In Person

A Day in the Life of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop

We here at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop have been surprised to find ourselves - for lack of a better word - trending. From Eric Bennett’s allegations in “How Iowa Flattened Literature” to n+1’s book MFA vs NYC, we really didn’t think there was more to say about our institution...and then Hannah Horvath, in an odd twist of fictional life becoming reality, was accepted on Girls. Of course we were excited by the buzz. But in this larger discussion, we found that something was lacking: namely, the view from Iowa City. Right here, right now. So: here it is. On a dismal midwinter Thursday, we – eighteen current students of the Writers’ Workshop, poets and fiction writers alike - set out to chronicle one ordinary 24-hour period in our lives. That February 13th, we took copious notes. We worked, whether on our novels or on our Twitter accounts. Some of us taught classes. Some of us went to a poetry reading and after-party. And some of us just ran around tossing Valentines into each other’s houses. My colleagues’ responses may vary widely in form, ranging from poems to stories to lyric essays, but all of them are, like my colleagues, entertaining. And furthermore: excerpts from their responses, when laid out to roughly span those 24 hours, give a decent picture of what it’s actually like to be a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop right now – that is, to be one of many people all striving to do the same difficult thing, in the same moderately-sized city, at the same talked-about school. Hannah Horvath: take note. On waking: (Van Choojitarom, second-year fiction) Van is having trouble leaving his apartment. The problem today is getting dressed. It's not that Van is particularly vain or fastidious. It's that as he's putting on his suit and necktie he invariably begins delivering a bad guy monologue to the bathroom mirror. Welcome to my island, Mr. Bond, the solid grey suit seems to say. Sometimes he can cut it down, but other times, some inner Hans Gruberian impulse cannot be checked and he ends up trying on all his different coats in front of the mirror, regardless of the actual weather, lapels folded over his throat, inveigling the ceiling, delivering solid broadly humanitarian, ultimately Marxist reasons for Bruce Willis to surrender. This morning he's fixated on a grey plaid double breasted jacket that puts in him in mind of Mads Mikkelsen's Hannibal Lecter. It seems to be driving him to wider, patterned ties: “I don't really think your story has POV problems, Will. I just wanted to see how you'd react...” (Jessie Hennen, second-year fiction) Every morning I wake up and Colin is still asleep. Usually I lie there for twenty minutes and try to ease myself out of the bed without him noticing, but inevitably he does. “Stay,” he says, not quite awake. Then I have to sound like an absolute bitch and say that I am done sleeping, that I have things to accomplish. Really it is that I am sick of looking at the light fixture, at the sky coming in bright against my peach-colored curtain, the ceiling shimmering like the northern lights. While I look at the ceiling I think too much about the future. “I can’t sleep in any more. I have to finish (x),” I always say. Today (x) is a novel chapter about giant deep-sea fish who grow weary of being imprisoned in a tank and incite their angry brethren to make the oceans swim with rage. “Oh, okay,” he says, but he doesn’t let go. Frida the cat sits in the middle of the bed, meowing. I suppose she is cozy. I tell him I had a very episodic dream. “I was surviving the Rapture with my family. Our house was under siege, people kept throwing rocks at our windows, everyone wanted in. Finally the call came from heaven, and our whole house floated up into the sky above the angry mobs. I almost got Left Behind because I was drinking a beer, but I tossed it out and we made it to heaven. “Heaven, it turned out, looked a lot like Milwaukee. Very small houses, a very bright sky. The powers that be were keeping us in a strip mall until they could find proper heavenly places for us. It was packed - kind of a shantytown, really. It had a barter economy going. Some guy had a computer with Facebook, and I convinced him to check mine. Jen Percy had been posting these really great photos of Hell. As it turns out, Hell is a dusty Victorian with vintage drapes and canopy beds. I wasn’t sure whether she was there on assignment, or permanently.” “Well, you have to include that,” he says, and we get up. On teaching: (David Kruger, second-year poet) I walk through a parking lot, down a flight of outside stairs and into an old brick building where I teach what is essentially Basket Weaving 101, but instead of palm fronds and twigs, I talk as vaguely as possible about metaphors. Today I say things like: student A, you need more flesh and muscle for that prostitute in your car, and Student B, the statue of David you encounter during your trip to Florence might be thought of as symbolic of the patriarchy and therefore of the trials you and your gal-pals endure. Student C’s story is about the big game, and so I simply point to Plot Mountain on the board and suggest that stakes, when raised, are like little plateaus for the reader to climb and consider. Toward the end of all of this, I really have to pee. (Mallory Hellman, second-year fiction) 4:07 pm - I’m late to pick everyone up, and I’m the one leading our lesson today. When I pull up to Dey House, all four of my fellow Youth Writing Project volunteers are assembled on a snowbank waiting for me. One holds a bag full of construction paper. Another shivers under a hat with long ear flaps. Troopers. They get in, and I gently disrespect the speed limit until we’ve reached Cedar Rapids. 4:45 pm – Our gang of ten is happy to see us, even though we didn’t come bearing snacks. We cluster three tables together in the classroom and hang up our laminated Writing Club sign. 5:15 pm - Teonie, who is eight, has written an ode to tacos and nachos. Most of it is a meditation on her two favorite foods’ similarities, concluding with a tenderly inflected, “Are you sisters?” This leads, naturally, to a heated debate about which foods are sisters, which are brothers, which might be cousins, and which aren’t related at all. 5:45 pm – Lasagna and calzones are parents to spaghetti. Pizza is a cousin, on the calzone side of course. Macaroni wants to be in the family but isn’t – it rolls with the hot dish instead. Peaches and plums go hand in hand, but mangoes and green peppers have never met. Avocados and pears hate it when they’re mistaken for sisters. (Matthew Weiss, first-year fiction) Taught Interpretation of Literature. Big old room. Clonking around in my shoes. Talked about the etymology of the word symbol. It originally meant two shards of a ceramic pot broken at the moment two parties made a deal. Later, you’d know things were legit if the two pot shards fit back together. Hence Plato’s: man is a symbol of himself, looking for his other half. Also, a symbol could mean: a chance meeting, a receipt, a watchword, or a Pythagorean cult password. For example, the Pythagoreans would recognize a brother by muttering things like, “What is the sea?” and getting back, “The tear of Kronos!” Lost track of time. Possibly I showed the kids a clip from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I claimed was “symbolic.” They’d never heard of 2001: A Space Odyssey before. (Patrick Connelly, first-year fiction) There is a girl in the hall where I teach rhetoric. She looks like she is about eighteen, nineteen years old. I always see her. She is hunched in an electric wheelchair with her wrists and her neck bent and her chin down. She isn’t quadriplegic; I have seen her hands and fingers move. I think she has a neuromuscular disease. Her body is small. She is sitting against the wall, alongside the other kids, waiting for the classrooms to empty. To be honest, I try not to think about her beyond the end of the hall (outside, at Prairie Lights Café, at the gym, at home, and then at a party after a poetry reading), but I can’t help it. Today is different. When I pass her, she is playing Bejeweled on her iPad Mini, swapping the colors around the screen with her finger; she is bored. In class, I ask for a show of hands. Who’s read To Kill a Mockingbird? I get up and talk about empathy. You can never really understand a person until you climb into her skin and walk around in it. You can’t understand a controversy or advocate for a proper solution until you’re able to consider things from other people’s point of view. Is simply being aware of something or someone any good? Because I probably won’t ever talk to this girl in the hall. I will only write about her. I should ask my students what they think. (Misty Woodford, third-year poet) On the way home from teaching, I'm thinking about trochees, and this happens: “GUTzon/BORglum/GUTzon/BORglum/GUTzon/BORglum” - by now I'm stomping out the rhythm as I walk – and I don't realize I'm also saying this out loud until I near my apartment building, and see a figure freeze up on the lawn. It's the guy who lives in the basement and I've scared him this time. I start to walk normally, more pyrrhic, I guess, and say, “Hello!” He says “Hi” and attends to his cigarette. Dinner is multiple cups of tea and the hope that chamomile and valerian work tonight. On writing: (Thomas Corcoran, second-year fiction) After rereading the last day’s work, I begin the current day’s session, writing on a 1971 Olympia SM-9 typewriter with a 12-point font similar to Garamond. Typewriters are useful when the desire is more to make daily advances on a draft than to polish the prose. Before being written, sentences are usually imagined but not too precisely; and except for the occasional “xxxx” (over which I always feel a pang), corrections are simply too hard to make in great number. As with writing generally the challenge is to convert insights that might have limitless depth but no duration into sentences that are stretched out in length but constrained by their gathered energy, like ocean waves striking the shore. After a lot of practice the prose is reasonably good in this format anyway. The rhythm of the typing helps. What may still be needed are selection, precision, and courage. (Dini Parayitam, second-year fiction) ...This place is about vulnerability. Every second of it is a lie you tell yourself. “I belong here. I am happy here. I am happiest here among people like me.” Really you are very hyper-conscious of the fact that you aren’t actually happy here. Being with so many people who do these things that you love better than you makes you question why you are worthy of doing it at all in the first place. This is what Iowa Writers’ Workshop teaches you: 1. The wish to write a good story is fake. 2. The will to write a good story cannot be trusted. 3. The insecurity you feel when you are done is normal. 4. The insanity of the writer is a very real thing. (Andy Axel, first-year poet) “Observatory Log: 13 February 2014 Iowa City” 1 discreet tree relief 10 a whole class chanting what sounds like “TOGA” with increasing speed 11 dough-faced boy in american flag vest with cup not actually from starbucks 12 prime view of the capitol from the waiting room 1 the word “widowed” on a dropdown menu 2 when I see more than three robins in the same place I start to get suspicious 3 I check to see whether I’m wearing a sweater 5 child ode to cat: “Feliz: you are not like a garbage can. You are like a light when you surprise me. Do you speak Spanish?” 6 when I enter the Dey House it smells like ink and xmas 7 my view field’s all baldspot 11 dogs express interest in the terrible smell of my boots 12 enough of weather (Jake Andrews, first-year fiction) After lunch, I sat down to write. The main character’s girlfriend had just walked into his room and told him some good news. He recollects: “Had I ever thought about sex as a way to celebrate academic achievement?” (I, the author, certainly have; Daniel was a bit more surprised.) The story had taken a turn I wasn’t expecting, and I was stuck. So I started cleaning up my desktop (the one on my computer, not the one on which the computer usually sits, though it wasn’t there on this day in any case; I was sitting in a chair in the living room because – to re-emphasize the solitude that prompts reflection – my wife was out). I stumbled on a collection of photos that my step-mom had put together for my dad’s funeral back in December. I had downloaded them and forgotten about the folder. Two photos in particular jumped out at me. In the first one, my dad has me on his shoulders. I can’t be two months old. (My mother remembers taking this picture and being horrified.) My head peeks out above his hair, and his hands hold me in place. My pudgy feet are almost to his chin. In spite of the 1970s glasses, he looks remarkably like my middle brother, mainly because he is skinnier than he was in later life. He’s smiling like a kid – he would’ve been 20 – and looking at the camera. I’m gazing off to the left, my hands gripping his hair, my face – wide cheeks and a small chin – looking remarkably like my own son’s the day we removed him from life support. In the second photo, my dad isn’t looking at the camera, but he’s still smiling. He’s on all fours, and I’m crawling between his arms, probably just over six months old. My left hand is raised, reaching for a balloon. If you look close enough, you can see that he’s holding it for me. My straight blond hair has lost the red hue from the earlier photo; like my nephew, I’ve got pudgy cheeks and pudgy fingers. I’m in motion. There’s a blur to my hand. I don’t really know how long I looked at the photos in the folder. I didn’t write for a while after finding them. I made myself a cup of tea. On readings and parties: (Sean Zhuraw, second-year poet) A friend, SE S, sees the stich of my saccades trailing the runaway cambus down Clinton Street, sees I’ve missed the bus. She gives me a ride to the doctor. My eyes are fine. Try this when looking at something, she says, after looking at it, look away. Take sanitary breaks, she says. Take mind off. There are layers among the distances, magnifications. Her assistant returns to dilate my pupils. When the doctor leans into my eye, she says, don’t look at the light; keep focus past it. I buy a few Valentines. I live in a small town, so on the way home I stop by JM’s house, open her door, sneak into her kitchen, stuff a rabbit down the back of her shirt. It says, Ears Hopping you’ll be mine. I also make one Valentine from two. They’re angels unless you mess with their halos – the TV’s ad. Later, I catch myself eating a sandwich in a mirror. It is the only way I can see what my hands are on. Ditto the poetry reading that night. Language is an organ, he says, not just sensate but reciprocal too. Q: Do the eyes rhyme with their host? A: I don’t know. I keep checking to see if it’s changed. (Laura Ferris, first-year poet) Now that my schedule for the day has played out, I feel less certain of how I spent my time. Tomorrow I know I am going to the library to do more research for my historical-ish surrealist-adjacent poem, spending hours at a microfilm scanner. I consider going out because I'm supposed to be writing about my day, but ultimately decide I don't care enough about making the day seem like anything. I watch more episodes of Sailor Moon with Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, think about to what extent I care about Valentine’s Day. I want to say that I usually do more, write more, than this. Today, though, I’m spent, uninspired, and a little lonely – and unable to go out. (Will Jameson, first-year poet) Anthony and Elyse and Jordan and I are drinking gin and tonics. Elyse doesn’t have a lime but she has a lemon. We finished the pepperoni and mushroom pizza from Falbo’s we’d ordered which was a circle cut into squares. Jordan is playing Drake on his computer and Anthony is drawing a grid in his notebook that plots where our poetics stand in relation to each other. It looks like a sketch of Orion without the helpful lines drawn in between to illuminate the figure. Elyse reads aloud some Norman Dubie. Anthony reads aloud some James Tate. Then we keep talking about ourselves. (D.R. Simonds, second-year poet) “The Willow Tree on the West Bank, Iowa River” For Emma Woodhouse Near the "Train Only" bridge we footbridge, you burn willow branches two at a time, saying you know I know how to respond in a heartbreaking situation, (having broken hearts before), spine-burn running thru your hands, but the other white-hot willows nearby I am never showing you, my first impulse for our survival I can’t never show you. (Jerika Marchan, second-year poet) I want to be original and smart. I want to not feel guilty about eating half a chocolate bar for breakfast. I don’t eat microwave dinners. I want to delude myself into health. I listen to this interview on Iowa Public Radio because I feel like I can participate and because the conversation is smart. People feel strongly about things and I can, too. I Can Too. I go downstairs and make a bean burrito. The door to the house is usually left unlocked, and as I’m guiltily overstuffing my burrito, someone busts in to tuck in the tag hanging out of my dress and leave me a Valentine. I scream for a long time. Jessie gets home and asks if I wanna go to Meredith’s for pad thai and sake. Yes get me out of this house, I’m full of burrito. (I will eat only bunny-amounts of pad thai is what I tell myself.) Pad thai happens in a sake-induced fog. (Meredith googles “what’s in sake bombs?”) Meredith and I successfully open a very-difficult-to-open jar of organic coconut oil. I bust my ass trying to sit on what I thought was a chair but really was a cookie sheet resting on a chair, and I fall to the ground. It’s kinda nice. (Is that weird?) I haven’t fallen on my ass in a while. It’s nice to know what it feels like from time to time. Jessie and I tell Mere about my ongoing boob-angst, and she looks at me for a quick second before deciding that I’m at least a D-cup. (Rachel Milligan, second-year poet) I wake up at noon, spend the day reading Maggie Nelson's Bluets on the couch, lighting three candles, blowing them out, and then lighting them again. I have a glass of wine before the Richard Kenney and Carol Light reading. My night concludes with one of my best friends scream-singing at me, perched on top of the refrigerator. (Cassidy McFadzean, first-year poet) After dinner, we walk to Dey House for Richard Kenney’s reading. Nathan slips on the ice outside our apartment, but he doesn’t see the blood on his hand until he leaves a mark on the door of the workshop. He wipes it off. We sit with Will, with Connor in front of us. The three of us were in Rick’s workshop last semester, and I see the other seven students scattered around the room. Rick refuses the microphone and reads a mix of riddles, charms, and pun-filled haikus, occasionally stepping out from behind the podium to address us, bringing his words closer to our ears. The after party’s at Will’s and I make him show me the group pictures he took of our class last semester. I feel nostalgic. I eat pita chips and hummus and talk with Connor and Nikki about the classes we’re teaching. I talk with Winter about the buttons on the sleeves of her dress. I talk with Clare about how amazing Hy-Vee is, though she does not share my sentiments. I talk with Chad about Canadian poets, and Petro about Trailer Park Boys. Every party proceeds the same: the bass gets turned up, the lights get dimmed down. Someone plays Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own.” We talk about how every party ends this way. It’s around midnight, and some of us leave, and some of us stay. Image Credit: J.Y. "Warmer is not warm."
In Person

La Chasse: On Hunting in the French Countryside

Illustration by Ellis Rosen “For reasons of security,” our co-ed party wore vests the color of traffic cones. The silky white and brown Springer Spaniel “gun dogs” were collared with jingle bells. A few people wore berets; one wore a trucker hat. One genteel man wore a fedora, strictly traditional but for the fact it was bright orange mottled with camouflage. “We complement it!” he said to me, gesturing at the French countryside’s greens and browns. Then he tugged on his orange vest. “And...we don't complement it.” As the day progressed, I seemed to notice a sartorial preoccupation on the part of the French with this garment. Another man pointed out a boy’s safety vest. “Quelle couleur?” the man asked the small child, who answered orange correctly. But the adult wagged his finger and smirked. “Non, non!” this Frenchman corrected, “C’est orange Hermès.” We were and hour southwest of Paris. Into the pockets of a tweed coat, I slipped ivy and soft feathers pulled from freshly dead pheasants. Pheasant sound like a cross between a chicken’s cluck and a turkey’s gobble. When they are shot out of the sky, they tend to cartwheel or drop like footballs. There were plenty of partridge and some hare too, but pheasants interest me most, probably because of that hysterical, impressive scene in Disney’s adaptation of Bambi. “Bambi watched how he flew up, directly between the trees, beating his wings,” Felix Salten wrote in his 1923 early environmental novel. “The dark metallic blue and greenish-brown markings on his body gleamed like gold. His long tail feathers swept proudly behind him. A short crash like thunder sounded sharply. The pheasant suddenly crumpled up in mid-flight.” Not everyone participating in la chasse shoots. The people without guns are called batteurs. We “beat” the cabbage field and surrounding forest by walking through it, stirring the animals for the shooters to take aim at. Most chasse grounds are groomed with alleys for the shooters and beaters to wade through. “This is the corridor de VIP,” Brian would say of every alley we found ourselves in that chilly day last November, “you’ll see.” Brian is an American businessman from London. He came with Herve, his friend and the husband of my mentor, American journalist Dana Thomas. Our host was a sharply featured man named Didiere. Didiere had the bugle, so you understand it was Didiere’s show. We were something like two dozen people and one dozen dogs, and he was sometimes obliged to act like a drill sergeant to keep the beaters in line. Once Didiere’s cell phone rang: “Oui? Oui. C’est possible.” He hung up and looked at our formation. “La belle -- up a little. Brian! Up on the line,” he directed us. When Brian moved, a pheasant made a go for it, flying up and out like an Audubon illustration. But no one shot. “Incroyable!” someone muttered. “Incredible” is a word that gets a lot of airtime during a shoot. As well as: A voilà! (There it is!) Allez! (Go ahead!) D’accord. (Okay.) Zut! (Heck!) Eventually Herve hit a pheasant that hit the ground running -- and managed to scramble into an extraordinarily barbed patch of shrub. “That’s a bramble,” I said. Herve considered the thorns. “I’m actually going to go,” he resolved, “I’ve got the right pants.” Minutes later he wanted to know why he he’d done that. “We need a dog,” he said. “Merde.” Brian found a small boulder and hurled it in, but the bird was unmoved, so Didiere brought over two excited spaniels. “Advance in. Advance in!” he commanded the dogs. “Please, bring it to me!” I wandered off, passing a man in a red beret and paisley silk scarf, who calmly said, “We’re waiting for birds.” For a “blood sport,” la chasse is peaceful. “This is all so civilized,” a foreign policy advisor originally from Montana once remarked to me (even though gunfire blasted around us). We were batteurs at an old world château in Châlons-en-Champagne, trudging through forest that had recently dropped its red and yellow burden. Generally shooters are taking aim at birds that were released into the habitat as chicks and provided for in the meantime. “It’s like a five-star hotel for pheasants,” you hear. The argument is there, though. Chasse kills are free-range and sustainable; traditionally they’re characterized by respect. One does not take a shot one does not believe he or she can make. One never shoots a bird on the ground. And one will probably spend an hour or more looking for an animal he or she worries is wounded. In all, how could it be worse than buying anonymous meat from the grocery? Still, last October saw criticism of Pippa Middleton for “pos[ing] with 50 dead birds on shooting trip in Scotland.” A member of her party Instagrammed the women in wellies with their haul of pheasants, partridge, and woodcock. Social media aside, that is what you do at the end of a shoot. The French call it le tableau de chasse, when the animals are laid out on display, counted, and admired. Cock pheasant, for example, have caramel bodies; long, houndstooth-print tails; and British racing green heads masked with the red color of lingonberries. Sometimes Herve comes back from a shoot and puts the game in the refrigerator, unbagged. Whole birds with dead-canary talons. Dana rolls her eyes -- “Birds aren’t carrots!” -- but I have been known to take their bodies out just to look at them. Unlike its English school, the French chasse is not so fixed in aristocracy. “The butcher is un chasseur,” Dana explains. “It’s one of the occasions where the farmers meet up with the gentlemen.” But there is variation. Not long ago, Herve went shooting with a friend who actively tries to hide the amount of time he spends on chasses from his wife. The problem was he wanted to go to a place far from Paris -- from where it would be difficult to arrive back home at a normal hour. So Herve’s friend rang a second bon ami; he had a helicopter. “Would you like to join? Yes? Good— -- because you’re driving!” Some châteaux rent themselves out for chasses for the day. The break for lunch generally overflows with meat, cream, vegetables, cheese, bread, and wine. Maybe this happens at a rough picnic table, or maybe at a grand banquet table with silver knife rests in the shape of tiny, robust hares. That evening, when a younger shooter named Étienne asked to see what I was writing, I handed over my notepad. He studied it for a moment.“We call this pattes de mouche,” he diagnosed. “‘Unreadable letters.’” “We call it chicken scratch,” I countered. “Okay,” Étienne said, assuming an air of diplomacy. “Can we agree on pheasant scratch, then?” The sun was setting. Our party walked out of the darkening forest and back to the house. It was nippy, but the single partridge I carried was still warm and doubled as a muff. A woman named Henrietta appeared holding a mushroom with a head the diameter of a basketball. Brian held pheasant and partridge at his side. “Bravo!” Henrietta playfully congratulated, toasting Brian with the mushroom as if with a champagne flute. “Oui,” she cooed. “C’est un joli bouquet.”
In Person

The Poet and the Movie Star: An Evening with Frank Bidart and James Franco

The first time James Franco and Frank Bidart met, they stayed at dinner talking for eight hours, the restaurant closing around them and leaving a waiter behind to lock up. They both told the story at their joint reading in Chicago (last Wednesday), plus it’s recounted in Franco’s new book of poems. Before that fateful dinner, Franco was simultaneously pursuing an MFA in poetry at Warren Wilson in North Carolina and an MFA in film studies at NYU. He was introduced to Bidart’s poem “Herbert White” at the former and decided to adapt it for an assignment at the latter. His poetry professors put him in touch with Bidart so he could ask permission. Bidart wanted to have dinner with Franco first, so that he could explain his intentions in writing “Herbert White” (which is written in the first-person character of a necrophiliac murderer), plus, he said, “Of course I wanted to have dinner with James Franco! He was brilliant in Pineapple Express!” Bidart, 74, is one of the pre-eminent American poets of the 20th century -- friends with both Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg, and now James Franco. After their Before Sunrise-style meet-cute the two stayed in touch, sometimes trading new poems they had written. Franco completed his adaptation of “Herbert White,” and after reading Bidart’s poem “Writing Ellen West,” which Bidart wrote about himself writing an earlier poem, “Ellen West,” Franco responded with “Directing Herbert White,” written in the same style. All of which lead to Frank Bidart and James Franco coming to Chicago to promote Franco’s new book of poetry, of which “Directing Herbert White” is the title poem, and none of us knowing what to make of it. The sold-out auditorium was partially filled by excited young women taking lots of camera photos and giggling a little too readily at everything Franco said, and partially by members of either of the event’s sponsors -- The Chicago Humanities Festival and The Poetry Foundation -- regular arts patrons who are accustomed to far fewer screaming girls in their midst. This clash of the fawning and the cynical made for a weird vibe, navigated by those of us who were conveying with our body language that we were sort of there ironically. (It had been a big joke at the bar earlier, that I was leaving to go see James Franco read poetry.) But perhaps I’m underestimating my fellow attendees by generalizing them. The arts patrons, after all, didn’t have to come when they found out a Hollywood star would be reading, and I had certainly dressed a little bit nicer than usual and took more than one photo with my iPhone. More likely, most of us were of two minds about it -- pretty sure the evening wasn’t going to be intellectually dazzling, but more than a little excited to see Franco, who it can’t be denied was great in Pineapple Express. What I wasn’t expecting was how unironically enjoyable and inspiring the evening would be. The venerable poet and the handsome young celebrity are too fond of each other, too unabashedly excited to be working closely with someone they greatly admire, to roll my eyes at. Bidart recounted that watching Franco adapt his poem into a film was “thrilling,” a word he peppered throughout his account. When you get to be his age, he explained, you “think you know the parameters of your life,” and most experiences are repetition. Franco, he says, continually “astonishes the guardians of category” with his art and poetry and film and prose, and Bidart is -- as he so often repeated -- thrilled to be his friend and de facto mentor. The common line on Franco is that he’s good at the Hollywood stuff and that’s what he should stick to -- leave the poetry and film to those who devote themselves to it more exclusively. Many of the poems in Directing Herbert White are about Hollywood, and they reveal how uncomfortable Franco is with being tied or beholden to a place that “devours its young” (Bidart’s words). There are poems that feature Lindsay Lohan, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, and Brad Renfro (a lesser-known actor friend of Franco’s who died of a drug overdose, after which Franco had the name “Brad” carved into his arm). It’s easy to see why an actor who became famous very young might be captivated by others who were brought down by the same young fame. It’s easy to see why he might seek so much outside of Hollywood (the man now has five MFAs) even as he’s constantly told it’s where he belongs, and it gets harder to think he should stop. In this way, finding Bidart must have been like finding an angel -- someone who supports and even champions his multifold pursuits. Both men are operating outside of the expected parameters of their life and it was invigorating to see how much they’re enjoying it. It may not compare to the joy of hearing Seamus Heaney read or the awe at hearing Marilynne Robinson, but I’ll remember that Frank Bidart and James Franco made me want to be bolder. Bidart’s poem “Writing Ellen West” ends with the line: “One more poem, one more book in which you figure out how to make something out of not knowing enough.” I think we could all admit a little more freely that we don’t know enough, that we’re just trying new things, and lucky to find friends along the way. Image Credit: Wikipedia
In Person

Is She Writing About Me?: A Profile of Lorrie Moore

1. “What does your tattoo say?” Lorrie Moore asks our young waiter. Moore has the distinct quality of seeming silent even when she is speaking. Her low, honeyed voice moves in jovial swoops, and when she laughs, she does so deeply, like she means it. We sit tucked away in a corner of Brassiere V, on Madison’s trendy Monroe Street, Moore sipping on beer and coffee like she has a hundred times before for a hundred other journalists and I imagining an invisible web spreading out from her, potential narratives vibrating on the periphery. “It says ‘I am the rock that grounds me.’ Deep,” he adds, sort of apologetically. “That’s too deep for a tattoo,” Moore teases. Turning back to me, she says, “There was a girl who used to bartend here with a tattoo I borrowed for a character. It was a city on her neck and I had a character who had all the cities that she didn’t want to go back to as tattoos.” KC, a young but tired indie musician, is tattooed with “Decatur,” “Moline,” and "Swanee" and befriends, at her apathetic boyfriend’s suggestion (and with questionable motives) an aging and maybe-horny man. The story in which KC appears, “Wings,” was published in Harper’s and is in Moore’s new collection, Bark. “Wings” is both a summation and forgiveness of the gross things we do, like dating schmucky people and schmoozing the nice-but-wealthy old man next door, things meant to help us get ahead but that instead leave us a little behind. “Ignorance ironically arranged for future self-knowledge,” thinks KC, “Life is never perfect.” Taking in the room, Moore explains that her writing usually starts with characters and predicaments, “people who are up against the world in a particular manner. Feelings you are trying to get at with language.” Thirty-seven years have passed since Moore’s first published work appeared, a short story about a janitor in an elementary school, which won Seventeen magazine’s fiction contest in 1976. She was 19 years old and refers to the experience as a “fluke,” noting that she didn’t get serious about writing until many years later. Originally, she had hoped to win Seventeen’s art contest but says that by time she wrested up the courage to send them anything at all, she was writing stories. “What I remember most is the 500 dollars,” she recalls. “Which seemed a fortune to me, and I was able to buy my textbooks plus a new stereo.” Her next published work would not appear until 10 years later, the barbed and reflexive Self-Help, a book that hooks you with all the tough, but good-natured love readers go back for again and again. Born in Glens Falls, a small town in upstate New York, Moore attended Saint Lawrence University where she studied English, graduating summa cum laude. Her father was educated as a scientist and worked in insurance, though his true love was music, while her mother was a nurse, a teacher and homemaker, and a “community activist of sorts.” The household was fairly religious; dinners began with grace and there was minimal TV watching, a home replete with all the “general suspicions of the 20th century” Moore said last October in a talk, “Watching Television.” Like many of her generation, her and her brother’s salad days were full of illicit television viewing in the basement TV room and mad dashes back upstairs as their parents pulled into the driveway. Their mother would sometimes press her hand against the TV screen to see if it was warm, the vestiges of “Gilligan’s Island” and “F-Troop” evaporating off the glass. Moore says her parents weren’t supportive or unsupportive of her writing career. “No parent in their right mind should really encourage a child to become a writer. It has to come completely from the child,” she explains. Besides the relative poverty most writers at some point find themselves in, the writing life also tends to be an isolated one, with observational skills sharpening at a quicker pace than social ones. I ask her whether or not she feels her capacity to observe ever gets in the way of simply interacting with people. “I think with all observers it's a problem,” she remarks, and refers to one of her favorite writers, Alice Munro. “I can’t remember precisely what she said,” Moore says of Munro’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, “But I think essentially it was ‘I just want to be normal now.’” It’s the old idea that to be a writer is to lead a double life. “You’re not doing quite what other people are doing in the same situation perhaps,” Moore reflects. Part of what defines Moore’s public persona is the debate over how autobiographical the work is, as well as the fervid enthusiasm of her fans. Set in that comfortably crummy place we call middle class, Middle America, her protagonists are often witty, stubborn, and charmingly self-deprecating, a humor mostly lost on the mollifying Midwesterners that surround them. It’s an embarrassing show of intelligence that leaves them feeling more isolated and misunderstood than before. Moore invokes with eerie familiarity awkward moments that tend not to pan out so well — if at all — in a landscape distinctly red, white, and blue. Her hometowns are dead-on, though they have caught her some flack from a few of her Midwestern neighbors. “She made it clear in many interviews how little she thought of the city and its people,” an anonymous reader writes on Madison’s local The Daily Page. “This disdain also showed up in her fiction.” Home of the University of Wisconsin Badgers and the fiercely granola, Madison is somewhat of an anomaly: a university-town hailed for its liberalism and farmers’ markets in a largely conservative state. The summers in Madison are buggy and bird-chirpy, full of Friday night fish fries and beer-drinking Lutherans. The winters are insanely cold, with hoar frost and black ice and gobs of snow. Cars remain salt-encrusted until mid-March, when temperatures rise high enough to wash them without the doors freezing shut. Wisconsin, like the rest of the Midwest, is dull and cozy and more appealing when filtered through fiction or Instagram. Some locals took umbrage with Moore’s story that appeared in 1997, in The New Yorker. “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” is a tale in which a baby is diagnosed with cancer and undergoes an operation with some procedural errors. Moore has a son of college-age who was also very ill as a baby and Moore, speaking to the Guardian, explains that the story was assumed by some to be attack on the local hospital. “They felt that I was hard on the medical students, and hard on the doctors.” From the opening paragraph, it is hard to divorce the fiction from its foundation in reality. The Surgeon says the Baby has a Wilms' tumor. The Mother, a writer and teacher, asks, "Is that apostrophe 's' or 's' apostrophe?" The doctor says the Baby will have a radical nephrectomy and then chemotherapy. The Mother begins to cry: "Life has been taken and broken, quickly, like a stick." She thinks perhaps she is being punished for her errors as a mother. At home, she leaves a message for the Husband. The Baby has a new habit of waving goodbye to everything, which breaks her heart. She sings him to sleep and says, "If you go, we are going with you." The Husband comes home and cries. He tells the Mother, "Take notes. We are going to need the money." He says, "I can't believe this is happening to our little boy," and cries again. The Mother tries to bargain for the Baby's life, imagining the higher power she addresses as the Manager at Marshall Field's. She argues with her husband over the idea of selling the story: "This is a nightmare of narrative slop.” Others closer to Moore have also questioned whether or not they’ve made it into her work. “People get confused. People get paranoid,” she says, telling the story of a man she once dated who became suspicious of a specific character. “First of all, the character is a woman,” she remembers saying to him, “Second of all, darling, the character has a job.” She ruffles slightly when asked directly how autobiographical the work is, and is careful to describe writing like stagecraft. “I’m never writing about myself. It’s [about] observing a feeling in someone else. Imagining a feeling in a particular character — and that character is a collage from your mind — and then you enter into that character like an actor or actress. You’re not going to be journaling. You’re trying to find, as efficiently as possible, a thing that person would say — or possibly say — and definitely do, that you, the author, are interested in the reader feeling. All of that happens at your desk.” Moore does not journal at all, but she does keep a notebook. “One should always take notes and try not to be lazy about it,” she says. And to that end, one is reminded of Joan Didion, who failed at keeping a diary, instead finding comfort in the distinction of note taking. “The point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking,” Didion writes in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” “That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess.” Similarly, Moore’s work is brimming with a brilliant discernment of what may be interesting to express through prose as opposed to what is overly expressive, a literary refining process Didion describes as “just this side of self-effacing.” “People Like That” is one of Moore’s best-loved short stories, and to say it is simply memoir perhaps diminishes her ability to pull back and allow the reader some breathing room, a little space for Moore’s audience to enter into her characters and share their pain and the evolution of their love. Moore is no memoirist, but it is not impossible to connect a few dots between her world and that of her characters, especially when sitting in her web. A small sympathy went out to our waiter when he described the quinoa salad as a “mélange.” “That’s a terrible word to use for food,” Moore teased. The boy blushed and fumbled for a better description. In her novel, A Gate at the Stairs, protagonist Tassie Keltjin marvels at the evolution of menu-language. “I went back to studying the menu — was it not a kind of poetry?” narrates Tassie. “There were astonishing things: crab mousseline with a shellfish cappuccino. There were fennel-cured salmon noisettes with a champagne foam. Not a Chubby Mary in the house. There was bison carpaccio with wilted spring leaves...There were salads of lambs quarters and mint and sorrel with beets and pea shoots and tomatoes that were heirloom, like brooches, and cheeses that had won prizes in shows, like dogs.” Obvious correlations like tattoos and menus, or the doll hospital near Moore’s hometown and the one that appears in “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” are peppered throughout her prose, making it especially hard for people — fans, relatives, friends, and boyfriends — to not become paranoid. “But that’s what artists do,” Moore says, explaining that if she does borrow something like a tattoo, she asks. “And ultimately, elements of a story collide and create a certain feeling,” she says. “You are trying to give the reader an experience.” And with Moore, it’s an experience that occasionally makes the reader want to bash their head in. “I remember reading a story of hers about a woman who drops a baby,” says Jad Abumrad, host of the popular radio show Radiolab, “and I was devastated.” The last in her collection of short stories, Birds of America, published in 1998, “Terrific Mother” opens with a young woman, Adrienne, awkward and discomfited by the idea of motherhood. At a backyard party, Adrienne is asked to hold a friend’s baby and in an unfortunate moment of picnic benches and gravity, drops and kills the child. It’s a dazzling and trenchant look at one woman’s struggle to somehow continue a life after a god-awful event; about how heavy past events can weigh in the present. “She goes right for the jugular,” says Abumrad. Her newest collection, Bark, is perhaps her darkest yet and took her over ten years to compose. “One wants a story to be searing and to be whole in terms of what it's taking in of the world and of life,” she writes later in an email, recognizing the punch she can pack. She suggests that the stories can stand alone, that they should perhaps be read that way. “I think as with all story collections the reader must pace herself, since certainly the writer did.” Our waiter returns with a small pot of coffee and instructs Moore to “wait three minutes” before pouring. Turning his attention to the newly arrived couple seated next to us he recites the specials, this time without using the word “mélange.” 2. Like many writers, Moore’s life is not innately interesting, and could be a stand in for most artistic types whose repertoire includes graduating with a liberal arts degree and moving to New York City. “I used to be skinny and young in New York,” she says laughing. Moore worked briefly as a paralegal in the city but the allure of a MFA program, especially one that would pay your tuition, proved magnetic enough to draw her away from city life. “It’s a lonely business, writing. To be around other writers — for them to read your work — it sounded like a dream come true. [And] it kind of was.” She wasn’t keen on leaving New York City but Cornell offered her the best deal. “'My god!’ I thought, ‘I’ll never see another bagel again!’ But of course the main street of Ithaca is all bagel shops.” Shortly thereafter Moore left for a job at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she taught for over 30 years, only this January relocating to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Her more recent emails are flavored slightly with southern vernacular, trying on colloquialisms like “darlin’” for size. What is remarkable about Moore’s prose is how true it feels, her gift in pointing out the “general absurdities of being human,” as Brooke Watkins, a librarian at the New York Public Library wrote to me. I met Watkins at “Watching Television,” part of the NYPL’s annual Robert B. Silvers lectures. Her readings are a veritable bonding experience, excited conversations of “first times” with Moore’s work edge into something akin to sexual frenzy. A young man behind the merchandise table selling Moore’s work raved with abandon about “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” — his personal favorite — while the woman behind me avidly agreed, saying the book “enters into your bloodstream.” The two hit it off so well I felt like the third-wheel, and slouched off with my then still unread copy. (It is now also my personal favorite. Followed closely by Birds.) Her fans have been described by the New York Times as “ardent, even cultish.” And like the equally ardent and cultish readers of Joan Didion or David Foster Wallace, writers also distinctive and evocative and deadly funny or deadly sad, we the willfully misunderstood finally feel understood, and we crave her writing, almost narcissistically so. Because we each feel like she “gets us,” we also feel — covetously and alone — that we “get her.” It is her heroines, specifically, that cull strong, sororal ties. “I’ve met lots of men who love and admire her fiction,” writes Watkins, “but I think it’s her female readership that has more of an obsessive relationship to her work.” Moore, the writer of anxious women with rogue emotions — women unsure of what scares them most, domestic failure or domestic success — has been collectively appointed mother to a thousand disoriented daughters. “Her characters aspire toward a life of the mind,” Watkins writes. “They crave some kind of hard-won wisdom but often slip into self-deprecation and cynicism instead, which ends up being really funny.” With honed bullshit detectors and an over-developed sense of humor, Moore’s characters exemplify a “way to be resilient even when they’re sinking fast. I’ve always found her writing obliquely instructive in this way.” Moore is no minor authority on human understanding and her language is quick, the kind of language that asks us who you are and what you want to be, reminding us that higher understanding always prevails at our own expense and that happiness can be hard work. In “How to Become a Writer Or, Have You Earned This Cliché?” Moore writes, “First, try to be something, anything else.” And then, later, “You spend too much time slouched and demoralized. Your boyfriend suggests bicycling. Your roommate suggests a new boyfriend.” And later yet: Vacuum. Chew cough drops. Keep a folder full of fragments. An eyelid darkening sideways. World as conspiracy. Possible plot? A woman gets on a bus. Suppose you threw a love affair and nobody came. The essay is Watkin’s personal favorite. “I’d never read anything like it,” she says. “In the end, of course, the story is a cautionary tale about a woman who sacrifices everything for the time to write, and eventually she’s left with no ideas or inspiration, or really any friends, and when I was eighteen I thought this was both sad and hilarious, and the truest thing I’d ever read.” Exploring the demands of a life is the heart of Moore’s work, and the resonate truth of her prose has fueled a fevered desire for her books. Her characters don’t so much adventure through life as they do drift and stumble through it, making it a map of emotional landmarks, places you keep finding yourself in. One suspects that Moore is not simply writing a life, but cleverly recording yours. There is a commonality linking reader with character, an elastic boundary between her fiction and our reality that both reinforces and subverts one’s own sense of uniqueness. Coming away from one of her stories, one is reminded that we are all just doing this the best we know how. Image via Bill Morris
In Person, Lists

The 10 Things I Learned From Gay Talese That Will Get Me a Job at The New York Times

He was wearing a three-piece, olive green, wool blend suit, and, casually placed atop a table, was his patterned silk scarf and hat. Gay Talese is not exactly a household name, but in the world of writers he is very well known. As I sat listening to the famed journalist in conversation with Max Linsky of Longform.org, at an October 10 event at NYU, I found myself scribbling as fast as the words came out of his mouth. Without further scene setting, here are 10 things I learned that Mr. Talese noted would land me a job at The New York Times. (Mr. Talese, from your mouth to their ears.) 1. Pursue Your Curiosity.  In his essay, “Origins of a Nonfiction Writer,” Talese writes of his “eavesdropping youth” spent in his mother’s dress shop, which was “a kind of talk show that flowed around the engaging manner of my mother.” This notion of curiosity is seen in the minor characters –– the ordinary people –– he championed throughout his career, as in “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” where the entire interview is an amalgam of minor characters, from the lady who held Sinatra’s wigs to the press agent and the preening blondes on barstools. Talese didn’t want to write about Frank Sinatra for Esquire because, as he told us, everything had already been written about Sinatra. When he finally agreed to do the essay, he said, “It was almost better that Sinatra couldn't talk to me.” 2. Be Well Dressed. Or like Talese, never underestimate the value of a good first impression, or a three-piece suit. 3. Never Use the Phone.  I didn’t ask if phone translated to the Internet but, based on this list, and my impressions, my guess is he would tell writers not to use the Internet, unless it was to get someone’s home address. Of the inadequacy of the phone, Talese wrote: “I also believe people will reveal more of themselves to you if you are physically present.” Joan Didion also spoke of disliking the phone, not because it was a short cut, but rather because she didn’t like to talk. 4. Show Up at Your Source’s Front Door.  A helpful piece of advice, but as our world has become almost transparently public, so too has it become secretive and private. House visits, phone calls, and the personal touch have been replaced by emails, texting, and tweeting. Many of the scoops Talese wrote about he got because of his in-person doggedness: showing up at Nita Naldi’s hotel, talking to the headline operator in theater district, the groundskeeper at a pet cemetery. 5. Do More Research Than You Think Is Necessary.  In the recently annotated version of his essay “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” –– published by Nieman Storyboard –– Gay spoke of the inventive way he sourced a particular quote for use in the profile: “That quote was published. I lifted it out of a magazine article about Marilyn Monroe that was written by Maurice Zolotow. I just clipped it. I took it out and I stuck it in there, and it took on a meaningfulness, a dimension. Hell, I never interviewed Marilyn Monroe. So I sometimes incorporate what has gone obscure in other people’s work. It’s in another context that the quote becomes a gem.” 6. Talk to People at Length or Learn the Art of Hanging Out.  Another writer who speaks of this is Kurt Vonnegut, who said, “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” 7. Be Polite and Learn How to Ask Questions without Being Nosy.  Talese learned early how to fade into the background as he watched his mom talk to her dress shop customers, as they tried on clothes while “discussing their private lives and the happenings and misadventures of their friends and neighbors.” When asked how to develop that trust, Talese said, “Journalism is like going out on a date.” 8. Don't Use A Tape Recorder.  This is a sticking point for me. How do you accurately capture quotes without a recording device? Talese told the audience, "Don’t use a tape recorder, because then you have their exact words. You are a partner in the quotation. The quote is polished in your prose.” When prodded further, Talese said he would ask the questions again and again so that he could refine and get at what they really meant. The final quote, he told the audience, needs to be in your voice, with your tone, not the black and white words. Later in the conversation, Talese expanded on this by saying that he would include in his notes: “What they say, what he [Talese] says, and what they think.” His use of interior monologue was a tool Tom Wolfe complimented him on in his discussion of The New Journalism. 9. Don’t Take Notes in Front of People.  From out of the front pocket of his elegant suit, Talese removed a small stack of cardboard scraps, explaining they were the collar stays from his button-down shirts. When he interviewed his subjects he would slip into a bathroom to jot down notes, and at night he would type them up, along with his recollections of the day. 10. Write with Respect, and Don’t Mistreat Anyone in Print.  Joan Didion writes in the preface to her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem that since she is “neither a camera eye nor much given to writing pieces which do not interest me, whatever I do write reflects, sometimes gratuitously, how I feel.” Talese writes of his subjects from a place of extreme interest, striving for a deep understanding in the “social and historical forces that contributed to their character –– or lack of character.” As a writer’s writer, Talese delivered these tips from a somewhat mythical place where pieces in magazines were paid for handsomely, weren’t due in one day, and were allowed to run at considerable lengths. While the above list seems both obvious and difficult, as a writer who would love to write 15,000 words about an ordinary person, I’m willing to give it a try. If it doesn’t work, at least I’m ready with my backup, also recommended by Gay Talese: “Get a job in a restaurant, and in your downtime: write.” Bonus Link: Gay Talese's sports writing is destined to last. Image Credit: Wikipedia
In Person

The Busiest Bar in Publishing

Hemingway put the Parisian bar, Harry’s, on the map. Dylan Thomas did the same for Manhattan’s White Horse tavern. This fall, Victor Giron’s Chicago watering hole, Beauty Bar, might prove just as instrumental to independent literature. While a staggering number of publishers are closing up shop or announcing mergers, Giron’s press, Curbside Splendor, is growing at a rate many big New York presses would find inspiring, envy-inducing or both. None of it would have been possible without the Beauty Bar. That, and Giron’s bottomless supply of energy. You get a sense, talking to Victor Giron, that he probably wakes up before you and goes to bed many hours after you. Our interview felt a little like witnessing a plate spinner at the circus. Because, on top of running the Beauty Bar and Curbside Splendor, the optimistic Giron is also a husband, father of two boys, and works a high profile day job as a financial accountant for Jim Beam. “I tend to pick things up and get really into them,” says Giron, squeezing our weekday afternoon chat between several of his other responsibilities. “If I’m going to do something, I’m not going to do it half-assed.” Half-assed is probably the last thing observers call Curbside Splendor. Especially after its recent jump in production and profile. Curbside previously released only a handful of books per year, but ramped up the release schedule to a whopping dozen this fall. This shift is a direct result of landing a coveted distribution deal with Consortium Book Sales and Distribution. In this golden age of the indie book publisher (According to Bookstatistics.com there are currently over 60,000 book publishers), it is tough to get noticed amongst the slosh of other presses. So, aside from a political sex scandal involving one of your authors, solid distribution is the most reliable way to compete with the major New York houses. But should book lovers care about industry talk like distribution? Absolutely. Distribution is the only thing — not the overthrow of Amazon or an e-reader revolution or a self-publishing frenzy — that ensures fresh voices finding readers. A publisher landing a strong distributor is similar to a rock band selling CDs at concerts and then signing with a prominent indie label like Merge Records. Merge has excellent distribution, which gets its albums in stores and online outlets just as well as majors. But distribution doesn’t guarantee success. It does, however, level the playing field between big labels and indies. Merge is an ideal example. Since starting in 1989, the record company has a massive list of artistic high points, but also numerous business victories. This ability to remain independent, yet place its albums in every conceivable retail outlet has given Merge the strength to release a Billboard #1 album, help its bands like Spoon perform to millions of viewers on Saturday Night Live and watch its most popular act, Arcade Fire, earn the 2011 Album of the Year Grammy. Similarly, Curbside’s distribution deal is no guarantee of success. But it opens doors to compete on the literary world’s main stage. The evidence is promising — small publishers with Consortium ties have made serious waves, like Akashic Books mega-selling Go the F**K to Sleep and how Two Dollar Radio’s titles frequently earn raves in the New York Times. Curbside seems poised to make the most of this opportunity. But if it wasn’t for Giron’s bar, none of it would be happening. Three years ago, when Giron started Curbside Splendor to release his own novel, Sophomoric Philosophy, he had next-to-no literary connections. “It seems kind of backward, I guess. I had no idea people did such things as readings at coffee shops or bars, to tell you the truth, until I was invited myself,” he says. “I began meeting other editors and writers around Chicago by hosting readings at my bar. I really didn’t know anyone until I started reaching out on Facebook and in person, really with the interest of getting people to come to the bar and read.” Even Curbside’s distribution deal came because of a chance Beauty Bar meeting. “I had been a big fan of James Greer’s novels, The Failure and Artificial Light,” Giron says. “James came through town when his girlfriend’s band played at my bar. We got to talking and he said ‘You know, I’ve never had a story collection published. I don’t think Akashic, his publisher, is interested in a story collection.’ Long story short that’s one of the books (Everything Flows) coming out this fall.” This relationship with Greer proved invaluable to Curbside’s current growth. “I was kind of honest with James, saying there’s no real distribution for your book. Just so you know. The amount of sales you can expect aren’t going to be much,” says Giron. “And then he suggested we talk to (Publisher) Johnny Temple of Akashic. Originally, Akashic was going to consider sub-distributing James’s book. After our conversation Johnny said we can certainly consider doing this, but it just seems like you have so many great projects that it would be a shame that you not actually try and work with Consortium yourselves. And so he made a personal referral.” Temple’s enthusiasm for Curbside was a massive boost. Giron had already been rejected by several distributors. Temple, however, saw something most distributors didn’t: “While the mainstream New York-based book industry laments the supposed ‘decline’ of the industry, moping ad nauseum about how no one reads anymore,” says Temple. “This creates opportunities for ambitious and creative companies like Curbside to prove them wrong.” From the Akashic referral, things moved swiftly last December. “On Friday [Temple and I] were talking and then the next Tuesday I was on the phone with Consortium’s president and then that Thursday they were like, okay, we can sign the contract. And by the way, we need all of your titles for the fall season by next week.” Where most budding publishers would sprout ulcers at such a radical change, Giron’s energy and optimism took over. “I never really got worried. A big part of my day job is project management, so it comes naturally to me.” The bulk of Curbide’s fall catalog was born in only a few days’ time. Once again, the Beauty Bar and bottomless energy played a big role. Giron quickly rounded up writers and artists he’d befriended from the bar. “I basically got all my people together and said, okay all these great projects we’ve been kicking around, we need to actually put them together now. So we had to come up with cover mocks, come up with one paragraph summary of titles, author bios, marketing plans. Luckily, we had all these projects but over a long weekend we put together the backbones of the twelve books that are now coming out. “Some of these titles were pretty much complete, like James Greer’s book, but ranged to flat out ideas like Samantha Irby’s Meaty. We had known Samantha, who is a performer here in Chicago and has a huge following through her blog, Bitches Gotta Eat. We had been loosely talking to her about maybe doing a book together sometime. So, after the meeting with Consortium we were like, Samantha, we really need you to write the book. So then she wrote it.” Beyond Irby’s collection of humor essays, Curbside’s whirlwind effort since December is just now coming to reality. Giron’s press is offering a diversified lineup this fall, ranging from YA lit Zero Fade, to literary leanings like Greer’s collection and The Desert Places by Robert Kloss and Amber Sparks, to Franki Elliot’s Kiss as Many Women as you Can — a poetry collection in postcard form. There is, of course, great risk in Curbside’s gamble for real estate on the literary map. Namely, financial risk. Giron has no business partners or investors in Curbside. He personally funded the costly printing, editing, and marketing expenses for every release this fall. “It’s pretty crazy of me. As a rational business person, this is not a good investment/risk to be taking.” It’s easy to see his energy overshadowing this rationale. “What propels me in this is the idea, the challenge, the belief that there are really great books out there to be made and there is a market of people that are thirsty for innovative, artistically minded, edgy, fresh, spectacular new voices and ideas and beautifully designed books, and so we’re here to try and provide that service.” Not surprisingly, Temple echoes this sentiment. When asked how he saw Curbside impacting the literary landscape after this Fall’s splashdown, he says Curbside is, “Further proof that books matter, that new audiences are still very hungry for books.” While it’s still far too early to begin tossing confetti, Giron’s barroom-born gamble seems to be paying off. Irby’s Meaty is garnering a lot of attention, thanks in part to being named part of Barnes and Noble’s Discover Great New Writers series. The book has already sold several thousand more copies than any previous Curbside release. Does that mean Giron will be buying rounds at the Beauty Bar? Probably not. But it might just give this uber-entrepreneur the ability to keep pushing Curbside up through the ranks.
In Person

Brad Bumsted: An Old-School Reporter Still Getting the Story, and Still Getting It Right

1. On a sparkling day early this fall I drove from my home in New York City to Harrisburg, PA, to take part in a rite that's sacred to all writers. There, in the Midtown Scholar bookstore a few blocks from the state Capitol, I waited in line to pay cash for a signed copy of a new book by a writer named Brad Bumsted. Nearly 40 years ago, at the small-town daily newspaper in nearby Chambersburg, PA, this man with the impossibly poetic byline taught me something that has kept me alive ever since – he taught me how to be a reporter. So I had come to Harrisburg to pay my respects and pay back a tiny fraction of a long-standing debt to my very first mentor. Brad's book is called Keystone Corruption: An Insider's View of a State Gone Wrong. The operative word here is "insider" because after our brief time together in Chambersburg in the 1970s, Brad went on to newspaper postings in Pittsburgh and Tallahasee, FL, before landing in Harrisburg in 1983 with Gannett News Service. Since then, other than a brief stint in Washington, D.C., he has been reporting from the Pennsylvania state capital. Now, at 62, he is the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's veteran in Harrisburg, a reporter, columnist, and regular commentator on television and radio shows, the insider's insider among the capital press corps, a man who has had a ringside seat to the state's Byzantine political machinations for nearly three decades. In that time he has witnessed and reported on every form of scam, corruption, disgrace, and redemption ever devised by political animals, plus the downfall of one notorious pedophile. Through it all Brad has remained what he was on the day we first met, 37 autumns ago: an old-school, shoe-leather reporter who understands the importance of cultivating sources, of making phone calls, knocking on doors, talking to people while looking them in the eye, listening to their voices, reading their body language. With today's tsunami of electronic information and 24/7 news cycle, and with the ongoing implosion of daily newspapers (cf. Jeff Bezos's recent purchase of the Washington Post), Brad is an important reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Good journalism still matters, it still happens, and it is still built on what it was originally built on – not technological innovations, but on the ability of dogged, savvy, intelligent reporters to gather information and quickly turn it into factual, even-handed, and engaging prose. Few people have done it longer than Brad Bumsted. Few do it better. Even his competitors are happy to admit it. "Brad is the hardest working journalist in Pennsylvania," says veteran Philadelphia Daily News political columnist John Baer. "Journalism and Pennsylvania are lucky he's where he is, doing what he does." 2. Keystone Corruption is an astounding book. As Baer put it in his review in the Daily News, Brad "has amassed a deliciously detailed record of the ugliness" of Pennsylvania politics, ranging from the rampant graft during the construction of the Capitol building in the early 20th century, right up to the latest pols to get carted off to prison earlier this year. Stitched together from Brad's own reporting, other news sources, government documents, websites, and books – all of it meticulously chronicled in the endnotes – the book paints a picture of a state where for more than a century corruption seems to have been in the air and the drinking water. Corruption comes to Harrisburg in waves and then it goes away and then it always comes back. Only a few other states – Louisiana, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey come to mind – can rival Pennsylvania's long and lustrous record of venality. At the moment, seven former Pennsylvania legislative leaders, including two former Speakers of the House, are behind bars. The rogues who've worked their sleazy magic under the Capitol's soaring green dome have possessed delightful nicknames, including Senator Sludge, Ernie the Attorney, the Dweeb, the Vince of Darkness, Mr. Big, and the Kingfish. They have woven scams involving kickbacks, no-show jobs, no-bid contracts, tax-funded bonuses for campaign workers, and massive self-awarded pay raises and perks. One of the book's more surprising revelations is that few of these scams were designed to enrich the scammers; rather, they were usually means for people in positions of power to retain their personal power and secure their party's majority in the legislature, by whatever means necessary. As former Speaker of the House John Perzel, a Republican now residing at the State Correctional Institution at Laurel Highlands, put it, "You don't govern if you don't win... In the minority, you don't decide anything. You don't decide what bills come up. You don't have a proportional share of what's going on. You have zero." Nicely put – a proportional share of what's going on. One of the most dependable tools for winning re-election was the illegal use of tax dollars to pay bonuses to staffers to do campaign work. In a 2007 column, Brad dubbed the scheme "Bonusgate," and the term stuck. Since then, 10 people have been convicted for their participation in the scheme. So why do people go to such lengths to win elections and amass power in Pennsylvania? Well, because, as this book lays out, Harrisburg is one lush gravy trough. Pennsylvania's 253 state legislators, the largest "full-time" legislature in the country, get paid from $83,000 to more than $100,000 for being in session some 70 days a year. (Legislators in New Hampshire, by comparison, get $200 every two years.) Every Pennsylvania legislator's car and staff are paid for. They get a killer pension and pay just 1 percent of their salary for health insurance (it was free until recently). They also get $163 per diem for expenses, which frequently goes straight into their pockets. Nice work if you can get it. Even nicer if you can keep it. One of this book's great virtues, aside from its deft marshaling of mountains of information, is that Brad never indulges in snark, never takes the high moral ground, is always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, even when they don't appear to deserve it. In the end, this even-handedness serves to make the evidence even more damning. For instance: "What former Rep. Tom Druce did was worse than any of the stealing that occurred at the Capitol. He killed a man. What gets it listed under corruption is the cover-up and the insurance fraud that Druce engaged in." But even after that opening salvo, Brad does not rush to judgment. Druce, who had been drinking, struck and killed a Marine Corps veteran on a Harrisburg street while driving a leased Jeep SUV, then fled the scene. Later he claimed he thought he had struck a signpost. Eventually he pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of a fatal accident, insurance fraud, and tampering with evidence. He received a 2- to 4-year sentence. Rather than excoriating Druce for this sorry performance, Brad writes, "As I get older, I have often thought of Druce's moment as a defining one in life for all of us. How many of us have a similar moment, even if not as dramatic? At that instant, would most of us show character and act out of conscience?... Is it possible that in a snap-second judgment you would panic and flee the scene? Have you ever driven, when you shouldn't have, after consuming a few drinks?... There is no excuse for what Tom Druce did... But ask yourself, are we any better than he is?" Despite such old-school fairness and his old-school reporter's cred, Brad is no technophobic Luddite. He has adapted to the 24/7 news cycle, posting his stories online as soon as he gets them, updating them regularly, then writing a final draft for the next morning's print edition. He has a slick website. He e-mails and tweets and texts like a banshee. His smartphone is always on. "Up-and-coming reporters think they can google things instead of going out and talking to people," he says. "The positive side of how things have changed with social media is that a couple of keystrokes and you can find almost anybody, plus a lot of information about what they've done. If you combine that with the old shoe-leather, it can be very effective. But really, what I do every day is no different from what I did covering the county commissioners in Chambersburg in the 1970s." 3. Brad and I met for the first time in the fall of 1976, a few days before Jimmy Carter unhorsed President Gerald Ford. I had been summoned to Chambersburg to interview for a cub reporter's job at Public Opinion, the 20,000-circulation daily owned by the Gannett chain, which was then in its most robust phase of empire building. The guy who interviewed me was the paper's publisher and editor, Bob Collins, a sandy-haired terrier from New Jersey with rolled-up shirtsleeves and a staccato way of talking that immediately said newspaperman to me. I had spent the five months since my college graduation pinballing up and down the Eastern Seaboard, from the Adirondacks to Savannah, knocking on newspaper doors, trying to get a job. I dreamed of becoming a writer – a real writer, a novelist – and I believed the ideal place to learn my craft was in the typhoon of a daily newspaper's city room. But my credentials were thin – just three short sketches for my school paper and zero work experience. Even worse for me was the fact that this was the post-Watergate season. Hard to believe today, but it was a pre-Internet age when daily newspapers were fat on profits and many bright young people ached to become the next Woodward and/or Bernstein. Entry-level reporter jobs were hard to come by. For some reason, Collins and I hit it off. Despite my lack of experience he offered me a starting salary of $140 a week to cover several local school boards and write as many "enterprise" stories as I wanted to. Then he warned me that Gannett had a strict corporate policy forbidding overtime pay. Of course I jumped at the offer. The deal done, Collins led me out of his office, through the advertising department and into the cave of the newsroom. My heart actually started to race. This was where my life as a professional writer would begin. The ceiling was black, the walls were greasy yellow brick, the carpet was frayed. Blinds were drawn on all windows, and the light came from cold white fluorescent tubes suspended from the ceiling. There were brimming ashtrays and piles of old newspapers on most desks, just a few reporters murmuring into telephones at this late-afternoon hour. Every desk had its own telephone and red IBM Selectric typewriter. A few desks along the right wall, obviously for editors, had those new-fangled things called computers with screens like television sets. Just then a man came through a back door that led to a parking lot, bringing a gust of chill air with him. He smelled of cigarettes. Collins introduced me to Brad Bumsted, the paper's star reporter, who covered the county commissioners, spectacular crimes, major trials, anything that would land his byline on the front page. Bumsted was short like Collins but built like a beer keg. With his mud-brown hair and cheap sportcoat, he looked more like a cop than a reporter. (His hair is gray now, and his sportcoats are considerably more expensive.) After shaking my hand he took his time sizing up the new competition. Getting hired must have made me feel cocky because I blurted out, "You like your job, Brad?" "Yeah, I do," he said. "Very much." "You like covering the commissioners and courts?" "I said yeah. I do." "I wouldn't mind having that beat myself." I immediately thought, What an asshole! My pushiness was totally out of character. But Collins told me years later that he knew right then he'd been right to offer me the job. He liked his reporters brash and pushy. That's why he loved Brad Bumsted. Despite that awkward introduction, Brad took me under his wing and we became fast friends. I studied the way he worked – the way he talked to people on the telephone and on the street, coddling sources, getting people to open up, asking soft questions while working up to the hard ones, bullying or flattering or lying as necessary. He was relentless, always ready to make the extra phone call, double-check a bothersome fact, a spelling, a job title, a date. Nothing could stop him from getting a story. I soon realized that was all that mattered to Brad: getting the story, and getting it right. Though Brad typed (and still types) with just his two index fingers, he was fast, and soon I was fast too. Fueled by adrenaline and bad coffee, we sat down at our Selectrics at 7:30 every morning and often cranked out half a dozen bylined stories apiece before the noon deadline. We were glorified galley slaves, and we were loving it. After I'd been on the job just a few weeks, Collins gave us a dream assignment. He wanted us to go down to Easton, MD, to cover the murder trial of a local Chambersburg legend named Merle Unger, a ruffian in the Robin Hood vein who'd led a life of petty crime and had a penchant for breaking out of jail. For a while, he broke out of the county jail at night, went out cavorting with his girlfriend and buddies, then broke back into the jail before deputies counted noses in the morning. But on one his breakouts Merle made the mistake of shooting an off-duty cop during a store robbery in Hagerstown, MD. The cop died, Unger was captured, and the party was over. Due to heavy publicity, the trial was moved from Hagerstown to Easton, where Brad was to cover the courtroom proceedings and I was to write colorful stories around the edges. On the last day of the trial, while the jury was deliberating, I underwent the test that makes or breaks every reporter. A small woman had been sitting in the courtroom's back row that day, and when I learned that she was Merle Unger's mother, I knew I had to talk to her. But I couldn't possibly do it – what do you say to a mother whose son is about to get sent to prison for the rest of his life? But I had to talk to her. As Brad had taught me, all that mattered was getting the story, and getting it right. When the woman left the courtroom, I forced myself to stand up and follow her down the stairs to the courthouse lobby... (It wasn't until years later that I understood the moral wringer I was being put through as I followed that woman down those stairs. In the opening lines of her 1990 nonfiction book, The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm famously described the dilemma that lives at the heart of the journalistic enterprise: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." Or as Joan Didion put it even more succinctly in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, "Writers are always selling somebody out.") ...and when I got to the courthouse lobby I introduced myself to the woman, who confirmed that she was Mildred Smith Unger, Merle's mother. To my surprise, she didn't tell me to go away. Thinking of Brad, I opened with small talk, got her talking, then gently steered the conversation toward the horrific things I had to ask her about. And I did it. I overcame my unease. I gained her trust and then I betrayed her without remorse. My front-page story in the next day's paper began like this: On the second day of Merle Unger's murder trial, a small woman with black hair came into the courtroom and sat in the back row. "I feel sorry for them," she said when she learned that the two women sitting on a nearby bench were the widow and daughter of slain Hagerstown policeman Donald "Barney" Kline. "But there's nothing I can do about it now." During the jury's deliberations, Mrs. Mildred Smith Unger gazed out a courthouse window at a gray, darkening sky. "Sure I was surprised when I heard what Merle did," she said. "But I've always thought he wouldn't do something like that unless somebody did something to him first. And we still don't know exactly what happened." And my story ended this way: A commotion at the top of the stairs signaled the jury's return to the courtroom. She took one last look at the sky, then said: "You know, I've always been a firm believer that there's more good than bad in life." Then she climbed the stairs and took her seat in the back of the courtroom. When the jury delivered its verdict – guilty on all counts – her eyes remained dry and fixed on her son. Brad had taught me a hard lesson, and taught it well. Being a reporter may be morally indefensible and sometimes cruel, but there's also something noble about getting the story, and getting it right. Eventually Brad and I would drift apart and lose contact for many years. In that time I came to see that despite our similarities, despite the bond of mentor and pupil, there was a fundamental difference between us. Brad, like Bob Collins, has always been a newspaperman down to his socks, while I viewed newspaper work as a means to an end, a paid apprenticeship that would prepare me for the serious work of writing fiction. Now that I've published two novels and found out that it's just about impossible to make a living off the things, I'm more grateful than ever that Brad taught me the craft of getting the story, and getting it right. Nearly four decades later, it's still paying the rent. And it's still something that I, like Brad, love to do. 4. After the book signing at the Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg, Brad offered to take me out to dinner with his wife Gail and their daughter Lindsey, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh. As soon as we stepped into a popular downtown restaurant called the Firehouse, a compact, dark-haired guy turned from the bar and thrust out his hand. "Hello, Brad!" the man cried. "Good to see you. Congratulations on the book." "Thanks, Mike, you're looking good," Brad said, shaking the hand and pausing to make small talk. Later, at our table, Brad told us that the guy at the bar was the paroled felon Michael Manzo, one of the masterminds of the Bonusgate scam, who received an 18- to 48-month prison sentence in the spring of 2012 for the illegal use of $1.4 million in taxpayers' money. Manzo had just gotten out of prison early for good behavior, and his hearty greeting at the bar testified to his delight at that turn of events. Here, from Keystone Corruption, is Brad's description of Manzo after he'd risen to become chief of staff of Bill DeWeese, then Speaker of the House and currently an inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Retreat: Manzo had a reputation as a lady's man. He was smooth and articulate, but more importantly he was in a position of power... At that time, Michael was dating Rachel Hurst, who would later become his wife.  It can be said of her that Rachel was a stunning blonde with beautifully angular facial features. She looked more like a model than a research analyst. Michael would later stray from her during their marriage. Worse, his affair would become very public and part of the Bonusgate case. Manzo had placed his mistress, Angela Bertugli, on the payroll in a caucus job (in Pittsburgh) where she did little if any work and was away from the scrutiny likely in Harrisburg, according to the grand jury. Bertugli told investigators that she had "nothing to do 70 percent of the time." The former beauty queen was paid $45,000 in annual salary, and she received a $7,000 bonus in 2006. Manzo met her at a West Shore bar in 2004. Angela was 21 at the time. He was 35. They had sex in a car after a few drinks, according to the grand jury report. This sketch beautifully captures the flavor of corruption in Pennsylvania – the way a little power can go to a man's head, can lead to extramarital sex in a parked car, then to the misuse of taxpayers' money, and finally, inevitably, to prison. The flaws in Pennsylvania politicos tend more toward the tawdry than the tragic. Their stories read like low-rent Shakespeare. And yet, as picayune as these villains may be, a million bucks here and a million bucks there and pretty soon we're talking about real money. As we were eating, Manzo came over to our table to get introduced around. When Gail asked what he was doing now, he replied brightly, "I'm working as a consultant." After he left the table, Gail said, "I can't believe the guy! Fresh out of prison, walking around smiling, shaking hands, like nothing ever happened!" "I don't know," said Lindsey, who plans to go to law school after graduating from Pitt. "He did his time and paid his debt to society. Life goes on. People deserve a second chance." My feelings fell somewhere between Gail's outrage and Lindsey's forgiveness. I was thinking, What's the big surprise? Our culture has lost the capacity for shame. It was Brad, appropriately, who had the last word. He said, "I have mixed feelings about Mike Manzo. I always liked the guy. I thought his sentence might have been too stiff – he cooperated with the prosecution on three different cases. Sure, he deserved to go to prison, but I agree with Lindsey. He did his time. One thing to his credit was that, unlike a lot of these other guys, he took responsibility for his actions." That's my mentor for you – able to see the big picture, zero snark, and forever old-school.
In Person

Letter from Israel: On Gas Masks and Belonging

The cockroaches in Tel Aviv are nuclear-apocalypse huge. How adorable, how terribly petite the roaches of New York seem to me now. In a million years, the spacemen who descend to this place will find only styrofoam cups and the hard-shelled family living under my sink. I am a coward. Afraid to get close, I kill them with a chemical spray. They fall from the wall or garbage bin, thud. They heave madly in tortured circles, stopped by convulsions that come at smaller and smaller increments, cramming themselves into the ground as if to disappear. Their stomachs bulge and seep out. After they die -- or as they are dying -- their feelers twitch, twitch, twitch. This was the month for gas masks in Israel. Fearing that Assad might use his sarin-bearing rockets on Israel next, those who did not yet have gas masks picked one up at the post office. Every outlet reported it, and every lede was the same: “Long lines and high tensions in Israel today as civilians obtain gas masks from local distribution centers...” I don’t have a gas mask. I’m not a citizen, and therefore not eligible for a free gas mask from the post office. I can buy one for -- 400 sheckels -- a bit over $100 from a war profiteer. That’s a month’s worth of groceries, nearly, but not quite a prohibitive cost. Still, I don’t buy one. “Assad’s not that crazy, don’t give it another thought,” says my Hebrew teacher, rolling her eyes. Then almost as an afterthought, “But pick one up anyway.” An American friend of mine, perhaps trying to console me regarding my lack of mask, tells me that the Israeli gas mask kits lack the antidote for the specific nerve gas -- sarin -- present in Syrian weapons. He also reminds me that during World War I, soldiers used alternate methods to survive gas attacks. He is right: it is a proud element of Canadian history that one of our own boys figured out you could survive a mustard gas attack if you covered your mouth with a cloth soaked in your own urine. I’m saved! He laughs. We are on a bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on Thursday (Israel’s Friday) and the bus is filled with soldiers coming home for the weekend. Everyone is sleeping. Soldiers are always sleeping. And after the conversation, my friend and I sit in silence, and I wonder how small the gas masks come. Do they make them for toddlers? For newborns? I have someone here. He is in the Israeli Army and so he is away a lot. Please get your mask, he begs me. If things get hot -- this is how he talks -- if things get hot you will not be able to reach me. He tells me if worse comes to worst I can go to his widowed grandfather, who now has an extra mask. What are you doing here? I want to ask him. You should be a camp counselor in rural Vermont. He is worried about his girlfriend jury-rigging a gas mask with her own pee; he is worried about the extra chemicals weapons training courses this new situation might entail. I am picturing him teaching children to canoe. I live in a country without civilians. Everyone I know has the same green khaki duffle bag. It’s usually sitting on top of her closet: out of the way but easy to reach. It is kind of natty looking, actually. Madewell would sell it for $278 as a Weekender Duffle in Hunter Green. But it’s the bag they take with them on reserve duty. I actually do not know what is inside because I am too embarrassed to ask. I would guess that it is a uniform, boots, underwear, socks, toothbrush, a few granola bars, maybe some expired pepper spray for the ladies. And under his bed, everyone has a cardboard box with a gasmask and antidotes. “You do have a gas mask, don’t you?” the mother of a friend, Naama, asks me timidly. I say I do not and she shifts uncomfortably. “But you must get one. They are free! Just go to the post office.” I say I will. It is Rosh Hashanah -- literally head of the year -- and soon she and I will walk to temple together. There are no cars on the street, in observance of the holiday. Women in long skirts, trailed by children, carry shopping bags with their prayer books. There must be some religious prohibition against carrying a purse. During this month of holy days -- Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simhat Torah -- you see what a Jewish State looks like. All over the world, the Jewish holidays occupy a comfortable peripheral position. Before Yom Kippur, you tell your boss you will soon be fasting, so he should be extra nice to you. If you work at a sleek magazine, as I did, it’s not so different from brutal juice cleanses endeavored by the white-toothed editorial assistants. I never found this (the lack of publicly observed Jewish holidays) alienating (the juice cleanses certainly). I experienced Judaism as a vaguely nostalgic activity set apart from daily life. That is, I experienced it as apolitical. Not so in Israel. On High Holy Days such as Rosh Hashanah, even in godless Tel Aviv, there is no public transportation, nobody works, no shops are open. You walk to temple or, if that’s not your thing, go for a bike ride on quiet streets. In temple, Naama leans over to me and whispers, “Soon we will go la-ritzpah.” (Soon we will go to the floor.) And we do, first to our knees then bringing our foreheads to the ground, a motion familiar from seeing Islamic men at prayer. It is a gesture of total obeisance during which I felt, counter-intuitively, free. Afterwards, I asked her how often one goes la-ritzpah. Twice a year, she says: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Sometimes, in the Hebrew Bible, God reinforces commands by reminding the Israelites that they were Pharaoh’s slaves. Freed from Egypt, they now belong to God. Surrender, selection, and complete belonging -- all present in this act of genuflection. The threat of a chemical weapons attack from Syria passes. But living here requires some level of preparedness, and I know I should go buy a mask. Instead I sulk righteously. In Israel, it is perfectly acceptable to ask a stranger if she is a Jew, and I get asked every day. “My father is,” I say, as if conceding a point. This results in a stranger, with great excitement, explaining to me that I am in fact not a Jew at all because the religion is matrilineal. I say the same thing every time: “That is very interesting.” The State of Israel defines Jewishness as having one or more Jewish grandparent. My gentile mother is one hell of a lawyer, and has reviewed the terms of the Law of Return carefully with me. This law grants any Jew the right to live and work in Israel -- immigrating or obtaining various visas. However, a substantial chunk of public life in Israel is overseen by an Orthodox rabbinate. This creates more than a little tension regarding who is Jewish and what being a Jew means. So, when I desperately need a work visa to stay in the country, I find myself in the Ministry of the Interior, biting my nails while a hard-faced Russian-Israeli named Anya or some such reviews my visa materials. She is reading my “proof of Judaism” -- a letter from the rabbi heading the congregation where my father was Bar Mitzvahed. She is frowning. My shoulders begin to droop when her colleague, a traditionally-dressed Orthodox Jewish woman in a headcovering, leans in and read my letter over Anya’s shoulder. I breathe in sharp. “Give her the visa, Anya.” Exhale. Anya looks incredulous and starts to protest. Headcovering clucks in slight impatience, Anya prints out my visa on peach colored paper and sticks it into my passport. I got my visa. I’m in. However, the waiting room is filled with people who will not get visas that day. There are tens of thousands of refugees from the African world in Israel. The majority have no official status in this country, which as far as I have heard, does not even bother to process their asylum applications. There is no mechanism for their absorption, and no room in Israel’s national narrative for their voices. They escape Eritrea or Sudan, survive refugee camps in Egypt, sneak through fences into Israel, and fold sheets for under-the-table pay at Tel Aviv seafront hotels. Some of them have escaped torture camps in Sinai, as was reported earlier this year on NPR’s This American Life. They do not have gas masks. Many undocumented refugees live in the area around the Central Bus Station, meaning, many live in the park near the station. Thin black bodies sprawled on the grass and on benches. This is where you come when you fall through the cracks. I have debated writing this part, because to me it is obvious that it is embarrassing to spell out. It is this: There is absolutely room for these refugees in the story of Israel. All throughout the Bible, the experience of slavery in Egypt is used to engender compassion and humane treatment of the most vulnerable peoples in the population. As well as being reminded that they were slaves in Egypt, the Israelites are reminded that they were “strangers” there. So what I don’t understand, what I refuse to understand, is why this story -- one of the oldest and most beautiful in the world -- cannot inspire the most compassion, the most open arms, the most justice. Shouldn’t Israel be the most desirable place to be a stranger, not one of the hardest? I say this to Israeli friends, who agree that there is something very wrong going on, but who also remind me that Israel sits on the gateway to Africa. “We cannot just open our gates,” one tells me, “and remain a Jewish State.” There are theories that posit all national narratives are a dangerous fantasy, whose instability can only be remedied by cruelty and violence. I do not want it to be true. As for me, I will borrow $100 from my mom, and I will get a gas mask. It will sit in a brown cardboard box under my bed just like the one under Naama's bed, and Anya’s bed. Brown cardboard boxes under the beds of everyone I know. Outside the central bus station, men with deeply scarred backs will lie on park benches and wonder where their sisters are. And as I am falling asleep, someone I love will text me, Did you get the mask? Photo courtesy of the author.
In Person, Reviews

Zen and the Art of Pie Making

I was at Whole Foods having a tantrum about vanilla paste, simultaneously aware of the cultural type I was embodying with obnoxious ease, and genuinely annoyed about the paste scenario. “You could always call ahead,” said the employee who had informed me of their lack of vanilla paste, who I’m also sure is a perfectly nice man who rises in the morning hoping to make the best of his day. “I did call ahead,” I said in a tone of voice I modeled after Gregory Peck, “I was told you had it.” Using passive voice to withering effect on a grocery store employee is not what I had expected from my Friday night, but it’s where I ended up when I decided to learn how to make great pie in a weekend. I have very few absolute goals in life -- as far as where I want to be in five years, how much money I want to have, or places to see before I die -- but I really want to be good at making pies. Its attractions are threefold. First, a good pie is universally welcome. Second, mediocre pies -- from grocery store bakeries or home cooks who use Crisco -- are far too common. Third, only a portion of good pie-making can be taught, the rest is learned by experience. It’s not just cooking, it’s craft. Most of the great pie I’ve had in my life has been at Hoosier Mama Pie Company, my favorite place in Chicago. Owner Paula Haney left a pastry chef job at a more upscale restaurant to focus on perfecting America’s dessert in her own shop in 2009, and the results are divine. A bite of Hoosier Mama pie is like everything good about the world, in your mouth. (A friend of mine once went into the shop and asked if they would let him volunteer. “I’ll chop fruit or wash dishes, anything you want,” he said, “I just want to be involved.” His offer was politely declined.) When Haney published The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie earlier this summer, it felt like a personal gift, like she was rooting for me. I decided to put myself through pie boot camp, making four pies in one day -- Strawberry Rhubarb, Maple Pecan, Hoosier Sugar Cream, and Lemon Chess -- and inviting 10 friends over to eat them. My main goal was the crust, the deceptively simple foundation of a good pie. When you’re making pie crust, every detail is important: the temperature of the ingredients, how long you spend on each step, how long you wait in between each step, how much water you add, how long you knead the dough, and whether you’re chronically forgetful about flouring the roller (that’s me). Haney spent a summer perfecting her crust recipe, and provides 20 pictures of what the dough should look like at various steps. There are instructions, yes, but you’re making all the decisions about whether the dough feels crumbly, soft, cool, or relaxed enough to move on to the next step. The stinger is, a mistake at any point in the process can ruin the crust, like the bad bulb in a string of Christmas lights. No matter how many crusts you’ve made, you still have to pay attention to each one and be able to adjust. I can say that the fourth crust I made that day was better than the first, but that only made me realize how much better I can get. It’s no mistake that on the cover, the word “wisdom” in the book’s subtitle — “Recipes, Techniques, and Wisdom from the Hoosier Mama Pie Co.” — is printed about three times larger than all the other words. The book wants you to understand pie. The recipes have origin stories, there’s a section titled “In Defense of Canned Pumpkin,” a sidebar on the history of Crisco (spoiler: it’s cautionary), and a Pie Dough Troubleshooting Guide, but the real message is that you need to practice. You may also need to traverse the city in search of vanilla paste. At one a.m. the night before my party, as I was putting the last dough round into the fridge to rest overnight, pie crust took on greater meaning for me. A great pie is a product of both skill and wisdom; as, I believe, is a great life. You make a long string of intuitive decisions and hope they alchemize into something beautiful. That’s why each good pie that comes out of the oven felt like a win to me; it feels like a small reassurance that you’re good at life. Plus, delicious. Photo Credit: Tyler Core
In Person

Places of Remembrance

Bayerisches Viertel is an upper-middle class residential area in Schöneberg, a southwest borough of Berlin. On a warm Sunday in August, the streets are almost empty and except for some cafés and Spätkaufs (bodegas), all the shops are closed. It feels distant spatially and spiritually from the internationally celebrated areas of Berlin — the traffic and energy of Kreuzberg, the young-family-brigade of Prenzlauerberg, the old grandeur of Museum Insel. The bullet-holed and graffitied aesthetic that so typifies a city whose history can feel almost convulsively exteriorized is absolutely absent here; instead one finds well-groomed green lawns, cream and rose apartment buildings with decorated balconies, and quiet tree lined streets, and almost all of the very few people out walking or cycling are elderly and white. Barbarossaplatz, for instance, is a perfectly pleasant place to sit with a brötchen and enjoy the wind in the leaves. The street leading there, Barbarossastrasse, is a street like many others, in other family neighborhoods, in any other city: you see a mother and baby on the street, an older couple on their patio reading the paper, children’s bicycles in a pile, and a colorful, well-displayed street sign with a cat on it, the other side of which reads: “Juden dürfen keine Haustiere mehr halten,” which translates as, “Jews may no longer own pets.” Twenty years ago this summer, German artists Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock, installed their “Places of Remembrance,” 80 street signs with images or symbols on one side, and a particular anti-Jewish (and sometimes anti-Polish) Nazi law on the other. Stih and Shnock proposed this project in 1991 as their submission to a competition calling for ideas for a memorial in the neighborhood’s central square, right off Martin-Luther-Strasse. By unanimous vote, the jury — consisting of artists, historians, city planners, and representatives of the Jewish community in Berlin — opted for Stih and Schnock’s controversial, non-traditional memorial over the more palatable, reassuring option of a centralized monument. In 1993 the signs went up. In interviews the artists suggested they wanted to make a memorial that would adequately reflect the ways in which the alienation, harassment, and eventual deportation of Berlin’s Jewish residents was not a sudden, immediately recognizable, or universally resisted attack on the community, but instead operated as a kind of integrated and initially subtle management of daily life and routine. Schöneberg was known in the 1920’s as “Jewish Switzerland” thanks to its largely wealthy Jewish residents, yet it is also remembered as a culturally diverse community enjoying an intellectual climate: it was one of the first gay neighborhoods during Berlin’s Golden Years, and thinkers like Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein lived here. What Stih and Shnock’s work seeks to bring out, however, is that non-Jewish Germans met the anti-Jewish laws, not with great resistance but accommodation (though of course there was some organized resistance, notably the Social Democrats, the Communist party, and workers unions). Where a single, discrete, and perhaps noble memorial might suggest a single, discrete, and perhaps terrible event, peppering an ordinary neighborhood with inconspicuous (until you read them) signposts suggests a different kind of integration into history, and demands a different kind of negotiation in the present. German has two words that we might translate as memorial in English, though exactly where to draw the conceptual distinctions is not obvious even to native speakers. A Denkmal is a memorial or monument whose purpose is to remind us of something that has happened or someone who has lived. Denken is the German verb “to think,” so a Denkmal stands as a testament to something on which we have a duty to reflect. Denkmals can be bloated and grand — as in the Soviet Memorial in Berlin or Mount Rushmore in South Dakota — or sombre and respectful — as in the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, a black wall engraved with service members’ names, dedicated to honoring those who fought in the war. A Mahnmal is something subtly different, and we have no readily available English translation. Mahnen means both “to admonish” and “to remind;” it is often paired with the idea of caution or observance, as when one urges someone to take caution or be vigilant. A Mahnmal, then, is something meant both to remind and to warn, it pleads for remembrance not for the purpose of glory but for the purpose of heedful acknowledgment, even shame. A Mahnmal takes the idea of “never again” and gives it shape. Berlin has an impressive Mahnmal culture. The most famous is the Holocaust-Mahnmal, or the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, a vast grid of concrete vertical slabs arranged on rising and falling ground. Across the street stands the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism, a concrete cube with a small window into which one can look and see a video of men kissing (following protest, the video now changes every two years and includes lesbians as well). There are also the Stolperstein — “stumbling stones” — the some 30,000 gold bricks lain in the streets that note the name, address, and place of death for those Jewish Berliners murdered by the Nazis. Again, it isn’t immediately evident that these works would count as Mahnmal rather than Denkmal; for some people I spoke with, a Mahnmal calls to mind something rather imposing or commanding in structure, while the Stolperstein, for instance, are anything but. But one can argue that a Mahnmal is a work the purpose or effect of which is not to communicate historical knowledge but to occasion a new commitment to hold in mind the difficulties of reality and history. Like the stumbling stones, Stih and Shnock’s signs are effective precisely in their unobtrusiveness. In both cases, one can fail to notice these small pockets of admonishment, and indeed this possibility of failure, this ever-present capacity for not seeing, is exactly what is being consecrated with these works. Where a Denkmal asks us to remember some thing, person, event, or place, a Mahnmal reminds us of the fact of our not having seen, recognized, acknowledged, or acted, the fact that when what is being memorialized was live or happening, it went unattended. In calling to this historic inattentiveness, these works complicate and darken our present willingness to pay attention; unlike a Denkmal which can make us feel edified or exhilarated in our remembrance, a Mahnmal tends to make you sick, suddenly exhausted, borne down upon. In this way a Mahnmal calls not just to the past but to the present, making an intervention not just in history but in reality. There are 80 signs in Schöneberg, 80 images and 80 laws (of more than 400 such laws), extending over many blocks. Hardly any attention is given to them now, though at the time they were erected there were protests, both anti-Nazi and anti-Semitic. On the Sunday I visited, I rode up to Bayerisches Platz on my bike and scanned the streets, unsure what exactly I was looking for or even if I would find them. The first sign I saw was bright blue with a cartoon loaf of bread. Its banality is heart stopping. On the back it specifies that Jews are only allowed to buy groceries between 4:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon. The more signs I saw — signs forbidding Jewish children from public schools or the employment of Jewish actors and actresses, signs demanding that jewelry owned by Jews be turned over to the state and that Jews without Jewish-sounding names adopt either “Sarah” or “Israel” — the more ill I felt. There is a sign with an enthusiastic Welcome mat on one side (“Herzlich Willkommen!”), and the following law on the other: “to avoid giving foreign visitors a negative impression, signs with strong language will be removed. ‘Jews unwelcome here,’ will suffice.” Speaking with German and non-German Europeans, some young people expressed some exasperation with efforts like this. The thought is essentially, “we know that this took place, that these laws were enacted and were evil — we’ve been remembering for decades now. But we have to move on eventually.” Stih and Schnock’s signs, though, have much less to do with memory and the disseminating of history than these reactions would suggest. There are other ways to learn about the history of anti-Semitic Nazi laws: the excellent Jewish Museum in Berlin, for instance, has a wealth of information. But the placing of signs in a residential neighborhood outside the main drags of the city, their pop-art colors and present-tense phrasing, all works to do something other than bring the past to us in the form of historical fact. The impatient desire to move on from the past can only arise from the belief that the past and present are neatly separable, that there is some discrete event or time to move on from and somewhere beyond to move on to; if anything these signs assure us that this is not possible. But again, they don’t do this by reminding us of something — something that happened, that was done by some to some others — but by placing a possibility, or better a reality into the present. And by articulating that reality with punchy color and bitter humor — “Welcome!” — it becomes harder to assure ourselves that what’s done is done, or that we can move on now, or that only unusually cruel humans, which we certainly are not, could do such things (just think of Russia’s new law banning “gay propaganda”). On that Sunday in August, Stih and Schnock’s signs were competing for attention with others kinds of signs; not only traffic and city regulations, but massive political posters in anticipation of Germany’s upcoming national election. In other neighborhoods — Wedding, Kreuzberg, and Neuköln especially — one finds alongside the political posters signs both in support of and critical of the crowded refugee center in the suburb of Hellersdorf, where many asylum seekers from Syria and Afghanistan are housed. Berlin has recently seen a rise in visible neo-Nazi activity; this month, NDP party supporters showed up in Hellersdorf to protest the arrival of asylum seekers, carrying signs saying, “Tolerant today — tomorrow we are strangers in our own country,” and “Maria, not ‘Sharia,’” accompanied by a picture of a flaxen-haired German woman juxtaposed with a woman in a niqab. In bars now it is common to see signs out front stating “Nazis are not welcome.” In such a climate, Stih and Schnock’s work no longer seems like a relic, but instead as a voice in a contemporary and frightening contest for allegiance, as part of reality as history. In his radio lectures titled “At the Mind’s Limits,” the Jewish French intellectual and Holocaust survivor Jean Améry said that he holds onto his resentment so that the crimes against him can become a “moral reality,” in order that “history become moral.” Améry was concerned, skeptical, and furious that the German and international community seemed to so swiftly embrace a culture of forgiveness, before the scope and reality of the harm and brutality of the Nazi regime was acknowledged, before any responsibility or guilt was shouldered. Decades on, there is a no-less-urgent need to acknowledge that reality, to challenge ourselves to recognize that we haven’t yet, cannot ever, fully appropriate responsibility for that reality, don’t yet know what proper acknowledgment would mean. Stih and Schnock’s work seems to be part of that effort to make history moral, to make reality moral. Image courtesy the author