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The Smithereens of Collapse: An Interview with Bill Cotter

April 18, 2014 | by

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Photo: Leon Alesi

Issue 208 of The Paris Review includes Bill Cotter’s story “The Window Lion,” which pairs remarkably well with his new novel, The Parallel Apartments. In fact, they’re related—but I’ll let Cotter talk about that. The novel is the sort of book that invites opposing adjectives: it’s sexy and repellant, “brainy” and full of “heartfelt joy” (Heidi Julavits); it’s comic but also relentlessly, tragically sad. I spent much of my time while reading the novel trying to articulate its tone. I got this far: “the image of Walt Disney’s dick was a revelation.”

Cotter agreed to a talk on the phone—he lives in Austin, Texas. We spoke for well over two hours, about writing, reading, the idea of “a Texas novel,” and his day job as an antiquarian book dealer and restorer. He has an excellent vocabulary and an imagination thats far-out and fantastic.

While reading, I was reminded of a favorite quote, from William James—“To better understand a thing’s significance, consider its exaggerations and perversions … learn what particular dangers of corruption it may be exposed to.” The novel, especially with regard to sex and relationships, seems a distorted version of reality, a kaleidoscope of exaggerations.

I like the idea that verity can be glimpsed by bending mirrors and chipping lenses. In fact, I don’t know how to get at the truth of characters in any other way. I don’t know how to send characters on movie dates, have them play tennis on a sunny day, or sit them down for turkey and mashed potatoes. In order to get at them for real, it’s necessary, for me, to dress them in silly clothes, hack off their fingers, smear them with ptomaine, then stick them between the sheets or pitch them starved into a cage or just let them rush around erecting bearing walls too weak to hold up the trembling rafters. It’s in the busted minds of troubled offspring, or among bones not quite picked clean, or poking out of the smithereens of collapse that I think the true truths are found. Read More »

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A World Beyond the Glass: An Interview with Mary Szybist

April 8, 2014 | by

Image: Meilani Kirkwood, courtesy of Graywolf Press

Photo: Meilani Kirkwood, courtesy of Graywolf Press

Mary Szybist may not have been the best-known writer on the poetry shortlist for the 2013 National Book Award, but her book Incarnadine was ambitious and thoughtful enough to overcome this. Her second collection, after Granted (2003), Incarnadine comprises poems focused on the Annunciation. Szybist, who was raised Catholic, uses this intimate moment as an opportunity to explore the relationships between poetry and prayer and to explicate an encounter between the human and “the other”—something outside of human experience, be it nature or, in this case, God.

The National Book Award judges called Incarnadine “a religious book for nonbelievers.” It opens with an epigraph from Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, which sums up Szybist’s approach to the project: “The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.” Receiving the award, she said, “There’s plenty that poetry cannot do, but the miracle, of course, is how much it can do, how much it does do.” I spoke with Szybist recently about religion, poetry, prayer, and the meaning of her name.

Incarnadine deals with the Annunciation—the visitation of Mary by the angel Gabriel, who tells her that she will have God’s son—and the implications and meaning of such an event. It’s an encounter between the human and something beyond human understanding. Your book is an attempt to describe the indescribable through poetry—which is something that prayer can do, also.

Prayer is one way to do this—and yes, I have thought about the connections between poetry and prayer for a long time, and sometimes I am even tempted to believe that they are similar engagements. When I was young, I reached a point where I found myself unable to pray. I was devastated by it. I missed being able to say words in my head that I believed could be heard by a being, a consciousness outside me. That is when I turned to poetry.

I have always been attracted to apostrophe, perhaps because of its resemblance to prayer. A voice reaches out to something beyond itself that cannot answer it. I find that moving in part because it enacts what is true of all address and communication on some level—it cannot fully be heard, understood, or answered. Still, some kinds of articulations can get us closer to such connections—connections between very different consciousnesses—and I think the linguistic ranges in poetry can enable that. Read More »

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Nothing Is Alien: An Interview with Leslie Jamison

April 7, 2014 | by

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When Leslie Jamison and I met outside the Glass Shop, an airy café in Crown Heights, I noticed her left arm was sporting a wide, wordy tattoo. It was in Latin, and she spared the embarrassment of translating it—“I am human; nothing is alien to me.”

Too often, Leslie says, people treat tattoos as an invitation to intimacy. Strangers on the subway ask her to relay the story of her tattoo without a second thought, much as they would, in offering a seat to a pregnant woman, ask for the details of what’s growing inside of her. But in Leslie’s case the tattoo does point to an intimate story—or rather, to a whole constellation of intimate stories that Leslie offers in her essay collection The Empathy Exams.

“I am human; nothing is alien to me” is the epigraph to the collection. It is a quote that has been casually misattributed to Montaigne, John Donne, Karl Marx, and Maya Angelou, but it actually comes from The Self-Tormentor, a play written by Terence, the ancient Roman slave turned playwright. It is the thread that connects such different yet equally luminous works as “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” “Pain Tours,” and “The Devil’s Bait”—meditations on how to feel pain, both physical and psychic in nature, and how to regard the pain of others in a way that respects their humanity. Having read The Empathy Exams, I can begin to appreciate why Leslie has made the small, if painful, jump from writing about the body to writing on the body.

Leslie and I circled this conversation so many times at the Glass Shop that we decided to revisit it one morning in late October at my apartment in Brooklyn, and later that day, on the Metro-North to Yale University, where we are both finishing Ph.D.s in English literature. Most of the time, the tape recorder was on, but sometimes I switched it off so we could gossip idly, and forgot to switch it back on until Leslie was already halfway into a thought on feminism I wanted to preserve. But if this interview reads like the midpoint of a conversation that’s been taking place for some time now, that shouldn’t prevent you—the reader—from making sense of it. After all, you are human. This will not be alien to you.

The most ungenerous criticism of the collection that I could imagine is, Oh, she keeps putting herself in these positions to experience pain or woundedness so she can have something to write about. How narcissistic. I can see people thinking as they’re reading, She’s a real glutton for pain.

I guess that’s why it felt right to put “Grand Unified Theory” at the end of the collection. That idea of being drawn to pain is starting to emerge as a pattern in the essays themselves, and the final essay speaks to that directly. What position of pride do I have in relationship to these experiences?

There’s a basic and important distinction to draw between positions I inhabit as somebody who has experienced some kind of trauma and somebody who’s seeking out pain. Going to the Morgellons conference is a choice in a way that getting hit in the street isn’t. But the collection chooses to bring all of those experiences together in a certain way—what kind of appetite is being spoken to there? In certain ways, as a writer, you do profit off your own experiences of pain, and there’s a way of seeing that profit that’s wholly inspirational—in terms of turning pain into beauty—and a way of seeing it that’s wholly cynical—in terms of being a “wound dweller” in a corrosive or self-pitying way. The honest answer—to me—dwells somewhere between those views. Read More »

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Different Ways of Lying: An Interview with Jesse Ball

April 3, 2014 | by

Jesse Ball

Photo: Joe Lieske

Jesse Ball writes novels and stories in the vein of Kafka or Daniil Kharms—surreal, often hyperpolitical constructions from contemporary life. His 2011 novel, The Curfew, whirls around an absurd dystopia, an uncanny avatar of our own. It’s home, but not quite. The Way Through Doors (2009) and Samedi the Deafness (2007) are set in neighborhoods at once eerily similar to and foreign from our own. To read Ball, who won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize in 2008, is to step into a kind of liminal space. And his new novel, Silence Once Begun, contains his most beguiling sleight of hand yet.

Silence Once Begun begins in a Japanese fishing town where eight people have recently disappeared from their homes. At a bar, Oda Sotatsu, an unassuming, lonely young man, wagers on a card game and loses to the mesmeric Jito Joo—Sotatsu signs a document that says he’s responsible for the recent disappearances. Jito Joo takes this confession to the police, and soon rumormongering and hearsay consume the town. Throughout his trial and imprisonment, Sotatsu remains almost completely silent, refusing to testify on his own behalf in court and barely engaging with the relatives who appeal to him. At the center of the novel, framing its various narratives, is a divorced investigative journalist named Jesse Ball.

Our conversations found the real Jesse Ball by turns serious and coy. We discussed the political value of plain speech, his near ascetic desire for isolation, and the necessity of lying.

Silence Once Begun demonstrates the failure of this town’s justice system, a failure to do right by one of their own. Another of your novels, The Curfew, also engages with unjust and inescapable social systems. Do you see your work as political?

Saying almost anything as well as you can say it, or doing anything properly and with your whole being, is a political act. And so I think almost any text that strives to have its own focus, without bowing to contemporary modes of humor or a little commercialism or whatever else—I think that’s very political. As long as everyone decides to hold and contain their own state, things improve.

My books, some of them appear to verge on the political. This one certainly seems to be an indictment of a justice system. In the course of time, many things that appear certain within an epoch or an era seem ludicrous and silly to those in another time. However, plain clear speech, or questions stated within the power of the heart, don’t really become silly. They retain a certain power. In terms of attempts to write clearly, I think that’s the most political act. Read More »

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Heroes of the Civil Service: An Interview with Antonin Baudry

April 2, 2014 | by

Antonin Baudry 2013 photo credit clarisse rebotier

Antonin Baudry, 2013. Photo: Clarisse Rebotier

In 2010, a graphic novel, Quai D’Orsay, was published in France under a pseudonym, causing a quiet sensation. Set in, of all places, the Foreign Ministry, Quai D’Orsay starred a young speechwriter frantically learning on the job—the novel featured recognizable public figures, including the foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, who famously said non to the war in Iraq.

In France, graphic novels, or comic books (bandes dessinées), are a revered venue for pointed satire. The bestseller’s author, it turned out, was a wunderkind former staffer for Villepin named Antonin Baudry. A man of varied passions—board games, Metallica, Greek philosophy—Baudry is currently the French Cultural Counselor for the U.S. Last fall, he adapted the graphic novel for the big screen. The resulting film, The Minister, became an instant hit in France, earning the rookie screenwriter a nomination for a César, the French Oscar. The Minister is now showing (under the title The French Minister) at select theaters in the U.S., including the IFC Center, in New York; the graphic novel is available in English under the title Weapons of Mass Diplomacy.

Sitting in his cavernous office in the French embassy, overlooking Central Park, the informal diplomat says he would love to try another graphic novel “on globalism, set in the Middle Ages.”

Both in the graphic novel and the movie, you make it seem as if you hadn’t the slightest qualification to write speeches for the foreign minister. Is that true?

Yes. I didn’t have the background that all the people there had at all. I had never met a politician before. I had never met a diplomat. What happened was that Dominique de Villepin was looking for young people from different universes to write for him. He heard through a mutual friend that I had done master’s theses in math and literature, and he wanted to meet me. I totally panicked. I said to my friend, Why did you do this to me? I had to buy a suit. The minister received me at the Quai D’Orsay, and it was just like being hypnotized. He explained a lot of things to me and everything seemed clear, and then when I left, I couldn’t remember a thing. And there was this time pressure. He said I had to answer within twenty-four hours because we were possibly on the eve of a Third World War. I was twenty-six, and I thought, Why not? I’d done academic writing and I knew I wanted to write novels. I accepted the job because I think many writers have no experience of the world. I once worked for the sanitation department in Berlin, cleaning the streets at five in the morning. I loved it for the same reason—it gave me the chance to observe another universe instead of staying in my room, contemplating myself. Read More »

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How Much Could Be Left Unsaid: An Interview with Jenny Offill

March 31, 2014 | by

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Issue 207 of The Paris Review included Jenny Offill’s story “Magic and Dread,” an excerpt from her new novel, Dept. of Speculation, published earlier this year. James Wood called it “a novel that’s wonderfully hard to encapsulate, because it faces in many directions at the same time, and glitters with different emotional colors.” Offill is the author of the novel Last Things, and the coeditor, with Elissa Schappell, of two anthologies of essays. She has also written several children’s books, including 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore, 11 Experiments That Failed, and Sparky! She teaches writing at Queens University, Brooklyn College, and Columbia University.

For the narrator of your novel, the wife, there’s a lot of conjecture going on—guessing how to write a book, how to be in a marriage, how to raise a child, how to bear the time of writing a book. Do you consider writing to be a fundamentally speculative act?

One of the odd things about being a writer is that you never reach a point of certainty, a point of mastery where you can say, Right. Now I understand how this is done. That is why so many talented people stop writing. It’s hard to tolerate this not-knowing. It’s hard to tolerate feeling like an idiot or an imposter, and it gets harder as the years tick by. 

But I would argue that this feeling of uncertainty is actually the best practice you could have for the other important things you will do in your life. No one ever masters falling in love or being a parent or losing someone close to him. And who would want to master such things, really? Wandering through the woods, looking for a sudden sunlit clearing, that’s the most interesting part of it. Read More »

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