Deuces that Beat a Full House

27 Apr

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

AUTUMN SERENADE

JOHNY HARTMANN & JOHN COLTRANE

BODY & SOUL

TONY BENNETT & AMY WINEHOSE

SKATING IN CENTRAL PARK

BILL EVANS & JIM HALL

STORMY WEATHER

CHARLES MINGUS & ERIC DOLPHY

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

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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

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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

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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.”

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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].

 

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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.

 

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*Micheal Lewis

**World Baseball Classic

RIP Jim Harrison

27 Mar

 

 

 

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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.

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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

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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

 

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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?

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

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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]

 

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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.

 

 

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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

 

 

“I Am the Son of My Son ” Photos by Robert Birnbaum

25 Mar

| (originally published January 11, 2001 at Identitytheory.com)

My lifelong fascination with Cuba took a significant turn after my last voyage there in the Spring of 1997. Influenced in an indeterminate way by some delicious 7 year Havana Club anejo rum—as best as his mother and I have determined—our three year old son Cuba was conceived on that night of my return. That’s part of the reason we named him Cuba.

My interest in Cuba stems from my first sight of Fidel Castro and his bearded cohort during the early and triumphant moments of the Cuban revolution. These images coupled with my then recent introduction to Afro/Cuban/Latin Jazz seems to have sparked an interest that has stayed with me through the ensuing years.

There is something that I am certain a lot of people find obvious that has only recently become obvious to me. There is magic to be found in this life—sometimes it even finds you—and there is an ineffable benefit to that. Both Cuba the place and Cuba my boy have given me a taste for evidence of things not seen—as the revered Cuban poet once observed, “I am the son of my son.”

Lots of people think pictures speak for themselves. I don’t. I think they usually need a little help. The Cuba fotos were taken during two brief visits in the ’90s, most in Havana and some out in the country side. As the fotographer Marc Riboud once remarked, “The tourist sees what he wants to see.” And so, these are images of my Cuba.

57 Chevrolet

 

57chevrolet
Beisbol

 

beisbol
Billboard III

 

billboard3
Ceiling Detail

 

 

ceiling
Che Iconography I

 

 

Che Iconography
Che Iconography II

 

Che Iconography III
Che Iconography III
Che Iconography IV
Chinese Barrio
Corner Building
Cuban Boxing Crowd
Cuban in Striped Shirt
Cuban Waitress
Cuban Worker Resting
Cubana in Striped Blouse
Downtown Smalltown
Fidel Poster
Havana Club Billboard

 

Havana Club Billboard
Havana from the Rooftop I
Havana from the Rooftop II
Havana from the Rooftop III
Havana from the Rooftop IV
Instruments without Players
Kid Chocolate Boxing Stadium
Man w. Accordian

 

Man w Accordian
Man Waiting
Models
More Small Town
Musicians
Ordinary Scene
Ornate Facade
Pepsodent Billboard
Prado
Rickshaw Driver
Rickshaw Driver II
Rickshaws on the Malecon
Rural Cuba Small Town
Side Street
Singer
Small Town Cuba
Street Scene
Two Guys Sitting
Tourist Police
Urban Decay
Cuba Maxwell Birnbaum (circa 2002)

 

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Cuba Maxwell Birnbaum (circa 2016)

 

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SI CUBA, SEE CUBA

23 Mar

 

 

Tampa Bay Rays vs Cuban National Team, Estadio latinoamericano, Havana, March 2016

Tampa Bay Rays vs Cuban National Team, Estadio latinoamericano, Havana, March 2016

Does it seem like much of a stretch to envision that millions of our fellow north americans are  mentally exhausted and not a little trepidatious as the relentless information shit stream saturates our waking moments with the details and detritus of Election 2016. Add the vexation of escalating references to a demagogue who was thought to be a joke (until he wasn’t) may yet approach unnerving levels of hysteria. Thus, the visit of the President of the United States to the sovereign nation of Cuba may provide a welcome distraction from our own endlessly echoing travails .

Lets put aside * the historiographic quagmire that currently accounts for  US- Cuban relations since Thomas Jefferson’s presidency (no one who follows the imperial foreign policy of this most exceptional of all nations should be surprised that Cuba has long been a object of lust  to  US mandarins). This largest of the Greater Antilles island nations has also long been a provisioner of a various sybaritic pleasures (coffee, cigars, rum baseball **) as well as cultural riches (Jose Marti, Alejo Carpentier, Kid Chocolate,Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Ernesto Lecuono,  Minnie Minoso,Celia Cruz, Beny More, Alicia Alonzo, José Raúl Capablanca (y Graupera) and a long list of great piano players).And as much as any place in the known world ,Cuba is a disproportionately photogenic place. The substantial list of photographers who have done  work in Cuba and the fine monographs that have been published are testimony to that circumstance—David Alan Harvey, Robert Polidori,Mariette Pathy Allen, Micheal Eastman, E Wright Ledbetter to name but a few.

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Now comes a new tome by Anna Mia Davidson, Cuba, Black and White, which, as  is indicated by the title ,presents Cuba linda in that most evocative of pallets.

I am aware of a couple of monographs  that present Cuba in this way —sixty of the images Walker Evans shot in 1933  for American journalistCarleton Beals ‘s The Crime of Cuba [ as had long been the case Cuba was in the thrall of another corrupt and cruel dictator) have been republished under the title Cuba, most recently with a vivid and illuminating introductory essay by poet and man of letters Andrei Codrescu.

images

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Cuban born musician/composer Clemente Ruiz  created a jumpin’ video of Evans’s images

 

 

And Burt Glinn’ S El Momento Revolutionario that catalogues the early days of the Triumph.

 

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As the publishers note asserts this book

 

presents a unique collection of never-before-seen photographs by veteran Magnum photographer Burt Glinn, recording Fidel Castro’s historic entry into Havana. In the introductory memoir, Glinn describes the combination of chutzpah and journalistic prescience that led him to leave a New York party and hop a plane to Havana on New Year’s Eve, 1959. The photographs he returned with—of Fidel thronged by his countrymen and women as he stopped to encourage them along the road to Havana, of troops embracing, and of fierce men and women alike taking up arms in the streets—are full of the revolutionary fervor and idealistic anticipation that characterized that moment in Cuban history.

At the age of 25 Anna Mia Davidson  visited Cuba for the first time in 1999

 

determined to capture her personal vision of this isolated Carribean island nation with her camera. At this time Cuba was just beginning to recover from the “Special Period,” the economic crisis that occurred after 1989 when Russia withdrew its financial support after nearly four decades. On further travels during the following eight years, Davidson portrayed daily life in the cities, villages and the countryside in an attempt to depict her sense of Cuba’s “soul.” Her black-and-white photographs reflect the resilience, ingenuity and spirit of the Cuban people during the embargo against them. It was also here that Davidson came into contact with traditional forms of sustainable farming—a passion that has since influenced her life and work.

See photographs from Cuba,Black And White here

And an interview with MS Davidson here

 

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*an issue I am happy to take up in my annual celebration  of the Triumphant Cuban Revolution with  a bibliographical review of Cuban related books and media.

** http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2016/03/21/cuba-the-u-s-and-baseball-a-long-if-interrupted-romance/

Garth Hallberg: Author on Fire

17 Feb

 

Garth Risk Hallberg’s auspicious debut novel, City on Fire in spite of its heft (or perhaps because of it) was  the  it novel, buzz tome of  the end of 2015. Its sprawling multi-character narrative set in New York City in the singular bicentennial year of 1976 elicited effusive commentary and comparisons  to major literary works from all quarters of the marginal community that attends to literary fiction. After enjoyably immersing myself in Hallberg’s story ( which very much resembled  the au currant activity of video bingeing) I arranged to meet the author for a conversation about his opus and the life he had led that brought him to the writing of it.

So, on a pleasant early Winter afternoon in Cambridge ,we sat and chatted about Hallberg’s life, his childhood in small town North Carolina, his pathway to a life of writing,the power of New York City and the herky-jerky chronology attached to completing his 900 page novel. We also talked about Oliver Nelson’s Stolen Moments, Rushdie’s fatwa, Lou Reed, casting the movie adaptation of City on Fire and his parenting of his two young children.

 

 

 

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

City on Fire by   Garth Risk Hallberg

 

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Robert Birnbaum: Okay, I’ve got to ask.

Garth Hallberg: The middle name?

Robert Birnbaum: Yes.

Garth Hallberg: I think the first short story I ever published was without the middle name, and I got an email from my sister. I think this was 2003 and she wrote, “Do you know about the other Garth Hallberg? Garth R.Hallberg.”Everyone has this doppelganger and mine also happens to also have written books and we share a middle initial. My middle name is Risk which is a division of the name Buchanan in Scotland. My grandmother was a Risk, her father was a Risk. My sister and I and my kids, we recycle the dead maiden names in the family and keep them alive as middle names.

Robert Birnbaum: What were you thinking when you published a nearly thousand-page book.

Garth Hallberg: What was I thinking when I wrote a 900-page novel? Very little thought went into publishing a 900-page novel.

Robert Birnbaum: At what length was it submitted?

Garth Hallberg: The same length it is now.

Robert Birnbaum:  What was the length of the first draft?

Garth Hallberg: The first draft—I think I cut it down. It’s hard to know because I wrote it longhand. I think that the first draft was probably—it’s easier to think about in words, the first draft was probably something like 420,000 words and now it’s 330,000 words or thereabouts.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s about 25% less.

Garth Hallberg: I think I cut 90,000 out of 400,000. One of the early things that I remember learning or adjusting to about this project in particular is I just wanted to put everything on the page and then cut back. Someone, I don’t remember who had said to me at some point, a talking shop kind of thing—” Oh it’s always better to put it on the page and throw it away than to finish a project and realize you still need to come up with the 50% of it that’s missing.”

Robert Birnbaum: Some writers also suggest that as just a more fluid way of writing.

Garth Hallberg:  I used to teach elementary school and when we did brainstorming with the kids, we did it in a technical way. We were like, you’ve got to separate out the generating and the evaluating part. That’s artificial when you’re talking about writing because you’re always evaluating and listening on some level,but I liked the idea of saying yes to things before I said no. There’s a lot of stuff in there that I care about and it’s exciting to me as a reader that, if my primary consideration in moving the pencil across the page was”Should I say no to this?, should I say no to this?  should I say no to this?”,[ some things ]never would have eventuated

Robert Birnbaum:  Is it a non-creative decision to consider the length of your narrative, considering the length of your story? Is it important to consider that as writer?

Garth Hallberg: Consideration makes it sound very deliberative. And this may be mystical of me but I tend to think the projects sort of tell you what they want. In many cases for me, they tell me  early on. I can’t say that I’m one of those people who has ever had a short story that got out of hand and turned into a novel or vice versa. It may be partly just how I think. I tend to have some …almost like a mild geometric synesthesia or something where I tend to see—even when I’m reading someone else’s work, I tend to see it as a 3D cityscape or almost like a landscape or something. I don’t know, you just kind of know. I feel like you just know the size of the map. Very much kind of baked into the initial inspiration was that this has the scope of Bleak House, has all of these characters.

Robert Birnbaum: So in  simple terms, it’s long. It’s big. It’s a big story. What did you start with, ten characters? A period in time that you thought you could embellish or explain by X number of characters?

Garth Hallberg: I started with a singularity in which: all of those things. There were eight characters (but eventually a couple of them turned out to be more than one character kind of fused together), and several of the major plot elements, and the milieu and the settings and scenes and specific images that I knew were in there and the time and the music and the imagery and the vibe and a lot of the architecture arrived fused, in the space of about 45 seconds.

Robert Birnbaum: How old were you in 1976?

Garth Hallberg: I was negative two. I was pre-human.

Robert Birnbaum: (laughs) When do you think you became conscious of things around you —when you were seven, eight, nine?

Garth Hallberg: This is interesting to me. My kids are three and five. I have carried through my entire life the assumption… I remember saying to my wife, now he’s two or three, we’re on the record now, essentially. I assume that people — it reminds of a great kids book set here in Boston, Lois Lowry’s All About Sam. It’s for kids but it shares some weird affinities with [James]Joyce. (The neighbor’s name in [the book] is Gertrude Stein}. She writes about the kids coming to consciousness just like Joyce does. It seems in her rendering to be happening when he’s two or three. I just assumed that’s how it was and maybe that is how it is but I recently read something in the newspaper—which you can’t trust but it was like—most people’s memories start closer to five or six. I do remember Live Aid. Live Aid was ’84, ’83, ’82?

Robert Birnbaum: 1985—Bob Geldoff’s charity cause. [1]

Garth Hallberg: I remember the vibe of the first Reagan administration. I have no memory, no specifically Carter -era memories.

Robert Birnbaum: How much did the Bicentennial year resonate  for people?

Garth Hallberg: I think the whole thing of the ’70s ,which it’s really impossible for me to think about the feeling of the ’70s without  attaching them to my understanding of what was going on in the ’60s. The reverberations of that, I think were very, very long. Now you look back and you can see the Reagan era as its own discrete historical thing. What I remember from my parents and people in the neighborhood, most of them were Reagan voters (though some of them were not.)

 

Garth Risk Hallberg [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Garth Risk Hallberg [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Birnbaum: Where did you grow up?

Garth Hallberg: In a little town in eastern North Carolina called Greenville.

Robert Birnbaum: You don’t have an accent at all.

Garth Hallberg: I’ve somehow scrubbed it. My Dad is from Ohio.

Robert Birnbaum: He has a southern accent?

Garth Hallberg: No, no. He had a kind of placeless —like David Letterman is from Indiana, but that  accent they train broadcasters to have, the middle American thing which sounds like what we register as accentless. My mother is from New Orleans and she has a certain New Orleans accent. My sister has an accent.

Robert Birnbaum: Actually, my recollection of people I know from North Carolina, it’s certainly a mild drawl.

Garth Hallberg: Not where I grew up.

Robert Birnbaum: Where was Greenville, eastern or western Carolina?

Garth Hallberg: Eastern. (imitates a radio commercial in an unmild drawl)”Here at Riverside Chrysler-Plymouth Dodge, we will make buying a new or used car, truck, or van so eee-zy.”

Robert Birnbaum: Did you like living in Greenville?

Garth Hallberg: That’s an interesting question.(long pause)

Robert Birnbaum: You don’t know?

Garth Hallberg: No.  You can have a relationship and it’s a good relationship and it breaks up—some people want to be friends afterwards. I’m not one of those people ,so it may have a lot to do with me. I can say about the town that, especially in the early 80’s, that the emphasis was on traditional rhythms of life and on living by tradition. I don’t necessarily mean antebellum tradition but  like Eisenhower era tradition.

Robert Birnbaum: Family, local organization and community participation?

Garth Hallberg: Yeah, some of that. When I go around now … it’s like I was down in New Orleans and I had forgotten that everything is closed on a Sunday. Places are open for brunch but it’s like the seventh day. That has its appeal. Nothing closes in New York,ever

Robert Birnbaum: A seventh day has its appeal.

Garth Hallberg: I don’t fully understand why and I assume the blame and responsibility for myself but I felt very much like a fish out of water, starting at about five or six,  pretty early. There was something about— I stuck out in certain ways that I couldn’t control.

Robert Birnbaum: Were you physically different? Were you taller, shorter, misshappen?

Garth Hallberg: I was tall.

Robert Birnbaum: Gawky, lanky?

Garth Hallberg: I was gawky, I was expressive, which is not … I think I was expressive, I assume I was expressive.

Robert Birnbaum: Could you read by then?

Garth Hallberg: I could, I read a lot. It’s kind of a chicken and egg problem … I loved it so much that the reading really had to be the egg. I loved it.

Robert Birnbaum: How did you come to start … Five is an early age to read—not to know how but to actively read.

Garth Hallberg: I had lied to my babysitter.  She asked me if I could read yet and I said that I could. She said,”Oh yeah?” Because she had been babysitting enough to know. She was a student of my dad’s and she had graduated and she’d come back for a party in the Fall or something. She hadn’t seen me in a few months. She called my bluff and I ran upstairs and I got the Cat In The Hat which was the book that I was into at that point. My memory is that in attempting to demonstrate to her that I could read because I had essentially committed it to memory, I realized that I could. Then it was sort of off to the races at that point.

Robert Birnbaum: You haven’t said this but I’m surmising that because of your interest in reading somehow seems to translate storytelling or imagination or something and expressiveness. That was what set you apart, that you actually maybe had an active inner life for a five and six-year-old.

Garth Hallberg: I don’t know.  I think five and six-year-olds just tend to have an active inner life. One thing I can say from observing my own kids is that there are certain habits, you know rhythms that kids get into, that  encourage that or stoke it. And there are others that seem to diminish it. My five-year-old tends to be the kid who sort of … I’m trying to remember, I heard him say something amazing this morning. He turns to his mother and says,” Let’s play symphony.” And he has a kazoo. He’s sort of naming the scenario, improv all the time. We don’t have that much else for them to do. I haven’t got them signed up for a lot of other stuff, maybe they’re just bored.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m going to assume no video games?

Garth Hallberg: Yeah, there’s no video games.

Robert Birnbaum: Television?

Garth Hallberg: They might watch 45 minutes of TV while I’m cooking dinner at night. They’re two boys so they’ll destroy the house otherwise.

Robert Birnbaum: Are they physically active?

Garth Hallberg: Oh yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Jocks?

Garth Hallberg: My younger one is potentially a jock but they’re sort of nonspecific. Wrestling, climbing, tumbling.

Robert Birnbaum: One is five and one is?

Garth Hallberg: Three.

Robert Birnbaum: Now you have  kids and  you’re, not directly comparing,  but you’re trying to match their experience with your own?

Garth Hallberg: Remember, I taught too so I’m very reluctant … I get really annoyed when I hear people get too— You know, parents get too caught up in deciding whether their kids are smart or not. If you’ve ever taught, I taught second and third grade. In second grade, especially, you see it, because the hive mind hasn’t started to beat it out of anyone—nNo one is holding back at that point, the scrum hasn’t formed itself yet. You realize they are all incredibly smart, but it will manifest itself in certain ways. They cannot all do math. They won’t all read at the same rate but they are all radiantly bright. You can see the kid’s eyes just are mirrors. I look at my son and his classmates and each of these kids has some brilliance in him or her. It’s not a line, I really got that from teaching. I’d sit there at parent/teacher conferences and I would just want to say, “Relax, listen to what your kid is interested in, that’s a signal.”

Robert Birnbaum: That’s so contrary to the current way we go about evaluating kids. The idea that you actually pay attention to the individual and allow them the room to flourish, in whatever way that they flourish. Finally, there’s seems to be a blow back against all this testing, which is what ends up forcing kids into little containers.

Garth Hallberg: I can tell you I stuck out in school in certain ways. I read a lot. Where I grew up where— I guess you would say now jargonistically— that was  not  coded as a particularly masculine thing to do. But it may in fact have been more my inner hippie that I was born as ,which I’m feeding you now, like: Follow the individual and let him or her flourish! I was just born with that. I don’t know where it comes from and that stuck out, probably.

Robert Birnbaum: What were your activities in high school? Were you in the chess club?

Garth Hallberg: I played varsity soccer.

Robert Birnbaum: Did you like it?

Garth Hallberg: Yeah, I liked it fine. It was a good outlet for aggression. I did not take coaching well and I wasn’t particularly good. I started but I wasn’t …

Robert Birnbaum: You were good enough.

Garth Hallberg: I was like the eleventh best person on the field, maybe sometimes the tenth but it wasn’t about that to me. Happily, because if it was I would have been miserable. And I played violin.

Robert Birnbaum: Were there cliques in your high school?

Garth Hallberg: In seventh grade, in sixth grade— that was the year after elementary school, the public middle school, they had re-zoned everything and the whole county as I remember was getting sucked into the middle school… The second year at this middle school there were  1800 kids, sixth and seventh grades only.

Robert Birnbaum: Pretty big.

Garth Hallberg: It was huge. It felt huge. My elementary school had been 400 kids spread over six grades. Elementary school was great. In fact, you’ll love this, I’ve never seen this anywhere else: in the elementary school, I went to— the academic enrichment program— you didn’t test into it, it was volunteer. There was a specific counselor, Ms. Kitchen and all you had to do is go to Ms. Kitchen and say, “I have this project I want to do, here are these other kids that want to do it.” You got to open it up, you could cap it and say, “We have ten spots.” You just needed to find someone, a grownup who would help you with it. It was the most amazing thing. It was not the ridiculous thing that goes on now, this inappropriate testing seven-year-olds and drawing a line saying you made it or you didn’t. It was this really cool thing. So elementary school was pretty good until the first tendrils of puberty crept in. Middle school was an insane experience. I got in a lot of fights. My mother who had been teaching English at a public high school went and got a job at private school, partly I think so we could go to the private school so I wouldn’t have to fight my way through seventh grade. The irony being that if you could make it to the high school, the high school was actually pretty good, the public high school. My graduating class was 55 kids.

Robert Birnbaum: Really? What was the total enrollment of the high school?

Garth Hallberg: Probably 4 times 55.

Robert Birnbaum: Wow and the ratio of teachers to students?

Garth Hallberg: Like 17 to 1, 18 to 1. That’s an important number.

Robert Birnbaum: I know it is. Those days are gone.

Garth Hallberg: You learn that when you teach, too.

.Robert Birnbaum: When was the turn? Where did you take that turn that you thought you wanted to be a writer.

Garth Hallberg: It was just early on, it was just the realization. My dad was a writer for one thing.

Robert Birnbaum: Fiction?

Garth Hallberg: Yeah. And that was very abstract. He taught at the local college.

Robert Birnbaum: Does that mean you never saw him actually sit at a desk? You never actually saw him do the writing.

Garth Hallberg: Right, or rarely. The thing that you see him doing —remembering the boxy Kaypro word processor that folded up to become a suitcase. It was too heavy to carry—  bore very little resemblance to  the finished books. Now with desktop publishing it would be maybe less abstract.  I knew he was a writer but then at some point I realized, Oh, he sends off a box of pages. Maybe it was abstract because he hadn’t published a book at that point but when he did .it was like, oh there is a box of  pages and then the book comes back. This is where these things are made. And they went to New York. That was important. That was big to me. New York is where the books come from.  The books that I wanted to live inside.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re living in Greenville, North Carolina so as a kid, what were your impressions of New York? You would see it on the nightly news…

 

New York Post front page ,circa 1977

New York Post front page, circa 1977

 

Garth Hallberg: That was important for that. You’ve got to remember, on TV, it would have been Ed Koch, it would have been Night Court.*

Robert Birnbaum: It would have been the latter Reagan years.

Garth Hallberg: Early Reagan years.

Robert Birnbaum: You were born in ’78?

Garth Hallberg: I guess this is what I’m saying. I have a really specific kind of … This is also very mystical and probably bullshit.

Robert Birnbaum:[laughs] One or the other.

Garth Hallberg: Or both. But I am a believer in—maybe it’s just sort of useful fiction for my job— like a port for all of the senses together. There’s a flavor of the moment and it probably varies from place to place.

Robert Birnbaum: I think it maybe varies for different people. Some people are more attuned to a grouping of elements that for them represents a particular slice of time. For me, I didn’t like the ’70s and the ’70s to me are represented by Saturday Night Fever and people doing cocaine all the time.

Garth Hallberg: But that’s the same ’70s.

Robert Birnbaum: Yes, I know.

Garth Hallberg: That’s the obverse face of the “same spirit of the age.” I’m talking about— just to pluck a couple of dates from memory—to me, the late Clinton period had this very specific flavor…   So, 1999 and then, by contrast, the mood of 1993 was such that you could not project that the mood of 1999 would ever exist…Well, obviously it’s a professional fiction. It is bullshit, it’s mystical, but this idea that what the novel does is find the place where private experience resonates against public experience has something to do with my sense of different times and different flavors. I just remember the early flavors that I remember feeling were like ’82, ’83.

Robert Birnbaum: Why pick ’76-’77 [as a time to write about]? Do you think that  between the ’60s and the end of the century that was a time that was loaded with the most interesting things for you?

Garth Hallberg: Let’s go back to your question of …

Robert Birnbaum: Stolen Moments. *Do you know this song? [comes on over restaurant speakers]

Garth Hallberg: Is this Oliver Nelson?

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

Garth Hallsberg: Good one

Robert Birnbaum: It is a great tune.  I was  just reminded that Mark Murphy wrote  lyrics for it.

Garth Hallberg: I’ve never heard it with lyrics.

Robert Birnbaum: I think I heard it once.  David Hadju *  writes about music and he recently wrote—Mark Murphy just died— and so Hadju  wrote a piece about Mark Murphy and mentioned the lyricization of that song.

Garth Hallberg: That’s another New York thing, right? Impulse Records. Isn’t that Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey?

Robert Birnbaum:And recording engineer Rudy van Gelder.* Was your first move from Greenville to New York?

Garth Hallberg: No, no. The question you asked was why New York?

Robert Birnbaum: Actually, it was why pick that time[’76-’77] ?

Garth Hallberg: I said on TV it would have been Night Court * but for me it was coming out of books. Harriet the Spy, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, Stuart Little.

Robert Birnbaum: Children’s books.

Garth Hallberg: The books I read when I was a child. Exactly. In elementary school just thinking about … There were these places that I wanted to spend time. There was Narnia and there was Middle Earth, but you couldn’t find those on the map.But New York actually existed and it seemed even … For one thing it was the shared property of those writers, which very interesting. It was different stories coexisting in one place and even within those books you got the sense of all of these micro climates. People moving and just this kind of openness to experience and this kind of flexibility of experience. This collision of different experiences, different stories that was sort of the opposite of what I felt like was going on where I live —  I was trapped in a story that was monolithic and that I didn’t want to have any interaction with whatever narrative contained within myself. There was that… and then compounded with the fact that you then turned to the title page (and, of course, Boston has a few good publishers, but) you turned to the title page and  you would see that the book came from New York. There was that Updike phrase about the big river print flowing to Shillington, Pennsylvania and that’s how the city seemed to me. The cinematic side of it, the Night Court side of it or the Muppets Take Manhattan or later on Mean Streets or Manhattan— (the Woody Allen movie )—as a teenager, those [movies]were merely putting images to flesh out a city that already existed for me as  the capital of possibility.

Robert Birnbaum: I was impressed with your specificity about different areas, locales in New York. Which certainly makes New York a character in the narrative. In some ways you’re more specific and descriptive about the locales than you are about some of the characters.

Garth Hallberg: You’re experiencing so many of the characters from the inside, looking out and what are they looking at?  This is, again , the personal and the public thing.

Robert Birnbaum: When you mentioned the cinematic aspect of it. I  started thinking of who I would cast. There is a vividness, vivaciousness, vibrance to the characters. I really want to try to make them concrete by thinking who would play them, who would I cast and even more so who would I ask to direct and who would be the principle photographer? Who would you cast as William?

Garth Hallberg: I don’t think of them that way. I just don’t …

Robert Birnbaum: You don’t see them as specific people?

 

 

 

Garth  Risk Hallberg [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Garth Risk Hallberg [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Garth Hallberg: I see them from the outside to the degree that I see myself from the outside, which is to say, I’m not sure I could draw a very accurate picture of myself from memory. I was reading a lot of Bellow ,among other things, early on in the writing, a lot of Henry James. Bellow is the secondary… He has this great,what I  call  Bellow’s New York trilogy, Herzog, Mr. Sammler’s Planet , and Seize The Day —all of which are great books of New York at mid-century. The secondary characters have this incredible  physiognomic vividness. But what does Herzog look like? He maybe described him, but I can’t. It would be much harder for me to cast Herzog.

Robert Birnbaum: My visualization of these characters is based not on whatever clues you might have given about their physical being but more about their character. I think the despicable brother is Malcolm McDowell.

Garth Hallberg: Ooh, that would be good. I’m more interested in your casting of the characters.

Robert Birnbaum: I saw Sam Shepard playing  a part.

Garth Hallberg: I love that. That’s great.

Robert Birnbaum: You want me to be the casting director when you sell the book? I couldn’t settle on who William would be played by and I just wasn’t clear on Sam at all. I could see a younger maybe Ryan Gosling or someone like that. I did see the whole story in more concrete ways. I’ve only been able so far to read 793 pages of this book, I didn’t finish it and I’m wondering in your conversations with people, with people like me, do you have any sense of how many actually read the book?

 

Garth Hallberg: I taught college, I have a pretty accurate BS meter. I think interviewers that may have had a lower rate of having completed the book…

Robert Birnbaum: It’s a lot to ask of a working journalist.

Garth Hallberg: I don’t know. I mean I’ve done journalism. Nobody’s got a gun to your head saying you’ve got to write this story. It wouldn’t occur to me to write a piece about something I haven’t read, but I think sometimes you deal with people… if somebody is writing for a newspaper and they’re not going to tell you that they haven’t read it yet or they haven’t had time or they’ve just gotten the assignment on Friday and the editor wants it the following Friday and they don’t have time to write all the stories. But it’s an understandable …that kind of piece isn’t going purport to be a deep exploration.

Robert Birnbaum: As long as someone doesn’t give you the impression that they’ll write about a book they didn’t read…

Garth Hallberg: I don’t actually care what impression they give to me. I care more about the impression they give to their readers. I’d say the good ones have this weird thing, you know you’re being made complicit in the fiction.

Robert Birnbaum: Now [as you engage in interviews and a charm initiative] you’re complicit in an extra literary activity which  about  marketing the book. Most writers I think feel that because of the commitment that a publishing company has made to them that they owe it to the publishing company to do as much they can to work with them to publicize the book. The problem I think nobody knows really how to do it. It’s like the record business.

Garth Hallberg: I think complicity is a good word to use because it’s  like, you can be complicit through—you’re complicit by having written the freakin’ book. That’s what the judge will find you an accessory before the fact for having written the book. To me— I’m trying to tell myself  that I owe it to the cause of human curiosity to kind of keep my eyes open and watch how all this works and take notes. Not that there’s probably a good novel about publishing a novel. Balzac’s Lost Illusions* pretty much covered that one.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m trying to remember if any contemporaries, have written fiction about the publishing industry—oh there’s Jonathan Galassi’s Muse .

Garth Hallberg: That’s not my book to write but it’s interesting. It’s interesting to stay in hotels. I never stayed in hotels—it’s a whole world. Somewhere it’s interesting to watch people interview you.

Robert Birnbaum Would you like to talk about the importance of writing a book? Is there an argument to be made for the  ?

Garth Hallberg: About the importance of literature.?

Robert Birnbaum:Yes, the importance of what you do. I think we take it for granted and we don’t even think it’s worth making the argument. Either you think it’s important or you don’t.

Garth Hallberg: ‘You’ meaning, you or me?

Robert Birnbaum: I would hope you and me or at least me.

Garth Hallberg: I just didn’t know this larger  cultural ‘we’.

Robert Birnbaum: I question, what am I doing? Am I promoting and ‘marketing’ literary ‘celebrities’? Or recording the footsteps of pathfinders? The issue I often think about is, is the book important or is  it the person who wrote the book? I  think they ‘re both important because part of what we take up as human beings is paying attention to how other people live and how they make their way through life and how they do things. If you admire certain ways of living, being creative, trying to be helpful to other people, then you  gravitate to trying to understand how people like writers  live their lives outside of  their calling .

Garth Hallberg: You’re starting to convince me. But I would have said coming into this that I don’t think … unlike performing artists like actors and musicians, for whom the persona that lives on the surface, on the body, is an essential part achieving the effects that performers want to achieve, in writing, obviously there’s a persona on the page but it’s very remote from this particular body. And moreover the absorption of this happens off in a room somewhere and I’m not there. The writer largely seems to be like an adjunct of the work. But there is something, I think, in what you said , in the sense of—because I’ve thought a lot about the value, what is the value of teaching writing? I’ve done that too, I’ve taught a graduate program.”Is this really any good? I don’t know what I am doing here.”Someone that I worked with said  to me— “You know, just be there. You don’t have to work as hard as you are because the main thing you’re doing is just being in the room with them.” I remember that from the occasions that I’ve had to be in the room in a student capacity with a real writer and just noticing them, observing how they move through the world, and how they  clear space to do the work. I probably did learn something from that. There is also something a little bit generic about that. Does each writer have his or her own way of clearing a place in the world to work?

Robert Birnbaum: We don’t know. I would think that one of the high values of creativity is originality—maybe there aren’t an infinite amount of ways to approach art but there certainly are a large amount of ways .

Garth Hallberg: Maybe this is wishful thinking, butI feel like I tend to detect enough overlap in the ways that the people I admire approach and think about and go about their work and clear space for their work— that observing three is as good as observing a dozen. You only need so many iterations before you go. “Okay, it’s work.” You know that Lou Reed song, Work? *Have you ever heard that?,

Robert Birnbaum: No.

Garth Hallberg: It’s amazing. It’s about when he was a young kid and he’s in Warhol’s factory and Warhol he had some sort of catechism or something. Or a Grand Inquisition. Warhol is asking him all these questions about his work and the refrain is like,”It’s work, it’s just work. You’ve got to do the work.”

Robert Birnbaum: Two recent bios are in conflict about Reed? Was Lou Reed an asshole or was he a decent guy ?

Garth Hallberg: I never met him so I wouldn’t know..

Robert Birnbaum: The biographies  take polar stances on his personality, persona, and how he treated people.

Garth Hallberg: I mean look, you can round up enough people from my life to write a biography about what a bastard I am.

Robert Birnbaum: You really would see such big extremes from people talking about your life?

Garth Hallberg: I think so. If you’re setting aside — if you’re setting aside how close, how likely those people are to actually having the inside story?

Robert Birnbaum: I wouldn’t set that aside though. If I’m looking at these two books on Lou Reed …

Garth Hallberg: Reading between the lines of the review of the Lou Reed, it seems like there are people who are like, “Oh yeah I met him this one time in the 70s and he was an …” I don’t know.

Robert Birnbaum: Ok, let me return to what you were just saying— I understand your point of view because you’re busy doing this kind of thing, writing. I’m not busy doing this thing. A part of what has always been interesting to me is talking to people. I do talk to everyone — the person at the post office, my UPS driver, or someone walking their dog. I find engaging people about  something  immediate  as being a wonderful way to learn things and learn about people. This habit of talking to writers has come about because writers have ideas and varied experiences that they usually can articulate. They have spent time doing things, they think about things. These conversations have never, the hundreds of conversations I’ve had— have never been boring. I’ve always gotten something and my obligation, I think is not to take our conversation and make it gossip. I’m not interested in whatever tawdry details there are about one’s life. I want to know how you got around to writing and I want to know if you think you can continue to do that and what that means and how you look at the world. Do you think Donald Trump is a short fingered vulgarian? Things like that, what your values are. Are you going to make the world better?

Garth Hallberg: Part of clearing the space to do the work is not spending too much time fancying myself as someone with ideas or opinions about things outside of the work. Inside the work that me has to feel comfortable, (or if not comfortable, has to be willing to say) that this idea is worth putting in play in the book. The guy at the post office probably has a more valid and interesting take on Donald Trump than I do. Which is why that wouldn’t end up in one of my books.

Robert Birnbaum: You never know. Again, I want to repeat, it’s not your job to be  self-conscious or to comment, saying, ” I have a lot of ideas and I have a program.”

Garth Hallberg: Some people do. I’ve been reading Norman Mailer’s Advertisements For Myself.

Robert Birnbaum: That was a different time and Mailer was not typical. Read Pete Dexter *on Norman Mailer. Do you know Pete Dexter’s work?

Garth Hallberg: I haven’t read it. I know of it.

Robert Birnbaum: He’s a very funny guy, Pete Dexter. I don’t know if you know his novels.

Garth Hallberg: Springsteen loves Pete Dexter. We were talking about New York, my New York and the one overlay that I would add to that— I talked about reading two or three books but then when I was a teenager and  punk music became big. I think it actually started with the Velvet Underground.

images-2

 

Robert Birnbaum: The Velvet Underground was the ’60s.

Garth Hallberg: Yeah but all those people — Warhol to Max’s Kansas City to the Ramones,  you’re talking about a few hundred people. You get this out of  the Legs McNeil  book.* So, I just was really gone. I wanted to write poetry. I was going to be poet, that’s what I really wanted to do. That’s what real writing was to me and in Lou Reed and in Patti Smith, in particular, that had the soul of the poetry that I really loved. It really burned for them. It felt like light years away from where I was living but I could also hear in the music that they had at some point, in Reed’s case, Long Island, in Smith’s  South Jersey ,lived somewhere where they didn’t belong , either. My New York sort of began in like …”

.Robert Birnbaum: Your familiarity with them came when you were still living in North Carolina?

Garth Hallberg: Yeah. I think I started reading…I probably read Kerouac and then Ginsberg and then started reading Frank O’Hara.*.

Robert Birnbaum: I love some of Frank O’Hara poems [To The Harbormaster and The Lady Day Died].

Garth Hallberg: The writing of poetry stopped for me. The reading of it continues The first city I ever went to was London in ’89 which was summer of the fatwa *and the only time we ever took a trip abroad …

Robert Birnbaum: The fatwa meant something to you?

Garth Hallberg: Yeah. I was also a very precocious reader. I don’t know if it was precocious. I was reading Newsweek and People and shit , when I was eight or nine. I kept up with what was going on and it was like idea of a writer being …

Robert Birnbaum: Persecuted?

Garth Hallberg: And mattering enough. Even in my limited geopolitical cosmology, it was like the Ayatollah was a pretty bad guy and this [fatwa] seemed to really seal the deal for me. The writer was on the side of the forces of light, somehow. But London in ’89 was funky — like where we were staying.

Robert Birnbaum: You were 11 years old or something like that.

Garth Hallberg: Yeah, I would turn 11 that year, that Fall. It was like there’s just a million different people, colliding in a subway systems.

Robert Birnbaum: That would be impressive to a kid from a small town in North Carolina.

Garth Hallberg: Yeah and food from all over and traffic at all hours of the night— just the energy of it and the light and the sense of something happening

Robert Birnbaum: So you had been to London before you spent any time in New York?

Garth Hallberg: I’d been to London and my parents were like, “Let’s get the hell out of London and go to the Lake District.”  I was like. “No, can we please stay in London?”

Robert Birnbaum (laughs)

Garth Hallberg It was dirty, it was smelly, it was loud, it was awesome. And then[later] DC was five hours away [from NC]. My mother had a high school friend who lived in DC and we would drive up in the early ’90s maybe once a year to visit. And DC was like, I could live here. This is somewhere I could be. But I fell in with some kids in DC through a poetry workshop that I had done one summer and made friends, pen pals. Then I started going up to visit him and there was a girl who was from New York ,who lived on Central Park West who I had a thing for. So I’d  go to DC for the weekend. I was 16, I had a car,so I’d drive up and go to New York from there. The last couple of years of high school I would contrive fictitious college visits in the New York area just as an excuse to go. The first time —I went 19 years ago this fall, the first time I stepped out of the subway and it was like,This is it. It was just an instant collapse of the distance between my dreams of the place and the actual place.

Robert Birnbaum: There was nothing about it you found distasteful? It was all good for you? It was all exciting? It wasn’t too noisy? You commented on London being dirty but that wasn’t a bad thing for you.

Garth Hallberg: ‘Dirty’ is descriptive. I just tend to think in these ways that yoke together the obverses. I wouldn’t imagine I could ever find a kind of joyous excess without dirt and mess. That’s why I love that word ‘funky’: because it means both smelly and that you want to dance to it.

Robert Birnbaum: As Laurie Anderson said, there’s no dirt in the cyber world. The real world has that.

Garth Hallberg: That’s the very human thing.  Wanting to scuttle on the floor of the sea.

Robert Birnbaum: Was it possible for you to get overloaded?

Garth Hallberg:  I was probably arriving under loaded. It was like having all of the receptors ,meaning all the stops on your organ being full. That the organ never made that big a  sound before. It wouldn’t have occurred to me then nor would it necessarily occur to me now, as a primary response, to start sorting, like, “Oh, I like this and not that.” It’s sort of like this idea of …

Robert Birnbaum: The imminent moment, time is all in this moment. The past, the present, the future, it’s all right here. You don’t distinguish what happened five minute ago because it’s just right here. Is that kind of the way it seems?

Garth Hallberg: I just think I have a form of brain damage around certain …

Robert Birnbaum: Verbally you  do have to be specific and particular— you do it here.

Garth Hallberg: There are so many forms of verbally specifying. There’s just naming.There’s praising. There’s indicting. There’s a million different ways to be specific with words. I think what’s going on with the characters in the book [long pause]— it’s  like what I imagine is going on with people in general. They’re all flowing out to animate the world that they find themselves in. And it’s that world that takes on qualities of being bleak and stark in one moment and thrilling and inviting in the next. It’s not a property of the world absent the character that this exciting part is really nice but the bleakness we don’t want at all. You can’t shut off… I don’t know, this is getting very abstract. It was just the sense of possibility that excited me and that possibility required that there be things that you wouldn’t … The utopia of possibility required that there be elements that wouldn’t necessarily be there in some other kind of utopia where everything is perfect. I remember having extraordinary conversations with street people in my first trips to New York. I remember a woman named Debra Little who I met one morning in the middle of Harlem. I had gotten off on the wrong subway stop. The subways fork up there and I was trying to get to see some friends of mine who were a year older and at Columbia and ended up 15 blocks east, and this woman basically walked me to where I was going. I think she was schizophrenic. Like, intermingling with her interesting observations in a story about where she came from and her brother and whatever where some cosmic elements, some mythological stuff, but it was like …  to live permanently in a city there’s some kind of calluses that you develop.In a perfect world there’s no homelessness. Homelessness is horrible. It really breaks my heart to see it when I allow myself to see it. And part of the way that everyone in these cities survives without a perpetual broken heart is learning not to see it.

Robert Birnbaum: You were living in New York when you were writing City of Fire?

Garth Hallberg: Yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Full tilt living in New York. Did you feel like as you writing you had to go retrace steps and go to historical sites and go to locations that appear in the story?

Garth Hallberg: No.

Robert Birnbaum: Once you had the book in mind, you stayed in your room and wrote it.

Garth Hallberg: The question makes it sound like awfully programmatic. We moved to New York. I’d had the idea for the book. It terrified me. I felt that it was an enormous act of presumption if you could imagine such a thing. And I was 24 and I was nobody and I didn’t have the chops to do this and nobody was writing or reading things like this anyway and I put it in a drawer for four year and didn’t touch it.  And largely didn’t think about it. In those four years, I rode my bike all around the city and I went to graduate school and I taught classes and I poured coffee and I walked endlessly and I read endlessly and I drank with my friends and whatever. An then four years later, I couldn’t stay away from the book anymore and I came back to it and all this stuff that had seemed very unpurposeful ended up having formed itself into the world of the book.

Robert Birnbaum: You wrote the book over what period of time?

Garth Hallberg: The idea I had in 2003, a month before the blackout of 2003 —which I took as some sort of synchronicity  — then I sat down to write in the fall of 2007, late fall, this time of year, in November.

Robert Birnbaum: You thought it about for three or four years.

Garth Hallberg: I didn’t think about it for three or four years. I put in a drawer.

Robert Birnbaum: In 2003.

Garth Hallberg:I had a vision. I sat down and I wrote a scene. In the space of about an hour, I went from the 45 seconds of having the vision to writing a scene to being like, “What the fuck  is that ?”and then running away from it.

Robert Birnbaum: So now it’s in a drawer.

Garth Hallberg: For four years. And I ‘m in flight from thinking about it.

Robert Birnbaum: In flight? You’re saying you never thought about it?  Or did you occasionally think about it?

Garth Hallberg: I must of have thought about it. Maybe it permanently existed for me — I was like Jonah trying to get lost in the whale. It’s not like Jonah didn’t know that there’s a world outside the whale.

Robert Birnbaum: Then you came back to book and you were energized.

Garth Hallberg: Well, I came back to it.*

Robert Birnbaum: It’s hard to imagine writing this detailed a book, a book of this length,  a book this complex without being programmatic. I don’t think programmatic is necessarily a bad thing. It suggests a plan,  a structure, it’s an organization, it’s an outline.

Garth Hallberg: I just don’t experience  things that way. I came back to it. I told you I had a singularity, right? I came back to it. The universe is born out of a singularity. In the singularity, time and space and matter and energy are not distinct. Everything is all kind of fused. As the universe expands— this is a gloss and the math is all fucked -up, as is the vocabulary but —within .0003 microseconds the universe goes from being a singularity to being 10,000 miles across and all of a sudden you have light and heat and matter. All starting to distinguish themselves. And you go out another .0007 microseconds and it’s 100,000 miles across. I turned away from it thinking it would stay still. I turned away from the singularity. I turned back to it and all of sudden it was a universe, and that universe was populated with shit that I had absorbed from … I had a professor who wrote me a letter, a professor in college at [Washington University] She wrote me a letter about the book— one of the very first people to read the manuscript. And amazing woman. And she says things about the book and then “You’ve got some good Yiddish in there.” For her, that’s maybe the highest compliment. I thought: Well, shit where did that come from?

[Recording ends abruptly…]

 

###################

ENDNOTES

1 Live Aid website  is here

2 Oliver Nelson’s Stolen Moments from The Blues and the Abstract Truth here and

Mark Murphy’s vocal version of Stolen Moments is here

3 My second interview with David Hadju here.

4 The life and work of the  great recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder is found here

5  Information about  the popular television  comedy  from the ’80’s —Night Court  is here

6 Balzac’s novel Lost Illusions is explicated here

7 Pete Dexter on Norman Mailer is found here

9 Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk  by Legs McNeil 

10 Frank O’Hara is remembered in the New Yorker here

11  Christopher Hitchens recalls the fatwa placed on his friend Salman Rushdie here

12 Garth reads from City of Fire here

13 Editor Alex Bowler talks about City of Fire  here

 

Peter Guralnick and the Man Who Invented Rock And Roll

9 Feb

Peter Guralnick [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Peter Guralnick [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

While renowned chronicler of American music Peter Guralnick made his bones with his seminal two volume study of cultural icon Elvis Presley ( of whom I was not a fan) when I came upon Guralnick’s Dream Boogie *: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (of whom I am an immense fan) I suspected we might be kindred spirits. So, when I received his recent opus on Sam Phillips , I  arranged to meet with him. As it turns out, among other things, we both place value on and enjoy digressive conversation (which I think is redundant, as I view real conversation to be inherently digressive.) In any case, what follows is that chat (hopefully the first in an ongoing series), which is, as you may suspect, a peripatetic journey through mid century American music and much more. 

 

Sam Phillps by Peter Guralnick

Sam Phillps by Peter Guralnick

 

 

Robert Birnbaum: Would it bother you— I really don’t like to pose people. Do you mind, if while we’re talking, I take your picture ?

Peter Guralnick: As long as I’m not eating, or dribbling.

Robert Birnbaum:Yes.

Peter Guralnick:Or drooling.

Robert Birnbaum: (laughs) I’d like to get the drooling photo.

Peter Guralnick: Everybody wants that.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s the money shot, that’s what they said to me. People Magazine said, “Get Guralnick drooling and there’ll be lots of money for you.”

Peter Guralnick:I’ve looked at some of your other interviews, they’re really cool.

Robert Birnbaum:Thank you.

Peter Guralnick:The people you talk to… and you even talked to Don Winslow

Robert Birnbaum: I  introduced him and spoke with him in front of an audience at [Brookline] BookSmith.

Peter Guralnick: What a great writer, [author of]  The Power of the Dog.

Robert Birnbaum: I like both that one and the new one, The Cartel

Peter Guralnick: I don’t know, The Cartel didn’t grab me quite as much, maybe it’s because  I couldn’t follow it as well.  But The Power of the Dog —man, that just knocked me out. How about Kem Nunn? You’ve got to read The Dogs of Winter.

Robert Birnbaum: Ok, today’s the 17th of December. I’m talking to Peter Guralnick.

Peter Guralnick:It’s not the 17th.

Robert Birnbaum:Well, lets pretend it’s the 17th. What day is it?

Peter Guralnick:The 15th.

Peter Guralnick [photo: copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum

Peter Guralnick [photo: copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum

Robert Birnbaum:(laughter)You have to be picky about it.

Peter Guralnick:No, ordinarily I wouldn’t know.

Robert Birnbaum:I’m talking to Mr. Fussy here.

Peter Guralnick: If you ask me any other day, I wouldn’t know, but I do know today.

Robert Birnbaum:See, I even have a date book and I don’t know. Well, whatever the date is, I’m talking to Peter Guralnick. And we are rolling. You spend part of the year in Nashville at Vanderbilt, are you still doing that?

Peter Guralnick: Yeah, I’m going back this year, this is the 11th year I’ll be teaching Creative Writing spring semester there. It’s been great. It’s kind of misleading that Little, Brown wrote that, “He divides his time.” I said, “Well, that sounds okay,” but really I live around here and I teach creative writing at Vanderbilt spring semester.

Robert Birnbaum:Is Vanderbilt separate, like many colleges, from the community? Is it a little island unto itself? When you’re at Vanderbilt can you see where you are in the town?

Peter Guralnick:You’re pretty much in the middle of things. I’d say my largest range of association is, not just within the music community, but within the larger community. I’m certainly friendly with people at Vanderbilt, but the larger community is very accessible and you’re right in the middle of it. I’m not sure that Vanderbilt chooses to be in the middle of it, but they are.

Robert Birnbaum:Compare life in that town, to life in New England for instance. Big cultural difference?

Peter Guralnick: I can’t.

Robert Birnbaum: You just don’t spend enough time?

Peter Guralnick: What it is, is that my life in Nashville the teaching is like running a camp. I think it’s total immersion, in a self-sustaining community. It’s been very rewarding working with the students, both under-graduate and graduate. But, because of the fact that I’m living in town, living on the edge of town you might say. I go out all the time, I see people, I meet people.

Robert Birnbaum: Catch live music?

Peter Guralnick:I go out to hear live music all the time. Whereas, basically when I’m at home, at least for the last 20-25 years, I’m writing. I’ve always been writing, but the point is I live an hour outside of Boston.

Robert Birnbaum: No distractions.

Peter Guralnick:There are no distractions. And in Boston music starts later and later. In Nashville you can go out and you can catch a  9:00 set, you might even catch two sets and be home by 11:00, because you’re only 15 minutes away.

Robert Birnbaum:Well,everyone wants, inquiring minds want to know. Is the Sam Phillips book—I’m not sure it’s a biography. Is the Sam Phillips book like an penultimate project for you? Is everything else going to be anticlimactic after this?

Peter Guralnick:No. I always said, I never set out to be a professional biographer.

Robert Birnbaum:Are you a professional biographer?

Peter Guralnick:No. I’ve always wanted to write something different,to continue to write something different with each book. I started out to be a writer, when I was a kid. When I was eight or nine years old. I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a baseball player. I have no professional concept of either.

Robert Birnbaum:If you’re at spring at Vanderbilt, you watch very good baseball [Vanderbilt  has a very good baseball program]?

Peter Guralnick:I don’t much like watching. I love to play. I played baseball until I was 48 and then I ran into a tri-focal crisis. Now, I just play tennis. I’ve played sports all my life, it’s been a great source of reward, satisfaction and friendship. A great source of friendship.

Robert Birnbaum:You were talking about writing.

Peter Guralnick: I wanted to be a writer. The music came about just because – I mean, I wrote my first novel when I was 19, I published a couple of collections of short stories when I was 21 and 22. But I started writing about music during this same time period – the whole point was purely, entirely, simply to tell people about this music that I thought was so great. The opportunity came about when the underground press started popping up – Crawdaddy! started in ’66 or ’67,  Boston After Dark began around the same time, and then there were the blues magazines in England. People who knew me couldn’t help but know how much I loved the blues, so they asked me if I’d like to write about it. How could I say no? Just to have the opportunity to put the names of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley in print….But just to square the circle, to go back to your original question,  I think as I continued on this path that I had set out on first with Elvis, I guess I saw the Sam Phillips almost as the third in the trilogy of biographies. That wasn’t how I started out, but that’s how I eventually came to see it. I can’t conceive of writing another biography, not out of any disaffection, or disillusionment with it, but because I’ve spent the last 27 years writing biographies. Now I’m going to go back to writing short stories.

Mister Down Child by Peter Guralnick

Mister Down Child by Peter Guralnick

Robert Birnbaum:Not a novel?

Peter Guralnick:Well, maybe.The last novel I wrote, which is either the 10th or the 11th, has been stuck in the middle of third draft for a long, long time. So I want to go back to it, see if it’s worth finishing. It may well not be and if it isn’t I’m going to be doing the stories, then I think I’ll go on to another novel.

Robert Birnbaum:There isn’t another, forget about musical, there’s not another figure, cultural figure  or person that you are interested enough in to investigate their life?

Peter Guralnick:There is, but not that I want to write the book. I read the review of the John le Carre biography in the Times today. Which I was quite interested in. As I think you know by now, I don’t read biographies much, I don’t read non-fiction much. I thought that would be an interesting subject to explore. I would have loved to have written a biography of Willie Mays. That was something I thought about a lot after finishing the Sam Cooke. Then I just realized it would be like starting all over again, I had no contacts. I had no access to that world. It would be a matter of persuading people who had no idea who I was, that I was somebody worth talking to.

Robert Birnbaum: You’d have to persuade him that you were worth talking to.

Peter Guralnick:Then it turned out somebody else was working on the book. That actually wasn’t what discouraged me, I had already decided I couldn’t do it.

Robert Birnbaum: Is there a musical figure, character that deserves a biography that no one has written about?

Peter Guralnick:There are hundreds.

Robert Birnbaum:Name a few of them?

Peter Guralnick: Merle Haggard, has had a lot of books written about him, but I think no great biography. He’s one of the great creative artists of our time. Somebody like Alice Munro, deserves a great artistic biography. There are many writers like that. Somebody like, Charlie Rich would be a tremendous subject for a biography, but probably it would not be one that could be sold.

Robert Birnbaum:How could a Sam Phillips biography be viewed as having commercial potential? ? Especially as the cultural literacy window has narrowed so much.

Peter Guralnick: Five years.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s right.

Peter Guralnick:Is that being generous?

Robert Birnbaum:I was going to say 7-10, but five sounds about right. I asked people, in fact I even asked my physical therapist who’s 30. I started naming names, both current and 15-20 years. I said, “I’m reading a book about Sam Phillips.” “Who’s Sam Philips?” She didn’t even know there was a singer named Sam Phillips.[1]

 

Peter Guralnick:I wanted to say one thing. After I finished the Elvis biography I would run into people who’d say, “Now, you’ve written about the King, who would be a worthy subject?” I would say, “Anybody.” I would say that this is a matter of human dignity and human worth. It has nothing to do with fame, it has nothing to do with celebrity.  I’ve spoken many times about a friend of mine, Irving Roberts. He did – and this isn’t even the beginning of all that he did – he did all of the maintenance work and construction and, oh, just everything that needed doing, including good advice, at camp. His  father built the camp that my grandfather started and that I later ran. I couldn’t even begin to describe all of Irving’s talents and skills –  he’s one of the most interesting people, one of the most brilliant people, one of the most inventive people, one of the most resourceful and compassionate people I’ve ever met. He would be a great subject for as biography!

Robert Birnbaum:Uncle Silas would have been a worthy subject.

Peter Guralnick:That’s true. In other words, this ranking of the worth of subjects to me is, I’m not saying you’re doing it, but it’s anti-democratic. In a way that only a true Trumpian could understand.

Robert Birnbaum:The point is, you’re lucky to be affiliated with a publishing house that has somebody like Michael Pietsch, whose really an editor and a book person.

Peter Guralnick: Michael Pietsch [2]is the best friend I’ve ever made in publishing. In all the years I’ve been in publishing, I’ve made good friends, but he is the best friend I’ve made.

Robert Birnbaum:The introduction he wrote, the tip in he wrote to the advanced reading copy was, I think appropriate, do you think somebody else would have bought this book?

r.

          Peter Guralnick: Cal Morgan at Harper, but he just left Harper. You know, he published Jess Walter[3].

          Robert Birnbaum: I love Beautiful Ruins.

          Peter Guralnick:Oh, all of his books are great. Every one is different.

Robert Birnbaum: Has anyone written about Howlin Wolf, in a good way?

 

 

Peter Guralnick:There’s a biography of Howlin Wolf that’s a wonderful accumulation of so much great stuff.  Mark Hoffman wrote it, Mark and James Segrest. [4]It’s great that they did it. That’s a book, you wanted to ask me, is there a biography I would have liked to have written? I would have loved to e write a biography of Howlin’ Wolf, but I talked myself out of it, I thought it was too late. But Mark and James Segrest went out and found all these people, contemporaries of Wolf,  friends, family, everything. So, you know, I’m not ranking or regretting – I mean, as Solomon Burke said to me a number of times, “Bile will consume you.” You never want to go there if you can help it!

Robert Birnbaum:Did he make that up?

Peter Guralnick:I think so.

Peter Guralnick: He also said, “Who is it that’s Pete the Writer when he’s alone in his hotel room at night.” He was pissed off at me, mildly pissed off at me at the time. I sign all my letters that way now, Pete the Writer In his Lonely Room. No, I mean, they went out and did something that I didn’t think could be done. That was a book I would like to have written. My own biography of Howlin’ Wolf, I mean. Satchel Paige [5]is another person I would have loved to have written about. I pitched the story on Satchel Paige to Rolling Stone, while he was coaching out in Oklahoma. He was coaching third base in a rocking chair. I figured, how could it miss? But Rolling Stone  didn’t see it that way.

Robert Birnbaum: Are there pictures of that?

Peter Guralnick:I’ve never seen any.

Robert Birnbaum:There’s got to be. How could somebody not.

Peter Guralnick: On the internet, anything. Even if it didn’t exist, it does exist.

Robert Birnbaum: I agree with you, I think that’s right, but that’s not the way the book industry works. That is to say they do need subjects with high name recognition.

 

Peter Guralnick [photo: copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum

Peter Guralnick [photo: copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum

Peter Guralnick:Well, look, after Elvis – and this is just an exemplary tale (no bile) – after Elvis, I was looking for a new agent and I talked to 16 or 17, I think. I told them my next book was going to be about Sam Cooke, and every one of them said, “Big mistake. Bad career move, after the King.” Then they suggested things which they said could bring a great deal of money, and I believed them and I said, “Yes, but I’m writing about Sam Cooke.”

Robert Birnbaum: Let me bless you for that. First of all I don’t read biographies and I don’t usually read musical biographies. But, I loved Sam Cooke. I’m from Chicago, I love that book. Thank you for the book.

Peter Guralnick:This is what happened to me, I’ll say to you that the 18th agent that I spoke to was David Gernert, and he said, “This is really cool.” And he went out and sold it, and that’s what I did. But it involved a conscious recognition on my part. That I was reducing my market share with each book, enormously. And, you know, it’s no big deal, but I was writing the books I wanted to write. And I can honestly say I’ve never written about anybody that I didn’t want to write about. Every single person I’ve written about is somebody I’ve written about out of admiration.

Robert Birnbaum:And love.

Peter Guralnick: And love.

Robert Birnbaum:You loved Sam Phillips.

Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick

Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick

Peter Guralnick:Yeah. Loved Sam Cooke too, even if I didn’t know him. The point is, my concept is that, I want to write as much as possible from the inside out. I’m not interested in being an arbiter of fashion, I’m not interested in providing judgments. I’m interested in providing an open book and to some extent, by doing it, I discovered  that writing biographies provided me with  a landscape that offered as much potential as the fictional landscapes that I had been focusing on.

Robert Birnbaum:Let me pause you here. Your conversation with Mark Feeney,  [6] you’ve come to see non-fiction as, “As giving me the opportunity to create these great characters on this expansive plane and populate this world. Because, I came to see it in each of these books, the facts we’re given but not the story. The characters were extraordinary people who developed out of ordinary circumstances. We live in a society that seeks judgement so much of the time, that seeks a bottom line that so often distorts the complexity of reality. Whether it’s Elvis or Sam Cooke, or Sam Phillips, I’m interested in what motivates them, their aspirations, their hopes, their dreams, their disappointments, their inner life. Not a catalog of their achievements.” I think deep down that’s what people want to really read. 600 pages of facts about what a guy had for breakfast when he was seven and what his sex life was at the age of 70 maybe more information than a reader wants.

Peter Guralnick:From my point of view the ideal is to write a book as interesting as the person. To write a book, in the case of Sam Phillips, in which it’s not just the main characters but the cultural milieu that provides the focus. It’s the supporting cast, it’s people like Tom Perryman, in the Elvis book who is out there in Gladewater in East Texas. Out there in Gladewater, he’s the program director and a DJ, and he sees something in this 19-year-old and promotes Elvis on for the first time outside of Memphis and the Hayride. The point is this is a man of imagination, he’s a man that’s looking to get ahead on his own. He’s a man looking towards the future. He doesn’t play a big part in the book, but there are so many people like that.

 

Robert Birnbaum:It’s that old democratic thing, ideally everyone has a story. There’s a story with everyone, you can find multitudes of people that would make an interesting story and book. Getting back to this craft of talking about people, I like biographical essays. Which concises someone’s life, somebody who knows the person and that can speak eloquently. I have read a few [ your books], David Hadju’s book on Billy Strayhorn.[7] Nick Tosches’s and a couple of his books,. I didn’t really like his Dean Martin. But he put him into cultural context. He doesn’t just about the details of the person’s life, a lot of which is mundane,  and banal. I don’t think many people capture that, is it because the publishers  look for hagiographic tracts or exposes  on popular artists.

Peter Guralnick:I think you’d have to expand your definition, it’s not just the industry, it’s academe, it’s the academy. Which is also looking for facts and for instance some of most acclaimed biographies, well, leaving aside, let’s say, a book like Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters,” which is a masterpiece of portraiture and a masterpiece of describing the climate of the time – well, look, I don’t want to get into anyone in particular, but sometimes these books just pile up, they just pile on the facts, as if they were writing a PhD thesis, or a glorified school paper. You’ll read something and you’ll be struck by it, and then the next paragraph will reinforce it, the following paragraph will drive home the point even more. You say, “I get it, I get it” – you know what I mean?

t, the following paragraph will drive home the point even more. You say, “I get it, I get it” – you know what I mean?

Robert Birnbaum: I mean, four volumes on someone’s life. Didn’t Dumas Malone write six volumes on Jefferson? But what I was going to say, by now its sort of a cliche for me, my feeling is that novels like Gore Vidal’s, “Lincoln,” and “Burr” – I felt that I learned more about Lincoln in Vidal’s novel, “Lincoln ” than I did in reading any texts and any description of him.

Peter Guralnick:I thought those two were wonderful novels. But so was Henry and Clara.

Robert Birnbaum: Tom Mallon. Henry and Clara. That’s a great book.[8]

Peter Guralnick:Isn’t that a terrific book?:You can see what I read.

Robert Birnbaum:I’ve been talking to Tom for years, since I discovered that book.

 

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

 

Peter Guralnick: I just read the Reagan and I read the Nixon before that. To me Henry and Clara

Robert Birnbaum:It’s a brilliant idea. To take a great event and take it from the side, then see what it did to these characters. It’s like writing a novel about a people who were in the grassy knoll. Tom Boyle wrote something about McCormacks era, Colonel McCormack’s era, Riven Rock.[9]

Riven Rock by TC Boyle

Riven Rock by TC Boyle

 

 

Robert Birnbaum The woman [Katherine McCormack] that McCormack’s son married turned out to be a really fantastic woman who ended up at MIT. I think they’ve named buildings after her. I guess what I wanted to get to was, a few years ago the notion of creative non-fiction was introduced and people like to argue about it. I guess, I think that the dividing line, between fictional narrative and non-fictional narrative is blurring. In many cases you can tell a story better and you can argue about what the facts are, but you can tell a story better by introducing elements that are not necessarily factually correct.

Peter Guralnick: I’m not sure. I wouldn’t make that division, I wouldn’t draw that distinction. I think in many ways the characters, the real-life characters that you run into in anybody’s life, that I’ve run into in the stories of Sam Cooke or Sam Phillips or Elvis Presley, are just as compelling. You have all these ancillary characters whose stories in their own way are just as compelling. I think the two essential elements, different elements but in the end fusing into the same thing, are the focus on character and the focus on story. The point is that in terms of narrative, you have to have this narrative momentum. Which is an invention like Hemingway’s dialogue, like slapback, the repetitive-echo device that Sam Phillips employed to such wonderful effect, it’s an invention to make the real realer. Without that narrative momentum you’re just dead in the water. You attempt to get an overview, but you have to recognize that the overview you’re getting is entirely different from the overview another writer, or the reader, might bring to it, or that that person sitting over there might get from another angle. Each of us, given the same set of facts, the same set of interviews, the same set of quotes, the same set of everything, would create an entirely different book.

Robert Birnbaum:I would amplify that, by saying that it’s also the case, that if I read this book a second time, or if you wrote the book a second time there would be differences.

Peter Guralnick:There would absolutely be differences. It’s how the weather is. The point is, I mean,  that I used to think, in terms of writing fiction, what I had for breakfast, something that might be in the news, whatever was in the air, started you off in a completely different – or somewhat different – way.  I mean, it struck me early on, when I first started writing. I started writing every day when I was around 15. I read the Hemingway interview in the Paris Review where he said that –

Robert Birnbaum:He wrote 1000 words a day or something like that?

Peter Guralnick:He wrote every day, he wrote for a certain amount of time. I thought, man, I don’t think that I can write as well as Ernest Hemingway. But I can at least write every day, I think I can write 1000 words a day. It may be shit, but I can commit myself to that. And I did, from the time I was 15, pretty much for the next 30 years. I mean, I could get in at 3 o’clock in the morning, I might have to go to work at 9 – when I was in college, I might have an early class – it didn’t matter. I was going to get up early to write.

Robert Birnbaum:What’s the feeling like when you’re doing that? What do you feel like?

Peter Guralnick:Frustration. Frustration. So much of the time what you’re writing just doesn’t make it, it isn’t any good.

Robert Birnbaum: And you know that when you’re writing it?

Peter Guralnick:Well, not so much if you’re involved in ongoing work. What I was doing for the most part, at the start anyway, was doing beginnings of things which never panned out. Later on, when I was committed to ongoing work, whether it was a novel or a book, it got easer. But I can remember sitting down every day to write the profile of Johnny Shines in “Feel Like Going Home” –  I remember specifically how overwhelmed I was by all the material I had, and how could I convey the essence of what I wanted to say? That was one of the few stories, that and Charlie Feathers in “Lost Highway” –

 

Lost Highway by Peter Guralnick

Lost Highway by Peter Guralnick

 

Those two times, it wasn’t that I had more facts or more information than I did on anybody else, but I remember feeling a sense of hopelessness that I could ever boil this down to create the portrait that I had in my head. The finely etched portrait! Then, finally, I guess the dam just broke. But that’s different from what I was talking about before , in high school and the first couple of years of college, starting fresh every day, and then having to start fresh again the next day, because what I’d written the day before just didn’t go anywhere, it was, like, scribbling. I suppose it isn’t that different from what all of us face all the time, from what I know I still face, certainly. The idea of starting – you have a blank piece of paper, a blank screen and you sit there and nothing comes. You start to write and you say, “This is terrible, this is ridiculous.” You force yourself to keep going and at the end of the day you have 600, 800 words.

I used to do it in notebooks, I would just turn the page. I didn’t crumple up the pages. You turn the page and you start something else the next day. That’s entirely different from working on a novel, or continuing with ongoing work. To me the whole point of what you’re looking for in any creative act – and creative act can encompass just about anything you commit yourself to fully in life – the whole point is, you’re looking for that moment when you’re lost in what you’re doing. You have applied everything that you know and in some ways you’ve cast it out and you are going just on autopilot, because you’re lost in the act.

Robert Birnbaum:Contemporarily. I guess that’s being in the zone, I guess.

Peter Guralnick:In the moment, in the zone. It’s what Chet Baker [10]talked about when he said, “Let’s get lost.” I mean, if I write for three and half, four hours, say, which would be my ideal time, although lately I’ve been writing in much longer stretches, because of the exigencies of life – but if you write for three or four hours and get five or ten minutes in which you’re just completely lost, that’s what it’s all about.

Robert Birnbaum:Against the background of frustration, occasionally you get that high of feeling something good has happened?

Peter Guralnick:Yeah. Again, I think I’m misleading you a little, because I don’t mean that writing the Sam Phillips, writing about Sam Cooke or Elvis day after day, I mean, certainly I could get stuck at certain points, but that was not the same kind of frustration that I might feel –

Robert Birnbaum: You had a goal.

Peter Guralnick:Right. I had a goal. And if I wrote something – if I wrote 5000 words that I committed myself to, I thought, This is fantastic, and then I decided it merely repeated action or themes that I had already developed, I was prepared to throw it out. Well, to save it in a file of lost moments anyway!

Robert Birnbaum:How big was the original manuscript that you turned in?

Peter Guralnick:The same size.

Robert Birnbaum: How big was the manuscript that you worked on before you turned it in, or did you just pare it down as you went?

Peter Guralnick [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Peter Guralnick [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Peter Guralnick: As I went. The idea of re-writing, I used to write three discrete drafts. Of everything that I wrote pre-computer. The first draft was long hand. Second draft I typed out from the manuscript, changing as I went along, , the third draft I typed out from the beginning, every single page. Now, I feel like it’s almost inescapable that you’re re-writing all the time. I save, if you could see my hard drive – I save all the different versions and variations. When I finished the Sam Phillips, it was the book that I wanted to write. From the beginning, for example, I knew that there needed to be this turn, there needed to be this personal element that would gradually intrude and then take over, change direction over the last third of the book. It was kind of like recognizing with Elvis, not too long after I had started writing, that it was going to have to be two volumes. That the story took place in two entirely separate acts and that after his mother died, it was as if the curtain came down. What followed was a different story, with a different person involved. With Sam Phillips, I knew from the start, among other things, because I didn’t want to pursue a linearity which in no way did justice, either to Sam as a character, or to the fact that the last 40 years of his life were spent pursuing things that were not of intrinsic narrative interest. Not just to the reader, but to me. I didn’t want to write about, he acquired a radio station, sold a radio station. He built a radio tower.

Robert Birnbaum:He called Fidel Castro after the Bay of Pigs.

Peter Guralnick: Well, yeah, that’s the kind of thing I wanted to write about exactly, I wanted to create a narrative structure that was as entertaining as what Sam wanted to create in the studio. Which meant blowing up strict linearity, giving much freer rein to anecdote and above all to digression.

Robert Birnbaum:Let me ask you. If an FBI profiler looked at Sam Phillips life and maybe used your book. Would there be a more contemporary diagnosis of his psychological profile?

Peter Guralnick: I feel as if, what I want to write is something which is a sufficiently open book that every reader can come away from it with his or her own impression. I feel with each of the books I’ve written, there were necessarily points at which you think, I’m just not going to get there. “There” meaning, it’s never going to come into focus, I’m just getting too far out on a limb. But then, with each of the books and even the profiles, at some point it snaps into focus. All of a sudden I see the person, it seems like I see the person whole – I mean, that sounds reductive, but I see the person as a dynamic character. If I’m writing about Johnny Shines or Charlie Rich, I’m suddenly able to zero in on to what I want to focus on, what I want to bring out. And I would hope that the discerning reader, or the non-discerning reader, might find something entirely different. The portrait of Colonel Parker in “Careless Love,” for example, is intended to be a nuanced portrait. One in which I actually take a countervailing view of both the Colonel’s role and character.

Robert Birnbaum:A more generous interpretation.

Peter Guralnick:His intellectual brilliance, his imaginativeness, his humor, and his insecurity. Many people have said to me, “Boy, you really nailed the Colonel as the son of a bitch that he was.” That’s fine with me, for them to see it that way. But I want to portray something different, I want to portray a multifaceted person.

Robert Birnbaum:You’re not interested in concise judgement, you want the pictures. Let somebody else say what they are. Was it your quote or somebody else’s quote that said, “Phillips was an impenetrable mystery.” I can’t remember.

Peter Guralnick: I don’t remember.

Robert Birnbaum:You probably didn’t say that, I don’t think you said that.

 

Peter Guralnick: No. It’s the same way in which people I know, I was with people sometimes who were either offended by Sam, the kind of defensive maneuvering, or preventive maneuvering that he did. The preambles that he would deliver before you even started the interview – it really didn’t matter, because when you got down to it, he was going to say whatever he was going to say, and you could say whatever you wanted to say, there weren’t going to be any holds barred.

Robert Birnbaum:How many hours did you spend with him, do you think? Do you have any sense of the amount?

Peter Guralnick: No. Hundreds.

Robert Birnbaum:On tape?

Peter Guralnick: On tape, I would say several hundred. We did a documentary in 1999, and that really, actually, for one thing I think it brought us closer. Everybody says, “Oh, you were friends with Sam for 25 years.” I wasn’t. It took a long time – and there were lots of stages to pass through along the way. As he said to me, and I’m sure you picked up on this in the book, he said, “My son Knox loved you from the minute he met you – but I didn’t.” I mean, he could say things, and some people might think, Well, did you feel intimidated? Insulted? But I had no basis to be insulted. I’m just interested in Sam’s reaction, whatever my personal feelings might be. And it’s not that I don’t have personal feelings – that I can’t be enormously gratified at times, or disappointed at others. But you really have to take the view that it’s all phenomenological – Pete the Writer, as Solomon Burke pointed out to me, is different from Pete the Person.

Robert Birnbaum:It’s understandable to expect that if you spend that much time with someone and you connect the project to love and admiration.

Peter Guralnick:But, I wasn’t saying that to him. Sam prided himself on his ability to read people. He said to me, kind of to explain his withholding of approval, or love, or whatever, from me over that period of time, “Well, I know you had your doubts about me for a long time.” And I’m thinking, “Boy, talk about projection! I was sold on you from the minute we met.” But that was okay. The point was, as I worked on the Elvis biography, and I interviewed Sam a good number of times and came to know him better. I would say during that time, we became friendly, not friends exactly, but friendly, friendlier. Then during that time period, Knox and I began to talk to him about doing the documentary. Which is something he wanted more than anything in the world, but to which he kept saying no for 6 or 7 years—

Robert Birnbaum:He wanted to do it, but he said, no?

Peter Guralnick:He said, no. I came to realize when we finally did it, the reason that I think he said no, was because he was so committed, with any project that he involved himself in, there was just no holding back. Shooting the documentary meant three, four months of doing nothing but that. I think that’s what he was reluctant to commit himself to. There was no drinking, there was nothing but the project. To some extent it involved an extremely challenging attempt at reigning himself in, which he wasn’t altogether successful at. There was no attempt to influence the outcome – I mean, he was disappointed that his nephew, Phillip Darby, wasn’t in it, because Phillip had been so instrumental in setting everything up in Florence, and he did a great interview, too. But other than that, there may have been some things he didn’t like about the show, but there was never any issue.

Robert Birnbaum:Was he being interviewed by other people when he came back into public life after ’79?

Peter Guralnick:Totally.

Robert Birnbaum:What was your sense of those conversations, was he as frank and honest with them, with everybody as with you?

Peter Guralnick::I think so. And, you know, the thing was, in the aftermath of doing the documentary. I think that’s when we really became good friends. I mean, you know, everything operates on the eleemosynary principle

Robert Birnbaum:Which principle?

Peter Guralnick:Eleemosynary. It’s my father’s favorite word, my father is 99 now, and he always used the word, ‘eleemosynary’ from the time I was a kid, but at the age of 90 he came to feel he had been misusing it all those years. But I’m going to stick to the way he always meant it.

Robert Birnbaum:What does it mean?

Peter Guralnick: It’s doing well by doing good.

Robert Birnbaum:              [inaudible 00:44:02].

Peter Kind of, I guess so. It’s why Sam for example, I don’t think I used the word in the book – I’m sure I didn’t – but when Sam was trying to persuade Jules Bihari, the oldest of the Bihari brothers, who had Modern Records, and then Leonard Chess, too, that they had to pay the black acts, and pay them well – they had to pay them for their songs as well as their performance, the argument that he used was that it was only by paying them, by recognizing their worth financially, as well as in the respect that they accorded them, that they would give the artist a sense of true self-worth, self-empowerment and get out of the artist the best that he or she had to offer. And, in the process, sell more records.

 

Robert Birnbaum: Can we talk a little bit about post-racial music.  There was a Viagra commercial or Cialis that had a Howlin Wolf song behind it.

 

Peter Guralnick:Yeah, right. Elvis, too.

Robert Birnbaum:To me that’s astounding.

Peter Guralnick:  One of the great benefits of having Tivo, or I guess any DVR, but I’m sticking with Tivo, is not seeing the ads. But really what we’re talking about here is the ultimate commercialization, or Disneyification, or commodification of – well, of everything. Everything is just grist for the mill – the mill, I guess, being the marketplace, the infomill, the way in which we are distracted, or distract ourselves – from what? I mean, it doesn’t matter if it’s Beethoven or Picasso or Howlin’ Wolf – it just comes down to trivialization, it reduces everything to the ironic wink. It denigrates the whole idea of intrinsic worth.

Robert Birnbaum:I think we’re past that, I think I’ve told you it’s past that.

Peter Guralnick:We’re way past it.

Robert Birnbaum:Right, but I do always think of when I hear that. I remember hearing a Charlie Mingus, “Goodbye Pork Pie,” in a Volkswagen commercial. My first thought was, I tried to  imagine the meeting, the creative meeting, “Oh, wait what kind of music, what are we going to do here?” Then some 25 year old, who just discovered Charlie Mingus goes, “Why don’t we play this,” and they go, “Yeah, that’s hip.” Without just even acknowledging that this guy was a masterful musician, that he created some of the best music of our time. Just throw it in behind a Volkswagen ad.

 

We’ve got to assume the commercials are about making people stupid anyway.

Peter Guralnick: Oh, I don’t know, I’m not just talking about commercials – really you’re talking about capitalism, you’re talking about the commodification of everything. But, you know, I’m not trying to offer any great judgments on this. I mean, I’m not the arbiter of taste. To tell you the truth, the first time this started happening on TV, I’ve got to admit I was kind of thrilled. I thought, “Wow, that’s incredible” – man, to see Wolf’s image in a Levis ad, or to hear him on a soundtrack, even if it was the soundtrack for a commercial, I thought, “Wow, that’s incredible!” because it seemed in a way, I know this is really silly, it seemed like he was being embraced by mainstream culture. But, I’ve gotten over that.

Robert Birnbaum:If it was being embraced, his records, his recordings would be sold out and there would be docudramas about his life. But getting back to Sam Phillips, what I wonder about is, his goal, his mission, or his hope was that this music would drop the barriers between races –

Peter Guralnick: At the end of his life he was saying, he believed that music had the power to stop wars. I think that this would be a further extension of this vision that he had, one that I wish were the case. I can’t say that I altogether endorse it, that I can see it altogether. Wish I could.

Robert Birnbaum:Music’s always been a powerful force in my life. I’m always listening to music, there are times when it takes me to places that nothing else does, so I think it’s probable. But, I don’t see that, maybe for a lot of people some music sometimes does that, but I don’t know that I see music as the cleansing elevating force. What I wanted to say was, this notion that there’s divide between white people and black people on music, that never made sense to me. I guess what the music corporations didn’t get was that there was always an audience.

Peter Guralnick:There was always a crossover too. If Jimmie Rodgers is the father of country music and is in essence a blues singer. There’s a certain irony in that, isn’t there? I mean, crossover always existed, but it was like segregation being the law of the land –I mean, it may have been the law, but in fact it was a total denial, an attempt to deny the way that things actually were. That in the South in particular blacks and whites were living cheek by jowl, that you have a history of mixed race that goes back forever, and that the majoritarian culture never was willing to acknowledge, from slavery on.

Robert Birnbaum;Plus, I’m sure a lot of white people, for their entertainment went to backwoods juke joints.,

Peter Guralnick:I don’t think so.

Robert Birnbaum:You see it in the movies every once and awhile, some white kids end up at some  black ….

Peter Guralnick:This would be really extraordinary. I don’t think Howlin Wolf and B.B. King saw too many white kids. The one thing I’d say is that you can’t dismiss the historical context, the fact that black and white music were separated commercially, in the way that they were sold, in the way that they were accounted, right up until the advent of Rock and Roll

Robert Birnbaum:The advent of ‘rock and roll ‘ coincided with the advent of teenagism.

Peter Guralnick: This is the way it’s come to be seen.

Robert Birnbaum:Maybe that’s retrospective.

Peter Guralnick:I’m not convinced that that’s actually what it was. I mean, Ray Charles was not a teen artist, but he was very accessible artist, as well as being a very profound artist, just like Louis Jordan in a much slyer, more ironic way before him (and he was one of the few who actually reached a pop audience, like the Ink Spots, or the Golden Gate Quartet, I suppose, in the ‘40s). I’m not sure it had anything to do with the teen audience, their popularity, they were looking to be popular artists like Frank Sinatra, at first on the r&b charts, but then when the charts really opened up, on the pop charts, too.

Robert Birnbaum:Do you know the story of Ray Charles going to, playing Birmingham Alabama. He had a white Jewish guitar player. Do you know the story, it’s in the, “The Wrecking Crew,” the book[11] ? There’s a white Jewish guy whose in the Wrecking Crew, but Ray Charles liked him so much he hired him for his band. They’re playing a gig in Birmingham, the State Troopers are in front of the venue, where they’re unloading. They get on the bus and they’re looking and they see this white guy.This guy starts speaking pseudo-Spanish. So it was okay if he was Spanish.

Peter Guralnick: I hope with curly hair.The point was that, the music had the potential to break down barriers all along. And what Sam foresaw, was that the power of the music, the scope of the music, just the grandeur of the music would break down those artificial categories. As it turned out, it didn’t happen exactly the way the he foresaw it, but it did in effect happen. Not because of Sam alone, or Elvis either, obviously, it was something that was in the air, to which they contributed enormously.

Robert Birnbaum:Why do people want to say that Rocket 88, was the first Rock and Roll song?

Peter Guralnick:I think it probably goes back to Paul Ackerman, the editor of Billboard, as far as I can tell he was calling it the first rock ‘n’ roll record early on, maybe as early as 1956-57. I mean, really, you could point to “Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happening” just as well. But if you’re talking about “Rocket 88,” basically, I think it’s because of the propulsiveness of the rhythm, because of the subject, maybe it was because of the lead guitar and the sound that was coming out of that guitar as a result of the amp being busted. (To Sam, that was an original sound.) To me it just seems to capture the spirit of the age, in its rawness, its exuberance, its brashly optimistic post-war mood. But again, I don’t know that it was aimed at the teen market at all when it first came out. In retrospect, it came to fit the definition of teenage music that was imposed on rock ‘n’ roll – as much as a commercial label, a marketing tool, as anything else. And in a way I think that was the least important part. I mean, think of someone like Fats Domino – what makes him a teen artist? I don’t think he was. He was a blues singer, he was a rhythm and blues singer, he was a pop singer. I mean, to begin with, he was a huge R&B star, and as a Rock and Roller he became a huge pop star, with a uniquely lovable appeal.

 

Robert Birnbaum:Are we seeing a eternal return with the adoption of Rap music by white kids? Or, identification with?

Peter Guralnick:

Peter Guralnick: Oh, I suppose so – but that’s always been true. There’s always been an exchange of cultures, ever since the invention of the radio and the phonograph, ever since you had these tools for mass dissemination. I mean, there are no more purely isolated cultures, although there are certainly regional strains. I remember, one time David Evans took me to see R.L. Burnside at his home, it seemed like it was somewhere out in the woods, somewhere around Coldwater or Holly Springs, Mississippi. And he just rolled back the rug, took out all the furniture, and people came and danced to this incredible, driving music – and it was all R.L. Burnside and his sons. It was original, as Sam might have said. But even in this isolated situation, the music you heard was heavily tied to the commercial music R.L. Burnside grew up with – I mean, it wasn’t isolated at all. The point is he’s playing music that actually is tied directly to Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, but he’s not impervious to other influences, too. Nobody is. When I talked to Howlin Wolf and I said, “Where did you get your howl from?” he says, “Jimmie Rodgers.” I’m writing down “Tommy Johnson,” or I’m thinking, “Mississippi Sheiks,” and he’s saying, “Jimmie Rodgers” – you, know, the Singing Brakeman, the “father of country music.” He was very insistent on it. So you never know. I mean, you have somebody like, Bobby “Blue” Bland, being equally influenced by the sermons of Aretha’s father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, and Perry Como. Cultural theft is such a misunderstanding in so many ways, because you have cultural exchange going on all the time – in all directions. If you’re talking about monetary theft, there you’re describing capitalism and to some extent, you’re talking about the theft of what they earned from people who simply don’t know contractual language, the language of business, both blacks and whites, blacks more so certainly on a broad societal basis, but there’s no question that in the music business hillbilly artists, kids, neophytes of every sort have been just as disadvantaged and stolen from on that basis. To get past that, you might have to overthrow the whole capitalist system.

Robert Birnbaum:I worked in record stores. I worked for an independent record promoter in Chicago for a couple of years. I worked for a record company. My sense of it always was, it was one of the filthiest, most corrupt businesses, I couldn’t think of anything more corrupt. Maybe the movies with the Hollywood bookkeeping system…

Peter Guralnick:I would argue that if you’ve worked in other areas of business.

Robert Birnbaum:They were just as dirty?

Peter Guralnick:Many of them, sure. My father who has been a physician all his life and at 99 is still fighting for a better system, a single payer system, a system that puts the patient at the center of the treatment, rather than on the sidelines. I’m not saying he would endorse this view –  but I think you could find the same kind of financial manipulation within the medical field. Look at all the doctors who are called to order, or called up on their overcharging, on their misuse of the system. I feel like when there’s a profit motive, and it is in essence the primary one, it will tend to misplace a certain sense of priorities

Robert Birnbaum:I agree with you, but I think what I’ve noticed is that there were less regulation of the systems, so that for instance if you are an independent distributor and you wanted to get a record played, boxes of records would go out your back door over to the radio station.

Peter Guralnick:It was less regulated in a sense, but surely after the financial crisis of 2007-2008, how much more regulated….

Robert Birnbaum:By regulation I don’t mean that kind of regulation. I just mean there wasn’t that much book keeping, loosey-goosey, expense accounts were pretty. When I worked for a record company people, my colleague promotion men. —when they went to a conferences or  prom tours they would charge watches to their hotel room.

Peter Guralnick:I’m not arguing for them, or for that system. I’m only saying, how many more millions were squandered in similar ways, but magnified beyond imagination, on Wall Street, by the whole financial system –

Robert Birnbaum:In the main I would agree with you. If there’s a profit motive, your contractor’s going to try and rip you off, it’s not even that it’s ripping off. They understand the game is to maximize whatever money they can and if they have to gain that system. That’s legitimate really.

Peter Guralnick:All my life, this is from the example of my father and my grandfather, I’ve tried to find people that I can work with on a handshake basis. Which would be everybody from Michael Pietsch, down to the plumber or the carpenter or the electrician. Whom I value as highly as anybody. I’m looking for those people, people like that, and I’m looking to act that way myself.

Robert Birnbaum:What I’m hearing and what I’m sensing, is that your father and your grandfather were people who actually lived by certain moral imperatives —that this was part of their conversation, their approach to life.

Peter Guralnick: It was always part of the conversation. It was always – not the subtext, it was the conversation itself.

Robert Birnbaum:Which is  glaringly missing from everyday life.

Peter Guralnick: It’s the conversation I always tried to have with my kids. It’s the conversation I try, however limited it may be, that I try to have with my grandchildren and that my kids have with their children. I’m not trying to prescribe anything for anybody else, but to me, I don’t know anything else. I don’t know how people can be led to vote. You just want people to be able to think for themselves.

Robert Birnbaum:What is that Jewish maxim, “You save a life, you save a universe.” Something like that. That’s, I think ,the way it is. We have to end this, but I think we should talk again and maybe I’ll take a drive up to Newburyport when the weather is nice. I usually don’t even leave my zip code , but I could take a drive up north. Anyway, this was enjoyable.

Peter Guralnick:I feel like I misled you, I took you down too many divergent pathways.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s what a conversation is,isn’t it? Well, thank you.

###########

ENDNOTES

* Dream Boogie is also a poem by Langston Hughes which he reads here

1) Sam Phillips, singer

2) Micheal Pietsch,NPR interview

3)  Jess Walter, my conversation with

4) Howling Wolf biography

5) Larry Tye biography of Satchel Paige

6) Mark Feeney interview with Peter

7)David Hadju, one of my conversations with

8) Tom Mallon , my latest conversation with

9) TC Boyle/ Riven Rock

“Stanley McCormick, youngest son of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the mechanical reaper and founder of what was to become International Harvester, was confined for most of his adult life on a grand estate not far from where I now live. Shortly after his marriage to Katherine Dexter, a socialite from Boston (and the first female graduate in the biological sciences from M.I.T.), he suffered a mental breakdown that manifested itself in extreme hostility toward women, his wife in particular. He was diagnosed as a “schizophrenic sexual maniac,” and locked away in Riven Rock, the family estate. Katherine nonetheless remained married to him all his life and never stopped looking for a cure to his condition. What many readers have found interesting here is that the most outlandish developments, like those in The Road to Wellville, adhere very closely to reported facts, proving once again that pure invention is no match for the truly bizarre and sad ways in which we organize our lives. That said, this is a love story, grand, depressing, and, I hope, ultimately touching. It is also morbidly funny.”

10) Chet Baker, Lets Get Lost trailer

11) The Wrecking Crew The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret  by Kent Hartman

“In Los Angeles in 1960s-70s, if you wanted to record a chart-topping track or album, you called in the crack session musicians collectively known as the Wrecking Crew. Consisting of artists unknown outside the music industry, like drummer Hal Blaine and bass player Carol Kaye, as well as those who would go on to recording fame of their own, such as Glenn Campbell and Leon Russell, the Wrecking Crew was the West Coast’s cream of the crop of session players, backing top-notch hit makers Phil Spector, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, and many more. Hartman (marketing, Portland State Univ.), who has worked with many well-known recording artists including Hall & Oates, Three Dog Night, and Lyle Lovett, tells the group’s definitive story with a music industry insider’s insight and enthusiasm. The only other work on these behind-the-scenes pros is Blaine’s Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew, which is more narrowly focused on the experiences of the stalwart drummer. Verdict: Recommended for readers interested in popular music and the music industry, particularly West Coast pop and classic rock.” ―Library Journal

There is also a documentary called the Wrecking Crew. Here’s the trailer

 

Oscar Hijuelos and Thoughts Without Cigarettes

4 Feb

 Oscar Hijuelos [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

Oscar Hijuelos [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

New Yorker Oscar Hijuelos’s first novel, Our House in the Last World, received the prestigious Rome Prize. His second, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, won the Pulitzer Prize, making him the first Latino to receive that award. Six novels have followed. The latest, Beautiful Maria of My Soul, is a story from the point of view of Mambo King Nestor Castillo’s lost love who is immortalized in the song which names the novel.

Most recently Hijuelos has tried his hand at memoir, publishing Thoughts Without Cigarettes—a task about which (publishing a memoir) he was, and still is, conflicted. In it he recounts growing up in an immigrant family, his near-fatal childhood illness, and his efforts to take up the writing life. And, of course, how his internationally acclaimed novel, The Mambo Kings, has affected his life.

What follows is the second conversation I have had with Oscar Hijuelos. We talk about his childhood, his reservations about writing a memoir, Preston Sturges, Moisés Simons, working in advertising, music, Berlin, and living in Cuba or somewhere other than Manhattan.

In his review of Hijuelos’s newest opus, Héctor Tobar opines:

“Thoughts Without Cigarettes is a wonderfully intimate epic as well as an essential document of the evolution of American literature. It tells the story of an American neighborhood and of the young man who was born there, who looked inside himself and found books waiting to be written.One hopes that Hijuelos will find several more.”

####################

Robert Birnbaum: Do you have any misgivings about writing this memoir, Thoughts Without Cigarettes?

Oscar Hijuelos: In terms of going into details?

RB:  Yes. What would have stopped you from writing it? I have a feeling you vacillated about writing it.

OH: I’m really a very private person. So the whole concept of writing it[1] in the first place was self-invasive. I got committed to it because, among among other reasons, [the book]business is kind of rough these days—that’s the practical side. I sold two books at the same time. One was Beautiful Maria of My Soul.

RB:  To two different  publishers.

OH: Right. That was to Hyperion and this one went to Gotham. There was sort of this sense of impending doom about the business.

RB: (laughs)

 

 

Thoughts Without Cigarettes BY Oscar Hijuelos

Thoughts Without Cigarettes BY Oscar Hijuelos

OH: So my agent went for it. My original concept for the book was actually to talk about the preposterous nature of whatever fame is. Or whatever happened. My original notion was to pick up [the story] with [winning] the Pulitzer, where the current memoir ends, and then looking back occasionally. I wanted to do a whole thing about—I don’t know—just the literary world, and my experiences with film, and a lot of stuff that happened in the last 20 years.

RB: Well you can still write another memoir.

OH: I think so, but that is the book I originally intended to write. But once I started dealing with Gotham—and they are great, but I soon learned that they wanted a more traditional kind of rags-to-occasional, sometimes-riches story. They wanted something uplifting, and so it took me a while to put that hat on. Then once I did , I got into it. On the other side of the motivation for doing it—reluctantly, I must say. I spent half of my life explaining to people who know my later books, what I am about. So, I thought I would deal with that in this book. I am not an egotist and the last thing I like to do is talk about myself. The weirdest thing about the ‘I’, the eternal ‘I’ in a memoir or whatever the self-references—it feels, I don’t know, it always feels vaguely pretentious to me. But that’s why I work really hard to break down the barriers between the reader and myself. That sounds pretentious.

RB: Do you not believe that your story is an interesting story?

OH: Yeah, I think it’s a pretty interesting story, but I think it’s an old one. In terms of what’s going on in the world and the suffering of others—you hear stuff every day that is far more tragic.

RB: That sounds like your mother, like what your mother would say to you.

OH: Ah, yes, doctor.

RB: That’s what she did say to you somewhere at the end of the book—how lucky you were when you came back from Rome.

OH: I don’t recall that. Maybe you are remembering your mother (both laugh). But I know what you mean. All I am saying is there is an element to it that feels self-indulgent to me. It’s not like I am a Doctors without Borders guy in the midst of a famine or whatever.

RB: Some people think writing and writers are very important.

OH: I think the book has a certain kind of appeal to young folks that are trying to find themselves. They might be in the midst of being hassled by labeling, or feeling that they are not enough of one thing or another. Basically, I started out without any sound grounding in anything.

RB: You were born in New York but you might as well have been born in Cuba.

OH: Well, yeah, I would say so—I mean, my upbringing was largely in an apartment. My first memories were of my mother and father. My mother only spoke Spanish in those days. My father, I think he spoke some English, because he had been working in a hotel since 1943 or ’44—11 or 12 years in that environment—and I don’t remember him speaking English until I was much older. But of course it was also Manhattan. I’m sure I was aware of other things. Like an outtake that never made the book: I recall being on a street corner with my mother and watching a parade go by with Eisenhower in the motorcade, and the sensation of my mother being so incredibly moved by the fact that someone so important whisked by. Today that would be considered rather corny. That’s the kind of thing I remember. So while I lived in that kind of household, I also had my brushes with the outside world.

RB: Other than two or three years in Rome, and a stint in upstate New York, you have basically have lived in Manhattan all of your life.

OH: I travel a lot.

RB: Wouldn’t the thing that most described you be that you are a Manhattanite?

OH: Yeah. Absolutely. When asked how I saw myself I usually said I considered myself a New Yorker of Cuban antecedents.

RB: What’s the emotional coloration you associate with this story [Thoughts Without Cigarettes]? Happy? Sad? Melancholy? Uplifting—forget that, I guess it’s supposed to be uplifting.

OH: I think of it as a very—I see it in two or three ways. I see it as being a very intimate tale. I see it as often funny. The humor in it is pretty dark. I don’t know if sadness is the right description—the narrative relates to the sense of feeling premature tragedies in life. One of those things there was in the book is, of course, my father’s sudden passing. It was something that was unpredictable, but I wouldn’t say sadness, it’s more a wistfulness, in terms of—

RB: Bittersweetness?

OH: Bittersweetness in what sense?

RB: There are things that are positive and moving and there are emotionally trying things—your father’s death, your childhood illness, friends who overdosed —

OH: Of course there is the yin and yang. It was confusing because to me, when I was writing it, I was admiring—well, maybe not admiring, but you pick up a memoir by someone like Gore Vidal, it’s always one tone. It’s very aloof and amused by the world.

RB: There are not many Gore Vidals—he is a real original.

OH: Yeah. I sometimes wonder if I should have striven for a more consistent, upbeat story.

RB: Is your life upbeat?

OH: Right now or back then?

RB: The life you lived.

OH: I think it was hopeful. It’s hard to capture a directionless upbringing. When you are a kid you always have your hopes, anyway, you have your fantasies, and basically my older brother and I, we have to do a double-take because we were really lucky we landed on our feet. I mean, don’t know what the magical formula is for writing something that’s good, and I am not sure how I feel about the memoir. I do know I worked pretty hard to make it as reader-friendly as possible in terms of unmangling the language, and trying to repress my tendencies for flight. Although I think I could have done a little more, given more time in that direction. It’s an original-feeling book, and the story it tells—if I had any worries about it, was: Who is going to relate to it? Is it a Latino thing or is it for the literary reader? Or is it literary enough for the snobs? You know? I go around in this little circle. And then I have to dismiss it—

RB: Yeah, you never know. I just read Sigrid Nunez’s small volume on Susan Sontag. I wondered whom it was for? I mean Sontag is, of course, important, but this book is so inside baseball. but, I thought it was worth reading.

OH: Yeah. I know Sigrid and David Rieff [Sontag’s son]. I remember that time. I wouldn’t begin to claim to know Susan any more than I conveyed in the memoir. I did spend time with her. You know what it is: It’s not about the moment, it’s maybe about legacy, like 20, 30 years from now when there is a Susan Sontag obsession. She’s reconstituted through computer chips.

 

 

THE MAMBO KINGS Sing Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

THE MAMBO KINGS Sing Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

RB: I wonder, because of the way you describe your feelings upon the success of Mambo Kings and the way you attach them to your feelings about your father—was that your highest high?

OH: The afternoon I describe in the book was accurate. What I didn’t realize at the time, it took me years to figure out, that that book was not always about him—certainly about the atmospheres and his friends and the unseen history provided the energies for that novel. But I was completely sincere in saying that I felt a deep—even more gratitude now than I did back then. I wasn’t entirely aware where my head was at . And also the stuff in Mambo Kings was so distracting, in a way. It takes you out of yourself.

RB: The message or the narrative?

OH: In terms of how novels go—I couldn’t write it now because I am too knowledgeable, too dot-the-I’s, too something. But at the time—I look at it and I see, “Damn, you were in a zone.” If you are a musician and you play something and you are really loving it, and you forget about, and you hear it again 20 years later, you go, ”Damn!” I’m proud of the book, but at the time I had that unexpected success—you know, you go from being a bum in most peoples’ eyes. I remember the same guy who once asked me at a backyard  barbeque out at Howard Beach—he actually asked me, “So what do you do for a living?” I said, “Well, I’m a writer. I want to be a writer,” “Oh, so what do you do for work?” Like, “Har har, you art guys have it really have easy.” A couple of years later the same guy approaches me with the utmost reverence and asks me for advice. This sort of thing. It’s a funny world. It’s not like being a movie actor. But you do have your fans. My fans lately, I notice, trend to be older, but it’s generational for some writers.

RB: I didn’t think so—but I didn’t think many younger readers wanted to read Roth’s Everyman, a story about an old man dying.

OH: But you see when I came up, probably the same for you, literature was more of a timeless universal entity, right? But now it’s what I call publishing in general. A lot of the books produced are equivalent to what I call—there’s an Indian restaurant in Manhattan called Curry in a Hurry, on Lexington Avenue. I’ve always loved that. There’s a whole category of literature happening now that’s being put out specifically with certain markets in mind. A lot of kids are off in their own cyber world. The more serious kids—I teach at Duke part of the year—I had some very gifted students who are interested in everyone. I’m sorry for digressing.

RB: There may be a resurgence in attention to writers that wrote before 1980 … and the books that the New York Review [of Books] publishes help that.

OH: They do have some inherent intrinsic interest in them, because I ordered some books they wrote gallantly about. I said, “Whoa, New York Review press!” Listen, I know what you are getting at and I am in complete support of it. The question [of] how do you get that literature—I mean, there’s too much stuff out there, and so many different sites and opinions, and everything is equal. I don’t get it. I am not sure how I feel about looking at my books on Amazon.com and finding 42 people liked it and two people hated it, you know?

RB: You mentioned it before—there’s a fear out there. Artists who should be thinking about their art now have to spend time and effort on selling and publicizing themselves. But what’s the problem? Are people going to stop reading? Are books going to disappear?

OH: Check this out. I left my hotel in Philadelphia at 8:15 in the morning and checked into my hotel in Boston, which is not very far, at 1:45.

RB: (laughs)

OH: How did that happen? On my way on the flight here, I was sitting next to this business guy who had a Kindle. It was interesting to watch him—he’d read one title (John Grisham), read a few paragraphs, and backspace it and go to another title. It seemed to me he was aspiring to be a reader, and that this thing was convenient because he could have all kinds of books, but he wasn’t into it. I think what’s going to happen. I am not a big fan—I know you are doing this for a website—generally speaking, I am not happy about the demise of the independent bookstores. Or the fact that people get so much stuff online now. And the outlandish power of some of these voices.

RB: I should interject that I could publish this as a sound file or podcast. I prefer that it be read.

OH: Oh, interesting, interesting. I am not putting that down at all—it seems to me that the internet has made so many options available that there’s…the field is so vast and the quality is so arbitrary. Everybody is a critic now.

RB: We definitely need to modulate this shit stream of information. One can disappear down that rabbit hole.

OH: Yeah, it’s kind of crazy.

RB: One problem is the so-called mainstream media—

OH: They don’t cover fiction anymore.

RB: Anyway, you got this great feeling from your first novel—what about the subsequent novels?

THE FOURTEEN SISTERS of Emeilo Montez by Oscar Hijuelos

THE FOURTEEN SISTERS of Emeilo Montez by Oscar Hijuelos

 

OH: Fourteen Sisters [The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien]; in a way it was a reaction to Mambo Kings, the male world. It was about females, mostly. I don’t know what on earth I was thinking, but I was doing a loose takeoff on Preston Sturges films.

RB: (laughs)

OH: The weird thing about—I read somewhere someone said that I was grumpy about the way Latinos are regarded in the media. I dropped so many literary hints in Fourteen Sisters, including having a character that actually meets a character that meets the actor Joel McCrea [the protagonist in Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels]. I couldn’t imagine dropping more hints, but reviewers never picked up on that. It was, after all, an immigrant novel. In Europe they did.

RB: What was an immigrant novel—Fourteen Sisters?

OH: Yeah, that was how it was reviewed.

 

Mr Ives Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Mr Ives Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

RB: Really? I don’t remember reading it that way. When did you publish Mr. Ives?

OH: In 1995. That was shortlisted for the Pulitzer.

RB: That was a wonderful book.

OH: It’s one of my favorites. Somebody asked me what I want to do next after this. I want to do a follow-up to Mr. Ives—in terms of looking at human value, and religion, and what does it all mean? I can’t believe it’s 15 years later. But as more time goes by and as one pushes off from the shore (laughs), further out in to that lake, and you are only going in one direction. There are some other issues I’d like to talk about and even though I—

(Robin and Cuba [my son and his mother interrupt])

RB: We were talking about Mr. Ives. How much of your novels stick with you?

OH: Mr. Ives I liked because I recall the kind of mystical atmosphere it had. Fourteen Sisters I hardly ever think about, except when I do look at it, I am very impressed by my real effort to use softer language, feminine language. And feminine imagery. I came across a passage once, in which I was talking about a purse, and the soft insides of a purse, and what that was really about, etc., etc. That kind of thing. I was in a different kind of zone for that book. Subsequent books—I liked Simple Habana Melody a lot because I felt that—

RB: Was that based on a true story?

 

 A Simple Habana Melody by Oscar Hijuelos

A Simple Habana Melody by Oscar Hijuelos

OH: I based it on the life of Moisés Simons, a guy who wrote The Peanut Vendor, very famous in the ’20s and ’30s. I am always on top of the commercial—I think I operated under the assumption that I was a Boom writer out of Latin America, writing in 1968 or something.

RB: (laughs)

OH: It appealed to a very rarified audience. Writing a book about a Cuban musician who ends up in a concentration camp, based on various facts about Moisés Simon, and it was a very unique book—although the review in the New York Times basically destroyed the book for Europe, because Europeans look at the Times for foreign sales. I have had a lot of foreign sales, but not as many as some other books. Basically the review said, this a completely contrived novel and who ever heard of Cubans going to concentration camps?

RB: So what? That’s why it’s a novel, not a history book.

OH: I understand that. Anyway, because of that it was overlooked in some circles. I am proud of that book because it was pretty hard to pull off. And I was so deep into the history of Cuban music and politics back in the ’30s and ’40s. I did lot of research, and I look at it now and it’s pretty—the thing is, I become this whole other person once I finish a book. Occasionally I get a chance to look back and be detached about myself. I am not sure how I am going to feel about this memoir, though.

RB: What about the sequel to Mambo Kings?

 

Beautiful Maria of My Soul by Oscar Hijuelos

Beautiful Maria of My Soul
by Oscar Hijuelos

OH: Beautiful Maria? I got a kick out of that book. I mean, I put myself into it. I also juggled the worlds. I think it was a very cunning novel in a way, because it reneges or backtracks in history. I appear as an unspoken character, so it’s a lot of fun. One of my big disappointments—a scene I based on the truth, where Beautiful Maria is sitting with this guy named Hijuelos in this restaurant in Coral Gables and the MC of the [TV] show Sábado Gigante walks in, and I based it on a true incident when I was sitting in a restaurant with some people and this guy who runs this big hammy show on Univision put on an impromptu cabaret performance. It was like walking in and Ed Sullivan is standing around and singing in the bar. I put that in there, and I am proud of taking things that happened and putting them in that novel. There was a lot of crossover from fantasy to reality and back and forth like that.

RB: Why did you revisit the Mambo Kings story? Did you always have that intention?

OH: Yeah, part of it came from a version of Mambo Kings that was [made into] a musical, which I worked on for too long. It ended up being a disappointment. It’s a long story—it ran in San Francisco for three months, and it was going to open on Broadway and I spent almost three years on that. That’s why there’s a lapse in my book between 2003 and 2008. Basically I was thinking about all these things that I had in Mambo Kings that nobody knew about. So for the musical I conceived this notion of—I went back to my original notion for the novel and wanted to regenerate it in the musical. But it didn’t quite work out. It stayed in my mind, so a few years later—it started as a theatrical idea and I just ran with it. I always knew what happened to Maria, even though I don’t state it in the first novel. It would have made it too long and unwieldy.

RB: None of your other novels have been close to being made into movies?

OH: Mr. Ives was almost made with Jimmy Smits. I nixed a script, which was really stupid. It was about to be shot and Smits was starring. Then another version came up and he was still going to do it. But then he pulled out because he had another movie. He was getting scale for Mr. Ives—the other movie was Star Wars.

RB: (laughs)

OH: Then it was almost made a third time. I can’t remember that circumstance. But, you know, people get really interested. They are desperate for stories and then the interest dies out. Fourteen Sisters was almost made into a TV miniseries. Sheldon Leonard wanted to produce it. And I nixed that because. … Oh yeah, the third time with Mr. Ives, Armand Assante wanted to do it. I really regret that.

 

RB: It’s old stuff, but I was put off by Celia Cruz singing in English in Mambo Kings. It was reminiscent of a minstrel show.

OH: I have a DVD of outtakes of her in which she sang the songs in Spanish. The film was also sold to the Spanish market. I think they were thinking market-specific, not so much with the ethnological thing. I show this some times when I am asked to talk about Mambo Kings—different scenes of her [Cruz] improvising songs in Spanish and doing some [in] English—a very in-your-face recording. I am very proud of that connection—she put me in her memoir. So I felt really good about that.

RB: She was great—I saw her perform a few times.

OH: Yeah, she started out very young. She was a star in Cuba by the time she was 16 or 17 years old.

RB: Can you speculate at all about what might have been had Mambo Kings not been successful?

OH: Good question. I probably would have ended up … (long pause) There is so much built up in my mind after a certain point—it’s kind of a buzzy thing. I would probably have gone to school to become a schoolteacher, or maybe tried to get a teaching job. A couple novels are credential enough; a lot of creative writing teachers today haven’t published much more than that. I don’t know. I really don’t know. I have always been laid back, or used to be so laid back. I liked to hang out with my musician friends, or just be a regular guy, so if it had flopped I maybe would have kept on working. Who knows what else might have happened? I might have written something else besides Fourteen Sisters.

RB: Can you imagine having worked at Young and Rubicam [ad agency]?

OH: Yeah. “You can taste it with your eyes,” man.

RB: (laughs)

OH: “Cigarettes taste good like cigarettes should.” Um, yeah. I could have. It’s a slightly different world. I hung out with this copywriter who was into marketing and he would ask, “Why did you buy that bread, as opposed to …?” I could never do that.

RB: You could sit around a create slogans like “Blank tastes good like a cigarette should”?

OH: The thing is, that whole world is its own art form, and it has its own rewards.

RB: And its own nostalgia, a la Mad Men.

OH: To me that’s over-the-top glamourized. I guess I worked with the tail end of that generation as a young kid in the office. I don’t know if it was as glamorous as they make it out to be. You could make pretty good money back in the ’80s as a top copywriter. That was never my thing.

RB: What about a career in music?

OH: I was never that gifted.

RB: Is that what stopped you? You clearly have a love for music. You don’t seem to lose an opportunity to jam.

OH: I do love music. Musicians love me; I’m a good idea man and often have good chops. Or I used to have good chops … (long pause) I don’t know—the level of virtuosity, particularly in the form I am most interested in, jazz, was beyond me. I was a jammer as opposed to a real old-school chart-reader. I didn’t have the technical expertise.

RB: You hung around with [jazz guitarist] Kenny Burrell at his apartment. You listened to him practice.

OH: Yeah. Remember the group called the Cadillacs? They used to live on Morningside Drive. They rehearsed in an apartment right next to a brothel.

RB: Where do you live now?

OH: I keep a studio on 106th Street, Duke Ellington Boulevard. The one uptown is where people put cigarette butts out in the walls. And then I have a place down on 73rd and Riverside Drive. I like river and sky and all that. The neighborhood is getting a little too bougie for me, so I‘d like to go back uptown.

RB: Do envision living somewhere other than Manhattan?

OH: Another country?

RB: Anywhere else other than New York.

OH: Yeah, I think about it. I think about it more wishing I had that hat on 10 or 15 years ago, when I had much more opportunity and mobility. I went to Berlin a few years ago. I absolutely loved it. A very young-feeling city. It’s very dynamic. Have you been?

RB: No.

OH: You should go.

RB: I have read about it and that many visitors love it.

OH: More parks than any city in the world and everybody is laid back. I thought there would be this sinister residue from WWII—that’s what we grew up with, right? And it was the opposite of that. I would like to spend more time in Latin America. I am working on that now but I always have enough commitments to mess up the next few years.

RB: I have heard that Uruguay is a wonderful place.

OH: Martin Amis spends time down there.

RB: He did. He has moved to NYC.

OH: He’s in New York?

RB: His wife [Isabel Fonseca] is Uruguayan. You must be published in Latin America?

OH: Yeah.

RB: In English or Spanish?

OH: Spanish. It’s a relative term. I had someone come to my apartment once, a journalist, with an edition of Mambo Kings I had never seen before from Buenos Aires. (both laugh) I said, “Oh really, I didn’t know I was being published in Argentina.” It was a pirated version.

RB: You don’t write in Spanish—it’s translated. Do you have any contact with the translators?

OH: No. Just with Spain. They are coming with Beautiful Maria. They jumped on that so fast. The Finns jumped on it, the Dutch. People are interested in certain aspects of my work, still. My biggest pride was in Spain—there was an auction there, three or four houses were competing. An unexpected boost to my ego.

RB: Is there a different publisher in every Latin American country?

OH: You are asking me about stuff that I only know a little bit about.

RB: That’s good, since I know almost nothing.

OH: Companies in Spain have subsidiaries in Latin America, sort of like HarperCollins, and there is one translation. A lot of people go to Spain and pick up books. In this internet age, communication—20 years ago it was different story. I have never seen a copy, but I know a pirated edition of Mambo Kings was in Cuba for a while.

RB: I don’t remember seeing a bookstore in Cuba. Books were being sold on the street in Old Havana. What is your sense about spending time in Cuba? You must have relatives there.

OH: I do. I have a lot of cousins. My aunt passed away about five years ago. I had gone to visit her and I am glad I did, she was 96 or 97. So I have relatives there—what am I going to do, go hang out and live with my relatives and get an apartment in Havana? I’m not sure what I would do. It’s not like going to Europe, where you know for a fact that most people are OK. I would like to go and visit my father’s home town.

RB: Holguín?

OH: That was my mother’s. My father was from Jiguaní a little town in eastern Cuba. When you asked me originally if I had any misgiving about the book [Thoughts Without Cigarettes], what were you getting at?

RB: Well, I don’t read many reviews, but it seems obligatory in reviews about memoirs that the writer has to mention how there are so many, and that the boomer generation has published more memoirs than all in previous history. That’s one thing. And, of course, the matter of revealing personal and family stories. Was your mother alive when you wrote this?

OH: No, she passed away five years ago.

RB: Could you have written this book if you knew she would read it?

OH: Uh, I think it would have been very interesting. I don’t think I am that hard on her.

 

Our House in The Last World by Oscar Hijuelos

Our House in The Last World by Oscar Hijuelos

RB: She was upset at Our House in the Last World.

OH: It was weird. I did a reading in NYC the other night, and the same day I do the reading I get a letter from my ex-wife—my first wife from 35 years ago. And she picked up the book somehow, in Chicago or wherever she was living, I forget where. She was pretty nice about it. She said I got her parents right—that was a blast from the past. And in the crowd this guy keeps nodding at me, and he looks vaguely familiar. It was some guy I used to work for TDI [Transportation Displays Inc.], and when I worked for him the guy was a tyrant and a despot and mean, always angry. A control freak. I guess being a heavy bad guy pays off—20 years later he is smiling. He came to my reading. I found that very, very touching. He said he almost cried. I happened to read a passage about TDI. And then a widow of a friend who helped print up the ads for my first novel—she was there. She was crying. And some other things like that, it was strange. With a novel you get a certain type of response, but with a memoir it’s taken as, “This is the official truth.” If I have any misgivings about it—it’s my interpretation of what happened. I don’t think anything is written in stone. It’s certainly not written in stone in memory. What I had hoped to do was capture the general atmosphere of my own anxieties and my own whatever, joys and sadness. I don’t know how to feel—it’s hard to write about yourself.

RB: Sure—and you have the possibility of writing about the next phase.

OH: If I live that long.

RB: One last question: I don’t want to seem stupid, but I can’t figure out the title.

OH: Thoughts Without Cigarettes? [2]Well the original subtitle was going to be With Apologies to Italo Svevo, who wrote Confessions of Zeno, which was about a guy trying to quite smoking. Who the hell is going to relate to that?

RB: (laughs)

OH: The original version of the book had to do with smoking versus not smoking as a barometer of how I felt, from time to time in life. And then it evolved in to a different kind of narrative. But I though the title was pretty interesting. When people ask me I almost feel like saying, “It seemed like a good thing.”

RB: It does seem to stand on its own—it’s your story. Well, thank you.

OH: Thank you.

 

##############

Endnotes

1 Oscar Hujielos  talks about writing Thoughts without Cigaretttes

2 Oscar Hijuelos reads from Thoughts without Cigaretttes

Not A Chance Meeting: Me and Rachel Cohen

25 Jan

 

 

Some ten years ago, as happens occasionally, I chanced upon A Chance Meeting  that, to this day, remains one of my favorite books. And which was sufficient motivation to arrange to speak with its author, Rachel Cohen (you can find that conversation here

Rachel Cohen [photo by Robert Birnbaum]

Rachel Cohen [photo by Robert Birnbaum]

  In the fall of 2014, Rachel Cohen authored a slender biography of famed art historian Bernard Berenson and  she and met again to conversate about her book and many related and unrelated  topics. In the decade between chats w she has had two children, received a Guggenheim for the writing she is doing about painting, Time in Pieces: Painting Modern Life. And in the fall of this year her family migrates to the South Side of Chicago where she takes an appointment as a Professor of Practice in Creative Writing at the University of Chicago. Additionally she is contributing to the Virginia Quarterly Review’s instagram feed.

 

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Robert Birnbaum:  What do you want to talk about?

Rachel Cohen: (laughter)

Robert Birnbaum: I put you on the spot, sorry. That was a serious question, though. I do want to know what you wanted to talk about.

Rachel Cohen: Probably about painting. In a way, the thing that I’m doing now is spending a lot of time going to look at paintings. That’s one of the things that is connected to this book, but then it kind of goes on.

Robert Birnbaum: You live in a good place for that. There’s a lot of museums and  galleries  here.

Rachel Cohen: It’s wonderful.

Robert Birnbaum: Are there many contemporary collections of paintings here? People still paint, right?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah, people do, although less and with less attention given to it. Yeah, there’s some, and there are a lot good galleries here and the Institute of Contemporary Art. There is contemporary stuff, but a lot of what I’m looking at is historical. This is a great place for that. It’s fantastic.

Robert Birnbaum: What period?

Rachel Cohen: I’m especially looking at impressionist painting. That makes everybody feel like, “Oh, I stopped looking at those when I was thirteen, and there was a reason.”

Robert Birnbaum: It’s passe isn’t it?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. They are. They’re too sweet.

Robert Birnbaum: But, they’re always really popular.Every couple of years a major museum will have a major Impressionist exhibition.

Rachel Cohen: Exactly. Lines going around the block. Everybody who never goes to museums goes, and everybody who does go to museums disdains those shows.

Robert Birnbaum:  You’re interested in paintings meaning that you want to write about paintings?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. That’s what I’m doing now. It’s something I’ve always done. When I first moved to New York, when I got a job, the first thing I did was buy a membership to the Metropolitan Museum, which was largely symbolic. You don’t actually have to pay for the museum. (laughter)

Robert Birnbaum: Did they give you a membership card? That’s a good thing.

Rachel Cohen: I have a card.

Robert Birnbaum: When I traveled abroad I would  go to the press office to get a press credential even though I never used them there [I more often used them locally].

Rachel Cohen: It’s that kind of thing. I  do want to feel  part of the painting world. When I lived in New York I went to the Met basically every week for almost seventeen years. It was a longstanding kind of a thing to really be looking at paintings in a very serious way.

Robert Birnbaum: Let me refresh my memory of you— you took a ten thousand mile trip around the country?

Rachel Cohen: It was actually closer to twenty thousand, but yeah that’s right.

Robert Birnbaum: You were very modest. (laughter) That  trip preceded your first book .

 

A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen

A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. A Chance Meeting. That’s right.[ 1]

Robert Birnbaum: We met about ten years ago, twelve years ago? It was to talk about that book.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. Ten years ago, nine years ago.

Robert Birnbaum:What are your memories and impressions of that trip, ten years later now that you’re married and you have a child Do you have flashbacks of the trip? Do you think about that trip?

Rachel Cohen: All the way back. Yeah, I do. For me the trip is now actually twenty years ago because it took me ten years to write that book. It’s  been so long. Things get farther and farther back. Yes, I do think about that trip. I took some subsequent book trips too. I used to do that, go for several months and kind of get away. Those trips were very helpful and informative, just to get immersed in your own mind, another way of thinking, to get away once a year.

Robert Birnbaum: A gutsy thing for…

Rachel Cohen: A single woman…

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: I would worry about driving through certain rural areas.

Rachel Cohen: Yes. When I did that trip my mother gave me a —

Robert Birnbaum: —Your mother? (laughs)

Rachel Cohen: My mother worried.

Robert Birnbaum: She gave you her shotgun? (laughter)

Rachel Cohen: That’s a good idea. No, she gave me a cell phone. It was twenty years ago so it was one of those giant things that basically took up the passenger seat of the car for… (laughter)

Robert Birnbaum: Don’t make me laugh when I’m drinking coffee, alright?

Rachel Cohen: It never worked all that well but it was some security for me to have it and for her.

Robert Birnbaum: Did you find that you were in places where you were fearful?

Rachel Cohen: I was, at the time, nervous. I was nervous. I developed some habits as I went, that were things that I learned to do that made it more comfortable. One was that I stopped staying in Motel 6s and started staying in family run motels because those felt like safer places and there were people who felt ownership who were running them.

Robert Birnbaum: You’ve got to write a traveler’s guide.

Rachel Cohen: (laughs)  When I would check in I would ask for a room next to the night desk. The closest room  because often those places would be empty but then I would know there was somebody there within shouting distance. Those things made me feel more safe.

Robert Birnbaum: What is the most prominent memory of this? What is thing that you always think about when you think about

Rachel Cohen: That trip?

Robert Birnbaum: Is there one thing?

Rachel Cohen: I don’t know. I have different memories of…

Robert Birnbaum: Do they suddenly appear out of nowhere sometimes? All of sudden something triggers a thought about a particular

Rachel Cohen: About a place or something?

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. They do come to me at different moments. Especially landscapes because it’s very hard to write about landscape and I took these very inadequate snapshots as I was going through this huge western spaces.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

Rachel Cohen: I was having these incredible experiences of being immersed in the horizon.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s why [Ansel]Adams [2] used an eight by ten [large format]camera.

 

 

Ansel Adams, Jeffrey Pine, 1940

Ansel Adams, Jeffrey Pine, 1940

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. Exactly. Much bigger and kind of a plain. Or video or something, like David Hockney compilations, but recently I was talking to a friend of mine who’s writing a book that’s set in the West. It’s a book of history.

Robert Birnbaum: About what?

Rachel Cohen: It’s about a man who was part of reconstruction after the Civil War and left that job and ended up in the army fighting the Indian War in the west. So he was  part of these two terrible things that were happening right after the Civil War. As we were talking about this I suddenly remembered going to the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho, what that was like and the museum there and what I had seen and what I had learned about that place. It turned out that he had just spent several weeks on the Nez Perce reservation and was surprised to discover that there was somebody else that he knew who had been there. It seems remote.

Robert Birnbaum: A White person?

Rachel Cohen: No the place not something that people study, but it was a really interesting place and while I was there I bought a book that was in the museum gift shop there called With the Nez Perce, which I think is, fantastically, out-of-print at this point. May be get-able.

Robert Birnbaum: Right.

Rachel Cohen: It was a book about two women who had been trying to administer the land grants for the Nez Perce as they were force-ably converted from a roving people to what was supposed to be agricultural in a land that was wildly unsuited for agriculture.

Robert Birnbaum: You know what  General Philip Sheridan said about Indian reservations?

Rachel Cohen: No.

Robert Birnbaum: “Worthless pieces of land surrounded by scoundrels.”

Rachel Cohen: Yeah,exactly. You still have that feeling when you’re there.

Robert Birnbaum: Amazing. We’re still screwing those people.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. It’s a hideous … It’s terrible.  Yeah. It’s really astonishing that it goes on. Those were the kinds of things that it was very good for me to drive around the country and run into them. I grew up in  a college town, went to school out here. East coast life, and  one can easily stay in a metropolitan corridor and not really encounter things.

Robert Birnbaum: How do think this notion of the “fly over zone “originated? Where did that originate? (laughter) Had to originate on the east coast from people who never leave the east coast?

Rachel Cohen:Like a Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover.

 

Saul Steinberg, detail from New Yorker cover

Saul Steinberg, detail from New Yorker cover

Robert Birnbaum: Did you see paintings when you…? You said you were interested in painting from a very young age, so was that something that you also had a chance to partake in

Rachel Cohen: I didn’t do so much of that during that trip.

Robert Birnbaum: You were focused on?

Rachel Cohen: I was more looking at landscape and going to small museums, but tending to be museums of personality and museums about particular people. Billy the Kid, or else the Native American museums. I remember seeing some good paintings in Austin, and seeing some good things in Los Angeles when I went through those cities. Mostly I was in rural places.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m fascinated by these quirky museums that exist around the country. There’s a Lucille Ball Museum in Jamestown, New York. Also there’s a guy, years ago, who contacted me who had a 1968 museum up in New Hampshire. He just would accumulate all sorts of things contemporaneous to 1968,

Rachel Cohen: These  are different ways of collecting our past. Also, part of my interest is in the more regular painting museum. It’s a strange thing, a museum. It’s really an invention of the last couple hundred years. Previously there were palaces. With lots of paintings in them, but the idea of a public museum that was open…

Robert Birnbaum: What was the first museum do you think?

Rachel Cohen: Let’s see, the Louvre became public at the time of Napoleon because his idea was  to return the collections to the people a little bit. That was circa 1800.

Robert Birnbaum: Were the people in charge  of the Louvre, were they actually curators? Or were they something else?

Rachel Cohen: The people under Napoleon are hilarious, actually. They’re connoisseurs and a lot of them knew really a lot about painting, but they were also bandits… (laughter)

Robert Birnbaum: Do you ever see yourself writing another book that’s as unique and original as A  Chance Meeting?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.That’s what I’m working on. I’m working on these two books. One is a novel and the other is a book about paintings.

Robert Birnbaum: Your dust jacket bio states you are a creative writing teacher, but I only know you to write non-fiction. But now you’re writing a novel?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah, I’ve been writing it for seven years, so I’m seriously about it. It’s a ways from being done yet. Both of these new projects are creative. This Berenson book, which I really enjoyed writing, was a commission. I was happy to have some work. It was a nice thing to do and I ended up learning a lot of things that are valuable to me. It certainly was a book with a traditional form prescribed by the series[Yale University Press Jewish Lives series. It wasn’t possible to be too flexible with this one.

 Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade by Rachel Cohen

Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade
by Rachel Cohen

 

Robert Birnbaum: I have to confess,  Berenson is  an interesting figure and seems like he’s a decent person but I find it hard to get interested  in a guy sitting around an Italian villa and living the good life . Tell me , do you think the book’s cover photo is posed ?

Rachel Cohen: I think it’s posed. Yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s a perfect little picture, but it’s just, uncanny.

Rachel Cohen: There’s artifice in everything that he does. That’s correct.

Robert Birnbaum: I did think it was interesting that he said late in his life, something about making himself a work of art. That’s what he was working on?

Rachel Cohen: He came of age in an aesthetic generation where that was a project. An Oscar Wilde sort of project to have an aesthetic of yourself. I found that interesting too. I think in the end what I stayed interested in thinking about him was two things. One was that all of that elaborate fancy material was, for him, a compensation for the lack of his early life. That’s actually a common story. Many people have deprivation early on and are then making up for it in their later life. I  also thought there was something about the experiences of prejudice in his story. He ended up on the far end of the elite, that’s definitely true, but it was interesting to me that his fierce ambition to have all of that stuff came from the absence of it.

Robert Birnbaum: Somebody at Harvard said he had more ambition than he had ability.

Rachel Cohen: Charles Eliot Norton,who was born in the elite and happily ensconced there.

Robert Birnbaum: It reminded me of something, that Justice Felix Frankfurter said about Roosevelt—” he was a first class personality and a second class mind.” That’s giving with one hand and then taking with the other

Rachel Cohen: Then you take hard. I think of  what H.L. Mencken  said about Baltimore— City of Southern Efficiency and Northern Charm.

Robert Birnbaum: How old’s your daughter?

Rachel Cohen: She’s eighteen months.She’s a year and a half. She’s a sweet one.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s her name?

Rachel Cohen: Sylvia.

Robert Birnbaum: Needless to say, that changes things for you.

Rachel Cohen: This changes your life pretty fundamentally.Beautifully. It’s very nice. I’ve been going to museums with her too. Which has been a very sweet thing. You can learn a lot by doing that. We had a nice experience the other day. We went to the Children’s Museum and we had actually mostly been going to the MFA. I’d been taking her there , letting her see stuff and then play outside.

Robert Birnbaum: Did she look at the walls? Did she look at the paintings on the walls? Did she actually look at them?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. She will look at them and find stuff in them. Especially statues, she likes because you can see them in the round and it’s easy to understand, but actually paintings— she likes a lot. She like the colors. She has a good eye for color and she likes to say all the colors that she can see.

Robert Birnbaum: What do you think she sees?

Rachel Cohen: She sees the things assembling into forms. She sees color assemble into forms.

Robert Birnbaum: What does she describe? Given she has an eighteen month old vocabulary, so what does she describe?

Rachel Cohen: She actually has a huge vocabulary. (laughter)

Robert Birnbaum: Put a dictionary under her pillow… In the Dominican Republic they put baseball mitts in the babies’ cribs.

Rachel Cohen: A dictionary —something like that. She says, “Boat. Cloud. Momma. Baby.” Things that she sees.

Robert Birnbaum: So from the very first you didn’t baby talk her. You pretty much talk sentences to her.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Are you capable of baby talking? (laughter)

Rachel Cohen: Maybe not. Maybe not. Might not be. I might be one of those people without that ability.

Robert Birnbaum: You learn what your limitations are at some point. Even though it seems like a common thing. I didn’t do it either. Now I sometimes do it with my dog. He’s such a child. You’re going to view paintings, do you paint yourself?

Rachel Cohen: No, I don’t. I draw a little bit, just to understand.

Robert Birnbaum: Did you aspire to paint? Never even tried it?

Rachel Cohen: No.

Robert Birnbaum: You knew right away?

Rachel Cohen: I guess so. I never really tried it but drawing I like and I’ve taken a few drawing classes.

Robert Birnbaum: You take photographs?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. That’s been a strange thing about going, recently. I’m keeping this notebook online about looking at paintings, which I hadn’t done before. I’m making these sketches and writing online—which I love doing and I hadn’t expected to love it as much as I do. It’s really nice writing online. I see why you do it.

Robert Birnbaum:  I hate the word ‘blog’.There’s something essentially ugly about the word

Rachel Cohen: I think so too.  I think that’s right. I’ve been calling it a notebook because I never liked that word[blog]. ‘Notebook’ has a long tradition and there are reasons for keeping notebooks. Artists kept them and people going to look at paintings have always kept notes.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you have people who respond to the things you write?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. Usually by writing to me directly. Not so much by commenting on the site. I get responses, sometimes from strangers, and also sometimes I get letters from friends or students who I haven’t been in touch with in a long time. Often about something they’ve seen. That’s really wonderful. I didn’t expect that to be part of it. I’m writing these little essays, basically. They write me one back. It’s really nice. My notebook entries end up being letters from Cambridge or something, and I get letters back. It’s very nice.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s hard to figure out what one’s expectations are . Of course, you want people to read your stuff and  to interact with you about it. That’s a wish— in reality, when you write this online, you don’t know. It’s hard to say where it enters the public conversation.

Rachel Cohen: I’m curious what you think about that. You’ve been doing it for a while and you’ve shifted forms a little bit too. You’ve gotten more compact over time.

Robert Birnbaum: I found my… I don’t want to say my concentration is limited, because it’s not. I only can do the same kind of thing for ten or fifteen hours a week. I have distinct moments where I want to spend thinking and writing, I like to think. It’s an indulgence. I also use my online journal to publish interviews that I don’t want to justify to an editor…I love that we’re talking about me.

.Rachel Cohen: I noticed that you don’t do it that much but it’s a chance for me.

Robert Birnbaum: Actually, I try to excise my part of a conversation because readers might think, “I thought this was an interview?”

Rachel Cohen:  It’s nice. It s eccentric what you do and there used to be more places for it. Many of the kinds of writing that we are fans of, there were more places for them.

Robert Birnbaum: I think there still are a lot. I really do. At least more than I can keep up with. I look at places like the LA Review of Books, Lapham’s Quarterly, The Baffler,  N + 1McSweeney’s and TomDispatch.

Rachel Cohen: I also think that people make mistakes about circulation in retrospect. They miss X,Y,Z,  magazine, the old New Yorker or something like that. They think, “Oh, everybody read that.” In fact, it had a circulation of ten thousand. Not so many people read it. The current literary magazines are also reaching that kind of range of people.

Robert Birnbaum:There is also the importance of archiving the past on the Internet.  Both the Atlantic and Harper’s have archived their past,  from the nineteenth century, on line?

Rachel Cohen: It’s really wonderful. It used to be you published something in a fairly obscure place and if people didn’t buy that issue, that was that. Now it’s online, or you can put it up yourself and then it’s there forever. These small magazine can have a lot of influence and wonderful writing can be found in those places and come into the world. I’m really liking writing for the web. I’m an old fashioned person. I live mostly in the nineteenth century. I’m often out of the technological world. But I’ve found that I really love it. This is what I started to say, that when I go to look at paintings now, because I know I’m going to post about them, I take my iPhone and I take lots of little pictures. Not just of the whole painting but lots of the details of the painting.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s produces more what your eye is seeing

Rachel Cohen: Exactly.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s one thing to show the whole painting. I can look that up. Is that right?

Rachel Cohen: I can show the process of how I’m looking at it, what I’m seeing. How the details are in relation to one another. That’s a much closer communication. It’s more like actually going to a museum with my reader than what I’m able to do in print.

Robert Birnbaum: You just called yourself a nineteenth century person. I know what you’re saying, but I always wonder, and I especially wonder about people who are literate is what’s your cultural diet? Do you know who  Sarah Silverman is?

Rachel Cohen: Yes.

Robert Birnbaum: You know who Rhianna is?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. Thank you for giving me a couple that I can get.

Robert Birnbaum: Tupac?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. Definitely. Definitely.

Robert Birnbaum: To me all these things are floating around, and I do partake. Netflix. It’s a bane and it’s a benefit. Itunes, no, Spotify. Where you can almost any piece of recorded music. You have available to you, if you wanted, all this information. I wonder if generations behind them avail themselves of this stuff or if they just stay focused on certain fractured windows of genre?

Rachel Cohen: It’s true, in part, what I mean when I say I’m a nineteenth century person is that I value certain kinds of continuity. I like the long history of things. That comes up to the present. It’s not that I’m missing the present, it’s that I’m not forgetting the past or something.

 

Robert Stone [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Stone [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Birnbaum: I was impressed by Robert Stone’s [4] latest novel Death of the Black Haired Girl in that, here’s a guy in his late seventies. His book takes place a little bit after September eleventh. Maybe within two or three years, but there was no temporal references that were wrong. There were enough citations of contemporary life that he referenced. His cultural antennae  were acute— that may become more rare.

Rachel Cohen: I think great fiction writers are very alert to the world around them and if they’re not experiencing it directly, they’re still watching how other people are experiencing it so that they’re not- What somebody in their twenties feels is not of no interest to them now that they’re seventy. They still care about how people are taking the world in. I hope, aspire, to be that kind of person.

Robert Birnbaum: To what kind of music do you listen ?

Rachel Cohen: I mostly listen to classical music and I do listen to contemporary classical music, but

Robert Birnbaum: You listen to lots of contemporary music?

Rachel Cohen: No. I listen to a lot of Bach, but I do

Robert Birnbaum: I always wonder when I see a biography of a  world historical person —hasn’t anybody written enough?

Rachel Cohen: And everything about them?

Robert Birnbaum: One of the things I think is useful about your book and the series is that it’s obviates not having to read these six or seven hundred page tomes filled with endless details. I don’t find them helpful.

Rachel Cohen:  That was one of the interesting things about writing this book was thinking, “How do you make a biography interesting?” As a form, this thing that we accept about biography are pretty dull. (laughter)

Robert Birnbaum: What the subject ate when he was five years old…

Rachel Cohen: There’s the grandparents and jobs that the parents had, and the education. It’s so tedious. There’s the train they took to Geneva and what time the train got there. Then there’s the death scene, and then there’s the legacy.

Robert Birnbaum: There is one major biography of Berenson [editor:subsequently I discovered there are two].

Rachel Cohen: I used it religiously.

Robert Birnbaum: You had to read it.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. Over and over. With hundreds of little sticky notes and all that stuff because you’re reducing that and reinterpreting it.

Robert Birnbaum: Giving it a narrative as opposed to—

Rachel Cohen: Exactly. You want to make it the story of a life.  And the other thing is that lives don’t really make stories. When fiction writers make stories, they’re deliberately making lots of choices about what they’re including. Great narrative is not soup to nuts. It doesn’t really go from birth to death.

Robert Birnbaum: We barely can connect the things in our own lives as we’re living them.

Rachel Cohen: Exactly.You try to make a narrative. We’re desperately trying to make narratives of our lives. That’s the interesting thing in biography. You think, “How do you relate the different things?”, so that you come out with something thats  propulsive so you want to keep  finding out what happens and that the things at the beginning seem connected to the things at the end. because they may not, in a life, feel that connected.

Robert Birnbaum: I thought you did a splendid job of concising how he managed to survive Italy and the War. I was surprised that he had champions that slowed the bureaucratic process down.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: That was interesting to me. There is a rough connection in my recent interest in Stefan Zweig [6]  Two people who were exiles…

Rachel Cohen: That’s right. They were similar also in their commitment to a European culture that was, especially a Jewish internationalist position, after the first war. They were of the same milieu in that period between wars.

Robert Birnbaum: Did they ever meet, do you think? Both of them met everybody.

Rachel Cohen: Everybody.

Robert Birnbaum: They were the hubs of culture.

Rachel Cohen: I think that they did meet, although I couldn’t swear to that. I have a way of checking, but I know that Berenson read Zweig.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you find it interesting that he’s not read today?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. I do. Although I think he’s coming back a little bit.

Robert Birnbaum: Pushkin Press is publishing a lot of his writing.

Rachel Cohen: The New York Review of Books also has done several things.

Robert Birnbaum: There was a biography that came out last year called Three Lives.

Rachel Cohen: I wrote a review  [7]of the one that Joan Acocella  wrote a forward for, for The Chess Game.

Robert Birnbaum: It had a different title though didn’t it, for a long time? The Royal Game?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. That’s right. It was called The Royal Game but I think they returned it to The Chess Game and that edition, which is a spectacular book. That was a pleasurable project. I read a lot of his correspondence.

Robert Birnbaum: Where is it?

Rachel Cohen: It was in Bookforum. I think it’s online too, as we were saying. Everything is there. I really enjoyed trying to think about how his fiction works. It has a very particular kind of shape to it.

Robert Birnbaum: A French physician, who was also a novelist, wrote a splendid little novel called The Last Days. [8]Which  covers the last five or six months of his life in Brazil.

 

The Last Days by Laurent Sesek

The Last Days by Laurent Sesek

Rachel Cohen: Oh really?

Robert Birnbaum: It’s a novel, but it really seems like the writer  had a very good sense of his harrowing ending… he was a tortured soul… as was his wife.

Rachel Cohen: You can really see it in those last works.

Rachel Cohen: If you really understood what was happening [in the world]then you  went out of your mind.

Robert Birnbaum: You would have thought being in Petropolis, Brazil that he  would have felt safe.

Rachel Cohen: You couldn’t get away from that.

Robert Birnbaum:  There were German immigrants. There was life there.

Rachel Cohen: That’s right. I think it’s also hard now. German culture is so irrevocably marked for us by that war, but if you really grew up before that Germany was the fountain head of a lot of artistic and cultural life.

Robert Birnbaum: I think more so of Vienna. Vienna was a whole different thing.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah, for Zweig especially, that was a source for him. I guess I’m thinking of those things together. The musical and literary heritage and to feel that that was somehow being destroyed, or coming apart, or that maybe it had contributed to this horrible thing in some way. It’s very hard to get back to before. To think what it was to be somebody like Zweig.

Robert Birnbaum: Do I get the sense that you’re not in a hurry? You just write at a comfortable pace for the things that you do?

Rachel Cohen: That’s a nice way of saying it—”not in a hurry”. (laughter). I’m a very slow writer.

Robert Birnbaum: Your agents is still Eric Simonoff?

Rachel Cohen: He is, yeah.

 

Edward Jones, author of the Known World [photo : Robert Birnbaum

Edward Jones, author of the Known World [photo : Robert Birnbaum

Robert Birnbaum: There’s something special about this guy —I discovered he represents about some really remarkable people. Ed Jones, he represents Edward Jones. [9]When I heard that he represented you and Ed Jones and there were a couple other people. This is a tough business that he’s in. This indicates certain kind of taste and simpatico.

Rachel Cohen: He’s terrific.

Robert Birnbaum: Book agents for writers like you need to be like a member of your family.

Rachel Cohen: (laughs)He’s very patient. He never asks me anything. We go and we have coffee and if I say it’s going well, he says good. I think he’s got all different scales.

Robert Birnbaum He moved to a different, more powerful agency.

Rachel Cohen: He went to William Morris, and he’s the co-head of literary at William Morris.

Robert Birnbaum: Which means he must have money making authors, probably who are his money making writers.

Rachel Cohen: He has some very literary writers who sell, like Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Lethem, and people like that. He also does non-fiction. He does very well. He does really well. He’s really a wonderful combination of business  and insight. He really understands the business and he’s very far sighted about it. He thinks in a long way about how to make places for literature in the world.

Robert Birnbaum: The long game’s always important.

Rachel Cohen: He really is good at that. At the end, he has wonderful taste. He took, not that in taking me he showed he had wonderful taste, but when he took me, I had written a few essays. He said , I’d like to represent you. I was put in touch by somebody who was already represented. I said I really didn’t know what I  was doing.

Robert Birnbaum: You were looking for an agent.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah, I was, but I had an idea for that eventually became a book that you liked [A Chance  Meeting ]

Robert Birnbaum: Did anyone else like that book? I’m thinking about a list of tragically overlooked books.

Rachel Cohen: No, people love that book actually. It’s still in print. People still write to me about it. It got wonderful reviews. Yeah. It was loved. Thank you.

Robert Birnbaum: Is it the case that one of the benefits of having someone like Eric is that you don’t think much about the business?

Rachel Cohen: I think it is. It’s also the case that having a steady teaching job has allowed me to have more flexibility about the kinds of things I write. I tried a little bit to make more of a living as a freelance writer, and that’s hard. It really is hard. I was writing about one piece a year for The New Yorker and I really liked doing it but I was spending six months researching the pieces. It was taking pretty much all my time to do that one piece a year. Which was maybe worth it but I couldn’t do it forever.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you have enough essays, criticisms, etc. that you could anthologize?
Rachel Cohen: Almost. The thing I’m proudest of, actually, that I wrote in conjunction with the Berenson book was an essay that was in The Believer. It was called GoldGolden Gilded Glittery. [10]It was about four ages of artistic and financial invention and how financial invention and artistic invention often would have very similar structures in different periods of history. There was one part comparing double entry book keeping and perspective painting and another part comparing abstract expressionism and basically what got us into the Lehmann brothers. (laughter) .These amazing mathematical models that are ways of mapping the future into the present.

Robert Birnbaum: Algorithms.

Rachel Cohen: Exactly. That’s, in some sense, what abstract expressionism does is take future time and zap it into the present.

 

Hari Kunzru [photo: Robert Birnbaum

Hari Kunzru [photo: Robert Birnbaum

Robert Birnbaum: Hari Kunzru, in his last novel, [11]one of the parts of it about a stock broker, one of the characters  who worked at a hedge fund  and they were looking for this incredible algorithm that would put the most diverse events in the world together. A plague on the silkworms in Burma would somehow effect the output of machinery in Germany…

Rachel Cohen: Not so far fetched, yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Right.

Rachel Cohen: I haven’t read that book but I guess maybe this is connected to things that we were talking about earlier. I’m interested in finding strange forms for the unbelievable knowledge streams that are available to us. In some sense, that’s what those formulas are obviously trying to do.

Robert Birnbaum: I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but we’re talking about looking at old things in new ways…somehow seeing them from a more oblique angle.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. In conjunction with things with which they were never juxtaposed before so that you’re then just taking into account huge new things.

Robert Birnbaum: And that’s at the base of A Chance Meeting?

Rachel Cohen: Yes.

Robert Birnbaum: About two individuals that most people wouldn’t see connecting.

Rachel Cohen: Through a landscape in some sense, yeah.

XXRobert Birnbaum: Speaking of landscape, do you know Simon Schama’s book Landscape and Memory[12]?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. I do know that book. Thank you for reminding me of it, because I haven’t looked at in a while. You asked before, am I going to do something formally innovative again. Both of my current projects are that. To me, if you’re really trying to reflect the way we see now, it requires some kind of formal innovation. You want something that…

Robert Birnbaum: Like Jennifer Egan [13]writing a novel in PowerPoint?

Rachel Cohen: That’s a possibility?

Robert Birnbaum: She did it.

Rachel Cohen: I know. I know. I know. I don’t know if that’s it, but I do think is in some sense, yes. In some sense, I like that she just goes for it. She thinks, “Okay. Maybe there’s a way to do this. Let me see what I can do.” I feel that too about these little essays that I’m writing online that are about paintings. Part of the reason I’m interested in the impressionists is because they’ve had to respond to photography. They were the first group of painters who had grown up with photography and had to think about the painted image with the print image always in their mind. They responded brilliantly. They really, in some sense, they seemed to be very stimulated. They both used photographs themselves in order to paint and worked to distinguish painting from photography. That seems the variety and  possibility of invention that come with new technology. It was an interesting thing that  they were able to do. And formally, they were brilliantly inventive.

Robert Birnbaum: Impressionists  are seemingly dismissed by a lot of people. Because,  we’re over saturated with them? You see them so often,

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. Ironically, they’re still reproduced. They were of a world where that stuff, … There was an exhibition last year at the Met that was called “Impressionism and Fashion.’ There’s some way in which they’re very close to apparel. They already look like fashion.

Robert Birnbaum: There’s always books being issued on the Impressionists. This year I got a book about Impressionists’s images of water.

Rachel Cohen: They’re incredibly specific. So many books about Monet and Cézanne, but I do think they’ve become very easy for us to love, but that in itself is very interesting because they were not. They were wild when they were made. People thought they were slap dash and vulgar, and ugly, and that the colors they chose were ugly. That the combinations of colors, but the started to do something that became the way we see things. Now everything looks like a Monet, or even Van Gogh.

Robert Birnbaum: You can make photographs that look like Monet’s with certain filters. There’s a photographer named Abelardo Morell who lives around here and one of the projects he’s going to embark on is he wants to go to Giverny. He wants to go there and take photographs just because things were painted there. I think he uses tents to, he has a very specific process where he uses the inside and outside of something. As a photography, he’s impressed by painting. He said something to me about it and I didn’t even realize people still painted.

Rachel Cohen: For me, I was going to tell you this story at the beginning actually with my little girl, Sylvia, that after many times going to the MFA to see paintings, I thought we should go to the children’s museum. I took her to the children’s museum. The things she loved there was the bubbles. They have bubbles for kids, big vats of bubble stuff and you can blow bubbles and move stuff around with bubbles and bubbles float in the air. She couldn’t get enough of the bubbles. We came home and she has a little plastic horse called Lagoo and she was sending Magoo to the museum. Magoo was going to the museum and I said, “Some museums have paintings, and some museums have bubbles, and which kind is Magoo going to? She said, “Bubbles.” (laughter) Don’t be stupid. Of course bubbles. Afterwards, I was thinking, “That’s what paintings are like for me.” It’s like bubbles, like you’re really physically in them in a way that’s totally different than any other visual experience or museum experience. No photograph gives me that experience of entering and being part of a world, breathing the air, feeling the weather. I was pleased about that in a way. I think she’s getting the right idea of museums, that they are collectors of direct experience.

Robert Birnbaum: For me the museum experience is always difficult because there’s so much. It’s hard to sit in front of one thing even though one thing seems to draw you.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Even if I end up spending more time on one thing you’re distracted. It’s like reading.

Rachel Cohen: You feel like, “Oh, but there are fifteen thing under my bedside table.” Maybe somehow getting patient with that is a significant part of enjoying museums. For me, feeling that I go often makes me feel like, “Well, I’ll be here again.” It doesn’t matter if I go past all of these things. Today, I’m just going to look at this thing. I tend to only look at one or two things. Maybe walk past a few things to get a sense of what I might like to look at next. Being patient with that is helpful.

Robert Birnbaum: I’ve relied on museums to send me the monographs of the exhibitions.

Rachel Cohen: If you’re fundamentally a reader, that’s a way into the images.

Guernica by Pablo PIcasso

Guernica by Pablo PIcasso

 

 

Robert Birnbaum: I don’t think a reproduction of Guernica is going to do it for me, but I understand and I’m not sure how I would look at it anyway. Guernica always reminds of the opening of that film on Basquiat.[14] Have you  see the film by Julian Schnabel

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Which opens with a kid staring at Guernica.[15] Forever that’s the way I see the painting now. (laughter)

Rachel Cohen: I think it’s somehow a medium that’s hard to get into relation with or something. That is also part of what interests me and it used to part of everybody’s life, or more regularly part of people’s lives. Not so much anymore.

Robert Birnbaum: I own one painting. The painting I have is of a man with short hair, dressed in a slip on the edge of a cliff. His hands seem to be scrunched up, expressing a kind of anger or tension, or something like that. It got to me.

Rachel Cohen: That is the thing about paintings. The way you described that, it was the way somebody would describe a dream or something. The images in a dream and they’re condensed in the way that dreams are. They’re powerful and they allow you to imaging different directions out of them. All of that can be true of photographs, or of films, certainly.

Robert Birnbaum: I like Fernando Botero [16]too. They’re sort of silly, but not. I don’t know, his cartoonish way of looking at painting but a lot of it has to do with colors and the odd people you put in paintings.

 

Botero "Picasso" 1999

Botero “Picasso” 1999

Rachel Cohen: Which, in a way, can be a lot like fiction. You’re making a world, inhabited by people. It’s not the real world but it’s close to the real world and considering it

Robert Birnbaum: Writer’s today, who I think are very conscious of putting some kind of artwork in their narratives. Not necessarily novels. There is a writer,  Mark Z. Danielewski  [17],who has these hybrid illustrated  novels. Anyway, have you written other fiction besides the novel you’re working on. Its a

Rachel Cohen: Not really.I’ve written a few stories.

Robert Birnbaum: Brave place to start.

Rachel Cohen: (laughter) I guess so.

Robert Birnbaum: Pretty ambitious.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. I know. I know. I guess I love to read novels. I’m not such a short story reader. I admire the craft of them, but they’re not where my own attention gravitates. I have always loved novels, so somehow that was where I headed. I had tried to write a novel once before and failed.

Robert Birnbaum: Where is it?

Rachel Cohen: What?

Robert Birnbaum: You trashed it or did you…?

Rachel Cohen: Trashed it. It exists on some obsolete computer that would hard to access now but it wasn’t worth keeping.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m always fascinated with people’s, what they do with their failed first efforts. Some people keep them, somewhere.

Rachel Cohen: It’s somewhere.

Robert Birnbaum: They’re closer to them than you’ve described.And  some people just can throw them away. That’s it, forget it.

Rachel Cohen: This was so bad that I could let go of it. I really could. I failed several times in trying to write the thing I’m writing now and I kept all of those failures.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re going to get it right.

Rachel Cohen: I am. I hope so. I hope so. Yeah. I like to go live in a world for a long time, so to me the working on a novel was a lot at the beginning, which is actually an unbelievable effort is getting the world up and running. Getting it so that it has it’s own principles of functions and it’s own kind of characters and it’s own language. Now that that’s all there

Robert Birnbaum: Do you know what the ending is?

Rachel Cohen: I do now, although only recently. I worked on it for six years before I started to have the sense of how it might finish. All of that development, once you’re far enough along that it is a place, then going there is…

Robert Birnbaum: Do you get the same feeling in writing fiction as you do from writing other forms

Rachel Cohen: It’s a different internal experience, I think. My feeling is they’re related things. You still need a lot of imagination to write non-fiction. You still need openness and sensitivity.

Robert Birnbaum: A certain kind of excitement or uplift.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. It’s different. I get excited from both things but the feeling of one is different. Maybe more internal for the fiction and non-fiction I have a little more sense of, “This is an idea that has purchase. This is a thought that has stuff that’s worth some consideration.”

Robert Birnbaum: You may not have to work as hard because you have a grasp of what it involves?

Rachel Cohen: The stages of work are different. In non-fiction, for me there’s a huge amount of research before there starts to be a feeling of what the thoughts are that are interesting. There’s one period of wandering and reading and not knowing and then the gears turn. In fiction, the preparatory work is more imagination. Wondering also, but not accumulating facts. Then when things start to get going it’s because the world is alive. It’s a little bit different thing than a non-fiction where it’s in line].

Robert Birnbaum: What do you like reading? You said you like to read novels. What novels have stood out to you, let’s say this past year?

Rachel Cohen: Past year? I haven’t been reading that much because of the baby and the various projects. One thing I’ve been reading over and over is Jane Austen’s Persuasion because that is a really fantastic book. That’s a wonderful thing to read. I’ve read some things which have been pleasure to me. I read Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, and that was fun to read, go through and have the exhilaration of story. I read Margot Livesey’s Jane Eyre book, The Flight of Gemma Hardy and really enjoyed the pulse of that. Actually, now that I think of it, those are both novels well-plotted novels where you move through. That’s actually not the kind of book I’m writing. (laughs) Anyway, those are the ones I like.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s a formative book for you in your life? What’s a book that when you read it you had some sort of “a-ha” moment?

Rachel Cohen: The Brother’s Karamazov is a book  that I read over and over.

Robert Birnbaum: I have a problem with Russian novels. I can’t remember the names. I can’t pronounce the names. I can’t remember the names. It’s hard for me to

Rachel Cohen: Hold them. Yeah. They sprawl. They really do sprawl. It’s true.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m fascinated by people who say War and Peace is the greatest novel ever. I wish I read it. I wonder if somebody would actually anglicize all the names.

Rachel Cohen: So you could read it, or give you some visual diagram that you can see and that would keep your

Robert Birnbaum: They must be on audio, right? War and Peace? Although a length audio.
Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Maybe that’s what I should do.

Rachel Cohen: If somebody was saying it for you then…

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres

 

Robert Birnbaum: Actually, there was a novel  that Louis de Bernières [18]wrote, it was the one after Corelli’s Mandolin. Birds Without  Wings —the one about Anatolia. It was a vivid novel about the life in in the Eastern Mediterranean around the turn of the 20th century , and there was an audio version that makes all these, there are eight or nine different nationalities in this book and all manner of tongue twisting kinds of names, so after reading it, hearing it was illuminating.

Rachel Cohen:I’m really good at names. Proper names correlate and make sense to me. I’m definitely the person who’ll leaf through the index of a book first to see who’s in it. Then I remember all the places where they are. Those books map for me. I can see all the people in them in an almost visual way.

 

Robert Birnbaum: You were teaching at Sarah Lawrence?

Rachel Cohen: I’m not teaching right now. I’m on leave. I’m on this super extended leave that they’re kindly making available to me.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s Sarah Lawrence look like these days?

Rachel Cohen: Sarah Lawrence is great. I love Sarah Lawrence. I’ve had seven or eight years of teaching there. I have tenure there. It’s been a wonderful place to be. The student body is extremely creative. They went a different route than a lot of the schools. They didn’t take test scores. They didn’t make that the main thing about admission. As a consequence they got all kinds of terrific students who are not necessarily good at taking standardized tests. Those are actually wonderful people to teach in creative writing. Those are the students you want.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s pretty bold.

Rachel Cohen: It was bold and really good. They have great students.

Robert Birnbaum: What are the aspirations of these great students?

Rachel Cohen: Many of them want to work in the arts somehow. There are other kinds of students too. There are scientists and other things, but there’s a strong arts community.

Robert Birnbaum: Affluent backgrounds?

Rachel Cohen: A mixture. It’s an extremely expensive school. Some of the students have a lot of money. Some of the students are scholarship students without much money. That is a challenge.

Robert Birnbaum:In James Galdofini’s last movie Enough Said ,[19]with Julia Dreyfus. There’s a short scene where Galdofini’s really snotty daughter, who’s very hip, meets Dreyfus and they’re talking about colleges. Dreyfus’ daughter is off going to Sarah Lawrence in the fall, and the snotty little girl said, “Oh, it’s going downhill.” (laughter) Like this eighteen, nineteen, twenty year old girl knows anything.

Rachel Cohen: They say it’s going downhill. I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think it’s going downhill.  The other thing I liked at Sarah Lawrence is the graduate program. I taught a lot in the graduate non-fiction program. They’re wonderful students there, many of them returning after having working in various ways in the world. Those are great.

Robert Birnbaum: Who are your peers there? In writing?

Rachel Cohen: The person who I work with most closely is Vijay Seshadri, who’s a wonderful poet, and who is the director of the non-fiction program. That’s been really nice. Our other close colleague in non-fiction is Jo Ann Beard, who also writes fiction. That group has been really wonderful. There are other people who come through and teach. Nicky Dawidoff  [20]has taught.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m talking to him next week.

Rachel Cohen: Oh really? He’s going to be in town I think.

Robert Birnbaum: I talked to him years ago. He wrote a book about his grandfather, but he’s also edited an anthology on baseball for The Library of America.

Rachel Cohen: Yes. Does he writes a lot on sports.

Robert Birnbaum: His new book is about football, a sport that I hate. I hate football. My son plays football. But I hate it especially the upper levels—college and the pros.

To Be Continued

 

######

1 Rachel Cohen’s website

2 Ansel Adams photographs

3 Saul Steinberg’s art

4 One of my 5 or 6 conversations with Robert Stone

5 Biographies of Bernard Berenson

6 On Stefan Zweig

7 Rachel Cohen’s  review of The Chess Game by Stefan Zweig

8 The Last Days by Laurent Seksik

9 One of my conversations (2004)with Edward Jones

10  Golden Gilded Glittery by Rachel Cohen

11 My LA Review of Books  chat with Hari Kunzru,

12 Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama

13  My most recent conversation with Jennifer Egan

14 Basquit by Julian Schnabel

15 Guernica by Pablo Picasso

16 Columbian painter Fernando Botero

17   Writer Mark Z. Danielewski ‘s website

18 My last conversation with  Louis de Bernières

19 Trailer for Enough Said

20 Talking with Nicholas Dawidoff

 

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