The Millions Interview

How Should a Writer Be? An Interview with Sheila Heti

Sheila Heti is the Interviews Editor at The Believer and author of five books including the critically acclaimed Ticknor. Her new novel How Should a Person Be? feels different from her previous work. It is deeply personal, while also detached and experimental. The sex is rough, the revelations are raw, and the form is strange. Heti lays bare what many writers try to hide -- the mismatch between how we feel and what we do. Miranda July calls it a “book that risks everything.” The main character in the novel, Sheila Heti, is reeling from a recent divorce and struggling to write a commissioned play. Seeking inspiration, she records conversations with her best friend, a painter named Margaux, and has an affair with a devilish and handsome painter, Israel. Sheila dives into both relationships, a journey that is steeped in philosophy and that uses email transcripts and recordings as clues on a search for the heart and mind. Ultimately, Sheila discovers how an artist can create work in the face of her own self-doubts. As a writer, I read the novel as a story that explores writing and rejection and moving on, but the themes can be more widely applied. It is a book about finding a way to move forward again. I first read the book when it came out in Canada this past September. Given the theme of revising, it felt fitting when I read in The Paris Review that Heti has since rewritten parts of the just released U.S. edition. Making changes a book that has already been published strikes me as both unusual and risky. If a writer makes changes, is it an admission that the original work wasn’t good enough? I did a line-by-line comparison of the Canadian edition to the U.S. edition and then put the question to Heti. The Millions: How did you start How Should a Person Be? Sheila Heti: My last novel, Ticknor, was so neurotic. It was inside one person’s head. I wanted this one to be about a system among people. I didn’t want to just be in my room. I wanted to write it in the world. I wanted to know, could I write without torturing myself? Well, I did end up torturing myself, but less. Less than I did with Ticknor. TM: Many writers develop a style or a thing that they become known for, but this book is very different from Ticknor. SH: I guess. Editors don’t buy two books from me. They say that they don’t know what my next book will be, so they will only buy one at a time. That’s fine. It could be that I won’t or I will find something that I will do and repeat, but maybe not because I like newness. I don’t like doing the same thing over and over in any area of my life. I don’t find it stimulating. TM: How much did you work with your editor on this book? SH: Lorin Stein, who is now the editor at The Paris Review, bought Ticknor at FSG. He was the person who I showed a draft of the book to first, apart from Margaux. It was a very early draft. He didn’t really like it. He told me this story about a young writer he knew who had a big book out then, and he said, "You know, he wrote a whole other book before this book, and he threw it away. Maybe this is that book for you." TM: Wow. SH: I felt a lot of despair. I put How Should a Person Be? in the drawer. Finally I took it back out. I decided it was the wrong thing to do. I couldn’t accept that a drawer was the fate of this book. I felt determined to make it work. I might be misremembering how all this went down with Lorin. But anyway, so you see he was very useful. The book was much, much more fractured in its earlier form. He and I talked a lot about it. I tried to show him that it was better than he understood by explaining to him this complicated process I had used to write many of the sections, with three decks of cards. It didn’t seem to change his feelings about it! TM: I wonder if that’s a description of people who end up publishing books? You get angry. Rejection steels you, rather than breaks you? SH: Hopefully, right? TM: Hopefully. SH: I was at Yaddo around this time. There was a writer who told me about how he had a great editor at FSG. This writer felt that he had showed the editor his second book too soon. He was never published by FSG again and said that he should have never showed the draft so soon. It ruined his career. That story became my horror story. I was convinced that would happen to me. TM: The career of a writer is always an exception. There is never one way it happens, but the temptation to draw conclusions from another writer's experience is always there. Do you find it tempting to try to follow the path that someone has taken? This is a theme at the heart of How Should a Person Be? SH: Yes, but life doesn’t work that way. I don’t know what you can realistically learn from other people. Everyone’s experience is so different. TM: Did you know that before writing this novel? SH: No. It was something I figured out. TM: Is that why you write, to figure something out? SH: I hope so, yes. I don’t write from the place of “I know something that I’m going to tell to you.” I write from the place of “there’s something I don’t know and I need to write this book to figure it out.” TM: Do you start a novel with an outline? SH: I’ve tried. I find it too boring. TM: Do you have to torture yourself every time you write a book? SH: There always comes a point of deep uncertainty in the process. And it affects your feelings about your certainty as a human. I don’t know if you can get away from that, writing. Even with the children’s book I recently wrote, We Need a Horse, there were several days that were just deeply terrible. But when you look back, those are the days you romanticize. You realize that’s when you were really working. TM: So How Should a Person Be? was published in Canada first? SH: Yes. A lot of publishers saw it and didn’t want it, but Anansi took it. TM: Do you think that’s because it isn’t like anything else? It’s a different kind of book, especially a different kind of book from a woman. SH: Maybe. I wasn’t modeling it on other books. I was thinking about movies made by Werner Herzog and TV shows like The Hills. Other mediums are doing this kind of thing more. Why do you think it’s different kind of book for a woman? TM: It’s based on ideas. Is that sad? I think it is. It’s a book that is brave and exposing and maybe some women work to cover up what you are willing to expose? Or I guess I’m saying that I would. Why don’t women tend to publish 1,000 page novels? SH: I kind of wanted this to be 1,000 pages. At one point it was 600 pages. TM: You’ll have to write a book that length next time. SH: [laughing] Yes! Or I’ll do another version that is 1,000 pages. TM: How did you decide to re-edit the book for the U.S. edition? SH: When the book came out in Canada, I felt like I didn’t really pull it off. It wasn’t a specific thing, I just knew it in my body. When it was going to be published in the U.S., I saw it as a chance to finish. TM: Did your editor at Henry Holt give you notes? SH: Yes, her name is Sarah Bowlin. She gave me very good notes and I thought about them. I sat down and I started pulling in things that I liked and had written but weren’t in the book. There was very little that I wrote newly; mostly it was stuff I had written before but didn’t end up using. I’d been thinking and living with this book for so long that the edits happened very quickly over a weekend. TM: I went through and did a line-by-line comparison of the Canadian edition to the U.S. edition to see your changes. SH: That’s nuts. TM: It was kind of weird, but I found it so interesting. The changes are subtle, but the way you articulate the relationships between Sheila and the other characters is quite different. The divorce has been brought to the fore in the U.S. edition. What was your thinking behind this? SH: I thought it might help the reader understand one of Sheila’s motivations for asking how should a person be? if the tipsiness that follows divorce was emphasized a bit more. TM: There is a new email from your ex-husband’s mom. SH: All these changes, where something was added – all of those were things that at one point I was thinking of putting into the Canadian edition, but did not. There is just so much material I amassed, so I had to make choices. I made a bunch of choices for the Canadian edition, and whatever I put in and left out – that all worked to make one whole. But when I wanted to rewrite it for the American edition, I put in new things and took out some things and changed others, which made another whole. I just wanted a different feeling in this new book, something more full and resolved, maybe to reflect me feeling more full and resolved than I did when I finished the Canadian edition. TM: How many drafts did you do for this book? When did you start? SH: It’s hard to know what the start was, but sometime in 2005. I didn’t know I was writing a book. I didn’t know I was writing this book. I was finished Ticknor…I was reading a lot of things. I was reading the Bible and business books and Forbes and books about companies… I was thinking about art critics and how do they make decisions. How do they know what they like? I got a tape recorder. Mostly, I was trying to write a book that came from the world. I had note cards with all these sentences, which I carried around with me. I started recording myself narrating. I wanted to find a new way to write that would take things from the world. I went through a crazy period where I had all these cards. Each card had symbols on them. It was a way of making scenes. All the symbols related to something real that happened in my life. I reduced those anecdotes down to a word and then I put those words on cards, and put those cards together randomly with a few other cards and then I’d try to come up with a scene from that. So it was a way to try and write about life, but not write about my life. Somehow all these different things that I was writing started to come together. A draft started to assemble itself, but there were a thousand different drafts of the book. TM: In the U.S. edition, you talk about your ancestors much earlier in the prologue. Why? SH: My editor suggested that change. I agreed it was better that way; the Prologue is a kind of fugue so it really should have all the book’s themes in it. I hadn’t realized that this one was left out. TM: In the Canadian edition, the Acts are numbered using roman numerals – Act II. In the U.S. edition, these become numbers – Act 2. I loved finding this kind of small detail. Why the change? SH: I didn’t realize this! I guess that was a design decision they made without me. TM: There are fewer words on a page in the U.S. edition. In the Canadian edition, this sentence appears all on one line: There is so much beauty in this world that it’s hard to begin. There are no words with which… In the US edition, the same line looks like this: There is so much beauty in this world that it’s hard to begin. There are no words with which… As a writer, does it make it feel like a different book? SH: I didn’t notice that either. I don’t think it makes a big difference. I’m not a poet. TM: There are a minor changes peppered throughout, like “she said it had already departed” (p. 72) changes to “she said it had already left” or “When the sun went down” (p. 99) changes to “After the sun went down…” Is there a systematic reason for these smaller changes, or how did they come about? SH: It was just from going through the pages on computer, and then the galleys, and changing things to what I liked better. The usual. TM: Does this interview feel exposing? This is a book about the revising the creative process and then you went through the process of revising it for the U.S. edition. Isn’t that scary? SH: No. I just really wanted to make the changes. I thought, “that feels right.” It suits the book. It makes sense. TM: In doing this interview, I am asking you to tell me things that most writers avoid discussing. Am I in danger of killing whatever it is that allows you to be a writer in the face of your doubts? SH: No, no, this book is done. Whatever I do next I will do in a way that’s different from how I did this book. TM: If the book comes out in France, will you rewrite it again? SH: Never! No, this is it. TM: How should a writer be? SH: They should do whatever they want.
The Millions Interview

Sing You a Book: Josh Ritter Gets Out of His Comfort Zone

I had never heard of singer/songwriter Josh Ritter, but I was moved to find out about him because his debut novel, Bright's Passage, received very positive notices. Additionally, I was curious because of the diverse backgrounds of the people (Thomas Ricks, Jesse Kornbluth, Dennis Lehane, and Robert Pinsky) who were singing his praises. Bright's Passage tells the story of WWI veteran and widower Henry Bright taking flight from both a raging forest fire and his malevolent in-laws. His passage takes place in the company of his infant son and an unusual guardian angel in the Appalachian foothills of West Virginia as Bright's recollections range from his childhood to his traumatic experiences in the killing fields of France. It’s a tale told with great assurance and skill as might be expected from so skillful a songwriter. Josh Ritter and I spoke in late June 2011, when Bright’s Passage first came out and the discussion ranged across writing fiction and songs, books he loves, making music, growing up in Moscow, Idaho with a love of reading, and more. Bright’s Passage is out in paperback today. RB: What was growing up in Moscow, Idaho like? JR: It was good. I don’t have much to compare it to. We grew up pretty far out of town -- my brother who is four years younger than me and my folks and kind of parade of psychopathic dogs. RB: What distinguishes a psychopathic dog? JR: I haven’t figured that out. RB: I haven’t checked a map -- is Moscow near a river, and thus its name? JR: No.  No one quite knows. It’s the same with Idaho as a name. No one really knows where the name came from. There are a lot of theories. RB: The Indian word for “potato” (laughs). JR:  Somebody said it was based on real estate, like a sub-division, like “Hardwood Acres.” No one really knows. RB: Not an Indian word. JR: No, no. And Moscow was the same sort of thing. Some people said it was from Russian immigrants. It was originally called Hog Heaven. RB: (Laughs). JR: And then they decided they wanted to get some girls there and so they called it Paradise Valley. And then Moscow finally. RB: You’d think they might have changed the name during the Cold War because of John Birchers. JR: Yeah, yeah. There’s a big file out there somewhere. RB: When did you leave Idaho? How old? JR: Eighteen. And then I moved back after I lived here in Boston for a while. And then to New York. RB: Why back to Idaho? JR: I was on the road all the time and there was a moment when I realized that I was going to freak out unless I had something familiar. And it was, in a way. Coming back gave me a sense of familiarity I really needed at the time. RB: No big airport that was conveniently located? JR: There’s Boise but that’s eight and a half hours south. RB: So Moscow is up north. Is there much evidence of Native American culture? JR: Definitely.  All around -- there is Nez Perce to the south and Coeur d'Alene to the north. All kinds, Blackfoot, all kinds around. RB: So you came east when you were 18. JR: First to Oberlin, to college. And then from there to Boston. (Actually I lived a block down the street from here.) RB: Oberlin has a fine music department, though little known on the East Coast. JR: Amazing music department. I took some [courses]. I still play with Zack who I met there. He’s an amazing bass player. And then Darius, who is my manager, who I met there as well, were roommates. So it was great for music -- lots of music-minded people went there. RB: Somewhere in Ohio— JR: The old Northwest. RB: Did Oberlin have a football team? JR: It actually did and it lost the entire time I was there. They did not win a single game. RB: (Laughs). JR: It became a point of pride. RB: I read that you began writing Bright's Passage, this, your first novel, at Oberlin, which reportedly was written because you felt you couldn’t express certain things in a song. JR: I always felt that the songs -- my favorite songs are usually stories. A lot of times I feel like a song can be an instant. Like a love song, but there is always a setting. Always a sentiment expressed. Always, you know, a moment. And in other songs there can be a whole story. So I think songs are really great, kind of, delivery vehicles for a story. They allow you to make your own conclusions. Good songs never give you everything. So I really believe a song is like an envelope. A novel, you can unfold from a song. Say like "Tennessee Stud" or "Isis" or "The River." Or "Famous Blue Raincoat." You could unfold stories from them.  So I was finishing my last record and I had a bunch of long narrative songs on there. I was pretty much done and I had this song and I thought it might be too long. It might make the record -- there would just be one too many of these longer songs. But I had nowhere else to put it.  So, I figured that I had been talking about it for a while -- how songs and novels were closely related. So I thought I would just do it, you know. Or try it. I had come out of a long spell of not really feeling excited about some of the writing. And suddenly I was writing all these songs and then I didn’t really turn off the tap. So I just started writing this [Bright's Passage] without thinking too much about it. It was exciting -- it began as an experiment. RB: So as you are writing this novel do you know how it’s going to end? JR: No. No. RB: That was a discovery made along the way. JR: Absolutely. RB: So why a novel and not a short story -- it’s a big jump from songs. JR: I have never been interested in short stories. RB: You don’t read them? JR: I mean, I read them. I read a lot of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver and Dashiell Hammett stuff. Mostly because I felt like I needed to relax in something. RB: Reportedly people read short fiction less today -- which I don’t understand given the demands on time that exist. JR: Right, yeah. RB: But many writers will say that short fiction is more difficult. Less forgiving. JR: That’s true. I agree. I totally agree. The thing about good writing is concision and when it’s a song in which you tell a story, it has to be as tight as possible. You cannot have anything that’s going to obfuscate if you are telling a story in a song. You can do lots of missteps in a novel or go off on some tangents and still bring it back. RB: I agree that songs are stories -- what’s the difference in writing a song and writing fiction? JR: Well, I guess there’s a time frame element. Which is that you can write a song -- it may take an afternoon. It may take eight minutes or a week. But it’s a fairly short amount of time. And then when you are done you constantly play it for people and get that excitement of kind of pulling the sheet off of the statue and saying, “I did this.” That instant gratification -- which is a great feeling. With a novel you sit and work on it, little bit by little bit, every day. People see you working with your headphones on and then you close the computer or you put down the pen and you have nothing that you are going to show for that day. That kind of thing was a big adjustment for me. I wrote the first draft in two months and then the subsequent 10 drafts over the next year. RB: Ten drafts, wow. JR: It was a big first experience for me. RB: Ten drafts before it went to an editor at a publisher. JR: I had several drafts before an editor came in and looked at it. And then that process -- it was a lot like a song. You write a song first. The song is done in your mind. Then you work with a producer and they pose problems for you to solve. It was a great experience. RB: Everyone needs an editor. JR: Yeah, yeah. It’s like an extra set of ears. Yeah, yeah. RB: How long have you been out touting Bright's Passage? JR: Basically since yesterday. (Laughs). RB: So is the book tour integrated into the music tour? JR: I’ll never read and do a show at the same time -- luckily, I travel for the music and then I go and read at bookstores or something like that. Yeah, I love it. The experience of writing the novel was such a fantastic experience. I have read so much more since. And I have gotten a whole other appreciation for the books I love and reasons to understand books I might not like very much. And also to have a lot more sympathy for stuff I don’t like. Because I know how hard it was to do. RB: Talking about books you love. What are some of those? JR: The very first books I really remember loving was a series called The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. They’re the first books I ever read on my own. They are beautiful books -- kind of Welsh mythology. And then all those fantasy books like J.R.R. Tolkien and then moving on to Carl Sagan and Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke—and 2001. Lots of those. Moving forward, all sorts of history books. You know one of the great things about growing up where we grew up is that we had a TV, but we only got two stations. We lived out in the woods and we didn’t have a car to drive anywhere. Not that we would have had anywhere to go. So reading became a really important thing. We never thought about it as something different; it was just that it was all there was to do once you got home at the end of the day. RB: So your so-called formative years were full of books. JR: Yeah. RB: Did your reading level off when you entered a wider world? When on tour do you read a lot? JR: Yeah. On tour you have to do stuff to stay busy. Luckily the band I’m in all the guys are all pretty big readers. That’s nice. You don’t come into a place and the TV is instantly on. I love watching TV, but feel like it fractures your brain before you go on stage. We pass books around -- we were passing around Neal Stephenson. Neil Gaiman as well -- American Gods, which everybody passed around. It’s fun -- whatever is getting passed around is really good. I get all sorts of great stuff from Zack [bass player]. RB:  Do the people who like your music know you like to read? JR: Yes. RB: Do people send you books? JR: Yes, all the time. Or after shows, they give me books. I usually make little notes about what I am reading at the time. I’m reading William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways and Robert Penn Warren. RB: The road book -- a quintessentially American story. JR: Yeah, I agree. RB: Occasionally, someone revisits de Tocqueville’s itinerary. JR: And Jonathan Raban travelling the full length of the Mississippi River [Old Glory: A Voyage Down the Mississippi]. Seems like British people like to do that… RB: I always envisioned travelling the circumference of the U.S. JR: That’s a great idea. That’d be amazing. RB: With my dog, Rosie. JR: Like Travels with Charley. RB: So you are beginning to be interviewed for the book -- are those interviews much different than for your music? JR: I thought it would be roughly similar. In some ways it is. But I feel like with songs, there are so many other things to talk about. Production choices -- all these sorts of things. With a book you are dealing with one kind of long extended idea. Also, you write something and you don’t necessarily know what it means until you’re done. Really, what you were actually thinking about. Or what you think you were thinking about. I like that about records as well, but it is interesting to suddenly be kind of holding myself to account about a longer piece of writing, really wondering what it is. RB: There is so much that is subjective about it. You may read a book when you are 20 years old and then when you re read it later you have a different view. Which may happen with your own writing-- being really pleased. JR: Yeah, really. That’s magical.  Or embarrassing. (Laughs). RB: You seem very happy with what you do. JR: Yeah, I am. RB: So you are encouraged to do more? JR: Absolutely. I understand song writing in some ways because I have been doing it for 10 or 12 years now. At this point I wanted something new -- something that made me nervous or made me feel like I didn’t know what was going on. And I really felt sorta like I was a horse in a field and I look over and see a whole other field. And I want to be over there. RB: Out of your comfort zone. JR: Yeah, totally. In so many different ways. I feel with a song, people get a glimpse of a part of what you are thinking and a little bit of your brain. With a novel the vulnerability seems much larger. People can see you for all you might be or potentially how simple you actually are. Which is funny. RB: I assume you want to get “better” as a novelist/writer? JR: Yeah. RB: How would you go about that? JR: You just gotta keep on doing it. I really do think that showing up is the biggest part. While I put stock in school, I really think that school only teaches you that you don’t know very much. And get used to that. Like knowing the limits of your own abilities is good. I never thought that going to school would make me a better writer; maybe a more aware writer. But I didn’t go to school to write songs and I didn’t feel the necessity to go to school to begin to write a novel. Writing the novel was certainly going to school for me. And I have learned a great deal at least about what I think I want to do better on my next one. It’s funny I was reading this thing that Annie Dillard said -- the reason you have writers who have written 12 books is because they have been dissatisfied every time. (Laughs). Which is cool. RB: Are you dissatisfied after you write a song? JR: No RB: You don’t feel that there is more you can do? JR: I mean in that way, most of the songs I throw out, not throw out, but I don’t use 85 percent of what I write -- cuz, I just don’t want people to see it, you know. And the stuff that’s there, that actually makes it on a record is stuff that I know is good. Maybe people won’t like it, but I know I liked it and I know why. And over time I will still feel happy performing it. I won’t dissociate. RB: So, have you begun your next fiction? JR: Yeah, I wrote a fair portion and then decided I wanted to go back and restart. But I have a really good idea. I don’t feel stressed out by it RB: There is no pressure on you to write fiction? JR: No. RB: There must be some for song writing? JR: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s pressure, but it’s pressure to account for myself. When people buy a book and give you a chance -- I see it as they are buying a book to read, but they are really giving me a chance to go and do something else. My job is to write. I love it. I love it. I’m in this great incredible position right now to be able to write and enjoy it and the pressure is to make it good and to make it good the way I feel it should be. RB: Well, it’s a different pressure than worrying about your kid’s dental bills, or the mortgage JR: Yeah -- right. RB: What’s your vision or sense of your future? Continuing writing? JR: Yes, definitely. RB: Movies? JR: (Laughs). I would love to write a movie. And I would love to write another 10 novels. There is a place to put stories now that isn’t just in songs. And that’s really important. Not just because it’s fun but for me right now. It’s really important because I want to continue to feel hungry -- really hungry and get a sense -- I get a real buzz off of writing. RB: It’s impressive that apparently you can write anywhere. As far as know, not many writers do that. JR: Yeah, I guess when I was deep, really having trouble writing I asked Robert Pinsky who I’ve gotten to know. He’s got grandkids, he travels a lot and he’s doing all this stuff and he has a lot of demands on his time. I asked him if he believes in writer’s block? He said that if you ever have an empty stretch of time coming up, fill it. Like with stuff. Fit your poems in, you know. And I really think that’s true. If you are going to be real precious about where you write then you are kind of admitting you are easily swayed by everything. And mostly I just like to put on music that doesn’t have words. And I sit, put on my headphones and I have a much easier time writing prose on the road than I do writing music. Which is nice, it’s nice to feel productive in another way. RB: Speaking of people you know, how do you come to know  [journalist] Thomas Ricks? JR: In 2006 he was working on Fiasco. And he heard "Girl in the War," which is a song of mine, and he wrote a section of his book to the record. So he wrote me a note and we met and when I was in Washington D.C. he gave me a tour of The Washington Post, which I was totally geeked out on. It was awesome. And then we have stayed really close friends. RB: And Jesse Kornbluth is another big fan of yours. JR: Yeah. You know him? RB: I know his work. He reviewed your book in the most glowing terms JR: Really, yeah, yeah. RB: You must be very active to have these contacts outside the world of music? Are you a pop musician? JR: I would say so. I am certainly not -- it’s amazing how a song can go through the ether to people and find them and if they are interested, it’s easy to find out more. The people that I have met doing this stuff have been though music. Dennis Lehane -- he wrote some of his book to a record of mine. That just happens that way. And it’s really cool that they will give me some time to try this. RB: Have you talked to your writer fans about writing fiction? JR: I talked to Ricks a bunch about it, yeah. He has a beautiful way of looking at it. RB: Is he retired from The Post? JR: Yeah, he’s writing books now and has this defense blog. He is working on a history of American generalship from WWII to the present. It’s a big one. RB: Is there any way that writing fiction has interfered with writing music? JR: It’s true that it used to be if I had an idea for a song I would never think about is this idea for a book. But thankfully they are different enough I get so much energy from performing and recording and it’s such a social activity with my gang, my wolf pack of people that I love. I could never give that up. I love writing for the group I am with. And I don’t think I would be satisfied writing -- I am very lucky because if I was sitting and just obsessing over [writing] I wouldn’t be as happy as I am when I go and work and play. RB: You have choices. JR: That’s it, yeah. RB:  Give me a sense of how much you tour? JR: It used to be 150 to 175 dates a year. You’d be on the road eight or nine months a year. Some days off in between. RB: I wonder how cultural information [books, movies, music] impacts anyone who creates things. How does it reach you as you crisscross the country? Do you travel outside the country also? JR: Yeah, all over the place. All over Europe and Australia. Not too much in Asia although I ‘d love to -- it’s great. Basically every day you wake up and you meet new people and find your way around a town. There’s time for reading and you meet people after shows and they give you books. I think that’s what people who are writers do. They assimilate whatever is  -- all the stuff people are thinking. You get a range of different impulses and you try and write about it. RB: Lots of visual information that’s almost subliminal. JR: Definitely. I remember reading Johnny Cash’s biography and him saying that after so many years traveling that he could wake up and know within five miles where he was in the country. And I thought he was full of crap. RB: (Laughs). JR: But it turned out as time went by at least you know what state you are in. (Laughs). RB: Who are some of your musical idols, for lack of a better word? JR: Of course for inventiveness and seeming fearlessness, somebody like Tom Waits has been -- I would buy whatever he puts out. I like that he is just trying things. [Bob] Dylan is inescapable. Radiohead, like Tom Waits for their inventiveness and their searching. And there’s people like Alfred Deller-- RB: Early European music-- JR: Yeah. Counter-tenors. Gillian Welch has a new record out who I love. Lucinda Williams. I like Jay-Z. I like a lot of stuff. I like people more and more like Neil Young who have chosen to make music and I can tell how they have chosen to live their life. Which is important to me. RB: Young strikes me as an authentic renegade. JR: Yeah and he also has a family and has a good family life. RB: I am trying to think of who else has stayed on top of their game -- Leonard Cohen. He got screwed by his manager. On the other hand that’s how many people wake up after Enron and the like. JR: I saw him [Cohen] at the Beacon in New York. I never have cried at a show. I am always too busy watching what’s going on. I lost myself totally that day. RB: He is pretty compelling and poignant. I came to like him later in his career especially after his album Ten New Songs with “That Don’t Make It Junk.” JR: And “Alexandra Leaving.” That’s an amazing song. RB: I was glad to see that my musical tastes hadn’t calcified and that I was still open. JR: That is really cool. It’s interesting that you say that -- so many people respond to his earlier stuff and have trouble getting in to his later stuff. RB: Do you have a title for the next book? JR: No. RB: Did Bright’s Passage have a title when you began it? JR: No. RB: Like Steve Martin says, You started out with a blank sheet and pen. JR: That’s how it is with records too. The title is always the last thing to come. It’s the last distillation of whatever you are working on. RB: Well, thank you very much JR: Thank you, man. Thanks a lot. Image courtesy of the author.
The Millions Interview

Anticipate Doom: The Millions Interviews László Krasznahorkai

Like many noted Hungarian writers, László Krasznahorkai has the distinction of being a literary giant in the German-speaking world and an exotic literary curiosity, subject to the fascination of cultists, in the Anglophone world. Americans first encountered at least a hint of his work via the director Béla Tarr, with whom Krasznahorkai has forged a three-decade-long collaboration, beginning with the 1988 film Damnation. Tarr’s meditative epic, the seven-and-a-half hour Satantango (1994), a long-take heavy depiction of a dying collectivist town, was an adaptation of Krasznahorkai’s 1985 novel of the same name. After 27 years, Satantango the novel has finally been translated into English. Krasznahorkai is a difficult, demanding novelist, whose work is made up of long, seemingly interminable sentences, each of them prose poems in themselves, that push to the very edge of madness. Colm Tóibín writes, “For [Krasznahorkai] the sentence is an act of pure performance -- a tense high-wire act, a piece of grave and ambitious vaudeville performed with energy both comic and ironic. But there is also a compacted edge to his prose; he is not interested in language merely for its own sake. Prose for him is a complex vehicle moving through a world both real and surreal with considerable precision and sharpness.” The universe of Satantango is vicious and grim, a buried cackle seems to permeate its air.  And yet hints of optimism, of small possibilities of human connection seep into the story. His humanity is Faulknerian. On the occasion of Satantango’s first appearance in English, Krasznahorkai agreed to answer some questions by email. He wrote his answers in Hungarian. The poet George Szirtes, who translated Satantango as well as two other Krasznahorkai novels, The Melancholy of Resistance (which Tarr adapted in the 2000 film The Werkmeister Harmonies) and War and War, translated his answers. The Millions: Satantango first appeared in 1985, during the slow-motion collapse of the collectivist system in Hungary. It is now making its first appearance in English translation in 2012, a few months after Hungary officially adopted a new constitution that, among other things, consolidated state power over the media, and declared the country, in terms that would be popular with our own religious right, officially Christian.  As tempting as it is for an American reader, would it be a mistake to see premonitions of Hungary’s current political situation in the pages of your novel? László Krasznahorkai: You will never go wrong anticipating doom in my books, anymore than you’ll go wrong in anticipating doom in ordinary life. But when I wrote this book, that is to say in the early '80s, I had no idea it would be open to a political reading or even echoed anything in the political world. The idea of a political message in Satantango was as far from my mind as the Soviet empire itself. I was only concerned to explore why everyone around me seemed as sad as the rain falling on Hungary and why I myself was sad, surrounded as I was by such people, in the rain. It may sound odd to say so, but our situation hasn’t really changed. The collapse of the Soviet Empire and the political independence resulting from it gave Hungarians a chance of building a new country -- but it was immediately clear to me, among other things, that the real question was how we could build the new with the same old people? So the sadness continued to hang around. Maybe we have a little less rain than before, but that’s all. TM: The third chapter of Satantango opens with a quotation from a geological book describing Hungary’s ancient underwater past during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras. The doctor is reading this passage and when he looks up he is surrounded by the simple objects of his own dirty house. Two of your novels that have now appeared in English, The Melancholy of Resistance and Satantango, have moments in which characters try to conceive of their positions within enormous conceptions of space and time. But after thinking of their place in the cosmos, a trick of the brain or a change in their external circumstances reminds them of their place in small Hungarian backwaters. Could either of these novels be transported to other small towns in other cultures? LK: No, I don’t think so. We could perhaps draw a few parallels but they would be forced: the fact is that each culture produces its own sensitive, fragile, unrepeatable conditions; smells, colors, tastes, objects and moods that seem insignificant but have a character that is all but intangible, though you are probably right, for art, and that includes the novel, has its own powers of evocation so that if I read about an inexpressible air of gloom descending on a filthy bar somewhere in Northern Portugal it conjures in me the kind of melancholy I felt the last time I drained a glass of pálinka in a bar in the south of Hungary. In this way you may arrive at some broad overarching sense of commonality between the inhabitants of Northern Portugal and the south of Hungary even though the common light switch is slightly different in the two countries, and that difference is extremely important and highly significant -- but having stressed the difference we must acknowledge that the movement with which the last man in the bar switches the light off is precisely the same in both cases. TM: Your contemporary Péter Esterházy writes, “The nineteenth-century sentence was long-winded, the meaning wandering through long periodic structures, and in any case the Hungarian long sentence is a dubious formation because the words do not have genders and the subordinate clauses are more uncertainly connected to the main clauses than in the reassuring rigor of a Satzbau (German sentence construction). Such sentences totter along, uncertain even of themselves, stammer a little; in short are extremely lovable.” Does Esterházy’s description fit your own conception of your long ecstatic sentences? LK: No, I don’t think that means anything to me. Esterházy is probably thinking of certain 19th-century Hungarian writers, or of a particular kind of writer, I can’t tell, but what he says certainly doesn’t apply to Hungarian literature as a whole and not at all to the Hungarian language in general: it is particularly untrue of my own way with sentences. It seems to me that this definition reflects his own literary practice and that the generalization that follows from it is only natural. If I go on to consider my “ecstatically long sentences,” at first nothing particular comes to mind. Then, on reconsideration, I suspect that these long ecstatic sentences have no relation to theory or to any idea I might have about the Hungarian language, or indeed any language, but are the direct products of the “ecstatic” heroes of my books, that they proceed directly from them. It is not me but they who serve as narrators behind the book. I myself am silent, utterly silent in fact. And since that is the case I can hear what these heroic figures are saying, my task then being simply to transcribe them. So the sentences in question are really not mine but are uttered by those in whom some wild desire is working, the desire being that those to whom they address their sentences should understand them correctly and unconditionally. That desire lends their speeches a mad urgency. The urgency is the style. And one more thing: the speeches these heroes are so desperate to rattle off are not the book, not in the least! The book is a medium, a vehicle for their speeches. They are so convinced of the overwhelming importance of what they have to say, that their language is intended to produce a magical effect without necessarily carrying a concrete meaning: it is an embodiment of the ecstasy of persuasion by magic, the momentum of the desire for understanding. TM: Your work first gained an audience in the English-speaking world filtered through your longtime collaborator Béla Tarr, whose 450-minute version of Satantango became a semi-fixture on the festival circuit in the 1990s. If you push and stretch the sentence to absolute extremes, Tarr does the same with the long take. The observation is so obvious, I’m sure thousands of others have already made it, but do you yourself see a connection between this aspect of Tarr’s methods and yours? Have your novels transformed in any direct way as a result of your collaboration with Tarr? Do you visualize them in your head in anyway filtered through Tarr’s style? LK: My feeling is that those who love Tarr’s films don’t see it quite like that. A writer doesn’t need anything to write a book, he is completely alone and it’s good that it should be so. A director on the other hand can’t make a film without others. How does this work with Tarr? Because no one has really spoken about this, and it’s unlikely that anyone will, let me do so now and say that Tarr’s cinema changed from the time he met me and we started working together to make our first film. The cause of this radical change was the effect of reading my work, in particular of reading Satantango, getting to understand my vision, my way of thinking, my style. In all the big stories, and in every serious collaboration, someone has to be the initiator, the source from which work flows and in this case it was me, I was the source; in other words it was my vision that decided what kind of films we would make together. The films Tarr made before me were “honest,” that was their strength, it was what characterized them -- it was why I, for example, liked them so much. I liked the fact that in these early films of his the single task of the central character was not to lie, that they would not lie -- it was the solitary basis for the aesthetic of the films which were a particular form of documentary. Tarr employed amateur actors, or the kind of actor he could torture on camera until he or she spoke the truth. When we met in 1985, Tarr suddenly discovered what he had been desperately seeking and which he very much needed: the only literary material he could possibly work with, the only possible style, the only visual world and dramaturgy, the only appropriate visual rhythm, in other words an artistic vision, spirit and corpus. From this point on everything was suddenly simple. I gave him everything, all I knew, body and soul, really everything, and despite all this he created an absolutely original cinema, something utterly authentic, a form of art quite different from mine. I willingly gave my heart to helping him and now, looking back at these works, these collaborations between myself and Tarr -- Tarr’s work -- I must say that I almost like the results, that Tarr’s cinema is the only cinema I can really tolerate. There was never any question in these collaborations as to who would make the film. We called them Tarr’s films -- it is Tarr who went to the movie festivals and still does, and will as long as he lives: it is right that Tarr should wear the crown, the rest of us who worked with him, and particularly me, we are anonymous in this happy set of events and that is as it should be. Only one thing matters, Tarr’s cinema itself -- the others, the sources of the inspiration, the cast, are all unimportant. Making films isn’t a matter of fairness. And that too is as it should be. TM: The doctor in Satantango fears the loss of memory of any detail that passes his perception as a sign of mortality. “To ignore the apparently insignificant was to admit that one was condemned to sit defenseless on the parapet connecting the rising and falling members of the bridge between chaos and comprehensible order.” There follows a humorous passage in which he lists the things he must remember. But to remember so much of either the important or the insignificant leads to paralysis and a different kind of death. Does the structure of your novel -- the tango that constantly goes back and forth in time -- mirror the problems of not being able to forget? LK: What I can’t forget is the world we have created. Everything is of equal interest in the world except man himself. When I stand on the top of a mountain and look down on the valley, seeing the trees in the distance, the deer, the horses and the stream below, then look up at the sky, the clouds and the birds, it is all perfect and magical right up to the moment that, suddenly and brutally, a human being walks into view. The spectacle I was enjoying from the mountain top is simply ruined. As concerns the structure of my novels I am less certain since I never really think about it. But since you are interested all I can say is that the structure isn’t something I decide but what is generated by the madness and intensity of my characters. Or rather that it is as if someone were speaking behind them, but I myself don’t know who it is. What is certain is that I am afraid of him. But it is he that speaks, and his speeches are perfectly mad. Under the circumstances it is self evident that I have no control over anything. Structure? Controlling the structure? It is he who controls everything, it is the furious speed of his madness that decides it all. And given this fury and madness it is not only impossible to remember anything or even think -- the only recourse is forgetting. TM: At first, I imagined you were making Esti into an archetype of the wise noble idiot. That was until, a few pages later, she commits a particularly savage act. Were you deliberately rewriting this archetype and playing with reader’s moral expectations? Oddly enough, I still found her the most sympathetic and tragic figure in the book. LK:  Estike (her name derives from the original word “este” meaning “evening” but in translation it is Esti) is a very important figure. There is a point at which this consequence can easily turn to cruelty. And that is the case here. Please don’t think that the tenderness of this wise, noble idiot is so easy to bear. Spending time with Estike is like spending time with a being of infinite purity. Purity is dangerous. The construction of purity has very important consequences. Estike’s purity stems from the fact that she is a victim. And a victim is always desperately rational in victimhood. It is very dangerous being with a victim. I love her so much I feel physical pain whenever I think of her. TM: The dance that forms the structure of Satantango and the Werckmeister Harmonies that form the focal point of The Melancholy of Resistance suggest a desire for rhythmic order. I thought I could hear an echo of this rhythm in Szirtes’ translation. This may be an odd question, but do you write with music in the background? And if so, what music? LK: No, I write my texts, my sentences, in my head -- outside there is a terrible, almost unbearable noise, inside there is a terrible, almost unbearable, pounding silence. TM: Finally, American readers will surely make comparisons between Satantango and Faulkner’s novels. There are the long, rhythmic sentences. There is the small dying town cursed by a past and the constant jarring shifts in time. Did Faulkner’s novels, either in English or Hungarian translation, or any of our other writers inform your work? LK: Yes, they had an extraordinary effect on me and I am glad I have the opportunity of admitting this to you now. The influence of Faulkner -- particularly of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury -- struck an incredibly deep echo in me: his passion, his pathos, his whole character, significance, the rhythmical structure of his novels, all carried me away. I must have been about 16-18, I suppose, at one’s most impressionable years. What else? I was an enthusiastic reader of magnificent Dostoevsky, of the mysterious Ezra Pound, of Thoreau’s Walden, and of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts -- the list could be infinitely extended. I couldn’t have existed without great writers and for me these writers constituted greatness. The fact is I can’t exist without great writing even now, and that is why it is so important, as I am slowly realizing, that I inhabit the same planet as, thank God, Thomas Pynchon...
The Millions Interview

Lost in Translation: The Curious Obscurity of António Lobo Antunes

Considered by many to be Portugal’s greatest living writer, António Lobo Antunes’ relative obscurity in the English-speaking world is something of an enigma. The author of 23 novels, and still, at the age of 69, turning them out with unerring industriousness, Lobo Antunes is quite a big deal in Portuguese-, Spanish- and French-speaking countries. He has his illustrious champions too: George Steiner calls him “a novelist of the very first rank...an heir to Conrad and Faulkner;” no less a canon-builder than Harold Bloom says Lobo Antunes is “one of the living writers who will matter most;” according to J.M. Coetzee, his shorter works, published in English as The Fat Man and Infinity, “are alive with the poetry of the everyday, and tinged with the gentlest of self-mockery.” Every October his name is among those bandied about for the Nobel Prize, yet mention him to most English speakers, even literary types, and you will be met with terribly blank looks. The irony is it was approval from the United States that made Lobo Antunes his name as a writer. Despite claiming that from the age of seven his sole ambition was to be a writer, he took his time getting started. Speaking in his apartment in central Lisbon -- almost every square inch of wall-space lined with books in multiple languages -- Lobo Antunes says he initially wrote without intending to get published. A friend finally prevailed on him to submit a manuscript for publication and Elephant Memory appeared in 1979. It was on the publication of his second novel, Os Cus de Judas (idiomatically, “the arse-end of nowhere”, published twice in English under more prim titles, most recently The Land at the End of the World) that things began to, unexpectedly, take off. “I received a letter from an American agent -- a big name at the time; I wasn’t going to reply -- I thought it was a joke. But I wrote back, thinking, why not, it’d be cool to have an agent in New York. So the first book came out and the reviews were very good. In the U.S., if you have The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, you have America, and if you have America, you have Europe. It all snowballed -- all of a sudden, I had an agent, a publisher, translators, and readers. That was all very strange for me.” That agent was Thomas Colchie, who also broke Manuel Puig and Reinaldo Arenas in the U.S. Back home in Portugal, Lobo Antunes quickly became one of the giants of contemporary literature, locked for a long time in mutual hostility with the late José Saramago -- not so much a feud as irritation on the part of each at constant comparison by the media. By the end of the 1980s he was able to give up his job as a psychiatrist in a Lisbon mental hospital and live off his writing. His work reads like a biopsy of Portuguese society over the past 50 years, dealing along the way with the dark days of Portuguese fascism (The Inquisitor’s Manual, published in 1996), the 1974 Revolution and its aftermath (Fado Alexandrino, 1990) and the messy reflux of decolonization (The Natural Order of Things, 1992, and The Return of the Caravels, 1988, in which Vasco da Gama arrives back in post-revolution Lisbon with other “retornados” from Portuguese Africa). Lobo Antunes’ style is dense and sometimes disorienting, with multiple narrative voices jostling for space on the one page -- something which is more marked in recent novels where paragraphs often begin uncapitalized, such is the textual overspill. The novels are not easy to read but neither are they forbiddingly inaccessible. The effect is like studying a painting up close inch by inch, particular by those painters such as Rembrandt and Rothko whose works photographic reproductions don’t really do justice. The books are often a slow read but details remain embedded in the mind long after you have put them down. The British writer he most bears resemblance to in intensity is David Peace, though that doesn’t tell a quarter, never mind half, of the story. Lobo Antunes is much the greater stylist, with his luxuriant imagery beautifully rendered into English by his various translators, among them Gregory Rabassa and Richard Zenith. He has been at times compared to Faulkner, Céline, and Proust, though, when I put this to him, he laughs and says he is nothing like them. But sumptuous as his prose might be, it is bolstered by a masterly rigor and underneath the surface, rage burns. Few novelists ever have produced writing that is at once so gorgeous and so angry. One of the earliest motors of that anger was his own participation in the bloody colonial wars that Portugal fought from 1961 to 1975 in a desperate attempt to hold onto its empire. Antunes spent 27 months in Angola as an army medic, returning in 1973, 13 months before the revolution that overthrew the fascist regime. One of his company’s officers, the leftist Ernesto de Melo Antunes (no relation) was a leader of the revolution, and Lobo Antunes speaks of him fondly as having been like an older brother. But the war itself was a terrible “extreme” experience with the future novelist witnessing and participating in what he calls “terrible things.” He has never returned to Angola, though says he would like to, being evasive as to why he hasn’t -- “things are complicated over there.” Angola was for him a wonderful country, a land of pungent smells, rich colors, and beautiful sunsets, which, if it weren’t for the war, he would have thought of as paradise. He is also amazed as to how forgiving the Angolans he knows are of their former colonial masters -- “it’s strange because, if I were Angolan, I would be full of hate, but with them there’s none, only gentle friendship for the Portuguese, they treat you like family.” Lobo Antunes never talks about his war experiences -- “out of respect for the dead” -- and, with the exception of The Land at the End of the World, has treated the wars only obliquely in his novels. He is similarly unforthcoming about his books; he says it is “not my place to talk about them.” He is however expansive on other subjects, particularly the process of writing. Despite his prolific output he finds writing hard though, he adds, “it is for anybody who writes.” A few years ago he told an audience in Boston that “writing is not difficult -- it is impossible -- but sometimes it becomes easy when an invisible force guides your hand.” When he has a book going, his routine is regular and punishing, writing from nine in the morning till 11 at night with two one-hour breaks in between. He dismisses suggestions he toils more than anyone else, saying many a manual laborer works far harder and compared to Dickens, Balzac, or Stendhal, his effort is modest. Though he measures himself against the greats, Lobo Antunes is remarkably humble. He starts from nothing, without anything in mind, without even notes to guide him, and never writes to a plan. Everything is done in longhand -- “I like seeing the letters form and smelling the paper” -- and he owns neither a computer nor even a mobile phone. Considering how vivid the topography of Portugal is in his novels, this is surprising; the critic Peter Conrad has said that in Lobo Antunes’ novels, the “world [inside the narrators’ head] is the size of a country.” His work is almost like psycho-geography in reverse, Portugal conjured up from nothing in the study at the back of his apartment. Lobo Antunes is so self-effacing as to sometimes disbelieve words he can’t remember writing, wondering “if it would be really honest to put my name on the cover of this book.” Like most writers, he is beset by doubt. He always wonders if his next book will be his last. After finishing a novel, he is incapable of writing for months, he says, as was the case after the publication in Portuguese last September of his latest novel The Commission of Tears (about the 1977 attempted coup d’état in Angola). He has since started writing again but still does not know what course it is going to take. He has never reread any of his books -- not in itself that exceptional among writers but neither does he do public readings. He doesn’t hold onto manuscripts or discarded drafts (though, smilingly, he says he did so for a while “because American universities pay a lot for that sort of thing,” but then started throwing them out again). He doesn’t read reviews anymore either, not for fear they might be bad, but for fear the good ones “might be wrong.” You get the sense his reticence about his books is as much to avoid spoiling them with discussion and you also feel Lobo Antunes is taking the long view on literary fame -- at one point, he says, “after your death, your books are all that remain.” If, as Harold Bloom suggests, Lobo Antunes is one of those living writers “who will matter”, the author himself looks to be making careful preparations for his posthumous reputation. As a reader, Lobo Antunes holds the bar high. He speaks warmly of contemporary writers he admires though those are few. For him the 19th century is the high-tide mark of literary excellence -- “at any one time across the world, in America, in the U.S., in Russia and so on, there were 30 or so geniuses all working; today, you’re lucky if you can find five in the whole world.” He also holds the Moderns in high esteem. As for today’s writers, entering the Lobo Antunes canon is as onerous as trying to get into heaven is for the rich man in St. Matthew’s Gospel. While we are talking, he opens a parcel of new books his publishers have sent him; he picks through them, grumbling that they are “shit” (including, amusingly, one by a prominent American writer with quite a reputation for self-importance). Only a Portuguese biography of the late Angolan UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi arouses his interest. Biography is what he mostly reads while writing -- with fiction he finds he picks holes and ends up rewriting in his head -- the biography he is currently looking forward to most is one of the 20th-century American crime writer and friend of P.G. Wodehouse, Rex Stout. Those writers Lobo Antunes does like include Cormac MacCarthy, whose “monosyllabic brilliance” he praises, and the late W.G. Sebald, who was a friend. On prompting, he also concedes Saul Bellow had some good stuff. But for the most part there is little in contemporary fiction that interests him. It is certainly not the product of a narrow worldview -- Lobo Antunes reads and speaks Spanish, Catalan, English, and French as well as his native language and he tells me he has taught himself enough Russian to be able to compare translations of his beloved Gogol and Chekhov. He speaks particularly highly of English-language translators, placing them above those in the other languages he reads. He also, quite rightly, thinks highly of his own translators in English, more so than his French ones -- he says his novels in French have been poorly translated, though he is happy with his latest collaborator, Dominique Nédellac, but one presumes he is not basing that opinion on a full reading of the books. The last few years have been dramatic -- in 2007 he successfully underwent surgery for intestinal cancer -- his novel from that year, My Name is Legion, is dedicated to the doctor that “saved my life.” That same year he won the Camões Prize, the Portuguese language’s top literary award and two years ago, he married for the fourth time. His output has not let up, with a new book almost every year. Some of his back catalogue has also seen the light of day in English, with two books apiece issued by W.W. Norton and Dalkey Archive in the past four years. English-language publishers have a lot of catching up to do however; though some of the older books are getting translated only one from the last decade has appeared in English -- What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire? which was first published in Portuguese as far back as 2001. Many of the eight he has written since have appeared in French, German, and Spanish, but not in English. In the U.K. bar two editions, now out of print, that Secker issued in the early 90s, Lobo Antunes has barely been published, with his readers there relying on U.S. imports and his work making only flitting appearances in U.K. bookshops. So why is he not better known in the English-speaking world? One can understand how the casual reader might find forbidding the work of a man who flatly denies he is a storyteller and who says that “plot, whenever there is one, and usually there isn’t, is just a hook to say the things that interest me.” His near absence from the literary pages, despite the good reviews, is more puzzling though. Lobo Antunes himself is not too fazed. “George Steiner told me he tried to get people in Cambridge interested in my work; he couldn’t understand why I wasn’t known. Someone told me the English just prefer English writers,” he says with a shrug. Stateside, he is far from a household name, but he does at least have the firm grounding for a major reputation. It is true that literature in translation is a notoriously hard sell with the Anglophone publishing world seemingly only capable of handling one big writer at a time -- think of, in recent years Sándor Márai, Roberto Bolaño, and Hans Fallada. In all three cases their success in English was, significantly, posthumous. Regrettably, many readers may not come to know António Lobo Antunes’ considerable body of work until all that remains of him is his books. Image courtesy of the author.
The Millions Interview

The Mutability of Truth: An Interview with Patrick Flanery

Patrick Flanery was born in California, raised in Nebraska, and in recent years has spent significant time in South Africa. His first novel, Absolution, is set there. It focuses on Clare Wald, a reclusive writer, opening up about her past to her biographer, Sam Leroux. So far, so familiar. But Flanery’s trick is to tell his tale from four varying perspectives that ultimately converge and contradict, leading us to question the reliability of the characters and the validity of their confessions. To what extent is a writer engaged in “professional lying?” How are we all complicit in the problems of the countries we live in? Can we ever fully obliterate, or atone for, our past crimes? Flanery’s debut is a fascinatingly multi-faceted novel which impresses the more it perplexes. I wanted to learn more about writer and book and so interviewed him. He was in South Africa, I in Berlin, and so the following was done by email. The Millions: First of all I have to apologize. Sam Leroux mentions his “carefully formulated questions I’ve spent months preparing.” I have only taken an hour to compile mine. Presumably before Absolution was even conceived you completed a doctorate in English Literature at Oxford University. What area did you specialize in and did it have any bearing on the novel? Patrick Flanery: I went to Oxford thinking I was going to write a doctoral thesis on male friendships in the works of D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and Evelyn Waugh. When the powers that be decided the topic was not adequately “new” (in other words, they thought the work had already been done), I decided to focus exclusively on Waugh, shifting from a literary critical project to a largely book-historical one, which examined the publishing history and various media adaptations of three of his novels: Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust, and Brideshead Revisited. My work on Waugh unquestionably had an effect on Absolution, although quite a complex one. For one thing, as a relief from my total immersion in Waugh, I began side projects on J.M. Coetzee’s publishing history, which led me to broader investigations of South African literature and culture. In contrast to Waugh, I was craving a more ethically engaged, and more resolutely secular territory to explore, and Coetzee’s work provided just such a space. Waugh’s own minor experience of censorship also led me to wider theoretical reading about institutions of censorship, and thus to Coetzee’s brilliant and essential collection of essays, Giving Offense. That provided the spur to thinking about the writer-censor relationship in creative terms, and I began, while still finishing my doctorate, writing a series of dialogues between a writer and her biographer that explored this territory. My concentration on Waugh’s fiction, and the letters and diaries of a writer who cultivated a vividly difficult personality -- one notoriously resistant to interviewers -- helped inform my character Clare Wald. TM: In an interview with the Independent, it was noted that you talk more about literature than you do yourself. It is a rather facile question but an important one for a debut novelist: who are your literary idols and influences? PF:  It is among the most difficult questions to answer, simply because the influences are legion, whether positive or negative models (I like this, I don’t like this). For a novelist, though, talking about literature is perhaps one of the most revealing ways of talking about oneself. I’ll limit myself here to the influences I was most conscious of tapping while writing Absolution. These I can divide into four territories: South African, North American, Latin American, and broadly European (including British and Irish). The most obvious South African influence is Coetzee, whose work has always astonished me for the rigor of its control: I never have any doubt that Coetzee knows precisely the kind of work that each word does in the text. Several other South African writers were also important, including Marlene van Niekerk, Zoë Wicomb, Ivan Vladislaviċ (all three are too little known and read outside of South Africa), and the late K. Sello Duiker; Nadine Gordimer I admire greatly, although I suspect her influence functioned at a quite subconscious level. Of North American writers, DeLillo, Roth, and Didion (her essays) were important touchstones, along with Atwood (I taught Surfacing for several years and regard it as an important intertext for Absolution), as well as Mavis Gallant and the poet Anne Carson. From Latin America, Jorge Luis Borges was an early and not necessarily productive influence, but nonetheless a very potent one: an uncle who leads one astray and doesn’t pick up the bill at the end of a surprisingly expensive meal. Roberto Bolaño has been a more recent discovery: complex, complicated, and often, for me, a maddening writer, he is also a model for writing a novel (2666) that manages to be gripping at both intellectual and visceral levels. European influences are predictable: Joyce, Forster, Woolf, Conrad, T.S. Eliot (if one can call him European) and, perhaps inevitably (and as much as I might wish to disavow his influence), Waugh as well. From the continent, Proust, Mann, Kafka, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov formed a rather dour, sometimes wry chorus of support. TM: Reviewers have already placed you in illustrious company, comparing you with the likes of Graham Greene and Coetzee. The former, I feel, is always lazy short-hand for any novel with tension and conflict in an exotic locale. The latter was almost inevitable -- both you and Coetzee deal with professors and academics, crime and violence, and refuse to offer neat solutions to your complex themes. Summertime even features a biographer trying to unlock a writer’s life. I do see Coetzee having had some impact on you (Dusklands even gets a mention in the novel, secretly stashed away from the authorities among books by Clare Wald) but also see Absolution as a kind of second cousin to a similar-titled novel, Ian McEwan’s Atonement: the fractured narrative, the varying viewpoints, the re-imagined and alternative histories. Am I miles off? PF: When Summertime appeared I already had the foundations for Absolution; I knew it was going to be about a novelist and her biographer, and I knew it was going to have a fractured, fragmented form. I also knew that if my own novel were ever published, people would inevitably see a line of descent. I won’t deny Coetzee’s influence, but as I suggest above, he is one of a great many writers with whom I like to think my own work might be in conversation. McEwan is an intriguing comparison. I admire Atonement, and perhaps it, like Gordimer, was lurking in my subconscious: in a way, Absolution takes the next logical step in form where Atonement leaves off. I started with large, discrete sections, as in McEwan’s novel, but felt, for my own purposes, that the story I was trying to tell needed a form, a shape, and a rhythm that was more dynamic, shifting, and urgent. Some reviews, I know, have described the novel as a kind of “literary thriller,” and it would not be inaccurate to say that I was conscious of wanting to endow the events of the novel with a certain quality of pace and suspense more usually found in genre fiction. TM: Early on in your novel, Sam poses a question about fiction being necessary to political opposition. Clare laughs at him and replies with “You have a very strange idea of what fiction is meant to do.” What is fiction meant to do? PF: The temptation is to answer your question as Clare would, to tell you that fiction, even under conditions of oppression, has a different role to play, that it need not only be social realism reporting on the conditions of the oppressed, involving itself in a struggle for liberation, but that it can perhaps play a part in such battles even while its role, its position, and its effects are not necessarily legible, or may only be legible in retrospect, when the field has cleared and the dead have been buried, the treaties agreed, and history lurched into its next cycle. But that is what Clare would say. My own feeling is that fiction in a broadly social realist form has a place in the larger body of any given national -- or indeed transnational -- literature. Absolution is certainly not social realism, although it does attempt to engage certain aspects of the current and highly varied social realities at play in South Africa. Such moments of social realism are, however, contained in a text that might more accurately be described as subjective or critical realism, with layers of the surreal, the nightmarish, the apocalyptic, the confessional, and the biographical. Fiction that aspires to be something more than an entertainment commodity must, I think, ultimately be concerned with its own longevity, with the conversation it holds between itself and whatever has preceded it. TM: As you suggest, the novel began as a series of exchanges between characters on the issue of censorship. Only later did South Africa present itself as a setting. How did this come about? PF: While writing the initial censorship dialogues between Clare and Sam in 2005, I was also writing the first draft of the narrative of Clare’s “house invasion,” as she insists on calling it, alongside a post-apocalyptic narrative of a woman looking after a young boy. I did not, initially, know how this third narrative related to the other two, but I sensed that they all belonged together. For a time I thought I might set the book in a near-future California, but the more I wrote of the three primary sections, the more I was just conscious of a landscape that recalled what I already knew of South Africa’s Western and Eastern Cape Provinces from visits with my South African partner to family and friends. Unsure what to do with this odd triptych of texts, or how to make them advance, I put the book aside. Years passed, I finished my doctorate, I returned for further visits to South Africa, and continued to think of Clare, knowing that I did not want to abandon her. I began thinking again about the setting, dismissing America as the wrong location for the story I was trying to tell, and thinking instead of an unnamed, semi-allegorical African or South American country, before finally concluding that the book needed a highly specific temporal and geographic context to make the story both more resonant, as well as to provide the kind of narrative the characters needed to move forward from their quite static positions. Once I settled on South Africa as the setting, the various problems of character, narrative, and form all began to fall into place. Unraveling the three novellas, I started weaving them together, while adding a fourth strand -- those sections which bear dates in the novel -- that seemed to bind together the first three. Journalists have asked me what kind of challenge the decision to set the book in South Africa represented. It was significant, and one I did not take lightly. My experience of South African domestic space (through visits with my extended family and friends in the country), and the reality of living every day of my life over the last decade with a South African partner, meant that I had a certain kind of access to a quite particular strand of South African cultural life -- largely white, English-speaking, and middle-class. So the daily details, the language, and the cadences of speech were not the most difficult aspects to negotiate; rather, it was making sure that the complexity of certain relationships and lines of inheritance made sense in a way that was at once possible to fit into a plausible strand of South African history, while also being conscious that history (however one might wish to define it) need not necessarily function as the benchmark against which the events of the book might be measured. TM: You write about contemporary South Africa and adopt a fairly non-judgmental stance. Only once does Sam lose his cool with a person begging. Clare is traumatized by that break-in but doesn’t call for tougher laws and stricter punishments. Was it a conscious decision to be the aloof outsider looking in? Is it a writer’s ‘duty’ only to reflect and never comment on a country’s social or political situation? PF: At no point did I think that I was writing a critique of the country, although I would argue that there is a considerable amount of commentary about the unresolved legacies of apartheid. I was always trying to tell a story that, as I suggest above, started from large, perhaps “universal” themes, and worked backwards in its composition, from the broad to the specific, from the universal to the local. Equally, while I was conscious of the particular challenges I set myself in writing about a country not my own -- a country whose literature has long been informed by a sense in some quarters that South Africans should tell their own stories -- I did not think of myself as an outsider looking in. In his review of the book in the Mail & Guardian, the South African critic Michael Titlestad refers to me as an “insider outsider:” it is an apt and flattering description, I think, and one I am happy to embrace. I tried to write from a place as thoroughly within the country as I could manage. To “reflect” a country’s social or political situation suggests that there is one coherent narrative of what that situation might be, and also that it is the job of fiction to be “reflective.” Absolution tries to destabilize such ideas, to argue that there are many simultaneous, competing narratives, not only about traumatic events of the past, but also about the way in which the everyday life of a country unfolds. Sam’s account of his encounters with people begging would not, inevitably, match their own versions of the same interactions; had I chosen to give such characters voice beyond the limited dialogue Sam reports, they would have narrated the story in a markedly different way. Rather than “reflective,” I think of my own fiction as “discursive:” in a dialogue not only with literary tradition, but also with the world it seeks to describe. TM: You have said that South Africa is “the most and least like America” of any country you have visited. Please explain! PF: Before I first visited South Africa in 2003, I imagined it in terms of apartheid, its European colonial past, and those circuits of cultural affiliation, and, in a shamefully under-nuanced way, as an “African” country. The first visit immediately complicated all of those assumptions. Visiting Cape Town and its surrounding communities, one cannot but be aware of Dutch and French (Huguenot) influences, both in terms of architecture and place names, while in a town like Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape (where I sit as I respond to your questions, in the Victorian house of a friend), the influence of 19th-century English settlers is inescapable. Nonetheless, “modern” South Africa -- meaning both the modernist buildings and infrastructure built in the second half of the 20th century under apartheid, and the largely post-modern buildings of democratic South Africa -- often looks startlingly American. Many buildings and neighborhoods would seem at home in America in a way they would never fit in Britain or the Netherlands. Stylistically, spatially, and in terms of scale, South Africa feels more North American in its register than it feels European, except, perhaps, in places like Stellenbosch or the Karoo town of Graaff-Reinet, where the Cape Dutch architecture predominates; even in those towns, however, it is always possible for me to imagine myself into Southern California (in the case of Stellenbosch; I see similarities with Spanish mission architecture), or parts of the Midwest and Southwest (in the case of Graaff-Reinet). There is an expansive sense of space and possibility in the urban as well as rural landscapes of the country that feels utterly familiar to someone who grew up in Omaha with family ties to Oklahoma and California. So on the level of the built environment, as well as some aspects of the landscape (although not the vegetation), the country feels familiar to me. The differences, however, are as numerous as the similarities, and not just because of the obvious reason that this is an African country. It is culturally, linguistically, and socially complex in ways that America is not. However unfinished the process of reconciliation and truth telling may be, South Africa has engaged in a dialogue about the past that America has failed to do in the same way. Imagining an American Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate racial atrocities, the legacies of slavery, and the much longer and profoundly unexamined treatment of American Indians, is all but impossible because those invested in maintaining the status quo, in not unearthing the truth of America’s past, are, I fear, far too powerful. TM: At one point Clare announces to Sam in a letter: “You see how unreliable I am.” Sam is also an unreliable narrator -- in one scene he realizes the life-story he is presenting to his wife, Sarah, is based on events and experiences from Clare’s books. Even maps are described as “a tracery of lies.” Was it your intention to disorient your readers and have us constantly uncertain of which characters to trust? PF: The point was not to disorient readers, although I acknowledge that the initial reading experience may sometimes be one of disorientation, at least in part. Rather, the characters’ so-called unreliability (perhaps it would be better to speak of the mutability of truth in the novel), functions as a formal manifestation of the ways in which trauma produces multiple narratives, or multiple truths. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission sought to provide a forum for different forms of truth (“factual or forensic truth; personal or narrative truth; social or ‘dialogue’ truth...and healing and restorative truth”), acknowledging the ways in which such ostensibly competing truths may coexist. I hope that, to some extent, Absolution suggests the ways in which there can be, particularly in the case of a traumatic event, a multiplicity of possible truths. One of the signal traumatic events from Sam’s past is the death of his uncle, and Sam’s negotiation of that memory produces more than one version: the memory is fractured, fragmented, shifting, entirely unstable, as if viewed through a prism. In the case of Clare, her manipulation of the narrative of her own life, and those she loved, serves a different purpose: it represents a struggle to negotiate the boundary between her public and private selves, to protect and defend those territories she regards as beyond the reach of public interest. Her intention, certainly, is to disorient Sam, the man she has, ironically, appointed to write her life, to keep him on shifting ground, as much as his mode of questioning her has a similar intent. TM: Absolution is immensely intricate and must have required the tightest plotting -- so much so that you can’t possibly be a spontaneous make-it-up-as-you-go-along writer. How much of it all did you plan in advance? PF: I planned almost nothing at first, and that is, perhaps, why it took me six years to finish. As I approached the final drafts of the book, I did begin to have a clearer sense of where it was going, but I did not know how it would end until I wrote the final sentence. For my second novel, however, I have worked from an outline. While it provided a loose structure that I ultimately revised, reworked, and then abandoned, having that map helped to focus the work, allowing me to write a complete draft in 10 months. It was certainly a much more efficient and less frustrating way to work. TM: How and when do you write? Do you set yourself a daily word-count target? And how difficult is the creative process? PF: After years believing that writing was about waiting for inspiration to strike, I realized I would never finish a book on such terms. Now I try to be at work by nine each weekday morning, work until noon, take an hour’s walk, eat lunch, return to work for the afternoon. It is, in this sense, a 9-5 job that sometimes intrudes into the evening and weekends. I try to write a minimum of 1,500 words each day, although with the second novel that rose to 2,500. The initial writing is rarely difficult: the tap flows freely. The challenge is regulating the temperature, the force, and finding ways of containing and shaping what emerges. TM: Clare states that biography is “cannibalism and vampirism.” Many a debut novel draws heavily on the author’s life to date. How much of yourself did you cannibalize for the novel? PF: Everything and nothing. TM: You have one great novel under your belt. What are you working on now? PF: I’m in the midst of revisions on the second novel, which will be finished in the next few months. Although set in contemporary suburban America, it shares some preoccupations with Absolution. Themes of dispossession, of inheritance, and of the vulnerability of domestic space are again present, although explored in quite different terms. It is very much a novel of and about the uncanny, the unhomely home, surveillance, and the complications, costs, and elusiveness of the American dream.
The Millions Interview

Paradise Regained: An Interview with Lauren Groff

I'd been waiting to read another novel by Lauren Groff ever since I finished her first, The Monsters of Templeton, a genealogy-detective story which also happens to include an enormous lake monster and sentences so beautiful you just want to weep. That promising debut, however, could not prepare me for the brilliance and wisdom of Arcadia, Groff's recently-released second novel. I was wholly swept up in this story about, among other things, a man who is raised on a commune; I would've read it faster were it not for the stunning prose that I wanted, like a fine meal, to savor. Groff's novel is so richly imagined that every word, every detail, feels true.  She is one of the most talented writers working today.  The Millions: I was immediately drawn to Bit as a narrator--he's sensitive, thoughtful, a keen observer of his surroundings, sweet, and tiny.  Can't get much more loveable than that. (He also seems an antidote to another fictional boy, Kevin, from one of my favorite books, We Need to Talk About Kevin--and I think, as a mother of a son, I needed that!) I really enjoyed being in Bit's world, his perspective. Was he always the person to tell this story? How do you feel a different member of Arcadia might have altered our perception of it? Lauren Groff: Bit was always the person to tell the story, even if he didn't begin as the character he ended up being by the last draft. I started this book when I was pregnant with my first son Beckett; from the beginning, I knew there was going to be a child's point-of-view in the first part. That said, Bit was at first a girl, primarily because almost every point-of-view character I've ever written up to then was female. Then Beck was born, and suddenly the character had to be a boy, and he grew into a fuller life as my son did. This book is equally Bit's mother's story--Hannah's story--and even though she and I are similar in a lot of ways, I found Bit's perspective to be more interesting, his loss more keen. When Arcadia falls apart, Bit knows nothing of the world beyond, really, and has to go into it as an innocent, which seemed utterly terrifying to me. (As a side-note, I love Lionel Shriver [holy hell!].) TM: I was impressed with how language of this book shifted, grew more mature, as the book progressed, as Bit aged. Also, there's almost a groovy rhythm to the prose early on that reflects the lifestyle of the commune. Later on, the prose is far more subdued. Was this intentional, and how did you calibrate the perspective with each section? LG: It's hard to say how intentional the shift in language was--I write from the gut a lot. That said, I believe very deeply in the symbiosis of story and mode, that the way that a writer chooses to tell the story has to be at least an equal partner to the story itself. Global things matter--the external architecture of the story, its internal structure, point-of-view, voice, verb tense, authorial distance, things like that. And smaller things matter equally--the use of white space, the length and rhythm of the sentences, the choice of details. When a story I've written has failed, it's because I haven't found the right way to tell it in either a large way or a small way. TM: Everyone who's read this book raves about its prose. It's gorgeous! When Bit is alone as a child in the dark woods, you write, "There is a sense of gathering, a hand that clenches the center of a stretched cloth and lifts." Later, Bit describes the unfamiliarity of boxed cookies, how they taste "the way batteries do when licked." As an adult, he thinks of his students, their "faces cracked with interest." The images are specific, surprising, beautiful. Can you talk a little about your relationship to sentences and imagery, and how you go about crafting your prose? LG: Ha. Thanks. The prose that ends up in a finished piece is the product of lots and lots of drafts. I do a preliminary draft of almost everything I write, where I just sprint from the beginning of the story to the end in longhand, and when I'm done, I throw it out without rereading it. This seems wasteful, but it's actually immensely freeing. By the time I'm done with the first draft, I've figured out my structural problems, have a good idea of the characters, and, most importantly, am not so wedded to the words themselves that I can't fix what's inherently broken about the piece. When I start again, the nice phrasing or images from the first draft reappear if they're interesting or important and don't if they're not. And then, after a good longhand draft is finished (maybe after three or four re-starts), and I transfer it all to the computer, the second stage of drafting begins, where I print out the manuscript, scribble over it crabbily in red ink, insert changes, and reprint. This goes on for dozens and dozens of drafts. And then there are the trusted reader drafts, the agent drafts, the editor drafts, the copy-editor drafts. Sometimes, I wonder if writing fiction is, at its core, mostly a matter of finding a story or character that's interesting enough to hold the writer's interest through all of the painstaking work of revising. TM: The novel reads episodically, with little moments or scenes broken up by white space. There are parts that feel more episodic than others, and it almost feels like time is passing in flashes, everything blurry but a brief, beautiful moment. This made the book not only highly readable, but it also emphasized the passage of time by giving it a physical dimension on the page. This is a long-winded preamble to asking you how you conceived of time passing in Arcadia. The novel is told in the present-tense, and yet, the latter half of the book is so much about Bit looking backward. How did you wrestle with all the years covered? How does scene-writing change in a book that covers so much time? LG: Oh, I'm so glad you mentioned time. From the beginning, it was deeply important to my idea of the project of this book. I am in love with the gorgeous, elastic, leaping human brain that shuffles and connects disparate pieces of the world into a coherent story. I wanted the white space, either between the episodes or between the four parts of the book, to carry a lot of the narrative burden. Some people may live lives that are perfectly linear, but mine seems to happen in intense, emotionally-charged spurts, followed by long, fallow periods of relative calm. My impression of history--our collective storytelling--is that it happens in crests and troughs, too. With Arcadia, I wanted to examine time, through Bit, as this intensely personal experience; I also wanted to examine time in its larger historical patterns. TM: I admit, I'm a bit annoyed that so many reviews of Arcadia give away its plot and structure , which was deeply surprising (and thus pleasurable) to me. So, ***spoiler alert*** to those reading this interview who haven't read the book! I was shocked when this book moved forward into the future; this suddenly panoramic view of Bit's whole life reminded me a little of A Visit from the Goon Squad (of which I am a big fan), in its surprising depiction of a future that supplies us with a new understanding of the book's characters.  Did you know you were going to structure Arcadia like this?  I kept wondering if an earlier draft was more conventional, plot-wise, more like Room by Emma Donoghue--where the little boy who was born and raised in a shed escapes and in the second half of the book has to interact with this big, scary new world. Why skip ahead to Bit as an adult, now accustomed to the outside world? Were you meaning to shift our expectations of plot and novel structure? LG: As soon as I figured out what I wanted to write about, I understood that my arc was going to move toward dystopia at the end of the book. The impulse stemmed from my research--a lot of the back-to-the-landers I read about and talked to for Arcadia went from being largely idealistic in the 1960s to being somewhat apocalyptic nowadays; for instance, a number of them ascribe to peak oil theories and practice radical homemaking. (For the record, I don't think they're wrong.) I was gobsmacked by the idea that people who were extremely future-thinking in their twenties would become extremely anxious about the future in their sixties. It keyed into a lot of the bleakness I was feeling at the time I envisioned this book, because, in truth, I was (am) afraid for my baby's future. Also, the real pattern for this book was not just ending at Paradise Lost, but also extending into Paradise Regained; if Bit were going to be given the chance to return home, the stakes in the outside world had to be heightened. And though I deeply love Room, which I let myself read after my final edits, Bit's trajectory was different because I wanted to explore how Bit carries his parents' idealism throughout his life and how it changes him. TM: How much research went into Arcadia? What in the commune is just pure imagination and fantasy, and what did you feel needed to be backed up with historical fact? Where does research fit into your writing process? LG: I research first and a great deal, and then do a small amount throughout the rest of the writing process, all of which took about four years for this book. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do at the beginning, so I started with just basic texts about utopias and dystopias. I moved on to utopian novels (Butler, Morris, More, Le Guin, Campanella, and on and on), read about actual historical intentional communities. The two that took my breath away were Oneida, in mid-nineteenth-century upstate New York (Mansion House is the inspiration for Arcadia House), and The Farm in 1960s through '80s Tennessee. I spent a few days at both places. Oneida is now a guest-house, and you can stay with people who still live at The Farm, both of which experiences I recommend heartily. And then I talked to everyone who would talk to me about their experiences in intentional communities. Serendipity was on my side with this project. Even during moments that I wasn't looking for a story, I stumbled into one. We had a garage sale and someone came up to us who said our house had housed a cult in the 1970s that she'd been a part of. Apparently, they wore pink robes and made the kids sleep in the garage. TM: And because The Millions is a site about books, I must ask, What's the last great book you read? LG: I just read Leela Corman's Unterzakhn, and can't say enough lovely things about it. It's a graphic novel that just came out, set on the Lower East Side in the beginning of the twentieth century. It's lush and smart and and funny and just beautifully drawn. And I just reread Jami Attenberg's great new novel called The Middlesteins, which will be published in October. It's so great-hearted and warm and brilliant. You'll love it.
The Millions Interview

On Point: David Rees, The Proust of Pencil Sharpeners

David Rees is best known for Get Your War On, the satirical clip-art comic strip in which two colleagues, Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivable, discussed the War on Terror. It was consistently hilarious in nailing the linguistic and political absurdities of the Bush-Cheney era. Then, when George Bush left office in 2009, he stopped doing the strip. He subsequently set up a small artisanal pencil sharpening concern from his home in Beacon, N.Y. His new book, How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening, is the product of that new project. It’s a very, very funny book, but he’s not just kidding around. It’s an exercise in sustained seriocomic tone that somehow manages to be both elaborately ironic and completely sincere at the same time. He also really knows a lot about sharpening pencils. The Millions: I have to say that, as much as I’ve enjoyed the book, one of the effects of reading it is that it’s become much more difficult for me to sharpen pencils. I now feel very intimidated by the whole process, whereas before I just did it without too much thought. David Rees: Well, the whole point of the book was to try to defamiliarize pencil-sharpening as an activity, so that people would just approach it from square one again. One of the things I liked about starting the artisanal pencil sharpening business was that it made me think about pencils in greater depth than I probably ever had in my life. And the more I thought about them the more I appreciated them as really efficient, elegant tools. But sharpening pencils is always a little intimidating, especially with the single-blade pocket sharpener, where you might break the tip or you might not be satisfied with how it turns out. Frankly I think the book is meant to make sharpening pencils simultaneously less and more intimidating. TM: One of the things I wasn’t really aware of before I read the book is the cultural differences between Europe and the U.S. in terms of pencil sharpening practice. You’ve got a whole chapter on wall-mounted pencil sharpeners, and that was completely alien to me as an Irish person. I’d never heard of such a thing. DR: Are you being serious? TM: Completely serious. Are they a common feature of American classrooms? DR: Yeah, absolutely. They’re the first sharpeners that I remember using. They are very much a part of many Americans’ childhood. And that whole chapter is kind of about nostalgia and growing older, about how different it is to encounter something like that when you’re an old man like me, rather than a kid who’s full of promise. You can call me the Proust of pencil sharpeners, I’ll take that honorific. TM: It’s all yours. So I’m interested in how the structure of etiquette surrounding pencil sharpening differs between the U.S. and Ireland. First of all, when I was a kid we didn’t even use the term “pencil sharpener.” We called them “pencil parers” or, sometimes, “toppers.” DR: Jesus Christ. What kind of backward society is Ireland? TM: Listen, it’s a national embarrassment. You’d put up your hand and ask the teacher for permission to go to a bin in the corner of the room, and you’d sharpen it directly over the bin. DR: See, I like wall-mounted pencil sharpeners in American classrooms because it’s one of the last vestiges of a communal good in our free-market society. It’s something that everybody uses. I’m surprised to hear that you communists overseas are using your own individual sharpeners in classrooms. It’s a very Ayn-Randian position to take. “I’ve got my pencil sharpener, fuck you if you can’t afford a pencil sharpener! Sharpen your pencil with your bootstrap!” TM: Tell me about the origin of your interest in pencils. You’re known as a cartoonist, but your best known work doesn’t involve any actual drawing. Get Your War On, and pretty much everything else I’ve seen of yours, is all clip art. DR: I always found the penciling and inking of cartoons to be completely onerous and beside the point, because I was just interested in the writing. So for me the pencil sharpening doesn’t really bear any relationship to the cartooning. It all came out of working for the Census Bureau. A couple of years ago, I quit cartooning and didn’t have any money, so I just got a job working for the United States Census, going from door to door. And on the first day of staff training they gave us this bag of supplies for the months ahead, with pencils and a little tiny pencil sharpener, and told us all to sharpen our pencils. And I thought I’d rather get paid to do this than go around knocking on strangers’ doors and get yelled at by paranoiacs. TM: Did you get a lot of that hardcore anti-Fed stuff? DR: There was a very small amount of that, but it wasn’t as explicitly political as I thought it would be. I dealt with one man who was mentally unstable and literally a SWAT team became involved. When you get to an address and there’s nobody home, you leave a message for them telling them to call you. And when I got home that night there was a really angry voice mail from this guy who was really upset, like “why are you in my house?” I called him back and said I was just looking for information, and he told me he was going through a really hard time. You’re not supposed to escalate situations like that or anything. The next day I was back in the neighborhood and noticed the house was surrounded by guys in Kevlar vests with automatic rifles. I talked to one of the cops, and it turned out the guy had gone off his meds and thought that his neighbors had been in his house and that they’d killed his mom. He’d thrown a brick at his neighbor and told people he was inside with a gun. It was really scary and not fun, but everything resolved itself with a minimum of violence. But that’s not your typical census story. TM: Less call for SWAT teams in the artisanal pencil sharpening racket, I’d imagine. DR: So far. We’ll see what happens on tour. TM: What kind of reactions do you get from people when you’re doing live sharpening, from people who are just coming to it cold, and don’t have any idea about you or what you do? DR: Well, it depends on the demographic. Some people are like, “Oh, I get it, it’s an art project.” Or like, “Oh, I get it it’s an Internet prank, or a big huge joke.” And none of those are entirely correct. It is a real thing. I am actually doing this. I’ve done almost 500 pencils for paying customers now. Some people have a hard time understanding, and then you literally just tell them exactly what happens: I have a website. People send me $15 through the Internet and then I sharpen a pencil for them, and then I fill out all this paperwork and send it to them. And then the conversation usually ends in stunned silence or just an avalanche of questions. TM: It seems to me like a joke that is also, paradoxically, 100 percent serious. DR: Etsy.com, the arts and crafts site, ran an excerpt of the book, but they ran it on April 1st, so the comments were all like “Oh, what an amazingly thorough and well-documented April Fools prank.” And a friend of mine summed it up in kind of a good way, by saying that the joke is that there is no joke. Obviously, the publisher decided to market the book as a humor book, but my goal was always -- and you can’t do this for obvious marketing reasons -- but I was like, “we should market it as a how-to book, because that’s the form that it assumes.” Granted, it gets a little crazy towards the end, but that’s basically the form of the book. TM: I was really struck by the tone of the book. It seems weirdly refined in a way that was oddly familiar to me, but that I couldn’t quite place. DR: That’s because it’s the voice that God speaks to you with when he answers your prayers. But for years, I have collected early-to-mid 20th-century industrial manuals and how-to guides. And a lot of those books are written in a slightly elevated, gentlemanly tone. Like, “The reader will be forgiven for thinking that this die cast mold will produce...” And for me, that tone is just so intoxicating. It’s slightly aspirational, like it’s written for the gentleman plumber or something. It’s fascinating, because these are blue-collar manuals, but the writing is often so much more ambitious and literary than what you would expect if you went to a Home Depot today and just bought a book called How to Put Up Fucking Drywall. That’s why I wanted the book to have poems in it and references to Biblical verses, because I really wanted to pay homage to all those books in my personal library. TM: Reading it, I kept asking myself what you were satirizing. And then I kind of realized that you weren’t really satirizing anything. DR: Right. It’s not so much trying to satirize anything as just elevate pencil sharpening, and defamiliarize it so that people can realize how awesome it is. The joke isn’t like, “Oh, sharpening pencils is so stupid. What if I goof off and make it sound important.” I’m into it. It’s satisfying. And I have some kick-ass pencil sharpeners. I think my background as a satirical political cartoonist informed a lot of peoples’ preconceptions about what this project was. And I’m trying to be careful in the tone of the book to make sure I’m not just shitting on Etsy people or craft fairs or something. It’s not a mean-spirited project in the way that Get Your War On could be. TM: There are a couple of moments where it recalls Get Your War On, like where you suggest the reader grab the audience’s attention before a novelty pencil sharpening technique by saying “I’m about to straight skull-fuck your mind.” But in general it feels like the work of a completely different person. DR: I get really impatient with projects after a while. I like switching my voice and switching modes. But here’s the other way that the book functions a little differently, that I don’t think anyone will pick up on other than me and one other person. Me starting my pencil sharpening business over the last two years coincided with the end of my marriage. And the book, in a way, is kind of like a memoir of the last two years of my life, disguised as a pencil sharpening manual. I know that sounds super-pretentious and ambitious, but it’s in there in terms of references and throwaway lines. I sent a copy to my ex, who now lives in Paris, and she just picked up immediately on things that I hadn’t even noticed about the book. Like just how much of my life as an adult was in the book. So in a way, the book has like an elegiac or melancholy vibe underneath all of it. Because part of the point of the book is that when your whole life is collapsing, you might very well become obsessed with pencils. Or just any kind of weird, random thing that you can lose yourself in that’s just completely removed from all the emotional concerns that are whirling around your head. TM: Obviously there are lines in the book where you mention your ex-wife, but for whatever reason I just sort of glossed over those references. Possibly because I read the narrating voice as the voice of a character you’d created rather than you yourself. DR: I wouldn’t say I’m playing a character. But I get what your saying, in so far as those little mentions of my ex-wife are supposed to be kind of jarring, to catch you up short, to hint at something unspoken that’s running through the whole narrative, to the extent that it is a narrative. I initially wrote an introduction in my own voice, and the publisher said, “No we don’t need this, it gets in the way of the character.” And I would always get upset when he would call it a character. Like, I get that I’m all dressed up and making funny faces and writing in a weird voice. But it’s not just a character. It’s me writing about my life in the language of these industrial manuals, as if those are the limits of my language for this project. And I have to express technical information and emotional information in this voice. So I’m glad we cut the introduction in the end, because I think the foreword John Hodgeman wrote puts it in the real world in enough of a way. But I do think of this book as a book about myself. I’m like every other 30-something, middle-class white person: I feel like the world owes me my best-selling memoir. But I guess, in the end, this pencil-sharpening book will have to do. TM: Well, maybe coming at it from a weird slant is the best way to write a memoir. DR: Yeah, maybe it is. Because I love coming at things from oblique angles, or setting up constraints. That’s why using clip-art is so fun. Like with Get Your War On, it was like, let’s just fucking work these two pieces of clip art to death, and just do everything you can within those constraints. TM: It’s just occurring to me now, because I’m holding the book in one hand and a classic Staedtler #2 pencil in the other, that the design of the book is modeled on the yellow and black color scheme of the pencil. DR: Yeah, exactly. Also, you probably haven’t noticed this, but at the top of the book the threading is pink, and at the bottom the threading is dark. That represents the eraser and the tip of the pencil. That was the designer’s idea -- when he told me about it I nearly creamed my pants. You could say we almost over-thought this motherfucker. TM: I think you did about the right amount of thinking. But the knowledge you’re laying down here is incredibly detailed and thorough. You think you might be in danger of putting yourself out of business? DR: It’s not a worry. In fact, it’s the goal. I don’t want to do this forever. I wanted to just throw open the doors of my workshop and just share my secrets. Whenever an article gets written about my pencil sharpening business, there’s always someone who’s like “Fifteen dollars? I’ll do it for ten!” And I’m always like: "You know what? It’s a free market economy, knock yourself out. Let’s see what you got." It’s enough for me to know that I’m first in field, as they say. I invented this industry, and I’m happy to share what I’ve learned, and hopefully empower people to sharpen their own pencils. TM: So is there an optimum degree of sharpness for a pencil in your view? I find I get obsessed with having as sharp a tip as possible, to the point where I spend as much time sharpening as actually writing with the thing. Because, of course, the sharper the tip the more likely it is to break. DR: That’s true. And obviously there are so many metaphors you can make about sharpening a pencil, and the tension between trying to have an idealized tip and a practically usable tip. At some point, you just have to trust that the point is good enough and just put it to the page and get to work. As opposed to just doing what I’ve done my entire adult life, which is just staying trapped in my head and being terrified of engaging with the world because it will be less than perfect. If you have to write about your own emotional and psychological shortcomings and traumas in the guise of an industrial manual, pencil sharpening is a great one to do because it’s so obviously symbolic and metaphorical. There’s a tension between trying to make something perfect and actually having to be in the world and make use of it. For me it’s useful to keep that tension in mind and to remember that it’s great to have a pencil mounted and displayed on your wall, but it’s also just great to have a pencil in your pocket. Image Credit: Flickr/buechertiger
The Millions Interview

A History of Violence: An Interview with Eugene Cross

In the first story of Eugene Cross’ debut story collection, Fires of Our Choosing, a boy takes another boy to a corner of the playground and beats him up because he can, and because he’s sad. In Cross’ stories, hurt people hurt people, and while sorrow and unhappiness might not excuse their behavior, it can illuminate. This is what Cross accomplishes with his bullies, harvesters, housepainters, housebreakers, and pool sharks — he lights them up, and reveals their humanity. Tout savoir c’est tout pardonner: to know all is to forgive all. Cross’s stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine, American Short Fiction, Story Quarterly, TriQuarterly, and Callaloo, among other publications. His collection was published by Dzanc and recently was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. The Millions: Reading your stories, I thought often of Flannery O’Connor’s work, and what she said about violence being an “extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially.” What role might violence play in your writing? Eugene Cross: When I set out to write the book, I didn't intend for violence to play such a pivotal role. However, many of the characters in Fires are at their breaking points, especially some of the younger ones. Like many adolescents, rather than deal with a situation rationally, they act out with violence. Having been a kid myself (and having held onto that mentality for much longer than society would deem appropriate), and having worked with kids in the past, I've seen violence from both sides, the bully and the bullied. I tried to explore that in these stories, and also was intrigued by just how quickly those roles, the abuser and the abused, can reverse. TM: Erie, Presque Isle Bay, Waterford, I-79: from what Google tells me, much of your collection is set in northwestern Pennsylvania. Nomad that I’ve been, I’m ever interested in the ways writers like, say, Munro and Faulkner root their fiction in a particular location. Do you feel any storytelling attachment to this part of Pennsylvania? EC: I do! Like so many beginning writers, I tried desperately to escape where I was from. From my first creative writing class on, I was hellbent on writing stories that took place anywhere but where I grew up. I wrote stories set in the swanky social circles of Manhattan, places where people drank gimlets and actually used words like swanky. Or pieces set in Hawaii or Texas or the underbelly of LA or even, God forgive me, stories set nowhere. TM: What changed? EC: A teacher of mine very kindly pointed out that all these exotic and vague locales sort of sounded like the same place — that is, they began to sound like the place I'd been trying to escape all along. The place I was from. And so finally I embraced it and all it had to offer. The farmlands of northwestern PA, the grit and resilience of cities like Pittsburgh and my hometown of Erie. The people and places I'd spent my whole life observing. TM: You say you tried desperately to escape where you were from. What do you think pulled you away from home? EC: In large part, I thought that most people wouldn't find where I was from interesting enough to read stories set there. This, however, was a product of my own restless adolescence. Like many kids raised in small towns I couldn't wait to get out, to see the big city, to move on to other places where I was certain life was exciting and magnificent, and moved at an altogether faster pace. And so I used my stories as a sort of escape, until I myself could escape for a while. When I gained some distance and grew up a bit, I finally realized that the place I was from wasn't all that bad, and was in fact pretty great. That the people who built their lives there and the stories that occurred were the foundation of my life. TM: Before publishing your collection with Dzanc, you also received a Dzanc Prize for a community service project with refugees in Erie. Can you tell me about the project? EC: Dzanc very kindly provided me with the means to run a creative writing workshop for refugees living in my hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania. The class was composed mainly of Bhutanese refugees who'd been living in refugee camps in Nepal. The United States served as a third-country resettlement for them. That being said, the bulk of participants were high-school-age students, kids who'd been born and raised in the refugee camps and lived their whole lives under extremely difficult circumstances, usually without electricity and running water. When they were resettled in the United States they came to live in cities like Erie and Pittsburgh and were often placed in the poorest areas of town and attended public schools with the worst reputations. Take all of that and add a language and cultural barrier and it would be enough to break almost anyone, but not them. We did exercises where they wrote letters to friends and family they'd left behind in the camps, or who had been resettled elsewhere, and they were heartbreaking and amazing. TM: You seem to have a particular affinity for younger characters. If you could give your younger self some advice, what would you say? EC: I would say, “Younger self, stop taking everything so seriously and brooding all the time, and stop worrying so much about being accepted and just try and be yourself for a little bit, whoever that is, and be nicer to your parents and sister who love you, and don't get annoyed when they want to talk to you and ask you questions they won't always be there to ask, and don't think you have to screw up and get into loads of trouble to be a writer, and enjoy your life, every second, ‘cause it all goes so fast. And stop letting your mom, as much as you love her, dress you in those god-awful turtle-neck sweaters with the deer printed on them, especially on picture day at school. It's not helping you or her or anybody.” TM: Speaking of previous editions, I remember having read an earlier version of your first story, “Rosaleen, If You Know What I Mean.” Do I remember correctly that you changed the first line of that story? If so, do you mind talking about what changed, and why? EC: In the original version of the story, the opening line read, “The day after his brother left the house for good, Marty Hanson picked out the smallest boy in his sixth grade class and beat him badly.” The line now reads, “The day after his brother left the house for good, Marty Hanson picked out the smallest boy in his sixth grade class and waited until the boy was alone.” What happened is that I got the opportunity to take a workshop with the wonderful writer and teacher, Charles Baxter, as well as with an amazing group of fellow students (including the incredible author conducting this interview!). Baxter pointed to the line immediately and told me I was “telegraphing my scene.” In other words I was telling the reader what would happen before it happened. When writing the story, I needed this hint, as it was one of the first things that came to me and pointed me in the direction the story would eventually take. However, in revision, I could pull it out and hence create tension for the reader. Baxter's advice seemed so simple, and yet, I never would have come to it on my own. It made perfect sense and so I went back and changed the line. TM: I’ve been thinking recently about what makes a story collection versus a pile of stories. Fires of Our Crossing feels very much like a collection, with unities of place, situation, and tone. When did these stories start coming together as a collection for you, or had you planned them as such from the beginning? 

EC: Thanks so much for saying that, as I'd definitely hoped for it to come across as such. At first, I was just trying to write good stories that could stand on their own, attempting as best I could (and probably quite naively) to ignore how I would someday market the book, or try to sell it. Thankfully, the stories began to link themselves in terms of place and theme, and for that I was grateful. I don't know if I'll be as lucky in the future, but my goal is always to write strong work in the hopes that it will organically coalesce. I never want to try and force a theme or a character or connect stories that otherwise wouldn't benefit from it, simply because it would make a book more marketable. TM: Can you tell me more about the collection’s title? EC: Well, first off, I've found that it's a bit divisive. People seem to really like it or really hate it. I’ve felt both ways. But mostly it has something to do with a certain amount of accountability. The characters in the book have awful things happen to them. There are fires (obviously), drownings, robberies, break-ups, impending imprisonments, and all nature of tragedy, and through it all many of these characters are looking to blame anyone around them, anyone but themselves. Growing up, a lot of my friends were like that. I was like that. Willing to take credit for anything positive that came my way, but so quick to dismiss trouble as not being self-inflicted. TM: The characters of Fires of Our Choosing seem to look for their respective salvations in, by turns, work, gambling, or violence. Which do you think is most likely to save us? EC: I'd love to say gambling, but I'm a subpar card player who never knows when to stand up and cash in, Kenny Rogers be damned. Truthfully, I don't think any of these can save us, but I'm often less interested in the outcome than the attempt. What do we turn to and why? Leisure and work, they both have their places, but require balance. Raymond Carver has a story entitled “What Do You Do In San Francisco?” where a postman contemplates how work got him through the toughest times in his life: the disintegration of his marriage, two kids he hasn't seen in twenty years, and so on. “A man who isn't working has got too much time on his hands, too much time to dwell on himself and his problems,” he states. But there's also the reverse. No time at all to dwell, so much work that we can forget those around us, reassess our priorities and cloud our losses. TM: What about you — what are you working on these days? EC: I'm in the very early stages of a novel that is so tiny and clouded for me that it resembles one of those magic-grow capsules you had as a kid, that, when dropped into a tub of warm water, would expand into a giant foam turtle or dinosaur. My only hope is that mine doesn't expand into a giant foam short story. TM: What’s your workday like? EC: I'd love to say that when I'm writing I sit down and stay put. That I “don't leave the room” as the wonderful Ron Carlson suggests. But that would be a lie. I do. As my third grade teacher told my horrified mother many years ago, “He's like a fish out of water.” I pace. I stall. I hit the fridge. I research, oftentimes too much. But once I've gotten some of that restless energy out, I'm ready to work. Sometimes it's for a couple of hours, usually not more than three or four. I shoot for a page, knowing full well it might get tossed later and yet I try to treat it like it's the most precious thing I've ever written. Whether it finds itself into the finished piece or not, every line deserves as much.
The Millions Interview

Overnight Sensation? Edith Pearlman on Fame and the Importance of Short Fiction

One is tempted to attach the pop-cultural sobriquet “overnight sensation” to writer Edith Pearlman’s current moment in the sun. (She quotes comedian Danny Kaye when I used the phrase). As it is, Ann Patchett’s introduction to Binocular Vision (Lookout Books), Pearlman’s award-winning story collection and any number of reviews ask the question, “Why have I not heard of this fine writer before?” Why indeed? Pearlman has published over 250 short fictions and works of non-fiction in all the usual (and some unusual) places, and has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, New Stories from the South, The Pushcart Prize Collection,and The O. Henry Prize Stories Collection. My own take on Ms. Pearlman’s fair-weather fame has something to do with the limited attention paid to the practitioners of short fiction -- when I grouped her in the company of much heralded short story maestros Alice Munro and William Trevor, Edith blushed (though she did not demur, false modesty is not an attribute she has). As is the case with my author colloquium, Edith Pearlman and I talked about many things – Tales From Shakespeare, Hermes typewriters, Penelope Fitzgerald, reading Dickens, the task of literature, Aunt Jemima cookie jars, and more. Okay then. Robert Birnbaum: What was the first book you remember reading? Edith Pearlman: Interesting question. I think it was Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare. RB: How old were you? EP: I don’t know – eight. You asked about the first book I remember reading -- I am sure there were books I read before then. My aunt taught me to read at four. I think we read [Lamb] together. RB: How did she teach you? EP: Some kids are ready to read. I don’t think they need much teaching and I was one of those. My grandson is the same way. RB: Your reading career started in earnest when, at age six? EP: I suppose so. There were plenty of children’s books around -- maybe I read Five Little Peppers and How They Grew or-- RB: After reading Lamb were you a fully engaged reader? EP: Then I read the plays in order. (Both laugh). No, I think I went back to Mary Poppins. I read Lamb with my aunt. RB: And when did your writing career start? EP: It started even earlier. I started a book, I think, at the age of three. And it was called All About Jews. RB: I have recently come across three writers who began writing really young – Gary Shteyngart wrote a novel when he was six or seven. And Ben Katchor, he started early. EP: I started to write the book at three, but I didn’t get any further than the title. RB: Really – writer’s block? (Both laugh). EP: I think so. RB: Will you ever revisit that story? EP: I have revisited it often in interviews. RB: I mean All About Jews. EP: Probably not. RB: Are there generalizations with which one can describe short form fiction writers? For instance, many novelists write short fiction, but it seems that short fiction practitioners don’t often write novels. EP: It is something that clings to you and that you fall in love with. And though I love to read novels and so do my colleagues, I have no wish to write in the long form. It’s my destiny. RB: Have you ever tried? EP: I started to write -- actually I finished writing a mystery story with a friend but it wasn’t very good. And no -- I don’t think I ever have. RB: How do you know it wasn’t any good? EP: Well, nobody took it. RB: (Laughs). Alright. Writing came to you as an avocation, hobby, and obsession-- EP: It came to me as an occupation. I was making my living as computer programmer, so writing was in those days confined to letters. But my letters were rather long. RB: Do you still write letters? EP: I do still. RB: Hand write? EP: No, but a typewriter. I write my stories on a typewriter too. RB: It seems there is a renaissance of interest in typewriters EP: Yes, somebody told me that. RB: Well, at least if you pay attention to The New York Times. I have a few -- one is a [portable] Hermes 3000, which reportedly was the typewriter of choice for journalists. EP: I used to use a Hermes. I don’t remember what model it was. It was pretty old. RB: For some reason, the 3200 comes up in a few stories. EP: It was a very good typewriter. I used it for years. RB: Did you study writing anywhere? EP: I took a course in college and a course or two in my 30s. I did not get an MFA -- I took a total of three courses. RB: In the course of your writing career I read that you had written over 250 stories. EP: I have written 250 short pieces, not all fiction. RB: Is there a group of people you talk with about writing? EP: I have particular friend and colleague whom I meet with every month who is also a writer and we exchange manuscripts. That’s been going on for 25 years. RB: Any fights? EP: We have had and we are ruthless with each other. I also have a non-fiction group of four and we meet once a month too. RB: Which writers do you like to read? EP: Well, I like best to read Dickens and I read him over and over again. I have been doing that for a long time. So I have probably read each book five or seven times. RB: Rereading is a great thing. I feel compelled to keep digging in to the newly published. Although I reread 100 Years of Solitude three or four times. The last time I didn’t feel I got anything new and it made me wonder about past judgments about the book. EP: Well, in Dickens, each time I find something, some turn of phrase, a manipulation of plot or a character I hadn’t appreciated. I read them in order to live in them. My purpose is not to find new things. My purpose is to sink into them. RB: Dickens makes appearances in a number of contemporary novels -- Peter Carey's Jack Maggs. EP: That was a riff on Magwitch in Great Expectations. I don’t think Dickens appears. RB: Right. But he is in Richard Flanagan’s Wanting and in Joseph O'Connor’s Star of the Sea. EP: There is a story by Evelyn Waugh, a novel I can’t remember which one it is. The end of it is a about young people and explorers and takes place in Africa -- Black Mischief? The hero alone is captured by a crazy, fanatic ex-preacher who lives alone. And is held captive in order that the young man can read over and over and over the novels of Dickens until the old man dies. It’s supposed to be a tragic ending. To me it sounded like a wonderful life. RB: Is that the extent of your reading, you just read Dickens? (Both laugh). EP: I thought you asked who I read most or my favorite -- at any rate. RB: You gave me the impression that you aren’t required to read any particular writer. EP: Right. I don’t feel I have to read anybody. At this point I feel like I’ve probably read enough. Not enough to educate myself -- if I stopped reading, which would be a horror, I would probably not be a different person. People are made by the books they read and I think I am finished. That is to say, my making is finished. RB: Do you think the task of literature is to instruct and entertain? EP: Exactly. How did you know? RB: (Laughs). EP: I would put entertain first. RB: Richard Russo introduced the volume of Best American Stories he guest edited with an amusing anecdote about Isaac Bashevis Singer visiting the campus where Russo was teaching and answering a graduate student’s inquiry with the “task of literature is to instruct and entertain.” Apparently the gathering wanted a more elaborate answer. I think that view is actually taken from Horace. EP: Oh really? RB: Is writing short fiction important? EP: Yes. RB: Because? EP: Because literature is important. The project is important. RB: Do you have any sense that it’s being drowned out? EP: It is being attacked so to speak. Drowned out isn’t the word I would use. It’s being narrowed by all sorts of things. But it probably always was. We notice the Internet, television, and all these electronic things, but 100 years ago it was affected by farm work. Only the very rich could read. RB: That was probably the case for most of history -- that only a small fraction could benefit from reading and writing. EP: I don’t know that the percentage is any different now. RB: The percentage may not be the different but the cause may be and thus the hold it has on our civilization may be different -- more tenuous. I work with people who don’t read -- 35 year olds who play video games. EP: Well some time ago they might have been plowing the fields. RB: There is this meme of the educated working class guy who finishes his shift on the assembly line and goes home and picks up William Faulkner. In fact, that is the story of Southern writers like Larry Brown and William Gay. I don’t think that obtains any more -- especially because I don’t think one can be poor with dignity in the 21st century. EP: People do come home and read no matter what their occupation is. RB: Working class people have to work hard -- frequently taking on second jobs EP: Why don’t they have that luxury in their off hours? RB: Besides fatigue, there aren’t a lot of cultural prompts. EP: Where did people get it before? RB: This belabors the obvious, but this a world that is far different than what we were raised in. EP: My husband plays early music -- he plays the viola de gamba as an amateur. The early music crowd is eccentric and a world unto itself. And passionate and they don’t write early music -- it’s already been written, but they play it and adapt it. It is their overwhelming hobby. I think that’s what reading may become. A small group of people who love it and don’t care if they are thought of as crazy. RB: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 has seemed prescient to me. EP: It is. It is. RB: People who collect guns or Aunt Jemima cookie jars are passionate also. Today it would seem passion -- people who like reading and literature passionately began to champion the independent bookstore. That’s okay. I mean, who likes cookie cutter retailers? On the other hand, booksellers were beatified as if they weren’t merchants and capitalists. C’mon! Maybe a few were/are heroic -- Truman Metzel of the late Great Expectations in Evanston Ill., or Sylvia Beach in Paris, Vincent McCaffrey in Boston. EP: And now they have readings. Those of us who want to sell books are delighted. RB: I understand. Do you go to the annual BEA? EP: Tell me what it stands for? RB: It’s a big booksellers trade show. EP: In Frankfurt? RB: That’s the Frankfurt Book Fair. This is the big American convocation of the book industry. EP: Obviously, I don’t go to it since I don’t know what it is. RB: So, do you go to book related events? EP: I go to literary events -- mostly at colleges. I go to bookstores. I go to festivals. I go where I am asked. If the BEA invited me, I would go. RB: That does speak to the assumption that writers should help their publishers promote and sell their books. EP: Yes, right. I do it for my publisher. RB: Your publisher is blessed to be located in a civilized place like North Carolina (laughs). Wilmington? Chapel Hill? EP: Wilmington. Do you know him? RB: Ben? No. EP: I thought he introduced us. RB: Oh yeah, by email. EP: He knows you, knows of you. RB: I don’t remember the chain of events that brought us together -- it must be because you are an overnight sensation (laughs). I must have read about you in Variety. EP: No you didn’t. I am an overnight sensation of a sort. I have been writing for 40 years and this is my fourth book. And I always had a small following. And I never expected to have any bigger following. I would go to my grave with a small collection, happy. So this somehow happened. RB: You knew about Ann Patchett’s intro to [Binocular Vision]? [She writes:“My only challenge was to keep from interrupting myself as I read. So often I wanted to stop and say to the audience, 'Did you hear that? Do you understand how good this is?'”] EP: That certainly helped. RB: And there was a review in the LA Times that took the same tone. As did Roxana Robinson. I am happy for you, but that’s a bit of journalistic gimmickry. There are many artists that one can say that about. EP: Absolutely. I had the luck to be plucked. It was luck. There are writers absolutely as good as I am or better who write their books and don’t get noticed. RB: I am disturbed by that -- I am reluctantly drawn into thinking about the business part of book publishing. Success frequently is serendipitous. I am certain you know the stories of writers who have submitted their books to many publishers and were rejected. EP: Absolutely. Or 30 rejection letters for a story. RB: Tibor Fischer’s story is particularly amazing. Of the almost 50 publishers in Britain he was rejected by all except the last one he approached. How do these decisions get made? EP: By human beings. By fallible human beings. RB: It would be okay if there were some humility attached to the gate keeping of publishing. Don’t you think? EP: Yes. And the prize givers ought to be more humble and certainly the writers. In general the writers are -- they know how lucky they are. RB: You start out with a sense that there is a civilizing effect of thinking and writing and telling stories. It made life somehow better. And looking around today, it may be true but the contemplative life seems to be losing the battle. EP: It improves the individual life, I think. People who read, people who write-- RB: Wouldn’t it be nice if they were to be salvation for all of us? (Laughs). EP: I would, but I am not a proselytizer. RB: All right, I scratch that line of thought. I have three favorite stories in Binocular Vision. “The Ministry of Restraint,” in part because I didn’t know what was going to happen -- how well do you remember your stories -- pretty well? EP: I think so. RB: A guy takes a trip to some backwater town, and takes a train back to the capitol and meets a woman. The train is blocked at a tunnel and the passengers have to get off and return to the starting point -- as man and the woman walk side by side, their hands come close to touching but do not. And then over the years they meet. In final pages, you learn explicitly that they were lovers once. I was charmed by their initial close proximity which was brought to some fruition much later. EP: I’m glad you liked it. RB: And then the heart wrenching tale of a damaged infant. Why did you name her Tess? EP: I don’t remember. I don’t remember. It has a slightly angelic appeal to me. RB: Any connection to Thomas Hardy? EP: No. She wasn’t named after Tess of the D’Ubervilles. RB: How many Tesses do you know? EP: Probably none. RB: It’s an unusual name EP: Yes, it’s taken from the nickname for Theresa. RB: Was it a hard story to write? EP: Yes. I wrote it in pieces. And, of course, it’s told in pieces. And I didn’t write it in the order of its final form. RB: You chose to have a number of people tell the story. EP: Only one person speaks in her own voice -- that’s the mother. There are probably a half of dozen people who see the child -- each of them has a thought that you know about. But it’s the mother who speaks in the first person. RB: And it was hard to write because? EP: It dealt with such sad things. RB: Do you have enough time to emotionally identify with the characters? EP: Yes, I think I do. I have enough intensity to get involved. RB: I wonder about the aftermath of writing a novel, which requires a writer to inhabit lives for a period of time. How long does it take to write a story -- a year? EP: No, no. A few months. I suppose in a hardhearted way I forget the sadness of the story I have written. Life goes on and I write the next story. RB: Are you tempted to write what seems to be a current trend-- EP: Linked stories? Well I have several stories that take place in the same place -- in soup kitchen. The stories about the woman who works for the joint distribution committee -- there are four about her. It’s not a temptation so much as I am not through with that character, so I want to write another story about them. RB: Is there one thing that moves you in taking up or developing a story -- a name, an image, feeling, a memory? EP: All of those things. It’s not one -- something I dream-- RB: When you begin, do you know what is going to happen? EP: When I start out, it’s a lot of improvising and I write many pages of improvisation and then I begin to see what story I want to write. I start all over again with the knowledge that I have gotten from the improvisation. RB: Do you think the piece is finished when the story is written? EP: Well, I take them to my friend, whom I meet every month, who is ruthless with me and I with her. RB: Does she use any instruments in her ruthlessness (laughs)? EP: No, no. It’s all an abuse of the mind. And she either says, “This is almost done” or “Go back.” And I do. RB: One writer told me that she submits the draft -- her editor sends a back a few notes, which enrage her. She writes back to her editor expressing her anger. The editor doesn’t respond. And a few weeks later, the writer decides the editor was right (laughs). EP: She had to get over her rage and humiliation first. RB: Really! Where was I? EP: You were going to tell me the third story you liked. RB: Right. It was the one entitled “Chance.” It had a Torah study group card game. I enjoyed the Hassidic slant, but I really like that it went somewhere I didn’t see coming. I lost track of why the card game devolved to the temple and presentation ceremony. EP: It begins with the Torah being delivered, and so I had hoped that the Torah would always be somewhere in the back of the reader’s mind. RB: Yes, it’s mentioned in the middle of the story. I was distracted by the card game interlude. EP: Well, the title of the story is “Chance.” That’s what poker is about-- RB: And what the Torah is about (laughs)? EP: No, that’s what the destruction of Jewry was about. That is to say it was chance that some Jews lived and some died. RB: The story’s last two lines were quite powerful. Story collections are a delight because despite what is usually a deliberate sequence you can go through and begin with titles that you find appealing. I would never skip around in a novel. EP: My daughter used to read novels that way. A piece here and a piece there. And I read somewhere that Nabokov wrote his novels that way on 5x8 cards. There is a writer who found or could have found his ideal reader. RB: Movies are made that way -- out of narrative sequence. EP: When I was a girl, I‘d go to a double feature in the middle and go around for the part I missed. They don’t let you do that now. I tried and was told that the director did mean for you to see it that way. RB: In the last few years, I have relaxed my personal rule about finishing books that I begin-- EP: Many of my friends have said that [same] thing to me: “Now, if I don’t like it out it goes.” RB: It means I have shifted more responsibility to the writer. It’s always an issue, the immediacy of our reaction -- you may hate a book one day and find it quite readable the next. EP: Yes. And the things we believe today, we can expect not to believe tomorrow. RB: (Laughs) If we can remember them. EP: (Laughs). RB: Do you go back to your work? EP: Well, I do when I make a collection. Because it’s a chance to improve them. So I go back -- when a story is accepted by a magazine, it’s an opportunity to correct things. RB: You see that as a correction? EP: Improve? If it then goes into an anthology like Best American, I take an opportunity to correct or revise there -- but not much. Not wholesale revision. And then, for a collection of my own, I certainly have an opportunity to change or review. RB: Where does that impulse come from? At one point you felt the story was finished. Not perfect but done. EP: I thought it was done to the best of my ability at the time. RB: And then you got better since you wrote it? (Laughs). EP: I don’t know that I got better -- I got different. I was in an event in which three short stories were read by three actresses which was a lot of fun. I was watching one writer listening to her own story -- she said later all she could hear were the infelicities. So I am sure if that story gets re-collected she’ll change some things. RB: There is also the matter that the creator has expectations of the audience to grasp their creation in a certain way. EP: No, I don’t feel that way. I agree with the statement, "Trust the tale, not the teller.” My attitude about a story I have written may well be different from a reader’s. And I don’t mind that. RB: Would you say it should be different? EP: No, I don’t say that. It can be appreciated in many ways. Or not appreciated. RB: This recent collection was a collection of stories that already existed? EP: Thirteen new stories that had not been in a book. They had previously been published in magazines. There were 16 stories that had never been collected. RB: They had all been previously published somewhere? EP: Except for one. I can’t remember which one. RB: Some writers say they will write stories specifically for a book. EP: No, I don’t do that. I write hoping that a magazine will take it. And I don’t think about a collection until I have quite a few stories. RB: Why are writers like Alice Munro, William Trevor, and yourself admired in a way that seems different than many writers? EP: Thank you very much for putting me in that threesome. I was so dazzled by that that I didn’t hear the rest of the question. RB: (Laughs) I took your breath away. Does it strike you that there’s a craftsmanship assigned to the writers I mentioned. That short fiction writers are looked as artisans? EP: Yes, we have to have our end not only in mind, but pointed towards, within the story. Like the ones you mentioned. RB: You seem to travel a lot. EP: I'm traveling now because-- RB: You’re an overnight sensation? EP: Did you ever hear Danny Kaye’s comment when he became a success and somebody said he was an overnight sensation? He responded, “Yes, after 20 years in the Borscht Belt.” I’m not an overnight sensation, but at the moment I’m in demand. It won’t last forever, so I am responding to it. RB: How do you know? Mostly there is a six-week window of attention for books and then goodbye. Your “15 minutes” has lasted since the Spring. EP: It’s been three months. RB: That’s a long time. EP: Yes, yes. It received these very good reviews. But other books are coming along with good reviews. RB: What’s come out that has really excited reviewers? EP: The Tiger Wife. I’m trying to think of fiction -- I am sure there are others. RB: I think not. Except for David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. EP: What about David Mitchell’s book? RB: That was a while ago -- it just came out in paper. EP: I bought it in hardcover. RB: Did you like it? EP: I haven’t read it. RB: (Chuckles) You bought the book and haven’t read it. EP: I have a lot of books I haven’t read. RB: What are you reading now? EP: The Worst Journey in the World, which is about Scott’s last expedition. It’s a nice alternative to fiction. RB: Do you know Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal? It’s about an Arctic expedition. EP: I’ll bet its good -- I like her short stories. Anthony Doerr got very good reviews. RB: Sure, but within the usual window of attention. And not a widespread choice. So what’s next? Any polar expeditions? EP: No, no. I have a grandchild I walk every day. I have lots of friends whom I meet for coffee. Love to go to the movies. RB: What was the last movie you saw you liked? EP: I liked The King’s Speech. I usually like movies when I see them. There are very few movies I don’t like. RB: Meaning you choose carefully? EP: No, I have a general love of movies. I love the experience. RB: Do you watch TV? EP: (Shakes her head). RB: None? EP: I don’t have one. RB: Wow. Isn’t there a whole bunch of culture you are missing? EP: I am. Yes there is. I do lead a somewhat insulated life without television. RB: Well, you have missed one of the great TV series -- The Wire. EP: Oh yeah? What’s that about? RB: Big city life in Baltimore -- drugs, unions, corruption, public schools, politics, media. There were five seasons and every season had a different focus. It was a Tolstoyan tale. EP: I am sure I am missing things that are good. I have a feeling that I'd become addicted if I started watching. And I also have a very good radio. RB: What do you listen to? EP: Music mostly. I listen to interesting interviews RB: What’s it like to be on book tour? Especially when a small amount of people show up for an event -- has that happened to you? EP: It certainly has. This [current] book seems to get a crowd. I read for my other three books a lot and seven people would be there. You do as well as you can for those seven people. I once was on a lineup that included David Sedaris and I was the first reader and he was the second. I had the experience of standing before 500 people reading my story -- all of 499 had come for him. It was fun. RB: That’s show business. EP: Thank you.
The Millions Interview

Plot, Rhyme, and Conspiracy: Hari Kunzru Colludes with His Readers

Hari Kunzru was anointed one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2003, just as his first book, The Impressionist, hit U.S. soil. In the nine years since, Kunzru’s four novels have more than justified this title. His only deviation from it, in fact, is that four years ago he picked up and moved across the Atlantic to New York. The American landscape, its culture, its myths and belief systems figure prominently in Kunzru’s latest novel, Gods Without Men, whose name comes from Balzac: "In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing… It is God without men." And it’s the Mojave desert that acts as the geographic center for this sprawling series of narratives that unfold over a duration of more than two hundred years. In the two weeks since Gods Without Men's release, it’s already been praised by Siddhartha Deb as “one of the best novels about globalisation." Douglas Coupland, too, sang praises in his New York Times review and coined a new genre to classify it: Translit. Coupland writes, “Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and spaces as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind.” And according to Jacob Silverman, Kunzru's latest novel is “the fulfillment of the type of ‘networked novel’ that Kunzru has advocated for, one that he argues is particularly suited to our networked age.”  Last week when Hari Kunzru and I spoke, our conversation touched on the systems that inform the novel’s content and structure, the American West, and UFO mythology born from the convergence of spiritual tradition and technology. Befitting twenty-first century networks, noise, and disembodiment, we spoke via cell phone, he in Seattle and I in Chicago, connected via two New York numbers. On Thursday, March 22nd at 7pm, Hari Kunzru will visit WORD bookstore at 126 Franklin Street, Brooklyn, NY for an event co-hosted by The Millions. Visit the WORD website for further details and RSVP. See you there! The Millions: In your novel Transmission, you write: “As soon as there is a sender, a receiver, a transmission medium and a message, there is a chance for noise to corrupt the signal.” The noise occurs here when a laid off immigrant programmer deploys a computer virus that has international ramifications. Signal corruption (or interference) also factors in to Gods Without Men, for example, where a mathematical model used in derivatives trading appears to have the power to interfere with and collapse national economies. And on a structural level in the novel, there are gaps in narrative time and in lives, there are a number of unexplained disappearances and returns. Would you talk more about the way that signals, noise, and systems in general inform and organize your novels? Hari Kunzru: Yes, I can do that. I have a sort of dark past as a technology journalist and I’ve always been interested in communication systems, both as technological artifacts and as the building blocks of social life. In my book I’ve become very interested in the ways that we’re enmeshed in these systems, whether they’re technological strictly, or not. The dream of perfect information is an old one, and Transmission is organized around this technical notion of information and thought. [Claude] Shannon’s famous information theory pretty much summarizes this: there’s a sender, there’s a receiver, there’s a transmission medium, and the mathematical idea is for the signal to go from the sender to the receiver with no corruption and no loss of data. In any real world situation there is always noise. And the ways that our attempts to make meaning and transmit meaning to each other fall away into noise in that sense, are an enduring interest of mine. You’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head with linking that to the gaps and the silences and the ways that Gods Without Men is organized. I mean, Gods Without Men has become a more explicitly metaphysical, spiritual notion. The way I usually approach talking about the book is to say that it’s about people dealing with the unknown, and beyond just the simply unknown, it’s the idea that some things might be potentially unknowable. I mean, to go back to kind of pointy-headed stuff, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem states that in a mathematical system there are things that are true within that system that can’t be proved by that system so that you can never predict absolutely. And these mathematical systems are the most-nailed down, supposedly predictive tools that we have -- they’re kind of incomplete, their meaning kind of bleeds out into nothingness. And all sorts of weird stuff can come into those gaps, and all these ideas are really good for the novelist in particular. The exploration of these areas is the sort of thing that the novelist should be doing. TM: I really enjoyed how the structure resonated with those ideas. In a BBC interview with Tom McCarthy and Stewart Home... HK: Oh, you heard that? That was a funny interview. TM: ...you say that because of the Internet, we live in a “relentlessly subcultural world,” that there are many co-existent subcultures, and that this has changed the way that culture is perpetuated. I’m wondering, how has this altered our idea and perception of narrative? And are linear narratives outdated? HK: I think there are two thing things here. When I was talking about subcultures there I was basically -- I don’t know if you know Tom and Stewart’s work. I mean, we were set up in this interview to be supposedly coming from three separate places and the poor BBC people, we all knew each other from ages ago and actually had far more in common in our interests that might first meet the eye. TM: I’m aware of your former membership in the INS. HK: Ah, yeah, in the first iteration of the INS. Yeah, so you know about the INS -- Tom’s into avant-gardes, I think he’s a very retro figure in that way. And there’s the notion that there is a kind of modernist probe heading out into the future and dragging the rest of culture behind it. I think that’s not how it works anymore. There might have been a moment in the middle of the twentieth century where that was actually happening and this kind of modernist project was functioning in that straightforward way. But now, to skip to the way we actually receive information and the way we make culture, it’s very, very difficult to work out where an avant-garde might be if you were looking for such a thing. If there is an avant-garde, you know, it’s some ten guys in Nigeria. It’s very unlikely to be a bunch of university types in a cafe who want to make formally experimental literature. You know, it may be that that kind of world is one way, one place that new culture is happening, but it’s very difficult to make it this kind of one's-at-the-fore, everyone-else-behind thing. That’s one thing. The second thing you asked me was about form and linear narrative. And I’m certainly interested in the ways that traditional narrative doesn’t function properly at the moment. I like traditional narratives, I take pleasure in stories, I watch multi-part HBO dramas, and I go to Hollywood movies. But I appreciate them because of a formal thing, because we all know really instinctively now about how plots are supposed to work. You know when there’s supposed to be a reversal, you know when it’s supposed to tie up. Most films, and books to be quite honest, in the first few pages you know what kind of thing you’re reading and you know how it’s going to go. I mean, certainly in movies -- you know you’re watching a comedy, so you know the guy and the girl, they’re going to get together in the end. You know the shape of it. And it’s a sort of banal thing to say on one level, but that’s not how experience is actually shaped in the world. That’s how stuff happens in books; and characters in these kinds of stories behave like characters, they don’t behave like people. If you do try the more complex, in kind of fleeting ways, that experience actually happens to us, then you’ve got to screw with plot in some way. You know, you can still make books where stuff happens. I don’t think you necessarily have to be some kind of high postmodernist and refuse any kind of stability of meaning. One way I’ve found is through the use of silence and the use of incompleteness, because that demands a kind of active reading. It demands something from the reader -- a kind of collusion with the writer. You’ve got to decide what you think might have happened, you’ve got to decide why you think certain things are being placed side by side. Because, you know, in our Internet world, we’ve got a constant flux of stuff. You’re clicking on one thing and then one thing leads to another and leads to another. And yet, the kind of interesting thing about the novel is almost the most old-fashioned thing about the novel: you’re putting a boundary around a bunch of stuff. You’re taking some stuff out of the flow and saying, Look at this -- this is the reason all these things are between these covers, are within this boundary. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to go and tie it all up in the end in a neat way, but there’s still an interesting specific set of decisions made about putting it all together. So there are a number of ways that you can approach this, and various people have quite different approaches, but certainly in Gods Without Men I was interested in making something that was organized almost through rhyme rather than through plot. The different stories in the book echo each other, and hopefully start to work together to grow elements that are repetitious, and there are elements that are different. TM: Right, the book almost asks a reader to read meaning into the work. HK: Right, exactly. That’s exactly it. TM:  I’d like to talk more about the fragmentation and the vitiation of culture throughout the novel. Neither Jaz nor Lisa closely identify with their heritage but still wield it when making personal decisions. And in spite of Jaz possessing the trappings of a culture, he never escapes an awareness that he’s faking it, he forgets his immigrant roots. Or, there’s the military base where the Iraqi immigrants role-play in a model Iraqi town in order to train troops before they’re deployed. What role does culture play in these American lives? Is it a costume to try on, to wear on special occasions? Is there an integrity to this fragmentation? HK: That’s a question I’ve always had to deal with in a very personal way because of my own background. I’ve got an Indian dad and an English mom and I grew up a second-generation kid in London, and so the kind of way you position yourself in relation to culture is a kind of live question at all times. Since the ‘60s and through the ‘70s and ‘80s in particular, people were being taught that culture is basically, the world is basically a floating collection of signifiers and that you can pick and choose, and you can completely create yourself. And there’s some element of truth to that, in that there’s definitely an element of performance in the cultural identity that you end up with. I mean, it’s what you do and what things you choose to adopt. But at the same time you can’t. There are bodies at the basis of this. You know, there are things that you can’t get free of. I live in a body with quite brown skin compared to my brother and I have an Indian name and my brother was given an English name. My brother’s called Richard and no one would really think he was Indian from looking at him, and yet I’ve always been quite clearly identifiable as somebody who is half Asian. And so in between the idea that there is only one culture and that you inherit it and you live within the tradition and there’s no wiggle room, and the sort of PoMo idea that we’re all busy trying on new stuff, you know, new cultures like hats -- we’re floating in between that. And the business of fragmentation when it comes to culture, that’s a slightly different question again. I grew up being called mixed race and people would say things like, “Oh, it must be nice to have two cultures,” or, “It must be bad not to have one culture.” You’re existing in a split way, and yet that was never how I was experiencing it. It’s normal inside your head. You’re not flipping between one mode and another mode in some sort of troubled way. Even though there’s a lot of people who think of themselves as securely belonging to one culture who imagine that’s what it must be like. I mean, usually that’s only as a kind of complicated or mixie person, by the people who imagine that you must’ve lost something, or you must be a bit rootless and homeless, and you must be yearning for some sort of Little House on the Prairie-type origin. So culture is in play. You take traditions on and then you change the traditions by what you do with them. I mean, Jaz in this book is having quite extreme trouble because he’s made a quite extreme leap. His parents are from a village background in north India and he’s invented himself as a sort of wealthy Wall Street dude, and the gap he’s having to bridge is quite extreme. He has, maybe more than I ever had, a sense of strain from that. TM: That’s obvious. And it’s interesting to use the U.S. as the landscape for that to play out. HK: Yeah, it is different from how it is in the UK, for example. I’m really aware of how the whole race and identity stuff plays very differently here. It’s been quite fascinating for me to come from one context -- I’ve been living in New York for four years now -- and to look at how it goes here in the States. Because the founding myth of America is the melting pot. You know, you come from wherever and then by taking the Pledge of Allegiance you transform yourself into an American. The way you become an American is by assenting to this list of baseline values, or propositions. And beyond that, you don’t have to eat some food or dress a certain way or behave a certain way in order to say you’re American. You stand up and you salute the flag, and then off you go -- you’re an American. It doesn’t work that way in Britain because Britain started off as this colonial, imperial country with the belief that there’s only one way of being British. And then it had a massive influx of immigrants, mainly after the second World War. And people like me turn up, who are clearly British, but at the same time don’t have the kind of... you know, it’s a place where you didn’t have a set, I mean we don’t have a Britain Constitution, there’s not a set of things you have to assent to in order to be a British citizen. It’s all culture and precedent and how it’s always been done. If a bunch of people turn up who do stuff differently, that’s much more threatening to the identity of the country. And the multicultural story of Britain in the last five years has been remaking the whole identity of the country to fit all the new kinds of ways of being British that have turned up. It’s a totally different history from America. TM: The American landscape figures prominently in the novel. Although the chapters jump across time, from 1778 to 2009, and lives are lived across a multitude of locations, most of the novel unfolds in one geographic area, near the Pinnacles in the Mojave desert - -a landmark described as, where “three columns of rock shot up like the tentacles of some ancient creature, weathered feelers prob[e] the sky.” What is the significance of geography to the novel, and also, in its relation to the American dream and myths of UFOs, higher energies, and the supernatural? HK: I suppose the first thing to say is that it’s kind of doubled with New York City, and you know, New York is a place of verticals and the place of finance. I’m trying to say it has much more in common with the desert, the place of horizontals and spiritual questions. All of the Walter financial modeling kind of stuff is a way of talking about the idea of credit credos and markets based on faith, in that way when everybody decides to believe the value exists. But the main action of the book is in the desert. The desert has a kind of incredible hold on me as a person. I mean, I first ended up out there just after 9/11 and in the week after 9/11, when I got stuck in the U.S. I’d been on the West Coast for about six weeks and I was supposed to fly out on the 12th of September. And at one o’clock at a motel in West Hollywood I watched the second tower go down. I was supposed to bring this rental car back to LAX and I had this scary experience -- all the freeways were closed and the airport was closed and yet the rental car company wouldn’t take no for an answer. They wanted their car. I ended up getting a bit lost, and would kind of hang there on the far side of the street, and was driving around the perimeter. I had a beard at the time and I got pulled over by the cops. They were incredibly jumpy, got their guns out, and I think it was only my English accent at the time that sort of saved me. They just realized when I said, “Hello what seems to be the trouble?” that I was an idiot, and didn’t shoot me. But at that point I just didn’t want to be in LA anymore and I didn’t get to fly out, and so I went to Death Valley and drove around the Mojave for several days, actually ending up in Vegas, which is a whole other story and a very weird time to be in Vegas. But I was out in this moment filled with dash and worry, out in this place. And I went back years later, when I first came to live here, and that kind of got doubled up again. When I’ve been on my own out there, which I have quite a lot -- I think I’ve spent around three months in the last two or three years, just driving around different routes and hiking and just being out in this space -- it’s a very intense physical experience, just being out in this space. It has to do with light, with thin air, with light bouncing off the white. Midday in summer the contrast is less and the world is bleached out, the light is so intense. And you have that feeling that the gap between the land and the sky has gotten narrower. Also, of course, the desert in the imagination of America -- that great basin is the last barrier where if you’re heading West and you’re trying to get to California, that is the great obstacle that you have to cross. And there are all sorts of slight traces of westward pioneers. You find them in the name Joshua tree. The Mormons named those big yucca plants Joshua trees because they looked like somebody holding their hand up to heaven, imploring God. So the tradition of an intense spiritual striving is there. And on to that you get air space. It’s the place where you can head out to the desert and fence off a big area of land and make it into a bombing range or an aircraft testing range, or you can do your military maneuvers with the Marines. It’s land that gets very intimately bound up with the secret state. There’s Yucca Mountain, which is earmarked as a place where they’re going to store radioactive waste, there’s Area 51, you know the famous secret place that houses UFOs. When you drive around there you’re constantly coming across places you can’t go into. These huge areas of land look exactly like the land on the other side of the road, but are actually military, you know, Air Force or Naval land. I was driving in northern Nevada one time and you couldn’t drive straight through, and suddenly there’s a big sign that said Navy Seal Undersea Training Area. And I’m like, What the fuck? We are so far from water. There’s no doubt that this place had a lake in it, but for a while I was thinking I just don’t even understand what is going on anymore. Like, how is this place being used? And the UFO thing really comes out of the convergence of those two things. It’s the spiritual tradition meeting technology, meeting specifically airspace technology. And at the moment of the Cold War, you can track the history of UFO sightings very closely to how people were feeling about the Cold War and their worries about nuclear destruction. Initially all the aliens that people were meeting were described as being these peaceful humans who had come to save us from our technological destruction. And then later, once the big security state had built up in response to the Cold War, when everything was getting fenced off and people were becoming aware that there was this massive secret budget within the government that was perhaps not fully under control, that’s when all the alien encounters turned dark as well. It all becomes very paranoid and all the Greys turn up, you know, the classic E.T. types, Aliens, The X-Files. They’re like a projection of paranoia about the government. The UFO story eventually turns into a story about the people’s relationship to government when the government is keeping something secret from us. TM: When you were talking about the relationship of technology and spirituality, it made me think of a line in the novel about Schmidt that stood out to me: “The shape of his project became clear: how to connect the mysteries of technology with those of the spirit.” HK: That’s absolutely the center of what UFOS... I think you can call it a religion almost. I mean, UFO mythology is actually a kind of tech version of something that was already there. The one thing I found out when I was researching that completely fascinated me was that there was this spate of airship sightings across the West in the 1880s and 1890s, from west Texas all through the Prairie States and into the Southwest. People would report airships and this was a time before they were in use. There were occasionally even sightings of encounters with airmen who seemed human but not all together human, including one report of a crash where there was supposed to be a body that the local pastor had buried somewhere, I think in Texas. When a new technology comes along, it kind of turns up in this sort of spiritualized way in the imagination. I mean, you could almost say the same thing was happening in the early days of the Internet in the late ‘80s when William Gibson was writing about these kind of ghostly AIs becoming conscious. And at that point we were just realizing that the global network was becoming bigger than we could comprehend and understand and what would happen if it actually took on a life of its own. You know, with each new wave of tech that comes along, there’s an early stage where our ideas about the beyond and transcendence get really wrapped up with that. TM: What contemporary novels (besides your own, of course) do you think best speak to the times and the fragmentation of twenty-first century life? HK: There’s an Icelandic novelist called Sjón and he wrote a book called From the Mouth of a Whale, that’s actually set in sixteenth-century Iceland but it’s about the lone man of reason in this age of superstition. He’s a sort of proto-scientist. He’s been collecting natural specimens and trying to think through this stuff, and he’s stuck out there on the edge of the world and in this kind of crazy... it’s an extraordinary, extraordinary novel that came out a few years ago. It’s dull almost to say because everybody thinks it but Bolaño’s 2666 is very important in the use of gaps and the kind of active reading stuff that we were talking about before. Quite a lot of the work of Don DeLillo actually was the first stab at this stuff -- some of his 1980s work. I’m really interested in Libra, the book about the Kennedy assassination, that’s about how this plot takes on its own life, this conspiracy takes on its own life and without anybody really setting something in motion. The network takes over and things take the course and that’s a really important insight that he had in that book. And in a funny way, there’s a Chinese novel I’d like to recommend as well, by Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian, Soul Mountain. There’s a kind of genre to these Chinese books that are almost like Beat books in a funny way -- they’re about people getting the hell out of the city and going to find themselves through road trips. Soul Mountain is essentially about a guy who’s traveling in very rural, traditional parts of China and he retells lots of folk tales and meets various people, but it’s fragments, and sometimes it’s first person, sometimes it’s third person, sometimes it’s second person, so there’s a destabilization there. His way of using stories and his way of splitting up the self really interests me.