Remembering Benjamin Cavell/ Or Burying the Hed

20 Jan


Previously, you could not number me among the legions of admirers of the AMC series Breaking Bad or lead actor Bryan Cranston— a judgment I have now altered due to his portrayal of black-listed screen writer Dalton Trumbo in the eponymously entitled film, Trumbo. Cranston’s assumption of various key roles (creator, producer, director, actor) has edged the applause meter even higher with the new Amazon (10 episodes) series, Sneaky Pete , featuring a cast including three of my favorite actors, the (really) amazing Margret Martingale , quicksilver Marin Ireland (see her in 28 Rooms) and the always dependable Peter Gerety— which would have been a Royal straight flush if Melissa Leo and Ving Rhames were included in the ensemble

Giovanni Ribisi plays the lead, Marius Josipovic aka Peter Murphy as a pathological confidence man, a profession  is rife wth comedic possibilities as well as uncommon narratives ( except to the practitioners, who have a glossary of terms attached to their heir craft’S various grifts and cons)

Marius , released from a 3-year stint, is informed by his brother that thug who triggered the events leading to Marius’s incarceration is looking for him. Thus his initial dodge finds places him in Bridgeport Connecticut insinuating himself into a family whose failing business is a bail bonds agency. Havoc and merriment result with a minimal body count.

The second leg of an entertaining series after skilled thespians is, of course, the writing.And as it turned out ,in scanning the credits t0 discover who to credit for the good story telling, I  came across Ben Cavell’s, credits for his various contributions. Now followers of another well-regarded crime series, Justified, might recognize the name as  he had a hand in that shows 6 successful seasons.



However I am familiar with through the unlikely;y arena of literature— having ‘conversated’ with him in 2003 upon the occasion of his short story collection,Rumble, Young Man, Rumble. You literary types may be interested in reading that chat, which is accessible at Identity Theory.* Here’s a sampling—

BC: When I finish a story that is going to work it looks pretty finished. I really revise as I go along. Some guys just spout for a while and then have twenty-seven different drafts. But I don’t. It takes me a long time to make any progress, but I really keep going back over sentences and paragraphs and massage them as I am going. When you get to the end of something you both have a better sense of how the whole should look and also I have heard a couple of people say this and I really think it’s true, even though it’s a short story. You are a better writer at the end. Anything that you write, that works, makes you a better writer, and therefore you are a better writer at the end of a twenty-page story than you were at the beginning. Maybe it’s barely perceptible, but a matter of smaller degree. But it matters. Schumann or someone said, “If I don’t practice one day, I know. If I don’t practice two days, my friends know. If I don’t practice three days everybody knows.” Maybe someone who wasn’t me wouldn’t be able to see the difference just in a short story, but I can. It bothers me if the beginning is not up to the end. So in order to really finish a story I have to go back and make sure.

RB: So you dropped a story that you felt was repetitive?

BC: Richard Price said that the stories are sometimes manic. I think that’s not a bad description. I think there is a balance between the manic stories and stories like “The Ropes.”

RB: I only see one of them as something I would call ‘manic’, which was the first one (“Balls, Balls, Balls”). The others didn’t seem to be feverish and hyperactive.

BC: “Evolution” may be to some extent.

RB: Is that the one about the guys who are going to kill the girl friend’s father?

BC: Yeah.

RB: That’s haunted by an inherited insanity. Anyway I think of “manic” as describing tempo, not a mind set.

BC: I guess I am using it to mean both. Maybe that word isn’t as good as I think it is. Somehow it was important to me because some of these stories are restrained—it’s hard to say what the difference is. If we use “Balls, Balls, Balls” and “Evolution” as one kind of story and “The Ropes” as another, I wanted there to be a balance between those kinds of stories. And so the last story [that was not included] made the collection veer too much toward “Balls, Balls, Balls.” I don’t want to be that kind of writer.

RB: You’re clear on how you think the reader is going to react to the stories. Your characterization of the stories may be different than what readers get out of them. Having said that, I understand you to be saying you labored over the stories, their sequence and their classification.

BC: Yeah, I meant for this collection to be read in sequence. I know people jump around in a short story collection, and I do it too. I want the stories to exist on their own…

RB: Perhaps you should have included a set of instructions….


Okay, so I buried the led…



¡No Pasarán!

16 Jan

photo Mikhail Koltsov

Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.

Edmund Burke


Apparently not only the women of this country are embarking on a campaign of resistance to the forthcoming reign of  The Bedlamite and his lickspittle apologists. Around the country the very people increasingly marginalized by the juggernaut of globalized capitalism, ie writers and poets and journalists, have formed a loose confederation entitled Writers Resist*

In Boston, an overflow crowd came to the Boston Public Library and was fêted with a rich and diverse selection of readings intended to illuminate the crisis that so many people feel is at hand. You can read about the program in the papers**

I should not let it be unsaid that I was moved and inspired by many of readings (especially young high school student from Lynn MA, Michelle Garcia) Needless to say there were there few strains of humor which is why I  enjoyed this poem by Seattle’s Elisa Chavez:

Revenge, by Elisa Chavez

Since you mention it, I think I will start that race war.

I could’ve swung either way? But now I’m definitely spending
the next 4 years converting your daughters to lesbianism;
I’m gonna eat all your guns. Swallow them lock stock and barrel
and spit bullet casings onto the dinner table;

I’ll give birth to an army of mixed-race babies.
With fathers from every continent and genders to outnumber the stars,
my legion of multiracial babies will be intersectional as fuck
and your swastikas will not be enough to save you,

because real talk, you didn’t stop the future from coming.
You just delayed our coronation.
We have the same deviant haircuts we had yesterday;
we are still getting gay-married like nobody’s business
because it’s still nobody’s business;
there’s a Muslim kid in Kansas who has already written the schematic
for the robot that will steal your job in manufacturing,
and that robot? Will also be gay, so get used to it:

we didn’t manifest the mountain by speaking its name,
the buildings here are not on your side just because
you make them spray-painted accomplices.
These walls do not have genders and they all think you suck.
Even the earth found common cause with us
the way you trample us both,

oh yeah: there will be signs, and rainbow-colored drum circles,
and folks arguing ideology until even I want to punch them
but I won’t, because they’re my family,
in that blood-of-the-covenant sense.
If you’ve never loved someone like that
you cannot outwaltz us, we have all the good dancers anyway.

I’ll confess I don’t know if I’m alive right now;
I haven’t heard my heart beat in days,
I keep holding my breath for the moment the plane goes down
and I have to save enough oxygen to get my friends through.

But I finally found the argument against suicide and it’s us.
We’re the effigies that haunt America’s nights harder
the longer they spend burning us,
we are scaring the shit out of people by spreading,
by refusing to die: what are we but a fire?
We know everything we do is so the kids after us
will be able to follow something towards safety;
what can I call us but lighthouse,

of course I’m terrified. Of course I’m a shroud.
And of course it’s not fair but rest assured,
anxious America, you brought your fists to a glitter fight.
This is a taco truck rally and all you have is cole slaw.
You cannot deport our minds; we won’t
hold funerals for our potential. We have always been
what makes America great.

So, given the encroaching nightmare you can expect the resistence to continue…stay tuned




Strange Fruit (updated)

4 Jan

Video accompanying Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

Earlier this year crooner Jose James released a recording of Billy Holiday songs—which, of course,  includes the anthemic bolero, Strange Fruit (which everyone knows was written by a Jewish fellow*. One is tempted to opine that no one can sing the song like Lady Day (a meaningless tautology) Nina Simone and Jose James, among others, prove otherwise.

James has also recorded three live versions, one of which at the Alhambra in Paris and one in Argentina (which should tell you something about the universality of that canzone

In Argentina

In  a studio

Strange Fruit live in Paris 

A whole concert of Billie Holiday recorded live in Belgium

The Day Lady Died

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
                                                       I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

*Lewis Allan, the stage name for Abel Meeropol

Just Talking: My “Conversations with …”

30 Dec


 Looking back to the mid-Eighties when I stumbled unto the opportunity to publish a hip downtown magazine  I am not clear on how I fell into the habit/practice of arranging conversations/interviews with contemporary writers, photographers, film directors, cartoonists, poets, painters and all manner of creative individuals. Though it is not exactly an explanation for ‘why’, I have come to look upon this habit, which has persisted these twenty odd years, as a grand post-graduate education.

Many of these confabulations were first published in Stuff magazine before 1998. In 2000, I found a regular niche at the nascent literary magazine (of sorts) Identitytheory. And, over the fullness of time, I  found myself contributing to cultural news venues such as The Morning News, The Millions, The Virginia Quarterly Review on -line, The Daily Beast, and the LA Review of Books among others.

Along the way, some of these countless ( have lost count on how many I have participated in) dialogues have been anthologized (mostly regularly )in the University Press of Mississippi’s “Conversations with…’ series.  These I am proud to list below (click on the name to go to Publisher’s page for each book):

I expect to continue with these gabfests though I  am ruminating on ways to refresh my methodology. So, let’s see what happens…thanks for reading all the way to the bottom

Story Songs # 1

15 Nov



The recent squall precipitated by the Swedes foisting the Nobel Prize for literature on Bob Dylan was cause for carping and chirping by that marginal subset of earthlings devoted to the Written Word—writers and the like. While I agree with the notion that songs are stories and thus qualify as literature as much as other hybrid genres, something about this happenstance irked me.

As far as I can tell there was no pressing reason to burden the septuagenarian crooner with such an award. And burden it is—consider Dylan’s delayed response which originally suggested he might not appear at the attendant ceremony .

In any case, no biggie…

If anyone doubts the view that songs are literature here is a random sampling of such:

Randy Newman is a clever guy and has written a multitude of fine songs —this one has always grabbed me

God’s Song



Originally making his mark with the “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” Gil Scott heron’s Military and the Monetary (Work for Peace) vocalizes an obvious nexus


Made famous by the inimitable Billie Holiday, this haunting song’s portrayal of the Southern United States sport of lynching multitudes of Black Folk is soulfully
sung by another incomparable chanteuse, Nina Simone

Strange Fruit

Lowell George, singer, songwriter guitarist led this LA musical aggregation until his untimely death at the age of 34. I doubt he was aver a long haul truck driver but this song does capture that challenges of that profession

Willin’ — Little Feat

William ‘Smokey’ Robinson was a integral part if the success of the Motown musical juggernaut. Not least for his unforgettable love songs sung with his sweet tear-evoking counter tenor voice.Kevin Mahogany ’s pared down iteration of a Smokey classic sung in a deep dusky voice is a nice touch

Tears of a Clown

Tracks of MNy Tears smokey robinson live

Saxophonist John Coltrane only recorded with one singer— non pareil Johnny Hartmann .That recording is outstanding collection of tunes from the mid century American songbook and more a half century later is still as fresh as the day not was recorded. Billy Strayhorn’s melancholic hymn( I still marvel that he wrote Lush Life when he was 19 years old) is heart rending

Lush Life

In a long and adventuresome career Bob Dylan ( a jewish kid from Minnesota ) has written countless timely and memorable songs. None are representative so here’s one from a recent (non-crooning) recording. I like the line, “I an’t dead yet, my bell still rings.”

Early Roman Kings

The great Leonard Cohen passed away last weekend—having just released another recording of news songs. Naturally the recent kefluffle on the Nobel Award for Literature saw Cohen’s partisans decrying Dylan’s selection. If you are of a mind, David Remnick in the New Yorker and Leon Wiesltier in the New York Times wrote useful pieces on the poet /songwriter/wanderingJew. As he observes in the song that follows ,

I fought against the bottle,
But I had to do it drunk
Took my diamond to the pawnshop
But that don’t make it junk.

That Don’t Make it Junk

A Magnificent (Game) Seven

2 Nov
Plaque at Wrigley Field

Plaque at Wrigley Field

The coverage of the 2016 MLB national tournament features per usual an  overblown  narrative that has been beaten to death and rivals some of the silly metrics that fill in the commentary and live coverage of the individual games. As my good and longest tenured bud Steve (Fagin) reminded me, we spent  the better part of our youth in Chicago when the Cubs (not Cubbies)never even achieved .500 seasons. I don’t recall concerns about the long championship droughts and I care as little about that as I do that the last Cub grand slam hit in the tourney was in 1908.

But then again I (have come to) understand that most of the mainstream verbiage and blather is directed to the casual  audience that has been all to happy to watch the annual baseball joust (especially in light of the 2016 political silly season)to escape the bad news shitstream—non-coverage of Standing Rock resistance,  acquittal of the Bundy thugs, cop shootings, Aleppo, Syria devastation and on and on.

Nonetheless, there is a host of good stories flowing out of the 2016 post season contests. Kyle Schweibar’s season-long rehabilitation to end up playing and fulfilling expectations. Tito Francona’s smart adaptation of his resources to triumph over the American League. Cub’s skipper Joe Maddon’s kids winning 103 games in the regular season, exposing obvious weaknesses in post season (being unable to hit A grade pitching) ads still ending up in the season’s penultimate game. The clear difference in regular and post season expressed in Chicago chief Theo Epstein’s quip, “You build a team for the regular season and then you pray in the post season”

And, of course, there are the ambient distractions of

1) noxious troll Pete Rose  joining rookie tv talking head Alex Rodriguez and Bg Hurt Frank Thomas for ‘expert’ commentary,

2) the silly Lincoln ads with Matthew McConaughey (for which he should be embarrassed),

3) Joe Buck’ s worthless chatter  *and MLB Hall of  Famer John Smoltz’s counterbalancing insights

Augmented Cubs logo

Augmented Cubs logo

 Watching the Cubs via for the  past two seasons has been a joyful experience. They battled to the last out (in 2015) leading the NL in 1 run decisions) , the home broadcast announcers Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies were amusing knowledgeable and companionable for a  three hour plus viewing and Joe Maddon was and is a baseball lifer who avoids cliche and conventional wisdom in talking about his players and post-game review.

 So, I am, of course, hoping for the Cubs to triumph but I must acknowledge that it is too bad someone has to lose…


Cuba Si, See Cuba

31 Oct

Revered Cuban crooner Beny More held a Frank Sinatra-like stature in  mid-century Cuban pop culture.

In the mid-Fifties, as an adolescent refugee growing up in Chicago, I  developed what has turned out to be a life long interest in Cuba—which has been amplified by an inchoate fascination manifest with the gem of the Caribbean in the USA at large. Since the recent detente (the Cuba Thaw) interest has grown exponentially. And as such there are always additions being made to a huge Cuba data base.


Lee Lockwood: Castro’s Cuba, An American Journalist’s Inside Look at Cuba, 1959-1969 

Young photographerLee Lockwood arrived in Cuba on December 31, 1958, one day before Fidel Castro ousted US puppet dictator Fulgencio Batista. Since then Lockwood has had unimpeded access to the island nation. In 1965 ,Lockwood conducted an in-depth interview over a seven days which stands as one of the more useful snapshots of the mind of Castro. This tome was originally published in 1967 and in its current 400 page iteration we have photographs  from the extensive period Lockwood traveled with Fidel,and  from  the special access to the Maximum Leader’s inner circle and a broad array of images from  Sierra Maestra military camps to life on Havana’s streets and  the endless political rallies and celebrations. Many of these images have never been published before. Historian/filmmaker Saul Landau ,whose films include the 1968 documentary, Fidel! provides elucidating commentary.


Eschewing the role of a Castro apologist, Lockwood  explains his purpose for the book project.:


“If he is really our enemy, as dangerous to us as we are told he is, then we ought to know as much about him as possible…I was amazed at the apparent discrepancies that existed between what was popularly being said and believed about Cuba in the United States and what I actually saw … After three weeks of traveling, including an eight-day, cross-country trip taken in Castro’s company, I could find little evidence of the standard image of Cuba so luridly painted by American newspapers and magazines — that of a crumbling economy, a populace in tatters and near starvation, and a political regime that had lost its popular support and was maintaining itself in power through oppression and terror. Instead, I found that, in spite of rationing, people were well-clothed and adequately fed, nearly everyone was working and had money and — contrary to all pronouncements by our State Department — Castro still enjoyed the support, even the affection, of the great majority of Cubans.

There is ample evidence that US attitudes and perceptions of Cuba are as suspended in the mid-century as the cars that transverse Cuban roadways…

Below some images from Castro’s Cuba…




Esteemed translator Esther Allen (who is reportedly readying a biography of hemispheric iconic figure Jose Marti) offers a smart and useful  perspective on Lockwood’s work and the resonant role of Fidel. She concludes:

Classic twentieth-century dictators of all ideological stripes left statues of themselves in the central squares, to be gilded, pulled down, or both, by those who came after. Through more than half a century as the nation’s leader, Fidel never did. Lockwood’s photos now remind us of this: though he never learned to relinquish power, Fidel did somehow learn to disappear.*


If anyone is going to unpack the features of USA’s byzantine relationship  with Cuba and the dance steps of The Cuban Thaw Tango, Jon Lee Anderson is that person. A well-traveled journalist and no stranger to this planet’s sites of extreme belligerence, Anderson has penned the definitive biography of Che Guevera**  having established residence in Havana with his family  to research and write. His recent wide-ranging report*** includes this insight

In the Oval Office, Obama told me he believed that Americans needed to make a greater effort to acknowledge perceptions that exist outside the United States. “We are a superpower, and we do not fully appreciate the degree to which, when we move, the world shakes,” he said. “Our circumstances have allowed us to be ahistorical. But one of the striking things when you get outside the United States is—Faulkner’s old saying, ‘The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.’ . . . People remember things that happened six hundred years ago. And they are alive and active in their politics.

“And so the intention here is not, as the Republicans like to call it, engaging in apology tours. It is dignifying these countries’ memories and their culture, and saying to them, ‘We understand your experience and your culture, and that is valid.’ And, once you do that, if people think, he sees me, even if they disagree with you, there is an openness to having a conversation.”


END notes

    *Esther Allen elucidates Lee Lockwood’s Castro ‘s Cuba

** Talking Cuba and Che with Jon Lee Anderson

***Jon Lee Anderson’s   “A New Cuba: President Obama’s plan normalized relations. It may also transform the nation”


Deborah Lipstadt: Denying the Deniers

13 Sep







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

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

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

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum

* * *

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

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

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

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

DL: That’s right.

RB: There are no compelling reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

RB: You are a professor of Holocaust studies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Supposedly [new].

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

RB: I skipped ahead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: [laughs]

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

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

DL: It’s unrelenting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

RB: The judge would have allowed that?

DL: He might have.

RB: Judge Gray did give Irving much latitude.

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

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

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


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

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

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

DL: It was a complete sham.

RB: But aided by other people.

DL: Right.

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

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

RB:—8,000 pages.

DL: 800 pages.

RB: What was 8,000 pages, then?

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

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

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

RB: [laughs]

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

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

DL: No, that was Watt.

RB: Is that true?

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

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

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

RB: Did he pay his court costs?

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

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

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

RB: Any way that could backfire on him?

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

RB: Is Anthony Julius still representing you?

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

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

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

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

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

RB: And where is Zundel?

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

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

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

RB: I am wondering what Zundel’s activities—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Well, you can’t.

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

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

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

RB: Had the producer read your book?

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

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

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

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

RB: [laughs]

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

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

DL: Yeah. [chuckles]



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

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

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

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

RB: [laughs]

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

RB: Churchill may even be a scam artist.

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




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

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


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

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




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

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



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

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

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

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

RB: Where is he now?

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

RB: Is there an end to this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

DL: Right.

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

DL: That’s right.

RB: What are you doing next?

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

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

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

RB: Did they?

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

RB: Given his father’s views?

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

RB: This subject deserves a documentary.

DL: You find me the filmmaker.

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

DL: I have to go soon.

RB: OK. Thank you very much.

DL: This was great






Copyright  2002, 2016 Robert Birnbaum



Jess Walter on Beautiful Ruins and Other Stuff

15 Aug


Credit: Robert Birnbaum

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

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

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

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


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

Jess Walter: Really? All right.

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

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

RB: Really—were you a musician?

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

RB: How big was the breast?

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

RB: Permanent?

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

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

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

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

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

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

JW: Yeah, right.

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

JW: My son’s name is Alec.

RB: Who is Brooklyn?

JW: Brooklyn is my daughter.

RB: You called a girl Brooklyn?

JW: I did, yeah.

RB: So what’s the reaction?

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

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

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

RB: Where is she?

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

RB: What does your daughter think?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



JW: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: (laughs)

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

RB: There’s another Spokane?

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

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

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

RB: Was Richard Burton in the story originally?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JW: Maybe, right.

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

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

RB: And then he became an automobile dealer.

JW: Yeah. Who couldn’t write.

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

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

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

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

RB: It is a lovely ending.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: (laughs)

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

RB: I also liked  his novel Samaritan.

JW: It was good too.

RB: Colin Harrison writes literary crime novels.

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

RB: But there is still a crime fiction ghetto.

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

RB: (laughs)

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

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

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

RB: Have you read Georges Simenon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JW: I love those.

RB: You could be the glorifier of Spokane.

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

RB: So what’s next?

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

RB: These others weren’t?

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

RB: Did you live in Hollywood?


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

RB: Who’s in the cast?

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

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

JW: It’s an indie film, low-budget.

RB: Acting and storytelling?

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

RB: (laughs)

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

RB: You may regret giving it away.

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

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

JW: I never said that.

RB: What’s it like living in Spokane?

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

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

JW: Yeah, well—

RB: There’s your education.

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

RB: How close were you to Ruby Ridge?

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

RB: How far from the Canadian border?

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

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

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

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

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

RB: There is something to be said for originality—

JW: And authenticity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Vince turned out to be unflinchingly moral.

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

RB: There’s no mob there?

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

RB: No drugs?

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

RB: Chinese gangs? Or Guatemalan gangs?

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

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

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

RB: How long has Cal Morgan been your editor?

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

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

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

RB: (laughs)

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

RB: Before or after his fall from grace?

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

RB: I lost my copy on an airplane.

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

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

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

RB: That’s very commendable.

JW: For a young writer, right.

RB: For any writer.

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

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

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

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

JW: Six novels and one nonfiction book.

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

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

RB: “Bery, bery good to you.”

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Probably.

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

RB: How many languages for Beautiful Ruins?

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

RB: What about the movie of Beautiful Ruins?

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

RB: He’s a really good guy.

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

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

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

RB: (laughs) Right.

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

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

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

RB: So they get the back end covered.

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

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

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

RB:A Separation, an Iranian film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: It more has the stench of institutionalized conformity.

JW: Mechanization.

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

JW: I think you did.

RB: Imagine it?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

JW: Too easy. I do it every day.

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

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

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

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

RB: Well, thank you.

JW: Thank you.

Brad Watson circa 2002

10 Aug

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



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

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

RB: How long have you been living up here?

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

RB: (laughs)

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

RB: Sounds like a psychological experiment.

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

RB: You came up here to teach?



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

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

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

RB: There’s a story.

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

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

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

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

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

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


brad watson

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

RB: What was it that you proposed?

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

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

BW: Really, not even Earl and his family.

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

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

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

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

RB: What does “trying to start” mean?

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

RB: Nothing gets wasted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Why do the chapter headings have Latin titles?

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

RB: And when did you decide on the title?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


RB: Is that where Foley, Alabama is

?author brad watson


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

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

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

RB: What could be better?

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

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

BW: It’s almost that way now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Characters don’t haunt you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Wasn’t that said about Paris Trout?

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

RB: (laughs) Sure.

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

RB: Another good story. Well, thanks.

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