With Roz Chast

26 Sep
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast

This is a good time for cartoonists and graphic memoirists—Alison Bechdel receives a MacArthur Fellowship and Roz Chast is nominated for this year’s National book Award in non fiction for Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury). Roz Chast should need no introduction for people who still read but in case she has escaped your notice, Chast grew up in Brooklyn, attended the Rhode Island School of Design and has been publishing cartoons in the New Yorker for over three decades. As well a broad spectrum of other publications— Scientific American, the Harvard Business Review, Redbook, and Mother Jones. She also has a number of books under her belt including my favorite Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons of Roz Chast, 1978-2006 and What I Hate A to Z.

Roz and I sat down in post modern coffee place in May and chatted about this and that, mostly her new opus,Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?. Or more specifically the ordeal she presents in that book—the burdens and responsibilities of taking of aging and declining parents. Its a harrowing subject and in what is her inimitable manner Roz Chast handles with appropriate humor and alacrity. We talk about other stuff also as you will discover if you continue to read.

Theories of Everything by Roz Chast

Theories of Everything by Roz Chast

RB: When you meet people for the first time and they ask you what you do what do you say?

RC: I am a cartoonist.

RB: You’re a cartoonist?

RC: Yeah.

RB: Huh.

RC: Hmm.

RB: Do you accept other names for what you do?

RC: Um, I am Queen of all the Romanians.

RB: (laughs) Cartoonist seems to be an oversimplification of what you do.

RC: (Make high pitched sound)

RB: How about picture story teller?

RZ: I think that’s what a cartoonist is.

RB: Right. But I think most people think of ‘cartoons’ as in Sunday funnies.

RC: Huh. Well I don’t know—it seems like there are so many different types of cartooning now. With graphic novels and Sunday funnies and animations ,that there is no reason to assume, unless somebody asks you to clarify what type of cartoonist you are,Z that somebody would just be talking about comic strips.

RB: What kind of cartoonist are you?

RC: Um, I draw cartoons for the New Yorker magazine.

RB: That’s where much of your work appears—is that what defines you as a cartoonist? Are you a funny cartoonist?

RC: I hope so.

RB: An intricate and detailed cartoonist?

RC: I like detail a lot. I hope I am funny. I try.

What I Hate : A to Z by Ros Chast

What I Hate : A to Z by Ros Chast

RB: Was the New Yorker the first place you were published?

RC: No, (you mean professionally) the first place was in Christopher Street Magazine in New York. And then I sold cartoons for a while to the Village Voice and the National Lampoon.

RB: Who chose the art for the Village Voice?

RC: I worked with a man named Guy Trebay.

RB: You were in the same publication as Jules Feiffer.

RC: Yes.

Roz Chast [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Roz Chast [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: Did you feel good about that?

RC: Oh, God yes.

RB: Was that your aspiration to be a cartoonist?

RC: Yeah, yeah. (chuckles).

RB: Is your work looked upon differently then when you first began?

RC: Uh, I don’t know. I mean I think— (pause) I don’t know. I really am not tuned into that.

RB:Are you interviewed often?

RC: When I have a book come out.

RB: What kind of media interview you?

RC: I just did an interview with Terri Gross. And I talked to someone from the a relatively local paper called the Hartford Courant.

RB: It still exists?

RC: Yeah, it still exists—on paper. Its amazing. And I did a big interview in the NY Times

RB: —In the Styles section.

RC: Actually it was the Home and Garden section. Now you know what my house looks like.

RB: Do you use modern technology to make your drawings?

RC: I draw with pen and ink on paper. I use a scanner to send the drawings hither and dither. I love Photoshop. But the first drawings are always on paper. I like the quiet of it and it’s what I am used to.

RB: Are there electronic versions of your books?

RC: Apparently there are. I have not seen them (both laugh).

RB: You are not concerned about those?

RC: I have an Ipad and I sometimes read books on it. But there’s pluses and minuses. The pluses are that you can look up a word you don’t know in a second. But I have actually heard that the electronic version of this book has a couple of glitches.

RB: I have become friendly with Ben Katchor

RC: —oh yeah, he’s the best—

RB: I expected him to be adverse to digitizing his book and he is not. He gets into it and he oversees the e book presentation. He begins his work in a digital application.

RC: One of those Wacomb tablets or something. Yeah. I like paper, I guess.

RB: There is that obnoxious banality, “old school”. Reading books instead of screens. I ind myself being a bit defensive when publishers send me to Net Galley or want to send me a PDF. I feel like it lowers the status of something denigrates it on screen

RC: It depends on the device. I had a Kindle for a while and I didn’t like it. I wound up giving it to a friend. When I got an Ipad, reading on the Ipad was such an analog of a book, a couple of times I actually tried to turn the page. My hand went to the corner of the screen and I thought, “Ah, they’ve got me.” They got, me you know?

RB: If have been told that with a Kindle there is a monotony of presentation—people had difficulty distinguishing what books they had read.

RC: The device I have is smaller and the Ipad is a little closer to the size of a book. For an oldie kind of person it resembles a book more, in some way. That being said, there is something about a book that is great because when I am reading the Ipad it’s partly my problem of having a flea-like attention span. So I am reading and suddenly they talk about some action taking place in Bolivia and its like, ”I should look up Bolivia. I should look it up.” And then I find myself of just going down the rabbit hole —like salt flats in Bolivia and then I have to look up ‘gauchos’, and suddenly I am thinking about covered wagons. And I am like a million miles away.

RB: When one publishes on the Web, there is a great temptation to embed lots of hot links in the text.

RC: So your reading experience can become more fragmented—kind of a collage or something.

RB: The drawings toward the end of the book were really moving—the death studies. A big departure from the rest of the art in the book. Were they hard to do?

RC: Do you mean were the drawings hard to do. Or was it hard to include them in the book?

RB: Creating images of your dead parents?

RC: There were aspects of it that were very emotional —the drawings at the end are of my mother and my father’s decline was steeper. And also my mother was still there. When he went it was pretty quick. My mother’s passing was very lingering and there were months where she was just lying in bed —we didn’t talk. We barely talked—

RB; That’s a very emotionally exhausting—I am not sure what the right word is. I went through the same experience. I remember reading this harrowing article by Michael Wolff in New York Magazine about his own experience with declining parents.

RC: I didn’t read that.

RB: It was pretty grim —he talked about so-called assisted living and associated issues.

RC: Oh, I would love to read that. I’ll look it up.

RB: It presents a huge problem for people and I think that’s when if you haven’t already, you become an adult.

RC: Yeah, yeah. You certainly learn more about what this all entails. I knew nothing about it. And my parents knew nothing about it. I would really like to read that article because I thought assisted living would help more.

RB: We tried that with my parents and they hated it. And part of it was they felt it was a waste of their hard earned money.

RC: They were more aware then my parents then. I handled all of the money and all of the bills. So they just didn’t know.

RB: That was only one of many things that bothered my parents.

RC: It was really weird. They were really just out of their element. But at least at the beginning they had each other. Then after my father died it was juts my mother .And it wasn’t always great. Some of the people weren’t so nice. My mother didn’t really want to make new friends—it must get really hard. I mean, what the point. I don’t know. Meals on wheels was great. That really helped a lot. But it was really hard. Its not easy in this—maybe there is no place where it is really good to grow old.

RB: Oh yeah, Central America or Italy. Where extended families care for their elders—there is a respect for the family

RC: Not here.

RB: I wonder how successful ‘assisted living ‘ is in other places? It’s an idea that’s a product of a dehumanized society.

RZ:Z:I am kind of with you but at that point what was I going to do? My parents were in Brooklyn, in this 4 room apartment. My father had senile dementia. My mother was falling. I was living up in Connecticut. I had no other siblings or relatives that lived close by. I had neighbors that checked in on them but it was getting very scary. And at the end there was really not an alternative. Even if they had had somebody come to live with them, which would have been really hard. A major adjustment. I didn’t feel comfortable with that because I lived so far away. What of that person were, like a jerk? Who didn’t really take care of them. What if they sat there and yakked on the phone all day t their friends and now my parents have a stranger in the apartment yakking all day?

RB: It certainly takes a special kind of person to take care of needy elderly people.

Roz Chast [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

Roz Chast [photo:Robert Birnbaum]


RC: Yeah

RB: So, is this a cartoon book?

RC: It’s a cartoon story book, kind of. It’s a graphic memoir. It has text, it has photographs and cartoons. It has some cartoons that I did well before all of this started. That I did at the time—because I submit weekly groups of cartoons to the New Yorker and there’s several cartoons in there that I had submitted as cartoons that were turned down—

RB: Mankoff turned your stuff down?

RC: Oh sure. Every cartoonist—you’re being facetious—you know how it works. Well, like there are two cartoons in the book that —one is 9/11/2001 and one is 9/12 /2001, those were both done after the trade centers were destroyed and they were really conversations I had with my parents and that was what I really wanted to do—

RB: Did you see [New Yorker cartoon editor]Robert Mankoff on 60 Minutes?

RC: Yes, yes, yes.

RB: That process doesn’t seem to me to be satisfying? He doesn’t really say much. You have been doing it since 1978. How many cartoons have you submitted to them?

RC: I haven’t really done the complete math but a lot.

RB: What do you do with the originals?

RC: I have file cabinets.

RB: How many?

RC: I have two big ones and then there are boxes of really, really old stuff. Its part of what we all do.

RB: You must have had shows—where?

RC: A gallery—the Danese Corey Gallery in New York

RB: And museums?

RC: I am going to have a show at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich. This summer, actually.

RB What’s that like?

RC: I have been in group shows but this is the first time I have had my own. I am kind of excited.I mean we show cartoons. I also do these Psanka eggs

Roz Chast's Psanka eggs

Roz Chast’s Psanka eggs

RB: Huh?

RC: They are like Ukranian Easter eggs. You have probably seen them. They are very elaborately detailed . They are not painted. They are dyed. So yiu draw with wax. Its like a batique. I do the traditional technique with my designs—people and stuff.

RB: Have you done bed clothing or a tea kettle?

RC: (laughs) Bed clothing, no but have done dishes and cups.

RB: One-offs , you don’t have a line?

RC: I did . I had this dream to do plates. I hd this vision—

RB: You could be like Mara Kalman and her late husband Tibor. They had a lot of design products.

RC: Oh yeah. Oh sure. Oh my god.

RB: Are you friendly with other cartoonists?

RZ: Yeah, I am probably closest to the people who came in to the New Yorker around the same time I did. Those are the people I know the best—Jack Ziegler. Michael Crawford, uh—

Roz Chast baseball [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Roz Chast baseball [photo: Robert Birnbaum]


RB: Do you all meet every week?

RC: We used to. But then people moved or had children, like me. Now we email a lot.

RB: It strikes me that there are so many Jewish cartoonists. [When anti Semites complain about the word being controlled by Jewish bankers and brokers, they never mention cartoonists]

RC: Yeah, I guess.

RB: In fact historian Paul Buhle has published a book , Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of an American Art Form. Have you noted any reason why so many of the chosen people are cartoonists?

RC: I can’t think of anything. (laughs)

RB: Did that even ever cross your mind?

RC: I ‘ve noticed that there are a lot of left handed cartoonists.

RB: Are you?

RC: Yeah.

RB: Does this book take a weight off of your shoulders?

RC: This is going sound really awful but when my mother died, I felt like that was a great weight off my shoulders. And the book ,uh,(long pause) what I mainly was emotionally involved in with the book was that I wanted it to be a good book. And so it’s a great weight off my soldiers that I feel like I told it the best way that I could and I that I worked hard on it. And that it resonates with people. But the experiences —I didn’t write the book to bitch about my childhood or something. I feel like either save it for the shrink or use it whatever. It’s a weight off my shoulders in that I feel like this is the book that I wanted to write.

RB: In what section do bookstores place your books.

RC: With cartoons.

RB: I have seen them located in ‘Humor’.

RC: I don’t know where this one—this is funny but its not. It’s a story and writing. Its not even like a typical graphic memoir or novel.

RB: Well, that’s good. I imagine you done thousands of cartoons and a dozen books. How do you decide to do a book?

RC: I guess I —(pauses) I start to get this sort of idea of a book. (giggles) That was really complicated and articulate, wasn’t it? I don’t know—with this book I can’t remember exactly the day or moment when I thought, ”I am going to make a book about this.” It started to fall together in a certain way —

RB: Did you mentally scan images that yiu have done and maybe think if I add this and this I have a narrative?

RC: With this book I definitely felt a narrative thing.I did one book about parents and children Childproof: Cartoons About Parents and Children when my kids were little and I was so involved in that whole world—like from when they are born, what kind of stupid mobile you are going to put over their crib that is going to increase their intelligence. This was definitely a first kid toy. After the second kid , its like, “Here look at this, whatever.’

RB: (laughs)

RC: You see these very complicate mobile and its like $55 and you think, “First time parent, they really believe in these things Yeah, uh huh.”

RB: I am impressed with how sharp your humor is without it being mean or harsh. Its brilliant stuff. I hope that doesn’t embarrass you.

RC: Yeah, like suddenly she is looking over there (laughs). Yeah, I guess I am not a big fan of humor that—some mean humor I am totally for but I don’t like it when it makes fun go people who already have a burden. You can make fun f the beautiful rich movie star_ I know they have feelings but hey, they are on top of the pyramid.

RB: What’s next for you?

RC: This is sort of finished and I have other projects that I am working on—

RB: But you’re touring to support this book—

RZ: Its great and I am excite and I want to talk about it also enormously distracting and there is a part of me that just wants to crawl bacl in to my hole and think about my next project. You know its not a timely thing but in some of this hub bub —

RB: How’s flying these days?

RC: I used to be really afraid to fly.

RB: Besides that.

RC: I am kind of almost used to it, plus my son lives on the WestCoast so I get to see him. Which is kind of like the carrot. A big carrot for me.

RB: In the olden days a child wouldn’t have moved so far away from their parents.

RC: I know. But I am excited for him too.

RB: What does he do?

RC: He doing website stuff. He’s a web host and designs websites. He was a philosophy major.

RB: I was too.

RC: You know then— when people hear that you have to beat people away from your door with a stick.

RB: (laughs) Right.

RC: The job offers just come. And all the philosophy shops, its like the latest thing.

RB: Its hard to turn the big money down.

RC: It is —people are just throwing it at you.

RB: What kind of philosophy—did he smoke Gaulloise and wear a beret?
Recording ends

Roz Chast [photo: Robert Birnbaum] copyright 2014

Roz Chast [photo: Robert Birnbaum] copyright 2014

Currently reading How I Stopped Being a Jew by Shlomo Sand (Verso Books)

(One of) My Favorite Baseball(s)

25 Sep
Roz Chast baseball [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Roz Chast baseball [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Detail from Roz Chast baseball [photo; Robert Birnbaum]

Detail from Roz Chast baseball [photo; Robert Birnbaum]

Over the course of my conversational career I have after the conclusion of our chat have asked various authors to sign and or inscribe a baseball for my son ,Cuba. By this time, as you might guess, I have quite a few festooning the trim of my abode.

Part of Cuba Birnbaum Inscribed Baseball  collection [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Part of Cuba Birnbaum Inscribed Baseball collection [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

IMG_0011

Roz Chast baseball [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Roz Chast baseball [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Currently reading Brown Dog: Novellas by Jim Harrison( Grove Atlantic)

Dumb-De-Dumb-Dumb

22 Sep
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters by Francisco Goya

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters by Francisco Goya

Literary journalism must, I suppose by definition, appeal to a marginal and as it is often claimed, shrinking audience. Thus it apparently behooves its practitioners to offer up a variety ofarguable and contestable theories so as to attract an audience and whatever follows from that. Recently, I came across a reference to an article by Salon senior editor and literary eminence gris’ Laura Miller claiming that “today’s most exciting crime novelists are women.” A stance, it can not go unsaid, I found so silly that I had to try to read the offending column for both its reasoning and to double check that a critic as eminent as MS Miller actually claimed its byline.

Firstly, the writers she singles out are certainly a talented gaggle (she did leave out at least two very talented women (Laura McHugh and Attica Locke, who are at least the peers of Miller’s anointed.)On the other hand, perhaps Miller felt that naming four writers made her case.

Secondly, MS Miller is a savvy and experienced and no doubt intelligent commentator who one would expect would understand the dangers of using superlatives like ‘best’, ‘greatest’, ‘hottest’ in literary conversations (except when preceded by a personal possessive). What then is one to make of the phrase ‘most exciting crime novelists are women’? It is the case that women writers of all stripes are given short shrift in the main organs of the literary arena (every once in a while a diligent and enterprising writer will spend time breaking down the percentage of reviews by gender at the The New York Times and the New Yorker>.So if MS Miller is trying to level the playing fields in some way I suppose one ought to commend her. On the other hand her claim does do a disservice to the other writers who are doing fine work in the disrespected category of genre literature (genre seems to be synonym for ‘non literary’).Now I will stipulate that often the crime series like John D MacDonald’s Travis Magee, Robert Parker’s Spenser novels or even Micheal Connelly’s Harry Bosch’s novels (Parker is among the deceased writers now undergoing a kind of reductio ad absurdum by being written by living writers)are seem formulaic and predictable. It should be noted that Baltimore’s gift to story telling Laura Lippman, does her best work not with her series but with her stand alone novels

Attica Locke [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Attica Locke [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

So in the name of all that is fair and decent in the world, here’s a short list of fine crime story writers: John Lawton(Sweet Sunday, Then We Take Berlin),George Pelacanos, Benjamin Black, Edward Delaney(Broken Irish), Stuart Neville, Jo Nesbo, James Lee Burke,Tom ROB SMITH, Elmore Leonard(Out of Sight),Charlie Huston(The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, Sleepless), Thomas Perry(Butcher’s Boy, Sleeping Dogs), Philip Kerr
(A Philosophical Investigation), Olen Stenhauser, Ace Atkins, Charles McCarry (The Miernik Dossier Shelley’s Heart), Attica Locke (Black Water Rising), Charles Smith(Men in Miami Hotels), James Ellroy (Underworld USA trilogy), Tom Bouman(Dry Bones in the Valley), John Fusco(Dog Beach),Robert Stone(Death of the Black-Haired Girl)and Don Winslow(The Power of the Dog).

Robert Stone circa 2013 [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Stone circa 2013 [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Currently reading Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury)

Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down/EUGENE RICHARDS

22 Sep

It is a glorious day indeed when among the litter of unwrapped packages, volumes of real physical books, each yelping to grasp the teat of the great publicity engine, I hold in my hands a book by the great American photographer Eugene Richards.It occurs to me that photographers face some of the same challenges posed by the digitalization of the world except in their case the advent of phone cameras and cheap and easily portable point-and-shoot devices has degraded the value of photography.

Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down by Eugene Richards

Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down by Eugene Richards

One time Magnum photographer Eugene Richards spent time in Boston (the setting for his second monograph Dorchester Days) graduating from Northeastern University. He went to the Arkansas Delta as a VISTA volunteer in 1969,stayed four years and returned periodically. His self funded new opus
Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down draws from his experiences in the Arkansas Delta: He explains:

Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down is about then and now, memory and change. Black-and-white photographs made long years ago and never printed are interwoven with recent color work and, in turn, a short story that relates my encounter with a tough-minded, impoverished delta woman but also addresses my own struggle with aging and mortality. Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down is a timely story, an experiment in bookmaking. But because the book speaks of what for some people are off-putting issues—race, poverty, and aging—I feel obliged to self-publish it.

Broken doll, Hughes, AR, 1970

Broken doll, Hughes, AR, 1970

The Arkansas Delta has been called at different times the soul of the South, the land of opportunity, a place ruled by race, a forgotten place. Eugene Richards (born 1944) first went to the delta as a VISTA volunteer in 1969. It was less than a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a time when cotton, religion, prejudice and poverty were what characterized most peoples’ lives.

Waiting, Brinkley, AR, 1970

Waiting, Brinkley, AR, 1970

The delta was as starkly beautiful back then as it is now, with cotton fields running to the horizon and small towns that appeared to rise up out of the land. I thought I’d be there a year, but ended up staying more than four years, working for an anti-poverty organization that I helped found with other former VISTAs, then as a reporter. I stayed until I just couldn’t anymore.

As time passed I went back to visit the McGowans, the Landers, Porter Lee and Will Davis, who were sharecroppers and the most generous people I’d ever known, though they had nothing. You’d drive past the carefully tended fields and the plantations with their miles of white fencing out to the sharecroppers’ shacks, where privation, rejection, and hunger were the norm.
I returned to the delta in 1986 when working on a book on American poverty, then eight years ago to search for the few remaining sharecropper shacks. The last time I went back, I photographed church services, tractors in the fields, children walking home as the sun was starting to set. But it wasn’t until this past winter that I found myself flipping through my old black-and-white contact books, the ones from the late ’60s and early ’70s, searching for pictures of life in the delta that I never took notice of before. And as I did this, more than forty years of memories began to well up and overlap.

Currently reading Hold the Dark by William Giraldi (WW Norton )

Addendum To Girls in Trouble

17 Sep
Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell is being made into a movie with the inimitable Lucinda Williams writing music for it.

Details to follow

Currently reading A Little Lumpen Novelita by Roberto Bolaño, Natasha Wimmer (Translator)(New Directions)

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 the drone murders of innocent civilians,off screen) I am chagrined at the media lynching of Ray Rice and the scarcity—actually the 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 calling 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

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