September 12, 2013 | by Alex Dueben
Over four decades, Gregory Orr has established his reputation as a master of the lyric poem. Throughout his career, which also includes books of essays and criticism and an award-winning memoir, Orr has primarily written short free-verse poems, but in the past decade he has turned to writing long sequences comprising of short poems in such books as Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved (2005) and How Beautiful the Beloved (2009). His newest, River Inside the River, consists of three such long sequences: “Eden and After” retells the story of Adam and Eve; “The City of Poetry” explores a place “where every poem / Is a house; / And every house, a poem”; and the third, titular sequence explores redemption and language. All are themes that have been present in his work from the beginning. Orr and I spoke recently about the changes in his work.
You said that your newest books have been “a pivot toward something,” which is a phrase I like. How would you characterize the shifts in your work since Orpheus and Eurydice (2001)?
The first thing that persists is being a lyric poet—that’s going to persist across any change. For me, that means concentration of language in a given moment of time. What I’ve always been interested in is getting the emotional, imaginative, linguistic intensity of lyric but also getting the scope of narrative. There are two phrases that work as central nodes for my imagination. The first one is “gathering the bones together.” That came from a poem in my second book, The Red House (1975), when I was still working on personal material but working in a way that made my poetry less accessible than I might have hoped. The phrase comes from a seven-part sequence that concerns my brother’s death in a hunting accident and my responsibility for it. I was trying to use imagination and language to engage that story, but the central phrase was this kid wandering in a field gathering bones. That’s a pretty grim image. Read More »
August 15, 2013 | by Molly Crabapple
Somewhere, on an NSA server in Utah, there sits an email from Warren Ellis threatening to strangle me to death with my own intestines.
Our all-caching surveillance state is something that might have been thought up by Ellis himself. A writer of novels, comics, essays, and movies starring a machine-gun-toting Helen Mirren, Ellis looks more deeply than most into our potential futures. Born in working-class Southend-on-Sea, he is best known as the writer of the canonical graphic novel series Transmetropolitan. A decade before the Internet-enabled explosion of independent journalism, Transmet corrupted a generation of young reporters, giving them the notion that journalism was the bullet that could “blow a kneecap off the world.” In January, he published bestselling Gun Machine, which exploits genre conventions to explore the ghost cities that exist in both high finance and the minds of the insane. Most recently, Ellis released Dead Pig Collector, a novella about love and body disposal, as a Kindle Single with FSG. He is currently at work on his first book of nonfiction.
We’ve been friends and sometime collaborators for a decade. When I told him I’d like to interview him for The Paris Review, he demanded proof that the editor hadn’t confused him with the violinist Warren Ellis of The Bad Seeds. When Sadie emailed to confirm that she realized he was, in fact, the bestselling author, he wrote me back: “I DIDN’T SAY ‘BEST SELLING’ YOU HORRIBLE INFANT!”
Ellis wears a field hat, drinks very old whisky, and chain-smokes Silk Cut cigarettes. He is forty-five years old.
You’re semi-crack-addicted to information. Whenever we talk, you have a podcast, the Economist, some ambient drone music, and a reader full of links open. Dead Pig Collector was inspired by an article you read on Chinese garbage disposal. Tell me about your information consumption.
This is going to be just another way for you to insist I listen to the sounds of insects having sex and calling it music while you pollute your apartment with the strains of some idiot with a ukulele wailing about consumption and sodomy.
We call that culture. As an Englishman, you wouldn’t understand.
What would you know about culture? You come from the town that gave the world the cronut.
August 6, 2013 | by Anna Altman
This week sees the publication of Caleb Crain’s first novel. Necessary Errors takes place in Prague shortly after the Velvet Revolution and offers a view of the changes that roiled the city in the early nineties. We see it through the eyes of Jacob, a young American teaching English to support a dilatory life abroad. Prague itself figures prominently in the story: more than a setting, the city’s linguistic currents, architecture, and Communist-tinged daily interactions are portrayed so deftly as to render the city a character itself. Crain is likewise evocative on the granular moments of frustration and incremental clarity that accompany acquiring a language.
Often, a book about a young person going abroad or otherwise finding himself is presented as a string of solitary experiences. Necessary Errors, on the other hand, portrays the alternating feelings of camaraderie and loneliness endemic to group expatriate life, about learning who one is from a diffuse group of people. Ardent, self-conscious, and introverted, Jacob, having only recently discovered that he’s gay, ventures into social life with new purpose. Through his apprehensions and misapprehensions—his necessary errors—the reader gleans not only a vivid group portrait but a sense of the quotidian consequences of the seismic shift from Communism to capitalism.
Last week, I spoke with Crain, an accomplished critic and essayist, over chamomile tea (him) and wine (me) in New York. Crain, too, lived in Prague in 1990 and 1991 and shares qualities with his protagonist (Harvard graduate, gay male, literary aspirations), but he maintains that the work should be understood as fiction. As he explained, expressing his disinterest in the question of how much of fiction comes from lived experience, “The psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott wrote that the child’s toy was the precursor to the adult’s field of culture, and he said the one question you’re not suppose to ask the child about the toy is, Does it come from inside or outside? In other words, was the bear born in the hundred-acre wood and did it grow up with the wizard, or did Mommy buy it at Walmart?” Necessary Errors may or may not have benefited from notes scribbled twenty years ago, but the novel is better served by leaving its fictional shell intact, so one might appreciate the writer’s gifts in transporting us to a dynamic social world twenty years removed.
At the beginning of Necessary Errors, Jacob’s friends seem incidental—they are people he’s happened to meet at the school where he teaches, other expats like him—there’s no particular affinity that draws them together. But if there is a primary love story in the novel, it’s with this group of people.
When people are young adults, they have these packs, or tribes, that they form. Those connections are very real, and yet another, more powerful social narrative is that you’re supposed to pair off and have children—and never see your friends again. In the case of the gay world, there’s an additional element, in which you’re supposed to spin away from your straight friends and be part of a gay world. Both ideas of adulthood are sad to me, and I was attracted to a group of friends as a lost paradise, and one that there’s no way to keep.
As a technical matter, with Necessary Errors I wanted to write as much in dialogue as I could. Mikhail Bakhtin was right when he wrote that novels are dialogic texts, where lots of voices come together. Focusing on a group of friends was a way of having lot of different voices. I spoke with somebody who works in TV not long ago, and I discovered that, in television, that kind of arrangement—in which explication happens through dialogue among a certain group—is called a “precinct.” I guess it comes originally from a cop show, but the idea is that there is some social institution that requires a group of people to come back into contact with each other on a regular basis. In between, they have adventures and misfortunes and romances, but at the end of the show they report back to the precinct. It serves to anchor the world of the show. Maybe the group of friends, meeting in their various watering holes, is the precinct of my novel.
August 1, 2013 | by Yevgeniya Traps
If the title of her “one-woman anthology” of comics is to be believed, Lisa Hanawalt’s eyes are dirty and dumb. We should all be so lucky: according to My Dirty Dumb Eyes, they allow her to imagine fashionable animals in haute-couture hats, give her insight into the secret lives of chefs (did you know that “Mark Bittman is a vegan before 6 P.M. and a cannibal after 11 P.M.”?), and help her envision some unconventional uses for wedding registry gifts.
With its leitmotif blend of whimsy, wistfulness, and a touch of scatology, the book is funny and life-of-the-party loud. In person, however, Hanawalt is a little shy and a little earnest. It’s not that she takes herself seriously—it’s just that talking about her work seems to feel a little weird. Which is not to say that her comics are improvised or intuitive; in fact, she maintains a running list of ideas with Notational Velocity, working and reworking concepts until they are just right. This demands patience and perseverance: sometimes the idea lies dormant for years until it’s finally time for it to come out and play.
When we met last month in her Greenpoint studio, Hanawalt proudly showed off her Wacom Cintiq, “the most incredible modern invention—besides a dishwasher” she’s ever owned (it’s an interactive pen that allows her to draw and edit directly on her computer screen), talked about some of her recent comics (“It’s all toilet-based humor”), and considered life after art school (she went to UCLA) and the differences between LA and NY.
I think the way I was looking at this book was like, This is the world through my eyes. That was the easiest way to explain what the hell this book was. I couldn’t point to another book, and be like, That’s the book I’m going to make. So okay, the world through my eyes, what is that world? Well, I see a lot of dirty stuff, and I see a lot of dumb stuff. And it’s sort of just me, trying to be more debased or humorous as a way of entertaining myself. Read More »
July 24, 2013 | by Ben Shattuck
Nathaniel Philbrick has written six books on United States history, most of which take place on or by the sea. In 2000, his In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex—about the sunken whaleship that inspired a young Herman Melville—won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. He then wrote Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842, followed by Mayflower: A Story of Community, Courage, and War, which was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in History. Because of In the Heart of the Sea and his articles on the whaling industry, Philbrick and Melville have become something of a pair. Philbrick recently wrote the thin and ruminative Why Read Moby-Dick? and the introduction to the last Penguin Edition of Moby-Dick.
I had read In the Heart of the Sea and Mayflower years ago, but it wasn’t until this past spring when a local bookseller handed me Philbrick’s first book, Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, that I decided to write him a letter. There’s a thrifty, poetic quality to the makeup of that book, a clear joy in the research alone. It’s rawer, not so carved by what reviewers have noted as Philbrick’s masterful use of narrative and perspective in his other books, and so shows his research instincts clearer. He includes a description of the spring day when early Nantucketers set a pit of snakes on fire, and the time in 1795 when robbers bent pewter spoons into keys to steal $20,000 in gold coins from Nantucket Bank. Farmers on the island used to fertilize fields by scaring sheep at night with burning coals, and whalers traded their pant cuffs for sex in the South Pacific Islands. I put my e-mail on the bottom of the letter and dropped it in the mail. He wrote back in June, offering lunch and a “ramble” around the island.
We met for chowder and beer down at Nantucket’s South Wharf, near the old ships chandlery. Centuries ago, scallop shanties were on the South Wharf, where “openers” shucked for hours under lantern light and pipe smoke. Philbrick had arrived on his bike and exactly on time, wearing wayfarer sunglasses. It was a sunny day; while transcribing the interview, I listened to wind and gulls behind his voice. He speaks energetically, smiles constantly and in a way that evokes Steve Carell, and, mostly, is humble. Later that evening, walking through his house with him and his beloved golden retriever Stella, I saw just one sign of his success: a tiny framed clipping of the July 9, 2000, New York Times best-seller list, in which Harry Potter is on the fiction side, and In the Heart of the Sea is on the other, at number two. He’s proud of his family and talks about them often. He showed me the marks on the wooden floor where his son had practiced cello, and the room full of his grandmother’s paintings, one of which might be of her good friend, Claude Monet’s daughter.
After lunch, we walked through downtown to visit the Nantucket Historical Association’s Research Library. On the way, he pointed in the direction of where Herman Melville visited and dined with Nathaniel Hawthorne the summer after the disastrous publication of Moby-Dick. As in his books, Philbrick resurrects the past with unexpected precision: “Hawthorne,” he said, “was handsome and shy.” When we arrived at the Research Library, an archivist greeted him by holding up a review of his newest book, Bunker Hill. “Did you see this?” she asked, pointing to a caricature of Philbrick dressed like a colonial. “Oh, jeez,” he said, and turned away bashfully.
Weeks later, sitting in his patio, Stella panting behind us, I asked him why he keeps retelling stories that people already know. The Mayflower story. Bunker Hill. Custer’s Last Stand. “Yeah, sure,” he said, smiling. “Everybody knows about the Little Bighorn. But what do they really know about the Little Bighorn? I knew nothing. What I knew was three sentences that had nothing to do with what happened.” He continued, “In each book, I don’t know what I’m getting into. And if I did know what I was getting into, the book would be stale. There would be no crackle. For me, it’s the act of discovery gives the prose life. Otherwise, it would be dead.”
Why did you move to Nantucket?
We came to Nantucket in 1986. It was my wife’s job that brought us here. She’s an attorney. She grew up on Cape Cod. I’m from Pittsburgh. I love to sail, but I’m not from a maritime area. I had grandparents in West Falmouth—that’s how Melissa and I ended up meeting. We were living in a suburb of Boston before we moved out. She was the breadwinner. I was at home, writing, taking care of the kids. We had kids, one and four.
You were a young dad.
We had Jenny when we were twenty-five. We had made sort of a pact. I said, You’re going to make a lot more money than I will—I was a journalist for what’s now Sailing World, out of Newport.
Neither one of us had spent any time here. It sounded like a good concept—no commuting, everyone would be close. We arrived in September—probably the first people to move to Nantucket without ever having spent a summer here. It took me a while to connect with the community, because I was at home with the kids. But then I got interested in the history of the island, and began to hang out at the archives. Away Off Shore is a product of learning history on my own, of going alone to look around the archives. Read More »
July 3, 2013 | by Jesse Barron
Of the two people who have written books called My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard is the less notorious. In Scandinavia, where the tradition of memoiristic writing is less prevalent and self-exposing than it is in America, he wrote, for three years, twenty pages a day about himself, his friends, his wife, and his kids. When the first of the six books was published, reporters called everyone he’d ever met. It sold half a million copies.
But unlike most literary controversies, this one’s less interesting than the work that provoked it. Knausgaard has written one of those books so aesthetically forceful as to be revolutionary. Before, there was no My Struggle; now there is, and things are different. The digressiveness of Sebald or Proust is transposed into direct, unmetaphorical language, pushing the novel almost to the edge of unreadability, where it turns out to be addictive and hypnotic. A man has written a book in which a man stays at home with his kids, and his home life isn’t trivialized or diminished but studied and appreciated, resisted and embraced. An almost Christian feeling of spiritual urgency makes even the slowest pages about squeezing lemon on a lobster into a hymn about trying to be good.
Book One ends with that impossible thing: an original metaphor for death. The last sentence of this interview may do the same for writing. Read More »