Smith: Welcome to the public radio Book Show, I’m your host, Tom Smith, of the New York State Writers Institute, which is located at the University at Albany, and is part of the State University of New York system. My guest today is newspaper columnist and humorist Russell Baker. Russell Baker has written The Observer column for The New York Times since 1962, for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1979. He also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for his brilliant, bittersweet memoir Growing Up, about his childhood during the Great Depression. Among Russell Baker’s other books are The Good Times, a fascinating, delightful memoir of coming age in American journalism, and books that are collections of his essays and columns, such as Poor Russell’s Almanac, So This is Depravity, and the most recent, There’s A Country in My Cellar, published in 1990 by Morrow. Russell, welcome to the public radio Book Show. Now, you’ve been writing your column since 1962, and I’ve been reading it since then, and it’s a column with a celebrated prose style of grace and elegance and ironic humor. But, in latter years, the question comes, are things really getting worse, or are we just getting older? Is there some type of nostalgia for older and simpler times, or are things really getting worse?
Baker: Things never get worse, and the other side of that is that they never get better either. Back in Babylon, people were sitting around saying how things were better in the old days (laughs). We’re no different from the Babylonians of 3,000 years ago, in that respect. What’s worse with us is that we have this touching faith that things are really getting better. We call it progress.
Smith: Yes, which may be a myth. There’s been talk for generations, and of course the famous book The Myth of Progress. And it is a myth, on the negative side. Things are never necessarily getting better, but it goes against the American Dream, whether individually or collectively, to believe that they’re not.
Baker: I know. We have great faith in that we’re getting better, everyday in every way, getting better and better.
Smith: Now, on the other hand, you have been a privileged observer, underline the word observer, in every sense, during the era which you write about in Good Times, roughly from right after the War until the early 60’s, 1962, and also later. Now, that was also the so-called American Era. Did that end with the assassinations and Vietnam, particularly the assassination of John F. Kennedy? I mean, has the country had a sort of muddled psyche?
Baker: Well, you’re asking me to go cosmic here, and the only thing I love more than going cosmic is writing editorials for The Times (laughs). I know when I go cosmic I go right off the scope. To go cosmic, what an invitation. Well, I would say that along about 1963, starting with John Kennedy’s assassination, the country went over some kind of hill, if you charted it, there’d be a constant graph up. Up into the 1950’s, where we were
Top of the World Ma, on Top of the World Ma. And then suddenly we hadn’t taken good care of ourselves, and at some point at the 60’s we began to slide, and I think we’ve been on a slide ever since. But, of course, as we just said, it has to do with the fact that I was young, and I thought we were on top of the hill, and I’ve been sliding (laughs).
Smith: Yes, incidentally, the reason I felt I could ask you something cosmic is because I love your end of the world column. Of all the great events the media writes about, the coming of the end of the world turns out to be just as much a media event as anything else and the public gets bored with it.
Baker: It bombed on TV, bad ratings (laughs).
Smith: There have been rascals and charlatans in American politics from the beginning, and certainly in the 1930’s and 40’s as well. But is there anything new? I mean, there have been rascals and scalawags then and now, but is there something new in American politics in the last decade that, as a journalist and an observer, makes your blood run cold?
Baker: Well, I don’t think it has to do with corruption and rascality and phoniness among pols, I think that probably runs at a constant level, not only here but in most Western societies. But, there has been a qualitative change brought about by the politics dominance, by media’s dominance in politics. In order to get elected nowadays you have to have media money, which is a tremendous amount of money, and it’s extremely corruptive. So, the people who get elected tend to be the people who can command vast sums of money, and this usually comes from lobbyist people with special axes to grind. And we get a lot of single-issue candidates being elected, and they get to Washington, and they’re committed to single issues that don’t interest most people. I mean, abortion interests some people and other people don’t care, or they think it’s something the government can’t do much about anyway. But the candidate is bound one way or the other, and it tends to turn people off.
Smith: Was that something you think is peculiar to what we now call the 1980’s, where moral issues, particularly single moral issues, would be the Litmus Test? I mean, whole elections could be won or lost. Is that something that is fairly recent also?
Baker: I think if you go back 150 years, at the time of the Civil War, abolition was the big moral issue, and it didn’t. But on the whole, people didn’t come to the government to settle their moral problems the way they do now. It was Gladstone, wasn’t it, who said, "There are certain issues you leave to your preacher." Now, I think so many Americans have no religion left and they tend to look to the government as a source of moral authority.
Smith: Hence, perhaps another reason why we have this spectacle of such tremendous interest in our political leaders and political candidates private and sexual lives. Whether they should be private or not is a whole other question.
Baker: Well, I don’t think that has anything to do with morality, that’s just the love of a little dirt (laughs). Everybody likes to dish the dirt, we all wring our hands and say, "Isn’t it terrible that we’re doing this," and we all read it and we’re lapping up every word of it.
Smith: Actually, wasn’t it during Grover Cleveland’s campaign in the late nineteenth century where the opposition, without television or radio of course, promulgated this jingle, "Ma, Ma, where has Pa gone, to the White House, ha ha ha," because he had fathered an illegitimate child at some point. So that is not new. Now, how about some of the political figures you have covered and written about, then and now. John Kennedy, for example, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, how do they look now, from the perspective of fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years later?
Baker: I started covering with Eisenhower, actually. I went to the White House when Eisenhower was President in 1954, and at the time I thought that Ike was just a terrible president, a real third rater. The more presidents I have seen since Eisenhower, the bigger, the better Eisenhower looks. I now have moved him up to Lincoln compared to what we have had since.
Smith: It’s funny how many people have, including very serious historians. And he was one of the ones who, in one of his last speeches, coined the term "military industrial complex."
Baker: Yes, he understood that. We were moving into a kind of status economy, where the military worked hand in glove with the very large businesses, and the huge military budget generated the companies that exist only to supply government products. I mean, who has a need for a B2 Bomber except for the government? He foresaw all that.
Smith: He also refused to get into a war on the continent of Asia in 1954, which his successors, of course, did.
Baker: We were a lot smarter in those days.
Smith: Yes, we certainly were. Now, you started your column, Russell, when John Kennedy was in the White House.
Baker: Right, I started it in 1962.
Smith: How does Kennedy look thirty years later, as a president, a historical perspective?
Baker: Kennedy never became a legendary figure until he was dead. The whole Camelot thing was post-mortem. I covered the Senate in the first two years of the Kennedy administration. I’d known Kennedy when he was in the Senate, back in the 50’s, and I thought that it was a very disappointing presidency. For the most part, up until the time of he was assassinated, he had civil rights bills and tax bills in Congress, and he couldn’t get anything through. He tended to be bullied by the old Southern Committee Chairmen of the Democratic Party, and I thought he had a very ineffectual presidency at the time he was assassinated. The assassination was such a traumatic event for the country that his reputation was instantly transformed, he became the young Camelot myth that grew up.
Smith: Yes, and Lyndon Johnson had that great disadvantage of following a fallen young hero.
Baker: And of course, Johnson enacted all of Kennedy’s programs and then he enacted his own. I think Johnson was one of the great political figures I covered. He’s something out of Shakespeare, you know, he’s everything. He’s a buffoon like Falstaff, and there’s a bit of Richard the Third in him; he was a terrible bully.
Smith: Overpowering physical presence from your portrait of him in The Good Times, if he couldn’t persuade you’d he’d tower over you.
Baker: Oh, he would just lean on you, and you’d feel this great mountain of heat bending you back. He was the most complex man in politics. Most politicians aren’t worth a biography, most politicians are about a 5,000 word magazine piece, and Johnson is really a three-volume biography. I think Robert Caro, in fact, has embarked on that project.
Smith: Yes, absolutely. On the other hand, Ronald Reagan has just received a very, very long biography from Lou Cannon, and everybody seemed to agree that there was much less to Reagan than meets the eye, ear, nose, or throat. How do you account for that paradox of Ronald Reagan?
Baker: Well, let’s say, first of all, that I never covered Reagan, I was never close to him. By that time, I had left Washington and was looking at it very far off, the way most people do. What strikes me is that nobody figured out what made him operate. He has an official biographer, Edmund Morris, who wrote a wonderful biography. He wrote the best of all biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and the Reagan people asked him to come into the White House and become Reagan’s biographer. And apparently, he’s almost finished with the book, because he told the group down at the University of Virginia not long ago that he didn’t have the famous notion of what made Reagan tick, and what’s more, is that he didn’t think Mrs. Reagan did either (laughs). Well, I certainly didn’t.
Smith: So there. Nobody seems to know what made Reagan tick. Russell, as a humorist, is Dan Quayle too good to be true? I read your recent column, Making President Quayle, which I thought was very thoughtful. Suppose he never wanted the job, as you say. Calvin Trillin, who was a recent visitor to the Writers Institute, said that he had to declare a moratorium on writing about Quayle, because he was just going to overdo it, it was too easy. What kind of a player is Quayle in our public life, really?
Baker: Well, you know I haven’t written about Quayle either, I guess for the same reason that Bud Trillin hasn’t, I don’t see where you can improve on reality (laughs). If you’re doing something satirical you have to heighten the reality, and poor Quayle, just describing what he has done lately seems to me sufficient. And I suppose he’s going to be president one of these days, and there’s an excellent chance, statistically, that he will be president. Vice presidents tend to become president in our time.
Smith: Incidentally, let me tell our listeners that I am talking with Russell Baker, essayist and humorist, and author of Growing Up, The Good Times, and There’s A Country in My Cellar. Now, what’s changed, for better or worse, in American journalism? You’re career started in 1947 in journalism, and from then to now, the mighty change has been TV, electronic journalism. But, has it become shabbier, shallower, fraudulent, or what?
Baker: Well, I think the big loss is the loss of newspapers. Most cities only have one newspaper, so there’s no competition, and once you lose competition people get lazy and there are a lot of things that don’t get covered that should be covered. Television has taken over the front line job of telling people what happened yesterday isn’t any competition for the press. What they’re doing, essentially, is running the APA wire every evening. To go back to the Watergate story, which The Washington Post did such a good job on, that’s a press story. If The Washington Post hadn’t stayed on that, we probably never would have had Watergate. And a lot of Nixon’s people will say, "Yes, they were out to destroy Nixon." I don’t believe that.
Smith: That was a triumph of daily print journalism.
Baker: That’s a print reporter at work. Electronic reporters don’t do that, they can’t do that. One thing, in spite of the money they spend, they don’t have the budget for it. You know, at The Times how many reporters do we have, one hundred, two hundred? We measure them by the score. But most of the budget for television news goes to the mechanics, the technicians, to the cosmetics of the thing, to the anchor, the guy who just sits there and reads a piece of paper. He doesn’t work.
Smith: So, nobody really follows through at any story. Also, everything has to be so snappy and brief a minimal. The reader can develop a certain rapport, I think, with print journalism, that’s very hard to do except in the show biz way, electronic journalism.
Baker: Television tends to trivialize everything. Covering the campaign, they need the ten-second sound bite and everything, and you can’t cover a campaign with a ten-second picture of someone saying something snappy.
Smith: Now, your own career, as I said, started in Baltimore, back in 1947. But you didn’t want to be H. L. Mencken, who was of course, still the reigning bad boy of American journalism. You wanted to be Ernest Hemingway, in other words, to write fiction, is that correct?
Baker: When I started out I wanted to be a novelist, that was where the stars were. To be a newspaper man was unworthy. The great man of literature, the novelist, specifically Hemingway at the time. Hemingway was the guy people my age all grew up on, and in those days, when I got out of college, nobody was hiring novelists, so I had a job offer on a newspaper, The Baltimore Sun. And I took it, because at least the newspaperman writes.
Smith: Well, Hemingway had started out as a newspaperman too.
Baker: I’m sure I knew that (laughs).
Smith: Did Mencken have any impact on you? Because when I was in college at that time, around the late 40’s, Mencken still had a tremendous influence as an iconoclast, also as someone who could expose the frauds of American life.
Baker: I really read Mencken, I just wasn’t really aware of it, until I was well into journalism, and I discovered him and started reading, and of course, it’s magnificent. He’s a great humorist, actually. People take him much too seriously.
Smith: Especially these days, about his prejudices and bigotry, which out of context really sound very different, I expect, then they did at that time.
Baker: Well, I wouldn’t defend him on that. Even in his own time, he was bigoted about everything. If you read his pieces on the Scopes Trial in 1925, his attacks on the fundamentalist Christians would not be published in the paper nowadays. He made fun of these people; that was his style. He was a mean, bigoted old fella who wrote like an absolute dream. Nobody’s ever written journalism so well.
Smith: Well, now, writing your column the way you have done it, it’s not like being a novelist, but in some way did that satisfy your lust to be a fiction writer? I mean, you do create stories. What strikes me going back over your columns from the last thirty years is the wide variety. You’ve written about everything in popular politics, popular culture, what have you. Also the modes they’re in. Some of them are very, very funny, some of them are ironic, and some of them are quite serious. So, has your column satisfied a certain lust for being a storyteller?
Baker: Well, I think, yes, it definitely has. My column is different then most because I use a lot of fictional techniques. If you look through those columns in There’s a Country in My Cellar, a lot of them are like fiction. The problem is that a column space on the outside is eight hundred words, and you can’t so much creative writing in eight hundred words. It’s like trying to do a ballet in a telephone booth. So, in that sense, it’s frustrating, I always think, "Gosh, I wish I had been brave and undertaken to do a novel and I could still write that way." But the journalism that gave me the opportunity to use so much fictional technique kind of siphoned it off, and I worked it out bit by bit. In a line in Elliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, "I measured out my life in coffee spoons," and I guess I measured mine out that way too in some sense.
Smith: But, to great effect. Your columns are really singular because, just the way I described, sometimes you're not sure whether you’re supposed to be laughing, or this really happened, or whatever. This kind of mystery and suspense is the mark of a good writer, no matter what genre it is. In There’s a Country in My Cellar, you describe the panic you had in the first year of writing your column about having everything you could write about and also nothing to write about, and you had to keep doing it two or three times a week. Did your writing satire come naturally from simply being an observer? Did you ever think of yourself as a great humorist when you were a younger journalist?
Baker: No, and I still don’t think of myself as a humorist. I think Ring Lardner said somewhere, "To call yourself a humorist is like a baseball player calling himself a great shortstop." I’ve never wanted to be a humorist. All I was interested in was communicating a certain view of government and the world to a large, popular readership, and humor was one device by which you can do that. But, as you say, there are a lot of things in the last book that have nothing humorous at all about it.
Smith: As far as the satire part of it, well, public affairs has presented itself, and you don’t have to do anything but really transmit it in the best possible English you could.
Baker: But in the sense that Art Buchwald and Dave Barry and Bud Trillin are humorous, no, I can’t get in the ring with those guys.
Smith: Russell, before we run out of time, I want to ask you a question about Growing Up which moved me very much, your memoir about your childhood. It’s about the time of the Depression and the Second World War. Did the Depression, as you really described it, bring families closer together, and is that maybe one of the significant things about then and now?
Baker: Oh, no doubt about it. The family was a survival unit in the Depression. You know, every family had one person who had a job, and in my family my mother had a brother who was making $30 a week, and he took in relatives. We all went and lived at his place, so we had this huge extended family, all living on his $30 a week salary. If you’ve ever seen the play You Can’t Take It With You, it was rather like that. Of course, with prosperity, especially after the War, everybody wanted to get away from family, you wanted to get away from your in-laws. It’s not easy living with family. Suddenly everybody had money, you could buy a house and get out to the suburbs, live with your little nuclear family, and look at your parents, the old folks, with detachment and say, "Boy, I’m glad I don’t see those old bores everyday."
Smith: So, after the war we got away from the family with a vengeance. We’ve run out of time. Listen, thank you Russell Baker, we need your astute and ironic observations, and your marvelous prose, which I’m going to keep reading, and you please keep writing. This is Tom Smith saying so long till next time, on the public radio Book Show.
In The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors, Laura Miller writes that "For all the wonders Carey concocts and all the intelligence of his themes, it’s the people he writes about who linger after you close one of his books." Though this is certainly true in the cases of the rebellious and guileful gamblers of the Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and the re-fabricated Dickensian ex-convict of Jack Maggs (1998), among others, Peter Carey’s singular talent for developing peculiar yet convincing characters (an aspect of his writing that he admits to struggling with) has reached a new height in his most celebrated novel to date, True History of the Kelly Gang (2001). In the twenty-one years since his first novel was published, Carey has often been praised for his versatility with voice and knack for working with various narrative structures. Calling upon these skills, he has produced perhaps his most compelling protagonist through the inventive and semi-literate first-person narration ascribed to Ned Kelly himself, which takes the form of an autobiography addressed to Kelly’s infant daughter:
I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.
This achievement has earned Peter Carey the practically unprecedented award of a second Booker Prize, an honor he shares with but one other writer, South African novelist J.M. Coetzee.
Equal to his successful creation of character is Carey’s ability to construct a plausible past for each to inhabit. Though these historical fictions are set in the nineteenth-century, the world that he builds for each novel is quite distinct from the others. Oscar and Lucinda, for instance, takes us on a comic romp through the Australian wilderness, while True History of the Kelly Gang develops a clear sense of the harsh life and terrain found in the Colony of Victoria. Jack Maggs, Carey’s twist on Great Expectations, appropriates and then deftly recreates Dickens’s London.
But readers will quickly notice that Peter Carey’s novelistic forays into the past can be taken for more than extravagant adventures fashioned from a fanciful blend of fact and fiction. Carey, who is often mentioned alongside other premier post-colonial writers such as Salman Rushdie, uses his craft to assert the dignity of Australian history and culture. This tendency is exemplified in Carey’s reassessment of the notorious Ned Kelly in Carey’s latest award-winning novel. In opposition to the official denouncement of Kelly as a lawless brute, Carey champions Kelly’s influence on the spirit and imagination of subsequent generations of Australians by drawing the following analogy between the outlaw and America’s founding fathers: "You’ve got to remember, Australians don’t have any political figures or philosophers that occupy a large space in the imagination the way you have in America. But this story—this is our big story" (quoted in Time Out New York [Dec 28, 2000]). Carey’s finest and most acclaimed work is suffused with this same sense of pride in a distinctly Australian past and perspective.
Peter Carey’s other works of fiction include a collection of short stories, The Fat Man in History (1974), Bliss (1981), Illywhacker (1985), which was short-listed for the Booker Prize, The Tax Inspector (1991), The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994), and a novel for children, The Big Bazoohley (1995). Along with his two Booker Prizes, Carey has received numerous awards throughout his career, including the Miles Franklin Award, several awards from the National Book Council, and the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies Award.
Publishing eighteen books of poetry is quite a feat—one Paul Durcan has managed to pull off with such style and grace that it almost looks easy. Durcan, an Irish poet who is often compared to Patrick Kavanagh, has earned a large and dedicated audience in Ireland. He is well known for his clear language, for the "strange, and mesmerizing voice" that "wraps itself around every syllable and texture of his poems" (Michael Cunningham, Irish Times), as well as for the diversity of his subject matter, which ranges from witty accounts of everyday life to harsh criticism of the religious and social institutions in Ireland. "For him poetry is story-telling and his stories are told in a direct fashion that makes them totally accessible" (Roger McGough, Sunday Tribune).
As his poems repeatedly demonstrate, Durcan is a superb storyteller. The seeming ease with which Durcan writes is matched by the apparent effortlessness with which he moves through time and across space. His latest book, Cries of an Irish Caveman: New Poems (2001), contains such shifts, as well as, perhaps more surprisingly, narrative shifts between genders and from the human form. The second section of the book (there are four in total), "Sonia and Donal and Tracey and Patrick," paints pictures of Ireland’s people and places. The poems move between first, second, and third person points of view, and it seems almost a game, when entering each poem, to figure out who is speaking, when, and to whom. The fourth section, "Cries of an Irish Caveman," tells of Durcan’s own romantic experiences. Though the narrator in these poems first appears as a man, he quickly shifts form, becoming a cow. The turn comes in "Bovinity":
I am a middle of the road cow.I like to sit down in the middle of the road,
Curl up and up, before and behind,
Wind my tail around and around myself,
And, accumulating all my flesh and all my soul,
Watch the world go by:
One may suspect the cow to be a passing metaphor, and that Durcan would move from it. However, the narrator remains a cow in the next poem, "Love at First Sight," which begins with a woman who sees a "stray cow amok in her flowerbeds" and runs outside: "She snatched me by the ear – ‘So, no tag on your ear?’ / She whispered, and she led me by the ear back up the stone steps . . ." After fourteen of "the happiest" days of their lives, she offers to "TB and brucellosis test you with my own herd and that way you’ll be tagged and ID’d." The gesture seems, almost unbelievably, romantic. As one moves through the poems, one becomes, perhaps, used to the cow; but when jealousy enters, the third is neither in the form of a human nor a cow, but a flower. In "Aaron’s Rod," the cow, watching the woman, stops grazing as he notices her looking at the flower with "such discreet passion,"
And darting out two or three fingers like lizard-tongues
(The Aaron’s Rod, as with other the images, is of course, blatantly symbolic.) As Durcan leads us through his romance, across distances and to various people, his poems have a way of making us comfortable and close as we travel with him.
Though Durcan moves across many borders, he always returns to Ireland, his birthplace and home. Colm Tóibín writes, "Paul Durcan’s Ireland is the one we inhabit. At times he is ready to celebrate the bizarre and the ordinary; at other times he is full of surreal rage against both order and disorder" (Times Literary Supplement). As with many of his books, the Ireland he portrays in Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil: One Hundred Poems (1999) is ravaged and angry. The poems here take place during the time of Mary Robinson’s presidency. Durcan, struggling to find cures for his country’s soul, finds in her a symbol of hope for the future. "The First and Last Commandment of the Commander-in-Chief," one of his shorter poems, is touching in its brevity:
By 1990 in Ireland we’d been adolescents for seventy years
There is hope here, but anger elsewhere. "Omagh," a particularly powerful poem, focuses on the Omagh bombing, and so on the IRA and what was Gerry Adams’s first condemnation of a bombing. "Omagh" is written in fourteen parts. In "1. From the Omagh Quatermaster: Memo to GHQ, 16.08.98," Durcan speaks back to Adam.
We’ve been in terror for thirty years, Gerry.
Later, "4. Second Litany" is, simply and brutally, a list of names, and, a haunting echo, "5. Third Litany" is a list of ages, which correspond to those names. The poem seems a struggle to come to terms with what happened, but the final section, "14. The Last Post," points to the impossibility of this:
Of children’s cries in Omagh,
This poem and others burn with rage, refusal, and hopelessness; elsewhere we find, also, love, longing, and a search for hope.
As Durcan turns our gaze to those around him, he draws forth a variety of emotions. He also invites us to gaze on him, and the result is often comical. Perhaps not surprisingly, his humor is most biting when he writes about himself as a poet. In "The Chicago Waterstone’s," from Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil, Durcan dines with an ex-girlfriend while on tour with a new book: "She condescends to refer to your new book / As if you were a neurotic travelling salesman / Which in fact of course is what you are." Not surprisingly, she fails to appear at the reading he gives that night. In Cries of an Irish Caveman, Durcan once again refuses to glamorize the poetry-reading circuit. "On Giving a Poetry Recital to an Empty Hall" tells the story of a reading he gives, a full hour long, to an "empty hall" at the Ballyfree Community Arts Festival:
The empty chairs gazed up at me in awe.
We laugh, with him, at the spectacle—or rather, the absence of one. Of course, Durcan’s poems are anything but droll; the mixture he offers us, the many flavors of his carefully constructed poems, are enough to hold our eyes and keep us, so to speak, on the edge of our seats.
Durcan’s many other books include A Snail in My Prime: New and Selected Poems (1993), Daddy, Daddy (1990), which won the Whitbread Poetry Prize, and The Berlin Wall Cafe (1985), a Poetry Book Society Choice. His awards include the Cholmondeley Award for poetry in 2001, the Irish American Cultural Institute Poetry Award in 1989, and the Patrick Kavanagh award in 1974. Durcan was the resident poet at the Robert Frost House in 1985, and has participated in readings around the world. He now lives in Dublin, where he was born.
Rachel Zitomer is an intern at the NYS Writers Institute and a graduate student in the UAlbany's English Department.Top of Page
Lucy Grealy ends the introduction to her collection of essays As Seen on TV with the hope that her voice throughout the many essays "remains, if nothing else, even when foolish and sputtering, earnest"(3). For an essay collection written and published before the events of September 11th, in an American writing scene filled with writers who seemed to wish to be seen as anything but earnest, Grealy's stated desire is a bold one. But coming from a writer who often grapples with trying to define herself on her own terms, such an unconventional desire is so surprising: Grealy specializes in seeing and admitting the desires many of us would prefer not to acknowledge. Whether she is talking about the power games between men and women, the desire for consumer items, or the way fame and money can change one for the worse, Grealy never flinches in the face of difficult truths.
Lucy Grealy, a poet, novelist, and essayist is best known for her 1994 book, Autobiography of a Face. There, with earnestness and self-deprecating wit, she told of how her self-image shaped itself around the way her face looked after surgery for jaw cancer when she was nine. She powerfully and candidly recounts the paint of "the deep bottomless grief. . .called ugliness." Less well publicized is that the book is just as much a tale of a dysfunctional family, and in a way a peculiarly American family, of immigrants from Ireland who dislike their new country.
The essays of As Seen on TV cover quite a range of topics and odd facts and information transformed by Grealy's earnest voice into a larger frame of thought. They meander over territory that includes the history of blue jeans and cowboy boots, the fact that tango "is one of the unsung heroes of the feminist movement," and what it's like to go on Oprah. All of these disparate facts Grealy insightfully ties to larger issues of self-acceptance, consumerism, and the American media.
The essays also take a hard, honest look at women, how they can define their self-worth through their sexual attractiveness to men and how that can play out in abstinence or promiscuity. She also asserts that women's love for horses has nothing, as she says, to do with certain theories put forward "always by men(102)" who "want to explain (the attraction to horses) in terms of sex or the desire to be near such power"(102).
There is more in these essays about Grealy's family, including meditations on her older brother and twin sister and why she did not devote much time to them in her memoir, and how writing or not writing of them is tied up with considerations such as the ethics of making money from writing and the desire to refuse readers' expectations of her stories.
All of Grealy's essays shift in surprising ways and somehow always seem to end with a flourish. For example, the essay called "The Present Tense" which begins with a description of worldly friends and their weekend getaway, moves to their dog, Tess, to Tess's ball game, to descriptions of varying ways humans deal with animals, then to a meditation on the difference between human language and animal language, back to another game Tess enjoys called 'chase,' and on to a meditation on how animals can bring out our truer selves or our desire to see the world through rosy colored glasses. This leads to a meditation about the political consequences of such desires, and finally the essay ends back with Tess greeting each of the weekend guests at dinner, her head in their laps.
There's a kind of mini-play in which Grealy captures the voices of four New Yorkers all writers--a professor, a cabbie, a squeegee man, and a policeman--to offer a witty take on the New York writing scene and to leave you wondering: what about all those Gotham writer's mailboxes littering Manhattan?
In the end, Grealy's essays are so much more than her only hope for them--that they be seen as earnest. They are witty, bold, provocative, intelligent, and surprising. But in the post September 11th world when we, as citizens of the United States, have, perhaps, rediscovered the value of earnestness, we should, perhaps, be most thankful for her boldly declared desire to be earnest and most importantly, for her ability to follow through on that desire in these wonderfully earnest essays.
Mary Lannon is a graduate student in the English Department at UAlbany.
Love, loss and longing have been the currents guiding much of Linda Gregg’s poetry, as well as a persistent determination to not only survive, but directly confront, come to terms with, and give words to suffering. This determination has lead, as Joseph Brodsky has written, to that "blinding intensity of Ms. Gregg’s lines," which "stains the reader’s psyche the way lighting or heartbreak do." Gregg’s poems have been compared to archaic Greek poetry, and, in the words of W.S. Merwin, "are original in the way that really matters: they speak clearly of their source."
In two of Gregg’s earlier collections, recently reissued in one volume, Too Bright to See & Alma (2002), the poet offers language that is as honest as it is elusive. Though the words often, on the surface, contain a deceptive simplicity, they also reveal the power and depth of Gregg’s craft, intelligence and passion toward her work. The poems in Alma are set mainly in Greece, a landscape through which the poet wanders, as if in exile, searching out and exploring her connection to it. As she charts her journeys across both physical and emotional distances, she creates poems that are intensely personal, though not self absorbed, and that "exist like large round stones warm in a Mediterranean sun, engraved with runes whose meaning we must decipher" (Doris Earnshaw).
In The Sacraments of Desire (1991), Gregg once again traced her wanderings, setting her poems in such places as Greece, New England, and Mexico. The subjects of the poems vary, but the struggle to confront and come to terms with suffering, be it from the poverty she witnesses in Central America or from the end of a love affair, remains a constant force. The strong female voice of the poet does not simply place herself or those she writes about as victims, nor does it convey a resistance to inevitable change; she is "happy to be painting the river / and dipping my brush in it at the same time."
Gregg’s last collection, Things and Flesh (1999), is centered around a lost love, and the suffering from and survival of that loss. The poems consistently reveal Gregg’s language as strikingly honest as her words recreate and bring us fully into the immediately recognizable tensions between the tangible and the intangible, between what is known of the mind, body, and our place in the world and what must, finally, remain unknowable. Such tensions are made visible in "Variously Us":
Something breaches the ocean of doctrine,
Here and elsewhere there is a strength in being, physically, in the world, as well as a constant awareness of limitation. The recreation of loss and attempts to understand it are not limited to such personal, physical encounters. Throughout Things and Flesh, Gregg transverses and collapses spatial and temporal distances, moving between Greece and Arkansas, between Greek gods, biblical figures, and modern writers (such as Whitman and Crane). As we push, with her, toward survival, we are left without an affinity with God:
Perhaps He can’t experience the difference between
We are left, also, with no sympathy from nature, the unresponsive source of our being:
The wind blows
We exist simply "on the Earth" where "all things transpire." It is on earth that we learn to survive, as "We walk / with our soft bodies and tough minds." Survival does not end with salvation, but with poetry: "What poetry demands is worse / than nakedness, and less knowable."
Linda Gregg is the author of six books of poems, most recently the reissued Too Bright to See & Alma (2002); Things and Flesh (1999), which was a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Award for Poetry; and Chosen by the Lion (1994). Her numerous awards include a Whiting Writer’s Award (1985) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1983). Her poetry has also appeared in The New Yorker, the Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, and the Atlantic Monthly.
Rachel Zitomer is an intern at the NYS Writers Institute and a graduate student in the UAlbany's English Department.Linda Gregg
Top of Page
Many might argue that Marie Howe’s career was chosen for her, or was perhaps destiny. She was the eldest of nine children in an Irish Catholic family in Rochester, New York. She notes that the camaraderie between the siblings was tremendous; they were inseparably close, "a clan, a tribe," and between them, "stories got told every day." It is clear from reading her poetry, the deep emotion it captures, and the family it so values, that helping to raise her younger siblings through the relation of tales, providing example and illustrating for them the beauty of their surroundings was the birthplace of her writing career.
Howe went to Sacred Heart Convent School, and one might expect that the rigid nature of the atmosphere, the strict adherence to form, code and structure, would have quieted her artistic soul. Not so, argues David Daniel of the Ploughshares Literary Journal at Emerson College, in which Howe has written and been written about on numerous occasions. He feels that "the enlightened, politically active nuns served as important role models: they were strong women who, rather than retreat from the world, dug into it with intellectual and spiritual passion." And truly, no other word can be used to describe the work of Howe besides "passionate."
After Sacred Heart, Howe went on to a brief stint in college and then began teaching high school English in the Boston area. While there, in 1980, she was awarded a fellowship to attend a summer teacher’s program at Dartmouth, where she participated in her first poetry workshop with Karen Pelz. Inspired by her success there, she went to Cambridge and joined a poetry workshop with Stuart Dischell, who then encouraged her to pursue an MFA in poetry at Columbia.
At Columbia Howe met one of the greatest influences and literary allies in her life, Stanley Kunitz. She remembers that, "As soon as he walked in the door, I saw my true teacher - the light in his eyes, the way he held a piece of paper, the way he sat in a chair and gathered himself. He never said an extra word. Never. And he always told the truth. He always saw to the thing you were avoiding, and he loved you there...me...whoever. Meeting him was one of the great gifts of my life. Stanley taught us that to be a poet is to live a life not separate from the work; both demand authenticity, courage, clarity. So many voices have entered the world through his gate, and none of them sound like him. ‘Don’t listen to anyone,’ he once said to me at Columbia, ‘not even me.’"
After receiving her MFA in 1983, Howe went on to a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown for seven months, after which she returned to Cambridge and to teach expository writing at Tufts. There she worked with Lucie Brock-Broido, Robin Becker, Steven Cramer, Stuart Dischell, Askold Melnyczuk, Tom Sleigh, Bruce Smith, and Stephen Tapscott, as well as many others. Again, she was blessed with a group of talented artists with whom she could share ideas and perfect her craft. It was a home away from home, another close-knit family like the one that had fostered her creative output in the Rochester of her youth. Howe notes that they were "Invaluable. We listened to each other, read to each other, argued, ate, talked, laughed, helped each other send this or that out."
Likely, the experience gained from working with this group, and the constant support they offered, played a major role in her winning the 1987 Open Competition of the National Poetry Series. The work, which would become her first book, The Good Thief, was selected by renowned author Margaret Atwood. Atwood notes that "Marie Howe’s poetry doesn’t fool around. Reading it you feel interest always, delight often, and occasionally that cool wind at the back of the neck that makes you think there’s one more person in the room than there actually is. These poems are intensely felt, sparely expressed, and difficult to forget; poems of obsession that transcend their own dark roots."
Though relatively early in her poetry career, the poems in The Good Thief display the same ability to capture and hone emotion that she perfected in her later work. In the poem "Sorrow," Howe explores the emotional impact of the death of a loved one, an eerie foreshadowing of the personal tragedy she would endure with her brother soon after the release of the book.
So now it has our complete attention, and we are made whole.
If the man has died, if the child’s illness has taken a sudden
Now when we speak it is with a great seriousness, and when
There is no longer any reason to distrust us. When it leaves
All this good fortune gave way to tragedy, however, when Howe’s brother John died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1989, just months before she came on fellowship to Radcliffe’s Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute. Howe was devastated. She notes that she "was paralyzed and unable to write. I would go up to my office, sneak cigarettes, and write ‘still dead’ on an empty notepad. That’s all I could do."
Despite the tragedy, however, Howe had a deadline to read her work at Radcliffe as part of her fellowship responsibilities. Unable to think about anything but her lost brother, and needing an outlet to express these emotions, Howe concentrated her feelings into eight poems to meet the deadline. She remembers of the reading, "I stood up there that day and said, ‘I’ve never shown these poems to anyone else before,’ and when I read them, the response was overwhelmingly warm and positive. I will never forget that day."
This unexpected celebratory reception of her poems of pain, loss, and mourning, gave Howe a seeming new direction in her artistic career. She notes that Stanley Kunitz told her "We have to make our living and dying important again, and the living and dying of others. Isn’t that what poetry is all about? Perhaps that is what AIDS is here to tell us." Howe has taken these words to heart, and the work which she has produced since The Good Thief has centered on dealing with AIDS and its ramifications on both sufferers and the people in their lives.
In 1995, Howe co-edited In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic with Michael Klein, a collection of essays, letters, and short stories from professional and amateur writers alike. Attempts to answer Howe’s introductory question of "How do you anthologize silence?" included Eve Ensler’s "All of Us Are Leaving," a story of four of her friends progressing though the stages of HIV and AIDS, and anonymous tales such as "Unsafe Sex," in which a woman relates that she currently does have, and always has had, unprotected sex, and now must face the fear of being tested for AIDS, a fear so great that she feels she may opt instead to live in ignorance and possible infection. As Howe notes, and as is made clear by this work, "The plight of people living with AIDS is our plight, amplified: living and dying at the same time."
Howe then went on to publish what may be considered her definitive work, a collection of poems entitled What the Living Do in 1998. These poems are an expansion of the initial eight she wrote for her Radcliffe fellowship, and chronicle her relationship with her brother from childhood to his death to the emotional aftermath for Howe. In "Three Days," Howe finds herself "trying to find another word for/gratitude/because my brother could have died and didn’t" after she and her family waited for a week in intensive care expecting John to die then and there. She captures the agony of having to decide whether to make plans for funerals and post-mortem arrangements or to go on with the glimmer of a notion that he will survive; this dichotomy of viewing terminal patients as living or dying is central to the work. In "A Certain Light," Howe chronicles in full detail the laundry list of drugs her brother was given as he was hospitalized, naming them antiseptically and accurately, capturing the odd shades of blue in the morphine, illustrating by her attention to detail how much this scene impacted her and stuck in her mind. Finally, in the eponymous "What the Living Do," she laments over the loss, painting the frustration and the feelings of futility which seem to permeate everything when an emotional gap is left in one’s life, but simultaneously noting that "I am living, I remember you."
Future plans for Howe include work on another anthology with Klein, a companion to his Poets for Life: 76 Poets Respond to AIDS, which will follow the same format as In the Company of My Solitude. Additionally, she will continue to teach at institutions such as Sarah Lawrence, NYU, and Columbia. She is bound to bless the literary world with many more volumes of her heartfelt poetry, for as Stanley Kunitz notes, "Her long, deep-breathing lines address the mysteries of flesh and spirit, in terms accessible only to a woman who is very much of our time yet still in touch with the sacred….In essence she is a religious poet, that rarity among writers of her generation."Top of Page
I wonder how many of you here tonight are feeling a sense of deja vu all over again for a William Kennedy event at the palace. I covered the "Ironweed" movie premiere in this theater for the Times Union in 1987. That also was a cold winter's night. I remember stretch limos, a search light's hypnotic sweep and women wearing a lot of fur. I overreached horribly with my imagery in that story, but that's an occupational hazard when writing about one of the great stylists of 20th-century American literature. The lyricism of Kennedy's language has been compared by critics to Joyce, Faulkner, Garcia Marquez and other stylistic originals. Kennedy's lines leap off the page. They make you laugh. They make you cry. They take your breath away. And yet he never appears to be overreaching for language. He makes it look so easy. Even when he's literally creating new words, such as "corpuscularity." or when he strings out dazzling sentences that defy gravity for a full page -- the opening sentence of "Quinn's book," for instance, runs 124 words -- before coming to rest at a period that leaves a reader out-of-breath, invariably choking on laughter and amazed by the literary gymnastics just witnessed. "I know not everyone digs all this stylistic stuff and the exalted syntax," he told me in 1992. "But I have to write like that. These books are exercises in style and language for me, as well as what i hope are compelling stories."
Digging through the times union's morgue while researching an article, I get a thrill when I stumble across a Kennedy byline I haven't seen before. He seems incapable of producing a mediocre piece, whether he's doing a weather story or an obituary about Langford, a fabled north Albany cat. His language jumps out from the columns of faded, 1950s newsprint with jazzy phrasings, runyonesque dialogue and a timeless energy.
In a 1989 Paris review interview, Kennedy said the purest expression of style he ever heard came from an old drinking buddy, Gene Mcgarr. The pair were in the lion's head tavern in Greenwich village in 1969 as Kennedy was poised to publish his first novel, "The Ink Truck," a metaphysical comedy about a newspaper strike. At the bar, Mcgarr says to Kennedy: "you know, Irishmen are people who sit around trying to say things good."
Bill Kennedy -- whose fiction is rooted in the Irish condition as it sails between islands of dark humor and aching misery across a vast archipelago of vaulted language -- has been sitting around trying to say things good for more than 50 of his 74 years. He makes it look so easy, but it's not, especially when he persisted through long years of rejection. Kennedy was 56 years old when the Pulitzer prize, national book critics circle award and other literary acclaim caught up with him for "ironweed" in 1984. He had been sitting at his writer's desk and defying the blank page for three decades with only modest success before that watershed book. An Irishman trying to sound good.
During seven years in Puerto Rico, from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, Kennedy attempted to transform himself from journalist to novelist and found mostly failure. Then came his discovery that what he had left behind was what he needed most as a writer of serious, literary fiction. The opening lines of "O Albany!" state his realization: "I write this book not as a booster of Albany, which I am, nor as an apologist for the city, which I sometimes am, but rather as a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs for the life of the soul."
Saul bellow taught at the University of Puerto Rico and became for Kennedy a literary mentor who offered Bill this writerly advice: "Don't be afraid to write a lot. Be prodigal. Think of all those sperm: only one is needed to create life."
Kennedy took bellow's suggestion and swam with it. In addition to his eight novels, he's the author of three non-fiction books, two children's books, several screenplays, a drama and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles. It was bellow, too, who gave Viking the nudge Kennedy needed to get the manuscript for "ironweed" seriously considered after 13 other publishers had passed on it.
I remember one of the first times i interviewed Kennedy in his study upstairs in his Averill Park home. It was the mid-1980s and he was banging out his books on a 1930s-vintage L.C. Smith upright manual typewriter. Tucked beneath one corner of the typewriter was a scrap of paper the size of a business card. It bore these words: "write one page."
Kennedy told me being a writer is about stamina. Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint. He figured if he could produce one page of prose that he considered worthy each day, he'd have a 365-page novel by year's end. He made it sound like simple arithmetic. He didn't go into details then about how strenuously he labors at his craft. I'd find that out later, during subsequent interviews and meetings. How he accumulates boxes of historical research for each book. How he sifts hour after hour through those personal archives that overflow closets and attic space , panning for the nuggets that will frame his fiction with the vibrant spine of history. How he sets out writing in a free-form way, listening to his characters, riding the language like a breaking wave, searching for the perfect pitch, trying out different narrators and points of view, stitching together scenes, building a plot. He's finding his story and locating his voice as he goes. I've called up bill when he's in these formative stages of a new novel and invariably I make the mistake of asking him how's the book going? "I don't know yet," is his terse reply. "I've got some ideas working, but I don't know where it's going." And then I might happen to ask him again six months or a year later and his answer makes the novel writing process sound like hand-to-hand combat. "I'm wearing it down," he once told me. "I think I've broken its back, but I’m still not sure how I’m going to end it."
Write one page is Kennedy's daily mantra. What you might not know is that to achieve one page that meets his literary standards often takes thirty pages or more of false starts, dead-ends and revisions. He sometimes throws out entire chapters and starts over again. A dozen drafts are not uncommon. "It's just blind luck to find the right way into a novel, because it's all intuitive," he said. "You have nothing to work from. You're making up the whole world. Writing a novel is an existential experience. You don't know how it's going to end when you start out."
Kennedy makes it look so easy after you see his work between hard covers or glowingly reviewed on the front of the New York Times book review. But sitting around trying to say things good is grinding toil. Bill once confided to me he's got a writer's tic in which he picks at his fingers incessantly while struggling to create language that dances off the page, causing his cuticles to look like the streets of Albany after a spring thaw. Kennedy gave this writer's malady a name: "deadline finger," he calls it.
He has fussed with his digits across an ocean of language and created a fictional universe by reconstituting Albany's colorful past. Bill has carried readers along on a journey of remarkably sustained imagination through a cycle of novels that establishes Albany alongside Joyce's Dublin, Hemingway's Paris and Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha county as an enduring literary landmark.
At the age of 74, Kennedy has just published his most ambitious novel yet in the Albany cycle. As bill told me just after he turned in the manuscript, "roscoe" was five years in the writing and 50 years in the gestation. It is a profound exploration of Albany's vaunted democratic political machine. It is the big political novel he had long promised to tackle and the one he had perhaps willfully managed to avoid for so long. "I grew up around Albany politics, covered Albany politics, interviewed all the politicos. I couldn't just transcribe reality," Bill said. "Saul bellow told me you have to filter your stories through your soul."
Literary critics greeted this month's publication of "Roscoe" with high praise. Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times: "the book, like its hero, displays a wonderful gift of gab as it roams through the ebulliently corrupt byways of Albany." Pete Hamill, reviewing "Roscoe" for the Times Union, said "Kennedy's writing has never been stronger, more layered, more suggestive, more concrete."
Tonight's reading of "Roscoe" is a fitting exclamation point to all that the Albany cycle of novels has represented for the capital city on the Hudson and its citizens. When "Ironweed" premiered in this theater 15 years ago after being filmed in Albany, Bill said he felt like he had been at the circus for six months. Ladies and gentlemen, i present to you the ringmaster of Albany's literary community, the man who keeps bringing the circus to town. William Kennedy
Paul Grondahl is a reporter for the Albany Times Union.
Binnie Kirshenbaum’s prose—hilarious, brutal, and sometimes downright hard to swallow—brings readers, without reservation or hesitation, to the questions of what it is to be female and intensely sexual, and what it is to be a Jew haunted by the holocaust. The mastery with which she confronts her content is matched by her precise, witty, and relentlessly graceful language. She is, as Michael Cunningham has remarked, a "rare and remarkable writer," who, by inviting us into her characters’ stories, forces us to question our own.
In her last novel, Pure Poetry (2000), Kirshenbaum exposed us to Lila Moscowitz, a witty New York Jew surviving the summer leading up to her thirty-fifth birthday. Lila is a well-known poet ("as famous as any poet in America can get without being dead and having an intermediate school named after you" (20)). She writes exclusively within traditional forms, but her "language is of the street. Slang and colloquial and foul-mouthed" (21). The jarring combination works as a kind of basis for Lila’s narrative, which, like her poetry, is made up of pieces that, although moving clearly and in deliberate patterns, just don’t fit. Lila is a stunningly honest narrator who, however, often doesn’t see the truth about herself or others. In many ways, her problems are ones we are familiar with. For example, she doesn’t trust love. She repeatedly leaves lovers and family members with the hope that they will follow. (They don’t, of course.) But Kirshenbaum pushes us through the familiar, past it, to the brink of the believable—and sometimes over the edge. The narrative slips into and out of a series of pasts; when we arrive at the last time Lila calls her dying mother, as she dutifully does twice a week, her sister-in-law is unable to speak out of anger. Lila had missed her mother’s funeral: "Bella had died on Tuesday, while I was with Leon [a cross-dressing psychiatrist], but no one called to tell me. No one called me to tell me that my mother was dead. Not my father or my brothers or either of the sisters-in-law or my Aunt Mitzie even" (137). This, it seems, is hard to swallow, on the brink of believable. Elsewhere, Lila admits to elaboration and even downright lies. Still, the honesty of the narrative voice suspends doubt and, though frustrated, we do believe. For it is not a question of truth or lie, but of what the human heart and mind are capable of.
Pure Poetry is not only the story, or history, of Lila herself; it is also a story of the ghosts that make up our histories. Such ghosts appear during Lila’s relationship with Max. He was her first, only, and too passionate love. The marriage between them—between Lila, a non-practicing but proud Jew, and Max, a German who has difficulty with proverbs—is short-lived. The lines between a not-so-distant history and the immediate and present blur, and soon after moving into his apartment, she becomes imprisoned—imprisons herself, she admits—within it, literally unable to leave: "my hair was growing back at odds and ends [after a fight with Max led to a buzz cut], sprouting willy-nilly in patches. . . .My collarbone protruded at sharp angles and my knees had gone knobby. Dark circles lent my eyes a desperate and hungry look, and my personal hygiene was lacking" (56). The images recall pictures of concentration camp survivors; soon everywhere, real or imagined, Lila witnesses evidence of the holocaust. Where the line between the past and a present relationship is crossed, why, and with what justifications are questions readers, with Lila, are left with. The inescapable nature of the past is all we can be sure of: "The past runs not in a linear direction. It is nothing like north to south or longitude and latitude off into infinity. . . . Rather, the past is a series of spiraled circles. A spring coiled end to end" (61). History and its ghosts are as undeniable as the present and the impeding future, and we are left with the impossibility of gaining a clear perspective—an impossibility always present, and one we should be grateful to Kirshenbaum for making visible.
Kirshenbaum’s latest book, Hester Among the Ruins (2002), likewise blurs our distance from the past. The heroine, again a New York Jew with a healthy sexual appetite, is Hester Rosenfeld, a biographer who reconstructs the lives of common persons in historical moments. Her focus had been on American History; this narrative, however, takes place at a turn: Hester has traveled to Munich to meet and write the biography of Heinrich Falk, a professor and member of the first generation of Germans after World War II. She falls immediately into a intense affair with Heinrich, who is in his fourth marriage (having remarried his second wife), and to whom adultery is nothing new. Their mutual need for each other is as superficial as it is intense; each is surprised by the level of sexual desire for the other, yet their mutual histories and inability to cope with those histories draws them to each other without allowing the other to probe too deep. Throughout the book, various histories become densely and inextricably woven to each other: the history of Hester’s parents, who escaped Germany just before WWII; of Heinrich’s father, an adulterer, and mother, an intellectual who spoiled her son; of courtship rituals, centuries old; and, of course, of the relationship between Jews and Germans.
It is as if Germans and Jews were two sides of a coin, heads and tails. Front and back. Day and night. Up and down, Montagues and Capulets, and in our three-dimensional sphere, you can’t have one without the other. Germans and Jews are inexorably bound together now, our histories are braided, the ethnic version of the Venn diagram. You can’t discuss the Jews and not factor the Germans into the equation. Go ahead, out loud say German and see if the associative word that springs to mind isn’t Jew. We need each other, not to survive, but to help define ourselves. (255)
The collective is as inseparable from the individual as the present is from the past. Individual history is what she means to uncover, and what she realizes, too late, neither she nor Heinrich is ready to face. Her story, like his, is one of secrets, and of what distances she travels to pursue—and hide from—them.
Once in Germany, the ghosts from Hester’s past—the secrets she had hoped to outrun—become too visible. In Munich, Hester quickly becomes unsettled and consistently aware, as she was not in New York, of being a Jew. Accusations and uncertainties, in the face of situations and reactions real or imagined, dart through her narrative, and she wavers between her fear of condemnation and a painful awareness of her own elevated status, unfitting as she feels it is to her, as a Jew. Again, Hester’s voice is bold and provocative as she compares her response to Holocaust memorials with Heinrich’s:
While I can’t quite make-believe that theirs were victimless crimes, I don’t want to see the evidence of the victims. . . . I can look the Nazis in the eye, but never their prey. In that same way, almost as if HF considers them to be the unlucky victims of an earthquake or a flood, he has come to be at home with weeping for the victims without quite fully acknowledging who precisely did what. To point the finger of blame at Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels is not the same as to blame people of flesh and blood and bone. Collective guilt absolves the individual. Of course, he would deny this take, but it’s true all the same. (215)
It would be impossible, or at least unbelievable, to confront such charged matter without leading readers, at some point, if not over the edge, at least to the brink of belief. What Kirshenbaum shows us, however, is not some unquestionable truth, not, even, bouts of certainty, but one character’s struggle to evade, honestly confront, and question the past and its relationship to the present. Here, as with Pure Poetry, Kirshenbaum offers no more answers to us than to her characters. As both novels show, the complicated and inseparable threads that make up her characters and stories mirror those that make up each of our lives and histories. If Kirshenbaum pushes us, and at times too far, and if we follow her only with difficulty and a measure of disbelief, it is only because her intense and offensively brave characters show us those things we, more often than not, have still unresolved for ourselves, and have not the courage to face.
Kirshenbaum is the author of six books, including History on a Personal Note (1995), a collection of short stories, and A Disturbance in One Place (1994), a novel. Her awards include the Critic’s Choice Award from The San Francisco Review of Books (1994 and 95), and she was selected for the Barnes & Nobel Discover New Writers program (1994).
Rachel Zitomer is an intern at the NYS Writers Institute and a graduate student in the UAlbany's English Department.Binnie Kirshenbaum
Top of Page
"Persevere, then explore. Be explorers all your life."
Stanley Kunitz has long been considered one of America’s finest poets. In a career that has spanned seven decades, Kunitz has gone on to receive virtually every honor a poet can win – including the Levinson, Bollingen, and Pulitzer Prizes, the National Book Award, the National Medal of Arts, and the Frost Medal. He has also served as the State Poet of New York and, in 2000, at the age of 95, was named the tenth Poet Laureate of the United States, the highest honor a poet can receive in this country.
Kunitz has shown no signs of slowing down. David Barber, of Atlantic Monthly, had this to say regarding Kunitz’s 1995 collection, Passing Through: "Stanley Kunitz’s starkly powerful lyric poems … are, in all their outward simplicity and inward mystery, perhaps the closest that American poetry has come in our time to achieving an urgency and aura that –deserve – even demand – to be called visionary."
At the conclusion of perhaps his most famous poem, "The Layers," Kunitz declares: "I am not done with my changes." Nowhere is this more apparent than in the style and texture of the poems themselves. His early collections earned him a reputation as an intellectual poet, a man in love with craft and language and what Kunitz himself later referred to as "a fine excess." Yet despite much acclaim and the reward of a Pulitzer Prize, he changed gears suddenly in his 1971 publication, The Testing-Tree. It is a collection that "ruthlessly prods wounds … he moves from the known to the unknown to the unknowable," (Stanley Moss, The Nation.) Poet Robert Lowell agreed: "The smoke has blown off. The old Delphic voice has learned to speak words that ‘cats and dogs can understand’"
Kunitz told Publisher’s Weekly: "I’ve learned to depend on a simplicity that seems almost nonpoetic on the surface, but has reverberations within that keep it intense and alive … I look for spareness and rigor and a world of compassion."
Over the past four decades, Kunitz’s work has continued to explore the unknowable in poems remarked for their spareness, their lyricism, their fearless willingness to confront the tough questions – love and loss, life and death - and also for their defiantly insistent celebration of the beautiful, and of life itself.
In The Collected Poems (2000), Kunitz closes his opening reflections by saying "At my age … what is there left for you to confront but the great simplicities? I never tire of bird song and sky and weather. I want to write poems that are natural, luminous, deep, spare. I dream of an art so transparent that you can look through it and see the world."
I have walked through many lives,
Though London-based writer John Lahr has published a staggering number and variety of books, including biographies, novels, and stage adaptations, he is best known and most widely respected as a theater critic. The care with which he researches his material, in combination with his graceful and captivating prose, has led Susan Shapiro to call him "the most generous and gregarious theater writer working today" (Salon). Similarly, Arnold Aronson has referred to Lahr as "probably the most intelligent and insightful writer on theater today" (New York Times Book Review).
As the son of the Bert and Mildred Lahr, John Lahr literally grew up within America’s theatrical community. He has since become a critic with a reputation for having a keen awareness of the theater’s place in and influence on its social and historical surroundings, as well as an understanding of individual talents and how they have reflected and effected their audiences. As Cynthia Rose has written, Lahr "wanted readers to follow him backstage, to learn how plays were written, staged, and directed. He wanted to bring them inside his world, into an inner circle and continuum of ideas. His dream was to widen out ‘theater culture’" (Seattle Times).
Lahr performs such feats in Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr (1969; reprinted with a new preface by the author 2000). Finished, according to Lahr, on the day of his father’s death, this authorized biography of his father recreates the life of a talented figure and conflicted man. Lahr begins his narrative with the image of an older Bert Lahr onstage in The Beauty Part:
From the wings, his buffoonery, at sixty-eight, seems a much more personal and painful struggle than he allows anyone, even himself, to believe. If he rarely ventures outside his apartment, on stage he takes immense physical and emotional risks. He falls; his body unravels in flurries of contorted movement. The pratfall becomes the flesh’s humiliation, and its redemption is laughter. The activity is hypnotic and strangely ugly; what is referred to so matter-of-factly at home as "business" becomes disciplined and controlled art. The gales of laughter that greet Nelson Smedley are not so much the product of the dialogue as of the gymnastics of his face, the bellowing and the slapstick antics that expand the words. (4)
From Vaudeville to Broadway, from theatre to radio and film, from The Wizard of Oz to Waiting for Godot, John Lahr sets the scene for many of his father’s shows with careful detail, elaborating on everything from props to social settings, and inserts portions of his father’s acts. As the above passage indicates, Lahr is also attentive to what was happening before and beyond the stage. Offstage, Bert Lahr was constantly struggling to perfect his performances; his anxieties are well-documented by his son, who repeatedly shows the comedian, for example, twisting cellophane between his fingers, or twisting the middle button of his coat.
Notes on a Cowardly Lion is also an intimate story of a lover and a father, and John Lahr tells it with emotion and intelligence. If the text represents Lahr’s attempt to broaden, rather than definitively articulate, our understanding of Bert Lahr, it is also, as Richard Schickel writes, "a son’s search for his father" (New York Times). The prose thus becomes, at times, intensely personal (and often, in such moments, moves from the third to first person point of view) as the son relates his father’s difficulty with intimacy. The insights John Lahr guides readers toward are accentuated by his refusal to completely separate the man from the figure; he allows, instead, inconsistencies to stand, as they often do, harshly and awkwardly beside each other:
As he speaks about Mercedes [Bert’s first wife] now, he is eating a dinner that my mother [his second wife, Mildred] prepared. He loves her and knows the care she takes to feed him. It is her pleasure, and she does it well. He takes a bite. "The meat’s tough." Mother looks up in nervous disgust. "Well, Bert, mine’s all right." He chews another piece. "I just got a tender one." His face lights up; and he talks with his mouth full until he drips something on his pants. He has hurt Mildred in the same unthinking way he must have hurt Mercedes. (77)
Throughout Notes on a Cowardly Lion, the many oppositions—public/private, actor/father, critic/son—and consistencies become entangled, and so recreate the networks of interactions and settings that made Bert Lahr the captivating figure he was. In Schickel’s words, Notes on a Cowardly Lion is "A work of literature, a work of history, a subtle psychological study" (Harper’s Magazine).
Though Lahr’s other works are, of course, not so inextricably bound to his personal life, they are no less moving and fascinating; Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton (1978), chosen Book of the Year by Truman Capote and Patrick White, stands as ample proof of this. Richard Gilman has described the book as "a detective story-like tracking down of an elusive and wayward existence, literary criticism on a high level, and a shrewd, deep inquiry into complicated social and psychological pathology" (Washington Post Book World). In 1967, four years after Orton began to be recognized as a talented comic playwright, Orton was the victim of a murder-suicide committed by his close friend Kenneth Halliwell. "Almost instantly," Lahr writes, "Orton’s life became more famous than his work" (5). Lahr takes us back into and through Orton’s life, from his working class home and his fascination with the stage, through the scandals and hardships of his early career, to his later successes (which include the plays Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Loot, and What the Butler Saw). Lahr also, as always, goes further than the single figure; as Harold Clurman writes, the book "helps us understand not only Orton himself but much about the English theatre since 1956" (New York Times Book Review). The biography became the base for Prick Up Your Ears (1987), a film directed by Stephen Frears and starring Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina.
More recently, Lahr gave us Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilisation: Backstage with Barry Humphries (2000). The book, according to Lahr, "is meant to stop time and to chronicle a moment in the prime of a great clown’s life" (xi). Once again, Lahr shows the actor preparing for and performing the scenes, recreates performances by including and elaborating on pieces from shows, and probes intelligently into the character’s place in her historical context. Throughout the text, Lahr highlights aspects of the character which, beyond creating laughter, force audiences to reconsider fundamental social structures:
As her sobriquet ‘housewife/superstar’ implies, she is a celebration of contradictions: hilarious and malign, polite and lewd, generous and envious; high and low comic. But the most sensational of all Dame Edna’s contradictions is, of course, that she is a he. (4)
Lahr turns, also, to questions of real and fictive. The subject, indeed, demands it: though a character created and played by Humphries, Dame Edna is "so real to the public that her autobiography, My Gorgeous Life, is being sold by his English publisher Macmillan on its non-fiction list" (5). Lahr’s work is thus a mixture of biography, criticism, and philosophical speculation; it is, also, an invitation to re-experience the comedy. As Michael Davie has written, Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilisation is "An exhilarating and highly intelligent book, full of laughs" (Spectator).
Since 1992, Lahr has been a senior theatre writer and in-depth profiler for The New Yorker. Show and Tell: New Yorker Profiles (2000), a collection of his essays for the magazine, repeatedly shows Lahr’s consistent dedication to, fascination with, and understanding of his material. The book includes essays on such figures as Woody Allen, Arthur Miller, Roseanne, and Ingmar Bergman. Similarly, a version of the essay he wrote for The New Yorker on Frank Sinatra was published as Sinatra: The Artist and the Man (1998). In the book, Lahr recreates the boy, the man, and the legend, and further extends his focus to the corresponding history of a people and country. Following his text is a collection of photographs of Sinatra, some of which had not previously been published. Both the pictures and the prose powerfully portray the figure who, in Lahr’s own words, "infiltrated the Western world’s dream life" (9).
Of course, Lahr has not limited himself to writing about the theatre. He is, for example, the editor of The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan (2001). Tynan, also a theatre critic, wrote a column for the London Observer, was a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, and authored the play Oh! Calcutta! The Diaries begin in 1970, and bring us into both the private moments of Tynan’s life and the mind of a brilliant and ruthless critic. As F. X. Feeney writes, "The great pleasure of Tynan’s diaries derives from the very powers that made him great as a critic: his delightful ability to bring the most fleeting scenes to life; his fierce, good-humored and unrelenting moral sense; his insatiable curiosity and juicy commitment to sexual candor" (L.A. Weekly). Lahr is also the "script constructor" of Elaine Stritch At Liberty, a performance that is perhaps best described as a "Theatrical memoir illustrated with songs" (Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp), which is now running at the Neil Simon Theatre in New York. The two and a half hour show features Elaine Stritch and a bar stool; with director George C. Wolf and script constructor Lahr, Stritch has created a show which is as entertaining to the fans she has already won as it is to those who have not yet become entranced by her.
Lahr has authored or edited over twenty books; his other work includes short film Sticky My Fingers, Fleet My Feet (1969), which was nominated for an Academy Award. His many other awards include the Yale writing prize, the Roger Machell Prize for theatre writing, and the American Film Institute award.John Lahr
Top of Page
Welcome to the Public Radio Book Show, with your host Tom Smith of the Writers Institute at the State University of New York. Each week he’ll speak with authors, critics journalists and others in the world of literature.
Smith: My guest today is one of the most admired, beloved, and exemplary writers of the American literary community, Grace Paley. Grace Paley has published three remarkable, really singular collections of stories over the past three decades, and during all that time, she’s been a tireless activist in the causes of peace, social justice and feminism, among other things. Her three books, incidentally, are all in bookstores across the country in paperback editions, and their titles are: The Little Disturbances of Man, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and Later the Same Day. Grace, welcome to the Public Radio Book Show.
Smith: It’s always a treat to have you at the Writers Institute. Your ear for the voices and sounds of everyday life, both past and present, I think is truly unforgettable. It also has the ring of artful authenticity—not just authenticity, but artful, recreated authenticity. Where did that come from? What place did language play in your background? How did that account for your early development as a writer?
Paley: Well, I’ll just put it in two ways. First, the business of the ear. Most people have it, but they don’t know they have it. As far as I’m concerned, when I work with speech or dialogue, whatever it is, I don’t have it at all. A first draft would look as though I had never heard a person speak in my life.
Smith: So it’s rewriting.
Paley: It’s speaking aloud, speaking aloud, speaking aloud. What I do know is when I’m wrong. So that’s a blessing, isn’t it? So I just keep doing it. Now I don’t know but that some of the feeling for speech, or some of that longing for, or pleasure in, language, comes from having three languages at home, and those were English, Russian and Yiddish. But mostly Russian and English. It seems to me that the coming together of those languages makes another kind of sound, and I think that’s true in many writers’ works. There are many, many, many writers who come from homes, from childhoods I should say . . .
Smith: Where they’re bilingual. Practically and effectively bilingual.
Paley: I never spoke those languages well at all, so in a sense I was really badly . . .
Smith: You mean Russian and Yiddish.
Smith: But it puts English in some kind of relief, does it not? Someone who is a mono linguistic English-speaking American just probably doesn’t have that sensitivity.
Paley: I think it sharpens the language for you in some ways, but also it just bumps into the language, and makes for other sounds, and I think English has been like that for a long time. It’s been receptive in that way to lots of other languages.
Smith: Well, you’re a New Yorker, and your sense of language coming from your own background probably got very sensitized to the wonderful variations of New York sounds. I’m not from New York. I’m from deepest Appalachia, but when I came to New York in the early 50s at the age of nineteen, I simply used to sit in upper Broadway, and I couldn’t believe, I mean, everything was like theatre, and that’s the way I feel when I’m reading your stories.
Paley: Well, of course when you live somewhere you don’t think it’s like theatre, you just think it’s like every day.
Smith: But more about your own personal sense of language, coming from your background. How about your father? At least the vision I have of him from that wonderful story in your last book, Later the Same Day, "A Conversation with My Father," was he very, very attuned to language, all three of them as a matter of fact?
Paley: Well, he and my mother came to this country when they were about twenty or twenty-one, and they didn’t speak anything but Russian and maybe some Yiddish—not even that much Yiddish, my grandmother spoke that. But they came and my father immediately learned Italian.
Smith: Is that right? First thing to do in the New World.
Paley: That was because his first job was with an Italian photographer, and so he had to learn that language first. But he then learned English. So he must have been quite capable, as far as language, because he continued to speak and read Italian as well, and he spoke very well. He had a wonderful sense of it. He wrote lots of stories later on, after he retired.
Smith: I want to talk about that story a little later on. But was he indeed a story teller, and did he like realistic stories with a plot like the father character in your story?
Paley: Well that was later, you know, things that happen later are really of no influence whatsoever. So if they happen late enough, no parent or anybody can argue you into any position. But when I was younger, when I was a kid, he didn’t consciously tell stories, but he was a doctor, and so he would come in full of the grief of the world and talk about this patient and that patient. Those were the stories, really, and the sense of that feeling an interest in other people’s lives, which I think is almost more important.
Smith: Yes, crucial. Do you think maybe the ear comes out of that? If everybody has the ear but don’t know it, yet somehow you have to have that empathetic imagination and fascination.
Paley: You have to be paying attention. You have to be interested, basically.
Smith: How about your schooling? You’re a poet in addition to a short story writer, and you cared a great deal, as I recall, about modern poets.
Paley: Well, I was interested in poetry first. I mean, I read all the time. We kids of that time and that place read a lot. But I did become interested in poetry very early, and by the time I was thirteen or fourteen I was reading a lot of poetry and I think for my sixteenth birthday I asked for a collection of Robinson Jeffers or something like that. So I read a lot, and I consider that that’s where I went to school. As for school itself, I went to college for a year . . .
Smith: You went to Hunter.
Paley: Yes, for less than a year. And then I went away. Well, I guess I was sort of kicked out, so to speak, and I was made to go to business school by my family. They insisted that I had to earn a living someday, and it turned out they were right, I had to. So then I went back to school at NYU for about a year and that was that.
Smith: One of the things that comes across, particularly in your first collection, The Little Disturbances of Man, is a sense of memories of the history of the 1930s and 40s, personal experiences on a human level. What imprint did, first of all the Depression and then the second World War have on you? I mean, these were your formative years, after which you became a writer. What kind of sense of the Depression did you bring in to the 1950s, when you started to write seriously?
Paley: I think probably the Depression had a tremendous effect on me, but not on my family. My father was the neighborhood doctor so we were never poor, and although he was very generous and so forth, he was everything a neighborhood doctor should be. The neighborhood was obviously in much worse shape than we were. The street really, I guess the memories, and other people have told me this too, certain strong memories of people’s furniture on the street, constantly, not just once, but friends, families. Also, friends of mine who would never answer the bell in case it was the welfare person coming, and almost every single one of my friends at that time was on welfare.
Smith: So many people who grew up in New York City in the 30s have that memory. Alfred Case, in his book A Walk in the City [?], [wrote of] a very, very stirring episode in the night when all the furniture is out on his street in Brownsville—he said the young communists were running along yelling for volunteers to put it back in and galvanizing the kind of sense of neighborhood, which, of course in retrospect, looked very different during the McCarthy era of the 1950s. But I think the Depression is a time when people who went through it have certain images that absolutely are ineradicable, of ordinary people of all classes somehow being very vulnerable to the system, the way a lot of people still are.
Smith: This is the Public Radio Book Show, and I’m Tom Smith. My guest today is author Grace Paley and we’re discussing her life and work. Speaking of the city, the block. Your city, whether it’s New York City or the city in your work, then and now. I’m thinking of that wonderful story of yours from your second collection, "The Long-Distance Runner," in which part of your persona, Faith, runs back to her neighborhood in Coney Island, which is devastated, meets, gets involved with a black mother and her children, and the more things change the more things stay the same. How about the city then and now? We just were talking about New York during the Depression. What’s your sense of whether you want to go back to that story or not, your sense of what’s happening in the neighborhoods of New York City now?
Paley: The actual neighborhood was the Bronx, and why I turned it into Brooklyn was just an act of generosity on my part. I had gone back and back to that neighborhood, and watched it first burn up, no, first simply become vacant, then burn up, and then finally turn back to grass, which is a great real estate bonanza, you know, all that grass. And now having gone back there I see there are a number of small houses that have been built that look rather strange on my street. My house is really still there, which is one of two houses on the whole block that remained, and when I was there just about half a year ago there was this little black boy on my stoop, which was very touching. I wanted to just leap out there and say, "I knew you were here," or something like that. But the city for me is still terribly interesting, and it’s still a place you want to go back to. I’m living a lot now in Vermont, which is wonderful, but to go back to that city is to really see again and again the immense amount of life there and the variety of life and the colors of life which don’t exist in lots of parts of New England.
Smith: Do you think the neighborhoods still have their own kind of vitality and sense of purpose?
Paley: Well they change. I mean, I was living in the Village a while, so it became very rich, you know? And it’s very different now. It’s very, very different. Of course it’s extremely pleasant, because all the trees have gotten old, so they’re very shady, so it’s nice. And then the Lower East Side, of course, is in constant struggle, but a neighborhood like Chelsea has taken hold. It’s a very strong neighborhood. Parts of Brooklyn and Queens, are neighborhoods, some of them are sealed ethnic neighborhoods, very tight, and that’s good and bad, because I remember how sometimes hard and narrow the Italian neighborhood below the Village was at the same time that it was picturesque, lovable and safe. So those are the things that happen. But what you see when you go back is that Manhattan itself is piling up twenty-five story building on twenty-five story building, and the whole West Side, the sky has disappeared for good, I think, in certain areas. It just no longer exists.
Smith: Well that great polyglot will disappear from Manhattan Island, if it has not already, because just a decade ago, we used to say, well Manhattan is just for the very rich and the very poor. Now it’s just for the very rich, and that tremendous sense of theatre in the neighborhoods, which comes out in your stories so wonderfully, I’m afraid that will disappear.
Paley: You don’t know where these people are going, though. It’s just awful really. And I just have to say they really haven’t quite disappeared. As I was telling you, in my son’s class, half his class are homeless children.
Smith: Yes. I was thinking of your story "The Long-Distance Runner." When I recently saw Spike Lee’s new movie, Do the Right Thing, which of course is Bedford Stuy, Bedford Stuy wasn’t on Coney Island. But really, I think part of the pathos of that movie—it had more pathos than I was prepared for—was that in some way he does idealize what the neighborhood, that block, was or could have been, and you just felt there was a tremendous nostalgia. The people all on that block, including Sal, the pizza man, are really people of good will who somehow, like most people most of the time, want to live and let live and want to treat everybody right, but there are just too many dynamics. So I was thinking of some of the enlightenment that your persona gets when she goes back to Coney Island in the very poor black neighborhood. We were talking about the block. You refer to the block, your block, with such loving gratitude. That’s your inspiration. Is that your—that sense of community—is that your source of identity as a writer? Is that your myth, I mean, as Yeats had the myth of the Celtic revival? Is that your myth, the block?
Paley: Well, it’s a lot less classy than a whole revival. You’ve said it, and I haven’t thought of it that way, because I don’t think that way, but I guess to some extent, because certainly my block in the Bronx was extraordinary in the vast number of children that lived and played on it. At a reading that I did not so long ago, a man my age came up to me and reminded me who he was, how he lived next door to me on the block. I asked him about others, and it turned out that he still saw all the boys of that bunch and that they were still there. It really was a very tight place, in a way that certain ghettos are, in the way they are, really, loving places as well as repressed places sometimes.
Smith: I must say in your stories, your block seems to extend to cover the world. Certainly, the ensuing decades, but also in some way the whole concept of the human community.
Paley: I wanted to begin, that was the first block really, and my sense of it, and it proceeded to the places where I’ve lived for the last thirty-five, forty years.
Smith: That’s what I was really asking. Your sense of identity or source of inspiration comes from the notion, the ethos, of a block, and I think that’s why the characters, all of them, seem to be created with such loving understanding—not sentimentality. There’s no nastiness in your writing. There’s some social anchor. And I think it’s because you do have a sense of community that you’re able to give all of your characters—some kind of human image that’s unforgettable.
Grace, one of the compelling aspects of your stories is the explorations of women’s lives. However, your women’s lives are really not the sound of victims. They’re feisty, they have sexual desires, they have inner lives, they have all kinds, a great variety. I just wondered if you would read maybe the first paragraph or so of this story that I like so much, it’s a very famous one, "An Interest in Life," because it’s not the sound of a victim.
Paley: "An Interest in Life" (reads part of story)
Smith: Now that’s a story that was written in the 50s and it goes back to the 40s—the war years of the generation who came out of the war, struggling to get established in jobs and vocations and families with children. And from that volume, The Little Disturbances of Man, through Later the Same Day, your last volume, which was published I believe in 1985, your voices, these voices, women’s voices, reflect the changes of three decades. How do these changes between men and women—I mean the subtitle of The Little Disturbances of Man is Stories of Men and Women at Love . . .
Paley: It was really Stories of Women and Men at Love, but they didn’t pay attention.
Smith: They didn’t pay attention. Well, I was going to ask you, how have things changed, the way you see it, either in your stories or just as an observer, between men and women. Maybe we’re talking about families too, but particularly between men and women, because there seem to be such wonderful variety of relationship struggles between men and women. And yet the men are all recognizable. You don’t demonize your male characters. A lot of them are absent, a lot of them are negligent, but they’re all recognizable, from my point of view, and I just wonder how you see the changes between the genders in the last three decades.
Paley: Well, when you’re sixty-six, as I am now, you’re very careful about talking about changes that really are important to younger people. It’s important to me too, but those life changes, those ways of living together, I’ve resolved a lot of it and what I haven’t resolved I can handle, and what I’m angry about I’m still angry about. But one does have children, after all, to learn from, a little bit at least. My sense is that almost anywhere two things have happened. Just like we’re all much more rich and much more poor right now, in that same sense, men are much more better and much more worse.
Smith: That’s wonderful. Could you explain? I know what you mean, but I think your . . .
Paley: I see among my son, who’s in his thirties, among his friends and younger men that they have really used the women’s movement. Women’s movement has done, sometimes I think, more good for men in a lot of ways. It’s improved them a good deal, and in their relation to their families, to their children and the women they know. A great many of them are better. A number of them are not better but they’re confused, which is also an honorable position, because we all live in history and we can’t run from that fact. But at the same time, as our country has become more and more militaristic, the people it would effect the most would be the men. So you have, really, whole layers of male life, and different places where it’s more noticeable than others, where men are more angry at women and feel freer because of the last ten years, which is different than the ten years before, because if things had continued from the 70s the way we want to, things would be really, really, really different. But because of this ten year reaction, the aggressive feelings of and righteous feelings of men against women have been encouraged by the last ten years and by the militarism of the country, which means the enhancement of violence and so forth. So in that area, things are really worse. I think the ease with which violence against women occurs, and the . . .
Smith: The confusion seems to. . . I had the feeling, talking to a lot of men, of now a number of generations—I’m a college teacher also—that if things would evolve gradually as they seemed to be doing during let’s say the 1970s, because a lot of them were seeing the tradeoff, the value of their own liberation, their own dimensions, and now it seems, especially with money and everything else, it seems to be very, very confusing to them.
Grace, feminism is a word, of course, that means a lot of things to a lot of people, but is there any difference between your role as a feminist writer and a feminist activist? Is there any great discrepancy? I mean, is there something when you’re being an advocate for women’s causes that you can’t allow to enter into your writer’s voice when you’re empathizing with, say, both the male and the female characters in your story? And how does that work?
Paley: Yeah, well, since I’m very opinionated on a whole lot of subjects, I don’t see why feminism would be the only one. When I wrote my first book, I didn’t know that I was a feminist or not. I just was very interested in how . . .
Smith: That was 1959.
Paley: Yes. I became one. I sort of taught myself, in a sense. I learned from myself. But I was very interested in the lives of women and I continue like that. I think you have obligations as a writer to be truthful to yourself. I mean, there’s no great general truths out there, you know. But you have knowledge. You don’t just work from feelings. You work really from information, and then you have the attention that you pay to the world. I imagine everything I am influences what I write. It would be silly to say that, but possibly mostly by choice of material.
Smith: I was thinking that, not the story "A Conversation with My Father," it’s about writing, it’s a great story about writing, not really about the genders. But the narrator doesn’t want to be tied to plot the way her father wants her to, and I wonder if your interest in women’s lives, which are fragmentary and are in the middle of things rather than having beginning middle and ending the way men sometimes conceive every life or every plot, I wonder if that feeds into the kind of thing I’m talking about.
Paley: Well, it could, but you know I would never really have done it on purpose. I would never have said well women’s lives are like this and that’s the way I’m going to show it, you know, so I’m listening to you rather than saying well maybe you’re right. But also there are literary movements that happen along with social ideas, and the appreciation of Henry James’ round circular story is good for his time, but it began to disappear, and I like that openness that happens and I found myself doing it.
Smith: That’s what you say, or your character says, to the father.
Paley: It’s also an historical thing. It was a literary discussion, but it was also an historical one. He comes from a time and a generation where things really were closed down.
Smith: Grace we have about ten seconds. Do you have any practical hope for the future that you could articulate in a sentence or two?
Paley: Well, I think that things are so bad that they’ve got to either be worse or better. But I think that people really are organizing in communities all over this country, and it doesn’t get into the papers. It gets into the local papers. So if people would go out and buy the town newspapers of many towns in this whole country, they would see that some other kind of consensus is building, which is one that will make for change, I think, in a more hopeful direction.
Smith: What a wonderful way to end, and what a wonderful way to look toward the future. I hope you’re right, and I hope you’re going to write a lot more stories. And thanks Grace Paley for being with us. Come back to the Writers Institute again and again and again. This is Tom Smith saying so long until the next time on the Public Radio Book Show.
In a literary career that has spanned more than a quarter century, Susan Rabiner has assembled an impressive resume as an editor at publishing powerhouses such as Oxford University Press, Pantheon Books and Random House. She has also served as editorial director at Basic Books and, most recently, has founded her own literary agency firm with her husband, Albert Fortunato. Her authors include such notables as Iris Chang (The Rape of Nanking) and 2001 Pulitzer Prize winner Herbert Bix (Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan).
Now, after more than 25 years working with authors, Rabiner has become an author herself. Her first book, Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Serious Nonfiction – and Get it Published, draws upon her years of experience with the inner workings of the publishing industry, and provides advice to aspiring writers on how best to prepare a work and market it to publishers.
Rabiner has stated that "most novice authors, and even many previously published authors, work on the assumption that the publishing relationship is between author and editor, and that everyone else in publishing – from marketing to sales, from subsidiary rights to [the] folks at the bookstores – sort of pass along a book but do not really influence its fate." Her book stresses that this is not the case, and that a prospective author must consider the decisions that must be made by all players in the publishing process. She also tells of the many factors that determine a book’s success, both in writing a book and in preparing it for submission.
Rabiner explains in a conversational tone and a step-by-step format the way in which a proposal must be compiled and a writing sample prepared in order to make a work worthy of publication. She then details the elements of successful works, and guides the reader through the process of writing and formatting a manuscript, describing the correct narrative flow and highlighting common stylistic and organizational errors which often cause editors and readers alike to "produce an audible sigh." In addition to this instruction, Rabiner closes with a model proposal and writing sample to serve as guidelines to a winning submission package.
Given Rabiner’s extensive work within the publishing field, few would be better inclined to advise an aspiring writer on what editors, bookstores, and readers alike want to see. Though, as her husband notes, "the skills editors value in authors vary from genre to genre," Rabiner’s prevailing message is that "a first-time serious non-fiction writer with a good topic and a well-conceptualized book idea won’t find it so difficult to break in."
By creating "a vocabulary of the editing process," Rabiner demystifies the realm of publishing, and with the assistance of Thinking Like Your Editor, the dream of having a manuscript published may more easily be realized for many an author.James Donadio is a graduate assistant at the Writers Institute and graduate student in the English Department's master's program.
Top of Page