Brad Watson circa 2002

10 Aug

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

 

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

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

RB: How long have you been living up here?

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

RB: (laughs)

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

RB: Sounds like a psychological experiment.

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

RB: You came up here to teach?

 

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

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

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

RB: There’s a story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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

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

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

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

RB: What could be better?

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

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

BW: It’s almost that way now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Characters don’t haunt you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Wasn’t that said about Paris Trout?

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

RB: (laughs) Sure.

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

RB: Another good story. Well, thanks.

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

Who Done Talked That Talk?

27 Jul

 

 

 

statute of great public speaker ,Demosthenes

statute of great public speaker ,Demosthenes

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

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

I was stunned.

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

And I intend to respect that tradition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And some twenty minutes later  concludes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck!

#####

 *     My last conversation with George Saunders

**   Me and Mary Karr chew the fat

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

What Would Ernie Banks Do?

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

Mr Cub, Ernie Banks Baseball Halll of Fame plaque

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

Newest addition to the Chicago Cub roster, Aroldis Chapman

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

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

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

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

Grant Bisbee chimes in

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

Deuces that Beat a Full House

27 Apr

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

AUTUMN SERENADE

JOHNY HARTMANN & JOHN COLTRANE

BODY & SOUL

TONY BENNETT & AMY WINEHOSE

SKATING IN CENTRAL PARK

BILL EVANS & JIM HALL

STORMY WEATHER

CHARLES MINGUS & ERIC DOLPHY

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

17 Apr

Chicago flag

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Self Portrat, Brian Doyle

Self Portrait, Brian Doyle

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

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

 

 

* Some additional epigrams on Chicago

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

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

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

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

Gabbing with Roger Angell & Robert Birnbaum |

8 Apr

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Published: July 10, 2003

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

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

 

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

#####

Roger Angell [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Roger Angell [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

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

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

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

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

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

RA: Once in a while.

RB: How does it feel to be revered?

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

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

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

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

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

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

RA: Yeah, Beyond the Boundaries.

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

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

RB: Maclean and McGuane.

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

RB: He’s a convicted felon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: They won’t draft high schoolers.

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

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

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

RB: What is an “exuberant nose”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Roger Angell [photo: Robert Birnbaum

Roger Angell [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

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

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

RB: Do you think they listen?

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

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

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

 

 

Roger Angell [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Roger Angell [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: Writers are as susceptible as everyone else.

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

 

RB: Like a scene in Bull Durham.

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

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

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

RB: And they are rarely out of shape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Is there a talent drain in baseball?

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

RB: Maybe the emphasis is not about great athletes.

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

RB: Any predictions for the World Series?

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

RB: No sentimental favorites?

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

RB: Me too. Well, thank you.

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

 

####

*Micheal Lewis

**World Baseball Classic

RIP Jim Harrison

27 Mar

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

Bissell observes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum 2016

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

Jim Harrison: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

RB: Fifty-seven.

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

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

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

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

JH: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: What!

JH: I fly off the handle too easily.

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

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

 

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

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

RB: [laughs]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

RB: [laughs]

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

RB: [laughs]

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

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

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

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

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

RB: [laughs]

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

RB: Yeah. Right.

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

RB: And what do they say?

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

RB: You have to be willing?

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

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

JH: You should. [both laugh]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JH: Yes, but they are singularly unrealistic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: In contradistinction to you?

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

RB: [laughs]

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

RB: How pure can you be?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: [laughs heartily]

JH: There are some advantages to a peasant background.

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

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

RB: Chaotic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Why would one?

JH: I don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: The Italians and the Germans, too?

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

RB: What a shell game.

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

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

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

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

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

RB: [laughs]

 

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Harrison, & Rosie by Robert Birnbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Sure.

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

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

JH: Yeah, that’s my rule of thumb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Your daughter Jamie is out there also.

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

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

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

RB: How’d that happen?

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

RB: How does she move about?

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

RB: The toxins linger in the body that long?

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

RB: [laughs] Minor parts?

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

RB: By what?

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

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

RB: What are you afraid of in cities?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JH: [laughs]

RB: James Wood or—

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

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

JH: Well, you can’t .

RB: [laughs] People do.

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

RB: [laughs]

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

RB: Really?

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

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

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

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

JH: It’s funny.

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

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

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

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

RB: So, what’s a novella?

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

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

JH: That’s not up to me.

 

 

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

Interview with Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison on Lakota

Jim Harrison, 1937–2016 Terry McDonell remembers Jim Harrison

Postscript: Jim Harrison, 1937-2016 by Thomas McGuane

 

 

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

25 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

57 Chevrolet

 

57chevrolet
Beisbol

 

beisbol
Billboard III

 

billboard3
Ceiling Detail

 

 

ceiling
Che Iconography I

 

 

Che Iconography
Che Iconography II

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

cubabirnbaum

 

Cuba Maxwell Birnbaum (circa 2016)

 

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SI CUBA, SEE CUBA

23 Mar

 

 

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

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

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

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

imgres

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

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

images

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

 

 

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

 

imgres-1

As the publishers note asserts this book

 

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

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

 

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

See photographs from Cuba,Black And White here

And an interview with MS Davidson here

 

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

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

Garth Hallberg: Author on Fire

17 Feb

 

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

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

 

 

 

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

City on Fire by   Garth Risk Hallberg

 

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

Garth Hallberg: The middle name?

Robert Birnbaum: Yes.

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: At what length was it submitted?

Garth Hallberg: The same length it is now.

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: It’s about 25% less.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: How old were you in 1976?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Garth Risk Hallberg [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Garth Risk Hallberg [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Birnbaum: Where did you grow up?

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: He has a southern accent?

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

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

Garth Hallberg: Not where I grew up.

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Did you like living in Greenville?

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

Robert Birnbaum: You don’t know?

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

Robert Birnbaum: Family, local organization and community participation?

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

Robert Birnbaum: A seventh day has its appeal.

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

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

Garth Hallberg: I was tall.

Robert Birnbaum: Gawky, lanky?

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

Robert Birnbaum: Could you read by then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Television?

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

Robert Birnbaum: Are they physically active?

Garth Hallberg: Oh yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Jocks?

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

Robert Birnbaum: One is five and one is?

Garth Hallberg: Three.

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

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

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

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

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

Garth Hallberg: I played varsity soccer.

Robert Birnbaum: Did you like it?

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

Robert Birnbaum: You were good enough.

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

Robert Birnbaum: Were there cliques in your high school?

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

Robert Birnbaum: Pretty big.

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

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

Garth Hallberg: Probably 4 times 55.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Fiction?

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

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

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

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

 

New York Post front page ,circa 1977

New York Post front page, circa 1977

 

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

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

Garth Hallberg: Early Reagan years.

Robert Birnbaum: You were born in ’78?

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

Robert Birnbaum:[laughs] One or the other.

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Yes, I know.

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

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

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

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

Garth Hallberg: Is this Oliver Nelson?

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

Garth Hallsberg: Good one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Children’s books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Garth  Risk Hallberg [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Garth Risk Hallberg [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: I saw Sam Shepard playing  a part.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garth Hallberg: About the importance of literature.?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: The fatwa meant something to you?

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

Robert Birnbaum: Persecuted?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garth Hallberg: Yeah.

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

Garth Hallberg: No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: In 2003.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Recording ends abruptly…]

 

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ENDNOTES

1 Live Aid website  is here

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

Mark Murphy’s vocal version of Stolen Moments is here

3 My second interview with David Hadju here.

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

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

6 Balzac’s novel Lost Illusions is explicated here

7 Pete Dexter on Norman Mailer is found here

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

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

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

12 Garth reads from City of Fire here

13 Editor Alex Bowler talks about City of Fire  here