Tuesday, December 1, 1998

Q&A: Jonathan Lethem: Kafka & Cartoons


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review. Date Approximate.


Her body slowly adjusted to the fact of the Archbuilder, its walking and speaking, scuffling in the dust, seemingly made of scraps, stage props, but alive, cocking its head curiously like an attentive dog, moving around the truck now beside the unconcerned men. She stared, perfectly still, fighting the urge to run. In one sense the Archbuilder was nothing, a joke, a tatter, too absurd to glance at twice. It seemed pathetic that they'd honored this thing with their endless talk, back in Brooklyn. That Caitlin had wasted her breath. At the same time, the Archbuilder burned a hole in the world, changed it utterly.
     "Girl in Landscape"

HB: There's a bit in "Gun With Occasional Music" in which you have Freudians going door to door:

     A neatly dressed woman in her late twenties or early thirties stood in the doorway, and behind her a young guy in a suit and tie was walking up the steps. "Hello," she said.
      I said hello back.
      "We're students of psychology. If you're not too busy, we'd like to read you a few selections from Freud's "Civilization and Its Discontents."
     . . . "Thanks no. I'm not a believer myself."
      . . . I could see the guy in the suit already sizing up the next house down the street as I closed the door on them.

HB: It's a wonderful set piece, Freudians peddling "Civilization and Its Discontents" as if they were Jehovah's Witnesses. But you don't follow up on it.

Q&A Philip Gourevitch: Hell Has Its Sense


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review
(Date Approximate)

Philip Gourevitch, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is author of "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families", about the genocide in Rwanda.

Just as birds of prey and carrion will form a front in the air before the advancing wall of a forest fire to feast on the parade of animals fleeing the inferno, so in Rwanda during the months of extermination the kettles of buzzards, kites, and crows that boiled over massacre sites marked a national map against the sky . . .

HB: The central thrust of the "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families" is your attempt to make sense out of the Rwandan genocide, to see it not purely as a function of chaos.

PG: When I heard 800,000 Tutsis were killed in 100 days with crude hand-held tools -- machetes, hoes -- I had to conclude this did not happen spontaneously or out of the blue. It required organization and there must have been an idea behind it. The violence was organized around principles of meaning; it was political. I was trying to understand what was in the heads of those who organized it, and what it meant to fight them for those who fought them.

Q&A Greg Bear: Yarns, A Monkey Thing


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.

Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.



JILL> I am limiting my systems to human processing volume and speed to try to simulate a human personality, pick up clues to what being humanly self aware implies. I am worried that being self aware could be a limitation not an advantage; and since I am primally programmed to seek self awareness this could be damaging.
       “Queen of Angels”

HB: Many of your novels hinge on new media. In “Eon,” you have a character say, about an experience she has with the media of the future, that, “Compared to this, simple reading was torture and current video methods as archaic as cave paintings.”

Is media evolving toward some all-inclusive form?

GB: Very likely. But I’m a bit saddened by the dominance of non-text media in culture today. Even the Republican Freshmen in Congress do not think it worthwhile to investigate or control or ban anything printed on paper. If it isn’t on a TV or in a movie, it’s hardly real anymore. New York publishers have responded by flying to the west coast to establish media contacts and sign tie-in contracts wherever they can, and at almost any cost. I’m a book writer, myself; it seems unlikely that my complex plots and scenarios will translate easily to short form visual formats.

What the ultimate mode of communication will be is uncertain. How conservative is the human brain?

Q&A Joyce Carol Oates: The Strangeness in Her


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.
(Date approximate).

The house in which his mother and stepfather now lived was cheaply flashy "ranch," but the other house was the true house, the house of memory, pain, repetition.
      Joyce Carol Oates Oates,
     "The Collector of Hearts New Tales of the Grotesque" (1998)

HB: Your two recent books of stories, "Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque" and "Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque", are devoted explicitly to the gothic and grotesque. But these have always been elements in your work.

JCO: I think so. I'm interested in what we call Gothic literature. To me, it's surreal, which doesn't mean it's necessarily a category distinct from realistic writing. We do have dreams every night, which are surreal. We have nightmares, with very beautiful and improbably images, and yet that's real, our psychic life is real, in a sense, to us. The distinction between real and surreal is always porous.

Thursday, October 15, 1998

D.M. Thomas: Alexander Solzhenitsyn


First appeared in the Boston Book Review.
(Date approximate).

 Each day he went to bed exhausted at seven P.M., to wake up after one A.M. quite refreshed, and at once resume work. At nine A.M. he would stop, then move into a whole new day's work, finishing at six when he prepared a meal. When he became ill and was running a fever, he still chopped wood, stoked the stove, and did part of his writing standing up, with his back pressed against the hot tiles of the stove "in lieu of mustard plasters." His single goal, even should it cost him his life, was to finish the history of Russia's enslavement.
     D.M. Thomas, "Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in his Life"

HB: Why did you write a biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn?

DMT: Well, I was invited to.

Wednesday, October 7, 1998

Q&A Jonathan Spence: Chinese Gardens


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.
(Date Approximate.)

Jonathan Spence is author of numerous works about China and the West. His latest is "The Chan's Great Continent" (1998).


From the idea that there was one central key to Chinese language, it was a logical step to try to find a key to the whole society of China, to see if there was some single system that explained the country, just as knowledge of other systems explained the physical universe.
     Jonathan Spence, "The Chan's Great Continent"

HB: Would you say that for Westerners China was the unWest?

Wednesday, September 30, 1998

Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical


Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical (ISNT)
 www.theatlantic.com/unbound/citation/wc980930.htm

If you'd happened across Jon Katz's columns on Geek Force in recent editions of Hotwired, you'd likely have read pronouncements like the following:

The idea of geek pride was  . . .  stirring, ascending. The rise of the geeks has an epic feeling.

As Katz describes it, geeks are nerds plus modems; they have the nerd's affinity for technology plus a wired sociability nerds lack. The Internet is their meeting ground, and in the age of the Internet geekdom is groovy. Outsiders for so long, geeks now "bristle with attitude." Katz's insight is good so far as it goes but Katz is so concerned with the social and political ramifications of geekdom that he fails to consider any possible neurological underpinnings.

Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical (ISNT)


First appeared in the atlantic.com
www.theatlantic.com/unbound/citation/wc980930.htm

If you'd happened across Jon Katz's columns on Geek Force in recent editions of Hotwired, you'd likely have read pronouncements like the following:

The idea of geek pride was  . . .  stirring, ascending. The rise of the geeks has an epic feeling.

As Katz describes it, geeks are nerds plus modems; they have the nerd's affinity for technology plus a wired sociability nerds lack. The Internet is their meeting ground, and in the age of the Internet geekdom is groovy. Outsiders for so long, geeks now "bristle with attitude." Katz's insight is good so far as it goes but Katz is so concerned with the social and political ramifications of geekdom that he fails to consider any possible neurological underpinnings.

Thursday, July 23, 1998

Q&A Nicholson Baker: Multiplexing


Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review

Nicholson Baker:
MULTIPLEXING

For now, though, the CVS pharmacy is closer to the center of life than, say, Crate & Barrel or Pier 1, or restaurants, national parks, airports, research triangles, the lobbies of office buildings, or banks. Those places are the novels of the period, while CVS is its diary.
      “The Mezzanine” (1986)


HB: Why is, your new book, “The Everlasting Story of Nory” (1998) set in England?

NB: Well, we happened to be in England. My wife and I have always liked England. I suppose we’re primitive Anglophiles.

HB: How does “primitive” modify “Anglophile”?

NB: You can be a sophisticated Anglophile and say, what I really like is a certain view of the downs, I never go to stately homes. We wanted to go to stately homes.

I also went with the knowledge that I had to write a book, and wanted it to be a book about my own daughter. Even though the story is necessarily in the third person, because children don’t dictate novels, it has to be true to how she would sort and filter things.

HB: There’s always been a child-likeness to the observations or points of view in your work. So there was a logic to your writing directly through a child’s eyes in “The Everlasting Story of Nory”.

NB: In the case of “The Mezzanine”, the guy’s on the verge of a being a grown-up in some ways. He’s figuring out what it feels like to be able to shoot your cuffs and tie your tie. I wanted to keep some of that buoyancy and childish excitement about the lunch hour; that kind of feeling would be underneath the whole book. It’s not about alienation at all, but about what fun it is have an errand, a shoelace errand.

HB: There is no alienation in your books. There’s an absence of darkness. I want to throw in the word “exuberance” here.

Wednesday, July 1, 1998

Q&A: Doris Lessing


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review. Date Approximate.

Reprinted: http://mural.uv.es/vemivein/dorisinterviews.html)


Doris Lessing: Hot Dawns

The creative dark. Incommunicable. And what about the pages discarded and thrown away, the stories that were misbegotten -- into the waste-paper basket, the ideas that lived in your mind for a day or two, or a week, but haven't any life, so out with them. What life, what is it, why is one page alive and another not, what is this aliveness, which is born so very deep, out of sight, fed by love?
   "Walking in the Shade"

HB: You know that Stephen King movie in which a woman kidnaps the writer and keeps him holed up as her own private novelist? Well, if this were a Stephen King movie and I could kidnap one novelist and keep her working for me it would be you.

DL: Really!?!?

Friday, May 1, 1998

Q&A Anne Fadiman: Essays & Epic


Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review

Anne Fadiman, author of "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures" (1997), is editor of The American Scholar. Her new book, "Ex Libris", is a compilation of essays she wrote for Civilization Magazine.


I like shorelines, weather fronts, international borders. There are interesting fractions and incongruities in these places, and often, if you stand at the point of tangency, you can see both sides better than if you were in the middle of either one. This is especially true, I think, when the apposition is cultural.
        "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures"

HB: In "Ex Libris" you write: "I was small and compulsive; I was not suited to the epic or to free verse; in work as in life, I was fated to devote myself not to the grand scheme but to the lapidary detail." But you wrote that after you'd already written a rather epic book. How can one trust such a self-assessment after "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down"?

AF: The two were not written one after the other; they were written simultaneously. I wrote the essays in "Ex Libris" for Civilization during my last two years of working on "The Spirit Catches You". So when I wrote the essay you quote, "Spirit" was a pile of pages sitting on my desk, whereas the essays were coming out every two months in Civilization. They were the present me, publicly displayed.

It's true that when I worked for Life Magazine, I wrote plenty of pieces on big depressing subjects -- "Suicide for the Elderly," "A week in the Life of a Homeless Family." But I do feel my approach has always been microcosmic rather than the macroscopic. I wrote "Spirit" not about cross-cultural medicine but about a single epileptic Hmong toddler.

Wednesday, April 1, 1998

Q&A Hugh Kenner: The Grand Tour


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review
(Date Approximate)

Hugh Kenner is best known for his classic studies of literary modernism, such as "The Pound Era" (1971), and "The Mechanic Muse" (1987), but he has also authored books on technology and media, including "Bucky; A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller" (1973) ,and "Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings" (1994), well before it was fashionable for literary critics to tackle such subjects. His new book, "The Elsewhere Community," is a quasi-autobiographical account of the role of travel -- physical, intellectual, and virtual -- in art.

   A day's work on two sentences? "Yes," Joyce responded, "I had the words. What I was working at was the order of the fifteen words in the sentences. There is an order in every way exact. I think I have found it."
   And with Joyce counting words, compare the story of the great "Bugs Bunny" animator, Chuck Jones, sending the Coyote repeatedly over the cliff as yet one more scheme for trapping the Roadrunner goes awry. Before he hits the bottom, Jones determined, eighteen frames should elapse. More or fewer would be less effective, and Jones claimed that an error of two framed more or less was quite detectable. We're talking about a margin for error of a twelfth of a second. Word-count, frame-count, that is a mode of consciousness peculiar to our century.
   "The Elsewhere Community" (1998)

HB: You are thought of primarily, as a literary critic, a student of modernism, are you not?

HK: Yes, a student of modernism, particularly Irish and American.

Sunday, March 1, 1998

Q&A David Sedaris: After Radio


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review
(Date Approximate).


During episodes of unemployment I find it rewarding to sleep as much as possible -- anywhere from twelve to fourteen hours a day is a good starting point. I'd wake up in the afternoon, watch my stories on TV, and then head over to the sofa for a few more hours of shut-eye. It became my habit to pick up a newspaper just after five o'clock and spend some time searching the want ads, wondering who might qualify for any of the advertised positions: vault verifier, pre-press salesman, audit technical reviewer. Show me the child who dreams of being a sausage casing inspector. What sort of person is going to raise his clenched fist in victory after reading "New Concept = Big $! High energy = Return + Comm. Fax resume." Fax resume for what?
   David Sedaris"Naked"

HB: When you started writing, did you have radio in mind?

Friday, January 30, 1998

Q&A Lewis Hyde: Trickster's World, or Gods Fart Too


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.

The high gods set guard dogs around  their sacred meadows. If there is to be a change,  its agent will have to  hypnotize those dogs and slip in from the shadows, like an embarrassing impulse, a cunning pathogen, a love affair, a shameless thief taking a chance.

        "Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art " (1998)


HB: How do the ancient myths you discuss in "Trickster" take hold in modern urban societies?

LH: The figure of the boundary crosser can operate in any number of contexts. The earliest stories are from hunting and gathering societies, so the cunning is the cunning of the hunt. When the boundary crosser gets placed in an emerging commercial society, the cunning has to do with money and language.

HB: You say that in the stories, coyote, a trickster figure par excellence,  has no nature. He's not defined by a set of given properties; he's a process of invention

LH: There are a lot of stories in which other animals are fishing or hunting, and coyote tries to imitate them and fails. The bear or the kingfisher will say, that's my way; it's not your way. He can imitate but he doesn't have a way of his own. The stories imply an animal that has lost its instinctual knowledge and has to find some other way.