“Novels Are Fantasies of Powerlessness and Power” — Biblioklept Talks to Adam Novy About His Novel The Avian Gospels

Adam Novy’s debut novel The Avian Gospels is one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read in ages. It’s a surreal dystopian magical romance set against the backdrop of political and cultural repression, violent rebellion, torture, family, and birds. Lots and lots of birds. (Read my review).

Adam was kind enough to talk to me about his work over a month-long series of email exchanges; the interview presented below reveals much of his generous, creative energy.

Adam currently teaches writing at Scripps College, Pasadena City College, Long Beach City College and Orange Coast College.

The Avian Gospels is available now from Hobart.

Check out Adam’s website. 


Biblioklept: I have a lot I want to ask you about what’s in your novel, but I have to start by asking about the physical book itself. The Avian Gospels is a lovely little two volume pocket-sized monograph—textured oxblood covers, gilded pages with line numbers, inset bookmarks. Visually, it recalls a Gideon bible, I guess, only not, I don’t know, chintzy. Where did the design idea come from?

Adam Novy: My editor at Hobart, Aaron Burch, had the idea of making the book look like a Bible. He’s an excellent designer and does a wonderful job with Hobart. Some boheemith press in New York City should really snap him up.

Biblioklept: How did the idea for The Avian Gospels come about? When did you start drafting the book? How long did it take to write?

AN: After 9/11, there was a moment where I felt like all Americans were on the same team. Now I wonder if we’ll ever feel that way again. Pardon me for living in the moment, but this country is just so completely fucked. This sensation of being American swiftly curdled into panic, but by then, the coordinates of my work had all been changed. I wanted to find a voice with room for both the historical and the intimate, which led me to a kind of first-person plural officialese. It ended up creating this echo-chamber effect where the personal and political identities of each character were different, and nobody could quite be who they were supposed to be, or wanted to be.

It took months of screwing around to figure this out, and most of it, of course, was accidental. The Lord of the Rings was on TV a lot at the time, and sometimes I thought I wanted to sound like Gandalf if Gandalf was full of shit and, like, a genocider who felt sorry for himself, but still was Gandalf, all mystical and officious, bossing everyone around. I understood the characters right away, except for Jane, who was always hard to deal with. She gets in arguments a lot and she’s usually right. I think I have hard time writing characters who are right. I myself am never right, so I had trouble relating to her. Of course, now she’s my second-favorite character in the book, after Mike.

I started the book in spring of 2002 and finished it in fall of 2005. In 2006, I found an agent and Hobart took the book in 2008. I went through five apartments, three different cities, three computers, one personal trainer and three therapists in that time. And nine adjunct faculty positions.

Biblioklept:  It’s interesting that you mention the LOTR movies as a kind of ambient influence, because they were pretty ubiquitous in the last decade—and there’s so much of the last decade’s zeitgeist in your book: torture, despotism, political and cultural repression, the plight of a refugee class, the idea of “green zones,” etc. You foreground these themes by crafting Gospels as a kind of dystopian novel with elements of magical realism, but it’s also very much a novel about family, and even a love story. (By sheer coincidence I watched the restored edit of Metropolis in the same time frame that I was reading Gospels, and saw so many echoes there). How conscious were you of genre conventions? I’m curious because your book sometimes blends genre tropes, sometimes blurs them, and sometimes straight-up explodes them . . .

AN: The book is quite deliberately a mash-up. I think it’s normal in conversation to try out different ways of seeing things—a fussy way of saying this might be “experiment with different hermeneutics.” For example, one might reference the NBA, The Wire, Shakespeare and Dazed and Confused in a discussion about Obama. I wanted the book to enact this kind of embeddedness, this flailing for a context that makes sense, and I wanted the narrator to sound as though its vernacular was ornate and obsolete, like it trafficked in a pleasure that justified itself as satisfaction while remaining an inadequate moral lens. That’s why I write violence like I do: I want it to be horrifying and beautiful. Unfortunately, violence is cool. I’m not immune—I always watch Kill Bill and Scarface when they’re on cable. It’s disturbing. Everyone knows that torture doesn’t work as an intelligence-gathering method, but our country did it anyway because it simply couldn’t stop. It was a kind of jacking off, the only kind that certain political parties seem to approve of.

Whenever we write about power, we should always defend the powerless, even if they’re just as bad as those in power. I think I saw that in Cioran, and did you know Cioran was a Nazi sympathizer? I just read that Gertrude Stein was, too. I don’t know what kind of paradigm can reckon with this world.

Biblioklept: I had no idea about Stein or Cioran’s Nazi sympathies, but I guess many artists and writers and intellectuals were attracted to the power of fascism, particularly in the modernists’ day (I suppose Ezra Pound and GB Shaw stand out as easy examples, and Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party). Although in our own age, I suppose we also see intellectuals and writers support terrible causes—I think of Christopher Hitchens’s aggressive support of the Iraq War and Bush administration’s policies, for, example.

I don’t want to drop spoilers, but your novel traces an arc that shows how those who are powerless might, given power, recapitulate the aggressive violence that they themselves were once subjected to. In turn, you also reveal how characters who seemed to occupy a clear power position (I’m thinking of Mike here, specifically) are perhaps doomed as well to a life without agency. I found my sympathies shift dramatically throughout the novel. How important are sympathetic characters?

AN: Every writer, including me, wants the reader to cathect to their book with their whole heart. I want my readers to utterly and helplessly engrossed. But sympathy is a means to an end and not the end itself. Technically speaking, it’s just not that hard to accomplish. It’s a skill, like dribbling in basketball is a skill, but it’s not the whole game.

In The Avian Gospels, the character named Mike Giggs is seen in only one scenario—exerting power in the manner of his father—for the first two hundred pages, so he comes off like a jerk until he encounters someone who actually loves him: Chico the band leader. Suddenly, Mike discovers a love of life, a sensitivity and a feeling of camaraderie for his fellows. Not only is he is capable of compassion, he is governed by it. This leaves him ruined in certain ways, but allows him to discover who he can be, and makes him (hopefully) sympathetic.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the book, the character named Zvominir, who was whimperingly sweet for longer than Mike was mean, is meaner than Mike. Novels are fantasies of powerlessness and power—among the zillion other things they are—and I feel like we should at least be conscious of what’s happening to our minds as we are reading. How we deal with power is a serious moral question; counting how many times that we go awwww is not. We have cats on the internet for that. Still, Chad Harbach was probably right when he said that the books that get the best reception are simply “affable.” In desperate times, a nation of New York critic types are turning to . . . Mitt Romney? Or like, Cheever without the psychosexual guilt?

I don’t mean to single out Chad Harbach, whose work I haven’t read, except for his piece on Grantland about the Brewers, which I liked. But what he said is accurate. These days, people seem to feel that art should be uplifting, like art owes it to them, in a customer-service type-way. Have you been to Kinko’s, or excuse me, FedEx Office, lately? It is not a happy place. Novels used to to give the reader the truth in ways no other social narratives would. I’m pretty sure I’m not just being sentimental. There used to be a social lie which said the world was making progress and ascending, but this reversed like fifteen years ago and now we all feel doomed. We need books to tell us how we got here, not to lie about how meaningful our journeys are or however we say it these days. Of course our lives are meaningful, but such a narrow focus on making folks feel better is superficial and disempowering. Our emptiness and dread are trying to tell us something.

Biblioklept: I think you point toward a distinction between art and entertainment here. We want entertainment to comfort us, to ease our worries. In contrast, art challenges us with what we don’t want to see, or can’t see, or can’t see that we can’t see. And yeah, there’s a kind of “literature of comfort” out there, books that simply reconfirm the tropes and tricks and forms of “literary fiction” — so that, even if the protagonists suffer, that suffering is is part and parcel of some greater telos — and not just in terms of the plot, but also in the structure of the novel itself. (Lee Siegel called this camp “Nice Writing” a decade ago, pointing to its “violent affability,” its “deadly sweetness”).

At the risk of asking one of those questions an interviewer is never supposed to ask (but, hey, I really want to know the answer and I think our readers would too), what books move you as a reader?

AN: I think I’m moved by pretty standard stuff. The Portrait of a LadyCharlotte’s WebTo My Twenties, by Kenneth Koch.  On Seeing the Elgin Marbles, by Keats. Places to Look For Your Mind, by Lorrie Moore. Testimony of Pilot and Return to Return by Barry Hannah. Antony and CleopatraStone Arabia, by Dana Spiotta, which is the best new book I’ve read in 2011. Chopin in Winter by Stuart Dybek. The last paragraph of CivilWarLand In Bad Decline. The scene in American Tabloid where Ward steals the pension fund books. The Widow Aphrodissia by Marguerite Yourcenar. There must be fifty different scenes in Buffy that make me cry, and five in Battlestar Galactica. Certain scenes in Lost. This is such a conventional list, I feel like I need to start a fight. FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS SUCKS AND YOU ARE ALL A BUNCH OF SAPS. I should also say I’m moved by spectacles of massive human folly. The image of Slim Pickens riding the bomb and waving his hat in Dr. Strangelove and the scene where Kramer and his intern throw the ball of oil out the window are somehow very moving to me.

Biblioklept: I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street movement—The Avian Gospels taps into and explores this idea of civil unrest, of disenfranchised voices, of a paramilitary state coping with a populist uprising. You’ve indicated that your novel is in some ways a response to 9/11, but it also seems predictive of the fallout we’re seeing a decade after the fact.

AN: A massive, indescribable injustice was inflicted on our world by the likes of Goldman Sachs and we seem to have no recourse. Law enforcement could not possibly care less, and seeing how they cleared Zucotti Park, they seem jealous of the impunity of Wall Street. In his review of Ron Suskind’s book, Ezra Klein suggests that Washington just did not have the will to pass a stimulus that was big enough. Slavoj Žižek is right when he says this moment is a challenge to our imagination. I think that what happened at Penn State may be a better lens for the recession than Occupy Wall Street. A massive patriarchal network mobilized their resources to preserve an ongoing atrocity. No one will admit that they were wrong, especially the figurehead, Joe Paterno. The community just does not seem to give a shit. They keep telling out-of-towners we don’t get it and rioted in self-pityI guess this is just how power acts.

Biblioklept: What’s next? What are you working on now?

AN: I’m writing a novel about the life and times of Medusa. It’s called The Gore and the Splatter.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

AN: I think the only book I ever stole was an anthology of world literature, which had a really coherent definition of French symbolist poetry. I can’t find this book now, so someone probably stole it from me. Serves me right.


Biblioklept Interviews Camelia Elias, Editor-in-Chief of EyeCorner Press

Camelia Elias is the founder and editor-in-chief of EyeCorner Press, an independent publisher devoted to printing a host of difficult-to-classify writings, including creative academic writing, and poetic fragments and aphorisms. EyeCorner publishes works in English, Danish, and Romanian, as well as bilingual editions. This multilingual approach gels with the publishing house’s fragmentary philosophy, as well as its origins as a collaborative venture between universities in three nations. In addition to her editorial duties, Elias is also one of EyeCorner’s authors; her latest work Pulverizing Portraits is a monograph on the poetry of Lynn Emanuel. Elias is Associate Professor of American Studies at Roskilde University in Denmark and she blogs at FRAG/MENTS. Elias was kind enough to talk with me over a series of emails; in our discussion she defines creative criticism, discusses the value in being open to error, accounts for hostility against deconstruction and post-structuralism in academia, and explains why it doesn’t hurt to throw the word “fuck” into a textbook now and then.

Camelia Elias

Biblioklept: EyeCorner Press is somewhat unusual, even for an indie publisher — a joint venture between universities in Denmark, Finland, and the US that focuses on creative criticism. How did the press come into being?

Camelia Elias: The press came into being as an act of anarchism, if you like, a form of resistance against the idea that academic work must be measured not only against its own standard, but also against the standard that idiotic governments sets for measuring, and hence controlling, intelligence, creativity, and freedom. In 2007 I was editing new research papers written by colleagues and associates of the Institute of Language and Culture at Aalborg University with view to publication by the Faculty of Humanities at AU. A new change in leadership also brought about a new set of ideas. These were rigidly formulated along the newly established injunction passed down by the Danish government, which dictated that all Danish academics must now prioritize publishing with Oxford and Harvard. Without getting into the silly and imbecilic arguments produced for the sustainability of such a demand in reality, the fact remains that many heads of department throughout our Danish universities tried to implement the new regulations literally. The good publishing folks at Aalborg were told that Research News (the publishing venue) was going to close, and no, as the justification for it ran, this was not because the papers were not good enough, but 1) because publishing new research under the aegis of the department was likely to have the undesirable effect of preventing the researchers from expanding their range of publishing possibilities – and hence not consider Oxford and Harvard – and 2) there will be no money for it anymore. Few of us tried to make obvious the stupidity pertaining to the first argument – bad idea, as bosses generally don’t want to be told that they have limited visions – and as to the second argument, pertaining to the precarious, or rather by then non-existent financial support, a few of us also tried to suggest that we could go ‘on demand’ and even work ‘con amore’ for it, which would involve no expenses. The answer was still no. So, there we were, with a few manuscripts in the pipeline and no possibility of getting them out. As the editor of these papers, I felt a responsibility not only towards the writers but also towards the readers who had bothered to peer-review the works. I decided to start EyeCorner Press in my own name, but retain the ties we had in terms of publishing jointly with a few other partner universities. With Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia, we had just finalized a volume on transatlantic relations (aesthetics and politics) within Cultural Text Studies Series published by Aalborg University Press. We are happy to call them our close allies. University of Georgia, Gwinnett, and Oulu University in Finland followed suit and so did Roskilde University, which became my new working place not long after the Aalborg ‘situation’.

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“I Don’t Know If You’d Call It Stealing” — Sam Lipsyte, Book Thief

Sam Lipsyte read live from his novel The Ask last year on HTML GIANT’s Ustream channel. The reading was cool but the best part was the q&a session afterward. We asked Lipsyte the one question all true biblioklepts are dying to know (and the one question we ask every person we interview): “Have you ever stolen a book?”

Here’s Lipsyte’s response, which you can hear/see at 31:25 in the video:

‘Have you ever stolen a book?’ There was one time when I stole a few books when I worked in a library; it was a university library and my job was to stick the metal strips into the spines of the books that would set off the alarm. And so if a particularly good book came through (and this only happened three or four times) I just wouldn’t–I don’t know if I’d call it stealing–but I wouldn’t put the strip in. And then once it was shelved I would take it.

That’s a pretty sophisticated operation. Kudos to Lipsyte for his candor.

 

“I don’t ask for joy. I don’t feel joy” — The Paris Review Interviews Louis-Ferdinand Céline

From The Paris Review’s interview with Louis-Ferdinand Céline–

INTERVIEWER

If you could have it all over again, would you pick your joys outside literature?

CÉLINE

Oh, absolutely! I don’t ask for joy. I don’t feel joy. To enjoy life is a question of temperament, of diet. You have to eat well, drink well, then the days pass quickly, don’t they? Eat and drink well, go for a drive in the car, read a few papers, the day’s soon gone. Your paper, some guests, morning coffee, my God, it’s lunchtime when you’ve had your stroll, eh? See a few friends in the afternoon and the day’s gone. In the evening, bed as usual and shut-eye. And there you are. And the more so with age, things go faster, don’t they? A day’s endless when you’re young, whereas when you grow old it’s very soon over. When you’re retired, a day’s a flash; when you’re a kid it’s very slow.

 

“Part of the Fun for Me Was Being Part of Some Kind of Exchange Between Consciousnesses” — David Foster Wallace on the Pleasures of Writing

Biblioklept Interviews Steve Hendricks About Torture, Extraordinary Rendition, Liberal Complacency, and His New Book A Kidnapping in Milan

Steve Hendricks is the author of two works of investigative journalism. 2006’s The Unquiet Grave is an examination of how the FBI aided and abetted the erosion of American Indian culture in the United States. Hendricks’s newest book is A Kidnapping in Milan, a nonfiction thriller that exposes the extraordinary rendition of radical imam Abu Omar by the CIA. In our review we noted that “Hendricks combines journalistic clarity with the structure of a detective novel in Kidnapping,” pointing out that what guides “the narrative is a refined sense of moral outrage against the idea that dark deeds done in the dark make our world somehow safer.” Hendricks was kind enough to talk with us via email about his book, torture, the Obama administration, and the rise of the apathetic liberal in America. You can read more at Hendricks’s site.

Biblioklept: Obviously a lot of work went into A Kidnapping in Milan — lots of research and interviews, not to mention the fact that you learned Italian. What made you want to tell this story?

Steve Hendricks: I came to the story somewhat sideways–less because of Abu Omar’s rendition itself than because I was frustrated that no one had written a compelling account of the horror of America’s torture-by-proxy; that is, the horror of the torture that our client states were inflicting on our captives in what amounted to our offshore dungeons. Reporters of course said that the torture was horrific, and sometimes they went into a bit of good detail, but there weren’t any narratives that went deep enough to make us feel that horror–to make us understand in our gut why political torture is not just a crime but a crime against humanity. So I was looking for a story that would allow me to try to write that narrative.

As I researched the renditions that we knew something about (so many renditions, of course, we know nothing or next to nothing about), I came across Abu Omar’s story and was immediately struck by the almost incredible amount of detail that the Italian prosecutor, Armando Spataro, had dug up on the CIA, by the ludicrousness of how the CIA went about the rendition, and by the possibility that Spataro might be a heroic figure. I wasn’t naive about heroes. They’re flawed like all the rest of us. But in America’s “war on terror” the villains–both terrorists and our own war criminals–have so often outnumbered the heroes that if there was a chance of writing a tale that could be somewhat uplifting while at the same time being wrenching (because of Abu Omar’s torment) and comic (because of the CIA’s Keystone Kommandos), that was great. So much the better, for the narrative anyway, that Abu Omar was a terrorist. It made the book more gray than black-and-white. In the end, the story of his torture, which had gotten me into the book, ended up being just one chapter, though to my mind it’s one of the most powerful chapters in the book.

Biblioklept: I think for most readers that chapter, “Torment,” will certainly stand out. I found it fascinating, particularly the historical overview of how various governments have used torture (and “ordeals”) to coerce information from captives. There’s a brutal episode in the chapter that describes how the torturers used a cattle-prod type device on Abu Omar. In narrative terms, we find ourselves sympathizing with this “bad guy,” this enemy-other who’s been locked up in a no-place. How important was it for you to elicit this kind of emotional identification on the reader’s part with Abu Omar? Were you concerned with alienating some potential readers?

Hendricks: It was very important to me that readers empathize with the atrocities visited on Abu Omar. It’s easy for anyone to say that lesser criminals shouldn’t be tortured. But for some people it’s much harder to say that torture shouldn’t be used against our greatest enemies. Yet that’s the test–one test anyway–of whether a deed like torture is evil: does it repulse and degrade us even when we use it against those who are themselves in some measure evil? Yes, I was sure, as you suggest, that my portrayal would alienate some pro-torture readers, but I was more interested in appealing to readers whose minds weren’t made up.

I did hear, shortly after the book’s publication, from one reader who said he was put off that I was advocating a moral view rather than giving a neutral “here’s this side of the story, here’s that side of story.” My response was that most of the supposedly “neutral” descriptions of torture-by-proxy haven’t in fact been neutral. For example, most American media refuse to refer to our use of waterboarding as torture, even though if you asked a hundred torture experts, ninety-nine would say it’s torture. I believed a corrective was needed–not an unfair and ludicrously biased corrective but one that reported the brutal facts unsparingly, which in turn would make plain that the mainstream media, by sins of omission and commission, had gotten things badly wrong.

I would add that there are some crimes so heinous that if you don’t call them heinous, you’re either dishonest, naïve, or a coward. Look at it this way: if an author told the story of the Holocaust as “well, Hitler had his take on it, and the Jews had theirs,” would you trust the author, or would you think him a lout? The torture of a few hundred men is not the same as the murder of millions, but international law deems systematic torture as so awful that it puts it in a class of crime similar to genocide–and it’s not just international law, but American law that does so. The United States has adopted both the Rome Convention and the UN Convention Against Torture as the law of the land, and both laws define political torture as a crime against humanity. The Convention Against Torture, as enacted here, provides jail time for people who send someone to another country to be tortured, and if the tortured person dies, the punishment can even be the death penalty. That’s not something you hear much in the media–that Clinton (who began extraordinary renditions), Bush junior, and now Obama (who continues the rendition program) could be subject to jail time or even death.

All that said, I strongly believe that a writer like me who advocates a moral position is obliged to present the facts in such a way (even if he’s presenting his opinions alongside them) that will allow readers to judge for themselves whether his advocacy is valid. I think I did that in the book, but, in the spirit of what I’m saying here, I’ll leave it to the reader to decide.

Biblioklept: Your book ends in early 2009, where you point out that, from the outset, the Obama administration essentially followed the Bush administration’s policies; Obama has even authorized the assassination of American terror suspects. Over the past few years, the average American’s focus has shifted from US foreign relations to our sagging economy. It seems that there’s a sense among many progressives that our international reputation and morality have been restored simply by electing Obama. Do you worry that there’s too much complacency on the left? What’s at stake in continuing to ignore our government’s abuses?

Hendricks: Absolutely, there’s far too much complacency on the left. Most leftists simply packed up their bags and went home after the 2008 elections, then were utterly dismayed when Obama tacked way to the right on just about everything: on health care, on banking reform, on the stimulus package, on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, on torture, and on and on. Some leftists have woken up, but most of them still think that with some pretty tepid nudging, they can bring out the good Obama that they “know” is inside him. Guess what, folks: As he has shown again and again, he’s a corporatist/defense-hawk Democrat, and he’s not going to change unless he has no choice–and at this late date, that’s not going to happen unless he’s threatened with a serious challenge to his renomination in 2012. But of course most progressives, demoralized and limp, are too scared to give him a run for his money and will stand by their man, even if he’s not their man.

I’m endlessly amazed (and depressed) at how little the left learns from the right. Right wingers build power by playing strongly to their base. They push and push their far-right policies, and the national discourse moves rightward with them. Contrast that with progressives, who plead rather than demand and who, when they get into the office, make a mad dash for the center-right. Don’t these people know that in poll after poll a majority of Americans support their (supposed) goals: an end to the illegal wars, a real ban on torture, health care with a public option, accountability for banks, etc.?

As for what’s at stake in continuing to ignore abuses like torture, to my mind the biggest danger is that torture becomes normalized. Ten years ago it would have been thought barbaric to advocate torture. But after the pro-torture drumbeat of the last decade, “leaders” like Bush and Cheney not only can advocate torture but can boast about having ordered it–and face only the smallest blip of public disapproval. If we don’t reckon with our past, ever more Americans will come to see torture as acceptable, and we will have become the barbarians we set out to fight.

Biblioklept: What’s your next project?

Hendricks: A Kidnapping in Milan and my first book, The Unquiet Grave (which was about how the FBI undermined the Indian rights movement of the 1970s), each took about four years–four long years–to complete. So I’m giving myself a break from book-length nonfiction and taking my time mulling the next book. It’s not the easiest part of the job to find a topic will excite both me and a publisher, but the search itself is fun. I get to read a lot of fascinating things, and the time just to think is a luxury. Meanwhile, I’m working on a few magazine articles. One is about some rather astounding health benefits that fasting can yield. Another is about a man who was wrongly convicted of murder but was executed nonetheless. Actually, though, what takes up most of my time these days is a novel for middle grade kids. The book is something like a mystery, it’s mildly futuristic, and it has some political overtones–evidently I can’t keep politics out of my writing. I’m writing it as a way of saying thanks to my eight-year-old for tolerating my many absences, physical and psychological, while I researched and wrote my two books.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

Hendricks: Yes–or rather, to qualify my crime, sort of yes. I once borrowed a book from friends whose house I was sitting, and, meaning to return it, didn’t tell them about their loan. But then I moved away, and the book stayed with me, still unannounced. The book was Peter Matthiessen’s In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which so moved me and which left me with so many questions, that I wrote The Unquiet Grave as a way of following up on it. I like to think this redeemed my delinquency, and from to time I’ve thought about finding the book’s owners (with whom I’ve lost touch) and letting them know about their honor. But I’m too big a coward. Confronting a terrorist in his own home? Sure. Confessing I purloined a paperback? Too scary.

Vice Interviews Sam Lipsyte

Vice interviews Sam Lipsyte–good stuff. From the interview, here’s Lipsyte on writing comedy–

The page is very different than what a stand-up comic does. A comedian has a physical body—gestures, vocal intonations, double takes—whatever they’re going to do to bring across the comedy. They can make a phrase funny just by the way they say it. Authors don’t have any of those tools at our disposal, so we have to find lingual ways to do it. So much of it is how you build to something, how wide you make a loop of description before you veer off and land somewhere totally unrelated. You have to learn how that rhythm works in prose. It has to be something you feel.

I don’t want it to be too jokey, I don’t want it to be making claims for itself as funny, but then you must laugh because it is a funny moment. I pursue… something strange, usually, in every paragraph. It may be funny, or it may be something I don’t think is that funny. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “That was so funny!” and I think, “Dude, that’s the most devastating moment in the book.” I’ve realized that it’s both. In my work the funniest thing is usually the most devastating thing, and that’s where they play with each other.

The AV Club Interviews Lynda Barry

The AV Club’s Tasha Robinson interviews comix legend Lynda Barry. In the (rather lengthy) interview, Barry discusses teaching her craft–

It’s a really hard thing to teach students. The two things I always try to teach them is, one, you have to stay in motion. It doesn’t mean that you have to just write blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Write the alphabet. You have to stay in motion. And the other thing is, when you get stuck, don’t read over what you just wrote. Especially if you have a computer. Maybe by hand is not so bad, but with a computer, what happens is… My experience has always been that there is a point when the story just stops. Always. You know, it’s just like when you’re dancing. There’s a time when you’re fake-dancing, because the groove has stopped. Then you’re back in the groove. So if people understood that that’s a natural part of making something, and they knew what to do during that time… But what people will do if they’re writing on a computer is, when that time comes and it’s quiet for a minute, they panic and go back and start fixing stuff above it that was not even broken. You can’t start to fix something until you know what it’s for, you know? So I always try to get my students to just sustain the state of mind for a certain amount of time. Even though I use 24 panels for my students, they’ll have seven minutes to just sustain this open state of mind while they’re writing, keep their hand in motion. But it’s really tough to get them to believe me, to just to even give it a try. And then once they do, it’s really fun.

How Roberto Bolaño Handled Criticism

From Roberto Bolaño’s July, 2003 interview with Mexican Playboy, collected in The Last Interview and Other Conversations

Every time I read that someone has spoken badly of me I begin to cry, I drag myself across the floor, I scratch myself, I stop writing indefinitely, I lose my appetite, I smoke less, I engage in sport, I go for walks on the edge of the sea, which by the way is less than 30 meters from my house, and I ask the seagulls, whose ancestors ate the fish who ate Ulysses: Why me? Why? I’ve done you no harm.

 

Read the Complete Transcript of a 1998 David Foster Wallace Interview

Tom Scocca interviewed David Foster Wallace in 1998. A short version of the interview ran in The Boston Phoenix in February of ’98; Slate published a transcript the entire interview this week. It begins with phones and beards–

Q: For basic reader orientation here, are you doing this from Bloomington?

DFW: Speaking to you? Yes, sir.

Q: What sort of phone?

DFW: What sort of phone? What kind of phone is this? This is a Panasonic Easa-Phone. E-A-S-A, hyphen, P-H-O-N-E. And I don’t see a model number on it. It’s got a little answering machine attached, although the answering machine doesn’t work as often as the average consumer probably would like it to.

Q: OK. Let’s see.

DFW: You’re really going to orient that reader, aren’t you?

Q: Yeah. You have to bring the color in somehow.

DFW: Uh-huh.

Q: Any particular configuration of beard or bandana or glasses? It seems to change over time.

DFW: So what, we’re going to pretend, we’re going to pretend that we’re sitting in the same room?

Q: No.

DFW: I’ve never had a beard. I’ve tried periodically to grow a beard, and when it resembles, you know, the armpit of a 15-year-old girl who hasn’t shaved her armpit, I shave it off. I do not have a head hanky on at this point, although I did recently, ’cause I just got back from running my dogs around the countryside.

Six Paul Auster Interviews

Several Paul Auster interviews for those inclined. Also, read our review of his new novel Sunset Park.

Auster on NPR’s Marketplace with Kai Ryssdal.

Auster on NHPR.

Auster at the AV Club.

Auster at The Cult.

Auster at Goodreads.

And, on a video interview with Borders, Auster leaves his shades on for the duration of the interview, perhaps commenting on the brightness of his future.

“I Had Made a Bad Trade” — Kurt Vonnegut on Quitting (and Resuming) Smoking

From The Paris Review interview archive: Kurt Vonnegut discusses quitting smoking and then starting again and then quitting and then stating again–

INTERVIEWER: Have you ever stopped smoking?

VONNEGUT: Twice. Once I did it cold turkey, and turned into Santa Claus. I became roly-poly. I was approaching two hundred and fifty pounds. I stopped for almost a year, and then the University of Hawaii brought me to Oahu to speak. I was drinking out of a coconut on the roof of the Ili Kai one night, and all I had to do to complete the ring of my happiness was to smoke a cigarette. Which I did.

INTERVIEWER: The second time?

VONNEGUT: Very recently—last year. I paid Smokenders a hundred and fifty dollars to help me quit, over a period of six weeks. It was exactly as they had promised—easy and instructive. I won my graduation certificate and recognition pin. The only trouble was that I had also gone insane. I was supremely happy and proud, but those around me found me unbearably opinionated and abrupt and boisterous. Also: I had stopped writing. I didn’t even write letters anymore. I had made a bad trade, evidently. So I started smoking again. As the National Association of Manufacturers used to say, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Violent J Holds Forth: Highlights from AV Club’s ICP Interview

If you don’t have time to read Nathan Rabin’s epic interview with Violent J of Insane Clown Posse, we offer some highlights–

On the inspiration and rationale behind their revisionist Western, Big Money Rustlas: “You know, just for the fuck of it all.”

On keeping one’s cards close to one’s breast: “I don’t want to give our secrets away, but they might be obvious”

On opinions: “In our opinion, it’s not cool to actually see us doing the murders, as cool as it is to imagine it when you’re hearing the song. That’s our opinion.”

On making quality comedies: “I think the crew that was working the movie, they didn’t respect us. They didn’t respect our humor. I think a lot of them felt like it was a bum job. The attitude on the set every day was shitty. We got into arguments and battles with the crew. We’d be the only ones laughing. To do a comedy, it seems like you would need the whole crew laughing and having fun, to keep that morale up on the set, but the only ones that were having fun were us. The rest of the crew just seemed like, ‘Ah, this shit’s not funny. We’re only doing this because we have to.’ ”

On making career decisions: “We knew it was gonna be basically garbage, but we thought about it and decided to do it.”

On capitalism: “If people knew how little money we actually make, I think it makes us more impressive.”

On logical fallacies in Martin Bashir’s Nightline profile of ICP: “They talked about crime happening and about how some Juggalos have committed these crimes. We made the point that millions of people bought our albums, and out of millions of people, there is going to be some bad apples. I’m sure Barbra Streisand fans have committed crimes as well….”

On what killed Michael Jackson: “It was Martin Bashir’s documentary that eventually killed Michael Jackson.”

On having quotes taken out of context: ” . . .  they took my response to one question and edited it so I looked like I was responding to another question. And what’s scary to me is that this is Nightline. This is a respected piece of American journalism, and they were full of shit.”

On pulling shenanigans: “It’s scary to me to see somebody that’s that trusted pulling shenanigans like that. It’s just fucking crazy to me.”

On being interviewed by Bill O’Reilly: “Looking at that also makes me sick, because I know we could have schooled his ass a lot better than we did. We were kind of weak with it on his show.”

On your loss: “But anybody that can stand there, looking at a rainforest or something and not think that’s a miracle—I mean, that’s their loss. Anybody that can sit there and look at shooting stars or a fucking full moon when it’s red and hanging over the city and not sit there and think, “That looks awesome, and that’s a miracle that we get to see that and have that on this earth and all this shit,” you know, that’s their loss.”

On what it takes to find out if Slick Rick might or might not be interested in performing at The Gathering of the Juggalos: “Just finding out if Slick Rick is interested can be a monthlong process. It’s very fucking drawn out.”

On why ICP declined to play Ozzfest: “It was probably something along the lines of you can’t throw Faygo or something.”

On The Wrestler: “Like, nothing they showed in that movie we didn’t already know. I’m that tuned in to the wrestling world.”

On forgetting that he’s being interviewed: “Do you have an ink pen with you? Or something to mark this down?”

On the internet and clothing: “You can’t download a T-shirt.”

On Nickelodeon and Beyoncé: “I don’t even mind Nickelodeon, or Kids’ Choice Awards, or any of that. I’m not against all that. I’m not against Beyoncé. I love Beyoncé. I’m not against pop music.”

On what people have to realize about “Miracles”: “See, what people have to realize about the “Miracles” video is that that went out into the world, but that wasn’t for the world. That was for Juggalos.”

Thank you for the pure motherfucking magic.

“I’m Not Too Concerned What Happens to My Books After I’m Dead” — The AV Club Interviews Jonathan Franzen

The AV Club interviews Jonathan Franzen. Topics include his new book Freedom, posterity, Glenn Beck, Ian McEwan, and why Franzen still has an AOL account. Here’s Franzen, from the interview, discussing contemporary references in his books–

I’m not too concerned what happens to my books after I’m dead. And I am very concerned by what’s going on with the culture of reading and writing now. So I would not wrap myself in a toga and speak of timelessness regarding my work. It’s my experience that reading Dostoevsky, say, or reading Balzac—the books are full of these contemporary references, and there are feuds going on, and names are dropped, and you know that they’re significant. If you have a good edition, it’ll have six pages of notes at the back explaining what the reference is, because some good scholar has actually looked all of the stuff up. But I don’t really feel like it detracts from my reading of that, and in a perverse way, it actually makes it feel… [Pauses.]

I want to say something can’t become timeless unless it had first inhabited its own time. Undoubtedly, we only get 70 percent of Shakespeare, because the other 30 percent is references that are just completely lost. There are all of these in-jokes, these insider references and contemporary references. We’re so removed from that culture, we don’t even know they’re there. But he was having so much fun writing those plays, and part of the fun was putting all this other stuff in—all of the wordplay, taking a jab at this actor and that theater. He was having so much fun that it just became inseparable from the general fun of those plays, and reading them, and going to performances of them. And he maybe needs those little references to make it fun for him. Not to compare myself to Shakespeare. [Laughs.] But any writer nowadays, I think… I don’t think the book is about those references. It’s not a collection of in-jokes. It’s not some snarky contemporary satire. It’s no dis-fest. It’s about other things, and those things are there for the enjoyment of people who might get them.

The AV Club Interviews Terry Zwigoff about His Movie Crumb

The AV Club interviews director Terry Zwigoff about his movie Crumb (and some other stuff). From the interview–

The idea was to do a documentary on the three Crumb brothers. It was never a documentary about Robert Crumb in my head. I had met Charles and Max and liked them both, and I collected artwork from all three brothers. I even spent a night at their parents’ house, and met his father when he was still alive. So it started taking shape in my mind, and it seemed to me like a good idea for a film if Robert would do it. Not so much because I had access to Robert and he was willing to cooperate, but because I felt comfortable knowing that as his friend, I’d been exposed to facts that other people wouldn’t have known. And there were some things Robert never even thought to tell me about, not because he was trying to withhold information from me, but because he couldn’t tell what would be interesting and what wouldn’t. He couldn’t be objective about it.

Here’s a clip from the movie–

The Paris Review Interviews David Mitchell

The Paris Review interviews David Mitchell in their new issue. An excerpt from their free excerpt:

INTERVIEWER I noticed this sentence in Number9Dream: “The cloud atlas turns its pages over.”

MITCHELL Wow, is that in Number9Dream? Then the phrase was haunting me earlier than I realized. “Cloud Atlas” is the name of a piece of music by the Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, who was Yoko Ono’s first husband. I bought the CD just because of that track’s beautiful title. It pleases me that Number9Dream is named after a piece of music by Yoko’s more famous husband, though I couldn’t duplicate the pattern indefinitely.

INTERVIEWER The epigraph to Number9Dream is from Don DeLillo: “It is so much simpler to bury reality than it is to dispose of dreams.”

MITCHELL The best line in the book and it’s not even mine.

China Miéville Profiled at The New York Times

Today’s New York Times profiles one our favorite bizarros, China Miéville. Read the article here. Topics include embarrassing apocalypses, Star Trek, and his new book Kraken. From the article:

Mr. Miéville says what attracts him to the genre, as a reader and a writer, is the importance of the imagination — “that sense of the world blown apart, that sense of a crack in reality, that visionary sense, that ecstatic sense,” as he described it.

“At a certain stage some people end up not trusting their own imagination,” Mr. Miéville said. “You get this kind of baleful set of voices in your head that tell you, ‘That’s silly; you’re being silly.’

“But I think most people have more ideas in their heads than they think they do. It’s just that those of us in the fantastic fields — either we don’t listen to our own filters, or we have a much higher ridiculousness threshold.”

Vanity Fair Interviews David Mitchell

Vanity Fair interviews David Mitchell about his new book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. The interviewer mistakenly (I believe, anyway) thinks James Wood is joking in his New Yorker review when he wonders if the book is “post-postmodernist.” Mitchell’s answer sounds about right.

VF: James Wood in the New Yorker was describing your books and he jokingly came up with the phrase post-postmodernism. If there were such a thing as post-postmodern literature, what do you think that might be?

DM: Oddly enough, I’m not sure if novelists are the best people to ask whither-the-novel questions. For me, it’s a little like I’m a duckbilled platypus and I’m being asked a question about taxonomy. You won’t get much of an answer out of a platypus because they’re busy going about their business digging tunnels, catching fish, and having sex. You really have to ask a critic, or a taxonomist. I feel like I should have a pithy answer because I’m a novelist and you’re asking a question about the future of the novel, but the biggest question I ever get to is, “How can I make this damned book work?” I rarely ever put my head above the rampart and see where this big lumbering behemoth called global literature is going.

(Thanks to the Bored Bookseller for the tip).

David Mitchell Discusses His New Novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Hear the whole interview here.