DOWN Under

20 Apr

Its easy to ignore Australia, that Commonwealth Nation being so far away and barely thought of as more than an outpost of the (sort of)English speaking world. My recent video viewing experience (thanks to Netflix) has caused me to take note of the skein of masterfully produced “films”— The Slap, Secrets and Lies and The Code from those parts. Interestingly, US networks have seen fit to rejigger the first two series for prime time American consumption and present the third as is to little or no reception (see if you can find a review).

Now I possess a fair amount of certainty that if you managed to find this small Internet way station, you can search-engine the details of the above mentioned series but suffice it for me to remark that I find the Australian productions preferable (though the US iterations are competent)

There are a couple of things that I thought were worth noting. Pointing to Cate Blanchett as an example, the women actresses who are cast in important roles in these dramatic series are very attractive but not by Hollywood standards (name some Australian women besides Blanchett and Kidman appearing in US produced films) except for Melissa George who appears in both versions of the The Slap(and seems lacking in any dramatic prowess). Nor are the ladies made up to look glamorous or alluring.

Australian diction is also remarkable for its variation from American English.For instance instead of saying “We’ll fix it ” or “We’ll work it out “, Aussies say “We’ll sort it out” or “We’ll get that sorted out”. “Foreign students” are referred to as “overseas students”. And their exclamations,”Oi” seem derived from Yiddish.

The pictures we see are not much different than the settings in the US except you rarely see any shade , overwhelmingly presenting the impression that Australia is a land of eternal sunshine.

Peter Carey [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Peter Carey [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

By the way, there is no shortage of great Aussie writers starting with Nobel laureate Patrick White and in recent years Peter Carey who I have spoken with twice; Here Carey and I chat about a passage from Philip Roth’s American Pastorale:

PC: That’s terrific! Who wrote that?

RB: Philip Roth. [American Pastoral]*

PC: That’s very, very, very good.

RB: Yes. I read that and thought, that’s what writers do, don’t they? You try to get people right?

PC: I wasn’t thinking about writing. I was listening to that thinking about life. It’s the business of life and how right and wise that is. The moments for writers when we experience it is when you go into an interview and writers come away, they say, ‘I didn’t say that! They totally misunderstood me!’ What it always makes me think of is the nature of existence. Most people don’t write things down but we are forever misunderstanding each other and what we think is happening is not what’s happening and so on.

RB: There’s more to my question. Yes, it is about life, but then we didn’t come here to shoot the shit about generalities about life.

PC: That’s true.

RB: So I thought, what’s the application of Roth’s remarks to someone who spends their time trying to create the ‘word people’ that Roth refers to here and the aspiration for them to be right, occasionally, within some framework?

PC: Right, yes, but there is some sort of bullshit inherent in the whole thing—

RB: [laughs]

PC:—of being the writer, because in the situation of being the writer you are not in the situation, you are in the situation presumably, occasionally of being all-knowing and so you can have that.

RB: Think about that.

PC: Well, you can. You can construct a world in which people do understand each other. My characters tend not to understand each other, as a matter of fact.

RB: Why is that? Who gets it right? That [Roth’s passage] reproduces, reflects the way people view each other. If your characters aren’t understanding each other, that seems the truer—

PC: I guess so. And they don’t even get themselves right, which is also true. We tend not to know each other. The difficulty with My Life as a Fake is that having this title which I really love—I loved it as a title—I never really thought of what powerful shit I am playing with when you have a title like that. What a vector of force it is and how it creates all sorts of understanding about the book that I didn’t intend. And coming back to this question of knowledge and self-knowledge. People will frequently say all of the characters are fakes and it’s hard to know who is the most fake. I don’t think any of them are really fake at all, least of all McCorkle, the poet who comes to life. And then they cite Sarah as someone who is fake. Well, I don’t think she is fake in the tiniest bit. She is somebody who certainly doesn’t understand her life. She doesn’t know who she is. She misunderstands people around her. None of these things suggest a lack of authenticity. She is intensely private about her sexual life. And you could say then that she has a fake persona. I wouldn’t say she was fake at all. I would say she was guarded, an armored vehicle in the world.

* You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day?

AUTOBIOGRAPHY/MEMOIR IN 365 PARTS (13.00)

11 Apr
Mementos of an Active Life [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Mementos of an Active Life
[photo: Robert Birnbaum]

12 April 2015

The modern penchant for so-called full disclosure warrants that Robert Birnbaum admit to his long criminal record. As an adolescent in Chicago, he was picked up a number of times by the police, though never charged, for various acts of teenage hooliganism. In 1967,he was arrested by Federal agents and charged with the sale and possession of 2 kilos of Indiana “Gold”, charges that were later dismissed due to a successful entrapment defense. In 1968, Birnbaum was arrested for criminal trespass for sitting-in, in Roosevelt University’s President Rolf Weil’s office, in protest of the school’s refusal to grant historian Staughton Lynd tenure. During the Chicago Democratic Convention in August of 1968, Birnbaum was picked up by police, but oddly enough, not arrested, for picking up a rock at the Grant Park Band Shell riot. In 1970, he spent a night in jail for a broken right tail light on his beat up 1964 VW bus. Birnbaum believes that there are still warrants out for him in Indiana (from 1971)for failure to pay a turnpike toll. Apparently, he has been rehabilitated and mended his criminal ways and has gone arrest-free since the early 70’s.

Boston Strong

8 Apr
Boston Marathon bombing 2013

Boston Marathon bombing 2013


The tragic events at the 2013 Boston Marathon— the injury, loss of life and the injection of anxiety and fear into civic life (this was Boston’s 9/11) has been a preoccupation of the public conversation ever since. Especially as the US Justice (a possible misnomer)Department fought the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s defense’s move for a change of venue. Even with my limited and disinterested contact with Boston media, I have noted the trial of the so-called Boston Bomber has occupied headlines and was regularly the lead story on local news programs.

While the event and what followed was certainly harrowing and unsettling, to my sensibility so was some of the public response. The proliferation of bumper sticker slogans and t-shirts somehow trivialized this day of infamy. Now this may be an oblique connection but I somehow found something wrong with the ‘Boston Strong’ incantation and an abysmally small turn out for the Boston mayoral election.

Boston’s Mr Fussy Alex Beam took umbrage with the legal proceedings drawing up memories of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s 1930’s show trials. He asks the key question:

I ask: In what sense is the ongoing prosecution of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev not a show trial? What is our government trying to show, and to whom?

Of course no one has been tortured, but the outcome has long been foreordained. Eric Holder’s Department of Justice could have spared us this costly theater piece by offering an agreement to have Tsarnaev plead guilty for the Boston Marathon terror bombing. Instead, Justice insisted on the death penalty, precipitating this seemingly endless, two-stage trial.

The Brothers by Masha Gessen

The Brothers by Masha Gessen

Now comes Masha Gessen’s The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy (Riverhead) which is interesting because it is in equal parts a clear window into Chechnyan history (See Anthony Marra’s fine novel set in Chechnya A Constellation of Vital Phenomena)— a country that can barely be located by Americans. And a rumination on cultural dislocation and terrorism. Not to mention that Gessen traveled to Chechnya, Dagestan, and Kyrgyzstan, providing an ambitious and important context for what turns out to be a much larger story than that terrible day, April 15, 2013.

And for those interested in the operation and degree of efficiency and effectiveness of various police and security operations, there is the recently released “After Action Report for the Response to the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings . One news source revealed:

But the report also cited the potential for even more injuries during the chaos starting three days after the bombing, when Dzhokhar and his older brother, Tamerlan—who died during a firefight in Watertown, Mass.,—allegedly tried to flee the area after they were depicted in surveillance pictures near the marathon finish line.

Officers who arrived on scene while the Watertown shootout was already under way “fired weapons toward the vicinity of the suspects without necessarily having a target lined up and identified, or having appropriately aimed their weapons,” the report said.
…also highlighted the logistical challenges when police flooded into Watertown, some from nearby states and New York, and many who “self-deployed” to try to help. This caused safety concerns when they headed out into the field on their own, “at times placing themselves, and the officers with the authority to respond, at risk,” the report said.

Currently the jury for the Tsarnaev trial is deliberating…and found  him guilty on all 30 counts

And if you haven’t exhausted your interest in this woeful tale, reportedly Mark Wahlberg is making a  movie—shoot me if he calls it Boston Strong.

Update —Masha Gessen offers a post verdict take on the trial and the case:

Unlike some other people who have touched this case, the lawyers in federal court in Boston have done their jobs remarkably well. The prosecution laid out a meticulously timed and skillfully scripted case, leaving the jury with a clear picture of unspeakable carnage and cruelty. The defense wisely refrained from challenging the testimony of any victims or witnesses. It cross-examined only F.B.I. agents and experts — and, tellingly, some of them sounded unprepared and underinformed when questioned. The sole job of the defense now is to make sure Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lives. The prosecution’s task is to persuade the jury to sentence him to death. That means that, riveting as the next phase of the Boston bombing trial may be, these proceedings cannot and will not move us closer to the truth.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY/MEMOIR IN 365 PARTS (12.00)

7 Apr
Stupid 'award' from stupid Boston Magazine

Stupid ‘award’ from stupid Boston Magazine

7 April 2015

Spending various of his formative years in a number of the tribal territories of Chicago Robert Birnbaum’s initial journalistic models were the inestimable Mike Royko and celebrity gossip reporter Irv “Kup” Kupcinet. As Birnbaum encountered the complexities of the tainted Viet Nam era,Izzy IF Stone and Hunter Thompson assumed prominent roles as guide posts. After a number of career missteps,Robert began publishing downtown tabloid Stuff magazine. After 15 years in the enviable role as a publisher in a major metropolis, he encountered a few more career missteps and ultimately began squatting on his own 40 acres of the Internet,Our Man In Boston.Among other publications Robert Birnbaum has contributed to are Stuff Magazine, Boston Magazine,Boston Common, The Improper Bostonian, Bark magazine, The Daily Beast, LA Review of Books, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Morning News, The Millions, Identitytheory.

Our Man in Tasmania: Richard Flanagan

2 Apr

BOOKER_SPLASH_3075097c

In winning the Booker Prize novelist Richard Flanagan for The Narrow Road to the Deep North exponentially increased the reasons whereby other earthlings gained awareness of Tasmania,his home. The other claim to recognition being a small marsupial that was monetized into cartoon character by American film studios.

It happens that this is my second conversation* with Flanagan wherein he spends some time admiring my ragtop and mistaking it for a beat-up Mercedes Benz. This should have no bearing on your judgement of his literary talents.As is my wont what follows is a typically digressive conversation. Go ahead live a little.

Keltic Krust,site of many authorial conversations [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Keltic Krust,site of many authorial conversations [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert:Say something? I need it test the mic level.

Richard:I do like your car, by the way.

Robert: Hmm? Today is September 5th 2014. For the record, I’m speaking to Richard Flanagan, at the site of the now closed Keltic
Krust. Where do you live?

Richard Flanagan [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Richard Flanagan [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Richard: Where do I live?

Robert: Yes, where do you live?

Richard: Tasmania.

Robert: Am I wrong but I haven’t seen people referring to you as a Tasmanian. Don’t they refer to you as an Australian?

Richard:I don’t know.

Robert: What do you think of yourself as?

Richard:I just think of myself as a writer. Adjectives are judgments and judgments are normally unfounded. It doesn’t worry me really.

Robert: Your identity doesn’t attach to Tasmania?

Richard: I like the place I come from but no, I don’t think … I just think if you’re a writer you live in that universe of letters, don’t you? It makes as much sense as trying to define yourself as an Angolan chiropodist or something. It’s neither here or there, is it? Literature is not national. That’s my point.

Robert: Lots of people would argue with you about that but I’m not going to. Here’s the thing. It seems to me in some places that I read, including, I think, your lecture on love stories*, you would say things like, “Suffering can’t be contained in a book. All sorts of life experiences aren’t contained in a book, they are.”

Richard:They are but also- literature is. Ultimately, finally, novels are an addition to life. They’re not a complement to it, they’re not a reflection of life. Literature is life or it is nothing. Literature has to exist in this world as everything else does. If it’s seen to be ornamental, if it’s seen to be additional, it is only because it’s seen to have failed.

Robert: Speaking of love stories, you weren’t reticent about talking about them. I think the underlying theme of that particular talk was that you didn’t feel like you were an expert in love stories.

Richard: The talk makes the necessary distinction between love and love stories. Love stories seem to me they’re more- I’ve read them and thought about them- to obey certain rules and certain structures, certain rhythms. That is because when they succeed they speak to what we know to be the spiritual and psychological truths of love. We don’t experience love in the form of love stories, but when love stories are great, they speak to our experience of love precisely because they have different patterns and symmetries and-

Robert: Or they evoke in the reader that feeling that they had when they had a sort of similar experience.

Richard:They should. I think fundamental to a love story is that sense we have in love, of knowing we’ve discovered eternity in the moment that vanishes and dies immediately after. That’s why love stories always have to have death.

Robert: They have to have what?

Richard:They have to have death because that death in terms of story speaks to that idea of the eternal being ephemeral. Without that we’ve already got something that is slightly false to our knowledge of love. In our lives we may know love and may know it profoundly, but we don’t have death with it.

Robert: It reminds me of some glib saying about while it lasts, love is forever. Do you feel that the love story in your new novel is effective, is real? Does it work for you? … It obtains the characteristics that you’ve just described.

Richard: It’s not for the writer to judge what their work is. That’s for the reader. Some readers judge my books a success, some judge them a failure. It’s not for me to argue with them.

Robert:Let’s say one critic refers to your book as deeply flawed because they don’t think the love story works, whereas the other part of it, the retelling or the telling of the Japanese building of a railroad under horrendous circumstances that does work. How does that make you feel that someone thinks one half of the book is okay and one half isn’t?

Richard: It doesn’t make me feel any different to the critics who say the book is a triumph and both halves complement each other. In the end, if a novel has a life it’ll have many readings. Some of the readings will judge it to fail or partly succeed or to succeed completely. You cannot set your compass by those readings. The real judgment on the book isn’t made by the immediate critical response. It’s social and historical and it’s made by thousands upon thousands of readings by anonymous readers over many years. It’s that judgment that ultimately obtains and endures. What that will be on this book, it may be that I’m condemned to the trash bin-

Richard Flanagan circa 2007 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Richard Flanagan circa 2007 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert: Or you win a Booker prize. When is that announced? In October?

Richard: In October, yeah. What I can say about that question is that I think the critic was wrong in this regard. They said there was a war story. That’s what the book should have been. It was a very conscious decision on my part to have these 2 stories, both the love story and the war story. I set out to write a love story seeking to do what I spoke about. To do that I needed a story of death, and war is the ultimate expression of death. It is the great story of death. War illuminates love but love gives you something that you need in a story as dark as this one would otherwise be. Nietzsche said that hope is the most evil of human torments because it prolongs life. That’s true but equally whether it is our greatest folly or not, we all live in hope till we die. We understand the abandonment of hope as death. I think novels that don’t allow for hope in the end disappoint us because we understand in some fundamental way that they’re untrue to our experience of living. A novel has to find that sense of hope. It’s not the same thing as happiness or happy endings. No one’s accused me of lapsing into those sort of errors. Hope’s greatest expression is love. That’s why this story, for it to succeed, needed to love. A novelist does look at writing his book many different ways, or I certainly do. It was my opinion then writing it, and it is completely my opinion having finished writing it that it was a much lesser book without the love story. I think the way it’s being received suggests that as well.

Robert: You would have an incomplete character. Rodrigo, what would he be if he was just a insecure hero of his war experience?

Richard: That great American literati I feel close to sitting in your wonderful battered Mercedes [actually an 11 year old Sebring ragtop] looking out on a highway in America. Clint Eastwood said the interesting thing about violence is that it has consequences and the act of violence itself is uninteresting. Too much of our world has become a pornography of violence. It’s not interested in either the causes or the consequences, but ultimately both those things shape our humanity.

Robert: I don’t know if you’ve seen or heard of this. There’s a BBC series called Southcliffe* which is about a guy marauding a town, killing 16 people and other … What I thought was really great about this was you barely saw any of the violence. It was all about the consequences. It was all about what the survivors experienced and how they coped or didn’t cope.

Richard:I didn’t see Southcliffe but I’m aware of it. It seemed to me, from what I heard about it from those who saw it, that it is in this new genre that’s arisen that is born out of one TV series, which is the first series of the Danish thriller series, The Killing. The point of The Killing is that there’s an act of violence which is really peripheral, a murder. Unlike normal thrillers which are really about the solving of the crime, each episode focused on a different consequence of the crime. How it affected the mother, how it affected the father, how it affected each of the cops in turn. Southcliffe’s just picking up on all those same ideas. That’s why The Killing, I think, did something really new in that particular genre.
It’s not something new in literature. Work in a novel is always being accused that storytelling is elsewhere. When you look at storytelling elsewhere, you see it reflecting what the novel has been doing successfully for a very long time. Not to take anything away from The Killing, which I thought was a terrific series, the first series.

Robert: There has been a marked improvement in the storytelling on TV starting, I guess … A lot of people like The Sopranos, The Wire, True Detective, Justified. Series like that. They’re coming from better writers. That’s the thing. You’re getting novelists and story writers to do this.

Richard:I think 2 things happened as I understand it. One was creative power got concentrated in a single creator, the showrunner, rather than in a strange, cruel melange of studio executives and feuding producers and directors and so on. I just don’t think you really get great art arising from that deranged expression of terror and greed and aggrandizement and so on that is how most television and film gets made. The second thing was they were then, as I understand it- this is what my friends who work in film tell me- is that you tend to get given the money to do those series with not many strings attached. Which is actually unlike Hollywood where you’ve got so many people. I’ve written for Hollywood so I know you’ve got so many people crazily coming up with things being broken down and rewritten for no good reason. These people because they’ve got the money, they control the money.
What I hear about cable TV is that once they decide the project and the people and what they want and they greenlight it, they largely, as long as the money is accounted for responsibly, let them make what they set out to make. It’s really the moment maybe the visual arts were finally allowed to create in the way that painters or novelists or other people create. Which is that you tell the story the way you think it ought to be told.

Robert: With all the [value 00:15:16] of the casting, the … [inaudible 00:15:20] the way you want it. Are you interested in doing that? In writing for film, video. Creating a story they would tell via that.

Richard:No, not particularly.

Robert: Or adapting-

Richard:I’m a terribly inconstant man. Who knows what I’ll do tomorrow? I’ve worked in film. I’ve directed film. I’ve written film. In the end, I keep on falling back in love with the novel because-

Robert: You don’t enjoy that experience?

Richard:No, there’s fun to be had. It’s like you live in the scriptorium and you’re allowed to run across the highway and run away with the circus. After a while you weary of stepping in the elephant shit and you-

Robert: Too many people too?

Richard:No. What I think is that ultimately even with what I was talking about the TV series, film and television are a tyranny and the tyrant is money. Novels are a flawed, broken and difficult world but it is a republic. I would rather live in a corrupted republic of letters than in the tyranny of money, no matter how driven that tyranny sometimes sounds.

Robert: Speaking of the republic of literature, what is it like to be a writer in your part of the world? Or do you see yourself as a citizen of the world, you don’t particularly notice that you’re dealt with differently or that your world is different?

Richard:I think it has to be said that there would be … I don’t know of any other country where us writers hold as low a public position as they do in Australia. There’s strangely very little respect in the structures of society for a writer. A writer is someone with no standing. The paradox of that is that Australian writers are much loved by Australian readers. They’re popular. They have a very real place and affection in the minds of the people but they-

Robert: The people who know them.

Richard:Australian books sell really well in Australia. They’re read and they matter. That is a wonderful thing. The position of a writer in that society-

Robert: Yeah, you’re not considered a public intellectual.

Richard:You’re not considered anything. Perhaps that’s a good thing.

Robert: When a book is-

Richard:It’s good to understand writing is a journey into humility.

Robert: I would think. I did read somewhere that you said something to the effect that you knew you always had to write this book eventually, even when you were writing other books.

Richard:Yes.

Robert: Does that sound like a fair recapitulation of what you said?

Richard:Yeah, that’s true.

Robert: Was it sort of a burden or an interference as you were writing any number of other books that you wrote? Another way of asking it is when did you finally decide, “Okay, I’ve got to do it now”?

Richard:I started writing this in 2001. I wouldn’t just write a draft, I’d finish a novel and I’d know it had failed. Then I would delete it off the computer and I’d burn the manuscript and all the notes. I’d end up writing a different novel, another novel that’d be published. Then I’d go back to this and I’d write this as a new novel in a different form. One was a book of linked haiku, one was a sort of haibun, the Japanese form that combines travel journal and poetry, one was a sort of Odyssean.

Robert: A who?

Richard: An Odyssean. A sort of journey in which-

Robert: Homeric?

Richard:No. It’s narrated in the first person form. One was a family epic that spanned 100 years.

Robert: How many different forms of the novel did you write?

Richard: I wrote 5 novels to get to this one. What happened? I guess it was this … I’ll put it in a better way. Philippe Petit, the famous tightrope walker who walked between the Twin Towers. When police drag him in and kick him down the stairs and throw him in the police car at the bottom, a journalist shoves his microphone into the back window just as the police car is about to drive off. He says to Petit, “Why did you do it?” Petit says, “There is no why.” There is no why why I had to write it. I just knew I had to.” I think that there were 2 great facts in my life. I was a writer, that was one tale. The other tale was that I had grown up, along with my brothers and sisters, as this child of the Death Railway. More and more I realized how shaped everything in my life had been by my father’s experience as a slave laborer of the Japanese, and this horrific war crime where between 100 and 200 thousand people died for nothing. As some-

Robert: It’s funny how usually the statistic is 12 thousand Brits. The total number of Brits and natives isn’t put together as an aggregate.

Richard:What is shocking is that to the extent it’s remembered, it’s only remembered in terms of what happened to Allied soldiers whose part in it was only a fraction of and whose suffering bad as it was was less because they had their structures and they had their expertise. Admittedly all of those things in a living hell. The Asian slave laborers, the Tamils from the Malay states, the [the Muslims, the Thais and so on, the Burmese tribes locals, their situation was a hell beyond imagining, and is certainly a hell of which there is no knowing. I found that so sad. To return to what I was saying, there was this tower that was the fact of me being a writer and there was the other tower of this experience. At a certain point I didn’t know why, but I knew I had to walk the tightrope between the two if I was to keep on writing. I had to somehow communicate this incommunicable thing that concerned me or I couldn’t say anything else.

Robert: I guess the closest thing that we have to knowing about this was the David Lean movie. Do you foresee anybody modernizing this story given the fact that you have now brought this topic up again?

Richard: Do you mean in-

Robert: Making a newer version of Bridge on the River Kwai.

Richard:It’s not for me to answer, is it?

Robert: No, but you could speculate. You do that sometimes, don’t you?

Richard:No. Here I get asked about Bridge on the River Kwai. That movie relates as much to what happened there as-

Robert: That’s what I mean. Now we know-

Richard Flanagan [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Richard Flanagan [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Richard:As My Fair Lady did. Or Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It was a Hollywood confection. On those terms, an admirable … it’s a David Lean movie. It’s an admirable movie but it bears no connection to anything. Will people think more, do more? I would have no idea. The world is so quick-sighted in what it chooses to care for and what it chooses not to. I tend to think it would but I really don’t know.

Robert: I would have never thought somebody would make another profound Holocaust movie but then Spielberg did his version with Schindler’s List and some still come out. Some little tidbits of movies about that era.

Richard:If you’re asking me should it happen then I don’t think you can really give an answer to that. All you can say is that whatever people do with their art … There is only 1 criteria, not whether it’s appropriate, not whether the times demand it, not whether something is being ignored. The only category that can apply to it is it good? That’s all that matters. If it’s good it speaks to something, some truth about ourselves. That chaos at the center of us and other things. If it’s done that and then something has changed a little, even if it’s only 1 reader or 1 viewer thinking, “I’m not alone in what I feel,” I feel that is something good that’s been achieved.

Robert: What’s the resonance of spending time on this book for a long period of time then completing it and going on with your life? Are you done with the book?

Richard:Do you mean emotionally done or …

Robert: Yeah.

Richard:Something like that. I feel 2 things. I’d rather not talk about it and I try not to do things unless I have to. On the other hand, it’s not the worst in life to be sitting in a battered Mercedes in the middle of America with Robert. It’s not-

Robert: I want to correct you. This is a [2004] Chrysler Sebring.

Richard:Of course. Oh, is it?

Robert: This is the most expensive version. Now your whole opinion I hope you’ve it changed about me.

Richard:A Chrysler what? A Chrysler Cedric [sic]. That’s even better. Look, the thing is a writer shouldn’t get too precious … Most people have such difficult, demeaning and often humiliating jobs. Of course there are things I’d rather not do but they’re not odious or terrible things. It is terribly wrong to pretend otherwise.

Robert: To act like a suffering writer?

Richard: Yeah. To paint that task as … For several reasons. One, all I ever wanted to do was be a writer. I’ve been lucky enough that no one’s blowing the whistle on me today and I’m still getting away with it. I’m sure someone’s going to tap me on the shoulder in the next few months. The other is yeah, exactly that. I was able to do what I wanted to do. It is a joyous thing for me to be allowed to get up in the morning and sit at a table and make it up. The other is most people aren’t allowed that sort of fortune. Many of those are gifted people. Even if they’re not gifted, they don’t deserve the difficulty or the struggle that is daily life for most people. I know there are some rotten jobs. Writing is not one of them.

Robert: No. I imagine, this is my imagination, that you’re onto something else already. That you’re writing something else or thinking about writing something else.

Richard:Yeah, I’ve got-

Robert: Are there gaps in your life when once you started writing you didn’t know what you were going to write?

Richard:I’ve always got too many ideas. I’ve got a novel nearly finished now and I’ve got another one half written. I always just want to get back to the table and write more.

Robert: Do you live in an urban area or a rural area or a combination?

Richard:I live in Hobart, which is the capital Tasmania. Tasmania is about the size of Ireland or Sri Lanka but it’s only half a million people.

Robert: How many people live in Hobart?

Richard:200 thousand. It’s a remote or by American sensibilities a very small place. Then I have a shack, as we call them there. A holiday cottage on an island off Tasmania where I also go and write when I just want to be by myself. I go there for … Like with this novel I spent the best part of 6 months by myself. My family would come and stay with me occasionally on weekends and so on. Occasionally friends came but mostly I just lived by myself in this remote place in the sea.

Wanting by Richard Flanagan

Wanting by Richard Flanagan


Robert: I should say, I also really, really like Wanting. That is a terrific, terrific book.

Richard:I’m really touched by that because I felt that was my first novel where I’d mastered writing a novel. I really felt for the first time that I had some difficult and large thing I was trying to communicate but I was in control of that. I’m glad you read it.

Robert: I think your escort is getting nervous. I hope we talk again and have more time.

Richard: You should get someone to take a photo of us sitting in here doing the interview. Why don’t we do that?

Flanagan & Birnbaum, sitting in car [photographer unknown]

Flanagan & Birnbaum, sitting in car [photographer unknown]

Conversation with Richard Flanagan

Lecture on Love Stories

Southcliff

Before You Die for Dummies

27 Mar
1001 WALKS YOU MUST TAKE BEFORE YOU DIE  by Barry Stone

1001 WALKS YOU MUST TAKE BEFORE YOU DIE by Barry Stone

While the underlying conceit of this book and the whole bucket list genre and current cultural preoccupation creeps me out(perhaps its the latest iteration of books with the subtext,”….for Dummies”)— 1001 WALKS YOU MUST TAKE BEFORE YOU DIE (Universe/Rizzoli may be special case. As I have recently discovered walking to be a multi faceted pleasure — fearing an adult onset condition known as sitting-around-all-day {SAAD).I discovered bipedal locomotion a reasonable way to get the heart pumping without having to resort to a membership in one of those ubiquitous temples of narcissism. And best of all, is the opportunity to rediscover the wonders of this world, the only world we have and will have.

1000 Walksis a substantial volume (as in thick) and as the publisher notes, a wide-ranging compendium including, “country hikes, heritage trails, coastal strolls, mountain paths, and city walks from around the globe.”

Did I mention the pretty pictures?

Autobiography/Memoir in 365 Parts (10.0)

25 Mar
Young Isadore with his father (circa 1947) [photographer unknown

Young Isadore with his father (circa 1947) [photographer unknown

25 March 2015

The only son of Alfred and Rachel Birnbaum was born in a displaced persons camp in Bamberg, Germany in 1947. Named Isadore (after his murdered paternal grandfather), his parents— given their horrific recent experiences— viewed him as a miracle. In 1956, when Isadore became a naturalized citizen, he took the opportunity to change his birth name to ‘Robert’, thereby accelerating his Americanization process and also removing a prime cause of being teased by his peers(“Isadore, are you a door or window”). From the age of 12 until he was 20, Robert lived in Chicago’s 50th Ward, known as the Golden Ghetto. He attended several mediocre colleges and has achieved a Master’ degree in History from Boston University.Robert has written for Stuff Magazine, Boston Magazine, Boston Common, The Improper Bostonian and on line for Identitytheory, The Morning News, The Virginia Quarterly Review,Los Angeles Review of Books, the Daily Beast and innumerable obscure literary venues.He is currently Our Man in Boston.

The Power of the Dog

24 Mar
The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow

The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow

A few years back I came across a novel, Don Winslow‘s’ The Power of the Dog , that as I reread it over the past weekend, retained the same power to engage and excite as I felt on my initial take. And back then I so enjoyed Winslow’s Drug War magnum opus that I have since read most of his oeuvre. All were competently written but falling short of the potency of The Power of the Dog. I suspect that Winslow has exponentially enlarged his audience by two film adaptations— one of them, of his 2010 novel Savages directed by Oliver Stone:

and the other for an earlier (1997)novel The Death and Life of Bobby Z.

My first reading of Winslow’s Drug War saga in 2005 reminded me of the revelations about drugs for guns shenanigans by the CIA reported by Gary Webb (portrayed by the film Kill The Messenger). It had all the plausibility and verisimilitude of John LeCarre’s depictions of security agency corruption, rogue agents and free lancing spooks, incompetence and inter-agency squabbling as well as the complicity of major institutions such as the Church,left wing guerillas,foreign governments and of course the Mob. It is a rich array of criminal activity that skillfully blurred the lines of an already soft boundary between what is right and what is legal — a dichotomy that seems only considered in the breech.

As a first rate crime story, The Power of the Dog is peopled with complicated protagonists, seriously committed to their agendas and well represented by dialogue and conversational riffs as captivating as you might find in a George Higgins or Elmore Leonard yarn. All of which make for a propulsive narrative arc that travels smoothly from the first page to the 500th.

The Cartel by  Don Winslow

The Cartel by Don Winslow

The good news is that Winslow has written a sequel(The Cartel)that follows the drug war up to the present — which if it follows in the first installment’s path will be a fictional true account of objective realities (in the same way that Lincoln and other novels in Gore Vidal’s Empire Series were. Additionally, Shane Salerno is writing a script with Nikolaj Arcel & Rasmus Heisterberg (all of whom who worked with Winslow and Stone on the Savages script). Arcel is directing. Salerno is producing and and the film may be out by year’s end.

Autobiography /Memoir in 365 Parts (9.0)

21 Mar
YIPPIE (Youth International Party) logo circa 1968

YIPPIE (Youth International Party) logo circa 1968

in memory: Danny Schechter (1942-2015

21 March 2015

Chronological age is a misleading metric when considering literary journalist Robert Birnbaum. For example, it is the case that some years are of longer duration than others. In Birnbaum’s case 1968 was,uh, a transformative year. Political activism was at a high pitch: a big wave of consciousness raising was rolling over the First World and right wing hysteria was evolving from its incubus form to what we have today. Having witnessed the State at work in Chicago’s streets and at Grant Park in August, 1968 and also Eugene MCCarthy’s greeting to the throngs assembled across from the Conrad Hilton hotel, “Greetings to the government-in exile”, his commitment to campaigning for social justice became life long imperative

Just Talking: Me & Anthony Doerr

20 Mar
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This conversation took place on May 14 2014 at my one time favorite neighborhood place The Keltic Krust (gone now). Anthony Doerr’s most recent novel,All the Light We Cannot See was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award and (for what its worth) named one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review. As is my way, Tony and I spent a pleasant and engaging hour chatting about this and that. The account of which you can read below:

(3 OR 4 MINUTES DISCUSSING KID SPORTS , COACHING AND UMPIRING)

RB: What do you want to talk about? Have you spoken with a lot of people?

AD: The book came out eight days ago—so yeah, I’ve been talking a lot. I usually am skilled enough to deflect conversation away from myself. I get tired of it. I am flattered. It’s a lot better than having no one interested your work.

RB: Is this the first time you have done a book tour?

AD: I came to Boston for the 3rd book—Four Seasons in Rome. For About Grace (my 2nd book) I went to a bunch of cities. The Shell Collector won a prize (Barnes & Noble) and so I went to 20 cities-or-so cities visiting B&Ns.

RB: Here’s a personal question—what’s it like living in Boise, Idaho?

AD: It’s not a personal question. I love it. It’s great. We always feel we need to crank up the drawbridge and not tell people how great it is. It’s a beautiful little town. I can ride my bike to work. 300 days of sunshine a year.

RB: Where is work?

AD: I’m just a writer as my work. But I rent an office for $150 a month, outside my house.

RB: You can’t write at home?

AD: Even before we had kids it was too difficult. My wife would be at work and I would just do things at the house. Productive procrastination—it’s not like I would lie down. I would clean the garage meticulously.Fold every piece of laundry very carefully. And as hours ratchet by, I start to get more and more upset with myself and anxious.

RB: Why wouldn’t you go to the public library?

AD: I did at first, before I could afford this office. My problem is I have to pee every few hours—

RB: —the library doesn’t have lavatory?

AD:They do but it’s more of a laptop issue. Especially when I am in a good place, the last thing I want to do is pack up everything in my carrel and go to the bathroom. Then I come back and the carrel is gone. For me, fiction is often this house of cards you are building and if the kids come in or my wife wants me to do something or someone interrupts me–the phone rings–the house of cards falls over.

RB: Do you put things on a wall as visual aids?

AD: I do. There were a lot of photographs that I used writing this book. I covered a couple of walls.

RB: Did you travel to Germany?

AD:I did. I went to Europe three times. Germany, France. Normandy—Saint Malo. I visited three different times.

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: Lets get back to Boise— Gail Collins wrote a column on state legends and mentioned Idaho. Was the potato a part of the state motto?

AD:I don’t know. The potato I would understand. The university football team plays on blue turf.

RB: Yeah, what’s up with that?

AD: And then you get the white supremacists.

RB: Well, who can forget Ruby Ridge and its aftermath?

AD: That’s 9 hours north of our house—of course the reputation was earned.

RB: I met one other Idahoan, singer/songwriter Josh Ritter who is from Moscow Idaho.

AD: I’ve never met him but I like his work.

RB: I met him because he wrote a novel a few years back.

AD: You interviewed him—I read that. I hadn’t give him a chance as a novelist (which wasn’t fair because he is a wonderful songwriter) because I tend to be skeptical of someone who is really good at something and then they try to do something else. But his novel is good.

RB: Back to you—what determined the way you structured this story? Do you decide the form before you started the actual writing?

AD: : A lot of those decisions are not conscious. You are just kind of fumbling around, trying to figure out how this scaffolding will be built. But if I look back and start thinking about it critically, I realized that I’ve been building larger narratives our of little title pieces for a decade or so now. I think at least three of the stories in my last book, Memory Wall were long stories built with titled sections. “Memory Wall,” itself, the title novella is built from sections, each a little less than a page and each section has a title. What I liked about it was that it allowed me to move between points of view and employ a narrator who can go on little runs of lyricism and then you can give the reader a rest, some white space, between them.

RB: Janet Maslin commended you for doing that.

AD:Yes, she did. Which was surprising. She found an interview I had given at Powell’s and pulled that out. I was glad — I am getting a lot of questions about it. I didn’t think it was so unique or different; I’m certainly not the only contemporary writer to do it; Anne Carson, Jenny Offil, etc. I am getting a lot of questions like, ”Is it a response to short attentions spans?” Or Internet culture?

RB: That’s a reasonable question. Francine Prose’s recent book uses different forms —letters, book excerpts—to advance the narrative. You did the same—

AD: I wanted to make a symmetrical pattern and then occasionally disrupt it and see what that would do for a reader and try to keep in a reader’s head. See if she can keep both of these narratives—its almost as if I spat two lines straight up towards the sky and just inclined them slightly toward each other. . I want a reader to intuit that they are going to intersect and start anticipating that. And hopefully that builds some narrative momentum.

RB: And there are echoes of Rashoman — 2 people looking at the exact same thing…

AD: Yeah, thanks. I love that. Certainly that’s true for radio in the novel. Radio plays a different role in each of their lives. It’s both a curse and a gift.

RB: Philip Kerr, who has a novel series about a homicide detective in Nazi Germany says when he is finished with one of those novels, he feels like “he is climbing out of a dirty basement.”

AD: : I totally understand what he was saying. It felt so good to finally take those photos down. I had photos of the Hitler Youth in my office; I’d have friends come over and they’d emphatically ask, “What are you doing in here?” And I was beating myself up any time I read something that wasn’t about World War II or written in German around that time—something that I couldn’t qualify as research. For almost a decade, anything I was reading, I felt it should bend itself toward this project. So it felt so nice just really in the past three months to move into this Panama piece or start reading things about another time in history. Part of the reason that All the Light took so long was the psychic damage of reading incessantly about the destruction of human beings, especially when you read about the Eastern front and the Ukraine and this ravine called Babi Yar.

RB: ‘Killing fields’ before the term was coined.

AD: Unreal. The most destructive conflict you can imagine. And even forgetting what happened to Gypsies and disabled people and Jewish people, just what happened to soldiers on both sides —the level of violence and brutality in those two winters—‘42 and ’43 was obscene So sometimes reading those things I would have to stop. That’s why I wrote two other books. Partially as procrastination because this book was so difficult to put together. And partly because psychologically it was really difficult to live in the space for so many months..

RB: So, you first had the idea for this story and then you began to research? Or you began research about something and it got a little sharper and you researched more…

AD: Mostly the latter. You write yourself into these unknowns and you realize, ”I need to understand what a kitchen in 1939 would look like in Brittany.” So now I have to go figure that out. My problem there is you have to avoid letting that balloon into a kind of research/procrastination. Because after while I’m like, “Ooh maybe I ‘ll look at some more photos.” (laughs) It’s a lot easier than writing new sentences.

RB: Did you read all of [Joseph] Goebbels’s* writing?

AD: No, no, mostly his speeches in translation. Everything that is on Werner’s radio as a boy is real. I’m not making it up. All those slogans — that’s at that NAPOLA school (National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta). Yea, that stuff is so sinister.

RB: You read memoirs of students who attended that school?

AD:: Yes, a lot of that is in German, which I cannot read, I had to punch them into some god-awful Google translator. But those schools were real and sometimes in the novel I am toning down the punishing nature of those environments—I don’t really want to shine the light so brightly just on violence. That’s true, too, in what happens to Jutta [Werner’s sister] very late in the novel. In all likelihood, in real life, that would have happened to her many, many more times.

RB: Were you relieved to finish this novel?

AD: Yeah. At some point I had so many colored note cards out on the floor and I felt like: If I get hit by a bus my poor wife is never going to be able to piece this thing together.

RB: You could have an editor like Michael Pietsch who put together David Foster Wallace’s post humus novel.

AD: I know. But for a couple years there, I don’t think anyone could have assembled that mess into something functional. But later there’s that amazing moment when you can print the thing off and you don’t have to worry about your computer crashing or a your auxiliary hard drive crashing. That feels good.

RB: So after you complete the writing part, how long does it stay with you?

AD: For me its kind of like painting. Maybe it’s a forced metaphor, but the paint starts to dry after a couple of weeks if your subconscious isn’t working on it. That’s true for really any project—even if you are halfway through it. For me even little things like Thanksgiving or a family vacation for a week —if I am away from the work for even that short of a time, the ice really starts to form over it. It takes a week of chopping away at the prose before you can get back into it Because for me the times I am most happy and working well is when I am getting 3, 4, 5 sometimes 9 hours a day of working and then you do something like this—you come to a coffee shop or you walk the dog or you go to your kid’s baseball game, and suddenly your subconscious solves one of those problems you’ve made for yourself. Or you read something in the newspaper that seems totally unrelated, but it’s not—when you’re working a lot, everything starts to become relevant. But if your brain moves on to something else, it takes a couple of weeks. And then it seals over.

RB: There is that oft-repeated truism that writers write even when they are not writing.

AD:Yeah, you interviewed David Mitchell once [actually 5 or 6 times]? He compared writing to farming “there are a lot of different activities that comprise farming,” he said, or something like that. I like that—writing is not just confronting a blank white page all the time. You’re reading through what you’ve got so far. Or you’re seeding the fields by looking for other ideas. Or you are polishing your tools, or flipping through the seed catalogs.

RB: It’s a total life experience —for some people. I was watching True Detective and I was thinking that that’s another occupation or calling that is total.

AD: That’s part of the reason I have that separate space. To my family when I am home I am home. I’m present. Even if that means I get up at one in the morning to work on a piece. When my kids are around and they need help, I try to be there. And if I am not at home I am at work.

RB: How do you get along with people?

AD: I love people! They’re fascinating. There are times—I don’t have a sign on my door and I wear headphones like a chain saw operator—so there are times when I am being anti-social probably, just because it takes so long to get something done. Some of the chapters in this book, I have probably combed over hundreds of times. So, you do spend hours away from your family and friends.

RB: Really when you think about it, writers are abnormal. I find it difficult to gauge to what people are paying attention. If your interests are literary or about narrative and thoughtful, how do you deal with people who follow the Kardashians or whatever the latest trivia dominates the news cycle? Or spend their time sending selfies?

AD: My wife helps me try to be a less judgmental person and to try to understand everybody’s following a story and even the Kardashians, for some people are some kind of narrative they are following. I can relate to it terms of sports—I follow the narrative arcs of games but also of seasons and players within a season, coming back from injuries. So for some people it might be movie stars or whatever—they’re still big narratives that are interesting to them. I try to appreciate that.
RB: Am old Jew, Philo of Alexandria offered, ”Be kind, everyone in life is in a great battle.”

AD: Dr. Sherman Nuland said that in one of your interviews. It’s a beautiful quote.

RB: Have there been any negative reviews of your new opus?

AD: There has been one so far. In the Sunday Times. It was painful—William Vollman wrote it. The rest have been really good. Vollman did not enjoy Werner’s trajectory as much as Marie’s. His argument is a little cluttered to me but that’s because I didn’t like it. He says that spend more empathetic effort making Marie an individual and relied more on stereotype for Werner. And the next review will say the exact opposite.

RB: I don’t see that as a criticism as much as statement of taste.

AD: Yeah.

RB: But it still bothered you.

AD:I wish it didn’t. (pause)That is a really important thing for me to struggle with— I try to pretend, to myself, that I don’t care. But I am also skeptical of the writers who tell me they never read reviews of their own work and they don’t care how their books are received. You make this thing alone for so long and it goes into the world and the point of it is optimistic—to hope to connect with a stranger. To hope that somehow there is something inside this language that meets a reader and the reader has to meet you halfway. And so you’re curious to find out how readers will respond to it. At least I am.

RB: That’s an articulate way of saying we want to be acknowledged and liked.

AD: Another way of thinking about it is that you are an engineer and you are making this machine and you want to find out of the machine is working.

RB: Maybe your best hope is people read the whole book.

AD: (laughs)

RB: I read a review of a biography of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee and it stated that there should be no 800-page book a bout a sports figure. So immediately I am wondering if the reviewer read the entire book. I thought the same thing — I don’t think anyone merits an 800-page biography. But having read entire book I thought Bradlee made it work.

AD: I think you can write 800 pages on weeds and the lawn if you are good enough at it. Nicholson Baker could probably do that. With that length you are announcing: I know a lot about this and it’s going to be really interesting. Your reader has to come into it with a lot of skepticism, and if you win you reader that’s an achievement.

RB. On the other hand you have the case of Robert Caro on LBJ.

AD: Yeah, amazing

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: That’s good example of how much information is contained in many lives. We are so packed with all the stuff that happens and if you are world historical it has more valence.

AD: Of course, any life you can unspool a day for a thousand pages

RB: Mostly we don’t pay attention too much of it.

AD: That brings me back to your saying that writing is a way of living. I got into reading because I didn’t want to sleepwalk my way through life. But you can’t stay awake and alert to the majesty every day, every minute. Occasionally if you train you mind to pay attention, slowing down and looking at things very deeply, you do get to focus a little more. I don’t believe in reincarnation. You get one trip and if you are lucky you get 80 years — so why not pay attention to every thing that you can and learn as much as you can while you are here.

RB: True dat. You never know when you are going to come across a good story or storyteller. I marvel that there are people who claim to be bored and played out in life—essentially dead. I don’t know how that happens.

AD: Me neither. I feel like the world is way too interesting—just say yes. That’s what I tell young people, my students—somebody asks you to do something say yes, even if you are tired. If they want you to go mountain biking I in the middle of the night. Or they want you to scrape and paint a mural on a wall, go do it. You might learn something and you might run in to the storyteller you were talking about. And helps you recast everything I a bright and different light and help you re-see the world.

RB: Have you a prognosis or prediction for the world of literature?

AD: Oh man, no. (both laugh) No, I am so grateful that people read my work and I’m reading a lot of interesting and vital writers who are alive right now.

RB: That’s quite true—it seems that the people who are perpetually grousing about all the crap being published make too much noise. But so what— if there is a lot of good work being published?

AD: Maybe there is a greater need for gatekeepers, maybe curators is a better word. I like the ‘Readings’ section of Harper’s —anything that helps me find beautiful, important pieces that I have missed.

RB: Literature is not disappearing in the foreseeable future

AD: We still crave narrative. People maybe turning to True Detective instead of William Gass. And that may be something to mourn but I think True Detective is a really interesting piece of work.

RB: Yes, created by a novelist, Nic Pizzolatto.
.
(Brief interlude discussing the Wire) The cable channels have provided writes with great opportunities.

AD: Yeah, pretty nice. I didn’t know much about it but Nic Pizzolatto. He had two books with Scribner before he made True Detective.

RB: Galveston was one.

AD: [writer] Ben Percy told me he was a pretty good storywriter and just decided to try a screenplay. You can tell he’s read Faulkner and some Flannery O’Connor.

RB: The commercial imperative coming from publishers seems to be to keep grinding out series.

AD: I like the idea of each of the boards of the book closing,and that making its own universe.

RB: Have you read Alan Furst?

AD: No.

RB: His novels cover the WWII era in Europe and they are exceedingly well researched. And his rigor and conscientious commitment to get the fact right is because as he related to me, “Too much blood was shed not to be accurate.”

AD: I felt that too—very much so. For me in this novel the Holocaust is underneath the book all the time. Its kind of a silence between the sentences and there are times when I told myself, “Tony you have to do this with a lot of respect.” Especially because I am not shining a light directly upon the camps—they are just always in the background behind Werner’s childhood.The weight of responsibility to do a respectful reverent job was hopefully achieved.

RB: I came across Peter Matthiessen’s newest book [ After Paradise]which is set in Auschwitz— a group of Buddhists make a pilgrimage—

AD: Long after the fact, you mean?

RB: Yes, yes. It’s a very peculiar entry point to a touchy subject. I loved the first book I read by him back in 1967— At Play In the Fields of the Lord.

AD: He was important to me. The whole Shadow Country Trilogy —those books are amazing. He ability to be in love with the natural world and tell stories about it—he and Rick Bass and Andrea Barrett —those were really models for me, people who care deeply about the environment and use storytelling to communicate that.

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Anthony Doerr {Photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: Cormac McCarthy also.

AD: Yes, he does have a love for landscape and it’s complicated. It comes, primarily though narrative. And that’s what I had to learn. For years I would just describe what I would see. I loved to backpack .I loved to be outside. It was really Rick and Andrea and reading Mattheissen who started me thinking that maybe I could make narratives out of it. I really infect my characters with interests that I have.

RB: You like to repair radios? [Werner does this in the novel]

AD: I like to play with radios. I am not very good at fixing them.

RB: Speaking of McCarthy, I caught a scene in No Country for Old Men with Tommy Lee Jones and Barry Corbin, which was elliptical but perfectly understandable. It was this gem of a conversation.

AD: You’re looking at the surface of the lake but there is the lake underneath…

RB: Did he write the screenplay?

AD: The Coen brothers did. I have been in love with McCarthy since I was in my teens. That’s maybe not his best novel but it’s probably the best film made from one of his novels. That’s because it was true to the essence of the book without being true to the actual material of the book.

RB: I didn’t recall the hit man[played by Javier Badem] being that dark and evil a character in the novel.

AD: Archetypal—the Devil. This makes me want to go watch it. I should watch the Counselor when I am on an airplane sometime; haven’t seen that one yet.

RB: Yeah, the Counselor is an odd movie—full of ponderous dialogue and speechifying but Ridley Scott always makes watchable movies.

AD: Interesting. I like it in his books—the Judge’s rant in Blood Meridian fascinate me. I am glad nobody has made that [in to a film]. I feel like that book is a book and should remain just a book.

RB: Garcia Marquez famously refused a million dollars for One Hundred Years of Solitude. I read somewhere that he agreed to someone’s offer with the following conditions—each chapter would be presented as 2 minutes in film and each of the chapters would be shown in sequence, each year, for 100 years.

AD: That’s funny (laughs)

RB: That book was important to me as was Pynchon’s— what about you?

AD:So many, although I think of Gravity’s Rainbow now that you mention Pynchon. To the Lighthouse, Blood Meridian, and Rick Bass’s the Watch (his first story collection). So much energy and movement in that book, especially the novella that names the collection. All these bicyclist’s whizzing through the dark. And in love with the magic of nature —fireflies in jars. He has a story called “The Hermit’s Story” about swamp gas erupting under the bottom of this lake, all this magic that is around us. I love that story.

RB: I can’t remember the last time I saw a firefly.

AD: Aw, Robert. We don’t have them in Idaho but when I visit my parents in Ohio, of course.

RB: Or monarch butterflies.

AD: That’s a problem—that’s real.

RB: The Panama Project you mentioned, is that novel?

AD: I don’t know yet. I finished the edits on this book in January [2014]. The published version of the novel is 110,000 words —the original was 170,000. We worked really hard on it. I can get a little verbose so my editor [Nan Graham] helped me trim and prune and gain a little more momentum. The great thing about her is I never feel like she is trying to make the book more commercial; she’s just trying to make the book better. So, I think it will take me about three months or so before I can really get the next thing off the ground.

RB: So while you try to decide what do you do?

AD: Y: You just keep trying to make things, and you see if they can stand up on their own.

RB: Do you do journalism?

AD: I say ‘yes’ to travel magazines sometimes. Often those things fuel my fiction. Especially when I review science books —that stuff funnels back in to my work. Also I go mountain biking a lot.

RB: Do you envision every leaving Boise?

AD: For the quality of life we have and the amount of work I can get done. I never sit in traffic. There are days that go by that I ever get in a car.

RB: I lived South Coastal New Hampshire for a while. I get that. A life where a car is an option not a necessity. Well, it’s been a real pleasure talking with you. Did we talk about everything you wanted to talk about?

AD: Sure. [A brief exchange about moi] Thanks.

LINKS

Anthony Doerr Tony’s website

Literary Jackpot, Against the Odds NY Times article (not a review) on All the Light We Cannot See

Alan FurstOne of my conversations with Furst

Ben Bradlee My chat with Ben about The Kid.

Philip Kerr A conversation with the creator of a slew of Bernie Gunther novels and a bunch of stand alones.

Josh Ritter The singer songwriter tries his hand at fiction.

Sherman Nuland My chat with the author of How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter.

Powell’s Interview

True Detective

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