1. American Graffiti Abroad
My wife and I started watching Gilmore Girls in Helsinki when our first daughter was a toddler. My wife is Finnish, and the show has been with us through the childhoods of all four of our kids.
For better or worse, American high school is now an international experience, shared around the world. My three daughters and one son are all in Finnish grade school or preschool, but many of the rituals of teen America have already entered their imagination, just as they entered mine when I was a boy in Seattle and D.C. Helsinki mean girls operate differently from Hollywood’s Mean Girls, yet the movie helps frame the concept of teen cruelty here, just as Heathers and The Virgin Suicides help frame international views of why teens kill themselves. My own kids, from their distant Nordic nook, love Ferris Bueller and Willow Rosenberg, and they’re primed for American-flavored teen adventures they might never have.
Out of all the teenagers Hollywood has launched overseas, Rory Gilmore — the main character of Gilmore Girls — is the one I like best, at least in her high school years. It’s not just that she’s smart and fiercely dedicated to literature and learning. The teenage Rory has her weak points: her mistreatment of Dean, her self-absorption, her cluelessness about some of her impulses. In general, though, she maintains a core of common decency and fair play while facing off against a series of narcissistic little tyrants. The show’s central joke is the comedy of the bookish and reasonable Rory holding her own against people who bully everyone around them.
2. The Dorothy Parker Reader
Across the Internet you can find lists of all the books Rory read or talked about over the series’ seven seasons, which originally ran between 2000 and 2006. The lists conjure up not so much the millennial preferences of Rory’s generation as the Baby Boomer preferences of the series’ talented creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino. The novels are almost all safe, traditional choices, from Madame Bovary and Moby Dick to The Metamorphosis and Ulysses.
If Rory’s literary leanings tend to be old-fashioned, they reflect a larger retrograde bent in the series. As Rahawa Haile has deftly documented, the show reserves almost all its speaking roles for white actors, and compounds the problem by casting actors of color mainly as silent tokens. The town of Stars Hollow has less cultural variety than the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, and Rory’s classics-oriented reading choices can’t even make room for, say, The Tale of Genji or The Blind Owl. While Finland doesn’t have quite the same culture wars as the U.S., it faces similar problems with the rise of rightwing hate groups, and the overwhelming whiteness of Stars Hollow — like the whiteness of the casts in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek — now looks more obtuse and offensive with each passing year. When I watch Gilmore Girls these days, Rory’s fixation on famous old novels by famous old authors feels less quaint and more ominous — more like a reinforcement of Europe’s new line of bigoted and belligerent reactionary nationalists.
Still, I’m wary of generalizing about the ways Europeans absorb U.S. films and TV shows, because America’s influence cuts in so many different and contradictory directions here. From a Nordic perspective, for instance, it’s obvious that Rory would join most Finns in opposing the EU’s current assortment of jingoist demagogues, and would fight back against the attempts of those demagogues to use her favorite authors for their narrow political purposes. Also, Gilmore Girls is popular in Finland in part because this is a nation of readers, and I know two young Helsinki journalists who — despite their anger at America for our military and economic activities — found Rory’s love for books an inspiration when they were growing up.
After all, how many other TV teenagers can convince you they’ve not only read Anna Karenina and Swann’s Way but have made their reading a part of their decisions and their personality? Rory’s books aren’t just fashion accessories, as they are with most TV characters. Her relationship with Jess turns on him filching her copy of Howl and then proving he can catch the Charles Dickens reference she makes (“Dodger”). At the same time, we see some of the limits of her connection with Dean when she tries to teach him how to read Leo Tolstoy.
More broadly, her devotion to the writing of Dorothy Parker sharpens Rory’s natural ear for snappy dialogue — and this isn’t simply an aesthetic preference but the key to her entire approach to life. She values good talk because she values the ability to connect with other people and to have them connect with her. The contrast between Rory’s sleepy-eyed manner and her Parker-like flair for keeping a conversation in play is a major part of the show’s appeal. Her closest friendships — with Lorelai, Lane and Paris — are built on quick, casual banter. The jokes aren’t laboriously set up for a punchline in the old sitcom style. They dart along, one after another, easy and light and always moving on. Trying a video game with Lane, Rory says: “So this is what teenage boys are doing instead of watching television? Seems like a lateral move.” When Rory reacts to a comment from Lane by saying, “Sarcasm does not become you,” Lane answers, “No, but it does sustain me,” and keeps talking. In season three, Lorelai tries to suss out the degree of Rory’s interest in Jess: “Okay, now let’s say he’s in the house and there’s a fire, and you can save either him or your shoes — which is it?” Rory hedges, saying: “That depends. Did he start the fire?” Rory and Lorelai can’t stand together at a checkout line without slipping into their usual patter:
Lorelai: I hate crossword puzzles. They make me feel stupid.
Rory: Then don’t do them.
Lorelai: But if you don’t do them, you’re not only stupid—you’re also a coward.
Rory: Or you’ve got better things to do with your time.
Lorelai: You think people buy that?
Rory: The people who line up on a daily basis and ask you if you do crossword puzzles and then when you say no, challenge you as to why? Yes, I think they will buy it.
Lorelai and Rory are, famously, best friends as well as mother and daughter. Their friendship has its problems, but at its heart is the pleasure of their conversations. They’re bound to each other by language, their feel for the rhythms of each other’s phrases. Gilmore Girls belongs to the tradition of the great screwball comedies, films like Bringing Up Baby and Talk of the Town: the skill of the writing is largely in the lightness of the touch.
3. Early Rory
Lauren Graham plays Rory’s mother to perfection: she makes Lorelai wickedly charismatic. Driven and resourceful and a bit devilish, Lorelai typically sports a big knowing grin that’s up for all kinds of mischief. She takes command of the series 30 seconds into the first episode, when she looks at diner owner Luke Danes with the profound desire of someone who needs her next cup of coffee and will stop at nothing to get it. She’s a treat, and she brings a delirious energy both to her work as an innkeeper and to her love for Rory.
Yet she’s also a bit of a monster. She insists that Rory tell her everything, and places practical and emotional demands on her daughter that would break many children. Pregnant at 16, Lorelai ran away from her rich parents and rich boyfriend to raise Rory on her own. Lorelai envisions Rory’s future as a rebuke to the privileged Gilmore background — though another of the show’s nice comic touches is its recognition of how much this background defines Lorelai and Rory, and how heavily they still rely on it. Lorelai has encouraged Rory’s childhood dream of going to Harvard, and together they’ve built Rory’s life around reaching that dream.
It’s a potentially ugly situation for Rory, especially since Lorelai has a habit of bending others to her will. As Rory, Alexis Bledel lacks Lauren Graham’s I-can-do-anything-I-want-with-a-line acting chops, but her unnervingly serene demeanor brings something original to the mix. She’s quietly compelling when she spars with her mother, and usually acts like the adult in the relationship. Lorelai, with her playful eat-the-world smile, is like an insanely cheerful cartoon character turning the barrels of a Gatling gun, shooting out swirls of rapid-fire sentences and mowing down anyone in her path. Rory is less overwhelming, but she knows how to put forward her opinions. In her low-key fashion, she refuses to let her voice get lost in the onslaught of Lorelai’s presence. She’s much tougher than people assume, and this makes listening to her a constant pleasure.
Rory prefers to work things out, to understand the other person’s position and find a shared solution. Lorelai’s nature is simply to push and push until she gets what she wants, even if it often turns out she doesn’t want what she gets. During the first three seasons of the show, when Rory is a student at the pricey private school Chilton, Lorelai and she bring out the best in each other. If Lorelai is a great mother — one of the most complex and intriguing parents on television — she owes part of her success to Rory’s strength of character. Not every child would’ve prospered under the Lorelai Gilmore regime.
4. Occupying Paris
In high school, as Rory goes from bewildered outsider to top student, we see her at her best. Standing up to her mother has taught her how to stand up to the other megalomaniacs she meets: most notably, the immortal Paris Geller.
My kids are wild about Paris, and they’ve got a point. Paris is so mercurial—and Liza Weil inhabits the role with such virtuosity—that the character delivers comic bliss. Paris alternates between self-aggrandizement and self-hatred, between feeling superior to everyone and feeling crushed by her own inadequacy. She has a dazzlingly unhinged compulsion to scold people, and to control their every thought and deed.
As editor of the Chilton newspaper, Paris tries to sabotage Rory by giving her a lame assignment, a piece on repaving the school parking lot. Rory buckles down and does a good job on the article, and then confronts Paris directly. With calm force she explains that nothing Paris does will make her quit the paper. It’s the turning point in their relationship. Able to strike sensible compromises and work well in hostile circumstances, Rory also shows she can fight back when Paris is malicious or unreasonable. Bit by bit, Paris is impressed, and eventually becomes one of Rory’s best friends.
Rory’s success with Paris mirrors her success with the other little dictators in the series, like her charming but domineering grandparents Emily and Richard, and the pompous Stars Hollow autocrat Taylor Doose. (It’s easy for Europeans to imagine that if Taylor were French he’d be a Marine Le Pen supporter, and if he were Danish he’d vote DPP.) In situation after situation, Rory demonstrates the strength behind her decency, the ability to defend herself and assert her viewpoint while winning over those who at first want to control or hurt her. She lives out a fantasy of good faith—of a world where understanding beats aggression, and where intelligence and compassion defeat unfairness and cruelty.
5. The Corleone Connection
Gilmore Girls is full of references to The Godfather, and Lorelai and Rory quote from the film repeatedly. The first three seasons of the show set up the possibilities for Rory’s future so we can watch her, in seasons four through six, grow increasingly unbalanced and misguided. She’s the Stars Hollow version of Michael Corleone: she changes from a fresh and appealing college student to someone who has lost her way, becoming a dark and negative image of her former self. In season five she drops out of Yale, cuts off contact with Lorelai, and devotes her time to Emily’s social circles and a relationship with the rich and creepy Logan. The change is nightmarish to watch, because we can see our own bad decisions in her, and our own fears about what we might become. Even after she returns to Yale, she keeps dating Logan, and it’s clear she still hasn’t fully come out of the crisis that started when Logan’s father told her she doesn’t have what it takes to be a journalist.
Because of a contract dispute, Sherman-Palladino left the series before its seventh and final season, and she was never able to finish Rory’s story. Now, thanks to the show’s popularity on Netflix, Sherman-Palladino has had the chance to make Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, a revival in four 90-minute parts. She’s gone back to her original conception, and to her old plans for Rory. The revival is ambitious, and compared to the series, it places the emphasis much more on drama than on comedy.
The Rory we now find, 10 years after we last saw her, is slowly disintegrating, and we follow her as she falls apart. Her journalism career has stalled, and she seems to have lost the ability to finish an article or even pitch an idea. Some reviewers have blasted Rory for her lack of professionalism, but we know from her years on the Yale Daily News that the mistakes she’s making aren’t due to ignorance or stupidity. She’s sabotaging herself, and part of her knows it while part of her denies it.
At the same time, she’s carrying on a degrading affair with Logan, who’s engaged to someone else. The revival takes pains to show that Rory’s view of Logan is a fantasy, a damaging illusion. The long party sequence with Logan and his friends is a dream: at the start, a sign magically changes from the word “Flowers” to the word “Tonight,” and the sequence closes with Rory caught in a burlesque of Dorothy’s farewells in The Wizard of Oz. This is the Logan she wants to believe in, a Gatsby/Kennedy hybrid who would care enough to give her a final night of Jazz Age entertainment. The real Logan is much colder: he lets Rory break things off with him over the phone and simply goes on with his life. Always polite, always superficially concerned, he can’t be bothered to make much of an effort with her.
The revival’s last four words, which Sherman-Palladino always planned to use for the final scene of the series, turn out to be chilling. Rory says she’s pregnant, and since the baby is probably Logan’s, the effect is grim. Rory’s transformation is complete. The girl who planned to leave Stars Hollow and become an overseas correspondent is gone, replaced by this eerie ghost-Rory who might never find her way forward again.
The ending isn’t hopeless. Rory has started writing a book about her relationship with her mother, Chilton has proposed a job for her as a teacher, and her connection with Lorelai is strong. You can picture a happy future for Rory, if you want. Still, the overall mood of the revival is bleak, and the darkness that always hovered behind the comedy of Gilmore Girls has now swallowed everything else.
This makes the revival very much a show for our time. We’ve all sensed it, of course, these past few years: the feeling of disaster in the air, of violence and anger and a rampant, all-devouring bad faith. This isn’t an era when people like Rory flourish. Instead, they tend to fall into self-doubt and self-destruction, and to become as narcissistic and manipulative as the culture around them. Rory has always carried her share of flaws. We all do. If we don’t like what we see in her these days, it’s because Sherman-Palladino has been pitiless about showing what can happen to us when we go bad. The Gilmore Girls revival is an odd, somber way to end a series that built its reputation on quick-witted comic brio. Sherman-Palladino has shifted us from the realm of Dorothy Parker to the scarier and more disorienting realm of Jean Rhys — and the revival makes Rory’s teen years now look heartbreaking in their wasted promise.
At the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, I loop back around to the beginning of “Matthew Weiner’s MAD MEN,” an exhibition that “explores the creative process behind Mad Men.” I arrived later than I’d hoped, just as the crowds were beginning to bottleneck, and was nudged through the narrow display corridors more quickly than I would have liked. The exhibit is a well-conceived combination of captivating eye candy — Megan’s “Zou Bisou Bisou” outfit and Pete’s plaid pants, Don’s office and the Ossining kitchen recreated in full, embossed business cards from each incarnation of the agency, every item from the Adam Whitman shoebox, a copy of Sterling’s Gold — along with the pen and ink and paper behind all that. I crane my neck behind rows of bodies now three-deep, trying to read an entry from creator Matthew Weiner’s 1992 journal, in which he describes a character for a screenplay he was writing: “He will be brave and cunning but he is ultimately scared because he runs from death and family; for him they are the same.”
A security guard hovers, scolding anyone who whips out an iPhone before any camera triggers can be tapped. I linger around a standalone display case containing that most romantic of artistic relics — scraps of paper on which Weiner scribbled character, plot, and theme notes whenever they came to him. I wait for the guard to drift to the other end of the exhibit, then hold my phone over the glass and tap-tap-tap, working my way around all four sides and drawing looks. Later I see that the glare and shadows and sometimes illegible handwriting have obscured many words, but I make out a few things, like,
Am I supposed to pretend that I can’t open a jar so you can prove you’re a man
All your lies hit @ once even though you do them one @ a time a
same story as the Chip n Dip
Don seeing a woman / inverse of the pilot
Peggy and Betty have lunch
Fear is contagious. Permeates its expectations.
I’d trekked out to Queens on a Sunday morning — the Sunday of the series finale — because I wanted to somehow mark the end, and begin my pre-mourning. It’s an absurdly dramatic word, I know — mourning — implying real loss. It’s just a TV show, the level-headed inner voice says. But lately I find myself leaning into the gap between rational assertions and a stirring in my gut: yes, of course, It’s just a TV show. So too, When God closes a door he opens a window and I have my health. Nevertheless, experience tells me there may be something interesting, there in the gap, in the dissonance.
As I moved through the exhibit the first time, I found myself surprisingly less interested in the fabulous clothes and mid-century-modern office furniture (although I did love the smudgy worn leather of Don’s Eames desk chair) and more so in these glass-encased scribbles, along with mounted script outlines, the recreated writers’ room whiteboard (a grid of color-coded index cards), and three-ring binders that contained things like “Notes from Tone Meeting.” In other words, the museum curators smartly anticipated what seems to me a real question we’re all left with after spending eight years with Mad Men and now reminding ourselves that It was just a TV show…
We know that we became absorbed, that we experienced great pleasure in watching, and that we couldn’t wait for each new season to begin. We know, or feel at least, that we have participated in something significant, a cultural moment. But what I want to know now, or try to know, is this: Is it art?
I can hear the chorus of responses, falling into three camps: 1.) of course it is, 2.) of course it isn’t, 3.) who cares? Yet for me the question is there, with no obvious answer. And it matters: I believe there may even be moral stakes here.
Our current golden age of TV demands a considerable intensity of involvement from its viewers: when it comes to compelling serial drama, you care a lot about your show and its characters, or not at all. When the subject of Mad Men — or Breaking Bad or The Wire or House of Cards or any number of shows — comes up in a conversation, the parties are typically all in or all out. In the case of the former, the talk zooms zero to 60, whatever conversation you’d started is supplanted; in the latter, with the all-outs, the word “investment” almost always comes up — as in, “I’m not prepared/willing to make the investment.”
Indeed, watching these shows costs; a seven-season, 92-episode show like Mad Men is a significant expenditure — by my math, some 200+ hours (if you’re a re-watcher, as I am). There are myriad other things we could be, should be, want to be doing with our time and energy: how can we not ask, What’s it worth? And I do think about those hours — about the 15 to 20 books I could have read; about the four hours per week for a full year that I might have spent exercising, mentoring a young person, self-educating about global threats, growing food, helping a friend in need, freelancing for extra income, writing fiction, writing letters to my government representatives, calling my mother. Et cetera.
So since the credits rolled on the finale last week, I’ve been thinking less about “what happened” to Don and Peggy and Betty and Joan and Pete and Roger. Or even what happened to American culture, fashion, and gender politics between 1960 and 1970. What I’ve been wondering is what’s happened, over the last eight years, to us. What has the show done to us; what has it meant. Has it done or meant anything? For this is what I mean by that highfalutin word “art” — something that changes me, shows me something that matters, something that will last.
Behind a work of art, there is an artist; and the MoMI exhibition title says it all: “Matthew Weiner’s MAD MEN.” Yes, there is a team of writers, and sometimes they are given due credit. But also (from an interview in The Paris Review):
At the beginning of the season I dictate a lot of notes about the stories I’m interested in. Then for each episode, we start with a group-written story, an outline. When I read the outline, I rarely get a sense of what the story is. It has to be told to me. Then I go into a room with an assistant and I dictate the scenes, the entire script, page by page.
I am a controlling person. I’m at odds with the world, and like most people I don’t have any control over what’s going to happen — I only have wishes and dreams. But to be in this environment where you actually control how things are going to work out, and who’s going to win, and what they’re going to learn, and who kisses who…
And (from The Atlantic):
Much of Mad Men is driven by Weiner’s id, by his own dreams, by what he calls a “wordless instinct,” a conviction that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Some aspects of the show may seem “dreamlike or whatever” to others, but Weiner told me he often experiences things in a very different way than most other people do.
And (from Vulture):
Apparently, one of the actors on The Sopranos said, “My character wouldn’t say that,” and [David Chase] replied, “Who said it was your character?” [Laughs.]…The [actors] definitely thought I was picky and vague, I will say that. I was frustrating to work for because…I’m not always articulate about what I want.
There’s a lot of material on Weiner — he has not shied away from interviews — and I’ve combed only a fraction of it. What I gather is that, as Mad Men gained in acclaim, Weiner gained total freedom: what the characters say and do, the visual, psychological, and emotional tones of the scenes — in the end, it’s Weiner’s vision, and his call. In that sense, he is the Don Draper.
But is the landscape of a writer’s id necessarily artful? We are meant to believe that Don’s creativity works this way — successfully, unquestionably. Does Weiner’s?
In answer to a question about the poems he wrote in college, Weiner said,
[They were p]retty funny, a lot of them, in an ironic way. And very confessional. A lot like what I do on Mad Men, actually — I don’t think people always realize the show is super personal, even though it’s set in the past. It was as if the admission of uncomfortable thoughts had already become my business on some level. I love awkwardness.
That awkwardness, that instinct, truth that is stranger than fiction, that picky vagueness — one might say these are the marks of Weiner’s artistry. When I think back on seven seasons, it’s the weird stuff that floats to the surface: Peggy doing the twist in her awful green skirt toward a glowering, glossy-lipped Pete; Joan hoisting up her accordion and crooning in French; those horrible giggling aluminum-ad twins; Grandpa Gene grabbing Betty’s boob; Lane flaunting his “chocolate” playboy bunny in front of his father then getting beaten with a cane; Ken’s eye patch against his unsettling cheerfulness; Ginsburg’s nipple freak-out; the cringyness I still feel when rewatching Megan’s “Zou Bisou Bisou” performance. These moments felt bizarre, distinctly off, and made me always aware of an authorial sensibility: someone put that accordion in the script, told those girls to giggle, and crafted that palpable awkwardness while Megan flung her hair and legs around.
Why were the characters doing these things? Because Matt Weiner’s dreams, wordless instincts, and experiences said so. “The important thing, for me,” Weiner said, about writing for The Sopranos, “was hearing the way David Chase indulged the subconscious. I learned not to question its communicative power.”
It was Nicholson Baker who once said that he writes best first thing in the morning, before even turning on lights, so he can write “in a dreamlike state.” I always liked the romantic purity of that; and yet, that’s the raw-material part of the process. What next? In undergraduate writing classes, I sometimes introduce the idea of “the moral point of view” — which I borrowed from Anne Lamott’s sometimes cloying but often useful Bird by Bird. Lamott invokes the term moral — with all its baggage — then both deconstructs and reclaims its significance. It’s not about judging characters, or readers; it’s not about black-and-white messages or lessons. It’s about the author having a stake, and exploring/expressing his worldview, lest the work risk being mere craft, bloodless and forgettable. That stake, that world view, could be a pressing, unanswerable question; a hope, or a shade of darkness; an incisive observation about human nature.
Is the strangeness of dreams a world view? Life as a series of unresolved and awkward non sequiturs? In Mad Men, people come and people go. They sort of change, but also not really. Many of them behave in disturbing or creepy or inconsistent ways. Ultimately we don’t know the fates of most of the people who come on screen, and neither do the principal characters.
If a young man runs into a beautiful woman at a party on Mad Men and she gives him her phone number and he writes it on a piece of paper and then he loses his coat, he will, on a normal TV show, end up figuring out how to find her. On Mad Men, he will never see her again. (from an interview with Esquire)
This approach unsettles the typical viewer and is likely a main reason — along with its decided racial homogeneity (but more on that later) — the series is not more numerically popular, by ratings standards. I myself have no trouble with narrative non-resolution per se; but it’s hard to know if what Weiner crafts in his episodic world is so much like life that it sometimes seems strange and unreal, or if he’s forcing the weirdness and illogic too hard — manneristically. The young man will never see the beautiful woman again; but will he think of her? Will he care? Does Weiner care? Does he have any stake in it? Should we?
Herein is evidence of a “moral point of view” that discomfits even me, a devoted viewer. Yes, people come and people go, that’s life; but in the world of Mad Men, it doesn’t seem to matter. Peggy’s abandoned baby, and the subsequent easy chumminess of her friendship with Pete (the father) is one example. The inconsequential in and out of so many characters with whom we spend significant time — Duck, Freddy, all of Don’s women (Megan included) with the possible exception of Rachel, Beth, Joyce, Ginsburg, Lane, Ted, Margaret, Hildy, (and what ever happened to Polly the Golden Retriever?!), et alia — is another. There is an uneasy tension between caring about the characters and not caring about them; between them mattering and not mattering. That tension seems to push and pull between the authorial side and the viewers’ side: why is it so easy to discard these broken people? Is it the show that discards them, the nature of episodic TV? Is it Weiner who dictates the emotional reality of the characters out of his own emotional instincts? Or is it, as Weiner would have us believe, real life itself? To be clear, the question isn’t should it matter; the question is does it?
“Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” These words — Don to Peggy after she has given birth to the baby she didn’t know she was carrying — essentialize Don’s character journey. “You have to move forward. As soon as you can figure out what that is,” he says to Roger over drinks in Season 2. And in the series finale, the words come back yet again, Don to his pseudo-niece Stephanie (with regard to another abandoned baby), slightly softened: “You can put this behind you. It will get easier as you move forward.” Stephanie doesn’t buy it, but for the most part, the principal characters do: they move forward — they both forgive and seamlessly forget — and it’s we who may be shocked by it, not them.
Move forward. Mourning? “Mourning is an excuse to feel sorry for yourself,” as Don made clear to Betty in Season 1. Life is a sequence of episodes, nothing more and nothing less.
In this light, there is a coherence to Weiner’s landing and thriving in the hybrid creative ground of literature and television. He grew up around books — his father carried Marcel Proust on vacation — but he was a slow and “not…great reader,” and had “trouble with long books.” Since he wouldn’t thus be a novelist, he turned to more compressed forms — skits, improv, and then poetry in college. In film school, he found himself a minority among a cohort that “hated episodic structure,” films that were held together primarily by character (e.g. 8 1/2, The Godfather, Days of Heaven). “I liked episodic structure, and I thought it worked. I still think it works,” said Weiner. After film school he started reading more intentionally — biographies, which led to an interest in the “American picaresque character.” When asked about writers who’ve influenced him, he talks about what “holds his attention” — the compact density of poems; J.D. Salinger, Richard Yates, John Cheever.
All this may point to a temperament that foregrounds the present moment — layered, discrete, and impermanent — over the long arc or the enduring idea. As a writer in the entertainment industry, Weiner exploits the language and practice of aesthetic concepts, alongside a certain liberty to focus on the internal engine of this scene and these 47 minutes (which will immediately be rated and valuated). The big picture is whatever the aggregate ends up amounting to, not the other way around.
But in Mad Men, this hybridity may have ultimately manifest in a meta-ambiguity (i.e. an artistic ambivalence) that verges on cynical: again, while I am not at all bothered by open-ended ambiguity of plot or character fate — I don’t need to know if Stan+Peggy makes it for the long haul, or even if Don plays out his career at McCann, blue jeans banished forever — I am uneasy with Weiner’s playing both sides when it comes to the art/entertainment handshake. On the one hand, he talks character complexity and “Old Testament flaws” and existentialism, and, according to Hanna Rosin of The Atlantic, is “dismissive of what he calls the ‘Hollywood reaffirmation thing.’” He’s also said: “The term ‘showrunner’ is really foreign to me. It just feels like an agent term. I’m a writer-producer, and the ‘showrunner’ thing takes away the creative part of it.” On the other hand he sometimes ducks behind the “it’s entertainment” curtain, as in, don’t expect or read into this too much, It’s just a TV show. “We’re trying to entertain you,” he said, somewhat irritably, at an event at the 92nd Street Y, in response to a Big Issue question about “men” and “women.” “So, if it seems like it’s about that, you know, that may be what we ended up doing, but that’s not part of the plan.” Similarly, writers André and Maria Jacquemetton said in a 2012 interview, in reference to the show’s relationship to historical research, “we’re making entertainment, not a documentary.”
In other words, Mad Men has aimed primarily to RE-flect, not AF-fect. It’s not “about” anything; it’s just episodes, and they look beautiful and move forward and express awkwardness and sometimes they build toward something and sometimes they veer off, and dead-wood characters drop off as instinct dictates, and now…well…now it’s over. If you expected something more, dear viewer, something “that will last,” then that’s your own silly problem. After all, Weiner and company would say, we’re making TV here, not the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. “Love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons.” We’re just selling programming here, not meaning.
But c’mon; really? If advertising is metaphor, then the show is the meta-metaphor? Self-consciously shallow and deceptively complex? It feels like a fake gotcha, a feigned cleverness that may actually be a smokescreen for hedging. When Lili Loofbourow writes (at the Los Angeles Review of Books):
I do think it’s very much to the show’s credit that it ends with an ad — showing how monumentally frivolous its guiding vision has been all along. I appreciate that. I do. It’s even a certain kind of brilliant. It’s just not something I, personally, can love —
I’d like to agree about the brilliance — that it’s all been a masterful trick, and the joke’s on me. But that would mean that the writers genuinely cared very little about the characters, while doing their damndest to make sure that the viewers did. And that is contempt and cynicism of quite a high order. It seems more probable that in the particular way the show hedged art and entertainment, it copped out; it settled in the end for being the head-turning bombshell at the gala, relying on her cleavage instead of her Mensa IQ, tragically underachieving.
Because the characters did matter to us; but then — and now we come to the finale — they kind of didn’t. We believed in Peggy, in her unlikely ambition and talent, her quirky beauty and capricious taste in men, and her oddness; in the end, as she rises in the professional ranks, she really just wants a corner office at McCann and to work on Coke and to channel a Sally Albright she predates by 20 years. We felt for Joan through her ups and downs and admired her plucky, hip-swinging sensuality; what she loves, it turns out, in lieu of male bullshit and yet still uninterestingly, are making money and wielding power, like an extended middle-aged revenge fuck. We expected little from Roger and Pete, but we enjoyed them (except when we didn’t), so I’d say we’re at zero-sum seeing them keep on, more or less as they were. As for Betty, it seemed fated since the pilot that someone would kick it from too many Lucky Strikes, and she was the one at odds with her body all along; her clarity and muted emotion at the end were for me the most satisfying — character-logical — of anything that happened in the finale.
As for Don — Don whom I have admired, despised, defended, quoted, and rooted for most of the time — it turns out he’s an ad man; that’s what he is. To boot, he’s not so special, really. He’s been cruel and honorable, weak and strong. He really needed a hug — and he finally gave it to himself, via lonely Leonard and hippie self-help — and now he can do as he’s told others to do, i.e. Put It All Behind Him. In the penultimate image, Don’s gleeful face is huge on the screen, outsizing his trail of wreckage times a million. And nothing much matters now, because the episode, and the series, and the characters, have come and gone. We thought there was some there there, and I think the writers did, too (see my end-of-season-7-part-one essay, in which the Burger Chef episode as possible series finale had me singing a very different tune); but then there wasn’t. Because if you hedge long enough, you’ll tip right over. It doesn’t take much, just a feather-like waft, or maybe just silly viewers and their need for meaning.
The writers would surely say that the characters’ endings came organically from “who they are.” But I’m not really buying that, because Weiner, as creative non-showrunner, has been imprinting who he is, his authorial dreams and awkwardness and moral point of view, all along. The notion that what Mad Men does is more like real life than what other TV shows do is perhaps the most self-unaware thing that Weiner asserts, and suggests, again, some hedging: is he the show’s creator, or is he simply managing life-like characters’ inevitable behavior? The characters’ stunning disconnection from their actions and interactions — the atomized non sequiturs that comprise their stories — is a highly particular version of real life.
I think, for example, of the Season 5 finale of The Wire — in which the dark fate of a promising young black male (Randy) resulting from the carelessness of a dull-witted white male (Herc) is not relegated to the dead-wood pile of episodes past, but revisited and shown to the viewer; surely David Simon would say, That’s real life, and fuck yes it matters. I think too of the very satisfying series finale of Friday Night Lights, in which the saintly and sacrificial Eric and Tami Taylor finally make a selfish choice, and what we feel in those heartbreaking final moments is how everything that is now off-screen — everyone from the past five years from whom they have disconnected and put behind them — matters so very much.
As is obvious by now, I did make the investment; I ponied up big and bought what Mad Men was selling. So invested was I that I may still have been convinced of Weiner’s all-in artistry, or Loofbourow’s theory of visionary brilliance — if it weren’t for Weiner’s final words with regard to the finale. Moved to speak out after the fact, in response to what he thought were disturbingly cynical readings of the ending, Weiner explained that the implication of the episode’s final images is that Don, “in an enlightened state…created something that’s very pure,” i.e. the most famous ad campaign in history, “Buy the world a Coke.” In other words, Weiner exults in Don’s transcendent talent, and his receptivity to artistic vision via emotional healing. In apparent earnestness, Weiner takes a final shot at resonance by celebrating the artist and the possibility of human wholeness.
But what to make of an earnestness so blind to — so disconnected from — what it means? As we now know — thanks especially to Ericka Blount Danois writing at Ebony — in real life, Billy Davis, an African-American man who’d had a career as a songwriter and A&R executive, was the music director at McCann Erickson in 1970; he helped to create the Coke campaign and co-wrote and produced “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” The campaign, as the Coca-Cola Company tells it, was a team conception; but as Tim Carmody points out at The Medium, it was Davis — one of the few African Americans at the senior level in advertising at that time — who contributed what might be described as “pure” or “enlightened” — the part that involved harmony and healing. Davis said to Bill Backer, creative director for the Coca Cola account:
Well, if I could do something for everybody in the world, it would not be to buy them a Coke…I’d buy everyone a home first and share with them in peace and love.
Does it matter that Weiner gave Don Draper credit for the ad? Does it mean anything? Carmody said it well:
We have a long tradition in the United States of erasing the creative work of black Americans, of suggesting that the inventions of black men and women either came from nowhere, came from no one in particular, or were in fact the creations of white people. We do this in our history, in our oral traditions, and even in our fiction.
Mos Def had something to say about it, too:
Elvis Presley ain’t got no SOULLLL (hell naw)
Little Richard is rock and roll (damn right)
You may dig on The Rolling Stones
But they ain’t come up with that shit on they own (nah-ah)
I wonder if Loofbourow would say that it was all ironic meta-brilliance on Weiner’s part: in Mad Men’s final act of meta-metaphor, the white man gets full credit for a black man’s work — work of lasting greatness — so that we can be properly entertained. I think I prefer blinded earnestness; the joke grates like fingernails on a chalkboard. Maybe Chris Rock could pull it off; Matthew Weiner can’t.
One of the last installations at the MoMI exhibit is a screen display of the various opening credit sequences submitted by the design firm Imaginary Forces. It’s impossible to imagine a different choice from the iconic falling silhouette we’ve come to know so well: the sequence is beautiful, haunting, racy; and like a great first paragraph of a novel, it contains the whole of the story to come. The mysterious ad man’s ephemeral surroundings crumble around him; he falls and falls, it’s terrifying but also exhilarating; then he lands. Reclined, unruffled, and still smoking.
You win, Don Draper. You always do. It would seem that I am ready to move forward, and to put Mad Men behind me like it never happened.
Unlike movie Mafioso Michael Corleone from Francis Ford Coppola’s classic film The Godfather, who menacingly intones, “Don’t ask me about my business,” the Manhattan-based author Victoria Redel actually seems to enjoy answering questions about her work, which often takes the form of fiction addressing an intense — even boundary-violating — bond between a parent and child. But don’t ask her about her personal life.
Following the 2001 release of her novel Loverboy, about a mother so enmeshed with her young son that she decides to asphyxiate him in a car rather than let him go to school, Redel has found herself explaining to readers that her creation of unlikable, even destructive characters is neither a window — nor an invitation — into her psyche.
“I do really strongly believe that to spend time examining a writer’s work for insights into her private life is missing the mark,” she wrote to The Millions recently about the media impulse to dig for dirt when a woman produces a chilling book. Still, 13 years after the publication of Loverboy, adapted in 2006 into a movie by the same name that starred Kevin Bacon, she continues, she admits, to field public concern. “At readings, there’s always someone who raises their hand and asks, ‘Do you have children?'” (Redel, 54, has two grown sons from her former marriage: Jonah, 25, and Gabriel, 21.) “I began to say, ‘Yes,’ she adds, ‘but I don’t have a garage.'”
Gallows humor aside, the issue of how adults in Redel’s fiction respond to children has reemerged following the recent publication of her intriguing short story collection Make Me Do Things. The compulsion suggested by the title reflects the tendency of many of her characters to lurch toward problematic, even dangerous choices. Such figures include: a married mom having an affair with a man who becomes obsessed with her young daughter; a father fantasizing about raping his wife in front of their preschool-age son; and a pregnant couple losing hold of reality and descending into drug addiction.
Rather than metaphors for bad parenting, the stories are, to Redel’s mind, merely reflective of human nature. Of the story “On Earth,” featuring the mother who steps beyond the safe pale of her family to take on an unbalanced lover, Redel said, “She loves her kid, and she loves her husband, and yet she does this inexplicably wrong thing.” The tale functions as a reminder, she adds, that “even in the best of circumstances, we can screw up.”
Either way, fiction is fiction, so why, beyond their highly effective and gothic nature, do Redel’s tales so disturb some? Is it true, as novelist Claire Messud complained last year to Publishers Weekly, that we unfairly expect female protagonists — or characters written by women — to be uniformly sympathetic?
Could be. But novelist and short story writer Elisa Albert floats a different theory: that we tend to confuse child-rearing with maturity. We’re mistaken, she believes, when we assume becoming a parent — she herself has a five-year-old son — automatically flips on a wisdom switch, and we bring that misguided notion to our reading of literature.
It’s absurd, Albert, the 35-year-old author of How This Night is Different and The book of Dahlia, adds by email, “this idea that when you become a mother your sexual and creative judgment somehow magically improves,” and that — thanks to your new role — “all the childish yearnings and poor object choices suddenly evaporate. Every honest woman/mother I know struggles with this mythology. Redel illuminates it nicely.”
But given the dark quotient to some of Redel’s writing, how does her own family respond? “They’ve been very kind,” she said, but adds that they’ve been jarred by her blurring lines between the professional and private. Raised in Scarsdale as the youngest of three daughters of refugees from Hitler’s Europe — one, a religious Jew from Belgium; the other, a ballerina from Rumania — she’s sometimes seeded facts from their lives into her work. One of her older tales treats a daughter’s resentment of her mother’s bum leg, which Redel calls “a manifestation of the [same] illness my mother had,” before she died. Reading it, her father became worried about a possible connection.
Of personally feeling the daughter’s pique, Redel said, “That never happened.” Nevertheless, upset, her father “called my sister — my middle sister, Jessica — and he said, ‘That’s not Mom.'” She replied, “‘No, that’s not Mom,’ adding, ‘This is a story.'”
Her father, who’s 90, remarried, and still observant, does, indeed, grasp the difference between fact and fantasy. But seeing a facet of a loved one rendered in fiction can be hard. To spare him, Redel’s sister told him: “‘Close the book; don’t read further.”
Effectively shrugging his cyber-shoulders at excess sensitivity, Sam Lipsyte, 45, author of the satirical novel The Ask and the short-story collection The Fun Parts, told The Millions via email that, as an author, Redel’s “got the chops to make real art” from disdaining popular notions of “what children and adults are supposed to think and feel.”
Drawing a connecting line from TV commercials to treacly group-think to reactions to gothic literature, Lipsyte adds: “Right now everything that doesn’t resemble a Cheerios television ad disturbs some people. It’s not just that she writes about dark things — often [Redel’s] work is about capturing the logic of our emotions and celebrating the exquisitely felt.”
But for some — even Redel, who, Lipsyte said, creates “intense, poetic prose” — the ability to shrug off the sensitivities of others may be less automatic, her eerie tales notwithstanding. Indeed, she remains “interested in what kind of redemption is possible.”
Perhaps that’s why she’s currently at work on a novel with a premise that sounds almost bizarrely Oprah-esque. “Some of it has to do with a woman who’s trying to pick up the pieces,” Redel said, one who, “despite her compete doubt in any such thing, believes she’s being aided by a bumbling uncle who has passed away.”
Suddenly, the author of the spine-chilling reemerges. It’s “a novel,” she said, “about middle age.”
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Even a slight familiarity with pop culture provides the awareness that Scandinavian crime stories are ascendant — due in part to Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s internationally bestselling trilogy. There are, of course, numerous other practitioners of the crime genre from ice-bound precincts — Åke Edwardson, Karin Fossum, Anne Holt, Camilla Läckberg, Henning Mankell, husband and wife team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and Arnaldur Indriðason, and so on.
Norwegian Jo Nesbø, whose CV includes stints as a stock trader, cab driver, musician, and soccer player, has seen six novels featuring his driven and single minded Oslo homicide detective, Harry Hole, published in English translation. Harry likes jazz, ’80s rock, booze, and solving crimes. And, naturally, Hole resents and resists authority — a burdensome characteristic for a big city policeman. All of which produces entertaining and, dare I offer, suspenseful reading.
In our face-to-face chat we talked about American crime writers, Nesbø’s ineptitude as a taxi driver, who is making a movie from his book, Lord of the Flies, his reading habits and more:
Robert Birnbaum: How do you pronounce your name?
Jo Nesbø: Ah, well. Outside Norway I prefer Jo Nesbø (both laugh). It’s the simple version. The Norwegian version is Ug Nespa.
RB: Say it again.
JN: Ug Nespa.
RB: Is there a “g” at the end of your first name?
JN: No there’s not.
RB: Sound’s like it. There’s a hard sound at the end. And Harry Hole is pronounced how?
JN: Same thing — outside Norway I am happy with Harry Hole and so is he, but in Norway it’s Hahree Whoule.
RB: Since your book is translated, it must be first written in Norwegian, yes?
RB: When you think about American crime fiction, there are a number of icons that people around the world refer to — Chandler, Hammett, Cain, and Thomson. Is there someone like that in Norway?
JN: Yeah, you have [Henrik] Wergeland. [He] is recognized as the godfather of Norwegian crime literature. In Scandinavian crime you have to go to the ’70s — Maj Sjöwall andPer Wahlöö founded the modern Scandinavian crime novel based on social criticism.
RB: And more procedural.
JN: It was. So everyone in Scandinavia who writes a crime novel, whether they l know it or not, they are influenced by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.
RB: You have a varied CV — how did you come to writing?
RB: You were a stockbroker, a rock and roller, soccer player, taxi driver.
JN: I was a really bad taxi driver. I was famous for it.
RB: Bad sense of direction or poor driving?
JN: Just bad driving. Lack of concentration. But I come from a book reading home. My mother was a librarian. My father was a book collector. And so he would always be reading. So I started reading as soon as I could tell the letters [of the alphabet]. The first novel that I made my father read to me was Lord of The Flies by William Golding. A Nobel Prize winner. I wish I could say I chose that book because I have good taste, but I liked the cover. It was a pig’s head on a stake. Actually, when I wrote my first novel at the age of 37, none of my friends were surprised that I had finally written a novel. They were more like, “What took you so long?” It took some time, but it came very naturally.
RB: I am a little confused. There are eight novels in the Harry Hole series and four have been published in the U.S. [there are actually six available, with a seventh on the way in fall 2012]?
JN: I’m a bit confused myself. Because the first two novels feature Harry Hole in Australia and then in Bangkok, Thailand. And when we started selling the rights abroad we decided we would not sell the rights to the first two novels because they were a bit far-fetched — a Norwegian detective in Australia and Thailand. So we started with the third novel, but then the U.K. and later on the U.S. decided they would publish them out of order. So it is a bit confusing. Not only are they out of order, but also they are in different print sequences in different countries.
RB: And Headhunters?
JN: That’s a stand-alone.
RB: And Harry Hole is not in it at all?
JN: No, he is not mentioned and he is not there.
RB: Headhunters has been made into a movie in Norway — will it play in the U.S?
JN: Yes, which is rare. I just came back from Cannes and we showed it to distributors and the American distributor was so happy with it that it will be shown in at least 15 cities.
RB: Is Working Title the distributor?
JN: No, they bought the rights for one of the Harry Hole stories.
RB: Which means they effectively bought them all.
JN: Yah, yah.
RB: Working Title is the Coen Brothers?
JN: That’s right. That was their opening line when they phoned me. Because I had turned down offers for the Harry Hole series for a long time. Not that I don’t love movies, but they’re so strong compared to novels, so I wanted to keep that universe untouched. But they phoned me with a great opening line — “Hi, we are Working Title and we made Fargo.” (both laugh) And so I said, “OK, I’m listening.”
RB: Why did they mention Fargo, of all their films?
JN: I think they had a hunch that I liked that movie. It was probably on my top 10 list of movies ever.
RB: That’s great. I always have liked them, but I gained a lot of respect for them in the way they re-made True Grit.
JN: I just saw the first part of True Grit on the plane — I hadn’t seen it. And the dialogue was great. And I was curious because I hadn’t seen the original and it was really whippy great dialogue. It reminded me of Deadwood. Different, but still with great attention to dialogue.
RB: I recommend the novel Deadwood by Pete Dexter.
JN: I didn’t know there was a novel. Is it written in the same, almost Shakespearean way?
RB: Dexter is a great American writer, most well known for Paris Trout.
JN: I’m so ignorant.
RB: Is this your first visit here?
JN: No, I was here two years ago [for a book tour] and I was here before that. My father grew up in New York, in Brooklyn, with my grandparents. So I have some ties and bonds with the U.S.
RB: Besides gruesome deaths, what would define and distinguish Scandinavian crime literature? As opposed to American?
JN: Hopefully, Scandinavian crime has — the quality is good. You do have bad Scandinavian crime lit — but I think what separates it from not only American, but the rest of Europe also, is there is a tradition stemming from the ’70s that it was OK to write crime literature. It was prestigious. Sjöwall and Wahlöö sort of moved the crime novel from the kiosks into the bookstores, meaning that young talented writers would use the crime novel as vehicles for their storytelling talents. And so you have had good crime novelists, good writers, who would, from time to time, write so-called serious literature and almost all the well-known, established serious writers in Scandinavia have at one time written a crime novel. It’s sort of a thing that you do. You must have a go at genre.
RB: Here it seems acceptance of genre fiction as legitimate has come later. Elmore Leonard is championed, by among others Martin Amis, Michael Connelly, and George Pelecanos.
JN: James Lee Burke.
RB: I have read three of your books — and you have avoided what I think is the reason I don’t read series. Harry Hole is not predictable and clichéd. You know some of his habits, but the plots aren’t cookie cutter. What’s on your mind when you write the next Hole story? When are you done with him — how old does he get to be?
JN: That’s a secret.
RB: You know?
JN: I know — I have a storyline for him. He is not going to have eternal life. And he is not going to rise from the dead. So after the second novel, I sat down and wrote his story — I am not 100 percent sure how many books there will be, but if we are not near the end, we are nearer the end.
RB: Philip Kerr, who has written seven Bernie Gunther novels, says that the problem with writing a series is that the author usually writes one or two too many. They don’t know when to stop. Will you know when to stop?
JN: I don’t know. (laughs) I have no idea. Hopefully somebody will tell me. As long as the books sell, probably they won’t.
RB: Sales and quality don’t necessarily correspond.
JN: Actually, I think that — I am reading Jim Thompson on the plane. He had to write to pay the rent. I am so lucky I don’t have to write. I don’t have to sell books. So I can focus on what I want to do — what’s interesting. Do I know when to stop? Yes. It will not be decided by sales numbers. From the start I wrote for myself and two friends that I wanted to impress — two friends that had more or less the same taste in culture. And it’s still the same. Those are the two guys I am writing for — they don’t know this. If they say, “I read the last book and it was OK, then I am over the moon.”
RB: OK is good?
JN: OK is great.
RB: Do you have first readers?
JN: Yah, at the publishing house.
RB: But not friends?
JN: No, nothing like that. I have four or five people at the publisher. They coordinate their opinions and we sit down and have a meeting.
RB: Chandler was in the same situation as Thompson — so it goes. So, there is a limit to the Harry Hole. Are you already thinking about other fiction that you want to write?
JN: I am.
RB: How far ahead are you in your aspirations and goals?
JN: Other series or novels? I don’t like to think that long term. The problem is that I have more ideas than I have time. So I have — I am 51 now. I probably won’t be able to read all the books I want to read. And I won’t have the time to write all the books I want to write. So I try to give them the right priority, meaning that— — I have a children’s book series that I am working on now. There will be one more book in that series. And then a stand-alone children’s book. And then I will finish the Harry Hole series. I have some ideas for maybe a new series. I haven’t quite decided yet because I want to write this stand-alone thriller. When you write, it’s important to do it while you have the enthusiasm for the idea. Maybe the most important period of your writing is when you are convinced that your idea is the best idea any writer ever has had. So you have to use that energy, because the time will come when you wake up in the morning and you will doubt your idea. And then it’s good that you have already more than half–
RB: That doesn’t happen when you start something?
JN: Not when I start. And it doesn’t really happen that often. I wake up in the morning unsure. It did happen two years ago. I had been working on a novel for a long time and I started doubting. I went to my publishers and they were quite happy with it. But they had some suggestions and I immediately knew that they read it the way I read it myself. And what I did was delete the whole novel. Two years’ work out the window. Like I said, I am in the fortunate situation that I don’t have to publish books to pay the rent.
RB: It sounds like you don’t encounter writer’s block.
JN: No, I never experienced writer’s block, no.
RB: Do you have to write every day?
JN: I try to write every day, and I can write almost anywhere. I have been writing on the plane coming here. I thought our meeting was at four o’clock, so I was planning to write for an hour. When we are done here, I am going to write for two hours before my next meeting.
RB: Sounds like you love it.
JN: I love it. I started writing so late in life. I was 37 — I had worked, as you said, as a taxi driver, a stockbroker. A fishing trawler. I had many kinds of jobs. And I know this is the greatest job that you can have. To actually get up in the morning and people are paying you to do what you really want to do. To come up with these stories. It’s unbelievable having that as a job.
RB: Do you go for periods without writing?
JN: I don’t. Not really. Like I said I have more ideas than I have time. When I am going on vacation with my daughter for a week, she says, “Daddy, don’t bring the laptop, ok?.” I say, “No, no, no, I won’t.” Like an alcoholic, I will have it hidden somewhere. No, I have one week a year that is sort of sacred, that I don’t write.
RB: Can you imagine not writing?
JN: I can. I had a long life not writing, so I can imagine. But it would a poor life, that’s for sure.
RB: What is life like for a successful writer in Norway — do you live in Oslo? Is there a literary circle?
JN: I live in Oslo and there is a literary circle. I guess I am not part of it. I never was. I have my friends before I started writing and I stick with them. We hang out and do things.
RB: No publishing parties and movie openings?
JN: Not really. I probably did that more when I was a musician. And you get tired of it — talking about books, talking about writing. I do that enough when I am traveling. It’s good to go back home and go rock climbing or just talk about Bob Dylan — anybody but me. When I first started talking about myself at interviews like this, I though this must be the best job ever. To have people absolutely listening to you, talking about yourself for hours and hours. So I was a bit surprised when after a couple of years I felt I was getting tired of myself. Listening to my own voice, retelling the story of my life.
RB: Answering the same questions–
JN: You know this interview is a bit better than most–
RB: Well, thank you. Is there a big boom in writing programs, MFA programs in Scandinavia as in the U.S?
JN: Ah, yah. Something happened in the ’90s that suddenly writers became pop stars. They started being interviewed on talk shows and they started having their own shows called Book Box — there was an old building in Oslo where they had an indoor pool. They started interviewing writers there. They were like rock concerts. Actually, they had rock concerts in the same arena. It would be sold out — just for a writer being interviewed for 45 minutes. Ever since that, all the young talented people, they want to become famous writers because they would be treated like pop stars.
RB: What is the book business like in your part of the world? Is it prospering?
JN: It is. Norway — I am not sure about Sweden and Denmark, but Norway is one of the best countries in the world to be a writer. Both economically and artistically. I just went to France and I asked a bookseller there, “How many writers can write full time?” He said, “Probably, 50 or 60.” In Norway there are probably 200. Which has a smaller population — smaller than Massachusetts — 4 or 5 million.
RB: Which Americans do you try to read? How do they filter into Norway?
JN: I guess European literature has traditionally been more important in Norway than American. But myself, maybe because my father grew up here, I was influenced by American literature from a young age. Mark Twain, who I still regard as one of the great American writers. And Ernest Hemingway. Later on I read the Beatniks — Jack Kerouac. I was a great fan of Charles Bukowski.
RB: And contemporary novelists?
JN: Michael Connelly. James Lee Burke. There are so many greats. I didn’t read that much crime fiction before I started writing it myself. I can remember reading Lawrence Block. Dennis Lehane, of course. His Mystic River. I went to Asia and I bought 10 crime novels that were supposed to be good. Out of the 10, I found one good book — which was Mystic River.
RB: It’s also a great movie with Robert Mitchum. You are here for an extensive charm initiative?
JN: I will be here for nine days, trying to charm as many [people] as I can. Toronto, NYC, and the West Coast.
RB: By the way, how is it that your father grew up here?
JN: My grandmother left Norway for the U.S. when she was 16 and then she went back and met my grandfather. They made my daddy. And they went back to Brooklyn. To a part of Brooklyn where you had many Scandinavians in the ’20s and ’30s.
RB: Do you watch crime movies?
JN: I do. When I started writing I was probably more influenced by crime movies based on novels than the original novel. In some cases the films are better than the novels. The Godfather is probably a better movie–
RB: Someone is actually writing a prequel. What a god-awful idea.
RB: Did the HBO series The Wire make it to Norway?
JN: Yes. I have seen it and it’s great. The most interesting thing happening in storytelling right now is probably in American TV series. Breaking Bad–
RB: Justified based on an Elmore Leonard character — pretty funny. Are there original serials like that in Norway?
JN: We do, but with a small population and limited resources — there is a Danish series that made its way at least to the U.K. It’s called The Crime.
RB: It’s called The Killing here. A female cop tries to solve the killing of a young girl–
JN: That’s it. Are you seeing the original series?
RB: No, it must be made for the U.S. It’s in English and set in Seattle using American actors.
JN: Yah, the original is shot in Copenhagen. It’s great, if you can get it. It has subtitles.
RB: When I saw The Wire, I never saw it in episodes — I got the DVD and watched four or five hours at a time. It seems counterintuitive to watch these long stories a piece at a time.
JN: I agree. Watching the DVDs is like books, you decide when to consume the story. But don’t forget Charles Dickens would serialize his stories.
RB: Who knew the difference then? What is it, a new phenomenon?
JN: I think he was the first one who did it — if not, it was unusual to do that. I heard he would receive letters from his readers advising him how the story should go. And he would actually listen to them.
RB: Dickens was fascinating character. I’ve read a few novels where he actually appears as a character — Richard Flanagan’s Wanting and Joseph O Connor’s Star of the Sea. What kind of music do you like — jazz appears a lot in the Hole books?
JN: Jazz and American rock from the ’80s. I still play about 50 to 60 gigs a year. I play guitar and I sing. So most of the gigs are with my bass player. We also go touring with my old band. We are going touring this summer — just for a few festivals. Just for fun. We keep the tour short enough so we don’t kill each other (laughs). So we are having fun.
RB: Do you tour outside Norway?
JN: No, the lyrics are in Norwegian and I don’t think the music makes sense outside Norway.
RB: Who comes to Norway to play? Anyone big?
JN: Most of them — either to Oslo or Stockholm or to Copenhagen — which is not so far from where I live in Oslo.
RB: Do you travel in Scandinavia?
JN: The land is more or less the same — just different dialects.
RB: Danish is understandable?
JN: No you have to read Danish. They speak funny. Actually, and I love Danes, but Danish is difficult. Children all over the world learn their mother tongue at the same age except for one country — Denmark. It takes a little longer.
RB: Apparently Dutch is unpronounceable by anyone except the Dutch. That’s how the Dutch Resistance tripped up spies in World War II. So will you participate in the making of the Harry Hole movie?
JN: The deal is done. I am an executive producer. I have a veto when it comes to the director and screenwriter. And that was what was important to me. I wasn’t too eager to sell the rights for the books as long as I was writing the series. So that was a condition — that I would have veto. The first time we met they said, “We can’t do it like that. We can’t go to Martin Scorsese and ask him to write a screenplay for this unknown Norwegian writer and if he likes it then maybe this unknown Norwegian writer will say yes. And have you direct the movie.” I said, “I completely understand but that is my condition. I am happy not to have the series filmed, yet.”
RB: Is it difficult that once the film is made there will be a tangible character and so when you write–
JN: That was one of the reasons I wasn’t eager to have it filmed, you know. I‘d rather there be a 1,000 Harry Holes in the heads of my readers than one character defining him.
RB: Having said that, who do you think may be a good Harry Hole?
JN: I have no idea.
RB: Norwegian or American?
JN: I have been thinking hard — Nick Nolte is probably too old. But I have no idea.
RB: Do you like Harry Hole?
JN: I do. He is a bit annoying at times. But most of the time I like him.
RB: Because he comes through — for truth, justice, and the Norwegian way?
JN: I mean he is irritating. He always has to do things the difficult way. He can’t ever — he has this problem with authority. And in my opinion he should try to avoid authority more, instead of always picking a fight. He’s a bit annoying in that sense. He is not the kind of guy I would like to hang out with — he is a bit too intense.
RB: He doesn’t really have any friends. One guy — his tech guy; he is sort of a friend. Even his colleagues who seem to respect him don’t gravitate to him. He is a tough cookie. His girlfriend obviously has problems with him.
JN: I think women want to save him more than that he is pleasant to be around. But he has one childhood friend — the hard drinking taxi driver. Apart from that, a psychologist and women.
RB: Often in crime stories, the crimes are not that important. Certainly in Raymond Chandler, in The Big Sleep who could figure that one out. Or in Chinatown where you are told not to try to understand “because it’s Chinatown.” In the Harry Hole stories, you do plot out a crime and have surprising solutions and endings. It’s something you care about?
JN: Yes. I like the dialogue you have with the reader — I am going to give you a chance to sort out the riddle. And I will give you enough information to solve it. I am not going to give you all the vital information from the last 30 pages. But before that, at least you have a chance. That was what Dennis Lehane did in Mystic River — there was a bit of information in the middle of the book and an experienced reader or writer — you could probably tell, okay, here is the killer.
RB: I liked his standalone novel about the 1919 Boston Police strike, Any Given Day.
JN: Yah, yah.
RB: It mentioned the Great Molasses Flood where a big vat of molasses escaped killing 19 or 20 people and wreaking untold havoc. Robert Parker also wrote a number of series and I thought his best work was a standalone, All Our Yesterdays. Did you read Parker?
RB: When The Road came out, I wasn’t in the mood to read it. But I did read a post-apocalyptic novel by Jim Crace called Pesthouse. Twenty years hence, most of America has been destroyed and survivors are searching for safe areas and viable communities. And of course they encounter obstacles. It came out around the same time as McCarthy’s book and was overshadowed by it. Do you know of Jim Crace?
JN: No. There are so many writers. We been sitting here almost an hour now and you are mentioning well-known writers and I don’t know about them. I probably should be embarrassed, but I am not. There are so many books and we don’t have time to read them all.
RB: It is frustrating. If you read 200 books a year, you still don’t scratch the surface.
JN: How many do you read a year?
RB: I may complete 150.
RB: I start a lot more. I used to feel bad about not finishing a book. I’m better at that.
JN: I ‘m a slow reader. I read more like 30 a year. It’s a crazy thing — there so many talented writers that you are not going to hear about. That’s why I feel so privileged and lucky to be able to come here after years of writing and have a name in Europe and hopefully some day in the United States. It’s not enough to be good.
RB: Is your backlist available here now? Harper has four, Knopf as two. The others?
JN: The first novels will translated to English next year. Harper will probably keep the backlist.
RB: Which one will be made into a movie?
JN: The Snowman.
RB: The new one.
JN: Actually that’s the previous one — the next one is called The Leopard.
RB: All right, thank you
JN: Thank you.
Image courtesy of Robert Birnbaum.