Christopher Hitchens Part II

25 Aug

Christopher Hitchens

“The voice of reason is small but persistent.”

-An inscription from the Sigmund Freud memorial in Vienna

Christopher Hitchens regularly writes for Vanity Fair and contributes to such publications as Granta, The London Review Of Books, The New York Review Of Books, The Los Angeles Times, Dissent, New Left Review and The Times Literary Supplement. His Letters To A Young Contrarian was published in the fall of 2001.

Modeled on Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Hitchens’ book is loosely constructed as a series of correspondences to a young person considering a life of dissidence. Contrarian extraordinaire Hitchens explores a wide range of dissent and cites examples of contrarians such as George Orwell, Emile Zola to Vaclav Havel and Salman Rushdie. Christopher Hitchens is a zealous proponent of the dialectic as an agent of social progress. His rhetorical skills and nimbleness of mind are in full evidence in this slender tome.

This conversation was the second Hitchens and I had in 2001; the first was occasioned by the publication of The Trial of Henry Kissinger and his collection of literary essays, Unacknowledged Legislation. Now, with the recently published Letters, our dialogue continued. We met just after Hitchens’ return from Pakistan, a voyage he documented in “On the Frontier of Apocalypse,” Vanity Fair (January 2002)*.


Robert Birnbaum: Is there such a thing as an old contrarian?

Christopher Hitchens: Yes…

RB: Would that be you?

CH: It’s a curmudgeon, if you are not careful. There are people, one of whom I knew — of the two I’ll mention — Bertrand Russell and Jessica Mitford, both people, [who] it seems to me, succeeded in getting more radical as they got older. Without becoming idiotic figures, without becoming cartoon figures or making old fools of themselves.

RB: In the case of Russell, that’s arguable.

CH: Well, there were foolish things he did in his later years, but they were analogous to the foolish things he had done when he was young.

RB: Ah, consistency in foolishness.

CH: I wouldn’t say he didn’t have a foolish streak and couldn’t sometimes be taken in by charlatans or encouraged to make slightly rash statements. That wasn’t a problem with his age. I remember thinking it was very unfair, not to say graceless, for some people to say, “That just proves the old boy’s mind is softening.” There seems to me no doubt that he was extremely lucid until the final days of his 92nd year. So yeah, some people ask me if I have always been like this, and now it’s the first time I’ve been asked, “Am I always going to be like this?” It’s a nice change of pace.

RB: The terminology starts to shift with the developmental process. As a youth one can be, perhaps, a rebel or a contrarian, but as one gets older, can one be a contrarian?

CH: When you get asked by Basic Books to be the author of a volume to be entitled Letters to A Young Contarian, then you do know you have become middle-aged. You know they wouldn’t ask you if it weren’t evident to them that you have become some kind of grizzled veteran. So that’s goodbye to youth or any illusions about retaining it. And also you have to realize that, if you are to take the book seriously, which I did, and you write to people that you have actually met. I had in mind some students of mine, younger journalists I knew, people who had written or e-mailed me…

RB: So in the book you were responding to real correspondence?

CH: As I was writing, I always had somebody or sometimes some composite character in mind. [It] makes it much easier to write, for one reason. And, for another, these were real questions. Again, that reminds me of what I already know. People who are perfectly grown who are my students, when I talk about what happened in 1968 have no idea of it from their own memory. Of course, that gives me a very vertiginous feeling.

RB: Just that?

CH: Well, things like that. Mainly to do with memory and references. What reference can you make to be certain that someone instantly gets it? That’s actually a very difficult task for all teaching.

RB: Excuse me for being picky — and I know you are Oxford-educated — but why so many French and Latin references?

CH: You know what?

RB: What?

CH: If I was to do it again or if I were to read it again in proof I would do less of that. It struck me that there was too much of it in such a short text. The reason why I sometimes resort to them…

RB: Because they say what you want to say better?

CH: Actually, yes. And more tersely. There is another reason…

RB: I didn’t think you were showing off.

CH: No. Because it isn’t any great achievement to know a few phrases. There is another reason, actually it’s subliminal. One of the people with whom I was corresponding in my mind is a Lebanese-Palestinian student of mine whose preferred language was French. And their English is good and my French is very bad. We would in common conversation resort to quite a few Facon de parler. I can manage that much. This justification has only just occurred to me…

RB: Do you think about people looking at you and questioning what price you are paying for being a contrarian?

CH: Sure I do. Because I am one of those doing the looking. It’s an easy way of embarrassing me if you want to give me a good review. It’s actually happened to me a couple of times. It’s embarrassing in a way even to tell you about it. A couple of reviewers of my last book…

RB:The Trial of Henry Kissinger?



CH: …and also Unacknowledged Legislations — compare me to George Orwell. Now if somebody thinks that, I don’t mind. If they say it, I don’t mind. If they put it where other people can see it, I do mind. I can imagine other people reading that and saying, “What are you fucking talking about?” I can understand why, too. I’ve obviously been strongly marked by reading him [Orwell], that’s fine. Or to have it said that I am a strong admirer. That’s fine. I’m about to bring a book out on him for his centennial in 2003. But when you think of what he had to go through to make his point and I’ve had to go through…it is nothing short of highly embarrassing. The only thing I can tell myself is that there have been moments where I would have thought that it would have taken practically nothing to take a strong position. The example from my book is Salman Rushdie. It seemed to me there was no time to waste in deciding what one thought about that [the fatwa] and what should be done. A lot of people did hang back for what I would regard as slightly cowardly reasons. Whenever, I am praised, as I was on the radio this morning, for my courage — I do reply and I try not to make it an affectation, “It is not brave to do it — anything I have done. The things I have done it would have been cowardly not to have done, but the moments when push comes to shove have really yet to arrive.” Therefore, one should keep rehearsing for when we might need it.

RB: You have told me that you make a point of, every year, going somewhere dangerous.

CH: That’s true. Countries either difficult or dangerous…

RB: Are you thrill-seeking?

CH: No, that’s to remind me… and describe it also in the book how being in Bosnia was a life- and mind-altering experience for me. I discovered there, as I had already found in other places where there is fighting going on, that I’m never going to be a war correspondent. I’ve worn a flak jacket and done some drives over difficult roads and have been shot at. I know what it’s like to have a bullet go past my ear. It wasn’t a ricochet; someone had fired hoping to kill me. Everyone should have that sensation, but I don’t need it more than once. I got it with incredible speed. There are journalists that do it all the time that I hugely admire, but I couldn’t be one of them. I’ve just come back from Pakistan and Kashmir and from the Afghanistan border. Last year it was North Korea. Not necessarily dangerous. It’s kind of risky and extremely difficult…an arduous place to be. Before that most of the examples would have been from the former Yugoslavia. I have more or less kept that promise [to myself]. And also Kurdistan. Lebanon. Over the last ten twelve years, I think I have kept the promise.

RB: Being a war correspondent means being where the action and not just hanging out in a hotel lounge in Kabul or Sarajevo?

CH: Yeah. Being the guys at the front line and actually taking more risks than the soldiers do. Especially the photographers, they have to not just be there but have to have a point of advantage. They can’t just hunker down. I know a lot of people who make a living this way. Some of whom I suspect of being spaced out, affectless sadistic types, thrill seekers…you get jaded and need constant reinforcement of violence.

RB: Like John Savage’s character in your buddy Oliver Stone’s movie,Salvador?


chris hitchens

CH: Yeah. And some are extremely brave and intelligent people who…

RB: I just wanted to get a mention of Oliver Stone…

CH: Oh yes, Mister Stone.

RB: I find myself referring to you as the ‘ubiquitous’ Christopher Hitchens…

CH: That’s kind.

RB: It seems true.

CH: It just seems that way. It just seems that there is more of me than there is. Well, everything is in the timing, I think. It’s a bizarre feeling in a way. Because to say that Sept. 11 changed everything is probably the most obvious thing anyone could conceivably say. So here I am being a very dissenting and combative and critical member of the vast majority. But when I say that I really mean it. I felt on that day as if I had changed…as if there had been a whole change in the zeitgeist, as if one’s own molecules had been part of it. I also found that I had a sensation — that when I examined it, it surprised me — after I had been through rage and disgust, and depression and so on. There was something left over that was keeping me awake. It was exhilaration. I was excited. I thought, “This battle has really been joined now with theocratic fascism. If it goes on all my life, I will never get bored with fighting that.”

RB: Who is fighting that battle?

CH: What I was astounded by was the number of people who not only felt that prospect a dismal one but who, while I’m sure they mouthed the idea that everything had changed, tried as best they could to act as if “…as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted.”

RB: (laughs)…

CH: Oh, the clowns who took this view. Clowns and thugs, I would actually say. Chomsky and Stone were salient. As it happens I brushed up against them very early in the argument…we’ve been pounding away ever since.

RB: I have to say that you seem to have resorted to Stalinist-era jargon. Using the phrase, ‘Finkelstein-Chomsky-Zinn faction or clique’ or something like that in The Nation.

CH: Oh yeah. I read all three of their effusions. Crummy though the suggestion of equivalence was, what alarmed me far more than that was the utter refusal to realize that something new had happened…I know at least as much about Marxism as they do, and one thing I definitely remember from the opening of the 18th Brumaire, is “that the tendency of people when learning a new language or trying to is to translate it back into the one they already know.” This is not necessarily a good tendency. What these guys were just saying proves me right. That’s appalling. I was willing to say, “Well, whatever the consequences of this are, I’m not going to tell you immediately that I know them. I can only tell you about the situation…And, for example, in a battle against theocratic fascism there will be realignment. There already has been…Now I can’t let you get away with the idea of Stalinist technique.” I hadn’t quite put it this way, the Buhkarin-Rykoff-Chomsky bloc of rotten elements. I think I said “quarter.” I was pretty neutral, But come to think of it, it’s always in my cortex, somewhere.

RB: You are exhilarated because the battle has been joined. We know one of the protagonists. Are you not worried about the New Coalition, the free democratic coalition?

CH: I am very worried about the coalition with Pakistan. It’s a very bad idea. It was the coalition with Pakistan that created Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the first place. My worry has been there from the beginning… I signed a petition in June, which I can show you — I didn’t just sign it — my name was on the…

RB: I’ll accept your word…

CH: My name was on the — I talk this way because I think I’m on the radio…not all the time. My name is on the masthead of the petition as it was sent out with all kinds of people I have recently quarreled with, like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem (over Clinton). But I was very proud that they wanted my name on this thing — as far back as June, about he scandalous treatment of women in Afghanistan. Something about which the United States had nothing to say at that point. It recognized the Taliban regime because it was Pakistan’s client, therefore it was ours. For a long time I have thought there has been a great problem of under reaction to the Taliban and to religious fundamentalism. Now we are cutting with the grain in that argument. You can say to any audience in America anywhere on any subject, you can speak firmly to them about the need to fight this and they know you are right. If any administration spokesman spoke and said we are only against it in this case, we’d be on a shady and sticky wicket.

RB: You are not concerned that this is a cartoon where a bad guy has been identified, and in the next incident of “bad guyism,” the principles that have been invoked here will have to be reiterated, or it will have to be suggested again what principles we are espousing? Which is to say…

CH: Fine by me. Those are the principles I am most interested in defending. Those are the bad guys I am most interested in whacking out. People keep saying, I think rather feebly, “Oh well, Bin Laden, if you cut him down another will grow in his place, maybe another three or four.” I’m not so sure that is true because he seems to me to be a rather one-of-a-kind, kind of guy. Look at his deputies — they are average thugs and ranters — and if he died, the first thing that they would do would be to start cutting each other’s throats, I guarantee you, to see who would be next in line, the anointed one. So I’m not sure that the assumption that others would take his place is a safe one. Though there are people who wish it to be true. What I could guarantee and is a safe assumption is that in that case, at least 10,000 to one would spring up to kill him all over again. And I would be happy to recruit them.

RB: You are anti-capital punishment, aren’t you?

CH: I’m not a pacifist.

RB: Would this be the first instance of you expressing an interest in killing someone?

CH: Certainly not.

RB: Really?

CH: Undoubtedly, it would not be. There are a lot of people who if they knew what I thought about them…I would hope would die right there…

RB: (laughs heartily)

CH: I would wish, I would hope for Bin Laden to be captured and taken to the International Tribunal that the United States so stupidly has not yet signed on to. I think again you see a pattern… the tendency of the argument would be to say, “We wish we had somewhere to take him.” Well, you should have thought of that before. That’s dialectics to me. That’s exploiting the ironies of the situation. It’s not collapsing in front of them, worrying about double standard. I think it would be a superb occasion if it were properly conducted. To show Bin Laden something about a proper trial. Also to show the Muslim world that not everything about the West is repulsive and also to those who do [think that] to say, “Look, we are now going to show all of them what happened at the World Trade Center.”

RB: Is that really a lesson we need to broadcast to the Muslim world?

CH: Yes, I personally believe that there is a clash of civilizations. I don’t see why people are so reluctant to adopt this view. I think it’s because they wish there were not… since there is one, let it be well-conducted on our side.

RB: You discuss simplicity in this book and one example you cite is the fatwa…and that if an adversary can not disavow the murder of writers for what they write then you can have no further debate…

CH: I did that on Crossfire

RB: Who was your adversary?

CH: Some American Muslim leader. You see, for me, this battle has been going at least since…Some scumbag from some verminous mosque came on …I said, “Let’s get one thing out of the way, you are opposed to the offer of money for the murder of my friend [Salman Rushdie] then we can discuss anything you like?” He appealed to Pat Buchanan, who was his defender, of course. “Islam’s feeling have been very much hurt.” I said, “We’ll get to that, I promise you. But first I want your assurance…” And he said, “For Muslim peoples, it is the feeling…” I said, “Look, hold it right there, you are not getting past me. You’re just not. I’ll waste your whole hour if you want.” And I did. And at the end I came right up to him. I know where you live. I have your home phone number. It’s the only way.

RB: When we last spoke, I remarked to you my amazement at the BBC‘s Jeremy Paxson relentless probing of Tony Blair and how that kind of interrogatory never happens here…

CH: No, there’s much too little of that on American TV in general. Actually, it was a stalemate because Buchanan wouldn’t let me speak either. Because Buchanan is pro-fatwa

RB: Wait a minute. You think Pat Buchanan is pro-fatwa?

CH: More or less. Look, here’s the situation. There were those who said that the problem was the offer of bounty for the murder of a novelist in the name of theocratic…that was the problem. I was one of those. The Cardinal Archbishop of New York, John Jay O’Connor, another ignorant peasant, the Chief Rabbi of the Sephardic Jews, the Archbishop of Canterbury all said the problem was blasphemy. The Observatorie Romano, the Vatican newspaper, said the problem was blasphemy…a kind of reverse ecumenism. Though no other countries endorsed the fatwa, they all more or less said it was problem of blasphemy, too. So there you have all the cloaks, all the verminous vestments of mullahs and rabbis and priests…a fat target. Again, I had a sort of Hegelian moment. I know exactly what this means to me. This is what I was born to be arguing. This is perfect. It was like being in love; I couldn’t think of anyone but Salman. I kept trying to get his name into the conversation. And it was a very great battle and we won. They withdrew the bloody fatwa.

RB: They did?

CH: Absolutely. He [Rushdie] goes anywhere he likes without bodyguards. And better still, the mullahs, the turbaned turds in Teheran, are having a hard time holding on to power against the youth and the intelligentsia and masses in their country. Who will, I think, succeed in removing them. So it was worth it. Every bleat that you heard from people was repeated recently…

RB: ‘Bleat’ as in the sound sheep make?

CH: Bleat, bleat bleat…not from the usual flocks, and “What could we do about Afghanistan its impossible terrain. Ancient hatreds…” Absolute crock. It would have meant a surrender to barbarism, to fascism….

RB: In writing this book, besides imparting the accumulated wisdom of your years to youngsters, you assume a public role. Like being designated his intellectual heir by Gore Vidal…where do you fit in the media culture in this country? How are people positioning you and is it controllable?

CH: Long may this question continue to be asked. I don’t want there to be an answer to that, but I do want it to be asked. I do want huddles of people to form to ask them. I want to be a widespread topic of conversation, and I want people to go out and buy my little books. Which they haven’t been doing much until recently. I was box-office death for a long time. Lost a lot of publishers that way. I don’t know if this is contrarian or not, but of the people who are cited as my fans or endorsers on the back of this book, I think it says Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, Edward Said and someone else.

RB: There are only those three.

CH: …anyway since the jacket was printed, I’ve had a great disagreement with all those three people. They haven’t all taken the same line on the recent crisis.

RB: Susan Sontag?

CH: Susan’s position…I just think she didn’t write enough. She’s much more thoughtful about it than that New Yorker squib. And Edward Said is not Noam Chomsky…Gore Vidal the same, he has taken this as an occasion to lecture America on the sins of empire. I feel like I have just spent a whole year doing that, trying to get Kissinger rounded up, so I didn’t have to prove that. And I wouldn’t take a word of that back. But I didn’t think now was the precise moment…

RB: Who wrote about Kissinger calling CNN when he was stalled in Germany during the Sept. 11 aftermath to offer his analysis?

CH: Oh yes, Michael Thomas in the New York Observer

RB: He probably finds Kissinger as odious as you do.

CH: No, excuse me, hold it right there. Don’t let anybody say that. By the way, I think perhaps I should take back the word “verminous” as applied to a mosque. A vermin is a mullah. I don’t want to back off completely…”towelhead” is a vulgarism. But it isn’t racist. There ought to be a good word for people who wear Hassidic clothing, beanies or any robes and so forth — anything that is in your face, that forces you to notice that there are religious differences and also anyone who wears that with any air of superiority. In Jerusalem, the secular Israelis referred to the heavily cowled extremists as the “Crows.” Anyway, “towelheads” is too thuggish…

RB: You do a good job of coining phrases or at least original iterations…I’ve never seen the verb “ventriloquize” before. Is that a common usage?

CH: It’s not common, but I don’t think I’ve coined it. What do you do when you operate the dummy?

RB: Puppetize?

CH: I think you ventriloquize.

RB: I’m commending you.

CH: I’m glad you like it. In this case I am using it in a different mode…

RB: Amongst the gems in this book, I liked: “Innocence only takes you so far. You have to be sophisticated by experience before you are old enough to argue that, say, it might be wrong to launch a thermonuclear war but not wrong, indeed only prudent, to prepare the weaponry of extermination. Or that an act that would be a loathsome crime if committed by an individual is pardonable when committed by a state. But these are the rewards of maturity, to be enjoyed only as we decline.” [p. 50] That’s upbeat. Would your younger students grasp that?

CH: I haven’t heard from a single young person since this…

RB: How much are you going out and talking this book up?

CH: Quite a bit. The people who come and see me…it looks like a geriatric ward. These are people who probably looked on me fondly when I was young myself. I wouldn’t say I had much feedback from the “young.” I guess it will take time. I do hope it will come in the form of letters…

RB: This is your third book this year…

CH: If you put it like that, it makes me seem like a bit of a hack…the collection wasn’t really a book, it’s just a collection. The Kissinger thing, I’ve been writing in my head for a long time, and I happened to be very lucky and very unlucky at the timing. And this one was actually the first book I’ve been approached to write.

RB: Given your frequent appearances on cable, has there been talk of a television show for you?

CH: It comes up a lot.

RB: Do you want to?

CH: No. I decided a long time ago I didn’t want to do that.

RB: What about documentaries?

CH: Yes, I am making one on Kissinger.

RB: I know you are on a tight schedule. Thanks for your time.

CH: Thank you.

Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing



As the events in Afghanistan unfold, the scariest place on the planet may be just next door. Patched together like Frankenstein’s monster by the British under Lord Mountbatten, Pakistan, a nation mired in hypocrisy, has partially repudiated its ties to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in order to squeeze another large check out of the United States. But from Peshawar to Islamabad,Christopher Hitchens sees evidence that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, warring fundamentalists, and territorial claims on Indian-held Kashmir make it not only a dangerous ally in this war but the likely cradle of an even deadlier conflict…

Christopher Hitchens on The Case Against Henry Kissinger

21 Aug


From The Trial of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens:

His own lonely impunity is rank: it smells to heaven. If it is allowed to persist then we shall shamefully vindicate the ancient philosopher Anacharsis, who maintained that laws were like cobwebs: strong enough to detain only the weak, and too weak to hold the strong. In the name of innumerable victims, known and unknown, it is time for justice to take a hand. (p. XI)

Four more years of an unwinnable war and undeclared and murderous war, which was to spread before it burned out, and was to end on the same terms and conditions as had been on the table in the fall of 1968. That was what it took to promote Henry Kissinger. To promote him from being a mediocre and opportunist academic to becoming an international potentate. The signature qualities were there from the inaugural moment: the sycophancy and the duplicity: the power worship and the absence of scruple: the empty trading of old non-friends for new non-friends. And the distinctive effects also were present: the uncounted and expendable corpses: the official and unofficial lying about the cost: the heavy and pompous pseudo-indignation when unwelcome questions were asked. K’s global career started as it meant to go on. It debauched the American republic and American democracy, and it levied a hideous toll of casualties on weaker and more vulnerable societies. (p. 15–16)

Back in 2001 Christopher Hitchens   published The Trial of Henry Kissinger . Previously he had anthologized a number of essays and book critiques  Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, as well as, among others, Hostage to History, The Elgin Marbles, Prepared for The Worst: Selected Essays, Blaming the VictimsFor The Sake of Argument: Essays and Minority Reports,  Letters To A Young Contrarian and  biographical essay of George Orwell as well as two other iconoclastic volumes, one Mother Theresa and the other on the Clintons — The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice, No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family.


Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, into the family of a British naval officer he received a degree in philosophy, politics and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970. He began his career at the New Statesman, then went on to the Evening Standard and migrating to the United States in 1980. He has been the book critic for New York Newsday, the Washington editor for Harper’s, and until his support of the Iraq incursion, a long-time contributor to The Nation(‘Minority Report’s…”with his trademark savage wit he flattens hypocrisy inside the Beltway. Laying bare the ‘permanent government’ of entrenched powers and interests”).

Christopher Hitchens also wrote regularly writes for Vanity Fair and contributed to a wide array of smart publications — Granta, The London Review Of Books, The New York Review Of Books, The Los Angeles Times, Dissent, New Left Review and The Times Literary Supplement. He has taught at the University of California at Berkeley, University of Pittsburgh and was  on the faculty of the New School of Social Research in New York. He had won a Lannan Literary Award for nonfiction, and his Letters To A Young Contrarian is to be published in the Fall of 2001, to be followed by a biography of George Orwell. Christopher Hitchens passed on in December of 2011 after a long well documented illness. He is missed…


Robert Birnbaum:The Trial of Henry Kissinger originated with two serialized articles that appeared in Harper’sMagazine. Did your writing the pieces on Kissinger originate with you looking for a place to publish them or with Lewis Lapham [Harper’s editor] encouraging you to write them?

Christopher Hitchens: Well, I have been, for more than two decades, determined to write a book about Henry Kissinger, and I chose to start doing it properly last year…to collect all the material I already had, in one place and work it up. Because of the Pinochet trial and because of the Milosevic warrant, I thought that this changed the context. The first person to whom I mentioned this project was Lewis Lapham at Harper’s Magazine, who said, “Do it now. We’ll print it.” I barely had time to say, “Are you serious?” He said, “Get on with, too. It’s high time.” So, I knew I had a receptive editor, and I suspected I could probably expand it into a book as well. I wrote it for Harper’s, and then I updated it a bit, added a certain amount, and then it was published by Verso. I’m very much in Lewis Lapham’s debt because it’s the first time Harper’s has ever, he tells me, run two successive issues.

RB:Barbara Ehrenreich says when she had a discussion with Lapham about the article(s) that led to her book Nickel and Dimed, “an insane little smile” came across his face when the question of who would do them [came up] and he said, “You.” When you were having the conversation, did something like that happen?

CH: No, it was more like a peremptory gesture saying, “Why haven’t you done it already? Do it now, we’ll print it.” Then it was followed by a number of nudging calls to say, “Have you done it yet?” keeping me up to the mark. It’s nice to know that you have demand in that way. I’ll tell you something interesting. Neither he nor Rick MacArthur, the publisher, who jointly took the decision to put it two months running on the front page and promote it and so on, imagined that it would sell at all. They thought they ought to do it. They thought it was high time someone did do it. But they didn’t think of it as a commercial proposition. As it happens, the magazine almost sold out of the newsstands both times. Which is quite rare for a monthly.

RB: Especially that monthly.

CH: Yes, so they tell me, I’m not an expert on circulation, but apparently it was a hit at the newsstands. What I wanted to draw attention to is that they didn’t have any motive of that kind. They anticipated that more people than really do believe this, would say things like, “Oh well, that was a long time ago.” Or, “Isn’t this rather old stuff?” They still thought, no, we do have some sense of responsibility to history and society, and after all here is the outstanding case of an American who has an undeserved impunity or immunity, or both.

RB: I did not read the Harper’s articles. In those, did you offer the Pinochet Trial as the reason for resurrecting the issue of Henry Kissinger’s war criminality?

CH: Yes, I did. Because if I was to propose a book to an editor of a magazine or an editor of a publishing house that said, “This book is about all the nasty things you don’t know about Henry Kissinger, but should,” it would be a very, very, very large book or an incredibly or impossibly long series. I said the organizing principle is this: the international context has changed with the arrest of Pinochet and the warrant for Milosevic — the whole context in which a wanted war criminal or committer of high crimes and international misdemeanors, violator of human rights — the whole context is altered now. So, the thing to do would be to confine it merely to the areas where Henry Kissinger is legally vulnerable. Then it’s a manageable proposition. If you just say, “Let’s tell all the nasty things about him that are true,” you’d never get to the end of it. So, it’s very self-limiting in that way.

RB: You constructed it as a legal brief?

CH: It’s not the case for the prosecution. And some people have rather pedantically reviewed it as if it was supposed to be a legal brief. I would say that it was the case for the case for the prosecution. And if I can say this, for myself, the closing chapter, which is probably played from my weakest hand — since I did not go to law school and never wished that I did, and I’m not an attorney — did predict that there would be a number of civil and international suits that would be likely to be brought. And have now, since the book came out, there have been three of these. One in France, one in Argentina, and one in Chile, and there will be from now until Kissinger either dies or is brought to justice, continuous reminders provided to him by the international legal system that what he did was not just immoral but also broke the customary laws by which we judge these things. Yes, and that’s important, I think. So I’m glad I did it that way, though it’s not my nature at all to argue as if I was a lawyer.

RB: What struck me about the response to your position is that there is such contentiousness about the case, as if to say, “Let’s not consider a trial.” But within in the legal system, as I understand it, your book would act as an indictment, which would warrant a trial. You need not prove Henry Kissinger’s guilt but that there are good and sufficient reasons for considering it.

CH: No, though I believe I could discharge that burden if it was laid upon me.

RB: Right, but what’s the objection to having a trial?

CH: It’s funny. You’re partially right. People either say, “Oh come on, you can’t be serious? He’ll never stand trial.” Or they say, “Don’t be ridiculous, all this was far too long ago, and anyway it’s all old hat.”

Now, not both those things can be true. One of my reviewers, in fact in the National Review, Mr Buckley’s magazine, began by saying, “This is a load of huey by Hitchens, a ’60s leftism kind of thing.” And then ended by saying, “And there is a clear and present danger that people like Henry Kissinger will be inconvenienced in their movements by international courts. And that he’s pointed to a very serious danger.”

So, I thought, well, make up your mind, which is it? I think that the case is the following: As to how utopian my proposal is, well, you be the judge. I personally, I must say, would never have believed that the British Special Branch, a very conservative politicized branch of the British police system, would be ordered to go around with a warrant issued by a post-Franco Spanish magistrate to Pinochet’s clinic in London and say, “If you are General Pinochet of Santiago, Chile, you’re nicked. We’ve got you.” And disconnect his phone and place him under house arrest. And permit him visits only from Baroness Thatcher, which if not cruel is certainly fucking unusual.

Nor would I have believed that the British House of Lords would confirm that in very round and adamant terms, by saying his defense — if these crimes were committed, they were committed under color of state as president and therefore have sovereign immunity — is void — that’s the crucial moment. Because we not only now have universal jurisdiction for courts to consider these matters and these people, wherever they can be found. In other words, to try them where they are held. Or to repatriate them to where they can be tried.

But, second and probably more important, the defense that “Well, yes I did kill all those Chileans” — if this was Kissinger speaking — “but I did it in the hope of impressing Richard Nixon” would never work. I never thought it was a very strong defense. In other words, I don’t think that anyone in the United States wants to claim that we should be less vigilant in these matters than the British House of Lords was.

RB: They don’t?

Christopher HitchensCH: Well, I hope they don’t. I should say as a patriotic immigrant, that I would hope that remark would have its point, would reverberate a little bit. So, what they are saying, if they say it’s obviously impossible to have a trial of such a man is, “Well, we’ve all come to admit for our own reasons that yes, that are some Americans that are above the law.” Well, very well. I want to hear them say it. And I want to have it taught in school, and I want to have it preached in church, and I want to have it announced in Congress, and I want to have the President say it, in his State of the Union speech, “Just forget it, there are some Americans who are above the law. So that stuff that you hear, about no one being above it, isn’t true.” Fine, if they don’t say it, there are also consequences.

RB: And then there is also the rebuttal that says, “Kissinger is not the only practitioner of such things, realpolitik. These are things that have taken place under many administrations, under many circumstances.”

CH: Yes, there is no reason not to say that that’s true. Though there are some reasons why mentioning in that way is a means of trying to change the subject. I would say that there are two considerations. One, we now know for an extraordinary number of reasons, with an amazing amount of evidence, that the Nixon Presidency had the US as a rogue state. The US was a rogue state. Some people say it’s a rogue state all the time. You can argue that for and against. But you can’t argue that it wasn’t a rogue state during the Nixon Administration. In every possible definition of the term. An unstable corrupt leader, using violence overseas to try to solve his domestic problems and using coercion against dissent in both cases. And willing to go to the brink with it. Well, Henry Kissinger, partly because of the implosion of that regime, was for its closing years, the president as far as foreign and defense and security policy was concerned. Thus, the opportunities he had to commit crimes on the international stage and of an international global scale was very great. I don’t believe there’s ever been a Secretary of State or National Security Adviser with the scope of that sort. Not Dulles, not McNamara (who was, of course, not Secretary of State, but you know what I mean).

RB: And sat on the 40 Committee [the semi-clandestine body of which Kissinger was the chairman from 1969-1976]…

CH: And chaired all the covert action committees, as well. So there was a long period of a one-man-sponsored, rolling, international crime wave, which also violated the US Constitution, the letter and the spirit of congressional resolutions, and all the rest of it. There is no parallel or comparable case as far as I know. That’s the first point. The second is, most of the other guys are dead; he’s alive. And the third point is, we have all the evidence in this case. We have an extraordinary dossier of evidence. Of course, it is true that for every person arrested for burglary or mugging or white-collar crime, there are a thousand others who could be arrested, that’s the one who did get arrested. When someone is shouting at the top of his voice, “Hey watch me. I’m doing white-collar crime,” then if he’s not arrested you begin to wonder if there isn’t something rotten in the system of law and order. You also begin to wonder about the motives of people who say, “Why pick on him?” Because they invite the answer, “Well, why not?” Given that he did do it, we have the evidence, and he is available. So I have to return to the obvious, I’m afraid.

RB: Can you speculate about why there appears to be a need to refrain from this investigation? Or to reject anyone who suggests the need for this examination?

CH: If what I say is true, and I might say, though I have had a lot of very hostile reviews, I have had nobody make any factual challenge. Or, shall I say, any challenge to my factual assertions. I have not made a factual claim that’s been contested, let alone rebutted. And I don’t expect that I will. If, therefore, what I say is true, the consequences are quite grave. Among them, from the point of view of your question, would be two things. One, it would mean the press had missed rather a large story or series of stories. Now I know my own profession very well. I’ve been making a reasonably good living out of it for many, many years. I know all the people who practice it, know most of them anyway, and I have worked with or for a lot of them. And I know one of the things they least like to do is admit that they missed a story. Especially if, as in this case, they missed because they were taken into confidence or otherwise given privileges by the person who was the perpetrator…

RB: That used to be called co-optation…

CH: …and Henry Kissinger was an absolute genius at spinning the press, partly invented the idea of “spin doctoring.” So, there would be that. And then to move it beyond the journalistic culture, to the wider North American one. There is only one culture in the world, I think probably in the history of the world, where the words “you’re history” are an insult. And it’s for good reason. Gore Vidal calls it “The United States of Amnesia.” We hear all the time, like a mantra, that whatever we’re confronted with, whatever it might be, the main responsibility is to move on. Put this behind us. It’s literally become a social, cultural, almost a moral injunction. The best thing to do is to forget it. Well now, that’s not the language in which we address, in the New York Times, the people of Germany, for example. We say, “It may seem to you a long time ago, but we insist you revisit your past and do it responsibly, and look at the documents, and live up to the obligations that you incurred, and do so in hard cash terms, too.” We insist that this also be true of the people of Serbia and of Japan and of many other societies. In my view, that insistence on the part of the United States and its establishment is not morally wrong on its face and in fact in all the cases I just mentioned, I think to remember and to take account and to live up to and to be responsible for, are all correct. Well, you can see where I’m going with this. You can’t have that both ways. If this is a proper injunction, it must apply to the United States as well.

RB: How much respect is there for Telford Taylor’s view of the Nuremberg precedents and their current application to war crimes?

CH: Well not everybody knows who Taylor was. He was the senior US military prosecutor at Nuremberg and wrote a wonderful book later which I make a lot of use of, about the possible extension of the Nuremberg precedent to the American war in Indo-China. But even if you had never heard of Telford Taylor, it is or should be taught in schools that the United States staffed the prosecution and the bench at Nuremberg. Nuremberg Chief Justice Robert Jackson  —  he nearly became Chief Justice of the United States  —  gave up the one to do the other, did say the United States was setting the standard by which it was itself was prepared to be judged. That these principals were written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which then was incorporated in the founding charter of the United Nations, of which the US is the founding and host and senior and dominant member and signatory of. In other words, this is as near as you could make it internationally possible in law, to a constitutional amendment. The United States is multiply, deeply, fundamentally committed to the observance of these standards.

There is no possible way — it would take years even if they wanted to — for the American establishment to withdraw from these agreements. They are completely binding. Multiply binding. The Taylor example actually is only the smallest one. Almost every subordinate institution in the United States is itself a signatory to the Universal Declaration. And this was made binding on others by the United States. And it is an inescapable responsibility and a very good thing that it is, too. That is taught to the school children. So the crevice that is opening before our very feet of people saying, “Yeah well,” either “We didn’t really mean that…” Or “It’s true, but it’s only supposed to apply to foreigners…” cannot be stated explicitly. It couldn’t, in fact be preached in the church. It can’t be said in Congress. It can’t be affirmed by the President. It can only be said surreptitiously.

Though nobody knows it, in the sense that it hasn’t been reported in the mass media, Henry Kissinger is wanted for questioning at the moment by magistrates in three democratic countries: France, Argentina, and Chile. He’s been served with summonses just to answer questions about his guilty knowledge of Pinochet’s death squads and the internationalization of the death squads of South America. And he’s refusing to answer the questions and is backed by the US government in refusing to answer. But that can’t be said proudly. It can’t be said openly. So the challenge remains. They have to give up one claim or the other. But the two are negations of each other.

RB: Is Kissinger traveling outside the country?

CH: Not without taking advice. That was true before he went to France. Now, for example, if he went back to France that summons is still extant. He wouldn’t be able to go back to Paris without being asked to the Palace of Justice. If an American can’t go to Paris, I think we’ll agree that there is a new development in international relations. Now a lot of people say, “Hah! So now we wouldn’t be able to have a foreign policy without consulting a lot of lawyers?” Well, partly that is also an attempt to change or cloud the issue. Actually, if you went back to recent foreign policy, you wish that more human rights attorneys had been consulted before a lot of it was implemented.

RB: Are those summons valid in countries other than in which they were issued?

CH: There will be more in my judgement…

RB: The Spanish summons to Pinochet was served in England…

CH: These summons to Henry Kissinger are only to be a witness, mark you. It makes it even more grave that he refuses to answer questions, even as a witness, and that the US government says that he doesn’t have to answer, as a witness. Now if he was to be summoned as a defendant, in other words, if he was indicted, that would be a different matter. There would have to be a request from a third country, second country for extradition. And there the United States government might well say we don’t extradite Americans. Some countries have refused on principle to extradite any of their citizens. Among other things, it’s the law of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Though the United States as we are sitting here is saying, “Well, that may be your law, but we still insist that you do extradite Mr. Milosevic to the Hague.” That is, of course, not to another country. It’s to an international court. In my opinion, it’s right to press this claim. But I do see that there are issues of sovereignty involved. However, this principle either applies [to all] or it does not. Before the technicalities kick in. One way of summarizing my answer to several of your questions would be that I’ve come to distrust those who immediately intrude the technicalities before they will discuss the principles. I notice this is a tactic in a lot of the people who oppose my campaign and my book and in a lot of the people who are around Kissinger, and certainly those people are in love with international lawyers and international technicalities.

RB: In your opening chapter you describe aphone conversation between Kissinger’s editor, Michael Korda  and  Kissinger…

CH: I do have a wonderful videotape of Mr. Korda on the phone with Henry Kissinger. Actually, calling him back. So we have the phone number and all of that. And it’s quite clear that Kissinger is very upset by that morning’s New York Times. I know the date of the interview. When I looked it up, it was very clear that there was an article by Jim Wyner, the national security correspondent of the New York Times saying, that the new disclosures about American complicity with Pinochet’s death squads and the knowledge of their activities and support of those activities, could put a number of high American officials in great legal jeopardy, as the Pinochet trial went on.

And Kissinger was very quick to notice this, quicker than most human rights activists were. He was much, much swifter to see. This also helped me to make up my mind to write the book in the way that I did, which was a legal matter. It’s not just a matter of saying — because many people have said it, so to speak morally or metaphorically down the years — “Yeah, Henry Kissinger, that war criminal.” I say, “Why not stop saying it rhetorically or metaphorically?” In fact, it’s literally true that he’s a war criminal, and he is guilty of crimes against humanity, and he can be held accountable for them. And if he cannot the consequences are even graver.

RB: Why did you choose this title for the book [The Trial of Henry Kissinger]?

CH: Well, originally I had a picture of him that made it look like he was sitting in the dark. Which we no longer use.

RB: The photograph on the cover is quite suggestive of a serial murderer….

CH: This looks more like a mug shot of a wanted mass murderer, it’s true. It was originally a photograph that looked as if he was sitting in the dark. Which we toyed with using. It also had him, hugely picking his nose. In the end, we decided it was probably too puerile or at least it was too satisfying for us to be sure that it was kosher to use such a picture. I wanted it to appear as the case for the prosecution, and I wanted to make it plain that justice would be pursued and now is being, and I more pleased than I can say that my last chapter turns out to be prescient.

Though, of course, I should add that I think it’s a disgrace that the pursuit of justice should be left to the families of victims in other countries. Painfully, going first to local magistrates, then looking for possibilities of pursuing it in America, using their savings. These people have already lost their families and their loved ones. They’ve already been through hell. There surely ought to be some decent district attorney or public lawyer or indeed some Congressional committee in the United States that would say. “No, this is our responsibility, to do justice here. We’re not going to leave it to the victims.” It would be as if it was only Nicole Simpson’s family who prosecuted O.J. Simpson. And only when they brought the evidence to the LA County district attorney…it’s really appalling that it should be this way. But, it is creeping nearer. And after all, if a French judge serves you a summons on Memorial Day in the Ritz Hotel in Paris, it must make you realize that there is such a thing as the finger of justice, and it can even reach someone as celebrified as yourself.

RB: What would your idea of justice in the case of Kissinger be?

CH: Well, I think he should be…I’ll take a step back. When the articles of impeachment were being drawn up against Richard Nixon, they originally included — in fact, the first article was — an indictment for the carpet bombing of Cambodia and the conduct of this horrific bombing being kept secret from Congress and the American people. If that trial had gone ahead. And remember it was decided in the end, let’s have a pardon and let’s put all this behind us and move on…it was the origin of “there are some bits of justice that are too awkward for us.” We’d rather have a quiet life than justice. Which I think is a bad precedent. I think Nixon should have stood trial. Did I say should? I’ll say it again. I believe Richard Nixon should have stood trial and, of course, if that indictment had been brought against him, he could not have stood in the dock alone. That that trial was aborted and due process was spared is now seen by many, many people as a great mistake. Which it was.

So, justice for me would be reopening that case. Solemnly and with the will and power of Congress. It appears that it didn’t work; we tried to bury the Viet Nam episode and the Nixon episode, it keeps coming back. You can’t open a newspaper without it coming back one way or another. Either it’s Senator Bob Kerrey , a much beloved liberal Democrat is found to have been cutting children’s throats with a knife in the dark. Or it’s a historian inventing his own record. It’s quite clear that it — Henry Kissinger, incidentally, was the one to christen the Viet Nam syndrome — never went away. Can’t be buried.

Very well then, let us do what we ask other societies to do. Have a Truth and Justice Commission, organized by Congress, bring it to light, investigate it. Punish the guilty. Do justice to the victims. It’s not to ask very much. This is a rich society that won the Cold War. It has nothing to fear from this inquiry. That’s what justice would look like.

I also believe that since Kissinger has gone on to make two successive fortunes: One from peddling stolen documents that he took from the State department into a three-volume blockbuster bestseller consisting very largely of fabrications or destructive and misleading editings of those documents — of the scale of David Irving’s [Holocaust denier] falsification — I can show in my book, you put together the documents we now have of his time in office and the use he’s made of them in his book, they’ve been mutilated, falsified. He made a fortune out doing that with public property. And a second fortune out of setting up a consulting firm, which franchises the connection between corporations and overseas dictatorships. I think he should be made to pay all that money back to the victims.

I think there should be civil suits against him as well. He should be forced to disgorge ill-gotten gains and pay back the families of people in Chile and Cyprus and Bangaladesh and Cambodia, until he has no money left. We quite rightly have laws in many states that a criminal can’t benefit from relating the story of his crime. A version of this should be adopted for him. He should, as well as standing trial for his crimes, be made to pay direct compensation.

RB: And if Kissinger stood trial and was found guilty of aggressive pursuit of war and war crimes, what would be the just sentence?

CH: I am still a principled root-and-branch opponent of capital punishment. And I wouldn’t make an exception in his case. For one thing, I’d want him to sit in his cell and think about it. And maybe not for pay and not by Ted Koppel or any of his usual sycophants, be interviewed properly and have his real evidence and recollections taken down. It’s always worth studying the personality of characters like him, Timothy McVeigh, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy and people of this kind. It’s worth knowing what they are like.

RB: Curious company you placed Henry Kissinger in.

CH: It’s an insult to them. If you look at the gravity of what he’s done, there’s no doubt that the rest of his worthless life should be served in the joint.

RB: Is there an endgame here, for you? Bringing him to justice?

Hitchens signing book

CH: By the way, if people could see the faces of some of those victims who long ago gave up on the very idea of justice. If we had, as has happened in South Africa, in Chile, in Czechoslovakia and in Serbia and elsewhere, the unbelieving look changed to a look of hope, on the faces of those who thought, “No, the whole world is unjust. The big fish, the murderers always get away with it.” Just for once, to see that that’s not true, it would help the dissolve the cynical, tired, affectless objections that people make here. “Oh well, why rake all that up again?” That’s the day I’d really like to see. I’ve seen some of those faces  already. That would do it for me. But it’s not my campaign.

I haven’t suffered from this guy’s depredations. And indeed I’m not the author of most of the evidence that I adduce. I should say that there are people in Washington, who for the last quarter century at least, certainly since the vile murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronnie Moffit in downtown DC, in the fall of 1976, have never let a day go by without doing justice for that family and for the people who murdered Orlando. And we’ve got — I say we, because I would count myself as junior member of this community — we’ve got to the stage now where we are quite likely to achieve at least vindication. We’ll be proved right. We will get the evidence out. We’ll make it public. It will be known, who those responsible are. And it will be known who is responsible for delaying justice as well, and obstructing it.

RB: One of them [Manuel Contreras, former head of Pinochet’s secret police] is sitting in jail in Santiago, Chile…

CH: Yes, indeed. Actually, the Justice Department, at the moment, the Criminal Division of the US Justice Department, has enough evidence itself to indict, or seek an indictment of Augusto Pinochet. Which would be quite something. Now if they don’t do that I think the Attorney General should be impeached. It’s his job to defend the United States from enemies, foreign and domestic.

RB: Yes, it would be that…

CH: In everything I say, however implausible or utopian or far-fetched it may sound, I insist there is a corollary in the other direction. If these things are not done, then we have to live with the admitted, acknowledged, public unashamed assertion that, “Okay, a little injustice isn’t all that bad” if it allows a quiet life for politicians and people in power. If they don’t want my assertions, then they must the corollary or something like it. I shouldn’t say it’s my assertion either, perhaps. But something like it. But you see what I mean. If they won’t accept the one thought, then they’ll have to face the other one.

What I’m trying to do is make people face that and my hope — and actually my confidence — is that people know that it’s put in that way. They know that that’s the choice. Faced with it, and if it can be made material to them, as I think these series of demands for Kissinger’s testimony from other countries now do, that they will opt for doing the right thing. There is, in fact, quite a reservoir of willingness to do that in this country. Presently and historically. I’m not convinced as some are that everyone is infected with beltway cynicism. Though I do have days, as we all do, when it seems as if it could be that way.

RB: As you tour for your books are you seeing evidence of this willingness?

CH: Well, allowing for the fact that people who don’t like Henry Kissinger are more likely to come to readings or public events that I do, I’d have to say I’ve been impressed by how many people have come. And by how feeble the arguments put by his defenders have been, by the absence of a factual challenge to what I say and by the reluctance of the mainstream media to give this argument a fair hearing or given its existence a fair account.

In other words, you always know you are on to something when there appears to be a reluctance to discuss it. If they had the answer to what I was saying they would smearing it all over me and making me look a fool. They are not doing that. So that gives me the feeling that probably the trail is still quite hot.

And, of course, the hysterical and demented irrational reactions of Kissinger himself are very interesting. In one case, to run away from the Ritz Hotel in Paris rather than answer questions from a judge. In another to cancel, now three appearances, rather than be in the same town as me — who is only a humble scribbler with a very small impecunious publisher — and then when finally for months having pretended he’d never heard of me or the book, to admit that he had, now read the book, to have no response to its charges, when asked in round terms by interviewers, “What do you say to the charge you subverted the Viet Nam peace negotiations in 1968? Or were complicit with the Indonesian genocide in East Timor? Or suborned murder in Chile…” Grave accusations! Not one response to any of them. And finally to try a very gross and ill-advised tactic of defamation of the author…

RB: You…

CH: …shoot the messenger, that’s me, yeah, by saying that of all things, I am a Holocaust denier, which is — it’s difficult to know where to start — I probably shouldn’t. It’s pretty wild groping and flailing on his part. Which has already earned him a very bad press, if only for its evident bad faith in trying to…

RB: Smear you…

CH: And in doing so, avoid, after all, a fair question. Did you, Dr. Kissinger, do any of the things I say or didn’t you? Now if he’d said, “Now on page 90 of his book you don’t have to take Hitchens seriously at all because he says I was in Bucharest in 1968 and in fact I was in Brazil or Orlando. Who can take seriously a guy who can’t get his facts right?” Nothing of the sort. Nothing even remotely of the kind. Instead a hysterical charge of defamation for which I am seriously considering taking him to court in my own right, just to add to his legal delights.

Christopher Hitchens


RB: Prior to the recent British elections I discovered, on television, Tony Blair being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman. What struck me about this interview was that Paxman —  asking about the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots — when he did not get an answer to his question, kept asking it, five and six times. And he persisted on other questions as well. I was struck by Paxman’s dogged pursuit and the feeling that an American journalist would not have persisted. And for all appearances — maybe it was some kind of parlor game — it was affable, quite civil ,and the lack of answers notwithstanding, enlightening. Assuming that you agree that such an exchange would not take place in the US, between a journalist and a high official, how is it possible in Britain?

CH: Well, I know that it wouldn’t take place in the United States and, indeed, I even think I know why, from the point of view of the press. One step back from that, again. There is in Britain a parliamentary tradition where the political forces in the assembly sit opposite one another and it’s designed for antagonism, not consensus. So, for a Prime Minister to be subjected to rude and insistent questioning is supposed to be part of his job and those who can’t take it don’t stay Prime Minister for very long.

Harold McMillan, supposedly one of the most imperturbable patrician conservative Prime Ministers, used to always vomit briskly in the men’s room before facing parliament at Prime Minister’s question time. He knew that he couldn’t anticipate what the questions would be. There were no rules. You couldn’t have it prearranged. Interestingly enough, Mr. Blair has tried very hard to limit the amount of time allotted…he would like to make this a shorter experience. And [he] doesn’t show up well under consistent or any other kind of questioning and doesn’t relish it. But nonetheless, he would never dream of complaining, he knows those are the rules.

In Britain — I hate to sound condescending, I hope no one will take this amiss — a slightly higher value is places on literacy, among journalists. The ability to be rhetorical and to be fluent is more highly prized there. If you care to turn up the New York Times, the day after a Presidential press conference — the Times maintains this fatuous ritual — but I’m glad it does it — of always giving the full transcript. Of course, everyone, especially recently, has gotten used to looking at the President’s answers and slapping their brow with frustration and incredulity, thinking, “How can any adult human being utter anything so illogical, so ungrammatical, unsyntactical?” But just you do yourself a favor and look at the questions that are asked. Stumbling, unsyntactical, semi-literate, pointless, unsystematic. No consistent line of questioning, no consecutive questions, no follow-up of any kind. Usually taking it for banal invitations to say a little more about something or other. Full of elementary verbal howlers. Yet there isn’t one of those hacks who wouldn’t have his own string of Bushism jokes to tell about the President’s latest grammatical train wreck. Garbage in, garbage out. If you want a banal answer, ask a banal question, and that’s what public figures in this country are generally used to. The same is true when they go on television. It’s quite extraordinary to watch someone like Charlie Rose or Ted Koppel interviewing someone like Henry Kissinger. You only hope that while they are down on the floor they are cleaning it. Getting something useful done for their labor.

RB: While I don’t have a high opinion of Charlie Rose, I saw an interview he did with Henri Cartier Bresson and it was splendid and wonderful…

CH: I dare say that I’ve seen Charlie Rose get quite good responses out of actors and performance artists and showbiz people and things like that. A certain amount of geniality and even naivete is pardonable is those situations because you do well if you get the person to talk well about themselves. That’s fine. This simply can’t work as a way of interrogating a politician. It always has the dreaded temptation of sycophancy. The fear if you are not this way the politician won’t come on your show and will go on someone else’s instead. You don’t have this calculation with a photographer or a theater writer.

RB: If you develop reputation as a tough interviewer — like Larry King is not — you may still face that?

CH: Well, this proposition remains to be tested. No one has attempted to develop such a reputation…

RB: Well, let’s see…

CH: No, no, I can be firm with you on that. There is no such thing as a tough interviewer on American television. And I don’t, myself, believe there ever has been one. There are people who are able to ask sycophantic questions in a rude and hectoring tone of voice. Sam Donaldson would be preeminent there. This has the awful effect of giving the public the impression the politicians are being badgered all the time, rudely. When nothing of the kind is in fact the case. So that’s the worst of both worlds.

Look, for example, it doesn’t take long to answer the following, to revert to my favorite subject, “Mr. Kissinger, you were in the room with the Indonesian General Staff, the General Staff of the Indonesian dictatorship, on the day the order for their invasion of East Timor was given. What did you say to them?” Doesn’t take long to ask. It isn’t very hard to understand. I happen to know what the answer is by the way. As does Henry Kissinger. He’s never been asked.

RB: At the end of The Trial of Henry Kissinger, you refer to a public speaking engagement…

CH: A few brave souls have managed to get themselves into the question period of public events of his. But they get cut off and thrown out. And the answers he gives are flat-out lies that can be tested. But he’s never been asked them in any forum where there would be consequences. Where anyone could say, “Mr. Kissinger, I have the research here on my lap, on my clipboard. It isn’t true is it, what you just said, that the invasion of East Timor came to you as a complete surprise? Now here’s what you said in the State Department at a private meeting. It wasn’t a surprise and you knew it was coming and you approved of it didn’t you?”

It didn’t take long to do. Never been even attempted. “Mr. Kissinger, when you decided to remove physically General Schneider, the head of the Chilean Armed Forces, because he was opposed to a military coup, did you believe you had Congressional authorization?” would be a good question. Never been asked anything remotely like that. “When you designed the bombing of Cambodia, did you think Congress knew or did you take steps to make sure it didn’t know? And did you take legal advice about that?” Never been asked. These are questions that, I think, could be reasonably said, need to be asked in the public interest. In no journalistic forum has he ever been asked any such thing. He’s asked at the National Press Club as recently as next week, questions like, “Do you think ever think there will be a lasting peace in the Middle East?” A subject upon which his opinion is about as valuable as mine. I’d actually say, less so.

RB: We’ve talked about a certain literary bent in Britain that extends to journalism…

CH: I really don’t want to be thought of as over-stating that…

RB: I don’t think you did…

CH: People in the country of my birth, some of them are anyway, at university and elsewhere, trained in the idea of debating, in rhetoric, and in elementary logic. In my opinion these arts in the American culture have fallen into disuse.

RB: Okay. So examining American journalistic history. Current and recent past, besides I.F. Stone, can you identify anyone who has done good and worthy work?

CH: Well, if I just think of the acknowledgements to my current book. I’m standing on the shoulders of Seymour Hersch, in particular. Scott Armstrong late of the Washington Post and then founder of the National Security Archives, Peter Kornbluth and number of people…actually, I give it a name in my closing pages. Henry Kissinger is one of the great exemplars of celebrity culture, he was one of the founders of the idea of celebrity culture. My definition of “celebrity culture” is one where people’s actions are judged by their reputations and not their reputations by their actions.

The first person to do the elementary journalistic job of measuring Kissinger’s reputation against his actual deeds was Seymour Hersh, and we are all hugely in his debt. For that and other investigations, that he’s conducted, too. His method is simply pragmatic. He says, “Well, here are the facts.” He’s not an interpreter and he’s not a historian. I’m not sure he would even represent himself as an intellectual. He simply says, “This is a country that is founded on documents and has to produce a number of them, which are public property. You have the right to see them. They ought to be given to you but they have been withheld. I can find out what they say on your behalf. What they say contradicts the official lie.”

It’s amazing how much distance you can get out of just doing that. The gap now is so great it had to be given a name during the Johnson years. The Credibility Gap, which is, of course, the wrong name for it. Now credibility simply means can you tell a lie with success. Literally means that. ‘Credibility’ has nothing to do with ‘veracity’ or ‘truthfullness’ or ‘accuracy’. It has to do with skill in getting yourself believed.

RB: How about ‘deniability,’ when did that become part of public discourse?


CH: Deniability came about when it was decided that accountability would be too troublesome as a principle. Accountability would be hell, let’s have deniability instead. Amazingly, again the press took up the cry. Well this was ‘plausibly deniable.’ They borrowed the actual rhetoric of the conspirators. You notice now people also hopelessly confuse the words ‘credulity’ and ‘credibility.’ Things will be said to strain credibility instead of credulity. The whole language in which truth is discussed has undergone a great debasement as well. And again, not enough people are there to point that out. So discourse itself has become a servant of power.

RB: You have been insistent about not wanting to appear to be a chauvinist for British education and literacy, but you have presented no evidence for any hope that if such an impulse ever existed in America that it will be resurrected, especially in the practice of journalism.

CH: Well the British press doesn’t do much…I didn’t want it to be thought that I thought that British press did very much of that. The British press, among other things, doesn’t have the benefit of a First Amendment. And it is crippled by a very repressive law of libel. And it is owned by a very small number of rich men whose main interest is entertainment and propaganda.

RB: Unlike the United States?

CH: Yes, the New York Times does not bear the marks of Murdoch in the way — or of any ownership — the London Times bears the paw prints of Rupert Murdoch. That’s just a fact.

Look, if you want me to talk about the cultural transatlantic dialectic, I would say that what upsets me is that the two countries admire the wrong things about each other. In other words, there’s a lot of Anglophilia in the United States, a lot of snobbish feeling of admiration for Britain but they don’t admire the right things. They don’t admire the broadcasting standards of the BBC. Which are not bad, they are not as good as they were, but they are pretty good. Or the National Health Service, for example. Or one or two other things I could mention. The same way the British don’t tend to admire the right things about the United States. Such as the Bill of Rights. Britain being a country that doesn’t have any rights, only traditions.

I’m a member of an organization that tries to get the United Kingdom as we still call it — though it would cease to be that, if it took my advice — to adopt a bill of rights, written guarantees of what is owed the citizen. One of the things I do as a cultural critic is to try and redress that imbalance or mutual distortion across the Atlantic…and I do it in what I suppose is still an English accent. I am very acutely aware of superiority and inferiority complexes on both sides, and I try not to play to either of those.

After all, there isn’t anyone in British cultural life that I can easily think of who would equate, say, to Gore Vidal. Someone who is a great literary figure and considerable historian and also public intellectual, television performer, general Cassandra of cultural state of affairs but who is second to none in his command of the language. Not only that but his knowledge of European and other cultures, I absolutely don’t want to make any concession to the idea that they do these things better in Britain.

I suppose that when I go and speak on college campuses or when I teach as I do, here, in that world, I am appalled at the way no one is trained in the elementary rules of debate. That a panel supposedly designed to elucidate a question by disagreement is actually just a series of prepared statements followed by about five minutes of deferential questions. There is actually no format in which a clash of ideas and opinions or evidence can take place. I think that is why the courtroom is the great cultural resort in America. Both for entertainment and drama and movies and so on and also for the settling of disputes. Because it’s one of the very few things that isn’t fixed. Where there is a diametrical opposition, an argument, a clash. Which is what people want…and need. Though they always say they wish for consensus. In fact, what they want and need is much more polarization.

It’s only in that way — I say it in my collection, somewhere, I think, anyway, if I didn’t I meant to — you hear people saying things like well, “This controversy generates more heat than light.” Well, that’s a stupid thing to say. Heat is the only source of light. That’s a law of physics, among other things. You don’t expect to get light except from heat. Generally, you always get applause in this country if you can say, “Well, let’s try and find common ground. Let’s begin the healing process.” A word that you can’t be accused of favoring is the word ‘divisive.’ Or to be seen to be divisive.

Unopposed, people will get up and get applause, including on liberal and left platforms, saying, “We’re opposed to the politics of division.” Well, politics is division by definition, thanks all the same. There is no other definition of it. It’s the definition of differences. People say, “Let’s all unite.” So, there’s a huge linguistic and cultural prejudice in favor of a lowest-common-denominator, mediocre agreement. I think one can say, at least in European culture, that the parliaments are arranged with a left and a right wing and opposing benches. We don’t assume agreement to begin with. Agreement may be found but only through argument. In other words, to coin a phrase, the dialectic.

RB: I read somewhere that you didn’t want to be known as some kind of pit bull, attack dog, curmudgeon…

CH: I don’t mind the curmudgeon…That’s fine. I don’t mind that in the least. I suppose I’ve become bored with the idea that, “Oh, Hitchens just looks for some targets to attack. Well, he even attacked Mother Theresa. Even Princess Diana.” The fact is, though I spend only a tenth of my time on it, I am an opponent of the celebrity culture. Every now and then I decide to demonstrate that it’s false by showing that what everyone thinks they think or know about some bloated, famous inflated reputation is false…is based on a misreading or misinformation. And yes, of course, that you tend to take the more popular ones. In some cases they are forced on you. Princess Diana forced herself on us. With Mother Teresa, because I am a great opponent of religious fundamentalism, I decided to attack, not Pat Robertson, who is generally speaking not liked in the areas in which I move, but to attack a religious fundamentalist everyone thought was great. Thus, to show how these things happen.

RB: “The ghoul of Calcutta”…


CH: In this case, the death cult leader of Calcutta, who is not a friend of the poor but a friend of property. And a friend of the rich and of dictatorship. And of strict moral teaching to the helpless and strict moral indulgence to the well off. I can prove it. And I will say again, if I don’t sound too dogmatic in this mode, that no factual challenge to anything I say in that book [The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice] has ever been made either.

RB: And you have been invited to the Vatican.

CH: I’ve been asked by the Vatican to give my testimony in her case, or her cause, as they put it — her sainthood cause, her canonization. I’m flattered to say that my deposition was taken at length by three senior gentlemen of the clergy and is going to form part of the argument about whether she should be a saint. So they took it seriously, yeah.

RB: From what I know about you, you have always wanted to be a writer and you spend a lot of time on literary matters. Unacknowledged Legislation, a book of literary essays, would be evidence of that. In the scheme of things, are you being acknowledged for that?




CH: As I have been touring with my Kissinger book, I have also been touring with my essays. Actually, in some places [they] have sold better, I’m proud to say, because among other things Unacknowledged Legislation is a much better book and involved a great deal more work and is about much more intricate and interesting subjects: The relationship between literature and the good society, and the good life and its consideration of authors, mainly in the English-speaking world, and mainly men. Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, T.S, Elliot, Shelley, after whom the book is implicitly named, Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, PG Wodehouse, George Eliot, one of the few women, Dorothy Parker another one. Rudyard Kipling. That’s what I’d far rather be doing and am probably better at. I probably should never have stopped doing it because that’s what I wanted to do when I was younger.

As I also say in the book, the Greeks have a word, ‘idiotus,’ for those who showed no interest at all in politics. It wasn’t considered in ancient Greece an insult. It was just what you said about someone who didn’t bother to come to the relatively few meetings that Athenian democracy involved. Those who were totally indifferent were thought of as the idiotus. Quite a bland term. Interestingly that it should have translated for us, the way it does. I don’t want to be an idiot in that sense. Any more than I want to be one of the idiots that are totally politicized and can only think of things ideologically, even if they are architecture, music or writing. The totally politicized, professionally politicized type and the class of people who they make up are a great danger to politics as well as to culture.

So the project is to see if one can’t have a literate democratic citizenry in a proper republic. And there are all kinds of ways of trying to make people see the chance for themselves in that. One [way] is to point to the successful examples, like George Orwell, who were great citizens. Thomas Paine, Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass. It’s very useful in America, because America is a written country. It’s the only country in the history of the world that has been proclaimed by documents. It’s a work-in-progress. These documents can be reread, revisited and revised and reconsidered. So there is a special place for the writer here. So that’s one way to point out the importance of the literate citizen. The other is to show how wicked and corrupt and brutal and stupid and potentially lethal the alternatives are: the power-worshipping pseudo-intellectuals and kept men like Henry Kissinger. Basically, it’s the same project. Whatever form of it one’s pursuing.

Copyright 2001, 2016 by Robert Birnbaum


 *Historian Greg Grandin’s recent  tome, KISSINGER’S SHADOW : The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman , rigorously elucidates Henry Kissinger’s blood -soaked record and in a Nation magazine article opines

Clintonism is largely an extension of Kissingerism, so Clinton’s cozy relationship to Kissinger shouldn’t come as a surprise. Both Clintons have excelled at exactly the kind of fudging of their public-private roles that Kissinger perfected. Kissinger, the private consultant, profited from the catastrophes he created as a public figure. Beyond his role in brokering NAFTA, in Latin America his consulting firm, Kissinger and Associates, was a key player in the orgy of privatization that took place during Clinton’s presidency, enriching itself on the massive sell-off of public utilities and industries, a sell-off that, in many countries, was initiated by Kissinger-supported dictators and military regimes. The Clintons, too, both as private philanthropists and private investors, are neck deep in corruption in Latin America (especially in Colombia and Haiti)–corruption made worse, à laKissinger, by the policies they put into place as public figures, including the free trade treaties and policies that Hillary helped push through, first as senator and then as secretary of state.


** Jon Lee Anderson wrote on Kissinger asking a incisive question, “Does Henry Kissinger have a Conscience?” He concludes,

We have repeatedly reviewed evidence of Kissinger’s callousness. Some of it is as inexplicable as it is shocking. There is a macho swagger in some of Kissinger’s remarks. It could, perhaps, be explained away if he had never wielded power…And one has an awareness that Kissinger, the longest-lasting and most iconic pariah figure in modern American history, is but one of a line of men held in fear and contempt for the immorality of their services rendered and yet protected by the political establishment in recognition of those same services… 

Now that he is nearing the end of his life, Kissinger must wonder what his own legacy is to be. He can rest assured that, at the very least, his steadfast support for the American superpower project, no matter what the cost in lives, will be a major part of that legacy. Unlike McNamara, however, whose attempt to find a moral reckoning Kissinger held in such scorn, Kissinger has shown little in the way of a conscience. And because of that, it seems highly likely, history will not easily absolve him

Jess Walter on Beautiful Ruins and Other Stuff

15 Aug


Credit: Robert Birnbaum

I sit down with the author of The Financial Lives of the Poets to talk about his latest novel, how to survive in Hollywood, the ins and outs of contemporary publishing, and that unheralded Paris of the Northwest, Spokane.

Novelist Jess Walter, a proud son of Spokane, Wash., belongs to an increasingly rare literary species—an author of six novels, the best known being The Financial Lives of the Poets, without the benefit of a college writing program. Instead, Walter brings an abiding passion and freshness to his chosen profession that is exhibited to wonderful results in his newest novel, Beautiful Ruins.

The response to Beautiful Ruins has been justifiably exuberant. Highly regarded novelist Richard Russo writes, “Why mince words? Beautiful Ruins is an absolute masterpiece.” As a novel that covers over 50 years with a handful of major characters, it is fertile ground for the wide-ranging conversation that follows. Walter and I chat about Spokane, the history of his attempts to write Beautiful Ruins, mystery novels, Hollywood, the Witness Protection Program, Judith Regan, making movies, Don Winslow’s The Power of The Dog, and the proverbial “much more.”

This was my first conversation with Jess Walter but undoubtedly not my last.


Robert Birnbaum: You’ll sign a baseball. And then an agreement that you will never sign another baseball.

Jess Walter: Really? All right.

RB: We want to appreciate the value of my son’s autographed baseball collection.

JW: That’s great—this will be my first baseball.I have signed a breast before.

RB: Really—were you a musician?

JW: It was just a talk. I think it was a lark, but I was more than happy to do it.

RB: How big was the breast?

JW: The part I saw was pretty substantial. I didn’t see the whole thing. It was just across the top.

RB: Permanent?

JW: Yeah, it was a Sharpie of some kind—some are washable. She thought it would be funny. I signed her friend’s book. I think she was surprised that I said yes.

RB: And here I thought writing was such a mild and uneventful profession.

JW: It tends to be. That’s why the breast and now the baseball will stand out. Two landmarks.

RB: When your son tells someone his name, what’s the first thing they say?

JW: In Spokane a few people know that his dad’s a writer. I don’t think anyone pays much attention.

RB: My son’s name is Cuba—I have observed all his life that he will say his name and people will first say, “Huh?”

JW: Yeah, right.

RB: So I am surmising that they are not believing what they heard.

JW: My son’s name is Alec.

RB: Who is Brooklyn?

JW: Brooklyn is my daughter.

RB: You called a girl Brooklyn?

JW: I did, yeah.

RB: So what’s the reaction?

JW: I was a dad at 19 before I’d been on an airplane, before I had ever been east of Wyoming. I had never been to Brooklyn, and my girlfriend at the time thought it was a neat name, and I remember—

RB: You mean the child’s mother? You could refer to her as such.

JW: I was a teenage pregnancy statistic. We were married for a brief time. Now we are very amicable. And Brooklyn now has her master’s degree from the University of Montana, in English. She’s 26—a great kid.

RB: Where is she?

JW: In Montana, Missoula. She is an adjunct, teaching there. I do remember an editor in New York saying, “Did you know Brooklyn? Did you like it there?” I answered, “No, we had never been there. It was just a name we picked.” And then she asked what year was it. I told her, 1985. She said, “You were aware Brooklyn was a slum, weren’t you?” “No, I just thought it was a nice name.”

RB: What does your daughter think?

JW: Every kid wants to be Debbie or Steve when they are young. They want a really common name. And they hit an age when they are happier with it. It’s probably like you said about childhood; you don’t give it second thought.

RB: I think Cuba has always been fine with it.

JW: It’s a great name. My other two kids are 12 and 15 and we did not name them Yonkers and Staten Island—they’re Ava and Alec. Have you read T.J. English’s book,Havana Nocturne?


RB: It’s about the mob in Cuba—I know of it.

JW: I have never been to Cuba, but it seemed to capture the feel of the place. He’s great. I really like his stuff. He covers the Whitey Bulger kinds of stories. I like what he does, at least in that book, which is rooting it to the place—make it more than just the salacious details. It really becomes endemic of the time and the place.

RB: I like biographies that do that—who cares what the subject ate for breakfast as a child?

JW: Yeah, set it in the world. Exactly.

RB:Beautiful Ruins would not be a story that one would just stumble on.



JW: (laughs)

RB: It’s complicated. And you manage to cover a wide time frame—close to 50 years. Was the decision to write this novel just what came to you after your last novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets?

JW: No, no. It’s so funny when you go out on book tour. I always feel a little like I am testifying before a Senate committee. I always think of that key Watergate question:What did you know and when did you know it? Because tracing the root, especially of a book like this, is so many blind alleys, and it was a maze to write it. I started in 1997. It was the second novel I attempted—I had another failed novel. I was in Italy. My mom was dying of cancer. We went to the Cinque Terra. I invented this little town, and in my mind it would be a sort of book, a kind of magical realist story in which nobody could die of cancer there. So this young woman would arrive there, about my mother’s age. This young man was there. I was writing organically so I didn’t really know who those people were. And I wrote until I ran out of gas, as young writers often do. I set it down, I wrote another book. Picked it up and set it down and wrote another book. And this happened five times.

RB: When you did this, did you add to it?

JW: I would start from the beginning. I would tear it all the way. I would think, Here’s what I did wrong, and I would write until I ran out of gas. I’d finished a draft of it in 2008, and I knew it wasn’t right. By then it had grown to cover Hollywood and these ideas of art and fame. And the characters had become so rich and alive to me, and the expanse of their lives had become enough that I wanted to capture it in some way. That made sense, but also took into consideration all that I was learning as I was growing up. I am sort of self-taught as a novelist, and so I don’t think I had the chops in 1997 to finish a book that took place in so many times, that had so many characters. So 2008 I finished a draft. I read it and realized it wasn’t quite there. I gave it to a good friend of mine who is an English professor and he said, “It’s really not quite there.” So I started writing The Financial Lives of the Poets almost as a palate-cleanser, to get the taste of this book out of my mouth, to write something quick and straightforward, with one character that takes place in a short amount of time, four days. And I work that way. Right now I am working on two novels and finishing up a book of short stories. I can work on two or two different things, and if I have any superpower, that’s it. I can shift from one thing to another and that way hopefully avoid writer’s block.

RB: The characters came alive for you—you’ve lived with them a long time. So now the book is done, now what?

JW: It’s funny that I phrased it that way. It’s one of my pet peeves when authors say that. One of the problems when I first tried to write this book, I fell for the old writer’s trick—you create these characters and they act on their own. When I do that my characters tend to watch a lot of TV.

RB: (laughs)

JW: Open another beer. They act a little bit like my brother. They don’t engage in the dramatic narrative that I would like them to. So, especially in this book, much of the novel is a kind of architecture, trying to figure out, Where does this piece go? What happened to these people over that amount of time? But during that time, especially when you set a book down and come back to it, there they are. You don’t have to create them. You know them a little more. And now you infuse them with the things you’ve been feeling and thinking about. And so when—the characters Dee and Pasquale were alive to me in that sense since 1997, and yet I didn’t quite know them. I would find out things about them. I’ve lived in Spokane my whole life. Spokane, Wash.

RB: There’s another Spokane?

JW: There is another Spokane. I only say “Washington” because some people won’t know where the one Spokane is. But to have lived in the same place my whole life—it’s not surprising then that Pasquale is infused with this desire to go out into a larger world. So those kinds of things would work their way in to the characters. And it was a slow process. At no point when I would give up on the book would I think, Well, I’ll come back and finish this. I would think what every writer does. Which is, That one is probably just not going to work. Maybe I’ll salvage some bit of it for something else. So when I finished that draft in 2008 and then wrote Financial Lives, I took nine months away from it, almost a year, which is hard to tell young writers because it seems as if you go away from it you won’t be able to reanimate it. I heard a painter one time say, “I can go back to a painting as long as the paint hasn’t dried.” And writers, a lot of times you go back to it and the paint is dry. You can’t make your flowers into trees.

RB: I remember Frank Conroy telling me he lost the first draft to a long novel and so he wrote it again. And years later he found the lost draft and it was not much different than the one he rewrote.

JW: Close and better. I think the same process happens when you step away. When I would go back to it I could see the flaws as clearly as if they were drawing mistakes, perspective mistakes. What I saw were the flaws. Again, this is subject to layers of subjectivity, gone forever. So every time I would go back to the beginning. Not a sentence exists from the 1997 version, I’m sure. I doubt there is even a sentence from the 2008 version.

RB: Was Richard Burton in the story originally?


JW: Cleopatra was in it from about 2002. I’d had my first experiences in Hollywood. When you come up with a beginning that catches you in that way, you’re asking yourself, “Who are these people?” When I realized she [Dee] was an actress the next thing was, “What’s she doing in Italy?” So I read some biographies and histories of 20th Century Fox, which had an incredible description of the disaster that was Cleopatra. When I got to that part about Burton and Taylor having this affair, and 20th Century Fox worried that it was going to ruin the film, and them realizing that it would help it break even: I felt, Oh my God, this is the birth of every reality show, of every kind of Paris Hilton kind of sex tape fame idea we have. That it doesn’t matter if you screw up: It matters that your name is in the papers. That was around 2002. So I started researching Burton. First, I didn’t know he would work his way in to the novel. He sort of hovered—

RB: Then why would Dee come to this isolated place?

JW: When I start writing, often I will just have a vision. I’ll write to that vision and then I figure it out. I think every writer has all these knobs on their stereo, treble and bass and balance. And for me, the two that I pay the most attention to are character and thematics. Characters invested with some sort of [pauses, searching] ache, some humanity and drive. They want something. Often they are haunted by their inability to get by.

RB: That’s one of the pleasures of reading this book. The characters are sympathetic—even Dean, who is a schmuck.

JW: When I wrote his chapter [Dean’s memoir]—this doesn’t get mentioned as much as it should, but fiction writing is an act of empathy. And when I wrote in his voice, I thought, he believes he is doing the best for people.

RB: It’s hard to read a story where the writer doesn’t like his characters.

JW: I think people will assume that that means that the characters can’t be flawed. And to me it’s the opposite; they need to be flawed. The difference is we can tell an author who condescends to his characters, who gives them these flaws but treats them as if they are beneath him or her in some way. I think of that as a male characteristic of authors. I don’t know why. And it’s not.

RB: You want to view women as maternal and empathetic.

JW: Maybe, right.

RB: The character Bender, when did he get added to the cast?

JW: He was along pretty early. And I didn’t know who he was and he came about for this very odd reason. I had invented this sixth village, Porto Vergogna; it takes place in the Cinque Terra, and so I invented a sixth village, Port of Shame. It was playful and fun and if you have been to Italy there is not a lot of understatement. It’s a big brash macho culture. The words “Hotel Adequate View” made me laugh every time I thought of it, so I needed a reason for why the hotel was called the Hotel Adequate View. And I imagined some American writer holding forth on the topic of inflation in the currency of language, and how hyperbole was going to be the death of us all, how everything could not be the most beautiful view. So that became Alvis Bender. He changed over time. He was a big brash travel writer for a while. For a while he was a wine writer.

RB: And then he became an automobile dealer.

JW: Yeah. Who couldn’t write.

RB: Do you think he couldn’t write? The one chapter he wrote (you wrote) was pretty good. And that was a very sweet part of the story. That the one chapter was all that was needed to tell that particular story.

JW: Imagine, again, you have been writing this book and you have invented this guy and he has written this chapter and that’s all he can do. And you are writing a book, which at that point you don’t know if you’ll ever finish. So I felt very much Bender, like in my inability to make more of this except for this great beginning I had.

RB: About 15 years in the making. Now that you are done with it, are you done with it? There can’t really be a sequel. Some writers are writing prequels—Don Winslow, Edward Falco. (laughs)

JW: It’s part of a tetralogy—no. When I am finished with a novel I tend to think those characters—this was the arc of their lives, especially this book, which really is shaped by their entire lives. It has a sweep that my other books don’t. The way I always thought of this book was that I was carrying these characters around in my hands, gently. And they went through such hard times. I have a writing journal where I write my ideas, and in that journal I tend to focus on the very small, really small details, and try to step back and get a larger picture. So for The Financial Lives of the Poets I wrote, “This is that part of the roller coaster where you are right on the top, when you meet and then it’s all a descent. I want to end the novel in a descent.” So that was the shape for me. In this one I felt like I was gently carrying these characters, and then I wrote, “In the last chapter I want to just throw them out on the table and have everything spill out in this flood of the present, of the moment.”

RB: It is a lovely ending.

JW: So in that way I felt like I was done with them. I carried them for 15 years now they are free. Those metaphors or shapes are so helpful in my journal because they allow me to step back.


RB: I have read some of your other novels—Citizen Vince and Land of the Blind. I have always like that Erasmus quote [“In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king”—ed.]. I was surprised to see that you wrote two novels using Caroline Mabry.

JW:  I was a dad very young and I started working at a newspaper; I always wanted to be a novelist but had no training whatsoever. And I was writing a lot of failed attempts at fiction. For seven years I sent out short stories and got them all rejected. I used to call them “manila boomerangs.” I would send out the manila envelope and they would come flying back. So I tried to write Beautiful Ruins and couldn’t quite get around it. And so I wrote my first published novel, Over Tumbled Graves—I told myself I needed to teach myself how to write a novel and in a form that I can get my arms around, and so I chose the crime novel. It’s not your typical crime novel. The whole novel is structured like The Waste Land. It’s filled with homages to that poem. It’s like an English grad student with his hands on a serial killer. Land of the Blind was my second book. I wanted to wrap a coming-of-age story up with some procedural elements. At that time, I am still feeling like I am teaching myself how to do this one book at a time. And that one, it was kind of thrilling, to feel like you are getting better and you are learning and that you are able to do things.

RB: One of the reasons genre fiction is looked down upon is because there are so many series. Phillip Kerr mentioned to me that even the good writers, like Raymond Chandler, tend to write one or two too many.

JW: I think the market can ruin many a great writer. And I like crime fiction. I like good crime fiction. And to write a book a year—now authors are writing two books a year.

RB: James Patterson must be like Damien Hirst. Does he write all his own stuff?

JW: I won’t deign to speak for any other writer. But I know I couldn’t publish a book a year and have them be that great.

RB: Elmore Leonard comes out with about a book a year.

JW: He hits for about as high an average as anyone. But I wait and see if one sounds like one of the good Leonard books. His lower bars are still pretty high. There are some readers for whom—and I remember encountering this when my first few books came out and were called crime novels—they would say, “Well I knew who did it on page seven. “

RB: (laughs)

JW: And so for some readers, and it’s not many, it’s more like a crossword puzzle they are hoping to solve. There can be those economic pressures to produce more and make more. That said, there are great crime novels—I think of novels by Richard Price, who in Clockers managed to write a social novel wedded with a crime novel that is brilliant.

RB: I also liked  his novel Samaritan.

JW: It was good too.

RB: Colin Harrison writes literary crime novels.

JW: He’s great. Laura Lippman had a book a couple of years ago—What the Dead Know—that I thought was brilliant. Megan Abbott writes some amazing stuff. Ken Bruen, the Irish writer, a kind of noir Irish poetry. There are a number of crime writers whose work I really like.

RB: But there is still a crime fiction ghetto.

JW: But it’s an opposite ghetto—they make all the money.

RB: (laughs)

JW: Look at the bestseller list. It’s not full of literary fiction.

RB: You get the respect and they get the cash.

JW: Over time the really great stuff—James Cain, there are a lot of places that teach Cain and Chandler and Hammett, not out of deference to pick one crime novelist, but because that stuff influenced writing as much as anything. Camus wrote The Stranger to try to mimic what he loved about The Postman Always Rings Twice. That had such a huge effect. So the stuff will weigh out.

RB: Have you read Georges Simenon?

JW: I haven’t, but I’ve heard good things.

RB: Me neither. He wrote 200 or 300 books.

JW: As a reader I have always had a problem with the series. Because after the 10th murder, don’t you stop going to that library—even if the librarian can solve the crime?

RB: I find the writing gets lazy and predictable. Chandler didn’t wear Marlowe out but came close. I mentioned him before, Philip Kerr does fine with a Nazi-era Berlin homicide detective, Bernie Gunther.

JW: He does, but those novels feel bigger. They talk about a time and a place. They don’t feel formulaic. Michael Connelly’sThe Lincoln Lawyer—that was just such a great opening.

RB: Then he came out with a few more and put Harry Bosch together with him in at least one novel. I thought The Poet was the best thing I read by him, and then, of course a few years later he has a sequel to it.

JW: When I see a series I want to know the one I need to read. And a lot of readers aren’t that way. And again, anyone who gets people to read their books—I don’t think you can fake those things. If, with no one looking, you were to make a list of the 10 books you loved the most, that’s the wheelhouse you’ll arrive at. I’d put a Vonnegut on there, One Hundred Years of Solitude. I might put The White Album by Joan Didion. I don’t know what else I’d put, but you could find the DNA of the things I am trying to do as a novelist. Anyway, with Land of the Blind it was an accidental sequel. I was writing the story of this guy and I had this idea of a confession, a reverse confession. Every crime novel starts with the body; what if instead you have the killer and you have to find the body?

RB: That’s the one I read. But when I noticed that the woman cop was in a previous novel, I also noted that she was not central to the story.

JW: I feel like for me, the characters have a book. And my other characters recur. Alan Dupree shows up in a couple of novels and then has a bigger role in Citizen Vince. Vince from Citizen Vince shows up in a really brief cameo in TheFinancial Lives of Poets. Almost just a walk-on.

RB: Is this like William Kennedy’s Albany books?

JW: I love those.

RB: You could be the glorifier of Spokane.

JW: This will break me of that. I love Kennedy. I would put Ironweed on my list. And The Flaming Corsage. I love what he did. Because I am from that place I imagine a bigger fictional world and go as many other places as I can.

RB: So what’s next?

JW: A book of short stories coming out next year—not the rejected ones. And I am working on two novels. I don’t know which one will take over. The one that I am furthest along on is a comic novel—

RB: These others weren’t?

JW: Yeah, I didn’t mean to say that part. I grew up in the West on a family cattle ranch. I have never written about that, so it’s about a guy who grows up on a suburban cattle ranch.

RB: Did you live in Hollywood?


JW: My first book was made into a CBS miniseries, The Siege at Ruby Ridge. And for a kid who had never been anywhere it just swept over me. I worked on the script a little bit, but it was another screenwriter. It was a fascinating process to see, but I wanted to learn to write scripts in case they came for any of my books again. I wanted to be able to take a shot at that. So I taught myself to write scripts, read a bunch of books on screenwriting. Sold a couple. They weren’t made. And then I just adapted TheFinancial Lives of the Poets. And it’s going into production supposedly in November.

RB: Who’s in the cast?

JW: Jack Black. And Michael Winterbottom, the British director, is directing, and they are filling out the rest of the cast. They are in pre-pre-production.

RB: It’s a film that requires no special effects or car chases—

JW: It’s an indie film, low-budget.

RB: Acting and storytelling?

JW: I hope. That’s the script I wrote. We’ll see. So in that time I had some Hollywood dealings. For me, it was really more about the idea of the place. I didn’t put many of my own stories in. Although I have had a couple of producers that worked with [them] call me and ask if they could have some of my reality TV show ideas.

RB: (laughs)

JW: I said, “You do realize you are playing right into the satire?” And the guy said, “I am totally aware of that.” (both laugh) Hookbook was the idea he really wanted. I told him he could have it.

RB: You may regret giving it away.

JW: Yeah, my movie will gross $11. I will be watching Hookbook on reruns.

RB: Anyway, you’ve not been tempted to live somewhere else?

JW: I never said that.

RB: What’s it like living in Spokane?

JW: It’s a very different place. It’s a great place, it’s resurgent. Any place that you grow up and then you don’t leave—you grow up on the left bank of Paris and you think, Oh, what a provincial shithole this is. But being a dad so young, and having to put myself through college, and then work at a newspaper to support a child from the time I was 19 until I was 28. That’s the time you normally leave—I couldn’t afford to. The first in my family to go to college. People tended to stick around and a get a job in the aluminum plant.

RB: You worked a newspaper for a long time—why did you need to go to school?

JW: Yeah, well—

RB: There’s your education.

JW: It turned out to be. The guy who wrote Land of the Blind was at a different place then I am at now. We talked before about not having perspective on your childhood. You can’t have perspective on the things that you don’t have, either. In Citizen Vincethere is a nakedly autobiographical scene of Vince sitting in Union Square watching NYU students, thinking, What do they have I that I don’t have? Is it breeding? Is there something I’ll never have? I wanted to get to that place. I wanted to be a literary novelist. I wanted my name to be up there—that was my dream. And I thought, You can’t get there from where I am. You can’t get there from Spokane. But back to the question of Spokane—since then the downtown is revitalized. It has this booming art and writing scene. And music scene. My kids are in great schools. We have a great house. We have a great life there. I travel so much and there was a moment when I woke up and realized: It’s kind of a gift to be from someplace and to have roots there and a connection there. I spend time in Hollywood tinkering with things and on the road and I kind of don’t mind being from there now.

RB: How close were you to Ruby Ridge?

JW: It was just over the border in Idaho, about an hour and a half. That’s how I ended up covering it for my newspaper. My daughter is about three hours away in Missoula, which is a gorgeous place.

RB: How far from the Canadian border?

JW: An hour and 20 minutes. There are three ski hills that my son and I can be on within an hour from my front door. There is a river that goes just below my house that has the best fly-fishing hole. It is an incredible place for nature. And like a lot of cities where downtown real estate suddenly gets cheap, the artists can actually afford the artists’ lofts. It’s a little isolated, still. There is a part of me that, if all my ships come in, I may have a place in Spokane and a place somewhere else. But that would have to be a lot of ships.

RB: I am reading that Rust Belt cities are being revitalized also.

JW: Spokane has more in common with Rust Belt cities than the classic Pacific Northwest cities—Vancouver, Portland, Seattle. In that I-5 corridor, those are boom/bust towns. And they have great booms. Spokane tends to be steady—always looking for the next big thing. It’s poorer. It’s more blue-collar.

RB: What did you say, there was a big aluminum plant?

JW: Yeah, my dad worked for Kaiser Aluminum, which had a huge plant there. It was mining and timber money and they needed banks—so it’s also a drain for all that surrounding area in Idaho and Montana. It was kind of a fascinating city when Dashiell Hammett went there as a Pinkerton, because all the miners would come there on the weekends. It was filled with brothels. Brothels and flophouse hotels. So the downtown still has these great old buildings that now have painters and funky downtown folk living in them. And like a city like Pittsburgh, its second life is becoming more interesting.

RB: There is something to be said for originality—

JW: And authenticity.

RB: But not when it’s so, so easily manufactured.

JW: I remember going to Seattle when I was young and we would go to these bars where fishermen hung out. Now they’re not there. And the thing I’ve always liked about Spokane is that it’s authentic. I can still go to a diner that’s a diner. I can still go to some blue-collar places. There are parts of it—the worst thing my dad can say about anything, and I don’t even think he knows what it means, is “yuppie.” “Oh, that place has gone yuppie,” which to him means that they have raised the prices $2 for no good reason. Whatever that authenticity is, going back to a 1950s nostalgia—which I am not saying is better—is what it was.

RB: This quest for authenticity also becomes silly to the point of losing meaning.

JW: Well, that raises the impulse to satirize in fiction—to draw attention to the absurdities that underline them a little bit, and let them go.

RB: Have you thought of writing a political novel? Do you pay attention?

JW: Oh yeah, I am very political. To me Citizen Vince was a political novel, from the consumer’s point of view.

RB: Vince turned out to be unflinchingly moral.

JW: I knew a couple of guys in the Witness Protection Program—I discovered them in Spokane. That’s how the novel came about. Spokane is a place where they send people in that program.

RB: There’s no mob there?

JW: Part of the book explains the process, which is to look for a place that is big enough where they can blend in. Spokane had a big Italian and Irish community, because of the railroad, and all these jobs so you could blend in. You could open an Italian restaurant or pizza place and no one would think twice. And there was a federal office there. And no organized crime. You couldn’t fall back in with the goodfellas again.

RB: No drugs?

JW: Oh no, there is everything. There wasn’t their brand of organized crime. All crime has similar organizations.

RB: Chinese gangs? Or Guatemalan gangs?

JW: Like every city, Spokane has immigrant populations, but when I created Vince I knew he couldn’t be the sort of—he had to have a depth that most mobsters don’t. I gave it to one of the mafia guys when I was done and had him read it. He said, “I was at a game at Gotti’s place on Mott Street and you fuckin’ nailed that. I thought I was fuckin’ there. You got the language. You got everything. That’s just what a wildcard Gotti was. I loved it. And those are my complaints about Spokane: The women are ugly and the pizza is horrible. My only fuckin’ question is, why would that mook care about voting.” (both laugh) “Well, Angelo, that’s kind of the whole novel.” For that book to be interesting to me and be a political novel, I had to make that kind of displacement that could open you up in a way.

RB: Vince was pretty much against type all the way through.

JW: He was. I always saw him as an affiliated guy, a kind of tagger-on, hanger-on, and that’s how Ray dismisses him. Ray is disappointed to find out this guy isn’t even anybody. So that was the only way I could make him—I couldn’t make him a connected guy and still have him care about architecture and voting. Again, the neighborhood I grew up in, I had four buddies and I am the only one who graduated from high school. So what if I hadn’t? What if I had fallen in—what if instead of growing up in Spokane it had been some neighborhood in New York? We all knew those guys we were friends with them at a certain age. For me it was to send that guy on that path and then see where he ended up.

RB: How long has Cal Morgan been your editor?

JW: He was my editor when he was at ReganBooks. My first novel came out in 2001.The Zero was the first one to come out in paperback at Harper Perennial.

RB: Was that one of the first post-9/11 novels?

JW: I was at Ground Zero doing a ghostwriting job for Bernard Kerik.

RB: (laughs)

JW: So that’s how that novel came about—from the things I witnessed.

RB: Before or after his fall from grace?

JW: Oh, before. My publisher was Judith Regan, and she said, “You should work on this book,” and I was trying to write Citizen Vince and trying get to know New York cops for that stretch of the book. She said, “I just signed a New York cop, come help him with his autobiography.” I said, “I don’t want to do a ghostwriting job.” And she said, “No, he has pages. You’re a glorified editor.” So I came in, met him, and happened to arrive five days after. You asked if I was political. The book is very political, very much about the invasion of Iraq, and so it is very much a response to felling like my country had gone insane. I had gone a little insane with it. So it’s a much more allegorical novel. I am also the proudest of it because structurally it does things I hadn’t tried before.

RB: I lost my copy on an airplane.

JW: I’ll have Cal send you another one. We use them as coasters at my house.

RB: (laughs) In one of your books you acknowledge Judith Regan, who by reputation is something of a madwoman.

JW: Um, Judith used to say, to her credit, “If I were a man I’d be a character. Because I am woman they call me a bitch.” Judith was my first-ever publisher. She always told me, “Just write what ever you want. Don’t worry about the market. You’re an incredibly talented writer, you write what you want and I’ll find a way to get in print.”

RB: That’s very commendable.

JW: For a young writer, right.

RB: For any writer.

JW: So that’s my personal loyalty to her. I also think she was very shrewd. Brilliant about what the culture wanted.

RB: I don’t think she did television well.

JW: Right. The other thing people might find surprising about Judith, I think she is one of the people with the most integrity—in dealing with me and telling the truth as she saw it. That doesn’t mean that she couldn’t be difficult.

RB: What are the burdens of dealing with the book business—you have five or six novels now?

JW: Six novels and one nonfiction book.

RB: Is a lot asked of you outside the writing?

JW: I have had the kind of career they say you aren’t supposed to have anymore, [sales] growing with each book, and working with the same editor, and this book may hit the bestseller list. But for the most part my books sell steadily. The Financial Lives of the Poets sold as many copies six months after it came out as it did when it first came out. My books tend the gain readers over time. So publishing has been—

RB: “Bery, bery good to you.”

JW: Kind to me in a very naturalistic, easy way. I was not a prodigy, but at the same time my books have always been reviewed well. Being a finalist for the National Book Award brought some attention, and then I have always gotten the attention that makes me feel humbled and incredible fortunate. And for the business, by the time I finish a novel I am ready to talk about it. Fifteen years is a long time to carry this around. Because I have had to teach myself how to do this and march my way through, when people want to talk about my book I am excited. It’s kind of an honor.

RB: What about the sheer hard work of travel? The horrors of flying?

JW: You should look at my schedule. My book tour ends and then I start doing events. I love to travel. In the fall I am doing five book festivals and seven or eight universities, and if a bookstore wants me and I can get there, I’ll try. I am fascinated by the stuff. It’s turned out to be my life’s work. And I enjoy and don’t take any part of it for granted. And to even get a book tour now is not easy.

RB: I haven’t noticed a diminution of authors coming through Boston. Less bookstores, of course.

JW: You are probably seeing more writers from the East Coast. More regional tours.

RB: Probably.

JW: I’ve been to Paris, Italy, and the UK as an author. And Belgium. I would never have been to Europe—in the place I grew up you didn’t spend the summer in Europe; you got to go to Montana sometimes. I’m still this kid—I see a plane fly over my house and I think, I get to be on that soon.

RB: How many languages for Beautiful Ruins?

JW: Sold in three so far. Citizen Vince is 21 or 22. Some of the others are 14 and 15.

RB: What about the movie of Beautiful Ruins?

JW: Yeah, it’s always possible. It’s got some challenges. It’s a period piece and takes place over such a large span, and Hollywood tends not to like films that are self-referential. But that said, I have had a little bit of interest so far. It takes so long for that process—Citizen Vince was almost a film three times. Rick Russo wrote an amazing script for it. He had a producer—Rick has been supportive every step of the way.

RB: He’s a really good guy.

JW: Oh, he is such a good guy and such an amazing author. At one point I had wanted to adapt Citizen Vince, because I first thought of the story as a film. I tried to write it as a script, and when the producers optioned it they said, “Well, we want Russo to do it.” The way I looked at it—you have a kid, you see these things as a kid—you have a choice of your kid going to Richard Russo University or Jess Walter Community College. But that has come so close and they are never dead. They can take 10 to 12 years to make it the screen. Financial Lives has actually had a pretty smooth path, and it will be three or four years.

RB: I thought the trick was to find a young star, Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt, and convince him that he is the protagonist of the novel.

JW: The studio system, which is what we think of as “Hollywood,” is in such a strange position that if it doesn’t appeal to a 19-year-old boy they are not going to make it.

RB: (laughs) Right.

JW: But because of that, this undercurrent of indie films is coming back. And so there is a lot of room for your $5-million to $10-million movie.

RB:John Sayles says even if you get a film made the problem is the competition for screens in the country. There are limited amounts.

JW: Here’s what they did with The Financial Lives of the Poets, which is an $8-million movie: They presold all the foreign rights; they’ll sell it to one of the premium cable channels.

RB: So they get the back end covered.

JW: I don’t do this, but there is someone penciling out that if Jack Black is in it and Michael Winterbottom, who has an indie reputation, makes it, we get it on this number of screens and sell it in these 10 countries and sell at a premium channel, [and] we are guaranteed X. So here’s your budget. And if we film it here, where they have tax breaks—so somebody is penciling all that out. Thankfully it’s not me. My math doesn’t go that high.

RB: [John] Sayles is saying it is getting harder and harder for him. The problem is getting screens, getting exhibited.

JW: What’s the last movie you went to?

RB:A Separation, an Iranian film.

imgres.jpg I have a theater nearby that shows those kinds of films. But Sayles’s latest, Amigo, didn’t screen there, or as far as I know anywhere in Boston.

JW: And there is more competition for those screens that show those films—in Spokane for years the art house cinema was closed, so your choices were the new Transformersmovie. Every once in a while I would get fed up and say, “If we don’t get an art house cinema, I’m leaving,” and then it would open. And here’s the problem if it’s going to be available [on Netflix or cable] in three weeks: Most adults are patient; kids aren’t.

RB: Explain the phenomenon of why, when Apple releases a product, there are long lines?

JW: I don’t know. That may be a generation beyond me.

RB: I remember when the Beatles or the Stones or a big group released an album, people would line up outside stores, waiting for hours.

JW: Technology is our rock and roll, in a way. It’s sad. It probably has the transformative power but it doesn’t have the whiff of rebellion.

RB: It more has the stench of institutionalized conformity.

JW: Mechanization.

RB: Am I dreaming? Is Rick Russo doing a sequel to Nobody’s Fool? Did I imagine this?

JW: I think you did.

RB: Imagine it?

JW: No, you read it somewhere. I think he is. It’s not his next book. He has a memoir coming out.

RB: If it were someone else I’d scoff. Don Winslow just did a sequel to Savages. And by the way, his The Power of the Dog was a tremendous book.


JW: Yes, yes. The funny thing is we equate popularity with value and yet we know better. Other wise Nora Roberts would have the Nobel Prize. And Fifty Shades of Grey would be—but I think if people have read Winslow they know that The Power of the Dog is a great book.

RB:I search-engined it and I did not find one major review of The Power of the Dog.

JW: My introduction to him was at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop. I walked in and they put it in my hand and they said, “You have to read this.” To have enough books out now that people have their favorite. They will say, “It’s good, but it’s no X.” And it’s not always the same X. If I am at a grad program it’s going to be The Zero. If I am in my hometown it’s going to be Citizen Vince. If it’s somewhere else it’ll be Beautiful Ruins. There are those uptown problems, and the problem of being compared to yourself is a very good problem to have.

RB: Here’s another new wrinkle—Winslow wrote a Trevanian book. Edward Falco wrote a Godfather prequel, and Ace Atkins wrote a Robert Parker/Spenser novel. I don’t get why that makes sense. Did the Chandler reader want to read Robert Parker doing Chandler?

JW: I suppose some portion of it does. It’s probably an homage to the writers that informed them. I remember the Kilgore Trout novel that came out—Venus on the Half Shell, by Philip José Farmer. At the time Vonnegut was crushed by it, because he was so easy to mimic. I’d say it might be the fifth best Vonnegut novel, or not far off. It’s a fine line between homage, parody, and consumer opportunism.

RB: Maybe your next move ought to be a self-parody.

JW: Too easy. I do it every day.

RB: How does your family look upon you as a writer, on what you do?

JW: All my kids share a love of reading. Everyone thinks his or her kids are brilliant. But my kids are brilliant. My older daughter—we always shared books, talked about which books to read. So close in every way but especially in that way. She went to India to do relief work one summer. I was so proud of her, and my ex- and current wife, we are all really close. She wanted just enough books that she could carry in her backpack—five paperback books that she could throw away when she was done. I packed them tightly in her bag and she went off and we didn’t hear from her for days. My wife and ex were grief-stricken, Oh, what’s happened? Finally she makes it to a phone and calls and reaches me. A scratchy line, “Hello, hello. Dad, it’s Brooklyn. I’m fine. I just finishedOne Hundred Years of Solitude and it’s so amazing.” And we talked about the book for the next two minutes. And the line goes dead. And I’m smiling, and my wife says, “How is she?” “She loves One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Both women wanted to kill me.

RB: I remember exactly where I was when I started to read that book in August of 1972.

JW: I read it in college. I would have a little break afternoons and my wife would go to class and then I would watch our baby. I would take her to the park and she would lie on my chest and nap and I read One Hundred Years of Solitude. So to have her call from India to say what a beautiful book it was—so I gave her Beautiful Ruins. This was a kid who now has gone to college and gotten her master’s. When she took a Melville survey I read Melville alongside her—she was doing the thing I had always dreamed of, going to grad school and studying these great books, you know? And she called and said, “[Beautiful Ruins] is the book I always wanted to read.” It melted my heart. My other kids are great readers too. My middle daughter is reading it now so I will get her appraisal when I get home. As a dad that’s Mickey Mantle stuff. It’s pretty great.

RB: Well, thank you.

JW: Thank you.

Brad Watson circa 2002

10 Aug

Writer Brad Watson was born in Meridien, Mississippi and studied at Mississippi State University and received an MFA from the University of Alabama. He has been a journalist and English instructor and recently completed a five-year stint teaching creative writing at Harvard. His short fiction has been published inStory, Black Warrior Review, Greensboro Review and Dog Stories. His short story collection, Last Days of the Dog-Men, won a Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His first novel is The Heaven of Mercury. Brad Watson and family have recently moved to Pensacola, Florida, where he teaches at the University of West Florida.



Robert Birnbaum: You are a long way from home, up here in Boston.

Brad Watson: Yeah, and sometimes it’s felt very far away. I had days when I first got here when I got the dreads. I’d felt so displaced and alien. I was almost like a kid afraid to go out of my apartment.

RB: How long have you been living up here?

BW: It’s been five years. I feel pretty acclimated now. But in the beginning it was tough. We moved up here and moved out of a house, a sprawling house in Tuscaloosa [Alabama]. The house note was $450 a month.

RB: (laughs)

BW: We moved into a tiny, two-bedroom apartment in Cambridge that was owned by Harvard and cost us $1450 a month.

RB: Sounds like a psychological experiment.

BW: We got rid of furniture and still couldn’t fit everything in. I was really freaked out. We immediately moved to the Cape, to a temporary rental down there. That made it harder to get acclimated because I only came in two days a week. We had a beach house in East Denis the second, which was beautiful.

RB: You came up here to teach?



BW: That first book [Last Days of the Dog-Men] allowed me to apply for real creative-writing teaching jobs. I had worked in journalism and then I went back to adjunct teaching and I had to get another job after that because it wasn’t paying well enough. I started writing public relations for the University of Alabama, did that for four years and then I got the book contract, and I went back to teaching in the English department for two years as a lecturer. So, I applied for this job on lark, I didn’t think I’d get it. They liked the book, so I wound up at Harvard. It’s really my first appointment as a creative writing teacher. And it was my first time living outside the South except for one year in Los Angeles when I was 17.

RB: You went there to make your fortune as a screenwriter?

BW: No, as a movie star. I was a high-school actor, and I got married the summer of my junior year in high school. My dad and uncle came up with this scheme to get me a job building sets for the movies because I was a carpenter apprentice in high school. I’d work from noon, if it was summer, until 8 o’clock. They thought I could build sets and they had a connection. My uncle’s boss was a shoe manufacturer who had a son who was a lawyer for the movies and I got out there and as soon as I got out there the guy said, “Well the studio has just gone on strike. Nobody’s working.” And they told me to go home. I didn’t want to go home, just yet. I ended up staying out there about 9 months and working as a garbage man in Hollywood, driving a truck.

RB: There’s a story.

BW: Yeah. I wrote a draft, kind a memoir of this. I wrote it in just three weeks. I still want to go back to it. It was pretty good. I had a lot of weird jobs and ended up as a garbage man, which was fun. This guy had one truck and one employee, which was me. But then my older brother was killed in an accident and I went back home for the funeral and my wife and family convinced me to drop it and go back to Meridien.

RB: That’s very brave. Leaving Meridien, Mississippi to go to Los Angeles.

BW: Everybody, including me, didn’t think I had anything to lose. I had a high school education. Not any real inclination to go to college. I wasn’t really a good student. I really did like the theater. We all thought, “Why not?” But it was terrifying. I was from a town of 40,000 people in the South and had never even been to Atlanta. I revisited a lot of those emotions when I moved up here. It’s disorienting.

RB: Your plan wasn’t to stay here long term, you were teaching and writing your novel?

BW: I had started this novel in the winter of ’96. That’s when I wrote the first pages. I had a month-long retreat to a place called Seaside, Florida, an artist retreat. I wrote a hundred pages, which was a pretty good start. Some of that even survived into the book. I was also teaching 4 classes a semester at Alabama and was looking for a job. It was a hard book to write. I kept running into a wall, knowing I really didn’t have a grasp of the story. I started over every year and I’d get maybe 125 pages, next year 150 [pages]. Finally about two years ago I ended up with something that went from the beginning until the end and was about 240 pages long in manuscript and I knew that I had the book. I just needed to go back and fill in and find a structure for it. In spring of last year I finally got some time and I worked on it exclusively for about three months and I got full draft out—something that I knew was the whole book. But it was in almost a completely different structure than the way it ended up. It was almost like something modeled after Ulysses. This old man Finas, moving around town trying to deal with the death of this woman Birdie and recollecting a lot of things. I had too many subplots going to keep the reader oriented. I decided, with my editor, I needed to take a lot of this information and write Part I in a linear fashion. Which I did in the fall of last year. The revision was a structural revision plus a little bit of finessing.

RB: Apparently this book also had a different title when you started out.


brad watson

BW: Yeah. The Obituary of Helen Browning Wells. The thing is that it was just an idea; I submitted proposals for three books and this was the one they liked the most—and this was the one I didn’t have anything done on. (Both laugh). The other ones, I had pages on. This one sounded the most appealing to them.

RB: What was it that you proposed?

BW: I gave a synopsis that was nothing like what the book ended up being. A very traditional story about this guy who owns a weekly newspaper and who wants to eulogize the woman he was in love with. He starts to write her obituary and every week he fills up the obituary space with stories about her and the town gets more and more interested and more and more incensed by the things he is writing because he is revealing things about the people in the town. It really was set up as a traditional comedy. And then I started writing it and I was bored with the idea. At that point, I began to write sentences that I thought were good. It’s as if I groped my way to the story by way of the language. It’s one reason why it was so hard for me to figure what my story was.

RB: How many of characters in the final version of The Heaven of Mercury were in your original idea? Finas, Birdie, the two black women, Earl and his family?

BW: Really, not even Earl and his family.

RB: How do you talk about Birdie without talking about her husband?

BW: At that point I didn’t know who she was. I bounced around a lot thinking that I needed a model from someone in my experience, for Birdie, I didn’t know where to start. Or whether I wanted to start from scratch and create her from the dust that was there. I toyed with the idea of using my grandmother, of using my aunt, who ended up being the model for the character Avis.

RB: Is it possible that you wrote four or five novels or got close to completing four or five novels in the process of getting this one done?

BW: They were all too abortive. I didn’t get far enough along. Although I did write enough about one character to use as the basis for the book I am trying to start now.

RB: What does “trying to start” mean?

BW: It means I’m reading. She had a medical condition, a birth defect that I’m trying to read up on so that I can understand the different things it could have been. Because no one really knows in my family, and once I understand what it could have been, deciding what it should be for the purposes of this book and understanding its ramifications for the story. I wrote some pages about her when I was trying to make her the Birdie character. I guess you could say it provided a lot of fuel for this book.

RB: Nothing gets wasted.

BW: Not really. A lot of the early stuff did get recycled and revised into this book. The Parnell character, the undertaker was not part of my synopsis but he appeared in that first 100 pages because I knew she was dying and I wanted to put her there in the undertaker’s parlor.

It really was set up as a traditional comedy. And then I started writing it and I was bored with the idea.

RB: The bizarre story of Parnell and the Littleton girl came to you later?

BW: What I had early on was the story of him [Parnell] meeting and courting his wife Selena and much later in the book, that last year when I wanted to flesh him out I decided on that chapter.

RB: While you were are up here writing this novel, was there a group who read your work as it was progressing?

BW: I didn’t have anyone for this book aside from my editor [Diane Mason at Norton] until the summer of 2001 when I knew that I had a workable draft. I had been teaching night classes at the extension and through those classes I had met several good writers. I asked them to read that first draft which was the reflective draft with Finas wandering around thinking about the past. The decision to restructure was decided between me and my editor. She really didn’t think that it was accessible and didn’t think I was gaining a lot by keeping that more difficult structure. I was resistant at first but I did come to think that she is right.

RB: Why do the chapter headings have Latin titles?

BW: I started with just this one chapter, Finas Ex Machina, from the old Latin stage term, deus ex machina, where God would come up through the trap door because of the business with turning on the radio and sending the signal through the town [Finas has an early morning radio show in Mercury] and because I had that I gradually toyed with using those Latin phrases—a lot of them are faux Latin—just as way of having fun. They started to have a resonance for me, so I liked them. I tried to achieve a balance so that I didn’t overdo it, sort of leaven it with some fairly traditional titles.

RB: And when did you decide on the title?

BU: Just last year, when I though the book had something in common with the Divine Comedy. Because of his [Finas’] being guided by Birdie’s presence in his own mind through some of the things that had happened in the past. So I thought there was something of a parallel there. I was looking through a new translation of the Inferno and then I picked up my old translation of the Divine Comedy, and when I looked through Paradiso, I saw the Heaven of Mercury. The town was already Mercury, by that point. I turned to that chapter and it turned out to be about betrayal, and I thought that fit. Also, a heaven on earth, not necessarily paradise but one in which there was communion with the dead, seemed to fit. I don’t pretend to be a Dante scholar.

RB: I’m interested in this notion that you were blocked for 4 years. Had you been down in Foley, Alabama or Meridien, Mississippi, down in your home country, would you have had that experience?

BW: I don’t think it necessarily had a bad effect on me in terms of finishing the book. I was going down there in the summers. Also, during the winter break. I didn’t feel out of touch with the place. In a sense, I was trying to come up with this place Mercury out of my memory of Meridien, Mississippi, my hometown, anyway. So I don’t think that was an impediment.

RB: How about just in terms of your general comfort or ease?

BW: I think that was definitely a problem. It was a big part of the problem in the first three years of being up here. I loved being on the Cape and actually the first year we were out there I wrote fairly well. I had a big sprawling house and an attic where I could get away. The second year in Dennis, a beautiful beach house overlooking the bay, didn’t help me at all. There was a little bit of a problem in terms of dislocation and comfort even though it was a really comfortable place. It wasn’t so good for the book.

RB: I usually get to this question earlier, but I thought I’d ease in to it. Can you give me some of your thoughts on Southern writing?

BW: Hmm. (long pause) Well, it’s always been hard for me to give what I thought was a coherent and worthwhile answer to that question. I don’t think that the southern literary tradition is a burden or an impediment, really. I kind of go with Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,”which says basically that you build upon, that you cannot escape a tradition if you come out of it. If you deny it, it is self-defeating. I love the Faulkner I’ve read, the Robert Penn Warren, the Eudora Welty stories, Flannery O’Connor stuff. Some people have said that this book reminds them of O’Connor. I’m not sure how except in the sense of there being some morbid humor in it. I’m very aware of those writers, when I write, as people who taught writers from the South today something about how to see the place they are from. As long as you don’t try to write their stories, I think you are okay. A lot of what I get from reading those people is learning how they use the language, how they translated something from that culture, which ironically is not a really literate culture, into great literature. That’s an unavoidable lesson when you read them.

RB: I don’t know if it’s a literate culture, but it’s clearly a story-telling culture.

BW: It’s very much a story-telling culture. I come from a world where there wasn’t a great deal of reading going on. We didn’t have a lot of great books around my house. We weren’t a literary family. But you can’t get into school without hearing about and learning about the Southern literary tradition. So you are aware of that. When I was in high school and I wasn’t inclined to go to college because I really hadn’t read anything. And I didn’t until I went to college. I didn’t feel prepared for a literary career. Unlike somebody like Faulkner who had one year as a special student at Old Miss but had literary friends and literary ambitions early on, I didn’t. O’Connor, something about her religious tradition was an education for her. Welty came from a somewhat sensitive and literary household. I didn’t. I come from middle class, subdivision New South—I’m not really making any sense.

I’m very aware of those writers, when I write, as people who taught writers from the South today something about how to see the place they are from. As long as you don’t try to write their stories, I think you are okay.

RB: I’m not sure what the answer is about Southern writing. Here’s the thing. It would seem that in the past it was seen as a diminishment to say something was Southern writing, a kind of ghettoizing, in the same way one would call something Jewish writing or Afro-American writing. That perhaps those stories were seen as not as important as so called American stories.

BW: The good thing about being called a Southern writer, because there is this tradition when you have people like Faulkner and Welty and have a Nobel Prize winner coming out of a regional literature, it seemed to expand our sense of that literature beyond just purely regionalism. You probably now have people who perceive that writing in two ways. Some see it as quite regional and play into some of the conventions and cliches of Southern literature and then you have other people who want to do what Faulkner did. Which was to make it something bigger. So if you aim high like that, you can just hope that you can get as far as you can go. Whether or not you end up failing, writing something that’s merely entertaining in a regional way, or whether you transcend the region and write something that is broader than that is, I guess, up to the individual. That’s just not the case with Southern literature. If you take Jewish literature then you have someone like Roth. You can’t just call him a Jewish writer. Or Ralph Ellison, though I know he is controversial. You can limit yourself or you can try to push the boundaries and use your region and your place to your advantage to write something that isn’t bound by some of the restrictions of region.

RB: I don’t know why I am drawn to stories like the ones in The Heaven of Mercury. In some way I think the novel has the same kind of flavor asRichard Russo‘s Empire Falls. There is a strong sense of place, but that place doesn’t become a character like New York or Paris tends to become. I also like writers like Reynolds Price, Elizabeth Cox, Tony Earley, Allan Gurganus and Richard Ford.

BW: Ford has move around a lot and written about different places. He still, seems to me, to be very much a Mississippian. But of course he has written about New Jersey and Montana. I don’t think he minds being called a Mississippi writer or Southern writer, but I don’t think he wants to be bound to write about the South. He’s a big admirer of Walker Percy, who I think is somebody who wrote about the South but in no way do I think of Walker Percy—I don’t think anyone does— as being a regional writer. He wrote about New Orleans, Birmingham, but you don’t get the sense that it’s claustrophobic in a regional sense at all. This is a place in America and he’s writing about America in this place. Although it definitely has a certain Southern sensibility and the characters are of their region. Very much so in the way they speak, the places he describes and thing that happen, seems very Southern but it doesn’t seem regional. It seems more open than that.

RB: Could your book have been set in Las Cruces, New Mexico?

BW: I wouldn’t have been able to write it. (both laugh) That’s the thing. You are of your place and from your place.

RB: How much does the mythic Gulf Coast Mercury resemble northern Georgia or South Carolina?

BW: You could move Mercury around in the South. Although it’s based on my home town, it’s demographically different and not as close to the Gulf Coast. I wanted to write about the Gulf Coast so I moved Mercury further south. I think it is kind of a floating entity. It is a Deep South place with a strong connection to the Gulf Coast.

RB: I took it as being more about being coastal than being Southern.

BW: The Birdie character is born there and moves up there [to Mercury] but maintains her connection to the place. Finas also has a strong connection because his family has a place there. Also, in the chapter “Lost Paradise” both characters either after death or near death gravitate back toward the Gulf Coast. It’s really important. That has a lot to do with the fact that I spent a lot of time on the Gulf Coast.


RB: Is that where Foley, Alabama is

?author brad watson


BW: Yeah, it’s 10 miles north of Gulf Shores, which is on the beach. I wanted to write about the place. The book started out being set in a town about 20 miles from the coast but I was trying to write about characters who were the type of people who came from a place like Meridien, further inland. I needed to find a way to marry those impulses, for myself. I needed people who had connections to the coast and inland.

RB: The big hurricane of 1906, was that a real historical occurrence?

BW: Yeah. It wiped out a little town called Navy Cove or Pilot Town. In history is a town of bar pilots, people who in skiffs would guide the ships around sand bars in Mobile Bay into the harbor port. All the people there, through generations, were bar pilots and they made their living doing that and ate fish oysters and grew their gardens. They were self-sufficient.

RB: What could be better?

BW: I used a document written by a man named S.A. Ladner who survived the storm of ’06 and who connected the storm to the wrath of God. He thought the storm came and wiped out their town because the young people had become a little too sexually promiscuous. And there was a hint that the clan had become small that inter-marrying was going on and so he thought it was something equivalent to Noah’s flood. They did not rebuild after that. I’ve been to that site and saw an old cistern and that’s about all that’s left. Now, of course, it’s marked for development. You can’t drive in there anymore because they’re going to put up condos. Probably a resort with a golf course and big hotel. It started out at the turn of the 20th century as that sort of place, only on smaller scale. People would come up from the ferry boat from Mobile and stay at a place called the Henrietta Hotel for the summer.

RB: The smaller scale was because there were less people in the country. Pretty soon only really wealthy people will get to see the waterfront.

BW: It’s almost that way now.

RB: A minor detail, but why is Cuba, Alabama named that?

BW: I don’t know but I do have some relatives buried there. For all I know you’ll find place like that in the South, where you’ll have refugees like Cuba. On the other hand the other towns from that area are from Indian names. Like Kissame and Kiwanee and it could be that it’s evolved spelling of an Indian name or place—Kuba.

RB: Back to the book—it’s all plausible, even the fantasy. But I couldn’t understand the black maid’s motivation. Without giving away what she does, I didn’t quite get her.

BW: It’s interesting that you say that. For a while, I met the same sort of resistance from my editor. It never did seem implausible to me. Her initial or outrage was toward Earl’s father, who rapes her. Because she takes this remedy from Vish the medicine woman, to abort the child that she conceives after that rape, she is sterile. So her thinking was if she had been fertile she could have convinced Frank, her lover, to stay on. So she blames the fact that her life became so narrowed down and sterile in other ways on the old man, Junius Erkhart. Over the course of her life, this anger begins to seep out and to be felt and expressed toward Birdie and Earl, they define the scope of her world, which has become very small and frustrating. She redirects her anger towards them. When she does what she does, she intends to do it to Junius.

I knew how those people were flawed and yet very sweet and kind and generous at the same time. If I have a vision of humanity, it’s that. Rarely do you see what you perceive to be pure evil.

RB: It’s just harder to accept that based on the displays of decency by Earl. He does also give a speech to someone on how he thinks conditions are going to change in the South.

BW: For his time, Earl is a moderate. Well, she hadn’t intended to do anything to Earl at all. It was an accident.

RB: The person who comes closest to being evil and a villain in Earl’s sister. Everyone’s flaws still seem to be worthy of sympathy. You don’t seem to revile your characters.

BW: In that these characters grew out of relatives I either knew or heard a lot of stories about I knew how those people were flawed and yet and very sweet and kind and generous at the same time. If I have a vision of humanity, it’s that. Rarely, do you see what you perceive to be pure evil. What you see are people making mistakes being blinded by their anger or frustration. And doing harm to other people not so much with the long-term intention of doing harm as simply expressing themselves with their limited ability to act properly in any given situation. Selfishness, greed, pride—all of this figures in but at heart you have a decent human being who has made a lot of mistakes and probably has a great deal of regret over those mistakes. I see myself as being a very non-judgmental person. It probably serves me a well as a fiction writer. Sometimes as a human being you can get in trouble if you don’t become judgmental to a certain degree. I’m sympathetic to all these characters—I’m even sympathetic, to a degree, to the Junius character, who, is to my mind, probably the least redeemable character in the book. He has fewer regrets, but at the same time he is a character about whom I told a story about his younger days when he kills his brother-in-law in a fight, he is doing it to defend his sister, who has been abused by this man. So, even he has a modicum of redeeming qualities.

RB: This is the character that, at his sister’s deathbed, refuses her request to forgive her.

BW: Yeah, he’s the hardest character in the book. That’s why I see him as the least redeemable.

RB: Your book was favorably mentioned at the recent BEA (important book trade show) and you are moving down to Florida to teach and then you are scheduled for a publicity tour. How long, 2 or 3 months?

BW: I hope 2 months intensively and then maybe some scattered readings. It’s a distraction when you are trying to start another book and you have to continue to think about the one you just finished. I had a hard time with that with the first book.

RB: Is there a sense of being finished when the final draft is done?

BW: Yeah, I want to move on. I want to get to the next thing. I don’t want to get caught up in talking about this book to the degree that I can’t continue to work. I think, all to easily, that lands you in a kind of a stasis. You are talking about something that is over and when all the talk about that is done and there is quiet again, you realize you are nowhere. You are not in the middle of anything, anything new. It’s a let down. I’ve tried to get started on this book so I have momentum and I don’t have to overcome the inertia that inevitably follows this kind of activity.

RB: Characters don’t haunt you?

BW: Oh, in that sense? They are still very much with me. The writing of the book is over and I want to move on, but I’m still thinking a lot about these people. Especially since they did come out of—the book finally grew out of anecdotes, family stories.

RB: I was surprised but pleased by the way the book ends. Something echoes and reverberates at the end.

BW: When I was writing it I realized I had this chapter with Birdie’s spirit wandering around and hovering before this boy on a beach house deck—I had that around for two or three years and didn’t know how it was going to work into the book. When I was writing these last drafts, I began to realize there was some echo in the sense there is this boy on the deck, there is Finas’ grief over the loss of his own boy, the sense of Finas being a boy when he first loved Birdie and the vision of the butterflies which had resonance for me in connection with Birdie wandering around as a spirit. It was one of those things that began to feel more and more right, the more I got there. I wasn’t at all certain that this ending would work, even though I had it as an ending, those lines, actually for a couple of years. The book made its way after a little back wash, made its way back, feeling done and right. If I kept at it and waited long enough this book would kind of form itself, almost like a planet forming out of the particles, I just had to be patient and let gravity do its work. (chuckles) I had to try to end it poetically, lyrically. So much of the book works only because the language works. The book wouldn’t work so well if I hadn’t found a voice for the book, and I think that I did. But for so long that was all I had, and that was my grief. I had the language for the story, but I didn’t know what these characters were going to do. From almost the beginning to the end it was about language and sound and the feel of this book. That made it hard to write because I didn’t start with a story and go from A to B to C. I laid it out that way in my proposal, and I couldn’t write that. I lost interest in writing that. I was going sentence by sentence. I had a lot of varied and apparently incongruous material I had to try to let gravitate to a center and hope that it would hold.

RB: You said you have lots of books you want to write.

BW: I do. I have always had a lot more material than I either had time or the ability to write. I don’t lack for stories. I’ve signed on to write a story inspired by a great aunt that I had and also another collection of stories. While I was trying to write this book and trying to get away from writing it at times, I wrote a draft about my Hollywood experience. I wrote a draft of a novel about some boys who get in trouble accidentally killing their boss and try to runaway to Liverpool in the late ‘60s. I have a kind of Bildungsroman that I want to write that I have several—at this point unconnected or barely connected stories—that I would like to coalesce into that. I’ve begun a novel that’s kind of a literary mystery with a newspaper reporter trying to figure out something about the disappearance of a young woman athlete and couple of others. What I wish for, really, is unlimited writing time and a place to sequester myself so that I can really bear down and concentrate only on these things. I feel like I’m overflowing with material and don’t quite have the wherewithal to write it.

RB: What are the prospects of The Heaven of Mercury becoming a movie?

BW: My agent shopped it around, but most people who read it say, “I love this, but I can’t see how I’d make it into a movie.”

RB: Wasn’t that said about Paris Trout?

BW: He [Pete Dexter] has two or three main stories going on. When they see that I have not only Fina, but Birdie’s story and Earl’s story and Creasy’s story and Parnell and Selena’s story—a student of mine who is a filmmaker, is working on a script. I hope to see it in August when I see her again in New York. Maybe if she can do a script and show that to producers, maybe they’ll understand something about how this can be envisioned as a film. It’d be nice if I got back around to my first ambition and they give me a small part in the movie. I’ll finally be a movie actor. (Laughs)

RB: (laughs) Sure.

BW: They’ll let me play Earl, the scoundrel, the womanizing husband.

RB: Another good story. Well, thanks.

Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing

Who Done Talked That Talk?

27 Jul




statute of great public speaker ,Demosthenes

statute of great public speaker ,Demosthenes

Somewhere in the ever expanding 24/7, selfie festooned, public sphere, the  art of  declamation has receded.  And so  it seems the only dependable source of memorable oratory is the annual college commencement ceremony festival .The adulation greeting the the First Lady following her oration at the the Democratic Party’s party apparently sparked a latent  and normally unrequited need for intelligent and well spoken  public speeches. So rarely are we treated to such a thing that her excitable auditors were called for her beatification. I stand behind no one in my respect and appreciation for the formidable Michelle Obama and the first time I heard her say (2016 CCNY  commencement) ,

.I wake up every morning in a house that slaves built

I was stunned.

Speaking of the paucity of memorable oratory David Foster Wallace’s (Infinite Jest) 2004 Kenyon College valedictory set a high bench mark for a sincere smart resonant original


 …By way of example, let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home-you haven’t had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job-and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out. You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register

…I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to thirty, or maybe fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness-awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”



Novelist and MacArthur  fellow George Saunders* made his own standout contribution to this growing literary genre at Syracuse in 2013:


Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).

And I intend to respect that tradition.

Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?” And they’ll tell you. Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked. Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you….

Poet /memoirist Mary Karr** begins her 2016 Syracuse declamation:

 My goal in high school was to stay out of the penitentiary, so if I can go from there to here, you guys can all be gainfully employed. Yeah, your parents are clapping.

Heartfelt thanks to Chancellor Syverud and the whole Syracuse community, especially our students and their families. You’re all 18 minutes away from my shutting up.

When I told my pal I was getting an honorary doctorate he quipped, ‘Being a doctor who can’t write prescriptions is like being a general in the Salvation Army.’ This made me a few notches less terrified about today.

You start in a scared place and get zip lined somewhere truer.

And some twenty minutes later  concludes

…Also, Walt took me to lunch all the time, which then seemed like an incredible luxury to be able to eat in a restaurant. And before I left Minnesota I said to him, how will I ever pay you back for all this?

And he looked surprised. He said, it’s not that linear. You’re not going to pay me back, you’re going to go out there and take somebody else to lunch.

Now, the idea that Walt thought, looking at me at 19 years old, that I would ever make enough money to buy somebody else lunch astonished me.

It is truly the greatest vote of confidence I’d ever received. Walt showed me that a talent for fear could also mask a talent for empathy. For caring about what other people thought.

I hope you remember what Walt says when the world scares you with its barks and bites. May you leave us more curious and more open hearted about your fellow citizens than when you showed up.

Being smart and rich are lucky. But being curious and compassionate will save your ass.

Being curious and compassionate will take you out of your ego and edge your soul towards wonder, a word I inadvertently stole from Chancellor Syverud today.

Now you go out there and buy somebody broker than you lunch.

Thank you.”


And  not least, is Richard Russo ***(Nobody’s Fool, Empire Falls) whose 2004 address at Colby College included the  joyful wisdom that propel his novels

…The question then is this: How does a person keep from living the wrong life? Well, here are Russo’s Rules For A Good Life. Notice that I don’t say “for a happy life.” One of the reasons the novelist Graham Greene despised Americans was that phrase “the pursuit of happiness,” which we hold so dear and which ensured, to his way of thinking, we’d always be an infantile nation. Better to live a good life, he believed, than a happy one. Happily, the two may not always be mutually exclusive. Keep in mind that Russo’s Rules for a Good Life are specifically designed to be jettisoned without regret when they don’t work. They’ve worked for me. Your mileage may vary.

Rule # 1: Search out the kind of work that you would gladly do for free and then get somebody to pay you for it…

Rule # 2: Find a loving mate to share what life has in store, because the world can be a lonely place, and people who aren’t lonely don’t want to hear about it if you are….

Rule # 3: have children… Don’t worry that you can’t afford them, though it’s true, you can’t…

Rule # 4. If you have one, nurture your sense of humor. You’re going to need it, because, as Bob Dylan has observed, “people are crazy, the times are strange.” …

Okay, that’s pretty much it. It’s all I know, and then some. Four simple, deeply flawed rules to live by. Go to it. Be bold. Be true. Be kind. Rotate your tires. Don’t drink so much. There aren’t going to be enough liver transplants to go around.

Good luck!


 *     My last conversation with George Saunders

**   Me and Mary Karr chew the fat

*** One of 5 or 6 conversations I have had with Rick Russo

What Would Ernie Banks Do?

26 Jul
Mr Cub, Ernie Banks Baseball Halll of Fame plaque

Mr Cub, Ernie Banks Baseball Halll of Fame plaque

Arguably baseball is meaningless though that I would not suggest that it is without value. As a Chicago Cub fanboy I have gained nearly a lifetime of joie de vivre from the simple task of following the Northside’s benighted hardball team’s exploits. But sports in the USA having slipped into venal spectacle, there are now other things that impinge on baseball as a nearly pure joy. The Cubs just acquired rocket armed Ardis Chapman which has MLB universe extending the team’s post season…
There is a (to coin a phrase) a fly in the ointment. In pursuit of much need buttressing of their shaky bullpen, the Cubs threw four players at the Yankees to rent the skills of flame throwing closer Aroldis Chapman
Newest addition to the Chicago Cub roster, Aroldis Chapman

Newest addition to the Chicago Cub roster, Aroldis Chapman

Here’s how SB Nation’s Mark Robadin sees it

The Cubs had about all the sympathy a baseball team can get from other fan bases. You might have heard, at some point, that they haven’t won a World Series since 1908 — even baseball fans who aren’t a fan of the team, but want to root for a good story, can feel okay about pulling for the Cubs if their own team is out of it. Chicago made that a little harder, though, by trading for Aroldis Chapman on Monday. They didn’t make the possibility of winning harder — in fact, Chapman is great on the field and will help out their bullpen both now and in the postseason …

Chapman wasn’t arrested for choking his girlfriend and firing a gun eight times in his garage in anger, but he was suspended by Major League Baseball after their own investigation of this domestic violence…. there are myriad reasons why domestic violence isn’t even reported, never mind brought to court, or why, like in these two cases [also Jose Reyes], the victim didn’t cooperate. And, before you think Chapman is remorseful and working toward becoming a better person so everything is rainbows and puppies and baby tigers, it’s not like he was cooperative or apologetic, either.

Domestic violence is quickly normalized and brushed off in sports, and the cynicism of teams like the Yankees and Cubs has been and very well could be rewarded. The Yankees and Cubs have both agreed that business and profit are more important than real-life concerns, and they aren’t alone in this — there’s a very good chance your team was interested in acquiring Aroldis Chapman, too. Well, at least now that his suspension is up, anyway — you have to make sure you’re getting full value for your domestic abusers. If the Aroldis Chapman trade makes you feel uncomfortable, then you’re giving it more thought than the Cubs and Yankees claim to have. If only more fans and front offices agreed with you.

Grant Bisbee chimes in

… Flags fly forever, so that’s why the Cubs are OK with sweeping Chapman’s domestic violence and subsequent suspension under the rug, which they likely weren’t willing to do before the season started. He doesn’t seem remorseful for choking a woman and firing a gun in his garage to blow off steam/intimidate/any other horrifying explanation, and there are already eggs who will chase you down if you bring this point up as a negative. If you’re thinking it’s not a big deal, you have some pretty miserable bedfellows.
Would Mr Cub, Ernie Banks stillgleefully  incant, “Let’s play two!”

Deuces that Beat a Full House

27 Apr

As much as I would like to exposit on what follows no introduction should be necessary…









Let me come at it another way…my kind of town

17 Apr

Chicago flag


On my recent hegira to the geography of my youth, Chicago Illinois (fly over zone or Heartland, depending on whether you hail from the Golden Corridor USA ), I chanced to discover the reason for the ( four six-pointed red stars [the six points symbolize transportation, labor, commerce, finance, populousness, and salubrity] on the official City of Chicago flag which was adopted in 1917. They represent major historical events: the advent of Fort Dearborn in 1831, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and the Century of Progress Exposition of 1933–34.

A reasonable assumption (for those of us aware of the passage of time since the mid 20th century) would be that a number of events should be candidates for additional stars. And in fact there have been regular proposals to do so. Of those making it into urban folklore purportedly a letter to the Chicago Tribune opined that the city flag honor “Chicago’ s place in the history of the nuclear age.” A star was also  proposed to honor  Harold Washington, the first African-American mayor of Chicago. And following the so-called Chicago Flood of 1992.

Chicago being Chicago and Cubs fans being long suffering the notion has previously been floated to honor the eventuality of a Cubs’s World Series (which of course after 108 years would more accurately called a long shot. Enter whiz kid Theo Epstein and field mentor Joe Madden and. well, let’s just say that the odds have changed

“Once you’ve come to be a part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” — Nelson Algren


Coincident with my recent visit and refreshment of my  warm feelings for Chi town  I came across Brian Doyle’s new opus Chicago. As is the case with much of what makes up my reading diet a few years ago I chanced to pick up  Brian Doyle’s novel, Mink River and have stayed on the lookout for his writings  ever since—which include short stories, memoirs  essays and novels , Doyle who edits Portland magazine at the University of Oregon is a card carrying Catholic  but clearly not an apologist for the Church as the opening of his story “Pinching Bernie”  (from his collection  Bin Laden’s Bald Spot)

Bernard Francis Cardinal Law , archbishop of Boston for  almost 20 years during which probably a thousand kids were raped by priests and Law knew about it but kept shuffling the rapists around from job to job and denying everything and writing letters  that were total bullshit about how he knew  these guys real well and saw into their hearts and their hearts were pure  as driven snow, this was while  they were raping kids in sacristies and chapels and hospital rooms and classrooms and basements and cellars and billiard rooms and rectories and cabin son lakes and cars and the house of prominent donors and beach cottages and the backs of school busses and once even in a convent, well, finally Bernie gets ridden out of town. on a rail you know, the people of the archdiocese weren’t going to take this evil crap anymore, and Bernie has to vamoose from his palatial residence so fast that the coffee was still warm when the cops got there…

So, it was with gleeful anticipation that I dove into Chicago. Being a expatriated Chicagoan this tome contains a double dose of joy as the city of big shoulders, home of Studs Terkel and Nelson Algren, fabulous small Jews like Joe Epstein and Karl Shapiro, Dick Gregory, Mike Royko and  Slats Grobnik, Ernie Banks and Walter Payton, Minnie Minoso and Mike Ditka and Muddy Waters and Curtis Mayfield, Oscar Brown Jr. and on and on, remains my sweet spiritual home.. As befits the


Doyle wastes no time indulging his playfulness  citing three epigrams by Mark Twain ,Sun Ra and this by Rudyard Kipling

I have struck a city—a real city—and they call it Chicago… Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages.*



As has become something of a Doyle trademark conceit (see Mink River ‘s philosophizing crow and Martin Marten’s pine marten), one of the main characters in Chicago is  Edward “a wise and personable dog of indeterminate breed.” While an engaging ensemble of characters,the residents of the Northside  building in which the unnamed narrator resides, join Edward,

Self Portrat, Brian Doyle

Self Portrait, Brian Doyle

the main protagonist is the city itself—presented in all its glories from the great inland sea, Lake Michigan,  that marks its eastern border  to the vibrant music culture to the great green spaces of the park system that runs the length of the city. Chicago’s narrator finds happiness playing basketball and  spending much of his spare time dribbling his worn down ball up and down the Lake Michigan shore as well as exploring the villages that comprise this big hearted metropolis. He also manages to touch upon Chicago’s dark side, playing in  edgy pickup games involving two rival Chicago gangs.
The unnamed  narrator in Chicago, a recent Notre Dame graduate is an entry-level staffer at a Chicago-based Catholic magazine who spend 15 months  in the city in 1979.  Coincidentally he becomes a fan of the (Southside) White Sox,  the year the Chisox fielded the best outfield in the major leagues —though it its something of an anomaly for someone from the city’s Northside to prefer the Southside team to the Northside Cubs. 

 Steve Nathans-Kelly opines
Doyle’s Chicago is a determinedly quiet book about a noisy city that sketches a vast cityscape but deals narratively in miniatures… One gets the impression that Doyle, an award-winning journalist, editor and author of multiple novels, has wanted to write this book for a long time. It’s to his credit that he didn’t let his immense feeling for Chicago and the brief time he lived there induce him to make this modest and winsome story bigger than it is.



* Some additional epigrams on Chicago

“Here is the difference between Dante, Milton, and me. They wrote about hell and never saw the place. I wrote about Chicago after looking the town over for years and years”— Carl Sandburg

“Chicago is an October sort of city even in spring”—Nelson Algren

“Chicago was a town where nobody could forget how the money was made. It was picked up from floors still slippery with blood.” — Norman Mailer

“It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago-she outgrows his prophecies faster than he can make them. She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.” — Mark Twain

Gabbing with Roger Angell & Robert Birnbaum |

8 Apr


Published: July 10, 2003

New Yorker fiction editor Angell wrote about baseball for the magazine for over forty years. His baseball books include The Summer Game , Late Innings, Season Ticket, Once More Around The Park and now Game Time (edited by Steve Kettmann). Roger Angell lives in Manhattan with his wife and continues to follow and write about the game he loves.

Game Time: A Baseball Companion collects twenty nine of Angell’s New Yorker baseball pieces from his first —1962 spring training  to the World Series of 2002. Fenway Park, Willie Mays, Pete Rose and Bob Gibson and Barry Bonds and more come are treated to Angell’s  joyous prose. Former sportswriter Richard Ford provides the introduction to Game Time,


“Roger Angell, entirely consonant with his affection for the game, writes about baseball from a viewing stand that’s conspicuously in life and society, and he understands as the few great sportswriters do, that to achieve his craft’s highest expression, a writer must bring along his loftiest values, moral and lexical, yet somehow do it without tying his slender subject to weights and galactic significances it can’t possibly bear. To make sport more than itself threatens to make it boring, and almost always turns the writing bad and absurd.”


Roger Angell [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Roger Angell [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Birnbaum: Why do we still call baseball the national pastime?

Roger Angell: It still holds a fixed place in the imagination of older people, not young people anymore. I don’t think it’s the national pastime. If we have a national pastime, it’s probably basketball. Even young parents think about baseball in a special way. There is an instant sentimental identification with their young kids. They want to teach their young kids baseball because it’s so wonderful and they want their young kids to go and get autographs and then get their kids to read books that are too old for them. Like this book [laughs]. They say, “Oh my son loves your book.” And I say, “How old is he?” And they say, “Eight.” [both laugh] I pretty well veered away from the field of dreams view of baseball. I think it’s a load. Baseball is intensely interesting and wonderfully complicated. There is the scene in Field of Dreams where the old philosopher says, “Baseball once was good and America was good.” We are talking about the 1920’s when players were beat up upon physically and there was alcoholism and no blacks could get within a mile of the field. America was going through the Ku Klux Klan. Give me a break! It’s so strange.

RB: Is this mythological status why baseball’s antitrust immunity is maintained?

RA: Probably. It keeps the game the same. Years ago in San Francisco I ran into a guy who was a young lawyer and he was a passionate baseball fan. And he’d made up a list of all time greatest players who never threw the ball around in the backyard with their old man [both laugh]. Starting with Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams.

RB: [both laugh] Has anyone ever reviewed you badly? Anyone in the world of baseball think badly of you?

RA: Once in a while.

RB: How does it feel to be revered?

RA: I’d just as soon not. I mean I have been very lucky to be able to go on with this and still be writing at my age. But I don’t want to be thought of as a monument. I want to keep asking myself, “Is this new piece any good?” That’s the main thing.

RB: I am struck by the timelessness of these pieces. The first piece in the collection doesn’t seem like it was written forty years ago.

RA: The names are different, but yeah. That’s why I picked out the old pieces. I did pick the old pieces because they seemed to be fresh. And there are a few that I liked that I brought back because I wanted to see them back in print. They had been in other books, and about half these had not been in a book. Most of the stuff in the ’90s had not been in book form before. And there are chapters like… there is a three-part thing on Pete Rose.

RB: In putting this book together, you reviewed all your writing of the past forty years?

RA: I did not but I was aware of quite a lot of it and I went over it and did look at stuff that I hadn’t looked at for quite a while. Like that first piece which was when William Shawn sent me down to spring training in the winter of 1962.

RB: As I was thinking about you, I was thinking about the glorious and glorified writers that had written on one sport. Like CLR James on Cricket.

RA: Yeah, Beyond the Boundaries.

RB: Liebling on Boxing, Galeano on Soccer. I wonder if there is a set of books that can be put together…

RA: And fishing, there is a lot of fishing writing.

RB: Maclean and McGuane.

RA: My guess is that most of the sports that get lengthy books written about them are fairly lengthy themselves. Time passes, not much happens on a soccer field— a lot is happening but not much soccer. There is a lot of time in golf; there is a lot of golf writing. And god knows there is a lot of time in baseball. You can sit there and take notes and watch the field and have an idea once in a while. But also in baseball the thing that sets it apart from other sports is that it is linear. One thing happens and then something else happens. And then something else happens and you can go back and see why something happened. And you can’t do that with basketball or hockey or even football.

RB: I remember Pete Axthelm wrote a paradigmatic book on basketball, The City Game.


RA: Bill Bradley’s autobiography is pretty good. Go back and read it. It’s wonderful. But hockey happens too fast, you can’t take it all in unless you are Wayne Gretsky, the only person who could see and knew where everybody was, every instant. And there is this American notion hovering over it [baseball] which you don’t have to refer to and you don’t have to spend a lot of time with—and I think it gets a little resonance from that, which I say I have avoided. The game has changed so much. One of the things that has kept me at this is not that I am doing the same thing over and over. Baseball provides surprises and refreshments automatically. But the game has changed a lot, everything about it except the actual game has changed. The stadiums, the crowds, the sounds of baseball. There used to be wonderful silences, there were different kinds of cheering and you could close your eyes and almost tell what was happening in the game. The derisive cheer, the derisive boo, to every level…a lot of that has gone out now because the sounds are so enormous and there is this constant blasting of loudspeakers and rock music is playing. It’s not the same at all. And the crowd doesn’t watch the game in the same way. Very few people keep score. For young people it’s more like going to a rock concert. Bart Giamatti was the first person I know who saw all that when he was National League president and then Commissioner. He told the owners, and he told me that he’d said this. He kept telling the owners, “You are going to have to take care of both audiences, the devout close watchers, like you and me who keep score and that watch everything on the field. And the people who are paying more attention to the gigantic score board and what is coming on to that.” So that’s a difference, and then television is a huge difference. TV has changed us all more than anything has in my lifetime, obviously. And instant replay, which changes everything. Instant replay replaces memory—in all of us—I think. Our memories are not what they used to be because some part of us says we can turn memory off and just find the replay. I once talked to Carlton Fisk—I was writing a piece about home runs —and I asked, “Do you have any memory of that home run in the sixth game in 1975, any private memory of what it was like? We all know the famous TV shot of you going to first base waving the ball fair, pushing it to the field and it hits the foul pole and the game is won.” He said, “It’s very interesting that you should bring this up. I have only seen that shot about four or five times in my lifetime. Every time I see it coming up, I leave the room or turn the set off. Because I want to keep a crystal memory of what that was like for me.” I was very touched.

RB: I think it’s interesting how you discuss the changes in baseball without assigning some great a nostalgic value to it. I think it is very hard to that.

RA: We have all had to do this in our life times. With a lot of other things, politics and the family and the city. Almost every way we live has been radically altered in our lifetime. And we think, there it goes, it will never be the same. And it isn’t the same, but then the next day comes along and you have to live with what’s next. If you get sorry or get weepy, you are going to miss most of it. I have been very angry with a lot of what happened in baseball and I wrote it at the time and said, “This is the end of everything.” Expansion, the DH, a lot of other stuff and I have been dead against some things that have been great. Inter-league play is extremely entertaining. The post season is a vivid time of year, not just the World Series. I hated the loss of just the World Series. The wild card, I’m not too sure about that. But we had two wild-card teams playing in the World Series last year and neither of them was the Yankees or the Braves. Everybody I know said, “I am sick of the Yankees and the Braves. I can’t stand it one more time.” So they get the Giants and the Angels and nobody watched [laughs].




RB: I’ve been reading Michael Lewis‘ book, Moneyball.*

RA: I think it’s a wonderful book. Very, very interesting and he’s smart and entertaining and it did get close to Billy Beane, who is a radical mind and a radical personality inside the inner councils of baseball. He’s a vivid thing. And this whole concept of OPS, which is on base percentage plus slugging, is the central formula now that he believes in and was brought about by the Oakland A’s and made it work. Along with some brilliant trading. And all general managers are aware of this now. But he is not the only general manger who is aware of bases on ball. There is JP Ricciardi, who is one of his pupils and Theo Epstein. They all believe in this. There have always been GMs who have been aware of bases on balls. I just read a piece today by Murray Chass [New York Times] pointing out that “Stick” Stanley, the assistant GM of the Yankees, was a very early believer in bases on balls. He was the one who got the Yankee team in the ’90s to be very selective about batting and turned around some of their hitters, made them much better hitters. He said, “Work the count in your favor.” And we have always seen this in action. Keith Hernandez with the great Mets’ teams in the ’80s was a master of this, a really good hitter. One of the great entertainments in baseball was watching him turn the count his way. And this is what they are talking about. So it’s not that radical. But the other side of this is that I think most GMs are offended by the Lewis book because he gets somebody to talk about what goes on inside the office, and they hate that. They don’t want anybody to know what they are thinking. The other is thing is that Billy has so lowered the significance of the manager. The manager and Sandy Alderson, who actually began all this—Alderson, who is a good friend of mine, was the former president and GM of the Oakland A’s when they had their great years, and he said, “What other business works where the middle management runs the whole thing?”

RB: How about the contretemps with Steinbrenner criticizing Joe Torre and Zimmer stepping in and defending Torre?

RA: It’s like the old days, George messing in things and the writers running around back and forth all excited when somebody actually says something real, the way Zim did. I think Steinbrenner has been a remarkable—in spite of his rages—his personality is over the top all the time and he wants to be the center of affairs, and he has made himself a celebrity, which is a strange thing for an owner of a team to do.

RB: He’s a convicted felon.

RA: He has not always, but certainly lately, in the last ten years, he has shown extraordinary baseball judgment. He has an apparatus that not only buys off the right players for his team and spends a lot of money but a lot of the Yankee teams have been home grown. The center of this present Yankee Empire is basically home grown. Posada, Jeter, Andy Petitte and Bernie Williams. And Soriano isn’t quite homegrown—people forget that.

RB: And he persuaded Bernie Williams to stay a Yankee.

RA: He almost traded Soriano for Gonzalez a couple of years ago, the trade fell through, but this isn’t just accidental. He goes through the same process as the other teams do. They have more money to sign high draft choices, but he knows the ones to sign and bring along. Just lately it’s occurred to me that George is sort of like sunspots or El Nino. You know that that he has this enormous power to affect everything except maybe he doesn’t affect anything. You just don’t know— I think, this is because of George or not. And he traditionally comes down—he’s like a heavy dad, he can’t stand you, he eats you out and tells you how terrible you are and then either you get better and you say, “See.” That little talk, or else you don’t get better and he says, “I told you I was right, he’s no good.” He never loses.

RB: Torre understands that. Why did Zimmer speak out?

RA: I think he was being loyal. He thought that Torre has been maligned, but he read it wrong. He burst out and it was very entertaining. The thing about Torre, one of the many things he has done is imposed a tone in the Yankee clubhouse like no other that I have ever seen. The Braves have it to some extent. This is all business and there is no rock music. They are not somber about it, but they all go about their work, and they have been doing this now for seven or eight years. It’s admirable. And you go into other club houses and you think,” What’s wrong here, this is like a bunch of kids.” They are thinking about themselves and the Yankees are thinking about getting ready for the game and basically thinking about winning. And then David Cone, while he was there, defined all that. And he talked about it and told all the writers every single one of them what was going on and spoke about the game spoke about the players and himself. And that extraordinary horde of New York City media, David would talk to them and he knew what each one wanted and their deadlines. I thought he should go and work for the State Department.

RB: So the Yankees spend money and the A’s don’t have the money. So how have they been competitive?

RA: They have done it through great draft choices. Bringing up guys more slowly than before and giving them an idea on how to get on base and how to play. And they have great, brilliant drafts. They picked up three terrific pitchers, the best three in baseball.

RB: They won’t draft high schoolers.

RA: They draft mature kids. Which is something I have noticed over the years really works much better.

RB: Has anyone ever collected in some kind of commonplace book your descriptions such as Babe Ruth’s ankles as “debutante’s” ankles?

RA: I don’t think so. It would make me self-conscious.

RB: What is an “exuberant nose”?

RA: It’s just a large nose. I was talking about Ray Scarborough. He had a big nose. He was called Horn. Dan Shaugnessy told me he found a description, I had written of Boog Powell of the Orioles, “door stop at first base.” He didn’t move at all he was like a fixed object at first base. Sometimes balls ricocheted off the doorstop.

RB: I assume “pigeoned” distance means a long distance.

RA: Way off in the distance. In the Polo Grounds there were pigeon flying around out there.

RB: You have the benefit of writing without a deadline.

RA: Less now with Remnick. He really likes it the next week. Shawn didn’t care, it could come the next month. Some of my World Series pieces came out in the beginning of December [both laugh].

RB: There are a whole slew of baseball books that do what Richard Ford mentions in his introduction to Game Time, that tie baseball to “galactic import.” You have managed to make it interesting and write well about it without making it ponderous.

RA: I think there is enough going on so that you don’t have to look for things galactic or the “real” meaning of baseball. The real meaning of baseball is that it is a professional game, and it’s a made-up game that produces some great performances and some extraordinary moments for the people and some ridiculous moments and a lot of boring stretches in between. But to push it beyond that— it’s as if being at a game or writing about a game isn’t good enough. I certainly have had moments down the years. I have written a lot about baseball, over forty years, and there were days I got up and said, “You are spending all your time writing about a game.” Not all my time, but some of my time. I got over that. lt’s okay. It doesn’t matter. Whatever suits the writer, he or she should do. If it’s a good fit, go on.



Roger Angell [photo: Robert Birnbaum

Roger Angell [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: How is it that some writers succumb to this temptation to attach this profundity to baseball?

RA: Maybe they feel what I just said. They think, “What am I doing at a game. I have to make it important. Because I am important. Or my thoughts are important. So this must mean something more than who is leading off third.” I think I have managed to avoid that also in part because of my stepfather, EB White, who was my model in writing. I grew up with him from a fairly early age and watched him write and admired his writing extravagantly. All his writing seemed effortless. And low key. Once in a while he wrote about ponderous things and he got in trouble. He once wrote a book about world government, which is the only heavy stuff he ever wrote. And it doesn’t hold up. But he said some fairly useful and I think moving and defendable things in his lifetime. He didn’t take himself that seriously. And also he hadn’t decided what kind of writer he was going to be. That’s the significant thing to me. I sometimes talk to young writers and I say, “It is a big surprise to me that I ended up writing about baseball this much.” It’s still a surprise. But it’s okay because that’s the way it worked out. It’s a good fit. I happened to write about baseball and I was interested and enthusiastic and went back and did it over and over again. And that’s the larger body of what I have written. I don’t feel bad about it. Andy White wrote New Yorker casuals. He wrote light verse and wrote wonderful stuff about living in the country and being a country farmer. But in the end, what he is going to be known for is as a children’s book writer. He was one of the greatest children’s book writers of all time. And he didn’t write Stuart Little until he was in his fifties. And in the end he was amazed that this is what he turned out to be—the very best of him went into a couple of books. You never know. I tell writers, “Don’t decide if you are going to be a novelist or a playwright or a philosopher. Wait and see what kind of writing is going to be right for you, and it’s going to take a while.”

RB: Do you think they listen?

RA: No, I don’t think so [both laugh]. No, they don’t listen.

RB: Well, the literary world has been as affected by momentous changes, as has been baseball. And TV is probably the biggest thing, and it represents this impulse for fame and celebrity. Everything people do, they attach a need for fame to it.

RA: That’s right, they want that moment. They are always looking at the screen. Right at the camera.



Roger Angell [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Roger Angell [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: Writers are as susceptible as everyone else.

RA: Absolutely. It’s certainly affected the way ballplayers talk to you. It’s very hard to get them to say something as interesting or as fresh as they once did. And that may be partly because I’m a lot older and they don’t want to talk to me. It’s kind of hard when you go to a ballplayer and they call you sir —you are in a lot of trouble to start with. I think, and I have talked to other writers, ball players don’t want to talk much about baseball. They don’t want to give you much time because they don’t think about it very much. Their attention is fractured. All of us have fractured attention, because of television. Every single one of us. Because we are used to that set and the changing channels. The players that I talked to, most of them grew up, a lot of them grew up before there was television and talking and thinking about baseball, which they did most if they were taking the train and they would talk clear across the country. Bill Rigney, one of my close friends, said, “We talked baseball avidly. We never stopped, never stopped.” And when writers can tap into that, you have a lot of wonderful stuff coming. But nowadays, most athletes you talk to will give you the sound bite, the television bit.


RB: Like a scene in Bull Durham.

RA: Yeah. They make fun of it. But they do say, “I’m going to give 110 percent.” The automatic expressions come, “This was the defining moment.” Others refer to the Lord at which point you close your notebook because it’s going to be about the Lord. It’s not going to be about the game [both laugh].

RB: Isn’t there a decline in the oral culture of almost everything? Who tells stories anymore?

RA: Well there’s where I don’t want to go that far. That’s where I don’t want to draw the deep conclusion. Who knows? I think people are capable of profundity even in tiny bites. Or whatever we want them to be capable of. But this happened quite quickly. There is a chapter in Game Time called “Put Me In Coach” in which there is the question of how good are modern players as against the legendary old players? Everybody says it was better then. All the people who really know baseball, all the coaches, and the managers said the young players are the best players we have ever had. They are physically far beyond what they played with when they were young. There have never been a better bunch of athletes than right now. They are twice as big and twice as fast and they do amazing things.

RB: And they are rarely out of shape.

RA: But they have not had much training and it is very hard to train them. Baseball is the hardest sport to learn there is. Football players come out of college and they are playing in the NFL in the first year. That doesn’t happen that much in baseball. And never would happen. They would go through five six, seven years in the minor leagues. Johnny Pesky told me when he came up that he would have to put together five hundred at bats in the minor leagues, more than three seasons, before they would even look and see how he was doing. It was automatic. You were learning how to play the game. And nowadays they come up because a lot of money has been spent signing them, and the budgets are sky high, they bring them up in a couple of years and find they don’t know how to play baseball. There are plays they don’t know how to make. They don’t understand the situations. The fans see this too. They see someone who cannot bunt or does not learn to hit the ball through with a man on first base or second base, to the right side. They haven’t learned that. And the coaches say that it is very hard to teach them. Because you can’t go and say, “Look here kid.”— basically you have to make suggestions and wait until they come to you. The good ones do it.

RB: What makes it fun to watch American major league baseball?

RA: Well, baseball never fails to produce terrific things. The Mets have been losing miserably this year. All the old guys they have gotten have turned out to be old and lost interest and broken down, they have spent a lot of money and gotten nowhere. This year is almost worst of all, they have been losing, losing and losing and their reliever Benetiz has given up a lot of base hits and leads and gets shelled and booed unmercifully when he is at Shea [Stadium]. The other night I watched this, they are ahead by a few runs and other team gets to catch up and Benitez comes in defending a one run lead and he puts men on first and second and there are two out and the batter hits a line drive single into center field and everybody says, “Oh my God.” And Cedeno, the center fielder picks up the ball, and throws the runner out at the plate— for the last out of the game. And they have won. The Mets go nuts with happiness. They haven’t had a moment like this the entire season. Benitez gives up a hit, which he shouldn’t do. And we still win. So anything is possible.

RB: I’ve watched baseball in the Caribbean and Central America and even little league games. I find it much more palatable. I just as soon watch twelve-year olds.

RA: Yeah, you can watch at any level, there’s no doubt about that. A lot of people have gone back to the minors. I used to go to Oneonta, up in the Catskills. A wonderful ballpark. I loved it, the Oneonta Yankees [Thanks to Richard Sacks & Andrew Milner for pointing out that it’s “Oneonta,” not “Oneianda” as previously transcribed], they were there for years and the Mets set up a team in Pittsfield (MA) where the sun sets behind centerfield. I used to go watch these teams with great pleasure. But then the Mets brought their team in and put it in Staten Island, a Class A team and the Yankees now a have a team in Coney Island.

RB: Will there be an international Word Series? [ed note before the advent of the World Baseball Classic]**

RA: I think so. Let me put it this way, I think there will be a division of Major League Baseball in Japan in the foreseeable future. I think it’s coming, starting with Central America. I think it’s too bad in a way because I don’t necessarily think that baseball needs to get bigger. There are more an Asians in baseball and what is making the game great now is this flood of Hispanic stars. We don’t even think about it anymore, but practically all the best players are Latin Americans.

RB: I’ve seen baseball in Mayaguez Puerto Rico, on the other side of the island. It’s very different and wonderful.

RA: Baseball is baseball at any level. It’s refreshing. I have written somewhere that I can just stop by a field somewhere and watch some teenagers playing and within a few minutes I’ll pick a team.

RB: Has it been any kind of difficulty for you that you write for this highbrow, tony magazine?

RA: I think I certainly have been patronized by a large group of intellectuals. I have people who say they hate baseball. Or the nicer ones say they can’t talk about baseball. I say, “That’s fine, we don’t have to talk about baseball. I can talk about other things, I can do a lot.” It’s not been a difficulty. Sometimes it has [been difficult]with players and coaches and managers. They discover I am from the New Yorker and they say, “Oh, do they cover sports?” Well, they don’t read the magazine. That’s okay.

RB: At least they don’t have a preconception because they don’t know what you have written.

RA: It’s a blow to my pride, but it’s sort of an advantage in a way. Then you find guys—what any writer looks for are people who can talk. After a while you develop an ear for someone who has something to say and you cultivate these guys. People who talk in sentences and in paragraphs and you seek them out and you become friends with them and play up to them and hope that moment is really going to come when they are really going to talk to you. I remember a guy a named Ted Simmons…

RB: I remember Simmons, a St. Louis Cardinal star.

RA: A wonderful catcher and hitter. I couldn’t get anything out of him. I knew how smart he was. I kept talking to him. He was, among other things, a collector of American furniture, while he was playing in the major leagues. He had a distinguished collection of American furniture. So one day I mention American furniture. I’m talking to him and he is not giving me the time of day. He said, “Hold it right there. I don’t know you. I don’t know if you know anything about American furniture. But let’s say maybe you did and maybe if you did and I do, we might say something interesting about American furniture. But I don’t know if this true. Okay?” I said, “Okay.” Then there is a pause. And then he says, “My insurance agent has told me not to talk about my furniture collection anymore.” About a year after that I’m in Sun City, he’s playing with the Brewers, and I want to get him to talk about hitting. I was doing a piece about hitting. I’m sitting alone in the clubhouse he comes off the field and again he was stiffing me, nothing had happened. And I said, “Ted, you’re a switch hitter, I notice you are a better batter left handed then you are right handed which is your natural side. Why is that?” And he said, “Why do you think it is?” I was grasping for something, “Maybe it’s because you keep throwing the ball back to the pitcher. Maybe your right arm is too strong?” His expression changed and he said, “I didn’t think you’d have noticed.” And them he was mine. He trusted me. I knew enough to watch baseball so that I was okay to be trusted. And then I couldn’t shut him up. He talked about hitting, talked about catching. I wrote a long piece about catching and he had a major part in that.

RB: Are there people in media that you think add greatly to the commentary and the lore?

RA: Oh yes. A lot of them. Commentary is much better than it used to be. We have lost Red Barber, who was really great. But the influx of guys who do this who were players has helped a lot. We all know how the game is played much better than we used to. Joe Morgan is terrific.

RB: I would hope for a different kind of commentary that makes use of the stories and the oral history.

RA: I don’t think that they talk, I don’t think any of us does, the way people like Bill Rigney, who is my age but grew up in baseball and was a coach and manager and successful. Truly attractive and sparkling and funny, inventive and would talk baseball brilliantly and I hung a round him a lot and got to be a friend of his and his references were all about baseball. He was a smart guy, Rigs. References were all about baseball and that’s gone by. People who have spent a lot of time in baseball are more cosmopolitan or they are embarrassed just to talk about baseball.

RB: There seems to be an odd kind of ambivalence.

RA: Another great talker was Roger Craig. He invented the split finger. He was originally a pitcher with the Dodgers. Later on he was a coach and he was in retirement one year, coaching for a junior high school team. And suddenly discovers if you took the old fork ball and put the fingers a little farther apart— so they would slide down the outside of a baseball—the ball would take an extraordinary dive. And he took this back to the Tigers and he taught everyone on the Tigers how to do it and they went to World Series and then he became manager of the Giants and taught everybody to do this. He talked wonderfully all the time. So I constantly went back to him for a paragraph or two. And I remember once I went up to him in Spring Training in Scottsdale and he was sitting on the outfield fence. I said, “Hello.” I had a new baseball book that had just come out. A writer was out there and he said, “Roger (meaning me) has a new book out. Have you read it?” Craig says, “Read it, I wrote half of it.”

RB: [both laugh] These days Barry Bonds is by reputation not a good person, he doesn’t talk much. Who is there to talk to?

RA: That’s good question. I’m a little short right now. I have to find someone this season. David Cone is gone. I don’t have some reliable source. And I am not sure that the same level is there. But I am getting on in years and it may be my fault.

RB: Well, I’m not getting on in years. I can’ t think of anyone.

RA: We have to be careful that we aren’t getting sentimental, “Oh they don’t talk about baseball they way they used to.” Maybe they talk about it in more compact and interesting ways

RB: Should we talk about your Boston Red Sox affliction?

RA: I have to say in all honesty, I have a lot of loyalties. I’ve been a Red Sox fan. I’ve been a Mets fan. And lately I have been very much attached to the Yankees because of the Yankee tone, what Torre has gotten these Yankees to do. My loyalties are mixed, but it doesn’t take me long if I see a team for three or four games or five games for some reason I am writing about a pitcher, I’ll follow that team for the rest of that year. Sometime beyond that if I feel an attachment. Or I see a team play in a certain way in the World Series. [Like] The 1982 Brewers, there is a chapter in the book called “Blue Collar.” This was really the last blue collar team that played in a industrial town and was blue collar itself, Gorman Thomas, Paul Molitor and a lot of other people of that ilk. And the manager Harvey Kuenn lived in the back of a restaurant, Cesar’s Inn. It was bar, a tavern and a lot of the players would come back and work behind the bar after a game. And that feeling about that team was deeply, deeply, that old feeling that these guys represent us and that, with a little luck, I could be doing this. Which we don’t think any more about athletes. The greatest change of all is that athletes are beyond us. They are nothing like us anymore. Their size and their skills and their money set them aside entirely. And I think this has left us bereft. I think people are angry about this. It explains the anger on sports talk shows. Every sports show people are yelling at each other. And it’s a bar fight. In the old days we watched and stayed silent a little bit and thought, “That could me.” Now we know it can’t be. We are angry about it. So all we can be is be expert about opinions. And we yell. We have become sports guys in a very noisy and sort of pathetic way.

RB: What would happen if the Red Sox won a World Series?

RA: [pause] A gigantic let down. A huge let down. Always happens after you win. I wrote this years ago, “Second place on the whole is better.” Hoping to be there. It’s a like a young couple buying a house and they save and save and save. At last they have the house and then it’s the mortgage and you have to think about the roof leaking. I think some different teams are going to win. People who think about the tilted playing field haven’t really thought back to what the old days were like because it was really tilted then. The Yankees won all the time. I got out the Baseball Encyclopedia and looked at how the Yankees had played against the second division teams, the bottom four teams, usually the same four teams, The White Sox, the Browns, the Senators and the A’s, how they played against them in the ’30s, the ’40s and the ’50s. And counted each set of games as a series. The four team over thirty years, that’s one hundred and twenty separate series. The Yankees won one hundred and twelve of those. And then tied two and lost four. They unmercifully beat up on the second level teams and they played the other three teams more or less even. Nobody much complained. Those second level clubs would make their budget every year on a couple of double headers when the Yankees would come in and play over the weekend.

RB: Is there a talent drain in baseball?

RA: Sure. There is much more competition. Baseball used to get top picks. It doesn’t happen anymore. The thing that is counter to that is that baseball draws from a huge pool from around the world. They don’t get as many as they once did. The strange and sad decline has been in Afro-American players, who mostly are heading into basketball, and that’s not because of Michael Jordan. That’s because there are so few inner-city baseball diamonds.

RB: Maybe the emphasis is not about great athletes.

RA: I am not sure if I agree. Because as a species we are still—it’s hard to believe it— we are still getting better. And there has never been anybody like Barry Bonds. People in the game, it’s so interesting, they have said they have never seen a player lock in the way he has. Five MVPs. He is now ranked maybe the third best player that ever played. Who knows, he may even catch up with Hank Aaron. An extraordinary combination of skill and determination and physical structure. People say he uses steroids. This came up a couple of years ago and Bobby Valentine said, “He puts steroids in his eyes?” Bonds is thrilling to watch, but as you mentioned, he is not a great guy. Barry is not about us. He has an infuriating little smile when he doesn’t talk to you. And slights you and talks aside. It’s a flawed personality. Tough upbringing. But the thing that you learn is that it doesn’t matter. You can have a sports hero who is not a sweet and lovely guy and both things are true. He is the motto of our time. But he is a great ballplayer. When I first went into this people would ask, “What is Willie Mays really like?” He’s gotten a little nicer, but back then he was not a nice guy, shrill and suspicious. “He’s the best center fielder I ever saw.” They’d say, “That’s not what I meant.” I’d say, “That’s what I meant.”

RB: Any predictions for the World Series?

RA: I never predict. It’s so foolish this time of year. This is June.

RB: No sentimental favorites?

RA: It would be nice to see the Cubs play some significant games late in the year. I’d settle for that.

RB: Me too. Well, thank you.

RA: Thank you, Robert. It’s been a great pleasure.



*Micheal Lewis

**World Baseball Classic

RIP Jim Harrison

27 Mar





Jim Harrison’s friend Phil Caputo posted this eulogy on Face book


My good friend and fellow writer, Jim Harrison, died today at about 5pm in his winter home near Patagonia, Arizona. Prolific novelist, poet, and essayist, Harrison was one of the greats of American literature, arguably the last of a breed of American writers who lived hard but well, never went to a creative writing school, knew what it was like to work with your hands and back, and had a personal magnetism that drew people to him from all walks of life — cattle ranchers, film personalities like Jack Nicholson, bird watchers and bird hunters, and of course other writers. I first met Jim in 1975 in Montana, where I was finishing my first book, “A Rumor of War.” We’d been friends ever since, talking and drinking and hunting and fishing together. Perhaps my most memorable experience took place in 1997, when he and I got lost in the Arizona mountains and had to spend a very cold night (it was 16 degrees above zero) huddled around a campfire until rescued by two resourceful officers from the Arizona Fish and Game Department. Jim lost his wife, the beautiful and enigmatic Linda Harrison, in September of last year, and I can’t help but wonder if he found life without her too lonely and wanted to be reunited with her. A sentimental notion, I suppose. My wife, Leslie, and I got a call tonight (March 26) from Dr. Alfredo Guevara (a mutual friend) informing us of Jim’s death. He was at Harrison’s old adobe house on Sonoita Creek, to where he’d been summoned to confirm the death. Also there was Jim’s friend and right-hand man, Abel Murietta. Che (Dr Guevara’s tongue-in-cheek nickname) asked us to come over and say goodbye to Jim before his remains were taken away. That we did. We found him on the floor of his study, where he’d fallen from his chair, apparently from a heart attack. He’d died a poet’s death, literally with a pen in his hand, while writing a new poem. He was a legendary figure in American letters, a man who could be difficult but never ever dull, and one of the most original personalities I have ever known. Irreplaceable. And he will be missed.



One of the best profiles I have read on Harrison, entitled the Last Lion can be found here

Bissell observes:

HARRISON HAS OUTLASTED those critics who initially wrote him off as a Hemingway-derived regionalist, and at times he has been as successful as a modern American writer can possibly be. For the first half of the 1970s, however, Harrison was trapped in that odd half-success of acclaim that lacks financial recompense. From 1970 to 1976, he made around $10,000 a year. Things got so bad that several people came to the Harrisons’ aid, ­including Jack Nicholson. (They met on the set of The Missouri Breaks, for which McGuane wrote the script.) Harrison’s financial troubles were considerably worsened by the fact that he did not file tax returns for half a decade.

Harrison’s unlikely solution to this penury was to write Legends of the Fall, a book of novellas. He wrote the title novella in nine days, basing large parts of the story on the journals of Linda’s grandfather. Legends is about a father and three sons whose fortunes wrathfully diverge around a woman. In 1977, Esquire publishedLegends in its 15,000-word entirety—an impossible thing to imagine ­today, assuming James Franco does not try his hand at novellas—and the movie rights were purchased. The Brad Pitt film didn’t appear until 1994, but Harrison was still paid handsomely. In 1978, he was stunned to realize that he made more money in the previous year than the president of General Motors.





I had the distinct pleasure of conversing with Jim Harrison in 2004 :

Writer Jim Harrison’s substantial body of work includes four volumes of novella trilogies, The Beast God Forgot to Invent, Legends of the Fall, The Woman Lit by Fireflies, and Julip; and eight novels, The Road Home, Wolf, A Good Day to Die, Farmer, Warlock, Sundog, Dalva, and his newest, True North. Additionally, he has published seven poetry collections, most recently The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems; Just Before Dark, a book of essays and collected nonfiction, The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand, a collection of essays on food; and a children’s book, The Boy Who Ran to the Woods. And, of course, numerous screenplays and his memoir, Off to the Side (of which Jonathan Yardley said, “Literary careerists will find nothing here to help them take the next step up the ladder, but plain readers will find lovely prose, an original mind and a plainspoken man.”). Harrison’s books have won numerous awards, have been translated into 22 languages and are international bestsellers. After years of living in Michigan, Harrison recently moved to Montana. He divides his time between there and Arizona.

True North tells the story of the son of a wealthy timber family, including a depraved and alcoholic father, a besotted, pill-popping mother, a lapsed priest uncle, and a sister who defies family expectations by consorting with the Native American-Finnish gardener’s son. It is David Burkett’s nearly lifelong project to come to terms with the sins of his fathers and to travel his life’s journey benefiting from the tutelage of a the wonderful and courageous women he has loved. The reviews of True North have been mixed—and I might add, undependable—but Gordon Hauptfleisch exhibits a good grasp of this novel:

Still, if Harrison’s newest work is flawed and uneven, it is nevertheless a rich and satisfying read for the strenuously poetic passages detailing not only the complexities, quirks, and intricacies of human emotions and interactions, but also for conveying a solid sense of place. Harrison strays now and then from his Michigan birthplace, as he has throughout his life and in his writing, but the most authentically portrayed and vivid scenes in True North are those that take place in the Upper Peninsula, making a rustic backwoods cabin in the forbidding frozen wilderness seem the quintessence of hearth and home. It certainly helps elucidate why a character would go to the ends of the world to safeguard his little corner of it.
Jim Harrison and I (and Rosie faithful pooch) gabbed for a while during the Boston leg of the recent book tour he has referred to as “a month in a dentist chair.” I might add, my Labrador Rosie is also a big Harrison fan.

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum 2016


Robert Birnbaum: Last night you finished your reading with a poem called “Adding It Up.”

Jim Harrison: Yeah.

RB: Which you recommended not to do. [chuckles]

JH: Trying to add it up, yeah. Trying to balance, it’s like balancing the chaos theory.

RB: Does that indicate [a certain] self-consciousness about aging?

JH: No, I think it’s natural to be aware of it. I just wrote my second short story, which I discussed the other day with Deborah Treisman of the New Yorker. It’s called “Biological Outcast,” about the sexual thoughts of an older man wandering through New York City on a May afternoon. No, you are very conscious of that kind of thing. How old are you?

RB: Fifty-seven.

JH: It’s coming. You know, just thinking about—I don’t know if it’s self-consciousness. Everybody becomes intermittently aware that it’s passing faster than they thought it would. You know?

RB: There are reminders. On the other hand, there are moments that last so long.

JH: Well, I like that idea because I lived for 35 years rather close to an Indian reservation, Anishinabe-Chippewa. One of my friends there, a real geezer, said that our error is that life lasts exactly seven times longer than the way we live it, if you slow everything down, which is an interesting point. I can do that when fishing or walking. Then there are book tours, where everything is so geometrically staged. So you have a 19-page itinerary, with everything down to the last minute.

RB: You did have that story recently in the New Yorker, “Father Daughter.” Deborah Treisman is talking to you about another one?

JH: Yeah.

RB: Are these stories being written to be specifically published in the New Yorker?

JH: No, not really. David Remnick and I had a meeting a year ago with Deborah—[about] getting me to do something for them. It’s a more open magazine than it was years ago when it was, it seemed to me, specifically New England, though they did publish the entirety of that novella, Woman Lit by Fireflies, about 15 years ago. They published the whole thing. But they no longer do pieces that long. It was 110 pages.

RB: Do you have a sense that you are not paid attention to in the East Coast?

JH: That’s basically true. Sometimes I wonder, because my last two readings in New York, down at the mother store of Barnes & Noble, have been very well attended. But I’m not sure that any of that matters. We are all naturally xenophobic. New Yorkers are mostly interested in New York—in case you haven’t noticed. Most of them wouldn’t have any frame of reference for a novel like Dalva. I actually had a guy in New York, an unnamed literary critic, ask me, “Do you know an Indian?” That’s an interesting question.

RB: I thought it interesting that there is a multitude of literary websites, many of which regularly report what the New Yorker’s weekly story is. When your story came out, unless I missed it, none of these sites made mention of it.

JH: I don’t know. I’m rather remote from what some refer to as the centers of ambition, just because I like to live in places—most places I live you can’t see any neighbors at all. None. And that suits me. Partly, it’s [about] claustrophobia.

RB: You couldn’t have been claustrophobic in Michigan and now in Montana and in Arizona?

JH: We’re down near the Mexican border, down in the mountains.

RB: What does it say that in the last year the New Yorker published a story by [Thomas] McGuane, which I don’t think they had done for the longest time, and now by you?

JH: Well, they are looking for that kind of thing. They’re not just sitting there waiting anymore. I am doing a food piece for them of a peculiar origin. A friend of mine, a book collector/dealer in Burgundy, France, had a lunch for a group of friends that had 37 courses in November and took 11 hours. [both laugh]

RB: I thought you swore off these kinds of indulgences?

JH: No, I just picked at the food. Nineteen wines. It was a nice lunch. [both laugh] This was all food from the 17th and 18th centuries. He is a great bibliophile of ancient books on food and wine. So he made tortes of pig’s noses, you know. Old timey stuff. It was interesting, of course, the origins of dishes.

RB: You alluded last night to the fact that you were doing more journalism.

JH: Any time I feel closed in—well, then I’ll try something else. I’m not rational enough to be a good journalist.

RB: What!

JH: I fly off the handle too easily.

RB: Uh huh. For instance that remarkable and moving piece that you wrote for Men’s Journal on living on the border, that was irrational?

So Ana Claudia crossed with her brother and child into Indian country, walking up a dry wash for 40 miles, but when she reached the highway she simply dropped dead near the place where recently a 19-year-old girl also died from thirst with a baby at her breast. The baby was covered with sun blisters, but lived. So did Ana Claudia’s. The particular cruelty of a dry wash is that everywhere there is evidence of water that once passed this way, with the banks verdant with flora. We don’t know how long it took Ana Claudia to walk her only 40 miles in America, but we know what her last hours were like. Her body progressed from losing one quart of water to seven quarts: lethargy, increasing pulse, nausea, dizziness, blue shading of vision, delirium, swelling of the tongue, deafness, dimness of vision shriveling of the skin, and then death, the fallen body wrenched into a question mark. How could we not wish that politicians on both sides of the border who let her die this way would die in the same manner? But then such people have never missed a single lunch. Ana Claudia Villa Herrera. What a lovely name



RB: I thought that piece was in an odd venue for something so poignant and sorrowful and thoughtful. What was the response?

JH: Well, I had a quite a response. I like to stay off brand.

RB: [laughs]

JH: I don’t want to be just a writer that can be identified in one kind of—

RB: You mean Harper’s, Atlantic, New Yorker?

JH: Yeah, yeah, that kind of thing. I don’t want any of that. One becomes overly aware of that at certain times of one’s life, and then you think, “Oh God, I made a deal with that crowd.”

RB: That presumes you have a good sense of how people are seeing you.

JH: No, I don’t necessarily—I’m not sure one could give a lot of time to thinking about it. It would break your motion, what you are doing. You know?



RB: I think that in Off to the Side you mention that in your lifetime the city/country population has shifted from 70 percent country and 30 percent city to the other way around. Would that be something that affects your following, especially on the East Coast?

JH: My type of writer gains an audience by accretion. I don’t think it’s advertising or anything. Why do I read things? It’s basically word of mouth. Some friend or someone I know whose taste I respect says, “You gotta read this.” Then I read it. I rarely read or buy a book because of a review. I had noticed, it’s interesting, it’s getting a little more like France here, which is curious. There is a neurologist, a woman over at Harvard who wanted me to come talk to them, and in France I have a lot of readers in the sciences. I can’t tell you why. I certainly don’t have a pop audience or a strictly literary audience. It’s all spread out. But that was very gradually acquired.

RB: The only criticism I have encountered of you that I didn’t have a response to, mostly because I don’t think I understand it, is that you are a torch carrier for “male sentimentality.” Do you know what that means?

JH: That’s the same violin they have been playing for a long time—it’s not a very large percentage of feminists that place a great deal of stock in never being understood. We can’t understand them. Which is bullshit. I don’t see gender as the most significant fact of human existence. It’s that old idea that when you suddenly wake up at 3 a.m., what sex are you? I don’t get that. It’s sort of the flip side of male chauvinism. It’s a female chauvinism or refusal to think that anyone can have any solid form of empathy of any sort.




RB: It seems to be a dismissal of the writer’s mission, which is to be credible on a wide range of different kinds of characters.

JH: Well, exactly. It’s a little catchword and you’ll notice there are people—I remember when I wrote McGuane about moving west finally, when we had talked about it 36 years ago.

RB: [laughs]

JH: I said, “Christ, I hope when I come out there I will no longer have to hear the words, ‘closure’ and ‘healing.’”

RB: [laughs]

JH: And he says, “No, out here you’ll hear ‘megafauna’ and ‘sustainable.’“ [both laugh] I mean there are these little terms that people use.

RB: I think you refer to them as “verbal turds” somewhere.

JH: Yeah. People place great stock in these things, which to me are absolutely meaningless. Like, “Bob has issues.” What the fuck does that, mean? Stop it! Yeah, yeah, I remember René Char said, “Lucidity is the wound closest to the sun.”

RB: [laughs] It strikes me that you seem to be dismissive of two things that have great currency in America: psychotherapy and anti-depressant medication.

JH: I don’t know what psychotherapy does. I have been seeing the same person for 26 years now.

RB: [laughs]

JH: For symptomatic relief of human suffering. Only when I’m in New York. We have a correspondence this high. [makes a gesture to indicate size of a stack of letters] No, I think, I think you naturally always have to be careful from both Jesus and Kierkegaard—[they] said to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. This isn’t a bandage thing, you know.

RB: Yeah. Right.

JH: It’s just like young writers, of whom I am deluged—you have to be giving your entire life to this because that’s the only way it’s possible. This can’t be an avocation. It’s the whole thing. Or nothing.

RB: And what do they say?

JH: Most of them, that’s very intimidating. They really haven’t wanted to commit to it, to that extent. But they have to. It’s a strange thing—I didn’t want to understand it when I first read it but I was 19 or something—Dylan Thomas said in order to be a poet or a writer you have to be willing to fall on your face over and over and over. Everybody wants to be cool—

RB: You have to be willing?

JH: Yeah. Which is an interesting point, yeah.

RB: You have to know that that’s going to happen.

JH: You should. [both laugh]

RB: I may never get over Tibor Fischer’s story of having being rejected by 56 publishers.

JH: It happens doesn’t it? Portrait of the Artist went to 19. The old fun thing is when somebody typed up the first chapter of War and Peace. And then made a précis of the rest of it and sent it out and only one publisher recognized it.

RB: That does speak to the crapshoot nature of the enterprise.

JH: Yeah, somewhat. Persist, though, and it will happen.

RB: There is so much subjectivity. I know in a simple kind of banal way that I have reread things and wondered what I was thinking the first or second time. It’s as if I hadn’t read it before—like a new work.

JH: Uh huh, that’s the chaotic aspect I’ve always enjoyed. That’s—the void isn’t empty. [both laugh] I like that. I tell young writers, “You know, part of being a writer is to know how this works. And rather than you trying to throw yourself in my lap, why don’t you go, save your coin and go to New York and live in the Bronx cheaply and find out how it works.” I had that advantage when we lived in Boston, in the ‘60s, the only job I could get was as a salesman for a book wholesaler. I just drove around and talked to bookstores and public libraries and school librarians. And that was a very healthy thing to see in the warehouse how this happens. Because most writers have totally unrealistic concepts of how publishing works. Sometimes in literary biography you forget that the publisher isn’t the main thing. They like to think they are—when you are in New York and you see these people, it’s amazing. But, there are good and bad ones, historically, obviously. It’s important for writers to know that just like a farmer growing 80 acres of something and then not knowing what can be done with it, “How am I going to get rid of my chickens, my milk?” On and on.

RB: Isn’t what all these writing programs are about?

JH: Yes, but they are singularly unrealistic.

RB: There are people who complain that they are more about the vocational aspects of writing than the writing.

JH: I’m not that familiar with them but I do see—I mean, are there 25,000 MFA manuscripts wandering around out there? We have really made the MFA, as I have pointed out before, almost part of the civil service. We started with two really good one ones, Iowa and Stanford, you know, Stegner’s program.

RB: Didn’t Montana have a good program early on?

JH: Yeah, but now suddenly—you know, universities are notoriously market oriented, too. So they all want, if it works, a department like that. The trouble is there’s not enough appropriate staff to go round. I am for a novelist, for a poet, well read. I really keep up. I see whole staffs that I don’t know the work of any of them. And I wonder where they came from. There is this problem of doubting that it can be taught. I only taught in that great period at Stonybrook. And I didn’t teach writing. I taught modern poetics. I have never been able to find the sheet of paper but I had this idea of how to construct a good MFA program. OK, at that time in the ‘60s, there was Ben DeMott and R.V. Cassill and we had a meeting in New York trying to figure out how we could get universities to hire writers [laughs]—because they needed jobs. OK, it got out of control. I had the idea—you meet up for a month in a location, right? You have your journal and then you get to the main 300 books in the modernist tradition. Or whatever. Then the student spends a year in the country, preferably at menial labor. Comes back for a month. Then he spends a year in the city and comes back for a month and then the end of it the third year, several months with the teachers, just to make sure it isn’t one of those grade school-high school-college MFAs. Because that’s only a narrow experience. You know how [Ezra] Pound talked about the grave danger of starting from too narrow a base. Then you really tip over very easily. It’s like the one-book wonder. What you are doing, where are you going to go?

RB: It’s all interior and experientially deprived. And ultimately, of limited interest.

JH: Not to me. It’s hard to be programmatic about it but I question—in fact it’s insignificant that I’m questioning the value of it because it’s already there. Another one of these improbable boondoggles. It caused a revolution in the rise in expectations. Which is totally—

RB: It does provide a fair number of writers sinecures. And, of course, the conventional wisdom is that it also, at the very least, creates a new generation of decent readers.

JH: That’s the best point that’s the solidest point of all of them. I think McGuane pointed out to me once because he had a solid base to his economic thinking—

RB: In contradistinction to you?

JH: Yeah, he’s smart that way. He pointed out to me that—we’re still whining about it—“Isn’t strange that a person can get a lifetime-guaranteed position on the basis of a slender volume of poems?” Yeah, that’s an extraordinary break, if they got in early enough. Now, it’s a question of competition. I was always shocked at the offers I would get. Even when I felt totally anonymous, still in my 30s and 40s. They would make me these incredible offers. And I would always answer that somebody has to stay on the outside.

RB: [laughs]

JH: I would also answer, “Are you sure, that much money?” It’s like Gary Snyder said when I once went out and spent a week with him a few years back, he says, “I always turned down this thing at [University of California at] Davis, that regents’ professor[ship].” He could have gotten into any of the California universities. He said, “It never occurred to me to ask how much they were paying.” [laughs]

RB: How pure can you be?

JH: It wouldn’t have occurred to him. He is decidedly non-venal.



RB: One striking thing about True North is that it is uncommon to make a dog a character in a novel.

JH: Who, Carla? Well, they are so specifically characters in our lives. Why not?

RB: Right, why not? So why don’t more writers include animal companions as characters?

JH: I used to get criticized for putting food in novels. These are people ignorant of the novel tradition. It was always in French and English fiction. But a lot of us are still puritanical, still sort of ashamed they have to fill up every day. It’s like food isn’t serious. And a faculty meeting is? [Both laugh] What gays used to say, “Puhlease!”

RB: Given how many people love and keep dogs it would seem natural that more dogs would appear in fiction as part of the lives and families of the characters.

JH: That didn’t occur to me but when I was doing it, it seemed natural. I grew up in a very odd way because my father was an agronomist and he needed to think—and I grew up thinking that everybody had—that animals were our fellow creatures. I don’t consider myself more important than a crow. I never have. How could I possibly be? Or a dog. We are all in this together. So I am not a victim of the French Enlightenment.

RB: [laughs heartily]

JH: There are some advantages to a peasant background.

RB: So in an odd way, this is not an enlightened view?

JH: So they would say, intellectually. I remember when I was 19 and reading Gogol or Isaac Singer because that meant a great deal to me—because even though they are foreign stories, they were more the kind of thing I grew up around. Emotionally vigorous family. Talking out loud.

RB: Chaotic.

JH: Chaotic and moody. So it was odd—it was more familiar to me.

RB: I find it odd but understandable that so many people treat their animal companions as children, as almost humans.

JH: Yeah, that’s true. That happens. People, there’s no end to the craziness of people, so I’m not upset by that when I see it.

RB: I’m bothered that they are not seeing, in this case, dogs on their own terms.

JH: Well, quite often that’s true. They expect a dog to be something for them that a dog can’t be. Whether it’s a surrogate child or what?

RB: I like Ed Hoagland’s observation that instead of expecting dogs to be more human, we ought to try to be more like dogs.

JH: That’s wonderful. That old Cheyenne thing, Lakota too, called Heyoka, a spiritual renewal. Following your dog around all day and behaving totally like the dog. If the dog lays down, you lay down. That lovely calming sense—my Lab always understood, my other dogs haven’t to the extent that my Lab did, when I was depressed she would try to get me off my cot in my cabin and get me to go do something. “Just do something. Just don’t lay there, you schmeil.” [laughs] “Schmuck.”

RB: So what happens when you write a sad scene for an animal? Is it hard for you to do?

JH: Oh yes. That’s an irony. People have asked a number of times about Carla. I was torn. Isn’t it interesting, you create a dog out of air, right? And then when she dies you break into tears. That’s natural. There is a specious fear of that kind of sentimentality—but it’s in all good literature. And then the idea of being nifty and cool and ignoring the true emotional content of your life. Why would anyone want to read about that? That kind of cold—

RB: Why would one?

JH: I don’t.

RB: I’ve been watching this excellent TV series from England called Cracker. Robbie Coltrane plays a forensic psychiatrist working for the police, who smokes, drinks and gambles, to excess.

JH: Oh, yeah. He’s awfully good. I adore that guy. He’s just so on the money.

RB: Yes, he is. So there is a scene where his mother has just died and he is sitting with his wife, crying. And he says there is something delicious about this, meaning that this grief that he is feeling is a rare real emotion that he can savor and experience as a dog.

JH: I once wrote a poem—I don’t know if I even published it—about how I wanted to throw my own self around and have some real emotions. Although people tend to avoid them, these are always the harshest emotions. It’s like face-to-face, this is the context. We’ve had a lot of friends die recently. I was going to read this poem last night about my shrinking address book. My wife’s best friend died within three days of my brother. How can this be? Well, it’s the end of everybody’s story. As they say the last track you leave, as a mammal is your skull.

RB: It seems we are trained to avoid the emotional—

JH: No question. It’s a part of the culture. I think it’s the economic basis of a lot of our lives. It’s that idea that I imply, I don’t preach in True North, but one of the aspects of it is how the powers that be, the old logging and mining companies, always encourage these people to mythologize their lives. Paul Bunyan! It’s marvelous how they do that. Not that it is just a sucker’s shot; everybody tries to mythologize their efforts. But it’s actually encouraged. It’s that funny thing, the French, they go berserk that we will only take 10 days for vacation. Why? How can you get ahead?

RB: The Italians and the Germans, too?

JH: Even the Germans demand a month or five weeks to walk around in leather shorts or however we think they do it.

RB: What a shell game.

JH: It is in the sense that it ignores quality of life and the inevitable end of life. There’s a story that Catholic priest told me. The Italian dies. The family is talking about the great meals they had together. The French dies. They talk about the great wines they drank. The American dies and the family asks, “Did they leave enough money or do they have enough money, money, money?” But the last 25 years in America have been characterized by imponderable greed. You know, greed, greed, greed. The newspapers made heroes in the dot-com days—there is this guy suddenly worth five million dollars sitting in an empty mansion eating an American cheese sandwich. And they have to have personal shoppers because they don’t know how to buy toilet paper or something like that. Craziness, all that.

RB: I admire your interest in driving around the United States. There is one view that one can develop of a crassly materialistic eating and shopping culture and then there seems to be another rarely seen, that pictures people trying to live reasonable, healthy, full lives.

JH: That’s true. That’s one reason why I have to be a writer. I don’t find anything perceptually accurate or agreeable or sensical about the media view of American culture. The fact is, the media never gets off the interstate unless there’s a major explosion. That’s why I said before, for the MFA program, a year in the country, a year in the city, to get familiarity with the human landscape. You’re not going to get it in a university community.

RB: He may be a neighbor of yours in Montana, but Alston Chase wrote a book about Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber and he excoriates the media for getting everything about Kaczynski wrong.

JH: I know Alston. It’s also interesting that 99 percent of what Ted Kaczynski said made sense.

RB: [laughs]



Harrison, & Rosie by Robert Birnbaum

JH: Alston points that out. And it’s sort of, “Uh oh.” It was the killing people that just didn’t work, amongst other things. Historically, nothing is surprising. Some professor—I think up in Connecticut [Wesleyan University] a guy named [Richard] Slotkin, he writes that this violence is the tradition since the inception of America. Just like logging. We want to cut down trees, cut down the buffalo, cut down everything as fast and completely as possible. We have always been this way.

RB: I am currently toying with the notion that there is not one but two or three Americas. It may be a natural inclination to try to see this country as a unity.

JH: No, I think there are at least seven I can identify. That kind of regionality. And again, it causes xenophobia. The unwillingness of people in one part of the country to want to understand people in any sympathetic way, other people. I think it was McGuane that pointed out the assumption in the North that every white Southerner was ex posto facto a racist. I remember reading in Oxford, Mississippi; one thing nice was there were black people in the audience. You don’t see that in the North. Or rarely. I see more genuine sociability between the races in Mississippi than I see in Michigan. No question.

RB: It hasn’t changed much, has it. I asked Reynolds Price about what defined Southern culture—trying to get a definition of Southern writing—he said it was the close proximity and familiarity to and with black people.

JH: Yup. Reynolds is a marvelous man. I finally met him a few years ago. I have always enjoyed his work and some of his nonfiction is particularly trenchant. But, that’s true.

RB: There is of course the caricature of the Gothic Southern family, inbred with various bizarre characters and histories.

JH: I got a strange letter from Mississippi in regard to True North. The person said, “I didn’t know a Gothic novel could be written about the North.” [both laugh] “Oh, Dad, you’re such a pill.”

RB: You mentioned last night that you had thought of writing this novel 17 years ago. So what intervened? Why didn’t you start then?

JH: Well, just the accumulation. I brooded about it a long time. And then I brood about different things and usually I have quite a lead time about anything I write. Since I am writing a novella now called Republican Wives, which is fun, right?

RB: Sure.

JH: And, ah, I have been thinking about writing this for about a decade. But then a certain part of your brain is always accumulating the touches, the materials. Of course, you make squiggles in your journals and then, finally, you’re ready.

RB: So, as you’ve said, you write it when you can’t not write it?

JH: Yeah, that’s my rule of thumb.

RB: Does it have the same [working] title all along? True North was always True North?

JH: No, no. That’s more recent. I do have trouble with titles.

RB: Might you have saddled this book with a certain gravity because it has the word ‘true’ in it? A powerful word.

JH: Oh no, I don’t mind being adventuresome that way. I’m going to write a total laborite view of the same region. Which was going to be fun, the Indian-Finn-Cornish-Italian-miner view of it, because I even know that world better, I’ve known a lot of these kind of people that are in True North and they are interesting to me—for obvious reasons.

RB: Has it been unsettling to move from Upper Peninsula Michigan to Montana?

JH: Not at all because I think we have gone to Montana every year since ‘68 except one year. Tom [McGuane] and I kept in touch. Our family vacation was to go to Montana, to go fishing, and my wife’s friends are out there.

RB: Your daughter Jamie is out there also.

JH: See, that’s the whole thing. Your kids inevitably want to move where they had their vacations when they were younger. So both daughters have been living in Montana for a long time. My wife in this case has stuck with it—she wanted to move to Montana, it was no big deal to me. I can write anywhere. I hated to sell my cabin. I’ve had it 25 years and it meant so much to me. It was a retreat, you know? But it was too far to drive and I am getting older and I only went there three times last year and it involved 15 days of driving. These distances; you can barely drive across Montana in a day.

RB: You say you can write anywhere but might there be a different feeling whereever you might be—in the center of the country you are not near the concentration of microwaves and such—doesn’t Montana feel different?

JH: Well, yeah. I was thinking last year in—not to overplay this hand but it’s interesting. But I was reading a galley by a guy named Mark Spragg coming out by Knopf, an intriguing book. And I was wondering if I agreed with the character who had been injured by a grizzly bear. OK, then I thought, “What am I thinking about?” Last year there were two grizzly attacks on humans within 15 minutes of our home, and last winter a pack of wolves killed 28 sheep within view of our bedroom window. Plus my dog got blinded by a rattlesnake in the yard.

RB: How’d that happen?

JH: She’s an English setter and she obviously pointed and the snake got her twice in the face. It blinded her and deafened her. She’s fine [now] but she’s a little wary about snakes.

RB: How does she move about?

JH: She had a hard time for about four or five months. She is pretty much completely recovered. There is a guy named Harry Greene at Cornell, a fantastic authority on snakes and snake venom—rattlers in particular. He has a beautiful book out about the poisonous snakes of the world. Very complicated poisons; the contents of rattlesnake poison are very involved, toxic substances. A brain surgeon friend of mine in Nebraska, Cleve Tremble, got one in the arm and said it was four or five months before he really felt good again.

RB: The toxins linger in the body that long?

JH: Yeah, your system has really been walloped. I was just in the Yucatan and I met three different people who had to lop off minor parts of their bodies—

RB: [laughs] Minor parts?

JH: After being nicked by a fer-de-lance

RB: By what?

JH: A fer-de-lance, a venomous snake. One had been hit in the foot and chopped it off immediately because if you don’t chop it off you die.

So the Mayans knew of this. One guy had his finger in formaldehyde, he wanted to keep it for sentimental reasons. It’s not that everything is threatening, but it’s a dangerous kind of existence. I’m never frightened in that kind of country. I have been, occasionally, in cities.

RB: What are you afraid of in cities?

JH: Well, guns. In Arizona, it’s curious. You can carry a gun if you wish. In Montana, too. I don’t know anybody that does. That’s an odd thing. Where you can do it, they might have one in their [truck’s] rifle rack. Everybody has a gun in their car in Detroit. Or a lot of people do.

If you want to give Stephen King the lifetime award or whatever it is, go ahead. It doesn’t make any difference to me. But that changes the nature of what you are. They lost their literary credibility about 20 years ago when they took it away from the literary people and gave it to the industry. Remember when that happened? RB: On trips to Israel it was something to be in bars and cafes and see people who looked like teenagers with pistols strapped to their ankles or in their pants waist bands.

JH: I definitely would there, too. I did an interview with a Lebanese paper, and I just assumed they were Muslims, but no. Some of those countries, they are everything. Like Coptic Christians in Egypt. It’s a not very clear picture. This American writer who got severely wounded in Lebanon as a journalist, Phil Caputo, this old friend of mine. And he sat in a bar with quite a few of us and explained the political and religious structure of the Middle East. It stupefied people—we wanted to think it was cleaner.

RB: I think that reading Lawrence Durrell gives a clear picture of how unclear or complicated it is.

JH: Yeah, I love Durrell. One of the great underrated works of our time, The Alexandria Quartet. But who’s doing the rating? Does it matter?

RB: Who is doing the rating? The New York Times.

JH: Probably. I said once, and Bill [William] Kennedy quoted me on it, “The people who were condescending to Steinbeck didn’t even write The Grapes of Goofy.” [both laugh] Give me a break.

RB: There is a pervasive fear that literature is always being threatened and somehow the institutions that should be working to preserve or protect it, aren’t doing that. I don’t see why literary culture rise or falls on what the Times or any other journalists do. Really, what’s the problem?

JH: I don’t think there is one. I said that in my memoir. There are some who think they are guardians. They are not inside themselves but they are still at the gate. I’m not sure what that impulse is. They are enumerators. The Casey Kasems of the critical fraternity. They always a have top 40 or top 20.

RB: I don’t mind although I don’t read them.

JH: [laughs]

RB: James Wood or—

JH: But see, Wood is a very bright man. However you think about him, he is incapable of being boring, critically. I don’ t mind contention.

RB: I just don’t find it useful to talk or speculate about who is going to be read in 50 or 100 years.

JH: Well, you can’t .

RB: [laughs] People do.

JH: It’s so funny, in that 50th anniversary edition of the Paris Review that I wrote a little piece in—Donald Hall has a preposterous piece [Death as a Career Move] in there. He is talking about reputation and what happens to people. Like [Archibald] MacLeish from over at Harvard and whether the Pulitzer Prize [McLeish won three] is a pauper’s grave? Something like that.

RB: [laughs]

JH: You wonder what consensus is. Here I am an old man and only once have I ever been asked to be on a [Pulitzer or any] jury.

RB: Really?

JH: Yeah. Where are they getting the jurors except from New York—that seems to be closer—or something. But that seems odd. I’m not that anonymous. So in any prize situation I always want to know who the jurors are. Because you can’t know the validity. If you want to give Stephen King the lifetime award or whatever it is, go ahead. It doesn’t make any difference to me. But that changes the nature of what you are. They lost their literary credibility about 20 years ago when they took it away from the literary people and gave it to the industry. Remember when that happened?

RB: The first winner of the National Book Award was Nelson Algren and I don’t know that many people remember him.

JH: Well, I think some people do. I’ve heard young writers talking about him. You have to be careful about that, too. Because you are more likely to hear them talking about Algren in Missouri or the state of Washington than in New York. Where the thing you hear most of in New York is, “I don’t have time to read.”

RB: [laughs] You were grievously hurt by that—you mention it in Off to the Side.

JH: It’s funny.

RB: Jim Shepard told me that one of his students remarked he was reading a story Shepard had in Esquire but had not yet finished it. Shepard was incredulous, since it was a three-page story.

JH: This is interesting. You can say, “What is it that you do in place of reading? Drink Spritzers?” I don’t know. Does anyone have time to read? I do. And I write a lot. It’s a tonic to find real readers because they just read massively.

RB: You seem to be the only person who publishes novellas.

JH: When I wrote my first book of novellas, that was the only one I knew of. So people would say, “What’s a novella?”

RB: So, what’s a novella?

JH: I just say that old Hoffmanstal-Isak Dinesen thing: A very long story, about a hundred pages. Short things are short all over and long things are long all over.

RB: Do you feel like what you write now should be more important?

JH: That’s not up to me.





An Appraisal: Taking Big Bites our of Jim Harrison’s  Voracious Life by Dwight Garner

Interview with Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison on Lakota

Jim Harrison, 1937–2016 Terry McDonell remembers Jim Harrison

Postscript: Jim Harrison, 1937-2016 by Thomas McGuane




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