Due to the Winter Storm on February 13, we are cancelling tonight’s Brooklyn Reading Works event, “The Authored Voice.” Panelists have agreed to reschedule the event, and we will update this site and others once we have settled on a date and time, which will hopefully be within the next few weeks.
The original posting of the event received over 200 clicks in the first 4 days, so we know there was a lot of interest in the community. Thank you for your patience – we promise to bring you “The Authored Voice” very soon, on a warm and sunny night with perfect weather.
OLD STONE HOUSE
5th Avenue in Brooklyn
b/t 3rd and 4th Streets at JJ Byrne Park
We often think of writing as a lone pursuit, a lone artist or dedicated journalist pursuing the craft with every ounce of dedication they can muster. If we think in the plural, it’s usually in pairs. Yet behind the work of writers is a larger cast of professionals every bit as dedicated to the written word and concerned about its future. They include editors, agents, publishers, critics, and others whose work helps make the printed word possible. On this panel, we will meet editors, publishers and agents who will share their perspective on the process behind the written word and what lies in store for those in the publishing industry during these changing times.
Panelists include Amy Hundley, Tamson Weston, Josh Rolnick, Rob Spillman, Jonathan Lyons, and Renee Zuckerbrot.
AMY HUNDLEY is subsidiary rights director and editor at Grove/Atlantic, where she has worked in various editorial capacities for fifteen years. As a fiction editor, she has worked with authors such as Jim Harrison, Anne Enright (Winner of the Man Booker Prize), Barry Hannah, Porochista Khakpour, Ryan Boudinot, G. Willow Wilson, Mo Hayder, and Aminatta Forna. She also works with many of Grove’s authors in translation, including Pascal Mercier, Catherine Millet, Nedjma, Kenzaburo Oe, and Jose Manuel Prieto. Her nonfiction list includes Last Night a DJ Saved My Life and How to DJ Right by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton and The Deserter’s Tale, a memoir by an American deserter from Iraq. As director of subsidiary rights, she is responsible for selling foreign and domestic rights in Grove/Atlantic titles. She has attended international publishing fellowships sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture and French-American Foundation; the Frankfurt Book Fair; the Polish Book Institute; the Jerusalem Book Fair; and the Turin International Book Fair. Born and raised in Chicago, Amy Hundley attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.
TAMSON WESTON is a published children’s book author, founder of Tamson Weston Books, and an editor with over 15 years experience. She has worked on many acclaimed and award-winning books for children of all ages at several prestigious publishing houses including HarperCollins, Houghton Miffling Harcourt and Disney Hyperion. When she doesn’t have her nose in a book, Tamson likes to run, bike, swim, lift heavy things and, most of all, hang out with my family in Brooklyn, NY. Visit her online at www.tamsonweston.com.
JOSH ROLNICK’S debut collection, “Pulp and Paper,” won the 2011 John Simmons Short Fiction Award, selected by Yiyun Li. His short stories have also won the Arts & Letters Fiction Prize and the Florida Review Editor’s Choice Prize. They have been published in Harvard Review, Western Humanities Review, Bellingham Review, and Gulf Coast, and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best New American Voices. Josh holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and an MA in Writing from The Johns Hopkins University. He is working on a novel.
In a journalism and writing career spanning two decades, he served as a fiction editor at the Iowa Review, creative writing teacher at the University of Iowa, an editor at Stanford Social Innovation Review and Moment magazine, a newsman for the Associated Press, and a reporter for Congressional Quarterly and the News Tribune of Woodbridge, N.J. He currently serves as fiction editor of the literary journal Unstuck, and publisher of Sh’ma, a journal of Jewish ideas.
Josh grew up in Highland Park, N.J. He spent summers fishing for fluke and riding the giant slide at Hartman’s Amusement Park in Long Beach Island, N.J., and camping in a Jayco pop-up trailer across the Adirondacks, returning again and again to Buck Pond, where he caught his first bullhead. He holds a BA from Rutgers University, an MA in International History from London School of Economics and a visiting graduate certificate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has lived in Jerusalem, London, Philadelphia, Iowa City, Washington, D.C., and Menlo Park, California. He lives with his wife and three sons, dividing his time between Akron, Ohio, and Brooklyn, New York.
ROB SPILLMAN is Editor and co-founder of Tin House, a fourteen-year-old bi-coastal (Brooklyn, New York and Portland, Oregon) literary magazine. Tin House has been honored in Best American Stories, Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, O’Henry Prize Stories, the Pushcart Prize Anthology and numerous other anthologies, and was nominated for the 2010 Utne Magazine Independent Press Award for Best Writing. He is also the Executive Editor of Tin House Books and co-founder of the Tin House Literary Festival, now in its tenth year. His writing has appeared in BookForum, the Boston Review, Connoisseur, Details, GQ, Nerve, the New York Times Book Review, Real Simple, Rolling Stone, Salon, Spin, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Worth, among other magazines, newspapers, and essay collections. He is also the editor of Gods and Soldiers: the Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing, which was published in 2009.
JONATHAN LYONS is a literary agent and Director of Translation Rights for Curtis Brown, LTD. Founded in 1914, Curtis Brown’s client list includes numerous bestselling and award-winners, such as Karen Armstrong, Po Bronson, Betty Friedan, Jane Dyer, Diana Gabaldon, Gail Carson Levine, Harold Kushner, Frances Mayes, Diana Palmer, Linda Sue Park, S.E. Hinton, A.A. Milne, Ogden Nash, Ayn Rand, W.H. Auden, Tony Hillerman, John Cheever, Lucille Clifton, and more. Previously Jonathan ran his own agency, Lyons Literary LLC, and has also overseen the subsidiary rights departments at both McIntosh & Otis and Folio Literary Management. His own client list is varied, including authors of mysteries and thrillers, science fiction and fantasy, literary fiction, young adult and middle grade fiction, and nonfiction of all types. Jonathan is a member of the Authors Guild and is on the Contracts Committee of the Association of Author Representatives.
Jonathan is also an attorney with the boutique intellectual property law firm of Savur & Pellecchia. He has over ten years experience handling a variety of publishing and copyright related transactions on behalf of individuals and corporations, with an emphasis on print and digital publishing. His legal clients include authors, publishers, magazines, literary agents, distributors, and artists, among other publishing industry businesses and professionals. Jonathan regularly gives lectures and participates in panels regarding publishing law, including most recently at the Copyright Clearance Center’s On Copyright 2012 Conference, the NYSBA Entertainment and Sports Law 2012 panel “New Models of Publishing”, and the 2012 Self-Publishing Expo. Jonathan earned his law degree from Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in 2001, and his undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis. He is admitted to the bar of New York.
RENEE ZUCKERBROT founded Renée Zuckerbrot Literary Agency after working as an editor at Doubleday and Franklin Square Press/Harper’s Magazine, following a short stint at Marly Rusoff & Associates. She is a member of the AAR and Authors Guild, and in 2008, Poets & Writers included her on their list of “Twenty-One Agents You Should Know.” represents a wide-ranging list that includes literary and commercial adult fiction, narrative non-fiction, and cookbooks. The agency represents writers at all stages of their careers, first-time and well-established authors alike, and the agency’s small, intimate scale fosters warm and long-lasting relationships with our clients. We believe that an agent should be the author’s greatest advocate and fan, and to that end we take a proactive role throughout the publishing process, offering crucial support in project development, editing, contracts, marketing, rights management, and career-planning over the short and long term.
They surround us very much like the air we breathe. Sometimes they are visible, in bookstores, in grocery stores, or on bill boards. Sometimes they are invisible: you see the leather seats, but not the word luxury. Words are many things, even as they represent many other things. Words change lives. They make you stop, push, pull, sit, wait, and be quiet. Words can kill as easily as they create.
As children, we learn magical words – abracadabras and shazams and opensesames. As adults, we learn that all words can be magical in one way or another, whether manifest, latent, silent, or spoken. Some of us fall under words’ spell. We become writers.
In this world of words, there are no strays. For all the words in the world, we can make a few observations:
Somebody wrote the words. Somebody will be paid for them. Somebody will claim to be their author.
These statements hold true for all the words we can see in the world. The exception is for private words: the letters, personal journals, notes or emails that people write to specific somebodies or to no one at all. Under closer scrutiny, however, this exception falls away, for private words tend to become public when the opportunity cost of maintaining their privacy exceeds the actual cost of making them public. Or put differently, when the public value of private words exceeds their private value, it’s only a matter of time before they become public. Paid or unpaid, words have value, and those who claim authorship will hold that value dear, whether money is on the table or not.
The interesting thing about the above referenced somebodies is that they are not always the same somebody. Any stroll past the bestseller shelves in a bookstore (or surfed across the pages of Amazon.com) reveals a fundamental division of labor between writing and authorship, and the authors are always paid more than the writers. Additionally, agents, editors, marketers, and publishers also share in the take from any well-written (or at least well-selling) set of words. Just how the writers fit into this is an open question, because our society’s fetish for authorship is indeed a pretty solid hedge marking the boundary between our enacted reality and the real labor that makes it possible.
The Truth and the Ghost Writer
The truth and the ghost writer, January 19, 2012
To tease out these issues was the purpose of “The truth and the ghost writer,” a book reading that took place on January 19, 2012 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The event was part of the Brooklyn Reading Works program that takes place every third Thursday of the month from September through May at the Old Stone House, a restored Dutch farmhouse that was part of the Battle of New York in 1776 and later the original clubhouse for the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. Every year, for three years running now, I’ve been asked by the Brooklyn Reading Works creator, Louise Crawford, to come up with the program for one the events. For this year’sprogram, I gave myself the challenge finding ghost writers for a book reading.
The four writers on the panel were Keith Elliot Greenberg, Sarah Deming, Alisa Bowman, and James Braly. They are all writers who have managed to pay their bills with words. They each brought experiences both of ghostwriting and solo authorship. They each had rich stories about the care and feeding of clients who as often as not were testy and uncooperative. They each operated with something of a code of honor and professionalism of conduct, meaning that they don’t reveal their authors, and they work hard to make sure their authors speak honestly and understand the consequences of their words. This doesn’t mean they don’t embellish, but there seems to be some slippage in the ghosting process that you don’t have, say, in the writing of memoirs (viz. James Frey). Veracity and verisimilitude are but two ends of the ghostwriting candle, with a lot of wax in between.
Keith Elliot Greenberg
Keith Elliot Greenberg
Keith was the Indiana Jones of the group, a swashbuckler who went deep inside the lives of pro wrestlers in order to coauthor their autobiographies. His work fed a long and stormy relationship with Ric Flair, known as the greatest pro wrestler of all time, who blamed Keith’s book for the demise of his marriage. It was a classic case of the author not understanding the consequences of his words when printed — specifically the humiliation his wife would suffer with the public revelation of Flair’s amorous adventures. Flair said that he’d told his wife about these affairs long ago, but he didn’t realize that she figured these stories would go no further. Keith can report Flair’s name – also Classy Fred Blassie and Superstar Billy Graham – because he alone of the panelists scored deals that put his authorship on the book cover. He also coauthored a column for Jesse “The Body” Ventura. Overall, Keith has written over 30 books and in addition to the professional wrestlers, he has nurtured an eclectic stable of authors including homicide detectives, women’s self defense instructors, and children’s rights advocates.
Sarah was the ying and yang of the evening’s presentations. Her experience involved the marriage of opposites in a way that felt natural and not at all at odds. Her authored work includes a children’s novel, Iris, Messenger (Harcourt 2007), and (in process) a memoir of her relationship with her mother, a bipolar woman whose kidneys were destroyed by Lithium. Sarah donated a kidney to her mother and is now writing the memoir with her, each alternating the voices of the chapters. Her ghosting was in porn, specifically erotic novels based on the lives of real nude models. The standup moment in her presentation was her comparison of the ways in which porn and children’s literature are the same, taken from an essay she wrote about writing.
“People have commented on the apparent contradiction of writing both children’s fiction and porn. They think I’m being cute when I say they have a lot in common, but I’m not. Both are underrated genres that aim to please, not to impress. Roald Dahl wrote that children’s literature is unique in that it does more than merely entertain, it teaches children the habit of reading and increases their vocabulary. It has, in other words, a utilitarian, developmental role. So does porn. My message is pretty much the same to both children and adult readers: live in your imagination, accept all kinds of people, and let go of shame.”
Alisa was the consummate professional. Soft-spoken and serious, she blended personal reflection and self-deprecating humor as she told her story. After starting out as a staff writer at magazines, she was offered the job of writing a book for another writer who had too many other time commitments. In addition to her skill as a writer, it turned out she was good at channeling the voice of another person, and more ghosting offers came her way. She quit her day job when she realized could make a lot more money as a ghost, and in her first year she doubled her income. After seeing her titles — but of course not her name — on the New York Times bestsellers lists, there came a time when she wanted to make a go getting her own name on that list as author and writer. To do so, she began to write a sex advice column, entering her own world of swashbuckling ying and yang until the day came when she realized she was becoming someone she didn’t want to be. The ghost, as it were, became her own ghost and she didn’t like it. Other flirtations with writerly fame have followed, but mainly she’s returned to ghosting as a master of a craft that requires satisfaction with the act of writing itself. To date, she has ghosted over 30 titles, 7 of which have wound up on the New York Times bestsellers list.
James was the panel’s reluctant one, whose skill and natural storytelling ability keeps the work coming even while he’s not entirely sure this is his true calling. He told a tale of how a neighbor’s ghost hijacked him from the unwanted drudgery of ghosting a speech for a corporate client. It had happened that while James was writing, this neighbor jumped ten stories to his death in the courtyard. Some time later, James found himself scrambling into bed with his young sons, chased by the neighbor’s ghost and hoping that real ghosts wouldn’t attack children. As one ghost taunted the other, James closed his eyes and hoped that his boys would not follow their father’s footsteps, even as he continued down this path of channeling the spirits of others for a wage. Unlike the others on the panel, James’s ghosting work doesn’t much involve books. He writes speeches, presentations, and other communications for corporate clients, including the world’s 144th richest man. He hems and haws about it, but he keeps doing it even while he leads another life as a performer in his own (really) self-authored, autobiographical one-man-show that has been seen around the world to rave reviews. The show has been optioned for film.
At the end of the presentation, James told how he has finally come to terms with this profession that he wouldn’t wish on his children. In that story, he told of interviewing a series of architects and designers for the renovation of his Upper West Side coop, the same apartment where the aforementioned tragic ghosting incident occurred. The designers each came to him with grand plans for his apartment that reflected their own distinctive styles, but this was precisely what James had hoped to avoid. He wanted, he said, a solid renovation that would be tasteful and reflect the character of his apartment and his life. The best designer for his home would be the one who simply vanished into the work itself, leaving nothing but the renovation. It was at that point that James realized he was ghost writer and that it was okay.
Notes and Credits
James Braly’s website can be found here, with all you need to know about his show, “Life in a Marital Institution (20 years of monagamy in one terrifying hour). Alisa Bowman’s website is here, in which she helps you understand her story and what she can do for you. Sarah Deming’s blog is called “The Spiral Staircase,” and she has another website about her work here. Keith Elliot Greenberg can be found on Huffington Post and elsewhere on the Web, including this Youtube video about his book on John Lennon.
The photograph of the stop sign comes from a site called “Funny Free Pics,” which can be found here. I was looking for a stop sign and chose this one because of the street sign, “Washtenaw Ave.,” which is the main drag of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I did my doctoral studies. Also, I like the graffiti, which is ironic-cute-pointless in a way that reminded me of the 1980s in Ann Arbor, though I admit that I think this sign might just come from Washtenaw Ave. in Chicago. I can’t quite tell, but it’s a word that ambiguously reminds me of my past on a sign telling me to do something (which I will do, to be certain) defaced with words that make me roll my eyes.
Photographs of the Brooklyn Reading Works event and the four writers are posted courtesy of David Kumin, a friend of Keith’s who sent me his pictures of the event.
Many thanks go to Louise Crawford, who organizes the Brooklyn Reading Works and is the founder of the Brooklyn Blogfest. Her blog, “Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn,” was a touchstone of community information for the Park Slope for many years and continues to provide postings of Hugh Crawford’s photographs and other news. Her community presence is an inspiration to me.
The venue for these readings and many other events in Park Slope is the Old Stone House, which features a regular calendar of community events. The OSH is maintained by a non-profit organization that reflects the best of community-building in our world.
THURSDAY, JANUARY 20, 2011
8:00 – 10:00 PM
Where: OLD STONE HOUSE at J. J. BYRNE PLAYGROUND
5th Avenue in Park Slope between 3rd and 4th Streets
Stories do not tell themselves. Even once they are told and recorded, stories need some help to be heard and to live in the world. This month’s Brooklyn Reading Works will look at the processes by which people collect stories and use them to tell stories. We will have panelists who use oral history practices to document our world and the lives we lead, and the conversation will explore the work it takes to make stories interesting and give them legs to stand on, as it were. Panelists will represent and explore several different genres and styles of the oral historian’s craft, from traditional first-person historical storytelling to the mediations of photography, academic writing, marketing, multimedia, and social advocacy—as well as stories of how collecting stories ultimately affects oral historians as authors and curators of the human experience.
Brian Toynes and Luna Ortiz, with Gay Men’s Health Crisis, who have developed innovative community-level interventions that use personal stories about change and resiliency. Luna is one of the few people documenting the “House and Ball” scene that came to general public prominence in the film, Paris is Burning, and in Madonna’s “Vogue – but which has also had a much more complex and international history over the last 100 years.
Michael Garofalo, a producer with StoryCorps, who will talk about the work of StoryCorps and the importance of collecting and listening to the stories we can tell each other about our lives.
Mary Marshall Clark, Director of the Columbia Oral History Office. Mary Marshall will concentrate on the stories of 9-11 that her team collected here in New York and the process of working with these kinds of interviews in order to create a tangible and personal history of these events.
Jason Kersten, author of “The Art of Making Money,” a true-crime story of a young counterfeiter and his life. Jason’s interviews with Art and his family reveal a host of issues that a writer must confront when getting so close to the subject while trying to tell a true story that is compelling, informative, honest, and in the end protective of the subject’s own history and privacy.
John A. Guidry, who has used oral history and long-interviewing techniques in academic writing (community organizing and children’s rights in Brazil), community development research (all over the US), and public health promotion (HIV health and social marketing).
In the midst of my Greenean visions, fueled from the outset by Pulling’s trip from Buenos Aires to Asunción, I picked up a novel called The Winners at my local bookstore. I was still in college, and I hadn’t met R in Mexico City yet.
I was possibly still reading One Hundred Years of Solitude or soon to do so. This would have been immediately after exams, either in December or May, when I went to the book store to find novels to fill my holidays away from studies and those other books that gave me purpose without vision.
The Winners had a thick grey paperback cover with a waxy finish. The design appealed to me, and I can say honestly that book design is an art I admire and cherish and that does indeed achieve its purpose of inviting me to open the book. It was published by Pantheon, an imprint I always looked for because their titles were leftist and internationalist, like an American Verso. The novelist was Julio Cortázar, an Argentine writer who was new to me at the time.
It was a narrative of people thrown together by chance. They’d all won a cruise trip in a local lottery, but once out to sea it became clear that something was wrong. They were prohibited from going certain places on the boat. There seemed to be a disease somewhere, but there was little information on what was happening and how it might end. They created alliances and enemies and friends, like Lord of the Flies but not really. Perhaps more like an inverted episode of Doctor Who, the British inter-galactic time and space traveler who would alight in different worlds and plunge head-first into local controversies and disputes—only in the case of The Winners, it was like a Doctor Who-less Doctor Who with Lord of the Flies-like consequences.
The Winners reflected the real world I knew at the time, in which people become intimately concerned with each other when circumstances gave them common stakes in something. The something could be anything and was often potentially dreadful, but I was an existentialist. Cortázar wasn’t my first attempt at anti-narrative or pre-postmodernity. I’d just come off reading Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow in the same term. The difference between Pynchon and Cortázar wasthat I chose Cortázar, and next I read Hopscotch (Rayuela). The die was cast.
My copy of Hopscotch was from the same grey-covered series on Pantheon. I was captivated by the photograph of the thin strawberry-blonde woman on the cover, blouse off her right shoulder, looking down or away, smoke from her cigarette trailing upwards, obscuring her face. The book came with “instructions” for reading—in linear form, in the order of my choosing, or Cortázar’s indications at the end of each chapter pointing the reader through the book in a semi-random way. I chose the last alternative, which however random-seeming hung together around a life-time of doing what R and I did in Mexico City for the summer of 1984.
A few years later, in 1987, Sérgio talked about Cortázar as we drank chopp in the sidewalk cafes on Avenida Atlântica in Rio de Janeiro. Sérgio was the 40-something son of Dona Nazaré, a nice woman in her 60s who rented her rooms as something of a cottage bed-and-breakfast business on Rua Duviver in Copacabana, one block from one of the most famous beaches in the world. Sérgio was writer; he stood at a podium every day typing while standing, in an odd bedroom or in Nazaré’s kitchen, adding more words and pages to his self-described Kafkaesque stories about life in mid-twentieth century Brazil. He would publish them on his own, but he had no grand ideas about how many copies they would sell. For money, he had a state pension (disability after being sacked from a state job and tortured by the military regime), his mother, and the sales of his uncle’s paintings, which he hawked on weekends Copacabana and Leblón. In whatever combination, it was enough.
Sérgio himself had walked off the pages of Hopscotch. I liked him, in spite of his off-putting arrogance, and I added many like him to my cast of friends and supporters around Rio. As we sat there under the umbrellas on Avenida Atlântica, Sérgio named the working girls, many of whom were friends of his and more than few of which, he made of point of mentioning, were not girls in the genetic sense of the word in spite of all (quite convincing I should add) evidence to the contrary. Avenida Atlântica was his world, and for a while it became mine. With Sérgio, I read Cortázar and heard a calling.
Notes and Credits
The opening photo is of a volume that R gave me when I visited her in Mexico City in the summer of 1986, Nicaragua tan Violentamente Dulce. In the background, Gary Fuss’s photo of Chapter 7 of Hopscotch sits at the opening of an earlier version of this post. Gary was kind of enough to allow me to use his photo, which can be found on his Flickr page here, along with many other interesting photos of Chicago and elsewhere.
The photos of Copacabana Beach and Cortázar’s grave site were both taken by the author, in 1987 and 2002, respectively. This was the view of Copacabana from across Avenida Atlântica, where Sérgio and I would sit, talking and drinking chopp in the sidewalk restaurants.
My volumes of The Winners and Hopscotch have been lost, sold to the Dawn Treader bookstore along with 40 shelf-feet of books that I liquidated when I left Ann Arbor in the early 1990s. This sale involved nearly every single book I had ever owned in my 28 years up to that point. It was a literary purging. I saved some (like my Pynchon) and would have thought Cortázar’s among them, but no. To this day I can no longer find The Winners or Hopscotch (Rayuela) among my holdings. Along they went with the lot, over $400 of books at about 50 cents per book. At that point in my life, it was half a month’s salary.
It was a lot of books for anyone, 28 or 82, but books were where I lived to that point, in my head and in the imaginations of my writers. For a while, I entered Dawn Treader lore, and a photograph taken from one of my books went on the store’s bulletin board with other artifacts retrieved likewise over the years. I know that the photo stayed there for some time, a few years it seems. I remember the woman reviewing my books for purchase was struck by the notes my father wrote on the cover page of every single he’d ever given me. Perhaps there are still books of mine on the shelves.
In Brazil in 1987, I was fortunate to have brought Kafka’s The Castle. It kept me company after Sergio’s lectures. At home in the mid-1980s, I had Doctor Who—the Tom Baker version who with the lovely Romana took me all the other places literature and social science couldn’t.
This is the first of three posts on writers whose work has influenced the course of my own life. The writers are Graham Greene, Julio Cortázar and Roberto Bolaño. In these writers I have seen myself in futures, presents, and pasts.
I was in college already, but still living at home with my parents. I had these vague ideas of wanting to explore the world, do something exciting, see places no one in my family ever had seen. Later, I noticed the book on a shelf in the house and read it. What I remember best from the book is Pulling’s trip by boat up the Rio Paraguay, from Buenos Aires to Asunción. I knew then what I wanted to do with my life.
My mother, it turned out, was quite fond of Graham Greene. She was fluent in Spanish for reasons she never told me, though I cannot recall whether she declined to say or I simply failed to ask. As a college student in Pennsylvania, she had gone to Mexico City one summer to study abroad, a trip that led her to New Orleans and Loyola University, where she met my father in 1960. At Loyola, she paid her bills in college by teaching Spanish at Mercy Academy, a Catholic girls’ prep school next to the campus. She told me Travels with My Aunt was a frivolous book and that the really good Green was in The Power and the Glory, his novel of a “whiskey priest” trying to escape persecution during the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath. I read the book and though I agreed with my mother, I never stopped thinking about Asunción.
In the summer of 1984 it was my turn, and I went off to Mexico City in the very same program my mother had gone on 25 years earlier. My Dutch friend was on the Mexico trip the year before, and he gave me the names of two girls, R and E, and told me to look them up. He’d had a crush on E, who worked in the big bus station and lived in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Mexico City, where 2-room cinder block houses crept up the hillsides surrounding the city. E was indeed the prettier of the two, but I fell in love with R.
She was older than I was by about seven years, which at the time seemed like a lot. She took me to Coyoacan, where we sat on park benches until three in the morning kissing and talking under the stars, which we could not see but knew were there above the constant soup of Mexico City smog. We talked about Frida Kahlo and listened to jazz. We drank tequila over art and philosophy and revolution with her friends. During the days, in between classes in US-Mexican Diplomatic History and Spanish, I took Graham Greene novels from the library and devoured them. The End of the Affair, The Comedians, The Human Factor, and others. I marveled at the stories he told, so strong and bold and confident. I read Greene and knew what I wanted to do with my life.
Rio de Janeiro and Asunción
I imagined I was reading biographies of the lives I wanted to lead, perhaps without the Russian Roulette but nonetheless in that Greenean world of strained romance and moral decay. By the time I was 23 I was on my way to Asunción, albeit over land by bus from Rio de Janeiro, where I had just spent 6 weeks interviewing people in favelas during the day. Favelas were the infamous slums that clung to the mountainsides of Rio and lined the bottoms of its swamps. In the favelas, marginal people lived on the extremes of the most spectacular scenery on earth. By night I played music with my friend Rogerio do Maranhão, who had standing gigs at Maria Maria in Bota Fogo and a pasta house in Copacabana. We sang for food, beer and women.
... portrait of the author as a young musician
In Asunción, I stayed with the family Weiss, who were hosting Brother Alexis Gonzales, a theatre director from Loyola, mom’s and my old alma mater. One night, after hanging out with the actors past curfew—these were Stroessner’s last days—I came home to find everyone on the street in their night clothes. Minutes earlier, some Colorados drove by and shot up the house. They didn’t like Alexis’s production of Princípios, a play about censorship in Latin America. We pulled bullets from the walls and kept them as souvenirs.
Along the way, Greene stayed with me. He wrote at a disciplined clip of five hundred words per day and produced almost a novel a year for forty years. His stories played on the compromised decisions of flawed men in decadent contexts. With le Carré, Greene was the ultimate Cold War novelist, the two of them forming bookends around the era’s great struggles and grand themes, le Carré in Europe and its near environs, Greene everywhere else, across Latin America, Africa, and Asia. They were our literary secret agents, searching for (and finding) the same themes every where they looked, morphing effortlessly into the same man with a different name everywhere they went.
Greene wrote about people and places that were not his native contexts, though when he did touch his own world, as in The End of the Affair, the results were breathtaking. I was drawn most to his wanderlust and his ability to create compelling stories in so many different places. Still I wondered—why did Greene make such sense to me? Was it because I, too, was an outsider, a privileged white thrill-seeker in worlds brown and black and poor and altogether far away from the places I knew?
Yet critical post-colonial narrative was not something I could sustain for very long. I was too good-humored and guileless. This was a chicken and egg story that after a while could be anything and nothing at all. Like all narratives it was mostly about justification and never really got to the heart of the matter. Disciplined writing in an inevitably tainted world of compromised good and stilted vengeance was, on the other hand, a narrative I could understand.
Notes and Credits
I was inspired to go up the hills by my advisor at Tulane and by a book called The Myth of Marginality by Janice Perlman. Perlman went to the favelas and lived there and worked with the residents even as the military government at the time was razing their neighborhoods and resettling the residents in modern slums further from the center of town. I called Perlman from S’s dorm room at Louisiana State University one Sunday morning as the fog of a hangover left me, to ask Perlman about doing this kind of work. “Go, do it,” she said, without specifying anything more specific about how to do it or whom to ask for help. I didn’t speak to her again until 2006, almost 20 years later, and in 2007 I was able to contract her to evaluate the program I ran at the New York Academy of Medicine. In 2010, she published a sequel to Myth of Marginality called Favela, in which she revisits the favelas and favelados she wrote about n the early 1970s. She was able to find the children and grandchildren of her original subjects and the new book is a compelling story of coming full circle, as all narratives eventually do.
Cover photograph of Travels with My Aunt from the Wikipedia article about the novel, found here and used under fair use principles. The photograph of Greene’s gravesite is also from Wikimedia and is used under the Creative Commons license.
Photograph of the author from his personal collection, no doubt to be sold one day for millions (in Monopoly money?) on E-Bay. I cannot recall the name of the restaurant in Copacabana where we used to play, but here’s another of my friend Rogerio, from the same time.
A friend of mine told me about a playwriting workshop he attended some years ago. The instructor was David Mamet, and after the lecture someone asked Mamet what made him a great playwright.
“I write plays, and you don’t,” was the reply. David Mamet, it seems, talks like one of his characters.
Write what you know
You can’t be a great artist of any kind—playwright, sculptor, painter, novelist, etc.—if you produce nothing at all. That’s what separates Mamet from those who would like to be writers. It does not, however, separate Mamet from all the other writers who in fact write, whatever anyone thinks of it.
Apart from writing well or competently, writers themselves have little control over many other factors that separate great writing from just plain writing. For the fact is that great writing will never be recognized as such if it doesn’t have a context in which it flourishes and speaks to enough people to make an impact on the world. Great writing itself isn’t a pure quality, forever-set and canonical. What we think of as great writing is shaped as much by the times to which it corresponds as by any inherent qualities of the writing itself. Write what you know, as they say; if you’re in the zeitgeist, the rest will take care of itself.
Paint what you are
Jackson Pollock dared to follow his muse, wherever it led, regardless of what it meant, and he let his technical abilities take him to places other painters couldn’t dream of. In that particular moment—post-World War II United States—his paintings made people see art and, one might argue, the world, differently. His was a singular genius, exercised and exorcised against a cultural backdrop that needed his art to understand itself.
No. 31, 1950
The Pollock room at the Museum of Modern Art, on the fourth floor, is a slide show of singular dedication and focus that seems to culminate in the famed Number 31, which spans an entire wall. From painting to painting, Pollock moves from semi-representational work to increasingly abstract renderings that burrow each time more deeply into his consciousness itself.
Amid the soft footfalls and hushed voices in the room, Allen Ginsberg howls and yells and scratches at the seams of that world, trying to break out. There is my own father huddled in a French Quarter coffee shop with his Aunt Carol, herself a painter, telling her about his poems or talking about art, trying to find some safe, comfortable place to let an idea fly from the heart. Every splatter and spray of paint on that vast canvas is a voice from a world suffocating in Sylvia Plath’s bell jar, tapping on the glass I am, I am, I am …
a woman in an abusive marriage, serving cocktails to some chain-smoking Mad Men caricature
a girl or maybe a wife pregnant with a child she cannot bear to bring into this world
Watson and Crick walking into the Eagle Pub in Cambridge, England, on February 28, 1953, saying that they had found “the secret of life”
The voices blew through the tragedy of Pollock’s own life and the terror of his private demons, inseparable from the age he lived in because he made it so in his work. As Pollock himself put it, “Every good painter paints what he is.”
Sylvia Plath, writing atop a stone wall in England
Does context make the art? It’s a chicken-and-egg question that cannot be answered. It’s impossible for most audiences to enjoy Shakespeare without an interpretation, and an interpretation like Scotland PA is nothing short of wonderful and luminescent of both Shakespeare and modern American culture, as much for the Shakespeare and the Paul Rogers and Beethoven dominated soundtrack as for the send-up of drive-through fast food.
One without the other is a hollow experience—art or context. Pollock helped us understand the times in which he lived, and the resounding verdict on the worth of his work is that with every passing year he continues to reflect and refract his times even more intensely. It’s all there on the canvas: the straight-laced, short-haired, hourglass-figured, white, clean, modern, scientific world of tomorrow epitomized in Robert Moses’s 1964 New York World’s Fair. It’s all there, splattered, fractal, chaotic.
Art becomes art because it helps people to understand their world. It remains art because it continues to do so, over and over again. What makes art great is something that millions of people determine every day, in all their infinitely innumerable actions and words. What makes great art great is not so much its inherent greatness as the fact that it survives at all.
“Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves, we’re idiots, babe, it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”
Notes and credits
Photograph of the glass margarita chalice with paint brushes, pens, pencils, etc. against the backdrop of a living room wall by the author.
Photograph of Jackson Pollock, No. 31, at MoMA, taken by the author, July 25, 2010. Find Pollock all over the web. This is a great photograph inspired by Pollock.
Sylvia Plath on a stone wall, from Mortimer Rare Book Room by way of the Amherst Bulletin.
Scotland PA is a wonderful film. See reviews here and here, and whatever they say I recommend it highly.
“… let no mournful yesterdays
disturb thy peaceful heart.”
Ellen M. Huntington Gates, “Sleep Sweet”
“Of the making of many books there is no end,
and in much study there is weariness for the flesh.”
When the glass is empty the writer searches, at times desperately, for some truth or experience to put on the page. The writer writes to make life real. It is an alchemy that turns nothing into something. Without writing, the writer is hollow, small, almost nothing.
When the glass is full the writer becomes like a god, though not so much a god of creation as one who reorders worlds that already exist. The writer recreates what he or she has known in order to say something about it. At the end of the day, it is a gratifying act.
In 1967, Gloria Steinem interviewed Truman Capote for an article that was published in McCall’s. It was a candid interview. She asked him how he would like to be described as a writer and as a person—adding “without false modesty,” just in case. Capote replied with grace and clarity.
“As a writer, that I’m a good artist, a serious craftsman; that my writing gives pleasure in itself, regardless of what I’m writing about. I spend a great deal of time with that object in mind. Because to me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.”
Early in his career, Capote was praised for the beauty of his sentences. His prose was impeccable and his writing almost alone brought him into social circumstances the likes of which he never could have dreamed as the model for Dill in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a lonely child of divorce in a small Alabama town.
But Capote flew too close to sun. In a terrific irony—the exception that proves the rule, it seems—Capote’s downfall came when he tried to write what he (thought he) knew. The serialized chapters of his long-awaited novel, Answered Prayers, hewed too closely to the real lives of his New York socialite crowd. Scandalized, Capote’s supposed friends abandoned him and he learned how far, indeed, Monroeville, Alabama, was from New York’s Upper East Side.
Capote had abandoned the “inner music” of his words for a cloying attempt that was less writing what he knew than writing what he both coveted and hated. Such is vanity.
To write is to be like a god, one of those fundamental acts of hubris that always results in a fall, whether in the Garden of Eden or Greek mythology. The “inner music” of Capotean reverie was to Franz Kafka a siren call to vanity and self-worship through the admiration of others. To his close friend and ally, Max Brod, Kafka wrote in 1922—
“Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but a reward for what? Last night it was as clear to me as the catechism learned in childhood that it is a reward for devil worship. This descent to the powers of darkness, the dubious embraces, and all the other things that doubtless occur down below and which we know nothing about up here when we write our stories in the sunshine. Perhaps there are other kinds of writing, this is only one I know…”
The writer was oblivious to this affliction, mindlessly scribbling away beneath a penumbra of vanity that surrounded the sun itself. Like sex, writing was at once a sensual and gratifying pact with the devil that was utterly essential to living experience—and at the same time, an act that obscured and defamed the very essence of love itself.
“It is the vanity and the hedonism, which flutter around and around either one’s own or another’s form in a ceaseless search for pleasure until in the end, by this constant repetition, a whole planetary system of vanity is created.”
Kafka’s life was filled with deep and vital relationships, with both women and men. His Madonna-whore complex notwithstanding, he knew how to connect with others, recoiling only from those women he thought of marrying. Writing was Kafka’s only salvation, the only thing that made him seem real to himself.
As a writer, however, Kafka was a failure in his own estimation. His work remains for us mainly because his close friend and literary executor, Max Brod, famously chose to ignore to Kafka’s request to destroy all the remaining manuscripts, which included his novels The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika.
Prayer, a writerly cup
The photo of the cup of tea at the beginning of this post was given to me by a friend, Maghan Lusk. She is from South Carolina. In 2008-09, she wrote a blog called “[a creative writer’s] life, uncensored.” On the blog, she wrote about writing, managing seamlessly to intersperse her own experiences with topical matter. Her writing and point of view suggested a very thoughtful person who took the time to understand why people were doing what they did, rather than judging them and tossing off opinions.
In 2009, she shut down her blog to work on her first novel, which she has now completed. Of her desk and cup she wrote—
“When I sit down to write, I make a pot of Ceylon orange pekoe (2 tbsp of loose tea, 1 tbsp of lemon curd, 1 tbsp of honey). And I warm the pot before I add the boiling water – it’s a highly methodical process. I like the color, so I always drink from a glass tea cup. The pot in the back belonged to my mom before she married my dad (27 years ago).”
Before Maghan turned the pot to the support of her writer’s craft, her mother used it to warm the water she soaked her feet with. Behind the pot, on the edge of the chest-of-drawers, is a framed poem, “Sleep Sweet,” by Ellen M. Huntington Gates.
The desk itself is piled high with the artifacts of Maghan’s life and work. In the stack of books are admired pieces, atop which sits Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the much-celebrated novel set in Iowa, in which the Rev. John Ames writes out a family history for his young son. The Reverend’s wife calculated that all the sermons he had written across his life of preaching would come to 67,500 pages of prose, or 225 books by the Rev.’s own calculation, “which puts me up there with Augustine and Calvin for quantity.” In Robinson’s prose, Rev. Ames takes us to a place in writing so much finer and wonderful than Kafka’s, less self-involved than Capote’s, more human and more in touch with the real reasons we write—to reach out to someone else.
“For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel that I am with you now, whatever that can mean …”
Feeding the Wolves
There is a famous Cherokee fable that goes like this.
An elder Cherokee was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, “A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too.”
The children thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Capote fed both wolves, with his life and with his words. He was as destroyed by writing as he was acclaimed for it. The same thing happened to Hemingway. Kafka—and possibly Faulkner—fed the wolves with words alone, leaving their lives to become shambles of unrequited desire.
Sylvia Plath fed both wolves. She fed them with her words and her flesh. She married a man, Ted Hughes, who believed that a writer had the duty to live beyond all morality, to use his or her own life to build the experiences that would come to life in words.
To be an artist is a dangerous thing. It is a special role, a special calling that cannot be resisted. From the beginning of time—Lascaux to the Bible to Pynchon and Picasso and Joe Strummer—artists have helped us know who we are and how we live. Some of them handle the role better than others.
Notes and Credits
I owe thanks to Maghan Lusk for sharing her photos and story for this posting, as well as for insightful correspondence over issues of writing, spirituality, and living in the Deep South over the last year or so.
Capote’s interview was by Gloria Steinem, “‘Go Right Ahead and Ask Me Anything.’ (And So She Did) An Interview with Truman Capote.” McCall’s 95 (November 1967), 76-77, 148-52, 154.
Kafka from: Letter to Max Brod, July 5, 1922, in Franz Kafka, I Am a Memory Come Alive: Autobiographical Writings, ed. N Glatzer (New York: Schocken, 1974), p. 223. An interesting source for Kafka information (though not the only one I used, of course) and condominiums in Miami can be found here.
Gilead quotation: p. 19 of the Picador, 2004, edition.
The Cherokee fable of the two wolves is widely known. The version posted here was taken from a website called “First People, The Legends.” The story is the much the same in its various posting around the Web.
The photographs of books were taken by the author, on his own desk. Disclosure: I have not read Gilead, but I will do so shortly. I have not read In Cold Blood, but I saw the movie with Robert Blake a long time ago on late-night tv. I have not seen the movies of Capote’s life, neither Toby Jones’s nor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s. The copy of In Cold Blood in the photograph was found on the sidewalk in Park Slope one day. I have read much of Kafka’s writing—novels, stories, and letters, and I saw the movie.
truth and rocket science has been included on this year’s “Park Slope 100,” a list compiled by Louise Crawford on her blog, “Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn.” Anyone from the neighborhood is familiar with Louise and her work, whether in her Smart Mom column in the weekly Brooklyn Paper, or the Brooklyn Reading Works, or the blog, or many other events. Obviously, she can’t place herself on the list, but all of us in the nabe know that she makes it that much better for the rest of to do things of value around here. A heartfelt thanks to Louise! What an honor to be on a list with favorite blogs like Fucked in Park Slope and Brit in Brooklyn, and writers like Frank McCourt.
Oh, and speaking of the Brooklyn Reading Works . . . truth and rocket science will be curating the April 15, 2010, edition of Brooklyn Reading Works, on “The Truth and Money” . . . of which more later. Keep tuned.