Certain books, the ones I’m always looking for and hardly ever finding—true codes of entry into other hard spiritualities—you have to read while you’re walking, say, even through a crowded airport. Such was Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Those of us who’ve come out of the serious dope-and-drink world may have forgotten the strange poetry and curious religious cast of events, but Johnson hasn’t. It takes an authentic poet to catch the strange, tragic hope and cheer as well as the squalor of that life, and Johnson surely is one.
Barry Hannah on Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son; from the January, 1994 issue of SPIN.
Matt Bell Chats with Biblioklept About Apocalypse, Hairy Infants, Cures for Writer’s Block, and His New Book Cataclysm Babyby Edwin Turner
When an advance copy of Matt Bell’s new novella-in-stories Cataclysm Baby showed up in the mail a few months ago, I was immediately intrigued. Post-apocalyptic fiction is right up my proverbial alley, and the book’s conceit—Bell’s site describes the book as “twenty-six post-apocalyptic parenting stories, all narrated by fathers, each revealing some different family, some new end of the world”—seemed refreshingly different than the “family issues” novels that publishers tend to send my way. I was not a jot disappointed in Cataclysm Baby either; in my review I write:
Bell’s apocalypse is discontinuous; each tale evokes its own paradigm, its own idiom of grief. He’s less interested in the invention and world-building that marks so much of sci-fi and fantasy than he is in tapping into the mythological undercurrents of end-of-the-world narratives. The short pieces in Cataclysm Baby unfold (or burst, or twist) like strange, dark fairy tales, each proposing another vision of collapse.
Matt was kind enough to talk to me over an exchange of emails. In the margins of our exchanges—those little quips that aren’t part of the interview proper—I found Matt to be a very nice, generous fellow. I enjoyed talking with him.
Matt teaches writing at the University of Michigan; he also works for Dzanc Books, where he runs the literary magazine The Collagist.
Biblioklept: Cataclysm Baby is a highly structured work that follows a clear pattern. Where did Cataclysm Baby begin? At what point did you start using the alphabet as an organizing principle for apocalypse family fiction?
Matt Bell: The writing of Cataclysm Baby began with its first story, “Abelard, Abraham, Absalom,” although I didn’t have that title for it then: I was just starting off to write a standalone short about this father, who was describing the birth of his son in what turned out to be fairly grim circumstances, and I didn’t know anything more than that—as is often the case with me, I was probably more interested in the voice than in the content or the character, at least at the very beginning. At some point in that draft, I wrote an early version of these lines: “For our baby, a name chosen from a book of names. Each name exhausted one after another, a sequence failure.” It was that suggestion of the baby name book that offered up that narrative’s title, and then alphabetizing as an organizing principle for more stories. Before that, I hadn’t intended to write a series, or this novella that they became, but the book’s structure was held in those lines, and that structure ended up driving a lot of the rest of the book’s drafting, by giving a shape for the other narratives to attach to.
Biblioklept: “Abelard, Abraham, Absalom” contains a horrifying image—the baby is born with a “furred esophagus,” and the dad must pull a hairball from the baby’s mouth. The following stories build on this horror: mutant offspring, forced-breeding, still birth, monster birth . . . You say that your initial concern was more with voice than content or character—but did you have any of these images in mind at the outset?
MB: It’s always a little hard to remember exactly—I wrote the first drafts of Cataclysm Baby in mid-2009—but I think that I would probably say that I didn’t have the imagery of the “furred esophagus” and that hair-choked baby before I started, but I might have had some of the others before starting their sections. Some of the sections were suggested by the names I chose, which in certain cases came first: Including the name “Cain” in the title of the third story, for instance, suggested at least a fratricide, if not exactly what that killing might entail.
For the most part, I’m typically not much of a planner, at the plot or situation level: I don’t have particularly good ideas, and so if I start there, I tend to end up with stories that are all surface, or that at least capture only the most surface stuff of me. By starting at the level of the sentence or the sound or the image—and then by staying at that level as long as I can—I feel more likely to dredge a little deeper, to discover something a little stronger. It’s in subsequent drafts that I do a lot of the plot and character shaping, and even some of the conceptual thinking. I need a certain critical mass of workable language before I can do too much story-work with it.
Bibliokept: Your language—tone, syntax, diction, etc.—inheres across the collection and works to unify the themes and images in Cataclysm Baby. Still, there’s a sense of disconnection of time and place between these stories, as if each one is its own discrete apocalypse or dystopia, even as they blend together.
In a sense, you seem to be playing obliquely with the tropes of end-of-the-world fiction, but resisting the heavy exposition and tendency for world-building we see in so much sci-fi. I suppose I’m pointing toward what I see as restraint in CB, but might have actually been editing on your part—how much of CB came from pruning and paring down?
MB: Generally I’d say that it’s my process to overwrite and then to cut back to the best version of any given story. That said, Cataclysm Baby was never a dramatically longer book, either as a whole or in its individual pieces. For me, many of these stories often operate more like fairy tales or biblical stories than contemporary sci-fi, and so have to do their world-building in different ways. I often write in fragments, and try to create useful spaces in the white spaces between—some regions of ambiguity or juxtaposition—and I think that when that’s working well those regions can end up standing in for what might otherwise require a lot of connective tissue and explanatory exposition.
Biblioklept: Why are end of the world stories are so compelling?
MB: The apocalyptic goes deep in us: Every civilization has its origin story, and also its story of how it’ll all end. Less of us might believe in more supernatural apocalypses now than in the past, but we’ve replaced those fears with secular ones, made all the more frightening for being manmade—global warming and constant war and economic inequality are the results of choices we’ve made, not the supernatural nature of the universe. We’re also within the first few generations that grew up during the environmental movement, taught to see the earth as something that needed to be saved by human action, from human action. All that adds to the gravity of certain kinds of apocalyptic stories: Our ending is now an act of agency instead of prophecy, and for me that changes everything.
Biblioklept: In what ways?
MB: What I mean is that if the end of the world is completely out of our control—if it’s the second coming or an unstoppable asteroid headed for earth —then we don’t bear any responsibility for it happening, and probably be can’t be tasked with stopping it. But if it’s a side effect of the way we live or the way we exploit the earth’s resources or of the way we treat each other, then I think we can be held responsible, both for what has already happened and our failures to make things better. The problem is that most of don’t actually have the chance to make a direct impact, or at least we don’t get to feel like we’re making one very often. It’s hard to make the links between our individual lives and our communal fates, in the biggest ways. But that doesn’t free us from the anxiety or the fear: If anything it probably makes it worse, because someone is making the decisions that might cost us everything, but it’s hard to pin down who it is, or to hold them accountable for their actions.
To bring it back toward Cataclysm Baby: The fathers in the book are rarely if ever responsible for the situations they and their families are in, and they aren’t generally given opportunities to improve things in a large-scale way. All they can do is focus on themselves and their families—which is, of course, what most of us do too, no matter how badly things are going outside our doors. This tension between what we know is wrong (climate change and oppression and war and every other kind of global problem) and what we are best suited for (caring for ourselves and the people closest to us) is problematic, and the solutions to that closing that gap aren’t particularly obvious, or at least they’re not obvious to me.
Biblioklept: I think that Cataclysm Baby has a positive ending—not necessarily a happy ending—but a positive one, or at least one that points to a future and generative capability. I’m curious if you tried out other ways to close the collection than those last few lines of “Zachary, Zahir, Zedekiah.”
MB: I’m so glad you read the ending that way: It’s definitely not a happy ending—and couldn’t be, after what’s come before—but I’d like to think that it at least leaves open the possibility of hope. That seems like such a slim solace, but it’s something, and sometimes enough.
As for whether there were other ways to end the novella: As I said above, I’m not generally a planner, and I ideally like to reach the final pages of a book or story in a burst, writing headlong, possessed by a sort of measured recklessness, in hopes that by moving as strongly as possible from sentence to sentence in a controlled sprint I might arrive at the end surprised and invigorated by what I find there, rather than overthinking or over-determining it. The final sentence of Cataclysm Baby was almost certainly tweaked through the rewriting process, but I arrived at its basic shape for the first time in much the same way I imagine a reader might, coming out of that run of repetitions and endings into something else, some possible future. I was glad that it contained that hope you felt, glad to know that was the way I instinctively responded when I reached the last page.
Biblioklept: Cataclysm Baby bears two epigraphs; one from the King James bible, and one from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The content of both quotations resonates with your work, as does the style.
McCarthy has said that “books are made out of books.” What writers or books were especially important or influential when you were composing Cataclysm Baby?
MB: I love that McCarthy quote, and couldn’t agree more: I think that for me a lot of my formative experiences didn’t happen in “real life,” but inside of books, in that space between what’s printed on the page and what happens in the reader. So the books I’ve read are at least as important an influence as the things I’ve done.
The Bible is obviously an influence on the voice of the book, but it also owes a debt to texts like Beowulf or the Greek myths—there’s a purposeful attempt here to use a more archaic-seeming way of speaking to talk about these futures. Fairy tales are an important part of how I structure stories and character development, and I think that way of thinking was a huge help when working with all of these compressed narratives. And of course there are all the end-of-the-world tales I read when I was a kid or a teenager or more recently: I grew up almost exclusively on science fiction and fantasy and horror, and so much of that still filters into the work. It’s some of that stuff from when I was younger that sticks with me the most, the different world-ending plots of Swan Song and The Stand and Robots and Empire and so on. And then there’s stuff I read later, like Beckett’s Endgame, like Shirley Jackson and McCarthy and Brian Evenson. But of course all of this is over-simplifying, or choosing only the most direct or obvious choices, the ones I couldn’t deny anyway: As I said above, I’ve lived a rather large part of my life inside the books I love, and so it’s no surprise that part of my books would end up being set in some combined world, some landscape they’ve all been mashed into inside me.
Bibliokept: You work as both an editor and a writing teacher. How do those jobs overlap or contrast or influence your own fiction writing?
MB: By the time I finished grad school I was doing most of these things in some form: I was teaching writing there too, and I’d started The Collagist and was just about to join Dzanc full-time. I truly love my teaching and my editing, and am very grateful to have them both as part of my daily work. I think that more than anything they’ve allowed me to see all of these pursuits as part of a bigger literary life, and that this life was the real goal I wanted to realize. I’m very lucky to get to spend my days as a writer and as a reader and teacher and editor and reviewer and whatever else, and I think that all of these different activities add up to one satisfying whole. If there ever came a time when I couldn’t write—where I lost my nerve or my drive to create—I’d like to think that these other activities might sustain me through that loss.
Biblioklept: What about just plain old writer’s block? I seem to be suffering from it these days. Any suggestions you offer your students?
MB: First, my sympathies: I know how frustrating that sensation can feel. Personally, I think I rarely have true writer’s block, the kind where I don’t write. Instead I have days where I write only badly, and sometimes miserably so —and sometimes those days stretch into weeks. When I’m working on a project, there’s almost always something to do, so if I can’t go forward I just move backward in the story and try to revise my way into forward motion again. If I’m between projects, I try to start something new every day until one catches. Immediately after finishing Cataclysm Baby I must have written the beginnings of a dozen terrible short stories, not letting myself abandon one before my writing time was over for the day. So maybe I spent a month writing three or four hours a day on work I wasn’t going to continue with—but at least I was writing. That’s the only way I know to get past writer’s block that isn’t dumb luck.
Biblioklept: Obviously Cataclysm Baby is just out, but do you have any other books or writing projects on the horizon?
MB: I do, thankfully: I’ve been working almost exclusively on a novel for the past three years, and am in the very final phases of that book. I can’t say much more about it yet, but hopefully soon. Once that’s finished, who knows? I’m looking forward to getting back to that place of surprise and uncertainty, after a couple years of knowing what to work on every day.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
MB: Not from a store, I don’t think. Mostly, I probably have some borrowed books I never gave back, and after some number of years those have become something like a theft. When I was 21 or so, I believed someone lent me a copy of Sam Lipsyte’s Venus Drive, which absolutely blew me away, and was hugely influential on me as a writer. I had no idea who Lipsyte was, and at the time there weren’t any other books of his to read. I was sure my friend Irene had borrowed me the book, but she said she hadn’t, and later I tried to return it to a few other friends, but they wouldn’t claim it either. So maybe I did buy it, but I don’t remember doing so, and every time I see it on the shelf I wonder who it really belongs to. Assuming it does belong to some friend of mine, I owe them far more than the cover price: I wouldn’t be the same writer without having found Lipsyte then, or even the same person.
From David Markson’s The Last Novel:
Where the synecdoche of tessera made a totality, however illusive, the metonymy of kenosis breaks this up into discontinuous fragments.
Somewhere declareth Harold Bloom.
It may be essential to Harold Bloom that his audience not know quite what he is talking about.
Commenteth Alfred Kazin — pointing out other immortal phrasings altogether.
J. D. Salinger, 91, American author
Howard Zinn, 87, American historian
Barry Hannah, 67, American novelist and short story writer
David Markson, 82, American writer
Harvey Pekar, 70, American comic book writer (American Splendor)
Tuli Kupferberg, 86, American poet, cartoonist and musician (The Fugs)
David Mills, 48, American author, journalist and television writer (NYPD Blue, The Corner, Kingpin)
Dick Giordano, 77, American comic book artist and editor (Batman, Green Lantern)
José Saramago, 87, Portuguese novelist, playwright and journalist, Nobel Prize winner for literature
Lucille Clifton, 73, American poet (Blessing the Boats), Poet Laureate of Maryland
Robert Dana, 80, American poet, Iowa poet laureate
Rajendra Keshavlal Shah, 96, Indian poet
Tibet, 78, French comics artist
Mary Daly, 81, American radical feminist philosopher
Knox Burger, 87, American editor, writer, and literary agent
George Leonard, 86, American writer, editor and educator, pioneer of the Human Potential Movement
Robert B. Parker, 77, American detective writer
Laura Chapman Hruska, 74, American writer, co-founder and editor in chief of Soho Press
Stephen Morse, 65, American poet
P. K. Page, 93, Canadian poet
Bingo Gazingo, 85, American performance poet
Kage Baker, 57, American science fiction and fantasy author
Ralph McInerny, 80, American philosopher (University of Notre Dame) and mystery author
Erich Segal, 72, American professor, author (Love Story), and screenwriter (Yellow Submarine)
Carlos Montemayor, 62, Mexican writer
Violet Barclay, 87, American comic book artist
David Severn, 91, British author
Colin Ward, 85, British anarchist writer
William Tenn, 89, American science fiction writer
Liz Carpenter, 89, American feminist author, press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson (1963–1969)
John Eric Holmes, 80, American science fiction and fantasy author
Ai Ogawa, 62, American poet, breast cancer
Patricia Wrightson, 88, Australian children’s writer
Matilde Elena López, 91, Salvadoran poet, essayist and playwright
Elena Schwarz, 61, Russian poet
Ella Mae Johnson, 106, American social worker and author
Miguel Delibes, 89, Spanish author, journalist and scholar
Sid Fleischman, 90, American children’s writer
Bill DuBay, 62, American comic book editor, writer, and artist
Henry Scarpelli, 79, American comic book artist (Archie)
Alan Sillitoe, 82, British writer (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)
Jan Balabán, 49, Czech writer, recipient of the Magnesia Litera award
William Neill, 88, British poet
Carolyn Rodgers, 69, American poet
Peter Orlovsky, 76, American poet
Leslie Scalapino, 65, American poet, publisher and playwright
Peter Seaton, 67, American poet
Judson Crews, 92, American poet
Hoàng Cầm, 88, Vietnamese poet and playwright
Donald Windham, 89, American novelist
Bree O’Mara, 42, South African novelist
Robert Tralins, 84, American author
Ruth Chew, 90, American children’s author
Randolph Stow, 74, Australian writer
Arthur Herzog, 83, American writer
Peter O’Donnell, 90, British writer
T. M. Aluko, 91, Nigerian writer
Kovilan, 86, Indian novelist
F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, 62, Welsh science fiction author
Allen Hoey, 57, American poet
José Albi, 88, Spanish poet
Andrei Voznesensky, 77, Russian poet and writer
Vladimír Bystrov, 74, Czech writer and translator
Suso Cecchi d’Amico, 96, Italian screenwriter (Bicycle Thieves)
Tom Mankiewicz, 68, American screenwriter (James Bond, Superman)
Iris Gower, 75, Welsh novelist
Jon Cleary, 92, Australian novelist (The Sundowners, High Road to China)
James P. Hogan, 69, British science fiction author
Michèle Causse, 74, French lesbian theorist, author and translator
Vance Bourjaily, 87, American novelist
Patrick Cauvin, 77, French novelist
Sir Frank Kermode, 90, British literary critic and writer
Ludvík Kundera, 90, Czech writer and translator
George Hitchcock, 96, American poet and publisher
Jennifer Rardin, 45, American author
Edwin Charles Tubb, 90, British science fiction author
Micky Burn, 97, British writer and poet
Belva Plain, 95, American novelist (Evergreen)
Bärbel Mohr, 46, German author
George Cain, 66, American author
Claire Rayner, 79, British author
Alí Chumacero, 92, Mexican writer and poet
Monica Johnson, 54, American novelist and screenwriter (Lost in America, Modern Romance)
Philip Carlo, 61, American crime author
Adrian Păunescu, 67, Romanian author, poet and politician
Dmitry Gorchev, 47, Russian writer
Richard Stanley “Dick” Francis, 79, a British jockey who later wrote crime novels about horse racing
Truman Capote’s Caviar-Smothered Baked Potatoes with 80-Proof Russian Vodka (and Other Literary Recipes)by Biblioklept
Cool post over at Flavorwire on authors’ favorite foods — we like Truman Capote’s baked potato lunch the best:
Though Truman Capote’s writing was mostly occupied with social dealings, he managed to find time to write a forward to Myrna Davis’ The Potato Book, a cookbook penned to raise funds for a Long Island day school. In his brief contribution, Capote offers a recipe for what he describes as “my one and only most delicious ever potato lunch.” In a tribute to the then existing potato fields of Long Island, the recipe called for a baked potato smothered in sour cream and caviar, then paired with a chilled bottle of 80-proof Russian vodka.
Read our list of literary recipes here.
At Jezebel, a list of drinking games for readers. Some witty, some not so witty. Here’s the list:
Thomas Pynchon: Drink every time someone has a stupid name, like “Eigenvalue.”
David Foster Wallace: Drink every time a sentence has three or more conjunctions.
William Faulkner: Every time a sentence goes on for more than a page, drink the entire bottle. Then make out with your sister.
Joyce Carol Oates: Drink every time there is a home invasion.
Jane Austen: Drink every time someone plays whist, goes riding, or gets married.
J.D. Salinger: Every time there is a symbol of lost innocence, drink a highball. Then spit it all over someone you love.
Emily Bronte: Drink every time you see the word “heath” (Heathcliff counts).
Gabriel García Márquez: Drink every time someone’s name is “Aureliano.” (Note: this only works for A Hundred Years of Solitude)
Virginia Woolf: First, go buy some flowers. Then, if you have time left over, drink.
Sappho: Drink every time you can’t tell if something is hot or disgusting.
Ernest Hemingway: Drink every time Ernest Hemingway is boring and overrated. Man, I am so wasted right now.
Raymond Chandler: Drink every time someone drinks.
Dashiell Hammett: Drink every time someone drinks.
Homer: Drink every time someone drinks gross diluted wine.
Stephenie Meyer: Drink every time someone drinks blood.
Dylan Thomas: Drink until you are in a coma.
I think you can apply the rules for the Chandler and Hammett games to Bukowski if you wanted. Use Kingsley Amis’s signature cocktail the Lucky Jim if you wish. You might also be interested in David Foster Wallace’s drinking game “Hi Bob.”
Hear the whole interview here.
Michael Wiley is a mystery writer and professor of British Romantic literature and culture at the University of North Florida. He’s published academic volumes about geography and migration in Romantic literature, but we spoke to him about the latest edition in his detective series, The Bad Kitty Lounge. Dr. Wiley was kind enough to talk to us via email about ambiguity and resolution in mystery fiction, giving readers what they want, and the prospects of Wordsworth with a Glock. The Bad Kitty Lounge is available new in hardcover from Minotuar/St. Martin’s. Read more press at Michael Wiley’s website.
Biblioklept: Your new novel The Bad Kitty Lounge picks up with P.I. Joe Kozmarski, the protagonist from your first novel The Last Striptease; both books are set in Chicago. When you were working on Striptease did you envision it as the beginning of a series?
Michael Wiley: I did. To tell the truth, The Last Striptease catches the story already in motion. I wrote an earlier Joe Kozmarski manuscript that I called Little Girl Lost, almost got published, and then tucked into a box, where it remains. I liked the character and the settings well enough that I wrote a new manuscript, which became The Last Striptease. I had set Little Girl Lost in August and Last Striptease in September, so when I started writing The Bad Kitty Lounge I decided to set it in October and aim for a series that covers each month of the year. There’s no great logic to aiming for a twelve-book series, but it seems as good of a number as any.
B: There’s a tradition in detective fiction of recurring characters (Chandler’s Marlowe comes immediately to mind). When you are writing these books, do you consciously follow or inject tropes of mystery and crime fiction? How important is it to give mystery readers what they want?
MW: It’s always important to give readers what they want. But readers might not know what they want until a book gives it to them. In genre fiction and mysteries and thrillers in particular, conventions matter, but if a writer sticks too closely to conventions the result is cliché. The key isn’t to ignore the conventions but to finesse them, use them in new ways, invert or subvert them. The best mysteries, I think, are recognizable in form but still manage to surprise us and give us great unanticipated pleasures. Before Chandler’s Marlowe, there’s Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and before Holmes, there’s Poe’s Dupin. Each of the greats has reinvented the form in big ways and has given readers what they’ve always wanted without knowing that they’ve wanted it. The rest of us innovate where we can.
B: Sometimes though it seems that writers who experiment too much with genre conventions can subvert, invert, or innovate in ways that trample on some of the great pleasures of mysteries and thrillers. I’m thinking explicitly about novels like Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music, which weds PK Dick with hard boiled noir, or Thomas Pynchon’s recent exercise Inherent Vice. Such books prize ambiguity, which leads to a shaggy dog story. There’s certainly a pleasure in reading them but many of us read mysteries because Dupin or Sherlock Holmes or Marlowe (or whomever) actually solves the case. How important do you think it is to give mystery readers an answer or solution? What place does ambiguity have in your detective fiction?
MW: Right. Most of the best mystery writing right now includes at least some ambiguity, though. I’ve been reading and re-reading James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux books lately, and while each of them solves a case at hand, we never have the sense that Robicheaux has restored a proper order to the universe. Just the opposite: we know that the universe is deeply screwed up and that Robicheaux is as much a part of the problem as he is part of the solution. Aside from that, some of Burke’s villains pop up again in later books even after we’re sure that Robicheaux has put them to rest.
My own books resolve crimes. At the end, we know who did what and when and why. But my books are also full of moral ambiguity. Some of the guilty parties don’t get punished. Some of the innocent parties do. Good people sometimes do bad things for either good or bad reasons. Bad people sometimes do good things. We get answers but we don’t necessarily like them.
B: I realize that I may have been putting carts before horses with some of these questions–can you tell us a little bit about the plot of The Bad Kitty Lounge?
MW: I like carts before horses. Here’s a synopsis that I wrote for the book flap:
Greg Samuelson, an unassuming bookkeeper, has hired Joe Kozmarski to dig up dirt on his wife and her lover Eric Stone. But now Samuelson has taken matters into his own hands. It looks like he’s torched Stone’s Mercedes, killed his boss, and then shot himself, all in the space of an hour. The police think they know how to put together this ugly puzzle. But as Kozmarski discovers, nothing’s ever simple. Eric Stone wants to hire Kozmarski to clear Samuelson. Samuelson’s dead boss, known as the Virginity Nun, has a saintly reputation but a red-hot past. And a gang led by an aging 1960s radical shows up in Kozmarski’s office with a backpack full of payoff money, warning him to turn a blind eye to murder. At the same time, Kozmarski is working things out with his ex-wife, Corrine, his new partner, Lucinda Juarez, and his live-in nephew, Jason. If the bad guys don’t do Kozmarski in, his family might.
In short, it’s a gritty hardboiled mystery set in Chicago. If your sense of humor runs the way mine does, it has some laughs. Booklist Magazine calls it “howlingly funny.” That may be overstating the case, but I appreciate the compliment.
B: Books critics must always be forgiven hyperbole, positive and negative.
You’re a professor of English literature; specifically, you’re an expert on the British Romantic poets. You might tire of this question–and forgive me if so–but do elements of British Romanticism find their way, consciously or not, into your detective fiction? It seems like a detective’s mission would be at odds with the spirit of Keats’s Negative Capability.
MW: From my perspective, it’s easier to deal with the positive hyperbolic criticism than the negative.
I once told an editor jokingly that I planned to write a mystery featuring William Wordsworth with a Glock. To my surprise, the editor was enthusiastic. I suppose there’s a market for these books. Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has been doing well, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a hit.
I mostly think of my day job as a British Romanticist as being separate from my night job as a writer of pulp fiction, but I know that that the two intersect and inform each other. Wordsworth and Raymond Chandler are two of the great English-language locodescriptive writers, and they’ve both influenced my handling of place. William Blake deals with ideas of innocence and experience, good and evil, and heaven and hell in ways that no noir writer has ever surpassed. And Lord Byron is great for moral ambiguity, as is S.T. Coleridge though in different ways.
So, I’ll probably get to that Wordsworth-with-a-Glock manuscript sooner or later.
B: Wordsworth with a Glock sounds great. Then you could write John Keats Vs. The Lamia; make it a graphic novel. Or just a screenplay. For now though, is the next Kozmarski book already in the works?
MW: I see a series here. My friend Kelli Stanley has set mysteries in ancient Rome. She calls them “Roman Noir.” I’ll just add a “tic” and I’ll have “Romantic Noir.” In the meantime, Joe Kozmarski will ride again. St. Martin’s Minotaur has said that they want to publish the third in the series. It’s done, it’s called A Bad Night’s Sleep, and it’s the best one yet. It should be out in 2011.
B: You teach full time and have a family–how do you make time to write? What advice could you give to young writers who want to develop that kind of discipline?
There’s never enough time in the day — or the week or the year — to write a book. There are thousands of excuses for doing something else, and nearly all of the excuses are good. I accept these facts and then write anyway. I write in the morning before breakfast if I can, or write in the evenings after the kids are in bed. I write in between. And when I’m not writing, I’m often thinking about plot, characters, and setting.
I draw from my own experience when I give advice, which is very simply (and annoyingly) this: “Just write.” Writing seems to me to be more of an act of will than of discipline. Don’t spend time worrying that you’re not writing enough; don’t spend time thinking about the act of writing (unless that’s the subject of your short story or novel) — Spend your time writing. Tell your story. Then revise it. Then think of another story and tell it. Oh, and when you’re not telling or revising or thinking of new details for your story, read other people’s stories and learn from them. That seems important too: others have told better stories than I’ll ever tell. I can learn from them. We all can.
B: Have you ever stolen a book?
MW: No. But I hope someone steals one of mine.
Check out this odd, possibly disturbing clip from the obscure 1986 claymation masterpiece, The Adventures of Mark Twain. Bizarre, fun stuff.
How much you enjoy the third collection The Paris Review Interviews will depend entirely on how much you enjoy reading intelligent and thoughtful writers discussing intelligent and thoughtful subjects. I happen to love reading author interviews–even interviews with authors I don’t particularly like–and hence, I enjoyed this book quite a bit.
Covering sixteen disparate authors and fifty-two tumultuous years, the interviews here are by turns insightful, hilarious, strange, and at times, infuriating. The first interview (the book is organized chronologically), a 1955 conversation with Ralph Ellison evokes all of these emotions. One can almost feel Ellison’s restraint as he patiently replies to asinine questions like, “Then you consider your novel a purely literary work as opposed to one in the tradition of social protest?” and, “But isn’t it going to be difficult for the Negro writer to escape provincialism when his literature is concerned with a minority?” If anything, these politicized charges prompt Ellison to some of the most salient observations about literature’s universalizing powers that I’ve ever read.
In his 1964 interview, poet William Carlos Williams also sheds quite a bit of light on his art and craft. Interestingly, his wife is also a major part of the interview, discussing at some length her own role in her husband’s writing. Beyond literature, craft, and writing, Williams also sets another early theme that unites the interviews collected here–dissing other writers. He calls T.S. Eliot a “conformist” determined to set poets back twenty years. Evelyn Waugh picks up on this theme in his 1963 interview. Of Faulkner: “I find Faulkner intolerably bad.” And Raymond Chandler: “I’m bored by all those slugs of whiskey. I don’t care for all the violence either.” Zing!
Don’t feel too bad for Chandler, though; he comes off funny and earthy and sad in his 1983 interview, especially when he discusses his alcoholism, and how and why he quit drinking. Apparently, teaching–and drinking–with John Cheever when the two were teaching at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1973 had a major impact on Chandler’s decision to stop drinking.
John Cheever focuses mostly on the writing craft in his 1976 interview–not much talk of drinking here. He does, however, share this insight: “Plot implies narrative and a lot of crap. It is a calculated attempt to hold the reader’s interest at the sacrifice of moral conviction.” I’ve never liked Cheever’s writing, but he’s a great interview. In his 1994 interview, Achebe–an author whose fiction (and essays) I do like comes off as far more insightful and far less pretentious. On why creative writing classes exist: “I think it’s very important for writers who need something else to do, especially in these precarious times. Many writers can’t make a living. So to be able to teach how to write is a valuable to them. But I don’t really know about its value to the student.” Lovely. MFAs beware!
The interviews collected here are funny, smart, and very entertaining–whether its Achebe on general misunderstandings of his famous Conrad essay, Salman Rushdie on New Wave Cinema, or Joyce Carol Oates on Finnegans Wake, The Paris Review Interviews, Volume III is full of smart people talking about smart things–and what’s better than that? Highly recommended.
The Paris Review Interviews, Volume III is available October 28th, 2008 from Picador.
Check out these mp3s of James Joyce reading selections from his novels (that word, “novel,” it doesn’t seem right…) Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Lovely lilting rhythm. Mostly, it’s just cool to hear his voice. From the original liner notes by Sylvia Beach to the 1924 album (courtesy The Modern World):
In 1924 I went to the office of His Master’s Voice in Paris to ask them if they would record a reading by James Joyce from ULYSSES. But they would agree only if it were done at my expense. The record would not have their label on it, nor would it be listed in their catalogue. I accepted the terms: thirty copies of the recording to be paid for on delivery.
Joyce himself was anxious to have this recording made. He had made up his mind, he told me, that this would be his only reading from ULYSSES. Recording was done in a rather primitive manner in those days. All the same, I think the ULYSSES recording is a wonderful performance. I never hear it without being deeply moved.
Or, if you prefer, check out Jim Norton reading the first few pages of Finnegans Wake (from the audio book version, which who knows if listening to counts as reading the thing–but it’s pretty cool to hear an adult man make these noises and think that such a thing might be Great Literature).
The current issue of The Believer features the results of the reader’s poll, as well as the editor’s top pick, for the best books published in 2007. The editors chose Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which we haven’t read, and the readers picked Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, probably because the hero is such a nerd. The list follows with our comments; titles are linked to our reviews.
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—Junot Díaz
- The Yiddish Policemen’s Union—Michael Chabon: We didn’t like this book and are frankly astounded at all the praise it’s garnered.
- The Savage Detectives—Roberto Bolaño: It’s in a stack waiting to be read. The stack is very big though, and the book is very big, so, who knows (in all likelihood it will beat out last year’s reader fave, Pynchon’s impossibly large Against the Day).
- Tree of Smoke—Denis Johnson: We loved it. Top pick of the year. Very divisive, strangely–just read through the Amazon reviews.
- Then We Came to the End—Joshua Ferris
- No One Belongs Here More Than You—Miranda July: Oh my gosh. Seriously? Really? I read half of this at a Barnes & Noble, no exaggeration. I sat and drank coffee and read it. I’m not saying that a book has to take a while to read in order to have weight or substance, but in this particular instance, no, nothing, fluff. This is the kind of thing that people who quit reading after high school mistake for literature.
- On Chesil Beach—Ian McEwan: The library has this on CD; I’ll listen to it this summer. I’ve grappled with the first five pages of Atonement too many times to bother, really. And then I saw the movie, and it sucked. So…
- Zeroville—Steve Erickson
- Like You’d Understand, Anyway—Jim Shepard
- Slam—Nick Hornby: We suspect that The Believer‘s readers are partial to Hornby; would they have given another Young Adult novel a nod? We doubt it.
- Divisadero—Michael Ondaatje: Also in the stack.
- Bowl of Cherries—Millard Kaufman: A pamphlet containing the first three chapters was published as an insert in an issue of McSweeney’s. It was pretty funny.
- Varieties of Disturbance—Lydia Davis
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian—Sherman Alexie: This was fantastic. And it was YA! We rescind our Hornby complaint.
- The Abstinence Teacher—Tom Perrotta
- Call Me by Your Name—André Aciman
- After Dark—Haruki Murakami: Murakami is the writer we wished that we love but we just can’t get into. We remember reading some of his short fiction years ago, in Harper’s and other places, but even The Elephant Vanishes was a trial to get through.
- Darkmans—Nicola Barker
- Diary of a Bad Year—J. M. Coetzee
- Falling Man—Don DeLillo: Dry, self-important, rarely engaging, and not nearly as good as it was pretending to be, Falling Man was only a step above its dark twin, Cosmopolis.
read more »
Mathias Freese, author of Down to a Sunless Sea and The i Tetralogy, was kind enough to answer a few questions for us. This interview took place over the course of several emails.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book? If so, could you tell us a little bit about that?
Mathias Freese: No, I’ve never stolen a book.
B: Have you ever borrowed a book without returning it–purposefully or not?
MF: The amount of guilt for both of these questions, as a young boy, would be too much to bear; and then obsessing about it enters the picture and I’d end up in central casting auditioning for a role in The Possessed.
B: What are you currently reading?
MF: Dan Wakefield’s, New York in the Fifties. Living in Arizona, a geriatric Disneyland, I remember well Brooklyn – Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Coney Island. I grew up in the Fifties and Wakefield evokes the literary times very well – Ginsburg, Kerouac, Mailer – as well as the cultural sensibilities of the time. I was too young for all this but reading about it evokes Greenwich Village, egg creams, and a great bialy.
B: What are you writing right now?
MF: I am editing a novel, my first, written more than two decades ago. Sojourner is a philosophical tale dealing with the emigration of a young Chinese farmer to the Mountain of Gold (California) as it was called.
B: Sojourner sounds interesting. Is it research-based historical fiction? (Perhaps you hate to classify what you write into a specific genre, of course). Tell us more.
MF: Sojourner began as a 30 page short story in the years 1969 to 1972; I was working on a federal project dealing with racial-ethnic relations in the town of Freeport, on Long Island, NY. I had met a Chinese-American librarian who had written on the emigration to Gum Shan, Mountain of Gold. I researched only details that would be useful for verisimilitude, such as Gum Shan, and began a short story about the subject. The book ultimately reflects my own philosophical needs and emotional cravings for meaning. When submitted to publishers as a novel for young adults almost all of them wrote that I had made an error, and that this fiction was serious and for adults. Who knew? I do believe that the writer is the last to truly appreciate his work. The i Tetralogy which began in 1996, is a more thoroughly researched book , and it is a historical fiction on the Holocaust based on my experiences as an American Jew. I had read a significant amount of the literature on the Holocaust with no intent of being a writer. If you read my “On the Holocaust” in the Pages section of my website, you will get a rather complete statement of my point of view.
B: The Marxist critic Theodor Adorno famously declared: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” How do you interpret this remark?
MF: Adorno’s comment was of its time. I feel what he means, how can we allow beauty in the presence of such unspeakable evil! However, it does not make sense. When you write you metabolize feelings – all kinds – thoughts, experiences and all the rest. When the ancients passed down Homer’s Odysseus orally, the words saturated the listener with meaning and continuity. We must write about the Holocaust until the end of time, although we face psychological resistance every step of the way. I have faced this with The i Tetralogy. One of the most significant gifts of Judaism to civilization is memory. We do not forget – and most assuredly, we do not “put it behind us,” one of the more inane “truisms” in this culture – re: Mel Gibson and Jesse Jackson. Adorno is dead wrong.
B: The back of your book, Down to a Sunless Sea, mentions that you worked for over twenty-five years as a social worker and psychotherapist. Several of the stories in the book seem to explore explicitly psychoanalytical themes, yet these themes are never overstated. Is this purposeful?
MF: I have been accused of being too clinical; I think that is unfair. I use my therapeutic insights when I can while integrating them with my psychological and emotional wisdoms (if that) and try to make a story. I recall covering for a teacher in an eleventh grade class. He was teaching Oedipus Rex. I asked him if I could treat it the way I wanted to. He agreed. In class, in a small review, the students told me that they were up to where Oedipus scratches out his eyeballs, consequently the interpretation was stressed that he chose not to see – and how very symbolic that was. I asked them if they were opened to another way of looking at it. I shared that to me it was a case of displacement. Duh! In effect, he was castrating himself. Titters and titters. I went on to say that they touch their eyes now and make an observation. Finally, one student said that they felt like balls. And away we go! The next day the teacher was bent out of shape because he had heard that I said that Oedipus ripped out his eyes, in effect, his balls. I am sure some students came away believing that balls evolve from eye sockets. Why should I give up insight (no pun intended) no matter where it comes from?
B: I teach eleventh-graders, actually. You never know what weird mutation of what you discussed that they will commit to memory forever. Do you enjoy being in a classroom? Have you ever taught fiction writing? What do you think of MFA programs?
MF: I was terribly misplaced in that career. The consensus was that I was a terrific teacher but I detested the rules, the administration and the deadness. You read “Nicholas.” He has it right. So I studied to become a therapist and it worked very well for me, my craft and my self. I have taught seminars on fiction writing and if you go to the site you will see a course description and in the Pages section there are short essays all dealing with writing. Go nosh. As to MFA programs I have a simple premise: if it is organized, go elsewhere. Same feelings I have about religion, et al. I cannot think of any world class writer who has a MFA. What about good old suffering and pain as a motivator?
B: Many of the stories in Down to a Sunless Sea utilize a very tight, condensed prose style. How much do you edit out of your work?
MF: I like this question in that it touches upon something I truly believe in. Some writers secrete out paragraphs per day. I can’t handle that anality. I write, let us say, 10 pages knowing full well I cut back to maybe 4. The art of writing is revise, revise and revise. I like pruning the story tree so that new growth is inaugurated. Like poetry, which I find, of course, the most condensed of writing, I believe stories should be very tight – let the reader infer rather than I tell. Indeed, one reviewer complained she couldn’t understand the stories, at least in her first reading. Good. Get back to it and reread it. I am not fooling around here and I deserve a better reading if you feel there is more to my stories than Oprahesque fluff.
B: When you re-read “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Father Was a Nazi” now, do you consider it prescient? How do you think Arnie turned out?
MF: I had a sense about Arnie, of that tom tom in his character, that immigrant feeling that America can be tamed and domesticated to one’s own ends. I associate to Daniel Day-Lewis [in] There Will Be Blood, that tornadic energy to succeed, ambition on speed. In many ways Arnie is an athletic Algeresque character. I was not conscious of making any predictions, but it did feel to me, on a gut level, that he had other measures and goals to achieve and one of them is to marry into a famous family and all the rest. He is a delightful social climber who has denied, at least in the media, his background. I can write about Arnie because I don’t know him and that is the freedom of the writer. Give a writer one telling detail and the rest is extrapolation; think Kafka.
B: You maintain a website, www.mathiasbfreese.com. Do you write certain pieces specifically for the site? Corollary–How does your writing change when you write specifically for hypertext publishing?
MF: Blogging is new to me and I find it frustrating that so few people respond, given that I have had over 8400 hits; something is awry. Nevertheless, I enjoy writing every few days to keep my skills sharp. I am presently sharing a memoir about a fire on Mt. Lemmon in Tucson; it is filled with reflections, moods, sadnesses, and philosophy. Who cares if the reader is bored? I like it. I think the blog is excellent for short pieces, mini essays, faction. The reader gets bored with long pieces, but who knows in this new century of the Borg.
Via The Onion (duh).
During a horrible illness I suffered the other week, I turned to the only thing that I can digest when I’m really, really sick–comic books. I randomly chose to reread Frank Miller’s classic re-imagining of Batman, 1986‘s The Dark Knight Returns. I’ve read this comic–or “graphic novel,” if you want to sound like an asshole who’s afraid of being seen reading comic books–at least a dozen times now, I’d guess, but the last time I’d read it was after its sequel The Dark Knight Strikes Again came out in 2001.
The Dark Knight Returns didn’t disappoint; it never does. Set in a future with a very old Bruce Wayne, the story figures Gotham City as an urban dystopia, chaotic with child-gangs running rampant. The superheroes that once policed the world–including Superman–have been forced to retire by the government. The anarchy in the city prompts The Batman to return. The Joker revives his old crime career. The Soviets invade a Caribbean island. Superman and Batman fight. Batman leads a youth revolution. It’s really fucking spectacular, grim, violent, and funny–the book works at all times to satire the media-obsessed materialism of the 80s. Great stuff.
I don’t own the sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, which says a lot. The story’s not great; in fact, it’s highly forgettable. The plot overreaches, eschewing the essentially frail humanity of The Batman–always the character’s most interesting facet–in favor for a plot stuffed with too many of the truly extra-human characters of the DC universe. Superman, Brainiac, and Captain Marvel are just too hyperbolic to serve as effective foils for gritty Batman. Fifteen years later, Miller’s sequel overshoots, taking Batman from the underground, from the streets, and up into the air, where he just doesn’t belong.
The Dark Knight Strikes Again also came out after Frank Miller had had tremendous success with his Sin City series, published by Dark Horse. I remember when the first Sin City comics came out: I was really disappointed. The artwork was fantastic–a new level of excellence for Miller, whose Jack Kirby-influenced lines always managed to convey energy, tension, and action. Sin City looked like no comic before it that I can think of, a chiaroscuro film noir that rippled and moved. Unfortunately, the story was basic at best and flat and one-dimensional at worst. Without thematic depth or any measure of subtlety, the Sin City stories are aesthetically pleasing but hardly essential.
When 300 came out as a film last year, I took the time to read it–at Barnes & Nobles. Again, the book, especially in its oversized format, is visually striking, but where the old Frank Miller–the guy who created Elektra and made Wolverine the coolest mutant in the world–would’ve just drawn a great story, the late nineties Miller forces the drama down the reader’s throats. On virtually every page, 300‘s narrator tells you how you should feel about what’s going on in the story; the book is probably better without any lettering at all.
Although 300 was published in 1998, as criticism of the film has shown, its themes of patriarchal violence, unabashed militarism, and outright xenophobia are amazingly prescient to America’s post 9/11 ideology (my biggest criticism is undoubtedly the film’s depictions of idealized bodies contrasted with the extreme vilification of any “othered” bodies: this is a film that hates the differently-abled at all turns). Frank Miller has been something of a spokesman for this gung-ho mentality. Consider his September 11th, 2006 contribution to NPR’s “This I Believe” series, in which he blandly recapitulates the Bush administration’s “with us or against us” (in being against them) ethos; in an interview (again on NPR) a few months later he rails the “Bush-hating” “spoiled brats” who are not on board with the Iraq war. For such comments, Miller’s become something of a hero among right-wing bloggers, and his work has been reinterpreted within this light.
I wouldn’t hold this against Miller if his work held up, but I’m not sure that it does. He hasn’t produced anything that could touch The Dark Knight Returns in the twenty-plus years since its publication, and his recent announcement that he is writing Holy Terror, Batman! a self-described “piece of propaganda” in which “Batman kicks al Qaeda’s ass” is a truly lamentable decision (even Stan Lee, of all people, described the idea as “corny” and out of touch). Miller’s aim to write a piece of “propaganda” seems dead on, actually. Divorce “propaganda” from whatever politics it’s meant to convey, for a moment, and you have exactly the kind of work Millers’ been producing for quite some time now: thoroughly one-dimensional, brutishly simple pulp that hides its vacuity under a thick veneer of stylized violence.
To come back to where this long post started: after I finished The Dark Knight Returns, I reread Ronin, Miller’s 1983 tale of a masterless samurai lost in an apocalyptic future New York. The story explores dystopic race relations, emerging technologies, telekinesis, and bioethics. There’s also a demon. Ronin is cyberpunk on par with the best of William Gibson, and certainly the best thing Miller ever produced–and possibly the most overlooked. Apparently, a film version of Ronin is planned for release in 2009, which will undoubtedly lead to future confusion connected to Frankenheimer’s 1998 car-chase opus (also titled Ronin). Miller, however, seems to have no major hand in the movie–he’s too busy adapting and directing Will Eisner’s classic strip The Spirit for a 2009 movie release. The Spirit is fantastic source material, and Samuel “I Will Act in Your Movie For Money” Jackson is playing the villain, The Octopus, so it might be good. Then again, Miller is the screenwriter responsible for both Robocop 2 and 3, movies that completely missed the tone of Verhoeven’s satirical original. And whether or not Miller’s future movies–including sequels to Sin City–are any good, the gritty and grimy tone that he established in series like Daredevil and the original Wolverine book, as well as his groundbreaking revisioning of Batman led to a new seriousness and depth to an art form that had too-long been relegated to the margins of literature. And that’s a good thing.