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Jon Wilkman

Jon WiIkman Interview

Author of Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles

 

Floodpath

 

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.

 

 

JON WILKMAN

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.

SHORT PREVIEW OF FLOODPATH DOCUMENTARY

 

 

 

 

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john lautner house

The Art and Architecture of Writing
Alan Hess Interview

 

Alan Hess by Nash

 

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 HouseThe 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.

 

Alan Hess Books

 

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 Shop Architecture. 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 Lautner House

Sheats Goldstein residence, 1963 – John Lautner, architect

 

Richard Neutra.

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.

 

Rudolph Schindler.

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.

 

Gregory Ain.

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.

 

Joseph Eichler.

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.

William Krisel House

House designed by William Krisel

 

Cliff May.

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.

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.

 

William Pereira.

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

CBS Television City, 1952, designed by William Pereira

 

Paul Williams.

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 Hess Books

 

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

 

For more information about Alan Hess.

 


 

 

 

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tara vanflower image

The Tara Vanflower Interview 

Author, Musician, Mother — and much more

 

Tara Vanflower

 

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.

 

three Tara Books


THE INTERVIEW:

 

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.

 

Thank you for your time.

 

Books by Tara Vanflower

Music by Tara Vanflower/Lycia

 

 

 

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Shorsa Sullivan

An Interview with Dimitris Lyacos

 

by Juliana Woodhead

 

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.

 

Books by Dimitris Lyacos:

With the People from the Bridge (Poena Damni) – 2014
Z213: Exit (Poena Damni) – 2010
Nyctivoe: Second Part of the Trilogy Poena Damni – 2005

 

ABOUT:

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.

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David Armand Photo

Dixon Hearne Interviews David Armand

 

THE ART OF WRITING

A Conversation with DAVID ARMAND

Author of THE PUGILIST’S WIFE, HARLOW, and THE GORGE

David Armand author

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.

 

THE INTERVIEW

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.

Harlow book

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.

Pugilists Wife book

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.

 

 

BIO

Dixon HearneDixon 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

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Zamar Hammock

An Interview with Graffiti Artist, Zamar

by Eric Vasallo
 

 

 

Graffiti, the Original Facebook

 

“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.

Grower Broke Zamar

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.

PEN graf

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.”

banksy Hunt NYC

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.

 

ZAMAR INTERVIEW

 

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.

zamar graffiti 2

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.

zamar graffiti 3

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.

Protest Tag Poetry

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.

cant stop color antwerp

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.

Zio Ziegler Mural

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?

See in A new Way

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.

Zamar Tag up

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”?

Large Mural END

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.

in pursuit of magic

NOTES

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.

 

 

 

BIO

eric vasalloE.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.

 More info about E.A. Vasallo

 

 

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The Writing Disorder Presents

 

Camera Simon

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

Simon Logo

 

Drop Cap Simon 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

“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.

 

Simon Pixies cover

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.

 

Simon Image

Greek Orthodox Votives, Hania, Crete, Greece, 1985. From the series “Odysseys I (1985-1999)”

Xania Book Simon

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.

 

Figure Image Simon

“Cuban,” Bangkok, Thailand, 2008. From the Pixies’ Minotaur Project (Artists in Residence, 2009)

Glove Simon Image

“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.

 

Man Woman Image Simon

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.

 

Simon On Location

“Me, working with The Cambodia Trust”, Kampot Province, Cambodia, 2005 © Sothea Chea.

 

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.

 

Red House Painters Simon

“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!

 

Woman Pixies Simon

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.

 

Pixies Doolittle Simon

Pixies Doolittle promotional postcards (4AD records/1988)

 

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.

 

Motorbike Simon

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.

 

Brush Simon

New works in Progress from the series “Ash” Chaiyaphum Province, Thailand, 2014.

House Simon

New works in Progress from a new series with the working title “Odysseys V”, Chaiyaphum Province, Thailand, 2014.

Statue Simon

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!

 

Seahorse Simon

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).

 

Karen Hill Tribe 2

“Karen Hill Tribe Girls”, Thai Burmese Border, 2003 © Simon larbalestier.

 

Has your creative process changed over the years?

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.

 

Touch Somploy 1 Edit

Touch Somply, supported by The Cambodia Trust, Kampot Province Cambodia, 2006 © Simon Larbalestier

 

What is your all-time favorite camera?

SIMON: Leica M—there’s no substitute.

 

Thank you for your time and participation. We enjoyed talking with you.

 

TO SEE MORE GREAT WORK, VISIT –  SIMON LARBALESTIER

 

Blog:  http://blog.simon-larbalestier.co.uk/simon/
Instagram: http://instagram.com/simonlarbalestier
Twitter:  http://www.twitter.com/SimLarbalestier

 

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David Rose author

DAVID ROSE INTERVIEW WITH THE WRITING DISORDER

by Ruby Cowling

 

Drop Cap An 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.

 

 

BIO

Ruby CowlingRuby 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.

 

 

 

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chang rae lee

Interview with Chang-rae Lee

THE ART OF THE WRITER

A Conversation with CHANG-RAE LEE, author of the book, ON SUCH A FULL SEA

 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.

THE INTERVIEW

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

For details about his new book, visit: On Such a Full Sea

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