Joanna loves Eclipse Ale. It’s the best beer in the world. She has boxes of Eclipse memorabilia. She regularly wears Eclipse baseball caps. But on one rainy night, Joanna discovers that this happy relationship (along with the relationship with her boyfriend) is not what it seems. Why can’t she remember what her boyfriend gave her on their second anniversary? And why doesn’t anybody know about Eclipse Ale?
Joanna loves Eclipse Ale. It’s the best beer in the world. She has boxes of Eclipse memorabilia. She regularly wears Eclipse baseball caps. But on one rainy night, Joanna discovers that this happy relationship (along with the relationship with her boyfriend) is not what it seems. Why can’t she remember what her boyfriend gave her on their second anniversary? And why doesn’t anybody know about Eclipse Ale? (Running time: 28 minutes)
Joanna: Eileen Hanley Greg: Charlie Harrington DJ: Peter Coleman Sam: Marc Eliot Stein Ignacio: Kilgore Lehrer Receptionist: Zachary Michael Leslie Stevens: Lauren Shippen Bar Background: Hans Detlef Sierck, Jan Jensen, Sam Lowry
Special thanks to Sacha Arnold, Austin Beach, Matthew Boudreau, Jason Boog, Christopher Byrd, Kate C., Christian Caminiti, Claudia Berenice Garza, Pam Getchell, Jon Grilz, Jen Halbert, Gabriella Jiminez, Pete Lutz, Philip Merritt, Pacific Obadiah, John Osborne, Rina Patel, Michael Saldate, Raia Savage, Alex Schawrtzberg, That Podcast Girl, Georgette Thompson, Jack Ward, and many others I may have inadvertently forgotten for their invaluable help, feedback, kindness, inspiration, and support during the production of this episode.
Please be sure to also listen to Philip Merritt’s Lost in Williamsburg, which gave me a major editing idea that completely altered the bar scene, Jon Grilz’s Creepy, and Pacific Obadiah’s Lake Clarity.
Andrew Kaberline is one of the many affable figures behind the tremendously fun podcast, The Grayscale, a Twilight Zone-style anthology that captured my ears with an amusing over-the-top presenter sounding an awful lot like someone wanting to be Rod Serling known only as The Voice Inside Your Head (played by Nate Betancourt). I started from the beginning and listened to all of the episodes.
And then I heard “Jess Dempsey, First Woman on Mars,” a gripping and must listen tale written and directed by Kaberline that involves a woman living on the fourth planet in complete solitude who hears voices. It was this story, with an ace performance from Kristin Macomber and a devastating twist ending, that broke the back of The Grayscale‘s formula and turned me into a regular listener. The Grayscale, which is now in its second season, has won five Audio Verse Awards — largely for “Jess Dempsey.” I contacted Kaberline and he was tremendously gracious to become part of what is now apparently a regular Audio Drama Sunday interview series. (We’ll have another interview next Sunday.)
Many audio dramas seem to spring from enthusiastic genre geeks and sound engineers. But The Grayscale is somewhat unusual because it emerged from a nonprofit theatre called Critical Point that decided to experiment with a podcasting arm a few years ago. And while the show is clearly influenced by The Twilight Zone, there is something instructive in the way that Kaberline and company’s close copy of its source text resulted in something that was quite distinct. It’s not unlike the “missing tapes” genre that I discussed with The Bright Sessions‘s Lauren Shippen, whereby an audio drama takes on the form of a police procedural with a Serial-like approach. A radio producer or someone with a box of tapes often stands in for the detective and, instead of a crime, the investigation is directed towards something of a strange and supernatural nature.
While audio drama’s riffs on the “missing tapes” idea have spawned many magnificent programs (Archive 81 is a particular standout), The Grayscale demonstrates that radio doesn’t always have to tug at the same source to create something original and enthralling. Rather than mimic the most popular podcast of all time, why not try from a celebrated TV series, an obscure Swedish film, or a well-loved book? As I learned in talking with Kaberline, the form and creative logistics of audio drama result in inevitable transmutations during the production process. That may very well be why The Grayscale is such a wonderful program and why audio drama has a very ripe future.
EDWARD CHAMPION: As someone who watched many Memorial Day marathons of The Twilight Zone growing up, and who has held that series very close to his heart ever since, I was perhaps constitutionally incapable of not appreciating your own riff on the anthology format. You, good sir, have been quite candid about the influence! Not only do you include a “Companion Guide” pointing to the specific TZ episodes that informed The Grayscale, but you have also written an essay called “How I Justify Stealing,” in which you copped to stealing an idea from a production of Chekhov’s The Vagabond to find an ending for A List of Irrational Fears for Future Leaders of the World. Speaking as someone who once made a Super 8mm film of a woman trapped in a room filled with newspaper attempting to subsume her (which was a riff on a moment in Terry Glliam’s Brazil, in which Tuttle gets absorbed by newspaper), I’m no stranger to this conundrum myself. On one hand, your goal as an artist is to find your voice. On another hand, you need something to start from. I’d say that Season 2 does represent something a bit more “original,” departing from the overt Twilight Zone lifting into a more natural expression. What steps did you take between the seasons to get to this point? Or was the act of producing audio drama and putting several episodes behind you enough to get you to this place?
ANDREW KABERLINE: Firstly, I’m so happy that you mentioned that Tuttle scene in Brazil. I have said to my fellow ensemble members that if we get to do Fears again with a bigger budget, that we’re going to try to steal that moment for the ending this time!
As far as dropping bits of our Twilight Zone “tributing,” I would say that it was a natural progression, in that we never said, “Okay, this year, no references,” but it certainly has gone that way.
I do think getting more comfortable as podcast producers is the reason for that change. As a team we have got sharper at scheduling and recording with efficiency, and we gathered most of the scripts for this season before we ever premiered Season 2, which has let me avoid those situations where you go, “Oh crap, we need an episode next month. Which Twilight Zone premise can I riff on?”
The main team for The Grayscale (myself, showrunner Dylan Amick, and master sound engineer/editor/the voice inside the credits, Chelsea Rugg) did have a long talk about what was going to be different this season. We wanted it to feel like a step forward. We wanted to get different voices (you’ll notice Dylan and I have only penned one episode each so far). We wanted to explore new themes. We wanted to create a larger universe (as kicked off in our Twitter Fiction Story, which will really take shape in the second half of this season. Even the theme song was different! We built a nice little audience after Season One, and from the opening seconds of season 2 we wanted the listeners to instantly go, “Well, this is new.”
CHAMPION: Your talk of showrunners and engineers leads me to point out that The Grayscale is a bit different from other audio dramas, in that it emerged from Critical Point Theatre. I don’t know of any other theatre that is doing quite what you’re doing and, indeed, I wasn’t aware that you were producing any other podcasts until your “State of the Podcasts” address cropped up on the feed. I had initially anticipated some satirical spinoff story, with The Voice Inside Your Head announcing a podcastocratic government, only to be quite pleasantly astonished at your bona-fide commitment! Why did your theatre company feel that audio drama was the best step forward? Has it had any impact on your theatrical productions? And let me get this straight: you were writing, producing, and editing each show one at a time rather than getting the scripts for a season ready in advance? My goodness! You folks are troopers! How did you manage that insane production process? Were there scripts written in one or two nights when you knew you needed an episode? Also, since you have a new musical theme, how did music gradually encroach its way into what seems to me a pretty arduous on-the-job training process during the first season?
KABERLNE: Tiny spoiler, you will be seeing The Voice Inside Your Head getting into hot water with a strange government later this season!
I’m actually kind of shocked that more theatre companies aren’t taking this same approach. All of our work is original and we create our stage productions through weekly rehearsals and a laboratory process. It leads to great work, but the one downside is that it takes a lot of time. We were worried about staying active while slowly building this content, so the emergence of a podcast wing allows us to put out work more frequently and in different disciplines.
Audio storytelling has worked its way into our theatrical storytelling too. The show that we are working on now, Phreaking, is a sort of psychological hacker melodrama, that explores the state of masculinity on the Internet, and has a forum theatre element to it, so the audience is in control. We’re creating an expanded universe for the characters in the play, that will include some blogs, videos, and even a spin-off podcast limited series. Who knows? You might even see one of the characters in the play end up being judged by The Grayscale. Time will tell. But we are having fun using our audio skills to open up our plays past the edge of the stage.
And yes, for a little while we were doing Grayscale episodes one at time, meaning that we only were a month ahead with our ideas. But it wasn’t as bad as that sentence just made it sound (except for Chelsea; rule number one of audio storytelling: don’t abuse your editors). Critical Point kinda jumped into the podcast game before we were as capable as we are now. With just one show it takes a few months to get your groove and really find the best way to do that show, but we launched five shows simultaneously. It was too much to handle, and not every show survived.
The Grayscale idea was thought up by myself and Matthew Schott during an infamous “pizza meeting,” where we created what the feeling of the show would be, and worked through five or six ideas for episodes. So while we were flying by the seat of our pants there at the beginning, we had those ideas in our back pocket at least. Four of those pizza episodes ended up running in Season One, including “Jess Dempsey.”
But yes, there was a lot of quick writing for a while. When it comes to the Rod Serling half hour formula, I’m a very speedy writer. When I’m writing full length plays… not so much.
As an ensemble we cover a lot of skills. Music composition is not one of them. We started with a theme by Sammy Pisano that I like very much. We were lucky to find Sammy through a co-worker of Chelsea’s, and he was on board very quickly. We started asking him to score the episodes themselves with that quick turnaround, and I don’t think we realized that was impossible and, quite frankly, kind of rude to ask of someone. We had to tell the stories with less music and more silence out of necessity, but I think we really prefer it now. Silence is dramatic over the radio. You’re only using one sense listening to our show and we’re taking it away. It inherently makes you feel like something is going wrong, which is great, because usually things are going wrong for our characters!
We got better at sound design too. We’re so lucky to have Chelsea Rugg. She holds the show together and is an expert at finding and making soundscapes and effects from various free and paid sound subscriptions that we have. It’s also forced Dylan and I as the primary writers to be more specific when we write sounds into the margins, and it’s only made our world of the show more specific. We learned quick. The best example of this is in “Jess Dempsey.” Chelsea had learned how to add mass and direction to something while it moved, and it allowed me to then write that effect into a major plot line. Throwing on the headphones and hearing the monster circle Jess Dempsey’s compound is still my favorite moment of the show.
We do have a new theme for the show by Isaac Aaron Jones, a friend of Dylan’s, that I love as well. We were going to do different things this season and felt a new theme was appropriate. We will likely do the same each season hereon out. My advice to audio drama makers out there is that if you don’t have the skill yourself to write music, start making friends with anyone and everyone who does.
CHAMPION: I’m keen to know more about your sound design. My feeling is that every audio drama should try to sound as distinct as possible. Certainly The Voice Inside Your Head — somewhere between a Rod Serling knockoff and a booming grandiloquent presence who, despite his alleged omniscience, may not know as much as he thinks! — is a fun and a very distinct way to steer a listener into your program and helped to land me on board for the entire run. To what extent have you employed more foley work over preexisting sounds? And I’m glad you brought up “Jess Dempsey, First Woman on Mars.” To my mind, that was the the first episode in which The Grayscale really threw off the shackles of its Twilight Zone roots and became its own separate beast. I’m wondering if you were at a “Do or Die” moment while coming up with that script, where you asked yourself the hard question, “Okay, do I want to keep on making a Twilight Zone knockoff or do I want to make something that can stand on its own?” Perhaps one inevitably resists the wiseacres offering a “tracer” argument through constant production! Also, how did you get used to directing audio drama knowing quite well that the audience wouldn’t be able to see the actors other than within the confines of their imagination?
KABERLINE: You hit the nail on the head with TVIYH. He is not as smart and powerful as he presents himself to be. He’s like if someone who loved The Twilight Zone, like you or me, answered a personal ad looking for a spooky narrator, and then was troubled to find out it was all too real once he got the job. There are much larger strings pulling TVIYH. He’s a pretty lowly company man.
We have been hit or miss with our foley. Sometimes when we want a simple sound effect, and all of our resource sounds are trying too hard, we will just do it ourselves. These don’t stand out too much in the actual episodes, because they are sounds that are supposed to just blend anyway.
Our first episode was a monster episode, and we had this idea to have the monster noises come from the sounds our cat makes when you accidentally lock him in a room. He was known to make some terrible noises, so we tried to replicate the conditions, and turns out he didn’t want to make those noises when we wanted him to. So that kind of soured us on foley for the complex sounds. For that episode, Matthew Schott (the writer/star) actually made about 90% of the monster noises himself, without a lot of manipulation from us in editing, and that worked great!
Another technique we like to employ is taking sounds from one thing and using it to represent something else. There is a lot of this in our recent episode “Nasty Things, Anachronisms.” A character spontaneously combusts and that sound is made up of a jet turbine, a trash bag ripping, a tea kettle screaming, and a few other things.
I don’t believe that we intended for Jess Dempsey to be the defining go-to episode that it became for the series. We want all the episodes to be that way, of course, but that one was a nice surprise. When we were producing Jess, we were also doing a lot of pre-production work on the next two episodes “Penelope Loves You” and “A Jitter In The Life Of Danny Wampler.” We knew those two were going to be production heavy. So the idea was for me to write one that would be simple and quick. One character alone talking to herself. That turned out to be “Jess.”
I wrote “Jess” while on an overnight shift working the front desk at a hotel, which can be as lonely and terrifying as the version of Mars in our episode. I really hated the first draft. So much so that I didn’t want to do the episode. I showed it to Dylan and Chelsea and they were like, “Are you stupid? Of course we’re doing this episode!” They understood the potential better than I did.
I don’t think we were consciously trying to move away from The Twilight Zone with that episode. In fact, I remember wanting to really go after something as issue-based as a Rod Serling script. I think part of the reason that it felt so different from our normal formula might be chalked up to tricks that were unavailable to Rod, like that kind of found footage style. And the episode was very easy to direct. One of our quickest recording sessions. Kristin Macomber came into the room knowing exactly who Jess was. She made our jobs easy.
That leads nicely into your directing question! Dylan and I do most of the directing, and we couldn’t be more different. Dylan comes in with a million ideas, and has a director’s playbook of ways to get the actor to say a line better. I can hear the greatest performance ever and seem like I’d want to be anywhere else. Both of these approaches have worked for us so far.
I think directing audio drama can be a really frustrating venture at first, especially for those with film or theatre backgrounds. A lot of those techniques simply do not work here. It hurts to have to tell some actors to fight against their good acting impulses to jump on the ends of lines or do physical work. It hurts to say, “That conservatory you paid all that money for really did teach you to act! We can control the jumping of lines better in editing than you can do in person. And when you get all physical, we can hear you hitting your lap with your hands. So here’s a pillow for you to put there so it doesn’t happen again.”
It’s a different art and it should be treated as such. The best piece of advice I can give to a new audio director is simply not to look at the actor while they’re performing. Close your eyes. They might be doing great work, making lots of choices, but then when you listen back you say, “Huh, that performance didn’t end up as good as I remembered.” Well yeah, because you were looking at the performance instead of listening to it. It is audio drama after all.
CHAMPION: I’ve also found that asking animals to convey interesting sounds on cue is indeed a challenging proposition. Sure, they’re more than happy to claim allegiance when you have food, but is a well-timed roar too much to ask from time to time? Nevertheless, I greatly admire your quixotic efforts to introduce your cat to such strange human philosophies as hitting your mark! So it sounds as if The Grayscale‘s success very much revolves around insane deadlines! I’m now very curious how fast you write those first drafts, how you revise the scripts, and whether writing for the ear represents a greater challenge for you than writing a short play. Do you often have an actor in mind during revision? And is this of help in figuring out what a story is about? Do the actors have any input upon the scripts? I won’t be uncouth enough to ask Dylan to reveal how he extracts the rabbits out of his hat, but can you divulge one or two of his most effective techniques? What do you do to make the actors feel comfortable, given that you and Dylan are spending quite a lot of time pretending to be in a witness relocation program?
KABERLINE: I write those drafts lightning fast, like two to three hours. To be fair though, most of the time I have spent a lot of my daily daydreams thinking through these episodes. So by the time I sit at my desk, it’s just about execution.
There tend to be two or three drafts total for each episode. I have become the script doctor for the show. So when I write an episode I do draft one, sleep on it, then do a revision usually the next day. When it is someone else’s script, it’s a different process.
They pitch us an outline, then Dylan, Chelsea, and I give notes. Then they give a first draft and we do another round of notes. Then they return with a second draft. And at that point, I get a final pass to punch it up and we have the final script.
Most of the time, my role in that final punch-up is to make judicious line cuts so that the episode fits in the time frame that we would like. It felt rude at first, but it has made me a much better writer across the board.
Writing for the ear has a very specific set of challenges. You can’t write in anything visual unless you want your character to state it aloud. It’s actually easier than when I sit down to write my full length plays, which tend to become abstract and don’t have abide to these rules! When I write for the ear, I already know what I can’t do. So I don’t even bother to go down those roads. What’s really rewarding is succeeding at the challenge of having clear action without dialogue. In the second episode of this season, a woman falls to the center of the Earth after the ground opens beneath her. She doesn’t say, “Oh man! I’m falling through the ground!” or anything like that. But I’m proud of how clear the action of that moment, and the action right after it, is.
I’d say that we rarely have an actor in mind when writing a Grayscale script. I certainly do it for my stage plays, but again for that you have to consider visuals. We are really really lucky to have a large pool of actors available to us who seem to enjoy working on the show. Our goal every episode is to get a new voice that has never appeared on the show, and thus far we’ve been successful. The actors don’t get any input on the creation of the script, though, in the room while recording we will often tweak lines or let them play around. Those ramblings from Becky Granger and Matthew Schott at the end of scenes from our recent episode about time travel were 100% unscripted.
Dylan won’t even tell me some of those tricks because he directs me sometimes! A magician can never reveal his secrets. But I can tell you that Dylan is really strong at giving notes to a struggling actor, without letting them know that they are struggling. I have witnessed him do this thing where an actor struggles with a line. So Dylan gives a direction that is wrong, which leads to an even worse read. Then Dylan is able to shift the cause of it not working onto him, which takes the pressure off the actor. Then Dylan gives them the actual direction/note that he wants to give them, and they are out of their head and able to take it confidently because they know whatever they do will be better than that last take. It’s really impressive.
Actor’s comfort is a large thing for us. I think what we are most conscious of is not wasting people’s time. We don’t like having people sitting around waiting for their scene, so we spend extra time on making scheduling air tight. A lot of our actors are stage actors who have never done voice-only stuff before. So, we like to let them do a first run of the scene without much direction, let them do everything their training has taught them. We react positively to that run, which isn’t hard because it’s usually compelling live theatre, and then give them the parameters of only being heard. If you try to throw all of that at an actor before they even say a word, you guarantee yourself a performer who will be entirely in their own head.
CHAMPION: One of the things I appreciate about The Grayscale is its willingness to go very big — not unlike the mysterious New Zealanders who run The Witching Hours — another anthology series for the ear operating out of a theatre! “Who Sins Most?” is almost a cousin to broad comedy in its depiction of a cruel and uptight priest (who is often quite casual about his callousness) who arrives in heaven. I’m also strangely fond of the over-the-top ending of “Applaud My Friends, The Comedy is Over,” which works to a crescendo that is absurd (albeit in an increasingly absurd age of a reality TV show host as presidential candidate) but that finds its own particular tone in the telling. Some audio drama producers are quite committed to keeping their shows steeped in the real. Do you feel that there are inherent limits on how over-the-top an audio drama can go? What concerns do you have for keeping The Grayscale grounded in reality? Have there ever been vociferous arguments within Critical Point on this point?
KABERLINE: Yeah, we got really absurd at the end of Season One with those last two episodes.
My advice to anyone making audio stories is to go as over the top as you want to be, unless your being over the top makes the listening experience exhausting. We certainly go over the top on occasion. It is a sci-fi show, you know?
Our thing is that, while our stories involve magical elements, we rarely tell the actors to play against the truth. “Applaud My Friends” is a great example. The ending is really absurd and unsettling (Dylan and I were trying to match “The Obsolete Man”), but as actors we played it really honestly. I don’t think it would’ve worked if we were just as weird or goofy as the premise.
In our comedies we tend to have the actors go more broad, but i would contest that they are still acting truthfully. Our comedy characters tend to be closer to Marty McFly than The Three Stooges.
Something has to stay true to make the episodes relatable. For us, that’s usually the acting. This is the big thing that bad anthologies seem to miss.
I don’t think we’ve ever had a conservation about making sure the show is realistic enough. What we do aim for is variety. If this month we do a dark realistic found footage horror, then next month we will probably do a sitcom-like comedy of errors with a robot that makes quiches. It’s all about switching up the tone. If you’re going to do anthology, you have to be flexible.
The stuff I write that isn’t The Grayscale is so much more off the walls that Critical Point never tends to have a problem with what I turn in for this show.
CHAMPION:“The Effect of Fog at the Overlook” features a very large performance from Tyler Ward, especially when he channels his angst. And there’s something about Matthew Schott’s sniveling doormat character in “The Best Version of Myself” (as well as his alter ego through the wormhole) that comes across as both grandiose and true. Do you feel that genre and anthology naturally leads to performances veering more towards melodrama? Or is this generally the Critical Point m.o.? I have noticed more of a mix-up of real and hyperreal in the Season 2 performances (such as “A Peck of Dirt Before You Die”). How many variations on large can one have? This doesn’t seem to be a problem at this stage in The Grayscale‘s existence, but, performance and story-wise, what are you doing to mix up the tones so that you don’t find yourself repeating tropes?
KABERLINE: I think there is some truth to anthology leading to melodrama. I would say that’s not the Critical Point m.o though. Dylan has this idea that when you take away visuals in storytelling, that you should absolutely try to start with as high of stakes as possible, which I think in turn does lead to some melodrama, or those big acting moments.
I don’t think we are worrying about having too many moments of someone going big. Conflict will lead to big moments more often than not, and when you change the laws of science in your show as well, then it’s only going to get bigger.
We are hyper-aware of not trying to recycle the same story elements as far as premises or the “magic” of the episode. I had an idea that was going to be a sort of woman vs her GPS story this season, but we had already done an aware robot in “Now Back To Your Scheduled Programming.” So we went another direction. Now that we have our episodes figured out before the start of the season, we are able to order them in a way where you have different tones and styles continuously. You’re not going to see two alien episodes in a row on The Grayscale.
CHAMPION: What was your biggest mistake on Season One? What would you now not do? How much time does it take for you and the Critical Point gang to produce a typical episode? What kind of system have you worked out so that none of your crew gets burned out or too creatively taxed?
KABERLINE: Our biggest mistake was in “Fog” when we switched the room halfway through recording. Never do that. Wherever you decide to record, stick to it!
I want to say our big mistake was jumping into something really difficult with very little specific knowledge of the medium, but I’d also say this forced us to learn quickly. What we absolutely wouldn’t do now, that we did a lot of in Season One, was over-record. It might feel nice to really explore a scene and get fifteen takes, but you’re only making your editor’s job harder.
We treated the whole process and show very precious in Season One. Now we happily attack the show.
I would say that from pre-production to the episode airing, it takes a little more than a month. Of course, the writing is now done far in advance, but we try to cast and schedule recordings about a month and half before the episode comes out. Then, we record an entire episode in one day (sometimes two). And then editing can last between 1-3 weeks. We get our scripts to Jackie Mullen about a month out, and she takes that time to give us our artwork that accompanies our posts.
We get burned out. All the time. That’s the thing, is beyond Grayscale, we are working on other podcasts, and also doing weekly rehearsals to devise our theatrical pieces. We’re always doing too much. Like right now, I’m answering these questions on a plane leaving San Francisco where we just did a theatre festival. Burnout is real and sometimes unavoidable.
How we try to curb this, is by having a condensed work flow. Generally, I take care of a lot of preproduction as far as gathering and editing scripts, Dylan takes care of production (casting/scheduling), and Chelsea engineers and then takes over in post-production as the editor. We will move these roles around on occasion, but locking in to a system where we know exactly what is expected has worked well for us. The more specific you can be early on in assigning roles, the less energy you will exert filling in cracks. This year, we are taking a break in the month of July and I think that will become permanent. You gotta take care of your own mental fatigue, and making good audio drama is very, very exhausting.
Wooden Overcoats may be one of the best British comedies in years. But you won’t find it on the BBC or Netflix and you won’t find it in theaters. To celebrate Audio Drama Sunday, we conducted a lengthy chat with head writer David K. Barnes and his nimble co-conspirator Felix Trench to find out how this hilarious and independent production was put together.
Wooden Overcoats is one of the best British comedies in years. But it doesn’t involve Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. You won’t find it playing in a movie theater or streaming through Netflix. This is distinguished, sometimes eccentric, and frequently hilarious comedy carefully honed for the ear, a production that is both of our podcasting age and that naturally jumps off from Spike Mulligan and Peter Sellers’s goofy radio experimentation.
Telling the tale of two rival funeral homes competing for business on a mile-wide island of Piffling (a forgotten strip in the Channel Islands), with embittered local Rudyard Funn (“displaying the athleticism that comes only to a man whose entire fortunes rest on burying a seagull before six o’clock”) brushing up against a dashing new mortuary upstart named Eric Chapman, the listener is immediately struck by how fresh, original, ambitious, and committed this show feels. The story is narrated by a memoir-writing mouse, for one thing, voiced by veteran actor Belinda Lang. Amazingly, the show was produced entirely independent. The scripts were so good that the crew behind this massive operation not only persuaded veteran actors and nimble newcomers alike to work for nearly nothing. They even assembled a small orchestra to record the show’s theme.
Last September, Wooden Overcoats unveiled its first season of eight episodes. While this seemingly out of nowhere release earned deservedly rapturous praise from many in the audio drama community, it remains a great mystery why this wonderful and truly sui generis production hasn’t been more passionately endorsed by those who profess to know all culture. In addition to being terribly funny, Wooden Overcoats is also highly accomplished audio drama with energetic voice work and nimble effects and a meticulously timed pace. It is the kind of program that might never have found support within the limited ambitions of current media institutions.
Within minutes of listening to Wooden Overcoats‘s first episode, I suspected that the program had been put together with a great deal of thought, care, and attention. After I plunged into this magnificent show, discovering that I could not stop listening, I contacted head writer David K. Barnes and actor Felix Trench (who plays Rudyard) to find out just how this show was made. These two affable gents responded to my many questions. And we fell into a two week frenzy of perspicacious banter, which has been presented below.
EDWARD CHAMPION: Aside from the sheer fun I had binge-listening to the entire first season in less than 24 hours, there were a number of curious qualities that I noticed about Wooden Overcoats. There’s a certain cultural history of narratives set on islands, ranging from Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe to Muriel Spark’s woefully underrated novel Robinson (of which Wooden Overcoats suggested close associations!), to the islands that populate David Mitchell’s novels, to Gilligan’s Island and Lost and the beautifully nutty 1973 film The Wicker Man. In all of these examples (and even Sherwood Schwartz populated his island with an eccentric ensemble!), the island’s geographical limitations somehow provided their creators with a kind of license to go big, whether it meant a labyrinthine plot or an allegory or an exploration of strange behavior. I’m wondering how your own island came about. Did you consider other island narratives before making this? Why did you feel that radio was the best way to tell this story?
DAVID K. BARNES: We started with the basic premise of two competing funeral directors and knew that they’d have to be in a small community for the comedy to work. I decided very early on whilst plotting the first episode that it’d be best if Rudyard had lived in this community all his life and that Eric was brand new, arriving in that episode, and that the power struggle would be essentially one-sided. A village on the mainland seemed to me to provide too many avenues of escape — Rudyard could essentially move, if his pride would let him — and so we thought setting the series on an island would isolate everybody and raise the stakes.
Though I’ve read Robinson Crusoe and seen The Wicker Man and so on, I can’t say I was inspired by any of them, though I am generally very interested in the history of tiny islands and countries. Small communities developing their own traditions and taking whatever they want from the culture of the outside world… I was also born and raised in Portsmouth, UK, which is an island steeped in naval history. Quite honestly, however, very little of all this is reflected in Wooden Overcoats!
FELIX TRENCH: I’ve listened to radio comedy since I was a teenager; I suspect that’s the same for a lot of us who get into it. I grew up in mainland Europe and an abiding memory is staticy BBC Radio 4 LW fading Dead Ringers in and out as we waited for the lights to turn green.
I began Audioscribble with a couple of other actors in 2012 (in a graveyard weirdly) as a way to make work for ourselves in a medium we love but has few openings. There’s a long tradition in comedy of starting out on the radio and coming back to it (like Mitchell and Webb did recently or Stephen Fry’s series on etymology). Having a state broadcaster like the BBC who run much of the most listened to/watched radio and TV and make their own content probably has something to do with that. It never occurred to me that we’d do it another way.
CHAMPION: What accounts for some of the unusual mathematical factors (a mouse tells the story — a very small being; two competing funeral parlors)? Do you feel that scope inevitability arises from creative limitations?
BARNES: It’s usually a function of storytelling. There are two competing funeral parlours because three would dilute the impact of the narratives and characters. The island has one of everything because then you can keep going back to those locations and develop recurring characters. The narrator being a mouse arose from the fact that when writing the first episode I wanted to tie the narrator into the action, and felt that the episode needed to end on a twist that would intrigue the audience enough to listen to Episode 2. I’d early on established that Rudyard’s only friend was a mouse and then thought, well, why not make the mouse narrate the show? A mouse can observe everything without being observed itself! And she’s writing a memoir for commercial gain, which explains why she’s (a) telling us all this, and (b) telling us only the “good bits”. Almost everything that happens in WO is a result of a carefully decided plan on how best to tell the story in an involving and entertaining way.
TRENCH: Limits are amazing. They force you to focus on story which is the most important thing. In Season 1, David purposefully looked for writers for the team who had a background in playwrighting knowing that he could add the jokes later if needed. Giving yourself a limit (or even better having someone give it to you) pulls you out of the patterns you’re comfortable with and makes you think in ways that you wouldn’t have before. I’ve worked as an actor both on roles I’ve written and roles I haven’t and I vastly prefer the latter – it’s more satisfying to look for a way into someone else’s mind than roll around in your own. The pitching process to the usual radio channels in this country recently became a lot harder to break into which is what ultimately forced us to gamble on podcasting.
CHAMPION: Did such a mantra extend to some off the writing (such as many of the seaside adventures)? Also, just how in the sam hill did you two goofy fellows hook up for this?
BARNES: There’s certainly a lot you can do with audio. There are huge sequences in some of our episodes which would be very expensive to film as television, and tricky to do on stage (the flooded mortuary swimming in corpses, Rudyard’s clifftop excursion…). So, as long as we can effectively communicate what’s happening to the audience, we like to try out a few big set pieces. Also, the idea that the island is a mile wide and yet has all these things on it is conceptually very interesting and ridiculous in a way I think is best suited for audio. You couldn’t visualise it on TV, and in written prose you’d probably notice how improbable it was. On audio you kind of go along with it. I told my writers to establish whatever they wanted on the island because Piffling could certainly accommodate it.
TRENCH: David and I have known each other since 2006. We were both studying at Edinburgh, along with our production manager, Liz. I graduated the year before them and moved to London and, long story short, we all ended up living together. I met Tom Crowley on a playwrighting course in 2012 and he and I have worked on projects together ever since. We’ve often noted how our careers tend to parallel each other’s and we’ve ended up in the same spot from different performance backgrounds. I initially pitched to him a short film about rival undertakers for us both to work on/be in and we made some plans but never followed through. Six months later, we revived the idea as an audio sitcom and brought it to David as a concept. He disappeared for twenty minutes then came back with a treatment for episode 1, I had a quiet word with Tom, and we asked if he’d like to run the show. I’d worked with David on a couple of other projects before — including an audio comedy — and knew that whatever he’d do, it would be good.
CHAMPION:Wooden Overcoats has this interesting tension between a bustling cadre of characters and the inherent limitations of a small community. Given the intimacy of the medium, how ambitious do you think audio drama can be in sustaining an epic scope? As you point out, you can certainly stage epic incidents, such as flooded mortuaries.
TRENCH: Radio 4 adapted Neverwhere recently, Naxos gave us a Michael Sheen-led Sophocles cycle, there was a big Lord of the Rings adaptation in the early 80s, Hitchhiker’s crossed the axes of time, space and probability, and just last year we had all the John Le Carré Smiley books so… pretty ambitious. I think the size is in the storytelling choices. Radio is well-suited, as you say, to intimate because you’re talking in somebody’s ear. You’ve got a different set of toys at the IMAX, different again at the theatre. There’s a truism in acting that goes something like “play the size of the room, not the size you want to play”. Radio is to an audience of one which is strange in any other medium (I think, I can’t think of any examples right now) so it’s up to us as creators to create that sense of the epic, if that’s what we’re going for, for a single audience. I think who that audience of one is is changing though. There is a difference between listening to the Afternoon Play while chopping vegetables and listening to Night Vale while curled up in bed or on the tube. If I tell you a story from three feet away, it’s different to if I tell it in your ear. The current wave of podcast dramas are even more direct than what we’re used to — probably more so than ours which takes a very traditional approach but adds in the Madeleine narration to tie us to the podcasting world.
CHAMPION: During the writing, the pragmatics of production, or the jarring discoveries in post-production, have you run into any hurdles that have caused you to scale back in any way?
TRENCH: Not yet! David’s a good enough writer not to demand the impossible and the producers are good enough producers to provide the impossible anyway. We were constantly surprised listening to Season 1 how much detail they’d put in. There’s a moment in Episode 4 where Madeleine is chased by a clockwork toy which you only catch if you listen carefully, Antigone’s survival suit became a full on 60s cosmonaut’s outfit, and our composer provided specific background music for the big set pieces.
CHAMPION: I also noticed that, in your Kickstarter campaign, you’ve invited your supporters to devise a creative form of death. To what degree are you beholden to entertaining an audience? In what creative ways do you diverge from this?
BARNES: I’d say that we’re entirely beholden to entertaining our audiences. However, the best way of doing that is to create what we personally believe is an entertaining programme and hope that our audiences enjoy it too. I tend to write my scripts with a view to thinking up a dramatic and/or amusing situation, and then going, “If I were in the audience, what would I want to see?” And then once I’ve come up with a few scenes on that principle, I finish with, “How can I put a twist on this that they wouldn’t have imagined themselves?” I think that’s the way to satisfy your audience, hold their attention, and keep them wanting more.
I have known writers who entirely disregard their audiences, which I think is arrogant and foolish. Your audience buys tickets to your shows — or downloads your podcast — and recommends you to their family and friends. You’ve got to provide them with something worth their while, or they’ll find it elsewhere. But equally, the old maxim that “people don’t know what they want until they’ve got it” holds true. We all enjoy getting some more of the same but we tire of it very quickly. It’s why I like having guest writers on the series: not only does it take some of the pressure off me, but they also come up with fresh ideas and perspectives that I’d never have come up with by myself, which reinvigorates the series.
I think it’s the dramatic qualities of the show which keep our audiences listening and re-listening. When I delivered the “Bane of Rudyard” script to my directors and was asked to produce another seven, they said they wanted to do this show in the studio rather than in front of a live audience. They wanted me to explore the dramatic potential of the characters and situations without having to flood the series with one-liner gags (which can make a comedy sound superficial unless the writing is exceptionally sharp).
As Felix mentioned above, I tend to approach writers from theatrical backgrounds like myself. Not all of them had even written comedy before but they all had superb instincts for creating dramatic situations. I said to them, “Don’t concentrate on being funny, whatever you do. Let your imagination run free, and focus on being interesting.” It doesn’t take a great deal of work to take something serious and make it amusing (or the other way around). My favourite episode to write in the first season was “Georgina and the Waves,” in which one of the silliest situations of the series evoked some of the most wrenching character drama, and still managed to be — I think — very funny. In this respect, I’m heavily influenced by Alan Ayckbourn’s The Crafty Art of Playmaking, an essential read for any writer.
From the feedback I’ve read, our audiences have really taken our characters to heart, and I believe that’s because whilst Rudyard and Antigone etc. are ridiculous, they’re also based in something very real. They’re hurt and ennobled and motivated by the same things we are. They never do anything just to make the audience laugh, yet I think they’re very funny characters all the same.
CHAMPION: Since we’re on the subject of ambition, I am curious if the large cast was always part of the plan. Was your approach simply to create a fun story and figure out how to attract high caliber talent (along with figuring out their schedules) in the act of production?
TRENCH: We always knew we could get highly talented writers and actors because London is brimming with them. There’s a real problem here, like in other big creative cities, of the opportunities being scarcer than the workforce. We owe a lot to Max Tyler, Sarah Burton, Peter Wicks, Pip Gladwin, and Holly Campbell who play many of our islanders and smaller roles throughout the series, or help out at live shows when the series actors can’t make it, and are all brilliant.
Bringing in producers Andy [Goddard] and John [Wakefield] gave the project bigger scope than we had originally thought about. They introduced the ideas of full scoring and live instruments, episode guests on top of the regular company, and approaching a few household names.
CHAMPION: Did you have any narrow production scheduling confines that you had to meet (either out of necessity or self-imposed)?
TRENCH: Once the studio’s booked, those are your dates. It’s difficult to rearrange when you have a big team.
CHAMPION: it is my understanding that many of your actors worked for free. This leads me to wonder whether you forewent rehearsal and simply recorded the sides in the time slots that the actors available. (Obviously, any working actor is going to have to say yes to paid work first.) Is a quality script enough of an incentive for a talent to commit time and energy for a long-form production?
TRENCH: All of our actors worked for expenses in Season 1 — we covered food and travel for the initial readthroughs and the recording. There was a lot of pizza. Rehearsals are unusual in radio, at least here they are. You’ll have the readthrough, maybe a few readthroughs if the script’s in development, and then perhaps a rehearsal before the take which will include a bit of blocking but it’s not like theatre. The whole process is closer to TV. We had a bit of flexibility with the recording process which gave us the luxury to record in sequence — which we did over four days. A couple of scenes had to be done out of order when guest’s schedules changed but not much. From an actor’s perspective, in sequence is amazing because you know exactly were you are in your mind at any one point and it’s easier to play the moment. As to the script, depends on the actor! The people who came on board with us did so because of the scripts.
CHAMPION: What deals did you have to cut to get people on board beyond this?
TRENCH: None that I know of. Maybe Andy secretly makes breakfast for the actors every morning. If he does, I want in.
CHAMPION: How many of the principals have pledged to return to the second season?
TRENCH: We haven’t yet reached the stage where an actor’s unavailability has led to re-writes, though I must always remain prepared for that being a potential issue until recording takes place.
BARNES: The scripts are still being written and cast requirements being drawn up, though those actors to whom we’ve already spoken about returning to Season Two have stated how keen they are to do it. Our four principals – Felix, Beth, Tom ,and Ciara – are certainly on board.
CHAMPION: Has actor availability forced you to alter any of the scripts (in either season)? I was also hoping to learn more about how David works with the other writers. What replaces a writer’s room in radio drama? Lots of Skype sessions? Emails? Dropbox and Facebook groups?
BARNES: All of my writers live in London, so it’s always feasible to meet them in person. However, they’re also all very busy, so it’s rare that I can get them into the same room at once. The pattern for Season One, which I repeated for Season Two, was to meet each writer individually to discuss the series, its characters, and any ideas they had. Then there’d be a meeting of the whole writing team — which, because of availability, is probably the only time we’ll be together in one place — during which everybody gives the broad outline of a few episode ideas. These are bounced around, discussed, and by the end of the meeting every writer has an idea that everybody is excited about. From then on, I keep in contact with each writer individually by e-mail or telephone.
My feedback on breakdowns and drafts is often extensive because I tend to know what I want from each episode once the writer has devised their idea. But the flip side is that I want to allow writers a lot of room to work by themselves the rest of the time; nobody likes somebody breathing down their neck when they’re trying to create!
CHAMPION: How much revision do you think is enough?
BARNES: Most problems with a story can be solved very early on at the scene-by-scene breakdown stage. That’s when you know if things don’t make sense, or an episode isn’t likely to be paced properly, or lead characters don’t have enough to do. If necessary, I’ll rework a writer’s breakdown myself and suggest that it’s probably a good compromise between their original idea and how it might be best deployed within the context of the show.
After that, the writers will do a first and then a second draft. I then take over, doing any necessary edits and re-writes. If the writer is happy with those, it goes to my producers for their opinion, and I may carry out additional edits based on their feedback. Then it goes to a full reading with available actors, with the writers and producers present, and a discussion will ensue. Any additional edits (usually very small by this stage) will occur before we get into studio to record. For Season One, I could count the number of lines that needed alteration in the studio on one hand, really. We really knock them into shape and ensure that everybody is happy.
Generally, the more work put in earlier at the planning stage, the fewer headaches later on. When we did our Season One readthrough, it was a case of, “This particular line doesn’t work,” rather than, “This plot doesn’t work.”
CHAMPION: What mistakes do you feel you made during the first season? How do you keep the door open for continued “on the job” learning?
BARNES: Everybody was, as you say, learning on the job, so I’m sure everybody can point to things they’d do differently the next time round. The trick is to carry on doing the things that worked and to experiment to make them work even better! From a writing perspective, I’ve never been entirely happy with how the last episode devotes a considerable amount of the climax to the machinations of a secondary character; that was me trying to tie up as many plot threads as possible in too short a space of time. The production certainly pulls it off, but I should have found a more elegant solution at the time. I’m trying to pace things slightly better in Season 2, with the final episode placing the leads front and centre. Otherwise, for my first attempt at head writing and script editing an entire series, the whole thing went much more smoothly than I’d imagined!
CHAMPION: Audio drama is a free and liberating medium with many very cool, exuberant, and passionate people forming a magnificent community. But do you foresee any dangers to the inevitable professionalization of audio drama?
TRENCH: Bigger companies coming in with bigger budgets will make it harder for smaller outfits to be heard. We’re in a time of opportunity where nobody quite knows the rules and we’re all working out how we fit together and that’s lovely. But I agree. It won’t necessarily last. My hope is that if something’s good, the democracy of the internet will give it coverage to flourish. This is a really great medium for new creative voices everywhere to make themselves heard and reach a wide audience without too much outlay. I’m looking forward to finding out who else is out there and what stories they want to tell. The downloadable podcast drama I’m aware of is based mostly in North America … and us. Even if we stick to the English-speaking world, where’s everyone else? I want to hear a really great Australian or New Zealander or Irish or South African podcast drama. There’s one being put together in South Korea but recorded all over I’m very excited about, because of how it’s being made as much as the story – that’s a product that just couldn’t have existed until recently.
CHAMPION: In describing how Wooden Overcoats came into fruition and the way in which the second season is being put together, it seems to me that the creative/production process is very much about reacting to concepts and working out the expression of these reactions through revision and readthroughs. But you can’t calculate everything. I’m wondering the degree to which you two agonize over this and how you contend with any perfectionist streaks.
BARNES: I have deadlines I need to meet: it’s as simple as that. At the moment, I’m several months away and the writing is still pretty slow. I’m agonising over every line, every syllable, revising as I go, pacing the room and pondering if this is the best way to go about constructing a scene. I’ve just spent three hours deliberating over whether Georgie should be having a certain conversation with the Mayor or Madeleine. Pretty soon, however, I won’t have the luxury of time, and I’ll just have to fly by impulse, which is when I tend to do my best writing on the whole (so long as I’ve got my stories planned in advance, which I’m happy to say is the case). I need adrenalin, I need to stop second-guessing everything. But then again, I do dedicate a lot of time to ensuring that my dialogue is going to sound right in the mouths of my actors, and a single misplaced syllable can ruin the comic flow of an entire scene, so my perfectionism certainly comes in handy. Just so long as I meet my deadlines.
TRENCH: I’m not involved in the writing decisions and deliberately keep myself separate. I’ve bounced a few ideas around and suggested things when asked at readthroughs but David has written extensively within the genre, studied at a respected institution, takes an active interest in his craft and is continually analysing and learning from other people’s work, working out and refining his own opinions and pallet. Throw me into that mix and I’m just a nuisance. I’ve only got the vaguest idea what’s planned for Season 2; I’ll find out at the first readthrough and I’ll really enjoy doing that and picking up the reigns with the things I do. From an actor’s perspective, as far as agonizing and perfectionism goes, I put as much prep and scriptwork in as I would for any other part then trust to that. The lion’s share of my work happens in the time leading up to recording. But I don’t really get retake envy on listening because that way madness lies and anyway that’s what directors are for. I always try to learn from listening to the finished episodes and look for room to make whatever the next thing I do is better. My only frustration is that the nature of audio work, unlike film or stage, means it’s inherently on-script. When you’re recording eight episodes back-to-back over four days, there’s not enough time to learn it securely and this isn’t the kind of material that takes paraphrasing kindly, nor is that particularly fair on the others with you in the studio. I try to do a loose learn and put the script aside as much as possible because the sound of someone reading is very different to the sound of someone in the moment, you can usually tell. That’s something I’ll be working on getting better at.
CHAMPION: The trio of mini-episodes that you recently released — especially the poignant “Casebook of Dr. Edgware” — reminded me that Wooden Overcoats has somehow found a distinct style that allows for occasional tonal shifts. The humor can often be conceptual (I think of the tape recorder in the newsroom), committed to cheesy puns (Random Mouse), farcical (Antigone’s romantic pursuits), and adventurous (the later episodes set more around the sea). Did you gravitate towards any particular comic strain in the beginning? At what point were you aware of a particular Wooden Overcoats house style?
BARNES: My original conception of the series was to infuse it with Gothic horror leanings, drawing upon some of my literary interests, but as I developed the characters in the pilot script – and as the other writers brought their ideas to the table – it was the humour that came to the forefront. Essentially, I just wrote what I personally thought was funny: obsessives who cause their own problems and can’t see it, being repressed when everyone else is a libertine, a touch of mild surrealism and perversity. There’s a dark thread running through it all, of course, which arises from the subject matter, but I try not to push it too much. It’s meant to be inherently enjoyable, not gross people out. I also like to avoid vulgarity and swearing, partly to increase the potential listenership but also because it forces more interesting uses of character, language and rhythm.
I’ve seen the series compared to Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, Father Ted, Keeping Up Appearances, and so on, mainly as it’s a British sitcom and those are some of the closest references (especially to an American listenership), which is immensely flattering. My own radio / TV influences are in fact somewhat older – Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son are the ones I mention most – though also take in literature (Wodehouse) and theatre (Alan Ayckbourn). Ayckbourn in particular wrote tremendous roles for women and his great work in that regard always goes under-reported. But the other writers for Season One –- and now for Season Two -– will bring their own influences to bear, and then my directors and the actors will shape it all themselves and provide a consistent tone.
TRENCH: The readthroughs. I’ve worked with David and I’m familiar with his work and Overcoats is very him. He knows the rhythms needed in a scene to build up to a joke. I remember in early drafts he’d talk about putting in a placeholder joke until he came up with something better while he retooled the actual story around it but he knew instinctively where the joke had to be and the scene scaffolding that needed to go around it. I did a play with David once that had a gag in it that required someone overfilling a cup of tea. He spent hours experimenting with cups and muttering lines to himself to find the exact length of line that would work after putting in the stage direction. That’s the Barnes touch.
Beth, Ciara and I found during recordings that a house style emerged in performance. When we’re outside Funn Funerals or outsiders come in, the focus is on the characters who don’t work for the business. Every character is big and funny and ours become vehicles for their comedy. Any time the Mayor steps in, for instance, everyone becomes the straight man to him because he has the absolute highest status (and his insecurity in that status brings the comedy). But when it was just the three of us in the parlour, we found a sort of manic energy — like being constantly at Red Alert on the Enterprise — that worked for us. We really love doing those scenes. The character who breaks that boundary is Eric. Because he’s the antagonist, he can never quite be one of us but on the other hand he’s frequently the sensible audience lens for us so becomes the straight man against the Funns. A lot of the comedy comes from us assuming the higher status against Eric then being undermined by reality — except for in the Eric/Georgie storyline which has its own dynamic that gives Eric the punchlines.
CHAMPION: Are these mini-episodes your effort to show the audience where you intend to shift towards?
BARNES: Not really. They’re opportunities to experiment with form and expand upon our secondary characters, which helps us to develop their role in the main series. Rosie Fletcher’s “Random Mouse” was written to be an entertaining way to essentially trail Season Two; “Agatha Doyle and the Honey Trap” is a lighthearted Christie-style mystery by Tom Crowley; and “The Casebook of Dr. Edgware” by Tom and myself provides a new perspective on Season One from the viewpoint of a character who only originally had one line of dialogue. The ones we have coming up are entirely different too. But Season Two will continue the style and tone that we created in Season One, whilst taking the stories in a new direction.
CHAMPION: What input have the actors had on where you’re moving towards stylistically? Or is this really something that comes about naturally when you assemble a large cast of characters?
TRENCH: David has suggested I answer this one because he’s being even handed about breaking up the questions. Which is very lovely of him and I haven’t a clue. He told me the other day he now writes Rudyard with my voice in mind so with any luck I’ll be considered for the part if we do Season 2.
CHAMPION: Also, I listened to an Audio Drama Production Podcast interview with David and John Wakefield where the two of you described being very committed to homemade foley. How early in the production did you have the FX in place? I’m especially curious about the timing of Madeleine’s squeaks, which always seem to punctuate the right moments and remind us that we are in a comic environment. The squeaks also tend to soften some of the more unusual premises, weirdly rooting the narrative into something that’s real. The squeaks almost feel like something on a score sheet. At the risk of outing myself as a sonic obsessive type, I have to ask about the squeaks! How many do you have? Did you time them in the script? To what degree did you mess with the squeaks in post? Did the squeaks ever save your ass on a flub?
BARNES: They are indeed all script; Madeleine insisted on that. She’s a true professional, providing us with vocals that could run the full emotional gamut that a mouse can reach. It’s very difficult to find talent like that. After lengthy negotiation, she’s agreed to come back for Season Two, and the production team is immensely grateful. We wouldn’t know what to do without her.
CHAMPION: Well, David may be a fair-minded gentleman, but I’m not going to let him get away from unpacking this point! Does the concern for status, which I feel is a staple of good drama, emerge as much in the act of production as in the writing, even when you have a large character such as the Mayor? Or is this as rigorously planned as David’s inherent fixation upon timing? David’s placeholder jokes remind me of how Paul McCartney had “Scrambled Eggs” in place of “Yesterday” as he was still working out the lyrics for that now classic song (with the “Scrambled Eggs” version later performed decades later in a newly enhanced form with Jimmy Fallon). This may simply be the approach of a highly obsessive mind, for which I have nothing less than the most heartfelt appreciation for, but I am very curious how David contends with the vast unknown story element, perhaps an invisible territory of pages going well beyond overfilling a cup of tea! David, do you feel that story sorts itself out easier than specific lines?
BARNES: There’s the old story about [Billy] Wilder and [I.A.L.] Diamond spending ages trying to come up with a decent last line for Some Like It Hot and ultimately going with their placeholder gag because they couldn’t think of anything better, and now of course that line is one of the most famous in movie history. But of course it’s not a line that sings out of context; entire plot threads have been leading up to it, and it’s an immensely satisfying — and very, very funny =- capstone.
On the other side, writers can come up with an absolute zinger of a line and then tie themselves into knots trying to make their story support it, and typically that line will be one of the first to get cut by a decent editor. The best dialogue is the dialogue that fits the situation you’ve created.
Every writer has sat down at some point and just started writing dialogue without an actual purpose, and it’ll typically go nowhere and not be very good. It’s easier to sort out dialogue than a story, because plotting is torturous, but I think it’s nearly impossible to sort out good dialogue if you haven’t sorted out the story first. And then your story might change in the writing of the dialogue, which is great too. Switching destinations is fine, but you ought to have at least one in mind when you set out.
CHAMPION: Might this also account for the island’s vast tableau? Do the other writers serve as relief pitchers for your vivacious baseball game on this front?
BARNES: I feared when I wrote “The Bane of Rudyard” that we might exhaust the story potential within a few episodes, but then the other writers showed me that, yes, there was much more you could do with this set-up. I took a lot of inspiration during that first writers’ meeting, where my job was essentially to ask “What excites you about all this?” and then decide which answers inspired me the most. For both seasons, I’ve found it easiest to help the other writers develop their stories first and then formulate my own in response, but I begin with some firm ideas about what I want the series to do, to say and to explore, and I’m OK with telling a writer, “I’m not wild about this idea, can we do something else?” But then, all of the writers have come to the table with at least one idea I’ve adored instantly, and those ideas get developed into full episodes.
CHAMPION: What’s the biggest mistake you made in Season 1?
BARNES: Owing to busy schedules. the episodes were edited concurrently with release dates, which led to a lot of pressure and sleepless nights for all involved. The sound design is very involved and Andy and John require a lot of time to do their magic. We’ve sorted this out for Season Two. But remember: always allow for more time than you think you need.
CHAMPION: What’s the most extraordinary thing that you had to do to get an actor on board Wooden Overcoats?
BARNES: Character comedian and attractive man Kieran Hodgson was lured to the studio with the promise of sparkling dialogue. Instead he was placed before a microphone and told to moan orgasmically in French whilst we scrutinised him thoroughly for about forty-five minutes. He’s since gone on in other productions to speak whole lines of actual dialogue, albeit for far more disreputable companies such as the BBC.
CHAMPION: What’s the greatest piece of advice you could offer to any emerging audio drama producer?
TRENCH: Be professional. Be original. Be ambitious. Sorry, that’s three but I think they’re all very important.
Professional means treating every aspect of your production with equal importance. Strive to work with new people and strive to create opportunities. As soon as you position yourself as someone making a thing, you enter a world with thousands of unheard voices who maybe don’t have the luxury of your ear so make it easy for them to find you and work with you. It also means learning about what came before and positioning yourself within that. Listen to as much as you can, not just drama podcasts, from as many different countries.
I say original because I’m seeing a lot of very good audio drama coming out in similar areas of storytelling. There’s a leaning towards genre and faux-documentary — maybe the Night Vale and Serial influences. I think a canny producer would ask themselves what they can do to separate themselves from the trend. A police procedural? A period piece? I’d listen to a Western. It also means thinking about what you can do with the medium. Beef & Dairy Network and The Bright Sessions are great examples of being playful with the fact that, at the end of the day, a podcast is just a sound file. Two examples from recent(ish) years on the radio: have a listen to Continuity, which was Alistair McGowan as a radio continuity announcer having a breakdown on air between fake trailers parodying Radio 4 formats, and Warhorses of Letters by Marie Phillips and Robert Hudson which was an exchange of love letters between Napoleon and Wellington’s horses.
And ambitious is the fun one. We can do anything in audio drama so… do. Submarine scrap yard? Two enzymes chatting while they ferment grapes? The parliament of the birds? I want to hear these worlds. What can you do that would require a massive time and money budget on telly? And what can you do that’s not been done in other media? Equally, be ambitious in how you make it. Look for great studios, look for unusual recording spaces, see how many countries you can get people involved in one project… there’s more (and more immediate) scope for us in this medium than any other I can think of so use that advantage to the full.
This special episode of The Bat Segundo Show examines Mark Twain’s legacy from a number of vantage points: ranging from his sprawling autobiography, his early entrepreneur days, and a very loose modern-day film adaptation of Tom Sawyer.
This special program devoted to Mark Twain features an interview with editor Benjamin Griffin, who is part of the Mark Twain Project and discusses Twain’s legacy and his work on the three volume Autobiography published by UC Press, a conversation with historian Ben Tarnoff (The Bohemians), and a discussion with filmmaker Adam Nee and actor Kyle Gallner about Band of Robbers, the Nee Brothers’s very loose adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and other Twain writings.
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Music used in this program is licensed through Creative Commons and includes the following:
Lost Radio, “Mnemonic Presence”
The Raymon Lazer Trio, “Lola”
Kevin MacLeod, “Dances and Dames”
Sakee Sed, “Mrs. Tennessee”
Adrianna Krikl, “Say Goodbye”
In this 45 minute radio interview, novelist Megan Abbott returns to our program to discuss the niceties of cheerleading culture, using Richard III as a loose narrative structure, serial killers, and tennis espionage.
Subjects Discussed: Secret conversations, how cheerleaders are depicted in American culture, Bring It On, cheerleaders and postmodernism, parallels between cheerleaders and soldiers, doing research almost exclusively online, how fonts and italics reinforced text message culture in Dare Me, the text message as a noir voice, theories that Dare Me started off as a recession novel, teenagers and technology, creating a sad and bleak adult world, logical reasons for why teenagers have no desire to have grown-up jobs, empty apartment buildings, people who die in luxury condos, balancing literary and mystery elements to create a transitional novel, stretching genre, crime as a tool for power relations, using Richard III as a narrative framework, obsession with Shakespeare, the Ian McKellen version of Richard III, Looking for Richard, Richard III as an innocent, the ugliness of ambition, desperation, Deadwood, how political theory and Henry IV and Henry V share much in common, Robert Caro, parallels between mean girl rhetoric and LBJ’s profanity, being afraid of individuals who open their mouths, carryover from The End of Everything of a teenage world as an adult one, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, when parents are irrelevant, what Facebook reveals about teenagers, powerful coaches, how tired men can be manipulated, similarities between Dare Me‘s Coach and Queenpin‘s Gloria Denton, how belief encourages people to commit crimes, true crime, the Aurora shootings, the 1984 San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre, the difficulties of relating to a sociopath, the short story that Dare Me sprang from, writing with a manageable evil, the smartphone as a person, how smartphones plague society (and how much we can resist them), teenagers who aren’t aware of the off button, Facebook trash talk, teenagers who crave for attention, writing about cheerleaders who have no interest in boys, relationships between football players and cheerleaders, cheerleaders as a roving gang, teens excited by the National Guard, smoking and drinking in the classroom, cheerleading coaches who are former cheerleaders, physical brutality, the difficulties of writing physical action, finding a new set of words to describe cheerleaders, using multiple verbs in a sentence, eccentric verbs, how any type of sport creates a new language, contending with copy editors, hockey subculture, The Mighty Ducks, Slap Shot, and tennis espionage.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Now we are sort of doing this secretly. We’ve tried to flag down a waitress to be polite. So it’s very possible we may have to order during this conversation. However, we will talk. Let’s see what we can do.
Abbott: That sounds good. I’m ready.
Correspondent: So let’s start off. I saw that you wrote a New York Times piece about Bring It On. But you use this piece to point out to certain realities of how cheerleaders are depicted in our culture. You point to the portrayal of cheerleaders in two modes: Ironic and Ideal. I’m wondering if some fulfillment of these two criteria is actually necessary to have a plausible narrative these days. What are your thoughts on this? And maybe this is a good way of describing how you zeroed the needle for Dare Me.
Abbott: Right. And I admit. I’m completely vulnerable to both. I love both the Ideal and the Ironic. Every cultural reference I had in there are things I kind of love. You know, Twin Peaks and all the doomed beautiful perfect cheerleaders who become corrupted? I love. And I love all the ironic ones. Some more than others. But it just seems — I mean, the word I didn’t use in the piece, that I avoided using, is “postmodernism.” But that’s essentially what has overtaken the cheerleader. She doesn’t exist as a person and probably never did. So when I actually started to look at actual cheerleaders, the divide fell even greater then in my day in the 1980s, when they were still somewhat enmeshed. Cheerleaders themselves were responding to the idea that they were cheerleaders and they should act as cheerleaders in popular culture did.
Correspondent: Cheerleaders cheerleading about themselves.
Abbott: Exactly! Exactly. But I don’t think that’s true at all today. And I think that “serious” cheerleaders — and I shouldn’t air quote that, but I did. Because they are serious.
Correspondent: Real cheerleaders. Bona-fide cheerleaders.
Abbott: I think they’d line themselves up much more to gymnasts, to serious athletes. And then that’s the parallel. And I would even take it further. When I look at them, I see them as more closely associated with Marines, boxers, the great risks like pilots ready to go down.
Correspondent: That’s very good. (laughs)
Abbott: Kamikazes. I think that there’s even more interesting aspects to them than being hard-core athletes.
Correspondent: So we should be making World War II movies with cheerleaders in place of the soldiers.
Abbott: Seriously. I actually thought about it writing the piece. Because you know how those old movies, they’d always have the guy from Brooklyn and the Oakie. Etcetera.
Correspondent:The Longest Day with cheerleaders.
Abbott: Yes! Exactly! Oh my gosh. That’s such a great pitch. (laughs)
Correspondent: We could make a million dollars on that.
Abbott: Seriously. Right here.
Correspondent: Well, the ironic mode, however, I would say that given the fact you have cheerleaders who are purging, who are regurgitating — in fact, one common motif that you repeat, I think three times in the book, is the hair behind the head as they puke into the toilet. To a certain degree, that is ironic in light of the physical robustness of these cheerleaders. Also the lemon tea diets and all that. So I would argue that perhaps you are working in some ironic mode in the sense that you’re taking a very feminine ideal and hardening it up to some degree to that same level that we generally put football players or, as you point out here, military people and so forth.
Abbott: Right. And I think that the eating disorders — the various bad eating habits, let’s say — of the girls has to do more with making weight like wrestlers than with girls wanting to have perfect bodies. And that sort of extremism is what really interested me. But it also became interesting because I was not a cheerleader.
Correspondent: You weren’t?
Abbott: No. I couldn’t imagine. (laughs)
Correspondent: But you came in with your pom poms and everything.
Abbott: I know. A skirt on.
Correspondent: You’ve been deceiving me the entire time!
Abbott: I know. Afterward I’ll show you that I…
Correspondent: Oh, I see. I brought my little barrette to twirl.
Abbott: Oh! Good, good, good! I will be dandling. It just strikes me that it’s almost like cheerleaders are a metaphor for being a girl. Because usually they do things girls do. But the cheerleader is the heightened form of it. Girls suffer mightily in high school. They do bad things to themselves and others. They torture each other. There was always this great Seinfeld joke that stuck into my head about how terrible boys are in high school, and Elaine says, “Oh, we never treated each other like that. We would just tease each other until we gave each other eating disorders.” And that always struck me as really true. So that the cheerleader — in my case, I am sort of metaphorizing it or ironizing it in some way. Because it’s a stand-in for how hard it is being a girl.
Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about the research that you did. I know that you have said that you have observed various cheerleaders practice. Was this actually in person? Was this on YouTube?
Abbott: It was all online.
Correspondent: It was all online!
Abbott: Yeah. All YouTube.
Correspondent: Did you talk to any cheerleaders at all?
Abbott: I did.
Abbott: Via email only.
Correspondent: Oh really?
Abbott: Well, you know, I’m not a journalist, nor do I pretend to be.
Correspondent:> But you play one on TV.
Abbott: I do! Exactly. (laughs) And I guess part of me — I felt, even in my email interviews, that they were performing for me in a way. I wasn’t really seeing them as they were. I would be an intruder. So online, or watching them online or watching them on message boards, where they didn’t know anyone was listening, seemed to be the purest and most authentic view I could get. When they didn’t care. Because they’ll post their practices. They’re performing. So they will always be performers. But I just felt like I was getting a more authentic view of it. And then, at a certain point, I didn’t want to talk to any of them. Because it might change things. My version of it is very heightened. And once I decide how I wanted the world in the book to be, I didn’t want any…
Correspondent: Realism to get in the way.
Abbott: The hyperreality of the book.
Correspondent: So that’s interesting. It seems to me that you were almost collecting textual snippets through these email interviews. Because the book is very heavy on text messages and, in fact, there’s one interesting thing. You have the iPhone font and the italicized font of something from a previous statement. And I’m wondering what this did to get this hyperreal mode that you devised, after soaking yourself so much in cheerleading culture from before.
Abbott: Right. From the beginning, I was so worried about the texting. Because I thought, “How am I going to? Nobody wants to read texts in a novel.”
Correspondent: Nobody’s going to text you. (laughs)
Correspondent: You can’t pretend to be a cheerleader.
Abbott: No. And there’s nothing more depressing than reading texts. Because they’re so meant for some kind of quick communication. But once I realized it as a mechanism for the way that girls could torture each other, the way that they could be present, when people can be present when they’re not present. You know, there’s a scene where one of the cheerleaders keeps sending texts to the main girl, Addy. So it’s almost like she’s there. But she’s not there. So the text and the snippets became this opportunity to be the voices in the head. Or the classic noir voiceover. Or the voice over the shoulder. The tap on the shoulder. So once I found a way to turn it into something else, I felt that it had become mine somehow.
In this 30 minute radio interview, artist Molly Crabapple discusses her Week in Hell, surviving as an artist, the boundaries between art and commercialism, and the benefits that accordion players offer for illustration.
Subjects Discussed: Daily walks to McNally Jackson, the logistics of setting up the Week in Hell experiment, the logistics of sneaking people and materials in a hotel, eluding maids, Philippe Petit, the similarities and differences between photographers and visual artists, conversation and dreams as inspirational forces, aerial hoops, the Internet as an idea source, prototypes of the Week in Hell experiment, the necessity of changing up artistic routine, Susan Sontag, education as a birthright vs. education as an adult, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Dick Clark’s death and those who shamed people on Twitter for not knowing who Dick Clark is, the infinite storehouse of online knowledge, the benefits of accordion players in producing art, Kim Boekbinder, how performers inspire Crabapple, drawing faceless girlthings with parasols, Crabapple’s tendency towards the curved line, Scarlett Takes Manhattan, drawing an undersea Algonquin roundtable, Alexander Woollcott, illustrating in response to current events and the Arab Spring, the Wikileaks squid, Occupy Wall Street, pigs and depraved nightclubs, the first animals Crabapple was drawn to, the allure of drawing grotesque items, allegorical pity parties, bitching about people who are more successful, a thought experiment involving Napoleon having a pity party, despair, self-pity, and depression as inspirational forces, Kay Redfield Jamison, not having down time, avoiding repeating yourself, Damien Hirst, unethical business practices, saying no to certain corporate clients, feeling bad about drawing a topless picture of Hillary Clinton for a conservative publisher out of financial desperation, the lines between the artistic and the commercial, whoring out your heart of hearts, the myth of artistic purity, Howard Roark and the Randian ideal, nude modeling, the need for expensive promotional campaigns, how a young and emerging artist who can’t do nude modeling can survive when she first starts out, retail jobs, New York as a place hostile to certain strains of art, Zoe Strauss, being declared “not a real artist” by The New York Times Book Review, Luc Sante’s Low Life, whether research bogs down art, and the value of lipstick planted upon art.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about the logistics of this Week in Hell experiment. The first thing I have to say, in seeing the television covered up and in seeing the thermostat on the wall, what negotiations were there with the hotel management to actually allow this to happen?
Crabapple: Oh, we didn’t ask the hotel.
Correspondent: (laughs) Oh, you didn’t? They found out while it was happening?
Crabapple: They didn’t find out at all.
Crabapple: This was entirely surreptitiously.
Correspondent: Wow. (laughs)
Crabapple: I will probably send them a copy of the book. The reason was that we initially wanted to do it at another hotel and we had all this money from the Kickstarter. And we were like, “Golly, mister, here’s $4,500 to do our crazy art project.” And they were like, “Oh no! You must speak with our creative directors to see if you’re in line with our creative vision.” And I thought that was bullshit. So I just dressed up like a fancy person and borrowed a Ralph Lauren suitcase to hide all those rolls of paper in.
Correspondent: Really? (laughs) It’s like a bank heist.
Crabapple: We totally ran it like a bank heist. Snuck everything in. Told the maid not to come all week.
Correspondent: Was that the 57 minutes that you spent eluding the maid, which you refer to?
Crabapple: Yes! Exactly!
Correspondent: Wow. So you actually had to plan this like a bank heist. I mean, I understand. I’ve done some of these interviews in hotels and I’m told that I can’t actually sit down with these microphones with another person. Just having a conversation. So why did you have to go ahead and do this almost like you were shooting without a film permit? What steps did you take to plan this bank heist?
Crabapple: So me and Melissa, who’s my amazing assistant.
Crabapple: Who is actually the brains behind all of my harebrained ideas. We made a long list of everything that could possibly go wrong. We did everything from testing the right type of tape to hold the paper off, that wouldn’t peel off the paint, to getting the right fancy people suitcases. So we wouldn’t look all sketchy sneaking into the Gramercy Park Hotel with duffel bags.
Correspondent: Did you have any consultants say, “Hey, you actually look professional enough to pass muster with the scrupulous guards”?
Crabapple: (laughs) What was so funny was that I had this whole outfit, which can only be described as rich people’s whore.
Crabapple: It was all Alexander McQueen and Louis Vuittons and shit. And I went in and everybody is wearing sweatpants. And I was so disappointed.
Correspondent: Well, these tests about not peeling the paint off the walls. And the paper itself. The specific markers you used. I’m wondering. What were the logistics here? I’m really curious.
Crabapple: The paper and markers?
Correspondent: Yeah. How many types of paper did you have to go through?
Crabapple: We didn’t go through types of paper. Because I got that sponsored.
Crabapple: It was more — Melissa’s whole wall was covered with different strands of paper being held up with different types of tape.
Correspondent: Fantastic. What other logistics were needed aside from this? Anything else that you’re missing?
Crabapple: We had tons and tons of friends sneaking in the entire week and we found a back staircase for them to sneak up. Because we didn’t — I mean, especially when we had the wild closing party.
Correspondent: This is like Philippe Petit walking across the World Trade Center. How he had friends gradually get all the supplies up over the course of several weeks in advance. Was it similar here?
Crabapple: It was kind of like that. I even had one of my friends go into the hotel, looking super-sketchy so that he could see how much scrutiny he would get.
Correspondent: (laughs) Oh really? Did you have any input into his skeeziness?
Crabapple: No, we just went with his natural dress.
Correspondent: Oh, I see. I got it. Now for many of the visitors who came into this hotel room during this week, I’m wondering if you asked permission to draw them. I mean, this raises an interesting question for me. Because you have one particular drawing that’s part of this elaborate project where you have the photographers, who are drawn like lizards to your friend. Because they’re ogling her with their cameras. And so I’m wondering. This made me think. How much is any artist, who illustrates or sketches or paints, different from, say, a photographer of any stripe? What are your thoughts on this? And what are your thoughts in terms of drawing people at will who happen to come into the room? Or was that the agreement for anyone who came through the room?
Crabapple: Well, people usually want to be drawn by me. But that’s actually an awesome question. I’ve always thought that the instinct of the photographer and the visual artist are very similar — in that we’re generally twitchy weirdos who want to hang out with the cool people and we use our camera or our sketchpad as a way to kind of bribe the cool people to hang out with us. But the thing is that photography has become so ubiquitous that people don’t feel impressed anymore by having their picture taken. And, in fact, it can become like really grabby and soul-stealing. Like — I used to march a lot at the [Coney Island] Mermaid Day Parade and sometimes there would be such a crush of photographers — like yelling at you how to pose and demanding that you arch your back this way or demanding that you look at them — that it wasn’t a fun thing at all. Whereas most people only get drawn a few times in their life. So it still has a novelty to it. And I’ve always kind of used my sketchpad as this key to sneak into scenes where I really didn’t belong.
Correspondent: But stealing another person’s soul. It seems to me that you’ve always been very conscious about this. Even from the Dr. Sketchy stuff. So my question is: how do we return the balance so that the person who is photographed or the person who is drawn actually feels comfortable and doesn’t feel as if she has her soul stolen through the process of art?
Crabapple: Well, with me, what I always try to do is I always try and capture the person’s personality, as well as just how hot they look. Like when I did the picture of Stoya on that door, I’m talking to her. And I do like her beautiful, beautiful, perfect, mathematically perfect face. Then I also — since I’m friends with her, I draw her making her own costumes — she’s a brilliant costumer — and on her aerial hoop. And then I talk with her. And she complains about obnoxious photographers. And so I draw them swarming around her.
Correspondent: So much of the input came from what she was telling you. As you were actually drawing her.
Crabapple: Exactly. It was just as much a portrait of our conversation.
Correspondent: In terms of the hoop, that was based off of memory. Did you have any source material for that?
Crabapple: That was based off of memory. I’ve seen a lot of aerialists in my time.
Correspondent: You note that you were drawing the top of the wall at the very beginning of this. So that you would have some inspiration for your dreams. And it seems to me that between that and the influx of stories that you had plenty of inspiration. This leads me to ask, well, what do you do if you run out of ideas to sketch during this situation?
Crabapple: I asked the Internet. I had a livestream going along. And my livestream audience would be saying, “Draw hippos on the moon! Draw undersea Algonquin round table!” And I would put that in if I was running out of inspiration.
Correspondent: So did you feel that sometimes the list of suggestions was too intrusive a presence? Or there were a lot of bad ideas sifting through this? Were you playing Beat the Clock because you had only a week to cover this entire surface?
Crabapple: There was a certain amount of Beat the Clock going on. I drew pretty much every waking hour. Like in the back of all my glamorous friends partying, there was usually me standing up on top of a shelf frantically sketching things.
Correspondent: Really? Well, were there any trial runs of you sketching things? Like say in your bathroom for half a day? Or anything like that?
Crabapple: I was at Stumptown Comics Festival. They had me as a guest. And I didn’t want to sit behind a table and sign things. Because I don’t know. I felt like I was at a craft fair or something. So instead I was like, “Why don’t you just hang up a giant piece of paper where my table would be and I’ll just draw on it over the course of the convention”? And I did a six foot by six foot drawing.
Correspondent: So that was the trial run.
Crabapple: That was where I got the idea.
Correspondent: Were there any other runs before that? Maybe three by three?
Crabapple: (laughs) That’s just my career.
Correspondent: Exactly. So what do you need often to keep your routine changed up? I mean, you suggested that this was the end of a particular period in your life. It was sort of your renouncement of pen and ink. How often do you need to change things up in order to stay fresh as an artist? I’m curious. Do you anticipate the next move? Does it come organically? Do you just do it and it becomes ambitious by default?
Crabapple: I’m not a very thoughtful person. And I’m incapable of thinking in Five Year Plans. And also I’m kind of young. So I don’t really know — like I just don’t have that many periods in my work. I don’t know. I was in this deep fucked up almost clinical depression when I was 27. And I don’t know why. My brain was just wonky. And I needed to do something to do violence to all of this stuff in my art that I was tired of. And this was how I did it. And I’m sure I’ll need to do it again. But I don’t know when or how.
In this one hour radio interview, legendary Lyndon B. Johnson biographer Robert A. Caro discusses The Passage of Power, the fierce qualities it takes to be the greatest legislator of the 20th century, LBJ’s rivalries with the Kennedys, and why character is so essential to politics.
Subjects Discussed: Lyndon B. Johnson as a great reader of men, Horace Busby, Johnson talking with people until he got what he wanted, Johnson’s misread of John F. Kennedy, the 1960 Presidential Election and Johnson’s self-sabotage streak in seeking the nomination, Emmett Till and Autherine Lucy, passing the 1957 Civil Rights Act, Jack Kennedy’s use of television, Johnson having his staff calculate the odds of a U.S. President dying in office, “power is where power goes,” Sam Rayburn, Johnson’s mode of desperation vs. Steve Jobs’s “reality distortion field,” Southerners as Presidents, Johnson’s decisiveness in the Senate, John Connally, Johnson’s fear of failure, Sam Houston, Johnson not wanting to be like his father, Johnson’s inability to stare physical reality in the face, smoking and fluctuating weight, challenging Arthur Schlesinger, Johnson being shut out from many of the key Kennedy meetings as Vice President, Johnson’s humiliations, LBJ being reduced to a “salesman for the administration,” the spiteful rivalry between Robert Kennedy and LBJ, character being a defining quality of politics, the importance of vote counting in Washington, Johnson as Senate Majority Leader, Johnson’s preying upon the loneliness of old men, Richard Russell, the Armed Service Committee, Johnson’s manipulation of Russell on civil rights and the Warren Commission, how Southern Senators were duped into believing that Johnson was against civil rights, the phone call in which Johnson forced Russell into the Warren Commission, how Johnson preyed on older men to get what he wanted, Kennedy’s tax bill, how Johnson worked on Harry Byrd, how Johnson dealt with human beings, the impact of personality on policy, Johnson’s terrible treatment of Pierre Salinger, Johnson bullying his subordinates, what Caro found the hardest to write about, triumphs of willpower, Johnson’s involvement with Bobby Baker, the Bobby Baker scandal, the surprising sensitivity with which the media handled Johnson’s corruption after the Kennedy assassination, the Life investigative team on Johnson (as well as Senate investigation), the lowering of the Presidency because of Johnson, some hints about Volume V, and Johnson’s legacy.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: You challenge in this book Arthur Schlesigner’s long-standing notion about the relation between Kennedy and Johnson. Now Johnson is in the vice presidential seat. Schelsinger’s idea was that, well, Kennedy was absolutely fond, genial, and generous. The vice president was included in most of the major meetings. And then, of course, we read this chapter “Genuine Warmth” and we find out, well, wait a minute! That’s not always the case. According to Ted Sorenson, Johnson was shut out from a pivotal ExCom decision, a decision meeting relating to the Cuban Missile Crisis. And that also is in large part because Johnson is a bit hawkish to say the least. So my question is: why has the lens of history been so keen to favor the Schlesigner viewpoint? And what was the first key fact that you uncovered that made you say to yourself, “Well, this isn’t exactly true”? What caused you to start prying further and further? That caused you to think, well, things are not all wine and roses.
Caro: Well, you know, part of it was that as soon as you start to look at Johnson and the Kennedys, you hear about the nickname that the Kennedy people called him. “Rufus Cornpone.”
Correspondent: That’s right.
Caro: “Uncle Cornpone.” “Uncle Rufus.” You know, they coined phrases for Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird. They used to call them “Uncle Cornpone and His Little Pork Chop.” Then you ask someone like Ted Sorensen, who helped me immensely. He was the person probably closest to Kennedy in the administration.
Correspondent: You spent a lot of time with him.
Caro: I spent a lot of time with Ted. And he said, yes, as has previously been said, Johnson was included in all the big meetings, the Cabinet meetings, the National Security meetings. But in the Kennedy government, those weren’t the meetings that mattered. The meetings that mattered were the small little groups that Kennedy would convene. And Johnson wasn’t invited to those. You know, when the 1963 Civil Rights Act is introduced by the Kennedys and Johnson has to say to Ted Sorensen — we happen to have a recording — “You know, I don’t know what’s in this act. I have to read about it in The New York Times.” The greatest legislator possibly of the century, the greatest legislator of the 20th century is not consulted on Kennedy’s legislation.
Correspondent: Why then has the Schlesinger lens been allowed to proliferate for so long? That’s the real question.
Caro: Well, I don’t know that it’s just the Schlesinger lens.
Correspondent: Or this idea.
Caro: I really can’t answer that question. But when you talk to the surviving Kennedy people — like Sorensen — when you read their oral histories, you see it’s simply not true. I mean, Horace Busby talks basically about going to see Sorensen one day and asking, “Well, what role do you want Lyndon Johnson to play in this administration?” And Sorensen says, “Salesman for the administration.” I mean, this is Lyndon Johnson, who is to be the salesman for the administration. Johnson says to an aide, Harry McPherson — you know, they’ve turned the legislative duties over to Larry O’Brien. Johnson says, “You know, O’Brien hasn’t been to see me to ask advice once in two years.” So it’s undeniable that Johnson was shut out from Kennedy’s legislative processes and from the Cuban Missile Crisis — the key meeting of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He’s not invited to it.
Correspondent: I know. It’s really amazing. One of the other great showdowns in this book — the great clash is between Bobby Kennedy and Johnson. I mean, you want to talk about cats and dogs, these two guys were it. You have their first meeting in the Senate cafeteria in 1953 where Kennedy was glowering at Johnson and forced to shake his hand. Then years later, Johnson is Vice President. And he’s largely powerless as we’ve been establishing here. He serves on the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. And Bobby Kennedy shows up late, humiliates him over two meetings.
Correspondent: And then on the Saturday after the Kennedy assassination, there’s this misunderstanding over how the West Wing is going to be cleared out and ready for Johnson. There’s this very tense meeting not long after. But Johnson is in this interesting predicament of having to maintain the Kennedy faction all through Election Day in 1964. Yet he also tests the waters a bit with the Thomas Mann nomination. So my question is: was there any hope of Bobby Kennedy and Johnson putting aside their differences? What factors do you think caused Bobby to acquiesce to Johnson for the good of the nation while Johnson was President?
Caro: Well, he doesn’t always acquiesce.
Caro: We see him breaking with him strongly over Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 and running for the nomination. I mean, when Bobby Kennedy enters the race, Lyndon Johnson bows out basically. You know, people don’t understand, in my opinion, enough. And I try to explain in my books how personality, how character, has so much to do with politics and government. And with Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, whatever the reasons are, at bottom you have this personal hostility. You talked about the first meeting. You know, this first meeting is when Lyndon Johnson is the Leader. He is the mighty Leader. Bobby Kennedy — I think he’s 27. And he’s just gone to work for Senator Joe McCarthy as a staffer. So Joe McCarthy — the Senate cafeteria is on the second floor of the Senate Office Building. And every morning, Johnson goes in there to have breakfast with his aides. And Joe McCarthy is sitting every morning at this big round table near the cashier with four or five or six of his aides, you know. And every time Johnson comes in, McCarthy jumps up as everyone does to Johnson and says, “Hello, Mister Leader. Can I have a few moments of your time, Mr. Leader? Good work yesterday, Mr. Leader.” One morning, there’s a new staffer there. It’s Robert Kennedy. Johnson walked over. Senator McCarthy jumps up. And so, as always, do all his staffers. Except one. Robert Kennedy, his 27-year-old staffer, sits there glaring at Johnson. Johnson knows how to handle situations like this. He holds out his hand to everybody sort of halfway out and forces Bobby Kennedy to stand up and take his hand. And George Reedy said to me — I said, “What was behind that?” George Reedy said, “You know, you ever see two dogs come into a room that never met each other and the hair rises on the back of their neck immediately and there’s a low growl?” That was the relationship between Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Of course, there were other reasons. Robert Kennedy was very attached and devoted to his father, Joseph Kennedy.
Caro: And Johnson, who was close to Roosevelt, was always repeating these stories about Roosevelt firing Joe Kennedy, tricking him into coming back to Washington from England, and then firing him. Making him look bad. So I think that Robert Kennedy hated him for that. But it’s not too strong a word to use hatred for what was going on between Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. And, you know, at the convention, one of Johnson’s assistants, Bobby Baker, he thinks everything’s just politics. So he’s having breakfast in a coffee shop in Los Angeles at the convention. He sees Bobby Kennedy come in and says, “How about sitting down?” He’s Bobby Baker, sitting with his wife, having breakfast. Bobby Kennedy sits down. But within two minutes, he’s up. And he throws money on the table. And he says to Baker, “Don’t worry. You’ll get yours when the time comes.” Well, the time came. Johnson was Jack Kennedy’s Vice President. Bobby Kennedy has, in effect, power over him. And he makes life miserable for Lyndon Johnson.
Correspondent: What you said at the beginning of this, about character being a defining quality of politics. I mean, Johnson, as you establish in this book and in Master of the Senate, is a master vote counter. He has his tally sheets when he’s in the Senate. He’s going ahead and making sure he knows exactly how things line up. In this book, you point out during the wheat bill that not only does he want enough votes to make the wheat bill [an amendment from Sen. Karl Mundt banning sale of surplus wheat from Russia] die. He wants it murdered, as he says. So the question I have. He may have been a master vote counter. But how much character did he need to go along with that? Was vote counting enough for him? Was that relentless drive just as much of a quality as the sheer statistician approach that he had?
Caro: It was never a sheer statistician, of course.
Correspondent: Of course.
Caro: He was a great legislator. Listen. A key thing in politics is the ability to count. And Johnson was the great counter. He’d send aides to find out how senators were going to vote. So sometimes someone would come back. Usually they didn’t do this more. They said, “I think Senator X is going to vote this way.” Johnson would say, “What good is thinking to me? I need to know.” He never wanted to lose a vote. So vote counting. He was the great vote counter. He’s a young Congressman. He comes to Washington. He’s 29 years old. He falls in with this group of New Dealers, who later become famous. Abe Fortas. Jim Rowe. “Tommy the Cork” Corcoran. These are guys who live and breathe politics. And do you know what they do when they have a dinner party on Saturday night? They get together for dinner. They count votes. They say, “How is Roosevelt’s bill on this going to be?” And Johnson, they said, was always right. We might think this Senator was going to vote this way. Johnson always knew. He was the greatest vote counter. And when he was in the Senate, he was the greatest vote counter of them all. But that’s not all of why Johnson was great. Johnson was this master on the Senate floor. He got through amendments. And there’s the base. And there’s shouting back and forth. He can seize the moment. He sees the moment where he can win. And he acts decisively. He says, “Call the vote.” And he’s Majority Leader. And he would stand there at the Majority Leader’s desk. So he’s towering over everybody else’s front row center desk. He’s got this big arm in the air. And if he’s got the votes, he wants the vote fast before anyone can change. Or maybe some other people on the other side are absent and not there. He makes little circles on his hands, like someone revving up an airplane, to get the clerk to call the rolls faster. And if one of his votes wasn’t there, and he was being rushed from somewhere in a car across Washington, he would make a stretching motion with his hands. He ran this. There were a lot of things that went into Johnson’s dominance of the Senate.
In this 30 minute radio interview, Jeanette Winterson discusses her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, tells us about how she stole a cat to teach a moral lesson, and describes how solitude can be a necessary condition to create.
Subjects Discussed: How the brain spins around, getting two marriage proposals, sleeping in a brothel in Los Angeles, people who copulate in corridors, “part fact part fiction” as a cover story, Winterson’s obligations to the facts, how a new life can be found in the form of a book, a life ending that nobody wants, how literature allows an intervention into that fateful feeling of life, imaginative freedom, adopted children and being a control freak, the cyclical nature of Winterson’s work, performance spring from fiction and performance turning into nonfiction, Witnerson World, trusting the creative process, the problems with creative writing schools, Ulysses and the return, T.S. Eliot, making sense of the whole pattern of your life, textual foundation, avoiding the term “memoir,” life imitating art, David A. Hogue’s Remembering the Future, Imagining the Past, precise measurement and comparison within Winterson’s work, the importance of detail, the benefits of seeing the world in little, Winterson’s addiction to Twitter, compartmentalizing the world, wooing online people towards books, the generation of the actual, comparisons between Kindle and phone sex, the problems with guys who watch porn, examining a stranger’s bookshelves, virtual realms, Mrs. Winterson reading Jane Eyre and reinventing the end, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Our Correspondent’s problems trying to read Jane Eyre, how containing an adopted mother in words insulates her from the reader, revealing too much of yourself through writing, eccentricity and order, Winterson’s morning bicycle routine, secret rooms in Paris, playing with all your possible selves, solitude as a necessary condition to create something, the reader impression of Mrs. Winterson as a monster, the NORI brick and the Empire State Building, reclaiming Accrington, Winterson’s connection with the North, Manchester, making space in the self for things to come back, how books are more clever than their writers, how Winterson stole a cat and used this incident to teach a moral lesson, memory, screaming as a two-year-old, being a devil baby, the absurd sound of sentences, saying yes to life, false starts and messing things up, how people are presently creating a dystopian society, and how storytelling can help people to live.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Speaking of Mrs. Winterson [JW’s adopted mother], there is a dash-driven paragraph about halfway through the book where you have her applying various charges to locations. Bestiality for the pet parlor, unmarried mothers to the day nursery. So to what degree does containing Mrs. Winterson in words help you to insulate her both from yourself and also, while we’re talking about this idea of what the reader takes away, the readership?
Winterson: Well, I think this time I let her loose. She is also the Dog Woman in Sexing the Cherry. The gigantic lonely philosophical creature who adopts Jordan from the banks of the River Thames. I’ve worked with her often. As a dream figure. As a psychopath, which I suppose she was in a way. But also as a psychopomp, which in myth stories is the strange part-angel, part-devil creature who often tells the stories. You find them in the Arabian Nights very often. There’s kind of a liminal creature inhabiting two worlds. Which in a way she did. Because she lived in end times. She was waiting for Armageddon. And that’s what she wanted. So she was only ever partly in our world. She called life a pre-death experience, which tells you a lot about her psyche. So I wasn’t insulating myself any longer. I had to do that in Oranges because that was a cover version I could live with. I couldn’t have told the story twenty-five years ago. I really couldn’t. That would have been the end of me. And it would have been a very different trajectory for me. But I can tell it now. And I wanted to release her — like the genie, like the 300-foot genie from the bottle — and give her back to the reader. Because I think the reader comes out feeling compassion for this woman. Sympathy even. And also understanding more both about me — Jeanette Winterson the writer — and also about the place that I come from. It’s not covered up at all. I think this is the most revealed book that I have ever written. Which is not to say that the language isn’t as conscious or as taut as I liked it to be. It’s important to me to work with language. But it is a completely honest book. It’s a truthful book, yeah.
Correspondent: Can you reveal too much of yourself through these particular projects?
Winterson: Yes, you can. You can get very overshary if you’re not careful.
Correspondent: How have you stopped yourself from doing this? Do you have a good team that’s going to say, “Hey, Jeanette, maybe you don’t actually want to tell the world that”?
Winterson: No. I made a choice. And it’s the center of the book. There’s one page called “Intermission.” And I say, “I’m going to miss out twenty-five years.” Which I thought would be good for the memoir anyway. Because I thought, this time, the form got a kick up the ass. It became just a bit more fluent and less linear. So I thought, well, that would give people a later clue. They won’t feel so bound to go through this from A to Z. And I did that in order not to bring in lots of people from the middle of my life, which would have turned it more into a kiss-and-tell book. And it would have been about sex and gossip and money. And I thought, I’m not letting this be hijacked by the lurid press. I’m going to tell the stories I need to tell and miss out the things which will spoil the story in a real way. By that, I mean, whether it’s a spoiler and a spoiling.
Correspondent: But where does order come in for you? I mean, you’re reading the books in the library A to Z.
Winterson: I was.
Correspondent: And this leads me to ask you — because I also know that at the very beginning of each day, instead of bicycling to work — most of us who work in the freelance world have the ideal commute. Bed to desk. Thirty seconds. Best commute in the world, right? You, on the other hand, get into a stationary bike and you start just jamming in that for a while.
Winterson: Oh no! It’s not stationary.
Correspondent: It’s not stationary?
Correspondent: Oh! You actually do ride the bicycle!
Winterson: I do!
Winterson: Yes, but I come right back to where I started from. So we may be at the start of our conversation.
Winterson: I have a studio in the garden of my house. But I will not leave my house and walk over to the studio.
Correspondent: I see.
Winterson: I have to get on my bicycle and I cycle for fifteen minutes. Because there’s a circular lane where I live. I live in a village in The Coxwells. And I just cycle round it and come back. And then I can start work.
Correspodnent: Got it. Why do you need to…
Winterson: I don’t have to.
Correspondent: You don’t have to.
Winterson: But I do.
Correspodnent: What does that do for you? Reading in sequence or going from A to Z in this case to work. It’s very fascinating to me. And this kind of relates back to my question about units of measurement. Do you need order in order to find something distinct? Something idiosyncratic? Something quirky? Something brand new that nobody else has? Do you need to have a destination to find a completely idiosyncratic journey? What’s the deal here?
Winterson: Try Flaubert, when he said that the artist needs to be ordered in his habits so that he can be wild in his imagination. That’s a good quote. That works entirely for me.
Correspondent: Calm and orderly life so you can be violent and original in your work.
Winterson: Right. If you came into my house, you know, it’s lovely. I mean, it’s ordered. It’s warm. It’s beautiful. There’s always food. You know, everything’s clean. And I like it that way. The garden’s attractive and I grow vegetables. That allows me to be completely free in my mental space. Now this isn’t a prescription.
Correspondent: No, no, no.
Winterson: By any means. But everybody who does creative work must quite soon work out the best way for that to happen and stick to it. And a lot of people imagine that there is this Bohemian disorder and somehow that’s better for them. They think it’s a kind of rock star thing. And they should just be writing the songs at four in the morning. It seems to work very well for rock stars. I’m not sure it necessarily works well for other forms of creativity.
Correspondent: But 15,000 words in two weeks.
Winterson: It’s a lot.
Correspondent: It seems to me that you’re also struck by flashes of inspiration and so you could possibly be the rock star who has an idea at four in the morning.
Winterson: Oh yeah. I have plenty of inspiration. That’s never been an issue. I’ve never had writer’s block and I’ve never had the slightest worry, even for a moment, that the thing would stop. I feel very confident there. But I do like that space. And even though I live alone — I mean I wouldn’t live with my girlfriend, because it would be terrible — but even though I live alone, I still have to have a studio space separate to my domestic space. And I have to bicycle to it. (laughs)
Correspondent: How many different spaces do you need in life? (laughs)
Correspondent: Do you have about ten?
Winterson: Well, I have my place in London. I have my shop. And then I have a place in the country. And I have my studio. And I also have a secret room in Paris.
Correspondent: Aha! Wow, that’s very intriguing.
Correspondent: I wanted to get back to the book. You are adopted, as we’ve been saying. But I’m wondering if it is an inevitable part of life that we transform in some sense to our parents. How do you deal with this? I mean, you write late in the book, “I wanted to be claimed.” Now isn’t it essential to claim yourself at some point? I mean, if you’ve always been interested in stories of disguise, in mistaken identity, how do you recognize yourself? I mean, does the disguise of truth within stories create additional problems with self-recognition here?
Winterson: No. I think it allows you to play with all your possible selves. The options. Because none of us is one thing. But sometimes it feels like that or we get forced into that because of the way society’s structured. And it’s great privilege and freedom to think, “Well, I can play with all these other selves.” It’s partly why I have a shop. That’s another life completely. That’s why I grow vegetables. You know, there are many JWs, but they all come together in the one that writes the books, which I think is the important thing. And, yes, I do feel settled now and claimed and reclaimed in myself. But, you know, I”m not free from the normal anxieties of the rest of the population. We all want to belong. We are gregarious creatures. We’re pack animals. We don’t always want to be the one who’s the outlier on the outside. We like to be inside sometimes. And it’s a very lonely place if you’re always on the outside.
Correspondent: Yeah. Do you have a finite sense of selves? Because it also seems to me that that has got to be — if you’re constantly dredging up different selves and you’re also worried about this issue of being an outsider in some sense, or being criticized by a media climate…
Winterson: Oh no! I’m not worried about that.
Winterson: I don’t care about being criticized. If you’re going to be an artist, you really can’t care about that. Because nobody is going to give you any easy ride for all of your life. Someone’s always going to come out with both guns. So that’s how it is.
Winterson: It’s not that. It’s actually much more of an existential loneliness. It’s where you position yourself on the radar of humanity. Are you in its sights? Or are you just always just being missed out in some ways? That sense of belonging is not to do with how many friends you’ve got. It’s not to do with how many girlfriends you’ve got. I’ve always had good friends. And I’ve usually been with somebody. It isn’t that at all. That’s why I call it an existential loneliness. It’s something that’s at the center of self. And possibly it always will be. I think so. Although I’m comfortable with that now. And I think that sultriness might be a necessary condition with being able to create something and comment on the world. You need that slight distance, I think.
In this 30 minute radio interview, philosopher Alain de Botton discusses Religion for Atheists, awe, advertising, mandatory Australian voting, Tarkovsky, superbia, and how humans can be more interesting than a smartphone.
Subjects Discussed: The difficulties of turning other people onto enthusiastic concepts, why religion draws extremists on all sides of the debate, attempting to fight capitalism through a new belief system, the Agape Restaurant, Susan Cain’s Quiet, including introverts within community-based ideas, the Day of Atonement, mandatory voting in Australia, attempts to reach people who are not inclined to forgive, voluntary mediators, a temple for atheism, the need to feel small, feeling small through extra human forces, the power of awe, aesthetic uses of science, being awed by the city and knowledge, the mass appeal of Proust and Tarkovsky, South Park, competing notions of awe and boredom applied to the same idea, religion as a populist medium, the upside of vulgarity, high and low culture, Tarkovsky as a joke high culture figure, superbia, egotistical notions in getting to know someone through prosaic conversational questions, social status as a way of fending off other people, dependence, religious distinction through coherent brand identities, role models, reductionism and marketing, responding to architecture, touching people through their senses, São Paulo’s prohibition of advertising, religion’s reliance upon advertising, making a public claim for certain states of the soul, the Kony 2012 campaign, the pros and cons of shame, how humans can be more interesting than a smartphone, how technology forces humans to relearn essential concepts, and how human life is in permanent competition with superficial biases.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Your books very often have this moment where you describe a very funny yet sometimes socially awkward encounter where you attempt to impart some concept or some amazing idea in your head that you are excited about and that the person who is receiving this intelligence often expresses some dismay. I think of, for example, your long speech at the Mojave Airport Graveyard in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work or your attempt to pitch yourself as a writer-in-flight to the British Airways head honcho Willie Walsh. Obviously, I think, based off of this, you are aware that some of your excitement is being misperceived. So in light of trying to consider a scenario along the lines of what you’re preaching in Religion for Atheists — where you’re trying to have certain concepts stick in other people’s heads and religion is more fraught, more sensitive than the norm — how do you get through to these people? I mean, if you’re aware of these things, you’re probably going to have moments even more extreme than the two I’ve cited. So what of this predicament? How do you go ahead and convert these people over to your side?
De Botton: Well, I suppose, when it comes to religion, you’ve got extremists on both sides of the debate. You’ve got religious believers who are very fervent in their belief and think that anything else, anything besides full conversion to their creed is not acceptable. And at the same time, you have very fierce atheists who think that any involvement with religion is evil and to be resisted. And I’ve tried to write a book that’s somewhere in the middle of those two. It’s a book that tries to say that, as an atheist, you can nevertheless engage with aspects of religion. And indeed those aspects may be very enriching for your understanding of secular society. So it’s a weird book. Because it really is fairly in the middle of something that most people would consider to be incompatible, which is atheism and religion. It’s arguing that atheism should engage in, and can engage, with aspects of religion. And it can be shot at from both sides. But I also think there is a silent majority that is actually in sympathy with the approach I’m taking. But that is a silent majority that don’t have the pulpits.
Correspondent: But if the movers and shakers, such as the man at the graveyard, require twenty dollar bills to advance things, I’m wondering how you can instill these ideas into a new belief system if everything is centered around commerce, centered around capitalism, centered around the need to get ahead, centered around some unusual man asking to see the airplanes and so forth. I mean, this, I think, is one of the interesting takeaways I get from your book. So how do you solve this?
De Botton: Well, I think that the proposals that I make are aiming to get secular capitalist people in secular capitalist societies to rethink their positions on things. I’m arguing that there are certain things missing from modern society. Though we’ve been fantastically good at delivering material improvements and supplying material needs in the developed world, there are some other needs, which you might call spiritual — and I use that word without any supernatural implications. But spiritual, psychological needs have been left slightly unattended. I’m thinking here of things like our need for community, our need for moral structure, our need for certain guidance through the challenges of life. These things have not been so well done by the secular world and I’m arguing that one of the ways which we can plug some of the gaps in the secular world is to look back at the lessons of religion. And my book is full of examples, of concepts, of practices, of rituals that one might rescue or at least learn from as atheists in a secular world.
Correspondent: Well, there’s one idea — the Agape Restaurant — where you have different types of people sitting at the same table, sharing their stories and so forth. But I’m wondering what safeguards you have in place for people who are shy or who are introverted. There’s a new book by Susan Cain called Quiet that gets into the amount of social energy one has to exert if one is introverted or even ambiverted. And so this also leads me to ask — well, if I go into a situation and I’m asked to share my most intimate secrets with a stranger, I’m not certain if I would want to do that. Because maybe someone there might want to steal my identity or so forth. We would enter such a social arrangement with understandable suspicion. And if you’re an introvert, you may be very scared or it may actually be a little intimidating to be asked to engage in this extroverted activity. So what of these kinds of problems here? What are your solutions? What are your workarounds?
De Botton: I guess my starting point is that the modern world is not so good at community building. There’s a lot of loneliness. Because much of who we are doesn’t get an expression in social life. And this is surprising. Because with Facebook and other social media, we were supposed to have cracked this. But I think people will still complain that in many areas, we don’t have good communities. And religion’s unparalleled at building communities. Now how do religions build communities? One of the things they do is they gather people around a table every now and then and get them to break bread together and get them to talk. That’s how early Christianity started. It started as a series of meals between the followers of Jesus who remembered his lessons and got together to eat. And, as I say, you find this in all faiths. That somehow the stranger is invited to the table and is welcome to the table and a stranger is turned into a friend. It’s a beautiful idea. A simple idea. And I couldn’t help but contrast this with the modern world, where we’re obsessed with eating. And newspapers and media are full of places to eat. The restaurant world is high on the agenda. But what’s never really spoken of is the meal as a source of a social engagement. As a source of discovery of another person. And that is really what interested me. And so with the example of religion in mind, one of the things I do in my book is to suggest how we might learn from the tradition of communal dining of religions, and precisely set up meals between strangers. Now, of course, some of them may feel uncomfortable. And some people like to eat on their own. So it wouldn’t be for everybody. But I think in many of us, there is a desire to shed the armor which we normally have to wear in daily life and to eat with others and to discuss our shared and common humanity.
Correspondent: But what I’m saying is that the introvert who is very fond of, say, one-on-one exchanges, as opposed to mass group exchanges — I mean, how does such a communal dining experience account for that? They may feel very uncomfortable. There may be a lot of social energy. You’re saying that they should go ahead and answer very deep questions about what they fear. And so how do you account for them?
De Botton: Well, look, it’s not for everyone. As I say, if someone wants a one-on-one meal, if someone’s not interested in community, then it might not be for them.
Correspondent: Well, how do you get them involved in the community? If the ideal here is to get everybody on the same page, how…
De Botton: Well, it doesn’t have to be everybody. But it has to be those among us who hunger for community, as many of us do.
Correspondent: But introverts do hunger for community. They just go about it in a different way.
De Botton: Yeah. Well, I couldn’t speak for them.
Correspondent: Okay. Early in the book, you bring up the Day of Atonement — the moment on the Hebrew calendar where Jews must identify all those who they have hurt or behaved unjustly towards. Now those who are part of the Day of Atonement are inclined to forgive any offenders for annoying them or causing them grief. But it is an undeniable truth that very often when you apologize to someone in the secular world, well, they’re not exactly going to have the same degree of understanding sometimes. In fact, your apology may aggravate the other person further. So I’m wondering. To get something along the lines of a Day of Atonement for a secular or non-religious group, I’m wondering: Does it take a specific secular rite? For example, in Australia, if you go and vote, 95% of the people turn out. Because if you don’t vote, then you’ll actually get fined. So I’m wondering if a Day of Atonement along the lines of what you’re talking about would require something like a government mandate for everybody to apologize to everybody. What of this dilemma?
De Botton: Well, I don’t know. I mean, what strikes me as a secular person is how intelligent religious communities are at realizing that community is a very nice thing in many ways. But it’s also very challenging. And you find, throughout the history of religion, mechanisms to ease social tensions. And it struck me that the Jewish Day of Atonement was particularly clever and insightful in recognizing that what holds communities back is grudges. Things that are undigested in the past. And what it encourages people to do is to both accept that another person may have a grudge to bring up, but also that it behooves you not to drag out that grudge. So there’s a kind of mutual responsibility on both sides not to drag out an argument and to move towards forgiveness. And the underlying assumption is that God is the only perfect being. And anyone else is going to be flawed. And so we have to forgive on the basis of our fragility and flawed natures. And I think that’s a very beautiful idea. Look, the specifics of how an atheist might do this can yet be worked out. But it’s food for thought. I think, for me, what’s interesting here is that the psychological mechanism of forgiveness based on a recognition of imperfection. And this is something that the modern world struggles with.
Correspondent: How do you reach, though, someone who is not inclined to forgive? Or who may not in fact be on the same page? I mean, I’m all for you. I would love to see everybody forgive everybody for their sins or their errors or their sleights or what not. But the fact is that a lot of people are just not going to. So what does it take to really bring people around? Does it take constant promotion of idealism along the lines of what you’re saying or what?
De Botton: Well, in the Jewish Day of Atonement, what gets people motivated is a sense that it is normal both to forgive and to have a grudge that you need to bring up. And I think that too often when people annoy the mood for discussing issues, of discussing grudges, it’s because they feel that they’re not going to get a proper hearing, that it might be embarrassing to do this, and that dialogue with another is impossible. So it’s a kind of pessimistic position. And sometimes we may need a bit of help. We may need a third person.
De Botton: Mediators.
Correspondent: Voluntary mediators.
De Botton: And that, in a sense, was the role that God was playing in the Jewish community at that point. He is a mediator.
Correspondent: Yeah. So in addition to having a temple for atheism, we also need to get a mediator army of volunteers. Would this also help to spread further good will and bonhomie?
De Botton: I think you’re focusing a little bit unfairly on the practical aspects of this. I’m really writing as a psychologist. I’m interested in psychology of religion and the psychology of the dynamics that are being explored. So how exactly this might apply, how a secular person might absorb this into their life is capable of many different interpretations?
Correspondent: But aren’t pragmatics important when considering the psychological possibilities of what human beings are capable of?
De Botton: Sure. Absolutely. Absolutely But we don’t have to decide today.
In this 50 minute radio interview, we talk with author Arthur Goldwag about political extremism and why hatred has been allowed to flourish in American politics. And the conversation is remarkably mellow and goofy.
Subjects Discussed: Hate in the heart, Barfly, Richard Hofstadter, the Illuminatus, Glenn Beck, attending a white nationalist convention, how to reason with a crazy person, attempts to talk rationally with a 9/11 truther, conversing with a murderer, catered lunches at white nationalist conventions, the difficulties of spewing cant when the people who oppose it too, Michelle Malkin’s “progressive climate of hate,” Malkin’s hate, why the haters insist that they are the ones who are persecuted, name-calling in blog comments, Gingrich’s lack of ideology and his use of hatred as a demagogic tool, Herman Cain’s meltdown, political sex scandals, people who want to believe that their victims, Thomas Frank‘s Pity the Billionaire, the right mimicking progressive politics, Father Charles Coughlin’s confused ideology, William Buckley’s mission statement for The National Review, Revilo P. Oliver’s conspiracies, rational reactionaries, Robert W. Welch, Jr., the crazy classist idea that America was poisoned by the French Enlightenment, anti-Semitism, Ron Paul, the Weatherman Manifesto, people who believe that they are patriotic Americans, Republican insiders who claim to be outsiders, unrealistic goals of change and creating past political mythologies to house them, the Wild West, innate extremism, William Dudley Pelley‘s crackpot tendencies and fleeting literary career, demagogues who come from shoe factories, the hazards of being a Kabbalist, having a Messiah complex, hateful texts lifted from satirical texts, The Report from Iron Mountain, The Education of Little Tree, haters who are certain that their enemies are having better sex than they are, the Ground Zero mosque and the Christian American Family Association, Democratic cowardice and Harry Reid, Pam Geller, Anders Behring Brevik’s manifesto, Islamophobia, fear and mugging, how New Yorkers reacted to 9/11, Coughlin and the development of hate-oriented talk radio, David Graeber’s Debt, entertainers who don’t have political influence, class rage, Michelle Bachmann, Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, all-purpose hate fragmenting over the years, and the right-wing crackup.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Arthur, you’re a very huggable guy. But how are you doing?
Goldwag: I have no hate in my heart.
Correspondent: No hate in your heart? Well, let’s get down to this business of hate. I mean, I couldn’t help but think of Mickey Rourke’s line in Barfly when I was reading this. “Hatred! The only thing that lasts!” One of the starting points of this book is Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” He pointed out that status politics was more likely to be expressed in this vindictive sense rather than through a proposal for positive action. So I’m wondering. To what degree is vindictiveness the natural mode of status politics? I mean, why don’t we have a lot more hugging and kissing and love-ins? Why isn’t that more of a draw? Maybe we can start from there.
Goldwag: Well, I think it depends on which side of the status divide you are. And I think on the relatively educated, prosperous side of the status divide, there’s a positive sense of smugness that infuriates the people on the other side of the divide.
Correspondent: Can violence be smug?
Goldwag: Well, that’s kind of the feedback loop of our politics. Weak people get smugger and smugger, and they get more and more infuriated. And it works to the advantage of people that aren’t actually involved in status politics at all. They’re involved in money politics. But it works very much to their advantage.
Correspondent: I’m wondering. Do movements and demagogues tend to time their vindictiveness in any way? I mean, just looking at the various historical examples, have you noticed any specific vindictive trends?
Goldwag: Well, we’re living through such a bad moment. We’re probably living — if America is going the way other big empires have gone, we’re beginning our decline. We’re well into our decline. And there were a lot of people who were doing very well in America who weren’t doing so well anymore. When you look at the history of the United States, when you look at it closely and not in terms of the stories that politicians tell on the stump, you realize there’s been very few good times in this country. I grew up in an age of unprecedented prosperity. But, you know, it was an age of tremendous ideological conflict. It was the civil rights movement. The Vietnam War. But there was a lot of money. Thanks to unions and the New Deal, people that were relatively uneducated were doing pretty well. And that’s not happening anymore.
Correspondent: But why don’t they look at those achievements and say to themselves, “Well, hey, maybe I can be part of that?” Why do they feel the need to be hateful? I mean, is there something inevitably wrong with the political mechanism that forces them to hate. Do people not really have a voice? And is this one of the reasons why they resort to this vindictiveness?
Goldwag: These people actually — they couldn’t answer that question. Because they never describe themselves as haters. I went to a white nationalist convention in Washington a couple of months ago.
Correspondent: Oh yeah?
Goldwag: And over and over again, they told themselves — because there weren’t outsiders there, except me and one or two other reporters. They’re telling themselves, “Look, we don’t hate anybody. Our thing is: we love white people.”
Goldwag: They love whiteness. And I talk about that in the book too. And Hofstadter talks about it when he gets into the status politics. You know, if whiteness is the only thing you have, you’re going to hold onto it very tightly. And then there’s a whole complex of things that go with it that, you know, they’re not bad things. They don’t actually have anything to do with whiteness. I mean, one of the things that I actually learned at this convention is that white people really love their families. But that’s not a white attribute.
Goldwag: But the other side of that, of course, is if you love yourself to the exclusion of somebody else is the somebody else. And there’s the specter in America — you know, it’s a darkening country. One of the speakers who made a very moving speech in a way — he said, “Imagine a country with no blonde women.” That’s like, okay. Imagine that. There’s countries in the world where there are no blonde women. But America, we’re an unusual country. Blood and soil, it’s a much more natural idea in Europe than it is over here. Maybe as things are coming apart over here, it’s starting to become a part of American identity now.
Correspondent: I notice that you offer a smile every time you mention that things will fall apart over here. This leads me to wonder whether, I suppose, the erosion of the American government might in fact encourage people to love each other more. Do you think that hate will actually dissolve once we really don’t have a political mechanism with which to contain it?
Goldwag: I don’t. Because I think that I’m not a religious person. But I believe in the fall of man. On the other hand, I’m not an optimistic person at all. But I believe we’ve made tremendous cultural and spiritual progress in this country. You know, there’s this incredible resentment of our African-American President. But he got elected by a landslide. There’s this incredible homophobia. But in an astonishingly short amount of time, there has been such a raising of consciousness. I would have never imagined ten years ago that gay marriage would be as accepted as it is today.
Correspondent: But we still have white nationalist conventions that you’re attending.
Goldwag: Yeah, but they’re small.
Correspondent: They’re small?
Goldwag: What disturbs me, and what made me write this book — you know, I had written this other book called Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies, and it was encyclopedic. And it was also, it was like a browsing book. And it was like a gee whiz book. Like these are the crazy things that people believed. And after the book came out, some of these people that I had blithely thought were crazy people kind of introduced themselves to me. And I discovered that they’re out there. And then, almost simultaneously with the publication of my book and the inauguration of Barack Obama, it’s the debut of Glenn Beck on FOX News. And Glenn Beck, he’s not on mainstream TV anymore. I don’t want to give him any more credit. He’s an entertainer. But he was channeling all this stuff. I mean, if you had been as immersed in this stuff as I was, none of it was unfamiliar. It’s called the John Birch Society, basically. That’s the template. And the John Birch Society template goes back to the origins of modern Western conspiracy theory, which is that fear of the Illuminatus. People that listen to rap music think the Illuminatus is something new.
Correspondent: But on that subject, in the book, you cite tenuous connections between Michael Jackson and Jay-Z. I mean, how much does the Illuminatus or the Masonic society even matter in 2012 America? I got a lot of historical examples from you.
Goldwag: It matters in the imagination. It matters as an idea. Real Masons are regular people. And some of them are very sophisticated people. But they’re not the figures in the Dan Brown book or the figures on the cover of Jay-Z records. It’s something else. But ideas are important. Human beings live by ideas.
Bat Segundo returns with a big bang in this jam-packed one hour conversation with Pity the Billionaire author Thomas Frank. With talking points ripped from headlines just in the past few days, the conversation gets into populist politics being co-opted, the tendency of politicians to reinvent history, a neighborhood where half the population has PhDs, NASCAR, Ayn Rand, and Frank’s collection of proletarian fiction.
Subjects Discussed: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s notion of “compromise,” the Republican failure to acknowledge Reagan’s complete history, Reagan’s Continental Illinois bailout, efforts to “erase” liberalism from Washington, Barack Obama’s failings, Congressional disapproval by the American people (as reflected by recent polls), how George W. Bush became a toxic Republican figure, the Tea Party movement, the Great Recession, how the Right co-opted populism after 2008, the 2010 extension of the Bush tax cuts and Bernie Sanders’s filibuster, Obama signing the NDAA “with serious reservations,” the Democratic Party less about the working man and more about expertise and technocrats, Obama’s TARP bailouts vs. Roosevelt’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation bailouts, government agencies that become instruments of Wall Street, “purified” capitalism, firing bank managers, conservatives mimicking progressive ideologies of the past and protest movements of the 1930s, co-opting outrage, Orson Welles’s influence on Glenn Beck, The War of the Worlds, being subscribed to Beck’s email newsletter, Jack Abramoff, Grover Norquist, the Republican base being united over the past few decades by “quasi-military victory” and lack of civility, Howard Phillips and “organized discontent,” why the Democrats are allergic to discontent and anger, Roosevelt’s tendency to stump and explain legislation vs. Obama’s failure to do so, the Democratic tendency to use experts as a selling point, Jon Stewart and the New Political Privilege, the Rally to Restore Sanity, Occupy Wall Street, blue-collar invisibility in DC, living in a neighborhood in which 50% of the population have PhDs, NASCAR, idiosyncratic hangover cures, diffidence and resistance against righteous indignation in the last few years, the hard times swindle, Scott Walker and attacks on the Wisconsin labor movement, attempts to investigate why liberalism can’t stick in recent years given The Wrecking Crew‘s suggestion that people inherently expect a liberal state, the myth of small business job creation (specific data breakdown on new jobs creation from 1992-2008 from Scott Shane discussed by Correspondent and Frank), George Lucas calling himself an “independent filmmaker,” C. Wright Mills’s White Collar, small business serving as a propaganda front for big business, America’s reticence in discussing how we are all corporate slaves in some sense, Tea Party memorabilia, Glenn Beck’s CAPITALISM painting, Rep. Nan Hayworth’s dodging questions about Verizon with empty utopian bluster, whether it’s possible to take back the term “small business,” the Black Panther Party, ways to organize political movements, whether it’s possible to build a dedicated base to combat a corrupt two-party system, legal blockades to third party movements, protesting out of resentment and self-pity, self-pity and the resurgent Right, whether the Tea Party is protesting with a shared sense of humiliation, populist politics as a gateway drug, searching for good things to say about the Tea Party, liberalism and populist movements, Atlas Shrugged, Walter Issacson’s Steve Jobs biography, Jobs being selfish with his money, why selfishness is a uniquely American draw, retreating into laissez-faire purity, Ayn Rand’s prose style, capital strikes as fantasy, leftist versions of Atlas Shrugged, John Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Frank’s collection of proletarian fiction, Upton Sinclair, the cold sex and descriptions of steel and machinery in Atlas Shrugged, the connections between recent political movements and mythology, German sociologists from the 1930s, the social construction of reality, Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia, how the Left might find political possibilities in passion, pragmatism, and anger, the neutered Left falling prey to forms of mythology that are just as nefarious as present myths on the Right, organized labor, Steven Greenhouse’s The Big Squeeze, how politics tends to inspire perverse behavior, and train wrecks.
Correspondent: Well, it was interesting. Because it reminded me very much of your book. I’m about to talk with you and this happens. So [Cantor] appears. And it’s this fairly amicable, typical segment. And then Lesley Stahl basically says, “Will you compromise in any way?” And he dodged the issue of being able to compromise on anything. And then Lesley, of course, brings up the Reagan tax increase.
Frank: The 1986?*
Correspondent: Yes. And he denies that Reagan ever did that. And then, to add an additional monkey wrench into this, there’s an off-camera press secretary who says that’s a lie. And then, of course, they play the clip.
Correspondent: Yes! And they play a clip of Reagan using “compromise” as a verb** when he’s talking about this tax increase. So this seems a very appropriate beginning to some of the issues in your book.
Frank: That’s amazing. That’s exactly what I’m writing about. These people who are essentially blinded by ideology. But when I say it that way, it sounds like some kind of slang term. Or something like that. But I mean it in a very serious way. That these are people who have bought an entire utopian way of seeing the world and are able to close their eyes to things that are obvious. And what you just said about Reagan, that would be a juicy detail that I would have loved to have had for the book. But there are so many other examples — essentially, they deny. Look, I went to a graduate school and studied history. One of the baseline things that historians agree on is that for the last thirty or forty years, we’ve been in a conservative era. That people around the world — governments, politicians, elites around the world — have discovered the power of markets and have moved in this direction towards markets that are deregulated, have privatized, have done all these things. This is common knowledge. A conservative movement today — you talk to a guy like Eric Cantor? No, that’s never happened. We’re still living under socialism. And we have been since Woodrow Wilson. Or something like this.
Correspondent: But why is it that Cantor and the Freshman Republicans want to just keep their blinders on about history? About their man Reagan? Is there a specific…
Frank: They have to have a hero and they’ve thrown George W. Bush under the bus. Because of the bailouts. But at the end of the day, look, it’s opportunism. Reagan is very popular. Bush is not popular. Nixon is not popular. So they have to have a hero. And it has to be someone who is beloved. Ipso facto, it has to be Reagan. But they have to deny all sorts of thing about Reagan. For example, Reagan bailed out Continential Illinois Bank — at the time, the biggest bank failure in U.S. history. Reagan, as you’ve just mentioned, raised taxes. Reagan sold weapons to Iran. You remember that one? Iran-Contra. I mean, there are all sorts of other crazy things that Reagan did that don’t look so good. I mean, Reagan really liked Franklin Roosevelt. Reagan was a more complicated person. But none of that is admissible. If you’re going to follow this ideology and this utopian vision that they have of what I call “market populism” — if you’re going to follow that all the way — and, of course, part of the idea of this is that you’re going to have to follow it all the way — and we’ll get into that a minute — you basically have to whitewash history. I mean, it’s almost Soviet, what you’re describing.
Correspondent: The phrase you use in The Wrecking Crew. “The Washington conservatives aim to make liberalism not by debating, but by erasing it.” And I’m wondering if there’s any past political precedent that would suggest they could entirely efface liberalism from our political machinations.
Frank: Or from our memory.
Correspondent: Or from our memory. It’s very strange.
Frank: Well, that was the big subject a few years ago — when The Wrecking Crew was published. One of the topics of conversation was these grand schemes that the Republicans kept coming up with. The Republicans in Washington here, I’m talking about. I’m not talking about your rank-and-file Republicans. But the Republicans in Washington kept coming up with the grand schemes for some kind of political checkmate. Some kind of move that would end the debate forever and yield victory for their side forever. And they include — privatizing social security was a big one. Another one — the one that I focused on in The Wrecking Crew — is deficits. And that, I’m sorry to say, I turned out to be right about the one. By deliberately running up the deficits in the Bush years, it doesn’t give them permanent victory, but it does stay the hand of whoever, whatever liberal follows — in this case, Barack Obama — and it has worked exactly as they planned it to. Although Obama pushed it a little farther than they thought possible with the stimulus package. But now look at what’s happened with the debt ceiling catastrophe and all that sort of thing. So that turned out to be effective. They were able to limit the debate by some deeds that they pulled while they were still in power. And some of the other things that they are trying or will try or I predict they’ll try, they are things about tricking the franchise. Somehow keeping or dissuading people from voting. That sort of thing. But there’s always this search for the doomsday device. Yes, and it still goes on.
Correspondent: But this level of no quarter, no compromise. I mean, isn’t there some kind of “uncanny valley” or Hubbert’s Peak to what they can do before it’s just not acceptable? I mean, there was that latest Rasmussen poll where Congress got a 5% approval rating. That was a few days ago.
Frank: Well, that makes a difference in the Presidential Election. But that really won’t make a whole lot of difference, strangely enough, in the Congressional Election. Because people might hate Congress, but they like their own Congressman. That’s the classic, the old saw. But, look, what you’re getting at is a really interesting phenomenon of these people, instead of being pulled to the center — as all of your political science theorizing and all of your DC punditry insists that the gravity of politics pulls people to the center. Political scientists have believed this for fifty years. And this is a pet peeve of mine. Because I think it’s rubbish, okay, for reasons that we’ll go into. But it’s been just dramatically disproven in the last couple of years. Think back to 2008. You had the Republican Party in ruins. You had all these scandals in the Bush Administration. All this corruption. And then it ends with this catastrophic meltdown in the market. The housing bubble bursts. The banks start to go under, one after another. Then Wall Street starts shedding 700 points per day. It’s this crazy disaster. The financial crisis. And then they do the bailouts, forever sealing Bush’s fate not only with the general public but with the Right. One of the most unpopular Presidents of all time. The Republican Party is in ruins in 2008. And you have pundit after pundit weighing in and saying, “These people are done for. Bush led them too far to the right.” The era of George W. Bush was where they went too far to the right, and Tom DeLay and all those guys, they went too far to the right, and now they have to make their way back to the center or they will risk being irrelevant forever more. Or for the next twenty years or something like that. And look what happened. They did the opposite. Guys like Eric Cantor, they did not embrace the moderates in their party. They excommunicated them. They purged them. I mean, these guys, they behave like Communists in a lot of ways. This is one of those things. They purged these guys. They throw people out. And they don’t want them in the Party anymore. And they moved deliberately to the right. Way to the right. That’s what the Tea Party movement is all about. And I’ll be damned if it didn’t work. They just scored their biggest victory in eighty years. Or seventy what — a whole lot of years in the 2010 off-term elections. They had a huge victory. So obviously that strategy has vindicated for them. It worked! It paid off! And there’s no reason why they would go back on something that just succeeded. It was a success.
Correspondent: But in the chapter in this book, “The Silence of the Technocrats,” you describe this collapse of Democratic populism from 2008. You point to the failings of the Democrats to challenge the Tea Party, people at the town hall meetings. You point also to the manner in which they formed corporate alliances with healthcare and also the bailouts that we were just talking about. The failure of the stimulus package. The list goes on. Only a few days ago, Obama signed into law the NDAA, which essentially gives the government the right to detain any citizen, and he had this whole “with serious reservations” claause that he did while he signed it. So the question I have is: if Democrats are offering the defense that Obama is being forced into this predicament…
Frank: They’re listening to the pundits. The Republicans did the opposite of what the pundits suggested. The Democrats are listening to them. There’s this DC elite that the Democrats are listening to. This is what Obama’s Presidency is all about — it’s looking for a grand compromise. But the Republicans, they’re not interested. Make him come to us, they say. He can come to us. He can compromise in our direction. Look, at the end of the day, this is something you can figure out with game theory. It’s really simple. If they’re the side that stands pat and makes the other guy come to them, they win. But that’s neither her nor there. I think the Democrats really misplayed the hand they were dealt with. I mean, misplayed it in a colossal manner. In a catastrophic manner. And Obama may well get re-elected in 2012 at this point. Who knows at this point?
Correspondent: Well, with the crop of candidates, it’s a big clown car.
Frank: Elected for what purpose? After what’s happened, why bother? They didn’t understand the needs of the moment. The cultural and political needs of the moment, which were populist. They didn’t understand that all that political science theorizing that I was telling you about, where the center is where the gravity always pulls you — you have to move to the center. You have to make compromises with the other side. That all of that old way of thinking about everything was discredited. The financial crisis. The Great Recession. The huge business slump. We were going into Great Depression II, it looked like back then. And what was called for was 1930s style politics. The conservatives offered it. The Republicans offered it. Or I should say the Tea Party offered it and has since grafted it on the Republican Party. And the Democrats behaved as if everything was just as it was in the 1990s. That if they acted like Bill Clinton, everything would be fine. They did not understand that the old scheme was completely out the window.
Correspondent: Why though would they continue to act as if they wished to rise above partisanship? This notion…
Frank: That’s who they are.
Correspondent: I mean, even after the whole debt ceiling showdown. That whole business.
Frank: Can you believe that? Don’t you think that that would be the big convincer?
Correspondent: But why do you think this is? I mean, why didn’t Obama just go to the people and say, “Look, this is going to have serious actions even if I approve it or veto it. I am actually going to you, the American people, and I am explaining to you that the Republicans want to throw the Bill of Rights into a flaming trash can…
Correspondent: “So I can’t in good conscience sign this.” Why do you think he can’t do that?
Frank: Well, the point where this really got out of hand — I mean, there were several big turning points in the Obama Presidency, but the one that really just blew my mind because it was such a misplayed moment. And we think Obama’s a very intelligent man. And he is. I met up. He’s a super-duper smart guy. But some of the political moves have just been total rookie mistakes. The one that got me was when he still had a Democratic Congress. It was a lame duck session. This would have been at the end of 2010. And he renewed the Bush tax cuts. Why not make the Republicans come to him and offer something in exchange for that? No. He just gave it to them. It’s like the biggest prize on the table. And he just handed it over.
Correspondent: Leaving Bernie Sanders to do that long filibuster. But that ended up being all for nought. Even though it was an impressive theatrical display. Everybody was behind Bernie Sanders. Finally somebody standing up.
Frank: Oh sure. But it wasn’t up to Bernie Sanders. It was up to Barack Obama. And he just gave it away — the one ace he had in the hole, he just gave it away. And so maybe he did it as a good faith gesture to the Republicans. And look what it got him? This terrible smackdown with the debt ceiling crisis.
Correspondent: An embarrassment.
Frank: The kind of naivete that that takes. To not understand that that’s how these guys play the game. There’s plenty of journalists that wrote about the DeLay Congress and the Gingrich Congress. We know how these guys play. Or George W. Bush. Look at the career of Karl Rove. These guys play to win. They don’t mess around. And the innocence of Washington that it took to make a blunder — let’s call it what it is. A blunder like that is shocking to me.
Correspondent: If he’s so smart, why does he constantly come to them? I mean, why give the game away like that?
Frank: Because that’s who they are. That’s the Democratic Party nowadays.
Correspondent: It’s been like that for a while though, you know?
Frank: It has. And, hey, let’s be fair. Obama isn’t the — all of their last six Presidential candidates have been cut from the same cloth. I think Obama is, in lots of ways, smarter and a better speaker, and more talented than a lot of their previous leaders. But this is who the Democratic Party has become. Many years ago, they were the party of the working man. Everyone knew that. They were also a party that had an ideology. An ideology that arose from organized labor, that arose from the New Deal. And that has been lost. They are the party of technocrats now. Look, everything I’m telling you right now is right on the surface down at Washington DC. The big Democratic Party thinkers talk about this all the time. We are the party of the professional class. And if we aren’t that yet, that’s who we’re going to be when we’re done. We’re going to get there eventually.
* — This is a very pedantic stickler point, but one that nonetheless demands clarity. Reagan raised taxes twelve times during his administration. Frank is referring to the Tax Reform Act of 1986. But, to be clear, Stahl was specifically referring to Reagan’s 1982 tax increase in the 60 Minutes segment.
** — Another highly pedantic (and perhaps needless) stickler point. Reagan used “compromise” as a noun, not as a verb: “Make no mistake about it, this whole package is a compromise.” And while Reagan’s specific words convey the same point (indeed more definitively with a noun), it is important to remain committed to painstaking accuracy — especially when the corresponding approach being discussed over the hour involves how political parties cleave to mythology.
Subjects Discussed: Cannibalism, worming, BDSM, “industriously garbled syntax,” reconciling confusion within literature, being a Francophile, Rimbaud, irritating certain readers, attempts to tame language, Alain Robbe-Grillet, de Sade, Cooper’s efforts to disguise his own voice, violent metaphors as a writing strategy, shock value, listening to other people, garbage languages and British dialect, rereading The Marbled Swarm and a universal explanation, confusion as the new literary strategy, Occupy Wall Street, expanding space within literary space, tight jeans, red herrings, the truth offered by the protagonist, 21st century literature and longueurs, Blake Butler and the HTML Giant crowd, David Lynch, Enter the Void, humor as an entry point for experimental writing, violence in contemporary fiction, raw first drafts, constructing a voice with every book, the difficulties of not being clever all the time, secret tunnels and connections, hostility towards anime, technology and keeping up with youth culture, The Sluts, clarifying relationships between the unnamed protagonist in The Marbled Swarm and George Miles, Joshua Cohen’s review of The Marbled Swarm, the future of transgressive fiction, whether Beckett and Joyce can be deviant in the 21st century, Lars von Trier, William Burroughs, reading as a more specialized pastime, Little Caesar, whether punk can be applied to today’s literary culture, Tao Lin, contemporary experimental writers, MFA students, revolution, the absence of sincerity in today’s age, the dilemma of ignoring sophistication, emo culture, whether or not mainstream culture matters, definitions of “cult writer,” Dancing with the Stars, outsiders who are actually insiders, Harper Perennial, Shane Jones, Amelia Gray, being disliked, receiving death threats, comparing reactions to literature over the past few decades, being excluded vs. not caring, the luck of having a following, and whether a young Dennis Cooper could flourish today.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Let’s start with cannibalism. I think that’s a very good place to start. I mean, this is not exactly a subject in which one can find first-hand material in quite easily. So I’m wondering — sort of using this as a jumping point to talk about the overall violence in your work — how do you get that precision? Of biting into things?
Cooper: Well, you know, the Internet. Imagination. I did some research into it. I did a lot of research into it.
Correspondent: Such as?
Cooper: Oh, you know, there’s a lot of people who do it. (laughs) And actually there’s not only people who do it, but there’s these fetish sites where people advertise themselves as maybe interested in all sorts of things. And one of the fetishes is cannibalism. And I don’t think anybody ever does it. Because otherwise there’d be arrests all the time. But they’re very detailed about their fetishes. About the ones who want to eat and the ones who want to be eaten. It’s not a huge subculture, but it is there. And so I go that. And, you know, there’ve been guys throughout history who’ve done it. And then ultimately in the book, there really isn’t that much. He just talks about it all the time.
Correspondent: It’s a good litmus test as to whether one should carry on further. So you looked at underground websites?
Cooper: They’re not that underground.
Correspondent: Your IP must have been tracked while you were performing these searches.
Cooper: Well, they’re not that underground. There’s this site called Recon. Essentially it’s a master and slave site. Which is what it is. But there’s all kinds of subtext for people who like it. There’s weirder things than that. There are these guys who want to get wormed.
Cooper: That’s the thing. They want to be wormed. It means having their arms and legs cut off — and live as a worm for their masters. So there’s stuff that’s weirder than cannibalism.
Correspondent: Wow. Worming. They actually do get wormed.
Cooper: Well, I don’t think anybody ever — I think it’s all…
Correspondent: Yeah. Sort of BDSM onto the next level.
Cooper: But they’re very serious about it. So yeah, those are all totally above board sites.
Correspondent: Above board. The “marbled swarm” in this book. It’s described as an “industriously garbled syntax,” a quote unquote — quote unquote appears quite a lot in the book — “exalted style of speaking” that the protagonist learns from his father and that becomes in his tongue “more of an atonal fussy bleat.” So you have this protagonist who is constantly alluding to hints of a deeper story throughout the text. But he’s also using language as an excuse for his behavior, his fantasies, and what not. He claims at one point, “My father used the marbled swarm to…well, I was going to say become a wealthy man, but to say he ruined would my life would be as accurate.” So the interesting thing about that is that the implication is that language — especially this stylized language — is really almost comparable to moral justification for why you had a shitty upbringing and the like. So I’m curious about this. Especially with most of the paragraphs beginning with “still comma.” There’s almost a comic formality about this reconciliation. I’m wondering how this patois developed and to what degree is this a response to reconciling confusion.
Cooper: Well, yeah, my books are in some fundamental way always about reconciling confusion. Because that’s of super interest to me. And language presents this idea that confusion can be corralled and all that stuff. And it can’t. And that tension does interest me. But how this happened? I don’t know. It took me a long time. I’m really slow and I do all these experiments. I test out things and try different forms and things. And it was a combination of living in France and not speaking French very well. And it was a very interesting thing to be on the Métro or whatever, and hearing people talk, and sort of understanding a little bit of what they’re saying. But not completely. And having to make it up or something and imagining. Because people always say that I romanticize French people enormously. Because I’m a huge Francophile. So when I’m on the subway with these people. And I imagine them talking about Rimbaud or something. And, of course, they’re talking about their laundry or whatever. So that begin to interest me. That I do that. So that started the idea of trying to create that in fiction. And I had usually written in a spare way. But I wanted to make it really, really dense so it would really multitask. Because I like things to be really layered and experimental. And so I tried to find this voice that was really, really dense and could do a whole bunch of stuff at once, and just fiddled around until that one came up. And then I had to figure out — because it’s really limited in what it can do. Its tone is really particular. And it’s really irritating. And so then it was just a matter of how fast will the pace be. Because will people not get too sick of this guy? And he can be kind of funny. But he can be really sincere, but only in a certain way.
Correspondent: Yeah. Did you actually end up speaking like this character during the course of your writing?
Cooper: No, no, no.
Correspondent: I mean, certainly I’m listening to you now and you don’t sound anything like that.
Cooper: No. I have to do readings now and it sounds so awful. (laughs)
Correspondent: Did you read any of it aloud to make sure that it could be plausible or anything like that?
Cooper: No. It all worked in my head like that.
Correspondent: Well, you mentioned this voice being irritating and slowing things down. And I’m wondering. Your books do have a tendency to irritate some people. Especially the mainstream. So how much irritation is enough in your fiction?
Cooper: It has to be really balanced out. I mean, I always feel like I have to do something formally or stylistically or structurally to justify that stuff. Because I’m not interested in — there’s this idea that — not just me, but other writers who do stuff like me are out to shock and all this. And it’s so not true. It’s completely the opposite. It’s like: How can you use really aggressive language like that and not be shocking? That’s my interest. Cause it’s such amazing language and it’s very emotional and it’s very pure. If you take that away, if you start treating it like a horror movie, or if you start doing this psychoanalytical kind of thing about what the motivations are behind that stuff, you really lose the powers. I wrote that power and I want to try and tame it or something. So I don’t know. It’s always tricky. With this book, there’s not as much violence in it. And the language like — so when you get to the part, there’s one part that’s really kind of intense. And I’m hoping that the language, you’re so involved with the language in a pleasurable — like it’s funny or something — that that’s kind of the barrier.
Correspondent: Well, you mentioned taming the language. Can your type of language ever be entirely tamed? Especially this moment that we’re alluding to about, I think, 120 pages in the book. You know, I found parts of that both funny and vaguely horrifying. But the funny to my mind outweighed the horrifying. Maybe I’m just warped.
Cooper: Well, yeah. You can only do so much. And I try different strategies at different times in different books and things. And this one, you get used to how he’s circumventing everything and subverting everything and doing everything. And he uses metaphor all the time. So that when he gets to the scene, it’s really totally metaphoric. When something violent happens, he’ll reference like an alligator or something. So that’s just my strategy. And it isn’t going to prevent people from being shocked. But with this book, you have to really be looking for it. Because it’s not as aggressive as in my other books.
Correspondent: That’s true. I’m wondering if you looked to any specific types of people to get the marbled swarm of this book. Or the “garbled marbled swarm.” Did you listen to a specific type of affluent wanker? Or what?
Cooper: It’s a little bit like the sound of French literature. Or certain kinds of French literature. I mean, there’s a little bit of that. Like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Sade and some of the writers who were important to me. And then my own voice. I mean, it’s basically me disguising my own voice. So a lot of it is just my usual stuff. I mean, the sentences are much more complicated than my usual sentences. But it’s all basically my voice. It was just more like trying to keep it sounding foreign and maybe be kind of French, but also having this weird American stuff thrown into it. And so it was kind of like a garbage language. I mean, the thing, it sounds British.
Subjects Discussed: Accusations of egomania, Abbott and Costello, the real Charles Yu vs. the fictive Charles Yu, writing a novel in a nonlinear fashion, how time travel encourages emotional truth, father-son bonding experiences, viewing your own memory as a bystander, freedom of movement within text, skimming vs. careful reading, intense reading experiences, Finnegans Wake and recursive reading, David Foster Wallace, Faulkner, lack of concentration and the Internet, Dan O’Bannon, Red Dwarf, working stiff protagonists, schlubbiness, inner worlds and inner schlubs, gazes and looks within fiction, non-conflict conflict, drawbacks within time travel novels and extended meditation, diagrams contained within the middle of books, loneliness and sexbots, genre and MacGuffins, sticking with skeletal plot no matter what, gobbledygook and cryogenics, Richard Feynman, legitimate and illegitimate research into quantum mechanical texts, the appeal of language vs. the appeal of ideas, the fun tone of fake science, “Problems for Self-Study” (PDF) as a precursor for How to Live Safely, schematics as the genesis for finished fiction, smudging a list and Silly Putty, not laughing at one’s own comic writing, the funny qualities of email vs. fiction, Twitter, Moisture Man, schlubbiness vs. Asimov’s robotics, Phil the Computer Program, crushing the sentient feelings of computers in the future, reconstructing individual AI personalities from Twitter feeds, personality algorithms generated from books, books as simulacrums of consciousness, fakery injected into fakery, stories that are told in other voices, the use of hypothetical robots within fiction, fakery used to aid the idea of conflict, tangible boxes that have levers and stuff, and projections of machinery.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Yu: I think schlubbiness is my default protagonist, unfortunately.
Correspondent: Oh yeah?
Yu: Yeah. I’ve yet to write — and lots of people have pointed it out, but really now it’s coming into focus. Because I realize how much I kind of schlub it up when I start designing. Not designing. But that’s how they come out. Maybe it’s a reflection of my inner schlub that I don’t know how to create a dashing hero yet.
Yu: I want to.
Correspondent: You’ve made attempts? (laughs)
Yu: I’ve probably made some half-hearted attempts. But I’m going to try harder to make a non-schlub protagonist. Because I want to try something different. I think it’s partly a reflection of just the worlds too that these guys live in — and so far they have been guys. That they’re sort of slightly broken, damaged worlds in the stories I’ve written too, for the most part. So they fit into that, I guess.
Correspondent: Inner worlds create inner schlubs.
Correspondent: So you’re saying that the schlubbiness is dictated more by the worldbuilding that you’re undergoing in a short story or a novel. Or the fact that you can be more, I suppose, confidently schlubby on paper as opposed to life.
Yu: No, I think the worlds make the schlub. And I think there’s a bit of a change in the Charles Yu character. I think he tries to stop being such a depressed navel gazer and look forward a bit. I mean, I don’t mean to spoil anything for people who haven’t read it and want to read it. But it also seems easier for me to see the change that I want to have in the character. Or to start with somebody who’s really sort of broken. And have them find some measure of some resolution or something.
Correspondent: Well, on that subject of something else being in plain sight — no pun intended for the next question, which is rather elaborate — in describing a sexbot, you write, “Something about the look in her eyes gets me, even though I know they aren’t really eyes.” When an older Charles observes a younger ten-year-old Charles and his father, you write, “And it looks as if they are staring, not through me, but right back at me, and with their minds immersed in the theory of time travel and their eyes fixed on the future.” Late in the book, when Charles Yu faces a serious existential crisis and contemplates several options, he has one choice. “Nor can I change the path of my body, the words from my lips, not even the focus of my eyes.” So it’s interesting to me that Charles Yu — in the book, not you — is just as aware of these fixed looks and staring into these windows of the soul and he can’t quite connect through the space-time continuum and through the act of writing. So I’m curious where this interest in eyes came about. Was this a way of informing the reader on what Charles Yu is missing out on? These recurring stares? This recurring communication with souls and the like?
Yu: Yeah, that was an elaborate question. So I’m going to try and give an appropriately elaborate answer.
Yu: It only seems right to do justice for that question. Because I think you’ve put your finger on something I was trying to get out. Which is this kind of feeling of missed connection across time. And yet when Father and Mother are gazing toward the future, or Charles is looking at something, can sometimes sense something in the room, it’s this idea that now that future Charles is in that room looking back, maybe the first time around you feel the future there too. And that’s what you’re looking at. But you can’t connect. As you pointed out, you’re not directly looking at it. But there’s a sense in which what’s going to happen is already in the room with you and you can feel it there. You can’t see it yet. And then in the past, you can see it now. But you can’t change anything about it. And that also, in terms of narrative mechanics, there is some squiahiness to my sci-fi here. It’s not hard at all.
Correspondent: Squishy and schlubby. This is great.
Yu: That’s right. Yeah. Not hard sci-fi. Squishy, schlubby, mushy sci-fi.
Correspondent: It was never on the jacket copy though.
Yu: (laughs) But the one constraint I wanted to have in there. And I won’t pretend to know whether or not I ever violated it. But I think I said as a rule that you can’t change the past. And if you do, you shoot off into an alternate reality. But here’s where the sort of paradox comes in. You can’t — like the Charles when he realizes he’s caught in his time loop, if he wants to stay within his chronology, he can’t say or do anything different. And he can’t even look in a different place. But he can think something different. So I’m drawing what I understand is an artificial distinction between thinking and doing. But that was sort of where that comes from. It’s that even if my eyes — you know, everything I do is exactly the same as the first time down to where I’m looking. I have the tiny degree of freedom of changing how I feel about the same experience. Therein sort of lies the difference where he goes through this for the second time, basically.
Correspondent: Any alteration in the time stream causes the protagonist Charles Yu to not be able to see or to interact. Which is a really bummer offshoot of any of his decisions. Even a stray drift from this prevents him from doing anything. That’s quite a high wire act you set for yourself as a writer. How do you generate conflict if you have a protagonist who is incapable of doing what most humans are doing? When his pro-active decisions create this mess?
Yu: Right. That was a problem. It really was. And I’m not sure I surmounted that problem. I think if I were to judge by some of the responses I’ve gotten, some people have said, “Not enough conflict in this book.” And I think that’s a fair statement. And what conflict there is is necessarily pretty internal. One drawback for having a time loop novel and one in which the form of time travel requires you cannot change anything.
Correspondent: Was this form of non-conflict conflict the best way for you to explore these issues of memory and consciousness and choice and loneliness? That that was really the only comfortable or reader-accessible way for you to tackle these issues?
Yu: I think so. It’s the only way I could figure out how. I mean, I wanted it to be sort of an extended meditation on something. And that doesn’t make it sound terribly attractive when you’re thinking of reading and writing a book that’s going to last for a couple hundred pages at least on a meditation. But it was, to me, the only form that — it just kind of grew out of what I was writing about. For better or worse. So I was like, “Well, this is going to be the plot.” And as you know, there’s that diagram in the middle of the book, which sort of gives you the plot points. And there aren’t many of them But that’s what I did pretty early, like very early I drew that. And I said I’m going to stick to this. Because this will keep me from getting lost and violating the rules I’ve set up. And keep me focused on exploring the ideas of consciousness and memory that you pointed out.
In this 45 minute radio interview, we talk with Booker winning novelist Alan Hollinghurst about The Stranger’s Child, how a single verb can alter a sentence, and whether literary biographies have any legitimacy.
Subjects Discussed: Ivy Compton-Burnett, attention to character panoramas in 21st century literature, the appeal of huge gaps in the narrative, Alice Munro’s Runaway, how Hollinghurst decides which characters get to pop up later, Chekhov’s gun, characters who have affairs with the same man, factoring in the reader’s need to know, The Line of Beauty, Michael Apted’s Up series, unanticipated flourishes that run throughout different historical epochs, the 1967 Sexual Offenses Act, avoiding writing directly about the Great War, the dangers of too much research, the James Wood review, how a single verb choice can alter a sentence, “muddle,” the paucity of laughter verbs in English, our correspondent’s highly pedantic (and unsuccessful) attempt to pinpoint Hollinghurst’s affinity for verbs containing the letter U, Paul Bryant as one of the most compelling cases against literary biography and literary criticism, real world Paul Bryants, how minor biographies are often written by the wrong people, Ronald Firbank, obsessiveness as a character trait, media overexposure, being comfortable with the inevitability of obsolescence, fiction and posterity, Auden and biography, Mick Imlah’s “In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson,” legitimate literary biography, Michael Holroyd’s work on Lytton Strachey, Richard Ellmann’s Joyce bio, the fallibility of human memory, the corruption of poetry, the allure of the second-rate, life vs. art, having a vivid sense of someone over a weekend but not really knowing them, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, referential character names, why Hollinghurst couldn’t get through the whole of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, depicting older people, having a wide range of friends, The Swimming-Pool Library, relationships between young and old people, sticking with “said” in dialogue and appending description, Evelyn Waugh, dealing with idiosyncratic translations, the word “satiric” offered as a cue for later satirical exercises, loose environmental description, jostling characters around, class trappings, TS Eliot and PG Wodehouse’s past experience as bankers, growing up with a father who was a bank manager, and Hollinghurst’s novels increasingly moving further into the past.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: In the first section, we are informed that Cecil’s servant cleans his change. Later in the book, you have Paul Bryant, who I want to talk about quite a bit — he works in a bank and he washes the money smell off of his hands in the gent’s room. Then you give Cecil a very firm handshake. And then in the third part, you have Paul with his bandaged hand. So there are these interesting historical parallels, historical contrasts, that I detected. And I’m curious how many of these you calculated in the book.
Hollinghurst: Well, you’re a wonderfully observant reader, I must say. I hadn’t actually been struck by the fact of the bandaged hand and the firm handshake. Yes, a great deal has been made of Cecil’s hands being very large. He’s always climbing up mountains and rowing boats and things. And seducing people with them. I mean, one is always cleverer than one knows, of course.
Hollinghurst: (laughs) One’s unconscious is just happily seeding all sorts of little details of that kind, which I may not have actually calculated. It’s always very gratifying when they’re picked up by reviewers, if they were fully conscious. But truly they’re often not.
Correspondent: Well, I’m curious. The five part structure. To what extent was this motivated by knowing the characters in advance? Or did you just know the historical settings in advance?
Hollinghurst: Did I know when I started what the different periods were going to be?
Correspondent: Well, that, and also did, for example, considering the characters and how they would evolve determine when you set those particular parts?
Hollinghurst: Possibly, yes. I mean, the first and third sections in particular happened on the eve of very significant things for their lives. The first section is on the eve of the summer before the Great War. And the 1967 section happens just before the passing of the Sexual Offenses Bill in England, which decriminalized homosexuality or homosexual acts between two consenting adults in private.
Correspondent: And the course of your book is post-Wilde as well. So there you go.
Hollinghurst: Exactly. So those dates were both significant. Partly these gaps are a way of avoiding writing about things such as the Great War and so on. Which I knew I didn’t want to write about. And I know that what I always wanted to write about really was the more intimate lives of sometimes slightly strange people. Rather than large heavily researched panoramic sorts of things. You know, the Great War has been so wonderfully well written about by people who were in it and by people since. That’s just not the kind of writer I am, I think. But I like the idea of writing scenes that the reader would know what was overshadowed by historically imminent things.
Correspondent: But most importantly, it’s a very skillful way to avoid long years of research to these battles.
Hollinghurst: (laughs) Exactly.
Correspondent: I mean, most of these scenes — most of the settings are inside. And very often, we get these wonderful descriptions of architecture and the like. So I’m wondering if setting much of the novel indoors, in specific area, was a strategy to avoid perhaps this obsessiveness that would in fact go on to researching obscure details.
Hollinghurst: Yes. I think that may be right. There’s something defensively domestic about the whole scale of the book. I mean, it’s a large book in a way. It covers a long period. But I think it is domestic in scale.
Correspondent: This leads me to ask you about how often in your sentences a verb will transform something that is normal into something that becomes beautiful and intoxicating. One example. There’s one sentence where you have a servant pour soup into a bowl. And instead of saying “pour,” you use “swim.” And I became obsessed with this verb. How that one verb choice transforms the entire sentence. And it gives you this completely different look at an ordinary action. And this leads me to ask you. How much do you agonize over a verb choice? Like something like that.
Hollinghurst: I can’t remember that particular one. Well, I do write very, very slowly, as you probably realized. So I wouldn’t generally write more — you know, on a good day, two or three hundred words. It’s not quite agony. Because it’s actually very exciting and gratifying when it goes well. And as you say, when I surprise myself by a choice for a word. Which I think is probably an improvement on the obvious one.
Correspondent: Deliberation. Okay, so there’s this James Wood review in The New Yorker of your book. And I thought that it was a little on the silly side. Because he was going on about how you use the word “muddle” repeatedly. And I asked some friends, “Do you honestly are how often Hollinghurst uses muddle?” But this also leads me to ask you. I mean, when you have the entire book done, do you go through the entire manuscript hoping you don’t use the same word multiple times? Or is there a conscious choice to use a word like muddle? Or how much does this matter to you? I’m curious.
Hollinghurst: “Muddle” I was entirely conscious of. Yes. So it’s rather galling then to have it put back into something.
Correspondent: He had a list of all the sentences. I was like, “What?”
Hollinghurst: Yes. It was ridiculous. The schoolmaster like had a finger wagging. Yes, I think it’s very interesting. I think each stage — because I write things in longhand in the first place. And then I put onto them and print them out. And then they go into the proof. But at each stage, new things rise to the surface. And you’re aware of new patterns.
Correspondent: Such as what?
Hollinghurst: Recurrences of words. I mean, the first time I printed this out and it was read — I mean, I wasn’t aware of it. But a great friend of mine noted the word “chuckle.” “Frown” and “chuckle” appeared and alternated. Sometimes people frowning and chuckling even at the same time. So I had to go through. There’s a terrible paucity of laughter verbs in English. I mean, “chuckle” doesn’t really have an easy equivalent. And I think I perhaps replaced one or two of them with “giggle.” And then I had to do a “giggle” purge as well. I think there are things that one is not quite in control of. But “muddle” was a word I was very consciously using. Because in a way, it’s what the whole book is about. “Muddle” is also consciously Forsterian.
In this vivacious 35 minute radio interview, filmmaker Nick Broomfield discusses Sarah Palin: You Betcha, the amateurist aesthetic, moral paralysis, paying documentary subjects, Lily Tomlin, and conservative politicians with big hair.
Subjects Discussed: Being attracted to conservative politicians with big hair, Christopher Hitchens’s sexual fantasies about Margaret Thatcher, Frederick Wiseman and Errol Morris, contending with publicists and press agents, Joe McGinniss’s The Rogue, Levi Johnston and Tank Jones, filming Daryl Gates accepting an interview fee on camera, the ethics of paying interview subjects, Broomfield’s amateurist aesthetic, the faux professionalism of film crews, Broomfield filming himself on the phone, Broomfield’s tendency to gravitate towards ad hominem, whether the possibility of Sarah Palin becoming President is a serious question, John Bitney, Steve Schmidt, campaign management of Palin, Broomfield doing less documentaries, the Kickstarter campaign for Sarah Palin: You Betcha, flipping between documentaries and narratives, wearing red flannel in Wasilla, JC McCavitt, the influence of Palin and the evangelical right in Wasilla, whether or not Wasilla reflects America, whether Broomfield is motivated by vengeance or retaliation, the chewing gum photo montage, balancing the visual details and the facts, collaborating with Joan Churchill, why Broomfield put himself in front of the camera after Lily Tomlin, claims of Lily Tomlin’s insecurity, the difficulty of filming Tomlin, why the construction of a documentary creates a more inclusive one, the dangers of moral labels, why people should trust Nick Broomfield, moral paralysis, subjective truth borne from a personal quest, embarrassing public questioning, Broomfield’s view of restraint as a weakness, hedge funds, getting investors to sign on for a Broomfield movie, working with non-actors, and the ever-shifting Broomfield paradigm.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Going back to Margaret Thatcher [Tracking Down Maggie], it seems to me that you have an especial interest in conservative politicians with very interesting hair-dos. What’s up with this particular commonality? I sense also a formalistic commonality as well with the chase for Maggie and the chase for Sarah here. What of this?
Broomfield: Well, in fact, I never thought of the similarity of the hair-dos. But now that you’ve pointed it out, it’s quite extraordinary.
Correspondent: Are you a man who likes big hair? You’re a Clintonian man?
Broomfield: I’m actually not a particularly big hair man. But when I was doing the Margaret Thatcher film, one of the people I interviewed was Christopher Hitchens.
Broomfield: Who had a lot of almost sexual fantasies about Margaret Thatcher, which I hasten to add I never shared. But I noticed that a lot of people also have the same feelings about Sarah Palin.
Broomfield: And, again, I’ve never succumbed to those kinds of thoughts with her. But I think that both women captured the imagination of a large part of the population. Probably also because they were women and they had a determination and a charm that was unexpected and was refreshing in its own way.
Correspondent: Yeah. Not attracted to Sarah sexually. But I also think to Fetishes and also to Heidi Fleiss; Hollywood Madam.
Correspondent: It seems that there is also some sexual quality sometimes to some of your subjects. Especially women. Why do you think this is?
Broomfield: Well, I mean, I think as any full-blooded male once interested — I would apply it more to films like, yeah, Fetishes, Heidi Fleiss. I did a film, Chicken Ranch, in a legalized brothel in Nevada. Even someone like Aileen Wuornos was very interesting along those lines. Sexual lines. It’s funny. Just last week, I saw Fred Wiseman in Toronto. He’s just made a film. The Crazy Horse. A strip club. And before that, he did the ballet film. And I said, “Fred, do I get the sense of some kind of Fräulein in your work.” And he said, “I’d like to see what you’re doing when you’re 81 years old.”
Correspondent: Errol Morris’s Tabloid as well. While we’re on the subject.
Broomfield: Oh really?
Correspondent: Yeah, there you go.
Broomfield: What’s he just done?
Correspondent: He did Tabloid on the sex scandal. 1970s. So there we go.
Broomfield: There we go.
Correspondent: All you documentary filmmakers are turning into dirty old men.
Broomfield: Exactly. Exactly. Just give me a few more years and I’ll be completely there.
Correspondent: To get on a serious subject, since you had experienced difficulties in both Tracking Down Maggie and Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam when dealing with press agents and publicists, you had to know going into this one that you were probably not going to get a sitdown interview with Sarah Palin.
Broomfield: Well, I think that I always had the belief that I would get one probably. And it was only after we’d been there for about ten weeks — just before Christmas — that I really realized with that final phone call with Chuck Heath, the father, that I wasn’t going to get one. I don’t know that one would necessarily learn something devastatingly original with a sitdown interview with her. Because she’s done many interviews and nothing very revealing has come out. Generally, she’s revealing by omission. Which is: she doesn’t know something or she mispronounces a word or she is factually inaccurate or she gets things all confused. So she’s very revealing. Generally about lack of knowledge. She’s very unrevealing generally about herself and her upbringing and even her beliefs. I think she’s very guarded. For somebody who studied media at university, she is completely distrusting of the media and has more control probably over what she says and does than anybody. I mean, the only interview she does is with FOX Television, who she’s employed by. And obviously Facebook and Twitter. But I did think that as we were resident in Wasilla that maybe we would get a down moment with her that would at least be revealing of her — thank you (to barista) — of her family and her friends and the way she saw life around her or as part of the evangelical community. Which is really what Wasilla is.
Correspondent: Well, this is interesting because Joe McGinniss also has a book called The Rogue. And he managed to get more childhood friends to talk — anonymously in that book — and you had to go all the way to way to Alexandria to find someone who would talk with you. I’m curious…
Broomfield: Well, my sources were not talking anonymously. They were talking on camera. And I can back up all my various claims in the film. Whereas I think one of the problems in quoting undisclosed sources is that you cannot back up your claims. And you obviously can’t do that in a film.
Correspondent: I was curious. While we’re on the subject of interviews, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam has the famous moment where you’re showing Daryl Gates accept the cash.
Correspondent: In this, you have one moment where you’re talking to Levi Johnston’s manager, Tank Jones, and you’re negotiating trying to interview him for $500. And I’m curious about this. Is this kind of thing ethical? I mean, why would it be ethical? And I’m wondering, when you do in fact pay someone for an interview, do you feel an obligation to feature that on screen? Has this always been the case for you? Have you paid other people?
Broomfield: What I think was interesting is that people like Levi Johnston basically live off — I introduce that segment in the film, saying that there’s an industry that’s grown up around Sarah Palin and people live from that industry. So that was an illustration of Levi Johnston basically — I mean, I think they were asking $20,000. So I think my derisory offer of $500 was more of a joke than anything else. But I think it’s very relevant to point out that there is a great deal of money in tabloid journalism and that people are paid to make contributions. I mean, I didn’t pay anyone in this film. But there have been other films, which you quite rightly pointed out. Like, for example, the Heidi Fleiss film, everybody expected to be paid.
Correspondent: Everybody in Heidi Fleiss pretty much got paid? Ms. Sellers and the like?
Broomfield: They all expected to be paid. I don’t know if they all got paid. But yes. And I think I make a big point of that in the film. I comment on how much money various people wanted. Like DarylGates. I think he wanted $2,000. $1,500 to take part.
Correspondent: But when you introduce money into the equation, doesn’t this affect what you’re going to be getting from your documentary subjects?
Broomfield: Well, I’m making a film about what is. And we live in a world that’s very commercial and a world that has to do with money. And as a documentary filmmaker, you’re reporting on that world. So if everyone wants money in that world, you report on that fact. And of course, that makes a difference. Yes.
Correspondent: What about this amateurist aesthetic that is often in your films? I think of the tape running out in Biggie and Tupac.
Correspondent: And in this [Sarah Palin: You Betcha], your efforts to try and cross an iced lake or to try and negotiate ice in numerous ways. Or the hat trick in, of course, The Leader[, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife]. And all that.
Correspondent: There’s a certain…
Broomfield: You’ve certainly done your homework here.
Correspondent: Well, I’m curious about why this exists. Are these deliberate moves on your part to either win over your subjects or win over the audience with a more amateurist approach that’s calculated? Or are these just mess ups on your part?
Broomfield: Well, I would argue that there’s sort of a faux professional approach with a lot of film crews. You know, when they climb back in the car and drive on to the next location, I’m sure they’re a whole lot of fun. And they crack a whole lot of jokes that are not in the film. But when they get the cameras out, they get the clipboards out, and they became these serious professionals. Which I think is a load of bullshit. I think it’s much better to reveal what it’s really like to be doing that film or what you really think or what the humor is, you know? Rather than having this — you know. I remember when I was working for television. I was working with a presenter. And the presenter was actually a very funny guy. And I remember we were making a film in a monastery. And he would get into all these arguments with the monks about whether God existed or how many angels he could get on a pin and all those classic debates. And he would always lose the arguments. Because the monks and the abbot and so on, that’s all they did. And they studied all the books. And they were really up on their theology and logic. And when I showed the film to the TV company, they were horrified. Because they said a professional reporter does not lose his way. Does not stumble over words. Doesn’t turn to the camera and say, “I’m stuck.” But of course, they do. And I think by including those kinds of things, you make a much more accurate portrait than if you leave them out. I think there’s a sort of faux professionalism that we’re surrounded by that is completely inaccurate.
Correspondent: But doesn’t your persona, your schtick, sometimes get in the way of the very subjects that you’re photographing. I mean, every time you make a telephone call in your movies, you’re always in a car.
Correspondent: And I’m wondering why you feel the need to film that as well. It’s almost as if you’re counting on the subject to say no.
Broomfield: Well, what…wha…I mean, I don’t really understand the point. I don’t know whether you’re saying that the phone calls are irrelevant or the fact that I’m in a car is irrelevant.
Correspondent: I’m trying to point out that you’re really trying to show yourself more than anything else.
In this 30 minute radio interview, we talk with Arthur C. Clarke Award winner Lauren Beukes about Zoo City, whether or not she rolls on the ground when thinking about a fight scene, and being the “head writer” of your own novel.
Subjects Discussed: Jet lags and hangovers, cultural references, I Can Haz Cheeseburger, whether or not books should be of their time, American Psycho and Phil Collins, violence and cheeseball songs, hyper-specific description, William Gibson, the influence of writing for animation, the differences in writing journalism, comics, and screenplays, considering the right level of detail, action scenes vs. dialogue, Hanna, implausible action movie scenes, getting the geography of an apartment block, the ability to get journalistic answers from people when you say you’re a novelist, magic and fantasy rooted in practical limitations and innate talent, Red, a personal belief system as a peer review process, Johannesburg’s geography, Nechama Brodie’s The Joburg Book, conversations with traditional healers, worldbuilding and getting the reader to believe, major clues hidden within conversation, bad worldbuilding involving two guys sitting in a bar, writing as a road trip, having a planned ending in advance, alligators, reclusive music industry producers who are in decline, establishing Zinzi’s streetcred, arriving at the right balance between ambiguity and just enough information, unreliable narrators, Melinda Ferguson’s Smacked, cinematography and photography references within Zoo City and Moxyland, similes throughout Zoo City, Raymond Chandler, phantasmagorical noir, Oryx and Crake, the problems of reading fiction while writing fiction, South African criminal slang, steering away from transcribed speech, The Wire, relying on other writers for certain chapters of Zoo City, conducting interviews with fictional characters, the problems with theories contradicting fictional worlds, being the “head writer” of your own novel, The Third Man, Paul Bowles, visual references, and internalizing influence.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: Lauren, how are you doing?
Beukes: I’m very, very, very jetlagged. Thank you for asking.
Correspondent: Yes, well, I’m hungover as well. So I think it’s an equal playing field. I wanted to first of all start with the issue of cultural references. This book has quite a number of recent ones. “I can haz murder weapon.” I don’t think I’ve even seen “I can haz cheeseburger” in a novel ever. Lady Gaga: well that’s comparatively recent. The 419 scams. I’m curious. When you deploy a relatively recent cultural reference, you’re dealing with a two year lag time in terms of the book coming out. What do you do to make sure that it’s right? Or that it’s actually something that will possibly be tangible in a matter of years? Or do you have this virtue here, in this case, of a sideways universe, as it were? So that, as a result, whether a reference is dated or not, this is not so much a distinction or a problem.
Beukes: I never really worried about references dating the book. I think books are of their time and I think they should be. You know, when I was doing my masters in creative writing at the University of Cape Town, my lecturer said, “You absolutely should not put any contemporary references. Because it dates the book horribly.” You know, The Great Gatsby has dated horribly. American Psycho has dated horribly. And they still work. Because the story is compelling enough and it’s actually a really interesting snapshot of the time. So, you know what, I don’t care. I like to think that it dates it. The book is set in 2011 and those are the cultural references.
Correspondent: Interesting that you mention American Psycho. Because near the end, there’s a Phil Collins reference. So it leads me to wonder if that was a possible influence on getting that sort of juxtaposition of violence and cheeseball songs.
Beukes: Yeah. I don’t know if it was conscious. But it might have been something that I internalized. Yeah.
Correspondent: A two stroke gash across the face of a menacing street urchin. The Maltese’s car polished and waxed to within an inch of its warranty. This is hyperspecific, very measurement unit-like description. Which I like by the way. Reminiscent to some degree of William Gibson. However, at the same time, I know that you have also written for animation. And I’m curious if some of that animation writing background has affected your ability to describe things in this very ultra-precise matter. What of this?
Beukes: I think there are two influences on my writing. I’ve basically got three day jobs. I’ve been a journalist. I’ve been a TV scriptwriter. I’ve been a novelist. And now I’m doing comics as well. And all those different fields have very, very specific things to their discipline. The animation, you have to describe things very, very precisely. The same with comics. You have to absolutely describe the scene. You have to describe the emotion that the character is going through. Which means I sometimes pull funny faces in character, trying to figure out, “Oh, what does this sneerer actually look like? And how are they sneering?”
Correspondent: Do you take photographs of yourself?
Beukes: No, I don’t. That would just be silly. But I should set up a webcam and kind of do a live streaming thing where people can log in and laugh at me.
Correspondent: So you need to know the precise expression of what’s going down. And then you have the option to describe it in detail or not, whether for animation or for prose.
Beukes: Absolutely. But I think journalism also has a lot to do with it. The details of journalism. And I think details make a story. I mean, I’m lucky to do a lot of — not news journalism, but narrative journalism and investigative features in finding those telling details. So I think my eye for detail probably comes from there. And then also the specifics of having to write for animation and having to track things very, very clearly and stage manage very clearly for the animators.
Correspondent: Well, I mean, how much of this is an organic process? And how much of it is considering the right level of detail to communicate the right information to the reader?
Beukes: I think it’s pretty organic. I don’t think about it too much. Dialogue comes very easy. Actions scenes are really hard — they don’t come naturally to me. I really have to work on them.
Correspondent: Why are action scenes tougher than dialogue?
Beukes: I don’t know. I think because I really like talking. You know, I’m a talker, not a fighter. I think dialogue is so much a part of who we are. And I really like using the subtext in dialogue. And of course, that’s very, very strong in animation. I think it’s also I’m not a really big action movie fan. And action has a lot to do with movement. I really enjoyed Hanna recently. I thought the way they did the action in there was just intense and amazing and surprising. And you really felt it. So many action scenes — you know, the truck falls off the bridge and there are multiple explosions. And they’re just empty. So it’s really trying to write meaningful action.
Correspondent: Is fighting similar to gestures and facial expressions for you? Do you have to like roll on the ground to get a sense of how things are working out here?
Correspondent: Do you have a sparring partner?
Beukes: (laughs) No, no. I wish. I did a little bit of kickboxing, but that was years ago.
Beukes: I do sometimes act certain stuff up, but not fight scenes. But I will really think about the choreography. And I’ll spend a lot of time thinking about it.
Subjects Discussed: What is considered morally permissible in war, mustard gas, deadly military technology, Ray Bradbury’s “The Flying Machine,” the women’s suffrage movement and World War I, Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union, splits within the Pankhurst Family, Women’s Dreadnaught, James Keir Hardie’s antiwar speeches, attempts to get socialists to agree, the duties of history to remember the losers, parallels between World War I and current wars, Osama bin Laden’s death, Wikileaks and the Czarist Archives, Margaret and Stephen Hobhouse, conscientious objectors, I Appeal Unto Caesar, Edmund Dene Morel’s hard labor sentence, the tendency of wealthy families and connections to carry more weight, Bertrand Russell, jingoistic writers during World War I, John Buchan’s imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, PG Wodehouse’s The Swoop!, the political stances of writers, contributions of famous writers to British propaganda, The 39 Steps, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and Germany spy conspiracies, responding William Anthony Hays criticism about “stack[ing] the deck by presenting such particularly unappealing characters as foils to the pacifists and liberals he seeks to praise,” attempting to find positive qualities about Douglas Haig (World War I’s worst general), Winston Churchill, Sir John French’s likable qualities, Haig vs. General Eisenhower, the Lansdowne Letter, attempts to understand why the World War I peace movement failed to catch on, relativistic courage, untrained pilots going up against the Red Baron, and the dangers of speaking out what you believe in.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: It’s an unsuccessful story. Should history really be in the business of remembering the losers?
Hochschild: Well, first of all, for me, as a writer, it was a challenge to see if I could write a narratively interesting and emotionally meaningful story about a movement that failed. My last book was about the anti-slavery movement in the British Empire. That was a successful movement. Slavery did come to an end. These people failed to stop the First World War. But I still find them very, very much writing about. Because it takes a special kind of courage and nobility to go against patriotic madness that’s in the air. And very often, a movement like this, it doesn’t succeed the first time. We still haven’t stopped war today. We’re caught up in at least two unnecessary wars, in my view, in the United States right now. I would like to see people who opposed those wars take some inspiration from these earlier folks. Even though they failed.
Correspondent: On the other hand, I wanted to bring up your recent TomDispatch article, in which you draw parallels between our present times and World War I. I’m wondering if it’s an appropriate parallel simply because in World War I, there was considerably more death. Presently, you say, “Well, why aren’t we protesting the war?” Well, we did in 2003. It was the biggest protest in America against the conflict in Iraq.
Correspondent: So I’m wondering if really the parallels should line up or whether we should consider the full scope of any kind of war when considering it. Is there a danger here of parallel relativism? Or what? Maybe you can expand upon this.
Hochschild: Well, I don’t think the parallels to anything are ever exact or anywhere near exact when there’s nearly 100 years in between. But I guess some of the parallels I saw between the First World War and those that we’re in today are several. First, look at how the First World War started. Austria-Hungary was eager to make war on little Serbia next door. They felt the existence of Serbia was a threat. Because there were a lot of restless Serbs within the border of the old Austria-Hungarian Empire. They had actually drawn up invasion plans to invade Serbia and dismember it. Then Archduke Franz Ferdinand gets assassinated by an ethnic Serb, but an Austo-Hungarian citizen. And there’s no evidence that the top officials of Serbia’s government even knew about the assassination plot. But they immediately used this as an excuse to make war on Serbia. I see some resemblance between that and Bush using the September 11th attacks to make war in Iraq, which had nothing to do with those attacks. So when countries are hungering to go to war for one reason or another, they can easily use something as an excuse. That’s one similarity. I think another is that most of the time when a country starts war, they expect it to be over very quickly and easily. Kaiser Wilhelm II, when he sent his troops off to France in 1914, said, “You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” And the Germans had this masterplan that they’d worked on for years that very systematically and with great exactitude showed how they were going to subdue France, conquer Paris, and force the French surrender in exactly 42 days. Of course, it didn’t happen that way. But countries always expect it to happen that way. Like when Bush landed on the aircraft carrier in 2003 in front of that big sign MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.
Hochschild: Well, I’m still not sure what the mission was in Iraq. But whatever it was, it hasn’t been accomplished.
Correspondent: Well, we just recently had another MISSION ACCOMPLISHED allegedly with Osama bin Laden.
Correspondent: And I’m sure you saw some of the New York Post headlines here. They were really, really grisly. On the other hand, I should point out that there is a fundamental difference between al Qaeda, which is networked all around the world, versus the German nation, which is starving, which is machine gunning the soldiers. And the soldiers on the other side are machine gunning them. And there’s this trench warfare and all that. There’s even a sense of gentlemanly accord in World War I that one doesn’t see in the present conflict. Especially when you also factor in communications. I mean, there’s nothing even close, parallel-wise, to Wikileaks, for example, that you could have in World War I. That’s why I’m unclear as to the parallels. Are the parallels more in the way that governments inform the people and governments persuade the people to become involve in a conflict? Or what?
Hochschild: Well, as I say, the parallels from a hundred years are never completely exact. But there was a sort of Wikileaks episode in World War I, which was this. In 1917, there came the two Russian Revolutions: the February Revolution, when they overthrew the czar, and the October Revolution, when the Bolsheviks seized power in a coup. At that point, the Bolsheviks got into the Czarist Archives and they made public all the secret treaties that Russia, France, and the agreements between Russia, France, and Italy had. That showed how the Allies were planning to divide up the possessions of Germany and its allies once the war was over. And it had tremendous reverberations. In the same way that the Wikileaks material did in recent months. Because it showed that even though the Allies liked the Germans — they were saying they were fighting to defend civilization itself — nonetheless, they’d actually drawn lines on the map as to how they were going to divide up spheres of influence in the Middle East, for example.
Correspondent: Okay. I wanted to shift back to conscientious objectors. The case of Margaret Hobhouse. She’s a well-to-do woman. Her son Stephen is imprisoned as a conscientious objector. This suggests to some degree — this whole incident where she writes a book that is, of course, ghostwritten by Bertrand Russell, I Appeal Unto Caesar — that it takes the rich or the privileged in order to shift things. Because she manages to persuade 26 bishops and 200 other clergyman to sign a statement arguing for more lenient treatment of COs. Similarly, in 1916, some COs are sent to France. They’re fed bread and water. They’re forced to the front line. The No Conscription Fellowship is on the case trying to seek them out. But, of course, because they don’t have this Hobhousian connection, it’s a great difficulty to track these folks down. At the beginning of 1918, there were still more than 1,000 COs behind bars. You have Basil Thomson noticing that pacifism was on the rise. Now this comes after I Appeal Unto Caesar was published. Why was there such a delay between 1916 and 1918 in drawing attention to these maltreated COs? Does it take a book? Does it take a privileged person speaking on behalf of COs to ensure humane treatment for all classes? What of this?
Hochschild: Well, obviously, at all times and places, I think that when the people from wealthy families and so on speak out loudly on behalf of something, their voices carry much more loudly. That’s unfortunately the way the world works. One thing that was interesting to me about the war resisters in Britain was that they came from across the class spectrum. You had people in jail like Stephen Hobhouse, who you mentioned, who was from this very ancient wealthy family filled with connections to lords and bishops and so on. And a very close friend of the family was in the Cabinet — Alfred Milner, who was minister without portfolio on charge of coordinating the war effort. At the same time, there were labor unionists in jail, who didn’t have those powerful connections. And these folks all felt a real sense of solidarity with each other across those class lines.
Correspondent: But was the book really the linchpin? I mean, I don’t want to draw any false correlations here, but I’m curious how this connection to Basil Thomson saying, “Oh, pacifism is on the rise.” Is that more the increased awareness of COs? Or is that more people in grief? Because bodies are coming back. Or they’re not coming back. And they’re getting messages that their loved ones are dead.
Hochschild: Well, actually, the book you mentioned by Margaret Hobhouse, because it was allegedly written by Margaret Hobhouse, who was the wife of a prominent churchman and a big landowner and everything, it had considerable effect. Although in fact Bertrand Russell secretly co-authored it. The book helped bring about the release of several hundred conscientious objectors who were in poor health in one way or another. But that’s about all it did. The government still kept locking up conscientious objectors who refused to do alternative service. It still cracked down with increasing harshness on people who spoke out against the war. Bertrand Russell, despite being himself being the son of an earl; he later inherited the earldom from his brother, was sent to jail for six months in 1918. Edmund Dene Morel, really the country’s leading investigative journalist, spent six months in jail for his antiwar writings. Served hard labor. And it broke his health and he died a few years later.
In this lively 45 minute radio interview, Jennifer Weiner discusses her latest book, Fly Away Home, the new Wonder Woman costume, and the problems with insular New York literary culture — among many other topics.
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.
Correspondent: We’re talking about neglected children.
Correspondent: And during those sections in both of these last two books, it gets really, really serious.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Weiner: I like him. I don’t like Jonathan Franzen.
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?
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.]
Correspondent: Yes. Exactly.
Weiner: Weird guy. About birding.
Correspondent: Yeah, I know. But actually, since we’re talking about the literary world…
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.
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.
Subjects Discussed: WINZ switching to Air America because of Fahrenheit 9/11‘s success, Jesse Jackson and Keep Hope Alive, profitability vs. integrity, Clear Channel’s Republican viewpoint, conservative talk radio and profitability, Rush Limbaugh, Clear Channel executives as better money managers, the Mays family approaching radio from a profit standpoint, the apolitical realities of financial mismanagement, voice tracking as a cost-cutting measure, the public radio bailout, pre-scripted radio conversation and the lack of spontaneity, Clear Channel’s Walmart approach to radio, the decline in radio advertising courtesy of the economic downturn, Clear Channel selling off stations in 2008 to survive, the self-correcting market impulse, how radio caused a San Francisco Franz Ferdinand concert with only a few hundred people showed up, Girl Talk and the Internet as an alternative marketing device, the few slots on radio playlists, Gnarls Barkley and Internet-based rock stars, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, and the “pay what you what” mentality, satellite radio, the online advantages of local radio, payola, record labels paying radio stations, free market opportunities opened up by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Howard Stern on David Letterman, Clear Channel buying Inside Radio and thus buying criticism, the FCC, and the future of radio.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about the subject of payola, which comes up multiple times in this book. Eliot Spitzer is, of course, unfortunately now out of the game. But he did do some good things, such as investigating the relationship between the promoters and the radio conglomerates. One of the most condemning documents revealing Clear Channel’s “pay for play” policy was when an email from Sony’s Epic label basically asked, “What do I have to do to get Audioslave on WKSS this week? Whatever you can dream up, I can make it happen.” Now there was extraordinary payola in all these instances. Sometimes as much as $400,000. But if you are a promoter, you are always going to have to deal with payola on some level. Whether it’s a fruit basket. Whether it’s a free CD. I mean, what is the maximum level of what we might call payola? Inarguably, I bought you this coffee that you’re enjoying right now. So are you perhaps — is this payola? I don’t know.
Foege: Well, it’s good that you just disclosed it.
Foege: That’s a step in the right direction. And I guess I didn’t explicitly state that I wouldn’t talk with you if you didn’t buy me a cup of coffee. And I did offer to pay for the cup of coffee as well. You know, the funny thing about payola is that it’s existed since the beginning of radio. I mean, radio has traditionally been a pretty dirty business. It was before Clear Channel existed. It continues to be. A lot of people in the business that I spoke to said payola always exists in some form. Every once in a while, it emerges into the public sphere. And somebody like Eliot Spitzer comes along and tries to have some effect on it. But for whatever reason, people trend back to their bad habits again. And the corruption begins again. The interesting thing about payola is that I think, particularly in the modern era, it’s had a very insidious effect on radio. Because one could argue that it’s not good for radio stations and radio companies. Sure, there are payments involved. But as Clear Channel was wont to argue, when it was sort of caught up in all this, even with the large sums that you mentioned, if you look at the total revenue that Clear Channel now brings in, those are hardly numbers that would matter to them overall.
But the insidiousness comes in the fact that, first of all, ostensibly radio stations are attracting listeners with songs and music that they want to hear. Of course, payola tips that scale and simply has people at record labels paying to get particular artists and songs on the air, whether people want to hear them or not. Or whether there’s any criteria other than the payment to get them on. So arguably, you could say that radio stations can lose listeners if they’re embroiled in payola. And it’s just crappy music that nobody likes. Which certainly has come up in the past.
The other thing is, obviously, payola hurts artists. And in combination with all the other tactics that Clear Channel employed, as it got larger, to cut costs and to streamline their overall operation, payola was yet another part of the equation that essentially cut out most emerging artists. Because how could they compete against songs that were simply on the air because people were getting paid off.
The only interesting thing about this is that payola is a very difficult crime to explain to the average person. Because, of course, some variations on what payola is exist in different kinds of venues. A classic example is when you walk into a supermarket, and you see a big pile of Rice Krispies up at the front of the row.
Correspondent: Yeah. Co-op.
Foege: Few people realize that Kellogg’s paid to have that stack put there. And that also happens to not be illegal. The reason that it’s illegal when it comes to radio is because radio, through the FCC, has a federal mandate. The airwaves are owned by the public. So this is a corruption of the public’s airwaves when these payments are made. And so that’s where the crime is involved. Because there’s an acknowledgment there that mass media, because of its power and influence, is different from boxes of Rice Krispies at the supermarket.
Sweet Jesus. For goodness’s sake, program directors, why do you continue to syndicate idiots like Bob Grant when there are some of us out here who actually conduct more than a modicum of research before spouting off in front of a mike?
Kurt Andersen has offered the uncut version of his conversation with Harlan Ellison. But what is particularly astonishing is just how much of an ignoramus Andersen comes across as. He constantly interrupts Ellison. At around the 26:30 mark, Andersen cannot get Dreams with Sharp Teeth director Erik Nelson’s name right and must utter the intro again. An embarrassing suggestion that Ellison wrote “Paladin of the Lost Hour” for the original Twilight Zone is there. In short, Studio 360 is a program that is made almost entirely in the editing room and certainly not from the conversation itself. And if this uncut interview serves as a representative rough version of what the editors have to play with, then I wonder just how much Andersen is relying on his editors to salvage the show and make it sound “professional.”
For the record, while there is some editing on The Bat Segundo Show (mostly to boost levels, remove coughs and popped plosives, make people sound a bit sexier, and the like), what you hear on these shows is 98% of the conversation. If I make a referential mistake, I leave it in. If there’s a strange tangent, I leave it in. If a guest and I get kicked out or something strange happens because of a third party, I leave it in. But I compensate for these fallacies by actually knowing the material: reading the book in full, wading through other interviews to ensure that I don’t ask the same questions, making sure I pronounce the author’s name, the book’s title, and the book’s characters correctly (although there have been a few minor slip-ups; nobody’s perfect). I’m determined to get as much of this right in my conversation because it means less editing time for me. And I only have so much time to commit. Perhaps this “one take” sensibility comes from my theatrical background. But apparently Andersen (or his writers) cannot do this.
Just think of all the man-hours that have been expended towards correct Andersen’s mistakes. Consider the labor costs that might have been avoided had Andersen actually bothered to pay attention to his goddam subject.
But what do I know? I’m just some hapless podcaster.
(Incidentally, at the 30 minute mark, it’s also quite funny to hear Harlan Ellison skewer Andersen’s stereotypical remarks about Los Angeles.)