Under the Influence #10, Taste

written by Kurt Baumeister May 10, 2019 (Originial publication at Entropy Magazine)

Intro

Wherein triple threat (writer/editor/bookseller) Kevin Sampsell praises the humor and honesty of Steven “Jesse” Bernstein, a writer gone too soon; author Samuel Snoek-Brown confesses his love for the one and only Jane Austen; Gigi Little thanks Maurice Sendak for teaching her how to do a little wrong to achieve a whole lot of right; and poet Shaindel Beers discusses how Anne Sexton taught her to use fairy tales to get at the personal. Please read and enjoy…

 


Anne Sexton

by Shaindel Beers

I once spent a summer reading Anne Sexton’s complete works, and it had a profound effect on me. Every little bit of life that happened to her turned into poetry. Nothing was off-limits. Think, for instance, of “The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator” and “For My Lover, Returning to His Wife” and the era she was writing in. She was incredibly brave—beyond anything most of us can imagine today. Transformations showed me that you can use fairy tales (or other widely known works) to rewrite the personal, and I’m forever grateful for this lesson.  

Shaindel Beers is the author of three poetry collections, A Brief History of Time (2009) andThe Children’s War and Other Poems (2013), both from Salt Publishing, and Secure Your Own Mask (White Pine, 2018). She is the Poetry Editor of Contrary Magazine. Learn more athttp://shaindelbeers.com.

 

 


Maurice Sendak

by Gigi Little

My first influence as a writer was Maurice Sendak, a man most known as an illustrator for children’s picture books. He was also a master wordsmith: “Poor Ida, never knowing, hugged the changeling and she murmured, ‘How I love you.’ The ice thing only dripped and stared, and Ida mad knew goblins had been there.” That tiny passage from Outside Over There, “and Ida mad,” with no commas, was life-changing. What elegant incorrectness. Sendak taught me that twisting language creates a new voice, and voice has driven me, ever since, as both a writer and a reader.

Gigi Little‘s essays and short stories have appeared in journals and anthologies including Portland NoirSpent, and The Pacific Northwest Reader, and she’s the editor of the collection City of Weird. She’s also a freelance book cover designer and the staff designer for Forest Avenue Press. She lives with her husband, fine artist Stephen O’Donnell, and a Chihuahua named Nicholas. In her earlier days, Gigi spent fifteen years in the circus as a lighting director and professional circus clown. She never took a pie to the face, but she’s a Rhodes Scholar in the art of losing her pants.


Jane Austen

by Samuel Snoek-Brown

My wife may have turned me on to her early in our relationship, but I really fell for Austen in a graduate course on Gothic romance. Though we focused on Northanger Abbey, a hilarious send-up of the genre, my edition also included unfinished works like Sanditon and Lady Susan. When I saw how brutally honest Austen was about human nature in her unedited stories, I was hooked. Sanditon dares to discuss the racism of British imperialist mercantilism far more overtly than Mansfield Park, and Lady Susan is remarkably free-spirited about the sexual lives of women. But even in her more polished, editorially subdued novels, Austen’s precision and insight when describing culture, society, and relationships are astounding and still feel fresh.

Samuel Snoek-Brown is the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the Civil War novel Hagridden, and the short-fiction chapbooks Where There Is Ruinand Box Cutters. He also serves as production editor for Jersey Devil Press. He lives with his wife, a librarian and fellow Janeite, in Tacoma, Washington.


Steven “Jesse” Bernstein

by Kevin Sampsell

Steven “Jesse” Bernstein was forty years old when he decided to stab himself in the throat and die. I was obsessed with death at the time and Bernstein was my favorite writer. I loved his gravelly voice and surreal vision. Not many people remember him now but he put out a few books and a posthumous spoken word album on Sub Pop in 1992, at the height of grunge. His most notable work for me is More Noise, Please!

Bernstein’s work alternates between disturbingly sad and manically funny. I once saw him perform in Seattle. I was the first one there and he asked me if I left my urine sample at the door. Instead of a reading, he played acoustic guitar and sang some of his songs. Some people, you can just tell, are not long for this world, no matter how gifted they are. Bernstein (with his bipolar disorder and PTSD) grappled with the world and ultimately surrendered.

Kevin Sampsell lives in Portland, Oregon and is the editor of the micropress, Future Tense Books. His books include A Common Pornography and This Is Between Us. His stories have appeared recently in JoylandRadioactive Moat, and Hobart.

 

 


Outro

The topic of personal taste has always interested me because even for one person there should be many different levels of taste. Say you’re a literature professor: You may have personal favorites but to go too far in expressing disdain for something in the canon (or, for that matter, work outside the traditional canon)—work that may not be to that personal taste—is a major error, one of the worst you can commit. As a literature professor, or a critic for that matter, you must be broad-minded enough to accept the possibility that you’re not right, or even conversant, about everything of value.

Shift to the role of writing professor, and many of the same cautions hold. If you’re not careful you can do damage to the work of students who don’t share your sensibilities. Conversely, overlook what you see as (and may well be) real problems in the work and you do your student a disservice. The good writing teacher, to me, is one who is constantly and effectively balancing these two impulses, not one who blurts out dismissals like “that’s science fiction” or “that’s romance.” But not everyone agrees. I know this from personal experience.

There are some writing professors, and, no doubt literature professors and critics, who feel they only add value by being completely honest about what they love and hate, for whatever reason, reasons that might include everything from style and topic to voice and point of view. They might see the concept of assessing work based on, “How they’d see it if they enjoyed that sort of work?” as completely artificial, a sort of opinion bred in a lab. Some might even see explaining their opinions in too much detail as artificial. They might suggest the only response that matters comes from the gut.

The short answer for the writing teacher (and I think also for the literature professor and the critic to a certain extent) is that you must give both opinions, providing as much information as possible to let the person receiving the opinion make what they will of it. An even greater danger than being a biased reader is being a reader with a bias undisclosed because the undisclosed bias can go far beyond technical matters of literary taste. The undisclosed bias can run to hidden racism, sexism, or sheer personal dislike, faults still more disqualifying than making the narrow-minded offhand comment, “that’s science fiction.”

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Under the Influence #7, Magic

UNDER THE INFLUENCE #7, MAGIC

written by Kurt Baumeister December 12, 2018

Intro

Wherein Jana Martin lauds the “Sunbelt-oddness-filled” and “hot blast evangelism” of Joy Williams, Paul Cohen tells how Saul Bellow’s words stalked him across a continent and turned him into a writer, Debra Di Blasi brings us the ambience of Guy de Maupassant, D. Harlan Wilson shares his take on William Burroughs “panic theorist,” Whitney Collins praises “sinister sister” Shirley Jackson’s magical admixture of horror and comedy, and Samuel Sattin barely survives psychic drowning in the sea of masks that is Haruki Murakami’s Nobel-winning work. Enjoy…


Haruki Murakami

by Samuel Sattin

I love books that wear masks. When I know too much about what I’m reading, when I’m swimming in an author’s intentions, I end up hacking, spitting, desperately crawling to shore. Haruki Murakami’s books wear masks, extravagant masks that in some ways may elude even the author himself. Private, industrious, notoriously esoteric, Murakami doesn’t choose to showcase meaning, as many writers are trained to. Statements are made in books like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle that are political, emotional, and spiritual alike, but in the manner of intangible feelings spurred by listening to Schumann’s Bird as Prophet, they’re experienced, rather than revealed.

Samuel Sattin is a novelist and comics creator. He is the writer of the forthcoming Glint trilogy and Bezkamp(2019), LegendThe Silent EndLeague of Somebodies, and Adventure Quest. His work has appeared or been featured in The NibThe AtlanticNerdistEntertainment WeeklyNPRPaste MagazineSalonio9KotakuVulture,Bleeding CoolThe Fiction AdvocateThe RumpusThe Good Men Project, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in Comics from California College of the Arts and has a creative writing MFA from Mills College. He is the director of a toy company in Oakland, California, and teaches at the California College of the Arts.


Shirley Jackson

by Whitney Collins

When I first discovered the works of literary maven and rumored witch, Shirley Jackson, my tell-tale heart soared. Who knew you could write suspense and humor? That you could kill off characters in one work and wax sentimental in another? In the milquetoast 1950s, Jackson did just that, simultaneously terrifying and delighting readers with horror novels like The Haunting of Hill House and frank parenting memoirs like Raising Demons. Equal parts Poe and Bombeck, Jackson inhabited both the demonic and domestic worlds while battling outer monsters (four children) and inner monsters (addiction and anxiety). The sinister sister’s biggest break (assuming false the anecdote she used black magic to fracture a Knopf editor’s leg) was her story, “The Lottery,” which detailed a bucolic town’s stoning ceremony. That tale succeeded in chilling America to its core and proving Jackson was, indeed, a sorceress—at least with the pen.

Whitney’s fiction appears in New Limestone ReviewLUMINAThe PinchGristPamplemousse, and The Gateway Review and is forthcoming in Ninth LetterMoon City Review, and Shirley Magazine (which pays homage to the aforementioned Shirley). Her story, “Daddy-o” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the PEN/Dau Prize, and her story, “The Nest,” received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train. Whitney’s nonfiction appears onSalonHuffington PostMcSweeney’s Internet TendencyThe Weeklings, and The Big Jewel, among others. She lives in Kentucky with her husband and sons and is pursuing her MFA at Spalding University.


William Burroughs

by D. Harlan Wilson

I remember reading Naked Lunch for the first time in my parent’s basement; I had never read anything even remotely like it, and it had an instant, permanent effect on me. The chapter entitled “Word” and the “kaleidoscope of vistas” it unleashes remains as fresh, compelling, and unique to me today as it did so long ago. In an article on Burroughs’ cognitive (cut-up) maps, I described him as, “a panic theorist whose hyperbolic, oneiric, ultraviolent psy-fi novels satirized the impact of twentieth-century media technologies on the human condition and prescribed the drug of pathology as a cure.” I’ll stick with that description, now and forever.

Harlan Wilson is an American novelist, short-story writer, critic, screenwriter, playwright, editor and university professor whose body of work bridges the aesthetics of literary theory with various genres of speculative fiction. He is the author of over twenty book-length works of fiction and nonfiction, and hundreds of his stories, essays and reviews have appeared in magazines, journals and anthologies across the world in multiple languages.


Guy de Maupassant

by Debra Di Blasi

My 1000-page tome of The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant is stored in a dusty room across an ocean and a continent, so I must vaguely tell you a story about de Maupassant’s stories about storytelling characters. And why I care. There’s often a fireplace. Cigars. Brandy or coffee. The light beyond the windows dims. People settle into the rhythm of the storyteller’s voice, drawn tenderly toward the storyteller’s tale. The reader leans in. The writer leans in. A moment is brought to the radical center, the point where circles intersect. It’s you, me, and story. It’s always been.

Debra Di Blasi is the author of seven books, including Prayers of An Accidental Nature (Coffee House Press) The Jirí Chronicles (University of Alabama Press/FC2), Drought & Say What You Like (New Directions/W.W. Norton), winner of the Thorpe Menn Literary Excellence Award, and TODAY IS THE DAY THAT WILL MATTER: An Oral History of the New America: #AlternativeFictions (Black Scat, Fall 2018). Her writing has been published in notable journals and anthologies of innovative writing, with adaptations to film, radio, theatre, and audio in the U.S. and abroad. She is a former publisher, educator and art critic. More at: www.debradiblasi.com.


Saul Bellow

by Paul Cohen

Chasing Borges’ “vast dawns,” I quit college and worked as a handyman in a Utah ski lodge, where we paid tribute to mighty snows by diving off the four-story hotel’s roof, and as a landscaper in Wyoming, where I scaled peaks rope free and slept in a grove of aspens. Back in school—an environment to which I still felt unsuited—I encountered Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. In the disastrous and rapturous pilgrimage of Bellow’s violin playing pig farmer, I recognized the relentless craving that had pursued me across a continent, and knew I needed to write.

Paul Cohen’s Pushcart-nominated debut novel, The Glamshack was named a top ten debut for fall 2017 by Barnes and Noble Reads. Cohen’s short fiction has appeared in Tin HouseFive ChaptersHypertext, and Eleven Eleven. He won the Prairie Lights Fiction Contest (judged by Ethan Canin) and was named a finalist for the 2016 Big Moose Prize for his novel-in-progress, The Sleeping Indian. His nonfiction has appeared in The MillionsThe New York Times MagazineDetailsThe Village Voice and others. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he won a teaching scholarship. For more info visit http://paulcohenfiction.com/.


Joy Williams

by Jana Martin

My first encounter with Joy Williams’ astounding work was the Sunbelt-oddness-filled “Breaking and Entering” about a young couple with a white German Shepherd who break into and live in strangers’ houses in Florida. Other stories of hers have a hot blast evangelism, with radio preachers and idlers derailed and buoyed by their own illogical faith. But my favorite William book might be Ill Nature, for its unflinching, eviscerating essays like “Hawk” constructed like a Bach fugue, soaring, devastating. Even her tourist-friendly guidebook, The Florida Keys ends with a killer line — about being on the Tortugas, standing beneath frigate birds: “They ride the currents of the air and there you are below them, far from home, almost nowhere.” It may read like a paradox, but it’s all true.

Jana Martin is the author of Russian Lover and Other StoriesSmoke Gets in Your EyesGreat Intentions, Good Inventions and recently contributed to Women Who Rock edited by Evelyn McDonnell and Feckless Cunt Anthology. She’s an editor on TheWeeklings.com and has appeared in The New York TimesVillage Voice,MarieClaireElleGlimmer TrainMississippi ReviewSpork, and PostRoad. Her essay on Etsy.com was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She’s taught journalism and creative prose at SUNY New Paltz and is working on another book. She was a founding member of the NYC punk band The Campfire Girls and a bassist and lead singer for The Rings.


Outro

There’s only one type of magic I’ll admit to believing in. And though it’s not always called magic, that’s precisely what it is. I’m speaking, of course, of literary magic, the sorcery of reading and writing.

You pick up a book and if you’re lucky the world changes, becomes the contents of that volume. Characters, settings, phrasings: Your mind becomes focused on the book’s interior world and little else. This is true of writing, as well.

Whether you’re banging away on a keyboard, dictating into your phone, or writing longhand when the work is really flowing there’s no better feeling in the world. Part of what makes that feeling so special is that it can be fleeting. Worse, when it goes, it sometimes disappears completely, for years or even decades at a time.

There are people who will tell you there’s no such thing as “writer’s block,” that the ability of the writer to write is an act of will, nothing more. Maybe they’re right. Maybe those of us that experience writer’s block or lack of desire or whatever you want to call it are just lazy. Or self-absorbed. Or bad people. Maybe it’s as simple as one or more of those. Then again, maybe it’s not.

Writers are opinionated, after all. They’re keen to tell you when they’ve found an answer for themselves, which they then tend to universalize, sharing that knowledge again and again like some fire-eyed preacher spinning personal salvation into a biblical epic of Old Testament grandeur, a truth so certain there can be no other way of seeing the world.

Writer 1: “Show don’t tell!”

Writer 2: “B-but…narration?”

Writer 1: “Write what you know!”

Writer 2: “Err…what about fantasy?”

Writer 1: “Don’t use adverbs!”

Writer 2: “Seriously, dude?”

I read an article the other day by a former teacher in an MFA program. In it, he shared the sage observation that most writing students weren’t going to make it as professional writers. They were wasting their time, simple as that.

This guy went on to talk about how few “real deal” writers there’d been in his classes, that in his long tenure as a teacher (a decade, maybe two, I forget) there hadn’t even been five; his assessment made comical by the fact that I’d never even heard of this cat. No doubt, in spite of what Baumeister thinks, this dude sees himself as a “deal” so “real,” normal mortals can hardly fathom his vast talent. Which is fine, because the truth is that one person’s “real deal” isn’t necessarily another’s.

Faulkner hated Hemingway’s writing. Hemingway hated Faulkner’s writing. They are both famous, canonical, historical literary figures. They each published many books, made a lot of money, and won Nobel Prizes in Literature. If nothing else, reading their work side by side will assure you of one thing: Neither reading nor writing are one-size-fits-all endeavors.

Some of us may get lucky. We may have a bestseller or win a big award. We may find the perfect mentor or agent or editor; the sort of resource that can, potentially, make a career. But even if we are that lucky, there’s going to be a lot of trial and error first. There are going to be a lot of people telling you to do things this way or that, plenty taking the opposite position and arguing for it just as vehemently.

My point is there are no easy answers. We must each make up our own mind. Not that it’s the only way, but the only way I know is to read the writers you like, to read them again and again, let them help you synthesize the vast amount of literary knowledge that was here before you hit the scene and will linger long after you’re gone. If you need an idea or two about who to read just stop by here sometime. Each month, we’ll have six new literary legends brought to you by six contemporary writers; every one of whom, I guarantee, is somebody’s “real deal.”

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Under the Influence #6, Negative Capability

UNDER THE INFLUENCE #6, NEGATIVE CAPABILITY

written by Kurt Baumeister November 9, 2018

Intro

Wherein Thaisa Frank discusses Laurence Sterne, Samuel Johnson, and the Throne of Bolivia; Bill Lessard muses on Charles Baudelaire, pin-up; Hank Cherry lauds the realism and self-promotion of Denis Johnson; Jennifer Spiegel declares her love for Elena Ferrante; Jessie Janeshek praises Djuna Barnes’s vast stylistic range; and Seb Doubinsky lauds demigod of letters Michael Moorcock for showing him how to channel anger into literature. I will return at the end with some thoughts on negative capability in its various forms. For now, read, please…


Michael Moorcock

by Seb Doubinsky

Paris, 1983. I was twenty years old and full of rage. The West was stuck in a cold war against the Communist bloc, and Reagan and Thatcher had declared an economic civil war on their own citizens. I was desperately seeking in literature what punk gave us in music: relevance. When a friend gave me his used copy of Michael Moorcock’s The Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius, it was exactly the amphetamine shock I needed to inspire me to write not about or for, but against. Against comfortable literature, comfortable politics, and the comfortable image of the writer him/herself.

Seb Doubinsky is a bilingual French writer, born in Paris in 1963. His novels are dystopias which revolve around a City States parallel universe. His new novel, Missing Signal, was released this summer through Meerkat Press.


Djuna Barnes

by Jessie Janeshek

At 19, I bought a hot pink copy of Nightwood and a used copy of The Book of Repulsive Women that, complete with Barnes’ black and white fin de siècle-esque illustrations, replicated the 1915, 15-cent original release. Years later, it’s hard to decide which book has had a more profound effect on my writing. Nightwood still fills my mind, a vast maze of language cast in neon fuchsia; yet the crisp rhythms of Repulsive Women are there, too, depicting femininities both stark and decadent. As someone always writing about odd women at odds with their worlds, I love Barnes’ succinct and tender “Suicide[s]”: “Corpse A,” “a little bruised body like/A startled moon” and “Corpse B” who “lay…like some small mug/Of beer gone flat.”

Jessie Janeshek’s second full-length book of poetry is The Shaky Phase (Stalking Horse Press, 2017). Her chapbooks are Spanish Donkey/Pear of Anguish (Grey Book Press, 2016), Rah-Rah Nostalgia (dancing girl press, 2016), Supernoir (Grey Book Press, 2017), Auto-Harlow (Shirt Pocket Press, 2018), and Hardscape (Reality Beach, forthcoming). Invisible Mink (Iris Press, 2010) is her first full-length collection. Read more at jessiejaneshek.net.


Elena Ferrante

by Jennifer Spiegel

I have Ferrante Fever. First, the intimacy. I want my writing to be crazy candid. To get inside minds.  To be revealing, ugly, beautiful, human. Ferrante does it! The Neapolitan Quartet is breathtakingly intimate. There’s something rollicking, frenetic, and true about its progression.  It’s also addictive. Second, I’m intrigued by her separation of Art from Artist, her rejection of celebrity. Frantumaglia, interviews granted through writing, explores the idea that books live apart from their writers—and that’s so alluring to me, especially on the verge of Book Promo Season. I agree, but I’m, like, I can’t! She’s my brilliant friend. (I mean, she’s not, but we could be. Call me, Elena!)

Jennifer Spiegel is the author of Love Slave (a novel) and The Freak Chronicles (stories). She is also part of Snotty Literati, a book-reviewing team, with Lara Smith. And So We Die, Having First Slept, a novel, will be published in December 2018 by Five Oaks Press. For more information, visit www.jenniferspiegel.com.


Denis Johnson

by Hank Cherry

A photojournalist friend once told me how he discovered Denis Johnson. He’d met a man on a bench in Iowa and asked for reading suggestions. The man told him to read all the Denis Johnson he could because Johnson outlined our corrupt universe with spectacular, poetic honesty. The best part of the story, though, is that the man on the bench, the man promoting Denis Johnson, was Johnson himself.

My own internal struggles led me to Johnson’s collection Jesus’ Son, where even his most ravaged characters displayed absolute humanity. “Talk into my bullet hole,” he wrote in the story “Steady Hands at Seattle General,” “tell me I’m fine.”

Hank Cherry is now a fiction writer, photographer, journalist, and documentarian. He has been a cook, a bike messenger, a ranch hand, unemployed, and a bar owner. His work has been nominated for the Best of the West Journalism awards, a Pushcart, and as a notable story for the Best American Mystery Stories. His poetry has been published internationally.


Charles Baudelaire

by William Lessard

Charles Baudelaire’s picture used to be taped to the wall facing my bed. That postcard with several generations of yellowed tape at the corners was the last thing I saw at night and the first that greeted me each morning. Today, the postcard is gone, but I feel those eyes on me every night I sit down to work.

Was there ever a better summation of what is at stake for a writer than the closing lines of “At One O’clock in the Morning” from Paris Spleen – “And you, my Dear Lord, give me the grace to produce a few beautiful verses so I may prove to myself that I am not the worst of men, that I am not inferior to those whom I despise”?

William Lessard is a writer and critic based in New York. His work has appeared in McSweeney’sBrooklyn Rail,HyperallergicPrelude, and PANK. It has also been featured at MoMA PS 1. With Mary Boo Anderson, he is editing the Brooklyn edition of the Cities project for Dostoyevsky Wannabe. He is poetry and hybrids editor at Heavy Feather Review.


Laurence Sterne

by Thaisa Frank

Laurence Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy, which Dr. Johnson called “the greatest shaggy-dog story in the English language,” when he was heavily in debt and his wife was convinced she was the Queen of Bolivia. The wit and sense of absurdity it took Sterne to survive unify a book that might otherwise have become pure entropy: the title character, Tristram Shandy, isn’t born until halfway through the book; one chapter is a big black square; at another point, Sterne stops the story explaining he’s lost his voice. I was mesmerized by the wit and inventiveness of Sterne’s self-referential narrator. Much like Rabelais, who believed his patients were cured by laughter, Sterne believed the purpose of art was purely to entertain. The ecstasy of his voice freed me from the burden of delivering a message.

Thaisa Frank’s fifth book of fiction, Enchantment (Counterpoint Press, 2012) was selected for Best Books by theSan Francisco Chronicle. Her novel, Heidegger’s Glasses (Counterpoint Press 2010, 2011) was translated into 10 languages. New work appears in New Micro (Norton 2018) and Short-Form (Bloomsbury2018). She is a member of the San Francisco Writers Grotto.


Outro

The term negative capability seems like it could mean many things. Vaguely provocative, its literary use comes to us from Keats, referencing Shakespeare and dissing Coleridge in turn:

…I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…

Keats was alluding to Shakespeare’s dramatically unmatched (and prototypically novelistic) ability to pose questions without answering them. In this, in Keats’s estimation, Coleridge’s inability to stop short of perfect resolution left him wanting.

But there are many other things negative capability could mean, some of them suggested by this month’s contributions:

Negative capability: The ability to draw a positive result from that which angers us or that which we hate. (See Doubinsky and Lessard above.)

Negative capability: The ability to shamelessly promote oneself without seeming like a total a-hole. (See Cherry above.)

Negative capability: The ability to do the opposite of what one did in the first place and do it equally well. (See Janeshek above.)

Then, for me, there’s an additional meaning relating back to Seb Doubinsky’s praise of Michael Moorcock.

Negative capability: The ability to come to the same conclusion as Seb Doubinsky, that Michael Moorcock is a great writer, for entirely different reasons…

The last ruler of a dying empire, Moorcock’s character, Elric of Melnibone, is a physically weak, sickly albino. Also a dope fiend of sorts (albeit from an alternate reality/sword and sorcery context), Elric kills and/or betrays just about everyone he ever loves. He doesn’t simply kill them, though. Rather, Elric’s vampiric, black broadsword Stormbringer sucks out the souls of his victims (friends and enemies alike) and feeds them back to Elric as temporary physical prowess, which is the only way he can even temporarily kick his addictions. Not only a swordsman, Elric is a powerful sorcerer with a patron demon, the Chaos Lord, Arioch.

Most important, or perhaps most shocking from a traditional literary standpoint, Elric, even though he is and does all these rather unsavory things, even though he often does the bidding of powerful, evil beings such as Arioch, is also undoubtedly a hero. Do I mean antihero? Sure, maybe, why not, who cares?

Point being the word “hero” is in there somewhere. Point also being that terms like antihero and antivillain are fun to play with, to consider as a sort of philosophical parlor game, but they fail to get at the motivations of real people and, for that matter, even the sort of well-constructed doppelgangers we find in fiction.

Among other things, reading Moorcock taught me that at least in fiction, evil can be good. Or, perhaps better put, that evil and good aren’t real strictly speaking, that we each contain an admixture that changes in potency and tone as we live our lives. Even if we’re dispossessed, sorcerous, albino kings armed with vampiric broadswords we’re never all bad. Nor, no matter how noble we might seem from the outside or think ourselves, are we ever all good.

Under the Influence #5, The Literary Psyche

UNDER THE INFLUENCE #5, THE LITERARY PSYCHE

written by Kurt Baumeister October 12, 2018 ran initially at Entropy Magazine

Intro

Wherein Michael A. Ferro regales us with tales of reading anti-plotter David Foster Wallace. Chris Campanioni makes up words (a tactic I hold in high esteem) as he discusses everything from digestion to the nature of possibilities. Poet, editor, and award-nominated thriller writer Erica Wright talks about Flannery O’Connor. Timmy Reed goes all in with John Gardner, both his theories and his monsters. Genevieve Hudson gives us a beautiful take on why Dorothy Allison is so meaningful to her. Last, and first, as it turns out, Chaya Bhuvaneswar invokes both prose witchery and decidedly nonwestern mythical archetypes in her appreciation of Louise Erdrich. Read, please…


Louise Erdrich

by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Whenever I sit down to write, I am influenced by the Louise Erdrich of Tracks – uncompromising, bewitching, and with the character of Fleur Pillager, building a new archetype of motherhood from stories that glory in their non-Western, indigenous origin. Her prose is unapologetic, emotionally-charged, dark and vibrant, truly gripping yet true to her particularity – no glossary, no historical footnotes, no “mediating” character who like a mythical Squanto forms some bridge to the whites. Nothing turns the reader’s gaze away from the evil of genocide, both in its sudden, vindictive steps, and in the slow crushing of hope across generations.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative MagazineTin HouseElectric LitThe RumpusThe MillionsJoylandLargehearted BoyChattahoochee ReviewMichigan Quarterly ReviewThe Awl,siderealNatural Bridgeapt magazineHobart, and elsewhere. Her poetry and prose juxtapose Hindu epics, other myths and histories, and the survival of sexual harassment and racialized sexual violence by diverse women of color. She is a MacDowell Fellow, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and received the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection prize under which her debut collection White Dancing Elephants will be released on October 9, 2018. Twitter: @chayab77.


David Foster Wallace

by Michael A. Ferro

I read David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, before I read Infinite Jest. One thing was clear to me in reading Wallace’s debut: the power of the MacGuffin in literary fiction. Though he’s more well-known for the elusive “entertainment” in Jest, it’s the meandering search for the missing great-grandmother in Broomand how quickly it becomes irrelevant to the book’s true soul that flabbergasted me. Wallace’s audacious choice to convey the more engrossing story of Lenore’s mid-midlife crisis through arguments of linguistic logic and tragic satire, while allowing the “great-grandmother plot” to fall into the background, impressed the hell out of me. Sure, plots are sexy, but there’s something intoxicating about a writer that commands your attention with ideas and substance alone.

Michael A. Ferro’s debut novel, Title 13, was published by Harvard Square Editions in February 2018. He has received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train for their New Writers Award, won the Jim Cash Creative Writing Award for Fiction, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Michael’s writing has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies. Born and bred in Detroit, Michael has lived, worked, and written throughout the Midwest; he currently resides in rural Ann Arbor, Michigan. Additional information can be found at www.michaelaferro.com and @MichaelFerro.


Guillermo Cabrera Infante

by Chris Campanioni

When I read Guillermo Cabrera Infante I not only saw myself in a writer but heard his voice as my own. It wasn’t just Cabrera Infante’s voice that I recognized but the tenor and pitch; the form of voice and how it became a reaction to a cultural displacement we shared among the Cuban diaspora: equal parts excess and assemblage—something I call language dosplacement; the multiple infinitive iterations of a single word, character, scene, story. Language is a banquet where, as Cubans say, everything goes through the mouth—se la comió!—and comes out through the assay, an attempt to expand or enlarge a text before the text converges back upon itself, each part re-formed and re-fashioned to create a utopia that has no location but the location of the text: the possibility of excess, yes; but also an excess of possibilities.

Chris Campanioni is a first-generation American, the son of immigrants from Cuba and Poland, and the author of the Internet is for real (C&R Press). His “Billboards” poem that responded to Latino stereotypes and mutable—and often muted—identity in the fashion world was awarded an Academy of American Poets College Prize in 2013, his novel Going Down was selected as Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards, and his hybrid piece “This body’s long (& I’m still loading)” was adapted as an official selection of the Canadian International Film Festival in 2017. A year earlier, he adapted his award-winning course, “Identity, Image, & Intimacy in the Age of the Internet,” for his first TEDx Talk. He edits PANKAt Large, and Tupelo Quarterly and teaches Latino literature and creative writing at Baruch College and Pace University.


Flannery O’Connor

by Erica Wright

When I arrived in New York City at eighteen, I was brutally homesick, and an observant grad student teaching my creative writing course (Hi, Greg Pardlo!) introduced me to Flannery O’Connor. He suggested I start with “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and my young mind exploded at the sheer talent and audacity on display in those pages. While I would put the music of O’Connor’s writing up against anyone’s, I like that something happens in her work. There’s momentum, almost as if the stories are hurtling forward, aware somehow that this great artist wouldn’t live to see forty.

Erica Wright‘s latest crime novel is The Blue Kingfisher. Her debut The Red Chameleon was one of O Magazine’sBest Books of Summer 2014. Her follow-up The Granite Moth was a 2016 Silver Falchion Award Finalist. She is also the author of two poetry collections, Instructions for Killing the Jackal and All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned. She is a senior editor at Guernica as well as a former editorial board member for Alice James Books. She grew up in Wartrace, TN and now lives in Washington, DC.


John Gardner

by Timmy Reed

I never met John Gardner. (He was dead by the time I got here.) I don’t even write books that particularly resemble his, but Gardner’s my literary hero all the same. It’s about dreams really, his thought of fiction being a continuous dream in the reader’s mind (from On Becoming a Novelist) is something I keep with me always. And then there is Grendel, a book I have re-read many times, in many different moods.

When I am feeling alone in a bleak world, the monster’s outlook on the absurdity of the dumb, sad, unlikely nature of life often mirrors my own. On my best days, there is the beauty of Gardner’s sentences and the humanity of his monster. Hands down, Grendel is the greatest mother-son existentialist monster story derived from an Old English epic. It’s also the only one I know.

Timmy Reed is a writer, teacher, and native of Baltimore, Maryland. Timmy is the author of the books Tell God I Don’t ExistThe Ghosts That Surrounded ThemMiraculous FaunaStar BackwardsIRL, and Kill Me Now. In 2015, he won the Baker Artist Awards Semmes G. Walsh Award. He was again a finalist for the Baker Artist Awards in 2018. He teaches English in Baltimore and is represented by Madison Smartt Bell at Pande Literary Agency.


Dorothy Allison

by Genevieve Hudson

Cicada cries. Moon-made booze. Cows tipped by teen hands. Strange sadness. A few scenes from my Southern childhood. I hated the South and loved it. I read Faulkner, Lee, Twain and found my stories only half there. Enter Dorothy Allison. Allison writes about Southern life in a way that, when I first read it, fed a hunger I hadn’t known I had. Here was Southern queerness rendered real. Her books Trash and Skin struck me with familiarity, like catching your reflection in the passing window of a fast car. She summoned queerness from the shadows of the palmettos and onto the page and into my line of sight. She showed me that there is room in the Deep South’s canon for stories like my own.

Genevieve Hudson is the author of A Little in Love with Everyone (Fiction Advocate, 2018) and the story collectionPretend We Live Here (Future Tense Books, 2018). Her writing has been published in CatapultHobartTin House onlineJoylandNo TokensBitchThe Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her work has been supported by the Fulbright Program and artist residencies at the Dickinson House, Caldera Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center. She splits time between Portland, OR, and Amsterdam.


Outro

In 1907, Freud gave a now famous lecture on creative writing and daydreaming (published in 1908 in German as Der Dichter und das Phantasieren), one that applies his earlier work on dream theory to the artistic process. In that lecture, Freud likened the creative writer to an infantile egotist involved in the processing of memories and dreams into societally acceptable fictionalized fantasies. Later, Freud would write in detail about a tripartite psyche of id, ego, and super-ego; a concept that echoes his notions about creative writing and has clear application to Under the Influence.

Think of the id as Freud’s infantile egotist. The id writer is convinced he’s bound for greatness based on talent and his unique view of the world. Common not only in undergrad writing, MFA, and PhD programs, but in the segment of the DIY community that looks down on those same undergrad writing, MFA, and PhD programs, id writers can be a lot to take, especially in workshops. Fortunately, most of them move on to the next phase of the literary psyche, the ego.

The ego-stage writer knows no one springs from the ground like some literary Olympian (I’m talking Zeus, here, not Usain Bolt.), ready to lay down a few sonnets if he could stop pissing himself long enough to figure out how to use a pen. He knows that only through the acknowledgment and appreciation of work that’s already been done, over centuries and millennia, can we hope to achieve our best.

This ability to appreciate other writing worldviews is, I think, what writing programs should foster, though their failure may help to explain the low opinion of them in the DIY community. Here in Under the Influence, I hope we’re presenting a diversity of influences, shared in each contributor’s own words. I hope we’re learning what other, working writers value as we look to the (gender-neutral) masters that have gone before. Which brings us back to Freud and the third part of his psyche, the super-ego.

As far as the literary psyche is concerned, the super-ego is constructed out of legends, a mythology populated by the influences that give this column its name. Not real exactly, become as they have composites of their work more than anything else, these writers are the ideal, the aspiration, not only in our admiration for them but in the sense that they pass, in terms of their work, beyond the physical world. Whether living or dead, the influences that give this column its name have, in a sense, become text. And isn’t that what we want as writers: to transform our thoughts into text, text that will outlive us, text that will take our place when we’re gone?UNDER THE INFLUENCE0 comment0

Kurt Baumeister
KURT BAUMEISTER

Kurt Baumeister has written for Salon, Electric Literature, Guernica, The Weeklings, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, The Good Men Project, and others. Now a Contributing Editor with The Weeklings, Baumeister’s Review Microbrew column is published by The Nervous Breakdown. His debut novel, a satirical thriller entitled Pax Americana, was published by Stalking Horse Press in 2017. He is currently at work on a novel, The Book of Loki, and a hybrid collection of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry entitled Superman, the Seven Gods of Death, and the Need for Clean, Romantic Poetry. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, or at www.kurtbaumeister.com.

Under the Influence #3, Rediscovery

written by Kurt Baumeister August 8, 2018

I’m changing the format here a bit. I’ll have some words on the month’s contributions at the end. For now, let us celebrate the contributors.

Kerry Cohen was just on the Today Show a couple weeks ago. Yeah, that Today Show. Holy Hades!

Bud Smith is a one-man literature factory. Every time I turn around, dude got another book.

Susan Nordmark is a Kansan who studied Biological Anthropology at Harvard. There’s a Wizard of Oz mash-up in there somewhere.

Buzzy Jackson is one of the most delightfully zany people you’ll find anywhere. And she’s hilarious. And she’s an atheist. So, +10 to all ability scores.

Jordan A. Rothacker puts the “I” in IQ. When not pumping out interviews, reviews, or his own creative work, Jordan relaxes (apparently) by musing on Ovid.

David Bowles gets this month’s UTI (yes, we’re aware) Badass Award for championing a major historical figure/writer I had never heard of.


Kazuo Ishiguro

by Kerry Cohen

During graduate school, I read Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro to examine how he transgressed the meta-narrative of the love story. The novel is about a butler who is devoted to the requirements of his work, namely duty and dignity, so devoted that he sublimates all unruly feelings, such as desire and love. Ishiguro masterfully buries the love story beneath the protagonist’s devotion to duty, which is conveyed through every word, every sentence, and every scene of the book. It is, put simply, a perfect book, and it taught me how to be a writer.

Kerry Cohen is the author of 11 books, most recently Lush: A Memoir. She is a practicing psychologist and is on the faculty of the Red Earth Low-Residency MFA program. www.kerry-cohen.com

 


Tove Jansson

 by Bud Smith

Tove Jansson lived partly on a tiny island off the coast of Finland. First she was an illustrator of children’s books, but when she turned 50, she switched to autobiographical novels for adults. Tove’s writing is mean-spited, unsentimental, and beautiful. Summer Book is great but Fair Play is better, it’s about the mundane life of an artist, plus she gets lost in Baltic Sea fog in a small boat and argues with her partner, drifting towards Estonia, fighting over lack of crispbread. I love when she rails against her fans, often children, who send letters she debates replying to.

Bud Smith works heavy construction in New Jersey building and demolishing chemical plants, refineries, and power houses. He is the author of a memoir about that called WORK (CCM, 2018), as well as a book of short stories called Double Bird (Maudlin House, 2018). In 2019, Tyrant Books will publish his next novel Teenager. He lives with his wife, a textile artist in an apartment at the corner of two loud streets, the opposite of Tove Jansson’s remote Finnish Island. Tove’s coordinates were 60.165579º N, 25.802778º E. Bud’s are 40.725513° N, -74.072922° W.

 


Hillary Mantel

by Susan Nordmark

Hilary Mantel’s fiction rations beauty. She’ll allow a couple sentences of loveliness, then complicate by injecting uncertainty, trepidation, ugliness. If there’s nothing edgy in-scene, she creates it. In Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell observes Anne Boleyn in a gorgeous pink and gray dress, and thinks of the intestines he’s ordered torturers to rip from the bellies of politically recalcitrant monks. This joins Cromwell’s feelings about Anne with how he may be haunted by his own realpolitik. Mantel never hyper-dramatizes or seeks solace in beautiful things. Romanticism is always false. Mantel’s images startle and cut.

Susan Nordmark‘s stories, essays and prose poetry have appeared in EntropySin Fronteras: Writers Without BordersPeacock JournalDraft: The Journal of ProcessPorter Gulch Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, California. 


Jorge Luis Borges

 by Buzzy Jackson

The first time I read Jorge Luis Borges—the story, “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941)—I knew nothing about him. I began to read the abrupt, confusing, self-contradictory story and wondered: was this a spy novel? A memoir? A joke? Yes, it was all of those.

Plus.

“At one time, Ts’ui Pen must have said; ‘I am going into seclusion to write a book,’ and at another, ‘I am retiring to construct a maze,’” Borges writes. “Everyone assumed these were separate activities. No one realized that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same.”

In Borges, they always are. I still can’t find the center of the maze.

But I’ll keep trying.

Buzzy Jackson is a historian, critic, and author of three books, most recently The Inspirational Atheist: Wise Words on the Wonder and Meaning of Life (Penguin Random House). In 2018 she was an Edith Wharton Writer-in-Residence at The Mount, where she worked on her current book, a historical novel set in World War II Holland. www.BuzzyJackson.com

 

 


Ovid

by Jordan A. Rothacker

Ovid looked forward by looking back. Systematic within the poetic, everything in Ovid is transformation, like his great work, Metamorphoses. An epic-making version of Hesiod plus Heraclitus; with the heart of a dissident, Ovid’s dissidence was erotic, amounting to songs of love in all its forms. He touched power and it bit back with exile. Ovid made terms with his fate and learned the language of place to compose poems forever lost to the world. Work, ever imperative, he knew his position in history. I look back to Ovid, as Shakespeare did, as we all three have looked back to the Greeks. We gaze together, points and positions connecting in varied directions.

Jordan A. Rothacker is a writer living in Athens, GA where he received an MA in Religion and a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia. His work has appeared in various publications both commercial and literary. The Pit, and No Other Stories (Black Hill Press, 2015), And Wind Will Wash Away (Deeds, 2016), and My Shadow Book By Maawaam (Spaceboy Books, 2017) are his novels. 2019 will see a short story collection from Stalking Horse Press called Gristle. Rothacker promises it’ll be weird.

 


Nezahualcoyotl

by David Bowles

In college, awakening to the erasure of my Mexican heritage, I tumbled down a rabbit hole of research and discovered Nezahualcoyotl, king of the city-state of Texcoco from 1430 to 1472. A founder of the Aztec Empire, Nezahualcoyotl excelled as a statesman, engineer, and philosopher. Most importantly, he was Mesoamerica’s greatest poet. After the Conquest destroyed most of Mexico’s indigenous literature, the poet-king’s mestizo grandson, Juan Bautista Pomar, preserved 36 poems of Texcoco, titling them Ballads of the Lords of New Spain. The document includes Nezahualcoyotl’s haunting verse, poignant reflections on the fleeting nature of human life and joy.

Only flowers form our shroud.
Only with hymns
does our despair
tumble like a thousand blooms.

It is said that feasts
will fade away for me.
It is said that friends
will fade away for me
when I depart
for the Land of Songs.

A Mexican-American author from South Texas, David Bowles is an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Recipient of awards from the American Library Association, Texas Institute of Letters and Texas Associated Press, he has written several titles, including Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry,the Pura Belpré Honor Book The Smoking Mirror, and Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Mexican Myths. His work has also appeared in venues such as Journal of Children’s LiteratureNightmareApexRattleStrange HorizonsAsymptoteTranslation Review, and Metamorphoses. In 2017, he was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters.


Outro

Sometimes I wonder whether humanity has lost more knowledge than it will ever possess. Even as technology advances—as we fly higher, compute faster, and live longer—we seem constantly to be forgetting things that should never be forgotten.

We forget love and nature until they desert us. We forget tyranny and war until it’s too late to stop them. We forget disease, famine, and genocide in a vain maze of beauty products, video games, and YouTube. Even as we seem to move forward, trouble comes in our wake, so much that sometimes history seems nothing but an exercise in making its own end plausible.

Then I remember the raw power of language. I remember language is a gift and a proof, a ward against forgetting; that as long as language survives in some form, knowledge survives with it, knowledge that may someday, if we’re fortunate, be recalled. And in knowledge there is hope.

Yes, sometimes knowledge is a straightforward mapping of the physical world: the facts, figures, names, and dates that are the province of scientists and historians. But sometimes knowledge is more. Sometimes knowledge is a dream, the sense of eternal spring conjured by the idea of a Land of Songs. Sometimes knowledge is the poetry of a master centuries gone.

THE ARENA OF LOVE, a short story

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The Arena of Love
by Kurt Baumeister

1

The Little, Blue Gumshoe

Reginald Van Meter wasn’t blue, but he looked it. And not euphemistically, in some down-in-the-mouth, bummed-out-pumpkin sense. Reg didn’t look blue because his wife, kids, and beloved dog, Sinatra, had left him. Though they had.

He didn’t look blue because his brother, Mycroft, Jr., had locked him in a dumbwaiter for an entire weekend nearly a half-century earlier, when he was seven years old, though that too had happened.

Reg didn’t even look blue because the Ruskies had just detonated their first H-bomb; something that had sent much of the Western World (from foggy London to sunny Paris to Reg’s home base of rainy New York City) spiraling into a panmeteorological, multicontinental, geopolitical tizzy.

Reg looked blue (a deep, iridescent indigo to be precise) because of a rare genetic condition known as potassium C-16 hyperabsorption, which caused him to emit a weak electromagnetic field. This field caused his skin to appear blue to the naked eye, even though it wasn’t, a trait that, coupled with his small stature (one foot four inches in height) and profession (world-renowned supersleuth), had caused Reg to be known far and wide as The Little, Blue Gumshoe.

Not to his close associates, of course. To them, he was just Reg. Nor to his wife, who now referred to him simply as That Asshole, his children who still called him Dad, and Sinatra (who while very smart for a dog was still a Chihuahua and could only speak in barks), and thus called him nothing unless you count barks which you can’t. To everyone else, from the guy at the newsstand to the guy at the other newsstand, Reginald Van Meter was The Little, Blue Gumshoe.

 

2

The Riddle of the Missing Siamese

Over his illustrious career, The Little, Blue Gumshoe had divined the truth of many a mystery, cracked every case from The Death of the Mechanical Maiden to The Trail of the Falling Star to The Conundrum of the Disintegrating Inheritance, and many, many (529, in fact) others.

So famous was The Little, Blue Gumshoe that his exploits appeared regularly on the front page of the Gumshoe sections of local, national, and international newspapers. He was the little blue answer to Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple. Except that unlike those legendary detectives, The Little, Blue Gumshoe was real…and little…and blue.

Having recently solved his 533rd consecutive case, The Riddle of the Missing Siamese, in which he had, first, found the last Prince of Siam and, last, found his pet cat, Mephistopheles—the term Siamese in this case being plural—The Little, Blue Gumshoe had received both copious words of gratitude and a large cash payment from the last Prince of Siam’s father, the second-to-last King of Siam.

Though he had not understood the second-to-last King of Siam’s words (as they were spoken in Siamese, which is now known as Thai), The Little, Blue Gumshoe was American and thus understood the payment part perfectly, realizing without even having to employ an adding machine that he’d received enough baht to return to New York and live in superior comfort for quite some time.

 

3

An Air of Cosmopolitan Mystery

Back in The Big Apple a few nights later, The Little, Blue Gumshoe was having dinner at Sardi’s, eating alone as he often did in those days, those days being the days just after his wife and kids and dog had left him.

He was seated at his usual table, having just enjoyed his usual dinner—a one-ounce steak au poivre et champignons along with two grams of pomme puree, a thimbleful of creamed spinach, and a shot glass bubbling over with Dom Perignon ‘29—when the large, white maître d’ appeared.

“Monsieur Reg?” the maître d’ asked Frenchly in his French accent. The large, white maître d’ did this because he was French.

Though The Little, Blue Gumshoe did not speak Siamese (or Thai as we now know it); he did, in fact, speak French (or French as we now know it). As a result, The Little, Blue Gumshoe replied simply, “Oui?”

“Zee mademoiselle,” the maître d’ whispered, smiling mischievously and pointing to The Little, Red Femme Fatale who was sitting at her own table, across the room, and looking, it had to be said, very red indeed.

The large, white maître d’ had been in America since the end of the war, and by that point he only used his French for effect. As a result, once The Little, Blue Gumshoe responded in French, the large, white maître d’ dropped his own, but only partly, retaining enough to add an air of cosmopolitan mystery to the scene.

 

4

The Little, Red Femme Fatale

Here, it must be said that unlike The Little, Blue Gumshoe, The Little, Red Femme Fatale was really, truly red. A small woman of vast means, The Little, Red Femme Fatale took great pains to make certain of her redness, employing a team of pygmy master craftswomen to dye her from top to bottom, head to feet, tip to toes, and tie to tails…every single day. She was, in addition, reputed to be an agent for the Ruskies, red here being interpreted by society as a double entendre or something like it. Despite the time and place, however—the McCarthy Era in America—The Little, Red Femme Fatale’s redness was of no political import. She just liked the color red.

Here, it must also be said that when The Little, Blue Gumshoe saw The Little, Red Femme Fatale, he saw red not only literally but figuratively, getting not mad but excited. Sure, he was still married, but his wife had left him, cleaning out the marital bank accounts (every one of them from passbook savings to jumbo checking to college savings to Christmas club), taking his kids and dog with her. Worse still, she’d employed The Little, Blue Gumshoe’s top competitor and sometimes nemeses, disgraced former cop, Vincent La Stranglia, to help her disappear.

Sitting there, looking at how red The Little, Red Femme Fatale was, The Little, Blue Gumshoe considered the idea that maybe, just maybe, he might eventually get over the shock of losing his wife, kids, and dog; that he might start over, might fall in love again. Was it possible he was even hearing happy, uplifting music? Was it possible The Little, Blue Gumshoe was hearing “You Can’t Hurry Love” by The Supremes thirteen years before its release?

Musical Interlude

(with special anachronistic thanks to The Supremes)

“But how many heartaches

Must I stand before I find a love

To let me live again

Right now the only thing

That keeps me hangin’ on

When I feel my strength, yeah

It’s almost gone

I remember mama said:

You can’t hurry love

No, you just have to wait

She said love don’t come easy

It’s a game of give and take

How long must I wait

How much more can I take

Before loneliness will cause my heart

Heart to break?”

 

5

The Secret of the Tanzanite Tarantula

The Little, Blue Gumshoe left his table and began the tedious process of crossing the main dining room of Sardi’s, which, in those days, was carpeted a shade of indigo perilously close to The Little, Blue Gumshoe’s apparent skin color.

As the Little, Blue Gumshoe came towards her, The Little, Red Femme Fatale averted her gaze. She stared out the window, gazed intently at the New York night, ostensibly preparing herself for their imminent meeting which was in fact romantic in design but only partly so. Because The Little, Red Femme Fatale had ulterior motives, as all femme fatales are known to regardless of size or color.

The Little, Red Femme Fatale’s plan was to get The Little, Blue Gumshoe involved in an impossible-to-solve case, The Secret of the Tanzanite Tarantula, one that, of course, only The Little, Blue Gumshoe would have been able to solve. Once he’d solved her case (and even if he hadn’t), The Little, Red Femme Fatale was probably going to marry The Little, Blue Gumshoe, assuming he asked, because she had been watching him from afar for some time (The Little Red, Femme Fatale was a Sardi’s regular herself) and already knew she loved him. The Little, Red Femme Fatale was like that. She was strategic yet also impulsive. She was…quixotic…But The Little, Red Femme Fatale is another story…in spite of the fact that she is also part of this one.

6

Oysters Rockefeller

Being little, appearing blue, and being a gumshoe—which meant there was gum on the bottom of his shoes and he kept getting stuck—The Little, Blue Gumshoe’s progress was slow as he crossed the main dining room at Sardi’s, so slow that the big, white waiter, who worked for the large, white maître d’ would later insist he had not seen The Little, Blue Gumshoe until it was too late.

Only through The Little, Blue Gumshoe’s preternatural agility was he able to avoid being completely squashed by the big, white waiter and his tray full of Oysters Rockefeller, Steak Tartar, and Wedge Salads. Still, there was indeed a collision—the thud and cry, the crack of glass and plop of food, the splintering china and chiming silver—the big, white waiter falling squarely across The Little, Blue Gumshoe’s little legs, which both broke, like twigs, which they were barely larger than to start with.

Simultaneously, an oyster fork flew (apparently from the big, white waiter’s tray), impaling The Little, Blue Gumshoe in one of his little brown eyes, the fork moving with such force that it penetrated eye socket and frontal lobe, leaving The Little, Blue Gumshoe bleeding bright red blood over the indigo blue carpet in the main dining room of Sardi’s.

Also, simultaneously, The Little, Red Femme Fatale’s waiter, another big, white one, arrived bearing the tiny Mai Tai she’d ordered. Meaning The Little, Red Femme Fatale was distracted during The Little, Blue Gumshoe’s accident, so distracted that she did not see the large, white maître d’ and the rest of his cadre of big, white waiters as they hustled The Little, Blue Gumshoe’s body out of Sardi’s by way of the kitchen and the alley beyond. Not that anyone else did. The Little, Blue Gumshoe was so little, the maître d’ and his waiters so big, that it appeared The Little Blue Gumshoe had vanished.

 

7

By Design

The large, white maître d’ who had been French once, who was technically now American, but really still French (because, to a great extent, the place you’re born will remain your home until you die) was also an agent for the Russians, or the Ruskies as they were known, by some, once upon a time. So, in a sense, he was red even though he was white.

Though there had been white Russians once, in a human sense, several decades earlier (Vladimir Nabokov perhaps the most famous) and were still even now White Russians available from the bar area at many restaurants including Sardi’s, the large, white maître d’ wasn’t one of them because he wasn’t really a Russian. He was, however, a bit red and a lot white and certainly in their employ.

The large, white maître d’ had not betrayed The Little, Blue Gumshoe on the orders of any Russians, though. He had done it on the orders of Vincent La Stranglia, who had blackmailed the large, white maître d’ with the truth about his politico-espionage-ical red-ness. Though La Stranglia would insist he’d done this at the behest of his client, The Little, Blue Gumshoe’s wife, this was not the case. La Stranglia had used this pretext to exact revenge on The Little, Blue Gumshoe, a revenge that would include character assassination at the hands (or lips) of The Little, Red Femme Fatale.

“Then he disappeared. Poof,” she’d later tell the various members of her little, red set. “Maybe,” she’d further insist, “The Little, Blue Gumshoe was afraid of love all along.”

The large, white (but partly red) maître d’ and his cadre of big, white waiters would be part not only of the first assassination (via seemingly-accidental oyster fork), but this second as well, claiming around town that The Little, Blue Gumshoe had left an unpaid check at Sardi’s, which was especially vexing from a guy who’d recently come into so many baht.

If by that point in time The Little, Blue Gumshoe had still been around, instead of dead, he might have unraveled all these threads, figured out who’d killed him or, if not him, then some other Little, Blue Gumshoe who’d gotten killed. Or, he might, two or three years later, have taken up the literary case of one Vladimir Nabokov and his creature, Humbert, Humbert, a man who while not real was indeed white, A White Widowed Male who had his own, manifold problems with the workings of love.

 

Literary Interlude

(with special anachronistic thanks to Vladimir Nabokov)

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”

 

8

Detective Stories

Love is a detective story after all, a mystery that can only be solved by being in love or being out of love, a mystery that can only be solved before it exists or after it’s gone.

The Little, Blue Gumshoe’s wife did, in fact, miss him when he was gone. After she and the kids had cried at the funeral, after Sinatra the Chihuahua had bayed at the moon, she realized he wasn’t so bad, couldn’t even bring herself to refer to him as That Asshole anymore. Yes, he’d made his mistakes but he hadn’t deserved death, certainly not death by oyster fork.

Would they have gotten back together, Mr. and Mrs. Van Meter, been able to work things out for the kids and Sinatra the Chihuahua, after perhaps a dalliance between The Little, Blue Gumshoe and The Little, Red Femme Fatale and/or the hitherto unmentioned dalliance between Vincent La Stranglia and The Little, Blue Gumshoe’s estranged wife, Cordelia Van Meter? Maybe, maybe not.

Love is a detective story after all, a mystery that can only be solved by being in love or being out of love, a mystery that can only be solved before it exists or after it’s gone.

 

9

The Perfect Record

Reginald Van Meter, The Little, Blue Gumshoe, was posthumously enshrined in the Gumshoe Hall of Fame, just off the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey. His Solution to Non-Solution record (his SNS, which is the most important statistic when considering things such as Gumshoe Hall of Fame Inductions, Gumshoe All Star Teams, Golden Gun, Silver Magnifying Glass, and Most Valuable Gumshoe Awards) of 533-0, a mark that may, in fact, never be broken, stands as a testament to his prowess as a detective and his lack of same when it came to the arena of love.

 

 

Kurt Baumeister has written for Salon, Electric Literature, Guernica, The Weeklings, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, The Good Men Project, and others. Now a Contributing Editor with The Weeklings, Baumeister’s Review Microbrew column is published by The Nervous Breakdown. His debut novel, a satirical thriller entitled Pax Americana, was published by Stalking Horse Press in 2017. He is currently at work on a novel, The Book of Loki, and a hybrid collection of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry entitled Superman, the Seven Gods of Death, and the Need for Clean, Romantic Poetry. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, or at www.kurtbaumeister.com.

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This was initially published on June 5, 2018 by Volume 1 Brooklyn as part of their Sunday Stories series

http://www.vol1brooklyn.com/2018/06/10/sunday-stories-the-arena-of-love/

Under the Influence #1, The Origins Issue

written by Kurt Baumeister June 5, 2018

I remember the clarity of that day’s sky, horizon-filling and cornflower blue, the sunshine that dominated the quad beyond the windows of the university library. Which is ironic, since I was inside paging through back issues of literary journals. Maybe I remember the sky so vividly because of what I found in those magazines.

There was one in particular—an issue of Daniel Halpern’s Antaeus—in which renowned writers were asked to list their literary influences. No descriptions were asked for, no qualifications allowed, just the influences in series after each writer’s name. Suzy Novelist: A, B, and C. Johnny Shortstory: X, Y, and Z.

In browsing those lists, which went on for pages, I first came across many of the names I’d become familiar with in the years that followed, names like Beattie and Calvino, Welty and Borges, Mishima and Munro. As these and other names appeared time and again, I began to draw conclusions about who the important writers were, the ones other writers cared about, the masters that had to be read. This day, I think, is where my fascination with literary influences began.

Fast forward a couple decades and here I am, editing this feature for Entropy, this project we’re calling Under the Influence. Am I trying to relive the magic of that day in the library years ago, the sense of discovery born of that back issue of Antaeus? Absolutely. Which doesn’t invalidate this exercise by any stretch. I want you to experience those feelings, too; among them the vast sense of literary possibility I felt that day.

The basic challenge of Under the Influence is simple enough: Write one hundred words on an author of your choice, a master (gender-neutral, living or dead) who has influenced your work. Based on the feedback I’ve gotten; however, this is harder to put into practice than it sounds. Which, I must admit, pleases me just a little. OK, more than a little.

These relationships shouldn’t be easy to describe. They are, after all, some of the most important we have as writers. Often built over long years and at great, sometimes epoch-spanning distance, these are love affairs in a way, love affairs that take place beyond the confines of the physical world. And if, in fact, these relationships constitute literary love affairs, the letters that describe them must be love letters of a sort. Informative, inspiring, and as with any love letters, far more revealing about their writers than the intendeds, this is Under the Influence #1.


John Fante

by Jonathan Evison

When I was seventeen, fresh out of high school with lofty literary (though zero academic) aspirations, and Teddy Dreiser and Somerset Maugham weren’t speaking my language, I lucked upon John Fante, who came to me by way of William Saroyan, who had apparently been a drinking buddy of Fante’s. I still have a stolen first edition library copy of Fante’s 1939 Ask the Dust, which virtually cemented my status as a hopelessly young alcoholic misfit, determined to starve himself in the name of literature. Fante soon became my new literary idol, joining Vonnegut and Dickens. Where Vonnegut’s protagonists were loveable puppets, and Dickens’ were well drawn cartoons, Arturo Bandini was the most fully realized, deeply flawed, intensely human protagonist I had yet to encounter–like an immigrant Holden Caulfield, without the safety net of wealth, and the post-war American ennui. Bandini was hungry like me. Bandini was fear and arrogance, outrage and tenderness, lust and greed, and vulnerability; all the fires that burned in my own adolescent heart.

Jonathan Evison is the author of All About LuluWest of HereThe Revised Fundamentals of CaregivingThis is Your Life, Harriet Chance!, and most recently, Lawn Boy. He likes to drink beer in his garage.


William Shakespeare

by Rebecca Makkai

It’s not just Shakespeare but this one moment of Shakespeare, in the fifth act of Henry IV, Part 2. To oversimplify, people are in the country talking politics. Davy is a servant whose only function is to serve wine and fetch papers, but when London is mentioned, he gets, out of nowhere, the line “I hope to see London once ere I die!” In nine words, the Bard gives this smallest of character’s backstory and soul. And throws the court intrigue into high relief as well. It took years to soak in, but that’s the line that taught me to write character.

Rebecca Makkai is the author of the new novel The Great Believers (out 6/19) as well asMusic for WartimeThe Hundred-Year House, and The Borrower. Her work has appeared inBest American Short Stories and has won a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Chicago, where she’s Artistic Director of StoryStudio.

 


Anthony Doerr

by Vineetha Mokkil

Anthony Doerr’s short stories, elegantly crafted and deeply felt, have taught me invaluable lessons on the art of compression. Watching him handle the short story form and the novel with dexterity inspires me to push the boundaries of both. His prose celebrates the infinite possibilities of language. Reading it has been a revelation, an epiphany, a life-changing experience. His Pulitzer-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See, filled with achingly beautiful sentences, vivid characters, rich detail, and stunning imagery burns like a beacon in front of me every time I sit down at my desk to write.

Vineetha Mokkil is the author of the collection, A Happy Place and Other Stories(HarperCollins, 2014), listed as one of the Ten Best Works of Fiction of 2014 by The Telegraph. Her stories have appeared in The Santa Fe Writers’ Project Journal, Asian Cha, The Jellyfish Review, The Bombay Review, The Missing Slate, and The Bangalore Review among other journalsHer novel, For Birds the Sky, set in 1950s Tibet and contemporary India, is forthcoming. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories about women, men, desire, power, and technology in the modern world.


Jaimy Gordon

by Rita Bullwinkel

Jaimy Gordon is a writer who builds her worlds with language. The words she deploys in the mouths of her characters are not only part of the world, but the fabric of it. In this way, all of her landscapes are unexpected, completely other, and magnificent. All of her work is brilliant. I especially adore The BendThe LipThe Kid, in which a Providence, RI inmate is convinced he can tell who is evil by the bend in their penis, and Bogeywoman, in which the frightfully charismatic and lovesick Ursula Koderer escapes Camp Chunkagunk (aka Tough Paradise for Girls).

Rita Bullwinkel is the author of the story collection Belly Up. Her writing has been published in Tin HouseConjunctionsBOMBViceNOON, and Guernica. She is a recipient of grants and fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Brown University, Vanderbilt University, Hawthornden Castle, and The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. Both her fiction and her translation have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. She is an Editor at Large forMcSweeney’s. She lives in San Francisco.


Brigid Brophy

by Ranbir Sidhu

Judge a book by its author photo, I told myself, pulling the Penguin paperback Hackenfeller’s Apeoff the shelf. I’d never heard of Brigid Brophy, but that year, 1986, I decided to only read books by authors who were blanks to me. In the photo, she lunges at the camera, out of focus. Her work would transform mine, as would her frankness about bi-sexuality, animal rights, and her own death, which she minutely chronicled. In the novel Flesh, she renders the gradual transformation of a London art dealer into a Rubens nude, while in another, In Transit, well, everyone is…

Born in London, Ranbir Sidhu emigrated to the US in 1981 and studied archaeology at UC Berkeley. In 1998, he moved to New York City, where he lived for sixteen years, publishing widely, and winning a Pushcart Prize and a NYFA. His books include Deep Singh BlueGood Indian GirlsObject Lessons (in 12 Sides w/Afterglow) and The Fabulary. His most recent isHacking Trump. Among many jobs, he has worked as the assistant to Edward Albee, and once spent a year assisting Joanna Steichen, widow of renowned photographer Edward Steichen, catalog her personal collection of photographs.


Bruno Schulz

by duncan b. barlow

How does one find the mythical in their own work—short circuit the self so that they might mature into childhood? Bruno Schulz taught me to crack the universe open upon the sharp edge of language, unfurl the golden yolk of each moment, find mythical wonder in the mundane. The Street of Crocodiles could be read as a guide showing authors how to stay in the moment, in order to see the events around them, drenched in honey, their passage through our plane of sight not as target, but as a dancing subject of fascination, their movements magical.

duncan b. barlow is the author of five books, including Of Flesh and Fur and The City Awake.A Dog Between Us is forthcoming from Stalking Horse Press. He’s played music with Endpoint, BTGOG Guilt, the aasee lake, Good Riddance, and many more. He is currently the Publisher of Astrophil Press and Managing Editor of South Dakota Review.

 

 

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This ran initially at Entropy Magazine on June 5, 2018

https://entropymag.org/under-the-influence-1-the-origins-issue/

 

Kurt Baumeister Interviewed by Matt Norman for J.M.W.W.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The World of Pax Americana: An Interview with Kurt Baumeister

Earlier this summer, I had the chance to interview novelist Kurt Baumeister about his fantastic debut novel Pax Americana. Part lit fiction, part thriller, part revisionist history, it’s one of the most unique books I’ve read in a very long time. Here’s a transcript of our chat, which appeared on JMWW.

If Pax Americana sounds like something you’d be into, get it here, and let me know what you think.

thenormannation@gmail.com

THE WORLD OF PAX AMERICANA: AN INTERVIEW WITH KURT BAUMEISTER

Pax AmericaI have a confession. Over the last few years, I’ve read fewer books than at any other time in my adulthood. Real life, with its needy children, unfinished novels in progress, and full-time job, has pretty much destroyed my reading time. And, what’s worse, when I do get time to read, I nearly always head straight for my comfort zone—lit fiction, set in the present day, often written by someone named Jonathan.

Recently, though, I broke out of my box with the novel Pax Americana by debut novelist Kurt Baumeister, and I’m glad I did. It’s set in the U.S. in 2034 after thirty years of right-wing presidencies. Part lit fiction, part thriller, part revisionist history, it’s a fun, funny, and often chilling look at a country in which diplomacy, evangelical thinking, and economic policy have all blended into one big, frightening mess.

The first book in a three-part series, Pax Americana is unlike anything I’ve read in a very long time. Below is a conversation between Kurt (KGB) and me (MN) in which we cover his inspiration for the book, some mutual Vonnegut-related gushing, how a manuscript becomes a book, and more.

Matt Norman:    Whenever I read a book that I know I couldn’t write, I always find myself wanting to ask the writer a lot of questions. With Pax Americana, that’s how I felt. My brain just doesn’t work in a way that’s capable of creating something like this. The fact that you’ve essentially created an entire time period is pretty amazing. How did the book present itself to you?

Kurt G. Baumeister:  Thinking back on how Pax Americanaevolved, it’s easy to get lost, easy for me at least. Best I can remember, this began as a short story idea, or maybe it was a short novel idea. At any rate…something short. This was fifteen years ago, maybe a year post 9/11.

I remember the early idea being that of a failed Armageddon, that Jerusalem had been razed in some sort of nuclear event. But, the apocalypse didn’t happen, which did a complete screw-job on religions far and wide. This is an idea that’s still very much operative in Pax Americana.

There was a young American real estate developer trying to put together funding to rebuild the Holy City. The idea of “God software” was embedded somewhere in all this. I was playing with the commercialization of the software, the rollout as a normal product and how that would all work. Though I was coming from a comic angle, as I tend to, I was still attempting to leverage my experience working in corporate strategy, which was what I was doing for money at the time. My developer wanted to create a whole “Jerusalem experience,” and this software and the rebuilt city were both part of that.

As the Bush administration wound on, and as world events went from bad to worse, I had the idea of a hyper-conservative America, one based on this crazy-ass synthesis of Christianity and capitalism. So, my thoughts moved to alternate history, to what the Iraq War might mean to America and the world. I wanted to play with the idea that even if Iraq had worked out “well,” it was still a terribly stupid idea long-term. And I think history has born that out.

MN:    Well, that seems fairly ambitious.

KGB:  Yes, I guess there is a lot of ambition in Pax Americana, though I feel I’ve toned things down a bit between the last draft and the one I wound up publishing.

MN:    What was the publishing process like for you?

KGB:  I took my first crack at getting this into print about five years ago. Instead of the beginning of a trilogy, it was a single book, about half again longer than Pax Americana in its final form.

That book had seven different narrators, all of them filtered through the main character’s (Ken Clarion’s) first-person account. There were three sections and a hundred and eleven chapters. The chapters alternated between numbers and titles. I think I was trying to say something about the nature of narrative truth. I sent it around to agents, couldn’t get any takers. I decided to try rewriting it as a more commercial book. Or, at least, what I thought was a more commercial book.

I spent a while doing that, rebuilding from the ground up. The agents were much more positive the second time. While I was doing this, my friend, James Reich, started a small publishing company, Stalking Horse Press. I had asked James to do a blurb for me, so he’d read the book. I loved the blurb he wrote, so I decided that rather than continuing to look for an agent, I’d just ask James if Stalking Horse would be interested. And they were. So, here we are.

MN:    The idea of a “more commercial book.”  Does that mean literary/commercial, thriller, mystery. Yada yada? Did you have it in a certain category?

KGB:  All the advice I got was to try to work out a category for it, something other than “literary fiction.” Having made that effort, I’m not sure how much difference it makes to give yourself marching orders, as in, “I want to be literary or commercial, ambitious or popular.” You can try, of course, and some writers seem to be able to do both at different times, or even both at once; though I’m not sure it’s because they’re telling themselves what to do, but rather that the confluence of topic, energy level, luck, and individual talents leads to success. Ultimately, I guess we just write what we can write. Perhaps the truth about Pax Americana is that the commercial version is more literary, or ambitious or whatever, than I thought it was. I just try to come up with things I’m interested in writing about. That’s the only way it works for me.

MN:    15 years is a long time. You started during the Bush Administration. Then came Obama. Then…well, we all know where we are now.  Did the “real world”—things like events and changing administrations—affect your writing at all?

KGB:  You’re right. That is a long time. But, no, I don’t think reality has changed the basic story much. Perhaps I’ve mellowed out a bit in terms of religion. Even though I’m not a believer, in this last version of Pax Americana I was conscious of trying to develop some level of intellectual balance on the question of whether religion is good or evil.

One of the great ideas I come back to as a writer is Milan Kundera’s concept of the novel (and novelist) as posers of questions, not dispensers of answers. I may have my personal biases about how legitimate faith is, but I’ve tried to balance those against the possibilities for atheism and agnosticism leading to the same sort of evil extremes. And they have in history, notably with the Soviets and Communist Chinese; though those certainly haven’t been the only examples. Perhaps, in the end, Pax Americana is about the dangers of extremism, regardless of what belief structure breeds it.

MN:    I thought a lot about Kurt Vonnegut when I was reading this. If I had to guess, I’d bet he’s a writer who has had an influence on you, right?

KGB:  Vonnegut’s work has certainly influenced mine. And having read (and reviewed) your We’re All Damaged, I’d guess KV was a significant marker for you, but in different ways. Truth is, this is one of the reasons I was so excited to have this discussion with you. Authorial influences are fascinating to me, and to think that we can leverage Vonnegut’s influence to very different ends is intriguing.

We’re All Damaged is a *very* funny book and it definitely has a political angle, but it’s much subtler than Pax Americana, not an over-the-top satire, more a realistic comedy. Much more accessible, too. All of which may explain why so many people have read it! I’ll answer the question, I promise… But, what about you? Has KV been a significant influence for you? How? And who else? I’d guess maybe Fitzgerald, but beyond that, I’m not so sure.

MN:    Yeah, I love Vonnegut. But, if I’m being totally honest, I was never terribly moved by his novel plots. In fact, I doubt I could even give a terribly good synopsis of any of his books. For me, his brilliance was in his sentence-to-sentence writing. He had this amazing ability to pull you along with a series of simple, well-crafted, workman-like sentences. Nothing particularly special. Then, BOOM, he’d drop the hammer on you with a line so gorgeous and insightful and perfect that it’d take your breath away.  He knew when to turn it on, you know. Simple. Simple. Readable. Then devastating.

I love The Great Gatsby, and I namechecked the hell out of it in We’re All Damaged, but I don’t think Fitzgerald has been a big influence on me. I always talk about Richard Russo being my greatest influence—mainly because he writes “serious fiction” that’s also funny, which is my goal.

Kurt BKGB:  I do see some similarities between Vonnegut’s work and mine, particularly in the ways Pax Americana echoes his apocalyptic book, Cat’s Cradle. Both books have broad casts of characters, technology that’s the ultimate catalyst for a sort of man-made apocalypse, geopolitical mayhem, heavy misinformation, and islands that figure significantly in their storylines. Not that those similarities are necessarily born of consciously “emulating” Vonnegut or anything like that. In addition to reading Vonnegut myself, I know his work was a significant influence for Martin Amis, particularly early in his career. And I’d say without a doubt that Amis is my top literary influence. Meaning there’s a bit of literary refraction going on here as well, that at least to a certain extent KV influences me via his influence on Amis. That’s sort of cool, right?

MN:    Yeah, one of my grad school professors talked about that.  He said Hemingway influenced EVERY writer after him. Even if you never read him, someone who influenced you had been influenced by him…and on and on. The Circle of Hemingway. But, enough about him. Let’s complain about politics. We’re living in a very divided time, obviously. For writers, it’s a Catch 22. If you avoid politics, you risk coming off as toothless and vanilla. But, if your book has a particular POV, you risk alienating tons of people. What are your thoughts on that?

KGB:  Ha, well, I guess my first thought would be that I’m probably guilty as charged. I’m sure my book’s politics will alienate a lot of people. Which, as you say, is the cost of doing something like writing a satire about religion.

If you choose to do something like that, you must realize you’re going to make a lot of people unhappy. Probably, my touchpoint for that is Rushdie and what he went through with The Satanic Verses. That was going on when I first began writing fiction, and it’s certainly a memory that’s stuck with me. Maybe more than anything, that crystallized my belief we must stand up against religious radicals, people who would have their unseen, believed-in worlds become paramount to the reality we can all see and share. In fact, I’d have to say that even allowing believed-in worlds equal weight to what we can see is a big problem. These are the issues that make the reconciliation of Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Speech so challenging and important.

MN:    How are Books 2 and 3 coming? Do you have them sketched out in your head?  Are you organized like that, or do you just sit down and figure it out as you go?

KGB:  I have lots of pages written, perhaps thousands. And I do have the overall arc of the story sketched. But there will be a lot of work in putting it all together. Honestly, I’m not a terribly confident person and that’s probably why it took me so long to publish Pax Americana. Maybe I should have just gone ahead five or even ten years ago and published something along the lines of Pax Americana. Instead, I tried to get an agent, then did the rewrites I spoke of above and tried to get an agent again. I mean, I learned a lot from the process, but I think I should have trusted myself more than I did.

I’ve got a lot of backlogged material already written—other novels, stories, poems—and I’m trying to trust myself a little more about just sending it out into the world. I’m not getting any younger, you know? Before I get back to Tuck Squires and Pax Americana, I have this other project (a novel) I’m working on. It’s a sort of comic crime fantasy narrated by the Norse god, Loki. I’m working to keep that streamlined, down to perhaps sixty thousand words. It’s mostly contemporary, told in first person, which is honestly my most comfortable writing voice.

Matthew Norman is an advertising copywriter. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Baltimore. His first novel, Domestic Violets, was nominated in the Best Humor Category at the 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards. His second novel, We’re All Damaged, was published in 2016. Visit his blog at thenormannation.com, or follow him on Twitter @TheNormanNation.

 

Kurt Baumeister Interviewed by Tobias Carroll for Vol. 1 Brooklyn

 

Kurt Baumeister’s new novel Pax Americana is a tale of espionage, politics, and technology that could alter human society forever. It’s set in the near future–but this is also the near future of an alternate timeline, where an end to term limits caused the office of the President in the 21st century to be utterly dominated by Republicans. The end result is a story that plays out like a funhouse mirror for contemporary politics and debates over foreign policy and religion, with Baumeister’s plot shifting from the comic to the nerve-wracking at the drop of a hat. I talked with him about the making of the book, the creation of this fictional timeline, and much more.

Pax Americana isn’t just set in the near future–it’s set in the near future of an alternate timeline. What led you to go with that approach, rather than a more standard-issue authoritarian future?

I try not to do anything “standard-issue.” Sometimes that’s a vice, sometimes a virtue, but I never want to make anything too easy on myself. There were things I wanted to say about our world, the real world, that were best done via an alternate history, one that nonetheless maps back easily to where we are. I see Pax Americana as a warning of sorts. While it focuses on the Bush 43 administration and setting up an alternate timeline based on that, the message is that evil intent leads to an evil outcome regardless of how well you manage, or transact, your evil; that as much as we’d like to change history, to imagine it might have been different, we never can. But not necessarily because fate, destiny, or anything so omnipotent and gooey as God is calling the shots, rather that we carry our demise in our original intent. We impose our fate on ourselves. I think this makes Pax Americana timely in the Trump era. Somehow, someway, despite all the havoc Dubya wrought, we wound up, less than a decade later, electing a president who’s similar to him in a lot of ways, and certainly seems poised to enact a similar set of policies. So, clearly, we didn’t learn our lesson as a nation. Maybe, in a way, Trump is a product of America’s bad national karma with respect to the Iraq War, our full due for electing Dubya in the first place.

How much work did you need to do as far as figuring out how the sociopolitical timeline of your novel came to be? 

A lot. An embarrassing amount. Lots of needling things, mulling them over, changing back and forth. And the fact that I worked on this for so long means the timelines had to change many times, to evolve. When I started this project, I was looking at something around 2020 as ground zero for the present tense action. But the longer it took, the less that interested me. The future was always shrinking, encroaching, becoming the present. So, I had to keep pushing out, expanding the timeline. Linking back to your question above, I’m sure I could have set the technological premise anywhere from another twenty-five years to several more centuries in the future; but there were things I wanted to say about our current time and, beyond that, our fundamental relationship with the metaphysical that were best said using a canvas that was easily recognizable.

Given that Pax Americana has entered the world in the first year of the Trump administration, has that timing changed how you view anything in the novel? 

That’s a good question. I guess the biggest change has been to make the book’s premise of a hyper-conservative America seem more dangerous, more immediate than it would have under Clinton. To me, Trump seems very much like an echo of Dubya, but worse. There’s the same sort of dim-witted, know-it-all-but-really-know-nothing cockiness but it’s not even tempered with Dubya’s “compassionate conservatism,” Dubya’s seemingly-genuine belief in Christianity.

Tuck Squires, the secret agent at the center of the book, comes off as a fairly odious character for a number of reasons. What led you to place him as the central character, as opposed to someone more sympathetic?

Yeah, I guess Tuck’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea and he certainly has some problems, but I don’t know I’d go so far as to describe him as odious or patently unsympathetic. Some readers really like Tuck and I think that when I write these other two books in the trilogy, there’ll be a lot of change for Tuck, a lot of growth. Which you need in a main character to carry a trilogy, especially a trilogy like this, one that I hope will have some scale, not just dramatically but thematically. The other point I’d make is that I think Tuck is funny and not always from the standpoint of someone you’re laughing with. There are a lot of times he’s someone you’re laughing at. At least I hope people are. And I don’t have any problem with that. I welcome that. I’m doing it myself. Perhaps there’ll even come a day when Tuck, looking back on his life, looking back on some of the traits you see as odious, will laugh at himself.

Your novel juxtaposes artificial intelligence, questions of religion, and conflicting political ideologies. Did working on the book change how you perceived any of these things over the course of time? 

I think this final version of the book made me seek a little more intellectual balance within the text. I’ve tried to look at the possibility of anti-religious extremism as a real danger and, in some ways, that seems like the boldest, scariest part of the book. As much as religion can be a danger to us, perhaps going too far in one’s dismissal of it can be a danger, too. In fact, I’m sure it can. I hope people will see that in the book, not become too convinced it’s just a critique of religion. Even to the extent it’s a critique of religion, it’s not that per se, but rather a critique of humanity’s attempts to understand the metaphysical world.

Late in the book, there’s a reference to the 1960’s film adaptation of Casino Royale, which satirized the genre and took a very different tone from other cinematic takes on James Bond. Was that an influence on Pax Americana at all? 

Absolutely. I think I talked about that a bit in my Largehearted Boy playlist. I love the 007 movies, even the parody you mentioned, Casino Royale. Much of Pax Americana is a send-up of the spy genre, Bond specifically. I see Tuck as a sort of 21st century American James Bond (which, I think, is how Tuck sees himself, or at least wishes he could), though any assessment of Bond, especially the cinematic version we’re most steeped in, must take into account how ludicrous his world is. Anyone who tries to read Pax Americana as a straight spy novel—that is, stripped of notions of satire and the absurd—would be making a big mistake and probably come away hugely disappointed.

 

http://www.vol1brooklyn.com/2017/06/20/we-carry-our-demise-in-our-original-intent-kurt-baumeister-on-pax-americana/

Deaths of Distant Friends (or, John Updike F#cking Rocks)

By Kurt Baumeister for The Weeklings

Published August 29, 2016

 

I.

 

My relationship with John Updike was a complicated one in that it didn’t really exist. Or did it? With writers, it’s tough to say.

We can have connections, important ones, without ever meeting. They can be solitary admiration societies, one-way friendships of sorts. Or, they can be more conventional, involve shared human interaction, whether written, spoken, or (rarer still) the social graces required of real physical proximity. To be clear, though, John Updike and I were not friends, one-way or otherwise. But we did meet, once upon a time…

“John Updike fucking rocks,” I shouted at the darkened sky, doing my best impression of a nineteen-year old in the parking lot at a hair-metal concert. Honestly, that was the effect I was going for. And I’m positive I achieved it.

My friends Tom and Maria, and I had just gotten off the T at Government Center. It was cold and drizzly. The sky full dark, the lower air bright with lights from small storefronts and the blocky government buildings. There were people everywhere, some on their ways home, others headed out to eat or drink. We were on our way to Faneuil Hall for a reading, John Updike’s reading.

A little man in a fedora and trench coat scurried past, shifting his gaze for a quick appraisal of the caterwauling lunatic to his right. (That would have been me.) A glance and the little man was gone, a retreating shape against the night.

Some bean counter out to kill my fun, I probably thought. Which would have seemed a reasonable enough conclusion, I guess, for a bean counter like me, given a one-night-only furlough from his corporate prison on the sixtieth floor of the Hancock Tower.

“John Updike fucking rocks,” I said again, perhaps not as loud, still largely undaunted by my own stupidity. I was practically daring the little man to respond even as he faded into the distance. And he did, with the slightest nod, a sign of resignation, an acceptance that my lunacy would continue whether he wanted it to or not.

“Kurt, that was him,” Tom said, with a chuckle.

“What? Who?”

“Updike. That was him.”

“No.”

“Yes,” Maria agreed.

You may wonder how old was I then? Late twenties, something like that. I could probably figure it out if I had to. I was married (or close to it), living in Salem, home of fake witches and nightmare traffic. My future former wife, Sara, where was she that night? Somewhere, yes, definitely, obviously. But somewhere else, somewhere not with me. By that point, Sara had tired of literary events. She’d had enough of writers talking about writing as they went to see writers read their writing, as they sometimes got drunk and acted undignified in public. The whole scene was a real fucking drag for Sara, this writing hobby of mine. She had referred to it as that years before; something I was destined to never let her forget, something in the years since I’ve never let myself forget.

The marriage ended not so many years later. Two? Three? Five? I could figure it out, but would I sound horrible if I said it didn’t matter at this point? Even worse if I said I was glad she’s gone? Would I sound ridiculous, then, if I copped to still missing her once in a while? Or would that all simply sound human?

I’m not sure what I was thinking about at that moment, that night near Faneuil Hall, almost certainly not Sara. Maybe I was wondering whether that had really been John Updike, inventing scenarios in my head, one-way conversations as to what the great man had been thinking as he scurried away…

So this is what Rushdie was talking about? The fucking lunatics and their fatwas? This is what it’s all about, the fucking fatwas, and now they’ve come to America, to Boston? How I long for a simpler time, the years of my youth, the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s, before the world was broken, when all was still new and good, when liquor was cheap and we didn’t know smoking killed us.

I’ll need to call the police, of course, once I get to Faneuil Hall. And my agent to harangue her for not sending a car. The T? Riding the fucking subway at my age? God, and now I have to read. Okay, I can do that. But then the questions? And some asshole grad student (or two or six) trying to impress me, take me down a peg, or both? Or, what about this would-be executive over here? Maybe he’ll rush the stage. What if he’s armed? God, I hope they have security at Faneuil Hall. I really may need to call the cops. And after all that I’ll have to sign books. This is no way to spend a winter’s eve, not when you’re John Updike, icon of American literature, that’s for sure.

This wasn’t the real John Updike, though. This was a character, built of facts and rumors, biases and opinions. I still hadn’t met the real Updike yet. Rather, I’d glimpsed a little man scurrying away in the night, been told that was Updike, and created a backstory for him. I would meet the real Updike, though, a little later.

 

II.

 

I’ve only read one book by John Updike. Perhaps his most famous, the first in what eventually became the tetralogy of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, that book is Rabbit, Run, and I’ve actually read it twice, once for kicks, once for class. In my unscholarly opinion, Updike was a very talented stylist who wrote about topics I found (and find) uninteresting. Even the best attribute of Updike’s work, his prose, doesn’t always do it for me. At times, there’s no edge to Updike, almost as if he doesn’t care, as if writing is more a job than anything else.

Still, the man was incredibly successful as serious writers go. A major literary figure before I was born, he remained one until his death, and probably will long after mine. In this sense, there is some connection between us, tenuous and common as it may be. There were other connections, though, important if only for idiosyncratic reasons; connections that fleshed out the opinions I had of Updike, the constructed character I carried in my head as I approached Faneuil Hall.

There was the sage input I’d received from a grad school professor in the late nineties who told me to “Quit trying to write like Updike,” a goal (writing like Updike) that couldn’t have been further from my mind. In fairness to the instructor in question, he seemed fairly obsessed with the great man, not as an admirer of Updike’s work so much as his fame. The professor in question would pepper us with mentions of golfing with Updike, a veritable duffing bromance I expect amounted to one trip around the links many years before. This professor wrote page turners and screenplays, screenplays turned into page turners and page turners become screenplays. The entirety of his writing advice had to do with fame and monetary gain, the trappings of being a successful “author”, a word poisoned for me by its connection to this professor. In retrospect, he reminds me a bit of Donald Trump, if Donald Trump were a writing professor. This guy talked about stakes a lot, about always raising them in fiction. He made the same joke about grilling steaks again and again.

Then there were the days my wife and I spent with her friend up the coast in Ipswich, a place Updike had lived as a younger man. By that point he’d moved along the North Shore to Beverly Farms (and a mansion, I’m sure). And why not? All those books, many of them best sellers. The film options (The Witches of Eastwick, for example). After many years, Ipswich gossip still teemed with stories about John Updike, stories relayed by my wife’s friend, a life-long resident. She’d played with Updike’s children, looked on from a distance as he philandered around that small town, watched him eventually leave his young family and move, literally, down the street. So went the stories from my wife’s friend, so grew the legend of John Updike in my mind, a man who by circumstance and hearsay I became inclined to dislike, or at least to dismiss as boring and bourgeois, not worth my interest. Hence, my mock hysteria at the prospect of seeing him read. Sure, I was going. He was John Updike. But I was going with a chip on my shoulder, a little bit of insurance against disappointment.

The funny thing about Updike being bourgeois is that’s what I was becoming more and more myself, my career in finance advancing with those many halcyon midnights spent at that office in the Hancock Tower, my bank accounts getting fatter, writing time thinner, the act of writing itself growing more difficult until I stopped completely after I finished my MFA.

 

III.

 

There used to be a Waterstone’s by Faneuil Hall. The floors and floors of books and books, now all gone I think, turned into a food court or a fitness club, a Bloomie’s or a Macy’s. At that point, it was still a book store. That was where Updike went after the reading, to Waterstone’s to sign books.

The line for Updike was the longest I’d ever seen at a signing. It still is. The queue snaked from floor to floor of the store, through Science and Religion, Fiction and Children’s, doubling back on itself time and again. We’d been near the end of the line, but Tom and I had decided to stay, to wait. And eventually we’d gotten our chance, nearing the table where John Updike sat.

By the end of the evening, the Waterstone’s employees were imploring customers not to talk to Mr. Updike or make him sign too many books. The facts that should have been obvious: It was late at night, long after closing time. John Updike was nearing seventy. He was tired. People were imposing on him. And I watched as people continued to empty out their duffel bags and approach with their stacks of ten or fifteen books, watched as Updike signed them all without complaint, answered their questions about working at The New Yorker, whether he knew Cher and Jack Nicholson, the same questions he’d probably heard a dozen times just that night. Apparently, the Waterstone’s staffers were good at making blanket requests, bad at actually seeing them fulfilled. And Updike wasn’t going to do that. These were his fans. He was going to sit and sign.

We finally made it to the table, first Tom then me. I set the book I’d just purchased, In the Beauty of the Lilies, on the table before him. He took it in both hands, turned it and opened it, flipped to the title page. His pen descended, made its marks, as it had perhaps a thousand times that night, possibly millions in his life.

“Thank you, Mr. Updike, it’s an honor,” I said, star-struck, reclaiming my book, by that point feeling more than a little self-conscious about my bad manners earlier.

After all that waiting, after the liquor had worn off, I’d been forced to consider the reality of Updike rather than the abstraction of the character I had invented. He was an elderly man out on a cold night, sitting there, signing books. I hoped he wouldn’t recognize me. All I wanted was to get out of there.

“Well, I do fucking rock, don’t I?” he said, winking as Tom circled back, laughing, amazed.

And we stood there, the three of us, just three guys, three fellow dudes, as the rest of the world faded, as the last few people waiting in line disappeared, the store around us vanished, and all that was left were three writer dudes, laughing and laughing.

“I fucking rock, too,” said Tom.

“Well, you can goddam bet I rock, that’s for sure,” I added.

“Fucking rock,” said John Updike, “You guys fucking rock.”

 

IV.

 

Now that Updike is gone, dead nearly a decade, his fictional lilies wilted, swept away. Now that the rabbit has run and reduxed, been rich and at rest, we must reassess. We must deal with the reality of John Updike rather than the character constructed of myth and innuendo, the fiction that is fame, even such little fame as accrues to writers.

There are actually two things I remember about Updike’s work, two things that have stayed with me, and probably will until my death, I hope many years in the future. I think that’s all we can ask of most writers, as writers ourselves; or not ask really, but hope for, that some small bit of their work will stay with us in a meaningful way. For me, with Updike, the first is the beginning of Rabbit, Run.

“Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires.”

The rhythms, they’re what get me. “…Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap…” returns to me from time to time. No, it’s not the beginning of Lolita (though Updike clearly learned something from Nabokov). Still, it’s pretty good. It’s poetry, yes? Poetry become fiction.

The second thing that stays with me is the title of a later story of Updike’s, “Deaths of Distant Friends”. The lyrical beauty of that title—and more the truth of it—grows in my mind. The connections between people, the unavoidable loss of those connections, the sadness and joy that come with their memory.

I haven’t seen Tom and Maria in nearly a decade. It’s been even longer since Sara and I parted ways. As for John Updike, there was never a connection really, the end of the signing story an obvious fabrication. Admit it, though, you wanted that as much as I did.

Yes, I did meet Updike. And, yes, just as I said, I didn’t really know him. We weren’t friends. Except for the way certain people and events can fill our memories, can seem insignificant at first, then grow as the present retreats into the past.

I think of John Updike from time to time, of that night I met him, now years ago. More than Updike, I think of the people I’ve mentioned here and so many others, realities gone to the place all realities must, the shadow land of memory.

Beyond the veil, beyond our spent efforts and other, mortal failings, there can come visions, recognitions bright enough to change the way we see the world. These realizations are made still more magical by the fact that we had no cause for marking their consequence, nor that of the memories that spawned them, no obvious reason to do so when once we lived them, many years before.