Deborah Lipstadt: Denying the Deniers

13 Sep

 

 

 

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Prejudice cannot be defeated entirely, but it can be fought with courage and stamina, and with really good lawyers. Our bookish reporter in Boston has a fascinating conversation with scholar Deborah Lipstadt about her six-year battle with Holocaust denier David Irving.

 

Despite personal and familial connections (or perhaps because of such) I had, to date, not paid much attention to the pernicious movement that presumes to deny the Holocaust. This is in keeping with my conscious decision to spend as little intellectual and emotional energy as possible on lunatic fringe movements and other idiocies. Deborah Lipstadt’s six-year legal ordeal, which she compellingly narrates in History on Trial, changed that. The story begins as such: British author David Irving sued Lipstadt for libel in London after she called him a Holocaust denier and right-wing extremist in her 1994 book Denying the Holocaust.

Deborah Lipstadt is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies and Director of the Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University in Atlanta. She has taught at U.C.L.A. and Occidental College in Los Angeles. She received her bachelor’s degree from City College of New York and her master’s and doctorate from Brandeis University. In addition to History on Trial and Denying the Holocaust, she is the author of Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust. She has appeared on CNN, 60 Minutes, The Today Show, Good Morning America, Fresh Air, and The Charlie Rose Show, and is a frequent contributor to and is widely quoted in a variety of periodicals. She is currently working on a book on Jewish responses to the new anti-Semitism.

The conversation that follows ranges over a wider terrain than the riveting details of the libel trial. What seems obvious to me in the aftermath is that hateful ideologues such as David Irving, while not being defanged or declawed by intelligent and conscientious scrutiny, are less likely to be accepted as legitimate scholars. Unfortunately, even the truth seems not to derail their specious efforts. But it is not for the lack of effort by Deborah Lipstadt and others. For which we all should be grateful.

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum

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Robert Birnbaum: Is anti-Semitism a necessary condition for Holocaust denial?
Lipstadt, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
Deborah Lipstadt: Yes, Holocaust denial is a form of anti-Semitism at its heart. That’s not to say there aren’t people who are inadvertently convinced by deniers. Imagine someone who may be sitting on an airplane next to a person who is a committed Holocaust denier and they are stuck on the runway for three hours or it’s a long flight cross country and the person [eventually] is convinced by the denier. But even those people, i.e., the putative “innocent” passengers, must, in order to believe that, “Oh, the Jews invented all this and made it up”—have to have a predilection towards anti-Semitism. That have to be somewhat anti-Semitic. I am a bit wary of saying someone is “somewhat” anti-Semitic. That’s like saying someone is a little bit pregnant. But for the deniers themselves, the people who are at the core, it’s unquestionably a form of anti-Semitism.

RB: Have you seen Henry Bean’s film, The Believer? A very interesting take on a brilliant Orthodox Jewish boy who becomes a skinhead Nazi.

DL: Yes, I read about it, but didn’t see it.

RB: Compelling, and there is a scene where he is giving a fund-raising speech and he rhetorically asks, “Why do people hate the Jews?” His answer is, “They just do.”

DL: That’s right.

RB: There are no compelling reasons.

DL: It’s not that there are no reasons. Let’s go one step back. Anti-Semitism is a form of prejudice, as is racism, as is misogyny, as are many things. Think about the etymology of the word, “prejudice.” Pre judge. In other words: “Don’t confuse me with the facts. I made up my mind before I knew anything about this person. He’s a Jew, therefore he must be rich. He must be a cheat and conniving.” So that the minute we enter into a conversation and try to find a rational reason why someone is anti-Semitic, we are engaged in a losing proposition. I think it was [Jean Paul] Sartre who said, “Anti-Semitism is not an opinion. It’s a crime.” It’s a prejudice. Also, someone told me that [historian] Peter Gay said, “Where there is smoke there are smoke makers.” In other words, there’s no rational reason for someone to be anti-Semitic, because anti-Semitism is itself irrational.

RB: This may be hyperbolic, but everyone hates the Jews.

DL: It’s convenient but not an approach I like to take. But one could say, “There are people who hate the Jews,” and in most Caucasian societies, a good proportion of people think blacks and people of color are inferior. It’s something that must be fought.

RB: In black societies, there is a color hierarchy. In Latin cultures, they look down on blacks, too.

DL: Let me contextualize about the notion of “Everybody hates the Jews.” The fact that much of anti-Semitism has its roots in the New Testament and how it has been interpreted has a tremendous impact on people’s perceptions of Jews. It remains a continuous irritant.

RB: You are a professor of Holocaust studies?

DL: I am a professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University. I teach a wide range of courses on the modern Jewish experience, etc. But now increasingly, my courses have become Holocaust focused.

RB: In a way it a big subject, and in a way it’s—

DL: You’re right, it’s a small subject. The span from ‘33 to ‘45 is only 12 years. On the other hand, it’s a humongous subject. Embedded within the topic of study of the Holocaust is the history of the experiences of the perpetrators and the victims. The event encompassed virtually all of Europe. There are the stories of what happened in each country, city, town, and community. There are the histories of the different perpetrators, and, of course, of the Allies as well as those of the bystanders. So, all in all, it’s a very broad thing. And then of course, it is linked into anti-Semitism, which has a millennial history.

RB: I was reading the New York Times piece on the opening of the new Holocaust History Museum in Israel, in Jerusalem, and it quoted Ariel Sharon to the effect that so many stories are lost.

DL: Right. We have lost so many stories. We have lost so many people. All the potential that was lost is brought home in different ways. For example, last week I was talking to Howard Gardner, who teaches at Harvard. He mentioned the fact that his family left Austria and arrived in the United States in late ‘38 or ‘39, right around Kristallnacht [the night of Nov. 9, 1938, when German and Austrian officials staged a massive pogrom against Jewish citizens—eds.]. He has a great mind and has had a great impact on our society. All that would have been lost. Gardner is but one example of all the [other] people who had so much potential who were lost. What could all of those children have contributed had they been allowed to grow into maturity? What kind of benefit could they have brought to the world? We don’t know so many of the stories. Many of them died before they had a chance to write their stories. I was in Auschwitz at the 60th anniversary commemoration [of its liberation by Allied forces], in January. Auschwitz has a tremendous cache of pictures—when people were deported, in their suitcases they brought the family pictures—like now we take the CD-ROM with the family album on it. Who were these people? A tremendous amount has been lost. So many stories, so many lives—

The poet Paul Celan asked, “Who will be the witnesses for the witnesses?” They will be, amongst others, the historians. It’s an important job and it will be a heavy burden, but it can be done. My trial helped prove that.

RB: It seems more poignant and urgent, given the recognition or identification of the 2Gs, the second generation, which leads to the dying out of the survivors themselves and their stories.

DL: I was struck by that at Auschwitz in January. The next time there is a commemoration, let’s say the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, there will be virtually no one alive who survived the camp. At my trial we made a strategic, forensic decision, not to call survivors as witnesses. This wasn’t a “Did the Holocaust happen trial?” It was a libel trial, and our job was to prove that I told the truth. If we had called survivors to the stand, they would have served as witnesses of fact and that would suggest we needed proof that it happened, which, of course, we did not. Another reason we did not call survivors was that [David] Irving was a litigant in person, pro se, in other words, he was representing himself, and we didn’t think it was ethical to put survivors in the witness box. So instead we assembled this dream team of four historians and a political scientist. They relied on documents, letters, and testimony, both perpetrator testimony and survivor testimony. By the way, we relied only on testimony from trials that took place before 1950. We did not want to give Irving a chance to say that the testimony was “contaminated” by subsequent stories and memoirs that were written in the years after the Holocaust. Historians feel that a person’s testimony about an event that is given close to the event is more valuable than that given years later. We demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt, as the judge’s verdict and judgment indicated, that the man [Irving] is a complete liar when it comes to the Holocaust—and other things as well. So to some degree, the trial represented the passing of the memory torch. The poet Paul Celan asked, “Who will be the witnesses for the witnesses?” They will be, amongst others, the historians. It’s an important job and it will be a heavy burden, but it can be done. My trial helped prove that.

RB: Let’s talk about the last few years and the big chunk it represents. You wrote a book called Denying the Holocaust.

DL:The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, right.

RB: And David Irving took exception to it. [laughs] Filed suit in Britain, which is still a matter of mystery to me—how divergent the libel laws for the U.S. and the U.K. are.

DL: So absurd. Well, let me make one thing very clear. In my book, Denying the Holocaust, Irving, occupies, at most, 300 words, and probably less than that. Someone checked, and I think he is mentioned on six pages—not full pages, references. I admit that I did say some harsh things about him. I said, “He is the most dangerous of Holocaust deniers.” I said that he knows the truth and he bends it to fit his preexisting political views. And by implication, though I didn’t directly call him one, that he was an anti-Semite and a racist as well. So he sued me in England, where libel laws are a mirror image of American libel law. In the United States, if I say you libeled me, I have to prove it. In the U.K., if I say you libeled me, you have to prove you didn’t libel me. Words written are considered untrue until proven true. So if I hadn’t defended myself I would have been found guilty. I should mention that Penguin U.K., my publisher, was my co-defendant. I think that if I had not fought, that they might not have pursued the case as forcefully as they did. But they did stand by my side, to their credit.

RB: It must be noted they didn’t climb on board for the appeal.

DL: No, they left me with a $100,000 legal bill.

RB: You were very kind to not make more of that.

DL: I was left feeling pretty bitter, because they really backed out in the middle of the appeal. They felt they had done enough. They claimed that their insurer would not pay any more. But they could have paid and taken it as a business expense. It was not the right thing for them to do.

RB: They had done enough? If you hadn’t fought the appeal…

DL: It might have been reversed. I think that Penguin assumed that would not happen. They believed that we had won such an overwhelming victory on the trial, we didn’t have to do additional research for the appeal. The problem was that Irving had managed to introduce new evidence during the appeal, even though technically there should be no new evidence during an appeal. My defense team wanted to address his new evidence point by point. They believed nothing should be left to chance. This was [my lawyer] Anthony Julius’s modus operandi. Penguin did not think that was necessary, even though Irving was bringing in new evidence.

RB: Supposedly [new].

DL: You are right. His new “evidence” was essentially a new pack of lies. But they had to be exposed as such. Ironically or revealingly, in the middle of the appeal, he withdrew this supposed new evidence. And, now if you go to his Internet site he says he wasn’t allowed to enter it. This is typical of his adherence to truth. During the appeal, his lawyer explicitly said, “I’m withdrawing the evidence.” I think Penguin thought it would be self evident that Irving’s appeal should be thrown out. I had a lawyer, who is the smartest guy I know—and I know a lot of smart people—Anthony Julius. He said, “You leave nothing to chance.” Anthony believed that if this had been a commercial case, you wouldn’t say, “Of course we don’t have to expend every effort to convince the judge.” Julius believed we had to fight this as if it was the most important commercial case that has ever crossed your desk.

RB: I skipped ahead.

DL: Right, we sort of started at the end. Back to the beginning: A few months after the book appeared in England, Irving announced that he was going to sue me. My first inclination was to laugh. I thought: “This is ridiculous. This is completely stupid.”

RB: You didn’t know British libel law then.

DL: I didn’t know British libel law but I did know that he [Irving] had called the Holocaust a legend, in a courtroom, under oath, in Canada testifying as a witness for [Holocaust denier] Ernest Zundel, who was on trial. Then in the early ‘90s, upon being asked by reporters why the Holocaust had disappeared from a recent edition of his book when it had been in the book in an earlier edition which appeared in the ‘70s, he said, “If something didn’t happen, you don’t dignify it with a footnote.” He said to a survivor who appeared with him on Australian radio, “Mrs. Altman, how much money did you make from having that number tattooed on your arm?” So I thought that in light of all the things he had said, my statement that he is a denier was no big innovation. I was not saying anything radical. But he was waiting. He was just poised to pounce. I really believe he wanted to get me.

RB: Maybe. And probably. What about the withdrawal of St. Martin’s book contract?

DL: Yes, it came about around the same time. He had a contact with St Martin’s, a distinguished publisher, to publish his Goebbels book. Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkusheard about this and severely criticized St. Martin’s. These publications essentially said, “This is crazy. This guy is a Holocaust denier. Why is St. Martin’s publishing his work?” So that raised the flag, and the issue entered the public arena.

RB: Would he have sued you if his livelihood hadn’t been threatened?

DL: Who knows? Remember, he frequently threatens to sue people. He had gotten away with saying all these things and now he was being called to account. At this point, Frank Rich, the op-ed columnist for the New YorkTimes, who was doing a column on the topic, called and said, “What do you think?” And I said, “Having David Irving write about the Holocaust is like asking Jeffery Dahmer to testify in a case on child abuse.” I was being just a bit hyperbolic.

RB: [laughs]

DL: So Frank Rich included that in his column. Then the WashingtonPost called, and I essentially repeated the same thing. And that was it. Period. I never talked to anyone at St. Martin’s. They never called me. I never called them. I never wrote a letter or signed a petition, if there even was a petition. I was quoted twice. And then the head of St. Martin’s took a closer look at the manuscript. After reading the manuscript, he said that the theme of the book was that whatever happened to the Jews, they had coming to them. The publisher made the decision to cancel the contract. However, I don’t think that the St. Martin’s incident was the only thing which lead him to sue me. You can’t ignore the fact that I am a woman. During the trial he gave an interview to Reuters in which he described the women who worked for him as a “very nice woman with nice breasts.” There are other reasons for him choosing me. He perceives of me as a puppet of the so-called world Jewish conspiracy. Of course, as a woman I can’t be the leader of the conspiracy, I can only be the puppet who takes orders. A woman couldn’t be in charge of a conspiracy, certainly not one which, he claims, has caused him such grief. If he knew anything about the Jewish community he’d know we are so disorganized that we couldn’t have a conspiracy even if we wanted.

RB: Judge Gray’s verdict is unwavering and unqualified in every way on Irving.

DL: It’s unrelenting.

RB: Irving is all the things any one could have said—and more.

DL: Much more than I said about him in my book. That’s one of the ironies of this entire case. As a result of the research we had to do to defend me, we discovered just how egregious Irving’s record is.

RB: And he is still around. And he shakes one of [your lawyer’s Richard] Rampton’s hands as you say—

DL:—like it’s a rugby match. That was at the very end of the trial. He turns to Rampton, my barrister, and says: “Well done, Mr. Rampton. Well done.”

RB: And now here he is again. So—
Lipstadt, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
DL: Well, I think he is around. He essentially is talking to his followers at this point. But first, I want to go back to something I was saying a moment ago. Another reason he went after me was because I was an American and I was far away and I think he thought, that once “she discovers how complicated British laws are she is going to run the other way.” The final factor that lead him to sue me was I am an identifying Jew, part of the so-called organized Jewish community and this was a way of getting at them—using me to get at them. I wanted an unrelenting decision from the judge and much to everyone’s amazement, I got it. It’s true that Irving is still around, still writing books, and giving speeches. However, when he comes to the United States, many of his talks are sponsored by the National Alliance, one of the most racist and anti-Semitic groups around.

RB: Which he claimed he doesn’t have a relationship with.

DL: Exactly. In other words, he’s is preaching to his choir. Another result of the trial is that every time he speaks or is quoted, his name is accompanied by some variation on the adjectival phrase, “David Irving who was found by the courts to be a Holocaust denier,” or a liar or a racist, etc.

RB: But C-SPAN—

DL: Yes, C-SPAN—in the name of “balance,” and that’s their word, as Richard Cohen said in the WashingtonPost—is giving him a second life. And it’s just crazy. If someone announced tomorrow, “The earth is square,” would C-SPAN suddenly run to Harvard or to MIT and ask a Nobel Prize winner to appear on the network and debate them? Or if the late Richard Feynman, the great scientist, had been scheduled to talk about the moon landing, would C-SPAN invite someone who said the landing really took place on a sound stage in Nevada? It’s crazy. It’s just nuts.

RB: I looked at some website for one of those nutso, straw man groups that support Irving and they have 13 questions for you to answer, which if anyone of them [were the type of person who] had read this book, would be totally irrelevant. An amalgam of crap, slurs, half-truths posed as questions—

DL: These questions are, as you say, slurs, half-truths, and completely ridiculous. Irving keeps saying that Deborah Lipstadt took the Fifth. First of all, [laughs] there is no constitution [in Britain]. No. 2, I didn’t take the Fifth. In the United Kingdom there is no obligation for the defendant to testify. No. 3, I wrote a book, and David Irving was suing me for what I wrote. There was nothing I could add by going on the stand that was relevant to the case and, in fact, when he recently spoke in Atlanta, he said, “If Lipstadt had taken the stand, I would have asked her about views on intermarriage.” Now, what does that have to do with my calling him a Holocaust denier?

RB: The judge would have allowed that?

DL: He might have.

RB: Judge Gray did give Irving much latitude.

DL: He gave him tremendous latitude. And it drove me nuts while it was going on.

RB: So you were shocked that verdict was so damning?

DL: I was floored, it was so compelling. I never expected such an all-encompassing verdict. Did you see Richard Bernstein’s piece in the New York Times on the radical groups in Germany and how they are presenting themselves in a more “respectable” demeanor? I was in Germany last week, and at a press conference I said that this tactic, on the part of extremists of appearing respectable, started with Holocaust deniers. They were among the first to figure out that most people make their judgments about people based on external appearances. Therefore, if an extremist comes swaggering in to the room in high black boots with swastikas and looking like skinheads, people take one look at them and say, “Oh my God, I know what you are. And I want to have nothing to do with you.” But if the same extremists come into the room in a nice tweedy jacket, maybe with patches on the elbows and jeans or whatever, smoking a pipe, and they begin to speak rationally, people are more likely to listen. In this regard, deniers say, “Oh, I’m not an anti-Semite, I just have certain questions about the Holocaust which perplex me. And I don’t understand why Professor Lipstadt is afraid to answer those questions. I am just interested in open debate. What’s wrong with open debate?” And in Germany the far right party, the NPD, is inclined, rather than to parade in swastikas, to say, “We want to commemorate the ‘bombing Holocaust’ in Dresden. We want to give equal attention to the victims.” But what they are really doing is whitewashing the crimes of the Third Reich by engaging in immoral equivalencies.

All scholars make mistakes—clearly we do. We misplace, we reverse numbers. But the things Irving did were deliberate, so said the judge.

RB: I did watch Errol Morris’s[documentary] film, Mr. Death and I was struck by how pathetic [the subject, execution-device designer and later Holocaust denier [Fred] Leuchter is. This may be an understatement, but there is something really wrong with him. [In his testimony in defense of Ernest Zundel,] he claimed he tried as hard as he could to get the information about the gas chambers at Auschwitz and he was the only person qualified. And the technician from the lab states—

DL: It’s all junk. Leuchter, a man from Malden, Mass., claimed he was an engineer. He was not. According to the then Alabama attorney general, [Edward] Carnes, who now is a federal judge, Leuchter was running a scam. He would go to penitentiaries that had electric chairs and he would say, “Hire me as a consultant, and if you don’t hire me as a consultant I am going to go to one of the people on death row and offer my services to them to say that your electric chair is faulty and will cause cruel and unusual punishment.” He proclaimed himself a lethal-injection specialist.

RB: It was funny in an odd way that [in the movie] he seemed to leapfrog from one thing to another. He started with the electric chair, and then he was brought in to look at the lethal-injection machinery and then the gallows. And he readily admits his only qualifications for any of it was the [unrelated] thing he had done before—for which he hadn’t been qualified.

DL: It was a complete sham.

RB: But aided by other people.

DL: Right.

RB: He also says in Mr. Death, that most everything he was taught in school was wrong.

DL: It’s a certain mindset. Anyone who interacted with Leuchter should have recognized that there was something strange about this guy. But I think David Irving so wanted Leuchter to be right that he overlooked all the glaring errors in his report. He received the report, and two days later he went into the Canadian court and said, “I am now convinced these claims [the gas chambers] are all lies.” Irving’s willingness to fabricate was also, in my opinion, a reflection of this desire to find evidence to prove his foregone conclusions. Irving showed a willingness to lie and completely fabricate. Even I was surprised by the extent to which he did so. For example, Irving puts [Hitler compatriot Hermann] Goering at a meeting he was never at. And when Rampton asked Irving why he did that, Irving said under oath, “Oh that was author’s license.” He said so with the greatest of equanimity. And I sat there thinking, “And he calls himself an historian?” He gives his readers a footnote which is supposed to help them verify his reference. But what does the footnote read? “Hitler’s trial.” In other words, all 800 pages of it.” [laughs] Footnotes are supposed to help—

RB:—8,000 pages.

DL: 800 pages.

RB: What was 8,000 pages, then?

DL: Was it 8,000? Maybe it’s 8,000 pages. [It was 8,000 pages.—eds.] I was giving him more credit. Evans’s report was 800 pages. Maybe I am confusing the two. Now there’s an example of an honest mistake. In fact, it’s a mistake that works in Irving’s interest. To cite something that is 8,000 pages long is even more egregious and shows you are trying to hide something. You don’t give that kind of citation in a footnote if your objective is to help your readers find your original source.

RB: Additionally, what I found troubling is someone like [military historian and writer] John Keegan and—

DL: D.C. Watt. Keegan was even more outrageous than Watt. Actually, they were both outrageous—I shouldn’t privilege one over the other. I’ve talked to a lot of British historians who were appalled by both of their reactions. And when I asked them [these historians] for an explanation, they have uniformly said to me, without my posing it, “It’s the old boys’ network.” David Irving for all his lies and all his distortions looks a whole lot more like them—

RB: [laughs]

DL:—then does a woman, an American, a Jew. But Keegan was particularly appalling. He opened his article, written the day after the trial, with, “The news that David Irving has lost his libel case will send a tremor through the community of 20th-century historians.” When he read this essay, [historian] Richard Evans was appalled. He said to me, “Who brought this case? Who forced the professor of history into the courtroom, where she has to come up with over a million and a half dollars to defend herself?”

RB: Did Keegan make the claim that no historian could undergo the scrutiny that Irving underwent?

DL: No, that was Watt.

RB: Is that true?

DL: Of course not. We certainly looked at his work very closely. We knew we would find mistakes. Mistakes always creep in. I reviewed the manuscript of my book a thousand times. Yet, I know that there are mistakes that crept in. But Irving’s so-called mistakes always move in the same direction: exoneration of the Nazis, condemnation of the Jews, over and over and over again. And these are not mistakes. The judge uses the word “deliberate.” Let me give you a few examples. Irving switches the sequence of what is said at a meeting so that, according to him Hitler ends the meeting by saying it’s not necessary to kill the Jews, when, in fact, the meeting really ended with Hitler delivering a horrendous harangue about the killing the Jews. Another example: Irving mistranslates a telegram that goes out during Kristallnacht, which says “Stop the arson.” According to Irving this means that Hitler was calling an end to the violence, when in fact it was a call for an end to arson and only arson. The Germans were afraid of the fires because entire city blocks were going up in fire. We found a myriad of these kinds of so-called mistakes over and over again. All scholars make mistakes—clearly we do. We misplace, we reverse numbers. But the things Irving did were deliberate, so said the judge.

RB: It was also interesting that Van Pelt in Morris’s film, his take on Holocaust denial was that it came from vanity.

DL: If you read the report that he prepared for the court, which has now been published as a book, The Case for Auschwitz, you will see that he thinks it’s partially vanity but that it is also anti-Semitism. It’s all these things together. But there is certainly vanity. David Irving seems to me to be an exceptionally vain person. He could have had lawyers representing him. But he felt he could do a better job than any lawyer. Though I doubt that even with lawyers the outcome would have been any different.

RB: Did he pay his court costs?

DL: [emphatically] No! In fact, I dropped my attempt to make him pay and now he has turned around and sued me, arguing that I should have to pay his expenses because I dropped the pursuit of him. We were in court two days ago to argue this. Each time he does this it runs up my legal bill. In the U.K., loser pays costs so, after the trial, he owed my defense fund a million and three-quarters. I paid for an independent book and document assessor who specializes in the Holocaust to go to England to assess the value of his papers. He felt that at the most they were worth $200,000 or so. We hoped to get control of them, in lieu of the cash Irving owed us, and sell them to a library or archive. But by then Irving had already run the clock up so there were $80,000 or $90,000 worth of lawyer bills and we hadn’t even gone to court. It became clear that this was a losing proposition. The lawyers’ bills would wipe out anything we would get from him. Finally, last June [2004], I said, “The trial itself was about a principle, about truth, this is about money. Leave it alone, I’m giving it up.” And I was really upset with myself even though I knew it was the right decision, from a legal and financial perspective. But he has documents that no historians have ever seen and which he should really make accessible. My actions would have made them accessible.

RB: Some of which he may or may not have stolen, yes?

DL: Well, that I don’t know. But I have the feeling that some of them were obtained from families of Nazis who entrusted their documents to him and to no one else. I don’t know if he stole any of these documents. Now he has gone into court to sue me for having conducted a frivolous case against him because I dropped the pursuit of costs. It makes no sense. It makes no sense at all.

RB: Any way that could backfire on him?

DL: I’m not sure. It’s just he wants to cause me as much grief as possible. He did tell the C-SPAN people the case itself wasn’t over and that we are going back into court. And they fell for that. [laughs]

RB: Is Anthony Julius still representing you?

DL: His firm is. He handed this over to their bankruptcy specialist, Daniel Davis.

RB: I can’t imagine what twist of law would give Irving a victory now.

DL: I can’t imagine. I don’t know. But I can’t imagine what twist of law would ever force me to be back in court spending more money to defend this. That the courts wouldn’t just look at this and say, “Get the hell out of here, Mister.”

RB: Before your libel trial, was the Zundel case in Canada the biggest case of Holocaust denial?

DL: Yeah, I think so. But the difference of course was [that] there the Canadian government was prosecuting Zundel for violating a form of hate-speech law. In contrast, this was the first case in which the denier was the plaintiff.

RB: And where is Zundel?

DL: He was just deported to Germany from Canada for hate speech and for more than that. He has a very active website, which was being used by people whom the Canadian government judged to be terrorists and spreading terrorist materials. So the reasons for his being deported had, apparently, relatively little to do—if anything at all—with his Holocaust denial.

RB: Montreal has a significant [Jewish] community; does Canada, other than Montreal?

DL: Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. There were a lot of Jews who came to Canada at the turn of the century and after the war—not during the war.

RB: I am wondering what Zundel’s activities—

DL: He published The Hitler We Loved and Why. Also UFOs: Nazi Secret Weapons? The guy is a complete nutcase. He is crazy, but apparently—according to the Canadian courts—also quite dangerous.

RB: So you publish a book on this six-year ordeal. What do you think is going to happen? How does this resonate?

DL: On one level it was finally letting my voice be heard. I’m a talker. That’s my business, that’s my tool. Moreover, throughout this case I never spoke except on the day of the verdict, when I gave a press conference. So the book is my way of expressing my views, emotions, and experiences. Furthermore, I was the only one who had the whole story, so to speak, of hiring the lawyers and putting the case together. On top of that, I had this incredible series of encounters with survivors and children of survivors and veterans—British and American. I wanted to be able to tell that part of the story as well. So, on some level, I hope this book is the final chapter of this saga. But C-SPAN [chuckles] may be changing that.

Look, the First Amendment guarantees that everybody has the right to stand on a corner and make a fool of themselves. And that includes David Irving. But that doesn’t mean that I have to invite them into my house.

RB: If he is still in court with you, then it isn’t finished.

DL: I can’t imagine he is going to get very much out of this thing.

RB: Yes, but you couldn’t have imagined the libel trial, either.

DL: That’s right. I have been wrong before.

RB: It’s pretty screwy. So here you are going out to talk about your book. What’s your sense of who has read it?

DL: A lot of people. What’s so invigorating is last night I was on a Comcast cable nightly news show—the guy had read the book. He read anecdotes and stories. And I am getting a lot of invitations to speak at law schools. And to lawyers. There is a major international law firm which has its home base in Atlanta and it has invited me to be the main speaker at its annual partners meeting, which will be held in the Grand Hall at Ellis Island. The senior managing partner, who called me, said, “I read your book. I know your work. I can think of no one better to speak to our group.” And the response to the C-SPAN attempt to put David Irving on with me and to create the debate that I, on principle, will not have, has been tremendous.

RB: Where is the balance if they put him on without you?

DL: [chuckles] You go ask C-SPAN. Where is the balance if they put him on with me after what’s [transpired]? I don’t know. I think they have “selective balance.” It’s the fuzziest kind of thinking. The producer at C-SPAN who was handling this kept on assuring me this was not a decision she had made on her own, but that it had been discussed at the “highest levels.” Book TV [C-SPAN] is watched by millions of people and, as you well know, it’s where authors want to be seen and heard. C-SPAN gives you an uninterrupted hour and sometimes more. So I really wanted to be on the show. It was not, however, worth compromising a principle. Holocaust denial is not worthy of debate. Even though you can bury the deniers easily.

RB: Well, you can’t.

DL: In a way you can, but you can’t. They lie and distort the facts. In that arena, they can be defeated. But once you defeat them, they just come back and reincarnate themselves and their arguments. But that’s true of all haters. We can never fully defeat racism. But we can keep fighting it.

RB: We apparently live in a time when judgments are not reality based. People are polled on all sorts of issues that they affirm, which have been debunked.

DL: It’s scary, very scary. And that a station of such caliber, that’s not driven by advertising and ratings should do this—I said to the C-SPAN producer, “If you put him on, especially by himself, you are going to cause great damage to C-SPAN.” She responded by assuring me that: “We don’t have advertisers. We are not susceptible to pressure.” I said, “I am not talking about pressure. I am talking about credibility.” Credibility!

RB: Had the producer read your book?

DL: She talked like she did, but given her decision I couldn’t imagine that she had. I don’t know. I don’t believe in denying free speech. I am not saying David Irving should be silenced. I am saying C-SPAN has [just] so many slots. To give one to a man who has been declared by three different courts, [to be] a liar and falsifier of history, who perverts and distorts, is a travesty. To give him one of those slots and then to force me into that debate, that’s just appalling. They wanted me to be the enabler.

RB: The aftermath is, of course, that you are subject to all sorts of vilification as an anti-free-speech person.

DL: Look, the First Amendment guarantees that everybody has the right to stand on a corner and make a fool of themselves. And that includes David Irving. But that doesn’t mean that I have to invite them into my house. So, too, a university doesn’t have to provide these people a platform. And C-SPAN or any television network doesn’t have to put them on. There are those who asked, “Should Holocaust denial be outlawed?” I was asked that a lot in Germany when I was there last week. Germany is a different situation, a unique case in terms of hate speech, given its history. Let’s set Germany aside. I don’t want to weigh in about that. As far as other countries are concerned, no, I think Holocaust denial should not be outlawed. If you do, you turn it into forbidden fruit. After Prince Harry, not the sharpest blade in the drawer, wore that swastika, people said the EU should outlaw the swastika. And I said, “That is really ridiculous because you turn it into forbidden fruit, especially for young people.”

RB: And he was universally ridiculed and scorned.
Lipstadt, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
DL: Right. Except one of his cousins, Princess Whomever, said recently—I am paraphrasing here—“Oh it only happened because of the ownership of the media.” [See Princess Michael’s comments here.] Hmm—Another aspect of the Prince Harry incident was that, the press immediately connected it to the Holocaust. I think that is too bad. [The] Brits should have been appalled because of World War II and the bombing of London, the Blitz and because of all those British soldiers who died slogging across the Continent. In this country, of course, there is that pesky First Amendment issue of free speech. I don’t want to silence Holocaust deniers, but I don’t think that we have any obligation to invite them in and provided a platform, particularly when there are only a limited number of places on the platform. Regarding my being against free speech, let’s go back to the trial. Who tried to silence whom? David Irving offered to settle shortly before the trial. What were the terms? Five hundred pounds to a charity of his choice. Right!

RB: [laughs]

DL: And second, an apology and withdrawing the book from circulation and having it pulped. Now who was trying to silence whom? And then [John] Keegan says after I win, that my victory will send a shudder through the community of historians. As if I had tried to silence him.

RB: Not only do you have David Irving as—I don’t want to say adversary, uh, demon—but you have been attacked by Ward Churchill [the controversial ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder].

DL: Yeah. [chuckles]

 

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RB: Which is an interesting issue. I accept that the Holocaust is not like other genocides and I am not an expert on genocide, but having read Samantha Power’s book and taking note of the difficulties in coming up with an acceptable legal definition of genocide—let me digress to my mother for an example. My mother seems to apply genocide only to the Jewish experience—she seems unconcerned about the other genocides of the 20th century.

DL: I understand why she might do that, but I think it is wrong to do so. Sometimes Jews fear that their pains will get lost and people will not understand the tragedy they have suffered. I am active in working with the Armenian community on fighting Armenian genocide denial. When I was Germany I said, in front of 350 people, that it’s a travesty that Turkey should be allowed into the EU before it acknowledges the Armenian genocide.

RB: Isn’t the Turkish author [Orhan] Pamuk having problems there now because of his revisiting the Armenian genocide in his latest novel [Snow]?

DL: I think that’s the case. But at the same time we have to remember that nothing is ever the same as something else. For example, I went to South Africa and there were many aspects of apartheid that were just like Nazi Germany. But the white South Africans were not intent on murdering all the blacks because they needed them to do their scut work and to build and maintain their rich economy so they could live comfortably, thank you very much. But Ward Churchill contends that because in my book I don’t mention the [killing of] native Americans, which I hasten to point out, wasnot my topic, I am a genocide denier. In the book I was addressing Holocaust denial. It wasn’t about the denial of genocides. But then Ward Churchill says that because I don’t mention the Native American killings there is “no difference between a Deborah Lipstadt and an Adolf Eichmann.” I recently began to read his articles more carefully. It is the first time I saw the word “motherfucker” in a supposedly scholarly article.

RB: [laughs]

DL: The guy [Churchill] has one idea. Which he argues, not very well, over and over again. Now it appears that he may have plagiarized from a professor in Canada.

RB: Churchill may even be a scam artist.

DL: The real fault lies with the administration of the University of Colorado. He never went through the regular hiring process. The guy doesn’t have a PhD. They didn’t closely read his articles. They were so excited about getting a supposedly Native American—and now the Native Americans are saying he is not even Native American—that they were scammed. There is good reason for the academic process. Then, once they decided that hiring him would bring luster to the university, they had to find a department willing to take him. And now, with all the controversy about him, the university administration was about to buy him off for a half million dollars. Talk about shooting yourself in more than just the foot. [laughs] But on a more serious plane, when you focus on the Holocaust and argue that in many respects it is unlike the other terrible genocides, that doesn’t mean that you are saying, “Oh the other sufferings are inconsequential.” If a Cambodian person says, “My parents died in the Cambodian genocide,” and I say, “The Cambodian genocide was not a holocaust,” not only is that insensitive, it is comparative pain and comparative pain is stupid. If I were sitting here and you said to me, “I just had a root canal.” And I said, “Oh, I had two of them.” Does that make you feel better? Comparative pain is a completely useless exercise. So to argue that Holocaust has unique elements is not to diminish the suffering of others.

 

 

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RB: In Eva Hoffman’s book, After Such Knowledge, she mentioned she had done some radio broadcasts and later met a Rwandan in London who expressed great appreciation for her observations on the Holocaust. Hoffman opines, “He was not having a good genocide.”

DL: It’s not by chance that Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general [who was in charge of United Nations peacekeepers dispatched to Rwanda in the spring of 1993, as the genocide there was beginning], spoke for the first time in public when he was interviewed by Ted Koppel at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. This was about three or four years ago. The whole uniqueness argument doesn’t take you anywhere.

There is no end. There is no end to anti-Semitism. There is no end to racism. There is no end to prejudice. You keep fighting the battles. It’s not a war that you win, but it’s singular battles that you might win.

RB: I bring it up—I am not saying my mother is guilty of some wrong—she seems to be obsessed.

DL: What happens is that some Jews fear that if they make these comparisons it takes attention away from Jewish pain and suffering. Jews fear that because they have a profile of being successful today, people don’t think they really suffered. I say to my students when we discuss why the United States did so little, I say there was the Depression and there was isolationism—I sound like such an apologist. I sound like the person who disgusted me when I was a college student and heard this. And I said, “Some day people are going to say, ‘What were you doing during the genocide in Sudan?’” I try as often as I can, [though] I don’t always succeed, to mention the Sudan. Rwanda happened 10 years ago. Bosnia happened six years ago. But the Sudan is happening right now. [emphatically] A genocide. And we should be going nuts. We’re not.

 

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RB: You reminded me of David Rieff’s remark in his book [on Bosnia], Slaughterhouse,that the phrase “Never again” seemed to be reserved for Jews in mid-century Europe.

DL: That’s true. And the phrase was coined long after nothing was done. So who knows if it is anything more than a slogan? There has been some action by the world, but not enough. You know, it’s so easy to rewrite history. When I was in Germany, Germans discussed their intention to want to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the “liberation” of Germany. Excuse me, liberation from whom?

 

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RB: You have been criticized in some quarters for using the Fragments book. [The book is the memoir of Binjamin Wilkomirskic, in which he claimed to have survived the Holocaust as a child. Its veracity has been called into question by a number of experts.—eds.]

DL: Oh, God, what an old story. First of all, I used the Fragments book early on, shortly after it appeared. Then some suspicions arose that it might not be accurate. I was asked, on the run, literally on the fly, by Blake Eskin: “What if it weren’t quite true?” So I said, “Then it will be a powerful novel.” When I found out the degree to which Wilkomirski falsified that story, I immediately stopped using it. But my throwaway line continues to be cited.

RB: Had you considered using Blake Eskin’s book [A Life in Pieces, in which in part he investigates Wilkomirski’s story,] as a companion piece?

DL: No, I don’t want to give Wilkomirski a dime.

RB: Where is he now?

DL: In Switzerland. He made a lot of money on his book and he’s a complete fraud. Before all this came to light, I met him and something just did not seem right. First of all he looked very young to be a survivor. And he was always half in tears. When it was time for him to go to the airport, he said, “I have to have someone who comes with me. You can’t send me in a car. I need someone to come with me.” And he was traveling with his wife. So he was not alone. I know a lot of survivors and I don’t know any who are so pained that they can’t function. Many are in deep, deep pain, but they know how to function in life. That’s one of the reasons, in addition to lots and lots of luck, that they survived. Wilkomirski’s behavior was like a caricature of what he thought a survivor should be like. Blake Eskin has made a whole career out of that one sentence. It makes me wonder about him in general.

RB: Is there an end to this?

DL: No, there is no end. There is no end to anti-Semitism. There is no end to racism. There is no end to prejudice. You keep fighting the battles. It’s not a war that you win, but it’s singular battles that you might win.

RB: It’s your sense that the latest court episode ends at some point but [the focus] turns to something else?

DL: I don’t think he [Irving] will be able to go on. There has to be a limit to what Irving can do to me. He’s going around saying that if they publish my book in London, he is going to sue me again. So he’ll try again. If this is how he wants to spend his time, then let him. Before the trial, he said to the New York Times, “Lipstadt has been taken out of the line to be shot.” To his surprise, I shot back. I gave better than I got. And I’ll keep giving better than I got.

RB:History on Trial hasn’t been published in Britain?

DL: The wonder of Amazon—people in Britain are buying it, but it hasn’t been picked up by a British publisher. I wonder if they will [pick it up].

RB: Even given the verdict in the trial, it would still cost money to defend.

DL: Right.

RB: And it costs Irving nothing, especially of he goes pro se and then avoids paying the cost when he loses.

DL: That’s right.

RB: What are you doing next?

DL: I want to do something on Jewish response to anti-Semitism. On tactical and strategic responses—the Jewish community gets a lot of it all wrong in how it responds. We blew it in relation to Mel Gibson and gave him a gazillion dollars worth of publicity he could never have bought. I’m not sure the Jewish community has responded well to anti-Semitism, some of which does exist, even on campuses. I’d like to think through those issues.

RB: Whatever the response to Mel Gibson, the movie was going to be a big thing.

DL: Well, not as big as the Jewish community helped make it.

RB: Did they?

DL: They didn’t plan on helping him but in the end they did. They thought in the beginning by criticizing he’d come around and he’d say, “Let’s work together on making this a better film.”

RB: Given his father’s views?

DL: Once you know what his father said about the Holocaust and about Jews, we should have known better. Every time someone criticized him he played it more and more—he just played at being the victim. At some point his critics in the Jewish community should have said, “You know what, next time the press asks for a comment we should state that we have nothing to say.” I faced a similar situation. For five years I had to say, “No comment. I have nothing to say.” I wanted to talk to the press during my trial. I wanted to go on C-SPAN. I wanted to be there. But sometimes you have to be silent because the alternative is worse.

RB: This subject deserves a documentary.

DL: You find me the filmmaker.

RB: Me? I should find the filmmaker? [laughs]

DL: I have to go soon.

RB: OK. Thank you very much.

DL: This was great

 

 

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Copyright  2002, 2016 Robert Birnbaum

 

 

Jess Walter on Beautiful Ruins and Other Stuff

15 Aug

 


Credit: Robert Birnbaum

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

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

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

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

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

Jess Walter: Really? All right.

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

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

RB: Really—were you a musician?

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

RB: How big was the breast?

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

RB: Permanent?

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

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

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

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

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

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

JW: Yeah, right.

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

JW: My son’s name is Alec.

RB: Who is Brooklyn?

JW: Brooklyn is my daughter.

RB: You called a girl Brooklyn?

JW: I did, yeah.

RB: So what’s the reaction?

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

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

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

RB: Where is she?

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

RB: What does your daughter think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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JW: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: (laughs)

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

RB: There’s another Spokane?

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

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

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

RB: Was Richard Burton in the story originally?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JW: Maybe, right.

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

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

RB: And then he became an automobile dealer.

JW: Yeah. Who couldn’t write.

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

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

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

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

RB: It is a lovely ending.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: (laughs)

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

RB: I also liked  his novel Samaritan.

JW: It was good too.

RB: Colin Harrison writes literary crime novels.

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

RB: But there is still a crime fiction ghetto.

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

RB: (laughs)

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

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

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

RB: Have you read Georges Simenon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JW: I love those.

RB: You could be the glorifier of Spokane.

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

RB: So what’s next?

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

RB: These others weren’t?

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

RB: Did you live in Hollywood?

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

RB: Who’s in the cast?

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

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

JW: It’s an indie film, low-budget.

RB: Acting and storytelling?

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

RB: (laughs)

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

RB: You may regret giving it away.

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

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

JW: I never said that.

RB: What’s it like living in Spokane?

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

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

JW: Yeah, well—

RB: There’s your education.

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

RB: How close were you to Ruby Ridge?

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

RB: How far from the Canadian border?

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

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

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

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

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

RB: There is something to be said for originality—

JW: And authenticity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Vince turned out to be unflinchingly moral.

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

RB: There’s no mob there?

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

RB: No drugs?

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

RB: Chinese gangs? Or Guatemalan gangs?

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

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

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

RB: How long has Cal Morgan been your editor?

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

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

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

RB: (laughs)

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

RB: Before or after his fall from grace?

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

RB: I lost my copy on an airplane.

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

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

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

RB: That’s very commendable.

JW: For a young writer, right.

RB: For any writer.

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

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

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

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

JW: Six novels and one nonfiction book.

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

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

RB: “Bery, bery good to you.”

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Probably.

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

RB: How many languages for Beautiful Ruins?

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

RB: What about the movie of Beautiful Ruins?

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

RB: He’s a really good guy.

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

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

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

RB: (laughs) Right.

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

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

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

RB: So they get the back end covered.

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

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

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

RB:A Separation, an Iranian film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: It more has the stench of institutionalized conformity.

JW: Mechanization.

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

JW: I think you did.

RB: Imagine it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JW: Too easy. I do it every day.

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

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

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

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

RB: Well, thank you.

JW: Thank you.

Brad Watson circa 2002

10 Aug

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

 

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

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

RB: How long have you been living up here?

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

RB: (laughs)

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

RB: Sounds like a psychological experiment.

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

RB: You came up here to teach?

 

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

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

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

RB: There’s a story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

brad watson

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

RB: What was it that you proposed?

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

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

BW: Really, not even Earl and his family.

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

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

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

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

RB: What does “trying to start” mean?

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

RB: Nothing gets wasted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Why do the chapter headings have Latin titles?

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

RB: And when did you decide on the title?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

RB: Is that where Foley, Alabama is

?author brad watson

 

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

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

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

RB: What could be better?

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

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

BW: It’s almost that way now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Characters don’t haunt you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Wasn’t that said about Paris Trout?

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

RB: (laughs) Sure.

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

RB: Another good story. Well, thanks.

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

Who Done Talked That Talk?

27 Jul

 

 

 

statute of great public speaker ,Demosthenes

statute of great public speaker ,Demosthenes

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

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

I was stunned.

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

And I intend to respect that tradition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And some twenty minutes later  concludes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck!

#####

 *     My last conversation with George Saunders

**   Me and Mary Karr chew the fat

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

What Would Ernie Banks Do?

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

Mr Cub, Ernie Banks Baseball Halll of Fame plaque

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

Newest addition to the Chicago Cub roster, Aroldis Chapman

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

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

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

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

Grant Bisbee chimes in

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

Deuces that Beat a Full House

27 Apr

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

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.”

#####

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.

 

####

*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

 

r.

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

 

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Beisbol

 

beisbol
Billboard III

 

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Ceiling Detail

 

 

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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)

 

cubabirnbaum

 

Cuba Maxwell Birnbaum (circa 2016)

 

IMG_1037