little nostalgic and kind of unrealistic. But at least with some kind of peace. And I no longer quite begrudge myself those feelings, embarrassing though they may have been — you know.

Correspondent: But not wanting to look back. I’m wondering if this is one of the reasons why your sentences — and even more so with this book — are so ornate and modifier heavy and very phrase happy.

Rakoff: I am phrase happy. That’s a lovely expression! I’ve never heard of it.

Correspondent: Well, it’s one that just occurred to me.

Rakoff: It’s so good.

Correspondent: But if this almost serves as a kind of insulating mechanism, so that if you are going back to your self, you’re doing so in such an idiosyncratic way as to not direct kind of…

Rakoff: Oh, that’s interesting!

Correspondent: Putting your nib into your vein and letting the blood flood onto the page, which is what’s often said about writing.

Rakoff: Yes, it’s true. I guess though that being phrase happy is just inevitable. It’s the way that one moves through the world. You know, it’s the way that one looks at things. It’s the way that one speaks about things. Or rather the way I speak about things. You know, conversation and talking is my favorite thing. It’s my meat. So “phrase happy” is inevitable. It’s interesting to me that you would maybe see it as a kind of mediating or obfuscating screen. Because I see it as the opposite. As a way of actually getting at the exact nature of something. Because a reluctance to look back is not the same thing as not looking back. One cannot help but look back. But you know, it’s inevitable. And it’s not really in my control. So insomuch as I’ve chosen to in certain places, the best I can hope to do is to do so in an accurate and evocative manner. So that someone that I’ve taken along with me (i.e., the reader) will feel like, “Oh, I get what you mean.” That seems very vivid to me and I completely understand what kind of house this was, what kind of experience this was, or something. But, no, I don’t think of the barrage. You know, that huge wave of verbal diarrhea — which is the way I both speak and write –as being a mediating factor. I think of them as being closer to the nib in the vein.

Correspondent: Well, I think maybe it could be both. Words can both insulate and also be the telltale indicator to the reader, “Hey, if you want to go down my journey with me, you’re going to have to wend through my conscious patterns.” You know?

Rakoff: Sure.

Correspondent: And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s just the way that you are introspective on the page perhaps.

Rakoff: Precisely. And in life. I’m not one of those minimal guy speakers or writers.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Rakoff: I like words. It’s just like having a lot of spices in my kitchen. It’s just that I like having access to all that stuff.

Correspondent: Well, this also leads me to wonder — because you did bring up words in “A Capacity for Wonder.” You report your concern for bad neologisms. Particularly those that are muffed on lexical blending. Words like “innovention.”

Rakoff: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: Or “snackitizer.”

Rakoff: (laughs)

Correspondent:Or “appeteaser.” In your words, “It makes one suspicious, wondering about the ways in which the object in question is found so wanting, so insufficiently innovative or lacking in invention to warrant this linguistic boost.” I’m wondering. Do you greet all words — all language — with some level of skepticism or suspicion? What does it take for you to trust a word?

Rakoff: Oh! What does it take for me to trust a word? First of all, I have to know what it means.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Rakoff: And there are a lot of words — that as often as I pack my ear with them and look them up all the time — I can’t get them. I’ve even said this in an interview. There was one word. “Vitiate.”

Correspondent: It was our interview! We talked about “vitiate” last time!

Rakoff: Yes! And then I even — I’ve still not gotten “vitiate” — and I’ve said it again in another interview with somebody else!

Correspondent: Yes!

Rakoff: Because I still can’t get it into my head.

Correspondent: To wither or to dry.

Rakoff: It means to either strengthen or weaken an argument. Which one does it mean?

Correspondent: No. I thought “vitiate” means to —

Rakoff: Strengthen?

Correspondent: To dry. Like…

Rakoff: No.

Correspondent: No, no, no! Because you’re vitiated! Your energy forces are…

Rakoff: No, it means to either strengthen an argument or weaken an argument. One vitiates one’s argument.

Correspondent: Oh, in rhetoric, that is.

Rakoff: I don’t know. In the dictionary. Should I look it up?

Correspondent: We may as well. Because….

Rakoff: All my stuff is in storage.

Correspondent: Wait, I could do it.

Rakoff: (moves off microphone to computer) Wait, I can do it right here. On the Internet.

Correspondent: I was going to suggest. I’ve got a netbook on me too.

Rakoff: Generally, I use a — is this picking up on the tape, you think?

Correspondent: We could — yeah, I think it’s going to pick up. I can boost it or something like this. We’ll get this moment or I’ll — I thought it was “to wither.”

Rakoff: (still faint, on computer) No, I don’t think so. Vitiate.

(Phone rings.)

Correspondent: Yeah. To impair the quality. To make faulty. Spoil. To repair or weaken.

Rakoff: Revert.

Correspondent: Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Rakoff: Interesting.

Correspondent: Well, do you want to answer? (indicates phone) Because I can stop.

Rakoff: No, no, no. I’ll let the machine pick up.

(Rakoff returns to mike.)

Correspondent: Anyway, now that we have used the Internet to confirm what this word is.

Rakoff: Yeah.

Correspondent: Both of us are coming at it slightly wrong. I drew my attention to the weakening aspect of the word and you drew your attention to the rhetorical quality of the word.

Rakoff: Yeah. To ruin one’s argument.

Correspondent: Yes.

Rakoff: So it’s the same.

Correspondent: We had the same idea. We’re close. But both of us are imprecise. I don’t know what that says about us or the word.

Rakoff: I think we are close. I think we both get the word. But it’s funny that we — Jesus, even five years later.

(Image: Kris Krug)

The Bat Segundo Show #362: David Rakoff II (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Andrew Ervin

Andrew Ervin appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #361. He is most recently the author of Extraordinary Renditions.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contemplating alternative forms of freedom.

Author: Andrew Ervin

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Ervin: What else do we have but politics to write about? Ultimately. Whether it’s on a personal level or a cultural level or a national level, politics is going to play a part in every element of our lives, I would imagine. You were asking me about anger recently and I think that gets back to Brutus, who is a very angry character. And he’s the way that I found a voice from my intense anger about our political realm in America. I mean, what’s going on is disastrous to me. We’re still an incredibly racist nation. We’re still an incredibly sexist nation. And this character gave me an opportunity to voice that in some way. And it may be a bit over-the-top. It may push the radicalism a little too far in some regards. And perhaps I tried to mediate that with some of the other characters. But I’m not sure.

Correspondent: But with Brutus, you are very clear to point out that he has a good deal of materialistic hypocrisy.

Ervin: Absolutely.

Correspondent: Here’s a guy who goes ahead and he complains about blowing money. He complains about getting ripped off by the hotel and then he’s blowing money on fast food and Tom Clancy novels. And also that shopping trick he makes, where he’s totally fleeced. So for a guy who is in this really terrible and probably not very well-paying occupation of setting rat traps, and for a guy who is really anti-corporate and inflamed and into a possible post-Black Power situation, he is decidedly hypocritical. That his ultimate engagement with politics is actually a way of him getting lost further instead of finding that identity he wants.

Ervin: Is it still hypocritical if we’re aware that we’re participating? I mean, can we ever get completely outside of the system that we’re trying to critique. We can write the great environmentalist novel of our age, but it’s still going to be printed on bleached paper and packed into trucks and carried across the highway system. There’s always some participation in what we’re critiquing. No matter what. My hope is that I’m aware of the extent to which I’m working within a system to critique it to some extent. Not that I have a specific political agenda with this book. I don’t. I really don’t. Every critic that I speak to wants to ascribe one to it. And they tend to be different ones, depending upon whom I’m speaking to. Which is kind of nice. But there’s definitely an awareness both on my part and, I believe, on Brutus’s part — there’s no getting away from what we’re critiquing. We are also participating.

Correspondent: Yeah. So basically, the question I have now is why fiction is the best way to critique this problematic involvement with politics. Because…well, maybe I’m answering your question a bit. (laughs)

Ervin: (laughs) Yeah, would you please?

Correspondent: The thought I had here was maybe fiction serves as this container for you to examine our participation in the system we’re critiquing. Because it is, in itself, a container. And I did actually want to bring up some of the descriptive details about containment. You refer to “the ceiling of the sky.” There’s the Coca-Cola sign that is on the top of the apartment in the third novella. So this leads me to believe that this is indeed a preoccupation. But maybe we can tie in how you arrived at this walled in description with another query about whether fiction is the best way to create a dialogue about this issue. Do you think it is?

Ervin: I’m not sure that fiction is privileged in any way in speaking to those issues. If I could play piano, I would try that. If I could paint pictures, I would do that. I’d be willing to break out an interpretive dance for you.

Correspondent: Please do.

Ervin: If you think you can record that. I don’t know what fiction can do in relation to the other arts or any means of expression or nonfiction or poetry. They all play a part in whatever we’re trying to say. Fiction is just what works for me personally. And I don’t want to claim that it has some kind of privilege. It’s what I do.

Correspondent: Well, in terms of the description of characters walled in interiors, why do you think you’re so focused on this? I mean, you do use “the ceiling of the sky.” That is a very clear indicator that no matter where one goes, one is going to find one’s self in some kind of interior. Even walking outside.

Ervin: Are you telling me that you don’t feel that way?

Correspondent: Well, it depends.

Ervin: (laughs)

Correspondent: You’re asking me to confess perspective versus description perhaps. And maybe that’s the tension we’re describing here.

Ervin: I guess a large part of what this book is about are the restrictions that are placed on us by social organizations and political organizations. The barriers we put on ourselves. The limitations we’re wiling to put on our own imaginations very often without even knowing it. And this scares me. This frightens me a great deal. That we don’t know how free we are. And we participate in these polite little conversations in front of microphones. And we go out in public and follow the rules. And go where we’re supposed to go and buy what we’re supposed to buy. There’s some part of our humanity that we’ve lost touch with. We’ve lost something that is vitally important to who we are. We’re all so damn polite now.

Correspondent: Yes.

Ervin: And if my characters are constrained some way even by their natural environment, that may be the reason. Because I feel like we are constrained.

Correspondent: And yet you associate this freedom with violence. The end of the second novella has a very specific line about freedom. “This was something that he had not perceived for so long.” And to my mind, that is extremely interesting. Because on one level, what your freedom might be or what Brutus’s freedom might be — and then I think in my mind, Franzen’s idea of freedom, which from my standpoint is very much endorsing the exact system that you’re trying to critique. So since freedom is really a relative term, is it even a term to dwell on? Is it possibly too general a term? Does fiction, by way of ambiguity, allow one — either the author or the reader — to find not necessarily a solution, but at least an understanding of this dilemma that we’re describing?

Ervin: How are we going to know when we are free? I mean, that’s the question. Is it just opening up one more barrier and seeing a slightly bigger horizon? There’s no way for me to be able to answer that. The moment you’re talking about at the end of the second novella, with Brutus on the bridge over the Danube, I think references the [Frantz] Fanon book he’s reading. He’s carrying around The Wretched of the Earth. This great book in many ways about the curative power of violence. And to try and conflate my personal political agenda, if I have one, with that is a mistake, I think. That’s not me. That’s this one character who may have a more enlightened view of the world than I do or a more limited one in some way that I’m not sure. But freedom is not — I mean, what can you say? Who knows?

(Image: Dean Sabatino)

The Bat Segundo Show #361: Andrew Ervin (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Neal Pollack II

Neal Pollack appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #360. He is most recently the author of Stretch. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #96.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Stretching for owls.

Author: Neal Pollack

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: This book isn’t, to me, just about your own personal experience with yoga. I got the sense in reading this of a man who, quite frankly, is really terrified of getting older. I mean, it starts with that review you got in The New York Times Book Review, which was, I think now, completely ridiculous. We joked about it before. Of a man who is terrified of being pegged as “another doughy guy in his thirties.” As a guy who is just looking for some replacement or affirmation of his identity. But that sense of terror is there in your personal quest. Why do you feel that is? And how aware were you of this?

Pollack: Well, the more I got into it, the more aware I was. And I think what it came down to is not necessarily a fear of getting older, but, in the end, the main fear that all of us have. Which is a fear of death. Or, as the Buddhists say, a fear of impermanence. And it’s that fear of impermanence that drives so much pain and suffering in the world. And I had that in large quantities. I had been doing all of this crazy stuff. And my ego was out of control. And a lot of that, I think, was just because I was trying to find a substitute for acceptance of impermanence. I mean, that’s what you say in Buddhism. Not like I’m a Buddhist. But it was very important to me to realize it. Not just think, “Oh, I”m going to die.” But to actually feel it in my bones that, you know, everything around me is impermanent. And that actually made my life a lot easier to live. I’m not nearly as afraid of getting old and dying as I used to be.

Correspondent: But that anger did come out during that New York yoga class. When you saw the woman spouting forth political messages.

Pollack: Yeah, I mean, there was definitely — as part of the journey — I had these eruptions of anger and envy and just reactive behavior. And it was not a smooth transition. And I think the transition is ongoing. But I definitely think I’m calmer and less angry and less envious than I was. And I’m happier because of it. I don’t know if my writing is necessarily better, although I think it is. But it certainly has — it’s made it much easier for me to move through the world.

Correspondent: But the problem here is that if you are still erupting into anger, this is very much still a part of who you are.

Pollack: Well…

Correspondent: You have to accept yourself for who you are.

Pollack: Yeah.

Correspondent: In some capacity. A large capacity, actually.

Pollack: Yeah. I would say that yoga smooths over the rough edges. That doesn’t mean that you’re going to behave exemplary — exemporarily — is that how you say it? — in all circumstances. But it will make you much more aware of how you behave in most circumstances. And so, of course, you’re still going to feel angry or be envious or say something stupid. Or eat too much or drink too much from time to time. But I don’t know. It’s nice to be a little more thoughtful and a little more mindful of the world around me. And of my body and my mind.

Correspondent: Yeah. But I mean, for example, in Thailand, you complained about the cookies they gave you, writing, “Jesus fucking Christ. We paid them enough money. They could at least give us a proper cookie.” I mean, this seems to conflict with the idea of ahimsa, where you’re supposed to be nonviolent and not dislike the world. You’re supposed to embrace it.

Pollack: I bitch to myself and maybe to a couple of friends. I didn’t throw a fit and make them bring me another cookie. It’s not like you lose all discrimination and judgment when you start practicing yoga. I mean, there still is food that tastes good. The food that doesn’t taste good. There are still good movies and bad movies. Good books and bad books. People you like and people you don’t like. That doesn’t go away, but you don’t take it all so personally maybe. And the fact that I wrote down a grouchy reaction to a bad dessert, I just did that to illustrate, “Well, yeah, so I’m still grouchy.”

Correspondent: Yeah.

Pollack: But the difference is that in the past, that grouchiness or irritability may have been destructive. Whereas now, I just like to think of it as a character trait.

Correspondent: So you say things roll off you more now than they did before?

Pollack: Everything rolls off me more easily. Some things more easily than others. But, yeah, because of practicing yoga and meditation, I’m able to take things that happen to me more in stride. It’s never 100% perfect. But even publishing a book has been easier. There are a lot of stressful things going when you publish a book. You’re dealing with editors and you’re trying to figure out how to promote it. And then you’re traveling around. And then you’re wondering if people are going to like it and are going to buy it. And you have good reviews. You have bad reviews. And…

Correspondent: Vicious reviews in this case. Paul Constant. I thought that was far more vicious than David Kamp.

Pollack: By comparison, sure. That was a horrible review. It was really mean. But, you know, I stewed about it for a couple of hours. And in the past I might have really stewed about it and written some kind of screed in response and sent him an email and maybe even call them up. I might have made things worse. And in this case, I just complained to my wife about it for a couple of hours. And then let it go.

Correspondent: Well, wait a minute here. Because with the David Kamp review, I remember this because I read your site for many years. You had to joke about it. And then, when I read this book, I was surprised to see it come back like a zombie out of the blue. I mean, this had been torturing you for a number of years.

Pollack: Well, it wasn’t torturing me anymore. But it was a key turning point in my life to perceive that review. It was like, I don’t think the review was entirely fair. But really, in retrospect, it wasn’t that unfair. It was just like somebody had dumped a bucket of cold water on my head.

Correspondent: Or a bucket of crap.

Pollack: A bucket of crap. And the Establishment said, “No, no, no. We’re not letting you in.” You know? “Sorry, you’re a schmuck.” And to some extent, he was right. And to some extent, he wasn’t. And to a large extent, it doesn’t matter. But it was a key turning point. And I am actually very grateful to that guy for writing that piece. Because it sent me on the path that really helped — it changed my life forever and helped me enormously.

Correspondent: So if I got you and Paul Constant together for a beer.

Pollack: I would prefer not to meet him for a beer. Just because…

Correspondent: He’s actually a nice guy. He probably didn’t mean it.

Pollack: I know people who work at The Stranger. And I didn’t meet him. And if I met him, I would joke with him about it. Because, you know, I’m…I’m not a bad guy. And at the end of the day, I’m sure he’s not either. There was something in the book he obviously didn’t like and he went to the wall against it. And that’s why we have the First Amendment.

(Image: Katie Spence)

The Bat Segundo Show #360: Neal Pollack II (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Matthew Sharpe II

Matthew Sharpe appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #358. He is most recently the author of You Were Wrong. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #132.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Abandoning the animal experiment.

Author: Matthew Sharpe

Subjects Discussed: [The truth of the matter is that there doesn’t appear to be enough time in the day for me to summarize subjects anymore . Again, I am sorry and can only offer the lame “forthcoming” answer. Please beat me with a pool cue should we next meet, if this proves unsatisfactory for your capsule needs.]


Correspondent: Does this improvisational nature explain in part why the book is so violent? I mean, it has the rather extremely creative usage of a pool cue against a gentleman’s head. Which I thought was a very idiosyncratic form of violence. I’m curious why the book was so violent, number one. Number two, how you settled on the pool cue to the head?

Sharpe: Um…

Correspondent: That’s not an easy thing to do, you know. The head is going to move around.

Sharpe: It’s not an easy thing to…

Correspondent: To hit the head, yes.

Sharpe: To brain someone with a pool cue?

Correspondent: Yeah, I know.

Sharpe: Well, if it’s an old guy and he’s not expecting it. (laughs) Let’s see, why was it so violent? That’s a really hard question to answer. I really — it’s not a part of my temperament as a social being or even as a private individual in this house. For whatever reason, when I write fiction, I guess I’m on the lookout for conflicts. And in some way, pain and impediments — as my friend the writer Lynne says, the body is the first and last metaphor. And if you want to show someone in difficulties, show somebody whose body is being impinged upon.

Correspondent: But you also are playing a bit of a marionette with these characters — the characters serve as marionettes. Because you often have Sylvia, for example, you are extremely specific about the way she sits on the bed, about her posture. And speaking of the body, there’s also much imagery with the face. Particularly with relation to Karl and how he views people. In fact, one of the curious things about this book that I have to ask you about is that Karl perceives Sylvia only in terms of the color and the generic item of clothing. Like “a blue shirt” and “an indigo bra” or what not. And that goes on throughout the entire book. There’s probably about seven or eight of them. So how did you arrive at that generic syntax? That shorthand for Karl perceiving Sylvia? And what of this idea of these characters placed in very specific forms of posture? I mean, to some degree, it’s very hyperspecific. To some degree, it’s almost mathlike in its generic description as well. From Karl’s perspective.

Sharpe: Yeah. Wow, you notice stuff that nobody else notices by the way. So I have to think about these answers. But I just actually want to circle back to a question I didn’t answer, which is the pool cue. You know, I really wanted to place the pool table and the piano next to each other. Because I wanted this very much to be a novel about a bourgeois home. Of the kind that I grew up in. Though luckily I didn’t grow up with the kind of family that Karl had.

Correspondent: (laughs) I would hope not!

Sharpe: But I was thinking at that moment of the beating on the head of John Millington Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. Which I’m sort of deciding whether to give away a major plot surprise. I think I probably won’t give it away. But that’s a play in which a guy walks into a bar in a strange town at the beginning, having just beaten his father with some kind of implement. I can’t remember what kind. But he beats him in the head. And so I was thinking, okay, how do I transpose Synge’s rural Irish play to Long Island at the beginning of the 21st century? And I thought, okay, I actually can’t remember right now what he beats him with. Maybe a farming implement? So I’m thinking, okay, what would be handy in a house like this? So that’s the answer to that question.

About the careful description of the people’s bodies and their posture, I think I just became fascinated through Karl’s eyes with the body of his beloved. Which he is very, very attuned to. Because he really, really digs it. And he’s constantly looking at it. He just is fascinated by her body. And Karl knowing in a sense that maybe he has something like what we could call Asperger’s. Or some kind of weird disorder where he’s not very good at reading faces. He’s always trying super hard to read faces and he really thinks, “If I can only learn the vocabulary of facial expressions, I will finally be able to decipher what the hell people are ever intending toward me.”

(Image: Felicia C. Sullivan)

The Bat Segundo Show #358: Matthew Sharpe II (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Scarlett Thomas II

Scarlett Thomas appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #357. Ms. Thomas is most recently the author of Our Tragic Universe. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #117.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Unusually pedantic about modifiers.

Author: Scarlett Thomas

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I wanted to address one review. Jessa Crispin in The Smart Set. She said, “Well, you adhered to the two laziest storylines that the world of fiction has ever thrown up. Love Conquers All and Secretly a Princess.” But to my mind, I thought this was a severe misreading and misunderstanding of the book. I mean, the book is very much concerned with how narrative must rely on contrivances in order to present life. On the other hand, when you have, for example, the deus ex machina of the magic money appearing in Meg’s account, this is something of a risky proposition for someone who is accustomed to the page-turning of your previous books. So I’m curious as to how much you worried or agonized over this, coming off of a fairly substantial success — particularly in the UK and particularly here among bloggers and the like. Did you just not care? Or did you worry about people misreading this? Because you’re presenting narrative within narrative within narrative and some people are clearly not picking this up.

Thomas: Yeah, I mean — God, there’s quite a lot there. I read the Jessa Crispin piece and I feel quite frustrated with it. Because the reading that she presents is the reading that’s set up for you in the book. That, in fact, it’s one character’s analysis of what’s happened. But the book sets it up as probably wrong. The reading that’s there –- I mean, this is just my own reading. Everybody is welcome to read it the way they like.

Correspondent: Sure.

Thomas: But the idea is that you actively go through and think, “Oh! Aha! So it was the cosmic ordering that gave her the money. And then this and that and the other. Oh my god, everything’s prearranged. And there’s no free will and everything’s perfectly placid. And it’s just like Kelsey Newman. Do I actually want to live like that? Or would I rather read it a different way?” So that’s what you’re supposed to be doing with those ideas. And Jessa seems to have stopped a bit too early. The money device – it’s not really a deus ex machina. Because Meg has written these novels. And they have been optioned for TV. And she has got the money for it. And I think, as most writers know, you do these things. And everybody’s always talking about optioning this and optioning that. And you might get some money. And you never do. And one day, you open your online banking. And there’s some money. And it does kind of change your life. For me, The End of Mr. Y did so well in the UK and Europe that there were days when I’d open up my bank account and think, “Whoa! Where has that come from?” For the first time in my life. Because, you know, I’ve always been pretty poor. And I wanted to try and write out that experience of suddenly having some money. But, of course, it’s really hard to do in a novel. Because the novels are supposed to be about drama and struggle and conflict, and somebody striving. You’re supposed to get the money at the very end of the book. I wanted to play with the idea of getting the treasure in the middle. And then what happens to life after that? But I have to say that Meg is not really a princess. Not for me anyway. What was the other thing?

Correspondent: I was going on about how narrative has to rely on contrivances to some degree in order to represent life. But to phrase that in light of your last answer, what I think we’re talking about here is the problem with coincidences, which occur in reality and life all the time. And yet when you put them into a novel, then, all of a sudden, it seems like “Oh, that can’t possibly happen!” And that’s the problem with structure, I suspect.

Thomas: Well, you see, another thing I’m trying to do in the novel – maybe not so obviously; well, maybe it is obvious – is to look at coincidence. Is the world and our experience of it – is that somehow structured in a scientific or positivist and rationalist way? Is it structured on the spiritualists on some level? Because that’s also a structure that’s imposed. Is it completely random? Or the fourth option – I may have just said there are three.

Correspondent: Well, that’s okay. We’re not counting.

Thomas: (laughs) Yeah, I don’t think you can count. But the fourth option is more interesting to me. And I think that there is no structure. But there are lots of people who are aware of lots of different structures. Which is interesting. And there are things that happen that aren’t pure coincidence. So that things don’t just happen out of nowhere. But they happen through plots or series of events leading up to that that are so minute that you almost can’t see them. So, for example, towards the end of the novel, Frank and Vi turn up miraculously on the River Dart, where The Beast maybe is, and end up taking place in some action there. And for me, I really liked putting them there. Because I thought they were there because they read Alice Oswald’s poem about the Dart. So it’s not that they weren’t there randomly by complete chance. Everybody does everything for a reason. I’m really interested in that. And so looking at the reasons for why people do things, and why that might lead to something else, that’s what’s really fascinated me in this book. So I really don’t believe in complete coincidence. I believe in choices and desire and motivation of characters, and just how interesting it is when you look at the tiny aspects of that.

Correspondent: You’ve created almost by necessity, however, a system. And life is what happens when you make other plans. So I’m not certain if I entirely buy your causist explanation for these characters. Because I think you also portray much of the attempt to explain the universe, or explain the world around us, as a trap. And a way to avoid living without absolute cognizance. So I’m curious about how you managed to depict this double-edged sword here.

Thomas: Yeah, it might. I don’t know. I mean, you don’t have to buy it. But it’s absolutely how I wrote the book. That okay, on some level, when you write a novel, you do have to impose some kind of scheme on things which don’t have a scheme like that. You need a beginning, a middle, and an end. You need to choose when you take up with the carrots. When you let them go. All of that. Yes, you do impose a structure. But for me, one of the most interesting moments in the book was when I realized that Arthur Conan Doyle, when he believed in the Cottingley Fairies. For him, the fairies were more believable than these working-class girls who could actually forge pictures of fairies. I found that so fascinating. Because for that to be your explanation – because it was impossible for him to believe in the motivation of the girls, for him to think his way into their lives and the way they would have planned something, wasn’t just a coincidence. They didn’t just happen upon the pictures. They actually made them. And that’s a wonderful thing to imagine. I think it’s great and so inventive. And then, for him, it was easier to believe in the fairies. For him, the more believable plot or the more believable story is that the fairies exist. And, for me, that was a really central image in the whole book.

Correspondent: So even if you don’t clutch to the Kelsey Newman-like idea, you still can find solace in either the Conan Doyle fairies or, as Meg has in this childhood flashback, where there’s this guy who says, “I can teach you magic.” Which is interesting in light of the fact that her father is very much about finding an explanation for the universe with numbers. And so it seems to me that the burden of these characters is very much to find any kind of explanation –- or even the self-help books that Meg must review for this particular column. That this is really the onus for almost all the characters. Either that or you have the option of just tossing your car into the river.

Thomas: Yeah, absolutely. I’m fascinated with the process of looking for explanations for things, and understanding things scientifically. Which has always been my urge. Even though I’m not into the kind of — this nouveau atheist movement is not my thing at all. Because any explanation that makes sense would be okay for me. Usually it’s a kind of scientific explanation. Sometimes, it’s not. But if I’m up in a plane, I want to know how it flies. I want to know why I’m not crashing.

The Bat Segundo Show #357: Scarlett Thomas II (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #356. Ms. Kowal is most recently the author of Shades of Milk and Honey.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Confusing magic with milkshakes.

Author: Mary Robinette Kowal

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I wanted to start with the specific language in this book. The specific Jane Austen template that you laid out. You took great care to mimic Jane Austen’s particular spellings. You used chuse with a U instead of choose with double O. Shew instead of show. Surprize and teaze spelled with a Z. But on the other hand, you didn’t, for example, hyphenate today. And things along those lines. And nuncheon! Jane Austen never used nuncheon!

Kowal: That’s not true. She used it twice.

Correspondent: When? And where?

Kowal: She used it in Lady Susan and Sense and Sensibility.

Correspondent: Ah, okay. Well, in any event, the hard choices of vocabulary. I wanted to first of all start with how this came about. Why go ahead and emulate this language? Was the idea here to create a series of limitations with which to approach a long-form novel? What came first here?

Kowal: I thought that language reflects society very closely. The reason I wound up using some of her spellings, it’s really an affectation. I am trying to pretend that this is something that could have been written then. I deviated from her spellings in places where I thought it would be confusing. In places where I didn’t feel the word was going to appear often enough for a reader to get used to it. An example of a word that was confusing was that she spelled stayed – like stayed at home – S-T-A-I-D.

Correspondent: That’s right.

Kowal: Which is a different word now. The word sofa appears, I think, once in the novel. And she spelled it S-O-P-H-A. And there’s not actually a reason to stop people. I actually thought that they were going to make me change all of the spellings. But I guess you can think of it as dressing up in Regency clothes, but remembering of course that it’s still going to a costume party.

Correspondent: By “they,” are you referring to Liz Gorinsky?

Kowal: Yes.

Correspondent: Or the copy editors?

Kowal: Well, Liz Gorinsky. The production department. I thought that someone in the editing line was going to say, “Hey, we need to change that.” The copy editor, once we had decided with Liz and marketing to keep the spellings — and we did lift out some of them – then I gave the copy editor a style sheet that said, “These are the correctly misspelled words. Please do not change them.”

Correspondent: Which words didn’t make the cut? I’m curious.

Kowal: Sopha. Staid. All of the to-days and to-morrows.

Correspondent: Oh! So those were originally spelled that way in your original draft.

Kowal: Yeah.

Correspondent: Okay. Wow.

Kowal: I can’t remember what some of the others were. But I did a find/replace. I can’t remember where I found it, but I found a Jane Austen spelling list. And I went through and did a find/replace on everything. And then they went back and undid that. So it’s funny. There’s a couple of places. I know that there’s at least one chuse that we missed and it’s still spelled with two Os. But you know.

Correspondent: Well, goodbye to that, I suppose.

Kowal: You know. Second edition.

Correspondent: Well, this is interesting. Because I’m wondering if it took you several practice tries to write in this particular meticulous style.

Kowal: I would read a chapter of Jane Austen and then write a chapter of Jane Austen. So I was reading Persuasion while I was writing this. And one of the things I picked up from the puppetry is that I frequently have to mimic somebody else’s style. So once I decided to do this, I sat down and started reading Austen. And then the reason that I was writing right after finishing reading a chapter was because I knew that the language would stick and the rhythms would stick. But I don’t really think I did a practice run.

Photo: Annaliese Moyer

The Bat Segundo Show #356: Mary Robinette Kowal (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segudo Show: Allegra Goodman

Allegra Goodman appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #355. She is most recently the author of The Cookbook Collector.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Confusing cookbooks with novels.

Author: Allegra Goodman

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: Jonathan’s dialogue is so reflective of Sergey Brin. I mean, he says things like “Introduce me. I’m serious.” Very Star Trek-like in his dialogue.

Goodman: Actually, I’m glad you raised that. Because in terms of research into the dot commers, I did not go to libraries obviously and do that kind of research. You can’t research them like you would a group of rare cookbooks. But my research consisted of listening to the way they talk. I’m very interested in voices. The way somebody like Bill Gates talks. The way somebody like Sergey Brin talks. I’m interested in their militant casualness. They’re very bright. They’re very ambitious. They’re very driven. And they’re very chummy and casual. Like “Let’s all just make this happen.” In a way, anti-intellectual in some ways. In their rhetoric. Not that they aren’t intellectual, a lot of them. And I don’t mean to lump all of them together. But I listened to the rhetoric that they used.

Correspondent: Who did you listen to? Specific tapes or recordings?

Goodman: I was interested in Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and some of the younger voices that I was reading in interviews in magazines at the time. The way researchers talk. The way techie people talk. The way programmers talk. Not necessarily just the powerful ones. But these are the words that they use. And I was interested actually – you know, Jess and George are very literary. And their dialogue and their banter has a lot of references to books and things like that. People have mentioned this about my book. But there’s a counterweight that people don’t mention. Maybe they don’t hear it because it’s so obvious. It’s like what we hear all the time. It doesn’t stick out. But it’s very not literary. It’s very anti-intellectual. Techie.

Correspondent: Well, Jonathan quibbles with “tenuous” at one point, looking at it like a mystified word. But this is interesting. Because I’m wondering if one of the motivating factors to write this novel is because the 1990s – God, that time was incredible in the way we documented everything about the dot com era. We documented everything about our culture. We wanted to publicize our own vacuity, so to speak. I’m wondering if this made things easier from a novelistic standpoint.

Goodman: Well, it’s really interesting. Because we did document that era and we still do. It’s been so well documented. But what I always thin is, “Well, what can my contribution be as a novelist?” As opposed to being a historian or an economist. Or even a psychologist. A sociologist. People talked about the different syndromes of sudden wealth at the time. There was a tremendous amount of journalism at the time. And after. The aftermath. The postmortems. So what could I contribute as a novelist? And what I contribute is to write about it from the inside rather than the outside. To give an intimate portrait rather than the broad overview. And as I did in Intuition, to talk about motivation. Which journalists are really not allowed to talk about, but novelists get to do.

The Bat Segundo Show #355: Allegra Goodman (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Prince of Broadway & Adam Langer II

Sean Baker, Darren Dean, and Adam Langer all appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #354.

Sean Baker is the director and co-writer (among other things) of Prince of Broadway. Darren Dean is the producer and co-writer of that same film.

Adam Langer is most recently the author of Thieves of Manhattan. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #175.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for princes and publishing insiders.

Guests: Sean Baker and Darren Dean, and Adam Langer

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: Because this was a low-budget operation, I have to say that there had to be at least one moment where it was guerrilla shooting.

Baker: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: Could you talk about this? I mean, how much of this was sneaked….

Baker: Do you want to talk about it?

Correspondent: Can you talk about it?

Baker: I don’t know if we can talk about this.

Dean: (laughs)

Correspondent: You can hint at it.

Baker: The fight scene.

Dean: Yeah, we can talk about it.

Baker: I think so.

Dean: We had permits for everything. Which fight scene? The first fight scene or the second fight scene?

Baker: No, the second fight scene.

Dean: We had permits for everything. And we just ran up against the wall. And at the very, very end, we were like, “Oh my god! We forgot this fight scene!”

Baker: Yeah.

Dean: But we shot in the parking lot. We got up that day and we said, “Well, we need to shoot this scene.” Our permits were gone.

Baker: We ran out of insurance that morning.

Correspondent: Wow.

Dean: Everything was gone. This was the last scene we had to shoot or one of the last scenes we had to shoot. And we got up. We went to Prince. And we said, “Here’s $10. Or $15. For each guy you can find. Tell them we need them for twenty minutes. There’s going to be a fight. And meet us at that garage over there.” I went over to the gate of the garage, talked to the guy who was working the garage. I gave him twenty bucks. I said, “We’re going to be here shooting for fifteen minutes and then we’re out.” Shot the scene and literally took off. And that was it.

Baker: That was the one point where we just had to resort to that. Because we were running out of money. We ran out of insurance. And to get the film completed, it took those drastic measures.

* * *

Correspondent: John McNally at the San Francisco Chronicle called you a “publishing insider.”

Langer: Oh yeah.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering why he thought this. This is a book, after all, that has the rather implausible idea of US News & World Report having a books editor. I thought that was rather absurd, I have to say. If you’re a “publishing insider,” that should have been the big tipoff.

Langer: Yeah, I know US News & World Report. But that’s also from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know a hell of a lot about the book industry. The guy who identifies himself as a US News & World Report guy. But publishing insider? I mean, I don’t know. I write books. So I’m inside publishing that way. I’ve never had a job in publishing. I worked as an editor for a book magazine. I don’t know. If you’re a sportswriter, are you inside the sports world? Maybe. I don’t know.

Correspondent: It could very well be that the literary world, or the publishing world, has only so many cliches or is so diaphanous in its subject matter that anyone could, by way of delving into it, could become a publishing insider.

Langer: Yes. Guilty as charged. But I never really thought of myself that way. And I wish I had a few more editorial jobs to give myself a little more streetcred in that regard.

Correspondent: Well, going back to the names of people you brought up, did you have to go through Legal to get permission in house? Was anything considered to be defamatory in any capacity?

Langer: No. Not everything is defamatory in the book necessarily. I mean, I really didn’t want to slag individual people in the book. But at the same time, I wanted it to be taking place in the real publishing world. So I didn’t want anything in there fictional. I mean, if someone’s at a party, I wanted people who would be at these parties intermingling with fictional characters. In the same way I like to talk about how you have Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? But you also have Jessica Rabbit running around. So I like the intermingling of cartoonish and reality. But I had no desire or interest in ragging on anybody specific in publishing. And anyone who is libeled in the book is fictional, I would say.

The Bat Segundo Show #354: Prince of Broadway & Adam Langer II (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Daniele Thompson

Daniele Thompson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #353. Ms. Thompson is most recently the co-writer and director of Change of Plans — a movie that opens in theaters on August 27, 2010.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Confusing his code with his plans.

Guest: Daniele Thopmson

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I wanted to start off about confinement and physical space. In Jet Lag, you have two characters who are predominantly occupying a hotel room. In Avenue Montaigne, you have a broader physical space with the cultural world. And in this [Change of Plans], you have, of course, the dinner party. Eleven characters. It’s the ultimate locked room mystery of life. So my question to you is whether you pursue this confinement as a way to generate dramatic conflict. Or whether this reflects more a concern with the home truths that come out with this human relationship with physical space.

Thompson: Well, we’re dealing with the question of time and space in all fiction!

Correspondent: Yes!

Thompson: It’s true that it’s a challenge to have eleven people in the same place one night, and then again one night a year after not in the same place. I don’t want to give out all the…(laughs)

Correspondent: Sure. But we’re talking predominantly the first dinner party.

Thompson: Right. It seemed that it was the ideal frame for the original idea for the film. The original idea for the film — my original ideas are usually very tiny. They’re like little seeds. And then we have to work on it for weeks, and sometimes months, to find out whether that seed is going to give out some kind of flower or tree or whatever.

Correspondent: Or transform in this case to a baroque redwood.

Thompson: Exactly. So the original idea was fascinating by the fact that when we meet friends in the evening, our friends and ourselves are not the same people in the afternoon. The afternoon or the day or whatever. Because I thought we all have few choices in life. Waking up in the morning and going to work is not a choice. It’s an obligation. 7:00, 6:00, 8:00 in France is later than in America. You can make a decision of not going out to dinner. You have that choice. You can call in sick. I have a headache. I have a problem. So if you do go out, the politeness — the least thing you can do is bring something of yourself. The more sunny side of yourself. And that’s what people do. And therefore people lie. People pretend. And the lovely thing about it, and this is why it’s kind of an apology. It’s an aspect of life that I think is very important in social life. You believe it in yourself. It makes you feel better. You have a sort of entr’acte. An intermission in your own life where you have laughed and told funny jokes, and pretended that everything is going well with your couple and your children and your work. And I thought it was a very funny idea to make the audience aware of what these people’s lives were really going on in the afternoon and then see what happens at night.

The Bat Segundo Show #353: Daniele Thompson (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Gary Shteyngart II

Gary Shteyngart appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #352. Mr. Shteyngart is most recently the author of Super Sad True Love Story. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #121 and was ambushed by a Noah Weinberg type earlier in the year.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Too old and too much of a hack for Conde Nast’s cryogenic chambers.

Author: Gary Shteyngart

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: You’ve probably seen this video of this 11-year-old who’s being cyberbullied by 4chan. Did you hear about this? She’s going by the name of Slaughter. And there’s a video where her dad is shouting in the background. And it’s truly horrifying. Surely, I think people would still value their privacy to some degree. Or they would say, “This is going way over the line.” Harassing people. Providing every bit of personal information. I mean, that’s got to trump any seduction by technology.

Shtyengart: Who knows? Things happen so quickly. Our values are changing so quickly. I mean, one of the things that this book doesn’t state, but maybe believes, is that change is okay. Change is going to happen. The end of slavery was good. Racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia — the dilution of all these things in states outside of Arizona. That’s good. But change happens quicker than we’re able to accommodate it. Because we are really flesh and bone and certain whatevers going on in our heads. But there’s only so much we can do. And when we’re addicted to constant change that’s changing at a breakneck speed, what happens when the change overruns us and begins to condition this group mind that we have brought together? It begins to condition us more than we condition the group mind. That can be very depressing. I mean, going back to the television people — when television was revealed — there was a similar worry. But what this does is a little more insidious. It takes away our privacy, for one thing. But it also deputizes all of us to be writers, filmmakers, musicians. Which sounds lovely and democratic. But when a book ceases to become a book, when a book becomes a Kindle application, when it become a file — how different is it in the mind of somebody from any other file that you get? Sitting there at your workstation — if you’re a white-collar worker — all you do all day long is receive bits and bits of information. And in some ways, you begin to privilege these bits of information. But in another way, one email is as good as another. It’s all just coming at you. Streaming at you. You go home. What’s the last thing you want to do? The last thing you want to do is pick up a hard brick like the one I’m holding right now, open it, and begin to read linear text for 330 pages. It’s the last thing you want to do. Who the hell would want to do it? And I think that because America is such a market economy, there’s still a real love of storytelling. That’s why you look at something like The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men. You know, what they’ve done is they’ve very cleverly — and they’ve talked about this — they’ve repurposed fiction — the way it used to exist between covers — in a way that can be transmitted inside an eyeball, in a way that satisfies our craving for storytelling. But without all the added benefits that you get from a book.

Correspondent: Hmmm. Well, I don’t know about that. I mean, to some degree, by having jokes and by writing an entertaining book — which I think this is an entertaining book…

Shteyngart: Thank you.

Correspondent: …you are kind of contributing towards this entertainment-oriented storytelling.

Shteyngart: That’s right.

Correspondent: What makes you different, eh?

Shteyngart: Well, you hit the nail on the head with your big hammer. I still believe that fiction is a form of entertainment. In my crazy world, which may not exist, I’m still hearing about a book that I have to read. And I’m getting out of bed. And I’m running to the bookstore. And I’m buying it. In the way that people run to the cineplex. I’m excited. And that’s what I want fiction to do. If it doesn’t entertain me, then it’s work. When I was researching parts of this book, I had to read a lot of books that were not entertaining. And they were work. What worries me is the academization of literature. When it becomes just an academic pursuit, where we sit around, we create serious works that are then discussed by serious people in serious settings, and the entertainment value is nil. And we become a small tiny society that’s obsessed with things. In other words, we become where poetry is today. Utterly irrelevant. Beyond a certain beautiful wonderful circle of people. And the poetry hasn’t gotten any worse. The poetry’s great. And the fiction hasn’t gotten any worse. Some of it is amazing. But the way we approach these things has become too serious.

Correspondent: Well, to what degree should books be work? I mean, I’d hate to live in a world in which Ulysses was banned simply because it was considered to be too much work. I find it a very marvelous journey to just sift into all those crazy phrases and all that language. But it doesn’t feel like work to me. And I don’t think it feels like work to everybody. And we still have Bloomsday and all that.

Shteyngart: I’m not talking about Ulysses. I’m talking about self-important crap.

Correspondent: Like what?

Shteyngart: Well, I’m not going to say.

Correspondent: Ha ha! Very convenient.

Shteyngart: Very convenient. I’m not going to say. Madame Bovary. Talk about a page-turner. I can’t put that thing down. I read it all the time. Jesus Christ, and there’s still part of me that thinks, “Don’t do it. Don’t do it, Madame B. Stay away from that schmuck.” Because it’s so damn involving. It’s brilliant. It’s funny as hell. You know, the apothecary. There’s so many elements in it that are working. It’s perfectly researched. The language is just right. It doesn’t — I suppose it could be considered work. But it’s not any more work than one needs to do in order to gain the maximum enjoyment and understanding of these characters.

Correspondent: Yeah. But isn’t there some sort of compromise? Aren’t you trading something away for this happy medium? Are we talking essentially to some degree about approaching books and literature as if it’s a middlebrow medium?

Shteyngart: Oh what does it mean? Middlebrow, lowbrow, highbrow. These brows. I raise my brow at those brows.

Correspondent: Very bromidic

Shteyngart: The whole bromidic stuff is nonsense. What makes Jeffrey Eugenides or Franzen’s works — what makes them stay in our minds? They use whatever language they want. If they need to deploy highfalutin language, they’ll do it. If they need to use street slang, they’ll do that. The range is always there. And you try to capture a world. A place and time you try and capture as best as you can with the best people who you can deploy. The best characters you can deploy doing them. And to do that, you need to care about these people. Maybe I failed. But I certainly have tried with Lenny and Eunice more so than with anyone else. I’ve tried to live inside their skin. I’ve tried to make myself feel the love that they both have toward each other in this very difficult world. And you know, that doesn’t sound highbrow. But to me, it’s the most important thing I can do with my art.

(Image: Morbinear)

The Bat Segundo Show #352: Gary Shteyngart II (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: David Mitchell III

David Mitchell appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #350. He is most recently the author of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #1 — the very program that started it all — along with a two-part podcast from 2006 (Show #54 and Show #55).


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Annoyed by hotel security.

Author: David Mitchell

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Mitchell: I think of words as vehicles that convey what is in my imagination into someone else’s. And we’re sort of in a dialogue. Because they don’t just replicate what’s in the imagination. They can alter it. You can mistype and you get a word that actually can be better than the one you meant. Words can feed back and suggest to the imagination, “Well, would it be neater if you imagine this instead?” Language itself is a kind of a writing partner, separate to the writer, who is deploying the language. I think. I think this is true. Has that answered your question?

Correspondent: It sort of does. Actually, there’s one thing I wanted to ask you and that is with Orito. You investigate the flashback of her sexual assault. Yet in the shrine, we don’t really see the true horror of what’s going on. I mean, granted it’s from Orito’s perspective. But I’m wondering why you didn’t really go into what was happening. I mean, she could have observed the engifting. I mean, it sounds horrific in terms of a “what is not seen” standpoint. To use a cinematic idea. But I’m wondering why you didn’t go full-borne. Or if there was a draft where you did in fact go into that dark territory and it proved just too disturbing? I don’t know.

Mitchell: I didn’t know how to do a sex scene that involved engiftment for it to not stink of misogyny. And as a male writer, that’s even worse. You know, in blunt terms, if you can ever hear a writer jerking off as he’s writing, then that’s it. Then the book’s dead. That’s a crude thing to have said.

Correspondent: You can say whatever crude things you like here.

Mitchell: But it’s what I meant. And you kind of know what I mean.

Correspondent: Yeah, I do. But on the other hand, you are dealing with an age from centuries ago where it was in fact a very misogynistic atmosphere.

Mitchell: Oh certainly. Certainly!

Correspondent: You certainly get a lot of that in the book. But I’m just curious why. I mean, don’t we have to really look at these terrible dark feelings squarely in the face in order to really get at the truth?

Mitchell: If it’s happening now — at a place about a quarter of a mile from the Helmsley Hotel that we’ve just been kicked out of in downtown New York, and it’s a social wrong, and women have been trafficked from godforsaken parts of the world and are being exploited like this — dead right. Shine cold hard truth or truth of light onto it. Please. It’s got to be stopped.

This is fiction. Two hundred years ago. And it hasn’t got that same imperative. That wrong, in this day and age, does not exist to be righted. If there’s an echo of Dejima, which is also a place that no longer exists, it’s a novelist’s requisite. That’s what the shrine on Mount Shiranui is. And for me to be offering the scenes — sort of on camera as opposed to off stage, where such physical exploitation is taking place — I think would have gone over a kind of writerly ethical mark in the sand. Which I chose not to go over.

Correspondent: What would that ethical mark in the sand be for you? I mean, it seems to me that other people — like Brian Evenson, who comes to mind — will go across that mark. And by doing so, really risk the idea of being impugned as a misogynist. Even though there is no misogyny in their particular intent. I’m wondering if it’s an overstated concern perhaps on your part. Or whether this is just one of those lines in the sand that you will possibly cross in the future or some capacity. Staring some really terrible truth in the face like that. I mean, you do. Don’t get me wrong. But this is an interesting question.

Mitchell: If it’s a real terrible truth, it has to be stared at the face. If it’s an unreal, made up, quasi-historical fictitious terrible truth, then to be describing institutionalized rape on the page in hard porn vocabulary terms, I feel that it sounds like me jerking off into my laptop. And all of a sudden, 98% of my readers have left the building. And I probably have gone with them, had I been a reader of the book.

Correspondent: Would you call something like Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho jerking off?

Mitchell: Firstly, I can’t say what I’ll be writing in the future. I don’t know. Secondly, to go back to the question that you’ve — well, two questions ago and actually one question ago as well. I don’t begin to sit in judgment on other writers who handle this, who make this call in a different way. And I’ve read that book. And it works very well. It’s distressing and awful and upsetting. And it works very well. And good luck to him really. But here in my book, in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, it felt wrong. And I’ve had a really blessed life. But I’ve also had enough hurt and pain to know it’s real stuff. And it’s not to be toyed around with just because, “Hey, I’m going somewhere no one else has gone before.” No. You have to treat your own female characters with respect as a male writer. Why I’ll stop being afraid to show the moral hypocrisies going on and the way that these things are justified quite plausibly, quite kindly, by the men who are conducting this kind of farm — that I’m not afraid of at all. Why would I be? But the language that they use. Just like a term like “ethnic cleansing.” These soft little euphemisms when reality is too horrific to be true. What gives? What bends? There’s actually language used to describe it. And these euphemisms. Rendering. Waterboarding. They sound quite pleasant. They sound quite Beach Boy-esque, don’t they? Always watch out when you hear words like that. Because it means reality is too horrific for that spade to be called a spade. Now this kind of thing, I really have to explore in the book. And I do it. And that’s great. But the thing itself that is being euphemized about — this farming of newborn children for purposes I’m not going to talk about, because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who hasn’t read it — it’s crucial that I don’t wobble my fingers in that gore in a sort of gratifying, self-regarding, “Look how brave I’m being” kind of a way.

Correspondent: I bring that up because it does resemble the farm that’s in the midsection of Cloud Atlas.

Mitchell: Yeah, it does. Doesn’t it? I hadn’t thought of that. So it does.

Correspondent: And you seem to be really concerned with the idea of slavery. Particularly in the first two parts of the book. And this is why I’m convinced that what we’re talking about here is an interesting fusion between these moral hypocrisies and, of course, the narrative steam engine. At the end, we’ve got the clearly influenced Patrick O’Brian. Which is great and all. But what I’m wondering is: Can you really pursue these dark and dangerous and really heavy topics that involve serious exploitation? I mean, I haven’t even brought up the slave chapter that was from the perspective of Weh. The only time the book slips into the first person. This is also interesting to this question. Can you really explore dark terrain like this and stop short of the mark? That’s the question. Is this something you’re still figuring out?

Mitchell: It is. And it’s an ongoing debate I have with myself. If you feel the book works, then I can and one can. If you feel the book doesn’t work, then perhaps one of the reasons it doesn’t work is because it can’t be done. You do have to slip into — not sexual porn, but a kind of pornography of violence. Maybe you do. I can’t judge my own books. I’ve no idea if they work or not. I never do. Never do.

The Bat Segundo Show #350: David Mitchell III (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Ken Russell

Ken Russell recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #348. Mr. Russell is the director of such films as The Devils, Women in Love, Tommy, The Music Lovers, and Altered States. Beginning today, Russell’s films will be playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center for one week (many of which are unavailable on video), where Russell himself will be appearing each evening. Considerable thanks to Elize Russell and Shade Rupe for their invaluable assistance.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wrestling nude with 83-year-old directors.

Guest: Ken Russell

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: You got into a fight with Alexander Walker, a man who, by the way, you’ve outlived. Other critics have called your films monstrously indecent. Walker was not the first one. So why did you hit tap him on the head, or beat him on the head, with a newspaper. I’m curious. Do you remember what was going on in your mind at the time? Or did you finally have enough of all these critics who were needlessly shitting upon what I think is a remarkable output?

Russell: Well, I guess I got tired of him putting me down. When he said, “You change things. We actually see Oliver Reed’s testicles crushed.” And I said, “Excuse me. That’s in your mind.” We don’t see his testicles crushed. Because they weren’t crushed. Only in your dirty little mind, you pig. And so he took exception to that. So I hit him over the head with his own review. Which happened to be a tissue of lies from start to finish. So that was a reason.

Correspondent: One of the few filmmakers to really get pugilistic about your critics there.

Russell: Yeah, well, he shouldn’t have said that. I mean, we didn’t see Oliver Reed’s testicles crushed. He may have wished we had. But we didn’t.

Correspondent: It was really — you were sticking up more for Ollie than you were for yourself?

Russell: That’s right. Yes.

Correspondent: I’m curious about a couple of things I’ve heard. One being that Oliver Reed apparently slammed you to the kitchen floor so that you would include the nude wrestling scene in Women in Love. I’m not sure if that’s true. Wanted to run that one by you. There’s another rumor going around that Ollie and Keith Moon were so drunk on the set of Tommy that they were improvising their lines. And then there’s another one that you guys got kicked out of the resort that you were filming at because of Ollie’s behavior. First of all, I wanted to find out if these stories were true. And second of all, given that this obviously must have been a very difficult working relationship at times and I know that you Ollie again until Prisoner of Honor, what accounts for the delay between Tommy and Prisoner of Honor?

Russell: Well, the delay between the two films was simply down to the fact of availability. Oliver Reed was only available at certain times and he wasn’t available. In Prisoner of Honor, that was why I didn’t use him before.

Elize Russell: You got along with him well.

Russell: Yeah, I got along with him very well. He…

Elize Russell: He called him Jesus.

Correspondent: He called you Jesus?

Russell: Yes. That wasn’t a compliment.

Correspondent: (laughs) So a little tempestuous there.

Russell: (laughs) Yeah.

Elize Russell: But he did throw you to the floor and you said that he convinced you to do the scene.

Russell: Oh yes. Yes, he did. I wasn’t going to do the nude wrestling scene. Because I couldn’t think of a way to do it. Because nude wrestling was frowned upon in British cinema.

Correspondent: In more ways than one.

Russell: In more ways than one, yes. So finally, he agreed to do the nude wrestling as long as there was no nude wrestling to be seen. (laughs)

Elize Russell: And how did he convince you to do it in front of the fireplace?

Russell: Well, he dropped round to my house for supper and said, “It could be done! It was very simple to do.” And he showed me how easy it was. You just faced each other, put out your hand and shook it, and threw each other onto the ground.

Correspondent: Did he often persuade you to insert scenes along these lines? Because I’m sure it couldn’t have been limited to Women in Love.

Russell: No. It was one of his favorite methods of perusasion.

Correspondent: Throwing you to the kitchen floor? That wasn’t the only time then.

Russell: Oh no.

Elize Russell: There was a sword fight.

Correspondent: Aha!

Elize Russell: But you won that one by mistake and closed your eyes.

Russell: Yeah.

The Bat Segundo Show #348: Ken Russell (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Sally Potter

Sally Potter appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #347. Ms. Potter is the writer and director of the 1992 film Orlando, adapted from the Virginia Woolf novel, which opens in re-release on July 23, 2010.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hoping to live forever or die trying.

Guest: Sally Potter

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: One interesting aspect about Orlando, from my standpoint, is that it’s almost a textual collage. You don’t really use a lot of the prose that’s in Virginia Woolf’s book. And if you do use it, you often modify one word or two words. There’s Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. There’s Joseph Addison’s The Tattler. There’s Shelley’s “I Arise From Dreams of Thee.” If you’re a literate person, there’s a smorgasbord of collage and possibilities. And I’m curious why you made this particular decision. Was the idea here to reinforce some of the sexism of the literary world? That Virginia Woolf’s true prose would not be represented in the film version of her work? What happened here?

Potter: Well, I think the essence of her prose is the skeleton of the film. I tried to make a distillation of what she’d done to further distill her own project of distillation. She writes in her diaries about wanting to exteriorize consciousness, writing in images rather than language. And where usually she was working with a kind of inner monologue — the stream-of-consciousness project through the word — in this case, she was working through the description of images that were like watching the inner mind unfold, but not as one individual’s mind. A kind of collective mind. Now she was also working with a tapestry of references. So the book is littered with one reference after another. When you go back to her diaries, and look at her essays — which I did — and go back to her sources, you see that she was doing a kind of postmodern collage herself.

Correspondent: Yes.

Potter: So all I tried to do was stay true to that principle, but make it work in cinematic terms. Anything else would have been a disservice to her as a writer.

Correspondent: But in terms of using the other — mostly; in fact, all male — writers, instead of specific quotes — with the exception of, for example, the trial and the poetry scene with Greene, I’m curious how you made that selective process. Did some reference in the book cause you to grab for the Norton Anthology? What happened there? And also, I was curious in terms of changing one specific word from a passage. Did you encourage the actors to paraphrase from the script? Or did you actually have the…

Potter: Oh no no.

Correspondent: Okay.

Potter: No. But I did so many drafts. My first draft — in fact, when I took it to my script editor at Faber & Faber. He picked it up, weighed it, and said, “Go and take out a hundred pages.” It was really long. The first adaptation. So it was clear that it had to be cut. And some words work spoken. And some words work written. And so through the very long development process — I mean, multiple redrafts and redrafts and redrafts. And Tilda [Swinton] reading aloud to me. And so on. First of all, I learned about the importance of things actually working, rather than working in theory, as you intended them, and to try to be very open to listening and observing what worked, and make things fit so that they had, in a sense, a natural feeling for voice and body of that particular actor who’s manifesting the idea. So that entails changing things from time to time. But, for example, Nick Greene’s satiric poem about Orlando and Orlando’s bad poetry are not in the book. I had to write them.

Correspondent: I figured as much.

Potter: From clues. So I had to fill in, in a way, certain gaps that, had she written them on the page, they would have had a different status. And also, from her, she does a sort of sketch of 18th century authors. And you know who she’s referring to. And again, I had to fill them with actual quotations. So my guiding principle always was: Stay true to the spirit and the intention, but not to the letter of the book.

The Bat Segundo Show #347: Sally Potter (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Jennifer Weiner III

Jennifer Weiner appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #346. She is most recently the author of Fly Away Home. Ms. Weiner previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #198 and The Bat Segundo Show #14.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hoping to be frightened by The Motherland sometime soon.

Author: Jennifer Weiner

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: It seems to me that you are really gravitating more towards this extremely dark expanse of human behavior. At least from my vantage point. And it seems that you really want to push further in this direction. And yet, to some degree, you almost stop short of really pushing yourself fully into something so dark. And I know you’ve got it in you. So I’m wondering: why ride the comic tone? Out of obligation to your readers? Or what here?

Weiner: Well, I think, for me, it always feels natural to have both. To have the darkness and the comedy. That’s just how I am as a person. And I think that my own family history has made me that way. There’s been horrible things that have happened, but me and my sister and my brothers always wind up laughing about it. Because what else can you do? But it’s interesting. That darkness. Because it’s a tough tension to maintain. And I don’t want… (pause) See, here’s the thing. I don’t think writers choose the books they’re trying to write. I don’t think writers choose the tone they’re going to take. I think that it’s a blood type. Like it’s what you’re born with. Stephen King gave the example. He and Louis L’Amour could be sitting at a pond. And Louis L’Amour would come up with this Western about water rights in a town that was having a drought, and what would happen? And Stephen King would write about something that comes slithering onto the banks, and first takes the dogs, and then takes the cattle, and then takes the kids. It’s just the way you’re wired. And I think that I’m wired, for good or for ill. I mean, there was a lot of sad stuff in Good in Bed too.

Correspondent: That’s true. But we’re talking about rape.

Weiner: Rape.

Correspondent: We’re talking about neglected children.

Weiner: Yes.

Correspondent: And during those sections in both of these last two books, it gets really, really serious.

Weiner: Right.

Correspondent: And then we go back to the laughs. But I’m wondering why not go ahead and spread this further? It’s not to say that you can’t explore light and dark. You can do a double plot thing. Like Crimes and Misdemeanors or something. I don’t know.

Weiner: (laughs) And then when you turn the book over…

Correspondent: (laughs) Yes.

Weiner: …they go shoe shopping!

Correspondent: Yeah, exactly.

Weiner: Well, who’s doing that well? Zoe Heller obviously.

Correspondent: Yes.

Weiner: Who else? Who do you like? Because Zoe Heller’s funny too.

Correspondent: I’ll bring up Richard Russo. Richard Russo does that very well too. And in fact, I….

Weiner: Mmmmm. My mother loves him.

Correspondent: I’m trying to go ahead — you and Russo are actually on the same team here. You know, that whole description of the development of the grocery store?

Weiner: Yes. Yes.

Correspondent: I could find that in a Richard Russo book, as I could in a Jennifer Weiner book. He writes about this kind of stuff too.

Weiner: Right.

Correspondent: You write about this too. And I’m telling you. What do we do to get some kind of diplomacy here?

Weiner: But I…

Correspondent: It’s not Russo’s fault that your mother was blabbing about him!

Weiner: Oh my god.

Correspondent: It wasn’t his fault.

Weiner: Okay, let me set the scene for you. The year is 2001.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Weiner: And my first book is out. And I’m in a bookstore with my mother. And I’m signing stock, as you do. And my mother, who is very friendly and chatty. This woman comes up to her and says, “Oh, I need a great book for the summer. Have you read anything?” And my mother says, “I just read the best book. It was funny and it was sad. And the characters felt so real.” And I’m like, “Wait for it. Wait for it.” And my mom’s like, “It’s called Empire Falls by Richard Russo.” And I’m like, “Mom!” Because do you think that Richard Russo’s mom is up in Maine pimping my books?

Correspondent: But your mother was probably pimping your book too!

Weiner: Uh uh.

Correspondent: No?

Weiner: Mmm mmm.

Correspondent: Not at all?

Weiner: Well, maybe a little bit.

Correspondent: Oh okay. Well, there you go.

Weiner: But I think the woman asked what she read that she loved. And I think that [my mother] read Good in Bed in galley months ago. But, no, I love Richard Russo. But I don’t know.

Correspondent: So wait. You have read him.

Weiner: Of course!

Correspondent: Okay. Okay. So this is…

Weiner: I’m not a philistine here!

Correspondent: (laughs) So what’s the issue here? It can’t just be your mom. There’s something else going on here.

Weiner: I like Richard Russo. Have I talked smack about him?

Correspondent: Yeah. You’ve been suggesting, “Oh. Richard Russo. I don’t talk about him because of this whole mother thing.”

Weiner: It’s a joke! It’s a joke!

Correspondent: Okay.

Weiner: I like him. I don’t like Jonathan Franzen.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Weiner: But I don’t think Jonathan Franzen likes anybody. So I think it’s all good. Like I don’t think he wants me — I don’t know? Does he want to be liked? Did you read the essay that his girlfriend wrote?

Correspondent: Yes.

Weiner: Where was it? The Paris Review?

Correspondent: Kathy Chetkovich. It was in Granta. [EDITORIAL NOTE: Issue 82, to be precise. Now behind a paywall, but an excerpt appeared in The Observer. See above link.]

Weiner: Granta.

Correspondent: Yes. Exactly.

Weiner: Weird guy. About birding.

Correspondent: Yeah, I know. But actually, since we’re talking about the literary world…

Weiner: Yes!

Correspondent: I should also bring this up. Why give so much credit to The New York Times Book Review? I mean, this whole thing with the full-page advertisement.

Weiner: I know.

Correspondent: And I read your Twitter feed. And I know that you’re there on a Friday afternoon. At 5:00. When they put up the new articles. And you are looking through those articles.

Weiner: Right.

Correspondent: Why? Why give these folks credence?

Weiner: Well, you know what it is? They’re kind of the only game left in town. The Philadelphia Inquirer, where I used to work, once had a free-standing books section. And there used to be — I think the Hartford Courant, where I grew up, had a books section once upon a time. But honest to god, the truth is that my dad read The New Yorker and read The New York Times Book Review, and would get all of his reading suggestions from those two places. So if you weren’t in there, you didn’t really matter. And I think that I internalized that to a very great extent. But honestly, I think that the die was cast when I went with Atria instead of Simon & Schuster. Like way back in the day. When I was choosing who was going to publish my first book. And it’s like, well, Atria is much more commercial. And I knew that I loved my editor. I love my editor still. I love my publisher. They got the book. Like on a really visceral level. They were going to a great job of promoting it. Do a great job with me. But I wasn’t going to get reviewed by the Times. But then again, if you call your book Good in Bed, are you ever going to get reviewed by the Times? I don’t think so.

Correspondent: Unless you name it The Surrender.

The Bat Segundo Show #346: Jennifer Weiner III (Download MP3)

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(Image: pplflickr)

The Bat Segundo Show: Dan Chaon

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


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

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

Author: Dan Chaon

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


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

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

Correspondent: (laughs) Really?

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

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

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

Correspondent: I haven’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Image: ALA)

The Bat Segundo Show: Marcy Dermansky

Marcy Dermansky appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #343. Ms. Dermansky is most recently the author of Bad Marie.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Misidentifying French landmarks and attempting to make peace with copy editors in sketchy motel rooms.

Author: Marcy Dermansky

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I want to touch upon coincidence. Because it does create possibly a problem for a reader who is looking for a plausible reality.

Dermansky: Yes.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering if you can justify the use of coincidences or convenient run-ins because this is a work of fiction.

Dermansky: Right.

Correspondent: Because anything goes in fiction. Because you should be aware that it’s an artifice. Do you think that verisimilitude was just not required for this particular work?

Dermansky: Well, I think to some extent. There are crazy coincidences in life. And why not? I mean, there goes a motorcycle.

(A motorcycle passes.)

Dermansky: You never know who you’re going to run into or what’s going to happen. When I was signing books at BEA, someone came up to my table and said, “I want you to sign this for Alexa.” And I said, “Okay!”

Correspondent: Who was Alexa?

Dermansky: I have no idea. It was like her cousin or her niece. But at the table next to me, somebody walked up and said — and I just overheard; we were right next to each other — she said, “Could you sign this book to Alexa?” And it was just a different person next to me. And I just thought, “How many Alexas are there in the world that other people want?” And so that happened. And that’s not as dramatic as reading a book in prison and then coming out and finding out that your best friend is married to that author. But there are coincidences.

Correspondent: Did you make any efforts to track a third Alexa?

Dermansky: No. (laughs) I should have done that.

Correspondent: I mean, maybe there was a run-in of Alexas. Maybe there are a lot of Alexas in the publishing industry!

Dermansky: I stopped signing the book and said, “Isn’t it strange that there’s another Alexa?” And the woman whose book I was signing thought I was odd. And she’s just like, “Sign my book.” And I kept going on about how I thought that was interesting.

Correspondent: Did you find out what her name was?

Dermansky: No. I didn’t find out her name.

Correspondent: Oh.

Dermansky: Yeah.

Correspondent: Maybe she was Alexa. Maybe she liked to refer to herself in the third person. We don’t know.

Dermansky: Possible. Yeah, you don’t know. The normal people are often that. That’s what I was saying.

Correspondent: But on the other hand, we are dealing with narrative vs. reality.

Dermansky: I know. It’s true.

Correspondent: And while we can accept numerous coincidences, numerous associations, numerous situations, numerous parallels — that’s not necessarily going to line up neatly in a book. And in this, it seems to me, reading it, that you just didn’t care.

Dermansky: I think I didn’t care. I mean, I could put it back on you and I could ask you that. And you could be truthful. If that bothered you as a reader. Did you say, “Oh my god! She’s gone too far!”?

Correspondent: Well…

Dermansky: (laughs)

Correspondent: It did and it didn’t.

Dermansky: Okay.

Correspondent: I mean, I would say that it is rather curious that your book has a lot of outsider characters who are observing the situation. And then they mostly get involved with the narrative. And I wanted to actually ask you about that. There isn’t a single real stranger who’s looking upon all these weird characters — or unusual characters — or characters who came from a normal author.

Dermansky: Okay. (laughs)

Correspondent: They don’t just sit back and express disgust, save for that waiter. And I’m curious why you felt the need to pull in all these side characters into the narrative like this. As opposed to just letting them look at the situation and offer some expression of disgust, some expression of dismay, or what not.

Dermansky: Right. I was trying to remember who’s the waiter. He’s the waiter at the French restaurant.

Correspondent: Yes.

Dermansky: And he’s very disgusted because they put all the food on the table. And the cat on the table.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Dermansky: Well, I mean, don’t you, when you introduce a character to the story, they have to become part of the story?

Correspondent: Not necessarily. I mean, if you’re in a crowd, and these characters are often running into crowded situations when they’re not in rooms, you’re going to have people give them glances or expressions and the like.

Dermansky: Yeah, that’s true.

Correspondent: So to me, it was interesting that you decided any remote run-in with someone, I mean, immediately they become a supporting character or even a minor walk-on character.

Dermansky: Yeah. I guess that’s true. Like there’s that scene in the bathroom in Paris.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Dermansky: Where the woman walks into the bathroom. And she doesn’t just walk in and out. Well, they’re two teenage girls. They walk in and out. And they give Marie a dirty look. But then a woman in a hijab comes in. And she actually helps Marie change Caitlin’s diaper. So she becomes a character just for that scene. I don’t know. I think, if you put somebody into a room, you want to use them. Or why do that? You can’t just have a book with four characters either. It gets very claustrophobic. And so I do that a lot. I feel that as a writer — I’ve taught writing. So I’ve told students that you don’t introduce a major character in the third act of your book. You don’t. You have to have all of the players in there. But at the same point, it gets so flat and stale. Like new people come in. It’s a little bit like life. So a movie star walks in at the very end of the book.

Correspondent: That’s right.

Dermansky: And that seemed okay to me.

Correspondent: Is this, I suppose, the mark of a very socially inclusive personality?

Dermansky: I don’t think of myself as a very socially inclusive person.

Correspondent: (laughs) Just like you like to introduce people at parties, you like to introduce characters in novels? In your writing?

Dermansky: (laughs) No, I’m the person at the party who stands back and just gets introduced to other people.

Correspondent: You’re just defying all the expectations here. This is great.

Dermansky: I think I defy the expectations without thinking! (laughs)

(Image: Rachel Kramer Bussel)

The Bat Segundo Show #343: Marcy Dermansky (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: John Waters

John Waters appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #342. Mr. Waters is most recently the author of Role Models.

(Considerable gratitude to Wayman Ng, who resuscitated this conversation from the data grave.)


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Comparing himself to unspecified reference groups in Mertonian social situations.

Author: John Waters

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: You observe that listening to what Tennessee Williams has to say could save the reader’s life too. But how can Tennessee Williams save the life of, say, a humorless tax auditor?

Waters: They won’t read him. So I’m not saying he can save anybody’s life. But if the humorless tax auditor — and I actually know one tax auditor who does have a sense of humor.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Waters: If they read Tennessee Williams, maybe they could save their life. Maybe they would overlook one receipt that wasn’t exactly deductible for business if they thought the person was doing art.

Correspondent: Yeah. That’s true. In Role Models, you note that you drink every Friday night. Now in Crackpot, you observe that in your final year of smoking, you smoked only on Fridays.

Waters: Yeah.

Correspondent: Why would you confine vice to one day of the week?

Waters: Well, because the cigarette thing. Didn’t smoke. I used to. I haven’t smoked in — I write it down every day. I could tell you how many days. I’d have to look at my file card. But today — and even before then, I only smoked for three days. I fell off the wagon. But when I smoked every Friday night, it got to be — I couldn’t do that. Because at Thursday night at 11:59, I would light up and hotbox. Do you know what that means? Where you take one drag on a cigarette burn.

Correspondent: Oh yeah.

Waters: A carton! Like right in a row. So I learned that I can’t chip. I am an addict with cigarettes. So that’s why. Friday nights? Because I don’t work on Saturday. And every other ngiht’s a schoolnight to me. I write in the morning. I can’t write with a hangover. I can’t. And when I drank on Friday — I did smoking on Friday night because I knew that I didn’t have to work the next day. I was going to drink too. I might as well do it all.

Correspondent: This is your answer to Shabbos?

Waters: No. It’s just how I get through life really. That I’m very organized during the week. And as I said, I believe if you’re going to have a hangover, it should be planned on your calendar three weeks in advance.

Correspondent: But you can’t plan everything.

Waters: I do plan everything.

Correspondent: You do plan everything.

Waters: Everything! I never have a spontaneous moment. I don’t want a spontaneous moment.

Correspondent: Really.

Waters: Order is important to me. It brings me happiness. Which makes my assistants insane.

Correspondent: Really?

Waters: Yeah.

Correspondent: What do you do when a curveball shows up?

Waters: I plan. Well, a curveball? I deal with it. But I’m saying that I won’t not do something that’s going to be great fun because I didn’t plan it.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Waters: But I make sure that I have great fun planned so I don’t wait around for someone to knock on my door and give me great fun.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Waters: I go out to have great fun. And plan it.

Correspondent: Well, how rigidly do you plan your life?

Waters: Rigidly enough.

Correspondent: Are you like a senator?

Waters: Let’s just say…

Correspondent: Do you schedule when you shit? I mean…

Waters: No. But I usually do that around the same time too. And I get on an airplane. And I can adjust my watch to whatever time it is. Get off and be on that time. I’m organized, yes. But if something — you know, when I go out on Friday nights, something can happen. It’s not like I know what’s going to happen. But I have certain people I go with to different places. Because I don’t want to drink and drive. So I have a great pool that I go out with. And they’ll go to any weird bar. You’ve seen the bars I like to go to. There’s a whole chapter on that.

Correspondent: But I’m curious. Do you allot a two hour time to just go out and observe people? Or something along those lines?

Waters: Well, I’m always observing people. It doesn’t matter. On the subway, I’m observing people. I take the bus in San Francisco a lot to observe people. I watch people in airports get off the plane. I make up stories about every person. And if you look, the ugliest people get off first. They aren’t first class. The cuter they are, the worse seats they have on an airplane. It’s awful. It almost is foolproof. I know that sounds ridiculous. The poorest planners. The ones that lasted till the last minute and got the middle seat in the last row?

Correspondent: Yeah.

Waters: They’re cuter than the ones who are rich or smart enough to plan to use their frequent flyer miles to get one of the few seats available in first class. They’re never that good looking.

The Bat Segundo Show #342: John Waters (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Gary Rivlin

Gary Rivlin appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #340. Mr. Rivlin is most recently the author of Broke USA: From Pawnshop to Poverty, Inc. — How the Working Poor Became Big Business.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Considering the advances of a seductive loan shark.

Author: Gary Rivlin

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Rivlin: One in every five customers is taking twenty or more payday loans a year. So suddenly this effective interest rate of 400% becomes the actual interest rate. I mean, if you’re taking out twenty payday loans a year, that’s pretty much a loan every two weeks. And so you’ve got a couple million people a year in this country who are essentially paying 400% for their money to put it into dollars and cents. For that $500 loan, they’re paying $2,000 in fees for the year. So it’s the trap that a payday loan becomes, that I focus in on.

Correspondent: I wanted to talk about Martin Eakes, the man behind Self-Help and the Center for Responsible Lending. He offers a more reasonable APR through his credit union. His crusading has helped to initiate reform in numerous states. High-interest loans. Mortgage premium penalties. He’s been on it. His opponents, they point to his self-interest in creating caps that are uniquely beneficial to Self-Help. I want to address this. I mean, what of a credit union’s interest fees on overdrafts? Just to give you an example, if a consumer gets a hit, the median overdraft fee is about $27 on a $20 debit card transaction. They repay the charge in two weeks. And, according to the FDIC, that’s a 3,250% APR. That far outshines that $33 per $100 cap in Indiana. That works out to 858% on a two week loan. So I’m wondering if credit unions are, in some way, just as problematic. Or perhaps even more problematic on the overdraft charge than payday lenders, when we consider this?

Rivlin: Right. You’re giving the argument that the payday lenders make that I was starting to make myself before. That you could look at our 400% interest rate. But go start doing the math. As you just did. On bounced checks or late credit card fees. And again, that’s a legitimate point. Martin Eakes is one of the main characters in my book. He’s just a really interesting, quirky fellow. A few fun facts. He claims he’s never had a sip of alcohol in his life. He testifies all the time before Congress. Gives speeches. He owns a single suit to save money. His wife cuts his hair. My favorite quote from him is “Half the people I know would take a bullet for me and the other half would fire the pistol.” And that’s accurate. He’s really been out there as a leading crusader, not the leading crusader, against subprime mortgage abuse. Against the payday lenders. Against some of the more abusive policies.

Correspondent: And the people who work for him have salary caps as well. It’s not exactly a lucrative prospect to work for him.

Rivlin: The payday lenders and others try to tar Martin Eakes. But he’s a little bit Ralph Naderish in that way. He’s hard to tar. There’s a rule within his credit union that no one can be paid more than three times more than the lowest paid employee. And that means that this guy, who runs essentially a billion dollar operation — they’ve done a lot of home loans — is getting paid $69,000 a year. I guess everybody roots for the receptionist to get a raise.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, hopefully the MacArthur money was disseminated around. But you do have to make some kind of money. And as we’ve determined with this overdraft situation, that’s quite an interest.

Rivlin: Well, a few things. One way you misspoke was that his credit union doesn’t offer payday loans. His colleagues in North Carolina. The big North Carolina credit union for teachers and state employees. They offer a payday loan with an effective annual interest rate of 12%. 12% versus the 400%. And I met with the fellow who runs that credit union. And he called it the single most profitable loan that they offer. But getting back to the criticism that they level at Martin Eakes — that isn’t he just a competitor? Isn’t he just fighting the payday loan industry because he’s looking out for the bottom line of his own credit union? Well, one problem with that is — it was in 2001 that Martin Eakes and others in North Carolina kicked the payday lenders out of the state. Martin Eakes’s credit union — you’re only eligible to participate if you live in North Carolina. So he won the fight in 2001. Why is he still fighting the payday lenders across the country given that his bottom line is only affected in North Carolina? I find the argument — I heard it from every payday lender I met with — that Martin Eakes is just a competitor; it’s just very specious. He’s a crusader. He might see the world in black and white, where these things should be outlawed period. But I think he’s genuine in his criticism. I don’t think it has anything to do with his credit union. His credit union doesn’t even offer credit cards to rack up the late fees.

Correspondent: But how much does he charge for overdraft fees?

Rivlin: Twenty bucks.

Correspondent: Twenty bucks.

Rivlin: I was really curious about that question too.

Correspondent: I mean, that’s just — you’re still dealing with a pretty substantial APR. When does that $20 kick in?

Rivlin: Yeah. Well, you know, the problem with APRs on a bounced check is that it depends upon how long it takes for you to become whole again. I mean, there’s that $20 fee. But then there’s interest and other penalties when you’re late. But we can just say it’s enormous. It’s typically higher than 400% for the payday.

Correspondent: It’s below the median rate. That’s for sure.

Rivlin: Martin Eakes runs a not-for-profit credit union. He charges a bounced check fee like everybody charges a bounced check fee. It’s lower than the average, but still high. You know, I don’t know what to say about that. But I do think, as long as we’re talking about Martin Eakes, that this credit union he started, dating back to the 1980s, they’re a subprime mortgage lender. I mean, I hasten to add, given the association people have that he’s a different kind of subprime mortgage lender and started charging four or five or six or seven percent above the conventional rate. He charges 1%. You know, his loans didn’t have huge up-front fees. He made sure that you could pay it back. That if you make $25,000 a year, that you’re buying a house for $50,000, let’s say, rather than a $300,000 house that you’re never going to be able to afford. But this credit union is specifically for those of modest means. About half his customers are single moms. About half the people who bought homes using loans from him are people of color. He’s making loans in rural communities. People who live in trailers who can move into a modest-sized house and have, as he would put it, a bricks-and-mortar savings account. A home. He is doing a lot of good. Thousands and thousands of North Carolinans are living in a home who wouldn’t otherwise.

The Bat Segundo Show #340: Gary Rivlin (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Ander Monson II

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

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


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

Author: Ander Monson

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


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

Monson: Yes.

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

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

Correspondent: Yes.

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

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

Monson: It’s also not that.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Monson: That’s true.

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

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

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

Monson: I think so.

Correspondent: Really?

Monson: Yeah, I think so.

Correspondent: But then again, you can always…

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

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

Monson: Well, it is.

Correspondent: Yeah.

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

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

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

Correspondent: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: The Super 8 version.

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

Correspondent: Sure.

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

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

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

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

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The Bat Segundo Show: Daniel Okrent

Daniel Okrent appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #337. Mr. Okrent is most recently the author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Bombarded by too much bathtub gin and too many over-the-top movie trailers.

Author: Daniel Okrent

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about Walgreen’s. You point out that it went from twenty locations in 1920 to 525 during the 1920s, pointing out that it wasn’t just milkshakes that were responsible for this expansion. Yet all you present in the book to support this possibility is an interview with Charles Walgreen, Jr., who said in an interview with John Bacon that his father didn’t want the fire department in his stores because he was losing cases of liquor. I’m wondering if you made any efforts to corroborate this claim from another source. Has Walgreen’s managed to hush this up?

Okrent: Well, I think — be careful. I don’t make a claim. I say —

Correspondent: Suggestion.

Okrent: I make a suggestion. And that’s all I can do — is make a suggestion. But we do know this to be true. We know from Charles Walgreen, Sr.’s testimony to his son that they had liquor in the stores and he was afraid of losing it to the thieves. Right? Number two. We know that he had twenty stores at the beginning of Prohibition and 525 at the end. And if you want to believe it’s milkshakes, believe that it’s milkshakes. But the fact — the medicinal liquor business was an enormous business. Not just for the Walgreen’s drugstores, but for pharmacists across the country. You know, I have a bottle at home on my shelf. It’s kind of an inspiration. It’s an empty bottle. It says JIM BEAN. BOTTLED AND BOND. FOR MEDICINAL PURPOSES ONLY. This was a pure racket. And druggists, unless they had some kind of scruple that few apparently had, made a fortune because of it.

Correspondent: But beyond the Bacon interview, did you make any efforts to….?

Okrent: Yeah. I made efforts. There’s nobody alive in the Walgreen family today that I tried to make contact with, that had any thoughts about it either way. Or not. I don’t think that there’s been a conscious effort to cover it up. I think that it’s just forgotten.

Correspondent: Al Capone cultivated an image of benevolence. And you also point to Seattle bootlegger Roy Olmstead, who was quite ethical by comparison. He didn’t dilute his liquor. He didn’t resort to mob tactics. I’m wondering what factors made Olmstead a more ethical bootlegger. Was it Olmstead the man? Or was it the makeup of Seattle in comparison to the competitive violent world of Chicago?

Okrent: Yeah, I think that the latter has a lot to do with it. By all evidence, Olmstead was a decent man. You know, he was the youngest police lieutenant in the history of the Seattle Department. He was looked on as a golden boy of sorts. But because of his honesty, because he didn’t dilute, because he didn’t raise prices, he had very happy customers in Seattle. And he also worked very well with anybody else who was in the business. He built a big coalition. Really kind of a market control coalition. He controlled all of the booze that was coming into the Pacific Northwest. Capone was in a very different circumstance. I think that he was a different kind of man to begin with. And secondarily, he was in an extremely competitive cutthroat murderous environment, in which other people were trying to get a piece of the action. Olmstead didn’t try to accrue power to himself. He liked to run a good business. Capone wanted to be in charge.

The thing to me about Capone that is most surprising, relative to the popular image that we have of Capone, is that when he took over Chicago, he was twenty-five years old. He was a kid. And he was gone before he was thirty.

Correspondent: And he was played by all these older actors too.

Okrent: Yeah. I ask people, “How old do you think Al Capone was when he ran Chicago?” They say, forty-eight, thirty-seven, fifty. But he was a baby.

Correspondent: But in Seattle, was there violence involved?

Okrent: There wasn’t much violence in Seattle. There was a nicely cooperative operation between those who enforced the law and those who were breaking the law. Including the fact that the justice of the peace who presided over hearings and trials, they got a piece of the fine. So they liked the idea of people being arrested, paying a fine, and then went about it again — so that they could be arrested again. So they could pay the fine again.

Correspondent: So Olmstead set the precedent of a peaceful, money-oriented coalition here.

Okrent: Yeah. I think that there were others like that were others like that also in the country. But Seattle was remarkably free of the violent crime that hit the Eastern and Midwestern cities.

Correspondent: What other cities were nonviolent in terms of bootlegging?

Okrent: Nonviolent. San Francisco. I think that San Francisco and, to some degree, New Orleans are the ones that come immediately to mind. San Francisco never really acknowledged that Prohibition existed. Even the judges in San Francisco. They threw cases out. The DA of San Francisco, which is both a city and a county — he was an official in the organization against the Prohibition Amendment. He campaigned against it. So violence wasn’t necessary. Because there was nobody trying to corner a market. It was an open market for everybody.

The Bat Segundo Show #337: Daniel Okrent (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Barry Gifford

Barry Gifford appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #335. Mr. Gifford is most recently the author of Sailor & Lula: The Complete Novels.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wilder than his heartburn.

Author: Barry Gifford

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Gifford: Well, the point is “Don’t be a victim.” I mean, I think I have another chapter somewhere that’s called “Victims.” But that’s always been another kind of thing that I could never abide. People who see themselves as victims. You know, with a capital V. And I just don’t like to be around people like this. People who complain all the time or are a victim or who feel that they’re a victim of their environment, their parents, their husband, their wife, their boyfriend, their girlfriend, God. Whatever it is that they want to call it. It’s convenient, isn’t it? It’s an easy way out. And in the case of the kids in Perdita Durango, they’re just kids. They were like dumb college kids. And here they were kidnapped for the purpose of human sacrifice. I mean, what a terrible thing? And Romeo and Perdita are certainly colorful characters, but malevolent ones. So they’re the natural contrast to Sailor and Lula.

Correspondent: But these two college kids. Did you really feel a good deal of fury or hatred towards them?

Gifford: No! No, I don’t feel any fury or hatred towards any of these characters. I mean, in one sense, yes, we’re all subject to all of the things that have come before, to our upbringing, and to all these things that I mentioned. The key is: How do you deal with them? How do you assert yourself? How do you retain some semblance of control over your own life? Control has always been a big issue with me. I’m not an easily controlled person. In a way, I’m very faithful and loyal and all those things. But it has to be on my own terms. In the sense that if somebody is there purposefully and clearly and obviously attempting to manipulate me, that’s over. There’s no chance of my having any sort of friendship or relationship with that person. And that’s what Perdita Durango is mainly about. Now nobody had a worse childhood than Perdita Durango. She’s definitely — if anybody could be called a victimized person. It laid out her life for her. And what does she try to do? She’s trying to control her own existence. She’s fighting for her life. And that’s the theme that I always felt with Perdita. I love Perdita. I mean, she’s crazy and she’s dangerous. But I love her.

Correspondent: These issues of control are interesting. Because here you have worked in Hollywood, in which the writer is always considered last. For the most part. I know that you appeared on a panel recently in which you had no problem with your books being adapted and being transformed into something different. But there is, in dealing with Hollywood, a sense of capitulating control. And I’m curious as to how you find control in a situation in which you know the writer’s always going to get screwed.

Gifford: Well, as my friend Richard Price has mentioned before, and said the other night, he says, “I’m in it only for the money. I have my books.” And one thing that I said was, after the film Wild at Heart came out, people said to me, “Well, what do you think about what David Lynch did to your book?” I said, “I wasn’t aware that he did anything to my book.” I knew what they were asking. But the book is still there. Read the book. He didn’t change a sentence. He didn’t change a period or a comma. The book is there. The movie may endure the book. It may or may not endure whatever it happens to be. But it’s still there. It’s inviolable. The movie’s another animal. It’s a different form. It’s a different art form. You have other opportunities with movies. And I love the movies. And I learned a lot about how to write from the movies when I was a child. Just watching all-night movies all the time. That sort of thing. And I learned how to tell a story, and how to build character development, and all that kind of thing. That doesn’t mean that I sat down to write movies. I did not. And when I have the opportunity, or choose the opportunity, to write a screenplay, really the writer only has one shot at it. It’s that first draft. So when you write that first draft, you have to see that movie the way you want it to be seen. And so there are no excuses. Of course, there’s more or less manipulation. I mean, sometimes I work better in Europe. Because they change fewer things. But it isn’t the case with Lost Highway, which David Lynch and I wrote together. Everything that’s in that movie is written. It’s all there Nothing was changed. So what could be better than that?

(Image: Robert Birnbaum)

The Bat Segundo Show #335: Barry Gifford (Download MP3)

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