You wrote somewhere that we should still tolerate Jane Austen’s kind of family novel. Is Austen a kindred spirit?
Tolerate? I should just think so! I love and admire all she does, and profoundly, but I don’t read her or anyone else for “kindredness.” The piece you’re referring to was written on assignment for Brief Lives, an anthology Louis Kronenberger was editing. He did offer me either Jane Austen or Chekhov, and Chekhov I do dare to think is more “kindred.” I feel closer to him in spirit, but I couldn’t read Russian, which I felt whoever wrote about him should be able to do. Chekhov is one of us—so close to today’s world, to my mind, and very close to the South—which Stark Young pointed out a long time ago.
Why is Chekhov close to today’s South?
He loved the singularity in people, the individuality. He took for granted the sense of family. He had the sense of fate overtaking a way of life, and his Russian humor seems to me kin to the humor of a Southerner. It’s the kind that lies mostly in character. You know, inUncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard, how people are always gathered together and talking and talking, no one’s really listening. Yet there’s a great love and understanding that prevails through it, and a knowledge and acceptance of each other’s idiosyncrasies, a tolerance of them, and also an acute enjoyment of the dramatic. Like in The Three Sisters, when the fire is going on, how they talk right on through their exhaustion, and Vershinin says, “I feel a strange excitement in the air,” and laughs and sings and talks about the future. That kind of responsiveness to the world, to whatever happens, out of their own deeps of character seems very southern to me. Anyway, I took a temperamental delight in Chekhov, and gradually the connection was borne in upon me.
Do you ever return to Virginia Woolf?
Yes. She was the one who opened the door. When I read To the Lighthouse, I felt, Heavens, what is this? I was so excited by the experience I couldn’t sleep or eat. I’ve read it many times since, though more often these days I go back to her diary. Any day you open it to will be tragic, and yet all the marvelous things she says about her work, about working, leave you filled with joy that’s stronger than your misery for her. Remember—“I’m not very far along, but I think I have my statues against the sky”? Isn’t that beautiful?
3:AM also features a new piece of short fiction from Chrostowska, “How to Avoid the Cardinal Sins /A Nominalistic Pamphlet/“.
From the interview:
3:AM: How did Permission begin? Did it begin as a novel? As something else?
S D Chrostowska: It began with the first message, and ended with the last. It was principally a literary effort subordinated to communication. To me this remains a crucial difference, itsdifferentia specifica. The origin of the now-book Permission was in an illegitimate literary dimension outside the frame of book authorship. You have to understand that, though I had chosen my reader, this reader could not know what if anything would become of the writing that came their way. Naturally I wonder whether and how it changes things for readers today, who approach them as a bound book, to know that the letters, just as they are, were once for real.
3:AM: Why write the letters under a pseudonym? How did you arrive at “Fearn Wren”?
SDC: For the sake of ambiguity. Knowing too much, or for that matter anything, about the artist-producer prejudices us about their work. The prejudice is not just personal or social but also simply contextual. It is all but unavoidable in visual and performing artworks requiring direct human contact, where other people are involved from the start rather than just on the receiving end. Sitting for a portrait or mounting a play depends on direct interaction. But we have already chosen the photographer based on their reputation. And we know something about the director before we get involved in their production or, if we happen to be directors, select actors based on their training or past work.
But writing, usually done at some distance from readers, can minimize our reader’s prejudices—at least until the finished work is judged, and the reviews and exposés come out. One way it can do this is by appearing anonymously or pseudonymously. Such publishing has a long history. As, one should add, does letter-writing under a pseudonym. Permission’s first reader would have had no context to go on.
Being read as an unknown author, not part of the literary scene, mimics that condition somewhat. But almost everyone nowadays can be googled, which is to say traced. I imagine that many people who would pick up a book like mine would be curious in this way.
I’m not sure how I settled on this particular pen-name. I do like ferns and wrens, their behaviors and the myths around them.
So, my signature interview question — “Have you ever stolen a book?” — had to be cut because it was just kind of confusing on 3:AM, but I couldn’t not ask it, so:
3:AM: Have you ever stolen a book?
SDC: Of course.
3:am Magazine has published an interview with novelist Jason Schwartz. Schwartz’s latest, John the Posthumous, is my favorite book of 2013. In the interview, Jason Lucarelli talks with Schwartz about John the Posthumous, his experiences with Gordon Lish, and teaching writing. The final answer of the interview though is my favorite moment—it reads like a wonderful and bizarre microfiction. Here it is, sans context:
This comes to mind: long ago, in New York, I taught middle school for a year. Rough and tumble sort of place. Lots of mischief, and no textbooks, as these had all been lost or destroyed or thrown out into a courtyard, where—I may be revising the memory slightly—there was a great pile of books, a pile nearly one story high. So it was upon the teacher to scratch out lessons on the blackboard. This was transcription, the transcription of many items, all these chapters from the absent books. And once this had been accomplished, once the blackboard had been covered with words, first thing in the morning, it was upon the teacher to guard the blackboard all day. So what to do when the fistfight breaks out? You know how people gather around. The teacher now fears the press of bodies, and the tendency of bodies to smudge, or even erase, words. Stop the fight or protect the blackboard? This seemed to me, at the time, the central educational dilemma. If you’re lucky, the fracas is close by, and you might arrange things accordingly—one hand here and one hand there, finding yourself in various complicated postures. I never managed that to successful effect. And perhaps all this explains why, in the old country, contortionists were always thought the best schoolteachers. Anyway, Mr. O’Riley’s room has been set afire in the meantime, or Mrs. Wilson has been trampled in the stairwell. The day would pass in that fashion, and then I would go home and write about postage stamps and Judas Iscariot.
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 Lebanon begin? 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 project had 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 the Land-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.
Biblioklept: The docs sound intriguing. I spent some time in the Land-Grant College Review archive just now—what a great collection of authors. Your little microfiction there is a good creepy laugh. What are you reading now?
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 collection of 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.
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 how you 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’s Gigantic 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.