Posts Tagged ‘Interviews’


When Faced with Impossible Options:
a conversation with Lyndsay Faye

01/06/2014  by Nancy Klingener  Comment on this Post
Lyndsay Faye. Photo by Gabriel Lehner.

Lyndsay Faye. Photo by Gabriel Lehner.

Lyndsay Faye is the author of three inventive, intriguing, and carefully researched novels that interweave fiction, the historical record, and popular culture. Her debut novel Dust and Shadow: an Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H Watson is a tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s archetypal detective hero, Sherlock Holmes, and follows his attempt to solve the real-life killings of Jack the Ripper. In The Gods of Gotham and its sequel Seven for a Secret, Faye tracks the development of the New York City Police Department in the 1840s through the eyes of bartender-turned-lawman Timothy Wilde.

This interview with KWLS board member Nancy Klingener took place over email during the past few months. In it, Faye and Klingener discuss the parallels between acting and writing, the joys and sufferings of historical research, and the appeal of characters both fictional and real. Along the way they rank love over crime, adventure over mystery, and we learn a few secrets of Faye’s forthcoming novel, the third and—spoiler alert—final installment of the Timothy Wilde series. (Editor)


Nancy Klingener: I guess I’ll start out by asking how you came to writing, generally, and writing crime fiction specifically. You started out as an actress, right? There are obvious similarities in the work—you’re dealing with words and portraying characters, many of them fictional. Do you find them to be similar jobs? How do they differ?

Lyndsay Faye: Interesting question. Well, as is the case universally, I came to reading before anything else. It’s impossible to come to writing without owning a deep admiration for some story or other, and I was bullying my little brother into staged plays I’d written when we were quite young—dressing him in khakis and gluing cotton balls to his chest and declaring him Mr. Tumnus from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, that sort of thing. My parents were big into reading to us, big into storytelling. I’m very lucky I grew up in that environment. I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t around tales of high adventure.
    Being trained as an actress was extremely useful to me as a novelist, and on a macroscopic level they’re exceedingly similar while on the microscopic level they’re as different as creatively possible. In the broad scope, skills I learned—mimicry, attention to detail, a feel for dialogue, sense of dramatic tension, importance of mood, the value of making specific and detailed choices, how crucial it is to create the strongest emotional dilemmas possible for your characters, I could go on all day really, all that’s quite similar. Conversely, on a small scale, theater is a collaborative process. It’s all about interaction. When I’m sitting at my laptop, it’s just me and the nutters in my head. Not to de-emphasize the roles of my agent or editor at all, but the manuscript, that’s all on me, baby. It’s extremely solitary, especially by comparison.

NK: How did you move from acting to writing? Had you been writing all along or did you make a decision to focus on writing instead of performance?

What I want to explore are the choices people make when faced with impossible options. Their hearts are going in one direction, their responsibilities in quite another, the odds against them extreme. So now what do they do? How do they mess everything up, how do they take the high road, how do they stand in their own way?


LF: None of this was planned. My career is perennially a surprise when I wake up in the morning. I hadn’t been writing at all—auditioning in New York City is simply very, very difficult. I wasn’t smart enough to create my own work, to do showcases or write cabaret acts for myself. I just kept marching into hallways where there were dozens of me. After a while, I felt as if I lacked autonomy over my career entirely. Of course, I’m still proud of how far I made it, still pay my Actor’s Equity dues every six months. But I didn’t have the drive—I can still be happy without being on stage, telling tales in another way, and some folks can’t.
    There wasn’t any conscious decision to focus on writing either, certainly never ever ever as a career. My first novel is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and it was an unabashedly dark rip-roaring fanfiction pitting him against Jack the Ripper with scads of the true-crime elements incorporated. I thought maybe a Sherlockian small press might pick it up, or lacking that avenue I could publish it as an e-book for my own gratification. No one was more shocked than myself when I found a talented agent and was published by Simon and Schuster. And I mean no one.

NK: I want to get back to Sherlock and Dust & Shadow but first I’d like to ask about your own creation, Timothy Wilde, the protagonist in your most recent two books The Gods of Gotham and Seven For A Secret—and I hope many more in the future. Where did Timothy come from, and did you start with him, or the setting, or perhaps with George Washington Matsell, who really was New York’s first police commissioner and who appears as a character in those two novels?

LF: Thank you! Timothy came from an abstract concept, which was day one, cop one of the New York Police Department. It’s such an infamous law enforcement body, known the world over, and I simply wanted to see what this group of ragtag men looked like who were meant to defend the populace, but before they had any notion of what they were doing. I wanted the first day of school, not Civil War-Era or Roosevelt reform. Michael Chabon says we write fiction to fill in the gaps in the map a la Heart of Darkness, and I think that’s entirely true—I’d read fantastic books about the NYPD during other time periods, but never about their mythical beginnings. Beginnings are powerful stuff. So research into the world of 1845 New York all began with my wanting to know the NYPD’s origins. If the force had been founded in 1826 or in 1852, The Gods of Gotham would have had a different plot line, and it would have taken place in 1826 or 1852.
    The rest of Tim came out of a combination of research and personal experience, as I think any historical character does. I write fairly unabashed hero stories, so I needed Timothy to be his own moral compass—that meant he wasn’t a Tammany insider, and thus needed an older sibling to get him on the copper-star force, who were entirely complicit with the Democratic Party’s agenda. That also meant he resembled some of the contemporary radical abolitionists I researched. Every investigator is indebted to Sherlock Holmes, so to draw a strong line between them, Tim wears his heart on his sleeve and finds his own police work much less competent than it actually is. He’s sympathetic and self-deprecating. I needed him to be observant, and I worked in restaurants for years, so he’s a former bartender. I borrowed his face from a musical theatre friend. He hates city fountains that don’t work because I hate fountains that don’t work. He’s passionately verbose because he’s a 19th-century diarist and I’ll never be able to get away with this sort of language again, so I’m wallowing in it.
    You mention Matsell, whom I adore, and who really was a fascinating human. During his time, he was thought everything from a Tammany bully to a liberal reformer. He was both, of course, but he did the unthinkable—he actually created a competent standing police force. It was unprecedented. Every other effort had failed miserably.

I have a hard-and-fast historical fiction rule: if your protagonist doesn’t care, leave the fact out. I don’t care how nifty the fact is. That comes of being an actor, actually. It’s about character specificity. Tim Wilde does not go on and on about architecture, popular music, advances in the sciences (unless they’re directly relevant), how much silverware is set for a proper tea, who his favorite actors are, what the Astors are up to. A fact needs to make it into your narrator’s consciousness before it makes it onto your page


NK: When you researched that time period, was that when you learned about the stresses that Irish immigration was placing on America in general and New York City in particular? How did that issue come to drive the plot of The Gods of Gotham? Also, how did you conduct the research—was it going to the library and looking at microfilms of old newspapers? Reading books? Digging up other kinds of primary sources? Did you read novels and plays of that period? Or listen to music? And how did you resist going down the research rabbit hole? It can be so seductive, to just follow one more thread, check on one more connection or look for one more account of a person, event, place, or time.

LF: Yes, when I discovered that the Great Irish Famine landed the same year the NYPD was founded, my mind was blown. Here was a cataclysm begging to be novelized, and one I’d not seen approached from the police department’s perspective before. The Gods of Gotham quickly became a book that encompassed Catholic persecution, civil unrest and economic disparity, fighting for religious freedom in the land of the free. Unfortunately, the topic is still quite relevant—most of the truly hostile arguments against Mexican and Muslim Americans are couched in perfectly interchangeable phrases to those lobbed at the Papists. Modern day scrapping and partisan politics lend my books some immediacy, I hope, because we have a lot to learn from past mistakes.
    My research period lasts for six months and is altogether omnivorous, though I vastly prefer primary sources once I have a grasp of the general situation. Old police documents, diaries, plays, travel guides, menus, housekeeping tomes, obviously Matsell’s slang dictionary Vocabulum, Or the Rogue’s Lexicon. I read the Herald newspaper on microfilm pretty much back to front for whatever year I’m covering, which gives me current events, editorials, economics, anecdotes, politics, satire, and advertisements all at once. I probably wouldn’t be writing about New York if I didn’t live here, but the richness of resources I have at my disposal between the Bryant Park Research Library, the New York Historical Society, the smaller museums—I’m like Scrooge McDuck in a swimming pool full of gold.
    That being said, falling down the research rabbit hole isn’t an issue for me at all. I have plenty of other issues, but after six months in a microfilm department, I’m desperately tired of it and my fingers are itchy to tell stories. Besides that, I have a hard-and-fast historical fiction rule: if your protagonist doesn’t care, leave the fact out. I don’t care how nifty the fact is. That comes of being an actor, actually. It’s about character specificity. Tim Wilde does not go on and on about architecture, popular music, advances in the sciences (unless they’re directly relevant), how much silverware is set for a proper tea, who his favorite actors are, what the Astors are up to. A fact needs to make it into your narrator’s consciousness before it makes it onto your page. He’s interested in the street life of New Yorkers and how they treat each other and manage to survive. So that’s what he sees.

NK: When I read “The Gods of Gotham,” I was so struck by the epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter—quotations from various publications of Protestants deploring the Irish Catholic immigration in shockingly blunt language. I suspected they were authentic but they sounded almost too emblematic to be real. How did you decide to start using those and did you collect them along the way or go back and hunt them down when you were writing the novel?

LF: Yes, those are all absolutely word-for-word real. I actually recorded them as I discovered them because I couldn’t believe the contents myself. I don’t want to convey the impression that I write social justice novels, I don’t even really write crime novels exactly, I write novels about love and heroism and revenge and self-sacrifice, but certainly politics and prejudice play major roles, and those quotes under each chapter title seemed essential to me.
    See, I can easily do the research and write a semi-fictional character who says, for example, “All the persecutions which the true church has suffered from Pagans, Jews, and all the world beside are nothing compared with what it has endured from that unrelenting murderer of men, the Pope.” And people will read that and say, all right, that’s certainly a narrow view, but the author is surely exaggerating for dramatic effect. But if I quote that passage from a speech made by the Orange Country Reformation Society in 1843, and they actually did say that—which they did—the reader automatically understands that these opinions, while grotesquely extreme, did exist. And what’s nuts is I have buckets of these quotes in reserve. Narrowing down the pithiest is much harder than finding them.

NK: What do you mean you don’t write crime novels? Or social justice novels, since issues of social justice figure so largely in the plots of the Timothy Wilde stories? Do you see yourself as fitting within a tradition/genre, or blending such, or doing your own thing entirely?

I would ask anyone who thinks of crime fiction as a guilty pleasure to identify another genre that cracks open the human condition so thoroughly, read Crime and Punishment, and fly your crime-reader flag high. Fantasy novels get thrown in the same basket, but point at another novel that explores loyalty and self-sacrifice more thoroughly than The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We’re not meant to limit ourselves when it comes to the human imagination.


LF: What I mean is that there are some crime novels—brilliant ones, ones I devour like Thai spiced potato chips—in which the crime is the star of the show. These books, I can’t help but surmise, are written by people who are far cleverer than I am. Take for example Agatha Christie’s tour-de-force The. A. B. C. Murders. Now, when I picked that book up as a teen, it mesmerized me. I could never have written it myself. A serial killer by all appearances is offing people whose first and last names each begin with the same letter as the name of the town they live in, as I recall. Simple enough premise, but my god. The points of view shift enough to keep T. S. Eliot happy, the writing is sublime, the characterization pinpoint-exact. When I reached the solution after practically snapping the book’s spine, I was blown away by the ingenuity of the clues and of the plotting. (more…)

Concord Is Where You Are Right Now
a conversation with Robert D. Richardson

07/25/2012  by Arlo Haskell  2 Comments
Robert D Richardson

Robert D. Richardson. Photo by Curt Richter.

In his biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Mind on Fire, Robert D. Richardson writes “the past can be understood only if we imagine each moment of it as present, with ourselves as the actors in it.” This emphasis on the value of personal experience is the core of Emerson’s message; “there is no history, only biography,” Emerson wrote. The appeal to individual empathy inherent in this outlook is also a hallmark of Richardson’s work, which, in addition to Emerson, includes biographies of Henry David Thoreau (The Life of the Mind ) and William James (In the Maelstrom of American Modernism ). While Richardson’s scholarly mastery of these subjects—the founding fathers of American intellectual life—is impressive, what astonishes is his ability to provide the reader with a visceral experience of their lives. Richardson’s books bear the vivid energy of our most imaginative writers and belong, says John Banville, “among the glories of contemporary literature.”

Richardson was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and spent his early years in Medford and in Concord, Massachusetts. Today he lives in South Wellfleet and in Key West, where he and his wife, the writer Annie Dillard, are honorary directors of the Key West Literary Seminar. In this interview, which began on the Fourth of July and continued by email over the recent weeks, Richardson discusses his work as a biographer, his own biography, and the points at which the two are woven together. We talk about John Keats’s theory of “negative capability,” about using Thoreau to find muskrats in the urban West, and about Dillard’s one-word key to understanding Emerson. Richardson, who spent a decade on each of the books discussed here and who has taught at the University of Denver, Harvard, and Sichuan University in China, also gives valuable practical advice about how to stay organized, where to look online, and when to start writing; and he reminds us why “we can and must trust our best selves.”


Littoral: In Emerson, you describe a meeting of the Transcendental Club that was held at Caleb Stetson’s house in Medford and attended by Emerson and Thoreau. Did I read this right? Is this the house you grew up in?

Robert D. Richardson: I did indeed grow up in the house at 141 High Street, and yes, it is the parsonage for the First Church in Medford and has been since 1789. But I’ve just recently learned that when Stetson was minister at Medford he lived in another house on the other side of High Street and 100 yards away. The house he lived in was torn down and there’s a Catholic rectory on the spot now. So Emerson did not attend a meeting at 141 High St. and the passage, one of the very few moments when I tried to insert myself into the book, has to come out. I hate to do it, but there it is. Nice spotting!

L: I’d begun to wonder how literally I should take your remark that “all biography is at last autobiography.”

RR: I was thinking of Emerson saying all history is at last biography; it all comes down to what men and women have done. And if it’s not quite right to then say all biography is at last autobiography, it’s fair to say all biography is to be taken personally.
     Biography certainly has an autobiographical element in that what’s interesting to the reader is the subject seen through the eyes of the writer, but most readers want the eyes of the writer to be pretty clear lenses with not a lot of ego involvement. Still, you can’t avoid asking who is doing the writing, and while a writer may try, as I do, to write by the historian’s rules (there should be evidence for any statement or claim), the writer is on his own when he chooses how to start, where to stop, what to foreground, what to ignore, what to quote, what to describe, and so on.

Thoreau said to look along the bank right at water level and to stand still for a few minutes and right where the grasses stuck up through the water you would see a muskrat if there were any. I stood still for a bit, and sure enough in a few minutes I saw a muskrat in the middle of the city 2,000 miles from Walden Pond. And I realized that Concord is where you are right now, and Walden Pond is the nearest body of water. Denver was my real Concord.

L: After Medford, your family moved to Concord, Massachusetts, famous hometown of Thoreau and Emerson. Did their spirits still animate the place? Did you know their work at that time?

RR: When we moved I was already away at a boarding school, so Concord was summers, vacations, and holidays. And for a 15- or 16-year-old, Concord was pretty dull. No movie theatre, no bowling alley, no public tennis courts, no public swimming pool, no pool hall or community center. Walden Pond was there if you cared to walk all the way out there or could cadge a ride, but the best swimming was White’s Pond which was privately owned and you had to belong. Concord was in many ways a great bore. Everything was Emerson this and Thoreau that and Hawthorne and Alcott by the way. From a young person’s point of view, Concord was drowning in its own past. We drove to Maynard for fun. My chief interests were not Emerson and Thoreau, but getting a car and meeting girls.
     I read Thoreau later, in college. I didn’t get through the first chapter. When he said “Many of you lead mean and sneaking lives,” I put the book down. “I don’t need this,” I said. I couldn’t face having been found out.
     Many years later, with a PhD in hand, I went to teach in Denver, Colorado. I was supposed to teach American Literature so I read a lot of Thoreau, and one day I read a description of where to look for muskrats feeding along a stream. I went out and walked down to the stream 50 yards from my home in Denver, a stream called Harvard Gulch. It ran under a shopping center in a concrete box, then it came out and wandered west amid weeds and urban rubble. Thoreau said to look along the bank right at water level and to stand still for a few minutes and right where the grasses stuck up through the water you would see a muskrat if there were any. I stood still for a bit, and sure enough in a few minutes I saw a muskrat in the middle of the city 2,000 miles from Walden Pond. And I realized that Concord is where you are right now, and Walden Pond is the nearest body of water. Denver was my real Concord. That’s where I lived and work and where I eventually, around the age of 40, wrote a book about Thoreau.

L: You describe Bronson Alcott as lacking “even a hint of negative capability,” Keats’s phrase for the essential poetic faculty, or as you put it, “the ability to set aside (one’s) own personality and enter imaginatively into the lives and situations of others.” What is the role of the creative imagination in the crafting of biography? (more…)

Mathematics is a kind of Poetry
a conversation with James Gleick

12/23/2011  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
James Gleick

photo by Phyllis Rose

James Gleick is rightly hailed as our leading chronicler of science and modern technology. He has a knack for presenting complex subjects in a clear and compelling style that drives book sales measured in millions; and for imbuing the world of science with a pitch-perfect sense of the adventure, humor, and humanity that is all too often seen as the antithesis of this realm.

Gleick’s first book, Chaos, introduced the general public to chaos theory and made the “butterfly effect” a household phrase. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, as was his second book, Genius, a biography of the American physicist Richard Feynman. Gleick’s next project was not a book at all, but the Pipeline, a pioneering internet service provider, had all the earmarks of Gleick’s mission to make the world of complex science accessible to the layman. “I’d heard about email and other internet-type things from scientists I knew,” Gleick recalls today of the Pipeline’s inception in 1993. “But at that time there was no way for a person like me to gain access to the internet.” So, together with computer programmer Uday Ivatury, Gleick developed “something that no one had every created before: user-friendly Windows software to let novices use e-mail and chat and other internet services.”

Gleick’s newest book is the culmination of his previous work as a writer and internet innovator, and perhaps the most important book published in the past year. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood reveals the roots of information theory and tracks the development of communications technologies that now characterize our society.

Our conversation began over email as the baseball playoffs were getting underway. It concluded before Thanksgiving, as we were putting the finishing touches on the program schedule for “Yet Another World,” the 30th annual Key West Literary Seminar, behind which Gleick is the driving creative force. Over this span, we discussed Gleick’s taste in fiction, the difference (or lack thereof) between the artist and the scientist, interconnections between humanity and technology, and the possibility of delivering lunch as an email attachment.


Littoral: The Information suggests a prodigious understanding of complex mathematics and scientific theory. But I’m told you were an English major. How would you describe your math and science background?

James Gleick: I had a very strong math and science background from kindergarten through about 10th grade. Then I gave it up. It’s true that I was an English major, and I hardly took any science courses in college at all–not even Physics 101, which I have regretted a million times or so.

When we're talking about creativity-about genius, about originality-I don't know if there's any difference at all between the artist and the scientist. Ultimately, of course, the scientist is constrained by reality a little more tightly than the artist. But only a little.

L: What draws you to scientists and mathematicians?

JG: I think it’s not the scientists and mathematicians I’m drawn to, but their work: the science and math. Scientists do so much, intentionally or not, to shape how we see the world. And yet, science is a part of our culture that seems to go underreported, maybe because the subjects seem alien or forbidding. I wouldn’t say I understand complex math and science, but I appreciate it. It doesn’t seem alien to me. I’ve tried to cultivate a reporter’s skill set in getting scientists to talk about what they care deeply about.

L: I also declined to take upper-level math and science courses as a student. They didn’t seem forbidding, so much, as boring, empty of creativity. But in your hands, high mathematics seems incredibly creative, like a kind of poetry that makes its own rules as it goes along, all in the service of a more pure truth. Are there similarities in the way a great writer and a great mathematician approach their disciplines?

JG: That’s beautifully put: “high mathematics seems incredibly creative, like a kind of poetry that makes its own rules as it goes along, all in the service of a more pure truth.” That’s how it is, I think. For them, I mean. The challenge is to try to get into their heads, insofar as that’s possible. When we’re talking about creativity–about genius, about originality–I don’t know if there’s any difference at all between the artist and the scientist. Ultimately, of course, the scientist is constrained by reality a little more tightly than the artist. But only a little.

James Gleick's "The Information"

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. Jacket design by Peter Mendelsund.

L: What do you most like to read?

JG: I read mostly fiction, by far. What kind? I don’t know! Anything good, I’d like to say.

L: Do you write fiction yourself?

JG: I don’t. I tried, a long time ago, and discovered that I couldn’t do it. It’s too hard. I’m lacking something necessary and don’t even know what that is.

L: As program chair for this year’s Key West Literary Seminar, you had the opportunity to draw a sort of frame around contemporary fiction. What’s the common element among the writers you chose?

JG: In different ways–very different–these writers present visions of the near future. Some of them aren’t very nice visions. Of course it’s a way of writing about the present, about our potential, about ourselves: what we expect, what we fear.
    So many great writers are being drawn to this way of writing now, often adopting styles or techniques that used to be called “science fiction.” I’m not sure why, but I have some ideas. I’m hoping we’re about to find out.

L: It’s no surprise that a lot of these writers explore the possibilities of technology. What is it about technological advancement that scares people, and what do they love in it?

Subtle Big Things
talking with Frank Bruni

07/20/2010  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Photo by Soo-Jeong Kang

When Frank Bruni was named restaurant critic for The New York Times in 2004, he was unknown to the food world. As a journalist at the Detroit Free Press and the Times, he was praised for his investigative reporting of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church and his coverage of Governor George W. Bush’s presidential campaign. But his surprise appointment to this apparently enviable job– paid to eat in a city known for excellent restaurants– was to be, for deeply personal reasons, the greatest challenge of Bruni’s life.

In Born Round (2009), Bruni’s third book, he details the life that lent such irony to his tenure as the country’s most notorious arbiter of culinary taste. As a child, judging from the book’s many pictures, he was just slightly chubby. But in an Italian-American family obsessed with food as a symbol of status and celebration, he was clearly the most obsessed, devouring plate after plate of all that was available. With age came an additional obsession: his body and its perceived attractiveness to other men. Bruni attempts just about every fad diet that comes along and, in college, experiments with bulimia, a dangerous trick that allows him to have his cake and not eat it too. All the while, as the pictures tell, he’s still not that fat. But by the end of the calorie-fueled Bush campaign, Bruni is in his late 30s and, indeed, significantly overweight. Decades of withering self-criticism have finally found an ample target.

Bruni begins to get a handle on his weight just before the Times makes its tantalizing and terrifying job offer. As restaurant critic, he will be required to eat everything on the menu at all of the city’s best restaurants, occasionally eating dinner twice in one night, and always returning to a given restaurant multiple times before writing the reviews that will earn him admiration, envy, and scorn. In restaurant- and media-mad New York, getting through these meals undetected requires constant subterfuge; high jinks ensue as maîtres d question Bruni’s false identities and chuckle at his sometimes clumsy disguises. By the time this entertaining masquerade is through, we’ve begun to see what we hope is the real Frank Bruni: a man at peace with his urges, appetites, and even occasional binges, a battle-tested and levelheaded adult, practiced in the fine art of self-forgiveness.

Frank will join us in Key West this January for The Hungry Muse, and we had a chance last week to ask him a few questions. Here’s how it went:


Littoral: What have you been up to since Born Round?

Frank Bruni: I write full-time for The New York Times Magazine, and remain a Times staffer, which I’ve been for some 15 years now. Yikes, I’m old! From that position I get to wander through the paper a lot: I recently did a huge Dining section piece on the restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, and I write a column on drinking and bars called the Tipsy Diaries for the Weekend section on every other Friday. For the magazine I specialize in profiles: over the last six months I’ve written about the Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, the television doctor Mehmet Oz, and Carly Fiorina, the business pioneer running for Senate in California.

L: Were you surprised by the notoriety you found during your tenure as restaurant critic for The New York Times? Had your predecessors– Ruth Reichl, Bryan Miller, William Grimes– found the same level of celebrity? How would you say your time at the Times was different from theirs?

FB: I wasn’t surprised by the notoriety, precisely because that sort of notoriety, or at least a high public profile, seemed to go with the job. It was clear to me from what Bryan and Ruth and Biff (that’s what Grimes goes by) had gone through that The New York Times restaurant critic was a lightning rod for criticism, a magnet for chatter, a source of public fascination. I braced myself for that.

What was significantly different about my tenure was that it was the first to come along when the blogosphere was truly full-blown: when web sites analyzed the critic’s every word publicly and in real time., for example, did a “BruniBetting” feature– they now have something similar with Sam Sifton– that guessed how I’d rate a restaurant by deconstructing my sensibilities and approach through time. That sort of thing ratcheted everything up a bit.


L: Do you think this rapid-response media environment has a discernible effect on food and the culture around it? Is the way we’re eating now affected by the way we create and consume information online?

FB: All the instant blog attention to new places can sometimes mean several things. Restaurants pay more attention to the way they come out of the gate than the way they’ll mature and stabilize and endure through time. Restaurants that come out of the gate wobbly may never get a chance to recover: the naysaying and catcalling on a myriad of web sites threaten to do them in. And restaurants with a ready-made curiosity factor– because they’re participating in a growing trend, because they have a chef who just got TV time on a reality show, or because they have a flashy gimmick– sometimes get more attention than they deserve, because they’re able to hog the blogosphere, which needs quick and easy and instant items. Blogs aren’t different from traditional media that way, but they’re like traditional media on steroids, traditional media on a sugar high. The buzz is louder and more pervasive than in the past, and I think it leads people in the buzziest directions. Dining out has become more faddish as a result.

L: As the Times‘ “Tipsy Diarist,” you’ve turned your focus to cocktails– a job that would seem to have sometimes painful consequences. Did you have any concerns about taking on this assignment? What’s your hangover remedy?


The World is Fundamentally a Great Wonder
a conversation with Richard Wilbur

10/21/2009  by Arlo Haskell  4 Comments

Richard Wilbur in his study in Cummington, Massachusetts. Photo by Arlo Haskell.

Richard Wilbur’s auspicious 1947 debut, The Beautiful Changes, earned the admiration of two of the most enduring American poets of the era, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens. By the late 1950s, Wilbur had completed a landmark translation of Molière’s The Misanthrope, and received the Pulitzer Prize for his third collection of poetry, Things of This World. Since then, Wilbur has received nearly every award and honor available to an American poet, including two Pulitzers, two Bollingen Prizes, a National Book Award, and the office of the U.S. Poet Laureate. His definitive translations of Molière, Jean Racine, and Pierre Corneille represent nearly the complete output of these major figures of 17th-century French drama, and he has translated poetry by an astounding range of poets including the Portuguese Vinícius de Moraes, the Russian Anna Akhmatova, and the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges.

For parts of five decades, Wilbur and his wife Charlee spent winters in Key West. Here they became part of a cadre that included John Ciardi, the noted translator of Dante’s Inferno, Pulitzer Prize-winning World War II correspondent John Hersey, two-time National Book Award-winning poet James Merrill, and poet, biographer, and social critic John Malcolm Brinnin.

Our interview began in February as a series of exchanges through the mail. On a sunny day in late August, I drove to visit Wilbur at his home in the Berkshires outside Northampton, Massachusetts. We had a lunch of turkey sandwiches with beets from Wilbur’s garden and walked from the house to his study, an open structure with large windows and wall-to-wall bookshelves. On the windowsill is a pair of binoculars, and in front of the window is Wilbur’s desk, topped with an early 20th-century L.C. Smith typewriter and the blue folder containing the manuscript that will become Wilbur’s next book of poems, due in the fall of 2010. Our conversation—about Frost, Stevens, Key West, Wilbur’s practice, and his place in the republic of letters—follows.


Littoral: You knew both Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost early in your career. How did you come to know them, and what was their influence on your work and career?

Richard Wilbur: When I went to Harvard Graduate School on the G.I. Bill after World War II, Frost was spending much of the winters in Cambridge, and my wife and I soon got to know him. He was kindly disposed toward Charlee because her great-aunt, Susan Hayes Ward, had encouraged him when he was obscure, and was always called by him “the first friend of my poetry.” He took to me also, because I had many of his poems by heart, and when my first book appeared in 1947 he spoke kindly of it. We saw Robert– as he soon let us call him– frequently thereafter in Cambridge or in Ripton, Vermont, or at our house in Portland, Connecticut, once I’d begun to teach at Wesleyan. His poems always seemed to me to be a wonder and an inimitable model: I had no wish to ape his work, but it made me seek for a speaking voice, for meter and rhyme which worked as if by accident and for plain situations having overtones.
In Stevens’s work I was delighted by the gaiety of his flow of thought. I saw him rather rarely, but he was good to me and backed me for a Guggenheim in 1952; and I once had the honor of introducing him to a capacity crowd in Harvard’s New Lecture Hall. His ability to combine “the imagination’s Latin with the lingua franca et jocundissima” (as Stevens writes in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”) was something I sought after in my own way, and with gratitude for his infectious example.


L: Like Stevens and Frost, you ended up in Key West. What first attracted you to the place? Were you aware of their histories in the town?

RW: I well remember what drew me to Key West in the first place. It was the 1960s, and a colleague of mine at Wesleyan, the painter Samuel Green, said to me, “Why do you take winter vacations in remote places like Tobago, using up all your money on air fare? You ought to try Key West, our American subtropics.” He asked if I liked the movie Bonnie and Clyde. “Well, yes,” I said. “It’s morally questionable, but, aesthetically, very pleasing.” “Then you’ll love,” he said, “the combined beauty and tackiness of Key West.” Sam was right. Charlee and I stayed at first at the Sun ‘n’ Surf Motel near Duval Street, which was quite empty in those days, nothing at all like what it has become. I remember, after we settled in, we sat out on the balcony in the heat and realized we were going to require a drink, something with tonic. I went out and trudged all over town looking for tonic water, but couldn’t find any and had to settle for Tom Collins mix. “No tonic?” said Charlee. “Well, thank God. We’ve found a backwater.”


The Sun 'n' Surf Motel, Key West, circa 1960s, where the Wilburs first stayed.

Later we bought a one-room apartment on Elizabeth Street, and then with some writer friends– John and Barbara Hersey, the Ciardis– we bought into a compound on Windsor Lane, to which we returned for as much as three months of every year until 2005, when my wife fell ill. We enjoyed the company of many good friends, and I always loved simply being able to wear shorts, to ride my bicycle, and to play tennis on the city courts in the middle of winter. I found the variety of Key West life very conducive to my work. It has some of the virtues of a city– there’s always been a kind of art colony there in flux, and by now it has its own symphony orchestra, productions of plays– and then there are the boats, the fishing, that kind of thing. There’s more of a cocktail society than is good for us, of course, but all you have to do is not attend all the parties. You can live in Key West in all kinds of ways.
When we went down to Key West originally, I had no recollection that there was any connection with Frost. He wasn’t much of a hotel dweller, whereas Stevens was practically designed to be a patron of the Casa Marina, that great old hotel on the ocean where he stayed.

L: Were you among the Anagrams players in Key West?

RW: Yes, I’ve played a lot of Anagrams. I was introduced to it as a child, but I wasn’t an incessant player until I began playing in Key West with people like John Malcolm Brinnin and John Ciardi– a devoted and violent Anagrams player. There’s a long list of people who became devoted to the game: Jimmy Merrill played a little with us, Harry Mathews, Rust Hills, Irving Weinman, and each of the players took turns hosting the weekly game. John Hersey played– he knew all the names of all the fish in the sea, and he was very good at any word connected with boats and fishing– and after a certain amount of exposure to the game John wrote a story about it, published in Key West Tales. We tried to keep it a high-minded, good-tempered game. There were no wagers, but we did begin to have certain rules that were above and beyond the rules of the game itself. It was understood, for instance, that you would not have any Bass Ale, which came to be the official ale of these games, until the first of two rounds was over.

L: What was your reaction to being named U.S. Poet Laureate in 1987?

RW: I came to it not knowing what the assignment was. I appeared in the door of the Laureate’s office down there, and there were the two fine secretaries who handle the Laureate’s affairs, and I said, “Here I am, reporting for duty. What am I supposed to do?” And they said, “You’re supposed to think that up.” So I said, “Well, I suppose this is an honor. Should I just go home and write more poems for them to honor?” They said “No, that will not do.”

L: What are you reading these days?

RW: I’ve been reading Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell and other poets of that period– which is to say my period– because I’m in the funny position of being about to teach my contemporaries at Amherst this fall, with my old friend David Sofield. We’ll co-teach the course, beginning with W.H. Auden, and proceeding through Bishop, Lowell, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath. It’s going to be difficult for me to turn myself into a considering, evaluative teacher of the works of people I knew so well, so personally. And I shall have to try hard to avoid being an old anecdotalist, telling stories on my old friends and acquaintances.


L: Are you writing poetry now?

RW: Yes. I don’t manage to write something every day, but I never have. I wait to be asked, more or less, and when something wants to be written I make sure that I’ve cleared the decks and that I concentrate on that alone and give it as many hours as it will need. I’m a terribly slow worker, but I’m also terribly patient, and I’m glad that I still have the ideas and the patience to execute them. I’m going to have another book next year, in the fall, and three of its poems will be in The New Yorker next week. The book will have translations as well; I have 37 more riddles by Symphosius for the volume, and I’ve finally satisfied myself with a translation of Stéphane Mallarmés famous sonnet “For the Tomb of Edgar Poe.” (more…)

The Pleasures of Disorientation:
a conversation with Billy Collins

08/20/2009  by Arlo Haskell  1 Comment

photo by Curt Richter

Billy Collins is a two-term United States Poet Laureate, New York State Poet, and the author of eight collections of poetry. With the Library of Congress, he established Poetry 180, a teaching aid for high school students founded on the belief that “poems can inspire and make us think about what it means to be a member of the human race.” His newest book, Ballistics, has spent nearly a year on the Poetry Foundation’s best sellers list, where his previous book, The Trouble with Poetry, has now appeared for more than 120 consecutive weeks.

Collins’s poetry displays a deep affection for the details of middle-class American life. His landscapes are marked by suburban parks, dogs, and country houses, and inhabited by a narrator whose idylls of contentment and quiet adventure at first appear utterly familiar. But just as these reveries come into view, they are subverted by mischievous impulses that shift the reader, as Collins says here, “from the familiar to the strange, from coziness to disorientation.”

In this interview, conducted over the course of several emails this summer, Collins talks about his poetic rivalries, the theories of John Keats and T.S. Eliot, the importance of keeping secrets in poetry, and the pleasures of disorientation in the age of the GPS.


Littoral: Which poets do you read again and again, and why? Which poet did you read last?

Billy Collins: My reading of poetry is very random at this point because I am not so much studying a particular poet as I am cruising the pages of poetry books and literary magazines looking for a poem, or even a passage, striking enough to urge me to write my own poem. What inspires poetry is poetry. So I read others not to steal but to find gates of departure for my own flights. Of course, some poets provide these more reliably than others. A few of the ones I return to often are Ron Padgett, Charles Simic, Clive James, Yiannis Ritsos, and Wislawa Szymborska. They all make me jealous, often enough to try to show them who’s boss by writing a better poem than any of them. This always fails, but at least something gets written. Did I mention John Donne and Emily Dickinson? They make me furious.


L: Did your time as United States Poet Laureate change how you think about poetry and the audience for it? How so?

BC: My overall view of American poetry and its audience did not really change during my tenure as Poet Laureate. I knew that the audience for poetry was relatively small but that there were many readers out there who had been driven away from poetry and were ready to find a way back. Something I did not realize then was the readiness of high school students to respond fully to poetry if they were exposed to the right kind of poetry. I suppose what I am really doing here is endorsing the Poetry 180 program that I put in place at first for high schoolers. I had no idea I would hear from so many teachers who found that Poetry 180 made poetry come alive for their students, some of whom actually demanded to hear more poems. For me, making the poems available on the Library of Congress website was setting out the water; I had no idea so many horses would come to drink. And I mean “horses” in the best sense of the word!

L: One pleasure of your poetry is the way it cuts through the ceremoniousness of capital-‘L’ Literature. In Ballistics, for example, you spoof well-known lines of poets including Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost. How much should younger readers and writers respect established literary elders like these, and how much should they try to have a more irreverent experience?


BC: I wouldn’t advise coming right out of the box and ridiculing your betters. But if you think you have learned enough from a teacher, you seize the opportunity to signal their current uselessness. Any poet I have parodied or poked fun at– O’Hara, Frost, Stevens– I have been in awe of at one point. But for every poem I have that pokes fun at a poet or poetry itself, I have at least another poem that pokes fun at me. I am critical of poetry because I often suspect its intentions, and I am leery of the easy elevation of poetry into an empyrean condition. The clay feet of every artistic endeavor need to be kept in mind.

Thomas Sanchez on Mile Zero: 1989
the George Murphy interview

04/03/2009  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
Thomas Sanchez photo by Rollie McKenna

Thomas Sanchez, Key West, 1980s. Photo by Rollie McKenna

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Thomas Sanchez’s Mile Zero. The epic novel unfolds in a richly imagined Key West where St. Cloud, Justo Tamarindo, Zobop, and El Finito are players in a late-twentieth century clash of generations, cultures, and beliefs. Hailed by The New York Times as “a comic masterpiece,” it is, together with Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not and Thomas McGuane’s Panama, a landmark in the literature of our island city.

In 1989, as Knopf was preparing the book for press, Sanchez agreed to an interview with George Murphy, a local former mayoral candidate and editor of the excellent anthology, The Key West Reader: The Best of Key West’s Writers, 1830-1990. Over the course of several late nights at the now-legendary Full Moon Saloon, the following conversation took shape. In the interview, originally published in Island Life, Sanchez discusses the origins and development of Mile Zero, the parallels between Key West and Cannery Row, and the concept of contrabandista.

Mile Zero cover image

George Murphy: Thomas, you left the enormous California landscape of your first two books to live in and write about this tiny island. Why?

Thomas Sanchez: I had no intention of writing a novel in Key West when I first arrived there. I was on my way to another island in the Caribbean at the time; stopping in Key West was fortuitous. I had not been able to write fiction for four years. I did have several hundred pages of notes and sketches for a novel set in California and Mexico, but while writing both in California and Mexico, I was unable to match voices to my ideas. I had themes but no language. I was like a singer who has lost his voice, standing alone on a stage, mouthing empty clouds over the heads of a phantom audience.
The first trip to Key West placed me at the confluence of several events, the first being the launching of the initial space shuttle, at the same time a boatload of Haitians fleeing the dictator Baby Doc (Jean-Claude Duvalier) came ashore in the Florida Keys, and another of the ubiquitous loads of cocaine confiscated by the Coast Guard from a fast boat attempting to make landfall near Key West. These three events forged in my mind a new American metaphor, one in the process of birth. The themes of the novel I had been carrying for four years coalesced into hard voices spoken in soft tongues in a fresh language. The illumination was simply that I had physically transported myself 3,000 miles across the continent into a geopolitical context of a transforming world. The key to unlocking that world necessitated undoing the cultural prejudice of my personal history. By that I mean the kind of “educated” American I had become, which had cost me for a time the ability to divine what is most crucial to a novelist, the character of the future which is reflected in the past.

Space Shuttle Columbia

Space Shuttle Columbia. Photo by NASA

GM:You have referred to Mile Zero as a cosmic Cannery Row. What do you mean by that?

US Coast Guard carrying Haitian refugees to shore

Coast Guard cutter off Key West after intercepting Haitian refugees, 1980. Photo by Dale McDonald.

TS: As a boy I lived at the edge of the real Cannery Row in California. It was still physically as Steinbeck had described it in his novel of the same name, as if his words had built a real place. But over time that place fell prey to the commerce of modernity. The old sardine packing houses were transformed into hotels and fancy boutiques, the ghostly quality disappeared beneath the thundering hordes searching for Steinbeck’s people amongst an impossible charade. If you want to go to the real Cannery Row, you must go to Steinbeck’s book; there is the life.

When I arrived in Key West I discovered haunting parallels with Cannery Row, the old wharves where men once set off to shark, turtle, and sponge were still there. So were many of the great stone cigar factories built by the Cubans, all deserted, strangely quiet, but filled with ghostly consequence, and if you knew where to look you could make contact with those distant times; if you kept your ears open you could discover the voices of those still living who were part of those enterprises now thought of as dead. Cannery Row died when the sardines mysteriously disappeared, never to rise again.

Key West has died a thousand deaths, going from the richest city in America to the poorest. Key West died when the sponge blight came; it died when the wrecking laws were changed; it died when the turtles were all slaughtered; it died when slave auctions were abolished after the Civil War; it died when the Navy abandoned its massive base; it died after Prohibition made rum smuggling less than profitable; but each cycle was a tide washing away the old, bearing seeds of the new, changing the status quo. The tide was ceaseless, (more…)

A Brief Interim of Sheer Possibility
a conversation with Rachel Kushner

01/03/2009  by Arlo Haskell  5 Comments

Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner writes frequently for Artforum and coedits the literary, philosophy, and art journal Soft Targets, whose focus is political inquiry, poetry, and literature-in-translation. Her debut novel, Telex From Cuba, was nominated for the 2008 National Book Award.

Telex from Cuba takes place in Oriente Province and Havana, Cuba, during the 1950s. We learn about the American businessmen in charge of the country’s sugar and nickel mining operations, and the Cubans, Dominicans, and Haitians who work in the mines and cut the cane in a form of indentured servitude. Meanwhile, from their base in the mountains above the sugar and nickel operations in Preston and Nicaro, Fidel Castro and his revolutionary army battle the forces of dictator Fulgencio Batista, whose surrender on New Year’s Day fifty years ago introduced hope to the Cuban underclass and fear to the businessmen who relied on their cheap labor.

Kushner will join us for the second session of the 27th annual Key West Literary Seminar, January 15-18, in the theater of the historic San Carlos Institute, which stands today as a museum to an earlier Cuban revolutionary, José Martí. In this final interview of our 2008 series, conducted by email over the holiday season, Kushner talks about the experiences of her mother’s family living in Cuba, the real Christian de La Mazière, and the process of creating fiction from the Cuban revolution.

Littoral: From the book jacket, we know Telex From Cuba is based in part on your mother’s experiences as a child in Oriente, on land owned by the United Fruit Company. How much of the book is family history? Are there characters that are closely based on your mother’s family, and the people they knew?


Rachel Kushner: The original spark, my idea to write the book, was due to the fact that my mother had lived in Cuba as a child, and I’d gone there with her and two of her sisters to see the strange, former American colony in northeastern Oriente Province where they’d spent part of their childhood. The historical circumstances upon which I attempted to build my novel– an American colony in Cuba, and the various roles the people who lived there played in the revolution– was a fictional schematic that I borrowed from real life, the lives of my mother’s family and the people they knew and that I discovered, independently, through my own research. I did, at least initially, draw heavily from the mountains of archival material my grandparents had left behind: every letter they’d written from Cuba had a carbon, they saved every calling card and receipt and budget book and party invitation– I mean everything– so I had access to this very rich archive of the lives of the Americans who managed and controlled Cuba’s sugar and nickel– the country’s most valuable resources. But the novel itself is a work of fiction. I am a fiction writer, not a memoirist, not a historian. As a literary figuration, it is ruled by the imagination, and structured by it, too. If the book were simply a fictionalization of my family’s history, it would have been a rather dreary exercise– not because their lives were in any way dreary, but because fiction has to rise up organically and reconfigure the past on its own terms, via a logic that’s aesthetic, not factual. I learned this the hard way. At first, I was rather attached to some of the details I found in my (long-deceased) grandparents trove. But those details so often caused problems. They weren’t invented, and so they lacked the suppleness of context. The invented detail fits with the mind’s own contextual logic. The “real” detail, by contrast, is often so much less believable. Much of what creates “my” Oriente Province is a synthesis, a false reality I was only able to generate after sifting through the details of the real place.


Overall, the proposition of Americans of various sorts leaving the States to live in a colonial outpost, running away to become more themselves, or get their share of what they think they deserve, and the tacit race and social hierarchies they encounter, and comprise, is a proposition I worked out after having thought a great deal about my own grandparents’ lives. So in that sense the whole project is subtended, or ghosted, by the experiences of my family. But as I said– fiction is fiction, and not “about” any real person’s life. And because of the mysterious process of writing fiction, and its special integrity, I wince a little when people describe my novel as “based on.” Publishers rely so heavily on back-story to promote novels these days– because they think it sells, and maybe it does– but novels don’t simply enact the real as it took place. They do something else, stranger and more complicated.

L: Where did your mother’s family go after the revolution? Did they ever return? Did you grow up with an awareness of Cuba and Castro, or did this come later?

RK: My family actually left before the revolution. I think my grandfather was fired. He was very disappointed to leave Cuba. My grandmother, far more closed-minded, was happy to leave the “natives” and their lack of love for iceberg lettuce and proper English. The episode in my book of the Americans who get rescued by aircraft carrier because the town is being strafed by Batista’s military planes is drawn from a situation that really occurred in Nicaro, but my own family was not there for it. They ended up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, after having first moved back in with their own parents, in St. Louis. They had to split up their children because my grandfather was unemployed. Although this occurred before the Cuban revolution that ejected the Americans from Nicaro, the predicament is in some sense the same: having escaped the US only to wind up returning, jobless and on some level estranged.

After my grandfather regained his footing, got a job and re-established a life in Tennessee, I know that he was very amused by Castro. He saved all kinds of clippings from the early sixties, and paid attention. He’d spent his time there, of course, and he was not surprised by the comeuppance– especially because Nicaro played a particular role in the whole thing. The rebels were right above Nicaro, and Fidel later railed against the Americans for owning and controlling Cuba’s incredibly valuable nickel mines.


My mother and aunts are all quite far to the left, politically, which is unusual for Americans who lived in Cuba, but for them, it is that experience that politicized them. I had heard about Cuba my whole life, my mother always cooked Cuban dishes, played Cuban music, talked about her childhood as this wonderfully free time in her life. I went with them to Cuba, for the first time, in 2000, which is when I started writing the book. They were the only ones of the Americans who had lived in Preston and Nicaro ever to go back to the United Fruit and nickel enclaves, respectively. Most of the people who lived there were unsympathetic to the revolution and had no desire to see what became of their once-elegant world, the sovietization, the pollution, the shabby state of their country club and manager’s row. But my mother and her sisters still feel very connected to the place. Quite simply, they’re rather pro-Fidel, (more…)

The Work Becomes Visible:
a conversation with Hilma Wolitzer

09/20/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Hilma Wolitzer

Hilma Wolitzer is the author of several novels including, most recently, The Doctor’s Daughter, Hearts, and Summer Reading; and a book on the craft of fiction titled The Company of Writers. She has taught writing workshops at The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, New York University, Columbia University, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and right here at the Key West Literary Seminar. She will return to Key West and the Seminar for a third time this January, as a moderator for our 27th annual Seminar, Historical Fiction and The Search for Truth, and as a faculty member in our writers’ workshop program. In a telephone conversation yesterday, we learned what to expect from Wolitzer’s workshop, and gathered some tips about how to assess the quality of a manuscript.

Littoral: How would you explain your approach to teaching a writers’ workshop?


Hilma Wolitzer: I was in my 30s when I took my first workshop, at the New School with Anatole Broyard. The very first thing I ever heard about my work, the first comment in the class, was “That’s the most boring thing I ever heard.” Broyard stepped in and said “I don’t see how your comments are useful to the writer. You have to say why you were bored, and what you would do to make it less boring.” In that moment, I learned how to teach.
Honesty and charity have to prevail. You have to ask questions of the manuscript: Do I believe this? Do I care? Am I compelled to keep reading? I encourage everybody to comment on everybody’s work; and I ask the person who wrote the manuscript to not defend his or her work against criticism until everyone has spoken. It’s not exactly a courtroom, but certain evidence comes out– if 10 people say they don’t believe in a character, this is evidence against the manuscript. On the other hand, writers are not always aware of what they do well. If you can point out one good sentence in an otherwise not-so-good manuscript, that’s very helpful to a writer.

Plausible Presence:
a conversation with Thomas Mallon

09/02/2008  by Arlo Haskell  1 Comment

Thomas Mallon

Thomas Mallon is a novelist, essayist, critic, and former literary editor at GQ. He has received the Ingram Merrill Award for outstanding work as a writer, and is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Book Review, among other publications. As the author of historical novels including Henry and Clara, Bandbox, and Dewey Defeats Truman, Mallon is known for richly imagined characters and situations set within crucial moments in United States history. As a critic, he regularly writes about new works of historical fiction; and a collection of his essays, In Fact: Essays on Writers and Writing, includes two important pieces on the genre, “Writing Historical Fiction” and “The Historical Novelist’s Burden of Truth.”

Mallon’s most recent novel is Fellow Travelers, an account of a Washington D.C. love affair between Hawkins Fuller, a handsome State Department official, and young Timothy Laughlin, a fervent anti-communist and Senate staffer. Through Laughlin and Fuller, we witness the so-called lavender scare of the 1950s, in which State Department employees suspected of homosexuality were fired as security risks; and are given a ringside seat for the sordid endgame of the Army-McCarthy hearings run by notorious Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.

In this installment of our ongoing interview series, Thomas Mallon talks about Fellow Travelers, the rumors of Senator McCarthy’s own homosexuality, the Obama-McCain election; and the current state of historical fiction, including works by Gore Vidal and William Kennedy, both of whom will join Mallon in January 2009 during our 27th annual Seminar, Historical Fiction and The Search for Truth.


Littoral: Are Hawkins Fuller and Tim Laughlin based on real people in any way? Why did you choose to cast these characters in a well-documented era in Washington?

Thomas Mallon: Fuller and Laughlin aren’t based on any particular historical figures. Both contain bits and pieces of people I’ve known in my own life, which makes them like the characters one finds being created by just about any novelist of the “non-historical” sort.

In this regard, though, one thing in particular interested me about Laughlin. When I started to make notes on him, the first thing I put down was “Date of birth: November 2, 1931″– exactly twenty years earlier than mine. I realized that in some ways I was going to be writing about what my own life might have been like had I been born two decades earlier.


As for putting him and Fuller into this well-documented era: in this respect, they fit in with a lot of the people in my novels– minor figures, invented or real (take Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, from Henry and Clara), who get caught up in major historical dramas. The roles that Fuller and Laughlin play in actual events are sufficiently small that I don’t think their presence on the scene disconcerts well-informed students of the period, the kind of readers who actually know, say, Charles Potter and the other members of the McCarthy committee. Even to such readers the presence of a staffer like Tim would seem believable.

In any case, this has become my preferred avenue into history– the plausible presence of a small person who’s seeing big things.

L: How is Fellow Travelers different from your other work? Are the rumors of McCarthy’s homosexuality given more credence in your novel than in the historical record?

TM: Fellow Travelers is different mostly, I guess, in terms of subject matter. (The basic method and techniques are pretty much the same.) My novels had often contained a lot of politics, but homosexuality hadn’t before this one been more than a leitmotif (a couple of minor characters, like Frank Sherwood in Dewey Defeats Truman).

As for the McCarthy rumors: I suppose my book does give them more credence– or at least attention– than the historical record does, but there were certainly whisperings at the time about gay experiences McCarthy may have had from Wisconsin to the Wardman Park Hotel. His rather sudden marriage in middle age struck his detractors as suspicious.


It’s often been suggested that Roy Cohn had some sort of hold of McCarthy, whereas Fellow Travelers invents a situation in which it’s David Schine who has something on the senator. I don’t, of course, know the true nature of McCarthy’s sexuality. In the novel I portray him as somebody with a sloppy libido that’s governed by alcohol. He’s mostly homosexual but likely to grope anyone when he’s had too much to drink.

Scaffolding for the Imagination:
a conversation with Geraldine Brooks

07/10/2008  by Arlo Haskell  3 Comments

Geraldine Brooks

Australian-born writer Geraldine Brooks is the author, most recently, of People of the Book (2008), a novel about the stories uncovered during the conservation of the sacred Hebrew text known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Her previous novel, March (2005), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. As a journalist for The Wall Street Journal in the 1980s and ’90s, she covered crises in the the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans. Her husband of twenty-four years is fellow Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Horwitz. Both Brooks and Horwitz will join us in January 2009 for our twenty-seventh annual Seminar, Historical Fiction and The Search for Truth. Brooks will deliver the keynote address to open our first session.

Our conversation with Brooks begins with March, which tells the story of Captain March, known to readers of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women as the character of the father and husband who has left the family to fight in the Civil War. Brooks based her Captain March upon Bronson Alcott, Louisa May’s real-life father, whose surviving letters and diaries reveal a close friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The fictional character of Captain March therefore develops alongside two founding myths of American history- the abolitionist cause during the Civil War and the intellectual currents of Concord, Massachusetts- while also providing an imagined backstory to a classic of American literature. The literary risks of such an imaginative weaving of truth and fiction are great. The reward of the Pulitzer, America’s top literary honor, rarely given to a foreign-born writer, is proof of her exceptional talent. Brooks talks about this book and her love for books; about Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone; the “Tony Test,” reading in the bath, and ordinary, everyday Geraldine.


Littoral: When you had finished with March, did you imagine it would meet with such success?

Geraldine Brooks: Of course not! You’d have to be delusional.

L: How did you feel about it, in that interim before public reception?

GB: I think with any book, there’s an odd period when you’ve had to let it go. You’ve pushed the deadline and your editor’s patience to the end, and you have to stop revising and tinkering. Then, alarmingly, it’s out of your hands. There’s a kind of nervous uncertainty: could I have done better? Will someone, anyone, want to read it?

L: In an interview with Dave Weich, you said, “As a reporter, if you don’t know the truth, you can’t write it, but in fiction you can make it up.” I think that “make it up” part bothers some readers of historical fiction. Have readers been duped, who believe they know the history better after reading historical fiction? How does historical fiction contribute to our understanding of history?


GB: It’s nothing to do with duping. It is the novelist’s job to imagine, and my implicit contract with the reader is clear enough: This is a novel; I hope you enjoy the fruits of my imagination. I think if you call it a novel, you can do what you like, but you need to explain later what it is that you did. I believe the least one can do is offer an afterword, setting out where the facts end and the fiction takes over.
Through the vehicle of story, I think it is possible to lead reluctant minds to consider our earlier selves. People who would not pick up a narrative history book will perhaps pick up a novel and find their interest engaged by predicaments from the past. I really believe in following the line of fact as far as it leads, to make a good strong scaffolding for the imaginative enterprise. Then, when you come to the place where that line of fact frays and disappears, I let imagination take over.

L: Your husband is a fellow Pulitzer-winner, and is also an author of a well-received book on the Civil War. We’re looking forward to having you here together in January. To what extent do your literary interests and convictions overlap? To what extent do they differ?

GB: We started out as newspaper reporters together, united in the service of fact. Tony continues to write factual books; he says I’ve “gone over to the dark side,” as he puts it, “making stuff up.” He’s an enthusiastic reader of fiction, though, so that makes him a great first reader for me. He’s very impatient– if a novel doesn’t grab him he won’t keep reading. That’s helpful to me: to see if my early drafts can pass the “Tony Test.” (more…)

Intensity of Illusion:
a conversation with Barry Unsworth

06/28/2008  by Arlo Haskell  2 Comments

Barry Unsworth

Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in Durham, England. He is the author of fifteen published novels and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Three of his books– Pascali’s Island (1980), Morality Play (1995), and Sacred Hunger (1992)– were shortlisted for Britain’s premier literary honor, the Man Booker Prize; Sacred Hunger won the Booker in 1993. Unsworth’s sixteenth book, Land of Marvels, a historical novel set in Mesopotamia on the eve of World War I, will be published in January, 2009. He will deliver the John Hersey Memorial Address at the Seminar on January 15. Unsworth lives today in rural Italy with Aira, his wife. In this installment of our ongoing interview series, Barry Unsworth talks about the effects of expatriate life, of aging, and the role historical fiction plays in understanding our past and our present.


Littoral: What are you working on now?

Barry Unsworth: I have a new novel in mind, but I haven’t started seriously working on it yet. I am at that very early– and very pleasant– stage, when the idea is exciting and the sense of potential very great, and there is none of that feeling of inadequacy that will come with the attempt to put the words down, an inadequacy in oneself and in the resources of language, experienced every time and always forgotten again. The novel will be set in contemporary Rome and will try to deal with some of the masks and mythologies of that extraordinary city in the course of its long life, and with the fortunes of a cosmopolitan group of Roman residents.
I have lived here in rural Italy for the last 16 years. It has affected me in certain ways– affected the way I write and what I write about, and the way I view the world. A beautiful country and likeable, highly gifted people, betrayed by their own history of disunity and the weakness of state institutions. Corruption, the abuse of power, intricate connections between politics, business and organized crime– I suppose you find these things everywhere, but you find them here in spectacular fashion.

L: As a novelist, you’ve often chosen historical settings over contemporary ones. Why do you choose to write historical fiction?


BU: I don’t think it has been so much a choice as a sort of gradual process determined by accidents of circumstance– like many things in life, I suppose. I spent most of the ’60s, when I was starting to try to write novels, living and working in Greece and Turkey. These are countries where the ancient past is interfused with the daily present, and I remember being struck with wonder at the constant sense of continuity and connection, the reminders that lie in wait for you at every turn. The seed was there, I think, but I didn’t start writing historical fiction until much later. Pascali’s Island (1980), which was my sixth novel, was the first to be set in the past.
Nowadays I go to Britain relatively rarely and for short periods; in effect, I have become an expatriate. The result has been a certain loss of interest in British life and society and a very definite loss of confidence in my ability to register the contemporary scene there– the kind of things people say, the styles of dress, the politics etc.– with sufficient subtlety and accuracy. So I have turned to the past. The great advantage of this, for a writer of my temperament at least, is that one is freed from a great deal of surface clutter. One is enabled to take a remote period and use it as a distant mirror (to borrow Barbara Tuchman’s phrase), and so try to say things about our human condition– then and now– which transcend the particular period and become timeless.

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