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Exploding Autobiography: An Interview with Mark Leyner

April 14, 2016 | by

Photo: David Plakke Media NYC

When The Paris Review last interviewed Mark Leyner, in 2013, he announced his next book. “Gone with the Mind is my autobiography in the form of a first-person-shooter game,” he said. “You’ll have to blast your way back into my mother’s womb.”

Now, three years later, Gone with the Mind has arrived, and it’s … almost nothing like that. The autobiographical elements are intact, yes, and Leyner’s mother appears early and often—but the notion of a first-person shooter is unceremoniously jettisoned on page forty-six. (“Pretty much everyone I mentioned it to thought it sounded really cool, but what is that, actually? What would a book like that actually be, y’know?”) In its place is a loose frame story in which Leyner appears at the Nonfiction at the Food Court Reading Series at Woodcreek Plaza Mall, where he reads before a crowd of precisely three: a Panda Express employee on break, a Sbarro employee on break, and his mom.

The introductory speech he gives comprises the bulk of Gone with the Mind, a discursive farrago that touches on Freudian mother-son dynamics, constructivist aesthetics, fascist metaphysics, Twizzlers, women’s antiperspirant commercials, prostate cancer, and formative episodes from his youth. In earlier novels, Leyner cast himself as a paranoid egomaniac (Et Tu, Babe) or a feckless, oversexed adolescent (The Tetherballs of Bougainville), but the Mark Leyner we meet in these pages is transparent, erudite, self-deprecating, even tender. This is an autobiography that dramatizes its own creation—the pathos in attempting to express “the chord of how one feels at single given moment, in this transient, phantom world.”

I met Leyner at Marco & Pepe, a restaurant in Jersey City, where he arrived with a copy of Gershom Scholem’s The Messianic Idea in Judaism tucked under his arm. We began our conversation by learning, courtesy of our waitress, what a Portuguese muffin is.

So it sounds kind of like an English muffin, but bigger.

Does that mean anything called Portuguese is just a bigger variant of the English version?

Yes. Portuguese-breakfast tea is just a vat of English-breakfast tea. Anyway—it’s been three years since your last interview with the Review. I gather there’s been a sort of formalist struggle for you since then.

I waited on the idea for this book for a very long time. It’s important to me that each book is starting from scratch. I’m trying to think of a vital, unprecedented idea for a book that I haven’t seen. It’s not because I’m so ambitious—it’s just the way I’ve always worked. I have a feeling it comes from my being most engaged and inspired by visual artists when I was younger. Duchamp, Picabia, all the Cubists, Apollinaire and his people, André Breton, his people. And then all the great Abstract Expressionists, whom I adore still. I’m a big Clement Greenbergian. I’m a high formalist. I would always say that when, back in the day, people talked about postmodernism and things. I thought, No, I’m a card-carrying modernist, and I’m proud to say it. I approached this book in a formal way. How does one represent an autobiography, which in itself is a representation of confabulated memories? I began thinking about my mother—the meals we used to have at various restaurants and how we’ve always been so keen to make an audience out of each other. And that’s one of the really fundamental themes of this book—how intimates make audiences of each other. I really do think there’s a reading of this book that sees it as just me and my mom talking, and the rest of it being some kind of wonderful filigreed delusion—this pathetic event. Read More »

What a Good Book Can Be: An Interview with Edwin Frank

April 7, 2016 | by

In 1999, Edwin Frank founded New York Review Books to reintroduce out-of-print works—many in first translations from around the world—to the reading public. “From the beginning, it was our intention to be resolutely eclectic, and build our classics series as different voices build a fugue,” Frank told the New York Times last year. “We set out to do the whole mix of things that a curious person might be interested in, which would take you back and forth from fiction to certain kinds of history.” In the last seventeen years, you’ve likely picked up a New York Review Book—maybe because you were taken with its arresting design, or because you recognized a work you didn’t know by a major author: Walt Whitman’s unexpurgated Drum-Taps, say, or unpublished stories by Chekhov, or new versions of Aeschylus and Balzac, Dante and Euripides, or essay collections by Sartre, Lionel Trilling, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm.

Since its inception, the series has won dozens of awards for its translations; the New York Times chose Magda Szabó’s The Door as one of the ten best books of 2015. New York Review Books have met not just with critical plaudits but commercial success, which naturally leads the curious reader to wonder: Who is Edwin Frank, anyway? We met in his apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn to discuss his process: how he finds the books he publishes and what provokes his interest. Frank has a soft-spoken manner and a reader’s excellent dispatch of vocabulary, but he clearly enjoys regular punctuations of loud laughter, provoked by his knowing, bone-dry sense of humor.

You’ve published two books of poetry. Has your background as a poet affected your tastes as an editor? 

Well you could say that reading and writing poetry saved me from ever being a professional reader or writer. I had a Stegner Fellowship after college, but the main thing I took away from it was a permanent aversion to the world of writing programs, and poetry is also a pretty effective inoculation against commercial publishing. And I was always sure that I wanted to have nothing to do with the academic study of literature. Then again, poetry did in some sense lead me to publishing—a kind of gateway drug—since in the nineties my friend Andy McCord and I started a small press, Alef Books, in which we published Joseph Lease, Ilya Kutik, Melissa Monroe, Michael Ruby. But that was a labor of love. In fact I came to editing very late, in my midthirties, which is unusual in publishing, a business people mostly go into right after college. It was a lucky break. I needed a job and I thought that having put out a handful of books of poems would make me of interest to publishers, which of course was dead wrong.
Read More »

Louder than Bombs: An Interview with Joachim Trier and Jesse Eisenberg

April 6, 2016 | by

Isabelle Huppert and Gabriel Byrne in a still from Louder than Bombs.

Readers of the Review know that the Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier is one of our favorite young directors. (See Issue 203 for a discussion of his first two features, Reprise and Oslo, August 31st.) His new English-language debut, Louder than Bombs, stars Isabelle Huppert, Gabriel Byrne, and Jesse Eisenberg. Last week we caught up with Trier and Eisenberg for a conversation that ranged from Knut Hamsun to The Karate Kid to David Foster Wallace. We also talked about the making of Louder than BombsRead More »

A Quiet, Meditative Place

March 7, 2016 | by

Joe Gibbons on his drawings from Rikers Island.

Photo: Andrew Lampert

Over a forty-year career, Joe Gibbons has become a legend in the world of experimental film. His work so thoroughly wrinkles the cloth woven by art and life that the question of which imitates which becomes moot. In his 1985 film Living in the World, he stars as a working stiff named Joe Gibbons, just trying to make it through the eight-hour day with his dignity intact. Existentially bereft, he laments, “I read the paper and there’s so much going on that I have nothing to do with.” He quits his job and turns to crime to make ends meet.

When the real Gibbons made headlines last year in an unlikely heist story, that same voice was quoted in the papers as evidence of his moral degeneracy and criminal intent. FORMER MIT PROFESSOR “ROBS” BANK, FILMS “HEIST, the New York Post said. And, later, in the New York Times: FILMMAKER JOE GIBBONS GETS A YEAR IN PRISON FOR A ROBBERY HE CALLED PERFORMANCE ARTRead More »

Under the Skin of History: An Interview with Jonathan Lee

March 4, 2016 | by

Photo: Tanja Kernweiss

Jonathan Lee’s new novel, High Dive, focuses on the events leading up to the 1984 bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England, an Irish Republican Army assassination attempt on Margaret Thatcher. Lee follows both sides, moving with ease between the epic and the intimate. The hotel’s deputy manager, Moose, and his daughter, Freya, show one side of the story, while Dan, a young man swept up in the IRA, provides a viewpoint from within the terrorist plot. But High Dive doesn’t rely on historical significance to give the narrative its weight. Lee’s close third-person narration, full of humor and compassion, follows each of the characters as they approach the explosion that we can see coming.

The novel, Lee’s first release in the U.S. but his third in his native England, is already making waves abroad. I spoke to him about the challenges of writing historical events, especially seen through the compacted society of a hotel.

Though High Dive is focused on a specific event in 1984, it felt very current, with its focus on the dwindling power of men and their confusion in coping with this. Was this a theme you chose to take on or was its emergence more subconscious?

I read somewhere that Grace Paley, when younger writers asked her for advice, would say two things—“keep a low overhead” and “don’t live with a person who doesn’t respect your work.” I think all the major characters in my novel—especially the men, as we’re an insecure species—are aspiring, above all, to live with people who respect their work. Moose wants to be respected and promoted in his job at the hotel, and respected and loved by his daughter, who is seventeen but already wiser than him. And in the sections about Dan, a young IRA recruit, there is of course some vengefulness, but hopefully also this air of performance that is shared with hotel life. He wants to be heard and respected within and beyond his own small community. This above all is what leads him toward his fate—standing in a hotel with explosives in a bag, pretending to be someone else, calling himself “Roy Walsh,” fictionalizing himself. High Dive seems to me to be about people in small rooms, plotting. Plotting an attack that will shake them out of their powerlessness, plotting a promotion that will shake them out of their powerlessness, plotting a speech that will secure their position as Prime Minister—or sitting in another small room, mine, plotting a novel about these things. Fiction felt like the right form for this book partly because there’s so much fiction within the actual story—it’s about men and women making things up and pretending to be people they’re not. Read More »

Not Sorry: An Interview with Jeremy M. Davies

March 1, 2016 | by

JMD.jpg

Collections of stories often lose steam as they go, because even stories that are great individually can sound too alike when read together. But Jeremy M. Davies’s The Knack of Doing steers far clear of this problem—almost aggressively so. His stories vary so wildly—stylistically, topically, even conceptually—that I can’t imagine where half his ideas come from: a series of letters from a father to his children, doled out to them by his ex-wife as she absconds with them on a trans-Atlantic cruise in the 1920s; a cartoonish, otherworldly smash-up of Robert Burns and Flann O’Brien; a tale of hypnotism and metafiction in eighteenth-century France. Davies is a writer of great precision, intelligence, humor, and depth, but if there is a guiding spirit in his work, it’s invention, literature’s endless potential for reimagining its forms of expression.

Davies is also the author of two novels—Rose Alley (2009) and Fancy (2015)—and was for many years senior editor at Dalkey Archive Press. We corresponded over e-mail in January of this year.

Harry Mathews wrote of your first book, Rose Alley, that it “ambushes the reader, not with brutality but with wit, irresistible ingenuity, and a stupefying narrative abundance.” It seems to me these are precisely the qualities you share with Mathews—wit, ingenuity, abundance—all of which are variations on playfulness. What is the role of play in your writing?

Play is of supreme importance to me. Everything I write begins with a sense of play and hopes to engage the reader’s playfulness in turn. Not that I’m always giggling to myself as I work, but I do think writing that doesn’t have a sense of play is going to wind up pretty dead on the page, no matter its subject.

My own rule of thumb is, If I’m not having fun, stop. If I can’t picture someone else having fun reading what I’m writing, stop. Bearing in mind that “fun” can mean many things. Primo Levi writing about life in a condition of absolute terror and deprivation probably wasn’t having fun, as such, but he was engaged—he’d have to be. He wasn’t plodding across the page. He wasn’t being dutiful. The same goes for Ivy Compton-Burnett writing about trivial differences of opinion among the wealthy. The same goes for Robert Sheckley writing about interdimensional travel. The same certainly goes for Harry Mathews and the writers he led me to, like Jane Bowles or Laura (Riding) Jackson. I think the same goes for just about every writer worth reading. They give you permission to play. Read More »