Tag Archives: Robert Stone

Just Talking: My “Conversations with …”

30 Dec

So,

 Looking back to the mid-Eighties when I stumbled unto the opportunity to publish a hip downtown magazine  I am not clear on how I fell into the habit/practice of arranging conversations/interviews with contemporary writers, photographers, film directors, cartoonists, poets, painters and all manner of creative individuals. Though it is not exactly an explanation for ‘why’, I have come to look upon this habit, which has persisted these twenty odd years, as a grand post-graduate education.

Many of these confabulations were first published in Stuff magazine before 1998. In 2000, I found a regular niche at the nascent literary magazine (of sorts) Identitytheory. And, over the fullness of time, I  found myself contributing to cultural news venues such as The Morning News, The Millions, The Virginia Quarterly Review on -line, The Daily Beast, and the LA Review of Books among others.

Along the way, some of these countless ( have lost count on how many I have participated in) dialogues have been anthologized (mostly regularly )in the University Press of Mississippi’s “Conversations with…’ series.  These I am proud to list below (click on the name to go to Publisher’s page for each book):

 9781496808912
9781617032868
9781604739633
1578068878
9781617036071
I expect to continue with these gabfests though I  am ruminating on ways to refresh my methodology. So, let’s see what happens…thanks for reading all the way to the bottom
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Not A Chance Meeting: Me and Rachel Cohen

25 Jan

 

 

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

Rachel Cohen [photo by Robert Birnbaum]

Rachel Cohen [photo by Robert Birnbaum]

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

 

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Robert Birnbaum:  What do you want to talk about?

Rachel Cohen: (laughter)

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: It’s wonderful.

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: What period?

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

Robert Birnbaum: It’s passe isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: I have a card.

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen

A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: A gutsy thing for…

Rachel Cohen: A single woman…

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: —Your mother? (laughs)

Rachel Cohen: My mother worried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: That trip?

Robert Birnbaum: Is there one thing?

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

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

Rachel Cohen: About a place or something?

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

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

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

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

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

 

 

Ansel Adams, Jeffrey Pine, 1940

Ansel Adams, Jeffrey Pine, 1940

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

Robert Birnbaum: About what?

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

Robert Birnbaum: A White person?

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

Robert Birnbaum: Right.

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

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

Rachel Cohen: No.

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen:Like a Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover.

 

Saul Steinberg, detail from New Yorker cover

Saul Steinberg, detail from New Yorker cover

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: You were focused on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: How old’s your daughter?

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

Robert Birnbaum: What’s her name?

Rachel Cohen: Sylvia.

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: What do you think she sees?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: No.

Robert Birnbaum: You knew right away?

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

Robert Birnbaum: You take photographs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: Exactly.

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: Yes.

Robert Birnbaum: You know who Rhianna is?

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

Robert Birnbaum: Tupac?

Rachel Cohen: Yeah. Definitely. Definitely.

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

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

 

Robert Stone [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Stone [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: You listen to lots of contemporary music?

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

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

Rachel Cohen: And everything about them?

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: I used it religiously.

Robert Birnbaum: You had to read it.

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

Robert Birnbaum: Giving it a narrative as opposed to—

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: Everybody.

Robert Birnbaum: They were the hubs of culture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Where is it?

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

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

 

The Last Days by Laurent Sesek

The Last Days by Laurent Sesek

Rachel Cohen: Oh really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Your agents is still Eric Simonoff?

Rachel Cohen: He is, yeah.

 

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: He’s terrific.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: The long game’s always important.

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

Robert Birnbaum: You were looking for an agent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Algorithms.

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

 

Hari Kunzru [photo: Robert Birnbaum

Hari Kunzru [photo: Robert Birnbaum

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

Rachel Cohen: Not so far fetched, yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Right.

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: That’s a possibility?

Robert Birnbaum: She did it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Guernica by Pablo PIcasso

Guernica by Pablo PIcasso

 

 

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

Rachel Cohen: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Botero "Picasso" 1999

Botero “Picasso” 1999

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Brave place to start.

Rachel Cohen: (laughter) I guess so.

Robert Birnbaum: Pretty ambitious.

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

Robert Birnbaum: Where is it?

Rachel Cohen: What?

Robert Birnbaum: You trashed it or did you…?

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

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

Rachel Cohen: It’s somewhere.

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

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Do you know what the ending is?

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: A certain kind of excitement or uplift.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres

 

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

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

 

Robert Birnbaum: You were teaching at Sarah Lawrence?

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: That’s pretty bold.

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

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

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

Robert Birnbaum: Affluent backgrounds?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued

 

######

1 Rachel Cohen’s website

2 Ansel Adams photographs

3 Saul Steinberg’s art

4 One of my 5 or 6 conversations with Robert Stone

5 Biographies of Bernard Berenson

6 On Stefan Zweig

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

8 The Last Days by Laurent Seksik

9 One of my conversations (2004)with Edward Jones

10  Golden Gilded Glittery by Rachel Cohen

11 My LA Review of Books  chat with Hari Kunzru,

12 Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama

13  My most recent conversation with Jennifer Egan

14 Basquit by Julian Schnabel

15 Guernica by Pablo Picasso

16 Columbian painter Fernando Botero

17   Writer Mark Z. Danielewski ‘s website

18 My last conversation with  Louis de Bernières

19 Trailer for Enough Said

20 Talking with Nicholas Dawidoff

 

Katrina, Katrina…*

27 Aug

From my vantage point up here in tight-sphincteral New England, New Orleans has always looked like the most interesting city in the USA. Which is why the great natural(and then some) disaster known, like a super model, as Katrina, is exponentially fascinating. Firstly, because of the callous disregard exhibited by a regime busy embroiling this country in a disastrous military adventure as effects of Katrina unfolded and then allowing incompetence (remember FEMA head ‘Brownie’?) and mean-spiritedness to triumph. As the 10th anniversary of Katrina draws nigh let’s revisit and reflect.

There is a rich bibliography of fiction connected to the Big Easy (Robert Stone’s Hall of Mirrors comes to mind) and there have been some creditable recent additions

City of Refuge byTom Piazza

City of Refuge byTom Piazza

City of Refuge byTom Piazza

In City of Refuge, a heart-wrenching novel from Tom Piazza, the author of the award-winning Why New Orleans Matters, two New Orleans families—one black and one white—confront Hurricane Katrina, a storm that will change the course of their lives. Reaching across America—from the neighborhoods ofNew Orleans to Texas, Chicago, and elsewhere—City of Refuge explores this turning point in American culture, one whose reverberations are only beginning to be underst

Secessia  by Kent Wascom

Secessia by Kent Wascom

Secessia by Kent Wascom

New Orleans, May 1862. The largest city in the ill-starred confederacy has fallen to Union troops under the soon-to-be-infamous General Benjamin “the Beast” Butler. The city is rife with madness and rage. When twelve-year-old Joseph Woolsack disappears from his home, he draws into the unrest his mother, Elise, a mixed-race woman passing for white, and his father, Angel, whose long and wicked life is drawing to a close. What follows forces mother and son into a dark new world: Joseph must come to grips with his father’s legacy of violence and his growing sentiment for Cuban exile Marina Fandal, the only survivor of a shipwreck that claimed the lives of her parents. Elise must struggle to maintain a hold on her sanity, her son and her own precarious station, but is threatened by the resurgence of a troubling figure from her past, Dr. Emile Sabatier, a fanatical physician who adores disease and is deeply mired in the conspiracy and intrigue surrounding the occupation of the city. Their paths all intersect with General Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts, a man who history will call a beast, but whose avarice and brutal acumen are ideally suited to the task of governing an “ungovernable city.” Alternating between the perspectives of the five characters of Elise, Dr. Sabatier, Joseph, Marina, and Butler, Secessia weaves a tapestry of ravenous greed and malformed love, of slavery and desperation, set within the baroque melting-pot that is New Orleans. A Gothic tableaux vivant of epic scope and intimate horror, Secessia is the netherworld reflection of the conflict between north and south.

The Lower Quarter by Elise Blackwell

The Lower Quarter by Elise Blackwell

The Lower Quarter by Elise Blackwell

A man murdered during Katrina in a hotel room two blocks from her art-restoration studio was closely tied to a part of Johanna’s past that she would like kept secret. But missing from the crime scene is a valuable artwork painted in 1926 by a renowned Belgian artist that might bring it all back.An acquaintance, Clay Fontenot, who has enabled a wide variety of personal violations in his life, some of which he has enjoyed, is the scion of a powerful New Orleans family.And Marion is an artist and masseuse from the Quarter who has returned after Katrina to rebuild her life.When Eli, a convicted art thief, is sent to find the missing painting, all of their stories weave together in the slightly deranged halls of the Quarter.

 A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld

A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld

A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld

A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge is a portrait of a city under siege.Cartoonist Josh Neufeld depicts seven extraordinary true stories of survival in the days leading up to and following Hurricane Katrina. Here we meet Denise, a counselor and social worker, and a sixth-generation New Orleanian; “The Doctor,” a proud fixture of the French Quarter; Abbas and Darnell, two friends who face the storm from Abbas’ s family-run market; Kwame, a pastor’s son just entering his senior year of high school; and the young couple Leo and Michelle, who both grew up in the city. Each is forced to confront the same wrenching decision–whether to stay or to flee. … A.D. presents a city in chaos and shines a bright, profoundly human light on the tragedies and triumphs that took place within it.

ANOTHER KIND OF HURRICANE By Tamara Ellis Smith

ANOTHER KIND OF HURRICANE By Tamara Ellis Smith

ANOTHER KIND OF HURRICANE By Tamara Ellis Smith

…two very different characters—a black boy who loses his home in Hurricane Katrina and a white boy in Vermont who loses his best friend in a tragic accident—come together to find healing. A hurricane, a tragic death, two boys, one marble. How they intertwine is at the heart of this beautiful, poignant book. When ten-year-old Zavion loses his home in Hurricane Katrina, he and his father are forced to flee to Baton Rouge. And when Henry, a ten-year-old boy in northern Vermont, tragically loses his best friend, Wayne, he flees to ravaged New Orleans to help with hurricane relief efforts—and to search for a marble that was in the pocket of a pair of jeans donated to the Red Cross.

Drowned City by Don Brown

Drowned City by Don Brown

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans

… Hurricane Katrina’s monstrous winds and surging water overwhelmed the protective levees around low-lying New Orleans, Louisiana. Eighty percent of the city flooded, in some places under twenty feet of water. Property damages across the Gulf Coast topped $100 billion. One thousand eight hundred and thirty-three people lost their lives. The riveting tale of this historic storm and the drowning of an American city is one of selflessness, heroism, and courage—and also of incompetence, racism, and criminality.Don Brown’s kinetic art and as-it-happens narrative capture both the tragedy and triumph of one of the worst natural disasters in American history. A portion of the proceeds from this book has been donated to Habitat for Humanity New Orleans.

Why New Orleans Matters  by Tom Piazza

Why New Orleans Matters
by Tom Piazza

Why New Orleans Matters Paperback by Tom Piazza (

In the aftermath of Katrina and the disaster that followed, promises were made, forgotten, and renewed. Now what will become of New Orleans in the years ahead? What do this proud, battered city and its people mean to America and the world? Tom Piazza illuminates the storied culture and uncertain future of this great and neglected American metropolis by evoking the sensuous rapture of the city that gave us jazz music and Creole cooking; examining its deep undercurrents of corruption, racism, and injustice; and explaining how its people endure and transcend those conditions. And, perhaps most important, he asks us all to consider the spirit of this place and all the things it has shared with the world: its grace and beauty, resilience and soul.

Dr John aka mac Rebeneck makes New Orleans musical gumbo

The Katrina Decade: Images of an Altered City by  David G. Spielman

The Katrina Decade: Images of an Altered City by
David G. Spielman

The Katrina Decade: Images of an Altered City by David G. Spielman

In the 10 years since, David G. Spielman embraced the traditions of photographers from the Works Progress Administration and Farm Security Administration and documented subtle changes throughout his beloved city.’New Orleans has a melancholy beauty that defies logic and transcends time,’says Spielman. Vines creep up the side of a home that could be vacant or occupied. Graffiti mars or beautifies? the walls of an abandoned building. Readers must draw their own conclusions from his haunting black-and-white images.

When Hurricane Katrina approached New Orleans, Spielman decided to stay and weather the storm, assisting his Uptown neighbors, the sisters of the order of Poor Clare. Katrina passed, and as the flood waters filled the city, the scope of the devastation only gradually dawned on Spielman, who was cut off from outside communication. Faced with the greatest personal and professional challenge of his life, he determined to document the scene unfolding around him. He managed to secure a generator to power his laptop computer, and in the days, weeks, and months after August 29, 2005, he transmitted emails to hundreds of friends and clients and cautiously traversed the city taking photographs. In Katrinaville Chronicles: Images and Observations from a New Orleans Photographer Spielman’s gathered images and observations, relating his unique perspective on and experience of a historic catastrophe. He never expected his emails to survive beyond the day he sent them. But his descriptions of what he was seeing, hearing, smelling, thinking, feeling, and fearing in post Katrina New Orleans were forwarded again and again, even around the globe. They reveal the best and worst in Spielman: a Samaritan who becomes caretaker of the sisters’ monastery, as well as a stressed gent who frets about the lack of starched shirts and a decent cup of coffee. He rants about political leaders and voices a deep concern for his city’s future. He tells of feeling overwhelmed, at a loss for words, unable to capture on film the individual tragedies manifested in home after destroyed home, many marked by death. His arresting black and white photographs record the details of the disaster on both a grand and an intimate scale, at times recalling works by Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. What emerges above all is Spielman’s buoyant spirit. Living without electricity or running water and existing on peanut butter sandwiches, he nonetheless is able to appreciate the complete quiet and unadulterated starlight in a surreal city without power. He encourages his fellow citizens to see Katrina as an opportunity for improving upon the past and making a better tomorrow.

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital  by Sheri Fink

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink

Five Days at Memorial,the culmination of six years of reporting, is Sheri Fink’s landmark investigation of patient deaths at a New Orleans hospital ravaged by Hurricane Katrina – and her portrayal of the quest for truth and justice.Physician and reporter Sheri Fink reconstructs 5 days at Memorial Medical Center and draws the reader into the lives of those who struggled mightily to survive and to maintain life amid chaos.fter Katrina struck and the floodwaters rose, the power failed, and the heat climbed, exhausted caregivers chose to designate certain patients last for rescue. Months later, several health professionals faced criminal allegations that they deliberately injected numerous patients with drugs to hasten their deaths. Fink exposes the hidden dilemmas of end-of-life care and reveals just how ill-prepared we are in America for the impact of large-scale disasters—and how we can do better.

Here’s a sample of Spike Lee’s (wacked)four part documentary When The Levees Broke:

 Katrina: After the Flood  by Gary Rivlin

Katrina: After the Flood by Gary Rivlin

Katrina: After the Flood by Gary Rivlin (

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeast Louisiana—on August 29, 2005—journalist Gary Rivlin traces the storm’s immediate damage, the city of New Orleans’s efforts to rebuild itself, and the storm’s lasting affects not just on the city’s geography and infrastructure—but on the psychic, racial, and social fabric of one of this nation’s great cities.Much of New Orleans still sat under water the first time Gary Rivlin glimpsed the city after Hurricane Katrina. Then a staff reporter for The New York Times, he was heading into the city to survey the damage. The Interstate was eerily empty. Soldiers in uniform and armed with assault rifles stopped him. Water reached the eaves of houses for as far as the eye could see.Four out of every five houses—eighty percent of the city’s housing stock—had been flooded. Around that same proportion of schools and businesses were wrecked. The weight of all that water on the streets cracked gas and water and sewer pipes all around town and the deluge had drowned almost every power substation and rendered unusable most of the city’s water and sewer system.
People living in flooded areas of the city could not be expected to pay their property taxes for the foreseeable future. Nor would all those boarded-up businesses—21,000 of the city’s 22,000 businesses were still shuttered six months after the storm—be contributing their share of sales taxes and other fees to the city’s coffers. Six weeks after the storm, the city laid off half its workforce—precisely when so many people were turning to its government for help. Meanwhile, cynics both in and out of the Beltway were questioning the use of taxpayer dollars to rebuild a city that sat mostly below sea level. How could the city possibly come back?
Katrina traces the stories of New Orleanians of all stripes—politicians and business owners, teachers and bus drivers, poor and wealthy, black and white—as they confront the aftermath of one of the great tragedies of our age and reconstruct, change, and in some cases abandon a city that’s the soul of this nation.

We’re Still Here Ya Bastards by Roberta Brandes Gratz

We’re Still Here Ya Bastards by Roberta Brandes Gratz

We’re Still Here Ya Bastards by Roberta Brandes Gratz

Gratz presents a panoramic look at New Orleans’s revival in the years following the hurricane.sharing the stories of people who returned to their homes and have taken the rebuilding of their city into their own hands. It shows how the city—from the Lower Ninth Ward to the storied French Quarter to Bayou Bienvenue—is recovering despite flawed governmental policies that promote disaster capitalism rather than the public good. While tracing positive trends, Gratz also investigates the most fiercely debated issues and challenges facing the city: a violent and corrupt prison system, the tragic closing of Charity Hospital, the future of public education, and the rise of gentrification.

Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas  by Rebecca Solnit,  Rebecca Snedeker

Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit, Rebecca Snedeker

Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit, Rebecca Snedeker

This book is a reinvention of the traditional atlas, one that provides a vivid, complex look at the multi-faceted nature of New Orleans, a city replete with contradictions. More than twenty essays assemble a chorus of vibrant voices, including geographers, scholars of sugar and bananas, the city’s remarkable musicians, prison activists, environmentalists, Arab and Native voices, and local experts, as well as the coauthors’ compelling contributions. Featuring 22 full-color two-page-spread maps, Unfathomable City plumbs the depths of this major tourist destination, pivotal scene of American history and culture and, most recently, site of monumental disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. The innovative maps’ precision and specificity shift our notions of the Mississippi, the Caribbean, Mardi Gras, jazz, soils and trees, generational roots, and many other subjects, and expand our ideas of how any city is imagined and experienced. Together with the inspired texts, they show New Orleans as both an imperiled city—by erosion, crime, corruption, and sea level rise—and an ageless city that lives in music as a form of cultural resistance. Compact, lively, and completely original, Unfathomable City takes readers on a tour that will forever change the way they think about place.

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit

Natural and man-made disasters can be utopias that showcase human solidarity and point the way to a freer society, according this stimulating contrarian study. Solnit reproves civil defense planners, media alarmists and Hollywood directors who insist that disasters produce terrified mobs prone to looting, murder and cannibalism unless controlled by armed force and government expertise. Surveying disasters from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, she shows that the typical response to calamity is spontaneous altruism, self-organization and mutual aid, with neighbors and strangers calmly rescuing, feeding and housing each other. Indeed, the main problem in such emergencies, she contends, is the elite panic of officials who clamp down with National Guardsmen and stifling regulations. Solnit makes a compelling—and timely—case for the ability of ordinary people to collectively surmount the direst of challenges

And of course David Simon’s love song to New Orleans, Treme.

* Due to lack of time (or as one friend insists, indolence)book descriptions are taken from publishers websites.

ROBERT STONE RIP

16 Jan
Robert Stone [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Stone [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

In my career (for lack of a better word— ‘preoccupation’ won’t cut it) as a journalist I was privileged to have five or 6 conversations with Robert Stone. A couple of them are on line, here and here.

News of his passing was occasion for me recalling what Stone’s work and conversations meant to me (I last saw him in December 2013, a chat I have yet to make public). I did recall that when I met with Robert at the time of Damascus Gate‘s publication, we touched on music he was listening to currently — which happened to be the Shostakovich’s String Quartets.

Quartet #8 is the most popular of the composers’ fifteen string quartets and reportedly ‘autobiographical:

Currently reading Irene by Pierre Lemaitre (MacLehose Press)

Talking with William Giraldi 2.0

30 Sep

The last time (September 2011) I interviewed novelist, literary critic, Agni editor, Boston University mentor ,father of two boys, Billy Giraldi at the Keltic Krust ,was the first time we met. Three years later, Giraldi has published his second novel, Hold The Dark (WW Norton/Liveright) and written innumerable literary critiques for The Daily Beast, Oxford American, The New Republic, Virginia Quarterly Review and the New York Times and most recently a review of James Franco’s latest directorial effort,Child of God>And my favorite local coffee shoppe, The Keltic Krust, has closed.

Giraldi and I have become friends such that the occasionally glib gabfest that follows might give the impression that he is not a serious literatus. He is. Below he and I address a number of artistic and existential issues as well as his second novel,set in a remote Alaskan lanscape, characters  transversing a fierce and foreboding terrain. People die. Wolves howl. So read on, dear reader, read on:

RB: Let’s do a little play acting, a little role playing. We’re at a party— play along. Hi, what do you do?

WG: I chase after my kids in Cambridge and try to make sure they aren’t maimed on the way to becoming upstanding citizens.

RB: I mean what do you do for work?

WG: That is work, Red [‘Red’ being my nom de guerre].

RB: What do you do for money?

WG: Boston University pays me to entertain their many colorful customers.

William Giraldi [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

William Giraldi [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: Can you just tell me what you do?

WG: I teach them essay writing and the proper ways of reading.

RB: That’s how you would answer? That’s your first answer? You would not say,” I am a writer?”

WG: You asked what I do for money, Red. Samuel Johnson’s infamous quip notwithstanding, who writes for money?

RB: Okay, let’s go real here, enough role playing. You do several kinds of writing—novels, essays, literary criticism. Is there one that gives you more pleasure than the others?

WG: Yes, the criticism.

RB: Then why bother with the fiction?

WG: Because no one wants to pay me for criticism.

RB: So you do write for money!

WG: We’re talking pittances here. No publisher wants essays, but magazines need them, and I can use the pittance to help feed the ravenous little monsters who live in my house. You wouldn’t believe how they eat.

RB: What does the New Republic pay you? They do pay you?

WG: All the venues I write for pay me, yes, but I mean my editor at Norton isn’t interested in a book of criticism because he wouldn’t be able to sell it.

RB: Are you a regular contributor now at the New Republic?

WG: I’ve done a bunch of pieces for them, on Orwell, on Kafka, on Primo Levi. I’m not sure how regular that is.

RB: Primo Levi. You’re not qualified, are you? You’re not Jewish.

WG: I’m even less qualified to do Orwell and Kafka, but one fakes it as well as one can.

RB: So why do you gravitate to literary criticism as opposed to other forms?

WG: It allows me to engage in what most compels me—

RB: And impress people with your vocabulary.

WG: Let’s not underestimate that, okay. But it allows me to use what I know, and let’s me comprehend authors and books in a way that I couldn’t without writing about them. I understand Kafka better after writing about him. That’s my only mission.

RB: So you want to work out your own understanding of literature. But you must begin with a certain understanding, so you refine that understanding—is that what’s going on?

WG: That has to happen, yes, and certainly with someone such as Kafka. Everyone begins with certain popular conceptions of Kafka. People know the basics—about The Metamorphoses, some of the stories such as “In the Penal Colony”—but the trick is to transcend those popular conceptions and arrive at a more complex or nuanced place. Reading all of Kafka, delving into his body of work—which is what I do every time I write about an important author—you come away with a view very different from general conceptions.

RB: Do you know Jay Cantor’s book of stories about Kafka [Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka]? He objects to the overuse of the word “Kafkaesque.”

Forgiving the Angel by Jay Cantor

Forgiving the Angel by Jay Cantor

WG: I say the same in my piece. Not only do I object to it, but I’m certain that it’s a meaningless term. Kafka won’t be reduced to an adjective.

RB: People are using words they don’t have an understanding of and referring to a writer whom they probably haven’t read.

WG: Shocking, I know. In my piece, I speak about the occasion when I knew we’d entered the point of no return with the word “Kafkaesque.” It was in a movie theater, looking at an abomination called Congo, adapted from an equal abomination vomited by Michael Crichton. Don’t ask why I went to see this: I was young and I believe a beautiful girl was involved. But one character uses the word “Kafkaesque” so egregiously and erroneously—referring to a murderous band of apes, I believe—that I knew the word would never recover any meaning. Harold Bloom prefers “Kafkan.” That’s an improvement, though perhaps the difference between nothing and nothing much.

RB: How about “Kafkoid”? I mean, language is a living thing. How about the now great overuse of the word “epic”? You have to hang around with some teenagers, because “epic” is a big word now. It’s like saying “awesome.” This is what I’m hearing.

WG: Language is a living thing only in the hands of potent writers. But, you know, about “epic,” that’s not good, Red, because—

RB: Will you stop looking at your own book . . .

WG: Well, I’m just looking at what Dennis Lehane said about Hold the Dark: “A taut, muscular, and often unforgettable journey into the heart of darkness. Epic, relentless, and beautifully realized.”

RB: And Kafkaesque. You wanna read all the blurbs now?

WG: I’ve got to say, Red, that use of “epic” sounds not bad there, referring to my little tale.

RB: Well, I guess we might as well talk about your book.

Hold the Dark by WIlliam Giraldi

Hold the Dark by William Giraldi

WG: Can I jar a memory in you? When we first met, when Busy Monsters came out, you told me you didn’t really like the novel but it still made you want to talk to me. Now, now let’s hear what the guy has to say about Hold the Dark.

Busy Monsters by William Giraldi

Busy Monsters by William Giraldi

RB: I’ll always want to talk to you because you use the word “raven” as a verb. But they’re very different books, and frankly, I never thought of you as the writer of Busy Monsters, and it wasn’t the kind of novel I’d usually read. I don’t know why I read it, but I did, and I wasn’t even paid to do it. But Hold the Dark is the kind of novel I’d read, and not just because of the other novelists some reviewers are referencing. Actually, I can think of some women writers who come close to Hold the Dark: Bonnie Jo Campbell is great, and the Australian Courtney Collins. They set their stories in remote regions where nature intrudes upon the narrative, where people are outsiders. I think of them as anti New York novels, surroundings you aren’t familiar with, no brand names, no career strivings and divorces. Hard to be original with shit like that.

Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

WG: A bored writer of letters-to-the-editor wrote in to the New York Times to complain about the favorable review of Hold the Dark. This was some unstrung fella in the wilds of Colorado, and his complaint was that I was an “urban elite” who had no business writing about the wilderness.

RB: Right. What do you know about Alaska?

WG: Anyone who’s lived through a New England winter knows enough about snow and ice to imagine what kind of cold breathes in other corners of America. But that was sweet of this person who never learned to read fiction, to call me an “urban elite”—the first word is technically accurate and the second word is always a compliment to my ears. What’s the opposite of elite?

RB: Right, and he was really recognizing the novelist’s chore, wasn’t he. You’re only allowed to write about traffic patterns in Cambridge and picking up your kids from school. That’s what you should be limited to. I guess I have to ask you: did you write the book you set out to write? Or did it change as you went along?

WG: It is, yes. To the degree that any novelist understands what lies beneath, I wrote the book I had envisioned.

RB: What drove it? Character, setting, plot?

WG: No, language. It’s always language—language as it relates to character. This is the difference between commercial fiction and fiction that aims for something more: the former is a mere public service message and the latter is an investigation into the durability and limits of language. Hold the Dark has been characterized as a literary thriller, and someone called it “action literature,” which defies meaning, I think. I’m not sure where they’re coming from because the novel is very much about the enigma of evil and the majesty of nature; it’s about a spiritual crisis that morphs into a spiritual quest. I’ve been lucky in my reviewers because almost all of them have spoken to the pitch of the language, to the tenor of the prose—without some cognizance of that, the novel loses its significance.

RB: It is sort of surprising to take a very raw landscape and terrain, with very nonurban or unsophisticated people, and apply a sophisticated, descriptive, specific language to them. You’re intricate in your descriptions of everything that takes place in this story.

WG: The landscape dictates its own language. Every novel demands its own style. As for the intricate descriptions, my editor pushed me in that direction—

RB: Robert Weil?

WG: The great Robert Weil. He pushed me to bring to life the village of Keelut in a more detailed way. I had the wilderness down, but he wanted that village to pop, and he was right, as usual.

RB: Hey, you live in Cambridge!

WG: Read enough Jack London and all of sudden you live on the edge of the Yukon.

RB: He didn’t have to deal with climate change.

WG: What a coincidence. We aren’t really dealing with it either.

RB: But you’ve never been to Alaska. So few people have.

WG: So it then becomes a question of audacity. Goethe says this, that a writer must have “a touch of audacity” if he wishes to make a work of art. In my wishes for this novel, I needed much more than a touch—I needed a kick of audacity to imagine that terrain, a terrain I deliberately did not visit for fear of turning this novel into loyal reportage, another fact-filled dispatch. For the longest time, the novel had no specific setting at all. Remoteness, ice and snow—that was it. The story could have been taking place on the moon, for all anybody could have known.

RB: Where would the wolves have come from?

WG: Imaginative literature doesn’t or shouldn’t care about those questions. I was fine with the namelessness of the locale, but my publisher wouldn’t have been. The Alaskan wild is an inherently mysterious place—a domain that keeps its secrets well and has a complete separation from the normal rules of existence. Behavior is different there, an outlaw spirit that pervades that territory. If somebody would say that I’m taking a rather big risk in writing about a place only from imagination—

RB: Who would say that?

WG: Somebody with a conviction against the freedom of imagination. A philistine, in other words.

RB: When you critique a book, do you talk about an author risking something?

WG: I have, yes. No risks, no rewards—isn’t that the cliché? But one’s heroes give one the bravery to take big risks in fiction. Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage without ever having taken part in the Civil War—he was born six years after the end of the war. Saul Bellow wrote Henderson the Rain King before he had ever step foot in Africa. Kurt Vonnegut obviously never rocketed to Mars or a moon of Saturn. I won’t adhere to that fallow idea that says fiction should be reportage. I could have spent a year in Alaska and turned this novel into a demographical study, a meteorological report, but that wouldn’t have satisfied the demands of literature. Novels are a product of the imagination or else they are gussied-up newspaper articles, another useless simulacrum of reality.

RB: Right, that’s the key task. You just reminded me of Edward P. Jones’s second novel, The Known World, the one that took him a long time to write. Sections of the book have amazing verisimilitude to various legal functions and court transactions, taking place around the time of the Civil War, and he simply made it all up. I had a history professor write me once to say that she was offended that a novelist was having his way with history, and I told her, It says on the book “novel.” Why do people have these expectation of fiction? And they’re not half as critical of nonfiction.

WG: I’d guess they suffer from a bankruptcy of imagination.

RB: How about poor education? Poor training?

WG: I’ve met entire gangs of über educated people with PhDs in English who were the most imaginatively deprived souls in a hundred-mile radius, the sort who would read a novel and report that it didn’t “feel” real to them, as if their feelings have anything at all to do with the novel.

RB: Isn’t the key internal coherence, that a book is obliged only to be sensible within its own setting?

WG: Within its own architecture, yes. The bolts and the beams of the narrative need to fit only within the novel’s own structure and shouldn’t be worried about corresponding to any outside formula of comprehension. Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and countless others would be inconceivable any other way.

RB: Is your main character in Hold the Dark evil? Is Vernon Slone evil?

WG: That depends on the guidelines by which you’re judging him. By the standards of civilization, he can be called evil, yes, though let me say that he would have hurt no one if only he could have been left alone, left to his own course. By the standards of the wilderness, which are the only standards that hold sway in this story, he is not evil, no. That’s one of the chief conflicts of Hold the Dark: the agon between the rules of the wild and the proprieties of society. By Slone’s DNA, by the precepts of his own land, he behaves precisely as he needs to behave in order to achieve his ends. Slone and Cheeon both—Cheeon, his best friend in the novel—both are sociopathic and would never last a day in Boston, true, but they abide by an ancient code of devotion, a code of blood and bond and myth and bone. They are loyal to one another and that’s dignity of a kind. We’ve forgotten about the bonds of blood, the fidelity of tribe. Their devotion is wordless. Remember, they don’t speak one word to each other throughout the entire novel.

RB: Are we to understand what the moral firmament is in the wilderness? For instance, what justifies those first two murders?

WG: The protection of kin. The punishment of outsiders for meddling with a people and place better left alone. Those two detectives are killed because they are close to finding Medora Slone and Vernon Slone won’t allow that. Medora is Vernon’s to find. Those murders results from an intrusion into territory, which is exactly what I expect would happen if you barged into a bear’s den. This Alaskan territory is a bear’s den—Vernon Slone and Cheeon are the bears.

RB: I wondered about the path that Cheeon took because I think implicit in it is his belief that Slone is going to get caught.

WG: Why do you say that?

RB: Because if he doesn’t believe that Slone is going to get caught, is he aiding Slone’s getaway in mowing down ten or twelve men? And not only doing that, but essentially doing suicide by police.

WG: What’s in Cheeon’s mind during that rampage? Perhaps that the more of these cops he can kill, the fewer will be around to capture Slone. But also, and this is important: they came knocking. They came to him. There wouldn’t have been a rampage if he had been left alone, and that was what I really liked about John Wilwol’s review in the New York Times. He understood that. Don’t come knocking where you don’t belong because you’ll find something fatal. The cops from town and the Feds from the city, they come to this remote place and they attempt to assert their business where it doesn’t fit. Cheeon’s rampage is a retribution and a warning: stay where you belong or there will be these cataclysmic consequences.

RB: À la Ruby Ridge.

WG: I can see the connection. Cheeon’s massacre is a message in extremis. The suicide by cop is really the only outcome for him. His little girl is dead, taken by a wolf; his wife has fled never to return; he knows he’ll never be able to see Slone again. After what’s happened, Slone will be on the run always. Cheeon says to Donald Marium, the detective, he says: The wolf has come for you and me today. The raven follows the wolf, he says, and he points up into a tree and there’s the raven, death’s omen, peering down at them. Remember, he booby-traps his cabin: he’s been waiting for this. From the beginning he’s known they would come for him.

RB: Minor thing, but both Slone and Cheeon, when they’re talking to others, they use the word “guy” where most men who use the word “man” or “dude.” Is that an Alaskanism?

WG: I’m not sure. I’ve heard some Canadians use “guy” in place of “man” or “dude.” It sounds slightly wrong to our ear, and I like that about it, that quality of otherness.

RB: Another illegitimate step in your fabrication. I was thinking, today I harkened back to your controversial review in the New York Times two years ago, that negative review you seemed to draw so much fire for. One particular piece was on the website HTML Giant, in which the writer actually thought to instruct you on what a review should be and how you had failed miserably, and I thought, God, on the face of it, how fucking pretentious to think that he could instruct you. Because one of the things he said is that you have to deal with a book on its own terms, but don’t you also have to deal with a review on its own terms? Was that kerfuffle ever resolved intelligently?

WG: Are internetting nobodies capable of intelligence or resolution? No, the fracas you speak of happened among those internetting nobodies, the synthetically social on social media, so I wasn’t party to it. I don’t partake of social media and I’m not on the internet that much. I’ve never heard of that web site you mentioned but it sounds to me like a haven for the mentally miniscule. I wrote a piece called “Letter to a Young Critic,” my ars poetica, because my editor at the Daily Beast asked for it, but other than that, and receiving a thousand emails of support, I didn’t experience the fracas as others did. My son Aiden was a few months old at the time and nothing focuses the mind like diapers and a screaming newborn.

RB: Do you care? Once having established what you were confident was a well presented argument, did you want to hear counter arguments?

WG: A prepared critic knows there are no counter arguments.

RB: Do you care about being nice as a critic?

WG: Naughty or nice is irrelevant. The question doesn’t exist. The critic’s only concern is right or wrong, true or false. The emphasis on delivery is a dodge, a way of not dealing with the argument. Unpopular causes often rely on the aesthetics of delivery because their foes wear the face of gruesome banality. Let me point out also, for the record, that of the scores and scores of books I’ve written about, only two reviews have been negative, and one was mixed.

RB: All of the top venues you write for, not just the New Republic but the Oxford American and VQR and numerous others, is a recognition of your legitimacy as a critic—you’re guilty by association with some good minds. You must write 5000 words a week for these various magazines. Don’t you set aside other things to do that?

WG: I do, and I need to stop, or this next book will never get done.

RB: Another novel? You have a contract?

WG: The contract I have is for a memoir, believe it or not, and I’m very conflicted about this, Red.

RB: Make it all up.

WG: I’m very conflicted. Speaking of the Oxford American, I just filed a piece about this, about autobiography, as it pertains to the Southern documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee, the great director who did Sherman’s March.

RB: I used to live near McElwee. Do you like Errol Morris’s films?

WG: I’m not a big film guy. I became interested in McElwee because his nephew is a pal of mine. But I’m spottily educated on film.

RB: I don’t want to bring up that you just reviewed the film Child of God at the New Republic.

WG: That was a rather rare exception; I know that novel like a prayer.

RB: You didn’t mention The Counselor in that piece. Do you know that movie?

WG: No. It’s not based on one of the novels. Did you like it?

RB: Sucked, but had some great parts. Cameron Diaz masturbating on the windshield of a car.

WG: That’s so sweet of her.

RB: She might have been the most interesting character in the film.

WG: When you look like Cameron Diaz that’s not hard. Someone once tried to talk to me about the movie There’s Something About Mary—remember that one?—and I asked this person if he ever considered that the something in question about Mary was that she looked just like Cameron Diaz.

RB: Something else I’ve been thinking about lately, because I’ve been trying to reconcile a view I have of serious versus genre literature. When I was a kid it wasn’t like you either did sports or you read, either one or the other. You just read, it was like breathing. Now there’s this whole genre in which people write about reading. I don’t know why they do that. Like that book you reviewed recently in the New York Times, by Wendy Lesser.

WG: Lesser’s book in particular is a deft analysis of certain works of literature and how they function, how they cast their spell. It’s criticism, in other words, not a memoir about reading, which, you’re right, strikes me as a rather yawnful undertaking. The answer to the question why do you read is actually pretty straightforward: I read for pleasure and for intimations of wisdom. Dryden says this, right, that poesy instructs as it delights, but not one without the other.

RB: I.B. Singer said the same thing.

WG: The notion predates both Singer and Dryden. Horace called it dulce et utile: sweet and useful.

RB: Oh boy, I knew you would do this, get all classical on me. Didn’t Horace play for the Pirates, Horace Wagner?

WG: Focus, Red, stay with me. The Horatian prescription of dulce et utile was codified throughout the Renaissance and endured mostly in tact until the contagion of French theory, sneezed by Derrida and de Man, infected American academics in the middle of the last century. But maybe that’s too highfalutin an answer to your Pittsburgh Pirates question.

RB: No shit, Sherlock.

WG: Can we use profanity in this conversation?

RB: Oh yeah, and especially because you need to be more of a hard guy, given Hold the Dark and your author photo, wearing that hat.

WG: I don’t use profanity because—

RB: You’re Catholic.

WG: I was gonna say sophisticated, but you’re right. Lapsed Catholic, actually, but it amounts to the same thing.

RB: Well, your vocabulary far outstrips mine, but remember I grew up in Chicago.

WG: I grew up in New Jersey, Red. That state ain’t exactly a bastion of intellectualism.

RB: But it was the suburbs. But here’s the thing—

WG: I suppose. It was really just a tiny greaser town full of Polish car mechanics and Italian carpenters. Here’s the thing what?

RB: Right, here’s the thing: in my reading, I certainly don’t adhere to any literary theory, have never even read half of the people you mention, whatever their names are. Today, I value John le Carré as much as Robert Stone—

WG: Didn’t you and I have a fight about le Carré, over his stance relating to Rushdie in the 80s?

RB: I think if you go back and read his stance it wasn’t as obnoxious as it might have seemed at the time. Let’s say he fucked up, everybody fucks up, but the thing of it is, I don’t have a benchmark I check off and say, Oh yeah, this is a great book and this is a terrible book. It’s all flying by the seat. And less and less do I remember content. I was talking to David Mitchell* last week. I remember loving Cloud Atlas and I can’t tell you a thing about it.

WG: Then what in God’s name did you love in it?

RB: At the time I read it, I found it to be entertaining and instructive. Like in his new book: he’s a reminder that what’s in front of you isn’t necessarily all that’s going on. He writes stuff, fantasy elements, that I don’t think I’d ever read by somebody else. He does it very deftly. You haven’t managed to read him?

WG: I’ve managed not to read lots of writers.

RB: That’s understandable. I’ve never read Updike and I didn’t read Roth until recently.

WG: Have you still never read Updike?

RB: Never.

WG: I should leave now.

RB: Oh, that’s the way it’s gonna be, huh. We’re gonna judge each other.

WG: Critics judge, that’s there job. It’s extraordinary that you’ve never read Updike.

RB: Listen, when I was in Chicago, I associated Updike with pipe-smoking, tweedy types.

WG: That’s a very wrong association.

RB: Remember, I come from the town of Nelson Algren.

WG: Oh, tough guy, Algren. You remember Hemingway’s blurb about Algren? He said Algren was the second best writer in America.

RB: That’s right, I do know that.

WG: So, yes, we can judge one another by the books we read, and I don’t necessarily mean in that Leavisite manner of turning literature into an ethical audit by which we assert our puritanical values—all you had to do was tell F. R. Leavis what books you read and then he told you your moral coordinates.

RB: We certainly judge people by their friends and the teams they root for. Modern commerce and the Internet does the same thing: give me fifteen metrics and I’ll tell you all these things about you. Amazon does that: buy a book and they’ll tell you what other books you like. Frequently there’s commonality there. When bookstores hand-sell stuff they do the same thing. Music, the same thing. Speaking of which, you never review music, do you?

WG: I just did a piece on Jack White for the Oxford American. But mostly I’m not qualified to review music. The Jack White piece is more about artistic obsession. After the White Stripes it was difficult for me to listen to other music, just as Bellow’s Augie March ruined other books for me for several years.

RB: What would qualify you to write about music?

WG: Some knowledge of musicality, of music history, of melody and tone, a wider range of listening than I have. This applies to literary criticism, as well. Some seem to think that if they can read and are able to have an emotion and an opinion that they are qualified for literary comment. That’s not correct at all. One’s feelings do not translate into criticism. Edmund Wilson said this in the 40s, that our culture of literary comment was puerile and overcome by critics who mistake their emotions for analysis. One’s feelings matter not at all where criticism is concerned.

RB: Really?

WG: Really. One sees this all the time. This book feels contrived to me. This plot feels unfinished. This character doesn’t feel likable. It’s nonsense. Demonstrate what you think and how you think it and you’ll be on to something.

William  Giraldi [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

William Giraldi [photo: Robert Birnbaum]


RB: I really have to strenuously object to that. An emotional response is what you want from art.

WG: Not only that, and not primarily that.

RB: The failure of such a review would be saying that’s the irreducible statement you’re making, about feelings. Whereas the obligation is, for a critic, if you feel something, you have to unpack and explicate what that’s about.

WG: We partly agree.

RB: I think I can write about music, that I’m qualified, in that I have a wide swath of familiarity with lots of music. So even though I don’t know music theory I think by association and by a sense of definition I can talk skillfully about music.

WG: And how it’s arranged and composed. I thought I could do the same, on a minimal level, with Jack White, and get away with it: the way Jack plays guitar, the difference between his playing style and that of others. I agree that art needs to aim for the chest but if it’s not also aiming for the head then the artist has done only half his task. Otherwise criticism becomes only a matter of opinion informed by emotion, and not knowledge or insight earned through expertise. Some opinions are more valid than others, are they not?

RB: I think yes, I would agree with that. But the thing about art is the high ratio of subjectivity that permissible. I don’t think there are theories and generalities that cover the arts.

WG: But one can prove how one book is better than another.

RB: Prove it to me. Prove to me that As I Lay Dying is a better book than Catch-22.

WG: Two masterpieces, equal in what they do, although they do it in different ways. The distinction I mean is the one that must be made between the first-rate and the second-rate. Look at the pitch, the modulations, the reach of the prose. Word by word, sentence by sentence, the superior book proves itself.

RB: The Times review of Hold the Dark repeated that idea of yours, or quoted you, saying that somewhere. And now? Any obsessions?

WG: And now I have no obsessions, which is as it should be for a man about to be clobbered by middle age.

RB: Have you done any readings in Boston, from the Hold the Dark?

WG: No.

RB: No one will have you?

WG: I’m tired. I don’t want to perform. It doesn’t sell books anyway. It’s just a lot of pressure on the writer and pressure on the bookstore, too.

RB: So what’s the next thing?

WG: That memoir I was telling you about, God help me.

RB: Which you’ve started, or not?

WG: Yes. God, I don’t want to think about it.

RB: Am I gonna have to go through the next two or three years listening to you piss and moan about this every time we get together? Why don’t you just give up these book-length projects and stick to essays?

WG: You know what I’d like to give up?

RB: What?

WG: Writing.

RB: And become a bounty hunter?

WG: Farmer maybe. I don’t know anything about it, but I like the way it looks.

RB: Why do you want to give up writing?

WG: Because it’s work and it’s hard and I don’t like work and especially not hard work.

RB: Oh stop about how tough it is. You wanna go pick strawberries in the fields?

WG: That sounds lovely. Walter Benjamin said that a writer must proceed as a man digging a ditch. Ever dig a ditch?

RB: How many fucking ditches have you dug?

WG: My fair share. Need I remind you I come from a working-class family of builders? I’ve dug many a ditch. My point is: writing is difficult and if it’s not difficult then you’re not doing it right.

RB: Okay so you’re a novelist, a critic, an essayist, a teacher, an editor. Anything we’re not knowing about you? You have aspirations?

WG: Wilde said ambition is the last refuge of the failure, so my aspirations are skimpy. I want to raise my boys with as little psychic trauma as possible.

RB: Good luck with that, as they say.

WG: It’s my goal.

RB: And you’re going to do that because you’re a picture of mental health? Why are you qualified to do that?

WG: One must try, Red.

RB: I know. Everybody wants to be a better parent than their parents.

WG: And so we’ve come full circle. This little chat of ours began with my kids and now ends with my kids.

RB: Commendable, I know, but bullshit, too, because if you were at a party holding a glass of wine you wouldn’t answer that question by saying you’re a father.

WG: Well, that’s easy, Red, because I’d never be at that party.

* David Mitchell Conversation 2005

Dumb-De-Dumb-Dumb

22 Sep
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters by Francisco Goya

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters by Francisco Goya

Literary journalism must, I suppose by definition, appeal to a marginal and as it is often claimed, shrinking audience. Thus it apparently behooves its practitioners to offer up a variety ofarguable and contestable theories so as to attract an audience and whatever follows from that. Recently, I came across a reference to an article by Salon senior editor and literary eminence gris’ Laura Miller claiming that “today’s most exciting crime novelists are women.” A stance, it can not go unsaid, I found so silly that I had to try to read the offending column for both its reasoning and to double check that a critic as eminent as MS Miller actually claimed its byline.

Firstly, the writers she singles out are certainly a talented gaggle (she did leave out at least two very talented women (Laura McHugh and Attica Locke, who are at least the peers of Miller’s anointed.)On the other hand, perhaps Miller felt that naming four writers made her case.

Secondly, MS Miller is a savvy and experienced and no doubt intelligent commentator who one would expect would understand the dangers of using superlatives like ‘best’, ‘greatest’, ‘hottest’ in literary conversations (except when preceded by a personal possessive). What then is one to make of the phrase ‘most exciting crime novelists are women’? It is the case that women writers of all stripes are given short shrift in the main organs of the literary arena (every once in a while a diligent and enterprising writer will spend time breaking down the percentage of reviews by gender at the The New York Times and the New Yorker>.So if MS Miller is trying to level the playing fields in some way I suppose one ought to commend her. On the other hand her claim does do a disservice to the other writers who are doing fine work in the disrespected category of genre literature (genre seems to be synonym for ‘non literary’).Now I will stipulate that often the crime series like John D MacDonald’s Travis Magee, Robert Parker’s Spenser novels or even Micheal Connelly’s Harry Bosch’s novels (Parker is among the deceased writers now undergoing a kind of reductio ad absurdum by being written by living writers)are seem formulaic and predictable. It should be noted that Baltimore’s gift to story telling Laura Lippman, does her best work not with her series but with her stand alone novels

Attica Locke [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Attica Locke [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

So in the name of all that is fair and decent in the world, here’s a short list of fine crime story writers: John Lawton(Sweet Sunday, Then We Take Berlin),George Pelacanos, Benjamin Black, Edward Delaney(Broken Irish), Stuart Neville, Jo Nesbo, James Lee Burke,Tom ROB SMITH, Elmore Leonard(Out of Sight),Charlie Huston(The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, Sleepless), Thomas Perry(Butcher’s Boy, Sleeping Dogs), Philip Kerr
(A Philosophical Investigation), Olen Stenhauser, Ace Atkins, Charles McCarry (The Miernik Dossier Shelley’s Heart), Attica Locke (Black Water Rising), Charles Smith(Men in Miami Hotels), James Ellroy (Underworld USA trilogy), Tom Bouman(Dry Bones in the Valley), John Fusco(Dog Beach),Robert Stone(Death of the Black-Haired Girl)and Don Winslow(The Power of the Dog).

Robert Stone circa 2013 [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Stone circa 2013 [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Currently reading Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury)

Norman Mailer’s Summer Reading List

27 May
Norman Mailer @ Grant Park Bandshell, Chicago, 1968 Democratic Convention (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Norman Mailer @ Grant Park Bandshell, Chicago, 1968 Democratic Convention (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

I have no doubt come late to the party—the beach/ summer reading lists having been proffered by the usual experts on beach/summer reading. I am not versed in this genre (though I can recall reading Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost and Foster Wallace’s magnum opus at a beach in Rincon Puerto Rico).Late, but not empty handed. Here’s a list (scroll to the bottom of this article if the name of the list confuses you):

The Light We Can’t See -Anthony Doerr

The Light We Can’t See -Anthony Doerr

The Light We Can’t SeeAnthony Doerr (Scribner)

Excellent narrative, riveting characters and the use of WWII Europe and Nazi depredations are not cliched.

Everything I Never Told You by  Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never told You -Celeste Ng(Penguin Press)

Ng’s debut novel about a teenager’s death and its reverberations in the family and community is nimbly told (no small feat with such a weighty subject.

The Man Who  Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The Man Who Loved Dogs-Leonardo Padura(FSG)

Trotsky, his assassin, The Spanish Civil War, Stalin and the Moscow show trials, an aging Cuban writer, two wolfhounds— its a far flung story (times and places) written with Carribbean alacrity.Don’t believe me? Here’s Ann Louise Bardach take:

A global epic set mostly in Havana, Barcelona, Moscow and Mexico City, Padura’s novel is grounded in a trifecta of storylines: We have the grim saga of Trotsky’s 11-year flight from Stalin; the recruitment and creation of an assassin in the form of Catalonian communist Ramón Mercader; and the marginalization of Iván Cárdenas Maturell, a Cuban novelist who learns early in his career the hazards of writing in his homeland.

The Exile’s Return by Elizabeth De Waal

The Exile’s Return by Elizabeth De Waal

The Exile’s Return-Elizabeth De Waal (Picador)

Adam Kirsch’s paean to Ms De Waal should move you. Or not:

…appearing now, as a historical document, it gains an additional interest, as Elisabeth de Waal’s imaginative response to her own exile…This is not, perhaps, a new story, but in The Exiles Return it is told with sharpness and authenticity.

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek– Smith Henderson (Ecco)

I am partial to American novels set outside urban cultures and with a minimum of consumer activities. Like this one, set in the Fly over zone.

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer

The Cairo Affair- Olen Steinhauer (St Martin’s

As sure-handed as Le Carre reporting on the activities of spooks and various secret police. A world normally Byzantine in its alliances and
fluidity of loyalties, this plot set in Cairo seems especially volatile

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women's Prisons-  edited by Robin Levi and Ayalet Waldman

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons- edited by Robin Levi and Ayalet Waldman

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons (Voice of Witness)by Ayelet Waldman , Robin Levi (Editor)

In case you were charmed into seeing incarceration as a vacation by the Netflix series Orange is the New Black here’s a corrective. Or Christina Rathbone’s A World Apart Women,Prison and the World Behind Bars

They Don't Kill You Because They're Hungry, They Kill You Because They're Full    by Mark Bibbins

They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full by Mark Bibbins

They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full by Mark Bibbins (Copper Canyon)

Fishermen on Sea of Galilee

A citizen said, Every action
born out of pure spontaneity
is correct. It’s possible
he said corrupt but I was
eavesdropping. Correction:
minding my business: he was
performing, saying, also,
to his fellow citizens, I know
you agree with me on this.
Look, it’s autumn in our
hairlines and some smear
on the pavement’s been run
over so many times we can’t
tell whether or not it started
out as an animal.
My heaven is populated
with conures, llamas,
and adolescent bears
but is otherwise
fairly quiet. I’m done
looking for approbation
from people for whom I have
no respect and would respect
less if I met them.
Was this the sea they parted.
Understatement, so rarely
biblical: there is no quill pen
half as sinister as the lone
piece of penne in a dish
of farfalle. Today we rock
anonymity and tomorrow find
further evidence of same
dying in the comment fields.
Wake me when you can
tell me whether every taxi
must engage in a dialogue
with all previous taxis,
when you do something
impossible, when you leave
the party, when you take
my worst advice. This is,
friends, this was the sea.

Midnight  in Europe by Alan Furst

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst (Random House)

Since I discovered Furst I have continued to read his regularly published and dependably entertaining and instructive war time “thrillers” I confess that was a brief period when I wasn’t entertained or instructed but the probability is high that was a shift in my attention or something even more subjective. But his latest opus, I can report is up to (my) snuff. Paris,1938 and the Spanish Civil War goings-on make for a great setting. And that infamous place where the Bulgarian waiter is shot is per Furst’s practice, cleverly insinuated into the plot.

Natchez Burning- Greg Iiles

Natchez Burning- Greg Iiles

Natchez Burning– Greg Iiles (William Morrow)

A densely plotted post racial novel set in Natchez—that’s in Mississippi for all you Yankees that is thick on Civil Rights Movement era history as well lots of things you didn’t know about Natchez. Frankly I thought it was about 200 pages too long (800 pages). Reportedly, this is the first volume of a trilogy

Death of The Black Haired Girl by Robert Stone

Death of The Black Haired Girl by Robert Stone

Death of The Black Haired Girl– Robert Stone (houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Robert Stone is the gold standard of American fiction. That’s it.

The Last Date by Laurent Seksik

The Last Date by Laurent Seksik

The Last Date by Laurent Seksik (Pushkin Press)

Writer Stefan Zweig has garnered lots of attention recently not the least because of Wes Anderson’s film Grand Hotel which in turn reportedly owes something to The Impossible Exile by George Prochnick (Other Press). I like this novel about Zweig’s last few months of life very much

A Permanent Member of The  Family by Russell Banks

A Permanent Member of The Family by Russell Banks

A Permanent Member go there Family by Russell Banks (Ecco)

Russell Banks is also the gold standard of American Fiction.

Kill Anything that Moves- Nick Turse

Kill Anything that Moves- Nick Turse

Kill Anything that Moves– Nick Turse (Picador)

Sorry to saddle this book under the rubric of Important book but if you are in doubt about whether the perpetrators of the Indochinese Debacle were/are war criminals a few chapters of Turse’s exhaustively researched
account should shake up your belief in American moral superiority.

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams  by Ben Bradlee JR

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee JR

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee JR (Little Brown)

See my chat with Ben Bradlee

Euphoria   by  Lily King

Euphoria by Lily King

Euphoria by Lily King (Grove Atlantic)

Author Alice Greenway expiates

Euphoria is a love story set against the scramble by anthropologists in 1930s New Guinea to record or map the traditions and beliefs of societies coming apart under the brutal onslaught of miners, traders, missionaries and colonialists. Lily King writes with astonishing insight and authority about a number of New Guinea tribes and particularly about their distinct gender relations. At the same time, she delves into the intellectual flights and passions of three anthropologists – as complex, rivalrous and brutal as any of the cultures they study. Euphoria is a brilliantly written book and entirely fascinating from start to finish. The character of Nell Stone, slight, wracked with fever and insect bites, with a slight limp from a fall in the jungle and large cuscus-like eyes, capable of joy and huge intellect, is extraordinary.

 American Romantic by Ward Just

American Romantic by Ward Just

American Romantic by Ward Just (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Ward Just is a dependable novelist who chronicles both remote and familiar pockets of American Life, in this case the life of an American foreign service officer who’s brief tryst with a German nurse in Vietnam seems to haunt him through his years of world wide diplomatic postings to his pleasant but solitary retirement in France

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything  by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living With A Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich (Twelve)

Who doesn’t love Barbara Ehrenreich‘s smart and compassionate views on the world? This,Living with a Wild God, would be her most personal book and reaches into an area that many people who spend time thinking, think many hours about. To quote one review

The questions in the world may be infinite, but perhaps the answers are few. And however we define that mystery, there’s no escaping our essential obligation to it, for it may, as Ehrenreich writes, “be seeking us out.”

“When I am asked what’s on my summer reading list… I read the all year long” Norman Mailer

UNFORTUNATELY IGNORED or TRAGICALLY OVERLOOKED?

11 Dec

scribes-in-ancient-greece-granger

Adult onset solipsism can be distinguished from the youth version of self centeredness by the admission that,as Van Morrison croons in The Meaning of Loneliness, “it takes a lifetime just to know yourself.” Thus the one is beset with constant instances of self doubt and self interrogation. One coping mechanism or technique I have employed to gain a foothold on serenity and enlightenment is to regulate or gate-keep my intake of information, allowing my intuition to guide me. For example I am prepared to make decisions on what to investigate further past a snappy headline or synopsis. As in my immediate disinterest for going any further in the text when I encountered this fatuous mandate at Arts and Letters Daily—”Undergraduates should be kept away from theory at all costs,” says —— ———-. They should read Kael, not Derrida….” Immediately sensing its syllogistic unsoundness, I saw this bit of grandiloquence as the kind of Tourette’s outburst one might encounter at faculty meeting or party. Of course, one of the joys of engaging this form of short form journalism (web journalizing) is the opportunity to engage in such orotund pronouncements.

Some Ignored Titles (photo: Robert Birnbaum

Some Ignored Titles (photo: Robert Birnbaum

Ok, for the longest time I had an aversion to lists, viewing them as a lazy journalistic ploy to contribute to the ongoing dumbing down of everything (uh, I still think I am correct about that). On the other hand I can see some creative usefulness in lists— Umberto Eco creates some that interesting. And then there is Paul Zimmer’s poem Zimmer Imagines Heaven where in his recording of it introduces it as a “list” and encourages people to make their own lists:

I sit with Joseph Conrad in Monet’s garden,
We are listening to Yeats chant his poems,
A breeze stirs through Thomas Hardy’s moustache,
John Skelton has gone to the house for beer,
Wanda Landowska lightly fingers a clavichord,
Along the spruce tree walk Roberto Clemente and
Thurman Munson whistle a baseball back and forth.
Mozart chats with Ellington in the roses.
Monet smokes and dabs his canvas in the sun,
Brueghel and Turner set easels behind the wisteria.
the band is warming up in the Big Studio:
Bean, Brute, Bird and Serge on saxes,
Kai, Bill Harris, Lawrence Brown, trombones,
Klook plays drums, Mingus bass, Bud the piano.
Later Madam Schumann-Heink will sing Schubert,
The monks of bendictine Abbey will chant.
There will be more poems from Emily Dickinson,
James Wright, John Clare, Walt Whitman.
Shakespeare rehearses players for King Lear.
At dusk Alice Toklas brings out platters
Of Sweetbreads à la Napolitaine, Salad Livonière,
And a tureen of Gaspacho of Malaga.
After the meal Brahms passes fine cigars.
God comes then, radiant with a bottle of cognac,
She pours generously into the snifters,
I tell Her I have begun to learn what
Heaven is about. She wants to hear.
It is, I say, being thankful for eternity.
Her smile is the best part of the day.

So, here’s a list (of sorts) I created. I thought to offer reasons for my choices but I decidedto rely on your good opinion of me and your curiosity. Additionally, I asked some bookish acquaintances for their recommendations of overlooked books that come to mind( they are pretty much reprinted as I received them). Onward:

Dog Boy by Eva Hornung

Dog Boy by Eve Hornung

Dog Boy by Eve Hornung

Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Inness-Brown

 Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Inness-Brown

Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Inness-Brown

BULLET HEART by MICHEAL DOANE

Bullet Heart by Micheal Doane

Bullet Heart by Micheal Doane

MRS IVES’S XMAS by OSCAR HIJUELOS

Mrs Ives Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Mrs Ives Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

MORNING BY WALT WETHERALL

Morning by Walt Wetherall

Morning by Walt Wetherall

COUNTRY OF WOLFES by James Carlos BLAKE

Country of Bad Wolves by James Carlos Blake

Country of Bad Wolves by James Carlos Blake

Once Upon The River by Bonnie Campbell

Once  Upon A River by Bonnie Campbell

Once Upon A River by Bonnie Campbell

Redemption Falls by Joseph O Connor

Redemption Falls by Joseph O'Connor

Redemption Falls by Joseph O’Connor

The Dog of War by Don Winslow

The Power of the Dog by Don WInslow

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

Darkest Jungle by Tod Balf

Darkest Jungle by Tod Balf

Darkest Jungle by Tod Balf

Valley of Bones by Micheal Gruber

Valley of Bones by Micheal  Gruber

Valley of Bones by Micheal Gruber

Elizabeth Cox</strong> novelist, Night Talk (Random House)

Hey 
 One overlooked novel I would like to add to the list is The Iguana Tree  by Michel Stone. My husband  (Mike Curtis) edited that novel and it is a good story…

The Iguana Tree  by Michel Stone

The Iguana Tree by Michel Stone

David Rieff, author, Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir (Simon & Schuster)

Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution

 Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell

Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell

Robert Stone, novelist, The Death of the Black Haired Girl(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):

     Off the top of my head, I recall only one, and I’ve forgotten the author’s name. There was a novel about a man in  Maine published some years ago, called HARBOR LIGHTS. It was reviewed in IN BRIEF in the NY Times Book Review. A short, excellent novel…

HARBOR LIGHTS  By Theodore Weesner.

HARBOR LIGHTS
By Theodore Weesner.

Katherine Powers, literary personage, author, Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life (FSG)

So, I don’t know about “tragically,” and by “overlooked” I would mean that most people haven’t heard of these–and they are all A+:
“20,000 Streets Under the Sun” – Patrick Hamilton
The Armstrong Trilogy – Roy Heath
“in Hazard” – Richard Hughes
“The Golovlyov Family” – Shchedrin

 20,000 Streets Under the Sun by Patrick Hamilton

20,000 Streets Under the Sun by Patrick Hamilton

Richard Russo,award winning novelist Elsewhere (Knopf), screenwriter (Ice Harvest)

But for my bookseller daughter Emily’s recommendation, I doubt I’d have come across A Marker to Measure Drift . You might want to check to see if it did better than I imagine, but sense is that it slipped into oblivion, and the last scene in the novel is as brutal and breathtaking as anything I’ve read in a long time.

A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

Ron Rash , novelist, The Cove (ECCO)

With by Donald Harington –Harington is America’s Chaucer.

With by Donald Harington

With by Donald Harington

Edwidge Danticat novelist, Claire of the Sea Light (Knopf), humanitarian

I’d say many of Percival Everett‘s novels including Erasure. Everett is as a brilliant at creating narratives as he is at bending genres. He has one of the least classifiable careers, but one of the most brilliant, in American letters.Everett’s 2001 masterpiece, “Erasure”–a parody of the African-American urban novel, offers a lyrical critique of a publishing establishment which continues to pigeon hole writers, particular African-American writers. Everett is also a respected poet and painter. His previous honors include: ThemPEN Center USA Award for Fiction, The Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Fiction and the Dos Pasos Prize.

Erasure by Percival Everett

Erasure by Percival Everett

Joseph O’Connor ,overlooked Irish novelist, Where Have You Been? (Harvill Secker)

Tragically Overlooked Novels? Well, all of mine, for a start. But: do you mean Tragically Overlooked Novels from 2013 or in general? …In my view, DEATH AND NIGHTINGALES by Eugene McCabe is one of the great novels of the late 20th Century. It’s a story of thwarted love set in 1883 in rural County Fermanagh, on the border of Ulster and what is now as the Republic of Ireland. The events of a single day in the life of Elizabeth Winters provide the plot, which is so utterly gripping that you can’t stop reading. But McCabe smuggles in all sorts of darkness and depth. This is a truly brilliant book about racism, gender politics, and political rage, but the subtle (and supple) language weaves you into the story with such fierce and clever grace that you never feel you’re attending a lecture. It’s got touches of Coatzee and Faulkner but a mesmerizing smolder all its own. If you’ve ever doubted the novel’s power to express realities that politics can’t reach, you need to read this magnificent thing.

DEATH AND NIGHTINGALES by Eugene McCabe

DEATH AND NIGHTINGALES by Eugene McCabe

Stuart Dybek ,author, Northwestern University mentor,(forthcoming)Paper Lantern: Love Stories (FSG)

I don’t know how “overlooked” Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga is but i saw it on no lists whatsoever when the millennium nonsense was going on & i don’t think there’s been a change since.

 Far Tortuga  by Peter Matthiessen

Far Tortuga by Peter Matthiessen

David Thomson, cultural encyclopedia,author
Moments That Made the Movies (Thames & Hudson)

Troubles by J.G Farrell. If you don’t think it’s overlooked then The Purchase by Linda Spalding.

The Purchase by Linda Spalding.

The Purchase by Linda Spalding.

Darin Strauss ,author,Half a Life: A Memoir (McSweeney’s), NYU mentor

i don’t know what counts as forgotten anymore. THE FIXER, by–which is tough and beautiful and unsentimental in its treatment of something awful? MOMENTO MORI, which I just read, and which taught me about the consoling half-thoughts and cruelties, the passing cruelties of stupid people. (In other words, most dumbasses will act dumb and assy and never feel bad about it—will come up with reasons, in fact, to feel good about the immoral way they act.) Or maybe THE STATEMENT by Brian Moore, which is a perfect thriller, a smart philosophical treatment of evil and racism, a fun read, and about an afternoon’s read?

 THE FIXER  by Bernard Malamud

THE FIXER by Bernard Malamud

All of the above?

BRIAN DOYLE ,novelist, Mink River (University of Oregon Press) editor of Portland magazine

Hmmm. Maybe THE HORSE’S MOUTH by Joyce Cary. Best novel I ever read, period, but not one that many people have on their shelves. Also made into a terrific movie, which is a rare case of a glorious novel being made into a glorious movie. The few others I know: LITTLE BIG MAN, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT, LORD OF THE RINGS, THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, maybe THE ENGLISH PATIENT, maybe MASTER AND COMMANDER.

THE HORSE’S MOUTH by Joyce Cary

Daniel OLIVAS, novelist The Book of Want (University of Arizona Press)

The Old Man’s Love Story by Rudolfo Anaya

I interviewed him for the first print. Enjoy the list-making edition of the Los Angeles Angeles Review of Books regarding this novel. It’s quite beautiful but did not receive the kind of coverage it should have.

The Old Man's Love Story by Rudolfo Anaya

The Old Man’s Love Story by Rudolfo Anaya

Micheal ORTHOFER ,editor, eminence gris The Complete Review

Way too much gets way too overlooked, but I guess I’d suggest: “Where Tigers are at Home” by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès (which seems to have gotten almost no review- and little reader-attention). Runner-up: “Tirza” by Arnon Grunberg, which got a bit more attention but nowhere what it deserves (it’s a best-of-year-contender) — perhaps overshadowed by Herman Koch’s somewhat similar (and considerably inferior) “The Dinner”.Still: that’s just the tip of the overlooked iceberg.

 Where Tigers are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès

Where Tigers are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès

BEN FOUNTAIN, award winning author, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco)

…Several come to mind:

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger. I don’t know if it could be called tragically overlooked, given that it was made into a blockbuster movie in the late 60s, but nobody talks about it much these days. I think it’s one of the great American novels. Top ten for sure, maybe top five.

We Agreed to Meet Just Here by Scott Blackwood. A lovely, short novel that came out about 7-8 years ago. It won the AWP award, and Scott subsequently got a Whiting Award on the strength of it. It’s just about perfect. His forthcoming novel from Knopf is even better.

The Gay Place by Billy Brammer. A novel of Texas politics, published 1961 or ’62….

"We Agreed to Meet Just Here" by Scott Blackwood

“We Agreed to Meet Just Here” by Scott Blackwood

Robert Mccrum , editor, The Observer, author, Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language (WW Norton)

Hadrian the seventh by Frederick Rolfe

Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe

Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe

ALLAN Gurganus ,novella-ist, Local Souls

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page By G.B. Edwards—this is the single novel by a bureaucrat who spent his life on the Isle of Guernsey. G.B. Edwards imagined a trilogy of such works but he died in a mainland boarding house with this manuscript under his bed. The landlady got it published in 1981. The work is erotic, tumultuous and heroic as a Beethoven symphony. We get the twisted history of incestuous island families. We get the German occupation of the island during World War II. Love stories are offset by men battling the ocean and its creatures. This novel, a rare instance of Folk Art in narrative, deserves a larger readership, a secure place in our literature.

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page   By G.B. Edwards

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page By G.B. Edwards

Gary Fisketjon ,veteran editor at Knopf

Indeed, I could fill a volume in that category with many new additions every fucking year. But given that we’re in 2013, I’d say that Steve Yarbrough’s THE REALM OF LAST CHANCES has been overlooked most tragically. That’s one reason my only lingering resolution – to quit smoking – always fails to get any real traction. …

The Realm of Last Chances by Steve Yarbrough

The Realm of Last Chances by Steve Yarbrough

Billy Giraldi ,novelist, Busy Monsters (WW Norton) critic , essayist, long form journalist editor, Agni

Indeed. Caleb Williams by William Godwin and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Neglected masterworks of suspense both of them. Divinely written.

Caleb Williams by William Godwin

Caleb Williams by William Godwin

Hari Kunzru ,novelist, Men Without Gods (Knopf)

I’ll nominate Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell To Earth. Bowie fans have seen the movie, but the book is beautiful, poised. As if Richard Yates wrote SF.

The Man Who Fell To Earth  by Walter Tevis

The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis

Joseph Epstein ,short fiction writer,The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff: And Other Stories (HMH), essayist, former editor, American Scholar

1. Lampedusa’s The Leopard 2. Sandor Marai’s Embers. I’m not sure if these are tragically overlooked or merely insufficiently well known, but both are swell novels.

 Embers by Sandor Marai

Embers by Sandor Marai

Sven Birkerts, Literary Man for All Seasons, editor, Agni memoirist, writing program administrator (Bennington),

I’m Not Stiller by Max Frisch
The German Lesson by Siegfried Lenz
The Death of a Beekeeper Lars Gustafsson

I'm Not Stiller  by  Max Frisch

I’m Not Stiller by Max Frisch

Tom Piazza ,novelist, City of Refuge (Ecco) screenwriter (Treme), musical connosieur

I’d have to vote for Buddenbrooks, by Thomas Mann, in the H.T. Lowe-Porter translation. Mann is underread in general these days, but Buddenbrooks was a masterpiece. People tend to think it’s just a 19th-Century family saga, but it’s really a book that combines 19th-Century techniques and sonorities with startlingly modern technical strategies that get missed because they work wholly in the service of the narrative. It’s almost like a Mahler symphony — one foot in the 19th Century and one stepping off the cliff into the unspooling chaos of the 20th. Very important to get the old Lowe-Porter translation. Random House made the mistake of letting somebody “update” the translation and they ruined it, sort of the way Pevear and Volokhonsky ruin the Russians.

Among contemporary books, Lives of the Monster Dogs should have made Kirsten Bakis a big literary star.

Lives of the Monster Dogs by  Kirsten Bakis

Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis

Susan Bergholz, non-pareil and sage literary agent (Eduardo Galeano et al)

Here you go; can’t do just one!LOG OF THE S.S. THE MRS. UNGUENTINE by Stanley Crawford, simply the best book about marriage ever written in the US by a living treasure POWER OF THE DOG by Thomas Savage/dead now, extraordinary workAN IMAGINARY LIFE by David Malouf–a pitch perfect novel, except for the Afterword.THE TIME OF OUR SINGING by Richard Powers, our most brilliant and amazing male novelist; makes Franzen and company sound as though they are writing soap operas. Prepare for his novel out in January, ORFEO/stunning!!!

I forgot one very impt novel: CARAMELO by Sandra Cisneros
And another one: IN THE PALM OF DARKNESS by Mayra Montero
And: AND THEIR DOGS CAME WITH THEM by Helena Maria Viramontes.
Ok–I’ll stop now!!!!!!!

LOG OF THE S.S. THE MRS. UNGUENTINE by Stanley Crawford

LOG OF THE S.S. THE MRS. UNGUENTINE by Stanley Crawford

href=”http://www.identitytheory.com/blake-bailey/”&gt;,literary biographer Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson (Knopf)

THE LOST WEEKEND, of course, and Anthony Powell’s first novel, AFTERNOON MEN<a.

THE LOST WEEKEND by Charles Jackson

Stoners

16 Aug

The movie Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place occasions much reminiscence as Kesey and his affiliation with merry making Merry Pranksters and other cultural deviants were significant models to the young undergraduate dissident role that I affected when it risked little to do so.

Robert Stone who I have spoken with a handful of times and who ranks high in my pantheon of literary paragons spent some time with Kesey and the rest of the crazies depicted in Magic Trip, published Prime Green a Memoir of the Sixties, in 2007. NPR, in paying homage to Kesey and his time, reprised an interview with Stone in which he, among other observations, says of Kesey

Kesey was a remarkable character. You didn’t have to be much of a psychologist to see that this was an extraordinary individual, with an enormous amount of energy and drive and imagination and he was simply a lot of fun

Power to the Peaceful!

Just Talking: David Shields and I

28 Dec

Reality Hunger by David Shields

Reality Hunger by David Shields


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

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

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

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

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

RB: He’s got a hip injury?

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

RB: Platelets?

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

RB: Who’s playing third base?

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

RB: No, I don’t believe it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Yeah. But it is a small market.

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

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

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

RB: Who said that?

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

RB: You have to create an alternative media center.

DS: Well, I think it’s called the Web

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

DS: Oh, God, not the Web.

RB: You don’t think so?

DS: I don’t think so.

RB: OK.

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

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

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

RB: Yeah, I said that.

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

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

DS: It’s a dead model.

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

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

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

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

RB: Eggers is from Middle West.

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

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

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

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

DS: No, plenty of people do.

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

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

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

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

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

DS: Stone. Stone I really do not admire.

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

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

RB: —I don’t think it’s an argument.

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

RB: Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DS: Galeano’s?

RB: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

DS: Sure.

RB: What’s so illegitimate about that?

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

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

DS: Hardly.

RB: Or brainwashed by commercial capitalists?

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

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

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

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

DS: It wrestles with existence more overtly.

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

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

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

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

RB: Why call this a manifesto?

David Shields photograph by Robert Birnbaum

David Shields photograph by Robert Birnbaum


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

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

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

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

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

RB: Essayists?

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

RB: Has he published anything recently?

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

RB: What about Wittgenstein’s Mistress?

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Beautiful Children, I think.

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

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

DS: I take them seriously as symptoms of anthropology.

RB: Like commercial, capitalistic degradation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: How was this book edited?

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

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

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

RB: Why didn’t you use pictures?

David Shields Photograph by Robert Birnbaum

David Shields Photograph by Robert Birnbaum


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

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

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

RB: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

DS: Wow, sounds amazing.

RB: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

DS: Why would it be an enemy?

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

DS: Why would it not be clear in—

RB: —in Argentina?

DS: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: I think of myself as a curator.

DS: In what sense, exactly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DS: No Ichiro? No Milch?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DS: Is Spooner a memoir, kind of?

RB: It seems to be based on his life.

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

RB: He called it a novel, yeah.

DS: I see.

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

DS: It takes place outside of Philly?

RB: No, it’s set all over his life.

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

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

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

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

RB: Yeah.

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

RB: Yes, sir.