Yes, there is all that business about swapping the cars and who was actually driving—Daisy or Gatsby—when Myrtle was struck down. As I have admitted, Carraway did get some things right or at best half-right in his memoir. Daisy and I read the book when it first appeared in 1925. Afterwards, she tossed it into the trash and, despite its enormous popularity over the years, we never looked at it again, until Daisy suggested the memoir course and I began to plan this counter-memoir. It was painful but in order to proceed with an accurate version of those now distant events, I had to force myself to re-read it, fifty-five years later. So much has changed since that era when we lived as though the good times would never end. Now that I’ve restricted myself to one gin and tonic a day and haven’t touched a cigarette since Ike took us out of Korea, it’s hard to believe how much we all drank and smoked back then.
I bought a used paperback edition at the community college bookstore (Lillian Civette had scrawled her name on the inside cover, dotting each “I” with a heart) and I read it aloud to Daisy over the course of a few evenings. Now and then, she would stop me, shake her head, and say she couldn’t believe we did this or that, or said such devastating things to each other. I often had to remind her that Carraway took many liberties with the chain of events and often put words in our mouths. I would also stop reading at times to take notes when I thought a particular event or conversation would require my attention for this memoir. I used a separate notebook as my used book had been so marked up there was hardly any room in the margins. I grinned when Lillian scribbled next to my name Racist! or Upper-Class Snob! or Chauvinist Pig!—I imagined she had been merely copying remarks made by her English instructor. It never ceases to amuse me how easily people apply the political cant of the present to the prevailing customs of the past.
At times, as I read aloud, I would add my comments to the story, sometimes to help minimize the pain Daisy might feel, and at other times to set the facts straight. When we first read the book we were so astonished we barely spoke about it. But now, from the perspective of a half century, with every character except the two of us dead (Carraway and Jordan married a year after the book came out and were killed instantly on their honeymoon when their car spun out of control on a treacherous stretch of curvy mountain road in, of all places, Montenegro), I felt more like confronting the details than I ever had. I had suppressed so many of these until I began the memoir. I also found my commentary increased the farther into the book I got, mainly because Carraway grows increasingly unreliable as the events draw towards their horrible conclusion.
Any careful reader, though obviously not my dear Lillian (who I imagine is now on the Dean’s List at Florida State University), will observe Carraway’s inconsistencies, implausible details, and self-deceptions. I ask you, what writer boasts that he’s the most honest person he knows except a dishonest one? What could be more implausible than a self-absorbed individual like Carraway forgetting his thirtieth birthday? We all knew it—in fact, it was why Daisy invited Gatsby and Carraway to our house for lunch that blistering, end of summer day. She knew I wouldn’t want Gatsby in our home under normal circumstances, but the birthday gave her some leverage. Carraway doesn’t mention that we all toasted his thirtieth. Daisy also had a gift for him—a pair of gold monogrammed cufflinks, what we then called “cuff buttons”—but it was forgotten as the day unraveled. I suspected the way Jordan glanced at him during our toast that she also had a present in store.
Carraway makes it appear that the real reason behind the lunch was so Daisy and Gatsby could declare their love for each other in front of me. But that is preposterous, as anyone who knew Daisy would know that she would never allow herself to do such a thing in the presence of others and never in our house with our daughter in the next room. She may have gotten muddle-headed at times but she had too much decorum to make a circus out of such an announcement. Still, I could detect there was something going on between Gatsby and Daisy and I resented it. It was difficult for me to read aloud the part in which she practically makes love to Gatsby in our salon while I was tending to the drinks. Daisy tearfully admitted she had carried on like that but she said her behavior that entire day was a result of sheer fright. On the basis of their end-of-summer romance, Gatsby had been pressuring her to break with me and she was completely on edge. She did not want a scene. She was glad when Pammy made an entrance with her nurse but our daughter’s sudden presence made her realize all the more our inescapable bond.
Hoping to avoid a scene, I decided to take matters into my own hands and confront Gatsby privately then and there with what I found out from Walter about his business partners and their operations. I thought that once he was aware of what I knew he would quietly back off, maybe even move away. He knew as well as I that Daisy would have nothing to do with a common crook. I invited him out to the veranda pretending I wanted to show him the view. But to my disappointment Carraway decided to join us and I was forced to go through the motions of small talk. As I see it, had Carraway not intruded himself at that precise moment the sad sequence of events which marked that evening may never have been set into motion.
And then Daisy, in a state of panic, but still her impulsive self, ridiculously suggests we drive into Manhattan. Why? To escape the oppressive heat! Daisy never considered what she was going to say before she said it—it was part of her charm but also led others to think she was superficial when she really was not. I don’t think she ever realized, though, even on our second reading, how often Carraway enjoyed making fun of her spontaneous conversational habits in his memoir. Her notion to drive into the city made absolutely no sense but I decided in my frustration to take her at her word and insisted we do just that, especially when I noticed she was herself beginning to resist her idea. I wonder what that sort of emotional strategy is called: someone (child, friend, wife, husband) suggests doing something absurd that one does not want to do but then in anger the person who doesn’t want to go along instead insists on doing just that, now forcing the other’s hand.
Why did I insist I drive Gatsby’s car and he drive mine? Don’t think I haven’t asked myself that question over and over throughout the years. Even now, as I bring all of these moments back into the present I cannot be sure. But here are three reasons: First, it was a gaudy, new, expensive automobile that I had seen advertised in the Saturday Evening Post and I was curious to feel how it handled on the open road. Second, I didn’t want Gatsby to pack us all into his car and to take control of the situation. Third, I wanted to be with Daisy alone to tell her the unsavory details of her lover’s so-called “drug stores” that Carraway earlier prevented me from telling Gatsby.
But with a flirtatious gesture, Daisy went conveniently off with Gatsby and I found myself one-upped in the enormous front seat of Gatsby’s car with Jordan and Carraway who both seemed irritable and not at all sympathetic with my situation. Were they on Gatsby’s side? Did they want to see Daisy run off with him? Did they both prefer that mendacious, murderous criminal to me?
It was a fact, as Carraway reports, that Gatsby’s roadster was low on gas and that I stopped to fill up at Wilson’s garage, where I learned he was planning to take Myrtle out west. I find it difficult to deal with pathetic people but I did promise to help George out by selling him the old coupe. As I write this I realize that a part of my motive to switch cars was to force Gatsby to be seen in an old car I was ready to discard. Although I found Myrtle sensual in a way that Daisy, with her boyish flapper figure, wasn’t, I was growing tired of her continued whining that I leave Daisy for her, something I repeatedly informed her I would never do. And I did not like the fact that she had taken to telephoning me at home. When paying Wilson, I did not notice Myrtle peering at us from the upstairs window. I believe Carraway when he claims she did and that she jealously mistook Jordan for my wife, an error that proved fatal a few hours later.
How the five of us wound up in a stifling suite at the Plaza Hotel at four that sweltering afternoon is anyone’s guess. Carraway doesn’t attempt to explain it and with all the nervous tension and afternoon drinks and forced hilarity, I could tell from the moment we entered that suite something awful would happen, something irreversible. It seemed that everyone had turned against me and I felt like a cornered animal. Here in an anonymous hotel room Daisy might do what she would never do at home and it momentarily occurred to me perhaps it was why we were here—she engineered it even if she hadn’t thought it out fully.
No one appeared to want a drink, though Daisy asked me to order up ice for mint juleps, her favorite drink from Louisville days. Ironically, we could hear the sounds of a wedding in the Plaza ballroom. The conversation turned imbecilic as we joked about some Yale imposter who fainted in the heat at our Louisville wedding. Daisy brought the topic up and I quickly saw it was not one Gatsby cared to hear about—first of all our wedding and then someone who pretended to have attended a college he hadn’t. I could see he was uncomfortable with a past he wasn’t a part of. I sensed an advantage. Daisy herself had given me the opportunity and I pounced. I questioned him about Oxford.
Daisy, bless her soul, had provided me—maybe unwittingly, maybe not—with an edge: our shared past. I ignored his inane fiction about Oxford, even though he scored some points with the others, and moved directly to the issue: what was he trying to do to our marriage? Of course, I fooled around and enjoyed my affairs but I had faith in the institution of marriage and would never consider leaving Daisy for anyone else. (I can now hear my star English major Lillian: Hypocrite!). I could see Gatsby was ready to make his proud announcement but it turned out to be a terrible error: it was one thing for him to claim that Daisy loved him and didn’t love me; but it was quite another thing for him to go on and say that Daisy “never” loved me. I knew she felt no love for me at that moment but I also felt confident she could not honestly own up to the “never,” and I was right. She wavered; I felt it coming; she could not give Gatsby—who was now bullying her as I so often regrettably did—what he required most of all: the absolute absence of the past. How he must have despised me for embodying a past he could never eliminate.
I was not sure when or even if I would introduce Walter Chase to the present company. He was my secret maneuver but when I saw Gatsby’s expression after Daisy acknowledged that she did love me once, I didn’t think I would need to run it. So I simply challenged Gatsby next with what I learned about his partnership with Meyer Wolfsheim and their crooked side-street drug stores. I wanted to expose him in front of Daisy. But instead of denying my accusation, however, he fumbles the ball again: he himself brings up Walter. I will never forget the expression on Daisy’s face when she finally understood that the man she thought of leaving me for was nothing but a common crook—worse, one deeply involved in organized criminal activity. Even Carraway notes her expression of terror. I could hardly believe my luck. The game was over. Yale 14-Oxford 7.
Robert Atwan is the founder and series editor of The Best American Essays. He lives in New York City and was always intrigued by what Fitzgerald wrote about Tom Buchanan: “I suppose he’s the best character I’ve ever done.”
Check back tomorrow to see the sixth and final installment of the memoir.
I had learned from Walter Chase that day all I essentially needed. Gatsby was no romantic enigma, no fabulous mystery, and certainly not the mythic hero that Carraway displayed in his deplorable and deceptive book. He was precisely what I imagined all along, a common criminal ready to swindle innocent people simply to achieve his sleazy goals, one of which was to amass an ill-gained fortune and another to steal my wife. Perhaps he foolishly thought the only way to seduce Daisy was to amass the fortune. Daisy liked money—who doesn’t, really?—but she would never be content with money like that. She had made it clear to me about three weeks before I met Walter, after we left the only party of Gatsby’s we ever attended (even she found it distasteful), that she believed, or wanted to believe, that Gatsby’s fortune came from his enterprising chain of drug-stores. I wanted to investigate this preposterous claim. From what Walter hinted, I knew I could never interfere with Gatsby’s criminal activities but I now had what I needed to prevent him from destroying not only our marriage but Daisy’s life.
I had been suspicious of her behavior since that party. I could tell something was up. It wasn’t just her fox trotting with Gatsby and practically spending the entire evening in his company, but rather that she began to seem more dismissive of me than usual that summer. In the early years of our marriage she took that tone often, not so much in private but usually around her friends, pretending I was dense, or dull, or entirely dispensable as a husband. It disturbed me sometimes but lately because of Myrtle I usually let her go on and endured the ridicule as the only way she had of getting back. Daisy was an accomplished flirt and I knew she was no virgin when I married her but until the night of that party I never thought she could be unfaithful.
As Daisy and her friends well knew, I myself had been unfaithful on a number of occasions. My infidelity began during our honeymoon with a hotel chambermaid in Santa Barbara, a stupid and careless fling on my part that Daisy soon found out about. The girl was half-Mexican and a beauty and she wound up costing me quite a bit of money. There had been a few others before Myrtle—one back when we lived in Chicago and another, a would-be actress, that I ran across at Gatsby’s party. Daisy knew of Myrtle but not her full identity until I confessed all of it that terrible evening after Gatsby ran her down. It was then that Daisy and I finally had the heart-to-heart she said she always wanted and needed. We talked through the night and I told her about the Wilsons, the up-town apartment, and even the time I went there with Carraway, and all the while I could hear someone shuffling about on the gravel drive outside. After I confided all of this, and admitted I struck Myrtle for repeatedly shouting out her name (Carraway’s description of that drunken evening is fairly accurate) she put her hand over mine and told me through tears how Gatsby had taken her in Louisville when she was just eighteen.
He had vowed to marry her but then left for the war. He was twenty-seven, nearly ten years older, worldly, and with a determination she found appealing. He had deceived her and her family about his background, as he would continue to do with everyone he met. I long suspected she had given herself to one of the Camp Taylor officers but of course I had never heard of Gatsby until I saw him in Manhattan with Carraway and the unsavory Wolfsheim earlier that summer.
Daisy then broke down and confessed to their afternoons together for the past month.
“I’ll never see him again, Tom,” she sobbed, “never again. It was too cruel what he did to Walter. And then your…Mrs. Wilson. I begged him to stop and turn back but he sped up instead. I was terrified, Tom, it was terrifying…the whole evening…”
“I had the goods on him, Daisy. But I wasn’t sure when I’d confront him with it. I started to before lunch but your damned cousin got in the way. I was completely surprised Gatsby brought up Walter first. Did he mention it on the ride back?”
“He was enraged, at himself mostly. He beat his hands against the steering wheel and made no sense, assuring me he had nothing to do with Walter’s arrest and then saying how stupid it was of him to mention Walter. Kept repeating you tripped him up. Nothing he said was making sense—he was driving too fast.”
Daisy paused. “I’m glad you pressured him about Oxford, too. I now realize what a vicious liar he is.”
“He’s no Oxford man, Daisy.”
“No, I don’t mean that way. When he didn’t return to me right after the Armistice, I was devastated. I kept writing to him, growing more nervous by the day. He explained that he was frantic to see me but couldn’t come back because of certain complications and that he was under orders to go to Oxford. I tried to be patient but as the months passed I began to drift away. I went on dates with other officers at the camp—and, well, then I met you.”
She was trying to stifle deep sobs. “I did love him once, Tom—it’s true what I said at the hotel. But tonight, after you questioned him, his story changed. I didn’t put it together right away—I was so angry with you at that moment—but to you he says he was at Oxford because he took advantage of an opportunity they were offering officers. He never said that in his letters. I brought this up on the ride back and called him a pathetic liar. He tried to explain his way out of these stories by making up another one about Oxford. And then… Mrs. Wilson ran into the road. He was in the middle of another lie just as he struck her.”
“Tom, why did you insist I drive back with him? After what happened in that room? “
“I’m not sure, Daisy. I was playing by instinct, like on the football field. Maybe because after his admission I knew you would have no more to do with him and I wanted you to see him fully for what he is—an imposter, a crook, a complete Nobody. Everything about him is a lie. I had no idea he was a coward as well. He killed Myrtle, just as he probably murdered others who got in his way.”
“How did you know about the drug-stores?”
“I had a long talk with Walter yesterday afternoon and he told me about that scheme and hinted that there’s much more going on. Walter was crazy to get involved with these people but he was desperate, he’s flat broke. Now he’s frightened of what Gatsby and Gatsby’s associates might do—you’ve never met Meyer Wolfsheim, I hope….”
Daisy shuddered. “Jay would talk to him on the telephone.” She said she was aware that Gatsby’s new butler was one of his people: “A vile character.”
It was dawn when we finished talking. I embraced Daisy tenderly and she kissed me softly on the lips. She went into her room, and turned off the light. I never slept. I thought of going into Daisy’s bedroom to comfort her but all I could picture was Myrtle’s battered body lying on that filthy work-table in George Wilson’s garage and his pitiful, wailing moans. I felt like a heel but I also felt keenly the loss of her heavy intimacy and I despised Gatsby for what he did to both my marriage and my love affair. I lay in bed and seriously considered slipping out into the dawn, breaking into his gaudy mansion, and firing six shots into his dastardly head.
Later that morning, Daisy suggested it would be a good idea if we visited her family in Louisville for a few weeks. As we were upstairs packing, a disheveled and wild-eyed George Wilson forced his way into the house. I warned Daisy to stay in her room and went down to confront him. He had a gun and he threatened to kill me if I didn’t tell him who killed Myrtle and where he lived. At first I tried to calm him down and talk him out of it and said I was certain the police would find the driver soon enough. But he was crazed and dangerously incoherent so I simply told him the truth. Knowing Wilson, I did not think he would have the guts to pull it off. I’ve come to believe that this mad, determined act may have been the finest moment of George Wilson’s unhappy life.
I don’t think Wilson suspected me of being Myrtle’s lover. Had he confronted me about that I would have confessed and taken my chances. But he kept insisting he wanted to find the man who ran Myrtle down—he well knew from the night before that I was not the one—so I merely gave him what he asked for. I have never regretted that. Wilson, bless his soul, did what I should have done.
I heard that hardly a soul attended Gatsby’s burial. At the conclusion of his memoir, Carraway makes it appear as though all his friends deserted him. But the truth is that Gatsby had no friends. When Daisy and I returned two weeks later, Myrtle’s sister Catherine called me to say that the funeral for George and Myrtle was well attended and that after they were buried in adjoining plots Wilson’s friend Michaelis threw a nice reception for all the guests at his Greek coffee counter. Catherine mentioned that she’d been to the 158th Street apartment and rescued the pup I’d bought Myrtle back in July, that Sunday afternoon I brought Carraway into town to meet her. I had forgotten all about the poor dog. I thanked her.
“The Greek and I are going to be married soon, in November. I know Myrtle would have considered him beneath me but I’m not getting any younger, Tom, and the Greek was always so nice to George. So maybe something good has come of this.”
I congratulated her. “We have the silver leash you bought Myrtle for the puppy,” she added tentatively. I said they could keep it.
Robert Atwan is the founder and series editor of The Best American Essays. He lives in New York City and was always intrigued by what Fitzgerald wrote about Tom Buchanan: “I suppose he’s the best character I’ve ever done.”
Check back tomorrow to see the fifth installment of the memoir.
Olivier Assayas has spindly limbs, wears terrific T-shirts, and speaks softly and rapidly, with convulsive energy and a nervous stutter that suggests nothing so much as fleeting blockages in an otherwise steady deluge of ideas desperate to be liberated from his brain. He is 58 years old and one of the most youthful and prolific artists I have known. He grew up in Paris in the 1970s, in the wake of the preceding decade’s tumult, and was a painter and a critic before he made films. His youthful struggles to balance the dictates of the era’s radical leftist ideologies with those of his own artistic ambitions form the foundation for his latest film, the eloquent and ebullient, suffuse and semi-autobiographical Something in the Air. These struggles are also the subject of his memoir A Post-May Adolescence: Letter to Alice Debord, which was published in English translation last year by Wallflower Press. Assayas’ other films include Cold Water (1994), Irma Vep (1996), demonlover (2002), Clean (2004), Summer Hours (2008) and Carlos (2010). Our conversation took place amidst the creaking elegance of Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York Hotel and was lubricated by several glasses of Bordeaux. – José Teodoro
I. A MOMENT OF CHAOS
THE BELIEVER: Après mai and Something in the Air, the French and English titles of your new film, are very closely related in implied meaning and associations, but I confess that I think I prefer the latter. It emphasizes not just a particular zeitgeist or set of circumstances, but any zeitgeist, any circumstance. It’s resolute in the distance it takes from the ideological positions staked throughout the film.
OLIVIER ASSAYAS: I’m fine with both. Après mai, for the French, really does convey a very similar notion, because it has to do with the aftermath of something, of dealing with the echo of something of which you had no firsthand experience. It has the same diffused notion of history and politics. I suggested Something in the Air because Après mai just does not translate into English.
BLVR: Although the English title of your memoir, A Post-May Adolescence, has retained this idea.
ASSAYAS: Yes, I think the context of that book supported the idea more. And it’s easier for a book’s title to be allusive than it is for a film’s.
BLVR: And in the book you also have the opportunity to explain precisely what a post-May adolescence means.
ASSAYAS: Yes, exactly.
BLVR: Regarding the ways in which Something in the Air and A Post-May Adolescence overlap, I’ve been thinking a lot about the patterns of artistic self-realization conveyed in both. Did you ever feel like the decision to become an artist was an inherent compromise to your political convictions?
ASSAYAS: If you were involved in the politics of that time, the early 1970s, and if you were involved in the hopes and ideas of that time, it was very difficult to accept the notion of any kind of work that might alienate. Nothing was acceptable if it did not have a direct relationship with the coming revolution, which was not a question mark, it was not a dream; it was a fact. The revolution was going to happen—so what are you going to do for it? You were not making art for the revolution. Art was petit bourgeois. Art was about individualism, which was anathema to the politics of the time. People were very serious about this. When Jean Eustache made La Maman et la putain it was denounced as petit bourgeois.
BLVR: Which in retrospect is ridiculous.
ASSAYAS: Which in retrospect is demented! But anything that had to do with using the first-person was unacceptable. So when you had those aspirations as a very young man it was difficult to feel accepted or understood in the political context of the time. What does your petit bourgeois art mean to the working class? It was a very difficult question to answer.
BLVR: In A Post-May Adolescence you talk about visiting London in your youth. Given that you were a painter then, I wondered if you had encountered the work of John Berger and if he was any sort of influence on your feelings about art in the service of politics.
ASSAYAS: I didn’t read him. Though I knew his son, Jacob.
BLVR: I ask because his Marxist readings of art history were something that made a big impact on me some years later.
ASSAYAS: The seventies was a moment of chaos, especially for people of my generation. I was 15 in 1970. It was extremely difficult to find your way, to harness the available ideas. Because you were living in the wake of events that you couldn’t fully grasp. You had two antagonistic sides of the same coin. There was the Marxist theology of the time, meaning kids who were organized in political groups, various strains of Trotskyism, eventually a tiny minority of anarchists, different types of Maoists: that’s one side of it. The other was all that had to do with the counterculture, the music, the drugs, the free press, et cetera. And there was ultimately very little communication between those two groups. In France, the political side was the majority by a wide margin.
The only accepted music in that atmosphere was free jazz. It was considered okay by Leftist standards—but not rock. There were Leftist rock and roll bands, but they were there largely to attract kids to the meetings or whatever. There was no real interest in the music. It was mostly despised, same with the free press, same with the drugs. The politicized kids would not touch drugs. They were considered an anti-revolutionary tool of the bourgeois state. The logic of all this would have been very clear to anyone who had been involved in May ’68 movement. But for kids in the seventies, you were attracted to both. You had to be involved in the politics, but simultaneously you would be listening to prog-rock, smoking joints, reading the free press or Zap Comix. These things were all elements of that present and offered a sense of rebellion against the bourgeois society. It was hard to understand why the two sides could not really come together.
BLVR: One of the things that defines adolescence is the ability to know when you’re really having fun. What you’re describing is a constant suspicion of any activity that might be construed as fun.
ASSAYAS: Oh, no! No, it was definitely not okay to have fun. Fun was extremely suspicious. The notion of having fun implies that to some degree you accept the society you live in. And you couldn’t accept the present. The present was bad. It was like a religious was of thinking, a mystical notion of the future. Someday we will have a better world, a better society where finally you will be able to enjoy yourself.
BLVR: Yet having fun seems like an essential element in making art. In the book you describe your determination to become an artist as a way of—to use the English translation—“saving your own skin.”
ASSAYAS: Yes, because when you practice an art you are on your own. Somehow it teaches you to think on your own. It teaches you to try things, to escape the hive-mind of your generation. It’s not a very pleasant situation in many ways. At that time being an artist would make your weird. Practicing an art is a drug. And I had that addiction. Art dragged me into some imaginary world, and in some ways this world saved me from the dead ends of the seventies’ ideologies. I did not go all the way in terms of politics, or mysticism or drugs, because I wanted to go all the way in terms of my art, whatever it was, and it was extremely naïve at the time.
II. A FILM SET IS LIKE A HAPPENING
BLVR: To jump back to Something in the Air, I find it very interesting to track Gilles’ development as an artist. First we see him doing figurative work, later we see him doing abstract work, and then later still some combination of the two. And there’s this key moment in the film where a debate erupts regarding whether or not radical content requires radical form. I wonder if this is something that you’ve struggled with, or continue to struggle with, the question of what form is the right form for the art you want to make.
ASSAYAS: That question is more of a description of where I come from. You could not escape that discussion at that time. It was a key issue, and the answers were complex. Much of it boils down to similar questions about social realism. For the same reasons that the Soviets wound up suppressing modern art and abstraction, Leftism was suspicious of anything that was not understandable or that could disturb the working class sensibility. Ultimately the radical Leftists of the time had very classical tastes in art. They despised art in general, but they tolerated straightforward or figurative or documentary formats. They did not believe in fiction or formal radicalism. On the other hand, the history of modern art in France is connected to formalism, to abstraction.
Something in the Air is similar to Irma Vep in that I’m trying to show the conflicting theories of what art is about. It’s way to express how when you were taken into the turmoil of those years you defined yourself in terms of those options. And my option has always been, in one way or another, figuration, representation. I’ve always thought about it in terms similar to those of Balthus or Lucien Freud, who chose the path of representing human beings instead of using just form and colour, who believed that there was a modern path that included figuration and narration, that figuration and narration were not petit bourgeois in themselves, that representing nature, representing mankind, representing the world as it is was not inherently petit bourgeois. Maybe these elements have something to do with the very nature of cinema.
Maybe fiction is no less documentary than documentary, in terms of dealing with the dreams of your time. I ended up coming up with my own answers, but those were the questions. And they do stay with me. Whatever I’m doing I try to define it by answering all of those questions.
BLVR: I’m interested in your choice to write A Post-May Adolescence as a letter. Did this form allow you to apply certain useful constraints, to contain what might otherwise be too open-ended a subject? There are moments, for example, where you note that you don’t want to digress too much about the music you were listening to at the time.
ASSAYAS: Yes. Yes to all of that. Because this is not exactly an autobiography. It was a more an attempt to reconcile my fascination with the writings of Debord and the practice of an art. I never really felt a deep connection with the politics of the time. I was never a Maoist, never a Trotskyite. When I was very young I was drawn to different forms of anarchism. But my ideas only really took shape in connection to the writings of Debord and eventually to the Frankfurt school. Those were the writers that structured my politics and view of modern society. Yet everything Debord wrote was about the destruction of art. Everything Debord wrote concluded that art was impossible in this age. Debord despised any form of artistic practice.
To become a filmmaker, to take that giant step to make my first short film, I had to accept that I felt a little schizophrenic about all of this. What I believed in, deeply, in terms of my politics, should have made it impossible to make films. Then I made my first short film and realized that it was not alienating. There was a path towards cinema, towards art, on which you could work along with a crew, within a team, and create something that was not alienating. This was a discovery. I then had to try to make sense as to why I found in cinema something that gave me a satisfaction that work in itself could never give me. And why it was not a total contradiction of my readings of Debord. I needed to understand why I had always stayed in touch with Debord’s theories and felt no conflict between this and my practice as an artist. I started writing this book to answer this question. I did not know the answer. It seemed possible that there was no answer. And in the end I got to what is maybe the beginning of an answer.
BLVR: And directing this question to Debord’s widow was the most appropriate way to focus those thoughts?
ASSAYAS: Yes, because I had just met Alice at that point. We had become friends, and somehow I felt obliged to try to make sense of this stuff. If only for her, within the terms of our relationship. This is also why later I became involved in reviving the films of Debord. That was a lot of work. It was extremely complicated. I had to sort out an enormous number of contractual and practical problems. But I did it all out of admiration for Debord and also for Alice.
BLVR: You mention in the book that you would have loved to recreate something like Andy Warhol’s Factory had you the sort of character that lent itself to such an enterprise. But, of course, managing a film set—especially on a film like Something in the Air, where you have all these great party scenes that seem to always be spilling out of the frame—feels not entirely dissimilar to facilitating that kind of situation.
ASSAYAS: You’re right. A film set is like a happening. The film set is a work of art in itself. To feel this formidable energy, with everyone focused on something, on creating an illusion. There’s a beauty in that. And everybody shares that experience. A film set is a more intense form of everyday life. Even guys who are there to do what seems like the smallest job, they feel part of something bigger, something worthwhile, in a way that very few things in modern society offer you. You are disconnected from reality. You create a bubble of complete freedom, a bubble in which people all work together to create something they believe in. This is why I dislike the industry so much, because it turns this utopia of the film set into a factory. Which is something I try to represent in Something in the Air. (laughs) It’s a token of my love for the film industry, as represented by Nazis. But the metaphysical difference between independent filmmaking and industrial filmmaking is exactly this: on an independent film you protect this utopia.
BLVR: Right. And some directors can protect that utopia on a large scale and some can’t. I always liked the metaphor that Robert Altman used of building a sandcastle with his collaborators and then watching it all get washed away.
ASSAYAS: Absolutely. Robert Altman was a great, great filmmaker. I’ve been rediscovering his work recently.
BLVR: I’m a huge fan of 3 Women especially.
ASSAYAS: I like 3 Women and basically everything he did in the seventies. Thieves Like Us, California Split, Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller. I hadn’t watched that stuff for ages and when I returned to this work I just couldn’t believe it. Everything from that period, taken altogether, is a huge achievement.
III. GETTING RID OF THE PAST
BLVR: There are several moments in Something in the Air where art is treated as something disposable. Paintings and drawings get ripped up or thrown away, poetry gets burned. Is this something that gets easier to come to terms with as an older artist, this idea that art just comes and goes?
ASSAYAS: Yes, but it’s also to do with the fact that the seventies were not concerned with money. Anything material was despised. Art was practiced for the beauty of it. Anything successful was suspicious. Especially movies. It took me a while to come to terms with the notion that there could be anything good about a movie being successful. Anything recognized by the majority was suspicious. That was the spirit of the times. So there was this auxiliary feeling that art was gratuitous, that it was created out of hope, love, faith. It doesn’t matter. It’s ephemeral.
BLVR: As I watched Something in the Air I thought about two other films in particular. I think this film is such an interesting companion piece to Carlos, and the reasons for that are largely self-evident. But on the other hand, and more interestingly, for me at least, is the fact that your film feels to me like a sort of prequel to Le Diable probablement.
ASSAYAS: Well, I’m certainly not going to contradict you there. I feel that Le Diable probablement is the best film about the 1970s. I think Bresson did it too late for it to be properly recognized. He should have done it three years earlier. I could not watch Le Diable probablement when it was released because it showed exactly what I did not want to see of myself. In 1977 I was into punk rock and getting rid of the past. I just didn’t want to look back. Le Diable probablement captures that seventies like no other movie. I certainly hope this new film has echoes of Le Diable probablement. The character of Gilles, when he grows up, will probably become closer to the character of Antoine Monnier in Bresson’s film.
BLVR: I was very charmed by the way you chose to end Something in the Air, with Gilles working on this ridiculous-looking movie in London. We’ve talked about the hugely ambitious but ephemeral nature of everything that Gilles was involved in throughout the story, and there’s something very irreverent about leaving Gilles in this place, working on something that’s comically insignificant. We know that he’ll likely move on to live an interesting life.
ASSAYAS: He works in this movie factory, making a film from another era. Which was my experience, actually. I worked similar jobs on similar films at the time. But he sells the free press in front of the consulates and he watches experimental films. He witnesses the resurrection of Laure in an experimental film. And all of a sudden he understands what art is about, what cinema is about. Cinema is about resurrection. Cinema is about dealing with your own ghosts and bringing them to life. Cinema can explore your subconscious and your memories, but mostly it allows what is lost to come back. This is really where the path starts for Gilles. Finally, he has arrived at the point where he understands why he wants to make films. And to me it’s a way of making sense of his whole journey.
BLVR: I appreciate the relatively breezy delivery of that last gesture. It’s in keeping with the lack of emphasis throughout Something in the Air, the absence of those moments designed to tell us what the film’s thesis is. Scenes just seem to tumble forth, and it’s only through their accumulation that we sense their forward movement.
ASSAYAS: I’m glad you say that, because I did not want this film to have any built-in artificial narrative. I wanted it to have moments that were as true as possible to the times and bet that somehow by connecting them, juxtaposing them, letting them echo within one another, we could make sense of the whole puzzle. Many elements in this film are elements I’ve used in previous films, but I’d used them in the context of more classical narratives. This is a very different type of narrative. I just wanted to put everything on the same level, to not exaggerate anything, and just trust reality, trust fleeting moments. I didn’t want to be sentimental about it. I didn’t want to be emotional about it. It has to come by itself.
José Teodoro is a critic and playwright and is the co-author, with Mexican photographer Laura Barrón, of a 3-meter-long bilingual book of text and images entitled Cathedral. He lives in Toronto.
I am not a writer like Carraway, who had achieved a minor literary reputation at college for a series of pompous columns he penned for the Yale News in support of Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations. But a year before she died, Daisy persuaded me to enroll in a memoir-writing course conducted for adults at a nearby community college. The course was taught once a week by a retired literature professor who had published several writing books, a Dr. Kaye Hunter. I was surprised to discover that I was not the oldest person in the class. We would all read our “works-in-progress” aloud and on a few occasions I read my recollections of New Haven in the days prior to the First World War. I never mentioned Carraway and was vague about other details, and since I have gone by the not uncommon name Thomas Buchanan since Carraway’s memoir was published, no one, not even Dr. Hunter, put two and two together. One gentleman in the class, however, a pulmonary specialist, had been at Cambridge around the same time, played on the football team, and we traded rivalry jokes. He had a few friends at Yale and at one point during a class break said that my name sounded familiar and asked if I had known a Walter Chase who had been at Deerfield with him. “Walter passed away a long time ago. A charming fellow but, well, a serious gambling problem,” he added with a reminiscent sigh. I said I didn’t recall him and changed the topic. I was relieved when he missed the next class and then felt disheartened to learn he had suffered a fatal stroke while driving to his practice, where he still saw patients one day a week.
Chase! Walter Chase! The name propelled me backwards and I envisioned Walter again as I saw him on that September afternoon in 1922 when I invited him to lunch at a well-known speakeasy to ask him frankly what he knew about Jay Gatsby. I suspected that Gatsby, with his ostentatious mansion and pink suits and tasteless parties, was just another “bootlegger,” profiting from Prohibition. I knew, as did everyone, that he was a business associate of the notorious Meyer Wolfsheim, a slippery crook who always cleverly kept himself out of jail. I knew too that Walter spent the month of August in a New Jersey prison and I suspected Wolfsheim may have been involved. I felt sorry I hadn’t paid Walter a visit, nor had I seen him since, and when he entered the restaurant I saw that the experience had taken a tremendous toll.
Walter had been one of my closest friends at New Haven, a burly, jovial sort of fellow who would bet on anything and who later became a sucker for bad business deals, a lethal combination. He would lose money betting then try to recoup his losses through some get-rich-quick investment deal that would only deepen the losses. I had tried on numerous occasions to offer professional advice but my propositions were always too slow for him and I eventually gave up, hoping one day he’d come to his senses. He had already gone through a sizeable inheritance and a marriage and appeared to be living at the Yale Club and always on the prowl for another deal. He looked awful in a suit fitted for a much stockier man and his thin shoulders were slouched like those of the men looking for handouts around Grand Central Station.
To this very day, sixty-four years later, I recall that meeting, though of course the conversation I report is an approximation made to the best of my memory.
“Walter Chase, you old son of a bitch,” I said, getting up from the table and extending my arm. He smiled faintly and took my hand gently, as though it were an effort for him to form a solid grip. He must feel disgraced, I thought, and also disappointed I didn’t come to New Jersey to pay him a visit. I suspect none of his friends did. I ordered highballs, apologized for being busy, suggested we see more of each other, and then got down to business. “About this fellow Jay Gatsby,” I said, “do you know anything?” Walter straightened his tie, lit a cigarette, and looked down at the menu. “He bought a ridiculous palace across the bay from us not long after we moved out this way from Chicago. I think he’s some bootlegger trying to seduce my wife,” I added, “with Nick Carraway’s help—you remember sneaky Carraway?” Through all of this Walter kept staring at the menu. “And Gatsby’s an associate of Meyer Wolfsheim,” I paused and lowered my voice, “a person you know.”
Walter looked up and we clinked glasses. “To old times, Tom.” He looked around the room, probably hoping Wolfsheim wasn’t lurking about.
“What’s happening to the world, Tom? Bootleggers, gangsters, jazz, women running around naked. This God-damned railroad strike. You know, I’ve come to think it’s all because of Prohibition.” He took a long drink. “To hell with the politicians.”
I realized he was already a little tight. “Only thing Wilson ever did which I agreed with was to veto it,” I commented. “It was Congress.”
“Did you ever meet this Gatsby, Walter?”
He looked at me nervously. “I’m not prepared to go into too many details, Tom, but yes, I met him a few times with Wolfsheim last winter. That’s when my troubles began. Then again at one of his parties early in July. He said he wanted me to meet someone big, a tycoon known as “Rot-Gut,” a James B. Ferret…”
“Christ,” I interrupted, “I hope you didn’t do any dealings with him?”
Walter crushed out a cigarette and immediately lit another. “Tom, I’m in a pretty rough spot. Our style of speculation requires not just know-how but capital. I have the know-how but no ready cash, not yet at least.”
“What happened at the party?”
He closed his eyes momentarily as if better to recollect the scene. “It seems I was one of the few guests with an invitation. It was a noisy affair and crowded. Plenty of gorgeous women of questionable character. I’ve never seen so much food and liquor in one place. I woke up at 4AM on an enormous white sofa, lying between inebriated twins in identical yellow dresses. On my way back to town I was stopped for speeding and then put under arrest. Gatsby had it set up. I think he was worried I might rat on him. He knows everyone, including the police commissioner. The idea was to put me in jail as a way to scare me. It worked.”
“Was Wolfsheim there?”
“No, he would never show his kike face out there. But I saw Nick. He was with that golfing friend of yours, Jordan Baker. Now there’s a smart-looking girl.”
“She’s a swell girl, Jordan. Daisy introduced them. He’ll do her wrong, the way he did that poor girl he was engaged to in Chicago. He’s not reliable, Walter. Don’t do any trading with Carraway.”
“I heard about that Chicago affair. Surprised there was no breach-of-promise action. Anyway, I avoided Nick and he didn’t see me. I’m not sure Jordan would recognize me—I haven’t seen her since your wedding.”
“What was your business gonnection with Wolfsheim,” I asked, exaggerating the speech as a joke, hoping to catch him off guard.
Walter inhaled and held his breath for what seemed like a full minute. I thought he might choke. Then a burst of smoke and “Tom, I wish you wouldn’t ask me that.”
“I’m asking you in complete confidence, Walter. This information is very important to me in a personal way. We go far back. Our fathers were friends. I’m sorry that in the last few years after the marriage I haven’t been in closer touch. I will correct that. Daisy would love to see you—you’ll come out to dinner and stay a few days. I’ll make sure Jordan is there without Carraway. And I will put you in touch with better sources of financial know-how than ‘Rot-Gut.’”
I signaled the waiter and ordered more highballs. Walter remained silent, his eyes darting about the room as I studied the menu. I then added: “Walter, if you could use a little extra cash right now….”
“That’s quite all right,” he replied, holding up his hand, “old sport.”
We laughed and he picked up the fresh highball, glanced around the room again, and leaned forward. “Buchanan, you’ve always been a straight-up fellow. I know a lot of people in New Haven hated your guts but whatever it was they said about you they never claimed you were dishonest.” He winked—“Except maybe with the ladies.”
He paused and raised his glass in another toast. “Here’s to integrity. You still have yours, but my reputation is…ruined.”
“People forget fast these days, Walter. It’ll all blow away.”
He didn’t seem convinced. I refused a cigarette and he lit another. “Let me tell you something about this town, Tom. You have suspicions, I know, but you have no idea, none, about the degree of corruption all around us. It’s not just Meyer Wolfsheim or that nobody Gatsby, they’re just a small part of a colossal web of fraud that if the truth were ever exposed would bring down the entire city.”
Walter suddenly stopped, realized something, and lowered his voice to a barely audible whisper. The restaurant was boisterous and as I leaned in towards Walter I felt I was not hearing him so much as reading his lips. “The deal with Wolfsheim involved buying up a lot of side-street drug-stores around here and in Chicago and selling cheap wood-grain alcohol across the counter. This Prohibition is destroying us, I tell you.”
“But the drug-store purchases are legitimate?”
“Seem to be. So long as the police make a buck they’re a going concern. But as Wolfsheim well knows, Chicago is a tough town for New Yorkers to muscle in.”
“Is that what Gatsby is worried you’ll rat on?”
Walter finished his drink with a long swallow, and I called the waiter. Walter slid his menu aside. “I don’t feel much like lunch today, Tom. But I’ll have a refill.”
“No, it isn’t,” he said, returning to the faint whisper. I leaned farther in. “They’re operating a bucket shop, Tom—using one of Wolfsheim’s Wall Street pals at a brokerage house.” He shook his head, “Sorry, Tom, I can’t say who, where, or how, but you know what I mean. They’re defrauding clients by gambling with their funds.”
“Shoddy furnishings and all the deals are by telephone, like Carraway’s concern?
“That’s it exactly.”
The waiter set down the drinks, but he seemed to linger at the table. Walter stopped talking and didn’t pick up his highball until the waiter drifted away into the crowd.
“Don’t look so shocked, Tom. What did you expect? This drug-store business is just small change for Wolfsheim, Gatsby and Associates. And I’ll tell you one more thing and then I’m done. If they can pull off what I think they ultimately have in mind, then fixing that World Series a few years ago will look like child’s play. Now I’m done.”
Walter and I finished our drinks and I dropped him off at the Yale Club before returning to my office. We shook hands and he promised to take me up on the invitation. I urged him to do so, but that was the last time I would see him. A few weeks after Myrtle and George Wilson—and the despicable lout responsible for their deaths—were buried, Walter Chase drowned while at an all-night yachting party on Long Island Sound. His body was never recovered. A few witnesses said he got very drunk, fell overboard and disappeared into the dark waters in a matter of seconds.
Robert Atwan is the founder and series editor of The Best American Essays. He lives in New York City and was always intrigued by what Fitzgerald wrote about Tom Buchanan: “I suppose he’s the best character I’ve ever done.”
See Part IV here.
See part one here.
At first I thought Daisy had a crush on Carraway. You could even see a family resemblance. They were slender, dark-haired, and small-boned, fair-skinned and fragile. They flirted and he would easily fall into the inane exaggerated idiom she used with all her crowd. Simple opinions were stated “absolutely,” ordinary things were “gorgeous,” news about friends would be “simply amazing,” a noisy party was “crazy,” she was always “awfully glad” to see anyone. Daisy possessed such a lovely, musical voice that she grew up knowing she could utter the silliest morsels and ravenous men would eat them up. Carraway doted on her and never failed to laugh at her aimless jokes, but he could also adopt a serious, sympathetic expression when she began one of her preposterous heart-to-hearts, usually about something that was making her miserable. I always thought the old saying was wrong: company loves misery is what it should be. And it was clear Daisy loved Carraway’s company.
Am I being hard on Daisy? I don’t intend to be. We had our difficulties—that awful summer, then seven years later I lost nearly everything in the Crash, and then when Pammy was killed tragically while serving as a Red Cross volunteer during the North African campaign—but for sixty-two years we shared what was practically a secret society, a separate world inhabited by just the two of us. Having said this, I still find it odd that Americans tend to judge the quality of a marriage by its longevity, as though staying married for thirty years, despite daily overt rancor or suppressed misery, is in itself far superior to being pleasurably together for only five years. As an investment expert, I found clients often preferred positions they had stubbornly held on to for a decade more valuable than an unquestionably rising equity. “Marry your girlfriends,” I would tell these men, “but for God’s sake don’t marry your investments.”
Daisy died a year ago, a few days after Ronald Reagan defeated the indecisive Jimmy Carter. She died at our West Palm Beach home after a long illness. During much of her final days she was incoherent. Although it was late October she asked several times if we were approaching the longest day of the year. I joked and said, “See, you missed it again.” But by then banter was lost on her. The final day of her life was passed in total silence. There were no last words I can recall, just gibberish. But on the day before, the nurse came out to the patio, where I was with a golfing pal toasting the Gipper with a gin and tonic, and leaned over to whisper that Daisy wanted to speak with me. I hadn’t visited her bedroom since that morning and I was shocked to see how frail she suddenly looked. The Miami Herald lay open on the bed. Her blue eyes did her smiling for her: “I hope you will be deliriously happy with your Bonzo, dear.” We never agreed on politics.
After Daisy’s quiet funeral which was attended by only a few neighbors, my golf circle, and her devoted nurse, Miss Dawn Westover, I turned the Palm Beach property over to an agent and made a reverse snowbird migration, settling back into the house in Great Neck that Daisy and I returned to each Memorial Day. Not the Georgian Colonial that figured so prominently in Carraway’s memoir, one of the few things he got right, but the smaller though quite comfortable place we moved to after Wall Street fell to pieces and we sold the mansion on the bay. Despite the tax advantages, I always disliked Florida, Miss Westover had never been north, and I needed to jog memories for the counter-memoir I have finally decided to write. Though I feel in tip-top shape at eighty-seven, I’m not sure how long I have left. My father lived to ninety-six, the doctor says my heart is strong, and I continue to walk four miles each day. But I recently opted for non-surgical prostrate treatment and anything can happen at this age.
See part three here.
Matt Bell is a writer, professor, critic, editor and someone who is excellent to talk to. He took some time to talk to us while touring his new book, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, and oh man are we glad he did. Love, Nicolle
NICOLLE ELIZABETH: When and how did you start writing?
MATT BELL: I recently read an essay by Rick Moody where he set the date for starting to write at when he started to revise—and I think that’s a perceptive way to separate the proper writing work from earlier, lesser attempts. For me, that means I started writing seriously when I was twenty or so, so about thirteen years ago. I started writing not because I necessarily had something to say but because I loved certain books so much I wanted to make more books like them.
NE: When and why did you start submitting writing?
MB: I first submitted work too early, got properly rejected by everyone, accepted the chastisement and didn’t submit again for several years. My first stories were published in magazines like Hobart and Barrelhouse, and they were the same stories I’d failed to publish a few years earlier: They were among the first real stories I wrote, and it took several years to get them strong enough to be accepted. Before, I hadn’t realized how far they were away from that point, in part because I wasn’t a good enough writer or reader to tell. I’m exponentially harder on the work and on myself than I was when I first started, which is probably true for most writers. It took a long time to learn to stay in a single piece long enough to make it as good as it could be.
NE: You have authored a few books now, what is your creative process and do you know you “have a novel” when you’re at the start.
MB: I think I do know whether I’m working on a story or a novel almost immediately, but the process of writing both is mostly the same: I write sentence by sentence, usually without much of a plan, just trying to extend whatever fragment of the story I’m working on. By the time I have a certain number of fragments written, I can usually start to arrange them in some kind of order, according to my current understanding of the character and the plot, often trying out different shapes and forms until I find the right ones. Often there are gaps between fragments that need to be filled, and that material is suggested by the arrangement of the original material: Once you get a few pieces of the puzzle down, there’s a sense of what shape the missing pieces might be. After I have the whole story written, then I rewrite obsessively, over and over.
What’s different between the forms is that the novel tends to be a bit messier: A novel is a bigger project, and comes into focus a little slower. For me, the novel takes longer to find its truest shape than the story does. In both cases, I tend to overwrite and then cut back—the last short story I published was 8,000 words in print, but 12,000 at one point—and for novels there might be a similar proportion of cut material. In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods was about twice as long at one point. I don’t think it’s that rare of a process. In an interview with The Paris Review, Elie Wiesel said, “Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain. There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.”
NE: How different is the self-editing process in a short story vs. a novel for you?
MB: I don’t know that they’re that much different: In either form, I tend to retype as I rewrite (especially in early drafts), I read aloud obsessively, I try to cut as much as I possibly can so that only what is absolutely necessary remains. In her essay “Close Reading,” Francine Prose offers up the phrase “putting every word on trial for its life,” and that’s really the best way to describe the rewriting process I know, and it applies equally to both stories and novels. Maybe the main difference between forms isn’t in the self-editing process, but in working with an editor: It’s been my own experience as an editor that a short story tends to arrive on my desk fairly fully formed, usually in need of little more than sentence-level suggestions, but that a novel sometimes needs a more comprehensive editorial process. And of course that makes sense, just because the novel is such a bigger manuscript, and usually has a lot more moving parts than the average short story. Mark Doten, my editor at Soho, was a crucial part of the process for In the House: The book wouldn’t be what it is without his invaluable help.
NE: Your writing is grounded in realism yet you always add an element of the fantastic. Who are some of your influences and what would you say to other writers who also feel their work wants to transcend genre?
MB: It’s probably no surprise that many of my favorite contemporary writers are all people who often purposefully toe this line: Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Brian Evenson, David Ohle, Stanley Crawford, Kate Bernhemier, Rikki Ducornet, and many more. I think that the best thing we can often do about working the realism/non-realism divide is to ignore it, or at least not be afraid of it: I think this distinction can be a distraction, and I don’t think it’s very true to real life, where we often have experiences that incorporate elements of the fantastical or magical thinking—even when, as sober rational thinkers, we might know better. In an essay in Fence, Evenson talked about growing up in a religious culture that literally believed angels could walk the earth, interacting with people—and so it’s hard for him “to think of the literary distinction we make between the real and the fantastic as being very firm or very definitive.” I grew up in a similar culture, and feel similarly about it. Sometimes writing in mythic or fabulist or fantastical modes isn’t about being “non-realist,” but instead a kind of shifted realism that incorporates where I’m from, how I grew up, and how, despite no longer being a believer in the supernatural world of religion, I sometimes still see the world. Mike McCormack, a great contemporary Irish writer, once said that he thinks fiction should be “the work of a measured and sober realist who has due regard for the metaphysical and fantastical elements which underpin every moment of our lives.” I think that sounds about right too. Even if the work contains elements that are not “real,” it doesn’t mean that the work is less about our contemporary life than something more straightforwardly realist—and I think you might even argue that a fiction that doesn’t make any place for magic isn’t particularly realist, at least in a country in which people regularly report conversations with angels, have after-death experiences, and claim to be guided by voices they hear during prayer or meditation.
NE: Do you work as an editor of other writer’s work while working on your own or do you take time out to isolate while working on your own fiction?
MB: The only way in which I isolate my own process is that I try to write early in the day, before I do anything else: If left to my own devices, I write from the time I get up into the early afternoon, and then I turn to my teaching and editing and reading and the rest of my life. That does enough to protect my writing time from my other work. I’ve never had a life where I did nothing but write, and I don’t really expect to. I’m not sure that would be healthy for me or good for my work, at least not over any extended period. It’s good to have other kinds of literary engagement to balance out the writing time.
NE: You are a voracious reader, which is one of the most wonderful things about you. Has it always been this way? Do you think reading other writers’ work while working on your own helps or confuses your own process?
MB: I’ve always been that way, at least as far back as I can remember: it seems like reading is one of the few things I took to very naturally. But I’ve still read more in the past few years than ever before, and of course what I’m reading has changed over the years as well. As for whether reading helps or hinders, I think it always helps, no matter what I’m reading, but especially when I’m reading truly great books. Reading almost anything might help you find solutions to your story’s problems, or recharge your language, or renew your love for narrative, but reading great books is also how you set the measure for your own work. Whoever your literary heroes are, there should be an attempt, at least, to push your work as far as it can go, until it hopefully begins to at least approach that level over time, across a career. We might not succeed very often—these people are our heroes for a reason—but we should also be willing to do the hard work of trying to be great ourselves. For a writer, there’s no better way to continually raise and complicate that standard than to be constantly reading.
NE: I found the medical issues you chose to introduce in your recent novel so, so moving. What drove you to write about this? (Thank you for it).
MB: I don’t necessarily ever set out to write about a particular topic, so these events in the novel maybe appeared in a more organic way that perhaps defies the kind of intent your question implies. I will say that one thing I’ve learned is that not having children is something you do, in the same way that having children is. The cultural norm is that married people are supposed to want to have children, and so when they don’t want that, it does sometimes to suggest to others that you must not be able. In our case it’s a decision we’ve made, and not a sign of anything else, but of course we know many other couples who do want to have children and haven’t been able to have their own, and the different ways in which these couples attempted to bring children into their family—IVF, adoption, etc.—or tried to come to grips with the idea of not having kids surely inspired similar emotional movements in the novel.
I’m not a particularly autobiographical writer, and while every character probably has some link to my own person, I mostly write about characters doing things I wouldn’t do, making different choices than I would, and by doing so I hope to end up with characters whose beliefs and ideas are different from mine. This is how I try to get somewhere new, to arrive at new feelings and new thoughts, even as I continue to explore, almost by accident, the central questions of my own life: In this case, what a marriage without children looks like, how it might grow in its own powerful ways. But of course the narrator in In the House isn’t the answer to that question, because his conclusions are so different than mine—he never considers a version of his marriage that doesn’t eventually include children, not once in all the long years of his story. He wants children more than anything else, and his reaction to their inability to have them—and then to have them in the manner he desires—is to try and bend the world to his will in a way that estranges him from both the world and his wife, from the family he might have had instead. In many ways, this hubris is what powers the novel: He makes a series of tragic mistakes in the way he responds to their infertility, and these mistakes nearly cost him everything, starting with the wife he loves so much.
NE: Will you continue to write longer works or will we see short fiction from you in the future, you seem to me, to be the kind of writer who sticks with his original artistic integrity, that is to say, if the work seems like it needs to be a short, you will write it as such and if it seems like it should be a novel, you will write it as such.
MB: I’ll definitely continue to write both. I’m in the middle of rewriting a new novel now, but when I finish I’ll be returning to the short story for a while: I haven’t written many in the last few years, and I miss the form. But you’re definitely right that I wouldn’t try to stretch a short story into a novel: It seems like a lot of first novels are really just long stories, and those books rarely seem to succeed. Thankfully, I don’t think it’s usually that confusing which form a bit of new writing is bending toward. I’ve written a lot of failed novels, but I don’t think the issue was ever that they really should have been stories.
NE: What advice can you offer for writers just starting to realize their own voice?
MB: The most valuable thing a writer can is to write every day, for a few hours, preferably at the same time, in the same place. But if that’s not possible or enjoyable, then some other routine will work just as well. The point is that the routine will privilege the place of the work in their life, and that’s a crucial step: It’s hard to create a place for art in your life when the world around you doesn’t necessarily value art—and it absolutely doesn’t, especially when you’re starting out—and so you have to privilege it yourself. At the same time, a writer needs to develop an equally mighty work ethic as a reader. Nothing will teach you faster how far you still have to go than reading great books, and nothing else will better inspire you to do the work to get there.
Matt Bell’s debut novel, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is out on June 18th.
See more of the Go Forth series here.
I am a gravely misunderstood man and have been for a very long time, thanks to a perennial bestseller written by a Manhattan bond salesman turned procurer, one Nicholas Carraway, the author of a deceptive and biased memoir that thinly disguises itself as a pseudonymous novel.
“A sly seed,” is how I first referred to him among my circle when we were at school in New Haven, Class of 1915. He was an insidious character, though with some touch of brilliance that enabled him to disarm even discerning people, usually catching them off-guard, and to insinuate his way into their lives and affairs. Although he liked to claim that we belonged to the same senior social club, no one for a moment considered us part of the same social set.
It was Wednesday, June 7th, a warm breezy evening in 1922 when Carraway dropped by to visit my wife Daisy (who was also his second cousin) and me for drinks and dinner. After graduation, Carraway went off to serve in the War to End All Wars and to Help Save the World for Democracy. I had not seen him since he visited us in Chicago for a few days right after he returned from Europe. He wore his uniform then and I could tell it made an impression on Daisy, though I noticed no decorations. He didn’t speak much about the war, which as a staunch isolationist I opposed. I would become a dedicated supporter of Mr. Republican, Ohio’s great Robert Taft (Yale ’10), who even John F. Kennedy admired for his principles and courage.
I formed the distinct impression that Carraway had seen little combat despite his claim that he was with a machine gun battalion in France. I don’t believe he saw as much action as another of our classmates in the society and a teammate of mine, Archie MacLeish, who rose to be an artillery captain and then, mainly through his left-wing connections, would become Librarian of Congress. Many years later, Daisy and I took in the opening of his play J.B. on Broadway and we exchanged greetings at intermission. I didn’t care for the drama but Daisy thought it was enthralling.
I met Carraway that evening on the front porch. Daisy was inside chatting with her old Louisville friend, the golfer, Jordan Baker. I had just returned from a few practice chukkers at the Meadow Brook Club and was still in riding gear. I had played poorly, the mounts were sluggish, and I’m afraid I was in an irritable mood when Carraway puttered up the drive in a beat-up and dusty 1915 Dodge Model 30. As he got out, I noticed he appeared painfully thin and it looked like he had lost a little hair. Back at New Haven he was always the least imposing member of our class, which I think helped account for his success at securing the confidences of others.
Carraway’s inclusion in our group came about largely through what I considered social blackmail. A good friend of mine in a drunken fit of intimacy happened to tell Carraway one night a shocking story that I believe he stupidly made up simply as a boast. He had never mentioned this story to me until after it was too late. It involved a beautiful Mulatto girl who worked as a housekeeper for his parents in their Madison Avenue penthouse. He claimed he had sexual relations with her over the course of a summer and just as school was to begin she announced she was pregnant. He drove her to a Harlem doctor he learned about from a hotel doorman, handed her two-hundred dollars, said that he loved her but had to return to Hotchkiss, and left her there.
The girl never went through with the procedure and tearfully informed his parents about her situation. She was alone, her folks lived in Georgia, and her only northern relation was a deaf rheumatic aunt. My friend’s parents, the story went, were touched by the girl’s predicament and offered her five thousand dollars to cover all expenses and to return to her family. She accepted the money and was never seen again. They nearly pulled him out of Hotchkiss but in the end relented and as a punishment for his foolish behavior forbade him the use of the Pierce Arrow for the fall term. This story may or may not be true, but Carraway with subtle threats leveraged this uninspired confidence into a social advantage.
I don’t know how Carraway, who had just come East from Minnesota, found a position with the obscure and soon to be discredited down-town brokerage house ironically called Probity Trust but I do have my suspicions about how he came to live next door to the ostentatious fraud who called himself Jay Gatsby, a name now nauseatingly associated with the American Dream. A young colleague at the firm had somehow found a beat-up bungalow near the Sound and suggested that he and Carraway share it. Then suddenly Probity Trust dispatches this “roommate” to Washington and Carraway moves in all by himself—no rent sharer needed any longer—and very conveniently right next door to Gatsby, practically on his front lawn. The whole maneuver seems to have been engineered by Gatsby from the start, although I doubt Carraway was ever aware of it. Gatsby had many shady contacts and it wouldn’t surprise me if one of them operated at Probity Trust.
The dinner that first evening did not go well. Daisy quickly took Carraway into her confidence and told him I had a “woman.” This disclosure was prompted by an unwanted phone call from the very “woman,” a Myrtle Wilson, the voluptuous wife of a garage mechanic who lived along the main road to Manhattan. In those days Daisy was not able to satisfy my desires—she had lost weight after our daughter Pammy was born and seemed quite content to retain the unappealing boyish figure that had become fashionable among smart women. In contrast, Myrtle appeared to be a female of the last century. At dinner, Carraway, Daisy, and Jordan seemed to gang up on me, ridiculing the opinions contained in an influential anti-immigration book I had just read by a prominent Harvard professor and eminent Unitarian. When I saw how easily Carraway played into this game, I had a momentary flash that the sudden entrance into my life of this old classmate and now new neighbor did not bode well.
See part two here.
(The audience at Sin-a-matic in Los Angeles, c. 1994. Photographer unknown.)
I first encountered Jennifer Doyle’s work through her essay “Queer Wallpaper,” written for a survey textbook on contemporary art. Meant as a pedagogical primer on queer theory and queer politics in art, the essay was personal, affecting, and for what felt to be most important at the time, it conveyed what it might mean to write about visual art with an actual affinity and care for writing itself.
So when her newest book Hold It Against Me: Emotion and Difficulty in Contemporary Art was announced, I followed the release date assiduously, eager to see how Doyle weighed in on “controversial” art (usually performance) by figures like Carrie Mae Weems, David Wojnarowicz, Nao Bustamante, Franko B, and Ron Athey. The book follows up on theories of affect and emotion that have gained large amounts of currency in the humanities, but resolutely sticks to a pedagogical, writerly, and accessible style of criticism meant to complement and expand the ‘difficult’ work on display.
I spoke with Doyle over a long Skype conversation, jumping to touch not only on the points in the book, but on her experience programming, attending, and writing about performance art in my hometown of Los Angeles. Doyle’s current book project is titled The Athletic Turn: Contemporary Art and the Sport Spectacle. – Joseph Henry
I. THE FLINCH MOMENT
THE BELIEVER: The emotional quality of art is never the same for any one person – one viewer could find an artwork difficult or challenging and another could be bored or unimpressed. How do you approach emotion as subject in Hold It Against Me?
JENNIFER DOYLE: One of the things I’ve been saying is that we’re so used to using emotion or feeling as a kind of synonym for the subjective–and I think people that work in art criticism know this well–but there’s a subjective dimension to any critical practice. I’ll start with that: it’s not necessarily that the emotion we encounter in or around works of art is so much more subjective than elsewhere so much as it is the case that we’re very particularly invested in emotion as the place upon which we encounter the subjective.
I’m interested in artists who work with that kind of head on, rather than say, represent emotion for us. Their work has a particular character that makes it impossible to understand it without thinking about the politics of emotion, or the politics of emotion as historically or politically conditioned. This kind of work sometimes forces a confrontation, too, with the politics of taste – I love the performance artist Franko B’s work. It can be mawkish, and that’s actually one of the things the work is about. You actually have to take on the sentiment, you have to take on the sticky and even kind of abject aspect of our own sentimentality, the narcissistic dimensions of romantic impulses, the attempt to actually make a work of art about love. I was interested in the difficulty of writing about it, of trying to figure that out.
I think I mention this somewhere in the introduction or in a note, but when I first started working on this project, people thought I was writing a project on Minimalism. They hear that word “difficulty,” and that’s what they think about. There is an emotional landscape around Minimalist sculpture, and I’m not going to say it’s easy to write about that. You have to work at appreciating it, and being able to appreciate it is a mark of a certain kind of sophistication. It’s Spartan. As critics we understand that economy of restraint and withholding - we are taught to appreciate Minimalism’s difficulty. Its difficulty has a cultural value. But in this book, I am writing about other forms of difficulty.
BLVR: When reading, I kept struggling to identify what would be the “difficult” aspect of any specific artwork. And, I think in the popular imagination, when people think of difficulty in performance art genres, they think of graphic bodily violence. But you seem to be expanding the whole idea of difficulty itself.
JD: Yes. I am working out from George Steiner’s writing on forms of poetic difficulty. Performance art is an interesting case because its difficulty is often simplified in certain kinds of criticism. Take artists like Ron Athey, a performance artist whose practice considers the proximity of pain and pleasure. But with a gesture like the cut or exposure to the wound, there’s an obvious form of difficulty that goes right back to something like Elaine Scarry’s book The Body in Pain, a basic and existential kind of problem around the body. But Athey’s work has a reputation. There’s a photographic practice around work like his, which is often the primary way through which people encounter it. We have language about the difficulty of their work, which to my mind, is determined by the difficulty of photographs of their work, by the difficulty of the idea and the image of their work. Another form of difficulty is crowded out by that image, by that idea.
You, for example, flinch at something that’s happening in a live experience of a performance. But that thing keeps happening, and you accommodate yourself to the fact that you are in a room in which this thing is happening. As an affect, that flinch is what Sylvan Tomkins described as a “transitional affect,” something like being startled. So when thinking about the difficulty of their work, there’s this very powerful transitional affect around their work in performance that has come to stand in for the performance as an event, as a whole experience, and this flattens out the experience of the work. With a live performance, in which you’re keeping company with a body that you imagine is uncomfortable if not in some kind of pain, or exposed or vulnerable, you don’t sit in that startled response, you actually get used to it. That’s actually what the work is about: the way in which we keep company with something, and even maintain and nurse it. That is what his audience is drawn to - that is, in fact, what can render that audience ecstatic.
BLVR: The works tend to focus on physical pain, oppression, violence, or death. What motivated your choice of objects, and how you would approach works that seek out to generative positive, affirmative emotions? The one piece that I would have loved to see in the book was Tracey Emin’s 1995 film Why I Never Became a Dancer. I was dying to see an analysis of that work - I felt there’s a different emotional valence there, perhaps of a hopeful quality, than the work you selected in Hold It Against Me.
JD: I’ve written a lot about Emin’s work so that’s why I don’t go there. And I do think Aliza Shvarts’s work with abortion (which I do write about) is more difficult. That said, I don’t think about the set of affects, emotions, and feelings that circulate around the works in Hold It Against Me as positive or negative, as affirmative or negative. There’s something about that either/or structure that I don’t think really captures this work.
One of the best comments I got about this project was from Lauren Berlant. She pointed out that implicit in my writing was that people take pleasure from this work. She asked that I make that more explicit. You can’t narrate what feels important or valuable about say, Carrie Mae Weems’s piece, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried in terms of pleasure exactly. You can’t say that it’s negative or positive. That is, in fact, one of the ways that critics dismiss this work - by representing it as “merely” propaganda.
BLVR: “Reparative” would be the term that I would use instead of “affirmative.”
JD: Yes, I was a student of Eve Sedgwick’s, I was the indexer for the book Novel Gazing, for which she wrote “Paranoid and Reparative Reading,” it’s like that essay is tattooed on the back of my hand. It may be the case that in every single work in Hold It Against Me, the artist is not offering a paranoid reading, but is making a reparative attempt within a circumstance that would seem otherwise to demand a kind of paranoia. So you actually have both: a reparative gesture made in a situation demanding paranoia. The dialectical turn is a reparative one. It’s a reparative gesture made as a refusal of the universal or transhistorical claim. Some of what I discuss – work by James Luna, Carrie Mae Weems and David Wojnarowicz, for example – makes a strong critique of universalizing discourse, and of certain ways of practicing criticism and art history. But that is not where their work starts or stops. Sedgwick describes the practice of a “weak theory,” in contrast with “strong theory,” as smaller in scale and intimate, local. The performances and the works that I write about – their most interesting dimension to me tends to be a quite small, local turn that’s very sensitive and profound.
II. “YOU WANT TO WRITE LIKE BARTHES, BUT YOU CAN’T. YET.”
BLVR: Touching on your literary background, I’ve always associated your work with a kind of belletristic, almost confessional style. You’re very explicit in Hold It Against Me about writing for a general audience and writing pedagogically. Can you talk about what structures your approach to writing, both academically and in your other kinds of work?
JD: I would like to write in a way that lets readers feel like there’s room for them in the text. I think this is a reflection of my class politics; it’s not that I don’t appreciate difficult writing, nor do I think that something that is easy to read is necessarily better written than something that’s hard to read. But, it is the case that a lot of people spend a lot of time being made to feel stupid, especially in their own encounters with contemporary art. It’s bothersome – it’s something that thing I wish I could change, because it’s one thing to feel humbled. But it is another to be exiled from the conversation, to be identified as not the right reader by virtue of one’s lack of access to a pretty rarified set of terms. Maggie Nelson writes really wonderfully about how cruelty and certain kind of intelligence seem to go together and curl around each other.
In graduate school I wrote a no doubt ridiculous seminar paper for Toril Moi. We met to discuss the paper and she said –I think she gave me an A-, I’m not sure, she did not give me an A - she said: “You want to write like Barthes. But you can’t. Yet.” There was a long pause between each segment of that, and I felt so called-out, because it was completely true.
If I could write like anyone, the people I think of are the Roland Barthes of Lover’s Discourse, the Monique Wittig of The Straight Mind, the Audre Lorde of Sister/Outsider, and Theodor Adorno as we know him in Minima Moralia – that’s like the wildcard element. It’s a strange sort of cocktail. I read Adorno just because, I think with Adorno a lot. It’s preposterous for me to say that I want to write like Lorde or Adorno. But I want to write like the people who turn me out as a reader. They all have in common a capacity to make you feel them thinking in their writing. That’s a high art.
My job is to provide the context within which my writing will give the reader an experience that will help them to understand a work they might not understand otherwise. It is not to mark out the gap between their experience and the experience that’s required to understand the work, to say, “I, the author, have that experience and you, the reader, don’t.” I am perhaps inspired by some aspects of the very kinds of belletristic practices in art criticism, that say, the folks associated with the contemporary art journal, October, defined themselves against, and for really good reasons. But you know, why throw the baby out with the bathwater? By that I mean one can access the hard, historical ground of contemporary art through one’s writing - in the form of that writing. If critical theory in art history considers the politics of the form, why not consider that same question as it plays out in our own writing?
BLVR: It still feels like a hugely controversial aesthetic dynamic though. This discrepancy happens not only in what we would call academic platforms, but in seemingly “general audience” venues writing about art, too. There seems to be a contradiction where academic writing is taken to be not only bothersome and difficult for contemporary audiences, but the accepted critical standard at the same time.
JD: Yes, and depending on what you’re writing about. This is where my blogging is actually sort of like a funny contrast. If you did that to sports, people would just revolt: it is not ok to write really obscure sports criticism. People have no patience for it, no challenge for it – I don’t think that’s a good thing! I think there’s actually as much room for really difficult writing about sports. So much of sports discourse really just goes to oiling the machinery, by which I mean the sports world as a commercial enterprise. I may be in relation to sports where art critics were in relation to contemporary art in the 1970s. I may want to found like the Artforum or October for sports criticism. I’m kind of half-joking. I’m finding that as I turn to writing about sports as a scholar, my writing is becoming much more philosophical. Not dense, exactly, but abstract.
III. FEAR AND BLEEDING IN RIVERSIDE, CALIFORNIA
BLVR: I was thinking about your upcoming project on athletics and art, and the first thing that came to mind was Kevin Ware’s basketball accident, where he fractured his leg.
JD: Oh yeah, eugh!
BLVR: That’s it precisely, that dynamic of you cringing. You mention in Hold it Against Me that the violence in sports is naturalized within certain cultural contexts whereas the violence in art becomes controversial or shocking.
JD: Actually, there’s a great story behind this. I started producing sports writing totally independent of my writing about contemporary art. I was a fan, I was playing soccer, I got obsessed, I started a blog. It was a post-tenure project, I never expected that this would actually become the next book project, which of course it has.
But around that time, I collaborated on a project at UC Riverside with Ron Athey. About two months before the event, we had some difficulty with the institution –we basically got exiled from the art space in which the performance was supposed to happen.
This was in 2009. Riverside, California, for those who don’t know, is one of the epicenters in the collapse of the housing market. There was actually a clear solution to getting kicked out of the art space. I walked around the pedestrian mall in downtown Riverside and called the numbers on the signs of the empty storefronts, of which there were many – and there still are. With shockingly little effort, we managed to rent a big storefront space just two blocks down from the gallery that we were supposed to perform in.
I had to work directly with officials in our risk management office at the University of California, Riverside, because they’re the office that signs lease agreements. I called the chief risk management officer at the university. These are masters of the dark arts of university life. These are the people that actually control our lives.
I described the performance to him: “This is a very gay event, there will be nudity, there will be piercing and bleeding. And Ron is HIV-positive and has Hep C, as well.” And this is known, right. And then I explained the way the performance would unfold, and the protocols we would take, and how we we’re working with the space, and the precautions that we were taking, etc., etc.
BLVR: Which piece was this?
JD: Self-Obliteration Solo. In this piece, he’s on his hands and knees. It opens with him brushing a long, blonde wig. Then he sits up on his heels, flipping the hair over and then he proceeds to take the wig off and it’s this flinch moment definitely, where you realize it’s actually pinned to his scalp.
BLVR: No, I know the piece, I’m already reacting to it.
JD: There’s another chapter to it now, where he fists himself, but he hadn’t quite gotten there yet in the development of the work. Anyway, I just described the piece to the risk management guy, and he was not an art person, at all. And I was like, so this is what’s going to happen, and I explained, he’s been controversial in the past, there have been phobic reactions to his work, etc. So he says, ok I’ll have that paperwork for you at 4:30. I was like, what, why is it that easy? And he said, “Well all I need to know is what’s happening. My job is to manage the risk and to produce the right paperwork so that the university is protected.”
So I asked him, “How is this not a big deal?” And he said, “You’re not serving alcohol.” And then he said, “You know what I worry about, I worry about rock concerts that we have on campus, I worry about basketball games.” People get hurt at sporting events routinely, that’s the risk of playing a sport, that you might break a bone. And then he said, “People don’t get hurt at art events, even when it’s really weird.”
This is a place where affect is really important: there’s a feeling that we are risking something, a feeling that the artist is risking something, but that’s an idea, that’s a fear, that’s a thought – it’s not an actuarial reality. The fear is the controversy; what we fear is the phobic response that becomes the headline, that becomes a story, that leads to the university maybe getting less political support. It’s important to me, ethically, in terms of the kind of the material that I work on, to be willing to take on the public responsibility of not just being a defender of that work, but actually an advocate for it– to proactively support this kind of performance.
We had 150 people at the event – I think it’s one of the most well-attended art events that have happened in that area in terms of the kind of event that it was. There was not one complaint, not one complaint, and in fact I got a lot of very moving emails, particularly from gay men living in Riverside. Their emails went something like this: “Never in my life did I think something like that would happen in Riverside, and that it would be sponsored by the university, thank you.” Ron’s work feels like home to some of us, those emails spoke to that. That means the world to me – that someone felt recognized as a part of my university’s community, somebody who never thought that that would ever happen. Ron’s work has the capacity to do that, to actually make room for people who otherwise don’t feel that there is room for them in the world. So, yes, it is affirmative.
Joseph Henry is Assistant Editor at ARTINFO Canada and writes freelance on contemporary art. He’s published in venues such as The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Inquiry, and esse and worked at institutions including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. He lives and works in Montreal.
Jami Attenberg is someone I would consider “legit.” She is a writer through and through. She is the author of a collection of short stories, three novels, numerous essays and her work can be read in anywhere from old school punk/diy ‘zines to the New York Times. She sets out on tour this week to promote the paperback of her most recent book, The Middlesteins and you can keep up with her in real time online here: http://jamiatt.tumblr.com/ She used to drive herself across the country to do diy readings. Figured we’d ask her a couple q’s about that. Learn from her, she’s an example of a writer who actually handles her career correctly. Love, Nicolle
NICOLLE ELIZABETH: When did you first realize you were a writer?
JAMI ATTENBERG: I’ve just always written, and always considered myself a writer. I wrote my first story when I was five. There was nothing else I wanted to do or be. I went to college for writing, and I kind of messed around after college for a while, did a lot of drugs, moved around the country, and then I had a couple of jobs that I didn’t really love but were fine, and then when I was in my early 30s I got my shit together and started writing books.
NE: Do you think studying writing is needed to publish as an author?
JA: Studying writing to me means reading and also rewriting obsessively. That’s the best way to learn. I did my undergraduate work in writing but did not get an MFA. It seems like an MFA affords you the time to read and write, but getting that degree does not feel necessary to me. Although I wish I had the luxury of time to read and write like grad students do. That sounds pretty awesome. When I was writing my first book one of my friends was going to grad school at the same time and I heard a lot of stories about drinking, too. I feel like everyone was having affairs. I mean it sounds fun! I am all for having fun.
NE: Have you ever veto’d an edit from a publisher on your work or do you think it best to “go with the suggestions”?
JA: Writers have a job to do. Editors do, too. You have to stand ground and cede ground on a case by case basis. When an editor tells me something isn’t working and I still believe in it, I tend to think it just isn’t working hard enough. Often I’ll rewrite it to make it stronger. Usually we can find a middle ground. I feel pretty lucky to have worked with really talented editors over the years, so now I have them in my head when I’m writing.
NE: What’s it like to go on a national tour?
JA: In its current incarnation in my life touring is a lot of airports and hotels and car services and only OK food. It is definitely a business trip, but also I am happy to have a publisher that cares to send me out there on the road. And you get to meet lots of great people, readers and bookstore people and librarians. This is my tribe. So that part is definitely cool and rewarding. TSA agents, not as much. Although obviously I love a good frisking.
In the past I did a lot of road tripping which was fun and dramatic and a lot more free-spirited, but also a lot riskier. I feel like it wasn’t a real tour unless I got stuck in a fucking snowstorm at least once.
NE: How did the cross country road tripping start? Why did you start doing it?
JA: I’ve done five tours where I drove myself across country, booked a lot of it myself, really went for it. Just right off the bat I wanted to hit the road. I was coming from an indie rock mentality. I was doing zines before I signed up with a big publisher – my first story collection actually started out as a zine series - and I feel like my roots have always been in DIY. I used to book bands in college and always felt like those guys were my creative role models because they were on the road, really putting themselves out there on their own terms. I recognized that more conventional paths existed, and that they were valid and important, but I never felt as connected to them. So when I started putting books out it was very natural for me to want to hurl myself out into the universe like that. And I had always loved life on the road. It was just something that appealed to me very deeply.
NE: Do you think one should not do anything else but write if they want to be a writer?
JA: Wouldn’t that be nice if we could all afford to just freely pursue our dreams? I mean: Yes, of course, but nearly every writer I know has to come up with another way to pay the bills. But it’s kind of all I care about so I don’t know. I’m really a terrible person to ask about this because I’m always broke. I guess you should ask yourself how broke you are willing to be first.
NE: What are you working on now?
JA: I’m about to start this big paperback tour through June and early July, but then after that I get to work on my book, SAINT MAZIE, that is due at the end of the year. I’ve got 150 pages done, but so much more to go. I wish I could write while I’m on the road but it never works for me. I need to be sitting still. So I try to cut myself some slack and give myself permission to just think instead. Or post shit on my tumblr. Or just be. Or whatever.