We, at The Nervous Breakdown, take writing very seriously (for the most part) but the 2010 Limerick Contest promptly dropped those drawers and put an archaic poetic idiomatic form to task with contemporary quills scrawling away with some, well, compelling results. Yes, the institution of the beginning and ending “C” regulation did provide a sturdy challenge (thank you, Satan) for some and for others, a downright study in frustration.

As you may know—but may not, because of my Scorpio predilection for Dick Cheney-level secrecy—I am a semi-professional astrologer.*For many months, I have been quietly collecting birth data from TNB contributors** whenever the topic came up on the comment boards, a sort of horoscopical scavenger hunt that netted quite a few charts for my burgeoning collection.

Although Jess Walter’s been churning out top-shelf fiction for almost a decade—he’s a National Book Award finalist and an Edgar Award winner, for Pete sake—I was turned on to his work fairly recently, when his fifth and most recent novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets, came out last year.

“Buzzed about” are words used so frequently in Book Land that they have lost their meaning, but Financial Lives was buzzed about so incessantly that it managed to attract the (generally deficient) attention of Yours Truly, who, at the time, had been living for a good five years under the contemporary-fiction rock so many bitterly unpublished novelists occupy.

Nick Hornby tweeted that Financial Lives was the funniest novel he’d read that year. Unsurprisingly, I found that Hornby was right.  But it’s not just the humor, sidesplittingly LOLZ-infused though it is, that blew me away here. Walter’d managed to write a novel that was so current it seemed like it was written two hours ago, if not two hours from now. Twitter novels feel less immediate. And no amount of joviality and wit can adequately soften the blow of the grim realities he’s writing about. Financial Lives is, like the pot the protagonist Matt Prior smokes, some serious shit.

Reading backward through his catalog — and feeling like a dolt for having not been hip to him before now — I found that Financial Lives was no fluke. The Zero, 2006’s National Book Award finalist, is the best piece of “9/11” fiction I’ve yet encountered, but classifying it as such does the book a disservice.  Citizen Vince won the Edgar for best mystery novel in 2005, but to confine it to the “mystery” genre is misleading; how many mystery novels devote entire chapters to the interior monologues of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan?  And Over Tumbled Graves and Land of the Blind, his first two novels, are much more than well-told tales of cops and criminals.

 

 

Walter is one of those novelists who defy, if not outright thumb their nose at, genre classification. Clearly “literary,” his work tends to revolve around law enforcement and crime, and thus tends to baffle those who seek to label fiction books.

“I think suspense should be like any other color in a writer’s palette,” he remarked in an interview with Playboy literary editor Alice Grace Lloyd. “I suppose I’m in the minority, but I think it’s crazy for ‘literary fiction’ to divorce itself from stories that are suspenseful, and assign anything with cops or spies or criminals to some genre ghetto…When the newspapers every day are filled with stories of surveillance, torture, and suicide bombings, I don’t think it’s in the novelist’s best interest to ignore these things or make them backdrops to some domestic story about middle-aged rich people coming to terms with their mortality (‘The parties that season were especially grim.’).”

Or this nugget from the “P.S.” section of Citizen Vince: “I find it odd that literary writers can go slumming in the genre ghettos, but the gate so rarely swings the other way. A few years ago, McSweeney’s did a couple of really cool anthologies with literary writers doing horror and detective stories, but where’s the anthology with Dean Koontz and James Patterson writing New Yorker-style stories in which a husband quietly seethes over his wife’s flirtation with her therapist?”

Instead of Patterson-as-Franzen, I’m pleased to present an interview with Jess Walter:

 

 

*   *   *

 

G.O.: The first chapter of your first novel, Over Tumbled Graves, is set, appropriately, in Riverside State Park in Spokane, Washington, your hometown and current place of residence, a city you put on the literary map. Let’s clear this up once and for all: spo-CAN, or spo-CAIN?

J.W.: It’s Spo-CAN, after the Spokane Tribe, the interior Salish band displaced by missionaries and settlers onto a reservation a few miles north of the city. They referred to themselves as Spokan, which meant “Children of the Sun,” and the town was first named Spokan Falls but someone Frenched it up and dropped the “Falls” in the late 1800s.

From your descriptions in the various books, Spokane reminds me of Buffalo—second-largest city in the state; unappreciated and underrated; set in a place of great natural beauty, near a prominent waterfall; cool architecture; lots of snow; poised for a comeback. Ever been to Buffalo? I really like it.

Buffalo is a good call, although I’d argue Spokane has slightly better weather, and has already staged its comeback (but is too humble to realize it.) Spokane has classic second-city self-esteem issues; it lives in the shadow of Seattle, and is constantly waiting for external approval, for some up-scale chain to indicate that we’ve finally made it (If only we can get a Trader Joe’s …) I’ve taken to liking this second-city humility, its quick-to-please grounded ease, which, combined with the city’s natural beauty and matter-of-fact northwest funkiness (bike lanes everywhere!) have sparked a burgeoning art, music and writing scene. So maybe rather than Buffalo, Spokane will become Seattle’s Brooklyn.

 

 

 

Which character in the Jess Walter catalog is the closest to the real you? Besides Randy Weaver, I mean.

I love how Marilynn Robinson answered the question, Are any of these characters you? “Yes, all of them.” I feel like I’ve infected all of my characters with bits of my anxiety and world view. Matt Prior, from Financial Lives, and Clark Mason, from Land of the Blind, share some external qualities with me—I live in Matt’s house, for instance—but I think people sometimes focus too much on that stuff. I actually feel closer internally to Vince Camden and Brian Remy, especially Remy’s hapless good intentions and Vince’s sense that he may have been raised in the wrong world.

Speaking of Vince Camden, I’m convinced he cast his vote for Anderson. Am I right?

Yes. Or no. Or … I honestly imagined that I was turning my back when Vince voted for president, giving him the same privacy we’re all afforded. I get a lot of emails asking that question, and suggesting all three possibilities, that he voted for Reagan because John Gotti convinced him to and he’s at a crossroads in his life the way America was; that he voted for Anderson because he promised the woman out canvassing that he would and because he would reject both parties; and that he voted for Carter because his own journey—a kind of failed decency—mirrored that of Carter. When a woman argued about it with me at a reading once I said, “You know, I made the whole thing up so it can be whatever you and I think,” but this was a very unsettling answer for both of us.

Whose head was more fun to get inside, Jimmy Carter’s or Ronald Reagan’s?

Oh, Carter’s! I loved the idea that half the country thought Reagan was crazy and was going to lead us into a third world war and they STILL didn’t want Carter. That sort of complete rejection spoke to me … hell, as a novelist, it SANG to me … and I was fascinated by what that would mean to someone personally to be so roundly rejected. Reagan, on the other hand, was someone without much self-doubt … a tough character for a true doubt connoisseur like me to find much purchase in.

 

 

 

Elmore Leonard, in his rules for writing, says to leave out the parts that people skip. In The Zero, you do Leonard one better; you turn leaving parts out into a plot device. How did this idea develop? (The novelist in me wants to believe it was a clever way of avoiding writing transitions).

Ha! No. It was really a thematic device from the beginning, trying to find some way to indicate my country’s slippage from reality. I spent a few weeks at ground zero beginning five days after the attacks (same day the novel begins), and I kept asking myself, “How did we get HERE?” When I arrived home, I saw a sign at a furniture store, “God Bless America; New Furniture Arriving Every Day,” and I felt like I’d missed some national address in which the President said, Now we will all be crazy for a while. So I got the idea of skipping, losing the cause to my effects. I’ve written scripts and a lot of times, you’re looking for ways to truncate scenes, to get out as soon as you can. I knew it would start working when it started to feel not like a response to 9/11, but the way life feels like sometimes.

“The Zero” is what Ground Zero was called by municipal employees in the wake of 9/11. What was it like, to publish a novel about such a hot-button topic, just five years after the attacks?

Actually, I never heard anyone call Ground Zero the Zero. It was something I invented to create knowing shorthand that also contained distance from the real event.

You fooled me!

I was playing with the idea that what happened was “unspeakable,” that—at the time I wrote the novel—our reverence was such that just questioning our irrational, jingoistic reaction could get you all Dixie Chicked (the novel was published five years after, but I began working on it not long after the attacks). It’s obviously set in New York, but I never used the words New York, 9/11, World Trade Center, etc.

Right. Giuliani is never mentioned by name, nor is the since-disgraced police chief.

I did this to give the whole a dreamy inexactitude, to match Remy’s dissolution. I knew it was a tough topic, but I didn’t think of it as “hot-button” … I tend not to think at all of the reception as I’m writing. Writing is hard enough without trying to imagine what people will think of it.

 

 

 

The Financial Lives of the Poets is one of my favorite titles of all time—although when I first heard about it, I assumed it concerned Byron, Shelley, and an early-19th-century Ponzi scheme. What’s the story behind the title? How was it received?

So glad you like it, Greg. People seem to love it or hate it. Writers like it, but it’s tough for a lot of readers, for whom “poet” and “financial” are as alluring as “oral surgery” and “corporate tax code.”  The title refers to Samuel Johnson’s The Lives of the English Poets (many of the characters are named after Johnson’s old English poets, like Matthew Prior) and my idea was that news reporters were the poets of the 20th century. I liked the ironic faux-seriousness of it, the Masterpiece Theater quality, and also the rhythm of it. People warned me it would be a tough sell, but once something gets named for me, it’s like changing a kid’s name. When a poet friend heard the title, he said, Well, I know how that one ends.

In The Financial Lives of the Poets, Matt Prior says that while he’s always loved the form, modern poetry leaves him cold. “MFA’d to irrelevance,” I think was the line, if memory serves. Does Matt’s opinion mirror yours? How do you feel about poetry? Who are your favorite poets?

I love poetry, although I do feel as if the move away from narrative toward “language poetry” has alienated non-practitioners and dullards like me. My favorite poets, off the top of my head: Emily Dickenson, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, James Tate, Pablo Neruda and Robert Hass. The northwest seems to me to have an inordinate number of great poets working now, including some of my friends, and there a couple of books of poetry I’m really excited about: Chris Howell’s Dreamless and Possible and Robert Wrigley’s new collection Beautiful Country.

Although there are some common themes from your earlier work—the presence of law enforcement, for one—The Financial Lives of the Poets, to me, represents a departure for you, Bob Dylan picking up an electric guitar. It’s the only story told in first person, for starters, and while crime is involved, it is not a crime novel. Do you see it as a turning point, or just a natural progression of your writing?

I can just about guarantee that’s the first time I’ve ever been compared to Dylan! I don’t think of it as a departure. I think people generally assume writers are working with more purpose than they really are. I really just write the next book I want to read. As for first person, my second novel, Land of the Blind, is mostly first-person, and a lot of the short stories I’ve published are domestic, comic or experimental. I write everything, and to me, voice is more important than plot … I’m just a writer, and when I’m all done I hope to have contaminated the whole damn bookstore.

 

 

 

On your website, you write haiku book reviews. What would the haiku review of The Financial Lives of the Poets look like?

You don’t own this book?
The fuck’s your fuckin’ problem
Don’t like to laugh, yo?

When I read The Financial Lives of the Poets, I thought to myself, “Wow, is this good. I want to write something like this.” Your novel was very much the inspiration for Fathermucker, my second book. What inspired you to write Financial Lives? (The Jess Walter fan in me wants to believe it was because you wanted to take it to Jonathan Franzen).

Wow, thanks so much, Greg. That’s really flattering and humbling. Honestly, the biggest inspiration was a phone call from an elderly reader who mistook 9/11 in The Zero for 7-Eleven. It seemed funny to me, and apt. So I was messing around with voice and just started with this riffing character inside a 7-Eleven. And I loved the voice. After that, it was the fastest book I’ve ever written; I just sort of let it go. I think we all carry around a thousand books every time we sit down to write, and I found myself echoing little bits of Ginsburg’s Howl (waiting in line at the 7-Eleven with the “starving and sorry, the paranoid, yawning with fear”) and the overheated self-reflection of Saul Bellow’s Herzog, but there were no literary axes to grind, I’m sorry to report. Like most writers, I think my loathing tends to be healthily self-directed.

Last question: what are you working on now? (Before you answer, I should point out that a formula for runaway bestsellerhood goes something like this: Washington State + vampires = $$$$$$).

Washington vampires? Please, give me some credit. I’m writing about zombies. I’m also pulling together short stories for a collection (and there actually is a zombie story in there, along with some crime things and more than a few boring old domestic lit’ry pieces.) I’m also working on the next novel, a big comic, epic romance set in Italy, Hollywood, Edinburgh, Scotland and Sandpoint, Idaho.

 

This past week, I got a Kindle. I have not been so changed by a reading experience since Stephen King’s Needful Things, which was the book that made me realize I wanted to tell stories. It’s the sort of genius-level device that demonstrates the fact that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Truly wonderful.

Sex (I’m a…)

By Greg Olear

The Feed

Attention, New Yorkers,

On Thursday evening, September 16 — one week from today — I will be appearing at the famed “In the Flesh” erotic reading series, hosted by the inimitable Rachel Kramer Bussel.

The theme is “Virgin Night,” but I’ve been assured that Frank N. Furter lookalikes will not be pelting toast at newbies in attendance, nor will anyone be sacrificed to the dark gods.

Here are a few reasons to show up:

1.  The reading series, a mainstay on the Lower East Side, is winding down.  Because all good things must come.  To an end.  Must come to an end.  There are only four of these left.  So if you ever plan to indulge your deepest desires, now is the time.

2.  Past TNB readers at this event include Gina Frangello and Jillian Lauren. This makes me the first unsexy TNBer to appear.

3.  Joining me on the docket will be Marcy Dermansky, author of the fantastic Bad Marie (I read it. It really is fantastic.  I’m not saying that just because Gina liked it).

4. I will be reading a post that will never grace the pages of TNB.  Not something I want on the Internet. Nor will there be a recording. So if you want to hear my sort-of-sexy, sort-of-funny, sort-of-true tale, you have to show up at Happy Ending Lounge on Thursday.

5.  Free admission.

6.  Free cupcakes.

Here are the deets:

IN THE FLESH EROTIC READING SERIES
VIRGIN NIGHT
September 16, 2010, 7:30 pm – 10 pm
AT HAPPY ENDING LOUNGE, 302 BROOME STREET, NYC
(B/D to Grand, J/M/Z to Bowery, F to Delancey or F/V to 2nd Avenue, )
Between Forsyth & Eldridge. Look for the hot pink awning that says “XIE HE Health Club.”
Admission: Free
Happy Ending Lounge: 212-334-9676

Featuring Logan Belle, author of a forthcoming burlesque romance series, erotica writer Megan Butcher (contributor, Best Bondage Erotica 2011), novelist Marcy Dermansky (Bad Marie), novelist Lee Houck (Yield), Greg Olear (Totally Killer), Moshe Shulman (“The Wise One”) and Can’t Help the Way That I Feel: Sultry Stories of African American Love, Lust and Fantasy editor Lori Bryant-Woolridge and contributors Sasha James and Erika J. Kendrick (Appetites, Confessions of a Rookie Cheerleader). Hosted by Rachel Kramer Bussel (Fast Girls, Please, Sir, Please, Ma’am). 100 free copies of Sexis Magazine will be distributed. Free Baked by Melissa cupcakes, candy and chips will be served. This is the countdown to the final In The Flesh December 16th so don’t miss a very special night!


Introduction

My name is James D. Irwin, and after being alive for over two decades I feel incomplete. I don’t feel as though I really know myself, and I think that’s a major obstacle in my development as a rounded, confident young man.

How can you pretend to know anything about the world if you don’t even know who you are? I mean, who you really are. We get told things like where we come from and how old we are etc, etc, but we don’t really know. We don’t come from wherever we were born; we come from our pasts, our history, and our heritage.

With this in mind I set out to investigate the real James D. Irwin— the enigmatic genetic make up that makes a humanoid, carbon-based life form so much more than the sum of its biological parts.

I will question everything and leave no stone unturned to discover just who the fuck I really am.


How Old Am I?

Although we can only prove that we’re really, really alive by releasing adrenaline or feeling pain, there are also birth certificates which prove we’re alive in a less philosophical and more legal sense.

Mine says that I was born in 1989, which means that I am, in the chronological sense, twenty-one years old.

However, Greg Olear repeatedly insists that I am in fact fifteen years of age. Scientific studies prove that if you hear something enough times you begin to accept it as fact. There are also scientific studies which say the memory is inherently unreliable so I may be making up that study, or simply inventing in my mind numerous instances where Greg exaggerates my youth. The upshot of all this means that it may or may not be true.

Then there are my behavioural traits, which must be taken into account:

I often sit in my pyjamas watching cartoons, eating cereal and watching cartoons like a six year old, yet I also like drinking scotch in quiet pubs like an eighty-five year old.

Finally we come to the theory of age put forth by the controversial philosopher Groucho Marx who believes ‘you’re only as old as the woman you feel.’

Unfortunately I am not currently feeling any women, so there is no data available.

We then add these figures together and divide them by the number of figures for an average.

So, that’s 21, 15, 6, and 85.

The cold hard maths:

21+15+6+85= 127.

There are four figures, so we divide 127 by 4.

Conclusion: I am in fact a little over thirty-one years of age.

Am I a man or a woman?

Initially this would seem to be quite simple: I have slight facial hair and I don’t have breasts. But then I watched a female athletics event with my grandmother and discovered it was perfectly possibly to be a woman without breasts, or despite having a moustache.

My old neighbours, both younger than six, used to ask me why I wore ‘girl shoes’, ‘girl trousers’ and why I had ‘girl hair.’ They make a compelling argument: I wear boots, flared jeans and I have long hair— all quite feminine characteristics.

I also own a lot of scarves, I’m quite thin and I’m no taller than 5’8. It does seem entirely plausible that I was a taller-than-average woman.

However, I do have extremely hairy legs and a penis with all the biological accessories you might expect (scrotum, pubes etc).

Conclusion: In the face of overwhelming biological evidence I can rationally conclude that I am a man; a fairly effeminate, skinny man, but a man nonetheless.

Where do I come from?

Once again we can turn to official documentation for this, documentation that claims I am English.

However, that’s merely a technicality based on the fact that I was dragged into the world in a hospital in Swindon that has since been demolished. For example, the actress Sienna Miller was born in New York and holds an American passport, but is no more American than she is Azerbaijani. It’s family origins that count, the legs you crawled out of— not wherever those legs were at a time. Otherwise babies delivered by water birth could go around telling everyone that they’re mermaids.

My family history can be traced back to Germany, Ireland, the north of England and the West Country.

I have a reasonable claim to being German— I love sausages, potatoes, beer, Claudia Schiffer and the song 99 Red Balloons by Nena. However, Ireland produces a lot of beer, sausages and potatoes, as does England. I also only like the English language version of Nena’s 1984 hit single.

Although I have German blood and I like a lot of what the country has to offer— mostly women who were incredibly attractive twenty years ago— the main Germanic traits I possess can also be attributed to my English and Irish ancestry. In short all I have learnt about myself is that I like beer and pork, like most men from Western civilization. There is nothing in my personality that is uniquely German, and I don’t much care for David Hasselhoff— Knight Rider doesn’t even compare to Magnum P.I.

So I must turn to Ireland and England and study those cultures to see which is closest to the man I think I am/wish to be/seek to become.

My family name is Irish. I know it’s an Irish name because there’s a soda bread company that shares my family name and soda bread is as Irish as being turned away from a job in 19th century New York. There was also a footballer called Dennis Irwin who played for Manchester United and the Republic of Ireland. And sure enough my family tree goes back to the early 1800s where the Irwin family are potato farming in County Mayo, Ireland.

However, I visited a Genealogy institute in Dublin a few years ago and was told that ‘Irwin’ is not an Irish name, and although having Celtic origins, it is closer to the Welsh ‘Owen’ and the Scottish name ‘Irvine.’ Apparently I’m no more Irish than a giant novelty Guinness hat. As with my German ancestry it doesn’t matter how much pork and potato I eat, or how much beer I drink, it doesn’t count for anything.

At some point during the potato famine from 1845-1852 the Scottish or Welsh conmen masquerading as potato farmers and calling themselves the Irwin’s moved across the water to Manchester, England. They probably spent most of that time building roads and doing other things associated with the Irish of that time just to fit in and keep up the whole ‘being Irish’ charade.

Eventually the family settled in the West Country, which is interesting. Firstly, because there was a lot of potato farming in the area and secondly because it’s very, very close to the Welsh border.

So far it’s all fairly inconclusive; I don’t think I’m any closer to discovering my true heritage. Although I think I have discovered something important about my family DNA…

We’ve moved again, this time to Cambridgeshire. We’re very close to a turnip farm, whilst the house itself was originally built for the farm workers who used to live in the area. A quick look at the history of the property shows that the majority of the families who have lived in this property have been farmers— potato farmers.

The Irwin’s cannot escape the ghosts of their potato farming past.

Conclusion: The only heritage I have is the heritage of potato farming. I am essentially descended from Welsh or Scottish con artists who spent centuries pretending to be Irish, presumably for the pure love of farming potatoes; they only left Ireland when the spuds ran out.

What is my purpose?

I’m interpreting this as my purpose in life— not so much in the sense as why I’m here on this, the third rock from the Sun, drifting in an ape descended civilization that tries to find meaning and purpose from concepts ranging from religion to spider solitaire— more in the sense of which social mechanism I am a cog in. Am I a big cog? Is my cog used often? Will I be a cog that fails to function in old age?

In other words: what profession do I fit into?

Like Randy Bachman I am self-employed, working at nothing all day aside from occasionally attending to business that needs takin’ care of.

Or to put in another way, I’m unemployed.

I prefer ‘between jobs.’

I have done work, but failed to achieve professionalism in most fields. For example my work here and in other publications has never earned me anything but kind words, good will and a paragraph on my C.V. I am not a writer, writing is not my profession— it’s merely a hobby I have like stamp collecting or masturbation.

I used to help out at my mum’s old hardware shop, but only manning the till in times of necessity. My duties earned little more than insincere praise and maybe a biscuit from the back if I was lucky. I also did work experience at a hotel, but as it was work experience it was unpaid. I also walked out after a few days because the manager was a bastard— the hotel would later be featured on TV’s ‘Hotels From Hell.’

However, I did work experience at an estate agency and I got paid for that. It was my job to file new properties and ‘un-file’ old ones. I was pretty good at it, so I was rewarded with a ten pound note.

The only thing I have ever been paid for is stand up comedy.

I haven’t done it in a while, but science clearly says I’m an out of work comedian with a sideline working in real estate.


General Conclusions

I wanted to find out who I really was in as I found myself both directionless and at a crossroads. I felt that I could only truly evolve into my true self by knowing who that was.

And it’s been a huge help. The biggest surprise for me was discovering that I was already a professional comedian. I haven’t performed for years, and thought I never would again. Before I undertook this research I’d been thinking about making ‘a comeback’ and with the benefit of this knowledge I can proceed with confidence.

And a lot of comedy comes from identity, and now I can shape my ‘comedic persona’ by drawing on my true self— a thirty-one year old Welsh potato farmer with a taste for trashy ‘80s Europop.

Before this research I only felt like half a man— half directionless young man, half genealogical enigma. In unlocking that enigma I have unlocked the other half of myself; I have unleashed the ‘real me.’

Now, who wants some mashed potato and a joke?

These are the moments in time that stand out when I first think of New York City.

– hearing the street vendor who looked like he should have been breaking legs for Jimmy Hoffa, with the rich, Bronx-rounded voice of Pennywise the Clown, selling, of all things, bubble guns. He breaks certain words through the middle, like a boat bridge opening to let the river of people hustling along the sidewalk through underneath. As it just so happens, I commit his speech to memory instantly.

The drive from East Randolph to New Paltz was, I think, one of my favourite legs of the trip. It’s not often you get the chance to use the word ‘verdant’ and not come across like something of a tool, but verdant is the word to describe the woods that line the roads as you hook out east over peaceful highways that, more often than not, you have to yourself.

You could get lost out here, and be happy for doing so.

In his debut novel The Futurist, James P. Othmer demonstrates a talent for biting satire, gorgeous prose, and dark humor that, to me, calls to mind another ad-man-cum-novelist, Joseph Heller.  Holy Water, his prescient new novel, does nothing to alter my impression.

Jason Chambers, writing at 3G1B and here, calls Holy Water a “fine book: funny, smart and strangely hopeful for revolution.”  I agree, and I’ll add that I wish more writers shared Othmer’s ability to so ruthlessly and engagingly portray the patent absurdity of corporate America.

I chatted with Othmer last week.  Here is a transcript of our far-ranging discussion:


*****

G.M.O.: Holy Water is probably the first work of lit fiction to reference Spoon on the first page.

J.P.O.: Are you sure someone in Austin didn’t get to it earlier, perhaps in the acks?

I wouldn’t know…I’m not that hip.

Me neither. I rely on much younger friends for that kind of stuff. For all I know, Spoon is a polka band.

I’m more of a Kenny Rogers guy

Nothing wrong with Kenny Rogers.

I wondered if you had music informants.

I have friends who come over and give me burned CDs in exchange for exotic beer and my bitter world view.

Sounds like a fair trade to me. So what’s your favorite exotic beer? Any recommendations?

I’m liking the Capt. Lawrence out of Pleasantville. Anything Dog Fish Head works for me. I’m all about the high alcohol content, until I vomit.

And once you vomit?

Once I vomit, it’s strictly Coors Light and Kenny Rogers.

A match made in heaven, if heaven is Branson, Missouri. But we digress. Henry Tuhoe, your protagonist, has very hip taste in tunes.  Do you?

I love music, but I know so many people for whom it’s a religion. I envied their obsession and occasionally their taste, and I wanted my protagonist to have that sort of relationship with, as the kids say, the hip music folks. Similar to my relationship with books.

You convey that nicely.

Thanks. Showing one’s music cred on her sleeve seems to be more popular with Gen Xers, but if the recommendations are good, brag away. Again, I’m the same way with books, not necessarily being an aficionado, but constantly looking for recommendations from others.

I think it’s also something that men of our age do to retain their perceived youth…the Gen X equivalent of buying a convertible.

Which is why I’m talking to you, hip writer of books and player of Kubb.

I am so not hip, but it’s nice of you to say so.

 

 

Kubb was a revelation. I never realized how much fun it was to throw wood at other pieces of wood. Anyway, I want Henry’s iPod.

I believe Henry’s iPod is now in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.

It deserves a better final resting place than Cleveland. Yates, the eponymous futurist of your first novel, is almost a superhero. A superhero in crisis, sure, but an alpha male. Henry Tuhoe, on the other hand, the protagonist of Holy Water, is a nebbish, a paradigmatic beta male. Where on that spectrum does James P. Othmer fall?

I’m a flawed super hero. Like Captain Bedwetter or something. Or a bit of both, because both represent in a lot of ways, two diametrically opposed sort of worse-case scenario versions of me.

I can see that. There’s definitely commonalities between Yates and Henry.

Well they’re both completely disillusioned with where their life has taken them. Henry’s “conscientious fulfillment of limited expectations” and Yates’s crises of conscience.

Your characters travel to far-flung places How much actual travel have you done? Have you ever been to the Himalayas, or Greenland?

The good part about the soul-selling ad-guy portion of my life is I got to travel quite a bit. However, not Greenland or the fictional kingdom of Galado. Galado, by the way, is a combo of Swift’s Lagado and Bhutan.

Were you in Bhutan?

Alas, no. I was trying to get a magazine I was writing for, Conde Nast Portfolio, to spring for the trip to do a piece on Gross National Happiness. But my editor got fired while I was doing a piece on the ad festival at Cannes and the magazine went under soon after. Would’ve been sweet.

So how did you research it?

Henry did what I did. Google. Lonely Planet. Some incredibly poorly produced travel videos…lack of travel money (post advertising) has forced me to invent countries rather than visit them. And it’s a lot of fun. Soon I will have to take it to the next level and, you know, rule one.

It would be fun to be a dictator. And I hear you about the lack of travel. Although we do get to Connecticut occasionally.

Connecticut is the next Prague.

Ha! The prince of Galado reminded me of a cross between one of the princes in Syriana and the Ben Stiller character in Dodgeball. And I mean that as a complement

And a little Kim Jong Il, at least the version I saw in Team America. Sometimes I wonder if I’m crossing the line with absurdity, but then I turn on the news.

 

I was just discussing with my friends how Kim Jong Il really did a great job reading 1984 and making it a reality.

Except for the nuclear capability and the sneak attacks on South Korean subs, he’s sort of awesome.

He sure makes my heart go pitter-pat.

If he’s still alive, that is.

He does this bad-ass despot stuff, but manages to look like a drag queen Dr. No.

Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong Il seem to have the same stylist.

Ken Pavès, is what I heard—the guy who does Jessica Simpson’s hair.

Don’t pick on her. Poor girl’s been through so much. How dare you, John Mayer!

 

I may be confusing my U.S. News with my US Weekly.

Doesn’t matter. Both will be out of print by August. You read it here, first.

I don’t get the appeal of John Mayer…or Justin Timberlake, either, for that matter.

I just hope I live long enough to see the broken down, lonely, sexless versions of Mayer and Timberlake. Though JT is a surprisingly funny dude.

Yeah, he is funny. I’ll grant him that. I just wish he were nicer to poor Jessica Biel. Maybe it’s the name “Jessica” that somehow attracts bad boyfriends? As for the broken-down Mayer, that will also happen by August.

We’ve really gone high-brow here, huh?

Yeah, we should probably leave John Mayer to wither into sexless obscurity and get back to the matter at hand. Holy Water opens with a river on fire; basically, oil on the water has burst into flames. Eerily prescient, as that could happen in the Gulf any day now.

Yeah. Bad news for humanity. But great for me and my 1631 readers. What’s happening in the Gulf is what’s happening in my magical kingdom of Galado. Corporate hubris and neglect run amok.

Yup. Colin Powell, for one, spoke about water as the new oil, in that future wars will concern water.

I didn’t know the Colin Powell line, but I believe it.

It’s amazing, when you stop and think about it, that the one most integral thing we need for survival falls out of the fucking sky.

I liked the idea of having water as a theme, something natural and abundant and free being polluted and sold and fought over and, in the case of Holy Water, bottled and sold through a back-office call center in a draught-plagued nation.

I read an article in The New Yorker a few years back about how the Southwest U.S. will have huge problems with water supply in the years to come—that dividing the states into pleasant shapes, the way they did, rather than creating borders based on water supply, was a terrible idea (although great for kids’ U.S. state puzzles).

I read that article as well. Chinatown was ahead of the curve on that.

“The water commissioner drowns during a drought…only in L.A.”

In fact, the history of the town I live in, Mahopac, was corrupted by water. In 1871 neighborhoods were moved to make way for reservoir to provide H2O to New York City, and Boss Tweed had his corrupt fingers all over it.

That happened a lot upstate. Whole towns were drowned to build the reservoirs.

Ashokan, right? I have an abandoned novel that is set in that period. I like it, and there’s not one joke in the whole thing.

I think it’d be a fertile topic for a novel. The idea of saying goodbye to a hometown, forever. Sad and kind of creepy.

My dead book starts with a house being pulled by horse and capstan through a valley, on timbers.

I don’t know what a capstan is.

John Mayer does.

He’s going to need to, as his career is toast in a few weeks. But enough about water shortages, corporate corruption, and ruination of mankind…let’s talk about big boobs.

Stay classy, New Paltz.

Meredith, your book’s most buxom character and its emotional center…

Meredith, killer admin by day, big boob web goddess by night…

She’s Joan Holloway for the 21st century.

 

 

She has a great speech I’m too lazy to look up, about how the societal role of men is in flux.

Her speech does make some salient points about the state of modern man. A friend of mine was the head of research for Leo Burnett in Chicago and they conducted a world wide man study…

That sounds like a reality show.

She spoke to thousands of men in dozens of countries and was kind enough to share.

Masculinity is a theme in Holy Water. For example, there is much talk of vasectomies. I see the vasectomy as a rite of passage for fathers of a certain age, not unlike the self-mutilation ceremonies performed by some primitive tribes at puberty, perhaps also in Galado. At the risk of getting too personal: have you been snipped?

Well, Greg, no. I haven’t been snipped (the book’s original title, by the way)…

Wimp.

…but it certainly was in the suburban air in my part of the world and I thought it made for an interesting flash point. Have you had breast reduction surgery?

I made Jonathan swear never to tell anyone!

Does he perform that as well?

Evison does everything. I think he practices on the rabbits.

I hope I got my snipped facts right. I certainly had a lot of access to those who were, who will and who might. Some of whom were also my music muses.

I have, in fact, been snipped. It’s very much not a big deal, although it did bring up a lot of stuff for me beforehand. I think you do a nice job conveying that sense of anxiety.

Thanks. I’m a chameleon when it comes to conveying anxiety.

We’re at 2000 words, so we should probably wrap this up.

Depressing, especially in light of the fact that I’ve written about 500 in the first 6 hours of today.

What’s next for you? Book tour? Movie deal? Extradition to Galado?

I’m working on a novel about the financial world.

This makes me happy. I think you have a keen insight into the business world that many fiction writers lack, and I’m psyched for the next one.

Oddly, not a huge book tour in the U.S. I did a lot for Adland and have decided to write instead of self promote. Which is not at all like me. However, while I’ve been invited to exactly zero writer’s festivals or conferences in the U.S., I’ve been asked to attend three in Australia this summer. Bringing the whole family, which means I’ll lose about $5k by the end of August.

We novelists do live high on the hog. Well, have fun Down Under. And thanks for stopping by TNB.

Well thanks, and thanks for having me. Love TNB. Whatever the hell that is.


These days, it can be hard to believe in corporate publishing.The proliferation of pink-covered chick-lit beach reads, of C-list celebrity memoirs, of “literary fiction” seeming to have morphed into “morally inspirational books that appeal to middle-aged-lady book clubs”—well, it’s enough to all but make a girl give up on the galleys she receives from the Big Boys of New York publishing.I mean, sure, the occasional intimidatingly-smart, ultra-hip book by a twenty-or-thirtysomething white boy with shaggy hair still slips in among the drivel now and again to give us all a thrill; sure every year or so one or two foreign-born writers get championed as that season’s exotic thrill . . . but these moments can seem not only fewer and further between, but somewhat repetitive in and of themselves.Is there, for god’s sake, anything new and daring happening at the big conglomerates these days?

In a scenario reminiscent of My Dinner With Andre, only with way less creepy background music and little or no Wallace Shawn, two Nervous Breakdown newcomers utilize the cold war-era concept of the “face to face chat” in a likely misguided effort to push beyond the personal essay format. Daly, already a TNB darling due to his heavily reported dust-up with Wally Lamb, and Beaudoin, still reeling from the announcement of David Coverdale’s defamation lawsuit, come together for a wide-ranging discussion on a number of subjects. They each arrived armed with three pre-prepared questions in case things hopelessly flagged, but the idea was to wing it as much as possible. No topics were off limits and no feelings were spared. So here it is: unedited, unexpurgated, and without a single national security redaction:

Sean Beaudoin: (sliding into a booth in which Joe Daly is already comfortably ensconced. An awkward male-bonding slap-five handshake-y thing follows) So, this diner is a little on the sleazy side. Just the way I like it. But I’m guessing you took a pass on the eggs benedict.

Joe Daly: Food poisoning changes your perspective on everything.

SB: Our waitress looks exactly like Endora from Bewitched. If you don’t get that reference, I’m even older than I thought.

JD: You’re barking up the right tree, brother. I remember both Darrins. And they were both Dicks.

SB: They were, weren’t they? Dick Sargent and…

JD: Dick York.

SB: There used to be a bar in San Francisco called Doctor Bombay’s.

JD: Nice!

SB: Actually, it was good place to get punched in the neck by some guy who decided you stole his bar change.

JD: Yanno, the last time I was in San Francisco, some guy tried to pick a fight with me.  Has it always been a big fighting town, or was it just me?

SB: I think there are just certain places where it’s unwise to stare at the expensive vodkas, mostly because they’re full of people who see your back as an opportunity.

JD: Have you ever been in the mafia?

SB: Lipstick or Trenchcoat?

JD: Either.  Your comment about sitting with your back facing people made me wonder. That’s the thing about TNB- we really don’t know much about each other. That’s the royal “we” by the way.

SB: It’s true. I sort of feel like I know you through post-osmosis. But in reality, I know absolutely nothing about you. I guess that’s why we’re sitting here. I’m going to take out my folded piece of paper with three questions on it now.

JD: I’m keeping mine in my pocket until the last possible second. My list of questions, that is.

SB: Okay, here’s the first one: let’s talk about the ubiquity of Joe. It seems like every post I read, you’ve already commented on it. Which I mostly take to mean you’re really conscientious about participating in the TNB model, as opposed to just slinging your own work up and basking in the glory. Do you feel an obligation to make the rounds, or do you just really dig the give and take?

JD: (pulling fake pencil from behind ear and leaning over napkin) Hold on-I need to write down “The Ubiquity of Joe.” If I ever record a folk album, I now have a title. I just need the Irish sweater and kinky hair.

SB: I can see the cover. You’re on a stool in a pirate’s jacket with a banjo, doing tunes from David Crosby’s solo album. Which I’ve actually listened to, by the way. Every single song is called something like Ecology, Ecology, Mustache, Drugs. Or Morocco, Booze, Mustache, Freedom.

JD: Classics.

SB: Anyway, I know “ubiquity” might sound sort of negative, but I’m trying to say I think it’s kind of an excellent thing.

JD: How so?

SB: Just that there’s a certain sort of “writerly cool” that requires being all enigmatic and not putting yourself out too much, trading ironic for earnest, not being willing to say things if they’re not always “brilliant”…  I see you out there sort of just being supportive and I like it. It’s anti-cool. It’s zero-hipster.

JD: (chuckling) I’m like the Hootie of TNB. No, I mean, I realize some people might think it’s sort of a yahoo thing to do-to consistently comment. But I really appreciate the feedback when I publish something, so I want make sure I’m supporting other writers in the same way. Personally, I find virtually all comments on my pieces to be enormously helpful-at the very least it brings my attention to what caught their eye, good or bad, and what they related to on some level. And you?

SB: At first I felt weird commenting beneath my own pieces, like I was fluffing the totals. But I got over it. And I really like the dialogue. It forced me to think about the entire process in a different way. That whole dynamic of “I am the writer, you are the reader, there will remain a wall of silent genius between us.” Totally subverting that.

JD: I hear you. My first thought on commenting on my pieces was that it was a pretty slavish way of pimping yourself out. Then some other writers suggested to me that actively commenting on your pieces was a good thing because it drives discussion and brings readers deeper into the piece, as well as the TNB community. Let’s face it-the Bible is online, the complete works of Shakespeare, most of the Garfield cartoon strips. There are some pretty good options for readers looking to kill time on the internet. I think that for people to spend their time reading a piece on TNB is deserving of some grateful acknowledgment, in my opinion. Oh, and yes-I just implied that I’m bigger than Jesus.

SB: You are. My oatmeal is bathed in loving light.

JD: I wish I ordered oatmeal. Maybe I’ll try to multiply yours.

SB: Can you multiply me a coffee refill, too? Okay, here’s my second prepared question: Writing about music is easy in a way, because almost all of us have spent our lives immersed in it, and also pretty impossible, since almost all of us have spent our lives immersed in it.

JD: Exactly.

SB: So there’s pretty much not a single thing you can say-“I love Rush, I hate Rush”-that won’t be considered by someone to be not only ill-informed, but actively offensive. So why take that whole package on?

JD: (briefly considering) Writing about music isn’t the most original endeavor. We music obsessives all suffer from the delusion that our passion is unique in intensity and/or variety. In reality, the only thing unique is probably our album collections, which are like snowflakes-no two are exactly the same. When I crawl into an album or a band’s catalog, sometimes a theme pops up, or I find myself struggling with the question of “what it is about THIS music that makes me feel this way, when this other music doesn’t?” And next thing I know, I’m writing about it. Know what I mean?

SB: I do. Except I tend to ignore that compulsion. To write about it. To me it’s like covering a Pro Choice rally. There’s two groups of people with signs and bullhorns, a bunch of nervous cops, and no possibility of convincing anyone of anything.

JD: Speaking of convincing, you used to write for The Onion. How in the world did that happen?

SB: I pitched the SF city editor an idea and he liked it. Never thought I’d hear back from him. They were desperate, obviously.

JD: Did you just come up with an individual story idea and send it to him, or was your idea to write a regular column?

SB: I pitched him “How to Spend Christmas Day Alone” which was essentially about being that guy who doesn’t have the cash to fly back to his parents’ in Cleveland like the rest of his roommates. The idea being, okay, here’s a list of places you can go to stag in hopes of warding off the crippling depression.

JD: So what’s open?

SB: Um, not much. The Avis rental car counter. Walgreens. I advised stealing lots of candy, getting caught, and spending the day with friends in jail. Also, David Brenner does a comedy night at this Chinese restaurant in North Beach every year. Which sounds almost like jail. After that I kept pitching the idea that SF really needed a sarcastic weekly sports column. And they finally agreed. As it turns out, it wasn’t at all what SF needed.

JD: What happened?

SB: I got canned.

JD: Sexual harassment?

SB: I wish. No, like two days after Lehman Brothers ate it, the SF and LA offices were shuttered. I’d just finished my column and the editor calls and says “don’t bother to send it in this week.” That’s more or less the last I heard from them.

JD: (reaching into pocket for notebook) I guess this brings me to my first pre-prepared question: In the cultural juggernaut Road House, Patrick Swayze’s character Dalton imparts nuggets of wisdom to friends and enemies like “Pain don’t hurt,” and “Go fuck yourself,” to name a few. Ok, in one of Buddhism-lite lectures, he tells the battle-weary staff of the Double Deuce, “I want you to remember that it’s a job. It’s nothing personal.” Is it possible for a writer to follow this advice?

SB: (Crossing fingers over chin in a Zen manner) Well, you probably remember that just before the climactic fight scene, the bad guy tells Swayze “I used to fuck guys like you for breakfast in prison. That’s pretty much my writing motto.

JD: It’s all starting to fall into place.

SB: Not to mention the 26-point Helvetica banner I have tattooed across my back…

JD: I’m sorry, but I’m going to need to see that.

SB: Obviously you’ve done a little research, and I appreciate you slyly bringing up Road House. Yeah, the lead character in my next book is named “Dalton.” And, yes, it’s an homage to Swayze.

JD: People are going to think you’re kidding. But you’re not, are you?

SB: Nope. It’s called You Killed Wesley Payne. But let’s talk about how Brad Listi called you and me onto the carpet of his mahogany-lined Fifth Avenue office last week.

JD: Good idea. We haven’t had a chance to break it down yet.

SB: So, after the usual niceties, he essentially told us-

JD: -to shape the fuck up.

SB: Yes, but also, if we did get our act together, we had the potential to be the Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry of this year’s TNB freshman class.

JD: Right.

SB: You seemed to think he was warning us not to stay up all night doing coke with Lenny Dykstra/Greg Olear anymore. I sort of thought he was trying to tell us to enjoy this time of innocence, because it doesn’t last.

JD: Seriously? I’ve been having a blast at TNB. It’s like a literary Lollapalooza. But without the eight dollar bottles of water and overflowing port-a-potties.

SB: You’ve mentioned you’re working on a book.

JD: (tenses up) Wait, is it bad luck to talk about a book that you’re still writing?

SB: Yes, and now the thing is doomed. Even so, what’s it about? What are your wildest expectations for it?

JD: The book is a direct consequence of TNB. I know it sounds trite, but the author community really inspired me to give it a shot. Being outside the literary world, I always had the idea that all novelists were pretentious and unapproachable-

SB: Aren’t they?

JD:-and riddled with fear and sarcasm. But most of the authors at TNB seem down to earth, passionate about the writing process, and sincere in participating in a community vibe. I realized I could either keep doing the one-off pieces and being a hired gun for other artists, or I could take on the challenge and see what I’m all about…the book will deal with music, which means that any expectations I have for it are hellaciously modest. In a genre populated with Nick Hornby, Chuck Klosterman, and Michael Azerrad, I have no pretensions that I’m going to burst onto the scene.

SB: The scene could use some bursting. You could be the new Klosterchuck.

JD: I’ll just be happy to get it published and read by a few people whose opinions I respect….(suddenly laughing) um, excuse me, Miss? Yes, waitress? Did we really order all these cliches?

SB: She’s like, “fuck off and tip me already, you guys are camping at my best table.

JD: Here’s my next written question, while we’re on the subject: You’re quite a music aficionado, seemingly across a number of genres. One of which is apparently jazz, which is sort of like the absinthe of music-few dare to sample it for fear that they won’t understand the experience. Even established musicians can be intimidated by the unfamiliar scales and chord progressions. What does jazz do for you and is it possible to discuss it without sounding pretentious?

SB: It’s unfortunate but true that you pretty much can’t talk about jazz without sounding like an asshole. Unless I meet someone who’s as much of a twitchy stalker about it as I am, I usually play dumb. There’s definitely this sense that, if you’re into Charles Mingus or Sun Ra, it must just be a bid for hipster credibility. It’s like, “there’s no way you actually listen to that for pleasure!”

JD: Right, right.

SB: But, you know, I will cop to the fact that there have been times in my life when I claimed to like things that I was actually not that into-Foucault comes to mind-because I thought it might impress people. One of the great things about getting older is completely not giving a shit anymore. I mean, if I want to waltz into Starbucks and order a triple caramel whipped cream enema, I’m going to do it and not worry what the cute barista thinks, you know?

JD: It depends how cute.

SB: And I would say that the “intimidation” aspect of jazz is probably more about the fear of looking dumb at a party than the complexity of chord changes. Even the name is sort of meaningless, because it encompasses so many different styles of music. You mean your grandma’s Artie Shaw collection? Cake walks? Hard bop? The fifteen incarnations of Miles Davis? Machito? Free Jazz? B-3 funk? Fusion-y shit?

JD: So then what’s the appeal? Does it relax you, inspire you, make you want to lay with a woman?

SB: A long time ago, and this was back in the cassette days, I worked the overnight desk shift at a hotel, and I had this one TDK of Coltrane’s Ascension which is, you know, a challenging piece of music. Seriously dissonant. People would walk into the lobby, hear it, pick up their suitcases and walk right back out again. I wore that tape down to the felt.

JD: It’s like you’re a conundrum, inside of a mystery, served next to some potato croquettes.

SB: I get bored easy. Verse, verse, chorus, solo. Turn on the radio, here’s another song about a girl you like. Here’s another song about how it sucks to be twenty and have no idea how your life will turn out. Here’s an ironic song about a toy we all grew up with. Did you really order the croquettes?

JD: I did. Out of all the world’s vegetarians, I have the worst diet by far. (gripping non-existent tofu gut). And I’m ok with that.

SB: A bunch of people I know got into a massive pixellated conflagration about Lady Gaga on Facebook last week. One side loves her, mostly for campy reasons, but still some true acolytes. The other loathes her, mostly because she doesn’t sound anything like ZZ Top. And the middle thinks arguments about musical preference need to be left in the dorm room, so grow the fuck up already. But I thought it was interesting that the main sticking point seemed to be that while some people admitted to finding her entertaining, they weren’t willing to concede she had any actual talent. Well, Joe Daly, does she?

JD: Wow. I do have a theory on Lady Gaga, which may or may not impact this question. The theory is that there are at least five Lady Gagas.

SB: Good, I like it….keep going…

JD: If you look at any series of pictures of her, she looks wildly different across all of them. Basically, you’ll see that her body and facial structure aren’t particularly unique-just the outfits, makeup, and hair. It occurred to me that if she got really blown out at a party, and was too hungover to make an appearance the next morning, she could easily send a similarly-shaped friend to do the gig, and no one would ever be the wiser. Plus, the way she sings has been auto tuned up to the max, so really there’s probably a legion of women who could pass themselves off as LGG in the studio. You see where I’m heading?

SB: Completely. And I do think she’s incredibly talented. It may just be that her incredible talent does not lay in the musical arena. I mean, she and some very smart people got together, came up with a character to inflame the pop fires, and every day they deposit truckloads of cash into various accounts. They’re just really bald about it, which I sort of admire more than bands or singers who pretend they’re not all about business.

JD: Dead on! You do have to respect an artist who plays it straight like that. So it’s my own personal conspiracy theory that Lady Gaga is like Lassie in that she’s played by a number of different actors/singers.

SB: And also that she can bark and claw the dirt in a way that tells you there’s a little boy who’s been kidnapped by Apaches and it’s time to run and get the sheriff?

JD: She would also probably be really handy if someone got caught in a bear trap. “What’s that Lady Gaga? It’s Timmy? Timmy needs help?”

SB: Seems like a good time to introduce a pretty clichéd scenario that was asked of me last week, mostly cause I got no more good material on Gaga…

JD: Bring it on.

SB: Okay, you’re going to the typical theoretical deserted island and can bring the entire recordings of only one artist to play on your coconut-fueled iPod. The caveat is, you don’t get any bootlegs or re-issues, just the studio albums. To listen to over and over, for the rest of your life. So, even if Working for the Weekend is your favorite song ever, choosing Loverboy limits you to a tiny pool of recordings. Who do you pick and why?

JD: Well, if it were one album, I was going to go with the Best of the Stone Roses, but as they only have two studio albums of original stuff, they don’t make the island.

SB: The smart move would probably be to snag Mozart, not only for the volume of material, but because you could while away the years studying him. If only to keep yourself from talking to a volleyball. Unfortunately I’m not that smart, so I’m going with Slayer.

JD: Because…

SB: Because only Slayer will keep me and my new monkey-wife sane.

JD: I’m going to have to go with The Who then.

SB: Really?

JD: I’ve just always related to them on a very deep level. I got into them in high school, when I was starting to feel my oats, and that was the same general age that Townshend was when he began writing some of his best stuff. I’ve always thought Daltrey was money. Great rage. Plus, end to end, they have a great legacy that includes anthems, punk, heavy riffing, and very melodic, stripped-down stuff.

SB: Supposedly Hendrix hated Pete Townshend. So, by extension, I am obliged to hate Pete Townshend, too. But I dig Live at Leeds. Total early punk.

JD: And one of the best motherfucking live albums ever! (waitress walks by, glares, shakes head.) Whoops-sorry for the profanity, miss. (In a quieter voice) Didn’t realize she was right behind us.

SB: We’re totally getting 86’d. I better do my final question.

JD: Good idea.

SB: (composing mentally, taking deep breath) Okay, so yesterday I was thinking about how, as a society, we process things in tiny increments-

JD: I agree. Next.

SB: (laughs)…we spend all our time like, what do I have to get done by noon? Who am I hanging out with this weekend? It’s pretty amazing how much has changed just in the last year alone, but we don’t really acknowledge it. For instance, Tiger Woods. He’s a punch-line. His iconography is permanently shot. But eight months ago he was a walking brand, one of the most revered, most reliable money-machines of the last century. Pretty much a god, at least to people who find their gods in someone else’s backswing. Okay, so….sorry this is so long-winded….so I was just reading that David Shields self-interview where for the third time he more or less said “literature is dead” and I was thinking how that was like saying “Tiger fucks waitresses at Waffle House.” Bang! Hit the defibrillator, lock your kids in the rec room, start selling off all those valuable first editions. But golf goes on. Tiger’s still playing. People still watch and care. It’s just different now. It seems to me that saying “literature is dead” is really “here’s a contentious generalized statement with which to drum up interest in my $25.95 hardback.” You know what I mean?

JD: I think I do. I mean, does anyone really think literature is dead? In fact, it’s more alive than ever-look at the growing list of contributors to the TNB, many of whom have their own books out. Maybe print is dying, but the fact that it’s easier than ever to get people to read your thoughts, via book, blog, or social networking site, shows that literature is very much alive, it’s just diluted. But for the record, I think the “contentious generalization” tool is about as original as the serial killer not being dead at the end of the movie.

SB: Right. You gutshot Michael Meyers. He gets up. Light him on fire. He gets up. But I do like that Shields is really confident about staking out his position. He’s like, “here’s what I think, here’s what my book is about, buy it or don’t, I’m not trying to make any friends.” He’s obviously spent years thinking through this stuff while the rest of us were running with scissors. I guess in the end I just feel protective of the old model. Which is dumb, since I mostly get screwed in the old model.

JD: Speaking of which, you just posted this thing called Read My Finger: How Not to Get Published

SB: I did. Which will probably guarantee I never get published again…

JD: All the TNB literary critics, editors, and very serious writers knocked each other over to effusively praise the thing. It felt like it was Christmas Eve and someone said there was only one Cabbage Patch Kid left, and it was in your article. Being an outsider in the literary world, I found the piece to be thoroughly entertaining, and at the same time, quite humbling. Not only did you name check a legion of authors I’ve never heard of, but you revealed the submission and acceptance process to be tired, saturated, and impersonal.

SB: Actually, once it was done I considered scrapping the thing. Even though most of it was intended to be comical, in the end I don’t want to genuinely discourage anybody. Writing is just too hard as it is. But, you know, it was all true. The truth cannot be denied. On the other hand, my mother called me up and was like, “that’s the last time I write anything but XXOO on your birthday card.”

JD: Nice one, mom.

SB: Since we’re at the end here, it does seem like I should mention that, even on a telepathic level, we seem to have agreed not to speak of the Steve Almond contretemps. Maybe if for no other reason than that we’re both bored to tears by ever single facet of it. But it occurred to me to ask you one thing, and maybe with this question put it all to bed, permanently, next to Hoffa in a layer of quicklime…

JD: (nodding warily)

SB: Did that experience give you, in even the most fractional way, a glimpse of what it’s like to be pinned down in the public eye like a Lindsay Lohan? By which I mean, caught up in some “spat” that was probably bullshit to begin with, but for whatever reason becomes a cultural snowball, conducted through headlines and discussed by third parties and generally taking on a life of its own, so that it goes way past really being about you, and you sort of end up standing by watching it happen?

JD: Yeah, it was really strange to watch things spin out so quickly. My thinking is that Steve had every right to say what he wanted to say, and I responded to him accordingly as a comment to his piece. My involvement ended there. I wasn’t going to get baited into some internet feud. As the saying goes, “never pass up an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.” But next thing I knew, people began weighing in and a very different debate arose. Greg Olear’s piece, Something Nice,” was awesome because it set off a very thoughtful and sometimes animated discussion about what the TNB culture means to different people and what their expectations are for the site. Apparently it was time for that discussion to happen at TNB.  But as you say, the debate had little to do with me or my writing.

SB: I feel compelled to mention that I do admire pretty much any willingness to leap into the fray brandishing unpopular sentences. To not worry if your opinion is going to keep people from being gentle with your own pieces. To toss it out there like a raw steak and deal with how it effects your Amazon ranking later. I mean, essentially, the internet is nothing but a massive binary excuse to be righteously pissed about stuff. So the guy with the pointy stick, in the long run, is sort of doing everyone a favor.

JD: When the TNB dust up was still pretty new, one of the more veteran authors told me that when you put something out there, some people will like it and some won’t, and to realize that none of them are right. The important thing is to just keep writing because that’s all I can control. I’m not going to say that I don’t care what people think about my writing, but I think that as long as I’m writing about topics that mean something to me, and not for other people’s approval or feedback, I can be happy with my process.

SB: Listen, people who say ‘I don’t care what anyone thinks about my work’ are either lying or Thomas Pynchon. I mean, everyone cares. Deeply. The locus of writing is showing off. It’s narcissistic just by definition to imply “my deepest thoughts are worth your investment in time.” So I think it’s how much of that ego you can deflate, you know, that makes certain writing rise above. How much can you ignore your nature and access your true feelings without censoring them, or tailoring them to a specific audience. No matter what the genre, guns and spies or Jane Austen, that’s the kind of writing that, to me, never feels disposable. So, you know, I guess I’m trying to say, if you feel like you’ve written something artfully, but with a minimum percentage of bullshit, you can pretty much get away with anything. You can call anyone out, or reveal things that are totally ugly and not be condemned for it. But if you’re going to attack someone for the intellectual rigor of their distaste for Dave Matthews, man, you better have a pretty solid handle on your own failings.

JD: Ok, they’re turning the lights out in here. I need to ask one more question though, if that’s cool. When I was researching your works, I found out that your first book, Going Nowhere Faster, was just translated into Polish. Polish!

SB: I know, right? Now it’s called Donikad Byle Szybciej. I’m embarrassed to admit how pleased I am with how entirely random that is.

JD: Why Poland over say, France? Is there a big Young Adult market in Krakow?

SB: No clue. But I intend for my empire to span from Budapest to Helsinki by 2012. And by 2112, I intend for it to span from Spirit in The Radio to Tom Sawyer.

JD: Ha! In a perfect world, where would you like to see your writing take you? If you could decide your own fate, what does the future look like?

SB: Totally honestly? If I can sell just enough to not worry about checks or agents or self-promotion, to be able to sit in my little office with my laptop and concentrate on whatever project I’ve got going that day, I would be extremely happy. Anything beyond that is frosting.

JD: Amen.

SB: Selah.

JD: What does that mean?

SB: I’m not entirely sure. Hunter Thompson used to say it all the time. Something like let those with eyes see, and those with ears hear.

JD: It doesn’t get any more profound than that.

SB: No, sir. It really doesn’t.

Much-loved TNB contributor Irene Zion adds her two cents (and two dogs) to the growing list of folks taping themselves reading from my book of poetry, In This Alone Impulse. Watch her read here.

Other TNB peeps who’ve read include Greg Olear and Jeffrey Pillow.

Wanna play along? Email me and I’ll send you a free copy of the book!

TNB Senior Editor Greg Olear reads a poem from TNB Fiction Editor Shya Scanlon’s book of prose poetry, In This Alone Impulse.


Shya Scanlon is giving away free copies of his book to anyone willing to post a video of themselves reading a poem from it to YouTube. Wanna go for it? Contact Shya.


If you happen to find yourself in New York on Wednesday, May 19, do stop by the upstairs lounge at Pianos at 7pm for an evening of fun & games, music & mayhem, dungeons & dragons, and books & booze.

The lineup of literary luminaries includes TNB regulars Gina Frangello (Slut Lullabies) and Robin Antalek (The Summer We Fell Apart), as well as Allison Amend and Zoe Zolbrod, who, in addition to having great books coming out (Stations West and Currency, respectively), also have perfectly complementary initials.

There will be music by Madame X (not to be confused with the lounge of the same name; don’t go there; the beers are too pricey), Ted McCagg supplied the awesome poster, and Yours Truly will host.

Kimberly M. Wetherell will atttend — that we know — but rumors that Slade Ham will pop out of Allison’s birthday cake are, as of this writing, unsubstantiated.

Hope to see you there!





Last spring, shortly after my novel, Banned for Life, was published, my actor friend Jeremy Lowe sent me this photo via Facebook.