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Inventing Situations: An Interview with Thomas Pierce

January 8, 2015 | by

Thomas Pierce author photo (c) Andrew Owen

Photo © Andrew Owen

What’s immediately striking about Thomas Pierce’s debut story collection, Hall of Small Mammals, are its wild, unforgettable conceits. In “Shirley Temple Three,” a long-extinct dwarf mammoth is cloned for a TV show, then dumped off in a small Southern town with Mawmaw, the show host’s mother. In “More Soon,” the body of a man’s brother is shipped all over the world because of worries over a mysterious contagion. In “Videos of People Falling Down,” the lives of a host of characters—a local-news reporter, a right-wing Listserv manager, a cheesy pop singer—converge and intertwine through the shared humiliation of having been filmed while falling. But Pierce’s characters never feel secondary to his plots. They are resoundingly human, with their bundles of worries, joys, dreams, and burdens, their beliefs, theories, and suspicions, their wanderings and wonderings.

Pierce and I first met in 2000, as students in a high school summer program in South Carolina, our shared home state. Even then I was impressed by his charm and intelligence, and his lively, slightly askew sense of humor. In 2013, my magazine, Gigantic, published his story “Time to Get Radical,” a funny and unexpectedly moving catchphrase-driven monologue that in around twelve hundred words manages to capture the highs, lows, and in-betweens in the life of one semi-religious auto-parts salesman someplace down South.

This interview took place over a series of e-mails and a shared Google Doc, along with two in-person meetings—in his hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina, and in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he now lives.

You worked for five years at NPR as a blogger, reporter, and producer. How has this experience informed your work?

In radio, you’re always aware that you have to win the listener’s attention. You’re wrestling them away from their breakfast or their drive or kids. So lesson one is to be interesting and engaging. You also learn quickly that the best sentence to read over the air is usually the simplest one—complex ideas don’t necessarily require complex sentences. Don’t get me wrong, I love beautiful, confusing sentences, too, but I also value clarity—and radio helped me in that regard.

You may only have ninety seconds to tell a story on the radio. When you write a radio script, there’s software you can use with a little clock in the upper right-hand corner that tells you the piece’s length in terms of time. This helps you to remember that what you’re creating will occupy a portion of a person’s day. One of my short stories might steal forty-two minutes from your life. I want to use your time wisely. Read More »

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Scare Tactics: Michel Houellebecq Defends His Controversial New Book

January 2, 2015 | by

Photo by Sylvain Bourmeau

Photo by Sylvain Bourmeau

It’s 2022, and France is living in fear. The country is roiled by mysterious troubles. Regular episodes of urban violence are deliberately obscured by the media. Everything is covered up, the public is in the dark ... and in a few months the leader of a newly created Muslim party will be elected president. On the evening of June 5, in a second general election—the first having been anulled after widespread voter fraud—Mohammed Ben Abbes handily beats Marine Le Pen with support from both socialists and the right.

The next day, women abandon Western dress. Most begin wearing long cotton smocks over their trousers; encouraged by government subsidies, they leave the workplace in droves. Male unemployment drops overnight. In formerly rough neighborhoods, crime all but disappears. Universities become Islamic. Non-Muslim teachers are forced into early retirement unless they convert and submit to the new regime.

This is the world imagined by Michel Houellebecq in his sixth novel, Soumission (Submission), which will appear next week. Should it be read as a bad Op-Ed, as pulp fiction for an election year, or as the attempt of a great writer to air a social critique through farce? In an exclusive interview—the first he's given about this novel—Houellebecq explains what led him to write a book that has already created a scandal in France, even before its publication.

Why did you do it? 

For several reasons, I’d say. First of all, I think, it’s my job, though I don’t care for that word. I noticed some big changes when I moved back to France, though these changes are not specifically French, but rather Western. As an exile you don’t take much of an interest in anything, really, neither your society of origin nor the place you live—and besides, Ireland is a slightly odd case. I think the second reason is that my atheism hasn’t quite survived all the deaths I’ve had to deal with. In fact, it came to seem unsustainable to me.

The death of your dog, of your parents?

Yes, it was a lot in a short period of time. Part of it may be that, contrary to what I thought, I never was quite an atheist. I was an agnostic. Usually that word serves as a screen for atheism but not, I think, in my case. When, in the light of what I know, I reexamine the question whether there is a creator, a cosmic order, that kind of thing, I realize that I don’t actually have an answer.

Whereas before you felt

I thought I was an atheist, yes. Now I really don’t know. So those are the two reasons I wrote the book, the second reason probably outweighing the first.

How would you characterize this book?

The phrase political fiction isn’t bad. I don’t think I’ve read many similar examples, but at any rate I’ve read some, more in English literature than in French. Read More »

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The Designed Landscape: An Interview with Carol Betsch

December 15, 2014 | by

1._LALH_St_Mt-Auburn_Cemetary

Carol Betsch, View from Mountain Avenue, below Washington Tower, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Boston, Massachusetts, 2005.

100 Years of Design on the Land,” a photography show opening here in New York this evening at 1285 Avenue of the Americas Art Gallery, explores ten historic American landscapes, from Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston, created in 1831, to the Camden Public Library Amphitheatre in Maine, created in 1931. The show presents contemporary photographs by Carol Betsch and Andy Olenick that have been commissioned for books published by the Library of American Landscape History (LALH). Robin Karson, the executive director and founder of LALH, curated the exhibition. As she says in an introductory statement in the show’s catalogue, “each of these places was shaped by a deliberate design process, and each has an individual story to tell. Taken together, they tell a much larger story of a nation’s beliefs and aspirations—who we are, where we long to go or what we want to get back to.”

The Library of American Landscape History, based in Amherst, Massachusetts, is defining the field of landscape history through its books about significant American landscape practitioners and places. LALH also organizes exhibitions that reflect the subjects of its publications, and, in partnership with Hott Productions of Florentine Films, produces a series of short films, North America by Design. Carol Betsch’s photographs have appeared in eleven LALH books (two are forthcoming). For the 2013 title The Best Planned City in the World, the author Frank Kowsky worked with Andy Olenick, an architectural photographer based in Buffalo, to document the key elements of the park system designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux for that city. This includes three large parks and a series of parkways to connect them, as well as Niagara Falls, which Olmsted helped to preserve from the destruction of local industries.

Olmsted Project

Andy Olenick, Delaware Park Meadow, Buffalo Parks, Buffalo, New York, 2013.

I first encountered Carol Betsch’s photographs at the exhibition “A Genius for Place,” at the PaineWebber Art Gallery in the fall of 2000. I was struck by the remarkable elegance and stateliness of her images. The landscapes pictured were stunning, with grand homes nestled among ancient trees, vast lawns, formal gardens, pools, ponds, and follies. I found the feeling of serenity in these places, the evocative light and space, tremendously appealing. Looking at these photographs felt like walking through these wonderful American landscapes and gardens, having just the right guide to take me to the best views, the most significant perspectives, and to create the opportunity for understanding some of the ideas behind the landscapes unfolding before me. The photographs looked like they could be the work of an artist from the late nineteenth century, but they had all been made during the last decade. Who was this photographer? And where were these places?

“A Genius for Place,” both the show and the book that followed, presented seven estates of the country-place era, roughly the 1890s to the 1930s, created by some of the most important landscape architects of the time. Written by Robin Karson, the chapters alternate between biographies of the practitioners and exploration of the places from the perspective of an art historian, looking at the landscape designs as works of art. Selecting the best of the sites that retained the integrity of the original design, and discussing them in chronological order, Karson reveals the trajectory and evolution of American landscape design, and the ways these designs expressed ideas in the larger culture.

In anticipation of this new show, I spoke with Betsch about her photography, and the process of working in these landscapes. Read More »

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Purity of Essence: One Question for Nell Zink

December 8, 2014 | by

Nell Zink-6-Fred Filkorn

Photo: Fred Filkorn

Nell Zink’s novel The Wallcreeper came out in October and was listed last week among the 100 Notable Books of 2014 by the New York Times. Jonathan Franzen—who had earlier tried to interest publishers in Zink’s first novel, Sailing Towards the Sunset by Avner Shats—wrote, “Her work insistently raises the possibility that the world is larger and stranger than the world you think you know.”

The Wallcreeper is the coming-of-age story of Tiffany, a young woman who marries a man she hardly knows and follows him to Switzerland. Zink’s compressed scenes and chapter-less form showcase her mastery of tonal register—think Diane Williams with a little less bathos—as the newlyweds’ shared interests in each other and birding quickly shift to other lovers and separate environmental causes. Meanwhile, the zingers and bon mots fly so fast and furiously that one often forgets that Tiffany is on the brink of poverty.

Zink, now fifty, has also published several pieces in n+1. She lives in Bad Belzig, Germany, where she worked most recently as a translator. As a writer living abroad, she does not seem fond of things like e-mail interviews, and understandably so. This exchange took place in August—part of a longer interview filled with some of the most riotous, pummeling insults I’ve ever absorbed—and Zink explained that the course of her experience as a writer has involved a great deal of travel, marked by an intense effort to insulate her creative life from the work required to make rent. Her second novel, Mislaid, is due out next year. She sold it, as she has said elsewhere, for “megabucks.” This may be half jest, but it hints nevertheless that her fortunes have shifted for the better since this summer, when she shared the following account of her personal history.

What kind of jobs have you had? Do you write full-time now, “living the dream”?

I was always a bit concerned about purity of essence. I never wanted a job that might affect the way I wrote or thought. I remember how in college I was very proud of having finagled a job in the English department, where I spent most of my time collating and stapling. I didn’t major in English, obviously, because I preferred being challenged in courses where I might get bad grades. Once, Gordon Lish came to speak there and warned us explicitly against going to work in publishing, because it forces you to read bad prose all day every day and spoils your style. After his talk, all the other student writers jumped up to beg him for jobs in publishing while I wandered off strengthened in my resolve to do manual labor. Read More »

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Staying Out of Trouble: An Interview with Julia Wertz

December 5, 2014 | by

I met Julia Wertz at a slightly rundown family diner she’d recommended deep in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. We drank coffee and ate waffles (hers, covered in bacon) and whole-wheat pancakes (mine, covered in syrup). We’d talked briefly before, but always amid the clamor of comics conventions, where Wertz hustles hard to sell her books but does not relish being on display. Yet she has been putting her life online for nearly a decade. Her new omnibus collection, Museum of Mistakes, brings together three volumes of her autobiographical Web series called Fart Party, written between 2005 and 2010; miscellanea, such as hate mail and guest sketches; and a handful of previously unpublished stories, including one that delves into her past and how children process grief.

As the cartoonist Tom Hart has noted, Wertz “makes self-destruction charming.” In comics gloriously full of curses and insider jokes, she catalogs love found and lost, family dysfunction, and a risky cross-country move; she suffers low-wage service jobs and the publishing industry’s rush after indie comics darlings. Though Wertz’s frustration is often palpable (she occasionally imagines pulling people who annoy her limb from limb), she employs a kind of innocent visual style—her figures are wide-eyed and jaunty—and she’s adept at developing a sense of intimacy between the reader and her antisocial persona on the page. In other words, she lets you in, then flips you off.

Wertz has published two graphic memoirs since most of the comics in Museum of Mistakes first appeared: Drinking at the Movies (2010) and The Infinite Wait and Other Stories (2012). The latter is partly concerned with her diagnosis with Lupus and the horrors of navigating the health care system as an uninsured artist. She also recently chronicled her journey to sobriety in an essay for Narratively about comedy, depression, and addiction. A few years ago, she began documenting her urban-exploring exploits, posting haunting photographs of modern ruins on her site Adventure Bible School.

This fall, Wertz made a much-anticipated return to publishing new online comics that, as Gary Panter puts it, “look cute and nice, but they aren’t.”

You’re back to making daily diary comics after a two-year break. Why have you started again—and why did you stop?

I stopped because I was sick of myself. I completed the The Infinite Wait in only six months by drawing autobio comics sixteen hours a day. And before that, I had drawn comics every day, nonstop, for six years.

Eleanor Davis took a year after she finished How to Be Happy where she said, I’m only going to draw what I want to draw, when I want to—not what I need to for work, not what I think I should be working on. I used her example as justification, but I would have stopped anyway. I had planned to take a two-week break, and then, two years later, I was just ready to start again. I had remembered why I liked drawing comics.

Read More »

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Is There a Vespa?: An Interview with Michael Hofmann

December 4, 2014 | by

Hofmann, Michael (C) Thomas Andenmatten

Photo © Thomas Andenmatten

Michael Hofmann’s first collection of poems, Nights in the Iron Hotel, came in 1984, and in the ensuing thirty years he has translated more than sixty novels from the German and published five more poetry collections, along the way collecting numerous prizes for his work. He is the editor of an anthology, Twentieth-Century German Poetry, and in 2002 published a collection of critical essays, Behind the Lines. (This is far from a comprehensive accounting.) The thirty essays in his new collection, Where Have You Been?, visit a range of poets, novelists, and artists of the last hundred years, including Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Thomas Bernhard, Kurt Schwitters, and Frederick Seidel.

Hofmann’s essays are intense inquiries: he tunnels deeply, engages profoundly, and whether or not he likes what he’s read or seen, his essays ennoble the work under review. There’s a sense of humor, even joy, electrifying the enterprise. Of course, his criticism can pulverize, too—Günter Grass and Stefan Zweig are destroyed in Where Have You Been?—but most of Hofmann’s selections tend toward the form of one reader grabbing another’s sleeve and shouting, Come on now, this way! You’ve got to see this!

Though Hofmann doesn’t keep a computer at home—“usual Luddite setup,” he said at one point—this interview was conducted over e-mail. On a couple of occasions, he wrote from a stand-up terminal in a municipal library.

You’ve written that contemporary American poetry is “a civil war, a banal derby between two awful teams.” In Britain, it’s “a variety show.” These are grim assessments.

Discouraging, isn’t it? It’s just a fact that there are never very many poets around at any given time. I think poetry is always one or two poets away from extinction anyway. If it’s any comfort, it’s not a living tradition—it doesn’t depend on being passed from hand to hand. It could easily go underground for a couple of decades, or a couple of centuries, and then return. People disappear, or never really existed at all, and then come back—Propertius, Hölderlin, Dickinson, Büchner, Smart. Poetry is much more about remaking or realigning the past than it is about charting the contemporary scene. It’s a long game. Read More »

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