Tag Archives: William Giraldi

Just Talking: How to Do Things with Words

26 Feb


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

From A (mis) to Z (inn)

Martin Amis [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Martin Amis [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Martin Amis

Andre Dubus III

Ben Katchor

Tony Earley


Amy Bloom

Ron Rash

Arthur Bradford

William Giraldi

John Summers

Josh Ritter

Julian Barnes

Adam Gopnik

Ruben Martinez

Chip Kidd

Paul Lussier

Edith Pearlman

Attica Locke

Charles Yu

Jo Nesbo

Alan Gurganus

George Saunders

George Sciallaba

Alan Lightman

Darin Strauss

Manil Suri

Joan Wickersham

Ann Enright

John Sayles

Tony Horwitz

Thisbee Nissen

Jim Harrison

Ben Fountain

Benjamin Anastas

David Shields

Howard Zinn [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Howard Zinn [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Howard Zinn


In Memoriam Rosie (The Dalai Labrador) 1997-2007

Rosie [photo; Robert Birnbaum]

Rosie [photo; Robert Birnbaum]

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

Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down/EUGENE RICHARDS

22 Sep

It is a glorious day indeed when among the litter of unwrapped packages, volumes of real physical books, each yelping to grasp the teat of the great publicity engine, I hold in my hands a book by the great American photographer Eugene Richards.It occurs to me that photographers face some of the same challenges posed by the digitalization of the world except in their case the advent of phone cameras and cheap and easily portable point-and-shoot devices has degraded the value of photography.

Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down by Eugene Richards

Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down by Eugene Richards

One time Magnum photographer Eugene Richards spent time in Boston (the setting for his second monograph Dorchester Days) graduating from Northeastern University. He went to the Arkansas Delta as a VISTA volunteer in 1969,stayed four years and returned periodically. His self funded new opus
Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down draws from his experiences in the Arkansas Delta: He explains:

Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down is about then and now, memory and change. Black-and-white photographs made long years ago and never printed are interwoven with recent color work and, in turn, a short story that relates my encounter with a tough-minded, impoverished delta woman but also addresses my own struggle with aging and mortality. Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down is a timely story, an experiment in bookmaking. But because the book speaks of what for some people are off-putting issues—race, poverty, and aging—I feel obliged to self-publish it.

Broken doll, Hughes, AR, 1970

Broken doll, Hughes, AR, 1970

The Arkansas Delta has been called at different times the soul of the South, the land of opportunity, a place ruled by race, a forgotten place. Eugene Richards (born 1944) first went to the delta as a VISTA volunteer in 1969. It was less than a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a time when cotton, religion, prejudice and poverty were what characterized most peoples’ lives.

Waiting, Brinkley, AR, 1970

Waiting, Brinkley, AR, 1970

The delta was as starkly beautiful back then as it is now, with cotton fields running to the horizon and small towns that appeared to rise up out of the land. I thought I’d be there a year, but ended up staying more than four years, working for an anti-poverty organization that I helped found with other former VISTAs, then as a reporter. I stayed until I just couldn’t anymore.

As time passed I went back to visit the McGowans, the Landers, Porter Lee and Will Davis, who were sharecroppers and the most generous people I’d ever known, though they had nothing. You’d drive past the carefully tended fields and the plantations with their miles of white fencing out to the sharecroppers’ shacks, where privation, rejection, and hunger were the norm.
I returned to the delta in 1986 when working on a book on American poverty, then eight years ago to search for the few remaining sharecropper shacks. The last time I went back, I photographed church services, tractors in the fields, children walking home as the sun was starting to set. But it wasn’t until this past winter that I found myself flipping through my old black-and-white contact books, the ones from the late ’60s and early ’70s, searching for pictures of life in the delta that I never took notice of before. And as I did this, more than forty years of memories began to well up and overlap.

Currently reading Hold the Dark by William Giraldi (WW Norton )


11 Dec


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


Mrs Ives Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Mrs Ives Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos


Morning by Walt Wetherall

Morning by Walt Wetherall


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)

 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.

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.



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.


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!!!!!!!



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

Praise Saps the Strength

2 Jun
West Newton No More 2013 (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

West Newton No More 2013
(photo: Robert Birnbaum)

I know some smart guys and some down-to-earth guys and some well-read guys and some politically astute and committed guys, but very few guys who are all of those things, and Robert Birnbaum is: he’s one of those invaluable voices out there fighting the good fight and keeping reading and thinking alive. He’s one of the our most incisive and important interviewers.

Jim Shepard

There’s something drastically wrong with Robert Birnbaum.
He takes literature seriously, but he isn’t self-important about it. He spends his time talking to other writers and asking intelligent questions, and – even worse – he reads their books before he talks to them. He’s no literary theory robot; he encounters books with his own mind and heart, and he thinks this is an important thing to do with his life. I mean, he’s just begging for trouble.

Tom Piazza

Part Malcolm Cowley, part Terry Gross, some Charlie Rose mixed in for good measure, Robert Birnbaum is a gift to literature. He cares about books that matter and conducts conversations that make a mark. This is a rare and beautiful thing. I wish we’d finally master cloning because we could use more of him in the world.

William Giraldi

“I never know quite what book I have written till I talk to Robert Birnbaum about it. Some people do ‘close reading.’ His can be as interior as Vermeer, as sweeping as the Hubble eye. We all count on him. He helps us see.”

Allan Gurganus

I don’t live in Boston, so I am not among the “Our” who get to claim Robert as their own. Yet once every few years, when I am in town whoring for one book or another, he is My Man in Boston, if only for an hour. And it is always the most delicious, cracked-up, dressed-down, battery-charging hour. Robert is a reminder that the deeper, grander pursuits of our culture — art, polemics, fine essay — are all around and ever worth stopping for. May I confess to you? I love him madly.

Mary Roach’

Thank God for Robert Birnbaum.

Arthur Phillips

Whenever I talk with Robert Birnbaum I get the feeling that he sees me more clearly than just about anybody. Astonishingly, he doesn’t appear to blame me for an of it, which is why he’s My Man in Boston. If you love books, he should be yours, too.

Richard Russo

Me personally I think Our Man in Boston is better than a stick in the eye. There’s just no question about this, I feel. I think people who think Our Man in Boston is not as good as a stick in the eye are not reading Our Man in Boston at all, or have what we call in the Catholic world a fecking enormous beam of timber in the old orbital socket. Trust me on this one. I have read a lot of muck in my lifetime – I mean, I read all of Jerzy Kosinsky, before I recovered – and Our Man in Boston is just not, no matter what anyone says, muck. Trust me.

Brian Doyle

An interviewer with personality, curiosity, and no fear — clearly Birnbaum will never make it in the big time. Glad he’s on my radar screen, though.

George Scialabba

George. We knew that. For years. And now the timeless Birnbaum conversations come to roost in a better, at least a more appropriate, place. About time.Read them all. Start anywhere. [This assumes Robert will get on the stick and give us some links…] Doing so will pay big dividends. Literati will be enthralled. Izzy [Robert is merely his nom d’émigré] will feel even more important (and more significantly will get that frisson he so seldom gets, as when he’s accorded respect) because someone paid attention. But most importantly, saying all this will help keep Izzy off my back, and make him continue to owe me big time.There are a lot of conversations, silently (well, I speak figuratively), slowly accreted into a different sort of literary treasure, ready to be re-re-discovered, again and again. You may end up thinking, “Robert Birnbaum spreads himself too thin.” But there’s a lot of him to spread. I speak, of course, literarily and culturally: I’ll withhold judgment on the intellectual, until he shows a little more serious intent with the copy editing. There’s always more of what we love Robert for—never shutting up. Hail to a major repository of the national cultural treasure of his 25+ years worth of conversations with noteworthy authors. As a conversationalist, James Lipton, of a different era and cultural medium, has nothing on Robert—and Robert is younger, cuter, and available.
Go Cubs.

Howard Dinin

Robert Birnbaum is a great guy, an incisive interviewer, and a true dog-lover, whose only defect lies in rooting for the wrong baseball team.

George Saunders

Attention Must be Paid—The William Faulkner of Tennessee

27 Feb

William Gay, called the “William Faulkner of Tennessee” by cognoscenti in his home state, died of a heart attack this past weekend. If any proof is needed of the NewYorkcentricism of American publishing world (or at least the press coverage) search engine the name of William Gay, and you will get more results for the same named NFL football player.

I came to be aware of William Gay in a 2003 conversation with Tom Franklin, he extolled the talents and writings of William Gay and that, of course, is how much of the important information in the literary world is transmitted (if not the world-at-large) And if you care to know, as I hope you will, more about Gay, William Giraldi has written eloquently in a long exegesis, A World Almost Rotten: The Fiction of William Gay in the Southern Review. It begins:

In William Gay’s scorched world Flannery O’Connor is present less as a looming ghoul than an elderly aunt who lives in his house and will not die. And yet, despite O’Connor’s strong presence (and the unavoidable presence of the Yahweh of Southern literature, the god from whom no male writer in the South can ever hope to flee), Gay’s work is wholly his own, pulsing with both tradition and novelty. His four books have been crafted from darkness: The Long Home (1999), Provinces of Night (2000), Twilight (2006), and the story collection I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down (2002). Gay is, along with Barry Hannah, Cormac McCarthy, and Harry Crews, one of the four living horsemen of the Southern apocalypse.

There was not a single pocket in Tennessee in which Gay could hide from Faulkner’s commanding influence. For an aspiring writer in working-class Lewis County, Faulkner existed in the very air…

Giraldi’s elegiac take on Gay concludes:

The writer Tom Franklin, a dear friend to Gay, tells a story about how Gay was so poor when he was a youth that he had to mix water with crushed walnut shells in order to make ink. Gay admits that the family couldn’t afford a car when he was growing up, but he doesn’t boast of poverty. The writer with unflinching portray- als of human cruelty in his fiction is in life a mild and dignified man. Franklin speaks of his “purity,” his indifference to celebrity and the hurly-burly of New York publishing. Despite astounding natural talent, Gay sometimes sounds sur- prised that he’s a writer and that he’s been able to earn a living from his work for the past decade.
Surprised or not, Gay continues to beget stories and novels that help splinter the early-twentieth-century fairytale of an Edenic South, that shear humankind down to the bone to lay bare the original sin and the sporadic warmth beating beneath our ribs, and for that you should thank whichever god you call your own.

RIP William Gay

Currently reading The Collective by Don Lee (WW Norton)

Chatting with William Giraldi

9 Feb

William Giraldi copyright 2012 Robert Birnbaum

You have probably never heard of debut novelist and Boston University mentor William Giraldi (one of the things this bulletin aims to correct).One would hope that the effusive praise from the Washington Post’s Ron Charles should have raised his visibility in the cloistered, marginal world of literary fiction.But to quote the great Thomas Waller, “One never know, do one?”

“Busy Monsters” may be the best literary present you could bring to a brainy guy’s bachelor party. It boasts lots of gonzo adventure, wacky sex and an endorsement by Harold Bloom that’s so pompous I can’t tell if it’s part of the joke. No matter: William Giraldi’s cocky first novel is a romance for real men — real nerdy men willing to fight for a woman’s heart. Here’s a book to help you celebrate “the stimulating incipience of romance, the excitement of possibility, of being rescued from the abscess of lonesomeness and having someone to share your hydrogen with.” Got that?

Its possible that the weighty blurb by Harold Bloom that Charles quotes also has some raises Giraldi fame quotient—who knows how these things work? For my part, based on the ebullient and energetic sensibility in evidence in Busy Monsters, I felt reasonably certain William Giraldi and I would have a satisfying conversation— one that ranged far and wide, touching on his biography, growing up in New Jersey,his lack of skill in carpentry, the poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins(which he can recite with passion, off the cuff), Harold Bloom,Florence Ballard and so on and so forth:

RB: You’re going to have to give me some biographical details here, because I’m sure people are going to want know some things about you. So, if I was writing like a dust jacket biography, I would say, “William Giraldi’s read all thirty of Harold Bloom’s books and… Go ahead…”

WG: Well, you hit it on the nose as soon as I walked in. I was raised Catholic in New Jersey by my grandmother, my father had all three of his kids, my brother, my sister and myself to raise after my mother abandoned our family, we were all pretty young when it happened so . . .

RB: You wrote somewhere that that was okay?

WG: I wrote somewhere that I’m not traumatized by that, I had a great childhood,

RB: You’re the only one.

WG: [laughs] I had a great childhood, I remember it fondly. You know who was insistent that I have not had a great childhood, and that I carry this around with me like an axe in my back? All the shrinks that I’ve seen over the years—they’re the ones trying to tell me that I’ve got all these problems but—

RB: Sensitive, aren’t they?

WG: So sensitive, it’s true. So I was raised in central NJ by my grandparents and my dad and working class—

RB: Give me an idea of who was president at the time.

WG: Who was president at the time? Reagan. I remember that, I remember Reagan on the news. I remember when the space shuttle blew up. I was a small child when that happened but I remember Reagan on the news talking about that. It was the Challenger. Working class family, my dad’s a carpenter, very working class town.

RB: Was your dad a Republican?

WG: No, my dad—

RB: He didn’t get hoodwinked by that “Morning in America” stuff?

WG: No. My dad didn’t really know what he was politically. He was just a guy who worked in the sun for twelve hours a day and was a guy who was preoccupied with his kids and I don’t think he would’ve known if he was a Democrat or Republican. You know, he wasn’t politically conscious. Stendhal’s best advice he could give to a novelist was not to be political in fiction, to leave politics aside, and so my father was like that in life. He didn’t know much about it.

RB: Was he strapped for cash?

WG: He was for a long time. In fact that’s one of the most prominent memories I have as a child: my dad suffering to pay the mortgage. Because when my mother left the family she demanded half of my father’s assets. And my father didn’t want to sell our family home. He wanted us to be raised in the home that we were accustomed to, so he took out an extra mortgage, and at the time our house was worth $300,000 and this was a large house, my father had worked and worked and worked and built up this large house in the best part of town—it was brand new.

RB: What town in New Jersey?

WG: I grew up in a town called Manville. But we moved right across the border to a more affluent town called Hillsborough. It was right across the border, you could walk from one town to the other, and it was right after we moved in that house that my mother left the family. Now, she left the family because, as we found out years later, she had met somebody else, a millionaire banker in New York City. And no one had ever found out how she was able to do this because she was a small town girl who had me her senior year of high school, she never spent a day—

RB: Do you want to talk about this because I see a memoir—

WG: Do you? I’ve written personal essays about it actually. I’ve written some about it. But a book? No.

RB: The reason I’m asking about your father and his politics and whether or not he had trouble making it financially is because it strikes me that the people who are having trouble are the ones who should be paying attention.

WG: That’s true. I know, and it’s a real—I don’t know if it’s a paradox or not, but it’s certainly something that shouldn’t be. I know from my dad—he was so preoccupied with waking up in the morning and, I mean, my father wasn’t a TV watcher, he didn’t watch the news, he wasn’t a paper reader, and I remember him just being incredibly stressed and incredibly busy. Just trying to get extra hours at work, and making sure we were fed, and making sure we were clothed. I mean this was a guy who really didn’t have the time or the leisure to be politically active. And I’ll tell you, none of this would have happened, my father would have been wealthy if it hadn’t been for the alimony that my mother demanded and that large chunk of cash that she filched from him.

RB: Your mother —you said she deserted your family for another guy, but apparently no one knew about it at the time—

WG: No.

RB: Because she collected alimony. Under what pretense?

WG: Her claim was that my father was—

RB: Cruel?

WG: No…

RB: Incompatible?

WG: Well, she claimed he was incompatible, yes, and she claimed that he restricted her options in the world, that he was possessive, that he was jealous, and of course my father denied all of that.

RB: That doesn’t even sound like grounds for divorce.

WG: No, but it’s what she wanted. She wanted to be out of the marriage because, of course, well, we didn’t find out until years and years later that she met somebody else. But what she had claimed at the time was that my father was too strict, too restrictive of her freedoms. And she wanted to have her own life, she wanted to work, she wanted to—the truth was she didn’t want to be a mother and she didn’t want to be a wife. She wanted to be with this new man in Manhattan, so, we didn’t find that out until a long time after.

RB: And I’ve got to ask, did this—this must’ve embittered your father?

WG: Indeed it did. I remember that vividly. I remember one day, he and I were standing outside on our front walkway, and we were fighting, I was about eleven years old and I think we were arguing about my not cutting the grass, and he had come home and the grass wasn’t cut and he had to do it after twelve hours of work. And the conversation somehow turned to my mother, and I remember I said to him, I said, “You know, maybe she left us because of you. Maybe it was you.” And I remember he looked at me and said, “All I ever did was love your mother. She left because she didn’t love us.” And I’ve never forgotten that. I didn’t believe it at the time. It took many, many years for me to understand that that was true. But you are right, he was extremely bitter.

RB: But that’s amazing—some fathers would’ve just hit you. After twelve hours, having to come home and—some people would’ve just lashed out.

WG: Yes, he had his moments of lashing out, he certainly did. He wasn’t abusive in any way, he wasn’t physical, but he certainly—I can remember him dragging me from one end of the kitchen—when I was a teenage—I can remember him dragging me by the earring, from one end of the kitchen to the other, saying, “You will do these dishes.” You know? So, he suffered a lot. I remember that well. I can remember lying in bed at night, feeling his anxiety. And of course, my grandmother, Catholic warrior extraordinaire, really implanted that in us.

RB: This was your paternal grandmother?

WG: That’s right.

RB: And from that, you decided to be a writer. [laughs]

WG: [laughs] Yeah, what else was I gonna do with all that?

RB: So, what, you grew up in central New Jersey, and despite what you’ve said so far, had a relatively normal life.

WG: Yes, I mean—

RB: Small town New Jersey life, you had a family around you, and a house, and siblings—

WG: And friends.

RB: You went to public school?

WG: I went to Catholic school.

RB: All the way through?

WG: I went to Catholic school through 8th grade, and then when we moved over the town border, then I went to the public high school.

RB: The damage had already been done.

WG: The damage had already been done, absolutely. It was a very strict Catholic school, and a very arduous one. The curriculum was arduous. I can remember the nuns reading in Latin and reading in Greek and my not understanding any of it and they’re trying to teach us that and it not registering with me at all. But I remember the rhythms of that. I can remember a nun named Sister Dorianne reading the New Testament in the original Greek and I didn’t understand what she was saying, but I can remember the rhythms of it and how beautiful it sounded and I can remember attending some masses in Latin, and just being overwhelmed, astonished, astounded by the rhythms and sounds. That might have been the genesis of my love for verse. I spent a good deal of my college years, in graduate school especially, studying poetry, the Romantics in particular, and also Gerard Manley Hopkins, and I never understood where that came from, because I’m not a poet, but I cherish it and study it and it means the world to me. And perhaps those early days of that, of hearing the mass in Latin and hearing the gospels in Greek, maybe that did something, started something for me, because I’ll tell you, Robert, I never chose to be a writer. This was not the plan.

RB: So you went to high school. Were you on the football team?

WG: No way.

RB: Were you on the basketball team?

WG: No way.

RB: No team.

WG: No way.

RB: You were a degenerate, bohemian type? Instead, you paid attention to poetry in high school?

WG: I began writing poetry in high school, yes, what I thought of as poetry. Or I thought of it at the time as song lyrics. I remember hearing music in my head and wanting to write lyrics to that music. I was very influenced by Jim Morrison, which was incredible, because this was the late 80’s, and why would a teenage boy in the late 80’s discover Jim Morrison?

RB: Or how?

WG: Or how. I don’t know how. But I remember listening to his music and picking up a biography of Morrison and reading it all night, being overwhelmed by it. And I remember picking up some collections of—

RB: Was the [Oliver]Stone movie out yet?

WG: No, it wasn’t. No, because I remember seeing that when I was older, and that Val Kilmer performance was just unforgettable. It’s a shame what happened to him.

RB: It’s hard to remember some of these guys, what their good roles were. He wasn’t bad in that movie Thunder Heart. And he wasn’t bad in Heat.

WG: Yes, he was great in Heat, small role.

RB: Right, well everybody after Pacino—

WG: Everybody after Pacino and DeNiro, right.

RB: There’s a movie where, it has a lot to do with drugs and stuff, takes place in Hollywood . . .

WG: Yes, it’s called Wonderland.

RB: But he had stuff—he must’ve done stuff way before that that I remember him doing well, you’re right—because there was sort of a downhill slide there.

WG: He was the youngest student ever accepted to Julliard.

RB: What age?

WG: I think he was fifteen or sixteen years old when he was accepted to Julliard, the youngest student ever. I don’t know if that’s changed, but he’s really followed a kind of Brando-like path if you’ve seen photos of him lately. He’s really large and scruffy and he seems to have shun the acting world the same way Brando did. Or at least shun the showbiz aspect of it. There was no one like him for a while. He was really great.

RB: Speaking of which, this triggered my—I may have weird neuro things that happen, bear with me— How would you know who Florence Ballard was?

WG: Well, I remember reading something about Florence Ballard. I hadn’t known who she was, prior to reading an article somewhere in some book, or magazine, or newspaper. I must’ve been in college. And it was an essay or article about her tragic life. It really speared me because I was suffering from a hideous melancholy at the time, and I remember coming across this article and remembering her that way, because she suffered so much. Alcoholic, and severe depression, and death, and you know, the truth is that I originally wanted that person in Busy Monsters to be Diana Ross, but my editor said, “There is no way we’re making that Diana Ross. We’re not getting sued here. You’d better make it somebody else.” And I thought well, maybe Florence Ballard is more fitting.

RB: What would be libel? What reference to Florence Ballard was libel?

WG: Well, Florence Ballard was originally Diana Ross, and Romp says that—Romp, the character in the book—says that he copulated with Diana Ross in the 70’s, and my editor is super vigilant.

RB: Yeah, right, people could sue you for that.

WG: Yes, and he just didn’t want even to go there, and then it occurred to me afterwards, and we talked about making it Florence Ballard, and I said, Yeah, you know that might work better actually because she had such as tragic life and that’s really where Charlie’s life is going if he doesn’t get Gillian back. He’s gonna turn into a Florence Ballard.

RB: So, you know, we talked off camera, or off microphone as you were fondling your book, and appreciating its beauty and splendor, but you mentioned that it was seven years. Now, it’s only a few hundred pages, why did it take you seven years? [laughs]

WG: Great question. I wish I had a succinct answer for that. Well, it took me five years to write, and two years to revise. And so, I lived with this guy for seven whole years, and he climbed inside of me, and took me over, and I’m glad to be done with him. I felt really possessed by him. I couldn’t make it any sooner than that. I couldn’t make it any quicker than that. The voice was so—

RB: Is that you? Is that your voice?

WG: It’s not the voice that I speak in, and it’s not the voice that I write in—[pauses, hears music in background] Wanda Jackson and Jack White. Hear this song? This is a Jack White produced Wanda Jackson album.

RB: They broke up, didn’t they?

WG: The White Stripes? Oh God, I’m gonna cry, don’t make me cry.

RB: It’s okay. Men can cry.

WG: I can’t even think about it. But this is Wanda Jackson “Thunder on the Mountain” produced by Jack White.

RB: See, this is your voice then, because you’re easily distracted.

WG: True.

RB: And you, I suspect, would do well on Jeopardy.

WG: Oh Lord, I mean, my wife says that, but usually she’s just flattering me. She wants me to—

RB: Well I don’t think that. Nonetheless, as an example, Jim Shepard says that when Jeopardy’s on, his kids come in and ask him to come in the room because he is a reservoir of varied, odd facts. And certainly in the references that go on, in the novel, you make all sorts of references to, again—I don’t think many people who read this will know Florence Ballard or Wilkie Collins, or any number of other things. This is the accumulation of your—

WG: Of twenty five years of reading.

RB: And nerve endings randomly firing.

WG: Yes, I like that. The accumulation of nerve endings firing. I think that’s true, and I think that—I mean, for the past twenty five years, reading has been the most important thing in my life, and in many ways I put twenty five years of reading into this book, and the reading was all kinds of reading, not just novels, and not just poetry, but philosophy and history and pop culture and sociology and psychology. And this character, this narrator gave me the chance to use all of that, to put it all to narrative effect, and it’s one of the things that the reviewers are commenting on. I was so pleased to get such a strong review from Ron Charles in today’s Washington Post.

RB: We’ll go back to him in a moment.

WG: What was I saying before the Wanda Jackson came on? It’s not my voice. I think there’s a lot of me in Charlie, but, the way he moves through the world is not the way I move through the world.

RB: Okay, well maybe you can use a different word. Not voice, but there’s a sensibility that’s reflected there. I’m glad you mentioned it because you know, I don’t know about frequently, but there are times when I wonder whether or not it’s possible to read too much.

WG: What do you mean by that?

RB: I’m not sure, but I think that, you know, I think that it’s possible, or I worry that it’s possible that if you spent your life in these alternative worlds that are created by words on a page you lose touch with the real world. And/or you refract all the stuff you see in the so-called real world in unreal ways, you know?

WG: I suppose that’s entirely possible. I want to recite something for you:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

RB: And tell me who that was.

WG: That’s one of the “Terrible Sonnets” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

RB: Why do you call it terrible? Is it entitled “terrible”?

WG: Yes. This one is called “No worst there is none,” and he has a whole series of sonnets that are called “The Terrible Sonnets” because he wrote them during a very dark night of the soul. He was living in Dublin, teaching at a college there and it was miserable. He had abandoned his family in England, and he had betrayed them by his apostasy, leaving Anglicanism for the Roman Catholic Church, and he had felt such deep pangs of grief and regret and sorrow and guilt for that apostasy and for leaving his family in England, for Ireland, and feeling terribly depressed, and battling with God during these horrible, wretched Ireland winters. But those poems, and Hopkins in general—I wanted to recite that for you because he informs the way I see the world. His language, which you call sensibility, I think I would call vision—it enhances the way that I see the world and it enhances the way I interact with the world, because those poems, they’re so physical, they have such sound, what Hopkins called “sprung rhythm,” his meter. They have such a palpable presence for me, I can almost taste and smell them. I think, in response to what you said, the only time I felt that is when I spent too many hours inside reading and not enough time outside living. So I’ve definitely felt that. But I know that all the hours I’ve spent reading over the years, that it really enhanced my existence in the world, really enhanced my interaction with the world, and I don’t read just for pleasure, and I don’t read just for wisdom, and I certainly don’t read for an escape. I read for some hint of how better to interact with the word. I said somewhere recently that I read because I wanted to be a better father, a better husband, a better writer and teacher.

RB: I think you could just say I wanted to be better.

WG: Exactly. There’s another Hopkins poem that begins:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

WG: That’s his plea to Christ against his feelings of despair, against suicide, and despair for Hopkins meant a Catholic doctrinal despair, the sin of turning away from God, which is the sin that Marlowe’s Faust is ultimately damned for. And I can remember being as depressed as Hopkins and reading that and it actually giving me some semblance of hope.

Despair is impossible, self-destruction is impossible, I will go on. That famous Beckett line: I can’t go on, I’ll go on. So I love what you say about reading contaminating our way in the world because I think that’s certainly true and I definitely don’t believe that reading can save civilization. You mentioned Harold Bloom earlier, and I agree with Bloom that literature is not a social corrective. It’s not going to save us as a civilization.

RB: You mentioned Ron Charles before, and he mentioned Harold Bloom’s endorsement of your book: “William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters is rammed with life. A kind of elegiac intensity, remarkable for so young a man, pervades its harmonies”. What does that mean?

WG: [laughs] Mr. Charles wasn’t sure that he knew either.

RB: He was not as kind as I just was.

WG: Well, rammed with life—Charles is so vital, and despite all of his loathing, he is a guy who’s filled with life, and the book has got so many odd—what I like to think of as so many lively characters—a kind of elegiac intensity, you know—there’s this very elegiac insistence and almost unstoppable rhythm to the way this guy thinks and speaks. Does it have harmonies? Does that intensity convey the book’s harmonies? Well, I like to think of harmonies as—

RB: You don’t have to justify that.

WG: Well, I tried to make sense of Bloom’s very generous endorsement myself. He means the harmonies are the manner in which the book hangs together.

RB: He’s just paying you back for being the only person in the word who’s read all his books.

WG: No, that’s not true.

RB: You think there’s more than one person who’s read all his books?

WG: God yes.

RB: Is there a Harold Bloom Society?

WG: You know there’s going to be. He’s going to go down, despite all of the controversy surrounding his ideas, he’s going to go down as one of the most important literary critics ever. That isn’t up for debate. The impact he’s had on literary criticism is just immeasurable. The impact he’s had on the reading culture is just immeasurable. And that impact, true, is based partly upon his divisiveness.

RB: I just have to say, I’ve gotten through my reading life not having read one of his books. Or one of his essays, or maybe anything by him. On the other hand, I’ve also read little or no John Updike. And there’s a long list of things I haven’t read.

WG: Sure, I as well.

RB: And there are lots of things I have read. Have you read Nelson Algren?

WG: I admire Algren. I especially like The Man With the Golden Arm, and he’s got a wonderful story collection about Texas, also a beautiful book on writing. You know, Ernest Hemingway praised Algren right through the roof. Hemingway said that Algren was the second greatest American writer. [laughs]

RB: Yeah, that’s pretty true. But you’re teaching. And I recently read a book about, you know, academics summed up, as in Richard Russo’s Straight Man and I realized that I take it for granted that I understand what goes on in a contemporary English department. What’s it like teaching reading and English these days? You have a bunch of people who are teaching it, colleagues, and you have a bunch of kids coming in, many aspiring to be writers, what’s happening there? What’s the result of all that?

WG: Well, I’ll tell you, my department at Boston University is called the CAS Writing Program. It’s a sister ship to the English department.

RB: This is Leslie Epstein’s department?

WG: This is the undergraduate program. Leslie Epstein’s department is the graduate program. I have freshman, sophomores, juniors and seniors who are studying a myriad of subjects, who come to me in order—

RB: The stuff that they come to you for is elective?

WG: It can be an elective, depending on what their major is, but I teach the American short story and I teach the memoir. And that means that every semester I am giving these kids books of stories and memoirs from all over the world and teaching them how to read them, how to write about them, in a very critical way. It’s essentially literary criticism. How do we read a book, and then how do we write something smart about what we’ve read?

RB: Are you at a point where you try to discourage them from pursuing the writing career?

WG: I don’t try to discourage them, but I’m very upfront with them. I tell them they should choose a less wobbly profession, something less lopsided. And they see—I’m very open about my job as a writer and I speak with them about what’s happening that week with a certain publication, or with my agent, or Norton, and they’re all very interested in that.

RB: But they don’t really know, they’re still sort of searching. Do you have kids who say, “I want to be a writer, this is what I’m going to do.”

WG: Yes, I got an email just yesterday as a matter of fact, from a senior. She took my class when she was a freshman, and she wrote to me and said, “You know, before I took your class I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer, but it was your class that all these years later has had the most effect on me.”

RB: And now she can blame you.

WG: And now she can blame me, I know. I’m responsible.

RB: More importantly, is teaching what you aspire to?

WG: No, but I have loved it, and I’ve been grateful for it. But I’m been getting tired of teaching, Robert.

RB: Well, you teach two semesters? Three semesters and summers?

WG: I teach three classes every semester, on Tuesday and Thursday.

RB: For what, three hours a day?

WG: That’s right.

RB: And you have to read all their stuff?

WG: Read all their stuff and comment on it, so it’s obviously more than just three hours on Tuesday and Thursday. I meet with them, but as my family says—that ain’t work. I’ve got this great salary and I’ve got all these great benefits—my wife is covered with dental and my son is covered with a prescription plan.

RB: Well, is he a righty or a lefty?

WG: Ethan? We’re trying to figure that out. He’s grabbing everything with his left hand.

RB: Well I would definitely bind his right hand then. Because then you move him into baseball and you get him to be a pitcher and he’s golden. By the time he’s old enough to play in the majors that lefty pitcher position will probably be worth 30 or 40 million a year.

WG: You know something? You need to be our family financial adviser.

RB: So, we were talking about the fact that you don’t always want to be teaching because it’s hard earned. I imagine it takes you away from writing, so is what keeps you in teaching the fact that you have to make a steady living and etcetera?

WG: That’s part of it, absolutely.

RB: Could you be a carpenter?

WG: No, I could not, I definitely could not. I tried carpentry for many summers with my family. I just hate it, I don’t like getting up early in the morning, I don’t like physical labor, I’m profoundly indolent. Just the idea of physical labor makes me yawn. So, no I’m not any good at it, I don’t have any interest in it. My family, my uncles and my dad when he was alive, are extremely talented at it. My uncle with wood is like Michelangelo with stone, it’s just amazing the things he can do, I’m just in awe. Every time I see my uncles make something with wood—the things they can do with wood is just astounding. I came out of those summers with not only a profound respect for what they do but also the knowledge that I could never do it.

RB: So, what, is writing the default position in your life? Is there anything else you can do? Is there anything else you want to do?

WG: I can’t do anything else. I don’t even really want to write. It’s hard and I hate it. I wish I had picked up some other skill.

RB: Crime. A life of crime. Did you see the movie Out of Sight with George Clooney?

WG: And Jennifer Lopez.

RB: Based on a Elmore Leonard novel. That’s a blueprint for—

WG: Isn’t that the life?

RB: Yeah, you know, the guy doesn’t use a gun, he robs his banks with a note and his charm.

WG: And it’s a victimless crime.

RB: Yeah, he gets caught a couple times, which means he goes to jail.

WG: So, do you want to go into business together? Perhaps we could—I know a few banks that need some knocking over. They are very unkind to their patrons.

RB: I have a feeling we’re both losers. [laughs]

WG: [laughs]

RB: One of us has to be a winner. In partnership there has to be contrast, not matching.

WG: True, true. We would definitely be losers in the bank robbery business, I have a feeling. You know—interesting fact: What percentage of first time bank robbers do you think gets caught?

RB: Ninety. I think it’s pretty high.

WG: One percent of bank robbers gets caught their first time. Ninety get caught their second time. They get sloppy, they get greedy, they get careless. Interesting fact, right? Now listen, Robert, if we can make that first one a good one, make it a large score—

RB: [laughs] There was a great article in The New Yorker a few years ago, I don’t know about this—I think they were brothers? Either brothers or three partners who robbed banks all around the Midwest and were extremely successful. Apparently for a time retired or their home base was Kansas, and then, this was all learned in retrospect, and then they moved to Minnesota and took some of their monies and had some inconspicuous houses built up in the woods and stuff like that. And through some fluke they get caught, you know? They finally get caught. But, you know, they had an amazing string.

WG: How long did they last? Years?

RB: Years!

WG: Now they’re in prison though?

RB: Now they’re in prison. That was sort of the feeling you got from Heat, that DeNiro had been at it for a long time, you know. It reminds me of what somebody said about writers who write series, which is they usually write one or two too many. No one knows when to stop. Let me just say to you, by the way, I did enjoy your book, though it’s not my kind of story. Among other reasons, it’s hard for me to remember jokes and things that are funny. Like I could never remember something that Woody Allen said, you know? But it certainly was delightful. My kind of story is like, speaking of Ron Charles, Once Upon the River by Bonnie Jo Campbell, which is this gritty in-the-woods story. Jim Harrison, Tom McGuane, Richard Ford, Russo—I try to understand why I’ve sort of settled on that stuff, it’s not really in my experience, I grew up in Chicago. I’m an urban kid, you know?

WG: That’s why you like Algren.

RB: And it’s why I like crime stories, because there’s something about the people that populate crime stories that remind me of people who live in the city. I just read some stories by a kid named Frank Bill, a book called Crimes in Southern Indiana. I mean, talk about gritty, this is like—have you seen Winter’s Bone?

WG: You know, I read the novel, it’s a little bit different from the—

RB: It’s all rusted wrecked cars in the driveways, trailer parks with abandoned appliances and everything’s rusted out and, you know, and the characters—

WG: Why does that strike a chord with you?

RB: I don’t know, I guess because that sense of—first of all, there’s a level of—I know what it was. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t warm up to Dana Spiotta’s book Stone Arabia. And why your book doesn’t quite hit it for me. There’s a certain level of engagement that the characters have in those kinds of stories that seems really palpable and really real to me, whereas when something like a picaresque, I look at as more like, I don’t know, not quite real. You know Spiotta’s book?

WG: I reviewed it, yes.

RB: Oh that’s right, you did. I was going to read it because I liked the writing. She’s obviously a smart woman, good prose, but I just couldn’t care about Nick and his sister.

WG: What you’re saying makes sense to me. There is an element of unreality to my novel, and of course, that’s part of the book’s mind. In other words, we never know, really, whether or nor what’s happening is real, and people keep confronting Charlie wherever he goes about the veracity of his tales, and so, for me, the book has something to say about that diaphanous line between the fictions and the facts, between the things that happen to us and the way we present those things to the world. And so, characters are constantly confronting Charlie on what he has written and the truth of those adventures. And he’s hyperbolic and he’s fantastical, so, for me that was very much part of the point, I very much wanted to write a story that called storytelling into question. About halfway through this book I realized I was writing a story about storytelling, about mythology, the stories we tell ourselves in order to live, the stories we tell ourselves in order to explain ourselves to ourselves. And so, you’re absolutely right, that is definitely an acquired taste, I don’t think that Thomas McGuane fans who like the cowboy gritty will like Busy Monsters. But, you know, McGuane’s Panama is a hysterical book, miles away from the Montana hard scramble life. Panama was actually one of the influences for my book. I wanted to write a book that was that funny, that weird and irreverent.

RB: You’re going to send me back to it tonight. I’ll be reading it tonight.

William Giraldi photograph by Robert Birnbaum

WG: You can read it in a night, it’s just so well done. But would a fan of Richard Ford’s Rock Springs love Busy Monsters? I don’t know.

RB: I don’t think one’s required to make that choice. What I’m saying to you is of course I got twenty pages into it and I knew that I would want to talk to you, and it certainly is an interesting read and it does, you know—you don’t fall asleep during it. But there’s always two elements in reading a book: there’s the story, and how the story’s told. To me, in the story, I don’t really care about Charlie, I don’t really care if he gets the girl or not, and maybe his relationship with his father is the most real thing in the book and that sort of appeals to me, but all the rest of it is a picaresque, and I don’t think any of those characters—they’re sort of cartoon characters.

WG: Certainly. In a way they are.

RB: I mean look, I had to finish the book, that’s the one thing. I didn’t go, “Oh I know enough,” you know? But I’m just saying that my preference is these stories that somehow I find—

WG: True to your own experience?

RB: Well no, engaging. I don’t live in the Ozarks, I don’t know twelve year old girls that get raped by their fathers and get sold down the street to some meth freak. As in Frank Bill’s, Crimes in Southern Indiana.

WG: I saw an advertisement for that recently. Well, look, Busy Monsters is definitely—

RB: What did you want the reader—did you have an idea of what you want the reader to come away with?

WG: I have a hope—I hope that the reader will find it refreshing, unlike anything else he might have read before. A book that attempts to do new things with language, a book that tends to break expectations, break the mold of what a literary novel can do. I’m very much interested in mythology, in fairytale, in folklore, and I wanted to write something that incorporated all of those. Nothing in the book defies physics, and yet it’s—

RB: Which is why you’re strongly against the UFO and the little Filipino midget—

WG: He’s a con man.

RB: What was the argument that you used? That you used to defend his interest in Sasquatch and the squid?

WG: The argument that Charlie uses?

RB: Yeah, doesn’t he say something about none of these things defy physics?

WG: Yes, he says—Morris Hammerstein, the Jewish astronomer whom he meets out in Colorado, says to him, “I mean, I don’t believe anything that’s happening, and I’m reading your memoirs every week and this is crazy.” And Charlie says, “What are you talking about? Nothing that happens in my memoirs defies physics, everything here is perfectly explainable.” But of course, the stories that Charlie tells flirt with the otherworldly, with the fantastical, and without ever really getting there. That was liberating for me, refreshing. I had begun my writing career as being powerfully influenced by the gritty realism of Hemingway and Carver, the domestic dramas of Carver, and I just didn’t feel like, after so many stories—I just felt like I needed to do something that was more aligned with my own personality. Busy Monsters is more representative of my own interests and my own, what you called sensibility, what I call vision.

RB: You say potato, I say—

WG: That’s right. I mean, my hope is that readers will be excited by this novel, that they will find it weird and different and liberating in a way that they could definitely laugh at these sentences but also be intrigued by the way Charlie moves through the world.

RB: Are you aware that as these people criticize Charlie, his writing and stories, that he, in fact, has an audience. People like Morris, he’s critical, but he still reads them.

WG: Exactly, and they’re all begging him not to put them in his memoirs. “You’d better not write about me next week,” they say.

RB: Well he does promise Morris, doesn’t he?

WG: Yes, and he betrays him. He makes up for that betrayal by sending him a check—

RB: Well, Morris demands it. So, seven years later you published a book, it’s been edited, you’ve had feedback. So now, as you embark upon whatever this publicity initiative is and you pick up the book and read sections, do you want change anything? Are you going to leave it now? Are you satisfied?

WG: I have to be. I have to be satisfied with this. It’s finished. And it’s funny you ask that, because in reading some sections I might say, “Oh, I want to change that word.” Or, “Oh, maybe that comma should’ve been a semi-colon.” That’s when Flaubert said he knew he was done with a piece, when he would spend half a day sitting at his desk changing a comma to a semi-colon and back again.

RB: So for the paperback, you’re not even going to look at it, right?

WG: I don’t know if Norton is going to give me the option to do that. I don’t think—

RB: If they’re smart they won’t.

WG: Right. I’ve made my peace with this book and what it is, and I’m very pleased with it, and it’s going to stay this way into perpetuity.

RB: Okay, one last question, which is, what’s next?

WG: Well, my wife is expecting our second child, so that is next.

RB: When?

WG: In March. And my son just turned two—raising him is next. So, my son and my wife—our life is always the first thing on my mind. Figuring out where Ethan’s going to go to school and figuring out what’s the best way to raise him.

RB: Where do you live?

WG: We live in Cambridge. But as far as writing goes—what’s next? I don’t know. I would love to do a collection of short stories, and a collection of my essays, whether it’s the critical work that I do or—

RB: So you’re not already into that cycle where you’re on to the next book?

WG: God no, I’m not.

RB: So, conceivably, the next good book could take you as long as this book did.

WG: Well, if we were going to put out a collection of essays, I have a lot of those done, and they’ve been published. Whether they’re personal essays or whether they’re critical essays, those are two different books, because in addition to being a novelist, there’s also the literary criticism that I do, and I write a lot of short memoirs as well. And so, I’d be able to put together a book of essays or criticism. But I don’t think that would be a good idea for the market. I don’t think they would sell very well.

RB: Well you’re with a house that’s not necessarily commercially driven, they still put out poetry, for example. Do you do journalism? Do you do film reviews or travel pieces or any of that? Do you see yourself as a Grub Street kind of writer?

WG: I don’t know what a Grub Street writer is.

RB: It means you’ll do anything, you’ll write anything.

WG: I don’t know how to write anything. I’ve never done travel writing because I hate to travel. The closest I’ve ever come to writing about film is an essay I did for The Believer magazine about The Exorcist. It was a critical assessment of the film but also a personal piece about how I was nearly born in the theater when my mother went to see it—she was so afraid of it, she was five months pregnant with me and she was so afraid she thought I was going to be expelled right there on the floor.

RB: You’re Catholic and you were almost born during The Exorcist.

WG: Isn’t that amazing? What a mess.

RB: Well let’s leave it at that. Thank you so much.

WG: Okay, thank you, I really appreciate the time.

Currently reading Capitol by John Lancaster (WW Norton)

Think Global,Read Local

10 Aug

Though not as densely populated with writers and scribblers as Vermont, Brooklyn or North Carolina, the Boston area does have its fair share of novelists, poets and critics. Thus, every once in a while I avail myself of the local literary orchard’s low hanging fruit. In this case, I must note the good works of Boston University mentor and Agni editor William Giraldi,novelist KC Fredricks and the inestimable Sven Birkerts.

Giraldi’s debut novel Busy Monsters (WW Norton) has been favorably blurbed by Harold Bloom, “William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters is rammed with life. It has more than promise. A kind of elegiac intensity, remarkable for so young a man, pervades its harmonies.” Of course, since Giraldi may be the only living person who has read all 30 of Bloom’s books, this accolade seems suspiciously like a bit of log rolling of which Ron Charles’s appreciation takes due note. Sven Birkerts, Giraldi’s colleague at Agni, weighs in(you judge whether this is log rolling(which has not yet been made illegal in this country).

Take the amped-up lyrical braggadocio of the American South and join it to a sly, at times Nabokovian celebration of psychological obsession. Add a pinch of O’Connor, a dash of Hannah, heat with an imagination reared in both the canon and its rock & roll antipodes. Busy Monsters is an unforgettable achievement by one of our most important young chroniclers of anguish and bliss.

In any case, Giraldi and I chatted recently and that conversation should make its way to the light some day soon. One hopes.

KC Frederick, whose writing I discovered at one of those NE/PEN Hemingway Awards (Inland,won the 2007 PEN/L.L. Winship Award for Fiction) convocations invited me to his newest tome’s After Lyletown (Permanent Press) book launch.Though I rarely go anywhere except my son’s baseball games the fete was a block away from my abode so made my way over and spent a few pleasant minutes chatting with Chet and a South African writer whose name has slipped my mind. Need I add After Lyletown is well worth reading?

The above quoted Sven Birkerts, well-known and well-regarded for his The Gutenberg Elegies whom I have chatted with a few times has brought his professorial calling to a number of prestigious academies and most recently the celebrated Bennington Writing Seminars and additionally has a new tome The Other Walk: Essays (GrayWolf Press)nearing publication.If you are unfamiliar with the “heartlessly smart” Birkerts (the rubric is from David Foster Wallace) you might peruse Reading in a Digital Age.

His new opus should occasion yet another conversation with Birkerts. Stay tuned.