Tag Archives: Pete Dexter

Garth Hallberg: Author on Fire

17 Feb


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

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




City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

City on Fire by   Garth Risk Hallberg



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

Garth Hallberg: The middle name?

Robert Birnbaum: Yes.

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: At what length was it submitted?

Garth Hallberg: The same length it is now.

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: It’s about 25% less.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: How old were you in 1976?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Garth Risk Hallberg [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Garth Risk Hallberg [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Birnbaum: Where did you grow up?

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: He has a southern accent?

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

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

Garth Hallberg: Not where I grew up.

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Did you like living in Greenville?

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

Robert Birnbaum: You don’t know?

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

Robert Birnbaum: Family, local organization and community participation?

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

Robert Birnbaum: A seventh day has its appeal.

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

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

Garth Hallberg: I was tall.

Robert Birnbaum: Gawky, lanky?

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

Robert Birnbaum: Could you read by then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Television?

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

Robert Birnbaum: Are they physically active?

Garth Hallberg: Oh yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Jocks?

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

Robert Birnbaum: One is five and one is?

Garth Hallberg: Three.

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

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

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

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

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

Garth Hallberg: I played varsity soccer.

Robert Birnbaum: Did you like it?

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

Robert Birnbaum: You were good enough.

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

Robert Birnbaum: Were there cliques in your high school?

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

Robert Birnbaum: Pretty big.

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

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

Garth Hallberg: Probably 4 times 55.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Fiction?

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

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

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

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


New York Post front page ,circa 1977

New York Post front page, circa 1977


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

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

Garth Hallberg: Early Reagan years.

Robert Birnbaum: You were born in ’78?

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

Robert Birnbaum:[laughs] One or the other.

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Yes, I know.

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

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

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

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

Garth Hallberg: Is this Oliver Nelson?

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

Garth Hallsberg: Good one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Children’s books.

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

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

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

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

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

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




Garth  Risk Hallberg [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Garth Risk Hallberg [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: I saw Sam Shepard playing  a part.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garth Hallberg: About the importance of literature.?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: The fatwa meant something to you?

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

Robert Birnbaum: Persecuted?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garth Hallberg: Yeah.

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

Garth Hallberg: No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: In 2003.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Recording ends abruptly…]




1 Live Aid website  is here

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

Mark Murphy’s vocal version of Stolen Moments is here

3 My second interview with David Hadju here.

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

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

6 Balzac’s novel Lost Illusions is explicated here

7 Pete Dexter on Norman Mailer is found here

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

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

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

12 Garth reads from City of Fire here

13 Editor Alex Bowler talks about City of Fire  here


Dis n Dat

9 Nov

Diogenes of Sinope

Diogenes of Sinope

Hide your head in the sand but some terrible shit is happening in Gaza

Palestinian youth set up barricades in Surda, the Ramallah-area hometown of Muhannad Halabi, who killed two Israelis in the Old City of Jerusalem, as Israeli forces surrounded his family’s house on 6 October. Halabi, 19, was shot dead by police during the 3 October attack. Muhannad Saleem APA images

Palestinian youth set up barricades in Surda, the Ramallah-area hometown of Muhannad Halabi, who killed two Israelis in the Old City of Jerusalem, as Israeli forces surrounded his family’s house on 6 October. Halabi, 19, was shot dead by police during the 3 October attack. Muhannad Saleem APA images

Jason Kottke revisits a great moment in Web history, recalling Suck.com. And bemoans the disappearance of that Web

Formerly disgraced, former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnacle writes about the heroin (overdose)epidemic in Nashua New Hampshire

Pete Dexter’s story about what working in a hospital is about doesn’t resemble those TV shows. Surprised?

Every October I await the announcement of the new gaggle of MacArthur Fellows, hoping against hope I will be anointed. To hear Thomas Frank tell it, I have a better shot at winning the state lottery

Baffler # 29

Baffler # 29

John Summers introduces the latest issue of the Baffler #29

..And in the lighter-fare department, we offer a more down-market patrimonial putsch. Close observers of the upcoming dynastic square-off for the presidency have noticed the word “cuckservative” bandied about throughout the endless season of GOP presidential primaries and caucus debates.

The “cuckservative” coinage, we learned, is an unholy blend of “conservative” with “cuckold,” intended to neutralize right-wing candidates believed to be lacking the cojones to stand up to the Man, or something like that. Demonstrating yet again the fatal incompatibility of conservatism with irony, “cuckservative” also derives from a Christian persecution complex rooted in the psychosexual racial perversions of the dwindling patriarchy.

Speaking of the Baffler, Kathleen Geier’s The Family Plot refreshes our understanding of a fundamentally rigged electoral process:

If there is anything salutary about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, it is his occasional refreshing honesty about our pay-to-play political system. In the first Republican debate, Trump said, “I will tell you that our system is broken. I give to many people. I give to everybody, when they call I give, and you know what? When I need something from them, two years, three years later, I call, they are there for me.” He added that after he donated to Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign, he invited her to his wedding, “and she came to my wedding, she had no choice, because I gave.”

It was little remarked upon at the time, but that particular bon mot summed up just about everything amiss with the new millennium’s reversion to family-based patronage. There was, of course, the casual endorsement of campaign checks as the premier currency of elite influence-peddling: “When I need something from them . . . they are there for me.” The equally matter-of-fact invocation of Trump’s own wedding as another occasion for pressing flesh and granting political favors served to highlight the rampant mingling of moneyed prerogative and romantic rites of passage among America’s family-based power elite.

Who would have thunk it? Pappy finally spanks 41. Juan Cole observes:

In interviews given for a new biography, George H. W. Bush, 91 lets loose against Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, whom he clearly blames for many of the failures of the presidency his son, George W. Bush. But if you attend carefully to what he said, it is clear that he actually was slamming the Neoconservative cabal that Cheney and Rumsfeld brought to Washington with them. He said:

“I don’t know, he just became very hardline and very different from the Dick Cheney I knew and worked with . . . The reaction [to 9/11], what to do about the Middle East. Just iron-ass. His seeming knuckling under to the real hard-charging guys who want to fight about everything, use force to get our way in the Middle East.”

There is a lovely new recording of the music of Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona by three masters of the piano. Entitled Playing Lecuona it features Chucho Valdés, Gonzolo Rubalcaba and Michel Camilo with the impassioned vocal support of divas Ana Belen, Omara Portuondo and Esperanza Fernánde. Happily, there is a performance movie of this gifted aggregation.

For Pete’s Sake

22 Oct

He runs the Cassidy crime family. Little people with enormous heads, every one if them. And they’ve all have been shot in the head, and they never die They believe it’s the luck of the Irish—they walk around thinking they were all born lucky—and it never occurred to any them yet that if they were that fucking lucky, they wouldn’t keep getting shot- Pete Dexter

Pete Dexter [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Pete Dexter [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

If you enjoy the fiction of Pete Dexter,who came to some prominence for his 1988 National Book Award winning novel, Paris Trout, it has been a too long since the publication of his last novel —the splendidly humorous near autobiographical Spooner.Dexter’s ouevre ranges from the hard scrabble working class Philadelphia (God’s Pocket) to the still somewhat untamed of (Deadwood)* of Wild Bill Hickcock and Calamity Jane to the steamy back woods and death row of Florida (The Paper Boy) to the noir atmospherics of 1953 Los Angeles. Before he took up writing novels, Dexter was a popular columnist for a major Philadelphia daily who in 1981 was severely beaten by a mob in the neighborhood of Schuylkill (upset by a recent column} suffering a broken back, pelvic bone, brain damage, and major dental damage.This incident is fictionalized in God”s Pocket**

The good news is that Pete Dexter is offering his trenchant view of our current state of affairs at the Daily Beast— on subjects such as serial woman beater Floyd Merriweather, the short fingered vulgarian running for president, police violence,shelter dogs,Norman Mailer and more:

…You may remember Mailer—at one time America’s most famous living writer—a man fascinated by violence who stabbed one of his wives and bragged about sparring with former light-heavyweight champion José Torres. Who directed a movie called “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” and once used his considerable literary standing to convince a parole board to release a violent killer named Jack Abbott, whose undeveloped literary talent in Mailer’s judgment made his release from prison worth the risk to society. Mailer could make this call because he was the most talented novelist of his generation, or so said Norman Mailer.

Thus Abbott got out and for six weeks, mostly on Mailer’s say-so, was New York’s newest hot literary property, and then stabbed a 22-year-old kid named Richard Adan to death outside the diner where Adan worked, this in an argument over insurance regulations that prohibited customers from walking through the kitchen to the bathroom.

Abbott went back to prison and eventually hung himself in his cell. A good idea but too late to do anybody any good. Mailer never admitted to second thoughts, if any existed. Literature, he said, was worth the risk. The fact that Adan was trying to make something of himself on the stage—both as a playwright and an actor—didn’t matter. Novels, Mailer famously said, could change the world….

By the way, if you haven’t read Spooner and now are so moved by my encomium I would wear diapers while reading it as so high is the hilarity quotient that bladder control may be difficult…

* Producer of the HBO series Deadwood David Milch clims he did not read Dexter’s novel of the same name

** There is a film version of God’s Pocket with Phillip Seymor Hoffman

In My Solitude: Esoterica & Fragments

23 Jun
Pete Dexter circa 2009 [photo:Robert  Birnbaum]

Pete Dexter circa 2009 [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

I am a big fan of writer Pete Dexter, whom I discovered around the time his National Book Award-winning Paris Trout was published. I was pleased to have a conversation with him for his novel Brotherly Love circa 1991.The publication of one of Dexter’s fictions causes me to suspend my required reading to take it up. Happily, Dexter has never disappointed. Here’s one of his droll insights from his 2003 novel Train:

He runs the Cassidy crime family. Little people with enormous heads, every one if them. And they’ve all have been shot in the head, and they never die They believe it’s the luck of the Irish—they walk around thinking they were all born lucky—and it never occurred to any them yet that if they were that fucking lucky, they wouldn’t keep getting shot

The Daily Beast has re-published a 34 year newspaper column A Dog Dies, A Boy Grows up

…reading Dexter’s columns you can see why he’d go on to become one of our great novelists…this story, which originally ran in the [Philadelphia] Daily News on June 2, 1980 appears as it did in the paper. In just under 1,000 words it stands as a stirring example of powerful newspaper writing at its best.”

Pete Dexter’s last novel Spooner which had autobiographical overtones was a wonderful story full of his Talmudic humor.

Claire Trevor from Farewell My Lovely

Claire Trevor from Farewell My Lovely

It take it on board that writing /creating a must read oracular 800 word column year after year is a challenge. Maureen Dowd has been at it for while and while I no longer feel she is a must-read (like her colleague Gail Collins) occasionally I check in with her commentary. Her June 14 exposition opened with:

The Bush Gang of Four

The Bush Gang of Four[/caption

NO one wrote about blondes like Raymond Chandler.

“There is the small cute blonde who cheeps and twitters and the big statuesque blonde who straight-arms you with an ice-blue glare,” he wrote in “The Long Goodbye.” “There is the blonde who gives you the up-from-under look and smells lovely and shimmers and hangs on your arm and is always very, very tired when you take her home.”

There’s the pale, anemic, languid blonde with the soft voice. “You can’t lay a finger on her,” Chandler notes, “because in the first place you don’t want to and in the second place she is reading ‘The Waste Land’ or Dante in the original.” And when the New York Philharmonic is playing Hindemith, he writes dryly, “she can tell you which one of the six bass viols came in a quarter of a beat too late. I hear Toscanini can also. That makes two of them.”

Can you guess who Dowd was writing about?

[caption id="attachment_5093" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Beyonce on Time magazine's 100 "Influential People" Issue Beyonce on Time magazine’s 100 “Influential People” Issue

The circumstances under which Time magazine become irrelevant never occurred to me—until I saw a recent cover for its “100 Most Influential People” issue. Beyonce, the entertainer graces one version.

Jay Z  on Mad magazine's spoof of Time magazine's 100 Most Influentiai covers

Jay Z on Mad magazine’s spoof of Time magazine’s
100 Most Influentiai covers

recent issue  of  the New York Review of Books

recent issue of the New York Review of Books

Novelist Tim Parks offers some cogent rumination in Reading: The Struggle, concluding:

I will go out on a limb with a prediction: the novel of elegant, highly distinct prose, of conceptual delicacy and syntactical complexity, will tend to divide itself up into shorter and shorter sections, offering more frequent pauses where we can take time out. The larger popular novel, or the novel of extensive narrative architecture, will be ever more laden with repetitive formulas, and coercive, declamatory rhetoric to make it easier and easier, after breaks, to pick up, not a thread, but a sturdy cable. No doubt there will be precious exceptions. Look out for them.

I wonder how many times Dick Cheney has to remind the world he is still a free man before someone gets the idea that he should be tried as a war criminal. Maybe the same brave Spanish magistrate who issued summons to Henry Kissinger and General Augusto Pinochet?

Bob Shaccochis [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Bob Shaccochis [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

I had the pleasure of chatting with Bob Shaccochis last year on the occasion of his grand novel The Woman who Lost Her Soul where he talked about his rancher neighbors’ antipathy to dogs. The recent reports of a mad dog cop in Baltimore killing a dog reminded me of that chat:

Other than your wife, are there long periods when you don’t speak to anyone?

Yeah and there are two, two and half months when my wife isn’t there. Her professional life is centered around Florida, and she has to be there. But I am not lonely. I do get horny. My dogs are all I need to be happy. Then her, in that order (laughs). It’s the same for her — dogs first, me second. I made some friends downhill from me — people who live in a village that is their ancestral home. They are Spanish. If you say Mexican, it’s like calling them “niggers.” They told me, “We got rid of the Indians and we are not through yet. You are on our land.” They have grazing rights in the forest and sometimes they will yell at me because my dogs upset the cattle, “Control your dog or we’ll kill it.” I said, “If you kill my dog, I am burning down your house and killing everybody in it. And after we burn down your house I’ll get a bulldozer destroying what’s left and then I’ll be salting the fucking earth.”

It turns out that a few months later said neighbor did shot one of Shaccochis’s Irish Setters and he had him charged, tried , convicted and incarcerated for that murder.

Baltimore Atrocities
And in an incidence of cosmic confluence , I received a novel entitled The Baltimore Atrocities( Coffee House Press) by John Dermot Woods.Here’s what I found on the Web (his own web site seems to be out of action). He declares:

JDW: Like a lot of creators, I make myself reinvent the wheel for each project. It’s partially an attempt to overcome my tics and ingrained narrative habits. Of course, it doesn’t really work. But, if I didn’t try to change my approach completely each time, then I think my work would be exceptionally repetitive. I like control, structure, and dioramas–worlds I can control. This can lead to an over-emphasis on constraint and smallness. I’m not naturally inclined to improvise and let things fly. I have to give myself little challenges to open up my work. (Working with J.A. on No One Told Me was great in this way. He encouraged me to just push forward. I didn’t even pencil out those drawings before I committed ink and paint to paper.)

My problem with political correctness is not the correctness part—its the kind of knee jerk response that dismisses the shadings of meaning and value in the world. Take for instance the rage of all right thinking Americans that the Washington Redskins nomenclature is a slur on the existence of America’s native peoples. And the campaign by assorted parties to shed that rubric has now included the US Patent Office. Personally I think it matters not one bit whether the Washington NFL franchise is called the Redskins, The Kikes, The Darkies or the Gooks. At least billionaire owner Dan Snyder is throwing some money in the pot with the creation of a foundation to benefit native americans. And perhaps all those rallying to this cause would redouble their efforts to raise our benighted Indian peoples from the sorry state that the US government has put them in. Its worth noting that Indian fighter US Army General Sherman observed of the Indian reservations “…are worthless patches of land surrounded by scoundrels.

1/ 3 of San Antonio Spurs[photo borrowed from Hardwood Paroxysm]

1/ 3 of San Antonio Spurs[photo borrowed from Hardwood Paroxysm]

Coverage of professional sports, especially championship competition produces produces tonnage of verbiage I( one thinks of the Manila [Philippines] Municipal Dump). The recent San Antonio Spurs versus Miami Heat was no exception. I don’t recall one memorable column or thought except this clever observation from the fifth game of the series,

“They[Spurs] turned their defenders from the Miami Heat into well-compensated traffic cones.”

No Place to Hide by Glen Greenwald

No Place to Hide by Glen Greenwald

The New York Times chose Micheal Kinsley to review Glen Greenwald’s book about the Edward Snowden affair and NSA/US government spying. Kinsley trashes the book, calls Greenwald is a “self-righteous sourpuss” and validates the government’s right to massive unfettered surveillance of its citizens.

Greenwald and others respond here:

Do I need to continue to participate in the debate over whether many U.S. journalists are pitifully obeisant to the U.S. government? Did they not just resolve that debate for me? What better evidence can that argument find than multiple influential American journalists standing up and cheering while a fellow journalist is given space in The New York Times to argue that those who publish information against the government’s wishes are not only acting immorally but criminally?

Though I am no fan of soccer I did pay attention to the books on the sport. And thus I came across public blowhard Ilan Stavans self serving piece Why Has Literature Ignored Soccer? first he dismisses Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow, ”

Soccer in Sun And Shadow by Eduardo Galeano

Soccer in Sun And Shadow by Eduardo Galeano


“Translated into English last year, it is his usual impressionistic hodgepodge of politics and history, less an insightful investigation that a series of forgettable haikus.”

Then this advertisement for himself

In my estimation, the best, most intelligent—and reliable—observer of the role of soccer in Latin American society is Juan Villoro. He has been in all the most recent World Cups as a TV commentator, including the last one in South Africa in 2010. Villoro and I recently published a book-long dialogue, El ojo en la nuca (2014), which talks, in passing, about his experiences.

Ilan Stavans is a Putz

Currently reading My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard and translated by Don Bartlett(Archipelago Books)

Talking with Michael Dahlie (The Best of Youth)

22 Apr

Butler University mentor Michael Dahlie who’s debut novel A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living won a PEN/ Hemingway Award is unremarkable in one important way—his second effort The Best of Youth (WW Norton) joins the ranks of worthy and useful novels that are substantially ignored by the various gatekeepers of literature (except for wide- of-the-mark scribbling in Boston’s New York Times subsidiary.

How I came to choose this book, read and enjoy it, is of course, the wonderful serendipity that attends my ceaseless sifting through seemingly endless pyramids of books. Having enjoyed Dahlie’s novel I was pleased to converse with him on all manner of subjects, including video series such as Girls and Deadwood. Ian McShane, Brooklyn,having a happy family, Indianapolis, Charles Newman,University of Wisconsin (at Madison), popular historians,Dahlie’s new novel, hypochondria and what not.

Read on.

Micheal Dahlie by Robert Birnbaum

Micheal Dahlie by Robert Birnbaum

RB:Why should I believe that profile that’s on your webpage —the story of your marriage proposal? And how your child was conceived at a Van Halen concert

MD:To what are you referring?

RB:The proposal in Brooklyn walking down the street?

MD:Oh well, there’s no reason not to believe the proposal. As for–

RB:What about just being skeptical about the conception?

MD:You’re really skeptical? Well, have you been to a Van Halen concert recently?

RB:I’ve never been to a Van Halen concert at all.

MD:Ever? I can’t answer this properly. This is something that’s going to get me into trouble.

RB:I don’t want to put you in that position, I’m very sorry. But I do know that you were, in fact, married in Martha’s Vineyard.

MD:Yes, I was.

RB:And the news of your marriage was actually carried in a wedding notice in the New York Times.

MD:That’s correct.

RB:That doesn’t seem like you.

MD:That doesn’t seem like me? Well, why doesn’t it seem like me?

RB:Well, I think that given the sort of modesty that is on display in the novel, which I can’t help but think reflects something about you, it doesn’t seem like a gesture that you would make, especially if you made up odd ball stuff about the marriage.

MD:Right. Well, the deal was is that I was–I guess I got married when I was–36? No, 38? I don’t remember how old I was–but my wife and I did not want to have a proper wedding we felt–we in fact are too shy to sort of stand up in front of a bunch of people and emote, and–so we just picked a place that would be easy for all of our family to get to. I had never been to Martha’s Vineyard. My wife had once or twice, but–I mean, I’ve been to the cape a bunch, and just to kind of–you know, every year or so, we’d rent a place for a week or–

RB:What’s your recollection of that day? Was it a pleasant day?

MD:It was a great day. It was very small. It was just my family, and it was in Menemsha Bay, and again, I don’t know the Vineyard that well, but it was a kind of secluded area.

RB:What time of year was it?

MD:It was summer. July. And I–

RB:I always had a picture of the island being overrun in the summer.

MD:You know, it was after we went to Edgartown for a couple nights–my wife and I (before) we were married, and that was very busy–but Menemsha it was–there’s just a lot of kind of marshland on that end, and there’s also really strict zoning.

RB:Must be for the people with horses.

MD:Well, you’re not allowed to buy liquor in that part of the Vineyard too, and you know, you want to keep the Boston people away from the place. That’s how to do it.

RB:Well, they’ll just [brown bag it] bring their own.

MD:And that’s what people do. You go to one of the places, and you bring your own. But still, there’s no honkey-tonk bar scene, and if you want a lobster roll, you’ve got to bring your own wine and go down to the one kind of a shack that the–

RB:It’s nice your recollection of the day was pleasant and happy. I think that, frequently, weddings are sort of strange.

MD:I remember we were there with this guy, James Pringle, who was a Justice of the Peace in Martha’s Vineyard, and he was just this quintessential Yankee sort of secular, sort of the authority in the area, and he was really nice. And I remember walking around with my mom and my in-laws and saying, “Well, where should we do this? Where should we do this?” We finally found a little spot on the lawn, and my sister-in-law, I think, gave a quick reading, and we said our vows, and soon, we were up on the patio–

RB:Who wrote the wedding announcement for the New York Times? Did you write that, or did they have someone–?

MD:It’s an interesting story because–basically–well, my wife wrote something, but they’ve got a staff–

RB: She’s written a novel, hasn’t she?

MD:Well, she wrote a novel, right. But they have a staff at the New York Times that is pretty–they not only seem to be pretty extensive but they’re pretty cutthroat. I remember getting fact-checked by this guy, and, you know, at this point–

RB:About yourself?

MD:Yeah, and at this point, I had a book contract with Norton for my first book, and they wouldn’t put that in the announcement. The guy, for some reason, thought that unless the book was out— I was like– –

RB:Well, did you get back to them later, you know, when it won the PEN?

MD:Right. Actually, I was so frightened by this fact-checker, he was so aggressive with me, and I think I’m just going to let this one slide.

RB:Well, that’s more modesty! Look,that sort of plays into the overarching feeling I got from your book, which was that the character Henry has this really wonderful empathy and sympathy for elder people, which I find to be, in my own experience, unusual. Where does that come from?

MD:Well, I don’t know. I think Henry — I think he likely would have more empathy for people his own age as well if he understood them all or got along with them at all, but he’s so baffled by his own social world that it—I actually have spent a lot of time in Williamsburg and Brooklyn, the place that this set, but only because of my younger sister —I saw it as an outsider, and it was a weird time. She moved there when she was 22, right out of college, and I had, as was often the case with me when I was a freelance writer, I’d go from eating peanut butter for months and not getting any paycheck at all to getting a big one, which, if you lay it out over the months¬, it’s a reasonable wage, but if you get this gigantic check and you’ve got nothing, you’re like “Oh, my God, I’m rich!” So I just leased an apartment in Paris, and I was living there, and my apartment in Brooklyn was really, really cheap, so I could keep that. But my dad died, so I came back, and my sister decided that she was going to go work on some organic farm–you know, some kind of post-college adventure–but she moved to the city instead, so the family was kind of all close–

RB:What farm was there in Brooklyn?

MD:What? I think it was Idaho is where she was–

RB:How old is she?

MD:Well, now, she’s 30.

RB:And how old was she then?

MD:She was 22. And I was 34.

RB:Would she be of the generation that loves the series Girls? Would she be portrayed in that series?

MD:She must be because she lives in Greenpoint. But I don’t know. I never asked her about that. And I don’t know if she watches that. She’s actually a television producer, so she’s up on a lot of kind of the shows, but that’s never come up.

The Best  of  Youth by Michael Dahlie

The Best of Youth by Michael Dahlie

RB:Have you watched Girls?

MD:I’ve never watched it. Actually, I feel like I should because it, of course, has a similar setting to The Best of Youth, but I don’t watch anything unless it’s on Netflix, and I don’t think it’s out in that form yet.

RB:No, HBO doesn’t do that. Sometimes, I watch two or three at a time. I brought it up because I only recently–I was aware of the noise [or buzz if you are simpatico] out there about Girls and Lena Dunham–but I read something in New York Magazine that had something to do with Elizabeth Wurtzel She wrote Prozac Nation. Do you remember her?

MD:Oh, yeah, well, of course, I remember the book, yeah.

RB:And it was a take down of her, in which she identified with the girls, you know, in “Girls.” So I started watching it, and I was–it’s compelling as hell. But it’s also currently some kind of–given to self-consciousness with kids–it’s some kind of big thing, you know, matter of controversy. I ask young girls, and they go, “Ooh!”


RB:They’re like, “I don’t believe that Leah Dunham wrote all that stuff!” Or something like that.

MD:Yeah, I don’t know, I know so little about it that it’s hard for me to even kind of come up with a comment, and again, this is–this is bad–but I have been thinking this, in order for me to get HBO it would involve so many difficult mental challenges, I don’t have any idea how I would–

RB:There are all these narratives flying around beyond the literary world that are actually thoughtful and compelling, and, you know, I actually traded off not using Facebook anymore for starting to watch certain videos, you know, Justified, which is a series based on an Elmore Leonard character and a new one called The Following with Kevin Bacon, about a serial murder cult. I was a great devotee and still am of The Wire.

MD:Yeah, yeah.

RB:There are all these wonderful stories that are available, and part of the reason is based on places like HBO giving writers an opportunity to really write original stuff.

MD:Right. Well, I–usually the way it happens for me is that I’m several years behind because that is–you know, once these networks have kind of exhausted their revenue streams from cable etc., it comes out on Netflix, so I watch these things like you do. I must have watched The Wire in–you know, the whole thing in like–a couple months. I don’t understand how people don’t do it that way. I think it would really make me want to blow my brains out to have to wait a week between each–I don’t–it just would seem so debilitating–

RB:I wonder if it just speaks to a different sense of time for, you know, sort of contemporary attentions.

MD:Yeah. You know what–one of the things that I think is really interesting too because my sister, like I said. she’s up on a lot this stuff and she has all the technology, so she’s got this kind of nice DVR machine, and for her, a lot of these shows are also very social.

RB:Social, meaning?

MD:Meaning Downton Abbey is no fun unless she’s got five friends over, and she’s made something special to eat. And for me, I’m also–I like being in the dark, watching it on my computer, not being annoyed by anyone else. And I also–I probably suffer, quite a bit from that constant distraction, and I don’t think I’ve ever watched any of these things without stopping every ten to fifteen minutes, even when I’m loving it. In fact, I often stop at the most tense moments because I can’t quite–

RB:Well, the choice is yours.

MD:Right, exactly.

RB:You’re supposed to, like, every eleven minutes, there’s a commercial.

MD:Right, right, right.

RB:My son and I have been watching all five seasons of [76 episodes] Friday Night Lights.

MD:My sister actually loves that. Have you done Deadwood yet?

RB:I have an unexamined prejudice against Deadwood because of David Milch. This may not even be true—I’m friendly with Pete Dexter, who wrote a novel called Deadwood years ago.

MD:Uh huh.

RB:He’s totally vexed by David Milch’s’s claim in the New Yorker that he had actually never read Dexter’s book, which seems to be very, very close to the way the story unfolds in the series. But it was brilliant nonetheless. You know, Ian McShane and John Hawkes and Tim Oliphant. They are great character actors.

MD:I thought that they were great. I think¬–and I really have done so many of these shows–but I really think that’s the best one, mostly because–I mean, I hate to–I don’t want Pete Dexter to write me some kind of nasty email, but– however authentic people claim things are, all fiction is like an act of illusion and smoke and mirrors. And it may be that every single article of clothing and the filth of the streets and everything else may be totally authentic, but what’s such a lie–the fundamental lie of that show–is that you have a town full of basically illiterate people speaking such beautiful, beautiful language.

RB:Except for Ian McShane.

MD:Well, right, except for Ian McShane, but–have you ever seen Love Joy? This was a long, long-running British hour-long drama that starred him, and he was kind of an antiques conman. Semi-con–he was a conman for the good. And that’s worth getting on Netflix just to check him out in such a different setting.

RB:I found a film the other day with him in it, in which he plays a middle-aged, astute, unabashed homosexual.

MD: Huh.

RB:It’s called 44-Inch Chest. And the core story is that a guy, after 20 years of marriage, the guy’s wife tells him that she’s found someone else, and he does something bad to her, and then is inconsolable to all his friends, which include Ian McShane, are now trying to help him end, get through this. In the meantime, they have the paramour of his wife bound and gagged in a closet.

MD:Is he–is that a new movie?

RB:I don’t think it is.

MD:One of the last episodes of one of the seasons of Love Joy, they interviewed the cast. This particular show is–I loved it, but it’s like, it appealed to my kind of British nostalgia, so I’m not sure I’d say that it’s something you should race out and watch other than to see an episode to see him in that setting, but he was being interviewed, and when it kind of came to him, they showed clips of all the work he’d done. And he’s kind of one of these actors that, you don’t realize this because he seems to appear out of nowhere in some magnificent role, but I think had been a fulltime working actor since he was 16 and was in everything! They had this old scene he played Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, and he’s running around as this wild man on a moor, and it’s sort of this really crappy 1960s television black-and-white kind of footage. It’s really fun–

RB:Did you see him in–it was an NBC series called Kings or something like that–

MD:You know, I didn’t see it because it got canceled before it ever made it onto Netflix.

RB:This whole phenomenon, I mean there are two things that have happened for me that are a joy and a burden: the opportunity to sample all these films that are pretty decent that just never had PR budgets or, you know, for some reason, were ignored. But again, all these opportunities to watch all these–you know, my current queue is 300 movies.

MD:Yeah, you know, and it’s really depressing. My wife actually has a novel coming out in the summer, and she–Thomas Carlyle comes up in it, and–I want to take credit for feeding her this line–which she uses, which I love, which is that Thomas Carlyle, I guess when he died, when he was being honored, someone said, “This is the last man on Earth to have read everything, and he always will be.” And you think about it, a man’s reading or a person’s reading obligations that don’t include Proust and Beckett and Thomas Mann and Tolstoy–anyway, the point is that it’s very depressing at this point in time because you just know you’re going to die, and there’s going to be entire worlds of narrative that you’re never ever going to even know about.

RB:That’s right. So I think that for people–I don’t know what the dividing line is, but the (cultural) consciousness of our civilization seems to shrink, you know. Twenty years–oh wow, its twenty maybe–twenty years, maybe it’s ten years now–I mean, I remember pretty much everything since the end of World War II, I mean, you know, I’ve lived some of it and I’ve read pretty close to (that amount), so having that sort of general knowledge makes me interested in too much. And you’re right, it can be really–you know, “depressing” isn’t the right word, but sort of just unsatisfying.

MD:You’re never going to get to the end of it or the bottom of it.

RB:So I think you probably just have to resign yourself to enjoying all this stuff. So you mentioned that your wife’s got a book coming out. So you’re both novelists.


RB:What’s that like? What’s that like for your kid?

MD: He’s four and a half. He doesn’t seem to be too damaged yet, but– I don’t know. I have a very happy family, and I don’t know if it’s–I mean, there are a lot of examples of why there are advantages of having two writers in the family. I mean, it’s very easy for me to be grouchy and say, “I had a crappy morning. I don’t want to talk.” And I don’t have to explain that. She knows what I’m talking about. And it was–

RB:Do you show each other your work?

MD:Yeah. Definitely, and I think that we–our stuff is–she writes very literary stuff, but–it’s just different than mine, so there doesn’t feel like any competition.

RB:Do you think your wife is a better writer than you?

Allison Lynn, author of the Exiles

Allison Lynn, author of the Exiles

MD:Nah, no! Definitely not!

RB:Would you tell her that?

MD:Maybe that’s the illusion that keeps our marriage together.

RB:Would you say it to her?

MD:Yes, in fact, I would, and she’d laugh like you’re laughing, and just as my Van Halen detail, you’d be left to your own thoughts to figure out whether I was joking or not.

RB:Let me ask you why Indianapolis was–what did you call it? –“the strangest place in the world? “ “In the the Universe?”

MD:Well, first of all, I do mean that with a certain amount of affection.

RB:I took it that way. I grew up in the Midwest (area). I’m assuming the positive.

MD:I moved around a lot growing up, so I’ve seen a lot of places, but just kind of landing there after 11 years in New York, it was a real culture shock, and I think that it also speaks to just how strange it was going from being kind of constantly at the ragged edge of financial disaster and debt. We rented an apartment in Chelsea that we had no business renting because we really couldn’t afford it, but it just was where we were living. We had a child, and moving was just–and 2008–I mean, I know it was rough on everybody, but I mean our industry died. I mean, the life of the hack writer where we got a lot of our money just ended, and it’s not coming back. And so–

RB:Wouldn’t you prefer to say Grub Street writer?

MD:Grub Street, right. Well, I use both. Do you know Robert Danton–I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to look at his stuff, but he’s one of my favorite writers. And I love–it wasn’t actually until I started reading his books that I took a certain amount of pride in being this kind of pen for hire. I rented a tiny little office on 28th and 5th in New York, and it’s the old Tin Pan alley, and I love–this was like the last rough block in Manhattan. –So we did a lot of work for money just to— it was our livelihood. And that just ended.

RB:There’s a picture that I get when you say that, is of a Latin American train station, where a man is sitting outside the entrance of the train station, and he is a pen for hire [escritor]. He will write letters. He will write anything for anyone that they need. And because so many have the people don’t know how to write. And I think that may still true here!

MD:Or you wish that maybe sometimes it would be better if it were true if people were hiring out their work rather than believing they can actually manage it themselves!

RB:Well, I would seriously consider it I was actually thinking about creating sort of a website or business card saying that I would write love letters, personal letter, business letters,story synopses, anything that requires some competence in the English language.

MD:Yeah, I think you should do that. The problem is that you need a client who knows what a good product looks like, which is–you’re going to have a hard time finding that.

RB:You’re not decrying the competence of modern magazine editors, are you?

MD: Um–uh–well, you know–uh–no. Well, actually, there’s so little work in that world now that it doesn’t matter. Most of my work came–I have a special talent for writing for boys who hate reading, so I wrote a lot of stuff, a lot of books, under pennames, or parts of reading series for intervention programs. Basically, talking to fourteen-year-olds who’re reading at a 5th grade level. And the problem is that–and the reason why I say, at least my industry’s never coming back–after the collapse, so many of these houses used that opportunity to scale back the wages, and at the same time that the blogging world was entering the field, and suddenly, people were willing to write for 5 cents a word. And I mean, I’m sorry, but a lot of the education people have pedagogical backgrounds–they’re experts in education–but they’re not storytellers. And when you’re writing for a kid who hates to read, the story is the thing that’s going to keep them hooked in or not.

RB:When you talked about having a client that appreciates a good product, you see, I would aim much lower than you were going. I would aim at people who clearly understand they can’t write, but they need to communicate something in a text. And I guarantee that I would charge more than 5 cents a word.

MD:Well see, the thing is that then you’d have to explain to them why you’re not the 5-cent person because they’re going to go cheap if they can’t discern–

RB:They wouldn’t even know about that. I would be the first person that they ever met who would offer them this opportunity.Anyway, tell me about life in Indianapolis, though. You didn’t really explain to me.

MD:Our first house that we rented from a couple that teaches high school abroad, so they were gone nine months out of the year, and they were looking for people to sublet who would give the house up for the summer. They also didn’t want college kids. I think they figured that a couple with a two-year-old at that point was a safe bet. And it was just a gorgeous–I mean, I’ll never live in a house this nice again. It was gigantic, and it was arts and crafts built in 1912, and everything was meticulously restored. I was paying $1200 for a rent there, and we had five gigantic bedrooms and five–I mean, let’s see, I mean I have to actually think about this–three fully finished, beautifully tiled bathrooms, and a beautiful kitchen, huge yard on a double lot, and we were paying a third for what we were paying for a 500-square apartment in–

RB:Did that change your sort of idea of upkeep and cleanliness? Were you more inclined to maintain the museum-like quality of–?

MD:I always loved the line in–it’s the famous line in “Alice’s Restaurant” about the couple who had the–did they live in a lighthouse? –I’ve forgotten most of the details except the one, which is they had that gigantic space which, rather than meaning they could have this beautiful space to sit and live in,that, rather they didn’t have to take the garbage out except for once a year! So that’s a little bit–we had so much space that we just kind of spread out in this, chaotic way.

RB:That was your first house. How long have you been there?

MD:We were there for two years.

RB:You were there? You’re not there anymore?

MD:No. We bought a house. There was never any real-estate bubble in Indianapolis, so nothing really ever got crazy inflated, and–

RB:And you’re teaching school at Butler University?Which is–which is in Indianapolis?

MD:It’s in the city. Right in the city.

RB:And does Indianapolis sort of represent the typical Midwestern, northern big city? I mean, it is the biggest city in Indiana, right?

MD:Yes, it is. It’s a little over a million, and I think it’s like 17th in the nation in terms of size.

RB:And is it overcrowded or not?

MD:Well, it’s definitely–it’s one of those cities that has enough farm space on either side of it that it just kind of grows out and out and out. They could have done with a little more vertical planning, but–

RB:You know Chicago, yes?

MD:Yeah, I’ve been there a bunch, but I don’t–

RB:This is a city that I think, past maybe a mile from the lake, you don’t see things over three or four stories, you know. Thus, the horizon looking west is, and thus the city spread out over a nice grid.

MD:Yeah, it is a weird–there is some kind of line–you know, I lived in St. Louis for two years, and it was the same sensation that, somehow, look to the west and God knows what was there.

RB:Do you have any feelings about the phrase “flyover zone”?

MD:Well, like I said, I was born in Minneapolis, but I lived there ‘til I was eight, so I don’t have too much–

RB:Let me just recap–Minneapolis, New York, Wellesley, Paris–

MD:I lived in London for four years. Jersey. Lived in Switzerland, Geneva, for a year. Lived in–I went to college in Colorado. I went to graduate school in Wisconsin. And then, I went to another graduate school–


MD:Yeah, Madison. Then Washington University.

RB:What is the longest you’ve been in (one spot)? Butler? Right now, where you are?

MD:Well, I was in New York for 11 years, so that was the longest I’ve ever been in one spot. But yeah, I guess I’ve been at Butler for two and a half years. And yeah, I guess there’s something strange in that. I mean, having the same job, the same sort of set of colleagues for two and a half years is–

RB:Are you on a tenure track?

MD:I am. I am.

RB:Did your coming to Butler coincide with their rise in the college basketball world?

MD:I was part of the cause of that. No,unfortunately, I had nothing to do with that, although, I’d like to claim it. It’s amazing–I have all the obvious issues about sort of the problems of college sports, but I think–

RB:It’s not so obvious. A lot of people don’t have them. I think I share them.

MD:I mean, mostly in football, I just feel like it’s such a moneymaking scam and kind of has so many intractable problems that there’s almost no point in thinking about i.t

RB:Well, no point for you and me, but, you know, like that poor kid at Baylor— Jones, Perry Jones–a few years ago was suspended because his mother was given something by someone [because she was on the verge of being evicted. ]

MD:It’s crazy. It really is crazy. But what I’d say is that Butler has none of those problems as far as I can tell because we’re kind of a small school, we have to move a little bit in a moneyball kind of mode, and what I mean by that is that–I don’t know what kind of deep statistics they’re using–but they certainly approve top flight athletes that might not be the first choice for a Duke or–but it works out great. And I think the other thing is having a small school–I mean, we were not going to get Cody Zeller–I don’t know if you know him at IU–he claimed that his final choices were us and IU and Chapel Hill and Butler, and he seems like a great guy and a lot of people really like him. And certainly everybody in Indianapolis, as much as they love Butler, they love IU just as much–

RB:IU is in Bloomington, right? It’s not in–

MD:Bloomington, right. It’s about an hour south. But the thing is that, at IU, he is a rock star, I mean, that guy is–and it’s impossible to be that kind of rock star at a school the size of Butler because it’s not the same atmosphere.

RB:–do you care what people in your neck of the woods think about the current Notre Dame story (Star footballer Manti Te’o is involved in a hoax about a fake girlfriend –is that a big topic of interest?

MD:Well, you know, I haven’t really grasped it until–I was getting ready to come out here, and I’ve been in New York, so I’ve only been figuring it out recently.I guess everybody’s only figuring out because it’s such a mysterious story.

RB:Could you write this?Could someone write that story as a short fiction?

MD:It is unbelievable, but I think the thing is that–the truth is, as unbelievable as it is, people fall in love under unusual circumstances–I mean, I’m thinking about my family in northern Wisconsin.All the Norwegian people up there–I tell you, you started writing letters to some woman that you had a vague interaction with your family.

RB:That was fifty, sixty years ago. Not in 2013.

MD:Right, but I don’t think it’s an implausible thing that someone could have some kind of deep emotional tie to–

RB:See, I share your gradual immersion of the story. I know whispers about it, but the main thing for me is why should I care? The kid hasn’t killed anyone. He hasn’t–what’s he done, and why do people care?

MD:I think that’s the thing. This is back to the guy who’s getting busted for the mother selling–old football jerseys. I think that the question is, was he trading on it? And I don’t get the sense that he was actively going around, trying to get promotional deals based on his sorrows. If he was, that might be something different, but I think he just got caught up in this–I’d be kind of embarrassed if I discovered this hoax. I’m not sure I’d want to start telling everybody that, “I’d been played. I’ve fallen in love with an imaginary person who was–.” You know.

RB:He was–let’s place him in context. He’s a twenty-something-year-old kid who plays for a midwestern university. Catholic university. Where’s the story?

MD:Right, right, right.

RB:You know, Gail Collins, I thought Collins said something great. She wrote about this story, but then she mentioned that Notre Dame has rallied around this kid, but they forgot to pay attention to this girl who was raped, and they did nothing for her except discredit her

Water break/Parking meter break

RB:Most of what you know–

MD:Is from national media.I just haven’t really kind of figured out what people are saying. You know what I mean?

RB:It speaks to something even more prevalent and maybe distressing, which is you find yourself being conscious of (all sorts of things) and you really didn’t choose.I don’t care about the Kardashians.You know? I don’t care about this particular situation.I’m sure there’s a whole host of stories, almost in a kind of suspended animation. I never cared about Michael Jackson, you know? But nonetheless, you’re [can be] imposed upon by this shit stream of information. So you have to find a way of making it useful.

MD:Yeah. Yeah, I guess there’s no avoiding it.

RB:I mean, what do you want to pay attention to?You have, again, all these choices. You can watch Netflix all day, or put together a playlist on Spotify, or you can write novels.

MD:Yeah, well, that’s one of the ways of controlling the narrative that you get, is if the narrative is the one that you’re immersing yourself in and writing yourself.It’s interesting to me that I was seeing people talk about video games–and that how one of the great advances in culture and narrative is that people are going to actually get to play a role in creating their own story. But my response is always like, look, there was always a blank piece of paper and a pen. People could have always,

RB:That reminds me of a Steve Martin quote.“Look what I did! And I started out just with a piece of paper and a pencil.”

MD:You can always participate in the creation of your own narrative. I don’t know why that people think that–

RB:Well, there is a reason. First of all, just look at–how large is the class of human beings who actually have whatever it takes–the perseverance, the diligence, the striving–to create something? How many people actually, how many people have the drive to make decisions? I mean, it’s not like these things are parceled out universally? And I suspect, or I worry–personally worry–that when you immerse yourself in–and you’re conscious of all these narratives and you immerse yourself in them–like I do; I read, I watch movies, listen to all kinds of music–that you have a really warped or you develop a warped sense of the actualities.

MD:This is something I always love in Chekov stories that two of the re occurring characters are flighty ladies who read novels and doctors who read newspapers. And the doctors who read newspapers are always talking about some far-flung issue that they don’t really understand, and the women who are reading the novels are in a sort of entranced–and basically, what Chekov is describing is the soap opera. And it’s funny coming from Chekov, right, because he’s obviously a fiction writer, but there is this illusion, I think—that somehow, newspapers used to be this bastion of high-brow learning and the thinking man read the newspaper when, in fact, before there was television and Internet, people used to talk about newspapers the same way they talk about the Kardashians. Just rabble-rousing sort of nonsense.

RB:You see that in portrayals of the old West, the West being conquered, you know. Journalists from back east, just looking to stir up a story. That’s a reoccurring theme.I forgot what I–I was going to go somewhere with that–. Well, so is that the impulse that moved you to become a writer? The interest in creating your own narrative? Just sitting there, coming up with something that–?

MD:Yeah. Yeah, I mean a lot of writers describe themselves as sort of taking to books from a very young age and being lost in them, and I was never really like that. But I was definitely a daydreamer Mostly, you know, when people would be talking to me, I wouldn’t be listening. I’d be thinking my own things.

RB:Well, that’s exactly the kind of disconnect that I’m describing as a possibility condition of being literary, you know? Have you seen Django Unchained? So in this movie, Christopher Waitz‘s playing a German-born bounty hunter in the Deep South in 1861. His diction is perfectly accurate polysyllabic English, and he realizes when he’s talking to these roughnecks on horses that he’s talking past them. But he doesn’t really quite give up, but he entertains himself with the notion that he’s tossing out pearls before swine. And I think when, and I wonder that when one spends a lot of time reading stories, paying attention to prose, if somehow that doesn’t severely shift the way you deal with people who don’t pay attention to the language, to language in general.

MD:I also didn’t really grow up in a family that cared much about books in any kind of sort of passionate way. I had a very smart family. Well, I should say my sister is a children’s book writer and pretty successful, so–
RB:The same one who is a TV producer?

MD:No. Another one. So somehow, we all ended up in a creative world, but what I would say is my dad was a banker, but in a different era than what bankers are in now. And he was the best storyteller I’ve ever known, but the entire thing was oral. I never saw him read a novel ever.

RB:You’re certainly refreshing my contention of the fact that we presume that you have to be wrapped up in books in order to be a storyteller or to be able to talk about the world. You probably miss a lot of conversations that we don’t engage in because we don’t think we’re going to have that any kind of personal take away of –it’s why I paid attention in this story to the fact that Henry is listening to others— there’s a way when you get older, you’re more inclined to talk to anybody about the world because it’s–

Michael Dahlie (photo by Rober Birnbaum)

Michael Dahlie (photo by Rober Birnbaum)

MD:I did have one kind of—my mother— has a huge family in the South. I mean like extensive, endless relatives–my father was in the Navy and my mother, she was a schoolteacher in Norfolk, Virginia, but they lived in Petersburg, so close to North Carolina border, and there just was an endless, endless stream of old people that I took the years to straighten out who was who, and they grew up —this generation all grew up in the Depression, so there was this constant sort of, “Okay, you’re going to go live with this aunt. You’re going to go live with this uncle. And then, we’re going to switch over.” My grandfather was raised by his parents in one half of a duplex and one of his sisters and brother was raised in the other half of the duplex by aunts and uncles. Just kind of a very fluid sort of world. But most of these people helped raise my mother as well. And so, every year, for at least a month, we’d kind of be traveling around in Virginia and seeing these people and visiting these people and–to some extent, I guess that that was true in northern Wisconsin where I had a lot of old Norwegian sort of relatives and Scotch relatives as well. Yeah, it’s one of the kind of shocking things about living in New York, that I really felt like my entire life was with thirty-something, some twenty-something, my sister’s friends —we were so cut off from any other generation.

RB:Yeah, again, I think that the generation–there’s a sort of the narrowing cultural windows as you get lower, as you get younger. I was always struck by a writer who taught at NYU told me–he taught freshman English–I think this was in the year 2000–and he told me his kids, his freshman kids, didn’t know who Kurt Cobain was. This was maybe ten years prior, right?

MD:This is one of the most astounding things when I teach young people that things I assume they know about–they weren’t part of my generation, but they only seemed to have happened or been important ten years ago, and–yeah, it’s very strange I’m trying to think of a good example–but I’d refer to something that just seems like it would be a touchstone of modern American culture, and I’ll have students, even smart sort of worldly students, staring at me like they have no idea what I’m talking about. I guess there’s a lot of writing these days and this sort of rapidity of our culture and how quickly things become commonplace. I’m usually distrustful of a lot of those arguments, but this one I think is true.

RB:You are teaching what subjects?

MD:I teach creative writing. We have a new MFA program.

RB:So the people in it are aspiring to be career writers?

MD:They are. The program is new, and a lot of the students who we recruit from are from the area, and they tend to be a little older than your average sort of, you know, 24-year-old, 25-year-old.

RB: How old?

MD:Well, I’d say that maybe–25% are older than I am. One of the advantages of starting an MFA program at Butler and one of the reasons this has worked really well and has been a kind of shocking success in a lot of ways — we’re the only MFA program in Indianapolis and a lot of our students have lives here.They’ve got kids in the public schools, they’ve got spouses or themselves that have jobs, and–

RB:So is this night school, or is this night and day?

MD:It’s a full proper program, but we have classes at night and we’re pretty flexible with other people’s schedules.

RB:Let’s see, Indiana University, IU, has a writing program.

MD:Yeah, they do

RB:Notre Dame has a writing program. Does Purdue have a writing program?

MD:They do, yeah; those are the 4 MFA programs.

RB:What are the expectations of the people who are taking these courses? What do you give them to–when they start asking like, you know–do they ask about agents? Do they ask about how do you get published? Do they ask about submitting to small magazines?

MD:They do, and–you know, I went to Washington University to get my MFA, which is–

RB:St Louis. Now, was Charlie Newman there?

MD:Charlie Newman was there. Charlie was a professor of mine. I loved Charlie.

A young Charles Newman courtesy of John Hopkins University magazine

A young Charles Newman courtesy of John Hopkins University magazine

RB:I knew Charlie. Dalkey Archive is publishing In Partial Disgrace.

MD:Yeah, his Onudula–this has been a project of his– this had been his mission since he got out of…The great thing about Newman as a colleague, I can see now as a professor that he could definitely drive you crazy. But you need people like that in MFA programs because he was such an inspiration! I mean, you know, he had–he would miss workshop all the time because of these imaginary sick aunts that he was always claiming to have to tend to–

RB:Did he have a drinking problem still?

MD:Unlike anyone I’ve ever seen. Well, yeah, this–his last couple of years, he was not behaving himself more or less and he really–I think, he was kind of lost— well, he was a professor at John Hopkins at 24. His career got started really early. One of his colleagues—someone that I was friends with —had described Newman once as saying like, “He’s the kind of guy who’s too smart to get well.” In the sense that he could never go through any kind of program because he was just such a–I mean, it’s not just that he was cynical, but he was probably also generally used to being the smartest guy in the room and so wasn’t going to be willing to listen to someone who might not have been as smart as he was but who knew what was going on and what Charlie was up to. But it was–I mean, it was catastrophic by the time I knew him–but he was also very functional. He was so funny, and he was a very sentimental, charming, warm guy.

RB:Christopher Hitchens also had, by reputation, this great capacity for drink. I witnessed it at least once, so I could tell you, and, you know, his editors would be astounded how quickly he could put out copy without breaking a sweat.

RB:Do you approach teaching writing from the discussion of books or discussing the work that the students are doing?

MD:Mostly, it’s the work that the people are writing. And I had an introduction to fiction and writing class this past semester, and a couple weeks in, I abandoned using the textbook we were using just because it was so horrible.

RB:Do you read?

MD:Do I read?

RB: Do you read contemporary fiction?

MD:I do as much as I can. At this point, so much of my reading is obviously student work, but yeah, I read as much as possible. I’m really addicted to audio books–I don’t know if you do audio books at all, but–

RB: As my second take on the book.

MD:I haven’t properly formulated this, so this is just like, you know, coffeehouse chatter, not any kind of formal–but the more I do audio books, the more that I think that the printed word is some kind of weird sort of like stop gap until human beings figured out how to record the human voice. ‘Cause I feel like storytelling–it just happens most naturally orally, and it’s just amazing–I’m not sure that there are many printed books that I’ve been lost to the way I’ve been lost to books on audio, and I can’t quite explain that, and I’m almost embarrassed to admit it because I think that–I don’t know–I sound like I’m some kind of– well, illiterate fool–but–

RB:It’s interesting you’ve mentioned this to me because my mother is currently a problem for my sister, and me and I’m trying to find an entryway, allowing her to actually process certain information. I know that, in conversation, she lets very little in. She hears what she wants to hear, but she gets very, much more–she gets more detached when she reads something and/or sees something, and–you know, I think that, for some people, it’s the reverse.


RB:They don’t, can’t, don’t want to process the words on paper. I have opted for, by the way, to–you know, people ask me why I don’t podcast. It’s pretty easy, you know, just–but I sit and transcribe these conversations, but try to transcribe them in a way that has a natural–that it’s natural dialogue. That it’s the way people talk to each other. And–I don’t think it’s better, but I think–it’s because I’m inclined to think that people read, when they read, they get more. They take more in, you know?

MD:One of the bad things about the audio book is that you can’t reread sentences, and I find that, when I have the best reading experience, is in print. I can reread a paragraph.

RB:You mean it’s not the same to just go back two minutes–?

MD:Well, it’s just such a hassle to press the button.

RB:I’m sure that Suri –you can get the (Suri) on your iPhone—can help

MD:Yeah, I know. I just got to wait for technology to evolve a little bit. There is one very strange thing about audio books and–this is why I have to say that I–I hate to talk about this because I haven’t figured it out all properly in a formal way–is that you also have an actor reading the book. And I did an audio book by a guy who–I only remember the title of the book; my wife reads absolutely everything, so my reading list is largely determined for me–but he read his own book, and it’s terrible! And I couldn’t get through it, and my wife is saying, “This is one of the best books I’ve read all year.” On the other hand, I just did Russo’s Elsewhere on audio, and he reads it himself, and he does a magnificent job, and I’m not sure that an actor could have quite gotten–
RB: For some people–there are people–Richard Ford can read his stuff. You know, Charlie Baxter can read his stuff. Those are the ones that I know about, you know, for the most part–yeah, for the most part there, it takes an actor. I remember reading Louis de Berniere’s Birds Without Wings, which is this–it’s a 19th century epic that takes place in Anatolia, with all sorts of different characters with different backgrounds–religious, ethnic–and you know, one of the first things that was overcome for me was that the guy, the reader, could pronounce the names of the people–it’s like my problem with reading Russian stories. I don’t–can’t remember the names because I can’t pronounce them

MD:Yeah, yeah, I know. I just did Kurlansky’s book on the Basques, and apparently, the actor had to be really coached–

RB:Mark Kurlansky?

MD:Mark Kurlansky, yeah.

RB:He wrote a book about the Basques?

MD:Yeah, The Basque History of the World–it’s so good! Oh my God. I mean, it really is good, and it’s really fascinating, and really, really funny. He went to Butler!

RB: He’s written on fish. He’s written a book about minor-league baseball. Teaching.

MD:Yeah, and¬ he’s got this new book out on Clarence Birdseye that I’m dying to read too.


MD:Clarence Birdseye. He invented flash freezing.

RB:You’re saying he recited his own book

MD: No. He did not. Someone else read it. But Basque is one of these–it’s a totally singular language. There’s not a single language like it in the area. Finland is the only language that resembles it in any kind of way, and it’s just grammatically. But these words are, you know, just impossible to pronounce, and they sound so weird on (paper).

RB:(And he) pronounces them?

MD:The actor does, but I think the actor really had to be coached to get them right, but if they’re a good actor, they can kind of make it sound fluid. But I guess one of the things about having the actor is a little bit like having a pianist play a piece of music that–so much comes down to interpretation. It’s not the sheet music, even though, you know, Beethoven wrote it. It can sound completely different depending on who’s doing it.

RB:You face the same situation if you read and then reread a book (at some moment). Sometimes, one wonders why, you liked a book the first time, dislike it the second time, or dislike the book the first time but are convinced somehow to try it again. How does that happen? It strikes me that you may be like me in this sense–I don’t have a theory, a literary theory. And my critique is really ad hoc and simple. I like a good story. I like to watch people–I like to hear people talk to each other in an interesting way. I like interesting facts thrown in. A nice narrative arc. So when I read these critical theory attempts, I just say, “What?”

MD:The complement to this–one of the other sides of that are these how-to manuals on how to write fiction. One of the things about dealing with students is trying to get them to stop reading these things. And because they want you to tell them how to do it, and the only thing I can say is, “Look, if you want to write a novel go to your basement, and seven years later, you might have a novel.” And they laugh, “Yeah, but really, tell me how to do it.” And I say, “No. That’s how you do it!” And they don’t want to hear that because they want the trick. I don’t know if you know, if you’ve read Patti Smith’s memoir, her most recent one–

RB:Well, is it called Kids or something?

MD:Yeah, Just Kids. She’s talking about–you know, she had this long relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe — she was talking to him, being in the printing room with him, and taking the photograph is one thing but, obviously, (an enormous thing) back in the day I guess it still is today with computers. The print is just as important. And she’d say how he’d have hundreds of prints of the same photograph, and he’d say, “This is the one. That’s the one where the magic is.” And I think that that magic is–trying to–in some ways, it’s trying to–I do understand why people write literary criticism. I do think it has a value, but sometimes, it seems false in the same way that someone might describe why they’re in love with someone. I mean if they really have a specific quantifiable list, then they’re probably lying that they’re in love with them?

RB:It’s funny. I take my latest displeasure about a critique was–today, I read somebody who wrote about this new series on FX called The Following, which is, you know, serial murderer who happens to be a college professor whose fascinated with Edgar Allan Poe. This critic was, like, bombastically deriding the possibility that a TV series would violate, you know, Poe’s artistic code or something like that.

MD:You know, when I was at Wisconsin, I was in the history program there, and I was–

RB:Really? I almost went there –was George Mosse there?

MD:George Mosse was there, yeah, yeah.

RB:Still there?

MD:Well, no, he was emeritus. He was still alive, but he was–

RB:[What about]William Appleton Williams?

MD:Yeah.He was definitely gone by the time I was there. But I had this professor who I actually liked quite a bit, but he always used to deride Harpers and the New Yorker as middle-brow, which I thought was –basically, it was revealing what was, in fact, the kind of real anger that I think a lot of scholars feel, which is that, somehow, they do this magnificent work, and it’s not appreciated. And it is true that, you know, when you look at this guy’s accomplishments as an historian, it involved sitting 15 years in basements of convents in Germany going through marriage records, and–

RB:Dust.200-year-old dust.

MD:And then a journalist kind of turns it into this story, and–I forget how we got onto this, but–

RB:The value of literary criticism and whether or not theory is beside the point.

MD:Right.Oh! I have one of my colleagues at Butler is–he has a PhD and is a scholar, but he’s billed as a creative nonfiction writer, and he wrote a book about an abolitionist and also a memoir about–his name’s Andrew Levy–he wrote a book called A Brain Larger than the Sky, which is a book about migraines. It has a kind of Kurlansky aspect to it in that it details sort of the history of migraines,

RB:Mary Roach does the same kind of thing.

MD:I mean, I know the name– yeah, she’s at Norton. But he’s got this book on Twain that he’s been working on for a long time, and it’s coming out with Simon and Schuster and I think it’s going to be a big release. I think they’re excited about it. And he’s an excellent writer, so I think it should be great, but he’s doing his due diligence as a thinking man and sending it out to the proper people to get their reviews, and I think he’s had some genuinely positive reactions, but there are people who’ve devoted their lives to writing these monographs that only 300 people read and they can’t respond to any piece of culture without actually unloading this anger about the fact that no one cares about what they know about.

RB:Yeah, of course, because historians up until the last few years–well, that’s what’s created this explosion in, you know, the McCulloughs and Stephen Ambroses. They’re writing more popular history, more accessible history. And then, Ken Burns comes along and does a show —

MD:Stephen Ambrose got his PhD at Wisconsin and did a lot of his research there because we had such great World War II archives. And there was this absolute wall between the history department and Stephen Ambrose. I mean, there was no way that that department was going to allow Stephen Ambrose to teach a class! And the thing is I see both sides of it. I see the poor guy who’s devoted his whole life to going through archives that would never have been known about if they hadn’t read every single word. But on the flip side, you’ve got to cut these guys some slack. I think one of the great examples of this is–I don’t know if you’ve read 1491. It’s the book about the year before Columbus arrived, and he just came out with–I forget the guy’s name, but he just came out with a sequel, 1493, which I haven’t read. And he kind of writes about–he’s a journalist really, and he writes about how he couldn’t believe–he kind of started doing the research and he couldn’t believe that this story hadn’t been told. But the point is that the story had been told over and over in minutia at academic conferences by people who had literally spent 40 years digging through garbage heaps examining teeth!

RB:Well, they couldn’t get anyone to read or write the scholastic journal articles?

MD:Or they simply didn’t care. I promise you that at Wisconsin, you weren’t trying to get a book deal at Random House. You were trying to get a book deal at Princeton [University Press]. And I think that these scholars don’t care about Harper Collins. They don’t care about New York publishing. They just want to sit in their garbage heap and examine bones!

RB:That’s what’s opened the floodgates, you know.Dan Okrent wrote a very serviceable book about Prohibition, you know, and he did an admirable job of not only talking about the law but the social-movement context.And, of course, then Burns made the film on it. I would maintain that I’ve learned as much if not more about American history from Gore Vidal’s novels and EL Doctorow novels and Geraldine Brooks‘ novels than I have reading history texts.

MD:Right, well, that’s how I feel, how I’ve felt about 1491.I loved that book, and there wasn’t a page where my mind wasn’t blown. But he’s a journalist piecing the story together. He’s not the guy who’s done the 40 years, and you can see why there’d be some friction between the actual storyteller and the–

RB:It’s called jealousy.


RB:It’s called you’re getting more attention than I am. What about people like–what do you think about this thing that’s called creative nonfiction? You know, the Erik Larsons and the Mark Kurlanskys)?

MD:I obviously think that the term just always sounds strange to me. I do have to say that I like it more when it’s about something as opposed to, like, memoir, this self-reflective–because I think there’s a lot of indulgent, “I’m a writer, and I don’t…”¬

RB:Are you familiar with (Benjamin Anastas’) book, Too Good to Be True?


RB:The possibility of self-indulgence is certainly there. Frankly, I don’t know of anybody who isn’t a writer who really wants to read that story. It’s well told. It’s more vivid if you understand the world of writing and trying to make your living as a writer.

MD:My wife loved that book. But yeah, a lot of people do obviously.I suppose it depends on the quality of the work.


MD:And I think that there’s a lot of good stuff and bad stuff that’s trying to do the same thing.

RB:There are gems in the book, one of which I thought said something to the effect of having seen, the downside or a certain side of the writing life, he didn’t understand what the prestige and the — it’s not such a glamorous station in life.

MD:Yeah. Especially these days. Well, speaking of Gore Vidal, did he die recently, or did

RB:A few years

MD: They were quoting him, and he said–he was talking about how he was being interviewed by someone, and he said, “Yeah, I used to be a famous novelist.” And the interviewer corrected him and said, “What’re you talking about? You know, people still read your books. You still sell really well.” He said, “No. When I say, ‘I used to be a famous novelist,’ I’m saying, ‘I used to live in a time when you could be a famous novelist.’” And this is slipping away, you know?

RB:Yeah. I was, I mean, he’s another one of those great American aphorists— I always liked his observation about the four most beautiful words in the English language: “I told you so.” Who occupies his kind of social /cultural perch, you know. Jon Stewart? Steven Colbert, I mean, who else is there? Sort of mocking, the establishment and the status quo and also, people seem not to be not paying attention–

MD:I know, and I think those are two really good examples.

RB:I mean Hitchens was close, but he was certainly very literary, but he’d spent a lot of time in television. And he was certainly a charismatic guy?

MD:Yeah, it is an interesting question.

RB:I wonder if England is really a greater repository of those kinds of public intellectuals than the United States. I mean (England) is–he’s here now–but he’s a guy who always says something worthy of attention. You know, about anything.

MD:You know of Tony Judt


MD:The book that he wrote about–?

RB:His account of dying of ALS?

MD:No, it was the reaction to Stalin by French intellectuals. You know I’ve spent a lot of time in France and there–and I often hear it in the U.S. that they have the great model of the public intellectual, the novelist who can, you know, write the great op ed or that kind of thing. But this book is–I can’t remember the name of it–but it’s basically about how–I mean people were crawling across the border out of Stalin’s Russia, Stalin’s Soviet Union with these stories, and you know, people like Sartre were saying, “You’re mistaken. It’s not true.” And what were Sartre’s qualifications? He was a novelist and philosopher. You know? I mean, and so, I mean, I do think you have to be careful about what people who have a lot of charisma deliver in–

RB:Yeah, I mean, who’s the big gun there now? Bernard Henri Levi who is referred to as BHL

MD:Right, right, right.

RB:I mean, you know, it’s like a supermodel. You get mentioned by your first name or your initials.

MD:Right, right, right.

RB:So–let’s get down to Earth here.


RB:You’re–you have your second novel. You’ve done your second novel. You’ve published your second novel. The ghostwriting thing is drying up.

MD:In the book.

RB:No, in your life.

MD:Right, well–

RB:Didn’t you say that industry is going?

MD:Yeah, I mean–my ghostwriting life–basically, I wrote for young readers, for kids, and most of my ghostwriting was pretty crass stuff. People would basically be contracted for books, and they didn’t want to write them, or they’d take on too much work. And so they’d pass it off. But yeah in a lot of ways, that work’s over. I do have some pretty more high-tone novels for young readers that I wrote myself and sold via an agent that I loved, but that–I would still do that kind of thing. The problem is that it’s–I guess that every time I think about what I want to write about next, that’s not–it’s just not on the list now.

RB:What do you want to write about? Are you writing a novel now?

MD:I’m almost done with a novel that I’ve had a bunch of sections of it published. This, also under a pen name. I think I might publish it under my real name, I haven’t decided.

RB:What would the decision be based on? Whether you liked it? Whether you were proud of it, or whether–?

MD:Well, no, I mean, I love this novel, so–. It’s just–it’s been most fun writing under a pen name for–actually, I mean it’s a very hard thing to describe because there are so many reasons I went into it. One of them is that it’s so filled with sex and drugs that I simply didn’t want my mother to know that I was writing about this kind of thing. But in some ways, the protagonist is–well, I mean, in every single way, the protagonist is the opposite of who I am.

RB:At the end of this book, Henry displays or exhibits an amazing amount of sort of relaxation and confidence that he’ll be able to write whatever he wants to write, and it’ll be at least satisfying for him.

MD:Yeah. What are–are you asking is this true in my life?


MD: One of the great things about being a Grub Street writer for so many years is that I don’t ever really suffer from writer’s block. I mean, it comes pretty easy when I have an idea. And, I’ve got a good gig right now at Butler that gives me the time to write.

RB:Do you teach every semester?


RB:Summer too?

MD:Not in the summer, but I think I’m working out a gig that I can teach in France a creative writing class, so I might teach a month out of the summer. But you know, one of the problems is–I had this job at Oscar Meyer for a year–

Oscar Mayer Wienermobile

Oscar Mayer Wienermobile

RB:Oscar Mayer meats?

MD:Yeah. Their corporate headquarters, but that’s also where they make the bacon bits and the “Lunchables “ and everything. And I was never as productive in my life as when I worked there because I woke up every morning and thought, “Holy shit! I’m working at a sausage factory! I’d better do something to get out of here!” And this was after I’d gotten–

RB:What were you doing?

MD:Well, I had gotten my masters degree at Madison in history, and I was still in the PhD program, but I took a year’s leave of absence because I was thinking I wanted to be a novelist instead. And–

RB: Started working at a meatpacking plant?

MD:Well, it was a great gig. I mean I was a temp. I filled in for someone who was on extended maternity leave, so I had the same job for almost a year. One of the things that I tell my students a lot–

RB:Anything bad ever happened to you?

MD:When I was at Oscar Mayer?

RB:Anywhere! Because so far, you were happy with the bank job that you had after you left school. You didn’t mind living in Brooklyn. You had a job at a meatpacking plant that was great–

MD:No one’s ever asked me this question. Usually, people ask me when, after they’ve talked to me for a while, if anything good has ever happened in my life!


MD:Because, you know, I’m generally a–I’m much more of a dismal person, and I think they put an extra shot in my coffee today. But no, what I’d say, and I’d say one of the things that I channel in this book and even in my last book, where the protagonist is a 60-year-old guy who has many problems that he deals with, is that I moved around a lot, and I was a new kid a lot, and I am, in fact, instinctively shy and I also–it takes me a long time to figure out what the social cues of my social world are.And–so I spent a lot of time as a young person eating lunch alone in the cafeteria–and like I said, in England, getting my ass kicked.

RB:Have you met a lot of people since you’ve been in Indianapolis?

MD:I have.I’ve met my entire department. [They’re] from Jersey or Staten Island or–and Indianapolis is a big city with a lot of industry, and so there’s plenty to do. My cultural life is really books, so that hasn’t changed much. I mean I miss my friends in New York. I miss stepping out of my building in New York and being in the center of this commercial–

RB:So do you walk a lot where you are?

MD: No.

RB:Do you live on campus?

MD:No, I’m not on campus.I’m about a mile and half away, and I don’t walk–

RB:Do you drive?

MD:I understand why people drive in a way that I didn’t in New York because in New York, I could walk to the same place every single day and it would never be (boring), and I was like, “Well now, I can walk to school with our new place” and it took me about two weeks to say, “I could just never see those–you know, I can’t go that route again.I’m just so bored by it.Unfortunately, it sounds like I’m really knocking Indiana, but it is–it’s not–

RB:Well, are there tree-lined streets? Are there interesting houses?

MD:Well, there are some, but, it’s not–I mean, again, it’s not like New York, but there’s–

RB:Are their other people walking?

MD:Mmm. Well, that’s one of the other problems.You know, there’s–it’s only 50% chance that there’s going to actually be a sidewalk. They don’t plough their streets during the winter.

RB:So actually, walking isn’t encouraged?

MD:No, but if you talk to a person from Indiana–Indianapolis–they’d say it’s one of the great walking cities–

RB:What about bicycling?

MD:Yeah, they’ve got some bike paths that are basically lines of paint in the middle of the street. I don’t understand how anyone would think that these qualify as a bike path, but–

RB:Tell me what the thing is you like best about Indianapolis?

MD:Well, I feel like–this is a hard question for me to answer because I feel like–and I think back when I started becoming sort of interested in being a novelist, you know–I’m reading Hamsun and Thomas Bernhard and Celine, and you know, having a sort of–

RB:Couldn’t you read Americans?

MD:Well, no.I had no interest in reading Americans.I didn’t know anything about American literature.My idea of being a writer was living in some dismal, 6-story, (walk-up), cold, heated apartment in east Berlin, and that’s what I wanted out of life, and when people ask me what I like about my life now, I feel like my response is so horrific. It sounds so–like I’ve sold out, but I love having a really nice house that I don’t have to pay much money for. My writing habits used to be–I mean, I was up at 4 in the morning, 5 in the morning, doing my work. I can’t get out of bed at 4 in the morning without my 4-year-old following me downstairs and–I love that! And so I feel like I’m this sort of man who’s now sort of like taking more pleasure in having, you know, chocolate eclairs with his son at a bakery than I am with having magnificent dreams of, writing essays about Schopenhauer and that kind of thing. But it is true. I mean, I have a very–I’m strangely happy in a lot of ways, which sounds–I feel very guilty about that.

RB:That’s for other people to deal with.

MD:Yeah, I know.

RB:Let me ask you–so you give it maybe a little more thought–let’s end our conversation for today by you telling me of where you think you might be in ten years.Have you even thought about the future?

MD:Well, mostly I think I hope I’m still alive.Actually, I’m a pretty bad hypochondriac, so–it’s funny but I–

RB:Hypochondria doesn’t kill you.

MD:That’s true!But in terms of planning where are you going to be in 10 years, it’s one of the things you think about. And the–I guess that I hope that I’ve written a bunch more books and still have a career and–

RB:Looking back on your life, did you–are you surprised by all the places you’ve been?

MD:Yeah, I guess.I’m actually surprised that I was in New York for so long because I think I’ve always sort of felt a little transient.Of course, New York has a feel that it’s full of transient people. But–yeah, I guess I am surprised. I used to–because I moved around a lot–I used to be really crippled with sort of feelings of nostalgia for the places that I’ve left, and I do grieve having left New York. I miss it a lot, but I don’t feel the same that I used to feel when I used to leave a place.It’s a big question, and I wonder why that is. Maybe it’s just that I’m with my wife and my son, and it just seems like wherever they are, that’s where my life is. But–

RB:Um–that wasn’t the last question.


RB:The last question is: what is the feeling that you get when you write? When you spend an hour, two hours, three hours writing?

MD:Well, usually, stories for me begin with a feeling of love for a character that I have. And it sounds kind of facile, but–and not maybe what I imagined my writing life would be like when I started out years ago–but I kind of started writing about this guy, Henry, and I wanted to, you know, sort of take care of him and see what happened to him. Again, I hate to talk about my work like this because I want to sound like an astounding, towering intellectual, but usually, after a good session of writing, you know, I feel a sense of love for the people that I’ve been spending my time with in my imagination.

RB:So when you finish a book, what is–what’s the feeling?

MD:Well, you know, there’s such a strange sort of long, sort of clerical process once a book is done that–it’s almost–

RB:Much revision?

MD:You know, I have a really excellent editor–

RB:Jill Bialosky?

MD:Jill Bialosky, right. The reason I say she’s excellent is mostly because I feel like she’s excellent for me because we share a certain kind of literary outlook, so she doesn’t ask for many changes, and when she does, they’re really excellent requests. So I wouldn’t say that that is difficult–editing–but you know, Norton really has a–I mean it’s an old-school exhaustive editorial process so they’re doing a lot of revisions, and they have a proper proofreader that only is a proofreader and is an expert in that, and so there’s just a lot of manuscript work that I’m doing and then, you know–that kind of thing. I think that that helps–

RB:You mean you get drawn into the marketing, publicizing initiatives?


RB:You don’t have time to grieve over the end of the story.

MD:Right, right. And I think that that helps in some ways. I think that maybe I feel a lot–I’d feel worse if I didn’t have this small task to keep me going. It’s like if you’re feeling depressed, doing the laundry kind of helps you feel a little better. But–so–yeah. I guess now–I mean the other thing, and this is something that is just so clear to me with my last novel is, and it’s very strange, but books really lead lives of their own. And there’s a certain point where it’s not yours anymore, and it’s off in the world, being hated or loved by whoever’s picking it up, and you’ve just got to kind of watch it. It’s like sending a kid off to college, I suppose. I don’t know.

RB:I’d expect that, as has been the case many times in my past that we may speak again.

MD:I’m up here all the time. Yeah. So–yeah. Definitely, I’d love to talk again.

RB:Thank you.

MD:Thank you

Currently reading Haven’s Wake by Ladette Randolph (University of Nebraska Press)

The Vast Wasteland

30 Jan

In the half century since JFK appointed FCC Commissioner Newton Minnow pronounced television a cultural “vast wasteland” one could argue that some signs of life have blossomed, Thankfully that’s beside the point today’s modest feuilleton. Suffice it to say that if what used to be called the small screen had spawned no more than HBO’s The Wire that would be sufficient to justify its previous aridity.

Arguably there are (many) other high points in television history (which understandably was hindered by the necessity of collecting large numbers of viewers) but its not a stretch to award HBO with coming up with a different model for programming (keep in mind HBO’s motto, “It’s not television, its HBO.”) Which brings me HBO’s latest offering, Luck

Whatever disclosure is worth, this 9 episode series is being touted as a collaboration between two masters, director Michael Mann( Thief) and writer producer David Milch (Deadwood). Now I don’t doubt Milch’s credentials and talents but I do find his claim of being unaware of Pete Dexter’s wonderful novel Deadwood disingenuous. But, to quote, Kurt Vonnegut, “So it goes.”

In any case, Luck with Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina (a Michael Mann favorite),Joan Allen. Jill Hennessy,Nick Nolte, Michael Gambon (playing even nastier than his role in Open Range) and a wonderful ensemble cast, muck about legendary Santa Anita race track involved in any number of high-jinks and naturally mayhem follows.Though one may look upon the intricacies of the Sport of Kings indifferently even a non-horsey person (like myself) was entranced by the race footage and splendor of these complex animals.

Having watched the whole season’s episodes, Luck does make it through the backstretch to deliver at the finish.

Sadly, NBC cancelled their version of Prime Suspect (first done in England with the incomparable Helen Mirren) with Maria Bello.

For the time being you can still catch the first and last season’s episodes here

In addition to the Closer and Law and Order reruns what does that leave on the television horizon? I have heard good things about Shameless, and Breaking Bad but not enough to move me to watch.Justified apparently is in its 3rd season and in an uncharacteristic move, Elmore Leonard has written Raylon (Wm Morrow) another story about Raylon Givens, hero of the series and protagonist of a previous novel, Riding the Rap.

Currently reading Midnight Alley by Miles Corwin (Oceanview Publishing)

Just Talking: David Shields and I

28 Dec

Reality Hunger by David Shields

Reality Hunger by David Shields

Writer and University of Washington mentor David Shields and I began conversingsometime in the mid Nineties and that dialogue has been renewed a number of times since, most recently this past spring as Shields criss-crossed the country touting his new book Reality Hunger (Random House) Some of the conversation that follows relates to that tome which claims to be a manifesto. Shields has written in” Long Live the Anti-Novel, Built from Scraps”:

… when I began, I was just trying to follow the Kafka dictum, “A book should be an axe to break the frozen sea within us.

You should be forewarned that David and I open with a brief discussion of the Seattle Mariners prospects(Shields has written excellently on the non-pareil Ichiro and also the NBA) and segue into chewing over East coast cultural mythology and then, well, read on.

Robert Birnbaum: How are the Mariners going to do this year?

David Shields: Well, I’m a little bit worried about Cliff Lee but they look like they’ve got it together.

RB: He’s got a hip injury?

DS: Abdomen issues and something else. They’re going to put him on a platelets diet, or something. How do you say it?

RB: Platelets?

DS: Platelets. Whatever, some kind of special diet. Anyway, he’s supposed to be back by mid-April and I mean, who knows how…I like the fact they’re spending money. I like Jack Zduriencik, the GM, and I like the manager. Don Wakamatsu. And they have some good ballplayers. You know, all I’m asking for is a competitive season.

RB: Who’s playing third base?

DS: Third? Let’s see, they moved Beltre, of course, but the Red Sox will find out that he’s nothing.

RB: No, I don’t believe it.

DS: You’ll see. He had a good season with the Dodgers that one year—it was clearly steroids. There’s a pretense that it wasn’t, but it was steroids. He’s a good-field-no-hit kind of guy.

RB: He’s the only Nicaraguan left in baseball, you know.

DS: Is he really? I forget who the Mariners’ third base move is. It’s a good question. We could have the whole interview pimping on that if you like. But I don’t actually know off the top of my head.

RB: So you think that Mariners are competitive? Are they competitive?

DS: Well, I mean they’re at…maybe if they win 90 games. If they could win 90 games…

RB: They’ve got two really good pitchers. If Lee—

DS: If he comes around, he should be fine. There’s 50 games right there. And then you need another 40 from the rest of the staff. I don’t know. We’ll see. We’ll see. I mean there’s a different gold standard. You know, with the Red Sox, say, you’d almost want to be in the World Series or whatever. But for the Mariners, I don’t know. There was that thing in the paper today that the Yankees pay their players better than any team in all of professional sports. You know, I despise baseball with all my heart and soul. It’s not a sport, it’s a bank, as we always say. It’s not a sport. It’s just a banking system. And so, given that, the Mariners do relatively well. You could just say, “Why don’t they spend more money? The owner of the Mariners is the owner of Nintendo so he could spend all the money he wants.”

RB: Yeah. But it is a small market.

DS: Relatively. Kind of a medium sized to small.

RB: How are the fans? Are they relaxed fans or are they crazy fans?

DS: You see, I really resist that. This whole notion, which is a total myth, that somehow East Coast fans are somehow intense and educated and West Coast fans are somehow laid-back and uninformed.

RB: Who said that?

DS: It’s a very commonly held myth. But yet, you go to, say, a Yankees game or a Knicks game, and just like fans anywhere, they walk out of the game when…you know, this idea that only Angels fans leave in the seventh inning with the team down six to two. But it happens at Yankees games, it happens at Knicks games, it happens at Jets games. I’m very interested in these mythologies of geography, whereby there’s a tiny, tiny element of truth to it, and then it gets blown up and then endless reiterations get found of it. And then the contrary—there’s this idea that Madison Square Garden is the Mecca of basketball. The Mecca of basketball? It’s more like the Hades of basketball.

RB: You have to create an alternative media center.

DS: Well, I think it’s called the Web

RB: Yeah, but then, New York-based people will still dominate.

DS: Oh, God, not the Web.

RB: You don’t think so?

DS: I don’t think so.


DS: Well, it depends which sites you look at. But they’re not the sites I look at, that’s for sure.

RB: OK, that’s a digression. I agree with you. But I still think there’s a ghost of a power structure there and it’s geographical, despite the fact that the Internet is not geographical.

DS: Well, it goes back a little but I remember being mad at this question you asked Charlie Baxter once. I forget if you were asking Charlie Baxter or if you saying to someone about Charlie Baxter, actually, you said, “If Charlie Baxter lived on the East Coast, he’d be a much more admired writer.”

RB: Yeah, I said that.

DS: That is the wrong question. That is the wrong question. I mean, Charlie Baxter is wrapped into the Midwest. That’s like saying if Proust had only lived in London, that he’d have written Bleak House. Proust did live in London, he wrote something else.

RB: Well, it’s a confusing question, but here’s the thing: Jim Harrison spent time in New York City, it didn’t change his writing. All I’m saying is, locationally, in the book industry, you get more attention when you go to the parties.

DS: It’s a dead model.

RB: New York-based writers do not have more attention on them?

DS: It’s a dead model for me. I mean part of it is that I’m somewhat defensive on the issue because I’ve spent sort of a quarter of my time on the East Coast and three-quarters of my life on the West Coast, in my 53-year-old life. I mean, just think, it’s just not true anymore. There’s a paragraph in my book, in Reality Hunger, about that.

RB: Is that why you mention that Seattleites have a different kind of ambition?

DS: Yeah. But also I talk about certain kinds of writers on the West Coast—Eggers, Wallace, Bernard Cooper, Douglas Copeland.

RB: Eggers is from Middle West.

DS: Think he’s been living in San Francisco for the last 15 years. There’s no writer who’s gotten more attention in the last ten years than Eggers, and Michael Chabon is in there. There’s just too many exceptions. Of course there’s a handful of writers who live in Brooklyn, but I just feel like it’s a self-perpetuating myth that really has very little basis in reality.

RB: Ok, there are three. On the East Coast there I think there are 3 clumps of writers, three huge clumpings of writers: Vermont, Brooklyn, and North Carolina. Who gets the most attention out of those clumpings? Do you disagree that that’s the way?

DS: Well, for me, I don’t even care about those writers. For instance, it’s sort of like, Oh gee, what did Jonathan Franzen say? I couldn’t care less. The work I’m interested in—and part of Reality Hunger is—I’m trying to find a whole different tradition, a whole different lineage. They’re not working a tradition out of which I’m interested. So I don’t even care. I’m interested in ancient tradition, a lineage going back to St. Augustine then coming up all the way through Kundera. I’m trying to argue for a very different tradition. And those writers have lived everywhere, and nowhere, and they’ve lived all over the world. I don’t really care if in the book industry if you’ve sold 20,000 copies of your novel because you live in New York as opposed to 12,000 because you live in Minneapolis. It’s a completely meaningless distinction. I mean, it’s such a dead zone. It’s the tallest building in Kansas City.

RB: OK. So, are you the only person who says about themselves that they write “autobiographical nonfiction”?

DS: No, plenty of people do.

RB: But do they say they do that—actually make that claim?

DS: It’s something I noticed early on in my writing life, that—my first three books were works of fiction—an interviewer would ask, Tell me how autobiographical the work is? And the answer is always, Oh no, it’s not autobiographical at all. I was just staring in my study and an image came to me of a bird hopping down the highway and I followed that bird to a work of fiction that’s a complete masterpiece. I mean, that’s the answer you’re supposed to give. I saw out of the corner of my eye an image of a car going down U.S. 80 and I had to figure out what that image represented. I mean, every writer, every novelist always says that. And I would always say, Yeah, of course Dead Languages comes from my life.

RB: Does anyone argue that the underpinning of all writing is autobiographical?

DS: People will argue, of course, the emotions come from my life, but the whole thing is completely invented. In one of the passages I like in Reality Hunger, I talk about that Lorrie Moore story, “People Like That Are the Only People Here.” Which is obviously the best thing she’s ever written. You know, she—I know her slightly and I don’t want to quarrel with her greatly—but it’s very important to her and to sort of like-minded fiction writers, to really create this frame around their fiction, in which they say it is a work of fiction. Whereas, I’m just saying I’m working out of a different aesthetic. It’s so much more interesting to say, No, it comes from my life. Of course it does. It’s so much more nervous-making and discomfiting. It’s more psychically interesting. The temperature in the room goes up. To me, I’m terribly interested in trying to reduce as much as possible the mediation between writer and reader. I’m very aware of the fact that we are existentially alone on the planet. I can’t know what you’re thinking and feeling and you can’t know what I’m thinking and feeling. And writing at its very best is a bridge constructed across that abyss of human loneliness. And so I like work in which the writer is trying to show how he solved being alive. Nothing more, nothing less. And part of that attempt is to try to reduce that mediation as much as possible between writer and reader, and to try to make as thin a membrane as possible, always acknowledging it’s going to be a composition and, in a way, a work of fiction. So, for me, I’m terribly interested in the kind of existentially exciting gesture of a writer trying to get to absolute bone. That interests me greatly. I realize it’s a somewhat doomed project. But I’m really bored by fiction writers always having this escape hatch with which to say, Oh, by the way, I’m Harry Houdini, I can escape from the fiction. There’s nothing truly at risk in the work. Whereas the works I really love the most—Amy Fusselman’s The Pharmacist’s Mate, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Simon Gray’s The Smoking Diaries, Spalding Gray’s Morning, Noon, and Night, Bernard Cooper’s Maps to Anywhere—I could list book after book after book. There’s a nakedness—an actual risk-taking adventure—that I find thrilling. Part of the book is arguing against the conventional novel. There are novels I really love, like I love J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, Barry Hannah’s Boomerang, and I love David Markson’s work, which he calls novels. But in general, the novelistic apparatus, I find—hoo, boy—takes you so far from anything interesting.

RB: Name some books. I have to say, can I say that I really admire and like Robert Stone. So tell me some novels and writers whom you cannot stand. Some specific books.

DS: Stone. Stone I really do not admire.

RB: Books. Name some books. None of his work?

DS: I don’t admire Robert Stone’s work at all. I don’t admire Franzen’s The Corrections. I don’t admire Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Book after book that you probably admire is going to be a book that I’m not going to admire. I mean, it’s not necessarily like, Oh, gee, I found Franzen’s book bad. It seems to me that like part of the argument of my book is that writers—

RB: —I don’t think it’s an argument.

DS: But I mean it’s not like I’m really invested in saying Franzen is good and Ford is bad. I want to say something like, that writers have got to obliterate distinctions between fiction and nonfiction—

RB: Why?

DS: Well, wait, let me finish. That they have to overturn the laws regarding appropriations and create new forms for a new century. The novel for me—the conventional novel, the memoir—seems to be describing a reality pre-21st Century. Franzen’s novel, say, Robert Stone’s fiction, Ian McEwan. They’re essentially, to me, 19th Century Victorian novelists who dress up their material. They dismiss the same way for me. Their material is contemporary, but the form in which they pour it—

RB: You mean the nouns, the descriptions that surround—

DS: I was looking at a book, for some reason, I was looking at Sabbath’s Theater last night. Roth’s novel. Friends of mine just love that book. So I said, Okay, I’ll try it. And, man. I like some Roth, I’m reading Operation Shylock, and I like it a lot. But that book is so wedded to formulaic, novelistic moves that I can’t get to the actual material.

RB: You don’t like it because it’s predictable to you? Because you know what’s going to happen?

DS: Well, not necessarily because it’s predictable, but just that so many of the moves are just cast in concrete. We introduce characters and we create scenes and we have dialogues and we have a back-story and we have flashbacks. We have these climaxes and these cathexes, and it just seems what happens in novel after novel after novel. Franzen to me is a good example, I seem to use him as a bete noir everywhere I go because in The Corrections he started out with a great idea, to me. Namely that, as psychological beings, as global society, and as economic engines, we tend to overcorrect. That’s a real insight, I think it’s a great idea. But what happens in that book is he gives only the thinnest lip service to that idea and instead creates, to me, a very conventional, virtually 19th Century family album, family reunion thing, and he doesn’t really explore the ideas it wants to explore. There’s a patina of intellectual and emotional investigation, and really it’s just a big old baggy family novel.

RB: So what’s a story to you? What do you think is a story?

DS: I want story wedded to a matrix of ideas. Like I love Eduardo Galeano’s Book of Embraces.

RB: What about his prior books? Because the prior books were in the same mode.

DS: Galeano’s?

RB: Yeah.

DS: Those were way too polemical to me and way too preachy. I love stories, I just don’t love story. A wonderful line of Robbe-Grillet’s, who says that story has lost its innocence, is that we can no longer tell stories the way that we once did. Post-Freud, post-Heisenberg, post-Sasseur, post-Wittgenstein. I mean, to me, the perceiver by his very presence alters what’s perceived.

RB: That’s Heisenberg? Or Schrodinger? What’s the Schrodinger’s Paradox?

DS: Schrodinger’s Cat is this amazing parable where you put a cat in a box and you can only figure out if the cat is dead if you open the box.

RB: Why is that not the same sort of statement? You change the experiment or you change something by observing it?

DS: They’re related. I’m not enough of a physicist or a philosopher to be able to distinguish. They’re clearly related, Schrodinger’s Paradox and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. But to get back to your essential question, for me, I do go back to this idea that we’re alone on the planet. I want to know what it’s like inside your brain, I want to know what it’s really like to think and feel inside of you. I take writing unbelievably seriously. I think that writing really, really, really, really matters. And the writing I love the most, the writing I try to embody, the writing I teach, the writing I read…it puts as its absolute center the writer struggling to figure out something about existence, whether it’s Proust, whether it’s Moby Dick, whether it’s Tristam Shandy, whether is Coetzee, whether it’s David Markson or it’s Ann Carson, some of Amy Hempl. So much fiction for me, and certainly a huge amount of memoir, is so wedded to a kind of commercial mood in which the writer essentially wants the reader to turn pages. To me it’s a decision between two kinds of boring. There’s good boring and bad boring. The bad boring for me is a writer cranking through the pages trying to make sure that the reader keeps turning pages. It seems to me fundamentally a waste of time. It’s there as entertainment. Whereas there’s a good kind of boring, which for me is the writer’s actually “boring” in. He’s actually investigating it. And you can feel it on the page.

RB: What diminishes the notion that the writer wants the reader to turn the pages? That’s simply the writer wanting to be read.

DS: Sure.

RB: What’s so illegitimate about that?

DS: Cynthia Ozick says, “I don’t find entertainment entertaining.” I find utterly entertaining the books I’ve mentioned. To me they’re not esoteric, or they’re not homework, or hard—they’re thrilling. Because they put at their absolute center the writer and reader’s existential investigation. And I’m trying to say this is incredible, exciting work that I want to make incredible claims for. It goes back centuries. Part of it is I’m trying to rescue nonfiction as art. I’m trying to rescue, from the clutches of journalism, the clutches of scholarship, nonfiction. We always conduct these trials by Google of nonfiction, whereby every work of nonfiction gets vetted as if it’s an article in The New York Times. But there’s a tradition going back millennia in which the writer uses a nonfiction frame to foreground contemplation and uses it to explore something essential, existentially thrilling about existence. For me, a huge number of novels and memoirs are way too wedded to a commercial or capitalist gesture of page-turning entertainment. I’m just saying. I realize it’s a minority opinion, but I want to rescue my fellow travelers and say, “Hey, don’t apologize for this stuff. This is the most exciting thing on the planet. Let’s keep writing and reading this and back-forming a tradition out of it. And it’s the coolest thing around.”

RB: Okay. You like Proust. I like Garcia-Marquez. What is the difference between you and I? Am I a lazy reader?

DS: Hardly.

RB: Or brainwashed by commercial capitalists?

DS: I don’t know if you chose those on purpose because I talk about it in the book, but it’s a good example. Obviously Garcia-Marquez is a wonderful writer and I do love Autumn of the Patriarch a lot. That’s a beautiful book, it’s my favorite book of his, actually. But what is it about them? Obviously, in a way, I’m just saying, Hey, here’s a very subjective take on my part. I realize they’re both wonderful writers, and why do we have to choose? I guess, for me, what it is about Garcia-Marquez is…there was a real moment in my writing and reading life—I was traveling, on the proverbial post-undergraduate backpacking trip through Europe—and I had Proust and Garcia-Marquez with me. All I can say, for me, and I just have to trust my own nerve-endings as a writer, and I’m reading them both in translation, so it’s a bit unfair, but in the case of Garcia-Marquez, the essential motor of the thing is carnival barking to me, to be honest. This thing happened and then that thing happened, and isn’t this amazing? And then this thing flew through the air and this turned into snow.

RB: But in the stories, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, I don’t think he has people saying, This is amazing. I think the interesting thing about it is this stuff is all matter-of-fact. This is the way these people live and perceive. I think if there’s carnival barking or cheer-leading, it’s coming from somewhere else.

DS: The most interesting thing about the book is the way Garcia-Marquez talks about it. He basically just wanted to render the very literal tone that I think his aunt or grandma told stories in. That they would tell the most amazing things—that a rooster flew across the courtyard or whatever—but they would say it in the most natural way, and Garcia-Marquez talks beautifully about that. He talks beautifully as well about the process by which he came to write the book, you know, false start after false start. He was a relatively middling journalist in Mexico City and he found this way into the book and it’s really amazing. But all I can say is that about a hundred or two hundred pages into the book I realized I wasn’t really learning anything. I am really wedded to wisdom, I’m really a wisdom junkie. I really want knowledge, I want someone to understand what we’re doing on the planet. I want someone to overtly and discursively talk about existence. And then I’d read Proust, and he’s actively trying to figure something out. He’s actually wrestling with existence. Whereas the Garcia-Marquez, you could argue, is wrestling with existence by implication. And all I can say is I prefer this other tradition.

RB: Because it’s more aggressive for you, and more immediate for you.

DS: It wrestles with existence more overtly.

RB: Have you read things, have you experienced things, whose impact somehow had a resonant aftertaste that you didn’t get as you were experiencing it? Did you ever hear a piece of music that haunted you a month later? That didn’t happen with Garcia-Marquez, but who’s to say that the things you read don’t accumulate and recombine in some other ways, internally?

DS: I think that’s a fair thing. Sort of different strokes for different folks, and if you’re against abortions don’t have one. If you don’t agree with me, don’t get on my bus, that’s fine. I’m just saying, here’s this tradition I find exciting. I gave a talk about the book at a writer’s conference—I’ve actually given a lot of talks about it, because I’ve been publishing excerpts from the book for years and galleys have been circulating for months, so I’ve been talking about the book for years—

RB: Well, you’ve been talking about these ideas, I think, going back to the nineties?

DS: Yeah, going back to Remote. So I’m obviously interested in these issues. Part of it is I’m baffled by, or fascinated by, the novel form. I’m a bit of a spurned lover who’s sending poison pen letters to my ex-lover. I’m fully aware of that and I cop to that, totally. Both my parents were journalists, I became a fiction writer, I wrote three novels, I was trying to write my fourth book as a novel. The novel form collapsed on me and I took this fascinating, to me, left turn into nonfiction. I’m both baffled by and excited by that move. In a way I’ve spent the last ten or fifteen years trying to explain it to myself, or figure it out.

RB: Why call this a manifesto?

David Shields photograph by Robert Birnbaum

David Shields photograph by Robert Birnbaum

DS: I think it’s an anti-manifesto manifesto. What’s it a manifesto for? I guess it’s a manifesto for a few things. It’s a manifesto for so many different things I don’t know where to start. For me, at the most basic level, it’s a manifesto for the excitement of a certain kind of nonfiction that defines nonfiction “upward” in this precise way. A huge amount of the discussion of nonfiction defines it downward, as I said earlier, sort of vetting it as if it’s an article in the Times, basically conducting this “trial by Google.” In a way it’s sort of interesting to me, because I was teaching—I teach at the University of Washington—and this book began as a course packet. I was hired as a fiction writer, and after awhile I stopped writing fiction. I felt like on some level I wanted to justify to myself, my colleagues, and my students why I was no longer a fiction writer. So I collected thousands of quotations from different people, everyone from Thucydides to Wayne Koestenbaum, talking about why an existentially minded nonfiction is so interesting. I collected these quotes over years and years, and the course pack started to assume a kind of shape. I pushed the quotations into chapters and rubrics and categories, I started to reorganize the passages by myself and by other people. Year by year, it started to assume more and more shape. The essential thing, if it is a manifesto, it’s essentially an argument for the excitement of nonfiction, for me, that defines nonfiction upward. To me, ordinary nonfiction—your basic journalism or scholarship—really takes quite seriously ideas of verifiability, truth, facts, and reality. Whereas if you define nonfiction upward, you use the very parameters and premises of nonfiction as a trampoline of which to bounce into really the most exciting questions. What’s true? What’s knowledge? What’s memory? What’s self? What’s an other? What can we know? To me that’s really the essential thing I’m trying to do. I’m trying to rescue nonfiction as this thrillingly, epistemologically rich art form that goes back milennia. And that excites me a lot.

RB: I think that probably there is a diminution or a degradation of fiction writing. The British call novel writing or fiction writing the “senior service,” or something like that, giving it higher status. I don’t know where that comes from, but I liked Cynthia Ozick’s quote about the essay. The dichotomy should be essay/fiction. That’s it. Everything that’s not fiction is essay.

DS: As opposed to “nonfiction”? I agree with you. There’s a wonderful line in my book by somebody, I can’t remember who, which says, “Calling something ‘nonfiction’ is like having a dresser labeled ‘nonsocks.’” I love that one. It’s sort of like, what does that term mean? It’s such a meaningless term. I guess what I want to do is put a huge amount of pressure on the word “non” and say, Yes, exactly, what does that mean to say that it’s “non” fiction? It’s literally true. Really? What’s truth? You’re a journalist or a scholar so you have unique access to truth? I guess what’s so interesting to me, when a work gets framed as nonfiction, is that all these “truth” claims are real. You’re actually making all these claims for truth. For example, I’m loving Operation Shylock, but I’m getting to the end of the book—it’s basically about this guy who’s impersonating Philip Roth in Israel, and it’s a hilarious and wonderful book—but I really hate the last line of the whole book. The very last line of the book is a note to the reader from Roth in which he says, “This book is a work of fiction.” Because the book is subtitled, “A Confession.” And it’s so exciting you can’t tell if it’s true or not true, there’s a huge amount of references to Philip Roth and Claire Bloom and Roth’s brother, Sandy. It hovers so excitingly between fiction and nonfiction. It’s a bit complicated at the end because at the end Roth says this confession is false. It’s not clear if he’s saying this last paragraph is false, and so therefore it is in fact a work of nonfiction.

RB: Who are some of your “fellow travelers”?

DS: Well, John D’Agata, Philip Lopate, Vivian Gornick…

RB: Essayists?

DS: Yeah. Maggie Nelson, Sarah Manguso, Bernard Cooper, Sally Tisdale, Wayne Koestenbaum, J.M. Coetzee in his essayistic mode, David Markson, whose books are published as novels.

RB: Has he published anything recently?

DS: Markson? Well, he’s written these four books that I just love. One is called This is Not a Novel, then there’s a book called Reader’s Block, one called Vanishing Point.

RB: What about Wittgenstein’s Mistress?

DS: That one I’m not a fan of, believe it or not, because it has this whole corny plot with it. I guess I’m just missing the plot gene, the plot DNA. I’ve said to people, like you, bring the arguments to prove me wrong. And people bring excellent arguments, and it’s true, for them.

RB: Well, I don’t think it’s an argument. Why is it, for instance, I can read your work, and—other than some minor ideological irritants—I can enjoy and be stimulated by it, but also read all the stuff you seem not to like?

DS: I know what you mean, people say that. I guess for me, I’m not very catholic. I remember having an interesting debate with David Gates, the novelist and critic, and I was saying, “David, I don’t see how you can like Beckett as much as you do.” He loves Beckett, but then he also loves Franzen. I don’t get it, because to me, you have to choose. He wrote this positive review of Franzen’s The Corrections, and I was like, really? I don’t have anything against Jonathan Franzen. He seems like a nice guy and he’s a serious writer, the novel’s okay. But, to me, I didn’t get how you could love Beckett as much as Gates does and then praise Franzen. I have sort of my guys and my girls, and I love them to death, and I try to carve out this aesthetic. Part of it is that the tradition in which I work is somewhat under poeticized in the sense that fiction has a poetics. All these people have been talking about what fiction is going back to Aristotle. Poets have a poetics going all the way back to the beginning of time. Nonfiction doesn’t really have that poetics in which we can talk about it in really exalted terms.

RB: What does John D’Agata do in the front of his two anthologies? Does he not have introductions that glorify the essay? Not to mention that every year when The Best American Essays gets published the guest editor has some commentary about the form?

DS: Sure. John is a big influence on me, and I love John’s work. All I’m saying is we need a book-length appreciation of it. I don’t know what to say other than that John is a part of it. But then the damndest things happen. John published his wonderful book called About a Mountain. And then in The New York Times Book Review a novelist named Charles Bock, who wrote the novel about Las Vegas—

RB: Beautiful Children, I think.

DS: Right. He basically liked John’s book a lot, but then at the end, the last third of the review is him criticizing John for having an afterword at the end of the book in which John says, “Oh, by the way, I compressed a few events in the book, I compressed the timeline for narrative clarity.” So Charles Bock spends a third of the review, three or four hundred words, talking about what a terrible sort of failure this is. So, if you do change things and don’t say anything, someone will point it out to you.

RB: Do you actually take seriously the kinds of reviews that take place in newspapers?

DS: I take them seriously as symptoms of anthropology.

RB: Like commercial, capitalistic degradation.

DS: Yeah. It’s a symptom of the way nonfiction is discussed. Of just how unbelievably, to use your word, degraded the discussion is. I’m not saying that I’m first or last or best, I’m just saying the more that D’Agata and Lopate and Gornick and I and everyone else can talk about it, the more that we can raise nonfiction to the level of artistic excitement. And nonfiction writers can stop being judged as journalists or liars or memoirists or scholars, and they can be understood as artists of the absolute first rank. There’s no book I’ve loved more of late than Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. It’s a 120-page book, a brief meditation on the color blue that morphs into this incredible book that becomes a cri de coeur about her inability to get over a love affair that she can’t get over, and then talks a lot about her friend who has become paralyzed by a car accident. The book keeps on getting larger and larger and larger through a series of about 600 very short paragraphs. It’s short, pointillistic paragraphs, like mine, and the book ends up becoming about sort of like the melancholy of the human animal. How do we live with loss, how do we deal with ultimate loss. It’s an extraordinary book and it’s deeply, deeply serious. A deeply adult book in a way that I find very few novels are. Maggie Nelson’s investment in that book is to wrestle at the most serious level with existence. I love Nietzsche, I love Rousseau, I love Pascal. That’s my tradition and I want to make sure everyone knows about it.

RB: What strikes me about the way you talk about the things that you like to read is you feel like—and you can correct me—you feel like you’ve gotten to the person. You feel like you know as much as one can know another person. You feel like that person has exposed themselves to you.

DS: Exactly. I think that’s a very good articulation of it. As you were talking I sort of knew you were going to say that, I could hear that. It’s this amazing intimacy, I feel it in the best work. To me, it feels as good or better than sex, the kind of intimacy you get between a writer and reader. When a writer is being really, really serious, you are assuaging that human loneliness to an extraordinary degree. The writers I love, they foreground that to the nth degree. And I feel like those are the works I want to go to the mat for. And some of those happen to be novels. Or at least have been published as novels. Markson, Proust, some Kundera.

RB: It’s funny because I was thinking about Reality Hunger, and I don’t know what I would think about this book if I didn’t know you. Certainly I know many of the premises and where you’re going with it, and I’m certainly sympathetic with it. Although part of me wants to say, “What’s the big deal?” I think this is kind of obvious. It’s almost like you’re making an apology for something because you feel its due by commercial establishments.

DS: All your points are interesting. What’s the big deal? I mean, there are people who’ve read it and said, “This is the most radical thing I’ve ever read,” but there are also other people who’ve said, “Yawn, this all so obvious. “So, I don’t know what to say about that other than the fact that some people still need persuading. Some people are terribly upset about the book. If you find the argument rather comfortable, if you’re like, okay, this is interesting, but why does David need to go off on such a tear about it? Then maybe you’re already pretty hip to the argument.

RB: The book is still interesting because of the snippets you’ve brought in there. Did the legal department really force you to notate?

DS: You know, I argue in the book that all great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one. To me, the best works create in the reader a sense of vertiginous existential doubt. And I wanted to mirror that exactly, emblematize it, and vivify it by having the reader not be sure if this Sonny Rollins or Schopenhauer or Shields or Robert Birnbaum. Or is it some weird mix of all those, or none of us. How much have I remixed? Who’s the speaker? What’s invented?

RB: But then after some notes you say, I can’t actually remember. So what’s the good of the notes if it doesn’t give you any legal addendum?

DS: Sure it does. Basically, those notes are genuine. I tried as hard as I could to find every citation I could, and in a few cases I simply ran up against the brick wall of human knowledge. I couldn’t get to everything. One of the big arguments of the book is the imperfection of human knowledge, the incompleteness of it, and the way the best works of nonfiction explore and embody that. And so, of course, I wanted to embody that in my book itself. On the one hand, I do take care of my legal requirements, there are citations, albeit in very small type, some of them are incomplete, and I preface it with a disclaimer in which I say, “Please, for the love of God, don’t read these citations”. Anyway, I had a months-long debate with the publisher in which I said I thought it would be much more exciting to have no citations and have the reader and have the reader slowly realize how much of this is quoted, and then sort of do a lot of research by Google. But I’ve come to live with the citations—I think they’re an interesting part of the book. I’m fine with them.

RB: How was this book edited?

DS: By the editor? She barely touched it. It wasn’t edited. Why do you ask?

RB: I’m just trying to understand how it was put together.

DS: Well, I’ve already started to edit it. I would hesitate to show you my copy of the book, which is edited, and that will be the paperback edition where I’ve already changed the order of the epigraph and I’m moving stuff around, slightly. But to me the order is very carefully wrought. You know, there have been a lot of reviews of the book and some of them interest me more than others. But the ones that are most disappointing are the ones that say it’s just a random collection of 618 paragraphs. It’s like, please. They’ve been very carefully ordered to make a very specific argument in both each chapter and in the book as a whole.

RB: Why didn’t you use pictures?

David Shields Photograph by Robert Birnbaum

David Shields Photograph by Robert Birnbaum

DS: Why didn’t I use pictures? Well, I didn’t want it to become a gimmick. I used pictures in Remote, and that book is obsessed with images, celebrities, beauty, the difference between reality and mediation, whereas this book is very much about text. People ask me why I didn’t use pictures in Black Planet, because obviously images of black men’s bodies are crucial to the way the NBA gets marketed. But I didn’t want to become “the picture man.” Like, [WG]Sebald does his books using pictures, or most books have pictures. To me, it was very much a solution to one book, the pictures in Remote. And, I don’t know if you’re kidding, but I thought of pictures in Black Planet but certainly not in this book. I mean, what are we going to do, have pictures of Wittgenstein at table in Vienna or something?

RB: Well, actually, I was really thinking more of sort of a web annex that included musical and maybe video clippings. Because you talk about Sonny Rollins, you quote Bob Dylan, there are some rappers that you quote. Which reminds me—there’s one writer that I’m astonished that you never mentioned, I think he has some parallels with you in the way he does his work. Lawrence Weschler.

DS: I really like Lawrence Weschler. Do I never quote him? I like his work and have been influenced by it, especially his book about the museum of Jurassic technology. Also, I love his book on Robert Irwin. Do you know that book?

RB: Yeah.

DS: It’s a wonderful book. To me, there’s no pretense of being complete. I’m not like, Oh, gee, I better get Weschler. He’s awfully good, I agree. He’s totally relevant to my project and I asked my publisher to mail him a copy of the book because I hope he would find it of interest. He’s barking up so many similar trees as I am, absolutely.

RB: I thought his book Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences was pretty interesting, too. It’s a most explicit statement about the way he sees the world.

DS: Tell me about Convergences. I’ve heard of that but I haven’t read it.

RB: It’s this book in which he shows a picture of one painting, some Dutch master painting, that later is reflected in the execution of Che Guevara, a picture of Che when he’s, you know—

DS: Wow, sounds amazing.

RB: Yeah.

DS: And is each chapter an analysis of one such convergence?

RB: No, it’s not that organized. That would be very linear.

DS: That sounds very interesting, I should read it.

RB: Actually, to him I owe my discovery of Eduardo Galeano. But you should look at his books, his books are on all different subjects.

DS: I mean, I’m familiar with Weschler, and I like the ones I’ve read. I just haven’t read all of them.

RB: He wrote an immense book on the amnesties in Brazil and Argentina after the military regimes were gotten rid of it’s called A Miracle, a Universe. He sliced a bit of it out for The New Yorker, in which he went to Uruguay and met Galeano, who had come back from Spain. I always loved that he quoted Galeano, he said, Why do you live in Argentina? You’re both Argentinian and… Galeano said if I lived in Argentina and got killed, people wouldn’t know if it was a friend or an enemy. In Uruguay, it would clearly be an enemy. It’s a wonderful statement on the duplicity of Argentinians.

DS: Why would it be an enemy?

RB: Well, because he’s a leftist and Argentina is not necessarily hospitable to leftists.

DS: Why would it not be clear in—

RB: —in Argentina?

DS: Yeah.

RB: Because people are duplicitous in Argentina whereas in Uruguay they’re not duplicitous. They wouldn’t pretend to be your friend.

DS: I’m sure there’s duplicity in all countries, but maybe not the degree to which it’s a shadowland. He comes through in The Book of Embraces. I think it’s a great book.

RB: So, anyway, now you’re forward to the paperback, which will be re-jiggered.

DS: Very small, I’ll be making some very tiny changes, tiny edits, small citations I got ever so slightly wrong. But no, I’m going to be flipping everything around. Real small changes.

RB: So, how much past a particular project do you look? Are you intensely focused on the thing that you have in front of you, or do you sort of work up something and then sit somewhere and think, oh, maybe after this I’ll do that?

DS: Well, first of all, I’m talking about Reality Hunger, and I’m also editing a Norton anthology on mortality where twenty contemporary writers confront death. I’m co-editing that with Brad Morrow, he and I have done the introduction and we’re editing the twenty essays.

RB: Are you still editing Conjunctions, or involved with it?

DS: I’m a senior editor there, yeah. So, I feel like I’m marshaling these three books toward print.

RB: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that’s a trend that has seemed to have ramped up a little bit—the idea of a writer finding a subject that they’re interested in—death, marriage, their first sex, their favorite book and rounding up a group of writers to expound on it.

DS: To worry that, yeah. To me, if a magazine has a theme issue, I’ll definitely read it. But if the magazine just has a bunch of things, I’m not as drawn to it. I think perhaps it’s influenced by This American Life. At its best—which it isn’t always, of course—that show will take a theme and they’ll run variations on that theme. And at its worst, it’s simply, okay, here’s a bunch of things about money. But at its best, each segment sort of hands the baton to each new segment, and the result is you get a really powerful meditation on that subject. By minute 60, you’re in a deeper place than you were on minute two. I think it’s perhaps the influence of both the Harper’s reading section from the early nineties, when it was really great, and This American Life. Also just the web-based, digital nature of contemporary culture. You can pull this stuff together pretty quickly, you know. We begin to see so much of our function is to edit. I forget if I say it in the book or not, but I think of myself less as a writer and more of a film editor. My art, if there is any art to my art, is something like being able to juxtapose in an interesting way all kinds of stuff.

RB: I think of myself as a curator.

DS: In what sense, exactly?

RB: In the sense that when I’m thinking of putting something under one umbrella, one color, it’s because I’m not interested in writing a biography of something. But I am interested in having people talk about a subject when I don’t know what they’re going to say.

DS: Well, that’s very close to my aesthetic. I’m terribly interested in gathering the threads in a really, I hope, rich way. I’m not hugely interested in spelling it all out. So what is it in us, Robert, that’s drawn toward that presentation function? What is that aesthetic, do you think?

RB: For me, I just think that lots of people are much more articulate at talking about things, describing things, and formulating things than I am. I do think I have a slight talent in sensing those things and observing those things, and I have a decent memory so I can remember how some of them can be connected. But I don’t think I’m terribly creative in that way. Otherwise, I’d be writing fiction.

DS: Well, I don’t know if I’ll accept that! There’s that wonderful line of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s where he says it is as difficult to appropriate the thoughts of others as it is to invent. Genius borrows nobly. There is no pure originality. I really agree with that.

RB: I sort of like to think that my conversations with people are as interesting as the standard magazine Q & A’s.

DS: Far more so. I often have fun reading your pieces. At their best, they’re sort of these insane jazz riffs that create a kind of marvelous momentum. And at their worst they’re a trainwreck, you know.

RB: [Laughs] That’s me. Okay, so I think we’ve done good.

DS: No Ichiro? No Milch?

RB: I was going to ask you about Milch. I wanted to ask you about what he did with Deadwood.

DS: What? Is it no good? I’ve never watched it.

RB: It was great, but he claims he never read Pete Dexter’s book, Deadwood.

DS: Is it pretty much the same material? Why didn’t they just option it? That’s bizarre.

RB: It’s the same sensibility, for sure. Do you know Pete Dexter? He lives in your area. He’s really a wonderful guy.

DS: I like his work. That collection of newspaper columns I loved. I was actually on a national panel for nonfiction and I argued for that book to be a finalist.

RB: I think you would like his new book, Spooner.

DS: Is Spooner a memoir, kind of?

RB: It seems to be based on his life.

DS: Is it a novel? I thought it was presented as memoir.

RB: He called it a novel, yeah.

DS: I see.

RB: It’s just one of the funniest things I’ve ever read, and not in a silly way.

DS: It takes place outside of Philly?

RB: No, it’s set all over his life.

RB: Okay, one more question about Ichiro. Is it the case that last year he perked up because Junior came to the team?

DS: That’s the myth, and who knows how true it is. There’s something a little corny about it that I somewhat distrust. There’s a certain element of truth to it in that Junior could do stuff like—and I’m calling him Junior as if I know—but Ichiro hates to be touched, and Griffey would come and tickle him in the stomach for five minutes. You know, Ichiro truly does admire and love Griffey. There’s something a little bit recusant about Ichiro. He’s sort of Bartleby-like. You know, he’d prefer not to. There is something that is selfish about Ichiro.

RB: Isn’t he the best player in baseball?

DS: Well, now we’re back to east and west again, you know. He’s an amazing baseball player. I’m sure you know my Ichiro book[Baseball Is Just Baseball : The Understated Ichiro] and I did a Times magazine profile on him. The most fascinating thing ever said to me about him was something Mike Cameron said. He said the second baseman would be standing six feet from second base, and in order to bird-dog back the runner on second base, the second baseman would take one step closer to second base, so now he’s five feet from second base. Ichiro would hit the ball exactly where the guy had just vacated. And he would say, how do you do that off of a 95-mile-an-hour fastball? That’s just uncanny. It’s one of my favorite passages in Reality Hunger, I have an Ichiro passage, and Ichiro is really, really, really there, he’s present. Like that amazing thing that Ichiro did when he caught a ball to win the 114th game in 2001. The sportswriter said, “How did you know you would catch it?” and he said, “I knew it when I caught it.” He’s so great at that. He is Reality Hunger in a lot of ways. What do I know, but friends of mine who are sportswriters in Seattle told me that it really did happen that Griffey just demanded that Ichiro be a silly part of the team. That he did not allow him to be so serious. And that’s a gift, a great gift. Griffey’s amazing that way.

RB: Yeah.

DS: Well, thanks Robert, it’s always great fun to talk to you.

RB: Yes, sir.