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.”

TNB Book Review: Gabino Iglesias’s Coyote Songs, reviewd by Kurt Baumeister

TNB Book Review: Gabino Iglesias’s Coyote Songs, reviewd by Kurt Baumeister

By Kurt Baumeister

November 13, 2018

Fiction Reviews

America today is more polarized than it’s been at any point in my lifetime. Socially, politically, racially, economically, religiously…in many ways, this division is born of willful ignorance, the result of small minds glorying in hackneyed thoughts and ideas discredited decades, sometimes centuries, before. There is perhaps no one more guilty of this sort of reductive thinking—and of infecting others with itthan Donald Trump, or as Gabino Iglesias refers to him in his dynamic new novelCoyote Songs, President Pendejo.

Constructed as a sort of literary mosaic, Coyote Songs takes place on either side of the US-Mexico border, the frontera in Spanish. Madness, magic, murder, sadness, loss, and love all dwell within the pages of Coyote Songs, forces struggling to reconcile the ugliness and beauty of life. In the opening chapter, a young boy witnesses a murder while on a fishing trip with his father. Later, witches and saints, goddesses and monsters, heroic criminals and villainous victims all play their parts in a story that owes as much to magical realism as noir.

Coyote Songs is smartly-plotted and moves at a pace that can border on frenzy at times. Which is one of its great strengths. This is a lithe volume that doesn’t concern itself with the excessive physical descriptions and cataloging of reality that often bloat contemporary literary fiction. Still, it’s this book’s more subtle, literary qualities I found most appealing. Not only is Coyote Songs elegantly written:

“The coyote knew that, because he was at the edge of adulthood, this one would have a harder time with la migra. The amount of pity you generate in others diminishes with every birthday. People, the coyote knew, are like food: the closer you get to your expiration date, the less others are drawn to you.”

But its penchants for metaphor and even allegory had my mind turning over everything from the natures of good and evil to metaphysics, economics, and the politics of race and class:

“Death. That was the only option. It was everywhere. Death took her husband. Death lived inside her. Death was coming out at night, preying on children throughout the town. The Mother had heard the rumors already. Parents finding their babies dead in their cradles, their tiny bodies devoured by some animal. Blood everywhere. Slithering trails of blood left on floors and windowsills. She felt responsible. Did she have what it took to wait for the monster, to kill it? Maybe. Would she be able to? She didn’t know. The thing was an alien, a parasite, a monster, a nightmare made flesh, but it was still her baby. It was still the last thing that her husband had given her. A baby to take care of. Maybe that’s exactly what she needed. Maybe a brother was what The Boy needed to forget their bad luck, to keep him from realizing just how poor they were.”

The frontera is the central symbol here, serving as the basis for the story’s action but also pointing to the various provocative dualities to be presented over the course of the book. Beyond those already mentioned, Coyote Songs, from early on, seemed to me to be expanding as I read it, growing into a statement on the natures of life and artifice and more than that the way art and commerce seem to be constantly at odds.

Yes, the last century of American letters saw many novels with metafictional conceits and heavy thematics centered on the nature of text, but the most powerful for me have always been those that manage not only to call attention to themselves as pieces of art but to somehow disappear within their own text. This is where more prosaic considerations such as plot, story, and dialogue are so important. For metafictional conceits to work, and not wind up a mass of ideas that become a chore to read, one must deal with the more prosaic aspects of fiction. Here, Iglesias does that brilliantly. The idea that words and thoughts have power, even a sort of magic to them, that they are transmitted into the world where they grow in force is here from early on, underscored by the way Iglesias shifts freely from English to Spanish to hybrid Spanglish, a technique that was commented on quite a bit in reviews of his earlier novel Zero Saints.

While I did not have a problem with the technique in either book, I found its execution more artful in Coyote Songs, that there was more of an effort to bridge the two languages through Spanglish and greater attention to maintaining dramatic context in-scene. Ultimately, though, it is up to the English reader whether to dwell on the Spanish aspect or not. There’s an element of authenticity the setting gains from using both languages and their Spanglish amalgam and it can be fun even for readers not fluent in Spanish to try to figure out what’s being said. It’s easy enough to skip over the Spanish passages if you lack the inclination to figure them out.

The ending of this book is shocking and violent, but understandably and even necessarily so. Here, with the heroic coyote’s fateful meeting with a reformed (?) criminal priest and its bloody aftermath, we can’t help but recall Graham Greene’s whisky priest and the socialist policeman that dogs his steps in The Power and the Glory.

The characters in this book live their lives in a twilight white America often misses and even when it does notice, fails to care much about. But by the ending of Coyote Songs, white America, both inside and outside its fictional world, will care about the people within.

In the America we live in, it’s easy to fall into an us vs. them mentality, even as a critic. It might, as I said earlier, be comforting to draw bright lines between genres or more still between genres and what’s known as serious or “literary” fiction, something Graham Greene was famous for doing with respect to his own work.

Taking Greene’s approach would cause you to conclude that Coyote Songs must be one thing or another: a literary novel, a crime thriller, or a surreal parable about the natures of good and evil, life and death, and even “us” and “them.” But doing this would be a critical failure not only to oneself but to the text and to society. Coyote Songs deserves to be taken seriously as a piece of art and an entertainment. Which, to my mind, has always been the goal every writer should strive for, not to accomplish one thing or the other but to do both, to live that duality through one’s art.

In a language both spare and poetic, within an intellectual superstructure that forces us to piece together truths we might not care to know, there beats the heart of a beast, a creature of blood and magic that stands astride the frontera’s shadowland dispensing violence and death to good and evil, just and unjust alike. But make no mistake, this is a brilliant and, at times, subtle beast, one of the growing stable that is the oeuvre of Gabino Iglesias.

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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.

3 Poems: Mecca, Tsarist Pop Star, and God and Judy Garland

THREE POEMS BY KURT BAUMEISTER

Publishing initially by Five:2:One on September 23, 2018

 

MECCA

 

She dances death magic in white linen dress, careless eyes, sad, blue fire, her speech the slow, easy prose of alleyways and lost marks slain, she thinks in poetry, dreams of songs, forgotten bodies that bore them to silence, till now they rest in the manifest depths of her conquering heart. Cracked brickwork walks and writhing iron trellises, sleazy bars and decadent eateries, never slowing, never closing, comes our royal line in perpetual stream: teamsters and legionnaires, artists and lunatics, actuaries, newlyweds, angels, and devils, not so accidental pilgrims any of them, all her lovers just the same. Gawking at two-bit sins, screaming in consumptive joy, praising dead gods, we order another round, another tray of aperitifs of the apocalypse: Hurricanes and Mudslides, Tornados and Tsunamis. But never Famine. Never Pestilence, War, or Death. Staring, consuming, gazes naked, spent desire and spare change, creased bills and idiot leers. All dance to the bayou city beat, the zydeco slave haze heat, all sing to the sound, play to the backbeat of her synthetic heart. Sipping drowning sleeping dreaming, all come to be made and remade in the image of capital and Christ, magic and money, all come to darkest beginning and brightest end, all come to American Mecca.

 

 

TSARIST POP STAR

 

Signet Classic, blurred sketch, ill-set, black/white, tiny type, skewed, weathered pages, a conjury of dust into a tiny suburban storm. Cough and read. Cough and read. Yosnaya Polyana was his pad, it says. Mad count, mad writer, War and Peace, that twofer was the greatest ever, it says. Look at all these pages, all that bearded genius. He was big, it says, until he wasn’t. That beard, she still is. Big. Tolstoy’s memory must have seemed worthy of history once-upon-a-Signet-Classic-time, deserving of odes or at least reprises, some summary poet’s lyric soulship to carry the spirit of genius ‘cross ruined land, ruined world, ruined history, a chariot littéraire, to bear solace grace witness, comfort the ears of the god’s true believers, candles slim, bottles fat, raising fire in drunken November night. Morning come someday sometime, the future would sow their seeds again, cloak their fields in carpets of blazing dawn, no more to bear the litter of lost lives, misremembered loves. Fin de siècle close at hand and where to turn for an image to take the place of their beloved Czar, beloved count, their god literary, their Tsarist pop star, where to cling but paper icons cast in black and white. Fearing to lose a ready truth they must trust they can pray, pray they can sleep.

 

 

GOD AND JUDY GARLAND

 

God started thinking about the end the day Paris fell to Hitler. He knew the Nazis were killers, that they would destroy everything He loved. Art and Hope, Peace and Charity, and so on and so on. For better or worse, God knew on that day that his time with man was coming to an end. Still, it took God almost a decade to accept his fate, self-imposed though it was, because, after all, he’d been God for quite a while and as we all know, it’s hard to give up something you’re used to. It’s hard to give up something you love.

Kurt Baumeister's God and Judy Garland poem on Five2One


Kurt Baumeister has written for Salon, Electric Literature, Guernica, The Weeklings, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, The Good Men Project, and others. An Emerson MFA, his debut novel, a satirical thriller entitled Pax Americana, was published by Stalking Horse Press in 2017. He is currently a Contributing Editor with The Weeklings. His Review Microbrew column is published by The Nervous Breakdown. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, or at https://kurtbaumeister.com/.

PAX AMERICANA Review/Author Interview at RAIN TAXI

Published initially by Rain Taxi

ROCK STARS, SECRET AGENTS,
AND AMERICAN MYTHS:
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN
CONSTANCE SQUIRES
AND KURT BAUMEISTER

Pax Americana
Kurt Baumeister

Stalking Horse Press ($19.99)

Live from Medicine Park
Constance Squires

Univ. of Oklahoma Press ($19.95)

Live from Medicine Park is a pure distillation of the dream that is America, one with little time to waste on the clichéd façade of hard work and success we so often associate with that dream. A tale of anonymity, fame, redemption, and remembrance that rises like myth from the sweltering heartland itself this is, nonetheless, a deeply realistic story of postmodern America, of disappeared rock goddesses, space-suited guitar wizards, Toyota dealerships, documentary filmmakers, and last gasps at fame. Filled with characters struggling more than they know, Live from Medicine Park is an unflinching portrait of America’s realities, Constance Squires just the sort of clear-eyed stylist to steer her characters and America towards the truth about themselves.
—Kurt Baumeister

Constance Squires is the award-winning author of Live from Medicine ParkAlong the Watchtower: A Novel and the forthcoming story collection, Hit Your Brights. Her numerous short stories have appeared in GuernicaShenandoahAtlantic Monthly, and other magazines. She teaches creative writing at the University of Central Oklahoma.

Brilliantly plotted and linguistically nimble, Kurt Baumeister’s Pax America is a high-flying book as arch as it is deft. The spy thriller plot, particularly as we know it from James Bond films, serves as a surprisingly flexible skeleton for Baumeister to tell a dystopic tale of a not-too-distant American future after thirty plus years of right wing control. Part satire, part homage to the form, Pax Americanaalso resonates with other parodies like Archer and the Austin Powers movies—there’s an unabashed glee in playing with the loopier elements of the genre—hidden islands rigged out with nuclear devices, sharks, henchmen, allegorical names, and a suitably oh-no-whoever-controls-it-controls-the-world Maguffin in the form of a technology, called Symmetra, with vast, cryptic spiritual power. Beneath all the fun, there’s a serious critique of tendencies in our culture that are scary, but in a way that makes considering them go down as easily as a Righteous Burger. James Bond for the #MeToo moment.
—Constance Squires

Kurt Baumeister has written for SalonElectric LiteratureThe Rumpus, and others. His debut novel, Pax Americana, was published 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.


Kurt Baumeister: Connie, I’ve been eager to talk to you about Live from Medicine Park. First off, let’s cover the fact that this is a Rock n’ Roll Novel. More specifically, this is a book with a certain kinship to Great Jones Street, one of our mutual hero Don DeLillo’s earliest books. The books seem like mirror images in a way; in Great Jones Street, rock star Bucky Wunderlick is trying to escape fame. In yours, you’ve also got a rock star at the center of things, Lena Wells, but Lena’s trying to regain the fame she lost decades earlier. Do you think this is a fair comparison?

Constance Squires: I love Great Jones Street and definitely wanted to tip my hat to it in the media kit section of Live from Medicine Park. There’s always a question of how to represent the music on the page in a book that deals with music, and of course you always want whatever you do to deepen character, so I wrote a media kit inspired by Great Jones Street that contained Lena’s lyrics and some reviews. I wanted the lyrics to show sides of her that she wouldn’t show Ray in person. I don’t go so far as to think of my story as a reversal of Great Jones Street, though, mainly because Lena’s not the main character and her ideas about her career and music aren’t what drive the story. Lena is sort of a Gatsby figure, someone who the main character, Ray, thinks a lot about, but she probably changes less than anyone of the other key characters. She’s at the heart of the book, but she’s not the engine.

KGB: The idea of Lena as a Gatsby figure is an interesting one. DeLillo and Fitzgerald share an iciness in tone, a detachment critics have commented on. I don’t notice that with your work. In fact, the balance you show in developing and presenting emotional conflict is striking. Live from Medicine Park is no tear-jerker, but you take quite a few characters here and give them meaningful inner lives, even the minor ones. Is there a sort of North Star you look to as you develop characters, something that helps you succeed in developing their interiority?

CS: Thank you! I know what you mean about DeLillo’s iciness, and I’m glad to have a warmer book. I think we’re all trying to write the kind of book we’d like to read, and everybody has a different set point for what they want in an emotional conflict. I’m bored and sickened by sheer melodrama, but stuff that’s too ironic and glib feels almost like cowardice to me, like a writer not wanting to go there. I think in life I try to notice this tendency in myself when it comes up and then to make myself think about or feel or act on whatever it is that’s uncomfortable, so maybe I just extend that expectation to my characters. I do know that my favorite kind of characters are very flawed—I always feel grateful to writers that give me a flawed character I can relate to at the same time I get to watch her figure things out. It’s no different than life; a person that will say, “Hey, you know what, I was such an asshole and I’m sorry,” is a thousand times more compelling and admirable than someone who shirks and blames and avoids.

So, Kurt, to bat one back at you here: On the subject of iciness, I admire the way you manage to warm up Tuck Squires in Pax Americana so that he is so much more than just a type. I’ve read a lot of stuff in which it’s clear where the writer’s sympathies lie, and so often it means that the character representing the values the writer disagrees with is not given much humanity. Satire can be especially cold, because the conceit often trumps the characterization, but you really surprised me in how reasonable and even admirable Tuck was in certain moments. Again and again we see that he is loyal and determined; that you let those traits coexist with his less likeable ones took this book to another level for me. Tell me about writing Tuck—where did that character come from and how did you feel your way into his voice?

KGB: Tuck is a fantasy/anti-fantasy persona. Speaking superficially, he’s everything one could ever want to be—young, rich, handsome, athletic, sure of his place in the world, confident—but he’s also a complete fucking mess. To the extent Tuck is successful as a protagonist, I think the thing that makes him work is his conviction that he’s doing right even when he’s not. Like so many of the characters in this book, Tuck is, on some level, a failed Christ figure. He wants to save the day and I do think there’s nobility in that. Sure, he wants all the accolades that might go with it, but even if you’re the worst person in the world, if you want to save the world, there’s something good about you. And I think this is applicable to all the characters, including the villains. The funny thing about villains is very few people or even characters would cop to being one. With few exceptions, each of us is the hero of our own story. When people talk about heroes and villains, antiheroes and antivillains, my ears always perk up, because our perceptions of heroism or villainy, good or evil, are subjective. One woman’s hero is another’s villain.

As far as Tuck’s voice goes, I hear him as someone who’s developed a veneer of confidence, someone who conveys the conviction he’s doing right, no matter how wrong he obviously is. Because he’s so convinced of how right he is, Tuck can say and do things that are awful and funny all at once. He’s not politically correct. In this way, he’s the voice of the far, religious right in America, the part of it that seemed to be ascendant under W. Bush.

CS: I adore unreliable narrators and love Tuck for that reason, but Diana is another key voice. The alternating chapter structure, Tuck and Diana, really works; did you conceive the book that way or did you find you needed Diana for certain things?

KGB: This book was a lot longer at one point, perhaps up to 130,000 words, and there were more points of view. As I trimmed the word count, one of the obvious (though not easy) things to do was get rid of POV characters. I knew I needed Diana and Parlay; they are the drivers for the story, so I had to be able to get inside their heads directly. Tuck and Clarion drive the plot, so I had to keep them as well. I toyed with Jack Justice as a POV character and he was fun to write but ultimately superfluous. Beyond all this, if there’s one thing I absolutely needed Diana for it was her goodness, her heroism. She’s the best of these characters, the most admirable and the most intelligent. I think she understands the limits of human knowledge, the fact that we’re constantly evolving our understanding of the world.

Thinking now about heroism, and, also, failure—Diana’s, Tuck’s, Clarion’s, but also your main character, Ray’s—Ray is the protagonist in Live from Medicine Park, the hero in a way, and he’d understand that about himself, auteur that he is. He’s also a realistic character, and though ultimately successful on some level, he spends a lot of time failing.

CS: Right. Ray believes he is a cool, objective filmmaker who never gets involved or steps from behind the camera. His mantra from Star Trek about the prime objective—never interfere with the fate of a civilization you’re visiting—articulates this position. He fails utterly at this, and so the crisis of the novel involves a moment when someone he cares about on the Medicine Park set is gravely hurt because he’s practicing the same character flaws that got someone shot on his last set—he’s finally having to get real with himself about that.

KGB: Coming to terms with the truth about themselves, the realities of their lives . . . there are a lot of characters doing that in this book. What is Live from Medicine Park saying about truth?

CS: This space is also filled with the family story around Lena—her son, Gram’s search for his father, Gram and Jettie’s band, the Black Sheep, and their approaching make-or-break moment, the mystery of Lena’s relationship with Cy, and the further question of Lena’s heritage embodied in her claim to be Geronimo’s great-granddaughter. The place—the Native American history, the military-industrial history of the base, the buffaloes and the trashy bars, the prohibition-era myths of the old hotel and the rock myths walking around in silver lamé spacesuits—is important to me. It’s not a part of the world most people have their own experience with, so it felt important to show it.

KGB: Poetry and lyrics, fiction and music reviews—your book has just about everything stylistically, something few writers can pull off. Do you feel confined by form? Is the variation of form in Live from Medicine Park an attempt to move past the novel’s traditional boundaries, or are you simply doing what your material demands?

CS: I loved writing those lyrics and reviews—it was tons of fun, and there’s actually more that the editors talked me into cutting, with good reason. I felt like I had to do it. I’ve read a lot of rock novels, and it’s so important to try to find an equivalency on the page for the experience of hearing live music and watching someone in concert. You really can’t do it, but it’s important to try, because I’m not too interested in Lena as a public figure, I’m interested in her as an artist. So, I have to show her art, at least what I can. And I tried to make Lena’s lyrics and Jettie’s lyrics different—I used different models and went for different effects. I wanted them to be of equal quality but distinct stylistic variations.

As far as moving past the novel’s traditional boundaries, I don’t feel like I did that much with this novel. Aside from the lyrics, this is a very linear narrative with quite a traditional structure, really. My first novel was much more modular, not plot-driven, and the one I’m working on now is very definitely pushing against the restrictions of the form, but Live from Medicine Park felt like it needed a strong, recognizable structure. I thought of it like a song—a listener will tolerate a lot of harmonic weirdness and cryptic lyrics and what-have-you if the rhythm section keeps driving hard, pulling you forward.

Kurt, speaking of cryptic . . . I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that your initials are KGB, but I’m enough of a dork to want to try to make something of that and the fact that you’ve written in a form that reached its pinnacle during the Cold War. I guess I’m curious about your relationship to the spy thriller genre and how you chose it. Are there certain books or movies that imprinted on you? Do you want to talk about any deliberate homages, like the way my media kit is a direct homage to DeLillo?

KGB: I think my parents were trying to be funny. Maybe? Those are just my initials, though. Certainly, the Bond books (and movies) are key. You’ve very astutely homed in on my writing relationship with the genre, at least with this book. Tuck Squires sees himself as an American Bond. And his partner, Ken Clarion, I mean, he’s only fifty-something but I’ve joked about him being a geriatric Bond. To a certain extent, I think I’m also satirizing a lot of “Christian” fiction a la the Left Behind books, other spy thrillers, and to some extent perhaps something like The Da Vinci Code.

CS: Your fictional computer program Symmetra, with its genuine spiritual potential, as well as your examples of a power-mad Christianity that resonate powerfully with our own America (like “Righteous Burger,” which is so great), suggest you have something to say about the distinction between spirituality and religion. Do you, or what concerns about religion are you manifesting in these story elements?

KGB: Absolutely. I draw a distinction between spirituality and religion. I hold out a little hope for some sort of metaphysical world beyond, though I’m fairly convinced this is it. When we die, the game stops. No second chances, no bonus rounds. One never knows, though. I think what I was trying to get at with Symmetra (or maybe better to say what its inventor, Diana Scorsi, is trying to get at) is that the chances of one of the many thousands of religions being right—or really billions, if you consider that even people who accept the same dogma interpret it differently in their heads—that in the face of all that, the idea of one religion, any religion, being right, (Christianity, say, or Islam), well, it is sort of ridiculous. If any fundamentalist interpretation of one religion is correct, it voids all the others. So, it’s just sort of funny that everyone’s running around convinced they’ve got the secret sauce and everyone else is doomed. Now, what Diana’s tried to envision, which seems more likely to me, is that if religions en masse are right, it’s in their commonalities. So, she builds a database of religions and uses this as the genesis for her technology.

CS: In their commonalities—I couldn’t agree more. Onto your dialogue: it’s snappy and smart and it veers away from anything that felt expected or formulaic. You’re great with indirection and with attitude too. How do you write dialogue? Does it come easily or have you had any embarrassing experiments as you learned your craft?

KGB: What a great thing to hear. I love writing dialogue. Honestly, it’s the easiest thing for me. The conversations just sort of come to me as I sit thinking about them. I don’t use many tags when I’m drafting, just write stuff down as it drops into my mind. My editor had to convince me to put more tags in so that readers could keep track of who’s saying what.

I just try to imagine the conversation going back and forth and write it down, then go back over it again and again until it sounds true and says everything that needs to be said. Dialogue is an easy way to provide key details—I mean, it can be a trap, too, if you go too far with it—but, used correctly, it’s an easy way to accomplish just about everything from characterization to exposition, story, and plot without being too clunky about it.