Josh Melrod Talks to Biblioklept About His Documentary, Cartoon College

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.

See more at the film’s official website. Cartoon College is now available on iTunes.

Banner_Color with Laurels

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.

The filmmakers, Tara Wray and Josh Melrod

The filmmakers, Tara Wray and Josh Melrod

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 Talks to Biblioklept About Microlibraries, Indie Publishing, and His New Book, Paperback Island

Paperback_Island_Cvr_RESCANNED_for_Web-330Marshall 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.

MB w_ Beard Tomb

Portrait of the Writer Posing by the Grave of Fruitlands Communard Joseph Palmer

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 Talks to Biblioklept About Writing Life Stories on Postcards

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.

Kimball final cover copy

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.

MKWYLS(oap)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.

“Making Pictures Is How I Talk to the World” — Dmitry Samarov Talks to Biblioklept About His Art and Writing

Henri by Dmitry Samarov

Dmitry Samarov is an artist and writer who lives and works in Chicago. After graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1993, Dmitry drove cabs for twelve years. He captured his years as a taxi driver in the stories and art of his first book Hack, which was released last year from the University of Chicago Press. Hack also exists as a blog where Dmitry continues to share his stories.

I first became aware of Dmitry’s work via Twitter; I’d been posting images of readers and books for the past year—one a day—and was thrilled to find his series of bookshelf paintings and his figure paintings. Dmitry was kind enough to talk with me over a series of emails about his art, his writing, and why you’re not likely to see any space vampire paintings from him anytime soon.

You can see more of his work at his website—or better yet, check out one of his upcoming shows if you can: “Dmitry Samarov: Bookshelf Paintings” opens January 11th, 2013, at the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago, and “Pictures from a Chicago Cab” opens at the University of Central Missouri on January 23rd.

Books #6 by Dmitry Samarov

Biblioklept: Why do you paint?

Dmitry Samarov: Making pictures is how I talk to the world. I can’t remember ever not doing it. I got in trouble for doodling in 1st Grade back in the Soviet Union and haven’t looked back since. Trying to catch a bit of the way the light changes as the day wears on or the manner in which a girl looks inward as she reads a book or how paperbacks and hardcovers on a shelf lean on each other, all these small moments and many others have occupied my time. Making marks on a surface is a way to record my time here and to show others what I saw. When I do it right they’re able to see something of what they know in my pictures.

Writing about painting is always ultimately futile—the reason one paints something is because he can’t say it and probably vice versa too—but we just can’t seem to help it, can we?

Biblioklept: You bring up your paintings of book shelves and readers—I’m particularly interested in these. Can you talk about how you approach painting figures who are reading? What’s your process? How is painting a reading figure different from a portrait where the figure gazes at the viewer?

DM: I’ve never liked posing sitters. When I paint portraits or figures they are usually friends or family rather than protagonists in a narrative I have in mind, so I like them to choose what they’re doing. If you’re gonna be sitting for an hour or two what’s more natural than to read a book? There aren’t many people who are able to just sit for long periods and when they do it creates a tension. You can see it in Lucian Freud’s great portraits, those people are weary from sitting in his dingy, gray studio. I prefer to paint people in repose—not to the point of pretending that they’re not being looked at—but neither like a bug being examined under glass. Readers are wrapped up in their own inner state rather than working to express some message an artist might be trying to impose. This is as close as I know how to portray a person as they are rather than as I’d like them to be.

Beth by Dmitry Samarov

Biblioklept: So then, for the most part, I’m guessing you don’t photograph the subject and work from that photograph to create the painting. How does painting the sitter “live” (for lack of a better term—if there is one, please let me know!) differ from working from something like a photograph?

DM: I always prefer to work from life. The only things that are from photographs, sketches, or memory are my illustrations and some commissioned pieces. What’s always interested me is looking out at the world and making marks in reaction to what I see. Working from photographs doesn’t allow me to do that. They’re frozen and unnatural. Life never stops the way it does in a photograph. A drawing or painting can acknowledge the passage of time, the light changing, and many other things much better. But, of course, I’m very biased about this.

To me a picture should be a collection of many moments. It’s made in the space between the subject and the artist’s eyes and mind. It’s a conversation, a back-and-forth. I can’t have that same conversation with a photograph or even with one of my own memories for that matter.

DSamarov_by_SethAnderson

Biblioklept: I think your paintings show the energy of that conversation. Can you talk a bit about your book paintings? When did you start painting images of book shelves? Are the shelves your own?

DM: I started doing the book paintings about fifteen years ago and return to them every few years. I think I was looking for a way to do still-life without setting anything up. I like the way the books lean against each other, the crevices formed in the gaps between them, and the way the overall structure and character of a shelf changes over time as books are removed and replaced. It’s also always been funny to me to be painting the outsides of books so much of what a book is is contained between the covers.

The shallow space of a bookshelf also offers a different kind of challenge than the kind of vantage points I usually gravitate to. At times it becomes an almost abstract arrangement of shapes. Despite all that, these are my bookshelves and I have read most of these books. It’s just one more way to engage with them and who wouldn’t want that?

Biblioklept: I’ve tried to photograph all of my bookshelves this year as part of a project on the site and it’s turned out to be much more difficult than I imagined—the way the light hits differently textured covers, and so on.

Since we’ve been talking about books and paintings of books and readers, I’m curious about paintings that you love (or hate) of readers and books—are there any particular paintings that come to mind?

DM: I like a lot of the 19th Century trompe l’oeil paintings by Harnett, Peto, et al. There’s a new thing lately of painting bookshelves with every title clearly visible. I think it’s a kind of showing-off, of letting people know how learned or in-the-know you are. I’m not a fan of that. I use text in some of my paintings but it’s often for visual reasons, if the color of the lettering on a particular spine contrasts in an interesting way with the book next to it, say, I may emphasize that. It’s always in the service of the entire picture rather than some sort of status report. Also the hand-painted Penguin paperback covers.: cute but pretty quickly forgettable.

Mistaken by Dmitry Samarov

Biblioklept: Let’s talk about the intersection of your writing and your illustration. First, I’m curious about Hack. The University of Chicago Press put out a collection of your stories  (with illustrations) under that name last year, but you also have earlier versions of Hack in old school zine form, as well as a blog that features new writing. I’m curious how you think of Hack—do you think of it as an ongoing project? A book? A blog? A persona even?

DM: Hack started as a zine around 2000 as a way for me to make sense of my three years driving a cab in Boston (1993-1997). It was called Hack because the license to operate a taxi in Boston was called a Hackney Carriage License and they used to call cabbies hacks in the old days. It was my first attempt at writing outside of school homework assignments and there really wasn’t much writing, it was mostly pictures. Those pictures were a challenge too because, as I’ve said, I work primarily from direct observation and the only way to do these were from memory. These illustrations were made to work together with the words, not to stand on their own and that has continued to be the case through the whole history of Hack.

I started driving a taxi in Chicago in 2003 and revived Hack as a blog late in 2006. To my surprise, it got notice pretty quickly from some in the local press—Whet Moser, then of the Chicago Reader especially—-and my high school pal John Hodgman mentioning it in a magazine didn’t hurt either. That got it noticed by a publicist at University of Chicago Press named Levi Stahl. He bought a copy of my self-published compilation (see the third one down) and eventually pitched Hack as a book to his employers. They published it in October 2011.

I stopped driving last summer and spent a couple of months putting together a second book. It’s all ready to go. I’m just waiting for a publisher to snap it up. The new one expands on a lot of the themes of the first book and spans my entire cab career, from 1993 to 2012. I’m a much better writer from having gone through the editing process on the first book and from the sheer amount of writing in various venues that I’ve done over the last few years.

I don’t know that Hack is/was a persona but it’s certainly gotten me more attention than anything else I’ve done.

Biblioklept: When you were working on the pieces for Hack, did you start with the illustrations or the words?

DM: The illustrations were always first. They were my way into the writing. I went over the phrases I’d use as I was working on the pictures. That’s the way it goes to this day for the most part. I always have been and always will be a painter first.

"You Know Where I'm Going" by Dmitry Samarov
“You Know Where I’m Going” by Dmitry Samarov

Biblioklept: The pieces of Hack I’ve read seem to channel the stories of your passengers—there’s a lucid straightforwardness about them that I like. How conscientious of style are you when you’re writing? How much do you edit?

DM: I edit a lot. I use as few words as possible. It’s evolved over time of course. When I started I leaned really heavily on ellipses as a transitional device. I cribbed that from Celine’s Death on the Installment Plan. Editing the entries for the first book cured me of that. In general the cab stories take their inspiration from Nelson Algren’s advice to just go out into the streets and listen to the way people speak and to write that down as simply as possible.

At it’s best my writing tries to do what my painting does: to relay what I see and here out in the world. I try my best to stay out of the way because everything out there is so much more interesting than anything I could ever dream up.

Celine by Dmitry Samarov

Biblioklept: You know, I almost referenced Celine in my last question, because the ellipses are clearly a major stylistic device in your self-published version of Hack (and also because I dig your painting Celine). You bring up Algren—what other writers do you admire?

DM: Algren is a real touchstone because he introduced me to Chicago a few years before I even arrived here in 1990 to attend the School of the Art Institute. There are many others. I love Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel and Luc Sante’s Kill All Your Darlings as models for ways of writing different sorts of personal essays. William Gaddis’s books, especially JR, for the way he captures American speech and Cormac McCarthy, especially Suttree, for descriptions of physical environment.

Lately I’ve been looking into forgotten local authors a lot and writing about them at Writers No One Reads. A sense of specific place is very important to me.

I don’t have any aspirations to write fiction but usually, as long as it’s rooted in reality, I’ll probably read it.

Vachel Lindsay by Dmitry Samarov

Biblioklept: You’ve returned to the idea of reality a few times in our conversation, and your paintings and illustrations seem to evoke a strong sense of place. Why is depicting real scenes important to you? I’m guessing we won’t see a series of space vampires from Dmitry Samarov anytime soon . . .

DM: Writers and painters who use space vampires, fantastic worlds, etc. probably just have more imagination than me. Or perhaps the everyday world doesn’t provide them with enough inspiration or subject-matter to say what they need to say. I don’t have that problem. For me just looking out the window for a moment as I type this gives a glimpse of a thousand paintings I could try to paint. What’s out there is within my scope of vision is as limitless as outer space must be to sci-fi writer or a dream must be to a fantasist. The few times I’ve tried to resort to my imagination I’ve found it at once limiting, hopelessly random, and sadly wanting. How could I choose one thing rather than another and what would it matter? There are still many choices to be made when working from what’s before me but it doesn’t feel random and meaningless in the same way. It’s more that I’m pushing against something that’s actually there and it’s pushing back at me.

But maybe I’ll switch to space vampires after I get bored with reality.

Biblioklept: Do you paint or draw every day? Do you write every day?

DM: I try to paint, draw, or write something most days. It’s a much better day when I have than when I haven’t, that’s for sure. The internet has made it possible to share every stray scrap that one comes up with and I’m probably guilty of putting too much out there for others to see, but I’ve always thought of all my work as being public, that part that’s for me is just the doing. After I’m done, it has to sink or swim on its own and for that viewers and readers are needed. The internet is like a big messy studio where (hopefully) over time all the false starts and failures will be forgotten, ignored, or swept away and the worthwhile things will have whatever life they deserve. What I’m trying to say is that most of hat I do is probably crap but that maybe there’s some value in sharing it with others and letting them judge rather than holding things close and only showing them the ones that I’m convinced are good. In any case it’s nearly impossible to say right after finishing a picture whether it’ll speak to people or is just a rehash of something done before or a waste of time I’ve somehow convinced myself to push on with. I hope in twenty or thirty years to look back and be able to say that I’ve made a couple of things that were worthwhile.

Biblioklept: So do you find it hard to judge or evaluate your own work?

DM: Not at the time I’m doing it. I throw away plenty. But with the benefit of, say, a year or five or ten, things I thought weren’t bad turn out to look awful and occasionally, vice versa. As a rule though, I think once I’ve decided to let something out into the world it’s no longer my job to evaluate it. If I thought enough of it not to burn or paint over it it has to try to survive on its own steam.

Martina by Dmitry Samarov

Biblioklept: What are you working on right now?

DM: Well, I finished a second book of illustrated cab stories. It’s called WHERE TO? More Stories from a Hack and covers from when I first drove in Boston in 1993 until the summer of 2012 when I gave my last cab ride. It goes deeper into the inner workings of the cab industry, the people who take cabs, attempts to answer why I decided to drive a cab in the first place. I’m still looking for a publisher for it.

I’ve been writing and illustrating occasional baseball-related pieces for Chicago Side’s sports section, working on illustrations for various other projects, and finishing up my first book review for the Chicago Tribune’s literary supplement, Printers Row, on a recently-reissued forgotten novel called Diversey. Also I have two art shows coming up in January and another in February. On January 11th, “Dmitry Samarov: Bookshelf Paintings” opens at the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago. On January 23rd, “Pictures from a Chicago Cab” opens at the University of Central Missouri.

All that and doing my best not to have to go back to a day-job. I haven’t driven a cab in about five-and-a-half months and have really gotten to love not having to leave the house much.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

DM: I used to steal ’em all the time. I had a good scam going when I was school changing price-tags on expensive art books, getting $100 ones for $20 and such. I used to steal a lot of things. I wrote a whole thing about it for The Handshake.

Biblioklept: Can you talk about a particular book you remember stealing?

DM: I stole this beautiful Giacometti book from Powell’s sometime in the early-90s and wound up having to sell it at Myopic Books in the late-90s for much less than it was worth when I was broke and between jobs. I’ve sold off tons of great books and records over the years. I’m neither the most careful collector nor blessed with much foresight as to what might or might not be valuable in the future.

Pier Paolo Pasolini Interviews Ezra Pound

(Thanks to Giovanni for sending this in).

Gordon Lish: “Don’t Believe Me”

gl

From “A Conversation with Gordon Lish,” an outstanding interview between the writer/editor and Rob Trucks. The interview is really amazing—Lish talks at length about his writing process, his sense of competition, his friendships with Don DeLillo and Cynthia Ozick, his interest in Julia Kristeva, his feelings for Harold Brodkey and Barry Hannah—and Blood Meridian. Lots and lots of Blood Meridian.

I chose this little nugget because I think it reads almost like a perfect little Lish story—or at least, it seems to perfectly express Lish’s voice, which if you haven’t heard it, my god, get thee to his own reading of his Collected Fictions. Again, the whole interview is well worth your time if you have any interest in Lish. It includes this insight into the man’s fiction:

dickbook

William Burroughs on Sex, Computers, Mutation

From William S. Burroughs’s 1972 interview with Penthouse magazine.

Josh Henkin Talks to Biblioklept About His New Novel, The World Without You

Joshua Henkin’s new novel, The World Without You, tells the story of the Frankels, a large Jewish American family who gather over the Fourth of July weekend to mourn the death of their son Leo, a journalist who was kidnapped and then murdered in Iraq. The World Without You is Henkin’s third novel after Matrimony and Swimming Across the Hudson. Henkin directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College. The World Without You is new in hardback from Pantheon. You can learn more about Henkin at his website. He was gracious enough to talk to me over a series of emails about writing, teaching, verb tense, sympathy, and his new novel.

Biblioklept: There’s a lot going on in The World Without You, but it seems to be essentially a novel about a family—what it means to be a family, what it means to be in a family, what it means to be in conflict with a family—where did the Frankels come from?

Josh Henkin: The most simple answer is, My imagination.  The Frankels aren’t based on anyone I know, and like all characters in fiction (at least the kind of fiction I write), they developed slowly over time; I discovered them in the writing process over the course of quite a number of years.  What I would say is that I think that in the same way that people speak of “rebound relationships,” I think of my novels as “rebound novels.”  Matrimony took place over twenty years and focuses on a small cast of characters, and I wanted to write something different this time.  So, whether consciously or not, I set out to write a book that was more compressed, on one hand (it takes place over 72 hours instead of over 20 years), and more spacious, on the other hand (there are many more characters, and we go into many points of view).  If you’re asking where the inspiration for the book came from, I’d say it came mostly from the following.  I had a first cousin who died of Hodgkin’s disease when he was in his late twenties. I was only a toddler at the time, but his death hung over my extended family for years. At a family reunion nearly thirty years later, my aunt, updating everyone on what was happening in her life, began by saying, “I have two sons….” Well, she’d once had two sons, but her older son had been dead for thirty years at that point. It was clear to everyone in that room that the pain was still raw for her and that it would continue to be raw for her for the rest of her life. By contrast, my cousin’s widow eventually remarried and had a family. This got me thinking how when someone loses a spouse, as awful as that is, the surviving spouse eventually moves on; but when a parent loses a child they almost never move on. That idea was the seed from which The World Without You grew. Although there are many tensions in the novel (between siblings, between couples, between parents and children), the original tension was between mother-in-law and daughter-in law, caused by the gulf between their two losses, by the different ways they grieve.

Biblioklept: You mention the compression of The World Without You, which here strikes me as form of realism. The book takes place over the July 4th holiday—why did you choose this setting? Was the Independence Day setting always part of your design?

JH: I knew I wanted a compressed period of time–mostly because Matrimony took place over twenty years and I think of books like relationships:  one book is a rebound from the previous one.  I also knew that I wanted the book to be told in many points of view; this, too, makes it different from Matrimony, which was told only in Julian and Mia’s points of view.  In terms of Independence Day, I think that was a little more unconscious, though probably intentional as well.  Part of the issue was a practical one:  how do you get a large, disperse family together in one place?  You need an occasion for the telling, and a holiday like July 4th provides one.  Though of course the real occasion for the telling is Leo’s memorial.  But I think even there Independence Day is relevant because although the book is obviously about the specific characters (I think all fiction worth its salt is always first and foremost about the particular, not the general), I do think this novel in its own indirect way is a novel about America more broadly, and certainly about a certain segment of America, of which I consider myself a part.  The Frankels are a political family, with strong opinions about Bush and about the Iraq War, but they’re also privileged.  They’ve really known no one who has fought in the war, have been insulated from it in their day-to-day lives–and then, with Leo’s death, it comes and touches them in the most horrific and personal way.  And I wondered what that’s like–to be mourning while the rest of the country is celebrating, to be commemorating the independence of a country that has sent its young men and women to war, a country that’s responsible for their son and brother’s death.

Biblioklept: You mention the Frankels’s privileged background. They are, for the most part, liberal, secular, refined. Leo dies in Iraq, but, significantly, he’s a journalist, not a soldier. Do you worry that not all readers will connect to these characters? How do you make your characters sympathetic—or does sympathy even matter in fiction?

JH: My feeling is that people are people, and they merit as little or as much sympathy as they merit whether they’re rich or poor, healthy or sick, beautiful or ugly.  There’s a strand of anti-elitism in American culture  (one can see it every day, tirelessly, in our politics), and one sees it, too, in certain attitudes toward literature–the idea being that only the humble, the uneducated are worthy of our fiction.  But I find the idea pretentious; it smacks of a kind of reverse snobbery.  And tell it, in any case, to Fitzgerald, or Cheever, or Yates.  One of the things good literature does is it humanizes people we might not otherwise be drawn to.  And (this is at least as important) it allows us to enjoy the company of people on the page whose company we might not enjoy off the page.  Which is another way of saying that sympathy doesn’t matter in fiction, at least not sympathy narrowly construed.  In fiction, as in life, some people are likable and some people aren’t likable, and the world would be boring if everyone were likable.  The fiction writer’s job is to make his characters complex, interesting, fully human, not (or at least not necessarily) likable.

Biblioklept: The World Without You is conveyed in the present tense. I’m curious what led you to compose in the present tense, or if you drafted parts of the novel in the past tense—what advantages can the present tense offer the writer and reader? What are its limitations?

JH: I think about tense a lot, probably because I teach fiction writing and, more specifically, because I direct Brooklyn College’s Fiction MFA program, and so I end up reading 500 application manuscripts a year, a good number of which are written in the present tense.  It’s said that present tense makes the story feel more immediate, yet year after year I notice among our graduate applications that the present-tense stories are usually the least immediate, most inert stories in the bunch.  Why is that?  I think it’s because some writers use present tense as a substitute for narrative, as a way of hiding that nothing is happening in their stories.  They think that if they write in present tense their stories will feel immediate.

I also think that present tense is deceptive because it’s easy in present tense to slip out of scene and into general/habitual time.  In the past tense, you would write “She went to the store on Tuesday” to suggest that the character is going to the store at a specific time.  If, on the other hand, you wanted to indicate repeated or habitual action, you would write, “She would go to the store on Tuesday.”  But in the present tense there generally isn’t such a distinction between the specific and the habitual.  “She goes to the store on Tuesday” can mean either that she’s going to the store right now on Tuesday or that she’s a habitual store-goer on Tuesdays.  I think what happens in present tense is that a lot of writers end up slipping into the habitual, and so what seems immediate is actually not at all immediate.

The other thing I’d say is that it’s very hard to write a present-tense novel that takes place over ten years because it’s likely to feel artificial for all that time to be in present tense.  Present tense works best, then, in novels and stories told in compressed time.

The World Without You simply came to me in present tense.  That was the tense that felt right for the book.  This may be true, in part, because I’d been influenced by Richard Ford’s Independence Day, another novel told over a single July 4th holiday that’s told in present tense.  But I think it’s more than that.  The World Without You takes place over 72 hours, so it’s ideally suited for present tense, and it’s also told in confined space; most of the book is situated in the Frankel family home and the streets that surround it in Lenox, Mass.  One thing I was trying to do was balance the sprawling quality of the book (there are many characters and lots of different points of view) with the more focused time and space that I just mentioned, and I think present tense allowed me to do that.  But all this is post-facto, a case of me looking back at what I did.  I proceeded intuitively, which is what I always do, and present tense simply felt right (it was the right sound, the right voice) for this book.

Biblioklept: You bring up your position as Brooklyn College’s MFA fiction program director—I’m curious if reading so many manuscripts affects your own writing.

JH: I love teaching, and that’s in large part because I get to teach some of the most talented young writers out there.  In the last few months alone, five of our recent MFA graduates have gotten book contracts.  There are writers who wouldn’t know how to teach; for them, writing is an intuitive process and they aren’t fully conscious of what they’re doing.  For me, it was the opposite.  I could read someone else’s short story and figure out what wasn’t working long before I could make things work in my own stories.  I needed to learn how to become a more intuitive writer, and critiquing other people’s stories helped me do that; it still helps me.  I’ve been at this process longer than my students have, but we’re all struggling with the same thing—how to write convincing stories; how to make our characters comes so deeply to life they feel as real as, even realer than, the actual people in our own lives; how to use language in a way that’s precise and beautiful and utterly true.  That never changes.  So in a way, even though I’m the instructor, we’re all students in the room.  Also, I’m a fairly social person, and writing is incredibly solitary, so teaching gives me the chance to be with other people and to talk about the work I love.

Biblioklept: Are there manuscripts that come in where you just kind of slap your forehead and go, “Not another story about ______ again!”

JH: Absolutely.  Many of my graduate students are in their mid-twenties, and so they write about the concerns of people in their mid-twenties.  How to find love in the big city, that kind of thing.  That’s okay.  If it’s done well, just about any subject matter can make for compelling fiction, and in any case, my students won’t be in their mid-twenties forever.  That’s one of the nice things about being a writer.  You mature; you get better over time.  Writing is different from figure skating.  It’s even different from playing the violin.  You can be in your late forties and still be a young writer.  At least that’s what I like to tell myself!

Often it’s less a similarity of subject matter that I see than a similarity of voice or sensibility.  For a time I saw a lot of Lorrie Moore imitators.  Then I saw a lot of George Saunders imitators.  If you’re going to imitate someone, those are two pretty good choices, though in a lot of ways Moore and Saunders are inimitable.  But that’s fine.  Imitation is part of the maturing process.  It’s how a writer achieves her own voice.

Biblioklept: Do you have any upcoming writing projects? What are you working on next?

JH: My most immediate project is a trip to Hawaii! Writing a novel takes a lot out of you. Right now, I’m trying to figure out what comes next. I promised myself I would go back to writing short stories. It’s weird, I’ve spent the last nearly twenty years writing novels, when in so many ways I think of myself as a short-story writer. It was certainly my first love, and because I teach MFA students, I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about short stories. So last fall, when I finished the final draft of The World Without You, I immediately sat down to write a short story, and what happened? The draft I wrote was 113 pages along! And then the second short story I wrote was over 200 pages long! I still think I’m capable of writing a regular old twenty-to-thirty-page short story, but we’ll have to see. In the meantime, I’m tossing around some ideas for a new novel, but it’s still in the very early, incubating stages, so I’m not saying anything more than that.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

JH: Alas, I have not.  But I’m working on it.

Biblioklept Interviews Stuart Kendall About His New Translation of Gilgamesh, Altered States of Consciousness, and Terrence Malick

Stuart Kendall is the author of several books, including The Ends of Art and Design, a work that examines the role of experience-events in the post-subjective world, and Georges Bataille, a critical biography of that influential author. Stuart also edited and contributed to Terrence Malick: Film and Philosophy. Stuart has produced and published numerous translations, including works by Bataille, Guy Debord, Paul Éluard, and Maurice Blanchot. His latest translation is a telling of Gilgamesh, one that casts the ancient epic poem in modernist poetry. Stuart has taught at several universities and colleges, including Boston University and the California College of the Arts, where he is currently Chair of Critical Studies. Stuart was kind enough to talk to me about Gilgamesh—and Malick—over a series of emails. You can read more about Stuart’s work at his websiteGilgamesh is available now from Contra Mundum Press.

Biblioklept: Why Gilgamesh?

Stuart Kendall: Gilgamesh is the oldest extended tale that has come down to us and it speaks to us from a pivotal moment in the history of human experience. It is also a particularly rich text, as rich in its depths, ranging back in time prior to its composition, as it is in its reach, remaining relevant to our own drama. Gilgamesh dates to the Bronze Age but the roots of the story, the bones of it, reflect notions about human experience that may stretch back beyond the Neolithic era to the Paleolithic. The text, to my understanding, contains layer upon layer of cultural renewal and reinterpretation. These layers of renewal are reflected in the extended life of the text beyond Gilgamesh into the related texts of the ancient world, like the Hebrew scriptures, and beyond those writings into the fundamental attitudes and ideas of Western civilization, many of which have been profoundly wrongheaded, to put the matter lightly.

From another angle, in part due to the age of the text, Gilgamesh reaches beyond relevance to Western civilization into world religious history through motifs related to shamanism, a practice that many historians of religion suggest may be at the origin of every religious tradition.

Finally, Gilgamesh is perhaps first and foremost a document of ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Iraq. It is a text that can be traced into and through the fundamentally Judaic traditions of both Christianity and Islam. Our lifetimes have been scarred by the clash of these related worlds. An encounter with Gilgamesh cannot heal the breach caused by the tragic hubris and shortsightedness of some American politicians but it certainly can serve as one part of an on-going discussion about commonalities and differences in human experience bound as we are by time and place.

I hope it is clear that I don’t think that Gilgamesh contains a positive record of something that we share, some universally valid message. Rather I view it as a product of a specific time and place, a distinct product of the process of history. But as such we can see the deeper past through it, trace our traditions to it, and measure ourselves against it in, I think, valuable ways.

Biblioklept: What motivated the project?

ST: This project was conceived in the classroom. I had been teaching Gilgamesh for a number of years, always to great interest, but also without finding a translation that both accurately and accessibly represented the text. Though there are a number of translations of Gilgamesh, they generally fall into two categories that I refer to as scholarly and popular. The scholarly translations are awkward to read since they assiduously and accurately represent areas of the text which are uncertain, either through the material decay of cuneiform tablets or through our failure to fully understanding the meaning of ancient terms. These translations also typically segregate different versions of the story — Sumerian, Akkadian, etc. — in different sections of a book, forcing a reader to flip back and forth to compare the different versions. While this is obviously the most accurate way to present the material, it is not the most expressive way to do so and students and I think other general readers often struggle with it. On the other hand, the more accessible translations of the text, like those by Herbert Mason, David Ferry or Stephen Mitchell, are often misleading, particularly in regard to the theology of the text. These translations, or versions more rightly, are also often too fluid. They emphasize the narrative flow of the story over the poetic or expressive devices at work within it and thereby offer a satisfying, but false, sense of continuity to the materials, as if it were a novel. They are if anything too accessible.

Semester after semester, I saw students respond positively to the text but always only up to a certain limit, depending upon the specific translation I assigned. Eventually I decided that I should do my own version, following a middle path between the scholarly and popular translations. About four years ago I began working on it, testing my draft in the classroom along the way. I’ve also had some friends who have tested the translation in their classes. While I don’t think that the task of translation can ever be finished, I do think that this Gilgamesh is ready for readers.

Biblioklept: Translation seems like such a daunting task . . . how did you approach and execute it?

SK: The translation process for this project was of necessity very different from the process developed through my other translations. At this point I’ve translated ten or so books directly from French to English — rather diverse books by Bataille, Char, Blanchot, Eluard, Baudrillard, and Debord, among others — as well as a large number of articles and shorter pieces. By diverse I mean that these writings have included essays, poems, lectures, letters, notes, and aphorisms across a wide range of fields from belles lettres,broadly speaking, to visual studies, cultural criticism, philosophy, and theology, all generally rooted in an avant-garde orientation to cultural change. The diversity of these texts is thus disciplinary, formal, and stylistic, as well as presenting challenging thoughts. I emphasize this diversity because it is part of what attracted me to Gilgamesh, since Gilgamesh is a text which itself includes a wide range of contents: psychological, philosophical, and religious. One of my main goals was to reveal some of this diversity in the work: this is after all a book in which gods speak. We live in a time in which the gods are silent. Entering into an alternate theological imagination presents an enormous challenge for readers, and, as a translator, I hope that I have done what I could to be helpful toward this end.

In terms of actual process, since I am not an Assyriologist by training or profession, I have had to rely upon the rigorous scholarship of leaders in the field, Andrew George foremost among them, for the core content of the work. George’s two-volume The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic (published by Oxford) is the current standard edition of the ancient Gilgamesh materials. But there are a number of other scholarly translations of the work, in whole and in part, in its various ancient versions, that have been instructive, particularly by marking points of contrast. Beyond those materials, specifically tied to Gilgamesh there are histories of the period, cultural, religious and otherwise. And beyond that, a number of far more wide-ranging works within what I would call the history of consciousness, often of psychoanalytical inspiration — Weston La Barre’s The Ghost Dance, Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body, Eshleman’s Juniper Fuse — books that frame human experience in the most intricate yet capacious way, have been helpful.

Comparing all of the available scholarly translations of Gilgamesh, across all of the ancient versions of the text, including the stories that migrated beyond Gilgamesh proper, like the flood story in the Hebrew Bible, allowed me to develop a basic ur-text from which to develop my version. As suggested above, the distinctions between the scholarly translations were often more instructive than the points of agreement between them. Where scholarly consensus exists, I tend to follow it. Where the scholars disagree, I fall back on my readings in history and the history of consciousness for guideposts in my interpretation.

Once I had developed the basic text, I worked with it, inspired by the formal language of twentieth century American poetry, particularly the modernist language of Pound and Williams and the postmodern projective and open verse of Olson, Duncan, Eshleman and others. The point was to carry the experience of Gilgamesh into the language of our century without compromising that experience or that language by making either one overly familiar.

I think it is important to emphasize the fact that my method was essentially the same as that of other translators who have produced popular versions of the text, like David Ferry and Stephen Mitchell, neither of whom are Assyriologists by training. I hope that readers find my Gilgamesh to be more rigorous than those versions and more imaginative than the scholarly translation.

Biblioklept: I’ve read various translations of Gilgamesh—all prose—at different times in my life, and I’ve always appreciated it as an adventure story with a mythological scope. I still remember the first time I read Gilgamesh; I was in the 10th grade and the relationship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh struck me as fascinating and strange (and seemed overtly homoerotic too, of course).

One of my favorite moments in your new translation is the first meeting of the pair, when Enkidu interrupts Gilgamesh’s lord’s rights to ravish a new bride in Uruk. The scene is energetic, violent, and sexual; it’s almost figuratively a wedding, or a replacement for Gilgamesh’s taking of the bride—it even ends in a kiss.

The depiction of Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s relationship is clearly important to how the narrative illustrates human consciousness. Why does their friendship (and rivalry, and love) continue to fascinate (and perhaps inform) readers?

SK: Undoubtedly some of the fascination follows from the enigmatic nature of the relationship, particularly for modern readers. The relationship is familiar, since we all have friends, but also ambiguous. Why are these two characters friends? What is the nature of their friendship? In the earliest extant versions of the tale, the two aren’t friends. Enkidu is Gilgamesh’s servant. In later versions of the story, and in the Standard Version, they are friends. The change can be explained in part as a means of lending additional drama to Enkidu’s death and also, thereafter, Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality. It is one thing for your servant to die and another for your closest friend to die. The bond between the two is obscure. They are in many ways opposites. I see them as complementary characters, Enkidu being as close to the animals as Gilgamesh is to the gods, Enkidu from the wild, Gilgamesh from the city, etc. Together they form a kind of complete composite of human experience, like two sides of one character. William Blake’s notion, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, that opposition is true friendship, certainly applies to Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The larger symbolic affiliations – Enkidu with the animals, Gilgamesh with the gods – are significant in almost all of their encounters both with one another and with the other characters in the major episodes in the narrative, like Humbaba and Ishtar.

The potentially homoerotic element of their relationship is of course highly contentious. For some readers, such a notion is very appealing. For others, it is repellent. I myself am reluctant to project contemporary social or sexual norms into the ancient text. There are countries in the world today where men kiss men or women kiss women without sexual connotation. Something has been lost in our contemporary discourse of physical experience and human relationship if we must treat or imagine every physical relationship as being of one kind. On this point, characters do have sex in the book. Gilgamesh clearly has sex with the young brides of Uruk and Enkidu has sex with Shamhat. But Enkidu and Gilgamesh don’t have sex. I think we go too far if we speculate as to whether or not the authors of the ancient text what readers to imagine the relationship to be sexual. The two characters are however obviously very close friends whose bond makes us reflect on the proximity of opposites and the role of opposition in friendship as well as illustrating issues in the fundamental duality of human character.

Biblioklept: How might Gilgamesh challenge contemporary readers’ attitudes and beliefs about human consciousness?

SK: Gilgamesh challenges contemporary readers in a number of ways. It challenges Jewish and Christian readers with an alternate, and very different, version of the flood story from the Hebrew Bible. It also challenges Christian readers with an alternate version of life after death. The Christian notion of heaven is entirely absent from Gilgamesh. In its place, one finds a pagan notion of a barren world of shades, where priests and kings are powerless and food and drink are tasteless. This vision — conveyed in a dream, or rather a nightmare — is not a vision of Hell or of some other kind of eternal punishment. It isn’t pleasant at all, but it isn’t torture. It is more like non-life and that is the horror of it. The pleasures and the pains of earthly life are absent after death and that is a terrifying notion. Gilgamesh, in other words, gives us a worldview that fears death as the loss of this world and that vision goes against the dogma that this world is in some way fallen, that our true reward is to be found in some alternate reality called heaven. There are many similarly challenging themes and motifs throughout the book.

In part notions like these are so deeply disturbing because they cut to the core of our perspective on reality. As part of a thoroughly pagan text, Gilgamesh consistently encounters gods in the things and people around him. But he also fears some of those same things as much as he savors others. The text provides rich details about objects and animals. It shows people looking at and enjoying other people. It is a book of sensual celebration as much as it is a journey into despair and the two are related, as I suggested just now: death is to be feared because life is so very full.

As a drama of consciousness, then, Gilgamesh is a strange book. It is intensely physical in the sense of describing things in the world, in the same moment as it is highly symbolic. The characters are themselves symbolic and they travel through a symbolic landscape. They are recognizably human, though, and the tale is so moving, I think, because of the drama of consciousness grappling with these different registers of experience. Put a little differently, it is not hard to see that the characters are anything but fixed. They undergo changes large and small and they suffer those changes. Here I am thinking in particular of the journey to kill Humbaba, the protector of the forest. On each night of the journey, Enkidu performs a kind of shaman ritual, preparing a bed for Gilgamesh. And each night Gilgamesh has a new nightmare which Enkidu, again as a shaman, interprets for him. The immediate effect upon the reader is to elevate our foreboding about their journey to confront Humbaba. But in another way the repeated nightmares – and these aren’t the only ones in the book – testify to the porousness of consciousness within the world. The characters’ moods alternate between dream, denial and delirium through the book. For heroes, they spend a great deal of time in abject fear of the animate cosmos.

This is a startling portrait for scientifically minded contemporary readers, confident in a stable view of subjects and objects in the world. Gilgamesh shakes that confidence.

Pierre Klossowski once remarked that consciousness is never absolute. Our mind, in other words, isn’t like a light that is either on or off. It is more like a light on a dimmer switch subject to the fluctuations of an unexpected power surge. Gilgamesh is, in some ways, a guide to living with and through altered states of consciousness.

Biblioklept: I’ve read your essay on Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, a favorite film of mine. In the essay, you discuss the film’s disruptive, destabilizing properties. Aspects of your analysis seem equally applicable to Malick’s most recent film, The Tree of Life, a film that deeply divided audiences.

In your previous answer, you discuss how Gilgamesh potentially threatens to destabilize the reader’s sense of a world anchored in fixed, absolute meaning. Do Malick’s films operate in the same way? Why was The Tree of Life such an affront to so many people’s sense of narrative propriety?

SK: I’m glad you brought this up. Malick’s films are deeply fascinating to me and, yes, I do see a certain continuity of concern, if not necessarily technique, between Malick’s films and Gilgamesh. The continuity of concern between these two types of cultural production is what attracts me to both of them, though obviously they are world’s apart.

In the essay on Malick’s Days of Heaven that you mention, “The Tragic Indiscernability of Days of Heaven,” I attempted to show that Malick’s film style, particularly in that film, might be compared to Greek tragedy in a formal way, since both Malick’s film and Greek tragedy overdetermine language and images with religious, political, and philosophical meaning. They do so not to integrate those different types of meaning but rather to demonstrate the extent to which these different types of meaning might be incompatible with one another. The viewer is put in the awkward position of having to choose between different registers of meaning, essentially different interpretations of the object, sometimes moment by moment, or viewing by viewing. There’s that remark from Kierkegaard, that what looks like politics and imagines itself to be political will one day unmask itself as a religious movement. But in the case of Days of Heaven and tragedy, what looks like politics one day, might look more like religion the next, since it is both simultaneously and therefore also unstable.

I don’t believe one can make the same kind of claims about The Tree of Life however. The Tree of Life is a very demanding film, in part because it asks theological questions in visual terms. In a way, the film might be the direct contrary of Days of Heaven. While Days of Heaven is saturated with meaning, overdetermined, The Tree of Life is underdetermined. The viewer must constantly ask whether its images are in fact evidence of the existence of god or not. Are they, in other words, meaningful, or not. For a believer, The Tree of Life is challenging because it does not correspond to common visions of faith, even though many believers do I think recognize self-organizing systems — like a flock of birds in flight — as evidence for the existence of their god.

But The Tree of Life is challenging at the most basic level as well. In the first part of the film, the viewer is given very little narrative information. We see the parents being told that their child has died but it is far from explicit: the mother, played by Jessica Chastain, reads a telegram to herself and reacts to it. The father, played by Brad Pitt, is told over the phone while standing near an airplane. He can barely hear the call; we certainly can’t. In order to construct the narrative, the viewer has to look very deeply into the film. And once the meaning is clear, it still isn’t clear, since the entire film explores the problem of meaning in this way. There is a lot more to say about this film, obviously, particularly about the final section of the film.

Returning to Gilgamesh, I think it is important to observe that Gilgamesh is very different from both of these films even though it does share many of the same concerns. For one thing, rather than being the work of a single author — or even cultural group — Gilgamesh, I think, is best understood as a palimpsest of materials aggregated by several ancient cultures over fifteen hundred to two thousand years. Roughly contemporary works with a similar ambition include Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Pound’s Cantos, and Olson’s Maximus Poems. In film, Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma offers some similarities; it is certainly a visual palimpsest, even though it only spans the 100 year history of cinema. All of these works as well are distinct from Gilgamesh because they are the products of individual authors, though Pound, Olson, and Godard all do incorporate many different types of “found” materials. As a palimpsest, Gilgamesh is far more heterogeneous than most readers, I think, give it credit for being. The tale offers several different responses to the problem of death, for example, at different points, each without referencing the others. Another example can be seen in the three different methods of obtaining immortality shoved together at the end, none of which reference the others or suggest that the series might not continue indefinitely.

The point I’m trying to make here is that Malick’s films are highly crafted, whether overdetermined or underdetermined. They are built in such a way as to give their viewer a fairly specific task. Gilgamesh, on the other hand, is overdetermined in a completely different way, in part due to the historical circumstances of its collation, composition being perhaps too strong a word for it. The challenge for readers of Gilgamesh is to get into the perspective or perspectives that originated the narratives it contains. It is much closer to the perspective expressed by Kierkegaard in the quote I referenced above. A good example of this is the encounter with Ishtar. Ishtar is the goddess of fertility, love, and war, essentially a nature goddess, and she is the patroness of the city where Gilgamesh is king. In the story, she offers herself to Gilgamesh in marriage, promising fecundity for the city. In one ancient worldview, it is the function of the king to “marry” the goddess of nature and thereby ensure the abundance of the land and safety of the people. Gilgamesh however has different ideas. He does not trust Ishtar — and how can you trust nature? Instead, he forms a community with his male companion, Enkidu. The two of them fight Ishtar together and, successful in their conquest, have a feast. The story is clear as a story. The allegory is clear as an allegory (that has been catastrophic for our civilization). But the conflict between the two historical perspectives — sacred marriage vs. community of men — is masked by the successful integration of the text.

Where Malick uses instability and overdetermination to create an aesthetic object that raises questions or creates problems for his viewer, Gilgamesh, as an object, uses integration as a mask for heterogeneous cultural and historical materials. The reader of Gilgamesh has to do the work of peeling the layers of the text apart (without hope of finding a stable, original, core meaning). That in mind, the casual reader of Gilgamesh might not realize how very complex and multi-layered it really is, whereas the complexity of Malick’s films is self-evident. Put differently, it is easy to see why Gilgamesh is quite popular among casual readers and Malick off-putting to casual viewers.

Biblioklept: Do you have another translation project on the horizon? What are you writing now?

SK: I’ve been working on some translations of René Char’s later poetry, some of which is forthcoming in Plume  among other places. I’m also finishing a short book on Andy Goldsworthy and another, on Georges Bataille, Gregory Bateson, sustainability and the sacred. Both of these later projects fall under the general heading of the ecological imagination.

Biblioklept: Can you elaborate on “the ecological imagination”?

SK: I’ve been using the phrase ecological imagination as a way of evoking the history of our human awareness of and interaction with our environment. Ecology is environment or habitat, but more generally also the situation or system that supports life. I emphasize imagination here rather than “thought” because the notion of thought too quickly enters into the history of rationality or even ideas, whereas imagination retains a strong connection with the imaginary, which can include the untrue. As Nietzsche insists, untruth is often a necessary part of life. Gilgamesh is part of this ecological imagination project as well, an early panel reflecting our disconnection from nature, whereas the more contemporary panels — on Goldsworthy, Bataille and Bateson — are concerned with recent attempts to reestablish some kind of physical connection to our world.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

SK: I stole a copy of Shelley’s complete poetry, an Oxford edition paperback, from a public library when I was a teenager. At the time, the book seemed essential to me. The edition itself is undistinguished and, frankly, a minor annoyance to me now. I don’t enjoy reading it but I also don’t enjoy Shelley enough to replace it with a better edition. On a few other occasions I’ve walked away with a cheap paperback or two, though never from a bookstore. Books have nevertheless been my abiding passion in life, the only material possessions that really excite me.

Michel Houellebecq, Curmudgeonly Pain in the Ass

From Michel Houellebecq’s 2010 Paris Review interview:

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said that you are “an old Calvinist pain-in-the-ass.” What do you mean?

HOUELLEBECQ

I tend to think that good and evil exist and that the quantity in each of us is unchangeable. The moral character of people is set, fixed until death. This resembles the Calvinist notion of predestination, in which people are born saved or damned, without being able to do a thing about it. And I am a curmudgeonly pain in the ass because I refuse to diverge from the scientific method or to believe there is a truth beyond science.

“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.