Oscar Hijuelos and Thoughts Without Cigarettes

4 Feb

 Oscar Hijuelos [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

Oscar Hijuelos [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar Hijuelos: In terms of going into details?

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

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

RB:  To two different  publishers.

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

RB: (laughs)

 

 

Thoughts Without Cigarettes BY Oscar Hijuelos

Thoughts Without Cigarettes BY Oscar Hijuelos

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

RB: Well you can still write another memoir.

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

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

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

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

OH: Ah, yes, doctor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OH: I travel a lot.

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

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

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

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

RB: Bittersweetness?

OH: Bittersweetness in what sense?

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

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

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

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

RB: Is your life upbeat?

OH: Right now or back then?

RB: The life you lived.

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

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

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

 

 

THE MAMBO KINGS Sing Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

THE MAMBO KINGS Sing Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

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

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

RB: The message or the narrative?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

OH: Yeah, it’s kind of crazy.

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

OH: They don’t cover fiction anymore.

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

THE FOURTEEN SISTERS of Emeilo Montez by Oscar Hijuelos

THE FOURTEEN SISTERS of Emeilo Montez by Oscar Hijuelos

 

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

RB: (laughs)

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

RB: What was an immigrant novel—Fourteen Sisters?

OH: Yeah, that was how it was reviewed.

 

Mr Ives Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Mr Ives Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

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

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

RB: That was a wonderful book.

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

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

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

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

RB: Was that based on a true story?

 

 A Simple Habana Melody by Oscar Hijuelos

A Simple Habana Melody by Oscar Hijuelos

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

RB: (laughs)

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

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

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

RB: What about the sequel to Mambo Kings?

 

Beautiful Maria of My Soul by Oscar Hijuelos

Beautiful Maria of My Soul
by Oscar Hijuelos

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

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

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

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

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

RB: (laughs)

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

RB: What about a career in music?

OH: I was never that gifted.

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

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

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

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

RB: Where do you live now?

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

RB: Do envision living somewhere other than Manhattan?

OH: Another country?

RB: Anywhere else other than New York.

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

RB: No.

OH: You should go.

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

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

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

OH: Martin Amis spends time down there.

RB: He did. He has moved to NYC.

OH: He’s in New York?

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

OH: Yeah.

RB: In English or Spanish?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Holguín?

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

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

OH: No, she passed away five years ago.

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

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

 

Our House in The Last World by Oscar Hijuelos

Our House in The Last World by Oscar Hijuelos

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

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

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

OH: If I live that long.

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

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

RB: (laughs)

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

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

OH: Thank you.

 

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Endnotes

1 Oscar Hujielos  talks about writing Thoughts without Cigaretttes

2 Oscar Hijuelos reads from Thoughts without Cigaretttes

Not A Chance Meeting: Me and Rachel Cohen

25 Jan

 

 

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

Rachel Cohen [photo by Robert Birnbaum]

Rachel Cohen [photo by Robert Birnbaum]

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

 

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Robert Birnbaum:  What do you want to talk about?

Rachel Cohen: (laughter)

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: It’s wonderful.

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: What period?

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

Robert Birnbaum: It’s passe isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: I have a card.

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen

A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: A gutsy thing for…

Rachel Cohen: A single woman…

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: —Your mother? (laughs)

Rachel Cohen: My mother worried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: That trip?

Robert Birnbaum: Is there one thing?

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

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

Rachel Cohen: About a place or something?

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

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

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

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

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

 

 

Ansel Adams, Jeffrey Pine, 1940

Ansel Adams, Jeffrey Pine, 1940

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

Robert Birnbaum: About what?

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

Robert Birnbaum: A White person?

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

Robert Birnbaum: Right.

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

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

Rachel Cohen: No.

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen:Like a Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover.

 

Saul Steinberg, detail from New Yorker cover

Saul Steinberg, detail from New Yorker cover

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: You were focused on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: How old’s your daughter?

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

Robert Birnbaum: What’s her name?

Rachel Cohen: Sylvia.

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: What do you think she sees?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: No.

Robert Birnbaum: You knew right away?

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

Robert Birnbaum: You take photographs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: Exactly.

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: Yes.

Robert Birnbaum: You know who Rhianna is?

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

Robert Birnbaum: Tupac?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. Definitely. Definitely.

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

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

 

Robert Stone [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Stone [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: You listen to lots of contemporary music?

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

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

Rachel Cohen: And everything about them?

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: I used it religiously.

Robert Birnbaum: You had to read it.

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

Robert Birnbaum: Giving it a narrative as opposed to—

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: Everybody.

Robert Birnbaum: They were the hubs of culture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Where is it?

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

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

 

The Last Days by Laurent Sesek

The Last Days by Laurent Sesek

Rachel Cohen: Oh really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Your agents is still Eric Simonoff?

Rachel Cohen: He is, yeah.

 

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: He’s terrific.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: The long game’s always important.

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

Robert Birnbaum: You were looking for an agent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Algorithms.

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

 

Hari Kunzru [photo: Robert Birnbaum

Hari Kunzru [photo: Robert Birnbaum

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

Rachel Cohen: Not so far fetched, yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Right.

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: That’s a possibility?

Robert Birnbaum: She did it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Guernica by Pablo PIcasso

Guernica by Pablo PIcasso

 

 

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

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Botero "Picasso" 1999

Botero “Picasso” 1999

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Brave place to start.

Rachel Cohen: (laughter) I guess so.

Robert Birnbaum: Pretty ambitious.

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

Robert Birnbaum: Where is it?

Rachel Cohen: What?

Robert Birnbaum: You trashed it or did you…?

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

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

Rachel Cohen: It’s somewhere.

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Do you know what the ending is?

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: A certain kind of excitement or uplift.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres

 

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

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

 

Robert Birnbaum: You were teaching at Sarah Lawrence?

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: That’s pretty bold.

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Affluent backgrounds?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued

 

######

1 Rachel Cohen’s website

2 Ansel Adams photographs

3 Saul Steinberg’s art

4 One of my 5 or 6 conversations with Robert Stone

5 Biographies of Bernard Berenson

6 On Stefan Zweig

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

8 The Last Days by Laurent Seksik

9 One of my conversations (2004)with Edward Jones

10  Golden Gilded Glittery by Rachel Cohen

11 My LA Review of Books  chat with Hari Kunzru,

12 Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama

13  My most recent conversation with Jennifer Egan

14 Basquit by Julian Schnabel

15 Guernica by Pablo Picasso

16 Columbian painter Fernando Botero

17   Writer Mark Z. Danielewski ‘s website

18 My last conversation with  Louis de Bernières

19 Trailer for Enough Said

20 Talking with Nicholas Dawidoff

 

Rachel Cohen Meets with Robert Birnbaum

21 Jan

 

 

A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen

A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen

 

Rachel Cohen grew up in an academic family in Ann Arbor, Mich., and went on to graduate from Harvard University. Ten years in the writing, parts of her new and first book, A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists (1854-1967), have appeared as [complete] essays in Double Take (which has ceased publication) and Omnivore (Lawrence Weschler’s forthcoming magazine project) as well as the Threepenny Review and McSweeney’s. Cohen has written for the New Yorker and other periodicals, and her essays have appeared in Best American Essays 2003 and 2003’s Pushcart Prize XXVII anthology. The manuscript for A Chance Meeting won the 2003 PEN/Jerard Award. Cohen teaches non-fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn.

The genesis of A Chance Meeting was a solo 19,000-mile automobile trip Cohen took in the early ‘90s—a voyage that did not produce a predictable intellectual travelogue. Instead, based on her reading from the library she kept in her trunk, ‘I ended up spending much more time with the people in my trunk than anyone else. That was when I started to think of these writers as people and they started to come alive. And this is what I made from that trip,’ she says. ‘Those are the things that I read and the way I figured out how to put all the material together.’

Cohen writes vignettes of 30 intertwined lives in 36 chapters, beginning with Henry James and Matthew Brady’s encounter in 1854 and running up to Norman Mailer and Robert Lowell’s in the late ‘60s. In between, we meet William Dean Howells, Annie Adams Fields, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant, W.E.B. DuBois, Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather and others. Marcus Warren wrote in the Telegraph, ‘The book is a virtuoso intellectual history of the mid-19th to mid-20th century, as chronicled by a series of meetings: Some of the encounters are casual, others the start of lifelong friendships, many the fruit of courtships from afar; a few, as Cohen writes in her introduction, were the result of her subjects both ‘standing near the drinks.’

Here’s my A conversation with author Rachel Cohen about her book of road trips and crossed paths, including many of America’s best writers.

 

All photos copyright © 2016 Robert Birnbaum

* * *

Robert Birnbaum: There are so many directions we can go here, in large part because your book is so original.

Rachel Cohen: Oh, thank you.

RB: I felt liberated by it.

RC: As you should.

RB: How do you feel after having completed this book—now that it’s getting some attention and reviews and you are going out into the big wide world and talking about it?

RC: Well, today is a beautiful day and I feel good, [both laugh] but it varies a lot. Which I think is probably pretty normal, particularly with a first book. It’s all such a new experience. I spent 10 years working on this project. It was incredibly solitary. I was the only one doing it for most of that time. And [pause] it was a very, very personal project, which I think, is maybe slightly different than the experience of lots of non-fiction writers. It’s a little different than writing a book about politics or dinosaurs—

RB:—There are only a couple people who you write about who are still living.

RC: Yeah and I did talk to Norman Mailer and Richard Avedon but not until after I finished the manuscript. So it was a very internal kind of process. And so I have a little bit of the pain that a fiction writer experiences when a book is out in the world—a kind of imaginary world is no longer yours [alone].

RB: Are you prepared for this part of the writer’s work—going out and talking to people like me?

RC: I am getting more used to it. I like talking to people, so that part of it is a pleasure. It’s mostly a shift in conception—of ceasing to think of it as my interior project and starting to think of it as something that’s in the world.

 

 

Cover of Omnivore, published by Ren Weschler

Cover of Omnivore, published by Ren Weschler

RB: A piece of this book appeared in DoubleTake magazine. And it appeared in Ren Weschler’s prototype issue of Omnivore. Ten years ago, when you started out writing—was it always going to be a book?

RC: I wanted to write a book of essays. There were always going to be some of these essays, in that book. But I didn’t start out to write this book. I didn’t really know what I was doing when I started— it developed over time. And it was taken apart and put back together again. And it was sent out as proposal and rejected. It was changed. [both laugh] You know, it had a long career before it came to its current state.

RB: Might you qualify something about your description of the book as a 10-year interior project because along the way you had other voices chiming in?

RC: Feedback. Absolutely.

RB: Anybody give you good advice?

RC: Many people. One person from whom I got good advice was [Lawrence] Ren Wechsler,[1] who was really supportive of this idea and me, for a long time. One of the things about him that you can see in Omnivore is the openness and capaciousness of his taste and his interest.

RB: Hence the title of the magazine.

RC: Yeah, you definitely get that feeling about him. And that was helpful to me because it’s important when you are starting out not to feel too confined or too restricted to genres that you are already familiar with. Or ways of putting material together that you have seen other people do. That was quite helpful.

RB: It’s interesting that parts of this book would have been in two publications that had very different views of how to present narratives and information. But they both recognized the value of what you were doing. Shall we say that was a kind of paradox?

 

Photo
RC: It is a funny thing in how many different ways there are to approach what I have been doing. I sometimes have that thought—the other two places that published early versions of these pieces were the Threepenny Review and McSweeney’s, which are also not places that one would ordinarily put together. Although I think they overlap every once in a while. So, yeah, partly because of my interest in photography, I think that those are all periodicals that are interested in visual experience in different ways.

RB: McSweeney’s [the website], other than the cutesy line drawings, never uses photography.

RC: That’s true. But they are visually conceived objects. So I think Dave [Eggers] has a pretty strong visual sensibility and is attentive to visual things. That’s that a commonality with these periodicals. But that is basically a strange thing to be in all those places.

RB: I did scan some of the reviews of A Chance Meeting. And I was irritated by the one in Slate by Meghan O’Rourke [2], even though it was positive and complimentary. I felt as if she was trying to upstage your work. One of those reviews that had to say who wasn’t in the book or what the book wasn’t about—

RC: [laughs]

RB: Or a story that should have been in it.

RC: Although, I actually love that story she referred to, it’s one of my favorites.

RB: Sure, which is why her bringing it up is infuriating. [both laugh]

RC: I had considered putting it in. I guess I wasn’t infuriated by that one. I was pleased in general by the way she handled the book and I do think that one thing about the book is that is an occasion for everybody to say what they think about American culture and how it gets passed on. I am most pleased with the reviews that take seriously that that’s what I was doing. And so I am inclined to forgive anything once [laughs] that’s on the table.

RB: What do you think of the notion that it’s only really what is on the page or in the work that the person makes that has meaning and the rest of it is irrelevant?

RC: That kind of book-versus-the-biography question. Obviously, that’s not true for me. I care much more about the lives of the people and that’s what my own work has mostly been about. But I think that’s a perfectly reasonable way to approach literature. Some of my best friends read that way. And there is a way in which a book has a life of its own—that it is meant to exist independently of its writer. But for me I am always reading books thinking about who wrote them and why they wrote them and what it means to the person who wrote it to write it. So I am interested in the intersection.

RB: There is something about these competing views that I find peculiar. The people that feel it’s only about the work of art seem to me to be more zealous and authoritarian about asserting their correctness. Whereas people for whom biography—

RC: [laughs] Are kind of loose about it…

RB: Yeah. Which makes me wonder about the legitimacy of the zealot’s position.

RC: Right, right.

RB: It don’t think either of them are wrong—it’s a matter of taste

RC: Only one seeks to banish the other. There is also a variation among writers. Different writers or artists seem to ask to be treated in different ways. There are writers who really try to hold their private lives private, burn their papers, and hope for no celebrity in one way or another. And so I can see feeling defensive on behalf of these people. Like, ‘Don’t go prying into that life, that person didn’t want anyone prying into that life.’ Then there are other writers who put their lives forward in a huge and open way.

RB: In this era, other than a few well-known holdouts like Salinger and Pynchon and perhaps David Foster Wallace, it would seem that most writers are hungry for attention and it seems like securing that attention is a subsidiary pursuit—

RC: A professional kind of quality—

RB: In 100 years if somebody is doing a retrospective, will there be anything left to discover?

RC: Yeah, just an endless amount of material as long as emails can still be downloaded. It’s true that ideas of a public figure have changed over the last 100 years. And that the things that everybody talks about—the mass media and the quickness with which people are made into celebrities and the necessity of selling lot of copies of books and all of those things that are going on—certainly put pressure on people to be active public figures.

RB: That seems to remove a couple of layers of specialty and special pleading for writers. What I am trying to say is that there is something implicit about artists having a better grasp of the world as we know it, some elevated perspective and moral acuity—but in point of fact—how different are writers and artists?

RC: A lot of one’s perspective or sense of oneself as an outsider comes from childhood and adolescent experience and so that in a way is fixed before the later—

RB: Before the writerly affectations set in?

RC: [both laugh] Maybe one’s memory and style are developing at that time, too. But you are not on book tour when you are 11. There is maybe a way in which people can still lay claim to that ability to conceive of things from the margins. Part of what gets imposed by a lot of national media is a sense of homogeneity and that we are all in agreement and that everything is sort of monolithic and, in fact, it’s complete chaos. And should be.

RB: Had you considered not going on tour?

RC: I thought about it a little bit. But I was glad to go. I thought it would be interesting to get out and see what people were saying, and it is interesting for me to make that shift. The shift to having a book in public was going to happen regardless, so it didn’t seem to me to be—

RB: I may be collapsing the motivational distinctions. Book touring doesn’t mean the same for every author and every book.

RC: It’s a strange ritual—I am mostly reading at independent bookstores, which I really appreciate, and I like knowing where my book is. In a way, there is something straightforwardly—

RB: You mean actually physically knowing its location on the shelves?

RC: Yeah, to see it on the shelves. See the people and meet the people who are running the bookstore. See the people who go to that bookstore and talk to the people who run the radio programs. You get a feeling for the larger literary world. It’s sort of special to have access to that.

RB: Many people who are coming to readings haven’t read your book?

RC: I tend to think of it as an introduction. So I try to explain a little a bit about what I was thinking about, how I was working, and then I read some of it so they can get a feeling for the atmosphere that I am trying to create.

RB: What do you read?

RC: I read different things. It’s nice to read things that have to do with the place you are in.

RB: Will you be in Ohio?

RC: Michigan and Wisconsin, but not Ohio. When I was in Washington, D.C., I read about Walt Whitman and maybe here tonight I will read about Gertrude Stein and Harvard Yard.

RB: I read somewhere you drove around the United States. And drove an amazing amount of mileage—19,000 miles.

RC: It’s mentioned in the introduction but I don’t think the mileage is mentioned.

RB: That number represents numerous crisscrossings.

RC: Yeah, not just one. It was a long trip and really an interesting one. I had a wonderful time. Mostly I drove back roads, which also puts the mileage on.

RB: How long did it take you?

RC: It was almost a year that I was gone. I spent a few months of that in South Carolina. I was working at a rural HIV clinic. Then I was a little bit more based in South Carolina and driving around.

RB: That’s a tough state.

RC: It was a strange thing, actually. I have never lived in the South. You have to really have a lot of confidence in yourself and your perceptions to go into a place briefly—just for a little while and decide that you have understood it and then get it down on the page. And somebody like de Tocqueville or Steinbeck or William Least Heat-Moon has that kind of quality which is a combination of brilliance and ego, that  can actually do that.

RB: I’m surprised more people don’t hit the road. A lot of information, I think, is lost and falls between the crevices of mainstream reporting.

RC: Yeah, it was partly out of the feeling—which was that when I was in college I had studied mostly European writers. And I had done a semester abroad and I hadn’t really traveled through the U.S. since I drove across the country with my parents in the sixth grade. So I felt like I didn’t really know what was going on or how the world was working out there. And what I found was confusing to me. I didn’t come to a clear sense of what the country was about. And the different meetings I had with different people didn’t add up to a clear story.

RB: How about the story is that the country is big and incoherent?

RC: [both laugh] Exactly. I think that’s important because part of what gets imposed by a lot of national media is a sense of homogeneity and that we are all in agreement and that everything is sort of monolithic and, in fact, it’s complete chaos. And should be. That’s what it was always meant to be. I prefer the feeling that it was multiple and chaotic, to the feeling that I also sometimes had that it was bifurcated and oppositional. There was also a feeling I sometimes had that there were two countries and that they were really at odds with each other. And that was more upsetting.

RB: The former interpretation suggests something natural.

RC: Yes. [laughs]

RB: A state of nature as opposed to the contrivance advanced by hucksters.

RC: Which feels politicized and dangerous, in a way.

RB: Richard Reeves [in American Journey] [3]did a follow-up to [Alexis] de Tocqueville’s trip and retraced that original journey and extended his travels to the West coast in 1981 [150 years later]. Why didn’t you write a book based on your own trip?

RC: I think I did. The book I wrote was based on that trip.

RB: Shall I use an overused word, it ‘informed’ this book?

RC: [laughs] Yeah, words like ‘oblique ‘ and ‘tangential’ come to mind.

RB: You were talking to the gas station attendant in South Dakota and he remarked on something about Willa Cather?

RC: Right, exactly, how Annie Adams Field had really contributed to his sense of—I mean, I did try to write a book about that. That’s what I was doing in the year that I was out there. I thought the book was there to be written but I found it very hard to do.

Rachel Cohen [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Rachel Cohen [photo Robert Birnbaum]

RB: What does it mean that  road trip books were written by all men? I can’t think of one woman who has written a road book. Is it a men’s genre?

RC: It is. It’s a very masculine genre. Which I realized when I was out there. How do people do this? And then I thought, ‘Oh, they are willing to say, ‘I am right about this based on my one hour of experience.’’

RB: Or perhaps it’s a masculine trait to accept one’s first impressions?

RC: [both laugh] I don’t know about that. And also there are practical considerations. Like it’s safer [for men]. I was traveling alone. And I had one of those huge cell phones my mother had bought me because I needed to be somewhat safe. It made it harder to be out at night. There are all sorts of experiences that you are limited from.

RB: Steinbeck took a dog with him.

RC: That’s the thing to do. I think Charley was a good thing to have for Steinbeck, and I didn’t have a dog. In answer to your earlier question, what I found was that things that I could piece together about American inheritance were in books rather than in diners. But that trip did make me conscious of the wideness of the country and its experience and the variety of personality.

RB: [One might say] it’s a grand categorical error to say that it is one country.

RC: Yeah. It is each person’s invention and that may be, more than other countries, that it prides itself on becoming invented by each of its inhabitants. I did try to keep that in mind in working on the book.

RB: One of the things I enjoyed about the essays in A Chance Meeting were the flights of fancy. Walt Whitman gets on a tram and runs in to a guy he is very enamored of—you recreate his interior response. Clearly, you couldn’t know that but it seems correct and there is no reason to doubt it. Why did you think you had the license to do that?

RC: Chutzpah. [both laugh] Obviously, it has that quality. Also, I did hold myself to a pretty rigorous standard. Part of how I did it was by making guesses and seeing if I found confirmation of them. Like I started to have sense that Marianne Moore cared a lot about whether people were really on time. And so I had Elizabeth Bishop coming to meet her and Elizabeth Bishop was often late. I decided to make that—Bishop was in a hurry because she was afraid she was going to be late. And then I found a letter from Moore to somebody else saying that she was really enjoying knowing Elizabeth Bishop, despite the fact that she was always late. Then I thought, ‘Great, I got it. That’s the right tension.’ Then I found George Plimpton’s essay on Marianne Moore, in which he said she wore two watches because she was so obsessed with being on time. By that point I felt like my position was really a good one—it was very much in character for those two people. And in the example that you brought up, there is so much information about Whitman and Peter Doyle and the fact that Doyle was an omnibus conductor and they used to ride the bus together and that Whitman always liked that kind of transportation, public transportation. He loved the Brooklyn ferry and used to ride the horse cars and help the conductors. That was a kind of being a part of large groups of people that he really loved. I knew it was a good setting for him. A setting that was responsible to his actual preferences. Had I decided to imagine Walt Whitman having tea at an expensive hotel it would have felt like I had taken an unnecessary and hopeless license.

RB: There is another scene where someone is dropped off—Joseph Cornell, and he, Carl Van Vechten is sitting in his car. No, it’s Charlie Chaplin—

RC: Charlie Chaplin drops off Hart Crane.

RB: So I got both people wrong [both laugh]

RC: But the setting, you had [right].

RB: That moment with Chaplin sitting back and ruminating, let me repeat, was a charming scene. Indisputable, but clearly a fiction. And yet nothing to find fault with.

RC: That’s nice, yeah.

RB: The charm of your book, I thought, is the wonderful interweaving also of factual information and conjecture. What do you call this, ‘imaginary non-fiction’?

RC: ‘Imaginative.’

RB: Why do so many fiction writers have such scorn for what they call creative non-fiction?

RC: Most fundamentally, it’s a kind of ethical question. And like all ethical questions, it’s almost impossible to articulate. [laughs] But really it’s sort of like the problem that comes up around an Oliver Stone movie.

RB: There are problems with Oliver Stone’s movies?

RC: [both laugh] There is an uneasiness, maybe.

RB: I thought it was his bombasticity.

RC: [more laughter] He’s not so important to this argument. [laughs] Just that here can be a feeling when you see something which is historical and you feel doesn’t quite represent what you think was the case. And you feel like everyone is going to get that version of the story…

RB: What’s the difference between Oliver Stone, who we have decided is not really important to this argument, and Thomas Mallon’s Henry and Clara? It’s based on the couple who shared Lincoln’s theater box the night of his assassination. They are real people. Is the story real as Mallon tells it? What difference does it make?

RC: That’s a novel. It’s a little bit different. That’s not saying this is a book of history in which you can trust the writer to be telling you what the research has been.

RB: The problem the fiction writer has is the claim made by non-fiction of total factual accuracy. And that it is entirely accurate, certain speculative leaps notwithstanding.

RC: It’s a question of what the reader can trust the writer to have substantiated according to whatever historical standards of research and what is being suggested or elaborated around the edges. All biographers are imagining. A lot of it is guesswork. You are trying to figure out what the character of the person—no matter how much evidence you have, you are still telling a story and you are still shifting the perspective. So, it’s usually a specious kind of distinction between what’s imaginative and what’s not. On the other hand I felt really responsible that people should know—a college student is reading this and they are using it for their paper and they should know what I knew and what I didn’t know. So that there is an ethical question about how you convey to your reader and it can be very subtle, I think, how you convey that this part, you wouldn’t necessarily quote.

RB: Were there pieces that you left out?

RC: There were other attempts that didn’t work out. There were other structures that didn’t give much in the way of a return.

RB: How about people?

RC: Oh yeah. There were things that I was fascinated by—the fact that U.S. Grant and James McNeil Whistler had the same drawing professor at West Point. I couldn’t get over that. I thought that was so great and strange. So, then I tried for a while to build something around that drawing teacher and I tried to get Whistler in but it was hard because he was in England. I read a lot of biographies of Whistler.

RB: Are there a lot?

RC: There are. I read three.

RB: That’s a lot.

RC: Yeah, [especially] for not writing about him. And then there were [additional] pieces between people who were in the book I considered. I wanted to write about W.E.B. DuBois and Zora Neal Hurston because I thought they would be really interesting together. They worked on this theater project together called the Krigwa Players. I thought maybe—there would have been a little bit of a gender issue. There would have been a little bit of an age issue. There would have been some tension. She was kind of raucous, in some ways. And sometimes he [DuBois] disapproved of that. So I felt that there was a piece in there but there wasn’t quite enough information and I couldn’t get it to emerge, so I let it go. Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore both had that quality of not breaking with people. They stayed friends with everyone they were friends with for a very long time—complicated people that other people fought with, they really kept knowing.

RB: One character/person who I knew pretty much nothing about was U.S. Grant, other than his reputation as a drunk. When I scanned the list of people you dealt with I couldn’t make out why he was there?

RC: I wanted him for many reasons. I thought he was a very fine writer, so that his memoir belonged with the memoirs of the other people who were in the book. He was a literary influence on Gertrude Stein, so that built him in.

RB: Was Grant originally someone you intended or was he a discovery?

RC: He was an early discovery. I actually went to Vicksburg on that drive around the country and bought his memoirs there and was reading them on that trip. That was how I found out that Mark Twain had published them. That really was the first piece that I started to think about writing—that friendship, which seemed so strange to me. Yeah, so he was there from the beginning, always in the project.

RB: I went to Twain’s grave in Elmira, N.Y., on Memorial Day in 2001 and I was so pissed off by what I found—there were broken beer bottles and garbage, why would anyone do that? So, 10 years in the making, now you are out in the world. Have you even thought about what’s next?

RC: I have thought about it a little bit. I am writing a piece on John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle for the New Yorker which I think is amusing, to me anyway, so far.

RB: Why is it amusing?

RC: They had a tempestuous friendship and a terrible falling out.

RB: Why is the New Yorker interested in a piece on Mill and Carlyle?

RC: [laughs] I’m in the fortunate position of having a little tiny niche at the New Yorker for writer’s nightmares, that’s my—[both laugh] I did a piece for them last fall that was called ‘The Very Bad Review’ [4] which was about a terrible review that Edmund Gosse was given by John Trenton Collins in 1886, a life-destroying review, and this is the story of the time that Stuart Mills’s charlady inadvertently burnt the first draft of Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution.

RB: Whoops. [both laugh] That would cause a storm to ensue.

RC: It’s nice to have a project to be working on. I am thinking more about European writers and painters. Probably really 20th-century ones, although this [New Yorker] piece is early in the 19th century.

RB: Do you have any concerns that the things you are interested in pursuing and writing about are coincident with the tastes of book publishers and magazine editors?

RC: You mean, what I do seems fairly obscure? [laughs]

RB: I didn’t say that.

RC: It seems to be turning out all right.

RB: Has it been a concern of yours?

RC: Oh, I see. Not really, no. I don’t know why that is.

RB: Well, at this point, why would it? You have gotten a book published.

RC: Yeah, but there was a little period when the stuff wasn’t getting published, and when the proposal version of it went out a couple of years ago, [it] was rejected by eight people or something like that.

RB: Your agent, Eric Simonoff is Edward Jones’s agent.

RC: Yeah, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s. He has a very fine eye, I really think. And he has a really nice way of staying with people for a long time as they are working. So I went to his office many years ago, now, and distinctly remember him saying, ‘We take the long view. Just go and do your work.’

RB: One might say that by your credentials that you are essentially an academic popularizing or that your interests are more skewed to the scholarly than mainstream culture. So here you are trying to get your work into print and you go to an agent.

Rachel Cohen [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Rachel Cohen [photo Robert Birnbaum]

RC: I was always a creative writer. My materials are historical, but I have no graduate degree. I never considered going to graduate school. I do work that overlaps with scholarly work, but it’s always about structure and language and creating a story and artistic concerns. My conception of my work has always been as creative work even though some of the raw materials are used by academics. Going to an agent was a thing I would obviously have done as a creative writer, yeah. You just never know what’s going to happen. I am surprised at the range of people who have read the book and have been interested in it.

RB: That would be another lesson from the great publishing lottery. Is it books that you are really interested in creating, in writing?

RC: Yeah, it is. I like writing short pieces and their challenges and the formal questions but I was so astonished by the possibilities of writing a book as I was doing it. It was just extraordinary to have that much space and be working on that many levels at once.

RB: Who was your editor?

RC: Eileen Smith, who was also a blessing. She’s a wonderful editor and she was also a very big advocate of the book, which is incredibly important.

RB: Was this book contracted under the [Ann] Godoff regime at Random House?

RC: Just after. Two days after she was fired. It was a tiny risk to go to Random House at that moment when everything was sort of unsettled. But I loved the people that I met there, and I felt like they really took the book seriously.

RB: Despite a natural inclination to vilify the conglomerates and their drones, it’s hard to look at anybody in the book business as totally evil [Peter Olson excepted] and most of the time they are really good people and they are just sort of—

RC: Doing the best they can. Yeah, that’s been my sense also. I really had a wonderful experience there. I had fantastic copy editing and really great design and they were very supportive of making the book a beautiful book—which is a real pleasure. And then I would talk to young publicity assistants who read it and were telling me they were reading the novels of William Dean Howells because of my book. That was so gratifying. It was so nice.

RB: They actually did something with the end papers of A Chance Meeting.

RC: Yeah, they put my drawings there. I don’t know that it’s more important that books be special now than any other time but anything that feels—I love having my drawing there because it has my handwriting in it—it feels a little more handmade and that is a really nice feeling.

RB: Books shouldn’t be less substantial then they were. I read a piece earlier this year in the British press complaining that books weren’t being made very well. Saying they are made of acid-free paper seems to be the major thing.

RC: Right. [laughs] Instead of, ‘It’s a beautiful book.’ On the other hand, there is really good book design being done. If you walk into a bookstore and you look at new releases, it’s astonishing how much more attractive the books are than they were 10 or 15 years ago.

RB: So did we determine what you are doing next?

RC: No, we didn’t. Because I haven’t. But I am, as I hesitatingly suggested, moving toward thinking about European people. I am not sure how many languages I would have to learn in order to do that. I have some of those languages, but not all, that I would want.

RB: The kind of thing that you have done here, though not as obviously, is more like what Europeans do?

RC: I don’t know if it’s exactly close to anything although it might be a little closer to a British tradition of biographical essay. But I am not thinking to do something that is too much like what I have done here. I’d like to make something else. It is true, particularly these kinds of historical continuity, are something self-evident in Europe in a way that it isn’t always here.

RB: Americans are by and large ahistorical.

RC: In some ways—

RB: Except for holidays.

RC: Yeah, which do have a commercial element about them.

RB: My conversations over the years lead to connections within a culture that may be described as frail—do you know what I am trying to say?

RC: ‘Frail’ isn’t a bad word. There is something at least very precious about them and very sustaining, I think, for all of us and it’s been interesting to me—that’s a part of the pleasure of giving interviews. People who do interviews have a feeling, like the photographers in my book did, about what you can accomplish with somebody in a room in an hour or twenty minutes or whatever it is. It is a little like a photo shoot. You are trying to get what’s characteristic of the person in a quick amount of time and you can do that quite well and really feel that you know something pretty profound about a person in that amount of time. So what you are saying doesn’t surprise me. From looking at the [Identitytheory] website I have a sense of your having built a collection of interview subjects. And that is very sustaining and the overlap and interweavings and reoccurrences are a pleasure.

RB: You point to someone as working very hard to maintain their friendships. They didn’t give up on them. And I found that to be so admirable and unusual. My sense of people today is that they are ready to dump their so-called friends—

RC: At any minute. [laughs]” I’m out of here”, that’s it.

RB: It’s a wonder any of these people were friends with anyone.

RC: [laughs] I know, it’s so hard. It’s a challenge to know anybody else in the world. But I think I think that’s part of the reason that I chose the people I did—it is because a lot of them had a talent for friendship, and they also were people who made their families out of their friends. Kind of found families for themselves in that way. People whose own families were difficult or who didn’t marry in a traditional way, didn’t have children. So their friends were very, very central and supported them in their lives and that was important to me because then there was in each of the pieces the little studies of those situations. There was a real vibrancy and there was a lot at stake.

RB: I like that phrase, ‘a talent for friendship.’ Well, I don’t know how long it’s going to take for your next tome,[5] but I hope we are both around to talk about it.

RC: Thank you. I hope so too. That would be great.

 

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1 One of my conversations with  Ren Weschler

2. Megan O Rourke’s Slate review of A Chance Meeting

3 My conversation with Richard Reeves

4. The Very Bad Review’ by Rachel Cohen

5  My most recent chat with Rachel Cohen.

Howard Zinn with Robert Birnbaum Dialogue #2

13 Jan
Howard Zinn circa 2000 [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Howard Zinn circa 2000 [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

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Howard ZinnHoward Zinn grew up in a working-class family in Brooklyn where he became a shipyard laborer and later, in World War Two, an Air Force bombardier. After the war, he attended Columbia University under the GI Bill and earned his Ph.D. in history. He has taught at Spelman College in Atlanta and later at Boston University. He has also been a history fellow at Harvard University and a visiting professor at the University of Paris and the University of Bolgna. Professor Zinn has won numerous awards and honors including The Thomas Merton Award, The Eugene V. Debs Award, The Upton Sinclair Award and The Lannan Literary Award. In a career that has spanned over forty years, Howard Zinn, as a professor, radical historian, progressive political theorist, social activist, playwright and author, has brought a fresh, thoughtful, humane and common-sensical approach to the study and teaching of history. Among his twenty books and plays are La Guardia in Congress, Disobedience and Democracy, The Politics of History, The Pentagon Papers: Critical Essays, Declarations of Independence: Cross Examining American Ideology, You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train (his autobiography), The Zinn Reader, Marx in Soho and, of course, the seminal, highly celebrated A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to the Present. Howard passed away in January 2010

 

As you should note, this conversation with Howard Zinn ,which took place in 2000, was my second with him. I subsequently had three more chats with him almost up until the time of his death. You can find  invaluable information about Howard Zinn and his vast and significant legacy at The Zinn Project here.

 

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Robert Birnbaum: After years of teaching at Spelman College in Atlanta, you came to Boston University?

Howard Zinn: Hmmm…

RB: That’s a yes?

HZ: It’s a yes. [laughs] I had a year in between. [1960-61]

RB: A significant year?

HZ: Significant because I was fired from Spelman College. [laughs] And to make up for the fact that they were firing a person with tenure, who was chair of the department and who was a full professor, they gave me a check for a year’s salary. $7000. Which was the largest amount of money I had ever held in my hand. We thought, “What will we do, I have a year and seven thousand dollars. We’ll go to Boston.” We had spent a year, I had been a fellow at Harvard for a year. We loved Boston. So we decided to come here. And during that year I wrote two books on the South: My book on SNCC (Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee) and in that year I kept going back and forth to the South. The other book was called The Southern Mystique. During that year, Boston University offered me this job at the political science department, although I was a historian — but I never paid much attention to what is called “discipline” in the academic world — so it was a good year. We lived on Newbury Street, by the way, right above the Winston Flower shop.

RB: Back then, did people talk about Boston as the ‘Athens of America’?

HZ: [chuckles] Bostonians did. Boston was considered an intellectual hub — Harvard, MIT…they didn’t talk about Boston University or Northeastern or any other place. In the year that I spent here in Boston, it certainly was that for me. There I was at Harvard, and I could have lunch with Stuart Hughes and be impressed by the way he talked French to the waiters. [both laugh] He took me to Henri Quaitre. It was on Winthrop Street. The waiters all spoke French — at least when they got someone like Stuart Hughes speaking French with them. I was, you might say — a hick up from the South — he wanted to talk to me about the civil rights movement — so he bought me lunch. We loved Boston. We grow up in New York and in Atlanta we felt landlocked. In Boston we found a city with a river flowing through it. We almost thought it was Paris and the Seine…and it’s close to the sea and close to New Hampshire…we loved the city.

RB: You have said that one of the books you greatly admire is Upton Sinclair’s novel Boston?

HZ: It was novel based on the Sacco and Vanzetti case. It’s not even fair to say it was based on it because that suggests a novel loosely based on fact. Actually, the novel Boston, though it has a couple of fictional characters, is really a journalistic account of the Sacco-Vanzetti case. And maybe one of the best non-fiction accounts — even though it is a work of fiction — of the case that I have seen. I grew up loving Upton Sinclair, grew up influenced so much by his work. Not just The Jungle, but The Brass Check, Oil, King Coal. He wrote so many. Then a publisher in Boston decided to bring out Boston, which had been long out of print. And asked me to write an introduction to it, which I did. The Sacco and Vanzetti Case remains important in my thinking and it’s one of those things that happen in history which you can’t forget. I try to imagine how many people in America have been affected by that case, by the powerful emotions generated by that case. There are certain moments in American history that had that effect on people. Sacco-Vanzetti was one. The Rosenberg case was another. The Haymarket Affair for an earlier generation…Emma Goldman, when she was a kid, was influenced by the Haymarket Affair.

RB: How much does the history of Boston — Sacco & Vanzetti, Salem Witch Trial, Boston Police Riot, Blues Laws — affect people today? How aware are they?

HZ: Not very much. It’s always amazing to me how people live in a city and don’t know the history of that city. I’ve been to Lawrence, Massachusetts, and I would bring up the textile strike of 1912 and nobody would know about it. In Boston, aside from the Freedom Trail…

RB: Soon to be the Hood Freedom Trail or the Raytheon Freedom Trail…

HZ: The Revolutionary War and Paul Revere and the cemeteries, yeah. But other than that, things like the Boston Police Strike of 1919, people don’t know about that.

RB: Were there book burnings or just book banning here in Boston?

HZ: I don’t know if they actually burned books, but they certainly banned a lot of books. Sometimes it’s a short step from banning to burning. Boston still has that reputation. Outside of Boston, what Boston is known for is being ‘blue’, being sensitive to anything connected with the church, especially Catholicism. I don’t think it deserves that reputation anymore.

RB: What reputation does it deserve? Is it a distinct place or a generic modern American metropolis?

HZ: For people living in it, yeah. Boston is distinguishable from other cities, which begin to resemble one another very much. It does have special character. I talk to people who come here from other places, and they feel that Boston has a special character. They connect it with history. They do connect it with age. Of course, to a European, it’s not very old. But still, for Americans, they connect it with the American Revolution.

RB: Does it seem like tourists are more conscious of Boston’s place in history than its residents?

HZ: I think that’s almost always true, that tourists read the tourist guide. And they learn things about a city and the people in the city are not paying any attention to that. I think that’s generally true…

RB: But tourists won’t find out about Sacco and Vanzetti, The Police Strike, etc., in tour literature.

HZ: There is no radical walking tour in Boston like there is in New York. There is a guy in New York who takes people to where Emma Goldman lived on 13th Street and this Union Square where…

RB: What would that feature?

HZ: They could say, “This is the spot on the Charles River where a copy of the Pentagon Papers went from hand to hand and ended up with the Boston Globe.” Think of all those things that happened during the Vietnam War in Boston. One thing Boston is known for, in the 60’s, Boston became known as a hub of anti-war resistance. The meetings on the Common, I don’t know if anyone has written a history of the Boston Common as protest place. Or Fanueil Hall. The Boston Common was a mirror of the growth of the anti-war movement. I spoke at the first anti-war meeting on the Common in the Spring of 1965. There were a hundred people there. Then I spoke there again in the 1969 Mobilization and there were 100,000 people there. So, many things have happened there. Yeah, Boston is a special place.

RB: Speaking of anti-war protest, Barry Crimmins [1]— as is his wont — is outraged at Bush’s court-appointed presidency. George Bush seems to be bringing back the good old days: a new cold war, an economic downturn and a return to Eisenhower-era morality. What do you think?

HZ: It’s really interesting. Here the guy wins the presidency by the most nefarious of methods and without a popular mandate. Losing a popular vote by a larger margin than Hayes lost the popular vote in 1876, but then moves ahead with aplomb, with total arrogance as if the country is his. My feeling is that we are living in an occupied country. Really, that we’ve been taken over, a junta has taken power and now the problem for the American people is to do what people do in an occupied country…

RB: Hunker down? Create a black market? Some resist, many collaborate…In the Spy Plane Incident, commentators were heartened to see Bush “rise above the politics” and call in ‘experts’ like his father and Henry Kissinger. Recently Christopher Hitchens wrote an essay in Harper’s about Henry Kissinger’s culpability as a war criminal[2]. Is Henry Kissinger a war criminal?

HZ: It’s certainly true that he is a war criminal. In the sense that he was part of the apparatus and an a intellectual leader and adviser of that bureaucracy which carried on the Vietnam War, which carried on the secret illegal bombing of Cambodia, which helped engineer the coup in Chile in 1973. And so Kissinger is responsible for much of the atrocious conduct of American foreign policy. The idea that he received the Nobel Peace Prize made a number people dismiss that award after that. Christopher Hitchens’ piece was well deserved and it’s good to call attention. I saw a satiric piece in the Washington Post about the Hitchens essay by a former student of mine, Peter Carlson. He asked, “Why are they getting excited about Kissinger as a war criminal? He’s a wonderful dinner guest.”

RB: The response to the charges against Kissinger are curious. Some say, “Well, other administrations did comparable acts.” As if that relieved Kissinger of any blame. But whatever the truth or falsity of the charges isn’t there a prima facie case and therefore a trial would be in order to determine the ‘truth.’

HZ: Sure. Let’s have a trial. The advantage of a trial is it brings everything out into the open. It’s an educational opportunity. The South African trials didn’t result in people going to prison. I’m not interested in putting Henry Kissinger in prison, you see. I mean if we are going to put people in prison, we’d have to put the whole American establishment in prison for the things that have been done to people all over the world. But certainly for calling attention to what’s been done, it would be a very useful thing to do. I didn’t want to see Pinochet — for all his barbaric deeds — put in prison. But to call attention to what he did. Yes, a very useful thing.

RB: You feel the same way about recently discovered French collaborators from World War II?

HZ: Yeah. The whole concept of punishment is foreign to me. And revenge. To me the only useful thing about bringing these people before the bar of justice is as an education. In a way, by doing that, we are going back to a very primitive approach to punishment…some of the Indian tribes and other indigenous peoples where their idea of punishment is to shame people before the tribe. They’d exile them or send them out in the forest with a glass of water.[laughs] But they’d shame them and that’s a useful thing to do…more serious than putting them behind bars. So, Kissinger deserves to be shamed and the people who have had him as dinner guest deserve to be shamed. Although we should stop short of putting on trial anyone who made a dinner for him.

RB: Besides writing plays, what are some of the other things you are doing?

HZ: I’m doing an awful lot of speaking, going around the country speaking. That’s why I’m not missing my teaching.

RB: Does it seem like people are paying more attention to you now than when you were actively teaching and publishing?

HZ: No doubt. No question. Almost entirely because of A People’s History of the United States. The reasons I get these invitations to talk is because of A People’s History, which has now sold 800,000 copies. And it sells more each year than the year before, which is a very rare thing in publishing.

RB: A popular groundswell…

HZ: Yeah…and so I get all these invitations to speak because my book is being used by high school and college classes, community groups, book clubs and discussion groups in communities here and there. So as a result, I’m very busy. I have to say no to an awful lot of things now, that I would have been glad to do years ago when I was hungry for invitations.

RB: What does it suggest to you that your book, originally published in 1980, grows more and more popular?

HZ: What it means, I think, is that there is a very large number of people who are receptive, even hungry for new ways at looking at American History and new ways at looking at American society. I think we are deceived by the attention that media gives to our political leaders. By that I mean that, because all we see on television are congressional leaders and the President and the members of the cabinet and so on, we begin to think that they do represent the thinking of the country. If you consider that half of the voting population did not vote and that of that half only half voted for whoever is president — and this is true in almost every election, not just in this recent election — there is a huge number of people who did not vote for the existing president, and many who did vote voted without enthusiasm only because they didn’t have much of a choice.

RB: You no doubt have heard Michael Moore’s characterization of the Bush-Gore election as one of “The Evil of Two Lessers”…

HZ: [Laughs] Leave it to Michael Moore. I love the last line in his last movie, “One evil empire down, one to go.” To me this means…let me put it this way, I think there is a very large number of people in this country — this even borne out by public opinion polls which over the last ten or fifteen years have shown that on issues — the public is ahead of both major parties. That the public has been consistently willing to take more money out of the military budget and spend it for education and housing and human needs. I believe there are huge numbers of people in this country who would be willing to have radical changes in our economic and social system in order to make it a more egalitarian society and do away with homelessness and hunger and clean up the environment. But these people have no voice. They have no way of expressing themselves. Elections give them no way of expressing themselves. I go around the country and I speak and not to audiences of radicals.

RB: Given your busy schedule, one can assume that your audience is much larger than the core progressive community…there aren’t that many radicals.

HZ: [laughs] No, there aren’t. I go to speak to California Polytechnic Institute in San Luis Obispo. How many radicals can there be there? How many liberals can there be there? Fifteen hundred students show up. And they listen to me and I’m talking about the economic system and the profit system as being wrong and inhuman and I talk about the necessity to abolish war as a means of solving problems and to not have any more military interventions and to seriously cut down the military budget. I talk about these things and they…agree. I found this, I talk to audiences in Oklahoma and Texas and here and there and mostly to audiences of people who don’t really know my work. I certainly don’t expect them to be sympathetic to my ideas. When I express my ideas — and they are radical ideas — except that I don’t start off by saying, “I’m now going to tell you radical ideas.” Or, “I’m now going to expound ideas of socialism or attack capitalism.” Or, “This is going to be a hate imperialism talk.” None of that. People respond to commonsense ideas about foreign policy and domestic policy. It encourages me about the potential in this country, despite who is running it.

RB: Joe Conason in a recent New York Observer column characterized Trent Lott as running the Senate like it was a jukebox. To coin a phrase, “Where’s the outrage?” Does this get people thinking?

HZ: I think people are thinking, but they have no way of expressing their thoughts, no ongoing movement to connect it with, no movement close to them that they can see. But if a movement got started in this country — and after all, that’s how movements grow, from small to large. People in the 1950’s didn’t talk about racial segregation in the South as something to do anything about. When the first steps were taken, the first pictures appeared on television of people resisting and people thought about it — it was an obvious wrong. And there are so many obvious wrongs going on today.

RB: Can we talk about the irony of the Republicans accusing their opponents of inciting class warfare?

HZ: [laughs heartily] It’s very interesting to me. When the Democrats are attacked for that they shrink back. They don’t say what obviously should be said, “Yes, there is class warfare. There has always been class warfare in this country.” The reason the Democrats shrink back is because the Democrats and the Republicans are on the same side of the class war. They have slightly different takes. The Democrats are part of the upper class that is more willing to make concessions to the lower class in order to maintain their power.

RB: Blacks and minorities can get into Democratic country clubs.

HZ: Yes. Exactly. Republicans have fund-raisers where you need $400,000. Democrats only require $300,000. This country began on the basis of class conflict. The Constitution was set up to control people like Shay’s rebels of Western Massachusetts.

RB: Wouldn’t it be easier to “sell” the notion of class conflict if it wasn’t an a priori element of radical analysis?

HZ: Americans are brought up to believe that we are one country and we are united and we have language to justify that approach. We have phrases like ‘national security,’ ‘national interest.’ ‘National defense.’ The implication being that anything that’s done for the ‘national interest’ is done for everybody. The ‘national defense’ defends everybody. ‘National security’ is for everybody, it’s not for somebody’s securities. And so there’s been a hesitation — really a fear of allowing the notion of class to enter into the popular consciousness. And yet when they ask people — this is shown again and again in public opinion polls — “Do you believe a small group of powerful people run the country?” Eighty-five per cent said, “Yes.” People know this.

RB: If you polled the small group of people who do run the country, what do you think they would say?

HZ: [laughs] It would depend if it was off the record or not. Maybe some would admit it. Some would be afraid to admit it.

RB: I would think no one would be afraid to admit to such glaringly obvious realities. What would the reaction be? Are people going to resurrect the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of The World)?

HZ: You mean they really have no need to be afraid. Although they have no need to be afraid, they are still very fearful that something small might become something big, you see. That’s why a picket line with three people will suddenly attract twelve policemen. That’s why Nixon went hysterical when one person was picketing the White House. That’s the whole idea of repression. That’s the idea of putting a few people in jail in order to scare the rest. Even though there is a kind of general recognition that this true, they would rather not emphasize it by talking about ‘class.’

RB: That does point big arrows at the concept of Hope? The power of a small idea to mushroom into something grand.

HZ: Yeah. You might say that the people who run the country have more of a sense of history than the masses of people. And because they have that sense, they keep that history of struggle and victory over the powerful out of the history books.

 

A People's History of The United States by Howard Zinn

A People’s History of The United States by Howard Zinn

 

RB: I take it you are heartened and hopeful about the forthcoming film version of A People’s History?[3]

HZ: Well, I’m half-hopeful [both laugh]. Anybody that deals with Hollywood, anybody who deals with the film industry has to be very cautious. I’m not at all sure that the book will be turned into film although HBO has signed contracts with three writers. Each of whom will write a two-hour script. Howard Fast to do the revolutionary War, John Sayles [4] to do something on the Lowell Mill girls, and a Scottish writer, Paul Laverty, to do something on Columbus and Las Casas. So HBO has agreed to finance the scripts, and after the scripts are done they will decide whether they will make a film. That’s standard procedure in Hollywood. They are very often are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for the writing of scripts and then not make a film because the film will cost 5 or 10 million dollars. So, that’s why I say it’s still up in the air. Yes, I’m half-hopeful, especially because we have good writers.

RB: I’ve been collecting stories about how long some projects take. Ed Harris’ Pollack took 8 years…

HZ: Oh yeah. The bureaucracy in both film and television is amazing. The films take years to do and in the meantime the bureaucracy changes hands. All sorts of things happen…

RB: You are listed as an executive producer. Is that a titular position or are you actively involved?

HZ: No, it’s real. There are four executive producers. They call us the Gang of Four. Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, me and Chris Moore. Yeah, we will supervise and, of course, HBO will have final say over things. We have been involved in choosing the writers, going over the scripts and be involved at every stage of the process. The idea of us being executive producers is really to stand guard over the sanctity of the point of view of People’s History so that Howard Fast’s story of the mutinies in the Revolutionary Army doesn’t become Mel Gibson’s The Patriot.

RB: You are still writing plays?

 

"Marx in Soho" by Howard Zinn poster

“Marx in Soho” by Howard Zinn poster

 

HZ: Well, yeah. My most recent play, Marx in Soho, has been done all over the country, San Francisco, Chicago, here. It’s still being done. More recently, I wrote something, a one-person play. And I don’t know if you want to call it a play, Boston Playwright’s Theater insists on calling them Ten-minute plays. I’ve never done it before, and this coming Sunday there will be a whole bunch of them including mine being shown at the Boston Playwright’s Theater.

RB: What’s the subject or story?

HZ: Well unlike Marx in Soho, which is a fun play about Karl Marx as well as having serious things to say, this a serious play about a hospital situation, a family situation involving a dying mother…

RB: In ten minutes? When asked to identify yourself what do you say?

HZ: I call myself a writer. I like it. It’s a more lofty designation than professor. Do you know what I mean?

RB: In Europe anyway. How is it here when you tell people you are a writer?

 

Three Plays by Howard Zinn

Three Plays by Howard Zinn

HZ: I would rather think of myself as a writer than as a professor. I refer to think of myself as a historian, as a writer. I am also working on a screenplay with poet and playwright Naomi Wallace.

RB: Who is doing good history today?

 

The People’s History of the American Revolution by Ray Raphael

The People’s History of the American Revolution by Ray Raphael

HZ: Well, there are bunch of relatively young historians who are doing a new kind of history. Eric Foner wrote a wonderful book on the Reconstruction period replacing some very bad books on the Reconstruction. A lot of really good Black history is being written…Vincent Harding, who was involved in the Civil Rights movement and is a historian, he’s been writing good stuff. There is a new book out on the American Revolution which is excellent. It’s called The People’s History of the American Revolution by Ray Raphael. And there’s a wonderful, funny novel written about the American Revolution by Paul Lussier [5] called Last Refuge of Scoundrels (from Samuel Johnson’s “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.”) It’ll be interesting to see whether the way he treats the revolution gets him into trouble. Trouble in the sense of will they make a film out of this. It’s a very funny book.

RB: It’s a Warner Book.

HZ: And Warner has an option. Will they do it? He told me that some people who were going to interview him on radio programs canceled because thought it would be troublesome. To answer your question, yes there is some very good history being done. And Ray Raphael, a writer on the West Coast, has written on other subjects and interestingly enough is not a professional expert but has written a better book than any I’ve seen on the American Revolution. You don’t have to be an academically trained Ph.D historian to write a very good book on history.

RB: That seems almost to go without saying. There seem to be a strong self-interest in the mandarin class to protect the myth of intellectual expertise…

HZ: Of course, of course. There’s always a little resentment at someone who writes a history book that everybody reads.

RB: Some people must be very angry at you.

HZ: Some of them are.

RB: You are about as non-dogmatic and ideological a thinker as I’m familiar with, but are there any Zinnists? Any disciples?

HZ: Zinnism? There are just people who read my books, that’s all. A lot of people show up at my talks. Big crowds. Yeah, people who read my books…

RB: Lest you think my question totally absurd, it has been my experience that when I post my conversations with writers I invariably am contacted by their official website — the keepers of the flame…

HZ: There is a website that somebody did for me which I didn’t know about until somebody told me about it.

RB: Do you think about your legacy?

HZ: We all think about our mortality.

RB: Yes, they go hand in hand…

HZ: Yes that’s right. Legacy, mortality…I suppose in preparing myself psychologically for the end I ask, “Do I feel okay?” “Yeah.” There are huge numbers of letters that have been written to me by people who say, “Your book changed my life.” They say extravagant things. Things I would never say. So I feel I made a difference in the lives and thinking of a lot of people. So that’s good.

RB: You feel like you’ve done good work?

HZ: [Chuckles] Yeah, sure.

RB: You laugh as if there is some thing qualifying that?

HZ: Well, I could have done more. Everybody probably says they could have done more. But yeah I think I’ve done…I feel good about the things I’ve done. I feel good that I’ve been able to do that work and have a family, children and grandchildren and to wrestle with the tension between the two. Which is always difficult.

RB: Do you think maybe the real problem facing advanced societies is the decline in opportunity to do “good work”?

HZ: Well, for instance, the profit motive in publishing has kept out of bookstores lots of wonderful writing and lots of wonderful poetry. Poets have such a hard time getting published.

RB: I was thinking in a broader way. How it is that economic fluctuations might restrain initiative and adventure and experimentation…

HZ: I think that pressure exists on young people who want to be poets, actors and musicians. Both because their parents are looking in on them and wondering how their kids will survive and paying huge tuition for them and also thinking themselves of their own future and decide, “No, I can’t be a poet. I can’t be a musician because I won’t be able to survive.” So yes, it’s a culture so dominated by the need to make money and be successful in the orthodox sense that it cripples creativity…

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

images-3

 

1.)   My 2001 conversation with Barry Crimmins

2.)  Conversation with Christopher Hitchens  and I  about Henry Kissinger as a war criminal

3.)  The HBO film project for A People’s History transmogrified into the THE PEOPLE SPEAK. which  brings to the USA’s rich history of dissent and shows its importance for todays movements. The trailer is here.

4.) My second conversation  with John Sayles is here.

5.) My Identitytheory conversation with Paul Lussier is here.

######

Copyright 2001, 2016 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

Thomas Mallon: Watergate, the Novel

12 Jan

 

 

 

 

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Given the deplorable state of historical literacy in the greatest country in the world, I have long held that if I were allowed to teach history there are a number of novels I would include in my lesson plans—in addition to the eye-opening, ground-breaking People’s History by Howard Zinn. Thomas Mallon has written a number of those novels—Henry and Clara, Two Moons, Dewey Defeats Truman, Bandbox, Fellow Travelers, and now Watergate.

This is the fifth or sixth conversation I have had with Mallon since the mid-’90s. Needless to say, he is a delightful and erudite conversationalist. Watergate, the historical event, which we both remember vividly, occupies much of what follows, including postmortems on Nixon, Kissinger, the Mitchells, John and Martha, and some others. Additionally, Mallon dedicated Watergate (the novel) to his good friend, the late Christopher Hitchens,[1] which, of course, sparks an enlightening tangent on Hitch.

By the way, it should be useful to keep in mind that what follows is a chat about both a nexus of historical events and a novel of the same name.

######

Robert Birnbaum: I keep reading that it’s the 40th anniversary of Watergate. So what? Why should anyone care?

 

 

Watergate by Thomas Mallon

Watergate by Thomas Mallon

Thomas Mallon: The [book’s] publication was not timed for the anniversary. In fact the book was ready to come out in the fall. I would have been happier if it had—it would have been an easier semester for me, traveling around. And I don’t think Watergate anniversaries have been big, generally. The problem is there is no one thing to peg the anniversary to. You could do an anniversary for when Nixon resigned, the anniversary of the break-in—so I think it’s just a journalistic convenience to mention it.

RB: Did I miss John Dean’s review of your book?

TM: Just this morning I saw—I was sent something.

RB: He mentioned the book in the context of a review of Max Holland’s book about Mark Felt [Deep Throat].

TM: That’s right.

RB: Dean suggested he wasn’t going to read your novel.

TM: He said his friends were reading it. They were asking him, “Did Mrs. Nixon really have an affair?” And he said, “No, not to my knowledge.” And he didn’t think she could have had an affair in the way she does in the book. That I didn’t quite understand. The affair she has in the book predates her husband’s presidency. It’s an affair she has in New York in the ’60s.

RB: Doesn’t she meet her lover in South America?

TM: In Brazil. He does meet her there, but while she’s First Lady they have only two fleeting and chaste encounters in the context of big public events. So I wasn’t quite sure what he [Dean] meant by that.

RB: This is historical fiction, which readers ought to be reminded of. But why create a love affair for the character, Pat Nixon?

TM: I think in some ways it’s the emotional heart of the book—Mrs. Nixon and this affair. Frank Gannon [in the Wall Street Journal] was quite nice to the book but he did not like that.

RB: Many reviewers have lauded the book.

TM: People have been very kind—I’ve been delighted. But he was left queasy by the affair. He said, “Imagine the Nixon daughters reading this.”

RB: He quoted you saying you can’t libel the dead.

TM: It’s very interesting what he tried to do. But finally, I had to disagree with him. I had once written in an essay that there are things you shouldn’t do to the dead even though they are dead and can’t be litigious. This was in reference to a movie that had been made implying that Thomas E. Dewey, who was once a character in one of my books [Dewey Defeats Truman], had actually been corrupt. To me, to say that Mrs. Nixon might have had this tender, brief affair is not an iniquitous thing. I fictionalized her life more than some of the others, but in a way this falsity or invention somehow allowed me to get inside her head in a way I don’t think I could have otherwise. In a peculiar way, I got to some aspects of the truth about her via invention.

RB: Again, the critical chorus was adulatory. One critic called the Watergate episode “vaudevillian.”

TM: It may be my own fault because I wrote the flap copy myself.

 

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

RB: That’s one part of the book I didn’t read.

TM: And I did write in the flap copy (picks up book), “It conveys the comedy and the high drama of the Nixon presidency.” And there definitely are comic moments in it. But I have been somewhat surprised by the reviews that have emphasized the comedic aspects of the book. More than I expected; more than I thought they existed.

RB: There are a lot of characters, but Fred LaRue becomes central to the story. He has this personal tragedy and an odd relationship. Why focus on LaRue?

TM: He appealed to me for a couple of reasons. I remember seeing a documentary that was made about 20 years ago and featured him. His soft-spokenness, his shyness, the fact that he choked up at one point. He just began to intrigue me. There are about three invented characters in the book. The tip-off in the dramatis personae is the three names in quotation marks. The woman he is involved with, Clarine Lander, is also a fiction. But the great calamity of his life, prior to Watergate, involved him killing his father in a hunting accident in Canada and inheriting a lot of money. Naturally, a certain amount of suspicion or whatever you want to call it is going to cling to a person in those circumstances. That intrigued me. He is very shadowy.I am not very good with villains generally. I think the closest I come to villainy in my books is the shadowy presence of John Wilkes Booth.

RB: Did he never find out if it was an accident?

TM: In my story he never really knows. And that gets all wrapped up with what happened in Watergate years later. He’s very shadowy. He had no title, no salary. He did a lot of things for John Mitchell, whom he really loved. And he lived in the Watergate.  There was one newspaper profile of him in September of ’72, prior to Watergate really exploding. It suggested something like, “He seems to be out of one of [Faulkner’s] Snopes novels.” And that appealed to me. I had a list at the beginning—I still have it in my files somewhere—with dozens and dozens of names that were potential point-of-view characters. And it finally came down to seven. There’s a huge cast, but only seven—

RB: And you cast Alice Longworth prominently. I lived through Watergate I don’t remember her presence. Was she interviewed a lot?

TM: A little bit. She turned 90 at the time. Nixon went to her birthday party at her house in Dupont Circle. She wrote somewhere, when time was running out for him, “Oh I think the clock is dick, dick, dicking.” She had known him from the time he had come to town in the ’40s. She had marked him as a comer. She was very fond of him and Pat, and at least one of the daughters. She said to an interviewer, one time, “Tricia:  what’s wrong with her?” She was in the Nixon White House more than I thought when I began looking at the schedules. So I made her into my one-woman witches’ chorus. People have wondered why I didn’t use Martha Mitchell, who was so flamboyant—

RB: She was a drunk.

TM: (laughs) That’s the problem. She was really too far gone for most of Watergate. And she is really absent from the scene—the Mitchells decamped for New York pretty early on. She just wouldn’t have worked.

RB: From the outside, John Mitchell struck me as a gruff and unattractive person. He does come off as a more sympathetic character in your narrative—as do most of the people.

 

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

TM: I am not very good with villains generally. I think the closest I come to villainy in my books is the shadowy presence of John Wilkes Booth [in Henry and Clara] (laughs).

RB: Haldeman? You seemed to get Nixon dead on—a misanthrope in a flesh presser’s profession.

TM: Yeah. There are people who claim that he actually liked politics and liked campaigning. I find that kind of hard to believe. But where Nixon is concerned:  what would be the point of writing a novel about someone who’s just a mustache-twirling villain? I just wanted to see all this with a certain intimacy. You are right; Haldemnn seems sort of nasty in the book, though you tend to see him through Rose Mary Woods—he’s the man who displaced her in a way.  It’s generally that old Graham Greene term—the human factor—that interests me.

RB: George Will’s review

TM: It was actually his syndicated column.

RB: I thought he got it exactly right—that you learn so much from novels by Gore Vidal, Max Byrd, and Robert Penn Warren [“bring… men alive in ways that only a literary imagination can”]. Here’s the thing, it seems that no one knew who ordered the break-in, but what does beg for emphasis is that the real crime was the cover-up. That’s what brought Nixon down. One wonders what might have happened if he had cut his losses? Was he incapable of admitting he was wrong or mistaken?

TM: A lot of it involves Mitchell. It’s true that nobody knows for sure, to this day, who told them to go into the Democratic National Committee at that point. There is a whole kind of grassy-knoll theory of Watergate that posits something very different, which I don’t buy into.

RB: What, Castro funding the Democrats?

TM: Yeah, and then there is the whole theory that John Dean was the evil mastermind. But it’s fairly easily established that Gordon Liddy presented this plan for massive surveillance and—this crazy—you know, the Gemstone plan—in John Mitchell’s office in the Justice Department early in 1972. If only Nixon had said at the beginning, “all those people are now fired from the committee” and gotten Mitchell to take the fall!  Whether Mitchell signed off on it or not, this was not a meeting that should have ever taken place in the offices of the Justice department.  If Nixon had sacrificed Mitchell—To me the real Rosetta Stone of Watergate is the spring of 1970. It’s when Nixon goes into Cambodia and Kent State follows. There were massive demonstrations in Washington and a ring of buses around the White House. He makes that crazy middle-of-the-night visit to the Lincoln Memorial. The super-charged atmosphere of that—I remember this as a very young man. It was so intense.

RB: Which he had to do anyway.

TM: Eventually. If he had done it at the beginning, he might have survived. But he didn’t want to do it. Mitchell had had so much to do with making him president.

RB: How was it that CREEP was being run out of a government office?

TM: They knew Mitchell was going to run the campaign but he was still attorney general. There is a very large sympathetic biography of Mitchell called The Strong Man by James Rosen, which is very interesting. It won’t convince everybody, but it’s a full-bodied picture of Mitchell. Nixon ultimately blamed Martha Mitchell [for his downfall]. One of the things that was clear to me—the Mitchells were a love match. It was a second marriage for both of them. And Mitchell, I think, really loved Martha. But Martha was tremendously out of control.

RB: Was she always a drunk?

TM: I think so, but her problems at that point were really severe. She really needed to be in a sanitarium. Nixon used to say that it was because of Martha—John’s preoccupation with her troubles —that [Mitchell] wasn’t minding the store. That’s as far as he would go in blaming him. But he was not going to cut him loose in ’72.

RB: They ultimately divorced, right?

TM: Yes, and she ultimately became quite ill and died in ’76.

RB: The break-in wasn’t the only illegality in that nexus of events—the plumbers and the burglarizing of [Daniel]Ellsberg’s shrink’s office, Donald Segretti’s dirty tricks—

TM: He was pretty low-rent. But even Mitchell referred to the “White House horrors”—they knew they had these secrets that were really—

RB: And lots of undocumented cash.

TM: Right. Well, as he famously says to Dean on that tape, “We could get a million dollars. It’d be wrong but we could do it.” People often date the point at which Nixon goes off the deep end to Ellsberg’s publication of The Pentagon Papers. [2]So Nixon, like many presidents, became obsessed with leaks. And he forms this squad, “the plumbers,” to deal with them. And to some extent, yes, that is the crucial turning point:  thats what brings Howard Hunt into the White House. But to me the real Rosetta Stone of Watergate can be found a year before that—to me it’s the spring of 1970. It’s when Nixon goes into Cambodia and Kent State follows. There were massive demonstrations in Washington and a ring of buses around the White House. He makes that crazy middle-of-the-night visit to the Lincoln Memorial. The super-charged atmosphere of that—I remember this as a very young man, it was so intense—that was what gave Nixon a Manichean view of the world, this us-against-them view. In some ways, that set in motion everything that followed.

RB: There’s not a lot of Kissinger’s presence, but [the book] does say a lot about him (laughs).

TM: Well. It’s all there on the tape.  I refer to something like “guttural rumbling gravitas.”  I wish I could quote myself better. Any time these tapes are released, anyone who has the slightest regard for Richard Nixon has to crawl into a hole for days. You hear these awful things, these slurs and all his prejudices. Many of which to Nixon were a species of tough-guy locker room talk—he worshipped toughness. This last batch, oh my god. Kissinger comes off worse than Nixon. They are talking about the plight of Soviet Jewry. And Kissinger says something like, “If a million Jews were to perish, it is not a national security issue. It is perhaps a human tragedy.” My friend Hitchens said, when those were released, “You’ve got to love that ‘perhaps.’”

RB: You dedicated this book to Christopher Hitchens.

 

Christopher Hitchens circa 2001[photo Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Christopher Hitchens circa 2001[photo Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

TM: Yes, I loved him to pieces. And admired him.

RB: I think many people did, even through the twists and turns of his politics. He was brilliant.

TM: Yes, very brave. Lived between two fires.

RB: What other journalist had himself water-boarded to ascertain whether it was torture?

 

Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

 

TM: He was a very gentle person too. The tributes to him have been enormous and well deserved but that was the one side that they didn’t quite catch. In my novel Fellow Travelers there is a left-wing journalist for The Nation called Kenneth Woodford who is very kind to the hapless little gay guy, the protagonist Laughlin. And that was Hitchens, and he never recognized himself in it. I know he read the book—we talked about it. He even wrote something about it.

RB: Is there anyone that is like him?

TM: No, there is nobody. I remember he was debating a rabbi when the atheism book came out. And the rabbi said, “Now, Mr. Hitchens, I didn’t interrupt you.” And Hitchens said very softly, “You’re not quick enough.” (both laugh) I don’t think there was anybody who was as fast on his feet—he could debate anyone. And he was a literary man as well as a political man. I just think he was—I mean the grace with which he handled the last 18 months!  He put up a brutal fight against cancer. The pieces he wrote for Vanity Fair about that received a lot of well-deserved acclaim—a lot of people who read those pieces, what they didn’t realize was that all the time he was writing them he was still writing his pieces for Slate about Gadhafi, the election, and whatever was going on. Still doing his real work.  That was really quite heroic.

They are reissuing three of his books in the next couple of months—the book about the Clintons, Kissinger, and the book about Mother Teresa. They have new introductions; I did one for Mother Teresa. Which means another few years in Purgatory, I’m sure. He had this very eclectic mix of people around him because he was on so many political sides. You could go to dinner there and Grover Norquist would be across the table, [Salman] Rushdie would be next to you. And he had a lot of younger conservative journalists around during the Iraq War—also political operatives, people in the administration—they were thrilled to have this blue-chip intellectual backing Bush’s Iraq position, and I always used to sit there waiting for what I called “the Mother Teresa moment.”  I would think, just wait, the conversation is going to take another turn. They are going to have to deal with the fact that Hitchens is an unreconstructed socialist—he called himself a socialist until the day he died. And they were going to have to realize that he was all of a piece.I don’t intend to go on forever. People do. But not everyone has these bursts like [Philip] Roth in their 70s.

RB: So, did you have fun writing Watergate?

TM: I did. Much more than many other books (chuckles). One of the things I was amazed at was, once I really dug into it, it came back to me so quickly. Details, quotes, minor players.

RB: Meaning you didn’t have to do much research?

TM: I did, but it was all sort of there. Like dragging a file out from some drawer. It stuck with me because A) it was so vivid and B) I was so young—you absorb and retain at that age. The amount of stuff available—[the players in the Watergate drama] almost all wrote memoirs, if only to pay their legal bills. There are all the committee transcripts; there are the tapes. It’s that rare subject where I wished there was less.

RB: E.L. Doctorow says he does as little research as he can get away with.

TM: I do think that anybody writing this kind of fiction has to start writing before he completes his research–or else he falls into dissertation syndrome—“I can’t start writing until I have read everything.” And that’s a prescription for never starting.

RB: You had an opportunity to lionize Senator Sam Ervin but you ended up giving attention to Mississippi Senator  James Eastland.

TM: Well, Ervin is so familiar. Eastland was crucial to developing [Fred] LaRue.  LaRue was the one who would bring to Eastland, who was head of the Judiciary Committee, Nixon’s conservative judicial nominations.  And he was another Mississippian. So I had a few Jubilation T Cornpone scenes.

RB: In writing a book like this is there a beginning and an end? What’s next?

TM: I’m going to write about Reagan next.

RB: What happened to the murder book?

TM: It’s been bumped again. If I ever do that one, it would be my tenth novel and that might be it. I don’t intend to go on forever. People do. But not everyone has these bursts like [Phillip] Roth in their 70s. I am going to try to write about Reagan’s Washington, set around the time of the Reykjavik summit, which was a thrilling, bizarre episode. I still write a lot of nonfiction and I am kind of grateful—I’m now 60, which is pretty young—

RB: It’s the new 40.

TM: It’s still young in absolute terms, but I can see reaching a point—I hope I am a few books away from it—when it comes time to bring the plane in for a gentle landing. I still love writing essays and reviews and all the rest. Maybe I can content myself with that?

RB: Well, the conventional wisdom for maintaining mental acuity is “Use it or lose it.”

TM: I do think the real challenge in writing novels and particularly a book like this is organization and structure. There is this massive amount of material to corral into some sort of discernible shape.

RB: So many choices.

TM: That’s the thing. I had lists of dozens of characters—do I go with that person or that person? Eventually you have to make a decision and narrow it down and eliminate people.    You have that nice little magazine up here called Ploughshares, and they are doing an essay issue that’s being edited by my friend Patricia Hampl, a wonderful memoirist. So she’s been putting the touch on all of her writer pals for essays. And I’m doing a little nonfiction thing about Nixon, trying to figure out my preoccupation with him.

RB: Perhaps the greatest indictment of Nixon was in Charles Baxter’s essay “Burning Down the House,” where he faults Nixon for introducing the dysfunctional narrative by employing “mistakes were made…”

TM: The irony is we will never have a president who is more real to us than Nixon–for all his unreality.  You have some tapes that Kennedy made, Johnson made, whatever. But to have all those tapes—Nixon unbound, sometimes unglued—to be able to hold those against all of his recorded public utterances:  that’s an extraordinary thing.

RB: He taped everything.

TM: But he didn’t do it for the first two years. He got rid of Johnson’s taping system at the beginning. And then they decided that the quality of memoranda they were getting from the people who were supposed to record meetings (the low man on the totem pole would be the note taker) was just too low.  Haldeman, in his efficient way, so disliked the quality of what they were getting that he said, “Let’s just tape everything. These things aren’t worth a damn when you try to refer to them.” Once he did it, he went into it in such an enormous way. There must be at least one tape of Nixon listening to the tapes too.

RB: (laughs)

TM: Before the tapes were made public, and the system was then instantly dismantled, in the Spring of ’73, Nixon wants to listen to a tape of that March 21 meeting with John Dean (“we could get a million dollars”). He has one of his aides rig up the tapes so he can listen in hi Executive Office Building hideaway—that had a taping system, too. So there has to be a tape of Nixon listening to himself.  The tapes do put you there in a way that they will never put you in there again.

RB: Do Americans want their president to be human, to be real? Mitt Romney is ridiculed for trying to be a man of the people

TM: Yeah, well, this crew that’s out there now—what he [Nixon] would make of them!  The idea that an election would be hinging on these “social” issues would just bore him. He even said to Mitchell at one point—supposedly said,  just when the presidency was beginning—“You be President, and I’ll be Secretary of State.” To him it was essentially the office from which the foreign affairs of the country were conducted. One of the reasons his domestic programs by and large were so liberal—guaranteed national income, health care, big funding for the arts, all the rest—I don’t think all that engaged him very much. He wanted to be free of that.  Ehrlichman, who was in charge of domestic affairs, felt they didn’t get enough of Nixon’s attention. Nixon said at one point—and I have him speak this line to Rose Mary Woods—“The country can basically run itself domestically.” A sort of Coolidge notion,  in a way. Even though he went in for lots of government intervention and programs.

RB: Later there were efforts to rehabilitate him based on his foreign policy expertise.

TM: He wrote serious books and he never took a fee for a speech.

RB: Was he broke when he resigned?

TM: Yes. He needed to write his memoirs to make money. But they lived modestly at the end. He still did a lot of foreign travel and he gave his advice freely to every American president that followed him. Nixon’s epilogue scene here is his last trip to Russia, just before he dies. And he reports on that to Clinton. And Clinton even says to his advisors, “Why don’t I get memos this good from my ambassadors and staff?” He was a much better ex-president than president.

RB: Clinton was particularly laudatory when Nixon died.

TM: He said something like, “The time has long passed when we should judge Richard Nixon on anything but the totality of his life.” In other words there was more to him than Watergate. I used to wonder how Robert Caro, year after year, book after book, stuck with Johnson (laughs). I still wonder—

RB: Malone wrote six volumes on Jefferson.

TM: —but I could sort of see it after just a couple of years with Nixon.  I didn’t feel as if I’d exhausted anything.

RB: I don’t know who wants to read those door- stop biographies. I like the 200-page biographical essays by someone who is simpatico—Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse, or Cabrera Infante on José Martí. But I see that  biographers like Caro are good about clarifying the social/historical milieu surrounding their subjects.

TM: Yes, yes. His books are these big history paintings, these murals. But biography—I’m not tempted. It’s too onerous, too difficult.  It’s one thing to go from fiction to criticism, reviewing. But to go from fiction to narrative non-fiction… I’ve been amused by this John D’Agata book, The Lifespan of a Fact. Not my idea of nonfiction. I worked on that little book of mine, Mrs. Paine’s Garage, after a real spate of fiction—Dewey Defeats Truman, Two Moons, and I found it so difficult not to be able to fall back on saying, “Well, it’s a novel,  I can change this.” It had to go through the strainer of the New Yorker fact-checking department. And I just can’t imagine that burden in writing biography, let alone the burden of assembling all the material. I just can’t see it.Aside all the campaigning he did for people, [Nixon] was preparing himself for the presidency. [Palin] couldn’t care less. With her it’s become president or get a better deal with a reality TV show.

RB: Have you seen Game Change?[3]

TM: No.

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

RB: Do you read those kinds of books? Read that book?

TM: Not many. I read him, John Heilemann—I read him in New York magazine and I hope I will see the movie with Julianne Moore.

RB: She’s incredibly convincing as Palin. But everybody involved as a player claims it’s fiction. The end the movie has McCain telling Palin she is now a kingmaker in the Republican Party. Is she a leader of the GOP?

TM: No, no. No. No. Look, I argued in 2008 with my friends that nobody who was in the United States Senate for three years was ready to be president.  So nobody who was the Governor of Alaska for two years is ready to be president.

RB: John McCain was prepared to be president?

TM: Well, all those years in Congress.

RB: George Bush was ready to be president?

TM: Six years as governor of Texas—that’s a weak office. Probably not, ideally.  But I think Palin had been to Mexico:  that was her international travel. She may have stopped in Germany on her way to make a lightning visit to Iraq. She had never seen any of the countries we’re allied with. That strikes me as incredible.

RB: But that’s what politics has degenerated to since Nixon—commercials and advertising. Eagles and flags and all the rest of the beer commercial imagery.

TM: Look at those years Nixon was out of office.  He was an enormous foreign traveler. He would meet with whoever was in power and with the leader of the opposition too. As a former vice-president—anybody was going to see him.  Aside from all the campaigning he did for people, he was preparing himself for the presidency. [Palin] couldn’t care less. With her it’s become president or get a better deal with a reality TV show.

RB: Quitting the governorship was a telling move.

TM: Also, how hard could it have been (laughs)?

RB: Who do you think could be president? Who could do the job?

TM: Umm. Well, uh, I was alone in my peer group who thought McCain could.

RB: Not based on his values but because he knows how things work?

TM: His experience, yeah.   Even though he has been wrong on just about everything through the years, in terms of experience, Biden would be creditable. John Kerry was a creditable candidate. There are other reasons why I might not want them, but I do think people should know something. One result of 2008, and it’s a combination of Obama and Palin—in most respects there is no comparison (intelligence, curiosity, etc.)—but having both of them on the ticket, it has definitely driven down the expectation of experience. People with such thin resumes running for the top offices.

RB: That strikes me as basis for Biden’s place on the ticket.

TM: Oh sure. Once McCain put Palin on the ticket he lost the opportunity to say to Obama, “You’re not prepared to be president. You need more seasoning in the Senate.” Their obvious rebuttal would be the choice he made to be a heartbeat away. His campaign threw away a pretty compelling argument. I think a lot of people would have looked at Obama and said—here’s a very bright guy, come back in four years.

RB: Well, come back in four years with your Ronald Reagan book. Thanks again.

TM: I will. [And he did] see here

########

1. Identitytheory —(my first)conversation with Christopher Hitchens

2. The Pentagon Papers

3. HBO’s Game Change 

Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years by Thomas Mallon

8 Jan
Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

 My acquaintance with Thomas Mallon began about twenty years ago when I discovered his novel Henry and Clara, his riveting novel about the couple seated next to Abraham Lincoln when he was assassinated at the Ford Theater. And so began our small literary friendship that has resulted in my continued interest and appreciation of his novels and thus  a number of interview/ conversations. This latest  chat was occasioned by his newest novel, Finale. Suffice it to say , that as usual, he and I digress from fiction to films to politics to the aging process. No doubt (given the obvious proviso for two geezers) we will be conversating again in a few years.

Allow me to quote from my previous talk with Thomas:

Given the deplorable state of historical literacy in the greatest country in the world, I have long held that if I were allowed to teach history, there are a number of novels I would include in my lesson plans—in addition to the eye-opening, ground-breaking People’s History by Howard Zinn. Thomas Mallon has written a number of those novels—

######

Robert Birnbaum: Onward and upward (as he readies the recording device).

Thomas Mallon: I’m just very aware of how in the midst of all of the changes in the industry that the essentials for me have stayed very old-fashioned.

Robert Birnbaum: Your publisher is remarkably stable. They have editors that have been there for years at all the various  imprints. The publicity  people have been there years and years. They’re  slick—slick in a good way. They’re decent, they’re efficient, sweet; they know the stuff. It’s a pretty well-oiled machine.

Thomas Mallon: A lot the processes of my writing life have changed dramatically, but the personnel of it have really been stable: Dan[Frank]; the people I write for at the New Yorker, for instance. I have been writing for Dan [at Pantheon] for nearly 20 years now. The Times Book Review, whatever. I’ve moved around a little bit with agents but I’ve been with [Andrew] Wiley now for the last 8 years, so it’s been very happy for me. I’ve been sheltered from the storm.

Robert Birnbaum:  Which may or may not be responsible for the fact that you’ve written some pretty creditable books, on a regular basis.

Thomas Mallon: I’m hoping to retire from teaching next year. I will be 65. Nobody in my-

Robert Birnbaum: No! No, you’re lying.

Thomas Mallon: Next year, sure. Can’t tell, right? As I creep along. I’ll keep writing… I don’t know how many of these [novels] I have left in me.” I think I have a couple more; in fact, I’m signed up to do a couple more and I think I can bring everything in for a soft landing.  If novel-writing seems to become too much, I’d like to think I could have a dignified closing act with essays and reviews and things like that.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re not going to do something as ostentatious as announce your retirement —like some other authors.

Thomas Mallon: Oh, I know who you’re thinking of[Philip Roth], but he was 80; for God sakes.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you believe him, is he absolutely … Are we sure there won’t be another novel.

Thomas Mallon: I don’t know. My God, if I could go to 80, I’d be thrilled. I’m hoping to get past 70 doing it.

Robert Birnbaum: Joseph Epstein  wrote a very funny piece when he turned 70— a spoof on  producer Robert Evans’s memoir. Epstein’s was called The Kid Turned 70.[1] The brilliant thing I thought was that he announces  “You know what, I have a birthday, I just want 10 more years. I don’t want to live forever I just another 10 years,” “A happy amount of time to aspire to wherever you are.”

Thomas Mallon: He says that whenever he has a birthday.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, 10 more, 10 more, 10 more.

Thomas Mallon: He’s really been asking for 20, right?

Robert Birnbaum: When did you start feeling you were aging? And that you had to think about  an end-game, a last quarter?

Thomas Mallon: I think earlier than most people in the same game as I am. I think that may be temperamental, that may be  dark Irish stuff, I don’t know. I did have a sense of being off to a late start as a fiction writer. Not as a non-fiction writer, but I published my first novel when I was 36. It seemed very late at the time. It doesn’t seem so right now, but it did in the ’80s. I think I had a sense early on that I needed to work hard and move quickly where fiction was concerned, once I found my feet. I have seen writers, often writers that I admire extravagantly, who went on too long. It’s very difficult to tell somebody to stop.  I knew Gore Vidal a little bit, I edited him sometimes at GQ. A couple times I even wrote about him.  I remember being on the phone with him one time, and he had written what was his last novel.  I can’t even remember the title, but I think it’s set at the Smithsonian or something. He said to me in that patrician voice, “Well, you know, this will be the last one.” I said something like, “Oh, surely not.” “No,” he replied.  “Well, why?” I asked.  He said, “Well, you know, I get to the end of a chapter now, I have trouble remembering how it began.” I do think that the engineering feats of novel-writing are something to keep in mind. I’ve seen this, again, mostly in writers that I admired a lot. Somebody like Elizabeth Hardwick who went on very, very late. Lizzie was still publishing, I don’t know, well into her 80s or whatever. From anybody else it would have been pretty damn good. But if you had been reading her for years you noticed a falling off. How could you not? Once in a blue moon there are these people like V.S. Pritchett who seem undiminished. Updike seemed quite undiminished, too. He wasn’t of a very great age but well into his 70s. Then that burst of … I think, honestly, at the end, his poetry was fabulous. I think his criticism was still sharp, very sharp as he went along.

Robert Birnbaum:  Updike is one of the writers I just never got around to [reading]. First of all I want to … not first of all but I want to thank you on behalf of ordinary Americans for adding to our knowledge of Iceland’s literacy and food culture, so thank you.

Thomas Mallon: Yes, highest per capita book consumption or something like that.  I’ll tell you one last thing before we leave that topic concerning the writer I most admire.  My mentor, my muse, was Mary McCarthy. Mary died at 77 which seems young, but it wasn’t so young for her generation—hard-living writers. I do remember my sense of Mary in her ’60s and ’70s. She was operating in some ways as if she had all the time in the world. I remember thinking this at the time, also because she wrote a memoir called How I Grew. It’s not my favorite among her books; again, for almost anybody else it would be top drawer. She was going over ground that she had already covered in probably her very best work, Memories of Catholic Girlhood. She was going over it in a way that was certainly interesting to anybody who cared about her work. But it was more literal than Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, and I kept thinking, “Why are you giving this 3 years, or whatever it is, of your life? Get on to the 1930s which is what everybody wants to read.” One thing about Mary–and I think that some of her biographers notice this:  she never really thought in career terms. She didn’t have a plan, and there’s something about that that I actually admire.

 

 

 

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

 

Robert Birnbaum: [across from the patio at which we are seated a wild turkey crosses the street The return of the species here…

Thomas Mallon: Unbelievable.

Robert Birnbaum: They are all over the place.

Thomas Mallon: I feel like I’m back in Westport.

Robert Birnbaum: Wildlife is  everywhere now—returning to urban populated areas.

Thomas Mallon: I’ll be damned.

Robert Birnbaum: There are a couple of recent portrayals of McCarthy . One in particular  impressed me —Janet McTeer played her  in that Hannah Arendt film.[2]

Thomas Mallon: Which I haven’t seen; which I will see.

 

(the beginning  scene has Arendt and Mary McCarthy in conversation)

 

Robert Birnbaum: McTeer’s a wonderful actress and I hope her portrayal did her justice. So, the occasion for our conversation here is that you just published a book which is a historical fiction. I have to ask, how much of it is fiction?

 

Watergate by Thomas Mallon

Watergate by Thomas Mallon

 

 

Thomas Mallon: I would say probably about the same quotient, maybe a little higher quotient of fiction than in some of the previous ones. It’s a book that’s on roughly the same scale as Watergate  and it operates in largely the same way with about a half dozen point-of-view characters.

Robert Birnbaum: Right, but to me they were 3 really substantial characters’ points of view.

 

Finale by Thomas Mallon

Finale by Thomas Mallon

Thomas Mallon:Yeah, there are 2 important characters who are purely fictional characters. Anne Macmurray, who’s revived from my old novel Dewey Defeats Truman—she was the ingenue of that—and this fellow Anders Little on the National Security Council. In Watergate there were only a handful of very minor characters who were fictional. Watergate was different, with this juggernaut plot. You had to go from the break-in to the pardon. This book is somewhat more diffuse. It’s more a portrait of an era than it is a single narrative. The subtitle was somewhat carefully chosen: A Novel of the Reagan Years. It’s not trying to unlock the mystery of Reagan or anything-

Robert Birnbaum: I have to backtrack …there are 4 major characters; I forgot about Nixon.
Thomas Mallon: Yeah, Nixon in some ways; he’s my Alice Roosevelt Longworth in this book. He’s become the kind of aged one who’s seen it all. I guess I couldn’t let go of him.

Robert Birnbaum: In so many ways, he was fascinating.

Thomas Mallon: Yeah. I was surprised by a lot of things … Nixon and Reagan were in touch more often than I expected in the ’80s and the-

Robert Birnbaum: On whose initiative?

Thomas Mallon: Both, and that surprised me too. Nixon did not want to wear out his welcome but he would send memoranda to [Reagan’s] chief of staff, things like that. Reagan would call him up and they talked during Iran-Contra and Nixon makes no bones about it. “Apologize for the son-of-a-bitch and put it behind you. Learn the lesson I failed to.” I think Nixon had a … He knew Reagan had something and he had a certain respect for what Reagan was doing. I think he, at times, shook his head thinking that, from his point of view, things had come awfully easy to Reagan.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, right.  My impression, you don’t treat Reagan negatively, but  you cast this notion of him as being a cipher to so many people that they felt they sort of knew him and  also didn’t know him.

Thomas Mallon:Right, and I think you phrase it exactly. “Cipher” to so many people. I don’t consider him a cipher. I do think he was a formidable figure, but I do think there was a great deal of mystery to him. One of the things I decided almost immediately upon beginning this book was that I was not going to try to turn Reagan into a point-of-view character. I was not going to see anything from inside of him. I had no trouble doing that, or I felt I had no trouble doing that, with Nixon. I felt comfortable writing from Nixon’s point of view, but-

Robert Birnbaum: You didn’t feel comfortable doing it because-

Thomas Mallon: I didn’t feel comfortable at all because I think Reagan has defeated any number of biographers. Which is  not to say that they’ve necessarily been defeated by making an historical assessment of his presidency. Not that, but in terms of his personality they’ve been defeated. When I tried to see things from his point of view I never felt that I had put the skin on. There were times when he seemed very big to me; other times he seemed comically small. I was acutely aware of Edmund Morris’ s frustration with him. I even give Morris a scene with him in the book. I decided I would, to go back to Vidal, I would adopt his approach in Lincoln. He never gets inside Lincoln, it’s all from several different vantage points. I would do that, but I was not trying to render Reagan; I was trying to render the Reagan years. A time about which, politically, I was wildly ambivalent.

 

Robert Birnbaum: Good for you, good.  As opposed to being so proud of our Exceptionalism.

Thomas Mallon: That part I liked. I do think that Reagan had a lot to do with winning the Cold War. To me it was thrilling when his own national security adviser asked him, “What’s your view of the Cold War?” He said, “We win, they lose.” I thought, “Clarity, at last; as opposed to detail.” It was also, it was a time when I was burying my friends and would have liked to have heard a kind word from him about AIDS, you know?

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, well. there were any number of those glaring disjunctions. I never worried about Russian tanks showing up on the Rio Grande.

Thomas Mallon: Oh, I did. The Soviets were truly on the march in the ’70s. Whether it was Angola or and then Afghanistan in 1980. The Soviets were extremely expansionist. Now, of course, it’s easy to say, “Oh, well-

Robert Birnbaum: It ruined them.

Thomas Mallon: It wouldn’t have ruined them if there hadn’t been some push-back. This book doesn’t offer any brief for Iran-Contra but I wouldn’t argue with every tactic and every bit of strategy. People said to me, “Why does Reagan come out … Why does he get off so easily with something like Iran-Contra?” I think it’s because of the Contra part of the scandal, whether you agreed with this tactic of fighting this proxy war or not. People view the scandal, a lot of them, as a blunder or even something pernicious but it was part of a much bigger thing. It was a part of the U.S.-Soviet opposition and, ultimately, he won that.

Robert Birnbaum: If you turn around the telescope, then, yeah, great. The Berlin Wall came down, peace dividends were being declared but I’m not that much interested in the fixing blame on historical personalities. I think the process … Some of the things that started to happen under, or suddenly become more visible, under that administrations really were toxic to the democratic process. I don’t care, having someone like Ollie North running around, having ambassadors who really were cowboys and had no … hey weren’t really answering to anyone. Therefore, you could have things like nuns being murdered in El Salvador. Did the United States really say that was okay? Did we really want that to happen?

Thomas Mallon: Now we have government by executive order.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, so-

Thomas Mallon: I don’t think the democratic process is in terrific shape under this chief executive.

Robert Birnbaum: Certainly the promised transparency is not there. You know what’s interesting to me on Reagan is that Richard Reeves*, for instance, who is not particularly sympathetic to Republicans, wrote not a sympathetic, but an understanding biography of Reagan-

Thomas Mallon: Reeves’s book is quite good, I think. As I said, Reagan himself is at the center but he’s the missing center of this book in a way.  It all swirls around him. I do think that in any administration, in any organization, people spend a lot of time trying to figure out the boss. They want to please the boss, they want to get ahead, etc. In his administration I think people spent an inordinate amount of time doing that. It may have lent it some odd kind of creative energy, along with some overreaching, because I think he baffled some of the people that he worked with. I’ve talked to other people who say, “No,” people who knew him.I had a brief phone conversation a couple weeks ago with George Will. He goes, “This remote stuff is very overrated. He was genial and what you saw was what you got,” and he said, “He had one friend and he married her.” My reaction to that was, “How ordinary is that? Who has one friend and marries the person?” Even Nixon had Bebe Robozo. I do think there was some mystery about Reagan, but I wanted, as always, I wanted to show him operating, the president operating, amidst a lot of accident, chance, fatefulness, opposition. We have Pamela Harriman as my sort of my comic…

Robert Birnbaum: I suspect she was a fun character to play with —a wild card.

Thomas Mallon:One of the reasons I think that Anne Macmurray came back laughs) was I realized I had Nancy Reagan and Pamela Harriman and I have to have a nice woman character among the main ones. The women characters have often run off with my books; I’ve noticed that. People talked a lot about that with Watergate. I didn’t set out to do that, but the women were very crucial in Watergate. I thought that they were, on the surface, they had some similarities, Nancy and Pamela. Nancy is this sort of-

Robert Birnbaum:Pamela, the way you presented her, was much smarter than Nancy. Nancy was shrewd but the scope of her general knowledge was limited

Thomas Mallon: Nancy, to me … I think the picture of her is sympathetic; she’s a raw nerve. I don’t think she enjoyed 10 minutes of the White House. Pamela is one of the least self-curious people ever. She’s just a predator, you know? She goes after one life after another. She’s kind of astonishing and is having this quite late third act.

Robert Birnbaum: Am I correct in assuming she wrote a memoir or autobiography or something?

Thomas Mallon: No.

Robert Birnbaum: No?

 

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon: There are 2 substantial biographies of her. She would have written a fabulous memoir. I think by the time she was ready to write it, she had inherited hundred million dollars and really didn’t need to.

Robert Birnbaum: Since she was not self-curious and had no financial need.

Thomas Mallon: It would not have been an introspective book. She had a tremendous desire for dignity. The really funny thing about her was she was an aristocrat. She was a Digby . Yet, throughout her life her reputation was for being a courtesan. Somebody who was trying to push her way into the respectable world,when in fact, it was the world she was born to.

Robert Birnbaum: In America, was she referred to as a courtesan?

Thomas Mallon: Oh, yeah; routinely.

Robert Birnbaum: I wasn’t aware that Americans recognized that position.

Thomas Mallon: When you say-

Robert Birnbaum: Do you know what I mean?

Thomas Mallon: Yeah. When you say, “in America,” certainly while she was operating in America she was still referred to as that. Maybe she was more often referred to that way by people who had known her in her European days. It’s an astonishing life but the funny thing, at the end, is that she really craves respectability. She really wanted her reward for everything she did for the Democrats. She has to wait until Bill Clinton to get it and then she gets the ambassadorship to Paris. She felt this kind of strange hunger for respectability even though she had been born into hyper-respectability. She had this kind of raffish early and middle life that she had to overcome.

 

Christopher Hitchens [photo;copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum]

Christopher Hitchens [photo;copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Birnbaum: As you began this book, how much was [Christopher] Hitchens [ 4]going to be a part of it?

Thomas Mallon: At the very beginning I didn’t have him in mind at all. Obviously, he occurred to me in fairly short order because he’s there throughout the whole book. I didn’t know Christopher in the time-

Robert Birnbaum: In that period.

Thomas Mallon: Of the book. I got to know Christopher—I didn’t meet him until well into the ’90s. I got to know him pretty well in the early 2000’s. At the time the novel is set, 1986, he’s always betwixt and between. Should he stay in the States, go back to England? Is he going to make his was through publications like Vanity Fair or The Nation? Is he going to stay in his first marriage or leave it, whatever? I thought I could plausibly deploy him into the narrative in a lot of ways, though he never did a  profile of Pamela Harriman [as the book purports].

Robert Birnbaum: Is that how you got information about Harriman —through him?

Thomas Mallon: No. I think to go back to what you were first asking about—how much is fiction, how much isn’t—I think that’s a good example of how I feel I can operate. I don’t operate at the extremes of historical fiction, which is alternate history fiction. Those books where the south wins the Civil War, things like that.

Robert Birnbaum: Bill O’Reilly’s-

Thomas Mallon: I think-

Robert Birnbaum: If one  could call them books.

Thomas Mallon: That doesn’t interest me. It has to be what are  Vidal’s   “agreed-upon facts”  that are adhered to. Then people say, “Why write fiction at all, why not write well-done biographies, things like that?” Obviously, there are ways it has an intimacy to it, historical fiction. There are ways to speculate about people…

Robert Birnbaum: Have you read any biographies of George Washington?

Thomas Mallon: No.

Robert Birnbaum: I haven’t either but I’m wondering how many of them refer to the fact that Washington was a real hound and would send his junior officers out so he could liaison with their wives. Is that something you think is … I think that’s the kind of thing, whether it’s true or not, that’s the kind of thing you can put in… that Vidal would put in a  story. I’m glad you brought him up because I think those American civilization novels, I think they’re 5?

Thomas Mallon: Yes.

Robert Birnbaum: They are better American history than many scholarly texts of the time.

Thomas Mallon: One big … Let me to try to organize my thoughts on this and I will return to him in one minute. In my own books I’m not going to change something like the chronology of the Reykjavik summit. Those negotiating sessions operate almost exactly…

Robert Birnbaum: I assume that.

Thomas Mallon: The stuff I will change is the smaller stuff that you can plausibly change. For instance, something like, was Hitchens at Reykjavik? No. But is it plausible for him to have been there? Yes.

Robert Birnbaum: Does it make a difference?

Thomas Mallon: Right, and it’s the sort of thing where the only way the reader is going to know that it’s fiction is if the reader looks it up and discovers, “No, there’s no record of him having been there,” things like that. That’s a rule of thumb.  It’s not what happened instead of the big things but what might have happened in addition to the big things. What might have happened behind the scenes, whatever. One difference I would say between me and Vidal, aside from the fact that he remains the maestro, is a … His works have a higher thematic content than mine do. He’s hugely working the thesis, the thesis of American empire, whatever. I’m more interested in serendipity, accident, quirks, telling a story. I think in that sense I’m operating more as a novelist than he is because there’s always a … He goes about more of the business of a historian than I do.

Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

 

Robert Birnbaum: Nonetheless you have Truman that’s 1948, and Fellow Travelers covers the early ’50s, and Watergate, the late 60’s , early 70’s. I don’t remember was there a novel that’s set in the ’60s?

Thomas Mallon: Aurora 7, an early book but it’s not really political. Kennedy has a couple of scenes in it but it’s mostly my bildungsroman. It’s all set on the day  of Scott Carpenter’s space flight … Finale is dedicated to Scott, who died a couple of years ago.

Robert Birnbaum: Then Watergate and now this. One could say that’s sort of a kind of American history. Do you want to fill in anything?

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

 

Thomas Mallon: It is kind of a Republican saga. If you go back to Henry and Clara, you’ve got Lincoln-

Robert Birnbaum: My favorite of your books.

Thomas Mallon: Thank you.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s such a novel  perspective to look at Lincoln’s assassination from.

Thomas Mallon: Also, now that I think of it, the Hayes administration in Two Moons—another Republican administration. I am now writing —and it’s so close that I don’t know that you’d be able to call it historical fiction—about the George W. Bush years.

Robert Birnbaum: Is it fiction?

Thomas Mallon:It’s fiction, yeah. A novel called Landfall. I always seem to throw these presidents into the soup. I have them at their lowest points. Reagan here; Nixon during Watergate; and the Bush book is mostly set in ’05, ’06—Katrina, the Iraq insurgency, everything.  I also want to go back to the Civil War one more time. I’ve sold these next two books as proposals and the one thing they said was … I was going to do the Civil War book first. They said, “No, we want you to flip them, and we want you to do the Bush book first and complete the trilogy.” I didn’t know I was writing one. They see Watergate, Finale and the Bush book. To use the phrase that DH Lawrence used dismissively about Ulysses—he said, “It’s so on purpose”—I think my books, in some intellectual, thematic way,  are less “on purpose” than Vidal’s were. I don’t have a point to prove about the country.

Robert Birnbaum: They’re not quite Teddy White’s Making of the President.

Robert Birnbaum: As they say, Vidal had cojones. He believed in himself, yes, and-

Thomas Mallon: He was unfailingly nice to me, too. Jay Parini’s biography of him is about to come out.

Robert Birnbaum: Parini is executor of his estate, I think.

Thomas Mallon: Yes, Jay knew him very, very well. I didn’t know him nearly as well. I have to say I was always—in some ways I was scared of getting to know him any better because, I thought, if I do, at some point I’m going to feel the lash. There’ll be the falling out, there’ll be-

Robert Birnbaum: I hear you.  How are you feeling about the city on the hill these days?

Thomas Mallon: Somebody asked, “You going to do a novel about Trump if he goes all the way?” I said, “It’s already a novel.” I wish he would recede quickly. I’m not sure it’s going to happen now. I still think … I do not think he’s going to go the distance. I don’t think he’s going to go the distance to the nomination. On the other hand, I am a terrible prognosticator.

Robert Birnbaum: What is the possibility that the American public becomes disenchanted with him?

 

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, they become disenchanted with a lot of people, so why not with him?  It would be really different if he were 1 of 4, you know? The fact that he’s 1 of 16 or whatever it is, and that a dozen of them are almost completely unknown to the public, is what’s made the race more ridiculous than it would have been otherwise. I think the best thing that could happen to the Republican party right now would be for half of these people running to get out immediately.

Robert Birnbaum: This interesting thing about the status of Ronald Reagan within the Republican party, for me, is that these aspiring politicians really don’t have a grasp of who he was . But he’s given them the confidence to think that they could be president of the United States. Honestly, I look at that group and I would like them to explain, what makes them think they are qualified to be president?

Thomas Mallon:Certainly, Reagan had business running for president; a 2-term governor of California has the chops for it. He did raise the appropriate age so that if Biden gets in we’re going to have the altacocker  primary in the Democratic party, I mean between Bernie and Hillary and Biden. Reagan did that. I’m sure I would get different opinions, but I would argue that nobody did more to lower the credentials factor for the presidency than Barack Obama.  I’m not wild about the idea of electing people who have been in the Senate for a couple years—3 years, whatever it was—as president. I’ve often said this to people:  “I hold Barack Obama responsible for Sarah Palin.”

Robert Birnbaum: (laughs)

Thomas Mallon:I was not a fan of Governor Palin, but do you remember much talk when she was picked by John McCain?  Do you remember much talk of, “God, McCain’s going to put somebody a heartbeat away from the presidency who’s been governor of Alaska for a year and a half?”  They couldn’t do it, the Democrats couldn’t make that point because of Obama.

Robert Birnbaum: Why would they need to?  She was self-discrediting.

Thomas Mallon: You have all of these first-term Senators running. I rather like Rubio, I will say that. But I think something’s wrong.

Robert Birnbaum: Except these  guys are talking  pie-in-the-sky economics and that they— are going make the American worker ,who’s being screwed by the Democrats, they’re going to make their lives better for them. Really, with their voodoo economics? Their  supply side economics and deficit austerity?

Thomas Mallon: You see, Robert, now you’re getting into issues, and I hate that part of politics.

Robert Birnbaum (laughs)

Thomas Mallon: I would much rather … If I were truly interested in issues I’d be a historian, but it’s personalities …

Robert Birnbaum: Its no longer  about experience  in governance as much … I don’t think you can argue that he’s not a very smart man.

Thomas Mallon: Who?

Robert Birnbaum: Obama.

Thomas Mallon: Yes.

Robert Birnbaum: That he’s a quick read and that he does have respect for history. In fact , look at the disenchantment by left Democrats. Obama’s a centrist all the way. Bringing Goldman Sachs people into the economic advisory mix, what makes him radical? The right  calls him a socialist …

Thomas Mallon: I can’t see him as a centrist but I know the point you’re making.

Robert Birnbaum:  What operating room do you have if the opposition says, from day one,”We’re gong to do everything we can to make sure he’s a 1-term president.” How do you negotiate? Govern?

Thomas Mallon: As opposed to the gigantic elbow room the Democrats gave Reagan throughout the ’80s? Come on. The Republicans gave Obama the stimulus he asked for.

Robert Birnbaum: The Tip O’Neill-Ron Reagan ‘friendship  was just a myth?

Thomas Mallon: I think it’s overblown, I do. Others will argue differently. There’s that Chris Matthews book about the whole thing. I don’t think either one liked the other.

Robert Birnbaum: Chris Matthews?

Thomas Mallon: Yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: My, my.

Thomas Mallon: You know, Jesse Jackson used to say, “I would rather have Roosevelt in a wheelchair than Reagan on a horse.” I would have to say that, because of the basic sense he had of what he wanted to do with the presidency, I would rather have Ronald Reagan at the beginning of geriatric exhaustion—I’m not saying senility—

Robert Birnbaum: Right, got you.

Thomas Mallon: At the beginning of his geriatric exhaustion, than Obama at the head of the Law Review.

Robert Birnbaum: That does point to the fact that there’s this whole bouillabaisse of credentials and characteristics that one would think make a good president but you really don’t know what the mixture is. It’s a mystery, right?

Thomas Mallon: Right, and you really don’t know what opportunities they’re going to have to use the better parts of themselves, you know? I think it’s … It won’t be me but Obama would certainly be interesting for a novelist. Much more interesting than Clinton.

Robert Birnbaum: What about someone like Ulysses S. Grant for whom, I think, his historical stature is being revised . He’s been rehabilitated. I don’t think Americans know his story, they think he was a drunk and a crook, you know? How many people do you think have read his memoirs which I am  told are quite good?

Memoirs by U.S. Grant

Memoirs by U.S. Grant

 

Thomas Mallon: Very few.

Robert Birnbaum: …and were published by Mark Twain, right?

Thomas Mallon: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert Birnbaum: And then Eisenhower, I don’t think … He turned out to be, looked like a much better president today than he was when people were laughing at his golfing and his lack of polish as a public speaker.

Thomas Mallon:  It’s amazing that the United States has this 10-year stretch with two of the most baroque personalities ever as president— Johnson and Nixon, with their incredible complexities. And then it goes Main Street with Jerry Ford.

Robert Birnbaum: That was sort of accidental. He would have never been elected.

Thomas Mallon: He came close. Clinton would not interest me as a novelist because while Clinton is complicated, yes; everybody’s always talking about Clinton as being compartmentalized, whatever. I don’t think he’s the least bit mysterious.  Can see the different compartments, you know? Obama, is  a much more opaque figure. Much harder to read, harder to get at.

Robert Birnbaum: There’s a duo, a comedy due called Key & Peele. They have a  routine where they have an anger  translator for Obama.And Obama brought him to the last White House Correspondent’s dinner

Thomas Mallon: Suppressed anger, I think, is fascinating. I always thought and continue to think, even as I wish him well in his current state of ill health, that Jimmy Carter was a very angry man beneath the surface. Very angry and resentful.

Robert Birnbaum: Is he a Baptist or Methodist ?

Thomas Mallon: Baptist, I think.

Robert Birnbaum:A  more  austere form of Protestantism?

Robert Birnbaum: Well he did  a good job of anger management didn’t he?

Thomas Mallon:That’s the thing, though.  Anger management is not the same thing as anger suppression, because anger management entails letting it out as appropriate, you know? I would be interested to know just how cool Barack Obama really is or how much anger he suppresses. What he’s angry about? I think that it might be something entirely different from what we think. It’s not for me, but I think there’s good material for a novelist there and-

Robert Birnbaum: In all these cases you have a very volatile world setting. There’s lots of stuff going on that you can pull out to deal with. Has anyone talked about making a movie out of any of the books? You optioned?

Thomas Mallon: Say that louder. The options come and go. They don’t buy up properties with the alacrity they used to. Hollywood has the same kind of cautionary chill about it that publishing has now. Henry and Clara options have come and gone. Dewey Defeats Truman was not only optioned, it was bought. I paid for half of my house in Connecticut with it and then they never made it. They could still make it. It was a period piece to begin with.

Robert Birnbaum: What I notice is this expansion of the scope of what the so called cable industry and HBO, Showcase, A & E. They’re making things they’re … The HBO special that David Simon just did [Show Me A Hero]. Can you imagine somebody actually making a movie about the housing crisis in Yonkers?

Thomas Mallon: Yeah. I would much prefer if somebody were going to film this. My strong preference would be to have it done for television in 8 parts or something. I think that would be a much closer match to the construction of the novel. Television is doing such interesting things with narrative right now. Much more so, I think, than film.

Robert Birnbaum: I think I find myself reading somewhat less and watching more of these extended series. When it comes down to it, my interest in stories, good stories.

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, right.

Robert Birnbaum: The streaming services are  a great reservoir of  wonderful movies but, again, in terms of commercial interest, starting with the Sopranos and the Wire , producers  are buying into getting writers writing good stories; investing —like Nick Pizolatto, His True Detective [at least season one][5]was genius.

Thomas Mallon: In terms of adaptation, something like Wolf Hall. If you were going to do Wolf Hall, to me the proper way to do it was the way it was done on television.

Robert Birnbaum: Right,  I don’t know about you but I couldn’t read the book but I thought the dramatization was fabulous. The lead actor Mark Rylance, just perfect.

Thomas Mallon: I like the book, I’ve never read the second one, the one that came after. Maybe I will at some point

Robert Birnbaum: Also the  BBC  did a splendid job on William Boyd’s [novel ]Any Given Heart.[6]  It’s about a writer’s life, from about 1910 I think up until the ’60s or ’70s. 3 It’s just a wonderful story and again, ist based on a worthy text

Thomas Mallon: The single, greatest television experience I have ever had—and I remember the first run of the Honeymooners as a rug rat in the mid-’50s—the greatest television experience I ever had was Deadwood. If you have not seen Deadwood…

Robert Birnbaum:  I have seen Deadwood and I read Pete Dexter’s novel of the same name. There was a piece on the HBO series producer David Milch in the New Yorker. I don’t remember if they referenced Dexter’s skepticism about Milch’s claim  saying he never read Dexter’s book.

Thomas Mallon: Oh, really?  It was one of those things where after a couple of episodes I still wasn’t in the groove with it. I’m thinking, “Am I going to commit to this?” or whatever. Then I got past that crucial point very much as you often have to do with a novel. “Now, I’m in; I’m investing,” whatever. After that, I just felt the whole thing was so audacious, so atmospheric. It just, it didn’t build and build in a narrative way, it didn’t build and build to the climax of the story, but it deepened and deepened and deepened.

Robert Birnbaum: I always loved John Hawkes[plays Sol Star in Deadwood]. Do you know his work? He does  a lot of comedy but in Winter’s Bone he’s resoundingly sinister.

Thomas Mallon: A little bit, yeah. The main character, Al Swearengen, there was a part of him that reminded me of my old boss Art Cooper.

Robert Birnbaum: I think the next time I saw Swearingen was in some odd NBC special about some futuristic kingdom where he’s the king.  Have you seen Winter’s Bone?

Thomas Mallon: No, I know what it is, though.

Robert Birnbaum: It takes place in a hard scrabble Ozarks, really tough people with their own code, insular; 2 really interesting characters. Based on a novel written by a wonderful writer,  Daniel Woodrell credited with creating “redneck noir”.   Are you engaged in this book tour for some period of time? Is it a distraction? Is it hard for you?

Thomas Mallon: No, it’s not steady…

Robert Birnbaum: You’re going to tell me you’re glad they asked you because…

Thomas Mallon: Actually, yes. It would be wrong to say anything else. It’s a little bit different; it’s more broken up than it used to be. In the old days they put you out on the road for a long time. I go home tomorrow and then I’m at home for 10 days; then I go to St. Louis. Then I’m at home for a week and I go to New York.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s good. There will have been time for people to actually read the book?

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, over a couple of months it adds up to a lot.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s smart.

Thomas Mallon: Then there’ll be a California leg of it, whatever. I still, I’m always keeping my journalistic life afloat. The truly hair-raising aspect of this week was not just the traveling, not just waiting on reviews. I had to close a piece for the New Yorker this week. From the hotel room in Texas and then at my apartment in New York, I was on the phone with the fact-checkers and getting proof after proof after proof. I’m a nervous closer even during a slow week at home, so my hands have been shaky.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s the state of writing, too.  Writers used to say, “I never write on the road.” Now people are forced to  write on the road.

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, I couldn’t actually write on the road but I have to do other stuff on the road. One of the things that I’ve also noticed is a bit of a change in my non-fiction life. I think I’m writing … I’m still writing literary criticism, but I’m writing more about politics and political books that I’m used to. This piece I just closed was about The Drew Pearson Diaries from the 1960s

Robert Birnbaum: He was an influential columnist-

Thomas Mallon: Incredibly so, yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: In the  Washington Post, right?  There were a handful of those guys, also Lippmann, Drew Pearson, Jack Anderson?

Thomas Mallon: Anderson was Pearson’s assistant. Until he took over the column. Lippmann and people like Joe Alsop—they were sort of these mandarins of commentary. Although Anderson also had some reporting in his column. Lippmann was very much speaking ex cathedra but Pearson was the Washington equivalent of the Hollywood gossip columnist. A lot of digging, and the diaries are really fascinating. It’s odd, a volume of them covering the ’50s was edited 40 years ago. This volume covering the ’60s is only coming out now. What they really show is the degree to which he operated as somebody seeking political influence behind the scenes. He was often rounding up Senate votes on something. You would think he was the majority whip rather than a columnist; a very interesting dynamic compared to what we have today. And so, in a sense, maybe there’s more overlap between the 2 kinds of writing I am doing, fiction and non-fiction, than there used to be.

Robert Birnbaum: Wow, time flies, as usual it’s been a pleasure.

Thomas Mallon: Same here.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m glad we’re both still walking and talking.

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, a little more stiffly but still doing it.

 

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

 

1 The Kid Turns Seventy:And  No one Cares —The Weekly Standard

2 Trailer for Hannah Arendt

3 Conversation with Richard Reeves

4  Identitytheory conversation with Christopher Hitchens

5 True Detective / Season 1 trailer

6 Any Human Heart Episode 1

#174 517 * Part II

4 Jan
THE COMPLETE works of Primo LEvi

THE COMPLETE works of Primo Levi

Ok, so I was able impose on some friends to do some heavy lifting…see previous post. However I could not leave this dustbin of history without a few digressive remarks, putatively about words and literature and my current existential crisis.

The Noam Chomsky Collection (Haymarket Books)

The Noam Chomsky Collection (Haymarket Books)

But before I get to my own favorites of the past year, I want to give notice and recognition  to The Complete Works of Primo Levi, Haymarket Books’s Chomsky Collection, Greg Grandin’s In the Shadow of Kissinger and Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg by Kate Evans, edited by Paul Buhle. While I have long held that using the superlative ‘best’ as well as a number of other puerile superlatives (hottest, must read, coolest.most excellent), I have no problem assigning the rubric ‘important’ to a book. And the four titles mentioned above are prime examples of the tomes that must be considered important books among those that were published last year.

Primo Levi in the house of the maternal family( Luzzati family), photo by Giorgio Miserendino

Primo Levi in the house of the maternal family( Luzzati family), photo by Giorgio Miserendino

Better minds and more rigorous writers (like James Wood) have exposited on Levi:

Primo Levi did not consider it heroic to have survived eleven months in Auschwitz. Like other witnesses of the concentration camps, he lamented that the best had perished and the worst had survived. But we who have survived relatively little find it hard to believe him. How could it be anything but heroic to have entered Hell and not been swallowed up? To have witnessed it with such delicate lucidity, such reserves of irony and even equanimity? Our incomprehension and our admiration combine to simplify the writer into a needily sincere amalgam: hero, saint, witness, redeemer. Thus his account of life in Auschwitz, “If This Is a Man” (1947), whose title is deliberately tentative and tremulous, was rewrapped, by his American publisher, in the heartier, how-to-ish banner “Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity.” That edition praises the text as “a lasting testament to the indestructibility of the human spirit,” though Levi often emphasized how quickly and efficiently the camps could destroy the human spirit. Another survivor, the writer Jean Améry, mistaking comprehension for concession, disapprovingly called Levi “the pardoner,” though Levi repeatedly argued that he was interested in justice, not in indiscriminate forgiveness. A German official who had encountered Levi in the camp laboratory found in “If This Is a Man” an “overcoming of Judaism, a fulfillment of the Christian precept to love one’s enemies, and a testimony of faith in Man.” And when Levi committed suicide, on April 11, 1987, many seemed to feel that the writer had somehow reneged on his own heroism.

If only the lamentations of the left leaning and socially progressive spent more (some) time paying to the crystalline observations of Noam Chomsky.

tumblr_n2o9ziymhB1qjjg0to1_1280

 

 

images

From Red Rosa

Red Rosa by Kate Evans, edited by Paul Buhle

Red Rosa by Kate Evans, edited by Paul Buhle

If I recall correctly German socialist thought dancing was as important as revolution. Kudos to Verso,Evans and Buhle for recognizing that attention must be paid…

 In the Shadow of Kissinger by Greg Grandin

In the Shadow of Kissinger by Greg Grandin

There has never been a time when so many publicly(indicted and) recognized war criminals have pranced around the United States with impunity. The most evil of these criminals is Henry (“Dr. Strangelove”)Kissinger. The late lamented Christopher Hitchens amused with his rhetorical flourish The Trial of Henry Kissinger:

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

My 2001 conversation with Hitchens here yielded this

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

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

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

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

Greg Grandin’s indictment of Herr Professor Kissinger has the force of rigorous attention to the documentary record (some of you will recognize this as what used to be called ‘history’)

From The People’s Obituary of Henry Kissinger—Before His Death (catchy headline, no?)

Far from the calculating practitioner of Realpolitik that even his most ardent detractors tend to imagine, the Kissinger that emerges from Grandin’s book is compulsively drawn towards action for its own sake. Over the course of his career as national security advisor, secretary of state, and, later, elite global consultant, Kissinger “institutionalized a self-fulfilling logic of intervention” and established a working “template for how to justify tomorrow’s action while ignoring yesterday’s catastrophe.”

“At every single one of America’s postwar turning points,” writes Grandin, “moments of crisis when men of goodwill began to express doubts about American power, Kissinger broke in the opposite direction.” America almost invariably broke with him.

So here are my favorite real paper and ink books of the last 300 or so days…

 House of the Rising Sun: A Novel by James Lee Burke

House of the Rising Sun: A Novel by James Lee Burke

House of the Rising Sun: A Novel by James Lee Burke

Crow Fair: Stories by  Thomas McGuane

Crow Fair: Stories by Thomas McGuane

Crow Fair: Stories by Thomas McGuane

Sweet Caress  by William Boyd

Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Sweet Caress by William Boyd

City on Fire: A novel  by Garth Risk Hallberg

City on Fire: A novel by Garth Risk Hallberg

City on Fire: A novel by Garth Risk Hallberg

A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me: Stories and a novella   by David Gates

A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me: Stories and a novella by David Gates

A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me: Stories and a novella by David Gates

Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years   by Thomas Mallon

Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years by Thomas Mallon

Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years– by Thomas Mallon

The Lower Quarter: A Novel  by Elise Blackwell

The Lower Quarter: A Novel by Elise Blackwell

 

The Lower Quarter: A Novel by Elise Blackwell

 

 No God But Gain: The Untold Story of Cuban Slavery, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Making of the United States   by Stephen Chambers

No God But Gain: The Untold Story of Cuban Slavery, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Making of the United States
by Stephen Chambers

No God But Gain: The Untold Story of Cuban Slavery, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Making of the United States
by Stephen Chambers

 Disposable Futures: Violence in the Age of the Spectacle HENRY GIROUX (Co-authored with Brad Evans).

Disposable Futures: Violence in the Age of the Spectacle HENRY GIROUX (Co-authored with Brad Evans).

Disposable Futures: Violence in the Age of the Spectacle HENRY GIROUX (Co-authored with Brad Evans).

Above the Water fall: A Novel  by Ron Rash

Above the Water fall: A Novel by Ron Rash

Above the Water fall: A Novel by Ron Rash

 A Free State: A Novel  by Tom Piazza

A Free State: A Novel by Tom Piazza

A Free State: A Novel by Tom Piazza

 American Meteor  by Norman Lock

American Meteor by Norman Lock

American Meteor by Norman Lock

The Cartel by Don WInslow

The Cartel by Don WInslow

The Cartel: A novel by Don Winslow

 Gutshot: Stories by Amelia Gray

Gutshot: Stories by Amelia Gray

Gutshot by Amelia Gray

 The Kind Worth Killing: A Novel  by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth Killing: A Novel by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth Killing: A Novel by Peter Swanson

 The Whites: A Novel by Richard Price , Harry Brandt

The Whites: A Novel by Richard Price , Harry Brandt

The Whites: A Novel by Richard Price , Harry Brandt

 The Small Backs of Children: A Novel  by Lidia Yuknavitch

The Small Backs of Children: A Novel by Lidia Yuknavitch

The Small Backs of Children: A Novel by Lidia Yuknavitch

  A Spool of Blue Thread: A novel  by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread: A novel by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread: A novel by Anne Tyler

  The Lady from Zagreb   by Philip Kerr


The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr

The Lady from Zagreb (A Bernie Gunther Novel) by Philip Kerr

 Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by  Jill Leovy

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

 In the Shadow of Kissinger by Greg Grandin

In the Shadow of Kissinger by Greg Grandin

Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman by Greg Grandin

 Mislaid  by Nell Zink

Mislaid by Nell Zink

Mislaid by Nell Zink

*Of course this number has deep significance…

Here We Go Again: The First, Last Best Books? The Best List?

1 Jan
Guess what?

Guess what?

Isn’t anyone sick of the ceaseless shit-stream of lists of ‘best’, ‘hottest’, ‘coolest’ ‘781 must- projectile hurled into the ether by an ever growing horde of people with opinions, one of which is that their opinion will be valuable to the rest of the world? Really, how many of these inventories qualify as even useful.

If however you have an interest these predictable journalistic devices the literary website Large Hearted Boy offers an assiduously collected list of lists (which it has been offering annually for eight years)

And, so it was a pleasure and a relief to encounter that literary flower of Cambridge, Katherine Powers’s astute criterion —as in Favorite Books of 2015. In keeping with the spirit of Ms Power’s offering, I canvassed a number of friends and acquaintances for news of their own favorites of 2015*

George Scialabba

One of the great unheralded (except in Cambridge Massachusetts) English speaking public intellectuals.Here’s his website. And here is George’s psychiatric (diagnosis: depression) medical record as published in the Baffler. And of course you will want to read my conversation with George at this very journal.*

 

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The Demise of Virtue in a Virtual America by David Bosworth

 

David Bosworth, The Demise of Virtue in a Virtual Age

 The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew Crawford

The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew Crawford

Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head

The Age of Acquiescence by Steve Fraser

The Age of Acquiescence by Steve Fraser

Steve Fraser, The Age of Acquiescence

 Love Hotel by Jane Unrue

Love Hotel by Jane Unrue

Jane Unrue, Love Hotel

What Kind of Creatures Are We? by  Noam Chomsky

What Kind of Creatures Are We? by Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky, What Kind of Creatures Are We?

*And keep an eye out for a new collection from that guy with the funny Wop name … George Scialabba, I think … called Low Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews, 1980-2015, coming in February from Pressed Wafer.

Howard Dinin

If Howard is not a man for all seasons, he certainly is one for many. A skilled photographer, gourmand and cook, he is also a man of many carefully chosen words. But most importantly he is a great and generous friend, advisor and IT consultant. Howard is working on a project ( that I am not at liberty  to discuss) which should I will bring to your attention in the fullness of time.Stay tuned.

I operate on the presumption, long since proven to my satisfaction, that any book worth reading, whatever the subject, is always about something greater than itself—usually falling under the rubric of either cosmology, epistemology, or ontology.

Loathe as I am to admit to reading fiction any longer, accepting the risk of appearing deliberately to be hipper than thou by doing so, the fact is, always admitted sheepishly, that I do read fiction. But I read a great deal of all else of the genera of literary forms. And by literary, I hasten to add, I don’t mean any snot-nosed distinction between what is always someone else’s notion of what is high and what is low; rather it may be what is words alone, or what is words accompanied, like a piece of chamber music, by other sensory instruments, usually sounds and images, but what you will when you come right down to it.

Here’s what amounts to a potpourri of the stack being in descending order from the current date, as it has accumulated. You may conclude that I have read at least some of each, and completed one or another, if not recently, then at least long enough ago that it was time for another intimate re-acquaintance. If the book looks worn or misshapen, it’s for a reason.

I’ve quickly snapped the covers for Brother Birnbaum as I was headed out the door, laden with luggage and food and a sack or two filled with the impedimenta of a gadgeteer/flaneur/photographe on holiday.

The physical books depicted will have to wait for my return, but not a small number are also in residence in e-form on a tablet which rarely leaves my possession.

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All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

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Notes on the Death of Culture by Mario Vargas Llosa

Notes on the Death of Culture by Mario Vargas Llosa

Photography by Ian Jeffrey

Photography by Ian Jeffrey

Photography by Ian Jeffrey

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The Other Paris by Luc Sante

The Other Paris by Luc Sante

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Two Towns in Provence by MFK Fisher

Two Towns in Provence by MFK Fisher

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Portraits by John Berger

Portraits by John Berger

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The Difficulty of Being a Dog by Roger Grenier

The Difficulty of Being a Dog by Roger Grenier

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Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir by Truman Capote

Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir by Truman Capote

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Zone: Selected Poems by Guilluame Apollinaire

Zone: Selected Poems by Guilluame Apollinaire

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Submission by Michel Houellebecq

Submission by  Michel Houellebecq

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The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh

The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh

FIN

 

Paul Buhle. 

As is frequently the case I became aware of, and filled in, a large gap in my cultural literacy, as I chanced to become aware of Paul Buhle— that happenstance stemming from noting his collaboration with Howard Zinn to create A People’s History of American Empire— a graphic recapitulation of Zinn’s magnum opus.

 A People's History of American Empire by Howard Zinn and Paul Buhle

A People’s History of American Empire by Howard Zinn and Paul Buhle

From that useful discovery I found out that Buhle is a former member of the sixties era radical organization Students for a Democratic Society and a devotee of Marxist and cricket scholar, CLR James. He is the author/editor of nearly thirty books, among them: Images of American Radicalism, Marxism in the United States, Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story behind America’s Favorite Movies, The Encyclopedia of the American Left, The Immigrant Left in the United States, The New Left Revisited,Insurgent Images: The Agitprop Murals of Mike Alewitz,From the Lower Eastside to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture.
Che Guevara, a Graphic Biography, Wobblies! A Graphic history of the Industrial Workers of the World Jews and American Comics and Bohemians. Paul was kind enough to take the time to offer some suggestions…

Paul Buhle

Paul Buhle

Odd Angles of Literary 2015

These are some of the favorites that would otherwise hide themselves under my desk or in the attic. They deserve readers.

Crime Does Not Pay by  OR: Dark Horse Books,

Crime Does Not Pay by OR: Dark Horse Books,

Crime Does Not Pay, Volume 4. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Books, from 2013 first edition. 217pp, color, $49.99.

These are the pleasures of sin, straight out of the middle to later 1940s as War Comics lose their charm and crime comics, with mobsters, molls (in “headlight” tight sweaters) and assorted victims get plugged full of lead thanks to this best seller of the era. Most oddly, publisher Lev Gleason had been a near-communist supporter of the Spanish Civil War’s Abe Lincoln Battalion, publisher of a short-lived slick lefty magazine and of a more successful knockoff of Reader’s Digest. He found his faithful readers in bloodthirsty teenagers. Actually the stories are lively and the art by some of the best, including bizarre figures like Bob Wood, alcoholic and murderer, just like his characters.

La Lucha    Drawn and Written by Joe Sack,

La Lucha Drawn and Written by Joe Sack,

La Lucha: the Story of :Lucha Castro and Human Rights in Mexico. Drawn and Written by Joe Sack, edited by Adam Shapiro, with a Preface by Lucha Castro. New York and London: Verso, 2015,96p, $16.95.

A Spanish Association for Human Rights project centering upon a true heroine in the world South of the Border, notably Chihuahua, more like the underworld where violence is a daily occurrence and violence against women. The art is soft-expressionist, suitable to murder and impunity from arrest, “disappearances” with no seeming resolution and heroic efforts at popular resistance. The happy ending promised US authorities by the Calderon government only brings more death and misery. Read, learn, wince.

Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose. Edited by Josh Neufeld and Sari Wilson.

Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose. Edited by Josh Neufeld and Sari Wilson.

Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose. Edited by Josh Neufeld and Sari Wilson. Indianapolis: Pressgang, 2016, $15?

This is one of the most unusual comics ever to find itself in my mailbox. Neufeld, an erstwhile collaborator with Harvey Pekar and acclaimed comic artist of post-flood New Orleans, joins editorial partner, novelist Sari Wilson, and many artistic-literary partners in trying to push fictional or semi-fictional prose and comic art against each other. A two-pager by Lynda Barry would, alone, make this book worth seeing. Perhaps the remainder is best seen as young people experimenting. I had difficulty following these brief and varied efforts, but appreciate the effort.##

 

Steve Fagin

Steve Fagin [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Steve Fagin

 

Frankly I believe it should be sufficient to point out that Steve and I have been friends since high school in Chicago (Mather, Class of 1964). And that once a year Steve comes up to Boston from Manhattan and we visit Fenway Park. However, I do feel compelled to note he was a Professor of Visual Arts at the University of California at San Diego. His videos include The Machine That Killed Bad People, Zero Degrees Latitude, Virtual Play, Memorial Day (Observed), The Amazing Voyage of Gustave Flaubert and Raymond Roussel and TropiCola which focused on contemporary Cuba. Also, he is the subject of the book Talkin’ With Your Mouth Full: Conversations With the Videos of Steve Fagin.

Talkin' With Your Mouth Full edited by Steve Fagin

Talkin’ With Your Mouth Full edited by Steve Fagin

A Noah’s Ark of 10 2015 favs

Theater

Phoebe Fox, Russell Tovey, Mark Strong, Nicola Walker, and Michael Gould star in Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge, directed by Ivo van Hove

Phoebe Fox, Russell Tovey, Mark Strong, Nicola Walker, and Michael Gould star in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, directed by Ivo van Hove

1) View From the Bridge @ the Lyceum
Van Hove does Miller

a super saturated rendition squeezes blood from a turnip of a play and reminds one that the over wrought , well done, can turn melodrama into great tragedy

A scene from Elevator Repair Service's The Sound and The Fury

A scene from Elevator Repair Service’s The Sound and The Fury

2) The Sound and Fury @ The Public theatre
Elevator Repair Service does Faulkner

Understanding , in certain cases , can be greatly overestimated. Being lost and confused only brings into focus the desperate ,hopeless idiocy of these terminally handicapped Faulkner babbling things .

Sports

1) Anderson defeats Murray 4th round of U.S. Open @ Armstrong Stadium

There is nothing better than the 4th round of the U.S. Open with upwards of 6 matches in a single venue . The intimate Armstrong Stadium with both temperature and humidity in the 90s is ectasy(SUMMER IN THE CITY)

2) Duel in the Sun,

deGrom outpitches Greinke as the first place Mets end Greinke’s 45 + scoreless innings streak and beat the Deserter Dodgers @ CitiField

LOVE,Love, love those pitchers

Movies

Films unlikely to win audience awards@ New York Film Festival

Film festivals have been kinda ruined by the audience award. The point of a festival should not be to pander but to challenge. I hate Sundance, I hate Sundance, I hate Sundance

J’taime Cet obscur objet du désir

!) Guy Madden’s Forbidden Room

2)Apichatpong Weerasethakul ‘s Cemetery of Splendour

Opera

More and less Kentridge

1)Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour at BAM

The first 21st century opera I have liked and liked it AND HOW. If forced to choose I liked the music by Phillip Miller better than the text and ART by Kendridge , but cannot squabble with the overall effect…WOW

2)Berg’s Lulu directed by Kentridge at the Met

Well, as I suspected I thought the Berg music , described by some “clever person “as Schoenberg and Mahler played at the same time, worked less well with the visuals of Kendridge than his spectacular version of Shostokovitch’s brilliant the Nose , but that was some hard act to follow. I’m sure many would squabble with my preference for Shostokovitch over Berg , but I think few would argue that Kentridge’s schtick works better with Shostokovitch than Berg

BOOKS

  Sidewalks  by Valerie Luselli'

Sidewalks by Valerie Luselli’

1)Valerie Luselli’s Sidewalks , but not her rave reviewed The Story of My Teeth. I find Story of My Teeth derivative, but perhaps both books are and I just prefer the antecedents to her essays in Sidewalks? Put another way, Sidewalks feels like a book written by an old person, Teeth by someone very young.

The Leopard  by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa

The Leopard by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa

2)The Leopard: A Novel by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa
I kinda cheated on this because I put it on my list every year and by the by I defy you to tell me a better book movie combo that the di Lampedusa novel and the Visconti movie

Peter Guralnick If you ended up in this way station you would , at the least. be familiar with Guralnick’s seminal two-volume biographical essay on Elvis Presley. But me not being a Presley admirer I didn’t come to Peter’s work until his excellent exposition of Chicago musician Sam Cooke’s (“A Change is Gonna Come”)life in Dream Boogie. I reconnected with Peter in conversatio with him on his latest opus devoted to the life of rock and rill pioneer Sam Philips( Elvis Presley, Howling Wolf, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, BB King and more. Soon to see the light of day will be that conversation…

Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson

Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson

Hemingway’s Boat – Paul Hendrickson
The digression (always) rules. Like Tristram Shandy and Footsteps by Richard Holmes, this is to be cherished both for its cunning narrative strategy and for the firm truths that reside at its center.

 The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri
Compact, emotionally and politically expansive, and broadly, tragically humanistic in the choices and resolutions that it tentatively offers.

The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary

The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary

The Horse’s Mouth – Joyce Cary
I’m not sure how many times I’ve read this, or seen the movie (written by, and starring, Alec Guinness), but I am savoring it all the more this time more for its Blakeian essence and unabashedly romantic celebration of freedom.

The Hollywood Trilogy by Don Carpenter

 

The Hollywood Trilogy by Don Carpenter
I had read a bunch of Don Carpenter novels, including The Class of ’49 and his celebrated down-and-out classic, Hard Rain Falling, but nothing prepared me for the rambunctiousness of these three novels. (Well, maybe his posthumously published Friday at Enrico’s…) I guess I should have paid more attention to his biography. I mean, he did write the script for Payday, starring the inimitable Rip Torn as Hank Williams?/Waylon Jennings? the ultimate archetype of a falling star.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson
Sprightly, exploratory (better time-travel than The Man in the High Castle) but fundamentally rooted in the human equation, with deeply etched portraits that stay with you forever. Very much like her earlier Life After Life and her wonderful Jackson Brodie detective novels.

 Dogs of Winter by Kem Nunn

Dogs of Winter

by Kem Nunn
Mythic – and real. Great (melo) drama, probably the pinnacle of his surf-noir novels. Just as The Power of the Dog (what’s with all these dogs?) may be Don Winslow’s cartel peak. But in each case there’s so much more.

The Neapolitan Trilogy by Elena Ferrante

The Neapolitan Trilogy by Elena Ferrante

The Neapolitan Trilogy – Elena Ferrante
I haven’t gotten to the fourth yet, but I can’t wait. It’s as if the Patterson, New Jersey of William Carlos Williams had been transported to Naples.

Citizen Vince by Jess Walter

Citizen Vince by Jess Walter

Citizen Vince – Jess Walter
Another great novel from a writer who defies categorization. Every one of his books is altogether different – every one is accomplished in its own right. (But start with Beautiful Ruins if you’re looking for sheer delight.)This is a re-read. I can’t believe how much – well, delight – I missed the first time around.

 Three Junes by Julia Glass

Three Junes by Julia Glass

Three Junes – Julia Glass
This was another re-read, I think prompted by her latest, And the Dark Sacred Night, and leading me back to all of her other interconnected books, with their thoughtful (and likeable) characters and depiction of a familiar and frequently interior world that you can go back and visit again and again.

 Inherent Vice by  P.T. Anderson

Inherent Vice by P.T. Anderson

The Master by P.T. Anderson

The Master by P.T. Anderson

Inherent Vice and The Master – P.T. Anderson
Like all of his films, great, detailed, and fundamentally uncategorizable literary landscapes. There Will Be Blood? Come on.

  Carried Away by Alice Munro

Carried Away by Alice Munro

Carried Away – Alice Munro
The tops. I read it every year. Every reading yields new levels of meaning and mystery. I can think of no one who can suggest all the manifold and contradictory dimensions of a world (in a short story!) like Alice Munro.

Richard Hoffman Although I think I was a Facebook friend of Richard’s I did not meet the poet/essayist/college mentor/social activist until we sat together before, during and after attending Professor Jabari Assim’s
surreal court hearing for a preposterous traffic violation (look it up in the Boston area newspapers) in my current hometown of Newton, Massachusetts. As with Peter Guralnick, you can look forward a lengthy unexpurgated conversation between 2 alta kackers (me and Richard). Look out, World.

You fill find here a recent essay by Richard Hoffman.

http://www.assayjournal.com/confronting-our-fears–richard-hoffman.html

Dear Citizen 786534219,

I’m going to chicken out when it comes to contemporaries whom I know, and especially colleagues; if I missed somebody I’d feel bad. Between my students’ writing, the reading I do for my literature classes, the work of my colleagues I try to stay up with, contest judging, reading ARCs for possible blurbs, there’s time for only a few of the growing stack next to my chair. However, among those who made it from that stack to a more permanent berth on my shelves are the following:

Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon

Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon

Returning to Reims by Didier Eribon. This hybrid of memoir and cultural commentary was recommended to me by bookseller Matt Pieknik when I read at McNally Jackson in NYC. He had read my Love & Fury and thought that Eribon and I were covering similar ground. He was right. I love the book because he isn’t afraid to throw over, revise, outgrow, his former thinking. He is a biographer of Foucault, a respected French avante-intellectual, but with the death of his father the long bungee cord of his parentage pulls him back to Reims and his working class family. He sifts through complex questions of loyalty and identity and the political consequences of the left’s near abandonment of working people. It’s just a terrific book.

Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shariar Mandanipour.

Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shariar Mandanipour.

Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shariar Mandanipour. I am acquianted with Mandanipour through PEN New England. (He’s teaching now at Tufts.) This is what it is like to live as a literary person under the boot of authoritarian censors. The thing is, this book is a hoot! It’s a novel, like Catch-22, that renders its condemnations by illuminating not merely the cruelty of such a system, but its utter absurdity, all the while keeping in view the tragic price people must pay for resisting. A brilliant, inventive, laugh your ass off and get scared at the same time book.

 The Violence of Organized Forgetting by Henry A. Giroux


The Violence of Organized Forgetting by Henry A. Giroux

The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America’s Disimagination Machine by Henry A. Giroux. For a deep cultural, economic, and political analysis of our current inability to act in our own best interests, Giroux has no equal. Maybe being Canadian helps him; maybe he can see the mess clearly by looking over the backyard fence. People may be familiar with him in his role as a political commentator on the web at Truthout.

The Last Interview: James Baldwin

The Last Interview: James Baldwin

The Last Interview: James Baldwin. Melville House Publishing brought together four substantial interviews with Baldwin here, including his last, with Quincy Troupe in France in 1987, the year Baldwin died. I think it is amazing how much Baldwin in conversation sounds like Baldwin in his essays: his voice is his voice. It makes me wonder how writing and speaking influence one another throughout a writer’s life. There’s clearly some kind of feedback loop. Both his talk and his essays are a perfect balance of the spontaneous and the carefully considered. His presence, his integrity, his anger, warmth, humor, and defiant wholeness knock me out. It’s something to aspire to, I can tell you that.

 Something Crosses My Mind  by Wang Xiaoni

Something Crosses My Mind by Wang Xiaoni

I read a lot of poetry, but I know a lot of poets and as I said above, I’ll not name any of my friends or colleagues. Maybe I’ll stick to work in translation. One book I’ve enjoyed immensely is called Something Crosses My Mind by the contemporary Chinese poet Wang Xiaoni, translated by Eleanor Goodman. She writes of contemporary China in a way that de-exoticizes it for a western reader, there is enough of the observational (think Frank O’Hara,) the classical, and the epigrammatic, plus something that is the poet’s own, to make this a book of poems to read slowly, each one several times, for their resonance, their beauty, and their ability to reveal themselves a bit more with each reading.
on]

 Sobbing Superpower by Tadeusz Rozewicz

Sobbing Superpower by Tadeusz Rozewicz

 Light Everywhere  by Cees Nooteboom

Light Everywhere by Cees Nooteboom

Each Day Catches Fire  by Bitite Vinklers.

Each Day Catches Fire by Bitite Vinklers.

I’ve also enjoyed reading the selected poems of the Polish poet Tadeusz Rozewicz, Sobbing Superpower; Light Everywhere by the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom, who is known more as a novelist in the west (translated by Joanna Trzeciak), and I’ve just finished a remarkable little book of poems by the Latvian poet Imants Ziedonis, Each Day Catches Fire, translated by Bitite Vinklers. I became aware of this poet when I read on a bill with Vinklers for The Manhattan Review. He is unique in that he writes, literally, fabulous poems, but ones that always begin and end in the real world. Many of his poems are short bursts of prose, and many of them manage to talk about writing under censorship without, of course, writing about living under censorship. More than that though, they are a delight. In one poem he writes, “Along with the moths tonight, love runs into the windowpane./ (‘Turn off the light, or we’ll have no peace.’)”

(Citizen 7083921848)

Thomas Wickersham Thomas is the event maestro at the hallowed independent bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.I came to know of him through his mother Joan who mentioned him in a conversation I had with her upon the occasion of her wonderful story collection,The News from Spain. Thomas has been astute enough to invite me to chat with David Gates and Don Winslow during their appearances at Booksmith last summer.

Below are nine of my favorite books published or reissued in 2015 and a tenth bonus pick from the past. The books are in no particular order and the list could change tomorrow.

 The Cartel by Don Winslow


The Cartel by Don Winslow

I had impossibly high hopes for this sequel to one of my all-time-favorites, The Power of the Dog. Winslow miraculously delivered. Together, these two books are a stunning documentation of the 40+ year history of the Mexican-American drug conflict. Injected with political urgency while while remaining a page-turning thriller, The Cartel is epic in scope, yet heartbreakingly intimate. This is not a crime novel- it is a tale of war.

 The Whites by Harry Brandt

The Whites by Harry Brandt

Richard Price (writing as Harry Brandt)- The Whites

I draw a distinction between mysteries with a police protagonist and “cop novels.” While there is a mystery at its heart, The Whites ranks with Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choirboys and Kent Anderson’s Night Dogs as one of the finest cop novels I’ve ever read. Its stark naturalistic world of Night Watch policing is a living breathing nightmare land. Cops guzzle energy drinks and take selfies with murder victims. Evil is not the enemy so much as the absurdity of the streets.

 GBH by Ted Lewis

GBH by Ted Lewis

Ted Lewis- GBH (Originally published in the U.K. in 1980. First U.S. printing 2015.)

I read GBH exactly one year ago, almost to the day, and it has haunted me since. It is the story of a gangster in hiding. There are no nice people in this book. There are no happy endings. And yet, there is an intoxicating quality to the alternating storylines of terror and gloom. A cold sheen of glamor clings to the pervasive danger.

 Fat City by Leonard Gardner

Fat City by Leonard Gardner

Leonard Gardner- Fat City (Originally published in 1970, but reissued by NYRB in 2015)

Nominated for the National Book Award against Slaughterhouse Five and Them when it was first released in 1970, Fat City was woefully out-of-print for years. Nominally a boxing novel, it’s truly a book about desperation and hope. Again and again it captures the disconcerting emotions you didn’t realize you had. The best prose I read all year

 The Coloring Book: A Comedian Solves Race Relations in America by Colin Quinn

The Coloring Book: A Comedian Solves Race Relations in America by Colin Quinn

Colin Quinn- The Coloring Book: A Comedian Solves Race Relations in America

Based on his experiences growing up in ethnically-mixed Brooklyn, Colin Quinn tells the history of New York City through personal stories rich with laughs and rife with self-effacing humiliations. The Coloring Book is a memoir of one comedian’s formation, a celebration of what makes us different, and an ode to the life and death of American cities.

download

Peter Swanson- The Kind Worth Killing

A diabolically twisted web of double crosses that echoes Strangers on a Train. Sinister, but packed with sly irony, it is the most queasily enjoyable and ingeniously plotted thriller I read all year.

 Those We Left Behind by Stuart Neville

Those We Left Behind by Stuart Neville

Stuart Neville- Those We Left Behind

Stuart Neville has become a master at tackling psychological trauma. As an avid reader of crime fiction I am aware of my complicity in what is essentially violence for entertainment. For me, the “cozies” (The Kitty Who Painted a Poisoned Pie at the Beach) are in worse taste than graphically realistic police procedurals. Stuart Neville is by no means preachy or dry, but he doesn’t let you forget the cost of violence on victims. Reading Neville is the last time that a book literally made me miss my train stop.

Gang of Lovers by Massimo Carlotto

Gang of Lovers by Massimo Carlotto

Massimo Carlotto- Gang of Lovers

Massimo Carlotto is my favorite writer going for straight crime fiction. His Alligator series echoes many of the tropes of modern Private Eye novels. You have the melancholy music-loving heavy-drinking detective aided by his two friends: the techie and the honorable triggerman. Yet there is still a jarring unpredictability and lack of morality to the books, no doubt greatly influenced by Carlotto’s own wrongful imprisonment for murder. The Alligator series is a fine place to start (though Gang of Lovers is a direct sequel of sorts to Bandit Love), but The Goodbye Kiss and At the End of a Dull Day are the Carlotto masterpieces.

 A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar-

A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar-

Lavie Tidhar- A Man Lies Dreaming (comes out in March 2016 in the U.S. but already released in Britain)

A Man Lies Dreaming is the most audacious perversion of the private eye novel ever written. Alternate history, revenge fantasy, or sorrowful daydream; each element of this book brilliantly forms a whole as mysterious for its structure as its plot. Approach it with as little foreknowledge as possible and never forget.

The Sluts by Dennis Cooper-

The Sluts by Dennis Cooper-

Bonus: Dennis Cooper- The Sluts (published in 2004, but on this list as the only book in 2015 that I read in one night)

* editor’s note—I forswore heavy-handed editing and graphic consistency, except to attempt to eliminate most ,if not all, graphic and grammatical infelicities. To paraphrase Voltaire, “Perfection is the Enemy of the Good.” And m st the time the Good is the best that I can do.

Richard Hoffman: A Man for All / Some Seasons…

21 Dec

Richard Hoffman [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Richard Hoffman [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Being a social media friend with poet/memoirist/university mentor /social activist Richard Hoffman was a pale and lifeless thing after I chanced to meet him at a judicial hearing in my current hometown of Newton Massachusetts. That occasion was the adjudication of Hoffman’s Emerson College colleague Professor Jabari Asim on a controversial (you can look it up) and to all appearances, except to the Newton constabulary, a dubious traffic citation. Richard was there as was Jane Unrue (director of Harvard’s Writers at Risk and author of Love Hotel) The defendant was present as was his lovely wife and his attorney, NE PEN’s Tom Herman. Three hours well spent— the highlight of which was Liana Asim singing from the witness stand. Anyway, meeting Richard Hoffman made me receptive to Jane Unrue’s suggestion to ‘interview’ him—thus the conversation that follows.

####

 

Robert Birnbaum:You’re Richard Hoffman.

Richard Hoffman:That would be me.

Robert Birnbaum:Today is the 30th of whatever, 30th of the month.

Richard Hoffman:October.

Robert Birnbaum: Yes,October. Good. We’re now temporally located, geographically now in West Newton. An hour before you came to talk to me, what were you thinking about?

Richard Hoffman: [About] My students.

Robert Birnbaum:Are you worried about them?

Richard Hoffman:No, I’m thinking about what they need next. That’s what takes up my time and focus, most of the time.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s a good thought. As a mentor, do you really think we can teach anyone, anything?

Richard Hoffman:Sure you can. Keith Jarrett didn’t sit down and bang on the piano until he figured it out. People taught him how to play. They didn’t teach him how to make Keith Jarrett’s music, but they taught him how to play the piano.

Robert Birnbaum: Okay, so we can teach people skills. Did someone teach Jarrett how to sit down, clear his mind of all his previous instruction and knowledge about music, and then begin to play? Did someone teach him that?

 

Richard Hoffman:I can’t speak for Keith Jarrett. I would say that from what I have read about him that he did get those lessons from elsewhere.

Robert Birnbaum:From who?

Richard Hoffman:From elsewhere, from other teachers, teachers that had to do with meditation and mental hygiene if you will.

Robert Birnbaum:Again, that’s a skill.

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, absolutely. I mean being an artist is not a mystery. I don’t believe it’s a mystery. I believe it’s a willingness to become so that you’re continually learning and then you’re weaving together all the things that you learn. You’re taking inspiration from people who have done and produced things that you admire.

Robert Birnbaum:I guess I need to refine what I’m asking you because  … how about this, you’re a little younger than me, have you figured it out yet?

Richard Hoffman:That’s not a fair question.

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah, I know — so what. That’s why we went touche and crossed index fingers when we first met.Go on, give it a shot.

Richard Hoffman:No, I haven’t figured it out. I’ve stopped believing in explanations of the whole thing.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s part of what I’m questioning you about when I ask you about a teacher’s relationship to their students.

Richard Hoffman:Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Robert Birnbaum:I think you can teach some skills. I don’t know really if you can teach, for example, writing.

Richard Hoffman:I don’t think it’s a question of … that to me is a little bloodless in terms of a way of looking at it. I like what Theodore Roethke said about teaching. He said a teacher is one who carries on his education in public. And that makes sense to me. I’m continually …

.Robert Birnbaum: You’re learning from your students?

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, when I stop feeling like I’m becoming, then I’m not going to be very useful to my students anymore.

Robert Birnbaum:You learned something along the way.

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, I guess. You asked me if I figured it out, I mean to me becoming is what it’s about. I’m still changing. I’m not interested in shoring up a position or even an identity. I’m interested in learning because that’s when I feel alive. I have to go with that.

Robert Birnbaum:[Would you think] one legitimate critique of modern civilization, as we know it here in the United States, is that there are immense and powerful forces that actually kill you spiritually, emotionally— or stunt your growth to  some point where you are no longer interested in learning? Or changing?  Or dealing with your environment and understanding your environment? There was a question in there I think.

Richard Hoffman:I think I basically agree with that statement although I don’t know what the question was, but the statement.

Robert Birnbaum:It’s a subtle expression of economic determinism.

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, well I’m distrustful of that, although I lean in that direction. I’m distrustful of any kind of historical determinism. We’ve seen the whole 20th century go up in flames because of various historical determinisms. I do think that in a country that’s founded on a genocide that cannot be acknowledged or repaired, and built on an economy that relied on slavery and that has never been repaired, we are so deep in …

Robert Birnbaum:In the shit?

Richard Hoffman:… in the shit, in the denial— that we are alienated from ourselves. This is one of the things that you learn from James Baldwin. When he’s talking to his nephew about the forbearance necessary for him to survive in the white world, he’s telling him to have patience with his brothers, you and me, his white brothers, because we don’t know our ass from our elbow anymore— because we don’t know our history. We don’t know from whence we came. We can’t acknowledge the reality of how this country got to be what it is. What it’s wealth is derived from…

Robert Birnbaum:But we’re exceptional.

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, we sure are. No, I guess we’re not in that respect. We’re most successful in the moment anyway, in this historical moment.

Robert Birnbaum:We’re successful at myth making.

Richard Hoffman:Yes.

Robert Birnbaum:Every nation has their myths. Ours are powerful.

Richard Hoffman:The question is what’s the purpose of the myth? Is it to cover your ass? Is that what the myth about? Is it a mythology that’s meant to animate people as a nation, as a people. I think there were …

Robert Birnbaum:…You can say about the Nazi’s that their myths were  animation in the wrong direction.

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, exactly. I think our mythology is first and foremost about hiding the truth. If the air you breath in your culture is that growing up, it gets awfully hard to fight your way out of that— you’ve been thrown down in this hole of untruth. To claw your way out of that is not easy.

Robert Birnbaum:How do people do it? How do you do it?

Richard Hoffman:I don’t know that I have done it.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re not exactly looking at the wall in the cave. People pay  do attention to you—students, other poets and writers and politically engaged people… .

Plato-raphael

The School of Athens (detail)Rapahel Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican.

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, we’re back to Plato. I think that that is the myth that’s operative here. I think right now we’re not looking at shadows on the wall. We’re looking at a hologram, a technological hologram, where there’s video screens everywhere telling us who we are.

Robert Birnbaum: As in the grocery store.

Richard Hoffman:Little speakers coming through the ceiling.

Robert Birnbaum: As in the grocery store.

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, can we turn that goddamn music off? I happen to like Bob Marley but ..
.
Robert Birnbaum:Right. Well I guess we should turn to the commercial part of our program because you’ve written another book. We should mention your book. I should testify that I’ve read your book.

Richard Hoffman:Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

 

Gold Star Road by Richard Hoffman

Gold Star Road by Richard Hoffman

Robert Birnbaum:You know what is a striking thing about your book? I was surprised to find  citations of James Baldwin.  Though occasionally I do see his name popping up and bandied about in recent public conversations— which is a good, good thing. Why is he a writer, a thinker, that you admire enough to … ? I think the epigram in your book is his and then there are 3 other citations.

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, each section is headed with an epigram. He’s certainly the presiding spirit over the inquiry that the book is trying to make. That’s spelled out in that first epigram from when he talks about the assumptions that every culture rests on that are … Well here, let’s read it into the record.( RH reads):

“Every society is really governed by hidden laws, by unspoken but profound assumptions on the part of the people. Ours is now exception. It is up to the American writer to find out what these laws and assumptions are in a society much given to smashing taboos without thereby managing to be liberated from them, it would be no easy matter.”

I took that as a charge. One of the things I like to do with my students, and to me this is all, my writing, my teaching, is all part of the same thing. I don’t know if I continue to write so I have the bonafides to teach, or whether I teach to make the money that allows me the time and the resources to write. I often will say, “Why are we doing this? What’s this about?” We’ll brainstorm why do people write? Why have people written? Why is there this body of work we call literature? What’s it come from? Is it all people trying to make money? Do they want to write something that’ll be made into an HBO series? Are they looking for the movie deal? What’s the real motivation there? I think that a lot of times, in this culture in particular, it’s easy for somebody to start out with an impulse to write, because something they’ve read as a young person moved them, but then be deflected into some manner of careerism or pursuit of the dollar because that’s the only thing we value, or it’s the only thing the larger culture values. In fact, I would go further and say that I think that American culture is a byproduct of profit-seeking. If nobody can make money on it, it doesn’t exist, which is why nobody reads poetry.

Robert Birnbaum:Not nobody, poets read poetry.

Richard Hoffman:Well, people trying to keep it alive are reading it
.
Robert Birnbaum:Let’s take a current example because there’s always something—there is always a current writer, who has a flashy side story. Garth Risk Hallberg has published a 900 plus-page book which is the “it” book of, I don’t know what, of the next 6 weeks. He’s given a big advance. All of a sudden there are reviews every where. He’s everywhere talking. Is this because of word-of-mouth? If it is a legitimate piece of literature, shouldn’t publishers just let the readers discover it. Apparently,no one trusts that process.

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, well I think that we’re at a desperate time when fewer and fewer people are reading books and publishers don’t know what the hell to do. I have nothing against big advances. I got a mid-4-figure advance for this book.

Robert Birnbaum:From Beacon Press? They have money? It’s part of a church, or funded by a church, isn’t it?

Richard Hoffman:I’m serious. It may as well be, yes. That’s a remarkable institution, is what it is. I’m really proud to be on that list.

Robert Birnbaum: I don’t agree with you. I have a theory which is impossible to prove (or disprove)which allows me to …

Richard Hoffman:Those are the best kind.

Robert Birnbaum:I was going to say, which allows me to continue to propagate a certain  view of the literary terrain. The Jewish religion calls for a belief that there are always 12 honest men in the world. In the same way, I think there are 400,000 readers in the world. It’s a constant number. It doesn’t get bigger. It doesn’t get smaller. The problem when the market, or the economy, or economic factors determine parts of art, is that it requires [a fixed percentage of revenue ]growth.Every company, whatever they are, in order to be in business, has to forecast—  I don’t know what the number is. Some industries, 2% growth. Some industries, 20% growth. They have to grow for shareholders. The book publishers and the media companies worry because there aren’t more readers assuring growth. They’re pissing in the wind.

Richard Hoffman:The reason they worry though is because they became part of conglomerates. Before that it was something like what you were saying— so that there was an [acceptable] narrow profit margin— that was what publishing was. It was the 5%, 7%, something like that. That’s enough to keep the industry going. Everybody gets paid, the thing goes along, and it’s an integral part of the culture’s discourse.

Robert Birnbaum: Right.

Richard Hoffman:Now the discourse itself is being pulled like taffy, in all kinds of directions, because publishers are being asked to come up with profit margins that other media products produce for their holding company. As a result, they’re chasing the next big thing, all the time, trying to make money in the short run. What it does to our discourse, is it dumbs people down. There’s a 1000 dog books published a year and 500 cat books. I’m being purposely cynical. There’s an awful lot of, “Well maybe this is the next big thing and maybe this is the …” It’s hard for a serious book, a book that has a serious inquiry in it, to get any traction.

Robert Birnbaum:I think it’s hard for anything that requires the consciousness beyond maybe a forest animal’s, to gain traction because we’re robots in training. I really do think we’re fundamentally altering our neurology by all sorts of technological innovations that we can’t really, at this moment, track what’s happening to our brains in order for us to function in a reasonable way. It’s impossible for people to match the tempo of the world around them. I think you’ve got to be a monk. You’ve got to be a Zen monk. And it’s making people crazy.I’m not a worrier, but I think about this when I’m going to go to a movie theater, or a high school gathering, or any gathering in which there are multitudes of people, because every day of the week you read about some mishugena and  another mass shooting in the USA. Where is that coming from?

Richard Hoffman:What’s even more frightening to me is that that unraveling that you’re talking about, there’s an unraveling of the social fabric that always precedes some strongman coming in with a, “Goddammit I’m going to fix this thing.” We know where that goes. We’ve lived through the last century. That’s the booby prize to live long enough to be an old fart and see all that and say … I think of the [Bob] Dylan line though, “What do I have to pay to get out of going through these things twice?”

Robert Birnbaum:I think what you’re intimating, although I don’t know if you mean it as that, that the popularity of some of these candidates who are just spouting stupidity is based on… rampant stupidity. People find appealing expressions that match their disappointments and frustrations.

Richard Hoffman:Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Robert Birnbaum:God, it’s so awful to see, to watch, so many people— who it’s clear how disappointed with their own lives. It’s carved into their faces. When you hear them talking, expressing themselves—how did they get ruined like that?

Richard Hoffman:Right.

Robert Birnbaum:People don’t really have [meaningful]contact with other human beings. They have contact with names and one-dimensional forms and screens.

Richard Hoffman:Well this is no kind of critique. It’s just the observation that people are living in apartment buildings and they don’t know who lives next to them, on the other side of that wall or above their ceiling or below the floor, literally in the same building. I lived in New York for a long time. That’s the case.

Robert Birnbaum:How much time did you spend in your apartment?

Richard Hoffman:Well I was a young person, so I probably spent a lot less time than I would now.

Robert Birnbaum:Would you live in an apartment in New York now?

Richard Hoffman:I love New York. Yeah, I would, but I couldn’t possibly afford it.

love & fury by Richard Hoffman

love & fury by Richard Hoffman

Robert Birnbaum: Anyway, what do you call this book? What is this book, memoirs, short stories?

Richard Hoffman:It’s a memoir. It’s not a short story—that is to suggest fiction.

Robert Birnbaum:I know, right, it’s one of a couple of memoirs. It’s a shorter story. There may be more of this story?

Richard Hoffman:There is going to be more of this story. It will take a few years for that to work out and for me to write it, maybe many years. The reality is I think it’s a memoir but it’s comprised of 3 long essays that they’re interlocking. I saw the book very early as I had this structure. I didn’t have the form. The form is something that is more … You don’t know what the form is until you have coaxed it out from the material.

Robert Birnbaum:Because you have, I don’t want to say an infinite amount of information you can draw from, but you have a large body of information you can draw from. You can emphasize some events in your life more than others. You can dismiss some. It’s a little bit like a Rubik’s cube, yeah?

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, I mean there’s a way in which you’re looking for the through line of what sheds the most light on the period of time that you’re writing about. I was after some answers like what, like just scratching my … I said, “How could this be?”

Robert Birnbaum:Answers about your own life?

Richard Hoffman:Well answers about our life. Answers about— I think that the memoirs operates in history. If I were a, god forbid, if I were a refugee from Syria sitting on the border of Hungary right now, and then later I wrote a memoir, my view of history from there, and my bonafides would … I suffered. I was there. But because you’re an American, and your culture is prescribing an a-historical consciousness, it doesn’t mean you have to go along with it. We’re all in history. When something’s happening to me it’s coming at me for reasons that have to do with the past and have to do with the assumptions of the culture and all of that. I’m trying to look … I’m trying to see how the forces that were set in motion by history converged in a year or 2 of my life, that’s what.

Robert Birnbaum:Right, I get that . I’m thinking more … here’s my starting point.  Americans are woefully , there’s a worse, I’m sure there’s a worse description— terribly, awfully disinterested and unknowledgeable about their own history.

Richard Hoffman:Or anybody else’s.

Robert Birnbaum:Right, history is not a topic that sings to people. How do we move people to be interested? You understand that your life is rooted in history and you recount that you were a kid in the, that you were at a formative age in the ’60s, in the roiling ’60s, and you mentioned that. Bringing James Baldwin in has to talk … You have to talk about the big struggle for civil rights. I think that people don’t understand or know that that stuff happened. My son, who’s a senior in high school, I had to give him a lesson about who Emmett Till was. We watched the FrontLine doc [1] on him. I asked what did you learn in high school that you don’t know …? If you don’t know Emmett Till you have to know that … It was because I was telling him about that incredible song, Strange Fruit. I showed those images of people hanging, burning bodies hanging from trees. You can see them on the internet.

 

Richard Hoffman:If you don’t know that stuff, then the murder 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland doesn’t mean anything except, “Oh, the cops overreacted.” It doesn’t mean anything beyond that. Of course it does when you put it in the context of history. Even when we talk about history and we call it a topic, we’ve already alienated ourselves from it. It’s like a school subject, history.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s right.

Richard Hoffman:I wasn’t good in history. I wasn’t good in math. If you take people’s history away from them, or you just convince them that they don’t need to give a shit about it, they become infinitely manipulable. Every thinker who’s worth his salt has pointed that out.[Milan] Kundara says, “the struggle of the people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” We can convince people to not know it in the first place. I don’t know what gets taught in history classes.

Robert Birnbaum: So I said to my son Cuba, “Look, I’m sure you didn’t learn this but I bet you you would be more inclined to pay attention if in the study of US history during the Revolutionary War you were told that George Washington is a real hound. He would send his junior officers out for missions in the night so they could boink their wives.” I don’t consider that to be a tawdry detail. I consider that to be an indication of the fact he was a real person. He wasn’t that guy on a pedestal. He was a man. He had motives. Politically, he did what he did. He’s man breathing and had faults and had wooden teeth. Talk about that. Talk about these historical figures as people. Nicholas Lehmann wrote in the New Yorker about the trouble with US history being that there’s too much of it. Meaning you force kids to learn treaty dates and boundary lines,etc—who cares?

Richard Hoffman:Orwell writes about this in Such Were the Joys. [2 ]Do you know that essay?

Robert Birnbaum: No.

Richard Hoffman:It’s an amazing essay. It’s about his time in boarding school. He points to the curriculum. He points to the hierarchy of the teachers and the headmaster and all of that, and the pecking order among the kids, all of it. It’s a microcosm of the British Empire. Of course it is because they’re being socialized to that. You see the formation of this ferocious conscience that we know as George Orwell back then.

Robert Birnbaum:Where do people like Orwell come from? Where do people like [IF] “Izzy” Stone come from? Where do people like you come from? That you can emerge …

images

I F Stone by David Levine

 

Richard Hoffman:You poke your head outside the bubble …

Robert Birnbaum:Is that happenstance?

Richard Hoffman:… or you go back to Plato’s cave or something, I think you’d get thrown out of it. I think I was thrown out of there.

Robert Birnbaum:Because of the things that happened in your youth
.
Richard Hoffman:Yes.

Robert Birnbaum:Let me ask … You write a memoir, does that leave you open to me asking you anything I want to ask you?

Richard Hoffman:I’m a big boy if I don’t want to answer you, I’ll just tell you, “Sorry, we’re not going there.”

Robert Birnbaum:Are there things that  you would not feel comfortable revealing? Are there secrets that you’ll always keep?

Richard Hoffman:I don’t think I have led a life that requires me to keep a lot of secrets. I don’t mean any disrespect to anybody who does feel that there secrets they have. That’s not a … I think that there is just a question of manners that sometimes people forget their manners when you’ve written a memoir.

Robert Birnbaum Referring to a notion of privacy?

Richard Hoffman:It’s as if its okay— wait the book ends here, and now what happens? Did your wife this? Did your kids that?

Robert Birnbaum:There’s that but there’s also …

Richard Hoffman:I didn’t ask you into my life. I made a book.

Robert Birnbaum: I think you did.

Richard Hoffman: No, I asked you to, in a way, look at your life.

Robert Birnbaum: I think that part of a memoir is that the author is establishing their veracity about themselves. Then maybe the question of do I want to ask you if you ever had any affairs, or how many times a day do you masturbate, they might want … Those would not be good questions. I would want to ask you things that sort of indicated how truthful you might be as opposed to … You could say, “Well the whole book, read the whole book and see if it all jives.” I ‘d go, “Well, a well-written novel is coherent. It may not be true, but it holds together. It’s plausible.”

Richard Hoffman:My feeling about that is always that when a reader is stuck on that question, it’s a way of avoiding the questions the book is really asking. In other words we live in America in the 21st century. We are being lied to 24/7.

Robert Birnbaum:365.

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, and it sometimes feel to me that memoirs are the whipping boys where nobody else is called to account, but if you write a memoir it’s “Aha, are you telling the truth?” Instead of saying, “Okay, here are the questions this book raises. The first among them is not, ‘Can I trust this guy?’ If you’ve read the whole book … “I’ve read James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces standing in the bookstore. After 20 minutes I put it back on the shelf and said, “This is a crock of shit.” The reason you know that is , you never see him interrogating himself. You never see him second-guessing himself. You never see him reflecting on what just happened, what he’s afraid is about to happen— any of that stuff. What you get is a raconteur, spinning yarns.Yeah, I mean every drunk on a bar stool can do that. I mean seriously, as long as you keep buying them drinks, they’ll keep talking.

Robert Birnbaum: There’s a more innocent view of that —which is that everybody has a story to tell and that some can tell it more skillfully than others.

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, but also the story that you think you have to tell is probably not the story. That’s what writing is. Writing is you get down under that crust.

Robert Birnbaum:A story as opposed to the story.

 

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Richard Hoffman [photo: copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum]

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, you get down under that crust and say, “How do I know that? Who told me that? How did I … Why doesn’t that line up with this?” That’s why memoirs take so goddamn long if you’re doing an honest job. You can write a novel every 2 years, some people do, because you can invent it. It’s hard to write a memoir every 2 years because you’re asking these questions like, “Well wait a minute. This seems to be so, and also this seems to be so, what’s the connection between those?” How do I account for the fact that I was there. I saw this. I feel absolutely certain of this, and somebody else who was there says, “No, no, that’s not how it was.” If you’re doing an honest job, you include all of that and discuss you’re reflecting upon it. That’s where this skill comes in or the craft is —that somehow you have to keep it interesting. You have to make that part of what’s interesting about the book.

Robert Birnbaum:The difference between memoir and autobiography is what?

Richard Hoffman:I think autobiographers are not inside the story in the same way a memoir just is. A memoir is not generally about your whole life to date for one thing. I think the memoir is just in the story in a way that an autobiographer has stepped out and is writing about his or her own life as a biographer. I’m writing as an essayist. That’s a different perspective and position.

Robert Birnbaum:Is your sense that, am I overstating it to say, [that the publication of] memoirs has exploded? More memoirs have been published these days than 10 years ago.

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, it ebbs, the tide comes in and goes out.

Robert Birnbaum:When was the last big flood?

Richard Hoffman:In the late ’90s. I was one of the first with …

Robert Birnbaum: Mary Karr[4].

Richard Hoffman:Mary Karr, in fact, our books came out the same season.

Robert Birnbaum:Now she’s got a book called The Art of Memoir which is sort of a meta memoir with an extensive bibliography.

Richard Hoffman:Now I actually don’t know this, but I think that that was at the publisher’s behest and why not? Okay, it’s a job. I’m going to write this and maybe it’ll … it’s an honest buck. That’s great. I’d much more …I’m mostly interested in books that feel urgent to me. They have some sort of necessity that’s compelling a writer.

Robert Birnbaum:I don’t know if saw this but Mary Karr gave a .. the commencement speech this year at Syracuse. I’ve come to see many of them [graduation speeches], as pieces of literature.

Richard Hoffman:Right.Doesn’t she teach at Syracuse?

Robert Birnbaum:Yes, as does George Saunders.[5]

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, I mean another kind person. For a satirist, that’s a neat trick to be a satirist and …wield that compassionate sword. That’s really interesting. That’s what to me is the appeal of his work too.

Robert Birnbaum:He also  gave, a very sweet commencement speech at Syracuse.

Richard Hoffman:For myself, I’m always scratching my head in relation to my students trying to say something like, “What do I wish I had heard when I was there?” I think that’s probably what animates a good graduation speech. It’s like, “Wow, what do I wish somebody had said to me at this moment?” If you came up in the ’60s, there wasn’t anybody telling you the truth about anything then.Johnson was lying to us.Nixon was lying to us.Timothy Leary was lying to us.

Robert Birnbaum: Leary really wasn’t lying to us was he? Did he know he was lying?

Richard Hoffman:No, well no he didn’t know. Let’s just say that we were swimming in untruth there. There was no running lights, no buoys…

Robert Birnbaum:I’m unrepentant about  my life in that period, I have to say.

Richard Hoffman:Me too. Me too. In a way I think it is a generation that stepped outside that cave, that Plato’s cave that we were referring to.

Robert Birnbaum:We read Plato?

Richard Hoffman:Some people did, some people try to go back in the cave.

Robert Birnbaum:It’s not so bad there.

Richard Hoffman:That light hurt my eyes, anyways. I didn’t like it out there. I think there’s a critical mass of people that are still doing work in the world to try to coax people awake to wake people up.

Robert Birnbaum: I think it’s like  readers, that are a finite number of whatever it is, in the world, that I suspect they’re always going to be— honest, angry people who don’t want to succumb, who can see above the pit that they’re in, or the cave opening. How we can propagate that impulse?

Richard Hoffman:It’s also there’s a deep misapprehension I think about joy and a confusion of joy and pleasure.

Robert Birnbaum:Why is that?

Richard Hoffman:Joy and comfort. I can’t have joy. I’m going to settle for comfort. I don’t know who convinced people they couldn’t have joy. Also, that to me is a, I mentioned it in here, that’s a recipe for addiction when you can’t tell the difference between joy and pleasure or you can’t tell the difference between joy and hilarity. That’s one thing. I came back a few months ago from a conference, an international conference, on sexual violence in Cambodia. There were 29 countries there. I was in the presence of heroes. I was really with people from various NGOs and little groups that were doing amazing work in these countries that were ripped apart by civil war. Kids were orphaned and on the streets. They were being scooped up by pedophile rings and sold around the world and all this shit that goes on that we know goes on. They were in there fighting this fight in Afghanistan, in the middle east, and all throughout these conflict zones in Africa. Working with refugees who are both men and women targets.Then it goes to the heart of what I’m trying to get at. When I tell people that, something happens to their faces. It’s like an international conference on sexual violence?

indochina_rel85

Area of many Henry Kissinger war crimes

Robert Birnbaum:In Cambodia?

Richard Hoffman:They say, “Oh, how was Cambodia?” They think I’m going to look at the temples. I did a little of that. Then they will say it like, “Oh, my god, wasn’t that depressing?” It’s like, okay what does that word mean? Depressing is when you pull the covers over your head, and you go back as far into the cave as you can, and you live in fear and you shut down. People who do this work, who had death threats, and are out there every day not knowing if they’re actually going to make it to dinnertime because they have made enemies doing this, they’re full of joy. They made their decision about what their life is going to be about. They’re not hanging back. It’s the hanging back that is … the idea that if something isn’t pleasant it must be depressing. First of all it’s just  hugely sloppy language, and is part of this whole business of if you are feeling low and sad, the thing is not therefore maybe you need to grieve. Maybe you’re grieving over the state of the world. That’s what artists do. A lot of people won’t do it. They’re just like, “I’m holding my shit together here.” I think it’s really a question of … of being alive emotionally. The idea that if it’s unpleasant you should avoid it, that can only end in depression.

Robert Birnbaum:I believe we were given a way out, or a cultural excuse when somebody claimed the phrase, “disaster fatigue.” Oh, we can only handle so many and then … Oh, there’s only one earthquake and one riot we can handle, the rest is too much.” I never got that.

Richard Hoffman:I wrote a whole book about that. The book whole of poems, Gold Star Road was really about that.

Robert Birnbaum:Who reads poetry? I’m still stuck in 3 or 4 poems that I read as an undergraduate… I like Frank O’Hara. I like some of Alan Ginsberg’s stuff just because it was topical and who could resist Howl at the age of 18.  And because I’ve talked to him a few times. He sort of stands out in that era as a personality. Who else do I read? David Ignatow, Karl Shapiro but other than that not many. Are your students interested in reading poetry?

 

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ALLEN GINSBERG, NEW YORK CITY, 1966. PHOTOGRAPHY BY ©FRED W. MCDARRAH.

Richard Hoffman:They are by the time I get done with them.

Robert Birnbaum:Maybe I should audit your class.

Richard Hoffman:Whenever I teach, wherever I am, that could be a grade school, or a graduate school, or a prison, or a senior center, or a conference, I always begin with a poem. For one thing, literature begins with poetry. Prose is a very late development. Anything that we might call literature is about connecting this to this with language so you can see out as a whole person. That’s poetry. It happens in prose. I tried to make it happen sometimes here. The difference to me is between prose and verse. I mean I think that the literary writer is aiming for a kind of poetry all the time. It takes different forms. I think you’re a poet in as much as you’re considering what’s the right kind of sentence to write here? What’s the right way to say this? You’re not just re-camping this. You’re cresting something. I don’t want to put too fine a point on what kind of making constitutes a poet. As somebody who’s writing across genres, I don’t decide what a thing is going to be, I ask it what it wants to be.

Robert Birnbaum:When you sit down with a blank piece of paper …

Richard Hoffman:This morning.

Robert Birnbaum:… and try to start— a few words pop out?

Richard Hoffman: Yeah, more often than not, the way I work is I have a pile of journals that I have filled over the last 30 years. I dive into those unless something has recently struck me. Or  because things that seem too pedestrian when I wrote them, have a different …

Robert Birnbaum:Weight.

Richard Hoffman:… weight now, yeah, a different resonance to them. I could look at that same notebook and go through and pull 3 things out of there that actually are going to work into something, that I see them coming together to become something. I’ve looked at them a dozen times before and that didn’t happen. I don’t know.

Robert Birnbaum:I believe that’s true of so many things, our subjectivity about rereading a book, or seeing a movie again.

Richard Hoffman:Absolutely.I’m always mining those notebooks and then continuing the present notebook as an investment in the future like a squirrel burrowing nuts or …

Robert Birnbaum:You’re not at all troubled as you write by, I don’t want to say your career, but …

Richard Hoffman:I don’t have one of those so I don’t have to worry about it.

Robert Birnbaum So what’s the function of your body of work? Are you looking back but you’re not looking back? You’re seeing old things you’ve written. When you find something you’ve written in the past, and you think about it, do you then further think about whether you’ve written something even further in the past that was like this[an infinite  regress]? How much do you spiral into the past?

Richard Hoffman:Probably more than I know. I don’t do it deliberately. I don’t know. That’s interesting.

Robert Birnbaum:When you look at something that is pinned to a specific time, does all of the surround of that time become immediate and vivid for you? When you read something you wrote do you remember where you wrote it?

Richard Hoffman:Yes, absolutely.

Robert Birnbaum:  What something smelled like and what you …

Richard Hoffman:Yes.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s cool.

Richard Hoffman:Sometimes that’s the thing that I end up writing about not what I wrote. On the other hand, one of the other sort of magical properties of going back to something like that, is that it’s not me, it’s almost like somebody else could have written this. I’m looking at the language. I’m seeing “wow, listen to that”, in the middle of a long piece about a class that went badly or something that I was writing when I got home, there’s a line, or a sentence, which just has some kind of melody to it or some kind of … I’ll pull that out and start playing with it.

Robert Birnbaum:There are musicians, I just saw a pianist [Fred Hersch] last night, I think he actually has a recording called Songs Without Words, and it just made me think, as you were talking, and so maybe poetry is words without song, that there’s a musicality to it, but that is not primary?

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, well I don’t know. I think that poetry, I can only speak from my own way of going at it because there’s so many different little schools and sub-genres of poetry, but that it is written for the ear and it is song. It’s song in that it’s a deliberate sonic structure. It’s operating within the bounds of normal speech. When you introduce melody, then you’re going beyond the bounds of normal. You’re stretching things up and down. In terms of timing, in terms of the re-cursive sound, that’s all very conscious on the part of the writer, on the part of the poet, as a part of the effect.

Robert Birnbaum:I discovered … I come from Chicago as you may not know. I may not have mentioned it 50 or 60 times to establish myself, my hard guy bonafides, but I come from Chicago as you well know. Curtis Mayfield was a great musician in my mind. He was, for me being from Chicago, he was the guy, I loved his music. I always loved his music.

Richard Hoffman:He’s not Buddy Guy?

 

Robert Birnbaum:Right, don’t let me finish. I discovered these recordings by Wiliam Parker a jazz bassist, of Curtis Mayfield songs, with a large ensemble. A number of the pieces have Amiri Baraka aka Leroi Jones reading his poetry against the music of Mayfield and it’s astoundingly great. I mean Leroy was never someone I read … I never read his poetry except for Black Dadanihilimuss.[6]He was an interesting musicologist. I suppose a lot of classical, much classical music, is based on putting poems to music. I think that’s something that I find really attractive. I could listen to more of that although I didn’t like the Beats doing it. Somehow it seemed artificial.

Richard Hoffman:I did a little stint as a faux beatnik. I spent time when I was in my 20s in New York polishing my persona. I had these pointy velvet boots and a gendarmes’s cape with a glass lion’s head clasp on it.
I was a poet.

Robert Birnbaum:My uniform was work shirts and jeans and Frye boots.

Richard Hoffman:That was the progressive labor party uniform. Yeah, I …Where was I going with this?

Robert Birnbaum:You were talking about music, Beats doing music.

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, so I showed up to read at this bar in the East Village called Sabazics, on 3rd Avenue.They had a little stage there. I was getting up to it and suddenly there’s 3 people jumped up on stage with their instruments. I was like, “What’s going on?” He was like, “Well they asked me to back you.” I said, “But we hadn’t rehearsed or anything.” They said, “You just start to read and we’ll pick it up.” It was awful. It was awful. It was incredibly distracting.

Robert Birnbaum:And pretentious probably.

Richard Hoffman:Maybe it works because the poems were certainly pretentious and awful too. Nothing I would ever publish. I thankfully don’t have to look back and regret publishing them.

Robert Birnbaum:What do you make … I’ve never understood  poetry slams. I’ve never attended one. I’ve certainly read about them. What are they? What form is that?

Richard Hoffman:Well I had not participated in one. I really don’t want to say. I don’t want to pass judgement. I don’t know anything about them.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s one of those things that it’s something of a cultural phenomenon that I have almost no curiosity about it except at this moment.

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, I think it’s generational too. I have seem some remarkable poets come out of the spoken word movement and out of the slam movement. For example, Patricia Smith, as one of the stellar examples of that. I’ve been moved in situations where at a poetry festival somebody who’s identified as this spoken word poet gets up and does something really remarkable. My wife, Kathleen Agwaro, who  is a poet as well—we’ve often said to each other, you know if we had been born later, we might have caught that wave.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s rare to come across a public oration or declamation which is really captivating I can think of about a handful. I think that was one of the attractions of Obama, in a time when people can’t utter a complete cogent sentence.

Richard Hoffman:He’s an orator. He began as a writer and became an orator. We’re back to James Baldwin. My students will say … There’s a wonderful film that I show called The Price of the Ticket [1], James Baldwin, It may be the best film about a writer that’s ever been made. People’ll say, “My god, he’s so articulate.” I say, “Yes, but if you read the collected essays, as you realize he wrote all this stuff already.” In a way, when you sit with your notebook, or your laptop, or whatever it is, 2 hours a day, articulating your thinking, when the moment comes, as often happens in the culture we’re in where somebody sticks a microphone in your face, you’ve already thought this stuff. You’re not ‘hamina, hamina, hamina.’ You’ve kind of thought it out. It’s not as if you’re remembering what you wrote. You’ve incised that little track in your brain following ..

Robert Birnbaum:This reminds me of Thomas Jefferson’s saying ,’if you never lie, you don’t need a memory.” Somehow you can always remember the things that you think about that are true.

Richard Hoffman:Yeah. I think when you’ve really struggled to articulate something on paper, when you’ve got it, you’ve got it. It takes a while to get there. Then when you’re speaking off the cuff, you’re relying on that. I’m doing that right now. There’s an interplay for a writer between speaking in public and writing in private that is really …Baldwin came out of the pulpit, as did Emerson . There’s something to be said about that. I’ve often thought that I became faded, doomed, to be a writer when I moved from being an alter boy to being the lector who got up and read to the congregation. When I stood at a lectern and I read the Gospel or I read the Epistles, I was like, “Wow, there’s a whole bunch of people listening to me.” That felt really good. When you’re 14, 15 years old, that feels really good.

Robert Birnbaum: ‘Lector’, in Cuba, there was someone who sat in front of the cigar rolling rooms, reading classic literature to the rollers.

Richard Hoffman:That’s right.

Robert Birnbaum:There’s something really charming about that. Give me a short list of some of the writers, essayist, memoirs that you admire, that you’d want other people …  ?

Richard Hoffman:I teach a graduate seminar. It goes back to what we were talking about before locating yourself in history. It was a response to the a-historical consciousness of my graduate students who are the next generation of nonfiction writers. I said, “How can you not know where the things we’re contenting with came from?” That course is a literature course called the 20th Century in the First Person. It starts with Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That. It goes from there to Peter Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate.. It’s about an American kid in an assimilated Armenian family discovering …

Robert Birnbaum:Armenians don’t assimilate…

Richard Hoffman:..Discovering who he is.

Robert Birnbaum:They’re pretty clannish, Armenians.

Richard Hoffman:Clannish is different from owning your history. His beloved grandmother was one of the few survivors of the Armenian genocide.

Robert Birnbaum:Which is still being argued about.You know what really gets me is the arrogance of my tribesman about their holocaust —as if it was a better holocaust than other holocausts.

Richard Hoffman:Right, shall we compare the Jewish genocide with the North American …

Robert Birnbaum:We had bigger numbers.

Richard Hoffman:Not to mention the Middle Passage.

Robert Birnbaum:Right.

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, but  in that course we go from there to Primo Levi.

Robert Birnbaum:His complete works in a three volume set was just published.

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THE COMPLETE works of Primo Levi

Richard Hoffman: We just do Survival in Auschwitz.

 

Robert Birnbaum:We talked about the commercialization of publishing and then you see that. I assume libraries are going to buy it?

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, they will. Then we’re just reading Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope about the Stalin years in Russia. It was a remarkable coming together of … We were going to discuss that book a week ago, Wednesday night. I was asked to read as part of this Pen New England ACLU program on surveillance. I said, “This is what this whole book is about. We’re going to put the discussion of the book off until next week. I want everybody to come to MIT for that event.” It really fueled our discussion. It made it much more about where are we in relation to this continual surveillance

Robert Birnbaum:I have to thank you for clarifying for me something about memoir that I just haven’t even thought about that is to be placed in a historical time and to make it cognisant of that historical time that the focus isn’t just the person in the memoirs, or your habits, or your accomplishments. It’s about what’s happening around you.

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, honestly, my go-to quip with this book was I’d start out by saying, “I wrote a memoir. It’s not about me.” Then people want to know what the hell you mean by that. That gives me an opening to talk a little bit about what I do mean by that.

Robert Birnbaum:When you’re at a party and you meet, and you look like a partier, you look like you’re partying a lot, and you meet someone for the first time, and they, inevitably, ask you what do you do— you say what?

Richard Hoffman:It depends who asks, what the situation is.

Robert Birnbaum:Someone you don’t know
.
Richard Hoffman:Well, it also depends on the situation.

Robert Birnbaum:A beautiful woman.

Richard Hoffman:No, but I move up and down the class ladder a lot. I don’t  say, “Well I’m a professor.” That’s the kiss of death. God forbid, “Oh, I’m a poet.” Saying you’re a writer is always awkward. People say, “Well would you have written anything that I might have read?”

Robert Birnbaum:There is a standard conversation isn’t there?

Richard Hoffman:Yeah. “How the fuck would I know? I don’t know. Let me come to look at your bookshelves.” Probably not, I’d say. I try to change the subject to whatever— the election, sports.

Robert Birnbaum:Given that it’s mostly an awkward beginning of a conversation, does such a conversation yield any fruit? Or do you just basically try to bail out as soon as you can?

Richard Hoffman:I try to bail as soon as I can. That’s an awful indicator of where we are as a culture.

Robert Birnbaum:The question, asking you …

Richard Hoffman:If you said, “My name is John Grisham.” They’d say, “Oh, the writer?” They’d talk to you for 3 hours. Or someone else  who is part of the popular culture. Otherwise, people are scared to death of writers, especially poets. Muriel Rukeyser wrote about that in the Life of Poetry a long time ago, the fact that poetry scares people, because basically you are trying to pull people out of that cave. You’re going to bump them out of their comfort zone. When people say, “I don’t understand …”

Robert Birnbaum:That would be why Plato said to distrust poets

Richard Hoffman:Yeah. They’re going to continually be destabilizing. If a poem isn’t destabilizing in some way, whether that makes you well up with tears or say, “Goddammit,” or if it doesn’t do any of those things, then it’s decoration.

Robert Birnbaum:We could go on endlessly which might not be bad but we’re old men and have many roads to walk.

Richard Hoffman:… and miles to go before my afternoon nap, and miles to go before my afternoon nap.

Robert Birnbaum:… and then the evening nap. Does it strike you that, I find myself not even want … When somebody says, “What do you do?” I find myself torn between just shrugging or actually thinking bad thoughts about the person that asked me that. It’s lack of imagination.

Richard Hoffman:You have the out of being able to say, “I’m a journalist.”

Robert Birnbaum:I do?  I don’t want to answer that question because I’m also a ‘dialogist’. And I’m also a little league umpire. I’m also …

Richard Hoffman:I know what a little league umpire is, but what the hell is a dialogist?

Robert Birnbaum:It’s someone who talks.

Richard Hoffman:I know.

Robert Birnbaum:Ok, I made it up.

Richard Hoffman:It’s better than being a monologist although there’s more money in being a monologist.

Robert Birnbaum: Well, ultimately this conversation is my monologue. You’re just here to give legitimacy to my publishing even more of my opining about the world. No, I don’t know—here’s how I see what I do—   I like to talk to people who have big and well used  vocabularies and have a sufficient amount of experiences that can talk about those and keep me interested.” So what do you call that? Think about it. Please get back to me and tell me.

Richard Hoffman:(laughs)I will. I’ll send you an email.

Robert Birnbaum:I need to new descriptor

Richard Hoffman:A new moniker…

Robert Birnbaum:What’s up for you in the fullness of time?

Richard Hoffman:Well in the short run there’s a new poetry collection coming together.

Robert Birnbaum:Who’s publishing that?

Richard Hoffman:Barrow Street Press.

Robert Birnbaum:Who?

Richard Hoffman:Barrow Street Press. They had published the last 2 books. It’s a pretty wonderful press, actually. The question right now is do I want to do a New and Selected Poems, which is one of the options on the table, or do I want to put together a new collection? A new and selected poems, you’d probably put maybe 20 new poems in there with greatest hits from the other 3 books. That would be nice. I’d like that.

Robert Birnbaum:How many poems would be in there?

Richard Hoffman:There’d be a 90 or a 100 page book.

Robert Birnbaum:At what point, after you wrote your first memoir, did you understand that it was going to be an ongoing process here?

Richard Hoffman:I didn’t. I absolutely didn’t. I had never thought I’d write another one.

Robert Birnbaum:Then you came down to this …

Richard Hoffman:I didn’t want to write that one. It took 17 years of …

Robert Birnbaum:This is the 2nd one?

Richard Hoffman:Yeah, I speed it up, it only took 6 1/2.I’m, of course, a lot older so I do have a sense of  the trajectory of my life and what it’s about and what matters to me. It’s in some ways easier to divine what the shape of the story is. It’s not easy. It’s easier to feel your way, “Oh, I got to go this way and not that way.” I mean, the first 2 books were very much about being the first born son of a very powerful father in a blue collar patriarchal Catholic family . Just trying to parse that out. Understand what all of those influences meant. It was really about what both the first 2 books are about. This 3rd one I see as about trying to reclaim my connection to my mother.

Robert Birnbaum:Who died early.

Richard Hoffman:Yes.

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah, do you have any sense of your son and daughter having any interest in writing about their lives.

Richard Hoffman:I hope not. There’s that old saying, “If there’s a writer in the family, the family is fucked.”

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah.

Richard Hoffman:I’ve definitely proved that.

RICHARD HOFFMAN TOME

Interface & Other Stories by Richard Hoffman

 

Robert Birnbaum:I just saw a film—the beauty of Netflix is the discovery of these things that never make it because there are not enough movie screens—a film called Middle of Nowhere. It’s a story of a black couple. He gets busted. She gives up medical school and takes a job as a nurse so she can see him every week, basically suspends her life, with the hope that the 8-year sentence he got, would be reduced  with good behavior to 4 years. Which, somehow in their minds, is manageable. I mean there’s a bunch of plot twists, but just the sense of the dreariness of this, the awfulness of it  and the provocations that are systemic

Richard Hoffman:Right.

Robert Birnbaum:It’s really compelling. You just never …

Richard Hoffman:When you multiply that by … That’s why, I called us, sitting in the waiting room at prison, the Le Miserables. When you take that, and you understand that people are all the same and that hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of thousands of families are impacted by this insanity [of mass incarceration]that we have, where we don’t know what to do. We put people in boxes.

Robert Birnbaum:Then we privatize it.

Richard Hoffman:Well yeah, that too.

Robert Birnbaum:I hope that we speak again in the fullness of time when you come out with part 3 of …

Richard Hoffman:After this I will never speak to you again.

Robert Birnbaum:I’ll find someone with the name Richard Hoffman, another Richard Hoffman and record him. Thank you, thank you very much.

Richard Hoffman:Great.

 

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Richard Hoffman [photo: copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum]

###

 

1 The complete The Price of the Ticket

2 George Orwell’s Such Were the Joys PDF

3  Re: I.F. Stone

4 OMiB conversation with Mary Karr

5  OMiB  third conversation with George Saunders

6  Amiri Baraka reads Black Dada Nihilismus

 

A reminder: Identitytheory

12 Dec
Two Stones [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Two Stones [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

An alienated (it goes without saying, young) white boy from Ohio started a literary (of sorts) web something or other, way, way back in the year 2000—Identitytheory. An itinerant dog lover, poker player, FSU football fan Matt Borondy has penned a powerful rebuke to literary golden girl of the moment Clair Watkins…take heed infidels, the panda man is on the march…

Borondy concludes with a call to bears:

Some Ideas

Let’s punch down.

The pain of our knuckles hitting the ground will remind us of the suffering we all endure: First-world white women with postgrad degrees, popular social-media accounts, and major book deals who still can’t say what they want to say because of that goddam Philip Roth; Syrian refugee kids who just got raped and can’t find a home because white American parents don’t want them eating free school lunches near their kids; and most importantly, white male online-lit-mag publishers who can’t put panda bears on everything.

Let’s burn this motherfucking system to the ground and put panda bears on motherfucking everything.

Right on?

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