Renowned for her forays into the human experience through her Dominican heritage, Julia Alvarez is, as The Philadelphia Inquirer notes, "a Latin American storyteller whose voice we need to hear." In her most recently published novel, In the Name of Salomé, Alvarez explores the legend of Salomé (born Oct. 21, 1850), who became the Dominican Republic’s national poet at the age of seventeen, through Salomé’s daughter, Camila. Much like her earlier novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, In the Name of Salomé is a fictionalized telling of real-life people. As Veronica Scrol from Booklist notes, "the novel is no hagiographical exercise. Instead, [Alvarez] juxtaposes Salomé’s life in the Dominican Republic with that of her daughter Camila’s in Cuba and the U.S. By crisscrossing back and forth in time and space, Alvarez uses the different experiences of the mother and daughter to ask the deeper question: Who are we as a people?" The novel is a moving exploration of the Latin American voice. Library Journal calls it "a brilliantly layered novel that is grounded in 100 years of Latin American history… Well wrought and powerful… this is a novel to be passed from friend to friend, from madre to hija." Alvarez’s style is often described as one that witnesses and recounts.
Laura Jamison, writing in People (1998), calls Julia Alvarez’s work intensely vocal: "Reading Julia Alvarez’s new collection [Something to Declare] is like curling up with a glass of wine in one hand and the phone in the other, listening to a big-hearted, wisecracking friend share her hard-earned wisdom about family, identity and the art of writing." As Alvarez herself notes, her writing comes from an oral tradition in which "reading" is listening. Alvarez’s Dominican heritage and love of the English language impart a speech-cadence to her writing that will be delightful to hear in person. One of her titles, Something To Declare, describes such a vocalization, one that Alvarez delivers with gusto. Cleveland Plain Dealer describes Something to Declare as "loosely linked essays that open windows and doors to a remarkably alert and vibrant personality."
This book is a collection of essays, each of which draws on Alvarez’s personal experiences and her struggles as a writer. In one of these essays, "Have Typewriter, Will Travel" Alvarez focuses on some of the problems that she had when making the decision to become a writer. These are the very issues that surround Yolanda, a character from her previous book, ¡Yo! They become themes that make Yo a poignant and empathetic character who exemplifies the writer’s experience in a way that is accessible to everyone: "…I was like other women of my generation: women who had grown up with mothers we could no longer use as models for the lives we were living. And so we stumbled ahead and invented ourselves… having come from a so-called Third World country and from a very traditional Latino culture, our female predecessors were not just one but two or three generations behind the women we were now becoming: old-fashioned tías who believed too much education could ruin a girl for marriage" (183-4). Having dealt with some of the same problems as her characters, Alvarez speaks wisely and sensitively towards them. However, Alvarez’s writing is never one sided; her stories show marks of empathy to each side of her characters’ emotional battles. In ¡Yo!, Alvarez follows the life of a young writer, Yolanda, from the perspectives of the people that Yolanda influences.
More often than not, these encounters amount to painful or unsatisfying experiences. Yet, it is through these experiences that Alvarez broaches the question of what it means to be a writer, and especially a Latina writer, in American society today. Alvarez’s attention to the deeper issues that permeate her characters’ problems allows her fiction to probe meaningful subject areas; her characters are both entertaining and insightful. A case in point is the conversation in How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents during which Yo’s marriage with John starts to fall apart. In the scene directly before this one, Yo and John have been playing alliteration games that are meant to be fun but only magnify the differences between them—differences in interpretation and thought process that are the most difficult to bridge. Ultimately, their miscommunications dissolve their relationship and cause both of them to question one another’s sanity.
"What you need is a goddam shrink!" John’s words threw themselves off the tip of his tongue like suicides.
She said what if she did, he didn’t have to call them shrinks.
"Shrink," he said. "Shrink, shrink." (73)
Because we are already inside Yo’s head, it would be easy for Alvarez to picture John as maniacal, especially in such a scene. However, it is his words that are to blame, as if he cannot help himself from saying them. The words are like suicides, a metaphor that elucidates John and Yo’s miscommunication for the reader. John, by letting his temper get the best of him when he really does love Yo, is hurting himself most, while Yo is simultaneously victim of and partner in his tirade. Her over-attention to semantic detail exacerbates the effect of his insults. Told from Yo’s point of view, Alvarez’s portrayal of Yo is nonetheless subtle and moving, while her characterization of John is empathetic and understanding. Alvarez creates this effect through language that is simple on the surface but deeply revealing.
Alvarez’s ability to involve the reader with all sides of her characters makes her a writer that the Washington Post can describe as both "sensitive" and "irreverent"—meaning, of course, that she holds nothing so sacred that it cannot be presented without flaws. In fact, Alvarez uses these flaws to heighten her narrative voice, a technique that renders her characters "true," or as Alvarez indicates, naked. As both a poet and a writer, Alvarez admits that since she "began as a poet… it’s still [her] first love. Poetry is harder to write than fiction, metaphysically: it requires such nakedness and accuracy" (interview from Spring ’97 Review of Latin American Lit. and Arts). And yet it is just this nakedness and accuracy in the voices of her characters that give them such presence.
Perhaps what drives the voices of her characters is Alvarez’s belief that writing is intimately connected with survival, that the writer’s voice needs to form a bond with the reader like that between the storyteller and her audience: "In [The Garcia Girls,] surviving by telling the story is central. You have to remember who you are, where you came from. You hear stories, and no matter where you go, those narratives come with you. That’s how the family retains a sense of cohesion through all its falling apart… What is important is not just biological sisterhood or the blood family, which is what I was taught in the Dominican Republic, but mi familia, the human family… where the books start, [is] in a conversation with a friend, or with something that happens in the community, which is your larger family" (interview from Spring ’97 Review of Latin American Lit. and Arts). Alvarez links the sense of community that permeates her work with her Dominican heritage, while her style of writing is distinctly American or Latino-American. As a part of the Latino diaspora, Alvarez has a unique personal background that influences her work.
Alvarez was raised in the Dominican Republic until she was ten, at which time her family found it necessary to flee Rafael Leonida Trujillo’s dictatorship. Alvarez’s family then moved to New York City, an experience that influenced her to begin writing: "Coming to the United States, I was suddenly thrust into a new country, and everything I knew was left behind. Not being understood was like being in the tower of Babel, and I realized that language was going to be how I connected with these babbles… Language was a portable homeland" (interview from Spring ’97 Review of Latin American Lit. and Arts). Alvarez is now the author of four novels: How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), a loosely autobiographical piece on the struggles of four sisters that immigrated from the Dominican Republic to the US in the ’60’s; In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), a fictionalized account of the 1960 murder of three Mirabal sisters under Trujillo’s regime, told through the fourth surviving sister; ¡Yo! (1996), which like The Garcia Girls, is written in episodes, also uses the Garcia family and Yolanda, this time as a framing character who is never the narrative voice; and her recently released In the Name of Salomé, which, like In the Time of the Butterflies, is based on real-life characters—one, a Dominican poet and activist, the other, her Americanized daughter.
Alvarez’s has received many honors for her novels, one of which is her designation as a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for In The Time of the Butterflies. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents won the Josephine Miles Award from PEN Oakland and was selected as a notable book by the American Library Association. Stephen Henighan from the Toronto Globe and Mail called the book a "humane, gracefully written novel," and Donna Rifkind, writing in the New York Times Book Review, said that Alvarez "has… beautifully captured the threshold experiences of the new immigrant, where the past is not yet a memory and the future remains an anxious dream."
This effect is what Alvarez was striving for with The Garcia Girls: "I decided I didn’t want the traditional Bildungsroman, with time going forward and the character growing up. I wanted the reader to be thinking like an immigrant, forever going back." Alvarez’s fiction is not only politically and emotionally sensitive; it has a rhythmic quality and aesthetic sense that one often finds in poetry. In fact, Alvarez equates her novel-writing to poetry, saying that writing fiction was a logical evolution of her poetic skill since in grad school, she was already "writing poems that were telling stories" (interview from Spring ’97 Review of Latin American Lit. and Arts).
Alvarez has also published several volumes of poetry including Homecoming (1984, 1995) and The Other Side/ El Otro Lado (1995). In 1997, she was featured in a New York Public Library exposition, "Original Manuscripts by 100 Masters, from John Donne to Julia Alvarez." Her short stories and articles have appeared in Mirabella, New York Times Magazine, Allure, The New Yorker, and Essence Magazine. Alvarez’s short story "Snow" won a syndicated fiction prize from PEN. Alvarez is currently a professor of English literature at Middlebury College in Vermont. She has also taught at the University of Illinois, George Washington University, and at the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference. As of today, her works have been translated into nine languages. Alvarez’s poetry, novels, and short story writing are not only popular but have been critically acclaimed. Alvarez’s wide appeal makes her an author who is sought out for interesting and creative endeavors; in the spring of 1998, Alvarez embarked on a poem for the Absolut Vodka ad campaign. The poem elicited the Catholic League’s objections, and the ad was pulled after Alvarez refused to rewrite.
Alvarez is both a fascinating woman and a writer with spunk: "Alvarez’s canny, often tart-tongued appraisal of two contrasting cultures, her inspired excursions into the hearts of her vividly realized characters, are a triumph of imaginative virtuosity. [¡Yo!] is an entrancing novel" (Publisher’s Weekly). Part of what makes Alvarez so interesting to read is her political and intellectual awareness: "What is it Conrad says? That art is rendering the highest kind of justice to the visible universe. In a sense he is saying clarity of vision and precision of expression, looking at life through a clean windshield, is a moral act. It is also the artist’s job. And for me it is also a political way of being in the world" (interview from Spring ’97 Review of Latin American Lit. and Arts). In the Name of Salomé has been noted for its potent telling that is both politically aware and emotionally sensitive. According to Publishers Weekly, through In the Name of Salomé, "Alvarez conveys purely Latin American revolutionary idealism with an intellectual sensuality that eschews magical realism."
Both In the Name of Salomé and In the Time of the Butterflies attest to Alvarez’s political interest in a style that is not alienating for the American reader. In both novels, the political story is mediated through a Latin-American witness who must piece together the history that she tells; each story touches on the problems that re-telling necessarily involves. As Roberto González Echevarría notes in his review of In the Time of the Butterflies, "Are the sisters victims of fate, Latin American machismo, American imperialism or only the particularly diabolical nature of Trujillo’s dictatorship?" What stands out in this novel is Alvarez’s ability to meld the personal nuances of character to the larger issues that surround the historical killing. One can find this same subtle reflectiveness in one of the short stories, or episodes, in ¡Yo!, "The mother." What is chilling about this story is not the aura of political danger, the SIM or their torture chambers. What is more affective is the incomprehensibility of such danger in the minds of children, and the havoc that living in fear can create within a family. Alvarez keeps the actual political events in the background while focusing on a family dynamic to which anyone can relate.
In ¡Yo!, as well as in The Garcia Girls, Alvarez utilizes shifts between episodes, sometimes fluid, sometimes choppy, to involve the reader with her narrative voices. Alvarez’s choppy transition between "The caretakers" and "The best friend" (part II of ¡Yo!) serves to involve the reader more totally with the character of Yolanda because of the different perspectives in which we see her operate. While "The caretakers" is written in a placid, almost elegiac tone, "The best friend" is exuberant; through each, the portrayal of Yo is similar, but shifted. Often the change in voice is dislocating at first, but the overall effect is brilliant: the book becomes a kaleidoscope in which characters operate both independently and as a whole. Alvarez points out that this was her intention while writing: "We move through experience relationally, so multiple points of view have always been much more interesting to me than the single perspective, which tunnels through and gets what it wants and is the hero… I’m not interested in that in ¡Yo! This is about the revenge of the people in a writer’s life [the focal character of ¡Yo! is a writer] who don’t usually get to tell the story because the writer is always co-opting the experience" (interview from Spring ’97 Review of Latin American Lit. and Arts). Alvarez’s fragmented style culminates in sensitive and evocative characters that, like subjects of a cubist painting, have been taken apart and examined from all sides.
Alvarez’s sensitive portrayals arise from her empathy for her characters: "You have to love your characters to write about them, which doesn’t mean you have to like them or agree with them or want them to do the things they do. But you have to love them" (interview from Spring ’97 Review of Latin American Lit. and Arts). Alvarez invites her readers to share in her passion for her characters; we come to love them as well. Alvarez’s characters become audible for the reader, an engagement that will come across excellently in Alvarez’s own voice. Alvarez’s energy and passion for her characters and her vibrant intellectuality make her novels exciting to read.Kerry Morris is a summer Program Assistant at the NYS Writers Institute.
Allen Ballard: Where I'm Bound
Despite the national policies and moral issues at stake, many combatants in the American Civil War had little idea what they were fighting for. On the Union side, many of the troops were recent immigrants, largely Irish, who sometimes regarded the war as a form of employment at best. On the Confederate side, many rank-and-file soldiers were poor yeoman farmers who did not have the same stake in the war as the wealthy plantocrats. African-Americans, however, saw the war as a golden opportunity not only for personal freedom, but for public respect.
For many African-American men, military service was the first experience of something approaching political equality. The Union army conscripted slaves as soon as it freed them, but many escaped slaves also sought out the Northern troops at great risk and enlisted willingly. They added to the ranks of free blacks from the North who had enlisted in large numbers.
The army uniform represented a new badge of authority for the powerless Negro, and a badge of belonging for the marginal. Frederick Douglass wrote at the time:
Joe Duckett, the hero of Allen Ballard’s first novel, Where I'm Bound, is not immune to the allure of the Union army uniform. A slave and mule-skinner attached to a Confederate regiment, Joe makes a break for the other side and encounters a black soldier in the Union lines:
Ballard’s novel follows Joe Duckett’s adventures as the first black sergeant of the Third United States Colored Cavalry. It also follows the adventures of Zenobia, Duckett’s wife, behind Confederate lines. For Duckett, as for all Negros, the war is a personal as well as a national matter. He fights to avenge personal wrongs, and to liberate his wife and children. All of Ballard’s soldiers fight in the name of private grievances:
Blacks represented ten percent of Union forces, roughly 179,000 soldiers. Despite this high representation, and high casualty rates, the extent of black participation in the war is not widely recognized and little studied. The few first-hand accounts that survive from the period were written by white officers in Negro regiments, and-- while sympathetic to black soldiers-- tend to emphasize the exploits and biographies of their fellow officers. Most black participants, on the other hand, lacked the literacy necessary to record their own accounts, a legacy of slavery's ban on education.
Though the Union Army itself, and other national institutions, memorialized the war as a holy crusade against slavery, they showed little interest in memorializing the contribution and heroism of black men. Blacks were prohibited from participating in events and parades honoring veterans. The first official monument to black Civil War soldiers was not erected until 1998.
Ballard’s novel seeks to redress some of these omissions. A professor of History and Africana Studies at the University at Albany, Ballard teaches the history of the Civil War at the graduate level. He makes use of white military memoirs and slave narratives in reconstructing the experiences of the Third Colored Cavalry, but for many of the details he must rely on his own (highly informed) imagination. Ballard’s events, even when they seem fanciful, are rooted in fact, as when Duckett’s men encounter a Confederate "dog company":
" . . . he heard first one bark, then two, then. . . shit! Sounded like a whole pack of dogs. The colonel, this time on a horse, was leading a bunch of men forward, and each of them had five or six hounds on a leash.
Ballard’s prose packs the energy of battle, and his diction is as plainspoken as the speech of his protagonists. Poetry is reserved for the Negro spirituals and other songs that punctuate the book, and give its events a Biblical grandeur consistent with the ethos of the times (consider, for example, the "Battle Hymn of the Republic").
Though Ballard chooses some of the conventions of popular fiction as a medium for his story, his characters and incidents are anything but cliche. Figures on both sides of the war are morally complex. There is, for instance, a Southern officer who objects to the mistreatment of black prisoners of war. There is also a black slave foreman, elevated to a new level of authority on his plantation by the labor drain caused by the war, who appears sympathetic to the Southern cause. These moral complexities give the novel added believability.
Ballard received a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University. He taught political science at City College of New York, and served for several years as Dean of Faculty for CUNY. Earlier books include The Education of Black Folk: The Afro-American Struggle for Knowledge in White America (1973), and One More Day’s Journey : The Making of Black Philadelphia (1984). Ralph Ellison called One More Day’s Journey, "dramatic and revealing of much that has been omitted from so-called official versions of our nation's history."Mark Koplik is a Program Assistant at the NYS Writers Institute.
Billy Collins is a reader’s poet, a poet who has been able to attract the masses while retaining literary acclaim. His most recent volumes published by Pittsburgh Press, The Art of Drowning (1995), Picnic, Lightning (1998), and Questions About Angels (1991), have sold more than 50,000 copies—a sales record that is exceedingly large for a poet. Collins’s popularity has to do, in part, with his "remarkably American voice that one recognizes immediately as being of the moment and yet has real validity besides, reaching far into what verse can do," according to Richard Howard, a translator, poetry editor, and poet. Questions About Angels was not only popular with students on Collins’s lecture circuit, it was selected by the poet Edward Hirsch as a winner of the annual National Poetry Series competition. The Art of Drowning was a finalist for the 1996 Lenore Marshall Prize. Collins has also been awarded numerous prizes from Poetry magazine. His work has been featured in the Pushcart Prize anthology and The Best American Poetry for 1992, 1993, and 1997; he has been published in Poetry, American Poetry Review, American Scholar, Harper’s, Paris Review, and The New Yorker. Explaining his ability to connect with readers almost instantly, Collins says, "As I’m writing, I’m always reader conscious. I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and who I’m talking to, and I want to make sure I don’t talk too fast, or too glibly. Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong."
Part of Collins’s appeal to all age groups, is the humor that runs parallel to the deeper poetic themes in his texts. The New York Times articulates Collins’s technique well: "Luring his readers into the poem with humor, Mr. Collins leads them unwittingly into deeper, more serious places, a kind of journey from the familiar or quirky to unexpected territory, sometimes tender, often profound." John Updike describes his poems as "lovely… limpid, gently and consistently startling, more serious than they seem, they describe all the worlds that are and were and some others besides." Billy Collins has the kind of humor that is down to earth. He uses understatement in an often self-effacing humorous way that delicately reveals a flawed narrative voice, or a hidden, beautiful thing. In his poem entitled "Workshop," from The Art of Drowning, Collins uses understatement to create the atmosphere of both the workshop and the bad, disjunctive poem. The poem’s very self-consciousness pokes fun at the workshop experience while allowing the reader to think on a deeper level, to question what exactly it is that we seek in reading poetry—perhaps what it is that we seek when we are looking for beauty itself:
…I start thinking abut how hard the mouse had to work
Collins is clear on his use of humor: "Poetry is clearly very serious for me, but without heaviness or a glib sense of spirituality. I wouldn’t set myself up that way. I think humor is a very serious thing. I use it as a way of weakening the reader’s defenses so that I can more easily take him to something more" (taken from Wetzler’s article in The New York Times, Nov. 30, 1997). On The Art of Drowning, Tom Clark, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, says, "This is a wonderfully thoughtful, sly and moving collection by a fine poet whose intelligence, subtlety and irony may make him a special taste, limited to the diminishing audience of poetry readers who still possess a sense of humor."
Billy Collins, however, is about to prove Clark’s statement about "the diminishing audience" for humorous poetry wrong, judging from Collins’s sales record. Collins says that "the [poetry] audience is getting larger which is good," admitting only that "the drawback for me is that the audience kind of has a vested interest in poetry. That is to say that many [poetry] readings are strongly attended because they have something called the ‘open mic’ at the end of them… [nevertheless] I think my poetry is [getting to the general public]." Collins wants to attract not only the intellectual and the poetry lover, but also the every-day person. His poems are fun and easy to understand. Collins’s wide audience can, in part, be attributed to his SRO readings and his appearances on National Public Radio. Garrison Keillor, who had read many of Collins’s poems on the "Writer’s Almanac" show on NPR (1997), invited Collins to appear on his show, "A Prairie Home Companion." This success inspired Terry Gross to host Collins on his show, "Fresh Air," after which Collins’s sales rose sharply. There is a rhythm to Collins’s reading that is jazz-like and familiar, one that appeals to everyone: "The easy swing of Collins’s lines reflect his love of jazz and his ready response to beauty; the warmth of his voice emanates from his instinct for pleasure and his propensity toward humor… Collins is jazzman and Buddhist, charmer and prince" (from Booklist, on Picnic, Lightning).
As S.K. Carew notes, "Collins’ honesty and zany insights are refreshing. But it’s his gift of invention that makes these poems crackle and shine. His poetry is ‘music’ you can listen to again and again. But these poems aren’t for the ears alone—this is poetry the whole body can dance to." Collins himself likens his poetry to the intimate experience of listening to a jazz combo in "The Many Faces of Jazz," and "Jazz and Nature," both from Picnic, Lightning. In "Jazz and Nature," Collins rhythmically effects a mellow tone with an iambic meter that seems to pour like maple syrup until Collins reaches the metaphor, "two big maples," a rhythmic interruption that bridges into a more colloquial manner of speaking—one that jumps and skips like a tenor solo:
... I listened to his speedy, mellow alto
The relationship between Collins’s poetry and jazz is all the more evident in his recent CD, The Best Cigarette, which is the winner of the 1997 Communication Arts Design Annual Prize for audio/visual packaging and is now in its second pressing, due to its popularity. Collins values the sense of place, or displacement, that both poetry and music can offer. He says, in an interview with The Fine Print, "I think of these poems as cheap transportation. When I read poetry, I really expect to end up at the end of the poem at a very different place than where I was."
William Pritchard from the Boston Globe explains the musical nature of Collins’s poetry by likening his improvisations to Eliot: "Collins’s poems are full of earlier literature, and also with modern, post-1957 jazz, and his improvisations inevitably issue in something new being declared. The verse is free, yet reminds us of Eliot’s dictum, ‘No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.’ Although Collins’s lines alternate in length and his stanzas are seldom stanzas (more like "verse periods"), there is usually a strongly felt beat, the product of strength and ease." It is in the rhythm of Collins’s lines that one can feel the influence of jazz piano (he has been studying for ten years); Collins’s lines are, at times, both solo and rhythm section. Their "easy swing" leads the reader into a phrase or an idea so smoothly that we can only tell that we have gone somewhere with his poetry after we have already traveled. Similarly, the wit in his poetry has been compared to the subtlety of the blue note. "What Collins does best is turn an apparently simple phrase into a numinous moment, as with a dream ‘like a fantastic city in pencil,’ which, come morning, ‘erased itself’" (New Yorker, on Picnic, Lightning).
One might even compare Collins’s style to that of the "metaphysical wits," Herrick, or Donne, in that, at times, Collins chooses to write about poetic conventions in a way that is unconventional. His ability to make fun of and analyze his own style and also the work of poetry in America today runs as an undercurrent to many of his poems. Henry Taylor writes in The Washington Times, "Billy Collins writes in a style that feels usefully at odds with his imagination. The language of his poems is always clear and straightforward… saved from prosiness by Mr. Collins’s uncannily secure sense of sentence and line rhythm" (on The Art of Drowning).
The tension between imagination and the way that Collins creates meaning through his style is an aspect of Collins’s poetry that is distinctly romantic in nature. One of Collins’s similes maintains the reflective, ironic distance characteristic of some romantic poems, while speaking about death.
…A few [pale Victorians] even had a photographer summoned
As in some romantic poetry, the reader constructs a reality for the poet’s subjects, one that is transferred back to the reader at the end of the poem. Wordsworth fans will appreciate "Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles from Tintern Abbey" in Picnic, Lightning. Collins, who has a doctorate in romantic poetry from the University of California at Riverside, has adopted the reflective voice of the romantic poet, the wit of the metaphysics, and the plain-speaking line of the beats:
… [I] pick up my thin pen
Describing Collins’s style, Edward Hirsch says, "Billy Collins is an American original—a metaphysical poet with a funny bone and a sly questioning intelligence. He is an ironist of the void, and his poems—witty, playful, and beautifully turned—bump up against the deepest human mysteries." Collins, above all, has the extraordinary ability to communicate with just about anyone through his poetry.
Collins’s appeal to a wide audience reflects his uniquely American background. He was born in 1941 New York City at a hospital where, as he likes to say, William Carlos Williams worked as a physician. His father was an electrician from Lowell, Massachusetts. Collins attended parochial schools and Holy Cross College, then earned a doctorate in romantic poetry at the University of California at Riverside. He pursued writing as a vocation while supporting himself with a teaching career. As Collins remembers, he originally had "this idea… of myself as a scholar/ gypsy, teaching at Caribbean College and the University of South Hawaii" (Bruce Weber, New York Times, Dec. 19, 1999). Billy Collins eventually took a teaching job at Lehman College York (CUNY) in the early 1970’s. In addition to his work at Lehman, he now teaches at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers. Collins has also conducted many summer poetry workshops in Ireland at University College in Galway and has served on the summer faculty at the Poets’ House in Donegal, Ireland.
The title of Collins’s first major publication, The Apple That Astonished Paris, is perhaps a metaphor for the way that Billy Collins’s writing works, then as now. Collins took the idea for the title from Paul Cezanne’s "Still Life With Plaster." Collins says "As a poet, of course, I wanted to astonish my readers as Cezanne’s bravado wanted to astonish Paris with his art… [I also want to effect] that pure, child like state of astonishment…" over something, one would guess, as simple as an apple. This is what Collins’s writing does. It forces its audience to find what is, to use the words of Gerald Stern, "heartbreakingly beautiful" in the everyday event or imagining.Kerry Morris is a summer Program Assistant at the NYS Writers Institute.
When, in the mid-1990s, Ted Conover, who had previously explored the worlds of wealth and privilege in Aspen, Colorado in Whiteout (1992), and of illegal Mexican immigrants in the U.S. in Coyotes (1987), set out to write about the lives of New York State prison guards, he ran into a series of obstacles. The State Corrections Department refused to grant him permission to accompany guards on the job. He managed to arrange interviews with officials of the New York State guards’ union but, perhaps because they were accustomed to negative coverage of their profession, they told him little. Unable to gain access any other way, Conover became a corrections officer. He took the Civil Service exam, enrolled at the State Corrections Academy in Albany, graduated, and went on to spend a year as a rookie guard in Sing Sing. Newjack (2000), recounts Conover’s experiences and life on the job at one of America’s most dangerous and poorly managed prisons.
Conover’s evocations of the sprawling 55-acre prison, on its rocky promontory above the Hudson River, are as vivid as a movie set. The place is a maze of corridors, normally in disrepair, dirty, with leaking roofs and gates everywhere. The cellblocks themselves are "a stupefying vastness."
A-block, probably the largest free-standing cellblock in the world, is 588 feet long, twelve feet shy of the length of two football fields. It houses some 684 inmates. . . You can hear them—an encompassing, overwhelming cacophony of radios, of heavy gates slamming, of shouts and whistles and running footsteps—but, oddly, at first you can't see a single incarcerated soul. . . And when you start walking down the gallery, eighty-eight cells long, and begin to make eye contact with inmates, one after another after another, some glaring, some dozing, some sitting bored on the toilet, a sense grows of the human dimensions of this colony. Ahead of you may be a half-dozen small mirrors held through the bars by dark arms; these retract as you draw even, and you and the inmate get a brief but direct look at each other.
Conover’s book recounts his experience on a variety of job assignments. He mans checkpoints and conducts strip-searches of inmates (a humiliation for both parties involved). He supervises a landscaping crew composed of inmates and a roofing crew composed of outside workers (some of them, ironically, illegal aliens). He helps out in an isolation unit, known as "the box," and in the psych ward. Once, he helps ferry prisoners to another jail near the Canadian border. Another time, he lands a desirable job sitting in the tower (he sneaks in a book for reading). But, like most "newjacks," he spends the majority of his year manning the galleries.
Conover respects the dignity of prisoners, but he also provides a sympathetic portrait of the guards, something extraordinarily rare in American journalism, fiction, television and film. The job is extremely stressful and often dangerous. Guards are physically threatened, attacked, spat upon, and doused with excrement. Verbal harassment is a constant. Moreover, inmates have little to do but to watch officers, taunt them and report their missteps. "You’re like their TV," an instructor tells new recruits while they are still at the Academy.
The rules by which guards must abide are extremely confusing, too numerous to remember and inconsistently enforced. It’s usually more trouble and more paperwork than it’s worth to punish a prisoner for any infraction. Superiors, hoping to minimize their own workload, discourage taking official action, thereby undermining the authority of their men on the "front lines."
Sing Sing is also a place where new guards suffer from a bewildering lack of supervision and instruction. Indeed, the place is so undesirable a job post that corrections officers switch to other prisons as soon as opportunities become available. As a result, approximately 34% of officers have been on the job for less than one year. Prisoners take advantage of their inexperience. Confusion abounds.
Much of the daily confusion is associated with locks. Various groups of prisoners must be released and locked up at appropriate times in connection with the day’s activities: eating, showering, recreation, work details, medical appointments, visiting hours and the like. It’s easy to let them out, much more difficult and sometimes risky to herd them back in. With too many appointments to remember, guards often depend on prisoners to tell them when to lock and unlock. Needless to say, the information isn't always reliable.
Unlike more modernized facilities, where buttons and numerical codes control access to electronically-operated portals, Sing Sing is a place of old-fashioned keys and locks. Many of the keys themselves are large, very old and worn by use. Keys are objects of obsessive life-and-death concern.
Keys were power. And they were responsibility-- because many, many bunglings could be traced back to a set of keys and the person who had been entrusted with them. When to lock and when to unlock was, by one reckoning, what we were here to learn. "You are never wrong, in prison, to lock a gate," a sergeant had reassured us at lineup one day. But it was more complicated than that. Gates had to be unlocked for the prison to function smoothly—and then, at the right moment, to be locked again. Sing Sing was a place of, probably, over two thousand locks, many with the same key. The cardinal sin, the one thing you were never, ever to do, was lose your keys. A lost key could fall into inmates’ hands. A lost key was a disaster.
Stress takes its toll on corrections officers. One in two newjacks leaves within twelve months of enrolling at the Corrections Academy. Guards boast the highest rates of divorce, heart disease, addiction and the shortest life spans of any state civil servant. The profession also carries a social stigma, which is reinforced by brutal images in the media. As a result, a majority of guards lie about what they do for a living.
Worse, officers must live in constant fear of injury, and of contracting diseases (AIDS, TB) that run rampant in prisons. They also live in fear of retaliation by prisoners who have been released. To protect themselves and their families, most guards will not talk about where they live. They even conceal their first names. Partly for this reason, nametags are issued with first initials only.
Because of the unequal power relationships between guards and prisoners, their interactions are necessarily strange and unnatural. There is antagonism and exploitation. At the same time, there is also intimacy. The unequal relationship, Conover shows, is in some ways as demeaning for the guards as for the prisoners:
A consequence of putting men in cells and controlling their movements is that they can do almost nothing for themselves. For their various needs they are dependent on one person, their gallery officer. Instead of feeling like a big tough guard, the gallery officer at the end of the day feels often feels like a waiter serving a hundred tables or like the mother of a nightmarishly large brood of sullen, dangerous and demanding children. When grown men are infantilized, most don’t take to it too nicely.
Tensions are exacerbated by differences between the groups. The guards are disproportionately white, the prisoners overwhelmingly black. The majority of guards come from upstate, the majority of prisoners from the inner city.
Perhaps even more striking than the differences, Conover shows, are the similarities. Guards and prisoners share a threatening, confining, high-stress environment. Both surrender their personal identities to a uniform and a system of regimentation. They are segregated (mostly) by gender and contend with an arcane, inefficient bureaucracy. Both participate occasionally in the same black market economy. They share the same boredom, interrupted by the same threatening excitement. Despite differences in racial make-up, both tend to be from lower-income backgrounds. Indeed, many guards like many criminals take up the profession as a last resort, an escape from poverty.
The book will be of particular interest to residents of New York’s Capital Region because an entire chapter is devoted to the New York State Corrections Academy, a place off limits to both journalists and the general public. The stately facility, set back from the road on New Scotland Avenue in Albany, is a former Catholic seminary. Courses in hand-to-hand combat are sometimes taught on marble floors beneath stained glass windows. Then there is the obstacle course: A hanging dummy must be lifted to relieve pressure on its "throat," to simulate suicide prevention. A pair of giant calipers must be squeezed to simulate cuffing a resistant prisoner. New recruits, often in their forties and fifties, are put through a boot camp style initiation. They are yelled at, ridiculed, punished for not making their beds, and made to "Drop and give me twenty!" on a regular basis. It’s a place where grown men occasionally cry. Some leave the program without ever saying goodbye, creating bureaucratic headaches for administrators.
For months Conover’s book was not allowed in New York State prisons, pending a decision by officials. When it was finally approved as prison reading, six pages were removed that were thought to give away too much information about disturbance-control procedures, and thereby compromise security. Conover told The New York Times, "I can’t imagine any real security concern. . . This is not a book about bomb building or revolution. Prison is a small world. There is little in Newjack that inmates don’t already know."Mark Koplik is a Program Assistant at the NYS Writers Institute.
Horton Foote, a playwright and screenplay writer, is famous for his attention to the emotional complexity of his characters and his subtle plots. As many critics have noted, Foote’s reputation as the Chekhov of small-town America is a fitting one. His ability to hear and to translate the Southern voice is often attributed to his own upbringing, since many of his dramas take place in small towns that resemble the one in which he was born: Wharton, Texas. Foote was the son of Albert, a merchant and cotton farmer, and Hallie Foote, and was born on March 14, 1916. Foote originally pursued an acting career. He studied in California (Pasadena Playhouse School of Theatre) and New York (Tamara Darkarhovna School of Theatre) before being cast in several Broadway productions between 1939-42. It was at the end of this period that he produced his first play, Texas Town. Right away, his early plays were received well by critics. As Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times writes in his review of Texas Town, "it is impossible not to believe absolutely in the reality of these characters." Foote, himself, writes that "from the beginning, most of my plays have taken place in the imaginary town of Harrison, Texas, and it seems to me a more unlikely subject could not be found in these days of Broadway and world theatre, than this attempt of mine to recreate a small Southern town and its people. But I did not choose this task, this place, or these people to write about so much as they chose me, and I try to write of them with honesty."
Some of Foote’s critically acclaimed but perhaps lesser known works exemplify the kind of sensitive writing for which he is famous. They include The Displaced Person, Tomorrow (adaptations), The Trip to Bountiful, and Tender Mercies (original screenplays). The Displaced Person (1976) is a color feature that runs for 58 min. It is an adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s short story; the story-line is narrated by Henry Fonda. The Displaced Person offers a sensitive look at a Polish WWII refugee family who must endure the prejudice that afflicts many immigrants who are so industrious that their neighbors or benefactors feel threatened and shamed by the immigrants’ success. Like many of Foote’s films, The Displaced Person takes place in the American South, specifically, on a Georgia farm that is owned by a widow who allows the refugee family to live on and work her land.
Tomorrow is also an adaptation of William Faulkner’s 1939 story Tomorrow. Made in 1972, the film is in black and white and runs for 103 min. The plot is framed in flashback, a technique that expertly details the personal issues of a semi-literate farmer. Played by Robert Duvall, the farmer on jury duty is alone in holding out on a guilty verdict for a young killer. Foote’s script had been used previously in a Playhouse 90 TV version of Tomorrow, which starred Sterling Hayden. Tomorrow is a brilliant work that has been neglected thus far by critics and audiences alike. While his script only uses about 10-15 percent of the Faulkner text, as Terry Barr and Gerald Wood note in their interview, "people say [Tomorrow] is the most Faulkner-like thing they’ve ever seen" (July, 1985). Foote’s response, in part to this statement, explains his ability to translate both Faulkner and O’Connor (as he does in The Displaced Person) so well: "… you know, [O’Connor, Faulkner, and I] shared, I mean, a common language that kind of Southerner has. All my neighbors were Mississippi people or Alabama people. My family came from Alabama and Georgia. It’s the same town, with a variation on a theme… With Flannery and with Faulkner I can hear them, I mean I can go on."
The Trip to Bountiful is Foote’s own made-for-TV play; it was produced in 1985, and is a color film that runs for 102 min. Set in 1947 Houston, the plot revolves around an elderly woman (Mrs. Watts) who is forced by circumstances to live with her son and daughter-in-law. Although the three of them try hard to do the right thing, they cannot seem to get along with each other. In an attempt to escape her living situation, Watts boards a bus to Bountiful, which was her home. During the busride, Watts befriends a younger woman. The busride has in store some unexpected surprises for Mrs. Watts and a reality check that leaves her audience hanging by their heartstrings. Geraldine Page won an Oscar for her sensitive portrayal of Mrs. Watts. Critic Richard A. Blake describes The Trip to Bountiful as "an odyssey of the human spirit."
Tender Mercies, produced in 1983 (92 min. long and in color), is also an original screenplay by Foote and one of his better-known works. It is about a once-famous country western singer, Mac (played by Robert Duvall), who finds himself broke and shored at a roadside motel after a two to three day drinking binge. Unable to pay the tab on the room, he convinces the widowed woman who owns the motel/gas station to let him work off the money that he owes her. She agrees, with the understanding that he will not drink on the premises. After regaining his happiness with the widow, Rosa Lee (played by Tess Harper), Mac must face his past, the family that he divorced himself from, and his future, his career. Duvall puts in a stunning performance; he won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and several Critic’s awards for the film. Tender Mercies is not just an excellent movie, but a work of art. As David Sterritt from the Saturday Evening Post writes, "the excitement of Tender Mercies lies below the surface. It’s not the quick change of fast action, the flashy performances or the eye-zapping cuts. Rather, it’s something much more rare—the thrill of watching characters grow, personalities deepen, relationships ripen and mature. It’s the pleasure of rediscovering the dramatic richness of decency, honesty, compassion and a few other qualities that have become rare visitors to the silver screen." Unlike other films that Foote has done, Tender Mercies was not commissioned by a producer. Foote originally became interested in the subject matter through his nephew’s involvement with a country-western band. Upon mentioning his idea for the film to a number of people from Twentieth-Century Fox, Foote was met with interest and support; however, his contacts fell through and he was left to write Tender Mercies on his own: "I didn’t have any, you know, help from the studio. And whatever happens to your imagination, [Mac] became quite interesting to me… And I read [the rough screenplay] to Duvall, and he said, ‘I want to do it’" (interview, 1985). After Duvall asked Foote to complete the film, Foote’s studio backing fell through; however, both Duvall and Foote sought to find a producer. As it turned out, Foote not only wrote the screenplay to the movie, but co-produced it (with Duvall) as well. Foote’s touch is empathetic and revealing. Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times that "Foote’s screenplay… doesn’t overexplain or overanalyze. It has a rare appreciation for understatement, which is the style of its characters… [it is] the best thing he’s ever done for films."
Horton Foote is perhaps most famous for his adaptation of the Harper Lee novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, a film that was made in 1962. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and was honored with three: Gregory Peck (as Atticus Finch) won for Best Actor, Foote won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, and the team of Art Directors/ Set Decorators also received the top honor. Bosley Crowther, from the New York Times, acclaims the film’s "feeling for children… There is… so much delightful observation of their spirit, energy, and charm… Especially in their relations with their father." Another adaptation of Foote’s that received excellent reviews is his Old Man (1997), based on William Faulkner’s Old Man. One of Foote’s major projects was a nine-part dramatic series called The Orphan’s Home, which follows many generations of a Texan family that must deal with hardships during the decline of the plantation aristocracy. The series includes 1918, On Valentines Day, and Convicts. Of 1918, Vincent Canby (the New York Times) writes that the film is a "writer’s movie… One that, for better or worse, pays no attention to the demands for pacing and narrative emphasis that any commercially oriented Hollywood producer would have insisted on. The very flatness of its dramatic line is its dramatic point." Foote’s writing, sometimes called minimalistic, is nevertheless evocative and satisfying. Despite a prolific and successful career in Hollywood, Foote remains an artist. Much of his recent work has been with the Dramatistis Play Service in New York City: The Young Man from Atlanta (a 1995 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Drama), Laura Dennis (1996), Taking Pictures (1996), Night Seasons (1996). Most recently, the Signature Theatre Company (NYC) produced Foote’s The Last of the Thorntons (1999).
Another of Foote’s recent ventures is his memoir, Farewell: A Memoir of a Texas Childhood. Jack Helbig, from Booklist, describes Foote as "a sneaky storyteller. His tales, most of them set in the Texas of his childhood, unfold with the slow, easy grace of a flower opening to the sun. But this languor is deceptive, because before each story ends, it shakes the audience to the roots… by the end of the all-too-brief, beautifully written volume, Foote’s relations feel like our family, and Foote’s memories of life in the segregated South before and during the Great Depression seem more vivid than any of our own." Wendy Smith, a reviewer for Amazon.com, notes that "Southerners have always been famous for their ability to spin yarns, and Foote captures that in extended passages of conversation. Direct quotes are generally cause for suspicion in a memoir, but when the dialogue has the same vigor and subtlety found in the author’s screenplays and plays, you’re willing to give Foote the benefit of the doubt." Foote uses the child’s point of view to allow the reader’s immersion in his tale, giving the reader a larger sense of community with his characters.
Terry Barr and Gerald Wood, in their 1985 interview, compare Foote’s character-writing techniques to the sensitive character portrayals of filmmaker Francois Truffaut: "…Truffaut says the same thing [that sometimes you almost have to reduce some of the drama to make it fiction]. The reason he takes away some of the drama is he respects them almost as people, even though they are characters. He doesn’t want to peek into their bedrooms; he wants to give them their privacy. I sense almost the same thing in you—this deep sensitivity and sympathy, as Truffaut calls it, for your characters. And, uh, you could go for the cheap shot—or the Hollywood shot—to make things big, but that wouldn’t be appropriate to their story or the feelings they have." Foote’s response, "and I think it’s finally empty, too," punctuates his agreement with the interviewers and with a way of writing that evolves characters’ personalities instead of exposing them.
Foote’s empathy towards his characters is evident in his insistence on the faultiness of the term "common man." When his interviewers, Barr and Wood, bring up the theme of the common man in his work, he says "I don’t think I’m interested in the common man. I think I’m interested in the uncommon man (laughs). I don’t know what the common man is." However, Barr and Wood are correct when they say "most people would look at your work and say you are dealing with pretty average people." Foote’s response clarifies his message: "Yeah, but I don’t know how average my people are… I think I’m too interested in the particulars. When I think of the common man, I always think of a kind of a symbol. I mean, Frost deals with the common man, but my God, you know, just think of all the peculiarities and eccentricities..."
The fusion of honest characters to whom people can relate well with the subtle and intimate nature of his writing gives Foote’s work a power that is not lost even in our action-movie oriented society. Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times writes, "what seems remarkable about Foote’s career, is that across all the media and amid all the conflicts of art versus commerce, in which art is always the long-odds underdog, he has produced a coherent body of work… It is most often an intimate, loving, perceptive exploration of ordinary people and their often extraordinary resilience, courage, persistence and wisdom in the face of trials, disappointments and dreams that have had to be deferred or abandoned." Foote’s style reflects his characters and their resilience. Samuel G. Freedman from the New York Times Magazine, notes that "the key to Foote’s writing, the signature of his style, is the ability to convey both melodramatic events and loquacious language in a spare, reductive manner. While his plots suggest Faulkner, his style shares more with Katharine Anne Porter, and he is influenced primarily by poetry, the most skeletal of forms." Foote’s style, in terms of both plot structure and dialogue, lends itself to a continuous, constantly evolving sort of film. This technique brings the audience into a familiarity with his characters, one that is seldom seen in many movies. When talking about Hoffman’s Death of a Salesman, Foote indicates his passion for the evolving plot: "I didn’t like the television thing so much. And I think partly because I found that business of stopping every two minutes for a commercial was just deadly. You can’t sustain a production like that" (interview, 1985). Foote’s plots, though, are not the sort of material that anyone would want to have broken by commercial breaks. His work is simply too engrossing.Kerry Morris is a summer Program Assistant at the NYS Writers Institute.
Kaye Gibbons, Afternoon Seminar Transcript, April 23, 1998
Host: Let me introduce Kaye Gibbons to you. She is known primarily for her novels about women in the South. Ellen Foster, an account of a young girl raised by relatives after her mother’s suicide, was characterized by the London Sunday Times as "fresh, instant, and enchanting . . . a first novel that does not put a foot wrong in its sureness of style, tone and characterization." The second novel, A Virtuous Woman, published in 1989 also received high praise both in America and abroad. The San Francisco Chronicle called it "a perfect little gem." "A Cure for Dreams," stated the LA Times Book Review, is "full of unforgettable scenes and observations, characters drawn surely and sharply, and writing that is both lyrical and lightning keen." This is the type of commentary that runs across all of her work. Both her fourth book Charms For The Easy Life, and Sights Unseen, her fifth novel, were bestsellers. In 1996, Kaye Gibbons became the youngest writer ever to receive the Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres recognizing her contribution to literature. Her most recent book, On The Occasion Of My Last Afternoon, was published last spring .
Kaye Gibbons: I’ll say just two brief things. I don’t like to leave home. I’ve become reclusive, not in a J.D. Salinger way, but in a Southern woman way. You just run to Piggly Wiggly and come home. But because William Kennedy asked me to, I agreed to come. I remember years ago we had the same agent. My agent said to me in conversation, ‘I was talking to Bill Kennedy the other day and he praised your language.’ I got all shook up and called my husband and told everyone I knew. It was like being blessed by God; it was wonderful. I haven’t gotten over it yet: my head is still just big enough to fit between the stove and the oven hood where your head should fit, that’s it.
I look out over the crowd, and it isn’t the usual. I see students. I see men. Usually I get a fairly homogenized range of women between twenty-five and sixty who read Southern books written by me and Danielle Steele, and The Bible. That’s some dirty, some blessing, and some literature. I’m a little nervous. My face is red because I’m afraid no one will laugh at my jokes, which is the reason Josephine Humphreys gave for leaving Harvard after six weeks. We were on the Louis Lanfree show together and he asked her in a way to entrap her, to make her feel not so bright, ‘Why did you leave Harvard after six weeks?’ And she said, ‘Nobody laughed at my jokes. So I went back to the South.’ But at least I will say them slowly.
Host: Please start by talking about Ellen Foster.
Kaye Gibbons: I wrote Ellen Foster not in a writing class. Other people do well in writing classes. But after sitting in a poetry writing class for one day and being asking to write a Haiku at night after my waitressing job and before my four o’clock job started at the library, I wanted to cut my throat. I went into class with something that I’d stolen from a book in the library, and it wasn’t good enough though I copied it from a master. I dropped out after one day. The teacher is still very angry although he says we studied together, at this point. I wrote it because I was studying the history of Southern literature and history of literature in Ireland. We were reading William Faulkner in tandem with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But we were reading Ulysses when I started realizing that I could use my own voice, I didn’t have to acquire, assume, steal, beg, or borrow the voice of a dead white European male to write a story. Once a young person makes that discovery, the world opens up. I think so many young people start out writing, and they don’t realize that the voice is already within. You don’t have to mimic, and you don’t have to acquire and put on airs, as my mother would have said. The point of Ellen Foster was to use a simple voice to convey the highest aspirations that I figured mankind had—love, death, loss, want, hope and the loss of hope. I thought that I needed to be Proust in order to do that. Then I realized I could be Bertha Kaye, and I could pull that off. That came from reading the poetry of James Weldon Johnson, who wrote at the turn of the century, Reading God’s Trombones. He said in one line talking about the Creation, that the night was blacker than a hundred midnights in a cypress swamp. I was made rigid by that language, so I started Ellen Foster. It began with a poem written from the point of view of Starletta, the black child in it. Then I realized after I wrote the poem that I thought I could sustain it for the length of a novel, never having tried one but having read plenty. I didn’t know what I was doing, but at the same time I knew exactly what I was doing. There is always that dichotomy when it comes to writing. After writing that poem from the black girl’s point of view I realized that I didn’t have the authority to write from a black person’s point of view. I could do it in a superficial way, but I didn’t know the heart and mind. I didn’t know the struggle, so I made her a secondary character, and I incorporated my own life into Ellen Foster. I heard the voice say, ‘When I was little I would think of ways in which to kill my daddy.’ As I do with every book, I hear a first line and I create a person who would have said that. I see the person, I see the house. It is like watching a movie. Moving around in the landscape, I wrote and wrote. I can remember wondering at one point, how long is a novel? I’m typing it. How long is it? P. J. O’Rourke talks about this, about doing constant page counts, and he went and pulled a book of the shelf and so did I. I pulled John Fowles’ book off the shelf and counted up that he only had forty-thousand words. So I said, well what the hell. I can do forty-thousand words, and I said that’s about a hundred and twenty-five pages. So I started writing and it just so happened that the story wrapped itself up on a hundred and twenty-eight pages, and I thought I should get paid extra for those extra three. I made no money off the first book. Initially, my advance was fifteen hundred dollars, which was spent in three minutes. Later, a wonderful agent called the publisher and said, please give the girl some more money. She has a baby and one on the way, and she needs to eat. She can’t be a starving artist in a shack. So I’m very grateful to Liz for that. But that’s how Ellen Foster came about. I didn’t write it as a catharsis, as a way to get rid of all this emotion about my parents’ death or the mistreatment I felt as a child. I wrote it as a literary exercise, to come back and close in this way of seeing how far I could push this simple voice. How much could I say in laymen’s terms, the way Stephen Jay Gould can write about the [unintelligible] and about minutiae of scientific artifacts. I wanted to understand that gift that he had and that other people had.
Host: Why did you develop the character as being so introspective and withdrawn, not venting her thoughts and feelings?
Kaye Gibbons: I think probably because I was so influenced by Catcher And The Rye. I started rereading that a couple of months ago and I had to stop three-quarters of the way through when he is in Phoebe’s bedroom because I became over stimulated and I would point to passages and say oh my god I didn’t realize I had stolen that. I didn’t realize what I was doing. I didn’t realize how far down in my soul that book was. So when it came my turn to write, I incorporated some rhymes, I incorporated the exaggeration of the hyperbole. And the way I let her have emotion without having her cry and emote all the time and be a soap opera character, which would grate on my nerves anyway, is I had her speak in metaphor and simile. I learned that from James Weldon Johnson who, in the introduction of the book American Negro Poetry, said instead of writing in dialect... (and I didn’t want to have black people in the book talking dialect and I didn’t want to write dialect; I didn’t want my book to look like Uncle Remus; I didn’t want to have Ellen Foster say we was or he be going to. I wanted to respect her and by respecting a person you respect their language. Sometimes I elevate language so I can have some respect for the person.)... James Weldon Johnson said he wanted to find a language that was pure and more genuine by using symbols from within rather than symbols from without. By symbols from within he meant metaphor, simile, and theme, all these things we learn in 101 as basic components of writing. Especially poetry in the new critical sense of poetry—I’m still hung on new criticism. I’ve not graduated on to all the other stuff which is just something to do. Cleauth Brooks taught me how to read, and I appreciate that, God rest him. I didn’t use punctuation in the book because it occurred to me that if the voice was strong enough, I didn’t need it. I was reeling from reading Ulysses anyway and just foolish and brave enough to think, hell, if he can do it, I can too. But Seventeen magazine wouldn’t serialize the book because I refused to punctuate it for them. It would have been a lot of trouble. My typewriter was broken and I kind of added up the time it would have taken me against what they offered and I said it just wasn’t worth it. I didn’t think that would be the audience anyway.
Host: But you actually considered it?
Kaye Gibbons: Yes, for a little more money I would have done it because I had an uninsured baby on the way. I had gestational diabetes so I knew it was going to be a long and expensive trip in O.B. so, yeah, I almost did it. I almost fell for it, but I didn’t do it thank goodness.
Host: It’s funny how art gets made. Why did you leave it so ambiguous as to whether or not Ellen’s father had sexually abused her?
Kaye Gibbons: Because it was so autobiographical at times that I wanted it to be ambiguous as to whether or not I suffered that in my life. I have what my psychologist calls screen memory. Elliot says human kind can not bear very much reality and in writing this I bore as much reality as I could stand and then I made stuff up. I left it ambiguous intentionally and I think part of the reader’s job is to figure stuff out. About the middle of April I start getting letters from students who’s teachers encourage them to write and ask twelve, fifteen, twenty-five questions like that: "Who is the magician, what does the magician mean?" I’m not going to write back and say the magician is a bit of magical realism. I wanted to play with magical realism, so I did it for a few pages. I’m not going to do that, I don’t have the time. What I did do one time, and I felt awful about it, was I was in just a bad enough mood to write back and say, "When I was in high school and studied Mark Twain I didn’t have a séance to ask him about Huck Finn." I just believed that once I have written this that it is everyone’s job to figure it out and to draw their own conclusions, although sometimes they can be wrong and when they are wrong I will tell them. There was a girl at Yale who was doing her Senior thesis on my work and she sent it to me and I thumbed through it and I saw something phenomenal. She said that Ellen Foster had named her pony Dolphin because of a mythology in which the dolphin is a symbol of every lasting life. Ellen thought she could escape the quotidian worries of her life by riding this dolphin. It went on and on for pages. I had to write her back. I felt awful doing it. But while I was editing that section, my daughter and I were watching Flipper. Sometimes the art comes from above and sometimes it comes from Nick At Night.
Host: If Ellen had such strong prejudices against black people, why was her best friend portrayed as a black girl?
Kaye Gibbons: Because Ellen Foster at the beginning of the book starts out parroting the prejudices of her father. When I speak at colleges sometimes I can tell when the question is coming: "Why did you have the father say ‘nigger’? Why did you use that word in this politically correct time?" I have to say the book is set around 1965 or 1968. They are talking about Castro. The time is ambiguous also. I could not have had the father, who was a white farming bigot, say anything else. It would not have been true. Toni Morrison wouldn’t have approved of it. Certainly Alice Walker would not have approved of it. I can’t go back and rectify wrongs by correcting a character’s language. I have to be honest. I have, over the thirteen years that I have been writing, developed a real repugnance for any writing that isn’t authentic or any kind of living or anyone who likes that Kierkegaardian authenticity. It is really the only thing I pulled out of existentialism in college. I made a C and said to my professor, "But you said it wouldn’t matter." That’s all I remember, that and the middle class is always rising. I remember that from history. But then Ellen grows, and she grows through this relationship with the black family. By the end of the book, the last pages are all about Starletta, and I can remember writing this. I wrote it on a typewriter that I got at the Sears surplus store, on a door on two saw benches. They are in bed together and she said, "But while I watch her asleep now I remember they changed that rule so it does not make any sense for me to feel like I’m breaking the law. Nobody but a handful of folks I know pays attention to rules about how you treat somebody anyway, but as I lay in that bed and watch my Starletta fall asleep I figure if they could fight a war over how I’m suppose to think about her, then I’m obligated to do it and it seems like the decent thing to do. I came a long way to get here, but when you think about it real hard you will see that old Starletta came even farther. I watch her resting now because soon we’ll be eating supper and maybe some cake tonight, and I’ll say, ‘Starletta you sure have a right to rest,’ and all this time I thought I had the hardest road to hoe. That will always amaze me." So at this point what I was trying to do... in my mind I felt bodily pulled out of my chair and swept back in time like in those old movies when the pages role off the calendar. I felt yanked back to 1865, and I saw that Starletta had had a harder road to hoe. By the end of it she is not only not a racist. She is a champion of this ordered existence, a pure existence that admits anyone, white, black, yellow, green. So she does start out a racist, as so many of us do when we parrot what we hear. I think that racism is obliterated at supper tables. I think that it begins with legislation, but I think it happens at the supper table. And that’s where it happens with her.
Host: A lot of people make mistakes, I think, reading your work. At least they read it naively, mistaking the character for the author, or assuming there is some natural relationship. That is where some of these estimations of politically incorrect judgements are coming in and applying to you. Too many times people, I think, are unable to make that willing suspension of disbelief, that leap, in some way.
Kaye Gibbons: I think it’s because it’s not taught in school anymore. I’m kind of shocked when I go to high schools and colleges and I talk about layers of narration, or the teller and the tale, the difference between the narrator and the author participants, as in Canterbury Tales, or what happens to the first person narrator in Madam Bovary. Sometimes I see enthusiastic faces. Often I get the jaw drop and the blank faces. I believe that Canterbury Tales should be taught in the third grade, and they should be beaten up with it until graduate school. I write in first person because it’s all I know how to do. I would love to write in the omniscient, but I don’t know how to do it. I try, for thirty pages of every book. Every time I start a new book, I write thirty pages of omniscient narration about my sister. Then I realize how terrible it is, and then I realize that I can do the first person, so why not do that? I don’t think I’ll ever stop. I don’t see myself stopping. On my tombstone they can put, "That was all she could do." I use to apologize for it and do self-deprecating things like saying if I had a better vocabulary, I could do omniscient narration. I could have a better vocabulary if I tried, but I would rather use metaphor and simile. I love hearing these people talk. I love listening.
Host: Well so do we. There is a new verb that has been added to the language. How does it feel to be Oprahed?
Kaye Gibbons: The show [Oprah Winfrey Book Club]was on last year about right now. She called. Do you want to hear how it happened?
Host: Whatever you want to say.
Kaye Gibbons: I was having a really rotten time because I’d been working on On The Occasion Of My Last Afternoon for two years and I had nine hundred useless pages. I was writing it as a Civil War diary, and after writing for six months, the woman’s life had gone along for three days. I called my agent and said, "Well maybe we should do a three-volume thing," and she said, "I think not." I was scared, terrified, and I wasn’t hearing the voice. Nothing magical was happening, and I didn’t want to talk to anybody. All I wanted to do was be still and let the answers come to me. That’s what I got off of Chicago Hope yesterday: when the surgeon and the electrician were stuck in the elevator, he said, "Be still and let the answer come to you," so that’s what I was trying to do. I got out of the shower and said, "No phone calls except my editor who is my best friend and my husband and any emergencies from the children." The woman who works with me, Kelly, came into the bathroom with a portable phone and said would you talk to Oprah Winfrey. I said, "Yeah, you just want to see me naked." She said "No, no." I had received nice little cards from her before. She had read all the books and liked them. So when I heard it was her, I sort of had a feeling of what it was about. I sat down anyway and she said that she wanted the first two. I realized from having read before in the media, what this could do to your life and it sounded like a bunch of fun. So I said, "Great, when do we start?" At the same time, a movie was being made for Hallmark, so I knew I wouldn’t get any work done for a long time. I couldn’t be still and let that voice come. Things were starting right away. When I hung up the phone the paperback people called and the editor said, "Mazel tov," and I said, "Whatever that means, I hope you’re glad." He said he was and that it was astounding and frightening. When I wrote Ellen Foster, I had this feeling that forty people would read it, and that was all I wanted. I knew a woman in the mountains who used to sell folk art and when she had sold twenty things in one day, she wouldn’t sell anymore. I have this real feeling that I wanted to do well but I didn’t want to do well at the same time. I felt suddenly exposed, and that I would have to come out of the house and get my eyebrows done and stop biting my nails—change some habits. The best thing to happen with it was that Oprah made the project that my husband and I have to create libraries in orphanages, to use a politically incorrect term, if possible. She made that her project for the month and they got loads and loads of money and books. But it was frightening. When we did the dinner, I realized that she was the most powerful person. I do karma and aura, and she had this bright orange aura and she had the most powerful karma that I’d ever been around. Now I’ve been around Hillary Clinton and she could eat that woman alive. And when I would say something that I knew would be a take and she knew would be a take, she’d do that. I said I wasn’t going to cry and get emotional, but she can pull anything out of you. It was like being in the hands of a very good psychologist, under hypnosis, that’s how I felt. Then both books were on the paperback bestseller’s list for, I think, sixteen weeks or until the next Oprah book came along. We were very glad that they were children books because they are harder to sell. They stayed on, and I’ve never been so damn glad to get off the best seller list in all my life. It was just a relief. I could go back home and sit on my little stool in the kitchen and try to have a normal life. It was hard writing with all this going on. It was very hard to let that voice come to me, but I threw out the nine hundred pages and in January started the new book and wrote it in three months.
Host: I wanted to come back to something you’ve said about layering your work and revisions and bringing other characters in.
Kaye Gibbons: I was going to do this thing about taking a book to market because the Oprah thing is a great introduction to that. I’m reading a book on asylums right now. I’m writing a book that partly has to do with severe mental illness. I read a section on the plane, and I want to say that writing a book is totally different from marketing a book. Recently I heard James Taylor comment on the stress of that. Until this last book came out, reviews treated me very nicely because I was a nice girl and I was young. I had all these children and my husband was nice and I had a rough life. I let everyone know about it, so hopefully they would give me a break. After the Oprah thing, boy, did they come gunning for me. It was as though I had done something offensive to a lot of reviewers. But I did read, he says, "Putting a book out there to be reviewed and having to put up with the stress of that is a lot like going into a mental institution, a state mental institution. Learning to live under conditions of imminent exposure and wide fluctuation in regard, with little control over the granting or withholding of this regard is an important step in the socialization of the patient, a step that tells something important about what it’s like to be an inmate in a mental hospital. Having one’s past mistakes and present progress under constant moral review and scrutiny seems to make for a special adaptation consisting of a less then moral attitude to ego ideals." That means it is demoralizing. "One’s shortcomings and successes become too central and fluctuating an issue in life to allow the usual commitment of concern for other persons’ views of them." In other words, you read that review and you know that’s all anybody in the world thinks of your book. "It is not very practical to try to sustain solid claims about one’s self. The inmate tends to learn that degradations and reconstructions of the self need not be given too much weight." That’s when you finally learn to say it doesn’t matter… "at the same time as learning that other inmates are ready to view an inflation or deflation of self with some indifference." That means when your friends get really tired of hearing you say, "I really hate Jonathan Yardley."… "He learns that a defensible picture of self can be seen as something outside of one’s self that can be constructed, lost, and rebuilt all with great speed and some equanimity." That means you need to get your act together before you go on the book tour, because if you go into a city on Monday and you’ve had a lousy review on Sunday, you have to act like not only do you not care, you’re actually pretty proud of it… "He learns about the viability of taking up a standpoint that the editor is a jerk. Enhance the self that is outside the one, which the hospital can give and take away from him." That taught me, finally, how, to deal with it, because I’ve been a mental patient and writer long enough to know I can see a correlation, and I thank God that this person put it into perspective.
Host: Was it painful to write Ellen Foster, and were you compelled to write it?
Kaye Gibbons: It wasn’t painful to write. I did it with a sort of cognitive dissonance because it was such an artistic exercise, almost a classroom exercise for myself in the use of narration. I wasn’t busy trying to expunge all these emotions I had. I went through the Kubler Ross grief therapy and did a lot of that. I’m writing a book about my mother right now, a nonfiction one, which is terribly painful to write. I’ll write two paragraphs and cry and write two paragraphs and cry. But this one wasn’t painful to write. What was painful was lying for two years in interviews. When I went out traveling with this book and did interviews I was always asked if this was autobiographical and I would say, "No" partly because if you’ve had a parent who’s committed suicide, you feel guilt. I felt guilt for twenty years because maybe I caused it because I made her eat the green lifesavers. If you’ve experienced this you understand it. And I didn’t want people to know my father was an alcoholic. I went through a twelve step program and got rid of all that. Also, I didn’t want to be called an autobiographical writer because to me, that sounded lesser. I wanted to be a regular writer. I didn’t want to be labeled that way. In the same way I never wanted to be labeled Southern or regional. Then they would say, "How did your mother die?" Kidney failure, heart disease, train accident. I started reading reviews and interviews and she died about fifty ways. Then I thought if anyone looked at these they would say that she was lying or she’s a nut. She is a pathological liar. I did an interview with Don O’Brian in the Atlanta paper, and he was so nice, so very tender and nice that I couldn’t lie anymore. I grew up right then. I grew up and became not just a writer, but an author who’s learned how to manage and handle questions that sometimes are very intrusive. It’s amazing the things some people will ask, now that people know that my mother committed suicide. I’ll have an audience of two hundred and someone will stand up and ask, "How?" I find that really bizarre. But I had to decide how far I would go, and what I usually say is that the book is more emotionally autobiographical then factually autobiographical.
Host: Are you a disciplined writer? Do you write on a schedule?
Kaye Gibbons: No, we have three children at home and sometimes five. We have five cats and four dogs, and whenever I get the urge to have another child, we get another cat. Life is pretty wild and hectic. Our house at various times is like a zoo. It’s hard to maintain a schedule. I used to say I’d write on a day when no child came down the steps and said, "I think I’m going to throw up." I realized that it was more important to take that child to the doctor that day then write. I can write when I’m sixty but I can’t take a child to the dentist or the doctor or to buy socks. I can’t do that then. So I’m more focused on my family. I tend to write in spurts, because I’m manic depressive, and when I’m depressed, I watch television and sit in one couch and look at the other one, and count the tiles on the floor. But when I’m manic, really manic, that’s dangerous, andI don’t do anything but shop. On the way to Sak’s there is this avenue called Hypomania, and the symptoms of being a writer exactly correlate with those of being hypomania, hypomanic. You don’t hear voices, but you can discern those metaphors and similes very carefully and have a clear picture of the world. You seem to understand everything. Your thoughts become more eloquent and ordered and systematic. You have all the tools you need to write. There is a very good book called Touched By Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison who wrote The Unquiet Mind, who explains this correlation between hypomania and mania. When I’m hypomanic, about three or four months out of the year, I write, but I go to see my doctor every day and he knows that we play a game with the devil to keep me like that. It’s wonderful writing like that because you seem to make no mistakes. Then the reviewers will later point those out for you. But if you’re manic you don’t believe you made them. So it’s wonderful, it’s like being Super Woman. I also want to say, that the reason why I couldn’t come here before, is I went about 70 hours writing without sleeping, and I suffered the effects. You do that for 100 hours and you die from sleep deprivation and nervous exhaustion. But that’s the way the book came out. It’s not something I would like to do again, but I might. I can’t promise that I’ll be a good girl and write from noon until four. Sometimes the words aren’t there, and so I clean out my sock drawer or watch soap operas.
Host: Kaye, would you talk about Virtuous Woman?
Kaye Gibbons: I didn’t like writing it. I don’t want to say I don’t like the book because they are for sale out there, and it would be horrible for a writer to say I don’t like the book. I wrote the book. It was due on the day my second baby was due. I was so busy writing it that I didn’t get the nest ready. Any mother here will know that you wet the end of a q-tip with clorox and you clean all the window sills and you vacuum the light fixtures. I never got to do that, and I felt angry and I didn’t finish the book. When she came home from the hospital, I would nurse on one side and type and then switch sides. She would get colic in about a minute-and-a-half, then things got real interesting. I didn’t like the process of writing the book. I wrote it in about eighteen voices to begin with and it was so terrible that my agent was worried about it and my sanity. She was so worried about telling me that it was awful that she called my psychologist—she has his inside line—and asked if it was ok to tell me that the book was awful. He said yes but let her be around a supportive environment. So I started rewriting and I thought the easiest thing to do was to tell it from a dead woman’s point of view, because it would give me a lot of latitude. I could say anything I wanted to. So I wrote the woman’s point of view and the man’s point of view and shuffled them together. When I write a book after a couple of years, I close it. After writing the Civil War book my husband will say, "Do you want to read a Civil War article from the New York Times?" No, absolutely not. I never ever want to do that as long as I live. I heard that John Updike was sitting around recently rereading his old work, but I don’t do that because I might see that a line was weak and that whole chapter was sorrier, non-inventive. Oprah said this is the best thing she ever did for my career in a Unitarian sort of way. She held it up and said, "America you’ve been wanting a love story, well here it is." I never had thought of it as a love story but boy did a lot of people want to read a love story, thank the Lord.
Host: You had said in writing Charms For The Easy Life that you came onto the grandmother character in your final revision—that she hadn’t been there at all before. I find it fascinating that all of a sudden she popped up and was the catalyst that brought the story together.
Kaye Gibbons: I do that because I can do one character at a time and one draft. I rewrite so much that it is hard to tell one draft from another. I never get all the way to the end and call one the first draft. As I write and rewrite I got this idea from Alan Gurganus on how to keep yourself from writing the same thing over and over again, or doing what my editor calls surgical rewriting. You know, rewriting a paragraph without looking at it in a homeopathic way: What is wrong with this whole damn book? It’s certainly not just this paragraph. It’s the whole thing, we got to take it apart. I know I’m in trouble when my editor says, "I think you need to sit down and rekey the whole thing," which is her code to rewrite the whole thing. I will add a character in every draft or give a character a different attribute, and it keeps things interesting. Usually in the last go through, the character who pulls everything together will come to life. When I turned in Charms For The Easy Life the first time it was called Eagle Avenue, and it was flat and terrible and I didn’t want to admit it. I thought maybe by some magic formula that Fed-Ex would convert it into some magical sellable novel on the way to New York, and it didn’t happen. My editor called me and faxed me to double the pain and said some parts are wonderful but in the main the characters are lifeless, not only lifeless but forlorn. They don’t speak, they don’t walk, you can’t hear them, but the details are wonderful. I thought, "Great. I have three months to invent a whole family." That’s why I usually only have an only child because it’s so hard to do siblings. In the last book, I did a sibling relationship, but I kept them separated by distance and then I had to kill one when he threatened to come back into the family and I would have had to deal with him. I’m watching my children to see how they interact, and since they mainly fight, I’ve learned that in the next novel in maybe six or seven years from now, they’ll all just fight.
Host: How did you get Ellen Foster published? We don’t just have to talk about Ellen Foster, but that’s fine.
Kaye Gibbons: I was in this course at UNC. I was studying the history of literature in Ireland and also in the South. My teacher was an editor, and I let him read the first three pages because he was the most honest man I had ever known and I trusted him. The only man I thought I would have liked better to have read the book was Winston Churchill but as he was not available, I used Lewis Rubin. He asked me right away after he read it, "Do you know you’re a writer?" I started to feel around in that Rodney Dangerfield way—not me. I had a child in the hospital and everybody seemed to have an ear infection. I felt a mother, a waitress. Hell, I was waitressing three jobs and tutoring football players and doing everything I could to survive. Certainly, I was not a writer. But when he told me that, it sunk in and I believe it. I went to the next class,which was Shakespeare, and while writing about Cleopatra, I started to realize what he said was true. I thought, you know, if you’re a writer and you’re going to do well, you can write out of this exam, which would have been great because I didn’t know the answer anyway. I stuck it out and I wrote my answer and he happened to be the editor and owner of this publishing company. He said he would publish it. So the book wasn’t shopped around, it wasn’t refused by other places, though it very well could have been. I was saved that horror by Lewis Rubin. I think it was the first time in years and years that I had any feeling of self esteem. I stayed with him till he retired, and I didn’t want to be there without him so then I moved to Putnam.
Host: Was it difficult to find Jack’s voice in A Virtuous Woman because he was a man?
Kaye Gibbons: I made him feminine inside. I can remember a question in Lewis Rubin’s class. We were studying Eudora Welty and he asked, "What made these details feminine?" I raised my hand and said that she was sewing and she died matching a hard plaid. That is a feminine detail and I remembered that and in writing Jack’s voice I fused him with a lot of femininity. I kept Alan Alda in mind, I’m not kidding you. I was writing this at the time of the rebirth, the resurgence of the new American male. Jack was this person. He was tender, warm, and needy, and these are traits that we always think about as being womanly. I just made him a man. I was real pregnant, and that is what I wanted to concentrate on and I did not have the energy in my life to sit around and try to divine the male psyche at that point. It’s still hard to do. Before I met and married my husband, I killed men right away, very quickly with great force and violence in my books. When I ran out of ways to kill them, stabbing, shooting, smothering, (if he is still wiggling, you aren’t holding the pillow down hard enough), then to get rid of the men ,I just had a woman wish her husband dead, and he died during the night. Then, after I met my husband, there was such a thing as a good man. I put him in Charms For The Easy Life, and Sights Unseen and most conspicuously in On The Occasion Of My Last Afternoon, and some of the reviews said that Dr. Lowle was too perfect. Well my husband isn’t too perfect but he is perfect. I should fire off letters and say come and stay with my husband for a few days and you’ll see someone more real than any character that I could create in fiction.
Kerry Morris is a Program Assistant at the NYS Writers Institute.
David Halberstam reminds us why journalism matters. And these days, perhaps more than ever, we need that reminder.
He reminds us of the importance of journalism as a sort of history on the run, the 50-meter-dash of history, perceptively and courageously recording for us what is happening now, and why it is happening, as best we can understand. From his earliest newspaper career at a small daily in West Point, Mississippi, where he started after graduating from Harvard in 1955, Halberstam has engaged the swirling controversies of our times -- the civil rights movements he covered, or tried to cover in West Point, Mississippi, and did cover for the Nashville Tennessean; his reporting of the Congolese war for the New York Times; of course his incisive, important New York Times journalism about America's early involvements in Vietnam in 1962 through 1964, which he will discuss tonight; his reporting for the Times from Poland, which expelled him in less than a year (and it may be the mark of good journalists that they are asked to leave wherever they are reporting from); his articles for the vigorous and provocative Harpers Magazine of the Willie Morris days in the late 60s and early 70s and more, his writing for a great old magazine, The Reporter.
And he reminds us that the astute and committed journalist as 50-meter-dash historian can also become the long-distance social historian. His news reporting in Vietnam led him to write two important books, The Making of a Quagmire, and of course, The Best and the Brightest, and his civil rights reporting eventually led him to his 1999 book, The Children, about young leaders of the lunch counter sit-ins and other peaceful civil rights activities in Nashville and the South in the 1960s. You probably know that many writers have stressed the importance of what is called his trilogy on power in America: The Best and the Brightest, The Powers that Be (on the news media), and The Reckoning (on American and Japanese automakers). He also has explained a whole decade in The Fifties, and richly investigated the culture of celebrity, especially in his biography of Michael Jordan, Playing for Keeps.
He reminds us that a good journalist is one of our significant narrators, selecting experiences, organizing experiences, telling us the stories of our lives as we are living them. He has been widely praised for his narrative techniques not only in his nonfiction but in his novels, too, The Noblest Roman and One Very Hot Day.
David Halberstam reminds us that we need, not to judge so quickly, but to consider more carefully. For example, a great many people think that the phrase "sports journalism" is an oxymoron, and that it would take a monumental effort to convince us why we should take sportswriting seriously. But he has done just that in his classic books on sports and athletes, The Breaks of the Game (about one NBA season with the Portland Trailblazers), The Amateurs (about four Olympian scull racers), The Summer of 49 (about the 1949 pennant race between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees), October 1964 (about a glorious baseball season), Sports on New York Radio, and Playing for Keeps, and his editorship of a wonderful volume, The Best American Sportswriting of the Century.
He has been widely honored for his news reporting and for his books, being awarded the Page One Award from the Newspaper Guild of New York, the George Polk Memorial Award, the Overseas Press Club Award, the Political Book Award for The Reckoning, and, of course, the 1964 Pulitzer Prize which he shared with Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press for reporting from Vietnam.
Halberstam once said, in reference to The Reckoning: "I like to think the book has value as an alarm clock, telling Americans there's something very out of sync with their society." I put this idea together with something said by another journalistic icon of the century, Fred Friendly, the longtime collaborator of Edward R. Murrow. Friendly said: "Our job is not to make up anybody's mind but to make the agony of decision-making so intense that you can escape it only by thinking" David Halberstam's journalism wakes us up, and it confronts us to such a degree that we realize we must think about what he is telling us. Professor William Rainbolt is the Interim Director of The Journalism Program at UAlbany.
Even before reading Ben Katchor, we might notice his protagonist’s name Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer (the word knipl actually meaning "nest egg" in Yiddish), and expect some off-color humor, some bizarre juxtapositions, some obsessive attention to place, all of which amount to hilariously funny episodes. The latest in Katchor’s Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer series is The Beauty Supply District; it is a 108 page collection of comic strips, the last of which is a 23 page strip that bears the name of the book’s title. This book opens with "Ornamental Avenue," a guided tour of the upscale museum district in Katchor’s fictional city. Our stroll takes us past a monument to the inventor of pickled herring, the Shoeshine Pavilion, the Municipal Laxative Garden and the Katsigh Collection of Worn Shoes and Broken Laces, to name a few of the Avenue’s attractions. The Beauty Supply District continues in this way—the characters are eccentric yet strangely empathetic, and the buildings that dominate the background of the strips loom over characters who seem immersed in the atmosphere that the buildings create, as if these buildings define them. In "The Parnassian Coffee Shop," a stranger stops Julius Knipl in the middle of the street, saying, "Yes, yes, I know you. Knipl, the photographer, in that building on Rossel Avenue with the terrible restaurant in the basement. That sandwich I ate six weeks ago is still repeating on me." Julius, unsure how to respond, ends up defending the shop. It is as if he has to—the passer-by has already defined Knipl and his business in terms of the bad sandwich experience. Later, we encounter Knipl on the phone, giving the location of his shop, which is—there is no other way to say it—upstairs from the Parnassian Coffee Shop; the street level business is more visible, and will always make the first impression on people who contact Knipl.
As a collection of strips that are not connected by plot, but by thematics, The Beauty Supply District revisits different characters, sites, and ideas, each in a different frame that offsets the previous context. We meet characters who are obsessed with the minutiae of their lives, characters whose lives come to depend on what is, to everyone else, minutiae… for example, the "millionaire" who is riding the wave of the recent muddy-shoe fad: he sells Dourmant Mud Appliqué for those who wish to achieve the proper tone and design on their shoes before actually going out. In Katchor’s sketches, his characters address hard and stark realities through the trivial and frivolous. Issues and societal problems such as the psychological effects of capitalism, the "mid-life crisis," happiness and satisfaction through consumerism, all factor into The Beauty Supply District. The Misspent Youth Center, for example, allows middle aged Americans to retrieve the actual bills that they used to buy things that turned out to be useless or frivolous (general things like the haircut that was way too expensive or specifics, like the paperback edition of Molt’s "Sexual History of the Shower Cap in Ancient Rome" that was bought, but never read). It is through these eclectic things that Katchor’s subjects live their lives (take note, here, of the olive-manufacturer). The things take on a persona, they tell the characters’ stories. It is through these stories of people-things that "Mr. Katchor captures not only the poignancy of lives that have fallen short of expectation, but also the poetry of those seemingly inconsequential lives, sunk in the everydayness of ritual, routine and habit. [Katchor] has written a funny, touching and compassionate ode to the city and the anonymous people who live there" (New York Times book review).
Katchor’s bizarre episodes integrate the kind of humor that arises from banal encounters with his intellectual wit. For the Freud fan, there is a take-off on fetishism in "Psychological Effects of Hair Cutting"—in fact, for the avid reader of psychology (or for anyone who has voyeuristic tendencies) there are numerous case studies, take for example Isidore Tasy, "a self-styled visionary planner" and city lunatic. In "The Beauty Supply District," there is a reference to Kant and Aristotle that points to the overall theme of aesthetics. Perhaps, as readers, we do not notice that each of these cartoons deals with an aesthetic until Katchor reminds us of the book’s title in this last cartoon series. Katchor continually re-defines the term, "aesthetic," sometimes dealing with beauty, sometimes with preference. We are reminded, perhaps morbidly, that there is an aesthetic to violence. This melange of aesthetics is a hybridity that incorporates the violent, the mundane, the beautiful, and the quirky aspects of Katchor’s fictitious city. As Katchor himself says, "It’s like a small encyclopedia of the city" (Mar 2000 interview by Bob Goodman). The city in Katchor’s Julius Knipl books, which include Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay, and Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: Stories, has been likened to New York City by critics, but is meant to be read as the city—the strips deal with things that are common to all cities in a capitalistic economy.
Societal issues coalesce in the small details of Katchor’s characters—details the emblematize the city and layer Katchor’s jokes. Katchor describes his humor as a kind of "Jewish humor that has a punch line on top of a punch line on top of a punch line. By the time you get to the end, you realize there is no joke, and the punch line is at the beginning of a tragedy" (Berkofsy). Joe Berkofsky also notes that the Julius Knipl books, through their dark humor, immerse the reader in "both a soothing daydream and a noirish nightmare. It’s a seemingly random journey through the forgotten detritus of a New York cityscape in which we’ve all lived—or feel we have."
Julius Knipl is a relatively recent invention of Ben Katchor. Before he invented Julius Knipl in 1988, Katchor ran a typesetting business, occasionally publishing his own work. Katchor now teaches a course in comic strips at the School of Visual Arts, while working free-lance as a comic strip artist. Since Julius Knipl’s inception, Katchor has published one other full length book The Jew of New York (1999), as a graphic novel. This work is based on a historical incident—a one-main movement (Major Mordecai M. Noah) in 1825 to establish a Jewish homeland in upstate New York. The story is told primarily in flashback, and centers around the impending theatrical production of The Jew of New York. A "Hebraic comedy," the play takes a soft-shouldered jab at Noah’s adventures through the fictionalized Noah, "Major Ham." Katchor describes the project as a serial novel in the tradition of the Yiddish press, and cites Isaac Bashevis Singer as an example (Singer published a fiction weekly in The Yiddish Forward; Katchor compares it with The Jew of New York, which was published weekly in The English Language Forward) (interview with Natterbox). As in his other cartoons, Katchor is less interested in the Zionist goals of his character than in his delusions of grandeur.
Major Ham is typical of many of Katchor’s subjects, who more often than not unwittingly become critiques of themselves. It is this irony—that our greatest passions often ride the wave of our failings or delusions—that underlies the title of Katchor’s current project, a documentary film entitled Pleasures of Urban Decay. The film is "shot in 1950’s film noir style, with angular buildings, bridges, billboard advertisements and radical changes in perspective—Katchor’s Yiddish-inflected voice guides us as we peer behind the city’s facades and through its cracks" (Pantheon). Those interested in Katchor’s style and contemporary music might also enjoy Katchor’s opera, which played this summer at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The opera is based on a strip that Katchor wrote for Metropolis, called "Carbon Copy Building." It has a unique, two-dimensional, comic strip quality through its use of front and back projections of Katchor’s drawings—projections that surround the characters, flattening their images. Katchor, pleased with the opera’s success, jokes, "for an opera, it’s having a bit of a life" (interview with Natterbox). Katchor has also recently developed another weekly comic strip, The Cardboard Valise. Katchor’s comic strips appear in The Forward and other newspapers, as well as Metropolis magazine. For many years, Katchor has contributed to Raw, an avant-garde magazine founded by Art Spiegelman.
As is true with much avant-garde and contemporary art, Ben Katchor’s work is the kind that draws a dichotomous response fervent ardor, or absolute disgust. His work very much depends on his readers having a taste for the eccentric and a willingness to accept the bizarre. Katchor does not choose to tone-down his hard-hitting, ironic humor with drawings of beautiful women or trees and flowers. Instead, his drawing style is almost too realistic, and so evocative of city-life (especially city life of the earlier part of the century), that we are forced to consider his prose with a certain amount of realism. Many critics note that Katchor’s drawing style is a perfect complement to his humor. Hard-edged, yet sketchy, neither muscled nor stick-like, his characters become urban everymen and women, often blending into the scenery. Edward Sorel, writing for the New York Times book review, praises Katchor’s style, noting that it is derivative of German Expressionism. While some critics compare Katchor’s work to that of Edward Hooper, Sorel likens Katchor to Max Beckerman, saying that "Mr. Katchor’s drawing line is uncertain and worried (like the artist—I met him once), but it is his heavy use of wash that gives his strip its mystery." Another New York Times review likens Katchor’s "slashing, lumpen style" to "the Ashcan painters and B movies from the 1930’s," saying that "he uses his wry, hard-boiled drawings as a counterpoint to his more philosophical narrations." Katchor’s characters are not beautiful, nor is his rendition of the city; the atmosphere surrounding his characters is often bleak or cluttered—but they are both very real. Sorel praises Katchor for this quality: "The drawings were so warm, so passionate and so evocative of the New York City I remembered from my youth that I kept returning to them. In time, I was able to give myself over to the strip’s peculiar enchantment and enter into its chiaroscuro metropolis. Now, after years of peregrinating with Knipl in search of vanished places and forgotten dreams, I’m convinced that his creator, Ben Katchor, is the most poetic, deeply layered artist ever to draw a comic strip."
On the point of his own inspiration, Katchor, indicates two major sources: Marvel Comics books illustrator Steve Ditko, 17th century figure painter, Nicolas Poussin, and technical or utilitarian writing. Katchor comments on his tone, which at times reads like a bulletin an advertisement, in an interview with Natterbox: "I used to collect crackpot self-published books. I love to read catalogues. I love to read phone books... I really like that kind of utilitarian writing—trying to excite somebody about this new product that there’s not much to be excited about. The writer has to try to make you feel that you’re entering the new world of this new product." Later on in the conversation, Katchor compares his work schedule to that of a public utility plant in that it’s cyclical: "Some weeks I’m happier, some weeks I’m less happy, but I have to turn it in. I can’t say one week, ‘No, there’s no strip.’ That’s not the way it works. So in that sense, it is like a public utility. You know, Con Edison doesn’t stop one week because they’re out of electricity." It is the cyclical mentality in his writing that makes it so interesting to read. Different characters arise, displaced, in a different scenario, and our impressions of the character change completely.Kerry Morris is a summer Program Assistant at the NYS Writers Institute.
Noting the changes in poetic fashion that have taken place through the years, Stanley Kunitz once observed that the easiest poet to neglect is one who resists classification. Some of our most distinguished poets have remained relatively obscure for years, even for decades, he added, either through anthological caprice or simply because their work did not seem to lend itself to captivity in the standard zoos, of the period.
And indeed it would be difficult to locate Kunitz in any particular zoo - standard or otherwise. Classifications like "Poet's poet," which is certainly a valid one, fall far short of describing him. Long before the word confessional became a widely used label for a certain kind of personal poetry, for example, Kunitz was mining the vein of his own suffering and ecstasy for the gold of his poems. "I suffer the twentieth century," he says in one, and in others he records his various encounters with his century in a voice of intelligent candor and controlled passion.
"Anyone," Kunitz once wrote, "who forsakes the child he was is already too old for poetry." And he has never forsaken that child. He returns again and again to his childhood, to his wonder and pain at the beauty and harshness of a world that he tries at once to encompass and transcend. "Memory" he writes, "is each man's poet-in-residence. It's curious how certain images out of the life--not necessarily the most spectacular - keep flashing signals from the depths, as if to say, 'Come down to me ... and be reborn. The words that reveal they've made that descent, when the mind is shaken, come up wet and shimmering and alive. They've been down in that well, where they've met the child you were." About being a poet his feelings are far from simple, but certainly understandable to anyone who has been one--and to some of us who are not:
There is so much of Kunitz in these lines: the wry humor and self-deprecation, coupled (despite his disclaimers) with a serious engagement with poetry and the life of the poet; the sense of a self longing for transcendence but bound to the flesh; the basic loneliness in which his lifelong wrestling with the word has taken place; and finally his overriding sense of his--and our--mortality.
We can see in many of his poems a terse, understated, and extremely compelling vision of the terror of life that wells up from the depths of his consciousness. His is a quest for a self-integration that will admit the worlds of the living and the dead: for, in his words, the "spiral verb that weaves / Through the crystal of our lives, / Of myth and water made / And incoherent blood." It is out of these oppositions, then, that his poems are forged. "I face," he says, '“the hard and inescapable phenomenon that we are living and dying at once. My commitment is to report the dialogues."
Donald B. Stauffer, former UAlbany English professor, is the author of several works on the subject of American poetry.
People who embody contradictions make the richest subjects for biography. David Nasaw makes it plain at the outset of his new biography of William Randolph Hearst, The Chief, that Hearst embodies more than enough of them to justify an almost 700-page book:
…Hearst was a huge man with a tiny voice; a shy man who was most comfortable in crowds; a war hawk in Cuba and Mexico but a pacifist in Europe; an autocratic boss who could not fire people; a devoted husband who lived with his mistress; a Californian who spent half his life in the East… He was in all things defined by contradiction, larger than life."
Hearst also left an outsized mark on American journalism, politics, film, art and the urban American landscape. Like most titans, he stepped on people, provoked others by wielding disproportionate power, and provided a large target for detractors. Also like most titans, he had the means to suppress the voices of his enemies. He bought out rivals, blackmailed and legally harassed others.
Arguably, Hearst’s enemies won. The most enduring portrait of the media mogul is the one presented in "Citizen Kane" by Orson Welles. Like Kane, many of the Hearst-based characters that appear in fiction and film show a man sick and bloated with megalomania. Aldous Huxley, in his Hollywood novel, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, gives us a Hearst-like millionaire who is obsessed to a morbid degree with preventing his own death (the one thing over which he holds no power). Even in nominally objective nonfiction accounts, many untrue tales and conspiracy theories naturally adhered to a man like Hearst.
Nasaw not only strips away some of this apocrypha, but also enriches his biography with new material. The Hearst family granted Nasaw access to archives of previously restricted business papers and personal correspondence. The new material sheds important light on various stages and incidents in Hearst’s life, including his checkered career at Harvard, his contacts with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, the collapse of his media empire in 1937, and his 30-year relationship with the actress Marion Davies.
Nasaw sets out, in part, to correct previous assessments of particular episodes of Hearst’s life. Two examples are his role in the Spanish-American war and his flirtations with fascism. Though Hearst is often credited with creating and orchestrating the war in Cuba, Nasaw shows convincingly that the newspaperman was merely its most aggressive cheerleader. Though Hearst is remembered for hiring Hitler to write German news for his papers, and for asking his reporters to tone down their attacks on the Nazis, Hearst’s correspondence reveals that he was disturbed by German anti-Semitism. Such information doesn’t absolve Hearst, but it complicates any attempt to label him a Nazi or fascist.
By granting access to Hearst’s private life and thoughts, the new material necessarily humanizes him to some degree. For instance, his long affair with Marion Davies—depicted in grotesque terms in fiction—emerges from letters and other evidence as a model of devotion that endured through sickness and health, good times and bad. Toward the end of his life, Hearst still composed nightly love letters and poetry for Davies. The poetry is highly unoriginal, but it’s hard to disdain a man who addresses his virtual wife of 30 years with words as tender as:
Oh the night is blue and the
Hearst is not widely credited with reinventing literature, but—despite his poetry— he probably should be. He pioneered the soft news style that came to dominate all news media: the sensationalism, the brief bites of text, the emphasis on people rather than issues. He also pioneered the synergies employed by the new giants of world media:
"Decades before synergy became a corporate cliché, Hearst put the concept into practice. His magazine editors were directed to buy only stories which could be rewritten into screenplays to be produced by his film studio and serialized, reviewed and publicized in his newspapers and magazines. He broadcast the news from his papers over the radio and pictured it in his newsreels. He was as dominant and pioneering a figure in the twentieth- century communications and entertainment industry as Andrew Carnegie had been in steel…."
There is a moral implicit in the mythology and fiction about Hearst: "The greedy are never satisfied." It would be difficult, however, to locate that same moral in Hearst’s life. Nasaw shows that Hearst, unlike Huxley’s Jo Stoyte or Welles’s Charles Foster Kane, enjoyed life enormously, even old age. Some also believed that the collapse of Hearst’s media empire in 1937 represented an inevitable punishment for hubris. Regardless, Hearst bounced back.
The 1937 collapse is most often attributed to a defection by readers to rival newspapers. Many readers were angered by Hearst’s red-baiting, antipathy toward FDR and sympathy for Hitler, all of which found their way into editorials he penned himself. Ironically, it was the war against fascism (a war he initially opposed) that saved him— WWII, like all wars, caused a sharp rise in media consumption.
The Hearst Corporation of course lives on. It owns twelve daily newspapers, including the Albany Times-Union, which Hearst acquired in 1924. It is the largest publisher of monthly magazines in the world, owns 26 television stations and is part owner of several others, including ESPN, A&E, the History Channel, the Biography Channel and Lifetime. Also, according to Nasaw, "Among the traditional media companies, it holds perhaps the strongest position in Internet businesses and services." One has a feeling that Hearst, who jumped into new media technologies (radio, film, animation) as quickly as they were invented, would have approved.Mark Koplik is a Program Assistant at the New York State Writers Institute.
David Remnick, the current editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, has had a fast paced, exciting, and diverse career as a writer. He started out in the early eighties as an intern for the Washington Post, a position that dumped him, as Remnick humorously admits in his interview with Dean Orville Schell in North Gate, a publication of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism: "I had had an internship at the Washington Post. The Washington Star, the rival paper across town, folded. So the Washington Post quite sensibly went along and just cherry picked the staff and got every sort of Pulitzer Prize winner, and this winner and that winner, in town. All of the sudden they didn’t have any need for a 21-year old schmeckel intern…" After teaching in Japan and travelling in India, Remnick took another internship with the Washington Post, a job that stuck after Remnick was able to meet with Howard Simon, the managing editor. As Remnick jokes, the job that he got ended up being "a job covering night police beat at the Post, which is the lowliest job. You begin at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and work till 2 o’clock in the morning phoning every police station in a tri-state area, asking the very sensible question, ‘Have there been any crimes, fires, or accidents?’" After moving up to positions in sports, and then style writing, Remnick became a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post—a job that landed him four years in Moscow at a time just before the communist Soviet Union faltered and collapsed.
Remnick’s Pulitzer prize winning book, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire (also winner of the George Polk and Helen Bernstein awards), details these turbulent, extraordinary years in a "broad perspective… depicting, in vivid portraits, the minds and souls of those whose actions determined the outcome [of the non-violent collapse]: courageous dissidents as well as the regime’s conservative defenders, alongside passive and generally bewildered ordinary citizens," (Richard Pipes, in Commentary). One can find Remnick’s gift for portraiture at the beginning of chapter nineteen ("Tomorrow There Will Be A Battle") of Lenin’s Tomb. Remnick fluidly lessens his scope from his analogy between history and myth, to his detailed portrait of a man that exemplifies this connection:
The facts of history evolve into the mythologies of history, but I had never realized just how quickly. Everything I was watching in Moscow, Vilnius, Siberia, and beyond instantly transcended "the facts"—the meetings, the demonstrations, the newspaper accounts, the transcripts and videotape... Most mythic of all was the presence of a saint among the foolish and the vain, among the insulted and injured. Sakharov was the founder of fire (the hydrogen bomb) who renounced his gift; who dedicated himself to the rescue of the Land of Nod when rescue seemed quixotic; who returned from exile to reveal his wisdom and prod the czar.
But there was the man, too, and by the end of 1989, Sakharov looked as though he had wrung the last ounce of blood and energy from his body. He was sixty-eight and his face was delicate as parchment. He spoke in a slurred mumble. He had trouble walking up more than seven or eight stairs before gasping for breath; he was stooped, listing a little to the right. And yet the demands on his time and energy had only increased.
Quoting such a large portion of text is necessary when dealing with Remnick; there are just so many connections that he makes between the parts of his detailed analyses—the irony between the Soviet projection and expectation of Sakharov’s and his lack of energy; the "saint" of mythic proportions who lives under the control of a czar, his identity shaped by people who are both responsible for his fame and for his misfortune. Remnick flows into "the man" of the icon with the ease of a natural. His portraiture is sensitive and yet Remnick is not without opinions. He fuses the style of the impartial reporter with that of the editorialist; as Pipes indicates, "the result is a highly informative as well as lively account of Communism’s breakdown by an eyewitness who, without hiding his aversion for the Communist regime and its apologists, succeeds in maintaining throughout the attitude of a professional journalist." Tatyana Tolstaya, in the New Republic, comments that "Remnick is devoid of… cultural racism… He doesn’t try to rise above his characters or above his readers."
Remnick’s sense of human detail, a subtle melding of fact and compassion, is what makes his nonfiction writing so poignant. James Poniewozik of Media Circus, calls Remnick a "journalist’s journalist" for precisely these features; what makes Remnick’s writing "sharp" is that his attention to current events never dislocates the individual. In his more recent sequel to Lenin’s Tomb, Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia, "Remnick provides us with an amplitude of particulars, including his own sharp-eyed observations and records of the conversations he had with the many people he met during his stay in Russia…" (Abraham Brumberg from The New York Times Book Review). Kirkus Reviews notes that "it would be hard for New Yorker writer Remnick to do anything quite as good as his Pulitzer Prizewinning Lenin's Tomb (1993), but his study of Russia since 1991 shows all the restless intelligence, hard work, and fine writing that made that work so memorable." Praising Remnick’s ear for History, while acknowledging that Remnick’s nose is pointed always toward the future, The Chicago Tribune characterizes Resurrection as "what happens when a good writer unleashes eye and ear on a story that moves with the speed of light. Resurrection has the feel of describing vast, historical change even as it is happening."
Remnick is currently immersed in his recent appointment as editor-in-chief of The New Yorker. In a 1998 interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, Remnick makes the point that "I’d love to keep writing, but it would be unfair to the job I have to do. My career, such as it is, has always involved going out in the field and reporting and interviewing like crazy, often striking dry holes before coming up with something usable, and that takes extraordinary time and effort. It would not be good for the magazine if I continued to do that. God knows The New Yorker can survive very nicely without my articles. An editor needs to be in the chair, editing and reading, or out and about meeting with writers, and that’s where you’ll find me from now on." Editorship of The New Yorker is proving to be a job that is both stimulating and challenging, even for Remnick. As James Poniewozik notes in his article in Salon’s MediaCircus, "even if you don’t edit The New Yorker, if you read it, you fancy yourself its editor." Remnick, in the wake of Tina Brown’s controversial editorship, is toning down what Poniewozik calls Brown’s "glamour-seeking act"—a difference that is most apparent in Remnick’s choice of magazine covers, jokes, and photos. Remnick is not daunted by his passionate readership, but, rather, sees even negative reader response as both encouragement and a challenge to be met: "I’m glad when [subscribers] get angry about a change! It shows they are paying attention in some passionate way. When I get these letters: ‘I’ve been a subscriber for 25 years and I think it’s an outrage that you misuse the word X...’, God love them! I just think that’s fantastic! And I don’t mean it in a patronizing way" (from his interview with Schell). What Remnick is most interested in is quality writing that is interesting to the writer, and therefore the reader: "you want the writer when finished to think that he or she came out the other end of this tunnel with what they wanted... I think that what the New Yorker reader wants from us is our freedom to do our very best, to hold literary standards to the very highest level, to be as delightful, as funny as we can possibly be." According to critics, Remnick, so far, as done a good job of drawing line between the conservative side of editing and the vitality and flair that Brown exhibited during her editorship (Poniewozik, Gerencher). Remnick describes his ideal in editing as one that fuses intellectuality with guts. Using Ben Bradlee to explain his admiration for "dangerous" editing, Remnick says, "What I meant by ‘dangerous’ editor is that he edited not just with his brain. There was vitality in his editing... [Bradlee] had guts and not stupid guts, ill-considered guts, because any idiot can have that. Any idiot can say ‘publish!’ But to know when, is really an amazing thing" (interview with Schell).
Remnick’s view towards success includes his desire to expand the scope of the magazine. Remnick has given larger space to feature drawings; he would like to see quality pieces on sports and celebrity, but that also deal with issues of global impact; in the current events arena, he is primarily "concerned with ideas that have resonance," or with looking at these ideas from vantage points that other news publications ignore. All in all, Reminick praises the value of interesting quality writing: "Ostensibly glitzy subjects such as fashion can be written about with the same intensity and skill as coverage of Bosnia or Rudolph Giuliani" (Columbia Journal Review). Remnick should know; his articles have ranged in topic from Howard Stern and Mike Tyson, to Israeli politics and the Amish in Pennsylvania.
In fact, Reminck’s published writings on sports are in the same league as his critically acclaimed books on Russia. King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero, "succeeds, more than any previous book, in bringing Ali into focus... not with a biography but with a study of the milieu from which Ali emerged," according to Allen Barra of The Wall Street Journal. Booklist calls King of the World a "completely fresh and utterly compelling account of Ali’s early career... Remnick manages to capture what has largely eluded a host of other star struck writers: a balanced mix of the myth and the reality of Ali, a sense of how the gestalt of a nation in transition happened to land on the beautiful brown shoulders of a cocky young man from Louisville."
Remnick’s most recent book (1997) deals with both sports and famous people in a societal context. The Devil Problem: And Other True Stories, "pulls together profiles of athletes and politicians at the end of their careers (Reggie Jackson, Gary Hart), writers thriving in exile (Joseph Brodsky) and struggling in their homeland (Ralph Ellison), and scholars searching for the very origin of the devil (Elaine Pagels)... Remnick is a gifted observer, a graceful and evocative writer, and a storyteller who illuminates his subjects and edifies his audience" (Booklist, Thomas Gaughan). Kirkus Reviews notes that Remnick has a "penchant for telling detail and for the slightly offbeat variation on an ordinary interviewer’s question... he balances his passionate commitment to a vision of morality with the necessities of objective journalism."
Remnick’s sense of humor and quickness to penetrate his subjects makes him an exciting and interesting, often funny, read. When interviewed by At Random magazine and asked who was the strangest person he’d ever interviewed, Remnick responds, "Richard Nixon... he did mind my tape recorder. (‘I was never any good at those, you know’)." Remnick’s diverse interests lend a unique and engaging repertoire to his writing (he would still like to interview Spiro Agnew, Vladimir Kryuchknov, J.D. Salinger, and Bob Dylan). His interest in diverse people allows Remnick connections that most people might not make between society and icon, fame and the individual. Remnick is always sensitive to his subjects, a trait that gives both his reporting and his editing style and dignity. Remnick’s talent for portraiture gives his pieces such "superb" character portrayals that Amazon.com reviewers liken him to Dickens, Balzac, and Proust. Indeed, it is this element—Remnick often reads like fiction—that makes his work so engaging to the reader. Remnick creates character profiles of real-life people that act as windows into their worlds. This characteristic of Remnick’s writing allows his non-fiction to function as total-immersive texts; he is an informative, entertaining, and moving writer.Kerry Morris is a summer Program Assistant at the NYS Writers Institute.
Francine Prose’s work is constantly shifting in style. Always current, not shying away from volatile issues like sexual harassment, male and female roles in the workplace, New Age spirituality, commercialism, and campus politics, both Prose’s topics and her manner of dealing with them are versatile. With her interest in diverse subjects, Prose delves into all areas of writing, contributing fiction, criticism, articles, and non-fiction to such magazines as Harper’s, Glamour, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, GQ, New York Times Magazine, Atlantic, Village Voice, and Commentary. She has worked as a travel writer in Macedonia, Sarajevo, and Miami and has done journalistic writing for The New York Times (the "Hers" column) and The New York Times Magazine. While she is frank about her preference for fiction writing ("It’s full of surprises. It’s lots of fun. It’s imaginative and you never know where its going. With non-fiction, before I start writing I know what I’m going to say."), Prose enjoys reporting for the fact that "it takes [her] out into the world and makes [her] see things and meet people when [she] wouldn’t ordinarily have met. And it’s a good source of material for a fiction writer" (2000 interview with Regina Weinreich for Fox News; 1998 interview with Katie Bolick for Atlantic Unbound). Kate Bolick describes Prose as "a keen observer" whose fiction can be "withering": "trapped within their own heads, victims to the nervous din of their own inner voices, her characters are nevertheless endearingly rendered." Sensitive to the psychology of her characters, Prose is also a master storyteller. In her early fiction, Prose employs a traditional storytelling technique in which one character sits down and tells a story to another. One can grasp this close-voiced manner of telling in Prose’s children’s books.
Prose’s newest book, for instance, is a children’s book, The Demon’s Mistake: A Story from Chelm (August 2000). The tale is a fantastical take on a traditional Jewish legend that involves the mischievous demons of Chelm. The demons undertake a journey from this legendary Polish town where only fools live to New York City. The Demon’s Mistake is one in a series of three children’s stories that involve Jewish folktales (the others are Dybbuk: A Story Made in Heaven, and You Never Know: A Legend of the Lamed-Vavniks), all of which are illustrated by Mark Podwal. These stories mark a stylistic return to Prose’s earlier works, which are "reminiscent of traditional folktales... set in a variety of locations and time periods and [which] interweave the real with the supernatural" (from LRC "Sidelights"). Prose’s first book, Judah the Pious, has been compared to "The Pardoner’s Tale" in Chaucer and to "Seven Gothic Tales" by Isak Dinesen. Other early books by Prose have also been praised for their use of Jewish tale in a supernatural setting: Stories from Our Living Past, and Hungry Hearts, have, according to Jerome Charyn of the New York Times, "the force of parable, the clear, clean line of ‘prose without adornment.’"
Women and Children First and Other Stories, published in 1988, marks a change from this earlier style of writing which Prose now reserves for children’s stories, to an "acerbic humor... [a] bold pursuit of the bizarre that lurks beneath the surface of the mundane...[an] unsparing, though not unkind, insight into the subtleties of characters and the nuances of relationships" (Stephen McCauley in the New York Times Book Review). As Anne Tyler says in her review in the Washington Post Book World, "it’s disappointing to have to say goodbye to Francine Prose’s distinctive earlier voice, but at least her sharp eye remains, and her habit of making whimsical mental associations that first startle us and then, on second thought, seem exactly right."
"Exactly right" is the message that many critics have been giving us about Francine Prose’s writing. Prose tells it like it is, and she doesn’t hold back. Hunters and Gatherers (1997) is a critique of reactionary feminism and of the utopian matriarchal society. Amazon.com relates Martha, the protagonist, to a "modern-day Candide." Martha hopes to find spiritual and personal fulfillment through a New Age Goddess-worshipping cult; she seeks "confidence and calm, to become like the Goddess women and float on a cloud of faith that a broken answering machine was a message from your guardian angel." She finds, however, that there is a price to be paid for her adherence to a practice of blind faith. Prose often tackles the subject of spirituality in her novels—a topic that, with Prose, becomes the search for self meaning. It is the problems that we deal with when we try to decide what is most meaningful in life—when we turn to compare ourselves to that which is most foreign—that Prose encounters in her next novel, Guided Tours of Hell: Novellas.
In Guided Tours of Hell (1998), Prose "examines the difficulty of finding the appropriate emotions for the greatest historical tragedies or the smallest personal sorrows, and the headlong self-delusion with which we patch together new identities from the scraps of our, or others’ pasts" (Reader’s Catalog). The plot of the first novella involves a bad playwright who, attending the First International Kafka Congress at Aushwitz, cannot feel moved by the experience because of his overwhelming jealousy of Jiri, a poet and death camp survivor. The second novella involves a completely different plot that connects to the first novella only through its treatment of the subject of commercial tourism. The story is about Nina’s self-discovery: through her trip to Paris, she becomes "increasingly aware of just how easily emotion can shape reality, and how her feelings for Leo [her editor, lover, and, as she believes, superior] had done just that" (Megan Harlan with Barnes & Noble.com).
Prose’s characters find it impossible to divorce themselves from the tourist experience, allowing the act of tourism to extract what is most petty and self-serving in themselves. The tourist experience, instead of being the mind-expanding experience that one often associates with travel, becomes self-referential; "It’s as if travel is a huge magnifying glass which they’re holding up to themselves" (Prose, in her interview with Bolick). Prose goes on to say that "it’s not so much the travel that I’m writing about... as what travel does to the traveler." Through her characters’ projections and displacements of themselves, Prose incorporates her own feelings about "vacationing" in her pair of novellas: "It’s been a long time since I’ve taken a trip I wasn’t writing about. What am I looking for, what am I doing here? I find it hard to take a vacation—you know, like Spalding Gray, the impossible vacation—I really sympathize, and the things people do to go on vacation, going to an island, sitting on a beach, seem horrible to me" (interview with Weinreich). Guided Tours of Hell presents a brand of vacationing that Michael Mewshaw euphemistically calls "the crime of tourism" (WashingtonPost.com). Mewshaw goes on to say that Guided Tours of Hell "shows how yesterday’s tragedies have become today’s comedies, how historical agony is recycled as entertainment, as another tourist destination." Library Journal says that "Prose has an uncanny ability to expose the nasty, sordid, and petty secret thoughts of her characters. While not pleasant reading, [Guided Tours of Hell] is a probing, insightful, and thought-provoking work."
Blue Angel is Prose’s latest novel (April 2000), one in which "Prose once again proves herself one of our great cultural satirists" (Kirkus Reviews). The novel concerns an aging creative writing professor at a small New England College who mistakes his literary interest in a talented student for love. The novel broaches the topics of sexual harassment, university politics, and political correctness. Kirkus Reviews goes on to say that "when Prose is doing the imagining, you can count on nodding in recognition while howling with laughter. [Blue Angel is a]n academic comedy of manners as engaging as Richard Russo’s Straight Man." Swenson, Angela Argo’s middle-aged fiction professor, establishes early on in the novel what is so lucrative about their relationship.
It’s gratifying to think that his novel helped this girl. When interviewers used to ask him how he pictured his ideal reader, he said he wrote books for nervous people to take with them on airplanes. Now he thinks his answer should have been: schoolchildren in middle-class nowhere New Jersey, girls who think that theirs is the only life scarred by grief. (60)
It’s that she has become his ideal reader—his reason to write, and he needs her more than she needs him. As the book progresses, their relationship becomes defined by power-plays that mimic those of the academic arena. Russell Banks, an excellent novelist (Cloudsplitter, novelist, calls Blue Angel "a smart-bomb attack on academic hypocrisy and cant, and Francine Prose, an equal-opportunity offender, is as politically incorrect on the subject of sex as Catullus and twice as funny. What a deep relief it is, in these dumbed-down Late Empire days, to read a world class satirist who’s also a world class story-teller" (amazon.com). Prose’s talent in rendering her characters both flawed and sympathetic, "intimately known and comprehensively exposed—at once privileged and gutted"—brings the issues in the novel to life with incredible force (Lorna Sage with The New York Times Book Review). Amazon.com compares Blue Angel’s treatment of creative writing programs with Upton Sinclair’s exposé on the meat-packing industry.
In June of 1998, Prose’s eye for detail and her muckraking/ satiric inclinations were directed towards a controversial article published in Harper’s, titled "Scent of a Woman’s Ink: Are Women Writers Really Inferior?" In it, she critiques the American literary scene, which, as she shows, fails to recognize female literary writers with prizes and intellectual reviews as often as it recognizes male writers. While her comparison of "male writing" and "female writing" has been criticized by such writers as Joanna Scott and Laura Miller, anyone who is interested in a well-researched critique of American prize committee and editorial standards should read this article.
Prose is currently using her Director’s Fellowship with the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library to work on a non-fiction project called The Lives of the Muses. The book will be a catalogue of essays on women who are known through their roles as muse to famous male authors and will feature such women as Alice Liddel, the model for Alice in Wonderland, and Libby Sitell, the Pre-Raphaelite who was Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s wife. Prose calls it a mixture of biography, literary criticism, and art criticism (interview with Weinreich). For all her interest in the manner of inspiration, Prose finds that she fares best with herself: "Fortunately, or unfortunately, we live in a strange apartment with one twenty-foot-high window facing a brick wall, about a foot and a half away. Not much of a view. So when I’m at my desk, I feel like I can work undistracted. I might as well be in the country. Writing while facing a wall, incidentally, seems to me the perfect metaphor for being a writer. Samuel Beckett’s apartment in Paris—the apartment in which he lived for the last years of his life—looked out on a prison exercise yard" (interview with Bolick). It is this wall that Prose’s characters so often come upon—a wall that either pushes forward the worst aspects of themselves, or forces them into a creative inner monologue, one that is beneficial. Prose’s writing is never dulled by presentiment or affectation: "Prose is... the great defender of the all-too-human: the weak-willed, the inconsistent, the hungry-hearted, and all other sinners caught between their own personal demons and the mandates of our increasingly puritanical culture" (Richard Price).Kerry Morris is a summer Program Assistant at the NYS Writers Institute.
Don Faulkner, Associate Director of the Institute, begins the evening event with the following introduction: In Aristotle’s Rhetoric, he argued that language, being autonomous, is divorced from place. No place, but styles, only effective manners of speaking. But in the Topics, he argued that a language must suit its place, that an argument must be connected to the context of its own substance... topoi, topos, place, topic, for topoi. Suit language to place. Annie Proulx is a landscape writer. Her language becomes landscape. Her mother was a watercolorist. Somehow that makes sense to me. She is also an historian, and knows how to research her subjects. Annie Proulx writes through place into her subjects. Her voice subsumed to the vocal tones of Wyoming, it is like the state that is, to use her words, "like a deep note that cannot be heard but its felt. It is like a claw in the gut." A marvelous writer, please welcome Annie Proulx.
Proulx: I’m really pleased to be back in Albany. It’s been five years since I was here, and the last time I was here was a really good time, and I’m sure it will be tonight. A few words about the title of this collection. It’s called Close Range because it’s short stories, a tighter an closer form than the novel, but it’s also "close range," which is a local way of saying, local Wyoming way of saying, "closed range." Because, most of the stories are about contemporary Wyoming and the enclosing fences of tradition, authority, restraint, class, limited economic opportunities. The landscape with its long sight-lines represents in people’s thinking, a half-wild frontier, a kind of freedom, but that landscape is fenced to a fare-thee-well, and not all of the fences are barbed wire or buck fences. I’m going to read "A Lonely Coast." The reason why is because I’m often asked, mostly by women, "Why don’t you write about women?" And, of course, I do write about women, but I’m writing in a very often a rural setting, a milieu where men’s work overrides front-and-center what women do, and the woman’s place in this kind of world is what my... what Robert Smithson, the artist, referred to as "absent presence," very nice concept. He used to photograph a rock in place and then remove the rock and photograph the hole the rock was in. That’s an example of absent presence. So, women are absently present in all of the stories that I write. I almost never write from a woman character’s point-of-view or in the first person. And, the story I’m going to read tonight, "A Lonely Coast," is both of those things. And, if we have time at the end, I’ll read one of the very short ones.
[Reading of "A Lonely Coast"]
Proulx: Upstate on the banks of Powder River, I’ve got a little cabin with no electricity and no running water and the road is hardly passable more than a few days a year and this little cabin is situated in a town now called Arvada, but once known as Suggs. It played a vital role during the Johnson county war, back in the 1880’s but we’re not going to get into that just now. This town has a population of approximately twenty people, and the leading citizen is the bartender. Yes, a town of 20 has a bar. The bar is an old false-front, left from the glory days when the town was Suggs. And, on the false front of the bar, is its name, except that the name has all fallen off except for three letters, T-H-E. I was in there, one time, leaning on the counter and talking with Buzz and he said, "Annie, I wish there was one thing you’d do for me." And I said, "What might that be, Buzzy." And he said, "I wish you would write a story about Arvada." And, I did. And this is the one I’m going to read to you now. It’s called "The Blood Bay." It is based on an old folk tale that’s heard in Ireland and England and Africa, everywhere where there’s stock raising. But, there wasn’t any Wyoming version until this. So, here’s "The Blood Bay."
[Reading "The Blood Bay"]
Q: I thought that "Blood Bay" was one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever read. I had no idea what would happen at the end. So I’ve been interested in how you came up with the events. Did you have a role model, or, where did the two male characters come from?
A: Out of the head. That was the second story that I wrote for this collection. The first one was "The Half-Skinned Steer." Once I had in mind that I wanted to do a collection of stories about Wyoming, I knew I wanted to illustrate various parts of the State and various attitudes, and behavior, postures, character types, that sort of thing for the State, too. And homophobia is, as in almost every rural place, all rural places I guess, especially in very macho societies, which Wyoming, the cowboy state, is; homophobia is part of life. So I wanted to write a story about homophobia and it seemed to me that perhaps the most compelling way to do it would be through telling the stories of two men who loved each other but were themselves so infected with homophobia that nothing could ever happen. Then, too, I’d been going around to a lot of ranches, and there’s always, at a ranch, some old guy, who stands back, keeps to himself, very quiet, very competent, never married, always alone, always watching the younger guys, not in a lascivious or lustful way, but just watching them. And after I’d seen about my tenth old guy at the back of the corral, I began to wonder what it must have been like for a ranch kid who grew up in this kind of world who was gay. So that was the genesis of that story. And it took a long time to write it, and probably no story I’ve ever written has stayed with me so strongly sleeping or waking. It was one of those pieces of work that you just don’t put down and say, "I’ll come back to it in a couple of months." You just, you just saw it through all the way, until it was done. I have to say that that particular story has brought me more mail than anything I’ve ever written. Hundreds of letters, as a matter-of-fact, from gay cowboys in Wyoming. [laughter] So, it’s been interesting, but everywhere I’ve gone, there’s been a guy or two who came up and said, "That’s my story." It was very interesting to me, and a year later, the Matthew Shepherd incident, killing, took place twenty-five miles from where I live. Many people have commented on the similarities of the evil event in this story and in the real life event. The story happened a year before Matthew came to his dreadful end.
Q: How did you happen to get to Wyoming?
A: I drove. [laughter] For many years, I’ve been going out to Wyoming. Everything I’ve written, everything of fiction that I’ve written with the exception of the first collection of stories, I’ve written in Wyoming. It’s my writing place and has been for a long time. I couldn’t move out there permanently while my mother was still alive in the east, but when she died, [then] six weeks later, I was out there, and that was five years ago. It’s a place where I feel very much at home. I’m French-Canadian, and on my father’s side, Franco-American, from a culture that came down into New England and gave up everything... the language, the religion, all of the family ties, and emulated Yankees. My mother is a thorough-going Yankee. Well, all of this is very interesting, but on my father’s side, there were Proulx’s and LeBarge’s, and the LeBarge side of the family, from Saint-Jean in Québec, one Joseph LeBarge sprang into his canoe on his 21st birthday and made his way down to St. Louis, Missouri. This is in the early part of the 19th century. He answered an ad in the newspaper put in by a certain General Ashley, it said, "looking for a hundred good men to trap beaver in the Rockies." And, he went to work for Colonel Ashley, and worked for him for many many years. He trapped the Missouri and the Green River and its tributaries in Wyoming. While he was on one of the tributaries in Wyoming, he managed to get scalped, not fatally, but enough to necessitate the wearing of a hat for the rest of his days and that little stream and the town of LeBarge, Wyoming is named after him. So, I’ve got some roots there. [laughter] So that’s why I’m in Wyoming.
Q: Did you go to live in the various communities that you write about in Accordion Crimes?
A: Why would I have to do that? No. I didn’t. It’s enough to visit and to use your eyes and ears, to observe very sharply. I want to go back to that last question again... say it again, briefly. There was something I left out.
Q: Your powerful sense of place has moved you into various writing projects. Where might you go next?
A: I’m sorry. I know I said I’d deal with that question. I’m going to come back to that later.
Q: Your prose is so dense. How long does it take you to write?
A: Quite a while. The thing about the short story, the thing that makes it so demanding is that you just don’t have room for side-trips or for fat sentences. You say what you have to say to get the mood or the action in the right place and to make things fit and then you move on. So it’s very much, as far as I’m concerned, a process of whittling down and tightening up all the time until you’ve got only as much as you need and then you stop. I will say it takes a long time. It takes at least six weeks of full-time, sixteen hour days for me to write a short story, and the short story will go through 30 or 40 drafts before I’m done with it.
Q: How do you come to understand regional speech patterns; how do you speak so well about geography and language?
A: Well, that’s a good question. Specific speech patterns and phrases and language of a particular region are exceedingly interesting, provocative, to me. The way you do it is just as you might expect. It’s observation, close listening, notes, dictionaries of regional English as well, and there are some quite good ones out there. Sometimes you can find them for very very specific areas and sometimes for broad areas, but mostly it’s using your ears, listening very very hard and very carefully, and that’s rather fun. I don’t mind more questions if people have them.
Q: How do your characters feel about being closely studied?
A: When I study speech patterns and the way people talk, I don’t, you know, sit in a chair opposite them and stare into their eyes and say, "Repeat that." You know, it’s stuff you hear at the bar, or in a restaurant, or standing in line at the Grocery store, hanging around. It’s overhearing, eavesdropping. I don’t specifically study people for characters. The characters are invented. There are no real people here. But, the language is an amalgam of listening to hundreds of people saying things, you know. The guy at the gas pump has got a little quip and a funny turn of phrase and a particular way of saying a particular word, so you take note of that. That’s all that is. It’s not a face to face encounter with various persons.
Q: How did you get the idea for Accordion Crimes?
A: The idea for the book came before the accordion part. For a long long time I had wanted to write a story about immigrants coming into this country. As some of you know, I spent a lot of time in Canada, and back and forth across the border, one cannot help but note the different ways the two countries have managed their immigrants. To the north, the mosaic, to the states, the so-called "melting pot," and who’s having problems with secession these days... which is kind of interesting. [laughter] So, I wanted... and also because of my family background—my father’s family giving up everything of the past and the culture, trying to forget who they were, and the names, you know deliberately abandoning the language and the religion, and bringing up myself and my four sisters in ignorance of that part of the family only because my father was ashamed of being a French-Canadian abstraction. So the whole thing about immigration and about self-identification, about the self inventing oneself, re-making yourself, was interesting to me, plus the protean habit of Americans of completely re-inventing themselves and travelling into new places and starting over and having cosmetic surgery to have new faces and changing their accents and taking new jobs... all of these things... what makes us like that in this country? No other country in the world is like the United States when it comes to self-invention—to getting up in the morning, looking in the mirror and not liking what you see and by bedtime, you are in another city, wearing a checked jacket and speaking another language thanks to Berlitz lessons. So I thought that perhaps the early immigrant experience, where you had to re-make yourself... As you came into this country, you weren’t allowed, really, to keep your old name or your old religion, or your old culture. You’re American now, and by god, you’re going to be American. So, that’s what I was doing with Accordion Crimes. I was looking at the changes for nine or eleven different groups of immigrants coming to this country. The one thing that distinguished all immigrant groups coming to the United States was that they all had accordions. They all came with accordion music. That’s because it was small; it was light; it was inexpensive, and it carried some of the culture with it. It could carry the music from the previous culture. So it worked for all of these groups as the single thing that tied them all together, and with those pieces of observation in mind, the story unfolded.
Q: How did Newfoundland and The Shipping News come together?
A: Ok. This brings me back to the other question. Some of you may have noticed that I write about a different place with each of these books, right? Well, yes. I’m working my way across North America in the only way I know how. I am examining rural cultures in a wide variety of places. I hope very much to be able to do something with Saskatchewan; I hope very much to sometime be able to do something with the logging communities from PEI to New Zealand; I’m interested in the prairies; I’m interested in the South and the Southwest. So bit by bit, I’m putting together this mosaic of rural communities that are on the edge in economic change where the whole traditional economic structure has collapsed and fallen away, slip-sliding out from under the people who live there, and usually these are places that have only one way to make a living and what happens when that’s gone. So that kind of edge situation, that very tricky point, where you have to fit new changing circumstances or invent a new way to make a living or get the hell out are what I’m looking at, or what I’m finding anyway in each of these places. So it’s a bit of... I studied to be a historian, and that’s a part that I guess is never going to go away, but that was what brought me to Newfoundland in a very simple way. I went up there on a fishing trip with a friend. He didn’t like it; I did. I kept going back, and I knew immediately that I was going to write about that place. But, I was already thinking about writing about the West and blah blah blah, so it’s part of a bigger thing.
Q: Who are some of your favorite writers? Who do you like to read?
A: I don’t really have favorite writers. It changes all the time, and there’s a huge long list. I used to carry one around. I talked a little bit about that this afternoon. So it’s very hard for me to give a list and I’d just as soon not, because it’ll be different tomorrow anyway. There’s almost no writer I really don’t like. So I guess I’d say, everyone is my favorite at the time I’m reading them and liking them, see. I’m easy to please.
Q: You write about rural people; do you have any ideas about people whose lives have been pulled out from under them and in what direction they might go?
A: No. I don’t. I have no solutions, and I’m not a futurologist. It’s my business to know how it is right now, and sometimes that gives and indication of the way that things are going to go. Shipping News, for example, was written before the fishing moratorium, although the fishing moratorium, and the lack of fish, is foreshadowed in that, and a year after it was published, the fishing moratorium came down. This is something that frequently happens with writers who will write about a time, a place, an event that is fictional, it is published and so forth, and then lo and behold, it comes true a year or two later. I mean, the situation is there. Because they’ve been acute enough in picking up the thin pieces like those little fingers of cloud that come before the big mass of it. So this happens again and again, and every single writer you ever meet will tell you a story that fits that one. Maybe one more?
Q: Would you ever go back to any of the places you’ve ever written about, and write about them again at a different time?
A: I don’t think so. I do that in my mind, but I don’t do it on paper. I often think if I were writing a sequel to this, or a follow-up to that, how it would go, or how it might go, but I won’t actually do it and I don’t actually do it.
Q: Becoming a repository of various cultures or aspects of cultures, do you have difficulty moving on toward or weaning yourself from that experience, or do you find yourself engaged in some kind of ritual to move on?
A: Sure. Yeah, It’s called a contract. A new contract. [laughter] I’m a professional outsider, like almost every writer I know. I do not become involved in the communities I’m writing about. I look, I watch. I invent. I listen. But I do not become a part of that community. I can never be part of that community. I move on to the next thing. I’m literally rootless and rolling on. I have no permanent place that’s mine. Many writers do, but I’m not one of them, and I am a professional outsider. It’s that simple. So there are no ceremonies and no tears of regret; there’s always another place, and that’s where my heart is.Kerry Morris is a summer Program Assistant at the NYS Writers Institute.
Paula Anne Vogel, a Pulitzer prize winning playwright (1998), is a penetrating dramatist who deftly handles controversial subjects like child molestation, AIDS, pornography, prostitution, and gay/ lesbian relationships. Vogel’s characters challenge traditional views of morality that are associated with these subjects, engaging in what Linda J.P. Mahdesian calls a "chiaroscuro of morality" (Brown’s George Street Journal). Through her explorations of these shady areas, Vogel is able to "effortlessly [move] her characters out of the provisional world of morality into the timeless world of art" (Robert Brustein, in The New Republic). With Vogel, moral issues lose their "moral" designations and begin to become human. David Savran, in his introduction to The Baltimore Waltz and Other Plays, likens Vogel’s portrayal of the subtleties that surround her characters to a deconstruction of sorts that follows from the theories of Bertolt Brecht and Viktor Shklovsky. Vogel provides a close examination of the moral nuances with which her characters become involved, resulting in a portrait that is many-sided—even unsettling. Her plays, like Brecht’s, often challenge what "we take for granted and assume to be universal," exposing these things as "product[s] of human labor and history—and thus subject to change" (Savran). Vogel’s work often politicizes and "defamiliarizes" canonic texts, as in Desdemona, a response to both Othello and Shakespeare the Sadist, And Baby Makes Seven, a response to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and her Pulitzer winning How I Learned to Drive, which responds to Lolita. Vogel’s work, in specific, allows this "defamiliarization... to reevaluate the meaning of women’s work outside the home, or to celebrate the elements of fantasy that necessarily structure all relationships" (Savran).
Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, concerns a young woman who is the object of her Uncle’s fantasy, but who also benefits from his care for her. The relationship, sometimes loving, sometimes harmful, is certainly not societally sanctioned, nor is it healthy. The implications of pedophilia and incest are obvious, but most of these implications rely on the natural deductions of the audience. The audience must decide, at each turn in the play, which actions and situations seem to be acceptable. The play, through its collage-like interjections of road rules and signs, motherly advice, and voice-over, questions the nature of the conclusions we might make, or our judgements of the characters’ actions. Ultimately, Vogel questions the role that society plays in the production of Li’l Bit’s story. The play is at once humorous and painful. Arthur Holmburg, when interviewing Vogel, describes these mixed effects as a "trespass" with her audience; he says that Vogel "trespass[es] into forbidden territory with a smile on [her] face. [She] disturb[s] the bones of forbidden topics, then make[s] the audience laugh."
How I Learned to Drive has been widely acclaimed: it has won not only a Pulitzer prize, but the 1997 Obie in Playwriting, the Lortel Best Play Award, the Best Off-Broadway Play from the Outer Critics Circle, the Best Play from the Drama Desk, and the Best Play from the New York Drama Critics Circle. One can witness Vogel’s success in the varied responses that critics have had to her play. The Village Voice takes a position of objective distance from the play. It emphasizes the relationship of abuse that is one of the many layers between Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck; in doing so, the Voice emphasizes the structure of the play, which is also given to the audience in many layers—all of which can be seen as culminating in abuse. The Voice, then, takes a position of objective distance from the play, not addressing the participation of the audience with these layers. The Voice calls How I Learned to Drive "a tremendous achievement... genuine and genuinely disturbing... This is, quite simply, the sweetest and most forgiving play ever written about child abuse... Vogel’s delicate tactic makes sense not only as a way to redouble the dramatic effect, but as a representation of reality, a perfect case of the form fitting the subject." The New York Times, however, emphasizes the teasing relationship that Vogel maintains with the audience, a technique that mimics those of Uncle Pete, leaving the audience in an uncomfortable position that is similar to that of Li’l Bit—one of empathy with Uncle Peck: "It is hard to say who is the more accomplished seducer in ‘How I Learned to Drive’... Uncle Peck, surely the most engaging pedophile to walk across an American stage, or the woman who created him." Variety focuses on the erotic layer that, at times, goes both ways between Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck, one that casts the play in an entirely different light: "With subtle humor and teasing erotic encounters, Vogel addresses the dangerous intersections of teenage temptation... The play is a potent and convincing comment on a taboo subject, and its impact sneaks up on its audience." How I Learned to Drive’s ability to affect an audience has achieved it world-wide success; it has played, not only the large theaters of Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Seattle, and New York, but in South Africa, London, Paris, Germany, Scandinavia, and Japan.
Vogel’s achievement with How I Learned to Drive can be seen as a culmination of many years of success. Vogel has many awards that are associated with other plays that she has written. She won the Heerbes-McCalmon Playwriting Award in 1975 and 1976, the American College Theatre Festival Award for best new play in 1977 (for Meg, a three-act play), the American National Theatre and Academy-West Award, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, McKnight, Radcliffe College, and a 1995 Guggenheim. Vogel won an AT&T New Plays Award for The Baltimore Waltz. Some of Vogel’s other famous plays include The Mineola Twins (which is published along side How I Learned to Drive in The Mammary Plays); The Baltimore Waltz, which plots a fantasy-trip on which the narrator, Anna, embarks after finding out that she, not her HIV positive brother, has the fatal illness, ATD; and Hot ’n’ Throbbing, which concerns a woman who, estranged from an alcoholic husband, writes pornographic scripts in order to support her family while working at home.
As David Savran admits, Paula Vogel is not easy to read: "[Her plays] demand that readers, actors and directors approach them with a genuine commitment to exploring their desires and fears as well as the laws, both spoken and unspoken, of the society in which they live (in the understanding that it is the law that produces desire and fear in the first place)." The Baltimore Waltz, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, has an "understated poignancy"; Anna’s trip to Europe amounts to, as Robert Brustein writes, "a touching rite of loving exorcism, personal, yet transcendent" (CLC). In The Baltimore Waltz, Vogel combines absurdist episodes with a lively wit that at times borderlines on satire: "[Anna’s] encounters range from pleasantly bawdy (a lesson with a bellhop on the French words for parts of the body) to silly (a Dutch boy in wooden shoes who tells a long shaggy-dog story about having his finger in a dike) to satiric (a marvelously boorish German pop anarchist). Below the surface, these encounters represent a feminist fantasy of the varieties of gay promiscuity; below that (and rather uneasy-making) there is the suggestion, never overt, that the discovery of being HIV-positive promotes a last-fling, seize-the-day mentality" (Thomas M. Disch, in The Nation). Vogel allows her audience to become enmeshed with the stereotyping that her heroine, or anti-heroine, alternately assumes and projects. While this technique inevitably invites criticism from gay rights activists, Vogel’s play actively questions each stereotype that it constructs, in the end dismantling its logic in front of the audience. In the play, Vogel delicately weaves the issues of memory, loss, and regret, through both Anna and the people with whom Anna interacts. Vogel dedicates The Baltimore Waltz to her brother, Carl, who died of AIDS, indicating that her play stands in for a patch on the AIDS quilt "because [she] cannot sew". Nonetheless, The Baltimore Waltz, while retaining a patchwork episodic structure, goes beyond the confines of a quilted square; it is a brilliant, elegant, and intricate tapestry.
One of the strengths of Vogel’s writing is that she is able to bring her experiences and sense of identity to her work without diluting their impact or setting them in a context that is one-sided or stereotyped. As a lesbian, she is often termed "lesbian playwright," a label that, while accurate, raises assumptions that Vogel does not buy into: "There were a lot of headlines, ‘Lesbian wins Pulitzer, blah, blah, blah...’ I am the first person to say, hey wait, I’m not here to make everyone else feel homophobic, I’m homophobic. I was brought up in this country. I was taught to hate gays. I was taught to hate women. What we are taught unifies us as a society" (from her interview with Arthur Holmberg). Desdemona: A Play About A Handkercheif, is a play that some feminists have questioned because its female characters can be less than sympathetic. Desdemona deals with the way in which women can contribute to societal misogyny. Emilia, who has taken Desdemona’s handkercheif (causing Desdemona obvious problems), explains her alliance with the husband she despises:
You see, Miss, for us in the bottom ranks, when man and wife hate each other, what is left in a lifetime of marriage but to save and scrimp, plot and plan? The more I’d like to put some nasty rat-ridder in his stew, the more I think of money—and he thinks the same. One of us will drop first, and then, what’s left, saved and earned, under the mattress for th’ other one? I’d like to rise a bit in the world, and women can only do that through their mates—no matter what class buggers they all are. I says to him each night, "I long for the day you make me a lieutenant’s widow!"
As the play progresses, we realize how each woman degrades the other in order to cater to a man who has power over her. However, the men are strangely absent, giving the audience the impression that the play is not about male power structures, but about the building of them—by women. In the social fabric that binds Desdemona and Emilia, sex is politics, and each woman defines virtue in a way that will promote her own desires. As Emilia hypocritically says later in the play, "And as long as there be men with one member but two minds, there’s no such thin’ as friendship between women."
Vogel’s more current projects include a screenplay for How I Learned to Drive, and a musical that she was commissioned to write for Arena Stage in 1999. The new play is a ragtime of the last Christmas of the Civil War that includes important figures of the day alongside Civil War ballads, Christmas carols, and spirituals. Vogel is also planning to do an adaptation of The Sot-Weed Factor, by John Barthes. While taking an unpaid leave from her position as director of the MFA program at Brown, Vogel makes it clear that she values teaching in conjunction with writing: "I’ve had a lot of invitations... to join other Ivy institutions... but I hope to come back in some form or capacity... Wherever I am, I’m not going to stop teaching. I suspect in some ways it’s a talent that I have that’s equal to my writing. As all these doors open for me, I want to share those doors with younger writers. I have developed the Cockroach Theory to Playwriting. When I get in those doors to those theaters and those studios, I’m going to bring 10-12 younger playwrights with me—and multiply" (from Mahdesian’s article). A look at Vogel’s past employment shows her passion for teaching. After graduating from Cornell University with an A.B.D., she stayed there to work for a number of years. She later took a job as a playwriting instructor and consultant at Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska, and has worked as a conductor of playwriting workshops at both McGill University and at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.
Vogel’s passion for teaching extends into her interest in play structures that take the audience on a learning experience, much like that of Anna in The Baltimore Waltz. While this objective often lends itself to controversial often sexualized issues, Vogel is currently directing her talent for audience-transportation into the realm of G-rated theater. Looking forward to her current project, Vogel jokes that she is finally doing something her nephews and godchildren will be able to see, or "a Christmas play with positive role models for the kids" (from the Arthur Homlberg interview). However, she shrugs the generalization that she works on "hot-button" topics: "It’s interesting. I’m seen as this kind of hot-button, issue-oriented playwright. I think issues are very useful to construct a balancing act, to construct empathy, to try and make an audience look at different sides of an issue. But I don’t have a thesis" (qtd from an article by Carolyn Clay). It is just this aspect of Vogel’s writing, its ability to resist categorization, that makes the "hot button" issues that she does deal with so compelling. Vogel, indeed, has a "singular voice [that] is exhilarating, comic and heartbreaking in its [non-traditional] examination of such contemporary issues as the feminization of poverty, the nontraditional family, the AIDS epidemic, domestic violence and pornography" (amazon.com).Kerry Morris is a summer Program Assistant at the NYS Writers Institute.
Don Faulkner: Tonight we are very honored to have with us a brilliant writer and esteemed guest. And, to do a proper introduction to Derek Walcott, I will give you Bert Nepaulsingh, professor of Latin American-Caribbean Studies at The University at Albany, and I would say, one of its prize assets.
Bert Nepaulsingh: There is no need for me to introduce Derek Walcott because he has managed for more than a quarter-century—at least as long as I have been teaching at this University—to achieve excellence, so that he is now at the point, where, in fact, he needs no introduction. So he has deprived me of the mischievous pleasure that I used to have in the early 1970’s when, as a young professor from a far-off place, my colleagues at The University at Albany took me to task shortly after they met me by reciting to me lines of classical English poetry—I suppose with the intent of seeing if they were recognizable to me or not—and on occasion, I would cite the poet (but I always made a point of saying, "ah yes, that reminds me of these lines")—I would then recite my favorite Walcott lines. That gave me the pleasure of seeing them befuddled, and while I paused, to make them feel awkward—they’d say "yes… that was… was Eliot, wasn’t it?"—I’d say, "oh no! Walcott… Derek Walcott," and before they could ask, "Derek who?," in a matter of days, I’d be slipping them copies of "A Green Night," In A Green Night or the Collected Poems, startling them. And I was able to do that for quite a number of years. I no longer need to do it. My task is made easier because most of you in the room can, with a few keystrokes, visit any number of websites that would give you more and more information about Derek Walcott than he might care to acknowledge. So, I do not need to tell you that Derek Walcott was born in St. Lucia, that he has a twin brother, who is also a playwright by the way, that he went to school at St. Mary’s college, that he was one of the first graduates of the University of the West Indies, that he is a Guggenheim fellow, that he has won a so-called—in this case it fits—McArthur Genius Award, and that, of course, he’s a Nobel laureate. And, perhaps, as some of you know, that in my opinion one of his most distinctive honors, he was to have been invited to compose and to read at the funeral of the late W.H. Auden, a poem, in the honor of one of the century’s greatest poets. You know all of that, and so I should shut up, and ask you to give a thunderous welcome to the playwright, the painter, the poet, the exquisite master of our English language, Derek Walcott.
familiar with his work?
Walcott: No, no his poetry is… that difficult.
Faulkner: What does it feel like to become a Nobel laureate?
Walcott: As I said earlier, there had been rumors the year before, a couple of years before, that I was a candidate for the prize, and, as I also said, what you try to do, or have to do, is put it out of your head… because it’s a lot of money, and that’s about it… to count money you don’t have. When it did happen, though, I was astonished… the usual words that you expect to hear, but those are true… and staggered by the reality of it. It grows on you very very slowly. Once it does happen, then everything really opens up, because by the time I got the phone call from Sweden and went outside, there were reporters outside already. They may have gotten word—I don’t know—and then, I had to have breakfast, so I went around to Dunkin’ Donuts, and there’s a picture of me… and I’m not saying, "Wow, I won," I’m saying "Terrific coffee"… that’s what I’m doing. I really am. I wasn’t boasting. Following that, then I had to go to Boston University, and then there was a big press conference and stuff and gradually it begins to grow on you that this thing has really happened. The mountain of mail that follows, and the phone calls, and the invitations, it’s really staggering. The phone rings for months, steadily, daily, with invitations or something else… requests for interviews and so on, so I remember previous winners, saying… feeling sorry for the winner because I remember Nadine Gordimer saying "I’m sorry for you"… in that kind of way. So, that’s what it’s like, but then again, what you balance off is the reality that there have been great writers who have not won the prize, and not necessarily alarmingly because candidates, I mean the committee of the Nobel Prize people are not people who haven’t heard of Graham Greene or Borges or of Joyce or of anyone else who hasn’t or didn’t get, like Auden, the prize. And then, if you look at the list of names that yours is added to, you really feel quite humbled by that reality, and you continue to be that way, I think.
Q: How did your work on The Capeman come about?
A: I was invited by Paul Simon to work with him on music that he had written. I was going to write about a show that had obsessed him for a long time, the story of this Puerto Rican boy, who had committed a crime and was sentenced to the electric chair with another young Puerto Rican. So we worked on it together very happily for several years until it headed for Broadway, and then, naturally, the usual things began to happen. I’m not going to go into details of why the show failed or collapsed. I have my own reasons. I myself sort of pulled out of it close to the end of it because I didn’t like what I saw happening. That is not to extricate myself from something. I just felt that what was going on was something I really no longer had anything to do with. But the process of doing it was tremendous, a really great experience in my life. I’m really happy… period, for me. I feel that, perhaps, a little later, something else might happen with the show because it’s very beautifully written in terms of its music and the… well… you know I had something to do with, well I think the lyrics and the show… but it’s not exactly a Broadway subject. That is what I think was a little daring, in terms of the subject itself, and the reception of it. We had an extremely hostile reception. Astonishingly hostile, I think.
A: Do you appear in your poetry, autobiographically at all? Do find this is true with Omeros, where are you in Omeros?
Walcott: I think, without being facile, I think every writer who appears to be autobiographical has to plead the 5th because, it’s not really thoroughly "you"… and I haven’t read it but I see that Philip Roth did… Mailer’s done it… So the Mailer that Mailer puts down is an idealized Mailer, even if he may have behaved badly or very nobly. Just to write the name down… not that my name is there, but even to write an "I," I think, is an alienating thing. I think every "I" is really in the 3rd person, even in an autobiography. That’s why, because it has symmetry, it’s fiction… because life doesn’t have that kind of cemetery…. symmetry… cemetery, yes! [laughter] I, yes, I would think that the book, under the guise of, say, a narrator, is an "I," but only occasionally. There are certain things in there that are true, or what happened, but I think they are truer for the narrator than they are for me. In other words, whatever else may be embellished, or hidden, or whatever, is done for the sake of some kind of unity of truth in telling something. So yes, in the book… as to where I am in it, I would imagine that I am, probably, hopefully, in all of the characters, including Helen, the woman in it, particularly I hope Helen.
Q: Your work has emerged from a St. Lucia that was a colonial culture… If you were to emerge from St. Lucia today, how would you be affected by the culture as a writer?
Walcott: There are things that you could say that would make people scream with rage perhaps, but they are true. First of all, those adjectives that we use now in terms of political adjectives, "imperialist," and so on, we are to be careful and place them in a context that is appropriate to the origin. I felt absolutely no pressure or repression growing up in St. Lucia in the colonial regime. None. I’m not sure that this is true of St. Martinique. Martinique produced very vehement, articulate writers like Césare and so on… because Martinique still had its gendarmes, who were white and armed, so the presence, I say, well Nigeria… so the upsetting that happened happened as it was in Vietnam. The police, the people who ruled and who were armed, were white French cops. So, if you were young in Martinique and growing up, that was your visible view of what the law was. We didn’t have that. We had unarmed, native policemen. Very smart if you want, but still, benign in that sense. So the highest ranks were given to, just as it was in, say, the Roman Empire, to people who were Roman, that is, British, and then from that down, all the appointments were native. A good technique, perhaps. The same thing is true in terms of education. The education that one received was very the equivalent of a public school education in England, which meant that one did Latin and the classics as they call them, etcetera, etc… So I don’t think any of us from the British Caribbean felt particularly oppressed, and I’m talking about politically oppressed, I’m talking about Naipul, and Lemming, all my generation. In terms of… and I’m jumping now… in terms of a contrast to where things were, and what is called an imperial situation, but it was not really imperial to that [political] extent—even later than that Salman Rushdie comes out of that same thing. All the writers from the commonwealth, if you wish to call it that, too. Soyinka, Rushdie, people working in English with different experiences, racial and geographic and in terms of scale as well. The unifying thing in all of them, or us, is the English language. And, you then have to go into an analysis that says, isn’t the English language an imperialist language? I think, once you start to get into that, you’re going to end up crazy, because you’re going to not take a refusal—perhaps as an extremist you would say "I am not going to think in that language; I will not write that language. I will do something else to invent that language, etc…" And, that doesn’t have any… you can’t do that ultimately, with any sincerity or truth. But, another generation coming up, I think, can reject the generation ahead of it (my generation) for all sorts of reasons because of the same way young people reject forms of dress or forms of speech etc. I’m not saying it’s purely limited to fashion. I’m saying that I think the reverse judgement is going to happen in the younger generation in terms of working under an imperialist situation… to imply that we didn’t have the freedom of expression that we had, or the search for expression that was there… as a matter of fact, it seems to me—maybe because of age—a much more exciting and exploratory time than it is now for a younger Caribbean writer because there is the assurance in the young Caribbean writer of some kind of tradition in back of him or her made by that kind of imperialist tradition if you want to call it that. It’s only a part of the history of Caribbean literature that it would have had that phase. An imagined, inevitable phase, that would lead to younger writers growing up. It doesn’t matter what the political situation is for any writer. The question, ultimately, is whether that expression has been true, and ultimately, fine… whether it is a dictatorship or whether it is allegedly a democracy, ultimately that doesn’t to anything for the writer, as bad as it may sound.
Q: Would you speak to us about your relationship with Joseph Brodsky?
Walcott: My relationship with Joseph Brodsky is very painful to describe because we were very very close friends. He was an example for me in terms of his devotion to poetry. That was his life, and he used it as a defense, as a reality, as a siege… because he was a man surrounded by enormous grieves. He couldn’t see his parents, he was in constant… exile, genuine exile, learning another language and mastering it, but his example, I think, to all of us, was his devotion to the reality of poetry, because I think that a lot of us, if you want to call it "the West," as writers, are writers, or were writers who would get up and do whatever they were supposed to do as writers, but without that absorption and torrid devotion to the practical reality of working as a poet. I think that’s something I learned late, from the example that Joseph Brodsky gave all of us. A brutal sense of judgement in terms of what was worthless. He was very quick to use the word "garbage" for things, and it was good to hear it because it startled you that he would make judgements of that kind about things that, basically, were really mediocre.
Q: Didn’t you publish your first book of poetry at the age of 18 or so? Do you have any advice to young poets?
A: I wasn’t published when I was 18. I was published when I thought I would never get published. I was published, I think, in a book. I think I could have been, maybe 29. That sounded like old age to me then. What I did was I printed my own book. My mother gave me the money and I printed the book because we had no publishing houses in the Caribbean, I mean none that would do poetry, so I made a selection from my work and printed it because I wanted to see it and feel what a book would look like, which I did. And I did that three times with another book and then a play that I published, printed, if you want… and so on. I’m not saying that a young American poet should do that, but… I don’t know if print has kept its astonishment… perhaps not, because I’m talking about a place that did have books, but where print, the textile reality of print, as a writer, was something that may mean nothing now with computers and standardized text and so on. But the book, the object of the book, still remains for a writer, a very sacred, valid thing, and so when you hold your book in your hand and you know it’s not what you wanted, it still is an object that is very dear to you; it’s yourself. It’s been rinsed out of you. So that’s there, and that will always be there no matter what happens with computers. There are certain things that never go… will not go, as long as we have five senses, they will always be there. And certainly one of them is reading, which means writing, which means books. So there’s no threat of extinction of literature. That’s panic. But the dedication to… particularly to remain a poet, is hard, maybe, I don’t know how hard it is for a young American to want to remain a poet. I know there are certain avenues that are very safe that you can go down, that are not necessarily the best avenues. In the old days, it used to be that you’d get this in a back jacket: "He has been a lumberjack, he has shot bears in North Dakota, and he was a short order cook in the Village," and stuff like that. Nowadays, you get, "He teaches at Emerson…" so… well [laughter]… So you don’t get that sort of sense of adventure, but the sense of adventure doesn’t come necessarily with making a lot of exotic backflap copies as a writer. You’re really sitting down in a room, wherever you are, with a pen or a pencil, etcetera. I think I’m talking about what comes with young writing is that you make… this is so pompous, but I think I’ll say it I dunno… you have to make your loneliness a necessity. You have to make it happen. You have to create that solitude that you need, and the temptations to move away from that solitude in this very rich country are enormous. So, especially for a woman writer, the whole… not threat… but the whole avenue that lies apparently open and inevitable for a woman would be the usual thing of marriage and children etc… etc… There’s nothing wrong with that. Except it’s a big struggle to do that and to continue to write! It gets physically more difficult. For a man, it may be easier. On the other hand, what you have to learn to do, and one excuse that I never accept is "I didn’t have time" because it doesn’t matter what you do; you can make time… you will make time. If you don’t make the time, it’s okay to give it up, because you don’t really want to do it. And do something else in which you can go by another kind of clockwork. If you have to get up very early and find an hour to work, then do that. If your time for working is at half-past twelve in the night and you need an hour and a half to work, then find that time. And you will find it if you want to do it, but what cancels out the determination to be a writer is the excuse in any writer, any gender, to say "I can’t find the time to work." That is the only thing I can say to do, but then I can’t give that as advice, because as a young writer determined to do it, you will make the time. And, finally, I would think that… remember a remark of Brodsky’s that is very valuable is this—that everybody wants to have a book. Nobody wants to write a poem. Very good remark. Thank you very much.Kerry Morris is a summer Program Assistant at the NYS Writers Institute.
Nothing can introduce Edmund White better than an example of his talent for voice—in this case, his portrait of an overzealous sexually inhibited priest in A Boy’s Own Story:
…What, then, could have been God’s plan in linking you to such a man with an eternal vow except to purify you through pain? Rather than despising and fleeing our sufferings, we should treasure them and thank the Lord for them, since we are each given the exact sort of suffering we require to break our will and to increase our spirit, as though the will were the seed’s hull and the spirit its germinating embryo."
Something in me thrilled to this talk. Certainly such a religion raised our flat, squirming little lives into the high static relief of allegory. (pp. 199-200)
At this point, we are shifting in our seats, because we know that the letter, although addressed to a woman who is unhappy with her marriage, is being read by a sensitive and passionate homosexual boy. Later in the story, as the priest sits beside the boy, vulture-like, we are likewise in awful anticipation of some judgment to be passed on the issue of his homosexuality. The scene is paralleled only by A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Indeed, although this bildungsroman is not "traditional" in that homosexuality is its focal point, this book is for anyone who can appreciate the shy secrecy and wonderment that encompasses the boy’s sexuality and his relationship with parents. Written in a style that the New York Times book review compares to both J. D. Salinger and Oscar Wilde, A Boy’s Own Story has become a cult-classic among the gay community. It’s easy to see why. The nameless narrator could be any boy; he just happens to be gay. The book, set in the 1950’s, is the first and most popular of a trilogy of loosely autobiographical novels by White. A Harper’s reviewer calls the story "an endearing portrait of a child’s longing to be charming, popular, powerful, and loved… his struggles with adults… [are] told with… sensitivity and elegance." Tender and angry, self-conscious, needing to escape, the narrator invites us to revisit our adolescence in this novel, while sharing in the boy’s own personal trials. Like any classic novel, this book is one that stays with its readers long after it has been read; it is both enlightening and disturbing. The San Francisco Chronicle writes, "Every so often a novel comes along that is so ambitious in its intention and so confident of its voice that it reminds us what a singular and potent thing a novel can be. One of these is A Boy’s Own Story."
Edmund White is committed to making the experience of being gay accessible to everyone. A prominent author of Gay Literature, he has written about gay life in many different genres: fiction, nonfiction, essays, novels, short stories, plays, and autobiographical works. White’s style is just as diverse: his essay and autobiographical style has been compared to James Baldwin, Herman Wouk, and Mary McCarthy, his characters have been compared to those of Balzac and Proust, and his treatment of the extremely wealthy to F. Scott Fitzgerald. White’s early fiction is marked by its poetic tone and fantastical elements (Forgetting Elena, Nocturnes for the King of Naples, and Caracole). Larry McCaffery, in an introduction to his interview with White in Alive and Writing, describes Forgetting Elena as "a hallucinogenic novel, part science fiction, part detective story, part comedy of manners." A Boy’s Own Story (1982), is a departure from this style; it is more autobiographical and has a traditional format. White switches between these two styles often, as Phyllis Rose mentions: "All literature looks in two directions, toward the world and back toward itself. It portrays the world (or gives the illusion of doing so) and creates a world of its own. More than most American writers, White is divided between these two impulses, old-fashioned realism and modernist artifice." White, himself, indicates that he writes best when he feels free to change his style and his subjects: "I try to write in the most original way I know how... [French Nobel Prize winner] Andre Gide said that with each book you should lose the admirers you gained with the previous one" (Paris Review).
White’s passion for variety and spunk in his writing is what makes his nonfiction as compelling as his fiction. The Joy of Gay Sex: An Intimate Guide for Gay Men to the Pleasures of a Gay Lifestyle, published in the late ’70’s, attempts to provide gay men with useful information while making the topic less mysterious for curious heterosexuals. States of Desire: Travels in Gay America (1980) is more journalistic. It is in a documentary style, written through interviews, autobiographical reminiscences, and travelogue-style accounts of cultural and entertainment centers for gays. While some critics feel that the scope and objectivity of the book are limited (he targets relatively affluent, white gay men), the book challenges discrimination within the gay community (the rift between gay "moderates" and drag queens or transvestites), and ultimately "enable[s] gays and straights to imagine other lives" (Clemons, Village Voice). Through his publication of these books, White has become a prominent spokesperson for gay men in America; as he explains in a Paris Review interview, "It was a political act for me to sign the The Joy of Sex at the time. The publisher could not have cared less, but for me it was a big act of coming out… States of Desire was an attempt to see the varieties of gay experience and also to suggest the enormous range of gay life to straight and gay people—to show that gays aren’t just hairdressers, they’re also petroleum engineers and ranchers and short-order cooks" (Literature Resource Center, Galenet).
White’s loosely autobiographical trilogy that starts with A Boy’s Own Story grew out of White’s vocation as a gay activist. In the sequel to this novel, The Beautiful Room is Empty, White evokes both humor and terror through his narrator’s alternating self-deprecation, and love. "White takes us through [the narrator’s] unsentimental education like an indulgent pal, making graceful introductions, filling in with pungent details, saving his harshest judgements for himself," as Vince Aletti remarks in the Voice Literary Supplement. The Farewell Symphony is the last in this trilogy. Amazon.com reveiws calls its prose at once lucid and magical, yet plainspoken, revealing "the tragedy of youthful passion giving way to hard-earned knowledge." The novel is named after the Haydn symphony in which instrumentalists leave the stage one after another until only a single violin is playing… a situation that echoes the position of White’s narrator.
While White’s work at times reads like social history, he has the ability to bring his reader as close to the novel as his narrator, which truly makes reading his work an experience. White readily applies this talent with fiction to his biographies of Genet and Proust. Genet: A Biography (1994) traces the French novelist’s life from his birth in 1911 to his adoption, turbulent adolescence, his life as a runaway, thief, beggar, and prostitute, and his remarkable self-transformations: from criminal outcast to public persona. Winner of the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography, Genet has been praised for its "elegant, meticulous and wholly satisfying" prose; as Paul Bailey writes in The Daily Telegraph, "White has caught the uncatchable man—the public Genet as well as the recluse: no better praise can be given a biographer" (Brian Masters, The Sunday Telegraph).
White’s Marcel Proust details Proust’s "unlikely transformation from mamma’s boy to social climber to world-class genius" (amazon.com reviews). Eccentric and brilliant, a man who lavishly and fictionally documented his own life, Proust is a difficult man to chronicle. White accomplishes this task, revealing Proust "in all [his] neurotic, contradictory glory" (amazon.com). White writes that "Proust may be telling us that love is a chimera, a projection of rich fantasies onto an indifferent, certainly mysterious surface, but nevertheless these fantasies are undeniably beautiful, intimations of paradise—the artificial paradise of art." Peter Ackroyd, in The New York Times Book Review, writes, "Edmund White here explores the pathology of a man who was passionate and yet oblique, rhetorical and secretive; sentimental and yet clearsighted, innocent and depraved — a great writer condemned as a flâneur and a gossip who wrote a masterpiece."
In his latest book, The Married Man, White re-visits the subject of AIDS. Felice Picano, writing for Barnes & Noble.com, compares White’s subjects to Henry James characters; White is satirical and elliptical, reasoned and tragic. "A shrewd social observer with a great gift for dialogue, White composes quicksilver scenes bright with wit, then sets aside comedy-of-manners for the luster of tragedy" (Booklist, Donna Seaman). Through AIDS, White deals with such universal issues as trust, love, escapism, and finally, death. White handles these large themes with "an unsettling yet successful blend of social satire and a Balzacian focus on large personalities clashing within a framework of domestic claustrophobia" (Felice Picano, Barnes & Noble reviews). Joyce Carol Oates calls The Married Man "one of the most powerful, candid, devastating, and moving novels I’ve read in recent years. It is both beautifully written and unsparing in its honesty." White’s prose, while retaining the dense and intellectual writing that is characteristic of his other novels, is "more straightforward and chronological, a reduction of his situations to easily comprehensible affairs and friendships." These traits, Picano writes, will attract all sorts of readers. The Married Man is a multi-faceted response to AIDS. Each of the characters are personally affected by the disease and must deal with each others’ fears as well as with their own. Edmund White likens the writing that is being done about AIDS to Holocaust writing: "It’s an effort to memorialize those who have died, to put down what really happened, and to make sense or a work of art out of all this suffering" (interview with Salon, 1997).
The Married Man, which takes place in Paris, reflects White’s own expatriate experience. White was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and attended Cranbrook, a boarding school outside Detroit, Michigan. After studying Chinese and the University of Michigan, White moved to New York and worked for Time-Life books. Leaving Time-Life to spend a year in Rome, White became a freelance writer (Saturday Review, Horizon) before obtaining a position at Yale University. He went on to teach at Johns Hopkins and Columbia University before he became the executive director of the New York Institute for the Humanities. In 1983, White used his Guggenheim Fellowship to move to France and establish himself as a freelance writer in Paris (Vogue and other Condé-Nast publications). White returned to America briefly to teach English at Brown University, but returned to Paris in 1991, when his partner became ill with AIDS. In 1993, he was made a Chevalier (later Officier) de l’ordre des arts et des lettres by the French government. White describes his own attraction to France in Vogue: "The real change France is witnessing is the demise of ideology and the rise of a moderate, pragmatic politics… and… the belated recognition that we live in a world that requires patient adjustments, not fiery gestures, and compromise, not revolution." These are the lessons that White’s characters deal with in The Married Man. Sick and exhausted with life, cynical about love, needing hope, his characters strive to be patient with each other, to achieve understanding. The Married Man deals with AIDS in all its complexity; White avoids the reduction that he had complained of to Walter Kendrick in the Village Voice: "I think gay male life has been reduced both by the trade press, and, unfortunately, by many gays to the single issue of AIDS. At the same time, AIDS has been used to browbeat gays, and gays embrace AIDS as a way of feeling bad about themselves." After his partner’s death in 1994, White published a collection of essays called The Burning Library, which autobiographically explore the intersection of homosexuality, culture, and AIDS. Chris Goodrich, of the Los Angeles Times, calls The Burning Library "strikingly traditional, a writer’s attempt to fathom his own identity and that of the subculture in which he works and lives."
Most recently, White has accepted a full professorship of creative writing at Princeton (1998). This year, White will deliver the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford in November, which will also be published by Oxford. He has a new book due out in 2001, called The Flâneur. White, who is himself HIV positive, is very conscious of his own mortality, an issue that permeates his writing. White is a writer who is startling, unsettling, and true, an author "with [a]… deep moral awareness and [an]… ability to charm the socks off the reader even while relating unpalatable truths" (Jonathan Keates, Observer).Kerry Morris is a summer Program Assistant at the NYS Writers Institute.