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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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

 

Peter Guralnick and the Man Who Invented Rock And Roll

9 Feb

Peter Guralnick [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Peter Guralnick [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

While renowned chronicler of American music Peter Guralnick made his bones with his seminal two volume study of cultural icon Elvis Presley ( of whom I was not a fan) when I came upon Guralnick’s Dream Boogie *: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (of whom I am an immense fan) I suspected we might be kindred spirits. So, when I received his recent opus on Sam Phillips , I  arranged to meet with him. As it turns out, among other things, we both place value on and enjoy digressive conversation (which I think is redundant, as I view real conversation to be inherently digressive.) In any case, what follows is that chat (hopefully the first in an ongoing series), which is, as you may suspect, a peripatetic journey through mid century American music and much more. 

 

Sam Phillps by Peter Guralnick

Sam Phillps by Peter Guralnick

 

 

Robert Birnbaum: Would it bother you— I really don’t like to pose people. Do you mind, if while we’re talking, I take your picture ?

Peter Guralnick: As long as I’m not eating, or dribbling.

Robert Birnbaum:Yes.

Peter Guralnick:Or drooling.

Robert Birnbaum: (laughs) I’d like to get the drooling photo.

Peter Guralnick: Everybody wants that.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s the money shot, that’s what they said to me. People Magazine said, “Get Guralnick drooling and there’ll be lots of money for you.”

Peter Guralnick:I’ve looked at some of your other interviews, they’re really cool.

Robert Birnbaum:Thank you.

Peter Guralnick:The people you talk to… and you even talked to Don Winslow

Robert Birnbaum: I  introduced him and spoke with him in front of an audience at [Brookline] BookSmith.

Peter Guralnick: What a great writer, [author of]  The Power of the Dog.

Robert Birnbaum: I like both that one and the new one, The Cartel

Peter Guralnick: I don’t know, The Cartel didn’t grab me quite as much, maybe it’s because  I couldn’t follow it as well.  But The Power of the Dog —man, that just knocked me out. How about Kem Nunn? You’ve got to read The Dogs of Winter.

Robert Birnbaum: Ok, today’s the 17th of December. I’m talking to Peter Guralnick.

Peter Guralnick:It’s not the 17th.

Robert Birnbaum:Well, lets pretend it’s the 17th. What day is it?

Peter Guralnick:The 15th.

Peter Guralnick [photo: copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum

Peter Guralnick [photo: copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum

Robert Birnbaum:(laughter)You have to be picky about it.

Peter Guralnick:No, ordinarily I wouldn’t know.

Robert Birnbaum:I’m talking to Mr. Fussy here.

Peter Guralnick: If you ask me any other day, I wouldn’t know, but I do know today.

Robert Birnbaum:See, I even have a date book and I don’t know. Well, whatever the date is, I’m talking to Peter Guralnick. And we are rolling. You spend part of the year in Nashville at Vanderbilt, are you still doing that?

Peter Guralnick: Yeah, I’m going back this year, this is the 11th year I’ll be teaching Creative Writing spring semester there. It’s been great. It’s kind of misleading that Little, Brown wrote that, “He divides his time.” I said, “Well, that sounds okay,” but really I live around here and I teach creative writing at Vanderbilt spring semester.

Robert Birnbaum:Is Vanderbilt separate, like many colleges, from the community? Is it a little island unto itself? When you’re at Vanderbilt can you see where you are in the town?

Peter Guralnick:You’re pretty much in the middle of things. I’d say my largest range of association is, not just within the music community, but within the larger community. I’m certainly friendly with people at Vanderbilt, but the larger community is very accessible and you’re right in the middle of it. I’m not sure that Vanderbilt chooses to be in the middle of it, but they are.

Robert Birnbaum:Compare life in that town, to life in New England for instance. Big cultural difference?

Peter Guralnick: I can’t.

Robert Birnbaum: You just don’t spend enough time?

Peter Guralnick: What it is, is that my life in Nashville the teaching is like running a camp. I think it’s total immersion, in a self-sustaining community. It’s been very rewarding working with the students, both under-graduate and graduate. But, because of the fact that I’m living in town, living on the edge of town you might say. I go out all the time, I see people, I meet people.

Robert Birnbaum: Catch live music?

Peter Guralnick:I go out to hear live music all the time. Whereas, basically when I’m at home, at least for the last 20-25 years, I’m writing. I’ve always been writing, but the point is I live an hour outside of Boston.

Robert Birnbaum: No distractions.

Peter Guralnick:There are no distractions. And in Boston music starts later and later. In Nashville you can go out and you can catch a  9:00 set, you might even catch two sets and be home by 11:00, because you’re only 15 minutes away.

Robert Birnbaum:Well,everyone wants, inquiring minds want to know. Is the Sam Phillips book—I’m not sure it’s a biography. Is the Sam Phillips book like an penultimate project for you? Is everything else going to be anticlimactic after this?

Peter Guralnick:No. I always said, I never set out to be a professional biographer.

Robert Birnbaum:Are you a professional biographer?

Peter Guralnick:No. I’ve always wanted to write something different,to continue to write something different with each book. I started out to be a writer, when I was a kid. When I was eight or nine years old. I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a baseball player. I have no professional concept of either.

Robert Birnbaum:If you’re at spring at Vanderbilt, you watch very good baseball [Vanderbilt  has a very good baseball program]?

Peter Guralnick:I don’t much like watching. I love to play. I played baseball until I was 48 and then I ran into a tri-focal crisis. Now, I just play tennis. I’ve played sports all my life, it’s been a great source of reward, satisfaction and friendship. A great source of friendship.

Robert Birnbaum:You were talking about writing.

Peter Guralnick: I wanted to be a writer. The music came about just because – I mean, I wrote my first novel when I was 19, I published a couple of collections of short stories when I was 21 and 22. But I started writing about music during this same time period – the whole point was purely, entirely, simply to tell people about this music that I thought was so great. The opportunity came about when the underground press started popping up – Crawdaddy! started in ’66 or ’67,  Boston After Dark began around the same time, and then there were the blues magazines in England. People who knew me couldn’t help but know how much I loved the blues, so they asked me if I’d like to write about it. How could I say no? Just to have the opportunity to put the names of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley in print….But just to square the circle, to go back to your original question,  I think as I continued on this path that I had set out on first with Elvis, I guess I saw the Sam Phillips almost as the third in the trilogy of biographies. That wasn’t how I started out, but that’s how I eventually came to see it. I can’t conceive of writing another biography, not out of any disaffection, or disillusionment with it, but because I’ve spent the last 27 years writing biographies. Now I’m going to go back to writing short stories.

Mister Down Child by Peter Guralnick

Mister Down Child by Peter Guralnick

Robert Birnbaum:Not a novel?

Peter Guralnick:Well, maybe.The last novel I wrote, which is either the 10th or the 11th, has been stuck in the middle of third draft for a long, long time. So I want to go back to it, see if it’s worth finishing. It may well not be and if it isn’t I’m going to be doing the stories, then I think I’ll go on to another novel.

Robert Birnbaum:There isn’t another, forget about musical, there’s not another figure, cultural figure  or person that you are interested enough in to investigate their life?

Peter Guralnick:There is, but not that I want to write the book. I read the review of the John le Carre biography in the Times today. Which I was quite interested in. As I think you know by now, I don’t read biographies much, I don’t read non-fiction much. I thought that would be an interesting subject to explore. I would have loved to have written a biography of Willie Mays. That was something I thought about a lot after finishing the Sam Cooke. Then I just realized it would be like starting all over again, I had no contacts. I had no access to that world. It would be a matter of persuading people who had no idea who I was, that I was somebody worth talking to.

Robert Birnbaum: You’d have to persuade him that you were worth talking to.

Peter Guralnick:Then it turned out somebody else was working on the book. That actually wasn’t what discouraged me, I had already decided I couldn’t do it.

Robert Birnbaum: Is there a musical figure, character that deserves a biography that no one has written about?

Peter Guralnick:There are hundreds.

Robert Birnbaum:Name a few of them?

Peter Guralnick: Merle Haggard, has had a lot of books written about him, but I think no great biography. He’s one of the great creative artists of our time. Somebody like Alice Munro, deserves a great artistic biography. There are many writers like that. Somebody like, Charlie Rich would be a tremendous subject for a biography, but probably it would not be one that could be sold.

Robert Birnbaum:How could a Sam Phillips biography be viewed as having commercial potential? ? Especially as the cultural literacy window has narrowed so much.

Peter Guralnick: Five years.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s right.

Peter Guralnick:Is that being generous?

Robert Birnbaum:I was going to say 7-10, but five sounds about right. I asked people, in fact I even asked my physical therapist who’s 30. I started naming names, both current and 15-20 years. I said, “I’m reading a book about Sam Phillips.” “Who’s Sam Philips?” She didn’t even know there was a singer named Sam Phillips.[1]

 

Peter Guralnick:I wanted to say one thing. After I finished the Elvis biography I would run into people who’d say, “Now, you’ve written about the King, who would be a worthy subject?” I would say, “Anybody.” I would say that this is a matter of human dignity and human worth. It has nothing to do with fame, it has nothing to do with celebrity.  I’ve spoken many times about a friend of mine, Irving Roberts. He did – and this isn’t even the beginning of all that he did – he did all of the maintenance work and construction and, oh, just everything that needed doing, including good advice, at camp. His  father built the camp that my grandfather started and that I later ran. I couldn’t even begin to describe all of Irving’s talents and skills –  he’s one of the most interesting people, one of the most brilliant people, one of the most inventive people, one of the most resourceful and compassionate people I’ve ever met. He would be a great subject for as biography!

Robert Birnbaum:Uncle Silas would have been a worthy subject.

Peter Guralnick:That’s true. In other words, this ranking of the worth of subjects to me is, I’m not saying you’re doing it, but it’s anti-democratic. In a way that only a true Trumpian could understand.

Robert Birnbaum:The point is, you’re lucky to be affiliated with a publishing house that has somebody like Michael Pietsch, whose really an editor and a book person.

Peter Guralnick: Michael Pietsch [2]is the best friend I’ve ever made in publishing. In all the years I’ve been in publishing, I’ve made good friends, but he is the best friend I’ve made.

Robert Birnbaum:The introduction he wrote, the tip in he wrote to the advanced reading copy was, I think appropriate, do you think somebody else would have bought this book?

r.

          Peter Guralnick: Cal Morgan at Harper, but he just left Harper. You know, he published Jess Walter[3].

          Robert Birnbaum: I love Beautiful Ruins.

          Peter Guralnick:Oh, all of his books are great. Every one is different.

Robert Birnbaum: Has anyone written about Howlin Wolf, in a good way?

 

 

Peter Guralnick:There’s a biography of Howlin Wolf that’s a wonderful accumulation of so much great stuff.  Mark Hoffman wrote it, Mark and James Segrest. [4]It’s great that they did it. That’s a book, you wanted to ask me, is there a biography I would have liked to have written? I would have loved to e write a biography of Howlin’ Wolf, but I talked myself out of it, I thought it was too late. But Mark and James Segrest went out and found all these people, contemporaries of Wolf,  friends, family, everything. So, you know, I’m not ranking or regretting – I mean, as Solomon Burke said to me a number of times, “Bile will consume you.” You never want to go there if you can help it!

Robert Birnbaum:Did he make that up?

Peter Guralnick:I think so.

Peter Guralnick: He also said, “Who is it that’s Pete the Writer when he’s alone in his hotel room at night.” He was pissed off at me, mildly pissed off at me at the time. I sign all my letters that way now, Pete the Writer In his Lonely Room. No, I mean, they went out and did something that I didn’t think could be done. That was a book I would like to have written. My own biography of Howlin’ Wolf, I mean. Satchel Paige [5]is another person I would have loved to have written about. I pitched the story on Satchel Paige to Rolling Stone, while he was coaching out in Oklahoma. He was coaching third base in a rocking chair. I figured, how could it miss? But Rolling Stone  didn’t see it that way.

Robert Birnbaum: Are there pictures of that?

Peter Guralnick:I’ve never seen any.

Robert Birnbaum:There’s got to be. How could somebody not.

Peter Guralnick: On the internet, anything. Even if it didn’t exist, it does exist.

Robert Birnbaum: I agree with you, I think that’s right, but that’s not the way the book industry works. That is to say they do need subjects with high name recognition.

 

Peter Guralnick [photo: copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum

Peter Guralnick [photo: copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum

Peter Guralnick:Well, look, after Elvis – and this is just an exemplary tale (no bile) – after Elvis, I was looking for a new agent and I talked to 16 or 17, I think. I told them my next book was going to be about Sam Cooke, and every one of them said, “Big mistake. Bad career move, after the King.” Then they suggested things which they said could bring a great deal of money, and I believed them and I said, “Yes, but I’m writing about Sam Cooke.”

Robert Birnbaum: Let me bless you for that. First of all I don’t read biographies and I don’t usually read musical biographies. But, I loved Sam Cooke. I’m from Chicago, I love that book. Thank you for the book.

Peter Guralnick:This is what happened to me, I’ll say to you that the 18th agent that I spoke to was David Gernert, and he said, “This is really cool.” And he went out and sold it, and that’s what I did. But it involved a conscious recognition on my part. That I was reducing my market share with each book, enormously. And, you know, it’s no big deal, but I was writing the books I wanted to write. And I can honestly say I’ve never written about anybody that I didn’t want to write about. Every single person I’ve written about is somebody I’ve written about out of admiration.

Robert Birnbaum:And love.

Peter Guralnick: And love.

Robert Birnbaum:You loved Sam Phillips.

Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick

Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick

Peter Guralnick:Yeah. Loved Sam Cooke too, even if I didn’t know him. The point is, my concept is that, I want to write as much as possible from the inside out. I’m not interested in being an arbiter of fashion, I’m not interested in providing judgments. I’m interested in providing an open book and to some extent, by doing it, I discovered  that writing biographies provided me with  a landscape that offered as much potential as the fictional landscapes that I had been focusing on.

Robert Birnbaum:Let me pause you here. Your conversation with Mark Feeney,  [6] you’ve come to see non-fiction as, “As giving me the opportunity to create these great characters on this expansive plane and populate this world. Because, I came to see it in each of these books, the facts we’re given but not the story. The characters were extraordinary people who developed out of ordinary circumstances. We live in a society that seeks judgement so much of the time, that seeks a bottom line that so often distorts the complexity of reality. Whether it’s Elvis or Sam Cooke, or Sam Phillips, I’m interested in what motivates them, their aspirations, their hopes, their dreams, their disappointments, their inner life. Not a catalog of their achievements.” I think deep down that’s what people want to really read. 600 pages of facts about what a guy had for breakfast when he was seven and what his sex life was at the age of 70 maybe more information than a reader wants.

Peter Guralnick:From my point of view the ideal is to write a book as interesting as the person. To write a book, in the case of Sam Phillips, in which it’s not just the main characters but the cultural milieu that provides the focus. It’s the supporting cast, it’s people like Tom Perryman, in the Elvis book who is out there in Gladewater in East Texas. Out there in Gladewater, he’s the program director and a DJ, and he sees something in this 19-year-old and promotes Elvis on for the first time outside of Memphis and the Hayride. The point is this is a man of imagination, he’s a man that’s looking to get ahead on his own. He’s a man looking towards the future. He doesn’t play a big part in the book, but there are so many people like that.

 

Robert Birnbaum:It’s that old democratic thing, ideally everyone has a story. There’s a story with everyone, you can find multitudes of people that would make an interesting story and book. Getting back to this craft of talking about people, I like biographical essays. Which concises someone’s life, somebody who knows the person and that can speak eloquently. I have read a few [ your books], David Hadju’s book on Billy Strayhorn.[7] Nick Tosches’s and a couple of his books,. I didn’t really like his Dean Martin. But he put him into cultural context. He doesn’t just about the details of the person’s life, a lot of which is mundane,  and banal. I don’t think many people capture that, is it because the publishers  look for hagiographic tracts or exposes  on popular artists.

Peter Guralnick:I think you’d have to expand your definition, it’s not just the industry, it’s academe, it’s the academy. Which is also looking for facts and for instance some of most acclaimed biographies, well, leaving aside, let’s say, a book like Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters,” which is a masterpiece of portraiture and a masterpiece of describing the climate of the time – well, look, I don’t want to get into anyone in particular, but sometimes these books just pile up, they just pile on the facts, as if they were writing a PhD thesis, or a glorified school paper. You’ll read something and you’ll be struck by it, and then the next paragraph will reinforce it, the following paragraph will drive home the point even more. You say, “I get it, I get it” – you know what I mean?

t, the following paragraph will drive home the point even more. You say, “I get it, I get it” – you know what I mean?

Robert Birnbaum: I mean, four volumes on someone’s life. Didn’t Dumas Malone write six volumes on Jefferson? But what I was going to say, by now its sort of a cliche for me, my feeling is that novels like Gore Vidal’s, “Lincoln,” and “Burr” – I felt that I learned more about Lincoln in Vidal’s novel, “Lincoln ” than I did in reading any texts and any description of him.

Peter Guralnick:I thought those two were wonderful novels. But so was Henry and Clara.

Robert Birnbaum: Tom Mallon. Henry and Clara. That’s a great book.[8]

Peter Guralnick:Isn’t that a terrific book?:You can see what I read.

Robert Birnbaum:I’ve been talking to Tom for years, since I discovered that book.

 

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

 

Peter Guralnick: I just read the Reagan and I read the Nixon before that. To me Henry and Clara

Robert Birnbaum:It’s a brilliant idea. To take a great event and take it from the side, then see what it did to these characters. It’s like writing a novel about a people who were in the grassy knoll. Tom Boyle wrote something about McCormacks era, Colonel McCormack’s era, Riven Rock.[9]

Riven Rock by TC Boyle

Riven Rock by TC Boyle

 

 

Robert Birnbaum The woman [Katherine McCormack] that McCormack’s son married turned out to be a really fantastic woman who ended up at MIT. I think they’ve named buildings after her. I guess what I wanted to get to was, a few years ago the notion of creative non-fiction was introduced and people like to argue about it. I guess, I think that the dividing line, between fictional narrative and non-fictional narrative is blurring. In many cases you can tell a story better and you can argue about what the facts are, but you can tell a story better by introducing elements that are not necessarily factually correct.

Peter Guralnick: I’m not sure. I wouldn’t make that division, I wouldn’t draw that distinction. I think in many ways the characters, the real-life characters that you run into in anybody’s life, that I’ve run into in the stories of Sam Cooke or Sam Phillips or Elvis Presley, are just as compelling. You have all these ancillary characters whose stories in their own way are just as compelling. I think the two essential elements, different elements but in the end fusing into the same thing, are the focus on character and the focus on story. The point is that in terms of narrative, you have to have this narrative momentum. Which is an invention like Hemingway’s dialogue, like slapback, the repetitive-echo device that Sam Phillips employed to such wonderful effect, it’s an invention to make the real realer. Without that narrative momentum you’re just dead in the water. You attempt to get an overview, but you have to recognize that the overview you’re getting is entirely different from the overview another writer, or the reader, might bring to it, or that that person sitting over there might get from another angle. Each of us, given the same set of facts, the same set of interviews, the same set of quotes, the same set of everything, would create an entirely different book.

Robert Birnbaum:I would amplify that, by saying that it’s also the case, that if I read this book a second time, or if you wrote the book a second time there would be differences.

Peter Guralnick:There would absolutely be differences. It’s how the weather is. The point is, I mean,  that I used to think, in terms of writing fiction, what I had for breakfast, something that might be in the news, whatever was in the air, started you off in a completely different – or somewhat different – way.  I mean, it struck me early on, when I first started writing. I started writing every day when I was around 15. I read the Hemingway interview in the Paris Review where he said that –

Robert Birnbaum:He wrote 1000 words a day or something like that?

Peter Guralnick:He wrote every day, he wrote for a certain amount of time. I thought, man, I don’t think that I can write as well as Ernest Hemingway. But I can at least write every day, I think I can write 1000 words a day. It may be shit, but I can commit myself to that. And I did, from the time I was 15, pretty much for the next 30 years. I mean, I could get in at 3 o’clock in the morning, I might have to go to work at 9 – when I was in college, I might have an early class – it didn’t matter. I was going to get up early to write.

Robert Birnbaum:What’s the feeling like when you’re doing that? What do you feel like?

Peter Guralnick:Frustration. Frustration. So much of the time what you’re writing just doesn’t make it, it isn’t any good.

Robert Birnbaum: And you know that when you’re writing it?

Peter Guralnick:Well, not so much if you’re involved in ongoing work. What I was doing for the most part, at the start anyway, was doing beginnings of things which never panned out. Later on, when I was committed to ongoing work, whether it was a novel or a book, it got easer. But I can remember sitting down every day to write the profile of Johnny Shines in “Feel Like Going Home” –  I remember specifically how overwhelmed I was by all the material I had, and how could I convey the essence of what I wanted to say? That was one of the few stories, that and Charlie Feathers in “Lost Highway” –

 

Lost Highway by Peter Guralnick

Lost Highway by Peter Guralnick

 

Those two times, it wasn’t that I had more facts or more information than I did on anybody else, but I remember feeling a sense of hopelessness that I could ever boil this down to create the portrait that I had in my head. The finely etched portrait! Then, finally, I guess the dam just broke. But that’s different from what I was talking about before , in high school and the first couple of years of college, starting fresh every day, and then having to start fresh again the next day, because what I’d written the day before just didn’t go anywhere, it was, like, scribbling. I suppose it isn’t that different from what all of us face all the time, from what I know I still face, certainly. The idea of starting – you have a blank piece of paper, a blank screen and you sit there and nothing comes. You start to write and you say, “This is terrible, this is ridiculous.” You force yourself to keep going and at the end of the day you have 600, 800 words.

I used to do it in notebooks, I would just turn the page. I didn’t crumple up the pages. You turn the page and you start something else the next day. That’s entirely different from working on a novel, or continuing with ongoing work. To me the whole point of what you’re looking for in any creative act – and creative act can encompass just about anything you commit yourself to fully in life – the whole point is, you’re looking for that moment when you’re lost in what you’re doing. You have applied everything that you know and in some ways you’ve cast it out and you are going just on autopilot, because you’re lost in the act.

Robert Birnbaum:Contemporarily. I guess that’s being in the zone, I guess.

Peter Guralnick:In the moment, in the zone. It’s what Chet Baker [10]talked about when he said, “Let’s get lost.” I mean, if I write for three and half, four hours, say, which would be my ideal time, although lately I’ve been writing in much longer stretches, because of the exigencies of life – but if you write for three or four hours and get five or ten minutes in which you’re just completely lost, that’s what it’s all about.

Robert Birnbaum:Against the background of frustration, occasionally you get that high of feeling something good has happened?

Peter Guralnick:Yeah. Again, I think I’m misleading you a little, because I don’t mean that writing the Sam Phillips, writing about Sam Cooke or Elvis day after day, I mean, certainly I could get stuck at certain points, but that was not the same kind of frustration that I might feel –

Robert Birnbaum: You had a goal.

Peter Guralnick:Right. I had a goal. And if I wrote something – if I wrote 5000 words that I committed myself to, I thought, This is fantastic, and then I decided it merely repeated action or themes that I had already developed, I was prepared to throw it out. Well, to save it in a file of lost moments anyway!

Robert Birnbaum:How big was the original manuscript that you turned in?

Peter Guralnick:The same size.

Robert Birnbaum: How big was the manuscript that you worked on before you turned it in, or did you just pare it down as you went?

Peter Guralnick [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Peter Guralnick [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Peter Guralnick: As I went. The idea of re-writing, I used to write three discrete drafts. Of everything that I wrote pre-computer. The first draft was long hand. Second draft I typed out from the manuscript, changing as I went along, , the third draft I typed out from the beginning, every single page. Now, I feel like it’s almost inescapable that you’re re-writing all the time. I save, if you could see my hard drive – I save all the different versions and variations. When I finished the Sam Phillips, it was the book that I wanted to write. From the beginning, for example, I knew that there needed to be this turn, there needed to be this personal element that would gradually intrude and then take over, change direction over the last third of the book. It was kind of like recognizing with Elvis, not too long after I had started writing, that it was going to have to be two volumes. That the story took place in two entirely separate acts and that after his mother died, it was as if the curtain came down. What followed was a different story, with a different person involved. With Sam Phillips, I knew from the start, among other things, because I didn’t want to pursue a linearity which in no way did justice, either to Sam as a character, or to the fact that the last 40 years of his life were spent pursuing things that were not of intrinsic narrative interest. Not just to the reader, but to me. I didn’t want to write about, he acquired a radio station, sold a radio station. He built a radio tower.

Robert Birnbaum:He called Fidel Castro after the Bay of Pigs.

Peter Guralnick: Well, yeah, that’s the kind of thing I wanted to write about exactly, I wanted to create a narrative structure that was as entertaining as what Sam wanted to create in the studio. Which meant blowing up strict linearity, giving much freer rein to anecdote and above all to digression.

Robert Birnbaum:Let me ask you. If an FBI profiler looked at Sam Phillips life and maybe used your book. Would there be a more contemporary diagnosis of his psychological profile?

Peter Guralnick: I feel as if, what I want to write is something which is a sufficiently open book that every reader can come away from it with his or her own impression. I feel with each of the books I’ve written, there were necessarily points at which you think, I’m just not going to get there. “There” meaning, it’s never going to come into focus, I’m just getting too far out on a limb. But then, with each of the books and even the profiles, at some point it snaps into focus. All of a sudden I see the person, it seems like I see the person whole – I mean, that sounds reductive, but I see the person as a dynamic character. If I’m writing about Johnny Shines or Charlie Rich, I’m suddenly able to zero in on to what I want to focus on, what I want to bring out. And I would hope that the discerning reader, or the non-discerning reader, might find something entirely different. The portrait of Colonel Parker in “Careless Love,” for example, is intended to be a nuanced portrait. One in which I actually take a countervailing view of both the Colonel’s role and character.

Robert Birnbaum:A more generous interpretation.

Peter Guralnick:His intellectual brilliance, his imaginativeness, his humor, and his insecurity. Many people have said to me, “Boy, you really nailed the Colonel as the son of a bitch that he was.” That’s fine with me, for them to see it that way. But I want to portray something different, I want to portray a multifaceted person.

Robert Birnbaum:You’re not interested in concise judgement, you want the pictures. Let somebody else say what they are. Was it your quote or somebody else’s quote that said, “Phillips was an impenetrable mystery.” I can’t remember.

Peter Guralnick: I don’t remember.

Robert Birnbaum:You probably didn’t say that, I don’t think you said that.

 

Peter Guralnick: No. It’s the same way in which people I know, I was with people sometimes who were either offended by Sam, the kind of defensive maneuvering, or preventive maneuvering that he did. The preambles that he would deliver before you even started the interview – it really didn’t matter, because when you got down to it, he was going to say whatever he was going to say, and you could say whatever you wanted to say, there weren’t going to be any holds barred.

Robert Birnbaum:How many hours did you spend with him, do you think? Do you have any sense of the amount?

Peter Guralnick: No. Hundreds.

Robert Birnbaum:On tape?

Peter Guralnick: On tape, I would say several hundred. We did a documentary in 1999, and that really, actually, for one thing I think it brought us closer. Everybody says, “Oh, you were friends with Sam for 25 years.” I wasn’t. It took a long time – and there were lots of stages to pass through along the way. As he said to me, and I’m sure you picked up on this in the book, he said, “My son Knox loved you from the minute he met you – but I didn’t.” I mean, he could say things, and some people might think, Well, did you feel intimidated? Insulted? But I had no basis to be insulted. I’m just interested in Sam’s reaction, whatever my personal feelings might be. And it’s not that I don’t have personal feelings – that I can’t be enormously gratified at times, or disappointed at others. But you really have to take the view that it’s all phenomenological – Pete the Writer, as Solomon Burke pointed out to me, is different from Pete the Person.

Robert Birnbaum:It’s understandable to expect that if you spend that much time with someone and you connect the project to love and admiration.

Peter Guralnick:But, I wasn’t saying that to him. Sam prided himself on his ability to read people. He said to me, kind of to explain his withholding of approval, or love, or whatever, from me over that period of time, “Well, I know you had your doubts about me for a long time.” And I’m thinking, “Boy, talk about projection! I was sold on you from the minute we met.” But that was okay. The point was, as I worked on the Elvis biography, and I interviewed Sam a good number of times and came to know him better. I would say during that time, we became friendly, not friends exactly, but friendly, friendlier. Then during that time period, Knox and I began to talk to him about doing the documentary. Which is something he wanted more than anything in the world, but to which he kept saying no for 6 or 7 years—

Robert Birnbaum:He wanted to do it, but he said, no?

Peter Guralnick:He said, no. I came to realize when we finally did it, the reason that I think he said no, was because he was so committed, with any project that he involved himself in, there was just no holding back. Shooting the documentary meant three, four months of doing nothing but that. I think that’s what he was reluctant to commit himself to. There was no drinking, there was nothing but the project. To some extent it involved an extremely challenging attempt at reigning himself in, which he wasn’t altogether successful at. There was no attempt to influence the outcome – I mean, he was disappointed that his nephew, Phillip Darby, wasn’t in it, because Phillip had been so instrumental in setting everything up in Florence, and he did a great interview, too. But other than that, there may have been some things he didn’t like about the show, but there was never any issue.

Robert Birnbaum:Was he being interviewed by other people when he came back into public life after ’79?

Peter Guralnick:Totally.

Robert Birnbaum:What was your sense of those conversations, was he as frank and honest with them, with everybody as with you?

Peter Guralnick::I think so. And, you know, the thing was, in the aftermath of doing the documentary. I think that’s when we really became good friends. I mean, you know, everything operates on the eleemosynary principle

Robert Birnbaum:Which principle?

Peter Guralnick:Eleemosynary. It’s my father’s favorite word, my father is 99 now, and he always used the word, ‘eleemosynary’ from the time I was a kid, but at the age of 90 he came to feel he had been misusing it all those years. But I’m going to stick to the way he always meant it.

Robert Birnbaum:What does it mean?

Peter Guralnick: It’s doing well by doing good.

Robert Birnbaum:              [inaudible 00:44:02].

Peter Kind of, I guess so. It’s why Sam for example, I don’t think I used the word in the book – I’m sure I didn’t – but when Sam was trying to persuade Jules Bihari, the oldest of the Bihari brothers, who had Modern Records, and then Leonard Chess, too, that they had to pay the black acts, and pay them well – they had to pay them for their songs as well as their performance, the argument that he used was that it was only by paying them, by recognizing their worth financially, as well as in the respect that they accorded them, that they would give the artist a sense of true self-worth, self-empowerment and get out of the artist the best that he or she had to offer. And, in the process, sell more records.

 

Robert Birnbaum: Can we talk a little bit about post-racial music.  There was a Viagra commercial or Cialis that had a Howlin Wolf song behind it.

 

Peter Guralnick:Yeah, right. Elvis, too.

Robert Birnbaum:To me that’s astounding.

Peter Guralnick:  One of the great benefits of having Tivo, or I guess any DVR, but I’m sticking with Tivo, is not seeing the ads. But really what we’re talking about here is the ultimate commercialization, or Disneyification, or commodification of – well, of everything. Everything is just grist for the mill – the mill, I guess, being the marketplace, the infomill, the way in which we are distracted, or distract ourselves – from what? I mean, it doesn’t matter if it’s Beethoven or Picasso or Howlin’ Wolf – it just comes down to trivialization, it reduces everything to the ironic wink. It denigrates the whole idea of intrinsic worth.

Robert Birnbaum:I think we’re past that, I think I’ve told you it’s past that.

Peter Guralnick:We’re way past it.

Robert Birnbaum:Right, but I do always think of when I hear that. I remember hearing a Charlie Mingus, “Goodbye Pork Pie,” in a Volkswagen commercial. My first thought was, I tried to  imagine the meeting, the creative meeting, “Oh, wait what kind of music, what are we going to do here?” Then some 25 year old, who just discovered Charlie Mingus goes, “Why don’t we play this,” and they go, “Yeah, that’s hip.” Without just even acknowledging that this guy was a masterful musician, that he created some of the best music of our time. Just throw it in behind a Volkswagen ad.

 

We’ve got to assume the commercials are about making people stupid anyway.

Peter Guralnick: Oh, I don’t know, I’m not just talking about commercials – really you’re talking about capitalism, you’re talking about the commodification of everything. But, you know, I’m not trying to offer any great judgments on this. I mean, I’m not the arbiter of taste. To tell you the truth, the first time this started happening on TV, I’ve got to admit I was kind of thrilled. I thought, “Wow, that’s incredible” – man, to see Wolf’s image in a Levis ad, or to hear him on a soundtrack, even if it was the soundtrack for a commercial, I thought, “Wow, that’s incredible!” because it seemed in a way, I know this is really silly, it seemed like he was being embraced by mainstream culture. But, I’ve gotten over that.

Robert Birnbaum:If it was being embraced, his records, his recordings would be sold out and there would be docudramas about his life. But getting back to Sam Phillips, what I wonder about is, his goal, his mission, or his hope was that this music would drop the barriers between races –

Peter Guralnick: At the end of his life he was saying, he believed that music had the power to stop wars. I think that this would be a further extension of this vision that he had, one that I wish were the case. I can’t say that I altogether endorse it, that I can see it altogether. Wish I could.

Robert Birnbaum:Music’s always been a powerful force in my life. I’m always listening to music, there are times when it takes me to places that nothing else does, so I think it’s probable. But, I don’t see that, maybe for a lot of people some music sometimes does that, but I don’t know that I see music as the cleansing elevating force. What I wanted to say was, this notion that there’s divide between white people and black people on music, that never made sense to me. I guess what the music corporations didn’t get was that there was always an audience.

Peter Guralnick:There was always a crossover too. If Jimmie Rodgers is the father of country music and is in essence a blues singer. There’s a certain irony in that, isn’t there? I mean, crossover always existed, but it was like segregation being the law of the land –I mean, it may have been the law, but in fact it was a total denial, an attempt to deny the way that things actually were. That in the South in particular blacks and whites were living cheek by jowl, that you have a history of mixed race that goes back forever, and that the majoritarian culture never was willing to acknowledge, from slavery on.

Robert Birnbaum;Plus, I’m sure a lot of white people, for their entertainment went to backwoods juke joints.,

Peter Guralnick:I don’t think so.

Robert Birnbaum:You see it in the movies every once and awhile, some white kids end up at some  black ….

Peter Guralnick:This would be really extraordinary. I don’t think Howlin Wolf and B.B. King saw too many white kids. The one thing I’d say is that you can’t dismiss the historical context, the fact that black and white music were separated commercially, in the way that they were sold, in the way that they were accounted, right up until the advent of Rock and Roll

Robert Birnbaum:The advent of ‘rock and roll ‘ coincided with the advent of teenagism.

Peter Guralnick: This is the way it’s come to be seen.

Robert Birnbaum:Maybe that’s retrospective.

Peter Guralnick:I’m not convinced that that’s actually what it was. I mean, Ray Charles was not a teen artist, but he was very accessible artist, as well as being a very profound artist, just like Louis Jordan in a much slyer, more ironic way before him (and he was one of the few who actually reached a pop audience, like the Ink Spots, or the Golden Gate Quartet, I suppose, in the ‘40s). I’m not sure it had anything to do with the teen audience, their popularity, they were looking to be popular artists like Frank Sinatra, at first on the r&b charts, but then when the charts really opened up, on the pop charts, too.

Robert Birnbaum:Do you know the story of Ray Charles going to, playing Birmingham Alabama. He had a white Jewish guitar player. Do you know the story, it’s in the, “The Wrecking Crew,” the book[11] ? There’s a white Jewish guy whose in the Wrecking Crew, but Ray Charles liked him so much he hired him for his band. They’re playing a gig in Birmingham, the State Troopers are in front of the venue, where they’re unloading. They get on the bus and they’re looking and they see this white guy.This guy starts speaking pseudo-Spanish. So it was okay if he was Spanish.

Peter Guralnick: I hope with curly hair.The point was that, the music had the potential to break down barriers all along. And what Sam foresaw, was that the power of the music, the scope of the music, just the grandeur of the music would break down those artificial categories. As it turned out, it didn’t happen exactly the way the he foresaw it, but it did in effect happen. Not because of Sam alone, or Elvis either, obviously, it was something that was in the air, to which they contributed enormously.

Robert Birnbaum:Why do people want to say that Rocket 88, was the first Rock and Roll song?

Peter Guralnick:I think it probably goes back to Paul Ackerman, the editor of Billboard, as far as I can tell he was calling it the first rock ‘n’ roll record early on, maybe as early as 1956-57. I mean, really, you could point to “Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happening” just as well. But if you’re talking about “Rocket 88,” basically, I think it’s because of the propulsiveness of the rhythm, because of the subject, maybe it was because of the lead guitar and the sound that was coming out of that guitar as a result of the amp being busted. (To Sam, that was an original sound.) To me it just seems to capture the spirit of the age, in its rawness, its exuberance, its brashly optimistic post-war mood. But again, I don’t know that it was aimed at the teen market at all when it first came out. In retrospect, it came to fit the definition of teenage music that was imposed on rock ‘n’ roll – as much as a commercial label, a marketing tool, as anything else. And in a way I think that was the least important part. I mean, think of someone like Fats Domino – what makes him a teen artist? I don’t think he was. He was a blues singer, he was a rhythm and blues singer, he was a pop singer. I mean, to begin with, he was a huge R&B star, and as a Rock and Roller he became a huge pop star, with a uniquely lovable appeal.

 

Robert Birnbaum:Are we seeing a eternal return with the adoption of Rap music by white kids? Or, identification with?

Peter Guralnick:

Peter Guralnick: Oh, I suppose so – but that’s always been true. There’s always been an exchange of cultures, ever since the invention of the radio and the phonograph, ever since you had these tools for mass dissemination. I mean, there are no more purely isolated cultures, although there are certainly regional strains. I remember, one time David Evans took me to see R.L. Burnside at his home, it seemed like it was somewhere out in the woods, somewhere around Coldwater or Holly Springs, Mississippi. And he just rolled back the rug, took out all the furniture, and people came and danced to this incredible, driving music – and it was all R.L. Burnside and his sons. It was original, as Sam might have said. But even in this isolated situation, the music you heard was heavily tied to the commercial music R.L. Burnside grew up with – I mean, it wasn’t isolated at all. The point is he’s playing music that actually is tied directly to Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, but he’s not impervious to other influences, too. Nobody is. When I talked to Howlin Wolf and I said, “Where did you get your howl from?” he says, “Jimmie Rodgers.” I’m writing down “Tommy Johnson,” or I’m thinking, “Mississippi Sheiks,” and he’s saying, “Jimmie Rodgers” – you, know, the Singing Brakeman, the “father of country music.” He was very insistent on it. So you never know. I mean, you have somebody like, Bobby “Blue” Bland, being equally influenced by the sermons of Aretha’s father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, and Perry Como. Cultural theft is such a misunderstanding in so many ways, because you have cultural exchange going on all the time – in all directions. If you’re talking about monetary theft, there you’re describing capitalism and to some extent, you’re talking about the theft of what they earned from people who simply don’t know contractual language, the language of business, both blacks and whites, blacks more so certainly on a broad societal basis, but there’s no question that in the music business hillbilly artists, kids, neophytes of every sort have been just as disadvantaged and stolen from on that basis. To get past that, you might have to overthrow the whole capitalist system.

Robert Birnbaum:I worked in record stores. I worked for an independent record promoter in Chicago for a couple of years. I worked for a record company. My sense of it always was, it was one of the filthiest, most corrupt businesses, I couldn’t think of anything more corrupt. Maybe the movies with the Hollywood bookkeeping system…

Peter Guralnick:I would argue that if you’ve worked in other areas of business.

Robert Birnbaum:They were just as dirty?

Peter Guralnick:Many of them, sure. My father who has been a physician all his life and at 99 is still fighting for a better system, a single payer system, a system that puts the patient at the center of the treatment, rather than on the sidelines. I’m not saying he would endorse this view –  but I think you could find the same kind of financial manipulation within the medical field. Look at all the doctors who are called to order, or called up on their overcharging, on their misuse of the system. I feel like when there’s a profit motive, and it is in essence the primary one, it will tend to misplace a certain sense of priorities

Robert Birnbaum:I agree with you, but I think what I’ve noticed is that there were less regulation of the systems, so that for instance if you are an independent distributor and you wanted to get a record played, boxes of records would go out your back door over to the radio station.

Peter Guralnick:It was less regulated in a sense, but surely after the financial crisis of 2007-2008, how much more regulated….

Robert Birnbaum:By regulation I don’t mean that kind of regulation. I just mean there wasn’t that much book keeping, loosey-goosey, expense accounts were pretty. When I worked for a record company people, my colleague promotion men. —when they went to a conferences or  prom tours they would charge watches to their hotel room.

Peter Guralnick:I’m not arguing for them, or for that system. I’m only saying, how many more millions were squandered in similar ways, but magnified beyond imagination, on Wall Street, by the whole financial system –

Robert Birnbaum:In the main I would agree with you. If there’s a profit motive, your contractor’s going to try and rip you off, it’s not even that it’s ripping off. They understand the game is to maximize whatever money they can and if they have to gain that system. That’s legitimate really.

Peter Guralnick:All my life, this is from the example of my father and my grandfather, I’ve tried to find people that I can work with on a handshake basis. Which would be everybody from Michael Pietsch, down to the plumber or the carpenter or the electrician. Whom I value as highly as anybody. I’m looking for those people, people like that, and I’m looking to act that way myself.

Robert Birnbaum:What I’m hearing and what I’m sensing, is that your father and your grandfather were people who actually lived by certain moral imperatives —that this was part of their conversation, their approach to life.

Peter Guralnick: It was always part of the conversation. It was always – not the subtext, it was the conversation itself.

Robert Birnbaum:Which is  glaringly missing from everyday life.

Peter Guralnick: It’s the conversation I always tried to have with my kids. It’s the conversation I try, however limited it may be, that I try to have with my grandchildren and that my kids have with their children. I’m not trying to prescribe anything for anybody else, but to me, I don’t know anything else. I don’t know how people can be led to vote. You just want people to be able to think for themselves.

Robert Birnbaum:What is that Jewish maxim, “You save a life, you save a universe.” Something like that. That’s, I think ,the way it is. We have to end this, but I think we should talk again and maybe I’ll take a drive up to Newburyport when the weather is nice. I usually don’t even leave my zip code , but I could take a drive up north. Anyway, this was enjoyable.

Peter Guralnick:I feel like I misled you, I took you down too many divergent pathways.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s what a conversation is,isn’t it? Well, thank you.

###########

ENDNOTES

* Dream Boogie is also a poem by Langston Hughes which he reads here

1) Sam Phillips, singer

2) Micheal Pietsch,NPR interview

3)  Jess Walter, my conversation with

4) Howling Wolf biography

5) Larry Tye biography of Satchel Paige

6) Mark Feeney interview with Peter

7)David Hadju, one of my conversations with

8) Tom Mallon , my latest conversation with

9) TC Boyle/ Riven Rock

“Stanley McCormick, youngest son of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the mechanical reaper and founder of what was to become International Harvester, was confined for most of his adult life on a grand estate not far from where I now live. Shortly after his marriage to Katherine Dexter, a socialite from Boston (and the first female graduate in the biological sciences from M.I.T.), he suffered a mental breakdown that manifested itself in extreme hostility toward women, his wife in particular. He was diagnosed as a “schizophrenic sexual maniac,” and locked away in Riven Rock, the family estate. Katherine nonetheless remained married to him all his life and never stopped looking for a cure to his condition. What many readers have found interesting here is that the most outlandish developments, like those in The Road to Wellville, adhere very closely to reported facts, proving once again that pure invention is no match for the truly bizarre and sad ways in which we organize our lives. That said, this is a love story, grand, depressing, and, I hope, ultimately touching. It is also morbidly funny.”

10) Chet Baker, Lets Get Lost trailer

11) The Wrecking Crew The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret  by Kent Hartman

“In Los Angeles in 1960s-70s, if you wanted to record a chart-topping track or album, you called in the crack session musicians collectively known as the Wrecking Crew. Consisting of artists unknown outside the music industry, like drummer Hal Blaine and bass player Carol Kaye, as well as those who would go on to recording fame of their own, such as Glenn Campbell and Leon Russell, the Wrecking Crew was the West Coast’s cream of the crop of session players, backing top-notch hit makers Phil Spector, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, and many more. Hartman (marketing, Portland State Univ.), who has worked with many well-known recording artists including Hall & Oates, Three Dog Night, and Lyle Lovett, tells the group’s definitive story with a music industry insider’s insight and enthusiasm. The only other work on these behind-the-scenes pros is Blaine’s Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew, which is more narrowly focused on the experiences of the stalwart drummer. Verdict: Recommended for readers interested in popular music and the music industry, particularly West Coast pop and classic rock.” ―Library Journal

There is also a documentary called the Wrecking Crew. Here’s the trailer

 

Oscar Hijuelos and Thoughts Without Cigarettes

4 Feb

 Oscar Hijuelos [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

Oscar Hijuelos [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar Hijuelos: In terms of going into details?

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

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

RB:  To two different  publishers.

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

RB: (laughs)

 

 

Thoughts Without Cigarettes BY Oscar Hijuelos

Thoughts Without Cigarettes BY Oscar Hijuelos

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

RB: Well you can still write another memoir.

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

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

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

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

OH: Ah, yes, doctor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OH: I travel a lot.

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

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

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

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

RB: Bittersweetness?

OH: Bittersweetness in what sense?

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

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

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

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

RB: Is your life upbeat?

OH: Right now or back then?

RB: The life you lived.

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

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

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

 

 

THE MAMBO KINGS Sing Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

THE MAMBO KINGS Sing Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

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

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

RB: The message or the narrative?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

OH: Yeah, it’s kind of crazy.

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

OH: They don’t cover fiction anymore.

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

THE FOURTEEN SISTERS of Emeilo Montez by Oscar Hijuelos

THE FOURTEEN SISTERS of Emeilo Montez by Oscar Hijuelos

 

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

RB: (laughs)

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

RB: What was an immigrant novel—Fourteen Sisters?

OH: Yeah, that was how it was reviewed.

 

Mr Ives Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Mr Ives Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

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

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

RB: That was a wonderful book.

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

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

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

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

RB: Was that based on a true story?

 

 A Simple Habana Melody by Oscar Hijuelos

A Simple Habana Melody by Oscar Hijuelos

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

RB: (laughs)

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

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

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

RB: What about the sequel to Mambo Kings?

 

Beautiful Maria of My Soul by Oscar Hijuelos

Beautiful Maria of My Soul
by Oscar Hijuelos

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

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

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

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

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

RB: (laughs)

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

RB: What about a career in music?

OH: I was never that gifted.

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

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

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

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

RB: Where do you live now?

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

RB: Do envision living somewhere other than Manhattan?

OH: Another country?

RB: Anywhere else other than New York.

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

RB: No.

OH: You should go.

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

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

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

OH: Martin Amis spends time down there.

RB: He did. He has moved to NYC.

OH: He’s in New York?

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

OH: Yeah.

RB: In English or Spanish?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Holguín?

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

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

OH: No, she passed away five years ago.

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

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

 

Our House in The Last World by Oscar Hijuelos

Our House in The Last World by Oscar Hijuelos

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

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

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

OH: If I live that long.

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

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

RB: (laughs)

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

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

OH: Thank you.

 

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Endnotes

1 Oscar Hujielos  talks about writing Thoughts without Cigaretttes

2 Oscar Hijuelos reads from Thoughts without Cigaretttes

Not A Chance Meeting: Me and Rachel Cohen

25 Jan

 

 

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

Rachel Cohen [photo by Robert Birnbaum]

Rachel Cohen [photo by Robert Birnbaum]

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

 

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Robert Birnbaum:  What do you want to talk about?

Rachel Cohen: (laughter)

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: It’s wonderful.

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: What period?

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

Robert Birnbaum: It’s passe isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: I have a card.

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen

A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: A gutsy thing for…

Rachel Cohen: A single woman…

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: —Your mother? (laughs)

Rachel Cohen: My mother worried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: That trip?

Robert Birnbaum: Is there one thing?

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

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

Rachel Cohen: About a place or something?

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

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

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

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

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

 

 

Ansel Adams, Jeffrey Pine, 1940

Ansel Adams, Jeffrey Pine, 1940

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

Robert Birnbaum: About what?

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

Robert Birnbaum: A White person?

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

Robert Birnbaum: Right.

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

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

Rachel Cohen: No.

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen:Like a Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover.

 

Saul Steinberg, detail from New Yorker cover

Saul Steinberg, detail from New Yorker cover

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: You were focused on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: How old’s your daughter?

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

Robert Birnbaum: What’s her name?

Rachel Cohen: Sylvia.

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: What do you think she sees?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: No.

Robert Birnbaum: You knew right away?

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

Robert Birnbaum: You take photographs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: Exactly.

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: Yes.

Robert Birnbaum: You know who Rhianna is?

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

Robert Birnbaum: Tupac?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. Definitely. Definitely.

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

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

 

Robert Stone [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Stone [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: You listen to lots of contemporary music?

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

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

Rachel Cohen: And everything about them?

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: I used it religiously.

Robert Birnbaum: You had to read it.

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

Robert Birnbaum: Giving it a narrative as opposed to—

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: Everybody.

Robert Birnbaum: They were the hubs of culture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Where is it?

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

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

 

The Last Days by Laurent Sesek

The Last Days by Laurent Sesek

Rachel Cohen: Oh really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Your agents is still Eric Simonoff?

Rachel Cohen: He is, yeah.

 

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: He’s terrific.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: The long game’s always important.

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

Robert Birnbaum: You were looking for an agent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Algorithms.

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

 

Hari Kunzru [photo: Robert Birnbaum

Hari Kunzru [photo: Robert Birnbaum

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

Rachel Cohen: Not so far fetched, yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Right.

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: That’s a possibility?

Robert Birnbaum: She did it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Guernica by Pablo PIcasso

Guernica by Pablo PIcasso

 

 

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

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Botero "Picasso" 1999

Botero “Picasso” 1999

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Brave place to start.

Rachel Cohen: (laughter) I guess so.

Robert Birnbaum: Pretty ambitious.

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

Robert Birnbaum: Where is it?

Rachel Cohen: What?

Robert Birnbaum: You trashed it or did you…?

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

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

Rachel Cohen: It’s somewhere.

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Do you know what the ending is?

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: A certain kind of excitement or uplift.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres

 

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

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

 

Robert Birnbaum: You were teaching at Sarah Lawrence?

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: That’s pretty bold.

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Affluent backgrounds?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued

 

######

1 Rachel Cohen’s website

2 Ansel Adams photographs

3 Saul Steinberg’s art

4 One of my 5 or 6 conversations with Robert Stone

5 Biographies of Bernard Berenson

6 On Stefan Zweig

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

8 The Last Days by Laurent Seksik

9 One of my conversations (2004)with Edward Jones

10  Golden Gilded Glittery by Rachel Cohen

11 My LA Review of Books  chat with Hari Kunzru,

12 Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama

13  My most recent conversation with Jennifer Egan

14 Basquit by Julian Schnabel

15 Guernica by Pablo Picasso

16 Columbian painter Fernando Botero

17   Writer Mark Z. Danielewski ‘s website

18 My last conversation with  Louis de Bernières

19 Trailer for Enough Said

20 Talking with Nicholas Dawidoff

 

Rachel Cohen Meets with Robert Birnbaum

21 Jan

 

 

A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen

A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen

 

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

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

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

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

 

All photos copyright © 2016 Robert Birnbaum

* * *

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

Rachel Cohen: Oh, thank you.

RB: I felt liberated by it.

RC: As you should.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Cover of Omnivore, published by Ren Weschler

Cover of Omnivore, published by Ren Weschler

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

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

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

RC: Feedback. Absolutely.

RB: Anybody give you good advice?

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

RB: Hence the title of the magazine.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

RC: [laughs]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RC: Right, right.

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

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

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

RC: A professional kind of quality—

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

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

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

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

RB: Before the writerly affectations set in?

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

RB: Had you considered not going on tour?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: What do you read?

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

RB: Will you be in Ohio?

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

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

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

RB: That number represents numerous crisscrossings.

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

RB: How long did it take you?

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

RB: That’s a tough state.

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

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

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

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

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

RB: The former interpretation suggests something natural.

RC: Yes. [laughs]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Rachel Cohen [photo Robert Birnbaum]

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

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

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

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

RB: Steinbeck took a dog with him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RC: Charlie Chaplin drops off Hart Crane.

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

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

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

RC: That’s nice, yeah.

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

RC: ‘Imaginative.’

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

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

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

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

RB: I thought it was his bombasticity.

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Were there pieces that you left out?

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

RB: How about people?

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

RB: Are there a lot?

RC: There are. I read three.

RB: That’s a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Why is it amusing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: I didn’t say that.

RC: It seems to be turning out all right.

RB: Has it been a concern of yours?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Rachel Cohen [photo Robert Birnbaum]

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

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

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

RB: Who was your editor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Americans are by and large ahistorical.

RC: In some ways—

RB: Except for holidays.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*****************

 

1 One of my conversations with  Ren Weschler

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

3 My conversation with Richard Reeves

4. The Very Bad Review’ by Rachel Cohen

5  My most recent chat with Rachel Cohen.

Howard Zinn with Robert Birnbaum Dialogue #2

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Howard Zinn: Hmmm…

RB: That’s a yes?

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

RB: A significant year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: What would that feature?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: A popular groundswell…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: You are still writing plays?

 

"Marx in Soho" by Howard Zinn poster

“Marx in Soho” by Howard Zinn poster

 

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

RB: What’s the subject or story?

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

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

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

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

 

Three Plays by Howard Zinn

Three Plays by Howard Zinn

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

RB: Who is doing good history today?

 

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

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

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

RB: It’s a Warner Book.

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

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

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

RB: Some people must be very angry at you.

HZ: Some of them are.

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

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

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

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

RB: Do you think about your legacy?

HZ: We all think about our mortality.

RB: Yes, they go hand in hand…

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

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

HZ: [Chuckles] Yeah, sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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images-3

 

1.)   My 2001 conversation with Barry Crimmins

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Mallon: Watergate, the Novel

12 Jan

 

 

 

 

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

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

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

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

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

 

 

Watergate by Thomas Mallon

Watergate by Thomas Mallon

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

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

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

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

TM: That’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Many reviewers have lauded the book.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: She was a drunk.

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

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

 

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

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

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

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

RB: George Will’s review

TM: It was actually his syndicated column.

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

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

RB: What, Castro funding the Democrats?

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

RB: Which he had to do anyway.

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

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

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

RB: Was she always a drunk?

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

RB: They ultimately divorced, right?

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

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

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

RB: And lots of undocumented cash.

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

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

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

RB: You dedicated this book to Christopher Hitchens.

 

Christopher Hitchens circa 2001[photo Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Christopher Hitchens circa 2001[photo Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

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

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

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

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

 

Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

 

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

RB: Is there anyone that is like him?

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

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

RB: So, did you have fun writing Watergate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: What happened to the murder book?

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

RB: It’s the new 40.

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

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

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

RB: So many choices.

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

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

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

RB: He taped everything.

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

RB: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Was he broke when he resigned?

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

RB: Clinton was particularly laudatory when Nixon died.

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

RB: Malone wrote six volumes on Jefferson.

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

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

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

RB: Have you seen Game Change?[3]

TM: No.

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

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

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

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

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

RB: John McCain was prepared to be president?

TM: Well, all those years in Congress.

RB: George Bush was ready to be president?

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

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

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

RB: Quitting the governorship was a telling move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Pentagon Papers

3. HBO’s Game Change 

Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years by Thomas Mallon

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

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

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

Allow me to quote from my previous talk with Thomas:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

 

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

Thomas Mallon: Unbelievable.

Robert Birnbaum: They are all over the place.

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

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

Thomas Mallon: I’ll be damned.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Watergate by Thomas Mallon

Watergate by Thomas Mallon

 

 

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

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

 

Finale by Thomas Mallon

Finale by Thomas Mallon

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: On whose initiative?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: It ruined them.

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

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

Thomas Mallon: Now we have government by executive order.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, so-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Mallon: No.

Robert Birnbaum: No?

 

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo:Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

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

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

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

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

Thomas Mallon: Oh, yeah; routinely.

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

Thomas Mallon: When you say-

Robert Birnbaum: Do you know what I mean?

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

 

Christopher Hitchens [photo;copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum]

Christopher Hitchens [photo;copyright 2016 Robert Birnbaum]

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: In that period.

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Bill O’Reilly’s-

Thomas Mallon: I think-

Robert Birnbaum: If one  could call them books.

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

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

Thomas Mallon: No.

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

Thomas Mallon: Yes.

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: I assume that.

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

Robert Birnbaum: Does it make a difference?

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

Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

 

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

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

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

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

 

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

Robert Birnbaum: My favorite of your books.

Thomas Mallon: Thank you.

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Is it fiction?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum (laughs)

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

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

Thomas Mallon: Who?

Robert Birnbaum: Obama.

Thomas Mallon: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Chris Matthews?

Thomas Mallon: Yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: My, my.

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

Robert Birnbaum: Right, got you.

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

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

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

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

Memoirs by U.S. Grant

Memoirs by U.S. Grant

 

Thomas Mallon: Very few.

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

Thomas Mallon: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Is he a Baptist or Methodist ?

Thomas Mallon: Baptist, I think.

Robert Birnbaum:A  more  austere form of Protestantism?

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: What I notice is this expansion of the scope of what the so called cable industry and HBO, Showcase, A & E. They’re making things they’re … The HBO special that David Simon just did [Show Me A Hero]. Can you imagine somebody actually making a movie about the housing crisis in Yonkers?

Thomas Mallon: Yeah. I would much prefer if somebody were going to film this. My strong preference would be to have it done for television in 8 parts or something. I think that would be a much closer match to the construction of the novel. Television is doing such interesting things with narrative right now. Much more so, I think, than film.

Robert Birnbaum: I think I find myself reading somewhat less and watching more of these extended series. When it comes down to it, my interest in stories, good stories.

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, right.

Robert Birnbaum: The streaming services are  a great reservoir of  wonderful movies but, again, in terms of commercial interest, starting with the Sopranos and the Wire , producers  are buying into getting writers writing good stories; investing —like Nick Pizolatto, His True Detective [at least season one][5]was genius.

Thomas Mallon: In terms of adaptation, something like Wolf Hall. If you were going to do Wolf Hall, to me the proper way to do it was the way it was done on television.

Robert Birnbaum: Right,  I don’t know about you but I couldn’t read the book but I thought the dramatization was fabulous. The lead actor Mark Rylance, just perfect.

Thomas Mallon: I like the book, I’ve never read the second one, the one that came after. Maybe I will at some point

Robert Birnbaum: Also the  BBC  did a splendid job on William Boyd’s [novel ]Any Given Heart.[6]  It’s about a writer’s life, from about 1910 I think up until the ’60s or ’70s. 3 It’s just a wonderful story and again, ist based on a worthy text

Thomas Mallon: The single, greatest television experience I have ever had—and I remember the first run of the Honeymooners as a rug rat in the mid-’50s—the greatest television experience I ever had was Deadwood. If you have not seen Deadwood…

Robert Birnbaum:  I have seen Deadwood and I read Pete Dexter’s novel of the same name. There was a piece on the HBO series producer David Milch in the New Yorker. I don’t remember if they referenced Dexter’s skepticism about Milch’s claim  saying he never read Dexter’s book.

Thomas Mallon: Oh, really?  It was one of those things where after a couple of episodes I still wasn’t in the groove with it. I’m thinking, “Am I going to commit to this?” or whatever. Then I got past that crucial point very much as you often have to do with a novel. “Now, I’m in; I’m investing,” whatever. After that, I just felt the whole thing was so audacious, so atmospheric. It just, it didn’t build and build in a narrative way, it didn’t build and build to the climax of the story, but it deepened and deepened and deepened.

Robert Birnbaum: I always loved John Hawkes[plays Sol Star in Deadwood]. Do you know his work? He does  a lot of comedy but in Winter’s Bone he’s resoundingly sinister.

Thomas Mallon: A little bit, yeah. The main character, Al Swearengen, there was a part of him that reminded me of my old boss Art Cooper.

Robert Birnbaum: I think the next time I saw Swearingen was in some odd NBC special about some futuristic kingdom where he’s the king.  Have you seen Winter’s Bone?

Thomas Mallon: No, I know what it is, though.

Robert Birnbaum: It takes place in a hard scrabble Ozarks, really tough people with their own code, insular; 2 really interesting characters. Based on a novel written by a wonderful writer,  Daniel Woodrell credited with creating “redneck noir”.   Are you engaged in this book tour for some period of time? Is it a distraction? Is it hard for you?

Thomas Mallon: No, it’s not steady…

Robert Birnbaum: You’re going to tell me you’re glad they asked you because…

Thomas Mallon: Actually, yes. It would be wrong to say anything else. It’s a little bit different; it’s more broken up than it used to be. In the old days they put you out on the road for a long time. I go home tomorrow and then I’m at home for 10 days; then I go to St. Louis. Then I’m at home for a week and I go to New York.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s good. There will have been time for people to actually read the book?

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, over a couple of months it adds up to a lot.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s smart.

Thomas Mallon: Then there’ll be a California leg of it, whatever. I still, I’m always keeping my journalistic life afloat. The truly hair-raising aspect of this week was not just the traveling, not just waiting on reviews. I had to close a piece for the New Yorker this week. From the hotel room in Texas and then at my apartment in New York, I was on the phone with the fact-checkers and getting proof after proof after proof. I’m a nervous closer even during a slow week at home, so my hands have been shaky.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s the state of writing, too.  Writers used to say, “I never write on the road.” Now people are forced to  write on the road.

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, I couldn’t actually write on the road but I have to do other stuff on the road. One of the things that I’ve also noticed is a bit of a change in my non-fiction life. I think I’m writing … I’m still writing literary criticism, but I’m writing more about politics and political books that I’m used to. This piece I just closed was about The Drew Pearson Diaries from the 1960s

Robert Birnbaum: He was an influential columnist-

Thomas Mallon: Incredibly so, yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: In the  Washington Post, right?  There were a handful of those guys, also Lippmann, Drew Pearson, Jack Anderson?

Thomas Mallon: Anderson was Pearson’s assistant. Until he took over the column. Lippmann and people like Joe Alsop—they were sort of these mandarins of commentary. Although Anderson also had some reporting in his column. Lippmann was very much speaking ex cathedra but Pearson was the Washington equivalent of the Hollywood gossip columnist. A lot of digging, and the diaries are really fascinating. It’s odd, a volume of them covering the ’50s was edited 40 years ago. This volume covering the ’60s is only coming out now. What they really show is the degree to which he operated as somebody seeking political influence behind the scenes. He was often rounding up Senate votes on something. You would think he was the majority whip rather than a columnist; a very interesting dynamic compared to what we have today. And so, in a sense, maybe there’s more overlap between the 2 kinds of writing I am doing, fiction and non-fiction, than there used to be.

Robert Birnbaum: Wow, time flies, as usual it’s been a pleasure.

Thomas Mallon: Same here.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m glad we’re both still walking and talking.

Thomas Mallon: Yeah, a little more stiffly but still doing it.

 

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1 The Kid Turns Seventy:And  No one Cares —The Weekly Standard

2 Trailer for Hannah Arendt

3 Conversation with Richard Reeves

4  Identitytheory conversation with Christopher Hitchens

5 True Detective / Season 1 trailer

6 Any Human Heart Episode 1

#174 517 * Part II

4 Jan
THE COMPLETE works of Primo LEvi

THE COMPLETE works of Primo Levi

Ok, so I was able impose on some friends to do some heavy lifting…see previous post. However I could not leave this dustbin of history without a few digressive remarks, putatively about words and literature and my current existential crisis.

The Noam Chomsky Collection (Haymarket Books)

The Noam Chomsky Collection (Haymarket Books)

But before I get to my own favorites of the past year, I want to give notice and recognition  to The Complete Works of Primo Levi, Haymarket Books’s Chomsky Collection, Greg Grandin’s In the Shadow of Kissinger and Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg by Kate Evans, edited by Paul Buhle. While I have long held that using the superlative ‘best’ as well as a number of other puerile superlatives (hottest, must read, coolest.most excellent), I have no problem assigning the rubric ‘important’ to a book. And the four titles mentioned above are prime examples of the tomes that must be considered important books among those that were published last year.

Primo Levi in the house of the maternal family( Luzzati family), photo by Giorgio Miserendino

Primo Levi in the house of the maternal family( Luzzati family), photo by Giorgio Miserendino

Better minds and more rigorous writers (like James Wood) have exposited on Levi:

Primo Levi did not consider it heroic to have survived eleven months in Auschwitz. Like other witnesses of the concentration camps, he lamented that the best had perished and the worst had survived. But we who have survived relatively little find it hard to believe him. How could it be anything but heroic to have entered Hell and not been swallowed up? To have witnessed it with such delicate lucidity, such reserves of irony and even equanimity? Our incomprehension and our admiration combine to simplify the writer into a needily sincere amalgam: hero, saint, witness, redeemer. Thus his account of life in Auschwitz, “If This Is a Man” (1947), whose title is deliberately tentative and tremulous, was rewrapped, by his American publisher, in the heartier, how-to-ish banner “Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity.” That edition praises the text as “a lasting testament to the indestructibility of the human spirit,” though Levi often emphasized how quickly and efficiently the camps could destroy the human spirit. Another survivor, the writer Jean Améry, mistaking comprehension for concession, disapprovingly called Levi “the pardoner,” though Levi repeatedly argued that he was interested in justice, not in indiscriminate forgiveness. A German official who had encountered Levi in the camp laboratory found in “If This Is a Man” an “overcoming of Judaism, a fulfillment of the Christian precept to love one’s enemies, and a testimony of faith in Man.” And when Levi committed suicide, on April 11, 1987, many seemed to feel that the writer had somehow reneged on his own heroism.

If only the lamentations of the left leaning and socially progressive spent more (some) time paying to the crystalline observations of Noam Chomsky.

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From Red Rosa

Red Rosa by Kate Evans, edited by Paul Buhle

Red Rosa by Kate Evans, edited by Paul Buhle

If I recall correctly German socialist thought dancing was as important as revolution. Kudos to Verso,Evans and Buhle for recognizing that attention must be paid…

 In the Shadow of Kissinger by Greg Grandin

In the Shadow of Kissinger by Greg Grandin

There has never been a time when so many publicly(indicted and) recognized war criminals have pranced around the United States with impunity. The most evil of these criminals is Henry (“Dr. Strangelove”)Kissinger. The late lamented Christopher Hitchens amused with his rhetorical flourish The Trial of Henry Kissinger:

His own lonely impunity is rank: it smells to heaven. If it is allowed to persist then we shall shamefully vindicate the ancient philosopher Anacharsis, who maintained that laws were like cobwebs: strong enough to detain only the weak, and too weak to hold the strong. In the name of innumerable victims, known and unknown, it is time for justice to take a hand. (p. XI)

My 2001 conversation with Hitchens here yielded this

Robert Birnbaum: The Trial of Henry Kissinger originated with two serialized articles that appeared in Harper’s Magazine. Did your writing the pieces on Kissinger originate with you looking for a place to publish them or with Lewis Lapham [Harper’s editor] encouraging you to write them?

Christopher Hitchens: Well, I have been, for more than two decades, determined to write a book about Henry Kissinger, and I chose to start doing it properly last year…to collect all the material I already had, in one place and work it up. Because of the Pinochet trial and because of the Milosevic warrant, I thought that this changed the context. The first person to whom I mentioned this project was Lewis Lapham at Harper’s Magazine, who said, “Do it now. We’ll print it.” I barely had time to say, “Are you serious?” He said, “Get on with, too. It’s high time.” So, I knew I had a receptive editor, and I suspected I could probably expand it into a book as well. I wrote it for Harper’s, and then I updated it a bit, added a certain amount, and then it was published by Verso. I’m very much in Lewis Lapham’s debt because it’s the first time Harper’s has ever, he tells me, run two successive issues.

RB: Barbara Ehrenreich says when she had a discussion with Lapham about the article(s) that led to Nickel and Dimed, “an insane little smile” came across his face when the question of who would do them [came up] and he said, “You.” When you were having the conversation, did something like that happen?

CH: No, it was more like a peremptory gesture saying, “Why haven’t you done it already? Do it now, we’ll print it.” Then it was followed by a number of nudging calls to say, “Have you done it yet?” keeping me up to the mark. It’s nice to know that you have demand in that way. I’ll tell you something interesting. Neither he nor Rick MacArthur, the publisher, who jointly took the decision to put it two months running on the front page and promote it and so on, imagined that it would sell at all. They thought they ought to do it. They thought it was high time someone did do it. But they didn’t think of it as a commercial proposition. As it happens, the magazine almost sold out of the newsstands both times. Which is quite rare for a monthly.

Greg Grandin’s indictment of Herr Professor Kissinger has the force of rigorous attention to the documentary record (some of you will recognize this as what used to be called ‘history’)

From The People’s Obituary of Henry Kissinger—Before His Death (catchy headline, no?)

Far from the calculating practitioner of Realpolitik that even his most ardent detractors tend to imagine, the Kissinger that emerges from Grandin’s book is compulsively drawn towards action for its own sake. Over the course of his career as national security advisor, secretary of state, and, later, elite global consultant, Kissinger “institutionalized a self-fulfilling logic of intervention” and established a working “template for how to justify tomorrow’s action while ignoring yesterday’s catastrophe.”

“At every single one of America’s postwar turning points,” writes Grandin, “moments of crisis when men of goodwill began to express doubts about American power, Kissinger broke in the opposite direction.” America almost invariably broke with him.

So here are my favorite real paper and ink books of the last 300 or so days…

 House of the Rising Sun: A Novel by James Lee Burke

House of the Rising Sun: A Novel by James Lee Burke

House of the Rising Sun: A Novel by James Lee Burke

Crow Fair: Stories by  Thomas McGuane

Crow Fair: Stories by Thomas McGuane

Crow Fair: Stories by Thomas McGuane

Sweet Caress  by William Boyd

Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Sweet Caress by William Boyd

City on Fire: A novel  by Garth Risk Hallberg

City on Fire: A novel by Garth Risk Hallberg

City on Fire: A novel by Garth Risk Hallberg

A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me: Stories and a novella   by David Gates

A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me: Stories and a novella by David Gates

A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me: Stories and a novella by David Gates

Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years   by Thomas Mallon

Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years by Thomas Mallon

Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years– by Thomas Mallon

The Lower Quarter: A Novel  by Elise Blackwell

The Lower Quarter: A Novel by Elise Blackwell

 

The Lower Quarter: A Novel by Elise Blackwell

 

 No God But Gain: The Untold Story of Cuban Slavery, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Making of the United States   by Stephen Chambers

No God But Gain: The Untold Story of Cuban Slavery, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Making of the United States
by Stephen Chambers

No God But Gain: The Untold Story of Cuban Slavery, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Making of the United States
by Stephen Chambers

 Disposable Futures: Violence in the Age of the Spectacle HENRY GIROUX (Co-authored with Brad Evans).

Disposable Futures: Violence in the Age of the Spectacle HENRY GIROUX (Co-authored with Brad Evans).

Disposable Futures: Violence in the Age of the Spectacle HENRY GIROUX (Co-authored with Brad Evans).

Above the Water fall: A Novel  by Ron Rash

Above the Water fall: A Novel by Ron Rash

Above the Water fall: A Novel by Ron Rash

 A Free State: A Novel  by Tom Piazza

A Free State: A Novel by Tom Piazza

A Free State: A Novel by Tom Piazza

 American Meteor  by Norman Lock

American Meteor by Norman Lock

American Meteor by Norman Lock

The Cartel by Don WInslow

The Cartel by Don WInslow

The Cartel: A novel by Don Winslow

 Gutshot: Stories by Amelia Gray

Gutshot: Stories by Amelia Gray

Gutshot by Amelia Gray

 The Kind Worth Killing: A Novel  by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth Killing: A Novel by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth Killing: A Novel by Peter Swanson

 The Whites: A Novel by Richard Price , Harry Brandt

The Whites: A Novel by Richard Price , Harry Brandt

The Whites: A Novel by Richard Price , Harry Brandt

 The Small Backs of Children: A Novel  by Lidia Yuknavitch

The Small Backs of Children: A Novel by Lidia Yuknavitch

The Small Backs of Children: A Novel by Lidia Yuknavitch

  A Spool of Blue Thread: A novel  by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread: A novel by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread: A novel by Anne Tyler

  The Lady from Zagreb   by Philip Kerr


The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr

The Lady from Zagreb (A Bernie Gunther Novel) by Philip Kerr

 Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by  Jill Leovy

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

 In the Shadow of Kissinger by Greg Grandin

In the Shadow of Kissinger by Greg Grandin

Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman by Greg Grandin

 Mislaid  by Nell Zink

Mislaid by Nell Zink

Mislaid by Nell Zink

*Of course this number has deep significance…