Pauline Butcher Bird is a unique and remarkable historian. Not only does she write about life in Los Angeles during the wild and wonderful 1960s and 1970s, she actually lived it. Her fantastic book, Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa, is a personal account of her life when she lived with Frank Zappa and his family in their legendary Laurel Canyon home. The “Log Cabin” as it was known had become Rock ‘n’ Roll central in the spring/summer of 1968. Pauline, a British citizen, found herself mixed up in this wild life of big personalities—and was clever enough to write it all down as it happened. Her memoir of this time is one of the best books on life in the famous Canyon.
Pauline graciously agreed to an interview and let us know a little bit more about her life and work. Thank you Pauline!
How long did it take you to write Freak Out! My Life with Frank Zappa? When did you first begin the book?
Out! Started as a radio play. A producer was working with me but Germaine Greer
got wind of it and made her own documentary on Frank Zappa (full of errors) and
the BBC said they would not do two programs on Frank Zappa in one year, and
mine was dropped. I was so mad, I decided to turn it into a memoir. I wrote to
every suitable publisher in the Writers’ and Artists’ book saying I was writing
this memoir about Frank Zappa and 12 wrote back and said send the chapters, so
I knew I had a marketable product. Of course, I hadn’t written any at that
The period your wrote about is from 1967-1971. The book was published in 2011. What was it like to relive all those memories some forty years later?
not have been possible without my diaries and more importantly, the letters I
wrote to England which both my mother and my close friend kept. It took me nine
months to type these out into chronological order and it was from these that
the memories came back.
Why did you decide to write a book at that time in your life?
always wanted to be a writer, but my life was taken up with raising our son. I
was a very hands-on mother. I don’t know how female writers who have children
manage it. But when our only child, Damian, left for university, and my husband
was constantly abroad with his work, I knew I had no excuses left. This would
be 2001. I spent six years sending off play after play to the BBC until a
producer told me, ‘Write something that no one else can write,’ and I thought
my Zappa experience is the only story that no one else could write. So, I wrote
it as a radio play as I state in my answer to your first question.
years after struggling to get a play on the radio, and Germaine Greer intervened,
I began the memoir, and it took four years to finish it. Therefore, from the
moment I decided to write, after Damian went to university, and publication in
2011, it was ten years.
Your book is very well written, extremely engaging and highly detailed. I often felt like I was there with you. Did you keep a diary of this period in your life?
I have kept a diary all my life. But the letters were more informative and
thank goodness my mother kept them in a shoebox for 40 years because I wrote
them in great detail, some of them ten page long, as if I was writing a novel.
What do you remember most about living in the log cabin? Looking back, was it like being in another world?
As you know, I wrote the memoir very much ‘in the moment’ and did not look back
and make judgements from today’s perspective. Now I am able to do so.
back, many questions are raised in my mind. For example, Frank and Gail were
newly married with a young baby, just like millions of other young couples. So
why did he choose to live in a huge rambling house in the middle of Laurel
Canyon and have living with them eight others? And in the process, he ignored
us all. Only once in the five months we lived at the log cabin did Frank join
us in the kitchen to socialize. We had to tip-toe round him.
remember feeling buffeted between Pamela Zarubica and Gail. I was out of my
depth with those two and was never sure if they were friends or foe which gave
me a constant feeling of unease and anxiety.
course, the man with the gun, a terrifying experience which I’m not sure if I adequately
conveyed in the book.
other hand, I loved the experience, despite the house being such a wreck
although as I describe, I did make my own room the jewel in the crown as it
I loved the times when Frank was away, although I missed him and wrote letters
to him when he was away telling him so. Which is why I think when he returned
after two weeks away the first time, he knocked on my door and wished me good
night. I remember that moment.
he was away, we had lots of fun in the house, especially later on, when no one
bothered to visit any more, and it was just the ‘family’. We showed films and
played silly games.
Talk about the writing process. How did you begin the book? Was it written chronologically? How long did it take to write a chapter?
the first chapters in Australia because we were travelling at that time. I
still have them, and they are awful.
the chapters chronologically, following my letters and diary entries and as
they appear in the book. Of course, the first part, in England, was done
completely from memory, but the whole experience of meeting Frank Zappa in
London was imprinted on my mind because it was so life-changing.
the two meetings in New York though they were more hazy because my sisters were
very against any connection with Frank Zappa, his image of a drug-crazed hippy
the first three chapters to my agent, Laura Susijn, and she wrote back and
said, ‘Can you make it more literary?’ She was also concerned when she read
more chapters that I was not conveying the charisma and dynamism of Frank Zappa
that got to me personally. So I had to make those changes.
How do you write — at a computer, in a certain place, at a certain time? Describe your work space?
in Australia six weeks, and then on to Singapore. The book was written in
Singapore. We had a huge mansion set in two acres of land with a pool outside
under jungle trees. There I sat, under the arbor, each day.
We had a
live-in maid who lived in a two-roomed cottage in the grounds. She brought our
breakfast in the breakfast room, our coffee, lunch and afternoon tea outside
under the arbour by the pool, and dinner inside. I helped her one hour a day to
dust away cobwebs and such in the eves and skirtings as an attempt to keep
lizards at bay – I was terrified of them.
So, I had
the whole day to write, and even so, it took over two years. My husband and son
kept urging me to send it off, which I did, and I regret because it got
published straight away, and I wish I had put it in the drawer for three months
as you are advised to do and then read it and edit again.
publisher is putting out my revised re-structured version in August this year.
It takes out many of the peripheral characters, brings most of the stuff about
the Mothers together instead of all over the place, and ditto Gail and the
present writing a novel and try to start in the morning but I usually find
there are e-mails and phone calls and domestic issues to deal with, and I
always stop for coffee and while listening to an audio book, or BBC radio 4, I
solve a killer sudoku to keep the maths side of my brain awake.
usually it is after lunch when I start writing with a break for a short walk
with my husband. I continue into the evening, usually till 10pm.
sometimes write sections by hand, but mostly it’s at the computer. I am a fan
of Anne Tyler, and she writes her novels by hand, then types, and then writes
it all out again by hand! I don’t have the patience, but I have tried writing
out certain sections by hand after I’ve typed them. But overall, I would say
mostly I write at the typewriter.
Who edits or sees your work first?
except me. I had no editor. It was published as I wrote it.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What books did you read? Who were your favorite authors?
avid reader. I don’t remember what I read as a child, but as a teenager, I read
everything I could get hold of but again, I don’t remember what. I presume it
was romantic female novels.
When I was
in California and after I stopped working for Frank full time, I visited every
few days a local book shop on Melrose Avenue. I decided to work my way through
the fiction section starting in alphabetical order of author’s names, and
started with ‘A’. If I liked the author, then I read others by that author, but
if not, I moved on. I don’t remember where exactly I got to, but I think it was
about ‘G’ which, paradoxically, included the newly published and sensational
The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer.
The writers I turn to while I’m writing are: • Anne Tyler – everyone of her books except those with a male protagonist. • Gone With the Wind – no explanation needed • J M Coetzee – Boyhood, Youth, both of which I think are wonderful And of course, I believe I’ve read every ‘how to . . . . ‘ write novels/be a better writer genre that is going.
Have you been back to Laurel Canyon and Lookout Mountain since you lived there? Would you like to return again?
returned in 2008. My husband and I had dinner with Gail in the Valley. She did
not mention Frank once but wanted to talk about Bill Clinton whom she’d met at
the White House after she’d donated to his campaign.
showed me round the house which I did not recognize as they had made so many
visited the site of the log cabin which of course was a wild site, no sign of
the house, and all the others mentioned in the book.
What are some of your favorite rock ‘n’ roll memoirs?
I don’t have any.
What are you working on now? How is the process different? Has your writing changed?
writing a novel set in the 2nd World War and finding it very
difficult. I am 80% way through. I just want to get it finished!
Was there a wine cellar in the basement of the log cabin?
a vault and that may have been used as a wine cellar, but not in Frank’s time.
The GTOs used it to write their songs. It had pine walls.
Did they call Frank Zappa’s home on the lot a “Tree House” back then?
was called the log cabin. The tree house was simply the end part of the house
above the kitchen and my office. It was Calvin’s apartment and was called the
tree house because the enormous tree at the end of the house had a stair-case
wrapped round it that led up to a balcony sticking out from the bedroom up
there and you could step across from the metal staircase on to that balcony.
But the real entrance to the ‘tree house’ was up wooden stairs outside the back
door and they left up to the main door into that apartment that was called the
Did anyone ever mention architect Robert Byrd in connection with the log cabin? He allegedly built one of the structures on the property?
How do you want people to remember Frank Zappa and Gail Zappa?
question for me to answer.
Who are you favorite authors today? What are you reading currently?
listed those above. I also like ‘Flowers for Algernon’ and ‘Alone in Berlin’
but I can’t remember the author’s names. I’m currently reading everything about
life during the second world war.
Talk about the letters you wrote to your mother back then. How long were they, how often did you write her, etc.?
them were ten pages long or even longer, single spaced on American A4 size sheets.
I wrote every week in the beginning, sometimes more often. As I became immersed
in my life there and no longer an outsider but part of the team as it were, I
wrote less and less. This is shown in the memoir which has 200 pages on the log
cabin and 100 pages after we left.
Did you take any mementos with you when you left working for Frank Zappa?
I have a
lock of Frank’s hair that Frank gave me when he was having his hair cut in the
If Frank wasn’t married at the time, would you have been interested in having a serious relationship with him?
I think I would have been swallowed up. I could not have coped with his
womanizing. I have every admiration for Gail’s stamina to have withstood it
What is your life like now? What do you do for fun?
had a year of lockdown. My husband was an academic when I met him, but became a
banker and adviser on gas/electricity/oil/nuclear power stations. We live a
comfortable life. Our son lives in London and we have not seen him since Christmas
because of Covid-19. We are soon to get our second jabs, so life should start
to open up again. We socialise by inviting our friends here. I love the theatre
and cinema but all that has been on hold.
Do you spend more time writing, or editing your work?
are interchangeable. They run together – write, edit, write, edit.
Any advice for anyone wishing to write a memoir?
Don’t try to write your whole life. Choose a section. Know the ending.
make each chapter change in emotion – happy to sad, unknowing to knowing, anger
to peace, and so on and vice versa.
event cause the next event – the biggest difference apparently between those
who get published and those who don’t. They just write random events. It
What music do you listen to today?
Do you have a timeline for the book you’re currently writing?
I’ve already over-run it.
How much research is involved with your current project? Is it all online, do you spend time at the library as well?
My dining table is covered with books by people who lived through the war.
What is your favorite Zappa album?
have one. I have been promising myself since time began to make my own because
I like some tracks from each album, but not all the tracks.
Was anyone living in the Houdini mansion across the street during your stay at the log cabin? Did you ever visit inside the home?
I love the ending of your book. Talk about what happened next, and what you did for the next five years.
I went to Cambridge university, studied economics and
psychology. Met my husband. Moved to Scotland. Lived there for seven years
where our son, Damian, was born. Lived in Norway, Australia and Singapore. We
are now back in England.
That Heartbreaking Blues and Other Complications: An Interview with Philip Cioffari
by Bill Wolak & Philip Cioffari
Cioffari’s meticulously crafted stories and novels explode like
street racing muscle cars burning rubber at the starting line in search of
dangerous fun, holy nostalgia, impossible love, and the exchange of dreams
across the back roads of America. Cioffari casts an attentive eye on whatever
appears through the wind-shield, but mainly what resonates throughout his work
is the uncanny, the off-beat, and the incongruous. He is the author of the
novels: If Anyone Asks, Say I Died From the Heartbreaking Blues; The Bronx
Kill; Dark Road, Dead End; Jesusville; Catholic Boys; and the short story
collection, A History of Things Lost Or Broken, which won the Tartt
Fiction Prize, and the D. H. Lawrence award for fiction. His short stories have
been published widely in commercial and literary magazines and anthologies,
including North American Review, Playboy, Michigan Quarterly Review,
Northwest Review, Florida Fiction, and Southern Humanities Review. He
is a playwright member of the Actors Studio in New York City. He has written
and directed for Off and Off-Off Broadway. His Indie feature film, which he
wrote and directed, Love in the Age of Dion, has won numerous awards,
including Best Feature Film at the Long Island Int’l Film Expo, and Best
Director at the NY Independent Film & Video Festival. He is a Professor of
English, and director of the Performing and Literary Arts Honors Program, at
William Paterson University.
Bill Wolak: Your latest novel is
entitled If Anyone Asks, Say I Died From the Heartbreaking Blues. Tell
me a little about the blues in the title and how it relates to the rest of the
Philip Cioffari: The “blues” in the title refers both to the tradition of blues music,
which is to say the expression of sadness, sorrow, and longing rendered via
music and voice into a beautifully crafted, aesthetically pleasing form; and
also the personal blues all of us, in one way another, feel at various points
in our lives. In my book, specifically, it is the blues of adolescence that
accompanies the search for self, love, and the sense of belonging to a world we
don’t yet understand. The actual title comes from an African-American folktale
about two mythical figures, Betty and Dupree, and the love that pulls them
In this novel, music is evoked on just about every page, beginning with that
enticing jukebox on the cover. Why did you highlight music throughout the text?
Music, in this case the popular music of the 1950s and 60s, is an integral part
of the characters’ lives. In a way, it is the soundtrack of their lives,
spinning out from radios, jukeboxes, record players. And since my novel is
basically a love story, music becomes inextricably involved with the search for
love. This was the time that Rock n’ Roll (Rhythm n’
Blues) was new. For the first time, teenagers had a music that was exclusively
their own. A music full of throbbing energy and passion, a parallel to the
energy and longing bubbling up inside of them. Every song was a celebration. I
hope that the use of music in the book helps capture some of that youthful
passion and longing.
The entire novel takes place in a single day. Is there a reason why you
compressed the action into such a brief amount of time?
I like to use a compressed time period for my novels. I find it raises the
tension and urgency of the story. After all, in real life the clock is always
ticking, time is running out—which, of course, adds urgency and poignancy to
each moment we live. It intensifies the “drama” of our lives. So, too, in
fiction: the dramatic element is heightened. I also like the idea of going deep
moment by moment—that is, exploring each step of my characters’ journeys,
including the silences, the moments when nothing seems to be happening, but
something is happening, always. At the risk of sounding too
esoteric, I like to convey the moments between moments. I like to pay attention
to those small, almost unnoticeable feelings and half-thoughts. This is easier
to do when the scope of the novel is shortened.
BW: You’ve been writing short stories, novels, and plays since
the 1970s. Do you tend to base your
fictional characters on people you have known or have heard about, or are they
more what one might term imaginative constructions–composites of
PC: I don’t have one person in mind as the
basis for a character. They seem to evolve out of my imagination, and, yes, I
suppose if I were to break them down they’d most often turn out to be
composites of people I’ve known. I don’t usually do
that, though. I prefer to experience them as imagined beings.
BW: One of your characters is described as “the unofficial
investigator of the mysteries of the universe.” Is this what you set out to explore
in your fiction, to examine aspects of the universe that remain mysterious?
PC: The mysteries within ourselves and within the world
at large are a primary fascination of mine. I’m intrigued by
the investigative process, the search for truth of one kind or another. The
more elusive the truth the more compelling to me.
BW: In the short story “Turns” from A History of Things Lost Or Broken,
the female dance instructor says, “. . . the turn transports us
gracefully from one state of being to another.” Do you tend to concentrate on the
sometimes banal and sometimes unexpected “turns” or choices
characters make in your short stories?
PC: Moving from one state, one feeling or one condition
to another is an imposition life places upon us. We’re continually
in motion. We must learn to make those moves and the more gracefully we can
make them, the better.
BW: As in your novel The Bronx Kill,
the most typical Cioffarian landscape is set in the Bronx, in the neighborhoods
where you grew up. Why do you think you
return so often to the streets, the els, the backalleys, the projects, and the
mud-flats of your youth when you write?
PC: I don’t really know. What I do know is those landscapes
haunt my imagination. They’re alive for me in a burning way. I
never seem to tire of them. In my latest novel, for example, the dance clubs of
the Bronx in 1960 had particular qualities that reinforced the cultural norms,
that in some ways predetermined the social interaction between boys and girls,
the difficulties and awkwardness that kept them apart. I tried to capture those
environments in order to provide a context for my characters’ actions.
BW: Parts of Catholic Boys take place in a a bomb shelter that
resembles a Borgesian labyrinth. Is that
bomb shelter sprawling underneath a vast apartment complex something you
actually experienced as a child?
PC: There was one similar to it in the housing project
where I lived. It was a fall-out shelter with long, barren hallways—what we, as
kids, named “The Hundred Halls.” There were an
endless number of carriage rooms and basement rooms that were dark and shadowy
and mysterious. For the novel I embellished the design somewhat.
BW: On the other hand, both of your novels Jesusville and Dark Road, Dead End take
place outside of New York. How did you go about researching the settings for
these two novels? Or did the stories develop out of the settings?
PC: A strong sense of place is something I strive for in all my writing.
In fact, I would go so far as to say it’s what gets my stories off the
ground. I can’t really write without having a firm physical and
emotional grasp of the setting. That’s why I always write about places I’ve been to,
where I’ve had the opportunity to feel what it’s like being
there: the quality of light, for instance, as it changes throughout the day;
the colors; the sounds; what the air smells like when you inhale. I also
believe that where something happens affects the way a character behaves. In fact, often
it seems my stories develop from a sense of place. In the case of Jesusville, I came across an article about a
defunct religious theme park somewhere in Connecticut. I was fascinated by the
photos and the descriptions of Biblical scenes that had fallen prey to
decomposition and neglect. About the same time, I came upon another article
about a retreat for troubled priests hidden away in the New Mexico desert.
Quite suddenly a landscape formed in my mind that contained both places. Soon
after, the characters began to take shape, one by one. I had to find a reason
why they would all end up there, and once they arrived, how they would be
affected by the stark beauty and isolation. From my visits to New Mexico, I had
come away with a distinct sense of its spiritual qualities, something I rarely
experienced elsewhere. I wanted to find a way to infuse my story with that
spirituality, hence my characters’ search for a rare hallucinogenic plant that
would allow them to see God. Dark
Road, Dead End grew out of my many visits to the southern tip of the
Everglades. I found that area to be captivating. I liked the end-of-the-road
feel of the place. The towns and settlements literally dead-ended against
swamp. There was no escape. Once there, you had to find a way to survive, or
die. Life was lived on the edge, a raw one at that. The physical world of marsh
and water and forest intrudes upon every aspect of existence. I talked to
whomever of the townsfolk who would talk to me. I wanted to hear about their
lives, the way they saw the world, and because the history of that area had
been so dominated by smuggling of one sort or another, it became a natural
setting for my environmental concerns—in this case, the smuggling of illegal
exotic animal species into the United States.
BW: How and when did you first conceive of Love in the Age of Dion,
the work that propelled you from fiction to theater and finally to film?
It began as a title for a short story: “Love in the Age of Dion.” A spin-off perhaps from the Garcia Marquez title,
Love in the Time of Cholera, though I can’t be sure, of course. Ideas generate from so many sources. In any
case, there it was: a title in search of a story. For several years it
rattled around in my head, yielding nothing more. I was a professor at a state university in New
Jersey, teaching creative writing, publishing stories in commercial and literary magazines.
This was 1998. That fall, the story came to me: Frankie, a man whose second
marriage has just fallen apart, returns after twenty years to his old
neighborhood in the Bronx, in search of his first love, hoping to re-capture
what he thinks of as the best days of his life. The neighborhood he knew has
changed, but his old hangout, a working man’s bar where he drank his first
beer, has survived: same bartender, same songs on the jukebox, memories for the
taking. He spends the evening there with Eddie, his best buddy from the old
days–who never left the neighborhood–and a woman who happens to be in the bar
that particular evening.
BW: After you had the basic plot and a setting, what was happening in your writing at that particular time to change the trajectory of the piece?
During this time I was studying playwriting at HB, an acting studio in
Greenwich Village. I’d begun the class as an
exercise, a way to develop my ear for dialogue. An editor at Doubleday had read a novel
of mine and made the observation that I told the story mostly through narrative, using
dialogue sparsely. Till then I’d never thought much about it. Narrative came naturally to
me, so I’d indulged myself. But her comment made me realize I was insecure about writing
dialogue; unconsciously, I’d been avoiding it.
BW: So studying playwriting became a strategy to
hone the dialogues in your fiction?
Yes, but I debated the issue a while. Why was dialogue so important? Jim
Harrison, after all, had written Legends of the Fall without a single
line of dialogue. On the other hand, so many best sellers relied heavily upon
it, and one couldn’t deny it greatly enlivened the pace and feel of a scene, to
say nothing of its use as a tool for revealing character. Writing plays seemed a likely way to get over
Did you ever publish the short story “Love in the Age of Dion?”
For some reason, I never sent the story out. Instead, over that winter break, I
wrote it as a one-act play. Shortly thereafter, it was produced at the American
Theatre of Actors in New York City and, though I was reasonably satisfied with
the outcome, I thought it ended abruptly. My lead character, Frankie, storms
out of the bar once he learns his old buddy has no intention of taking the trip
down memory lane with him. I wondered what would happen if Frankie didn’t walk
out, if he stayed to confront the past as Eddie remembered it, unglamorized,
thick with pain.
What was your connection to the American Theatre of Actors?
With the American Theatre of Actors, I simply submitted three one-act plays. I
had heard they were open to producing plays from new playwrights. They called
and offered to do two of them–one of them was the one-act version of “Love
in the Age of Dion.”
How did you modify the original ending of the one-act version?
PC: By writing a second act. Basically, I made
Frankie hang around and deal with the situation. That, in turn, led him to a
place he would never have reached if he’d simply run off. The final result was
a full-length version that had four characters, one setting. Ideal, from a producing point of view.
Where was the original two-act version of the play first produced?
It was first produced at the Belmont Italian American Playhouse, an equity
theatre in the Bronx, where it played weekends—Thursday through Sunday—from
October, 1999 until June, 2000, an almost nine-month run.
Before they produced your play, did you have any involvement with the Belmont
Italian American Playhouse?
My only prior involvement with the Belmont Playhouse was that I’d been
attending their plays for a number of years. I was impressed with the quality
of their work–the actors were superior, as was the director Dante Albertie. For
a small theatre they managed to get many favorable reviews from the NY Times,
the NY Daily News, and the NY Post. I knew they would do a good job with my
play and that I would be honored to be produced there.
Why do you think the Belmont Italian American Playhouse was so enthusiastic
about producing your play?
In many ways it was a perfect play for them. It was set in that neighborhood,
it made reference to Dion, the local hero, it had the urban flavor and
sensibility that they liked. I thought, if they don’t like it, I’m in big
After its run at the Belmont Italian American Playhouse, did you have any
possibilities to move the play to an Off-Broadway theater?
At that point, several producers took interest, with plans to move it to
Off-Broadway the next year, but 9/11 intervened and, in the wake of that
disaster, the plans were scrapped. However, I was fortunate enough to have an
enthusiastic and devoted cast who helped me stage a backer’s audition at the
Chelsea Playhouse in Manhattan. Again, there was interest. Drea De Matteo did a
staged reading of it before she was lured off to L.A. to star in the sequel to
the TV series, “Friends.” Ed Asner liked it enough to offer to do a staged
reading of it–as the bartender–the next time he was in New York. There were
murmurings again from producers, and again nothing came of it.
Is this about the time that you made the transition into directing?
The play lay fallow for several years. During that time I’d been gaining
experience as a director. I’d been taking classes in directing and, as luck
would have it, a position as director opened at my university; I began
directing in our black box theatre. I favored contemporary comedies, especially
the work of Christopher Durang, whose plays were so different in tone and mood
from the kind of plays I was writing. From directing students, I went to
directing Off-Off Broadway where I was both writing and directing. There’s a
school of thought in theatre circles that says playwrights should not direct
their own work, but I longed to do both. I didn’t want to be angry at someone
else for “ruining” my work, or for misunderstanding my intentions. If the
production turned out badly, I wanted no one to blame but myself.
BW: At that point in your career, you had been
writing and publishing fiction for a long time.
What prompted you to begin the daunting task of transforming the play
into a film?
At this time my fiction was at a standstill. I wouldn’t call it writer’s block
so much as writer’s plateau; I couldn’t reach higher ground. It was the fall of
2004 by then, and as the end of the year approached, I grew quite despondent.
New Year’s Eve I was hiking with my friend Bill, a TV producer, when he
suggested I make a movie. “You’ve got the script,” he said. “You’ve got some
great actors, and I can hook you up with a Director of Photography.” As a
bonus, he offered to serve as producer. He’d made this same suggestion several
times over the years, but I’d always found the prospect overwhelming. I didn’t
think I could pull it off. There was so much I didn’t know. I’d never been to
film school, never made a short, never even been on a shoot. It seemed too much
of an effort, too great a chance for failure.
So what intrigued you that New Year’s afternoon about Bill’s proposal?
PC: Maybe it was the cold, grey bleakness of the day, or the prospect of the long winter months ahead without any writing ideas on the horizon. Or maybe it was simply the rut I was in. Time to try something new. The next day I began writing the screenplay. In addition to the four characters in the play, I added Carmel, a friend of the sole female character. She was mentioned in the play but never appeared. For the film version I knew I needed some comic relief, as well as someone who could offer an objective view of the conflicts between the main characters. Carmel was the answer. I also had to “open up” the play. I wanted to get the characters out of the bar so I added outdoor scenes: on the street, in a playground, at the beach. In the play the events of the past are simply narrated, but in the film they could be dramatized fully and more effectively as flashbacks. And I forced myself to rely more heavily on visual
images to replace some of the dialogue.
One of your most courageous acts in the making of the film has to be that you
invested your own savings in the project.
Could you explain how you managed to finance the film?
PC: I knew the only way I was going to have
complete control over the creative content was if I financed it myself. So I
exhausted my savings account. Which isn’t as bad as it sounds. We kept expenses
to a minimum. Most people worked for nothing or for deferred compensation–so if
the movie gets distribution, I’ll owe them. Those who were paid worked for
reduced wages because they liked or had some interest in the script, or needed
BW: What was the first, crucial step that got
this project off the ground?
PC: In the months before the shoot, there was a never-ending list of things that had to be done. The first of them was scouting locations. In early February I began looking for a bar. Finding one, one that looked “right,” was crucial, since two-thirds of the script was set there. Without one, there could be no movie. The script is set in the Bronx, so I began there. Always a fan of authenticity, a Bronx bar for a Bronx movie seemed to me the right way to go. But this would be no easy task. Because the story is set in two time periods—1966 and 1992—I needed a place that hadn’t changed much over time. I also wanted one with character, with a lot of dark wood, old-fashioned mirrors, ceiling fans, an old jukebox, maybe even sawdust on the floors. And I needed one with a dance floor, and one large enough to accommodate my cast and crew—about twenty people—and all our equipment. Over a period of four months I must have looked at more than a hundred bars. I began at the Bronx/Yonkers line and worked my way down upper Broadway. I went to City Island, Arthur Avenue, Pelham Bay, Morris Park. Most of the bars I looked at had at least one disqualifying attribute: it was too small, or lacked character, or had been modernized. With those I liked, money was the problem. Given my budget, no one was willing to close down for the two weeks I needed. They’d been spoiled by shows like “Law & Order” which came in for a day or two and paid thousands of dollars. A few places offered to let me shoot during their off-hours, between 4 and 8 a.m., an impossible situation for my actors, who had day jobs.
How did you end up selecting the bar?
PC: Time was running out. I wanted to begin shooting in early June, and it was already May. At that point I had only one possibility. The Shannon. A dive bar under the El in Pelham Bay. The owner, a short-tempered 84 year old Irishman, was willing to close down for ten days so he could attend an Irish music festival in the Catskills. The price, $4,500, was something I was willing to pay, but the place had problems. For one thing it was small, tiny, and for another thing, we’d have to deal with the noise of the #6 train rumbling by every ten minutes or so. But worst of all, every inch of wall space and every shelf behind the bar was filled with Irish memorabilia—leprechauns, photos of the River Shannon, four-leaf clovers, you name it. My story was set in an Italian neighborhood. Which meant we’d have to spend at least a day dismantling the place and substituting Italian-American artifacts, and at least another day restoring the original décor, hoping the curmudgeonly owner wouldn’t notice upon his return. So with less than two weeks before our shoot date, I intensified my search. I looked in Brooklyn, Jersey, even Manhattan, which I knew would be prohibitive cost-wise—all to no avail. In a last-ditch effort I went back to the Bronx, to a section near Mosholu Parkway where I hadn’t yet looked. I checked every bar along Bainbridge Avenue and was about to give up. There was one bar left, Gorman’s, on the corner of 204th and Webster. I was so discouraged by that time I was resigning myself to dealing with the leprechauns. But I pushed myself on. The place was, if
not perfect, the best I’d seen. Old mirrors with dark wood trim and blue,
fluted lights, an old-fashioned black and white tiled floor, ceiling fans. A
throwback to an earlier time, a genuine relic. And luck was on my side. The bar
was closed for the summer, he informed me. He kept it open September to May for
the exclusive use of Fordham University students. Within minutes we reached an
agreement. Three thousand dollars for three weeks of shooting. He was happy for
the unanticipated income; I had a place to shoot my movie. And not a moment too
soon—a scant ten days before we were to begin shooting.
What was the next step after you had nailed down the bar?
PC: During the four months of my pub quest I was doing a hundred other things as well, not the least of which was putting together my cast and crew. My guiding principle was to find the most natural, ordinary-people types—the guy or girl you’d find sitting next to you at an outer borough bar. As with writing, I believe authenticity is the ultimate goal. For my two male leads, I decided to use the actors who starred in the play—Jerry Ferris and Tod Engle. Though not well known, they were excellent at their craft, and they played well together. For my female lead I went to Christina Romanello, an actress I’d seen in a play a few years back. One of my habits was to keep on file the headshots and resumes of actors I’d seen perform, and whose talent I admired. For the role of Carol, the long-lost first love, who would appear only in flashback, I wanted a certain look. I couldn’t describe that look, but knew I would know it when I saw it. I placed an ad in Backstage, the newspaper for aspiring actors, and received more than four hundred responses. Sorting through the head shots of these women, one more beautiful than the next, I came upon the photo of Marta Milans. I knew immediately she was the one I was looking for. Her audition bore that out. She was so moving in the portrayal of a woman with a broken heart, able to bring herself to tears in such a deeply felt and believable way, that she left those of us watching her speechless. For the supporting female role, my comic relief addition, I placed an ad on Mandy. com, an Indie filmmaker’s website. The woman I finally chose, Bridget Trama, unsure of the role at first, eventually came to exceed my expectations with her performance. And last but not least I found my bartender through a referral. Jack Ryland was the most experienced of my actors, a veteran of Broadway. Though hesitant at first—he wasn’t keen on making the trip from Manhattan to the Bronx—he finally signed on. And again, not a moment too soon: three days before we began shooting.
BW: What was
your rehearsal schedule like?
PC: We had time only for five or six rehearsals. We worked on rendering the material in a truthful way, and we did some basic blocking—most of which had to be re-done when we were on set.
BW: Where did you find the rest of the film’s crew?
PC: During the rehearsal process, Victor and I were also busy putting together a crew. He was able to bring in hard-working and dedicated film students to fill the roles of gaffer, grip, and script supervisor. Again, I used Mandy.com to find a Sound person, an Assistant Director, and an Art Director. I trusted my instincts—did they have experience? Could I work with them? Count on them? Would they accept the wage I could offer? My brother-in-law doubled as line producer and production manager, and my sister volunteered to make sure we had enough to eat and drink on set.
BW: How long did it take to shoot the film?
PC: We shot the movie in seventeen days in June. I was free for the summer, but most of the cast had day jobs, so we filmed nights and weekends. The first ten days we spent in the bar, beginning about 6 p.m. The first few hours were consumed with setting the lights and getting the actors made up; shooting began about nine o’clock. Each day I re-wrote the scenes for that night’s shoot, mostly cutting dialogue. I had to keep reminding myself of the sparse language of film.
BW: Were there
any unexpected problems during the filming?
PC: For each night of
the shoot, Murphy’s Law applied: what can go wrong,
will go wrong. For one thing, we hadn’t counted on
the loudness of the buses that bullied
their way down the avenue every fifteen minutes or so, or the salsa music that blasted
from the open windows across the street. Nor did we anticipate the thumping noises
that emanated from the apartment above the bar—the superintendent’s children having
their innocent fun running or jumping or bouncing balls or beating their dolls
against the floorboards. So many sounds we pay little attention to in ordinary
when you’re filming and need absolute quiet the smallest sounds assume the proportions
of an explosion. Naturally, I pleaded with the super to control his children. As
for the buses and salsa, we simply had to work around them.
BW: Your nights of
filming in the bar sound exasperating.
How did the outdoor scenes go?
PC: The outdoor shoots were more enjoyable, though I’d been
dreading having to deal
with so many more forces out of our control. After so many nights in the bar,
it was a relief
to get out into the bright sunshine. And the problems we encountered were
my own making. The Mayor’s Office of Film Development never returned my calls, and
I was too busy to chase after them. Hence, no permits. When we shot in the
kept changing trains every ten minutes, whenever we suspected the conductor was
us. This was three days before the London subway bombings, after which security
so tight on NYC transit lines we would surely have been arrested, our camera confiscated,
and we would have been subject to heavy fines.
BW: So all the
outdoor shoots went well?
PC: No, we weren’t as fortunate on our playground shoot. We began early Sunday morning, thinking we could get in and out before anyone noticed. There was only one five-minute scene we needed to shoot. Things went well for most of the morning. We had maybe twenty or thirty seconds of script to shoot when the Parks Department showed up in the person of a brawny, no-nonsense woman who told us to pack up immediately and clear out, or else be subject to arrest. We packed up immediately and cleared out. But we had to finish the scene. While the cast cooled off in our rented air-conditioned van, Victor and I drove frantically around the Bronx in search of another playground that would match the one we were forced to leave. We found one some twenty blocks south, in a poor neighborhood where dealers were plying their trade and junkies were shooting up near the swings. Within minutes we’d attracted a crowd of several hundred who lined up along the fence to watch. The part of the scene we were shooting involved a fight between a white man and a black man. The tension building in the crowd was palpable; a few of the actors were getting nervous, but I insisted we stick it out. We finished the scene and moved on. Our last day of shooting—and our biggest challenge—took place at the beach. It was
a scorching hot day and we had several emotionally intense scenes to film. When
scouted the location, the place was quiet, ideal for filming, but not so on the
day of the shoot. The beach, it turned out, was on a
direct flight path to La Guardia airport a few miles
across Long Island Sound. Jets came roaring over us every sixty seconds. We had
to constantly stop the actors—sometimes in mid-sentence—and hold until the
over, then begin shooting again. What amazes me to this day is how flawless the
were, able to stop and start without losing focus, without dropping a
line, without losing
the emotion of the moment.
BW: How would you compare the process of writing fiction to
the process of filmmaking?
PC: There’s a tremendous difference in the way you fix
mistakes. Movie problems are also much more varied. If you make a mistake in
fiction, if you don’t like the way a sentence turns out, you simply erase it
and do it again. If you make a mistake filming, it costs a considerable amount
of time–hence, money–to re-shoot, so you’re continually under pressure to get
it right as quickly as possible. In fiction, your sole concern is with words
and making them serve your creative imagination. In film, your creative
impulses are held hostage by so many annoying and frustrating technical and
practical concerns. Case in point: many scenes in the script were set at night.
Well, night lighting was too prohibitive in cost and time, so those scenes had
to be converted to daytime. In fiction, you want rain, you put in rain. In
low-budget Indie film making, forget about it. Who had time to wait for a rainy
day, or the equipment to get it lit properly?
And always, every minute of every shoot, the curse of Murphy’s Law is
hanging over your head. Yet I consider it one of my personal triumphs that I
learned to make whatever adjustments were necessary, that I learned to convert
obstacles into advantages, that we always found a way.
BW: How would you describe the kind of pressure you were under
while you were shooting?
PC: For those seventeen days I lived in a zombie haze. Part of that was physical exhaustion. I wasn’t sleeping much, nor sleeping well. I had no appetite. After our night shoots which wrapped up between one and two a.m., I would drive the cast into Manhattan, making my last drop-off at close to four in the morning. Then I drove back to my apartment in Jersey. When I fell asleep, my dreams were anxiety-ridden—about camera angles and dialogue changes, and lighting and sound problems for which I could find no solution. And part of that zombie haze came from mental and emotional overload. Too many details, large and small, to remember, but all of them necessary—from making certain the actors were staying truthful on camera to wondering if the dinner would arrive on time; and though my small crew was the most devoted and helpful a director could hope for, I was the one, finally, responsible for getting the movie made, for making sure it was the best movie we were capable of. I don’t want this to sound like a complaint. I wanted to be
in control, that’s why I wanted to both write and direct. And the
control freak part of my personality reveled in this.
BW: Do you have
any regrets about what happened during the shooting of the film?
PC: I can’t say I had as much fun on the set as I might have
liked; I was too busy for that,
but I have to say when we finished shooting on that last day, the sense of
peace and accomplishment
was like nothing I’d ever experienced.
Of course, shooting the film is only half the battle. What was your experience of mixing the film
PC: The technical process of taking what we’d shot and turning it into a movie began soon after we finished shooting. A film is made on the cutting room floor, the cliché goes. I remember what Jack Haigis, my editor, said the night I dropped off the twenty-two hours of videotape we’d shot. ‘The first thing we have to do is see if we even have a movie here.” What he meant, of course, was whether the collection of individual scenes was sufficient to make a complete and integrated piece, with a beginning, middle and end.
BW: How did you
find your film editor?
PC: Jack was one of the more than two hundred and fifty
editors who responded to my ad on Mandy: Indie filmmaker seeks experienced
editor. Low pay. Sorting through the resumes, I recognized his name
immediately. He’d edited two of my favorite urban dramas: Straight Out of
Brooklyn, and Graves End. When I sent him the script and he agreed
to take me on, I was overjoyed. By day he worked at a full-fledged editing
studio in Manhattan, and by night he worked out of his apartment in
Westchester. Each morning I’d go through the raw footage, select my preferred takes,
and bring them to him in the evening. We worked this way for several months. I
got to see the film take shape in bits and pieces until finally one night he
declared, “We have a movie,” and we went
out for pizza and beer to celebrate.
BW: What remained
after you had mixed a rough cut of the film?
PC: Jack added
BW: Was the film
ready for viewing at this point?
PC: Yes, so I arranged to screen it at my university before a small audience of colleagues and students. What had appeared to be minor imperfections on a TV-sized monitor loomed large and egregious on the big screen. There were radical, jarring discrepancies in lighting and color from scene to scene. Some scenes were under-lit, some over-lit. The light in the bar was too bright, more appropriate for a luncheonette than what was supposed to be a gritty beer and shot night spot. In short, it looked awful. I was thoroughly embarrassed, overwhelmingly depressed. It seemed that eight months of effort had ended in failure.
BW: What did you
PC: I brought it back to my editor. “Not to worry,” Jack said. “That’s what post-production labs are for.”Several months and several thousand dollars later the film finally looked presentable. The lab was able to make the lighting and color look natural and consistent. They were even able to add shadow to the bar scenes to give them a moodier and
more appropriate feel. At last I had a ninety-minute version of the film that I
without cringing, a version which didn’t distract from the skillful work of the
the story I wanted to tell.
BW: What is your goal for the film now?
PC: The ultimate goal of this process is, of course, to find distribution, preferably theatrical or TV distribution first, then distribution in the home DVD market. The route to this, if you’re not well-connected in the film industry, is via film festivals. The process is roughly akin to publishing in literary magazines before a big house decides to take you on.
BW: Have you
entered it in any film festivals?
PC: I chose not to submit to the top-tier festivals like
Sundance and Tribeca, which receive
three to four thousand entries per year and where one is competing against movies
with big stars and multi-million dollar budgets. I opted for the smaller
truly independent festivals which receive a mere one to two thousand entries,
big name actors. I was fortunate that in
the first festival I entered, the Long Island International
Film Expo, my film won the Best Feature Film award. What a thrill to sit in a dark
theatre and watch an audience of strangers react to your work. Love in the Age of Dion went onto win a Best Actor award and a nomination for Best
Director at the Hoboken International
Film Festival, a nomination for Best Film at the Staten Island Film Festival, a
Best Director Award from the NY Independent Film & Video Festival, and was
an official selection at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, and the
New Filmmakers New York series at Anthology Film Archives.
BW: One of your early experiences in the film industry was as
a movie reviewer for Penthouse Magazine.
How did you come by that job and what did it involve?
PC:Penthouse had bought several of my short stories and basically liked my
writing. They knew of my interest in movies and asked if I’d like to review
films for them. Of course, I accepted. Being a movie reviewer seemed like a
dream job. In reality, I became quickly disenchanted. For one thing, going to
the movies became a job and an obligation rather than something freely chosen
for pleasure. I had to see whatever was out at the time, usually two or three
movies a week, many of them mainstream Hollywood movies which held no interest
for me. My tastes ran to more obscure independent or European movies that often
were not well known enough for the magazine to want to print a review. But I
will say I liked being able to attend advance screenings which were held in
plush screening rooms in Manhattan. They made sure we reviewers had popcorn and
soda, whatever we needed to help us enjoy the experience.
BW: Over the years,
which filmmakers would you say have exerted the most influence on you?
PC: I’ve always been drawn to the gritty, urban realism 50s
dramas like Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” or the Hecht-Lancaster
productions of “The Bachelor Party,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” and “A
Hatful of Rain.” I loved the American New Wave films of the 60s and 70s,
especially Bob Rafaelson’s movies, “Five Easy Pieces,” and “King
of Marvin Gardens.” And, of course, I’m a great admirer of the Italian and
French New Wave, especially the work of Da Sica, Visconti, Antonioni, Fellini,
and Truffaut, to name a few.
BW: Do you have a favorite film?
PC: Hard to pick a single film, but certainly in the top tier
I’d put “The Deer Hunter,” “The Bicycle Thief,” and the
aforementioned 50s film, “The Bachelor Party.”
BW: Over the
years, you have maintained a regimented writing discipline. Could you describe your daily writing
PC: I write usually 3-6 hours in the morning, seven days
BW: Which short story writers, novelists, playwrights, and poets do you
think have had the greatest influence on your writing?
PC: Certainly Graham Greene, Tennessee Williams, William
Faulkner, Paddy Chayefsky, Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor. And
newer writers like Kem Nunn and Newton Thornburg and David Rabe.
BW: Who were your most inspiring teachers?
PC: Certainly Anatole Broyard (fiction) and Claude
Underwood (Acting) at the New School. M. L. Rosenthal (Poetry) at NYU, and
William Packard (Playwriting) at HB Studio.
Works by Philip Cioffari available on Amazon.com: If Anyone Asks, Say I Died From the Heartbreaking Blues The Bronx Kill Dark Road, Dead End Jesusville Catholic Boys A History of Things Lost Or Broken
Wolak is a poet, collage artist, and photographer who lives in New Jersey and
has just published his eighteenth book of poetry entitled All the Wind’s
Unfinished Kisses with Ekstasis Editions. He has published interviews with the following
poets, writers, and artists: Anita Nair (India), John Digby (United Kingdom),
Dileep Jhaveri (India), Gueorgui Konstantinov (Bulgaria), Naoshi Koriyama
(Japan), Sultan Catto (United States), Ilmar Lehtpere (Estonia), Jeton Kelmendi
(Kosovo), Yesim Agaoglu (Turkey),
Mahmood Karimi Hakak (United States), Srinivas Reddy (United States), Chryssa
Nikolakis (Greece), Philip Cioffari (United States), Yongshin Cho (Korea),
Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis) (Canada), Jami Proctor Xu (United States),
Stanley H. Barkan (United States), Annelisa Addolorato (Italy), and William
Heyen (United States).
Janée J. Baugher: As an undergraduate in the 1970s, you had a rich introduction to poets and politics.
Judith Skillman: Yes, as a student at University of Maryland, I studied with Rod Jellema, Ann Darr, Reed Whittemore, and others. The visiting poets at that time included Galway Kinnell, Tess Gallagher, Stanley Kunitz, and others. Because UM didn’t yet have an MFA program, I studied English Literature with an emphasis on creative writing. Supportive criticism was not in vogue then. Peers in workshops would make statements like, “This poem is shit.” Whether or not someone’s poem is crap, it takes a thick skin to continue to write after feeling eviscerated by your peers.
Richard Brautigan came to Western
Maryland College (now McDaniel College) when I was an undergraduate. His
anti-war poems were so resounding at that time. I was politically active when I
was young, joining campaign groups, manning the phones, wearing buttons, and
handing out fliers. Working at campaign headquarters in proximity to Washington
DC was exciting. When my daughter Lisa was born and only a few months old my
mom and I went, all dressed in white, to the Women’s Rights March at the
Washington Monument. I was a feminist then, and a member of NOW, for which I
did freelance work.
As a child who had to go down into
the bomb shelter during the Cuban missile crisis, I have been aware that the world
could go nuclear since I was nine. I won’t forget the trauma of walking down to
the underground cafeteria carrying my blanket and lunch. One can barely watch
three seconds of news before being reminded of the brutality of mankind.
Since moving to the Seattle-area,
I’ve had the privilege of taking workshops from Beth Bentley, Patiann Rogers, William
Stafford, Madeline DeFrees, David Wagoner, Jana Harris, Marvin Bell, David
Wojahn, and Andrei Codrescu, to name a few. At Port Townsend Writer’s
Conference in 1995 I met the illustrious Jack Gilbert. We kept up a modest
correspondence for a few years. He taught me that when you revise your poems, it’s good to be aware of the
difference between fancy and imagination, particularly with
associative material. Fancy is contrived, whereas the imagination is defined as
the “mind’s eye.” Fancy fits under imagination, and not vice versa. Although
it’s employed under the verb, fancy is a “faculty of the imagination.” We want
leaps that follow a subconscious thread. We don’t want to impress the reader
(s/he doesn’t exist when we’re writing, anyway) with ostentation, showiness, or
flamboyance. Keep it understated—that’s a good measuring stick with which to
judge images that run rampant. Prune adjectives—another way to resist the
ornate. Write from feeling, not from intellectualizing or over-thinking. Pay
attention to your dreams and the songs that get stuck in your head.
JB: In our digital age, I wonder if “letter to a young poet” correspondence relationships are still happening. How much did you gain as a writer, for example, with your epistle relationship with Jack Gilbert?
JS: I learned so much from Jack. He was single-minded in his passion for writing, and lived a monkish life, rarely leaving the cottage at Centrum where I was his neighbor for a month. After I gathered up the courage, I showed him a poem, which was, I think, about deer—there were many deer in Port Townsend—he pointed to a few lines in the middle of the piece and asked me pointblank “Is this fancy or imagination?” I remember being both puzzled and fascinated by the question. So we talked about the quality of fancy and how it differs from the imagination. He took it upon himself to teach me this lesson, which has become extremely important as years go by. Fancy is contrived. Jack had an eye and an ear for whatever is fake, forced, strained, artificial, affected, or put on.
While I was under his informal
mentorship, Jack spent not a small amount of time discouraging me from continuing
to write poetry. He said that there was no point in it, as so few poets would
get a job even at the community college level. Yet he continued to support me
in my work, as we exchanged letters over the course of ten years or so. I have
saved these for their truthfulness. I learned something of his “métier”—to
write a poem a week while enjoying the “meanwhile.” For him, the idol of so
many poets and non poets alike, the act of writing was one of communication
with a wide audience while living a solitary, frugal life.
I recall, when I saw his kitchen
table, that there was a letter from The
New Yorker soliciting his work. I asked incredulously “Aren’t you going to
send them something?” To my surprise, he replied with a shrug. This was not an
act. It was the gift of a great poet bestowed upon someone struggling for
recognition—a gesture that said everything I needed to know and to remember. The
writing is what Gilbert was after. Sitting with his feelings and letting them
percolate and finding out what was in there that had resonance; what could
become a surprise or the hidden meaning in a broken relationship. It was not
the acquisition of a reputation, fame, or fortune. This despite the Yale
Younger Poets Award, and the fact that he told stories of walking around with
Pound in Italy. He spoke much of his wife Michiko, whom he mourned with an
altar on his dresser in each place he landed. This self-imposed reclusion despite
having been nominated for the Pulitzer at the same time as William Carlos
Williams made him truly unique.
JB: How does a person leap from being a student of poetry to having published eighteen poetry collections?
JS: When I had my first child, my mom was very supportive. She said, “Babies sleep a lot. Why don’t you enroll in law school?” So, after I attended one semester, I turned to poetry, which people are wont to do. Anyhow, shortly after I quit school and began writing, I made a decision. “I’m a poet,” I began telling people. I turned to magic realism, the fiction of Borges, and lapped-up the language of Mark Twain. I wrote poems and was, therefore, a poet. Simple as that.
JB: Is poem-making for you like creating sand mandalas? Normally, I wouldn’t mention obsession, but, given how prolific you’ve been throughout your life, what would you say about the compulsion to writing thousands of poems?
JS: Making is the thing. Poets write the same poem over and over, similar to mandalas. What lasts? Why do we do the things that we do? This isn’t something one needs to overthink, nor should one. The War of Art is a book that, for me, explains the necessity of overcoming one’s resistance to succumbing to one’s innate passions. Why do we have so much resistance? It seems that the “maker” in each writer does have a war to fight, against her/his own inner critic.
As humans we are especially
self-critical. The internal voice demands to know why on earth the “I”—that is,
the ego—would expend itself to serve the self. There has to be some gain,
right? Some recognition for all the work that goes into creating a unique
package of words—a poem, a novel, a memoir, or a screenplay. A piece of visual
art, or sculpture—even an entrepreneurial endeavor. What is the pay off? I
learned a lot when Tibetan monks visited my son’s college (Reed College, Portland,
Oregon). They spent a number of days creating beautiful mandalas of sand. My
son played pool with one of the monks each evening. Parents came on the day
these works of art were to be thrown in the river that flows through the
campus. There they would turn to milk, all color gone, nothing left to identify
any one of the particular, unique pieces.
Poem-making is the same process. We
bring the inner beauty and magnitude of our thoughts out on paper. The
exquisite moments of that are personal to the extreme. Will anything come of
this act? Will the endeavor last? This is not for the maker to decide, nor to
concern him or herself with. It is an act of relinquishment.
Obsession plays a part, as in,
possibly, OC syndrome—in that a writer may not feel grounded unless they are
playing and replaying some incident in thought, and mimicking this by
repetitive behavior. For me, the act of writing poems (and I have dabbled in
fiction and essay writing, and written reviews as well) is a welcome respite
from the daily grind. Simply sitting still within one’s writing place, whether
it is a corner carved out of another room or a room of one’s own, stills
habitual thought patterns. Reading and mulling over events become a kind of
practice that yields, at times, unexpected results. Sometimes I find myself
sitting very still and a strong feeling wells up. It may be uncomfortable. Life
is full of grief, for instance, though we prefer to talk about the weather.
There are the numerous transitions our children go through, aging parents,
financial problems—you name it.
So the compulsion to write poems,
while it resembles other repetitive acts, is completely different. In the act
of feeling and subsequently writing down what comes to mind without censoring
that material, some seed appears. Perhaps the would-be poem remains a fragment.
That’s fine. Fragments can be pieced together or lead to sequences. If the
internal censor can be vanquished from the room, the act of piecing words
together based on either a form or free verse or associations (I prefer the
latter) can lead in surprising directions. Connections may not be clear at the
time. It’s a form of day dreaming, or, perhaps, in the best case, of dreaming
JB: Some writers have spent a lifetime writing about the mundane, but you’ve found artistic fodder in the subject of trauma. Robert Frost reminds us, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Is it trauma’s dramatic occasion, its personal significance, or its intrinsic tension that interests you?
JS: My personal traumatic experiences go as far back as I can remember. My childhood tonsillectomy, for example. Instead of getting ice cream I vomited three bedpans of blood, and had to stay overnight in the hospital alone. Parents did not stay with children in the sixties! I had hallucinations of spiders; climbed out of my metal crib and wandered down the hallways only to be stiffly reprimanded by a nurse. As a writer writing of tragedies, it’s curious to me how and why I remember these sorts of details so vividly. I barely remember my graduations from high school and university, but those imagined spiders from my childhood still haunt me…
So your question is salient. I
would say all three of these come into play—the dramatic occasion that lingers
or malingers in the mind, the personal significance, and the tension and/or
angst provided by the memory. It demands to be exorcised. I am not sure why my
happier memories aren’t stronger. Somehow it’s the wounds that want to come out
of the closet when I write. I have tried to change this. Public readings about
unpleasant events—these poems are not leavened by humor in the slightest—leave
me feeling the audience is not only getting depressed, but I am too. Of course
there are exceptions. But by and large, perhaps because of expectations that
may have set me up for an easier path through life, my attraction to the trauma
has not diminished with the years.
JB: While writing-through-trauma isn’t new, the current zeitgeist is making the mode even more relevant and necessary. While we usually don’t think about the biographical elements of Robert Frost’s poetry, the fact remains that he was a man long traumatized by his loved ones’ diseases, mental illnesses, and sudden deaths. “Home Burial” is a remarkable illustration of that gulf that exists between people caught between the dead and the living. Do you feel as though you’re a poet who writes through tragedies and trauma?
JS: Yes, and there’s so much to unpack. I’ve tackled topics from childhood illnesses to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Rimbaud was right when he wrote, “Too bad for the wood that finds itself a violin.” I think artists of every discipline, compared to the average person, have more acute sensory awareness. Often this manifests in a heightened sensitivity of the body. For example, Wordsworth has a poem about chronic insomnia; it’s his third night without sleep and he invokes God. Sleeplessness erodes confidence. Insomnia is both humbling and insistent, as is chronic pain. One feels one can’t trust the body, its impulses when young, and its ongoing ever-increasing sensibilities and foibles as we age.
JB: Your treatment of writing-through-trauma is resolute and understated, and the mystery is palpable. You span subjects such as illnesses, disease, depression. W.H. Auden was precise when he wrote, “About suffering they were never wrong.” In your Journal of American Medical Association poems, there’s surprise in the juxtaposition of beauty and pain. There’s something ethereal beyond or somewhere within the imagery of tragedy, trauma, suffering.
JS: The fact that MFA writing programs may be offering a new track, writing-through-trauma, is interesting. One of the first “trauma” poems I wrote was “Written on Learning of Arrhythmia in the Unborn Child”. The title describes exactly when this was written—after an ultrasound late in the first trimester of pregnancy, when my then unborn third child had an arrhythmic heart beat. The uneven heartbeat became just the tip of the iceberg, as a subsequent ultrasound revealed that she only had one working kidney. The title “Written On Learning of….” might be an inherent preface for each poem written out of a traumatic experience.
I believe the authenticity of the
work depends upon a sliver of disengagement from actual events—an ability to
detach, even if just momentarily, from the object or subject of one’s shock. After
shock comes fear, and that seems more ordinary. Perhaps by ordinary I mean that
fear in the context of daily necessities can become uncomfortable, but subject
to avoidance. Daily routine presses onward, and any space one might have for
contemplation is lost. By its nature, shock includes a surreal element, but
this can make it easier and, in fact, feel safer, to look away from the
abnormality of the experience—to discount strong emotions and move on with
problem solving. Of course, at the time, I was in a state of shock, as prior to
this I had two healthy children by natural childbirth. That is not to say they
didn’t have any problems, but the early illnesses they experienced were garden
variety compared to this set of issues.
JB: So, while that poem, “Written On Learning of Arrhythmia,” published by Poetry over 30 years ago was your first trauma-related poem, it certainly wasn’t your last. Is it true that for the last 25 years you’ve had over 25 poems published in the Journal of American Medical Association?
JS: Yes. It was at the time of my third child’s major surgery, which required an eight-day stay at Children’s hospital in Seattle, and she came home with tubes in her kidneys and bladder, that I wrote “The Body Especial,”—my first poem published in JAMA’s Poetry and Medicine column. The subjects of my JAMA poems have included, diagnoses such as Hashimoto’s disease, Epstein-Barr, post vitreous detachment, tinnitus, spasmodic torticollis, traumatic brain injury, shingles, serum sickness, and diagnostic procedures such as mammograms, echocardiograms, and biopsies.
While I have had personal resonance
with this list of subjects, my first concern is honoring the energy of the
moment in which I write. When various maladies are diagnosed, words get
involved and that becomes exciting. There is the challenge to discover not only
what the word holds, but what the body is holding onto. Our bodies know more
than we do about how events in our ever-changing environment influence our
lives. I found the term “Spasmodic Torticollis” very funny even as I
experienced the pain of a wrenched neck. It does sound like an Italian dish, so
the poem’s first line was a found line.
JB: As a poet who battles chronic pain, you’ve mentioned to me the importance of having read Sarah Anne Shockley’s book, The Pain Companion. Will you discuss the correlation between intellectualizing and managing your pain with writing about it imaginatively?
JS: Well, there is a depth of fury and rage when one’s body doesn’t function normally. Often this anger turns inward, towards oneself. That is unproductive and exacerbates the condition. You have to choose how you want to relate to your pain. I can’t trust the body, and have rarely felt comfortable in my own skin.
Writing, however, helps establish a
foundation for trust in reality. There is a tremendous amount of release
available when one can take to a private place such as a poem with one’s
feelings—the heartache engendered by trauma. It isn’t a panacea by any means,
but writing holds the moment in place. By anchoring an event with words, the
experience becomes externalized, and makes shock more bearable.
So while I feel rather like a
magnet for trauma, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to express these
events of varying kinds and proportions in the form of verse. While there is
little to recommend about trauma, except perhaps the ability to empathize with
others who experience it, we all live through deeply distressing experiences.
Just being born is a critical condition for the human infant, who relies on his
or her parents to meet each and every need for a full year, as compared to
other mammals, who are born and learn to fend for themselves in a relatively
JB: Writing-through-trauma seems like a method by which a writer can actually claim an event that she herself couldn’t control. By writing a script in which beauty collides with trauma, a writer can orchestrate a slowing down, a way of regaining command of a life that’s vast and unpredictable. In that spirit, talk to me about the poem, “You’ll Never Heal.”
JS: I have been inspired to write by new traumatic events that seem to spring up continually and leave scars. “You’ll Never Heal” was written after one of my children had a serious car accident. It speaks of the sensibility of a shock experience from mother to daughter. I know for myself healing doesn’t necessarily happen in the actual world. In the ideal, of course, we want and expect that restoration and exactitude: that our loved one will emerge unmarred, unscarred. The thing about poems is that verse, at least for me, can capture the moment better than autobiographical prose can.
Though they say it could have been worse, give you ice and pills, nothing bandages the millisecond you can’t remember
or the afterwards, a shock wave traveling in slow motion through your knee, your back, neck and stomach.
Though they say the limp will disappear, you feel as if cottonwood fell to the curb to be collected by the accident and packed into the ball and socket.
This kind of snow never melts. Through glass you watch the great hulk of mountain, that part you can see, its summit clipped by cloud, frame, pall.
(Preprinted with permission from Came Home to Winter, Deerbrook Editions 2019)
JB: My favorite Anne Sexton quote concerns her label as a confessional poet: “I often confess to things that never happened.” I wonder if “Writing through Trauma” is just the 21st century term for “Confessional” writing? What’s your take on the mode of writing-through-trauma? Do you consider your writing about trauma to be confessional? Is trauma a matter for art? While there’s an inherent autobiographical nature to writing-through-trauma, my question to you is how can writers ensure that their work doesn’t succumb to self-indulgence?
JS: I would say stick with the experience, stay true to the details, and keep yourself present to what happened. Also, follow the mood, if and when that develops. Think of a mood as a guide forward into the material that needs to be accessed and brought back into the light in order to be examined under a microscope. Use your senses, all five, and the sixth sense if it can be accessed, to avoid self-pity. Know that you are not alone—trauma is experienced every day by everyone, even if it is present as the affront of a wooden table to a toddler who is learning how to navigate a living room. When the pity and confession begin, allow yourself to feel that, but don’t engage overlong. The smallest child moves forward with mercurial changeability from crying to laughing, and in a split second is on to the next thing. That’s a good lesson.
JB: So, is that to say that your primary concern in poem-making is image development versus writing on the facts of a certain situation? Writing-through-trauma for you isn’t a means of catharsis?
JS: I think it goes both ways. The first impetus is “Let’s get this thing that feels like being slimed out of my body…let’s make it into words, because it is too awful to retain inside.” The facts are the facts and they are important. This experience happened. It was shocking and surprising. It made me feel angry, upset, hurt; it caused pain and suffering. I am still here, however, and looking out at a world that doesn’t seem to care that this happened. In fact, people can distance themselves from their loved ones who suffer—this occurs much more often than one might like to think. Pain and suffering are scary and uncomfortable. They remind others of their own pain. Clearly PTSD and its attendant emotions can become a toxic and isolating concoction.
So what in nature does this
feeling-experience resemble? That’s where image development comes in. There’s
an organic part to being human. We try to pretend that our animal qualities
don’t exist. We have our cities, our high rises, concrete, pavement—we’ve
covered civilization with a flat veneer of ‘enlightenment’. Despite this, if,
when wounded by our own bodies, we turn back to the natural world, there are
abundant examples of scarred trees, burnt vistas, branchings, tramplings,
floods, and randomness. Many images are available to translate our feelings
into words. The correspondence of image to situation may or may not ease the
current situation. It is not something to be done for the purpose of catharsis.
That may backfire, because any purpose can become pat, forced, studied, and
artificial—again, can be fancy.
JB: Speaking of the autobiographical elements in your writing, you’ve had physical injuries, hereditary maladies, social trauma, and chronic pain, all of which have been given voice in your poetry. Will you discuss the struggles inherent to using personal pain as a subject for poetry?
JS: I’ve always had a sensitive constitution. Acute sensory awareness, sympathetic pains, feeling deeply about things, people. A propensity for worry. I’ve felt shame, guilt (some milieu-induced and some society-specific) about my chronic pain, but that never prevented me from writing about it. Trauma is omnipresent and omnipotent, which is to say that no one’s immune. I’ve done research on PTSD, and still I cannot figure out why some people are consumed by it and some people seen to be inoculated from it.
JB: In your poem, “Biopsy,” which ends with the words, “She couldn’t feel / more like a hostage / were she to don / the bee’s jacketed stripes, / the garb of the jail,” there’s a curious string of associations from needle to sting to bee to imprisonment. Do these associations come easily for you in the creative process, or do you made these conscious links during revision?
JS: They simply arrived, in this case. The associative process was working—all I had to do was get out of the way. Of course this doesn’t always happen. I think in this case the links were internalized from having been stung by wasps, bees, and hornets some twenty times while growing up in Maryland. Physicians and/or nurses often use the phrase “This will feel like a bee sting”…again the process is dipping into what’s already there, waiting to be found.
JB: When I substitute taught your Richard Hugo House class, “Generating Associative Verse,” I puzzled over who were my favorite associative poets. In that class I realized that your poetic associative moves are the ones I most admire. One of my favorites is your punctuation-free poem, “Tiny Animals,” which has that bullet train feeling:
in blown glass on shelves Wedgewood plates stacked on the buffet for company quilted place mats salt and pepper shaker from Tahiti horns of ivory rhinoceros don’t you dare touch else the host will bellow you’ll become the child who ran into winter jumped the fence to fall on concrete where a shard entered your palm look at the cicatrix like a tattoo a little leg pulled from flesh
published in Hamilton Stone Review
JS: It’s the subconscious that knows best, so the question then becomes how to access that part of our minds when we go to write. Sensation seems to be the driving force for a poem, especially one of an associative nature. “Tiny Animals” is one of my personal favorite associative poems also. It’s impossible to explicate why, except perhaps that when I look at it now there are concrete images and explicit warnings. The injury experienced by the ‘you’—“you’ll become the child” is a splinter from one of those “Tiny Animal(s)”—but how does the piece move from beginning to end without knowing consciously that there would be a convergence? Because it (the unconscious/subconscious part) is the best tool available to any writer.
JB: Will you talk about the image-and thread-driven nuances of associative writing?
JS: In writing associatively, it’s the subconscious that knows best what material is of the utmost importance for addressing—or for feeling our way—through a specific subject matter. So the question becomes how to access that part of our minds when we sit down to write. Dreams are poem-like; associative poems can be dream like, and are compared to Hieronymus Bosch by Richard Hugo: “When you see a painting by Hieronymus Bosch your immediate impression may be that he was a weirdo. A wise man once told me he thought Bosch had been a cynic, and the longer I thought about this the truer it seemed… Had Bosch concerned himself with the relative moral or aesthetic values of the various details, we would see more struggle and less composure in the paintings themselves. The details may clash with each other, but they do not clash with Bosch. Bosch concerned himself with executing the painting—he must have—and that freed his imagination, left him unguarded…One way of getting into the world of the imagination is to focus on the play rather than the value of words…” (from The Triggering Town)
JB: Besides the propulsion of associations through your poems, will you enlighten me about the irreducible relationship between your titles and your first lines. There’s so much happening in that white space! The poetic leaps don’t feel like leaps at all; they feel more like scaling a German wall. Here are some of my favorite title/first line combinations from your selected, The Phoenix, 2007-2013: Wind—Like pain it came and left by halves; House of Burnt Cherry—Here the martyr and the porcupine; Extinction’s Cousin—I came back for scraps; and November Moon, Past Full—Pours its dead, mimetic light.
JS: In that white space, the poems take-off, so to speak. I think that exists because of the need strongly felt in the body to write the poem. It’s more of a mood or a feeling than an idea. Ideas are the enemy of associative writing; the goal is to allow ourselves access to what’s frozen, or invisible, below the tip of the iceberg. The feeling that drives the poem’s initial impulse and its title come almost in tandem, then a huge feeling that must come out (William Stafford: “writing a poem is like getting traction on ice”). The first line may be the easiest part, because the rest of the poem is figuring out the relationship between the first line and the feeling. You have to wade through self-doubt and confusion. As David Wagoner has said, you have to become a mad person when you write, to see where the mood and the music leads you.
JB: Your poems are a rapid-fire in that I don’t ever know exactly how I got to the end of each poem and when I do get there I want to reread the thing immediately. In a 2008 interview in the Centrum Foundation newsletter (Port Townsend, Washington), you said, “The best poems are those that go through you like a bullet train.” Is that to say that good poetry reverberates? Good poetry is blurry? Will you explain what you mean?
JS: I learned this from Beth Bentley, when I studied from her at the UW. She wanted emotion in poems. She didn’t want philosophy, or even, necessarily, a lot of narrative, though she herself is a master of the narrative voice. Good poetry moves quickly. It contains images that build upon one another—the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Too many ideas spoil a poem—that’s what I came to see from bringing poems in to Bentley’s workshop. The idea contains seeds or germs; this is what needs to be developed. So yes, I would say that good poetry does reverberate in that it calls upon the senses. If there is any blurriness, that would arise from connotations that differ somewhat from person to person, but it’s a straight shot from start to finish, and when you are done reading a good poem, you feel electricity. There is then the aftermath of watching that current pass through you.
Perhaps the poems feel fast because they are not rational, and not puzzled out in logical imagery. I’m more comfortable when I’m in that trance zone—when an unusual or unique feeling leads me to where a poem is headed. These are poems that I don’t really revise. I’m comfortable with the unknown, a gut feeling that I’m an explorer, an adventurer—perhaps the luckiest gift of being raised as the child of two scientists. I love letting thought follow some half-wrought lines anywhere they wish to lead. While composing verse, I myself am suspending disbelief.
Janée J. Baugher is
the author of the poetry collections Coördinates of Yes and The
Body’s Physics, as well as the forthcoming academic book, The
Ekphrastic Writer: Creating Art-Influenced Poetry, Fiction and Nonfiction (McFarland,
2020). She teaches Creative Writing in Seattle.
The Power of Poetry: An Interview with Chryssa Nikolakis
Bill Wolak and Chryssa Nikolakis
Chryssa Nikolakis was born in Athens, Greece. She graduated from the University of Athens, Theology Department, with a Master’s of the Arts; she also received a Master’s Degree in Literature from the Hellenic Open University. She also holds a Diploma in Translation and Subtitling (British Council). She has published literary studies in many scientific-theological journals. In 2017 she published her first poetry collection Sea Gate (Ostria). Her stories and poems have been published in anthologies such as Short Story Anthology2017-2018 (Ostria 2017), Colors of the Soul (Ostria, 2018), 4th Anthology Collection (Dianysma 2017), Calendar 2018 (Vergina), Conversations with Cavafy (Ostria), and Conversations with Kazantzakis (Ostria). She primarily deals with literary criticism about poetry, prose, theater, and fairytales. In April 2019, her first book of fairytales, Boy and the Dragon, was published (Aparsis); it was read in the “Fairies and Dragons” program of Voice of Greece (ERT). Her poems “In Defense of the Marginalized” and “Justified” received honors at the Delphi Pan-Hellenic Poetry Competition (2018 and 2019). Her poem “Redemption Time,” was awarded the 3rd Prize at the 8th World Thematic Competition of Hellenism, (2019). She writes literary reviews for many magazines, such as: FRACTAL, TOVIVLIO.NET, MAXMAG, and AUTHORING MELODIES. In May 2019, she became a member of the Panhellenic Union of Writers (PEL).
Bill Wolak: What was it that
first attracted you to poetry?
Chryssa Nikolakis: Τhe emotional part. Ι was sixteen when I read Yannis Ritsos’ “Moonlight Sonata,” and that made me cry. Soon after, I started writing little poems, especially when I was stressed.
BW: Who were the first Greek
poets that you enjoyed reading?
CN: Cavafy, Livaditis,
Papadiamantis, and my favorite one Yiannis Ritsos.
BW: Were there any other Greek
poets or poets from around the world who later influenced you?
CN: Υes, Edgar Alan Poe and
BW: The title of your first
book of poetry is Sea Gate. Can you tell me a little about the kinds of
poems in that book?
CN: It is inspired by my
dreams, by love, and the human condition, as well as the divine.
BW: You graduated from the
Theology Department of the University of Athens. What aspects of theology
CN: The parts that interested me more than everything else were philosophy and sociology in connection to theology.
BW: How did you first become
interested in fairytales?
CN: I started telling
fairytales to my little daughter, Simela, and she was very excited about them.
So I decided to write them down and create a book out of them.
BW: Can you tell me a little
about Boy and the Dragon?
CN:Boy and the Dragon
is a fairytale about loneliness and friendship. The Boy lives all alone in the
woods along with the little animals. The Dragon comes, first saves and then rescues the Boy, and together they
travel all over the world. Children have to choose between money and
friendship, between freedom and borders. In the end, love is the real winner.
ΒW: What other languages have
CN: French, but English has
BW: Can you explain what you
find so compelling about the poetry of Yannis Ritsos?
CN: I’m attracted by his simple
way of developing his poems without any obscure allusions and polysyllabic
words that some poets use to attempt to impress their readers. I also love him
for the sense of humanism I find in his poems and his genuine affection
BW: In Cavafy’s poetry, which
kind do you prefer: his more objective historical poetry or his more personal
CN: I prefer his historical
poetry, which I think it is unique, although his erotic poems are quite
BW: All American students read some Edgar Alan Poe during their time in school. Did you first read him in school, or did you find him on your own?
CN: I read him on my own
because he’s not taught in school. I love his way of writing and the fact that
he catches the readers’ attention with the final images in his poems.
BW: Were you first attracted to
Poe by his poetry or his short stories?
CN: Yes, poetry, which, of
course, I find more realistic and vivid.
BW: How exactly did poetry help
you relieve your levels of stress when you first started writing? Does poetry
still have the same stress-relieving effect on you when you write today?
CN: Poetry is my eternal love.
I will write till my last days. It relieves all my troubles and pain. I believe
that poetry has the power to grace one with catharsis only because of the
images and its vividness.
BW: What kind of a career have
you pursued? Are you a freelance writer, an editor, or a teacher?
CN: I am a literary critic and
a freelance writer; I send my work to various magazines, and they are always
accepted and published. I also write fairytales as well as poems and short
BW: How would you describe your
writing process when you are writing poetry? Do write in notebooks, journals,
or directly onto the computer?
CN: I prefer to write in
notebooks and afterwards I jot them down to the computer; you might call me an
old fashioned person, but that’s how I function.
BW: What sort of literary
studies have you published?
CN: Quite a few of them, mostly
on Ritsos, on Kazantzaki’s, and a research paper on Cavafy.
BW: Have you ever participated
in any international poetry festivals?
CN: Yes, this year I
participated in the International Festival of Poetry For Peace in Athens.
BW: Have you had a chance to
travel to other European countries or other destinations outside of Europe? Are
there any places in the world that you would like to visit next?
CN: I have travelled in France, Prague, and Italy. I would like to travel in Spain, Las Vegas, and Tokyo.
Five Poems by Chryssa
I want you like a fallen angel who reached his Heaven and drank water from the crystal spring. I want you like a flower that discovered the Castalian Spring in a Jewish desert. I want you like a lake that yearns for its escape to the untraveled ocean into which to merge.
I wish I could become light wind upon your lips to get the kiss of your water though your pitcher is too small and how can it quench me?
translated from Greek by Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis)
At the first glimpse of dawn the graceful sun spreads the summer’s conflagration onto our bed-sheets
when winged Eros charges through the window to appease his hunger as it rests his arms on our sweaty bodies
translated from Greek by Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis)
Eternal moment hidden in the damp sky when I close my eyes before the unachievable gates shut tight petals of the night-flower
spring distances itself while you climb up the hill sacrifice that wasn’t meant for you the preacher’s voice inside the empty church
and I still love you my starless night sky like the clear table on a Sunday twilight.
translated from Greek by Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis)
THE GIFT OF PNEUMA
I laid an honorary wreath I prayed for your name in the church I lit a candle and I started my frenetic and ecstatic dance on Dionysus’ rhythm
and I said
Heaven and Hell you my Earth and you my Sky barefoot I run away from the temple crying I raised my head up high
and I asked:
oh you, Adam’s descendants which is your original sin?
Life is here and so is Death
translated from Greek by Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis)
LOW TIDE, HIGH TIDE
Flood of happiness which I feel for the first time wild dustbowl into which I jump fast talkative creek water to quench the thirst of Nereids the Centaur’s shake up amid the clouds almost sundown, a twilight just before the stars warm our sky
low tide and high tide inhaling, exhaling Love and Eros Gods’ chosen gift hidden into an angel’s crypt away from unhappy eyes faraway from an earthly sin into the eternal manger of our Love
translated from Greek by Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis)
Bill Wolak is a poet, collage
artist, and photographer who lives in New Jersey and has just published his
eighteenth book of poetry entitled All the Wind’s Unfinished Kisses with
Ekstasis Editions. His most recent translation with Mahmood Karimi-Hakak, Love
Me More Than the Others: Selected Poetry or Iraj Mirza, was published by
Cross-Cultural Communications in 2014.Recently, he was a featured poet
at The Mihai Eminescu International Poetry Festival in Craiova, Romania; Europa in versi, Lake Como, Italy; The Pesaro International Poetry Festival,
Pesaro, Italy, The Xichang-Qionghai Silk Road International Poetry Week,
Xichang, China, The Ethnofest, Pristina, Kosovo, the Chengdu International
Poetry Week, Chengdu, China, and the International Poetic Conference, Poznań,
Poland. He has published interviews with the following poets, writers, and
artists: Anita Nair (India), John Digby (United Kingdom), Dileep Jhaveri
(India), Gueorgui Konstantinov (Bulgaria), Naoshi Koriyama (Japan), Sultan
Catto (United States), Ilmar Lehtpere (Estonia), Jeton Kelmendi (Kosovo), Yesim Agaoglu (Turkey), Mahmood Karimi Hakak
(United States), Philip Cioffari (United States), Yongshin Cho (Korea), Manolis
(Emmanuel Aligizakis) (Canada), Jami Proctor Xu (United States), Stanley H.
Barkan (United States), Annelisa Addolorato (Italy), and William Heyen (United
Mallory O’Meara is an author and filmmaker. She has been a producer for the independent film company Dark Dunes Productions since 2013. Her latest film, the live-action puppet feature Yamasong: March of the Hollows, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Nathan Fillion and Abigail Breslin, was released in spring of 2019.
Her first book is bestselling nonfiction work The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick.
Whether it’s for the screen or the page, Mallory seeks creative projects filled with horror and monsters. A New England native, she now lives in Los Angeles with her two cats.
Every week, Mallory hosts the literary podcast Reading Glasses alongside filmmaker and writer Brea Grant. Reading Glasses is part of the Maximum Fun podcast network.
As a teenager, Mallory O’Meara was thrilled to discover that one of her favorite movies, Creature from the Black Lagoon, featured a monster designed by a woman, Milicent Patrick. But for someone who should have been hailed as a pioneer in the genre there was little information available. For, as O’Meara soon discovered, Patrick’s contribution had been claimed by a jealous male colleague, her career had been cut short and she soon after had disappeared from film history. No one even knew if she was still alive.
As a young woman working in the horror film industry, O’Meara set out to right the wrong, and in the process discovered the full, fascinating story of an ambitious, artistic woman ahead of her time. Patrick’s contribution to special effects proved to be just the latest chapter in a remarkable, unconventional life, from her youth growing up in the shadow of Hearst Castle, to her career as one of Disney’s first female animators. And at last, O’Meara discovered what really had happened to Patrick after The Creature’s success, and where she went.
A true-life detective story and a celebration of a forgotten feminist trailblazer, Mallory O’Meara’s The Lady from the Black Lagoon establishes Patrick in her rightful place in film history while calling out a Hollywood culture where little has changed since.
WD: Congratulations on your new book! It’s quite an amazing story. How long did it take you to write — from concept to completion?
This book took about three years, from first getting the idea to handing off the final draft.
WD: When writing a book or script, what is your typical routine for the day?
I don’t have a day routine at all! I’m a night writer. I can only work creatively when the sun is down. I spend the day doing administrative work with my film company and working on my podcast, Reading Glasses. Then, I write for 3-4 hours in the evening, as soon as the sun sets.
WD: Where do you usually write?
I write at my desk at home in my little office. If I have to write in public, I prefer going to a library.
WD: Describe your work space, and the tools you use?
All of my projects start out in notebooks. My work space is filled with notebooks, outlines, highlighters and index cards. All of these eventually coalesce into what gets typed into my laptop.
WD:Bela Lugosi lived in the Valley, lots of famous people did. I always find it interesting to see the homes celebrities lived in. Is Milicent Patrick’s home in Sherman Oaks still there?
It is, but it is no longer in the family.
WD: What was your best research find/person, besides her family?
There were so many great research finds on this project! One of the best was getting access to all the production materials for CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON in the University of Southern California’s Cinematic Arts Library.
WD: What was the most difficult part of writing your book?
Tracking down all the different parts of Milicent’s life was the most difficult part. The actual writing of the book was a breeze compared to the years of research and detective work.
WD: What are you working on now?
I am working on several new books, hopefully which I’ll be able to announce soon!
WD: What music do you listen to? Do you listen to music when you write?
I listen to a wide variety of music, but my favorites are metal, 50s doo wop and Tom Waits. I always listen to music when I write and I try to match the feel of what I’m writing to the music I’m listening to.
WD: Are there any other stories about unheralded/unsung/unknown women you would like to tell?
There are, but I unfortunately can’t talk about them yet!
WD: Name your favorite writers and filmmakers—past or present?
My favorite writer is Shirley Jackson, the queen of American Horror. I have many favorite filmmakers, but the two at the top of the list are David Lynch and Guillermo del Toro.
WD: Any advice for writers or filmmakers starting out today?
Don’t be afraid to make bad art! It’s much easier to fix a bad piece of writing than it is to fix a piece of writing that doesn’t exist yet.
WD: Thank you for participating. We appreciate your time.
While reading a Los Angeles Times review of Kathryn Harrison’s new book, On Sunset, I was immediately fascinated by the story of someone growing up in a large whimsical Robert Byrd house on Sunset Blvd., yet never experiencing the life around her. She was not so much trapped as she was protected from a Los Angeles of the 1960s by her over-protective — somewhat eccentric — well-mannered grandparents. She lived a life that most children dream of, living in a beautiful affluent neighborhood, but she rarely ventured out from her home other than to attend school. Quite a story. Shortly after reading the review, I contacted Kathryn, who now lives in New York, and she graciously consented to an interview for this issue.
Kathryn Harrison is the author of the novels Envy, The Seal Wife, The Binding Chair, Poison, Exposure, Thicker Than Water and Enchantments. She has also written memoirs, The Kiss and The Mother Knot, a travel memoir, The Road to Santiago, a biography, Saint Therese of Lisieux, and a collection of personal essays, Seeking Rapture.
Ms. Harrison is a frequent reviewer for The New York Times Book Review; her essays, which have been included in many anthologies, have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Vogue, O Magazine, Salon, and other publications.
Her latest book is On Sunset: A Memoir. She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their children. She is currently working on a novel.
What made you want to write about your childhood at this time in your life? Is this something you’ve been wanting to do for a while?
It’s taken me this long to recognize how unusual a childhood I had. I had to have raised a family immersed in American culture before I could regard my childhood in contrast.
Mine took place 100 years before I was born; it began with my grandparents’ parents, who were more alive to me than my classmates. The unexpected child of teenagers, I was brought up by my mother’s parents, who like most old people lived in their pasts, and took me along. They were both wonderful story-tellers, with dramatic pasts, and there were days I spent hours enthralled by my family’s history.
How long did it take to write this book? Was it conceived as a tribute to your grandparents?
The writing itself took about 18 months, the research preoccupied my youth—all those hours of listening to family stories. I was lucky enough to inherit countless photographs, letters, diaries, and objects, as well—which allowed me to include illustrations, which makes for a richer experience. Grownups like pictures, too!
It wasn’t intended as a tribute, but my feelings for them, my missing them as much as I do decades after their deaths, it was inevitable that the book turn out to be, as a couple of critics observed, a love letter.
You grew up in a spectacular Robert Byrd designed home — a lavish, quirky, sprawling ranch style home. I’ve seen photographs of the exterior and interior, with the lush grounds and swimming pool. It must’ve been like living in your own private oasis, hidden in the middle of Los Angeles.
It was. I’m sure if I were to return to that garden it would seem small: it would have to, because my 50-year old memories include no property lines, Sunset, my internal landscape, is limitless.
There were times in your childhood when your grandparents were around to watch and raise you, and other times when you were on your own. How did you feel living in such a large home and being somewhat isolated from the rest of the world?
People comment that mine seems a lonely childhood, but I don’t remember it that way. For me it was a mythic time of safety, over which my grandparents ruled, benign dictators. I was a solitary child, shy and bookish—way too bookish according to my grandmother, who called me a bluestocking. I took it as a compliment, although it was not meant as one. I was happy left to myself and my overactive imagination.
You couldn’t really walk out the front door and down the street to a store, being such a busy boulevard without sidewalks. But you probably wandered around the neighborhood at some point.
I didn’t actually. I saw the neighbor boys’ house, but there was truly no access to anyone else’s: no sidewalk, no wandering.
What was your school life like? Did you have close friends, a best friend? Did you enjoy spending time at your friend’s homes? What did you do on weekends? Were there pool parties at your home?
I had a best friend, Francesca, whose greatest appeal was that she was also being raised by a flighty young mother’s European grandparents. I lived among families in which there were few divorces. No one else had a single mother and absent father, no one but Francesca.
I didn’t like being at other children’s houses, not when I was a young child. I never slept over; I was always scared of being left in the care of other children’s parents.
I loved school. I was a teacher’s pet, often closer to teachers than classmates, perhaps because I spent so much time in the company of people many years my senior. Weekends were blighted by ballet and Christian Science Sunday school, at least during the years we lived on Sunset. I was always in the pool, and usually by myself. By the time my grandparents were in their 70s, the pool party years were waning.
It seems like a lot of your outdoor activities were spent shopping and dining. Department stores were quite elegant back then. How do you remember them? What were some of your favorite restaurants?
I didn’t like shopping. The stores were elegant indeed, and there was an abundance of customer service — too much of it as far as I was concerned. I was a tomboy who didn’t want the dresses I was buttoned into. The salesladies struck me as part of a conspiracy to ruin my real outdoor life, largely spent climbing trees.
My grandparents were Victorian, and thus I was to be seen and not heard, excluded from any restaurant that wasn’t casual. I remember Hamburger Hamlet, where I was allowed to leave the table to ponder the extremely odd little dioramas that hung on the wall that ascended alongside the red carpeted stairs. One was captioned, “Get thee to a Bunnery.” There was also Uncle John’s pancake house, where children were given black mustaches cut out of cardstock, with two prongs to insert into your nostrils. They hurt, which was one more reason not to put one on. I didn’t go to restaurants that required reservations.
Have these memories always been with you, or did some memories come back to you while writing this book?
Always. I have damnably good recall, especially for emotionally charged situations. My mother’s problematic and erratic presence made me a vigilant child, always paying attention.
Were you free to move about the city and take in the unique qualities of Los Angeles? Were you more in tune with the local culture at this time?
I was raised to form myself in opposition to American children and culture, which meant I lived in 1900. Outside the door was the pool and the garden, inside there was Shanghai and Alaska.
Your grandparents also lived in a home on Hilgard across from UCLA? When did they move into the home on Sunset Blvd.?
My grandparents worked with Robert Byrd who built the house on Sunset in 1951. They lived there for 20 years.
I love this line in the book. It seems to capture the essence of your world. — “I live where I can’t be followed, where I don’t need and wouldn’t bring other children…”
I was very protective of my magic kingdom. I knew no other child would respect its boundaries.
What are you working on now?
A novel set in Vienna in the 1920s,
Any advice for writing a memoir?
Lean toward discomfort.
What is your daily writing routine like? What do you do for fun and recreation?
I’m a morning person, so I am at my desk by 6 or 7. I work until I go to yoga class around noon, as I do every day. Then I might put in a few more hours—it depends on how full-tilt I’m going. I’m a homebody with a night life that is currently mostly going to class, as I’ve begun psychoanalytic training. A long-held dream I can satisfy now that my youngest is in college.
Are you involved with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.? How much time do you spend on the internet each day?
Not with any of them, so they take up no time.
What are some your favorite books currently?
At the moment it’s all Freud, Klein, Winnicott, Lacan … Not everyone’s leisure reading, but I’m fascinated.
You mentioned that your grandparents worked with Robert Byrd — in what capacity? Were they friends?
My grandparents worked with Robert Byrd to design the house they wanted. It looked like an out-sized Tudor ranch house — L.A. qua London — with a lot of playful details.
Byrd was a renowned architect at the time, and my grandparents had the money to be extravagant. They didn’t for long, but in 1950 they could request any fancy, or luxury:
Windows made of bottle bottoms.
Actual bird houses built into the house, under the eaves.
My mother’s bedroom had a copper-hooded fireplace, with a delft tile hearth.
The living room fireplace had a wood-box built into an adjacent wall, with one door inside the house and another outside, so you didn’t have to carry wood through the house. In Los Angeles, we burned a cord of wood every “winter.” My grandparents hated to be cold, and the flagstone floors had hot water pipes running underneath them, so with a flip of a switch, they were soon warm beneath your feet.
On Sunset: A Memoir
In the tradition of The Hare with Amber Eyes and Running in the Family, a memoir of the author’s upbringing by her grandparents in a fading mansion above Sunset Boulevard — a childhood at once privileged and unusual, filled with the mementos and echoes of their impossibly exotic and peripatetic lives.
“Stunning … This is Kathryn Harrison in top form.” –Augusten Burroughs
“Transfixing… Fairy-tale fascinating, profoundly revealing of cultural divisions, and brilliantly and wittily told … Harrison’s entrancing look-back casts light on resonant swaths of history.”
—Donna Seaman, Booklist
“Evocative and tender, this delightful memoir pairs the distant past with a safe and sacred time in the author’s young life.”
Author of Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles
Jon Wilkman is a writer and documentary filmmaker. Along with a number of documentaries about Los Angeles, he is the author of an illustrated narrative history of the city, Picturing Los Angeles. His new book, Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles, chronicles the events that lead up to the 1928 collapse of the St. Francis Dam, as well as the aftermat, and relevance to today. An Amazon Book of the Month, Floodpath is considered a definitive account of the disaster that took the lives of nearly 500 people 50 miles north of Los Angeles. The event was a tragic turning point in the life and career of William Mulholland—one that would ultimately ruin his reputation and legacy as the man who brought water to Los Angeles. I sat down with Jon recently to discuss his work on both the book and the upcoming documentary film of the same title.
Where did you grow up?
In the San Fernando Valley suburb of North Hollywood., Growing up in Los Angeles, like every kid, the only history you learned about were the missions and statehood of California in the fourth grade, and that was the last you heard of it. All of the other history we learned took place on the east coast. So when I graduated from high school, I was interested in history and culture. Why would I want to hang around here?
What did you study in college?
I went to Oberlin College in Ohio. And one of the great things about Oberlin is that you were free to explore. I had a major in sociology, but I had enough credits for a history major or an English degree. By the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to work in documentary films, so that sent me to New York, where some fortuitous events led me to one of the best places to work at the time, CBS.
At CBS I worked on a documentary series called The Twentieth Century, which was a great show. And then I worked on a science series, called The Twenty First Century where I met a lot of people who were designing the world we live in today. The internet was just beginning, and they talked about lasers and satellites, things that were new at the time. They talked about their vision, and they were pretty much right.
After fourteen years in New York, I came back Los Angeles and I saw the city in an entirely different way. It was more than just Hollywood and the Beach Boys. L.A.’s a very interesting city. And that’s when I got hooked on Los Angeles history. I produced a series for KCET called The Los Angeles History Project, which was the first TV series that looked at Los Angeles history in a systematic way, this was around 1988. And that’s when I first learned about the St. Francis Dam disaster.
I watched the video trailer for the documentary film on Floodpath, which is a companion piece to your book.
Working with my late wife and partner, Nancy, I actually started the film well before I wrote the book. Most of the interviews I conducted, many of which are in the book, were done as early as 1995. There were twenty interviews with survivors of the disaster. They’re all dead now. It’s one of those things. When you are an independent filmmaker, you go from one project to another. There were periods of years when I didn’t work on the St. Francis dam project, but it was always in my mind.
Did the documentary come first?
Yes, I first started researching it in the 1980s. I hope the book will be a way to attract interest in the film. I only need to complete a few more sequences, including computer-generated photo realistic animation showing the collapse of the dam, and re-enactments of the night of flood.
You interviewed the granddaughter of William Mulholland.
Yes. Catherine Mulholland, her grandfather’s biographer, has since died. I have the last taped interview with her. I knew her socially. She gave me several boxes of her own research about the collapse, which really helped with the book. I told her that I couldn’t promise anything, and that I would come to my own conclusions. I was honored she trusted me.
She didn’t care if your conclusion was positive or negative.
She said she’d been burned by others who’d interviewed her. The story is burdened by the movie, Chinatown, which was a wonderful movie,
but more fiction than fact. It contributes to appreciating the complexity of William Mulholland. He’s either the devil incarnate or untarnished icon. In fact there wouldn’t be a city of Los Angeles with William Mulholland. And yet he made some terrible miscalculations with the St. Francis dam. What I tried to do was to tell this as a complex, nuanced story. And so often what you do in books is you look at it in the present, when you know everything. But when I wrote the book, what I wanted to do was to put the reader in the time frame. So what the reader knows is what anybody knew at any particular time back then. The story reveals itself. There were things that happened that weren’t really understood until later. And what I hope I accomplished in doing that is to get people today to think in the same way. It gets them involved in the story as it unfolds in real time..
Mulholland also built the Mulholland Dam, overlooking Hollywood. I remember you writing about how it was lowered after the collapse of the St. Francis dam, which was a virtual duplicate.
Safety concerns after the St. Francis Dam required the city to lower it. There’s an image of it in Floodpath, looming over downtown Hollywood, which it still does, but obscured by a earthen berm and trees and shrubs.
How did you go about finding all these people to interview?
One of the pleasures of documentary work, and certainly writing a book, is the research. One aspect of the story that had been underplayed, and again what attracted me, was how this is a great disaster story, and a technological detective story, and courtroom drama also reflects on how history is written. Clearly, it’s the deadliest disaster in the history of twentieth century America. Why isn’t it more well-known or written about?
I told several people about your book, and they reacted the same way. They sort of remember hearing something about it.
One of the subtexts of the book is how history is written, and particularly how Los Angeles history is written—or not written. I discuss many aspects of this in Floodpath. Many of the victims were Mexican-American farm workers, not the majority, but a sizeable number. Even people who know of the tragedy, don’t know the story of these mostly farmworkers. I wanted to interview everyone involved. So early on, I brought in some Spanish-speaking friends, and they helped us find eyewitnesses and families of the victims that were Mexican-American. We also went through the Spanish press to see how they viewed the story. And a point I make in the book is why they should be included. And how more people are interested in their story today, then perhaps in the past.
When you visit these small agricultural towns along the floodpath, most of the people, and their families, have lived there for generations. So when you inquire at a local historical society, or talk to old-timers in the area, they know, and will tell you, “Oh, you should talk to this person—their mother was caught in the flood.” Or so and so was a little kid at the time.” One lead takes you to another. So my wife Nancy and I began to meet these people, and they would tell us about other people. In some cases you can look at a newspaper of the time and see the names of eyewitnesses. When you look at a phone directory today, you can see that this person still lives in town.
How was the story reported in the Mexican press?
La Voz de la Colonia was the Spanish language newspaper in Santa Paula at the time. It was basically a one-man operation. They didn’t have a lot of money. In general, they didn’t have the means to report what the bigger newspapers were reporting, but they covered local events. On the editorial page, they also had a chance to reflect on the disaster. The Anglo press would divide them into Mexicans and Americans. But the Hispanic population didn’t see it that way. The editor of the newspaper said, “We are not a race. We are Mexicans and Americans.” He had a very modern idea of American culture. It was an idea that was not popular at the time. You have to remember that in the 1920s, it was a pretty racist society. There was even a proud KKK chapter in Santa Paula.
What was the hardest or most interesting part of writing Floodpath?
The hardest part about doing this book, Floodpath, but also the most fun, was you already know the ending, you know how it’s going to turn out. So how do you write about, and make it interesting for the reader? That was the most challenging part of the book. You’re constantly trying to keep the reader involved. It happens in the first chapter, the dam is down and everyone has died. So the average reader would look and see that there’s another 250 pages. So it worked to my advantage, as you wonder what’s in these other pages. There’s got to be something interested. So you sort of lure people in. And the story is being told in real time. So you are engaging the reader with events as they unfolded back then. The reader tries to guess what caused the dam to break — was it dynamite, was it an earthquake – what was it? So slowly you uncover the truth about how and why it happened. And then you get to a point where all the official reports are in and you think that’s that final word. And you eventually learn that—no, not really. There are a lot of possible answers. From a writing point of view it was one of the biggest challenges, and the most fun.
What also what attracted me to the story, most people will look at it and say, oh, what a sad event. But it’s also reminder that we have this infrastructure today that is in serious need of repair. The dams and bridges across this country were built decades ago. This tragedy could happen again. So it’s a wake up call, to look at some of these aging structures. Even if they’re maintained, which many are not, they’re still fifty years old or more. They need to be upgraded and properly maintained. There are 4,400 dams that have been determined to be susceptible to failure.
Every time you think this story is over, there’s another aspect to it. So at the end of the book, when you say, it’s finally over, there’s still another chapter that talks about other dams that are at risk of failing—that could collapse. And nobody is doing anything about this.
That’s part of the problem in the making of the St. Francis Dam in 1928, that there were no laws requiring state supervision. That all changed after the collapse. The entire dam safety movement was a result of this St. Francis dam. So that’s great, all the newly built dams after that were deemed safe. But if nobody maintains them, they aren’t safe.
Today, they’re beginning to fill the Owens Lake again, and bring water back to the Owens Valley. And it seems that today a resolution is coming. There’s now a chance to correct these errors of the past. In Los Angeles now they’re trying to reclaim the concreted-in L.A. River.. The question today is how do you create a liveable and sustainable urban environment.
When you first started working on Floodpath, did you have a publisher? How did it go from concept to publishing?
I saw this new book as a national story. Through a friend on the east coast I found an agent at William Morris. He sold the book to Bloomsbury publishing They’re one of the top publishers in the world. It was a very smooth process. I wrote a treatment and that was how I got the book sold. The writing went relatively quickly because of all the research I had for the documentary film. We had cabinets fill of material. I had an idea of the structure. I had all these photos and interviews and newspaper clips. So I had everything I needed to complete the book in a timely manner. I could have written Floodpath ten years ago. But I was lucky I didn’t. One of the real obstacles to research was accessing the DWP archives. It wasn’t that they were inaccessible, but no one knew where they were or how to do find specific information. Fortunately for me, DWP hired an archivist who began to sort all the material. So I had access to all this information that was never available before., in cluding internal memos and notes from the field.
How did you turn all this research material into a narrative?
I really wanted to write Floodpath in a nonfiction narrative style so it has dialogue and description in it. But every bit of dialogue has a justifiable source. So when someone says something, I have a record that that’s what they said.
The difference between standard fiction and nonfiction is the narrative style. In nonfiction, unless you have a diary, you can’t get into a character’s mind, but you can tell people what they said and did. For Floodpath, a major resource to do this was the transcripts of the Los Angeles Coroner’s Inquest But when I started researching, nobody seemed to have a copy. It had disappeared — a major reason we didn’t do this book sooner. From my research, I knew the transcript was about 800 pages. But I didn’t have it – nor did the LA City Archives, or even the DWP. So one day my wife Nancy was researching at the Huntington Library and she came back and proudly announced she’d found them in the obscure collection of a retired engineer. I knew then I could do the book and the documentary film.
There’s a lot of engineering information in Floodpath, but I was fortunate to have the help of J. David Rogers, a geological engineer who’d spend decades studying the disaster. As I was writing the book, he vetted a lot of the technical information. But the book is written for a general audience. It’s not just for academics or engineers.
Why isn’t this disaster better known?
To me, that was another major mystery to be solved. One of the reasons why people don’t remember was that everything was settled fast—people got paid, houses were rebuilt, the valley was restored. That’s what most people wanted. They wanted to get on with their lives and not slow progress. People wanted to put the story behind them, and have it disappear. Also, the DWP and the City of Los Angeles had no reason to keep the embarrassing memory alive. Atr the same time, a the great era of dam building in the 1930s and 40s was about to begin and engineers didn’t want to create what they thought was unnecessary public doubt after the failure.. The Hoover dam was being planned at the time. Lastly, it wasn’t long before Americans were more concerning by the Great Depression and looming World War II. The story of the St. Francis Dam got engulfed by other bigger stories.
I think this story could not only make a great documentary, but a dramatic film as well.
Well, there’s some discussion about making it into a TV mini-series. But we’ll see how that progresses. There are a lot of intriguing elements to this story, with William Mulholland and his enemies, and the Valley and the dynamiting, the courtroom drama, and the rise and fall of a great man. It’s all contained within this tragic event.
Who are some of the documentary filmmakers that inspired you?
I think Frederick Wiseman is one of the greatest documentary filmmakers. But starting in the late 1950s, I was watching Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow,
and the See It Now series on CBS, which took a more journalistic approach. In the 60s the Cinéma Vérité movement started, because the equipment allowed you to run around and sych the sound. So I was at the very beginning of that. A documentary filmmaker is sort of like a teacher. You go and find something out, and then you tell people about it. When you show people what you’ve produced, they’re learning something for the first time. I find that satisfying and fun.
Have you ever written any fiction?
No, just nonfiction, and documentary filmmaking work. The pleasure of doing nonfiction is you’re up against the ultimate arbiter – the factual truth, If you’re writing fiction, you can have your characters say and do whatever you want, because you created them. But with nonfiction you’re always up against the facts. And that’s how you have to play it. It’s a challenge. To me, that’s true with any artistic medium, where the really great work is done within a form. I never thought I would be a professional writer. I liked to write. I learned I was good at it. And almost before I knew it, along with making documentaries, I was writing nonfiction books like Floodpath. It took more than 20 years, but I hope readers will think it was worth it. It was for me.
Thank you very much for your time. I hope everyone reads your new book.
Produced as a companion to the new book Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles, this ninety-minute documentary will include interviews with survivors, rare stills and footage, and 3-D computer graphics that recreate the collapse and aftermath.
The Art and Architecture of Writing
Alan Hess Interview
Alan Hess is a rare talent, he is both a writer and an architect. He has written several important books on architecture, including Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture, The Ranch House, The Architecture of John Lautner, Frank Lloyd Wright: Mid-Century Modern, and many others. Alan lives and breaths architecture and design. His mission, if you were to call it that, is to bring architecture—California architecture in particular—and all that it implies (education, preservation, appreciation), to the people. His work is both challenging and rewarding, which is to understand, educate and preserve the magnificent buildings that give life to our great cities, particularly here in Southern California—a place Alan calls home. Alan is a very busy man, always working on at least one major book or project. But he still made time for this interview, which we greatly appreciate.
Let’s talk about some of the projects you’re working on now.
Right now I’m working on a book about California Modern Architecture, from 1900-1975. Most of the books I’ve worked on until now have been leading up to this idea. I’ve been writing now for thirty years. The first book was, Googie: Fifties Coffee ShopArchitecture. I’ve mostly dealt with architectural issues in the west and the 20th century, suburbia and vernacular building types and their interaction with the high art architecture. And a lot needs to be said to pull together the entire story. I have a co-author, Pierluigi Serraino, so we’re working on it together.
What’s the status of the book now?
It will be published in spring 2017, so right now we’re trying to finalize the text. Hopefully in the next few months it will all come together. It’s a huge project, a little bit crazy.
It covers all of California?
Yes. It’s not an encyclopedia. It will give a framework for understanding the whole picture. It won’t include everybody and everything, but it will definitely bring in architects and types of building and trends that have not been given their due credit or attention. But it will include what is absolutely essential for understanding what California architecture in the 20th century was all about.
That sounds fantastic. I look forward to reading it. How do you go about constructing a book like this, with a subject so large.
We try to get away from a more traditional chronological architectural history, and away from the monograph of the individual architects, and show instead the inter-relationships between cultural trends, economic trends, demographic trends, as well as the inspirations and ideas of individual architects and their clients as well. The clients have a lot to do with architecture. Pierluigi and I are each writing half in individual chapters, based on what we’re interested in. So now we’re working on pulling it all together and making it cohesive. It’s still an unwieldy mass at this point. But it has a lot of interesting ideas and information.
When putting together a book of this size, how do you go about getting the images, permissions, and materials that go along with it?
That’s a very important part of this book. Pierluigi is an expert on architectural photo archives. Many of the sources have been unknown or have been neglected for decades. This book is not going to have the usual, expected photographs. It’s mostly going to be fresh, interesting images that have not been seen for decades—if at all. This will give everyone an idea of how wide-spread, and wide-ranging creative California architecture was in the 20th century. I’m very excited about these photographs. Frankly, though I’m a writer, I know most people buy my books for the photographs. So the publisher is helping to attain a lot of the rights. But we’re coming up with the images ourselves, from these new sources—which is one thing that will make this book exciting.
The Googie book has a lot of photographs you took yourself.
Yes, I consider myself an amateur photographer. I mostly take photographs to gather information. And some of the images turn out to be really interesting. I would like at some point to do a photography exhibit at a gallery with some of my older images. I started taking photographs in the 1970s when I was in architecture school. So a lot of the photos I took are of buildings that don’t exist anymore. So they have some value.
You studied architecture at UCLA. Where does the writing come from? How did you become a writer?
I’ve always been interested in writing, and I wrote for my high school and college newspapers. But I wasn’t all that good at it, and I didn’t really have something that interested me. But when I got into architecture school, I discovered after a while that I was really interested in writing about architecture, and the ideas of architecture. So I started to get the idea of writing seriously about the subject. There were a couple of books, this is in the late ‘70s, one by Steven Izenour, White Tower, and there was a book by Daniel Vieyra called Fill’er Up. These were small books, but on subjects that had never been written about before. White Tower is about the diner chain, and the other is about gas stations. That sort of vernacular architecture had never been given much serious attention at the time. But I was just fascinated by it. And the other book at the time was Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour and Denise Scott Brown. But all of these books helped me understand Los Angeles, where I was living and studying architecture. So the architecture made sense suddenly. And that gave me the idea to use words and writing to analyze architecture, just as engineering equations and scale models are other ways. So writing was another way for me to understand architecture and what you’re designing. And I started looking around for an interesting subject that nobody else had written about.
Googie is a classic book for anyone who’s interested in unique and unusual Los Angeles architecture. Now that many of the buildings have been torn down, it’s also historically significant and important.
That’s the thing. It becomes a historical or archival document. Another purpose, as I moved along and became more interested in historical preservation, one of the purposes of my books was to help historic preservationists. So they could go before a city council or planning commission and say look, this must be important, there’s a book written about it. That actually impresses a lot of people. And that was another purpose in writing these books.
You also did a follow-up book on Googie.
Yes, the publisher came back to me almost twenty years later, and asked if I‘d like to do an updated version. It was a fantastic opportunity, because my first book wasn’t exactly my best. So it gave me a chance to improve my writing, but also there was so much more research and so much more I knew, I was able to extend the book. It’s at least twice as long as the original.
Growing up, did you do any writing? Were your parents writers? What kind of work did they do?
My mother was at home and raised us kids. And my father was an executive at Ford Motor Company. So I was around cars a lot, which I definitely had an interest in,
which also turn up in my books. We would get a new car every year. My brother and I would argue about what color and what kind, or if it had powers windows, which were really big at the time. We lived in California, but we also lived in Detroit for a period of time. We were right in the heart of car culture. My dad was transferred around to different places as I was growing up. So my personal experience of those places – San Francisco, Los Angeles, Detroit and Chicago – these major car culture cities in which I lived, definitely influenced my writing and understanding of these subjects. The cars I loved most were the 1956 Lincoln Continental, and the 1939 Continental. It was one of the most beautiful cars, and was designed by Edsel Ford, Henry Ford’s son. In the last several years, he has become a very important figure to me because he was at the heart of American industry and its economy, as well as American styling and industrial design and aesthetics, as the president of Ford Motor Company. As a sort of relief from working for his father—who was just awful to work for—Edsel would go over to the styling studio and work with the designers. And he actually designed some of the classic cars of the mid century – the Model A, the Lincoln Zephyr, which was one of the first streamlined automobiles, and the Continental. He died young, which is why he’s not as well known or appreciated.
So you started writing in high school?
Yes, but it wasn’t until I was in architecture school that I really had a subject that interested me seriously.
You’re quite unique in that you’re an architect and a writer – you’re sort of a hybrid – which is great. You’re someone who’s an authority on the subject they write about. What drew you to architecture, or made you want to become an architect? Was it a building or architect you admired?
I’ve always been interested in architecture, not originally as a profession, but as a personal interest of mine. My grandmother always admired Frank Lloyd Wright, and I saw a number of his buildings. I lived in Chicago in high school, and there are a number of his buildings there, as well as Louis Sullivan’s—which are just extraordinary.
And I went to a college that was designed by Bernard Maybeck, the great Bay Area California architect—which was great. There was a history professor there, Charles Hosmer, who was very well known in the preservation field. Everyone has a professor who really inspired them, and he inspired me. It wasn’t until I had to choose between going to law school and architecture school, that I really made the decision.
Frank Lloyd Wright was the first architect to inspire you.
Yes. He was a brilliant designer. Just to be inside one of his buildings or houses, we can understand how space and materials and ornament can be orchestrated to make life better. Extraordinary designs. He was a genius. Wright’s whole persona and his family motto was “Truth against the World,” the idea of the artist as the heroic individual, who mastered the problems of the world. And as a young, naïve, idealistic teenage boy, that appealed to me as well. But I got over that, thanks goodness. Frank Lloyd Wright inspired Ayn Rand’s book, The Fountainhead, which I read at the time. I got over that, too.
But it was an important moment for me at the time. I realized that I would never be Frank Lloyd Wright. But I realized that I could be myself. I could follow my own interests in architecture, and be able to contribute something of value. That kept me going. And when I began to write about architecture, I realized I was covering subjects that no one else was writing about. I saw the value in them and was able to express the importance of a diner or a motel or a car dealership. These were structures that almost nobody else had an interest in as far as architecture, but I did.
You’ve also written several books on Frank Lloyd Wright.
I saw some photographs by Alan Weintraub. He had a real interest and talent in photographing organic architecture, like Wright’s and John Lautner’s, as well as many others. Organic architecture is very difficult to capture in photography because it’s not designed from one point perspective, it’s something else. So Alan and I got together and started thinking about books we could do together. Later he got a contract to photograph all of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings. So that’s where the series of books on Frank Lloyd Wright developed. I came up with a theme for each of the books. One is on his houses, one is on the Prairie School years, the mid century modern houses, the public buildings, etc.
For me it was exciting to come up with something fresh and interesting to say about those structures, and the ideas they had. I enjoyed writing them.
Name some writers who influenced your work.
Writers who are also architects or designers, like Esther McCoy, definitely a great writer; David Gebhard, a great historian and author; J.B. Jackson, cultural geographer; and John Beach—not as well known, but a friend of all of those people and a teacher at UCLA School of Architecture where I went. These are all authors who have some background in design, and are able to understand architecture and explain it in a way that art historians writing about architecture missed. They capture something about architecture.
As far as fiction writers, Jorge Amado. I spent time in Brazil, and his fiction about life there really captured the spirit, culture and people of Brazil. I also enjoy reading the fiction and non-fiction of Tom Wolfe.
When you start working on a new book, how do you begin – where do you start?
I’ve usually been thinking about it for a while, and I’ll start with some ideas and thoughts in my head. And then I’ll begin to pull together all the ideas I have. I’ll go and visit the buildings or places and see what strikes me. I’ll start talking to experts in the field, or the architects themselves, and in many cases I’ve been able to talk to the original architects. And that can be really fascinating. So it’s just a matter of finding an interesting subject, with something of value there, and trying to make it interesting. For me, writing is a process of discovery. I do not know what I’m going to write when I start. I sort of think as I write and figure out the direction of the project. That’s the fun of it—what makes it interesting. I just dive into the subject anywhere I can, and slowly the whole picture begins to reveal itself. I figure out what are the major points, the major landmarks, etc.
For my first book, I was interested in Googie architecture, but I didn’t know it was Googie architecture, until I started writing and learning more about the subject. I had seen these diners and restaurants before but had never really connected them. I started doing some research on the Bob’s Big Boy on Riverside in Toluca Lake. I called up Bob’s headquarters in Glendale and asked if they knew who the architect of the building was. They said it was Armét and Davis. So I called up Eldon Davis —their firm was on Wilshire Blvd. — and asked if they designed the Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake. He said no, and I thought that was the end of it. But then he said, but we did design Ship’s La Cienega and Norm’s and Pann’s, and he began to give this list of all the coffee shops they designed. And I suddenly realized I had stumbled upon one of the most important designers in the field. It was at that point during the research that it all came together and I realized there was a subject worth writing about. That’s really great when that happens.
How did Googie get published? Did you approach a publisher, or did someone approach you?
I did write up a proposal. Barbara Goldstein was the editor of Arts and Architecture at the time, and I told her about my project. So she asked me to write an article about Googie architecture, so that was published. And since I had a published article that gave me a little credibility. So I sent the article along with my proposal to at least a dozen publishers, who had published books on similar types of architecture. I got two responses as I remember, Chronicle Books was one of them. And there was an editor, Bill LeBlond, who saw something in it, so that’s how I got my first contract.
When you’re putting a book together, you obviously work at a computer.
My first couple of books I typed. I sat on the floor and edited the pages by cutting them with scissors and taping them together. And then my mother, God bless her, typed it up clean, and I then re-edited it with scissors and tape, and she retyped it. So I went through several drafts that way. That was like in 1984. I think in 1986 or 1987 I got my first computer, which simplified the process by a lot.
I work on a Mac now. I have an iMac, but I really do most of my writing on an iPad. So basically I can go anywhere and write. I used an app called Pages.
I’m going to name a few important architects, mostly known for their work in California, and maybe you can say a few words about each one, what they did, etc.
Let’s start with John Lautner, who you also wrote a book about.
John Lautner was one of the greatest architects of the twentieth century. He worked with Frank Lloyd Wright, of course, but what I admired about him, and he told me this, was while he was a student and apprentice with Frank Lloyd Wright, he didn’t design that much. He said he was just absorbing and watching. It was only after he left Wright, and moved to Los Angeles and opened his own office, that he then began to really develop his own crucial way of designing. So many people who worked with Wright were so overwhelmed by the brilliance of Wright, that they pretty much just copied Frank Lloyd Wright. But that wasn’t good enough for Lautner. He had to digest it and make those ideas his own, and carried them on further than Wright. That’s one of the things that makes him so, so important. Taking some of those seminal ideas of Wright’s, bringing them to Los Angeles and applying them not only to houses, but also buildings of everyday life, like the original Googie’s coffee shop, and other drive-ins he did, and car dealerships. He saw virtually any kind of architecture as a legitimate architectural challenge to him, and to re-think everything from the fundamentals. I did an articles about him Fine Homebuilding magazine. And there was one house, I think the Mauer house in Los Angeles. And I asked him, where do you start on a design like that? And he said, “The hell if I know. I sweat a lot.” So the idea that someone who was as creative as Lautner, sweated over where to start on a new design, just impressed me to no end. So he took every project seriously in that way to dig down to find something original about it and to translate it into a design.
Sheats Goldstein residence, 1963 – John Lautner, architect
Another great Los Angeles architect. I think he is misunderstood. He is usually praised and famous for being an Austrian, and for designing International Style buildings here in Los Angeles. And that’s partly true. But I think what is important about Neutra is not what he learned from studying architecture in Vienna before World War I, but how he responded to the environment of Los Angeles after he arrived here. He was fascinated by our construction methods, our indoor-outdoor lifestyle, our vernacular architecture of drive-ins, billboards and gas stations, and the influence of the car on architecture. He was a good enough architect to be influenced by all the new things going on around him here.
A. Quincy Jones.
Another fascinating architect, because of his variety. It was a perfect time in Los Angles, when the city was booming and there were all these different types of buildings. He worked on schools, housing, offices, car dealerships restaurants, you name it. And he was able to design a lot of different things, but in a very individual way. He was in many way Mr. Establishment, dean of the school of architecture at USC, and he had a lot of influence on many other architects – very well respected. Lautner was more a maverick, more on the edge, often misunderstood and criticized for his designs because they were so unusual. And Quincy jones was in the center of the profession. He and Lautner were friends, they appreciated each other’s work. And I think Lautner influenced Quincy Jones early in his career – in some of the early Quincy Jones houses in particular, there’s some very strong Lautnerian ideas about them.
Schindler is one of my favorite architects. He was a lot like Lautner, but he started twenty or thirty years earlier. So he had a very different sort of career. He was known as a gregarious and fun loving individual, and that comes across in the buildings he designed—very creative.The first time I saw his own house on Kings Road on an architecture tour, and his wife, Pauline Schindler, was still living there, and I met her. I saw the house before it was restored. It’s concrete slab walls tilted up. Some of the interior walls were painted, pink as I recall. And it wasn’t that strongly constructed, so it had been altered over the years. But nonetheless, even through that, I could see that it was sort of the beginning of California Architecture, indoor/outdoor life, the way the outdoors carries into the interior space itself. Just brilliant on Schindler’s part, to be able to put together something like that. And like Neutra, Schindler was trained in Austria before WWI. But he allowed himself to really engage with Los Angeles—and the culture, and the materials, once he got here. I wrote an essay for the L.A. Review of Books, and the title was Schindler Goes Hollywood. And the idea was that Schindler and the other very good architects of California, didn’t just come here and start to do what they had been doing elsewhere. They interacted, and understood, and lived the culture that was here, and that changed their architecture. And schindler is probably one of the very best examples.
Ain is another very good California architect. He worked with both Schindler and Neutra. He was a real socialist. A lot of architects that studied with him told me that he really believed, that the purpose of architecture was to improve the life of the average person. And so he tried in a couple of places to do some cooperative socialist housing. He never quite succeeded at it but the designs themselves are very, very nice.
Eichler was not an architect, he was a builder. He hired architects like Quincy Jones, Anshen & Allen, Claude Oakland and others to do his architecture, so he chose the very best. This is not to discredit Eichler, but he was often times credited with bringing modern design to mass produced housing—tract housing. There were a number of other really good architects and builders who were interested in modern mass produced architecture, like William Krisel and Dan Palmer– they were also doing modern tracts, and in some ways even more dramatically modern. There were quite a number of examples of modern architecture available for the average person in tract housing.
Palmer and Krisel.
In some ways their work was sort of my discovery during a book I wrote with Andrew Danish, Palm Springs Weekend, on midcentury architecture design. I never heard of Palmer and Krisel until I did the research for that book. They did a number of tract homes in Palm Springs. And fortunately, Bill Krisel is still around, so I was able to get to know him and interview him and see his archives first hand. And learn what it was like. He knew everybody and he did really interesting work himself. Their work deserves a lot more credit because they really did modern architecture. They were really devoted to bringing good modern design to the average person. And that was supposed to be one of the fundamental ideas of modernism, at the very beginning, from the Bauhaus, they were trying to make it for the average person. And Palmer and Krisel were one of the few architecture firms to achieve that. Gregory Ain was a great architect but he was never really able to build on a mass basis, and have that sort of impact. So I admire that, it cements their place in modern architecture in California. They were partners from the 1950s to the early 1960s, then they split and went their separate ways. I was able to interview Dan Palmer as well for a book I did on ranch houses before he passed away. There is a new book coming out in February 2016 about Krisel’s work in Palm Springs, in which I wrote one chapter.
House designed by William Krisel
Cliff May was a designer, a building designer. He had more impact on architects than most architects knew. And the reason why is fascinating. He did carpentry, he built furniture, he was a musician with a band, and he had an entertainer’s promotional attitude about his work. He understood people. And he was one of the people who understood the power of the image of the ranch house— the California ranch house. They were the adobe haciendas of the nineteenth century, and these wood shacks out in the country. And he realized there was an inherent glamor and certainly an architectural character to them—living indoors and outdoors and simplicity. And he was able to capture that in his custom designed, and mass-produced homes as well.
Edward Fickett, is another name that had been long lost in terms of the general public. Certainly other architects knew him. And I was able to write about him in my book about the ranch house, so he could begin to be appreciated for what he really accomplished.
And in fact I grew up in one of his houses in Pasadena, a ranch house tract home. My parent’s bought the house in Hastings Ranch, brand new. And years and years later I had learned that He had designed Hastings Ranch. It’s more of a traditional ranch house, not modern, but nonetheless. He’s definitely one of the major architects of Southern California. His was known for his tract housing, which was quite extensive, and for many other types of buildings. That was one of the reasons I got into writing about architecture in the first place, was to let people know about these neglected talents. They need to be a part of our understanding of Los Angeles.
We need really good books written about these architects, like Edward Fickett and Gregory Ain. In recent years there has been a few good books written about Cliff May. There are a number of architects who deserve really good books. And I try to encourage other people to write them.
I live in Irvine, which is a master planned community designed by William Pereira fifty years ago. It opened in 1965. Pereira was one of the major corporate offices in Los Angeles. He was usually critically neglected and dismissed, and initially, I didn’t think much of his work, until I started to do some research on him. And I began to realize that my entire concept of him was wrong. As I began to look into his buildings when I moved to Irvine, it really spurred more of my interest in his work. He is one of the major Southern California architects who shaped the region. He designed several key buildings that defined the way people lived, worked and played. He designed CBS Television City, a television studio at a time when television was brand new. So he designed this facility that is still in use today, with all the changes in the media. He also designed Marineland, a new type of playground out by the ocean for the citizens of Southern California, this urban metropolis, a place to take the kids, and learn. He designed LAX as well (along with Welton Becket and Paul Williams), he designed this jet port, before the jet airplane was even in use. And then he planned Irvine and the new university there. Suburbia was growing, but it was being criticized. Tract housing was often a hodge-podge, very randomly planned, and not coordinated. And Pereira, as a planner, said we can do better than this. It was sort of miraculous that the new city project of Irvine and UC Irvine came together. It’s a really interesting story. He took the ideas of suburbia and organized its elements in a way that made sense. There was a diversity of housing types. You were part of nature when you lived here with generous greenbelts. You had schools, libraries, shopping, swimming pools — everything you need in life, and you could walk to these places, so you didn’t have to be dependent on the car. This was the early 1960s when he designed all this. It was just extraordinary. In his career he really conceived and developed many of the ideas that made up Southern California. And he did it with style. Another building he designed was LACMA, which is the cultural capitol of Southern California, at a time when Los Angeles was the most modern city in the world. And there’s talk now that they want to tear this down, this cultural icon.
CBS Television City, 1952, designed by William Pereira
The socio and cultural history that his career represents is fascinating. An African American in Hollywood, and what he had to go through to become one of the most successful architects in California, throughout the mid century. It’s a great story, and he was a really good architect. He’s often called the architect to the stars. He built a lot of really big and beautiful, mostly traditionally styled homes. But he did a lot more than that. He did office buildings, he did housing tracts, he also did housing tracts for the African American community, here in Los Angeles, and in Las Vegas. After he stopped doing traditional styles, he adopted modernism, and modern methods, and was just as masterful. He is equally important as a role model and an architect. His influence on other architects is really important. There are a lot of people who got into the business because of Paul Williams.
Let’s talk about how you work. How much time do you spend writing each day? How much time do you spend on the internet, doing research? What is a regular work-day like for you?
Well, I spend too much time on the internet. I don’t know if email is really a blessing or not. But I usually start by checking my emails in the morning. I check Facebook. There’s a lot of good information on FB if you look in the right places. There are a lot of good sources for books and information going on now, also historical subjects. I do my creative writing in the afternoon, which includes writing and editing on various projects.
What do you know about William Mellenthin?
Not a whole lot, that he was a builder, very successful, building the traditional ranch style homes. When searching for specific information like this, a lot of it can be found on SurveyLA.
But we continually lose archives and historic information on figure like Mellenthin. Many important architects and builders could be lost to history. Like Wayne McAllister, one of my favorite architects. He designed the Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake, and the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. But all of his drive-in restaurants, which were built in the 1930s, which were everywhere, are all gone. There isn’t one remaining. So the information and the buildings are so fragile.
Out of curiosity, who designed the Casa de Cadillac car dealership in Sherman Oaks?
Casa de Cadillac was designed by Phillip Conklin with Randall Duell in 1949, it was a collaboration. It was originally called Don Lee Cadillac.
What kind of advice do you have for writers today? How to get their work out there and be published.
It’s a lot different from when I first started. Publishing on the internet serves the purpose of getting the information out there the way books once did. I would encourage people to write about architecture. There’s so much we don’t know, and much that we need to document. I was really pleased to learn that some people who’ve written books, were inspired by my work. There’s a book coming out next year on Trousdale Estates that Steven Price is writing. That’s a great subject and deserves to have a book about it, but I just don’t have time to write everything. But thank goodness someone else is doing it. And other people are doing books on Paul Laszlo and Tommy Tomson, for example, fascinating little-known architects. There are plenty of other subjects that people could be writing about, to document—getting it down—for the rest of us to understand.
I didn’t intend to be a writer. I was interested in architecture. And that’s why I write. I don’t write to be a writer, but to further the cause of good design.
What other projects/books would you like to work on?
I have a long list of projects I’d like to do. A couple of really interesting architects. The most intriguing subject that I would like to write about is the 1970s and ‘80s of California architecture, that hasn’t really been covered. It was touched upon in the Getty show, Pacific Standard Time, which was a few years ago now. The people are still around and the story has not really been told. And trying to figure out what actually happened in that period, and do it objectively, is a really interesting challenge. Some of these people are around and are telling their own histories, but not necessarily the entire story. So I would love to cover the entire story in context.
Alan recommends these essential books on Los Angeles architecture:
• Five California Architects, by Esther McCoy
• Exterior Decoration, by John Chase
• Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies by Reyner Banham
• Los Angeles: The City Observed by Charles Moore, Peter Becker, Regula Campbell
• Holy Land, by D. J. Waldie
• Google: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture, by Alan Hess
We all have our favorite writers, our favorite artists and musicians. Sometimes an artist will have more than one creative outlet, like music and art, or filmmaking and writing. Tara Vanflower is one of those artists. She channels her artistic abilities in both music and writing. She’s published several novels, and is vocalist in the band Lycia. She’s also worked with a number of other bands, and with artists like Daniel Serra, whose work was featured in our summer issue. Having just released a new album with Lycia, and continuing to work on her novel series, Violet, Tara is always busy working. She also finds time to raise her son, along with husband, Mike VanPortfleet. We are pleased that she had time to talk with us about her work.
Writing Disorder: You’re known for your writing and your music. Which one is more challenging, which one do you prefer?
Tara Vanflower: I find music more challenging because you have to fit everything you want to say/evoke into a certain pattern, into a limited amount of space. With writing you can expand and elaborate. So, finding the right set of words to properly express your feeling or what you’re trying to say, and making it fit rhythmically/sonically, is very challenging. I think I prefer writing because there are really no limitations but your own imagination.
What has been the more rewarding for you personally?
Really, it’s hard to choose. Lycia has given me a whole life I would have never had, with experiences and relationships and travel, I never would have had, but writing is an entirely different kind of reward. There’s more pressure with music because a lot is expected, whereas with my writing I’m the only one that expects anything at this point. I’m only ever letting myself down. Well, that’s true in both regards. HA!
Talk about your life growing up. Where did you live? What was your family life like?
I grew up in NE Ohio in a small town called Mantua. My family are factory workers, blue collar, normal.
What was your youth like, and what made you want to become a writer?
Very simple and very fun for the most part. Typical kind of exurban life. I played outside all day with friends. Group baseball games, hide and seek, football, whatever. I twirled baton competitively, so I always did some travel with that. Having stories to tell is what made me want to become a writer. My imagination never stops and these people want their stories told.
When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer?
I haven’t begun to think of myself as a writer. I don’t know what flip needs to be switched for that to happen. Maybe some level of success? I honestly don’t know. But I don’t consider myself a musician either.
What music did you listen to as a child? Were your parents artistic? Or siblings?
I grew up listening to country & western, (the old GOOD stuff) bluegrass, southern gospel, that sort of thing. It definitely has had an impact on me. My parents are creative in their own ways. My mom painted and always sang around the house, as well as planting flowers and trees, which to me is a form of creativity. My father can build things with his hands like barns and dog houses and crap like that and I consider that creative. My brother played the sax for awhile but never pursued that. He was an athlete. But he could’ve been a great musician.
Before music and writing, what kind of work did you do? What type of work did you envision yourself doing?
I started young so I never really did “anything” before I started in music. I floated from job to job – cleaning hotel rooms, factory work, amusement park, whatever. I went to cosmetology school for a while, but I quit to go meet Mike and the rest is history. I never saw myself as really BEING anything. In my head I had random plans, but nothing was ever concrete. I didn’t care about anything enough before music.
What does your family think of your work and success? Do you ever get their input on your work/writing?
They’re proud, I guess. My mom is friends with a lot of people who follow our work and she randomly tells people in the store about Lycia. It’s not honestly a huge topic of discussion. I don’t talk about my writing much with family because it still feels like sharing my diary.
Who influenced your work early on? What books, authors did you read growing up? Which authors do you like to read now?
When I was really young I liked George Orwell and Ray Bradbury. But I can’t say anyone really influenced my work. I basically read trashy novels, or did. I don’t have time anymore. My desire was to tell the stories I had in my head. I didn’t use anyone else’s path or style to follow. I know my “style” is pretty improper, I imagine, I don’t really know. So I wouldn’t want to offend anyone by saying I was following their path anyway. If I am I’m doing it poorly.
Did you read any comics or graphic novels growing up? Name some titles that stood out.
Nope! Sadly I never got into that. I simply wasn’t exposed to it. It makes me sad. I still haven’t read a ton, but of the few I have, I love Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross. The art is phenomenal. I think that Superman is my favorite version. I may or may not be in love with Superman. Just throwing that out there.
Where do your stories begin? What is the process?
The first three books were inspired by dreams I had. The others have built upon those characters and their own tales evolved from there. I have very detailed dreams and gain a ton of inspiration from them. Or random fleeting images I catch from the air.
When was your first work published, and what was it?
Violent Violet originally came out in 2004. It has since been re-released.
Describe what happens when you write a story.
It’s on my mind nonstop. I never leave the characters or their world fully and every spare moment I have my mind is on them. I describe it like they’re sitting in this waiting room, pacing back and forth, waiting me to come back and spend time with them so they can tell their story. They get antsy and impatient. Some of them have been waiting years.
Your write lyrics, do you also write poetry? Is there a difference for you?
I started off writing poetry. The poetry I wrote naively gave me the belief I could write lyrics and thus I got involved with my first band. There is a difference. I don’t have to “fit” poetry into a finite box.
How much of what you write do you throw away?
Very little. But I do abandon things to return to later when I’m “feeling it” more. I have ten stories in various stages of completion.
How do you balance a story so it’s not too extreme, too violent, etc.?
I don’t believe in writing (or music for that matter) being “too” anything if it’s honest to the story/characters. The story dictates the level to which it reaches, not me.
Talk about your Violet character. Is she based on you or someone you know?
Violet is definitely her own person. The scenarios in which she found herself in the first two books were based on my dreams, but she is most definitely her own person.
What are you working on now?
Way too many things. Right now I’m editing the next two “Violet” books. Then after that I will be finishing up a book called Black Owl. Then editing the two that I’ve already written that come after that one called Ilya and another called Mourning Glory. I’m also working on a music collaboration.
What do you do when you’re not writing? What do you do for fun?
All of my time is spoken for, so honestly, writing has to fit in the cracks where I’m not doing something else. I work fulltime, I’m a mother and wife, plus I have the music business. Writing is the last on the list because it has to be. What do I do for fun? Write! Ha! I love watching stuff on Netflix when I can and talking to people online.
What are the challenges of being a writer today?
Finding anyone to give a shit. You can write the best book in the world, but if no one reads it, who cares? I care because these characters mean something to me, but finding anyone else to care, there is the problem. I think there’s so many books out there, so many writers, that unless you stumble onto some magic wave of pure chance and luck, you fall through the cracks.
Are there limits to how far a writer can depart from the real world?
I don’t think so, but you still have to be able to relate to the characters. I think the problem with a lot of writers is they’re so busy trying to be clever they forget to tell a story that anyone can relate to or care about. I write about vampires, but they are real people first. The fact that they’re vampires isn’t the point of their stories, it’s secondary, and being a vampire is just a fact of their reality.
Where do you write? Describe your work space.
A lot of different places. From my work comp, to the bed, to the couch, to the recliner. Wherever, whenever. I write in my head while I’m driving then rush to write notes when I get wherever I’m going. The beauty of using Google Docs is I can write from anywhere I have internet access. I would love to have a specific place, like an office, but that’s not my reality.
When do you write?
Late at night once everyone’s gone to bed, after work between the time I finish and the time I pick up my son from daycare, and during his naptimes on the weekend.
Does anyone else in your family write?
No, but they should. Everyone should.
Was writing encouraged at home?
It wasn’t a “thing”. I was more into twirling baton in my youth and didn’t start writing until I was in high school and I didn’t talk about it with anyone but a couple friends. They would spend the night and we would write these teenage romance novels back and forth. I miss those days. But no, it wasn’t encouraged because no one knew it was a thing.
How do you feel about turning people you know into characters in your stories?
I fucking love it. I’ve killed several arch nemeses in my books. I write aspects of people I know/love into some characters but they are never “that person”… just hints of their personalities or their looks.
How much research do you do before you begin a writing project?
None. Since I write from my personal experiences and a brand new world I’ve created, I don’t really need to do research. I will do random google searches on certain topics as a reference, but generally speaking, nothing I do requires researching. Is that good or bad?
Once you have the basic story written, does the editing process take longer than the initial writing?
This is a really hard question for me to answer. I think I’ve changed through the years since I’ve been writing for awhile now. Violent Violet and the three follow ups have been heavily edited. They were written a long time ago and VV was the first thing I ever wrote. So it has needed some work once my style kind of evolved. I think the books I’ve most recently written are more about editing grammar and less for sentence structure or continuity etc.
Do you have other creative talents?
Hmmm, I think talent in any regard is debateable. Ha! I’m an excellent swearer and work at a high level of sarcasm and self deprecation. My wood burning skills are up for debate.
What music did you listen to growing up? What do you listen to now?
I listened to the music I noted earlier. But then I discovered punk and post punk music and that’s been pretty much it. I like a lot of stuff from 1920s-1940s, still listening to punk/post punk, I like a lot of bands like Ides of Gemini, Godflesh, Swans, Ulver, Pyramids, Killing Joke, White Lies, etc. A sort of mix of darker, brooding, slow motion, melancholic stuff. I provide music lists in my books to share the stuff that is influencing me while I’m writing as well as setting an overall mood for the story/world I’m creating.
What is a typical writing day for you?
I don’t have writing days. Basically I just write when I have time allotted for it. God, I would love to have “writing days”.
Do you spend a lot of time on the internet? What do you do, what sites do you visit most often? Is there a point when you have to turn everything off?
I spend way too much time on the internet. My problem is that I love people and I love interacting with them. I’m mostly on the usual haunts: Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter. I have boards on Pinterest dedicated to writing inspiration and each book/character I’ve created, which I love. I do have to turn it all off sometimes, but it’s hard for me to check out. I used to feel bad about that but I don’t anymore.
How do you find time to write with a family and music projects? Would you like your son to be a writer or musician?
As I said earlier, basically when there isn’t anything going on with the family, that is my writing time. I won’t sacrifice my family time for my own selfish pursuits. I think it would be really cool if my son did something creative, but I would never push that if it wasn’t something he was into. I will support and encourage whatever he chooses to do. That having been said, he’s already making music and writing books. Ha ha.
What are you looking forward to in 2016 and beyond?
I’m scared to even answer this question. I just want to be happy. God knows the desires of my heart, I don’t need to speak them to the air.
When working on a project with your husband, Mike VanPortfleet, what is the process like, who does what?
Lycia is Mike’s project. I get involved when I’m asked to get involved. So, basically he’ll tell me “this is your song” and then I start working out my parts and get them recorded. I’m another instrument he uses.
Does he have any input on your writing?
No. I rarely discuss writing with him.
Would you rather tour with the band, or do a book tour?
Book tour. I wouldn’t have to worry about bullshit sound problems on a book tour. I could focus on meeting rad people and not worry about the technical side of playing shows. It would be awesome.
Any plans for a tour in the future, for your music or your writing?
Definitely no plans to play live shows. I wish I could do a book tour because I think that would be a hell of a lot of fun. Who knows what the future holds.
It can seem all too rare to come across poetry as ambitious and exciting as that of Dimitris Lyacos. His work exists at the intersection of the classical and the postmodern, the poetic and the dramatic, free verse and form. Exploring relationships with death, resurrection, and memory, to name just a few, Lyacos creates a dystopic epic for the modern world – not a post-apocalyptic adventure, but rather an exploration of a world hauntingly similar to our own. This is poetry that makes you think as well as feel. Poetry as finely layered as mica; each (re)reading an unveiling.
Dimitris Lyacos is poet and author of the Poena Damni trilogy, one of the leading examples of contemporary European avant-garde literature. Originally written in Greek, the three books (Z213: EXIT, With the people from the bridge, The first death), have been translated into English, German, Italian, Spanish, French and Portuguese and performed across Europe and the U.S. He is a Fellow at the International Writing Program, University of Iowa. For more information visit: www.lyacos.net
His most recent publication, With the people from the bridge, English translation by Shorsha Sullivan, is available from Shoestring Press. The Writing Disorder spoke with Mr. Lyacos about the new translation and about his work as a whole.
Talk about your family life growing up. Where did you live? What was the environment like? How big was your family?
I was born in Athens and lived there until the age of eighteen. This is how I remember the environment of my childhood, with some reliability I hope: A 1970’s classic south-european neighbourhood in a big city and with a neighbourhood atmosphere of course – children playing and making friends out on the street, ethnic homogeneity (all greeks), none of the cultural diversity that one experiences in Athens today. A warm familiar environment – but parochial as well. In the narrow sense of the term, my family was a family of four, parents and two children; but we were living in one big garden with four aunts and an uncle, and I always felt them my family, perhaps, even a little more than my parents. To make a reference to anthropologist Sarah Hrdy let’s say that allomothering is something I was lucky to experience.
What were some of your influences growing up that shaped you as a writer? Were your parents writers or artists?
My father was (and still is) a lawyer and my mother a school principal; no considerable influence there that would lead me to explore writing, although there was a variety of literary masterpieces in my father’s library as I later realized – which I don’t know whether he had ever read but he did not seem to have a great interest in, at least when I was growing up. I only noticed those books, however, when my own interest in “literature” had already developed, so perhaps I should say they gave me a second-order kick. My first influences were all those wonderful books that most of us read during that age: Grimm, Verne, Stevenson, Dumas, London, Dickens, Defoe’s Cruso, Ivanhoe; and entering adolescence it was music; rock music first and foremost.
Name some of your favorite books as a child, and later as a young adult.
The books and authors I mentioned above would answer your question until I reached the age of fourteen. Things changed after that and, rather abruptly, if I recall. The change was from fiction to philosophy – I remember reading a volume of history of philosophy, then a short book by Kazantzakis (Ασκητική – The Saviours of God) and then I sunk into Nietzche’s Zarathustra. If one gets to that point, different roads lie wide open ahead.
What and when was your first published work?
It was a poem that had appeared when I was eighteen in an Athens’ magazine. I remember going through the different versions before submitting, and I still remember the motto I had used, a few lines from Eliot’s “The Burial of the Dead”. It actually occurs to me now that the last section of “The Burial of the Dead” (from line 60 on) and With the people from the bridge seem to relate in a very interesting way; and there is a bridge and a dog to be found in both texts.
When did you first consider yourself a professional writer?
I suspect this is a twofold question: I have considered myself a writer since the age I wrote my first poem, in the sense of my “mental coordination” to that aim if you like – a professional writer, however, I think I have become upon completion of my studies, when I started writing The First Death.
Name some poets and writers you admire today.
I suppose all writers of the so-called western canon could fit here, from Homer on. Aeschylus, Dante, Buechner, Trakl, Tennessee Williams are names that I never forget, although admiration may not be exactly the right word to use here. To my mind, there is always a connotation of “unfamiliarity” when we speak of admiration (as also the meaning of the ancient greek verb θαυμάζω = wonder/admire suggests) and this is not what exactly happens when we come across a text that speaks to us more profoundly. Rather, a journey of “multiple discovery”, unearthing parts of our own insight in other authors is what strengthens our feeling that we also may eventually have something worth saying.
What are you working on now?
Hardly anything at all. The trilogy has taken an enormous amount of time to put together, twenty years now since I started writing The First Death, but also, what I had written before was, albeit rather naïf, a precursor to the same project. As we speak, having completed the trilogy only a few months ago with the Greek edition still pending publication, it is still difficult for me to come up with something new. I really don’t know – something new may even never come by at all: so far, this project has lain always ahead of me; I do not know what I will do now that it lies behind me; unless if something is not right, and I have to go back to it again; so far the whole thing has been a Sisyphean enterprise.
What are you most proud of in terms of what you’ve accomplished, and what are some of your goals for the future?
Normally, here I should answer that this is not about pride, although I am certainly pleased that I have completed the trilogy and that the work has found a readership. In the circumstances, however, I think I am entitled to feel some kind of pride about this, in the sense that working on the trilogy and seeing its gradual success over the years seemed to me like an achievement; Greece is not an easy place to be for a new author, there is certainly a “literary ladder” to climb if you want to get through to the public, and meritocracy is not exactly the rule there. I would say that Greece in literature functions more like a closed system and it is rather difficult to find your way in. So I could say I feel proud, because I have managed to circumvent that system without giving way to it. Having left Greece at a rather early age, I attempted to reach an international public first, through translation. And I have the moral satisfaction now that I feel I have arrived somewhere without making concessions. As far as my future goals are concerned, I would like to go on with my series of readings and lectures in different places around the world. It’s great to be in touch with other authors and readers, I enjoy the feedback and the dialogue.
What are your views of poets and writers reading their work before an audience?
I remember one evening in New York I had planned to meet a few friends, jazz musicians that were performing in a Harlem club. I had a reading in Woodstock earlier that day so when I got to the venue the gig was already over. Upon excusing myself to them I mentioned that I could not have possibly made it because of my reading; one of the musicians exclaimed then: “A reading in Woodstock! Why, can’t they read in Woodstock?” What I like about this anecdote is that I too believe that a reading in which the author simply reads from his work may not be particularly interesting. That is why during my readings I like to limit the time of reading excerpts; I have a much stronger preference for providing the audience with some information about the background of the work and, of course, engage in conversation – and here I would like to add that reading in the States, especially because of the openness and directness of the Q&A part, is something I enjoy very much.
What is your daily writing routine? How much of what you write is discarded?
I don’t have a daily writing routine. Ninety per cent of my time involves reading and preparing to write. You might have noticed that I publish a book roughly every five years. What happens is that after a long period of preparation I get down to writing. Depending on the nature of the work a writing routine will unfold accordingly.
How long do you usually spend on a piece?
That depends again. For example, when I was working on Z213: EXIT I was writing a new piece every two months – that related to the concept of the work: the narrator there seems to suffer from a certain kind of memory loss, what could be loosely described as my own literary version of anterograde amnesia, so I wanted him – and me – to almost have forgotten what was taken down in the previous piece before starting the next one, and show at the same time the narrator’s peculiar psychological “progress”. In With the people from the bridge the strategy was completely different: I wrote the book from start to finish and then went on to review and revise in a more detailed sort of way in order to achieve the consistency needed and refine the details.
Describe your writing space or room. What tools do you use to write?
I don’t have a permanent writing space, or, rather, I have more than one. In Berlin I write in the living room, in Athens I use different places in the house, but in general I do not have a single, comfortable, familiar space to sit down and write. Perhaps, a single familiar space might not be exactly suitable for me if you consider what I write about; what is more important is mobility, I think, and the right frame of mind.
Do you have a family? Do they understand and appreciate the work you do?
I have a daughter from my previous marriage, my parents and my girlfriend. My parents are as alien to literature as they could be, my father being a utilitarianist, protestant-like Greek lawyer; but I would not be fair to him if I didn’t say that I have had his full financial support which enabled me to “cater for myself” as far as writing is concerned, without worrying whether what I write about would help me make a living. My girlfriend is highly appreciative of what I do and looks forward to the Greek edition of With the people from the bridge; she also accompanies me when traveling for readings, which is great support too. My daughter would tell you that her daddy writes books about vampires and zombies; if you think that this is the same perspective adopted by a recent reviewer and that my daughter will be five this summer, I think I shouldn’t complain.
When did you first start writing seriously?
I started writing seriously when I was eighteen; of course writing seriously does not always mean producing serious writing. As you know very well, that takes much longer.
The poem has a wonderful blending of Classical and modern elements. What poets and poems influenced you in writing With the people from the bridge?
I would say that tragedy was the locus par excellence that always had a very profound effect on me, Aeschylus in particular; also, the form of dramatic monologue; it condenses, in a very efficient way, poetry and drama, achieving maximum effect. In the case of With the people from the bridge my initially more “dramatic” intentions were gradually bent to become more “epic” and, as a matter of course, the narrative element prevailed. This was not against my intentions, however, as I always thought it would be worth revisiting theatre forms beyond the hegemony of drama or realism. There have been dramatists in the past, as well as theorists of drama whose energies, I believe, have not been fully explored: Gordon Craig and the uebermarionette, Adam Mickiewicz’s view of the theatre as a rite of communion with the dead, Maurice Maeterlinck’s static dramas, to name just a few. “Interior” by Maeterlinck is a wonderful piece that reaches tragedy while keeping action to a minimum. With the people from the bridge, perhaps goes back to some similar source and might be related to them.
That comingling gives a sense of straddling the “real” world and some “other”. The different voices, and the interplay between them and the layout, create a strong dramatic effect. It’s an intricate piece… How did you approach writing it?
I failed twice before getting to the current version. Since I was twenty-three I had been fiddling with the idea of a poetic drama and had published then an early draft titled Nyctivoe. Roughly around 1996, I went back to it, trying to make something better out of it and came up with the second version of Nyctivoe, published in Greek and German in 2001, and in English in 2005. Progress was evident from the first to the second version but in 2009 I still thought this was a deeply flawed piece despite the fact that it had given rise to some interesting performances in other media. I decided to give it another go, hoping to fail better again this third time, as Samuel Beckett would have said. One of the differences between the earlier versions and the new one was that this time I worked on certain aspects of the subject that I had previously ignored; now I focused less on the myth of the revenant in literature and more on the long standing folk Greek tradition on the subject, which starts off in antiquity and reaches to the first decades of the twentieth century; this tradition, I thought, was richer than any other; moreover its source in ancient Greek religion as well as orthodox Christian thought and practice reveals its neglected existential dimension. The Greek revenant has, in a way, been a form that helped me integrate many disparate parts in one functional whole.
The postscript adds a haunting note. How intentional was that? And why Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery?
This leads back to my answer to your previous question. Think of the countless Hollywood adaptations of the vampire myth which by now have sucked the blood of vampires totally dry, and then think that this particular postscript is the report of an actual event that has really taken place in the Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery – I am quite certain you will find the published article in a LA newspaper if you look for it. I simply copied the clipping, very much like John Dos Passos would have done. You may retort that I am not really answering your question, somehow beating around the bush, but this is intentional of course. The real answer, placing the role of the clipping in the context of the book is a key I would prefer to leave the reader alone to discover.
You worked with Shorsha Sullivan on this translation as well as on the other two parts of Poena Damni, Z213: EXIT and The First Death. How did you two find each other? What drew you to him as a translator?
I met with Shorsha incidentally in 1996 when he was working as a librarian at the Tate Library, London; at the time, he had been interested in buying a couple of copies of the Greek edition of The First Death for the library. After that, he paid me a visit at home and as I had my first reading coming up at the Foundation for Hellenic Culture in London, but no English translator at all, I asked him if he would like to try and translate a few pieces for the occasion. I was particularly drawn to him because of his solid knowledge of ancient Greek and his very subtle taste in literature. It is almost two decades now since we first worked together and I could not stress enough how indebted I am to him for the quality of his translations but also for his dedication to my work. It is very important that I add here as well the invaluable help of Gregory Solomon who, together with Shorsha, and since the very beginning of the translation process has been meticulously reading every draft and offering great solutions due to his highly critical sensibility. He has functioned as the first authoritative reader of the translation and we could not do without his comments. In fact, if Gregory does not okay the translation we are not proceeding to publish. Beyond that, he is the first critical reader of my texts as well as my main interlocutor when I come up with a fresh idea and that, as well, feeds back to the translation. I am very happy that I get the opportunity to thank him in the context of this interview because his name is not mentioned in the books themselves.
How active a role did you play in the translation?
Both with Shorsha and Gregory, we are working very closely together. It is always Shorsha producing the first draft and when he is ready, I and he go through it line by line to make sure that there are no inaccuracies or misunderstandings. Subsequently he produces a second draft taking on board our notes and comments. After that we go through two more drafts in order to reach a smoother, more readable version and, of course, I get to come up with some more ideas then, to widen our spectrum of possibilities; it is always Shorsha of course that will make a final decision. At the end of the third draft we forward everything to Gregory for his comments, which we then incorporate in the next version, the penultimate one, and then we discuss the finishing touches. Some options remain open until the very last minute.
What are your thoughts on the idea that something is inherently “lost” in translation?
To say that something is lost in translation would be true but also trivial at the same time. For a translated text to be produced a whole caravan of culture has to go through the needle of the translating process and it is only natural that something would be lost. There is a very wide range of texts, as you know, especially introductions, in which translators inform us of the unique qualities that they have been unable to bring forward to the “target language”, but I do not remember any of them providing us with some information about what may be found or “gained” in translation. To bring a translated text in the context of a different culture enriches it, in the sense of it now being “open” to new interpretations. No text is like any other of course; in fact in Greece there are quite a few great, very idiosyncratic texts that I would easily say are very resistant to translation, but even those are worth planting in new ground; their fruits will taste different – like hybrids perhaps. And here I should add that we need the cultural community of the target language to welcome translation; I am happy to see that in the US you are a little more open towards translated literature in comparison to what happens in the UK for instance, and I think this results in a greater degree of innovation as far as the American literature is concerned.
What sparked the writing of Poena Damni?
Poena Damni came about gradually, so there was no spark, or perhaps, there was a great deal that had already happened before that spark. Among other things, Poena Damni is an exploration of the concept of hope in a historical moment of foundered Grand Narratives, at least in the western world, even though their constituent parts are still floating around. I felt compelled to still go back and question the foundations of the culture I have inherited, seeking some stable points of reference, or, rather, find my own starting points and then move from there to make my own assessment. My approach may have been rather paradoxical, like that of an alien coming from within, who is simultaneously experiencing a world both familiar and unfamiliar, old and new. Bearing that in mind, it may not come as a surprise that I have used a character resembling a cross-cultural scapegoat, a kind of pharmakos as the ancient Greeks would call him, someone to be disposed of by his community in the course of a cleansing operation. We can go on to speak about other important elements for the kind of structure I have come up with so far, but perhaps it would suffice to say that Poena Damni, as it stands, is the current state in a process of reloading the old system after having attempted a slightly different wiring.
What do you hope readers will take away from With the people from the bridge? And Poena Damni as a whole?
I stumbled across a recent review of With the people from the bridge the other day and what the reviewer seems to have taken away from the book was a “relentlessly grim” essence. If I have understood it well, the work seems to have provoked to the reviewer unresolved emotions, no catharsis so to speak. Brecht would be happy with this, he would say that we need those unresolved emotions to take us out of our bourgeois niche and call us to act. On the other hand, catharsis, in the sense of both emotional purgation and intellectual clarification, is a state I would be very happy to see the reader taking away from the trilogy; think of catharsis in the case of “Oedipus Rex” where Oedipus does not stop short of any grim revelation that eventually tears up the veil of his illusion, he wants to confront reality head on. I don’t know if in the arts, like in ritual, real blood is purified by “symbolic blood”, but at least I think that if there were a way to “digest” our hard realities – even in the innocuous form of a literary work – that would play a very positive role in our composure and life endurance. It would be great if Poena Damni could contribute a little to that.
Talk about the internet and social media today. Do you embrace it, or do you use it as little as possible?
The internet is the most important medium today, it has offered us an enormous amount of freedom, the access to knowledge it has given us is invaluable. There is no better way for “memes” to propagate other than through it and, I think, it has maximized the advantages of writing, since writing was invented, as a form of storage and communication. The prominence of interconnectedness which is its inherent characteristic has, of course, contributed to accessing texts in a more open-ended and, sometimes, fragmentary sort of way. Nowadays all texts are hypertexts, all structures lead to other structures. I can still conceive of a worldview that would be against using internet – I think that would seem like a new kind of asceticism which I don’t think I am ready to endorse.
How can the poet have a bigger impact on social media, and the younger generation who grew up on computers and technology?
I suppose, the poet can have a bigger impact by publicizing his work through social media in the variety of ways that are available. The poet, as anybody, can use the dialogic platforms to disseminate his work, draw the attention of new readers and get feedback. As this may be very time-consuming it would be great if other people, specialized in this, might offer a helping hand: publishers, event coordinators etc. The problem is that the whole enterprise is like a virtuous or vicious circle accordingly, depending on how much publicity the poet enjoys in the first place. Perseverance always helps here, and rather than going around knocking on publishers’ doors you can play your slots in the more hospitable digital fields.
Any words of advice for young writers and poets?
I have always been disinclined to giving advice to the young as that makes me feel a little too old. I think what happens with a lot of young authors who start writing is that they may not have something very important to say when they are making their first attempts; when, in the course of their development, what they have to say eventually becomes more interesting, they get to realize that not so many people out there are interested in listening. So, I would say, get ready for a lonesome adventure, and be patient; and think, perhaps, that by the time people will start seeking the story of your adventure you might have probably come back – and long ago – so the whole thing might have faded a little for you.
What places have you visited in the world, and what were some of your favorite spots?
I have been living out of Greece for most of my adult life. First in Italy, Venice from 1985 on, I lived there and in Trieste until I moved to London in 1992. Next stop was Berlin in 2005. Now I live between Athens and Berlin. I have had the chance to visit different places over the years and I must say that a trip to Tanzania, Africa impressed me deeply. Other than that, I love the US and I go often for readings. It has been mostly the East Coast lately, New York is one of my favorite places, Harlem particularly. Harlem feels like a second home to me, even though gentrification is, rapidly changing the character of the neighborhood. I used to be a regular in St. Nick’s pub, a wonderful place for jazz. I like to think it will reopen some day; for now, with not so many of the old jazz venues left, Paris Blues is my preferred spot.
What are you reading now?
Having completed the trilogy, I feel I am starting again from scratch and, therefore, my reading is rather erratic. “Lectures on the Religion of the Semites” by Robertson-Smith is a classic I have been reading lately, with a lot of interruptions and digressions to other anthropological and religious studies texts. At the same time, motivated by a question in a recent interview regarding a supposed affinity of my work to Lautreamont, I went back to reading “The songs of Maldoror” which I read roughly thirty years ago. It is really interesting to experience how our current and past selves link through the bridge of a text after a huge gap in time. And I also read a selection of poems by Lorenzo Calogero in the new issue of the New York-based Bitter Oleander Magazine, a great initiative on literature in translation; Calogero is a poet the Italians wanted to know nothing about until he died. After that he was fit to become the Italian Rimbaud.
What artists do you admire, past and present?
I could fill pages with names here. In the realm of visual arts and trying to keep a historical order: Bosch, Bruegel the Elder, Goya, Rembrandt, Caspar David Friedrich, Turner, Edvard Munch, James Ensor, Chaim Soutine, Frank Auerbach, Edward Hopper, Robert Rauschenberg. Of course, in different periods and depending on what I am working on, I have felt close to the work of various artists and I may be forgetting some of them now. Perhaps it would be worth adding here that, after the age of eighteen there was a period in which I had been living with visual artists-friends in Venice, Italy; these were wonderful years, very important for the development of my work. And as you may know of course, the trilogy has triggered work in other media and in some of these cases I have had a close collaboration with the artists involved. I would like to keep doing that, I find this kind of dialogue very fruitful and the collaboration itself removes some of the isolation of the “sole and lonely author” experience.
Talk more about your writing process.
I think this question somehow links to what I have just been saying about the “authority” of the work. Over the years, I have increasingly appreciated the collaborative aspect of writing. It may be that the production of a text is something between me and the page, however, before I sit down to write, there are all these people, living or dead, that push through with you and eventually represent themselves, in one way or another, on the page. I usually spend long periods writing nothing, especially when I have just finished a book; since the publication of With the people from the bridge for instance, I have written nothing other than a few notes in a new document with a working title on top. There has to be something new, at least for me, when I embark on a new project and it takes time, I think, for necessary changes to happen, within and without, before I start writing with a definite purpose. In the meantime there is a lot of reading involved, many disparate things that gradually lead to the formation of a “spinal chord”. But even then, there is a lot that is removed and new elements emerge and are tested. What survives this process is the book.
Feel free to add anything you like, that helps other writers understand how you work.
A very obvious point here would be that in two decades’ time my actual production – Poena Damni – counts no more than two hundred pages overall, if you put the three books together. Solely based on that, it is easy for somebody to evince that I could not have worked the way Jack Kerouac did when he was writing “On the Road”. On the other hand, I would like the reader to be able to read through my work without stumbling on the hindrances of reference, like it happens in Pound’s Cantos for instance. Personally, I prefer covert, seamlessly integrated allusions not because I want to play hide and seek with readers and scholars, but because I aim for a text that could make an immediate impact, its different layers notwithstanding, and speak to people with different backgrounds or education: when you are in front of a door it shouldn’t take you too long before you found the key; I see my text as one door, one of many possible points of entry; whether you get in and want to stay, or where you go from there, that should be up to you.
Dimitris Lyacos is the author of the Poena Damni trilogy, a leading example of contemporary European avant-garde literature. Originally written in Greek, the three books (Z213: EXIT, With the people from the bridge, The first death), have been translated into numerous languages and performed across Europe and the US. Dimitris Lyacos is Fellow at the International Writing Program, University of Iowa.
Author of THE PUGILIST’S WIFE, HARLOW, and THE GORGE
DAVID ARMAND was born and raised in Louisiana. He grew up in the small village of Folsom, where he lived on twenty-two acres of pine-wooded land with lots of dogs and a few horses. He has worked as a telephone operator, a dishwasher, a drywall hanger, a draftsman, and as a press operator in a flag printing factory. He now teaches creative writing at Southeastern Louisiana University, where he serves as associate editor for Louisiana Literature Press. In 2010, he won the George Garrett Fiction Prize for his first novel, The Pugilist’s Wife, which was published by Texas Review Press. His second novel, Harlow, was released by Texas Review Press in September 2013. He has spoken at the Tennessee Williams Festival and the William Faulkner Society’s Words & Music Festival in New Orleans, as well as the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge, and the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. David now lives with his wife and two children and has recently completed his third novel.
Dixon Hearne: Thank you for meeting with me today, David. Can you talk a little bit about your new book, The Gorge, and how you came up with the concept for the story?
David Armand: Sure. The Gorge takes place in the Bogue Chitto State Park in Franklinton, Louisiana. The book takes place in the mid-1980s, though, before the land was a state park. At the opening of the novel, a young girl’s body is discovered in the brush near Fricke’s Cave, which is sort of a geographical anomaly in southeastern Louisiana. The young man who discovers her body is accused of killing her.
Dixon Hearne: What is Fricke’s Cave?
David Armand: Fricke’s Cave is a sandstone “cave” at the head of a giant gorge there in the park. It’s not really a cave, per se, but it’s just an odd formation that stands out among everything else around it. When I first saw this place a few years ago, this persistent image of a body being discovered there just wouldn’t leave me alone. (This is how all of my books start, by the way, with this image that just won’t go away. This one was so strong that I started writing notes on some receipts that were in my car’s glove compartment as soon as my family and I left that place.)
The odd thing is that as I was working on this book, I started reading Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean and learned that a body actually was left in Fricke’s Cave back in the early eighties. The character that Sean Penn played in the film version of Dead Man Walking was actually an amalgamation of several killers, one of them Robert Lee Willie, who was accused, along with his friend Joe Vacarro, of killing a girl named Faith Hathaway and dumping her body in the cave.
But The Gorge is not a retelling of that story. Instead it is a fictional story of a young man, Tuller, who finds his girlfriend’s body and then gets accused of her murder. Most of the book is told in flashbacks of Tuller’s and his girlfriend, Amber’s, relationship. It’s a love story more than anything else.
Dixon Hearne: Are any of the characters in your book based on people you knew and grew up with?
David Armand: Sure. I think that’s inevitable.Most of the characters in my books are amalgamations of people I know or once knew. No character in my book is an exact replica of a real person, but there are certain traits that I borrow and use for my fiction, absolutely.
Dixon Hearne: Your prose is so careful and precisely written. It’s almost as if every word is carefully chosen. It’s very beautiful the way you write.
David Armand: Thank you for saying that. Being initially trained as a poet, I learned a lot about the economy of language and the importance of using precise imagery and description. I’m also very aware of pacing. Sometimes I will spend hours fretting over a metaphor or an image or the right way to say something. It’s worth it, though. I prefer quality over quantity, for sure.
Dixon Hearne: So how long did it take to write this book?
David Armand: This book has taken me about two and half years to write. I started it on February 17, 2012. I’m still working on edits, but it’s pretty much done. My first two books took about the same amount of time to complete.
Dixon Hearne: Wow, you remember the exact date when you started writing this book? That seems kind of remarkable.
David Armand: Well, I keep very precise records as I work. It’s so important to stay organized as a writer. I know the word count I make each day, when I start a book, when I finish one. I finished writing Harlow, for example, on February 14, 2012.
Dixon Hearne: Valentine’s Day?
David Armand: I know. And strangely enough, the last image and line of that book says something like, “keep it there where it is written: in your heart.” That definitely wasn’t a conscious choice, but I think it was certainly a subconscious decision.
Dixon Hearne: And then three days later, you started writing your next book? You must write all the time.
David Armand: I think that’s how I stay sane. How I keep from falling into total despair. Faulkner said that if the writer’s demon-driven with something to be said, then he’s going to write it. That might sound melodramatic, but I think you must be a little bit tortured in some way to want to be an artist. It’s hard work, and the payoff (if any) is few and far between. But of course we don’t do it for the payoff: we do it because we have no choice.
Dixon Hearne: Without giving anything away, was the outcome of your story something you had envisioned from the beginning, or was it something that happened along the way?
David Armand: It definitely happens along the way. Making books can often be like riding down a river: you can never see the end from where you start off. I think it’s good to work like that, though. It requires utmost faith in your craft and your ability, but this approach also adds an element of mystery and suspense to the work that ultimately translates to the reader. If you start to outline or plan too much what you’re going to do, the reader will be able to sense that later on, and it can be the death of your book.
Dixon Hearne: How did you come up with the structure for your novel?
David Armand: I’m glad you asked about that.Structure is so important to me. The Gorge, like my previous two books, is told out of chronological order. To me, a novel is never really interesting unless it experiments with time and also with language. The true artist must be fearless. To me, it would be pretty easy to write a straightforward realistic novel, told in plain language. But that would also be boring. Nothing new. I don’t like post-modern “experimental” stuff like Borges, though: to me, that’s just gimmicky. But I do like writers who take chances, just not those who take stock in nihilism or this idea that we have to be self-referential in order to be interesting. I hate when people try to be too interesting. To me, you either are or you aren’t, you know?
Dixon Hearne: So when you were writing this book, did you have to get in a certain frame of mind in order to write, to see these characters and this place?
David Armand: Well, I live here; I live among the people I write about and, in a way, I’m one of them. I don’t participate in some of the depraved things my characters do, of course, but I can definitely relate to some of their desperation. Sometimes I will write a certain scene or about a certain event and I’ll have to literally recover from it: it’s like witnessing a horrible crime or something, I don’t know. Some people ask me why I write about such dark things and dark places, and I tell them that it’s not something I set out to do, at least not consciously. I think it’s just being honest. Things like this happen, unfortunately, and it’s the artist’s job to record those things as he sees them. Not for shock value or to capitalize off of them, but to be truthful to the reality you know about and have grown up around.
There’s a scene in The Gorge that takes place in a scrapyard that comes directly from an experience I just had: I had to change out my water heater a couple of weeks ago, and I decided to take the old one to a scrap yard by my house. When I got there, I could tell that so many of the people there were selling scrap to either buy food or pay a bill or buy drugs, or maybe all of the above. There was all this protocol you had to follow just to go in and sell your junk. I was thinking of James Dickey’s poem “Cherrylog Road” and when I sat at my desk the next morning, about 3,000 words just erupted: the whole scene I wrote that day took place in a junkyard. I was amazed.
Dixon Hearne: When did you first start writing?
David Armand: You know, as reluctant as I am to say it, I think I was born to be a writer. I have always paid close attention to the mundane details around me (people’s facial expressions, colloquialisms they used, sounds, smells). I suspect a lot of us do this, but I just had an obsession for these things ever since I can remember.
I loved being read to as a small child and I have fond memories of this. I loved the way words looked on the page and the way they sounded when combined in certain ways. I used to try to mix words up or intentionally mispronounce them when I was younger to see what effect it had. I still do this, play with words and sounds.
Once I learned how to read, I read everything: street signs, logos on people’s shirts, you name it. My family would tell me to shut up I would do this so much. But it just felt magical to me, like I found a key to unlock something that I couldn’t understand before. This feeling of magic has never gone away, even to this day.
When I was in third grade, I started drawing comic strips. It was my first real effort at storytelling. I entered a comic that I had made in a contest for the “Just Say No” campaign, which was an anti-drug campaign spearheaded by Nancy Reagan back in the ’80s when I was a kid. I don’t remember how long it took, but eventually I learned that my comic won first prize. I received one-hundred dollars, and my comic was displayed at the Parish Fair. I can still remember what it looked like hanging up there on the bulletin board and the way the hay on the ground smelled and the sounds of the livestock in the same covered building and the feeling I had as people walked past my story and read it. I wish I still had a copy of it, but it’s long gone. That hundred dollars didn’t last long either, I’m sure, but I felt rich.
After that, I started writing little sketches in an old ledger book that my grandfather gave me for collecting stamps. I remember peeling out all of the stamps (probably a really stupid move, as I’m sure those stamps were worth far more than what I was writing in that book) and then writing these little horror stories, à la Edgar Allan Poe, in there.
In high school, I wrote songs and poems. I re-wrote the ending to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening for a class assignment once and the teacher read it out loud to the class. She didn’t read anyone else’s. Mine was pretty offensive, but thankfully she didn’t say it was mine and neither did I.
When I was about fifteen or sixteen I wrote this long stream-of-consciousness narrative in an old blue notebook and showed it to one of my friends (she was a girl I was trying to impress) while we were riding home on the school bus. She was sitting in a different seat from me and when she finished the story, she got up and came to sit by me. The bus was nearly empty by then and I remember being so nervous that she was going to dismiss my story or dislike it, but to my surprise she seemed genuinely blown away by it. I’ll never forget that. The next day, I showed it to another girl in one of my classes and I remember watching her read it; she was completely focused on it and she was ignoring the teacher’s lesson, and then she just handed the notebook back to me when she finished. She didn’t say anything but I thought that she liked the story since she was unusually nice to me from then on. I don’t know though.
Other than those two girls, I never showed my writing to anyone. I don’t think my family knew I was writing stories or that I was interested in that. I read a lot, they knew that much, but I don’t think they knew I was interested in writing until way later. It wasn’t until I was in college that I started getting support from my teachers.
Unfortunately, I burned those old notebooks along with a whole entire box of writing that I did on an old electric IBM typewriter that my grandfather gave to me (I can still smell the grease on the inside of that clunker). A part of me wishes I still had that old work, but in a way, I’m glad it’s gone.
Dixon Hearne: So how is life for you now, compared to when your first book was published?
David Armand: Well, I’m still teaching. I have to pay the bills. But I have definitely appreciated the attention my work has brought to me. I’ve gotten a lot of emails from readers telling me how much my books have meant to them, particularly Harlow. I think they can relate to the pain the characters experience in the book, probably because it’s pain that I’ve experienced in my life as well. That translates onto the page. But those emails have meant so much to me. Writing can be a lonely job, but when you can communicate with readers and other writers, it makes it more bearable.
Dixon Hearne: You’ve had several book signings, I’ve noticed, like at Octavia Books in New Orleans. And you’ve been on a book tour. How has that been?
David Armand: It’s been great. Like I said, writing itself is lonely work, but when you get to meet with people who care about books and can understand the characters in your own work, you can’t ask for anything more. You really can’t.
Dixon Hearne: What books did you read growing up?
David Armand: I read so much when I was a kid. The first book I ever read in its entirety was Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. After that, I read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, then I started reading Jack London and Edgar Allan Poe. I loved reading The Hardy Boys, too. When I got a little bit older, I started reading Stephen King. I think I learned a lot from everything I’ve ever read. Even the bad stuff.
Dixon Hearne: Who else influenced your work?
David Armand: Definitely William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Charles Frazier, Daniel Woodrell, Flannery O’Connor, Larry Brown. All for different reasons.
I also had the great fortune of having some really good teachers when I was in college. Particularly my writing teachers Jack Bedell, Norman German, and Tim Gautreaux showed interest in my early efforts and all were more than generous with their time and support. Their kindness and willingness to share what they knew with me, just a young kid, will never be forgotten.
Dixon Hearne: Your work has been compared to a handful of those writers you mentioned. How does that make you feel?
David Armand: Yes, I have been fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on your point-of-view) to be compared to those writers I mentioned. These are all of my favorite writers, so on the one hand, it’s a great honor, but on the other, I wonder if these comparisons are detrimental to me. I mean, I think this is what Harold Bloom called the anxiety of influence, and I don’t want to work under the shadows of these great writers and simply be a copy of them. I would like to have my own distinct voice. I suspect that Cormac McCarthy literally moved from Tennessee to New Mexico (or wherever he lives now) just to get from underneath Faulkner’s indomitable shadow. I think McCarthy’s first books are great, but they were often criticized for being too reliant on Faulkner’s models, so I can’t help but think he moved somewhere new just to get away from that. His first “Western” book, Blood Meridian, clearly got him out of that rut, if you could even call what he was in a rut, in the first place.
I was at a reading recently where one of the audience members asked the author if it made him feel good that his work was compared by reviewers to all these other great writers and he said that he didn’t really pay much attention to that, that the reviewers had to say something, and often our only outlet for description is comparison: that’s why we use metaphor. Because we just can’t put our minds around a good enough description, so we make a comparison. It’s human nature, you know.
One time I was in a bar and a girl came up to me and told me that I looked like Matt Damon just because I think she wanted me to buy her a drink. I know that I don’t look like Matt Damon, but I bought her that drink anyway, and it cost me twelve bucks. But it was worth it.
So people can compare my work to whomever they want to so long as it gives someone else a good point of reference and maybe makes them want to read what I have to say.
Dixon Hearne: Has there been any talk of turning your books into a film?
David Armand: Not that I know of, but one can hope (laughs). Of course, I would love to see any one of my books turned into a film. If for no other reason than to help me pay off my mortgage. I’ve seen some great film adaptations of books and of course I’ve seen some disappointing ones.
But if Harlow were ever made into a film, I would love to see Tye Sheridan play the boy Leslie. Sheridan is about eighteen (the same age as Leslie), he’s got that gritty look about him, and he’s a phenomenal actor (he played in Terry Malick’s last movie, and more notably he was in Mud with Matt McConaughey). He’s in an adaptation of Larry Brown’s novel Joe with Nick Cage, which was written by Gary Hawkins. I just think this young man would be great for this role.
And since he had such great chemistry with Matt McConaughey in Mud, I would be happy to see Matt McConaughey play Harlow, Leslie’s father. McConaughey has that great Southern drawl and that gritty look about him, too. Yeah, I could see him playing Harlow Cagwin, for sure.
Dixon Hearne: What is your writing process like, or what is a day of writing like for you?
David Armand: Writing novels is a lot like laying bricks, carefully placing one square at a time and adhering those bricks together with mortar. But every novelist’s process is different, you see.
Personally, my process goes like this: I read all the time. When I’m reading a book that is particularly well-written (one, say, by Cormac McCarthy), I keep a pen and a piece of paper or an index card and I write down every word that resonates with me. For example, when I read Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain for the first time, I had about six or seven note cards with words like “spurtle,” “piggin,” and “scarp” written on them. Those words resonated with me, had a certain feeling attached to them, a feeling I knew I wanted to have in my work-in-progress at the time. Those words become the bricks that started to make the wall of the novel. Too many writers today seem to forget the utter power that a single word (and the right word) contains, and therefore they miss the mark because their focus is too heavy on story or gimmick or idea that they forget why they came to the page in the first place: language and the fearless worship of it.
While I don’t write every day, I do feel as if I am writing incessantly, as I am always thinking about stories and how to make them.
While working, I keep my index cards and notes close by, referring to them for the right word or image as I go. Then I start to think about structure and how the story is told. I print out hard copies of the novels and mark them up with a red pen, then a black pen, then use a highlighter to mark off the changes.
Dixon Hearne: Do you ever write with a pen and paper?
David Armand: Sometimes I do. I keep a stack of yellow legal pads in my desk drawer and I will write in them a lot. I find that when I hand write a section, it makes it easier when I type it up to do the editing as I go along. There’s something kind of romantic about handwriting a novel, even though it’s definitely less convenient.
Dixon Hearne: Who reads your work first?
David Armand: I have a couple of readers with whom I share my work. The great thing is that each of them reads for different things, and I can count on them for honest feedback. Some of the best advice has come from my close friends.
Dixon Hearne: Do you write any poetry?
David Armand: Not so much anymore, but as I’ve said, I started off my training as a poet, and I think that has really helped me as a novelist. Faulkner used to say that all novelists are failed poets, and I tend to agree with that. I do have a handful of poems that I might work on a little bit one day and send out to a magazine or two.
Dixon Hearne: Have you written any short stories?
David Armand: Yes, after I wrote a lot of poems, I moved up to the next longest form, which for me was the short story. I really worked on that craft for a while, making a handful of stories that I collected in my graduate thesis, Mae’s Blues, which I had the pleasure of working with Tim Gautreaux on. I published a couple of those. I also like to try to pull out sections of my novels and publish those as stand-alone pieces. That’s seemed to have worked well for me, too.
Dixon Hearne: How did you go from writing your first book, to getting it published?
David Armand: After I finished writing The Pugilist’s Wife, I submitted it to agents and independent presses for about two years. I also submitted it to several contests. One of the contests I sent it to was run by Texas Review Press over at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. My novel went through the rounds of blind judging and made it out on top. Then the day that changed my writing life was November 8, 2010, when I received a phone call from Paul Ruffin, the director of Texas Review Press. He called to inform me that my novel had won the 2010 George Garrett Fiction Prize. The novel was published the next year. Two years later, Ruffin published my second novel, Harlow.
So that is why I always suggest to authors who are spending years of their lives trying to find an agent first and then go that route to a publisher, just submit your work to contests. Winning or even placing can get the attention of agents, or even land one a publishing deal with the sponsor of the contest, if that happens to be a press, as it was in my case.
Dixon Hearne: What are your plans for the near future?
David Armand: I recently learned that I was accepted to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee. So I’ll be going there at the end of the summer. I have a couple of book clubs I’ll be meeting with this summer as well. If I get an advance or something for my next book, I’d like to buy a boat. I think that would be a good way to celebrate. I’d love to teach my kids how to fish, and to just spend some time on the water.
Dixon Hearne: Great, David.Thank you for your time. It’s been a pleasure meeting and talking with you.
Dixon Hearne is the author of a textbook, three short story collections and editor of several anthologies. His fiction has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award and winner of many other awards. Other work can be found in Louisiana Literature, Mature Living, Wisconsin Review, Louisiana Review, Cream City Review, New Plains Review, Roanoke Review and many other magazines, journals and anthologies. Visit: www.dixonhearne.com and Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dixon_Hearne
“Art is a demon, a demon that drags along. It’s not something you can stop, even if you should. Maybe you go insane, maybe your wife leaves you or your kid runs away. You throw yourself away to be an artist.”
—Ushio Shinohara from Cutie and the Boxer.
The cave art at El Castillo is the oldest cave art on the planet, dated to 40,000 to 100,000 years old. The paintings are made up of disks, dots and hand stencils, yet no one knows what they mean. The Ancient Egyptians were the most communicative, completely covering their walls, ceilings and sarcophagi, with brightly colored hieroglyphs as visual prayers to attain enlightenment and ensure safe passage from this world onto the next.
Flash forward to 2014; mankind still has a visceral need to mark events on walls and express emotions in an artful way. Only nowadays, it is illegal.
Forget what you know about graffiti or graffiti artists and keep reading.
Graffiti has evolved into a more sophisticated art form, gone are the days of gangs marking their territories with tags and the violence associated with it. Graffiti has turned into a pro-social art form, and a catalyst to rejuvenate blighted neighborhoods. In the words of the two female street artists and creators of the In Pursuit of Magic, project “I believe art will change the world.”
Those are ambitious goals for an unsophisticated urban art form. While the art form has evolved, sadly, the laws created to curb it are as antiquated and primitive as the cave art in El Castillo.
An article from July 2014 in the San Francisco Examiner, describes it as a 20 million dollar a year “problem.” The debate is as alive and polarized as the slow move towards decriminalizing marijuana in the United States. Each city has a different attitude, from hostile to welcoming, towards it.
A recent transplant to San Francisco, I immediately became captivated by graffiti artist, Zamar’s squid\octopus meme, which eventually became my muse and secret friend in a place where I had yet to make any. He was my first friend in the city. I would see him everywhere, on my way to the gym, on my way home from a bar, in the bathroom mirror, when I would jump out of a Lyft, I would almost step on the ever jubilant, little guy looking up at me. His googly eyes and mystical scrawled notes like “who knows?” “It could be?” “sunguishguish” were all taunting me to decipher their deeper meaning. Being a screenwriter, I became obsessed with finding out the back-story of who Zamar really was. I was convinced that there was a story, and that whoever created this character — and brought so much intrigue to so many — had to be special.
After weeks of putting up flyers, searching online for “Zamar” or “Mar” (I wasn’t sure what his real name was), digitally stalking other graffiti artists’ Instagram pages, enlisting local Zamar fans to keep their eyes peeled, I finally found the masked avenger. After more weeks of back and forth Instagram messages, he cautiously agreed to meet with me.
I wasn’t disappointed.
In a dream come true moment, I’m walking with Zamar through Oakland on a Saturday night and his face lights up whenever he shows me a tag, explaining this subculture to me. When he sees a perfect spot to leave a tag, he stops talking, crouches down and with a laser focus, tags four petite Zamar’s, each one drawn on the bend of a water pipe. His face transforms into a serious and meditatively quiet state as if he were a pregnant octopus giving birth to his larvae. My heart beat faster just to be able to witness this moment of creation.
Graffiti artists or “writers” roam wild and free in Oakland. The walls, sidewalks and empty spaces are covered in graphics like a multicolored playground for cartoon artists full of mythical characters and three dimensional letters that jump off the wall like a zany Roger Rabbit parallel universe. Here taggers are more destructive and brazen but their work is more artful. There are more crews or teams of taggers here in Oakland as well. One prominent one is “PTV” an acronym for Punks, Thugs and Vandals. There is also less enforcement here so the tags are a bit more “wild” and pervasive, covering almost every abandoned building’s walls.
Crews are like any club; their membership pushes you to go higher with more competition in play. The “vets” mentor the “newbies.” Most taggers aim to join a crew. For some, the ultimate goal is to be a part of these dominant urban tribes with the goal of visual supremacy to each urban territory. Zamar likes to go it alone, and requires anonymity.
Zamar tells me graffiti is an art form created by youth. Zamar also started young, honing his talent by selling drawings he would make of dragons in grade school so he could buy extra chocolate milk.
I notice his hands bear the marks of a painter, albeit a street one … his nails stained with white paint and dry from using different media to bring his character to life with whatever he can find; old cans of paint, liquid paper pens, gorilla glue and the traditional mainstay can of spray paint.
We happened upon another tagger in the midst of tagging his name “Koosk” onto a light pole and I throw a question at him, “Is what you do born out of ego or a desire to create?”
“I believe they’re a bit intertwined. I feel the need to create from the shadows. I don’t want people to know its me because it allows them to create a mystery and a story in their head of who made them and what the strange characters represent.”
Zamar tells me these street writers created the original Facebook, networking via real walls not virtual ones. They would know what each other was up to by noticing updates on the “wall” and literally reading the writing on the walls that they would “tag.” You could know which crew they were a part of or not and what their territory or main area was and what they represented.
Today, Instagram has become the new social media of choice for grafers or writers. It’s a temporal platform and there isn’t much chatting, so it maintains anonymity which taggers require for obvious reasons in their constant game of hide and seek with local authorities. There is also an online community of graffiti artists at where you can view profiles and samples of their work, with an option to upload photos to the site of work you happen to appreciate.
Writing can become a huge business for a choice and select few like Shepard Fairey of the Obama campaign, “Hope” image fame, who has his own clothing line where legions of hipsters sport his “Obey” hats and clothing *available now at Urban Outfitters. Then there’s the anonymous guerilla artist like Banksy, who is known as a sort of masked Zorro and so desired that a local graffiti writer stole a Banksy on Mission, carving the concrete right from the wall. The intrepid street art entrepreneur makes a living going all over the globe, stealing and selling other artist’s work and making good “bank”.
But even those high profile artists aren’t immune to law enforcement. The New York Post recently published they were hunting for Banksy after several of his installations popped up all over the city. Mayor Bloomberg was quoted saying graffiti is a “sign of decay and loss of control.”
List of Graf Terms:
One liners — a tag made with one continuous line, a form of graffiti that’s hard to do without dripping paint or mistakes.
Slaps — slappers draw or print their tags on blank stickers, FedEx or USPS stickers and slap them all over the city. They are easier to apply and usually easier to remove.
Scribing — taggers use a pen with a special tip that engraves on random hard surfaces like granite columns, stainless steel elevators, wood paneling, mirrors, etc.
Ground work — line work at street or eye level.
Writing to heaven — more established artists write closer to the sky, not to be closer to god but because it’s the most visible and dramatic artistic statement and ensures their legacy will remain longer since it’s very difficult for a city worker to scale the walls like the writers do in order to buff or grind it out.
Wheat pastes — pre-painted or printed images on wheat paste panels easily applied to surfaces with glue. These are easier to apply and decrease chances of getting caught in the act.
Hand styles — transcend national boundaries. For example: San Francisco hand styles can be found in Paris.
E.A. Vasallo: How did you come up with your animated squid\octopus creature that has haunted and noticed by so many across our city?
Zamar: I grew up in Baltimore moored on a Crystal Channel Cutter sailboat with my parents and I was home schooled until about 5th grade. We would travel south to Key West in the winter so I fell in love with the nature and beauty of the Florida Keys. When we’d take our dinghy boat to get supplies, I’d sit and wait for them and look up at the sky. I wanted to represent that peace in my tags. That feeling that all was right with the world while on the ocean. I also consider the octopus as one of the smartest and craftiest creatures of the ocean realm that I’d often fantasize about. Zamar came through that connection with the sea I had as a child.
Zamar is a compound name joining the letter Z, which I love for its aesthetics combined with the Spanish word “mar” which translates to “ocean”. I looked it up to see if the word existed and coincidentally the word means Hebrew for “praise God.” I believe something happens when you write for so long, it becomes kind of like a mantra that you repeat over and over again, each time you tag your chosen name. I can’t really explain scientifically what happens but there is a sort of transcendence that happens. Which seems to explain why some artists do it until they die. They sort of become possessed.
E.A. Vasallo: What is your motivation for creating Zamar? Does he have a mission?
Zamar:I sat at the park at Patricia’s Green in Hayes Valley about a year ago and realized how everyone was on their smart phones and no one was looking at each other at all. Everyone was disconnected. I wanted to create something that would help people connect and feel connected with something. I thought that the ground was the best place for Zamar, below eye level. It’s a natural line of sight for people always looking down at their phones. I try to do things for the public. I am very aware of Zamar’s impact. That’s why I like to tag him near anything that water flows through, like drains, pipes, and sewers.
For some writers, graffiti is like a void you throw so much time and energy into it and it goes nowhere. But for me, I’d like to make a name for myself eventually. Some writers have built a reputation over the years building interest and buzz slowly.
My mom was a teacher for the public school system; where she would often try to help kids out from troubled homes. I was in the United Nations club in high school and the Aquarium as a guide for school children. She instilled the ability to look beyond myself and to help others. That’s what is most exciting for me to be in San Francisco because it seems to be a city that cares for it’s own more than any other city in the U.S. It seems like so many people are planting seeds here. Zamar is my seed.
E.A. Vasallo: Are you afraid of getting arrested for doing your art or graffiti?
Zamar:There’s nothing that will stop me. The day that Zamar stops, is that day I stop. There’s a tagger that has a phrase he uses in his tags, “Can’t stop, don’t wanna stop.” A local writer got “wrapped” which means he got caught, got two nights in jail for a tag in the Tenderloin. I talked to him when he got out and he said he’d keep going because that’s what the true writers do. I feel that way too. It’s a whole world within another world, another dimension and I’m totally stuck in it. As far as going to jail, I feel it’s like when a soldier dies in combat. It’s his ultimate experience. If you really want to take it to the next level you have let stop being afraid and the rules and all the structures that confine you.
E.A. Vasallo: Obviously, not all street artists are as benign as you or altruistic in what they are doing but how do you feel about being called a criminal or a vandal and see your little guy on the cover of the San Francisco Examiner?
Zamar:It’s amusing how institutions use words to easily demonize those that aren’t in line with what they want. We are not all criminals, or vandals. We are aware and informed citizens. Not all are like that, there are darker ends of the spectrum and some play the line, taunting police.
I do have a tiff with the institutions that I’m angry at and this is my way to stick my thumb at it all and it doesn’t require all the bureaucracy to protest it. A lot of writers also use the medium to protest things they don’t like about the community. For example, there’s a writer named “Khy” who’s from the Mission and it means, “keep hoods yours” which is a protest to all the evictions going on these days. A lot of these guys have grown up in the Mission and they are upset about how they are being forced to live elsewhere because of skyrocketing property values. That’s why you see tags all over walls when a new store is being built, they will tag the hell out of it in protest because that store pushed out a mom and pop store just so the landlord could get higher rent. Art and vandalism do intersect. Some artists are focused on being a vandal. I am on the other side of the spectrum.
Some artists are on the side of destructive art and some choose walls that are abandoned or blighted and they put up a large piece, which in their eyes will beautify the public space.
It sucks that some people have a notion that it’s bad. I think we forget what public space is. We forget what sharing a space is because it gets painted every day. We forget how to really interact with each other. So when you see graffiti, it comes off as shocking because it’s a ripple in the system -a glitch in the matrix of sorts. It’s there and it’s not supposed to be. It causes panic and feeling of loss of control.
The penalties don’t seem to be effective at stopping it and I don’t believe it’s justified that someone should go to jail for this. There has to be a better way to deal with it. Some writers can get up to 3 years jail time and a $50,000 fine. If they are caught with another person it can be considered a gang and those charges are a felony with an increased sentence. Recently, the city has tried to pass a new law to charge artists or as they like to call “vandals” the cost of clean up. The problem with that is these kids usually don’t have any money.
E.A. Vasallo: Are there rivalries or violence amongst writers?
Zamar:In the past, graffiti used to be more gang related. It was kind of incubated there because it was used to mark territories. That’s where most of the stigma for the art form was created. Today it’s not like this. The taggers are a little bit thuggish but it’s mostly a look worn by young kids that don’t have anything to do and are artistically inclined. They don’t really hurt each other. Lots of them work at coffee shops or local markets. It’s not like Al Capone tagging “Al Capone” and killing people. Taggers have gotten killed in the past but its rare and usually just people at the wrong place at the wrong time like any other murder. There is an unwritten rule that you should never tag or post a slap over anyone else’s tag space. No other tagger or writer has come after me but shop owners have. I had a woman throw a trash can on my head while I was finishing up a tag on wet concrete and an Asian shopkeeper chase my down the mission with what seemed to be a samurai sword yelling “f**king bin rat” at me. That was my all time, harshest diss but I got away both times and finished my tags. In honor of that man, I occasionally tag “bin rat” on recycle bins. One guy named Jade, that did a lot for graffiti died about a year ago. Every now and then taggers will tag his name in honor of him, so there is definitely camaraderie.
E.A. Vasallo: What is the ethnicity or age group of most taggers in the city?
Zamar:Most are white guys, mostly young, under 30. One up and coming kid is “Staner” he’s about 14 and really into graf or writing. Back in the day, Asian writers ran San Francisco and they were excellent at what they did. The most prominent Asian tagger was “Tie” and his real name was Jonathan Lind who started writing around 13 and stopped around 18. He ended up being shot and killed in the 90’s while climbing down someone’s fire escape after finishing a tag. The landowner used a justification similar to the Trayvon Martin case and got off scot-free. Tie would tag with another white guy named “MQ” started really pushing graffiti here in the city and they really made “bombing” or “throwies” popular here. It was based on NYC wild style where the letters are slanted or leaning and filled in with a different color.
E.A. Vasallo: How long have you been tagging in San Francisco?
Zamar:For about 4 years now. It started with a little urge and now it’s become a fire that I can’t put out.
* * *
Altruism and artistic pursuits aside, the local government lumps all this graffiti into one category—vandalism. For city officials, it is a major nuisance that costs taxpayers and property owners that are fined to clean up what is for the vandal, an irresistible and natural form of expression. It’s a never-ending battle equivalent to Sisyphus trying to push that darn rock up that steep San Francisco hill. Sure, there are education programs for youth and advisory boards and mural programs but the graffiti clean up still sucks up a huge chunk of the city’s yearly budget that can be better spent elsewhere.
The challenge is how do we address it so it’s copasetic, where both parties get what they want? Bearing in mind that you can never stop people from having the desire to “write” or “tag.” How can you get them to not only express themselves but to nurture that talent to higher art forms that benefits the city?
Many citizens view the whole graffiti subject as a healthy and normal subculture that’s been around as long as humans could paint hunting scenes and shamanistic visions on cave walls and will probably be with us for as long as we are around on the planet. The goal of a city should be how do we get these creative individuals to move up from the destructive street art level to the productive artist or muralist category that will enhance the city instead of leave unsightly blemishes.
Progressive communities have gotten creative with the problem and the initiative has helped to improve blighted neighborhoods as well as help bring the artists some positive press and notoriety. StreetSmARTS and SF Beautiful programs try to do this by commissioning half of the cost of murals created by their roster of approved local artists. The image design goes through multiple hoops to get final approval, involving city officials, property owners and the artists. Property owners get their walls beautified and mostly graffiti proof as well as save money on fines and repainting costs. The city spends less money on clean up and enforcement. It’s a win-win situation. However, many proposals fail because property owners don’t want to pony up there half of the cost, which is at least $2,000 per mural.
Hayes Valley Art Coalition is on the same mission but with fewer hurdles to jump over. They recently commissioned a mural by Zio Ziegler on Linden alley across from Blue Bottle Coffee. The coalition plans on installing many more murals as they work to gain permission from owners in Hayes Valley.
Cities like Miami, Philadelphia and even Bogota, Colombia are also commissioning their local street artists and artists abroad to rejuvenate their blighted neighborhoods or up their coolness quotient. Montreal has upped the ante by hosting and commissioning the most celebrated muralists from around the world through a mix of private and public funding for its yearly city-wide mural fest, now in it’s second year which has attracted thousands of people to visit during the festival and millions of dollars in tourism income.
One suggestion could be accepting this art form as a human condition that like pot smoking or skateboarding, won’t ever go away. Give them a way to legally do it, in an acceptable and regulated form. The millions saved in clean up costs can help fund local graffiti parks. If they want to paint on walls, give them walls to paint on. The city’s StreetSmARTS program has tried this with one sanctioned wall but the taggers’ graffiti inevitably spilled over to private property near the allocated walls. Possibly a more extensive and permanent graffiti park would do the trick? Part of the cost could be covered by companies to help foot the bill in exchange for free advertising on public spaces? Primary Flight in Miami has accomplished this with companies like Levi’s and Sharpie.
The Precita Eyes Muralists Association in the Mission District is one of only three community mural centers in the United States. The organization sponsors and implements ongoing mural projects throughout the Bay Area. It also offers a once a year mural contest and four weekly art classes for children and youth (18 months through 19 years) and other classes for adults.
As we have already witnessed in the move towards marijuana legalization, once cities find a way for street art to generate revenue for the city coffers and boost tourism, what was once a foe can quickly turn into a friend.
The main gripe city officials have with graffiti is if you want to make murals, it is welcome by the city of San Francisco, however get permission to do it in the appropriate manner and through the various programs set up for that expression. It is vandalism when you don’t have permission to tag or paint a mural on someone else’s property. Period. Property owners will get fined if they don’t pay to clean up the graffiti, so it is an unfair burden for a tagger to put on them.
Are these just lawless hoodlums refusing to obey laws or is our definition of public and private property warped? American Indians believed our land was shared and incredulously look on as the white man began selling land that was considered for all, since time immemorial.
“My reason teaches me that land cannot be sold. The Great Spirit gave it to his children to live upon. So long as they occupy and cultivate it, they have a right to the soil. Nothing can be sold but such things as can be carried away” —Black Hawk
The original Americans lost that war so now we are stuck with a new set of laws. However, as time goes by and societal norms shift, laws are inevitably revised. Is it time for us to revise the laws created to curb the enforcement of this age-old problem?
When you get right down to the nuts and bolts of it and define why these vandals and/or artists do what they do, its option D- all of the above. It is primal, guttural, childish, altruistic, unifying, uplifting yet offensive to an eye that demands order and everything to be in its place.
However, what would our cities look like without any graffiti? We would have blank-page cities with blank walls; all perfectly clean with no trash or homeless problem or anything that isn’t aesthetically pleasing. We would have the opposite of natural, a fake obstruction of nature’s flow that these lone madmen can’t resist the urge but to let it flow out of them, through their fingers and onto a wall. That disobedience inspires us be conscious of our human condition and for a moment look away from our smart phones to a three dimensional reality.
While the rest of the good people of San Francisco scuttle about their normal, ambitious lives, those that dare can veer off onto a dark side street and perhaps be lucky enough to spy a graf writer lurking in the shadows, looking for a place to leave his temporary legacy, to mark his life for us to discover like a modern archaeological treasure buried just underneath our busy feet.
What were the ancient cave painters trying to tell us? What are the modern day ones trying to tell us? What aren’t we “getting”?
You’d be lucky to find a clever, colorful tag, you’d be even more lucky as I have been to get to know one of these artists, that are just good people but with an uncontrollable hunger for expression, and a knack for being wily as roadrunners. They prefer to avoid the limelight or sell themselves; there is no fee to see their work. Their only desire is for you to see the crumbs they want you to see, taunting you to discover their real treasure, which is their talent and ability to manipulate lines on concrete walls, challenging our concept of what a city should look like.
Some call it a crime, others call it vandalism, you can call it what you want … I call it magic.
The San Francisco Department of Public Works helps manage the city’s Graffiti Advisory Board, which advises the Mayor and Board of Supervisors on graffiti enforcement, cleanup and prevention strategies. Anyone wishing to offer new suggestions or solutions to the enforcement of graffiti can attend their open meetings held once a month.
A local fan, James Hargis, was inspired to create a video compilation of Zamar tags, called Tentacle Shift -over a year in the making.
Wrinkles of the City- an innovative, mural Project in major cities around the globe.
Piece By Piece: San Francisco Graffiti Documentary.
E.A. Vasallo – Archaeologist, young adult fiction writer, screenwriter and blogger. Awarded best screenplay 2014 – New Media Film Festival Los Angeles, California. Currently seeking publisher for novel. Bachelors of Screenwriting for Motion Pictures and Archaeology, UM. Resides in San Francisco.
My Leica M – with 50/1.4 ASPH, and old 35/1.4 from 1960’s in my studio, Chungju, South Korea, 2012.
The Simon Larbalestier Interview | The Writing Disorder
imon Larbalestier is without a doubt a master photographer. He’s been working at his craft for years, creating a body of work that is both inspiring and indelible. His style has influenced a generation of photographers. It’s a vision that puts him squarely in the class of great photographers. From his dreamy black and white images, to his stark, beautiful figures and locations, Simon creates a world you almost can’t describe. Known for his work with the iconic record label, 4AD, which began back in the 1980s, and for his images of remote, exotic lands, Simon’s work covers a wide range of topics and styles. We talked with Simon recently, to learn more about his work, and the creative process.
When did you first take an interest in photography?
SIMON: When I was studying on my Foundation Course at Jacob Kramer, Leeds, UK in 1979/80 we had a makeshift darkroom in our studio with which the “roof” was made of lengths of wood for making stretchers for paint canvases—and invariably it would leak light as people pulled the wood from the pile above! Anyway the immediacy and the flexibility of the medium struck a deep cord with me at that time even if most of my resulting prints ended up being fogged in the intermittent light leaks!
“Partial to the Picture,” interview with Creative Photography, December 1985
Talk about your first camera, and the type of equipment you had back then.
SIMON: I started out with a brand new Olympus OM4 and backed up by an old OM2n that I preferred to its more expensive brother. I only had one lens that was a wide-angle 24mm (I don’t know why I didn’t get the standard 50/1.8 which was excellent!)
Did you develop your own film?
SIMON: Back in the days of my BA in Newcastle Upon Tyne (1981-84) the answer would be no, as everything was fed through the machine – at that time I was primarily interested in just making the prints and then photocopying them and pasting them into my collages. But later during my Masters at the Royal College of Art (RCA) (1985-87) then I become obsessed with controlling everything from shoot to print and I began to explore all facets of film developing and printing my own negatives.
You have a Masters Degree of Art. Talk about the kinds of tools and techniques being used/taught back then.
SIMON: I was mostly interested in working with Polaroid Type 55 film—this is the kind with a peel apart and printable negative. The negative itself required some care and attention with careful washing and drying, but its high detail, fine grain and of course the beautiful and random edge borders of the negative made it a winner in my eyes.
Paired Polaroid Type 55’s from Masters Degree (1985-87) which were later licensed for the Pixies’ first EP “Come on Pilgrim” (4AD Records/1987)
At what age did music become important to you? What bands or music were you listening to then?
SIMON: I think around 12-14, I began to listen to Patti Smith, Neil Young, Rush, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and many others.
What were some of the first photographs that made an impression you?
SIMON: I think the early work when at the RCA, I won a traveling scholarship to Greece and shot everything with my OM2 and a Fuji 645 folder—that was the beginning of work that would underpin my huge Odysseys’ series.
Greek Orthodox Votives, Hania, Crete, Greece, 1985. From the series “Odysseys I (1985-1999)”
Working Notebook from the award RCA Basil Alkazzi traveling scholarship (1987)
When did you switch to digital photography? What are the pros and cons of digital work?
SIMON: It was during 2008, I was working between SE Asia (mainly Thailand and Cambodia) and the UK. I had several projects on the go, some with short deadlines. I had a fantastic commission to shoot 13 Charles Dickens book covers for Vintage over a couple of years. The first three I dutifully shot in film, as until that point I was a 100% involved with only film cameras. But I blew my limited book budgets all at once and soon realized that if I was to retain my fee per book I had to seriously rethink. So I took the plunge and bought the diminutive Ricoh GRD II a 10MP compact with a fixed 28mm lens. I had its analogue brother and the lens was quite outstanding in its rendition. The compact worked well but the learning curve was working with the RAW files in early versions of Photoshop 3 and Lightroom 2. In the summer of 2008 Vaughan Oliver gave me the Pixies Minotaur project and this seemed an ideal project to push the GRD II further. I was based in SE Asia and for 3 months. I shot exclusively with this compact in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. I returned to the UK later in October and presented my working folder of images to Vaughan and so began the project. The little compact enabled me to get very close to my subject matter and work very discretely and as I shot in RAW format. I had the choice of working in color or monochrome (In the end I worked with both). So the break into digital enabled me to embrace color in a way I have never been able to do with film, though I spent years trying.
“Cuban,” Bangkok, Thailand, 2008. From the Pixies’ Minotaur Project (Artists in Residence, 2009)
“Glove,” Bangkok, Thailand, 2008. From the Pixies’ Minotaur Project (Artists in Residence, 2009)
You’ve created an impressive body of work over the years. So many fantastic images. Which of your images do you display in your house? Where else is your work displayed?
SIMON: Thank you, Christian, very kind of you to say! I have very few displayed where I am living in NE Thailand, but the most important of all is a panoramic image of my children, Jack and Lucy, shot when they were in their mid-teens at one our favorite locations in North Yorkshire. I have moved 14 times in almost as many years since leaving the UK in 2001, and that picture goes everywhere. My middle brother Nic has the best collection by far but there are other avid collectors who have supported my work over the years, friends, colleagues and print clients.
My children Jack and Lucy, North Yorkshire (circa 2008).
What are some of your favorite cameras to work with?
SIMON: I think it very much depends what I am working on—right now I am very happy with what I have and it’s a pretty basic but expensive set up (Leica M9, fast 50 and 35/1.4 lenses, an old Nikkor 105 telephoto with a Leica M fitting, and a couple of the new Sony’s RX1, and its smaller sister the RX100) I get the results I want with this gear and I can work from mid telephoto down to macro, so all my bases are covered.
I do have a brace of Leica M’s, an Xpan and two unique 120 film 6×7/6×9 cameras back in the UK, but I very rarely uses them these days.
You’ve traveled all over the world. What are some of your favorite spots? Where would you still like to visit?
SIMON: I love NE Thailand where I am now, I love Bangkok, Vietnam was interesting but Cambodia was the place I photographed the most up until the summer of 2008. I would like to visit South America, Russia and Japan.
When you’re given a new project, where do you begin?
SIMON: Reading usually. Getting a feel for the subject.
Do you prefer to work in a group, or on your own?
SIMON: Alone always.
When did you first meet graphic designer, Vaughan Oliver? How did you get involved with 4AD?
SIMON: I first met him just after graduating from Newcastle Polytechnic, that would have been 1984/5, just before I began my Masters Degree in London. I showed him all of my third year project, which was mostly decayed buildings—not at all applicable to music sleeves (or so I thought … years later the image of the Tuscan bed, used for the first Red House Painter’s LP, Down Colorful Hill 1992), had all of these ingredients of my very early photo collages). He was very receptive and because of his interest I invited him to my degree show at the RCA in the summer 1987, and from that point on we began on the Pixies project.
“Bed” Tuscany, Italy, 1989, licensed for the LP cover of “Down Colorful Hill” by Red House Painters (4AD/1992)
What was your first project with 4AD like?
SIMON: Not counting the licensing of the first two images of the Pixies EP Come on Pilgrim, technically the first project was Surfer Rosa and this was one of the few times that Vaughan Oliver and I were actually in the same room during a shoot. I think there’s enough printed already and posted on the Internet to explain what that shoot was like but I will say this: Never at the time did I consider the impact those images would have on my photographic future (these impacts were dually positive and negative over the years) had I realized this I might have paid much greater attention to negatives that I actually threw away—like this one!
One of the original “Surfer Rosa” Polaroid Type 55’s from the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa shoot, Wandsworth, London, 1988.
What was it like working with such an esteemed label?
SIMON: I didn’t consider them in that light at the time. I was working simultaneously with many blue chip clients so 4AD was just one of them at the time—only later I think did the gravitas of what 4AD stood for in terms of creative music and artwork become apparent to me.
Did the music impress you at the time you first heard it? Is that what you listened to, or were you into other bands?
SIMON: I really liked Wolfgang Press, Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil and the Cocteau Twins. Not the Pixies, on first listening though. I did grow to love the songs on Doolittle. I was into many other bands, mainly rock and ambient music.
Did everyone hangout together and get along?
SIMON: I had a very young family so I spent my time either in the darkroom or at home, so I can’t comment on that.
What are some of your favorite 4AD albums you photographed?
SIMON: Come on Pilgrim, Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, Here Comes Your Man, River Euphrates, Down Colorful Hill, and Piano.
With 4AD you created such a mystique and aura. The music and the imagery went hand in hand. It was like your created an entire dream world. Was that your intention?
SIMON: A lot has been written about all that and in a way that has destroyed the mystery of how we all worked—hindsight and reflection has killed the legends and myths which makes the work so intriguing. I think the only thing I would say now is that yes it was my intention to create my own visual way of thinking not so much a dream world as one of nightmares and a vision of hell!
Who are some of your favorite photographers?
SIMON: In no particular order of preference I like Edward Weston, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Duane Michals, Arthur Tress, Gary Winogrand, Ralph Gibson, Dieter Appelt, Mary Ellen Mark, Bruce Chatwin, Philip Jones Griffiths, James Whitlow Delano, Tom Stoddart, Eugene Richards, James Nachtwey, Sebastião Salgado, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Richard Misrach and Jeff Wall. But my perhaps if I had to choose only one favorite it would be have to be Wim Wenders.
Where do you call home?
SIMON: The Chaiyaphum Province of North East Thailand.
What do you do for fun these days?
SIMON: Ride my dirt bike out to the jungle temples and generally exploring and documenting NE Thailand, and most importantly quality time with my families both in Thailand and the UK.
My bike on the way to work, Chaiyaphum Province, Thailand, 2013.
What is your advice for designers and photographers just starting out today?
SIMON: Spend a lot of time researching and refining your own creative voice and develop your own visual working methodology. Looking at other photographers for inspiration is a redundant method in my opinion, as you really need to discover your own interests and beliefs so that you create work that has your own unique stamp on it. Most of the books I read about other photographers was how they lived, though, and not what they photographed. Ansel Adams, Wim Wenders and Edward Weston represent the classic example. Fred Picker also with his Zone System. You also need a deep internal drive to make the work and have a lot of stamina, as there are always knockbacks.
Do you spend a lot of time on the internet? What sites do you frequent most?
SIMON: I try not to because it eats up a lot of time. I would rather be out photographing, but the cataloging of my work to raise its online presence requires me to frequent FaceBook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and even Flickr. I also spend time on my WordPress blog sites, and of course my Photoshelter online photo archive.
What are some of your upcoming projects?
SIMON: Without giving too much away my current self directed projects are “Ash,”“Cyphers,”“Husk” and the forth one is what might be Part V of the Odyssey’s series but really I need a more specific title for this so it’s still in the working stages of development.
New works in Progress from the series “Ash” Chaiyaphum Province, Thailand, 2014.
New works in Progress from a new series with the working title “Odysseys V”, Chaiyaphum Province, Thailand, 2014.
New works in Progress from a new series with the working title “Odysseys V”, Chaiyaphum Province, Thailand, 2014.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
SIMON: As I spend my life in a place that has its Buddhist culture based on the present moment I think that looking forward 10 years is no longer relevant what matters to me is what happens in the here and now.
With everyone having access to a camera and video, where do you see art/commercial photography heading?
SIMON: That’s a very hard one to answer but the billions of images now available online has saturated our visual world and destroyed our sense of patience, intrigue and mystery for looking at image. They are read so quickly and then discarded or replaced by the click of a mouse or mobile device track pad.
Can you develop a creative eye, or is it something you’re born with? How did you develop your talent and skills?
SIMON: I honed mine over the years but the 6 years of academic training (Foundation Degree, BA and MA Degrees) were the roots of my creative thinking.
Do you like working in Photoshop? How much do you use it—when and where do you use it? What other software programs do you use and like?
SIMON: The use of Photoshop first came into play around 2005/2006 when I was starting to scan a very large body of documentary work that was shot mostly in Cambodia and Thailand between 2001 and continued up until 2008. After painstakingly scanning each negative (35mm and 120mm) on an Imacon virtual-drum scanner, Photoshop was then used to clone out all the dust and other negative imperfections which was largely the same action as hand-spotting my prints. I still use Photoshop now (the latest CC version), to do the heavy lifting when cleaning up negative scans and RAW files. For cataloging, captioning and exporting of the final TIFF versions, I prefer to work in Adobe’s Lightroom 5. As files can be opened in Photoshop easily from Lightroom and then saved back into Lightroom, the workflow between the two is quite seamless and fast. I often utilize a couple of the Nik range of software plugins (now owned and distributed by Google) especially Silver Efex for my black and white work. Sometimes I also work in Capture One (lastest version) particularly for my color work but its user interface is quite different and the final files are still exported into Lightroom for final captioning, key-wording, color space assignment and export settings. I have always viewed my digital approach in much the same way as my analogue darkroom thinking methodology; in that the final image is always a result of a combination of different elements. What I mean is this: in the traditional darkroom, it’s the combination of film developers, specific enlarger types with light-sources, particular lenses and then the right combination of chemistry and paper emulsion to achieve the specific results I want. In the case of the digital workflow; it’s the combination of softwares and subtle plugins to achieve a similar effect. The approach is really just the same except that the digital workflow takes place in daylight on a computer screen and is much less engaging and meditative!
New works in Progress from a new series with the working title “Cyphers”, Chaiyaphum Province, Thailand, 2014.
Also, talk about working in the studio versus working on location, the benefits and drawbacks, and your preference.
SIMON: I spent most of my time between 1987 and 2000 shooting within my studio with holiday periods allocated to shooting outside and on location. The majority of my commissioned work required me being in the studio so that clients or art directors could come and visit me and take a Polaroid back to their client for approval. So working in the studio was a highly controlled and somewhat sterile creative environment. I much preferred the looseness and freedom of shooting locations but it rarely paid the bills! When I began to consider a move away from the UK in 1999 I began to spend longer periods of time in Europe and a brief visit to the USA. In 2001 I spent the first 4 months in Australia where I began to really focus on my landscape and more documentary approach. The later part of 2001 was spent in Thailand, Northern India, Laos and Cambodia and this really opened my eyes. In January 2002 I relocated to Bangkok and remained there until October last year (2013) when a decision was made to relocate up to North East Thailand, in the province of Chaiyaphum. During this long period I also spent a year back in the UK (2009-10) and 12 months in South Korea (2012-13) though my base was always Bangkok. Much of my early time (2002-2008) was spent in Cambodia where I shot most of my work and this was all shot with film cameras. Most of my work up until the summer of 2001 had always excluded people (the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa series was a rare exception) but with the radical the shift to a totally new culture and environment, it was inevitable that in meeting and growing to deeply respect the people within these cultures, my approach would begin to become more social documentary in its nature. I spent a number of years photographing the social care of Khmer families who were supported by the UK charity The Cambodia Trust. This was a real eyeopener for me in that I got to visit areas well off the tourist track and into villages deep within the Cambodian provinces. I saw and photographed many aspects and was a witness to family situations that I will never forget. The Cambodia Trust supported families that had severely disabled members and had set up outreach centers to target those families that required help and support. Children born disabled were often shunned in society and sometimes kept hidden away in the rudimentary family home – it was these places that I visited. The support system was such that some of these children (with the families’ agreement) would be helped with medical aids (crutches, leg braces etc) and with physiotherapy training would become able-bodied enough to work to help support the family financially. I was very deeply touched by this experience. I spent almost 4 years working with them at close quarters, later I would work with children in Thailand that were born HIV+, another complex social issue that is still deeply shunned. During this time I joined two documentary photo agencies: Network Photographers, in London and Anarchy Images in New York but both collapsed as the digital and internet revolution and the steady decline of print magazines specializing in social content. “Positive Lifestyle” stories were much preferred to sit alongside expensive advertisements for a better life. In the end with the collapse of this market for me and no representation I decided to move back to making my own work and concentrating on print sales and exhibitions, as well as teaching photography and creative thinking in some SE Asian Universities. The work I make now is still heavily underpinned with social commentary and ethos, yet it still encompasses much of the same visual ingredients of the image of the Tuscan bed shot back in 1989. Recent work has included a color series entitled “Coelacanth” which is Part 1 of a much larger body of work that will explore the largely publicly unseen complexities of family life in NE Thailand. The working title for the whole series is “In The Belly of The Whale” as NE Thailand (or Isaan as it is more commonly known) really represents for me, the underbelly of Thailand itself. This is a long term project that will flow and ebb at its natural pace, as I find my way deeper into what is a fascinating culture steeped in mystery and ancient traditions. My approach is much the same as it was with the Khmer families supported by the Cambodia Trust—an approach that is deeply respectful and non judgmental.
What books did you read growing up?
SIMON: All the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, a lot of science fiction mainly trilogies that I can’t now remember but the one book that really stood out for me and I read again recently Raft of Despair by Ensio Tiira—a true story. It still strikes a deep resonant chord within me.
What are some of your favorite books and films?
SIMON: Authors: Paul Auster, Mo Hyder (Tokyo my favorite), Jeff Long, Iain Sinclair (Radon Daughters my favorite) everything by Haruki Murakami, Jose Saramago, China Mieville (everything I have read so far) to name but a few.
Film Directors: Andrei Tarkosky, Wim Wenders, Lars Von Trier, Andrey Zvyagintev, and Peter Greenaway are favorites that quickly come to mind. Chris Marker, David Lynch especially the early works, all of the films by Tsai Ming-liang, the Brothers Quay and recently I discovered through a good friend of mine Tom Gordon the works of Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet which has some outstanding cinema photography.
What current bands/music do you listen to today?
SIMON: Excluding all the 4AD bands which is a separate question, my first LP was Patti Smith’s Easter I think I was 14 at the time, followed a week or so later by Rush’s All the Worlds a Stage, then came Neil Young, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Later came Neil Young, Rory Gallagher, The Sex Pistols, The Stranglers and The Adverts, followed by Brian Eno Ted Nugent, Tangerine Dream, Talking Heads and UFO. After that I was into Iron Maiden and Saxon (new British metal bands) and of course U2 (I remember playing a bootleg cassette of theirs a friend gave me over and over again). Then came David Sylvian and R.E.M and later in the mid ’90s I was introduced to Talvin Singh and Paul Oakenfold which I used to play repeatedly in my darkroom when I was printing recently which introduced me to the world of trance/house uplift music especially Tijs Michiel Verwest (knowns as Tiësto). Recently I have been rediscovering The Church who I liked years back and also Three Doors Down. I am sure there are many others but I don’t have my iTunes currently with me as I’m traveling.
Who were your favorite 4AD bands?
SIMON: I really liked Wolfgang Press, Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil, Ultra Vivid Scene and the Cocteau Twins. I was into many other bands at the time, mainly rock and ambient music. My all time favourite from the 4Ad label is Michael Brook.
Do you embrace new technology, or do you take a wait and see approach?
SIMON: The problem with new technology is it’s always changing and often more expensive (just look at Leica’s current prices!) so nothing stays new anymore! I think it very much depends what I am working on. What’s important to me is that each lens has a unique signature and renders or draws images in quite different ways depending on the f-stop and its aperture blades. I use them like brushes really and to be honest I now see my work much closer to painting then photography. (This is an important change for me because I moved into photography from painting when I was a student because I couldn’t get the results I wanted using brushes and paint mediums).
SIMON: I think it has yes, in the way I shoot. I still am fascinated (obsessed even) by textures and the sense of impermanence (for me best visualized by decay), religion is still a heavy undercurrent especially with all my years in South East Asia. I had two distinct ways of approaching my work when I left the RCA in 1987 (three if you count all my collage work but I abandoned this way of working in 1992). There was the very clinical, almost surgical still life sets (all the Pixies’ early works for example), book covers and numerous annual reports etc.—these type of images were painstakingly arranged under a camera lens usually a 5/4” camera but I also shot 10/8” and meticulously lit with tungsten lights, reflectors and mirrors. AND there was the location work that I was shooting in Europe, the best example being the image of the bed we discussed earlier.
This second way of seeing for me has become the primary way I see now.
I found in SE Asia, such a rich tapestry of visual juxtapositions that there was never any need to recreate them in a studio setting. Everything I did then and now is captured using available light (natural light)—no flash or additional lighting. I still see things in terms of planes of focus and everything is shot within an internal grid system (visualized in my head) so my shooting principles have really not changed just the visual aesthetic—for example I often favor the very limited depth of field of the fast 35/1.4 and 50/1.4 lenses that render a soft dreamy background, but other times I still shoot at f5.6/8 to retain full detail across the plane of vision. It really depends on the nature and character of the subject matter I am shooting and how I see the project developing. These days I tend to work in large sets of images – a series may total 100+ images. In a sense, as well as a growing and firm affinity with painting (Francis Bacon, Anselm Kiefer, Edward Hopper and Fred Williams are special favorites) there’s also an attraction the sequential image and cinema: Chris Marker’s work often plays in my mind in terms of using still images to convey narrative. Narrative or the sense of it, is very important in my more recent work and I now find it hard just to make a single image without shooting several that might relate to it. I have always enjoyed the narrative sequences of Duane Michal’s especially when he writes on the surface of his prints. I also enjoy mixing the dates of images so that underlying themes begun years ago, can be re-introduced into newer bodies of work, giving the whole series a greater sense of history and identity. The body of work entitled “Cyphers” employs this approach. I like recycling themes and motifs, it allows for a degree of playfulness in my work and sometimes the dark humour lifts the mood slightly.
n interview with David Rose, “hidden gem of the British short story”. Author of Posthumous Stories (currently shortlisted for the 2014 Edge Hill Prize) and Vault: an “anti-novel”, his work has been described as “euphorically paranoid, slyly narrated, often hilarious” (The Guardian) and “deft, deliberate and utterly delicious” (3:AM). Here he’s generously answered some probing questions about the advice given to young writers, different artistic approaches, and what it means to have lived a “boring” life. Thank you, David.
David Rose was born in 1949, in a small semi-rural town outside London, moving later to another small, entirely suburban town slightly nearer London. He left school at 16 with two O-Levels and spent his working life on the Post Office counter.
WD: A review headline described you as a “hidden gem”. How long were you writing before you were published?
DR: I had my first story published at the end of 1988, in The Literary Review, which was then edited by Auberon Waugh (the son of Evelyn Waugh) – I still have his handwritten letter of acceptance. I had by then been writing fiction for about four or five years.
WD: As a younger writer, did you have a mentor? Did you feel generally encouraged or discouraged by the people in your life to pursue the writing of fiction?
DR: I had written the usual sub-Eliot poetry in my teens, but never thought of writing fiction, or writing seriously, until my mid-thirties. It happened spontaneously: I suddenly had an idea for a story, based on a man I met on a bus, and wrote it out of curiosity. As it happened, I was working with a woman whose daughter knew the novelist Graham Swift – this was around the time of his writing Waterland. I had read an extract in Granta, then read his earlier novels, and wrote to him through that connection. When I finished the story, I sent that to Graham too, for an opinion. He was tactfully encouraging, despite the amateurishness of the story. So he was in a way my first mentor, but not in any more active sense than that. But that was enough to make me join a local creative writing adult-education course. As to friends and family: I never showed my writing to friends or family, and never would. If they want to read it now, they can buy it.
WD: Young writers are sometimes advised to have “one true reader” for whom they write (for Stephen King, it’s his wife). Do you have one, or have you had one?
DR: The one reader we are writing for or to is that reader who has read the identical books, and had similar experiences, i.e. ourselves. We write for ourselves, initially, then consider others. I don’t think we can consciously aim our work at a specific readership; that’s too calculating.
But if we do happen to have a specific friend as a reader, that’s a different matter, and a bonus. Wasn’t it Steinbeck who wrote a long (unposted) letter to his agent every morning before a day’s writing, as a way of clarifying what he wanted to write?
WD: What are your tastes in other art forms? Do you enjoy experimental music, visual arts, etc, or are your tastes more conventional?
DR: I have always had an interest in all the arts – music, painting, literature – from my teens, though the interest wasn’t nurtured at school. My tastes in music and painting mirror my taste in literature: Twentieth-century Modernism and beyond. So in music, the discovery of Mahler was overwhelming (as was Mahler’s discovery of Dostoyevsky), but also then leading on to the discovery of the Second Viennese school of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, their contemporaries such as Bartok and Janacek, the Americans – Copland, Ives, Harris, the later Minimalists, and jazz… One discovery always leads to another in an endless ramification.
Likewise in art, the great Modernist movements leading onward and, by their confrontation and engagement with the past, backward (as with music: Weber leads backward to early polyphony…). I thus have an interest in most contemporary artforms, apart from conceptual art (an oxymoron). I think we do need to immerse ourselves in the expressions of our age, which are most condensed in the arts but should extend to philosophy and history. (Old-fashioned Humanism, I guess I’m advocating.)
WD: There are a lot of “how to write” books and blogs around. To what extent do you buy in to the importance of sticking to agreed formats – such as the 3-act story structure? If this “works”, why do something else?
DR: I haven’t seriously read any ‘How-to-write’ books – I find the idea of them dispiriting. You can only learn how to write copies of stories/novels. Better to read good citical books on literature, and learn by example.
Agreed formats produce formula writing. That is fine if you want to write ‘best-sellers’ or Hollywood scripts – and it’s equally fine if you do want to do that – but not if you want to write something original. I don’t believe for one minute in ‘the 3-act story’ – it’s similar to Aristotle’s rules on drama, which were simply describing current practice, not prescribing how drama should work.
Formats work, of course – that’s why they exist – and will obviously go on working, but will do so with diminishing returns, and eventually the formats wear out. Just ignore them.
WD: Is part of a writer’s job to expand the form in which s/he is writing? Is writing simply a personal “emission” or transmission, or does a writer need to be aware of the historical context of their genre (including literary fiction as a genre) and the direction in which it’s going, and take some responsibility for their part in that?
DR: Yes, I do think it’s the writer’s concern to expand the form – that is a logical result of simply finding one’s own approach, own voice, and producing the one (or more, if you’re lucky) work that only you can contribute, which seems to me the only worthwhile reason for doing anything.
Is it ’emission’ or ‘transmission’? It’s both. It starts as emission – finding one’s voice and subject – then becomes transmission in clarifying it for others, which is how it becomes literature. I always think of Sartre’s definition of literature as a person sitting quietly in a room, using their freedom to write in addressing a reader sitting quietly in another room using their freedom to read it.
But I believe a writer’s first duty (only duty, since the rest follows naturally) is to the initial inspiration; in getting that idea out intact and alive, and finding for it its natural form. Once that is captured, the revision stage becomes a process of transmission, and of engagement.
I do think we need to be aware of what has already been written in our own field. Literature is community, not solipsism, and finding our own voice is only done by engagement with others. So as I have said about engaging with our time, we do need to be as aware as possible of the history of our chosen genre, and although it’s impossible to read everything, to at least be conversant with the range of what’s on offer. But it’s probably unnecessary to say this; most writers were readers long before they became writers.
I don’t think we are individually reponsible for the direction of a genre, because such direction can’t be controlled or directed. As Popper pointed out in science, and history, progress can’t be predicted. But in the process of finding one’s unique ‘take’, and in engaging with the genre and body of existing work, that uniqueness of voice will inevitably alter the direction of history, however marginally.
Because part of finding one’s voice lies in opening up new approaches, exploiting the possibilities of the form. I think this is especially true of the short story, which is the most Protean of literary forms, with limitless possibilities – many of them still currently ignored. But the important thing for me was always allowing the idea to dictate its own shape. It has been commented that my stories can be bewilderingly different, but I have never set out to ‘do something different’ – only to find the ideal form for a particular idea, and come up when successful with something fresh.
WD: What do you think about the argument that writers who are writing now must have an online presence, a profile?
DR: I am firmly of the pre-internet generation, and feel closer to writers such as David Markson and Cormac McCarthy in their non-use of the digital world. However, when Vault was first accepted for publication, my agent advised me to have an ‘on-line presence’ in the form of a blog – which he set up for me – and by joining Facebook. No one ever read the blog, but Facebook proved rewarding in making contacts and, in a number of cases, genuine friends, as well as reconnecting to some old ones.
It enabled me too to become acquainted with several writers whose work I would never have encountered otherwise – American writers in particular: Steve Himmer, whose novel FRAM I read in manuscript and loved (soon to be published); Edmond Caldwell, whose post-modern masterpiece Human Wishes/Enemy Combatant I went on to review several times, including in American Book Review; and Oisin Curran’s brilliant late-Modernist novel Mopus, which is still scandalously unknown even in America.
In turn, they and others have discovered my work, and stirred interest in it in America, Brazil and elsewhere. So it’s reciprocal, and that is the point. To set up a ‘presence’ in the form of relentless self-promotion will backfire. Literature is a community of writers and readers, and use of the internet is one way – now I suppose the quickest way – of tapping into and becoming part of that community.
WD: You’ve said elsewhere that “my own life has been extremely boring”. Yet you produce very rich and interesting fiction: in spite of, or because of, this quiet life?
DR: When I described my life as boring, I meant outwardly – most of it spent working, at what would appear to be a boring desk job. Actually, it was anything but – on the Post Office counter I was in close contact with thousands of people over the years, from the whole spectrum of society, many of whom I came to know well. And many of whom had led interesting lives; many of them were very funny, and some deeply strange.
Life will always trump fiction. Many of these people I could never have made up, and a number of them were the starting point for my fiction. It was, as someone pointed out to me, the ideal job for a writer.
But the imaginative conversion of the material into fiction takes place in that silent, empty room, in the evenings, which I would spend either writing or reading. Writers live a rich interior life, but an outwardly boring one. The ‘hell-raisers’, the drinkers – the hell-raising and drinking was all done when they weren’t writing (drinking doesn’t help you write; it helps you to not write).
WD: What advice do you have for writers starting out?
DR: I have never seen the point of advice on writing itself; if you need to write, you will, and you’ll find your own way. But it’s the next stage which becomes tricky: getting your work published and known.
My only advice on that would be to get involved. Don’t just submit to magazines – subscribe to them. Set one up, or help on an existing one. Starting a magazine may be easier now, in the digital age, or harder – I don’t know. It was perhaps easier in the old days of photocopying and stapling and distributing small magazines round colleges or bookshops.
In my case, I became involved in a print magazine, Main Street Journal, initially as a contributor, when it was just getting off the ground. Then, when it was refused Arts Council funding, I became involved financially, then editorially. Paradoxically, that meant we could no longer use my work in it (it would have been vanity publishing) but that didn’t matter. It made me friends and contacts who later proved immensely valuable. But at the time, it also brought satisfaction: to spot talented writers and excellent work in the unsolicited submissions, and be in a position to do something with it is deeply rewarding. It’s the community aspect again; give and take. And if you don’t support others, why should they support you?
WD: What’s next in your writing life?
DR: Next in my writing life? There is no next; my writing life is over. I have an experimental – and I believed unpublishable – novel due out in November [title: Meridian]. That I think will be my swan-song.
Ruby Cowling was born in West Yorkshire and now lives in London, UK, working as a freelance writer for nonprofits. Winner of the 2014 White Review Short Story Prize and the 2013 Prolitzer Prize from Prole magazine, she was a finalist in the February 2014 Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers as well as being Highly Commended in the 2012 Bridport Prize. Her recent print/online publication credits include The Letters Page, Unthology 4, The View From Here, and, in audio format, 4’33” and Bound Off. She is represented by Euan Thorneycroft at A M Heath.
A Conversation with CHANG-RAE LEE, author of the book, ON SUCH A FULL SEA
Some writers are gifted, and some writers are truly gifted. When reading a book by a truly gifted writer, we wonder how their writing became so intelligent and inspiring. Was it their upbringing, their education, or were they just born with this talent? Chang-rae Lee is a truly gifted writer. It’s apparent on every single page he writes. When you read one of his books, you know you’re going to get something special—a very compelling story, some deeply felt characters, and beautifully composed sentences from beginning to end.
Chang-rae Lee is a Korean American writer and professor of creative writing at Princeton University. His books include Native Speaker, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for first fiction, A Gesture Life, Aloft, which received the 2006 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in the Adult Fiction category, and The Surrendered, a nominated finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He was also selected by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best writers under forty.
His latest book, On Such a Full Sea, published by Riverhead Hardcover, was released on January 7, 2014. I wanted to learn more about this new work, and why this book is so different from his previous work. I spoke with Mr. Lee in late autumn.
C.E. Lukather: First of all, I’d like to say congratulations. I really enjoyed reading your new book, On Such a Full Sea. It’s a really great story. Is this an idea you had thought about writing before? Where did it come from?
Chang-rae Lee: I never thought that I would write such a book. The book that I originally conceived, and may still write, was going to be about contemporary China and all the things that are happening there, its economic power in the world, its ascendancy. The focus was on factory workers and the factory towns where they make everything we use here in this country. So I went over there and did some research, which was a fascinating experience, and planned a social realist novel centered on workers and their bosses and the owners. The story was going to have an American component, though not much of one. But when I got home and started writing, I felt I wasn’t adding that much to what I saw, nor to all the good journalism I had been reading about China. I guess I didn’t have enough of a special angle. When you’re writing a novel you need that angle.
Around the same time I was on a train trip, taking the Amtrak along the northeast corridor from New York to D.C. And when you’re on that train, which I’ve traveled all my adult life, you pass a ghetto area of Baltimore. Over the years I’ve seen serial iterations of that area, the houses burnt down, boarded up, abandoned. So at this point they were boarded up but kind of cleaned up, too, like a ghost town right in the middle of a very busy city. And then I had a thought—I wondered why we couldn’t just give these buildings to some people. And my next thought was odd: why not just bring over some people from China—people from some environmentally ruined area where they couldn’t live anymore, and bring them over here to settle and revitalize the place. And then it all just sort of clicked and I thought, maybe that’s my angle. Of course it wasn’t my original story, but it bridged what I was interested in at the start, namely Chinese ascendancy but also American decline.
C.E. Lukather: Yes, I think that comes through in the book.
Chang-rae Lee: The two kind of go hand-in-hand. So I projected out a few generations, setting the story in the future, writing about what America would look like in a future when China was the great power. Then I thought why not write a story about these people who are brought over here as workers to live in factory-like towns. And it just sort of developed from there. I think all of the factory research in China helped, but I didn’t really use that much of the specifics. It was more of a feeling or sensibility of the people that I began to write about.
C.E. Lukather: Was it exciting for you to write a futuristic book—something you’ve never really written before?
Chang-rae Lee: It was exciting. I thought I would be more wary writing it, since I hadn’t written a book like this before. But in fact it wasn’t a different experience fundamentally, for even when you’re creating a “new” world like this it’s not that different from creating a world that already exists. Perhaps I felt I could take a few more liberties but you still have to make the created world absolutely possible and realistic.
C.E. Lukather: And the book does feel very real, to me.
Chang-rae Lee: This book is partly an adventure story, with the main character going off into a strange world, but also it’s a story about community, the place where she comes from. The book alternates between those two worlds, and I had a lot of enjoyment inventing both. I don’t know if it would have been as much fun just writing about one or the other.
C.E. Lukather: Well, you’ve really created three different worlds in your book. There’s the hometown of the main character, Fan, there are the outlying, sort of wild areas, and then there are the more affluent, well-mannered towns that she visits during her journey.
Chang-rae Lee: Yes, three distinct worlds, without much or any mobility between them. Aside from describing those worlds and the divisions between them, I found myself becoming just as interested in who was doing the telling, which in the novel is an unnamed “We.” A first person plural narrator. In some ways this was the part I enjoyed the most, in terms of the process, developing this communal voice and letting it evolve.
C.E. Lukather: So how long did it take to write this book?
Chang-rae Lee: It didn’t take that long, about two years. For some people that’s a long time, but for me it was really short. I usually take four or five years to write a book. But once I started and got into it, it really kind of rolled along. After the first draft I would go back and forth with my editor about certain sections. But the book is pretty much how I wrote it.
C.E. Lukather: The main character, Fan, is a really great, strong character. Is she inspired by anybody?
Chang-rae Lee: Not really. I was simply interested in a strong young female character, this Fan. She’s not very talkative, or anything like a typical hero. She’s not really a leader, but somehow she manages to inspire people by her presence. I liked that idea of a quiet hero, who is sort of a mirror and a vessel for everybody around her. People also use her and take advantage of her, but she draws them out, too, and compels them to reveal and expose who they are.
C.E. Lukather: She draws you in, and attracts people to her.
Chang-rae Lee: She’s a small-statured young woman, who holds all our hopes and wishes as she goes out into the landscape.
C.E. Lukather: The scenes when she’s outside, in a sort of unrestricted zone, are pretty terrifying.
Chang-rae Lee: That’s a funny thought. Compared to my last book, they didn’t seem so terrifying to me.
C.E. Lukather: Well maybe not terrifying, but shocking, the way they unfold and what happens really startled me as a reader.
Chang-rae Lee: Well, that’s good. You always wonder as a writer. But that was part of my interest in writing this adventure story. And I think in a way any kind of speculative fiction is an adventure story—you know, we’re all traveling to a unfamiliar place. Trying to figure out how everything works. Rather than watching people within a context we already recognize, and seeing what they will do.
C.E. Lukather: And some of the more shocking or startling scenes in the book actually take place in the more civilized regions of this world.
Chang-rae Lee: That was why I had these three different places strictly cordoned off by class. I had the idea that within a particularly cloistered section of society, very weird things can begin to happen. Strange practices, strange beliefs. And that’s one of the things I wanted to get to, this idea that these elite people are just as bizarre and absurd as anyone else. Of course the other people back in the counties and B-Mor have their owns problems as well.
C.E. Lukather: They seem like the most civilized of all.
Chang-rae Lee: In a way, it’s the most controlled, being a production facility. It’s a facility more than a town. And that’s one of the things I saw during my research in China. The factory I saw wasn’t a horrible place, being in fact decently clean and well-run. But everything was specified, and that contributes to a certain kind of environment and ethos. In my novel, I wanted all the functionality and specification to ingrain itself into the consciousness of B-Mor and its citizens.
C.E. Lukather: Without giving anything away, was the outcome of your story something you had envisioned from the beginning, or was it something that happened along the way?
Chang-rae Lee: It unfolded as I wrote it. I didn’t know what was going to happen from chapter to chapter. I had no map at all. So I kind of went on a road trip. Usually on a road trip you know where you going, but with this story, I had no clue. Of course I realized some things about halfway through, that certain things would have to happen and that Fan would meet certain people.
C.E. Lukather: So when you were writing this book, did you have to get in a certain frame of mind in order to write, to see these characters and this place?
Chang-rae Lee: Yes. I had to allow myself a lot of flights of fancy. And a lot of startling things began to happen, which also startled me. Like some of the things that happen in the house of the older Charter couple—just horrifying. But then you continue, and you just keep making linkages as you go. Writing a novel is the risking of a certain kind of fright. But that’s what’s fun and challenging about it. But to be honest I was strangely relaxed writing this, which I hadn’t felt in a while. The other novels I’ve written, I felt rather tense the whole way.
C.E. Lukather: Describe what your writing routine is like.
Chang-rae Lee: I wake up early. I have kids, so I usually make breakfast for them before they go to school. Then I go up to my desk. I have an office in the house. And basically I work until lunch. I have a quick bite and maybe I’ll go for a walk, and then I’ll work again until the late afternoon. I also teach, so on those days my schedule is a little different. If I’m teaching in the afternoon, I’ll still try to work in the morning. And I’ll prepare my work for class at night. I don’t tend to write at night anymore. I did when I was younger, but now I mostly just work in the morning. When I’m finishing a book and really pushing to the end, I will write around the clock—for a few weeks usually. But normally it’s a pretty structured writing day. I need a good routine. That’s the only way it works for me. I write one sentence at a time, and I take my time.
C.E. Lukather: Do you work with an editor, or do you finish an entire book and then send it to an editor?
Chang-rae Lee: Yes, I try to finish a full draft before I send it off to my editor. That’s the way I’ve worked with most of my books. I send it off, once I’ve finished the story. Is that crazy?
C.E. Lukather: No, you’re in total control of your work.
Chang-rae Lee: I really don’t want to get too much feedback mid-stream. I always say, you can get really good advice, and really sound technical advice, but if it doesn’t come from you, it might not fit. It won’t be organic. It may lose that special feeling. And special doesn’t mean it’s perfect, it means that distinctive angle or passion you have for your story.
C.E. Lukather: You mentioned that there were projects or books that you worked on in the past, but then moved on to something else. Are there still some projects that you would like to go back to and complete? Or do you just move on and not look back on those at all?
Chang-rae Lee: I may go back and try to totally rework the original China novel. But the others—no. Those are just different versions of the books I’ve already written and published. So there’s no reason to go back and write them. I don’t ever want to write even close to the same book twice. It’s a pity, all the work that went into those projects, but the work comes out in other ways, and it’s all just part of the process. Maybe the novel you read is only possible because I spent a year and a half writing a slightly different version.
C.E. Lukather: So this book begs the question, would you ever bring back a character that you’ve written in another book?
Chang-rae Lee: Likely not. It would have to be such a different book, and I might only be interested if the main character were different enough. Otherwise why bother? But you never know.
C.E. Lukather: Do you work on a computer, a typewriter, or write on a pad?
Chang-rae Lee: Always on a computer. I’m from the generation when people were starting to use personal computers on daily basis. I wrote all my student papers on an Apple computer—those early models. Sometimes I wish I’d written longhand, but I guess I’m just too lazy. Also, my process is that I write each sentence about 25 times. So it makes more sense to do that on a computer. And perhaps the computer enabled that. But I edit with a pen, printing out on paper what I’ve written.
C.E. Lukather: Would you talk a little about your family life?
Chang-rae Lee: I have two daughters, both in their teens. We have a pretty normal family. My wife is an architect. And we both work from home.
C.E. Lukather: Is it sometimes hard to get any work done with your family always around?
Chang-rae Lee: They know that when I’m in my office writing it’s my job. And the kids are in school during the week. And during the summer they have lots of activities. So everyone is pretty busy.
C.E. Lukather: So you teach short fiction at Princeton?
Chang-rae Lee: Yes, we only have undergraduates here, so they’re not really writing novels. So they write short stories and we read short fiction as well. That’s a big part of my class, the reading part. They’ll write three or four stories during the course of the term.
C.E. Lukather: For young writers today, what do you see as their greatest gifts and their greatest obstacles?
Chang-rae Lee: They have the ability to write about a lot of different things. They’re not just writing about college kids at frat parties. The subject matter is very diverse and I encourage that. They’re trying to push themselves, and not just write about what’s around them. I think one of their greatest obstacles is that sometimes they write a story in the way that they think a story should be written, rather than just writing. They have this theoretical idea of how a story should sound, and what should happen. And that’s good in the sense that it offers some structure, and a little roadmap. But most often the best writing I see is when they sort of let loose and are free, get a little dangerous, a little transgressive. Young writers are sometimes too careful in a funny sort of way, because they don’t want to make mistakes.
C.E. Lukather: What books did you read growing up?
Chang-rae Lee: Pretty much everybody. James Agee and Joyce, Whitman and Hemingway. I was really into American stories, being an immigrant kid who thought all about this place.
C.E. Lukather: Do you do a lot of social media? Are you on the computer and internet a lot?
Chang-rae Lee: Not really. I have a Facebook page. Sometimes I post things there. I don’t have a Twitter account. Mostly I just use email.
C.E. Lukather: Does the internet or technology interfere with your family life?
Chang-rae Lee: No, not really. When we’re home we try to have a family meal every night. And our kids enjoy our cooking. Even if they have things to do, they always have dinner with us.
C.E. Lukather: Are you a good cook?
Chang-rae Lee: I think so. We cook a lot of different things. It’s important to us. It’s really nice to have everyone home to enjoy a meal. My wife is part Italian and I’m Korean so we and the kids always have these discussions about whether the Korean meal or the Italian meal brings the most pleasure. We go back and forth between the two.
C.E. Lukather: The new book comes out in January? Will you be taking time off from teaching to do a book tour?
Chang-rae Lee: Well, I don’t teach until February. So for the main part of the book tour, I’ll be free. I have a full teaching schedule in the spring, but I can still do events on weekends. I have a really packed schedule for spring. My publicist is great, though. She’s really a fun and smart person and people respect her. She’s really good.
C.E. Lukather: I think your new book will bring you a whole new audience. It’s a really great adventure story. Even the cover is great. I love the image of the main character.
Chang-rae Lee: Yes, I think it came out great.
C.E. Lukather: Thank you very much for your time. I enjoyed speaking with you and I really appreciate it.
To follow Chang-rae Lee on Facebook, visit: Facebook
Steph Cha is relatively new to the writing world. She just wrote her first book, Follow Her Home, published by Minotaur Books earlier this year. Of course, she’s been working on this book for years. But to the average reader she’s just arrived. Follow Her home is the story of a young woman who becomes a reluctant detective in present-day Los Angeles. It’s an homage to Raymond Chandler and his great noir stories set in the same city. Steph Cha takes her character down her own unique path, and comes up with a story that is both compelling and exciting. It’s a definite page-turner.
The Writing Disorder: Congratulations on your new book, Follow Her Home. I really enjoyed reading it. I also grew up in Los Angeles. So it was easy to visualize all of the streets and locations you write about. I love reading about familiar places.
How did you come up with the unusual concept for your book? How long did it take to write?
Steph Cha: I read Chandler in college and I just loved those novels — the style, the sense of place, the kind of noble, weary hero. On the other hand, I knew what I was reading was outdated in many ways, and that the diverse, sprawling Los Angeles I know was not really in Chandler’s imagination. I wanted to write a contemporary L.A. noir that showed the city I know, from a point of view based on my own — something like Korean-American, feminist, twenty-something shithead. Once I came up with the character and started writing, I got a draft out in about a year and a half, with several breaks. The editing took longer, about three years all told, though most of that was waiting time.
The Writing Disorder: Tell us about the process of writing your first novel? Was this your first attempt?
Steph Cha: This was my first attempt. I started writing it because I didn’t like my summer job, which is such a bratty thing to say, but it’s true. I was in school and decided that if what I was studying to do didn’t fulfill me, maybe I should give that pipe dream a shot. I started writing it a couple pages at a time, and the more I wrote, the more I thought I might finish the thing. I didn’t outline, and I wasn’t very disciplined, so there were weeks at a time when I wrote nothing, like when I hit a snag in the narrative. I’ll have to keep myself more on task going forward.
The Writing Disorder: Did you have a publisher before you finished, or did you start looking once you finished? Where did you begin to look?
Steph Cha: Oh man, I found my publisher a year and a half after I finished my first draft. I took almost a year getting my agent on board, and after that, we revised for three months before submitting anywhere. Once my agent decided the manuscript was ready to go, he pitched it to a short list of editors, and somebody bit.
The Writing Disorder: You grew up in Los Angeles? Talk about your life growing up here — your family life, friends, social activities? Where did you go to school?
Steph Cha: I grew up in Encino, so the valley, mostly. My family life was tame. Parents, two younger brothers. My grandma lived with us for a while when I was very young. I went to private school my whole life (Oakwood for a bit, then Mirman, then Harvard-Westlake), so I led a pretty sheltered, privileged existence. I was an obedient, studious sort of kid. My social life was entirely wholesome, maybe even a bit bland. I didn’t start seeing my friends outside of school with any regularity until I got my driver’s license.
The Writing Disorder: Do you follow Los Angeles history — crimes, architecture, movies, etc.? What are some of your favorite stories about the city?
Steph Cha: I follow it loosely — I’m interested in stories about L.A. but definitely more movies/books than minute local current events. I love L.A. noir as a genre, so Chandler, Mosley, Ellroy, and the accompanying class of movies. Good God, Chinatown.
The Writing Disorder: What are some of your favorite books about Los Angeles?
Steph Cha: You know, I just went through my GoodReads, and it looks like about half of my exposure to L.A. literature falls under the noir umbrella. Outside of that, I really like Elsewhere, California by Dana Johnson, Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion, and Southland by Nina Revoyr, which is sort of cheating because it’s also a mystery, at least in part.
The Writing Disorder: When did you pick up your first Raymond Chandler book, and what was it?
Steph Cha:The Big Sleep, freshman year of college.
The Writing Disorder: What is your favorite book of his? What other crime authors do you read/admire?
Steph Cha: I have a special fondness for The Big Sleep, but The Long Goodbye is his best novel. It’s pretty incomparable. Other crime authors — well, outside the usual suspects, I like Denise Mina, Gillian Flynn, and when he goes that way, Jonathan Lethem. I’ve also really enjoyed books by Attica Locke, Naomi Hirahara, Daniel Friedman, and Joy Castro in the last year, and will probably keep reading them. And oh — I guess he might be canon, but Ross Macdonald.
The Writing Disorder: Are you a fan of film noir as well? Which movies do you like most?
Steph Cha: Oh yeah, though I suppose I’ve only seen the big ones. As mentioned, Chinatown, but also Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity. I also like movies like Brick and L.A. Confidential. Neo-noir is sort of my jam. Drive was my favorite movie of last year.
The Writing Disorder: How do you begin a story?
Steph Cha: An idea and a little bit of discipline. I find that if the idea’s any good, it’ll bloom a bit as long as I do the work of writing words on a page.
The Writing Disorder: Do you write poetry or short stories? Anything published?
Steph Cha: I’ve been tinkering with short stories over the last several months, but I haven’t even submitted anything at this point.
The Writing Disorder: What was your youth like, and what made you want to become a writer?
Steph Cha: It was privileged, peaceful, and probably a little bit boring. My mom was strict, and I studied a lot. I was always a big reader, even when I was small, so I think that’s what did it. I fantasized about becoming an author starting around third grade.
The Writing Disorder: When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer?
Steph Cha: Ah, that’s a tricky one. I didn’t start calling myself a writer until I landed an agent, more than two years after I started writing. I probably started thinking of myself (very cautiously) as a writer once I made the decision to finish this book, maybe halfway through the first draft of the manuscript.
The Writing Disorder: What does your family think of your work and success? Do you ever get their input on your writing?
Steph Cha: No one in my family follows publishing/books very closely, but they’re all proud and happy. My grandma, who speaks no English, has been selling the book to all her friends, who also speak no English. I don’t get any input from my family on writing, but they’re enthusiastic about the end product and that’s good enough for me.
The Writing Disorder: Who influenced your work early on? What books, authors did you read growing up? Who do you like to read now?
Steph Cha: As a kid, I read Roald Dahl and a lot of those hardcover classics bound and marketed for children — Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Heidi, that kind of thing. I read Poe around fifth grade, and I think my first stab at creative writing involved a blood-splattered wall. I think my favorite book between the ages of eleven and fifteen was Catch-22. At the end of my junior year of high school, though, I read As I Lay Dying and Lolita in the span of a couple months, and I started reading furiously after that. I still read fiction almost exclusively, mostly literary stuff, a healthy amount of crime, a classic that I missed now and then.
The Writing Disorder: When did you first get published?
Steph Cha: This book. Officially, April 16 of this year, then.
The Writing Disorder: Describe what happens when you are working on a story or book.
Steph Cha: I don’t have a lot of data points, but I will say that I have a hard time sitting down and writing for eight hours. I tend to have productive spurts and dry spells, and I’m working on pushing through those dry spells with a bit more discipline. I do work much better when I’m on deadline — huge procrastinator, but I respect deadlines.
The Writing Disorder: How much of what you write do you throw away?
Steph Cha: Scraps here and there. I do edit a lot, but I haven’t trashed too many large segments of irredeemable writing.
The Writing Disorder: What are you working on now?
Steph Cha: I have a few things going, including a literary novel and bits of short stories, but the primary project is a sequel to Follow Her Home.
The Writing Disorder: What do you do when you’re not writing? What do you do for fun?
Steph Cha: I read! Ha, is that boring? I guess I also hang out with my basset hound and my fiancé and my family and my friends. I like to eat, and since I like to write, too, I post a lot on Yelp. I also like to drink, mostly in moderation.
The Writing Disorder: What are some of the challenges of being a writer today?
Steph Cha: I think I’m still too green to speak competently about the changing marketplace, or ebooks or whatever, but there are a few things I would guess are pretty timeless. It doesn’t help that most writers don’t make minimum wage doing what they love, and the constant battle of ego and self-doubt is certainly wearisome.
The Writing Disorder: Where and when do you write? Describe the space?
Steph Cha: I write on my couch, under a throw blanket, with my dog either at my side or my feet. I write throughout the day, rarely in the morning. I goof off in the morning.
The Writing Disorder: Was writing encouraged at home?
Steph Cha: In a way. When I was very young, my mom had me write stories in order to learn vocabulary words. She’d give me like ten or twenty new words, and I’d have to incorporate those into stories. I think she was more concerned about the memorization than the creative bit, but I did enjoy those exercises.
The Writing Disorder: Does anyone else in your family write?
Steph Cha: No.
The Writing Disorder: How much research do you do before you begin a new project?
Steph Cha: Very little, to be honest, unless you count whatever knowledge I get from pleasure reading. I research as needed — I tend to avoid it unless I have a specific question.
The Writing Disorder: Once you have the basic story written or first draft, is the editing process longer than the initial writing?
Steph Cha: This time around, it was, but I think that’s because I spent long periods of time waiting around. I think the cycle tightens up after the first book.
The Writing Disorder: Do you have other creative talents — music, art, etc.?
Steph Cha: I play piano and sing on a pretty basic level. I also used to play cello but I don’t even have access to a cello anymore. I’m a fair doodler, too.
The Writing Disorder: What is a typical writing day for you?
Steph Cha: Wake up, roll downstairs, dick around on the internet, eat something, walk dog, write.
The Writing Disorder: Do you spend a lot of time on the internet? What do you do, what sites do you visit most often?
Steph Cha: So much. It’s terrible. I always have Facebook, Twitter, and GoodReads open, and I frequently Google myself and spy on my Amazon page. I also spend a lot of time on Yelp and on Videogum, which is a medium-sized pop culture blog with a great commenting community.
The Writing Disorder: Do you have a lot of writer friends?
Steph Cha: I have writer friends now! I didn’t until fairly recently, but now I have a little group of people to get beers with in the middle of a random weekday.
The Writing Disorder: What kind of music do you listen to? What groups were you into growing up?
Steph Cha: I stopped listening to new music almost altogether when I was in college. I “discovered” Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Clash, Pixies, etc. in high school, and got into like Built to Spill, Beulah, Rilo Kiley, Modest Mouse in college. I have an ex who will send me cool new music now and then and I enjoy that, but I think my days of being very into music are basically over.
The Writing Disorder: Who reads your work first?
Steph Cha: I showed the first draft of Follow Her Home to my roommate and one of my best friends, who reads a lot. Now, though, my agent.
The Writing Disorder: Do you miss Los Angeles when you’re away? What do you miss most about it?
Steph Cha: Tons. And this is easy — my family.
The Writing Disorder: Was it difficult to structure your book and maintain the tone?
Steph Cha: No. Noir has constraints, and those constraints made it relatively easy to keep things consistent.
The Writing Disorder: Are the characters in your book based on people you know?
Steph Cha: Not really. I borrowed characteristics here and there, but no one whole.
The Writing Disorder: What do you do for fun? Where do you like to go?
Steph Cha: Well, this week I’ve watched an insane amount of RuPaul’s Drag Race but that isn’t typical. I mostly read and eat and drink. I live in Los Feliz, and I love my neighborhood, so I like walking around here. We have the Observatory up the street, Skylight Books down on Vermont. I go there a lot.
The Writing Disorder: I think your book would also make a great movie. Has anyone discussed this with you?
Steph Cha: Yeah, it’s been discussed, but not in a lot of detail. I think it would make a good movie, but I don’t know anything about that industry.
The Writing Disorder: What was it like going to Yale Law school? I assume you wanted to become a lawyer — what changed?
Steph Cha: It was okay. I made some very good friends while I was there, including my fiancé. I liked being in a class with so many smart, talented people. The school part, though, wasn’t my favorite. I just didn’t find it that interesting. I don’t think I ever wanted to be a lawyer, not especially anyway. I went to law school straight out of college, and I guess I didn’t have the imagination to do anything else at that point.
The Writing Disorder: You also attended Stanford. What did you study there and what was the experience like?
Steph Cha: I studied English and East Asian studies, with a minor in psychology. I loved it. I miss English class. As far as the college experience goes, I had a good time. I just went to my five-year reunion in October and a wedding on campus in April, and I really only have fond feelings for Stanford.
The Writing Disorder: So once you finished school, what was your plan — to become a writer, or something else?
Steph Cha: College? I was planning to be a lawyer, or something like that. Once I graduated law school I knew I wanted to pursue writing in a serious way.
The Writing Disorder: Are you enjoying the life of a published writer, book tour, etc.?
Steph Cha: Oh yeah. I feel very blessed, and I’m grateful for all the support I’ve received from my family and friends. Touring is stressful sometimes (you caught me at the end of a particularly rough week), but I’ve had fun doing it. I’m glad my book is out there in the world, and I plan on writing a few more before my time is up.
The Writing Disorder: Thank you very much for your time.
Tiny May Hall is a very good writer. That’s what I thought when I first read one of her stories. Well, actually, I hadn’t even finished it. I was just a few sentences in. But I instantly got the feeling that she really knew what she was doing. Then I proceeded to read the rest of her book. It was every bit as amazing as the first part. And while she takes the reader on some very strange, humorous, and often unexpected journeys, you get the feeling that Tina May Hall is a born storyteller. It’s what we, as readers, are always searching for—the perfect book.
Winner of the 2010 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, a competition Raymond Carver once judged, Tina May Hall’s outstanding book, The Physics of Imaginary Objects, is a true masterpiece, an instant classic, and a book that should be read by everyone. If you’re a writer, it will make you want to write more. If you’re a graphic designer, it will inspire you to write as well. Even if you’re a politician, it will inspire you to write. This is one of those books that makes everyone want to become a writer.
With so much enthusiasm for her work, I couldn’t help but contact Tina May Hall on behalf of The Writing Disorder. I thought an interview would help readers understand where a person who writes like this comes from, and how she became the writer she is today.
So I used my various resources and came up with an email. I sent off a note to Ms. Hall, and presto, she agreed to be interviewed for our literary journal. Not only was Tina a great person to interview, she also provided us with an example of her work to reprint on our site. With kind permission from the University of Pittsburgh Press, we thank you. And we’d like to thank Tina for taking valuable time away from her writing, teaching, and family, to participate in this interview. Thank you, Tina.
THE WRITING DISORDER: Where did you learn to write?
TINA MAY HALL: I learned to write by reading a lot as a child and then later in a more disciplined fashion at the University of Arizona, Bowling Green State University, and The University of Missouri.
TWD: What books did you read growing up?
TINA: Everything by Jane Austen and the Brontës. Louisa May Alcott, L. M. Montgomery, Madeleine L’Engle. It was pretty typical girlhood fare.
TWD: Tell us about your family life growing up. Were there any creative people in your life?
TINA: My father is an electronic engineer who is immensely talented at rigging up all kinds of devices. My mother is an artist who cycled through pottery, painting, stained glass, porcelain dolls and now is back to oil painting. She has always been incredibly, inspiringly creative in all facets of her life. Both of my parents demonstrated on a day-to-day basis how one might cobble together something beautiful and functional out of unlikely materials.
TWD: How do you begin a story or piece?
TINA: I usually start with an image and write from there. It is a bit like walking into a dark cave with only the tiniest light—very fun and a little scary.
TWD: How long is the editing process?
TINA: Probably because the starting is so undirected, the revising takes a long time. I usually take a few months to write a draft of a story and then work for a couple of years on revisions. This is why I usually have two or three projects going at once!
TWD: Do you write at a specific time of day? What do you use to write?
TINA: I used to only like to write in the morning, but now that I have a child, I’m much more pragmatic and I write whenever I have the time to do so. I always write on the computer; if I try to write longhand, everything that comes out is unbearably sentimental for some reason.
TWD: Have you ever published something before you felt it was ready?
TINA: One of the benefits of having a long revision process and being generally reluctant to send work out is that the work normally feels pretty complete by the time it is actually published. That said, I’ve had invaluable help from the editors I’ve worked with who have taken the stories I’ve sent them and refined them with really beautiful suggestions.
TWD: What is your workspace like?
TINA: Cluttered. I like to imagine a clean desk, maybe with a vase of lilacs and a white curtain blowing at the window, but it hasn’t materialized yet.
TWD: Do you have other creative talents – music art, etc.?
TINA: Nope. I’m a one-trick pony.
TWD: What is it like to be a critically-acclaimed author?
TINA: I’m not sure I’d claim this title for myself. It is lovely to have the book as an object and such fun to hear from people who have read it.
TWD: What is your home life like now?
TINA: I have a four-year-old so my home life right now revolves around superheroes, Legos, and Ben 10. That Ben 10 theme song is catchy. I find myself singing it all day long. It is an existence rather steeped in testosterone and myth, for the moment.
TWD: What is a typical writing day for you?
TINA: As I said before, I have to fit the writing in where I can, which is wonderful and aggravating at the same time. A few years ago, my idea of a writing day was a whole uninterrupted day when I would get up, make myself a pot of tea and then sit and contemplate the story, write for a while, contemplate some more, write, repeat. Then I’d pour myself a glass of wine and read until bedtime. Nowadays, a more typical writing day consists of writing for a bit, getting distracted by the desires of the people around me for clean socks and underwear, packing some lunches, teaching a couple of classes, writing a little bit more after class, going to the grocery store, putting my child to bed after telling him multiple completely inaccurate stories about Superman, and then writing a bit more. Writing is a much more organic part of my life now—it really isn’t sacred in the way it used to be.
TWD: What’s the longest time you’ve gone without writing?
TINA: I write in fits and starts. There have definitely been months at a time when I don’t write fiction. So far, I’ve always been relatively secure in the knowledge that the writing will be there when I come back to it. It helps to keep a list or notebook of ideas and snippets of images, just to feel like there are things to prime the pump, need be.
TWD: Do you enjoy editing, or the initial writing process more?
TINA: Editing, by far.
TWD: How much of what you write do you throw away?
TINA: Probably about 80%.
TWD: How do you feel at the end of writing a story?
TINA: Like most writers, I feel ecstatic for about a day and then reality sets in. It always does feel like a bit of a miracle to have the whole thing in front of you, even if you are already starting to see the flaws.
TWD: What are you working on now?
TINA: I’m working on a novel about an encyclopedia entry writer who gets obsessed with Victorian arctic exploration. TWD: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
TINA: Hike, camp, snowshoe—anything that gets me away from desk and outside. There is something so heartening about nature; it is a relief to just enjoy trees and stones and great drifts of snow after struggling with a story.
TWD: What are the challenges of being a writer today?
TINA: I think we have a lot of very attractive things to do in front of the computer besides write. It can be hard to turn away from the email and the blogs and all that. There are so many enticing ways to spend our time talking about writing rather than actually doing it!
TWD: What do you read now, who do you admire?
TINA: I read Carole Maso, Jayne Anne Phillips, Lydia Davis, Kate Walbert, Kathryn Davis, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Neil Stephenson, Don DeLillo, Michael Ondaatje and a whole bunch of others. I have pretty broad reading tastes and love suggestions. I still make a summer reading list each year.
Tina May Hall is assistant professor of English at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Her stories have appeared in 3rd Bed, Black Warrior Review, Quarterly West, minnesota review, descant, the Collagist, and Water-Stone Review, among others. She is the author of the chapbook All the Day’s Sad Stories.
From The Physics of Imaginary Objects (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010)
a story from TINA MAY HALL
Faith Is Three Parts Formaldehyde, One Part Ethyl Alcohol
Rosa keeps her finger in a jar on the nightstand. In the morning, it twists to feel the sunlight. She watches its gentle convulsions and holds her other fingers up to share the warmth. Since she cut off her finger, she has worked in the diocese business office, filing and answering phones. Mostly, she answers questions from parents about the parish schools and fields requests for priestly appearances. While at work, she doesn’t think about her finger too much. It is just her left pinkie finger; she can still type seventy-five words a minute. In fact, some people don’t even notice it is missing. Those who do usually look appalled and ask, almost reverently, how it happened. Then she has to lie, all the while praying for the Lord to forgive her.
She used to carry the finger with her in a large shoulder bag, the jar wrapped carefully in a bath towel. For a while, she needed it with her all the time. She would take it out at work when no one else was around and in restaurant bathrooms to assure herself that it was still there, that it hadn’t dissolved, that the glass of the jar hadn’t cracked, leaving it withered and gray. She never showed it to anyone. This was partly because she didn’t want anybody to know about it. Cutting it off had been enough to make the nuns expel her from the convent, even though she was, by their account, the most promising novice they’d seen in years. If the fathers found out she had kept it, she would probably be excommunicated. The other reason she never showed anyone is because she was afraid that sharing it would diminish its potency. Her severed finger is a miracle, a divine link. Every time she unwrapped it in the darkness under her desk or in the chill of a bathroom stall, it would glow love. It is a piece of her that is always praying, a sign of the preservative power of God’s grace.
She worried so much that she finally stopped carrying it with her. During the day it drifts at the edge of her imagination, two and a half inches of waxy faith suspended in a globe of silvery liquid. At night, she dreams of watery expanses and moons shaped like fingernails.
One Thursday in April, a man in his thirties enters the diocese office a few minutes before closing. He crosses to Rosa’s desk and stands in front of her, apparently studying her name plate. His silence makes her nervous, and she tucks her left hand under her thigh before asking how she can help him. He doesn’t speak, and she wonders whether she should try to get past him to the outside door or dash into the copy room behind her where her most lethal weapon would be a five gallon bottle of toner. Just as she starts to pray to the Lord for divine intervention or at least a little timely guidance, the man pulls a small silver box from his pocket, parts the edges of his collar, and holds the box to the bit of clear tube that protrudes from his throat. “Rosa?”
She thinks it is the most beautiful and terrifying sound she has ever heard. It is a cross between a whisper and a deep bass with overtones of metal, but it is not mechanical. It is a sound she imagines stones make when mating or dying. He repeats, “Rosa?” Again the sound amazes and humbles her, provokes a feeling she has only experienced after praying for hours, late at night, when the other nuns were sleeping and she was alone in the cold arch of the chapel. There is an almost sexual tightening of her abdomen, a powerful contraction deep in her stomach.
“Yes,” she whispers.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you, it’s just that this is the only way…”
He says he has a spiritual problem. His voice still startles her, but she is becoming used to it and its effect on her; however, this question throws her into a panic because all of the priests are out of town for a convention on venial sin except for Father O’Rourke who doesn’t approve of conventions and went to Las Vegas instead for the weekend. The man looks distressed by this.
“Well, then maybe you can help me. I guess it is sort of an administrative matter.”
“I’m not really an expert,” Rosa says. “Don’t you think you’d better wait for the fathers to get back?”
The man plucks at his collar in agitation. “If I don’t resolve this now, I’m afraid I’ll lose my nerve.”
She wants to say something reassuring, but her stomach growls and the man smiles and says, “I’m keeping you from your dinner.” He holds out his left hand because he is still clasping the silver box to his throat with the right, and she hesitates but finally gives him her left hand to shake and is surprised when he doesn’t say anything about her missing finger. That’s when she finds herself asking him if he’d like to eat with her at the deli next door so they can talk more about his problem.
Over corned beef and coleslaw he asks about her missing finger, and because he asks so casually, she tells him the truth. He is the first person she has told the story. Everyone else who knows the truth heard it from the nuns who found her in the kitchen, on her knees, her severed finger beside her on the stone floor, her hands clasped, forehead pressed against the avocado metal of the refrigerator. They said she was in rapture; the doctors called it shock. She tells him how it didn’t bleed at all and how this disappointed her, how even at that time, even when she was having the most meaningful religious experience of her life, she felt somehow cheated by the absence of blood. She tells him without prompting, almost shyly, about the voice she heard before it happened, except it wasn’t a voice. It was more a feeling, a shifting of weights and forms around her. That’s how she explains it after the waitress asks if she wants cheesecake—it was as if her perception of everything slipped for a moment and she knew what she was supposed to do. He asks only one question.
“What does it mean?”
“It’s proof, of course.”
It isn’t until she has accepted his offer of a ride back to her apartment that she realizes they haven’t talked at all about his problem. He is quiet when she reminds him of it. The artificial voice box is a moth, still in his cupped palm. Then he says he was wondering if it was possible to bury objects, not a person, just an inanimate thing, in consecrated ground. She thinks for a long time before she has to say she doesn’t know, but she doesn’t think so. He sighs when she tells him this. The noise comes from his mouth, not the box; it is a painful sound that makes her knuckles ache. When they reach her apartment, he asks if he can come in for a moment, says that there’s something he’d like to show her. And because she feels this bond with him, this recognition, she doesn’t even question him, just nods and leads him down the sidewalk to her door.
“Do you have a tape player?”
His voice seems weaker, more metallic than before, and she wonders if he isn’t used to talking so much. So, as if her not speaking could conserve his strength, she simply nods again and points to the corner of the living room. He stands in front of the machine for a while, both hands pressed against it. When he does move, it is to reach into his pocket, but this time he brings out a cassette tape, not the silver box. He places it in the deck and presses play, and for a few minutes the room is quiet except for the murmur of the tape cycling into the machine. Rosa is still standing in the entranceway, the door open behind her, and she can see the dark form of his car in the mirror on the opposite wall, and strangely, she can see another reflection within that image. She recognizes the cold blur of the moon on his windshield as a voice comes out of the speakers and she knows without him telling her, for he is not talking or even looking at her, that this is his voice, was his voice. It is a child singing a song about a spider and a rainstorm, and as the rain starts falling, there is a click where the recording stops.
“May I leave this with you?”
This surprises her but she knows she will say yes, knows she won’t be able to help herself, and the sound of the tape player continuing past the voice, scanning silence, brings back that feeling of praying in the empty chapel and another memory, the rasp of metal against stone tile, the smell of onions, the whine a bone makes when it is lost. Rosa wants to give him something in exchange, to show him the thing she holds secret. She says, “I’ve been keeping something too,” and places her left hand on the coffee table, spreads her fingers until they are shaking with the effort, and uses the forefinger of her right hand to trace the cold transparent space where her pinkie used to be.