Tag Archives: Rachel Cohen

Rachel Cohen Meets with Robert Birnbaum

21 Jan

 

 

A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen

A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen

 

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

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

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

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

 

All photos copyright © 2016 Robert Birnbaum

* * *

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

Rachel Cohen: Oh, thank you.

RB: I felt liberated by it.

RC: As you should.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Cover of Omnivore, published by Ren Weschler

Cover of Omnivore, published by Ren Weschler

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

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

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

RC: Feedback. Absolutely.

RB: Anybody give you good advice?

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

RB: Hence the title of the magazine.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

RC: [laughs]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RC: Right, right.

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

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

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

RC: A professional kind of quality—

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

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

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

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

RB: Before the writerly affectations set in?

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

RB: Had you considered not going on tour?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: What do you read?

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

RB: Will you be in Ohio?

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

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

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

RB: That number represents numerous crisscrossings.

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

RB: How long did it take you?

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

RB: That’s a tough state.

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

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

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

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

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

RB: The former interpretation suggests something natural.

RC: Yes. [laughs]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Rachel Cohen [photo Robert Birnbaum]

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

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

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

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

RB: Steinbeck took a dog with him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RC: Charlie Chaplin drops off Hart Crane.

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

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

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

RC: That’s nice, yeah.

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

RC: ‘Imaginative.’

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

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

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

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

RB: I thought it was his bombasticity.

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Were there pieces that you left out?

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

RB: How about people?

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

RB: Are there a lot?

RC: There are. I read three.

RB: That’s a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Why is it amusing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: I didn’t say that.

RC: It seems to be turning out all right.

RB: Has it been a concern of yours?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Rachel Cohen [photo Robert Birnbaum]

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

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

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

RB: Who was your editor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Americans are by and large ahistorical.

RC: In some ways—

RB: Except for holidays.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

1 One of my conversations with  Ren Weschler

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

3 My conversation with Richard Reeves

4. The Very Bad Review’ by Rachel Cohen

5  My most recent chat with Rachel Cohen.

Me and George. Talking.

5 Nov

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

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

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

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

RB: Say something (testing sound level).

GS: Four score and seven…

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

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

RB: You have toenail fungus?

GS: I’m afraid so.

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

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

Fakes edited by David Shields and Matthew Volmer

Fakes edited by David Shields and Matthew Volmer

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

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

RB: How much material did John start with?

GS: About 40,000 words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Republic by George Scialabba

For the Republic by George
Scialabba

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

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

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

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

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

GS: More than one.

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

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

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

GS: That was my first reaction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]


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

GS: Laing is an object lesson…

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

GS: I wish I could explain it to you.

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

What Are Intellectuals Good For? by  George Sciallabba

What Are Intellectuals Good For? by George Sciallabba

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

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

GS: Yeah, not in my youth, either.

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

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

RB: What was the response when it was published?

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

RB: Has it been published now?

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

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

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

RB: Not the Enlightenment?

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Franciscans are monks? Do they wear robes?

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

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

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

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

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

RB: You’re an African-American lesbian?

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

RB: What deprived and marginalized category did you represent?

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

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

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

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

GS: Maybe nine or ten.

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

GS: Five or six years

RB: Why did it end?

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

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

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

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

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

[ Irrelevant exchange about Le Carre & Fatwa]

GS: (is looking for a pen)

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

GS: (chuckles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Did you have friends in New York?

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

RB: Hadn’t you quit Opus Dei?

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

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

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

[Brief discussion about full bladders and sleep apnea.]

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

GS: I blame capitalism.

RB: Why is there resistance to universal health care?

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

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

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

RB: Reagan Democrats.

GS: Exactly.

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

GS: That’s the revolutionary question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Meaning?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Baffler Issue #26 Cover art- Ruth Marten

The Baffler Issue #26
Cover art- Ruth Marten

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

GS: (laughs)

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

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

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

GS: We all have a moral imagination.

RB: You think?

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

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

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

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

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]


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

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

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

RB: Why?

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

RB: Well, what was your criterion of success?

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

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

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

RB: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Some do.

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

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

The Modern Predicament by George Scialabba

The Modern Predicament by George Scialabba

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

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

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

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

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

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

GS: It depends on when the next deadline is.

RB: Deadline for who or what?

GS: I hope to write more for The Baffler.

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

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

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

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

RB: Would you like to accomplish more?

GS: I’d like to do less,really.

RB: (laughs)

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

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

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

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GS: Yes.

RB: Anything else?

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

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

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

RB: Doesn’t he teach?

GS: He taught English at Yale.

RB: Doesn’t that give him some qualification?

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

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

GS: It’s in that vein.

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

GS: Yes. A subject for another interview.

RB: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

GS: Especially Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

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

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

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

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

RB: I see.

GS: A useful remnant.

RB: A useful myth.

GS: Yes, as we enter our Dark Years.

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

Footnotes

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

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

12 Postscript

Me and Nick Dawidoff talk Football and More

5 Sep

Though I am conflicted about football despite watching various levels of play (high school, college, NFL) for many years and despite my disinterest in reading books about sports, I was drawn to Nicholas Dawidoff’s
Collision, Low Crossers because I know him (having chatted with him previously) to bring an insight laden intelligence to bear on whatever interests him. It turns out this book is also unique in that he spent almost a year,essentially embedded, with the New York Jets.Reading this book and the conversation below went some distance to removing the scales from my eyes and I am able to watch my son’s Newton North Tiger’s with a fresh vision and generally having acquired a modicum of respect for players and coaches.

Collision, Low Crossers by Nick  Dawidoff

Collision, Low Crossers by Nick Dawidoff

RB: Remember I have the last word—so don’t mess with me.

ND: Even if you didn’t I would give it to you.

RB: Rachel Cohen calls you Nicky

ND: That’s what everybody calls me except for football coaches. They call me Nick.

RB: And they called you ‘Worm’.

ND: That too.

RB: That’s not so bad. I had a high school friend called Worm. He didn’t suffer from it.

ND: Well, from Miami to New York to West Newton Massachusetts, it’s all in how its intended.

RB: Waxing philosophical now, are we? Is there a subject that you wouldn’t write about?

ND:(pauses) So many, probably. I should only write about things that I am really enthusiastic about.

RB: You wrote a book on country music. You wrote a memoir about your grandfather. You edited the Library of America anthology on baseball. And as far as I know you have now done this book on football.

Baseball edited by Nicholas Dawidoff

Baseball edited by Nicholas Dawidoff

ND: In between I wrote a non-fiction, coming of age book of my childhood.

The Crowd Sounds Happy by Nicholas Dawidoff

The Crowd Sounds Happy by Nicholas Dawidoff

RB: About you.

ND: It was mainly about other people.

The FlySwatter by Nicholas Dawidoff

The FlySwatter by Nicholas Dawidoff

RB: So, is there a subject that you can’t imagine writing about?

ND: So many. It seems to me that these are—they are not all the same book, they all basically come from the same terrain, which is outsider somewhere in the United States who, by virtue of some form of ingenuity and persistence, overcomes different forms of adversity to penetrate the culture and then engage with the culture.

RB: How is that manifest in this book? I didn’t get that?

ND: Football players and coaches? These are not—most of them are not necessarily already in any form of privileged position in American culture. The huddle really is America. There is a little bit of everybody and they all come together.

RB: So with the new ‘no huddle‘ offenses—

ND: (laughs) I don’t know. It could be off shore.

RB: I was bemoaning the fact that my son’s football team doesn’t have huddles either. The coaches call plays from the sidelines. I’m thinking that takes away something from the game. I have come to, intellectually, dislike football. While I seem now to be hard wired to pay attention to it. But I don’t like myself for watching it. To me it’s evolved into a vicious game and a rotten business.

ND: Certainly football has had its share of really bad press lately. Everywhere from New Orleans with the bounties to Miami with bullying to concussions and the deplorable way the NFL handled concussions for many years. To even here in New England, where you have a player on trial for murder.Football evolves so slowly in many cultural ways but it evolves so quickly in many other ways. More than any other sport. It evolves quickly in terms of its relationship to technology.

RB: Are there statistics that cover frequency and degree of injury pre-1960 and the present? Was it a noticeably less injurious game?

ND: I don’t know. There are so many different theories. All I can say is that people are much more aware of injury and even pain. When I was spending time with the Jets I saw the distinction between how some of the players had been taught to respond to their own physical ailments when in college and now in the pros. There really is a change going on. Greg McEllroy, who was a quarterback at the University of Alabama was a rookie, he is now with the Bengals. But he was a rookie with the Jets, my year there. When he was at Alabama you were considered soft if you went to the training room. The best thing about being with the Jets for him, in that respect, was that everybody was encouraged and it was considered irresponsible if you didn’t go to the training room because they understood that a healthy player was an optimal player.

RB: Was that attitude player enforced at Alabama?

ND: He wasn’t blaming anyone in particular and I certainly wouldn’t say it was unique to Alabama. When people talked about concussions, they talk about it exactly the way you do. They talk about football with a kind of queasy ambivalence— that’s pushing towards something in which they feel their guilt about watching it. “How can you watch something that you wouldn’t let your own children play?” That kind of thinking is slowly overtaking the joy in watching it. But within the [Jets] facility nobody ever talked about it unless I asked them. And even when I asked them some of them didn’t want to talk about it. Many football players are very young so they think they are going to live forever. But even more they really want to do this. They love playing the game. It’s extremely hard to gain a foothold in the NFL and then remain there. NFL—Not For Long— that’s what they say. I also think that it would be very difficult to play something that fast, that violent and that dangerous if you are thinking about getting hurt all the time.

RB: What do they say; the injury rate is 100%?

ND: That’s what Rex Ryan always says.

RB: Everybody gets hurt.

ND:Everybody gets hurt at some point or another. It’s about levels of injury and degrees.

Unknown-5

RB: Are you a football fan?

ND: No. With this book— my two previous books had been very internal books. They have been biographical memoirs. And [so] I wanted to write about a subject that was a big American subject that was of concern to a lot of people. I was feeling sort of adversarial in my choice of subjects. Often when I choose a subject I would write a magazine piece first to see if it would be sustaining as a book. Both for me but more importantly for a reader. And I wrote about climate change deniers. I wrote about a presidents [Jimmy Carter]—since I don’t usually write about big public prominent people, that was different for me. I was really curious after President Obama was elected what the reaction to our first African-American president would be in communities where very few people voted for him. I spent a better part of a year in this northern part of Alabama in a county where almost no one voted for him.

RB: So there were no black people there?

ND: Very few. Those who were—the people who were there were very conservative to begin with. Yet their local representative was black.The sport that I was always interested in and felt the most affinity for was baseball. At the Jets facility I was known among some people as the baseball guy. A million things you’re known as —always other than your name. But I was really interested in things about football. I had written about intelligence officers before in my first book (about Moe Berg) I was really interested in the idea of people working very, very hard to the exclusion of everything else. About a big public subject and football people—the games are the exceptions. They are 16 holidays. But most of the life is spent off limits, behind walls in this window-less place where they are plotting and scheming for as many as 16 hours a day. Often it is 7 days a week on how to win football games. I really loved the idea there was this secret world which not only was it planning what every body was going to see but what every body was going to see effectively still remained secret—since when you watch a football game on television you have no idea, really, what’s going on. And it’s all based on these plays —they look like bistro menus or something that these guys are holding up [on the sidelines]. We don’t know what they mean or what they say. So where in baseball eventually everything becomes clear—the camera will even show you what pitch is called and the broadcaster will sometimes tell you. Football— I just liked how mysterious it was. So that was one thing. In a funny way I thought I would be able to bring people closer to something that they loved. Which seemed like a rewarding thing to do. But then also I always wanted to write a book about an office— a group of people working together in a very committed way on some collective endeavor, which was every thing to them to the exclusion of everything else. I would have loved to have written about the Manhattan Project in its time.

RB: What a group [that was].

ND: Exactly. And so this had always just been in mind and I thought of it as the book that I would write about a group of regulars. In effect, the Jets coaches became my regulars. It could have been any group of coaches.

RB: Really. It wouldn’t have been the same book if you had done this with the Giants

ND: It wouldn’t have been the same because the personalities would have been different. But

RB: The difference between an 8-8 team that failed to make the playoffs and a 9-7 team that won the Super Bowl.

ND: Right. It really was true that going in I ,of course, I hoped things would go well for the Jets. You can’t spend all that time with people who you come to really like and admire without wanting the best for them. But it didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to see a representative NFL season. And Bob Sutton, who you meet him the book who is the linebackers coach, and is now the defensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs, told me at one point that he thought of the NFL as a corporation with 32 branch offices. And so itinerant is the NFL life that people who were with the Jets then, are now scattered all over the league. And it’s just the luck of the right combination.

RB: There is a large amount of recycling of head coaches who are bum rushed out of one town and find glory in another town. These guys don’t lose their jobs because they are terrible coaches.

ND: If you are a terrible coach you probably are going to lose your job—

RB: —and you’ll get another one.

ND: Probably but not for certain. If you are a good NFL coach you will keep finding a job. Maybe a more powerful position or lose a little power like Tony Spirano who was a head coach with the Jets who was then the offensive coordinator. Now I think he is the line coach with the Raiders. You move up and down depending on the fortunes of your team. But it is —there is a little bit of serendipity involved. Just the right combination of people at the right time. And it really does start—clearly the Jets would have been a very successful playoff team, if they had even a workmanlike successful quarterback. The fact that they had a severely regressing quarterback—quarterback is one privileged position in the game where—

RB: You were kinder to Mark Sanchez in the book then you are being right now.

ND: I don’t feel I am being unkind to him. He would say the same thing.

RB: He would say he was regressing?

ND: That he had regressed that year? Absolutely. He is a pretty honest, straight-up guy. I really liked Sanchez— even though he teased me sometimes in merciless ways, I was sitting there watching them lose. It is all about inflection. Keep in mind that football players are really young. Some of them are not much past high school. You accept different levels of maturity —

RB: And it must be the case that some players are not intelligent.

ND: People always said that to me but I never felt that way. I always felt the way George Plimpton felt about when he was writing Paper Lion. He was constantly defending football players to his friends.

RB: I am not saying they are stupider than the norm. Unscientifically, I want to say that average intelligence is not intelligent.

ND: All I can say about football is that—it requires, more study, more book learning, more preparation, then any other sport that I can think of. It requires more time in formal classrooms, more time in absorbing information and understanding how to process it and use it with such a mastery of that information, that you don’t even have to think about it. Those are classroom techniques and if you can’t do that you better be a really, really good intuitive athlete, otherwise you are not going to last in the NFL.

RB: You noted a linebacker who couldn’t remember plays.

ND: And they reduced his role. If you just spoke with him you would think he was one the most well-spoken, interesting people in the community. There is a distinction with what we think of as academic intelligence and football intelligence. I really think, for example. that Rex Ryan is an unusually intelligent person. His qualities of human intuition, his understanding of how to motivate people and also his ability to explore the emotional life and what distinguishes people is extremely sensitive. And impressive to me.

RB: You refer a number of times to your being ‘embedded’. Was that your intention from the start?

ND: My intention was simply to spend as much time as a possible with a group of people so that I could understand what they were doing.

RB: You were prepared to but did you think you would end up spending as much time as you did?

RB: When I began I didn’t know. I doubted it; I thought that for sure I would stay through training camp. But nobody has ever been allowed to spend an entire year with a team. And I don’t think it would have happened had Rex Ryan not been head coach. I can’t say for sure ,I don’t people with the other teams—other people with the Jets are very proud of the work that they do and they feel very comfortable with themselves.

RB: You are hinting that he may be unique for the NFL coaching fraternity.

ND: He is a very unusual person whose strengths and flaws were there in very full relief. As a coach he is certainly unusual. Most coaches have a scheme and within the scheme the 11 starters play 11 roles. And with Rex its an extremely elastic scheme and find roles for everybody within it. And he is constantly revising it. He is so flexible and receptive to new information about people that he then uses with football application. That to me was very appealing. See, you know that I was always very interested in baseball and you also know that baseball writing has been far superior to football writing—not even close right? There are a lot of good reasons for that. People like Walt Whitman to Ring Lardner to Thurber to Malamud to Updike to Roger Angell—all these wonderful American writers—

RB: I’m happy you didn’t include George Will in that group.

New Library of America anthology of Football  writing

New Library of America anthology of Football
writing

Ed note:A Library of America anthology on football, Football: Great Writing About the National Sport has been published

ND: (laughs) All these great American writers who have written so well about the game and there are lots of good reasons for it. The primary is that baseball is accessible. It’s accessible because everybody has played it. Because you can see the faces. The game moves at a reflective pace, which lends itself well to being written about. Also, the game has always been receptive to journalist and reporters who can come and talk to the people for as long as they want. Whereas football has always been closed off. The form and function of the sport —it happens so fast. It’s hard to see. The players wear masks. They are obscured by armor. The rules are abstruse. Most of the life takes place off camera backstage. I wanted some way to slow football down so that you could write abut. That is what Plimpton did. He suited up and became a last string quarterback. It was a stunt but a necessary stunt because it was the only way you could get to know the people but also to get to know the mechanics of the sport with sufficient precision. For me what I came to see is the way a football season is planned, a game is planned. That felt literary to me. It was slow and gradual and resolute and fraught with mistakes and corrections and revision. That felt, to me, artistic. That was the artful part of football. For that reason, if you go and look at the acknowledgments and the source notes to my book, only one football book was a great influence to me. And that’s Paper Lion. Other than that—

RB Fredric Exeley’s A Fan’s Notes?

ND: Especially the first half, it is a wonderful book. But the books that were most affecting to me as I thought about this, were not those books.

Nicholas Dawidoff circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Nicholas Dawidoff circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: Do you know Dave Meggessey’s book Out of Our League?

Out of Their League by Dave Meggesey

Out of Their League by Dave Meggesey

ND: It’s a good book.

RB: Don Dellilo wrote a football novel.

ND: End Zone. A few people would say that Don Dellilo is the highest tier .

RB: I read this book because of you —you did open my eyes to the less obvious aspects of football. I loved that the Jet’s coaches let you call a play. Also, that Ryan called a play where all the linebackers were supposed to rush and they dropped back instead and the play worked. And Ryan didn’t want anyone to know that it was a mistake.

ND: [Ryan] “Don’t tell! Don’t tell!”

RB: Then Marv Lewis [of the Bengals] sees his guys running the same play, ”You dumb asses!” He knew it was a mistake. (laughs)

ND: There is a whole world—if you sit as I did, for an entire year with a group of seven defensive coaches in effect watch the season through the prism of their experience of it. They are watching a completely different sport. Just as the angles on film, the way that you watch film is different from what’s televised. Everything that is happening is completely different —or not completely different —its two parallel games.

RB: It does give one pause to wonder about the intelligence of the football fan.
I think of the obese, widow maker wearing, beer swilling, chip devouring, couch tuber—yelling at the TV when his team is not performing well.

ND: Not Fred Exeley?

RB: Right. Every sport has fans that couldn’t perform one athletic feat but are able to denigrate the players when they aren’t doing well.

ND: Isn’t it the same with politics—you’re up, you’re down. Same thing.

RB: You think that people approach politics in the same way they view athletic contests?

ND: People feel perfectly comfortable assuming a level of expertise that would risible and yet they do and that’s also acknowledged within and without as part of the pleasure of it. It ‘s fun to talk about politics, wherever you are, and its fun to talk about football. And you would talk about these things and, maybe write about them in ways that you wouldn’t talk or write about other activities.

RB: I’ve seen the observation that many people would rather read about baseball then watch a game.

ND: It’s a testament to good writing.

RB: And the andante tempo of the game.

ND: Most of the best baseball writing probably isn’t an account of a game except for the exception of Don De Lillo. But even that is so inflected with his imagination. I am talking about “Pafko at the Wall”, which became part of Underworld. Your conception of football fans —I know you don’t really mean because football is the single most popular thing in the country. So every body is watching.

RB: Can you explain why? Especially as you point out most people don’t really know or understand the game.

ND: When we say they don’t know what they are watching, they don’t know the coded essence of the game, the underpinnings of the game. But what people see is incredibly dramatic. It’s graceful. It’s violent. It’s exciting. You can understand it. Also, a lot of the appeal of football, of course, has to do with television. Television has amplified, broadened, brightened and also slowed down football in such a way that you can —coaches after games who were just watching it live standing in the sidelines often will tell the press. I can’t answer your question until I look at the film. And the only reason we can answer questions, sometimes, is because of replay. There are other more, deeper reasons why people respond to football. The Jet psychologist would say that people respond to football because there is somewhere in everyone the urge to ‘drill’ another person. I would say that so much about football is actually counterintuitive. Football is the game of touchdowns and America is the country of films with happy endings, feel good films. I really think of football as the sport of disappointment and failure and what you do with it. Even though fans watch hoping to win, people stick with a franchise like the Jets which hasn’t won everything since 1969 —it has to do with, not misguided loyalty, but acknowledgment that there is something in football disappointment that is powerful and compelling. If you walk into an NFL facility on a Monday morning after these guys have all but eliminated sleep and all but eliminated family life pleasure and joys to completely concentrate on this. And to have gone out there in the most public way in front of all these people and been humiliated. And you have to walk in the facility on Monday morning and watch the film of what just happened to you and know that there is a press corps that is going to writing about this in the most scathing possible ways and then you have to play another game the following weekend. To walk in on a Monday morning is like —I just always thought of it as something into the picture of a depression.

RB: (laughs)

ND:I expected to round the corner in the hallway and there would be trees down and there’d be overturned cars and garbage cans and broken glass, papers blowing around and things like that. People are devastated after they lose. Especially a big game. They don’t sleep. And then they have to do it all over again. I thought what was most admirable about football people—people who were made for the sport—which wouldn’t be me— are they can overcome this by Wednesday. And greet their players and subordinates in such a way that they can be optimistic. They can resume their sense of confidence and even bon hommie. And by the following week they can be ready to do it again.

RB: Baseball is also a game of failure. Every [good] coach will tell his players after they strike out or make an error. “Forget about it. On to the next one.”

ND: Yeah but in baseball the stakes are so much lower. The ultimate stakes are similar. A three game losing streak in baseball— in football is the equivalent to a 30 game losing streak in baseball. The Jets just lost 3 in a row as we sit here. How would you feel after you lost 30 baseball games in a row? I mean, it’s unimaginable. But the proportions are the same.

RB: Is there a growing interest in football by women?

ND: Much greater. It’s the fastest growing demographic.

RB: Why?

ND: Why shouldn’t women take some of the same pleasure that the men do?

RB: They don’t play it.

ND: A lot of the man who enjoy football didn’t play it either. More people play baseball than watch baseball but football is a different thing—its graceful, beautiful, dangerous and dramatic. I talked to several wives of Jets people about this. They all pointed out how handsome football players and how great they look in those uniforms.

RB: You can see well-defined butts.

ND: Yeah and you can see then doing the most balletic things. The aesthetic qualities of football have been much enhanced. Also, how people think about their bodies. Look at Tom Brady when he was a rookie versus Tom Brady now. I am sure it doesn’t help that he is married to someone whose whole business is appearance. He has completely transformed his appearance.

RB: And the Super Bowl winning Redskin offensive line—what were they called The Hogs?

ND: Most linemen are enormous men But to watch people who are that big and run that quickly with that kind of choreographed agility is something to see. Why do we like spectator sports? Ultimately, it is a chance to do something, which I think is one of the most admirable things about humanity, which is the appreciation of things that other people can do. People who can play professional football for all of the —you talk about people in the peanut gallery talking in disparaging ways about athletes. Everybody understands that underneath it all, that the worst guy on a football team is the most sensational athlete from his town in generations.

RB: I don’t think they understand that.

ND: I’m not sure.

RB: IF they knew that there might be a more generous attitude about the players. If you are right than tht unerstanding must be very deeply buried

ND: One of the advantages of football being so distant, in a way, is that you didn’t have to be kind. It was a place to put those lesser angels.

RB: The defense of what I call crass behavior of fans is that you buy the ticket and you can say whatever.

ND: There are a lot of people walking around with a lot of frustration—wouldn’t you say? This is a fairly reasonable way to express frustration.

RB: It’s preferable to going into a post office and shooting the place [and people] up. It doesn’t make those fans more attractive.

ND: Nobody would say this is the Platonic ideal of spectating.

RB: Do you still watch football? And might you watch it with more devotion than before?

ND: It’s a funny thing I really never thought of this as a football book. Obviously, the setting is football and I was learning abut something that I didn’t know very well and was interested in—but I always thought of it as an n office book. Once I was no longer in that office it —the sport that I would really follow is the office. And while I watch football games now and certainly watch the games of the people I came to know well and care about who are in my book I wouldn’t watch it nearly as avidly as I would if I were spending time with them day in and day out. Its so different’—once you know how it works moment to moment leading up to a game if you are really immersed in it, than just to see it with a little more distance —you can see what a wonderful sport it is but for me it feels not quite as satisfying.

RB: So you enjoyed Michael Lewis’s Moneyball that is ostensibly a baseball book.

ND: A wonderful book. If I am saying that everyone of my books that boils down to outsider on fringes of society uses prominent American institution to enter and influence the culture, wouldn’t you say that everyone of his books involves looking at, somebody finding some sort of weakness or flaw in a system that can be exploited for short term even long term gain before everybody else figures out what this person has anticipated first. That’s every Michael Lewis book—that’s
Michael Lewis on business, on baseball, on high tech. That’s because it’s a great theme. And it’s so interesting.

Editor’s note: I contacted Michael Lewis on Dawidoff’s take on Lewis’s oeuvre:

“Certainly true of Moneyball and The Big Short and maybe The New New Thing. Not sure it fits the others.”

RB: What I found compelling in your book was the way coaches and scouts evaluated players and the colorful phrases that used to describe them.

ND: Obviously for me it’s going to be a book about interesting characters going through something together. Overcoming a form of adversity or not. Situations that throw them into some form of conflict. It’s just setting for the oldest virtues of storytelling.

RB: Have you carried over relationships from the book?

ND: Are there people I stay in touch with? Yeah, even coming here I got an email from one of the people I met.

RB: What’s their reaction to the book? Rex Ryan’s,if he’s seen it?

ND: I doubt it. Most people in the facility —I sent them copies but whether they have opened them I have no idea. There were a few people who read it before the season began. They have been uniformly positive. They all told me, like Mike Pattin who is the defensive coordinator and is now with the Bills told me, “You shouldn’t really worry about what I think. You should be worried what you reader is thinking.” And my experience by and large with football people was they were pretty straight up people. I loved how frank and candid they were. And they would have been disappointed with me if I weren’t the same. Bart Scott, the linebacker said, “You know football isn’t always pretty. It’s not any easy life in lots of ways. And you do us a disservice if you don’t describe it that way.” That was fairly consistent throughout. Even the very anxious general manager, Mike Tannenbaum, whose job is to be anxious and controlling —its his nature and his job. Even his response to it has been very generous. I wasn’t writing it for them. I was writing it for someone else. Your question points to something, which is a decision for a writer. Because once you are that intimately involved, in a sense that I am with them every day, watching what they do, part of the necessity of the culture is to bring everybody together in a common cause. And that common cause may ask people to make sacrifices in their own careers—statistical or otherwise. It’s just a very seductive thing to be a part of a big group especially for a writer who works by himself. It was very different to step outside it. As somebody who was inside/ outside all the time, I really got a sense of how fragile is the life in football. But also to write about it you really would have to be outside. You really have to make a definite break from it all, otherwise they were no longer characters to you— they were still people who you worry about how they felt.

RB: My son plays football and he is smart about it —he doesn’t unnecessarily throw himself into the fray. He is not one of those kamikaze players who hurls himself into the play. And I realized that he is into it because of the camaraderie. When the season was over I asked him if he missed it and he does.

ND: That’s what all the coaches say. More than playing the game itself they miss the company of other people. Some of the players were even prematurely sentimental.They were thinking about what it would belike not to have all these people to talk with everyday. For a lot of people in football they come from terrible childhood circumstances. Many come from single parent families, grew up in dire poverty. Lot of them knew considerable violence when they were children. There is the player in the book—Julian Posey who says football is his father. But he speaks for lots of people I the book in the sense that its very seductive appealing thing to have this community of people who want the best for you but are going to push you to achieve your best and also are going to be on hand all the time to support you. Sure there are many other accouterment of daily life—meals are there at the facility for you. There’s a dry cleaner. There’s a car wash. Everything is taken care so you can concentrate on being as successful as you can ta very difficult pursuit. More than anything, the younger players just really having older players who they can look up to. Older players like having coaches. For me. that was the most appealing part of it.

RB:What do you make of what happened in Miami?

ND: For me. It was different. It’s a SUV world. I drive a mini Cooper. It’s a steak and burger world and I would eat beet salads at lunch. When I exercise I wear a bandana. One of then is purple—the chief of scouts stops a meeting and he says, ”So Nicky, there are headband concerns.” There was a tremendous amount of teasing, all of which I loved. And you can just tell —intuitively, you can tell the difference between something that is affectionate and makes you feel closer to other people and something that’s mean spirited. What can happen is—we were talking earlier about Mark Sanchez and the other quarterbacks—they called me Bookworm, which quickly turned to Worm. Nobody likes being called worm or creep, everyday. I can see that when your whole life is endless meetings and practices, which go on from before dawn till deep into the evening, everyday with the same people and one of them is just getting a lot of pleasure about making you feel badly about yourself. How pretty quickly it could become intolerable if you were a certain kind of person. Especially, if that person were the most powerful colleague you had.

RB: I get that.

ND: Football is tedium. It is practicing and revising and over and over. The few days that you are repeating the same physical motion hundreds and hundreds of times and if you have someone around who can bring joy and humor and seem as though—Rex Ryan used to talk about his greatest coaching ability was his ability to make people believe that they weren’t doing the same thing over and over again. Sounds like small thing but it isn’t.

RB: So what do you think happened with the Miami Dolphins? Or how was it allowed to happen?

ND: One of the things that can happen is that environment things almost casually devolve. I don’t think it was ever that any one pointed to any one.

RB: Abuse wasn’t pointed toward Jason Martin?

ND: I think it was —of course I think it was disgusting and degrading and he was the object of derision. But it was never done—the expression of it wasn’t so deliberately brutal (this is all speculation on my part) but over time it gradually devolved into something that was horrible.

RB: Martin took it for a while and then it reached a point where he didn’t.

ND: The degrees of what he was taking and how it was feeling abut it. He’s young person. Nothing could be more troubling than Incognito’s behavior bit almost as troubling was that—I talked to some of the Jets guys about this, “I never saw anything remotely like this was I missing something?” They said no, what they couldn’t understand were the other Dolphins players. Bart Scott said, “If I saw anything remotely like this, that guy would have had 6 of us, he would have been up against the wall, answering for this.” Let’s not pretend that football locker room all harmony and comity but there is a great deal of fraternity and a great deal of —the word ‘love’ was used an awful lot. I saw a great deal of affection and concern for other people I don’t know why that didn’t happen in Miami. Makes me glad I wasn’t in Miami.

RB: I find the professions of ignorance disturbing.

ND: You shouldn’t be as surprised by that. The idea that this is locker room culture is a misnomer. Football players don’t spend all that much time as a team in the locker room. Even when they are together somebody is in the shower. Someone is in the equipment room. Someone is late. Someone has gone to lift weights. Only in team meetings is everyone together. By and large, the time when people spend the most time together would be in their position groups. In those little windowless rooms where they go to have their meetings and things. Somebody who is bound and determined to give you a hard time, pretty quickly those walls will close in.

RB: Are all NFL team facilities like bunkers?

ND: That’s what I am told. This is a job where you want be completely focused and committed to your purpose and you want to have mothering else going in but football. That’s the object.

RB: Are football players conservative by and large?

ND: You shouldn’t think of professional football players in any sort of general way. Every kind of person is playing football. Rex Ryan used to begin training camp, the first team meeting, by describing who was on the team. It was a long, bluesy riff and it was funny. In effect we have tall guys and short guys we have wild guys and religious guys and he would just go on and on. And it was true.

RB: But there are demographics that stand out—lots of black males, many from poor circumstances.

ND: Sure the sport is 67 % African American.

RB: Many who were sold football as a way of climbing out of their poverty.

ND: I don’t think too many of them would use the word ‘sold’. For many of them it was a joy and a pleasure and escape.

RB: I was reading Greg Easterbrook’s King of Sports. He argues that Nick Saban recruits for Alabama by selling it his program as a steppingstone to the NFL. As opposed to appealing to his kids with Alabama’s glorious tradition and wonderful campus and the joys of being a student athlete.

ND: All these guys want to be in the NFL.I don’t see that has anything to do with their reasons—

RB: The notion of selling the program—

ND: That’s what all college programs do. Penn State used to have—every team has a pro day in which professional coaches come to visit and evaluate the draft eligible players on a college team. One the things they do is sprint and the coaches see how fast they can sprint. At Penn State the place where they hold the sprints is slightly downhill grade. Every college team wants its players to go to the NFL and the players want to go. It’s no different than Yale selling its drama program by the number of people who get to Broadway.

RB: Yes, but what are the odds.

ND: And the odds are better from Alabama than from other schools. You are suggesting they are giving these kids false hope.

RB: Sure.

ND: Might be. Ever read Darcy Frey’s book The Last Shot. It’s a whole book about false hope. And yet the only reason people make it is because enough people have to believe they can overcome and be the exception and it creates an activity full of exceptions.

RB: Maybe this an obvious question —are you happy with this book?

ND: Yeah, I think so. It’s not really for me to say any more. I did the best—

RB: —you wrote it. I am not asking, is it a good book?

ND: Am I pleased with it? Yeah. It takes a while with books —the same thing happens with every book. Which is to say where your book is going to go and how you are going to feel about are so mysterious. When I say where its going to go even for your more obscure books, you’ll still have business in some far fling place and you’ll check into a little inn and you’ll get into bed and you turn on the night light and there will be some books there and you’ll look and then one of them will look pretty familiar. So you never know where they are going end up. But then if you are the sort of person who hadn’t looked a that book in long time and maybe it was published 30 years ago and you open up that book and you start reading—most writers I know would say that they felt, ”I guess it was ok”. And so far I think this one is ok

RB: You haven’t gone back to look at past books?

ND: I was projecting to my own future. I have heard other writers talk about their books in that way. For me, I don’t really like to look back because there are so many books I want to write. Life is short and they take me so long to write that I wouldn’t want to spend time feeling nostalgic. I am reading portions of it around the country right now. When I read from it I feel ok about the portions I am reading. You can always immediately think of small things you wish were different. The major decisions, the conception and the architecture of the book are sound. I created it based on two outlines that took me many months to make—one was chronological, the other was thematic. The whole pleasure and joy of this kind of non-fiction writing is to embed a series of themes in events and move in and out of them so that the whole thing is woven together in way that reads like a good story. The actual structure of it is based on a fairly if only to yourself complex notion of what it could be.

Nick Dawidoff circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Nick Dawidoff circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: So now you are about the task of hawking your book, publicizing your book…

ND: (chuckles) I am telling you, you would just be a phenomenal success in an NFL locker I can just see a “C” [captain] on that jersey very soon.

RB: (laughs) Did I say something wrong?

ND: You have skin like an armadillo

RB: (laughs) So what’s next?

ND: I am interested in two big themes and I want to find the right subjects for them. One, is I am very interested in income inequality. I grew in a city which is one of the poorest cities in the country. New Haven. And it has one of the wealthiest universities in the world there. Since my childhood not much functionally has changed abut New Haven even though New Haven has changed a lot. It breaks my heart that New Haven is this way and makes me want to think about why in America, such a prosperous country, why this happens.

RB: What’s an organizational entry point in that issue?

ND: I have some ideas. They are so inchoate it’s not right to say yet. And then I would really like to write a book about a great American artist.

RB: Any candidates?

ND: Even when I was writing this book when I had free time I would go and visit Robert Frank {The Americans).

Genesis by John B Judis

Genesis by John B Judis

The Americans by Robert Frank

The Americans by Robert Frank

RB: How old is he now?

ND: He’s in his late 80s.

RB: How coherent is he?

ND: I love spending time with him. I find him to be a wonderful person.

RB: He opened up to you?

ND: I think so.

RB: You get football players to like you. Cranky, old artists. Not bad.

ND: I am going to have to work on you. Just kidding.

RB: I like you fine.

ND: I am just so interested in his work and then was interested in that he’s the person who made it.

RB: The more recent work or the work that made him famous?

ND: I love the Americans—like most people that’s what brought me to him. If that is a source of attraction once you become interested in someone everything is apart of it. If you are interested in a novelist like Svevo than he come to him because of Zeno’s Conscience. But all the other books, which are essentially small sketches for that novel, are still interesting because you all the years that made the great book.

RB: How is it that Rolling Stone is interested in Robert Frank?

ND: They asked me if there was something I would like to write about.

RB: So can offer suggestions. They must like you.

ND: (laughs)

RB: Add magazine editors to the list

ND: Pretty soon I am going to have a whole team. (both laugh)

RB: You’re pretty popular.

ND: Tell that to my neighbors, maybe they’ll like me

RB: What, do you play music too loud? Raise chickens? Your kids break windows?

ND: I aspire to raise window breakers. Remember the part in the book where the coaches teach my son how to be a better tackler?

RB: Why would think I have time to read a 460 page book? (both laugh)

ND: There is a point in the book where my son —

RB: —I know.

ND: —tackles a little 2 year old girl in his singing group who is wearing a pink ballerina tutu. And the coaches are overjoyed the next day. And they give me tips how to teach him to tackle better

RB: What are the people who come to your readings wanting to know about football?

ND: They want to know quite a few of the things that you have asked.

RB: What! (laughs)

ND: I mean, with in the broader themes that you are interested in—pain or injury. The big national subjects of concussions and bullying are—its clear football has to change. This should not be the conversation especially about something that is intended to be for enjoyment and pleasure. They shouldn’t be talking about brain injuries, about bounties and murder. And they shouldn’t be talking about harassment. So this is not good for football. If football is savvy about it and football has always been pretty savvy in its modern era.

RB: And recalcitrant.

ND: Recalcitrant but savvy. Football has many advantages that saw that I don’t see the NFL taking much interest in. Namely, there are so many interesting people within the sport. And they are all obscured form the public. Football would do better to continue with Hard Knocks, the Bill Bellichick documentary—even my experience where you tell the stories about football that have been traditionally told about baseball.

RB: More questions?

ND: People want to know what it was like to call a play. Only 10 % of the time do all eleven players do what they are supposed to do. It was really fun. Nothing can compare to actually doing it under live conditions. Football coaches by and large—I had so much admiration for first and foremost what we were talking about earlier—their ability to overcome tremendous pubic adversity and to some degree shame and walk out into the world, days later with an integrity to their optimism and self confidence intact. That is, they were able to arouse the same I their players. That’s hard to do. The really good ones—I would say that every coach (with Jets) would have been so clearly the best coach I had ever been around. I never had any coaches like that. They are in the NFL for a reason. What a really good coach does is he has you thinking about his ideals long after you have been around him. I think a lot about their expectations. And their expectations of me— these are people who are simultaneously nurturing and evaluating all the time. I felt it that I had to behave and be on my marks at all times. It is such fragile professional life. People were getting cut all the time. That phrases “on the street—that’s a true phrase. You are either in or you are gone. Once you are outside that facility. The gate closes and— it’s a large and lonely echo. I felt entirely to the end, all the time, I felt I the back of my mind that they could just wash their hands of me. That I had become a distraction in some way. Once some one began making jokes in a meeting that I was a spy for the Patriots and I was going to divulge secrets (I didn’t understand the secrets well enough to divulge them) it was horrifying to me. There were several moments like that. Of course I didn’t want him to know it was horrifying to me but it was. There was a day that had a media consultant come in (who usually worked with politicians) on how to deal with the press. Up on the screen come the Michael Hastings /Rolling Stone piece, “The Runaway General”. He was going on and on about how all reporters were just trying to make friends with you but they were just out to betray you and ruin your life. And I had just written a Paul Simon profile for Rolling Stone, which the coaches all knew and they were all looking at me

RB: (laughs)

ND: IF I could disappear into the fabric of your seat that would have been me then.

RB: Excellent, thank you.

ND: Thank you —always nice to see you

Degrees of Separation

11 Aug

A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen


One of my favorite books is a grossly overlooked literary history, A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists (1854-1967) by Rachel Cohen.Cohen writes vignettes of 30 intertwined lives in 36 chapters, beginning with Henry James and Matthew Brady’s encounter in 1854 and running up to Norman Mailer and Robert Lowell’s in the late ‘60s. In between, we meet William Dean Howells, Annie Adams Fields, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant, W.E.B. DuBois, Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather and others.

Hello, Goodbye, Hello by Craig Brown


Private Eye columnist Craig Brown’s Hello Goodbye Hello (Simon & Schuster)unlike Cohen’s focus is an amusing exhibition of serendipitous intersections of world-famous people— connecting the strangest couplings—101 to be exact (and for some inexplicable reason each rendered in exactly 1001 words). From Harpo Marx and George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling and Helen Keller, Frank Lloyd Wright and Nikita Khrushchev, Groucho Marx and T. S. Eliot, Elvis Presley met Richard M. Nixon Martha Graham, and Madonna, James Joyce and Marcel Proust, as Ms Kakutani opines,”… weaves together dozens of such encounters into a glittering daisy chain that reads like a mathematical proof of the theory of six degrees of separation.” Here’s an excerpt that appears in Vanity Fair
featuring Frank Sinatra and Dominick Dunne:

On a normal day, Frank Sinatra is not slow to take umbrage, nor to accompany it with the promise of revenge, a promise he enjoys keeping. “Make yourself comfortable, Frank! Hit somebody!” the fearless comedian Don Rickles once greeted Sinatra as he strode into Rickles’s cabaret lounge.

The TV producer Dominick Dunne has never been able to fathom why Sinatra has taken against him. “I wish I knew, but he took a major dislike to my wife and me.” One moment, he was part of Sinatra’s wider circle, the next the object of abuse. “You’re a no-talent hack,” Sinatra says to Dunne as he passes him at a party; whenever Sinatra sees Dunne’s wife, Lenny, he tells her she married a loser. Why this change of heart? Dunne can only imagine that Sinatra bears him some sort of grudge for a TV show on which they worked together some years ago.

Sinatra’s ire appears to increase with their every encounter. Last year, Dunne was having dinner at the Bistro in Los Angeles when Sinatra, clearly drunk, abused him loudly from a neighboring table. Sinatra then turned his venom on Lenny, before continuing around the table, going for Lauren Bacall, Maureen O’Sullivan, and Swifty Lazar in rapid succession. Finally, he grabbed the tablecloth and pulled it from beneath all their plates and glasses, threw a plate of food over Lazar, and stomped out.

This year, Sinatra has been involved in any number of fights. In June, for instance, a businessman called Frank Weissman asked him and his party in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel if they wouldn’t mind piping down. Weissman ended the night in a coma at the hospital…

Amusing and readable—which works for me

Currently Reading And When She Was Good by Laura Lippman (William Morrow)