William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, new from University of Delaware Press, collects academic essays and memoir-vignettes by a range of critics and authors to make the case that Vollmann is, as the blurb claims, the “most ambitious, productive, and important living author in the US.” I interviewed the book’s editors, Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, over a series of emails.
If you live in NYC (or feel like traveling), you can check out the book launch for William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion this weekend, hosted by Coffman and Lukes (4:30pm at the 11th Street Bar).
This is the first part of a two-part interview.
Biblioklept: How did William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion come about?
Daniel Lukes: The starting point would be the MLA panel I put together in January 2011, called “William T. Vollmann: Methodologies and Morals.” Chris’s was the first abstract I received and I remember being impressed with its confidence of vision. Michael Hemmingson also gave a paper, and Larry McCaffery was kind enough to act as respondent. Joshua Jensen was also a panelist. I kept in touch with Chris and we very soon decided that there was a hole in the market, so to speak, so we put out a call for papers and took it from there.
One of my favorite things about putting together this book has been connecting with – and being exposed to – such a range of perspectives on Vollmann: people seem to come at him from – and find in his works – so many different angles. It’s bewildering and thrilling to talk about the same author with someone and not quite believe you are doing so. And I think this started for me, in a way, at least as far as this book is concerned, with reading Chris’ MLA abstract.
Biblioklept: I first heard about Vollmann in connection to David Foster Wallace (Wallace namechecks him in his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”). A friend “loaned” me his copy of The Ice-Shirt and I never gave it back. When was the first time you read Vollmann?
Christopher K. Coffman: I first encountered William T. Vollmann’s work about ten years ago. At the time, I had just finished grad school, and as my dissertation work had been focused on aspects of modern and contemporary poetry, I had let my attention to contemporary prose slip a bit. When I realized this had happened, I starting reading a lot of recent fiction. Of course David Foster Wallace’s books were part of this effort, and I, like so many others, really developed a love for Infinite Jest and some of the stories in Girl with Curious Hair. My memory’s a bit fuzzy on the timeline, but my best guess, given what I know I was reading and thinking about at the time, is that in my reading around DFW I discovered the Summer 1993 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction with which Larry McCaffery had been involved, and that the interview with DFW in that issue–along with the WTV materials themselves–woke me up to WTV and his work. I can’t say enough about how important Larry’s championing of WTV has been, and continues to be. Of course, one could say that about his support for so many of the interesting things that have happened in fiction during the past three or four decades. His interviews, his editorial work, the part he played with the Fiction Collective …. the list of the ways that he identifies and promotes some of the best work out there could go on for a while, and no one else that I know of has done it as well as Larry has for as long as he has. Anyway, as I was pretty much broke at the time, my reading choices were governed in large part by what I could find at libraries or local used bookstores, and The Ice-Shirt was the first volume I came across in one of these venues. I was already a huge fan of The Sot-Weed Factor and Mason & Dixon, and the entire Seven Dreams project very much struck me as a next step forward along the trajectory those books described. As a consequence, I immediately started tracking down and reading not only the rest of the Dreams, but also everything else I could find by WTV.
What about The Ice-Shirt that really won me over, aside from my impression that this was another brilliant reinterpretation of the historical novel, is that WTV was clearly bringing together and pushing to their limits some of my favorite characteristics of post-1945 American fiction (structural hijinks of a sort familiar from works by figures like Barth and Barthelme, a fearlessness in terms of subject matter and the occasional emergence of a vatic tone that reminded me of Burroughs, an autofictional element of the sort you see in Hunter S. Thompson). Furthermore, as a literary critic, I was really intrigued by two additional aspects of the text: the degree to which The Ice-Shirt foregrounds the many ways that it is itself an extended interpretation of earlier texts (the sagas on which he draws for many of the novel’s characters and much of its action), and the inclusion of extensive paratexts–the notes, glossaries, timelines, and so forth. In short, this seemed like a book that united my favorite characteristics of contemporary literary fiction with a dedication to the sort of work that I, as a scholar, spend a lot of my time doing. How could I resist? It took my readings of a few more of WTV’s books for me to be able to recognize what I would argue are his other most significant characteristics: his global scope and his deep moral vision.
As for your also having begun reading WTV with The Ice-Shirt: It’s an interesting coincidence to me that we both started with that book. I have always assumed that most people start into WTV via either the prostitute writings (which have a sort of underground cachet by virtue of subject matter) or Europe Central (which is of course the book that got the most mainstream attention), but here we both are with The Ice-Shirt. WTV has indicated he sees it as under-realized in certain ways, but I am still quite fond of it, even in comparison to some of the later books. Continue reading →
Bob Schofield is a writer and artist. He first showed up on my radar when theNewerYork sent me a digital file of his book The Inevitable June, which I described as “the kind of thing that we need more of; not a gimmick or a hybrid, but something new.” I’m still not sure what the book is, but I dig it. Bob was kind enough to talk to me over a series of emails about his work. Read some of Bob’s work at his website. Read my review of The Inevitable June here. Read our discussion below.
Biblioklept: What is The Inevitable June?
Bob Schofield: The Inevitable June is a collection of 30 surreal short prose pieces, one for every day in June, intercut with black and white illustrations. The drawings don’t always correspond to the text, and there isn’t really much of a coherent “story” per se, but there is certainly momentum and direction. The book definitely goes somewhere, though I’m not sure where exactly that “somewhere” is.
I kind of just wanted to build a little world that mirrored my imagination. A kind of scale-model. So I wanted it to be a little cold and sad and spooky and, hopefully, also fun. Like some kind of weird, floppy theme park made of bound paper squares.
Biblioklept: How did you compose that “scale-model”? Did you have an outline from the outset?
Schofield: There were a few structural “rules” I came up with, and the rest I sort of made up as I went. Like I knew I’d have thirty pieces total, and they’d all be titled for successive days in June. It’s funny, a lot of the momentum in the book just comes from that progression of calendar days. I guess we’re just culturally wired to feel like we’re going somewhere when we see those days slide by. But in the book it’s all relatively arbitrary, and if you were to take the days away as titles, things would feel a lot more meandering.
My other big structural decision was to start every piece with “This morning,” which would become a kind of refrain throughout the book. I kind of thought of it a bit like a dinner bell, indicating one course of the meal was over, and we were moving on to the next.
Then as I was writing all the individual pieces, I’d cherry pick certain images and phrases I liked, and then be sure to repeat them later on. That way the reader’s brain would kind of light up as they recognized parts of a pattern, even though the pattern wasn’t really saying anything specific. I think that kind of thing is important when you don’t have a more familiar storytelling structure to rely on. You need to give the reader something to hold on to.
And for myself as writer, all these patterns and rules gave me just as much of an anchor. It meant I wasn’t just spinning off into some sort of insane, incomprehensible word soup. I’d always be aware that I’d have to wrap things up at some point, and move on to the next “day.”
Biblioklept: Your book The Last Days of Tokyo shares some of the anchoring features you mention—beginning each page with the phrase “On the last day of Tokyo,” for example, and the image of a salaryman fleeing in horror, his face an echo of Munch’s The Scream.
Kevin Thomas’s new book Horn! (from OR Books) collects the book reviews he’s been doing for the past few years at the Rumpus. Kevin reviews new books (and occasionally reissues) in comic strip form. Over a series of emails, Kevin talked with me about his process, how he got started, the books that have stuck with him the most over the years, and his theory that The Life Aquatic with SteveZissou is a secret remake of Three Amigos!Find Kevin on Goodreads,Twitter, and Tumblr.
Biblioklept: You’ve been reviewing books at The Rumpus for a couple of years now in your strip Horn! How did the strip start? Did it start with The Rumpus, or before?
Kevin Thomas: I had been making these primitive autobiographical webcomics under the “Horn!” moniker for about a year when The Rumpus Book Club started. One of the selling points of the book club was that if you reviewed a book and the editors liked it, they’d publish it on the site. So I dedicated one comic a month to reviewing these books, and after the third submission was accepted, The Rumpus asked me if I wanted to make it a regular strip.
Biblioklept: What other kinds of comics did you make before that? Did you have any training or background in cartooning?
KT: No, I was trained, to put it generously, to be a composer. Before that I wanted to be a poet. I had great teachers in both of those fields, but never even thought about taking a studio art class. Maybe the fact that I hadn’t yet tried and failed at comics was what drew me to it.Continue reading →
Every story in Jessica Hollander’s début collection In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place feels thoroughly real, deeply authentic, and if we already know the contours of these plots—perhaps having lived some of them ourselves—Hollander makes us experience them anew with her bristling, strange sentences. Hollander writes here of families on the brink and families broken, families fragmenting and families forgetting. She conjures domestic spaces limned with ghosts and memories, children and parents who aren’t quite sure how to be a family, but who nevertheless try—even if trying is really just imagining.
Jessica was kind enough to discuss her writing with me over a series of emails, sharing her thoughts on sentences, families, and zombies.
Biblioklept: When did you start working on the stories that make up In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place? The collection feels really unified in its tone, themes, and images. Many of the stories were published in different journals and magazines before they were collected—did you always envision them collected? Were there stories you left out that you felt didn’t fit?
Jessica Hollander: I worked on a lot of these stories while in my MFA program, so over four years, though a couple date back even further than that. I was interested in trying out new voices and forms, but I kept examining similar questions and anxieties, just from different angles. During the years I wrote most of these stories, I lived through a lot of “big” moments – marriage, parenthood, home-ownership – and writing was a way to deal with some of my anxieties in doing what our society tells us we should do. I constantly questioned why I wanted these things—if I really wanted them or if I’d only been conditioned to want them. I thought a lot about identity and what happens to it once you start taking on roles with so much cultural baggage attached to them, as I became a wife, a mother, etc., which is why in some of the stories the characters are even referred to by these titles. It’s a battle between the role and their individuality.
I didn’t think about writing the stories for a collection. I knew I was “worrying” particular subject matter that was important to me, and it was exciting to see trends in tone and imagery develop, but it wasn’t until I’d accumulated a mass of work that I started sifting through it. And many stories were left out that didn’t seem to fit or that years later didn’t interest me as much anymore.
Biblioklept: One thing I love about the stories in the collection is how they take on those “big” moments you mention—how alienating it is all of a sudden to inhabit a new role that’s already been socially scripted in some way. Do your stories start from those conflicts, or from something else? I mean, do you start by trying to write (through, against, about) the anxieties, or do the stories germinate in other ways?
JH: Most of the time I don’t have a clear idea of what I’m going to write about. I’ll start with a character or a small scene inspired by something I saw or experienced, but often I’ll start with style—wanting to try out a modular story or write about characters who have titles instead of names or I’ll want to try a particular point of view I haven’t written from in awhile or I will write a sentence and see if I’m interested in the voice. I have to be interested in the sentence level to push a story further, so sentences come before themes or even character for me. But that’s what was strange and exciting about the stories that came together to form this collection—I seemed to keep worrying over these similar themes, anxieties over identity and role-shifts, but it wasn’t planned. I guess that’s the part of writing that the subconscious has a bigger hand in. A lot of my extended family was surprised when they read the collection because the stories seemed so pessimistic about things like family and connections between people. They tell my parents, “But she had such a happy childhood!” And now they see me, and I am married and have kids and (besides general anxieties) I am happy (though it’s hard to write that word without quotations—what does “happy” mean?). And of course these stories are fiction, it isn’t me, but it all still comes from me and things I’m thinking about on some level.
Biblioklept: I can imagine those family reactions—because the stories seem so real, so true, so authentic. But I think a lot of that authenticity originates from the sentences, which you bring up here. In many of the stories, the reader gets a whole story out of just a sentence or two, and part of that story comes from the disconnect between the way a character might perceive the world and the way that the other sentences have represented that world—like the poor babysitter of the title story. Is the sentence as important to you as a reader as it is to you as a writer?
JH: The sentence is important to me as a reader. There was a time when I didn’t really even think about what language could do to a story—I only noticed macro-level things like plot and character, then later I got more interested in image and metaphor. Now, to me, it seems like the central energy of a piece comes from the sentences. If I’m not interested in the writing, if there’s no strangeness or surprises or just some poetic sense of words interacting with each other, I rarely stick around to find out about plot and character.
Biblioklept: I think the sentences in your collection mediate the tension between the simultaneous reality/irreality of domestic life, of the weirdness of being in a family—that a family is a set of contingent relationships, never stable. In one of our earlier emails, you mentioned working on new material with a “hyper-real semi-comic tone but with some darker threads” and that there might be “zombies and haunted houses and things” in your latest work. Is this a conscious shift away from the content of your collection, which focuses so much on families?
JH: Oh, no, the stories I’m working on now are still all about family and relationships, but I’m having some fun drawing from the female gothic tradition, examining the dark sides of domestic life and pressures of social/gender roles. Gothic literature is interested in what’s unexplainable, both inside and outside of us, and looks at impulses based in emotion and not logic. There’s hauntings from the past and monsters inside of us, battles between logic and emotion, repressing feelings that later manifest destructively, and humans being drawn to the sublime and the numinous: things that inspire both fear and awe, that remind us of our own demise, but encourage us to see beauty in sadness, death, and suffering. So certainly relevant to families!
Biblioklept: You teach writing now here in the South—do you think that the Southern Gothic tradition has influence you at all? Why do you think that we so strongly identify Southern lit as Gothic?
JH: Gothic is often about hauntings from the past, and I think a lot of people view the south as haunted, by slavery and economic disparities and the war. A lot of southern gothic writers (Faulkner, O’Connor, Williams) confront or critique southern romanticism, a longing for the old south as a magical place where chivalry and passionate emotions thrived that was unfortunately corrupted/destroyed by outsiders and modernity. But we know the old south was not so beautiful as that; it was of course a complex place where a lot of dark things passed between humans. Classic Gothic literature (Frankenstein, Dracula, Castle of Otranto, Edgar Allan Poe’s work) is romantic, too, with long passages about the sublimity of nature and characters moved by strong emotions (including grief, despair, anger, and love), but Gothic always exposes the dark urges of humans, and how people inevitably contribute to their own demise.
Biblioklept: What authors do you encourage your students to read?
JH: I’m really conscious of exposing students to a lot of different styles of writing, from traditional realism to postmodern experiments, so we can talk about how choices different authors make in terms of language, image, structure, portrayal of reality, and so on shape theme and meaning. This seems like the best way to prepare students to make conscientious choices when defining their own aesthetic interests and to recognize the wide variety of options available to them. Toward the realism side of things, I like Michael Cunningham, Dan Chaon, and Jennifer Egan; for maximalism, Alice Munroe; Lorrie Moore, Miranda July and Raymond Carver I use for hyper-realism and minimalism; Christine Schutt for lyricism; Sherman Alexie, Haruki Murakami, and Kellie Link for magical realism and surrealism; Jessica Hagedorn and Michael Martone for formalism; and George Saunders and Stacey Richter for absurdism. And it depends on the class. I use different authors for the gothic class and for the linked story workshop I’m teaching now, but I always try for variety.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
JH: I haven’t stolen a book from a store or library, but there’s one book that I borrowed and never returned: the Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor. When I lived in North Carolina a few years, I lent a writer friend my copy of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which she amazingly hadn’t read, and she lent me the O’Connor book, which amazingly I hadn’t read. I was happy with the one I ended up with. She must’ve been, too, or maybe she forgot we’d switched, but we never swapped those books back to each other. Maybe it foreshadowed my move further south to Alabama and my interest in dark humor and gothicism.
I first interviewed Lars Iyer in 2011, after the publication of his novel Spurious, the beginning of a trilogy that concluded with Exodus(my favorite of the three).I asked Lars to talk with me about his trilogy for an email interview, and we ended up discussing failure, comedy, optimism, academia, American writing, Britain in the mid-eighties, and his forthcoming novel Wittgenstein Jr.
Biblioklept: Why a trilogy? Was that by design? Is it a trilogy?
Lars Iyer: Spurious was only a beginning. I wanted to historicise my characters, to present their friendship as part of a larger social, economic and political context. Otherwise, I risked merely contributing belatedly to the literature of the absurd.
Biblioklept: I want to talk about the end of Exodus but that seems like bad form for an interview. Spoilers, etc. Can you comment on where you leave your protagonists, or how you leave them, or why you leave them?
LI: I leave my protagonists roughly where they were at the beginning of the trilogy: rudderless, rather lost, full of a sense of their failure, but with their friendship, such as it is, intact. ‘No hugs, no lessons’: my characters haven’t learned anything…
Biblioklept: Why can’t they learn? Why the repetition? Why not a heroic arc? Why not a saving grace?
LI: Perhaps because learning implies a kind of resolution that I think is inappropriate for the characters. Kundera says something apposite about Don Quixote. Cervantes makes his would-be knight-errant set off in search of battles, ready to sacrifice his life for a noble cause, ‘but tragedy doesn’t want him’. Kundera goes on:
since its birth, the novel is suspicious of tragedy: of its cult of grandeur; of its theatrical origins; of its blindness to the prose of life. Poor Alonzo Quijada. In the vicinity of his mournful countenance, everything turns into comedy.
So it is with my trilogy. No tragedy! No heroism! No tragic catharsis, that would see the tragic hero being dragged back into line. And no comic catharsis either, in which the older norms of a traditional societal system are reaffirmed. So much comedy is self-congratulatory, self-reassuring: the humour of good cheer, of port and cigars. It shores up things as they are. This is why I can never bear to watch comedy on television. It’s so rare to see comedians turn the joke on themselves. We need cruel comedy. Black comedy, which laughs at itself laughing…
Why the use of repetition in my novels? Because I want to portray the breakdown of things as they are, not once, but again and again. Failure, without amelioration. Serio-comic breakdown, without restitution. Anomie. Helplessness. Crushed hope. How else to acknowledge the prose of our lives?
Much of the humour of DonQuixote, depends on the contrast between lofty ideals and the concrete, everyday, corporeal life. The humour of my trilogy is analogous – but, of course, our everyday is utterly changed! A generalised precarity, un- and under-employment, free-floating anxiety, consumerism, the emphasis on self-representation, the sense that history is over, that politics is all played out, that financial and climatic catastrophe loom…
The tragedy of everyday life is that it’s not even tragic. It never reaches the lofty heights of tragic grandeur. Well, nor do my characters. When W. is at his most wretched, he cannot even die – that’s the end of Dogma. When W. is at his most revolutionary, participating in his own version of the Occupy movement, as at the end of Exodus … well, I won’t spoil the story, but it won’t surprise readers of previous books in the trilogy that there is neither a heroic arc nor a saving grace. Continue reading →
This is the 2nd part of my conversation with Ilan Stavans about The Plain in Flames, his translation of Juan Rulfo’s short story collection El Llano en Llamas. Catch up with part 1 here. Lauren Flinner made the artwork below. (Editor’s note: “Schade” is George D. Schade, who did the first English translation of Juan Rulfo’s short stories as The Burning Plain.)
The goal of putting these stories out in English is to say, “I can’t see the world without them.” I believe that I can dress the stories in a way that is truthful to the original. But now that they’re there, it is up to whomever comes to the text to be able to synchronize with the stories.
Rulfo said, upon finishing Pedro Paramo, “I couldn’t make head nor tail of it, which signaled to me that it was finished.” When did you know you were finished?
I take after Walt Whitman – I know that I am finished when I have finally forced myself to send it to the editor and begin the editorial process, and when (or if) I open it again – as you are making me do right now [laughs] – there is always a feeling of discomfort, “mm, maybe I should have done this slightly different,” because the Ilan Stavans that is sitting with you is not the Ilan Stavans of a year ago, who had the text and was reacting to life in a particular way.
A text is finished the moment the text reaches the page. There is always the temptation to retouch it. There is always the sense, in my view, that one should move forward, and what you did then is an expression of that time, and you should do other projects.
In the introduction you mention that Rulfo’s Mexican Spanish includes countless peasantisms, and that it would seem very jarring if you tried to mimic them in this era. Why did you not include them and what made them so jarring?
It is jarring because… let me transpose it just for a second into the slice of a culture that I think you will understand better. If I tried to translate a rap song from English into Spanish, I will find very quickly that there is no easy referent to the exact same culture in the Spanish speaking world, and that slang in one culture works in one way that doesn’t work in others. If I use the word “chota” in Spanish to describe police, there is no word in English that will make me convey the sense of fear of the degradation, of abuse, of disgust that chota has. “Cops” doesn’t quite work…
But that already brings an animalistic view here that you don’t have in Spanish. So, slang or speech that connects particularly with a region, localisms, or with a class, are very difficult to convey and you don’t want to have the wrong impression. It would have been very easy to use, for instance, language of farmers in the Midwest to recreate certain words that the peasants in Mexico in the 1950s are using. But if I had done that, what people would have thought in those words would be to connect it with Midwest America. The context would have totally been destroyed. And so you have to sometimes sacrifice geographical or cultural contexts in order to creatively convey the content of a word. You can translate words, but culture does not easily translate.
In most of those cases, would you keep the original Spanish, instead of using the jarring word?
I would keep the Spanish because I felt that the Spanish was no longer foreign. Take the word campesino. Campesino is a word that, in 1967, for Schade, might have meant “peasant”. But today if you say campesino, it is clearly a term that is used in certain parts of Mexico and Central America to denote somebody who is illiterate, who has no access to power, who has been alienated from urban society, for decades and decades. “Peasant” has a very different connotation. The word patrón is probably even a better example. Patrón could be simply “boss,” or “leader.” But the word patrón in Spanish means really… when you use “no patrón,” you really mean you are inferior to the person you are connected to. Inferior not only in a momentary way, but in terms of class, in terms of humanity, you consider yourself below that other individual. It is very difficult to look for an equivalent to patrón. And yet, the word patrón is so established that I chose to leave it in several places, because I believe that the English language readers have been exposed to it for long enough to react to it, to get the sensibility.
Reading your translation of “Luvina,” you use the poetic phrase “rumor of wind.” I read The Burning Plain to see how Schade took it – “noise” – and clearly you see this as an issue of translation.
I can tell you in general that the choice had to do with the fact that I wanted to recreate the poetry of the original, el rumor del aire, and simply “noise” wouldn’t have done it. Even though it is less clear in English, the poetry in Spanish is unavoidable.
And if you see the title… I’ll tell you. The title in Spanish has the alliteration – El Llano en Llamas. Llano. Llamas. In English, the first translation was The Burning Plain, which is so dull, so plain, so uninteresting. I immediately said I’ll do it, but it has to be The Plain in Flames, which plays with the alliteration. The Juan Rulfo Foundation said “we love it.” The publisher said “we can’t do it” – because people have already connected The Burning Plain with Rulfo, and if you change the title, you can lose readers. And I said I’m not doing that. If we don’t have“The Plain in Flames,” I won’t do it. And finally we were able to convince them. So they resisted for marketing reasons. That’s something that translators often have to deal with.
I noticed in The Burning Plain, the titles of the stories are extremely different – “No Dogs Bark” as opposed to “You Don’t Hear Dogs Barking” in your translation – which is striking.
The Spanish title – “¿No oyes ladrar los perros?” “You don’t hear the dogs bark.” That was a perfect story! The Spanish is so challenging. You see, in Spanish, it could mean it doesn’t have a question mark. But it could almost implicitly suggest that there is a question there. “Don’t you hear the dogs barking?” And this is the story of a father who is carrying his son… it’s an astonishing story, my God, that enough would have given Rulfo a place in the history of literary classics…The father is taking the son [who is wounded]. The father really doesn’t want to take the son because he is so ambivalent at the life the son has led. He believes that the son actually killed the mother because of his behavior. But he has to take him. The son is covering his ears, and he can’t hear for that reason, and the son is supposed to be the one that would hear the dogs barking when they approach the town where they will find the doctor. But you have the impression that the father might be walking in circles, to prolong the agony. And so it could be, “Don’t you hear the dogs barking?” “You don’t hear the dogs barking.”
I would send my translation to Harold [Augenbraum, co-translator], and he would say, “are you sure of this? What has Schade done? What other options do we have here?” We would have five or six options and I would go back to my original one, try to defend it, until we finally had the one that worked best.
In the story, the father still carries the son. And the father takes some joy, I think, about making his son cry about his mother.
I have to tell you of an experience that transformed my life. Last November  when the book came out, I got an invitation from a high-security prison in upstate New York. The inmates were all reading, in a class, The Plain in Flames. They wanted me to come and talk about the translation. I have never had such a rapt, passionate audience, and we spent a long time discussing that particular story. It has been said that no one understands Hamlet better than a person who has committed a crime, who has actually murdered. And in this particular case, I can tell you that this, between twenty-five and sixty year olds, all of them criminals in one way or another reading the story, transformed my way of seeing the story. They had either the burden of having killed someone, or understood that condition… and they felt the ambivalence of the father’s duty in a way that I had never seen before. It’s as if the story had been written for them.
I see immense differences in the design in both translations. First, with the illustrations and the very stylized text for the story titles in The Burning Plain. One of Rulfo’s photographs graces the cover of The Plain in Flames, and it strikes me as being very similar to his writing, as you say “realismo crudo,” interested with the rawness of life. The Burning Plain almost looks like a collection of fairy tales because of this sort of design. Did you have any say in the use of font, whether or not there would be illustrations, or any other matters of design?
I admire Rulfo as a writer without reservations, even though not everything that he wrote is superb and supreme, enough of it is to put him, in my view, in that shelf of classics that ought to be read for generations. I admire him not in equal measure, but almost, as a photographer as well. His photographs, when you see them, you will realize, are about those silences, and about that sense of desolation and isolation that exists in the Mexican countryside.
I wanted, and thus I petitioned to the Juan Rulfo Foundation, to use more than one photograph, and to see if one or two, or maybe more, could be used in the interior. They told us right away no, and you can only use one on the cover. I was at first disappointed – I thought it would be beautiful for the reader to see the photographs in connection with the book, because this a visual window, by the author himself, to his own stories, unfiltered, untarnished by a translator. Photography doesn’t have a translation, it comes as you see it. But they denied it, and now I think that I am grateful that they did, because the stories are read as stories, and that’s the way Rulfo wrote them. He did not write them to be accompanied by the photographs – they are published in separate volumes.
I am thrilled that I chose the one on the cover. If I have a reservation – and my editor and I claim that reservation – it’s that the font is a little too small. I wish it was a little larger, but I did not have any control on how the book was designed in its interior. I like the spareness, the big spaces of white; I like that we didn’t have any folksy type of imagery. But the stories live or die on their own merit. The same thing is true for the translation.
The complaint that I have about the font has to do with my aging. When I was younger I could read this in an easier way. Now I still can but I can perfectly sympathize with somebody who would say, “Oh, I’m sure those are great stories but the font is too small and I can’t read them.” And I think they should be accessible also to readers who might have that challenge.
I want to ask how that makes you feel as a writer and a translator. The design of the book has an immense impact on your reading. With The Burning Plain, the book itself is such an odd shape…
You have to think, also, in the 1960’s, Latin America was seen as a factory of folklore, much more connected to that kind of mythical past than the United States, which was already moving so fast into a post-capitalist stage of society. So, this style, this design of The Burning Plain reflects the way publishers and translators were looking at Latin America in that period, and here, with The Plain in Flames, I’m happy to say that, if this is a reflection of how we see it, Latin Americans have become contemporaries with the rest of the world, and we don’t need to turn it into folk stories – we can read them as legitimate, authentic, wonderful stories the way we would read them from an author from Russia or from Italy or Egypt or any other part of the world.
I grew up in Mexico and I came at age twenty-five to the United States. It was much easier for me to translate from English into Spanish, because Spanish was a language in which I had grown up in. English is my fourth language. And so it took me years to feel comfortable in English. I have reached a certain point in my life, linguistically, that there is a symmetry between the comfort that I have in Spanish and the comfort that I have in English. For that reason, if the same invitation by an editor had come to me fifteen years ago, when Spanish was much more a powerful force in my linguistic life and English was coming second, I would have had to say no, I don’t think I’m capable of translating Rulfo into English. In 2011, this symmetry was such that I thought I could do a service to Rulfo, that probably somebody who is a native English language speaker cannot do, because for me now the two languages are balanced.
Did that symmetry with English and Spanish come in any way from reading English literature?
It comes from literally having my life cut in two. Half of my life was spent outside the United States, and half of my life now has been spent within the United States, meaning I’ve lived my life inside and outside of English. And after twenty-five years the language becomes you, and you become the language. It comes from reading, it comes from being exposed to the language, it comes from becoming that culture – I am now an American, and a Mexican… I don’t know which is which.
What was your favorite story to translate? And which is your favorite story to read?
“It’s Because We’re So Poor,” the first one that I translated, it’s the story of a boy who is sitting next to his sister and their cow is carried away by the flooded river and he’s describing how their world has collapsed and how the reputation of the family is now in question… I adore that story. I adore “You Don’t Hear Dogs Barking.” If I had to choose ten stories from any writer and do an anthology for the future where only these ten stories would be read… that story would be there.
This is the moment to say that a good short story writer has ten, fifteen, maybe less, five stories to write, and that he or she spends his or her time trying to find which of those stories are going to be final… and many of them are exercises. Many of them are rehearsals for the big crime that will be committed in the defining story. I think some of the stories come as preparations for the great stories that you have in the book. But even a not-fully-developed story by Rulfo is an incredible story.
I am in the minority in not thinking that Pedro Paramo is a better book than this. There are many who think that Pedro Paramo is his greatest contribution. I believe El Llano en Llamas is the greatest contribution. I think some stories here are eternal.
Jason Schwartz’s novel John the Posthumous was published last year to wide acclaim, despite—or maybe because of—its challenging, disruptive qualities. With blurbs from Gordon Lish, Ben Marcus, and Sam Lipsyte, John the Posthumous had “cult novel” written all over it from the outset. It was a 2013 highlight for many critics, including K. Thomas Khan, who called it “a dizzyingly delightful and hypnotically haunting book that resists easy classification,” and David C. Winters, who described it as a “Fractal baroque: an unfurling art that enfolds us in incomprehension, in fear, but also in irreducible beauty.” In my review, I wrote that John the Posthumous is “strong, strange literature, a terrifying prose-poem that seizes history and folklore, science and myth . . . and distills it to a sustained, engrossing nightmare.”
Schwartz is the author of another book, A German Picturesque (1998). He lives and works in Florida. Schwartz kindly consented to an interview with me via email; his answers here approach the same oblique verbal dexterity that we see in his fiction. Get John the Posthumous from OR Books or your local bookstore.
Biblioklept: Your book John the Posthumous is a challenge to describe, let alone summarize. How do you describe the book to those who haven’t read it?
Jason Schwartz: I lie–it seems the only decent way to proceed. Why dwell upon unpleasant things?
Biblioklept: In a recent interview with 3:AM Magazine, you said that one of the first things you tried to write—in high school—was “a very long espionage novel.” You mentioned charts and appendices—lots of plots. In the same interview, you also say that you “favor format as someone else might favor plot,” which I think evinces in John the Posthumous and A German Picturesque. I’m curious what experiences—particularly what reading experiences—may have motivated a shift from an initial interest in writing plot-driven genre fiction to the stuff you write now.
JS: I’m sure I was abandoning other things too. I seem to recall something about a war. A catalog of imaginary battles, land and air–that would have been a handy enough project for a kid. Remember Little Wars? I don’t, but I like the idea of H.G. Wells and company concealed behind end tables, orchestrating cavalry raids. Unless the tactician was free to explore the drawing room, inspecting positions and so on, enumerating the wounded, admiring an especially fine artillery barrage. That seems more likely. But the would-be novel, espionage–I started that on a lark. I’d found an old Olivetti somewhere in the house–in the attic, I’d like to say, but we didn’t have an attic–and one thing led to another, et cetera, et cetera. A turn may or may not have occurred at that same moment, give or take, with all those devices, the appendices, the charts and annotated maps, captions for photographs that didn’t exist. Hard to say, exactly, going back now to the tenth grade. But they began to overtake the plot, such as it was. I liked some of the Bond books, and Graham Greene–still do–but I also liked The Encyclopedia of Espionage and that kind of thing, compendiums of jargon, biographies of Bulgarian spies. So maybe it was more the subject than the genre.
Biblioklept: Do you think about a particular audience when you compose?
JS: A young family, stranded on a mountain pass, killing time until help arrives. They take turns reading aloud–the text in question having been purchased by mistake and packed by accident, and later discovered in the luggage as potential kindling. The father shields the first child from those passages displaying traces of grotesquerie. The mother corrects the second child’s pronunciation or praises his elocution–as the case may be–on the occasion of the most ostentatious phrases. The third child, meanwhile, has wandered off into the woods. Ah!–it’s beginning to rain.
Biblioklept: Did John the Posthumous start as something smaller, like the pieces that make up A German Picturesque? Did you have the theme of adultery in mind from the outset?
JS: Yes, it was there from the outset, adultery, running through a number of things–directly and otherwise–and many of these appeared in magazines as individual pieces, beginning in 2003 or so. The “Corinthians” section, for instance, was once called “Breviary.” The final section in “Hornbook” was “Notation on Hidden Children.” Another one in that little series–a section in “Adulterium”–was “Notation on the Principal Graves.” There were changes in every case–all this happened over a very long period of time, obviously. “Housepost,” on the other hand, was done more or less at once, mostly in sequence. I published certain parts of this–“The Mary Casket” is an example–in various combinations, dismantling the house a few different ways.
Biblioklept: Your sentences are precise and concrete, but they also often refuse to give the reader something definite to grip on to. There’s a lot of power—and, I’d argue horror—in this restraint. How much of this technique is attributable to editing? How do you edit your work?
JS: As to the second question: it varies. No set method. And as to the first: I’m not really editing in that direction, no. I see this more as a simple matter of description. So–for instance–the schoolmarm in the museum, a wax form, with pins for eyes. A person of reputation in her hometown, I take it, and–it turns out–a distant relation of mine. I don’t wish to be flippant–or to sunder a cousin without good reason, here on the spur of the moment–but she seems easy enough to grasp in one’s hands, or at least as easy as any other set of letters. And she was, she certainly was, when they cut her in two, at the waist, and then into several smaller portions–her coat and purse set off to one side, forgotten there (the former eaten by moths, I’d guess, the remnants used to stuff the dummies on the second floor; the latter left on a shelf and, later on, mistaken for something foreign and important, given its own display)–in order to get her out the door. She’d have used, by the way, back at the schoolhouse, a razor blade and a ruler, according to a practice now out of fashion. “Children, let’s remove all your objectionable words and phrases, replacing them with more companionable ones.” And in the evening, the janitor and janitress would sweep up the scraps, and then use them to write ransom notes.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
JS: Sure. Including one from my grandparents’ bookcase, I’m ashamed to say. The book was The Deer Park. I was three, I believe, or four, or five. I was not, at the time, a fan of Norman Mailer. I must have mistaken it for something else–or maybe I had plans for it in the construction of a fort or what have you, some structure already underway, or only in the earliest planning stages, back home, down in the basement, off in a corner reserved for projects of just that sort. I suppose it could have been the jacket art, an attraction to that, but I can’t recall what was depicted on the cover, or even the colors on display. It’s unfair to speculate in this way, I know, but–to be on the safe side, and to put the matter out of mind, once and for all–let’s just assume it was a stick-figure deer, in black, on a field of red. Very much, in other words, the kind of stick figure–and field–I’d have quite disliked as a child. Anyway, my grandmother gave chase. She shouted in a language manufactured on the spot, and composed wholly of bedbugs and regret, dozens of variations on these words, accompanied by near-simultaneous translations, bent by the effect of her breathlessness, and taking curious shapes, in formation, at my back and overhead–or so it all seemed to me. And then? I was caught, of course.
Luis de Miranda:Haute Culture is a new venture in luxury publishing with a mission to bring masterpieces of global literature to English-speaking readers around the world. Since your site is called “Biblioklept,” I’ll start by saying that we are a new kind of Robin Hood: we give to both the “poor” and the “rich.” We offer free e-books to the modern global reader interested in discovering hidden gems of classic European literature and, simultaneously, we offer individuals of greater means the opportunity to become mini-Medici’s, actively supporting culture while enjoying a luxurious limited edition book that will increase in value year after year.
This model is summed up in our slogan: Physical books should be sublime, digital books should be free. The sales of our limited luxury editions—each a distinctive art object—support the distribution of free e-books for each of our titles. Buyers of our limited editions, in effect, become benefactors—or “Book Angels,” as we call them. I believe this model will satisfy collectors and book lovers.
Furthermore, as e-books become cheaper and cheaper, I want to create a model that does not depend on the diminishing revenues of e-book sales and allows us to reach as many readers as possible, particularly younger readers. If we want younger generations to read quality literature, and not just the latest bestsellers, free e-books are the way to go.
Biblioklept: Is the possible disconnect between electronic books and “luxury” an issue? Does this new publishing model privilege the book as an aesthetic object?
LdM: This model privileges the free distribution of quality literature and it reinvents the physical book as a cult object. I aim to create unique objects that make the poetry of texts tangible. As we all spend more time in front of screens, I believe that the experiential aspect of the printed book will become more important, with readers looking for a higher quality object. I foresee the return of the “gentleman’s library” (or “gentlewoman’s library”), with fine leather volumes and limited editions—the polar opposite of e-books. Our limited editions will embody my great respect for the ritual of reading and for the craftsmanship of book making, while at the same time subsidizing the free distribution of our e-books and building a new global audience for iconic European literary masters.
Biblioklept: Is Haute Culture the first group to employ this model, to your knowledge?
LdM: Yes. We are innovating and experimenting. I don’t know if ours will be an economically viable model in the end, but it is definitely a desirable one. Since we are exploring uncharted territory, we have to take things step by step. We are avoiding the established highways over artificial ponds, and attempting to build our own bridge. We might fail or we might create a new path that the others will soon follow.
Biblioklept: Why did you choose A.H. Tammsaare’s Truth and Justice as the first book in this series?
LdM: Our first publication is actually a new translation and an ultra-limited bilingual edition of the Flaubert novella, Felicity: The Tale of the Simple Heart. In December 2013, it will be on sale at Assouline Boutiques in New York, Los Angeles, London, and Paris.
Volume I of Tammsaare’s Truth and Justice is planned for publication in 2014. It is a fine example of an untranslated classic. Tammsaare himself is an icon of 20th century Estonian literature. Two museums, a monument, and a park in the center of Tallinn are all dedicated to him. Unlike some traditional classics, which are widely referred to but rarely read, his masterpiece, Truth and Justice, still retains its place at the front of Estonian bookshelves and yet this epic work has never been translated into English. I also have some personal reasons for launching the press with an Estonian icon like Tammsaare. I wrote my last novel in Estonia three years ago and I wanted to pay homage to the land that inspired me.
Biblioklept: What is Tammasaare’s book about? Why is it important?
LdM: Truth and Justice is considered Tammsaare’s most important work. It was written during the rise of dictators—Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini—and it captures the evolution of Estonia from Tsarist province to independent state. Though it’s deeply rooted in Estonian peasant life, the first volume deals with timeless literary and philosophical issues, developing a vigorous, straightforward narrative that addresses the dual nature of the human psyche.
The book’s characters, storylines, and language continue to inform Estonia’s culture today. References to Truth and Justice are pervasive, and one hears its echoes in contemporary Estonian literature, as well as other art forms. One need only call two men “Andres and Pearu” for any Estonian to understand the nature of their relationship.
Volume I presents life in an Estonian village, as farmers battle against nature during the last quarter of the 19th century. The two main characters, both unique and powerful men, represent the essential conflicts of human nature: not only good vs. evil, but also hope vs. conservatism, conquest vs. pettiness. The saga explores how human impulses compete with each other and complete the characters.
Although the first volume seems entirely dedicated to peasant life in rural Estonia at the threshold of modernity, the book deals with fundamental issues that are quite relevant today. You might say this book reflects what we are trying to do at Haute Culture. Truth and Justice is a story of simple people who work the land endlessly, striving to build a world were truth and justice prevail, where good is fostered and protected, not killed by conformity or lack of courage. Beautiful things grow slowly like plants. Perhaps this is a lesson for all the capitalists of the world.
Biblioklept: What future plans do you have for Haute Culture? What other books would you like to publish?
LdM: We are currently translating a Russian book by the cult novelist Yuri Mamleyev, called Shatuny. We are working with one of the best Russian to English translators, Marian Schwartz, who translated Bulgakov and Berberova. Shatuny is a mind-blowing, hallucinatory story about the quest for absolute truth. Maybe we are obsessed by truth?
Bringing untranslated texts to English readers around the world is one aspect of a wider mission to bring singular, fine, original works to the global corpus. That has always been my goal—to democratize access to culture. I’ve been to the Frankfurt Book Fair many times and met with publishers and agents in New York. I’ve noticed not only that many great European works have not been translated to English, but also that the mainstream US and UK publishers tend to translate only genre bestsellers—thrillers for example.
English is now the international language and I believe it’s possible, and indeed essential to bring to the international psyche works that aren’t standardized and cliché, but truly represent a unique viewpoint. I plan to build a catalogue that only includes masterpieces. Publishers who rely on the old publishing model must often publish potential bestsellers they secretly despise, yet there are so many excellent contemporary classics waiting to be discovered and translated into English. With Haute Culture, I refuse to compromise. Literature has the potential to create a more diverse and interconnected world, but in order to reach that potential we must fight against a profit-driven culture.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
LdM: When I was 18, I had a summer job at a bookshop in the Pompidou Center in Paris. At the end of my first day, I took about 20 books home with me, feeling that I had found Ali Baba’s cave, but a few days later I felt guilty and replaced all the books on their shelves.
New Zealand writer Carl Shuker is the author of four novels, including Three Novellas for a Novel, cult novel The Lazy Boys, and The Method Actors. His latest novel is Anti Lebanon (Counterpoint Press) is a strange work of surreal horror, set primary in Lebanon in the immediate fallout of the Arab Spring. In my review, I wrote that Anti Lebanon’s “trajectory repeatedly escapes the reader’s expectations, driving into increasingly alien terrain.”
Carl was kind enough to talk about his work over a series of emails. He was especially kind in letting Biblioklept publish the short story “Fiction” which he mentions in the first part of this interview.
Biblioklept: How did Anti Lebanonbegin? Did you set out to write about a Lebanese Christian? Tell us about the genesis of the novel and your research process.
Carl Shuker: Anti Lebanon started with the words, and the disjunction between my sense memories of the words, the place names and the language, and the atrocity exhibition of the Lebanese civil war of ‘75-’90 (which we are reliving now in the Syrian civil war).
I was brought up moderately conservative Anglican, which early on involved a lot of Bible stories and Sunday school. I had a very deep and powerful connection with the vocabulary. I remember tasting the words in a totally engrossing synesthesia: lying in bed in a small town in the South Island of New Zealand, ten years old and waiting for sleep and saying the words to myself.
Lebanon, for example, was thick milk and Alpine honey (as Nabokov once described his life). You can taste it in those pregnant Bs, those labile Ls and sonorous Os and Ns. And Syria and Damascus—with the latter I had generated some fertile misprision, I think, because into it I had somehow conflated “alabaster.” So the city had the word within it, and these cool and chalky white walls I felt up under my fingernails were as real to me as the blanket at my cheek. Jounieh, Jtaoui, and Bsharre; Ehden, and Zghorta.
Sometime in late 2006 I lost my agent (of only two years), via a one-paragraph email entitled, chillingly, “Cutting back.” He was a bit older and I hadn’t made him any money so it was understandable.
I saw, after eight years of trying to get it published, that although it did well critically and got a very cult following of some very cool and interesting people (a lot of eastern European teenage girls, pleasingly), that The Lazy Boys (2006) was not going to be any kind of breakthrough. There would be no musical. That book does sometimes feel to me like a cursed chalice. Another two years of querying agents for my Three Novellas for a Novel projecthad not gotten me representation again. I had no publisher for it. A long-gestating film project with a director and producer finally fell through due to funding and all the difficulties surrounding that. (The screenplay for The Lazy Boys is sitting humming in my drawer.) I was running out of money I had from a prize and I felt after nearly ten years of work I was back almost at square one. Currently I have no agent and I think I’m fortunate to have gotten through the current convulsions in publishing under my own steam. I don’t know what I’d advise a young writer right now, about getting represented.
With writing and publishing, which is a tough and demanding ambient, the cliché is very useful: you get bitter or you get better. Working on a new thing is the best and only antidote to publishing an old thing. It’s always and only the writing that saves you. I started looking around for a new project. Though I don’t write short stories I wrote a suicide note for the lit-fict writer of the time and of the writer I’d almost become, a short story called “Fiction” that started to encompass elements of this new obsession with Lebanon, and to extend it to the consequences of that obsession.
I’m intuitive and a weird hybrid of deeply elemental and playful and airy fairy when I look around for a new project. But I’ve learned to identify and focus in on my obsessions, which is an important skill for a novelist. And usually it is what is troubling me; what I can’t figure out.
Etienne Sakr, a Christian militia leader in the civil war, who has been subsequently exiled and tarred as a rightist and racist and has not emerged from the post-war period at all well, wrote, “Politics is not the art of the possible. Politics, like all great art forms, is the art of the impossible. Otherwise there is no problem to resolve.”
Like all great art forms. This was a conception of the novel as well. The writing is a resolving of unresolved and seemingly irresolvable elements—it’s a tension, also, that can sustain you through the long period of composing something as big and demanding as a novel. Solving some problem you couldn’t any other way.
And the solution was the mode I think I am refining, that I work in by default anyhow. Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams: “Contradictory thoughts do not try to eliminate one another, but continue side by side, and often combine to form condensation products, as though no contradiction existed.”
In Anti Lebanon it was: how to resolve and express this deep but wordless feeling I have for the words of this country, the bloody holy dirt of this country, and the tropes and gestures of the vampire, the monster?
I prepped and read as much as I could on the civil war, and went to Beirut in May 2008 to taste the dirt. This was the same month I published the Three Novellas in serial online for a limited time for free or more, a la Radiohead’s In Rainbows, clearing the decks for something new (These were rereleased with a new introduction, for all ebook formats, in 2011: http://www.threenovellasforanovel.com).
And while I was there Hezbollah invaded Beirut, and I was given my novel to the sound of gunfire in the west, to the sight of an old Christian making fun of the Ashura and of the Shi’a who now owned his city and his country, wearing a comedy fez and mock self-flagellating with a plastic whip.
Biblioklept: Was it always in your head to introduce the vampire element into the plot? How did that come about?
CS: Well, when I started Anti Lebanon I started with the scene in the amusement park with my protagonist Leon, a security guard there who’s fallen asleep and wakes up to “a dead and freakish still.” I had all these materials in my head for the book:
I had the country, my obsession with it. I had the this amazing historical moment when Hezbollah took over, in response to the Sunni-heavy government under Saad Hariri trying to control them, to shut down their illegal communications network. The revenge of the Shia in Lebanon against the Sunni who have always looked down upon them. And the first time the seemingly untouchable Hezbollah turned their guns against fellow Lebanese. It was a complex contemporary political and military moment that I think novels have a particular genius in showing us, if novelists would only look at them.
I had Christians in Lebanon after the civil war. All the tragedy and the bloodthirstiness of Lebanese Christianity. The decline of things, which I’m very attracted to: pride in decline. And I had this character of Leon’s father very powerfully in mind: a big Christian, both physically and in personality; a security guard, a burly, charismatic, working man and leader and a civil war veteran. A man I became friendly with in east Beirut. One of those powerful male figures in our lives we feel are untouchable and always right. (“Three times jujitsu champion of Lebanon during the civil war; when? who remembers; who knows now.”) I had the contradictions creeping into his life, as the Hezbollah he has to support, because the Christian party he supports has aligned with them, do something very ambiguous and worrying.
But there was something missing, some binding element, or catalyst, some next level shit that could help the novel embody the whole messy idea. Somehow represent the addiction to violence, the ancestral handing-down of this kind of obligation to violence, and the sense of the blood in the soil always under your feet in Beirut. Walking a particular corner, looking at the men outside Phalange headquarters, and knowing Black Saturday started here where you stand. I had always wanted to write a vampire, one day. It was right in front of me, begging me to see it.
When I finally realised it, that was when the problems started.
Biblioklept: Okay—you can’t just stop there. Tell us about those problems.
CS: Oh my God. It would seem so silly and all writers’ problems when it comes to actually writing are the same or similar. Not finding a voice. Doubting your own voice. Time. Jobs. Debt. Money. Doubt, principally. The only mentionable and salvageable things, because they are, in retrospect, possibly funny, are the symptoms: I became convinced I was losing my hair. I went to an ER one day and had to abashedly (I was then a 36-year-old heavy smoker) tell the doctor (kind of leaning into him, and making an “I know this sounds stupid” face) that I thought I might be having a heart attack.
You don’t want to go into the emotions you feel when you enter a hospital ER thinking you’re having a heart attack and leave with some over-the-counter Gaviscon and one rogue ECG electrode still stuck to your ribs.
There were pressures. The worst were probably internal. But when my daughter was born she slept a lot of the time and I had a sudden superhuman burst of clarity and focus and went through the entire manuscript again stem to stern, took two weeks off work to rewrite one of the Japan sequences where Beirut and Lebanon had slipped off the page and the book had gotten floaty and lost, and then almost immediately I submitted it to Jack Shoemaker.
Biblioklept: The final third of the book, those Japan sequences and the Israel bit, those are some of my favorites. I think there’s a lot of picaresque energy there. Was Jack Shoemaker your editor as well as publisher?
CS: Jack is my first reader, then there’s a second, but he’s never edited me as a copy editor edits. He’s always been my greatest advocate and is an amazing reader (and his list speaks for itself) but I don’t even know if he edits anyone any more. My editor on the first two books was the incomparable Trish Hoard, who was then one half of Shoemaker and Hoard before Jack got Counterpoint back.
Biblioklept: Were you ever pressured or tempted to play up the vampire aspect of the novel as a means to, I don’t know, bolster its commercial appeal?
CS: Well I started the book in 2008 and very soon after Twilight hunched and slouched and pouted into my awareness and after about six seconds of thinking “oh cool, trickledown” I realised it was an unmitigated disaster for me. Not only was my vampirism in Anti Lebanon supposed to be truly terrifying – and geopolitical, and religious – plus it had to do with sex but was also kind of unsexy in the easier ways (in that the sex in the book is constrained by religion, and is difficult and a bit sad and more about relief and frustration), but it was also the kind of vampirism I actually believed in: a nearly physical manifestation of a metaphor that is so persistent and pervasive and persuasive: a shade.
So I asked myself would the audience of Twilight and True Blood really want to broaden their fun base into a novel about Beirut, Hezbollah, the Lebanese civil war and the Christian exodus, and I decided probably not. So I thought so I’m writing the wrong kind of vampirism to speak to these people, and too much vampirism to speak to everybody else who’s thoroughly sick of it, and I’m screwed when it comes to publication.
But the metaphor was so true and so right and the novel started to click “like a fucking Geiger counter” as dfw would have it, so I really had no choice. I stuck by the kind of vampire the book was into and the kind of questions the book was asking: is he or is he not a vampire? What is a vampire really? If the historical record clearly demonstrates so many acts that are far, far worse and the cause of so much more blood spilled than any act of vampirism, then what kind of creature is a vampire? Is he mourning?
Late in the war a Christian priest was quoted as saying, “For a long time it was fun. Playing in our own blood.” I put alongside this a Patrick Chauvel photograph of a priest in robes standing in a pile of shells firing a 50-cal. machine gun in south Lebanon in 1985. The glee on his face. A soldier beside him with his face in his hand. The material in the “pyr” chapter, about PLO soldiers ransacking the the Christian mausoleums in Damour: it was all true. What more evidence did I need? All good lit, music, film goes against what prevailing fashions, even if they’re dealing in the same ostensible material.
And here we recognize conclusive evidence of pyr: The process of exection extended to the dead. The Damour cemetery was invaded and it was a rout. They rooted out the corpsesnipers from the mausoleums, dragged the skeletonsoldiers from their elaborate Christian coffins, stripped them of their mortuary best, murdered their cadavers, pulling rib from rib, penetrating the vacant insides to locate and despoil and exect the very Christian soul.
–Anti Lebanon – 150
Plus, in terms of “commercial appeal”, Etienne Sakr said another smart thing:
“When you are fighting you either follow the cause and don’t get the money, or you follow the money and lose the cause.”
Biblioklept: There’s a lot in the book that makes the reader go, “Wait, what?” Is this real? Is this really happening to Leon? Is this in his head?” The section in Israel for example . . .
CS: The idea became for me the discipline of this particular novel, which was to attempt to analogise contemporary Christian Lebanon while invoking and revitalising the vampire genre. [Note: some spoilers follow in this response only]
Leon is a young Christian in a very precarious situation. Yet paradoxically he and his father are security guards. (The novel is riddled with them – and Leon kills one later.) With some fellow Christians he commits, through a fin de siècle hedonism, accident and the absence of inhibition bred of desperation and overfamiliarity, a violent crime against, not a rival sect, but a fellow Christian. This is the vulnerable, damaged Armenian jeweller Frederick Zakarian. And, believing him dead, as they try to dispose of his body Zakarian, tied up but seemingly still alive, bites him. With the only weapon Zakarian has any longer. Teeth.
It is here (though for close readers the inevitability is triggered at the threshold to Zakarian’s workshop) that the narrative attempts to successfully double or mirror Leon – as vampire, as criminal, as victim, failed son, inheritor of paternal sin and a psychology overdetermined by violence, and simply as mourning brother. To me, being undead and mourning share a lot of the same qualities.
There was a wonderful 1984 Playboy interview with the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt (despite the blood and compromise on his hands a very interesting polymath and political genius, who showed William Dalrymple the rooms of priceless religious artifacts he’d saved from the war – see Dalrymple’s excellent From the Holy Mountain). I had it as an epigraph for a time:
Q: How do you deal with those feelings on a personal level? How does it feel not to know if you or your family will live through another day?
A: We become inhuman. We no longer respond to normal human feelings.
—interview with Walid Jumblatt, Playboy 1984
Leon flees Lebanon when it becomes clear the Armenians, missing their man and the jewels he was working on (destined for Iranians), are talking to the Christians of Beirut who have decades-old scores to settle against Leon’s father for his alliances in the civil war. The factions begin to align around money. Leon’s flight from Lebanon also simply mirrors in a particular sense the horrible inevitability of the more general Christian flight after 1400 continuous years of settlement in that one place.
The scenes in Israel you mention, that feature a psychic during immigration questioning at the Allenby Bridge border: these are simply in-context extrapolations of the already wildly implausible real we’re all struggling to absorb.
Biblioklept: Can you tell us what you’re working on now? I know you’ve been working on something new…
CS: [sotto voce] Right now I’m writer in residence at Victoria University of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters, and the generosity and good company of students and staff here have allowed me to get 60,000 words into a new novel set in a medical journal in London. It’s a social comedy in the world of work, with a Straw Dogs strand and a healthy skepticism for the whole project of “a social comedy in the world of work” driving the plot—like Saki meeting Julio Cortazar in an argument over grammar and style in a London pub full of eccentric, driven healthcare professionals.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
CS: I once rescued Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night (in English) from a trashcan in Tokyo (and stole a great nickname for one of my dark drinking lazy boys: “Pazuzu, of the rotting genitals’). I was also prohibited from graduating from Victoria due to more than $1000 in overdue fees from the library. One of the books was David Bergamini’s astonishing Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy. So I have no regrets.
When I first read the press materials for Josh Melrod and Tara Wray’s documentary Cartoon College, I’ll admit that I was mostly interested in the prospect of seeing comix legends like Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, Lynda Barry, Chris Ware, Scott McCloud, and Stephen Bissette discuss their craft. What Melrod and Wray deliver though is much more—an intimate and often very moving look at the lives of the young artists who attend the prestigious Center for Cartoon Studies. This is a film about passion, drive, commitment, and what it means to be an outsider.
In my review, I wrote: “Cartoon College offers an intriguing story about real people trying to do something that they love, and I enjoyed that. This is a film about the impetus, motivation, and hard, hard work that goes into the creative process. Great stuff.”
Josh was kind enough to talk to me about making the film over a series of emails.
Biblioklept: How did you begin the documentary Cartoon College? How did the project come about?
Josh Melrod: In 2006 my wife, then my girlfriend, Tara Wray, had just finished her first movie, Manhattan, Kansas, and was looking for her next project. She’s a huge fan of Chris Ware and she read an article about how he’d been a visiting lecturer at CCS, which had just opened a year earlier, and that was enough to get her thinking about a cartoon school documentary. She asked me if I’d consider moving to Vermont for a year–we were living in New York, and had been for a while–and I said ok. Then we had to convince James Sturm and Michelle Ollie, who founded the school, to let us film, which took several months of emails and a couple of face-to-face meetings and a trip or two to White River Junction. Once they gave us the green light we basically packed up and moved to Vermont. That was in August of 2007, and we’ve been here ever since.
Biblioklept: So you guys were shooting for like, three years? When you started did you have an idea of the kind of story you wanted to tell in Cartoon College?
JM: Our original conceit for the movie was a year in the life of a cartoon school. It was supposed to be more about the institution and how it was helping to revitalize White River Junction, which had been a town in decline for about a century. So we shot for the 2007-2008 academic year and then started working with an editor in New York that summer. It took about six months to get a rough cut put together, but when all was said and done we weren’t happy with what we had. Part of it was that the story of the school’s impact on the town didn’t quite come together–it was an arc that was unfolding too slowly to really be seen during the year we’d been filming. But we also realized that what really interested us, much more than the school itself, was documenting the creative lives of the students and witnessing these aspiring artists at a very pivotal time in their careers. We basically scrapped the rough cut, which was a pretty difficult decision, and went back to film for what turned out to be another year-and-a-half.
Biblioklept: Some of the students, like Blair Sterett and Jen Vaughn, for example, are on screen a lot more than others. Was this because they were more open to the cameras? Were there students who were reticent to talk to you?
JM: Jen is kind of a natural in front of the camera, so in a sense she was more open than some of the others. But there were only a very small handful of people during the entire production who told us they really didn’t want to be filmed. A lot of the cartoonists we spoke with are fairly introverted, and quite a few, both the younger and the more experienced artists, discussed how they express themselves best through their comics, but it doesn’t take too long for most people to begin to forget the camera is there.
Biblioklept: I like that the film is really about the career of cartooning, and that the film focuses on the arcs of these aspiring cartoonists. You’ve got all these great interviews with people like Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman and Charles Burns, but their comments ultimately work to illuminate or enrich, through their perspectives, what the students are going through. It seems like there’s a lot of restraint and wise editing on your end here. Can you talk about how you put the film together? I’m curious how intuitive the process of forming the narrative was . . .
JM: By the time we finished shooting we had something like 150 hours of footage. I don’t remember how it all broke down, but maybe forty percent was interviews. There was a lot to go through. But it was pretty clear what the character arcs were for Blair and Al and Jen. Actually, it’s kind of hard for me to remember the process in any great detail. I was just starting to work on the rough cut when Tara and I had our twins, so for the first six months of the edit I was working from around ten at night until six a.m., stopping every couple of hours to help with feedings and changing diapers, and getting a few hours of sleep here and there during the day. It’s all very blurry, and sort of miraculous that I finished the rough cut at all. My method of working was to cut the footage down from 150 hours to just 10, which is a manageable amount of material, and from there put together an assembly that had the basic structure of a movie, and then loosely refine that into a two-hour rough cut. Then I went to New York to work with another editor, Chris Branca, who came in with a ton of great ideas and further refined the story. As for the interviews serving to illuminate what the students were going through, that was pretty organic. The challenges that a person faces when they decide to become an artist are fairly universal–the self-doubt, managing your time, coming to terms with your own limitations, figuring how to make a living, etc.–so the experiences shared by the established artists were in-line with what we documented from the students.
Biblioklept: You brought up that Tara’s interest in Ware’s work kind of sparked the genesis of the documentary. Were you a fan of comics too? How much did you know about the cartooning world going into the filming process?
JM: As a kid I loved Calvin and Hobbes and Bloom County/Outland and The Far Side, but those all ended when I was in high school and I pretty much stopped reading comics at that point. Then, after Tara and I moved in together, I’d pick up some of the books she’d leave around the apartment–like Jimmy Corrigan and Hate, I remember in particular–but I knew virtually nothing about the cartooning world when we started the movie.
Biblioklept: Have you become a fan since then?
JM: I love comics, but I’m a very casual fan. I still gravitate towards non-graphic novels, and I’m not quite sure why that is. Comics certainly demand more attention from the reader, if the reader we’re talking about is me–the interplay between the pictures and the text require a level of focus that isn’t needed when you’re just reading words, although I’m not sure I ever noticed that when I was a kid–and so maybe it’s that I don’t always have the mental energy to pick up a heavy graphic novel. I am really interested in reading comics from the people in the movie–CCS graduates are doing just incredible work and a lot of the former students we followed are starting to put out books now. Katherine Roy just illustrated a book and has a couple of others coming out soon; Jen Vaughn released a book last week; Josh Rosen is going to start serializing the project he was working on while we were filming; Joe Lambert, who we interviewed but didn’t appear in the movie, although he designed the poster, made a book about Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller that’s just incredible.
Biblioklept: What kind of movie would you like to do next?
JM: I’m working on a short, a fiction movie, with a couple of guys who used to edit a literary magazine with me. It was called theLand-Grant College Review and we published for five or six years starting in about 2002. We wanted to work on something new, and I’m really interested in doing a narrative, and they’d been thinking of doing a screenplay, so that’s what we decided to do. We’re still writing, but we have some good advisers on board and the plan is to shoot next summer. And I’m in the development phase on a pair of new docs. They’re both about personalities, as opposed to being issue-based, which is a common denominator. One follows a semi-famous performer and the other involves a family on its summer vacation. It’s still pretty early to talk confidently about any of this stuff. I just have to keep plugging away and see what happens, but these are the projects I’d like to do next.
JM: Thanks! We had a short but good run, and got to publish a lot of great writers. One of my most prized possessions is a postcard that David Foster Wallace sent me–in response to a letter I’d written asking him to send us a story–saying that he’s “just working on stuff that isn’t suitable for publication any place.”
As for what I’m reading, I just started [Erik Larson’s] The Devil In The White City, which I’d been hesitant to open for a few years since I do a lot of reading before bed and I thought it would mess with my sleep. So far so good.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
JM: No, never stolen a book, but I have gone a long time without paying for a book. A lot of the books on my shelf I picked out of piles left on the curb or at the recycling center near where we live now. Sometimes I like to let the universe decide what I read depending on what I find in front of me, which is how I got to read The Universe And Dr. Einstein, a lay readers guide to general relativity that I still managed not to understand.
Marshall Brooks’s recent collectionof memoir-essays Paperback Island explores the ways that friendship and place influence what we read, how we read, and how we make—and keep—books. Marshall began his career in publishing in 1971, reading manuscripts for Harry Smith at his legendary publishing house The Smith. In 1979 he created Arts End Press. Subtitled Street Bibliography Essays, Marshall’s latest book provides fascinating insights into a world of post-Beat publishing that is slowly slipping away (that is, aside from in memories and books). Marshall was kind enough to talk to me over a series of emails. He was generous and thoughtful, and also interested in my own life—in my kids, in my reading and teaching, but also in the bookstores in my community. It was a pleasure to talk with him. The end of our email exchange found him in NYC, attending a memorial for Harry Smith. Marshall lives in Vermont with his wife and two sons. Check out his website and read my review of Paperback Island.
Biblioklept: Will you tell us a little bit about how Paperback Island came together?
MB: My original idea was to write about the books that a friend and I shared in our youth and on into our early twenties. My friend was a champion reader. I had recently published a piece about this reading friendship. A strictly “about books” piece related to the story sounded like a good idea, but I quickly became bored with just writing about the books alone. In the end, it was not a challenging enough assignment. A recently completed piece about attending Tuli Kupferberg’s funeral and another piece celebrating sub-underground journalist Sid Bernard more ably filled the bill in terms of complementing the first story. From there, the book took on a life of its own. By the end, I was hard put to keep up with its various twists and turns. It was unlike any other writing experience that I have ever had. Owing to my wife’s keen editorial encouragement, I persisted — for the better part of a year. It is really a book about people whose lives are, or were, inextricably intertwined with books. I love books, but I love people more. My journalist friend Bill Ruehlmann pointed this out in his review of the book. He’s right. Ultimately, PAPERBACK ISLAND is all about love.
Biblioklept: The opener about that “champion reader,” Liam O’Dell, resonated strongly with me, as I imagine it will with other people who love books and reading—most of us have had someone in our lives who pushes us to read new stuff, different stuff.
In the same essay, you talk about how the early 1970s was a kind of information age that prefigured the internet. At the time were you aware of a shift in access to information, books, etc., or was this change something you only noticed after reflection?
MB: I was very conscious of the shift at the time. It was intoxicating.
Biblioklept: What was that shift like, as a reader? What sources were most important to you?
MB: Beginning in public school — ca. 1966 – 1971 — new paperbacks were for sale in the schools, courtesy of a special program to encourage independent reading. A lot of Signet books to begin with, and, later in high school, Vintage Books, among others. These books had all been designed (or, in many cases, redesigned) with an entirely new, young hip readership in mind. (E.g., 1984 and ANIMAL FARM.) They were not the drear-looking relics of my parents’ generation. The new, fresh book design suggested possibility to me. Genuine potential, plus limitless variety. Memorable reads: THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS (with cover art by Leo Lionni — Leo’s son, Mannie is a fan of PAPERBACK ISLAND, by the way); Dos Passos’s USA trilogy (with pen & ink illus. by Reginald Marsh); A CONTROVERSY OF POETS contemporary poetry anthology (Anchor Books, 1965, ed. by Paris Leary and Robert Kelly); EXPRESSWAYS, poems by J.D. Reed (Simon & Schuster, 1969, pb ed.); STUDS LONIGAN, by James T. Farrell (Signet). The underground / alternative press was also an important influence (these papers being highly visible in Boston — they were hawked on the sidewalk all over town). The underground press scene dramatically symbolized that just anything could be written about and printed. Indeed, thought. The papers’ contents often made little or no positive impression on me, but the overall freewheelingness of the papers certainly did. Society, obviously, was becoming much more fluid, looser — Richard Nixon or no. Impossible for a teenager to miss. There were also two reliably good sources for small press publications in Cambridge: the Grolier and Pangloss bookshops. The former only sold — sells — poetry. Most of the time, I did not know what to make of the little magazines that I bought. But this was a good thing — something I looked forward to — being another instance of where you had to make up your own mind about something owing to its relative strangeness, its resistance to categorization. I put a great deal by being able to do this.
Biblioklept: You bring up James T. Farrell here—there’s a fascinating chapter of Paperback Island about how you came to possess a large number of his paperback books. It’s one of several microlibraries discussed in the book. Why are microlibraries important in the age of digital archives?
MB: As you know, children’s books — in traditional book form — remain popular with both children and their parents. In the same vein, I believe that micro libraries fulfill a similar need. The physical surprise quality of the book is married with other special elements and the experience of the book (or books) becomes very much more than simply its contents. In the case of the JTF Paperback Library, Farrell himself is physically detectable. For all that I know, his DNA may well be present (he left enough fingerprints). For some people, myself included, having an author’s library — either whole or in part — can be a stirring experience. Humbling, too. Digital archives have their place, but I don’t think you can savor them in quite the same way that you can a cache of books — a collection you feel privileged to either own or borrow from. I think we all need a form of savor. Bibliophiles, notoriously, know where to find theirs.
Biblioklept: Do you feel antipathy toward e-readers like the Kindle or Nook?
MB: Not at all. My wife just returned from a writer’s conference in Boston (theme: using social media). The breaking word in Boston was that all sales are up — e-books, traditional books, and so on. If there are more readers everywhere, great. I also think that many books should only be available electronically or are best served this way.
Biblioklept: What kind of books are best served electronically?
MB: To return briefly to the idea of the 1970s prefiguring the internet and related developments, I remember well the 1971 publication of the COMPACT EDITION OF THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY being hailed as revolutionary at the outset. William Buckley reviewed the, then, space-age OED in the NY TIMES and shared with everyone how he was customizing his copy with Scotch-taped tabs so as to facilitate his word searches. 12 volumes, 150 pounds worth of books, shot down to two crisply printed volumes (slipcased, replete with a high-end Bausch & Lomb magnifying glass in its own drawer). All this via the miracle of offset printing technology. 21 years later, the cd-rom version of the OED arrived. I still have my copy of the two volume OED, by the way, purchased for a dollar from the Book of the Month Club 30 years ago. But I honestly don’t know if the BOMC, itself, still exists. Well, easily enough clarified — I’ll Google it. [Ans.: It exists. M.B.]
It is difficult to imagine the OED not being served well by the latest technology in light of e-media’s enhanced cross-referencing and search powers, for example, or the ability to present a practically limitless amount of information, which, previously, had to be squelched. All sorts of books, could benefit, really, via the e-book format including guilty pleasure reads. Why sacrifice — or recycle, even — wood pulp on their account? But in the instance of Sid Bernard’s THIS WAY TO THE APOCALYPSE, designed by Stephen Dwoskin — who so deftly exploited both “hot” and “cold” type in his design work, and was, later, a noted underground filmmaker as well — I’ll opt for the original letterpress edition over any other. Likewise, the companionably funky, pocket-size 3rd edition of the AMC NEW ENGLAND CANOEING GUIDE (1971), with its map pockets fore and aft within the inside covers. (THE AMC GUIDE — Liam O’Dell’s bible, by the way.) The new stuff can be great — and lead to wonderful things — but let us not disparage good, traditional book design either.
Biblioklept: How did you meet Harry Smith? What were some of your early experiences at The Smith?
MB: I met Harry Smith in June 1971. After having written him earlier in the year inquiring after work — of any kind — Harry offered me a part-time editorial job doing a little of this and that. It was a decidedly free-form proposition. I went to The Smith in lieu of attending my high school graduation in Massachusetts. Located at 5 Beekman Street, in Downtown, NYC, The Smith office was a dream come true. Both atmospherically speaking and in every other conceivable way. Prior to my arrival at The Smith, I had never been in the company of adults whose main objectives in life centered on poetry and writing, exclusively. This was another world entirely. One of good humor, too, I should add. Harry, himself, had a fine sense of humor. He and I laughed a lot together, practically non-stop. All sorts of people dropped by the office. Menke Katz, the first poet that I was ever introduced to. Novelist Clancy Sigal, just in, no doubt, from London (where he was based). Bob Reinhold, who wrote Stanley Kubrick’s first movie script. Harry knew a lot of people like Bob. Obscure writers and literary personalities that only a place like NYC could sustain in bulk. Practically within minutes of our meeting, Harry gave me keys to the amply cluttered two-room office to have copied so that I could let myself in and out; he also gave me mss. to read. I continued to read mss. throughout my time at The Smith as part of my job. (The absolutely infinite variety of typing styles and stationery was fascinating to me, by the way.) I was to put aside anything that might be of interest to Harry. News gathering for the muckraking THE NEWSLETTER (On the State of the Culture) was something that went on all of the time. If you are lucky enough to find copies of THE NEWSLETTER (in a university special collection, say), they form a uniquely excellent record of both mainstream and alternative publishing from that era. Essential, as well as being a tearjerker — that world is entirely vanished.
Biblioklept: I like that you bring up the mechanics, the physicality of working for a publisher — the “infinite variety of typing styles and stationery” — which I think plays a key part of Paperback Island. You talk about your first hand press, and how it allowed you to become a maker. Why do you think the physical experience of reading—of touching the material—has such an impact on some readers?
MB: Happily, I don’t really know the answer to your question. What Jessie Sheeler wrote about the “undiscoverable, inevitable prospect” of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting — in her discussion of Scottish poet Ian Finlay’s sea inscriptions — may have to suffice here: “not to be explained, but only acknowledged” (LITTLE SPARTA, THE GARDEN OF IAN HAMILTON FINLAY, Jessie Sheeler). Ever since 1995, when I edited a book about books, people have always 1) asked me what I think the fate of the physical book will be (short ans.: it will survive) and 2) shared with me how much it means to them to hold a book in hand. When I received the proof copy of PAPERBACK ISLAND I was thrilled to see it at long last, but it also felt a bit off. For one thing, it hadn’t bulked up in quite the way that I had anticipated. Come to find out, 30 or so pages were missing from the book. The corrected version arrived a few days later. I could tell without even opening the package that the book was as it should be — by its weight — it felt exactly right. Corrected, its spine is a good sixteenth of an inch wider. Within that fraction of difference (a 2.25 oz difference in terms of weight) dwells a better book, and not just because the missing pages have been restored. “Better proportions” Joseph Beuys might have said, who in 1964 once proposed elevating the Berlin Wall by 5 cm for just this reason. Beuys’s subversiveness aside, we live in a world where the Golden Ratio and like phenomena appear to count for something deep within us.
Biblioklept: What do you think about contemporary self-publishing?
MB: Regarding “self-publishing” — I am very glad that I came up when I did, when traditional publishing was unquestionably dominant and independent publishing was just about to manifest itself as a bona fide mass movement. (Another phenomenon of the 1970s, the proliferation of small presses. Compare the size of the 7th ed. of the INTERNATIONAL DIRECTORY OF LITTLE MAGAZINES & SMALL PRESSES, 1971-72, some 100 pp., to that of the 11th ed., 1975-1976, which is 304 pp. long. The 40th ed., 2004-05, is 790 pp.) My main concern regarding contemporary self-publishing is that it we may lose sight of the positive chemistry that can, in fact, exist between an author and a publisher. And who, really, keeps the designation “self-publishing” alive these days? I often wonder. Many people and businesses (including schools) who couldn’t be bothered with a small independent press — much less a self-published author — a few short years ago, are only too happy nowadays to service a prospective self-publishing author for a handsome fee.
One of my favorite publishing stories, ever, is as follows. Bern Porter, nuclear scientist, bibliographer, publisher, and promulgator of “founds” . . . for his Bern Porter Books listing in the DIRECTORY OF LITTLE MAGAZINES & SMALL PRESSES, 2004-2005, gave the founding year of his press as 1911 — his birth year. For the number of books his press published, or anticipated publishing: “467 titles 2003; expects 482 titles 2004, 493 titles 2005.” In the end, brilliant publishing is brilliant publishing.
Biblioklept: Growing up in the early nineties, there was this whole undergroundish traffick in zines, some professionally produced, some made via copy machines out of local 7-11 stores; a lot of the zines were connected to indie and punk music, but also comix and poetry and art. I love blogging and other internet platforms that allow for a “publication” of sort, but I sometimes wonder about the local connections that might be lost.
One of the things I like about Paperback Island is the evocation of place, of setting, of how physical places influence reading. The story about Susanna Cuyler letting you stay in her apartment so that you could read her book is really fascinating.
MB: You’ve hit the nail on the head — place is, in fact, important. Who can, for example, think of City Lights Books and not think of City Lights Bookstore and San Francisco? (When I was 16, I took a Greyhound Bus cross country from Boston, to see City Lights for myself. Incidentally, it was the first bookshop that I ever encountered that provided its own map for the purposes of navigating its offerings.) Likewise, Shakespeare & Co. and Paris. And on. One of the main reasons that I began submitting poetry to The Smith was that I was intrigued by its address: 5 Beekman St., NYC. (Quite a place it turns out — just Google it!). I believe that a good book sets you on an endless journey. So, these associative qualities are, in fact, critical. And, it seems to me, form the very foundation for a site such as Biblioklept’s. To come back to something that I said earlier, though, in the end it’s about people. And making connections with people.
As a bibliographic note, a master of celebrating place was Dick Higgins with his Something Else Press. Across bottom of Daniel Spoerri’s THE MYTHOLOGICAL TRAVELS OF A MODERN SIR JOHN MANDEVILLE (1970) the title page reads: “Something Else, Inc. / in New York City, by the Parking Lot of the Chelsea Hotel.” Locales would change from one Something Else title to another, by the way. Earlier, in 1968, the dateline read: “New York / Cologne / Paris.” Time, place, and beyond. Everything is possible. Dick was having his fun, but it was provocative, meaningful fun, too.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
MB: No, I have never stolen a book per se. Certainly not from a bookstore. I do have several library books that were never checked out — once upon a time, decades ago, back in college — for one reason or another (e.g., extreme laziness) and need to be returned. Of this I am guilty. (Guiltier than, apparently, Keith Richards, and his decades-overdue library books, which at least he bothered to check out as a youth. See the NY TIMES, 24 May 2013, p. C2.). I am terribly slow reader, by the way. I am still working my way through ULYSSES, the same copy that I bought in my teens in Liam O’Dell’s company, at the Book Clearing House in Boston. It took me years to get beyond the first page owing to the arresting Ernst Reichl typographic book design. To this day, I have never seen a display type letterpress “s” to match Reichl’s (full-page in size, as you may recall; appropriately enough, Leopold Bloom, himself, was knowledgeable about printing and the “specing” of type). On a distant note, the loaning of books and records to friends (and vice versa): I can’t think of anything finer. One of Life’s stronger points.
Ilan Stavans is a Mexican-American writer and translator. His work spans from the study of Latin American culture, to “Spanglish,” to translation; his work takes the form of books and comic-strips; and he is highly regarded internationally as a literary and cultural critic and has received numerous awards and honors. He is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Stavans at Amherst’s Frost Library to discuss The Plain in Flames, his 2012 translation of Juan Rulfo’s short story collection, El Llano en Llamas.His is the second translation of this work into English, the first being George Schade’s The Burning Plain.
Juan Rulfo, a highly influential Mexican writer, was born on this date 96 years ago. He died in 1986. Stavans introduces Rulfo beautifully here.
You mention in the introduction your fascination with the book growing up. When did you first read El Llano en Llamas, and when did the translation project begin?
Growing up in Mexico in the 70s and 80s, Rulfo was already an established figure, a classic. When I first discovered Latin American literature in general, reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, Hopscotch, Conversation in the Cathedral, and other important books of the 1960s and 70s, to which I was coming somewhat late, maybe a decade or so after they had been published, there was a constant reference, a constant moving around the figure that had fostered that type of new writing from Latin America. More than one figure, there were two or three to be honest – one of them was Borges, another one was unquestionably Juan Rulfo.
Juan Rulfo was by then already known as a man of very few words. He had published only two books: El Llano en Llamas and Pedro Páramo, a collection of short stories first, and two years later, a relatively short novel – and I say relatively short because, in that period that I am recalling, the novels that were coming out from Latin America were hefty and ambitious and epic, and this was ambitious and epic and hefty but short. It had myth as its main quest. And, you know, there are writers that you read, you enjoy, and you forget. And then there are writers that you read and you are transformed. Rulfo, from the moment I discovered him is … in very few words, in very few pages, he’s capable of creating an entire world, entirely complex and entirely vivid in its imagery. And growing up in Mexico, that world was very close to me. It is the world of the countryside, of the provinces; it is the world of pride, and proud working- class people living in the llanos, in the villages, outside of Mexico City.
And so I had a reference, I knew what he was writing about. And I also knew that he was writing about it in a way that, for us, illuminated their existence, if you would see them as simply part of the landscape. Now it was giving them an inner life. It was simply stunning.
I went beyond and wanted to meet Rulfo at one point. I knew that he was the head of El Instituto Indigenista, an institute created and devoted to fostering a better understanding of aboriginal and indigenous communities and indigenous cultures, but it was always very hard to get in touch with him. He was never in the office. And only as time went by did I discover how difficult it was to get to talk to him because of his reserve, his shyness.
He is one of the towering figures of Latin American literature.
Did you ever get a chance to meet him?
I saw him in an event, but I never talked one-on-one to him. In retrospect, it is… it’s fine [laughs]. I find sometimes that talking to writers that one admires is a difficult task.
Was his speaking rhetoric like his writing?
He was a man of very few words. Even when he was…
…in front of the microphone.
But he was a man that, when you saw him, you would not think necessarily that he would be able to create these astonishing stories. I think the stories are part and parcel of how Latin American reality should be understood.
Garcia Márquez, in an entire novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, can make you understand what is it in the DNA of the culture that makes it move. I think that Rulfo does that in one story, sometimes in one paragraph. Not surprisingly, Garcia Márquez sees Rulfo as a major influence.
When did the translation of this begin?
At one point I was doing a book of conversations that a Chilean historian had invited me to engage in on Hispanic culture; it’s called What is la hispanidad?. It was a very festive project. In delivering it to the publisher, who had already given us a contract, the editor said to me, “Would you consider doing some translations for me?” And I said, I love translation; it would have to be something precious, it would have to be a diamond or a jewel. “What do you have in mind?” And I said, if you had, Ilan, to choose the one book that you think you would like to translate and you think people should see differently, which one would that be? And I said without hesitation, El Llano en Llamas. They had published it in an earlier edition.
So I had started the conversation, and one thing led to another; he got in touch with the Juan Rulfo estate. The Juan Rulfo estate is partially run by one of his sons who is a filmmaker. I was asked to translate one of the stories to see how my translation would be different. I did “It’s Because We’re So Poor.” They liked it very much and we decided to do it.
The project altogether took a year and a half; the translation was commissioned in 2010, thereabouts.
You said you wanted to pick a gem. But was there any indication to you that it was in need of a newtranslation? Because The Burning Plain has been out since 1967. I’m wondering if you thought that that translationwas merely dated, or if you think there is an historical significance in publishing it in 2012, and if there were any faults in The Burning Plain that you noticed.
Let me answer that question by taking a step back and telling you that over the years I have been very interested in translation, not only in the practice of translation, but what translation means for us as a culture, the history of translation, and the impact of translation in the shaping of Latin American identity. Who were the first translators? What role did they play upon the arrival of the conquistadors and the missionaries? How has translating foreign culture shaped Latin American civilization? Who did the 19th century politicians read… of the French, or of the British, or of the Italian politicians of the time, or political philosophers? So the idea of translation has been with me for quite some time.
I also, in 2001, published an autobiography, a memoir, called On Borrowed Words, that is an investigation of the life that I have lived in four different languages. My first language was Yiddish, then I switched to Spanish, and then switched to Hebrew, and now I’m communicating with you in English. So this coming and going of languages is very close to my heart.
In 2003, I, by then, was already really deep into the study of Spanglish, the mixing of Spanish and English. I had published a translation into Spanglish of the first chapter of Don Quixote that later on I finished, and it’s now coming out in comic strip form at the end of this year. And so, the idea of what we translate, how we translate, what the impact of translation is, was very much with me when the editor of Texas University Press suggested this project.
And I knew that classics are books that need to be reread. And that, when doing a new translation, you are inviting readers to reread the book. You are not supplanting, necessarily, the first, earlier translations; you’re inviting readers to see them anew. Dressing them up in a different way. There are 22 full translations of Don Quixote into English. And so the question is, do we need 22? And the answer is, well, every generation needs its own reading of Don Quixote. And I think El Llano en Llamas is a classic; it needs different approaches, different interpretations, and that’s why I wanted to do it.
I had my own qualms with the translation that had been published in 1967, but more than anything I wanted to bring new attention to the book, try my luck, and also, show that the English language has changed, and that the approaches to translation have changed since the 60s.
I noticed, in The Plain in Flames, certain Spanish words are italicized. Whereas, in The Burning Plain, words like “chicalote” and “jarillas” are not italicized. They seem to be more integrated into the text that way. Does that ignore their origin?
No… I don’t believe that that is fully accurate. I did actually the opposite in many cases. There were words that were not italicized in my translation that are italicized in the George Schade translation because they had become much more common; they are less foreign from the 1960s to 2012; Spanish has become commonplace, a common language in the United States, and my argument is that in doing a new translation, we are reaching a readership that doesn’t have the foreignness, or the kind of alienation from the Spanish language that readers in the 1960s had.
However, there are certain words that are underlined in the original Spanish. For instance, in the story “It’s Because We’re So Poor,” the name of one of the daughters is italicized, and the name of the cow is italicized, and we did not want to take that away.
It’s an idiosyncratic strategy of Rulfo’s. He has a selective, unique way of choosing what to emphasize, and I thought my duty as a translator was to replicate that.
On the other hand, there are words that you don’t need to italicize anymore. And there are other words that, I thought, by using the italicized form, you would be telling the reader that this word is unique in English as it is unique in Spanish. And that was the purpose of it.
If I had to do a recount, I would say that there are fewer words that are italicized in my version than the Schade.
So for example, in the title story, “¡Viva mi general Petronilo Flores!” is not italicized.
Exactly. You also have to factor in that, in my age, I’ve already learned how to deal with the presence of copy editors who on occasion will tell you, “Are you sure you don’t want to italicize this word? English language readers are not going to…” and you have to defend your position. You have to make sure that by the time you reach the copy editor, you have a strategy, you have a declared approach to how to do it, without necessarily including that in the prologue or in a glossary or anything of that sort.
I noticed that in The Burning Plain, Schade omits certain words that in your translation, you have included. For example, “tequesquite salt” and “pasojos de agua,” which is an idiom. Are those common enough Spasnish phrases and words now? Are some of them uncommon? Do you think that, if we keep having future translations, like with Don Quixote, will we see more of these Spanish idioms?
One of the differences between the George Schade translation of 1967 and the one that I did is that in the interim, Juan Rulfo died, and the Juan Rulfo Foundation established a standardized Spanish version of El Llano en Llamas. And when I said to the foundation that I wanted to do the translation, they said they’d want me to work on the standardized version.
The standardized version included a few more stories than the one that Schade had, and it also included stories that had more paragraphs, or less paragraphs, or sentences that had been twisted and changed. [Rulfo edited some of the stories even after they were published.] Ultimately, the foundation had decided that the most authoritative version of any particular story was the latest one approved by Rulfo. So that meant that the text that I had in front of me to work on was not necessarily the same that Schade had.
At the same time, I did thorough research in every single story and when I found that there was a discrepancy between what the standard edition had, what Schade had, and what two other versions that are also considered canonical in Spanish had, I would send a letter to the foundation that asked, “Are we sure that we want to have this paragraph here?… Is this approved?…” and there would be a dialogue with them.
So, on occasion it was a creative decision on my part; on many others I was basing it on the authoritative text that the foundation had established.
In the introduction you mention the perfection of some of these stories. On the outset you talk about the “elusive quest” for perfection in short story writing. As a translator, that must become an extreme obstacle or difficulty. I’m wondering how this idea of perfection impacted your work. And also if you think, concurrently, that a perfect translation is possible. How does perfection translate, if you will? Does the idea of perfection always change with time?
There is no such thing as a perfect text. For the same reason, there is never going to be a perfect translation. And yet, as translators we should strive for as close to perfection as our translation is capable of being.
And what do I mean by perfection? As genuine, as authentic, as truthful, as loyal, and as artistic and creative as that can be. Every translation is a product of its time and space. My translation was defined by the factors that have defined me as an individual, and the translation by George Schade likewise was defined by the factors, the forces that shaped him as an individual. Whoever is going to come in 10 years, 15-20 years, 40 years, is going to live life differently, is going to register the temperature of language, the Spanish and English languages, in a different way, and the languages will have changed by then. So those translations will reflect the time and the cultural texture of the moment.
I think that a classic is a book that survives its time and space. It survives very often thanks to translation, and very often it is the translator that “updates” the original by making it palatable, by making it accessible, by fitting it in to the time in which we live.
I believe that the explosion of Hispanic culture in the United States in the last 20-30 years has redefined the way we see Latin American literature, that the first translations of some of these classics were the result of a moment of initiation, of discovery, of freshness, and today we have assimilated that work and we see that Spanish is not as foreign; there is a Latin America living within the United States. And so the translation that I tried to produce is a translation that reflects some of those changes.
I adore Chekhov. I adore Isaac Babel, I adore Kafka. I don’t read Czech, I don’t read Russian. I partially read German. And for that reason, the way I will access any of these writers will always be through translation. There is always going to be an intermediary between me and Isaac Babel, or Kafka, or Chekhov. I have to trust the translator as an intermediary, as a conduit, and yet I know – and I hope everybody knows – that we are not reading the original, that somebody has offered a filter, or a veil. There is a very important, early modern Jewish poet who said once that to read a book in translation is to kiss a bride through a veil. You are kissing the bride, but there is something in between.
In the second part of Don Quixote toward the end, Don Quixote and Sancho enter a bookstore in Barcelona, and they are talking about translation, and Don Quixote tells Sancho that to read a book in translation is the equivalent of looking at a Flemish carpet from the back. You know there are colors, you know there are silhouettes, but they are not fully what you’re seeing.
One hopes to come as close as possible, and that is the strife that we have in perfection. Not hoping to be perfect is a failure; achieving perfection is impossible.
Coming from the translation so recently, do you think that future translations seem possible at all? That there are future readings or events that could impact how this work is retranslated?
Because of the laws and the mechanics of the market, this translation is going to be around for some time, and things are going to be seen through what is happening between now and whenever the next translation comes along: things that have to do with immigration, that have to do with assimilation, that have to do with ways of changing culture.
The original book came out in 1953; that is mid-20th century. We are already in the 21st century. Mexico continues to be a poor country, but now there’s a growing middle class. The middle class reads Rulfo in a way that the middle class in the 1950s didn’t, because poverty has changed in Mexico and because the countryside is now seen as a tourist destination, because there’s something kitsch about peasant life in Latin America that these writers, like Rulfo, have helped to provide. The scene of a donkey, with a poor campesino walking around, carries a certain cache that is kitschy and what we call in Spanish “cursi” that didn’t exist 50 years ago and that might change dramatically later. Cultures are always in persistent transformation, and that pushes us to read writers in a different way.
I wanted to ask more about the act of translation. Julio Cortázar also speaks about perfection in the short story in his essay “On the Short Story and Its Environs.” In it he speaks of writing a short story as a sort of exorcism, and how the story gains autonomy separate from whomever wrote it. He argues that the story is projected “into universal existence, where the narrator is no longer the one who has blown the bubble out of his clay pipe.”
Surely there is a responsibility of the translator to maintain a certain style of the writer himself. But do you think that there is a similar ecstasy, or exorcism, in translating a short story?
I believe that writing a short story, in literary terms, is arguably the most difficult task. In my view, it is much harder to produce a good short story than to produce a good novel. A short story is, as I mentioned to you before, like a diamond, like a precious stone. Every single corner, every single edge, needs to polished just in the right way. There are hundreds and thousands of short stories. But there are very few extraordinary short stories. And those short stories are the ones that, you read them and you feel the world is no longer the same. You have all of a sudden seen the color of existence under a new light thanks to this particular writer, thanks to 3 or 4 pages of this particular writer. That is enough for that transformation to happen.
But once the short story takes place, once it is published, it no longer belongs to the author. It no longer belongs to its original creator. It belongs to whoever is reading it; and the act of finding the story, and of having an intercourse with the story, is an act of creation, because the story is the encounter between he or she who gave birth to it, and he or she who receives it. And without the receiver, the story doesn’t exist.
Likewise with translation, a good story needs a midwife that will enable it to get into the world just in the right way. There are hundreds of thousands of translations. But a good translation, it seems to me, is the one gets into the essence of the story, is able to read the DNA of the author and tries to convey the mapping of that DNA in the new language, in the receiving language. It is a big task [laughs].
You have to be synchronized in two cultures. You have to understand beyond the words how the original cultures moves, what makes it tick. And you have to get into the receiving culture and be able to translate, meaning transpose, meaning recreate, in that receiving language, what is conveyed in the first one. I think it is as much as a creative task as the task of writing a story. And it is as much the writer’s and the translator’s as it is the reader’s. But it is none of theirs anymore the moment it is published. Once my translation is out, it is not mine anymore but it belongs to a man whose last name is Stavans, who could be really anybody… the fact is, it’s already in the world as it is, and I have become secondary. It is the object as such that has life.
Evan talked with me about his writing, his reading, and other stuff over a series of emails. He was generous in his answers and I very much enjoyed talking with him.
Evan lives in New Mexico with his wife, son, and daughter. He has a website. Read his books.
Biblioklept: Do you know that first editions of From Old Notebooks are going for like three hundred dollars on Amazon right now?
ELS: Here at the house I have a whole drawer full of them. That’s how I’m planning to pay for the kids’ college.
Biblioklept: I read that Cormac McCarthy won’t sign his books anymore because he has this reserve of signed editions that are for his son to sell and corner the market on. Or I think I read that.
Speaking of your kids: the parts in From Old Notebooks about them are some of my favorites, perhaps because the moments you describe seem so real to me, or that I relate so strongly to the feelings that you express. (My own kids, a daughter and son, are about the same age as your kids are in the book). Is it weird if I ask how your kids are?
ELS: Glad to hear some of that stuff resonates with you. No, I don’t think it’s weird. I believe the book even sort of self-consciously anticipates a certain reader’s empathetic engagement with it. There’s that passage somewhere, for example, in which we get something like an interview answer, something like “The real Evan Lavender-Smith has never made it past the first section of Ulysses, the real Evan Lavender-Smith has no children,” which I think maybe winks at the possibility of that type of readerly engagement. So no, it’s encouraging to hear that parts of the book seemed to work for you. My kids are great, by the way. Sofia’s at her violin lesson, Jackson’s doing an art project with his mom.
Biblioklept: The faux-interview answers crack me up. I think we’ve all done that in some way—that we go through these little experiments of interviewing ourselves, performing ourselves, imagining how others perceive us. You write your own obituary; at one point we get: ” ‘With my first book I hope to get all the cult of personality stuff out of the way’.” You remark that you don’t put dates on anything as “an act of defiance” against your “literary executors.” Moments like these seem simultaneously ironic and sincere.
I’m curious as to how closely you attended to these disjunctions—From Old Notebooksseems incredibly, I don’t know, organic.
ELS: At a certain point I became very aware that I was performing some version or versions of myself in the book, and I think the book tries to find ways of grappling with problems I perceived as bound up with that performance. One way was to insist on a narrative tone or mode somewhere in between irony and sincerity, or to regularly oscillate between or conflate these competing modes. Something like “I am the greatest writer in the history of the world!” might later be countered by “Gosh, my writing really blows, doesn’t it?”; or “My kids are so beautiful, I love them so much,” might be followed by “I wish those little fuckers were never born.” While the function of this variability is, in From Old Notebooks, probably mostly an apology or a mask for a kind of subjectivity I worry might come off as cliche and naive, that particular representation of the thinking subject — cleaved, inconsistent, heterogeneous — does strike me as truer of human experience and perception than the more streamlined consistency of expression and behavior we tend to associate with the conventional narratological device called “character.” When I try to look deep down inside myself, to really get a handle on my thinking, for example, or on my understanding of truth, I end up facing a real mess of disjunctive, contradictory forces competing for my attention. For me — and likely for the book, as well — the most immediate figure for this condition might be the confluence of sincerity and irony, the compossibility of taking a genuine life-affirming pleasure in, and exhibiting a kind of cynical hostility toward, the fact of my own existence.
Biblioklept: That contest between sincerity and irony seems present in many works of post-postmodern fiction. It’s clearly a conflict that marks a lot of David Foster Wallace’s stuff. You invoke Wallace a number of times in From Old Notebooks, but the style of the book seems in no way beholden to his books. Can you talk about his influence on you as a reader? A writer?
ELS: Wallace hugely influenced the way I think about any number of things. I think his most immediate influence on my writing is this blending of hieratic and demotic modes of language when I’m dealing with pretty much anything that requires the serious application of my writing mind; the hip nerdiness of his language was and still is very empowering to me. He made it seem super cool to geek out on books — “The library, and step on it,” says Hal in Infinite Jest — and back in high school and college that example was so vital for me, as someone entirely too obsessed with being both cool and well read. He served to guide my reading of other writers in a way that only John Barth and Brian Evenson have come close to matching; I poured over his essays for names, then went to the library and checked out and read all the books he mentioned, then reread his essays. His fiction’s most common subject matter — addiction, depression, the yearning for transcendence, the incommensurability of language and lived experience, problems of logic vis-a-vis emotion, metafiction’s values and inadequacies — all of this stuff hit very close to home. To my mind there’s little doubt that Infinite Jest is the best English-language novel published in the last 25 years. His advocacy for David Markson has got to be up there among the greatest literary rescue missions of the 20th century. In “Good Old Neon” he wrote what may be the most haunting long short story since “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” He galvanized young writers everywhere right when the internet was taking off and unwittingly served as a touchstone for emerging online literary communities that thrive today. I think for a lot of young writers, myself included, he was, maybe next to the emergence of the internet, the most important force in the language’s recent history. The list goes on and on. And also he helped me out personally, providing encouragement and advice that was so generous and inspiring. I was extremely troubled by his suicide and wasn’t able to write much or think about much else for quite a while.
With all that said, there are some things he says that bother me a bit. The synthesis of art and entertainment he espouses as it pertains to the role of the writer in the age of television — which I think in many ways corresponds to his striving for a new aesthetic in which the cerebral effects associated with 60s and 70s postmodernist fiction are complemented by or synthesized with the more visceral effects associated with 70s and 80s realist fiction — strikes me now as existing very much in opposition to what I believe in most passionately about writing: that it can and in the most important cases should exist in a state of absolute opposition to our entertainments. I’ve come to better appreciate, years after reading Wallace, the writing of people like Woolf and Beckett and Gaddis, those writers who are uncompromising in their vision of narrative art’s most radical and affecting possibilities and who necessarily, I believe, pay very little attention to any sort of entertainment imperative. The books I love most make me feel things strongly, and think things strongly, but rarely do they entertain me. If I want to be entertained, I know exactly where to go: a room without books. I’ve come to think of certain books as my life’s only source of intellectual solace; when I’m not despairing over the futility of everything under the sun, that unflagging commitment to a truly rigorous and uncompromising art that I perceive in a writer like Beckett seems to me a matter of life and death, just as serious as life can ever get. When Wallace talks that shit about art and entertainment, or about the need to add more heart or greater complexity of character to Pynchon or whatever, it makes me feel like I want to throw up. I heard him say once in an interview that he felt he couldn’t write the unfiltered stuff in his head, that it would be too radical or something, and the admission really upset me; it felt like in some serious way he had allowed his projection of an imaginary target audience’s desire to determine the form of his writing. I often feel something similar in the essays; I find many of them to be merely entertaining. I suppose I often judge the essays in relation to the fictions, which I find far superior in their attempt to overcome the strictures and conventions of language and form. Wallace was always at his best, to my reading, when he was really bearing down — when he was at his most difficult.
But no doubt he’s been monumentally important to me, more so than any other recent fiction writer, and in more ways than I can name. There’s something in From Old Notebooks where the methodical awkwardness and wordiness of so many of his sentences is likened to the affectation of bumping up against the limits of language. That’s probably what I take away from him more than anything: when I sit down at the laptop to face the language, I often feel myself struggling with the words as well as struggling to demonstrate that I’m struggling with the words. That’s pure Wallace: word-by-word, letter-by-letter self-consciousness. (There’s another thing in From Old Notebooks about how I’m always talking shit because I care for him so deeply … which is why the paragraph before this one). Continue reading →
Michael Kimball’s latest book Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard) had its genesis in a performance piece at the Transmodern Performance Festival a few years back: Michael interviewed people for a few minutes and then crammed their biographies onto postcards. The project soon evolved into a blog, where Michael interviewed hundreds of people of all ages from around the world. The work is now collected in a book from Mud Luscious Press that features over fifty of the biographies, including the life stories of several contemporary writers, one dead U.S. President, a rooster, a T-shirt, a few cats, Edgar Allan Poe, and Michael himself.
In addition to Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard), Michael is the author of Big Ray, Us, Dear Everybody, and The Way the Family Got Away. He still holds the Meryl S. Colt Elementary School record for the 600-yard dash. Check out his website.
Michael was kind enough to talk to me about this latest book over a series of emails.
Biblioklept: What’s the hardest thing about writing someone’s life story on a postcard?
Michael Kimball: There are difficult things at different stages of the process. The first difficult thing is asking the right questions for the particular participant. The second difficult thing is being representative when condensing what I’ve been told. The third difficult thing is writing small enough to squeeze six hundred words or so onto a single postcard.
Biblioklept: When you started the project, it was a planned performance piece of sorts, but your description of it at the beginning of the book makes it seem rather off-the-cuff. Did you have a plan for the questions you would ask? How did the questions change as the project progressed?
MK: That first performance was definitely off-the-cuff. I had no idea what I was going to ask people and how I was going to write their life stories on a postcard. I mostly started with something pretty open-ended and then asked more specific questions about whatever I was told. As the project progressed, I developed a set of starter questions that elicited basic information and then asked more specific questions from there. Basically, I considered whatever I was being told to be important and then asked more questions about it.
Biblioklept: You interviewed people by email, in phone, in person — how did howyou were doing the interview affect the process? Did you prefer one way over the other?
MK: I preferred the in-person interviews. There was a different kind of intimacy with those and there are a bunch of people I interviewed that way who are now friends. Of course, that wasn’t practical for lots of the interviews, since most people lived so far away from me. And the method did influence the process. With the phone interview and in-person interviews I was taking notes as fast as I could, but that was never fast enough. With the email interviews, it was easier for people to give me more detailed answers. Also, since I had the full text of their answers, I could use more of their language.
Biblioklept: Did you prefer to use as much of the subject’s language as possible? Maybe I’m getting into what you described as “the second difficult thing” — how much of yourself do you see in the pieces? I think there’s clearly a voice, a tone that unifies the pieces . . . I’m curious how much of the process was crafting or editing or revising or repurposing the subject’s original language…
MK: I tried to use the participant’s language wherever I thought it gave some sense of the person. At times, I thought of like using third-person close narration. Besides that, I was trying to be as objective as possible and I think that gave the life stories a certain consistency of tone. Clearly, I tend to write sentences a certain way, but beyond that I tried to keep myself out of it.
Biblioklept: What about pieces like “Chair” or “T-Shirt” — how did they come about?
MK: The first non-person one I wrote was Red Delicious Apple, which popped into my head almost fully formed, which happened because I used to almost always have apples on my desk, which just meant that I spent a lot of time with apples. But writing Red Delicious Apple opened up a lot of possibilities and so T-Shirt is written about my favorite t-shirt and Chair was written about a chair I once broke. And I have a great affection for animals, so I loved writing ones like Moose the Cat, Sammy the Dog, and Abby the Horse.
Biblioklept: You wrote over three hundred postcards. How did you choose which ones you would include in the book?
MK: The book would have been over seven hundred pages long if I had included all the postcard life stories, but it was difficult leaving any of them out. So, ultimately, it came down to trying to showing the range of the postcard life stories, which is why nearly every one I wrote about a non-human made it into the book.
Biblioklept: How did the Poe biography come about?
MK: That was for Gigantic’sGigantic America issue. They asked me to write one of the great American bios that they printed on special card inserts and I suggested Poe, who had just had some anniversary of his life or his death.
Biblioklept: Several pieces in Life Story are about contemporary writers. Was writing about these writers different than writing about anyone else in the collection?
MK: Early on, it was other writers who seemed particularly keen on the project — Adam Robinson, Karen Lillis, Elizabeth Ellen, Elizabeth Crane, Blake Butler, etc. I approached every postcard life story the same way, but then let the participant tell me where they wanted to take it. I tried to ask questions that followed their answers.
Biblioklept: I imagine most people who asked to participate in the project were forthcoming with their answers. I’m curious though if you noticed any topics that people avoided or glossed over or maybe required additional prodding from you. Did you ever feel like your part of the interviewing process pushed your subject into uncomfortable territory?
MK: I didn’t realize it until later, but part of what made the project work was that people came to me wanting to tell their life story (rather than me asking them if they wanted it told). Still, there were a few times that people were reluctant to say things. There was one woman who was reluctant to talk about her husband and I couldn’t figure out why, but then they divorced not long after that. And there was one man who didn’t want to talk about his mother because she was really sick. But usually if there was reluctance, it was some kind of abuse or some other horrible thing that had happened to the person. In fact, I was reluctant to talk about the abuse I grew up with in my own postcard life story when it was initially written. In general, I tried to ask the difficult question, but then let the participant decide whether they wanted to answer and how much they wanted to tell me. And with particularly difficult life stories, I always showed the participant what I wrote and asked them if they were OK with it being public before I ever put their postcard life story out into the world.
Biblioklept: Talking about one’s own life clearly has some kind of therapeutic value. Do you think reading about one’s own life carries a similar value?
MK: Since starting the project, I’ve learned there are quite a few therapeutic techniques that involve narrative and telling (or retelling) one’s life story. Part of that process is hearing one’s life story told back or reading about one’s own life. There can be something useful in that perspective and there can be something reassuring about having a manageable version of one’s life story.
Biblioklept: What are you working on now?
MK: I’m very slowly working on two different novels and thinking about a third. I’m not sure if I’ll ever finish any of them.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
MK: I used to steal so many books, especially when I didn’t have the money to keep pace with my reading appetite and I couldn’t find the things I wanted to read in the library. I’ve tried to make up for that by giving away lots of books these days. I stole so many books that I’m not sure I can remember a specific instance. But it was always kind of thrilling and it seemed to make reading all the more exciting. Sometimes, if I didn’t like a book I would sneak it back into the bookstore.
Dmitry Samarov is an artist and writer who lives and works in Chicago. After graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1993, Dmitry drove cabs for twelve years. He captured his years as a taxi driver in the stories and art of his first book Hack, which was released last year from the University of Chicago Press. Hack also exists as a blog where Dmitry continues to share his stories.
I first became aware of Dmitry’s work via Twitter; I’d been posting images of readers and books for the past year—one a day—and was thrilled to find his series of bookshelf paintings and his figure paintings. Dmitry was kind enough to talk with me over a series of emails about his art, his writing, and why you’re not likely to see any space vampire paintings from him anytime soon.
You can see more of his work at his website—or better yet, check out one of his upcoming shows if you can: “Dmitry Samarov: Bookshelf Paintings” opens January 11th, 2013, at the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago, and “Pictures from a Chicago Cab” opens at the University of Central Missouri on January 23rd.
Books #6 by Dmitry Samarov
Biblioklept: Why do you paint?
Dmitry Samarov: Making pictures is how I talk to the world. I can’t remember ever not doing it. I got in trouble for doodling in 1st Grade back in the Soviet Union and haven’t looked back since. Trying to catch a bit of the way the light changes as the day wears on or the manner in which a girl looks inward as she reads a book or how paperbacks and hardcovers on a shelf lean on each other, all these small moments and many others have occupied my time. Making marks on a surface is a way to record my time here and to show others what I saw. When I do it right they’re able to see something of what they know in my pictures.
Writing about painting is always ultimately futile—the reason one paints something is because he can’t say it and probably vice versa too—but we just can’t seem to help it, can we?
Biblioklept: You bring up your paintings of book shelves and readers—I’m particularly interested in these. Can you talk about how you approach painting figures who are reading? What’s your process? How is painting a reading figure different from a portrait where the figure gazes at the viewer?
DM: I’ve never liked posing sitters. When I paint portraits or figures they are usually friends or family rather than protagonists in a narrative I have in mind, so I like them to choose what they’re doing. If you’re gonna be sitting for an hour or two what’s more natural than to read a book? There aren’t many people who are able to just sit for long periods and when they do it creates a tension. You can see it in Lucian Freud’s great portraits, those people are weary from sitting in his dingy, gray studio. I prefer to paint people in repose—not to the point of pretending that they’re not being looked at—but neither like a bug being examined under glass. Readers are wrapped up in their own inner state rather than working to express some message an artist might be trying to impose. This is as close as I know how to portray a person as they are rather than as I’d like them to be.
Beth by Dmitry Samarov
Biblioklept: So then, for the most part, I’m guessing you don’t photograph the subject and work from that photograph to create the painting. How does painting the sitter “live” (for lack of a better term—if there is one, please let me know!) differ from working from something like a photograph?
DM: I always prefer to work from life. The only things that are from photographs, sketches, or memory are my illustrations and some commissioned pieces. What’s always interested me is looking out at the world and making marks in reaction to what I see. Working from photographs doesn’t allow me to do that. They’re frozen and unnatural. Life never stops the way it does in a photograph. A drawing or painting can acknowledge the passage of time, the light changing, and many other things much better. But, of course, I’m very biased about this.
To me a picture should be a collection of many moments. It’s made in the space between the subject and the artist’s eyes and mind. It’s a conversation, a back-and-forth. I can’t have that same conversation with a photograph or even with one of my own memories for that matter.
Biblioklept: I think your paintings show the energy of that conversation. Can you talk a bit about your book paintings? When did you start painting images of book shelves? Are the shelves your own?
DM: I started doing the book paintings about fifteen years ago and return to them every few years. I think I was looking for a way to do still-life without setting anything up. I like the way the books lean against each other, the crevices formed in the gaps between them, and the way the overall structure and character of a shelf changes over time as books are removed and replaced. It’s also always been funny to me to be painting the outsides of books so much of what a book is is contained between the covers.
The shallow space of a bookshelf also offers a different kind of challenge than the kind of vantage points I usually gravitate to. At times it becomes an almost abstract arrangement of shapes. Despite all that, these are my bookshelves and I have read most of these books. It’s just one more way to engage with them and who wouldn’t want that?
Biblioklept: I’ve tried to photograph all of my bookshelves this year as part of a project on the site and it’s turned out to be much more difficult than I imagined—the way the light hits differently textured covers, and so on.
Since we’ve been talking about books and paintings of books and readers, I’m curious about paintings that you love (or hate) of readers and books—are there any particular paintings that come to mind?
DM: I like a lot of the 19th Century trompe l’oeil paintings by Harnett, Peto, et al. There’s a new thing lately of painting bookshelves with every title clearly visible. I think it’s a kind of showing-off, of letting people know how learned or in-the-know you are. I’m not a fan of that. I use text in some of my paintings but it’s often for visual reasons, if the color of the lettering on a particular spine contrasts in an interesting way with the book next to it, say, I may emphasize that. It’s always in the service of the entire picture rather than some sort of status report. Also the hand-painted Penguin paperback covers.: cute but pretty quickly forgettable.
Biblioklept: Let’s talk about the intersection of your writing and your illustration. First, I’m curious about Hack. The University of Chicago Press put out a collection of your stories (with illustrations) under that name last year, but you also have earlier versions of Hack in old school zine form, as well as a blog that features new writing. I’m curious how you think of Hack—do you think of it as an ongoing project? A book? A blog? A persona even?
DM: Hack started as a zine around 2000 as a way for me to make sense of my three years driving a cab in Boston (1993-1997). It was called Hack because the license to operate a taxi in Boston was called a Hackney Carriage License and they used to call cabbies hacks in the old days. It was my first attempt at writing outside of school homework assignments and there really wasn’t much writing, it was mostly pictures. Those pictures were a challenge too because, as I’ve said, I work primarily from direct observation and the only way to do these were from memory. These illustrations were made to work together with the words, not to stand on their own and that has continued to be the case through the whole history of Hack.
I started driving a taxi in Chicago in 2003 and revived Hack as a blog late in 2006. To my surprise, it got notice pretty quickly from some in the local press—Whet Moser, then of the Chicago Reader especially—-and my high school pal John Hodgman mentioning it in a magazine didn’t hurt either. That got it noticed by a publicist at University of Chicago Press named Levi Stahl. He bought a copy of my self-published compilation (see the third one down) and eventually pitched Hack as a book to his employers. They published it in October 2011.
I stopped driving last summer and spent a couple of months putting together a second book. It’s all ready to go. I’m just waiting for a publisher to snap it up. The new one expands on a lot of the themes of the first book and spans my entire cab career, from 1993 to 2012. I’m a much better writer from having gone through the editing process on the first book and from the sheer amount of writing in various venues that I’ve done over the last few years.
I don’t know that Hack is/was a persona but it’s certainly gotten me more attention than anything else I’ve done.
Biblioklept: When you were working on the pieces for Hack, did you start with the illustrations or the words?
DM: The illustrations were always first. They were my way into the writing. I went over the phrases I’d use as I was working on the pictures. That’s the way it goes to this day for the most part. I always have been and always will be a painter first.
“You Know Where I’m Going” by Dmitry Samarov
Biblioklept: The pieces of Hack I’ve read seem to channel the stories of your passengers—there’s a lucid straightforwardness about them that I like. How conscientious of style are you when you’re writing? How much do you edit?
DM: I edit a lot. I use as few words as possible. It’s evolved over time of course. When I started I leaned really heavily on ellipses as a transitional device. I cribbed that from Celine’s Death on the Installment Plan. Editing the entries for the first book cured me of that. In general the cab stories take their inspiration from Nelson Algren’s advice to just go out into the streets and listen to the way people speak and to write that down as simply as possible.
At it’s best my writing tries to do what my painting does: to relay what I see and here out in the world. I try my best to stay out of the way because everything out there is so much more interesting than anything I could ever dream up.
Celine by Dmitry Samarov
Biblioklept: You know, I almost referenced Celine in my last question, because the ellipses are clearly a major stylistic device in your self-published version of Hack (and also because I dig your painting Celine). You bring up Algren—what other writers do you admire?
DM: Algren is a real touchstone because he introduced me to Chicago a few years before I even arrived here in 1990 to attend the School of the Art Institute. There are many others. I love Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel and Luc Sante’s Kill All Your Darlings as models for ways of writing different sorts of personal essays. William Gaddis’s books, especially JR, for the way he captures American speech and Cormac McCarthy, especially Suttree, for descriptions of physical environment.
Lately I’ve been looking into forgotten local authors a lot and writing about them at Writers No One Reads. A sense of specific place is very important to me.
I don’t have any aspirations to write fiction but usually, as long as it’s rooted in reality, I’ll probably read it.
Biblioklept: You’ve returned to the idea of reality a few times in our conversation, and your paintings and illustrations seem to evoke a strong sense of place. Why is depicting real scenes important to you? I’m guessing we won’t see a series of space vampires from Dmitry Samarov anytime soon . . .
DM: Writers and painters who use space vampires, fantastic worlds, etc. probably just have more imagination than me. Or perhaps the everyday world doesn’t provide them with enough inspiration or subject-matter to say what they need to say. I don’t have that problem. For me just looking out the window for a moment as I type this gives a glimpse of a thousand paintings I could try to paint. What’s out there is within my scope of vision is as limitless as outer space must be to sci-fi writer or a dream must be to a fantasist. The few times I’ve tried to resort to my imagination I’ve found it at once limiting, hopelessly random, and sadly wanting. How could I choose one thing rather than another and what would it matter? There are still many choices to be made when working from what’s before me but it doesn’t feel random and meaningless in the same way. It’s more that I’m pushing against something that’s actually there and it’s pushing back at me.
But maybe I’ll switch to space vampires after I get bored with reality.
Biblioklept: Do you paint or draw every day? Do you write every day?
DM: I try to paint, draw, or write something most days. It’s a much better day when I have than when I haven’t, that’s for sure. The internet has made it possible to share every stray scrap that one comes up with and I’m probably guilty of putting too much out there for others to see, but I’ve always thought of all my work as being public, that part that’s for me is just the doing. After I’m done, it has to sink or swim on its own and for that viewers and readers are needed. The internet is like a big messy studio where (hopefully) over time all the false starts and failures will be forgotten, ignored, or swept away and the worthwhile things will have whatever life they deserve. What I’m trying to say is that most of hat I do is probably crap but that maybe there’s some value in sharing it with others and letting them judge rather than holding things close and only showing them the ones that I’m convinced are good. In any case it’s nearly impossible to say right after finishing a picture whether it’ll speak to people or is just a rehash of something done before or a waste of time I’ve somehow convinced myself to push on with. I hope in twenty or thirty years to look back and be able to say that I’ve made a couple of things that were worthwhile.
Biblioklept: So do you find it hard to judge or evaluate your own work?
DM: Not at the time I’m doing it. I throw away plenty. But with the benefit of, say, a year or five or ten, things I thought weren’t bad turn out to look awful and occasionally, vice versa. As a rule though, I think once I’ve decided to let something out into the world it’s no longer my job to evaluate it. If I thought enough of it not to burn or paint over it it has to try to survive on its own steam.
Biblioklept: What are you working on right now?
DM: Well, I finished a second book of illustrated cab stories. It’s called WHERE TO? More Stories from a Hack and covers from when I first drove in Boston in 1993 until the summer of 2012 when I gave my last cab ride. It goes deeper into the inner workings of the cab industry, the people who take cabs, attempts to answer why I decided to drive a cab in the first place. I’m still looking for a publisher for it.
I’ve been writing and illustrating occasional baseball-related pieces for Chicago Side’ssports section, working on illustrations for various other projects, and finishing up my first book review for the Chicago Tribune’s literary supplement, Printers Row, on a recently-reissued forgotten novel called Diversey. Also I have two art shows coming up in January and another in February. On January 11th, “Dmitry Samarov: Bookshelf Paintings” opens at the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago. On January 23rd, “Pictures from a Chicago Cab” opens at the University of Central Missouri.
All that and doing my best not to have to go back to a day-job. I haven’t driven a cab in about five-and-a-half months and have really gotten to love not having to leave the house much.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
DM: I used to steal ‘em all the time. I had a good scam going when I was school changing price-tags on expensive art books, getting $100 ones for $20 and such. I used to steal a lot of things. I wrote a whole thing about it for The Handshake.
Biblioklept: Can you talk about a particular book you remember stealing?
DM: I stole this beautiful Giacometti book from Powell’s sometime in the early-90s and wound up having to sell it at Myopic Books in the late-90s for much less than it was worth when I was broke and between jobs. I’ve sold off tons of great books and records over the years. I’m neither the most careful collector nor blessed with much foresight as to what might or might not be valuable in the future.
For the past few years, D.C.-based artist William Beutler has been mapping the real and fictional locations of David Foster Wallace’s giant novel Infinite Jest in a project called Infinite Atlas, a Google Maps-based guide to over 600 locations described in Infinite Jest. Beutler’s project has sprawled (appropriately) to include several dimensions, including Infinite Map (shown above), which identifies and describes 250 locations from the novel and Infinite Boston, a travel blog of sorts that documents and reflects on Beutler’s Wallace-based trip to Boston. Beutler was kind enough to talk to me about his projects over a series of emails.
Biblioklept: How did the Infinite Atlas project start?
William Beutler: I think, like a lot of long-term projects, I’d point to a few different points of inspiration. The first is just going back and reading Infinite Jest for a second time in 2009, after I’d say it went from being a favorite novel to my actual favorite novel. I’d also become interested in infographics, I suppose as a kind of art form based on the expression of data—and what better stockpile of data than a thousand-page, encyclopedic novel? I cycled through a lot of ideas, finding that some of them had already been done before, and then finally deciding to focus on geography.
Biblioklept: How did the geography focus come about?
WB: The geography focus owes to a few different things. One is simply that I wasn’t the first to arrive at the idea of creating an infographic based on Infinite Jest, so I had to take that into consideration. Sam Potts, who is the designer of John Hodgman’s books, had released an elaborate graphic drawing connections between the various characters in the novel. I’d been considering that when his came out, but he did that pretty definitively, so I went with one oft he other. And hey, I just like maps. I started my career in political journalism, where districts are always being redrawn, and maps are always being shaded this much red or this much blue, so it was a natural focus in that regard. And there’s always been something I’ve liked about adding a layer of information to geographic features. I don’t know that I could have credibly called myself a geography enthusiast before this—but I have friends who definitely are, and even some who work with GIS professionally. They helped me figure out what I was doing.
Biblioklept: Did you consciously start using Google Maps? Was Google Maps a starting point in and of itself or just a tool?
WB: Google Maps was probably one of the very last decisions we made. And all the web development was relatively late in the process, starting about early summer of this year. Most of the work before that was simply building the database, which lived in Google Docs for most of this research period. The decision to use Google Maps wasn’t necessarily random, although I had actually made an early conscious decision to not use it. I’d suggested Open Street Maps, partly because I like open source projects, and Foursquare had switched to it, which seemed like a noteworthy endorsement. But my developers said Google Maps was going to be less time-consuming, and less expensive, and I was willing to take this advice.
Biblioklept: Can you talk a bit about how you put the atlas together? What was your approach? How did you start?
WB: In the very early going, it was as simple and painstaking as going page-by-page through the book, scanning each one for proper nouns, and taking notes down in Google Docs. This was myself and another friend who had read the book, Olly Ruff, who is one of the credited editorial advisers. We debated what really counted as a “location”—Orin’s “Norwegian deep-tissue therapist” lives “1100 meters up in the Superstition Mountains,” overlooking Mesa-Scottsdale. So is that one location, or two?And once we realized we had so many locations, this was about the time I realized the original idea, which was just the map, was not going to be the comprehensive accounting for the novel’s locations I had imagined. Once I decided we had to explore an interactive version as well, then we had to decide which locations were just going on the map, and how many. Then we had to figure out where certain locations were actually located, and that was a considerable amount of research as well. Sometimes it was very obvious-—Harvard Square is very easy to find, but some places I didn’t even know were real until I visited Boston. We also had to figure out how to show both the scope of North America alongside the detail of central Boston, and this just took an agonizingly long time. This is where some of my friends who worked with maps for a living proved helpful. The further into this I got, the bigger of a project it kept revealing itself to be. And since the point of no return was never clear, I just kept at it, never entirely sure how long it would all take, until we actually started working with designers.
Biblioklept: How did actually visiting Boston help to inform the project?
WB: About a year into the research, I realized that I was hitting a wall with some of the local details in Boston, which has the greatest concentration of locations of anywhere in the novel. More specifically, the neighborhoods of Allston and Brighton already kind of run together, and then Wallace invented a whole new unincorporated community called Enfield, where most of the primary characters live, and its relationship to Allston-Brighton was very confusing. The trip helped me get a better sense for what was Enfield and what was Brighton, although there’s only textual support for boundary lines to the east and south.Also regarding certain locations, I knew the Brighton Marine hospital complex was the basis for Enfield Marine, and I knew that the hill behind it was where the Enfield Tennis Academy would be, if it existed, but Google Maps and Google Street View have some pretty obvious limitations. So putting boots on the ground was really the only way to be sure about some of these places. I was surprised by some things I found: there’s a “Professional Building” mentioned as being at one intersection when it’s really another, which I had no idea until I walked right up to it. And the Infinite Boston Tumblr simply couldn’t have existed without the trip, but the trip was also absolutely necessary for getting a lot of details right for Infinite Atlas and Infinite Map.
Biblioklept: How long have you been working on the Infinite Boston blog?
WB: The Boston trip was in July 2011, and the notion of doing a Tumblr travelogue to the project was probably in the back of my head at the time, but I didn’t really start thinking about seriously doing it until earlier this year. I’d been sifting through the photos—I came back with about 4,000—since then, and in the spring I started making decisions about what I had acceptable photos of, and what I had enough to write about, then I started planning the sequence in June, and putting together notes in early July. And though I had quite a few entries planned out weeks in advance to begin with, these days I’m finishing them the night before, or up to the last few minutes before publishing.
Biblioklept: The Infinite projects clearly will resonate with fans of Wallace’s novel. What do you hope they take away from your work?
WB: I can’t begin to tell you the number of people who’ve told me they started Infinite Jest, and gave up after making it a surprisingly long way through it. One friend of mine spent the better part of a decade having read to at least page 600 before finally finishing it earlier this year. (He ended up helping out as a backup researcher.) I’ve heard it said that the book doesn’t really start coming together until about 400 pages, and it’s been much too long since I first read it for me to remember, but I know the feeling of hopelessness that goes along with struggling early in a long novel (I’m still working myself back up to revisiting Gravity’s Rainbow and Europe Central…). I think a project like this can serve as a kind of promise to the uninitiated that there really is something here that people feel very strongly about, that it rewards the effort one must put into it. There’s much more to it than just being a hipster status symbol. And then I think it can help those who are reading it, both to confirm details they may have misread the first time or—better still—to make connections they might never have made without this kind of tool. And of course to visualize it as David Foster Wallace surely did, if they’re so inclined. That said, I’m not sure the Atlas is a resource I would have consulted when I first read the book. I tend to be very spoiler-sensitive, oftentimes purposefully going into a novel or a film or television series trying to know as little as possible. Of course, I know now that Infinite Jest can’t be “ruined” by knowing about a particular story arc, and I’m sure that others so wracked with fear over knowing that two storylines connect, so I hope they’ll find this a useful resource.
Biblioklept: I’m curious if you’ve read Houellebecq’s novel The Map and the Territory?
WB: I have not actually read any Houellebecq; I’m primarily familiar with him for various controversies, and I do remember the allegations that he had plagiarized Wikipedia for The Map and the Territory, and the possibility then that his book would be judged a Creative Commons-licensed work. Anyhow, I am familiar with the map-territory relationship as described by Alfred Korzybski, and Infinite Jest was my introduction to it. I think it’s very relevant here, not that anyone would necessarily mistake the atlas as anything but a supplement to the novel. Actually, one of my early working titles for the project was “Map / Territory,” and the website includes a kind of epigraph, taken from the Eschaton section: “The real world’s what the map here stands for!”
Biblioklept: I figured the Eschaton episode clearly resonated with your project. What sections or characters of IJ stand out as favorites to you?
WB: Believe it or not, Eschaton was one of the last location segments that I added to the Atlas. Early on we’d focused on real places where scenes actually took place, or references to North American locations that fell inside the confines of the map. And Chris Ayers of Poor Yorick Entertainment had already made a pretty nifty Eschaton infographic, so I was hesitant to do too much with that. But it became clear that we were going to take a maximalist approach, and really locate absolutely everything that could be located, so then I went through and included everything from Eschaton as best I could.If I had to name a favorite section, it might be the very last, with Gately and Fackelman holed up with Mt. Dilaudid, avoiding the wrath of Whitey Sorkin. It’s just beautifully written, and for whatever criticisms anyone might still make about the novel lacking a proper ending plot-wise, it makes perfect sense emotionally. In close contention, though, is Gately’s first chapter, about the disastrous burglary in a “wildly upscale part of Brookline” that turns his life around. It’s the first section in the story really that took my breath away—that or I was holding my breath waiting in vain for a paragraph break to exhale. Anyway, the unsurprising answer regarding my favorite character is Don Gately. He’s maybe DFW’s single greatest creation.
Biblioklept: I agree with you on Gately being Wallace’s greatest achievement—I love the sections you mention as well. I think many people who can’t get into IJ probably don’t get to that burglary/toothbrush episode quick enough.
WB: I don’t know, the number of people who have made it to halfway or further and then still give up, just speaking anecdotally, is staggering. I’ve personally given up on much shorter books, which is probably every book I’ve given up on, considering I haven’t bothered to try Imperial or some of Vollmann’s other longer stuff. Plus, it’s not like there isn’t grabby material early on: the “where was the woman who said she’d come” scene with Erdedy is very dense, but I think immediately rewarding in a way some of the Hal and Orin material up front is not. And there’s no way around the fact it’s just a months-long project in a way few novels are.
Biblioklept: Have you had any response from Wallace’s estate about your project?
WB: I haven’t, nor have I solicited any. In development on the project, I had considered reaching out to Bonnie Nadell, but I didn’t really know what I’d be asking. This wasn’t going to be the first infographic project or fan art based on the book, so I didn’t think permission was an issue. A friend had offered to put me in contact with D.T. Max, if I needed, but I didn’t want to bother him, either. The most response I’ve had is two retweets and one reblog from whomever’s running social media for Little, Brown, and it’s more than I would have asked for.
Biblioklept: Do you have another project on the horizon after this one?
WB: To be honest, I’m not even sure I’m totally done with Infinite Jest yet. I’m still writing Infinite Boston on a daily basis through the end of this month, and we’re actually putting in some further refinements on the Infinite Atlas website. Besides that, I’d been editing a very short film when I turned to focus on this, so I’d like to complete that now. And I’m sure this isn’t my last map, either.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
WB: Haha, that’s a great question. And the answer is yes. One that comes to mind in particular I found in a teacher’s lounge in the j-school at the University of Oregon, where I worked and never quite completed my journalism double major. And I don’t have it handy—I’m afraid I’ve left stolen property on a shelf at my parents’ house—but it was called something like The Declining American Newspaper and its publication date could have been no later than 1965. Even when I found it, this was still early days of the Internet. I wasn’t sure whether it was prophetic or preposterous, which is basically why I pocketed it. Less a book, more a conversation piece. Next visit, I’ll try to make partial amends by actually reading it.
Ethan Allen is perhaps most noted for leading the Green Mountain Boys on a daring raid to take Fort Ticonderoga from the British. Willard Sterne Randall’s biography Ethan Allen: His Life and Times reveals and explores much more to the Vermont statesman than many fans of American history are likely aware of. Randall also makes good on the promise of the second part of his book’s subtitle, painting the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary years in keen detail. Randall was kind enough to talk to me about his book (which is new in a trade paperback edition from Norton) via email.
Randall has written many books on the American colonial and Revolutionary periods, including biographies of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Benedict Arnold. He lives in Vermont, where he teaches American history at Champlain College. Check out his website.
Biblioklept: You’ve written books about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, figures who obviously bear considerable influence on American history. Ethan Allen is a less-remarked upon figure. What made you want to tell his story?
Will Randall: When I moved to Vermont thirty years ago after a journalism career, I ran into Ethan Allen’s name everywhere—on a ferry, a federal firing range, an old cavalry fort, streets and highways, a bowling alley—but if you asked people what they knew about him, invariably it was with a chuckle and a sign of tippling or a wink and they’d say, “Ole Ethan, that drunk” or “that scoundrel.” Other than that, he knew he had captured a fort with the Green Mountain Boys (their names and his were always run together), but beyond one day at the beginning of the Revolution, they knew nothing.
As I worked on other biographies of more patrician and recognizable revolutionaries, I kept running into Allen’s name. The editors of a new compendium on the American Enlightenment asked me to do a profile of Allen as philosopher: turned out Allen was the first published American Deist philosopher. My son wrote a thesis in college on the precedents of the Union’s treatment of POW’s in the Civil War: turned out it was the treatment of Ethan Allen as a prisoner of the British in the Revolution. Treatment of the British: turned out Allen wrote a memoir of his captivity under horrible conditions for nearly three years as he was shunted by ship from Canada to England to Bermuda to Halifax to New York, etc., while George Washington laid down the law that, as Allen was treated, so would be British prisoners. That narrative turned out to be the second-best-selling book of the Revolution, only behind Tom Paine. And so it went, with virtually every Founding Father in one way or another interacting with Allen while he beat off, with four
volumes and scores of pamphlets of highly-charged words and weapons from clubs and daggers to the heavy artillery that drove the British out of Boston and saved Washington’s army, anyone who tampered with Vermont, which was virtually his creation. That, I decided, warranted a book.
Biblioklept: Allen often comes across as a sort of mythical frontiersman—you note in your prologue that he “projects himself as a populist frontier philosopher on horseback.” How accurate is this reputation?
WR: I think he fills his own bill. He was so popular that some 10,000 people braved February weather in Vermont to come to his funeral (out of a population of 80,000. He spoke for the poor who couldn’t make it in other more hierarchical New England colonies and, after revolting in Massachusetts, fled to Vermont, where he protected them. All his adult life, he took on, in person and in writing, the Puritan theocracy, selling virtually everything he had to attack their Old Testament religion in publishing 1,500 copies of a book, of which only about 200 copies survived the flames of a suspicious fire. While most other Founders prospered from the Revolution—Monticello, Mount Vernon, etc.—Allen chose to live out his days in a one-and-a-half story log house with the best view of his beloved Green Mountains and Lake Champlain. There, giving Voltaire’s name to one of his sons, he raised cattle and scribbled away, signing himself, “Clodhopper Philosopher” that the philosophes of Paris read in their salons on the eve of the French Revolution. And what finally killed him: according to a toxicologist I consulted, too much applejack mixed with rum in a “flowing bowl” of punch he consumed liberally in one last party with his Green Mountain Boys.
Biblioklept: At the beginning of Ethan Allen, you point out that there are few books or credible biographies of your subject. I’m curious how this impacted the composition of the book—was it frustrating? Liberating?
WR: Actually, it was liberating. It forced me to employ all the investigative techniques I had learned and made me read as widely as I have with any other Founding Father, following the research wherever it led me.
Joshua Henkin’s new novel, The World Without You, tells the story of the Frankels, a large Jewish American family who gather over the Fourth of July weekend to mourn the death of their son Leo, a journalist who was kidnapped and then murdered in Iraq. The World Without You is Henkin’s third novel after Matrimony and Swimming Across the Hudson. Henkin directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College. The World Without You is new in hardback from Pantheon. You can learn more about Henkin at his website. He was gracious enough to talk to me over a series of emails about writing, teaching, verb tense, sympathy, and his new novel.
Biblioklept: There’s a lot going on in The World Without You, but it seems to be essentially a novel about a family—what it means to be a family, what it means to be in a family, what it means to be in conflict with a family—where did the Frankels come from?
Josh Henkin: The most simple answer is, My imagination. The Frankels aren’t based on anyone I know, and like all characters in fiction (at least the kind of fiction I write), they developed slowly over time; I discovered them in the writing process over the course of quite a number of years. What I would say is that I think that in the same way that people speak of “rebound relationships,” I think of my novels as “rebound novels.” Matrimony took place over twenty years and focuses on a small cast of characters, and I wanted to write something different this time. So, whether consciously or not, I set out to write a book that was more compressed, on one hand (it takes place over 72 hours instead of over 20 years), and more spacious, on the other hand (there are many more characters, and we go into many points of view). If you’re asking where the inspiration for the book came from, I’d say it came mostly from the following. I had a first cousin who died of Hodgkin’s disease when he was in his late twenties. I was only a toddler at the time, but his death hung over my extended family for years. At a family reunion nearly thirty years later, my aunt, updating everyone on what was happening in her life, began by saying, “I have two sons….” Well, she’d once had two sons, but her older son had been dead for thirty years at that point. It was clear to everyone in that room that the pain was still raw for her and that it would continue to be raw for her for the rest of her life. By contrast, my cousin’s widow eventually remarried and had a family. This got me thinking how when someone loses a spouse, as awful as that is, the surviving spouse eventually moves on; but when a parent loses a child they almost never move on. That idea was the seed from which The World Without You grew. Although there are many tensions in the novel (between siblings, between couples, between parents and children), the original tension was between mother-in-law and daughter-in law, caused by the gulf between their two losses, by the different ways they grieve.
Biblioklept: You mention the compression of The World Without You, which here strikes me as form of realism. The book takes place over the July 4th holiday—why did you choose this setting? Was the Independence Day setting always part of your design?
JH: I knew I wanted a compressed period of time–mostly because Matrimony took place over twenty years and I think of books like relationships: one book is a rebound from the previous one. I also knew that I wanted the book to be told in many points of view; this, too, makes it different from Matrimony, which was told only in Julian and Mia’s points of view. In terms of Independence Day, I think that was a little more unconscious, though probably intentional as well. Part of the issue was a practical one: how do you get a large, disperse family together in one place? You need an occasion for the telling, and a holiday like July 4th provides one. Though of course the real occasion for the telling is Leo’s memorial. But I think even there Independence Day is relevant because although the book is obviously about the specific characters (I think all fiction worth its salt is always first and foremost about the particular, not the general), I do think this novel in its own indirect way is a novel about America more broadly, and certainly about a certain segment of America, of which I consider myself a part. The Frankels are a political family, with strong opinions about Bush and about the Iraq War, but they’re also privileged. They’ve really known no one who has fought in the war, have been insulated from it in their day-to-day lives–and then, with Leo’s death, it comes and touches them in the most horrific and personal way. And I wondered what that’s like–to be mourning while the rest of the country is celebrating, to be commemorating the independence of a country that has sent its young men and women to war, a country that’s responsible for their son and brother’s death.
Biblioklept: You mention the Frankels’s privileged background. They are, for the most part, liberal, secular, refined. Leo dies in Iraq, but, significantly, he’s a journalist, not a soldier. Do you worry that not all readers will connect to these characters? How do you make your characters sympathetic—or does sympathy even matter in fiction?
JH: My feeling is that people are people, and they merit as little or as much sympathy as they merit whether they’re rich or poor, healthy or sick, beautiful or ugly. There’s a strand of anti-elitism in American culture (one can see it every day, tirelessly, in our politics), and one sees it, too, in certain attitudes toward literature–the idea being that only the humble, the uneducated are worthy of our fiction. But I find the idea pretentious; it smacks of a kind of reverse snobbery. And tell it, in any case, to Fitzgerald, or Cheever, or Yates. One of the things good literature does is it humanizes people we might not otherwise be drawn to. And (this is at least as important) it allows us to enjoy the company of people on the page whose company we might not enjoy off the page. Which is another way of saying that sympathy doesn’t matter in fiction, at least not sympathy narrowly construed. In fiction, as in life, some people are likable and some people aren’t likable, and the world would be boring if everyone were likable. The fiction writer’s job is to make his characters complex, interesting, fully human, not (or at least not necessarily) likable.
Biblioklept:The World Without You is conveyed in the present tense. I’m curious what led you to compose in the present tense, or if you drafted parts of the novel in the past tense—what advantages can the present tense offer the writer and reader? What are its limitations?
JH: I think about tense a lot, probably because I teach fiction writing and, more specifically, because I direct Brooklyn College’s Fiction MFA program, and so I end up reading 500 application manuscripts a year, a good number of which are written in the present tense. It’s said that present tense makes the story feel more immediate, yet year after year I notice among our graduate applications that the present-tense stories are usually the least immediate, most inert stories in the bunch. Why is that? I think it’s because some writers use present tense as a substitute for narrative, as a way of hiding that nothing is happening in their stories. They think that if they write in present tense their stories will feel immediate.
I also think that present tense is deceptive because it’s easy in present tense to slip out of scene and into general/habitual time. In the past tense, you would write “She went to the store on Tuesday” to suggest that the character is going to the store at a specific time. If, on the other hand, you wanted to indicate repeated or habitual action, you would write, “She would go to the store on Tuesday.” But in the present tense there generally isn’t such a distinction between the specific and the habitual. “She goes to the store on Tuesday” can mean either that she’s going to the store right now on Tuesday or that she’s a habitual store-goer on Tuesdays. I think what happens in present tense is that a lot of writers end up slipping into the habitual, and so what seems immediate is actually not at all immediate.
The other thing I’d say is that it’s very hard to write a present-tense novel that takes place over ten years because it’s likely to feel artificial for all that time to be in present tense. Present tense works best, then, in novels and stories told in compressed time.
The World Without You simply came to me in present tense. That was the tense that felt right for the book. This may be true, in part, because I’d been influenced by Richard Ford’s Independence Day, another novel told over a single July 4th holiday that’s told in present tense. But I think it’s more than that. The World Without You takes place over 72 hours, so it’s ideally suited for present tense, and it’s also told in confined space; most of the book is situated in the Frankel family home and the streets that surround it in Lenox, Mass. One thing I was trying to do was balance the sprawling quality of the book (there are many characters and lots of different points of view) with the more focused time and space that I just mentioned, and I think present tense allowed me to do that. But all this is post-facto, a case of me looking back at what I did. I proceeded intuitively, which is what I always do, and present tense simply felt right (it was the right sound, the right voice) for this book.
Biblioklept: You bring up your position as Brooklyn College’s MFA fiction program director—I’m curious if reading so many manuscripts affects your own writing.
JH: I love teaching, and that’s in large part because I get to teach some of the most talented young writers out there. In the last few months alone, five of our recent MFA graduates have gotten book contracts. There are writers who wouldn’t know how to teach; for them, writing is an intuitive process and they aren’t fully conscious of what they’re doing. For me, it was the opposite. I could read someone else’s short story and figure out what wasn’t working long before I could make things work in my own stories. I needed to learn how to become a more intuitive writer, and critiquing other people’s stories helped me do that; it still helps me. I’ve been at this process longer than my students have, but we’re all struggling with the same thing—how to write convincing stories; how to make our characters comes so deeply to life they feel as real as, even realer than, the actual people in our own lives; how to use language in a way that’s precise and beautiful and utterly true. That never changes. So in a way, even though I’m the instructor, we’re all students in the room. Also, I’m a fairly social person, and writing is incredibly solitary, so teaching gives me the chance to be with other people and to talk about the work I love.
Biblioklept: Are there manuscripts that come in where you just kind of slap your forehead and go, “Not another story about ______ again!”
JH: Absolutely. Many of my graduate students are in their mid-twenties, and so they write about the concerns of people in their mid-twenties. How to find love in the big city, that kind of thing. That’s okay. If it’s done well, just about any subject matter can make for compelling fiction, and in any case, my students won’t be in their mid-twenties forever. That’s one of the nice things about being a writer. You mature; you get better over time. Writing is different from figure skating. It’s even different from playing the violin. You can be in your late forties and still be a young writer. At least that’s what I like to tell myself!
Often it’s less a similarity of subject matter that I see than a similarity of voice or sensibility. For a time I saw a lot of Lorrie Moore imitators. Then I saw a lot of George Saunders imitators. If you’re going to imitate someone, those are two pretty good choices, though in a lot of ways Moore and Saunders are inimitable. But that’s fine. Imitation is part of the maturing process. It’s how a writer achieves her own voice.
Biblioklept: Do you have any upcoming writing projects? What are you working on next?
JH: My most immediate project is a trip to Hawaii! Writing a novel takes a lot out of you. Right now, I’m trying to figure out what comes next. I promised myself I would go back to writing short stories. It’s weird, I’ve spent the last nearly twenty years writing novels, when in so many ways I think of myself as a short-story writer. It was certainly my first love, and because I teach MFA students, I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about short stories. So last fall, when I finished the final draft of The World Without You, I immediately sat down to write a short story, and what happened? The draft I wrote was 113 pages along! And then the second short story I wrote was over 200 pages long! I still think I’m capable of writing a regular old twenty-to-thirty-page short story, but we’ll have to see. In the meantime, I’m tossing around some ideas for a new novel, but it’s still in the very early, incubating stages, so I’m not saying anything more than that.
Steve Kemper’s latest book A Labyrinth of Kingdoms tells the story of Heinrich Barth, a German scientist who led a British-backed expedition into the central Sudan. While Barth’s name is not nearly as well-known as Livingstone or Stanley, Kemper makes a solid argument for a reappraisal of Barth’s neglected work. Barth explored Bornu and Sokoto, learned the ways of the nomadic Tuareg people, traveled to Timbuktu, and filled in many of the missing gaps that had been previously left to the guesswork of European geographers. Perhaps most importantly, Barth made numerous cultural connections in his time in Africa.
Barth’s story comes alive in Kemper’s capable hands; A Labyrinth of Kingdoms is erudite but never stuffy—at its core, the book is an excellent adventure story. Kemper’s first book, Code Name Ginger, traced the arc of invention and commerce by telling the story of the creation of the Segway transport. His work has also appeared journals like Smithsonian and National Geographic. To find out more about A Labyrinth of Kingdoms, check out Kemper’s blog .
Kemper was kind enough to talk to me about his book and Barth’s life in a series of emails.
A Labyrinth of Kingdoms is new in hardback from W.W. Norton on June 25th, 2012.
Biblioklept: What drew you to the story of Heinrich Barth? What made you want to write A Labyrinth of Kingdoms?
Steve Kemper: I got interested in Barth when I read a couple of paragraphs about him in Ryszard Kapuścińksi’s The Shadow of the Sun, a book of dispatches about Africa. In Timbuktu, Kapuścińksi notices a plaque on a house where Barth spent many months in 1853-1854, and he calls the explorer “one of the greatest travelers in the world” for his five years exploring the Sahara. He says that Barth survived death many times, including once by drinking his own blood. Kapuścińksi added that despite Barth’s accomplishments, he died young, unappreciated and almost forgotten. All of that sounded like the bones of a great story.
Biblioklept: Obviously, Barth’s tale is a great adventure story—but what are his greatest accomplishments?
SK: One of the reasons Barth isn’t better known is that he didn’t return with a headline accomplishment—the source of the Nile, a traverse of the continent, the location of a lost explorer. He did “discover” the Benue River and showed that it flowed into the Niger (that river’s major tributary) rather than into Lake Chad, and he settled the exact location of Timbuktu. But the reason that his work remains important to scholars is that he came back with reams of invaluable information and data about geography, anthropology, ethnography, and languages. He traveled across an immense territory and spent time with the major peoples of north-central Africa—Hausas, Kanuris, Tuaregs, Arabs, Songhais, Fulanis. The material he collected is still relevant. That can’t be said of most of Barth’s more famous peers. But then as now, headlines are more likely than scholarship to capture the public’s attention.
Biblioklept: North Africa, and the Islamic world in-general have captured more of the Western public’s attention in recent years though—what can we learn from Barth’s travels and experiences?
SK: Many things. First, that the region and the religion are not monolithic. Barth’s work (and my book) are full of a tremendous variety of peoples and cultures. Most Westerners—and I include myself in this, prior to writing this book—have a vague, fuzzy, and simplified image of the region that distorts everything about it—its many cultures, its complicated history, its complexity. Barth returned convinced that Islam was a great religion—not a popular view, then as now—but added that in some places it had been hijacked by thugs who used it as an excuse to pillage non-Muslims, or by fanatics, who used it as an excuse to kill or enslave non-Muslims. This still sounds familiar. But he also added that Islam wasn’t much different in this way from Christianity, another great religion sometimes hijacked by the greedy or the self-righteous. Barth met Muslim scholars and Muslim thieves, and tried to be clear about both. I could keep typing on this subject for a while but I don’t want the answer to get too long. I plan to write a couple of op-eds on the subject in time for the book’s pub date.
Biblioklept: In A Labyrinth of Kingdoms, you point out that Barth’s open-minded ideas were not well-received by his contemporaries, in part because these ideas conflicted with the emerging age of imperialist Europe. Is this also one of the reasons he hasn’t been canonized like other explorers?
SK: The short answer is yes, I believe so, though there are not straight lines connecting the two. But it seems clear that Barth’s ideas at least contributed to the reception of his work, along with Britain’s changing commercial and political goals, the interests of the public, and Barth’s own difficult personality.
Biblioklept: In what ways was Barth a difficult personality?
SK: During his journey and afterwards in England, Barth occasionally felt that he was being slighted by the British government or that his honor was being questioned (especially by one tormentor at the Royal Geographical Society). He was often right, but he reacted to these things with the touchiness of an anemone. An anemone’s touchiness is pretty to see; Barth’s was blunt and haughty and could even verge into petulance. His own strict sense of honor and proper conduct left him appalled at some of the machinations against him in England (and also in Germany). Barth’s brother-in-law and close friend wrote about him, “Heinrich is always too gruff and unyielding, and yet too modest and too imprudent. His pride doesn’t permit him to give in at the right moments. In the river of life he is a bold and persevering swimmer, but not a very agile one.”
Some of Barth’s difficulties stemmed from the fact that he was German, and the British liked their heroes home-grown. Some people in England couldn’t gracefully accept that the success of a British expedition had depended almost solely on a foreigner. (The British government funded the expedition, which began with an English leader. Barth was contracted as an independent scientist.)
Another part of Barth’s difficult personality stemmed from his sense of high calling. He truly did devote his life to science and the pursuit of truth, and he could be harsh when lesser mortals fell short of his standards.
It interests me that when he was in Africa, Barth showed far more patience and diplomacy than he did when back in Europe. In Africa, patience and diplomacy were often necessary to accomplish what he wanted and even to survive, but in Europe I think he expected better conduct and sometimes reacted poorly when he was disappointed.
Biblioklept: Barth’s story is one of culture and discovery, but it’s also an adventure story—can you share a favorite anecdote about Barth the adventurer?
SK: Tough question, since there are so many good ones, including death threats and narrow escapes. But I prefer the ones that reveal something about Barth. So: early in the journey, when he still considered himself nearly indestructible, he foolishly set off on foot one morning, with little water and no food, to climb a distant mountain. He soon ran out of water, got lost, and began to die of dehydration. Eventually he cut his arm and drank his own blood, which didn’t help. The following morning, at the caravan, the Tuareg guides told the expedition’s leader that no man could have survived the long Saharan day and night without water, but they agreed to search for him. Late that afternoon they found him, nearly comatose. The Tuaregs were amazed at his survival. They were also amazed the next day when, even though he couldn’t eat or speak, he rode seven hours with the caravan. This close call was a tough lesson, but Barth took it to heart and learned from it.
Another favorite, because it epitomizes how understated Barth always is about his adventures, occurred when he entered Kabara, a village on the Niger River not far from Timbuktu. Barth took up lodgings and was eating supper when a Tuareg warrior entered, glaring, and attempted to intimidate Barth into giving him a fine gift. Barth said he was eating and to go away. The Tuareg replied that he was a very dangerous man who was about to do something terrible. Barth writes, “After a very spirited altercation, I got rid of him.” I love the dry modesty of that. Imagine how Burton or Stanley would have handled it. After Barth expelled the warrior, 200 other men came in and silently eyed the stranger. Barth responded by staring back while lying across his smaller bags and protecting the bigger ones behind him. Very cool. Very Barth.
Biblioklept: I ran a blurb of your book the other day and a reader asked if the theologian Karl Barth might be a descendant of Heinrich’s. Any clue?
SK: I wondered the same thing, but haven’t come across anything that suggests they were related.
Biblioklept: You provide a fairly extensive set of end notes as well as a large bibliography for Labyrinth–clearly a lot of reading and research went into the book. Can you describe how you synthesized the information? What were some of your most important sources?
The principal source, of course, was Barth’s colossal book, Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa, which was originally published in five volumes and covered nearly 3500 pages. Other crucial primary sources were the extensive Foreign Office files in the British National Archives, which include dispatches from consuls, receipts, letters, and all the thorough bureaucratic documentation of the Victorian age. Barth’s brother-in-law and close friend, Gustav von Schubert, wrote a biography that I had translated; it provided many private glimpses of Barth.
The scholarship, of course, was invaluable, and I immersed myself in it to understand the era. Remember, I’ve spent the last 30 years as a journalist, writing about living people. I knew how to write narrative, but I had to learn how to do that with history. My goal with the book was to write an exciting, informative narrative that put readers inside the expedition with Barth, so all the scholarship is all folded into the action. I don’t quote many scholars in the text proper, because I didn’t want to intrude on the readers’ experience of the expedition. That’s all writer’s talk about technique and is probably more than your readers want to know.
Biblioklept: Actually, our readers seem to enjoy insights about writing technique, so I’m sure they’ll be interested in this stuff. (I’m interested, anyway). How long did it take to research and write the book?
SK: It’s hard to say, because I was also working on smaller jobs while researching and writing the book. The research just for the proposal was time-consuming, starting with Barth’s 3500 pages. Because I’m not a scholar of 19th century Africa or Europe, the background research took many months. The writing, including interruptions from other jobs, took about 9 months—probably 7 months net.
Biblioklept: What’s your next big project?
SK: I’m working on another book for W. W. Norton about another undeservedly obscure adventurer whom I stumbled across in my reading. An American this time, who lived the sort of epic life that’s no longer possible, on frontiers in several countries. I think I’ll keep his name to myself for the time being.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
SK: Yes, once, while in college—a paperback of several Sean O’Casey plays. It was also a library book, which I later realized compounded the crime, since I deprived others who could have gotten pleasure from it. I’ve since donated hundreds of dollars’ worth of books to libraries. Maybe I’ve subconsciously been seeking atonement.