Nicholson Baker and Him: A Talk with J. C. Hallman

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"Do we really want writers to be okay? Just okay?" That intriguing response is one of many I elicited from J. C. Hallman, author of B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, a bright, funny and expansive account of a rewarding and investigative personal journey through another living writer's unusual career.

This other writer is Nicholson Baker, whose dynamic and wide-ranging intelligence would intimidate many young critics with less gusto than J. C. Hallman. Baker's literary chops are immense and his philosophical and social convictions deeply inspiring, though his intellectual experiments sometimes leave even his most enthusiastic readers cold. Here is my conversation with J. C. Hallman about an author we both admire very much.

LEVI: So, in 1991 the up-and-coming author Nicholson Baker wrote a book called U and I in which he dared to place himself on nearly equal terms with the literary lion John Updike. I say "nearly equal terms" because the book avoided a conventional critical tone of piety and humility towards Updike, and instead brashly showcased the freewheeling talents and original visions of its author.

Now in 2015, you have written a book called B & Me in which you dare to place yourself on nearly equal terms with Nicholson Baker ... who is by now a literary lion in his own rights.

I'm happy to tell you that I think you pulled it off with great style. But I'm wondering if you felt intimidated by the audacity of your act in dreaming up "B & Me". Was it difficult to conjure up enough confidence in yourself as a writer to take on Nicholson Baker in the same format that Nicholson Baker once used to take on John Updike? Or rather was the audacity of this challenge one of the attractions of the project for you?

J. C.: As Baker suggests in U and I, writers should strive to avoid finding a groove and coasting for their entire careers, and I think I would actually find it hard to muster the energy a book-length project requires if didn’t appear daunting at first, if it didn’t challenge me, or even threaten me, in some way.

Which isn't to say that mustering the energy for a book is easy. Once I sold the proposal for B & Me –- a story in and of itself –- I went through about a month-long period of complete paralysis. I was terrified that all I’d done was invent a way to fail. That feeling started to go away only when I really got into the reading of Baker’s books and realized that my instincts about the project had been correct. From that point on, the book wasn’t easy to write, by any means, but it felt like an inspired project, and the process of emulating Baker emulating Updike forced me to find new reserves in myself.

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A Writer's Family: Roxana Robinson and Harriet Beecher Stowe

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(We've been talking to novelist Roxana Robinson about her unique family history, which includes two celebrated 19th century Americans, Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In this conclusion to the two-part interview, we talk about Harriet Beecher Stowe, about religion in fiction, and about Roxana's own mission as a writer.)

LEVI: It's true, as you say, that Harriet Beecher Stowe's literary reputation currently suffers. She's seen as melodramatic, long-winded – a second-rate novelist. I didn't read Uncle Tom's Cabin myself until just recently, and I was happily surprised at the richness I found. Isn't this as well-written as any novel by Charles Dickens or Nathaniel Hawthorne? It's a riveting work, filled with psychological complexity and carefully drawn characters. Do you have any idea how her reputation got so bad? Was there a period in which she fell in public esteem?

As for the perception of Harriet Beecher Stowe as racist – I can only say that this is a terrible injustice. I wonder if the hot issues Harriet Beecher Stowe handled so bravely are still too controversial for us to see her fairly today. Do you know if she was often attacked or criticized on these terms during her life, and if so, how she responded to it?

ROXANA: In 1949 James Baldwin wrote a polemical essay called “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in which he attacks the idea of the protest novel in general, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin in particular. It is a fierce and angry piece of writing, much of it graceful and eloquent. Baldwin was, of course, highly respected as a novelist and essayist, and he offered a black voice in the literary world, at a time when a black voice was rare and very welcome. But this essay is not particularly well reasoned or well-wrought. He begins by dismissing Uncle Tom’s Cabin as “a very bad novel.” He calls it sentimental and compares it, with contempt, to Little Women.

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A Writer's Family: Roxana Robinson and Henry Ward Beecher

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It wasn't long after I became enraptured by the uncommon fiction of Roxana Robinson that I learned she was a direct descendant of the famous, controversial 19th century preacher Henry Ward Beecher and a relative of Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe. I was intrigued but somehow not surprised; it was easy to find threads of this weighty influence in Robinson's fascinating and intense novels, which include This is My Daughter, Cost and the recent Sparta. A few weeks ago I got the chance to ask Roxana about her family history. In this first half of the interview, we talk mostly about Henry Ward Beecher. In the second half, we'll focus on Harriet Beecher Stowe.

LEVI: How old were you when you found out you were a Beecher? How was the family heritage explained to you?

ROXANA: I must have known very early that I was a Beecher: Roxana is a Beecher name, so as soon as I knew my name I knew I was a Beecher.

Roxana was Lyman Beecher’s wife and the mother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, my great-great-great-aunt, and Henry Ward Beecher, my great-great-grandfather. I narrowly missed being named “Roxana Beecher Barry.” I’m one of five children, and most of us received names that identified us with certain parts of our family. Mine identified me as a Beecher; no-one else in my family had a Beecher name.

This made me feel, irrationally, that I had a closer and more direct link to them than any of my siblings had. My mother encouraged this, giving each of us things that strengthened this bond, so that we each felt the responsibility for carrying on a certain part of family tradition. She gave me a silk patchwork quilt, made by the ladies of the parish in Brooklyn, and presented to Mrs. Henry Ward Beecher; she gave me Roxana Foote Beecher’s beautiful silk pincushion and embroidery hook. I still have this, tucked away in my bureau, in a box in which the contents are identified in her small elegant curving handwriting. It was clear that family heritage implied some kind of responsibility.

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The Doyle/Shirley Universe: A Talk With John Shirley

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The shaded cobblestone streets of Garden Rest are lined with shops, cottages, a pub, a boarding house near the town square, and of course, something nefarious lurking in dark hinterlands. John Shirley’s Doyle After Death reads like a classic Sherlock Holmes whodunit, with a couple of major differences.

First, it takes place in the afterlife, or as the people of Garden Rest prefer to call it, the Afterworld. A private detective named Nicholas “Nick” Fogg wakes up in the Afterworld after dying in a hotel room in Las Vegas. Also, flashbacks to the detective’s last case among the living give the story a touch of gritty noir realism.

The plot advances at a breezy clip that is somehow both relaxing and exhilarating, and Shirley has a knack for cinematic descriptions. In one nighttime scene, four men look down at the town from a steep hill and see a view like a rich chiaroscuro painting. Shirley's biographical knowledge of Arthur Conan Doyle informs the novel and confirms Shirley as a fan and a history scholar. He even includes an appendix, which expounds upon Doyle’s theories about the spirit world and incorporates those theories into the novel. Comic book collectors speak of the “Marvel universe” and the “DC universe.” This is the Doyle/Shirley universe.

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The Ballad of J. T. Laura

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I never understood why anyone called Laura Albert a fake writer. When she invented J. T. LeRoy, she formed the basis of an enduring emotional and artistic chemistry with a wide variety of readers. Isn't this what a real writer is supposed to do?

Some accused Laura of creating a fake persona, but J. T. LeRoy was never meant to appear real. The cagey identity was part of the character's psychology, and a part of the psychology of the character's milieu. Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy was fake in a fake world -- an uncertain truck stop hustler, a boy dressing as a boy dressing as a girl, who was sometimes asked to dress as a girl dressing as a boy dressing as a girl. J. T. LeRoy "himself" was supposed to be a male writer, but when secret mastermind Laura Albert sent a real person out to schmooze in fashionable parties as J. T. LeRoy, she sent a girl dressed as a boy. Anybody who ever thought J. T. LeRoy was supposed to be "real" was completely missing the point.

Laura Albert has her say about her past scandal and other things in a fun Interview magazine interview with Adam Langer. Laura is a friend of Litkicks, and it just so happens that Adam Langer is a friend of Litkicks too, since his comic novel The Thieves of Manhattan got a great review in these pages a couple years ago. Thieves is an anarchic send-up of literary author scandals, so he was a great choice to ask J. T. Laura questions about her past. As for Interview itself, Andy Warhol's legendary magazine still looks great. This article's photos are by Steven Klein.

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Talkin' Occupy With Eliot Katz

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I met Eliot Katz many years ago at St. Marks Poetry Project in New York City, back in a different era when several now legendary figures like Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, Tuli Kupferberg and Janine Pommy Vega were still alive and never missed a reading at St. Mark's Church.

I first encountered Eliot as part of the crowd that surrounded Allen Ginsberg -- his "entourage", basically -- but I also heard him read his own poems: moving, well-crafted verses with a humorous Ginsberg-ian self-questioning touch, often containing powerful messages about political activism, about life in New York City, about escapes into nature. Eliot was the co-editor with Allen Ginsberg and Andy Clausen of Poems for the Nation: A Collection of Contemporary Political Poems and also published two books of poetry, Love, War, Fire, Wind: Looking Out from North America's Skull and Unlocking the Exits.

When the Occupy Wall Street movement kicked off last September, I expected to see Eliot Katz around the scene, since I know he's an eager political activist who never turns down a good event. Unfortunately, I learned that Eliot has been slowed down by a bout with Lyme disease, and has been forced to participate in the Occupy movement more from the sidelines than he would have liked. However, the sidelines can offer a good perspective for observation. Eliot recently sent me some notes containing his thoughts about how the Occupy Wall Street movement can best position itself to succeed in the future, and I thought I'd give Eliot a chance to air his ideas out with an interview here. Eliot and I got a chance to talk about some more esoteric and poetic topics too. Thanks, Eliot, and I hope you'll be back in full health again soon.

Levi: In an article you recently wrote, you quoted Abbie Hoffman speaking in 1988 at Rutgers University (where you were a student) about one of the discouraging realities of protest movements:

Decision making has been a problem on the Left. In the sixties we always made decisions by consensus. By 1970, when you had 15 people show up and three were FBI agents and six were schizophrenics, universal agreement was getting to be a problem. I call it ‘The Curse of Consensus Decision Making,’ because in the end consensus decision making is rule of the minority: the easiest form to manipulate ... Trying to get everyone to agree takes forever. Usually the people are broke, without alternatives, with no new language, just competing to see who can burn the shit out of the other the most ... Most decisions are made by consensus, but there must also be a format whereby you can express your differences. The democratic parliamentary procedure—majority rule—is the toughest to stack, because in order to really get your point across you’ve got to get cooperation, and to go out and get more people to come in to have those votes the next time around.

Abbie was talking about the need for decision by majority vote within protest groups, and you quoted him to support your own suggestion that the Occupy Wall Street movement ought to create a leadership structure and begin making decisions by majority vote rather than consensus. But wouldn't that harm the essentially open character of the Occupy movement, and create a politicized infrastructure that would inevitably succumb to corruption, favoritism and personality politics? Wouldn't something great be lost if Occupy ceased to operate as a quasi-anarchist movement? Would it be worth trading this in for a more organized movement?

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Talkin' Occupy With Vanessa Veselka

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One reason Vanessa Veselka is just about my favorite emerging novelist is that she studies anarchism and counterculture from the inside, allowing her stories to venture into the murky, manic, comic realms of intense political ideology -- a dangerous territory that many novelists lack the courage or knowledge to enter.  But Veselka doesn't write about the kind of politics that appears on TV or computer screens. She writes about the kind of politics that hits us hardest -- the kind that's personal.

Her novel Zazen, which was released a year ago, turned out to be well-timed for the tumultuous year of 2011. I recently had a chance to ask Vanessa Veselka for her perspective on all the political climate changes that have occurred since her novel hit the streets.

Levi: Vanessa, the timing of your novel Zazen was remarkable, in that the book's narrator Delia is obsessed with acts of self-immolation as political protest, while Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in Tunisia, which took place in early 2011, just before your book started hitting the streets, has turned out to be "the self-immolation heard round the world". It kicked off the so-called Arab Spring protests in Egypt, Syria and Libya, and indirectly through this the Occupy Wall Street action in the USA. Time Magazine just announced "The Protester" as the Person of the Year, with a nod to Mohamed Bouazizi.

How have you been reacting to (and/or participating in) this wave of protest that has swept the world in the past year? Have you felt like a part of the Occupy movement? Do you feel hopeful about the nature of these protests?

Vanessa: I have a feeling you are going to regret asking me this. I’ll apologize to you and your readers in advance for wending on. Okay, here goes ...

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Visions of Zippy: A Talk With Bill Griffith

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When Bill Griffith was a 19-year-old art student at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, he ran into Marcel Duchamp at Manhattan gallery hosting a retrospective by the venerable Dadaist. When he told Duchamp that he, too, wanted to be an artist, the old man sternly warned, “Go into medicine. The world needs more doctors than artists.”

Had Bill Griffith taken Marcel Duchamp seriously, we would be without Zippy (aka Zippy the Pinhead), the best-drawn daily underground comic strip in America, currently running in 300 newspapers across the planet.

Griffith didn’t ignore Duchamp’s advice; he simply interpreted it in the spirit of Dada.

As he recently said, “I did consider his comment, that I should go into medicine, as a Dada statement. On one level, when he first said it, I had an immediate deflated moment of ‘oh no, this is not what I want to hear,’ but then literally a second later, I thought ‘wait a minute, this is Marcel Duchamp, he doesn’t speak the way normal people speak. This is a code.’ I convinced myself that that’s what he meant.”

Several collections of Zippy strips have been published over the years, but the single massive volume that Griffith’s work deserved had eluded him. That gaping oversight has now been partially redressed with Bill Griffith: Lost and Found: Comics 1969-2003, a 400-page tome published by the estimable Fantagraphics Books, edited and brilliantly annotated by Griffith. It begins with samples of the work Griffith did in the early days of his career when he was among a group of Bay Area artists—including Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Kim Deitch, Rory Hayes, Justin Green, and Griffith’s wife-to-be Diane Noomin—who reshaped, reinvented and reinvigorated the comic book form to embrace hip, adult, intelligent readers.

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Peace Eye! Fug! A Long Talk With Ed Sanders

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(Last year's big counterculture memoir was "Just Kids" by Patti Smith, and 2012's might turn out to be "Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side" by Ed Sanders, an American writer, musician, happener and activist I've long admired. I'm proud to present this new interview with Ed Sanders by Beat scholar and librarian Alan Bisbort, and I'm looking forward to reading this memoir myself. -- Levi)

Ed Sanders has been a cultural force in America for the past half century. Arguably best known for his satirical 1960s rock band The Fugs and his perennially wide-selling 1971 book The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion, Sanders's appeal to readers is also grounded in his deep Beat Generation roots. As a high school senior in Missouri, he read Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and then, after a failed attempt at a college education in Columbia, Missouri, hitchhiked east to see what all the Beat commotion was about.

Sanders was founder of a legendary literary “scrounge lounge”, the Peace Eye Bookstore, remembered as a Greenwich Village version of San Francisco's City Lights Books during the hippie era; editor of the seminal Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts; publisher of works by Charles Olson and Ezra Pound; underground filmmaker (Amphetamine Head); prose author (Tales of Beatnik Glory); poet (America: A History in Verse); antiwar and anti-nuclear activist; he also seems to have known anyone and everyone affiliated with the American underground.

In his new book, Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side, Sanders ties all of his earliest threads—up to 1970—together in the most engagingly idiosyncratic memoir of the new year. Helpfully subtitled “An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture on the Lower East Side,” Fug You comes at you from all sides of this complex, rugged individual who appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1967, emerging from splatters of Pollock-like paint as “a leader of the Other Culture.”

Still placing his shoulder to the cultural wheel, Sanders, 72, is today the strongest living link between the Beat Generation, the hippies and all other underground currents that have trickled along the countercultural pipeline since then. Sadly, his partner in Fug crimes, the irreplaceable Tuli Kupferberg, died in 2010 after 86 years of stirring up trouble and mirth.

On November 17, 2011 I spoke with Sanders by phone at his home in Woodstock, N.Y., where he lives with Miriam Sanders, his wife of more than 50 years.

Alan: The events you describe in the new memoir are so rich in detail that many of the chapters and sometimes even individual paragraphs would be worthy of entire books. Did it seem this complex at the time or is this true only in retrospect? In other words, did you just get up every morning and do all these things on instinct and now look back and you can’t believe all the ties to all the things and people?

Ed: I was very young, had a lot of energy, didn’t need to sleep a lot. Plus, I really believed that I was helping to make fundamental changes in the ways the economy works, in spiritual and personal freedom. Even though there were all those deaths and assassinations, the countercultural activities fueled the idea that there was a lot of hope throughout these years up to the early 1970s, which is where I stopped the book.

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A Talk With Sohrab Homi Fracis

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“Imagine you have a friend name Rob,” says our instructor at the University of North Florida Writer’s Conference. “If you want to ask your friend a question, you might begin by saying, ‘So, Rob...’ and that is how to pronounce my first name.”

Sohrab Homi Fracis (“Fray-sis”) is the first Asian writer to win the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award. He received it in 2001 for his collection of short stories, Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America. He resisted advice from publishers to combine the thematically related stories into a single novel, which they thought would be easier to sell. Fracis believed passionately that the stories stood strong and worked best as they were.

“And I was proven correct,” he says.

India Magazine calls the book, “Stunning in its breadth and scope of language and description ... a fresh voice in South Asian fiction,” and adds, “One can grow tired of Rushdie wannabes, mother-in-law stereotypes, and village parodies. Fracis's writing is brutally honest, exposing sinew and nerves and getting at the heart of the matter.”

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