Merritt Tierce (The Bat Segundo Show #551)

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

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

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

Author: Merritt Tierce

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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

mildredpiercewaitressCorrespondent: Oh, the Todd Haynes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tierce: Right.

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: Well, instinctively, how did it come?

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

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

Tierce: Right. Exactly.

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: Such as what exactly?

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

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

Tierce: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gabriel Roth (The Bat Segundo Show #508)

Gabriel Roth is most recently the author of The Unknowns.

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Author: Gabriel Roth

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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

Correspondent: Yes.

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

Correspondent: I was there for thirteen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roth: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Roth: I probably did.

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

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

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

Roth: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Elliott Holt (The Bat Segundo Show #500)

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

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Author: Elliott Holt

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

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

Holt: How did you find that out?

Correspondent: Oh, I have my ways.

Holt: Oh god.

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

Holt: I did.

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

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

Correspondent: Oh!

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

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

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

Correspondent: Were any of your plays performed?

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

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

Holt: You mean when I’m writing?

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

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

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

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

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

Holt: Okay.

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

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

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

Holt: Dissembles.

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

Holt: No.

Correspondent: No? Not at all?

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

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

Holt: No.

Correspondent: It’s Jimmy Cagney!

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

Correspondent: Oh my god.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Conversation with Jack Butler (Bat Segundo Special)

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

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Author: Jack Butler

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

jujitsuchrist

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Laura Lippman (The Bat Segundo Show)

Laura Lippman is most recently the author of And When She Was Good. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #280.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why some firm is checking his references.

Author: Laura Lippman

Subjects Discussed: Chekhov’s rule, Donald E. Westlake, creating a specific type of prostitution ring for a novel, how deadly paper shredders have been used in narrative, The Temp, being a failed perfectionist, the impossibility of writing a perfect novel, Ian McEwan’s problematic recent novels, The Most Dangerous Thing, taking greater care with sentences, sentences which convey detail, the alternating chapter structure in And When She Was Good, technique as a role model, talk show radio bumpers as an unexpected inspiration, Howard Stern, creating nontextual outlines, the benefits of very long pieces of paper, missing pieces in early drafts, how the past informs the present and the present informs the past, motherhood as an essential character quality, the problems that arise when one’s life is revealed, pregnancy as the opportunity for the great do-over, “If you have to stop to consider the lie, the opportunity has passed,” defining characters by lies and opportunity, swear jars, being a borderline atheist, rabbis and religious education, sitting in a wine bar during happy hour, affording the luxury of friendship, American touchstones throughout And When She Was Good, amateur Civil War enthusiasts, whether Heloise is defined by the American fabric, people who were interested in military history, adultery in a McDonald’s drive-thru, the desecration of marriage, looking to other businesses for inspiration for Heloise’s prostitution ring, parallels between matchmaking service, prostitution rings and lobbying, business acumen vs. relationship acumen, Baltimore laundry services that refused to take new customers, checking references for prostitution, the bizarre qualities of high-end consumer goods, rappers and Burberry raincoats, myths and truths concerning the 1%, Romney-Ryan, voting for a presidential candidate against your own interests, having a comfortable living, the Princeton study citing $75,000 as the magical income for happiness, Lippman’s early career as a reporter, working part-time in an Italian restaurant, diabolical marshmallow mixes in fiction and and in life, how the rich experience time differently, time vs. money, whether time is the great equalizer, sex workers and workers’ compensation, the Australian civil servant who earned workers’ comp for an accident while having sex, the increasing American tendency to waive jury trial and class action suits, the pros and cons of legalizing prostitution, brothel tourism in Spain, being guided by belief, personal blind spots, foolish beliefs and autodidacticism, reading a list of books, the arrogance of self-made people, Tom Clancy’s ego, the hubris of plaintiff’s attorneys, actors who carry around Faulkner books to prove that they have something else going on, juxtaposing the American dream against violence, how a little bit of information can turn an accountant into a creep, confronting the place where you grow up, and being unmoored from domestic conversations.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Chekhov has this famous rule — or so I have heard — that if you introduce a gun, it should go off near the end of the actual story. And in your book, we have a very intriguing paper shredder contraption that is installed beneath a false bottom in a file cabinet. This leads me to ask you. When you came up with this idea, did you have Chekhov’s rule in mind? But it also leads me to ask you: because when we talked before, you told me that you read the entirety of your manuscript aloud before you submitted it. So how does this fastidiousness and Chekhov’s law apply to an element like the paper shredder? When you have a book such as this one, where you’re exploring character in depth, I’m wondering if there’s a little bit more liberalism in mind when it comes to this extremely tight, one might say perfectionism that has entered into your writing process. So just to start off here, what are your thoughts on these multifarious matters?

Lippman: I’m glad you mentioned Chekhov. Because I actually did have that in mind. Just yesterday, I talked with my sister, who is a bookseller and a very careful, methodical reader. She doesn’t read quickly. So she does read carefully. And she said, “You know at the time I wondered why there was so much detail. But if you’d never come back to it, I never would have thought about it. But when you came back to it, and when I realized why all that detail had been lavished on the furnishings of her office in the particular design of these paper shredders and cabinets.” She said, “I wondered if that was an homage to Chekhov.” And I said, “Yes! Thank you.” Because at the time, she was the first person who had noticed that. When I came up with that, I mentioned it to my husband, who’s a writer, and he said, “I don’t know. It sounds a little James Bond to me.”

Correspondent: Really?

Lippman: I said, “No, no, it’s very pragmatic. I’ve really thought a lot about this.” I mean, I’ve said this before. I mentioned it in the book afterwards. One of my heroes was Donald Westlake. And he maintained that if you were very thoughtful about your characters and your situations, you would make it credible — even to people who knew a lot about certain things — if you were true to your characters. If you just sat in your chair and thought hard. Such an old-fashioned idea in writing fiction these days. And so in everything about this book, I sat in my chair and I thought hard. It’s funny to me that, now that the book is out in the world, there’s an emphasis on “Well, Laura Lippman used to be a reporter. So she really knows a lot about the world of sex workers.” I did do research. I did learn some things. I’m by no means an expert on prostitution. I am an expert on the rather peculiar form of prostitution that I created for this book. I sat in my chair. I thought hard about what kind of business this character would create. And that led me to her paper shredders. Even to the detail that they are built by a Polish man who never smiles, but she thinks she sees a wisp of one when he understands the design that she has handed him.

Correspondent: And you point to the fact that there’s a relentless power supply. I think the fact is that you go to such degrees to describe the details of this paper shredder that one becomes willing to accept it, although actually I thought it was a bizarre yet cool idea. Because I had never seen that. Did you encounter any homegrown paper shredder setup like this at all? Ever? Did you ask around?

Lippman: No, but if you have a paper shredder and you read the warnings — especially because a small child had come into my life — I thought a lot about someone’s hand being inserted. Not to give too much away, but I don’t think people would be surprised. It’s not the what of it, but the who of it.

Correspondent: The Temp had a very good paper shredding scene.

Lippman: (laughs)

Correspondent: There’s that cheeseball movie, The Temp, from the 90s. You remember this? There’s an infamous paper shredder….”Auggghhhh!!!!”

Lippman: I didn’t realize that. But they warn you about your tie.

Correspondent: Yes. Exactly.

Lippman: And the average one that most people of us have in our home offices would probably be quite painful but not do real damage. And the idea — it does make sense that she would want a way to, with a turn of the key, be able to wipe out the paper files that she’s been obligated to keep. Just as, now I won’t remember because I do have a poor memory, but I was reading a crime novel recently. And someone said, “Now I’m not going to let you touch the computer. Because I know that there’s a way to wipe out a computer with a few commands. And the computer has now been seized as evidence.” This is a book that’s very much about the hubris of control, of believing one’s self to be in control, of thinking that one can anticipate every single contingency. So it’s very hard for me to think of myself as a perfectionist. Because alongside the other members of my family, alongside my own husband, I am a failed perfectionist. I’m much looser than everyone else I know and consider myself to be quite a mess.

Correspondent: Perfectionism, however, can come from a more relaxed, legato mode, I would argue. I have talked to numerous writers who are extremely concerned about their sentences, but not nearly as concerned about plot. And people have differing levels of what they bring to the table. I think, all writers do. So is this really something to define yourself by as a writer? Is this really something that we should define this novel by?

Lippman: I would actually encourage most writers to abandon perfectionism. It’s obviously impossible. And I think it was Stephen King who said once that the reason you write another novel is because you can’t write a perfect novel. And so the paradox of perfectionism is that, if you’ve achieved your goal, then you would stop being a writer. You have to stop if you could, in fact, produce a perfect novel. And there are some writers in the world who it almost seems as if that happened to them. You see writers who didn’t write again after producing beloved and almost perfect works.

Correspondent: Or who are burdened by the prospect of writing a perfect novel every time. I mean, I’ll name a name so you don’t have to. Ian McEwan. I feel that this has happened to his work. And it’s been disheartening to watch him try to write perfect novels and, because of that, have his voice compromised by these very hyperstylized sentences that get in the way of the life that he has previously been so good at.

Lippman: I mean, I wish I could credit it, because I don’t remember who said it, but it was something I heard at the Theakstons Old Peculier Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. Which is that the book you write is a reaction to the last book you wrote. And so I think coming off a book like The Most Dangerous Thing, which had ten or eleven points of view depending upon how one wants to count it and was deliberately a very slow book — what I had said to myself is “I want to write a fast book. I want to write a pageturner. I want it to be highly entertaining.” And I availed myself of some larger-than-life details and some larger-than-life characters. And I really wanted to have fun. Although then as I got into this book, I could make it fast. I could achieve the pace that I was after. I found that I really could make Heloise’s world fun. And it was my husband who gave me advice, which he almost never does by the way. That’s really rare. And at one point, he said, as I was getting launched into the novel, “Don’t make her benign. Her world’s not benign.” You know, the fact that the women who work for her get health insurance doesn’t erase everything else about prostitution. And it’s not a business that one can be in and thrive in with clean hands. And I thought that was pretty good advice.

(Photo: Annie Chernow)

The Bat Segundo Show #478: Laura Lippman II (Download MP3)

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Brian Francis Slattery II (The Bat Segundo Show)

Brian Francis Slattery appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #466. He is most recently the author of Lost Everything and previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #142.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hammering in the morning, the evening, and the afternoon.

Author: Brian Francis Slattery

Subjects Discussed: Radio programs which force authors to starve for an hour, the glut of dystopian novels after 2008, taking criticisms to heart, distinguishing many forms of sarcasm and irony, a segue with two friendly gentlemen with hammers, the bleakness within Lost Everything, the seriousness of a major economic collapse, hope in the “Who knows?” area of bleakness, the possibility of restoration in Liberation vs. the unknown storm (The Big One) in Lost Everything, “squanch” as a word, Lost Everything‘s wandering narrator, using up a quota of semicolons, starting a sentence with a verb, faith and spirituality, agnosticism, the philosophical value of Christopher Reeve quotes, agnostics who dodge questions of faith, Nicholas Wolterstorff, the pacifistic and apolitical nature of taking Christianity seriously, the balance between forgiveness and righteousness, moral codes that are mishmashes of philosophy and religion, discussing issues in both religious and secular terms, the physical limitations within the Carthage, not providing the answers to the reader, deliberate ambiguities, super-omniscient narrators, narrators who match character predicaments, resisting the word “fun” when investigating nightmarish human predicaments, Russian roulette, violence and bleak humor as a defense mechanism, working at a social science research foundation, the choice between laughing and becoming serious when presented with genocide, how much a human life is worth, Guatemala vs. the Ukraine, life being cheaper in certain parts of the world, superfluous playground warnings, judgement of other parents over trifling details, sugar as a disruptive force, being reprimanded for saying “fuck” joyfully in a Park Slope restaurant, reading bleak books, finding the value in everyone, engaging in reckless behavior, when the removal of safeguards creates unanticipated possibilities, writing about a world devoid of electricity, 19th century human existence, how people live without electricity now, Darwin’s Nightmare, Hubert Sauper’s Kisangani Diary, Rwandan refugees who have nothing when coming across as a sanctuary, a maturing point in Slattery’s career, guilt, taking things seriously, a writer’s commitment to human existence, form following function, George Clinton and Bob Dylan as inspirational forces for (respectively) Spaceman Blues and Liberation, basing a narrative voice on the way people talk, Dock Boggs, Skip James, and 1920s music, expressing resistance through music, musicians authorized to marry people and given authority by the author, free spirited life in the face of chaos, music grounded in social reality, partying when everybody is freaked out, the house, river, and highway structure in Lost Everything, Life on the Mississippi, Kerouac, finding the specific region in America for Lost Everything, comparisons between Lost Everything and Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, modeling novels from The Odyssey, the Susquehanna River being underutilized in American fiction, Slattery navigating the Susquehanna River in a canoe, William T. Vollmann, “Sunny Jim” Rolph, Captain Mendoza and Lydia Mendoza, character names, eels coming out of mattress, and making sure the constant degradation wasn’t repetitive.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Slattery: Thanks for letting me eat and drink while I’m talking with you.

Correspondent: Yes.

Slattery: Which I’ll be doing.

Correspondent: It’s one of the very rare programs that allows authors to drink and eat.

Slattery: It is.

Correspondent: Most programs allow authors to starve for an hour. Anyway, we don’t do that here. Well, first of all, how are you doing? I didn’t quite get that question answered. You’re doing okay?

Slattery: How am I doing? Oh, I’m great. I’m good.

Correspondent: Alright. Well then, let’s get right down to business. For some inexplicable reason, and I have no idea why — maybe you might have a few ideas — but since roughly around 2008 — again, I have no idea why — there’s been a great rush of dystopic novels. Dystopian novels. Doom and gloom. And here we have number three from you, sir. So just to start off here, I’m wondering, when you started writing Lost Everything, were you aware of what might be called a glut or what might be called an overpopulated filed of dystopian novels? Did you care about such an output that was going on simultaneously as you were working on a book?

Slattery: I guess I should say that I was mildly aware, but not that aware. It’s not something I pay that much attention to, I guess. Even in stuff that I read, I read a ton of nonfiction. So I’m sort of vaguely aware of trends in fiction. But they have to be pretty big for me to be aware of them, I’m afraid. But yeah, it’s not something that I think about that much. The idea of chasing a trend or worrying about a trend, you just have to sort of — at least for me, I just worry about whether I can write a good book or not, and I see where it turns out. And in the case of the third one, it was like, from the first to the third one, one grew pretty naturally out of the other. There were questions that I liked in the first one that I never got around to that I did some of in the second one. And then there was still some left over. So there’s another book. Quite a bit.

Correspondent: Such as what? What specific questions are we talking about here?

Slattery: Gosh, let me think. I think that from the second to the third one, probably the best thing was — you know, the reception to it was really great. It was really very gratifying. One of the things that I ended up taking to heart though was that there were people who were being too flippant.

Correspondent: Really?

Slattery: And I thought, “That’s fair.”

Correspondent: You took that to heart?

Slattery: I did.

Correspondent: Does this explain why this one is really very bleak at times?

Slattery: It is.

Correspondent: It’s not to say that it’s devoid of humor. Because you do have the music.

Slattery: No, no. It is. It’s quite a bit darker. And for a while, I got halfway through it and I thought, “God, this book is really dark.” And then I thought, “Well, at least I should finish it.” And then I finished it and I thought, “No, it’s still really dark.” And there’s a part of me that — because, you know, I’m not really that serious of a person. And I was really kind of surprised that I’d written such a serious book. But it also seemed like — you know, there’s a point where, for the first two books, I think that there was a really conscious endeavor to make sure that the stakes weren’t so high that you couldn’t joke about it. And then eventually the stakes are high enough that it seemed kind of creepy to joke about it. It was like, you know, nobody would be joking in this kind of situation. Nobody would be just kind of horsing around. There’s no place for it anymore. And so I tried to find the humor where I could get it. But it felt increasingly forced to go for it. And it also seemed like kind of a fair trade. I felt like I was trading sarcastic for creepy. And I’m sort of okay with that.

Correspondent: You are. Well, what do you define as sarcasm? Having joy and having fun against an especially bleak or depressing environment, to my mind, isn’t sarcasm. And I don’t think it has been sarcasm in either Liberation or Spaceman Blues. I think it was a sense of irony. So how do you distinguish between irony and sarcasm here? And I’m really curious about the fact that you decided to…

Slattery: That’s a fun question to ask me, actually. Because I consider myself to be a pretty sarcastic person, but also kind of anti-irony. If that makes sense. And I think that what it comes down to is that I don’t — the way that I — I mean, this is obviously the pop culture version of irony. It’s not the lit crit version of it. But, you know, the pop culture version of it is that at the end, the joke is everybody not really sure what the person’s intentions are. Like the person has done a lot to hide what they actually think. And I don’t try to do that. So like…

[Food arrives.]

Slattery: No, this looks great.

Correspondent: Did you want to pause? So you can actually eat that.

Slattery: No, no, no.

Correspondent: Okay.

Slattery: So it would be like — I try to joke around and I try to be kind of honest about it. If that makes sense. And to not be really ambiguous about what it is that I’m trying to say.

Correspondent: Okay. Well, in terms of distinguishing between lit crit irony and pop culture…

Gentleman with Hammer: Sorry. Are you recording?

Correspondent: Yes.

Gentleman with Hammer: Because I’m going to use the hammer for a few. Do you have a long time?

Correspondent: Probably thirty or forty minutes or something like that?

Gentleman with Hammer: Okay. Do you mind? Just for five minutes. I will tell you.

Correspondent: Okay, why don’t we…?

Slattery: We’ll stop.

Correspondent: We’ll stop. Five minutes.

* * *

Correspondent: Okay. So back in action here. So we were talking about irony and sarcasm and humor and the differences between pop culture irony and lit crit irony. And then two gentlemen decided to start construction on us. And they stopped thankfully.

Slattery: Yes.

Correspondent: They were very nice.

Slattery: And it looks really good.

Correspondent: Yes, it does really look good. So we were trying to peg what you view your humor to be.

Slattery: Right.

Correspondent: And I insisted that it was working in some quasi-ironic mode.

Slattery: (laughs) That’s nice of you.

Correspondent: A sincere irony, I suppose. Or I suppose the joys of contradiction. And you were saying, “No, no, no, Ed, actually….”

Slattery: No, no, no. We’re probably talking about the same thing.

Correspondent: Yeah. We’re probably talking about the same thing.

(Image: Houari B.)

The Bat Segundo Show #466: Brian Francis Slattery II (Download MP3)

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Sarah Polley (The Bat Segundo Show)

Sarah Polley appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #464. She is most recently the writer and director of Take This Waltz. The film opens in select theaters on June 29, 2012.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if the chicken cookbook or the adulterous egg came first.

Guest: Sarah Polley

Subjects Discussed: Similarities between Away from Her and Take This Waltz, the need for daily sweeping romance, whether film can offer corrective responses to romantic fallacies, a culture becoming increasingly uncomfortable with emptiness, holding onto transgressive moments in cinematic narrative until the last possible minute, designing a house that correctly reflects the socioeconomic status of characters, gentrification and other developments in Toronto, Kubrick’s complaints about Woody Allen, the line between the real and the fantastical in Take This Waltz, 360 degree shots, circular motifs, writing scenes out of order, why Polley’s male characters react to very emotional developments with total calmness, Polley’s father, subconscious artistic choices rooted in childhood, anger and maturity, cinematic histrionics, Polley’s views on marriage, relationships depicted by young filmmakers, living with flawed human beings, why Polley isn’t doing so much acting these days, becoming braver, avoiding the same tricks, numerous visual metaphors in Take This Waltz, “Video Killed the Radio Star” as adulterous metaphor, words as betrayal, using heavyweight dramatic and comic actors, and Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: There is a line that Fiona says in the car in Away from Her. “I think people are too demanding. People want to be in love every single day. What a liability.” So Take This Waltz almost carries on with the extension of this idea, of the need for daily sweeping romance. But this film, it’s almost the complete opposite of a movie like Brief Encounter, where you suggest in this case that Margot’s adulterous desires are selfish and childish. The “I wuv you” at the very end of the movie. So I’m wondering. Do you see your two films as writer and director as corrective responses to this notion of romance? And how do you feel independent cinema is doing in depicting this more pernicious side of adulterous desires? Just to start out here.

Polley: Wow. That was amazing! I do feel like Away from Her and Take This Waltz are companion pieces to a certain extent. Even though they’re completely different films. I do think they are talking about the same thing in very different ways. I think that the line that Fiona says — “People want to be in love every single day. What a liability. People are too demanding.” — I do actually feel that. I feel like we have unrealistic expectations of our relationships. That they’re going to fulfill us at every moment and, if they don’t, there must be something wrong with them and we better go out and solve that. But I think that that’s a cultural thing and that we have that notion in almost every aspect of our lives. I think that we’re a culture that’s incredibly uncomfortable with emptiness, with feeling like life has a gap, with feeling like things aren’t perfect. And so we feel that if there’s something missing, that automatically means that there’s something wrong and we need to go out and fix it and we just need to make the right move in our lives and everything will somehow feel complete. And I think we constantly get shocked and blindsided by the fact that — I think that feeling of something new and missing and that emptiness does kind of follow us around a little bit. Or at least for periods of time. So, yeah, it’s funny that you brought up that line. Because I never really thought of the connection between that line and Take This Waltz. But I do actually think that Take This Waltz is an extension of that a little bit. And at the same time, I think I probably started writing the script a lot more judgmentally of the main character Margot than I ended up. I ended up feeling at the end of making the film that I empathized with all three characters. And that there were no heroes or villains.

Correspondent: Interesting.

Polley: While some of her choices seem immature or childish or self-involved, I think that enough people are connecting to her as a character and feeling quite defensive of her that it’s making me see her a lot more sympathetically as well.

Correspondent: It’s interesting that in both movies you keep that transgressive moment — and I don’t want to spoil either film — to the last possible minute. I think it’s in the last ten minutes of the first film and, in this, it’s perhaps the last twenty, twenty-five. And I’m wondering about sustaining that need to transgress from this seemingly stable relationship. Of some years too, by the way. It’s interesting that both marriages — the first is 44 years, the second is four or five years. So I’m wondering. Are you more interested in that period before one transgresses? Within this way of looking at these long-term relationships?

Polley: I think it’s the most cinematic part of a relationship like that. It’s before something actually happens. I think, in a way, all the deliciousness of that kind of relationship happens before anything happens. Also, it was important to me in this film that Margot not be someone who takes this lightly. Like she is somebody who deeply loves her husband. She is extremely tempted and brought to life by this other person. But she’s not someone who’s easily going to betray her husband or leave her husband. It’s really difficult for her. And, in fact, that makes that other situation even more tempting and even more alive.

Correspondent: I also wanted to ask you about the house, which intrigued me in a number of ways. First of all, we see the kitchen obsession that was in the first one repeats in this one, which I thought was actually quite interesting. But there is this interesting notion of Margot almost seeking the real space while also seeking the fantastical space. Because you see this moment where they’re both watching TV in this cramped office, which as a freelancer I can totally relate to. In fact, the way we watch TV at our house is actually quite similar to that. But you also then see the scale of where she goes open up over the course of the film. It starts with the pool. And then later on, we have the loft. And I’m wondering. Because their space is not exactly — I buy certain rooms. Yes, that’s exactly how a struggling freelance writer, or even a successful freelance writer, would probably have that kind of space. But on the other hand, well, that kitchen is rather large even if you are a moderately successful cookbook author. So I’m curious about how you designed this space with this tension between the real and the phantasmagorical, or the fantastical in mind.

Polley: So this is an interesting question. So Downtown Toronto, up until about ten or fifteen years ago in the area where these characters live.

Correspondent: Kensington Market, right? It’s sort of there.

Polley: Sort of Little Portugal, Italy. Ten years ago, when Margot and Lou would have bought that house, when it was still primarily a community of families. Generations of families would have actually been affordable with a considerable amount of debt to two fairly bohemian people. I have friends who bought houses then with absolutely no money, with a loan, and didn’t do renovations for years and years and years. And it fell apart for a little bit. But that would realistically be a house they could have bought. There’s no way those two characters could buy that house now. If the film was taking place ten years from now, there’s no way you would believe it.

Correspondent: Comparable to Brooklyn actually.

Polley: And the truth is they probably, realistically at this point in two years’ time, would have figured out the value of their house and sold it and made a lot of money. (laughs) But I think culturally it’s a weird thing in Toronto. Where there have been traditionally these downtown neighborhoods right in the urban core with pretty lovely, maybe rundown Victorian/Edwardian houses that were fairly affordable. That’s changed and it’s changing and that’s really sad. Because it means the demographics of who lives downtown is really changing as well.

Correspondent: So you have given this some thought. (laughs)

Polley: I have given it some thought. Because it is something that I noticed doesn’t quite translate. Like in every other country, people are like, “Those people could never afford that house.” And I want to go, “Yeah. Right now. But what was amazing ten years ago in Toronto was people like them could.”

Correspondent: It’s like Kubrick sneering at Woody Allen, saying, “There’s no way these people could live in these spacious apartments in New York.” Or a similar thing.

Polley: Exactly. Then it does get fantastical. To be fair, I feel that when we go to where they live in the end in this, in this giant loft space, then I think we do take it into the realm of fantasy a little bit. Although I feel like the way we designed that was as though it was like an abandoned loft on top of a building. Which again, I think those spaces were much more readily available ten years ago than they are now.

Correspondent: Well, this leads me to ask. The ending — and it’s hard to discuss without giving it away, so I’m going to do my best. But that notion of the fantastical that enters into it. When I watched this, I thought to myself, because I was so — God, you tested my morals. I was like, “Don’t do it!” I’m not going to say what happens. But when she is in that loft. And thanks for the equal opportunity, in terms of what happened.

Polley: (laughs)

Correspondent: I appreciated that little touch. But I thought that the movie had immediately transformed into a fantasy. And then it goes back into the real. And I’m wondering if at any point during the devising of this story if you actually did think that it was going to more of this whimsy into the fantasy. Or were you forced to combat certain feelings, the impulse to turn it into a fantasy at any point?

Polley: No. But I did want that sequence you’re talking about, where it’s…

Correspondent: Yes, the circular…

Polley: It’s a 360 degree shot that shows the progression of a sexual relationship in one shot. And there is something fantastical about that. And I didn’t shy away from that. There’s something contrived about it. There’s something strange and fantastical about it. And it is to show the passing of time in one long shot. And that was one of the first images I ever had for the film. So in a way, it’s out of place in the film. It all of a sudden breaks with the tone and the reality of the film. But I felt somehow that I could get away with it. And people disagree on that. Some people think I did get away with it. And some people didn’t.

Correspondent: I appreciated being tested.

The Bat Segundo Show: Ander Monson II

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

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

Play

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

Author: Ander Monson

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

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

Monson: Yes.

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

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

Correspondent: Yes.

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

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

Monson: It’s also not that.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Monson: That’s true.

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

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

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

Monson: I think so.

Correspondent: Really?

Monson: Yeah, I think so.

Correspondent: But then again, you can always…

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

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

Monson: Well, it is.

Correspondent: Yeah.

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

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

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

Correspondent: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Correspondent: The Super 8 version.

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

Correspondent: Sure.

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

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

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

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

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The Bat Segundo Show: Robin Black

Robin Black appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #333. Ms. Black is most recently the author of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: If he could tell you, he’d have to love you.

Author: Robin Black

Subjects Discussed: Writing ten stories over eight years, rumination time and writing, Black discarding 75% of what she writes, the importance of being surprised while writing, writing while doing the dishes, avoiding explicit metaphor, the scarf in “Tableau Vivant,” how a real-life neighbor’s fence became a fictional neighbor’s fence, feeling exposed through stories vs. the control of memoir, Veterans Day transformed into Resolution Day, perceived strangeness in reality, negotiating the gray area between two extremes, the tension between how people perceive their lives are vs. what their lives really are, the clinical approach to birth and death, being careful about deploying sentiment, observing limitless forms of human behavior and trying to corral it into the neatness of narrative, seeing more gestures and facts about people being more relevant, a character’s relationship with another person’s face, early problems with human gesture, being conscious of the symbolic scheme within a story, sex that isn’t explicitly stated within the stories, the words “sexual encounter,” cybersex, carnal reticence, the defamiliarization of the familiar, a disproportionate focus on the physical act, car crashes and accidents used to galvanize the characters, stories anchored by older women, older women as an increasingly invisible presence in society, the fictional potential in leading an undercover life, explicit communicative disconnect in “Immortalizing John Parker,” characters who resist what the author is trying to get them to do, crutch words from characters, the phrase “So what,” revealing the surname of a character slightly later than expected after the initial introduction, learning from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, first person vs. third person, twos and threes within the stories, avoiding the usual lists of threes, and playing with fairy tale images.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Black: I also wrote a lot of bad stories. I went into writing ten that I thought were decent enough.

Correspondent: How many bad stories?

Black: I think that if you count just the ones I completed, there are probably twenty-five others. And if you count the others that I started, and got anywhere from two to twenty pages into, there are probably another two dozen of those. So a lot. I produce a lot of pages. I like a very low percentage of them.

Correspondent: This is interesting that you do all of your thinking at the keyboard. Because the character relationships in many of these stories are quite intricate and quite connected. Do you figure out these relationships over the course of writing? How does this work exactly? Expand upon the rumination.

Black: Where does it all come from? None of it’s autobiographical. I always have to start there. So I’m not one of these people who thinks, “Wow! This thing that just happened to me would make a great story.” And to the extent that I ever think that, I put that into memoir. So if I write about myself, then I’m really writing about myself. These things are all made up. I said that a lot of it happens at the keyboard. But I should more accurately say that I also do a lot of my writing while I’m doing the dishes. Though my husband may laugh at the idea that I ever do the dishes. While I’m walking. I’m not somebody who thinks that everyone needs a regiment of sitting down and writing. A certain amount of time. Because a lot of my writing happens away. I’ll just be thinking about the people in the stories. Really as though they were friends of mine, and I was trying to figure out just what the heck they would do with their lives. And so it’s a lot of just thinking through human psychology that goes into it.

Correspondent: You mention not wanting to lift from reality. And this is interesting to me. Because I noted that in these stories, you really go out of your way to avoid extremely explicit metaphors, save in two stories. In “Tableau Vivant,” you of course have the scarf. And “If I Loved You” has the fence. I’m wondering if the scarf and the fence came about as a way of knowing the characters. Or a way of moving the characters on the chessboard while you were doing the dishes. What happened here?

Black: The scarf in “Tableau Vivant” is complete invention. The fence is not. We actually have a neighbor who built a fence in our driveway. And in pondering how to write about it — because it was one of those events that struck me as so peculiar. That somebody would just move into a neighborhood and start tromping on their neighbors. It seemed like such an odd character defect, I guess, in a human being. I thought, “Well, I’ll write an essay about it.” What’s it like to have a horrible human being move in next to you. And then I thought, “Well, I don’t really want to write an essay about it. I’ll write a story about it.” But, again, I don’t write about myself. So the only thing in there that’s true is that there was a fence. And the other piece of truth was my impulse in the story to say to this man, “How can you just be this mean to people when you have no idea what the meaning of this is to them?” And there’s actually a funny story about that. When that story was published in the Southern Review — and in the story, the woman whose fence it is, is dying a very sad, terrible death; and when Bret Lott, who was then editing the Review called me up to say they had taken it — I was all excited. And I said — the first words out of my mouth were “Oh, I can’t wait to throw a copy of it over that damn fence.” And there was this terrible pause. And I realized that he was trying to figure out how much of it was true. And I said, “Oh! I’m not dying. There just is a fence.” So often my stories will have tiny real elements among them, and I’ll kind of build a universe around that.

The Bat Segundo Show #333: Robin Black (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Nicholas Meyer

Nicholas Meyer appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #310.

Nicholas Meyer is perhaps best known for his work on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. He is most recently the author of The View from the Bridge.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Ah, listener my old friend, do you know the Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish best served cold?

Author: Nicholas Meyer

Subjects Discussed: Lotus positions, talking back to prescience, writing books when the Writers Guild goes on strike, Samuel Johnson, the origins of The Seven Per-Cent Solution, words as a place of retreat, William S. Baring-Gould, generating “scholarly” commentary, Meyer’s dislike of Sherlock Holmes movies, Watson being portrayed as a buffoon, using the old Warner shield for Time After Time, the unusual opening shot of Time After Time and developing a directorial voice, Stanley Kubrick on the set of Spartacus, on-the-job training about cinematography, directing Ricardo Montalban, making specific choices, directors who don’t know what they want, the importance of understanding actors, finding distinct style with a preexisting Star Trek cast, William Shatner’s concerns on Star Trek II, the Coca-Cola product placement in Volunteers, responding to Ken Levine’s remarks on the scene that ruined Volunteers, Meyer’s problematic metrics with cinematic comedy, Black Orchid, whittling down the original draft of The View from the Bridge, being a script doctor on Fatal Attraction and determining Meyer’s precise involvement with the bathtub ending, calculating a film for an audience and the problems with doing so, how to write a good screenplay with Philip Roth’s source material, the differences between source material and other versions of the story, The Wizard of Oz, arguments about Dickens film adaptations, thoughts on Josh Olson’s “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script,” The Avengers, and why Meyer’s frequent flyer miles are in the University of Iowa archive.

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EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You’re sitting in a rather strange lotus position.

Meyer: No.

Correspondent: Do you sit like this often?

Meyer: I’m not lotus actually.

Correspondent: Oh. Not lotus.

Meyer: You can’t see, but, underneath this table, my legs are stretched out in a very conventional position.

Correspondent: I’m sorry I wasn’t noticing your muscular legs.

Meyer: The anti-lotus.

Correspondent: How are you doing?

Meyer: I’m doing fine so far.

Correspondent: Okay. I had a question pertaining to recent events and also pertaining to your work and your tendency to have scripts mirror certain international events. I think, going back to Star Trek VI and Company Business, how real events tended to unfold in relation to those particular scripts. But simultaneously I might argue that you were prescient with one particular character in the Star Trek films. Most recently, as you’ve probably been reading the headlines or seeing various clips, a certain Congressman from South Carolina basically said something to the President. And I couldn’t help but think when that happened, Chekhov saying to Khan, “You lie!” Which I thought was quite prescient of you possibly. But simultaneously, in relation to Chekhov and Presidents, I should point out that Chekhov was able to correctly pronounce “nuclear,” whereas the previous President was not. So what do you attribute this linguistic prescience on your part?

Meyer: Well, talking back to prescience is like one of the weirder things that you can do. And I think the fact that Chekhov addressed Khan so disrespectfully in the well of the Botany Bay obviously qualifies him for a Federation reprimand.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Meyer: Does this address your question?

Correspondent: It sort of does. But it’s interesting that Chekhov could pronounce “nuclear” where George Bush could not. 43.

Meyer: The list of things that George Bush was unable to pronounce. In order to pronounce some of these things, I think you have to conceive of what they are first.

Correspondent: And Chekhov was able to conceive of what they were. I mean, it’s funny that Chekhov was the guy here. This could also have a lot to do with my own particular connections to your work and the larger canvas. But you did bring this up in your book and so I was tempted to infer many things in your scripts that possibly were intended or prescient or seer-like.

Meyer: Well, I think Chekhov’s remark clearly, as far as Congressman Wilson is concerned, is an accident. It was about thirty years before. And there are people who go around saying “You lie!” at the drop of a hat. Chekhov, I think, is more right than not when he accuses Khan.

Correspondent: Yeah. I also wanted to ask — just to go to a general question that isn’t so convoluted or so crazy. This particular book. Was this written during the writers strike at all?

Meyer: Yes.

Correspondent: It was.

Meyer: I write my books when the Writers Guild goes on strike. You’re not allowed to write screenplays. And I usually write it because I have to make money. And Dr. Johnson said a man is a blockhead who writes for any reason except money.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, that’s paraphrasing it a bit. But it’s close enough.

Meyer: Well, I got “blockhead” and…

Correspondent: You got “blockhead” and “money” definitely. Nobody but a fool wrote for money…

Meyer: For anything except for money, yes.

Correspondent: I think I’m mangling it now. Yeah, I’m familiar with that quote. You were a movie reviewer at the University of Iowa. You then wrote press kits for Paramount. And then you wrote The Love Story Story. And then you headed out west to become a screenwriter and what was, of course, this novel that came about. Quite a circuitous route in terms of approaching the inevitable. And so I’m curious why you postponed it for so long over the years. Was there a definitive answer? You say that you’re not an analytical person. But I’m sure you’ve had many years to think about this roundabout way of going to your present profession.

Meyer: Well, I always wanted to make movies from the time I was very young. I never thought much about the writing part of it. Which is interesting, because I’ve been writing since I was five years old. Writing was just something I always did. Words were the place to which I retreated. Sort of instinctively and intuitively all my life. I tried writing novels as a young man and I didn’t like my novels very much. And by the way, neither did anyone else. So I went to California eventually to seek my fortune and try and get into the movie business. And I was lucky. I started to make some progress. And then just as I was starting to have stuff produced, the Writers Guild did go on strike. This was back in 1972 or ’73, I think. And I was sharing digs with a young woman who said, “Well now, since you’re not allowed to write screenplays, you can write that book you are always talking about.” And that book was my fanciful notion of a Sherlock Holmes adventure, in which Holmes met and joined forces intellectually as well as narratively with Sigmund Freud. And there really wasn’t any good reason at that point not to try doing it. I don’t think I was expecting it to add up to much. But it was as much a way of passing the time when I wasn’t on the strike line as anything else.

And so, yes, it became a big success. It was the number one best-selling novel for a while in the United States. And then when it was optioned for the movies, I said, “Yes, I will sell you the option on condition that I write the script.” And the script with all its faults was lucky enough to be nominated for an Oscar. And so that sort of led me to the next level. And the next screenplay I wrote, I said, “Yes, I will sell you the script, but I must direct the movie.” And so I leapfrogged my way into my profession.

BSS #310: Nicholas Meyer (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #308.

Lawrence Block is most recently the author of Step by Step.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Ruminating upon a life of exquisite indolence.

Author: Lawrence Block

Subjects Discussed: Step by Step as an anti-memoir, exploring childhood experience in print, randomness and finding connections, writing with a greater degree of freedom, Random Walk, concerns about a limited audience, earlier attempts at memoir, attempts by Block to write memoirs in the mid-1990s, the virtues of getting older, being less guarded with age, following up on Block’s remarks from Galut, avarice as the guiding principle, Evan Hunter, Charles Ardai and Hard Case Crime, growing less reticent about limited editions, the $479 Kindle, not carrying about work being preserved, genre fiction as a window to a specific world, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie never going out of print, Block and Judaism, being a creature of intense and transitory enthusiasms, not having a goal, the lack of commonality between writing and race walking, becoming increasingly drawn to pursuits that don’t involve leaving the house, writing screenplays, short stories vs. novels, and Alexander McCall Smith’s Wall Street Journal article and reader “ownership” of the characters.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

lawrence_blockCorrespondent: You mentioned that you had attempted memoir before.

Block: Right.

Correspondent: And that memoir, which I presume is still unfinished, that had more to do with the working life of a writer, I suppose?

Block: That memoir was about the early years. About the years writing pseudonymous books and getting started in the business. And I wrote about 50,000 words of it. And it still exists. And I went back to it. It was part of a multiple contract. It was submitted as part of that. And eventually the day came when I bought it back. It was a tiny portion of the advance. And I don’t think anybody at Morrow was that excited about it. My agent had just bundled things together. And because I didn’t seem inclined to resume it, oddly enough, now I find myself thinking maybe I ought to. That maybe that’s what I might want to do next.

Correspondent: Really?

Block: Yeah.

Correspondent: What brought this on? Was it just from…?

Block: The experience of Step by Step. It’s early days. I have no idea how it will sell. But people seem to like it and it seems to be getting a fair amount of attention. So we’ll see.

Correspondent: Well, I think just speaking as one person familiar with your work, the reason I was piqued when you talked about this unfinished memoir was because there’s almost like a surprising lack of amount of stuff written about that time period where you were writing pseudonymously. There was a book written by the guy who later went on to do Don’t Know Much About History, who wrote a book published about twenty-five years ago about the paperbacking of America [Kenneth C. Davis’s Two-Bit Culture] and went on about mass market paperbacks as a whole. But nothing much about the dawn of Gold Medal and Dell and all the other paperback houses. And the pseudonymous aspect. So I wonder could this interest also have to do with the fact that, with all due respect, you’re also one of the few people left who remember.

Block: Yeah. That might have something to do with it. Also, when I wrote — I think it was about ’95, ’94 or ‘5, that I wrote the memoir. And I hadn’t been planning to, as I may have mentioned in there. I was stuck on something else. I had time booked at Ragdale. And I had to write something. And at the time — that was what, fourteen years ago? — I was fifty-five, fifty-six years old. It felt early days to be writing a memoir to me.

Correspondent: Right.

Block: And before the memoir genre became something.

Correspondent: Now you have memoirs by twentysomethings.

Block: I know. I know it. “I remember the birth canal.” (laughs)

BSS #308: Lawrence Block (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Michael Muhammad Knight

Michael Muhammad Knight appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #307.

Michael Muhammad Knight is most recently the author of Impossible Man and Osama Van Halen.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Expressing forceful words about his distinct identity.

Author: Michael Muhammad Knight

Subjects Discussed: Knight’s powers of prescience, Muslim punk, fictional suicide as a form of personal critique, the fictional character Mike Knight vs. the real Mike Knight, the Amazing Ayyub, character creation as the author arguing with himself, spiritual poles and quasi-Mikes talking with Mike creations, romanticizing the failure to be an adult, the mythology of consolation, leading a life in peripatetic homelessness, being a provocateur, compromise vs. getting into certain quarters, reading Will & Ariel Durant’s big red books at an early age, God as the Force (Star Wars) vs. God as the Dao, the Asma Gull Hasan defamation suit, Edward Norton’s soliloquy in The People vs. Larry Flynt, the coercive nature of apologies, getting kicked out of ISNA press conferences, journalism and formality, being disheartened by the Sunnis, whether or not umma is impossible, respecting religious difference, noting laundry lists of possession, constant reference to Spike Lee’s Malcolm X over The Autobiography, women-led prayer and Islam, disowning whiteness, Pakistan as a white supremacist country, elaborating on Knight’s remarks to David Hunter concerning cyphers, filtering information from the outside world, the apostasy essay, following up on Mark Athitakis’s remarks on allegorical house layout, and the last time Knight was in touch with his father.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

mmkCorrespondent: I want to start off with something that you have a particular talent for in your fiction — and that is the anticipation of events. The Taqwacores, of course, most famously initiated the Taqwacore punk movement. But as I learned in the afterword of Osama Van Halen, you write about Muzammil Hassan, arrested for beheading his wife on British TV. And you are unnerved by the fact that you were not only not able to foresee it, yet it happened. What do you attribute this prescience to? I’m curious.

Knight: I don’t know. It spooks me out a little bit. You know, I wrote this fictional decapitation of myself in the parking lot of a TV station in Buffalo. Having a Muslim TV station in Buffalo and then, in real life, there was a Muslim TV station in Buffalo. And an actual decapitation happened there. Just as this book was about to come out. And that started to spook me out a little bit.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Knight: I’m starting to get afraid right now.

Correspondent: Well, this is interesting. Because as I read your two memoirs — both Blue-Eyed Devil and Impossible Man — I saw, for example, that the Victoria’s Secret catalog actually came from a personal example.

Knight: Oh yeah. Yeah.

Correspondent: As did the Penguin misspelling of the Qur’an. And I’m curious as to whether this almost convenient lifting of events from your own life is what leads to this prescience. Have you ever thought about this?

Knight: I don’t know. But it’s all starting to blend together. Because I was on the set of the Taqwacores movie, when they were shooting that in the fall. And one day, I showed up on the set and I saw Dominic Rains, who was playing Jehangir, in a drum circle with Marwan from the real life band Al-Thawra in the parking lot of this house. The driveway. And you had the real life Taqwacore punks and the film Taqwacore punks. The fiction and the reality, all the borders are gone.

Correspondent: But drawing from events so explicitly, what do you do to invent? To draw the distinction between something that is personally experienced versus what you concoct? Such as the idea of a Muslim punk scene.

Knight: I don’t know, man. Because in Osama Van Halen, I have a fictional character. So sometimes I’m writing from the omniscient narrator. Sometimes I’m writing myself. Like the real-life author. First person narrative. Sometimes I’m talking about this fictional Mike Knight. And it’s almost like there’s no distinctions anymore. I mean, I just wrote myself getting my head chopped off. And now I’m afraid that’s going to happen.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if this is more of a metaphorical losing your head. Because after you wrote The Taqwacores, I know that you were considering leaving Islam altogether. And you were urged back into it when you realized there was some fluidity. And so I’m curious as to whether this was finally cutting the cord to a particular type of Mike Knight or….

Knight: Well, there were some serious things I was trying to talk about in that story. You know, Imam Ali said to hate in yourself what you’re going to hate in other people. So the way that I made my points was to just look at myself in the worst way and to see myself as the object of critique. Everything that I was lashing out against I could search into myself and find some trace of that. That’s why at the end, I deserved to have my head chopped off.

(Image: Publishers Group Canada)

BSS #307: Michael Muhammad Knight (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #260.

Azar Nafisi is most recently the author of Things I’ve Been Silent About, as well as Reading Lolita in Tehran.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Reliving transcendent memories.

Author: Azar Nafisi

Subjects Discussed: Authenticity, W.G. Sebald, photographs and text, Iranian birth certificates, being true to the story when writing a memoir, accuracy and memoirs, the extraordinary nature of the ordinary, “A Memoir in Books,” constructs within constructs, Emily Dickinson, dreams that are tainted by reality, The Great Gatsby, Nafisi’s mother creating a dream out of a frozen past, unhappy marriages, presenting a cardboard version of yourself, frankness, books vs. reality, Dorothy Sayers, Henry James and World War I, asserting life in totalitarianism, Italian neorealists, great things that come from limitations, Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple, Czslew Milosz vs. Witold Gombrovich, Ferdowski, The Prince, and others as frameworks to understand 20th century Iran, human beings and the creative impulse, writing a book of literary criticism on Nabokov that resonates with the Islamic Republic, prying mothers and outrage, personal connections and subjective viewpoints in relation to books, collection vs. hording in relation to storytelling, feeling regret, the commercial shadow of Reading Lolita, avoiding the Iran categorization, subconscious Nabokovian themes, the memoir as betrayal, Muriel Spark, Speak, Memory, and self-consciousness.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

nafisiCorrespondent: Fariba’s birth certificate is fake, you note later on in the book.

Nafisi: Yes.

Correspondent: And also the marriage of your parents was built, as you say, on a lie. So you have this scenario throughout your life in which you have the most authoritative text, being a birth certificate, being unreliable. So this brings me back to the question of the pictures and the text.

Nafisi: Definitely. I mean, authenticity itself is such a dubious word, isn’t it? Authentic to whom? And at what point in your life? Authenticity itself changes. But definitely. And especially in regards to my life in Iran and with my mother. The question of what appeared and what people claimed to be real. And what one discovered to be the truth. Those two were running parallel to one another. Seldom meeting, actually.

Correspondent: I guess the question though is: How can you, who specializes in books throughout your life — I mean, that’s your living!

Nafisi: (laughs)

Correspondent: So here you have this unreliable relationship with text that your life is predicated upon. How you can even trust text if there is this lack of authenticity?

Nafisi: Well, you have to trust the story. Because if you want the story to be good, quote unquote, you have to be true to the story. And it takes you places where sometimes you don’t want to go. It forces you to reveal things that you don’t want to reveal. But if you’re focused on the story, you realize that the story will take its revenge if you don’t give it what it needs. So that is why I think so many authors, or so many people keep saying — like Vita Sackville-West, in terms of her diaries. She says that, “I am writing because of truth. Because there’s so many pieces of the truth. And you reveal your truth.” It is not because you have hold of the truth, but because the process of storytelling reveals the truth both to you and hopefully to the readers.

Correspondent: Does it matter then if you don’t quite have the exact truth? I mean, there’s a lot of controversy — here in America, in particular — about what a memoir really should be and how accurate it needs to be.

Nafisi: Well, there’s two thins I need to say about that. One is when you deliberately fabricate something. And unfortunately, a lot of times, in terms of the recent events, it is to sell. I tried to very much — actually, the scandalous parts of my book are very much buried. This was a test for me. Can you write a memoir? Which is a family memoir. Which doesn’t come out with fireworks. And it can still attract people. Because what is extraordinary to me is what we call the ordinary. You know, nothing is ordinary. That was what I was trying to investigate. So if you deliberately fabricate, I think then that we are entering a different world.

But a memoir, because its a narrative and its a story, by nature, it’s a construct. I think we should admit that at the outset. That it is a construct. You try and remain true to facts. But what are facts? From whose point of view? And one thing that I discovered — which is very obvious now to me, but it wasn’t then — is how much you select. There were people in my life who were very central to my life. Like my brother, whom I love and we’ve had many, many experiences together. But he was not necessarily central to the story. So you cut-and-paste, according to the themes that your story demands. And so how can you say that a memoir is not a construct?

(Photo credit: wip_partnership)

BSS #260: Azar Nafisi (Download MP3)

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