Girls in Trouble

16 Sep
The Untold by Courtney Collins

The Untold by Courtney Collins

As frequently happens, to my great pleasure, I picked up a book of which I had no knowledge and within a paragraph or two I was fully transported. The most recent case of this was The Untold by Australian Courtney Collins that employs an unusual narrative device that lights the novel’s stage with a peculiar kind of light. It seems that a certain theme seems to capture my interest— especially in light of the current focus on domestic violence. In this case, Collins turns legendary Australian outlaw Jessie Hickman in to a fictional character.Set in early 20th century Australia, Jessie (she is a talented equestrian) is sold to a traveling circus at the age of twelve by her mother and ends up horse rustling which lands her in prison. She is “paroled” to a brutal man whom she endures, until she can’t. She kills him and in the process loses the child with which she is pregnant. Her journey to escape her pursuers and the character studies her two main pursuers drives this emotional resonant story set against the brutal and unforgiving Australian Outback.

Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s fiction set in rural Michigan is part of a wave of novels that represent what I term ‘American Grit’— a wider geography than what some people are calling ‘Grit Lit‘—Frank Bill, Don Ray Pollack, Philip Meyer’s American Rust, Smith Henderson and Katherine Faw Morris.

Grit Lit by Tom Franklin & Brian Carpenter

Grit Lit by Tom Franklin & Brian Carpenter

“Once Upon a River,” Campbell’s second novel, leaves off where her first “Q Road” began — prequeling the story of Margo Crane, who is 15 when the novel opens in the late 1970s. Nicknames Sprite, she is adept outdoorswoman—expert shot and oarswoman. And to her great misfortune she is a beauty —she has been raped by an uncle (retaliating with a just and unlikely rifle shot)and thereafter is pursued by sexually aggressive relatives and neighbors and by the law.Jane Smiley contests the rubric under which I place Campbell:

The damaged world she lives in remains an ecosystem in which animals and humans, field and stream, purity and pollution, love and hate are tightly interconnected. It would be too bad if, because of Campbell’s realistic style and ferocious attention to her setting, “Once Upon a River” were discounted as merely a fine example of American regionalism. It is, rather, an excellent American parable about the consequences of our favorite ideal, freedom.

The Outlander by Gil Adamson

The Outlander by Gil Adamson

Gil Adamson‘s award winning novel(in Canada)The Outlander is set in rural Canada, at the turn of the 20th century and features Mary a 19 year old widow, apparently “widowed by her own hand”. Her pursuit by her husband’s brutish twin brothers drives this narrative. And flight from them and her own roiling consciousness is a powerful story played out against a terrain that Adamson skillfully makes palpable with spot on olfactory cues.

Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Iness Brown

Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Iness Brown


For the hell of it might I mention another on of my favorite novels Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Inness-Brown She and I have a chance to converse:

RB:… Is there a specific regional kind of writing that understands this locale, understands how to talk about it?

EIB: The thing that made me able to write this book was growing up in Upstate New York. I didn’t realize this until after the book was pretty much done. I grew up on the Canadian border in St. Lawrence County. Even though the island stuff is much more based on where I live now, the culture in this book comes just as much from that county. It’s the poorest county in New York state. There’s a lot of French Canadian influence there, a lot of native Americans. Like where I live now. A lot of that stuff which came to me intuitively as I was developing this story came from my own childhood and from growing up there. All this images and words — when I started writing this — before Marguerite had a name she was ‘tantee’. I was saying “tantay” in my mind, and I knew that wasn’t right. Finally during the revision process (that’s when I do all my research, after the fact) I contacted this woman who teaches at my college who focuses on French Canadians. I said, “Can you help me? I’m calling her “tant-ay” and that’s not right.” She said that French Canadians often say “tantee” they combine tante and auntie. And that’s where it came from. For me, it must have come from something I experienced as a child because I had no conscious memory of learning that. It must be something I had heard. I think a lot of it came from that experience. Whether or not somebody else could have written this book…I think it does have a specific regional quality. It’s really about that netherworld, where it’s not quite the United States and not quite Canada and there are a lot of people there and a lot of native Americans there and the culture has it’s own subtle but clear mix.

Currently reading Masters of Mankind: Essays and Lectures 1964 -2013 by Noam Chomsky (Haymarket Books)

The Crucible

15 Sep
Susan Sontag by Annie Leibowitz (assuming she would give me permission to use image)

Susan Sontag by Annie Leibowitz (assuming she would give me permission to use image)

When Susan Sontag responded to the events of Sept 11, 20101 in the New Yorker she was pilloried and defamed almost universally (if I recall correctly Howard Zinn also). She wrote:

Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed super-power, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?

Literature is Freedom by Susan Sontag

Literature is Freedom by Susan Sontag

When the Germans awarded Sontag a peace prize (the Germans, people!) previously awarded to Hermann Hesse, Vaclav Havel, Jürgen Habermas and Chinua Acheba, the US Ambassador, contravening protocol, absented himself from the ceremony.* Sontag gave a speech published in a slender, elegant chapbook by Winterhouse editions. She declaimed:

All modern wars, even when their aims are the traditional ones, such as territorial aggrandizement or the acquisition of scarce resources, are cast as clashes of civilizations — culture wars — with each side claiming the high ground, and characterizing the other as barbaric. The enemy is invariably a threat to “our way of life,” an infidel, a desecrator, a polluter, a defiler of higher or better values. The current war against the very real threat posed by militant Islamic fundamentalism is a particularly clear example. What is worth remarking is that a milder version of the same terms of disparagement underlies the antagonism between Europe and America. It should also be remembered that, historically, the most virulent anti-American rhetoric ever heard in Europe — consisting essentially in the charge that Americans are barbarians — came not from the so-called left but from the extreme right. Both Hitler and Franco repeatedly inveighed against an America (and a world Jewry) engaged in polluting European civilization with its base, business values.

Sontag went on to assert:

The writer in me distrusts the good citizen, the “intellectual ambassador,” the human rights activist — those roles which are mentioned in the citation for this prize, much as I am committed to them. The writer is more skeptical, more self-doubting, than the person who tries to do (and to support) the right thing.

One task of literature is to formulate questions and construct counter-statements to the reigning pieties. And even when art is not oppositional, the arts gravitate toward contrariness. Literature is dialogue; responsiveness. Literature might be described as the history of human responsiveness to what is alive and what is moribund as cultures evolve and interact with one another.

Writers can do something to combat these clichés of our separateness, our difference — for writers are makers, not just transmitters, of myths. Literature offers not only myths but counter-myths, just as life offers counter-experiences — experiences that confound what you thought you thought, or felt, or believed.

A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world. That means trying to understand, take in, connect with, what wickedness human beings are capable of; and not be corrupted — made cynical, superficial — by this understanding.

The responses to Nine Eleven are worth recalling, as again the caravans start rolling, with the dogs barking. Setting aside for a moment the horrific images of beheadings (as horrific as drone murders of innocent civilians,off screen) I am chagrined at the media lynching of Ray Rice and the scarcity—actually total absence —of the possibility of forgiveness and redemption. No doubt my assertion that I have no sympathy with wife beaters and child abusers will be overshadowed by my sentiments for some measure of reflection on the consequences of all the herd ululating about throwing Rice in jail blah, blah, blah. As if that solves one thing except to clear the hysteria agenda of one more villain.

Personally, I am more disturbed at the notion that a tax exempt, 10 billon dollar enterprise led by a 45 million dollar a year salaryman is able to wield so much influence in civil society. And of even more concern that the US of A
is, to borrow an old school phrase a nation of sheep (note: 4 million people have ordered the newest Apple smart phone—what does that tell you)

Currently reading the The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami (Pantheon)

*MS Sontag noted his absence

Ambassador Coats has chosen not to be here, I assume, because of criticisms I have voiced, in newspaper and television interviews and in brief magazine articles, of the new radical bent of American foreign policy, as exemplified by the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He should be here, I think, because a citizen of the country he represents in Germany has been honored with an important German prize.

Me and Amy Grace Loyd

12 Sep
The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd

The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd

This conversation took place in the summer of 2013 upon the occasion of the publication of Ms Loyd’s debut novel, The Affairs of Others.No newcomer to the orchards of literature, Ms Loyd has served as an editor at W.W. Norton, The New Yorker,The New York Review of Books, Playboy Magazine, and, most recently the (now defunct)online magazine, Byliner. And she has worked with literary fiction practitioners such a Jess Walter, Charles Yu, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Lethem, James Ellroy,Joyce Carol Oates, Chuck Palahniuk, and Nick Hornby.

The Affairs of Others(Picador) is the story of recently widowed Celia Cassill who all but withdraws from life except to engage in the maintenance of her Brooklyn apartment building in which she lives. To be able to maintain her privacy she chooses her few tenants with great care, Nonetheless, she is unable to stay free of their affairs.

Ms Loyd, who is accurately self described as perky, and I chat about her last name, Star Trek 70’s tV programs, defining novellas, Jess Walter, Brooklyn,Playboy magazine,Che Guevara and ghosts. A good time was had by all.

Robert: Why is your last name only spelled with one ‘L’?

Amy: We have no idea but the story we like to tell people is that we were part of the Lloyds of London—big banking insurance company—but we embezzled money so they stripped us of an L and sent us to the New World. It’s not true but it makes for a good story.

RB: Why did you want to become a writer?

AGL: Well, I don’t know. It’s an excellent question and it’s a boring answer: I’ve always just enjoyed reading literature. When I was really little—little-ish—I was probably around 13, I got cast out of a clique of popular girls and then they tortured me for a while…

R: What was your transgression.

A: I told a secret.

R: Oh! Big deal!

A: Yeah. Well, it was a big deal… But it allowed me to spend a lot of time alone and in that time I did a lot of reading and I thought, “Man, these stories are doing wonders for me.” And I began to think, “Well maybe I could write a few stories”, you know. So back then I began thinking that’s what I’d like to do. When I graduated from college I went to New York and got into publishing thinking, “Well, do I want to write or do I just want to be around writers and help them with their work?” It turns out it was a little bit of both. So I became an editor and I was an editor for a long time—still am an editor—and I wrote kind of in secret, on the side.

R: What do you mean you wrote in secret?

A: I didn’t really tell my writers that I was writing—I didn’t tell a lot of people. I didn’t make it an announcement, I didn’t say, “I’m a writer!” I just wrote on my own time. Because I edit Charles Yu, Jess Walter, Margaret Atwood… I was at Playboy for a long time but before that I was at the New York Review of Books Classics series, that wonderful imprint that resuscitates lost works of literature with contemporary writers writing introductions. I worked with Jonathan Lethem there. I told Jonathan I wrote and he has always been very supportive… but if you’re working with writers you don’t want to say, “Hey! I write too! We’re part of the same club!” Because we’re not; I’m there to edit them. I’m not there to swap stories with them.

R: But you could go, like, I’ve got this character I’m working on, I just don’t know if this is what he does or says, right? Something specific…

A: I guess I was a purist. I wanted to keep my relationship with them kind of pure and I wanted their prose to be the focus of our discussions.

R: So do you compartmentalize your editing persona when you’re writing yourself?

A: I try to because otherwise I can’t get any work done. I’m too busy editing… and I’m a real pain in the neck, I’m a very exacting editor in certain ways; there are certain things I get really focused on… which I think my writers mostly appreciate but I’m sure I can be a real pain in the neck sometimes. I certainly am a pain in the neck for myself. If I can’t get out of that headspace, sometimes I’ll stop writing, or I’ll just let myself edit and get that out of my system.

R: What of Jess Walter’s work did you edit?

A: When I was at Playboy we published a few different stories of his: We Live in Water, and was it Anything Helps? I’m forgetting the title of it right now but it was a story about a con man who gets conned by one of his employees. Then I did an interview with him for the Zero that went in the Harper Perennial issue and then when I moved to Byliner—I’m now editing for Byliner [now defunct]—he wrote an unbelievably good story for us called Don’t Eat Cat—it’s both a zombie story and a send-up of a zombie story. When I left Playboy part of the reason I left and was glad to leave was that I couldn’t fit stories of any length in that magazine anymore.

R: Does Playboy still publish stories?

A: It still does, but unfortunately the editorial…

R: I just read the interviews (laughs).

A: Well there are some good ones mixed in!

R: [chuckles] I know.

Amy Grace Loyd [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Amy Grace Loyd [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

A: The page count reduced so much that they do genre fiction and mostly excerpts from novels now. So when I left that was really their focus.

Jess Walter [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Jess Walter [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

R: Jess Walter is a very wonderful writer; that last book Beautiful Ruins was just… it was immensely entertaining and engaging and funny…

A: And expansive! And traveling different times… and also full of longing but, as you say, also tremendously funny. And the way he satirizes Hollywood—it’s great. There are so many ways into that book.

R: And the historical references aren’t gratuitous—they’re not there to just… and I like where he got the title from: kind of obscure but…

A: Yeah! Perfect, right? From Richard Burton. Absolutely.

R: Yeah… Spokane’s own Jess Walter. So most of your editing work has been about short fiction?

Beautiful Ruins by jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins by jess Walter


A: Yeah, because I worked at the New Yorker—I was Bill Buford’s assistant when I was in my twenties and I thought, Man, wouldn’t it be neat to continue to edit short fiction? But I’d have to stay at the New Yorker forever and ever and I had other plans at the time. So I went off to MacDowell to write—still this gnawing desire to do some of my own writing…

[adjusting equipment]

R: You’ve been around sort of great literary centers of New York…

A: Yeah, I have! So I worked for Buford, didn’t stay long, decided I’d go off to MacDowell and write. When I came back I got the job at the New York Review of Books, resuscitating those lost classics—I was an associate editor there…

R: What a great job!

A: It was! It was fantastic, it just didn’t necessarily pay as well as one might hope… and while I was there I wrote to Playboy and thought, “Boy, they’ve published some great fiction since 1953, I wonder if they’re interested in hiring a literary editor again.” They hadn’t had one for a while. And I wrote a letter, didn’t hear, thought, Okay, I’m too rarefied a bird for them, I’m not going to hear, but about two years later this man, Chris Napolitano—what a man!—called me up and said, Hey, I got your letter here, do you want to come in and interview? As if I’d written yesterday.

R: So it moves slowly…

A: Yeah, he needed to, I guess, raise the money or persuade whoever needed to be persuaded that they needed a dedicated literary editor again.

R: But in the meantime you weren’t looking at other—weren’t there other venues that might be attractive, especially all the new things that are coming up?

A: Well I was pretty content at my job at the New York Review and then I left that to go to Yaddo and it was after I got back from Yaddo…

R: Going to those places… that’s like vacation?

A: Yeah, and also it allowed me to remind myself that I liked to write and that I cared about writing and while I was there to take care of other writers and their work and that was significant, I couldn’t forget this other thing and that was an itch I had to scratch.

R: What were you writing?

A: I was working on a book of novellas then…

R: What’s a novella?

A: What’s a novella? Excellent question. Some would say it’s just a short novel, some would say it’s a long short story, but it depends. It certainly is a complete story, and maybe you’ve got more time to explore more characters or more action. I love ‘em. And we publish them at Byliner—that’s one of the attractions.

R: Jim Harrison has three or four volumes of novellas…

A: Yeah! And he’s got a new one coming out with Grove/Atlantic soon. You must like him. He’s a free spirit. What other novella writer you can think of?

R: Well, Andre Dubus’s new book has a novella…

A: And Richard Russo writes novellas.

R: Really

A: Yep. There was a book called Interventions of novellas; his daughter illustrated it. Jonathan Lethem writes the occasional long story arching into novella… Margaret Atwood wrote three related long stories for us that are going to now be part of a bigger book… I’m trying to think who else wrote long stories for us… Amy Tan

R: So that’s what you were doing, writing novellas

A: At that time, when I was at Yaddo I was writing novellas; then I came back from Yaddo and eventually got that job at Playboy and I had a book of novellas too, linked, and a wonderful editor at Pantheon named Deborah Garrison was interested in publishing them… she’s lovely; she’s a very good poet. But unfortunately, she had me revise them and we were about to move ahead but somebody there—I still don’t know who—didn’t like the novellas. So it didn’t happen, I put them away in storage…

R: Track them down!

A: I would like to! Give ‘em a… put my boot… where the sun don’t shine. And I started working at Playboy and I was pretty fanatical about getting people to think about Playboy differently and to think about us—despite the nudity, despite Heffner in his robe—to think about us as a literary destination as well. So I was devoted to that. But at some point—I started at Playboy around 2005, was working on those novellas still until 2006 or 7, put them away, only dabbled in writing a little bit, wrote some stories and then around 2009 I began to conceive this book.

R: What did you start with?

A: Well, you know it’s funny: the novellas had been omniscient point-of-view so I really wanted a first-person story and I wanted a voice I could live with for a while, especially while working full-time and working on other people’s work it needed to be a voice that really grabbed me. So I started with her—that first line, the body of a woman aging, a landscape that asks a lot of the eyes. I had read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which I loved—the resignation in that voice, that man looking back on his life—and I thought, Could a young woman, who’s been through some trauma, have a narrative where she’s declaring in a funny way her life over in certain ways? And when you’re at Playboy and you’re on the computer and you’re on the phone and you’re emailing and you’re Tweeting and you’re Pinging and you’re doing all that crazy stuff, the idea of a woman—a young woman—who really wanted to be apart from contemporary demands, the demands of contemporary life—that really appealed to me. And a woman who wasn’t willing to give up her husband even though he was dead—losing somebody doesn’t mean you stop loving him.

R: You know, what made her appealing was not the attempt to cut herself off the grid, so to speak, but was that she was, I thought, very thoughtful and, really, thoughtfully honest about appraising herself and appraising other people.

A: Yeah.

R: That’s really what grabbed me when I first

A: Yeah… And I like that about her too, that her life has become so distilled in a way—she knows what’s important to her, so she calls a spade a spade. And I love that about her. On the other hand, because she’s trying so hard to contain herself, in some ways she’s very unreliable. Right? Because she’ll say, “I’m going up to kick Hope out” but, as you know, something else entirely happens, or, “I respect my tenants’ privacy” but then she breaks into their apartments. But that’s when things begin to disintegrate for her a little.

R: But those are all understandable—I don’t think she’s a different person, and I’m not even sure I would say that’s unreliable, as you say, but perhaps that’s responsive to these odd things that are going on.

A: Well, I love you for that because that means you really connected to her. You know, a lot of people didn’t like her—I remember somebody wrote me an angry email saying, “How could she break into her tenants apartments?”

R: Angry email!

A: Yeah, I got an angry email! And I said, you know, this is a woman who’s trying so hard to figure out why her tenant disappeared and why her world is evading her control. Her plans are being greatly disrupted and this is her way, she thinks, of making things safer even though it might be a risky decision.

R: I thought her tenants were—I just saw those as gestures of establishing a family.

A: Yes! Absolutely.

R: And I thought it was interesting because they were interesting sort of characters…

A: Yeah! And I think, why does a woman who says she wants to be alone fill her apartment with tenants, right? She doesn’t. And she fights her wanting to love them and know them better. She’s a shy woman in certain ways—a private woman. But you’re exactly right—in some ways she’s trying to take them into her. You’re a good reader! I love you.

R: Thank you.

A: I do, I love you.

R: [chuckles]

A: Where have you been all my life?

R: So there’s a chance that if I brought my dog you’d still pay attention to me?

A: Yeah, now I don’t care about your dog. Now it’s all you. And your cigar.

R: Anyway . . . So you started with the character…

A: The voice, yeah.

R: The voice. And—don’t take this the wrong way but is there a plot?

A: [laughs] Yeah, I think there is. I think the minute that Hope comes in and is living over her head and is going through a disruption in her own love life, Celia despite herself is extraordinarily fascinated by her and is trying not to be. And when Hope takes up with Les, and obviously some dangerous stuff’s going on up there, Celia’s in a quandary because she doesn’t know whether to intervene or not. She tells herself she’s not going to but of course she does intervene. She tries to get them to stop doing what they’re doing. And then of course when Hope comes, which is a test of Celia’s control of her own home, Mr. Coughlin disappears. So I think if there’s a plot it’s a story about Celia and her relationship to these people, to these tenants, and how all of these situations which were static for a while become wildly chaotic.

R: Well the reason I ask is because for both of those characters, what will happen—what remains in the future—is still very open. It’s not determined. I don’t conclude anything about Hope or Celia at the end of the story, except for what was the sort of climax.

A: Well I hate to say what the climax is because it’d be a spoiler but I think you know when it was, when Celia goes up there to kick her out and something else happens. That was something else I was driving toward because I wanted women who were not young to be sexy and interesting …Well, I wanted to know if… again, women who are older who are interesting for their complex desires and their complexity generally, and sexually interesting as well. I wanted—there’s a lot of dark sex in this book, as that Boston Globe review seemed to focus on overly—I wanted to get to a moment of tenderness between these women, where Celia can give Hope something that her husband gave to her, and it not necessarily be about body parts or about bending anybody over a coffee table.

R: That’s a little hard, isn’t it.

A: [laughs] You’re right. How about a kitchen table?

R: You’d have to be really in good shape, you know…

A: Well, you can do it on your knees!

R: Are there still coffee tables?

A: Sure!

R: Do you have a coffee table?

A: I have a coffee table!

R: I don’t have a coffee table.

A: You don’t? Do you want one?

R: No.

A: Okay.

R: I have little nesting tables but… Anyway… Here’s the thing: it’s sort of a cliché that older men seem to be attracted to young women and young girls.

A: They definitely are.

R: I won’t say that I don’t notice a pretty girl

A: Of course!

R: But I notice lots of people. So frankly, I can’t see going out with a… when I was 50 years old I went out with a woman who was in her late 20s.

A: Wow! What was that like?

R: [laughs] Yeah, wow.

A: She must have had nice skin.

R: She had a nice ass.

A: Oh, yeah.

R: It was clear to me then. But the thing is, when I mentioned Che Guevara and she didn’t know who Che Guevara was, that’s when it first occurred to me that there’s this whole…

A: The life experience.

R: There’s a cultural… the window of cultural knowledge gets smaller and smaller the younger you get. Forget about knowledge, just even experience and… I don’t see the attraction, really.

A: There’s some really fundamental things you can’t share and you’re explaining your life much more than just sort of being in sync with these things. And these are ways you get to know someone, because if it was someone in your generation and you mentioned Che Guevara, you’ll get her response and that’s a way in. And instead for your twentysomething friend you’re educating her to certain things and she’s probably not going to have as pure a response to it because in fact you’re leading her there.

R: Yeah, exactly.

A: But it must have been fun.

R: At the end of writing this book, did you feel like you wrote what you had set out to write?

A: I do. I think I did because I feel like I got—Celia is defiant also, in certain ways, and at the end, she’s changed but she’s not a whole different person, right? She’s got Hope’s hand in her hand and she’s got Leo’s hand on her knee—she’s part of the party, she’s part of what’s going on, whereas she had been outside of it. But she’s still going to keep her vigil to her husband in many ways; she’s still going to be a person who has a secret that she really hasn’t told anybody but the reader. So, yeah, I wanted a woman who was private, who was defiant; I wanted a woman whose hunger gets the best of her, I think in really good ways, despite the fact that she’s trying to control her hunger a little bit. I got to some stuff about sex and sensuality that I was really interested in. I got to some stuff about how we live with other people when we can hear them on the other side of our walls—how we live in private and how sometimes when we’re trying to live in private we’re still living publicly in a funny way. I know when my neighbors shower, I know when they make love…

R: So when you go to Yaddo or MacDowell what’s that like for you, given that you’re an urban…?

A: Oh I love it! You know, all I’m longing for is to just shake my boots of the city but because my work and my writers mean so much to me…

R: So muchis conducted via mobile/wireless devices now
.
A: Thank you for telling me that! Between you and me, it would be great to live points north, it would be great to live in a place where when I write my rent check I don’t feel like I want to cry a little—just a little.

R: [laughs]

A: Money that I’m never going to see again.

R: Are you in Brooklyn?

A: Brooklyn Heights, which is wooof—that’s even more expensive.

R: So you haven’t amassed a large enough fortune to be able to buy something in Brooklyn?

A: I’ve saved some dough but on a publishing salary all these years—I think my first job in publishing was at Pocket Books at Simon & Schuster, I think they paid me eighteen-two… thankfully it’s gotten better since then.

R: It has.

A: But it’s still a salary, my father says, “It’s criminal to live on that.” [laughs]

R: It’s criminal to live in an expensive area where you’re giving much of your income to rent…

A: I know. Well what happens in New York I think is, when I first got to Brooklyn Heights it wasn’t very expensive. I moved there in ’91 the first time. Then I had a rent controlled apartment there for ages, over a Greek restaurant so it was constantly filled with the smoke of grilled meat, but then when I met this guy and we liked each other we thought, “Maybe we should try to live together”, and that’s when the really exorbitant rent came into it, because as Johnny Cash said, if you want to make a relationship work you both should have your own bathrooms. So I found us a place…

R: He said that?

A: He did.He did, somebody asked him, What made your marriage last so long, what makes a marriage work? And he said separate bathrooms. And I really think it saved Cody and me, to be honest ‘cause that man doesn’t know from cleaning. At all.

R: [laughs]

A: But it’s enough. I think we’ve realized we can live together and now we can spread our wings into cheaper places. You also fall in love with your neighborhood in Brooklyn, it becomes your sanctuary against all the chaos and noise and nonsense. And it is a cool neighborhood—okay, let me go over it. Norman Mailer lived there until he passed, not so long ago; Walt Whitman, of course; Truman Capote, Arthur Miller…

R: They’re all dead!

A: But I like ghosts!

R: [laughs]

A: Jennifer Egan lives there right now, although I leave her alone, of course, and other writers are nearby.

R: Where is Jonathan, oh, he’s out on the West Coast, at Pomona College, right?

A: Yeah, he lived in Boerum Hill for ages so he was close by. Jonathan Ames is still there in Boerum Hill, Martin Amis I guess just moved to the area, I don’t know where, but somewhere in the area. A good writer named Samantha Gillison doesn’t live so far away—she’s quite talented. There’s a bunch of writers—what did Jonathan say? Brooklyn in cancerous with novelists? Jonathan Lethem.

R: I thought everyone had said something like that.

A: Yeah. But this is one who’d surely like to go if she could and still do her job to the best of her ability.

R: I was talking to a photographer who lives here but his son now lives in Brooklyn and he was sort of laughing about it, you know, because it’s the center of hip-dom.

A: It wasn’t when I moved there, you want to know? In fact, men would say, I can’t date you, you live in Brooklyn! You’re a bridge and tunnel girl and I’d be like,” Hey buddy, fuck you!” But I liked it.

R: Did people actually say that to you?

A: Yeah, they said, “Dating you is going to be…” —often things in New York are about logistics—where do you live? How do I get to you? What subway? What taxi?

R: Well, I understand that.

A: Yeah, but if you like a girl enough just get on the goddamn subway! I’ll get on the subway.

R: If you like a guy enough you just get on the subway.

A: Get on the subway!

R: So you published this book—it was an effort of two years, three years, more?

A: Well, it was since 2009 and I stopped writing it—I probably finished it in 2011 but then I tweaked it. So two years and then tweakies, some tweaky time here and there.

R: So Picador, which normally doesn’t publish hardcovers… who’s the editor?

A: Yeah! They’re starting… it’s Anna deVries, she used to be at Scribner and she did more crime then, although she did a few literary titles. Now she’s going to do it all… and the publisher Stephen Morrison came over from Penguin and they want to start this hardcover line…

(Editor’s note:Since this interview Picador has published 30 hardcovers)

R: They were hardcover for a while, in the States.

A: In the States and then they did mostly paperbacks, and now they’re going back to it with gusto. They call me the driver, which is nice, of their hardcover line.

R: So has your life always been about reading and writing and writers?

A: It certainly has since my professional life; it really has. Since I was about 21, 22.

R: In this kind of professional life seems to be all-encompassing—you don’t skydive do you?

A: No…

R: You’re not heavily into golf.

A: No, but my father is so I watch a lot of golf.

R: You watch a lot of golf?

A: Yeah, I watch a lot of golf with him! He’s like, you’re watching? Because I was the youngest of three girls, he needed a boy so I watch a lot of sports with him. I also used to watch a lot of Star Trek with him.

R: Really? Did you like Star Trek?

A: I really liked it. The original one.

R: I’ve never like it.

A: Oh, how can you not like it?

R: So many of these programs, I just…

A: How about the ones from the 70s though? 60s and 70s. You didn’t like it?

R: No. I don’t remember one good television program from the 70s.

A: Really?

R: Name one.

A: Well, Star Trek.

R: So we know you like Star Trek.

A: Yeah. Name another?

R: Yeah.

A: Wasn’t the Archie Bunker…

R: That was, okay, All in the Family

A: That’s pretty fucking good, right? Good writing; he was a crazy character. We couldn’t watch him in our house because my mother had a mean alcoholic father and he reminded her of him too much. But I do know people who feel almost a religious sensibility about All in…

R: What was the Fonz?

A: Happy Days. I liked Happy Days alright. Well, see I was a kid then…

R: Mod Squad very early in the 70s. The Brady Bunch.

A: The Brady Bunch. Gilligan’s Island, was that the 70s too?

R: People loved Gilligan’s Island. See, I never…

A: What about the Monkees?

R: I didn’t even like them as a group.

A: I understand. But if you’re a little girl as I was, because I was only seeing them in reruns at that point, I think—I was born in ’69… so I just thought they were damn cute and energetic.

R: Che Guevara.

A: Yeah, well I know who that is. I’m old enough for that, I’m 43 now, going to be 44 shortly. So don’t you worry, I know my revolutionaries.

R: Do you consider yourself old?

A: I consider myself a mature middle-aged woman but what’s interesting—I think because I’m petite, and bouncy and perky to some, that I am perceived as quite young.

R: But do you feel any sort of… not subliminal but… maybe subliminal signals that you should be thinking of yourself as an old woman?

A: Oh sure, I mean I think that’s one of the reasons I was so interested in Celia and Hope because here are women who are older, who are going through great upsets in their life and what does that mean for your identity? Your husband dies, the other woman’s husband falls in love with a younger woman. I’m beginning to do that: I’m beginning to think, yeah, I’m not so young anymore and I’m curious about it.

R: Not because of yourself?

A: You mean I don’t feel like I’m old? I definitely feel like I’m beginning to…

R: Are there signals, things that sort of, everyday life… if people stopped asking you for your ID…

A: Well in New York it’s mandatory now, everybody asks so they still do and I always laugh about it but there are signals. And also, some men don’t look at me anymore. And, you know, I used to get looked at a fair amount.

R: That’s because you were in a Norma Kamali fringe dress… [laughs]

A: [laughs]

R: So, being the young kid that you are, you’ve got a lot of life to live—what do you think about for your future?

A: Well I’m going to write a couple more books. I’m going to try to get out of New York. I’m going to do some traveling, I hope—my book sold in a few countries so that’s exciting. I used to live in Paris. Oh! That’s what you asked me—you asked me, What did you do besides this, it’s all encompassing; it is, but I speak French, I go there as often as I can. Not in the past few years, it’s true, I’ve been taken up with work. I do the yoga. I walk a lot—I’m a big walker, I like to walk and look. And I think recreationally dated for a long time.

R: Was it fun?

A: It was! In New York it can be a little treacherous, but it was fun.

R: You have a good sense of… you’re alert about who’s dangerous and…?

A: Yeah, sure. I think I also have a good sense—and I hope it comes out through the writing, but who knows—of the traffic between men and women and the sexual traffic between men and women. All that good stuff. I’ve had some great relationships—I had some really lousy ones too but they taught me a lot too.

R: So what is it about France—why didn’t you ever end up at one of those high-paying Conde Nast fashion magazines where they accept fiction, don’t they?

A: Nobody there publishes fiction anymore except for the New Yorker. Vogue doesn’t; the Atlantic still does but they’re not owned by Conde Nast…

R: Did Mirabella publish fiction?

A: No, not to my knowledge although Good Housekeeping did for a long time… maybe Marie Claire did for a brief time. It might be interesting to look that up.

R: I think Marie Claire might have because for some reason I thought that William Boyd’s wife worked there…

A: Cosmopolitan did, remember?

R: Oh yeah. Not that I read them…

A: They were kind of racy.

R: So you didn’t end up at one of those places where you could have made lots of money…

A: Well this goes to show you how dumb I am—I was offered three jobs out of college: the paying job at Simon & Schuster in pocket books, a job at Christian Dior to basically man the receptionist’s desk but that’s how they start all the ladies, and I would wear fabulous clothes and get paid much more than I was getting paid at Simon & Schuster…

R: And get invited to a lot of…

A: Yeah! Meet some rich fellas… and then the third job—and this is the one I feel I should have taken—was the Macneil Lehrer News Hour at the time but it was only 100 dollars a week or something and I thought I should get a real salary. So I took the job at Simon & Schuster. And got screamed at by Judith Regan, she was working there then. She wasn’t my boss though…

R: You know, I don’t know her, of course, but for me the public perception of her—in interviews—she doesn’t strike me as an attractive person but I think she published Jess Walter, didn’t she?

A: She did! She discovered and published him.

R: And he speaks really highly of her—he loves her.

A: He loves her. And he should! The thing about Judith is she’s really fiercely loyal to her writers. She’ll do anything for them, and I think as a writer that feels awful good.
And I do that with my writers. I’ll take care of them.

R: Like the way your call them “your” writers.

A: I feel like they’re mine. We work really closely together—Jess and I have over the years and we’re also very good friends, we talk a lot—in fact I’ll probably call him about this after we’re done. Margaret Atwood and I have worked a lot together over the years; Joyce Carol Oates; James Elroy and I have worked a lot, a lot together.

R: [laughs] James!

A: Have you met him?

R: Yeah! I’ve interviewed him three or four times in person.

A: Around here?

R: Yeah.

A: He’s funny.

R: Very funny. Although a little droll.

R: So I’ve got to get going. How could we end this conversation with a bang?

A: I don’t know…

R: What would be the penultimate… well we can’t. So you have to promise to talk to me for the next novel.

A: Oh, yeah.

R: Wouldn’t you say this is part one?

A: Let’s say it! This is part one. Let’s never end this conversation.

R: Never-ending.

Amy Grace Loyd [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Amy Grace Loyd [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Currently reading A Corner of the World by Mylene Fernandez Pintado (City Lights)

XMAS in July (or September)

10 Sep

For the last few years I have gathered up the lovely and compelling art books (perhaps still referred to as coffee table books) and “curated an array of such for the Daily Beast. While I wonderful task,I was continuously faced with the vexing task of leaving out too many worthy books —just because of the large number of candidates. And despite the supposedly declining physical book market, that quandary has only become greater.

So, I have decided to offer more frequent surveys of tomes that I liken mobile art galleries. Here’s some of my latest finds:

Transcuba by Pathy Allen

Transcuba by Pathy Allen

Transcuba by Mariela Castro Espín, Allen Frame, Wendy Watriss,Mariette Pathy Allen(Daylight Books)

New York-based photographer and painter Mariette Pathy Allen has been documenting transgender culture worldwide for more than 30 years. Apparently under the newest regime the transgender community of Cuba is gaining some measure of acceptance. This tome also includes interviews and and a note from Director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education in Havana, Mariela Castro, who is the director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education in Havana (who happens to be Cuban President Raúl Castro’s daughter), and was instrumental in passage (2008)of the law to allowing transgender individuals to receive sex reassignment surgery and change their legal gender.

From Transcuba—Amanda at home wearing Eiffel Tower T-Shirt

From Transcuba—Amanda at home wearing Eiffel Tower T-Shirt

From Trans Cuba-Nomi and Miguel, partners, watching television at Malu’s apartment

From Trans Cuba-Nomi and Miguel, partners, watching television at Malu’s apartment

The Photobook: A History Volume III by Martin Parr

The Photobook: A History Volume III by Martin Parr

The Photobook:A History Volume III by Martin Parr,Gerry Badger(Phaidon)

The third and final volume in Phaidon’s The Photobook: A History bring the series fully up to date with a curated selection of more than 200 photobooks dating from World War II to the present day with a splendid collection of 800 images.

The Seventh Dog by Danny Lyon

The Seventh Dog by Danny Lyon

The Seventh Dog by Danny Lyon(Phaidon Press)

The Seventh Dog, is Lyon’s personal overview of his life and work including some of his classic series from the earliest, Bikeriders and the Texas Prisons to the recent Occupy (2011) and Indian Nations (2002). Whitney Museum curator Elisabeth Sussman, provides an introductory essay for this seminal monograph

From The Seventh Dog by Danny Lyon

From The Seventh Dog by Danny Lyon

Fictitious Dishes by Dinah Fried

by Dinah Fried

Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Mealsby( Dinah Fried (Harper Design)

Here’s a fun book—the publisher, Harper Design, touts this tome as “fifty iconic culinary scenes from literary classics…” which includes “food facts and anecdotes about the authors, their work, and their culinary predilections.”

Fictitious Dishes by Dinah Fried

Fictitious Dishes by Dinah Fried

The Oldest Living Things in the World   by Rachel Sussman

The Oldest Living Things in the World by Rachel Sussman

The Oldest Living Things in the World by Rachel Sussman(University Of Chicago Press)

Here MS Sussman elucidates the thinking underpinning her project and some of those Oldest Living Things:

Since 2004 I’ve been researching, working with biologists, and traveling the world over to photograph continuously living organisms 2000 years old and older: the oldest living things in the world. My practice is contextualized by the multidisciplinary inquiries of Matthew Ritchie and the new conceptualism of Taryn Simon and Trevor Paglen, who likewise gain physical access to restricted subjects and illustrate complex concepts with photographs supported by text. The work spans disciplines, continents, and millennia: it’s part art and part science, has an innate environmentalism, and is underscored by an existential incursion into Deep Time. I begin at ‘year zero,’ and look back from there, exploring the living past in the fleeting present. This original index of millennia-old organisms has never before been created in the arts or sciences.

I approach my subjects as individuals of whom I’m making portraits in order to facilitate an anthropomorphic connection to a deep timescale otherwise too physiologically challenging for our brain to internalize. It’s difficult to stay in Deep Time – we are constantly drawn back to the surface. This vast timescale is held in tension with the shallow time inherent to photography. What does it mean to capture a multi-millennial lifespan in 1/60th of a second? Or for that matter, to be an organism in my 30s bearing witness to organisms that precede human history and will hopefully survive us well into future generations?

  The Waiting Game by Txema Salvans

The Waiting Game by Txema Salvans

Txema Salvans:The Waiting Game by Martin Parr,John Carlin, Txema Salvans( RM)

Here’s a piece of an interview with Spanish photographer Txema Salvans:

Okay, look – I’ll give you some prior history so that you understand where I come from. I studied biology, and my passion since I was very young has always been science – as much physics as astronomy, the animal world and so on… Myself as a child, my heroes were Carl Sagan and Darwin, they weren’t photographers. I began and directed all my studies toward the world of science. Here in Spain, when the time comes to decide demarcate and decide which subjects you’re going to study and you focus more on Humanities or Sciences, I was always more inclined toward the world of science and I began to study biology. Once I was in the institute, which is the step immediately prior to entering university, I began a little by pure chance with photography – with a photography workshop. A girlfriend of mine had an aunt who was a photographer and I began assisting her. What I’m trying to say is that in the end, where I find myself now, I’m developing a kind of photography that is very much based in the idea of anthropology – so that my pictures, in the hands of an anthropologist or historian, are also interesting. I sometimes see myself as a naturalist, like one of those guys who travelled in the 19th century, who went exploring other territories and who documented in a very objective and formal style what they saw.

 From Txema Salvans's The Waiting Game

From Txema Salvans’s The Waiting Game

To begin with, I decided quite some time ago to work from that which I know, which is Spain, which is my culture. You know that in photography people can begin to work or can start out in photography from that with which they empathise, so if it’s a person who does a lot of sport and is a cycling fan, then they photograph the world of cycling or climbing or travel, or if it’s someone who loves to party and spends much of their time in nightlife then they start with that. I basically realised straight away that that about which I could speak would be that which I could understand. So, when I go to a Spanish wedding I can understand, I don’t need it to be explained to me what is the particular choreography of that wedding, and which are the important characters in that wedding, or what is happening and the cultural specificity of what it is that I’m seeing. I suppose that also owing to my more scientific or pragmatic way of seeing, I happen to love to photograph that which I understand. So, within that which I understand or in terms of photographing the society to which I belong, I have concentrated on that which is contemporary leisure – holidaying people and leisure spaces. In a moment I’ll get to the issue of the prostitutes and explain how it was that that idea emerged…

So, why holidays? First, in part due to practical constraints. I mean to say, I can go out and photograph unconcerned – well, not so unconcerned now because when people see a camera they’re spooked – but let’s say that during the months of spring and summer I can go and take photographs when I want because I know where those leisure spaces are, I don’t need..

The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc

The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc

The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc(Enchanted Lion Books)

Canadian illustrator Marianne Dubuc has created many different kinds of books for readers of all ages. The story line for this book (courtesy of the publisher)— one autumn day, a lion finds a wounded bird in his garden. With the departure of the bird’s flock, the lion decides that it’s up to him to care for the bird. He does and the two become fast friends. Nevertheless, the bird departs with his flock the following autumn. What will become of Lion and what will become of their friendship? And it should not go unsaid that this tome is keeping with the high bench mark Enchanted Lion Books has set for its books.

Marianne Dubuc

Marianne Dubuc

Van the Man

9 Sep
Lit Up Inside by  Van Morrison

Lit Up Inside by Van Morrison

The big news for devotees of Van Morrison is that he has deigned to authorize a book of his lyrics entitled “Lit Up Inside’ to be published by City Lights.
The two hundred page tome will include one-third of the lyrics Morrison has written over the course of his career.

Speaking about the book , Van explains,”The lyrics in this book span 50 years of writing and as such are representative of my creative journey.”

One of my favorite Morrison songs (of recent vintage):

Meaning of Loneliness

Lost in a strange city, nowhere to turn

Far cry from the streets that I came from

It can get lonely when you’re traveling hard

But you can even be lonely standing in your own backyard

Nobody knows the existential dread

Of the things that go on inside someone else’s head

Whether it be trivial or something that Dante said

But, baby, nobody knows the meaning of loneliness

No matter how well you know someone you can only ever guess

How can you ever really know somebody else?

It takes more than a lifetime just to get to know yourself

Nobody knows the meaning of loneliness

I have to say a word about solitude

For the soul it, sometimes they say, can be good

And I’m partial to it myself, well, I must confess

Nobody knows the meaning of loneliness

Well, there’s Sartre and Camus, Nietzsche and Hesse

If you dig deep enough you gonna end up in distress

And no one escapes having to live life under duress

And no one escapes the meaning of loneliness

Well, they say keep it simple when it gets to be a mess

And fame and fortune never brought anyone happiness

I must be lucky, some of my friends think that I’m really

blessed

(Chorus elided)

Ever since I heard a song called Here Comes the Night by a then unknown group called Them I have been transfixed by Irish singer George Ivan (“Van”) Morrison. Forty something recordings later (some of which are truly classics), Morrison is still a commanding entertainer who has managed to stay true to his roots, inspired by soulful American singers such as Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Mose Allison and Lead Belly, labeling his music as “Caledonia soul.” Infamously, Morrison became the first living inductee not to attend his own induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Pretty cool.huh?

Currently reading No Future for You: Salvos from The Baffler
by John Summers,Chris Lehmann,Thomas Frank

The Baffler: The Blunted Cutting Edge

8 Sep

One of life’s mysteries that evades my understanding is why magazines which give thoughtful analysis and critique to the avalanching dysfunction of modern civilization (especially as exhibited by the most powerful nation in the known world) do not have greater followings and readership. Not least on my list of under-appreciated publications is the Baffler

The Baffler  covers

The Baffler covers

Given the  dissatisfaction, all too frequently misdirected, that citizens and other residents of the US of A we are told, frequently express in opinion polls, you’d think there would be a rising movement to seek out answers in other than the unusual places , from other thah the usual commentators. Another one of the great mysteries I contemplate is how persistent foreign policy critic Noam Chomsky has been effectively marginalized by a huge chorus of apologists and publicists for the regnant “enlightened states” foreign policies.But that is the subject for another time.

 No Future For You: Salvos from The Baffler by editors John Summers, Chris Lehmann, Thomas Frank anthologizes 19 essays and articles from the recently resurrected issues The Baffler website explains:

There’s never been a better time to be outside the consensus — and if you don’t believe it, then peer into these genre-defining essays from The Baffler, the magazine that’s been blunting the cutting edge of American culture and politics for a quarter of a century. Here’s Thomas Frank on the upward-falling cult of expertise in Washington, D.C., where belonging means getting the major events of our era wrong. Here’s Rick Perlstein on direct mail scams, multilevel marketing, and the roots of right-wing lying. Here’s John Summers on the illiberal uses of innovation in liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts. And here’s David Graeber sensing our disappointment in new technology. (We expected teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, and immortality drugs. We got LinkedIn, which, as Ann Friedman writes here, is an Escher staircase masquerading as a career ladder.)

 

No Future for You:  by John Summers  , Chris Lehmann , Thomas Frank

No Future for You:
by John Summers , Chris Lehmann , Thomas Frank

Packed with hilarious, scabrous, up to-the-minute criticism of the American comedy, No Future for Youdebunks “positive thinking” bromides and business idols. Susan Faludi debunks Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s phony feminist handbook, Lean In. Evgeny Morozov wrestles “open source” and “Web 2.0″ and other pseudorevolutionary meme-making down to the ground. Chris Lehmann writes the obituary of the Washington Post, Barbara Ehrenreich goes searching for the ungood God in Ridley Scott’s film Prometheus, Heather Havrilesky reads Fifty Shades of Grey, and Jim Newell investigates the strange and typical case of Adam Wheeler, the student fraud who fooled Harvard and, unlike the real culprits, went to jail.

The anthology’s preface provides some background:

The Baffler born in ye olde 1988 was present at the uncreative destruction of American thought and culture.We declined back then to bow before the golden calves of the one and only future, freshly polished and hosannahed by the cyber prophets and generally greeted the messaging campaign of the boom years with a chorus of derisive horse laughs.And when the gilded swindle finally collapsed from the weight of its own sleaziness and the country embarked on its present course of jobless recovery, progress free innovation and unparalleled corporate profits we heard the call. Consensus -makers form both parties woke up in 2008 long enough to rescue the perpetrators of the fraud, then promptly fell asleep while the banks went back to business and we began writing the  salvos you now have lodged between your eyeballs.

Michael Patrick Brady opines in his Boston Globe review

“No Future for You” is by no means a light read — it’s a litany of dark, downcast diatribes that assumes its readers already know that our “postindustrial” society is in the throes of “late capitalism.” But beyond the rhetorical theatrics, the collection serves as a powerful summation of the systemic challenges we face as a nation, and a welcome reminder that we need strong, dissenting voices like The Baffler more than ever.

Of the numerous offerings ( also placed under the rubric of salvos defined as sudden, vigorous, or aggressive act or series of acts) I particularly want to point out John Summers’s The People’s Republic of Zukerstan</em> his articulate unpacking of the realities of the so-called Innovation Economy. Here’s a sample:

And so we arrive at the ultimate contradiction of the Innovation Economy’s mode of development. As we have observed, this new republic depends on reengineering the cultural environment. For the market’s winnings, a frame of acceptance must be created to justify the community’s losses. Irony must erode, so that corporate entrepreneurs can be presented as nonconformists; nonprofits must absorb surplus profit, so that hundreds of millions of dollars in government payments, grants, and contracts, along with tax incentives, subsidies, and exemptions, can be banked for subsequent transfer to the market; even the old method of “clustering” must sound futuristic, so that its actual origins in socialist redoubts like New York’s Greenwich Village (today an innovation hub, naturally) can be forgotten.

The Innovation Economy necessitates such cultural changes, but it offers no independent argument for freely choosing them. Instead, the manifest destiny of business touts innovation as if it were synonymous with progress, rather than one among its many necessary qualities, and leaves it at that.

So you can be sure the next time a wealthy college dropout like Mark Zuckerberg filches a banal idea from a couple of wealthier classmates and wants to beat them to midmarket, he need not ride the golden carpet to Silicon Valley and let Stanford or Cal Tech garner all the credit and cash. In Cambridge, teams of elites will regulate the general production from startup to corporate behemoth and make it easy for him to optimize the same thing today that he optimized yesterday. The new man of the Innovation Ideology will be free to code in the morning, head to the laboratory in the afternoon, and brag after dinner, without ever having to read books.

Innovation for what else? Not for art, literature, music, history, dance, sculpture, painting, philosophy, religion, poetry, or drama, the traditional means by which a diverse community grows conscious and formulates its standards of value. The governor of Massachusetts won’t be stopping by your office to encourage you in your efforts at moral reasoning about philanthropy, the state legislature won’t be allocating millions of dollars in matching grants for your next novel about how the homeless live, and the websites that have replaced the newspapers won’t report on your subway concert. And there is no good reason for this, except this is how business wants it.

Here’s an 2012 conversation with editor-in-chief John Summers:

John Summers [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

John Summers [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

PS: Another salvo

Currently reading The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us by Diane Ackerman (WW Norton)

Me and Nick Dawidoff talk Football and More

5 Sep

Though I am conflicted about football despite watching various levels of play (high school, college, NFL) for many years and despite my disinterest in reading books about sports, I was drawn to Nicholas Dawidoff’s
Collision, Low Crossers because I know him (having chatted with him previously) to bring an insight laden intelligence to bear on whatever interests him. It turns out this book is also unique in that he spent almost a year,essentially embedded, with the New York Jets.Reading this book and the conversation below went some distance to removing the scales from my eyes and I am able to watch my son’s Newton North Tiger’s with a fresh vision and generally having acquired a modicum of respect for players and coaches.

Collision, Low Crossers by Nick  Dawidoff

Collision, Low Crossers by Nick Dawidoff

RB: Remember I have the last word—so don’t mess with me.

ND: Even if you didn’t I would give it to you.

RB: Rachel Cohen calls you Nicky

ND: That’s what everybody calls me except for football coaches. They call me Nick.

RB: And they called you ‘Worm’.

ND: That too.

RB: That’s not so bad. I had a high school friend called Worm. He didn’t suffer from it.

ND: Well, from Miami to New York to West Newton Massachusetts, it’s all in how its intended.

RB: Waxing philosophical now, are we? Is there a subject that you wouldn’t write about?

ND:(pauses) So many, probably. I should only write about things that I am really enthusiastic about.

RB: You wrote a book on country music. You wrote a memoir about your grandfather. You edited the Library of America anthology on baseball. And as far as I know you have now done this book on football.

Baseball edited by Nicholas Dawidoff

Baseball edited by Nicholas Dawidoff

ND: In between I wrote a non-fiction, coming of age book of my childhood.

The Crowd Sounds Happy by Nicholas Dawidoff

The Crowd Sounds Happy by Nicholas Dawidoff

RB: About you.

ND: It was mainly about other people.

The FlySwatter by Nicholas Dawidoff

The FlySwatter by Nicholas Dawidoff

RB: So, is there a subject that you can’t imagine writing about?

ND: So many. It seems to me that these are—they are not all the same book, they all basically come from the same terrain, which is outsider somewhere in the United States who, by virtue of some form of ingenuity and persistence, overcomes different forms of adversity to penetrate the culture and then engage with the culture.

RB: How is that manifest in this book? I didn’t get that?

ND: Football players and coaches? These are not—most of them are not necessarily already in any form of privileged position in American culture. The huddle really is America. There is a little bit of everybody and they all come together.

RB: So with the new ‘no huddle‘ offenses—

ND: (laughs) I don’t know. It could be off shore.

RB: I was bemoaning the fact that my son’s football team doesn’t have huddles either. The coaches call plays from the sidelines. I’m thinking that takes away something from the game. I have come to, intellectually, dislike football. While I seem now to be hard wired to pay attention to it. But I don’t like myself for watching it. To me it’s evolved into a vicious game and a rotten business.

ND: Certainly football has had its share of really bad press lately. Everywhere from New Orleans with the bounties to Miami with bullying to concussions and the deplorable way the NFL handled concussions for many years. To even here in New England, where you have a player on trial for murder.Football evolves so slowly in many cultural ways but it evolves so quickly in many other ways. More than any other sport. It evolves quickly in terms of its relationship to technology.

RB: Are there statistics that cover frequency and degree of injury pre-1960 and the present? Was it a noticeably less injurious game?

ND: I don’t know. There are so many different theories. All I can say is that people are much more aware of injury and even pain. When I was spending time with the Jets I saw the distinction between how some of the players had been taught to respond to their own physical ailments when in college and now in the pros. There really is a change going on. Greg McEllroy, who was a quarterback at the University of Alabama was a rookie, he is now with the Bengals. But he was a rookie with the Jets, my year there. When he was at Alabama you were considered soft if you went to the training room. The best thing about being with the Jets for him, in that respect, was that everybody was encouraged and it was considered irresponsible if you didn’t go to the training room because they understood that a healthy player was an optimal player.

RB: Was that attitude player enforced at Alabama?

ND: He wasn’t blaming anyone in particular and I certainly wouldn’t say it was unique to Alabama. When people talked about concussions, they talk about it exactly the way you do. They talk about football with a kind of queasy ambivalence— that’s pushing towards something in which they feel their guilt about watching it. “How can you watch something that you wouldn’t let your own children play?” That kind of thinking is slowly overtaking the joy in watching it. But within the [Jets] facility nobody ever talked about it unless I asked them. And even when I asked them some of them didn’t want to talk about it. Many football players are very young so they think they are going to live forever. But even more they really want to do this. They love playing the game. It’s extremely hard to gain a foothold in the NFL and then remain there. NFL—Not For Long— that’s what they say. I also think that it would be very difficult to play something that fast, that violent and that dangerous if you are thinking about getting hurt all the time.

RB: What do they say; the injury rate is 100%?

ND: That’s what Rex Ryan always says.

RB: Everybody gets hurt.

ND:Everybody gets hurt at some point or another. It’s about levels of injury and degrees.

Unknown-5

RB: Are you a football fan?

ND: No. With this book— my two previous books had been very internal books. They have been biographical memoirs. And [so] I wanted to write about a subject that was a big American subject that was of concern to a lot of people. I was feeling sort of adversarial in my choice of subjects. Often when I choose a subject I would write a magazine piece first to see if it would be sustaining as a book. Both for me but more importantly for a reader. And I wrote about climate change deniers. I wrote about a presidents [Jimmy Carter]—since I don’t usually write about big public prominent people, that was different for me. I was really curious after President Obama was elected what the reaction to our first African-American president would be in communities where very few people voted for him. I spent a better part of a year in this northern part of Alabama in a county where almost no one voted for him.

RB: So there were no black people there?

ND: Very few. Those who were—the people who were there were very conservative to begin with. Yet their local representative was black.The sport that I was always interested in and felt the most affinity for was baseball. At the Jets facility I was known among some people as the baseball guy. A million things you’re known as —always other than your name. But I was really interested in things about football. I had written about intelligence officers before in my first book (about Moe Berg) I was really interested in the idea of people working very, very hard to the exclusion of everything else. About a big public subject and football people—the games are the exceptions. They are 16 holidays. But most of the life is spent off limits, behind walls in this window-less place where they are plotting and scheming for as many as 16 hours a day. Often it is 7 days a week on how to win football games. I really loved the idea there was this secret world which not only was it planning what every body was going to see but what every body was going to see effectively still remained secret—since when you watch a football game on television you have no idea, really, what’s going on. And it’s all based on these plays —they look like bistro menus or something that these guys are holding up [on the sidelines]. We don’t know what they mean or what they say. So where in baseball eventually everything becomes clear—the camera will even show you what pitch is called and the broadcaster will sometimes tell you. Football— I just liked how mysterious it was. So that was one thing. In a funny way I thought I would be able to bring people closer to something that they loved. Which seemed like a rewarding thing to do. But then also I always wanted to write a book about an office— a group of people working together in a very committed way on some collective endeavor, which was every thing to them to the exclusion of everything else. I would have loved to have written about the Manhattan Project in its time.

RB: What a group [that was].

ND: Exactly. And so this had always just been in mind and I thought of it as the book that I would write about a group of regulars. In effect, the Jets coaches became my regulars. It could have been any group of coaches.

RB: Really. It wouldn’t have been the same book if you had done this with the Giants

ND: It wouldn’t have been the same because the personalities would have been different. But

RB: The difference between an 8-8 team that failed to make the playoffs and a 9-7 team that won the Super Bowl.

ND: Right. It really was true that going in I ,of course, I hoped things would go well for the Jets. You can’t spend all that time with people who you come to really like and admire without wanting the best for them. But it didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to see a representative NFL season. And Bob Sutton, who you meet him the book who is the linebackers coach, and is now the defensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs, told me at one point that he thought of the NFL as a corporation with 32 branch offices. And so itinerant is the NFL life that people who were with the Jets then, are now scattered all over the league. And it’s just the luck of the right combination.

RB: There is a large amount of recycling of head coaches who are bum rushed out of one town and find glory in another town. These guys don’t lose their jobs because they are terrible coaches.

ND: If you are a terrible coach you probably are going to lose your job—

RB: —and you’ll get another one.

ND: Probably but not for certain. If you are a good NFL coach you will keep finding a job. Maybe a more powerful position or lose a little power like Tony Spirano who was a head coach with the Jets who was then the offensive coordinator. Now I think he is the line coach with the Raiders. You move up and down depending on the fortunes of your team. But it is —there is a little bit of serendipity involved. Just the right combination of people at the right time. And it really does start—clearly the Jets would have been a very successful playoff team, if they had even a workmanlike successful quarterback. The fact that they had a severely regressing quarterback—quarterback is one privileged position in the game where—

RB: You were kinder to Mark Sanchez in the book then you are being right now.

ND: I don’t feel I am being unkind to him. He would say the same thing.

RB: He would say he was regressing?

ND: That he had regressed that year? Absolutely. He is a pretty honest, straight-up guy. I really liked Sanchez— even though he teased me sometimes in merciless ways, I was sitting there watching them lose. It is all about inflection. Keep in mind that football players are really young. Some of them are not much past high school. You accept different levels of maturity —

RB: And it must be the case that some players are not intelligent.

ND: People always said that to me but I never felt that way. I always felt the way George Plimpton felt about when he was writing Paper Lion. He was constantly defending football players to his friends.

RB: I am not saying they are stupider than the norm. Unscientifically, I want to say that average intelligence is not intelligent.

ND: All I can say about football is that—it requires, more study, more book learning, more preparation, then any other sport that I can think of. It requires more time in formal classrooms, more time in absorbing information and understanding how to process it and use it with such a mastery of that information, that you don’t even have to think about it. Those are classroom techniques and if you can’t do that you better be a really, really good intuitive athlete, otherwise you are not going to last in the NFL.

RB: You noted a linebacker who couldn’t remember plays.

ND: And they reduced his role. If you just spoke with him you would think he was one the most well-spoken, interesting people in the community. There is a distinction with what we think of as academic intelligence and football intelligence. I really think, for example. that Rex Ryan is an unusually intelligent person. His qualities of human intuition, his understanding of how to motivate people and also his ability to explore the emotional life and what distinguishes people is extremely sensitive. And impressive to me.

RB: You refer a number of times to your being ‘embedded’. Was that your intention from the start?

ND: My intention was simply to spend as much time as a possible with a group of people so that I could understand what they were doing.

RB: You were prepared to but did you think you would end up spending as much time as you did?

RB: When I began I didn’t know. I doubted it; I thought that for sure I would stay through training camp. But nobody has ever been allowed to spend an entire year with a team. And I don’t think it would have happened had Rex Ryan not been head coach. I can’t say for sure ,I don’t people with the other teams—other people with the Jets are very proud of the work that they do and they feel very comfortable with themselves.

RB: You are hinting that he may be unique for the NFL coaching fraternity.

ND: He is a very unusual person whose strengths and flaws were there in very full relief. As a coach he is certainly unusual. Most coaches have a scheme and within the scheme the 11 starters play 11 roles. And with Rex its an extremely elastic scheme and find roles for everybody within it. And he is constantly revising it. He is so flexible and receptive to new information about people that he then uses with football application. That to me was very appealing. See, you know that I was always very interested in baseball and you also know that baseball writing has been far superior to football writing—not even close right? There are a lot of good reasons for that. People like Walt Whitman to Ring Lardner to Thurber to Malamud to Updike to Roger Angell—all these wonderful American writers—

RB: I’m happy you didn’t include George Will in that group.

New Library of America anthology of Football  writing

New Library of America anthology of Football
writing

Ed note:A Library of America anthology on football, Football: Great Writing About the National Sport has been published

ND: (laughs) All these great American writers who have written so well about the game and there are lots of good reasons for it. The primary is that baseball is accessible. It’s accessible because everybody has played it. Because you can see the faces. The game moves at a reflective pace, which lends itself well to being written about. Also, the game has always been receptive to journalist and reporters who can come and talk to the people for as long as they want. Whereas football has always been closed off. The form and function of the sport —it happens so fast. It’s hard to see. The players wear masks. They are obscured by armor. The rules are abstruse. Most of the life takes place off camera backstage. I wanted some way to slow football down so that you could write abut. That is what Plimpton did. He suited up and became a last string quarterback. It was a stunt but a necessary stunt because it was the only way you could get to know the people but also to get to know the mechanics of the sport with sufficient precision. For me what I came to see is the way a football season is planned, a game is planned. That felt literary to me. It was slow and gradual and resolute and fraught with mistakes and corrections and revision. That felt, to me, artistic. That was the artful part of football. For that reason, if you go and look at the acknowledgments and the source notes to my book, only one football book was a great influence to me. And that’s Paper Lion. Other than that—

RB Fredric Exeley’s A Fan’s Notes?

ND: Especially the first half, it is a wonderful book. But the books that were most affecting to me as I thought about this, were not those books.

Nicholas Dawidoff circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Nicholas Dawidoff circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: Do you know Dave Meggessey’s book Out of Our League?

Out of Their League by Dave Meggesey

Out of Their League by Dave Meggesey

ND: It’s a good book.

RB: Don Dellilo wrote a football novel.

ND: End Zone. A few people would say that Don Dellilo is the highest tier .

RB: I read this book because of you —you did open my eyes to the less obvious aspects of football. I loved that the Jet’s coaches let you call a play. Also, that Ryan called a play where all the linebackers were supposed to rush and they dropped back instead and the play worked. And Ryan didn’t want anyone to know that it was a mistake.

ND: [Ryan] “Don’t tell! Don’t tell!”

RB: Then Marv Lewis [of the Bengals] sees his guys running the same play, ”You dumb asses!” He knew it was a mistake. (laughs)

ND: There is a whole world—if you sit as I did, for an entire year with a group of seven defensive coaches in effect watch the season through the prism of their experience of it. They are watching a completely different sport. Just as the angles on film, the way that you watch film is different from what’s televised. Everything that is happening is completely different —or not completely different —its two parallel games.

RB: It does give one pause to wonder about the intelligence of the football fan.
I think of the obese, widow maker wearing, beer swilling, chip devouring, couch tuber—yelling at the TV when his team is not performing well.

ND: Not Fred Exeley?

RB: Right. Every sport has fans that couldn’t perform one athletic feat but are able to denigrate the players when they aren’t doing well.

ND: Isn’t it the same with politics—you’re up, you’re down. Same thing.

RB: You think that people approach politics in the same way they view athletic contests?

ND: People feel perfectly comfortable assuming a level of expertise that would risible and yet they do and that’s also acknowledged within and without as part of the pleasure of it. It ‘s fun to talk about politics, wherever you are, and its fun to talk about football. And you would talk about these things and, maybe write about them in ways that you wouldn’t talk or write about other activities.

RB: I’ve seen the observation that many people would rather read about baseball then watch a game.

ND: It’s a testament to good writing.

RB: And the andante tempo of the game.

ND: Most of the best baseball writing probably isn’t an account of a game except for the exception of Don De Lillo. But even that is so inflected with his imagination. I am talking about “Pafko at the Wall”, which became part of Underworld. Your conception of football fans —I know you don’t really mean because football is the single most popular thing in the country. So every body is watching.

RB: Can you explain why? Especially as you point out most people don’t really know or understand the game.

ND: When we say they don’t know what they are watching, they don’t know the coded essence of the game, the underpinnings of the game. But what people see is incredibly dramatic. It’s graceful. It’s violent. It’s exciting. You can understand it. Also, a lot of the appeal of football, of course, has to do with television. Television has amplified, broadened, brightened and also slowed down football in such a way that you can —coaches after games who were just watching it live standing in the sidelines often will tell the press. I can’t answer your question until I look at the film. And the only reason we can answer questions, sometimes, is because of replay. There are other more, deeper reasons why people respond to football. The Jet psychologist would say that people respond to football because there is somewhere in everyone the urge to ‘drill’ another person. I would say that so much about football is actually counterintuitive. Football is the game of touchdowns and America is the country of films with happy endings, feel good films. I really think of football as the sport of disappointment and failure and what you do with it. Even though fans watch hoping to win, people stick with a franchise like the Jets which hasn’t won everything since 1969 —it has to do with, not misguided loyalty, but acknowledgment that there is something in football disappointment that is powerful and compelling. If you walk into an NFL facility on a Monday morning after these guys have all but eliminated sleep and all but eliminated family life pleasure and joys to completely concentrate on this. And to have gone out there in the most public way in front of all these people and been humiliated. And you have to walk in the facility on Monday morning and watch the film of what just happened to you and know that there is a press corps that is going to writing about this in the most scathing possible ways and then you have to play another game the following weekend. To walk in on a Monday morning is like —I just always thought of it as something into the picture of a depression.

RB: (laughs)

ND:I expected to round the corner in the hallway and there would be trees down and there’d be overturned cars and garbage cans and broken glass, papers blowing around and things like that. People are devastated after they lose. Especially a big game. They don’t sleep. And then they have to do it all over again. I thought what was most admirable about football people—people who were made for the sport—which wouldn’t be me— are they can overcome this by Wednesday. And greet their players and subordinates in such a way that they can be optimistic. They can resume their sense of confidence and even bon hommie. And by the following week they can be ready to do it again.

RB: Baseball is also a game of failure. Every [good] coach will tell his players after they strike out or make an error. “Forget about it. On to the next one.”

ND: Yeah but in baseball the stakes are so much lower. The ultimate stakes are similar. A three game losing streak in baseball— in football is the equivalent to a 30 game losing streak in baseball. The Jets just lost 3 in a row as we sit here. How would you feel after you lost 30 baseball games in a row? I mean, it’s unimaginable. But the proportions are the same.

RB: Is there a growing interest in football by women?

ND: Much greater. It’s the fastest growing demographic.

RB: Why?

ND: Why shouldn’t women take some of the same pleasure that the men do?

RB: They don’t play it.

ND: A lot of the man who enjoy football didn’t play it either. More people play baseball than watch baseball but football is a different thing—its graceful, beautiful, dangerous and dramatic. I talked to several wives of Jets people about this. They all pointed out how handsome football players and how great they look in those uniforms.

RB: You can see well-defined butts.

ND: Yeah and you can see then doing the most balletic things. The aesthetic qualities of football have been much enhanced. Also, how people think about their bodies. Look at Tom Brady when he was a rookie versus Tom Brady now. I am sure it doesn’t help that he is married to someone whose whole business is appearance. He has completely transformed his appearance.

RB: And the Super Bowl winning Redskin offensive line—what were they called The Hogs?

ND: Most linemen are enormous men But to watch people who are that big and run that quickly with that kind of choreographed agility is something to see. Why do we like spectator sports? Ultimately, it is a chance to do something, which I think is one of the most admirable things about humanity, which is the appreciation of things that other people can do. People who can play professional football for all of the —you talk about people in the peanut gallery talking in disparaging ways about athletes. Everybody understands that underneath it all, that the worst guy on a football team is the most sensational athlete from his town in generations.

RB: I don’t think they understand that.

ND: I’m not sure.

RB: IF they knew that there might be a more generous attitude about the players. If you are right than tht unerstanding must be very deeply buried

ND: One of the advantages of football being so distant, in a way, is that you didn’t have to be kind. It was a place to put those lesser angels.

RB: The defense of what I call crass behavior of fans is that you buy the ticket and you can say whatever.

ND: There are a lot of people walking around with a lot of frustration—wouldn’t you say? This is a fairly reasonable way to express frustration.

RB: It’s preferable to going into a post office and shooting the place [and people] up. It doesn’t make those fans more attractive.

ND: Nobody would say this is the Platonic ideal of spectating.

RB: Do you still watch football? And might you watch it with more devotion than before?

ND: It’s a funny thing I really never thought of this as a football book. Obviously, the setting is football and I was learning abut something that I didn’t know very well and was interested in—but I always thought of it as an n office book. Once I was no longer in that office it —the sport that I would really follow is the office. And while I watch football games now and certainly watch the games of the people I came to know well and care about who are in my book I wouldn’t watch it nearly as avidly as I would if I were spending time with them day in and day out. Its so different’—once you know how it works moment to moment leading up to a game if you are really immersed in it, than just to see it with a little more distance —you can see what a wonderful sport it is but for me it feels not quite as satisfying.

RB: So you enjoyed Michael Lewis’s Moneyball that is ostensibly a baseball book.

ND: A wonderful book. If I am saying that everyone of my books that boils down to outsider on fringes of society uses prominent American institution to enter and influence the culture, wouldn’t you say that everyone of his books involves looking at, somebody finding some sort of weakness or flaw in a system that can be exploited for short term even long term gain before everybody else figures out what this person has anticipated first. That’s every Michael Lewis book—that’s
Michael Lewis on business, on baseball, on high tech. That’s because it’s a great theme. And it’s so interesting.

Editor’s note: I contacted Michael Lewis on Dawidoff’s take on Lewis’s oeuvre:

“Certainly true of Moneyball and The Big Short and maybe The New New Thing. Not sure it fits the others.”

RB: What I found compelling in your book was the way coaches and scouts evaluated players and the colorful phrases that used to describe them.

ND: Obviously for me it’s going to be a book about interesting characters going through something together. Overcoming a form of adversity or not. Situations that throw them into some form of conflict. It’s just setting for the oldest virtues of storytelling.

RB: Have you carried over relationships from the book?

ND: Are there people I stay in touch with? Yeah, even coming here I got an email from one of the people I met.

RB: What’s their reaction to the book? Rex Ryan’s,if he’s seen it?

ND: I doubt it. Most people in the facility —I sent them copies but whether they have opened them I have no idea. There were a few people who read it before the season began. They have been uniformly positive. They all told me, like Mike Pattin who is the defensive coordinator and is now with the Bills told me, “You shouldn’t really worry about what I think. You should be worried what you reader is thinking.” And my experience by and large with football people was they were pretty straight up people. I loved how frank and candid they were. And they would have been disappointed with me if I weren’t the same. Bart Scott, the linebacker said, “You know football isn’t always pretty. It’s not any easy life in lots of ways. And you do us a disservice if you don’t describe it that way.” That was fairly consistent throughout. Even the very anxious general manager, Mike Tannenbaum, whose job is to be anxious and controlling —its his nature and his job. Even his response to it has been very generous. I wasn’t writing it for them. I was writing it for someone else. Your question points to something, which is a decision for a writer. Because once you are that intimately involved, in a sense that I am with them every day, watching what they do, part of the necessity of the culture is to bring everybody together in a common cause. And that common cause may ask people to make sacrifices in their own careers—statistical or otherwise. It’s just a very seductive thing to be a part of a big group especially for a writer who works by himself. It was very different to step outside it. As somebody who was inside/ outside all the time, I really got a sense of how fragile is the life in football. But also to write about it you really would have to be outside. You really have to make a definite break from it all, otherwise they were no longer characters to you— they were still people who you worry about how they felt.

RB: My son plays football and he is smart about it —he doesn’t unnecessarily throw himself into the fray. He is not one of those kamikaze players who hurls himself into the play. And I realized that he is into it because of the camaraderie. When the season was over I asked him if he missed it and he does.

ND: That’s what all the coaches say. More than playing the game itself they miss the company of other people. Some of the players were even prematurely sentimental.They were thinking about what it would belike not to have all these people to talk with everyday. For a lot of people in football they come from terrible childhood circumstances. Many come from single parent families, grew up in dire poverty. Lot of them knew considerable violence when they were children. There is the player in the book—Julian Posey who says football is his father. But he speaks for lots of people I the book in the sense that its very seductive appealing thing to have this community of people who want the best for you but are going to push you to achieve your best and also are going to be on hand all the time to support you. Sure there are many other accouterment of daily life—meals are there at the facility for you. There’s a dry cleaner. There’s a car wash. Everything is taken care so you can concentrate on being as successful as you can ta very difficult pursuit. More than anything, the younger players just really having older players who they can look up to. Older players like having coaches. For me. that was the most appealing part of it.

RB:What do you make of what happened in Miami?

ND: For me. It was different. It’s a SUV world. I drive a mini Cooper. It’s a steak and burger world and I would eat beet salads at lunch. When I exercise I wear a bandana. One of then is purple—the chief of scouts stops a meeting and he says, ”So Nicky, there are headband concerns.” There was a tremendous amount of teasing, all of which I loved. And you can just tell —intuitively, you can tell the difference between something that is affectionate and makes you feel closer to other people and something that’s mean spirited. What can happen is—we were talking earlier about Mark Sanchez and the other quarterbacks—they called me Bookworm, which quickly turned to Worm. Nobody likes being called worm or creep, everyday. I can see that when your whole life is endless meetings and practices, which go on from before dawn till deep into the evening, everyday with the same people and one of them is just getting a lot of pleasure about making you feel badly about yourself. How pretty quickly it could become intolerable if you were a certain kind of person. Especially, if that person were the most powerful colleague you had.

RB: I get that.

ND: Football is tedium. It is practicing and revising and over and over. The few days that you are repeating the same physical motion hundreds and hundreds of times and if you have someone around who can bring joy and humor and seem as though—Rex Ryan used to talk about his greatest coaching ability was his ability to make people believe that they weren’t doing the same thing over and over again. Sounds like small thing but it isn’t.

RB: So what do you think happened with the Miami Dolphins? Or how was it allowed to happen?

ND: One of the things that can happen is that environment things almost casually devolve. I don’t think it was ever that any one pointed to any one.

RB: Abuse wasn’t pointed toward Jason Martin?

ND: I think it was —of course I think it was disgusting and degrading and he was the object of derision. But it was never done—the expression of it wasn’t so deliberately brutal (this is all speculation on my part) but over time it gradually devolved into something that was horrible.

RB: Martin took it for a while and then it reached a point where he didn’t.

ND: The degrees of what he was taking and how it was feeling abut it. He’s young person. Nothing could be more troubling than Incognito’s behavior bit almost as troubling was that—I talked to some of the Jets guys about this, “I never saw anything remotely like this was I missing something?” They said no, what they couldn’t understand were the other Dolphins players. Bart Scott said, “If I saw anything remotely like this, that guy would have had 6 of us, he would have been up against the wall, answering for this.” Let’s not pretend that football locker room all harmony and comity but there is a great deal of fraternity and a great deal of —the word ‘love’ was used an awful lot. I saw a great deal of affection and concern for other people I don’t know why that didn’t happen in Miami. Makes me glad I wasn’t in Miami.

RB: I find the professions of ignorance disturbing.

ND: You shouldn’t be as surprised by that. The idea that this is locker room culture is a misnomer. Football players don’t spend all that much time as a team in the locker room. Even when they are together somebody is in the shower. Someone is in the equipment room. Someone is late. Someone has gone to lift weights. Only in team meetings is everyone together. By and large, the time when people spend the most time together would be in their position groups. In those little windowless rooms where they go to have their meetings and things. Somebody who is bound and determined to give you a hard time, pretty quickly those walls will close in.

RB: Are all NFL team facilities like bunkers?

ND: That’s what I am told. This is a job where you want be completely focused and committed to your purpose and you want to have mothering else going in but football. That’s the object.

RB: Are football players conservative by and large?

ND: You shouldn’t think of professional football players in any sort of general way. Every kind of person is playing football. Rex Ryan used to begin training camp, the first team meeting, by describing who was on the team. It was a long, bluesy riff and it was funny. In effect we have tall guys and short guys we have wild guys and religious guys and he would just go on and on. And it was true.

RB: But there are demographics that stand out—lots of black males, many from poor circumstances.

ND: Sure the sport is 67 % African American.

RB: Many who were sold football as a way of climbing out of their poverty.

ND: I don’t think too many of them would use the word ‘sold’. For many of them it was a joy and a pleasure and escape.

RB: I was reading Greg Easterbrook’s King of Sports. He argues that Nick Saban recruits for Alabama by selling it his program as a steppingstone to the NFL. As opposed to appealing to his kids with Alabama’s glorious tradition and wonderful campus and the joys of being a student athlete.

ND: All these guys want to be in the NFL.I don’t see that has anything to do with their reasons—

RB: The notion of selling the program—

ND: That’s what all college programs do. Penn State used to have—every team has a pro day in which professional coaches come to visit and evaluate the draft eligible players on a college team. One the things they do is sprint and the coaches see how fast they can sprint. At Penn State the place where they hold the sprints is slightly downhill grade. Every college team wants its players to go to the NFL and the players want to go. It’s no different than Yale selling its drama program by the number of people who get to Broadway.

RB: Yes, but what are the odds.

ND: And the odds are better from Alabama than from other schools. You are suggesting they are giving these kids false hope.

RB: Sure.

ND: Might be. Ever read Darcy Frey’s book The Last Shot. It’s a whole book about false hope. And yet the only reason people make it is because enough people have to believe they can overcome and be the exception and it creates an activity full of exceptions.

RB: Maybe this an obvious question —are you happy with this book?

ND: Yeah, I think so. It’s not really for me to say any more. I did the best—

RB: —you wrote it. I am not asking, is it a good book?

ND: Am I pleased with it? Yeah. It takes a while with books —the same thing happens with every book. Which is to say where your book is going to go and how you are going to feel about are so mysterious. When I say where its going to go even for your more obscure books, you’ll still have business in some far fling place and you’ll check into a little inn and you’ll get into bed and you turn on the night light and there will be some books there and you’ll look and then one of them will look pretty familiar. So you never know where they are going end up. But then if you are the sort of person who hadn’t looked a that book in long time and maybe it was published 30 years ago and you open up that book and you start reading—most writers I know would say that they felt, ”I guess it was ok”. And so far I think this one is ok

RB: You haven’t gone back to look at past books?

ND: I was projecting to my own future. I have heard other writers talk about their books in that way. For me, I don’t really like to look back because there are so many books I want to write. Life is short and they take me so long to write that I wouldn’t want to spend time feeling nostalgic. I am reading portions of it around the country right now. When I read from it I feel ok about the portions I am reading. You can always immediately think of small things you wish were different. The major decisions, the conception and the architecture of the book are sound. I created it based on two outlines that took me many months to make—one was chronological, the other was thematic. The whole pleasure and joy of this kind of non-fiction writing is to embed a series of themes in events and move in and out of them so that the whole thing is woven together in way that reads like a good story. The actual structure of it is based on a fairly if only to yourself complex notion of what it could be.

Nick Dawidoff circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Nick Dawidoff circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: So now you are about the task of hawking your book, publicizing your book…

ND: (chuckles) I am telling you, you would just be a phenomenal success in an NFL locker I can just see a “C” [captain] on that jersey very soon.

RB: (laughs) Did I say something wrong?

ND: You have skin like an armadillo

RB: (laughs) So what’s next?

ND: I am interested in two big themes and I want to find the right subjects for them. One, is I am very interested in income inequality. I grew in a city which is one of the poorest cities in the country. New Haven. And it has one of the wealthiest universities in the world there. Since my childhood not much functionally has changed abut New Haven even though New Haven has changed a lot. It breaks my heart that New Haven is this way and makes me want to think about why in America, such a prosperous country, why this happens.

RB: What’s an organizational entry point in that issue?

ND: I have some ideas. They are so inchoate it’s not right to say yet. And then I would really like to write a book about a great American artist.

RB: Any candidates?

ND: Even when I was writing this book when I had free time I would go and visit Robert Frank {The Americans).

Genesis by John B Judis

Genesis by John B Judis

The Americans by Robert Frank

The Americans by Robert Frank

RB: How old is he now?

ND: He’s in his late 80s.

RB: How coherent is he?

ND: I love spending time with him. I find him to be a wonderful person.

RB: He opened up to you?

ND: I think so.

RB: You get football players to like you. Cranky, old artists. Not bad.

ND: I am going to have to work on you. Just kidding.

RB: I like you fine.

ND: I am just so interested in his work and then was interested in that he’s the person who made it.

RB: The more recent work or the work that made him famous?

ND: I love the Americans—like most people that’s what brought me to him. If that is a source of attraction once you become interested in someone everything is apart of it. If you are interested in a novelist like Svevo than he come to him because of Zeno’s Conscience. But all the other books, which are essentially small sketches for that novel, are still interesting because you all the years that made the great book.

RB: How is it that Rolling Stone is interested in Robert Frank?

ND: They asked me if there was something I would like to write about.

RB: So can offer suggestions. They must like you.

ND: (laughs)

RB: Add magazine editors to the list

ND: Pretty soon I am going to have a whole team. (both laugh)

RB: You’re pretty popular.

ND: Tell that to my neighbors, maybe they’ll like me

RB: What, do you play music too loud? Raise chickens? Your kids break windows?

ND: I aspire to raise window breakers. Remember the part in the book where the coaches teach my son how to be a better tackler?

RB: Why would think I have time to read a 460 page book? (both laugh)

ND: There is a point in the book where my son —

RB: —I know.

ND: —tackles a little 2 year old girl in his singing group who is wearing a pink ballerina tutu. And the coaches are overjoyed the next day. And they give me tips how to teach him to tackle better

RB: What are the people who come to your readings wanting to know about football?

ND: They want to know quite a few of the things that you have asked.

RB: What! (laughs)

ND: I mean, with in the broader themes that you are interested in—pain or injury. The big national subjects of concussions and bullying are—its clear football has to change. This should not be the conversation especially about something that is intended to be for enjoyment and pleasure. They shouldn’t be talking about brain injuries, about bounties and murder. And they shouldn’t be talking about harassment. So this is not good for football. If football is savvy about it and football has always been pretty savvy in its modern era.

RB: And recalcitrant.

ND: Recalcitrant but savvy. Football has many advantages that saw that I don’t see the NFL taking much interest in. Namely, there are so many interesting people within the sport. And they are all obscured form the public. Football would do better to continue with Hard Knocks, the Bill Bellichick documentary—even my experience where you tell the stories about football that have been traditionally told about baseball.

RB: More questions?

ND: People want to know what it was like to call a play. Only 10 % of the time do all eleven players do what they are supposed to do. It was really fun. Nothing can compare to actually doing it under live conditions. Football coaches by and large—I had so much admiration for first and foremost what we were talking about earlier—their ability to overcome tremendous pubic adversity and to some degree shame and walk out into the world, days later with an integrity to their optimism and self confidence intact. That is, they were able to arouse the same I their players. That’s hard to do. The really good ones—I would say that every coach (with Jets) would have been so clearly the best coach I had ever been around. I never had any coaches like that. They are in the NFL for a reason. What a really good coach does is he has you thinking about his ideals long after you have been around him. I think a lot about their expectations. And their expectations of me— these are people who are simultaneously nurturing and evaluating all the time. I felt it that I had to behave and be on my marks at all times. It is such fragile professional life. People were getting cut all the time. That phrases “on the street—that’s a true phrase. You are either in or you are gone. Once you are outside that facility. The gate closes and— it’s a large and lonely echo. I felt entirely to the end, all the time, I felt I the back of my mind that they could just wash their hands of me. That I had become a distraction in some way. Once some one began making jokes in a meeting that I was a spy for the Patriots and I was going to divulge secrets (I didn’t understand the secrets well enough to divulge them) it was horrifying to me. There were several moments like that. Of course I didn’t want him to know it was horrifying to me but it was. There was a day that had a media consultant come in (who usually worked with politicians) on how to deal with the press. Up on the screen come the Michael Hastings /Rolling Stone piece, “The Runaway General”. He was going on and on about how all reporters were just trying to make friends with you but they were just out to betray you and ruin your life. And I had just written a Paul Simon profile for Rolling Stone, which the coaches all knew and they were all looking at me

RB: (laughs)

ND: IF I could disappear into the fabric of your seat that would have been me then.

RB: Excellent, thank you.

ND: Thank you —always nice to see you

A Radiant, Incandescent Zero: Cuba in Splinters

4 Sep
At Pan Am Games, 1992, Havana-[photo Robert Birnbaum

At Pan Am Games, 1992, Havana-[photo Robert Birnbaum

Imagine a twelve year old displaced person from Europe living in Chicago and being fascinated with the triumphant Cuban overthrow of United Fruit supported dictator Fulgencia Batista in 1959. Revolution was not quite a dirty word yet and the Bearded Ones remained heroes until their ambitions for national sovereignty and independence from their Uncle were made clear.

Ceiling detail,Havana 1992-[photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Ceiling detail,Havana 1992-[photo: Robert Birnbaum]

And still from that time on the young man grew ever fascinated with all things Cuban— the music, the literature, the cigars, the rum,the compelling story of Cuban World Chess Champion José Raúl Capablanca (which the great Cuban writer Gulliermo Cabrera Infante wanted to make into a movie), the baseball players (from Orestes Minoso, Pedro Ramos, Diegio Segui and Octavio Rojas to Zoilo Versalles,Tony Oliva, Livan and Orlando Hernandez to Bert Campaneris, Yoenis Céspedes and Yasiel Puig —to name a few), the boxers (the tragic Benny Kid Paret, Kid Chocolate (Eligio Sardinias Montalvo), the amazing Kid Gavilan:”The Cuban Hawk”, heavyweight Teófilo Stevenson) and the nonpareil middle distance Olympic champion, Alberto Juantorena.And later, the spell binding resonant Havana sun illuminating the Malecon. By 1997, he had traveled to Cuba twice and when his son was born in 1998 he was named Cuba. That young man grew up to be me.

Cuba in Splinters: Eleven Stories from the New Cuba Selected and edited by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Cuba in Splinters: Eleven Stories from the New Cuba
Selected and edited by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Cuba continues to hold an unsettled niche in the north American imagination. Say the word in a room full of people and ears perk up and genuinely interested questions rise to the surface. To be sure, the long and gratuitous US embargo has contributed to the hazy sense of understanding Cuba—of the Caribbean’s largest island nation, which is mostly seen as a sanctuary/preserve for 50’s vintage American motor vehicles.Needless to say many things have changed in the last decade and in those changes echo through Cuba in Splinters: Eleven Stories*from the New Cuba selected and edited by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo,translated by Hillary Gulley(OR Books)

Pardo Lazo characterizes the sum total of the eleven stories:

It is possible that this anthology is the portrait of a family that never was. The communicating vessels between these eleven stories are not bridges but circuits: affinities, violence, tensions between text and anti-text which coinciding in the same book, produce a collision that consumes its own meaning, generating light. A radiant, incandescent zero of patria-plasma

He concludes

…no one knows what past awaits us. Antepenultimate visions of the holocastro.This anthology couldn’t be anything but the portrait of this family that would have been a would-have-been. The future is today. Let it read.

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo was born in Havana, Cuba. He graduated from the University of Havana with a degree in biochemistry.He produces the blog, Boring Home Utopics, which describes itself as “the Collective Memories from a Unique Man in the Brave New Zoociety” and the author of Boring Home, awarded the Czech literary award .the Franz Kafka prize)< Lazo also founded the literary e-zine Voces in 2010 and has been, along with well known dissident blogger, Yoani Sanchez harassed and arrested by Cuban state security officials.

Here talks about the new Cuba:

* included in this collection:Jorge Alberto Aguiar Díaz, Jorge Enrique Lage, Jhortensia Espineta, Ahmel Echevarría Peré, Lien Carrazana Lau, Polina Martínez Shviétsova, Michel Encinosa Fú, Lia Villares,Erick J. Mota, Raúl Flores, Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Prado, Havana Cuba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Prado, Havana Cuba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Currently reading A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen by Liel Leibovitz

Self Vs. Self

3 Sep
Shark by Will Self

Shark by Will Self

In lieu of spending hours transcribing my most recent (2014) chat with the now maturated ,bad boy novelist and social commentator Will Self, I call your attention to his recent auto auditory opus. Along with Martin Amis, and despite the challenges of their fiction, they are two of the most engaging and stimulating conversationalists I have encountered. “The author of novels including the Booker-shortlisted Umbrella and the newly-published Shark asks himself whether he is willfully obscure, what role addictive illness plays in his work, what it’s like living with the same character for 25 years – and how come he’s only just noticed how tall he was.”

Will Self circa 2003 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Will Self circa 2003 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

I talked to Will a few times last century and the first time in this one, in 2003 for his newest novel : d most recently Dorian: An Imitation. Here’s a tidbit from that:

Robert Birnbaum: Do people still attach the word ‘jolly’ to the phrase “old England”? Is there a jolly old England?

Will Self: No. Jolly has gone. I think where you can mark the real decline of jollity somewhat paradoxically, is to the Blair regime, the Blair government. When they came into office in ’97, on a tide of apparent jollity, a reassertion of social democratic virtues, a kicking out of the previous corrupt conservative regime that had been in place for seventeen years and was riddled with actual pecuniary corruption, that jollity was very quickly perceived publicly as an act of media manipulation. And the focus then turned to the idea that this was a new regime that was predicated in a way that no previous regime had been, not to quite the same extent, on appearance rather than reality. This was a government of spin-doctors. A government of public relations, a government that fixed its policies on the basis of focus groups, that went out and tried to get people’s assent to a policy and then moved that way around it rather than actually being a creative government. [A government] That introduced a great deal of cynicism into the British political sphere. At the same time you had a kind of schizophrenia entering public life over the issue of whether we were an economy and a society that was really taking our model from American neo-liberal economists or whether we still had a serious interest in a united Europe. That’s really been the sawhorse upon which economics and politics in Britain has very painfully fallen on its crotch for the past six years. That tends to undermine any conception of jollity. At the same time all kinds of—things have happened in Britain—like the crack cocaine epidemic has finally reached Britain.

Dorian: An Imitation by Will Self

Dorian: An Imitation by Will Self

And then there is:

RB: I recently read Colum McCann‘s Dancer, which touches upon this period of AIDS, Warholian fame clique in Manhattan and what was a matter of interest was that now looking back this need to excise all or any fun out of that era, a retrospective moralizing and denunciation…

WS: I would not quite take that view. No, I think you can say that everybody’s experience is going to be partial. Whether you are having fun is an existential proposition not a universal one, isn’t it? And fun, the very idea of fun, is curiously atemporal.

RB: (Laughs)

WS: You know you are having fun when you know what time it is. So almost by definition it’s not gonna be an observation about cultural history to say, “Didn’t we have fun?” It’s gonna be an observation about cultural amnesia.

RB: Didn’t we have fun?

WS: That’s of course a different inquiry. My take on all of this is—and it’s an era I lived through—people say “How do you have the right to write about this?” I was an IV drug user during this period. I had my first HIV test in 1985. I was aware of the spread of AIDS epidemic which was savage in the IV-drug-using community just as much as it was among gay people. Now, I’m not saying, “Now look at me, I’ve suffered too.” I kind of despise that attitude. The truth is I haven’t got the virus and I feel very fortunate about that. The fact of the matter is I was aware of it during this period and I did see what it was doing. My perception was that following the Halloween parade riots and the real outburst of gay liberation at the end of the ’60s and the beginning of the ’70s, one thing is true in life, in the realm of the emotions, events that are consecutive are interpreted causally. You have a row with your lover and they rush out into the street and ten hours later they are killed by a bus and you caused that. I think the perception both outside the gay community and within the gay community, was we gained some level of social acceptability or at any rate we were allowed to be out publicly. We then had a lot of fun and games. We then fell victim in large numbers to a sexually transmitted virus. Our behavior caused that. Now, people of the so-called Moral Majority and on the right were saying that. My perception is that lot of gay people internalized that as well. And felt that as well. I remember talking to people about this at the time. There was a sense no matter how unjustified, of guilt around this behavior because of that ‘law’ of the emotions, if you like. And some people have said this text has a kind of homophobic taint to it. It looks at those ideas. As far as I’m concerned, again, like that point about fun, there is a retrospective desire now because of highly active retroviral treatment—really the evil bloom has been taken or people perceive it as being taken off the AIDS epidemic. People want to deny it ever happened. They want to kind of forget about it, “Let’s just forget about that stuff.”

Will Self  circa 2014 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Will Self circa 2014 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Currently reading The Constant Gardener by John LeCarre (Scribner)

The Big Picture x 4

3 Sep
On This Earth by Nick Brandt

On This Earth by Nick Brandt

Nick Brandt began a decade long photographic project in 2001, creating three magnificent books (On This Earth, A Shadow Falls and Across A Ravaged Land), memorializing an East Africa environment whose existence was rapidly receding to non-existence. These three tomes, collected with majestic and poignant images, some of the world’s last great populations of large mammals—elephants, giraffes, lions, and gorillas in large-format, well reproduced editions.

A Shadow Falls by Nick Brandt

A Shadow Falls by Nick Brandt

In A Shadow Falls, features fifty-eight images, in oversized tritone plates, capturing wide-screen panoramas of animals and landscapes of Africa previously rarely seen. As the book’s accompanying notes observe, “In years to come, we will look back at these powerful photographs and wonder why humanity did not do more to preserve this rare corner of earthly paradise.”

Brandt explains:

I’m not interested in creating work that is simply documentary or filled with action and drama, which has been the norm in the photography of animals in the wild. What I am interested in is showing the animals simply in the state of Being. In the state of Being before they are no longer are. Before, in the wild at least, they cease to exist. This world is under terrible threat, all of it caused by us. To me, every creature, human or nonhuman, has an equal right to live, and this feeling, this belief that every animal and I are equal, affects me every time I frame an animal in my camera. The photos are my elegy to these beautiful creatures, to this wrenchingly beautiful world that is steadily, tragically vanishing before our eyes.

Across the Ravaged Land by Nick Brandt

Across the Ravaged Land by Nick Brandt

Across the Ravaged Land is the third volume in Nick Brandt’s trilogy of books documenting the decline of eastern African fauna. Among new themes Brandt introduces in this profoundly dystopic landscape is the appearance of its greatest enemy, homo sapiens.

ivory

On this Earth, A Shadow Falls by Nick Brandt

On this Earth, A Shadow Falls by Nick Brandt

Now comes On This Earth, A Shadow Falls which draws on the most memorable images from Brandt’s first two books, along with essays by philosopher and animal liberation activist Peter Singer and photohistorian Vickie Goldberg.The new volume as the publisher points out is the first of… “Brandt’s work to capture the superb quality of his remarkable, large-format prints, which are notable for their velvety blacks and tonal subtleties. At 15 x 13 inches it is substantially larger than his previous books…”

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GiraffesMigrationTrail-Nick-Brandt

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You may be interested in Big Life Big Life Foundation was founded by photographer Nick Brandt & conservationist Richard Bonham in September 2010. With Richard Bonham as Director of Operations for Big Life in Africa, and Project Manager Damian Bell in Tanzania, Big Life has now expanded to employ 315 rangers, with 31 outposts and 15 vehicles protecting 2 million acres of wilderness in the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem of E. Africa.Big Life was the first organization in East Africa with co-ordinated cross-border anti-poaching operations.

As of July 2013, Big Life’s rangers have made 1,030 arrests and confiscated 3,012 weapons/poaching tools since November 2010. Recognizing that sustainable conservation can only be achieved through a community-based collaborative approach, Big Life uses innovative conservation strategies to address the greatest threats, reduce the loss of wildlife to poaching, defeat the ivory trade, mitigate human-wildlife conflict, protect the great predators, and manage scarce and fragile natural resources.

Big Life’s vision is to take the successful holistic conservation model in the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem and replicate it across the African continent.

The-Two-Elephants-10inW

Currently reading Cuba in Splinters: Eleven Stories From The New Cuba edited by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo (OR Books)

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