With his seventh book, Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island, Earl Swift has hit the trifecta sought by all writers of nonfiction but achieved by very few. The book is the fruit of deep-dive, immersive research; it is deftly written, and it raises questions that affect every person on the planet. Does the human race have the will, or the intelligence, to address the irrefutable fact of climate change? If so, which places should be saved and which should be written off? Who should decide? Who will pay for it? Swift’s research included living for more than a year on tiny Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, one of the most remote, insular, eccentric—and vexed—places in the United States. During his stay, Swift watched rising sea levels nibble away the island at an alarming rate. Without major governmental intervention—a costly and politically fraught prospect—the island will probably be gone in a few decades. Yet the deeply religious people of Tangier Island, who have lived off the bounty of the bay for centuries, are now staunch supporters of Donald Trump and stubborn skeptics about the science of climate change. They believe their island is succumbing to erosion. Swift, to his credit, doesn’t judge the 460 citizens of Tangier Island or take sides in the hot arguments over how to address climate change. His book manages to be both dispassionate and full of passion, a soulful portrait of a complicated, endangered slice of America. Full disclosure: Swift and I worked as reporters at the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk in the 1980s, and I’ve followed his career with growing admiration ever since. He spoke by telephone from his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The Millions: You lived on Tangier Island for, what, a year or so? Earl Swift: Fourteen months. TM: So you were embedded, I guess you could say. ES: Yeah, exactly. TM: I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the Eastern Shore, and I know just how insular things are there. Tangier Island is the most insular of the insular. People have lived there for generations, everybody knows everybody, everybody’s related to everybody. Did you find a lot of resistance to you as an outsider when you first got there? ES: This is a pretty media-savvy place. There’s been a steady stream of reporters visiting since the 1890s, and the people are accustomed to them visiting for a day or two and writing kind of the same story over and over again. So it took about a month and a half for me to figure out who my main characters were going to be and for them to figure out that I was not a tourist, that I was actually going to stick around and I was going to do something different. Once they made that turn, they were fully on board. TM: What was your approach—were you sort of a fly on the wall, like Gay Talese? Were you invisible? Were you participating? I know you went out on the crab boats, but how would you describe your reporting? ES: I would say it was fly on the wall, but if there was a conversation in the Situation Room (a popular meeting spot), I’d ask questions, and that’s reflected in the book. I wasn’t utterly silent and off to the side and refusing to participate. I lived in Tangier and lived as close to the Tangier lifestyle as I could, tried to insinuate myself into daily life. So I went to church a lot, I went to the Situation Room every weekday and shot the breeze with the old-timers, I went out crabbing and oystering as often as time would permit. I rode my bike around the island talking to people—and that was maybe the most important thing I did, because communication on Tangier is face to face. It’s a place where everybody gets around by golf cart or scooter or by walking, and so a lot of the communication that you participate in is in the form of conversations you have serendipitously when you’re on the road. It’s a society that lends itself to stopping go chat. TM: And people opened up to you? ES: Yeah, again it took that month and a half for them to be convinced that this wasn’t the same old same old. Once they became convinced of that, they treated me as a Tangierman. And that was pretty wonderful. TM: You make a point that I find interesting, that Tangier Island is in effect a factory town, where disciplined people get up at three in the morning, they punch a clock, they produce a product that sells in the market. There’s a great deal of drudgery and physical danger involved, and I got the feeling you developed a lot of respect for the work these people do. ES: Oh, absolutely. It’s a cross between a factory town and a farm town—maybe farming is just factory work when you get down to it. There’s physical prowess involved in what they do, and no shortage of courage is necessary as well. These guys are going out on big water in little boats, and the weather is not something that can stand in their way, or they don’t eat. TM: You mentioned going to church a lot. Two things in the book surprised me. One was the deeply religious nature of the people, which probably shouldn’t have surprised me. They’re at the mercy of this tempestuous body of water, so it’s a natural that they would be religious. The other thing is their love for Donald Trump, which led to another surprise—the reaction of outsiders when CNN interviewed the mayor and several Tangier people and it came out that they love Trump and they’re climate-change deniers and they support Trump policies that contribute to climate change, and on and on. One typical reaction was, “They should learn to swim.” ES: Hateful. Nothing short of hateful. TM: Did that surprise you? ES: It shocked me. And I think it shocked them. My politics differ from those of my neighbors on Tangier, but I was surprised by the ferocity, by the petty meanness of the comments. Considering that they were coming from folks who like to think of themselves as the enlightened side of the political divide, it was disappointing as hell. TM: As I read the book, I sensed three threads. There’s a lot of history of the Chesapeake Bay—even history of the Ice Age, for that matter, and then there’s a snapshot of daily life on a remote, insular place. And the third thread, the elephant in the room, is the challenge of climate change and what’s going to happen. I think the reason the book’s catching on is because it’s raising these questions. I’d like to read a little quote from the book. As sea levels rise and the land sinks, and here’s the quote: “little Tangier is likely to be the first to go. That experience—and the uncomfortable questions it forces the country to confront—will inform what the rest of us on and near the coasts can expect in the decades to come. What makes a community worth saving? What, in short, is important to us?” Have you or anybody else worked out answers to those questions? ES: I certainly haven’t. We’ve got an issue here that’s going to affect not only everyone in the United States, but virtually everyone in the world in the next 50 years. And there seem to be very few people stressing about it. It’s time we started stressing. The question of how we go about deciding which communities we save and which ones we surrender—and how we decide how to decide, because that’s the truly ugly decision—it’s something we should have tackled years ago. We need to tackle it pretty soon, otherwise it could lead to a great unraveling. TM: Do you see people asking these questions? ES: Not at all. And that makes me pretty damn worried. TM: What do you hope happens with Tangier? Do you think it’s savable? ES: Sure, it’s savable—with the necessary political will and money. What makes this difficult is that you’ve got to be consistent when you develop a rubric. We don’t have the means to save every place. We’ve got hundreds if not of thousands of towns along the American coastline that are going to be threatened by climate change—not as soon as Tangier, possibly not to the same degree as Tangier, but it’s coming. So we’ve got to come up with a rubric to figure out what do we save, what do we surrender to the sea? We have to be consistent. If we save Tangier, that has to inform what we do in other places. Clearly, there are some places that have the population density that make them no-brainers, like Miami, New York, Norfolk. Then you’ve got other places that are key to who we are as Americans, that we consider sacred ground but don’t have that kind of population. Do we surrender them? Maybe so. Maybe head count is our sole criterion. If it is, it has to be applied uniformly, and we have to go into it knowing we’re going to kiss off a lot of places we hold dear. TM: Do you put Tangier in the category of sacred ground? ES: I put Tangier in a category of a place that’s so much an outlier in the American experience that it helps define the limits of what it means to be American. And therefore it’s of great value to us. It’s out there on the edge, the frontier, and because it’s so far out, America’s a more interesting place, more inclusive. It’s part of the spice of the national dish. TM: There isn’t much time left for Tangier, is there? ES: I’m guessing by 2038, 2040 it’s going to be a very difficult place to live—if nothing’s done.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, I managed to vanish unnoticed from my day job in an office in midtown Manhattan and materialize in the lovely little ballpark on Staten Island, where a minor-league affiliate of the New York Yankees was taking on the Lowell Spinners, a Boston Red Sox farm team. Beyond the outfield wall, the Statue of Liberty rose green and glorious out of the harbor and, in the distance, the glass forest of downtown Manhattan shimmered in the afternoon sunshine. The outfield grass sparkled, the foul lines glowed. This was heaven—or at least a major upgrade from my 9-to-5. The crowd that afternoon was thin. It was, after all, a workday. The box score would claim the attendance was 1,664, which struck me as optimistic, and as I scanned my fellow diehards, I noticed something peculiar: Nearly every fan, myself included, was white. Among the wannabe Yankees and Red Sox down on the field, about half were white and half were Latino. There was only one black player on the field that day. Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed this imbalance if I hadn’t recently read a column in the New York Times under the headline “With a Loud Ovation, Baseball Shows Its Whiteness.” The column told an unsettling story. During this summer’s All-Star Game in Washington, D.C., it had come to light that one of the participants, a 24-year-old white pitcher with the Milwaukee Brewers named Josh Hader, has a Twitter account laced with ugly statements written when he was 17 and 18, including “White Power, lol” with a clenched-fist emoji, “KKK,” “I hate gay people,” and repeated use of the N-word. Confronted with the tweets immediately after the game, Hader sort of apologized: “I was 17 years old, and as a child I was immature, and obviously I said some things that were inexcusable.” The Times columnist, Michael Powell, rightly pointed out that no 17-year-old qualifies as a child. Then Powell delivered his kicker: When Hader strode to the pitcher’s mound in Milwaukee in his first appearance after the All-Star Game, thousands of white fans rose to give him a standing ovation. Powell went on to point out some facts that seemed to jibe with what I was seeing in the Staten Island ballpark. Baseball has fewer and fewer black players, few people of color in its executive offices, and it has the oldest and whitest fan base of America’s three major sports. Black and Latino players are routinely excoriated for wearing a cap backward during practice or flipping a bat in celebration after hitting a home run, while a white player receives a standing ovation after making racist and homophobic remarks. “For far too long,” Powell concluded, “too many baseball controversies have centered around older, white baseball men complaining about so-called insults to the game.” And, by extension, too few baseball controversies have centered around insults like Josh Hader’s—and fans’ reaction to them. The problem, of course, is that so many of those fans are white and, more to the point, so willing to excuse an offense like Hader’s. Powell quotes Curtis Granderson, a gifted black outfielder now with the Toronto Blue Jays, who sees on a daily basis what I saw that Wednesday afternoon in the Staten Island ballpark: “We play this game, me and other black players, counting the black people in the stands who weren’t working at the game. ‘I see one! No, he’s Latino.’ You’re panning, panning, and sometimes it would take us seven innings to count ten.” With the jury stacked like that, what kind of verdict do you expect for infractions, large or small? [millions_ad] At the time I was learning about Josh Hader, I came upon a book called Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, which provided unexpected context for my uneasy thoughts about baseball’s whiteness. One of the book’s contributors is Ayana Mathis, author of the acclaimed novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. In an essay called “Against Unreality,” Mathis revisits her first encounter with the writing of James Baldwin—the long essay “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind” from Baldwin’s incendiary 1963 masterpiece, The Fire Next Time. Baldwin asserts that the only fact humans have is the fact of death, and that humans should rejoice in the fact of death, should earn their death “by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.” Then, stunningly, he adds: “One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return... But white Americans do not believe in death.” Mathis points out that Baldwin is using white America’s denial of death as a metaphor for a larger and more complex denial: “the denial of reality, racial and otherwise.” And this denial leads to deaths of an even worse sort than physical death because these deaths continue to afflict the living: “political death, spiritual death, psychic death.” This larger denial, Mathis posits, leaves white America prone to nostalgia, which I define as the misguided yearning for a time that never existed. We’ve come, unexpectedly, back to baseball. “The country is prey to nostalgia,” Mathis writes, “which is the ultimate, backward-looking unreality. And also prey to a kind of preservation of a status quo that is also based on a fantasy of the past: a moment in time in which you could keep your factory job forever, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and life was all baseball and Cracker Jacks. Well, that was never the reality of America, certainly never for all Americans. But we move forward, politically and psychically, as though that nostalgic reality was in fact real.” Yes, that’s precisely how we move forward. This was brought home to me during the seventh-inning stretch at the ballgame on Staten Island. After the fans stood and belted out that harmless bit of doggerel, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the announcer asked everyone to remain standing and remove their hats. Everyone, players included, turned toward center field, where an image of Old Glory started fluttering on the Jumbotron above the outfield wall. Suddenly we were being bombarded by that blast of jingoism, Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America.” This sent me over the edge. I left my hat on and bolted for the nearest beer stand and stayed gone until the game had resumed. I couldn’t stop the nonsense, but at least I could refuse to participate in it. As I rode the ferry back across the harbor after the game, I performed an autopsy on my day, which had begun in high spirits and ended in something close to despair. It occurred to me that it was inevitable—and almost too easy—to see the day in the context of our national moment. The standing ovation for Josh Hader comes at a time when the president of the United States refuses to condemn murderous white nationalists—and urges the owners of NFL football teams to fire any player who kneels during the playing of the national anthem to protest police killings of unarmed black people. That president has declared that poverty no longer exists in America. The millions who lap up his exhortation to Make America Great Again are the people who yearn to preserve a status quo that is based on a fantasy that never existed, a time when “life was all baseball and Cracker Jacks.” I have loved the game of baseball all my life, and still do. I object to the uses the game is now being put to—as booster of patriotism, as a smokescreen for “traditionalists” to treat people unequally, as a safe haven for abhorrent behavior. Meanwhile, beyond the outfield wall, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the nation is mired in the two longest wars in its history. So this is what we as a nation have come to, I told myself as the boat slid past the Statue of Liberty: a nation lost in dreamtime. James Baldwin and Ayana Mathis nailed it. Nostalgia is the ultimate unreality, and yes: The nostalgia-drenched game of baseball is definitely a symptom of what’s wrong with America. But it’s just the beginning of a much larger story. Image: Flickr/Andrew Malone
At 4:45 a.m., Ibrahim Ahmad’s alarm clock began pouring out the first bars of Leonard Cohen’s “Lullaby”—“Sleep, baby, sleep. The day’s on the run. The wind in the trees is talking in tongues…” With this bit of counterintuitive programming, another long day in the life of an independent publisher had begun. After a quick breakfast and an industrial-strength quadruple espresso, Ahmad and his wife, Cassie Carothers, left their home in exurban Yorktown Heights, N.Y., and boarded a train that would carry them from the northern fringe of Cheever country to Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan. For many of their fellow commuters, the next hour would be torture or drooling nap time, but for Ahmad, the editorial director at Akashic Books, it was a precious opportunity to focus on his twin passions without interruption: reading and editing. On this Friday morning, he was making a first pass through the manuscript of a debut novel that had landed on the Akashic slush pile. Husband and wife parted ways at Grand Central—Carothers works for a nonprofit in downtown Manhattan, and Ahmad boarded a subway for Brooklyn. Another precious 45 minutes of reading. By 8 a.m. he was settled at his desk in the Akashic office, a largish room in a repurposed American Can factory, hard by that network of toxic sludge known as the Gowanus Canal. It was time for Ahmad to change hats. For the next eight hours, art would take a back seat to commerce. First, of course, there was the endless river of emails to wade through, which today yielded a pleasant surprise: two Akashic titles had been named finalists for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards, which honor writers of color. That merited a full-throated blast on social media. There were also licensing contracts from publishers in Poland and Turkey, a translator’s contract to finalize, overdue invoices to chase down, promotional contacts to consider for the upcoming addition to Akashic’s eclectic, globe-spanning noir series: 90 titles that range from Atlanta Noir to Zagreb Noir. Coming this summer is Baghdad Noir, which has a special place in Ahmad’s heart because he has been nursing this new collection of Iraqi crime fiction toward publication for nearly a decade. There were no scheduled meetings on this particular Friday, but on other weekdays there are regular staff meetings to discuss current and imminent releases, editorial meetings to talk over recent submissions and map out the publishing calendar, and a monthly marketing meeting to plot publicity campaigns. Everyone on the small staff was busy—it’s not the sort of shop where people hang out talking about the World Cup or their weekend at the Hamptons. When a reporter showed up to interview him, Ahmad happily fixed coffees and repaired to the comfortable chairs in the corner of the office. A person can answer only so many emails without taking a break. Surrounded by floor-to-ceiling shelves that contain every book published by Akashic in its 21-year history, Ahmad talked, in rapid-fire bursts, about the perils, challenges and rewards of being a small independent in a publishing world dominated by a handful of conglomerates on the other side of the East River. In 2013, book publishing’s Big Six became the Big Five when the giants Penguin and Random House merged. Akashic’s answer to this trend is spelled out on the cover of its current catalog: “Reverse-gentrification of the literary world.” That philosophy is amplified on the catalog’s first page: “Akashic Books is an award-winning independent company dedicated to publishing literary fiction and political nonfiction by authors who are either ignored by the mainstream, or who have no interest in working within the ever-consolidating ranks of the major corporate publishers.” As he sipped his coffee, Ahmad was thinking less grandiose thoughts. “Day to day in the office,” he said, “most of us are working to keep a small business running. Most of what we do is trying to get attention for our books. Should I call NPR for this title? The Wall Street Journal? I have to be thoughtful and selective, but the onus is on us to make sure we’re covering all the bases. The goal is to get the broadest coverage possible, but we have unique marketing plans tailored to every book. The noir series has overt markets, and they’re a great way for us to promote literature in translation that’s underrepresented. Right now for Baghdad Noir, for example, I’m putting together a list of Middle Eastern Studies departments at universities.” This task was a natural one for Ahmad, the son a Pakistani father and Iranian mother who was born in England, moved to Washington, D.C., at the age of 5, then attended the University of Chicago, where he studied Near Eastern Languages. He already had contacts in mind, some forged during his college years, who might help promote Baghdad Noir. As Ahmad spoke, the two summer interns, Rachel Page and Abigail Schott-Rosenfield, were doing the glamorous work of putting review copies in envelopes, taping them shut, affixing address labels. Susannah Lawrence and Alice Wertheimer were at their desks, working to expand the mailing list of reviewers, librarians, and booksellers. Impossible to say for sure what Johanna Ingalls, the foreign rights editor, was doing because she works out of her home in Ireland. Aaron Petrovich, the production manager, was at his computer noodling with layouts and cover art for a new children’s book, Party: A Mystery, by Jamaica Kincaid, with illustrations by Ricardo Cortés. Watching them work, Ahmad observed, “One of the distinguishing characteristics of Akashic is our stability as a staff. Our publisher Johnny Temple, Johanna, Aaron and I have all been here for upwards of 15 years. Susannah and Alice started out as interns. That’s so rare. One of the biggest challenges of independent publishing is keeping people for the long term and getting them invested in the company’s vision.” That cohesion and dedication go a long way toward explaining how a small staff can produce 40 quality books a year. Just then the door opened and in walked Johnny Temple, Akashic’s publisher and co-founder, dressed in a Brooklyn Book Festival T-shirt, an event he helped establish a dozen years ago. Settling into one of the comfortable chairs, Temple ticked off three things—“irreverence, an attraction to dark themes, a passion for social justice”—that shape Akashic’s aesthetic and set it apart from the Big Five. He added that, growing up in Washington, D.C., he was attracted to African-American authors, including Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin. Black writers, both from the U.S. and the Caribbean, remain a staple at Akashic, as do first novels and music-infused books. “We’re doing similar work [to the Big Five],” Temple went on, “but our values are different. With global corporations, it’s all about the bottom line. In the arts, you struggle to find a balance that doesn’t let culture get sublimated to the dollar bill. We want to make money, but I think the big corporations are out of whack. Most novels only sell a few thousand copies, and at a big house those writers wind up feeling like a failure. One of the advantages we have is that given our low overhead, it’s much easier for us to have a success. The money our authors earn is the money the book earns. It’s not a gambling model. We don’t throw things against the wall and hope something sticks.” Yet Akashic has enjoyed some major successes—artistic and financial. The house’s very first release in 1997, The Fuck-Up, Arthur Nersesian’s grungy picaresque novel set on the Lower East Side in the early 1980s, went through three printings. Other solid sellers include Amiri Baraka’s story collection Tales of the Out & the Gone, Nina Revoyr’s novel Southland, and Joe Meno’s punk novel Hairstyles of the Damned. But no Akashic title can touch the sales of Adam Mansbach’s twisted sympathy card to the exhausted parents of young children, Go the Fuck to Sleep. The book became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller in 2011, and promoting it consumed Ahmad’s life for two years. It’s still the house’s top perennial moneymaker, and the steady income gives the Akashic staff the breathing room to experiment and take chances. It also helps fund the fun stuff—annual trips by staffers to book festivals and conventions, including the Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica, the Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad, the Winter Institute gathering of indie booksellers, and of course, the Brooklyn Book Festival. Later, over a leisurely outdoor lunch at a Park Slope café, Ahmad expanded on the business model that sets Akashic apart from other publishers, including many independents. While Akashic author advances are predictably modest—usually under $5,000, rarely more than $10,000—once all project-related expenses are recouped, the author and publisher split profits 50-50, a sharp departure from most publishing contracts. This “profit-split” royalty model was used by Temple’s record label in the 1990s, when he was playing bass with the D.C.-based post-punk band Girls Against Boys (the band still plays occasional gigs). It was then that Temple and Ahmad first met, and soon afterward, Akashic was founded on that music-industry model. Taking the music analogy a step further, Temple said, “Being an independent publisher is like being a deejay spinning the records that people dance to.” “If a book sells more than 5,000 copies,” Ahmad added, “you start to see the profit accelerate. We stay in business simply by selling books.” He made the point that the enduring success of Go the Fuck to Sleep will be forever cherished by the staff, but it was more a happy accident than the point of the enterprise. Walking back to the office, Ahmad appeared to be feeling the effects of his post-lunch double espresso. “I have the best fucking job in the world,” he said. “I can do whatever I want, and I’m accountable only to my authors and the people in that office. That’s what it means to be an independent publisher—you’re free to make your own decisions.” He was ready to spend the rest of the afternoon dealing with the commerce end of the business—emails and contracts and authors and publicity. Then it would be back on the subway with that manuscript from the slush pile, back on the Metro North train, and home to Cheever country, where Ahmad would spend the evening and the weekend doing what he loves most, reading and editing. Then, at precisely 4:45 on Monday morning, Leonard Cohen’s voice would start bubbling out of Ahmad’s alarm clock, and another long day in the life of an independent publisher would begin.
The final piece of playwright Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit Trilogy, Paradise Blue, is now ending its extended run at Signature Theatre in New York. The trilogy’s earlier pieces, Detroit ’67 and Skeleton Crew, dealt respectively with the city’s bloody summer of 1967 and, four decades later, with the death rattles of the once-mighty auto industry and the Motor City itself. Paradise Blue unfolds in late 1949 at a nightclub called Paradise, located in the heart of Detroit’s thriving black entertainment district known as Paradise Valley. There’s a cloud hanging over the club and its denizens. The owner, a jazz trumpeter named Blue (J. Alphonse Nicholson), is haunted by the ghost of his murderous father, and by something far more palpable. Race-baiting Albert Cobo has just been elected mayor on a promise to rid the city of “blight,” a code word for dilapidated—and vibrant and black—Paradise Valley. During Cobo’s tenure, the neighborhood will be razed to make way for the Chrysler Freeway. Calamity is always hovering in Morisseau’s Detroit. It takes the form of rioting, a plant closing, the wrecking ball of urban “renewal.” The question in her work is how her Detroiters will retain their dignity and their humanity in the face of forces that yearn to crush them. The Millions spoke with Morisseau by phone from her current home in Los Angeles. The Millions: As I was watching the play, I couldn’t help thinking that even though this is the third piece of the trilogy, in a way it was the source material. Here we are in 1949, Detroit’s population is at its peak of almost 2 million people, and it’s getting ready for the long slide that nobody knows is coming. It’s going to get a big boost from the newly elected, racist mayor, Albert Cobo. Is this the origin of these three plays? Dominique Morisseau: Absolutely. I wrote this play at the same time I wrote Detroit ’67. Then Skeleton Crew, the third play in the cycle, was written a couple of years later. But I knew what I wanted to do with all three from the moment I began writing the first one. The order they in which they got produced in New York is its own journey [laughs]. Has nothing to do with the way I created the plays. TM: All three of these plays spring from very specific moments in Detroit’s history. Detroit ’67, of course, was the bloody summer of 1967. Skeleton Crew was in 2008, when General Motors and the city were about to go bankrupt. And now Paradise Blue is set in 1949. When we talked before, you told me you’re not writing history, even though the city’s history is very much a part of your plays. What exactly are you writing? DM: I think I’m writing about community, and about family, and about home. I would say maybe it’s taken me a while to embrace history, but that’s not what I started out to do. I was just interested in particular moments, but for me it wasn’t about trying to have a historical agenda. What I’m really writing about is people, and those people transcend the time period they’re in; they even transcend region. I’m writing about humanity, and that’s everybody’s entry point into the plays. TM: The thing I love about your characters is that they’re very different; they’re very distinct; they’re three-dimensional; they’re not perfect. You said before you’re not writing from a point of judgment but from a point of love. I’m curious where these characters come from. Are they composites of people you’ve known? Are they bits of historical figures? Are they pure fictions? Some combination of all of the above? DM: All of the above, for sure. I always start with what I know to find my way into someone’s humanity, no matter what their background is. I write some pretty hard-to-love characters. TM: Blue is not exactly a fuzzy puppy. DM: For me he is, in some ways. Obviously he’s got a dark side, and I wish we could feel what’s hurting him, because hurt people hurt people. I look at humanity that way. I do look at the hurt that Blue has faced and the abuse he has taken in his life and been a witness to as a black musician in the time period he’s living in. What the character Corn says is the absolute truth—to be brilliant and second-class, you will be insane for the rest of your life. When we were in rehearsal, I would bring up the James Baldwin quote that I love because it speaks to Blue in a lot of ways: “To be black and to be relatively conscious is to be in a constant state of rage.” TM: And that’s Blue in a nutshell, isn’t it? DM: Yeah. [millions_ad] TM: You mentioned that August Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh cycle was an inspiration to you. Now, you’ve finished this trilogy, which to me is a perfect circle. Does this mean you’re finished with Detroit, or are you going to keep going back there? DM: I’m never finished with Detroit, but I don’t necessarily need it to be part of a cycle. But there are more stories to tell in Detroit, and I definitely want to tell them. With these three plays I picked moments that really changed the landscape of the city. There are other moments that also did it. There’s one more big event that I didn’t include in the trilogy that I could maybe use. TM: What’s the moment? DM: I’m really interested in the newspaper strike that happened in the 1990s. I respect journalists who believe in balanced journalism. I also think journalism carries a huge burden—it can be helpful or harmful. People’s trades really inspire me. There’s something about the tactile-ness of people delivering newspapers, bringing the press to our doorstep. When I was a little girl I didn’t understand much about a strike, but I knew good and doggone well when that strike was happening that we better not have no newspaper. I come from a union family. My father-in-law lost his job at that time and never got it back. Something got severed. From his world and my memories as a little girl, I’m really interested in going back to that time. TM: Do you think the city of Detroit is really coming back—or is there just a lot of hype about white hipsters moving in and a few pockets of prosperity? DM: I just got back from Detroit yesterday. My family is all there and I’m dealing with some family health stuff. I’m there often because I’m on the board of the Detroit Public Theater. “Is Detroit coming back?” is a weird question. Coming back to what? I think everybody in the city, especially the people who’ve been there over the past 40 years, would like to see the city thrive. Anything that moves in that direction is exciting to everybody. But anything that disrupts or displaces the people who’ve been there through the turmoil—I think that’s going to feel really nasty. And that’s what it’s starting to feel like. I have about 300 family members in Detroit, and they run the gamut. There are different feelings. There’s an entrepreneurial spirit. There are born-and-raised Detroiters who feel they need to take ownership of their city. Here’s what I can really say. I know people who have moved to Detroit and started a business and they go on social media and say, “Hey, we’ve got this new restaurant, #NewDetroit.” And #NewDetroit really was pissing off #OldDetroit! There’s no bigger way to point out a blind spot over what it means to gentrify. Wait a minute, wait a minute, just wait a minute. If you really want to connect with a community and build within that community, you’ve got to deal with the people who are there. If you want to put a hashtag or a flag down, you’ve got to be really careful that you’re not planting that over somebody’s memories. It’s possible to have development without displacement, but I’m not sure that’s what’s happening in the city. TM: I’m looking forward to the play about the newspaper strike. You got a title yet? DM: No [laughs]. I don’t have anything yet. We’ll see if it happens.
They keep coming – novels, short stories, memoirs, journals, oral histories, documentaries and feature films that feed off the decade that goes by many names. Tom Wolfe called it the "Me Decade." Martin Amis called it the "Joke Decade." Doonesbury’s Zonker Harris called it a "Kidney Stone of a Decade." I call it the "Cockroach Decade"; the 1970s have become an unkillable source of inspiration for writers and filmmakers, the scummy well that refuses to run dry. What is the secret of its durable appeal? The answer, I think, comes in three flavors. 1. Primary Sources These are first-person, boots-on-the-ground accounts of how lives were lived in the ’70s or, in some cases, how those lives are remembered from a distance of many years, after the fog of booze and ’ludes has drifted out to sea. There’s a scabrous new entry to this sub-genre called 20th-Century Boy: Notebooks on the Seventies, an eyewitness account by Duncan Hannah, an aspiring painter who arrived in New York from Minneapolis (by way of prep school and Bard College) in the early 1970s and proceeded to take a swan dive into the bubbling downtown scene of art and punk rock experimentation. He drank and drugged heroically, hit every club and party, fucked anything that walked upright (well, in Hannah’s case, anything female that walked upright, since he claims he was 100 percent hetero, to the chagrin of many of the guys.) Hannah had the good sense to write everything down “as it happened,” which gives the book its pungent, sometimes sick immediacy. Here, for instance, are Hannah’s thoughts after accompanying an acidophilic girlfriend to an abortion clinic: “After the fifty acid trips this girl had taken from eighth grade on, what would she have given birth to…a fish? Stan Laurel?” Students of history and fans of Balzac will learn valuable things about how life was lived – and how much things cost – in New York City in the 1970s. It took just $60 to hire somebody to kill somebody. A loft rented for $350 a month. A double feature of foreign films at the Carnegie Hill Cinema cost $1.50. The World Trade Center loomed in the distance “like twin phosphorescent robots.” Fifty-third Street and Third Avenue was the gay hustlers’ corner. The twin lodestars of downtown nightlife were CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, where Hannah was a fixture, and farther uptown it was Studio 54, “the elegant playground for the international jet set,” where Bianca Jagger famously rode a white horse onto the dance floor and where Hannah once spotted Truman Capote, pickled on booze and prescription drugs and looking like “a waxwork from Madame Tussauds. A zombie.” After a while you begin to realize that this was a small world, virtually a club, and Hannah was able to join it and live the dissolute boho life partly because he was pretty, partly because he had artistic dreams, and partly because he got regular checks from home. The name-dropping gets tiresome eventually, and Hannah comes across, more than once, as a rich-boy dilettante, a trust-fund punk. The club is so hermetically insulated from the outside world that the era’s searing traumas, Vietnam and Watergate, get glancing mention. And here is Hannah’s insight into his struggle to become a painter: “It’s hard.” Such remarks give new depth to the meaning of the word shallow. Despite all this, 20th-Century Boy will stand as valuable source material for anyone hoping to understand the 1970s. If it did nothing else, the book confirmed two of my long-held beliefs: that Iggy Pop is a genius, and Lou Reed was a five-star asshole. And it ends almost sweetly, with Hannah’s stubbornly conventional paintings winning him a solo gallery show, where he arrives sober, gets treated like a prince, and actually sells a bunch of pictures. Hannah has come to realize that the coolest thing of all is the courage to do what’s uncool. It’s a grace note of an ending to a long grubby harrowing wallow. Somehow, it feels perfect. Hannah, it turns out, is quoted frequently in another primary source from the era, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, first published in 1996, two decades after the facts. Absolutely everybody who was anybody is here, yakking away about the bands, the booze, the backbiting, the brawls, the record deals, the nihilism, the hard drugs, the sex, the joy of making it up as you went along, with no expectations, no limits, no rules. The punk movement, which was never a true movement, took all of five years to eat itself alive. But reading about the cannibalistic banquet is the equivalent of passing a ghastly car crash: you cannot look away. A far more expansive primary source is Will Hermes’s superb Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever. Using a wider lens than McNeil and McCain, Hermes examines the hot house scenes in the mid-’70s that produced not only punk but also hip-hop, salsa, loft jazz, minimalist operas, superstar DJs. In a review of the book, David Gates echoes one of the lessons from 20th-Century Boy. “Of course we get the headline-news boilerplate: Son of Sam, the 1977 blackout, the opening of the World Trade Center,” Gates writes. “But more important, Hermes gives us a sense of what a small town New York used to be.” 2. Embellished Experience Then there are writers and artists who journey back in time, ransack their memories of the ’70s, and embellish them to create a sort of time-lapse portrait. Michael Zadoorian’s fourth book, the terrific Beautiful Music, is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story that is usually the stuff of first novels. A nerdy white teenager named Danny Yzemski is living with his unhinged widow mom in northwest Detroit in aftermath of the 1967 riot (or rebellion, depending on your political persuasion). It’s 1974 and Detroit has just elected its first black mayor, Coleman Young, and racism and the related tensions on the city streets and in the hallways of Redford High School are prompting many white families to pack up and get out of town. Danny’s salvation is his discovery of rock ’n’ roll, which helps him survive tough times in a tough town. I called Zadoorian at his home in Detroit and asked him why he revisited the ’70s four decades after his 1975 graduation from Redford High. “I don’t know what drew me to write a coming-of-age story when I was in my late fifties,” he replied. “Maybe it’s a matter of trying to understand your path, this place, the way life was back then, including the toxic things like racism, anger, fear, white people moving out. There’s something fascinating about the ’70s, especially to people who weren’t alive then. Things were so outrageous and ugly that there was an audacity and a beauty to it. It was a time of ferment when the world went kind of crazy. It’s interesting to find those moments in time when things shift.” For Zadoorian, one of the most seductive shifts in the ’70s was the music. “I wanted to be unashamed about the music I loved then, including stuff that would be considered crap now – like Foghat,” he said. “Punk rock was a reaction to bloated stadium rock and all the excess.” Joey Ramone addressed this split in Please Kill Me when he compared the making of the first Ramones album with the working method of Fleetwood Mac, the richest band on the planet: We did the album in a week and we only spent sixty-four hundred dollars making it – everybody was amazed. At that time, people did not have that much regard for money. There was a lotta money around. Money circulating around for absurd things. Money wasn’t tight yet – some albums were costing half a million dollars to make and taking two or three years to record, like Fleetwood Mac and stuff. Another talking head in Please Kill Me is Patti Smith, the poet rocker whose 2010 memoir of the era, Just Kids, won the National Book Award. The book spins around her relationship with a fellow aspiring artist, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, as the two become soul mates, lovers, and each other’s muses. The book stops when they reach the crest of fame – a wave she’s still riding, one that snuffed him out in 1989 when he died of AIDS at 42. Spike Lee’s 1999 movie, Summer of Sam, is set in the incendiary summer of 1977, the poster-boy season of the decade, when New York City was bedeviled by a serial killer, arson fires, a blackout, riots, near bankruptcy, the discordant rise of punk and disco – a citywide fever that seemed like it would never break. Here’s how a young woman identified as Keelin remembered that summer for the New York Times: What with the heat, the fire hydrants fanning out big sprays across the streets full of sweaty people, the looting, no subways, little work, no elevators, no refrigerators, Son of Sam roaming around, boyfriend sick, and punk rock as sound track in my head, Blackout ’77 was a surreal, fun, scary holiday in New York City during its glorious nadir. While Lee’s movie is supposedly about the serial killer David Berkowitz, known as Son of Sam, the thing about the movie that sticks with me is its evocation of the era – winking disco balls, easy sex and plentiful drugs, bad fashions, the racist clannishness in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, with Ben Gazzara perfectly cast as the white neighborhood’s Mob boss patriarch. The movie is both a snapshot of a moment in time and an indictment of a timeless American urge: the need to find a scapegoat, to pin blame on someone outside the clan. Full disclosure: I, too, got bitten by the Cockroach Decade. Last year I published a nonfiction book called American Berserk: A Cub Reporter, a Small-Town Daily, the Schizo ’70s, which chronicled my time working at a Gannett newspaper in a central Pennsylvania tank town during the Summer of Sam. When I started writing the book, I saw the decade as pure cheese, a grim jumble of water beds, Ford Pintos, shag carpets and shag haircuts, leisure suits made of petroleum-based fabrics, Peter Frampton’s talking guitar, disco, the Captain and Tenille. By the time I finished writing the book, however, my memories and research had helped me realize something Will Hermes and Michael Zadoorian understood from the start. The ’70s was a time of ferment and pushback, the era that gave us Earth Day and the Alaska pipeline, gay rights and women’s rights and Nixon’s call for “law and order,” the grime of CBGB and the glitz of Studio 54, a brief burst of brilliant auteur-driven movies, people scrambling to get on the last helicopter leaving Saigon while others drank the Kool-Aid in Jonestown. “Amid the cheese and the kidney stones,” I concluded, “there was a staticy vibe, a disconnect, a dissonance that has proven strangely alluring. The times were anything but homogeneous; they were cracked, crazed, schizo. For some writers – myself included, as it turns out – bad times can be the best times.” 3. Fruits of Research and Imagination And then there are those artists who missed the party but are drawn to its irresistible afterglow. One of the most stunning recent examples was 2015’s City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg, a contributing editor at The Millions who was not yet born when many of the depicted events took place. This sprawling, 911-page novel is packed with detail about New York City in the ’70s, including squatters, punk bands, DIY zines, heroin, sexual experimentation, real-estate exploitation, trust-funders in the Duncan Hannah mold, all of it bubbling toward the cataclysmic night of the July 13, 1977, when the lights went out and New York burned. The novel is a stunner, a testament to the power of research fueled by a rich imagination. Reviewing the novel in The New Yorker, Louis Menand wrote, “New York felt empty…and out of control. But, in part because of the collapse, the city also felt open, liberated, available. Anything seemed possible.” Including this magisterial novel, so many years later. Rachel Kushner, who was born in 1968, pulled off a similar feat with her 2013 novel, The Flamethrowers. A woman motorcycle racer from Nevada named Reno – “the fastest woman in the world” – lands in the downtown New York art scene of the ’70s and proceeds to paint a fly-on-the-wall portrait of all the hustlers, poseurs, talkers, minimalists, frauds and geniuses. Kushner takes the reader on side trips to World War I battlefields, South American rubber plantations, the gilded enclave of Lake Como, and the violent streets of Rome. There’s a rare fearlessness at work here. As I noted when the book was first published: “Kushner doesn’t just write what she knows; she writes what she knows and what she is able to learn and what she is able to imagine truthfully from all of it.” In his 2009 National Book Award-winning novel Let the Great World Spin, Irish-born, New York-based Colum McCann used Philip Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 as his narrative glue. Around that magical moment McCann spins stories of the interlinked lives of an Irish monk, a Guatemalan nurse, socialites, artists, judges, hookers, the grieving parents of a soldier killed in Vietnam. We travel from the burnt-out Bronx to Park Avenue to downtown and, yes, to Max’s and Studio 54. We’re a long way from Duncan Hannah country; we’re in a time and place that has failed utterly to insulate itself against bankruptcy, crime, grime, racism, abandonment, grief – or the quivering possibility of redemption. The Irish monk might be the perfect emblem of why the ’70s continue to draw us back: “he was some bright hallelujah in the shitbox of what the world really was.” Bringing us right up to date, there were three 1970s-infused premiers at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Mapplethorpe, directed and co-written by Ondi Timoner, is an intriguing new biopic that flips the equation of Just Kids by pushing Patti Smith into the background and making the case that what actually killed Robert Mapplethorpe was his insatiable hunger for fame. The documentary Studio 54, directed by Matt Tyrnauer, attempts to bottle the exuberance and decadence of the famous disco, which led to the downfall of its two creators, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. (In his 2009 book The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night, Anthony Haden-Guest noted that the guests on the club’s frenzied opening night, April 26, 1977, included Donald Trump and his new wife, Ivana.) And Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band, a concert documentary filmed in Los Angeles in 2016, draws its title from Smith’s 1975 album. The iconic photograph of svelte, mop-haired Smith on the album’s cover was shot by Robert Mapplethorpe. So the Cockroach Decade is still alive and very much with us. It was a time when everything was sucky and broken and therefore anything was possible. The stakes were so low that the potential was unlimited – and people were ready to get on and ride. As Ian Schrager said of those pre-AIDS days and nights: “We rode it for all it was worth.” It was this wide-open, anything-goes, more-more-more ethos that makes the ’70s simultaneously so appalling and so appealing. Nothing succeeds like excess; nothing fails like excess. That’s what the decade keeps telling us, and that’s why artists will keep going back for more, more, more. Image credit: Wikimedia
Derek B. Miller caught the eye of readers of The Millions with his 2013 debut novel, Norwegian by Night, lauded by Richard Russo in his Year in Reading and staying atop our Top Ten for months. The novel featured an octogenarian ex-Marine, Sheldon Horowitz, who has lost his son in Vietnam and who tries to save another boy from his father, an Albanian war criminal. Set in Norway, the novel also introduced the wily cop Sigrid Ødergård; Miller followed it with The Girl in Green, in which two men involved in the Gulf War get a chance at redemption decades later. Now Miller is publishing American by Day, which sends Sigrid Ødergård from Norway to upstate New York to find her brother, who has disappeared after being named the prime suspect in his girlfriend’s mysterious death. Miller spoke with The Millions, via Skype, from his home in Oslo. The Millions: You have a background in International Studies, I think. Derek B. Miller: The short version is that I got a master’s degree from Georgetown in National Security, in conjunction with Oxford, where I finished my degree. I knew I wanted to do a doctorate, so I stayed in Europe, futzed around for a while working for a newspaper, and then I moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where I got a second master’s and a Ph.D. from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. TM: What did you do after earning your degrees? DBM: I spent about a decade in the United Nations Institute of Disarmament Research. Basically I was looking at countries recovering from war—jump-starting the economy, trying to collect weapons after a war, establishing a transitional justice system. So I worked on that for a long time, trying to push the elephant of the United Nations in a direction that I thought was both more pragmatic and ethical. TM: That wasn’t exactly the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was it? DBM: No [Laughs]. TM: So how did you become a novelist? DBM: Well, I think the idea of creative writing was planted in my head back at Sarah Lawrence, which at the time, 1988 to '92, had the only undergraduate creative writing program in the country. I didn’t actually do creative writing there, but I think it demystified the notion that writing is something only geniuses or crazy people do. When I tried to write, my first manuscript took me three years. It wasn’t very good, but some of the tone, my approach to characterization, my approach to the relationship between tragedy and comedy—I can look back on my efforts from my mid-20s, and it’s clearly my writing. I found that short stories weren’t for me. So I just kept writing. TM: So all these years you’re traveling around working for the U.N.—and you’re writing fiction on the side, as an apprentice? DBM: I was writing. I have a good education for finding patterns in data and building theory, and I think I approached writing from both a creative perspective and an analytical one. I asked fundamental questions I felt I needed to ask in order to write better, such as: What is a story? What differentiates a story from a mere sequence of events? What is the nature of dramatic tension, and where does it come from? How do you deal with large gaps of time? Lots of architecture and craft issues. So I asked these questions, I interrogated the material I was reading to see how different authors achieved that. I wasn’t trying to copy them, I was trying to learn. And it took me a long time to figure it out. TM: Norwegian by Night, your first novel, resonated with readers of The Millions—and a lot of other readers. Do you remember, was there a day you started writing that book, or did it sort of morph into shape over the years? DBM: What happened was, I had written a manuscript prior to that, and it didn’t work. There were two reasons why. The architecture of the story was all over the place, and my protagonist was too milquetoast. He just wasn’t interesting enough. Sheldon Horowitz was a minor character in that failed effort, and what I found was that my secondary characters were great. They were relieved of the burden of having to be the protagonist, and that let them be far more decisive and funny and wild and everything else. So when it came time to try again, I decided to move Sheldon Horowitz forward. The reason was because I was very close to my grandfathers and they were dying at that time, and my son Julian was born in 2008, which was when I wrote Norwegian by Night. The ending of the book came to me while I was at the hospital waiting for Julian to be born—it was by C-section, so it was scheduled. I was sitting there and I probably should have been thinking about my wife, Camilla, but the fact of the matter is that I was thinking about the ending of the book. And once I realized how the pieces fit together, I wrote that book in about a year. TM: Your protagonist, Sheldon Horowitz, an 82-year-old Marine veteran who lost is son in Vietnam, feels guilt but has a second chance to redeem himself. Guilt seems to be a big engine in your fiction. Is that a fair thing to say? DBM: Guilt is a funny word. It comes about from making decisions that in retrospect you feel were fundamentally wrong—getting drunk and running over a kid, pretty straightforward. Sheldon’s guilt over his son is far more complex than that—it’s tied up with patriotism, his Jewish identity, things that are too complex to pin on a bad decision. They’re the consequences of a long life lived. I think loss is a stronger word. TM: Let’s bring it up to your new book, American by Day. Marcus Ødegård, the brother of the protagonist Sigrid, an Oslo cop—he’s off in America and he’s feeling guilt or loss or regret over his mother’s death from cancer years ago. And now his lover in America dies under mysterious circumstances—I don’t want to give too much away—but again I’m thinking about Sheldon Horowitz. Here’s something that happened years ago that a person’s carrying around like a stone in his stomach—and trying to figure out how to come to terms with it. I guess you could call that loss. DBM: I think in Marcus’s case he feels he should have spoken up and he didn’t—and that led to his mother’s death. With Marcus I was thinking specifically of a scene from a Saul Bellow book called Seize the Day. A middle-aged guy is having a breakdown, saying, “Are you telling me that I’m not who I think I am? That I’ve lived my life under an illusion of who I thought I was?” If you wake up and you’re 50 years old and you find out you’ve been living under a delusion since childhood and clearly you’re never going to recover the life you might have led, if only—that was a very interesting and powerful theme that I wanted to explore as a way of looking at the way tragedy and crime can go together. I wanted the story of Marcus and his American girlfriend, Lydia, to be about the result of these rich but incredibly different lives, that the collision of those lives created this moment of possibility that ended very, very badly. That felt like an interesting way to create a story—not so much a crime, but to create a story that on the surface looks like a straightforward mystery, but the ultimate mystery is the way these two lives collided to create a tragedy. TM: You’re living in Oslo now? DBM: Right. TM: How did you wind up there? DBM: I met a Norwegian girl and she outsmarted me. TM: Aha. Where did you two meet? DBM: Geneva. We were both working in the same think tank on weapons. Basically it was an office romance. [millions_ad] TM: The Scandinavian literary tradition is of course gigantic—from Ibsen to Knut Hamsun to Astrid Lindgren up to Jo Nesbø. As an American writer in Norway, is that a cloud over your head? Something you don’t think about? An inspiration? I’m curious what it’s like writing in a place that’s very different from where you grew up in New England. DBM: I’ve been living abroad for 22 years now. The fact is, I still haven’t read Jo Nesbø and he’s not on my short list. That kind of crime novel—where something horrific happens and somebody’s investigating and everybody’s miserable—it just bores me. I see myself as an American writer, and what I mean by that is that I’m writing into the American literary tradition and drawing quite heavily from it. Though I’m happy to be included in a global conversation on literature as well, that’s the footing from which I have that conversation. When Don DeLillo published Underworld, it was came out in France. At the beginning of the book, it said, “translated from the American.” Right? And DeLillo said in an interview that he actually quite liked that because while he and everyone else knows that American is not a language, it was nice to emphasize the vernacular. It’s kind of a compliment, if you choose to see it that way. TM: You’re not reading Jo Nesbø. So what are you reading? DBM: What’s on my desk is Richard Russo’s debut, Mohawk. After that I want to read Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, who I have not read before but I read the first chapter and loved it. I just finished The Marriage Plot from Jeffrey Eugenides, which I quite liked. I just finished The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish, which I thought was exquisite. I do not write reviews, but I did write to her and tell her I think she’s absolutely wonderful. I haven’t checked in with Nick Hornby in a while. Then there’s Andy Weir’s new book, Artemis—he wrote The Martian, which became the movie with Matt Damon. TM: I guess that leads to the inevitable question: What are you working on now? DBM: I’ve written two things. I’ve written a draft—I don’t know if I should call it science fiction, maybe speculative fiction—of a post-post-post-post-apocalyptic story set a couple hundred years in the future. It’s called Radio Life, and I’m going back to revisions of it. I haven’t shared it with anybody but my agent. And I’m writing a contemporary inter-family drama set on the coast of New England called A Simple Arrangement. I’m hoping to have both of them done, in draft form anyway, by the end of the year. TM: Are you a full-time writer now? DBM: I would say yes. I feel the novelists around me are extraordinarily good, and while you’re always competing against yourself to be the best writer you can be, you’re also competing against the market in order to survive, and I can’t write this stuff on my knee on the way to class anymore. Which isn’t to say you try to anticipate the market, because that’s almost pointless. TM: But you are trying to make a living. DBM: Yeah, I have a wife and two kids and this is what I’m doing. So if I can’t pull it off, we don’t eat. It has gone extraordinarily well. I’m not a bestseller so I don’t have bestseller money, but I’m writing full time now and have been for about two years. TM: Is it a good life? DBM: It’s wonderful. It’s like walking a high wire without a net, but it’s a second career and it’s a chance to turn a corner. I feel I can really appreciate it at this point in my life because it’s the first job I’ve ever had where it’s just absolute blue sky, where instead of being penalized for being creative, I’m encouraged to do it. It’s an amazing space to be in. This interview was produced in partnership with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Poets, editors, songwriters, teachers, journalists, novelists—some great writers and some under-sung ones left us this year. Here, in chronological order of their deaths, is a selective compendium of literary obituaries from 2017. Bharati Mukherjee Bharati Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, educated in England, Switzerland, and India; she earned advanced writing degrees in the United States, and lived more than a decade in Canada—a peripatetic life she mined to write fiction about the aspirations and dislocations of immigrant life. Mukherjee, who died Jan. 28 at 76, grew up in a rich Hindu family, “bubble-wrapped in innocence,” as she would say later. Shortly after arriving at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she studied under Philip Roth, Mukherjee informed her parents that she was not going through with the marriage they had arranged for her and that, in fact, she had recently married a white American writer, Clark Blaise. Her first-hand knowledge of the immigrant’s yearnings was captured in the title character of her breakthrough novel, Jasmine, a poor girl from Punjab who arrives in America “greedy with wants and reckless with hope.” Mukherjee’s collection The Middleman and Other Stories, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1988, explored the immigrant experience through the stories of new arrivals from the Caribbean, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and the Middle East. As she was writing those stories, she was developing a credo: “Make the familiar exotic (Americans won’t recognize their country when I get finished with it) and make the exotic—the India of elephants and arranged marriages—familiar.” Given that we now live in a world with 60 million refugees, driven from their homes for reasons ranging from terror to desire, it’s hard to argue with Mukherjee’s claim that “the narrative of immigration is the epic narrative of this millennium.” Derek Walcott Some writers are lucky to have a singular place that forever nourishes their art. William Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha County. Elmore Leonard had Detroit. Patrick Modiano has Paris. And Derek Walcott, the Nobel Prize-winning poet, had his native Caribbean island of St. Lucia. It provided Walcott with ample raw materials for his vivid, musical poems—the sea, the pulsing sun, the land and its fecund vegetation, and the people who live there in the wake of slavery, colonialism, and forced exile, snagged in the mesh of commingled cultures. Walcott, who died March 17 at 87, published his first poem when he was 14 while operating under the influence of Christopher Marlowe and John Milton. Over the next seven decades he became an accomplished poet, playwright, and watercolorist, fluent in English, French, and Spanish, producing a body of poems that ranged from compact to epic, always spun from the weather, the history, and the people of the Caribbean. Walcott was also a wanderer, and, like all exiles, he knew the twinned aches of leaving home and returning. These lines are from In a Green Night, the 1962 book that announced him as a major writer: The hospital is quiet in the rain. A naked boy drives pigs into the bush. The coast shudders with every surge. The beach Admits a beaten heron. Filth and foam. There is a belt of emerald light, a sail Plunges and lifts between the crests of reef, The hills are smoking in the vaporous light, The rain seeps slowly to the core of grief. It could not change its sorrows and be home. Jimmy Breslin Though he’ll be remembered as a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist of the New York City persuasion, Jimmy Breslin, who died on March 19 at 88, was also a gifted novelist, memoirist, biographer, and writer of nonfiction books about subjects both light and dark, from the ineptitude of the early New York Mets baseball teams to the sins of sexual predators in the Catholic priesthood. His biography of Damon Runyon reads like Damon Runyon on acid. Breslin produced more than 20,000 newspaper columns in his long and fluorescent career—a staggering number, I can attest, having produced about 600 of the things myself. Many of Breslin’s were written on behalf of the powerless, the ignored, the forgotten. When someone asked him why he kept going back to the well, he replied: “Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers.” Breslin’s was an only-in-New-York life. Born in Queens, he knew the streets and the saloons, the mobsters and the cops like nobody else, and he was among the vanguard of writers who birthed what has come to be known as the New Journalism, though he scoffed at the term. Too high-minded for this burly son of the outer boroughs. He ran (unsuccessfully) for New York city council the same year Norman Mailer ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor. His fame reached its peak in 1977, when the serial killer David Berkowitz, known as the Son of Sam, began sending letters to Breslin, which he published in the New York Daily News. For all the warmth he felt for the little people, Breslin could be as cold and hard as iron. His father abandoned the family when Jimmy was young, and when his father died, the son paid for the cremation. “Good,” he said afterward. “That’s over.” Jean Stein Jean Stein died on April 30 at 83, an apparent suicide. She grew up amid Hollywood luxury—her father founded Music Corporation of America—and she returned to that milieu in her later work. But it was her 1982 book, Edie: An American Biography, that upended my understanding of what a book can be. It tells the story of Edie Sedgwick, who also grew up wealthy, became a Andy Warhol superstar, then spiraled into drug addiction and death by overdose at 28. Her story is told by dozens of people whose lives crossed hers (and her patrician family’s). Stein does not elicit conventional answers to conventional questions, as in Studs Terkel or Oriana Fallaci; instead she acts like a camera, unflinching, mutely watching and listening as people talk. There is no authorial intervention, seemingly no point of view. In time, the lack of affect becomes the affect. The book is a flat yet sneakily rich portrait of squandered American privilege and the cult of celebrity. It’s an act of dissection. An X-ray. A masterpiece. Stein was not a one-hit wonder. She worked at The Paris Review (where she interviewed William Faulkner), Esquire, and the literary quarterly Grand Street. She produced another oral history, American Journey: The Times of Robert F. Kennedy, and West of Eden, a study of the influences of Hollywood, oil exploration, and real estate on the city of Los Angeles. Stein was shy by nature but she threw glittering parties, including one at which Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal got into a fistfight. She was an unobtrusive but brilliant interviewer. Of the technique behind Edie, she once said, “Each person is speaking directly to you…Nobody is ever telling you, the reader, what to think.” Denis Johnson The news that Denis Johnson had died on May 24 at 67 sent me back to two pieces of writing. The first was Johnson’s masterly short story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” from his 1992 collection about drug-addled drifters and losers, Jesus’ Son. Like all great fiction, “Car Crash” conjures a world that’s unlike any other and yet instantly, even shockingly, familiar. Words pop out of nowhere and ambush the reader. It’s the story of a lone hitchhiker stuck in a downpour who gets a lift from a young couple. As the hitchhiker dozes in the back seat with the couple’s baby, the car is involved in a ghastly crash on a rain-slicked bridge. Clutching the baby, the hitchhiker staggers from the wreckage and is taken to a hospital, where this unforgettable scene unfolds: Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated, as if by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere. The second piece of writing was Geoff Dyer’s review of Johnson’s National Book Award-winning novel, Tree of Smoke. Dyer makes the point that nothing in Johnson’s earlier output, not even Jesus’ Son, had prepared readers for this teeming, meandering mind-fuck of a novel about America’s misadventures in Southeast Asia. Dyer compares Johnson to Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, Joseph Conrad and, of course, Graham Greene. Far more astutely, he calls Johnson “a junkyard angel,” a writer who, “at some level, did not know how to write at all—and yet knew exactly what he was doing.” I can’t imagine more apt, or higher, praise. Gregg Allman Three days after Johnson’s death, Gregg Allman died at 69. If Bob Dylan is worthy of a Nobel Prize in literature, then Allman, the keyboardist and lead songwriter for The Allman Brothers Band, surely merits inclusion in a list of noteworthy literary obituaries. He wrote many of the band’s signature songs, including “Whipping Post,” “Midnight Rider,” and “Melissa.” Some of his song lyrics rise to the level of art, including these from “Ain’t Wastin’ No More Time,” written shortly after his beloved big brother, Duane, the band’s lead guitarist, died in a motorcycle crash in Macon, Georgia: Last Sunday morning, the sunshine felt like rain. Week before, they all seemed the same. With the help of God and true friends, I come to realize I still had two strong legs, and even wings to fly. And oh, I ain't wastin’ time no more 'Cause time goes by like hurricanes, and faster things. The news of Gregg Allman’s death, like the news of Johnson’s, sent me back to a piece of writing—in this case, “Hitting the Note with the Allman Brothers Band,” Grover Lewis’s Rolling Stone chronicle of being embedded on tour with the band in 1971, shortly before Duane’s death. It was a deep-pore examination of life on the road with a big-name rock band, a string of identical days and nights full of “pure listless boredom” and plane flights and concerts and groupies and TV and piles of comic books and cocaine. Despite the grind of the road, Gregg Allman’s life did not lack for color. He avoided fighting in Vietnam by getting drunk and shooting himself in the foot. He had a long solo career. He married, recorded with, and divorced Cher. (She was the third of his six wives.) He contracted hepatitis and arthritis. He got a liver transplant. Late in life he wrote a memoir, My Cross to Bear, with Alan Light. As a writer, Allman may not be in a league with Patti Smith, but the book has its moments, including a line that would have made an unbeatable epitaph: “If I fell over dead right now, I have led some kind of life.” Clancy Sigal If you favor writers who live long colorful implausible lives, Clancy Sigal, who died on July 16 at 90, is your man. Sigal’s resume reads like overcooked fiction: he plotted to assassinate Hermann Göring at the Nuremberg war crimes trials; he was Humphrey Bogart’s Hollywood agent; he was noteworthy enough to make the anti-Communist blacklist; he had to dodge FBI agents; he worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; he was Doris Lessing’s lover (and the model for Saul Green in her 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook); he underwent therapy and dropped acid with the anti-psychiatrist R.D. Laing; he organized Detroit autoworkers; he was a popular commentator on the BBC. Somehow, Sigal also found time to write, producing essays, novels, memoirs, and the screenplay for the 1992 Salma Hayek movie, Frida. His best known book was 1961’s Going Away: A Report, A Memoir, an autobiographical account of a blacklisted Hollywood agent’s picaresque cross-country trip aboard a DeSoto convertible, during which the hero discovers a fractured nation and his own fractured self. It was seen as a rebuttal to Jack Kerouac’s effervescence, and it became a finalist for the National Book Award. The critic John Leonard offered this praise: “It was as if On the Road had been written by somebody with brains.” Sigal never stopped working. He was busy blogging a couple of days before he died. Dick Gregory Dick Gregory didn’t hector or lecture about America’s racial divide but went at it sideways, with a dagger instead of a sledgehammer. Classic early Dick Gregory has him going into a restaurant in the segregated South, where the waitress informs him: “I’m sorry, we don’t serve colored people here.” To which he replies: “That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people nowhere. Just bring me a whole fried chicken.” Gregory, who died on Aug. 19 at 84, wrote a dozen books, and his 1964 autobiography, nigger, was built on this strategy for neutering an epithet through frank exposure and overuse: “I said, let’s pull it out of the closet, let’s lay it out there, let’s deal with it, let’s dissect it. It should never be called ‘the N-word.’ You see, how do you talk about a swastika by using another term?” Gregory was soon on the front lines of the civil rights movement, which led to beatings and a dozen arrests, a gunshot wound. Other issues that inspired his activism included the Vietnam War, police brutality, the Equal Rights Amendment, South African apartheid, and the rights of Native Americans. Sometimes he flirted with the bizarre, speculating that “whoever the people are who control the system” were behind the killings of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lennon, as well as the crack cocaine epidemic and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Then again, there are more than a few people don’t find anything bizarre about such suspicions. Gregory famously embraced various diet fads, and he ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor of Chicago and president of the United States. At the end, he was still able to laugh. “Here’s how you can tell when you’re getting old,” he said late in life. “When someone compliment you on those beautiful alligator shoes you’re wearing—and you’re barefoot.” Kate Millett Kate Millett’s polemical bombshell, Sexual Politics, burst on the scene in 1970. A portrait of Millett by Alice Neel soon graced the cover of Time magazine, which was then the gold standard of a writer’s anointment as Truly Important. Sexual Politics began as a doctoral thesis, and it used literary criticism and historical analysis to dismantle such supposed avatars of sexual liberation as Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Jean Genet, and Norman Mailer. Millett, who died on Sept. 6 at 82, portrayed such men as cogs in a masculine machine designed to establish and perpetuate the inferior status of women. Patriarchy, Sigmund Freud’s theory of penis envy, the nuclear family—all, in Millett’s view, led to the “interior colonization” of women. [millions_ad] The book, out of print for many years, was reissued in a new edition last year—just in time for the avalanche of revelations of sexual misconduct that have borne out Millett’s original premise. The machine, as we seem to learn anew every day, was indeed set up to ensure the inferior status of women. It ran—until now—on women’s enforced silence. Nearly half a century after the original publication of Sexual Politics, the silence is finally being broken. Lillian Ross Lillian Ross, who died on Sept. 20 at 99, was the fly who came off the wall—with disastrous consequences. In a celebrated six-decade career as a staff writer at The New Yorker, Ross followed this reporter’s dictum: “Do not call attention to yourself.” Her unobtrusive interviewing techniques resulted in a tall stack of superb journalism, on subjects ranging from Ernest Hemingway to a group of rural Indiana high schoolers’ first trip to New York City. Some believe that the best book ever written about Hollywood was Ross’s Picture, from her New Yorker articles about John Huston’s tortured effort to bring Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, to the screen. But in 1998, the fly on the wall did something out of character: she called attention to herself by publishing a memoir, Here but Not Here, which revealed her 50-year love affair with the late William Shawn, the married editor of The New Yorker, whose widow and children were still alive. Many in the New York literary tribe were incensed. Charles McGrath, then editor of The New York Times Book Review, dissed the book as “a tactless example of the current avidity for tell-all confessions.” Jeremy Bernstein, a 31-year veteran of The New Yorker, called it “a deeply hurtful, self-indulgent, tasteless book that never should have been written at all.” Ross claimed to be mystified by the uproar. As she told the gossip columnist Liz Smith: “The controversy doesn’t make any sense to me.” Jim Clark Jim Clark may not be a household name, but for more than four decades, as a student, teacher, editor, then director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Clark was an outsize influence on generations of writers. He carried a torch passed down by the school’s earlier writing teachers—Allen Tate and his wife Caroline Gordon, Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor, Fred Chappell, Bob Watson and, now, Michael Parker and Terry Kennedy, among many others. The word “generous” keeps popping up when people remember Clark, who died on Oct. 30 at 72. I experienced that generosity firsthand when Clark, who was also an ordained minister, helped me put together an essay about Greensboro’s peculiar allure for writers. Clark pointed me to a quote by Jarrell, who called the town “Sleeping Beauty,” adding that “Greensboro leaves one alone just wonderfully.” I join hundreds of writers in saying, “Thank you, Jim. Rest in peace.” William H. Gass William H. Gass, who died on Dec. 6 at 93, is regarded by many as a father of postmodern writing (unless you think the title belongs to Miguel de Cervantes for that house of mirrors called Don Quixote). Gass, after all, coined the word “metafiction” for his favored ploy of inserting a character known as William H. Gass into fiction written by William H. Gass. But I think Gass should be remembered for four very different reasons. First, he believed sentences were sacred objects and every one should be as perfect as the writer can possibly make it. Second, while he will be remembered for his novels, especially The Tunnel, and his short stories, I’m partial to his essays, on everything from suicide to Malcolm Lowry’s epic (and suicidal) drinking, which are the work of a brilliant mind that wears its erudition lightly. Third, Gass was a metaphor machine; he said the things came at him in “squadrons.” Of the insane he wrote that “their thoughts are open razors, their eyes go off like guns.” Metal threads, he wrote, were “glinting like those gay gold loops which close the coat of a grenadier.” And fourth, in our careerist, prize-drunk age, Gass had a refreshing disdain for literary awards, even as many were bestowed on him. “The Pulitzer Prize in fiction,” he wrote, “takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses.” Simeon Booker My father was working as a reporter at The Washington Post in 1952 when the paper hired its first black reporter, a Baltimore native named Simeon Booker. But Booker lasted just two years at The Post, becoming frustrated by the limited assignments from his white editors in the nation’s rigidly segregated capital. He yearned to write about the black experience in America, and so he started contributing to the weekly Jet and the monthly Ebony, both aimed at black readers. Booker’s timing was superb. Over the next six decades, he covered many of the defining stories of the 20th century, including the brutal murder of the black teenager Emmett Till and the acquittal of his white killers, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Freedom Rides, the Bloody Sunday melee on the Pettus Bridge. He also wrote about politicians, celebrities, and ordinary people. Booker, who died on Dec. 10 at 99, found time to produce books in his long and decorated life, including Black Man’s America (1964) and Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement. While there were many courageous and talented reporters, black and white, covering the civil rights movement (see Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s fine book, The Race Beat, or the memoir Beware of Limbo Dancers by Roy Reed, a New York Times reporter who also died on Dec. 10, at 87), Booker seemed to get there first, and he had access, guts, and drive that few rivals could match. And his words carried major weight. One long-time reader said she and others eagerly awaited Booker’s dispatches in Jet and Ebony, which they regarded as nothing less than “the gospel according to Simeon.” Other notables who left us this year, in alphabetical order: John Ashbery, 90, was a giant of American letters, an inimitable poet who was often imitated but never equaled. He was also an insightful art critic, and in 1976 he became the only writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle award in the same year for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. William Peter Blatty, 89, author of the 1971 horror novel, The Exorcist, which sold 13 million copies. Blatty won the Academy Award for adapted screenplay two years later for the movie version of the book, which shattered box office records thanks to its ingenious use of projectile pea-soup vomiting and a girl with a spinning head. J.P. Donleavy, 91, whose bawdy 1955 novel The Ginger Man was banned and burned before it became a contemporary classic, with 45 million copies in print. Donleavy, who lived for many years in Ireland and was an accomplished painter, had this to say about old age: “It’s not nice, but take comfort that you won’t stay that way forever.” Paula Fox, 93, was dubbed one of America’s “least appreciated” novelists by The Nation, but she received some overdue recognition in 1999, when Jonathan Franzen wrote an introduction to a popular reissue Fox’s signature novel, Desperate Characters. Nancy Friday, 84, author of the bestsellers My Secret Garden and Forbidden Flowers, built her writing career on the earth-shattering premise that women have sexual fantasies. To the dismay of many feminists, Friday argued that it was by ridding themselves of shame that women can achieve professional, political, and economic equality with men. Some of Friday’s ideas have held up better than others. In 1996, appearing on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, she dismissed the importance of on-the-job sexual harassment. “The workplace,” she said, “is the meeting and mating place.” Try telling that to Salma Hayek. Sue Grafton, 77, didn’t quite make it to Z. Her so-called alphabet novels, featuring the private eye Kinsey Millhone, began with 1982’s A Is for Alibi and reached Y Is for Yesterday last summer. Grafton, whose influences ranged from Nancy Drew to Mickey Spillane, was at work on Z Is for Zero at the time of her death. Clifford Irving, 87, who became a millionaire, briefly, but then went to prison when his early 1970s book, The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, was blocked from publication after it was proven to be one of the most sublime literary hoaxes of the 20thcentury. Robert M. Pirsig, 88, who captured the schizoid zeitgeist of the 1970s with his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which sold millions of copies and remained on bestseller lists for a decade. Sam Shepard was that rarest thing: a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright—and an accomplished memoirist, musician, screenwriter, and songwriter—who became an Oscar-nominated, heart-throb movie star. His posthumous final work, Spy of the First Person, is narrated by a man suffering from a degenerative disorder much like the Lou Gehrig’s disease that killed Shepard at age 73. Robert Silvers, 87, was a founding editor of The New York Review of Books in 1963, and he spent the rest of his life shaping it into one of America’s most influential literary publications. The self-effacing Silver had this to say about the editor’s role: “The one thing he should avoid is taking credit. It’s the writer that counts.” Richard Wilbur, 96, was a poet, translator, and opera lyricist who won two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award for his meticulous, unshowy poetry. In 1988 he succeeded Robert Penn Warren as the nation’s poet laureate. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 83, was the un-Richard Wilbur, a Russian whose showy, defiant poems and theatrical delivery turned him into poetry’s version of an international rock star. Stalinism and other forms of totalitarianism were early targets, though some grumbled that the Soviet government tolerated him while sending other dissidents to Siberia. Some went so far as to call Yevtushenko a sellout. The exiled poet Joseph Brodsky said of him, “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.” Millions of fans worldwide disagreed.
It wasn’t planned, but 2017 turned out to be a year when my reading hopscotched happily between genres, styles, and voices. Here are half a dozen highlights, arranged by where you might find them shelved in your favorite bookshop. Memoir Joan Didion’s South and West is a string of stray thoughts and notebook jottings that reminded me why I find her such a mesmerizing and maddening writer. These 126 pages were compiled in the 1970s, when Didion was trying to conjure magazine articles about the deep South and the Patty Hearst murder trial. The articles never materialized, but this book reaffirms Didion’s mesmerizing prescience as a reporter, as well as her maddening tendency toward preciousness. The prescience comes from Didion’s observation that by 1970 the deep South had become everything California was not: “the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.” The remark now reads like a prophecy in a country that has elected Donald Trump president and has allowed itself to be reduced to a big fat gooey red center sandwiched between two wafer-thin blue coasts. The preciousness comes from Didion’s familiar, brittle persona, which makes it nearly impossible for her to get out of her rental car and pump gas on a “nightmare” stretch of Louisiana back road. The book’s most valid insight might be this: “In the South they are convinced that they have bloodied their place with history. In the West we do not believe anything we do can bloody the land, or change it, or touch it.” Maybe the very best thing about this uneven book is that its section on the West morphed into one of Didion’s finest meditations on her native California, the 2003 memoir Where I Was From. Fiction Nominated for the National Book Award, Carol Zoref’s powerful first novel, Barren Island, tells the story of immigrant children who grew up on the titular island, a remote industrial hell in New York City’s Jamaica Bay, where the city’s garbage and its dead animals were sent from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. Since I have been gathering string for more than a dozen years in the hope of writing my own novel set amid the horrors of Barren Island, the news that another writer got there first filled me with minglings of disappointment and dread. But Zoref’s book turned out to be both very fine and very different from the book I’ve been dreaming. Reading Barren Island reminded me that no writer owns a subject, and that no two writers could possibly write about a given subject in the same way. By the time I reached the final page, my dread had turned to relief, then resolve. There’s nothing stopping me from writing a book that now has a pedigreed predecessor, even if my book is still little more than a dream, a pile of notes, a central character, and a working title: The Angel of Barren Island. Thank you, Carol Zoref. History Deanne Stillman has spent the past three decades building an impressive body of work about the depredations visited on the land, the animals, and the people of the American West in the name of “progress.” She came out this year with a delightful hybrid, a sort of double-biography and cultural history called Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. When the great Lakota warrior Sitting Bull returned from exile in Canada and briefly joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, the promotional posters trumpeted the unlikely alliance of two men who were “Foes in ’76, Friends in ’85.” They were not merely friends, in Stillman’s telling, but “a powerhouse of mythology.” Drawing on the vast literature about the two men and her own prodigious research, Stillman has delivered a book that cements her reputation as one of the most astute and passionate chroniclers of that vast, blood-soaked canvas known as the American West. Macroeconomics It’s not every day that you crack open a deeply researched, thickly annotated, 762-page work of macroeconomics and discover you’re in the grip of a page-turner. But that’s what happened as I breezed through Robert J. Gordon’s magisterial The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War. The book makes a compelling case that the years from roughly the end of the Civil War to 1970 were a time of profound change in Americans’ day-to-day lives that’s unmatched in human history. Moreover, the great inventions that propelled those changes were one-offs, which means the “special century,” as Gordon calls it, will never be repeated. This book, like Barren Island, struck a personal nerve with me: my paternal grandfather lived from 1863 to 1955, roughly the span covered by Gordon, and I had spent years trying to imagine what it was like to be born to a slave-owner during the Civil War and to die at the frosty peak of the Cold War. Thanks to Gordon, I now know enough to begin to imagine. Crime The Hard Case Crime series continues to surprise and delight. This year it introduced me to Max Allan Collins, a prolific crime writer who has just added the novel Quarry’s Climax to his long-running series about the professional assassin Jack Quarry, who gets the party started with this ice-breaker: “I’d been doing murder for hire for five years now—well, seven and change, if you include the two tours of Vietnam.” Quarry’s new mission has him headed to Memphis, where he’s been hired to kill the guy who’s been hired to kill Max Climer, a lovable Larry Flynt clone who runs a strip club, publishes a skin mag called Climax, and is launching a lucrative X-rated video line. Collins is a polished writer who keeps the story moving as the bodies pile up and the double-crosses go triple and quadruple. What a glorious moral cesspool!—where the cleanest guy in town is the one who gets paid to kill people, and always earns his paycheck. Budding Genius? As the year ends, I’m hip-deep in a belated first foray into the work of the decorated David Mitchell: his debut novel, 1999’s Ghostwritten, published when he was 31. So far the novel has transported me to Okinawa, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, with Mongolia, Petersburg, London, and other destinations up ahead. The writing is bracing, bewildering, and it makes me hungry to know where it will take me next and what kind of books come after it. To find out, I intend to spend the coming year reading all of Mitchell’s fiction in chronological order, something I’ve done with only one other writer, the prolific British fantasist China Miéville. If that immersion is any measure, 2018 is going to be another rich year in reading. [millions_ad] More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
When I heard the news that a novel called Barren Island by Carol Zoref had been long-listed for this year’s National Book Award for fiction, my first reaction was Oof! Had another writer beaten me to the punch? There can only be one Barren Island, I told myself. It’s a wafer of sand and scrub in New York City’s vast Jamaica Bay, so named by the early Dutch settlers for the bears that may or may not have roamed there, and later destined to live up to its Anglicized name when it became the final destination for the city’s garbage and for its dead horses and other animals that were brought there by barge to be skinned, dismantled, boiled, and turned into fertilizer and glue in the ghastly factories of Barren Island. Those factories were manned mostly by immigrants from Eastern Europe, Greece, Italy, and Ireland, and by African-Americans up from the South. Diphtheria and typhoid epidemics were frequent visitors. The stench and filth and vermin were appalling. “Horrors,” recalls one man who grew up there. I happened to know this obscure history because for the past dozen years or so I’ve been gathering string, off and on, for a novel I am (was?) hoping to set on Barren Island. Its central character is based on a schoolteacher named Jane Shaw, who rode the trolley from her home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, to the boat that carried her to Barren Island every Sunday night. She then spent the weekdays teaching the children of the immigrants who worked the factories. She brightened their lives by helping them plant vegetable and flower gardens, sew curtains, dress up homes that were little more than shacks. She bought a piano with her own money, gave lessons, held dances. On Friday nights she returned to her Brooklyn home, where she invited her eighth-grade graduating class to a proper tea every year, the first time many of them set foot off their isolated island. She did this from the end of the First World War until 1936, when the city’s ruthless master builder, Robert Moses, evicted the residents and bulldozed the settlement to make way for his Marine Park project. Jane Shaw got Moses to agree to let her students finish the school year before the bulldozers moved in. The people of Barren Island revered Jane Shaw, which gave me a working title for my novel: The Angel of Barren Island. So I opened Carol Zoref’s novel with a feeling of—no other word for it—dread. On the very first page I learned that, yes indeed, there is only one Barren Island, and Carol Zoref had beaten me to it. The novel is narrated in the first person by 80-year-old Marta Eisenstein Lane, who is looking back on her coming of age on Barren Island’s smaller, fictional neighbor, Barren Shoal, where her father, an immigrant from Belarus, works in the factory dismantling horses and other dead animals so they can be transformed into such valuable commodities as glue and nitroglycerin. Marta’s tale unfolds amid horrors, tenderness, and beauty that have the iron ring of truth. One day Marta’s mother fails to save Marta’s infant sister from drowning in a washtub full of scalding water. Another day there’s a devastating explosion in the factory. Marta also experiences grace notes, fishing and picking berries, witnessing a rally at Union Square, seeing Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera, tasting first love and watching, from a distance, as the Depression grinds toward another World War. Jane Shaw even makes a cameo. This is Zoref’s first novel, and there is some implausible dialog (and a few unfortunate typos), but it’s an assured and deeply felt work. By the end of the book, my initial dread had given way to delight—that another writer shares my belief that stories from a forgotten place, a blend of the made-up and the real, can be worthy of telling. After I finished the book, I phoned Carol Zoref in her office at Sarah Lawrence College, where she teaches creative writing. (She also teaches at New York University.) First, I asked Zoref how she became aware of Barren Island. “A long time ago I saw an article in The New York Times about a book about the trash of New York, and it mentioned Barren Island,” she replied. “The article had a picture of a guy who had grown up on Barren Island, and I thought that was an extraordinary thing. So I bought the book and read it. And I had a question: what would it have been like to live there on Barren Island? It’s one thing to work in that sort of setting, but to actually live there as a child, to grow up there, so close to the city and but so far from the city—I just couldn’t imagine what that would have been like.” Amazing. That newspaper article was my introduction to Barren Island, too. It was written by Kirk Johnson and published on Nov. 7, 2000, under the headline “All the Dead Horses, Next Door; Bittersweet Memories of the City’s Island of Garbage.” I, too, read the book mentioned in the article, Benjamin Miller’s Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York, the Last Two Hundred Years. That book spawned a fascination with the city’s waste that’s still alive today. I asked Zoref, “What kind of research did you do? Did you do a lot of archival stuff? Was it mostly imagining?” “There was no archival research,” she said. “In fact, I never saw a photograph of Barren Island until the spring of 2016, when the book’s jacket designer and I started talking about what the cover should look like. The public library of New York had just digitized its collection, so I was able to see what the place looked like. Much to my relief, my imagination had served me well. As far as the rest of it was concerned, it was a combination of flotsam and jetsam stuff that I knew but wasn’t exactly sure when it happened. A simple timeline helped. Then looking at photographs, programs on television about the Depression, descriptions of the flora and fauna of Long Island. When I started, I knew the bookends would be 1929, when the stock market crashed, and 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland. What happened between the World Wars? I ended the book a little after Barren Island was actually closed because the coming of World War II is present in the novel the entire time. People are escaping Europe because things are lousy for Jews and they need to get out. People are working these jobs on Barren Island because they’re working any jobs they can get. People are picking through the garbage because they’re starving. Those smokestacks and those rendering plants certainly are waving a flag saying the death camps are coming, and a different kind of oven is coming.” “What was the appeal of this spot and these people to you as a writer?” I asked. “The appeal to me had to do with power and powerlessness, and the ways in which the awfulness of quotidian life can’t be escaped. Each of these characters has their own lives and ambitions that aren’t that different from our own in the 21st century.” One of my favorite characters in the novel is Miss Finn, who teaches in the one-room schoolhouse. “Did you model her on Jane Shaw?” I asked. “Where did she come from?” “I knew Jane Shaw existed and I knew she stood up to Robert Moses, who I’ve always found an interesting character. I read The Power Broker and I thought, wow, what a brilliant crazy wonderful horrible human being—all those things rolled into one. We wouldn’t have parks if we hadn’t had Robert Moses, but we also wouldn’t have the Cross-Bronx Expressway running through the middle of people’s lives. I couldn’t believe Jane Shaw stood up to him and won. Nobody did that again until Jane Jacobs. Somebody teaching in this one-room schoolhouse could have a tremendous amount of influence. A lot of stuff got tucked into Miss Finn. What happened to these teenage girls in her classes? Well, girls got pregnant and had abortions—long before abortion was legal. It was dangerous and complicated. Miss Finn seems quiet and humble, but she’s worldly in her own way. Her sister was the doctor who performed abortions.” It was time for me to make an admission. “I read that article in The Times and I read Benjamin Miller’s book,” I said, “and I became totally fascinated by Barren Island. Now I’ve got my own Barren Island box. But I got busy with other things, and my idea of writing a novel about the place went on the back burner. When I heard that a novel called Barren Island was nominated for the National Book Award, my heart dropped into my shoes.” “Sorry!” she said, with a laugh. “So I got your book, and as I read I felt uplifted. Somebody else out there sees the potential of a story about a place, about a moment like this! It’s been an uplifting experience. I guess what I’m trying to say is thank you.” “Well, thank you. I think there’s no place or no story that exists that wouldn’t be written about differently by different writers. And that’s fine. That’s good. As obscure as things can be, so what? Everyone’s interest comes from a different feeling.” And I have a feeling, a surprising feeling, that The Angel of Barren Island still has a pulse.
Two years ago I published an essay here called “How the West Was Lost.” In it, a handful of gifted writers—Ivan Doig, Joan Didion, Edward Abbey, and Jim Harrison—offered their takes on how Americans have despoiled their frontier. Harrison and Abbey decried environmental degradation, especially the damming of rivers so cities could bloom in deserts, where no city belongs. Didion punctured the myth of pioneer grit by pointing out that federal tax dollars have underwritten most signature western ventures, including the railroads, the aerospace industry, and big agriculture. And Doig, a product of the “lariat proletariat,” lamented the sacrifice of old ways and individual freedoms on the altar of spurious progress. Now I would like to nominate Deanne Stillman for admission to this distinguished group. Over the past three decades, her nonfiction and journalism have probed the violence Americans have done to the people, wild animals, and lands of the West. Her books include a devastating account of a double murder, Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave (2001); Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West (2008); and the story of a hermit turned cop-killer, Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History (2012). Stillman has just published Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. Through the unlikely reconciliation of two adversaries from the Indian Wars, the book explores “the fault line that runs through the national story”—the subjugation and repeated betrayals of Native Americans. Like all of Stillman’s work, the new book is deeply researched, a work of passion and rich insight. She spoke with me by telephone from her home in Los Angeles. The Millions: Let’s start with a stupid question. Where did you grow up? Deanne Stillman: I grew up in Cleveland. I’d been writing since I was a little girl, and I just knew I had to be in New York to start pursuing the creative life and I moved there in the ’70s. I was writing first for the underground press, and then began writing humor and satire and comedy, including working on projects for Saturday Night Live. In the early 1980s I began going back and forth between L.A. and New York because I had gotten a series of television jobs. And then I was hired for a TV series called Square Pegs. I was aboard that train for a while and didn’t like it and in fact at some point it started making me physically ill. One day my personal apple cart collapsed. Writing humor is all about reacting and pretending everything’s fine and everything’s funny, but things had really come to a complete halt in my life and nothing was basically funny anymore. Once I got in touch with that and got back to some earlier desires, my writing moved in another direction. TM: In the introduction to Blood Brothers, you state that all of your books are about “acts of violence, the killing of people and wild animals, assaults on the land that have unfolded on a very big canvas, the American West.” Did you decide to work on this canvas after you moved west, or did you move west to be part of the canvas? DS: All of the above. It all has to do with my upbringing and with my father teaching me to be a writer when I was a little girl. My first submissions were to Mad magazine, actually, under the name Dean Stillman because I saw that they were only publishing boys. The West was an escape for me as a little girl because there was a lot of turmoil in my household, and I was escaping into books about the West. And we grew up around horses, too. My mother was one of the first women in the country to ride professionally on the racetrack, and she taught me how to ride. That had a lot to do with fueling my wanderlust—hanging out at the racetrack and coming into contact with a lot of strange characters. And also moving from the right side of the tracks to the wrong side of the tracks after my parents got divorced, and finding out that there was a working class and that they were kind of persona non grata. When we moved from very comfortable surroundings to the wrong side of town, even some of our relatives stopped talking to us. So I found out at a very early age that America has a class system. TM: So reading and fantasizing about the West was an escape for you even as a girl? DS: Fantasizing and living inside books which my father read to me. That became a landscape I started living in. TM: When did you move to L.A. full-time? DS: The late ’80s or so. When my personal life fell apart, I began spending more and more time in the desert. I was kind of on automatic pilot with my writing because I had to continue making a living, and I had reached a dead end there. And then one day the story I wrote about in Twentynine Palms crossed my path and it took over my life and I knew that I was going to follow it wherever it went. So that’s how the next phase of my writing life began. TM: Your earlier books, Twentynine Palms included, are deeply reported. There are also flashes of fiction writing in Desert Reckoning, where you get into the brains of people, which I loved. But Blood Brothers is closer to straight history. You traveled all over, reading in archives, visiting sites, looking at newspapers. I wonder if you could talk about the differences in researching and writing these different kinds of books—one is reportage, the other is almost straight history. DS: Blood Brothers involved more archival research, for sure. But I do bring elements of fiction into all of my writing. I did have to recreate characters in Blood Brothers, and I did recreate scenes, such as when [Buffalo Bill] Cody and Sitting Bull meet for the first time—in Buffalo, New York, of all places. That draws from actual reporting, but I do weave in other elements, what they might have been feeling and how the conversations played out. TM: So the researching and writing of this book were not all that different from the books that came before it? DS: Most of Blood Brothers takes place in the 19th century, so I was obviously not able to talk to associates of the main characters, which does make things different. I rely on many historical accounts, some of which are from the white man’s point of view and some of which are from the Native American’s point of view. But there are plenty of things that weren’t written down that we don’t know about. TM: I didn’t realize just how vast the literature is on the subjects you write about here. It seems like just about everybody has either written a memoir or been the subject of a newspaper or magazine article, or a biography. I laughed out loud that Tim McCoy, a cowboy turned movie actor, published a memoir ghost-written by his son. What rock hasn’t been turned over? With so much stuff available, I’m wondering if your challenge was finding something new to say—or did you not see it that way? DS: That’s part of what I was dealing with. You’re right, there’s so much that’s been written about many, many characters of that era. But the image that drew me into writing this book was the dancing horse outside the cabin where Sitting Bull was murdered. I always follow my instincts when it comes to my work, and I knew that that image would take me somewhere, exactly where I didn’t know. But isn’t that the allure of writing?—finding out the answers to these questions? I didn’t find very much about that image of the horse tied up outside Sitting Bull’s cabin at the time of his assassination. That dancing horse was in effect taking bullets for Sitting Bull as he was being killed—that’s an insight that came to me from Chief Arvol Looking Horse, who I called to ask about the dancing horse and what it meant. So I couldn’t find out much about that horse or the image because there wasn’t much on the record. That kind of confirmed my instinct that the image could take me through the writing of this book. TM: So that image propelled you to write the book? DS: Totally. It totally propelled me. It haunted me for years. TM: One of my favorite things in the book was that Buffalo Bill got sick of the “sham-hero worship,” as he puts it. Then he sets out to make a movie that captures the real spirit of the West, including the Seventh Cavalry’s massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee. But the movie turned out to be a failure because it was too real. People couldn’t handle it—even though he left out the fact that women and children were among those massacred. I thought that was a powerful irony. DS: I’m glad you brought that up. Here was Cody near the end of his life telling people he was sick of this whole thing, referring to the fact that he was trapped in this persona of Buffalo Bill. I think it’s kind of a universal situation—that sooner or later we often find ourselves accepted for being one thing, but in our hearts we’re something else. Here was Cody who’d become this mythological character adored around the world by kings and wastrels. But as he began to feel remorse for his role in the closing of the West, he says many times to reporters that we haven’t done right by the Indians. Even when he was talking about Sitting Bull to reporters, he would make a point of talking about how he was the Napoleon of his people. After the Wounded Knee massacre, Cody wanted to set the record straight by making this documentary, using actual survivors and members of the cavalry. It was so real that some of the Native American re-enactors in the documentary thought that actual bullets were going to start flying. TM: But the movie failed, as I say, because people didn’t want to hear it. DS: We’re such an Action Jackson country. People just wanted to see a shoot-’em-up, they didn’t want to take a look at the victims. But also we Americans have a problem looking at what really happened, period. I think Cody making that film was a metaphor for the fact that we haven’t reconciled our original sin, which is the betrayal of Native Americans. TM: This leads to another thing I wanted to ask you about. There’s a subtext in the book about celebrity in America. Look at Sitting Bull—he’s involved in the battle of Little Bighorn, he has to flee to Canada, he comes back and joins the Wild West show. He goes from fugitive to star. DS: [Laughs.] That’s true! TM: He and Buffalo Bill were superstars. When all else fails in America, you can always become a celebrity. These guys weren’t the first American celebrities, but I think they’re a template for what’s happening to this day in this country. DS: I completely agree. They were hardly the first celebrities, but they were arguably two of the most famous men in American history. Without the Wild West show, our national story may well not be what it is. TM: To go back to your book’s introduction. You mention that you’ve witnessed several recent moments of atonement and forgiveness between Native Americans and descendants of the soldiers who fought against their ancestors. These are contemporary events—the renaming of sacred lands, the fight against the pipeline—and you wrote something that I like: “Perhaps the brief time that Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull were together can serve as a foundation upon which this rift can be repaired.” That’s a wonderful thought. I like to think you’re right, but I wonder if that’s hoping for too much, given our history. DS: That’s a good question. We have choice here: we can hope for too much or scale it back. What’s going on now in terms of Trump’s policies regarding the environment, the rollback of wildlife protections, the assault on the wilderness, the call to euthanize all of America’s wild horses, this nonstop assault on what’s wild—this, to me, is the end game of the Indian Wars. TM: So do you think there’s a chance for this rift to be repaired and for this country to become healthy? DS: Over time, yes, there is a chance. You look at Standing Rock last December—descendants of soldiers who fought at Little Bighorn apologizing to Lakota elders about their role in the decimation of Native Americans, and the elders giving their acceptance speech. That was a very powerful event, in my opinion. It was covered, but it was overshadowed by the politics of the pipeline. Behind all of that, there was this spiritual shift involving this apology. It’s been happening for the past two years in other ways across the Great Plains and the West. Native Americans also apologized for wiping out Custer. The ramifications of that down the line are beyond words. It’s all to the good.