Levi: Your grandmother once worked in the Triangle factory. Can you tell us more about her, and about the way you heard about the Triangle tragedy when you were growing up?
Katharine: I cannot recall my grandmother ever mentioning the Triangle to me. She died when I was twelve. But my father talked about her work at the Triangle quite often, and about the impressive trajectory of her life from there, her last job in the garment sweatshops, finishing buttonholes at the Triangle in 1909. She left that job because she was pregnant with my father. Pauline Gottesfeld Kaufman had very little education, but she helped support both her brother Ben and her sister Esther through law school. She was, as they say, street smart, and starting with a tiny grocery store on Stagg Street in Brooklyn (my father was born in the back of that store in 1910) she and my grandfather (who had begun living his American dream in 1905 as a pack peddler and then a pushcart peddler, switching from pants to fruit and then finally to that store), went on to own the building, and own another building, until they owned a row of tenements on Ten Eyck Street, and an auto supply store. I have always had the sense that she was the more motivated and canny of the two. (My one memory of Sam Kaufman, who died when I was six was that when we visited he would go into the coat closet and close the door behind him to drink schnapps from the bottle he kept in an overcoat pocket. This fascinated me because it was a closet with a light that went on when you opened the door, and I could see him swigging from the bottle because he didn't close the door all the way when he went in there.) Once when I was perhaps eleven and was sewing a button on a shirt, my father stood over me for a moment, watching, and then he said, "When your grandmother was your age, she had to work for a living doing that all day long." It made a huge impression on me.
Levi: While your book is obviously a work of fiction, you based the courtroom scenes, in which Esther Gottesfeld's testimony is discredited for appearing too rehearsed, on the actual trials of the Triangle owners (readers can learn more about this in David Von Drehle's historical account Triangle: The Fire That Changed America). Did you feel you were skating on the edge of non-fiction with this part of the novel, or any other aspects of the novel? How did you approach the balance between truth and fiction as you were writing Triangle?
Katharine: Although I had read the trial transcript in the Von Drehle book, I wrote the trial chapter in my novel sitting at a desk in Ireland, with no supporting materials of any kind at hand. In that sense, I simply made it up, and I never looked again at any historical documents or records. I was especially focused on the way Max Steuer, the brilliant attorney defending the owners, had neutralized the power and effectiveness, just about nullified the truth and meaning of the testimony altogether, of one key witness, an easily intimidated garment worker whose testimony, while true, was clearly memorized. By forcing her to repeat her testimony twice more, he was able to demonstrate just how memorized her words were. It was a clever strategy that may well have been the turning point for the trial. Given the immense significance that repetition plays in Triangle, from the various iterations of Esther's story to the fundamental way that all music depends on and has a relationship to repetition for its pleasing form, this was something I wanted to appropriate and give to Esther's testimony.
The names of the attorneys and the judge in the trial transcript in my novel are the true names of those people, but since it is the testimony of a fictional character whose experiences, motives, and intentions are all fictional, I never felt that I was any closer to the edge of nonfiction in this chapter than in any other appropriations of the actual events of the Triangle fire. I hope it is evident that I have been respectful of true events and the true experiences of people who were there on March 25th, 1911. In a way, I hope it is clear how much my novel honors those true experiences. At the same time, I am not a historian, and for me it is always about the novel, about serving the fiction, about telling a story. A novelist appropriates facts, but you never want the facts to get in the way of the story.
Levi: I bet many readers were surprised, as I was, to find an experimental musician who uses molecular biology as the basis for his compositions at the core of Triangle. I think this works, but I'm not exactly sure why. Can you shed any light? Would you say that DNA is a significant metaphor in this book?
Katharine: Triangle is a novel about all the ways information comes to us, all the ways history is transmitted. Your history is in your DNA. Your DNA tells your story -- in a certain way. How do you know what you think you know about anything, starting with your own molecular structure?
I have been asked why I put all this music in a novel "about" the Triangle fire. I can only say that the novel was conceived in my mind with this music as an essential and integral part of the story before I wrote a word of it, and that the eway the novel concludes was something I had fully worked out before I had written any of it, as well. The music was always going to be the key that turns in the lock.
Levi: You've mentioned to me another personal source of inspiration for this book, involving your other grandmother. Can you tell us more about this? (Another way of asking this question: Is there a reason your musical genius is named "George"?)
Katharine: Triangle is dedicated to both my grandmothers. In a clear sense, they are both very present as inspirations for the stuff of the novel. My maternal grandmother was the composer Kay Swift, who is probably best known in musical theater circles not for her own work but for her romantic involvement with George Gershwin. I was very close to her, I am named for her, and I am quite involved in all kinds of projects around her music, from works towards reviving her 1930 hit Broadway show "Fine and Dandy" to consulting on a feature film in development about Kay, George, and the complex triangle that was a consequence of her romance with him, given that it occupied the last ten years of her marriage to my grandfather, James Warburg. As I was writing Triangle I was involved in the production of a restoration recording of Fine and Dandy with PS Classsics, in the studio with a 26-piece orchestra and a wonderful cast of Broadway talent. And so while I am actually a musical illiterate, I do spend a certain amount of time in a musical realm, and I know that there was a lot of cross-pollination. The machine shop opening number of "Fine and Dandy" certainly has its echoes in the "Triangle Oratorio" with which the novel concludes.
My composer George Botkin is indeed named after George Gershwin, but he is not based on Gershwin as a personality, his music is not like Gershwin's music, and the relationship between Rebecca and George is nothing like my grandmother's relationship with Gershwin. However, the genius and endlessly imaginative ambition to make new, wonderful music -- that's borrowed from the spirit of Gershwin. The public's confusion with Botkin's music -- is it high or low? The critical suspicion of this inventive music that is so deeply appealing -- that is very directly inspired by the way our culture has never known quite how to locate Gershwin on the high/low continuum. (Let's not forget that Virgil Thompson dismissed so viciously the "gefilte fish orchestration" i n "Porgy and Bess.")
Levi: I really enjoyed the intimate and realistic portrait of a lovingly married couple in post Sept 11 New York City. How do you feel when you hear Triangle described as an example of a "Sept 11 book"?
Katharine: I am pleased by that, because writing indirectly about the events of September 11th seemed like the only solution, and in a way, writing about the events of March 25th, 1911 became a gesture in the direction of September 11th inevitably, like it or not. But the contrast and relationship will be so present and vivid for the reader, it would have been less effective for the novel had I instructed and made that any more literal or obvious. My editor, John Glusman, was very wise about this, counseling me against writing that day into the story. It's there anyway. Even though I wrote the first chapter of Triangle before September 11th, 2001, it can only now be read in a post September 11 world.
Levi: How do you feel about the way Triangle has been received?
Katharine: I have been immensely gratified by the reviewers who really got it. I have been bemused by the readers and occasional reviewers who really didn't get it. In that sense, this is what publication has been like for all four of my novels. I have had a lot of wonderful response for this novel of a kind I have not had in the past, in a commercial sense (Book of the Month and Literary Guild, a large-print edition) to a lot of blog interest, including the Litblog Co-op attention. On the other hand, although my first three novels were New York Times Notable Books, Triangle was never reviewed in The New York Times. But it got wonderful attention on public radio. So -- win some, lose some. Triangle was a finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize and for the John Gardner Fiction Book Award.
One thing that's different with this novel is that I am being read for the first time by readers who don't especially read fiction, who have no interest in literary novels, but they have a lot of interest in fire (fire in general, and the Triangle fire in particular), or Jewish history, or labor history, or New York history, or women's history, or some combination of those things. I hear from a lot of people whose mothers or grandmothers or great aunts worked in the needle trades in New York in the first decades of the 20th century. I don't disagree when a great number of people tell me at readings or in email or mail that their great aunt or grandmother worked at the Triangle but "she didn't feel well and didn't go to work that day," even though there are a lot of reasons this isn't entirely likely. (For one thing, if you didn't go to work at the Triangle because you didn't feel well, you lost your job.)
Firefighters have come to my readings. A number of people who were in the towers on September 11th have come to my readings or written to me to talk about the relationship between my descriptions of Esther's experience and the fire at the Triangle in 1911, and their own weirdly parallel experiences surviving the events of that horrific day.
I will always wonder if Triangle would have been receieved differently, or written about and talked about differently, if it had been written by a man.
Levi: Can you give us a hint what the next Katharine Weber novel will be?
Katharine: I am under contract for my next two books with Harmony, where John Glusman, who edited my last two novels at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is now Executive Editor. My fifth novel, Temper, is about a fourth-generation chocolate candy business in crisis. If I finish it on time, which is my intention, it would presumably be published in 2009. After that comes a memoir, Symptoms of Fiction, so I am thinking about that all the time in the background, and doing a certain amount of reading and note-writing for that as well.
Along with EPMD, this book will bring you memories and surprising factoids from Mobb Deep, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, M. O. P., Beastie Boys, Run-DMC (of course), Biz Markie, Digable Planets, Keith Murray, Das EFX, KRS-One, Cypress Hill, Marley Marl, Redman and Onyx. I got a chance to interview the supreme interviewer myself, and found Mr. Coleman ready to compare notes on many topics relative to the state of hiphop and hiphop poetry today.
Levi: Let's start by focusing here on the lyrical content of the great old school hiphop you profile in your book. Of all the artists you cover, which are the ones you admire most strictly as lyricists? Can you share some examples of hiphop lyrics that mean a lot to you, and tell us why?
Brian: You can't discuss hip-hop music without going into lyrical content, so that's obviously always going to be a big part of any fan's appreciation -- me included. From my own standpoint there are two kinds of lyricists who have always impressed me: (1) MCs who are more straight-forward and have a lot to say and get their points across in a powerful way and, (2) technical MCs who just kick your ass with the complexity of their rhymes. If group #2 also has a lot to say and gets their points across, then that's obviously the ultimate.
From the first group I'll point to Chuck D and Ice-T as two of the ultimate examples. They never tried to get all tongue-twisting or never went for style over substance. They both spoke as much as they rapped (Chuck was just a bit more powerful, mostly because his voice is just so deep and strong), telling tales and speaking their mind. I'd point to a track like Public Enemy's "Don't Believe The Hype" (from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back) and Ice-T's "High Rollers" (from Power) as great examples of how to be a powerful lyricist -- talking to listeners by either telling great stories or just speaking your mind and engaging your audience.
From group #2 you'd have to put Rakim at the top of that list, as a technical, "scientifical" rapper who was incredibly complex but also had so much substance to his rhymes. For example just check out "Follow the Leader" from Eric B & Rakim's second album (Follow the Leader), among many other of his classics. Big Daddy Kane also falls into that category, just below Rakim. "I'll Take You There" from Long Live the Kane is a great case in point.
And the musical portion of any hip-hop track is a huge part, and all of the above had amazing tracks to rhyme over. Without that, they wouldn't be half as classic as they are. You have to have the mix.
Levi: I like it that your book hits on some of the literary connections in hiphop -- the fact that Phife Dawg learned poetry from his mom, the fact that Digable Planets reference Jorge Luis Borges. Do you think hiphop gets the respect it deserves from a literary/poetic point of view? And do you think this is a question that many of the top artists you've spoken to particularly care about, or not?
Brian: Hip-hop lyricists still haven't gotten the poetic respect they deserves, in my opinion. But I don't think that a lot of the top lyricists out there -- people like Rakim, KRS-One, Q-Tip -- really care that they're not accepted as poets in the poetry community. They care that their fans and peers respect them as lyricists. But I definitely think it's due to ignorance in the older academic or poetry community (or whatever term people would use to describe it) if there is that kind of disconnect. A lot of especially older academics seem to have a view of hip-hop like it's just a bunch of thug kids playing loud music and that's the end of it. Which is, of course, ridiculous. Younger poets and academics understand, because they grew up with hip-hop music. And they are the reason that hip-hop studies in academia continue to grow. I challenge any poet out there to go up against Rakim or Sadat X [from Brand Nubian] in a one-on-one a capella showdown, they'd lose. It may not be in the form they're used to, but like it or not, rappers -- at least the most talented ones -- are poets, no way to deny that.
Levi: What was the first hiphop record that grabbed you (and I'm going to disallow "Rapper's Delight" as an answer)? And how did you become involved in hiphop journalism?
Brian: I was only nine when "Rapper's Delight" came out, so I never heard that song until many years after that. And honestly I'm not 100% sure about the first hip-hop record that grabbed me. Unlike a lot of the artists in the book, I don't have that one moment when it all clicked for me in the beginning. My journey into hip-hop was a gradual one. I definitely remember loving the first Run-DMC album and I must have heard "Rock Box" first, and seen the video on MTV, to be drawn to it.
I was also a big fan of one of the most slept-on hip-hop groups of the early-to-mid '80s, the Fat Boys. Their first two records were both very popular and are both pretty amazing, and I loved both of them. Throughout the '80s I just kept paying more and more attention to hip-hop and it became more and more a part of my record collection -- alongside the rock (mostly punk) that I was listening to concurrently.
Regarding my foray into journalism, that was more by accident. It basically boiled down to the fact that I really just wasn't finding enough coverage of hip-hop in Boston media in the mid-'90s, so I took matters into my own hands. There was one guy in town who knew what was up -- Ken Capobianco from the Boston TAB, who still does lots of great work for the Boston Globe. But other than that, it was really sketchy and I thought that was ridiculous. So I just started writing for a local monthly paper called Boston Rock, for free. Covering groups like the Roots when they first started making waves, Organized Konfusion, that kind of stuff. That led to stints with Boston Phoenix, CMJ Weekly, CMJ Monthly and into national hip-hop mags like XXL and Scratch. It's been gradual and random and I've loved every minute of it. Right now I'm a bit bored writing magazine reviews and articles -- books are where I'd like to be. 500-word pieces don't really do it for me anymore.
Levi: Judging from the interviews in your book, it seems that different hiphop artists have widely varying approaches to being interviewed. For instance, I got the feeling that A Tribe Called Quest would have talked to you all day, whereas EPMD didn't seem to want to get too analytical or share too much. What strategies did you use to get the best interviews possible from these artists?
Brian: Actually, I think EPMD would have talked to me for a lot longer, but they were just really busy at the time I did those interviews, especially Erick Sermon. But even despite that, both of those guys gave me a lot of great info and I loved talking to them.
The thing I love about all the chapters in the book is that they each have their own personality. There's no set structure (although most of them are the same -- the Boogie Down Productions one is a notable exception), no set word count. They each just happen like they happen, and the quality of each is determined by how much time I'm able to spend with each artist.
My only real strategy in talking to the artists is really just talking to them person-to-person, on the same level. Not as fan-to-superstar or even journalist-to-interviewee. Of course I'm a fan and a journalist, and a lot of these artists are indeed superstars, but I try and push that to the side whenever I can. Surprisingly, every one of these artists seem to be fine with that.
The way I see it, they've all done way too many interviews in the past that kiss their ass and just stay on the surface, so they all seem to find going in-depth like I try and do a refreshing change. I think that's too bad, that they aren't used to really digging into an interview. But I really have one rule -- I won't talk to artists on their "press days" when they have 10 interviews lined up and they just bang them out one after the other. That's a horrible way to do an interview, although it's obviously a necessity if you're a big, in-demand star. But I'd rather wait a month or two (or more) to get a real interview, rather than take a 15-minute slot.
Levi: Did you feel intimidated by any of these artists? Are there any hiphop artists so great that you would be too nervous to interview them?
Brian: I'd be totally full of shit if I didn't admit to being intimidated by some of these artists at first, just the thought of interviewing them. But not because I'm star-struck, because that's one thing I've never been. It's more because I just have so much respect for them and because their music means so much to me. So people like Chuck D or Ice-T or Rakim definitely got my butterflies going. But not for long ... once things got going that all went away. And, in fact, those guys were some of the most fulfilling interviews I've ever done. That's not surprising, though, because all of them are huge fans of hip-hop, and fans always have great conversations with other fans. That's really the dialogue I'm trying to get going -- to get the artists to, at times, step outside themselves as the artist and look at what they've done on a more objective level. To look at their albums like I look at them, as a fan.
Levi: Finally, if you don't mind I'd like to bounce a theory of my own off you. Obviously, your book pays respect to old school hiphop, but I've been wondering if possibly the current decade, rather than the decades before, will go down in history as the greatest decade for hiphop.
Now, before you tell me I'm crazy, here's the evidence: Jay-Z's Blueprint ... Dre's 2001 ... 50 Cent's first (and only good) album ... D-Block ... Fat Joe ... Mike Jones. Do you think the hiphop of today stands a chance of being remembered as equal to the legendary era, or not? And do you think you'll ever write a book about the hiphop that's on the radio today?
Brian: In my opinion, someone would be treading on thin critical ice by comparing D-Block or 50 Cent with actual hip-hop trailblazers like Public Enemy or Wu-Tang Clan ... I would have to respectfully disagree with anyone that said that the last decade's music can stand up to the innovation and artistry as the groups covered in Check the Technique [1986 - 1996].
And I think it's important to point out one thing: selling great numbers of records doesn't mean you're a great artist. It means that you're making music that people want to buy, for whatever reason. A lot of major label artists, in my opinion, have gotten it in their head that sales are more important than skills. Which is fine if you want to be rich. But don't equate record sales with artistic greatness. De La Soul and Vanilla Ice both went platinum back in the day. Are they both great artists?
On the other side of the coin, the other aspect of what makes artists and albums classics is how much impact they had -- on the industry as a whole, and on the music and artists that came in their wake. Will Mike Jones or Kanye have as much impact as Das Efx or Pete Rock & CL Smooth or the Geto Boys did? Maybe. Ask me in another five or ten years. I hold out hope that some of the stuff coming out today holds up in another five years and ten years. Every artist in Check the Technique does, to me at least. That's why they're in there.
As I've said in other interviews, as far as I can tell, there doesn't seem to be much reward in 2007 in the major label game (aka the stuff people hear on the radio) for being original or being great. In fact, if you want to get on -- or stay on -- a major label, you generally get demerits for being different and going against the grain. Outkast, Timbaland and the Neptunes are exceptions, but they've all had to put up with a lot of bullshit in the industry before they got their current "carte blanche" status. It's probably no surprise that those are the kinds of artists I'm drawn to -- innovators, whether they sell a ton of records or not. When you can innovate and get paid, then that's the best thing possible. I don't have much respect for rich rappers who don't have any real skills.
So ... sorry D-Block or Diplomats or Ying Yang Twins, don't wait around for my call about the next volume or the book. (I'm sure they'll be heartbroken!)
Brian Coleman will be appearing in New York City on August 9 and in Philadelphia (with Q-Tip) on August 18. Check his website for more info.
Bissell is known as a travel writer and his fictional God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories, is a top-notch collection too. He's like a fresh, modern Hemingway. One story from that book, Death Defier, was selected by Michael Chabon for Best American Short Stories 2005.
He also wrote The Father of All Things, in which Bissell accompanies his father, an ex-Marine, to retrace his father's tour of duty through Vietnam.
Tom Bissell is currently doing research for a book about the tombs of the 12 Apostles. I caught up with Tom (by email) when he was in Turkey.
Tom: Hey, Bill--I'm traveling in Turkey right now with only intermittent email access, so it might take me a couple of days to answer these. Sorry! I'll be in touch ASAP...
Bill: What are you doing in Turkey, searching for an Apostle's tomb for your next book?
Tom: I am, indeed. The empty (his body disappeared sometime in the middle ages) tomb of Saint John is in Selcuk, Turkey. Lovely place, actually.
Bill: What advice would you give to anyone who was thinking of joining the Peace Corps?
Tom: A) If you're in a serious relationship, seriously consider the possibility that joining may destroy it. And seriously ponder how much that would bother you. B) Prepare yourself for the possibility that the things you don't think you'll miss, you'll miss, and the things you think you'll miss, you won't miss. C) If you're looking for something extraordinary to happen to you, don't count on it. The most extraordinary things most PCVs experience is other people--both their fellow volunteers and the host-country nationals they meet and befriend. Peace Corps does its best work, I believe, on a one-on-one basis. It may not change cultures or save nations, but it definitely changes individual lives.
Bill: When you stood on the former floor of the Aral Sea, were you concerned about radiation or chemical poisoning?
Tom: Not overly, but it's funny you should ask. I now test positive on every tuberculosis test I'm given, because I now carry the bacilli of the disease in my blood. It's never become symptomatic (and, thus, contagious) but it's a little gift from having spent so much time in the Aral Sea basin, home to one of the world's worst TB epidemics.
Bill: In Chasing the Sea you describe how Stalin artificially created countries by dividing Central Asia into Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajik, etc. Would it be accurate to say that the act of designating these territories as countries encouraged them to feel autonomous?
Tom: I try to address this a bit in the book. Historically speaking, these places never had national understandings of themselves, so when the Soviets came along and created these boundaries, I don't think a national consciousness happened right away. That took at least a generation. There were some Uzbek intellectuals who thought of themselves as belonging to a new nationality, but most of them were committed Communists, so there was no lunge for autonomy. Even when the Soviet Union was falling to pieces, all of the Central Asian states resisted breaking away.
Bill: You seem familiar, and somewhat sympathetic, with the evangelical Christian type who goes out into the world and discovers that reality, people, and even themselves, are more complicated than what they learned in Sunday school. Any personal experience along those lines?
Tom: No, not at all. I haven't had a religious bone in my body since I was at most 17. But I'm fascinated by religion and, yes, the religious, and I'd like to think my own (by now) pretty extensive reading into religious history and religious texts has given me some familiarity with the caves and crags of the deeply Christian brain. And I would say I'm empathetic to my Christian characters, but not at all sympathetic, as I've seen the missionary work they do in Central Asia tear too many families apart. But I do think the shock of first experiencing a place such as Uzbekistan translated, for me, into something like a religious crisis: the world you thought you knew and understood is torn away from you, and you're stuck howling in this strange new void. So that sense of loss and confusion is definitely transferable.
Bill: Did you ever write that essay, "Some Notes on an Abandoned Novel" that you mentioned to Robert Birnbaum when he interviewed you?
Tom: I never did, actually, and wound up incorporating a lot of my abandoned novel notes into the book proposal I wrote for my new book about the apostles, since the novel I abandoned was about one of the twelve apostles (John, in fact). But I think I'll be giving a lecture one of these years at Bennington (where I teach in the low-residency MFA program) about the necessity of giving up on projects at a certain point. I think people don't abandon things often enough. The world could be saved a good deal of mediocre books if people just scrapped them and started over again. The counter argument is a book like Franzen's The Corrections, which any sane person would have scrapped after the the five-year mark of struggling, but, as history now knows, he didn't--and thank god for that.
Bill: To what extent is the internet available in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and neighboring countries?
Tom: I haven't been to Central Asia since 2003, but back then there were plenty of Internet cafes that offered minimally censored web access, though in Uzbekistan at least I believe this access has been tightened considerably.
Bill: Reading Chasing the Sea reminded me that history seems to be one long, violent land-grab, right up to and including our present time. I was reading earlier today about Gene Roddenberry's dream of world peace. Do you think it's possible, or do countries simply pretend, for the sake of the media, that they want peace, when they really want to keep grabbing land?
Tom: Man, you're asking the wrong guy on this one. I think land is really no longer a motivating force for a lot of conflict in the last decades. Much of that has characterized war since, say, the 1970s has been mainly ideological. Will there ever be world peace? I have my doubts, but I do think the world will probably be a lot more peaceable someday, probably after some horrible conflagration that makes us all -- at least, those of us who are still alive -- sickened by the prospect of pressing a button capable of erasing an entire culture. Mechanized war is probably over, by and large. Ideological, terrorist-driven war--that seems to be what we and our children will face, and if we can't figure out a way to fight such wars without playing into the hands of the terrorists themselves, it will be a long, long century.
Well, not with Jews like Michael Chabon around it's not. I'm fascinated by the fact that this quirky writer has somehow made Yiddish buzzworthy in 2007 with his acclaimed new novel The Yiddish Policeman's Union. I'm drawn to this book, even though I have mixed feelings about Chabon's execution of the concept. Maybe that's just because I can't help having high expectations for a book like this.
Sarah Weinman has high expectations too, since she happens to be a native Yiddish speaker. This gives her a unique perspective on Chabon's outsider's vision of the Yiddish-speaker's world. Many Yiddish speakers bristle at Chabon's condescending use of the language as comic metaphor, Weinman points out. She's also not satisfied by the novelist's felicity with the language:
"... even though I enjoyed the book, I couldn't quite shake the inborn expectations I had in hoping somehow that there would be a more living, breathing personification of a Yiddish-speaking homeland instead of the more ersatz, mainstream-friendly result that is winning Chabon a lot of praise from my critical peers."
My own gripe with the book? I can't go for that movie-set noir pastiche. You've got to be Paul Auster to pull this mystery mood off, and Michael Chabon strikes me as more of a bush-league Jonathan Lethem in the genre territory.
And yet the book's concept fascinates me, and I keep browsing the pages, tempted to dive back in. Perhaps I will. I've always known about the power of modern-era Yiddish writers, from the gentle evergreen humorist Leo Rosten to the awe-inspiring Isaac Bashevis Singer, who I had the honor of taking a class with at Albany State. I love his stories, but my all-time favorite piece of Yiddish-oriented literature is a work of fiction written in English: Envy, or Yiddish In America by the formidable Cynthia Ozick.
In this acidic story, Ozick the bespectacled battle-axe out-Bellows Saul Bellow with a bitter but hilarious portrait of a raging Yiddish writer and translator apoplectic with fury at the fact that another Yiddish-writing associate of his (said to be based on Isaac Bashevis Singer himself) has just become a smashing literary success. It's not clear which infuriates the story's hero more, the fact that Yiddish is dying or the fact that a different Yiddish writer has just hit the jackpot.
It's true that I. B. Singer was a superstar in Yiddish circles. When I came back from college and told my Grandma Clara and Aunt Rose about my class with the unforgettable Nobel laureate they were both impressed, and Aunt Rose told me that Singer's assumed middle name is an inside joke, because "Bashevis" means "Mamma's boy" (I never knew if she was making this up or not, but now I see that, according to Wikipedia, Aunt Rose knew her stuff).
Grandma Clara's younger son turned out to be my father (oh, you haven't heard that story?), who never took an interest in Yiddish as far as I know, but he has a friend from Brooklyn College named Al Grand who has made a name for himself translating Gilbert and Sullivan plays into Yiddish (his recent version of Pirates of Penzance is a hit).
It happens that Sarah Weinman wrote about Al Grand's comments on a previous Michael Chabon/Yiddish controversy in her blog post above, which just goes to prove how small this yiddische world is. Inspired by Sarah's article, I couldn't resist the chance to ask Al Grand some of my own questions, and to enjoy hearing about this language -- the language of my own heritage, though I know nothing about it -- from someone with a lot of knowledge to share.
Yiddish seems to be in the air these days. Why do you think that is?
There are so many organizations, writers, entertainers, etc. who are passionate about keeping Yiddish alive and who are working assiduously towards that endeavor that it would take a large book to answer this questions adequately. But I could do worse than to begin with The National Yiddish Book Center a vibrant, non-profit organization working to rescue Yiddish books and celebrate the culture they contain. Supported by 30,000 members, they are now the largest and fastest-growing Jewish cultural organization in America. Then there's Mendele - a moderated mailing list dedicated to the lively exchange of views, information, news and just about anything else related to the Yiddish language and Yiddish literature. Mendele has world wide subscribers who explore every conceivable topic related to Yiddish. Yiddish courses are taught in colleges throughout the world. A four-week Summer Program in Yiddish was begun in Oxford, England in 1982 and transferred to Vilnius in 1998. Since then, Vilnius University has been home to this highly praised university-accredited course in Yiddish language and culture. In 2001, the course became an integral component of the new Vilnius Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University. Yearly, it has drawn participants from as many as nineteen countries across the globe. A large number are university students; overall, however, the most varied backgrounds, pursuits, and professions are represented. As I said -- I can go on for the length of a book but I'll stop here.
Do you consider yourself an expert in the language?
The majority of Jews in the USA and approximately half of the 3 million Jews in Israel plus a substantial number of French, British, Russian, Argentinian Jews are Ashkenazi Jews of central or eastern European origin who share a religious subculture with Yiddish as its lingua franca. I am not a Yiddish expert in the sense of being academically trained. Also -- Yiddish is not my native tongue -- so in that regard I am also not an expert. However -- I grew up in a household wherein both of my parents, whose native tongue was Yiddish, spoke it constantly. I absorbed it very naturally. I am basically self-taught through the use of Weinreich's Yiddish/English -- English/Yiddish wonderful dictionary as well as his College Yiddish. I also own and consult Mordkhe Shchaechter's Yiddish Tsvey, Dovid Katz's Grammar of the Yiddish Language and numerous collections of Yiddish poetry, novels, proverbs, music, etc.
Have you read Chabon's book and do you have any opinions on it?
I have not read Chabon's book -- but I understand that he has a limited background in the Yiddish language.
I've always heard that Yiddish is a mash-up of Hebrew and German, but when I see it it seems more German than Hebrew to me. Am I missing something?
Although most of Yiddish vocabulary is from ancient German -- still about a fourth or so of the vocabulary is from Hebrew. Take the three words in the title of my piece DI YAM GAZLONIM. The only Germanic element therein is "Di". The word "YAM" means "ocean" both in Hebrew and in Yiddish. And "GAZLONIM" is the plural of "GAZLEN" which means "robber" both in Hebrew and in Yiddish. Thus "DI YAM GAZLONIM" means, word for word "the sea robbers" or in more graceful English "the robbers of the sea". Historically Yiddish stems from medieval German so it retains many of the medieval elements of the German language that no longer exist in modern German. Thus German linguists who specialize in old German studies are interested in doing scholarly studies of Yiddish.
Where do you think Yiddish studies will be 100 years from now?
My hope is that it should continue to live. But prophecy is not one of my strengths.
Can you quote a couple of favorite verses from your Yiddish "Penzance" for us to enjoy? Naturally "Major General" comes to mind but I'd leave it to you to select verses you like.
(breaking into song)
"Ikh bin der Groyser General un ikh bin oykh a guter Yid"
Ikh gey oysrekhnen yetst mayne ale mayles in a Yiddish lid,
Ikh hob a klugn kop un ikh farshtey Einstein's teoriye,
Ikh ken dertseyln ales fun der gantse velt historiye,
Kh'bin zeyer gut bakant mit ale mayses fun de Maupassant,
Ikh tants, un zing, un makh a shpas - ikh bin a mentsh mit groys talant,
Ikh ken gut bakn lekekh un ikh veys fun fotografia-
Ikh ken gut shisn un ikh hob nit moyre far der Mafia!
Ikh lern gut Gemorah un mit Toyre bin ikh gut bakant,
Un alemol bay tog un nakht halt ikh dem sider in der hant
In kurtzn vil ikh zogn aykh ven ikh farendik shoyn mayn lid,
Ikh bin a Groyser General un ikh bin oykh a guter Yid!
Ikh bin a talmid khokhim un an opera zinger bin ikh oykh,
Der "Barber fun Seville" ken ikh gut zingen mit mayn shtime hoykh,
A khale ken ikh bakn un a lokshn kugl makh ikh fayn,
Ikh makh a kiddish erev Shabos un gey glaykh in shul arayn.
In shul ken ikh gut davenen un leynen toyre ken ikh oykh,
Un chiken zup mit kneydlakh es ikh biz es tut mir vey der boykh,
Ikh kokh a Purim tsimes un makh latkes yedn Khanike "anike","lanike","panike", A-HA!
Kh'ken tantsn gut a "hora" un ikh shpil af der "harmonica"
How would one say "Literary Kicks" in Yiddish?
"Literarishe Klep". Note that every "a" is pronounced "ah".
Literarishe Klep says thanks to Al Grand for an interesting interview and a great Yiddish "Major General".
The cavernous beaux-arts building, clad in stone, steel and glass, was demolished in 1964 to make room for a plain modernist complex including an underground train station, a skyscraper and Madison Square Garden. The travesty of this loss is the subject of a heartfelt children's book, Old Penn Station, written and illustrated by William Low. The author's lush and warm paintings pay tribute to the lost architectural masterpiece by imagining them back into being. I got a chance to ask William a few questions about Old Penn Station recently.
Have you gotten a good response to this book? Are you surprised by any of the reactions?
I've had a terrific response to the book, especially with the artwork. The book took over three years to complete, so I am naturally proud of the way that it came out. However, I am surprised by the emotional response to the book. The building was torn down forty years ago and yet the outpouring of sadness and anger continues to amaze me.
Do you think this book appeals differently to New Yorkers and non- New Yorkers?
At first, I'd say yes, especially if the reader is a New Yorker who remembers the original Penn Station or has visited its crowded, underground replacement. For non-New Yorkers, I hope that the art will draw them into the story.
But I hope that this book will not be perceived as a New York book, because Penn Station really is a symbol of a broader change in America. Many believe that the destruction of Penn Station was in part, a result of changing times and attitudes during the 50's and 60's. During this age of the suburban house, many cities suffered when its middle-class residents moved out of the city. Long distance rail travel also suffered when travel by plane became affordable. This had a direct effect on cities and railroad terminals on a national scale.
What words would you use to describe the architectural vision of the old Penn Station? (note: I know you describe it in "kid-speak" in the book, but how would you describe the visual/artistic appeal in "grownup-speak"?
Grandeur comes to mind. That's something that adults can understand. But my focus is really on the child's perspective, and I would imagine that the station must have been an imposing, scary place because of its size. Converting this massive architectural space into a kid friendly place was tricky ... and I decided to focus on light and the effects of the changing light instead, to make it less imposing, more magical.
Are you a "train freak"? Do you find that trains and train stations have always been a big part of your sensibility, or is it just that there is something special about Penn Station?
My father had a Chinese hand laundry in the Bronx next to the elevated number 6 Pelham train. I used to sit for hours by the front of the store reading comics, drawing and watching the train go by. I guess that makes me a "train freak." When I was in high school, I had a part time job in a store in Grand Central Terminal and I fell in love with this space.
This was during the mid-70's, when the homeless slept in the Terminal's waiting room and it was a pretty scary place at night. The financially strapped Penn Central Railroad wanted to overturn the Terminal's Landmark status, to clear the way for its development and possible demolition. Protestors (including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) stopped traffic on Park Avenue South, determined to save Grand Central Terminal from the fate of Penn Station. That was the first time that I heard about this station and upon further research, I rediscovered the original Pennsylvania Station and my heart was broken by its loss.
Do you think the proposed relocation of Penn Station in the Farley Post Office across the street will be a success? Are you excited about it, or do you have mixed feelings about this attempt to replace what was lost?
I have mixed feelings about this project for a number of reasons. I don't know if the new station will ever be built, given the cost and size of the project. Of course, I welcome any change and I would even tolerate the inconvenience during this new construction. But the Farley Bulding is on Eighth Avenue; the station will go further west. That extra block makes a big difference in terms of accessibility, convenience and ease of use.
What are some of your favorite works of classical architecture in New York City that have not been torn down?
Grand Central Terminal is at the top of the list. I just love the restoration and the attention to detail. As a Long Island commuter, I am jealous that we do not get to pass by this incredible station on a daily basis.
What are some of your favorite train stations in cities other than New York?
I've been to the magnificent Amtrak station in Philadelphia and the Union Station in Washington D.C. is also terrific. One day, I'd love to visit the large train stations in Europe.
You can see more of William Low's work at his website. You may recognize his richly expressive painting style if you've ever seen the classic Penguin paperback series of John Steinbeck novels for which he once painted a series of evocative and memorable covers.
But it's his own city that brings out this author's deepest convictions, and Old Penn Station stands as a personal statement about the importance of great public artwork for young growing minds. William Low will be signing copies of this book at Books of Wonder in New York City on Saturday, May 19 (information can be found on on the store's website).
This is the work of The Movement Group, a very original dance troupe founded by a young woman named Aynsley Vandenbroucke. She conceived and choreographed this 50-minute work, which begins tensely as Dawn Springer, Djamila Moore and Kristen Warnick take tentative steps around a wide floor, muttering the poem's opening lines, "Let us go then, you and I." Typing paper appears as the first symbolic element, as the dancers box themselves in with stacks of blank pages and try fitfully to sleep, until one of them has a burst of inspiration and sends a jet of white papers flying into the air. But moods change again, and they sadly sweep the mess up, embarrassed. Two of the dancers engage in a hilarious dual-voiced pastiche while spinning coffee cups, and eventually the three dancers curl up like crabs, become old, turn into crashing waves and then into spinning mermaids, attempt to hug and touch each other, and finally find peace, falling asleep in three separate spots on the floor.
I am no expert in modern dance, but I found the experience dazzling. I got a chance to ask Aynsley Vandenbroucke a few questions about this work in an email interview this week:
Where did the idea come from? Have other choreographers done work like this?
Well, actually someone (Ariane Anthony) created a dance/theater piece based on "Prufrock" a few years ago. I didn't get to see it, but her work is really interesting. I was annoyed when I found out she was doing it, because I'd had this piece in mind for a few years. For a while, I thought I shouldn't go ahead and make mine because she'd just done one. But then this year, I realized I really needed to make it. And that it would be my own take and style anyways.
Another choreographer I can think of is Alexandra Beller. I think she did a piece related to Sartre's "No Exit". I can't think of other pieces in dance that are built around particular poems or existing works of writing, but I'm sure they exist.
Working on this piece also brought home strong similarities between the art forms of poetry and modern dance. I felt like they're both working with images and essences in a way that is very experiential and not necessarily linear. I think that way of working is the beauty of both forms and also what sometimes makes them hard for new audiences.
Can you tell me about your own personal encounter with T. S. Eliot's poem?
I first read the poem senior year in high school. We had to memorize and recite a few lines for the class. At the time, I thought the memorizing assignment was silly. But then the poem really stayed in my head... I would find myself repeating lines and thinking about it regularly. When I think back on it, it was a lovely poem to have people read as they're about to leave home and high school. It was a time when we were all asking questions, wondering what to do with our lives, how to find meaning.
The poem has always touched me deeply. Here is this man experiencing the nuances and concerns that I feel. They're not so wierd or unusual and they're not made pretty in a fake way. I've always been particularly pierced by the lines about "one turning her head should say, 'That is not what I meant at all, that is not it at all'." This human (and artistic) experience of trying to share what is inside, to be met.
When I first heard that your piece dramatized Eliot's poem with three women dancers, I was wondering what role gender would play. Of course, Eliot's poem is about a man who sees women as somewhat alien -- and yet in your poem it seems the women *are* T. S. Eliot (or, to be more precise, they are J. Alfred Prufrock). Was this gender switch part of the meaning of the work, for you, or was it an incidental choice?
My company is generally all women, just because that's the way it's worked out, not for any particular statement. I too was curious how we would deal with these beautiful young women being parts of Prufrock. At the same time, what I wanted to explore was human experiences that I think transcend gender. I've always related to Prufrock and I've always read his concerns as more universal, fundamental than being about a particular man relating, trying to relate to a woman. We had some interesting discussions in rehearsal about Eliot and his relationship with women. But again, I felt that what he is getting to in the poem is much bigger.
I understand that you are involved in Buddhism (as I am as well, and as T. S. Eliot was too). Do you see "Prufrock" as in any sense a Buddhist-themed work, a meditation upon "desire", and did this play a role in your conceptualizing of the dance?
Yes! For me "Prufrock" is deeply related to a Buddhist focus on awareness of life and death. If I am aware of the preciousness of my life and that it is going to end, I want to make sure I spend every minute of it taking advantage of being alive. Prufrock seems aware of time slipping away and yet he is not quite able to take charge of how he is going to spend it. I find myself constantly checking in during my every day life. Am I worrying about parting my hair? Am I worrying about eating a peach? Is this the way I want to spend my life? If I've only got a short amount of time, how do I want to spend it and what kinds of risks make it worth living?
I've written elsewhere on LitKicks about The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. We each have our own favorite poems in the world; this is mine. In fact, the only other poem I like nearly as much is Eliot's later, longer The Waste Land, which has much in common with Prufrock (both deal with the dread of sexual intimacy, both are "purgative" works infused with nearly pathological honesty, and both personify human beings as cities, and cities as human beings).
If Aynsley Vandenbroucke and her talented dancers ever decide to take on The Waste Land, I'll be there on opening night. Till then, try to catch this show while you can.
I'm in the Brooklyn home of Danny Simmons, artist, novelist, poet and creator of HBO's groundbreaking Def Poetry. Danny's living room is like an art gallery -- no, it's like three art galleries all packed together in one room, and the good-natured eclectic chaos I see around me reminds me of the welcoming attitude of the long-running TV show I'm here to ask Danny about.
Danny doesn't seem to care if anybody thinks of him as a media mover-and-shaker or not, but the facts speak for themselves: the only successful TV show about poetry ever created has just begun its sixth season on HBO. But Def Poetry wasn't born from a business plan or a power-lunch napkin sketch. It grew and evolved out of a nucleus of Danny's friends, who would gather and perform open mic's at art galleries (visual art seems to be Danny's original passion) in the early 1990's.
I've been chatting with Susan Winters Smith, a long-time friend and patient of the controversial late psychiatrist portrayed as the near-crazy "Doctor Finch" in Augusten Burroughs's Running With Scissors. I wanted to ask some questions about the real-life doctor, who died in 2000 and is now being played by Brian Cox in a fairly successful movie version of the book.
Susan is currently working with an agent on her own book deal regarding Doctor Rodolph Turcotte of Northampton, Massachusetts, so I appreciated her taking the time to tell me about her own personal experience with this difficult-to-understand figure.
The events portrayed in Running With Scissors took place in Northampton, a university town surrounding Smith College (where Sylvia Plath was once a student). The doctor had many friends and ran a thriving practice, but he was also fairly famous around town for his emphatically non-conformist ways. He would cover himself with balloons and parade through town for the appreciation of fatherhood, for instance. On the darker side, according to Burroughs's memoir, he was a crazily permissive super-patriarch who ruled an impossibly disorganized and filthy household that amounted to a 24-hour nonstop id-fest. Burroughs also alleges numerous financial and sexual abuses (any many lawsuits and private settlements have ensued since the publication of the book).
A memorial website for Doctor Turcotte can be easily found, as well as a humble and attractive poetry website for Augusten's mother, Margaret Robison (and, of course, Augusten Burroughs has a website too). Each of these sources describe utterly different views of the kaleidoscope, so it was refreshing for me to be able to ask Ms. Smith some basic questions.
Who was Rodolph Turcotte?
He was an innovator in family therapy, a Jungian with a great interest in synchronicity and the spiritual aspects of the human psyche. He believed that mental illness was a result of an interruption in the growth process, and that growth was accomplished through relationships. When his patients had no supportive family relationships, he would bring people into his own family.
He was always a top scholar, served his country in WWII and Korea, and was honorably discharged as a Captain in the US Air Force. He was also a concerned social and political activist, a peace activist who wrote hundreds of letters-to-the-editor, and was outspoken on every issue that concerned him, sometimes incurring the wrath of people in positions of power.
He believed that he was guided by God, and he followed that Divine Guidance wherever it led.
The book and movie paint a damning picture, portraying him as a con-man with horrifying personal habits. Is this treatment fair?
Was Augusten Burroughs unfair? I make no attempt to get into his mind. I cannot testify as to whether he actually believes what he wrote. All I can say is that my memory, and that of many others who were there, is significantly different than his.
What about the alleged eccentric housekeeping, the horrible unsanitary filth that all the members of the household somehow seemed to thrive in?
Eccentric housekeeping? There were a lot of people in that house, and it was "lived in". If the sink was piled with dirty dishes (as mine often is), it didn't last long. People pitched in and kept it quite acceptable. I never ever saw it as it was portrayed in the movie.
From about 1973 to 1990, the house was always full of activity, with creative interesting people involved in fascinating projects, and relating to each other in an atmosphere of free verbal expression.(Any form of physical violence was forbidden). On a Sunday, when Doc invited everyone in for Pot Luck dinners, there would be doctors, lawyers, professors, musicians, mathematicians, all interacting, brainstorming, arguing. It was inspirational. Of course (as you may know), a psychiatrist's family could be quite adept at adopting the language of the psychoanalyst and teasing each other about being "anal" or "projecting" their own sins onto another. Alcohol, drugs and sexual promiscuity was extremely discouraged in that household. Those were not advocated as creative outlets.
He did not believe in keeping a patient to the 45 minute hour. He rarely prescribed drugs, and I would not say that he believed in sexual permissiveness.
What can you tell me about his wife, "Agnes"?
Mrs. Claire Turcotte, who celebrated 50 years of marriage to the doctor before his death, is a marvelous woman who, in my opinion, in no way resembles "Agnes" in Burroughs tale. She was not a weakling, sitting around eating dog food. She was a very strong woman who had no problem asserting herself with anyone, especially her husband, with whom she had many philosophical differences. She helped him care for many people over the years, and was dubbed "the Red Carpet Lady" for her graciousness. She always offered a cup of coffee, a sandwich, and a shoulder to cry on. She never watched horror movies, but did like documentaries and investigative reports. In her younger days she was a champion tennis player. Later in life she sang with the local Young at Heart chorus.
She is 87, and in a protected situation watched over by her children.
What about the kids?
They were, and are, very intelligent and talented people. One is a neuroscientist, one is a graduate of Mt. Holyoke and Smith, one went to the Boston Conservatory of Music, one graduated from UMass in Art and English, one is a professional singer, and another is a very talented writer and artist. They were affected in many ways by the community disapproval of their father. Most of his biological children sided with his wife in wanting him to be the establishment doctor and play by all the rules, which of course he would not do. Yet, they all loved him, and had some appreciation for his idealism also. June ["Hope"] was his strongest supporter.
How did you meet him?
My husband and I sought out Doctor Turcotte for some marriage counseling in 1975, at the urging of another couple who was seeing him. We became good friends with him and his family, participated in several of his projects, and learned a great deal about families and relationships. We raised our three children to be strong, healthy people, and took in nieces and nephews and a handicapped uncle, and continue to support strong family relationships with all of our brothers and sisters and their families. We expect to remain happily married for the rest of our days.
Did the doctor realize how eccentric he was? Did he ever have doubts about his methods, or regrets about some of the things that went so wrong around him?
Doc did have a couple of regrets ... for some of his outspokenness over the years. Knowing that repressing his anger could cause cardiac stress, he allowed his anger free expression, and a couple of times he forgot to size up his adversary beforehand. There were times when he looked back and wished he'd done some things differently, yes. He admitted to having made some mistakes with his kids and wished he had been more aware in that area.
He once fell in love with a patient, and though he never regretted the feeling, he often said later that he was embarrassed by his own foolishness in that matter, acting like a silly school boy. He quoted his old mentor Dr. Elvin Semrad who said that "Falling in love is the only socially acceptable psychosis".
When Doc was being questioned by the Hearing Officer of the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine, he allowed himself some angry outbursts in the board r oom, not realizing at the time that this man was the sole decision maker in the case, and held Turcotte's license in his hands. For many years he regretted not having educated himself as to the actual workings of the board.He had assumed that he was being judged by a panel of his peers and not by one man.
The Doctor did not regret his outside-the-box methodology, as he felt that that box was too restrictive, and unhealthy. He felt that the whole system that we live in was not functioning in a healthy way...too much crime, mental illness, etc., mostly as a result of the lack of what he defined as "fathering", healthy emotional growth through relationships.
Did he have doubts? He suffered from periodical depressions. He believed that these depressions were reactive to his life circumstances and not part of a bi-polar disorder. When he came out of them he was stronger and more creative than ever. He frequently reality tested and re-examined all of his beliefs and theories, and would reassert their validity.
He did occasionally trust people that perhaps he should not have. I sometimes thought him naive in that, but he insisted that he had to trust in the goodness of people. Of course he got burned. Some thought that taking mentally ill people into his family was pure folly, and there were two who turned on him, perhaps with transference of rage, and ultimately brought about his loss of license.
Did you have doubts when he was your doctor? Or when you read Running With The Scissors?
Burroughs, whom I knew as Christopher Robison, did not cause me any doubts about the Doctor's theories or methods. I was there. I knew the story.
Yes, I had doubts on and off from the beginning of my family's relationship with the Doctor. I may have been the Doctor's worst skeptic. I made him prove everything to me, and I observed human nature myself, and I put his teachings into practice and saw them work. My husband and I have helped many people with these methods.
Is Dr. Turcotte in some sense an example of 60's/70's pop psychology gone amok? This was the age of I'm OK, You're OK, R. D. Laing, Gestalt, Psychology Today, Dr. Spock. In a sense I see Dr. Turcotte as an extremist outgrowth of this cultural phenomenon. Am I on to something here?
Well, when he was interning in OBGYN he gave every patient of his a copy of Dr. Spock's book. And, yes, he was a liberal.
Thanks to Susan Winters Smith for a very interesting conversation!
Suffice it to say, Matthew Pearl stands alone at an intersection between popular fiction and literary history. He might be compared to Dan Brown, but unlike Dan Brown he takes academic research seriously and works hard to earn the respect of the experts in his fields. His work also hints at complex psychological themes, and it's no coincidence that the writers he illuminates in his imaginary plots are among the darkest voices in the history of literature.
The young author's second novel is The Poe Shadow, a fictional and near-dreamlike spin through mid-18th Century Baltimore and Paris in the aftermath of Edgar Allan Poe's sudden death. Like The Dante Club, the new novel presents literary history in a genre setting to very pleasing effect, and is generating heated reviews and much attention from readers.
I had a chance to ask Matthew Pearl a few questions in an ongoing email interview. We talked about Poe, Dante, history and fiction, and Pearl offered some controversial ideas about how literary criticism is practiced in our time.
ASHER: There is a general perception that Edgar Allan Poe was an uncontrollable alcoholic with a self-destructive streak. Your book leads a reader to believe that this is entirely untrue. Are you convinced that the popular conception of Poe's troubled life and death are wrong?
PEARL: Poe was self-destructive but not entirely, and his drinking was far more complicated than people (scholars and public) usually want it to be. We tend to de-historicize, and superimpose our own experiences on the past. We drink, and we understand the difference between "having a drink" and "getting drunk." Between 1840-1850 (Poe dies in 1849), American males drank more alcohol -- undiluted with any water, mind you! -- than anytime in our history before or since. To whatever extent Poe was obliged to drink, the minimum expected of an adult male would be frighteningly large, and Poe clearly could not handle even a small amount of alcohol. This does not mean there were not times when he actively drank too much, he admitted he did, but the idea of Poe as Bohemian drunk, as a pre-Jim Morrison, seems to me all wrong. The actual documentary evidence points to Poe being hardly able to drink a minimum amount of alcohol, rather than someone who drank to excess.
There are other health issues that may have impacted Poe's drinking, and his behavior generally, and these still need sorting out. I hope readers of The Poe Shadow might consider resetting their ideas about Poe just a bit. Even if one concludes Poe was an alcoholic (and I don't, obviously), it is important, at least, to see it was something Poe fought against, not something he embraced. Again, there are interesting questions to ask ourselves. Why are we so anxious for Poe to be drunk? Do we want to believe that only someone intoxicated could write what he wrote? Does that rationalize our desire to drink, or let us "explain" Poe's writing in an easy way?
ASHER: You're presenting a vision of Poe as a purer writer -- devoted to his admittedly spooky and disturbing craft but capable of separating his life from it. Where do you think most academics and Poe experts stand on this question? Have you caught any flak for this book yet?
PEARL: Poe experts are pretty accustomed to a range of opinions about Poe. Scholars have actually been supportive of the book and my research. My findings about Poe's death will actually be published in the academic journal, Edgar Allan Poe Review.
ASHER: You seem to have managed a difficult balance here. In one sense, your books seem similar to Dan Brown's in that they are entertaining works of historical fiction. But nobody (as far as I know) takes Dan Brown seriously as a historian. As you continue to become more well-known as a novelist, are you concerned that this balance may become harder to maintain?
PEARL: I do not know that it would be a function of being well-known or not. As with my fiction writing, if I am proud of my scholarship then I feel satisfied. I cannot control what anyone else thinks. I also hope to write nonfiction books, and have no plans to write exclusively one type of book.
ASHER: How did you become a writer?
PEARL: I guess I became a novelist by accident. I was in law school and reluctant to be a lawyer, in part because I didn't feel that I was good at most of it (though there were areas I found interesting, and still do, from an academic and historical point of view). I played around with a "chapter" of The Dante Club one night in my apartment in New Haven -- at that point, the book was just a storyline in my head. I read it over. I thought "Well, this isn't bad at all!" It probably was bad. I don't think I have those test pages because my computer crashed at some point and they wouldn't resemble anything in the novel (they dealt with the characters discovering George Washington Greene, their elder member, stuck in ice in the mountains, if I remember correctly).
That night -- or over the course of a couple of days -- working on those test pages made me a fiction writer, in retrospect. I was too timid to tell anyone when I started writing the book. It just grew and grew into a project that could have been pretty destructive to me -- really, I should have been working on my law stuff. I had no reason to think I could pull it off well, and certainly no right to think that I could find an agent, a publisher, etc. It wasn't a very rational decision, looking back.
ASHER: There are shades of Quentin Clark [the main character in The Poe Shadow, and a reluctant lawyer] in this comment -- is Quentin Clark Matthew Pearl?
PEARL: Sure, there are some coincidences, or non-coincidences. Quentin is a better lawyer than I would have been, though.
ASHER: In your two novels, The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow, you have depicted not two but three distinct literary worlds: Dante in Florence, the Transcendentalists in Boston, and Poe in Baltimore. Are Poe and Dante your two favorite writers, as the evidence would suggest?
PEARL: Well, yes, they are two writers that have been meaningful to my reading and life. Of course, writing these novels made me feel more engaged with both.
ASHER: You hint at a rivalry between Poe and, if I remember correctly, Longfellow. Can you shed some light about this? Since you portray both very favorably, I wonder where you stand on the matter yourself (whatever exactly the matter is, or was).
PEARL: Poe accused Longfellow of plagiarism. It became something of a sensation in the literary world because of the fight that followed. This was more or less a publicity stunt, though it got such negative publicity it backfired on Poe, as with most business decisions. Longfellow stayed out of it, for the most part, but his friends fought back against Poe. The fight was a stand-in for many other things, including Boston's rivalry with New York.
ASHER: Very inte resting ... and, in your opinion, was Longfellow actually a plagiarist? If you were a lawyer and this case was going to court, whose side would you prefer to argue -- Poe's or Longfellow's?
PEARL: No, Longfellow was not a plagiarist anymore than any of us are for using the English language (Poe's main complaint). What an interesting thought -- a court case between the two sides! I suppose Poe's side would be more interesting, but Longfellow's side is the winning one.
ASHER: Dante Club inspired me to read Inferno for the first time. I was quite fascinated, but at the same time I find Dante's single-mindedness frustrating. I certainly feel the power of his work, but I am confused when I hear Dante compared to, say, Shakespeare -- it seems to me that Shakespeare had a much broader range. Can you fill me in on the source of your deep connection to Dante?
PEARL: Dante is broad in a different way, with the range of his topics rather than stories or styles. Dante's fame is based on a single work, of course, as opposed to Shakespeare's range. It's the depth of Dante that's so remarkable. He is relentless in his insistence on the importance of his poem, and somehow this infects readers who otherwise wouldn't care about many of the topics -- at least some readers.
ASHER: I think that's a great point -- I noticed as well that admirers of Dante's work often talk about the force of Dante's personality, and about the travails of his life. Would it be far to say that both Dante and Poe were literary celebrities in their own time? Is there something about the concept of literary celebrity that particularly interests you?
PEARL: I am very interested by literary celebrity, and both Dante and Poe experienced it in some degree. Or, in Poe's case, he aimed for literary celebrity and never quite achieved it. In his own lifetime, he was more of a literary anti-celebrity, the guy who today would be on Page Six for fighting with an author more respected than he is. The guy whose achievements were bogged down by rumors and apparently strange antics. Longfellow was more genuinely a celebrity. People would stop him in the streets, particularly in his later years. Imagine that today, a poet stopped in the streets! It was also common for writers like Longfellow to have their autographs cut out of letters and sold, or even their signatures forged and sold. I use this in a few scenes in The Dante Club because that just seems so proto-eBay.
ASHER: I also delved further into Poe after reading The Poe Shadow -- I had never read the Dupin mysteries before, and I was shocked to discover what looks to me like the template for Sherlock Holmes in the character of Dupin. Now that you've cleared Longfellow of the charge of plagiarism, do you think we might convict Arthur Conan Doyle of this charge?
PEARL: First let me say your reading more Dante and Poe in conjunction with the two novels is very gratifying for me. And your comments about Dupin are right on: it was my first reaction, too. "This is just like Sherlock Holmes!" Conan Doyle made no secret of it, and credited Dupin as the better detective. Plagiarism, probably not, but inspiration, deeply, and I think it's time for people to rediscover the Dupin tales (which is why I was happy to republish them as a standalone edition through Modern Library, for which I have a page on my site).
ASHER: I've observed, and I hope you don't mind me saying so, that you don't strain too hard to make your novels utterly plausible. In fact, over a year ago I wrote an article that compared your Dante Club to Da Vinci Code in which I called you the better writer but called Brown the better plotter, in that there were a number of spots in Dante Club where I felt I had to suspend disbelief (most notably, the idea that these lofty writers of New England would not seek help from the police in solving their mystery).
Similarly, while this did not impair my enjoyment of The Poe Shadow at all, I did notice that this plot depended on numerous coincidences, mainly in terms of Quentin Clark magically finding himself at the exact right spot at the exact right moment to observe the next unfolding of the plot, which seems strange in a city the size of 19th Century Baltimore. As a writer, how important is plausibility to you? Do you agree with my appraisal that the coincidences of Poe Shadow depart from utter believability, or do you think my criticism here is misguided?
PEARL: I have to say I think most of that is opinion -- and opinion is the right of every reader -- so I do not know if it's fruitful for me to lay out other points of view, except to say that for any opinion one reader has about a particular element in my book (or any book) I can guarantee to find a reader who has the opposite opinion about the same element (for instance, I get emails about both books saying they were so plausible, they questioned whether they were fiction). This is not a right or wrong proposition, but certainly The Dante Club explains why they can't go to the police (and opinion can follow on whether a reader would agree with the reasons).
The only thing I'd say, regarding The Poe Shadow, is the plot is designed to seem much much more external than it actually is -- and Quentin interprets it as much more external than it is, too. Almost everything in the plot is generated by Quentin's own actions and imagination (including the letter that provokes the Baron to get involved), so it is not coincidence that he is present for the moments of the plot, since he is the plot, in a way. He converts random events into plot in his mind, and interprets them as happening to him. One could even read the entire book as taking place in Quentin's imagination, though I would not necessarily advocate that reading. For much of the story Quentin is spying on the competing investigators, so it also builds in that his observation of things around the city would make sense.
This is not to say I am against coincidence -- it has its role in every story, and its own literary importance we shouldn't dismiss or become too cynical about in an age of faux "reality" media. Coincidence is part of reality, too.
ASHER: What do you think of Baudelaire and T. S. Eliot (two of my favorite authors who happen to share your interest in Dante and Poe?) -- might either of them be the inspiration of a future Pearl novel?
PEARL: Baudelaire and Eliot had similar strengths and weaknesses, in my opinion. Both were profoundly self-aware not just of their writing but their identities as writers. This lead both to different sorts of crises of identity. Eliot is one of my favorite poets and probably the reason I'm so engrossed by thinking about the relationship between literary periods over time. "what are the roots that clutch, what branches grow" -- can't get better than that.
ASHER: What contemporary fiction writers do you most admire?
PEARL: Wow, that's a tough one. Whenever anyone asks my favorite movies or books my mind draws a blank as though I've never seen a movie or read a book. I really like David Liss as someone who pushes historical fiction in a great direction (I haven't yet read his new contemporary book), Arthur Phillips is exciting, too, and I loved Zoe Heller's Notes from a Scandal.
ASHER: You've been touring Europe and the world -- how is your novel being received around the world? Do you enjoy this type of activity?
PEARL: The Dante Club was published in about 42 countries, including some I couldn't find on a map (Estonia? Ok, I'm not good with geography to begin with). The publishers are all supposed to send copies of the books when they're published, though not all of them do, but I have a shelf with all the foreign editions which is a real kick in a silly way.
On a personal level, the travel has been one of the best parts of publishing these two books. Before The Dante Club was published, I had only been out of the country twice, Canada when I was very young and England when I was in college. Since The Dante Club, I have been to something like 13 countries on the books' nickels, including multiple times to England, Italy and Spain. It's great to see Poe fans everywhere -- he's bigger in Europe than here.
ASHER: Have you generally been treated well by critics?
PEARL: For both books, I have received amazing reviews, good reviews, and some horrible reviews. You get used to it, I guess, though it's certainly one of the stranger parts of the process. I've had a few reviews that read like personal attacks, on my age or my educational background or my success (by whatever definition of it they're using), and these just mystify me. Probably my favorite recent review was one of The Poe Shadow by Jasper Fforde because he's a novelist I really admire, and I actually have all of his books! To be honest, I am probably just as or more excited when I receive an email or message from a fan talking about how much they enjoy one or both books, than by a review. There's just something about how self-motivated that fan is, not only to pick up the book and read the book, but also take the time to share their response with me, that is really gratifying and affirming.
ASHER: Having published two novels, do you think of the publishing industry as generally healthy and functional? What, if anything, would you like to change about the way books are produced and sold, and about the way writers are treated?
PEARL: Big question, Levi! It would probably take three times the length of the whole interview to give my thoughts, but I'll just throw a few things out there.
First, on the bright side, I'd say my experience has been that publishing is filled with really smart, really motivated and dedicated people. I have worked extensively with two different editors (Jon Karp and now Jennifer Hershey) and the same literary agent (Suzanne Gluck, whom I couldn't live without) throughout the process of writing and publishing my two novels, as well as two publishers (Ann Godoff and now Gina Centrello) and two publicists (Todd Doughty and now Kate Blum) at the publishing house, and they have all been superb. (Hey, I'm sure not everyone in the industry is as great, but I can only speak from my experience).
Also on the bright side, I think it's largely a fair business in terms of the setup in relation to writers. I say this in comparison with other media-related fields, like the music industry which, if I understand correctly, deducts marketing expenses from the artists' payments. Yikes!
Now, things to change. I'll toss out two problem areas, at least problems in my opinion. First, the book reviews, which I touched on a bit earlier. There are some deep, fundamental problems in the way the system works. There is, of course, the strange fact at the outset that you as an author are being reviewed by your rivals. Imagine if this was the case in any other field? Imagine if rival film directors were reviewing each others' movies, and this was what we read in the newspapers? I don't think it would be allowed, at least not without that being the whole explicit point, but that's exactly the case frequently in books. There may be no way around it, but it makes for a blatantly odd dynamic -- particularly since within publishing the advances (how much money an author is paid up front) are often public knowledge.
The flip side of the problem with rivals: you can just as easily call it a friend problem. I don't think anyone would stoop to reviewing his or her friend directly, but it's just not that big of a world, and writers know writers who know other writers or their agents or publishers who are close with other writers. There are many writers I feel I know and I root for (or don't root for, after hearing stories of rudeness or unprofessional behavior) even though I've never met them, because of these sorts of indirect connections.
Second problem, the way reviews are assigned (even putting aside the rival/friend situations). There are so many times where a book is reviewed by someone completely inappropriate. I think there should be a simple rule: if a person would not buy and read a book on their own, they should not be reviewing it. I had one vicious (Imean vicious) review of The Dante Club in which the reviewer started the review by ridiculing the premise. Okay, well, this person would not buy the book, right, so is he really the right person to publish a review? Forget journalistic ethics, try out decency and decline writing the review. (From what I found out later, this reviewer had also been rejected for a book of his own by my editor and publishing house, so that would also fall into the category of problems with "rivals" reviewing).
Third, and this is the deep dark not-so secret of the industry, there are some reviewers (and let me be very very clear that this is a generalization -- this applies only to a small fraction of reviewers) who are simply not good readers; they tend to read quickly and sloppily, maybe because they are on a tight deadline, maybe because it simply isn't their priority and they are fitting it in between other activities (most reviews are not written by full-time critics). There are reviewers, yes, believe it or not, who *skim*. I've had reviews (both positive and critical) that make major factual mistakes in talking about my books, I mean, talking about characters who *are not in the book*.
Again, this is not meant to be a generalization, and I think the good reviewers and book page editors would be the first to agree and point out the changes that need to be made. Publishers and writers are understandably scared to say anything or defend books, because there can be repercussions, so I think it falls to readers to be vigilant.
More than anything else, I hate when I see reviewers being disrespectful. It's not about every review of every book needing to be positive, but even a critical review can be respectful of the fact that the writer probably took years to write the book and are putting part of their writing career on the line, and the reviewer is taking a few days or weeks to do their piece at no risk to themselves. It's asymmetrical warfare, because it's very cheap and easy for a review to be backbiting and vicious, and a potential reader is more likely to see that than to give a new author a chance, and there's nothing an author can do about it.
I'm not talking about myself now, because I'm lucky enough to be at the point of having some degree of a readership and I don't live or die on reviews, one way or the other. Plus I have support from a major publisher who can afford advertising and other means of communicating about the book to the public. But the disrespectful reviews can destroy a first time writer, and being a first time writer is a hard enough position to be in. And don't write a review under the premise of informing everyone how you would have written the book differently; again, not fair, you didn't write the book.
If all of this would make reviews lean a bit less negatively, I say unequivocally "good"; when accepting the trend of disrespectful and patronizing reviews, we are sabotaging careers of authors -- human beings, remember, not just names -- who have probably worked years to get the chance to publish; at worst, if we (readers, writers, editors and critics) stand up against these and end up with something more responsible and civilized, we may be encouraging a few more readers to be open-minded.
I'm also thinking of reviewers who are out to prove themselves smarter than the author on whatever the author is writing about; again, what's the point of this? In all likelihood, the author has probably dedicated years studying the subject (if nonfiction, for instance, or nonfictiony fiction) and again it's asymmetrical warfa re because the author has no forum for reacting. I had a review of my new book in which the reviewer clearly had only read two Poe stories, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Tell Tale Heart, and attacked me because I didn't capture The Pit and the Pendulum's themes in my book. I didn't want or try to capture The Pit and the Pendulum -- hey, I love the story too, but Poe wrote about 80 stories and the truth is many of them not about premature burial are really interesting.
It was obviously important to this critic to prove that he knew more about Poe than I did, even though it's really, really unlikely (and believe me, not all of Poe's 80 stories are great or so fun to read, so I'm not saying he should know as much about Poe, just that he should have some respect). Unknowingly, critics like that are imitating none other than Poe himself, who was brutally unfair as a critic, although self-aware enough to be tongue-in-cheek about it.
I don't think book reviews are even fact checked. I don't know why. In addition the mistakes I already mentioned, I have had reviews incorrectly point out anachronisms, too. I'm not perfect on this front (I don't think anyone can be). But if they're wrong, and I know it, what do I do? On two occasions, I've emailed the reviewers noting that, in fact, the words or phrases they picked out were not anachronisms. The first, not disagreeing, said I could write a letter to the editor. Well, sure, I could, but should that be my responsibility? What about a correction on their part? The second basically said, oh yeah, they're not anachronisms, and offered no recourse or even an apology.
I've had reviews for both of my novels point out typos -- yes, typos, in a 400 page novel; just disingenuous, as anyone in any form of publishing or journalism, or even who has been on a high school newspaper, knows.
I'm frequently asked to write reviews for major publications and, although flattered, I politely decline because I see too many problems in the practice. Plus, I freely admit, I don't know if I'd be immune, for instance, to the dynamics I mentioned above of feeling in competition or camaraderie with authors I'm asked to review. I don't have answers to most of the problems (and I'm open minded enough that maybe you could convince me they're not problems) but I think the questions are worth raising and the call for respect and decency a must. Again, I think the good, responsible reviewers and editors would tend to agree with most of what I've said, and would have much more insight into it than I do.
One other thing I'd say about what can improve in the publishing industry, if I haven't said too much already: We need to publish more books translated from other languages. I think we miss out by not doing so (I think only about 5% of our books are translated, compared to 30%-50% in many European countries). Also, many authors in other countries cannot earn a living because the English language market is so important and they can't break into it, even when they are hugely acclaimed and successful in their own markets.
ASHER: You obviously know a tremendous amount about literature in general, and about famous literary controversies specifically. I thought it would be interesting to run a bunch of other hot-button literary enigmas by you and see what you think about them. Who wrote Shakespeare's plays?
ASHER: What was the deal with Lord Byron and his sister? And what was the deal with Lord Byron, period?
PEARL: Byron's the first beat poet. Anyway, sister is such a subjective word.
ASHER: Why did Virginia Woolf (or Sylvia Plath, or Anne Sexton, if you prefer) kill herself?
PEARL: Hmmmm... which one was played by Gwyneth Paltrow?
ASHER: All of them, as far as I can tell. Why was Pushkin killed?
PEARL: Wow, I actually didn't know he was.
ASHER: If there were a cage match between Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who would win?
PEARL: Papa Hem, definitely. But Scott would be tragic in his loss.
ASHER: What is J. D. Salinger doing right now?
ASHER: Finally, what other literary worlds will you be taking us too in your next novels?
PEARL: I hope some of my novels will return to the literary world, particularly literary Boston, however I don't have a master plan, so I can't know for sure. As of now, I haven't decided on my third novel.
ASHER: Thanks for doing this interview with me, and I'm thrilled to realize I could beat you at Jeopardy in at least one category (Pushkin).
Postmodern novelist Steve Aylett was born in 1967 in the Bromley Borough of London, England. His first book, The Crime Studio, was published in 1994, and his later works include Bigot Hall, Slaughtermatic and his most recent tour de force, Lint. Aylett's work has been variously described as cyberpunk, slipstream, postmodern, bizarro, or, in the words of Grant Morrison: "The Matrix choreographed by Samuel Beckett for MTV."
Steve Aylett's new Lint is to literature what Spinal Tap is to heavy metal music: a brilliant send-up of anecdotal, cult-of-personality biographies. The parody swings freely between the sci-fi genre, the Beats, and classic pulp magazines. We follow a comix legend named Jeff Lint, who lived in the age when "dozens of new magazines appeared, with titles like Astounding, Bewildering, Confusing, Baffling...Useless...Appalling, Made-Up ... Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Swell Punch-Ups" and editors would order up "an octopus, a spaceman, and a screaming woman" for the cover of a typical issue.
I like to call Aylett's work a combination of sci-fi, satire, and psychedelia. His sentences are not only sublimely expressive; they are beautiful in and of themselves. It's like opening a pop-up book to see gemstones and charms strung together on bracelet chains, rising to display the black noir onyx, the blood-red ruby, the diamond center of the mind, the flaming gold-leaf giraffe trinket of surrealism.
Karloff's Circus lights up the town of Accomplice with an anarchic assortment of demons, clowns, factory workers, zombies, politicians, and giant Steinway spiders. The action seems absurd until one realizes that the real world is no less freakish. Even today, we have people kept alive in hospitals against all laws of nature, connected to machines by tubes. We see self-mutilation in the form of extreme piercing and grotesquely overdone plastic surgery. Our children are sent to war by incompetent politicians. Well, you get the idea. Once we establish that our world is crazy, it makes no difference whether Aylett is using surrealism to parody reality, or if he is writing a straightforward story about paranormal creatures in a parallel universe.
Aylett cites Voltaire as an influence, and the influence shows. "Organised religion added Jesus to the food groups," he tells us, or "Pause any country and you'll spot subliminal torture in the frame."
Jacque Derrida maintained that all words have varying shades of meaning to each reader; therefore, every reader brings a certain amount of the story with them to a book. Maybe that is why I like Steve Aylett's prose so much -- he gives us plenty of raw material to process.
I asked the author some questions by email:
Q: It seems like you establish patterns of phrasing that are independent of the plot but that the reader can "pick up" on while reading.
Steve Aylett: Yes, there are several threads of sense going through it at different depths. I think the mind picks up which bits link in to which other bits. Some's almost a subliminal sort of thing going on, and then at the simplest level there's the running gags or repetitions like the "Snail, Sarge" conversation, which is just so stupid I really like it. And if you don't like all that there's always the story to fall back on.
Q: Even though Lint is a parody, I find that you throw in some semi-profound ideas. Like, commands materializing from thin air where someone's mouth happens to be. The opposite of cause and effect.
Steve: The parody thing was secondary to the meanings I was putting in there. I enjoy parody and stupid stuff, but more often than not I'll use it as a housing for old-time satire, politics and bitter axe-grinding. That thing about authority was about the fact that authority is actually quite arbitrary, and doesn't manifest any inherent quality. Traced to its root it's the result of luck, happenstance, crime and the sustaining of a set-up over many years as people hold on to power. It has no moral weight that stands up to a moment's scrutiny, and is enforced by the threat of violence. Reduced to its constituent atoms authority doesn't really mean anything. It's all just people.
Q: When you refer to Karloff Velocet as the "Fall Marshall" is this a reference to the idea of the "fall of man?"
Steve: As far as I can recall this was mainly from The Fall's album The Marshall Suite -- and he is marshalling the various falls and collapses in the circus. His circus is all about entropy.
Q: Which is better -- for countries to worry continuously about other countries' ability to build nuclear bombs, or the "stalemate effect" of each country already having nuclear bombs?
Steve: As long as America has the 'pre-emptive' policy of attacking non-nuclear countries without provocation, it's probably better that other countries have nuclear weapons also, as a deterrent to the U.S. (which doesn't like an even fight) -- but in any case there'll be a nuclear catastrophe at some point, either through psychotic panic or a technical error. It's inevitable.
Q: Did you ever hang out with the Krays?
Steve: No, I never met the Krays, but I knew their lawyer, and Ronnie liked The Crime Studio.
Q: Now I'm sort of freaked out because I'm not sure if you are serious. The Crime Studio was published in 1994, Ronnie was with us until 1996 ... are you serious?
Steve: Yeah. Actually, Ron liked it so much he wrote a story of his own, which he got to me via a mutual acquaintance.
Unfortunately, it was crap.
I think I'd got the book to him because the small publisher that did The Crime Studio originally wanted a quote from a 'name' of some kind, and I didn't know anyone in the literary world back then. Unfortunate things used to happen to people when I sent them books for cover quotes. I sent the re-print of The Crime Studio to William Burroughs and he died a week later; I sent Bigot Hall to Stephen Fry and he went insane -- temporarily.
Q: Uncanny! Speaking of insane, did you do the artwork for The Caterer? It is so classic.
Steve: It all started out as samples from a lot of 1970s comics -- that blonde grinning jock appears throughout those comics. Then I flipped them, changed colors, changed expressions and body positions etc, blended them into different backgrounds and with different characters, muted the colors down again, then added dialogue. Often I was doing so much re-drawing I was virtually drawing the character from scratch, by the end.
Q: Near the end of Karloff's Circus we read, "On the bluff behind them an angel landed, fragile as a feather made of bones. Under a sky deep as grief it closed its silent white wings."
Is Mike Abblatia the angel? And, at the beginning of the book, when Mike Abblatia jumps off the bridge, is everything that happens in the rest of the book happening in the instant that Mike falls?
Steve: I don't think the book occurs in Mike Abblatia's mind/dreams or whatever -- it happens, after he jumps. Regarding the mystery angel at the end, I wanted to make the suggestion that it might be Barney.
Q: On some level, Bigot Hall made me think of Kerouac's Doctor Sax, even though they aren't all that similar. Did you ever read Doctor Sax?
Steve: Yes, I've read Doctor Sax. Used to be a big Kerouac fan. That one was different from his others of course, being sort of cinematic and constructed.
Q: You write a lot about other dimensions; did you ever read Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott?
Steve: I have read Flatland, though I still believe he cribbed it from Charles H. Hinton, author of The Fourth Dimension (who I mention often in my books).
Q: If they made a Lint movie, who should portray Lint as an old man -- P atrick McGoohan or Christopher Lee?
Steve: McGoohan is more grouchy, so I'd go for him.
Q: I knew it! That would be my pick as well. So, do the English really say variations of "isn't it" all the time? For example, in reply to my last question, you might say, "Well, Lint is American, isn't he?"
Steve: English people say isn't, aint, aren't, innit, wot, and other things.