Monday, February 28, 2011
Sunday, February 27, 2011
Saturday, February 26, 2011
Short is hilarious, seamless, and features one of my favorite characters I've encountered in recent memory, Milt Harkrader. I'd follow him anywhere.
"Milt, like many other ten-gallon-hat-toting brokers in Manhattan, heralded from New Jersey. He needed the hat more than most because his hairline now began behind his ears. Milt had always been a loudmouth. Sometime after his divorce he had to have his jaw wired shut, the outcome of a late-night brawl that had occurred at a 7-Eleven in Rahway. This helped Milt develop a new respect for strangers but didn't stop him from talking so loud in bars, especially around his coworkers and other people he suspected wouldn't take the time to kick his ass."
Milt's on-point when teaching his son the value of confronting a man who calls you a 'bankrupt' behind your back, passing out in the pool of the Hard Rock in Las Vegas, passing out in a snowbank in Vail, being thrown overboard on a deepsea fishing trip after he unclips his harness because he doesn't like the way the 'life jacket straps tug his gut,' and then using the story to later at the bar to get himself laid.
As Milt would say, 'Taste it.'
This particular quote is from maybe his second piece, titled "Servile Disobedience," in which he encourages poor people -- the serving class -- to withhold their niceness for a single day:
"For decades we have attacked [the government], redirected it, outsourced it, and filled it with incompetents and cronies. Yes, it still works well enough when we need it to replenish the accounts of investment banks or bang some small country against a wall, but those branches of it designed to help out Americans of "lower socioeconomic status," as the scientists would put it, are now bare. The government fails the people of New Orleans when they are hit by a hurricane, fails to notice the cadmium paint in the marketplace, does a lousy job educating our kids, can't keep the libraries open or the park lawns mowed, overlooks the catastrophic shortcuts taken by its pals in the oil-drilling industry -- and all we can do to express our frustration is elect candidates who promise to hack it down even more."
Sunday, February 20, 2011
Saturday, February 19, 2011
I've been reading the book piecemeal since I picked up a copy at last fall's rainy Brooklyn Book Festival. It's a great read. There are articles like 'What They Eat in Brighton Beach' by Marjory Garrison that does little more than chronicle an elderly Jewish couples' eating habits, to an explosive 'Farewell to CBGB' penned by Jason Flores-Williams.
As alt-papers drop like flies across ye olde United States, Pieces of a Decade testifies to the Rail's importance as a relevent and sacred cultural institution.
My favorite piece is the opening essay by Matthew Vaz called 'Coney Island Beer Hustle,' which profiles the characters loafing or stalking the boardwalk, that absolutely nails the place: "We got cold Coronas. We got cold Heinekens. Ice cold! We got Ferrone Malone, Stephon Marbury, and Allan Houston on parole. We got Lincoln High School's finest just tryin' to make some money out here. We got John Freakin' Doe. We got Russian gangsters, dope pushers, thousand dollar hookers, whole blocks - no, whole buildings from Sunset Park. We got Mexicans with long pants planning on getting shorts just happy to be alive breathing the air. We got neck tattoos, C-section scars, and nail tips with the Puerto Rican flag. We got cops checking out tits, just trying to keep everybody safe, and Osama bin Lade is nowhere in sight.
"This is Russia, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Surfside Gardens, Marlboro Projects. We got whatever you need out here. This is Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York City."
The editors dish on the press' history and their relationships with authors, the present state and future of poetry, and the publishing industry at large.
Kornblum: "In December 1969, I was working the midnight-to-eight-thirty shift at the Grand Central Station post office in NYC, and attending poetry workshops at the St. Mark's Church Poetry Project. One evening, the workshop leader told us that we had been asked to help collate the pages of a mimeographed magazine. In one of the back rooms of the old church, we were greeted by a group of 2 x 6 foot tables, each with five stacks of 250 pages. When I completed my assigned portion, I sidled up to the editor, told him how much I liked his magazine, asked if he'd like to see some of my work. He looked off in the distance, sighed and said, "I've always thought poetry should be as hard to break into as the Longshoreman's Union." To hell with him, I thought--I'll start my own. I've always been grateful for that kick in the pants, which can sometimes be far more productive than well-intended encouragement."
Also, McSweeney's announced this week that they're launching a half-page of "games, puzzles, comics, and activities for all ages, available for weekly publication in newspapers across the U.S. and Canada."
Friday, February 18, 2011
The first time my narrator, Vivian, actually encounters Tzipi Honigman in the flesh, they’re driving to a fancy restaurant in Tel Aviv and Tzipi asks her if she knows any of her poems by heart, and if she could recite one to her.
“With my heart in my mouth, I did – an unrhymed sonnet about failed love. It was called ‘Obscene.’ She looked over at me, smiling just a little. I felt extremely naked.” (p. 9)
I didn’t reproduce the sonnet in the novel, although I did include some of Vivian’s other poems. But I thought you might want to see the one she recited to Tzipi in the car. The epigraph is from Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse.
“Discredited by modern opinion, love’s sentimentality must be assumed by the amorous subject as a powerful transgression which leaves him alone and exposed; by a reversal of values, then, it is this sentimentality which today constitutes love’s obscenity.”
No one would have raised an eyebrow at
the little sexual accoutrements
of their love. These might provoke a smile
but little more. She e-mailed him a file
called “dirty pictures” in which she appeared
in all her glory playing with sex toys.
Even that phrase, “sex toys,” goes to show
how innocent they were. He sent her back
a picture of his hard-on. She was charmed.
The thing that was obscene, the dirty secret,
was neither flesh nor fetish. It was love
itself. Bataille describes the sentiment
in all of its vulgarity—a massive
throbbing organ. An embarrassment.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
The Feminist Press has just brought out The Reality Shows, a collection of her performance texts from the first decade of the millennium – commencing with “Make Love,” her response to 9/11 through a channeling of Liza Minelli which is, in Finley’s own estimation, “a complex amalgam of pee-in-the-pants humor, pain, and compassionate outpourings of sorrow” – and closing with “The Jackie Look,” which brings Jackie Kennedy Onassis back to ponder trauma, history, fashion and femininity as well as “the demands of being the first lady.” In between, Finley dwells with Terri Schiavo, Laura Bush, George W. Bush, Martha Stewart, Condoleezza Rice, and Eliot Spitzer. The texts are accompanied not only by photographs of Finley’s performances, but also by some of her own uncanny, disturbing and often very beautiful drawings.
I attended almost all of these shows, and each one stayed with me long after I left the performance space. In fact, the narrator of my novel went to see “The Passion of Terri Schiavo” and “The Dreams of Laura Bush” in 2007. She tries to explain Finley in an e-mail to her foreign lover. She recounts the NEA controversy, and the charges of obscenity. She says, “She is obscene. She is also fantastic and beautiful and sexual, and hysterical in the fullest sense of the term, and frightening and funny and deeply sad. I was very moved.” (p. 93) So was I.
The Reality Shows has a preface by Kathleen Hanna of the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, and an introduction by my friend the brilliant psychoanalytic theorist Ann Pellegrini. I. Love. Karen. Finley.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
A few reviews have come out of The Correspondence Artist. So far they’ve all been pretty positive, although one guy wasn’t crazy about the images, and another wasn’t crazy about the end. When I read these things, mostly I’m just thrilled that the person actually read the book. Then I feel a little bad for a minute if they express some reservation, but I get over it pretty quickly.
The person, for example, that didn’t like the ending so much said it seemed a little “narcissistic” because the narrator is more in love with her own fiction than she is with her actual lover. But, being a narcissist, I decided to take this as a compliment.
My narrator has the same tendency. She writes an e-mail to her lover in which she quotes a passage from Nietzsche on women writers:
“The complete woman perpetrates literature in the same way as she perpetrates a little sin: as an experiment, in passing, looking around to see if someone notices and so that someone may notice.”
She says she knows the general consensus is that Nietzsche was a misogynist, but she finds some of the things he says about women kind of charming and totally recognizable in relation to her own person.
This may also explain why she put up for so long with Santutxo’s weird gender politics (see pp. 127-130).
Speaking of gender politics, I’m reading from the book and talking about feminist autobiographical fiction with Linda Schlossberg and Carmelita Tropicana on the 22nd. Please come! Information here.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
There’s a poem by John Ashbery called “This Room.” It ends:
… Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.
I love this poem. I also love the name of the volume it’s in: Your Name Here. I thought of this book, and especially of this poem, often while I was writing The Correspondence Artist. One of the disconcerting things about writing is that sometimes you think you’re writing to someone, but then realize that person isn’t there: you’re writing to yourself. In the novel, I reflect on this in relation to Lacan, but you don’t really need psychoanalytic theory to understand it.
Anyway, whether you’re writing an e-mail or a letter or a novel, something funny happens when this fact dawns on you. It’s a little liberating, and a little sad.
As with so many things, Fats Waller probably said it best:
I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter
And make believe it came from you
I’m gonna write the words so sweet
They’re gonna knock me off my feet
A lot of kisses on the bottom
I’ll be glad I got ‘em
I’m gonna smile and say, “I hope you’re feeling better,”
And close with love the way you do
I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter
And make believe it came from you
This is like that letter I wrote to/from Djeli on pp. 108-109 in The Correspondence Artist.
Oh, but I should also mention one other song: the “Love Theme from Spartacus,” which I will always think of as the “Love Theme with Tzipi Honigman.” I mean the version on the Bill Evans album, Conversations with Myself. Improvising with oneself is a lot like writing letters to oneself. I explain why this song makes me think of Tzipi on pp. 90-91 of the novel.
Monday, February 14, 2011
This being Valentine’s Day, I should mention that it makes the perfect Valentine’s gift. Buy four – one for each of your lovers!
If you are in or near New York City and are looking for something to do this evening, please come by St. Mark’s Church (10th St. and 2nd Ave.) at 8. Caroline Bergvall and Kim Rosenfield are reading poems (info here). Kim is reading from a new project called “I’ll Be Seeing You.” In honor of her reading, I made her this:
Wednesday, February 09, 2011
Tuesday, February 08, 2011
Saturday, February 05, 2011
"I insist on sensuality. I guard my smoked pheasants, old guitars, and quiet as jealously as any miser guards gold. They can do far more to protect me from what we humans have become: insensate, insensitive, inhuman. For the millions of years of evolution that made us, the ability to fully sense food and sex was the foundation of our humanity and the core determinant of survival. For ten thousand years, those same pleasure have been reserved for a few of us. Complete indulgence of sensuality is rare, and, as a rule, the purview of the rich. For ten thousand years, Homo sapiens has been unable to take its humanity for granted. Those who would resist dehumanization do so by daily staking a claim to it, by self-consciously adopting an aestheticism our hunter-gatherer forebears practiced by simply living. With the advent of agriculture, those qualities that united us--in fact, quality itself--came to divide us. Civilization did indeed modify the human genome, but only slightly, around the edges. We remain at our genetic core largely what our hunter-gatherer history made us, which is to say, sensual beings. All of humanity at some level still requires the aesthetic. What was invented with civilization was the ability of some to deny sensuality to others."
-Richard Manning, Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization (North Point Press, 2004)
Thought #2, courtesy of Andrei Codrescu, which will be spoken about in more detail on this very same blog next week by our own Francis Levy:
"The time has come for writers to become inaccessible again. The reason is not some kind of "mystique" that makes people curious (though it helps), but the fact that no real writers ever lay down anything real in public—they work in solitude, they think hard, and their thoughts are rarely nice or "friendly." On 1.11.11 (that's January 11, 2011, American-style), I quit Facebook and other large holdings of my cyber real estate. You want to find me, read my book. If you're looking for friends, go to the bar or fall in love with a fire hydrant."
-Andrei Codrescu, Publishers Weekly's 'Soapbox'
Friday, February 04, 2011
"I sent the files to my friend working in Shanghai Press and Publication Bureau yesterday. We got his opinion today. He said we cannot print this book. We will be economically punished if we print this book. I'm sorry we cannot help you this time. I'm afraid this book can only be printed in the states."
Xiao recently ventured back to China for his son's wedding and I asked him how it went. His response is below.
Generally speaking, the China trip was good (my son's wedding). But to me the most exciting thing was that I took the opportunity to see my two friends and former inmates who came to my home and had a long conversation with me there. I also received phone calls from other friends (also former inmates), who lived in other cities and couldn't come to see me. They were all glad that my books about the prison camps are being published in the U.S.
I was surprised that two versions of 1984 (translated by two translators) were published by big publishing houses in Beijing in the summer of 2010 alone. I found them in a book store in Shanghai, and the salesman told me that the books sold very well. I thought it was very interesting when I asked the salesman at Shanghai Book City why my books were not allowed to be published in China when 1984 (not one version, but two by two different publishers in Beijing) was already there. He shut me up by saying that 1984 is a parable but my stories are realistic.
I was not followed by the secret police there, and I heard many people say that they like the Communist regime.
I received two pictures from my brother today. My two former inmates, Wang and Zhou, both counterrevolutionaries like myself, came to see me at my mother's apartment before the New Year's Eve. Zhou, the man with a bald top is the character of He Zhen (The Visiting Suit) and Wang, an artist and calligrapher by profession, also appeared in the book. They had no trouble in meeting with me, but another former inmate, Fu, who is from a small town near Shanghai, was warned not to come to see me or talk to me on the phone. While the authorities didn't give me any trouble during my visit in China, they seemed well informed and to have effectively monitored those whom they thought might threaten the "security of the state."
Thursday, February 03, 2011
I’m sure many of you dream of meeting your favorite author (or musician or movie star). And I’ll bet many of you even dream of there being a spark that leads to a clandestine affair that spans years and continents. Come on, don’t lie to yourself. In fact, rather, INDULGE.
We would like to invite folks to write a mysterious love-letter/email about their fantasy celebrity paramour. Don’t actually name-drop the celebrity (just give hints submersed in the correspondence) and send it to twodollar[at]twodollarradio.com.
We’ll post the submissions on the Two Dollar Radio blog the week of February 21 and invite everyone to guess the celebrity they are addressed to. If your fantasy celebrity is on the scandalous side, we’re able to post your correspondence anonymously as well.
Five years ago, when my daughter was born, we didn't tell anyone the name we had picked out basically because we didn't want anyone else's opinion (a route I'd definitely recommend). We named our daughter Rio. When Eliza was pregnant with our son, again we weren't telling anyone the name we had picked out. Barbara, who spent several years living in Brazil, decided to try and guess, and thinking that we'd stick with Brazilian cities guessed Maceo (after Maceió). That wasn't the name we had picked out, but we liked it so much we decided to name him Maceo.
It's been pretty great this past year getting to know Barbara. I'm incredibly excited to unleash her debut novel upon the world, The Correspondence Artist, later this month. It's witty, intelligent, and has a very smooth bite to it. I liken her work to Nicholson Baker, Miranda July, and even Charlie Kaufman.
Furthering my excitement is the news that we'll be publishing Barbara's second novel, I'm Trying to Reach You next spring (March, probably). In the Q+A below, we reveal a good amount of what it's about, so I'll dive right in . . .
I remember bartending one night and a couple guys were chatting about where they were when Elvis died. One was talking about driving a truck across Arkansas and I can't remember what the other guy was doing. I've overheard my parents have a similar discussion with friends about the death of John Kennedy. I'm Trying to Reach You starts with this line: “I was in Zagreb the day Michael Jackson died.” Have you had a similar moment with the death of a celebrity or cultural figure, that really floored you, where you’ll always remember exactly where you were when you heard?
In fact, I was in Zagreb the day that Michael Jackson died. I was at the same weird performance art conference as my narrator. It was very disorienting. My narrator says, “I was in Zagreb the day that Michael Jackson died. When I heard the news, the first thing I thought was, ‘That’s it. That’s the first line of my novel. “I was in Zagreb the day that Michael Jackson died.”’” Which is exactly what I thought. I got the news in a text from my son, but my narrator heard in a text from his boyfriend.
I read the New York Times every morning with my coffee, so I usually learn of the deaths of public figures on my couch, over coffee, unless a friend alerts me sooner. Recently that’s happened several times on Facebook. And now I’ve actually lost two Facebook friends. Or more accurately: they’re still my Facebook friends, but in the “real” world, they’re dead.
Are we becoming a culture that witnesses and processes death through our twitter of facebook feed?
Yes, but I think that’s giving a public form to something that was always a human tendency. I know many people find it morbid or disconcerting in particular that dead people continue to have social lives through digital media, but in my experience, we do continue to have relationships with people after they die, and always have. I don’t mean this in a mystical way. I lost my father years ago, but I’ve continued to work out issues with him, come to understand things I couldn’t before… I didn’t see him often when he was alive, but I’d write him and think about him. The relationship didn’t change so much after he was gone. I also lost a lover when I was relatively young. Same thing.
In the novel, I quote Merce Cunningham about John Cage’s death. He loved Cage, but acknowledged that he could sometimes be a little controlling. When he died, Merce said, “On the one hand, I come home at the end of the day, and John’s not there. On the other hand, I come home and John’s not there.” My narrator says, “When I read that quote, it seemed to me it was as though Cage had gone on vacation and Merce was getting a little break.” Still, death is hard. My narrator’s very afraid of it.
The Correspondence Artist sprinkled images throughout the text. Your second novel takes it to another level, incorporating even more images as well as video clips. But you do this in an entirely clever way, which almost forces the reader to become an active participant in the story. (I should also mention that the reader could entirely choose to ignore the videos and plow through the story without missing anything.) It's like a puzzle that engages the reader, allowing them to string together the mystery themselves. How did you imagine this idea, and why is it important to you not to use new technology like smartcodes or smartphones to embed the video, but to make it more of an activity?
I never made a strategic decision to incorporate images, but since I was documenting the way that we communicate with each other now, I felt I had to include images. The Correspondence Artist was largely constituted by e-mails, and they often had images attached to them. In I’m Trying to Reach You, the narrator also does much of his communication through text messages on his phone, and he often sends pictures, as we all do now. It’s not so much about the artistic merit of the photos – it’s just our way of saying, “Wish you were here. Look what I saw!”
Regarding the videos: I’m a dancer, and some time ago I began making little chamber choreographies and posting them on YouTube. I didn’t care if nobody ever saw them, or just a few people. I liked the fact that they were there, and someone might stumble across them. I love many domestic dances you can find on YouTube. They can be so strangely intimate. Other people have also observed this.
When MJ died, I watched a lot of people’s home videos of themselves trying to dance like him. I found some of them disturbing, and some of them heartbreakingly beautiful. Sometimes both. When my son was about 13, well before MJ died, he had made a video of himself moonwalking to “Smooth Criminal.” He’s since taken it down (embarrassing) – but I thought it was very poignant – poetic, somber, understated. He never looked at the camera. That was the video that inspired my own dances. I wanted to find that kind of internal, minimalist and yet strangely intimate quality. And I also wanted them to be a little funny. Then I wondered what a stranger might make of them, so I looked at them as a stranger might, trying to make sense of them. And I began to write a mystery with the dances furnishing the apparent clues seen by somebody else.
I wanted for the narrative to be sufficient as a narrative. But I know that because we now have such easy access to information, texts, images, films, I wanted for a reader to be able to do what Gray does, what I do, and what many of us do now: pause in the course of our reading to Google something, or look it up on YouTube.
Gray references not only my dances, but also other performances (Natalia Makarova dancing the dying swan, Lutz Forster in a dance by Pina Bausch) and films (“Notorious,” “D.O.A.”) that you can easily access on YouTube or Netflix “watch it now.” Part of the pleasure of writing is turning people on to the things (books, films, music, dances) that you love, not just the ones you make. Some of my videos also incorporated friends that I think are beautiful movers or virtuosic musicians. Again, it’s a way of saying to the reader, “Wish you were here – look how beautiful!”
I’m assuming a curious reader with a certain amount of energy, but for the unconnected or the technophobe or adamant reader of the page, the story is still coherent and, hopefully, compelling on its own.
There's actually a whole string of deaths, which is the mystery that threads the story: which is whether someone is killing famous dancers. The protagonist, a former ballet dancer named Gray Adams, starts piecing this improbable puzzle together via YouTube videos and the comments they elicit. In I’m Trying to Reach You, you seem to have written a murder mystery in which everyone is dying of old age (with the exception of MJ).
It really did seem shocking and uncanny when, in 2009, MJ, Pina and Merce died in such rapid succession. Then it was electric guitarists. Of course there was a medical explanation in each case, but no matter how “natural” a death is, it never feels natural if you love that person. I wrote a murder mystery in which nobody was actually murdered. I’m not the first person to do this, by any means. When I was in college, my best friend gave me a copy of Gertrude Stein’s Blood on the Dining Room Floor, which is precisely this.
The real mystery – the big one – is: why do the people we love have to die? I won’t give away the answer, because my book is, after all, a mystery. I can tell you this: the answer is simple, dumb, and unsatisfactory. Still, the book has a happy ending.
The other major theme of the book is the threat that one might feel in relation to their identity as an American, which is an ambitious undertaking.
I went through a period of profound alienation from my sense of myself as an American. This had a lot to do with many of the political policies of the Bush administration and the aftermath of 9/11. Naturally, there are still things that worry me, but at the time of Obama’s election, I had a brief period of euphoria, which settled into something more like a measured and sustained effort to understand both what I love and what I fear in our national culture. I wanted to recuperate in a realistic but engaged way my sense of my own Americanness.
Of course one’s sense of identification with the nation is inflected by all kinds of particulars, including one’s class, race, gender, and sexual identification. Gray struggles with this. He’s not a person who’s intending to “pass,” but he notes early on that people don’t necessarily “read” his ethnicity or sexuality. And in fact I hesitated to write that here, because I think a reader of the novel will probably also not necessarily “read” these things in his narrative voice, at least until he tells you. There are a lot of assumptions about an unmarked narrative voice.
Anyway, the cultural icons that signal what it means to be an American man are, for a variety of reasons, somewhat terrifying to my narrator, and to me. The extreme one is “the Duke.” The more benign one is Jimmy Stewart. Gray and I both narrated this novel in an effort to come to terms with our feelings about this, and about death. I guess, yes, that sounds ambitious, but we did it pretty quietly.
Which brings me to one other thing about national character in the novel, which is oblique references to a national aesthetic – literary, musical, and choreographic. There are two poles I reference: minimalist, and maximalist. I love them both (the cryptic poems of Emily Dickinson folded up in tiny packets and hidden away in a box, the spare, understated choreographies of Merce – but also the “trashy, profane and obscene” poems of Whitman and Ginsberg, Martha Graham’s expressionism). I am, myself, a minimalist. I’m very quiet. But I love distortion guitar and the wild exhibitionism of so many American artists. Also, these divisions are false. Emily Dickinson, in fact, can be as trashy and obscene as the best of them! Anyway, Dickinson and Whitman are at the heart of this narrative. They are the Dancing Queen and the Guitar Hero. I find it very moving that our two great national poets were sexual oddballs (I mean that in the most positive way) who sometimes identified across genders. That makes me very proud to be an American.
You can purchase a Year 5 Book Subscription for just $45 through Sunday, February 6. The subscription includes all our titles published between May 2011 and March 2012: You Are My Heart and Other Stories by Jay Neugeboren; Seven Days in Rio by Francis Levy; Damascus by Joshua Mohr; Baby Geisha by Trinie Dalton; I'm Trying to Reach You by Barbara Browning.
Wednesday, February 02, 2011
This is the first time we'll be working with Trinie. Her work has been praised by Ben Marcus, who describes her as "a writer of high spirits and unguarded vision." Michael Miller, in Time Out New York, said in a review of Trinie's book Wide Eyed (published by Dennis Cooper's Little House on the Bowery imprint at Akashic) "one of the many reasons to read Dalton is that she treats dreamlike fantasies not as look-at-me-I'm-weird performances but as magical rebuffs to the hassles of everyday life."
(Above picture by Jason Frank Rothenberg.)
Before I read Baby Geisha, I was familiar with your writing from Arthur Magazine. I loved Arthur. Along with Punk Planet, they were my favorite magazines – and you’ve been published in both. They came across like a community unto themselves, championing this vibrant and diverse spirit that covered everything from lifestyle to films, writing, music and concerts, skateboarding, and gardening. Just reading the magazine felt like you were part of something. I know Arthur has continued and is really active online, but what's a reader to do – is there anyone carrying on that community-in-a-magazine spirit? Where can you point us?
Arthur was and is a valuable resource; I was initially attracted to its format (newsprint, channeling early Rolling Stone) and to Jay Babcock’s genuine editorial vision. Whenever I’m feeling glum about the state of magazines, Jay, who has weathered it all, sends me some mini-magazine email with a photo of the latest snake he’s found at his desert abode paired with say, news from the music front contextualized by news from counterculture pioneers and I feel at home again. Printed matter or on-line magazines? They can both provide that sense of community indeed. Nomadic community is seemingly where it’s at, it’s what the Internet promotes as long as you tame the time spent staring at the screen, but I admit I have difficulty with that physical remove and isolation. That’s why I live in cities; I can read web-based magazines then exit my office into the tactile world to discuss what I’ve read face-to-face. Communication can happen in any format, as long as it’s innovative. Arthur, for me, has provided context; learning from cultural predecessors, studying their decisions based on their circumstances at the time. It was always about bridging generation gaps. Placing my artistic decisions in context helps me to stay positive and forward thinking. While I find it important to voice my political opinions through art, I increasingly want to temper that with invitation and gratitude in mind - negativity is so tired. Live human interaction is ultimately what enacts positive change. That’s why I prefer to team up with magazines and publishers who I feel are building communities in radical ways; that’s why I sought Two Dollar Radio out. I know that when I do readings from my Two Dollar Radio book, there will be humans in the audience who I admire and who share like-mind. While I’m not under the illusion that I live a completely free life, I do feel obligated to exercise conscious choice surrounding my creative output. When I first started making books I didn’t realize this was going to become a cause of mine, but over the years it has come to be of utmost importance.
There are many, many magazines, art galleries, and music labels around the world who are hosting cutting edge communities. Lately, I’ve written for a few magazines that are gorgeously produced: ANP Quarterly, Theme, and Paris/LA, made by Dorothee Perret in Paris, who used to be with Purple. I was proud to contribute to a very cool Australian lit journal called The Lifted Brow this past year, and a Canadian lit journal called Here & Noun. Both of those journals are affiliated with vibrant young communities in those countries. I adore Bookforum, and have high hopes for the new Los Angeles Book Review, that will be called LARB on-line. Then there are artists’ book publishers, like North Drive Press and Picturebox, who filter printed matter through art gallery systems. Hybrid, cross-medium community builders. Paper Monument for art criticism. CANADA Gallery and Solomon Projects, both in New York, are galleries I’ve kept up with, both supporters of printed matter. Family Books in LA, a crucial resource for printed matter lovers. The Social Registry and Paw Tracks are my go-to musical resources, if I’m not pilfering free international mix-tapes off of blogs. And this is only to name a few in America. Even while magazines are folding, there will always be artistic and literary community in various forms and modes. Or more argument now to make your own, right?
You straddle the art world - where you've worked on books for McSweeney's and Picturebox - and the literary world – where you've published books with Dennis Cooper's Little House on the Bowery imprint at Akashic, and a novella with Madras Press. Do the two balance one another out and inform the other, or are they two separate creatures entirely where they help to balance you out?
I seek total integration. I have a pattern, now, of alternately building visually oriented books and text-based books. Books are things. I think of them as objects, and I like mine to vary widely. I have a corny fantasy about having a bookshelf of my own books someday, on which each book looks different and has wildly diverse content. Picturing that shelf, admiring how the books look teamed up as a suite. I was so excited, for example, to publish my last novella with Madras Press, who offered me a miniature format. Each time I make a book, I care about what’s inside and what it says obviously, but I also think it’s critical to consider that book’s material value, what it communicates from a design standpoint. Ugly books give me nightmares.
Sweet Tomb is a fairly tale about a witch. The novella you published with Abrams, A Unicorn is Born, is a fairy tale told from the unicorn’s point of view. And from what I’ve read of Wide Eyed (without actually having read it), it too was fantastical. Baby Geisha feels much more grounded in its surrealism than what I had anticipated. The stories don’t seem to dote on the fantastic, but present these surreal twists – such as ‘Millennium Chill,’ in which a woman discovers her body heat is mysteriously linked to that of an old beggar woman - in very subtle and assured ways. Does Baby Geisha signal a shift in your approach, or is it merely part of your balancing act?
A big shift. Yeah, I have been on a fairy tale/horror binge for several years, and I finally feel like I’m turning the corner. I’m glad. I just had to see it all the way through so I could fathom how fantasy and concrete realism can be close allies. I felt for a long time that fantastic writing was somehow more untethered to the real, but now I’m not so sure. Again, I sought total integration. I was just completely obsessed with Kristeva and fantasy-horror’s relationship to the erotic, in part because my husband, Matt Greene, makes art about that. What are the boundaries between fantasy and the real? They’ve been pretty hazy in our world. Here’s one thing that changed me: a close reading of Flannery O’Connor’s Mysteries and Manners. In it, she says that, “it is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners,” manners being those concrete details — depictions of the real — in story. “Mystery through manners…” I had never heard a modern author seeking deep metaphysical mystery through realism before. Well, sure, Robert Musil, Bruno Schulz, Robert Walser, and a handful of other personal faves. By deep mystery I mean, mystery about our relationship with the planet, not anthropocentric mystery. I get sick of thinking about humans quickly, as we only constitute about 1% of what’s happening in our universe, if that much, and it was refreshing to me to hear O’Connor critiquing Henry James’ idea that modern people should aspire to know nothing of mystery, to be completely rooted in humanity. That notion makes me feel like hurling myself off a cliff. In her opinion, great literature seeks to embrace and express mystery through its mimicry of actual mannerisms. Mystery — fantasy — through the real. And with that, the borders between fantasy and realism were completely transgressed in my brain. Suddenly, I saw them as two good means to the same end. This made me excited to write real human situations again.
One other reading further propelled the shift: Mary Gaitskill made a comment in her introduction to the 2009 Best New American Voices along these same lines. She writes that a short story’s greatness resides in its limitations: that stories can be “a small moment that acts as a secret door to a great house that turns out to be not a house at all, but the illusion of an understandable structure in a vast sea of forces that we live with every day without seeing.” Yes. It’s that vast sea of forces I was seeking through fantasy and fairy tale, and it thrills me to think of getting at it through realism, or surrealism, for awhile. I think I completely stopped caring about labels and boundaries, and have been trying to indicate human imaginative potential, as framed out by metaphysics, links between the body and spirit.
You’ve taught courses on bookbinding and bookmaking – have you ever considered starting your own press?
I’d love to start my own press if I ever had the money to do so.
At NYU, you teach a course on “Book As Art.” I’m definitely mired in the daily e-book debate, which is mostly uninteresting, but I can see the road diverging, where e-books won’t be “books” (“novels”) but boiled down, Cliff’s Notes versions of their print counterparts. And all physical books will be elevated to artifact, with a new-found emphasis on classy design. Featherproof Books and Chin Music Press seem to be leading the way with this. They can publish a book of stories, but then they have to blow it up through their design into something more ambitious and complete. What are your thoughts, and do your students care about the evolution of the book?
Featherproof is neat, I agree. Yes, my students are absolutely interested in these debates. There is concern among urban twenty-something artists and writers that they are losing something by living their lives digitally. Not as if they’re going to give that up, but they do have a sophisticated ability to view the situation externally. Living two lives, one digitally and one in your body, causes a kind of splitting I think, a schizophrenia. My students navigate this in such interesting ways. The work I see in my “book as art” classes deal almost exclusively with students questioning the disappearance of print. That’s not to say that young authors and artists pine for the past or are Luddites about it; they see the need for physical printed matter alongside digital reading. The book as archive, the book as physical object, the book as artifact. Haven’t books always been about this? Think Hogarth Press. We just hadn’t been talking about books that way for some decades.
If your writing were clothes, I wouldn’t be hip enough to wear them. It’s incredibly stylish. Here’s an example, from the opening story in Baby Geisha, 'Jackpot (I)':
“On our room's balcony, Pandora was shoving ice cubes up her pussy. She was impersonating a slot machine, one where no man can hit the jackpot. I wiggled in for a good view while deep funk played. Four people huddling around a lady crotch-melting ice cubes might be criminal in silence or sleazy with techno. But funk was making the scene revolutionary. Zeus, wrapped toga-style in the crisp white top sheet he'd yanked off our bed, called Pandora's pussy an antique clock. I guessed he meant her body was timeless and beautiful, which it was.”
Is there a writer whose style you could wear?
Too many authors to name. Virginia Woolf. Jane Bowles. William Gass. Fernando Pessoa, Clarice Lispector. Sarah Manguso, Amy Gerstler, Barry Hannah, Grace Paley, Mary Ruefle, Eileen Myles, Benjamin Weissman, Lynne Tillman, Richard McCann. Syntax is everything to me.
(Above picture by David Dodge.)
You can purchase our Year 5 Book Subscription for just $45 through Sunday, February 6. That's the five books we'll be publishing between May 2011 and March 2012: You Are My Heart and Other Stories by Jay Neugeboren; Seven Days in Rio by Francis Levy; Damascus by Joshua Mohr; Baby Geisha by Trinie Dalton; and a fifth title to be announced tomorrow!!!
Tuesday, February 01, 2011
Today, the discussion begins with Joshua Mohr. We will be publishing Josh's third novel, Damascus, in October 2011.
Not to get too melodramatic and touchy-feely right off the starter's block, but I believe that Damascus is the most ambitious piece of writing you've done. While maintaining a very personal intimacy with the characters, it's really broad in scope, and tackles a lot of sticky issues that if played poorly could be disastrous for a writer - such as cancer and the Iraq War. What was your approach? Did you say, I want to approach issues of self-esteem and wrestle with how we as humans choose to die, or were these hurdles that naturally presented themselves as you fleshed out the characters?
This is a broader story than either of my previous novels. Bigger not only in page count, but the soul of the story encompasses a lot of things about our world that confuse me. The old axiom is to write what you know, but I try to zero in on things that I don't understand: dilemmas that don't have clean tidy answers, but deal with morals and ethics - things that mean different things to different people. I don't so much care for questions that have answers, as much as the alchemy of the emotion. I realize that sounds pretentious, but I don't know how else to phrase it. Answers are boring. Questions, things that can be argued from varying angles, that's the good stuff. That's where a novel gets deliciously complex.
The filmmaker Lars von Trier talks about leaving open different avenues of interpretation in his work, so a viewer can compile her own meaning of it. I really like that idea and aim to involve my reader via that same tack: what do these weird images mean? Who are these characters on the page who are tough for me as a reader to pin down? It involves your audience in an exciting way when you trust them to build cogent versions of the "facts." I think it's important to write like your readers are brilliant.
I really enjoy working with you. Two Dollar Radio is definitely an all-consuming venture, and it makes all the difference when we're putting in late hours, investing everything we have (both financially and mentally), that we're working with someone who's freaking awesome and really wants to be engaged in a publishing relationship with us. Since I know you've had plenty of offers with the successes of your first two novels to move on, I just wanted to express our satisfaction and appreciation publicly.
Awww... you're going to make me cry and that will ruin my street cred! It was really important to me to stay indie. Way back when my agent was trying (and failing) to sell my first novel to the big swanky corporate publishers, they all told me to fuck myself. So the idea of pandering to them now makes me sort of queasy. You guys took a chance on me as an unknown writer and I'll never forget that. I doubt too many Random House authors have the RH logo tattooed on their arm, and I wear my TDR tattoo proudly. Loyalty is important. We're growing together. I dig that. I hope we can keep it up, though some day I'd like to have more than $300 in the bank.
A lot of reviewers of the first two novels have compared your work to Charles Bukowski, and even Hubert Selby, Jr. and John Milton, but this book really made me think of Sam Shepard, particularly Paris, Texas (which I guess he only co-wrote, but still), which is one of my favorite films. Who have been some of your influences from book to book?
I love Paris, Texas too. It's interesting that you mention a film script because one of my goals with Damascus was to write it like an old robert Altman film, an ensemble piece: many characters satelliting a loose set of circumstances that slowly coalesce and build toward a crazy climax.
My first two novels had pretty small casts of characters, and I wanted to play with more people this time. I didn’t want the story to “belong” to any one person, but for each member of the ensemble to share ownership. Can I call it a co-op? Is that silly?
Plus—and only literature dorks will think this is interesting—but the narrative voice, the 3rd person, lends itself to a more sprawling interpretation of story. Or at least it does to me. So I felt a liberty not to pare back quite as harshly as I compressed the first 2 books. They’re both very lean, like greyhounds; this one has a bit more meat on its bones.
A lot of your writing deals with what we do to ourselves and to others in the dark while scraping rock-bottom. Each of your books deal with characters battling alcohol (or at least abusing alcohol). You stopped drinking a couple years ago. Is your writing a means of confronting your previous addiction?
I’ve been off booze and drugs for 2 years now. It’s a strange new world. I’ll always be examining opulent self-destruction. There’s something mesmerizing about the way humans punish themselves. I don’t pretend to have any answers as to why we’re attracted to it. I once saw a guy smoke speed out of a broken light bulb. I remember thinking that sort of ingenuity could open many doors for the bloke assuming he ever got clean.
I love the opening to Damascus:
“Let’s start this one when a cancer patient named No Eyebrows creeps into Damascus, a Mission District dive bar. For years the place’s floor, walls, and ceiling had been painted entirely black, but that afternoon the owner added a new element, smashing twenty mirrors and gluing the shards to the ceiling so the pieces shimmered like stars, transforming Damascus into a planetarium for drunkards: dejected men and women stargazing from barstools.
“When the first customer of the day had walked in and witnessed the bar’s broken-mirror constellations, he said to the owner, “There must be 10,000 years of bad luck hanging here.””
Damascus appeared in your first two novels, and now is the title of your third. How will you move on when this fictional place seems to have inspired and grounded so much of your work so far?
To be honest, it actually scares me. Since 2003, all I’ve worked on are these 3 books (they are all related, though self-contained; I call them “The Heresies Cycle”). It’s the world I’ve been writing about nonstop. So on one hand it’s exciting to embark into the unknown, new territory, flex some different muscles. But the terrifying part is what if I don’t have any other muscles? What if I’m a one-muscle kind of guy and the rest of me is just useless and scrawny? Jesus, now my palms are sweaty!
Hopefully, something will catch my fancy and the “what’s next?” question will take care of itself. That’s my delusion du jour. And if I’m out of ideas for good, is anybody looking for an assistant? I can wax a back like you wouldn’t believe.
Here's a cover, designed and drawn by Damian Demartino:
Also, through Sunday, February 6, you can purchase our Year 5 Book Subscription for a tidy $45. Year 5 Book Subscription includes You Are My Heart and Other Stories by Jay Neugeboren; Seven Days in Rio by Francis Levy; Damascus by Joshua Mohr; and two titles to be announced over the course of the next two days -- stay tuned!