Tag Archives: David Shields

The CRACK in Everything

28 Aug

 

Reportage has always  been the fundamental task of journalism (the rough first  draft of history.) And so it remains, notwithstanding the enormous acceleration of news and information dissemination. Winston Churchill, who famously opined that gossip travels around the world before the truth has time to put it’s boots on would not have envisioned a world of endless (24/7)delivery of news or the next level, social media platforms…

 

As a consumer of the daily buzz and bloom of life, I am inclined by wide-ranging interest and possibly the endemic and emblematic affliction of modern times, an ever shortening attention span (about which I would worry, if it were not still  able to read 1000 page books). That it seems like more things are happening and that we are almost inescapably told of these events now requires, in addition to editing , a curatorial aggregate of various forms of news distribution. Anecdotal, video, broadcast, web-based, newspapers and magazine, social media platforms battle for our attention  (thus the chimerical ‘attention’ economy) measurable in new units of measurement. One of the first journalists I thought grasped this transformation of news media was  Glen O Brien, editor in the 80’s of Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine, the paradigmic hip  downtown life style tab. O’Brien has a column in each issue which was amusingly and informatively digressive and mildly transgressive

O Brien, who passed on recently was a prototypical denizen of the Manhattan’s hipoisie and the headline that the slick fashion magazine W ran  with an homage “Glenn O Brien Could Do Everything Except Live Forever” is a clever way of pointing the man’s many talents and accomplishments. If you think that to be hyperbolic have a look at O Brien’s cleverly annotated  CV*. Or the W article.

 

Glenn’s facility as a writer and ability to meet multiple deadlines a week could be intimidating. I couldn’t keep up with all the magazines he was involved with: Artforum, Purple, the in-house Bergdorf Goodman magazine, and Bald Ego, his own journal with the poet Max Blagg. This was in addition to his work as creative director of Barney’s and other commercial jobs that employed him to name perfumes or write commercials (remember Brad Pitt for Chanel?). In 2000, he landed at the Cannes Film Festival, where he debuted Downtown 81, a movie he made in 1981 with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Glenn was one of the first to recognize Basquiat’s talent. He wrote, produced, and appeared in the movie, too, directed by photographer Edo Bertoglio. Somehow the soundtrack was lost, only to be miraculously rediscovered two decades later. It’s a genuine artifact, a document of a time and a place no longer visible.

 

 

Sometimes it’s the small things that grab us  David Shield’s who’s  body of work stretches over a wide swath of subjects (even an Ichiro Suzuki chapbook) has a new tome out entitled Other People. The epigram he chose  from Philip Roth’s American Pastoral has long been a  favorite of mine:

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to came at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick: you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them: you get them wrong while you’re with them and then you get home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on a significance that is ludicrous, so ill equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims?  Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we are alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you.

 

Don Winslow’s new opus, The Force (referring to the NYPD) leads off with a citation from Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely

“Cops are just people, ” she said irrelevantly.

They start out that way, I’ve heard.”

Brian  Doyle

 Brian Doyle self Portrait

 

Lake Oswego Oregon writer Brian Doyle, who among other things was was the editor of Portland magazine passed on to his greater glory recently. He was 60 years old. Author of 14 books and a contributor to The American Scholar and other smart journals, apparently Brian didn’t warrant an obit in the New York Times (which says more about that paper than about Doyle) I chanced to discover him through his wonderful novel Mink River. And the last story in his collection Bin Laden’s Bald Spot: & Other Stories  solidified my continued interest in him. especially the final story**

 

In “Pinching Bernie,” an account of the crimes of Bernard Francis Cardinal Law, the unnamed narrator describes the archbishop’s past achievements, including a deal “where Episcopal priests who were married with kids could work in Catholic dioceses, which was how something you hardly ever see happened here and there, a priest making out with his wife on the beach, and barking at his kids that he would stop this car and turn around if there was any more fighting in the back seat!” In sharp contrast to the more whimsical tone of other stories, “Pinching Bernie” is extraordinary for the seething rage expressed by the narrator at Cardinal Law’s criminal negligence in the many cases of child molestation by Boston parish priests. Cardinal Law is “the slime bag’s slime bag, an all-pro slime bag” who escapes prosecution by flying to Rome and getting named to the Basilica di santa Maria Maggiore, where he is beyond the reach of justice. Up to this point, the story adheres to actual events (the real-life Cardinal remains ensconced inside the Vatican). But in “Pinching Bernie,” the narrator’s friend Jimmy goes to “see a guy about a guy” and “basically from this point on Bernie’s goose is cooked.” As it turns out, “it’s easier to pinch an archbishop than you might think.” The archbishop’s fictional redemption (wherein he’s returned to a life of monastic servitude in Boston) is far more fitting than its true-life counterpart.

Bin Laden’s Bald Spot encompasses worlds of absurdity and quotidian reality in the voices of ordinary citizens. Underneath the surface is a tenderness and attachment to life that makes the best of these stories really and truly sing.

A small nugget from the Doyle archive:
 “So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one, in the end — not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart. Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart. When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall. You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words ‘I have something to tell you,’ a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in a thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.”

Rest in Peace Brian Doyle

 

 

I find the funniest comedies those that don’t have jokes. Which is why I am not drawn to stand up comedy (excepting Richard Prior, Barry Crimmins, David Chappelle) Sarah Silverman as many are the few originals we are blessed to have live among us, is her own category.Of the many mordant obsrevations found in her new ‘special’

 

“Yeah, we’re Number one. We’re number one in juvenile diabetes”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I met  Thomas Beller when he was a youngish literary bon vivant***, editing a fine New York literary magazine Open City, gifting the internet his Mr Beller’s Neighborhood and publishing a book or two along the way. Beller is now ensconced in New Orleans teaching at Tulane University. Among other things Beller writes on the National Basketball Association for the New Yorker. Now if you follow the once and future Great American Pastime( baseball) but do not necessarily find the New Yorker useful ,you ultimately get around to references  to the oracular Roger Angell, who has been contemplating and commenting on hard ball since time immemorial. I’m thinking , admittedly based on a small sample, that Professor Beller may achieve the same beatified status. Here from his  report on  NBA All star guard  Cleveland Cavalier/Boston Celtic Kyrie Irving:

One of my favorite basketball anecdotes involves George (Iceman) Gervin sitting in the locker room, sometime in the late nineteen-seventies, after hitting a game-winning shot. Journalists crowd him asking locker-room questions: “How did you do it?” “How did it feel?” “What were you thinking?” After a brief pause, Gervin responds, “The world is round.”

I have always loved this line for its lordly belligerence (“You bore me,” it seems to imply) and because I feel it holds a profound truth about the game. There are lots of sports that involve a round ball, but basketball is the most cosmic and planetary. The ball itself, often seen spinning on the tip of a finger, is the size of a globe. The climax of every play involves a sphere, usually in rotation, entering a circle, its own brief eclipse. The most popular style of play in the N.B.A. these days is referred to as “pace and space.” A player with the ball in his hand is his own solar system of gravity and velocity.

One way to illustrate basketball’s cosmic, planetary nature would be to describe the game as played by the point guard Kyrie Irving. He has a center of gravity somewhere just above his knees and the coördination of a jazz drummer. He is an expert low dribbler, and in the middle of his moves, especially when he puts the ball behind his back, he sometimes seems to sit for an infinitesimal moment on an invisible chair. During the clannish, gossip-filled family reunion that is All-Star Weekend, I heard the theory that, among all N.B.A. players, Irving’s skills are the most envied. This is a category I had not previously considered—not M.V.P. but M.E.P. Irving’s moves with the ball are like physics problems that culminate with extremely high-profile clutch shots. He excels at humiliating the opponent. Maybe that’s what is envied…

 

Some of the very few bright moments (comparatively) in the this nightmare time  are the writings of a handful of journalists and dissident scholars. I am guessing Matt Taibbi is holding the Hunter Thompson/William Greider chair at Rolling Stone (the entertainment magazine). He manages to  add a measure of hilarity to what Charle Pierce has called Camp Runamuck or Taibbi’s own  coinage, Trumpsylvania. Here he points out *****the incongruity of the vulgarian POTUS’s scapegoating the commercial media

 

 

The craziest part of Donald Trump’s 77-minute loon-a-thon in Phoenix earlier this week came when he rehashed his shtick about the networks turning off live coverage of his speech. Trump seemed to really believe they were shutting the cameras off because “the very dishonest media” was so terrified of his powerful words.

“They’re turning those lights off so fast!” he said. “CNN doesn’t want its failing viewership to see this!”

No news director would turn off the feed in the middle of a Trump-meltdown. This presidency has become the ultimate ratings bonanza. Trump couldn’t do better numbers if he jumped off Mount Kilimanjaro carrying a Kardashian.

This was confirmed this week by yet another shruggingly honest TV executive – in this case Tony Maddox, head of CNN International. Maddox said CNN is doing business at “record levels.” He hinted also that the monster ratings they’re getting have taken the sting out of being accused of promoting fake news.

“[Trump] is good for business,” Maddox said. “It’s a glib thing to say. But our performance has been enhanced during this news period

By the way, Taibbi has a book forthcoming, I Can’t Breathe, lucidly unpacking the tragic Eric Garland killing.

 

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

* http://glennobrien.com/site/#/bio

**https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/king-of-the-losers/

***http://www.identitytheory.com/thomas-beller/

****http://www.newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/maybe-the-earth-is-flat-if-you-are-kyrie-irving

 

*****http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/taibbi-blame-media-for-creating-world-dumb-enough-for-trump-w499649

Turkey Day

23 Nov

nativeamericangenocide87x

In addition to Halloween and Columbus Day, I find Thanksgiving an abhorrent holiday, a celebration of the false notions that Europeans and Native Americans could and would live in harmony and comity ever after. We know better. Or some of us do.

Genocide by Other Means: U.S. Army Slaughtered Buffalo in Plains Indian Wars .

Genocide by Other Means: U.S. Army Slaughtered Buffalo in Plains Indian Wars .

So while the refugee population (330 million) of that exceptional nation its inhabitants like to call the United States of America (I prefer Gore Vidal and Emminem’s The United States of Amnesia) gobbles down the traditional high caloric deluge (one of such would probably would be sufficient to feed a village in Haiti or MesoAmerica) and watch young men and felons (check out the SEC football team rosters)beat out each others brains, all the while preparing for the hysteria and mania of the ineptly named Black Friday,let me offer a different path—perhaps one on the way to enlightenment.

I remain hopeful.

I am sending notice of three books that have found their way to me because of that hope

War is Beautiful by David Shields

War is Beautiful by David Shields

I have been following David Shields’s work* a good, long while now —his transmogrification from novelist to literary zealot**(see Reality Hunger and Fakes) has been an engaging development. His new opus is a riveting and unsettling look at one of the pillars of US main stream media,
War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict*** Shield’s explains

David Hickey introduces the book:

…Shields analyzed over a decade’s worth of front-page war photographs from the New York Times and came to a shocking conclusion: the photo-editing process of the “paper of record,” by way of pretty, heroic, and lavishly aesthetic image selection, pulls the wool over the eyes of we its readers; with this discovery Shields forces us to face not only the media’s complicity in dubious and catastrophic military campaigns but our own as well. This powerful media mouthpiece, the mighty Times, far from being a check on governmental power, is in reality a massive amplifier for its dark forces by virtue of the way it aestheticizes warfare. Anyone baffled by the willful American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan can’t help but see in this book how eagerly and invariably the Times led the way in making the case for these wars through the manipulation of its visuals. Shields forces the reader to weigh the consequences of our own passivity in the face of these images’ opiatic numbing…

For decades, upon opening the New York Times every morning and contemplating the front page, I was entranced by the war photographs. My attraction to the photographs evolved into a mixture of rapture, bafflement, and repulsion. Over time I realized that these photos glorified war through an unrelenting parade of beautiful images whose function is to sanctify the accompanying descriptions of battle, death, destruction, and displacement. I didn’t completely trust my intuition, so over the last year I went back and reviewed New York Times front pages from the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 until the present. When I gathered together hundreds and hundreds of images, I found my original take corroborated: the governing ethos was unmistakably one that glamorized war and the sacrifices made in the service of war.

Juan Cole observes

After U.S. troops left Iraq, former Times Baghdad bureau chief John F. Burns wrote in a Times war blog: “America, for all its mistakes—- including, as so many believe, the decision to invade in the first place—- will at least have the comfort of knowing that it did pretty much all it could do, within the limits of popular acceptance in blood and treasure, to open the way for a better Iraqi future.” President Lyndon Johnson said about Viet Nam, “I can’t fight this war without the support of the New York Times.” A Times war photograph is worth a thousand mirrors.

Art is an ordering of nature and artifact. The Times uses its front-page war photographs to convey that a chaotic world is ultimately under control, encased within amber. In so doing, the paper of record promotes its institutional power as protector of death-dealing democracy and curator of Western civilization. Who is culpable? We all are; our collective psyche and memory are inscribed in these photographs. Behind these sublime, destructive, illuminated images are hundreds of thousands of unobserved, anonymous war deaths; this book is witness to a graveyard of horrendous beauty.

ED662180-2C41-4370-A833-BE20AC08BB4F

You may be unaware of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, a collection of more than 10,000 contemptible collectible. David Pilgrim’s Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice corrects that gap in our cultural literacy:

The items are offensive and they were meant to be offensive. The items in the Jim Crow Museum served to dehumanize Blacks and legitimized patterns of prejudice, discrimination, and segregation. Using racist objects as teaching tools seems counterintuitive—and, quite frankly, needlessly risky. Many Americans are already apprehensive discussing race relations, especially in settings where their ideas are challenged. The museum and this book exist to help overcome our collective trepidation and reluctance to talk about race

73152BAA-BA3C-4645-863F-22518E7C914E

Historian Paul Buhle’s ouevre is impressive and he adds to it with his editing hand of Kate Evans’s Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg a revolutionary socialist theorist and activist was a German Jew who opposed the the First World War (as many others on the left did not) and thus was imprisoned and eventually murdered in 1919. There is not a lot of attention paid in our brave new free market, globalist world (there was a 1986 film Rosa Luxemburg by Margarethe von Trotta)

to dissident thinkers and activists which makes this wonderful tome all the more valuable. Here is a more complete sample from Red Rosa

4EA361B8-B444-4EB4-AC4B-B7F47705CFEF

 

Now if you are especially ambitious and concerned you might go to the fountain head of revisionist US History , Howard Zinn’s The People’s History.

 

 

 

* 2002 Identitytheory conversation with David Shields

**my most recent conversation with David at the LA Review of Books

***in which the author explains why he no longer reads The New York Times

Talking with Mary Karr

4 Nov
Philo, aka Philo of Alexandria, Philo Judaeus, Philo Judaeus of Alexandria,

Philo, aka Philo of Alexandria, Philo Judaeus, Philo Judaeus of Alexandria,

… Everybody dies, everybody loves, and fails to love, and loves in the wrong way, the wrong person at the wrong time. There’s enough loss in any life for all of Shakespeare…Mary Karr

Some two decades I was delighted to read Mary Karr’s literary debut, Liars Club, so named after her raconteur father’s group of story-telling friends. And I did sit down and converse with her about her East Texas life and upbringing and matters to do with writing a book about a “terrific family of liars and drunks … redeemed by a slow unearthing of truth.” A number of poetry collections and two memoirs — Lit:A Memoir and Cherry:A Memoir—later, Ms Karr has recently published, The Art of Memoir.

As it happens I was able to catch up with poet and Syracuse mentor Karr recently, for a pleasant and digressive chat on, of course, writing memoirs, her recent turn to music , the proposed film treatment of her initial memoir, Liar’s Club, her mother and her wide ranging experiences including coaching Little League baseball.

Here is a snippet from her Mary Karr Thinks You Shouldn’t Google Yourselfher recent interview with Ann- Marie Cox

You are friends with a lot of today’s memoirists. Have you ever appeared in another person’s memoir?

Oh, I’ve appeared in all kinds of [expletive].

What’s that experience like for you?

Well, obviously, I would like my every portrait to be of me dispensing food to the poor. Believe it or not, I’m actually not that interested in representation of myself in other people’s writing. I’ve also never Googled myself. It wouldn’t occur to me to do so. It’s the same reason I don’t watch pornography. It’s not that I occupy some moral high ground. I just think: Down that road lies madness.

As someone who reveals so much, is there a time that an interviewer has gone too far with you?

Oh, yeah, but I have no problem saying, ‘‘I’m not going to discuss that.’’ I would never talk about anybody’s penis. You can ask me about my relationship with David Wallace all you like; I’m not going to talk about his penis.

That’s one of the least interesting things about any man, really.

If only they knew that.

Mary Karr: I was just on with Terry Gross. She’s really a good interviewer, I’ve got to say. You never know what she’s going to ask you. She always makes me think… You don’t know—you probably do know, but when you go out on the road now, the people who used to interview you were book people, you know? Michael Silverblatt,[The Book Worm at KCRW](1) or somebody like that. Real bookworms. Now you get some chirpy, twenty-five-year-old who says, “What would your ad for your book be?” I’m like, “Well, I wouldn’t write an ad for my book.”

Robert Birnbaum: There’s a hilarious book trailer for Alan Arkin,(2) the actor, who has also written a couple of memoirs. It opens up with him laying in a hotel room bed ,it’s 6:00 … the phone rings, he fumbles for the phone, picks up the phone. It’s a guy from the radio station, wants to do an interview, which Arkin hadn’t even known about. ..the radio guy proceeds to ask questions that make clear he doesn’t know who Arkin is or that he has even looked at the book…

Mary Karr: …The way I look at it, these people are doing you a favor. You’re always responsible for ponying up.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s very nice. You’re never put off by somebody’s ignorance?

Mary Karr: No, I don’t mind people who haven’t read the book.Somebody like that is just stupid, actively stupid. You don’t have to have read The Art of Memoir to have three or four questions about memoir. How do you deal with your family? Those are normal questions— a normal person would want to know the answer to those questions. [It’s]Just a total absence of curiosity. It’s hard to be an interviewer when you’re not curious.

Robert Birnbaum: A propos of nothing, where is Mark Costello today [David Foster Wallace’s best friend](3)?

Mary Karr:He lives in New York City, he’s married to somebody I fixed him up on a blind date with, Nan Graham, who’s a big editor at Scribner. They’ve got two kids. I fixed him up on a blind date like twenty years ago.

Robert Birnbaum: I see. Because I talked to him in 2002 and he had published a novel and hadn’t heard of him since.

Mary Karr:Yeah,Big If, which is a terrific book. I think he teaches at Fordham Law School.

Robert Birnbaum: Has he written or published anything since?

Mary Karr: He’s finishing a novel now. I mean, he’s the dad of two kids and he teaches full-time, and his wife is high-powered enough that he gets a lot of the kid duties. I love Mark. One of the great human beings.

 Mary Karr [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Mary Karr [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Birnbaum: When you write a book called the Art of Memoir, who are you thinking will want to read it?

Mary Karr: You know, it’s funny, people think of it as a how-to book, but the how-to stuff is kind of peppered in. I want to say maybe eighteen percent of it is how-to, maybe eighteen percent of it is a memoir about writing memoir, because people do ask me, “How did your family react?” Anybody with a family imagines how you deal with your beloveds, you know? But I think it is also, in a way, for anybody with an inner life, anybody who ponders how what’s happened to them is affecting how they see the world. Trying to determine what’s true and what isn’t true and what’s real and what’s not real in the course of your day. I have a big inner life and I am always … my tendency is to project onto the landscape what I want to see. I’m like an all-giving loving saint and everybody else is an asshole, but …

philo

Robert Birnbaum: Do you know of the old Jew, Philo of Alexandria? Have you heard of him?

Mary Karr: No, I mean I know the name. He had the library, right?

Robert Birnbaum: I came across a quote of his, and I thought it was a very Dalai Lama like, “Be kind to everyone you meet, because everyone in life is going through a great battle.”

Mary Karr: That’s exactly right.

Robert Birnbaum:I thought of that when I was reading the latter part of your speech at Syracuse,(4) which, by the way, I think an excellent speech. I think some commencement speeches are a new literary genre. There’s are some great commencement speeches by writers, by novelists and writers.

Mary Karr:Steve Jobs also did a great one. I think.

Robert Birnbaum: I was focusing at writers. I put Aaron Sorkin in that group…

Mary Karr: He was also at Syracuse. He gave a really good speech.

Robert Birnbaum:I started noticing with the David Foster Wallace/Kenyon College speech, and then I started seeing others. George Saunders.(6)

Mary Karr:George Saunders’ speech—to me, that’s the pinnacle. That’s as good a commencement speech as I’ve ever heard.

Robert Birnbaum:In the first three lines of yours you said something like, “Memoir takes you from a scary place, it’s a zip line to a truer place,”

Mary Karr:Poetry. Not memoir but poetry. That poetry hopefully takes you to a truer place. I mean, all art should, right? Any art should take you somewhere truer.

Robert Birnbaum: Your speech can stand alone…it’s the kind of piece that would be included in David Shields’s anthology, Fakes.(7) All these odds and ends— a letter from George Saunders, customer relations department. All these odd writings, somebody’s laundry list, you know? But they all seem to become literary, you know?

Fakes edited by David Shelds

Fakes edited by David Shelds

Mary Karr:That’s very funny. That’s a great … And David Shields edited it?

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, Here’s the thing, I’m not inclined to read memoirs. I’m not hungry for them. I read yours, but it turns out if you wrote an instruction manual on how to assemble a tricycle, I be inclined to read it…

Mary Karr:That’s so nice. I’m not much of a writer, but I’m a dogged little re-writer. Everything I have written is about as good as I can make it.

Robert Birnbaum:I gave particular credence to your first chapter and your last chapter, so I hear you.

Mary Karr:Don’t you wish more people rewrote?

Robert Birnbaum: One forgives people for their infelicitous writing.

Mary Karr:Sure, of course, you’ve got to. I mean, journalists or people writing on a deadline, that’s a different kind of writing.

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Robert Birnbaum: What’s the difference between autobiography and memoir?

Mary Karr:Everybody makes that distinction, I don’t. I don’t think there is a distinction. I think they’re the same thing. I think there are good memoirs and bad memoirs. I think when they think of a one-off, I think the way it’s used when people make the distinction, is when it’s some film star with fake boobs tells her tale of woe. They think of that as an autobiography, and then they think of somebody who does a literary thing as a memoir. But that’s just using a French word for … I think they’re the same thing. There’s just good ones and bad ones.

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah. I hesitate to make the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, although I know there’s a hard line. I say this is because, I think Gore Vidal’s Empire series is as good a history of the United States as any.

Mary Karr: Really funny.
.
Robert Birnbaum: So, do you want to read David Herbert Donald or other biographers on Lincoln? Or do you want to read Gore Vidal’s Lincoln?

Mary Karr: Yeah, it’s true. I’ve read a lot of books on Lincoln. I love reading about Lincoln.

Robert Birnbaum:I was thinking, besides Jesus Christ, I think Lincoln has the second most amount of books written about him. How many memoirs do you have in you?

Mary Karr:Exactly. I don’t know. Maybe I have as many books as there are advances publishers are dumb enough to give me. All those books, after The Liar’s Club, I wrote the proposal for that book, but every other book, including this one, I wrote because somebody called and offered me money for them.

Robert Birnbaum: Good for you.

Mary Karr: That’s not a bad reason to write a book.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s also pretty flattering.

Mary Karr:Yeah, exactly.

Robert Birnbaum:That does remove a little bit of the anxiety about whether or not the publisher is going to support the book once they publish it.

Mary Karr: Right, that’s true. If you can gouge them for enough money, then maybe they’ll try to do it. Yeah, but then your editor leaves and other people have other problems, so …

Robert Birnbaum: Do you have much contact with the publishing world, and the business of books? When you have completed and delivered the book, while you’re writing the book, do you have contact?

Mary Karr:I have a wonderful editor, and certainly for this book, she really helped me think about how to shape it and put it together.

Robert Birnbaum:So it wasn’t you wrote the book and presented it to her, you start crying and saying, “Shit, shit, shit, fuck, shit,” and then you call her.

Mary Karr:Right. With this book. Well, I say, “Shit, shit, fuck, shit,” for every book.

Robert Birnbaum: I gathered that.

Mary Karr: Every book is like that. I’m always in a state of torment. She and I basically did a bunch of outlines back and forth over about a four month period. I would work on one and then send it to her, and then she really helped me, the outline that she gave me isn’t how the book ended up, but George Saunders actually helped me a lot, to structure The Art of Memoir.

Robert Birnbaum: One of the things I thought about in reading your,what might be construed as a manual sort of, is that you are suggesting that everyone may have a memoir in them, but not necessarily a book.

Mary Karr:I think, I really believe, as I say in the book, that the most privileged person in any room, as I said in that speech, suffers the torments of the damned. Just like you said, they’re engaged in a great struggle. Everybody dies, everybody loves, and fails to love, and loves in the wrong way, the wrong person at the wrong time. There’s enough loss in any life for all of Shakespeare. Not everybody is going to be a good enough writer to write a great one, but I think certainly in terms of … I think I said I’m always amazed when I’m on an airplane, yes, by the people who you meet who are boring, but also by boring people who you meet who become interesting when they talk with great feeling. Do you know what I mean?

Robert Birnbaum:You never know. I agree with your notion of truth, that there is something, there is a truth that makes everyone, when someone encounters something they think is true, it really does refresh one with great energy. It’s a good place to land.

Mary Karr: Right.

Robert Birnbaum:It may be sort of counter intuitive to the way human beings are constructed. My judgment about, my sense of human behavior is that many people are continuously running away from the truth or pursuit of truths?

Mary Karr: Well, let’s say all of us are running away from the truth. The fact that we’re all going to die, and we’re not all screaming every second of day, is running away from the truth in a way. I think we all are.

Robert Birnbaum: How old are you?

Mary Karr:Sixty.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you find yourself thinking about aging? Will that be the next memoir?

Mary Karr: People keep asking me—Terry Gross just asked me this, two smart people. I don’t know, I don’t have any plans. I don’t know, I’m trying to finish a book of poems.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you think a lot about it?

Mary Karr: More so since I turned sixty. I never really, I thought about it as anybody does, but …I’m not in the middle of anything. When you’re sixty you’re not going to live to be 120, so you can’t bullshit yourself.

Robert Birnbaum: Sixty is the new forty.

Mary Karr:You might live to be eighty, but you’re not going to live to be 120, so it becomes a different thing when you can’t double it, when you don’t have that much left. You’re definitely on the losing end of it. I play all kind of games with myself where I say, “I sort of became a person when I was thirty, so I probably don’t have another thirty years left in me, but maybe I have another twenty.” You know what I mean?

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah. Joseph Epstein, wrote a piece when he was seventy,(8) talking about, it was a take-off on film producer Robert Evans’s memoir/autobiography The Kid Stays in The Picture . Epstein’s was called The Kid Turned Seventy. He said every time he has a birthday he just wants ten more years. It seems like a reasonable figure to ask for.

Mary Karr:I think that’s the way I feel. Instead of people thinking I want another fifty years, I do think if I could just make it to seventy I will have accomplished something.

Mary Karr: How old are you?

Robert Birnbaum: 68—two thirds of a century.

Mary Karr: Do you think about it?

Robert Birnbaum: Yes. I don’t feel my age at all, whatever that’s supposed to mean. I see people who are younger who are in terrible shape. Can hardly walk, have blank facial expressions and flat affects… I do a lot of stuff,umpire little league, work the sticks at home high school football games, walk my dog regularly..

Mary Karr: What a great thing to do. I bet that’s a great thing to do. I coached little league, and I always said it was one of the great spiritual experiences of my life. It was really one of the funniest things I ever did in my life.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. Being around ten-year-olds on a regular basis. Plus, I get to push them around.

Mary Karr:Yeah, exactly.

Robert Birnbaum: I have a lot of fun doing that, but it’s hard to be a good umpire.

Mary Karr: It’s hard to know what’s true.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s a test, you know? A 68-year-old guy who can still bend down over 100 times in two hours and remember things from instant to instant while attending to countless other things …

Mary Karr:It’s testing your short-term memory all the time, which is deteriorating.

Robert Birnbaum:I don’t know what your worst fears is, but one of my worst fears is losing my sentience.

Mary Karr: Your marbles?

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah, and even my memory, you know?

Mary Karr:I remember stuff so well, I kind of aspire to it. I have way too good a memory. I wish I could forget more. I’m better at it now.

Robert Birnbaum:I’m amazed at what I remember. Especially when a smell triggers something.

Mary Karr:That’s the amazing thing, right? It’s the most primitive sense.

Robert Birnbaum:You smell something and you go back forty years.

Mary Karr:It’s in your snake brain. No, it is. It’s like the most primitive part of you, smells.

Robert Birnbaum:I think I’d be willing to say we don’t forget anything. It’s not a question of forgetting. Everything we need to encounter is somewhere there, but the ability to access it.

Mary Karr:Yeah, that’s a problem.

Robert Birnbaum: Right.I’m amazed sometimes at the distinctive, vivid way that I remember stuff.

Mary Karr:Oh yeah. And especially the further back the more vivid often, right?

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, yeah.

Mary Karr: I know, me too.

Robert Birnbaum: How much do you still recall the life that you talked about in The Liar’s Club? Is that still vivid to you?

Mary Karr: I think the traumatic memories remain very lucid, because they’re probably stored in another part of the brain, actually. You now how when people who have strokes, they keep all the curse words. You’ll often hear, go in the nursing home, you’ll hear cursing . It’s because those emotions— my daddy, when he had a stroke, if the World at War came on or something, and there was all this World War II stuff, he would say, “Cannons your tank, ” and he couldn’t say yes or no. He would say, “General Montgomery.” He would name, “Luftwaffe.” He could say things from having been in the war. Those memories, he couldn’t say he wanted a cup of juice or not, but I think those things seared in your brain meat from a very emotional time. I always say you remember the most important things to you. Things that are most important to you, to who you are.

Robert Birnbaum: Do people remember their funnest, wonderfullest, most loving moments in their life?

Mary Karr: People unlike us do. Regular people do. We don’t. We remember all the … Every time we were knocked in the dirt. Exactly.

Robert Birnbaum: You mentioned a time in your family when it was somewhat healed ?

Mary Karr:I think we were as healed as we could’ve been without everybody going into therapy. But I mean, I think to the extent that we took care of aging parents and buried people, showed up and did stuff, kids went to graduations, that’s pretty healed for a family like mine.

Robert Birnbaum: It was your mother, father and your sister. Did you count your mother’s husbands?

Mary Karr:No.

Robert Birnbaum: Once they left …

Mary Karr: Gone, that was the end of it.

Robert Birnbaum:How about your mother? Did she maintain memories of past husbands?

Mary Karr: Not that she ever shared. I think they were dismissed by my mother. I think once she divorced she opens that door and…

Robert Birnbaum: She had seven husbands?

Mary Karr: I know, right? Who know how many? There were seven she told us about.

Robert Birnbaum: And you didn’t lose touch with her once you started going to school, moved to Minnesota.

Mary Karr: It’s weird, I still, for much of my life, when I could afford it, I talked to her every day. She was an interesting person.

Robert Birnbaum: Sounds like.

Mary Karr: Not a great mother as a mother, but she’s very smart and she was curious. She was extremely curious and could be very charming. She was fun to talk to.

Robert Birnbaum: How is it that your mother and your father met?

Mary Karr:She had a flat tire. Yeah, I think she had a flat tire and he came out to fix it and …

Robert Birnbaum:That was it.

Mary Karr: That was it.

Robert Birnbaum: Did he charm her, do you think?

Mary Karr:I think they charmed each other. I think they both charmed each other. He was labor organizing then, working class hero. Handsome, kind of Clark Gable-type guy.

Robert Birnbaum: And told good stories.

Mary Karr:Tells good stories. A lot of fun to be with. She was beautiful and wild, I think it was like seeing a great thoroughbred somewhere.

Kin Songs by Mary KArr & Rodney Crowell

Kin Songs by Mary KArr & Rodney Crowell

Robert Birnbaum: What is your foray into songwriting and recording about, is that a one-time thing (9)?

Mary Karr: No, I have at least one song on Rodney’s Christmas album, and he and I have worked on a couple of other songs. We’re actually meeting tomorrow night to talk … I think we’re going to get together this winter and work on another album.

Robert Birnbaum: Where do you do it, in Syracuse?

Mary Karr:No, no. He’s in Nashville. We mostly met on the road though. He and I were both on the road, and so I’d be in Berkeley, he’d be in San Francisco, we’d meet. Or I’d be in LA, he’d be in Orange County, we’d meet in some hotel. Or I would go stay with him and his wife down in Nashville, or he would come to New York a lot, quite a bit. So wherever we were, found ourselves, we’d work on the side. We did a lot on the phone too.He would call me and send a recording of a guitar thing, and then I’d call him back, and we’d go back and forth and then we’d arrange to meet.

Robert Birnbaum: Who do you like singing your songs?

Mary Karr: I had so many great people sing my songs. I’ll be honest with you, there’s nobody who did a shitty job. There’s really nobody who did a shitty job. I mean, I think Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams, and Emmylou Harris, and Vince Gill, Kris Kristopherson, Rodney, Lee Ann Womack, I mean, it doesn’t get much better, Rosanne Cash. Couldn’t get much better than that lineup.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s true. Does that fuel your interest or urge in writing more songs, doing more music?

Mary Karr:Yeah. I would love to do it. It was really fun. The fun part was going on the road with the band. That was really fun. I did that for a couple of weeks. That was the most fun I ever had.

Robert Birnbaum: How did you do that and stay sober?

Mary Karr: Rodney doesn’t drink.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, but musicians are known to drink and such. What did you do?

Mary Karr: His musicians he travels with, don’t.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s the fun part of being on the road?

Mary Karr: They call it playing.

Robert Birnbaum: Oh, the playing is the fun part?

Mary Karr: It’s fun, and also you’re traveling. You’re with the band, you’re in a band where the .. He has very smart, interesting musicians play with him. He doesn’t have just anybody. Stuart Smith is a guitar player for the Eagles now. He’s an incredible classically trained guitar player, an incredibly smart human being. He reads everything. His crew … It’s not like being with the drummer from AC/DC. It’s not a lot of booze and girls. It’s a lot of smart people reading books and talking about them. I’m sure it was a lot of booze and girls …and coke [at one time].

Poster from Kinetic Playground Chicago  circa 1969

Poster from Kinetic Playground Chicago circa 1969

Robert Birnbaum: Well I can tell you about tne music scene because after I graduated college, I worked in one of the first, sort of. psychedelic dungeons[like the Fillmore] in Chicago, it was called the Kinetic Playground, and every big group at that time played there …

Mary Karr: Psychedelic dungeon?

Robert Birnbaum: Uh huh. I took drugs as part of a regular diet of loud music, late nights and mindless sex…

Mary Karr:So did I. But that’s the name of a memoir. Psychedelic Dungeon, that’s a great memoir title.

Robert Birnbaum:The first time that Led Zeppelin played in America, they played there, Santana, everybody… you know.

Mary Karr:Wow, Santana.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. That was my experience. And then the drugs, of course.

Mary Karr: And then the drugs.

Robert Birnbaum: You weren’t in Plainfield, Vermont (Goddard College) in 71 were you?

Mary Karr: I was in Plainfield, Vermont in ’78.

Robert Birnbaum: I attended the now famous Alternative Media Conference there in ’71 or ’72.(10 It was just outlandish and unfettered and hopeful…

Mary Karr: That’s the way things used to be.

Robert Birnbaum: I had never really taken Goddard seriously. I didn’t get a sense of there there. It seemed so ethereal.

Mary Karr: It was, it was. I still remember Ray Carver, there was a little pond, and there were these women who would go shirtless in their kayak. The pond was from here to the back of the deli, and they would paddle back and forth about thirty yards. It was the strangest thing, with no shirts on. Ray just couldn’t get over it. He called them the Nudie Veggies. That’s what Goddard was like. When you read the list of professors I studied with there, they’re all MacArthur Fellows, you know, Bob Hass, Charlie Simic, it’s nuts … Heather McHugh, they’re all amazing.

Robert Birnbaum: You were lucky in the people that you ran into as a student.

Mary Karr: Unbelievably lucky, unbelievably lucky. Geoffrey and Tobias [Wolff]. Frank Conroy was there. In terms of memoir, that was probably one of the planet’s most interesting conversations about. Three memoirs of that caliber, in one spot, you’d be hard to come by.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. I never read Stop-Time [by Frank Conroy], but I did feel like his …

Mary Karr:You have to read Stop-Time. It’s so good.

Robert Birnbaum: Okay, okay. I read his novel and I really liked his essays.

Mary Karr: His essays were great.

Robert Birnbaum:The Dogs Bark and the Caravan Rolls On, that kind of thing. Just thought that was spot on.

Mary Karr:I liked it too.

Robert Birnbaum: He interviewed Keith Jarrett, and he asked him how he prepared, and Jarrett says, “I walk out on the stage and I sit down on the piano, and I try to clear my mind of everything. No, I don’t want any notes in my head. I just want to not think about [what I am going to do]. That approach to doing something …

Mary & Rodney Crowell [photo: Debra Feingold]

Mary & Rodney Crowell [photo: Debra Feingold]

Mary Karr:Takes some big brass ones. That’s how Rodney is. Rodney is very … I mean, he’s not a jazz musician, but he hates to put together a set list. He’d rather just go out there and play what hits him.

Robert Birnbaum:Has he worked on any movies?

Mary Karr: No, but he just was music director in the new Hank Williams movie.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s the name?

Mary Karr:I can’t remember.

Robert Birnbaum: I think a lot of the narratives in movies and films and TV now are really making good use of the music, not necessarily well known songs. I think of T Bone Burnett’s stuff for True Detectivesor Nick Cave on Peaky Blinders.

Mary Karr: Right, right. I heard T Bone Burnett in Cambridge, I think. I also saw James Brown and the Famous Flames in 1966.

Robert Birnbaum: I saw him at the Regal Theater at about that time.

Mary Karr:That was amazing.

Robert Birnbaum:Yes it was. I think back now, and I think, I was afraid of black people. I don’t know why, because when I went to the Regal Theater, which is all black, me and three other white people, we never had a problem.

Mary Karr:I went with my daddy. We were the only white people there. You qualified yourself by being there, to be there by liking the music. I think that’s … You know what I mean? You had to be a different kind of person to be that into African American music.

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah. Why did I feel any anxiety? Where did all that come from? Who told me that black people were scary … You know?

Mary Karr: Well, it’s the same way, certainly they feel that way about us, with better reason. You know what I mean?

Robert Birnbaum:Yes.

Mary Karr:I can’t believe what happened to the tennis player (James Blake, who was mistakenly and forcibly arrested) in New York. It’s unbelievable.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s actually not unbelievable Ever been asked to write a film treatment?

Liar's Club by Mary Karr

Liar’s Club by Mary Karr

Mary Karr:Many people have. I’m currently working on Liar’s Club at Showtime with Mary Louise Parker slated.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s your participation?

Mary Karr: Executive producing and writing. I’ve written a pilot, so we’ll see, we’ll see if they do it.

Robert Birnbaum:Yea,there is that.

Mary Karr: There is that.

Robert Birnbaum:Is there a subject or a theme or person that you’d like to create … Is there a biography you’d like to do? Is there one person that you learned about, that you think other people should know about, learn about…have you discovered somebody who’s been undiscovered?

Mary Karr:Oh, in memoir?

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah.

Mary Karr: Maybe Harry Crews, Childhood Biography of a Place. I think Black Boy, the Richard Wright book, isn’t undiscovered, but I think it’s in some ways a better book than Native Son, which I know is scandalous to say, but I think that’s a brilliant memoir.

Robert Birnbaum:I remember reading Richard Wright. I remember things about it very vividly. They were part of my, the images was part of my growing up. I look at it and I go, the Sixties would be such a small window, cultural literacy. How do people know about James Baldwin, who are twenty years ,twenty-five years old?

Mary Karr:I think everybody who reads. Anybody who is a reader.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s only 400,000 people in the world.

Mary Karr:I was going to say, yeah exactly. There’s nobody left.

Robert Birnbaum:I’m assuming that all the memoirs you listed in the back of The Art of Memoir and the people are ones you admire.

Mary Karr:Yeah, I wouldn’t list them if I didn’t.

Robert Birnbaum:Would it be impolitic to ask you what are some memoirs that you think fall short?

Mary Karr:Yeah, I probably wouldn’t say that. We all know what they are. We all know the … Mostly the memoirs of the liars are mostly badly written, even if they had good stories to them. They are mostly pretty bad, pretty shabby written. I mean, a memoir like Black Boy, Richard Wright, you’re not going to forget, Dispatches, Michael Herr’s book, Maxine Hong Kingston Woman Warrior, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, I mean those are books nobody is going to forget…

Robert Birnbaum:You mentioned Mary McCarthy’s memoir, and I’ve always been fascinated by her, what I know about her, what I’ve read about her. That memoir doesn’t sound very promising…

Mary Karr:Really? She’s so smart, so funny, and so well-written. And it was right at the time when the notion of subjective truth hadn’t really been invented, in a way. She spends a lot of time correcting herself and second-guessing, and you see her idea of truth eroding, over the course of her book.

Robert Birnbaum: I read a piece she wrote for The New York Review of Books, from Saigon in ‘66, when she did a stint in Saigon. I thought it was just brilliant.

Mary Karr:Oh, she’s so brilliant.

Robert Birnbaum:Do you have a routine where you sort of engage the news of the day? Do you read newspapers?

Mary Karr: Just The New York Times, you know. I’m not a big news junkie. In fact, I kind of don’t like the news. I’m much more interested in history. I prefer everybody to sift experience and tell me what’s interesting fifty years later, sadly.

Robert Birnbaum:I’ve come to think that people like Stewart and Colbert and now John Oliver, are the news.

Mary Karr: Well, the people watching it think they are, so yeah.

Robert Birnbaum:. How much time do you have spend talking about this book in the coming months?

Mary Karr:Probably just this week and next week, and then I go back to sitting around in my pajamas, so not so long.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s your schedule at Syracuse? You go there, what, one semester a year?

Mary Karr:I do a fall semester there, yeah. But I also supervise students, often in the spring, so that involves them coming to New York, or me going there.

Robert Birnbaum: I gather you travel a lot, for any number of reasons.

Mary Karr:I do, I do. My gentleman caller is a big traveler. He’s the head of a real estate development firm, and so he builds big buildings all over. But he’s also just an inveterate adventurer. I think I get to Asia more than I would have done with a different gentleman caller.

Robert Birnbaum: Have you read anything good lately?

Mary Karr: Other than the Art of Memoir? Yeah, I just taught Black Boy, I just read that, and I’m teaching Mary McCarthy next week, so I’m reading that.

Robert Birnbaum: You don’t have any particular inclination to read newly, fresh-off-the-press books?

Dear Mr. You by  Mary-Louse Parker

Dear Mr. You by
Mary-Louse Parker

Mary Karr: Sure I do. I mean, sure I do, but not in the middle of teaching. When I’m teaching, I’m reading what I’m teaching. Actually, Mary Louise Parker has a great book called Dear Mr. You that I think is a terrific kind of …Very poetic. She reads a lot of poetry and it shows in the prose, very poetic memoir. Oh, Dana Spiotta has a novel coming out called Innocence and Others.

Robert Birnbaum: Anything else you want to tell me, that you want might to confess to me?

Mary Karr: I’m going to have to take my sins with me when I leave.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s okay. I really wasn’t expecting a confession

Mary Karr: A smooth exit, there we go.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah a smooth segue.

Mary Karr: You can absolve me. Well, happy new year.

Robert Birnbaum: Happy[Jewish] New Year to you. Thanks

Mary Karr: Thank you. Shabat tova…

End Notes

(1) Michel Silverblatt, long time host of LA radios’s Bookworm

(2) Alan Arkin book trailer

(3) Mark Costello Interview at Identitytheory

(4 Commencement speech at Syracuse

(5)George Saunders 2013 Syracuse Commencement speech

(7)David Shields interview at Our Man in Boston

(8) Joseph Epstein The Kid Turns 70 in the Weekly Standard

(9) Kin Recording of songs written by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell

(10) Alternative Media Conference, 1971

Just Talking: How to Do Things with Words

26 Feb

Microphone-184x300

In the last three decades I have undertaken an open-ended independent post-graduate course of study. Included in my syllabus has been nearly a thousand conversations with people I place under the broad rubric of story tellers. And here I have provided public access to an incomplete list of my notes from my chats, from all across the Internet:

From A (mis) to Z (inn)

Martin Amis [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Martin Amis [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Martin Amis

Andre Dubus III

Ben Katchor

Tony Earley

W.D.Wetherell

Amy Bloom

Ron Rash

Arthur Bradford

William Giraldi

John Summers

Josh Ritter

Julian Barnes

Adam Gopnik

Ruben Martinez

Chip Kidd

Paul Lussier

Edith Pearlman

Attica Locke

Charles Yu

Jo Nesbo

Alan Gurganus

George Saunders

George Sciallaba

Alan Lightman

Darin Strauss

Manil Suri

Joan Wickersham

Ann Enright

John Sayles

Tony Horwitz

Thisbee Nissen

Jim Harrison

Ben Fountain

Benjamin Anastas

David Shields

Howard Zinn [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Howard Zinn [photo Robert Birnbaum]


Howard Zinn

images-2

In Memoriam Rosie (The Dalai Labrador) 1997-2007

Rosie [photo; Robert Birnbaum]

Rosie [photo; Robert Birnbaum]

Me and George. Talking.

5 Nov

In the new issue of the Baffler (Issue #26)writer,editor, critic George Scialabba’s forty year mental health records are presented in an abridged and annotated form with evocative illustrations by Brad Holland. Scialabba has, over the years ,suffered from severe bouts of depression and has searched for relief from this debilitating ‘disease’. Despite this burden George has published a number of essay collections—The Divided Mind, What are Intellectual Good For?, The Modern Predicament and recently For The Republic and countless articles for a wide swath of smart periodicals.

This conversation took place at Mt Auburn Cemetery on a crisp early September Sunday at the promonotory where the Washington Tower is located and that overlooks Boston looking to the east ( the name of person’s gravesite we settled at escapes me).George and I talked about his reason(s) for allowing the Baffler to publish his records and how they were edited and presented and his battle with depression. We also talked about the health care system, DH Lawrence,19th century Utopians, his religious upbringing, the state of American culture, not reading Tolstoy, some of his favorite recent reads, his ambitions and more…

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

I spent nine years in an insane asylum and never had a thought of suicide, except that every morning after my conversation with the psychiatrist, I wanted either to hang myself or to cut his throat— Antonin Artaud

RB: Say something (testing sound level).

GS: Four score and seven…

RB: The Baffler [Issue # 26] is publishing an edited version of your medical records of over forty years.

GS: My mental health records. There are no mentions of my toenail fungus.

RB: You have toenail fungus?

GS: I’m afraid so.

RB: What moved you to publish and publicize those records?

GS: Not what, who: the editor-in-chief, John Summers. Two years ago I had an episode of major depression. John and I were very good friends by then, so he offered to help—to come with me to doctors when necessary, shop for me, visit, and so on. At one point he thought it might be useful if we got my medical records. So I requested them—nowadays there is no problem getting them. We both only glanced at them back then and put them aside. Earlier this year he came across them, while he was conceiving the next issue of The Baffler, about health and the medical care system. and thought they might make an interesting document. I was … dubious, but he’s a persuasive guy and a very accomplished editor, so I said go ahead, see what you can turn them into. And he produced an excerpt that reads well and has, I think, a certain dramatic interest. He found some excellent art to illustrate it, and with a bit of commentary by me before and after, it fits into the tapestry of the issue. I don’t make great claims for it. I don’t think he does either. But because it’s the most widespread illness in the world, and there’s a lot of secrecy, of furtiveness, about it, it seemed to us that it might be worthwhile to offer this glimpse from another angle into the culture of health and sickness, which the whole issue is meant to represent

Fakes edited by David Shields and Matthew Volmer

Fakes edited by David Shields and Matthew Volmer

RB: My first reaction to this piece was to recall an anthology entitled Fakes [An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts by David Shields], which collects a variety of texts that turn out to also stand as literary items—written items that have narrative resonance. This iteration of your mental health records seems to suggest a new literary genre.

GS: I’ll have to take your word for it.

RB: How much material did John start with?

GS: About 40,000 words.

RB: That doesn’t seem like a lot for forty years, does it?

GS: There’s some stuff from the byways of my therapeutic history that I didn’t collect. But this is most of it.

RB: Is your mental health history cumulative? Does each provider pass on his or her notes upward?

GS: No, they were in three or four places.

RB: At some point, perhaps in the last ten years, did they become part of one file?

GS: No, I asked each of the three or four places where I had been seen for any length of time for their records. As far as I know, they’re still not gathered in any one place.

For the Republic by George Scialabba

For the Republic by George
Scialabba

RB: I was thinking that since medical records are being digitalized, eventually there should be one file.

GS: There are intake processes where they ask about your medications and hospitalizations.

RB: The patient is assumed to be a reliable narrator?

GS: If they think they’re looking at a potentially critical or terribly complicated case, then they will ask for the previous records. It took me a while to get mine, but the hospitals have courier service back and forth, so it’s faster for them. None of the institutions I did intake interviews with, seemed to want to see my previous records.

RB: There was a set of notes where the practitioner insisted on using the word ‘deny’—“denies suicidal ideation”, “denies whatever”—

GS: More than one.

RB: Is that standard medical jargon? There are verbs other than ‘deny’.

GS: I guess, as with so many other things in medicine, they’re being self-protective. If they had said, “the patient appears free of suicidal intent,” and then the patient committed suicide, they might be called on the carpet.

RB: That puts the onus on the patient and reveals an attitude by the practitioner toward the patient.

GS: That was my first reaction.

RB: You have denied suicidal ideation in each intake interview. In the commonplace book on your website there is a citation from Artaud:

“I spent nine years in an insane asylum and never had a thought of suicide, except that every morning after my conversation with the psychiatrist, I wanted either to hang myself or to cut his throat.”

Is there more history available to you? There are big gaps.

GS: There are gaps—some of the time I was out of therapy. There is one large episode of therapy for which I couldn’t get the therapist to give up her notes.

RB: Her notes of your treatment are available at her discretion?

GS: No, I’m legally entitled to them. But I didn’t want to fight about it.

RB: Were you tempted to annotate these records more extensively?

GS: John has a notion that the longer transcript can be made into a small book, in which case I’d have to do much more work.

RB: I second that idea. Its seems strange to say this – bordering on crass – but you have Brad Holland providing wonderful illustrations …

GS: I wasn’t truly sold on the whole idea until I saw both his illustrations and the other, smaller ones in the margin. Then I knew it had to be.

RB: I’ve read a number of novels lately – Francine Prose, Amy Bloom, Anthony Doerr – where part of the story is told through letters. Prose even uses excerpts from published books to advance the narrative. So writers are using different devices—

GS: I think there’s something new in the degree to which people are incorporating little shots of non-direct narrative. I’m not sure what it means; maybe it’s just …

RB: … the last gasp. I find I like to write notes —to service providers, my doctor, my son’s guidance counselor – and in so doing I attempt to make the epistles somewhat interesting and attractive to read. Possibly many people are also intent on avoiding cliché.

GS: That may be true, but I suspect you’ll agree it isn’t true of psychotherapists. They seem to have the opposite motive —to make the sessions sound less interesting. You don’t really get a sense, I think, of an individual personality, an individual voice, an individual sensibility, on either end. I mean, there are flashes of idiosyncratic perception on the part of therapists. And there are occasions when my own voice comes through. At one point, one of my therapists says, “He’s concerned about the beginnings of gray hair, or forehead receding” and then in parenthesis (He thinks very highly of his hair).” (laughs). And it’s true, I remember I was bragging about it. But touches like that, individuating touches, there are not many of them throughout the whole record— either in what was included or in what wasn’t. And the reason for that, I have discovered since talking to my current therapist about this project, is that there are very rigorous standard procedures for writing case notes.

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]


RB: Does anyone read R. D Laing anymore? Did they ever?

GS: Laing is an object lesson…

RB: I am at a loss here— I think so much of psychotherapy and especially psychopharmacology is voodoo, but I have myself benefited from it. I have had therapists who have been useful in navigating the wild world. But I really don’t quite know what the diagnosis of depression means anymore. I have noted that the WHO claims depression is the world’s most widespread disease, but I wonder if people understand what that means.

GS: I wish I could explain it to you.

RB: I understand your symptoms —there are times when I have no energy or very low energy but it’s not sustained for more than a day or two. And there is no correlation to anything I can observe. I find myself taking great joy in a lot of things and being interested, being semi-productive. I would like to be more productive. But I am also trying figure out what to expect of myself at this point in my life.

What Are Intellectuals Good For? by  George Sciallabba

What Are Intellectuals Good For? by George Sciallabba

GS: Great joy pretty much disqualifies you from a diagnosis of depression.

RB: Exactly. A friend of mine from high school recently visited me and we were chatting and he, seemingly out of nowhere, asked me if we were ever asked whether we were happy when we were kids? It was never an issue.

GS: Yeah, not in my youth, either.

RB: Today, kids are always being asked and are really expected to say. A negative means bring in the psych HAZMAT team. It seems to me to be a phony issue.

GS: Well yeah, the phoniness is the critical part, I guess. Obviously, parents during our youth at least occasionally wondered or worried whether we were happy, and they wanted us to be happy. It just wasn’t thought necessary to be hovering or solicitous. Whereas now it is. Maybe it is for the wrong reasons. Maybe it’s because we have a social work bureaucracy, a medical bureaucracy, which is a level of authority laid over the parents to which the parents are now in a sense accountable. And they tell the parents they ought to regularly diagnose their child’s mental health and ask if they are happy. I am not a parent so I don’t know, but I suspect it has something to do with the general bureaucratization of medicine and family life and intimacy. So yes, it’s good now as it was then to care that your kids are happy, but how you go about manifesting it and seeing to it has changed. D. H. Lawrence, my personal guru, has an essay about child-rearing called “Education of the People”,(1) which would absolutely cause the AMA and the American Psychiatric Association to blow a collective gasket. His three cardinal rules: “1) Leave them [i.e., children] alone. 2) Leave them alone. 3) Leave them alone.”

RB: What was the response when it was published?

GS: It wasn’t published. It was found in his papers.

RB: Has it been published now?

GS: It’s in that two-volume collection, Phoenix.

RB: It’s curious – you admire and are interested in a lot of classical writers, while I rarely read anything written before 1980 and have developed a certain impatience with certain kinds of scholarship, which I respect but can’t get interested in, such as literary theory. I barely know the names of its professors.

GS: Well. I have just a very passing acquaintance with literary theory, and not much interest. It’s a matter of personal history; I guess. I got my moral education from George Eliot, Conrad, Henry James. And to some extent from 17th-century and Romantic poetry.

RB: Not the Enlightenment?

GS: Pre- and post-Enlightenment. (both laugh)

RB: Where is your Catholicism in this? Did that moral education conflict with your Catholicism?

GS: Yes, it did. And Catholicism lost out.

RB: Had you not gone to college, would you have retained your faith?

GS: Well, it’s possible. I once thought I’d go straight into the seminary after grade school. Then I decided to go to a regular high school but to the seminary after that. I think I would have become a very undistinguished, moderately unhappy Catholic priest. Probably a Franciscan.

RB: Franciscans are monks? Do they wear robes?

GS: Not monks, but they do wear brown robes. They take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

RB: In your notes you said you could no longer reconcile taking seriously something that didn’t allow investigation and questioning. High school didn’t move you to curiosity and skepticism but college did?

GS: Well, it was a decent average high-school education. I had a few good teachers —the whole thing managed to avoid killing any interest in literature, history or philosophy, which often happens to less fortunate kinds.

RB: But it must have stimulated you sufficiently to apply to Harvard…

GS: That wasn’t my idea. This was 1964 – the beginning of affirmative action.

RB: You’re an African-American lesbian?

GS: No, but the Ivy League colleges really were, back then, WASP strongholds. In the early ‘60’s, around 1964 in fact, Kingman Brewster and Yale spearheaded affirmative action and Harvard jumped on the bandwagon. The Ivy Schools decided that they ought to open wide their gates.

RB: What deprived and marginalized category did you represent?

GS: It was just that no one from my high school had ever gone to Harvard. It was a working-class Catholic high school. If there was an affirmative action category I fit in, it was probably grease balls—they didn’t have a lot of grease balls.

RB: Oh, wops and greasers. Dagos. I believe my moral education came from Nelson Algren. [Algren’s “three rules of life”: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”] I do find it hard to believe, though, that you stressed yourself and worried yourself about religious issues. I understand that millions of people do, but it’s so foreign to me.

GS: Well, after I left I wondered too. And I had hoped that therapy would show me what in my psychic constitution and character that having attached myself to religion so fiercely as a boy stood for—what to make of it in terms or my psychic structure. It didn’t. I never did solve that problem in therapy.

RB: How many therapists have you gone to/through over forty years?

GS: Maybe nine or ten.

RB: What was the duration of the longest therapeutic relationship?

GS: Five or six years

RB: Why did it end?

GS: It was a psychoanalyst and insurance doesn’t pay for psychoanalysis, so I couldn’t afford to see her anymore. I would have somehow found the money if it were clearly useful, but I wasn’t sure that it was.

RB: Karl Krause’s quip on psychoanalysis comes to mind [Psychoanalysis is that mental illness for which it regards itself as therapy.] I find dealing with medical institutions and bureaucracies depressing and stressful—it’s like dealing with a foreign country. I wonder if all the effort is worth it. I find the intake process off-putting and insensitive

GS: And this in a context that’s supposed to be about empathy and concern for you. It’s a little bit like the grimace I often can’t suppress when I hear about somebody retiring from the Senate after a long career of “public service.” Well, you know, service my ass! (laughs). He’s leaving to become a lobbyist and cash in. I haven’t read this book by the philosopher Harry Frankfort called Bullshit. But if it’s the book I hope it is, it looks at just this kind of thing: the way you can’t say what you actually think, on pain of being sued or being some kind of social outcast. A therapist has to —there has to be this presumption of medical care but it often feels like medical processing.

RB: Finding a simpatico therapist is like playing roulette. That’s an ingredient that plays in a lot of situations and it’s almost a miracle to come across it. I just watched The Constant Gardener again and was impressed by how the diplomat and his activist wife formed a strong bond. And in the book it is quite vivid—two people talking the same language.

GS: I am going to write myself a reminder to look at that book.

[ Irrelevant exchange about Le Carre & Fatwa]

GS: (is looking for a pen)

RB: I don’t have a pen either—should we be embarrassed —two writers without pens?

GS: (chuckles)

RB:I noticed in these therapy notes there are a couple of places where you exclaim, “I am overqualified for this job”—in one place it was in quotation marks, almost as if it was in bold type. Is that something you actually said?

GS: No, it didn’t come across quite like that. I mean I had always assumed I would go to college, go to graduate school, and then teach at a college. Not become a great scholar, but I liked being a student and thought I’d be a good teacher. But instead I had this nervous breakdown in graduate school after leaving Opus Dei. And then what I did was become a cab driver and a welfare department social worker and then a receptionist and building manager. The thought of ever going back to graduate school gave me a swarm of butterflies in my stomach.

RB: Why did you go to New York for graduate school?

GS: Well, I got into Columbia and didn’t get into Harvard.

RB: Did you have any thoughts about how different New York would be from Cambridge? Did being in New York affect you?

GS: It rattled me a bit. I just applied to a few graduate schools and Columbia was the best one I got into.

RB: Did you have friends in New York?

GS: No, but there was an Opus Dei in New York.

RB: Hadn’t you quit Opus Dei?

GS: I had quit the summer before but then for the first month or so [of graduate school] I lived in the residence. It was not only for members—it was a residence for students as well. And thenI moved out. New York’s strangeness and intensity was just a small wrinkle in a very big strange force field that I was entering.

RB: When you wake up every day, what is sense of it—what’s the music playing in the opening scenes? You open your eyes and you sit up and then —what?

GS: Um, from 20 to 45 the first thing most males are conscious of when waking is an erection, usually. When you get to your mid-60’s as I have and you have been taking an SSRI for twenty years or more, you are usually all too conscious of the lack of an erection. (Both chuckle, sheepishly.)

[Brief discussion about full bladders and sleep apnea.]

RB: I have in the past two or three had years a few [minor] medical problems, which just took forever to resolve. Have you experienced the glacial tempo of the medical bureaucracy?

GS: I blame capitalism.

RB: Why is there resistance to universal health care?

GS: Well I have a hobbyhorse theory about it. It’s because there is a generalized and really superstitious distrust of government, earnestly and assiduously and cunningly cultivated by all the people who stand to profit from it. Among others, the insurance industry and the processed food industry. It’s no accident that all those people out there think government can’t do anything good. Remember what one of them said at a political rally, ”Keep your government hands off my Social Security!”

RB: Might it be something more basic that elicits this pretzel logic on all sorts of issues? And there is this real belief that the current right agenda is based on some demonstrable rationale.

GS: I’m from a working-class family, and they really do have these stubborn anti-government attitudes that very few of us enlightened people in the Cambridge-Boston area have.

RB: Reagan Democrats.

GS: Exactly.

RB: Why don’t people just admit they are racist, Judeophobic, homophobic? These seem to be regnant in the USA. We live in a funhouse. I wonder why in a world that seems to have so many problems and crises, there isn’t a greater audience for publications like The Baffler, In These Times, Truthdig, even the New York Review, which can be very insightful. What aren’t people searching for a critique?

GS: That’s the revolutionary question.

RB: Is it Marcuse’s notion that there is a moronizing process?

GS: There’s a lot to that. Life in contemporary capitalist culture is a continuous stream of disconnected stimulants. Distractions.

RB: There is a connection but it’s not apparent to the audience—it’s all about consuming.

GS: It’s not coordinated, but it works together to this one purpose.

RB: We don’t want to say, to make people stupid. Desensitizing them?

GS: Yeah, we must find a good phrase. (Both laugh.) Impoverishing their critical faculties.

RB: Growing up under the old regime of literacy and hard copy [real] books and certain kinds of narrative, you may fall prey to anxieties about new technology. And thus we may be somewhat impaired in assessing new media. Is Facebook snake oil—it seems to work for some people?

GS: Well, I suppose that nothing that either lasts a long time or engages a lot of people—

RB: What’s a long time? What’s the life expectancy of some of this new technology? What is the phrase I noted in The Baffler— “Innovation without progress”?

GS: I was thinking of a line from Durkheim, which explained conservatives to me in a lightening flash when I came across it. “No tradition or institution lasted for hundreds of year can be entirely without merit or substance.”

RB: Meaning?

GS: That the good and the bad are jumbled together. That Facebook, though I think on the whole it is an enormous waste of time and basically an infantilizing influence, nonetheless has its uses and (almost) redeeming features. And the same with television. I don’t read as many books as I used to, and it’s because once when I was badly depressed, my brother gave me a television set—“Maybe this will help take your mind off your troubles.” And it did. But , alas, I couldn’t stop watching it when I got better.

RB: I agree, but then there are shows like The Wire.

GS: TV is such a vast phenomenon that even if a minority of shows are inspired, it’s practically impossible to keep up with them.

RB: As distracting and procrastination-inducing as they are, streaming media (Netflix, Spotify) are amazing things. Access to a very wide [in the case of Spotify almost unlimited] selection of music and film is grand.

GS: There is a well-known media theorist named Clay Shirky, who made a passing remark on his blog to the effect that “nobody I know reads Tolstoy any more. And that makes perfect sense to me: War and Peace is so long and kind of boring.” Shirky’s a decent guy and not himself illiterate, but Jesus, if the young are not reading Tolstoy, then what about 16th- and 17th- century English lyric poetry – the marrow, the distillation, the flower of the language. Do they even know it exists?

RB: We do have these, for lack of a better word, controversies in literature. Ian McEwan recently asserted (2) that most long novels today don’t justify their length. Tim Parks in the New York Review also wrote about reading long works.(3)

GS: There are people like Donna Tartt that the argument probably applies to. I suppose Shirky’s point was: “My God, there’s so much. It’s hard just to keep up with good blogs. Who has time for Tolstoy?” You can spend all your time in front of a screen and increasingly that seems like a sensible thing for people to do. Those of us who grew up with in a hard-copy world can see what’s being lost as well as what’s being gained. But the people who are growing up in the new world can’t see what’s being lost. And so it gives an edge of desperation, an edge of Luddism, to those of us who are trying to keep those treasures from being lost. If the young want to choose not to read Tolstoy and Donne and George Herbert, ok. But they have to at least know what they’re giving up.

The Baffler Issue #26 Cover art- Ruth Marten

The Baffler Issue #26
Cover art- Ruth Marten

RB: It can be an amusing pastime to consider what will be read a hundred years hence. Philip Kerr told me he thought John LeCarre would be the guy. Which at the time surprised me. But I have this theory that there is a fixed finite number of readers in the world—like the ever-present twelve honest men. There will always be 400,000 readers who will be reading 17th-century poetry and the great Russians and the epochal Germans.

GS: (laughs)

RB: So we ought to set aside these declinist and worrisome thoughts about the disappearance of literature, which really is about the disappointment that more people are not making use of the great literary wellspring that is available. There are kids out there reading—they just don’t make much noise.

GS: Maybe that’s true. But there is this dream of a humanist Utopia that the Enlightenment philosophers had—Condorcet, Godwin, later Utopians William Morris and John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold, that the best that has been thought and said could become a common property of humankind. Probably there will always be many millions or billions who find enough beauty in growing a garden or swimming—nonverbal things. And that’s fine. But many, many, more than 400,000 people, many more than the elite of their time in 18th-century France or 19th-century Britain could have kindled to the books we hold dear.

RB: It would seem that lots of people seem to want to remain ignorant of the pressing issues of our time — climate change, the failure of the Western model of development in the so-called Third World. I think back on novels like Nevil Chute’s On the Beach, which portrayed a nuclear apocalypse, and there was a Ban the Bomb movement. If you read LeCarre, you can get a clear idea of the corrupted and degraded state of Western post-industrial nations. I don’t know that utopian ideals have any place in the thinking of people in the short term —the next twenty or thirty years.

GS: We all have a moral imagination.

RB: You think?

GS: Anybody who does have a moral imagination or a political imagination can’t help occasionally finding inspiration in an ideal that he/she hopes can be achieved.

RB: Do you see any examples of that in life today, around the world? Lives and institutions guided by a basic sense of decency and fairness?

GS: No group examples, but individuals. No, no communities.

RB: Whom do you see aspiring to make the world a better place?

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]


GS: Well, there’s probably 400, 000 people. (Both laugh.)

RB: In reading this Baffler article, it is not apparent that you ever give yourself credit for doing good and useful work. Your writing has been recognized by smart people. Didn’t that make you feel better?

GS: Eventually, it did. Saved my life, really. But it took a long while.

RB: Why?

GS: (long pause) Because there were lots of people my age doing what I was doing, a lot more successfully than me.

RB: Well, what was your criterion of success?

GS: I suppose quantity and visibility. I would see Sven Birkerts $4) or Paul Berman or Ellen Willis appearing in the New Yorker, the New Republic or the NYRB, or publishing a book, and I hadn’t done any of those things and probably never will.

RB: But you were published—how did that happen?

GS: It started with hearing Noam Chomsky on the radio – I felt the scales fall from my eyes. At the end, the interviewer mentioned that Chomsky had a new book coming out in a few months. I thought, “Wow, this is great. This will make the scales fall from everybody’s eyes.”

RB: (laughs)

GS: So I got the new book when it came out and I waited for the reviews and for American politics and culture to be turned upside down. And nothing happened. It was published by small radical press.

RB: As is his latest opus, by Haymarket Books.

GS: I was incredulous and dismayed. I wrote a 3000-word letter in the form of a review to Elliot Fremont-Smith of the Village Voice and said this is a great book and nobody has said a word about it, and this is what it’s about. How about getting some writer to review it? So he called me back and said he would publish me and I should send something else.
RB: How do you think other writers started out?

GS: I may not have been as hopeless a case as I thought I was, but I really was very isolated.

RB: It does seem to be the case that being a good and original writer is not sufficient to launch a career. It takes luck or a real careerist bent. If you are not going to toot your own horn, then you need an agent, yes?

GS: Yes, but an agent looks for writers who are going to sell books.

RB: Some do.

GS: They have to, that’s how they make a living.

RB: There are some that don’t, people like Rachel Cohen (5) who wrote a wonderful book entitled A Chance Meeting or Edward P. Jones,(6) who spent 12 years writing The Known World are represented by super agent. Or Eduardo Galeano’s (7)agent, who also represented Latino women writers. But who am I to give career advice? What are your ambitions at this point in your life?

The Modern Predicament by George Scialabba

The Modern Predicament by George Scialabba

GS: (long pause) They mostly involve reading. No, nothing I really feel passionate about. John is trying to interest somebody in a Selected Scialabba book. I’m fairly pessimistic about it.

RB: How far have you gotten into turning the mental health records into a book?

GS: It’s basically John’s project, so I don’t know. I think he has a strong and detailed vision.

RB: So what do you look forward to reading— just more or specific books?

GS: Just big piles of books on the floor that have been accumulating over the last decades. All kind of things—

RB: How does something get drawn out of the piles?

GS: It depends on when the next deadline is.

RB: Deadline for who or what?

GS: I hope to write more for The Baffler.

RB: That’s a three-times-a-year publication.

GS: Well, I’m running out of gas. I like Raritan(8)—I have a good relationship with them. And Commonweal. I also wrote a couple of things for Virginia Quarterly Review

RB: Does reaching out to publications take a large effort for you?

GS: I’m not sure why. I usually have enough on my plate. You were talking before about that little spark of ambition you need. My spark flickers.

RB: Would you like to accomplish more?

GS: I’d like to do less,really.

RB: (laughs)

GS: I wish the world were a much more sensible place

RB: You see your writing as a corrective or an attempt to be…?

GS: Yeah. Yeah. Yes, I don’t make beautiful things with words, at least that’s not my [intention]. I am not a poet or a storyteller. I am kind of a preacher, and I wish there were less to preach about.

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: You are frequently expressive about the beauty of language and what that may do.

GS: Yeah, but so do James Wood and Sven Birkerts. And I love being instructed by them. But I don’t feel I can instruct other people about language and literature, whereas inequality, American foreign policy—there’s just so much unnecessary suffering in the world.

RB: You wrote about Chomsky thirty years ago and not much has changed about Chomsky and the issues he focuses on. Americans still don’t pay attention to him. Or he is a buzzword for the evil left wing.

GS: He has been very effectively marginalized in America, but internationally it’s a different story.

RB: Name a book or a movie that has given you a charge. Uplifted you.

GS: A novel from last year by Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. (9)

RB: A wonderful novel, and the title, taken from a Russian medical dictionary as the definition of life, is thought provoking.

GS: Another novel that knocked my socks off was Bob Schacochis’s (10) The Woman Who Lost Her Soul.

RB: Indeed. In the literary beauty contest of the National Book Awards, it lost out to Donna Tartt’s book?

GS: Yes.

RB: Anything else?

GS: A new book by William Deresiewicz [EXCELLENT SHEEP The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life]. It’s not the best written book but it says all the right things and it’s getting a lot of flak

RB: I read a piece by Stephen Pinker in the New Republic, which wasn’t positive. Why the negative response?

GS: Partly because Deresiewicz is an amateur. He’s a literary critic and not a VSP [Very Serious Person]

RB: Doesn’t he teach?

GS: He taught English at Yale.

RB: Doesn’t that give him some qualification?

GS: Sure. But he’s a radical and doesn’t have social-scientific credentials. And there is something preachy about the book, something amateurish. It’s not a Christopher Jencks or Nicholas Lehmann—not one of these carefully hedged, data-heavy books. It’s somewhat impressionistic and a bit sweeping. That appeals to me, but it annoys people like Pinker and Harry Lewis, a Harvard dean. And Deresiewicz traces higher education’s problems to capitalism, another reason why he’s not taken very seriously.

RB: From what I read, it reminds of a John Summers piece (11) for the Chronicle of Higher Education

GS: It’s in that vein.

RB: It seems there is a shortage of intellectual honesty. There’s too much intellectual hucksterism.

GS: Yes. A subject for another interview.

RB: Exactly.

GS: The other two books I’m excited about are Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I just read for the first time …

RB: Wasn’t that written in the 19th century?

GS: Yes (laughs). And The Return of the Native.

RB: Geez, where do you find these books? (Laughs)

GS: Especially Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

RB: Whatever its literary merit, I suppose it’s a very important book in American history.

GS: I was prepared for a slog. But it’s a really good book. She’s the George Eliot of slavery.

RB: I can’t read those books. I wonder what it says that a reader like me doesn’t read the canon – what it says about their durability? You bemoan the fact that Tolstoy and others are not being read…

GS: Well, I take comfort in the thought of the 400,000.

RB: I see.

GS: A useful remnant.

RB: A useful myth.

GS: Yes, as we enter our Dark Years.

RB: The Dark Years—a good place to end. (Both laugh) Well, George, it’s been a real pleasure. Thank you.

Footnotes

1. David Shields- Conversation at Los Angeles Review of Books
2.D H Lawrence citation “The Education of the People” (1919), in Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D.H. Lawrence, pp. 659-661. from George Scialabba’s Commonplace Book
3.Ian McEwan from Guardian article
4.Tim Parks from New York Review of Books blog, “Reading The Struggle
5. Sven Birkets Conversation at The Morning News
6. Rachel Cohen Conversation at The Morning News
7. Edward P Jones Conversation at Identitytheory
8. Eduardo Galeano Conversation at Identitytheory
9. Raritan
10. Anthony Marra Conversation at Our Man in Boston
11.Bob Schaccochis Conversation at The Los Angeles Review of Books
11. John Summers Conversation at Identitytheory

Currently reading Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket books)

12 Postscript

Lucky Me—Talking with Amy Bloom

16 Aug

I may need two hands to count the conversations I have had with author Amy Bloom since the mid 90’s, the last one in 2008 on the occasion of her first novel Away. Now comes her second novel second novel, Lucky Us.I sat down with Amy at my neighborhood coffee emporium the Keltic Krust and chatted with Bloom about the whole megillah —the knowability of people, teaching, shopping for shoes, President Obama, Carol Shields, True Detective, immortality, her current reading and her plans. Needless to say, I expect to continue this conversation when her next novel surfaces in the fullness of time.

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

RB: I found your author’s note a bit curious. Something to the effect that, “I have also moved things and people, adjusted and reconfigured both when it suited the story.”

AB: Uh huh.

RB: So, if it’s a work of fiction, what are you reconfiguring?

AB: You would think that would be unnecessary since it’s a work of fiction. There is always going to be somebody who says, “Harpo Marx could not have sent her the green silk nightie because he was in England during that six month period to which you refer.”

RB: And you feel like you have to be true to that real history? Will people call you on it and say, “How could you?”

AB: Well, I know they will because they have done that in the past. It’s not so much that I feel that I have to—I don’t feel that I have to get every fact right. What I wanted to say preemptively is that the facts have been moved when it suits me.

RB:There you go.

AB: Hence, fiction.

RB: If someone is going to complain about that will they understand or accept your note?

AB: I’ll let you know.

RB: As a writer you invest yourself into the characters you create— when I came to Edgar’s fate, I wondered what you felt like when he dies?

Amy Bloom [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Amy Bloom [photo: Robert Birnbaum]


AB: Me the writer?

RB: Yeah.

AB: Well I guess for me there are always two feelings. One is the feeling of, “Yup, this is the chapter when you die Edgar. See ya.”

RB: (Laughs)

AB: So that’s the writer. I felt for him because it was a difficult death and among other things, certainly not what he would have wanted and difficult for every one around him. My own father’s death was very much the way he would have liked it. He died in his bed and not in a hospital. I think this other way [for Edgar] was just very hard. And so I felt for him. But as I say as the writer, ”Times up.”

RB: So you simply return to the other characters. In Lucky Us the characters are all decent people. Except for Heda Hopper. They are noble and amusing —

AB: I don’t know if they are noble. I liked them and you liked them. But you know they are a lot of liars and forgers and con men. There’s a certain amount of fast and loose

RB: Yeah.

AB: Which is okay with me.

RB: Which of the characters would actually say, “Lucky us?”

AB: (long pause) I don’t know. Somebody in the book does say, “Lucky us.” It’s probably Eva.

RB: And the book’s epigram, “It’s better to be lucky than to be smart”— somebody repeats that—

AB: Somebody does say that.

RB: That’s, of course, a commonly held notion.

AB: That is a direct quote from my dad.

RB: There is an old r ‘n b ballad that says, “Love is like a three ringed circus. First, the engagement ring. Then, the wedding ring and then, the suffering”.The Yiddish Franklin Roosevelt reference in the novel —three velten [worlds]: die velt [this world], yene velt [the world to come] and Roosevelt reminded me of it. I take that was current in the 30’s and 40’s?

AB: Oh yeah. I didn’t make up any 40’s sayings for people. It wasn’t really necessary. And “Lucky us” is, in fact, something we say in our family.

RB: (I had a quote* from Philip Roth which I showed to Amy Bloom) Ever see this? The last sentence brought me back to your story.

AB: (reads) Actually, I have read this.

RB: In this charming ensemble of characters, they do seem to know each other—there are moments that test that—

AB: And they know each other and they get it wrong. As we [all] do.

RB: When you started Lucky Us what did you start with?

AB: I started—actually the first character who came alive was Gus. So the first things I wrote were a series of letter from Gus to Eva while he was in Germany.

RB: What a survivor— he was a true example of surviving. There was this angry aside about the grandchildren and great grandchildren of survivors appropriating [cashing in on] the Holocaust. What are they called Generation 3? 4?

AB: I am sure there is a name for them. I don’t know why anyone would write abut them critically —that seems like a fairly hostile thing to do—so I’ll just confine myself to Gus’s thoughts about it.

RB: When did the ending come to you?

AB: Sorry [loud woman on mobile phone fills the room—pause while we wait out her inane chatter]

RB: When did the ending come to you?

AB: Endings are always tricky and so I think somewhere —once I knew that the sisters would be connected I could see the ending. And there were, again, some family photographs in which I didn’t always know whom everybody was, that I really liked.

RB: I was reminded of Maira Kalman’s recent book, Girls Standing on Lawns. Which draws from the Museum of Modern Art’s vernacular photography collection. There is something about such photos that is compelling.

AB: Those are always very persuasive and evocative whether it’s your family or somebody else’s.

RB: I hadn’t even thought about the category called vernacular art. It now shines more brightly—I thought, “hey, that’s really the way to do it.”

AB: Yeah, I like that.

RB: I glanced at some of the Lucky Us reviews, which were very positive. Do you look at them?

AB: I don’t.

RB: Are you told about them? Do you care?

AB: Um, I care so much about them I don’t read them. And I don’t let anybody tell me about them. My husband says things like, “That was a nice one.”

RB: Most of them are positive. A good book can stimulate engaging reviews—okay, let’s forget about this. What’s your life like now? You write and still teach—

AB: I do because I have to make a living. So I teach every spring at Wesleyan. I teach 2 courses. They are very good to me and I also have a non-paying gig at Wesleyan, which is as the director of the Shapiro Center for Creative Writing, which is funded by two terrific Wesleyan alums.

RB: If they are so terrific why aren’t they funding the directorship?

AB: Well—they’ve done what they can and I appreciate it. And its fun to help.

RB: I was looking at the list of recent P.E.N. awards and scholarships—there is actually an award for Paraguayan literature.

AB: Terrific. I am unfortunately not eligible.

RB: I may look into the Paraguayan branch of the Birnbaums. You taught at Yale. Brooklyn College?

AB: That was one semester. It was a really nice gig Michael Cunningham, got for me when he was at Brooklyn. And then I taught
at Yale for about the 10 years and then Wesleyan made me a great offer. So there I am.

RB: Is there a noticeable difference in the students?

AB: Not much difference between the Yale students and the Wesleyan students. The Yale students tend to be a little more organized.

RB: (laughs) Meaning goals oriented?

AB: More goals oriented. Often the goal of the kids that I work with at Wesleyan is to write. Which is great. That obviously doesn’t include making a living.

RB: Do you offer any guidance or advice in that area?

AB: Yeah. I say, “Get a job.” Develop a trade. Be irreplaceable.

RB: So you are not discouraging people from writing as a career.

AB: If they have rich parents who have given them money or they have invented a better paper clip, I don’t think there something morally wrong with writing and not having to worry about getting paid. I just think that is not the way most people get to live. To suggest that teaching is the answer is both demeaning to the students and to teaching. Teaching is a serious job.

RB: Yes, it is a whole different thing.

AB: Right, it’s a very different thing. And if you are not interested in teaching it would really be a lot better if you were a carpenter. Or a neurosurgeon.

RB: Did you intend to teach?

AB: No.

RB: Earlier in your life you were a therapist.

AB: It was work that I loved. I still think its great work. But it wasn’t compatible with writing, as the writing became a little more successful. And it turned out that people would pay me to teach. I had started out as a nursery school teacher and my general experience was that if you can teach, you can teach. So I took the teaching jobs.

RB: Does your whole or most of your world revolve around writing?

AB: No, I mean (sighs)—my world is composed of my family. My world spins around my family—pretty much. And then there’s that other world that spins around writing. It’s a slightly smaller planet and its one I spend a lot of time on. I don’t expect my family to spin around my writing.

RB: You’re having a bad writing day; do you expect them to tolerate your mood?

AB: I expect them to tolerate that—I expect my husband to tolerate it because we’re married. He has bad moods and so do I. But don’t find it to be of interest—I don’t know why anyone else should care. The fact that you are in a bad mood because a sentence went badly is really not that different than if you are in a bad mood because you dropped a vase on your foot or broke a nail.

RB: There may be an attitude that art’s travails are more deeply felt—

AB: Wha, wha, wha. Wha, wha wha—I don’t feel that way. I am always astonished by people who do. And good for them if they can persuade someone—

RB: (laughs)

AB: —to feel that way. I think we are all responsible for our behavior. Whether you are writing a symphony or driving a truck.

RB: I would deduce that you would not place greater value on writing a novel than on building a house. Or raising a family.

AB: Valuable to me, the writing.

RB: Is it important in the scheme of things?

AB: I have no idea. Happily, I am not responsible—

Amy Bloom circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Amy Bloom circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: (both laugh) So you spend no time pissing and moaning that the book business publishing and literature itself are diminished and perhaps disappearing?

AB: Well (pauses) I guess I am not. I mean its true but if I am going to go down that road and talk about the fact that if Franzen was named Joanna, the reception to his work might have been different. If I wanted to go down that road than I am lucky to be white.

RB: (laughs) Have you read anything really good lately? Or is reading other writing distracting?

AB: I love reading other work but it is distracting. I am really enjoying The Bat by Jo Nesbo.

Amy Bloom [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Amy Bloom [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: I know his stuff—I’ve read 5 or 6 of his Harry Hole novels.

AB: I really like that. I love all of Val McDermid’s work. I just think she is so good but in terms of serious literature—

RB: —why is that not serious?

AB: Because is a mystery and therefore there’s certain shape that these things have. The shape is knowable in a way that a literary novel may not be. I don’t personally distinguish. I couldn’t write a good mystery if my life depended on it. So, it’s not that I denigrate them at all. I think it’s a great form and I think that people who do it really well are often exceptional writers. But I do think its true that there’s a particular form and that’s not really true of literary fiction.

RB: That’s certainly true of mystery series. Those who don’t write series have a better shot at being taken seriously. And should be.

AB: Yes. But as I say these are books that I love. The best book I have read that was literary fiction was Americanah.

RB: By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.I read Half of a Yellow Sun about the Biafran War. I came across an opinion that John LeCarre would be the writer of this era who would still be read 100 years hence.

A Blind Man Can See How Much I love You by Amy  Bloom

A Blind Man Can See How Much I love You by Amy Bloom

AB: (long pause) It’s a big world. People have a lot of opinions. Who am I say?

RB: You are someone to say.

AB: You know, we’ll find out. Actually, I won’t find out. (both laugh)

RB: I don’t agree with the thoughtless denigration and ghettoization of genre writers.

AB: Right.

RB: Having re-familiarized (sic) my self with LeCarre’s A Wanted Man and The Constant Gardener [motivated by the movie versions], I think they are in toto good as good as anything I have read.

AB: I think that’s true. And so for some people it would be John LeCarre. Other people Robertson Davies. For other people if they pay attention, it would be Carol Shields.

RB: The claim is not that he is the greatest writer.

AB: I understand. But you know, sure that could be.

RB: Do you think of yourself as writing for posterity?

AB: I try not to think about that. I think of writing the best story I know how. And serving the characters and serving the story. Its (pause), so far its gratifying for people to say, “I can’t tell you how much this first book of yours meant to me. And I still reread it” That’s great and I hope people go on rereading. But again, posterity is going to take place without me.

RB: (laugh) No afterlife for you?

AB: No.

RB: What is the most important ingredient for you in story telling?

AB: I can’t write it if I can’t hear it. So I have to be able to hear the characters speak. And then begin to get the narrative structure. Its clear to me as I am getting a little more familiar with novel writing I feel more mindful and interested in the narrative structure as well. That’s why there are letters in this novel. I really wanted to find other ways for some of the characters to communicate.

RB: Francine Prose included letters, back and forth, in her latest novel, as did Anthony Doerr. These different modes of story telling seem to be more present.

AB: People have for a really long time. There are stories by Alice Adams written years ago that are composed largely of letters, phone message slips—people have ben doing them for quite a long time. Everything—you know things have a moment. Suddenly you go, ”Its yellow Volkswagens.” “Its epistolary” or whatever it is.

RB: That puts me in mind of an anthology called Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts (by David Shields, Matthew Vollmer)

AB: I like that. It puts me in mind of that famous Hemingway line, the world’s shortest story, “Baby shoes for sale, never worn.”
RB: There is that genre called sudden fiction—which I know nothing about.

AB: It’s short. Its really really short.
RB: Okay.

AB: It’s really, really really short.

RB: Shorter than a tweet?

AB: Not shorter than a tweet. Not significantly longer, necessarily. Not significantly deeper. I haven’t fond myself pining to read or write sudden fiction.

RB: Have you written any?

AB: Well I tweet
.
RB: Oh.

AB: There you go.

Away by Amy Bloom

Away by Amy Bloom

RB: Does this big turn to hyper-technology affect you? You live in rural Connecticut?

AB: (chortles) Yeah. I am grateful I have a phone. That’s terrific. I have a twitter account because Random House felt strongly that I should. And so I do. It’s not the worst thing in the world. I send email and receive emails— I don’t make a big deal about it—its fine. There were people when we invented the telephone that wrote long essays in major newspapers about the end of western civilization. It was like having “marauding strangers come through the wall.”

RB: I don’t have a theory about it. But I was getting my phone fixed at the Apple store and the woman next to me, with great emphasis exclaimed, “I love my phone.” And I‘m thinking, “I can’t imagine saying or conceiving that.”

AB: No. I find it sometimes annoying and usually handy. And that’s the end of it. Also, I don’t get that invested a when I can’t do something with a phone, I hand it to my nephew.

RB: (laughs)

AB: I go, “Honey, when you have a chance.

RB: Is he ten?

AB: He’s 22.

RB: It s a huge wave that we are susceptible to being engulfed by. Do you feel present enough to fight that?

AB: Well, living in the middle of nowhere helps
.
RB: No mall proximal to you?
AB: There is no mall and I don’t like malls. It doesn’t mean that I am not happy to look at a pair of shoes online.

RB: Sure.

AB: There’s free shipping. My goodness, which wouldn’t want a pair of free shipped shoes to try on.

RB: Free shipping, both ways.

AB: I can only be engaged with so many things. Honestly, what I can be engaged with to a large extent is my family, my work and a strong interest in politics. That’s pretty much the end of the story; I don’t give a shit about anything else.

RB: What’s your take on the state of the union?

AB: Um, I wish President Obama could have a third term… I wish the Republicans had not taken the turn they taken in the last 10 years. I wish there was more civility and that moderate Republicans still existed and were welcome in their own party. The absence of them has damaged our country.

RB: Why a third Obama term?

AB: He’s a good man. A smart man. He made some big mistakes and he is smart enough to learn from them.

RB: He still seems docile to me —maybe too genteel to engage contemporary political in fighting.

AB: That’s certainly possible. That’s how I feel a bout. I don’t see myself in any way as an expert in these matters.

Normal by Amy Bloom

Normal by Amy Bloom

RB: Is there an issue you feel strongly enough to march for, to demonstrate for?

AB: Yes, I very much feel that way about women’s health and women’s rights. I am not a big marcher but write a pamphlet, drive some one across state lines so they can get an abortion if they need one and can’t get one where they live? Absolutely. I hope I will be doing that till I die.

RB: Women’s rights seem to have taken a bad turn.

AB: Not good.

RB: May be we have to wait until women totally outnumber men before we can get it right.

AB: Well, that seems the most likely thing. And not to give up power voluntarily. Probably if you had 150 women in Congress, it would be different. If more than half of the Senate was women it probably would be different.

RB: Well, there is House minority leader Nancy Pelosi—

AB: Give me 200 Nancy Pelosis—

RB: Even 100—
AB: —and we’ll see what we can do. What I always say to my daughters about these things is, ”You need to be aware of how it is and you need not to dwell on it.”

RB: I wonder of things need to get exponentially worse to arouse the ‘oppressed masses’. Occupy was a moment…a high awareness of income inequality. Now that’s a tagline on Sunday talk shows.

AB: It one of the good and the bad things about human beings. What was strange and terrible becomes not so bad.

RB: There’s an exchange in a movie called Safe House where to veteran operatives meet after a long separation. One says, “People change.” The other replies, ”People don’t change, they adapt.”

AB: I think that’s mostly true.

RB: What are we adapting to?

AB: That will be easier to see a couple of years after.

RB: It took you how many years to complete this novel?

AB: Forever.

RB: Do you want it to go faster?

AB: (laughs) You know, tick tock. I write the way I write.

RB: I spoke to a writer who was in his 60’s and he said he was done writing novels because he was afraid he might die before he finished. Does that inhibit you at all?

AB: They’re not pleasant thoughts but its not the worst thing in the world to me —the time to write
.
RB: Actually, that’s not what I wanted to ask. I suddenly become aware, mostly because of medical insurance, not that I am old but what old age entails for many people. And that constant reminder is distracting.

AB: You know, for me, I started adult life really early.

RB: (chuckles) What is early?

AB: Well, I was raising a kid when I was 21. So I have been a grown up for a long time. And so —

RB: It’s obvious but it’s not necessarily a matter of chronology.

AB: I feel comfortable saying O have been a grown up for a long time and the other side of that is that I have less of life ahead of me than I have behind me. That’s how it is. So I say to myself,”Do it now, write now. You want to write a play. You should start writing a play. You don’t have time—better get to work on the next novel.

RB: Has any of your work been optioned for film?

AB: Once in a while.

RB: Is there something that you would be tempted to put your chips into? That you would produce yourself.

AB: Oh no. Make myself? My money? My dad was a freelance magazine writer and he put two girls through college as a magazine writer. He wrote 700 articles in his lifetime and he raised a very fiscally conservative writer, just like he was. He lived at a time when one could actually make a living as a magazine writer. My dad’s rate per word was the same as mine. His heyday was the 60’s and the 70’s.

Amy Bloom [photo by Robert Birnbaum]

Amy Bloom [photo by Robert Birnbaum]

RB: I am surprised that HBO or Showtime et al haven’t approached you—if not for your already published work then for original projects. They seem to be using for literary authors. Do you watch those programs?

AB: Sure I watch good television.

RB: Have you watched True Detective?

AB: I haven’t watched True Detective yet because the one thing we didn’t get around to was the Wire.So we are watching that. We haven’t missed that much—we watch a lot Norwegian stuff.

RB: True Detective is a marvel. Nic Pizzlato wrote great stuff and it incredibly performed. Is book touring the same as it was 5 years ago, 10 years ago?

AB: Pretty much. I tend to keep my head down. I don’t give a lot of attention to—

RB: Don’t go to festivals, conferences and such?

AB: I don’t.

RB: Book launch parties?

AB: Not so much.

RB: Movie screenings and openings?

AB: If somebody invites me to an opening I always like to go. I am not that social a person. And I find festivals a little overwhelming—sometimes I go. Not a lot. The point is the book. The point is the book and so it’s great to hear from my husband and my kids about the reviews. It’s great when they are overwhelmingly positive. Which they are in this case. And we’ll see —I hope. I sell some books. I hope I write a few more novels.

RB: What’s next?

AB: A novel—I’ve started it.

RB: Do you do more than one thing at a time?

AB: Not seriously. I can fool around and so more than one TV project but I can’t do more than a novel at a time. I have some short stories in the back of my mind. Basically, I am committed to a novel and then a collection of linked short stories, which is the story of a life from the courtship of the couple to the death of the couple. Different narrators.

RB: Is there a story or a large narrative project that you have been dying to do? A trilogy or a documentary about some obscure object of admiration?

AB: Well, I am not a documentary filmmaker so I always like to encourage my documentary filmmaker friends. There is a play I’d like to write but the next novel that I am writing really does actually make a trilogy with Away and Lucky Us. Away is set in the Twenties . This novel is set in the Forties and the one I am about to write is set in the Thirties.

RB: And they’ll be slip cased together at some point?

AB: It would be nice if they were slip cased —some of the characters show up repeatedly.

RB: Let me commend you for never using the word ‘schwartzer ’

AB: There were all sorts of errors in judgment that people could make.

RB: Which you try not to make. Always a pleasure. Thank you.

AB: Thank you.

Amy Bloom circa 2008 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Amy Bloom circa 2008 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

*You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to came at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick: you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them: you get them wrong while you’re with them and then you get home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of al l perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on a significance that is ludicrous, so ill equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we are alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you. (From American Pastoral)

Currently reading Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader edited by Brian Carpenter and Tom Franklin(University of South Carolina Press)

More JD Salinger . And Less

26 Jun

Those reclusive figures who have chosen to forgo the trappings and burdens of celebrity and fame have naturally, become attractive as subjects of narrative scrutiny. The famously hermetic author of The Catcher in the Rye, J.D Salinger qualifies as one of such people. And it is likely that such scrutiny will increase exponentially, as the Salinger estate has announced plans to publish works long lying fallow in his papers

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Last year found David Shields and Shane Salerno offering a full bodied biography, Salinger (Simon & Schuster)

Salinger by David Shields and

Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno and

And a movie, Salinger

Salinger directed  by Shane Salerno

Salinger directed by Shane Salerno

Former Manhattan literary bon vivant (he founded the late lamented Open City) turned Tulane University mentor, Thomas Beller has his own offering for the Salinger bibliography, J.D. Salinger:The Escape Artist (New Harvest [which I should point out, is an Amazon publishing imprint]). As I have frequently noted I have a preference for concise biographies—more like essays, written by thoughtful and knowledgeable writers. And as Beller’s tome is 181 pages as opposed to the Shield’s 700 plus pages opus— I am more inclined to The Escape Artist especially as the film vividly covers a lot of the germane material about Salinger.

J.D. Salinger by Thomas Beller

J.D. Salinger by Thomas Beller

Currently reading California by Edan Lepucki(Little Brown)

Footnote to a Post or a Meta-Post

3 Jun

Just so you know, the work-in-progress Praise Saps the Strength was spawned by my ruminations on the funny twist that Gary Schneygart has put on the literary game of blurbing

and an anthology edited by David Shields called Fakes  An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts

Fakes  An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, "Found" Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts by David Shields

Fakes  An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts by David Shields

Its a project I will keep working on as it  has the additional benefit to me  of people I know saying nice and colorful things about me.

A Thing Or Three -The Hour, William Zinsser, Board and Baffler #21

29 Nov

BBC America reprises The Hour its smart dramatic series. The new season is set in the late 50’s London, as the BBC experiments with novel news programming,introducing a new “60 minute” like magazine show.There are some familiar faces —Dominic West (The Wire) and Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas)and Romola Garai (Atonement).MY favorite is Ann Chancellor who plays Lix Storm as a hard-drinking, hard-ass with a heart-of-gold veteran journalist. The story line moves from the Suez Canal crisis of the first season to urban crime and racial unrest.The first episode airs on November 28.

The Writer Who Stayed by William Zinzer


The Writer who stayed

It is good to see that in addition to hard copy being acessible on the Internet that Internet material makes its way into real, physical, paper books. The American Scholar had featured essayist William Zinsser’s (On Writing Well) ” Zinsser on Friday,” and now Paul Dry Books has published an adaptation in a collection called The Writer Who Stayed. Illuminating a wide array of subject some quotidian, some profound—”Relationships, storytelling, baseball, summer reading, comic strips, Woody Allen” one of my favorites was on working for Tina Brown

Board by Brad Listi and Justin Benton

Webzine The Nervous Breakdown has spawned a number of flesh and blood volumes the most recent is Board,authored by Brad Listi and Justin Benton. It is billed as “an experimental work of nonfiction literary collage, the contents of which are derived entirely from the comment boards at TNB.” It stands to reason why David Shields (How Literature Saved my Life) whose most recent book is Fakes would opine:”Expertly interweaving its leitmotifs—technologly, dreams, sex, food, ‘identity politics,’ death—Board is a book in conversation with itself about a culture at war with itself. A sharp, funny, and unexpectedly moving take on contemporary America in the digital age.”

Here are some excerpts:

I still have this horrible fear of parking lots and parking garages
at night. Those sprawling empty spaces where you scream and no
one’s around to hear it.

My friend Charlie and I were once held up in a parking lot.
I had run the possibility of a mugging through my mind a
million times before. But it went nothing like I had planned.
In my imagination, things turned out in my favor. I over-
powered the gunman, kicked him between the legs, did
something drastic, and survived. Local news cameras
swarmed me as I recounted the event a million times over. A
small victory for me, but a mostly forgettable story for every-
body sitting at home watching. But here’s what actually hap-
pened: I handed the guy my purse and pleaded for my car
keys. I don’t remember what he looked like. And just like
that, he was gone. Needless to say, I didn’t make the news.

I knew a woman who was brutally beaten by her lover in
a storage unit. He stabbed her multiple times and left her
for dead. She clawed through the wall of the unit and
dragged herself all the way across the lot. A night-shift
worker followed her trail of blood and found her. She’s
alive now, thank God, but badly deformed.

Ten years ago, in Florida, a man would hide under
women’s cars and slash their heels as they tried to
unlock their driver-side doors. I can’t shake that im-
age out of my head. In fact, now every time I ap-
proach my locked car the thought of leaping to avoid
a heel-slashing crosses my mind.

A stranger’s face, mere inches from yours, pitch-
black dark, breathing hot, steely breaths, the
knife point pressed to your neck, images of fiery
skeletons dancing feverishly around your freshly
dug grave—you flick on the lights and the
stranger, the skeletons, all of it skitters away, a
mere trick of the brain.

When I was young I thought elephants lived under my bed. Ele-
phants that would trample me if I placed so much as a toe on the
floor. I’d have to take a flying leap into bed every night. Seems
so silly now, but at the time nothing felt more real than this fear.

I, too, used to take flying leaps into bed every night. I was
terrified of the dark, of what lurked under the bed. I had hor-
rible nightmares and chronic night terrors, too.

I used to lie in bed and curse God and Jesus and all the
rest. I’d address him directly, whispering, “Go fuck
yourself, God!” and all that. What I was trying to do was
provoke God to show Himself. I wanted proof He was
there. But nothing ever did happen.

You were one scary little girl.

I was one of the spooky little girls who smeared
lightning bugs all over her shirt like war paint.

Women fear more not because we’re irrational but because we’re
more often the targets.

Of females killed by a firearm, nearly two-thirds are killed
by their intimate partners.

The #1 killer of African American women ages 15—34 is
homicide at the hands of a current or former partner.

A black man is 18 times more likely to be the victim
of murder than a white woman.

I am so enamored of The Baffler that it is one of only three publications to which I subscribe. That is,I think, still called “putting your money where your mouth is. Anyway, the new issue is out and dare I say it is chock-a-block full of things to not only piss off the ruling class and ass kissing-mandarins who support them but tidbits of enlightenment as in The Code by Dubravka Ugrešić which explains the behavior of Yugozone men and Cities of the Night by Belén Fernández (The Imperial Messenger) spotlighting so-called charter cities. Plus there is stuff by John Summers, Thomas Frank, Chris Lehmman and Barbara Eherenreich.

Currently reading Overture by David Slavitt (OP19 Books)

Faux Sure

19 Nov

David Shields photo: Robert Birnbaum


Since I first met him in the mid 90’s I have been paying attention to David Shields. I had found his fiction compelling and more recently the issues he worried, like hungry hound gnawing on a soup bone, were equally riveting. Among other of his accomplishments are three sports books— Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine, Black Planet : Facing Race During an NBA Season and “Baseball Is Just Baseball”: The Understated Ichiro, a treatise on the singular Ichiro Suzuki, now a New York Yankee but for many seasons a Seattle Mariner.

Fakes by Matthew Volmer and David Shileds


Lately, Shields has taken to editing offbeat anthologies, such as The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death. The latest is a brilliant collection, entitled Fakes an Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts edited with Matthew Volmer) (Norton) Here’s the publisher’s synopsis

In our bureaucratized culture, we’re inundated by documents: itineraries, instruction manuals, permit forms, primers, letters of complaint, end-of-year reports, accidentally forwarded email, traffic updates, ad infinitum….[here are] forty short fictions that they’ve found to be seriously hilarious and irresistibly teachable (in both writing and literature courses): counterfeit texts that capture the barely suppressed frustration and yearning that percolate just below the surface of most official documents. The innovative stories collected in Fakes—including ones by Ron Carlson (a personal ad), Amy Hempel (a complaint to the parking department), Rick Moody (Works Cited), and Lydia Davis (a letter to a funeral parlor)—trace the increasingly blurry line between fact and fiction and exemplify a crucial form for the twenty-first century.

Here’s my most recent conversation with David Shields, mostly about his manifesto, Reality Hunger which as it should have raise some literary hackles.It also features his absolutely, dead-wrong appraisal of Adrian Beltre who has just been traded to the Red Sox from Shields’s hometown Mariners)and is now an AllStar with the Texas Rangers). Oh well, in the immortal words of Billy Wilder, “Nobody’s Perfect.”

Currently reading Elsewhere by Richard Russo (Knopf)